Saturday, August 15, 2015

Of Beans and Flings and Finding Your Community

I recently watched some episodes of the television series Northern Exposure with a group of friends, a couple of whom had never seen the show. We watched four episodes: the first two as introductions to the characters, and then two of my top picks from the series, Burning Down the House and Cicely. I was a huge fan of this show when it was on, and in my memory it still ranks very high on my list of all-time favorite television. I’m happy to say that, for me at least, it holds up. The newbies became instant fans as well. I believe that it was a seminal and transformative show, one of many that helped shape what serial television has become.

Northern Exposure was always thought provoking. Watching it now, twenty-five years since it premiered, it’s still provoking me to think. What follows here are just some random ideas that popped up while ruminating on the show, these episodes, and my love of it.

Burning Down the House is arguably the most famous and well-known episode. In it the character of Chris Stevens (portrayed by John Corbett), the town DJ, philosopher and artist, wants to create a work of art, a performance piece, what he refers to as a pure moment. He builds a trebuchet (a type of catapult), with which he plans to fling a cow. When he discovers that this had already been done in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail he was despondent. His idea had already been done. The cow had been flung. Ironically it was Maurice (portrayed by Barry Corbin), the town millionaire and the person there with the least interest in or understanding of art, who talked Chris into pursuing his vision.

As Chris famously says, ‟It’s not what you fling... It’s the fling itself.”

Here’s the clip...

While watching this my friend Ziggy (one of the newbies to the show), leaned over to me and said, ‟It’s Beanish!”

Without context that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but she was completely right. What’s more, Maurice is totally Mr. Spook in the this scene.

The context I’m speaking of is the wonderful comic book series Tales of the Beanworld by Larry Marder. I’ve written about it at length HERE, so I’m not going to go into all of the details again, but here’s the context.

Beanish is the artist of his community. He creates pieces of art that he calls ‟The Fabulous Look See Show!” He builds art installations and then shares them with everyone. The scene in the above clip could have been taken straight from the comic.

To further the analogy, Maurice takes on the role of Mr. Spook. In the Beanworld Mr. Spook is the protector of the community. He is not very imaginative and he alone of all the Beans, simply cannot see Beanish’s art. Though he never discourages Beanish from doing it, Mr. Spook cannot comprehend what art is for or about. Watch Maurice’s reaction at the 0:44 mark in the video and compare it to this scene.

©2015 Larry Marder
©2015 Larry Marder

I don’t really have any grand insights into this, I was just struck by the similarity between two pretty disparate things I love. I do think both capture the feelings of artists everywhere. Here’s this fabulous thing I did! Look! See! I’m trying to say something profound about the world we live in, and I don’t know if I’ve been successful or not but I want to share it!” I think it also, gently, captures the experience of those who ‟don’t get it.” Maurice and Mr. Spook stand outside the artistic experience, but in these fictional communities they do not hinder the artist, nor are they ostracized by the artistic community. There is acceptance of both points of view.

Which leads to another similarity between Cicely, Alaska and the Beanworld; they are, in many ways, idyllic communities. I won’t go so far as to say Utopian because that implies perfection and a lack of conflict. There are conflicts galore in both Northern Exposure and Beanworld, but they typically do not include the same type of story engines that most of our genre fictions employ. But they are places you would like to live.

Cicely, specifically. I think part of the success of the show (and there are many factors), is that it was a story of a community, one we would all like to be a part of. For me it reflects the ideas of diversity, of people and ideas, of ways of living. It’s about finding your place and needing to be accepted in your chosen community for who you are. That’s something I believe everyone craves for themselves, even those who are opposed to the same idea for others. Even those who can’t accept other points of view want to be accepted. We all want to find our home. There’s no place like it, or so I hear.

But strangely, our fictions don’t often address this. We seem geared to narratives based on conflict between competing points of view. The most popular entertainment these days seems to be the dystopian.

A friend of mine recently shared the following quote on Tumblr, within a day or so of my first musings about the semi-Utopian nature of Cicely.

