Friday, January 17, 2014

Ten Years of Terror





Ten years ago, it was cold. It was bitter cold. I was living in a shack on the outskirts of Rutland, Massachusetts - and I say shack because that's what it was, really. The cabin was sixty or so years old. It didn't have any heat or insulation. It broiled in the summer (central Massachusetts can be very humid and there was a swamp in the backyard) and froze in the winter. We didn't have a bathroom - just a toilet on a bare wood floor. All the other bathroom fixtures had been torn out because they were rotten. We bought a gym membership in Worcester so we could drive 20-25 minutes to bathe. A wing of the house was closed off because it had been destroyed by water damage.

January 2004 was a very cold month. (Did I mention it was cold?) The temperature never rose above freezing for the entire week of the 17th. My wife (now ex-) had been hospitalized, and I was alone, freezing, with just our dogs for company. I read Journalista! every morning and followed every blog to which Dirk Deppey linked. I was bored, depressed, lonely, looking for something to keep my mind off the cold. I don't remember the exact moment I made the decision. But somewhere along the line on Saturday, January 17th 2003 I registered for a Blogspot account and began The Hurting. The name fit my attitude at the time, and I guess it still does - even though I'm no longer living in a shack in the woods and my life has improved by every conceivable metric, I'm still as mordant and droll as ever. When will the hurting stop? Good question.




In the beginning there was Neilalien. Neil was not the first person to write about comics on the internet, nor was he first blog, but he was the first person to blog about comics regularly. Not only was he first, but he was also happy to be something of a mentor for younger comics bloggers (younger in terms of blog years, I have no idea how old he is in real life, or whether or not he is even a being who measures "time" as we do). As you might have guessed from my proudly decrepit blog template, I'm not a big computer guy, and Neilalien gave me an immense amount of technical help in the early months and years of The Hurting. I also know I'm not the only person he helped. Neilalien closed up shop in 2010 (mostly, although he still posts news on his site's sidebar), but he posted regularly for ten years. He was first: before Dirk started blogging for the Journal, long before Tom Spurgeon began The Comics Reporter, before Mike or Dorian or Sean or Laura "Tegan" or Kevin or any of the other crew who I think of as being the "Old Guard," there was Neil posting news and opinions about comics in general and Dr. Strange in specific.

My first year was rocky. Stuck in that shack, left to my own devices, things were pretty bleak. We didn't have a lot of money: I had to throw blog "fundraisers" to be able buy groceries a few times, something I'm not proud of in hindsight, but which kept us fed. Just by putting up a shingle on the internet and joining this thing called the "comics blogosphere," I was a part of something filled with kind people who shared the same interests and were willing to put up with my ranting (and boy, did I rant that first year) - and people would even come out of the woodwork when I needed help, which still blows my mind to this day. The charity I received in the first year of this blog's existence remains one of the most incredible things I've ever experienced. People came and read every day (remember when I posted ever day? ha ha ha). There are probably still a few people reading this now who were reading back then. That's pretty crazy, especially considering how bad a writer I used to be. I even tried linkblogging for a few months after Journalista! 1.0 closed shop - after the putsch that evicted Milo George from his position as Editor of The Comics Journal and promoted Dirk to that same position. I lasted a few months, but serious linkblogging is hard work, especially when you're doing it for nothing.

My first article was published in the Journal in 2001, and I was a regular contributor to the magazine until just about the end of its run as a regular periodical. (I tapered off somewhere around the last dozen or so issues, after I had returned to school and burnt out on writing for anyone other than myself.) When I started The Hurting I at least had the benefit of already having a reputation from the Journal, however small. On a few occasions merely stating that I wrote for the Journal was enough to satisfy a prospective editor. I tried hard in the beginning to keep the blog as diverse as possible, which is why if you go back and read through the first couple years I spend a lot of time talking about "new mainstream" (remember that phrase?) publishers like AIT / Planet Lar and Oni, in addition to the usual suspects like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. (Aside: the "new mainstream" appears to finally have come into its own via a resurgent Image comics, and other likeminded publishers, which is great for both diversity of genre and the well-being of creators who want opportunities outside of corporate cape comics.) But eventually, to be frank, I got lazy: keeping up with and writing about non-superhero comics is hard work, even - or especially - when you're on the publishers' mailing lists and they send you the comics for free. I know that sounds suspiciously like whining, but I'm being honest here: writing snark about superheroes is easier by many orders of magnitude than saying something interesting about more interesting comics.





