Sunday, May 29, 2011
Friday, May 27, 2011
I just got off the phone with Mom. She called to tell me that our little backwoods hollow in Greene County was swarming with work crews who are widening the road there to allow access for the giant trucks that travel to and from the Bailey Mine and all of the coal-mining, gas-drilling, and other environment-destroying folderol that goes with it. It's the latest in a long string of events that makes it more and more difficult to go home.
I grew up in Union Valley, the middle of nowhere in the northwest corner of Greene County. It's right on the other side of Time (the actual name of a small village you won't find on any current maps, though we old-timers still call it Dogtown). Incredibly rural. My family had 70 to 80 acres of land, mostly woods. We've been in that valley since the 1800's. The adjoining property was 90 acres. Behind my house there was a tract of land we called the CharMar Ranch (named after the original owners, I presume, and I could probably find out pretty easily). This was roughly 3000 acres of farmland, used mostly for cattle. It was covered in woods and meadows and streams. This was essentially my back yard and I grew up like Robin Hood. By the time I was 7 I was allowed to traipse all over this area on my own (much to the chagrin f some other kids parents when they were sure I had gotten everyone lost on my seventh birthday... but that's another story).
Sometime in the 80's this land was bought by Consol and they opened the Bailey Mine. Things began to change immediately. It is a very prosperous mine, and the first thing that needed to happen to tap its resources was train tracks that allowed them to haul the coal out. They built a railroad right through the middle of some of my very favorite places on the planet. Now, luckily, I was away at grad school at the time, so I missed most of the day-to-day work that went into changing the landscape. But every time I came home for a visit more and more of my childhood lay buried under tons of dirt and rock. The lower end of three very specific small hollows had to be filled in order to lay the tracks. Few people who live in the area now could even name the hollows but they're still in my memory: Limestone Hollow, Coal Bank, and The Church Hollow.
I spent time in the woods in all of these, but it was the loss of Church Hollow that pained me the most. The Union Valley Methodist Church stood at the mouth of the hollow, and was, pretty much, in my back yard. This was the church I grew up in. It was built in 1879.
I don't know if there is any paperwork to back this up or not, and there certainly isn't anyone left alive to know for sure, but I was told by my grandmother that the land the church stood on was donated by my great grandfather, Lon Wise.
There are so many memories associated with Church Hollow I can't possibly recount them all here. Wading and playing in the small stream that ran through it. Playing with my Johnny West Marx action figures at the rock outcropping that hung over the stream. My Mom stepping on a thorn when I was 5 or 6 and sending me on my own to get help from the neighbor lady, Dora Clutter. Shooting my first (and last) deer there and discovering that in spite of my upbringing I simply wasn't a hunter. Hanging out with friends that one time when we were just old enough to be having different thoughts about the girls with us without really realizing why.
There was one spot, a bare rock face in the hillside where natural spring water oozed out, trickled and then fell onto a flat rock surface. Thousands of years of dripping had formed a natural bowl-shaped depression where the water gathered. Over the fall and winter it would fill with dirt and leaves. Every spring I would clean it out and keep it clear all summer long. It was my job. The water was clean and cold and completely drinkable.
The railroad filled the mouth of Church Hollow, burying the rock outcropping and the small cove where Mom stepped on the thorn. There is a large culvert pipe that passes through the mound of dirt, allowing the stream to run through. It's dark and claustrophobic and just big enough for a person to walk through if you don't mind snakes and getting your feet wet. If you're hardy enough you can also scale the mound, cross the tracks and drop into the upper part of the Hollow. I did this a few times, just to see, though I suppose it was technically trespassing (that's still a hard concept for me to swallow with a place that was always open to me in the past).
The upper part of the hollow, at that time, was pretty much the same as it always had been. On every one of my few trips I cleaned out the natural water bowl and drank.
I haven't been back in over a decade. I'm told that the hollow is now filled with the run-off and unusable materials that have been pulled out of the ground; slate and shale and dirt. I don't want to see it. It would probably kill me to drink the water now. Most of the natural wells that people have used there for decades have been spoiled. The actual shape of the hillside and the horizon has been changed as piles of waste material have been stacked and shaped as coal continues to pour out of the earth. Now, they have started drilling for natural gas.
