Geeks and More Geeks

I went and hung out with my mom and sister last weekend so that we could watch the new A&E documentary about one of our all-time favorite shows, Freaks and Geeks. I guess I forgot that it’s been almost twenty years now since that show came out. This keeps happening to me; so many things that made a big impression on me when I was an older teenager or very young adult are still so big in my imagination that I kind of fail to notice that they’re not necessarily top of mind for other people anymore. 

The documentary was sadder than I expected it to be, but I shouldn’t have been surprised, since the show itself was often so melancholy and challenging. In the documentary, the writer and executive producer of Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow—who is fucking funny—opens up about the personal baggage he’s lugged around with him through life, and about how devasted he was at the thought that his beloved show was being neglected by the network. When it was cancelled, thereby breaking apart the makeshift family of his cast and coworkers, he felt as bad as he had as a kid, when his family split up during his parents’ nasty divorce. He jokes that every project he’s worked on since then has been done in a spirit of revenge, but you can see he’s only half kidding. Being hurt can be quite motivational when it comes to trying to succeed, or even just getting out of a bad situation.

After we watched the documentary the three of us talked about some of the other wonderful shows and movies Judd Apatow has written, directed, or produced: The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Love, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. My sister asked me if I’d read the book of interviews he did with comics and I hadn’t, so she lent it to me, and wow, what an exciting thing this is to read.

In his introduction Apatow tells us that, when he was in tenth grade, he went to work for his high school’s radio station in Syosset, Long Island. A friend of his who also worked for the station was obsessed with music, and this kid took the train into NYC to interview the bands he loved, including REM and Siouxsie Sioux. A lightbulb went off over young Judd Apatow’s head. “Wait, so we could actually interview people we admired? They would talk to you if you asked nicely?” This was all the encouragement he needed to, sort of sneakily, set up interviews with famous and up-and-coming comics whose agents didn’t quite realize, until he showed up with his tape recorder, that the interview was going to be with a kid. This book collects many of those old interviews. Apatow writes that he never even aired most of them (the questions he was asking were mostly for himself anyway), but he saved them all.

Sure enough, as you read through you see that some of the interviews are dated from the early 80s, when Apatow was still in high school. The first one, in 1983, is with Jerry Seinfeld, who had just started to take off, and it makes for surprisingly good reading. You can hear Jerry’s voice, his intonations, because the conversations are reproduced word for word, Q&A style. It’s so much fun to eavesdrop on conversations like this, and it’s especially good when the conversations are about writing. This whole book is about writing, basically, though since it’s about comedy and the interviews are with celebrities you’ve seen in movies and TV, the fact of it being about writing kind of sneaks up on you. 

The book includes a number of newer interviews alongside the old ones, and the conversations often circle back to the subject of sadness. Apatow wants to know what’s wrong with everybody, all these people he admires so much—what happened to them to make them comics. Marc Maron tells him that his favorite scene in Freaks and Geeks is one with Bill Haverchuck, the awkward-looking kid played by Martin Starr whose mother is raising him on her own. At the start of one episode we see Bill come home from school and let himself into the apartment. The Who’s “I’m One” is playing, and you really feel the melancholy of the moment. Anybody who has lived alone will tell you, if they’re being honest, that it can feel really lonely to return home to an empty house at the end of the day. Bill makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich and puts the TV on, and watches Garry Shandling do stand-up on The Dinah Shore Show. We don’t hear anything Shandling is saying because the song plays over the whole thing; we just see Bill start to crack up with laughter. Pure joy, a smile that splits his face open. He’s enjoying his own comany in the nicest way, and this hilarious person has helped him do that. People who are happiest when they’re reading a book, or watching a movie, or playing a game—people who connect with other people this way better than they can in person—we’re the people that scene was made for, and it’s incredibly touching. 

Teenage Judd Apatow’s questions were intelligent and straightforward and showed a good understanding of how writing worked even then, but the more striking thing is how generously people opened up to him. One of the other early interviews is with Garry Shandling, who talked to him over the phone from a hotel room in Lake Tahoe resting up for his show that night. They had a real, adult conversation about writing and stand-up, and it’s wonderful to read. He interviewed Shandling again in 2014 and they revisited some of the same subjects but got more intimate, about feelings of guilt and self-doubt, and following your gut when it comes to pursuing the work that you love because that’s really the only guide you can rely on. I haven’t come across any ego, fakery, or other bullshit in this book yet; at the risk of sounding trite, these interviews are full of lessons on life, not just work.