‟You gotta remember, and I’m sure you do, the forces that are arrayed against anyone trying to alter this sort of hammerlock on the human imagination. There are trillions of dollars out there demotivating people from imagining that a better tomorrow is possible. Utopian impulses and utopian horizons have been completely disfigured and everybody now is fluent in dystopia, you know. My young people’s vocabulary… their fluency is in dystopic futures. When young people think about the future, they don’t think about a better tomorrow, they think about horrors and end of the worlds and things or worse. Well, do you really think the lack of utopic imagination doesn’t play into demotivating people from imagining a transformation in the society?” — Junot Díaz, Art, Race and Capitalism

This really struck me. I don’t know that there is any type of conspiracy in media to make this so, but I do think it’s an accurate depiction. What does it say about us that we can’t imagine a future that is positive? I’m certainly guilty of this in my media consumption. I’m a fan of The Walking Dead, both the comic and the TV show. I loved Stephen King’s The Stand. Mad Max: Fury Road was the surprise hit of the summer for me. I’m not alone in any of these. None of these represent a future I want to live through. I don’t think anyone really does.

The point can be made that these, and other post-apocalyptic fictions, are about the triumph of the human spirit in the midst of terrible catastrophe. Still, they seem to say that we can only expect terrible catastrophe in our future. Referring to Maslow’s famous Hierarchy, there’s not a lot of room for art and self actualization when mere survival is at stake, a situation far too many people in the real world find themselves in daily without the threat of Zombies or irradiated mutants.

Odd then that our fictions often present a world where there would be no opportunity for fictions to exist (though maybe visions of a Utopian future would thrive in a wasteland).

The early days of Science Fiction, and I’m speaking in general terms here because there are always exceptions, regularly portrayed the future as a positive thing. Technology was going to save us from drudgery. Flying cars and teleportation and the elimination of death and disease were recurring themes. But somewhere our relationship with technology changed. It brought us cars and TV and medical advances but it also brought us the Atomic Bomb. Suddenly the possibility of mass destruction was a reality instead of a fiction.

So our fictions changed to make our fears manifest, and fear is always more palpable than hope (which explains a lot of our politics, but that’s a separate blog I’ll probably never write).

Star Trek is one of the hopeful SciFi futures that has endured. It predicts a world where science has solved the world’s problems and people live in a diverse, multicultural society where actual progress thrives. The original Enterprise, and to varying extents the all of the subsequent settings, was a community where you wanted to live. There was the same sense of belonging and acceptance there that we see in Northern Exposure. They are communities where you are valued for who you are, not discriminated against because of who you are.

It’s not just Science Fiction and visions of the future. To come back to television a lot of the most popular shows carry an element of the Dystopian Present. Looking at examples of things I watched and thoroughly enjoyed I can see the pattern. The motorcycle club of Sons of Anarchy was a community, but certainly not one I would want to belong to. For all of their ideals of the freedom of the road and freedom from societal norms, the rules of belonging to their community were incredibly limiting and stepping outside of those rules could have fatal consequences.

The cast of Northern Exposure, all alive at the end of the series.
The cast of Sons of Anarchy. 8 of these 10 characters died.

There was a patina of brotherhood that covered them, and as a viewer I could respond to these bonds on a visceral level. But time and again one of these ‟brothers” would have to be eliminated ‟for the good” of the club. There was no real acceptance of differences or diversity. There was a pretty strict party line that had to be followed. There was no room for true individuality.

Which holds true for a lot of subcultures that claim to be about individuality.

So what am I saying with this rambling set of connections? I’m not exactly sure. The image of the artist and those who don’t understand him can be seen as metaphor for anyone who simply wants to be seen and heard by his community. It’s something everyone can relate to, whether they are an ‟artist” or not. Maurice and Mr. Spook want their places in their community to be respected as much as Chris and Beanish do.

To quote Chis from the Burning Down the House episode:

     ‟Look at this – This is beautiful! We are standing at the center of the primordial ooze. It’s like the world at the dawn of creation...

     ‟This is the answer, right here. Destruction and creation. The scarred battlefield of life. From the ashes rises the Phoenix! From the skin rises a new snake!

     ‟You look and you look and it’s dark and you don’t even know what you’re looking for, or if you’ll even see it, or if it even exists. And then, all of a sudden...”

Just thought I’d fling this out there.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Dennis Dunaway Interview

On Friday night, June 19, 2015, Dennis Dunaway and Michael Bruce of the original Alice Cooper Group, along with Joe and Albert Bouchard, founding members of Blue Oyster Cult, played a house party at the infamous Evaline Hotel in Pittsburgh. I wrote an article about how the whole thing came together for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. You can read it HERE.

