Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Everybody’s Rockin’

Howdy, folks! We here at The Hurting are extraordinarily proud to once again embark on regular updates, beginning with the return of an old chestnut - Everybody’s Rockin’. (You can catch up with the first incarnation of the series by following this link.) The feature has been revived for the occasion of the second volume of The Hurting Gazette, a free weekly newsletter available here, right now. Sign up today and catch up with the archives - subsequent weeks feature writing about Phil Collins, Bananarama, and Tina Turner. This week’s newsletter, when it ships tomorrow, will have a brand new essay about Heaven 17. 

So, we’ve already got a nice stockpile. New installments of Everybody’s Rockin’ will appear here about a month after they appear in the newsletter, so if you like what you see here you can always go catch up on the newsletter archive. And remember, the newsletter also has all my links, anime recommendations, new installments of Jacqueline Thousand, Udder Madness updates, and even reader mail. It’s a blast. If that’s not enough, remember I got a Patreon too, and much like the city, it cries for vengeance. 

Introduction; The Bee-Gees - “Jive Talkin’”

I have spent my life for many years in vacation from myself, a sorely lamentable set of circumstances that restricted my every choice and deed for half a decade. What’s more, this period of struggle was itself preceded by an era of intellectual rigor and subsequent nervous breakdown that left me in little shape to read anything or listen to any music other than what I already knew well.


The situation was, in essence, that the portion of my brain responsible for processing new sensations was almost completely quiescent, as I simply didn’t have the emotional or intellectual bandwidth to concentrate on anything whatsoever. I didn’t even read very many comics during the period, only whatever I wrote about for the Journal. As the period continued, I gradually began to stir my faculties, enough for at least a renewed engagement with comics. It was, I reasoned, that factor in my life in which I had so far achieved the most lasting success. I have a bit of notoriety, a steady gig that actually pays a little, the goodwill of a fair percentage of the community. Those aren’t things to take for granted. Whatever I build from this point forward, if anything, has to be on that foundation.

However, I have lived many lives. 


In another time and another place I wrote a great deal about music. In truth, I believe I wrote too much about music, because I burnt out by writing as much as I did. I burnt a lot of bridges when I flamed out of music writing. No defense. Simply fell apart in a lot of arenas of my life around that time. Not a good time in my life, in hindsight. Music writing had become a burden, but literally everything had become a burden. That’s when I left the Journal, as well.


Once upon a time I greatly enjoyed it. I was knowledgeable about some things, could do my research on others. Learned an incredible amount about music by being open minded at a semi-professional level. But I did too much of it. It made me hate a lot of things about music. 


I do miss getting free stuff, not going to lie. But I’m sure it’s all digital these days. I’m still on a great many music promotions mailing lists that never update or purge, however, so every now and again I get a sneak of something I enjoy. A nice little present from another time in my life, perhaps. 


(They never purge: I’m still on promo lists, I’m pretty sure, dating back to when I did college radio. I haven’t done college radio in almost twenty years. It was a big part of my life for a surprisingly long period of time, and frankly I do miss it.) 


Over the subsequent years I continued to write about music, but never new music, and only on my blog. I don’t know how many of my readers cared about me talking about Daft Punk’s Homework - twice! I was so out of it I wrote the same article twice, years apart! But that I did. Wrote a whole booklet’s worth of essays about They Might Be Giant’s premillennial output - it’s available as an ebook on the ol’ Patreon - Whistling in the Dark - A (Very) Short Book About They Might Be Giants. Wrote about Fleetwood Mac and Fatboy Slim. 


I also started a series. It actually made it to four whole essays, which - long time readers of the blog should remember - was a rarity for me. I always trailed off from ambitious essay series I’d start. I’m sure it was frustrating for readers - how do you think it felt for me? But I made it through four essays under the rubric Everybody’s Rockin’. Wrote about Nine Inch Nails, The Beatles, Pavement, Kanye - it was another world, in so many ways, believe me! But, that notwithstanding, I really enjoyed writing those essays and had every intention of doing more, but for the fact that they were written during a period of my life in which I had no ability to follow through on anything at all. 


And as these years have progressed I have moved further away from a steady engagement with new music. That’s not who I ever wanted to be. But I simply didn’t have it in me to do anything else. It was a source of great unease at the time, to be frank - I remember admonishing myself, that I really needed to listen to newer music than the same old stuff. But it apparently takes effort to learn new things. The bandwidth was full.  


But I know that has to change, and I’ve been taking steps to reengage. I find I don’t have a lot of occasion to listen to music, but I should probably change that. I never wear my headphones in this house. I need to be aware of what the cats are doing at all times for so long as Rodger treats his poor brother like open sport, is the truth of the matter.


It was in this spirit that, on a particular peevish errand one bitter hot morning I found myself flipping to the Essential Bee-Gees playlist. Now, as a rule, I can’t stand the Bee-Gees. I’m sorry if that renders me a cultureless cretin in your eyes, I just don’t find their voices pleasant. Their brand of male falsetto strikes me almost like a bird call. Someone upset that poor bird.


And yet, the other day I happened to hear a song - a song which, I assure you, I had heard many times before in my life, even if rarely registering it over the level of supermarket loudspeaker, or the occasional afternoon’s dive on the oldie’s station - called “Jive Talkin’.” And let me tell you something about this song - hear it once, and you’re gone. You have that drumbeat in your head for the rest of the day, and that inconceivable keyboard fake outro. The most asinine little melody that you probably know by heart. Because, even if you hate the Bee-Gees, you have heard that song and that keyboard outro many, many times in your life.


Anyway. I was just trying to give myself something to think about other than the aforementioned peevish errand. So I pulled up the song and actually listened to it. For real listened to it. And you know, it really is a little miracle. You think it’s a slick disco number, because you’ve only heard it over shitty supermarket speakers, or not for years otherwise. But if you listen to the song, for real, it’s not overproduced at all. It’s not a slick disco song. It’s a funk song. Stripped down, too. Whatever the hell those boys are singing about, the drummer’s getting it done. I just checked and its a man named Dennis Byron. Welsh fellow. I guess they know how to funk in Wales. 


It’s actually kind of simple, when you break it down. Not a lot of frills. Clean, of course, but that just meant you could hear everything pretty well. Got a kind of nasty baseline, in a polite sort of way. If you’re not careful, you might mistake the opening percussive guitar for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s intro to “Modern Love” eight years later. Can’t say Bowie didn’t nick a trick himself. The sound James Murphy devoted his life to trying to replicate in a laboratory.


But then, there’re those weird dudes. The brothers. An uncanny bunch. Knew from a young age, apparently, that they were going to be professional musicians, and set about a lifetime of chasing trends. I say that with affection, mind. Trend chasing has a bad rap, but only because its usually a sign of desperation or inauthenticity, a break from the norm as opposed to the whole deal. It usually doesn’t work. But the thing about chasing a trend is sometimes you can actually catch it. The Bee-Gee’s made a long and fruitful career out of trying to figure out what people wanted to hear. No bones about it, heart on their sleeve they wanted to get their albums played on the radio and to sell records and all that jazz. Very authentically ingratiating about wanting to be popular. That doesn’t make them cool, just makes them people who wrote a handful of songs you know by heart even if you hate them with a burning passion. That’s not nothing. And it doesn’t mean they haven’t also been residents of the uncanny valley since before anyone knew what the uncanny valley was. 


When was the last time you listened to “New York Mining Disaster 1941”? That’s a weird song! Dark and sparse, for its time. You can hear Mark E. Smith clearing his throat in the parking lot. From an album described as the Bee-Gee’s Sgt Pepper. The Bee-Gee’s were around long enough to have done a Sgt. Pepper. Then they spent some time in the wilderness after their 60s success, and got hungry for a hit. They went from that depressing jangle-folk with sort of a nervy undercurrent to a pretty funky dance band in the space of about eight years. To do that, and not fall on your face takes agility and ability both, I have to acknowledge even if I am lukewarm on many of the results. There’s something almost refreshing about that attitude towards music: oh, yes, we just want to make something people are going to like. Lots of people, not just whoever liked our last thing. What are people listening to now? 


To be fair, by 1975 there weren’t many people interested in what the Bee-Gees were doing. They weren’t clicking with anyone, until they went to America and discovered The Meters. But they did, and it worked. Wouldn’t probably have worked for anyone else, but somehow it worked for them. 


I found myself returning to another song as well, a weird choice but a melody that got lodged in my brain. This despite it being not very good: “You Win Again.” You probably don’t remember it. Very representative early 90s adult contemporary, in most respects. Gloopy synthesizers up the wazoo.


There’s never been a time for adult contemporary like the 1990s. All the old rock stars from previous decades graduated to generic soft rock pop records that sold like crazy. There were some younger acts in there, too, but it was still squarely aimed for the middle-age demographic. Bowie, for all his many achievements, never had a big adult contemporary hit. Never even strayed a toe in that direction, even though he almost certainly could have made a lot of bank on an album that sounded like everything else on the radio. Occasionally a real gem snuck through, of course, even given those strictures. “Constant Craving” got played on a lot of adult contemporary stations. In terms of production and ubiquity, if not subject matter, it was an exemplar of the form.


I couldn’t tell you what “You Win Again” is about - the boys sound like they’re having a very one-sided conversation. And yet somehow that melody just lopes through your head like a baby elephant. It’s the damnedest thing. Doesn’t look like it did that well in America, but they did still chart a couple more hits in the coming years. On records that sound very contemporary to their times, for better or for worse. Oh look, the music boys are back.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

What’s in Tegan’s Storage Locker?

Tegan’s Storage Locker

The following essay was written earlier this year, ostensibly to commemorate the launch of my TikTok channel, and first saw print serialized over the first five issues of my new weekly newsletter, Volume 2 of The Hurting Gazette. The first volume was a digital magazine released through my blog across most of 2018, to an absolute chorus of crickets. The new volume has met with a significantly stronger response out of the gate, thank goodness. Every week sees the release of a raft of new writing from me, and you can have it all, along with links to everything I do, delivered fresh to your mailbox every week. New issue should be going out Wednesday this week, lord willing and the creek don’t rise. 

As always, if you like any of my writing, the best way to help is by subscribing to my Patreon. There’s a veritable ton of older material hiding behind the paywall - you’ll find a brief laundry list below. Still, my best and most favorite writing is always whatever I’m working on now. 


Howdy, folks. My name is Tegan O’Neil, and I’ve been writing about comic books in one outlet or another for over twenty years. I’ve written about comics for longer than I’ve done anything else. You might have stumbled across The Hurting at some point - it’s still here, although these days it’s mostly where I put links to stuff. I’ve been published on and off in the pages of The Comics Journal since 2002. I’ve been part of multiple Eisner-winning teams of people writing about comics - in 2017, with the Onion’s AV Club, and again the next year, 2018, with the Journal’s website, TCJ.com. I have an interview with the author printed in the backmatter of the paperback of Abraham Josephine Riesmen’s biography of Stan Lee. (There’s even an extended version of that chat you can read right here, that at least a couple of you probably haven’t seen yet.) Most recently, some of you might even know me from TikTok, where I launched the channel Tegan Reads A Comic Book at the tail end of 2022. 

Now, believe it or not, those videos were in the works for about a year and a half before the channel even started. That’s right, dear readers - and I address here especially those loyal readers among you who have followed me for years, and even decades - a video channel had been on the drawing board for a very long time. The nature of the channel doesn’t really allow for any digressions about process or history, so here’s a more organized summation of thoughts regarding the last few years of my life, leading to the present moment. 

