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I make no secret of my love for the TV spectacle otherwise known as "The Bachelor." We have had some incredible journeys together. And yes, I'm in it for the right reasons.
What I love about "The Bachelor" is that it manages to transcend its utterly insane premise (man/woman searches for love by dating 25 people simultaneously, publicly breaks up with each one at a "rose ceremony") with a mix of sincerity, self-awareness and psychological spectacle.
"The Bachelor" is widely regarded as the ultimate of lowbrow culture, and yet there's this strange fact: it's the most widely watched show among 18-49 year olds who make more than $150,000 a year.
I'm not the first to wonder this, a few months back the Bookends column at the New York Times debated just this topic (as well as revealing the etymology of "highbrow," which got its start in the eugenic-leaning "science" of phrenology. Yikes!)
Thomas Mallon argues that culture has benefited from the collision of art at all levels, noting for instance, "does anyone believe that the American short story has improved by making its initial appearance in literary quarterlies never seen by any brows but the highest?"
Pankaj Mishra argues that the profit motive has leveled out the brows, forcing auteurs to be crowd-pleasers, and obliterating individuality.
Personally, I think the explosion of voices in the world brought to us by the infinite choice of the Internet means that anyone hoping to be heard must also, by necessity, entertain. Even those aspiring to be highbrow and express complexity of thought and emotion must also bow to the reality that they need to capture eyeballs.
What do you make of this? Are we worse off because it's hard to imagine a Proust, or even a David Foster Wallace, gaining cultural ground in 2015? Or is a muddling of brows a sign that culture is democratizing?
Art: Retrato del Cardenal Inquisidor Don Fernando Niño de Guevara by El Greco
I find this phenomenon pretty terrifying, especially as someone who has blogged for eight years, written over a thousand posts, and said various things over the years that have either been stupid or completely misperceived or both.
Whatever you make of whether the people in the article "deserved" what they had coming to them, I have a hard time seeing how Internet vigilante justice is something that is any way beneficial.
What do you think? Do you trust that the punishment fits the crime? And once a virtual mob starts, how can you stop it?
Art: The Battle of San Jacinto by Henry Arthur McArdle
Last week, musician and producer Thomas Wesley Pentz (AKA Diplo) teased his upcoming collaboration with Missy Elliot on Snapchat, a video-sending service that’s being used as a new method of digital promotion among musicians. The video played a snipped of the track over a popular animated illustration by Rebecca Mock, a celebrated artist who has worked with The New York Times, The Walrus magazine, Nautilus online publication, and many more. Upon calling out Pentz on twitter for neither requesting permission to use her work or giving her credit, Mock was lambasted by Pentz and his followers. Much of the response Mock received is considered harassment, some of which is sexual in nature. He later uploaded the video to instagram, including a credit to her. The public side of the situation lasted about 2 days, resulting in a number of deleted tweets, a swell of write-ups, an apology of sorts, and potential legal action. Please be aware, the below contains potentially triggering verbal abuse.
.@diplo has shared one of my .gifs as background art for his music w/out asking me. my work isn't your clip art dude. don't sample my gif.
How many times have you heard someone attempt to describe the internet? For me, it typically involves poor metaphors accompanied by wild gesticulation around my head – it’s a vast semi-connected mess of stuff that relates to other stuff, but not necessarily in a way that we see or care about. It has a constant and amorphous give and take of action and reaction nested so far up, down, and around that conventional structures such as copyright law are brutally difficult to apply. There’s plenty of argument as to why that lack of structure can be a useful thing, but I bring it up because it means we have to operate under our own rules built out of even older structures, such as morals and good faith. These rules aren’t written anywhere nor could they be as I can’t think of a place other than Google where literally everyone goes, so they propagate, much like videos of felines, virally; an evolutionary ethos if you will.
Where I’m going with this is even though the way the letter of the law, especially when it comes to copyrighted material, doesn’t easily shake out now that someone’s creation can be a collection of pixels which is technically “reproduced” every time it’s viewed on another screen – there are easily recognizable values to adhere to in the use and application of this material. This is something Pentz should have been aware of and therefore, disregarded by choice.
“The Aftershocks” by Rebecca Mock
What we get are a lot of slip-ups; someone will post something without credit and people will correct them. They’ll apologize then edit, credit, or pay and we’ll move on feeling, ideally, more knowledgable and satisfied with the overall experience. Unfortunately, this isn’t a common thing as one of the many, perhaps not well-exercised, behaviors that the internet enables is the speed with which we will share/retweet/reblog something. As an example, consider the number of times you’ve seen the first two panels of KC Green’s “On Fire” strip from his comic Gunshow without credit; it’s probably a lot. Community-based (read = not creator-based) aggregator platforms such as imgur, reddit, 9gag, and in the case of Pentz, Wifflegif, make it extraordinarily easy to view the action of sharing an animated gif or similar content as harmless fun. Nine times out of ten, I’m right there with you, but we have to acknowledge that we, as consumers of media, often take for granted the time and effort put into creating something and the fact that the little “share” button has become the preeminent way we show support.
Now, is this a bad thing? No, of course not – it’s a tool. But this tool isn’t a static object, it’s a means of communication that has foundational effects on how what is communicated is perceived, discussed, and framed. Sharing a book or a research paper is widely immune to this because you’re handling a source material that, by law, should be properly credited – all t’s crossed and i’s dotted. However, when a blog post (such as this one) is shared on twitter or facebook, there’s no guarantee that every embedded image is credited, and each subsequent sharer is less and less likely to ensure the inclusion of that credit. Instead of turtles, it’s the possibility of a passive application of the nonchalant disregard of creator ownership all the way down. Is it sometimes hard to tell how to approach this? Sure – but exercising a bit of caution can’t hurt.
Alright, where am I going with this, really?
Pentz should have known better is where this is going. For someone whose twitter feed is rife with easily digestible memes: images, gifs, hashtags used as inside jokes shared with millions, he is more than capable of knowing when something, like an image of a less-than-content cat with white text, is a product of the share-and-share-alike internet culture or when something is a labor of love and needs to be treated as such. As an experiment, I used Google’s image search, which allows you to make a query based on an uploaded image file, such as Mock’s “The Aftershocks”, embedded above. Here was my result:
Almost like magic, right? Just for the naysayers out there: I created a new profile on my computer to ensure there was no associated search data or cookies present and renamed the file to gif.gif instead of a uniquely generated file name from tumblr. I chose to not edit the metadata of the image assuming that the uploader at Wifflegif did the same. The search completed in half a second, pulling up Mock’s name, blog, and portfolio website as the top hits. I posit that this process was so easy that even a savvy producer of digital music working on a computer 24/7 could do it, but I’ve been wrong before. This was Pentz’s first error, and easily the most excusable as there would still be a way to make amends afterwards.
Unfortunately Pentz’s subsequent responses to Mock’s tweet calling him out and those of her supporters ruined any chance of recompense; some choice examples are featured below.
To me there’s a singular, and often under-discussed, place that all of these responses are coming from: Pentz’s feelings of entitlement. They come in readily customizable colors and sizes for all applications and can become quite pervasive if left unchecked; but the primary one here is that of being male.
Not only were Pentz’s responses abusive and flippant, they were wrapped in that soft nougat of everyday misogyny to make that made-to-serve blend we know as sexual harassment. It starts with a grotesquely sexually-charged rehash of a “have her cake and eat it too” strike aimed at Mock, moves to the emotionally abusive and gendered attack on Mock’s collaborator Hope Larson with some targeted misuse of a rather politically-feverish hashtag, slips back into cut and dry sexual harassment, and finishes with a brazen apathy for the effect Mock and her supports will have on his life complete with a touch of his, now patently gross, misuse of politically charged hashtags. Was that exhausting to read? Just try to imagine how it must have been for Mock. I doubt that the gendered form in which this harassment was conducted would have occurred if Mock and Larson were male; Pentz would’ve had to make do with attacks that were less sexual nature.
Clearly Pentz is of the “in for a penny, in for a pound” school of thought as it’s not only the comments directed at Mock that can be attributed to his entitlement.
Here’s where Pentz’s disconnect really hits home for me: he genuinely thinks what he has said and did wasn’t wrong and likely still doesn’t; we’ll get into his apology later. He exposed her art to his large number of followers, that’s a good thing right? Eh – yes and no. Sure, she may ultimately get more work out of this debacle – but that wasn’t Pentz’s choice to make. He did not receive consent from Mock to utilize her work as a means of promoting his own. Yes, many people saw her animation; but inside the frame of his own promotion – undermining her work and agency as an artist. The disregard of this socially required and well-known form of consent is the most worrying aspect of this situation to me as it’s the genesis of all other actions Pentz has taken. Further proof of this is him linking her instagram account to the permanent upload of the offending video as a tepid means of offering credit; no consideration was taken into how she uses her account (accord to Mock – it’s more of a personal scrapbook) and has only opened up more avenues for Pentz’s irate fans to harass her and her friends. Pentz just doesn’t seem to give a damn about how this situation is negatively affecting peoples’ lives and probably never will. So why did he care now? Why did he even engage?
Because he can and no harm will come to him. Voilà, meet entitlement’s secret ruler: privilege.
While scrolling through his twitter feed as this unfolded, I saw many of his fans decrying Mock’s first tweet as unwarranted, stating that she should have contacted him privately to address the issue. Sure – that seems reasonable enough, except…how? In preparation for this post, I spent a good hour or so hunting far and wide for contact information that wasn’t his social media platforms and found nothing to work with. All I turned up were two email addresses associated with his record label, Mad Decent; I sent a request for a statement into that void and doubt that anything will come of it. I don’t know what they expect of Mock, but I doubt that there’s some kind of secret society of people who have more than 5K followers on twitter that exists exclusively so they can contact each other privately.
At the end of the day, what we have is a clashing of two different worlds: the comics world and the music industry where nothing is one-to-one. Mock is a freelance illustrator who has to handle her own day-to-day business whereas Pentz likely has a team of people working under him to manage his various projects; he has plenty of literal and figurative gates barring people from interacting with him in a way that he deems unfit. It’s hard to see this as a problem of any kind as both exist and work in a normal situation, in context to their respective fields. However, for this you simply need to take a look at their twitter followers to see that Pentz has been happily surrounded in an echo chamber of support; it’s impossible to meet an aggressor on the field when their side approximately outnumbers yours 260:1. He doesn’t know how good he has it and doesn’t care how awful he’s made it for Mock.
Now, the apology (also screencapped here in case it gets removed). I don’t know about you, but I really believe that he wrote it with earnest and thought his way through each and every bizarre use of incomplete ellipses…then promptly cast the whole thing aside as if nothing had happened. Befitting his previous behavior, he excuses himself by stating “I’m sorry thats my nature” and “I’m just a joking person and i don’t even take myself serious so how can i take you guys seriously.” Half-hearted at best, Pentz’s attempt to address Mock’s concerns only highlight the problem at play: he never got her permission to use her art and doesn’t see that as a bad thing. Even worse were the provided explanations for his terrible behavior, ending the note with “so maybe this is also a future apology to everyone on the internet who follows me”. We’re left with Pentz telling Mock that this situation is little more than a future anecdote to him; he can’t even complete an apology to her without undermining the validity of her experience.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, I like to believe. There’s an opportunity for us to do better and find common ground when a dispute like this crops up. In this case, Pentz could have contacted Mock privately to diffuse the problem and address her concerns – creator to creator. Hell, in the most ideal of situations, they may have decided to collaborate in the future, sharing a laugh over the amusing way their paths crossed. However, thanks to Pentz – this is not to be. I urge you to check out this post from game designer Joshua A.C. Newman who resolved a situation with another game creator, Matt Rivaldi, over two similarly named titles hitting Kickstarter around the same time in a way that benefited both parties. He makes it look easy, because it is.
You can find Rebecca Mock’s work here and support her by purchasing a print or four. The image “The Aftershocks” was originally commissioned for an article on Medium.
Mariko and Jillian Tamaki‘s This One Summer was one of the most highly acclaimed graphic novels of 2014, popping up on a great number of top ten lists as well as winning an Ignatz Award for Best Graphic Novel. To say it was an attention grabber for the already heralded Canadian creators is an understatement.
Just last week, this tale of two childhood friends on the cusp of adolescence was awarded with the prestigious Caldecott Honor, being the first ever graphic novel to do so, along with the Printz Honor (and joins Gene Luen Yang‘s Boxers & Saints as the only other graphic novel to notch that award as well).
Mariko and Jillian were kind enough to join me for a brief Q&A regarding the recent wins and the creative process on this landmark work.
Where were you each when you learned you won the Caldecott Honor? Who called whom?
Jillian Tamaki: I was in bed.
Mariko Tamaki: I think we eventually texted each other about it.
Is there a sense of accomplishment or “I’ve made it” for winning such a prestigious award? Jillian, how does it compare to your Eisner nominations or the Ignatz award that This One Summer also received?
JT: The feeling is one of gratitude. I’ll never felt like “I’ve made it!” until I’m like a hunched-over old person still making things.
Is it more gratifying to get recognition outside of the world of comics, which you’ve done multiple times at this point?
JT: Both are gratifying. Honours granted by librarians are special to me because it represents a knowledgeable, discerning audience that actually works with young people. Honours granted by comics people are special because it means perhaps I am creating something of value within the medium.
Were you relieved that you both got nominated for this award, rather than one or the other as in some past awards?
MT: When one of us gets nominated, I generally see it as a misconception of how graphic novels work. So, yes.
Do awards matter to you? I hope that’s not a weirdly loaded question.
JT: Um, they are nice, yes. Especially when there is money attached, because comics are not lucrative. But I try to not let outside validation determine the micro and macro decisions I make as a creative person.
MT: I guess awards help sales. There are many awesome comics and books out there that have not been nominated, so we’re in good company either way.
This One Summer ended up on many top ten lists for 2014…how does it feel to have one of the most critically acclaimed OGNs of the year among fans? Is it rewarding to see that fans of more mainstream comics are picking up and really enjoying works like yours?
JT: Of course!
As cousins, were you making comics as kids together? When did you decide to pursue sequential art collaboratively?
MT: We lived in distant cities as kids, so there was little comics making. It wasn’t until we made our first mini comic of Skim back in…2006 (?) that we started working together.
How long has this idea been gestating, and how long did it take to actually script and illustrate This One Summer?
JT: It took probably 3 years in total. It took a year of solid work to do the final artwork. MT: Roughly 6 months to script. Plus changes.
What was your working process on This One Summer? Especially since I understand you don’t live near each other? Was there an initial script first and then an art stage, or was it done in a more section by section basis?
JT: We Skyped a lot. Mariko scripts the dialogue with occasional actions. I do a sketch version. We edit it together, a lot. Then I do the final art.
Where were your individual high and low points in the creative process of this book? Were there any parts that drove you crazy or were difficult to pull off?
JT: The most difficult part was the editing of the sketch phase. As it is with any book, I’m sure.
When I started reading This One Summer, I almost thought it was autobiographical…do either of your personal experiences play a role in the story? Were any of the designs of the characters based on real people?
MT: Nope. There is an actual cottage area that inspired TOS, up in Georgian Bay, Ontario, which I highly recommend people visit.
What is it about the adolescent stage of life that attracts you?
MT: I think most people spend their whole lives trying to figure out how and what to be. As I understand it, it’s not something that stops with adulthood. I think adolescence is interesting because it’s the start of this process. Everything is just that much more on the surface that it is when you’re an adult.
I love how you use Rose and Windy watching horror movies as a kind of metaphor for seeing the world in a more adult way…are you big classic horror movie fans, or how did that aspect of the story develop?
JT: No, I am a chicken. It was easy for me to draw the freaked-out kids.
Your capturing of the pre-teen voice and body language is wonderful…where do you pull that from? Is it based on your memories, or did you embark on any research?
JT: I am fascinated by the storytelling potential of bodies. We are very attuned to what they are communicating and I like to stretch that to effect. Sometimes I get very hung up on tiny details that I’m sure no one will see, but I think it adds up to an overall sensitivity.
MT: I am a chronic eavesdropper. Although the other day on the subway I was pretty sure some kid called me out for doing it so, I’m going to have to learn to be a little less gleeful listening to teenagers talk.
Rose’s family is fraying apart for much of the book. Why was it important to highlight the onset of familial strife, particularly seen from the eyes of a younger character?
MT: Who doesn’t have a little familial strife in their lives these days? It would seem kind of weird to me not to include it, whether writing about kids or adults.
This One Summer is considered to be all-ages, but there are different elements that clearly resonate with adults, which sort of mirrors how Rose is beginning to see the world as well. Who do you feel is the intended audience for the book? Or do you feel like This One Summer is fairly wide-ranging in its appeal?
JT: I only think of a few ideal readers when I work on the book. Some of those readers are real people, some are imagined. They’re usually not young kids. Some are teenagers. Most are my age.
MT: I think a books audience is self selecting. I don’t see a 10 year old reading this book cover to cover. Beyond that I think the idea is to write about not for.
What made First Second your choice of publisher, and why return to them after Skim, specifically?
JT: Groundwood, which published SKIM, put out TOS in Canada, and they have done a wonderful job. First Second made sense in that they had very strong ties to the American library system, in addition to the Macmillan network. But I think it has been excellent having both publishers, as Groundwood can prioritize the Canadian industry. After all, we are Canadian authors and the content is largely Canadian.
How are your next individual projects coming along? Mariko, I understand you’re working on a new YA novel, and Jillian it sounds like you’ve got some more “irons in the fire” in addition to your work on Adventure Time.
JT: My webcomic “SuperMutant Magic Academy” comes out in book form in April from D&Q. Also in April, Youth in Decline is publishing a short story of mine called SexCoven. It will be part of their “Frontier” series.
MT: My next prose YA book, Saving Montgomery Sole, will be released by Roaring Brook/Penguin Canada in Winter 2016.