This isn't entirely new. Most of the eastern half of Greene County has been mined for decades. My grandfather (maternal, this time) made his living tending natural gas wells near our home. I don't want this to turn into an environmental or political rant. There's a ton of that out there if you're interested in the details. It brings money into the county, but destroys the community and the environment. It creates jobs at the expense of history. I'm simply not well-informed enough to debate the issue in any way other than my own emotional response to it.
Consol is buying out every home and farm they can. People who have lived there for years are making more money off their property than they ever dreamed of, at least it seems that way until the reality of moving and buying something else sets in. I have cousins who are heartbroken. They planned on spending their lives on the tracts of land their parents and grandparents lived on. It was a dream that they never really questioned. Now the future they envisioned is gone, and once they leave, the very land that holds their memories will be changed as well.
I realized a long time ago I would never live there again. As much as I love my childhood home my current life is elsewhere. For whatever reasons that area simply doesn't offer what I need out of life. That's not a judgement on those who have stayed behind, just a recognition of my own truth. I will miss the opportunity to “go home” and walk the land that holds my family's history, but I'm not losing the same things they are.
And I see this as a natural progression that has happened before. We weren't the first people to live in the Valley. On the Clutter farm next door there was one garden on a hill that, every time it was plowed, would turn up handfuls of arrowheads. There are maybe a dozen people left who know or remember this. The arrowheads were all that was left of other peoples lives and histories there. No one knows their stories at all, and I'm sure they spent more generations there than my family has.
So the wheel turns and history moves inexorably forward. Real life becomes memory and memory becomes story.
Keep telling your stories.
Monday, May 23, 2011
I first read Hermann Hesse the year I turned 25. I was in grad school at the time and in the middle of exploring literature and the great writers and his name was on the list. At the time I'm pretty sure that his book Steppenwolf (yes, it's where the band and the Jack Kirby character got their name), was the only work of his I had heard of. If memory serves I found a used paperback copy of it one day while shopping for comics at Books Galore in Erie. I had no idea that this was going to be one of the seminal books of my life.
I read somewhere that later in his life Hesse expressed surprise that Steppenwolf had found an audience among young people. He had written it when he himself was nearing 50, and the protagonist of the novel, Harry Haller, is the same age. Hesse believed he was addressing the concerns on middle age, yet the book's primary popularity was among the college-age reader.
All I know is at the time Steppenwolf seemed to speak to everything I was going through in my life. I remember thinking that here was an author who had found the words to my soul and he had done it years before I had been born. Yes, I know how young and overly dramatic and poetic that may sound. But, one of the things I love about Hesse's writing is that throughout his life his voice remained young and overly dramatic and poetic. He was unburdened by the post-modern, morbidly self-aware fear of seeming sentimental (since when should genuine sentiment be considered a bad thing?).
It's difficult to remember just what it was that struck me so strongly. I certainly wasn't a depressed middle-age man who was contemplating suicide. I wasn't old enough to feel like I had missed out on life. But there was something.
Part of it was the duality of personality he talked about (and this isn't a book review, so I'm not going into the plot here... read it). I have always struggled to balance the extroverted and introverted parts of myself. I was yearning for the life of the artist, the life of the soul, and at times feeling bogged down with the reality of this world. It is the tension between the sacred and the profane that is at the heart of the novel. I still feel that at times, though not as profoundly as Harry Haller. I think any creative person in a life-long relationship with their muse feels this.
This started me on a Hesse kick and I read pretty much everything by him I could get my hands on. My bookshelves still hold a large Hesse collection, including a first edition of a poetry collection called Hours In The Garden, a birthday gift from A_. I devoured his work. Though I read them out of order I was able to see the progression of his thought and the development of the themes that ran throughout. His way of looking at the world informed my own and I spent a lot of time trying to write like him before I realized I needed to find my own voice.
