Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Giant Days

A couple of years or more ago I spent some time on the blog discussing some of my all time favorite comics. They overwhelmingly represented the past, mostly from the 1980s. These books are the ones that helped form me in my early adulthood. I have read many, many comics since then but it has felt like very few have inspired the level of love that I have for the old stuff. That’s part of getting older and the same paradigm seems to apply to music and books and movies and whatever else that helped make you the person you are.

As a comics retailer it part of my job to keep up with new releases so that I can make smart recommendations. I admit to a little bit of burnout. There are a lot of comics coming out these days, and many of them, particularly Marvel and DC, seem to this old reader to be a continual rehash of stories and concepts I have read too many times before. It felt like it had been a long time since anything had captured my imagination. But, I’m happy to report, that in the last few years there are several ongoing titles that I have been happily engaged and genuinely excited about. I’ve been feeling the need to write about new loves rather than, like the publishers, rehashing my past. I’ve just been a slacker about actually writing. But last week at San Diego Comicon something happened that told me to get off my ass and write about something.

Giant Days won the Eisner Award for both Best Ongoing Series and Best Humor Publication. I’ve been hyping Giant Days to anyone who will listen for a couple of years now. It’s a book that just makes me happy. I was excited to see that it received the Eisner nomination, but I honestly thought it might be a long shot. I know I love it, but I was unaware of it’s reach and impact. I feel a little giddy that it won.

Yes... I said giddy.

It’s about three young British women in college and their wacky adventures with friends. It’s fun and funny and touching and real. I’m really not the demographic I think Giant Days is aiming for, though there are definitely reasons I like it. I tend to describe it ‟as more adult than old-school Archie comics and far less adult than Love & Rockets.” I’m a big fan of both of those and Giant Days just hits a sweet spot that captures elements of both for me. My own comic from long ago, Grey Legacy, was the story of young people in college, albeit in more of a sci/fi fantasy setting. This was created much closer to my own college and grad school experience. Years later when I produced a short run of a comic strip set in the same world I focused on a young woman named Brix and her wacky adventures with friends, but even then I was aiming for the audience of Chatham University students. Obviously there is something in this trope that speaks to me.

But back to Giant Days...

Daisy Wooten was home-schooled and as a result is socially awkward and slightly na├»ve. She’s also brilliant, ridiculously optimistic, and highly organized. She tends to act as the conscience of the group. Susan Ptolemy is a med student. She’s overworked, down to earth, cynical, and sometimes a little mean and impatient with foolishness. Esther DeGroot is the beautiful Goth girl that everything comes easy to. She’s a whimsical force of nature, lucky, creative, and the object of every misplaced male crush. She’s also much smarter than she gives herself credit for. In spite of their differences they develop a beautiful friendship.

Somehow, I relate to elements of all three of them.

JohnAllison, the creator, writer, and sometimes artist of the series has a long history in comics. He has been creating web comics since the late 1990s. Giant Days is a continuation of some of the settings and characters that appeared there. His characterizations are deft and his comedic pacing is immaculate. Giant Days is a genuinely funny book. But the characters are not merely cartoons. We feel for them and become emotionally invested as they go through relationships and heartbreak and deal with the pressures of school and impending adulthood. In a recent story someone’s father dies and the story is deep and heartbreaking and incredibly insightful about dealing with grief.

I can’t say enough good things about the main series artist MaxSarin. Their drawings are full of life and energy. The characters are animated and feel as though they are always in motion. Sarin is a master of body language, subtle and not so subtle. The facial expressions can be wildly exaggerated, utilizing all of the tools of cartooning, but you are never taken out of the reality of this world. The drawing make you feel what the characters feel. When Daisy cries it is hurt down to the level of her soul.

As a middle aged man I’ve wondered why this appeals to me so much. Some of it is just sheer admiration for the craft of making good comics. Even though I am many years removed from the college experience I am surprised at how many moments in the series, like in every issue, something happens that has a direct corollary to something I have experienced in my own past, or speaks to who I am now.

