Category Archives: publishing

Architecting the Possibilities

I’m bummed I can’t be in Chicago right now for the AWP conference, but I’m beyond excited that my freshly-printed textbook collaboration with Lance Olsen, Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Fiction, is making its debut there.

AoP is a re-versioning/visioning and rebirth of Lance’s 1998 Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Fiction Writingmy involvement with the project was something of a Be Careful What You Ask For story, wherein I had taught Rebel Yell for many years in my fiction writing workshops. About five years ago I started badgering Lance to update the book every chance I got, and at &NOW Buffalo he finally got sick of me asking. “Okay, okay, okay already,” he relented. “But you are going to help me.”

We started strategizing the project in the summer of 2010. I began deliberately working on it in spring of 2011 as my sabbatical project and spent most of the summer conducting and polishing over 60 brand spankin new interviews and writing small sections on social networking and DIY publishing. It was such a pleasure to reconnect with old friends for this project and also to finally have a legitimate excuse to reach out to writers, artists and theorists I’ve always admired but was just a little too schoolboy shy to bother beforehand (for the record, yes: Katherine Dunn is the most generous, pleasant and insightful person alive today, if not pretty much ever; Stephen Graham Jones is capable of slamming out 1,500 words of razor-sharp prose in as much time as it takes to pop the top of a soda can;  Scott McCloud is just as brilliant talking into a cell phone as he is giving his sexy slide presentation). When it came time to edit the final draft of the manuscript, Lance and I found ourselves quite literally with an embarrassment of riches, wherein we simply didn’t have room in the print edition to include all of the amazing interviews we had conducted. We are delighted to collect all of the interviews that we couldn’t fit in the book on the AoP website, and to archive them alongside legacy interviews from Rebel Yell.

It goes without saying how inspirational and just downright fun it is to work with Lance in any capacity, but it definitely needs said again here how inspirational and just downright fun it is to work with Lance.  I was honored when he asked me to work on this with him and and truly blessed to have had the experience.

If you are on Facebook or Twitter, I hope you’ll check us out there. Also please check out our blog on the main AoP site.

But most of all, please accept my eternal gratitude for caring as much as you do, even if it’s just a little itty bitty bit. This project in no small measure kept me focused, inspired and motivated through some of the toughest and darkest times I’ve had professionally, personally and creatively. I know that I am a better writer, teacher, colleague and human being because of it.


Respect a Fucking Killer

David Foster Wallace would have been 50 years old today. When he was 33, he wrote this letter to Don Delillo, and inside that letter he wrote these two sentences that pretty much nail the whole writing/publication for validation thing:

I hope that in the course of your decades writing you’ve done and been subject to stuff that’s helped make you a more Respectful writer. I would like to be a Respectful writer, I believe…though I know I’d far prefer finding out some way to become that w/o time and pain and the war of LOOK AT ME v. RESPECT A FUCKING KILLER.

Dave: that you worried about the Look At Me part as much as you did even further underscores the Respect so many of us have for you, always had for you, always will.

Happy birthday, Killer.

Everyone I Know Lives on Kindle

My last collection of short stories, Everyone I Know Lives on Roads, is now available for the Kindle for only 99 cents. You can afford that.

Scott McCloud: Oct 15 @ Clackamas CC

Zot! creator and Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud will give a keynote talk on writing and publishing in the digital age at 6:30 pm next Friday night, October 15 at the Niemeyer Center on Clackamas CC’s main campus in Oregon City. McCloud’s talk will kick off the Clackamas Story Jam, a 24-hour event featuring publishing workshops in comics, video and letterpress printing wherein participants will create a new project from start to finish within a single day.

The complete event is $150, and includes McCloud’s keynote on Friday night, a workshop, and lunch on Saturday. McCloud’s evening talk is free to current Clackamas CC students and $20 to non-students. To register for either the workshop or McCloud’s keynote, please contact the Clackamas CC registration office.

PictureBook Pedagogy #1

Back in January, Brett Warnock from Top Shelf asked me to write a series of posts about my experiences in teaching comics for his Hey Bartender! blog on their recently-renovated website. This is the first of that series, and it appeared on HB! back in February; you can check out #2 and #3 over there now, but I’ll eventually repost them here as well.