This One Summer is available through First Second and on sale at your local book retailer
A friend pointed me toward Sigrid Nunez's New York Times review of Emily St. John Mandel's popular and award-winning novel Station Eleven. He said it expressed some of the reservations that caused me to stop reading the book, and it does — at the end of her piece, Nunez says exactly what I was thinking as I put the book down with, I'll confess, a certain amount of disgust:
If “Station Eleven” reveals little insight into the effects of extreme terror and misery on humanity, it offers comfort and hope to those who believe, or want to believe, that doomsday can be survived, that in spite of everything people will remain good at heart, and that when they start building a new world they will want what was best about the old.
I don't mean this post to be about Station Eleven, because I didn't finish reading it and for all I know, if I'd finished reading it I might disagree with Nunez. I bring it up because even if, somehow, Nunez is wrong about Station Eleven, her points are important ones in this age of popular apocalypse stories.
Let me put my cards on the table. I have come to think stories that give readers hope for tolerable life after an apocalypse are not just inaccurate, but despicable.
We are living in an apocalypse. Unless massive changes are made in the next few decades, it's highly likely that the Earth's biosphere will alter drastically enough to kill off most forms of life. At the least, life in the next 100-200 years is likely to be less pleasant than life now (if you think life now is pleasant). Writing apocalypse stories that mitigate these facts lulls us into complacency. Such stories are their own form of global warming denialism. (Of course, if you are a global warming denialist, go right ahead — write and enjoy such stories!)
Tales of surviving an apocalypse give us comfort fiction, a fiction predicated on identifying with the survivors and giving the survivors something worth surviving for.
It is highly unlikely that you, I, or anybody else would be a survivor of an actual apocalypse, and it is even more unlikely that, were we to survive, the post-apocalyptic world would be worth staying alive to see. To imagine yourself as a survivor is to evade the truth and to indulge in a ridiculous fantasy. To imagine yourself as a successful survivor — someone who doesn't suffer terribly before finally, painfully dying — is even worse.
To tell stories of apocalypse that seek to be at least somewhat realistic and yet are not as painful as stories of actual, historical catastrophes is sheer escapist fantasy. Apocalypse stories that do not want to be escapist fantasies must be as harrowing and painful as the most awful stories of the Nazi Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge's atrocities in Cambodia, the Rwandan genocide.
I'd think this would be obvious, but many people ignore the fact: to tell a story of an apocalypse is to tell a story in the midst of mass death.
To tell a story of apocalypse that is not limited to a small area — to tell a story of the end of the whole world — is to tell a story about mass death on a scale far beyond the worst historical atrocities.
To tell a story of apocalypse in which people's lives are not even as difficult or painful as the lives of millions and millions of people currently alive on Earth moves beyond escapist fantasy and into the realm of idiotic irresponsibility. (This, perhaps, is why some of the better apocalypse/dystopia stories are written by people who are not middle-class white Americans.)
In Eyes Wide Open, Frederic Raphael reported Stanley Kubrick's assessment of Schindler's List: "Think that was about the Holocaust? That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t."
Obviously, the appeal of such stories is that they let us indulge in the fantasy of success. We love rags-to-riches stories for the same reason. We love stories about our soldiers wiping out lots of evil enemies because we escape imagining ourselves to be the enemy in the sniper's sights.
Who is this "we"? That's a good question for any story that aims for an audience to identify with protagonists, but it's especially good to ask of apocalypse stories. Do you read Left Behind imagining yourself to be one of the good, one of the saved? Do you read Station Eleven imagining that yes, you too could find a way to make a life for yourself in this world?
Or do you imagine yourself among the diseased, the tortured, the suffering, the unsaved, the dead?
"But," you say, "such stories offer us visions of human goodness even in the face of adversity! They alleviate pessimism. They help us to hope."
And that is why they are detestable.
The popular Anne Frank statement that Nunez alludes to in her Station Eleven review — "I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart" — was not written in Bergen-Belsen. The story of Anne Frank is not complete until you tell the story of her and her family's suffering and slow death in a concentration camp. A survivor who claimed to have talked with Anne said she was weak, emaciated; that she suspected her parents to be dead; that she did not want to live any longer.
(If you want a happy ending, stop your story before the end.)
To write a story in which apocalypse is not especially awful — or is, even worse, somehow desireable — does nothing to help prevent the apocalypse we face, the apocalypse we live in.
Mass death should not be a self-help allegory.
I may feel so strongly about this because I grew up amidst (and still live around) militia culture, and militia cultists love to fantasize about the end of the world. They don't just dream; they try to live it. They stockpile food, ammo, weapons. They build shelters. They imagine all the ways they'll be heroes when the end comes. For some, it's literally a dream of The Rapture; for the less Christian fundamentalist among them, it's a kind of Rapture allegory, providing the same pleasures, the same confirmation of your own correctness. Apocalypse becomes not a horror but the opportunity to create the best of all possible worlds. Genocidaires always think their violent dreams are necessary, justified, virtuous.
The Walking Dead is popular with a lot of these folks. Step into a gun shop and you're plenty likely to hear at least one person talking about "the zombie apocalypse". It's a code phrase and an allegory: a code for the end of the boring world, an allegory for the time when the well-prepared (white, patriarchal) militia will ascend to its rightful place of honor, when the weak liberals and anti-gunners will die the sad deaths they so deserve, when it will be open season on all the zombies (read: immigrants, black people, etc.). Dreamers dream themselves among the survivors. They dream themselves into heroism. Instead of boring everyday life, they get to show their courage and strength and preparation.
Don't feel your life lets you express your inner heroism? Imagine yourself a survivor of apocalypse. Now you have a hero story.
Imagine yourself finally getting to use those tens of thousands of 5.56 rounds you stockpiled back when ammo was cheap. (You were one of the smart ones. Where are all the people who made fun of you now? They're dead, you're alive. You're the real man. Good for you. You win!)
We want stories to make us feel good about humanity, or at least about ourselves. We don't want realistic apocalypse stories.
That's what's behind so much of this dreck, isn't it? That somehow we know we're facing doom, and we don't want to feel bad about our own participation in that doom. We want doom to be on our own terms.
For the militia type, apocalypse stories are a way to imagine yourself into heroism. For the relatively wealthy and privileged, apocalypse stories are an opportunity to imagine our way out of the oppressions we benefit from.
(When I've assigned students to read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, there's always been someone who says, "This doesn't feel like science fiction. This feels real." True. And it's a real that hurts. Because it should.)
If you want to tell an apocalypse story, tell a story about well-intentioned people suffering and dying. Tell a story about people like yourself not only being helpless in the face of catastrophe, but being witless progenitors of it.
(One of my favorite apocalypse stories is Wallace Shawn's The Fever. It's a story of the apocalypse of a well-intentioned man.)
Don't tell a story about how people like yourself are such great survivors. In truth, they probably aren't, and indulging in a fantasy of your own people's survival is breathtakingly arrogant in a story set amidst mass death.
(If the effects of your imagined apocalypse are less painful than the effects of Hurricane Katrina, you are writing despicable kitsch.)
I'm not saying tales of apocalypse are inevitably drivel, or even that they have to be a parade of endless horror, brutality, and suffering (though they should probably be mostly that). I'm saying we don't need apocalypse kitsch any more than we need Holocaust kitsch.
Watch the movies Grave of the Fireflies and Time of the Wolf. One is a historical film about the firebombing of Tokyo, the other is about a near-future apocalypse, its cause unknown, its effect coruscatingly clear. It's these films' affect that is most interesting to me, the ways they show disaster and the response to disaster, the ways they make you feel, and what those feelings are. These are not nihilistic stories, they don't deny human compassion and even goodness, but they also don't soft-pedal the suffering that happens with the end of a world.
Or think of it this way: If you had a time machine and could go back to Anatolia before 1915, Germany in the mid-'30s, Cambodia in the early '70s, Rwanda in the early '90s — if you could go back to those times and write stories, what sort of stories would you write? Stories of people surviving impending apocalypse?
If you want to tell stories to help prevent the extinction of the biosphere, don't tell stories that make that extinction seem bearable.
If you want to imagine the end of the world, realize what you are imagining.
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Brought to you by Publishers Weekly, it’s More To Come, the weekly podcast of comics news, interviews and discussion with Calvin Reid, Kate Fitzsimons and The Beat’s own Heidi MacDonald.
In this week’s podcast, the More to Come crew discuss Charlie Hebdo, the attack on its offices and its cultural context as well as comics publisher IDW purchasing Top Shelf, Reed Pop buying Emerald City Comic Con and much more on PW Comics World’s More To Come.
‘The possible’s slow fuse is lit
By the imagination’
– Emily Dickinson (Franklin, 1999: 608)
When back in the 1990s I started doing research into women’s careers I was struck by how many respondents apologized for not having had a ‘career plan’ or indeed for not having a career at all. When I returned to these respondents seventeen years later I was curious about what had happened to their dreams, and wondered if they had been fulfilled, or somehow shattered. However, I soon realised that these were all the wrong questions, based on assumptions about women having long-term, guiding visions that either work out or fail. But it wasn’t like that. Many spoke of luck, of falling into their careers, and of being in the right place at the right time – or the wrong place at the wrong time. Such explanations might have served to highlight diffidence or modesty that is seen as socially desirable or to explain trajectories that respondents felt were more meandering than purposeful. Or it could be that in a society that values goal orientation and strategic decision-making, the lack of a clear end-point is a bit embarrassing. However, without clearly articulated plans and dreams, the achievement of these visions was a moot point.
Instead, the stories I heard were about how the women continuously responded to their changing contexts, making a myriad of incremental adjustments as the structures, cultures, and ideologies that informed their choices evolved. Most did mention moments of success or failure, such as Rachel finally being able to move her law firm out of her front room, or Silvia whose hotel business suddenly ground to a halt as foot and mouth disease swept through the English countryside. But no one spoke of her career as a delineated, bounded entity that could be fixed or judged in its entirety.
Highlighting the idea of organizational strategy as emergent (in contrast to conventional wisdom of the day which saw it as wholly rational), Henry Mintzberg drew on the metaphor of the potter. Without a clear picture of the final product, she uses her accumulated skill, knowledge, and touch to mould her pots, watching them take shape beneath her hands:
At work the potter sits before a lump of clay at the wheel. Her mind is on the clay but she is also aware of sitting between her past experiences and her future prospects. (Mintzberg, 1987: 66)
Neither the potter nor the women in my research experiences unfettered choice; their horizons are not limitless and neither pots nor careers can look any way or be anything. Rather they are circumscribed, constrained, and enabled by what is seen to be possible at any given time. Given this moving, emergent picture, better questions would have been: How did respondents understand careers, where did these ideas come from and how did they envisage their own career-making within this broad landscape? To answer these questions I propose a new concept: the career imagination.
The career imagination attends to the idea of career as both a social and an individual process, cast and re-cast in the flow of time and across space. As my respondents narrated their careers, in 1993/4 and again in 2010, they painted rich and detailed pictures not only of what they did or the way they did it (or indeed what they were inclined to do), but also of the understandings that these actions, or propensities for action, were based on. I am calling these pictures the career imagination. It is a cognitive construct, articulated discursively, that defines and delimits what is possible, legitimate and appropriate, prescribing its own (sometimes competing) criteria for success. It is a local accomplishment, a product of a particular time, place and social circumstance, informed by experience and history.
Part of what I like about the term ‘imagination’ is its ordinariness. Situating the concept firmly in daily life gives it salience and purpose. Indeed, I find myself referring to career imagination, not just in academic discourse, but also in everyday conversations – unexceptional talk about, say, my parents’ working lives or what my own children see as their future possibilities. However, while this commonsense appeal is a great strength, it is also raises concerns precisely because in the course of our day we use the term in such diverse, even contradictory ways. On one hand we use imagination to refer to flights of fancy, thoughts that transcend everyday experience and understandings and take us to new places and untrammelled possibilities. My data contained many such examples, like Anthea who said she had always wanted to pan for gold! However, I am not using the term in this sense. The career imagination is a bounded concept, defining the limits of what a person sees as possible in career terms, and in so doing, also what is impossible.
As respondents considered what careers look like and how their own careers might be construed, they spoke of occupations and the trajectories they prescribed, underpinning values, the connection between career and other aspects of life. They reflected on the material rewards and career identities that their working lives might bestow upon them.
Although the concept connotes dynamism, it does not discount the many enduring elements in respondents’ (or indeed in any of our) stories. Thus old ideas don’t simply disappear as new ones come to the fore, but rather the career imagination continuously expands, accommodating, sifting, and sorting possibilities. It can thus be seen as a repository of history and experience, and a product of its particular time and place. Like the potter whose products carry traces of the past as she works in the present and into the future, it is at once steeped in the past, but alive to current contingencies and mindful of the things to come.
Headline image credit: Always standing, always reaching out by Broo_am (Andy B). CC BY-ND 2.0 via Flickr
Like many people across America, I was totally captivated by the podcast "Serial," which, if you haven't yet been accosted by a raving fan, is about a 1999 murder and hinges on whether you believe one of the two former teenagers at the heart of the case: Adnan, in prison for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, and Jay, whose (frequently changing) testimony put Adnan there.
One of the most compelling elements of the show is the extent to which its host, "This American Life" vet Sarah Koenig, very transparently wears her biases on her sleeve. She doesn't believe, or doesn't want to believe, that Adnan did it. He's charming, she likes him, and she doesn't seem to be able to fully bring herself to think he committed the crime. But she's up front about those feelings, and her journey in the show is a huge part of what makes it so compelling.
It's been fascinating to discuss this show with friends and coworkers, because to a large degree it's almost a Rorschach Test for the way you view crime, criminals, heck, even life and the truth. You learn a lot about people just by hearing their opinions and what they experienced in the past that contributes to their views.
For instance, I'm heavily influenced by a murder that took place in my hometown, where I knew both the murderers and the victim, and it doesn't surprise me at all, as it seems to surprise Koenig, that it's possible someone could be both charming and a murderer. I also to this day remember so many details of finding out about that murder in my hometown, which happened more than fifteen years ago, that I find it hard to believe that Adnan wouldn't be able to remember what happened on the day the police asked him about his missing ex-girlfriend. It wasn't just some random day.
Many people have written of the biases of the show, but one element of bias that I haven't seen fully addressed is the bias of the good story.
It's not a great story if we found out the guy who is behind bars for committing a crime is the one who committed the crime. If Koenig had discovered conclusive proof around Episode 2 that Adnan committed the crime, there wouldn't have really been a show, and certainly not the most popular podcast of all time. Sure, Koenig likes Adnan and that may have influenced her, but to me what really seemed to drive her was a sense on her part, even a hope, that there was more to the story. Consciously or unconsciously, in the absence of proving Adnan's innocence outright, she had every incentive to leave as many threads dangling as possible.
So while Koenig dove deep into possibly exculpatory inconsistencies in Jay's various testimonies (which, to be fair, were wildly inconsistent) and into things like whether there really was a pay phone at a Best Buy, other things that in Koenig's parlance were "bad for Adnan," like the letter from Hae that told him to back off and which had the words "I will kill" scrawled on it, and the "Mr. B." who pled the fifth at the grand jury, received scant attention. When she did dive deep into "bad for Adnan" threads they felt oddly tangential to the heart of the story, like whether Adnan absconded with mosque funds.
The facts as they have been presented certainly cast doubt on whether Adnan was fairly convicted, and if anything is gained from the popularity of the show, I hope a sober reexamination will take place. But I also lack confidence that the "bad for Adnan" threads were pursued, or treated, with equal vigor.
That's partly why I was equal parts compelled and unnerved when listening to "Serial," and extremely uncomfortable when reading Jay's recent interviews with The Intercept and wondering what Hae's family must think. These are real lives being disrupted and very painful memories being resurrected for a murky purpose. Is this entertainment? Journalism? An uncomfortable mixture?
And sure, let's get this mandatory part out of the way. Based on everything I have heard, I lean toward thinking Adnan committed the crime though am doubtful I would have voted to convict if I were on the jury. But it makes me uncomfortable to even type those words. Who am I to even have an opinion about all of this?
Carol P. Roman’s If You Were Me and Lived in … Hungary: A Child’s Introduction to Cultures Around the World is the thirteenth in her series briefly introducing young readers to our world’s diverse cultures.
On Friday New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio met with protestors to discuss their demands for police reform after the shocking death of Eric Garner and the controversial grand jury decision that followed. The name of the activists’ organization will sound familiar to any comics fan: Justice League NYC.
That this prominent group of social justice warriors would share a name with DC Entertainment’s leading super-team is no coincidence. Just check out the group’s logo, which features two African-American superheroes flying out of New York City through a graffiti-style logo. Dig even deeper into contemporary activism’s history and we see even more connections: Ferguson protestors formed their own Justice League over the summer, a leading progressive journalist writes at JusticeLeagueTaskForce.wordpress.com, and as pretty much everyone here knows, the Occupy movement made the V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes’ mask a global icon.
The role of comics in recent protests will no doubt be the subject of any number of academic papers, most of which will bear a punny coloned title like “DC Nation: From Social Relevance Comics to Social Change.” Yet before folks explore what all this means at greater length, I want to offer a quick note on how this phenomenon ties into comics’ uneasy relationship with the law.
Before Photoshop and Final Cut made it possible for anyone to transcend their innate limitations, comics offered a cheap and easy way for people to give a visible form to their wildest thoughts. They became pop culture’s analogue to law as the magic mirror of society — photos may have showed us how the other half lives, but in comics we could create the world of tomorrow, free from the strictures of budget, politics, injury, death, and the real world’s ineffective legal system. What’s more, comics also did away with the shadows and fog that even today make inquiries such as the Serial podcast so frustrating — in the comics world we know who is good, who is evil, and who will win; the big question is how good will triumph.
That sensibility is in comics’ DNA, to both good and ill effect. An unreflective transfer of the comics’ approach to seemingly intractable problems would at its most extreme result in moral nihilism, as violence becomes the standard means of removing any obstacle to achieving what is right. At the same time, the comics’ metaphorical blend of constructive critique and unbounded possibility helps explain why the social relevance comics of the 1970s weren’t as much of a break from the past as some might think. We can draw a straight line back from the O’Neil & Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow through to the Justice League, Shock SuspenStories, Captain America and Wonder Woman — and the same is true moving forward in time to today. Comics have always had the power to show us who we are and what we can be, and they are at their best when they resemble the magic mirror as ideally envisioned by Oliver Wendell Holmes – reflecting not just our own lives, but the lives of all people who have been.