I plan on writing about the actual party and experience here soon. In the meantime, here's the rest of the short interview I did with Dennis.

How was the experience of writing the book? Did you keep a journal back then or was a lot of this an excavation of your memory?

DD: Like everything I do, I approached this book as a creative person that believes that all art forms are related. As a kid, I learned to paint, then as a teenager, I learned to play bass, and how to conceptualize lighting and staging. So writing a book was just another outlet for me to be creatively passionate about. Throughout my years with the Alice Cooper group, I jotted things down that I thought were interesting. At the end of each tour, I'd have piles and piles of notes in the bottom of my suitcase. When you write things down, you tend to remember them, even though every few years I'd flip through them and see things I'd forgotten. And my wife Cindy kept diaries.

From what I’ve read over the years it seems that you and Cindy had a lot of influence on the look and thematic elements of the Alice Cooper Group. It was a mix of the shiny glitter and glam with darker imagery coming through in the lyrics and stage show. I would like to hear your comments on these elements.

DD: Cindy grew up loving glitter and sequins, and always liked the shimmering razzle-dazzle of Hollywood films like Busby Berkley. I had a different take on it. I loved the shock value of guys dressing in a way that shook up society. And I loved the concept of spotlights reflecting off a stage so brightly that it would be difficult for the audience to see everything that was going on. But perfect sequin outfits wouldn't do. That was too happy. Ours had to be ripped and stained and threatening.

So I know you’ve been working with Blue Coupe for the last few years, and I know that you and the rest of the original band briefly carried on as Billion Dollar Babies... what other projects have you been involved with over the years?

DD: Neal Smith and I had a band called the Flying Tigers. The great Jerry Wexler took us in the studio for a 4 song demo. Then personal issues side tracked us. Later on, as Bouchard, Dunaway and Smith, we did a couple of CD's with Joe Bouchard of Blue Öyster Cult fame. Then I had a band called Dennis Dunaway Project that released Bones From The Yard. Ian Hunter was involved with that. Blue Coupe is a trio with Joe Bouchard and his brother Albert. The Bouchard brothers wrote a lot of the BÖC classics. We've been friends since they toured with the Alice Cooper group in '72. So we have tons of songs in our respective catalogs. We're all songwriters, and we love playing live. We released a couple of CD's of new songs. Tornado on the Tracks and Million Miles More. Our backup singers are Tish and Snooky of Manic Panic, the famous hair dye company.

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction performance you looked like you were having the time of your life. If you can pick one, which of your contributions to Rock are you most proud of?

DD: I really was having the absolute time of my life. After years of feeling like I had been erased from my own history, that night validated my contribution. And more importantly, I was on stage with my favorite musicians, who happen to be my lifelong friends. I'm infinitely proud of our lasting music, and our pioneering achievements in bringing the feeling of danger and spectacle to rock shows.

How did Dereck talk you into coming to Pittsburgh and playing this event?

DD: After years of looking for the right publishing deal, Dereck showed up and, with his girlfriend's expert help, everything fell into place. Dereck had told me about his amazing concert parties. Then when he heard that the R&RHoF would be hosting my book signing event for Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs: My Adventures in The Alice Cooper Group, he mentioned having Blue Coupe swing by his place. I hope he was serious because I took him up on it! And now he's gone hog-wild on making it into a blow-out extravaganza. As the Alice Cooper group would say, he's setting his chickens free!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Zen and the Art of Portal Maintenance

This blog entry is full of some rambling thoughts and ideas from the last few days, tenuously tied together by a thin metaphor. It's the way my brain usually works.

I've been playing Portal recently. For all of my Pop Culture interests I am woefully behind the curve on videogaming. For those who haven't played the game the basic premise is that you are a test subject in lab, armed with a Portal Gun, a device that allows you to create portals that allow you to teleport between different areas of the game. It’s essentially a puzzle game where the player uses this one idea to navigate increasingly difficult maps. It’s a portable hole.

I first encountered this idea in a Saturday morning Warner Brothers cartoon.

And then with a silly Marvel Comics
villain called The Spot.

I'm not going to talk very much about the game of Portal. If you’re interested I'm sure there are tons of internet articles discussing and deconstructing it in far more detail than I can. I bring it up because of other things that have happened in the last couple of days, interspersed with playing Portal.