One of the more distinctive - perhaps to its detriment - attributes of this blog is that over the years I've settled into a pretty peculiar rhythm. I don't post a lot, obviously, but sometimes i post more than others. On a good week I'll manage a full essay and maybe a couple other smaller things. I may bewail my unproductiveness, but that's where I'm comfortable, and trying to push for more than that never seems to work out. I got out of the habit of doing shorter text posts a long time ago, for whatever reason - it's easier for me to write at length, as opposed to producing something more concise and pithy. (That's actually something I'm trying to accomplish with the Monday Magic series - working on my concision. You can tell me how well I'm succeeding there.) I've been told point-blank that writing such long essays turns off as many readers as it may attract, but I think that's changing - one side-effect from so many established media companies colonizing the internet (and so many start-ups replicating that format), is that the length of articles and the attention span required to read them online appears to be expanding. That's fine. I do this as much for myself as anyone else, and that's the format in which I'm most comfortable writing. Why have a blog if you can't do what you want with it?

Which is not to say that I don't appreciate all of you, because obviously I do. More than you probably know. I rely on feedback. Although it might not seem like that big of a deal, comments mean a lot to me, as well as to the continued health of this blog. That's another reason why I always seem to come back to writing lengthy takedowns of huge superhero crossovers, for instance - something I realize is as much a trademark of mine as anything else. People like those. (In case you're wondering, I didn't do one for Infinity not because I didn't want to, but because I literally could not think of anything to say about it other than to make a joke about the story reading like a spreadsheet.) If you could see my stats (which I never used to pay any attention to, on purpose, but which Blogger now makes it impossible to miss), there are massive spikes anytime I post anything related to superhero comics. Movies, music, television, other related subjects . . . nothing gets the response, nor the comments, like superhero stuff. So that's what I do, because part of the reason I do the blog is that I like having my writing read and appreciated. Even writing about the stupidest things, it's really awesome to be able to have an outlet for what I want to say, completely outside the realm of my academic day job. I'm going to do it my way, and on my terms, but it's nice to know that there are a few people out there who get something out of it.

(Incidentally, I really miss Graeme McMillan's Blog@Newsarama - not just because he's a good writer (he writes for other outlets now) - but because he was the only one of the major comics linkbloggers who regularly linked to my essays. I really appreciated that, and if he's reading this I sincerely thank him for all the hits he sent my way. I'm disappointed they didn't end up hiring someone else to do his job there, I would have sent a resume.)




We moved out of the shack after a year - almost exactly a year, from October 2003-October 2004. We were doing pretty well by then. I had a job, not a great job, but a job nonetheless. I worked as an awake overnight attendant at a nearby residential children's facility called Devereux. In hindsight this was a terrible job. Working in social services with children is taxing, mentally and physically. Dealing with kids who have been institutionalized for whatever reason - abandoned by their parents, wards of the state, remanded to treatment by court order, or simply unable to function outside a residential context - it can be rewarding in small doses, but over the course of many years tends to wear a person down.

My marriage fell apart the year after we left the shack. There were a lot of reasons, and I'm not sorry at all that it ended - on the contrary, it turned out to be fantastic, I just wish I had seen that at the time. Really intense, painful experiences can either bring people closer together or rupture them entirely, and after the years we spent scraping by, we were different people than we had been when we married. And anyone who was reading my blog at the time got to see my marriage unfold in real time, in much excruciating detail. I spent my days listening to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Show Your Bones, and Sleater-Kinney's The Woods on repeat. Those are still three of my favorite albums. They're all about breakups and nervous breakdowns, connective tissue I didn't perceive until years later.

Those were the dark years, which sounds like hyperbole, but hey: I worked the night shift at a children's mental hospital while going through a painful divorce while failing as a writer, in Massachusetts. One thing I've taken from that experience is that nothing phases me anymore. Just tonight at dinner a friend said that what they liked most about me was that I was blunt and honest almost to a fault. Well, that's true. It doesn't always work to my benefit. (Also important to remember: if you approach every situation with the same fatalistic equilibrium, people can never tell when you're lying.)