I always appreciated when the first or second issue of a new series came with a nice long essay in the back about the origin of the book. Even if it was half smoke being blown up our skirts, it still went a great deal towards personalizing the creators and bringing us readers closer to the world of the book. So too, hopefully, here as well. 

So - how did we end up here, together, today? Well, therein lies a tale. 

I’ve been buying comic books since I was two years old - the first one I remember being an issue of Batman my parents got me on a long car trip. From that moment on, I remember buying them frequently - or, asking for them to bought, as I was still very young. Now, of course when I was really young they had to compete with stuff like He-Man and the Transformers - but, when I found out they were making Transformers comic books, well. It was all over for me then. I know it’s a similar story for a lot of people my age. I wasn’t allowed to buy GI Joe, on account of it glorifying the military-industrial complex (though I did watch the cartoon, and caught up with the Marvel series as an adult, which of course turned out to be far more nuanced than my parents could have credited back in the Reagan 80s). But between those two venerable Hasbro franchises I was only one of a legion of kids who found themselves incidentally transformed into Marvel Zombies, due to the infinitely transferable phenomenon of brand loyalty. 

Right after that Gladstone began reprinting the work of Floyd Gottfredson, and especially Carl Barks - actual good comics to go alongside the Transformers and other various toy books which clogged the racks of the newsstands I frequented around Lake Tahoe. Shout out to the 7/11 at Carnelian Bay, right around the corner from my childhood home - I think it’s still there today, was last time I drove through. Of course, they haven’t sold comic books in 7/11 since at least the turn of the century, if not much earlier. 

Anyway. My story in that respect isn’t unique - if you’re in your forties and still read comics, chances are very good you went through similar rites of passage. We’re the generation that saw Optimus Prime die twice, after all - once, indelibly, on movie screens, and again, rather less indelibly, in the pages of the 24th issue of the Marvel Comics series. You never forget the first time a comic book instills you with blinding rage. 

Fast forward a few years to me as an adult. Again, maybe this is a familiar story: I left home, first for college and then, soon thereafter, for parts unknown - but my massive comic book collection was left behind with my parents. And here’s where the story gets interesting. Because, I didn’t see my comic book collection for over two decades, and in fact, I believed it lost for many years. My family had settled in the far reaches of Northern California, and that was where I attended middle school and graduated high school. So far, so good. But. My parents did not stay in the Mount Shasta area. A couple years after I left they moved southwards. That meant they moved my comic books without me, which was in hindsight above and beyond the call of duty for them, considering just how massive the collection had become. Well over a solid decade of allowance and lawn mowing and holiday money, congealed into many multiple cardboard long boxes. 

But, they didn’t put the collection in their new house. No. They rented out a storage unit for a number of items that didn’t fit in a house without a garage - skis and old toys and magazines and Christmas decorations - but, most significantly, those boxes of comics. And there they sat, for a very long time. Much longer than I could ever reasonably have expected. 

Somewhere along the line we fell behind on payments for the storage unit. Money was tight as often as not for my parents in that period, by then they were long retired and lived on a fixed income. I helped them when I could, but I was in college myself for much of it, having returned to get my degree much later. At some point the responsibility of paying for the unit passed to me. I was at that point living all the way across the country, in Massachusetts for almost ten years. Money was tight there, as well. Somehow or other, between my parents and myself, the ball was fumbled and the payments stopped. My life was fraught and busy, I think by then I had returned to school. I had various relationships and bad jobs, and even though I was still regularly reading comics, I wasn’t buying very many of them. Thankfully, one of the advantages of being a critic is that I had access  to comics to read even in thin times, people just sent them to me, or more often now, give me links. 

But - what I didn’t have was money to pay for the storage unit. So - they were gone. For years. Out of sight, out of mind.

What all was in the locker?
You know how it works. If you stop paying for a storage unit you can’t expect but to see it pop up on an episode of Storage Wars down the line. And, frankly, at the time - I went through a significant period of mourning, when I believed those comics to be gone. I said goodbye to them. And I worked through those feelings of attachment and loss - I thought that I came out the other side of the experience with a greater appreciation both for what I still had and with less of a need to own and collect things. Losing my childhood comic book collection, through no one’s fault but my own, was a growth experience that hurt like hell at the time but which made me a better person. 

And then, of course, many years later, after I had been through this and come out the other side, I received a letter from the storage place asking me if I was ever going to pay any of the back rent on the damn locker. You can just imagine my surprise, not unmixed with a slight degree of consternation at having to pay many thousands of dollars of back rent. But: I had said goodbye to those comic books in good faith, believing they were lost to time. And then, turned out they weren’t so lost after all. They came back to me and that felt significant. I wasn’t going to lose them again, even as it would still be many years before we were actually reunited. 

So, even though I still didn’t have a lot of money, I somehow managed to pay down that debt, and have remained in more or less good stead with the storage place ever since. The funny part here, however, is that the comics still had adventures without me. I received a letter from the storage place somewhere along the line that they had backed one of their own trucks into the unit my parents had initially rented, so they had to move all our stuff themselves, into another unit. So, ultimately both my parents and the people who own the storage place had to move my massive comic book collection. I have never actually had to move it myself, which seems a neat trick.

As for me - well. After six years of grad school I was completely burnt out, burnt out and exhausted. It’s a sequence of events I’ve discussed at length elsewhere so I won’t belabor the point here. It just so happened that this also coincided with a downturn in the health for both of my parents. So, I went from teaching college to taking care of them, pretty much full-time. Another aspect of this period is that I went from being intensely involved with comics - reading most of everything released in the American mainstream and much beyond, week after week for many years, as was more or less my job while I was working for the AV Club - to reading almost nothing at all. 

Reading comics that way - reading so many comics that way, week after week for years, not out of joy or desire but out of obligation, because it was my job - well, it made me resent comics. Reading them almost exclusively on a computer screen for years at a time made me hate the medium. One of the better aspects of living on a farm in the middle of nowhere with my parents for a few years was choosing only to read what my editor sent me - which ended up sometimes being only two or three comics a month, total. During that period I came to call my reading habits “slow comics” - a joke, basically, which I nevertheless came to appreciate, because it was during this time that I set about in earnest to reengage with the medium to which I had ostensibly dedicated most of my life. 

I wrote a column for the Journal’s website, from 2018 to the middle of 2019, called “Ice Cream for Bedwetters,” which, again, I will say I believed in the moment to be a great name for a column. It was a memorable laugh line in 2017’s Logan movie that actually did tie-in with the themes I wanted to discuss during that very personal run of essays - learning to read comics again, basically. Getting in touch with what I enjoyed about the medium, looking past those years as a professional critic, decades of becoming cynical and jaundiced about every aspect of the hobby. I think over the course of those essays I really did begin to rekindle my joy and affection for the medium - I’m proud of those pieces, and of the book they form. Enough that I still hope to see it printed up one of these days, even if I end up doing it myself. 

It was also during the early days of this period that the four of us won the Eisner for the AV Club - Oliver Sava, our editor, along with Caitlin Rosberg, Shea Hennum, and myself. Talented folks who I am proud to consider my friends. Considering the subsequent half decade I had, that award and those associations gave me a great deal of comfort during a period when things weren’t going so great. As much as I was enjoying the gradual process of reengaging with comics, the context for my life was that my father had received a very bad diagnosis - we we were initially told Parkinson’s although more recent developments led to a more likely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. And that was my reality for the next three years of my life, taking care of both of my parents during my dad’s slow but sure decline. 

Now, this is a massively depressing part of the story, no way around it. Long time readers might remember long periods of silence interspersed by bursts of productively from roughly 2019 through the next three years. I didn’t write much of anything through most of 2020. After that singularly enervating year - enervating for a number of reasons, some of which you all experienced alongside me, in addition to my own private struggles - I rallied in 2021. That year saw the advent of the so-called Summer of Tegan, during which I overcame grisly personal circumstances to produce around 80,000 words of comic book criticism in the space of about six months. A little longer than a summer, as a matter of fact, but this is comics and you should never let the facts get in the way of a good cover blurb. I started another book during that period - I mean, I’ve written a lot of books in the last few years, but specifically on the subject of comics, I started a book about Rogue that was intended as a kind of reading guide for the character and much of the last forty years of X-Men comics in general. That book is still unfinished - the first quarter or so is done, but hopefully, if you’re one of the folks waiting for me to pick up that baton again, the delay makes a little bit more sense now. Soon! I promise. 

Now, eventually all these threads converged towards the second half of 2021, with me straining mightily to maintain my momentum across an exhausting period where, in addition to writing that aforementioned 80,000 words of criticism, I was also providing round the clock care for my dad and my mom both. She wasn’t sick, yet, just run down. As was I. The writing I produced that year was for my own sense of pride as much as anything else, but all that work did the job and pushed me back into being fully invested again. The problem was, once I finished, I didn’t really know where to go from there. I wrapped up with an epic review of Simon Hanselmann’s Crisis Zone, the completion of which actually spanned a period of time in which I was hospitalized for what I later discovered was a hernia. So - I didn’t have it in me to continue at the fever pitch, or really any pitch at all. Paradoxically, even though I was back in the game, I was still spent.   

So I yielded to the flow of events, took my mother’s lead, and started watching a lot of YouTube. She moved over to YouTube for her primary TV when she figured out she could get better news and science and history programming than anything on the regular cable. Which, frankly, surprised me - I was never a big YouTube watcher, because I had assumed it was all just right wing propaganda and people yelling about video games. Well, there is a lot of both of those things, but to my surprise, they also had international news, and lectures from the world’s premiere universities - and yes, even comic book content. So, being mostly exhausted from running around like a chicken with my head cut off, I sat back and learned quite a bit. It was here that I finally found the missing piece that I’d been looking for - after the extended burnout it took years of hard dedicated work to rekindle my affection for comics, my desire to read them, my desire to write about them - but it wasn’t until I saw other people talking about them, showing them off, actually touching physical copies of the books instead of just leafing through digital files on a tablet - that I finally wanted to go back to the store myself. So, at the tail end of 2021, I did just that.

And, as I said earlier, the idea of a “pivot to video” had been percolating for a while before that. In the later half of ‘21 and the early months of ‘22, I devoted myself to learning the ins and outs of video production on my phone. I didn’t have the wherewithal to write much of anything at that period, and I certainly didn’t have the stability to begin broadcasting, but I did have well over an hour every day during which I walked the dog and was able to read about video on my phone. That’s when I learned how to use iMovies to edit footage, however rudimentary my skills. Doing a long circuit every day around the same farm made for a pretty predictable walk, so there was plenty of time for research. I produced at least a couple dozen sample videos, in my room - learning how to light, and how to mic, and how to talk on video - all of which took some time. I shared the results with only a couple people, but they can attest, there were full-length videos extant well over two years ago. Imagine my frustration to be ready to go, and yet unable to really start because - again, my days and my nights when I wasn’t reading comics and figuring out how to take videos were still devoted to caring for a man who didn’t always recognize me anymore. 

The Hurting began in the Winter of 2004 - the website celebrated it’s nineteenth birthday earlier this year, such as it is, but it’s basically my brand now. I’ve felt guilty for years that I haven’t been in a place to be able to resume daily blogging. I miss it. I miss having an outlet to talk about comic books that isn’t Twitter. That service has its definitely pluses, but as we’ve seen the past year it’s also become a much less stable place, especially for anyone trying to make their living through online promotion. Producing videos enabled me to return to doing what I enjoy most in this world - yakking about old comics for the entertainment of whoever feels like showing up and joining the fun. 