The year I turned 40 I reread Steppenwolf and once again it seemed to speak to everything I was going through in my life. How could that be? I was fifteen years older, no longer a callow youth, and certainly still not a depressed, suicidal middle-age man. That was the year I signed the contract to have my first novel published, so I was at least on my way to finding my own voice (and my novel really doesn't resemble a Hesse novel at all). I resolved then to put it back on the shelf and read again the year I turned 50.
I just finished rereading it. For the first time I came to this book at the age of the protagonist. I also came to it with a different perspective than either of the last two times. I had expectations this time. Did it speak to everything going on in my life? Yes, but not in the same way. I read it this time looking for the ways it would resonate. More than speaking to me now I was aware of how many of the ideas have simply become a part of my life. Thanks to Harry Haller's struggles I didn't have to go through the same thing. Though inarguably middle-aged, I'm still not a depressed, suicidal man who feels like he has missed out on life.
Steppenwolf served as a cautionary tale. I learned early not miss opportunities that arose. Unlike Haller I learned to dance, and to enjoy music and the joys of the sensual world. The sacred and the profane both exist, hand in hand, and they are both a part of my life and each would probably be unrecognizable without the other.
There were certainly still lessons to be learned. I was more aware of Hesse's political commentary this time around, and how it reflected my own current thoughts on the topic. It's a subject I can get easily mired in, much to my emotional detriment. There are ideas in the novel I need to think through to help me be more at peace with these issues.
Let me quote a passage from early in the novel...
“Every age, every culture, every custom and tradition has its own character, its own weakness and its own strength, its beauties and cruelties; it accepts certain sufferings as matters of course, puts up patiently with certain evils. Human life is reduced to real suffering, to hell, only when two ages, two cultures and religions overlap.”
This was certainly true of the world when Hesse wrote it. He says in the novel that Nietzsche suffered what everyone was suffering, only a generation earlier. This was written in the early days of radio, and worldwide communication was just starting to be taken for granted. We now live in a time when not only two ages, cultures and religions overlap, but when all cultures and religions overlap in ways they never have before. In the Information Age time has sped up. Changes in technology have both united the world and separated us in unprecedented ways. Does this, in Hesse's words, reduce us to real suffering, to hell? Does the world suffer more now than ever before, or are we simply more informed about it? Are there more Harry Hallers out there now, living the famed life of quiet desperation than ever before? I don't know. If so, there are lessons in Hesse that can help.
I am still enamored of Hesse, and amazed that I can still find gold in his work. This is alchemy as it's meant to be understood. It's the transformation of lead (base material, the profane) into gold (spiritual material, the sacred).
Maybe I'll read it again when I turn 75.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
I've been a music fan most of my life, and came of age in the early and mid-70's. But even with music as another major hobby in my life I'm pretty sure my fondness for comics had an influence on my early musical choices. Nothing else really explains my attraction to bands and performers in costume. Alice Cooper was the first act I ever really got into. I was just young enough to have missed the real Glam Rock scene, so even though I had a couple of David Bowie singles he was well into his Berlin period and past the Sci Fi Ziggy Stardust era I no doubt would have been crazy about. I loved Elton's costumes and I know for a fact that I bought my first KISS album, Destroyer, without knowing anything about what they sounded like, simply because they looked like superheroes on the cover.
These bands are all considered legendary now, but for the most part, back home in my rural surroundings, I was the only person I knew who dug Queen more than Bachman Turner Overdrive.
This blog isn't meant to recount all of my music anecdotes. I'll probably come back to some of those as time goes on. This serves primarily as an introduction to the topic of my musical tastes, and the fact that I got made fun of for a lot of them back then (even for Alice and KISS).
I think the costumes and the shows were off-putting to a lot of my peers. I realize now that even more off-putting was the androgyny and sexual ambiguity of Glam Rock. Now, this was the 70's and while I now know the topics of homosexuality and gender-bending politics were a big part of this scene (as well as the Disco scene of the era), these weren't topics that anyone was very comfortable talking about back home in rural Greene County. I thought Freddie Mercury's flamboyance made him a great performer, and honest-to-god the idea that he was gay really never crossed my mind. I'm going on record here to say that at that age, and at that time, it simply didn't occur to me. I don't know if that's more of a testament to how things have changed since then or to my naivety.