I don't want to say too many bad things about my experience at Devereux: there are a lot of good and kind people there, working hard to help kids who might not have a lot of options in their lives. But there were also people who had started out with good intentions and been burnt out - and there were people who took the job because they wanted to bust heads and couldn't pass the police exam. After I had been there for a couple years I looked around and realized that I most likely did not have the moral fiber to be the first type of person indefinitely. The third type are obviously beneath contempt, but they exert a disproportionate influence on the functioning of an institution like that. And that left the second type. I looked around and saw people who had been there for decades, good people, who came into work in the morning looking more exhausted with every passing day, or who were less invested this year than they were the year before, and who had been in turn less invested that year than the year before. I didn't want that. But then, I realized, it didn't have to end that way.




Another good thing that came out of that experience is that the years I worked at Devereux marked the high point in the history of this blog. I wrote almost every night, both for The Hurting and for Popmatters. I had a good relationship with Popmatters for a long time; I made it to Associate Editor. But after a while I got tired of the grind - getting free music and movies in the mail is only fun for a while before it becomes a drag, after you come to associate new music less with enjoyment and more with obligatory unpaid labor. So when I left Devereux and returned to school - well, I quit. I regret that things ended the way they did. I burnt all my bridges because I could not stand to transcribe one more interview or write one more 600-word review of another CD that sounded almost identical to the last 50 CDs I'd heard in that genre. I regret it now - if I had just quit on good terms, I might have been able to go back. I would, I think, like to go back to it at some point, although probably not to Popmatters. But without any contacts or connections (even if I had left on good terms, that was seven years ago!), it's impossible to imagine how I might go about doing so. It's not that I don't have enough on my plate.

The Hurting did not lead to very many other gigs. Many other "first wave" (heh) comics bloggers were able to leverage the experience into something else, be it working for other sites, real magazine gigs, comics writing assignments, or even editorial positions. A bunch of people I know even put together a fake Twitter account that managed to translate into a real book. (How they managed to have a secret coterie of comics bloggers without inviting me is another matter.) It's not hard to see why. I'm famously prickly, blunt. I'm the guy who tore the universally beloved Black Hole a new asshole, who repeatedly antagonized Bryan Lee O'Malley in the pages of The Comics Journal for no other reason than because I could. The one outside writing assignment I've got in the last five years is an article I had placed in an Australian literary magazine. I was grateful for the opportunity but it didn't lead to much else.

Things weren't supposed to be this way. I quite college after my first year partly because I wanted to become a writer - a real, professional writer. (That wasn't the only reason, but it was what I told myself.) I worked at it - maybe not as hard as I could have, but I did. I wrote stories that were never bought. I wrote a few novels that were never published. I didn't realize until many years later that I had done the absolute worst thing to myself I could have done if i honestly wanted to make it as a writer: you can't write anything good at the age of twenty, and the effort will instill terrible bad habits that can take years to break. You just don't know anything. I never sold a novel, although I can at least say I got as far as a couple agents reading my books before deciding not to follow-up:
I’m afraid that I did not quite feel that all-important connection with your work that I know is vital in this industry, but please do not give up.

. . .

I’ve now read RAW YOUTH. Please know my delay has only to do with the mountain of reading on my desk and nothing else. First off, I was impressed with the shape and tone of the book. That period in one’s life – when everything is still becoming and anxiety is constant – is a hard thing to capture. Being mid-twenties can be disorienting and the growing-pains (such as issues of identity and social consciousness) were all well drawn and clear. But while there is so much to admire here, I found I was not as deeply engaged as I would have liked with some of the more thriller elements of the story. I realize that within your writing is the deeper philosophical question of what constitutes sanity; though, at times, I felt I had to strain a bit to unearth these ideas. Blame it on my lack of imagination. Fiction is incredibly personal and this is clearly a matter of taste and style. That said, I am glad I was able to get acquainted with your work. I’m so sorry this wasn’t a match.

. . .

