Friday, April 29, 2022

RIP Neal Adams

 Neal Adams was easily one of the most important and influential artists in comic book history. I know this because he told me that himself when we met a few years ago. From anyone else it would have sounded arrogant. From him it was simply a statement of fact. I had told my students much the same thing about him just a few weeks earlier.


For a list of his credits and achievements there are many online resources, so I won’t take up space repeating them here. I want to talk about meeting him. He was one of the first comics artists whose style I was able to recognize when I was young, and one of the first artists I was a big fan of. A few years ago he flew into Pittsburgh to appear at a convention and to do a signing at Phantom of the Attic Comics in Oakland. I had the privilege of picking him and his wife Marilyn up at the airport. I’ve met a lot of big names in the industry in my life, I’ve interviewed Stan Lee, but I felt a little nervous. He was one of my first heroes. I didn’t want to just gush my fanboy geekdom all over him immediately. We had a lovely conversation about Pittsburgh as we drove back into town.


Neal Adams was a larger than life character in real life. He was loud, and opinionated, and obviously felt pretty good about himself. But this was all expressed in an open and friendly manner. He was a sideshow barker – he had actually been one of these at some point in his life – and carried that demeanor with him. He was knowledgeable and passionate and talented, and as far as I could see while he was at the store, genuinely kind to everyone he met. Before the signing was over I got something signed, an art book of his I have had since I was an early teen, and got to do my fanboy gushing. I then drove him and Marilyn to their motel.


Neal had some pretty out-there ideas about the world. Hollow earth and expanding planets, and a bunch of frankly crazy sounding nonsense. You can find videos and posts about this if you look. I was treated to some of his rambling theories while we drove. I don’t believe the things he did, but it was entertaining to hear first hand. I was also treated to a rant about how all hotels should have Thomas’s English Muffins instead of any other brand. Honestly that may be my favorite moment, just because it was so very human.


So RIP, Neal Adams. Thank you for Batman and the X-Men that you gave us. Thank you for Ms. Mystic and Skateboy. Thank you for your tireless work for creators rights. Thank you for opening up a world of art and story to this young mind.


I hope Heaven has Thomas’ English Muffins. If not, I’m sure you’ll tell them about it.


Neal Adams with the Phantom crew


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Big Slim

In a recent conversation with Dad (he’s 102 years old), I discovered more of his history with local music back when he was young. The conversation went something like this:


Me: I was reading a book about old Country music. It’s one based on the Burns documentary. It was talking about Grandpa Jones getting his start in Wheeling on WWVA. Did you ever see him?”

Dad: Oh yeah... we used to run into him all the time.


I grew up watching Hee Haw and seeing Grandpa Jones every week. If Dad ever mentioned that he knew him it escaped my notice.

Grandpa Jones began playing the character
when he was 22 years old.

My dad played guitar and mandolin in a family band. His mother played piano and accordion, but it was her brother Clark and his sons who were the musicians. Uncle Clark, who a I remember only slightly, was a barber in the small village of Time. He played the fiddle, and his boys and my dad rounded out his ‟Back Porch Band.” Dad couldn’t remember if that was their official name, or if it was simply the Phillips Family band. He thinks they played under both names at one time or another. Dad says he mostly just chorded along, and did some singing. His cousin Ray was apparently one of those classic back woods prodigies who could play anything with strings. They played frequently at local community get togethers and fairs, participating in contests. Dad mentioned playing frequently at Golden Oaks Park near Rogersville, PA (the site of this park is near my high school and is currently where the garage for their buses is). Sometimes they got paid (Dad remembers making at least a dollar once in awhile), and sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes these affairs were contests and the Phillips Family Band was good enough that twice they won the opportunity to play on the stage at the Wheeling Jamboree. This would have been in the late 1930s and early ‛40s. He played some after he returned from the War, but not as frequently.


This circuit of small community venues was frequented by a lot of the country music stars who were getting airplay on WWVA at the time, including, apparently, Grandpa Jones. Dad says they were never great friends, but they were certainly friendly when they ran into each other. Given the rules of Kevin Bacon, this make me three steps removed from everyone in the country music business.