But there was one band that, while I liked their music, made me a little uncomfortable.
I read about Angel in some rock magazine. The rumor in that mag was that Angel was actually the members of KISS, out of makeup, playing in this band as a side-project. They were the light counterpart, sort of a Yin Yang image, of KISS. That was untrue of course, and it was obvious for a number of reasons. Even with their makeup on the shape of the faces were completely wrong. But as a KISS fan it got my attention. If they sounded anything like KISS I wanted to hear it.
They were discovered (At least as I remember the story without doing a lot of research), playing in a Washington, DC club by Gene Simmons of KISS. They wore all white and had developed an elaborate stage show. They were signed by Casablanca records and put on the fast track to Arena Rock success. That didn't quite work out. Here's their band logo...
So I bought their album White Hot. They didn't sound anything like KISS, but I liked it. But this is where we get to the uncomfortable part. This was the cover...
Pretty Gay, isn't it? You should see the band pictures on the inside. These guys were pretty.
I've never really wrestled with those issues. I've pretty much always liked girls. I have however been targeted for a lot of teasing and misunderstanding by other people for those issues. That's the danger of growing up as an emotionally open and sensitive man with an artistic temperament. To be fair, I listened to a lot of bands with men in makeup and tight costumes and my primary hobby was comics, which featured mostly muscular men in tights, so I can understand where the assumptions came from. When I was younger this bothered me. Now, as an adult who is comfortable with his sexuality (and with anyone else's, just for the record), I don't really care.
But Angel was just a step beyond, and I think it hurt their success. They toured the arenas, released several albums (including a live one), but never really caught on the way Casablanca hoped they would. I think there were a lot of reasons for this. They appeared a little late to really cash in on the androgyny of the Glam Rock fad, and that never caught on in America the way it did in England. We're a little more homophobic as a society, I believe (and yes, I know that's debatable, and not what this post is about). They used keyboards, which made their sound a little too Prog Rock for the hard rock fans. They were a little too hard rock for the Prog fans. Rock is the Devil's music and these guys were dressing in pure white. They weren't dangerous. A decade later the airwaves were filled with hairbands who overcame the androgyny of makeup and flamboyant costumes with a bad boy attitude. But Angel was... pretty.
They broke up, and were for the most part forgotten. Somewhere along the line I lost the White Hot album. I'm fairly sure it got mixed up with a college roommate's massive vinyl collection. I'm not accusing him of anything, but Steve, if there's a copy of this in your house it's probably mine (you can keep it... I replaced it on CD a few years back).
Last winter I played White Hot for the first time in awhile. I've had the CD for a few years and had enjoyed the nostalgia factor, but for some reason this time it really clicked again. I did some digging and got the rest of their discography and have been really into it again. It's absolutely filled to the brim with over-produced pomposity and Glam Rock majesty. It's silly and over-the-top and it rocks. You can hear a lot of tracks on YouTube, but this is one of the few actual live clips I found.
Yeah, this is one of the reasons I was made fun of, but you have to love any band that uses the word "halcyon" in a song lyric.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Thursday, May 12, 2011
Monday, May 9, 2011
Monday, May 2, 2011
First, let me say that for the most part, I loved it. There was stress, and a lot of work (prep work that I won't have to do over if I get the chance to teach this class again), but the rewards far outweighed the negatives.
For those reading this who haven't talked to me in the past few months, I just finished teaching my first semester as an adjunct professor/guest lecturer at Chatham University. I taught a 300-level English Department Cultural Studies course called “Comics and Pop Culture.” For a general idea of what I did here's the intro paragraph from the course syllabus;
“While telling stories with pictures is as least as old as cave paintings, the format known as comics is considered to be one of only two art forms that developed in the United States (Jazz is the other one). In addition to an art form, comics have also been called “the most dismaying mass of undiluted horror and prodigious impossibility ever visited on the sanity of a nation’s youth.” It is only in the last two decades that comics have begun to be looked at as a legitimate art form worthy of academic or artistic analysis. This course is designed as an overview of the topic, providing students with an understanding of the visual language of comics, a basic knowledge of their history and cultural impact, and a lexicon that will allow analysis and discussion of this much maligned and misunderstood art form.”