Here’s where the thin metaphor kicks in.

Out of the blue I pulled my old paperback copy of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig off the shelf yesterday, the exact same copy I read thirty years ago. This book is considered a classic for many reasons. It is about many things, including motorcycle maintenance, but in brief it is a discussion of the differences between a Classical understanding of the world (Science), and a Romantic understanding of the world (Art), and the attempt to reconcile them. This description couldn’t be more basic or less explanatory of what the book is really about, but I’m not going to attempt to summarize what took Pirsig nearly 400 pages to discuss. Go read it.

I have often said that this was a very influential book to me, but quite honestly, other than some of its main highlights, I couldn’t have told you very many details about it. My memory (there's that topic again), has convinced me that this was an important book to my personal growth, but I couldn’t elaborate with any specifics.

I don’t reread too many of the books in my life. I know some people revisit favorites on a regular basis. I have nothing against that practice, but with rare exceptions I just don’t do it. There are way too many books I haven’t read yet to spend time with things I’ve already experienced. I’m particularly hesitant to reread those books that I think of as significant and life-changing. What if they don’t live up to my memory? Will that taint my formerly positive assessment of them, or will I just be able to accept that I’m not the same person in need of those lessons at this point in my life?

So, with a little trepidation I opened the book and began... and was immediately sucked into the narrative and have been devouring it again. Within the first thirty pages I read a couple of paragraphs that floored me. Here it was, that thing that made this book life-changing for me that I could never remember precisely or explain to anyone. There’s more to the book than just these two paragraphs, of course. But the point is what I experienced was reading something that I now take for granted as one of my primary ways of viewing the universe, a way of being in the world that is so second nature that I don’t even think about it very much any more. This book is the first place I ever encountered these ideas that now form a core of my way of thinking.

In that moment a Portal opened and I was in touch with Wayne in his early 20s, being blown away by these ideas and wrestling with what they meant and incorporating them into his life for the first time. This hole in time allowed me to relive those informative moments through the eyes and mind of someone older, more experienced, and hopefully wiser. It was different than simply remembering something. It felt like an insight into the path of my life, a direct connection from the person who first read those words to the person I am, reading them now.

Books are Portals. That's probably not the most original or insightful thing I have ever said, but it’s true. In this specific case it was a very personal sense of connection, but it happens with books all of the time. Whenever you open the cover of a book you are creating a Portal, allowing you to see another world or another point of view. You step through and are transported to a new mental location, coming out the other side in a different place than you were before.

Like I said, not particularly profound, but there it is.

After the initial revelatory experience afforded me by the time travel of prose I continued to read, and while that experience didn’t repeat I continued to be engaged in the story. I am reading it as a different person than the one who first encountered it. Whatever affinity I may have with 20-something me, that experience and many others have changed me. I am different and so is the world. While the words on the page are the same they are being absorbed through different eyes and carry different meaning.

Part of the problem in addressing the Classical/Romantic split is that each of them not only have their own language, but each has a different way of processing information. One’s a PC and one’s a Mac, to use a recent metaphor. It’s difficult to find a cross-platform common ground without degradation of information.

Which is true in so many of the issues of the world. Part of our problem in understanding others is that we often have incompatible operating systems. It’s true on the personal level and when multiplied out to include large groups it gets worse. Religions obviously have different operating systems. So does the Conservative/Liberal split in politics. Same underlying commands written in vastly different language codes. No wonder we get so many error messages when trying to make a point with someone who believes differently than we do. It’s not just the language, it’s the entire underlying architecture of the system.

At one point in the book the narrator is unable to reach some old friends because they have a different phone number than the one he remembers and is afraid he will not be able to find them (this was first published in the pre-internet 70s). He does find them, but muses about changing technologies:

“It's not the technology that's scary. It's what it does to the relations between people...”

Which made me think of Facebook, which is another kind of Portal.

Our newsfeeds are full of little windows into other people’s lives. I know a lot of people who are not comfortable with Facebook, or social media of any kind. I think, like anything else, it’s how you use it. I don’t post anything very personal there, using it as a place to promote my various projects, to keep in touch with what’s going on in friend’s lives, to see what events are going on around me I might be interested in, to find links to articles and news stories, to be exposed to new music and books.