Another country star of the time, who was never as famous as Jones, was Big Slim the Lone Cowboy, and Dad was genuinely friends with him. Slim had a radio show on WWVA and played on KDKA in Pittsburgh. He did live shows all over the area, including a lot of the small community events my Dad played at. Slim had a band, and in his live outdoor shows he would bring a horse. He did rope tricks and Dad saw him, many times, flick a cigarette out of his wife’s mouth with bullwhip (Slim a had number of wives, and did this trick with at least two of them. Dad knew his third wife. More on that later).


You can read more about Big Slim HERE. One of the things that struck me in this article is the mention of how Slim’s actual history is a bit of mystery because over the course of his career he told various stories about where he was from and what his life entailed. This struck me as funny because one of the things Dad said to me was, ‟I liked Slim, but you couldn’t believe a word out of his mouth.”


Slim was also a coon hunter and dog trainer, both of which were things my dad did as well, which extended the scope of their friendship. In addition to hunting, Dad also participated in Field Trials, a national dog racing competition. This is not the greyhounds running around a track you’re probably picturing, but a far more feral outdoor in the middle of nowhere activity my dad was part of well into his 70s (which deserves a much larger explanation and a blog of its own).


At some point, Dad sold Slim a coon hound for $125.00, a lot of money at that time (according to the US Inflation Calculator I just used, thats $1,458.24 in 2022 dollars). These were the days when the dogs were used for both the races and for hunting, before the two activities became more specialized. He saw Slim later and asked him how the the dog was doing for hunting. Slim told him at first he thought the dog was worthless. He was out hunting and the dog was barking on the trail, and kept circling around back to him. ‟I thought he was chasing deer,” Slim said. ‟I figured the next time he circled around I was just going to shoot him and get it over with.” Suddenly the dog started treeing deep in the woods. According to Slim, when he found the dog he was barking up a pine tree. When Slim shined his light into the tree there were seventeen coon in it staring back at him. He shot sixteen of them, but the last one got away. Best dog he ever had. He said he wouldn’t take $1000.00 dollars for him now.


Can’t believe a word he says.


The other story was a trip to the Kenton Nationals, or Leafy Oak as it was called back then. This was the biggest field trial in the country, near Kenton Ohio. Dad and Mom, their friends Ken and Elsie Shepherd, and Big Slim and his third wife, all stayed at the same motel. At first, when telling the story, he couldn’t remember Slim’s wife’s name. A few days later, on the phone, he says to me, ‟I think Slim’s wife was named Bebe.” Sure enough, her name was Bebe Bernard, the ‟Annie Oakley of West Virginia,” as she was billed in his act. ‟She was a whole lot younger than Slim,” Dad told me.


Anyway, they all got up early in the morning and Dad, Ken, and Slim piled into Dad’s car while the women all rode together in Ken’s. They went to to the race and spent the day. Apparently Bebe got completely shitface drunk over the course of the day. Passed out on the way home in the car with my Mom and Elsie. Slim carried her into the motel room and put her in the shower in her clothes to sober her up.

Elsie Shepherd and Mom, one of her
"best friends ever," at a field trial. Elsie drove
the car with drunk Bebe while Mom
tried to take care of her.

The article linked to above said that Slim took a number of young and upcoming country stars under his wing. One of them was Hawkshaw Hawkins, who died in the same plane crash as Patsy Cline. Not to spread unsubstantiated rumors seventy years later, but Dad says everyone at the time believed Slim was Hawkins real father. I know of no actual confirmation of this.


I’m 60, and still discovering fascinating things about my parent’s lives. Part of me is stunned that Dad never mentioned knowing Grandpa Jones, or if he did, me not remembering it. But then, by the time I was old enough for this to register it would have been forty years in the past for my Dad.


You can hear some of Slim’s music on YouTube. Here’s one of them.

https://youtu.be/pEavlT1KU7I



Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Fish is Biodegradable

One of my favorite musicians passed away suddenly. However, unlike Bowie or Prince, I’m afraid very few people ever heard of him. Enough that he maintained a music and recording career for forty years, but still, pretty obscure.