I had this exact experience with a tripping friend
once. I was in the role of Esther that time.
This is an uncannily accurate description of me.

A large part of the appeal is the nostalgia factor. That’s something I think anyone can relate to. That time in your life, whether it was in college or high school or some other setting, when you were officially an adult, but still hadn’t figured out what that meant. The time when you were experiencing all of your firsts. When everything felt heightened and was tinged with importance in ways that can never be completely recaptured as you get older. When you first started to meet people who would be your chosen family and you can’t imagine life without them in it. For younger readers, those who are the age of the characters, it mirrors their life. For those of us who are older it reminds us of just how important and formative those times were.

Giant Days indeed.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Journey’s End

In 1984 I began a journey, one that ended this week. It didn’t begin as my journey. I was merely a companion, myself and thousands of others, to a stranger who would become someone I felt I knew. Over the last thirty-five years his journey became symbolic of my own, shedding light on my own life in the way all great stories do. Though his personal, real life journey continues, the story he was telling is now over. I want to talk about endings.

Mage: The Hero Denied #15
This is not the first time I’ve written about Mage: The Hero Discovered and its creator Matt Wagner. I’ve talked about it in more detail in a previous blog and written about it academically for Salem Press (though the links in that blog are now dead so you can’t see it anymore). This comic book series began in 1984 and I was there with the first issue. At that time Wagner said that he envisioned Mage to be three distinct story arcs. This week, after thirty-five years and large gaps in production the final issue of the final series shipped. It was the conclusion of a story that I have been anticipating for a long, long time. No spoilers, but I was satisfied with the ending. It wrapped up the various plot lines, encapsulated the feel of the entire series, and stayed thematically consistent with everything that went before. In its ending it conveyed that even when a specific story ends, life goes on.

But I’m not here to do an analysis of the narrative. This is more personal than that. There are specific plot and character elements I’ll go into here but, if you want to know ‟what happens” I’m sure you can find many articles online, or you could, preferably, read it yourself.

I’ve read a lot of comics. I’ve been doing so my entire life and for the last twenty-two years I’ve worked at a comics shop which give me access to everything that comes out. As much as I love the medium most books I read are an ‟in the moment” thing and then forgotten. That is more true now than when I was younger, of course. Like a lot of media consumption the majority of it can be enjoyed while engaged with it, then easily discarded. There are those that deserve further study, of course, and those that reward multiple readings. It is an art form that comes with all of the problems and expectations and joy that can be associated with any other art form. But for everyone who loves this stuff, I assume, there are those few titles that become a part of your life. Heart books I have called them in the past. Those books that speak to something more personal.

Mage is one of those series for me, perhaps the biggest one. At the time I couldn’t have told you why it spoke to me as strongly as it did. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it since. Mage appeared in the early days of the Direct Market, an innovation in comics distribution that allowed for more diverse content from a wider range of creators. I liked a lot of the books I saw then simply because they were not the traditional Marvel and DC superhero fare. Mage was a unique mixture of superheroes, fantasy, myth, and Arthurian legend, all things that I was into. What made it different at the time was that it was all took place in a contemporary setting. The popularity of the genre we now call Urban Fantasy has made this approach much more common, but back then it felt unique. The protagonist, Kevin Matchstick, was a young man wearing jeans and a t-shirt, someone I could know, or more importantly, someone I could be.

This is a core part of the connection. The story opened very differently from most. We didn’t get an explosive fight scene. It was very understated, but it’s was definitely the hook that reeled me in. Kevin meets what appears to be a homeless street urchin and proceeds to have a very personal three page conversation with this stranger, revealing his doubts and anxieties, the kind of questions about life and identity that most people have in their early twenties. It turns out that the homeless man is Mirth, the avatar of the World Mage... Merlin, if you will. This Meeting With the Mentor serves a
dual purpose, one that works on a meta-level. For Kevin, his meeting with the Mage launches him on his personal journey of self-discovery. For me, and probably for others, my meeting with the series Mage brought me into the journey as well. Mirth spoke to Kevin and Matt spoke to me through Mirth. In this way the series became a mentor for those engaged with the narrative. It did for me at least.