Because, I’m not just a comic book critic - I’ve worn many hats in my life. I was on the radio for half a decade in my twenties. I taught college for six years. Now, videos about old comic books aren’t quite criticism, and making TikTok videos isn’t quite broadcasting, and talking about comic book history and art theory on that forum isn’t precisely teaching - but they have elements of all those things. Seems a natural progression, from that perspective. 

With that said, producing videos - producing any kind of videos - entails a hell of a lot more work than “just” writing essays and posting them to my blog. The worst part of blogging for me was always dealing with pictures - all of which had to be tracked down and uploaded individually, a process which was never not a hassle and which grew progressively more taxing the more I wanted to talk about art. Videos are the perfect answer to that problem: if I want to talk about art in a video I can simply point at it with my finger. Now, of course, there’s a lot more that isn’t easier about the format. Which is why, hopefully, the videos lead to more remunerative feedback from a larger audience.  

Because yes, as much as I enjoy doing them, I’m also not investing all this time and effort merely out of the goodness of my heart. I have a Patreon, and as much as I appreciate every single person who has supported me over the last six years that I’ve had it, it’s nevertheless a small group I’d like to see grow. To that end I had goals for the channel - modest goals, I promise, but goals nonetheless, benchmarks I wanted to reach in order to make this considerable effort pay off. In terms of viewership on TikTok, I long since passed my initial benchmarks to continue with the process. I’d like to see steady growth for the Patreon, which hasn’t materialized even as the channel grows apace. Quite frustrating, in all honesty, to work harder than I had in at least a decade and be still unable to move that needle. I live a quiet life and my needs are few, and I’d like to grow the percentage of my income that comes directly from comic books. 

Because, if we’re being frank, we all know there’s not a lot of money in writing about comic books online. There’s not really any money in doing it anywhere for any venue. As much as I am genuinely thankful for every venue that does pay, we all know it’s just not enough to provide more than a little bit of mad money. And I say that knowing full well I’ve probably passed up opportunities for better gigs and slightly better pay - but “slightly better” is relative in this industry, and in any event those gigs don’t exist anymore. Imagine my surprise to come online and find people talking about comics and making money doing so. Again, not as much as anyone would like, but more money than can be made  sitting in front of the keyboard and diligently tapping on the keys. 

Now, I’ve been talking about comics, professionally, since 2002. I’ve been dong it online since 2004. That makes me incredibly old in internet years, I fully recognize. But I have adapted to the times. I started a TikTok for that very reason - it’s not a medium I felt myself naturally drawn to, but if there’s one theme I’ve picked up from the various writing communities on which I eavesdrop, it’s that any presence on TikTok, even half-hearted, reaps enormous dividends in terms of getting your name and your material in front of new people. I started doing daily reviews of new comics on my Twitter, and realized there was a market for just that thing. Sure enough, “Tegan Reads A Comic Book” has met a warm reception and continues to grow.

Although it may not have seemed like it at first, TikTok ultimately enabled me to return to daily blogging. I’m engaged and energized by writing about comics and sharing that enthusiasm. That part of it, at least, is pure joy.

Room full of comics

Now, I’m not just a critic. I’ve been trying to make a go of it as a writer, full-stop, for a good long while. I went through life changes around 2016 that led me to reevaluate what I wanted to be, what I wanted to do with my life. What I really wanted, more than anything, what I always wanted, was just to be a writer. I spent the better part of a decade trying - most of my twenties - before returning to academia with my tail between my legs. (I’ve written about that demoralizing process before.) But that basically meant ignoring what I really wanted, and that’s about the least healthy thing for a body you can imagine. Frankly, it can be deadly. 

So, I’ve written quite a bit in my life, and especially these last few years. If you already know this stuff you can skip ahead, true believers - but for the sake for those new to the party: In the first place, I’ve spent the last few years compiling some of my older writing, into volumes available as inducement for joining my Patreon and supporting my ongoing efforts. There’s still and always an introductory anthology of my criticism available for free download on my Patreon - it’s called The Putative Hurting. All killer, no filler, just the hits from across twenty years. It’s a smaller version of The Portable Hurting, a more exhaustive look at my back pages, which also has more original material in the form of extended annotations and biographical notes. These in turn compliment a couple older anthologies - The Hurting Sampler and The Hurting Reliquary - also still available on the Patreon. 

Over the last few years I also wrote a few books of autobiographical criticism - I already mentioned the “Ice Cream for Bedwetters” column, the collected edition of which will be called Salting the Wounds and is actually the third volume in a series beginning with Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life, and continuing through to Galaxy of Zeroes. (Those projects can be read via the links on the left side of the blog.) In a perfect world they’d sit snug next to one another in a fat slipcase, but in lieu of that you can envision the slipcase in your mind-palace. 

The latter is ostensibly built around Star Wars - but if you’d like a more focused collection of my Star Wars writing, without so much in the way of biographical or philosophical interludes, I can recommend The Republic is Crumbling, an anthology of the best of my writing on the subject. Now, before you ask the next obvious question, I’m currently completely estranged from that franchise, which was a pretty big focus of mine for much of my life. Let’s just say that Rise of Skywalker left a bad taste in my mouth and I haven’t seen anything produced since I saw that film in the theaters. Not a damn thing. I know I’ll go back, because those movies are in my blood as much as anything in comics, but I’m still not over that movie. I’m planning to remain mad about it probably for a considerable amount of time yet. 

There’s also a small book about They Might Be Giants on there - I actually wrote about music for years on another website, but hadn’t in a long time. Now, I am happy to report that this drought, at least, is over: I’m writing about music again, in the form of new installments of an old essay series from the blog, Everybody’s Rockin,’ presented in the pages of my new weekly newsletter, technically speaking Volume 2 of another old series, The Hurting Gazette. I’m going to be posting those new essays in this space, beginning next week. 

Now, as much as I enjoy criticism, and would love to have those books published eventually, I know full well they’re still niche items. I’m not going to make my fame in publishing with anthologies of old blog posts. To that effect, in 2018 I buckled down and started work on something that was at least in theory designed to be more readily commercial: I started writing fantasy, and began a series of books called The Array. The first six and a half of which are done, and also available behind the paywall of the Patreon. I put a lot of thought into how to write something that would sell, so of course I’ve been trying to sell them for over five years and not had a jot of success. 

It is the greatest ongoing frustration of my life that I have yet to find a receptive audience for a series of books that was designed to be as ingratiating and commercial as possible. It’d be one thing if they were purposefully obscurantist by design. But no, they’re my best good-faith attempt at accessibility. And I can’t pay people to read them. I’m still working at it - every week, pretty much without fail, for years (with a few gaps during the lowest periods of taking care of my parents when I wasn’t doing any writing work), I have sent out two or three or four queries, all of which have been rejected. But I’m still at it. Just got another rejection this morning (as of this writing), but I’m still at it. 

Because, ultimately, I have made many of the decisions in my life on the principle that the easiest way to break into comics is as a prose writer. The problem is, I got stuck at the part that entails breaking in as a prose writer. That was what I spent most of my twenties doing - and to be fair, I wasn’t a very good writer in my twenties. I wrote three or four books of bad cod realism, the kind of books an angry young person writes when they haven’t been to enough therapy. Given that it’s frankly a blessing I didn’t break in when I was 27. If I had had any success on the back of those immature, malformed books, I would almost certainly not still be any kind of writer today. In the fullness of hard-won experience I can say it was a blessing to fail when and how I did.

But, that failure nevertheless left scars, which is why I didn’t write any fiction for ten years. And  also why, when I did return to fiction, I had less than any interest in writing realism or naturalism or quote-unquote “literary” fiction - I spent my time in grad school studying primarily early twentieth century transatlantic modernism, and if there’s one thing I can say about that mode of fiction it’s that it doesn’t have much of a constituency in the early twenty-first century.

Ultimately my ongoing failure to sell my writing remains the spur that pushes me forward. If I had already met with success, I almost certainly would never have started a TikTok in the attempt to spread my name that way. I remain profoundly unsatisfied with my career, but that dissatisfaction is nevertheless what gets me out of bed in the morning. I see myself as a failure in absolute terms, but I’m not out of the game until I’m dead. Hope springs eternal. 

Anyway, you might be thinking - for someone whose ostensible long-term goal since the turn of the century has been to work in comics, you sure haven’t done a lot to make that goal a reality. Really only have yourself to blame there, hoss. To which I can only say, I know. I’ve lived a strange life relative to most people, and at multiple junctures I’ve made bad decisions based on faulty incentives and poor long term planning. I recognize that. But there’s nothing else really for it.

I still really want to write for the comics. Perhaps that a shameful admission for anyone who’s been at it as long as I have, whose seen as much as I have, who knows how the sausage is made about as well as anyone who hasn’t actually been in the factory. All that did nothing to dissuade me. I’m writing scripts now, teaching myself how to do it if nothing else - so far I’ve got five issues of The Journey of Jacqueline Thousand in the can, no artist, no publisher, not even a nibble of interest. But they’re there, and the first four issues are even free to read, right here, for anyone who wants to check it out. I’m not just flapping my wings to no effect, I’m trying my damndest to create movement through initiative.

The first filming rig

Since 2019 I’ve thought a lot about Tom Spurgeon. He died that year, at the age of 50. He was the editor at the Journal when I started reading. We weren’t close - at all - but I can genuinely say what he accomplished over his life has influenced me more than just about any other writer. I thought about that a lot when I was first thinking about wanting to make the pivot into video - he was 36 years old when he began The Comics Reporter, significantly younger than I am now. The only thing we really had in common is that the Journal was central to our professional identities, and he was able to take that experience and use it as a springboard to accomplish great things in this field. I don’t feel as if I’ve built anything at all of value yet, not in the way he was able to give and give back to the medium and the community in a sustained fashion. I want to build something of value, something of significance. The TikTok channel maybe isn’t the final culmination of that desire, but it is a stepping stone on the way. 

In a perfect world the channel would have launched sometime in the middle of 2022, but that wasn’t in the cards. What happened instead is that my parents were forced to leave their home of seventeen years - I mentioned before that we lived on a farm, well, the farm changed hands and they didn’t need tenants in their farmhouse anymore. Now, we managed to stave that off for a good while, owing mostly to my dad’s health. We finally found a placement for him towards the end of the year. But it wasn’t any kind of clean win. If I wrote it in a book it would be pilloried for being a hackneyed development - but here we are. Partway through the year, when my mom and I were deep in the hunt for a new place too live, she started to cough. She was having trouble breathing. Eventually she went to the hospital.

All these years we had trudged forward for my dad’s benefit, consoling ourselves with the certainty that things would be better, that we would have time to relax once we managed to find a place for him to be taken care of. Catch up on our Star Trek. Because we weren’t up to it. We exhausted ourselves because there were no other options for him, and no other options for us. We provided him round the clock care long past the point when we had the ability to give him a good quality of life, and long after it had seriously affected our own quality of life, and our own health. It took a long time - the better part of a year after we made that fateful call - for them to find a placement. But by then my mom had been to the hospital. Received a chest X-ray and a rather definitive diagnosis. Lifelong smoker, on and off, nothing to be done. And from that point it was a quick slide down a steep hill - she received her diagnosis at the end of August and by the end of December she was gone. She died two days short of our final day at the old house, when I was in the middle of the most crucial time of the move, prior to being homeless by the first of the year.

