My Stories of the Summer — and a New York Comic-Con Signing!

Hello, friends!

 

I wanted to post something during these last days as September turns into October. Mainly because on October 4th and October 5th, I’ll be back in New York City for my ninth consecutive New York Comic-Con!

 

But more than that, I’ll be at Boom! Studios headquarters on Friday morning (10-2:30) and Saturday afternoon (2:30 – 7).

 

If you stop by TABLE 1828 during those times, I’ll be there to sign Form of a Question or An Elegy for Amelia Johnson and have plenty of time to talk!

 

But because I can’t simply self-promote, I also wanted to take some time to write about art I’ve experienced lately. I’m currently handling a surfeit of different Works in Progress over a multitude of media, and as I plan out the rest of my writing year, singling out some movies, television, and literature that made me think about how I tell stories seems appropriate

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Ten Years in Chicago

Ten years ago, I spent a night with my family in a building on 52nd and Kenwood that at the time was called The Breakers, a living space for people on extended visits. It’s not remarkable. A two-story brick building with long exterior corridors and large-ish windows. It’s not even called The Breakers anymore. Like so many of the old buildings in Hyde Park, including so many far more beautiful buildings that were once used as housing by the University, it’s been taken over as another apartment complex. But whenever I walk to places while going to and from the church of St. Paul and the Redeemer, I walk by it with a bit of reverence.

 

It was the first building I slept in on what has now become a permanent residency in Chicago.

 

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2019 First Half Recap – Pre-San Diego Comic-Con

A week from today, I’m getting on an airplane and flying off to my first San Diego Comic-Con in eight years. Unlike my other two conventions this year, I won’t be tabling but will be roaming around, introducing (or re-introducing) myself to the world at large, and generally having a good time.

So if I haven’t seen you in a while or we haven’t gotten a chance to talk, I wanted to provide an update on what I’ve been doing and thinking about comics-wise lately.

Form of a Question: out everywhere!

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Can’t believe it’s still here at last.

From what people tell me online and in person, it seems like it’s being received well, which as you all might imagine I’m grateful for—every bit as much as feeling overjoyed it exists at last. My greatest hopes are first, that people feeling really conflicted about themselves might read it and feel inspired and emboldened to lean into who they are, and second, that other people in comics who’ve read it might be interested in taking a flyer on one of the WIPs I’ve developed since we began work on the darn thing; the release was the clearest reminder of how much I love comics and want to keep making them. This is more important than any financial gain I might have; not even close.

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Around the World, Fantastic and Not – My Top 10 (11) Films of 2018 and More

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People were putting out their 2018 top ten lists, in some cases, on December 1st. Maybe by waiting until the dawn of a polar vortex-filled February, I compensate for all those who jump the gun. But I also had time to think, to see the movies still playing in cinemas, and to compare until I felt sure these were the best choices. And as you will see, I have eleven!

An interesting note on this list: December 2018 may rank as one of the finest moviegoing months of my life. The films ranked in places 8, 7, 4, 3, and 1 were all seen in one month, either in theaters or on Netflix, and I caught up with enough in January 2019 to make sure this was not a fluke.

  1. Can You Ever Forgive Me?

There is so much to admire in this work of beauty that gets biopics right where so many others fail. (Always, always, concentrate on one period of the subject’s life and never the whole story…but, for the first time, I digress.) In a year when it seemed a trove of great female filmmakers were passed over for recognition—though not on this list; four of the eleven films were helmed by women, and that was NOT due to me working towards gender parity but due to me really loving these movies—Marielle Heller particularly shines with a direction full of darkness, loneliness, and shadow. Even brightly lit rooms feel muted in Heller’s world. The film’s lucky enough to boast an extraordinary double act in Melissa McCarthy, shedding her comic skin to capture the anger of Lee Israel, and Richard E. Grant incarnating a trickster god. But what makes this a highly subjective pick for me is the screenplay, adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s memoirs—few films have so perfectly captured the psychology of the writer, the way writers deal with career uncertainty, crowds, talking to others, talking to others about their work, the painstaking act of writing itself. It’s almost frightening to be so seen.