But there is a danger to it as well. Those little Portals into other peoples lives can cause some consternation and misunderstanding. “It’s what it does to the relations between people...” I know a lot about people who I don't really know. I get glimpses into their lives without being a part of them. This can lead to a completely false sense of intimacy, as if I know them much better than I actually do. These Portals can create a sense of connection that doesn't exist. It can, of course, lead to knowing people better in the real world, but what we see is a curated version of that person. I guess the argument can be made that that is what we see when we first meet anyone, but this feels different. Somewhat voyeuristic.

The other piece of this that I find problematic is discovering things about old friends that changes the way I feel about them. I often see posts from old friends expressing opinions, usually in the realm of politics or religion, that I find radically different from my own. I don’t like my reaction when I see this. While I want to respect the opinions of others there are times I just shake my head in anger and disappointment. It makes me sad to realize how far we’ve grown apart. I still love the people they were, and I like to think that in one on one, face to face conversation those things really wouldn’t matter. But it also makes me wonder that if I met them today would we have any common ground to build a friendship on.

This is the equivalent to rereading a favorite old book. What if this person doesn’t live up to my positive memory of them?

Which brings me back to the Classical/Romantic division Pirsig talks about. Not that any human relationship is that easily categorized. The binary is too simple. But I think some of it comes back to our different operating systems. Some of the disagreement and inability to genuinely discuss some of these issues is that our entire underlying informational structure is different. I think it is important to recognize that, though maybe it's just me throwing up my hands and giving up on actually communicating with anyone with a different mindset.

So I have to ask, what has this technology done to my relations to other people. I look through a Portal of time and see the person I used to know, filtered through memory and the stories I tell myself about them. I look through the Portal of Facebook and see something that challenges those memories and stories as filtered through my current state of observation and interpretation.

Both are true stories, and both are imaginary tales.

And round and round we go. The cycle never ends.

Or, as Robert Pirsig said, “The real Cycle you’re working on is the cycle called ‛Yourself.’”

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Imaginary Stories

As I write this DC Comics is once again planning an event called Convergence that will change, in some way or another, the nature of the continuity of its universe. This is only a little over three years since the launch of the New 52, which threw out (in my opinion anyway), seventy-five years of history and legacy. Over at Marvel Comics they are hyping their new Secret Wars event, and while the details of what this will eventually mean are vague it looks like Marvel will also be doing some restructuring of their continuity.

And, of course, the fans are losing their minds. Not everyone. A response I'm seeing a lot of is the eye-rolling, “here we go again” kind of exhaustion that goes along with these big events.

But that's not really what I want to talk about here. Not really. I've been through reboots and Crises and Zero Hours and Incursions enough to know that, in the world of Marvel and DC Comics, this too shall pass. What I want to talk about is the larger issue of the idea of “Continuity” in comics (and to a lesser degree in other media), and why it's so important to fans, and I want to do it in the context of my previous post about memory and recapitulation.

First, some background.

Continuity wasn't really an issue in comics for many years. Throughout the 40s and 50s readers were content to read self-contained stories that had little relationship to each other from month to month. We knew Superman's background and his supporting cast. As long as these were maintained, anything else was fair game. DC would actually label any story that broke these very basic and simple guidelines as “imaginary stories,” meaning, stories that take place outside of continuity.

It was in the Silver Age of comics (roughly the late 50s through the mid 60s), that continuity became important. Marvel certainly pioneered this concept by making all of their titles exist in the same world in a much more coherent way than DC had done prior to then. Events in one story would have lasting ramifications. If Aunt May had a heart attack in one issue she would still be in the hospital in the next. It created the illusion of the passage of time and reflected the real world more accurately.

This was easy enough to maintain when there were only a handful of books and a few years had passed. It became much more complicated as time went on. Tony Stark created the Iron Man armor while a prisoner in Viet Nam. The Fantastic Four launched a rocket into space to beat the Russians in the space race. Things like this made complete sense for a number of years. Not so much fifty years later.

These sorts of issues have usually been addressed obliquely by Marvel with a sliding time scale. It wouldn't be mentioned for awhile and next thing you know Stark is building his armor in a cave in Afghanistan.

Continuity, the sense that there is a canonical storyline, is important to many fans. I am certainly guilty of this. As much as many of us say that all that matters is that we are told a good story, part of our definition of good story is dependent on how well it fits in with our own sense of the continuity of the characters. Whether fans say they care or not, it has an effect on what books they read and what kind of emotional investment they have in the characters. We all have a head canon of what “actually” happened to these characters and what didn't.