She was given a longer prognosis than she eventually lasted. It’s the damnedest thing - she just disappeared one day, from right in front of my eyes. Once day she was there, and the next she wasn’t. Our last time together we spent watching some Star Trek, pretty much our favorite thing to do as a family since as far back as I remember. She read a couple comic books - looked over the Gil Kane Jungle Book, delighted to see such a resolutely loyal adaptation. Leafed through Sienkiewicz’s Shadow. Really enjoyed an issue of Gunslinger Spawn I picked up on a whim. We watched a lot of Comic Tropes, she thought he was quite amusing. I know I should have spent more of the last month before the move packing, so I wasn’t so rushed - but I also knew there just wasn’t going to be as much time as we’d hoped.

She was proud of me and of everything I did. In all brutal honesty I’ve regarded myself as a failure for a very long time. She didn’t think of me as a failure but it nonetheless hurts that she saw me fail so many times, with victories few and far between. I would have liked to succeed within her earshot.

I have in the past, bragged in a very self-deprecating manner, that moving is something I’m very good at. And I am, objectively speaking: I’ve moved so many times and in so many different circumstances that I really don’t get that upset at the prospect. I get focused, I get it done. It’s a system all its own. I suppose that was probably hubris, because this was the most difficult move of my life, and I once loaded a full size hot tub onto the back of a trailer with my ex-wife. Just my ex-wife, mind - honestly, thinking back on it now, I’m still impressed we were able to do that. But having your mom die during a move is, well, it’s rather an overwhelming experience, I’m going to be completely honest. In truth, I think having two such traumatic and exhausting events right on top of each other, after only having found placement for my dad in a facility for Alzheimer’s patients a handful of weeks earlier, somehow instilled a disassociated equilibrium across the actual events. There was too much going on for me to react to any of it. 

So, because the rental market is fucked literally everywhere I spent the first month of 2023 living in a Motel 6 while my aunt and I tracked down housing. With a few more animals than strictly allowed by the by-laws of the Motel 6 company. Although, I should also add, I lost two pets during that month as well, the dog so old she was unable to walk anymore without my holding up her back legs, and my own beloved 16-years-old cat succumbing to a stroke. In hindsight, it seems almost comical just how much tragedy was packed into such a small period of time. But it was also during that brief nightmarish season in hell that I finished the most recent volume of The Array, entitled Hell-World - fittingly, a horror story, all the misery and recrimination and fear of that miserable time, and a lifetime on top of it, wrapped up in a harrowing narrative. Took me three years to write the first 1/4 of that book, three weeks to write the final 3/4. A capstone to the worst days of my life. Purgative. Hopefully also scary! 

But that’s all done now. I’m living in a new apartment with my mother’s cats, mourning yes, but hopefully also living as bit. My mother saw early drafts of the channel, videos recorded in my room in the house on the almond farm. She liked what she saw. She thought it was a good idea, a good next step for my career. She liked listening to me talk about comic books, just as much in my early forties as when I was eight and bringing home paper sacks full of Marvel from the 7/11. Hopefully you like listening to me talk about comic books, too, because that’s what we’re going to be doing, hopefully for the foreseeable future. I even started a podcast, with my very good friend Claire Napier. On the subject of Top Cow, of all things. She just happened to be at my side, figuratively speaking, as I absorbed some of the hardest blows of my life, during those last hellish months on the almond farm. It’s nice to be able to build something new, for a change, and with a friend.   


Thanks for listening. Today and for as long as you’ll have me, I’ll be here. 

PS - For those who stuck with it this long, have a surprise

Sunrise on the almond farm

Friday, June 03, 2022

Announcing . . .


The Putative Hurting

Today I am pleased to announce the release of a new anthology of my work - The Putative Hurting - available now and for the foreseeable future from my Patreon. Check out the Introduction below:

Howdy! If you’re new to the party, thanks for reading. I’ll try to keep the preamble succinct.

The present volume was conceived as a kind of satellite to a larger anthology, The Portable Hurting, designed to celebrate twenty years of work as a comic book critic. As enjoyable as it was to assemble, the finished manuscript became too big to fulfill its initial purpose, twice over. The Portable was initially intended to be a new giveaway for my Patreon, to replace the warhorse Hurting Sampler that had served that function for almost four years. The latter collection had begun to show its age as a representative collection of my work (tho’ it yet lives, behind the paywall, for anyone who wants the exclusive stuff therein). In any event as The Portable became much larger in practice than conception, the addition of 20,000 words of new Introductions added up to frankly more material than I felt comfortable producing for a giveaway. 

The compromise upon which I landed was that The Portable Hurting, conceived as a self-indulgent career retrospective, was offered free for a time on my blog. A gift from me to my audience as a token of twenty years’ esteem. The existence of this volume means however that The Portable has now retreated to its forever home behind the paywall, replaced by this: a slimmer giveaway but hopefully more effective promotional tool. If you already have The Portable Hurting - or if you’ve been following my writing for any time - there’s nothing new here, save for the addition of last year’s “As If By Chisel.” The essay on Barry Windsor-Smith’s Monsters wasn’t in the previous volume simply by virtue of having been too recent a publication, then not even six months old on The Comics Journal website. 

But if you are new to the party, or in need of a refresher, this has what you need. All killer, no filler: “There Are Two Silver Surfers,” “Jerk City, USA,” “What We Talk About When We Talk About Kingdom Come.” Eddie Campbell and Chris Ware. Steve Gerber and Dwayne McDuffie. Stan “The Man” Lee and Brian “Motherfucking” Bendis. All the old circus animals, those stilted boys.

The purpose of this collection is not, however, for me to reminisce, but to get out of the way. If you want to know more about anything herein the resources are available one or two pages further. But if you downloaded this randomly off the internet because you saw something I wrote and were curious to learn more - well, I’d say you should browse at your pleasure, but if you’d like a push I think the aforementioned “There Are Two Silver Surfers” is probably as good a place to start as any. I’m also partial to “True Believers,” myself, and my most loyal readers really like “Jerk City, USA.” 

Please, enjoy, and thank you for reading! If the last twenty years of writing have taught me anything - I’m nothing without my readers. I appreciate everyone who joins that number.   


Monday, March 21, 2022

Twenty Years of Terror

Book cover

Howdy, folks! Would you believe it’s been twenty years this Spring since my first appearance in the pages of The Comics Journal? And eighteen years this last January since the debut of The Hurting? Time flies! To that point, this was supposed to be wrapped by the middle of January. Sadly this is not January! That is a testament both to how jammed my days have been and how much unexpected work has gone into the volume below. 

Today I am proud to announce the release of The Portable Hurting, a (near) comprehensive accounting of my career in comics writing to date, featuring highlights from last two decades. It comes with over twenty thousand words of new material, in the form of two new Introductions. The first Introduction is the story of my career to date, from my first published piece in 2002 right up to the present moment. It also serves as a (belated) anniversary post for this website, and you can read it below if you scroll down. The second Introduction consists of longform annotations to my actual career, as represented herein. That’s where you’ll find my worst takes, selected passages of (obscure, jaundiced) industry history, and whatever lukewarm tea I can manage to brew at this late date. 

The Portable Hurting is available through my Patreon, and for the moment it’s free. Yes. As in, you can download it right here and right now. Will it remain free forever? Almost certainly not! Frankly I ended up putting more work into the compilation than I expected, so I can’t imagine I won’t be replacing it as a giveaway with something a bit more slimmed-down. At some point medium-soonish this volume will be placed behind the paywall. Incentive for you to download now, yes? For the moment, though, consider it an anniversary present.


You hold in your virtual hands twenty years of my life.

Twenty years of the work. Hopefully not the end of it, but for the moment - a summing up of what has come before. An outline, a stab towards tidying up a very unwieldy corpus. A foundation stone on which to build whatever follows. 

The hardest thing about being a writer with any kind of longevity, even in a small field such as comics writing, is figuring out how to keep your name in front of new peoples’ eyes. This volume is intended to serve as an introduction to what is in terms of organization across a handful of websites over multiple decades a giant plate of spaghetti strewn across the wall. Not precisely welcoming should any interested unwary reader stumble across my online haunts! Organizing the back catalog has been a significant chore, which should hopefully serve as a personal lesson to myself, going forward. It almost certainly will not.

Twenty years ago my first professional review ran in issue #242 of The Comics Journal, dated April 2002. I was living in Oklahoma with my wife (now ex). It wasn’t the first piece I wrote with the intention of sending the magazine but I believe it was the first I actually did. Funny thing, the review had already been spiked! The editor at that time, a woman named Anne Elizabeth Moore, politely rejected my review of Wendell All Together. Wendell was a comic strip that ran in The Advocate during the 1980s, drawn by a man named Howard Cruse who I would later meet in passing at a meeting of western Massachusetts comics people. One of my very few opportunities to mingle with other comics people in any capacity. I believe I also said something rude to Denis Kitchen.

In hindsight it sticks out that my first ambition in the direction of writing about comics came not from the Journal but from my love of The Jack Kirby Collector. My first issue was #9, which I found soon after release in early ‘96. From then through the turn of the century that was my favorite magazine. Every issue was an event. I lost track when it switched to a treasury format - the articles seemed thinner, shipping got erratic, and they jacked the price. After buying everything they had published to then I parted ways with TwoMorrows when they started to put out more magazines, stuff like Comic Book Artist and Alter Ego. Both of which were good and also filled with stuff I wanted, but neither of which I ever found the time to actually read. So I stopped buying altogether. 

I started buying the Journal in ‘99 - my first issue was #210, which I purchased at the Tower Records in Berkeley, CA, no longer extant by a long stretch. As I believe I’ve written before, that one issue was perhaps the crucial catalyst for my development as a writer. Now here, finally, thought I, was real writing - and it only took me, what, a decade to outgrow that aesthetic? It’s a comfortable house style. There’s a reason I responded to it, also a reason I needed to let it go. I wonder if Gary Groth - to say nothing of Tom Spurgeon! - ever found it bizarre to see their own voices reflected back in so many other writers, second or third or fourth hand photocopies. Still never had a single exchange with the magazine’s founder, by the by. (“Avoid the boss” isn’t just a good idea it’s a way of life.) 

As mentioned, Moore originally rejected my review of Wendell. I thought the piece was pretty good but there was nothing to be done. Time to slink away to lick my wounds. Already by then (late 2001?) I had become accustomed to the iron law of the rejection letter through the process of sending out short fiction to such magazines as still bought it, to say nothing of spec plots sent to Big Two editors throughout my teenage years. (None of that fiction was printed, for which I am grateful. However, I have still never sold a single piece of fiction, a situation about which I am significantly less sanguine.) Imagine my surprise when The Comics Journal issue #242 arrived in the mail - I didn’t subscribe so it wasn’t expected. Turns out the circumstances of that publication may have been incidental to another drama (one to which I was not privy and so cannot speculate), involving the turnover between editorial regimes of the aforementioned Moore and her successor, Milo George. I believe #242 was either her last or his first issue on the masthead. (I don’t actually have a hard copy in front of me to check, it’s in a storage locker two hours away.) The cover feature that issue was a fifteen page conversation between Noel Sickles and Gil Kane but the meat of the magazine was thirty pages of reviews, and as such I have always assumed my piece just happened to be in the right place at the right time to fill a page in a transitional issue. Emptying the drawer in anticipation of a new regime. 