PictureBook Pedagogy #1: Defining the Term(s)

My tenure on The Internet predates the World Wide Web (the fact I call the web the “World Wide Web,” and do so using capital “W”s should leave little doubt); hence, I’ve long known ye olde interweb-a-ma-bob prides itself on perfecting The Confession. It’s undoubtedly the oldest rhetorical trick in the book out here, but nonetheless a potent one. After all, how else can we really explain the fact that filmmaker and as-interested-as-he-wanna-be comics writer Kevin Smith not only is going on 20 years of gainful Hollywood employment in the post-Clerks multiverse, but commands large enough audiences on Twitter and Facebook to both develop and charge 99 cents for an official iPhone/iTouch app? Dude has been enjoying some pretty successful runs with The Batman as of late, too, in case you haven’t noticed.

So without further ado—and in the immortal words of Sir Austin Powers—please allow myself to introduce myself. And to probably do this effectively, there are simply some things you need to know.

Confession #1: I Never Appreciated Sandman Back In The Day(TM), b/w #1a: The First Time I Read Watchmen Was For Some Eggheady Class In Grad School

I worked in a comic book store in Moscow, ID in the early 1990s. The store, Safari Pearl, was then located in the attic of a now-defunct secondhand bookstore called Twice Sold Tales; my roommate and I begged and pleaded its owner for summer jobs, and we were grudgingly allowed to watch the counter on weekends for trade credit. In grade school, I grew up on Frank Miller’s runs with Spidey and Daredevil, but had already left comics before DC’s The Dark Knight Returns miniseries; in essence, I got out of superhero books just as shit was getting really interesting in them, and I hadn’t yet discovered Crumb (I was only 9, after all, and I did grow up in southern Idaho. I had however, perfected Smilin’ Stan’s smooth stylin’ “Nuff said!”, if that counts for anything).

So when I returned to comics again, Neil Gaiman’s run on Sandman was already underway, and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how the DC universe I knew as a kid could have possibly arrived at the place in time it had. When I first started working at her comics store, I started asking its owner and patrons what I should be reading. The near-unanimous answer, of course, was “Sandman!! Are you fucking kidding me?!” And because I’ve always been quite sucked in by peer pressure and marketing hype (I was, after all, an only child spending my first full summer away from the dopey little town of barely 20,000 people I grew up in…), I began pulling monthly copies starting with issue 14. But I never made real attempts to read the series because, frankly, I just didn’t get it. Meaning: I couldn’t figure out how Sandman existed on Planet Spandex, and Dave McKean’s gorgeous mixed media work for the covers didn’t help matters at all.

And there certainly wasn’t any help waiting for me in academia when I returned to school later that fall. The only whisper I’d ever heard about comics in my undergraduate education involved Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize only a year or so before I started taking classes and working at the comics shop), and was usually found on the supplemental/recommended reading lists for some of the history courses I was taking to round out my minor and elective credits. At the time, Maus was considered important because of its content; its medium was left largely undiscussed, if it was addressed at all. Literary scholars I studied with could (and occasionally did) discuss Spiegelman’s work within conventions of identity politics, confessional traditions (did you catch that by the way? The nod to the confession within an actual confession? Pretty clever, right? Most definitely you should be able to nail the exact date/time/picosecond I secured my undergraduate degree), and post-Lacanian psychoanalysis), but they would most likely ignore the medium in which Maus worked its magic.

When I finally did buckle in and read Watchmen, it was because my faculty advisor made me, when I took his graduate-level literature seminar titled “Postmodern Theory and Fiction.” The 12-part miniseries (quick snark here: I don’t care how it’s formatted, tracked and analyzed now by DC, The New York Times or bourgeois culture as a “graphic novel.” Watchmenwas conceived, executed and published as a comics miniseries. Big difference.) was not merely the only work in comics we read for the course, but juxtaposed with prose novels written by the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Ishmael Reed and Kathy Acker and social-historical theory by the likes of bell hooks, Frederic Jameson and Stephen Greenblatt. Needless to say, my introduction to Watchmen was at least a full step removed from the comics world that produced it; even though I’ve now taught the miniseries at least half a dozen times (including a full-blown literary analysis course which tackles Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterwork much the same way I might Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy), Watchmen still feels foreign to me, as if I’m playing from behind somehow or trying to fit the octagonal block into the square hole. And there’s more than a little bit of guilt buried in there, since I had ample opportunity to read the damn thing long before I had a head full of semiotic soup.