Although I felt the manuscript was written fairly well, I will have to pass on representation. . . . Based on our conversation, it was important to me to let you know why I would pass on this story. I think your writing is very promising, though for future reference, you may want to cut down on some of the big words. While you certainly don't want to placate your readers by being overly simplistic, you also don't want to trip them up by using so many words that they might need to grab a dictionary for. Even though the context of the sentence may provide clarity on the meaning of the word, then you've taken them out of the actual story in order to get a definition. I think that Raw Youth has potential, but I think allowing the reader to become a bit more personal with the main character is going to make a huge difference. Personally, I found myself becoming frustrated, and was ultimately unable to finish, because I didn't know who I was reading about.

. . .

I read a good deal of the manuscript again over the weekend, and I'm sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. I understand that you cannot wait on me, and I appreciate your courtesy and patience throughout. Believe me, we editors do know the anguish involved in trying to make a book happen. Every day is a crisis and struggle. Having read most of the book, I can say that your writing is deeply moving and drips with an emotion and gristle unlike any other prose I've had the chance to encounter. The voice of the narrator is powerful, and I can see an elegance in the way you introduce his madness (or growing paranoia.) Yet, I feel that sometimes the seams are still visible. A good editor will undoubted have excellent suggestions for tightening up the book. Unfortunately I do think [sic] I am that editor. I hope you find the right person to distinguish RAW YOUTH, and I'm sorry if I have delayed you unduly.
I tried. I really did. I wrote the best book I was capable of writing at the time, and I sent it to every agent or publisher who would accept it - and when that wasn't enough, I bought an ISBN number and self-published.

I'm not whining: I know full well the book wasn't perfect. (You should, however, see the books that preceded it - or not, please.) That's the problem: looking back, I can see the gaps between conception and execution. But at the time? That was rough. The rejections for RAW YOUTH were pouring in during the middle of my tenure at Devereux. I think I was already living on my own by then. Attempts at starting another book (which would have been the fourth) floundered. It was easier to write a blog post or a CD review than another chapter in a boring book that I realized was basically just going to be a long jeremiad about my divorce. Mercifully, I don't think I have any drafts left from that . . .

I was basically the worst writer ever. I don't mean in terms of the quality of my writing - heh, no, although you can make your own judgments on that. I mean in terms of the way writers should behave. I was prickly, dismissive, and openly antagonistic in my public persona, actively pushed away my editors with lazy and irresponsible behavior, palled around with bad influences, and then had the gall to act offended when the offers failed to come pouring through the inbox. I did everything possible to derail my career as a writer, everything short of actually being a bad writer (knock wood). I was, in short, the perfect Journal writer, and accordingly the only people who liked my writing seemed to be other Journal writers (hi, Tucker!). But that didn't leave me qualified to do much else. Being the comics critic's comic critic isn't much to put on your resume. (How does Jog do it? Does he even sleep? I'm not even playing that game anymore.)

I failed. That's kind of rough to admit, and it's only been recently that I've been able to admit that to myself: I failed as a writer. There, I said it - it feels good to say it. I failed as a writer because even though I'm temperamentally unsuited to be anything but a writer, I'm even more temperamentally unsuited to making myself presentable to people who would hire me to be a writer. I failed because by the time I got to the end of the cycle for my third book, I was just tired, too tired to go through whole thing again. I failed because I gave up, basically.

And so I ran headfirst back in to the welcoming arms of academia. I looked around me at Devereux, saw what could have been my future, and realized I was still young enough that there was no damn reason why I couldn't go back to school. So I did. I applied to the University of Massacusetts, Amherst and was admitted. I had no expectations whatsoever before I returned to school, really the only conscious thought going through my head was that it wasn't Devereux. I had no idea what I was in for.

And then a funny thing happened. All those years I spent trying to be a writer, all I did was write and read books. I took a terrible job specifically because it gave me (on most nights) eight hours free and clear to do what I wanted. And it turned out that all the skills I had cultivated when I was trying to be a writer were really useful when I stepped back in the classroom. So it didn't take very long - really, it wasn't even the end of my first semester back, when a professor told me I should go to grad school. Or rather, I remember this person saying something in passing that indicated that they just assumed I was already planning on going to grad school, based on my performance. At the time I barely knew grad school was a thing. But suddenly that was the plan, and I haven't looked back since.