But it did not matter because my foot was in the door! From that point on I was a frequent presence in Milo’s inbox. From what I recall I sent him lists of whatever I had got my hands on that might be interesting and he told me what he wanted. While he wasn’t a particularly hands-on editor with revisions or edits - at least not with me - I learned a great deal from him, probably more than any other editor. That education came in the form of of my finished pieces, when they appeared. Milo made something readable out of whatever I sent him so I studied what he cut and fixed and stopped doing those things. You don’t want to get called out for the same error twice. Not if you want to get better and keep getting hired. 

Anyway. That’s how I became a steady presence in the magazine for much of the last sixty issues of its original run. The “Cousin Oliver” of the classic Journal, if you will. This was still before I had ever heard of a “blog,” mind you. My first online influences were Jon Morris’ website Gone & Forgotten and Abhay Khosla’s Title Bout column, the latter of which ran on the late, lamented Movie Poop Shoot dot com. (Yes, that was the name of the site. I believe the person to whom you need to complain is Kevin Smith.) It, and Chris Ryall specifically, ran my first piece of online writing, an obituary of Warren Zevon that proved very popular. Enough so that I continued to receive letters on the subject of Zevon for a good decade after. Ended up getting a whole pile of Zevon bootlegs from a fan mailing list as a result of that association. Ryall published a few pieces of mine, despite himself. 

Tho’ Movie Poop Shoot is no more, that early piece is included in the ‘Rarities’ section of The Hurting Reliquary, available behind the paywall on the Patreon. Ryall did pretty well for himself, from what I understand. Morris and Khosla are both still around and they’re both still funnier than me. I’ve interviewed both men over the last decade, I think the only interviews I’ve done in that time. Together they set an early high bar for goofing on writing about comic books on the pre-blogosphere internet. Gone & Forgotten is still around and still updating. In recent years Morris has written three excellent and highly recommended books on the subject matter of goofy comic book characters, with one volume each for Regrettable Superheroes, Sidekicks, and Supervillains. Abhay is also still around, also still funnier than me. If you’ve never read his Dracula you really should, it’s only probably the best vampire comic book ever made. He is a fearless writer, sometimes to a fault. He is also a lawyer which means he can smell your fear. 

Due to a long and weird chain of events leading into the fall of 2003 my then-wife and our four dogs wound up living in central Massachusetts during one of the coldest winters of recent memory. It was a bitter and stressful time, and The Hurting was a product of that time. The name is taken from a 90s cartoon named Eek! the Cat. It ran on Fox Saturday mornings before X-Men. I’ve never seen it in repeats so if you weren’t around then you’ve most likely never seen it. The show was co-created by “Savage” Steve Holland, who also directed 80s comedy staples One Crazy Summer and Better Off Dead, neither of which I saw until decades after loving Eek! Reportedly he left the movie industry because John Cusack was a giant dick, which is how he ended up making such endearingly weird Saturday morning cartoons. 

Anyway, the reason why Eek! stood out to me at the time and in memory was the show’s permeating mood of general sadism. The main character is a hapless purple cat who somehow manages to keep his cheery attitude despite an endless run of bad luck. The catchphrase in question however actually appeared in the backup feature, Terrible Thunderlizards, about a group of dinosaur commandos on a mission to kill the first two human beings. (A few small liberties may have been taken with the paleontological record.) One of those cavemen, the choleric Bill, was even more unlucky than Eek. His constant moaning refrain, every time he was sat upon or blown up or thrown off a cliff: “When does the hurting stop?”

I am certain I spent no more time thinking about the title to my blog than a few minutes, if that - but perhaps that was for the best. Obviously no clue I was picking a brand to follow me for decades and would probably have choked if I had. I am aware it is also the name of a famous 80s band’s first album. No, I did not know that at the time. Yes, I figured it out from Google very soon thereafter. In my defense its a common word! I did get into Songs from the Big Chair a while later after that. It’s pretty fire. 

The same year the blog began I also started writing for a website called Popmatters, for which I haven’t written in well over a decade. I burnt that bridge down to a smoldering pile of ashes. Not my finest moment. That same period of personal and professional nadir also saw a similar process of professional immolation with the Journal, though I’d later be welcomed back. Hopefully I’ve made it worth their time? 

But I’m getting ahead of myself! Although it was a dark period in my life 2004 was nonetheless an extraordinarily productive period - a pattern that would recur with later depressive episodes. I produced steady work for my blog, Popmatters, and the print Journal simultaneously for a few good years, spanning the last months of my marriage through to my single and shiftless years in Worcester and my school daze in Holyoke and Amherst. In that time I went from being an ignorant whiny shithead who spent way too much time feeling sorry for themself to a slightly less ignorant and slightly less whiny shithead who still spent way too much time feeling sorry for themself. The trick was always to act like I knew more than I did and paper over the difference with bellicosity. Ideally, or so my thinking went, I would find time to figure it out and catch up later. Still waiting to catch up, hoping nobody notices!

If that sounds like I’m being hard on myself, well, yes. I may well be. Going back I have sometimes - not always but sometimes - been surprised at my past facility. However, I still maintain I was incapable of articulating a proper opinion until at least the age of thirty, formed and deformed as I still was by early influences I wasn’t old enough to shake. Maybe I liked good things, maybe I liked bad things, I sure didn’t know how to express the difference in a way that mattered. At least to start with. The Journal editors who printed my work in the 2000s were doing me a kindness. But I kept at it! Dirk Deppey succeeded Milo George and proved slightly more hands-on, but by then I was turning in much cleaner prose and most of what I wrote was finding the page. 

Milo deserves special attention in any recounting of my early career. He thought I was good enough to keep publishing and he thought my blog was funny enough to support. After he left the Journal we kept at the correspondence - he sent me a wedding announcement a few years ago, in case you were wondering what he’d been up to. Remember the suicidal monkey fumetti? Why, of course, how could I ever forget! He helped promote a handful of emergency fundraisers during very tight periods in the blog’s earliest days. I know at least a few people who contributed to my emergency grocery funds back in 2004 are still reading today.   

The first comic book blogger was Neilalien. He helped out with my blog a number of times during those early years when I didn’t know what I was doing. (I still don’t know what I’m doing but Blogger makes it easier to get along now. Would have been nice to have that functionality in 2004, people!) I don’t think I was the only person in that early blogosphere he so aided. If you add all that work up at twenty years’ remove, that’s a fair bit of influence over a wide patch of online comics discourse. He was a good friend during a period where I didn’t have many. May his amulet never tarnish. 

Dirk’s Journalista! blog was perhaps the single inciting incident of the comics blogosphere - before he started there really wasn’t any center of gravity, let along community. His page organized, curated, and thereby nurtured what had been on a large and ill-defined countryside dotted with dozens upon dozens of separate fiefdoms. He patronage was crucial in the early years of the blog.

After Neil and Dirk, respectively, I’d argue the third pillar of the classic blogosphere was and still to this day remains Mike Sterling. He sets the example. He started his blog about a month or so before I started mine and has remained a consistent presence on the comics internet for the last eighteen years. Every single time I have fallen behind - gone unfortunate amounts of time between writing or posting - I think of Mike, still plugging away, still as essential as ever. An extraordinarily clear and lucid prose stylist, as I have more than once recommended to younger writers for study. Born the same day but having started blogging a little later, Andrew Weiss was perhaps the best writer among our classic group of comics bloggers. If you like anything I have ever done that combines pop culture writing with memoir, he’s the guy from whom I stole all my moves. He’s better at it, though.

I was propped up through these early years by the kind patronage of a number of publishers and creators who sent me books over this period. Very soon after launching the site Larry Young at AiT/ Planet Lar sent me, I believe, just about everything his company ever published. God help me I wrote about much of it. Oni also deserves a great deal of credit for supporting The Hurting in its early years, and we can single out James Lucas Jones specifically for that because I went back and checked. They and he took me seriously and kept me on their comp list for a long time, and I certainly appreciate that. I owe a great debt of gratitude to everyone who sent me books over the years: it was practice and I needed the material for teething. I hope you got some good feedback. 

Giving productive feedback is a hard task and something I don’t feel I fully grasped until I was a teacher, many years after I had already been blogging and editing. My first exposure to more than a few cartoonists of note was through my inbox, via requests for reviews from unknown talent reaching out to someone who was more or less on the same rung of the ladder, laterally speaking. I tried my best to do well by work I liked and creators I respected, especially those who respected me enough to reach out.

Perhaps the most significant event of that journeyman period of my writing as a critic was the advent of Jog and his Blog, AKA Joe McCulloch. Now coediting the Journal with Tucker, who also introduced himself to me sometime around then if memory serves. I have only one time in my life felt the visceral whoosh of being lapped on the field, but in truth it was a freeing sensation. Whatever pressure I felt in those first few years of writing lifted - that ambition to be and become, for lack of a better phrase, A Prominent Voice in comics. That competition is futile because there’s always going to be someone who writes better and knows more just around the corner. The only competition that matters is yourself. Anyway. Not so bad to be the Salieri of comics critics. Turns out Salieri wasn’t such a bad guy after all. He didn’t get Yo-kai Watch either.

And of course Tucker. Based on his earliest blog output I would not necessarily have guessed he’d end up being Editor at the Journal. But, hell, it certainly wasn’t going to be me! Might as well give it to someone who knows how to get up in the morning and goes out of his way to make sure I always have something to do. He’s the person who checks in on me when no one else does. Maxwell Perkins to my Hollywood Fitzgerald. He once set a copy of the first Claremont X-Men Omnibus on fire. I think about him trying to burn that surprisingly flame-resistant book more than just about any other piece of comics criticism I read in that period. If he did that today he’d probably have to flush his social media and go into hiding.

While I am hardly the first or even the hundredth writer from whom to ever take career advice, I have nevertheless picked up a few bits of wisdom from two decades of receiving (very small amounts of) money in exchange for writing. The key to maintaining a career is to recognize the ancient wisdom that there are three cardinal virtues to which every freelancer must adhere, artist or writer alike: you must be fast, you must be good, and you must be easy to work with. Editors want nothing more and nothing less than those three things. But the rub is, you only get to pick two. I’m not, have never been particularly dependable in terms of deadlines, I freely admit. But I apologize profusely as I turn in my late but very clean copy. So I persist.

During the first decade of my career I wrote many hundreds of reviews, of which the handful that saw print in the Journal were only the tip of a very large iceberg. For Popmatters I wrote endless reams of music reviews, with some movie, book, and TV reviews poking in around the sides as well. Even a couple comics pieces, such as my panning of Black Hole. What can I say? At the time my reach exceeded my grasp. (I’d still say those gorgeous pools of black ink are only about an inch deep, if you know what I mean. But I’d find a more elliptical way of saying it, as I just did.) Somewhere along the line I also became an editor for the site, which in practice meant copy editor. I never had time to actually work with writers or develop articles, but I did copy edit hundreds upon hundreds of other peoples’ reviews. This turned out to be great practice for teaching, as a matter of fact. For my own blog I pushed onward with loads more comic book reviews, as well as any number of extended blog essays. A massive amount of writing by any measure.