What I didn’t know at that time was that Matchstick was an avatar of creator Matt Wagner. He looked just like him. Since that time Wagner has called the series and ‟allegorical autobiography.” He took elements of his own life and fictionalized them. Over time, the more you knew about Matt, the more you could recognize in the narrative, and the more personal the story became. Over the years, because of his other work in the comics industry, through interviews and letters pages, we saw elements of his life outside of his work seep through. Because of these, and because of the personal nature of Mage, an illusion of intimacy was created. This happens a lot with artists, though I think it is probably more obvious with musicians or actors. Through their public persona and the work they create we feel like we know them better than we actually do. This feeling is heightened when we can see ourselves reflected in their work.

2009 San Diego Con.
I don’t know Matt, not really. I have met him in real life exactly twice, once at a convention in Ohio in the early 90s and once at San Diego Con in 2009. During the 80s and early 90s when I was trying to get into the comics industry through self-publishing I sent copies of everything to several receptive creators, Matt among them. He always wrote back, even if it was just a postcard. He was supportive and friendly and those things felt really important at the time. A few years ago when I was researching my article for Salem Press he was gracious enough to answer a bunch of questions for me. He would probably recognize me if I walked up to him at a convention. We’re friends on Facebook. I feel like I know Matt, certainly more than he probably feels like he knows me. But all I really know is what he has revealed to me through the allegory of Mage.

Matt and I are contemporaries. I’m about three months older than he is. We grew up with a lot of the same cultural touchstones, and it’s obvious to me we read a lot of the same books and comics and shared many of the same interests. It’s part of why I could so easily project myself into the series. As time went on some of these interests became more well-developed. Matt has said many times that he was unaware of the mythologist Joseph Campbell and the idea of the Hero’s Journey when he began working on Mage, even though in retrospect it is amazing how closely Kevin’s path follows this pattern. Campbell came to prominence in 1986 through a series of interviews with journalist Bill Moyers (available in print form as The Power of Myth). This series was eye-opening for me and still qualifies as one of the most influential books of my life. It pulled together so many of my interests and the ideas I had been having about them and gave me a language and worldview that still resonates with me today.

One of these ideas is that of a personal mythology. Psychologist Carl Jung asked the question, ‟What myth are you living?” The idea is that each of us reenact recurring motifs in our own personal story. We are the products of our culture and for good or ill we can all become caught up in unconscious behaviors due to the social structures we live in and the stories we have been told about our place in it. The benefit of knowing the myth you are living is so that you can break out of harmful patterns of behavior and self-delusion and adapt a story for your life that is healthier and more fulfilling.

Matt put his personal myth on paper and shared it with all of us. By doing so he set a precedent for his readers to do the same. As we saw throughout his series, it is possible to be living several different myths at the same time. It’s also important to acknowledge that everyone around us is doing the same thing. We may be the protagonist of our own story, but we are also the supporting cast in the lives of others.

It’s important to note here that while the story of Mage, and that of Kevin Matchstick, is over, Matt’s life isn’t. Without spoilers, while there is a definitive end to the series it is implied that life goes on for our protagonists. Endings are important. It’s part of what is missing from mainstream comics. Great myths have their ending, but as licensed corporate characters none of our modern superheroes get to have that. Every character at Marvel and DC have died at some point, only to be resurrected (an overstatement, but you get my point). Big events happen and then are quickly forgotten. We all say we want continuity, but with an eighty year history and characters that never really age we can never really get that. Not as long as people are making money from the products. We continue on with what Stan Lee referred to as the ‟Illusion of Change.” We can never get true closure.

Endings are difficult in real life. Even when the result is a good thing, such as leaving a bad job for a good one, or moving to a better house, it is still stressful. Change is hard. When it is the end of a relationship or a life it can be emotionally catastrophic. Experiencing these in our fictions provides a catharsis from a safe emotional distance. That is but one of the lessons of empathy we can learn from them.