Are comedians nicer people than the rest of us? That seems to go against what I’ve heard about them as a group. I can tell you that, generally, writers are not nicer than anybody. But artists love to talk about their work, about the mystery of it as well as the slog. Most successful people, I’ve found, when they were first starting out, got a little help and guidance from people who were older and more experienced, and nothing feels better than getting the chance to help somebody else when it’s your turn to be asked. In a sense, I guess, this book is really about love. About doing what you love and doing it with love. At its best, whether it’s angry or funny, challenging or sweet, that’s what art is—a love letter to the world.

Paint this!

A few days ago I looked lovingly at my big round cat where she was sitting sort of hunched over on the floor, and I thought, She looks like one of those striped cartoon cats from the 70s. What were those?

 

You can still buy this one as a card from Pomegranate
You can still buy this one as a card, from Pomegranate. Click the image to link through.

Turns out the cat I was thinking of was drawn by a cartoonist named Bernard Kliban, whose book Cat was such a hit in 1975 that it launched a zillion mugs and t-shirts (which explains my old and murky memories of it from the 80s, when I was still small). A bit of awkward Google research told me this much (“fat striped cartoon cat 70s” … no, not Garfield … ), and I poked around a bit longer and found some of his other cartoons too. Most of them are single-panel gags, many of which have titles that function as the punchline. And they are funny as hell.

From the book Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings (Workman, 1982). 

The cat merchandise is still around, but I found precious little information on the man or his work. He died in 1990, before the internet as we know it; the few scans I found online were enough to whet my appetite, but most of his books are out of print. I could have bought one secondhand, of course, but opted instead for the appropriately dark absurdity of trying to do much of anything in Philadelphia, by taking one of the few functioning trains in our currently striking transit system to our beautiful but down-at-heel library downtown, and borrowing them. (I feel disloyal even typing this because I love our library and they really do have wonderful programming, an excellent collection, and truly wild holdings in their rare books archive, but please believe me that the state of things in this city can sometimes be disheartening. Also, after the library, I went to the DMV. Hahahahaha!)

The library’s main branch owns four of Kliban’s books but only two circulate—Two Guys Fooling Around With the Moon, and Other Drawings and Luminous Animals and Other Drawings—I guess because the others are out of print and hard to replace. When I found the books I’d traveled there for, I flipped Luminous Animals open and immediately found this panel, which made me almost cry with laughter. Right there in the library, standing by myself. Look at the waiter’s FACE.

From the book Luminous Animals and Other Drawings (Penguin, 1983).

There is a lot to enjoy in both of the books I found. I was especially excited by a few cartoons that explicitly address what it’s like to be an ottist in a culture that does not give a shit about ott—like the one of a dog watching a handyman screw a lightbulb into a ceiling and thinking “I could do that!”, and another one of a cow peddling a newspaper called the Cow News to a bunch of indifferent walruses and penguins. Kliban was a successful working cartoonist in his lifetime, but he isn’t much remembered or talked about now. It seems he was original enough to have inspired a number of artists, some of whom went on to become better known. As I read through these books I was strongly reminded of Gary Larson’s The Far Side, one of my teenage favorites for its black yet ridiculous humor. I did run across this piece Rob Clough wrote for The Comics Journal, in which he looked at Cat 35 years after its publication. He talks about the influence Kliban had on other cartoonists, including Larson, and points out that even “the landscape, paperback format of the book would be aped by hundreds of cartoon collections for years to come,” which naturally put me to mind of the Garfield books I so loved as a kid.