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  1. Set It Up/To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Another thing four of the eleven movies on this list have in common is that they’re Netflix productions, and these two movies tie for a spot on the list because I didn’t have a better time watching anything this year. One of the particular geniuses of Netflix is that they invest in movies which, over the past decade, the major studios stopped making as they retooled for the international market and the Oscars with little (broad comedies and horror) in between. The intelligent, not-that-expensive romantic comedy was one of many genres to fall by the wayside. Then this summer, Netflix unleashed this one-two punch that seemed to capture everyone’s hearts, and for great reason: these pictures barely broke the bank, were cleverly written, and most of all avoided the stupid traps that too many rom-coms fell into near their conclusions. There’s no moments where someone lies to someone else for two-thirds of the story and then finally get caught, no misunderstandings blown out of proportion, no Atonement syndrome (to borrow a phrase from the great Kal-El Bogadnove) where all the problems would be cleared up if someone said one sentence of information. These are movies where even the teenagers are mature, people communicate clearly and honestly, and the drama is genuine while the laughter keeps coming, all building up to endings that definitely feel earned.

(These were also movies written and directed by only women. Sensing a pattern here?)

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (directed by Susan Johnson and adapted from Jenny Han’s novel by Sofia Alvarez, with Netflix already having plans for the rest of the trilogy) ended up getting the most love and rightfully so! It took a great high concept premise—a teenage girl’s letters to the five crushes on get delivered—and never let happen any of the things I expected to happen, which is rare indeed. Throwing in Lana Condor and Noah Centineo as the appealing leads, a supporting cast full of surprising depth (the relationship between the older sister and the neighbor didn’t have to get that complex), and the always welcome John Corbett as the widowed father who loves chardonnay and heartfelt monologues only helped.

To All Of The Boys I've Loved Before

But I slightly preferred Set It Up (directed by Claire Scanlon from Katie Silberman’s screenplay), which kept me laughing from beginning to end thanks to a non-stop succession of terrific set pieces and great one-liners powered by four of the most charming leads you’ll ever see: Lucy Liu and Taye Diggs as the wealthy, ballsy executives, and Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell as the two beleaguered assistants who get through the dicking around and conspire to Cyrano their bosses. As Dorothy Parker said about Hemingway, it’s so simple, but you try to do it.

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  1. Shoplifters

The Palme d’Or winner for 2018 is, along with the next film, one of the two great movies that speak to this moment in world history while holding the qualities that will make it endure. As a writer, Hirokazu Koreeda pens one of the cleverest screenplays of our time. His story of a Tokyo family crammed into the grandmother’s single apartment and living off hustles and shoplifting gets the inciting incident overwith as soon as the credits roll, as they take in an abused and abandoned little girl. This simple choice snowballs into consequences that fill the second half of the movie with multiple twists and emotional gut punches. As a director, Koreeda lifts from Ozu and Mizoguchi with a static camera that observes the natural behavior of actors you don’t believe are actors and the environment they try to navigate with intimacy both charming and so probing it hurts. As we follow the elderly, the adults with menial jobs and trying to get what pleasures they can from life, and the younger ones who are conflicted about sex work or face totally unknown futures, the look at life on the margins is nothing but searing and unforgettable.

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  1. Private Life

Tamara Jenkins has only directed one film per decade. This is a crime. Her third feature, brought to us by the grace of God and Netflix, is all the proof one needs she should be working more often. It’s a chamber piece of a movie, mostly unfolding over conversations in rooms where people, comfortably or not, bare their souls. It also, like Shoplifters, strikes a perfect balance with its characters who are constantly aware of the world’s problems yet also focus on their own wants, needs, and dreams. Jenkins’s script delights in language and plays everything with a mix of hilarity, heartbreak, and a deep love that pushes people to do things for others even when they don’t always want to. In short, it’s a reminder of our humanity in a time when we need it and not all movies show it. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are outstanding as the aging artists trying to have a baby in a time and place full of uncertainty; rarely have I loved two people more, as they make even Richard and Rachel’s flaws empathetic. And if there’s any justice, not only will Jenkins be granted more opportunities, but Kayli Carter, in an indelible role as a young relation who can lend a helping hand, will become a star.