In my personal head canon Hawkeye is morally opposed to killing no matter how many stories Brian Michael Bendis wrote indicating differently. The DC New 52 makes no sense to me if Dick Grayson didn't grow up with Wally West and Donna Troy and become adults while they were in the Teen Titans, none of which is true according to current continuity. And yes, these are some of my personal bugaboos, but we all have them. As much as I say I want change and different points of view and these characters and universes need to grow and change, the truth is I always have a certain knee-jerk reaction against anything that contradicts my version of what took place, and I'm ready to pull out the back issues to prove my point. It's all right there in black and white and four-color printing. This actually happened. It's canon!

Which makes me ask the question, “Why?”

In my last blog I talked about the unreliable nature of our personal memory, about how none of us have access to the reality of any past event, simply the story we tell about it. I can tell an anecdote from my own life that other people who were there will remember completely differently. The truth is, we're never sure of what really took place in any definitive way. There is no official canonical version of our past. We live our lives with the illusion of continuity but all we really have is our own personal head canon of what we believe happened. The stories of other people may contradict our version, or add a different dimension of information. This current moment is defined by the story we have constructed about our previous lives, but if any or all of our memories are suspect, then who the hell am I right now.

Welcome to Existential Angst 101.

No wonder a definitive continuity is important to us in our fictions. How nice it would be to pull out a back issue of our lives from twenty years ago and check to see what happened exactly the same way we experienced it then. Then we could argue with someone with a different opinion with some degree of authority.

Even if it is unconscious, we long for certainty in our lives. It's part of why we write fiction and tell stories. In our search for order amidst the chaos we create a narrative. We attempt to impose plot and structure on the random events of our day to day, to make sense of the many unrelated aspects of our existence. When something breaks our sense of continuity in comics we feel betrayed. I remember Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson being married... what do mean that never happened? But it's easier to argue over this obviously imaginary story than it is to reconcile conflicting narratives about our own failed relationships.

In the introduction to his story Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow (Superman #423), Alan Moore, in direct reference to the aforementioned practice of labelling out of continuity stories as Imaginary Stories, famously said, “This is an imaginary story... Aren't they all?” At the time this was seen by many as a negative reaction to DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, which consigned much of Superman's previous history to non-canonical status. None of those stories were real any more, as if any of them had any reality beyond the printed page anyway. I think it was more than that. I think it was commentary on the breadth of the imagination.

The old stories don't go away when the official continuity is changed. They're still there anytime someone picks up a back issue or a trade paperback collection. Grant Morrison addresses this overtly in the pages of Animal Man where a group of old DC characters who had been consigned to Limbo by the Crisis discover, “Every time someone reads our stories we live again!”

Unless you have been keeping a running diary of your life, written as events happened to you, you probably don't have a canonical history that you can refer to. Even if you do, maybe it's time to start questioning the back story you've been telling about yourself. Maybe not. How is the story you tell helping you live life to the fullest? How is your story limiting you? Maybe it's time for a soft reboot and a retelling before a Crisis makes it necessary.

Imagine a better story for yourself.

Saturday, January 31, 2015


Every man is more than just himself; he also represents the unique, the very special and always significant and remarkable point at which the world's phenomena intersect, only once in this way, and never again. That is why every man's story is important, eternal, sacred; that is why every man, as long as he lives and fulfills the will of nature, is wondrous, and worthy of consideration.”

Demian: The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth by Hermann Hesse

I have started a project that probably has no end, and no real immediate goal other than the process itself.

Because I don't have enough to do, apparently.

I recently read an advance copy of The Sculptor, the new graphic novel by Scott McCloud (of Understanding Comics fame). My main thoughts on the book will appear in a review for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, so this blog isn't meant as an examination of the book. But The Sculptor was a springboard for thinking about a whole lot of stuff, primarily the nature of memory and how we construct the story of our lives.

The main character in the book, David Smith, is a sculptor. Most of his work is an attempt to capture the small moments of his life, to immortalize his memories in stone so that fleeting impressions will not be lost. The story is also about the reality that death awaits us all sooner or later. The classic idea that when you die your entire life passes before your eyes is used to great dramatic effect in the narrative. I think the essence of this notion is that in that last moment we will find some kind of clarity as to what all the small events and memories of our lives meant. What was the structure and theme of this life I've led? What did I learn from all of this?