I watched as Matt, metaphorically through his avatar of Kevin, grew in strength and power and came into his gifts as an artist and storyteller. I saw him when he fully embodied that power, when he served as an inspiration for a generation of other creators and shared his path with them, creating opportunities for others to share their own journeys and find their own power. I saw him age and discover new challenges in life, just as I was doing in my own. I have joked with him that I have always identified with Mirth more than Kevin, and maybe that is because part of my path has become that of the Magician. As a writer and artist and educator I embody more of that myth than I do that of the Warrior or the King. Through Kevin, Matt has shared his family with us and his experiences as a father. That part of the recent series became more profound because it was colored by his now adult son Brennan, who wasn’t born when Mage first appeared.

So it goes.

I recently taught an Intro to the Graphic Novel class at the University of Pittsburgh. I taught some of the canonical works that everyone teaches, like Maus and Persepolis and Fun Home. I did a section on the superhero, of course, with Batman Year One and Watchmen being the primary texts for what I wanted to do. I finished the section with Mage. Hey, it’s my class, I can teach what I want! I may be the only person to have done this, and to be honest, I questioned if this was just my favoritism coming into play and if there was anything of value to discuss in a college level comics class. Looking at the work through this lens I was able to use it as a way to talk about myth and Arthurian legend, Jungian psychology, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and the genre of Urban Fantasy. We also were able to touch on a different way to do autobiographical comics, comparing it to some of the other books I mentioned. Where Watchmen and many other books of the time are famously a deconstruction of the tropes of the superhero I argue that Mage (and a few others, like Scott McCloud’s Zot!), are a reconstruction of the trope clothed in a modern setting. However you look at it, the title was a great success in class and gave us a lot of material to discuss. At the end of the semester several students referenced it as their favorite thing we read all semester, and I know I made a couple of avowed fans. The journey Matt documented still speaks to certain people.

So now what? What do I do now that I have seen the end of something I have anticipated for thirty-five years? Is my life that different? Not really. The only thing I no longer have is the anticipation. I trust that Matt will continue to create new material, not for Mage but for other projects. As a fan of his work I still have things to look forward to.

I also now have the entire story of Mage. I have a new anticipation, that of rereading it. I have gone back to the original many times over the years and as I have grown and changed and aged I have discovered new things in the narrative. It speaks to me in different ways at different points in my life. Now that there is more of it I believe this experience will only increase.

Thank you, Matt, for sharing your journey, for inspiring me and many others. Thank you for being a friend in a very meta sort of fashion. Good luck in all of your future endeavors. You have let Mage go, but your well-earned power as a storyteller remains.

Posted today by Matt.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Come on Feel the Noize!

I became aware of something new last week, partly due to watching the Super Bowl. I’m not a huge football fan, but given the Pop Culture cachet of the event and the commercials I feel like I should at least be aware of it. So, I usually at have it on in the background while I’m doing other things. This year one specific commercial drew my attention.

There’s a woman drinking Michelob beer in a mountain setting. She’s whispering, which is probably what drew my attention. But then she starts tapping her fingernails against the bottle, and dragging it across the tabletop. The focus of the commercial seems to be the soft sounds of the beer pouring into the glass and the fizzing of the bubbly foam. The quiet nature of it is what made me pay attention. I thought it was kind of weird for a commercial, and then promptly forgot about it.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Always Crashing In The Same Car

I’m not a car guy. My Dad is a car guy. He learned to drive in a used Model T when he was twelve years old (he was born in 1919, just for a point of reference). He drove a Jeep across Europe in World War II and drove a dump truck as a job for thirty-plus years. He’s not really a hobbyist, but he knows cars. He still pays attention to them and has what to me seems an amazing amount of knowledge about makes and models that I just don’t have. The following is a typical car conversation between us:

Me: So while I was in California my friends let me borrow their car so I could drive down the coast to Monterey Bay.
Dad: What kind of car was it?
Me: Ummm... Blue?

The make of the car is the least interesting part of that story to me, but not to Dad. He doesn’t understand how I couldn’t know what I was driving.

