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This Week in Comics This Week in Comics

Non ho sonno.

Thank you, and I apologize.

What I had intended to put in this space completely escaped my control. I wrote for nine hours straight on Sunday, and then about ten hours Monday, after which I understood that the word count was racing north of 10,000 words, and that the character of the text was no longer appropriate for this venue – even though the urge behind it, I confess, was to leave something inexplicable and arguably inappropriate through which I might exercise the freedoms offered to those of an establishment platform withdrawing from routine work. Oh well! It was nice anyway feeling the hours dissolve while trapped in a mania of composition. I hadn’t felt such frenzy in a long time, and enough of its sticky residue remains that I might finish the damned thing in the near future.

When I was much younger, maybe 19, I had a brief but profound experience with the Robert Zemeckis film Back to the Future. This is maybe circa 2000. Obviously, I’d seen the movie before, and absorbed its cultural cachet, and moreover observed the criticisms inspired in response; I think it was from the late Michael J. Weldon of Psychotronic Magazine that I first heard the idea that Michael J. Fox ‘inspiring’ the music of Chuck Berry through a hilarious time-travel mishap could analogize to the tendency of U.S. majority culture seizing and re-framing the work of black artists to obscure the context of their achievement, as those specifics are rarely flattering to the majority – and flattery is necessary, after all, to efficient commercialization.

I was smoking pot back then. I was close friends with a woman I’d known in high school; we were very relaxed around each other, enough so that one time when she didn’t answer the door to her house I just went in and looked around, and then after I exited I heard a voice go “HEY” and when I turned around her mother’s boyfriend had what I think was an S&W trained on my head. I’d not had a gun pointed at me before, and it was strangely relaxing, as if I could anticipate the dissolution of all my problems; or, I knew he wasn’t very likely to shoot me. “Oh, it’s you,” he said, raising the weapon at an angle with excellent trigger control.

So anyway, when I’d hang out with my friend, we’d smoke up — does anyone use that phrase anymore? — and on this one particular day Back to the Future was on television, and I’m not sure if I hadn’t eaten or something, or if I hadn’t been getting enough sleep, but my mind just completely gunned into the red and the images I saw on the television were no longer images. Michael J. Fox. Christopher Lloyd. They were no longer like people but very burnished and vivid living artworks, like Drew Struzan illustrations, alive, and I ascertained that what I was seeing was not the usurpation of life in time that forms the core of cinema, but the endurance of American popular myth. This is the best way I can describe it. I could understand the impact of Back to the Future in absolute simultaneity with the unfolding of the film, as if layers of knowing had been superimposed atop one another in perfect sync.

I’ve never felt that way again. I only felt it at the time for a few seconds, probably, at which point I excused myself and left to drive the five minutes back to my parents’ house, and while I was rounding a corner by a cemetery the entire world briefly transformed into an Atari 2600 game, by which I mean the world was colorful blocks, moving at a blip, blip, blip pace, in the style of a primitive racing game. Like Pole Position. And, as this happened, I felt an extraordinary sense of relief; almost euphoria. I could remember that I used to dream like this all the time as a child. I would play video games all day, and then I would dream of the world through video game properties. I felt like I’d recovered something I’d lost, and I felt so happy.

Then, again, in a few seconds, the effect faded and I suddenly had absolutely no idea where I was. I had to stop the car to collect myself. Good thing nothing ever happened in that town.

Steve Ditko, “Tools of the Trade”, Avenging World, (Robin Snyder & Steve Ditko, 2002).

It wasn’t quite seven years ago when I bought a sizable lot of Steve Ditko comics off Bob Heer, Jeet Heer’s brother. I specify that link because it was Jeet who alerted me that Ditko had begun producing new comic books on a regular basis; this was on the old email list for Comics Comics contributors, before that outlet fused with TCJ.com. I immediately felt a twinge of jealousy, as I’d prided myself on knowing what was going on in publishing. Moreover, I’d always found it striking that Ditko and Robin Snyder had placed strange [P]ackages of comics in the Fantagraphics catalogs going back to my teen years in the ’90s, phoning Kitchen Sink and the like to request their free literature, and staring agog at the alternate worlds before me.

I bought all of the 32-page comics available at that time; over half a dozen. I bought the Avenging World phonebook too, the 240-page grimoire of the mystic arts that Ditko had realized through rational observation. You don’t need to read this book to understand Ditko, but you will understand him if you do, because everything inside is dedicated to exposing his worldview in the most detailed and uncompromising manner imaginable. Many find it very difficult to read. Many find his later comics difficult or boring or uninteresting or embarrassing — and, ‘later’ in these cases can trail back as far as post-1967 — but they too urge your understanding.