So in 2007 I finally figured out what I was really good at. There may have been some blips in the years since, but honestly, even on my worst day I still know I have the best job in the world. I teach and I study and I get to wear jeans to work and stay up all night and sleep in most days and bloviate as much as I want in front of impressionable young adults. I don't make a lot of money and the career prospects for Humanities PhDs are . . . not so hot . . . but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Well - that's not quite true. I would still love to be a professional writer. I haven't written any fiction pretty much since I returned to school, and I haven't worked an actual writing gig besides this blog in a long time, but it's not like I forgot how. On the contrary, I think I may have picked up a few tricks over the years. When people want to be writers, people tell them they have to start. You can't be a writer if you don't write, and most people, even people who say they want to be writers, never start. Well, I already started. I am a writer. I teach writing. I know how it works. I failed in my first attempt, and that was most of my twenties. But I've learned a few things since then. The challenge facing me is not to start writing, but to go back. Someday. Soon.




I am halfway through my PhD at the University of California, Davis. I passed my Preliminary Exam in November, and have my Qualifying Exam to look forward to this Fall. After that, I spend two years (hopefully not much more than that) writing a dissertation.

My life today is unimaginably different than it was ten years ago. I started this blog at perhaps the single bleakest moment of my entire life. It never went away. Through the year in the shack, through Devereux and Worcester, through UMass, through my return to California, and to today, it's the one constant. This is my home, more than anywhere else I've ever lived. I've maintained this blog for longer than I've done anything else. It has officially lasted twice as long as my marriage. I have met so many people through this blog, good people who have made this blog one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I've never met Mike Sterling in real life, but we're brothers-in-blogging - he started his blog one month before mine, so I know whenever his anniversary comes around, my own is just around the corner. I send him an e-mail once in a while asking if he's planning on quitting any time soon - a message to one distant outpost from another. He always answers, "not yet, not yet." And that's good. For whatever reason, Progressive Ruin landed as the first blog on my blogroll many years ago, and it's never left that spot. His blog is still the first page I look at every morning, after my e-mail and Twitter. That's just how the universe is supposed to work, I guess.

I can count on my fingers the comics blogs who have been at this longer than I have. I can't begin to count the blogs who have fallen by the wayside - in some cases, like Neil, honorably setting down their staff and drowning their books . . . in others, just fading into the mist. (What the fuck ever happened to Dick Hyacinth, anyway? Seriously, did he die?) I don't linkblog. I don't blog every day. Hell, sometimes a week goes by without so much as a peep. But I'm still here. Just when you least expect it, here comes the 3,000 word takedown of the latest crossover, or here's the greatest gif known to man. I've got my fans, I've got people who try their best to ignore me, and I've got a whole lot of other people who turn up now and again to gawk at the wreckage. That's fine. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ten years is a long time. Ten years of insults, argument, passive-aggressive sour grapes masquerading as critical profundity - but also ten years of good conversation, good friends, and maybe even some good writing. (Man, that sounds corny - but what the hell, I guess I earned some corn.) Blogs aren't supposed to last this long, right? They're supposed to be these funny things that come and go in a few months or a few years, that run their course according to their owners' moods or the whims of fashion. Who blogs anymore, anyway? Seriously, it's like the CB radio of the 21st century. Every smart person figured out something better to do with their time years ago.

But in case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm not that smart. I'm still here, even if no one cares to listen, I'm here because what the fuck else would I do? This is what I do: The Hurting is who I am, for better or for worse, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise after ten years.

When Will The Hurting Stop? Never.

This blog is a cockroach.

I will never die.



13 comments :

Christian LeBlanc said...

As a long-time, usually silent, reader, let me say congratulations and thank you. You've actually gotten me into a lot of things over the years - Jeffrey Brown, They Might Be Giants, and I'm scared to think what else. And it always made me feel good that there was at least another person out there who didn't think Sleepwalker was all that bad :)

I'm pretty sure I also still have the backing board you used when I won a Jeffrey Brown comic here (along w/a mix CD you threw in); you drew an angry/unhappy face with "POOPY" written above it. I always loved that there was no explanation behind that :D

milo george said...

You're older stuff was funnier. LOL

WarrenPeace said...