Pat Fish recorded under the name the Jazz Butcher. It was, technically, the name of the band he led, but as the only consistent member of said band, it was pretty common for Pat to be referred to as The Jazz Butcher. His first album, In Bath of Bacon, was released in 1983. He was part of the post punk, new wave, pre-alternative, college radio wave of British artists. He released thirteen studio albums, several compilations, and two or three live albums.


I didn’t hear the Jazz Butcher until 1986. I had just started grad school and moved into an apartment with a bunch of other guys. One of them, Steve, had a record collection that changed my life. That first semester I was exposed to tons of artists that I had either never heard of before, or had only the vaguest awareness of: Bauhaus, Love and Rockets, Japan, Hoodoo Gurus... many, many more. Steve would simply put on a record and it filled our days. It took awhile for some of these to really register with me, at least in terms of recognizing who they were. There was a lot of challenging new sounds, and I admit a lot of it really had to grow on me. Some of it joined the list of my favorite bands. Some of it never grew on me.

In the midst of all of this new music, one album, one song specifically, kept catching my ear. "This is partytime, and we’re all having so much fun." But the tone of the song belied those sentiments. There was a sadness to the lyrics, as if simply partying just wasn’t enough to bring one happiness. The words were fun and ridiculous and conveyed a deeper sense of meaning than a first listen would indicate. They were, to use the title of a later Jazz Butcher album, Glorious and Idiotic. And, once I finally singled the album In Bath of Bacon out from the all of the others, I was a fan. Over the years his music became a very personal soundtrack to my life, one that I didn’t share with too many people.

There’s a lot of silliness in Pat Fish’s lyrics. He sings about Bigfoot, and goldfish, and buffaloes, and Shirley MacLaine, and alcohol. A whole lot of alcohol. But somehow he manages to never, at least in my opinion, devolve into simply a novelty act. Given his subject matter, this was a real possibility. But he rounded his oeuvre out with a lot of more serious fare, what I once heard him refer to as ‟Art Misery Songs.” These were a mix of heartfelt ballads and social commentary.He played with a wide variety of musicians. David J, bass player for Bauhaus and Love and Rockets was on two of the early albums. But his most regular collaborator was Max Eider, a guitarist with a singular, jazz-influenced style. Max left the band in the mid-80s and then rejoined around the turn of the millennium. The albums released between these events were good, but something, specifically Max, was missing. It was their collaboration as artists that lifted both of them. 

I saw the Jazz Butcher in 1988 at Peabody’s Down Under in Cleveland, and again at the same venue in 1992. As I related in a previous blog, ‟While there I had Pat autograph the booklet that came with my CD copy of Scandal in Bohemia/Sex and Travel. These were his second and third albums, the ones David J played bass on. At the time this was a very rare German import that I had managed to get my hands on, and for years the only way these two albums were available. When I showed it to Pat his response was something like, “Where the bloody hell did you get this? I've barely seen one of these.”

I saw them twice more, in 2000, once at a small bar in Erie, and again the next night in Pittsburgh at the Millvale Industrial Theater. This tour featured Max and Mr. Jones, the original drummer, so of course I got both of them to sign the booklet.

Pat Fish, Max Eider, and Mr.Jones in Erie

It took another twelve years, but I finally got David J to sign it as well.


Pat had a Facebook page, and few years ago I reached out and we became friends on that platform. Obviously, I didn’t really know him. But, he would occasionally comment on one of my posts, or wish me a happy birthday. He was friends with Alan Moore, of Watchmen fame, among many other things. A few years ago I reviewed Alan’s book, Jerusalem, in which he mentions the Jazz Butcher. Pat commented on my post in a very surreal, meta kind of way.

So this feels like a loss to me. Not really personal, except for the role his music has played in my life. I’ll miss just knowing he’s out there somewhere in England, still performing, singing ridiculous songs about elephants and broken hearts.

There’s an early Jazz Butcher song called Big Saturday, and though I forget all of the details, he told us in Cleveland in 1988, that it was cowritten by a girl he had loved who had died. He then performed the song Angels, in her honor, wherein he says, ‟It’s always Saturday in Heaven... Just one big Saturday in Heaven.” The song has broken my heart just a little every time I’ve heard it since.

https://youtu.be/Cj6lU1ykzsA

Thanks, Pat! Thanks for the music, and the laughter, and the art, and the misery. I know the devil is your friend, but what if there were angels?