Private Life

  1. A Star Is Born

Did we need a fourth version of what Karina Longworth calls Hollywood’s greatest myth about itself? It turns out, we did. There’s can be a magnificent pleasure in seeing a well-told story get retold, linking back to the past and pointing to the future. (For more on this, I refer you to my friend Sarah Welch-Larson’s essay reading the film through the lens of Ecclesiastes.) And this time, Bradley Cooper (along with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, pulling hard from the 1954 Hart and 1976 Didion/Dunne/Pierson scripts) adds a new layer to the story. Jackson Maine is still an addict fighting not so much for stardom as for survival, Ally Campana is still the determined ingenue who doesn’t realize how great she is, and their love is still tempestuous and old-school romantic (for good AND ill). But Cooper (who apparently read Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird multiple times during pre-production) introduces the idea that Jackson and Ally have been shaped by parents and parental figures with whom they have complex relationships…and how those ties are lessened as they find new figures and new people to strive for…and how this all plays out as they navigate their bond with each other. If the ending is the same, these details make Jackson’s fate and Ally’s last choices all the more poignant; I could feel people sobbing through the theater when I saw it the first time. Cooper and Lady Gaga, who is so reminiscent of Cher in her best movies, play it low-key and natural to great effect, Sam Elliott has never been so magical, Cooper’s novice direction is as confident and assured as you can get, and the music is great from the first frame to the last. You couldn’t ask for a more Hollywoodish time in the best way.

(Note: with this, Crazy Rich Asians, and the Conjuring series, Warner Bros. is singlehandedly reminding Hollywood that medium-budget films can make terrific money if you give the audiences an experience they haven’t had before.)

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  1. Black Panther

Is Black Panther the finest live-action superhero movie ever made? It doesn’t feel like a mere chapter in an ongoing comic book her saga as it does an extraordinary alternate universe. Ryan Coogler, working with Joe Robert Cole, Rachel Morrison, and a production design team without peer makes Wakanda and the world surrounding it real as anything you could reach out and touch, effortlessly shifting from long takes that soak in the atmosphere to thrilling set pieces shot like few others could. More importantly, while so many recent movies fail to create compelling villains or conflicts as much as excuses to watch characters hang out and use their cool abilities, Coogler and Cole write the battle between T’Challa and Erik Killmonger as one not merely of good versus evil but one of different ideologies which complicate our notions of right and wrong. (As FilmCritHulk so magnificently puts it here.) Everything may be decided by a final all-out battle between superpowered men in tech suits, but the real war is one of ideas forged from the weight of history, culminating in the single most beautiful shot I saw this year in film. (That also made me cry for thirty seconds.) Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong’o effortlessly carry the movie and its themes leading a note-perfect ensemble cast…and the presence of Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, and others provide the final masterstroke. Black Panther has so much on its mind and says it in a way to make you think and not stop thinking, but unlike Nolan and Snyder’s similarly grandiose epics, it never forgets that at heart, superheroes are fun, and having a sense of humor and thrills to make you smile are just as important.

  1. The Favourite

Barry Lyndon and Dr. Strangelove get in the Large Hadron Collider and fuse…but Stanley Kubrick was never inclined to put the focus on women, and he rarely kept it as surreal as Yorgos Lanthimos does. A black comedy for the ages, Lanthimos crafts every moment with the knowing, graceful control of the Vivaldi music that provides the score, using different lenses and fluid movements to thrust the viewers into the action and balancing the serious talk with anachronistic dances, more animals than you’d expect, more mud and filth than you’d have guessed, and the most uninterested sexual act I’ve ever seen. But while the world of early 18th-century England and its nonstop barbed one-liners draw you in, Lanthimos and screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara have something serious to say about how much things can get out of control when the personal and the political mingle in the most undesirable ways, when millions of people are affected by decisions they have no say in, made simply according to mood and caprice (This film isn’t timely at all.), and the politicians with their speeches and plans don’t hold the real power. If a director’s job is in large part working with the actors, Lanthimos gets superhuman work from his three leads. Olivia Colman as the lonely, recently widowed Queen Anne gives one of those rare performances that make you rethink everything she’s said and done when the movie’s over, as she balances a character both achingly sympathetic and crafty. Rachel Weisz, unruffled and fabulous, plays Sarah Churchill as a gamesmaster with layers of thought behind every word. And Emma Stone gives the most brilliant turn in her career, which is saying a lot; Stone’s Abigail Marsham has less dialogue than Colman and Weisz, but her facial expressions and gestures say more than page-long monologues ever could. It’s an acting clinic put on by three incredible women working with a director who knows how to get out of their way. The Favourite is aptly titled.