The cats that made Kliban famous have an essential sweetness to them, mainly because they’re so apt, catness-wise; I take it the more mordant and bizarre ones didn’t get put onto mugs. Because of this, I have had the pleasure of surprise at how much of his other work is rude, dark, and righteously pissed-off. There is a healthy number of boobs and dicks in these books, for one thing. (Kliban made cartoons for Playboy for many years.) At the same time, as Clough wrote in his essay, a lot of his work is both droll and strange enough to have fit in with the sensibility of The New Yorker, though they only ever published one drawing of his, in 1963an observation I totally agree with as I vaguely thought that’s where I remembered having seen the cats when I began this little quest of mine. They are also sometimes political, in my favorite way for things to be political: nihilistic and adolescent and correct; angry and broad, accusatory of everybody but reserving the realest contempt for those who would be in charge of the rest of us. Let me just share one more with you, since it really RESONATES—to use a word everyone seems to love nowadays—in this moment before the 2016 presidential election. It’s as true as an arrow through the heart, and of all the Kliban cartoons I’ve read recently, it’s the only one that made me feel sadder than anything else.

Fer-fucking-real

 

 

All Power to the Imagination!

zines
A batch of comics and zines from The Soapbox

I’ve been zonked out for a few days now, sick with what I’m calling a cold because I refuse to believe I got the flu after getting a flu shot in December. Also because I had the flu last year, and I remember how much worse that was. Still, I feel like hell. I haven’t gotten out of this armchair for two days, and I haven’t worked on the book I’ve been writing so diligently since the beginning of the year, either. My head hurt so much yesterday that I gave up on reading The Remains of the Day and watched the Merchant Ivory film adaptation instead. It was wonderful. I could look at Anthony Hopkins’ face for hours and not run out of feelings.

I’ve got good company in the form of these comics and zines, too, which is making me feel a little less miserable. I always have tons of zines around my house, but these are ones I haven’t read yet, on loan from The Soapbox, the indie print shop and zine library where I’m a member. On Thursday I’ll bring them to Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse in Kensington to do a sort of pop-up zine library there, which will consist of a few of us members sitting at a table, drinking coffee and inviting anyone with the interest to join us in some reading. Nice, eh?

And have you heard about Amalgam, by the way, the new place everyone’s so excited about? Like, everyone: Owner Ariell R. Johnson has been blowingUpThe internet. I haven’t been to her shop yet and I’m looking forward to checking it out. Ariell is the first black woman to own a comics shop on the east coast, and one of the few in the whole country. It’s a big deal, and by all accounts she’s doing well and attracting business with her idea to combine comics with good coffee. It’s such a good idea. Why aren’t there more places like this??

So—that’s where we’ll be on Thursday, but for now I’m still stuck in my chair at home, trying to resist the urge to read every single one of these zines before our event. Amazing how these tiny, oddball books stuff my head to overflowing with images and ideas. Some of them have no titles, and on others no author is listed. Plenty of them offer a little information, though, which has led me down a few pleasant rabbit holes of interneting, from websites to blogs to instagrams and new online friends. It’s so interesting to me to see this web of connection—the ways in which it’s the same as it was before the internet as we know it existed, as well as how it’s changed. More than anything, I think, it’s just faster. I remember how it worked in the’90s, when I was a teenager looking for connection. If I was interested in a band or a writer, I’d have to wait for the next issue of Spin or Sassy or one of the dorkier metal music magazines I was into, which always had ads in the back with information on joining fan clubs, getting pen-pals, and ordering t-shirts and tapes. Within zines themselves, writers usually included some kind of contact information so you could write them a letter (which they might print in a subsequent issue of the zine) or send them a copy of one you’d written. The information was out there, and there were networks of people who’d found each other in order to share it. It just took longer. You were dependent on the monthly publishing schedules of magazines and the time it took to send a letter through the mail and get a response. The methods we use to communicate with each other have changed (or at least increased) since then, but our reasons for doing so haven’t.

And actually, old-fashioned print zines still offer something that online publications usually don’t, though I find it hard to articulate exactly what that is. I think it has to do with the idea of an intended audience. When you make a zine—even if you’re writing on an extremely sensitive topic—you can feel a certain freedom to express yourself openly because the circulation is so small and limited. There’s something liberating about both sharing something you’ve written with “the public” and knowing that this public will probably only be a small number of like-minded folks. I suppose the same ends up being true for any number of specialty publications, including literary journals both in print and online—these simply attract fewer readers than big, general interest magazines do. But there’s something different about a form of publishing that exists within a subculture. If the intended audience for a poem or a novel is the world (the universe?), the zine writer’s audience is often understood to be other zine writers—or other anarcha-feminists, or other punks, etc. You get the idea. The readership is so small that zines become one half of a conversation, with an implied call to action in every one: If she did this herself, I could do it too.