Due to the well condensed and simplistic format, If You Were Me and Lived in … Peru: A Child’s Introduction to Cultures Around the World and the entire series can easily be the basis for further discussions of Peru, the Spanish language, cultures, traditions, historical sites and home life.
In October, comics veteran Patrick Broderick announced that he was returning to DC for an unnamed project after 20 years. A few days ago, he posted the below on his facebook page, requesting that people who are cosplay personalities or represent conventions who build their show to include cosplay and media guests should not invite him and went on to suggest that the inclusion of those individuals bring no value to the show and that the people in charge of these shows are not a positive force in comics. This is an open letter to Mr. Broderick, whose works includes: The Fury of Firestorm, Micronauts, Creature Commandos, Batman: Year Three and many others.
Dear Mr. Broderick,
Can I call you Pat? Cool – thanks. I want to talk to you about the you made comments a few days back that have drummed up quite a din in the comics world. I’m concerned that you haven’t really been keeping close tabs on what many folks have been discussing when it comes to cosplay at conventions and to a lesser extent, media/entertainment guests. Before we get into, let’s be clear: I think you and everyone who has sided with you it wrong as wrong can be; let’s talk about why.
Before I go further, I’d like to discuss the history of costuming at conventions and cosplay. “Cosplay” is a portmanteau of the words “costume” and “play” that was coined by Japanese reporter Nobuyuki Takahasi, who wrote up his experiences at the 1984 World Science Fiction Convention for the My Anime magazine. That was around time you were working on Sun Runners for Pacific Comics and Eclipse Comics, yeah? Secondly, it’s important to point out that it was at the 4th annual San Diego Comic-Con where their first masquerade was held – a now-common convention event where costumers are encouraged to show off their work. It was a big enough deal that June Foray (voice of Rocky the Squirrel) emceed. That was 1974, right around the time where you started working for DC, unless I’m mistaken.
Ackerman in his “futuristicostume”, designed by his friend Myrtle Douglas
To run the gamut, I want to know if you’ve heard of Forrest J. Ackerman – I hope so because even I have. For those unclear, Forrest “Forry” Ackerman (born in 1916) was the collector of science fiction books and movie memorabilia and, arguably, the most important science fiction fan to have lived. The influence of his work in the world of science fiction is nothing short of monumental; hell, he coined the phrase “sci-fi”. I’d also like to point out that he was costuming in 1939 – two decades before you were born. For the first ever World Science Fiction Convention, Ackerman showed of his slick duds, dubbed his “futuristicostume” – looking akin to an early superhero. He, in essence, was the first ever cosplayer. The point of all of this is that what cosplaying, as a pursuit and a sanctioned and supported activity, has been around in the convention scene essentially as long as you have, if not longer. Perhaps not to the degree that it is presently, but around nevertheless. You are saying that something that has been part of the very marrow of comic conventions for as long as you’ve been working in comics “brings nothing of value” and is “not helping the industry or [the] comics market”. How do you codify that arrangement?
Pat, I urge you to ponder where these statements are coming from. Who are these people not helping and what kind of help, exactly, does the comics market require? Additionally, what is your definition of the “value” that needs to be brought into a convention space to be worthy? I press you on this because I think your notions of what a convention should be and what they have, for the most part, evolved into are very different and that troubles you. Due to this disconnect, this is now how I read your request:
You bring nothing of value to the showsme. You’re not helping the industry or comics market me.
All of this is part and parcel to the true issue that your “request” is wrought with: entitlement. Not to beat around the bush, the first reason most comics pros will complain about cosplayers at conventions is that it detracts from their sales. I don’t truly know if this is your exact issue, but your voice is one of many such voices decrying the presence and the support of cosplaying at conventions; that cacophony is what I aim to address.
I’m sorry to break the news, but attendees at conventions owe you nothing. Like you, every attendee had to pay to be there and has their own agenda which does not always include dropping money on comics, toys, paraphernalia, or the various other items typically sold on the floor. Like buying anything, essentially anywhere – the choice of when, what, and how someone purchases is up to the consumer. I’m not trying to say that it’s exclusively on the the shoulders of the retailers and exhibitors to ensure that they make any sales at all; I’m saying that suggesting that one factor in the economic ecology of conventions is the problemis laughably narrow-minded and indicative of a dangerous unwillingness to take a step back from an exhibitor table and take a thoughtful look around.
Pat, would you say her passion is of no value?
What kind of help does the comics industry require? I think the most easily addressed need is that comics need more readers and you know – I think that’s (mostly) being worked on. Comics, especially those published by DC and Marvel are typically not very accessible to new readers. Runs spanning hundreds of issues, complex interwoven plot arcs, and more character death/rebirth/reboot than you could shake 52 sticks at. Other companies have made a far more concerted effort to accommodate with quality books, but they don’t yet garner the percentage of sales that the Big 2 get. However, the numbers are changing and that indicates a change in the interests of comics readers, and subsequently, the change in the demographic of comics readers. The biggest growing demographic in comics readership is women – especially teenagers. Quick poll: who is most likely to be cosplaying at a convention? You got it: women. I genuinely believe that these two factors, among others, are correlated. The more contemporary convention has more reasons for people to attend and one of those reasons is to cosplay. These spaces are for more than just comics now, especially at SDCC or NYCC which haven’t been for a decade or more, but that’s all part of knowing what show is best for your needs.
Pat, you ask that conventions that push cosplay and media guests as a main attraction shouldn’t invite you. You know, I don’t think any of them will have a problem with that.
Maybe your SDCC or NYCC just aren’t the sort of shows that you want to exhibit at anymore. That’s totally fine, feel free to check out this intense list of shows that run annually. You are sure to find something at least once (if not twice) a month that accommodates for your needs. That’s a personal preference, not a problem. Really, this whole thing can be a non-issue for you.
What irks me, however, is the aforementioned cacophony of pros shaking their proverbial fist at the generally younger attendees in their outfits and crying foul; all with the misplaced irritation Abe Simpson harbors against an atmospheric mass. This isn’t a generational thing, though age is absolutely a factor; it’s a blame thing. They’re desperate to pin one easily targetable group of people for being the genesis of change that it’s so easy to forget that an audience doesn’t have direct voice in how conventions are run. It’s not like cosplayers go to ReedPOP’s offices to tell Lance Fensterman that there needs to be more cosplay events or they’ll bust his kneecaps. There’s isn’t some super-influential underground society of geeky seamstresses who appear on the oaken boardroom table of San Diego Comic-Con’s planning committee demanding that the masquerade go two hours longer. The notion of blaming cosplayers for the changing climate of conventions is putting the cart before the horse then trying to blame the cart for the lack of motion.
What’s actually happening is that the passion of costuming, that’s existed as long as the modern American comics industry, has found a rejuvenated home with a younger demographic and conventions have, smartly, provided them a platform to celebrate that passion with other like-minded folks alongside dovetailing interests. This is thing that should be celebrated, not decried; quit trying to ostracize a huge group of potential new comics readers because they celebrate their interests differently. Literally any fandom that centralizes around comics have been revitalized by an active cosplay community. On the scale of expressing passion for a thing, spending months making a costume to wear at a convention is way up there, just under getting a very large and visible tattoo. It’s time to accept that buying original comic pages and attending panels aren’t the only ways to show that you’re a fan of something at a convention. I urge you to check out the #CosplayersAREfans tag on twitter to see tangible proof that people who cosplay buy more than enough at conventions.
I want to settle on a positive note, so I’m going to highlight one of the very best shows I attended this past year and why I think it was a perfect combination of cosplay, media guests, and comics. I’m talking, of course, about Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon, which runs annually in late March. First off – it’s pretty big: around 70,000 attendees. There’s a TON of space, so it’s easy to accommodate for cosplayer needs. In fact, there were 2 bookable fan meet-up spaces that were considered part of the official schedule. The size also affords the convention the ability to section off a large swath of the floor for their media guests so all it happens out of the way of the show floor, easing any confusion of congestion. All that said, I was blown away by the sheer percentage of exhibitors that were comics creators. It was easily 75%, the rest being a combination of games dealers, vendors, publishers, art collectives, and the alike. Additionally, they don’t skimp on their comics guest list – having a mix of 150+ comic writers, illustrators, and colorists already on the docket for the upcoming show in 2015. To top it all off, they ran the most successful campaign addressing the harassment of cosplayers – an unfortunately common problem at conventions. It was openly discussed, with promotion spread far and wide weeks before the event. Coupled with the prominent signage all around the show floor, ECCC’s “Cosplay is not Consent” campaign is an excellent example of a convention addressing a genuine problem appropriately with ease. It’s a brilliant show, Pat. You should check it out.
As my once-almost-editor David Harper often says, we’re all in this together. There’s the thought I always want to come from whenever I see this sort of attitude voiced by you and many others. There’s a good future available to us in comics and you’re holding us back from it. Thanks for reading Pat, I hope you reconsider your stance.
All The Best,
PS: If you really think selfies are the highest expression of narcissism, I suggest you don’t look at any European art after 1433 as Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Manis commonly thought to be the first self-portrait.
PPS: After finishing this letter, I noticed that you posted a followup to his original request. It elaborates on your point and it doesn’t change my response; your voice is once of many that needs to be addressed. However, there was one comment you made that drives me up the wall:
…but keep in mind that these shows started and continue to be [PG] rated family friendly events so consider the children who attend with their parents and the uncomfortable position you’re putting the parents in with your designs.
Sure, some of these outfits are a bit revealing, but have you taken a look at the majority of the canonical female-bodied superhero costumes DC and Marvel have to offer? Not much to work with there, Pat. Additionally, if you’re going to suggest that cosplayers should be cognizant of only presenting kid-friendly content, let’s be sure to take down every artists’ cheesecake pinup of Mary Jane Watson, Supergirl, Wonder Woman, or I don’t know – pick literally any female-bodied superhero and someone will be selling a print of her in a “sexy” (read: exploitative) pose. This is the only thing you’ve said I’m not willing to play ball with Pat. You want exclusively “child friendly” content at cons? Then you’re going to have to make sure nary an artist has visible work that falls outside this category and then we’ll talk. Please don’t act like cosplayers are the problem here; you’re holding them to a standard that straight-up doesn’t exist on the show floor. Pat, this is the first image I get when I do an image search for “Superheroine”. Tell me how that image is PG while the costume would not be.
The traditional publishing industry is located in one of the most liberal cities in America. On the whole its employees skew left.
Still, while homosexuality has been explored in YA novels for quite some time, it still says something that the cover for my friend Sarah McCarry's About a Girl felt like something new.
The traditional YA world pushed content boundaries in the '90s and '00s, becoming increasingly comfortable with realistic, even graphic portrayals of teenage sexuality. The industry also started putting racy covers on YA novels where sexuality was barely even a tangential part of the story.
And yet even with those boundaries redrawn, something as simple as two fully-clothed girls kissing on a cover is something that somehow has eluded the industry's norms.
We need diverse books, and one important step is for the publishing industry to get over its squeamishness about putting minorities and non-straight characters on book covers. Hopefully About a Girl is a sign that we're one step closer.
Here’s the sixth part of my interview with the late Steve Moore, with more to follow. The 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th parts are already online, along with some explanation of how the interview came about.
One note on the text, which is particularly relevant in this section, so worth repeating: As we went along, I would ask supplementary questions, which got inserted into the previous text. To make it clear where a question has been added in later, I’ve included little arrows for those subsidiary questions, like this: ->. Occasionally, there were further questions, which are indicated by an ever expanding length of arrow, like this –> or this —>. Hopefully this will help to understand how the interview unfolded. So…
PÓM: You were a young man in a very vibrant and modern London, at that time. Did you have any interaction with the kind of things we hear about it, like the emerging drug culture?
SM: Well, I had a couple of nice hippy bells [bell-bottom jeans, for those of you too young to know what he's talking about - PÓM] when I was working on Pow! (Ken Mennell was most derisive!) But in many ways I was more of a passive participant. I read things like International Times and Oz and I bought psychedelic albums by people like Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, and occasionally I’d go to hip bookshops like Indica and Compendium (and, of course, Bookends was quite hip, though that was 1972, rather than the late 1960s). But I didn’t go on protest marches and I rarely went to see bands or to events like the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at the Alexandra Palace (and I rather missed out on the ‘free love’ too, unfortunately). I listened to John Peel’s Perfumed Garden show on Radio London in the summer of 1967, and he encouraged listeners to meet up, wearing Perfumed Garden badges to identify one another. So I made myself a badge and when a meeting was announced on the radio at Greenwich Park I went off and met a few people. I’d guess there were about a dozen people there, one of whom was Phil Bevan, with whom I became quite friendly for a few years, and who also worked at Fleetway House for a while as an art assistant, shortly before I left. We produced a little booklet together for the fanzine market in 1971 called Doomlore, a rather twee fantasy story that I wrote and he illustrated, and he also contributed to the unpublished Orpheus #2. And we’d occasionally drop acid together.
From which you’ll gather that, if I had a fairly marginal involvement with the culture, I had an amiable relationship with the drugs. I first smoked hashish in 1969 with the set of friends I mentioned that had gathered round the founding of Dark They Were and Golden Eyed and, of course, they’re absolutely right when they say it can lead you to much more addictive drugs. In my case, it was tobacco. I only started smoking cigarettes as a result of smoking dope, and that was a habit I didn’t kick until 2000.
Hashish was something I mainly indulged in when it was easily available, as it was at Bookends and during the time I worked at and hung out at DTWAGE, especially in the final years in St. Anne’s Court, when it was delivered by motorcycle courier. Otherwise, friends would get it for me when they got theirs; I had very little contact with actual dealers. So a lot of my work in the first period of my comic career, from 1972 to the late 1980s, was written on dope; I seem to recall this was particularly the case on Warrior. These days I can’t work on it at all, but since I gave up smoking I’ve had to eat it, and that can have a tendency to just wipe out all inclination to work anyway. Especially the way I tend to overdo it.
There were psychedelics around in the late 1960s and early 1970s as well, of course, though I tended to be a bit timid about those. Where friends would say ‘I’m taking two (or three) tabs of acid!’ I’d tend to say ‘I think I’ll stick to one.’ As a result I rarely got completely blitzed, though I had some interesting experiences; but I think I liked to stay in control a bit too much (though that hasn’t stopped me, on occasion, eating so much hashish I passed out, or laughed so much I went into cataplectic fits). There were a few LSD trips, a couple with mescaline (if that was, in fact, what was in the tablet it was sold as) and rather more with psylocybin mushrooms, which are probably my favourite psychedelic, though I hardly ever indulge these days.
When things got tough at Bookends, toward the end, we resorted to amphetamines for a while, to get the work done, which isn’t at all a good idea; and, being available during the late 1970s when I was hanging out at DTWAGE, I indulged again for a little while (though never since). If someone offered me a free line of cocaine I wouldn’t say no, and I smoked opium once or twice, but it only put me to sleep and didn’t do anything. Heroin and barbiturates I stayed well away from, though, as I could see the damage they were doing to people I knew. So it’s really mainly been hashish. I’ve tended to steer clear of modern, laboratory-made drugs, preferring stuff that occurs naturally. But I’m really not into ‘drug culture’ the way some ageing hippies are. If somebody says ‘Oh, but you must try so-and-so!’ I just say ‘no’, these days.
And if you ask: ‘can drugs increase creativity?’ I’d probably say, on balance, that for me, they probably haven’t, though I know some people would have a different view; but they probably haven’t decreased it, either. I neither advocate nor oppose them. When they were there, I took them; when they weren’t, I got on without them. That’s life…
PÓM: You mentioned you thought some of the Chinese clubs might have been run by Triads. Did you have any proof of this, or indeed any contact with the Triads, as you became more immersed in Chinese culture?
SM: No, I can’t prove they were run by Triads, though I rather suspect it. The best I can say is that this is what’s known as ‘informed speculation’. But it turned out that my friend, the young kid who’d been working as a projectionist and letting me in to the movies for free, quite separately managed to get involved with the Triads, and not in a very pleasant way.
For reasons that will soon become apparent, I’m going to call him ‘Chang’, though that wasn’t his real name. Well, by the end of the 1970s, the cinema clubs were starting to close down, to be replaced by Chinatown video hire shops, which meant that I lost touch with my beloved Chinese movies until the advent of the home video market in the mid-1980s. It also meant that Chang lost his job. By then he was in his early 20s and married to a Chinese immigrant who’d illegally entered Hong Kong, and they had a baby, so without the projectionist job he then started working in a takeaway restaurant in Watford. When he was back in London, I’d occasionally meet him for lunch, often accompanied by his equally young Scottish friend ‘Peter’ (again, not his real name), who seemed nice enough. And then the lunches stopped, and we just sort of drifted apart.
Then a couple of years later, in the early 1980s, Chang suddenly turned up on my doorstep (I think on a Saturday morning), in something of a state, which I eventually realised was fear. So I got him on his own (my mother and brother were still here) and a rather complex story came out. It seemed that, like many Chinese, Chang was fond of gambling, and he told me he’d borrowed £500 from a Triad loan-shark to get himself a stake. Obviously, that was worth rather more back in those days than it would be now. I think Chang had been mainly gambling on arcade gaming-machines in Soho but, unsurprisingly, he’d lost all the money. I don’t know what the interest would have been – probably something like 10% a week – but now the Triads wanted their money back, and they meant ‘now’, not ‘soon’. So he was sleeping in his car and hoping they wouldn’t find him.
Chang, however, had a novel solution in mind, involving Peter – of whom, it seemed, I’d gained a rather mistaken impression. Instead of being the innocent young kid I thought, it turned out he was actually both gay (I hadn’t realised) and an armed robber, who sometime previously had attempted to mug a pensioner at Waterloo. Things went wrong, however, when the pensioner not only fought back, but started chasing him as well, at which point Peter turned round and shot the man in the head, leaving him in a vegetative state. He then fled to Thailand with his Thai boyfriend, and I think was about to return now that the heat had died down a bit.