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  1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The reason I qualified Black Panther as possibly the best LIVE-ACTION superhero movie ever made is that nothing could have prepared us for the genius of Into the Spider-Verse. Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman, working with guiding producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, have done something unfathomable: bringing all the storytelling and artistic techniques of comics history to the big screen. It’s a mixture of larger than life animation with one style bouncing into the next with nary a moment to catch your breath AND an acknowledgment of how the superhero mythology is reborn in infinite variations on the same theme by making the variations fuse into one beautiful melody. Given the creative team and the players involved, the movie is full of laughter, but it also reconsiders and perfects the origin story in a way that may render it superfluous (Thank God) for the future, as Miles Morales’s unlikely path to heroism is shaped by others who’ve undergone the same origin, and who ultimately push him, by their lessons and by what he sees in their triumphs and failutes, to reach within and take the leap into his destiny in his own way, a way that feels earned, right, and inspiring as no other film has done. It’s corny to say that there’s a hero within us all, but Into the Spider-Verse proves that such corniness is real. And the laughter and heart comes to life thanks to the best ensemble of 2018, with the earnest, inspiring Shameik Moore playing with Jake Johnson (quietly brilliant), Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Nicolas Cage, the incredible John Mulaney, and more. It passes Mask of the Phantasm as the best animated superhero movie. It may be the best superhero movie, period. And it inarguably has the best post-credits scene ever devised.

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  1. Sorry to Bother You

Continuing with the idea of non-stop laughs; a picture full of outrageous humor and sight gags that would have made Mel Brooks and Zucker/Zucker/Abrahams proud. But Boots Riley’s film about a gifted telemarketer who discovers a corporate conspiracy that—up to a point—defies imagination may be the defining movie of the late capitalist, Donald Trumpian era. A movie Fredric Jameson would put on the cover of his books. Sorry to Bother You isn’t subtle in what it rails against (capitalism, racism, sexism) and what it stands for (unions, personal freedoms, friendship rooted in shared beliefs). It’s a call to action. But all calls to action should mix infectious, righteous anger with hilarity as this does. It staggers the mind Riley had never made a movie before this. His direction is always assured as he handles the absurd tone with ease, and his screenplay is intricately constructed but easy to understand. The conceits are introduced early, each character’s role is defined, and the many personal conflicts between them tie into and are resolved by the overarching, nationally-scaled conflict. This is a movie you could teach in schools. And on top of that, Riley is helped by a terrific cast. Lakeith Stanfield’s Cassius Green shares initials with Cary Grant, and Stanfield brings a Grantian charm to the protagonist: handsome, confused, a bit wrong-headed, and finally resolute. Tessa Thompson is magnificent as the loving, fiercely independent Detroit, the platonic ideal of Riley’s world, and Steven Yuen anchors the supporting cast in the fascinating role of Squeeze, the organizer who effortlessly blends passions causal and carnal. But the film’s real MVP is Armie Hammer, who should have been up for every Supporting Actor category for his depiction of Steve Lift as a man transcending wealth and power to reach a singular, messianistic state of domination. Few actors could have played Lift with the confidence that they’re benevolent and harmless. Hammer nails it and helps bring Riley’s points home. The voice cast is next-level as well, but the less said about them before you see the movie, the less said about anything in the movie, the better.