In 2007 I returned to school to finish my undergraduate degree. Dropping out of UC Berkeley in order to wash up at UMass Amherst many years later may seem a strange progression but the latter turned out far more my speed. One of many events that predicated the decision to return to school was my resounding failure as a writer of fiction, a vocation I had kept at steadily for almost a decade. It was a demoralizing, brutal process that ended in definitive failure and pushed me away from writing any more fiction for a clean decade. In hindsight it’s a blessing none of that early fiction was actually published, as it was mostly terrible, reflected poorly on the person who wrote it, and would have probably ensured a short and painful career had I inexplicably succeeded. 

That was, as you can imagine, a giant bitter horse pill to swallow, but swallow I did. Hindsight, she is a bitch. Around that time I was also starting to notice that many of the people who had started blogging around the time I started blogging had matriculated to actual careers of some kind - those that wanted them, at least, seemed to be finding purchase in the world of paying work. I struggled likewise with the fact that I knew full well why I wasn’t offered those opportunities - scabrous reputation was only a small part of it, I certainly wasn’t the only asshole roaming the plains of the early blogosphere. The problem was actually, simply, that I didn’t know how to network, and certainly not how to ask for work. Still do not know or understand these things. It’s easy to blame anyone but yourself, but who else was to blame? I’m the person who flamed out from both Popmatters and the Journal around the same time, no one put a gun to my head and made me be depressed for years on end. At that time in my life I couldn’t maintain the freelance gigs I had, let alone seek out more remunerative pastures. Hard cheese, old bean!

So the lessons of my first full decade as a writer was that being a writer was hard, I wasn’t anywhere near good enough, and I had a child’s understanding of self-promotion. Academia seemed a feasible Plan B, at the time. I was good at it, or at least, could be good when I overcome the brain fog and attention problems that plagued my academic career (probably due to the same undiagnosed ADHD that most everyone my age seems to have had all along). The writing I did for school over that decade was not fun. It was never not effortful. I could do it, sure. I became adept at doing it very quickly. At my peak, during coursework for graduate school I could do four 20-25 page seminar papers in the space of eight or nine days. They maybe wouldn’t be the most original works of scholarship, but they read well and that’s not nothing in academia. Communicating complex ideas through straightforward prose isn’t easy. It was hard to a large degree because I knew I was writing material that would only be read by one person. It felt like a retreat. 

As far as my blog I made a conscious decision around the time I returned to California from Massachusetts to never again give a shit about making money writing. Trying to make money had never worked for me and only estranged me from my actual constituency. Even during my most productive periods I’ve never made enough for anything more than the occasional splurge at the comic shop. But my blog kept a following even as general blog readership declined and my posting became increasingly intermittent. Somewhere along the line many of those other internet venues at which my putative blogging peers found some remunerative purchase started to die off, victim of a number of different factors in the consolidating churn of early teens. Much of whatever money there had been in the larger ecosystem of culture writing online dried up. All that was left were the lifers.  

My core readership stuck through all this, lifers among the lifers. So I plugged at it. My readers knew if they checked in periodically I would usually have something substantial, at least every week or two. My core readers, blessed be thy names, kept coming back through the years when I was trying to hawk my terrible fiction and through the years where I was depressed and angry at everything for no reason and through the years where I thought my bad Photoshop cartoons were funny. Of course I wasn’t going to let them down. 

Did I resent the fact that more people still showed up to see me eviscerate random superhero crossovers than anything else? Sure, but I talked about it and talked through it. After many years of fighting against the obvious I came around to the idea that having a specialty isn’t the same as being typecast. It’s good to have a niche. People like me writing about crossovers and yelling at Brian Michael Bendis. Just so long as it’s not the only thing I have to do, I’m OK playing “Freebird” once in a while. 

Still, the process of getting there was long and occasionally bitter. I was sick of writing reviews and resented to a degree the fact that I still needed to keep at the format to keep a readership. But, you know, it is a comic book blog. If I didn’t want to write about comic books why would I still have it? So I kept at it, but also gave free reign to my spleen and tried to steer clear of anything that resembled review format - 4-6 paragraphs running 500-1000 words, more or less. A straightjacket I spent years ripping to shreds. Check out “Justice League Shitburgers” for an example, but please don’t be surprised by the choleric tone. I was angry, for many reasons, only a few of which I understood. I’m glad I grew out of the mood but I’m also glad I refused to walk away. As I said, I was angry. I needed the grounding.

Without that grounding, who knows where I could have ended? A lot of people were angry online in the early 2010s. The worst I ever got was posting self-indulgent semi-edgelord bullshit on my comics blog. 

From roughly 2010-2014 The Hurting was my only outlet, save for a handful of appearances on Tucker’s blog and his column on the Journal’s website (which is how I snuck back in the back door after flaming out in the final months of the print Journal’s existence). No editor, no expectations, just my general guilt over not posting and desire to not abandon my audience. This period coincided with coursework for my graduate program - customarily two to three years of classes and seminar papers in preparation for moving onto exams and dissertations. I learned an immense amount during this period, as you might expect, and perhaps the most important skill was working under tight inflexible deadlines. Writing seminar papers is the least fun writing chore imaginable, so I became adept at writing them fast. Turns out that’s a good skill to cultivate. 

Nevertheless around 2013 I began to peter out. In the buildup to my exams I made the conscious decision to more or less retire as a writer. I had a blog and I’d probably keep doing that but I needed to stop kidding myself that it was ever going to turn into anything else. More to the point, I needed to focus my attention on school. That was my future, or at least a believed for a solid few months sometime around 2013 or ‘14. But then fate intervened, in the form of Oliver Sava, representing the Onion’s AV Club. Turned out the comics review feature needed a strong second and he was hosting tryouts. Somehow or other my name came up. 

I surprised myself at the time with how much I cared. At the time, and frankly to a large degree today, my reputation was opaque. Who remembered me? Someone did. After years of wanting some kind of stable gig working for an established outlet and being unable to bridge that gap through my own initiative, just such a position appeared at the precise moment I gave up the (admittedly desultory) hunt. After a brief try-out period he gave the go-ahead and I dove right in. For the first few months he had to tell me, more than once, to pull back on the throttle and write less. I was just happy for the venue, and to feel remembered. At this remove I don’t recall the precise order of events, but eventually we were joined by Shea Hennum and Caitlin Rosberg. For a good couple years we had the best comics coverage going, and we know this because we won the Eisner for that in 2017. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Writing reviews for the AV Club felt like taking off leg weights after a period of studied and labor-intensive antagonism against the form. Inasmuch as I know how to do anything at this point in my life I think I know how to write comic book reviews. There’s a part of my brain more or less permanently devoted to trying to figure out how to talk about comics in a perceptive way. Whether I wish it or no. It’s not easy, and in fact, I’d argue gets harder the more you’ve done it - unless you revert to formula. For me it’s about reinventing the wheel every time I sit down. Not because I want to but because I’ve done the formula and it’s not conducive to good writing. I can’t repeat myself so every piece has to be new. 

It wasn’t just reviews at the AV Club. There were a handful of roundtable discussions and interviews, as well as a small pile of features. I had a great deal of fun writing a series of articles which were more or less potted histories of characters and concepts appearing in contemporaneous movies - an Ant-Man article the week before the Ant-Man movie, an introduction to the Iron Man / Captain America feud the week prior to Civil War, etc. They required a good deal of work and research, in the form of reading piles of old comics, the act of which provided needed enjoyment during an otherwise sallow period of my life. First time sitting down to read the Ostrander Suicide Squad cover to cover, after nibbling at some highlights over the years. (Don’t tell Fiffe - the original run almost precisely coincided with the “DC is icky” phase of my childhood.) People seemed to like them, in any event. I enjoyed writing more accessible histories and wouldn’t mind the opportunity to do more like that in the future. It’s nice to not always complain. 

Otherwise, there was sadly a lot of room for complaints. Even as I enjoyed writing about comics comics were having problems. The later part of my tenure at the AV Club coincided with an ugly downturn at both of the Big 2. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere, so allow me merely to allude to that fact that ca. 2016 represented at least from the perspective of this critic a nadir for Marvel, coming hot on the heels of another similar cratering on the part of DC a few years previous. Rebirth was underway by then but hit about eighteen months too late to engage me. By then everything felt tired. Maybe it was just me? I needed time away. I had lost my eye, among many other things. 

My years at the AV Club also coincided with an inauspicious period in my personal life. Writing about comics was just about the only highlight of a dark period that ultimately saw me bottoming out in the Spring of 2016. Turns out I was unhappy with a few things. It is necessary at this time to allude to an essay written that year, “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days.” If you haven’t read it, you should probably just go do that. Turned out the act of writing an essay to recount a myriad of changes and developments in my life also significantly changed my life. No spoilers. After hitting rock bottom - a harrowing process described in that thrilling essay! - I resolved to remake my life in every way I could. But it took me a while to figure out what that would mean in terms of career and direction. Initially I assumed that would entail knuckling down with my academic career, actually finishing the work for the doctorate and going from there. “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days” was, if you can believe it, intended as a kind of swan song. In the throes of tremendous life changes I had a lot of things to say to my friends and fans and supporters, the people who had stuck with me across the decades. If you had asked me the day before I published it, even given the positive reaction of a handful of advance readers (literally the only time in twenty years I’ve ever solicited comment before publishing an essay), I would have had a hard time believing more than five hundred people - tops, lifetime - would ever read the whole thing.

Significantly more than five hundred people read that essay. It went semi-viral, about as viral as a 10,000K longread about comics, Star Wars, and gender can go. Listed on Metafilter, even. The feedback was universally glowing - and I’m really kind of underselling it, I think. Go back and look at the comments sections yourself. Bluntly, people reacted to that essay in a way I had never imagined people could react to an essay. And not just generally supportive of my life changes. Think about it: people do not read 10,000 words in one sitting at their computers unless they like what they’re reading. Really like. There’s a recognized place in the internet ecosystem for #longreads but people are under no obligation to finish anything. Especially if they didn’t pay any money for a physical copy of a magazine. 

(The question remains: would I have divulged quite so many intense personal secrets if I had known in advance how many people would read it? A question for me to ponder as I lie awake in bed at night for the rest of my life!)

In one hot minute possibilities shifted. Prim and diaphanous ambitions to carry through with academia dissolved like dew in the face of real and genuine evidence to the extent that my talent and enthusiasm lay elsewhere than in writing cramped monographs for the delectation of none. (To say nothing of the fact that my academic fortunes were such that I was already by then pretty must destined for the life of the permanent adjunct, at best - not even counting the nervous breakdown that I got partly from the process of flunking my qualifying exam.) Perhaps this is an unusual dilemma for graduate students. I don’t like spending time writing anything that isn’t going to be read. Feels like wasting time to do anything else. I don’t even like taking notes for my own purposes so I almost never do. 

The only problem is, of course, it’s not like resolving to continue to write for a public audience meant opportunities suddenly materialized ex nihilo. Hah! Quite the opposite. Reinvigorated ambition without focus can be just as harmful to the body as boundless ambition welded to the purpose of mediocre work. All I knew to do, all I know how to do, was write. Did I have a plan to get that work to market? Nope Do I? Still working on it! Most important thing is always the work. 

My relationship with the AV Club was coming to its end by the middle of 2017. My life was such that I needed to step away, both for practical and spiritual reasons, from a consistent engagement with the comics industry. As I mentioned, I wasn’t enjoying anything by then. I wrote a series of disappointed reviews that Spring and faded away. Although I never formally left, I’m sure Oliver sensed I was growing impatient.