So Chang’s plan was to turn Peter in for the £1500 reward that had been offered, and use the money to pay off his Triad creditor. The only problem with this plan was that the reward wouldn’t be paid out until a conviction was obtained, so he wanted to stay with me in the meantime, in the hope that the Triads wouldn’t look for him here.
I still have very mixed feelings about my reaction to this (I’m not sure it was my finest hour), but I’d had a fairly sheltered upbringing with no direct contact with the underworld, and I really didn’t want my aged mother opening the door to a bunch of armed Triad thugs if they turned up looking for Chang. Or my brother or myself, come to that. I asked Chang if there was anywhere else he could go, and he said he knew someone in Manchester (which itself was a Triad hotbed, so I’m not sure this was the best option). So I gave him a blanket and all the money I had in my wallet, which I think was about £70, and off he went. I never heard from him again, so I don’t know what happened about the plan to shop Peter to the police, or whether Chang sorted out his differences with the Triads. But I find it very difficult to think of a particularly positive ending to the story. Perhaps it’s better not to know…
So that’s as close as I got to the Triads and, frankly, even that was rather closer than I wanted to get. But I still sorta hope that Chang managed to get out of that scrape … somehow …
PÓM: What sort of amount of work were you producing at that time?
SM: I’ve a feeling things may have been a bit slack around 1975/76, and that may have been the period when for a few months I worked a couple of days a week at DTWAGE. Each year I had the annuals to carry me through from about September to February, and on average there’d be four or five books to work on. I also know I did a few projects that never saw publication – I particularly remember doing a comic-strip adaptation of Stevenson’s Treasure Island for someone (which was the first time I’d actually read the book, and I found it far more enjoyable than I’d expected), but it never appeared. That may have been around this time. And it was probably around then that I was writing the movie scripts. But work started to pick up with House of Hammer, and then at the beginning of 1977 there was 2000 AD and in 1978 Hulk Comic, followed by Dr Who and Warrior. So the end of the ’70s and the beginning of the ’80s was one of my busiest periods of comic-book writing. I never made a fortune and (as I may have said earlier), if I’d had a mortgage to pay and a family to support I would have been in some difficulty. But I had enough to buy books, which has always been my first priority!
And apart from the paying work, I was writing stuff for Fortean Times as well. I had a regular oriental column around then called ‘Tales from the Yellow Emporium’ (a pun on the legendary Chinese ruler, the Yellow Emperor), and I’d write up archaeological stories, and occasionally more regular Fortean material. So I kept myself busy.
PÓM: Did you do any work for Dez Skinn while he was in charge of Marvel UK?
SM: Yes, quite a bit. Dez moved to Marvel UK shortly after HoH folded, and started Hulk Comic at the beginning of 1979. The first issue came out in March, so there would have been a bit of lead-time before then when we were working on this. Dez had the idea that we should do original material featuring Marvel heroes, but tailored for the British market, and I think this was around the time of the Hulk TV series with Lou Ferrigno. This was alongside the reprint material as well, so I think the early issues actually had two Hulk strips in each issue, one reprint, one original. I’m pretty sure I wrote at least some of the Hulk stories, though I can’t remember if I wrote all the original stories or shared them with Steve Parkhouse. The main thing I wrote for this, though, was Nick Fury, which I think ran for the first 19 issues. This was drawn by Steve Dillon, who was about 16 at the time, and it may well have been his first strip. I don’t think I actually met Steve when we were doing this. It was still the time when for the most part a writer would have no idea of who’d be drawing his script, and no contact with the artist; a situation that I think only really started to change when Warrior began, at which point I worked very closely with Steve.
I haven’t looked at Nick Fury for many years, so I’ve no idea how good it was, but I remember really enjoying writing it. The original strip had been one of my favourites, especially when Jim Steranko was drawing it, and it was the sort of non-superhero adventure that I liked to do. Writing it was also very influential on my later work, as the ‘tough dude with smart dialogue’ that was Fury influenced my characterisation of both Abslom Daak and the straight, non-underground version of Axel Pressbutton, though obviously in both cases this got twisted up with a lot of other weird stuff that went into them too.
Eventually the original strips were dropped, presumably because they were less economical than the reprints. And, of course, by then we were starting work on Dr Who Weekly, the first issue of which appeared in October 1979. So I just moved from one to the other, and kept on working for Dez.
PÓM: How aware were you of what else was going on in the UK comics business at that time? Pat Mills and the like seemed in particular to be trying to push what they could get away with.
SM: I was hardly aware of anything at all except what I was working on. Since I’d gone freelance I wasn’t really reading comics for pleasure and no longer considered myself a fan, and I’d never even heard of Pat Mills before 2000 AD. I’d really kept away from IPC, once I’d dropped writing the odd Slowcoach story for Whizzer and Chips (okay, apart from Mirabelle!) as I didn’t like their editorial attitudes when it came to handling scripts, and I much preferred to work for relatively smaller companies, rather than a big corporation like IPC, with its corporate attitudes. I gather that Pat was doing some fairly progressive stuff on Action and Battle, but Battle was a war comic, which of course was revolting to me, so I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it. And, besides, I really hadn’t envisaged working for IPC again until 2000 AD came along, which only interested me because it was an SF comic.
PÓM: Did you end up writing for any of those new titles? I’m primarily thinking of 2000 AD here, of course.
SM: It was basically just 2000 AD, though before we talk about that I’d just like to briefly mention the short-lived comic Tornado as it’s a good illustration of my relationship with IPC. Tornado was a mixed action and adventure comic that started in 1979, under the editorship of Kelvin Gosnell, and only lasted 22 issues. I was already working for 2000 AD by this time, and Kelvin asked me to contribute a short strip starting in Tornado’s first issue. He may actually have asked me for a historical story, but anyway I persuaded him to take a three-issue series, which was a true story about the Japanese warrior-monk, Benkei, who lived in the 12th century and was eventually killed by his enemies. There was enough adventure in his life for me to make a decent little three-part series, but I was basically writing a historical biography of a real person, ending with his heroic death. When the comic eventually appeared I found they’d altered the ending into something much more optimistic. I haven’t got a copy to hand, but I seem to remember they’d changed it so that Benkei actually escaped his enemies and ‘became a legend’. This they’d done without consulting me, and they’d put my name on the strip, which, to anyone who knew about Benkei, would have made me look a complete idiot. I was so annoyed I never worked for Tornado again.
I can’t remember exactly how I got involved with 2000 AD. I think I must have heard about it over the grapevine from someone, and it was an SF comic so I got in touch with them, rather than them approaching me. I think at the time my only other work was House of Hammer and the annuals, so I was looking for a bit of extra work. But I never actually felt comfortable working for it, for a number of reasons. One of them was the thing I just mentioned about IPC being a large corporation, and whereas I always felt with a smaller company that I was working with the editor as a collaborator, with IPC I always felt I was working for them, as a hired hand. Successive editors of 2000 AD have always given me the impression that they thought it was an enormous privilege to work for it, and that I should be grateful – presumably because they always had lots of other people wanting to get in on the act. The only editor who I actually felt made me welcome was Andy Diggle, when I returned to work for the title in 2000. I also used to feel that the editors and contributors formed a sort of clique that went to conventions and on signing tours together, and from what I hear a lot of them are heavy drinkers. As I’m not a drinker and can think of nothing more ghastly than spending an evening with a bunch of drunks talking about comics, I never really penetrated the clique, and always felt something of an outsider. And lastly, of course, I don’t actually like the comic that much.
I always thought Judge Dredd was utterly loathsome (though I did write one short strip for an annual). I appreciate that it was often beautifully drawn and that John Wagner’s a good writer, and I’m also told that it’s supposed to be satirical on occasion, but it espouses execution without trial and is basically about a personality-free fascist who I find about as entertaining as that hilarious Mister Hitler. Then there are the thinly disguised IPC war stories like Rogue Trooper, and B.L.A.I.R.1, the side-splitting super-adventures of that notorious war-criminal Tony Blair. What could they have been thinking of? Even when I was working for 2000 AD, I couldn’t actually bring myself to read the rest of the comic. And I absolutely hated Tharg, which I thought was utterly stupid and childish, and brought down the tone of what I was given to believe was supposed to be aspiring toward a slightly more adult comic. I still feel the same way – and of course, they’re still continuing with the same dim-witted puerility, even though I gather that the average age of a 2000 AD reader these days is somewhere between 30 and 40. But if they’ll still put up with something as irritating as Tharg, I’m not sure exactly how the term ‘adult’ applies here.
But work was work and, besides, at the beginning I didn’t really know what direction the comic would be going. I was well-established enough by that time for them to offer me the second story-arc on the revamped Dan Dare, which I think ran from about issue 12 to 20, or something like that, and was drawn by Bellardinelli, an artist who didn’t appeal to me much at all. All I can remember about the story is that the villain had two heads, which argued with each other. I didn’t much like the new Dan Dare, and maybe it showed, because they didn’t offer me another series on it.
So after that, they asked me to write short stories as filler material, which is what turned out to be the Future Shock series (though the fact that they were then called ‘Tharg’s Future Shocks’ and were given dumb introductions pissed me off – as did being described as a ‘script robot’). Essentially I based the format on the old EC twist-ending SF stories and they’ve been doing the same thing ever since. I think I wrote the first dozen or so and, interestingly, the first few could be written to different page-lengths, just depending on how the story came out. I seem to remember writing one that was only two pages long, though later they settled into a more standard five-page format. I think they then began bringing in other writers, though I wrote a few more. And that was pretty much my first period of involvement with 2000 AD. I then got enough work with Marvel UK, and was happy to leave 2000 AD behind.
I returned in the early 1980s (when the editor was Steve McManus, who I found smug, arrogant and unsympathetic) to write some more Future Shocks and, of course, by then Alan Moore was writing them too, so we used to have a bit of a private competition to see just how far we could push the ideas and still get away with it. And at that time I also got the chance to write a revived series of Rick Random, a strip I’d loved back in the 1950s Super Detective Library, and with Ron Turner, the original artist. Apart from beefing the action up a little for a 2000 AD audience, I tried to write it fairly straight … more a tribute than an updated revision … and I think it was about six episodes long. I was really pleased with it until the last episode appeared in print, at which point it turned out that, for some reason I never discovered, Turner hadn’t finished the strip, and (of course, without informing me) they’d given the last episode to Carlos Ezquerra, an artist I hated anyway, and one who really couldn’t have been further away in style from Turner, and who made no attempt to emulate what Turner had already done. If they’d given the episode to someone like Dave Gibbons I would have understood it, and it would probably have been a reasonably close match – but they gave it to Ezquerra. So, you won’t be surprised to hear that after that I didn’t work for 2000 AD again for another fifteen years or so.
PÓM: I know that yourself and Alan Moore are friends, and have worked together on many things over the years. Do you remember how the pair of you first got in touch with one another, and when you first met?
SM: This is a bit vague, but Alan and I spoke about this recently and I think we’ve got it sorted out. Before organising the first UK Comic Convention, Phil Clarke put out a sales list called The Comic Fan (this is to be distinguished from The Comic Fan Special, which was the bulletin of the Convention), and I printed the lists off for him on my duplicator. In the second issue, as well as advertising Ka-Pow #1, there was an advert from me, because, being besotted with the TV Avengers at the time, I was looking for a novelisation called Dead or Alive. Alan saw those ads, wrote to me, and so the correspondence started.
Unfortunately, that issue of The Comic Fan carries no date, but as Ka-Pow #1 had already been published, it was some time after July 1967. The odd thing about this, though, is that Dead or Alive is a book that never existed. At the time, Hodder published a couple of Avengers novels, credited to Patrick MacNee but ghosted by Peter Leslie, called Deadline and Dead Duck. Dead or Alive was advertised as the third in the series, which was why I wanted it, but if it was ever written it never appeared. So the whole friendship is basically rooted in a quest for a non-existent, chimaerical book … which is a motif that’s turned up occasionally in the work of one or other of us, in mine as recently as Somnium. It’s not a bad symbol for writers, too, as their job is to bring non-existent books into existence, by writing them. But perhaps more interestingly, in view of our more recent notions about Idea Space, we were brought together by the idea of a text, rather than a real one. Attribute whatever significance you wish to that. Maybe it was just the universe having a laugh.
After that, Alan seems to think that we first met face-to-face at the second Con in 1969. I’ve a notion, though, that we first met on a day-trip he made to London with his parents. I met them in town (where they presumably got the chance to check me out and see that I was, in fact, at least basically human) and then brought Alan back to my house for the afternoon before returning him, apparently undamaged, to the loving arms of his family. But exactly when that trip was (i.e., either before or after the 1969 Con) may be open to dispute. I think it was before. Actually, considering how important that first contact turned out to be for both our lives, it’s surprising how fuzzy the whole thing is. Maybe the Martians have tampered with our memories. Or, more likely, it’s the drugs.
Either way, the tradition we’ve always maintained is that we’ve known each other since I was 18 and he was 14. Going by our respective birthdays, that would mean we’d have to have first got in touch by letter sometime between November 1967 and June 1968, which seems to fit with his being a non-attending member of the 1968 Con. Whenever it was, I think one of the things that drew us together initially was the coincidence of our surnames, absurd though that may seem. Of course, in the decades since I’ve seen myself referred to as ‘no relation’ so many times I rather feel they’ll put it on my tombstone, and it was with considerable glee that when we got to preparing the back-flap biographies of Somnium I was able to describe him as ‘Alan Moore (no relation)’!
Anyway, Alan used to send me entertaining letters decorated with little drawings of ‘The Avenging Hunchback’ (sole line of dialogue: ‘Glerk!’) and before too long we were seeing each other quite frequently. And taking drugs together, of course. Apparently, Alan decided that if I was smoking dope it must be okay for him to do so too (I don’t think his mum ever forgave me, especially after he was expelled from school).
->PÓM: Have you kept any of those letters? And, if so, how likely is it you can scan them for the rest of the world to see?
SM: Yes, I’ve kept Alan’s letters, but obviously they have to remain private. There’s no way I’m going to embarrass him by publishing his teenage correspondence. But I’ve scanned one of the sketches of the Avenging Hunchback …
PÓM: I have this romantic scenario in my head where Alan is the wild one, always leading you astray, whilst you are the quiet one, being dragged into all sorts of wild scrapes by your friend. But this is really entirely wrong, isn’t it, as regards comics, drugs, and magic? You are quite literally the man who led Alan Moore astray.
SM: Well, I’d like to portray myself as an evil Svengali who took one look at Alan and realised that here was a striking-looking but malleable individual who I could get years of pleasure destroying an inch at a time, but it wasn’t really like that … even if he has said publicly that I was the man who ruined his life! I just wander into these things like writing comics, smoking dope, practicing magic and resigning on points of principle, and the next thing I know Alan’s decided that as I haven’t actually died as a result, he’ll do the same … only he does it much larger. It’s not my fault, honest! Mind you, he doesn’t always follow my lead. I’ve never got him hooked on China or classical music, in the same way that I’ve never really shared his interest in science or stand-up comedy. We just have areas of interest that overlap … and enormous mutual respect in areas where they don’t. And even where they don’t, there’s still a bit of influence going back and forth.<-
Alan swiftly got involved with the Northampton Arts Lab, and their poetry magazine, Embryo (and its variously-named sequels). That was another attraction for me: I’ve always chosen my closest friends (at least the male ones) among people who were actually doing things, rather than talking about doing things, and that creative bond has remained central to our friendship ever since. So I submitted a couple of poems too (don’t ask me about the quality!), which they kindly printed, and that rather set the pattern. If one of us was working on a project where we could offer an opening to the other, we did, and it’s been pretty much like that ever since.
There was a time in the mid-1970s when we didn’t see each other quite so often (perhaps twice a year) mainly, I think, because Alan was busy getting married, having kids, holding down a ‘proper job’, etc. And then one day he showed up and showed me a drawing he’d done (I’ve a feeling it may have been some sort of fantasy scene with a sailing ship) and told me he wanted to get back into drawing again. And that really kicked off the second phase of our friendship, which has lasted to this day.
->PÓM: Probably a colossally stupid question, but what was Alan Moore like? What were your first impressions of him, do you remember? What appealed to you about him?
SM: You have to remember that our friendship was first established by letter, and the ones he wrote were always entertaining, funny and a bit mad. When I actually met him he was still very young, with a thick mop of hair that hadn’t yet grown long, no beard and a slightly chubby face. And he was fun. He had a great sense of humour, he was affable, honest, generous, straightforward, interesting and interested in everything, and far more sociable than I ever was. We just took to each other and haven’t been able to get rid of each other ever since.<-
PÓM: Comics legend has it that you taught Alan how to write a comic script. Do you remember this, and what advice you gave him?
SM: It’s a story that Alan has very kindly promoted himself, as well, though I’m not sure what I did really justifies it. As I’m sure you know, at the start of his career in the late 1970s Alan saw himself more as a cartoonist, and was quite capable of writing his own stories when he was just presenting a finished page of artwork. But when he decided to write serious strips for other artists to draw (and editors to read), he wanted a little advice on how to present things. So I basically just showed him some of my scripts, and how they were laid out, etc., which was very much in the British professional tradition of the ‘full script’, as I’d picked it up from people like Ken Mennell and Tom Tully, with several lines of description for each frame (I still think of the pictures in terms of the British ‘frame’, rather than the American ‘panel’).
And he sent me his first couple of scripts to look at, on which I scribbled a few comments (not with the blue pencil that editors usually used, but with a red pen so I looked far more outraged!) … mainly about things like the usual beginner’s mistakes of using too many words … and that was about it. All the rest of it was Alan’s talent. And I should, perhaps, point out that a couple of other people later asked me ‘how to write a comic-strip’; but none of them actually ‘got it’ in the same way that Alan did.
Having said that much, though, I have to add that I’ve also learned an awful lot about technique from Alan over the years. Of course, back then we were writing very basic scripts, and such things as the immensely long frame description was something he developed on his own. Later, especially in my ‘second period’ in comics after 2000, I also wrote pretty long descriptions, and that’s an example of the reverse influence. I think we really started to get interested in technical discussions about the time of Warrior, and from there it just went on. Even when I’d left the comics field for a few years in the 1990s to write and edit non-fiction, we’d still spend weekends together talking about writing technique, in various media. Mind you, Alan was always more interested in technique than I was; I tended to have a more instinctive approach, which has also been the case with things like magic. I think it’s just a basic difference in temperament.