This leads me to:

Confession #2: I Am, More Or Less, A Bloodthirsty Colonizer

Quick tangent here: Espen Aarseth is a new media theorist who specializes in games studies. These days, academics can use terms like “games studies” and largely get away with it, and maybe even have people catch the gist of what they mean, but a fair amount of readers of even this nimble website could consider bringing pop cultural artifacts inside academia problematic at best. Aarseth argues that games and games culture are currently going through a stage of intense academic colonialism. This most often occurs when something historically ignored by The Ivory Tower(TM) is suddenly “discovered” by a bunch of competing disciplines within the humanities (social science, philosophy and literature departments are usually the ones on the bottom of the dogpile fighting over the bone, it seems).

Aarseth justifiably has a big problem with people like me (specifically, writers and scholars largely trained to see the world and all contained therein as little more than one big box of narrative tissue paper) discussing things called Games (that’s not just me capitalizing the word, by the way; I am talking about academia here, after all) within a larger thing called Games Studies (except he doesn’t call it that, he calls it Ludology, because going Greek on top of the capital letter thing definitely simplifies things, yeah?). And I don’t begrudge Aarseth a bit for this because his underlying concern isn’t as much about marking territory as it is asserting that an entire medium cannot and should not be boiled down to a single user function. In other words, a medium’s value isn’t exclusively found in its ability to buoy a narrative, even/especially when the narrative is actually compelling. Let’s face it, folks: novelist Gilbert Sorrentino was definitely on to something when he boldly declared “plots are absurd.” Because most of them are. Maybe you haven’t played its underwhelming videogame adaption just yet, but you’ve probably seen Avatar. Nuff said(?).

In his introductory essay to the McSweeney’s #13 anthology, Chris Ware declares, “without the critical language of fine art to surround it, comics are…perceived more clearly than any other art form.” What he means by this is that people like me tend to be ruinous polluters, for once we establish our base camps on the gentle slopes of a given medium’s mountain, it’s usually only a hop, skip and a jump from curious exploration to full-blown gentrification and gated communities. And who loves to throw around the phrase “gentrification” more than the academented?

That’s right. Nobody.

Confession #3: I’m 98.6% Convinced Warren Ellis Was Right

If you’ve read this far, I’d take 4:1 odds that you’ve also read Warren Ellis‘ “Old Bastard’s Manifesto,” a missive from those cheery days post-Y2K and pre-9/11, in which he lambastes the comics industry for stagnating on superheroes and refusing to grow up. In the event that I hit snake eyes on that bet, though, here’s the nitty of the gritty: “Comics are not habitual entertainment that need to remain static and require broadcasting regularly until death do us part,” Ellis declares. “Comics, like their related media of novels and cinema, must be allowed to tell complete stories…Those who support us will be rewarded…and given the gift of the Future.”

The “gift” Ellis refers to is not only that comics would tell “complete stories,” but (more importantly) that intelligent, invested, and–yes–mature readers could begin having more complete conversations about both the stories and the medium which buoys them than “Wolverine is really really cool” or “Maus is really really sad.” This isn’t difficult for us to imagine ourselves doing, by the way, at least not in theory anyway. But here in the United States, our capacity to talk about most things is modulated by our internal Like/Dislike barometers, which of course are plugged into the larger cultural-consumer matrix of Want And Desire that effectively stops conversation at the point of purchase. As a writer, reviewer and literature professor, I’ve found those barometers particularly tough to crack; it often feels to me that the anti-intellectual climate surrounding both the production and discussion of art here in the United States has effectively stopped with Roger Ebert. Gods help us if the man ever loses control over those golden thumbs.

Let me try saying this another way, and then we’ll get out of here for the day: we are routinely asked what we prefer, but rarely asked what we think. A preference can be indicated incredibly efficiently (a show of hands for who likes pancakes? Great! Now how about waffles? Awesome! Thanks!), but real-to-goodness thought takes time and often involves risk.

