With the sheltering in place, I’ve been taking time to organize things. The other day I went through a bunch of old drawings and comics work and saw a few things I hadn’t thought about in years. Here are a few.
– – –
For 2020, I’m hoping to finish “Lounger.” I have a lot of other stories in the planning stages, but the one I have most fleshed out is going to be called Callisto 7 and is an existentialist sci-fi fiasco. I feel like This Wasn’t the Plan went as far with personal, realistic fiction as I want to go for the time being. I really want to move in new directions and break my own restrictions about the kinds of stories I “should” and “shouldn’t” do.
Looking back on the past decade, the biggest thing was finishing Carnivale. The first printing came out in March of 2014. I started it in late 2005. I worked on it while being a new parent and a new college teacher. It was an act of faith. I serialized it on the old version of the nijomu website and got some feedback and some mentions on different sites. Yet when the book was done and printed there was almost no reaction. It was a blow. Getting rid of the old website was part of that reaction. I know that there all kinds of lessons about expectations and marketing that can be made, but from my initial perspective it was the biggest book I had ever made and it had taken years of my life. And I was excited about it. And that was met with silence. It took me some time to recover.
I decided that I should try to put my energies elsewhere. I have often mentioned that in high school and college I wrote poetry, only submitted work twice, and was published on the second try. So I thought to go back to that and try to get published in literary anthologies. That proved to be challenging. Most literary anthologies don’t accept comics and the ones that do often have strict requirements about format. And kind of like putting books on consignment, submitting to various anthologies required a lot of logistical work that took time away from actually creating comics. Still, I like some of the things that I created in that time. Those works can be found in The Lost Cause of Poetry.
Of course, there are also the three works that comprise This Wasn’t the Plan. I think that I’m still too close to them to have insight about what they mean yet. But I used the book to try a different publishing angle. I even got a nice review through Foreword Reviews and a blurb in The New York Review of Books. But none of that translated into sales.
Of course, all of this begs the question: maybe my work just sucks. Maybe my work’s lack of attention is just what my work deserves. I even considered sending my books out to successful comics artists and asking them: “does this suck?” Then I realized that it wouldn’t matter what they told me; at the end of the day I’d create comics anyway. On the one hand, the only way not to suck is to keep going and create something that is worthwhile. On the other hand, it is the act of creating and the satisfaction of completing comics that drive me.
So at the end of the decade I don’t feel that I know anything more than I did at the beginning. Though in some ways I feel better about the idea that what I care about is creating comics. Yes, I’d like those creations to communicate to more people, but it’s the act of creation that is most important to me. Comics is a practice. And I want to focus on the practice. The effects of that practice are a side benefit and my trying to force those effects seems to lead me only to frustration. So I guess I’ve just spent the last decade confirming my original stance. It’s only the work that matters.
As with many other folks associated with comics, Tom’s death shocked me and is taking some time for me to process. While I only met Tom once and so wasn’t by any means close with him, he has been a presence in my entire comics career. And it’s been a complicated presence.
I created my first mini comic in 1996. That means that as I was putting myself out there and trying to get to know the alternative comics world, Tom was the editor at The Comics Journal, which was, at that time, the only place that talked about comics as a serious art form and talked about the kinds of comics that I was interested in. But it wasn’t a friendly place. To me, it was like a boys’ clubhouse where the default mode of interaction was the insult. My impression was always that Gary Groth had made a name for himself going after Marvel and Jim Shooter. Yet that same “blood and thunder” with which he attacked the establishment was then brought to bear on naïve twenty-somethings photocopying their work and mailing it out. The criticism that was offered was not in any way constructive. And again, Tom was the editor at the time. So sometimes Tom was the one writing the reviews. Many of us my age got our first negative reviews from Tom. He was the one who told us that we sucked, that we were crude, that our ideas were simplistic and not very interesting. And you may say that maybe these things were true and that an artist needs to be able to deal with negative criticism. Perhaps, but, and I am biased here, there always seemed to be a glee that the TCJ reviewers took in destroying an artist’s hopes. There was a cruelty to it. So in my mind, Tom Spurgeon was the Kingpin of this ogre attitude.