As for why Alan reversed the usual format where frame descriptions were written in lower case and dialogue in upper case, to write his descriptions in upper and his dialogue in lower, I’ve really got no idea. I tend to look at things like that and think ‘Oh, it’s just Alan …’
PÓM: You got him some of his earliest work, like the stories he did in Marvel UK’s Dr Who comics, I believe?
SM: Obviously, Alan got the vast proportion of his early work on his own. For example, Sounds and 2000 AD he approached entirely by himself. As for Dr Who, which was a little later, that came about because I was switching from the back-up stories to the lead strip, so a new writer was needed for the back-ups. I think by then Alan had made a few sales and wasn’t a complete beginner, so I felt confident enough to recommend him as a replacement. There wasn’t anything special about this. It was just the sort of thing you’d do for a friend, and it certainly didn’t take any work away from me, so everybody won out. I don’t really remember anything else, script-wise, in the very early days. There may have been one or two other things, but my attitude was basically just that if I couldn’t or didn’t want to handle anything, Alan might as well be offered it.
Before that, though, Alan was still thinking of a cartoonist’s career, and what he mainly wanted was exposure, so he was quite prepared to do stuff for free. Steve Burgess, one of the editors of Dark Star (a magazine about West Coast rock music), worked at DTWAGE, so I knew him quite well; and they occasionally ran one-page underground strips, so I made the connection for Alan. I put him forward for some cartoons for the BJ and the Bear Annual, and I think I suggested him for a spread in the Frantic Winter Special that Marvel did in 1979. The last two, he actually got paid for!
PÓM: Just to clarify on the reference to the BJ and the Bear Annual, is it that Alan only drew the cartoons, to accompany your text? Currently, his bibliographies have his as doing both, for want of clearer information. So you’ll be doing the world of Moore scholarship in general a service by clarifying this! [It's all here, if you're interested - PÓM]
SM: This was a feature called ‘C.B.? – That’s a Big Ten-Four!’ This was a glossary of C.B. radio slang, and I’m afraid I’ve got no idea who wrote it, but it certainly wasn’t me. Looking at the text, it doesn’t really look like Alan either, so my guess would be that it was an anonymous feature-writer working for Grandreams. Alan provided four cartoons that, printed large, stretched a very slim feature to four pages. It appeared in the BJ and the Bear Annual for 1981, and so the artwork would probably have been drawn in the winter of 1980/1981. The feature was reprinted wholesale in The Dukes of Hazzard Annual for 1982.
PÓM: You worked together on a few strips, starting with Three Eyes McGurk and his Death Planet Commandos. How did that come about?
SM: Actually, the first thing we worked on together was a half-page strip called ‘Talcum Power’ (not ‘Powder’, as it seems to be referred to occasionally), for Dark Star #21 (July 1979). Alan had produced a full page ‘Avenging Hunchback’ strip for #19, which was pretty much a parody of the Superman origin story, and also drawn a second instalment for #20, but the artwork was stolen before it could be printed. So as a replacement for that he then did a half-page ‘Kultural Krime Komix’ in which he committed suicide over the theft, and that was pretty much the end of the Hunchback.
‘Talcum Power’ was basically a jam session, constructed one stoned weekend when Alan was visiting. We ‘wrote’ as we went along, and then we pencilled bits and pieces alternately, handing the artwork back and forth (along with the joints), though Alan plainly did more of the drawing and filled out the backgrounds in most of the frames. And after he’d gone I inked and lettered the whole thing. We concluded with a tag-line saying ‘Did you spot the hidden meaning?’ to cover up the fact that it plainly didn’t mean anything at all … it was just two hippies out of their minds on drugs having a good time … but for some reason that quite escapes me now, Dark Star liked it enough to publish it. It went under the by-line ‘by Curt & Pedro’ which, as the name hadn’t gone on my ‘Bangkok sex’ article, was the first time, I think, that the Pedro Henry pseudonym appeared in print.
Just as an aside, at around this time Alan was also drawing ‘St. Pancras Panda’ for the Oxford underground magazine, The Backstreet Bugle, and I did actually draw (all on my own!) a half-page silent strip for them called ‘Foobl’, in which an ancient city is attacked by a biplane (again, the meaning probably wasn’t apparent). That appeared in Bugle #30, August 1979, again as by ‘Pedro’. Later, in the first episode of ‘Abslom Daak: Dalek-Killer’ for Dr Who, I included a passing reference to a character called ‘C. Henry Foobl’ (derived from Curt Vile, Pedro Henry and Foobl), which was pretty much the sort of in-joke we used to indulge in back then … and later Alan actually used the character in ‘The Stars my Degradation’.
Anyway, Alan liked my inks on ‘Talcum Power’, and then asked me to write a series for him, which turned out to be ‘Three-Eyes McGurk and his Death-Planet Commandos’, which we did as by Curt Vile and Pedro Henry. We ended up with Alan pencilling while I wrote, inked and lettered, and the four episodes appeared in Dark Star #22-#25 (Dec 1979 – Jan 1981). It took absolutely ages to produce … more than a year, though obviously we had professional work to do at the same time … and Alan, trying to be helpful, produced what was virtually finished pencil artwork, including every dot of the stippling, and as the episodes progressed it just got more and more minutely detailed. While most comic-book pages are drawn ‘half up’ (i.e., half as big again as the reproduction size) or ‘twice up’, we were actually producing this ‘a fifth up’ (Alan had somehow got the completely mistaken notion that this was the ‘right’ size for comics), which meant I ended up inking most of it with a rapidograph nib 0.1mm wide. Later, when I showed the printed copies to Gilbert Shelton, who was interested in reprinting ‘McGurk’ in Rip-Off Comix #8, he guessed the originals must be huge … twice up or more … and seemed completely bewildered when I told him the actual size. Alan and I were both thrilled to be in Rip-Off (a real American underground!) and I think we actually got reprint fees of about $20 a page for it. With Dark Star, of course, we got nothing at all, but that had always been the deal from the start. Many years later, while browsing the web, I discovered that someone had actually liked the strip enough that they’d called their band the ‘Death-Planet Commandos’, though what sort of music they played I’m not sure. It would have been quite nice to know …
One of the reasons Alan wanted me to script for him was that it would be a challenge, in that he’d have to draw stuff at somebody else’s bidding, rather than just taking the easy option of writing stuff for himself that he knew he could draw. I think he was a bit taken aback when I asked him to draw the Numinous Paddlesteamer, though he responded magnificently. Of course, I’d made a rod for my own back, in that I then had to ink the damned thing! We had a lot of fun: I just let myself off the hook and decided to be as mad as possible, and that drew from Alan probably his best pencils to date. But there was so much work going into everything that by the fourth episode he was sending me the pencils a quarter of a page at a time, so I could be inking while he was pencilling the next quarter, before taping together the four sections of the page. But even so I think we only just managed to get the last episode in on time.
‘McGurk’ saw the first appearance of Pressbutton, a character I’d first come up with in late 1977, and I still actually have the original notebook in which he was first scribbled down:
Character called ‘Press-button’ – he caught Vegan Green Rot years ago, and his body had to be rebuilt from the feet up to above his hips – at the same time they built a button into his chest which, when pressed, give [sic] direct electrical stimulation of the pleasure centres of his brain.
Thus he chats up broads (in bars): “Wanna press my button, honey?”
Thus he is shot to death ‘right on the button’ and dies a happy man – his chest shattered & a hideous grin on his face.
And his companions:
‘Lonesome Henry, the Human Bomb’
So, as you see, the plot for ‘McGurk’ is pretty much there from the start, apart from Pressbutton’s cleaver-arm, which evolved in the scripting. Incidentally in the very first frame he appeared in, Alan drew the cleaver on the wrong arm! At the time, though, I just thought ‘There’s no way I’m going to sell a character who has orgasms to IPC or Marvel’ (at least not in 1977) so the idea just got put aside, and it was only when I thought I could do it as an underground strip that I dusted it off. It should also be plain from this that Pressbutton was created before the Abslom Daak character I did for Dr Who. Some people seem to have got the impression that the ‘straight’ version of Axel I did in ‘Laser-Eraser & Pressbutton’, for Warrior, was somehow a ‘replacement’ for Daak, when I wasn’t writing that any more; actually it was quite the reverse … Daak was what I wrote because I couldn’t do a straight version of Pressbutton.
Of course, following my original idea, I had actually had Pressbutton shot ‘right on the button’ at the end of ‘McGurk’ and that, I thought, was that.
PÓM: I know Pressbutton turned up in Alan’s The Stars my Degradation strip in Sounds, which you took over writing for him a bit over halfway through its run. What I don’t remember is if he appeared before or after you were writing. So, can you set me straight, and tell me how you ended up taking over the writing of the strip?
SM: What happened was that by the summer of 1980, Alan was winding down his Roscoe Moscow strip, and decided he was going to do The Stars my Degradation, a story pretty much set in the same world as Three-Eyes McGurk (so I guess he must have enjoyed his stint on that … we were actually still drawing McGurk at the time). This sounded good to me, and then a couple of weeks later he phoned me up and asked if he could use Pressbutton in the strip. Well, I wasn’t envisaging using Pressbutton again (he was dead, after all, and I didn’t imagine I’d do any more underground strips) so I said of course he could, and he could use McGurk and any of the other material that he wanted as well. This obviously meant that the Stars material was placed earlier in Pressbutton’s life, and when we eventually did the ‘straight’ version in Warrior, that was set earlier still … so he kind of lived his life backwards. Pressbutton first appeared in the fifth instalment of Stars, and it was Alan who gave him the forename ‘Axel’ … I’d never even thought about a forename for him before that.
There were 100 episodes of Stars and a couple of Christmas specials, before it concluded in early 1983, by which time Alan was very busy with a lot of other stuff and was struggling to find time for it. So he asked me write the last third of the series (my first episode was 62), which I was more than happy to do (I was also writing Laser-Eraser & Pressbutton for Warrior by then, so there’s an awful lot of overlapping going on here). I think Alan was getting £45 a week for writing and drawing it, and he offered me £10 for the script, so I said sure and started scripting them in batches of four or five episodes each.
->PÓM: I note that you’re also doing this interview in sets of questions, rather than one question at a time. So, is this the way you like to work, doing things in lots, rather than a piece at a time?
SM: Umm … I’m making this up as I go along, Pádraig! I’ll do it any way it comes!<-
SM: Alan had given me a very rough idea of where he imagined the story-arc going, which was pretty much a ‘back-of-an-envelope’ size synopsis, and after that I just let myself loose and tried to make it as crazy as possible. One of the things Alan had been doing with earlier episodes of the strip was parodying things like The X-Men … but I’m really not interested in parody, so I wanted to make it more of a comedy-adventure in the style of McGurk. And once again, I was challenging Alan to draw all kinds of weird shit, like rubber Episcopalians and battles between newts and Amazons and, of course, the Immolato Tomato … so I was having lots and lots of fun and Alan was probably starting to think this was a really bad idea. And we were trying to get away with as much as we could, of course, which meant the strip was frequently censored, sometimes quite crudely, with whole frames deleted, which we weren’t very pleased about.
->PÓM: What sort of things were they censoring the strips for? I’d have though that the editorial imperatives at Sounds at that time would have been quite relaxed.
SM: We just had too much sexual content for them. Alan had something of a tendency to draw penises everywhere, which usually ended up with ‘censored’ labels stuck over them, and they were obviously less interested in showing acts of sexual congress than we were. There was one occasion where Alan had decided to render the episode in pencil and they simply rubbed out a scene they didn’t like. I should point out that this had been going on before I started writing the strip as well, but I admit it got worse when I took over … but when the story moved to ‘Gomorrah’s World’, on the planet Depravity, what can one expect?<-
SM: Sounds also managed to lose one entire episode, though as this was only about Pressbutton and Harry the Hooper practising before their final showdown, probably no one noticed … except me, and I still had the script, of course.
->PÓM: Are we likely to ever see the script for that episode that Sounds lost? And is there any chance Alan could be talked into drawing it?
SM: I’ve scanned the script, and also the full script for an episode where they deleted a couple of frames entirely. The reason the scans start part way down the page is because I was writing these in batches, rather than starting a new script on a new page. We’ve no objection to these scripts being put online, but I think I can say that the chances of Alan drawing the missing script are pretty close to absolute zero.<-
[Sorry for the quality of these, folks, but this as good as I have them, I’m afraid.]
PÓM: But you were just scripting now, rather than contributing to the art?
SM: The only other art involvement I had was with the special ‘Christmas on Depravity’ story that we did in December 1981, which was just before I took over scripting the strip. The script was mainly by Alan, though we’d discussed the story when he’d been down to visit previously, and there are one or two of my gags in there. It was also the one that ‘reunited’ Axel and Mysta Mystralis, even though they hadn’t actually appeared in Warrior by this point.
It was a four-page story, and thus the equivalent of eight normal half-page episodes, and it had a second-colour overlay on every page. It was due for delivery on a Monday shortly before Christmas, and Alan turned up at my place on the Friday with about half the strip drawn and none of the colour overlays done; I’m not even sure if he’d actually scripted absolutely everything. So we basically just worked through the weekend on it, with Alan drawing the foregrounds and myself contributing bits of background, often on the colour overlays, where we were just drawing in black ink on tissue-paper overlays. So I was tracing pictures of Japanese monsters, the interior of blood vessels, rains of carrots and anything else I could think of. It was basically work, fall asleep and then work again, but Alan left on the Monday morning to take a finished job into the Sounds office, and I went back to bed. The only trouble was, we’d been told that the overlay would be red on the first and fourth page and blue on the second and third, so we designed the overlays with those colours in mind. Of course, it came out with the colours reversed and, worse than that, the tissue-overlays had actually shrunk under the hot lamps in the scanning process, so everything was out of register, too! We were not amazingly happy about this. But those are the sort of things where you look back and think ‘did we actually do that?’
->PÓM: You did at one stage interview yourself in the guise of Pedro Henry, for Warrior. How did that come about?
Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey recounts the 10-year journey of Odysseus from the fall of Troy to his return home to Ithaca. The story has continued to draw people in since its beginning in an oral tradition, through the first Greek writing and integration into the ancient education system, the numerous translations over the ages, and modern retellings. It has also been adapted to different artistic mediums from depictions on pottery, to scenes in mosaic, to film. We spoke with Barry B. Powell, author of a new free verse translation of The Odyssey, about how the story was embedded into ancient Greek life, why it continues to resonate today, and what translations capture about their contemporary cultures.
Visual representations of The Odyssey and understanding ancient Greek history
Barry B. Powell is Halls-Bascom Professor of Classics Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His new free verse translation of The Odyssey was published by Oxford University Press in 2014. His translation of The Iliad was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. See previous blog posts from Barry B. Powell.
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Here’s the fourth part of my interview with the late Steve Moore, with more to follow. The first, second, and third parts are already online, along with some explanation of how the interview came about.
PÓM: You mentioned that you worked with Dez Skinn at Fleetway House. How did you get on with him?
SM: It was okay at the time, though I’ve never really got on that well with men from the north of England. I’ve generally found them opinionated, pig-headed and sexist; on the other hand, I know they tend to think of us southerners as over-intellectual wimps. Both of these are completely clichéd generalisations, and I’m sure the first is no more true of all northern men than the second is of all southerners, but in my experience there seems to be a bit of a gulf in attitudes. So at Fleetway, relations with Dez were generally cordial, though occasionally a little caustic, and we weren’t actually working on the same magazine which meant we didn’t spend the whole day together. He was never someone I really wanted to actually socialise with, though. I tended to hang out with Steve Parkhouse and left all thoughts of Dez behind when I left the office.
On the other hand, my professional relationship with Dez, between writer and editor, was very close for several years and generally problem-free, and we worked together on House of Hammer, Starburst, Hulk Comic, Dr Who Weekly and, eventually, Warrior. At that point things started to go wrong, but until then he was another editor who’d accept everything I gave him with virtually no changes and we did a lot of stuff together, some of which, I like to think, was pretty good.
->PÓM: Didn’t you end up working for Dez as a freelancer, later on?
SM: Yes, I did work for Dez, but I can’t honestly remember how it came about. I’m pretty sure the first thing was House of Hammer, which was published by Thorpe & Porter (otherwise known as General Book Distribution or Top Sellers; the same outfit seems to have had a multitude of names and, as I mentioned, they’d also picked up the Brown, Watson name too). John Barraclough had ended up there after Target folded, and it’s possible he may have mentioned that he’d worked with me to Dez; but if not that it’s probable that Dez knew that both Steve Parkhouse (who also worked on HoH) and I were now freelance and, of course, we all knew each other from our days at IPC. So if Dez was looking for contributors, we would have been a natural choice. And as Dez moved on to other jobs, he just kept on offering work to the same stable of contributors, both writers and artists, that he already knew and had worked with.
–>The first issue of HoH was dated October 1976, so I’d guess we started working on it in the summer, or maybe a bit earlier. Looking back, I see that John Barraclough and Chris Lowder were mentioned as associate editors on the early issues, so it’s the same little clique that had first got together at IPC again.<--
I wrote a number of features in the early issues, despite the fact that there were far more competent film-journalists also working for the magazine, and Dez and I also took a day-trip to Elstree when Hammer were shooting To the Devil a Daughter, which meant another feature I got to write up, in issue 2. We did actually get on the set briefly, while they were filming (I only got round to watching it recently – dreadful movie), but we spent most of the time talking to special effects man Les Bowie, who took great delight in showing us how gory effects could be got with latex skin and artificial blood. A charming man who really seemed to enjoy his work.
The articles had my name on, but they weren’t so good at crediting the comic-strips, at least early on. I did quite a number of movie adaptations, where we were generally working from copies of the original scripts, plus photos; and also some of the short stories, ‘Van Helsing’s Terror Tales’.