Thursday, September 24, 2020

To Bring You My Love

I remember specifically the first time I heard To Bring You My Love twenty-five years ago. I was visiting an ex-roommate’s new apartment. We had spent years building a friendship based on comic books and music, something that has never changed. We were hanging out in his room. He had just picked up the CD and knew I would want to hear it.


It wasn’t the first time I had heard PJ Harvey, of course. When we lived together he had purchased all three of her prior albums, and I had seen the few videos that MTV played on 120 Minutes. While I liked Dry and Rid of Me neither had really captured me as a fan at that time. But something about To Bring You My Love resonated immediately. The sound grabbed my ear in a way her previous efforts had not. I probably couldn’t have told you that day that this would become one of my desert island albums, but I knew I was instantly in love.



I don’t have the language to describe it in musical terms, and I realize that so much of what I love about it is personal and subjective. The word that comes to mind for much of the album is resonant. Polly’s voice is deep and echoing, vulnerable and powerful at the same time. The rhythms that underlie this album, on guitar as well as the drums, feel disjointed to me with emphasis in unusual places. I want to say syncopated, but my musician friends may disagree. The bass notes rumble with distortion, reverberating in the chest like a broken heart.


But for me it is not just the sonic qualities that make the album special. Through her lyrics and imagery PJ creates a mythic landscape worthy of Faulkner and O’Connor, gothic and rural in texture. Depending on the song Polly embodies the wronged woman, or maybe an angel working for God, or maybe a woman imbued with magic who you believe has her voodoo working. There is mourning: for lost relationships, lost children, and a loss of faith. She begins the album by telling us she has laid with the devil and by the end you not only believe her, you realize it’s the devil who is in trouble. There is righteous power in her voice, a feminine power, that of the goddess. When she says ‟I think I’m a mother,” I hear her stating not a biological fact (though that is certainly implied), but invoking the Mother who is the matrix of creativity, as well as destruction.


On that first listen at my friend’s apartment I remember saying to him, ‟I think she’s been listening to a lot of Nick Cave.” That wasn’t meant as a criticism or complaint. In addition to there being a sonic resemblance Cave, at that point in his career, had spent a lot of time creating music in a similar narrative world. For whatever reasons, this is a world that speaks to me. Some of it is, no doubt, just the movies and books I’ve been exposed to. Some of it is having grown up in a northern Appalachian home with our own folk tales of love and murder and angels and devils. It’s a world I feel in my bones.


Not long after this PJ and Nick recorded a duet version of the classic folk tune Henry Lee as part of his Murder Ballads album (the internet tells me Henry Lee, like many traditional ballads, has many different versions, and is based on a tune called Young Hunting). In the video PJ and Nick are dressed in matching black suits, emphasizing their shared traits. The video fairly sizzles with sexual tension and not long after they engaged in a brief love affair in real life. Nick managed to get a lot of songs out of it for his next album, The Boatman’s Call (well worth your time to listen to), while Polly, like with most things in her personal life, simply never talked about it.



This was also a period where PJ was experimenting with her stage persona. During Dry and Rid of Me she typically performed wearing basic black jeans and leather jackets, with her hair pulled back severely and very little makeup. To Bring You My Love was kind of her Glam period, in dress if not in content. On the album cover and in the video for Down By the Water she has big hair and bright red lipstick that matches her shimmery ballgown. In concert she would sometimes wear gold catsuits, or a bright pink bodysuit and gaudy fake eyelashes. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for stage costumes, as my love of Bowie and Alice Cooper and Adam Ant, among many others, attest to. The live clips from this era are some of my favorites of hers.


From Hooligan Magazine

I’m sorry to say I didn’t get to see PJ on that tour. If my research is correct she has only ever played the Pittsburgh area twice in her thirty year career: once supporting Live at Star Lake (or whatever it was being called at the time), and once supporting U2 at Mellon Arena. I have seen her several times since then in Washington DC. My first time was for her next album, Is This Desire?, at the 9:30 Club. I saw her twice when she was touring for Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, shows which bookended her jaunt with U2. The first of these ranks among my top concert experiences ever. In late 2000 PJ knew she was going to be touring with U2. She wanted to break in a new live band. Rather than mount a major solo tour she played a few, small, and relatively unannounced shows at small venues. I was on a PJ mailing list at the time and found out about a show at the Black Cat in DC, and somehow manged to score tickets. The Black Cat, while having a history of some pretty amazing shows, is essentially a small bar. I stood about three feet from the stage and about five feet from PJ. She brought me, and everyone else in the room, her love that night.