After posting “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days” on Tuesday the 11th of October - Coming Out Day - the response was so positive I needed to know it wasn’t a fluke. So I wrote a follow-up, “Gimme Some Truth,” over the course of only seven days, and it was pretty good. (It was about Spoon [the band], so no relation to comic books). It wasn’t enough to write one good thing, I had to be capable of writing many good things. So I just kept writing and that first essay eventually became a book called Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life. I wrote that book as I was preparing to wrap up my life in Davis, the career in academia, and my relationship. It’s a good book, I think. It was proof of concept, to myself if no one else. I knew how to write, for real. Not like before. OK, now do it again. 

Any old fool can write one review, but will they stick around to write three or four hundred? Lots of people write books. I wrote a few in my early 20s. It’s not hard! Can you keep coming back? Can you get up to do it again after the first book doesn’t move, after the second book doesn’t move, after the fourth or the eighth? Depending on how you count? Moving ultimately doesn’t matter. It’s about the work. Nothing is more important than the work.

The postscript to the Davis period came during the Summer of 2017, having dismantled my previous life and decamped to my parents’ front room. Practically shell-shocked for months. I found out we won the Eisner off Twitter, sitting in the living room. Surreal to have accomplished a lifelong goal more or less without even having processed so doing. The nomination and award preamble occurred during the eye of the storm of a traumatic life change, and as such the nomination barely registered before the ceremony had come and gone. The important lesson here was that I got what I most wanted after I got over myself and learned to work together as part of a larger team. What mattered was the work we did.

Yes, indeed - the real Eisner was the friends we made along the way.  

(Of course, worth noting: in the time it has taken to plan and compile and produce the present volume, the Onion’s AV Club - you know, that same august institution in whose name Oliver, Caitlin, Shea, and I won that Eisner - was dismantled and sold for parts by vulture capital. They will not be happy until we are dead.)

After finishing Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life my output for the remainder of 2017 was limited to one essay, the magisterial, draining, and distinctly non-comics related “Delaware.” Somewhere along the line Tucker became Editor at the Journal’s website, alongside Tim Hodler, and one of the first acts of their junta was to formally invite me to return from exile. I seem to recall I put him off for a few months (due to the aforementioned period of shell shock), but by the end of the year I had returned to regular reviews for the Journal and launched a new column. Technically my second column for the Journal but the first was awful so we shall not mention it.

2018 turned out to be the most productive year of my life. Although I didn’t quite manage weekly output for the Journal I did put out the better part of a book through my column, called “Ice Cream for Bedwetters.” The first volume of the column actually ran on Medium.com - I put three pieces up there to have some articles with my name and links on them to bounce around their algorithm. I still get hits from those pieces so it wasn’t a waste of time. Now, once again, I want to stress that I really did think it was a good name for a column. It’s a memorable line from Logan, a popular comic book movie that also had the virtue of being pretty good. It made me laugh in the theater and it seemed like it would be a great name for a column. 

No one else had this thought. No one.

In addition to my work for the Journal I also wrote five fantasy novels over the course of that year and change. People like them. I’m still trying to move them. I have twenty more of them I need to write before I die, a whole saga in entirety, as of now only in my head. Could be my life’s work? (After writing about comics, that is.) The few people who have read it so far seem to think it’s “pretty good.” The series is called The Array and as of now it’s available at my Patreon. Hopefully available elsewhere sometime before I die? Fingers crossed!  

Anyway. I put out a lot of this work, my fiction as well as a few bits of non-Journal criticism, in the form of an ebook magazine called The Hurting Gazette. I had a great deal of fun making that. I put out sixteen or seventeen issues before the experiment died on the vine. I never received a single piece of feedback about anything I wrote in there. I know it was downloaded. I know giveaways were distributed. No indication that it was ever read by another human being. After a while I gave up and no one seemed to notice. As fun as fiction serialization seemed to me I couldn’t get one additional person on the face of the planet to care. I needed some kind of feedback, something to validate proof of concept before I could try to put it over on a wider scale. As no such feedback ever emerged the project wheezed to an end.  

Still, it would be churlish to complain overly. Although it didn’t last as long as I’d wish the 2018-19 period was, as I said, the most prolific of my life. In addition to my work for the Journal -  including the book-length run of Volume 2 of  “Ice Cream for Bedwetters” - there were the five fantasy novels, as well as an additional volume of critical memoir, Galaxy of Zeroes. The latter was the “proper” sequel to Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life, focused on Star Wars and the tumultuous circumstances of my first year after leaving Davis. It’s a dark ride! 

(Technically speaking the proper reading order would place the collected “Ice Cream” as the middle volume. That volume, titled Salting the Wounds, hasn’t been collected yet. It’s all done, more or less, and still available on the Journal’s website. It’s only a matter of finding the time to do one last round of line-editing for [what is now] four-year-old material. It hasn’t felt a pressing chore. It’s all there if you want to read it right this second.)

Anyway. In 2018 the Journal site was nominated for the Eisner in the same category that the AV Club had won the year previous. As I recall Tucker didn’t rate his chances much but I never had any doubt. He wasn’t the only editor at the time but his voice was immediately audible in the mix. The site was hitting on all the cylinders and had begun a process of rejuvenation that continues apace to this day. Still only sporadically recognized by people who believe the magazine’s internal chronometer remains perpetually set to 1987, but whatevs.

The period in question for the award covers the publication of some of my very best pieces - “Jerk City, USA” and my review of Love & Rockets #5, to name two included herein. I’m as proud of the work I did for the magazine that year as any I’ve ever done. That was also my most consistent period as a Journal contributor in two decades, for what it’s worth. The takeaway for me was: two years in a row, when the greats of the industry assembled to judge the finest achievements in the fields of comics - or, at least, the admittedly niche category of Best Comics-Related Periodical / Journalism - I was counted among that august number. As a writer I was a measurable asset to the editors and publications that hired me. A critic can aspire to naught else. 

Consider the fact that, prior to this strange twofer, I had more or less resolved to leave the field - twice over. 

While I wish I could say that I was able to immediately pivot from that annus mirabilis onto bigger and better things, life intervened. Living with my parents has proven eventful. No restful convalescence. They’re both retired and disabled and money has more than often been very tight. We live on fixed incomes. Almost since the moment I arrived either my mom or dad has needed pressing medical care, a tendency climaxing with these last two years of my father’s decline due to advanced Parkinson’s. That this period of enforced familial seclusion almost precisely coincided with the advent of Covid-19 has provided a strange degree of solidarity through an isolating period. There are few circumstances in which being stuck on a farmhouse with my parents in the empty rural countryside of Northern California would represent the ideal arrangement, but the last two years as of this writing have presented just such a set of circumstances. 

Providing round-the-clock care for my dad has sapped most of the free time and energy that would be otherwise devoted to writing. Work on The Array ceased after the burst of enthusiasm that parented the first five volumes - fiction is difficult writing relative to anything else and can’t be done piecemeal in the same way as criticism. I can’t dip in and out of doing it. Even given that, I produced only a handful of reviews for the whole of 2020. As 2021 dawned I resolved to correct the downward trend at the risk of forfeiting either my self-respect or my audience.

Said audience has grown steadily these last few years despite my dilatory schedule. I recognize bursts of unregulated manic output followed by long fallow stretches where life intervenes is really not a good business model or career path. Even though I’ve been around for a while I have had neither the resources nor the stability to do any editing or publishing myself, god forbid. (Although I would very much like to do so in the future.) But here’s the funny thing: I’ve done that a number of times now, more or less, the whole break-and-return cycle - probably four depending on how you count? The last decade or so of my career. And each time, instead of having to fight to regain my audience, I have found a few more people waiting for me. 

That’s not how this is supposed to work! I’m a comic book critic who writes excessively long essays about the politics of Batman. I shouldn’t have any kind of following, and yet I do. If that sounds like I’m bragging you should know there have been many times in my life where the fact of that following has been all I’ve had to buoy myself against vicissitudes. A not insubstantial number of people would notice if The Hurting never again updated or the Journal never again ran a review. How many people? 

Well . . . maybe enough to fill a small gymnasium? Around there. 

A few of those people care enough to subsidize my endless summer of bohemian persistence, through the Patreon. That especially has been a source of great consolation. The concrete proof of that financial support pushes me forward when nothing else does. With that spirit in 2021 I commenced the “Summer of Tegan,” a season dedicated to my hitting the keyboard as hard as I possibly could, for the express edification of the people who’d been with me the longest. Only comics work. That’s the foundation. I hadn’t updated The Hurting in a long time and needed to do so, for my own aforementioned self-respect if nothing else. So I commenced a new project on the subject of the X-Men and fandom, the details of which are described below. The most accessible material I could think of to write about, and because of that at least partially pitched to readers who don’t already know my work. After a couple substantial posts on the subject of Rogue I set about to produce a great deal for the Journal. I also popped up on Shelfdust, too, with a piece called “Shako in America.” It’s a great essay and it would most certainly be here, but for the fact that I gave it to Steve as an exclusive and will honor that gift for a while yet. You should go read it! 

All told the 2021 “Summer of Tegan” produced approximately 80,000 words. Much of it was good. Much of it seemed popular. My editor voiced not a single complaint when I plopped 15K about 90s Batman in his lap for the Summer season. It felt good to do that, just - flex, a bit. I needed a win, folks. I needed a streak. If nothing else, to reassure the people who had stuck by me after all these years and all these nonproductive troughs, that I was good for it, and that I was always going to be good for it.

Tom Spurgeon died in 2019. I wouldn’t be writing these words today if it weren’t for words he wrote decades ago. We didn’t know each other well - in fact, we barely spoke, and in fact stopped speaking for years because of some sparky exchange or other. I do not remember what it could have been, not in the least at this remove. From what I am given to understand he was like that with a lot of people, and a lot of people persisted and forged relationships anyway. At the time we corresponded I wasn’t of the mindset for that kind of prickly relationship, even less so now. I avoid conflict, most especially online, and extra most especially within my field. I did that already for almost a decade and it wasn’t fun. I didn’t like the person my reputation reflected. Trivial controversy seemed less important then. I like to think I got it out of my system before stakes arrived. But I’m wrong. The stakes were always there, I was just stupid. 

I don’t there’s a single person with whom I ever had any kind of cross words, online over comics or any other nerd ephemera, with whom I wouldn’t sit down with today for a drink. If there’s anyone reading this today who still feels strongly about it, I’m sorry. Sincerely. I also apologize for any of my earlier reviews for which apologies might be needed. I know I was needlessly antagonistic on multiple occasions. I thought it was my job, as silly as that sounds. I was severely depressed for years and took it out on the world around me - also about as silly as that sounds. But I think we’ve all learned some lessons in recents years on the subject of being performatively adversarial in public. It doesn’t do anything for anyone and only cheapens those who indulge. Hurts the work immensely. Hurts you as a writer and a person.

So I will apologize to Charles Burns as I acknowledge woeful but studied underwriting to be not quite the cardinal sin I believed as a young pedant. And I will most certainly apologize to Brian Lee O’Malley. You seem a chill dude. Chiller than me on the best day of my life. I still don’t like your book but I don’t really think Scott Pilgrim causes spontaneous illiteracy. That was probably crossing a line but it has proven a teaching moment. Pitchfork recently publicly redid some old reviews to reflect hindsight, maybe the Journal should likewise be afforded a do-over here. I will however not apologize to Scott McCloud. You earned your “L” with that one, dude, but good on you for still lining up to get your lumps with the rest of the chumps. And I will never, for so long as I live, apologize to Brian Michael Bendis. For anything. You should draw more! You had some chops, kid. Could have done something with that.