A few of the zines in this batch are ones I’ve read before, and looking at them now—and becoming totally engrossed by them again—is reminding me of how much this feeling of membership and participation has meant to me over the years. Zines were my way into a community of artists as well as into punk; I used to read descriptions of house shows and grassroots organizing and think, Oh man, that sounds so exciting, I want that to be my life. All these years later I know how limited and fraught with ego and political bullshit this kind of activism can be—ugh, and I hate the word activism, to be honest, it’s so self-congratulatory; I wish people would stop giving themselves the title activist and just tell me what it is that they do—but the dream of all that is still alive for me. Making things on your own, rather than for school or work. Making things with your friends. Start a band, start a revolution. I know that sounds trite but I mean it, I believe in it. And when I start to feel burnt out or weary or jaded, reading zines gets my blood up again.

One of the zines here is an anthology edited by Cindy Crabb, who I have to remind myself is not actually famous because she’s so well known to zine folks. Her zine Doris has been around since 1991, and has probably encouraged hundreds of girls to give writing and self-publishing a try. This anthology, Support—which is a collection of pieces on sexual abuse and its aftermath—is very powerful, and includes letters people have written to Cindy, which she has reproduced by typing them up on a typewriter. At the end of the zine she lists resources for abuse survivors and the people who care about them, and tells readers they can write to her for a longer list. All of this could have been done online much more quickly and easily, and it’s even cheaper than a photocopy if you use a free blog platform. And I love the internet—for lots of reasons besides its convenience and cost effectiveness to publishers. But there’s something about reading stories or information in a print zine that gives you the sense of having discovered something, and I think that’s uniquely powerful. Disappearing into the zine, feeling the rest of the world go silent and fall away, I could be 8 years old again, or 12, one of those ages when no one wants me to know about the stuff I need to know about, so I find it out for myself at the library, alone in a quiet room with my heart hammering. The fact that this can still happen to me is something I find really stirring and moving and excellent.

The tiny print run of most zines makes them rare; as objects, they’re things you can hold in your hand. When you’re finished reading a zine you can put it in your backpack or away on a shelf, and it doesn’t go back to belonging to the whole world the way things you’ve found on the internet do. It’s yours.

Cycletherapy, that’s what they wanna give me!

Blurbing books is kind of a weird practice. I mean, it’s actually a very good idea, and I for one always notice who’s been quoted on the back (and sometimes front) of a book I’m considering reading. But I can tell you, as someone who’s written two books and was asked by her publisher to do so, seeking these blurbs out is a bit scary and awkward (though probably most people are very kind about it, as the writers I asked were). Famous and sought-after writers probably get asked to write blurbs often, which must be something of a nuisance.

Lucky for me I’m more infamous than famous, and am sought after by only a highly select few!

Elly Blue, the author of several excellent books on biking, asked me to read and consider writing a blurb for her new one, an anthology she edited called Cycletherapy: Grief and Healing on Two Wheels, put out this month by Microcosm Publishing. Elly is also the co-owner of Microcosm, which published my two books, White Elephants and Slip of the Tongue. Microcosm has been knocking it out of the park lately, if I may say so. My hubby Joe and I tabled for them at the Small Press Expo last weekend, and their books were a huge hit there. (Joe is also a Microcosm author.) SPX is comics-oriented, and Microcosm does indeed have some comics titles on its roster (the Henry & Glenn series being the best known and, frankly, awesomest), but other types of books were flying off our temporary shelves, too: The DIY ones by Raleigh Briggs; the more overtly political and wonderfully-titled The CIA Makes Science Fiction Unexciting; the silly-yet-totally-serious Manspressions, which makes fun of machismo using made-up words and charming illustrations; and yeah, my own pocket-sized memoir, White Elephants.