Despite not having my name on it, I wrote the adaptation for Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires in issue 4, which, being a Hammer/Shaw Brothers co-production and a Dracula/kung fu mash-up, was an obvious one for me. It had some lovely artwork by Brian Lewis, who I was delighted to be working with, but it seemed the feeling wasn’t all that mutual: the single time I met him, he immediately complained that my scripts gave him too much to draw!
Issue 8 saw my first ‘Father Shandor, Demon Stalker’ solo story, with John Bolton artwork. Shandor had first appeared in Dracula Prince of Darkness, which we’d adapted in issue 6, though Donne Avenell wrote that (John had been the artist on that as well). I think Dez suggested the idea as a way of stretching the material, though obviously it would have been quite a while before we ran through all of Hammer’s horror films. He told me we could do the strip because, unlike in the Dracula movie where the name of the character was given in the credits as ‘Sandor’ (the correct Hungarian spelling), we’d be spelling it phonetically as ‘Shandor’, and that would make it okay. I took his word for this, though I never actually discovered what Hammer’s feelings on the matter might have been. The second story, again with John, appeared in issue 16, and a third in issue 21 … and, of course, we revived the character later for Warrior.
Other adaptations I did included Curse of the Werewolf (issue 10), Plague of the Zombies (13), One Million Years B.C. (14), The Reptile (19), Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter (20, with Steve Parkhouse doing the artwork, which was nice), The Mummy (22) and Brides of Dracula (27-28). From this level of detail, you’ll gather that my copies of HoH were actually accessible! I know I did a few of the ‘Terror Tales’, but these were frequently uncredited, so it’s a bit hard for me to remember which were by me. I think I wrote three or four of those.
I’m not quite sure why the title changed from House of Hammer to House of Horror with issue 19, and then to Halls of Horror with 21, but I suspect this may have been something to do with the contract with Hammer. Effectively, the magazine folded in August 1978 with issue 23, though Dez revived it as a ‘Quality’ publication in 1982, as a companion to Warrior. By then I was no longer writing for it, though, and the Brides of Dracula adaptation was a left-over script from the original series. The magazine finally folded for the second time in 1984.
I had a fair amount of fun on HoH, as well as getting a reasonable amount of work out of it. I found script adaptation really quite easy, and we had a good bunch of artists and writers, including John Bolton, Brian Lewis, Steve Parkhouse, David Jackson and Chris Lowder, as well as some more ‘old school’ writers like Donne Avenell and Scott Goodall. And that basically set me up as one of Dez’s main writers, when he moved on to Marvel UK.<-
PÓM: Did you find it easier working on your writing away from home, or did it make any difference?
SM: Frankly, this is a question I’ve never really had cause to think about before, and since 1973 I’ve pretty much done all my writing at home anyway. And when I still had family here, they always understood that I needed to work and left me alone. So, I think the first answer would be no, it wasn’t easier working away from home. But whether it was harder I’m not really sure. When you’re 23/24 and just starting out, you’re full of energy and enthusiasm, and that carries you through an awful lot … including, I suspect, having to deal with customers while you’re typing.
PÓM: Who else did you end up writing for at this time?
SM: Actually, my memory of the period around 1973/4 is a bit fuzzy. I suspect after Target folded may have been the period when I was writing for Mirabelle, and I’m not sure how long I continued writing Tarzan for Sweden. If I’d known I was going to end up doing this interview, I would have kept all those old account books!
The next major thing to come up was the first Kung Fu Annual, based on the TV series starring David Carradine. At the time there was a big Christmas market for hardback annuals, both things like the Beano Annual and books based on popular TV shows. I got the job on the recommendation of John Barraclough, who both knew of my interest in martial arts movies and my capabilities as a writer. I don’t remember who the editor on that first book was, but the publisher was Brown, Watson Ltd., which I rather liked, because formerly they’d been behind the Digit line of paperbacks that published a lot of the SF adventures I’d read in the early 1960s, though by now the company name had been bought up and was just part of the larger Thorpe & Porter conglomerate. That first Kung Fu annual appeared in the autumn of 1974, so I would have written it in the winter of 1973/1974, as there was always a fairly large lead-up time. It was 64 pages, with comic strips, text stories and features, and I wrote the whole book for a flat fee of £200. I was told later it sold a quarter of a million copies, and there was a Dutch edition as well. Of course, no one even thought of royalties in those days, but I did get my name on the book! It was the only annual I ever did get a credit for.
By the following year, John Barraclough had taken over as editor of Brown, Watson’s annuals, working from offices in Wardour Street, and that started an association that went on until 1986. After a few years, the Babani brothers, Brian and Peter, bought out the annual department from Thorpe & Porter and set themselves up as Grandreams Ltd., with offices in Kentish Town, but John continued as editor, I continued as main writer, and the annuals continued to look exactly the same.
That was pretty much my winter work taken care of, over those dozen years, though obviously I’d frequently be writing for weeklies at the same time. I’d get a call from John around September, and he’d tell me what we were going to be doing that year for publication the following autumn, and I’d generally get between four and six annuals to do, which would keep me busy until the spring. Sometimes I wrote the entire book. I’d nearly always write all the strips and text stories, while sometimes I’d do the features, and sometimes someone else would. If he wanted to include things like puzzle pages, they were definitely by someone else! In the end, I wrote 69 annuals for John, in whole or in part, doing things like Kung Fu, Planet of the Apes, The Bionic Woman, The Fall Guy, Knightrider, Dick Turpin, Sherlock Holmes, The Dukes of Hazzard, Battlestar Galactica and even some dreadful old rubbish like Supergran.
Usually for each annual I’d be writing three 8-page scripts and three or four 2,500 word text stories, though sometimes I’d link things up as serials, and do the strip as, say four chapters of six pages each, or link the text stories. By now, John just trusted me to give him what he wanted, so I pretty much handled things the way I liked. I remember by the time we got to the fourth Kung Fu annual he called me and said something like: ‘We’ve got to do it again, but we haven’t got the budget to include any comic-strips this time, so you can just fill up the 64 pages with whatever you like.’ Like I said, John wasn’t exactly a control freak.
The money wasn’t all that great (I think it was about £10 a page for strips, though by the time it got to the 1980s, I told John I couldn’t afford to work for that any more, and got an immediate pay-rise to £15), but there was a lot of work there, which made up. Even so, it had to be done quickly to make it economical, so I was often doing a story a day … though a ‘day’ was actually lunchtime to lunchtime. After lunch I’d start thinking about a story, and if it was a strip I’d make sure that by the time I went to bed I’d sorted out the plot, broken it down into frames and usually scribbled out the dialogue; then in the morning I’d type up the script, mail it to John, and then after lunch, start the whole process again. If it was a text story, I’d just sort the plot out in the afternoon, then write the story the next morning, straight onto the typewriter in one draft with no revisions at all. If it looked like I had too much plot, the action would suddenly speed up toward the end; if too little, it’d slow down! But generally, after a couple of years, I’d got things sorted out, and knew pretty well how much plot I needed to write a 2,500 word story.
We had some decent artists on those books, though frequently fairly early in their careers, including Paul Neary, Ian Gibson, David Lloyd, David Jackson and John Hudson. And I talked John into taking some Alan Moore cartoons for the BJ and the Bear annual. Even more unlikely, when it came to the ‘History of Magic’ features for the Mr. Merlin annual, I actually persuaded him to let me illustrate them myself!
If the TV programmes were already showing, I could just watch them, or if we were doing the annuals for the second or third time, there was no problem. More often than not, though, the programmes wouldn’t start showing until after I’d written the book, so then I’d possibly be taken to a little preview theatre in Wardour Street to see an advance showing of the pilot, or sometimes the only reference I’d have to work from would be a script and some publicity photos. Fortunately, though, I seemed to have a knack for picking out the essentials of the characters and what the show was about almost instantly (and perhaps even more fortunately, I had a very easy-going editor!), so I managed to get away with it. Knightrider was one of the shows where I only saw the pilot and, as it happened, I really didn’t like the programme very much, so I couldn’t bring myself to watch it when it started on TV … but I still wrote five annuals for the show, just on the basis of the pilot.
The worst case was writing the strip adaptation of the Roger Moore James Bond movie, Octopussy, which was published as a hardback annual by Grandreams, and as a magazine in the USA by Marvel. As usual with James Bond movies, the film company were incredibly secretive, so they wouldn’t let me have any production photos, and they wouldn’t let me take the script away either. Instead I had to go into their office in central London for three or four days running and sit there alone in a private room with the script, jotting down the essentials of the plot in a notebook. And that was all I had to write the script from … but I still ended up with the film company congratulating me on the job I’d done. Paul Neary drew the strip, and I’m not sure if he got any reference either, but everyone seemed happy, so we just moved on to the next project.
So, like I said, this went on until 1986, and that autumn the phone didn’t ring, and I was busy with other stuff, so I didn’t ring either, and that was the end of it. I never heard from John again, and have no idea what happened to him, though I occasionally think it would be nice to know. But I think the TV-based annuals had pretty much passed their sell-by date by then (the previous year I’d only done one or two), so even if I’d wanted it, there probably wouldn’t have been a great deal of work to be had anyway. At some point I’ll have to read some of that stuff again, just to see if it really was any good (or otherwise) after all.
PÓM: Tell me about those movie scripts you mentioned.
SM: As I said, it came about through my knowing Roy McAree, and I’m guessing it would have been about 1976, as I’d seen a few movies scripts by then, either from adapting them for House of Hammer, which was starting up around then, or from seeing them for reference to the TV-based annuals I was writing by then. The first explosive kung fu boom was starting to blow out by then, and Roy knew what I did for a living when I wasn’t goggling at gorgeous Chinese actresses, so one day I got a call from him telling me he wanted to set up his own production company, and was looking for someone to write a script. The deal was that there’d be no money up front, but if the movie was made I’d be on a percentage and, in terms of usual movie industry rates, quite a large percentage too. As far as I recall, I think he had some sort of basic plot idea or outline, which never actually had a title. It was just referred to as ‘Snutch’, which Roy derived somehow from ‘no such’ movie, as he didn’t want to give anything away in the trade. It was intended to be a vehicle for Wang Yu, which suited me very well as he was one of my favourite Chinese actors, and was going to be set in Iran (this was obviously before the Islamic Revolution of 1979).
There are basically two types of movie script. The first is a ‘first draft’ script, which describes the action and gives the dialogue, and is what most people present when they’re trying to sell something. And then there’s the ‘shooting script’, which has all the camera directions, such as ‘pan left’ or ‘tight close up’, which is usually written much later in the development process. Roy asked me to write ‘Snutch’ as a shooting script, so I said ‘sure’ and went away and wrote it. I’d seen at least one shooting script, and in the same way as with the annuals I seem to have a facility for picking up these sort of things, so I turned it in and Roy’s partner (whose name I forget) said ‘this is great … we can just give this to some monkey and he can get on with it’ (‘some monkey’ giving you some idea of his attitude to directors) and ‘where did you learn to write scripts?’ To which I could only reply: ‘Well, I didn’t …’ They told me to get a passport and prepare to fly out to Iran to check out locations, which frankly made me a little nervous, as it wasn’t quite clear who was supposed to be going with me.
This same partner had also written a script called ‘The New Spartans’, and they then decided to go with that first, with him directing as well. They’d raised money from Germany and elsewhere, and the cast included Wang Yu, Toshiro Mifune, Harry Andrews, Britt Eklund and others of similar calibre. They got a couple of days into shooting when the Germans pulled their money out. In later years, one of my Chinese movie dealer contacts actually managed to get me a DVD of the rushes they’d shot, and frankly they were absolutely appalling, so I’m not surprised the Germans pulled the plug. But that caused the collapse of the entire enterprise, and I think Roy lost quite a lot of money. Eventually he moved to Hong Kong, where I know he produced at least one documentary about kung fu movies, and of course by then I lost contact with him. Shame. Roy was a nice man, and though I never got paid for my work, I never held it against him.
Before he left, though, and some months after ‘Snutch’ went down, he put me in touch with a gent called Paul de Savary and his Chinese partner. They’d acquired the film rights to Dan Dare, and now wanted to do an updated version which basically turned Dan into ‘James Bond in space’. They had a fairly detailed plot outline of about 30 pages, and they wanted me to turn this into a first draft script for a two-hour movie. With this kind of script you usually reckon on one single-spaced page per minute, so they wanted a 120-page script … and they wanted it written in a week. So once again I said ‘sure’ and we actually signed a contract that would give me £1500 for my week’s work, which was an enormous sum to me at the time. So I spent the next seven days doing nothing else but write and sleep, with my Mum bringing me cups of coffee and meals at my desk and, eventually, I turned up at their office on time and script in hand. A couple of days later they phoned me up and said the script was great but they’d changed their minds, and were now going to do a series of 10-minute Dan Dare TV shows instead, and they wanted to pay me £750. As you can imagine, I wasn’t greatly pleased about this, but the best advice I could get (from Roy) was that it wasn’t worth taking them to court, so I’d be better off accepting what they offered.
At some point in all this, though I’m not sure of the exact sequence, another of Roy’s producer friends offered me £200 to revise the script of his Mary Millington soft porn movie into something ‘good’, but I took one look at the script and told him that no one could make that sort of rubbish ‘good’, no matter how much he was paid, and didn’t take the job. And that concluded my involvement with the movie industry, with an understandably sour taste in my mouth. So, essentially, I’ve just refused to have anything to do with movies or TV ever since.
PÓM: Did you ever actually learn Chinese, or go visit the country?
SM: I didn’t learn the language in any formal way, though over the years I’ve come to recognise quite a number of phrases while watching movies, so long as they’re spoken in Mandarin (the national language) rather than Cantonese (the southern dialect they speak in Hong Kong). But I wouldn’t dare try to speak it, as the language is tonal, so words can be pronounced in any of four different tones, and you might have, say, forty different words pronounced ‘ming’, the only way you can tell which is the right one being the tone it’s pronounced in, and the context it appears in; so the possibility of asking for a pint of milk and unintentionally saying something like ‘My postilion has been struck by lightning’ is quite high. Not for nothing did someone once describe Chinese as ‘not so much a language as a disease’!
But I’ve always been more interested in reading the language than speaking it, and while I don’t remember an awful lot of characters, I can often pick my way through a short piece of text with the aid of a dictionary. Mind you, learning how to use a Chinese/English dictionary is a bit of an achievement in itself! Fortunately, there are now computerised dictionary programs that make life rather easier. Even so, sorting out a paragraph of Chinese would still take me quite a long time.
As for the second part of your question, like I said earlier, I’ve never been east of Dover. I’m really not much of a traveller and, while there are obviously historical sites it would be fascinating to see, modern China isn’t really what I’m interested in. What appeals to me is a romanticised, traditional China that no longer exists, if it ever did, because that romanticised version is largely coloured by tales of Daoist magicians and the heroics of wuxia fiction. Better to keep to the China in my head, I think, rather than be confronted by contemporary reality.
To be continued…
[Because the above section is, by my standards, quite short, to allow the next section to start where it needs to, I'm adding on a list of All Steve Moore's Brown Watson / Grandreams Annuals in both alphabetical and chronological order. This list was sent to me by Steve himself, and he told me it was compiled with the help of Steve Holland of Bear Alley Books.]
Brown Watson/ Grandreams Annuals with Work by Steve Moore
SYMBOLS C = Cover F = Features I = Illustrations R = Reprint S = Strips T = Text Stories U = Unknown W = Whole Book
Illustrators named where known
1977 – T?, S? (I must have written something for this, or I wouldn’t have a copy! But a lot of it doesn’t read like me. Maybe one T?) (I – John Bolton)
1978 – T, S (F???) (John Higgins)
1977 – T, S, some F (Ian Gibson)
1978 – T, S (Ian Gibson)
BJ AND THE BEAR
1981 – T, S (cartoons – Alan Moore [here])
BRING’EM BACK ALIVE
1982 – T, S
1979 – T, S (Felix Carrion)
1980 – T, S (Felix Carrion)
DUKES OF HAZZARD
1981 – T, S
1982 – T, S (Cartoons – Alan Moore, reprinted from BJ & THE BEAR)
1981 – T, S (David Lloyd)
1982 – T, S (David Lloyd)
1983 – T, S (David Lloyd)
1979 – T, F? (S = R. I – Evi DeBono)
1980 – T (S = R. I – David Lloyd)
1977 – F (S = R. I – John Britton)
1977 – T, S (S, I – Ian Gibson. I – John Bolton)
1980 – S (From synopses by Phil Redmond?) (T by David Angus, from Redmond synopses) (I – John Cooper)
1979 – T, S, F? (John Higgins + R )
1980 – T, S (David Lloyd + R )
1981 – T (S = R. C – Paul Neary, I – David Lloyd)
1982 – T (S = R. C, I – Paul Neary)
1983 – T (S = R. C, I – Paul Neary)
1984 – T (S = R. C – Paul Neary. I – U)
1987 – T, S, 1F
1982 – T, S (F???) (David Lloyd)
1983 – T, S (David Lloyd)
1984 – T, S (Jim Eldridge)
1985 – T, S (Jim Eldridge)
1986 – T, S (Jim Eldridge)
1974 – W (S – Desmon Walduck, I – Melvyn Powell)
1975 – W (S – U, I – John Bolton)
1976 – W (S – Paul Neary, I – Ian Gibson)
1977 – W (I – John Britton, John Bolton?)
1978 – T, S (David Lloyd)
1984 – T, S, 1F (John Higgins)
1986 – T (S = R )
1987 – T (S = R)
1981 – T, S
1980 – T, S (John Higgins)
1982 – T, S, some F (Mick Austin. 2F, I – Steve Moore)
1977 – 1 S, some F (John Bolton)
1978 – 2 T, 1 F (John Bolton + U )
OCTOPUSSY (James Bond movie adaptation)
1983 – S (Paul Neary)
PLANET OF THE APES
1975 – T, S , F (S = U. I – John Bolton)
1976 – T, S (S = John Bolton + Oliver Frey. I = John Bolton + U )
1977 – T, S (John Bolton)
1977 – T?, S? (I must have written something for this, or I wouldn’t have a copy! But a lot of it doesn’t read like me.) (I – Edmond Ripoll)
SHERLOCK HOLMES & DR WATSON
1979 – T, S (Carlos Cruz)
1979 – T, F? (S = R. I – Evi DeBono)
1980 – T (S = R. I – David Lloyd)
1981 – T (S = R. C – Paul Neary. I – David Lloyd)
1982 – T (S = R. C – Paul Neary. I – Paul Neary + Mick Austin)
1983 – T (S = R. C, I – Paul Neary)
1984 – T (S = R. C, I – U )
1985 – T (S = R. C, I – U )
1983 – T (S = R. I – Leigh Baulch + Jerry Paris?)