Comics had never been an inviting world for me. I loved the comics themselves of course and I loved seeing new things in the comic book store, but I never felt comfortable in the stores themselves. When I began buying comic books regularly, there were two stores in my area. One was run by a grumpy man who never smiled and who accused me of lying and trying to steal. I stopped going to that store. The other was staffed by a young guy who liked to prove how cool he was by belittling the intelligence of the kids who came in. That was the store I went into the most. I figured being made to feel dumb was better than fearing that someone was going to call the cops on me. Years later, the sexism in the imagery displayed in the stores started to disturb me and I would feel unclean just walking into a comic book store. So when I discovered mail order, and later the internet, and when bookstores started stocking graphic novels, I never set foot in a comic book store again.
But still, I loved comics and I knew there must be others who had a passion for the art form and wanted to talk about it like I did. While The Comics Journal roiled with bitterness and anger, there were articles and interviews that shined though. In fact, Spurgeon published Bart Beaty’s column, “Euro-Comics for Beginners,” which was one of the most consistently excellent parts of The Journal. So when The Comics Journal Message Board started up, I was still hopeful. But, as almost anyone who was there at the time will tell you, that rosy ideal of mutual intellectual and artistic inquiry didn’t materialize. Basically, it was Twitter decades before Twitter came to be. But I kept posting there. I kept trying. Mostly, because I had nothing else. Like many comics fans, I didn’t have anyone else in my life who was into comics the way that I was. So I was willing to put up with the abuse for those rare moments when we would actually talk about why we loved the comics that we loved. And sometimes I decided to fight back, and thereby added to the abuse. But after awhile, I would just log in and scroll through the endless threads about which actor should play which superhero in which (at that time) hypothetical movie and check on the discussions about comics that inevitably would devolve into personal attacks within a post or two.
And as I said, Tom was the moderator and editor. So for me, he was the face of the disappointment I felt over the comics community. When I thought of how fucked up it was, how immature and self-hating everyone was, I’d think of Tom.
But then he left. And I moved on in my life, also. I still created comics, still showed up at the Alternative Press Expo, but my drive to connect and get noticed had been curbed. And then I became a father and life took a busy turn.
Years later, The Comics Reporter appeared. In the beginning, the reviews Tom posted were not significantly different in style from the ones he had done before. But the site slowly morphed into something else. It became more about news, more about connecting to other sites, other reviewers, other artists. The Comics Reporter became a hub. And, for all Tom’s disdain for “team comics,” his site became a place that tied a community together.
Since I didn’t know Tom personally, I never knew for sure what his thought process was, but I always got the impression that he wanted to recreate himself, that he wanted to do things differently than the way he had done them in the TCJ days. And so his site stopped its reviews for the most part and instead honored artists on their birthdays, provided links to new creators, and gave advice for how to survive a con. He started his “Five For Friday” and encouraged everyone to submit replies. Instead of a bitter stop sign, the site was an encouraging arrow pointing forward. Tom Spurgeon became constructive.
My interpretation may, of course, be all wrong. Plenty of people have very different impressions of Tom and his legacy. But for me, he is still that symbol of everything that crushed my young enthusiasm, while at the same time being an example of the fact that we don’t have to be defined by who we were. There is always a chance to go in a new direction. Healing can happen. It takes strength to do it, but it is possible. And so while you may disagree with my narrative, it provides me with hope. It’s the narrative of a hero.
It’s also on Webtoon:
At this point, I think you can get a pretty good idea for the feel of the story. Since I am so bad at labeling things (stemming, most probably, from the fact that I hate labels): what would you call it? Apocalyptic? Dark comedy? Drama? Sci-fi?