Yeah, pretty impressive for funnybooks, ain't it?
I really have few regrets about walking away from my more professional career in psychology 20 years ago (though at the time it was more the beginning of a potential career in psychology than an actual career). The one thing that did bother me since is that I've always had some vague notion of wanting to teach at the college level. Professor Wise just has a ring to it. Okay, a very comic book character kind of ring, but still. Without more education teaching Psychology was pretty much out of the question and truthfully not something I was very interested in anymore anyway. While my interests and self-education (I'm auto-didactic, to use a big word) continued, and I accumulated lots of knowledge in a variety of subjects, I really never seriously considered going back to school and getting a doctorate. Very few programs covered the types of things I was really interested in, at least that's the way it seemed. I was also limited by that pesky need-to-make-a-living thing.
Working at Phantom of the Attic Comics in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh was a nice middle ground. We're sandwiched between the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University so a large chunk of our customer base is the students. I got to be around academia without being a part of it. It seemed that every year someone was doing a paper or a project on comics and I became the go-to resource person for them. That became even more true when I befriended a couple of professors from these universities (Dr. Mark Best and Dr. Michael Chemers, respectively) and they started directing students to me specifically. These guys also proved to me that Pop Culture is worth teaching at the college level and through them I started to see new possibilities, specifically for teaching comics.
A couple of years ago my friend Tony Norman, columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took a sabbatical from work and took some graduate-level courses, including one on Graphic Novels. He told me about the course, and while I would have killed to have had something like it when I was in college, for the most part I focused on what was missing from what he described. It seemed to me that his course, and in my researches many courses in comics, were being taught by academics who were approaching the topic from outside the world of comics. Now, there's validity to teaching a graphic novel as a work of literature, but I still believe something is lacking. For example, Watchmen should succeed or fail on its own merits as a work of fiction, but it is, inherently, a deconstruction and commentary on the entire history of superhero comics. Without a grounding in that history, without understanding the archetypes and tropes of the superhero, then a deeper understanding of the work just isn't possible. In talking with Tony about how Watchmen was taught in his class, it seemed to me that many of the ideas that I deem essential to understanding Watchmen were not mentioned at all, and it was apparent that the reason for this was that the professor simply didn't know these things.
So I started thinking about how to teach a class that would introduce people to the history, archetypes and tropes of the genre, and not just the superhero genre, but comics as an inclusive art form. Comics are a hot topic in academics but there is just beginning to be a body of work to draw from, and much of it from people who have never really been in the trenches of the comics industry. I've been a fan my entire life. I learned to read from comics. I worked as a professional inker for Malibu Graphics in the 90's. I won the Xeric Grant for a comic called Grey Legacy in 1993 and as a result I have experience as a writer, designer, inker, and publisher (including all of the details that go into publishing, like promotion, advertising, dealing with printers, distributors, retailers, etc). I have worked in comics retail for the last fifteen years, fourteen of them at the Eisner Award-nominated Phantom of the Attic, so I'm pretty in touch with the vicissitudes of the comics retail industry. I also have a masters degree in psychology and undergrad degrees in psych and history. I'm not intimidated talking in front of groups of people, and if you made it this far (and even if you haven't) you can see I'm rarely at a loss for something to say.
In short, I bring a lot of experience to the table. To sound self-aggrandizing for a moment (and it's my blog, so I'm allowed), I really think I'm one of the top five people in Pittsburgh qualified to teach this class.
So, with this new-found sense of purpose and arrogance I embarked on a mission to make this happen.
I did some research, and started cultivating contacts I had with people at various universities around town. I put together a slideshow on “A Brief History of Comics” that served as an introduction and outline of what I wanted my whole course to be and was able to present it at couple of lecture-like functions. With the help and support of the aforementioned Mark and Mike I developed a tentative syllabus and updated my Curriculum Vitae (which up to this point I had called a resume).