But, because of Dad, by default I’ve absorbed some car guy characteristics. I lived in the middle of nowhere where getting your driver’s license as soon as you possibly could was not only expected, but a requirement if you wanted any kind of social life at all. The nearest town with a movie theater was fifteen miles away. I was in school every day with friends who lived over forty road miles away. So, the day I turned sixteen I applied for my learner’s permit and a few short months later had my driver’s license.

I’ve driven a lot of cars and covered a lot of miles in the last forty-some years. But, I’ve always thought of a car as a tool, a really expensive hammer, if you will. It’s not a status symbol. It’s not an extension of my personality (except in some ways everything a person owns or does is an extension of their personality). It’s not something that brings me a specific kind of pride. It’s a tool that gets me from point A to point B and makes my life easier. In terms of expense and frustration, it can also be a burden. I’ve owned cars I’ve hated. I’ve owned cars I’ve loved. I’ve owned cars I don’t even remember anymore. At some point they’ve all let me down.

I have a complicated relationship with cars.

My first car was a green 1973 (I think), Plymouth Satellite, a two-door monster of a car. I have no idea how I ever learned to parallel park in that thing. Dad had been driving it to work six nights a week, so it had a lot of miles on it when I inherited it, along with the attendant mechanical issues that go with mileage. This car had a specific issue with soft plugs. What the hell is a soft plug, you ask? Wikipedia describes them, by several different names, like this: Core plugs are used to fill the sand casting core holes found on water-cooled internal combustion engines. They are also commonly called frost plugs, freeze plugs, or engine block expansion plugs. The problem with them, at least for me, is that if they rust through, which they did, or simply blow out from pressure, which they also did, your car immediately loses all of its antifreeze, overheats, and leaves you stranded. This happened with my Satellite a dozen times or more.

And here my troubles began.

Every car I’ve ever owned, and there have been a lot of them, have been used. Some of them have been great, others, not so much. All of them have come with their share of problems. Dad insisted that I learn basic maintenance, and I’m eternally grateful he did. I can change tires and change my oil. I’ve gotten pretty good at diagnosing problems and even fixing some that are more involved. Once, when I had just left home to drive to DC for a weekend, I noticed my battery light was on. I went home, thought about it, realized it was probably my alternator, walked to a parts store, replaced it myself, and was on the road less than two hours later, much to the amazement of the friends I was staying with.

Maybe it’s true of every driver, but I have a litany of car stories.

I have hit a deer twice in my life, though neither time caused much damage to my car. The deer weren’t so lucky. Several times I have broken down miles, or even hours away from home and had to be towed and wait for someone to come get me. Fred and I sat in a rest stop in Ohio for around nine hours one Saturday, unable to get in touch with anyone back home who could do anything. My pal Zordon (of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers fame), twice drove for over two hours to rescue me.

I broke down on 79 North, and after meeting someone I’m sure may have been an angel (in the Wings of Desire sense, anyway), the woman I was going to visit came to get me and drove me back to Pittsburgh. I called Dad and arranged for him to rent a tow hitch so we could go get the car and tow it back to our mechanic. Right before he arrived to pick me up the next morning I got a call from the state police telling me that a driver had fallen asleep and crashed into my parked car, totaling it while I was away. I had done nothing illegal and was parked well off the road, but my car was a goner. In that case it worked out. The insurance value of the car ended up being more than I had bought it for. Ever since, whenever I’m having car trouble I’ve been tempted to just park along the highway and hope for the best.

I’ve run over a Christmas Tree and been rear-ended by a dead man.

Three years ago, on the way home on New Year’s Eve, my car died. It was the transmission. I knew immediately because this was the third car in my life where the transmission went bad (by contrast, my father, who has been driving since the age of the Model T, has never had this happen). Fixing it would cost more than the car was worth, so I sold it for next to nothing and quickly, and probably foolishly bought another used car, pretty cheaply. Well, you get what you pay for. It was a mess. Rusted out underneath. There was a leak somewhere so the trunk was always damp. I kind of hated it, in ways I had never hated a car before. My mechanic flat out told me it wasn’t going to pass another inspection.