Hey, congrats on passing the decade mark, Tim! I'm glad you're still sticking around and putting out interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking stuff. Myself, I just kind of stopped sometime last year, but I still hang around, leaving occasional comments or tweets, but mostly just keeping up with the guys I've spent several years following. You're one of them, and I'm always happy to see when you've posted something new. I hope you're still doing it for a long time to come, and maybe one if these days you'll inspire me to write something of my own again. Good luck!

Charles R said...

I'm a longtime follower, very infrequent commenter. I’ve probably been reading your blog since 04. It’s weird to me when you rattled off the blogs of what you consideredthe old guard; I used to follow all those guys, but only really read you and Sean anymore, for a long time now. Hearingabout Oni Press and Planet Lar and the other stuff is like from another life, when I used to frequent the CBR and other comic book forums and blogs. Sometimes I think about that when I read your and Sean’ blogs, and how long I’ve actually been doing it. The mind boggles over the ten years and what’s changed; I remember you writing about a lot of the changes in your life over
the years, sometimes only gleaned from small asides.

I was a big fan of Quasar growing up, so I think your series on him is what really caught my attention way back then. I enjoyed so many of your other article series, many of them abandoned at some point, but I can’t really blame you for that. I know I checked out a bit big time when you started to delve into X-Man, but I always check back. The Monday Magic series has lately gotten me very intrigued, as I never would have guessed that
you played.

The most moving article you ever wrote was one a few years ago about what it’s like to be poor, and how hard it is to climb out. Very eye opening and raw; something I think about when I try to help out family members who have fallen on hard times.


I just wanted to let you know that your writing has meant something to me, and has been a part of my life, even in a small way, for almost a decade now. I couldn’t say that about a lot of writers.

tucker said...

One of the all time greats. (And there are only four all time greats.)

j said...

I started reading your blog in 2009 or 2010? and comment infrequently but read every article. I obviously love what you write about comic books but I also love your music entries even though we don't remotely have the same taste in music (besides the Wu-Tang Clan, because everybody should love the Wu-Tang clan). Probably the blog I read the most consistently.


Just wanted to drop in and show my support. Congrats on 10 years. :)

Martin Wisse said...

I have no idea when I started reading your blog, but it couldn't have been long after reading Mike's, sometime in 2004. To think it's been ten years, that barely seems possible.

Some blogs you check every day, confident that they'll have something for you to read, but the thing about the Hurting is that most days you get disappointed, some days there's only a quick joke post or whatever, but you live for those days that there is that huge wall of text again when you click through and you can get yourself a cup of tea and a biscuit and sit down to read about what Tim thinks about the latest stupid comics story.

And sometimes it's all about They Might Be Giants and you're disappointed anyway...

Mike Loughlin said...

I remember the days of Ultimate Gwen Stacy and Vanilla Gwen Stacy, Secret Wars 2, and I Go Stabby. I was reading your blog since before the birth of my first kid. Happy Anniversary! I'm glad things are working out for you and that you're not quitting any time soon.

Neilalien said...

Excelsior!

Timothy Byrne said...

Many congratulations on ten years. I also have read every article since (around) 2003, and greatly appreciate your insight and writing style. I'm still hankering for the promised series on Asimov's Foundation!

Sterg Botzakis said...

Congratulations on 10 years. I started reading comics blogs about the time you started blogging, and I have consistently gotten much out of your writing about comics, movies, TV, and music. Thank you for introducing me to a bunch of bands and giving me much to think about comics and life. However or whenever you choose to write, I will be there following along. Long live the cockroach!

JB said...

Haven't been frequenting your blog for quite that long. But congrats on ten years.

I've been reading your stuff for 3 or 4 years now (even that sounds long to me, so I can't imagine how you feel), and I've always (or almost always) found your writing to be engaging and insightful. Thank you for not giving up on at least one in thing in your miserable life.

Anonymous said...

You're one of my favourite pop culture writers, Tim. I check the blog about once a year, hoover up everything I'm interested in then forget about it for months until something makes me think of it. I'm glad that you've found a professional outlet for your talent - that's got to be one of the biggest challenges for anyone who likes to think of themselves as a 'writer'. Good luck with the fourth novel, and thanks for all the free content!