Also, I’m thinking of playing with a color version and making it available on ComiXology. I know people have all sorts of opinions about ComiXology, but it’s the most consistent form of comics income for me. Though, I’m using the term “income” loosely.
Since I had two new books out this year, This Wasn’t the Plan and The Lost Cause of Poetry, I decided that it might be time to do some cons again. I hadn’t done a con since the sad little APE back in September of 2017, and not since 2014 before that when I did the TCAF. So I applied to a few and waited to hear back. I got a yes from the TCAF first. I debated awhile before accepting, because the dates were set for the weekend before finals at the new school I was teaching at. But there usually isn’t much grading to do before finals, and the TCAF is a great show, so I decided to do it. Then I got a yes from the VanCAF. The dates for that were set the weekend after the TCAF, the weekend after my finals. This seemed even crazier: two cons in a row right at the end of the semester. But the craziness made me want to do it. And my wife said, “why not?”
So I was set to attend two cons that were not in my country, on subsequent weekends, during the end of the semester of my first year teaching at a new school. What could go wrong?
Turns out: not much. I’m a good planner and have learned a thing or two over the years. So much for that drama.
What about the shows?
The TCAF is probably the best comics show in North America. It is set in a public library and has free admission, so anyone with any level of curiosity can come by and check things out. When the doors open on the first day, a herd of people spills into the first floor. It’s a site to behold. And there are now three floors of exhibitors. When I was at the TCAF in 2014 there were two floors and the place I was in on the second floor this year wasn’t being utilized back then. Looking at the exhibitor page on the TCAF site, it looks like there may have been around 800 exhibitors.
The downside of this is that attendees get overwhelmed and you see them shamble past your table with blank expressions in their eyes. It also meant for me that I never got to see everything at the show. This is partly my own fault. I could have taken some time out, during the first hour on Sunday morning for instance, to really get around. But I didn’t. It’s easy to talk yourself out of abandoning your table when you are tabling alone. As it was, I only hit the tables that had things I know that I wanted and I never even set foot on the third floor or even in the room on the second floor that I was in back in 2014.
As with any con, it’s mostly you standing or sitting behind a table hoping people will come up and check out your work and choose, among the hundreds (thousands?) of other things that they could buy, to plop down some cash from small-cash.com for pieces of paper that you scribbled in the lonely, stolen hours of your life. It’s an odd way to find readers. Still, it’s also a social event. You get to meet creators you respect and meet other people with the same mad obsession you have.
I shared a table with Bryce Gold, who is the publisher behind Pyrite Press. Not only do I like the books he puts out, he was a really great guy. Talking with him made the weekend a lot better. On my right were Leo Lee and Kels Choo. They were selling a few comics, but mostly prints of their artwork. They were both nice guys and often very funny.
Still, being at a con so far from home meant that I didn’t run into anyone I knew. So there’s an odd loneliness that happens when you are around constant streams of people and yet are known by none of them.
I sold a few of my books and made some good money (for me). It’s important to note that I didn’t make enough to recoup everything I put out with the plane tickets, accommodations, meals, and table space. As I mentioned, I have another job. I’m also married and my wife has a full-time job. I’m not relying on any of this to make my living. I feel this bears being said just so that you know where I’m coming from, but also because when I tabled my first con I was completely naive about what to expect. That’s part of the reason that I write these things.
It was a long weekend, but constantly moving. Saturday was more alive than Sunday (which is almost always true), but the TCAF was always busy.
I also just want to mention that the TCAF is an amazingly well-run show. It offers currency exchange for exhibitors, allows you to ship books ahead of time, and has plenty of well-informed volunteers. This year, it also had pronoun stickers that you could take and attach to your badge or shirt.