One morning, on my way to get my new driver’s license, I discovered the driver’s side window was halfway down. The motor had burnt out, so it wouldn't go up or down. I knew, based on personal experience, that this was going to cost a lot of money, certainly more than a car that wasn’t going to pass inspection was worth anyway. As soon as I got back from the license center I went online to look for something else.

I had been thinking about looking into a hybrid. I liked the environmental aspect of it, but I was also fond of the better gas mileage. A good friend of mine had a 2008 Toyota Prius that I had ridden in and liked. I figured even a used one was out of my price range, but on a whim I thought I would look just to see.

And there it was, the first car that popped up in my search. A 2008 Toyota Prius, solid black and beautiful... and in my price range. Okay, the upper end of it, but still there. With very little deliberation I called the dealer to make sure it was still there then drove out to take a look at it, my side window still stuck in the halfway position. I test drove it, I loved it, and they made me a deal I simply couldn’t pass up. So, in June of 2017, I came home with the first car in my life that I truly loved and was genuinely proud of.

This story doesn’t end well.

A little over a year later, last summer, I was t-boned by another driver and my car was totaled. It could have been far worse. There were three passengers in my car, and two in the one that hit me, including a child. We all walked away without a scratch. My side airbags deployed, which I’m sure saved Marcel and Derrick from severe injury. This was my first serious accident ever, and the ‟What might have happened” still haunts me. No one blames me, and no one was hurt, but I still feel just a little nauseous if it comes up. The possibilities of that alternate reality are truly frightening to me, even though they are not real.

But my car was done.

I found myself genuinely mourning it (fully realizing that I had to the luxury of mourning only my car). All of the other cars I had sold or lost over the years just felt like breakups. You know, we had a good run, but it’s time to move on. Some were harder than others, but it was usually a mutual decision. This one felt like a death.

The timing was bad, not that there would ever have been a good time for it. The accident took place the evening before I signed my contract to teach at Pitt, a mere three weeks before classes started. I had a vacation planned the following week, so I was out of town and couldn’t look for a replacement right away (I was in California, where I once again drove my friend’s car... you know, the blue one).

I bought another Prius, bright red and four years newer. It’s a little smaller. I like it, but I don’t love it yet. I feel a little guilty about that. It feels like a rebound car, because I’m not really over the last one. But, we’re getting used to each other. I’m getting better mileage. We’re sharing the road. I haven’t had any car trouble yet. It’s not the love at first sight I experienced with the last one, but I know it’s better than any other car I’ve ever owned.

Maybe my relationships with cars have always been complicated because I’m not a car guy, and they can feel it. Until the last one my approach was utilitarian. I took them for granted. No one wants to be treated like that, even if they are inanimate objects. I’m never going to be like Dad, but I can probably be a little more attentive. Wash them more often. Be proud of them. Don’t just pay attention when they’re giving me trouble. Be grateful for their service and their protection. Check my oil.

Be more of a car guy.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Year End Roundup Part 1: Teaching

I’ve been incredibly neglectful of my blog this year, and in general I’ve been less productive as a writer. Not that I didn’t do anything, but I was feeling a little burnt out in terms of topics in this forum. I wrote and submitted a couple of pieces of creative nonfiction (that were rejected), that might end up here, unless I can find another place to submit. One of the longer pieces that was originally planned for the blog ended up being a part of a much larger work that also may be serialized here at some point. I wrote a couple of book reviews for the Post Gazette, and had a couple of pull quotes from previous reviews published in the paperback editions of the books I reviewed. I wrote a memoriam for Stan Lee for The most unexpected piece of professional writing I did was to contribute the new, official entry for the character of the Black Panther for World Book Encyclopedia.

But, my blog suffered. It’s been a more introverted year for me in general, so I guess I just haven’t had much to say in public.

My biggest achievement of 2018 was that I taught an Introduction to the Graphic Novel class at the University of Pittsburgh as an adjunct professor this fall. Though I have been making contacts and seeding my name there for a few years now, when it happened it happened very quickly.