Every single one of them I read in the space of maybe a week, and it changed me. I am not exaggerating in any way when I say it did something to my mind, but in the spirit of the artist in question I also want to make sure I don’t mislead you with superstitious allegations of the impossible.

There was a concept, many years ago online, relating to the meme. These days, a ‘meme’ is another word for a community joke that individuals bend to their purposes from a commonly-understood format, but it used to be that a meme was broader in common use: it was understood as a communicable idea. Richard Dawkins came up with the word, speaking of shifts in connotation. If you were reading comic books by British writers around the millennial period, you may also have associated the term with the notion of a thought virus, posited in genre terms as an inescapable notion colored sinister but possibly just amoral. Grant Morrison comes to mind when I think of this.

It was either him or Alan Moore (or both) who said that they never really believed that magic was real until they tried it and it worked.

For days, weeks after I read those Ditko comics, it was as if his point of view had inhabited my mind. I exercised free will, of course; I wasn’t hypnotized, or possessed by a visitor from the astral plane. But everything I saw in the world, I saw in Ditko’s terms. I saw it in the concrete terms of the language he explored through drawing, the “concrete” aspect of depiction. What Ditko does is twofold: he both creates allegories of good and bad behavior, with the objective of diagnosing the right path for humankind to follow to achieve greatness, and he also codes certain qualities of human behavior into the way he draws. Black and white is the obvious example – black is bad, white is good, and any introduction of black into white creates gray, which is the obliteration of white, because gray cannot be white. White is white. Good is good, A is A. From there, I found a myriad of elaborations on simple principals, sometimes contradictory but typically convincing. Aggressive hatching indicates corruption. Smooth angles tend to suggest virtue, or striving; wavy lines are generally a signal of aggression misplaced, of Force.

Describing it seems very elementary. What are comics, after all — most of them, at least — other than visual symbols commonly understood in terms of signification, juxtaposed in sequence to convey ideas of time, motion, etc.? But Ditko’s values root so deep in the fundamentals of depiction, and are so particular to him, and so emphatic in that his works share some many themes, morals, symbols, that a closed circuit was formed, like a magic circle trapping me in a deterministic surveillance of how everything I saw could be reduced to the midcentury U.S.A. popular values espoused wildly in these parables.

I wrote an essay about those comics for Comics Comics. A long, unfocused thing, lunging from topic to topic so that I could get all of this stuff out of my head. That was my objective. Often, I write from compulsion, because I feel like I *have* to set down my thoughts, but these did not manifest easily. It was like a whole world as I’d come to understand it wriggling out of my hands, night after night. Five, six, seven hours a night. Time dissolved. “I’m not going to finish this,” I thought. “This is going to get away from me.” I knew the Ditko perception would fade, and I wondered if I could actually do it justice.

Later, I found out that I was not the first person who encountered these symptoms after reading a lot of these comics. “Oh yeah,” I was told. “Same thing happened to me.”

I’ve never slept very well. Not since I was a child. I just wanted to stay up. Later it became a symptom of anxiety, but for a while in my twenties there were just times I didn’t feel tired, and didn’t go to sleep. Back then I would stay up for 30, 35 hours at a time, almost once a week, and then the night after I’d sleep for 10 hours, and the cycle would restart itself. During that time, I would find a way to write every day, and I could just post it online without any intermediary. Any advantage I carry now is due to that experience.

Lately, I’ve only been putting together this column every week, and since I set for myself the deadline of releasing a tip sheet the morning after the finalized list of new comics is released, my available time to work has been very restricted, and my approach to managing that time has varied. At first I was able to just work in the evening and finish everything off, but as I aged I became very tired, and so I would try to fall asleep as soon as I got home and wake up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning to put together much of the text. This worked for a number of years, but as I’ve aged everything has sort of fallen apart in terms of sleep cycles, and I’ve come to need something more predictable.

Yet feeling time evaporate — sometimes an acknowledgement possible only in retrospect, or momentarily, mid-stream, like “hey, it’s one o’clock” — gives me some satisfaction. When you’ve laid in bed as often as I have, unable to sleep, you become acutely aware of idle time, and a certain guilt takes over. Shouldn’t I be doing something with myself? Should I spend more time outside of my head? That’s what I do when I write: I exist in a middle state, typing and revising as I type, stopping and reading and revising, certain that I can’t stop, that if I stop I’ll lose what I have, that the bridge will vanish between the inside and outside of me, and I won’t be able to stop again because all I see will appear tinny and foolish.

Thirteen years is a long time to spend that way, but I’m glad you were with me.

And I’ll see you again.


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