STAR TREK – THE MOTION PICTURE
1979 – F (S = R)
1978 – F (S = R)
1985 – S
1978 – F (S = R)
SUPERMAN & BATMAN
1976 – T (S = R. I – John Bolton)
1977 – T (S = R. I – John Britton, John Bolton)
1983 – T, S (John Higgins)
TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY
1982 – T, S (David Jackson)
1976 – T (S = R. I – John Bolton)
1977 – T (S = R. I – John Bolton)
1983 – T, S (John Higgins)
1979 – T, S
1974 (1) KUNG FU
1975 (2) KUNG FU
PLANET OF THE APES
1976 (4) KUNG FU
PLANET OF THE APES
SUPERMAN & BATMAN
1977 (10) BARETTA
PLANET OF THE APES
SUPERMAN & BATMAN
1978 (6) BATTLESTAR GALACTICA BIONIC WOMAN
1979 (7) DICK TURPIN
SHERLOCK HOMES & DR WATSON
STAR TREK – THE MOTION PICTURE
1980 (6) DICK TURPIN
1981 (6) BJ AND THE BEAR
DUKES OF HAZZARD
1982 (8) BRING’EM BACK ALIVE
DUKES OF HAZZARD
SPIDER-MAN TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY
1983 (8) FALL GUY
Recorded at Publishers Weekly, it’s More To Come, the weekly podcast of comics news, interviews and discussion with Calvin Reid, Kate Fitzsimons and The Beat’s own Heidi MacDonald.
In this week’s episode, the More to Come Crew discuss 2014′s San Diego Comic-Con including the long-awaited Eisner award vindication of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Image Expo and indie comics, a slightly smaller presence for offsite TV and video game hoopla, digital comics, the con experience and convention safety concerns.
Anybody who has read any amount of my writing, either here and elsewhere, will probably know who my favourite comics writer is*. But I also have a favourite comics artist, whose work is a constant delight to me, and by whom I have pretty much everything I can get my hands on. It’s Rick Geary. He mostly works in black & white, has almost never done any work for The Big Two, and you could just about be forgiven for not having heard of him, but he’s been making his living as a cartoonist and comics artist for nearly forty years now, and is, for me, the comics artist whose work I cherish the most.
He worked on all sorts of things for Dark Horse Comics, and many others, over a number of years, much of which has been collected, and on a shelf right beside me, as I write. In 1987 he started work on a series called A Treasury of Victorian Murder for NBM Publishing, which now stands at eight volumes of true murder tales, which has since been joined by A Treasury of XXth Century Murder, which is up to six volumes, both of which feel like his true life’s work. I’ve always been a fan of true crime stories anyway, and to have them drawn in Geary’s gorgeous black line work is wonderful. If you want to try one – and you should – they’re all available on his Author Page at NBM. It’s not for nothing that Our Glorious Leader, Ms H. MacDonald, said ‘
No season would be complete without the latest in Rick Geary’s ongoing series of 20th-century murders: with elegant, unsettling penwork, Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White tells the notorious story of architect Stanford White, who was murdered by a jealous husband in a theater atop the original Madison Square Garden.’
As well as his ongoing work with NBM, Rick Geary has recently taken to selling books through a series of Kickstarter campaigns, with the most recent, for The True Death of Billy the Kid, still running, until Monday the 11th of August, a week from today. It’s going to be a 60-page black-and-white hardcover graphic novel, and I can pretty much guarantee it’ll turn up right on time, too, because I’ve backed his other two projects, and they did – which is more than can be said for other fundraisers I’ve ante-ed up for, but that is something I’ll wait to address here another day, in the not too distant future.
Anyway, without further ado, here’s a quick interview with Rick Geary, which I was thrilled to be given the chance to do…
Pádraig Ó Méalóid: This is your third Kickstarter campaign, at this stage. First of all, what made you decide to try out fundraising like this as a way to get your work out there?
[Link to The True Death of Billy the Kid Kickstarter.]
Rick Geary: The first time I tried fundraising on Kickstarter was about a year ago, simply out of curiosity as to how it works and to see how well I would do. I thought I should start out with the kind of true crime graphic novel I’m known for. This was The Elwell Enigma, and it succeeded beyond my wildest imagination. After that, I thought I’d try something different. A is for Anti-Christ: Obama’s Conspiracy Alphabet, a kind of satirical children’s book, was a bit of a harder and slower process, but it finally came through. At last, I thought I’d use Kickstarter to fund the kind of historical and non-fiction subjects that fascinate me but which aren’t precisely murder cases. The True Death of Billy the Kid comes out of my life here in Lincoln County, and has now exceeded my funding goal with several more weeks to go. So I have to say I’m very happy with my Kickstarter experience. I also must say that the experience has been made as smooth as possible by my friend and agent and production genius Mark Rosenbohm, who has managed all three campaigns.
PÓM: Yes, I’d noticed that all your campaigns were under Mark’s name. So, is he effectively acting as your publisher on these, or is that the wrong way to look at it?
RG: I suppose he could be technically called my publisher, although I like to think of these books as self-published. They all have come out under my little imprint, Home Town Press.
PÓM: What led you to want to try out an internet fundraiser like this in the first place, and why did you choose Kickstarter to do it on?
RG: There are certain projects in my mind that I know would never be taken on by a mainstream publisher. The Obama Alphabet was certainly one of them. I began my career publishing my own work and I’ve always believed in it. Why Kickstarter? At the time, it seemed to be the only one out there.
PÓM: Are there any drawbacks to using Kickstarter, do you find?
RG: The hardest part of a Kickstarter campaign, though I’d hate to call it a drawback, is the work that comes on the back end. I try to be very conscientious about packaging the books and other premiums and sending them out in a timely manner. Almost 200 mailings for my first project. It’s all well worth it, though.
PÓM: Are you still producing work through more conventional means, like with NBM, for instance? I know they published your Madison Square Tragedy – The Murder of Stanford White around December 2013, so is there anything more scheduled from them?
RG: Yes, I’m still producing murder stories for NBM. I’m currently in the midst of a project that’s a bit of a departure from the true-life cases. Louise Brooks: Detective is a fictional mystery featuring the actress Louise Brooks solving a murder in 1940′s Kansas. After that I plan to return to non-fiction with the story of the Black Dahlia murder.
PÓM: Am I right in thinking you’re somehow related to Louise Brooks?
RG: She was my mother’s second cousin. Though they never met, they grew up in the same area of southeastern Kansas. Brooks was my mother’s maiden name (and my middle name). My mother was born and grew up in the tiny town of Burden, Kansas, as did both of Louise’s parents. The graphic novel I’m working on, Louise Brooks: Detective, takes place during the brief time (1940-42) that she returned to Kansas after her Hollywood career collapsed. The action unfolds in Wichita and Burden.
PÓM: What is it that draws you towards these murder stories, do you think?
RG: It’s become kind of a cliché, but for as long as I can remember, I’ve been attracted to the dark side of human nature. Perhaps because I have such a light and sunny nature myself. Stories of anti-social behavior have the most drama and excitement. And the unsolved cases are the best of all, for the mystery they embody and the speculation they engender. I’m a big proponent of the essential unknowability of things.
PÓM: With the unsolved cases, do you have opinions of your own on who might have done them, or does that not matter to you? With things like Jack the Ripper, for instance, which has virtually mutated into fiction, do you have any ‘favourite’ suspects?
RG: In most cases my goal is to keep a journalistic detachment and not express opinions of my own. Some of the unsolved murders have, as you say, mutated into fiction, but I try to give equal weight to all the theories out there, no matter how ludicrous. Jack the Ripper is the perfect example. The endless speculation linking him to the royal family or other well-known people is pretty flimsy, though entertaining. My belief is that the Ripper had to be some faceless, anonymous East End resident, someone you wouldn’t even notice on the street.
PÓM: What is it about Billy the Kid, that made you want to do this particular book?
RG: Upon moving to Lincoln County, New Mexico, seven years ago, I found that the Kid is a very big deal here. The town of Lincoln, where he spent much of his brief life, is a perfectly preserved little western settlement, and the local historical society is very protective of his story. Accuracy is the top priority. I noticed that no graphic novel has been published that told his true story, and it seemed a natural for my next project on Kickstarter.
PÓM: How much research goes into doing one of these books?
RG: I do as much as I can and still fit within the deadline. I start by reading as many books with as many different points of view on the subject as I can find, and take copious notes. I fill this out with online sources, but what I find there is usually not as detailed as the information contained in books. Then I condense all the material into what I hope is a clear and compelling narrative structure. As for picture reference for period costumes, interiors etc, I usually rely on my extensive personal library. But I can also find pretty much anything I want online.
PÓM: Have you any plans to do more ‘Wild West’ based stories, or is Billy the Kid a one-off?
RG: Nothing specific on the horizon, but I wouldn’t rule anything out.
PÓM: What’s your feeling about fundraisers like Kickstarter, now that you’ve been through it three times? Is it the future of comics publishing, or just an interesting sideline, for you?
RG: I can’t speak for others, but my own experience with Kickstarter has been nothing but positive thus far. I don’t know if it’s the future of comics publishing, but it’s certainly my future. I plan to use it, perhaps once a year, for graphic novel projects that treat broader historical subjects and wouldn’t overlap with the murder stories I do for NBM.
PÓM: Will this, and your previous Kickstarter projects, be available for the general public to buy later on, or is this the only way to get hold of them?
RG: All of my Kickstarter books are, for the moment, sold personally by me at the SD Comic-Con and at APE, or else are available via the “RG Store” on my Website. I’ve also been selling them, on consignment, through a retail outlet in my tiny burg of Carrizozo. Whether they will eventually gain a wider distribution remains to be seen.
PÓM: Thanks very much for taking the time to do this interview, Rick.
RG: Entirely my pleasure, Pádraig. Thanks for everything.
We became pretty solid soccer fans while living in Germany, especially around World Cup time, so on our recent return trip, we were psyched to watch games with our German friends.
For the U.S. v. Germany game, though, we were on our own in France. We planned the whole evening around the game, which aired at 6 p.m. in that time zone.
It was also the only night we could eat at the local Michelin-starred restaurant—and the night they serve a very reasonable prix-fixe menu. So we made a late reservation to fit in both, planning to watch the game at our B & B.
One big problem. After the pre-game commentator chatter, the screen went blank with a message that said something like: “This game is not authorized to be shown in this region.” We flipped around, hoping another station would carry it, but the only game on was the other World Cup match happening at the same time.
Luckily, we were staying right near the German border, so I took a 3 minute shower, hopped into a dress, and we loaded up and drove to the ferry to cross the Rhine. On the other side, my husband knocked on restaurant doors until we found one with public viewing in its little bar area.
The one long table was full of retiree-aged tennis table club members, and the only free seats were at the front with a mustachioed man who’d already had a few too many beers.
He was friendly, though, and when he found out we were American, he told us over and over how much he loved Americans and how the best possible outcome for the game would be a 1-1 tie. He reminded us many times (a few too many) that the German coach and the American team coach (also German) were best friends and how they would both want this.
If you were watching, too, you know the Americans actually lost 0-1. We were disappointed, but after the game, everyone (except the kids) was treated to house-made pear Schnapps while the table tennis team sang the German victory song (is there a name for this?). Everyone was very friendly, and when it was over, we thanked our hosts and dashed back across the river to make our 8:30 reservation.
The restaurant was lovely, with a view to a garden and a stream. The noise level was nearly silent, but our kids were completely awesome and went with the flow.
We opted for the prix-fixe menu and added on the “Festival of Desserts,” which sounded perfect. We envisioned a dessert sampler.
First course (salad above) was great, second course (some kind of meat pie) was amazing. Meanwhile the service was first-rate. Our hostess made sure to graciously inform us when we were missing something, i.e. “You can actually eat those flowers,” and, “Those table decorations are actually pretzels” (in the first photo, the rock-looking things behind the ceramic elves).
Here’s the cheese table, from which we could choose what we liked.
And then the desserts started. First, a platter of teeny tiny cookies of many kinds. Then, a pastry with gelato. Another pastry with gelato. Another….we were losing count.
Surely the cookies had counted as dessert #1. There were supposed to be five desserts in total. Surely the gelato counted for one and the pastry counted for another, right? Wrong. The desserts kept coming, and we slowed down so much that we started getting two at once. The cookies hadn’t even counted as part of the five.
Not only that, but the kids had gotten (included) a dessert of their own, so they couldn’t help us out so much. Still, we were determined to do our duty and eat every bite. On top of the five desserts + cookies + cheese course, there was a tiny truffle course where we could choose our own adventure. How could we say no?
At one point I said, “If they bring another dessert, I’m going to cry,” and we all started laughing, on the verge of breaking the Code of Near-Silence.
Finally we ate our way through the last plate, now having finished enough dessert for about ten people. The last plate was probably my favorite, some kind of cherry cake (pictured above). We rolled out, giggling to ourselves.
My son said the other day, “Let’s never take the circus of desserts next time.” Amen. Maybe just 1/10 of it.
Below is a picture of one of the children’s desserts.
And in case you’re wondering yes, I threw the whole gluten-free eating thing out the window that week. I paid for it the next week, but it was well worth it!
If Karen Green wasn’t a rock star comics librarian before last night’s opening gala, she is now!
So: the gist:
A few years ago, 2005 to be exact, the Ancient & Medieval History and Religion Librarian at Columbia University noticed a need for graphic novels to support the faculty and curriculum of the University. She began to systematically meet the needs of her patrons, while also selecting texts for the general collection. (She says the collection started with 3 volumes.)
But… Columbia has been in existence since 1754. What else might exist buried deep in the archives? In the rare books collection? Elsewhere in the University?
Well, quite a bit!
This exhibit collects an amazing assortment of items… Lots of original art, rare books, correspondence… and ephemera as well. (Yes, you not only see Wendy Pini’s Red Sonja costume, but her meticulous sketches and planning!)
correspondence from Stan Lee to Denis Kitchen
a comics script from Jerry Robinson
original editorial cartoons from the Pulitzer Prize committee
the sketches and final art from the Al Jaffee fold-in Batman variant
the original art from Wendy Pini’s appearance in Elfquest (wow… the screens!)
Chris Claremont’s notebooks
The first page of the script to “Days of Future Past” (which includes some backstory I never considered before…)
an entire display of “proto comics”, including Ward, Töpffer, and Busch
William Moulton Marston’s contract for when he was a professor at Columbia
comics produced by recent students and alumni (WOW)
The highlight for me? An “underground” comic (featured on the exhibition poster) from 1766, libeling a Kings College professor. The plot? He gets a female student drunk on spruce beer (yes, pine tree beer!), gets her pregnant, then pays for her abortion! The comic was confiscated, and used as evidence in the college’s disciplinary action against the students! You can read the sordid tale here. (SFW)
The exhibition opened Monday, with a reception last night. Here are some photos taken from the cheap seats, with a bit of commentary:
Signs aren’t the only thing greeting attendees at the entrance to New York Comicon. Amidst the registration booths and all too quickly emptied bins for lanyards ReedPOP has its own boutique, featuring the geek-chic fashion of Ashley Eckstein’s Her Universe line.
Her Universe has become a significant presence at both the San Diego and New York conventions, which in turn reflects as place as a market leader in pop-culture inspired fashion. I had the pleasure of speaking at length with Ashley back at SDCC after her successful geek couture fashion show, and as an attorney I have to say that she is a role model for anyone who wants to incorporate copyrighted and trademarked material in their line. In a world where “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission” has led any number of creators astray, she has from the outset been conscientious (and ambitious!) in licensing characters for Her Universe clothes.
But that’s not the only way in which Her Universe reflects the better angels of geek community’s nature. Besides integrating the participatory spirit of comics-related media discussed in my last post, Ashley has also been a prominent advocate of geek fashion’s capacity to empower those who wear it, both through her clothes and her anti-bullying activism. Create, speak, show others who you are with fear – where the less imaginative may just see licensed properties, her community sees freedom woven into her designs.
Which brings us to the future of geek couture and its role in the community’s future. Walk around San Diego and New York Comic-Cons and you’ll see expressive fashion everywhere, from handcrafted TARDIS earrings and comic-related t-shirts carried in the ubiquitous TARDIS bag to sophisticated cosplay and brands such as Her Universe itself. As the Her Universe show embodied back at San Diego, the key to the future is to go beyond prints and other reproductions of licensed material to transformative geek-inspired design – in fact, for a useful indication of where things are going, watch the development of the co-branded Marvel line announced last July.
As I discuss in my Fashion Ethics, Sustainability and Development class for the Fashion Law Institute, when we wear clothes we wear ourselves – our values, our aspirations, our communities.* It should, then, come as no surprise that when we look at geek couture, we see the future.
*Check out Professor Susan Scafidi’s “Fashion as Information Technology” for more on this.
From L to R: Diana Pho, LeSean Thomas, Alice Meichi Li, Daniel Jose Older, I.W. Gregorio and Tracey J. John
The main stage spectacles of NYCC saw panels filled with celebrity actors and moderators alike, whipping thousands of screaming audience members into a frenzy. No less intense or enthusiastic, however, were the panels scheduled towards the end of the night in the smaller conference rooms at the Javits Center. Once such panel —Geeks of Color Go Pro —filled its room to capacity with a diverse audience of fans and comic book industry hopefuls cheering just as passionately as fans in the rooms twice its size.
“Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo,” declared Tracy J. John, writer for such marquee video game franchises as Oregon Trail and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. This comment, which came later in the proceedings, proved to be a kind of mission statement for the panel as a whole. Moderated by Tor Books editor Diana Pho, the panel participants represented a diversity of gender, race, and sexual orientation.
Pho opened by asking the panel to tell their “origin stories,” referring to how they arrived at their current careers within an industry that has long suffered from a dearth of diversity. Tracey J. John kicked things off, saying: “a long long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…I went to NYU and got a bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies.” She went on to say that she garnered an internship at MTV News, which led to a job working for MTV.com. “We wrote about these things called ‘music videos,’” she joked. This job placed her in the perfect spot to capitalize on her World of Warcraft addiction when MTV looked to launch a video game focused section of its website. She recalled thinking, “whoa, I can get paid to write about video games?” She later turned to freelance work for Wired, NY Post, and Playstation Magazine. Desirous of a more stable paycheck, she turned to a job at Gameloft and worked in game development. Recently she decided to shake things up again, and has returned to freelance work.
I.W. Gregorio, who claims she’s still getting used to being addressed by the pen name her day job requires, opened by speaking the question on the minds of many an audience member: “How did a urologist end up being a YA author?” She went on to explain she felt the better question to be “why would an aspiring author become a doctor?” She spoke of her racially isolated childhood where she knew immediately she wanted to be a writer, but felt family pressure “like a lot of kids of color” to enter either law or medicine to be deemed a ‘success’ culturally. Her talents in math and science led her to choose the path of medicine, “enough people had told me that I wanted to be a doctor that I ended up being one.” She did attempt, in her words, to “try to have my cake and eat it too” also studying English while in college. She went on to pursue medicine and take a 10 year break from writing before her passion was reignited during her residency. She is, however, grateful to be a doctor because it “enables my writing career…and gives me a lot of stories.” She described how her new book None of the Above was inspired by an intersex teenager she treated during her residency.
Daniel Jose Older, author of the upcoming Half-Resurrection Blues, the first book in what is to be an ongoing urban fantasy series for Penguin Book’s Roc imprint, began by saying that Gregorio’s story “actually really connects to mine. In 2009 I was a paramedic and community organizer doing work on gender violence and intersections of racism. I was trying how to figure out how to have a voice and what that meant as a writer.” He explained that he loved Star Wars and Harry Potter, but that he and the kids of color he was working work didn’t see themselves in those stories, “and there was a disconnect.” This inspired him to “sit down and write Shadowshaper which got picked up by the folks at Scholastic that put out Harry Potter, so it was this really big dream come true.” He went on to explain that the process of publishing that first work took over 6 years and that “publishing will make you learn patience” which drew a big laugh from the crowd. He continued to work on stories during that time, and work on adult fiction, which led him to Half-Resurrection Blues, due out in 2015. He explained that his background as a paramedic directed inspired the new book, saying: “a lot of this comes from being on the front lines…dealing with life and death.”
Author Alice Meichi Li knew she wanted to be an artist since the age of five. “I grew up in a Chinese restaurant in a really rough part of Detroit,” she said. She explained how this kept her indoors for her own safety, drawing on the back of the placemats of her parents’ restaurant. She also felt pushed towards a career in more economically dependable fields like law, medicine, or IT technologies. “When faced with the prospect of applying for college, all I could think about was arts school. I was in Army Junior ROTC and my Staff Sargent saw some of my art and he said: what are you doing here? You should be taking art class, you should be pursuing this.” She eagerly took his advice, worrying her family regarding her future. As she graduated High School at the top of her class, they told her she should be making “six-figures somewhere”—not becoming a starving artist. She conceded that’s “pretty much what happened” to the amusement of the audience, “I did have to end up balancing a day job,” with her art career, working at the well-known comic book store Forbidden Planet. “But I was doing Artist’s Alleys and that’s how I made a lot of my connections. If you’re trying to be an artist in comics that’s pretty much your best bet.”
“Everybody’s got all these cool stories,” remarked Black Dynamite producer and director LeSean Thomas. “I was born and raised in the South Bronx, John Adams projects at 152nd Street,” some in the crowd applauded at this mention—then laughed as Thomas joked that he was in the part of the Bronx that exists “past Yankee Stadium” where most New Yorkers’ familiarity with the Bronx begins and ends. “I grew up watching Saturday morning cartoons, reading comics books, “ he recalled, saying that he felt comic books was a more realistic career path for him, as the tools used to produce comics were more affordable than that of cartoon animation: “they don’t sell light-boxes at the bodegas,” he quipped.
Thomas ended up in a High School arts program called Talent Unlimited. Following High School he took a job at a sporting goods store to make ends meet. While working there, he was spotted sketching by his store manager whose wife worked at a children’s accessories company. The company quickly employed him to work on designs for accessories featuring licensed characters. Through his work there, he met Joe Rodgers who mentored the young artist and eventually Thomas “became a flash artist/storyboard artist on this web-cartoon called WorldGirl, and it got picked up by Showtime, I think it was the first cartoon to get picked up by a major network.” His success there led to his meeting Carl Jones, who moved to Los Angeles and teamed with The Boondocks creator Aaron MacGruder on the now famous Cartoon Network series based on MacGruder’s comic strip of the same name. “He needed people who could understand Hip-Hop culture, Anime, and social political racial satire, and it was very hard to find that kind of talent in Hollywood,” he paused as the crowd laughed before putting it bluntly: “let alone somebody who could draw a black person.” This led him to move to Los Angeles to work on the show, which he feared would soon be canceled due to its controversial and sometimes “wildly inappropriate” content.
The series proved a critical and ratings success for Cartoon Network, and Thomas felt liberated by the mostly black racial makeup of The Boondocks’ creative team. “I grew up in a society where the White male was the dominant character…to be able to work on a show where my boss was Black, the characters we were creating were Black and we were saying the things we wanted to say without caring what other people thought, Black or White, was really liberating and was one of the best experiences for me.” He went on to comment that his experience working on The Boondocks “catapulted his career,” gave him the chance to move overseas, and opened many career opportunities for him-not the least of which was his teaming up producer Carl Jones to produce the Adult Swim series Black Dynamite. He noted how rare it was to have three shows in a row to his credit that found him working under Black people, on shows starting Black characters: The Boondocks, Legend of Korra, and Black Dynamite.
“I guess I should pitch in about myself, and I thought: oh, I’m the moderator—just sit here and look pretty,” joked Diana Pho, before continuing: “I grew up in New England, in a very White town. I was always the only Asian girl in my class and my family is from Vietnam: no one knew where Vietnam was, because actually in my High School they never talked about the Vietnam War.” This statement elicited shocked sounds from the assembled crowd, but also some knowing murmurs that appeared to understand all too well the sort of erasure her statement described. Pho explained that she found escape from her outsider status through books, especially science fiction and fantasy novels. While studying English at college, she knew felt her options for employment were limited to work as a teacher, continuing her studies of Russian-her minor field-in order to obtain her Master’s Degree in it, or something else. “I chose something else,” she said, “and that was publishing.”
She explained she felt publishing to be a small field, insular in nature-and a field where it “has to do with the connections you make, that’s what I learned” and mentioned that her first job involved editing test books for college admissions for a summer. “What it did provide me was internship experience in marketing,” Pho remarked, explaining that this led to her getting a job with Hachette Press. She worked there in sales and marketing for several years before a colleague recommended her for a position at the Science Fiction Book Club making catalogues. She ended up following this with a Master’s in Performance Studies-doing her thesis in Steampunk performance-and graduated to assume her current role at Tor Books.
The panel then opened up for questions from the audience where Pho asked that the questions be “tweet-sized” to try and get to everyone’s question , but the line for the microphone grew long enough that the panel was forced to wrap up with audience members still on line. When asked: “what was one thing that you wish you knew when you started out that you know now?” Gregorio explained that as a representative of the We Need Diverse Books campaign (weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com) “I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that there are obviously challenges for diverse authors, the first book I wrote had and Asian-American multicultural protagonist-and three different editors said: oh, it’s too similar to another book with an Asian-American character.” She explained that she knew other authors of color who had run into enough of the same problem that they feared they might have to only write about White characters going forward. “The We Need Diverse Books campaign is most effective because it’s been showing the gatekeepers that they are wrong. Fifty percent of children in schools today are children of color, but only ten percent of books have minority protagonists.” She also called upon the audience to open up their wallets and support works by authors of color and/or featuring main characters of color.
John added on to Gregorio’s comments by telling the audience to not be afraid of the status quo, and gave an example of her work in gaming journalism. “Things that I did…aside from asking the questions I needed to do my job, I’d throw in some poignant questions, I’ve asked Shigeru Miyamoto: why does Princess Peach need saving again? Didn’t she get some self-defense classes by then? Or the developer of a family game why there wasn’t an option to be a Black person, they just had different tans? Ask those kinds of questions. It can be intimidating: Oh I have this opportunity to interview a game developer, I don’t want to screw it up. I’d say ask the normal questions and then save those for the end.”
“When you’re starting out as a writer there’s a lot of advice given out to you, like: you have to build your platform, you have to network! And there’s this very common, very White Western narrative of breaking out as an author. Where you’re that singular rocket ship that flies away to become famous overnight…what it requires us to do, especially as writers and creators of color, is to really reimagine what success means to us anytime we’re entering into any kind of project or career.” He went on to emphasize the need to build community, outside of a “putting points on your resume” style of thinking. “What will sustain you is unity. That’s what will have your back when things are hard, and things will be hard.” He noted that more than fans, writers need people who will tell them the truth-people who will give them the “hard critique.” He also said he wanted to shout-out to: fanbros.com, nerdgasmnoire.net as well as blackgirlnerds.com, saying of the organizations: “these groups are collectives of people of color, proudly nerds, proudly of color, talking about racism, talking about Sleepy Hollow. We need to talk about these things because that’s community” to many loud cheers.
Li wished to add “a piece of advice I hear a lot: you are the average of the five people you interact with most in life. So if you have a bunch of people who are ambitious, who are trying to do what you’re trying to do you’re going to kind of automatically get lifted up with them. So you want at least three of them to be in a place where you aspire to be. I add that you should look for someone who is: 1) an older mentor, to get advice from, 2) an equal, that you can be a comrade-at-arms with and share you career path with and 3) someone you can mentor, because you can learn a lot from teaching.”
“The thing that I wish I’d known before getting into animation, that I do now is that all the animation jobs are in California,” said Thomas, to the laughter of the crowd. Thomas clearly meant the comment seriously, adding: “I wouldn’t have stayed in New York as long if I’d have known there were no real animation jobs in New York the way there are in California…I probably would’ve made my pilgrimage a lot sooner.”
Another attendee asked how the artists dealt with accusations of racism. “I just got called racist the other day, so that was fun,” recounted Older, saying that because the bad guys in a recent story were White he had the accusation leveled at him. “There’s no easy answer, but you have to go with your gut and trust your instincts because when the shit flies, you have to be able to stand up for your work. I know what I did in that story—and I have much worse stories about White people than that,” he said, laughing.
Gregorio added: “publishing is a team sport, you’re going to have editors and marketing people-they’ll catch anything really bad. And also you have to realize we’re all going to get criticism. Haters are gonna’ hate, it’s alright!”
A reporter asked if the panel felt any responsibility towards social justice storylines. Thomas replied, “You know on Black Dynamite me and Carl Jones, the executive producer, always used to joke that we were like social workers in animation, not to belittle social work, but we liked to joke that because we were one of the few [shows] that touched on those issues. The most important thing for us is that it has to be funny, that’s the golden rule. The second rule is that it has to be genuine. If it’s honest, if it comes from a good place there’s always humor in it….and the third is to make people uncomfortable, not in a negative way but to make them think outside what they normally expect.”
The final question came from a Bleeding Cool reporter who asked, “Why are we still having this conversation? I feel like we’re constantly having the same conversation: do you see an end to it, do you think? Where we’re not going to need to have ‘Geeks of Color’ in the corner at 8:00pm?”
“So you’re saying Geeks of Color needs to be at noon, is what you’re saying? I agree I think it should be much earlier.” Thomas joked.
Pho added: “we’re going to keep having this conversation until we hit critical mass,” she explained that critical mass was not when people stopped asking questions, but rather that “we need a critical mass of answers from all over the place, not just from us but from you guys—not just from you guys but from everyone at this convention, and not just this convention—about how pop culture functions, how media functions…we all have to hit that critical mass point and that’s when the conversation stops.”
“I feel your point a lot,” Older added, indicating the reporter, “we do need this and part of the reason is the industry is still very racist, still very White, and so we need to have these conversations…the job and the struggle and the challenge for us is to push the conversation forward so it’s not so circular. So that’s why we need diverse books, which is such an important way to get everyone together. We need to talk about power analysis.” Older also stressed that he felt there were necessary conversations that weren’t had before this generation of creators and it was important to recognize: “we’re here because the folks before us fought their fight, so we’re fighting our fight for the next generation of artist of color, writers of color…and that involves getting together and having ‘geeks of color’ panels which makes people uncomfortable, which is good, as it should.”
One hundred years ago today, far from the erupting battlefields of Europe, a small German force in the city of Tsingtau (Qingdao), Germany’s most important possession in China, was preparing for an impending siege. The small fishing village of Qingdao and the surrounding area had been reluctantly leased to the German Empire by the Chinese government for 99 years in 1898, and German colonists soon set about transforming this minor outpost into a vibrant city boasting many of the comforts of home, including the forerunner of the now-famous Tsingtao Brewery. By 1914, Qingdao had over 50,000 residents and was the primary trading port in the region. Given its further role as the base for the Far East Fleet of the Imperial German Navy, however, Qingdao was unable to avoid becoming caught up in the faraway European war.
The forces that besieged Qingdao in the autumn of 1914 were composed of troops from Britain and Japan, the latter entering the war against Germany in accord with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Alliance had been agreed in 1902 amid growing anxiety in Britain regarding its interests in East Asia, and rapidly modernizing Japan was seen as a useful ally in the region. For Japanese leaders, the signing of such an agreement with the most powerful empire of the day was seen as a major diplomatic accomplishment and an acknowledgement of Japan’s arrival as one of the world’s great powers. More immediately, the Alliance effectively guaranteed the neutrality of third parties in Japan’s looming war with Russia, and Japan’s victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 sent shockwaves across the globe as the first defeat of a great European empire by a non-Western country in a conventional modern war.
In Britain, Japan’s victory was celebrated as a confirmation of the strength of its Asian ally, and represented the peak of a fascination with Japan in Britain that marked the first decade of the twentieth century. This culminated in the 1910 Japan-British Exhibition in London, which saw over eight million visitors pass through during its six-month tenure. In contrast, before the 1890s, Japan had been portrayed in Britain primarily as a relatively backward yet culturally interesting nation, with artists and intellectuals displaying considerable interest in Japanese art and literature. Japan’s importance as a military force was first recognized during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, and especially from the time of the Russo-Japanese War, Japan’s military prowess was popularly attributed to a supposedly ancient warrior spirit that was embodied in ‘bushido’, or the ‘way of the samurai’.
The ‘bushido’ ideal was popularized around the world especially through the prominent Japanese educator Nitobe Inazo’s (1862-1933) book Bushido: The Soul of Japan, which was originally published in English in 1900 and achieved global bestseller status around the time of the Russo-Japanese War (a Japanese translation first appeared in 1908). The British public took a positive view towards the ‘national spirit’ of its ally, and many saw Japan as a model for curing perceived social ills. Fabian Socialists such as Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) and Oliver Lodge (1851-1940) lauded the supposed collectivism of ‘bushido’, while Alfred Stead (1877-1933) and other promoters of the Efficiency Movement celebrated Japan’s rapid modernization. For his part, H.G. Wells 1905 novel A Modern Utopia included a ‘voluntary nobility’ called ‘samurai,’ who guided society from atop a governing structure that he compared to Plato’s ideal republic. At the same time, British writers lamented the supposed decline of European chivalry from an earlier ideal, contrasting it with the Japanese who had seemingly managed to turn their ‘knightly code’ into a national ethic followed by citizens of all social classes.
The ‘bushido boom’ in Britain was not mere Orientalization of a distant society, however, but was strongly influenced by contemporary Japanese discourse on the subject. The term ‘bushido’ only came into widespread use around 1900, and even a decade earlier most Japanese would have been bemused by the notion of a national ethic based on the former samurai class. Rather than being an ancient tradition, the modern ‘way of the samurai’ developed from a search for identity among Japanese intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century. This process saw an increasing shift away from both Chinese and European thought towards supposedly native ideals, and the former samurai class provided a useful foundation. The construction of an ethic based on the ‘feudal’ samurai was given apparent legitimacy by the popularity of idealized chivalry and knighthood in nineteenth-century Europe, with the notion that English ‘gentlemanship’ was rooted in that nation’s ‘feudal knighthood’ proving especially influential. This early ‘bushido’ discourse profited from the nationalistic fervor following Japan’s victory over China in 1895, and the concept increasingly came to be portrayed as a unique and ancient martial ethic. At the same time, those theories that had drawn inspiration from European models came to be ignored, with one prominent Japanese promoter of ‘bushido’ deriding European chivalry as ‘mere woman-worship’.
In the first years of the twentieth century, the Anglo-Japanese Alliance contributed greatly to the positive reception in Britain of theories positing a Japanese ‘martial race’, and the fate of ‘bushido’ in the UK demonstrated the effect of geopolitics on theories of ‘national characteristics’. By 1914, British attitudes had begun to change amid increasing concern regarding Japan’s growing assertiveness. Even the Anglo-Japanese operation that finally captured Qingdao in November was marked by British distrust of Japanese aims in China, a sentiment that was strengthened by Japan’s excessive demands on China the following year. Following the war, Japan’s reluctance to return the captured territory to China caused British opposition to Japan’s China policy to increase, leading to the end of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1923. The two countries subsequently drifted even further apart, and by the 1930s, ‘bushido’ was popularly described in Britain as an ethic of treachery and cruelty, only regaining its positive status after 1945 through samurai films and other popular culture as Japan and Britain again became firm allies in the Cold War.
Headline image credit: Former German Governor’s Residence in Qingdao, by Brücke-Osteuropa. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.