I haven’t read all of these yet, but these are the books I got at TCAF:
- Basement Dwellers vol. 1 by Leland Goodman
- Eight-lane Runaways part 4 by Henry McCausland
- Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell
- Ocular Anecdotes 1-3 by Peter Cline
- When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll
The VanCAF was definitely the smaller show and I did about half as many sales there as at the TCAF. Still, being smaller meant that I could take in the whole space. I made it around to all the exhibiting areas, sometimes more than once. So I feel like I was really able to see what was there, which is half the point of exhibiting. The VanCAF is more like the early days of the APE, or like a zine fest. Besides Fantagraphics, there weren’t many big publishers there. And so what was left were just creators and their works. Which is awesome. I didn’t love everything I saw, of course, but I found some really innovative and creative comics.
I ended up sharing a table with Marc Bell. When I saw my table-mate listed before I left, it seemed unreal. Bell is, of course, an experienced con exhibitor and managed his table with a light touch. He would sit for a spell, then get up and have a smoke, or talk with someone, or walk the floor, or just go outside. It was a good model for me. To the left of me was Josh Simmons. I had seen Simmons’s work way back in the days of the Top Shelf anthology. So I was surrounded by old guys, like me. Was that intentional on the con organizers’ part? Anyway, both guys were great. I could talk about horror with Josh and get public transportation advice from Marc. And then there was that overly friendly VanCF volunteer whom Josh and I had to deal with at the end of both days…
Also at the show was Fred Noland. I had met him years ago at the APE and he still lives in the Bay Area, not far from where I live. It was fun to catch up and talk about being parents. It’s also good to see that not everyone from the old days has given up.
Anyway, the VanCAF was a nice little show and it seems to be growing. Sunday had a lot of kids in attendance, probably because the Roundhouse, where the event was held, was having a special train day. If I had books oriented to kids this might have been advantageous. As it was, Sunday was v*e*r*y slow. Still, I was better this time at getting up and looking around. And there was a lot to see.
- Black Sheep and Major Taylor by Fred Noland
- Disquiet anthology
- Feast of Fields by Sean Karemaker
- Floral Sounds by Hue Nguyen
- I’ll Sing to You of Hyacinths by Jesse Coons
- Incredible Doom #1 by Matthew Bogart and Jesse Holden
- Jessica Farm November 2018 by Josh Simmons
- Weegee by Max De Radigues and Wauter Mannaert
- Worn Tuff Elbow No. 2 by Marc Bell
So, yes, I’m glad I did both shows. It was good to get out there and have a reality check, and also see all the cool work that everyone is doing. At the same time, it’s a really ineffectual way to get new readers. Cons are a strange thing, especially for comics creators who work mostly by themselves in front of quiet pieces of paper or computer screens. So I don’t think I’ll be doing one again for awhile. Still, whenever in the future I have a new book coming out, I’m sure I’ll toss around the idea.
But one last observation, since I’m a cranky old man…
Is anyone in it for the stories?
It always amazes me how that at shows dedicated to sequential art what people want to buy are prints, t-shirts, and tchotchkes. At the TCAF, the guys to my right were selling a print based off Into The Spider-Verse, and I can’t tell you how many times that print caught someone’s eye and they ended up buying it. Even the artists were surprised by how popular it was. At a show dedicated to independent artists and unique voices, most people just wanted the Spiderman print. It wasn’t this egregious at the VanCAF, but the pattern was similar. Marc Bell had a huge print that I think sold more than any of his books. Though maybe his t-shirts did as well. Same with Josh Simmons. He had this print with really vibrant colors that drew more people to his table than anything else. Yes, these were both great prints, but it’s not a print show, right? There’s nothing I can do about any of this, but it always strikes me as odd. It runs counter to my own sensibilities. For one, I do not need any more little things cluttering up my home. The older I get, the more anti-consumerist I become. Second, I am looking for exciting work that will transport and satisfy me. And that work I want is comics work. You know, sequential art. Not a t-shirt. Not a print. And definitely not a Spiderman knock-off. I know comics have come a long way, but I just wish more people hungered for the art form itself, not the detritus that rides along with it. But I love comics. So I’ll keep ending up at these shows. And still make the same complaints, probably.