Which got me to thinking about my own memories and life. Parts of our lives “flash before our eyes” every time we have a memory. So, I thought to myself, why wait until I die to try and see the whole picture and see what I can learn?

In the series of books written by Carlos Castaneda, books that were very formative to me at one time, he introduces the idea of Recapitulation (The Eagle's Gift, 1982). Recapitulation consisted of “recollecting one's life down to the most insignificant detail.” The purpose of this was to engage the past in an effort let go of the things that held you back, to escape the demands of ego. Recapitulation is “genuine laughter upon coming face to face with the boring repetition of one's self-esteem, which is at the core of all human interactions.”

In short, it is used to heal. This idea isn't new or exclusive to Castaneda. It's part of most forms of psychotherapy.

I've been watching the Showtime series The Affair this week. No real spoilers here, but the conceit of the show is a “He Said, She Said” sort of dialectic. Both of the main characters are relating the memories of what took place, and the differences are significant, indicating not that they are lying (though they may be), but that each of them perceived the events through their own subjective filters (what some friends of mine have been referring to as Reality Tunnels). Events had different meanings and significance for each of them, based on their own experience and perceptions. They are both unreliable narrators.

Memory is the most unreliable narrator we know. Any given event is a moment in time that passes, only to be relived through the subjective memories of those who experienced it. No two people ever remember things exactly the same way. The difficulty in getting to the truth from eyewitnesses is evidence of this. What we end up with is a consensual reality, a version of the world we can all agree on even when it doesn't really mesh with what we remember. Over time, the story, if told well enough and often enough, replaces the actuality, often in the face of overwhelming evidence. The historical reality is always replaced by the story we tell about it.

And we all tell different stories.

I'm fascinated by this. It's one of the themes in my Arthurian novel, Bedivere: The King's Right Hand. The tale is narrated by Sir Bedivere in the later years of his life, and he is very aware of not only the failings of his own memory, but of how the stories and legends of King Arthur have already supplanted what he remembers as the truth.

I've read that our memory of an event is an ever-renewing process as well. When we have a memory of something what we are actually recalling is our previous memory of it, like rewriting over an already existing file. Each time we have a memory we are different people than the last time we remembered it. So now it is filtered through different layers of understanding, changing its meaning, therefore changing the actual memory every time.

So, that project I mentioned... Yeah, I'm trying to log all my memories. All of them. I know. It's impossible. That's okay. There's no deadline. This isn't for public consumption or any kind of project I ever intend to put out into the world (though some of the more interesting or funny stories may make it into a blog or a Facebook status update occasionally). This is navel gazing at it's finest.

I'm trying to be somewhat organized with how I do this. I do just jot down random things as they come to me. Not everything, of course.There's simply not enough time for that. It's amazing how many little memories you can have in a single day when you just start really paying attention to how you think. I've created files organized into various categories, like specific school memories, broken down by grade, or describing everything I can about the house I grew up in. I'm working on a list of every concert I've seen (I've seen a lot), and trying to track down dates and venues and who the opening bands were. I have some old ticket stubs and of course the internet helps. I have specific memories of all of these, some more vibrant that others.

The process is a rabbit hole, of course. When I focus on one topic, say first grade, it's amazing how many things come back that I haven't thought of in years, like snow forts and head wounds and the time the teacher broke the paddle on Kathy's butt.

So why do this? To get a better understanding of my own story and look for the recurring themes. To let some of it go, I suppose, though I don't have a lot of regrets. I'm one of the lucky ones who had a pretty happy childhood. To get ideas for stories. To enhance my creativity. To record my memories before they're gone (for whose benefit after I'm not sure).

One of the problems that David Smith has in The Sculptor was that he was so invested in capturing his past that he had problems living in the present or making new memories. I don't think that's a problem. My recent bout of hibernation and introversion aside, I have a pretty full life, and will hopefully continue to have one.

In the meantime, Once Upon a Time, that reminds me of a story...

Monday, January 26, 2015

An Evening With Neal Adams

This is an overdue story, but I've been telling it again recently, so I thought it was time to put it in writing.