Cycletherapy was too new to make it to the expo, but it’s out now, and I’ve got my copy here. It’s a beautiful book. Highlights include Elly’s own essay, in which she writes about carting her partner around on a bamboo bike trailer on days when he’s too sick to bike himself; a short piece by Sara Tretter that touches on the awkwardness of burgeoning teenage sexuality; Julie Brooks’ chronicle of working through the grief she experienced after being struck by a car while riding her bike (she’s okay now); and Gretchen Lair’s fine illustration of her beloved bike Ariel, who was stolen days after their last trip to the beach together. She quotes The Tempest: “My quaint Ariel … Our revels are now ended.”

Lookit all their bike books!
Lookit all their bike books! (This is a photo of Elly and Joe Biel, from the Microcosm website.)

I’m not a biker, not since childhood, really. I’ve always felt a little too chicken to get around the city on a bike, like so many of my friends do. (They’ve all been doored by parked cars or clipped by moving ones. Plus, I love to plug in and listen to music while I’m out and about, which isn’t such a hot idea when you’re riding a bike in traffic.) But I am a big walker. I walk everywhere because I don’t drive a car, and never have: My mode of transportation is my own two legs, plus whatever SEPTA conveyance I feel like catching. But I walk for pleasure and exercise and for my mental health, too. A lot of what the folks in this anthology (all but one of them women) wrote about biking resonated with me because I use long walks the same way, to keep my mind and body healthy and strong. Some days I push through physical discomfort or miserable heat and humidity to get to that feeling that my physical self isn’t creaky and cranky and tired, but like a well-oiled machine, taking me where I need to go. Going out in the evening is different, like gliding through dark water, thoughtful and quiet. I prefer to walk through city neighborhoods because I like to look at buildings and people, and peer down little alleyways and see grass growing up between the cracks in the concrete. But I live just up the street from the Schuylkill River, which has a paved path for walkers and bikers that runs alongside it all the way into downtown Philly from a little town 25 miles from here called Oaks. Sometimes I’ll walk down to the trail and stay on it till I reach the part of the river where the rowers practice, past their charming boathouses and the sleek boats themselves, sluicing through the water. I move my body to get my head feeling right and it always helps, at least a little, which is more or less what the stories in this book are about. It’s good to be reminded how useful that can be.

Go Forth

My interview with my pen-pal and friend Sacha Mardou is up on The Believer magazine’s blog today. She’s so interesting to talk to. As the interview went on we started to hskyave a side conversation about herbalism, among other things that weren’t quite fitting for the interview, which was about comics and music, mostly. Ya know, art. But we enjoyed having that other conversation so much that we’ve decided to keep on having it and turn that into a zine. I’m excited for the results of that collaboration; the projects she and I have worked on together are always things I’m especially proud of. Meantime, give Go Forth: An Interview with Comics Artist Sacha Mardou a look!

Zine Reading Room

So my husband and I have decided to organize our large personal zine collection a bit better, display it nicely, and open up our home about once a month as a zine reading room. We are dorks, and we are very excited about this.

Figuring out the best way to arrange the zines was a challenge though. Between us we’ve collected around 500 zines over the last several years, and even though they’re usually much smaller than books, they do take up some space. I thought maybe the zines should be placed in magazine holders of some kind, but Joe wanted them to be out in the open, footloose and fancy-free. Fine, except that the zines can’t be lined up on a bookshelf the way books are, since they don’t really have spines. We decided to display them facing out, so that people could easily see and flip through them, like records in a record store. (This is the method used and written about by Julie Bartel in her book, From A to Zine: Building a Winning Zine Collection in Your Library, according to an uncredited article I found online. Download it here. I have heard about Bartel’s book for years but have never read it. Maybe it’s time!)

But zines are also much more varied in size than books tend to be, so it quickly became apparent that, if they were stacked facing outward, the small ones would be lost behind the taller ones. Our solution was to arrange them by size, and alphabetically by title within those size categories. On the top shelf are the quarter-sized zines, on the second shelf are the half-sized ones, and on the bottom shelf are half-legal sized (which are both large and square-shaped). The magazine-sized zines we put in a cool old magazine rack that used to belong to Joe’s grandparents. (It’s metal and has some kind of battle scene in relief on the front of it; the thing looks like it was forged during the Civil War.) The matchbook-sized and otherwise teensy zines went on the top of the bookcase, in cigar boxes.