So what, then, about comics? To me, they might well be the purest artistic expression of time through risk. And I mean this with full cosmic bravado, too: capital-T time, capital-R risk. Anyone who has ever tried executing a simple page of sequential stickpeople (you remember Paul Giamatti playing Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, right? Snapping the lead off his #2 pencil, erasing furiously, pushing way too hard into the paper?) can attest to the staggering amount of time often involved laying one panel next to another, hoping the chemicals firing in her brain somehow spill onto the page in a coherent, orderly pattern that somehow resembles the synaptic original deep inside the skull. To attempt the translation process into not only words or not only images but both is a highwire act at best, sado-masochism at worst, and this is probably why the gulf between The Can and Cannot is appreciably wider in comics than in any other medium.

Nearly a decade ago, The Old Bastard, Mr. Ellis, wrote, “We might not be a grown-up medium yet, but if we dress like it, we might just bring it on.” Tell me what you really think, now: we currently occupy the Future he was hinting at back then, so what are we going to make of it? Not the Future, of course. The Present. ‘Cuz there simply aint no time like it.

One last question then. What’s another word for “Present”?

That’s right. “Gift.”

Bring it on, indeed.

Workin’ for the Weekend(s)

While I’m neither cool or connected enough to AWP later this week, I’ll more than make up for it by presenting and teaching in three upcoming weekend festivals and workshops. If you’re in the Portland area, I hope to see you at some of the following events:

Saturday April 17: Character development workshop (Fellowship Writers Conference @ Clackamas Community College):  Gregory Forum, 12:30-2:20 pm

Saturday April 24: Teaching Comics Panel with Diana Schutz, Brian Michael Bendis, James Sturm, Katya Amato and Ben Saunders (Stumptown Comics Fest @Lloyd Center Doubletree): Oregon Room, 12-2 pm

Sunday April 25: Asterios Polyp reading discussion (Stumptown Comics Fest @ Lloyd Center Doubletree): Idaho Room, 12-12:45 pm

Saturday May 1: WR199: Web 2.0 and Social Networking for Writers: Clackamas CC, 10-4 pm (this is a 1-credit course offered through CCC for the steep price of $5, CRN #195123. click here to register)

Implementation/Interpretation: Oregon City

Last week I took some photos for Scott Rettberg and Nick Montfort’s sticker novel Implementation. They recently sent out a call for help with a related coffee table book project, and it is a fascinating one. Rettberg and Montfort printed up hundreds of sheets of Avery-style stickers with randomized, discrete paragraphs of the original prose novel, and they have asked people all over the world to place and photograph the paragraphs/stickers in public places. Click here to check out the impressive flickr collection of images they’ve amassed so far.

For my own contribution, I chose to sticker and photograph the recently-defunct End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Oregon City. The center was built in the mid-1990s to boost tourism in Clackamas County and also as an educational resource for local elementary schools. With the economy flatlining in Oregon for most of the 2000s, the center ultimately found itself financially unsustainable, and was hence mothballed in September of 2009.

Over the past 8 years, I’ve spent at least 6 hours every week commuting to/from/past Oregon City on I-205, and the center’s massive metal ribs never fail to sadden me. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never been a fan of grade-school style Manifest Destiny, and I’m deeply troubled by the fact that so much of what passes for “history” in the Pacific Northwest begins and ends with soaring metanarratives which overdramatize the Anglo experience. I toured the center about five years ago and found the same predictable platitudes about Lewis and Clark and The Hudson Bay Company, the same negligent euphemisms describing the still-recent genocide of indigenous peoples, and the same wholesale omissions of the environmental disasters brought on by deforestation and industrial pollution that has given the Willamette River valley a century-long case of toxic shock syndrome. Nothing new to report on those fronts, either, by the way.

What saddens me, then, isn’t the silly death of nostalgia farming, but rather the missed opportunity to kick-start important conversations about such simple questions with deceptively-complex answers (how about starting with these two: “just how did my family get here in the first place?” and “what kind of messy business was involved in all that anyway?”). Certainly something called the “End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center” isn’t going to do this important work by itself; I emphasize the word “Interpretive” here because it’s a carefully-selected and almost defensive/guarded bit of language by those who politicked to finance and build the roadside attraction in the first place, and these of course are people of tremendous luck, fortune and power. It is an audacious and arrogant act to build and maintain something like this, for sure.

But in the gaudy ignorance of something like an “End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center” persevering, there is at least the opportunity to resist the metanarrative, and to flesh out the willfully-narrowed cultural record. In shuttering this project, the community/county/state is effectively ending the conversation, and of course, doing so before it’s even had a fighting chance to come correct.