Last April 25, legendary comics artist Neal Adams made an in-store appearance at my place of employment, Phantom of the Attic Comics in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh.

Neal with most of the staff of Phantom of the Attic Comics.
Me, Dave, Neal, Jeff (the owner), and Jim

Neal Adams is easily on the top ten list of most influential comics creators ever. I don't have time or room here to address everything he has had a hand in creating. He helped to revitalize Batman in the early 70s, establishing a more realistic and darker take on the character than was usual at that time, laying the groundwork for the version everyone is familiar with today. Along with writer Denny O'Neil he was responsible for a series of stories featuring Green Lantern and Green Arrow that brought a social relevance to comics that had never been seen before. He established a tradition of heroic but realistic anatomy, and realism in general, that was revolutionary when he first began.

I could go on and on, detailing all of this, but that isn't what this is about. Go look him up. There's a lot to learn.

For me personally, Neal Adams was one of the first artists whose name and style I was able to identify when I was a young comics reader. One of the first fan purchases I made, something comic book related that wasn't a comic, was a collection of Adams art called The Neal Adams Index. I mailed away from an ad in the back of a comic. It was magazine format and had a checklist of his work, and a lot of unseen black and white artwork. Because I was a kid I colored in some of the pages with magic markers.

Adams was scheduled to appear at Steel City Con. Apparently, when he travels, he likes to schedule additional appearances at other, local comics shops. We were recommended to him and after some phone tag the signing was set up for Thursday evening at the store.

In all of my years of going to comics conventions I had never met him before, so when I was asked by Jeff (my boss), to go pick Neal up at the airport I had a little fanboy moment. Now, I should say here that I have met a lot of comic book professionals. I've interviewed Stan Lee. I've had beers with Frank Miller. I have postcards of encouragement from Scott McCloud. I used to hang out some with Steve Bissette and John Totleben (two-thirds of the Swamp Thing team, along with Alan Moore, who are responsible for the creation of John Constantine). So, I'm not a rookie. Truth be told, it's been a long time since I've really been a big fan of Neal Adams. I still love his earlier work and give total mad props to his place in history. But I don't get all excited over any new projects by him.

But, this felt a little full circle for me. He was the first comics artist I was genuinely a fan of.

So, I drove out to the Pittsburgh Airport to pick up Neal and his wife Marilyn. I was determined not to be a complete fanboy goober immediately. I think I was pretty successful in that. I met them and shook hands. They were friendly and outgoing. On the way back to the city we talked about where they could grab a bite before the signing. Neal asked questions about Pittsburgh. The conversation was pleasant and lively.

The store filled quickly. To say Neal was outgoing is an understatement. He held court. He's a showman. A carnival barker. A salesman. He told many stories about his days in the industry, filled with personal anecdotes about himself and other professionals. While he was friendly and made time for everyone who showed up (and stayed well past the allotted time with no complaint), I had the distinct impression that his bombastic persona was off-putting to some people. In the days after the signing I had several people say they thought he was arrogant.

And he is. The thing is, he's earned it.

There is anecdote from that night that sums this up for me. Among the many art prints he was selling was one that featured the cover of Green Lantern #85 from 1971. Here's a picture of it.

Here's the link to the Wiki page about this issue:'t_Fly

A young woman was looking at it closely and Neal said to her, fairly loudly and proudly, “That cover completely changed the history of comics!” I was at the store counter when he said that and my first thought was, “Wow! What an arrogant thing to say.” My second thought was, “He's completely right. I said the exact same thing about this cover to my comics class just a couple of weeks ago.”

So, is it really arrogance when the facts agree with you? Maybe we're just not used to hearing such a definitive proclamation of achievement, so it sounds like arrogance. We're always expected to be humble with what we accomplish, sometimes to the extent that we all downplay things we rightfully should be proud of. History has borne out his claim. Why shouldn't he be proud of it?

"I am the greatest!" Muhammad Ali would proclaim to anyone. Neal Adams is the Muhammad Ali of comics.

Neal also had a fairly long story about being the first artist to draw male nipples in comics, so there's also that.

While he was at the store I had him sign my copy of The Neal Adams Index and told him my story of how he was the first artist I was a fan of. When the signing was over I drove him to his hotel in Monroeville. He talked pretty non-stop the whole way out there. I was happy to listen. He's comic book royalty. He's earned it.