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.