We also had to find a way to containerize the zines once they were facing outward, so we went to the hardware store and bought plywood, which we painted with that cool chalkboard paint and nailed to the front of the bookcase, one across each shelf. We used colorful chalk to write the alphabet under each row so that folks can easily locate zines by their title.

Have a look!

efzrr

And for fun (as if all this weren’t the most fun ever), I’ll be posting capsule reviews of zines from our collection over the next few days. Here’s the first:

Captcha #7

c7-cover

Captcha is a gorgeous and imaginative sci-fi comic zine series by Jo-Jo Sherrow, and here we have book #7. Jo-Jo’s drawings are intensely charming, depicting humanoid girls whose clothes and haircuts you will definitely covet, but the comic covers deep, mind-bending subjects. This one focuses on psychic self-defense methods of different kinds.

Reader Meet Author

I’ve been interviewing someone for a magazine, and it was an unusual interview to conduct because the person I talked to is my friend and longtime pen-pal, Sacha Mardou. She’s a comics artist—she draws under the name Mardou—whose work has lately gotten some good critical attention. Interviewing her this way was interesting for me for a few reasons. First, because she’s interesting, and we found ourselves talking about lots of different things, including 90s indie bands, the idea of “acting” in comics, Neil Diamond, the Woody Allen story “The Whore of Mensa,” and the way Sacha discovered comics—through music magazines, like Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl on the cover of the UK’s now-defunct Deadline magazine. These topics kept us in an engaged conversation for over a week. It was nice for me to get to know my friend better this way.

dead33_2

But what was most useful to me, I think, was what this experience taught me about interviewing—or, if not taught, encouraged me to consider. I have always found interviewing people to be inherently awkward, and I don’t think I’m very good at it. It’s an unnatural set-up. This isn’t how conversations are supposed to work, with one person interrogating the other, and both people pretending to find the whole thing pleasant and ordinary. There’s a huge power imbalance too, because the interviewer has made the interviewee vulnerable, which is easy to forget when you’re the one conducting the interview. (This became much clearer to me once I’d been on the other side of the table, so to speak, and had my first experience of being interviewed. It’s too bad every journalist isn’t forced to play that role at some point.) As the interviewer, you’ve got your list of questions, things you want—and in some cases, need—to know in order to write the article. But they’re not always easy questions to ask, and many times they’re things that would violate all ordinary rules of politeness if you asked them in any other social situation. As a person who possesses politeness at a molecular level, this was a big hurdle for me to get over. But honestly, the thing that bugs me the most is the falseness of the interview process. It’s supposed to look like a conversation—and indeed it works much, much better the more like a conversation it goes—but it’s not a conversation, not really.

Turns out, interviewing a friend is a conversation. What a treat! Sacha and I blathered back and forth, and I didn’t feel obliged to hold back my own commentary the way I would in a more formal interview with a stranger, and this made things flow a lot more smoothly. Anything extraneous, or that went too far into the realm of the personal, I simply left out of the finished piece. (The interview will run as a straight question-and-answer format.)

I have a feeling that this is closer to how I should conduct all my interviews, but I wonder if that’s possible. How comfortable and chatty can you be with someone you’ve just met? If the person is an artist, having an encyclopedic knowledge of their work is a necessary first step—it’s as close to knowing that stranger as you’re going to get. I knew a great deal about Sacha’s work and artistic background before I started the interview, but that was from knowing her personally. And as she hasn’t been interviewed a ton, I don’t think I could have found much of this out through research alone. So it’s tough. Maybe we arts journalists should only ever interview people we know. Maybe it’s like the idea I gleaned from The Wild Braid, a book of interviews with the poet Stanley Kunitz (which was published the year he turned 100!): In order to deeply understand a poem you must know something of the poet’s life and circumstances. I can’t remember exactly what he said now but this is the gist I got, anyway, and I felt confused by it and disagreed with it at the time. But now I’m reconsidering it. How useful is my opinion of Sacha’s art if I know nothing about her as a person? It might be good enough for me as a casual viewer, but it’s surely not enough for an article on the work that offers any real insight on it at all.

I’ll post a link to the interview when it runs.