The next time I saw her was about ten months later with the same band at the 9:30 Club the night before 9/11. I remember reading a statement from her at the time that she had been awakened in her hotel room by what turned out to be a plane crashing into the Pentagon.


A trait PJ shares with some of my other favorite artists, most notably David Bowie and Nick Cave, is her willingness to experiment and never stand still with her music. Her career has been a constant change of sound, ideas, and presentation. This keeps an artist from getting stale, but also runs the risk of losing fans if they veer too far from made you love them in the first place. While I am still interested in PJ’s career, and will no doubt own whatever she releases next on the day it comes out, I do fully admit I have not been a big fan of her last few albums. She hasn’t done anything to just drive me away, but her output has not spoken to me in the same way as in the past. I’m a different person now, and so is she. The next album may be my favorite thing ever. Or not. I’ll still be there with her in some capacity.


While I have not been as enamored of her later work she has recently been giving new life to some of her old. This summer saw the release of the Demo versions of her first album, Dry. These were recorded by Polly on a 4-track recorder in her home studio, I believe before she had a recording contract. They are sparse, and bring a new experience to these seminal and formative songs. This not the first time we have heard her demos. My memory tells me that she was, ultimately, not happy with the production of her second album Rid of Me and not long after its release she also released and album entitled simply 4-Track Demos, featuring her own recordings of most of the album (plus a couple of extras that didn’t make the cut.


This year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of To Bring You My Love, and a couple of weeks ago she released the demo version. What struck me most upon listening to it was just how fully formed it was in this early raw version. For many of the tracks, most of them actually, the differences between this and the official release are incredibly subtle. I can tell these are different vocal tracks, but mainly because this is one of the albums I’ve listened to most in my life. The guitars and drums are nearly identical. The biggest difference is on the final song of the album, The Dancer. On the demo version the guitar has a Spanish Flamenco tone and rhythm, which was replaced by a more droning, quickly strummed electric guitar. What was weird when I heard this though was that I had to actually go back and check to make sure I wasn’t imagining this. The Flamenco guitar was indeed not present on the version I was familiar with, but somehow it had been implied by the rest of the song to such a degree that I imagined hearing it, so uch so that the Demo version, while different, still sounded like something my brain already knew. Now, by this point of her career Polly had access to better equipment and had more studio experience than with demos for Dry, and that probably accounts for a lot of the fidelity of this project, but I think a lot of it was simply the strength of her vision of what this album was meant to be from very early on.


In some ways I’m disappointed with the Demos version. I was expecting something more raw, or something in a more formative state. It’s so close to the studio album that only someone really, really familiar with it can really hear the differences. I guess I am that person, and digging through the subtleties of this has been rewarding, just in a different way than what I expected. It is insight into the process of one of my favorite artists, and taking it along with the demo versions of PJ’s first two albums it’s fascinating to see how quickly she grew, as a songwriter and musician as well as in confidence and skill.


To Bring You My Love was a critical success, if not a giant financial one. At the end of that year it was celebrated as the ‟Best Album of the Year” by the majority of the music press. I remember seeing PJ on many music magazine covers (remember those?).  MTV, who I’m sure played the video for Down by the Water at least twice nominated it for ‟Best Female Video” at their annual awards show. But that was the year of Alanis Morrisette and Jagged Little Pill and no one else stood a chance to get that little astronaut statue.


Twenty-five years later it's still an album that is lodged in my heart and brain. Like all of the music we claim as our own, the music that defines portions of our lives, my thoughts and feelings about it are wrapped up in things beyond the songs. It became a part of the soundtrack of my life at that, simply because I played it so much. It still reminds me of specific people and places and events. Playing now involves a little bit of time travel to a special time.


Thanks, Polly.



To Bring You My Love on Spotify

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.