Turns out, Tony Norman teaches Journalism as an adjunct professor at Chatham University. About three years ago one of the Deans there wanted to develop a class on comics, but she didn't have time, so she asked Tony. He also didn't have time, so he referred me. She was interested, but as I understand it, right around that time Chatham instituted a hiring freeze for new adjuncts. Two years later, the freeze is lifted, that Dean is no longer there, but Tony gave me the name of a new contact person to submit my proposal to. An interview later and (after securing the budget to pay me) I was offered the opportunity to teach comics at the college level.
I spent last fall and winter fleshing out my syllabus and developing weekly lectures. That alone was a really good experience for me. I know I know a lot about this topic, but having an excuse to organize all the stuff that rattles around in my head was a good thing. I looked at the topic with different eyes, made new connections and new insights, and was more convinced than ever that this is a topic worth teaching. I collected tons of images and put together slide shows to illustrate my lectures. I panicked over figuring out how to test or grade on something like this (I decided on writing assignments exclusively).
And I waited to see if anyone would actually sign up to take my class. I had been told that I needed at least ten students to sign up or they couldn't offer it. Chatham is, at the undergraduate level at least, an all girls school. Now comics have always been something of a boy's club, and while that has changed over the last couple of decades, I still wondered if the interest would be there.
I had twenty-seven girls sign up for my class. I told them on the first day that one of the differences in the comics industry now is that when I was twenty years old there probably weren't twenty-seven girls in the country that read comics, let alone in one room.
They came in with a variety of backgrounds and levels of interest, from those who were really, really into comics to the ones who had only read Japanese Manga (I expected more of those), to a few who had never read comics in their lives but were curious.
It took me a couple of weeks to find my rhythm for teaching, but once I did I think it went really well. I used comics and the history of the comic book as a lens through which talk about a variety of topics: History, mythology, creativity and creator's rights, issues of race, issues of gender, business practices and economics, art and art appreciation, the interplay of text and images, symbolism, propaganda, and how comics, like any art form, both reflect and influence the culture and times of the people who create them.
At the end of it I am very aware of things I need to be better at and things I will do differently next time. I feel I learned a lot from the students. I think they learned a lot from me. In the writing assignments I have received from them I see a level of enthusiasm for the topic that impressed me. Some of them put a tremendous amount of research into their papers, and most were able to to tie the themes of comics and the ideas we talked about in class into much broader issues with a level of critique and insight that pleased me to no end. Several of them took things I said in passing in class and turned them into full-blown themes they explored in greater depth in their projects (it's like they were actually listening in class or something). A few of them wrote simply outstanding, remarkable papers.
And I feel like I met some outstanding, remarkable students. Now, don't get me wrong... the class was a mix of types, but overall they were a good bunch. But like in any situation like this, a few stood out. For the sake of confidentiality I won't name names here, but I feel lucky to have met and befriended several of them. They made the experience much better than it could have been, by their enthusiasm, brilliance, senses of humor, and demeanor. Some of them I will probably never see again, a few will stay in touch, and I already feel like I miss the whole room. Next time I teach I will meet new students and I'm sure will have the same kind of reaction and experience. But this bunch was my first in this context, and will be the standard the others will be measured against. They had to endure my first stumbling semester as I found my professorial voice and style. Many of them have given me incredibly positive feedback (that I'm too humble, believe it or not, to share here) as well as suggestions on how I can do better.
As of right now I don't know for sure if I will get to do this again. It seems likely, based on the success of this class, but there is no firm offer on the table. It is an adjunct position, and Comics isn't a core curriculum for any major, and a budget needs to be secured, or there might be enough interest by the students next year, or whatever... I hope, but I don't know.
I have to say, I felt completely at home in front of the class, like this was something I was meant to do. My writing and my art, my novels and my comics, have always been outlets for the storyteller in me, and that is primarily how I think of myself. My writing and art are in the service of my story. That's how I felt while lecturing. I was telling a story, one that I believe in, one that I have been a part of, and one that more people need to hear. Comics are an art form, and like any art they exist to make us look at the world and ourselves in new ways. I hope I did that for my students. I know they did that for me.