It’s about the work, yes. But it’s also about being read. Being heard - feeling connected to the world. Something I haven’t often felt in my actual life. Due to circumstances owing to nothing more than geography I didn’t live near any comic books stores growing up (and not a lot of other kids, either). I never had problems getting to shops, mind. We did lots of traveling around the state, lots of visiting of grandparents and shopping trips in bigger cities. Still, when I finally managed a pull list it was at a store an hour and a half away which I visited precisely once a month. Even if I had access to comics I never really had any community around comics. Not until the internet, and still only that since with the exception of a brief stint as a “regular” at my shop in Oklahoma. Shoutout to Mike at the Comic Empire, if you’re still there, sorry I fell off correspondence, it was a very rough time.

In school I was the only person I knew who read comics. I didn’t get any shit for it, actually, never experienced that kind of bullying - this was the 80s and 90s, comics weren’t uncool. Kids generally liked having someone around who could pass around the one where Batman gets his back broken, or who knew how to draw Wolverine’s costume right. (But which costume, I would ask?) In high school I made some friends to whom I literally loaned out longboxes worth of comics, just to have someone to share with. That was quite fun, though a hell of a lot of work to establish a little high school reading group built around discussing post-Crisis DC continuity. So, uh. I’ve always wanted more conversation than I ever had. 

I talked comics with my mom more than anyone else, because she was in the car. Also bought Spawn for years longer than advisable because she liked it. Honestly, when I was a kid I thought Todd McFarlane was “just OK,” it was actually my mom who saw that guy’s work and realized he was the one to follow. She was still flipping through Spawn when I was trying to get her to read Starman, which I don’t think she ever read at all - in hindsight, who had the better eye? Perishability often surprises. She just mentioned to me in passing she read the first run of Heavy Metal in the 70s, which somehow never came up before. Clearly she’s a lot smarter than me. 

Anyway. The conversation I have sought has too often been one-sided. The peak era of the comics blogosphere was really less than a decade, give or take, spanning from Neilalian and Journalista! through the salad days of Dick Hyacinth and Fanboy Rampage. I held onto that spark for as long as I could but the fact is that sticking around those venues, even if they still had people in them, meant a more respectful and one-sided conversation. No one reads the comments anymore! Soon the entire world would be the comments section. 

I pine for that feedback. Through long periods of shattering isolation across my adult life it has felt like the only real communication I’ve had. My method was simple, for years: every day I’d post something and then sit back and wait for people in the comments to complain. That always pissed me off, never failed to infuriate me. The problem wasn’t however that my serial complainers were wrong. No! The problem is that, on balance, the folks who chimed in during the first years of the blog’s existence had good and productive criticism. And I hated it, of course, not because they were schmucks but because they were right. So I’d read the critique and internalize it and set about, as ruthlessly possible, to correct whatever the problems were. Maybe I kicked a bit. 

But mostly, I just got up and did it all over again the next day. Walk directly and fearlessly towards whatever isn’t working. Try to say something that doesn’t get cut to pieces, come home covered in scars. Rinse and repeat for, oh, five or six years, however long it was until comments started to die off. Just like the origin of Doomsday in Superman / Doomsday : Hunter / Prey #2! Turns out half a decade of having hundreds of people pore over your essays looking for errors in style, fact, argument, and attitude is great for weeding out negative tendencies. Really good for learning to focus on exactly what you want to say and nothing else. It sucks to put up a huge post about something or other you’ve put a lot of work into only to find all the comments are about a silly overstatement in the next-to-last paragraph, or whatever. You learn from those lessons or you don’t get better. This is what I taught my students years later, teaching writing for undergraduates. Attack your own work with dispassionate ruthlessness. You’re not attacking yourself, you’re attacking error. You need to talk directly to the reader. Errors are distractions from that. Fix the problem, stab that error in the heart and never do it again. 

I miss that feedback. No one really cares to talk back anymore, and honestly the way people talk back in 2022 doesn’t seem quite so constructive as what I’m describing from the Golden Age of the Blogosphere. Now, I’ve been doing this for a long time and as much as I value the fans who have been with me since as far back since 2002, I can’t write like I used to. Not if I want to be read by anyone under the age of forty. I want to be read by whoever is talking about comics today. That means I have to keep at it, work hard to stay relevant. Change. Keep my edge or someone will slit my throat as I rest fat and sassy upon a bed of laurels. I live on a farm. I know how to get to the glue factory, thank you. 

Because it does not matter if I ever make any real money from writing. I fully intend to keep at it, don’t get me wrong. What you don’t see, what no one ever sees, are the reams and reams of rejection letters. Through much of the preceding history my writing activity was punctuated by a steady and consistent drop of rejection notices from agents and editors. Excepting the college interregnum I have been trying to ingratiate myself to the publishing industry for well over a decade, albeit split down the middle and beginning at the turn of the century. I was getting rejection notices from agents before 9-11 and am still getting rejection notices from agents during the Biden administration. Persistence or delusion? U-Decide!

Because, again, it ultimately does not matter one bit. What matters is the work. What matters is keeping at it. I intend to continue to write for a larger audience than I have. My fantasy novels have met an enthusiastic response from every single person who has read them, including people inside the publishing industry, but alas - not a single one of those people has been able to net me more than a form rejection from a relevant agent. It’s an impressive run of rejection notices, you must acknowledge, spanning multiple states, multiple decades, and multiple genres of writing.

For half a decade I taught the skill of writing query / cover / resume letters. A most common and necessary skill! Hundreds of college students from all walks of life learned this skill from someone who has themselves never written a successful query. All my gigs, at least since the very beginning, have been by invitation. No one ever says yes when I ask. Took me two years to get into grad school. Even my first published piece was technically a rejection. Why, I received a “no” in the e-mail earlier today! No joke. To this day every no burns like a molten ingot, a white hot ball of humiliation and despair that nestles down in the pit of the stomach.  

If you can’t take that numbing rage and hammer it, beat it flat, shape it into something new and better that you can put down on paper - you will falter. You will falter and it will eat you alive and make you strangle yourself with your own entrails. Because, again, it ultimately does not matter one bit. What matters is the work. It has to be about the work because in the end you can’t count on anything else to ever materialize. Ask yourself the question, are you OK doing this for the rest of your life if you never make another dollar? If you die penniless and forgotten? Whatever the hell else was I going to do? This is my home. I already have the terrible arthritis in both hands to prove it. Better hung for a wolf than a sheep!

If I want to write something I write it for myself with a clean conscience. However, if someone wants me to write for them all they have ever had to do was ask. Thankfully I lack sufficient financial stability to be unduly threatened by the injudicious application of scruple or self-regard. In a world where having enough money to live is an immoral act my hands remain squeaky clean! Helps in that regard that I don’t know how to pitch.

As a writer I don’t compete with anyone but myself. I think more people might like the opportunity to watch that competition. A rejection slip from the publishing industry at this point hurts their credibility more than mine. Maybe I’m delusional, perhaps. Probably! But that’s how you keep getting back up after being kicked over and over again, every hit square in the face another rung down the ladder that rises up and out of suffocating poverty . . . it’s about the work. My goal as a writer is to make enough money that I can go to McDonalds whenever I want. That’s the dream! I’m used to being poor and can live on very little. I have however discovered I cannot live without the work, and require subsidy in which to do that work. The faith in the work remains a reason for getting out of bed in the morning, as well as the audience without whom there would be no work. Fighting that for the better part of a decade almost killed me. Made me want to give up. 

The key to all that feedback over all those years - even all that teaching - was learning that the work was always about the audience. Even as, by all appearances, my work has become longer and more baroque and inarguably more self-indulgent - well, blame the people who’ve been reading and coming back for years. People who show up have a big influence on whatever follows, a lesson for life as well as writing. 

Comics show up, repeatedly, in my life. Whenever I have turned my back on comics, comics has come for me. I wrote a lot about music in the first decade of this century - even voted in the Pazz & Jop for the better part of a decade. But no one has ever come looking for the person who wrote all those hundreds of music reviews during the Bush years. If I stop writing about comic books? People come looking for me. That means something, right? As much as I’d like to sell my fantasy novels to Hollywood and become fantastically rich and renowned, to sell my criticism and win that fabled first Pulitzer for writing about comic books - comics themselves will never not be the foundation for everything that follows. 

What matters is the work. Tom Spurgeon died in 2019. I wouldn’t be writing these words today if it weren’t for words he wrote decades ago. What I learned from him is that if you do the work the right way the doing eventually becomes more important than the work. The doing becomes the glue that binds your life and your community. I am not shy about asserting that I want an audience, and that I’m always trying to expand that audience. (Certainly wouldn’t mind making money, if it ever came up.) That’s why I write different things, for different audiences and different purposes. If I’m not trying to make a connection to someone what’s the point of writing anything?

Now, the question remains: how do you get that audience? How do you keep that audience? Well, you can certainly try yelling and slinging insults. Get attention through making an ass of yourself. I tried that. It got people into the yard, sure. But it doesn’t keep anything and ends by corroding everything. The only way to actually earn and keep an audience, for real, is to show up and do the work. Find people who want to read your writing and write to them. That’s it. Write well. Get better. That’s it.

The most important thing is to stay hungry. I still wake up every day starving, and I hope I always do. 


PS - In addition to everyone mentioned above, I would like to extend my especial thanks to Kieron Gillen, Al Ewing, Michel Fiffe, and Abe Riesman for letting me use their names to sell my stuff. Extra special thanks to Abe for going above and beyond and doing his level best to advance my career, more than just about anyone ever. He put me in his book! Also, while we’re in the neighborhood, I’d like to single out Casey Lucas for making all this possible, literally, inasmuch as she was kind enough to take an hour out of her life in 2018 to explain how to make eBooks.

PPS - Can you believe in all this time no one has ever asked me to write a comic book???!!! Seriously, not once in twenty years. I’m right here! I am still technically trying to break into comics, is the thing. At 19 or 20, having figured out it was both impossible and inadvisable to make a frontal assault on the industry, I observed that the only sure-fire route to publication was prior experience in another field of writing. Not that different from now, actually! So I went into prose fiction. And when that didn’t move I eased into writing about comics, thinking at least the potential for some kind of lateral move into writing in comics might emerge, as it had for others. It did not emerge! And then I gave up the fiction and went into academia, with the idea in the back of my head that I knew multiple academics who had used the stability of their teaching careers to launch writing careers. And then of course once I broke into fiction that way then I could still get into comics. But that didn’t pay off, either, so after the interregnum in school I returned to writing nonfiction. The nonfiction got a really strong response but I couldn’t figure out how to package that enthusiasm in a way an agent could understand. So I started writing fantasy with the understanding that they only way I could be sure of getting my nonfiction into print would be as a successful fantasy writer. So, I have in the span of two decades gone from writing criticism as a sideline to keep me occupied while I worked on fiction to get into comics . . . to writing criticism as a mainline to keep me occupied while I worked on my fantasy writing, which I began for the purpose of selling the nonfiction, all of which is ultimately supposed to provide some kind of entry to the comics industry.

I’m right here. I’ve been waiting to sell out for years! No one has ever asked. I only ever grew a backbone because no one paid me not to. Come on, someone has to need something written . . . licensed cartoon book? Off-brand cheesecake book? Preventative Maintenance? Right here, folks. HMU. Grimm’s Fairy Tales: The Golden Bowl ain’t gonna write itself, people.

The Hurting Library