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  1. Roma

I call Roma the impossible movie. Because I don’t understand how it exists. I don’t understand how director/writer/cinematographer/editor/total artistic visionary Alfonso Cuaron constructed shots where hundreds of people are moving not in any choreographed fashion but to the orderly pulse of life itself. How the camera moves to take in every single detail, no matter how small, from objects on shelves to cars passing down the road at the right second, that makes you feel you are in 1971 Mexico City. How the sound design is immaculately constructed to the point where half a dozen times I turned to see if people were aggressively whispering right behind me only to realize it was the film itself. How light and shadow play together in ways I’ve never seen. How I’ve never felt so immersed in a movie before.

Roma might still be my film of 2018 if all it boasted were these technical astonishments. But Cuaron, being Cuaron, uses them in service of a story that strikes you to the core. Roma is a meditation on existence itself and how the connections between us shape existence, how a countless multitude of lives observed and dancing around ours work with our lives. It doesn’t offer a secret to life or a big answer. Instead it observes Cleo, the maid, and Sofia, her middle-class employer (played by first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio and Mexican entertainment veteran Marina de Tavira), as the status quo of their lives is upended and how, amidst the tumult of a society in transition, they discover or rediscover things about themselves. And while the trajectories of their lives change, their state of affairs does not…and the bond between them becomes a question for heartfelt interpretation. While de Tavira leaves a great, empathetic impression, Aparicio is revelatory, playing Cleo with openness, honesty, and a quiet grace in a way no one can explain.

On a last, personal note; I saw Roma with my now ex-girlfriend, one of two movies we saw together during our relationship. And I think it’s one of the ultimate movies to watch while you’re holding hands with someone and letting things wash over you.

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WORST TWO MOVIES I SAW THIS YEAR:

Ready Player One – Bohemian Rhapsody

Neither of these films rank as the worst of their respective directors’ careers. Both have something to recommend. Ready Player One’s visual effects are truly a delightful funhouse ride to experience, especially in 70mm, and Bohemian Rhapsody boasts Rami Malek giving one of the finest physical performances I’ve seen in any movie, all without gaining or losing weight or wearing ridiculous make-up; he seems to work backwards from Freddie Mercury’s stage persona to imbue his actions with a singular air in a way that’s really tough to do. That said…

Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One was far from great literature, but it was a rollicking read that also took a stab at saying something about our responsibilities to the real world and the perils of being in a virtual world. I had thought Steven Spielberg would play into these themes. Instead, halfway through a movie that for the most part had been really entertaining, a choice is made, the film’s plot structure wildly breaks off from the novel’s, and from there, everything collapses. There are no thematic points made. The hero has no conflicts with his allies and learns zero lessons. It finishes as an even more masturbatory nostalgia trip than the novel, which is saying a lot.

Meanwhile, Bohemian Rhapsody tries to bring home messages about “living your own life” and “the power of love and friendship” except, and this may be even worse than saying nothing, it says the most banal somethings imaginable. This is a movie that never met a cliché it didn’t like, to the point where you have to seriously wonder how a movie like this can exist after Walk Hard destroyed the genre so badly it demanded a reinvention that still hasn’t happened. Some parts made with care and imagination are “balanced” by atrocious filmmaking, every montage is laughable, and while you expect certain elements of a true story to be fictionalized or elided for the screen, this gets so much about Queen wrong on a basic level that it doesn’t seem like it was worth telling this story in the first place. If not for Malek, who manages to push this to acceptable, this movie would be completely useless. As it is, he and the final twelve minutes, and I tip my hat to this in a cynical way, are enough to manipulate you into thinking that film was worth something.

 

And Finally…Great Performances Outside the Top Ten

 

PUT THIS MAN IN EVERYTHING

Jesse Plemons – Game Night and Vice

 

TWO AWESOME MARRIED COUPLES WHOSE RELATIONSHIP IS REFLECTED BY JESSE PLEMONS

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams – Game Night

Christian Bale and Amy Adams – Vice

(I want to talk for a moment about Christian Bale in Vice. I expected Amy Adams to be wonderful. I did not expect Bale to be as truly great as he was.

Last year, Gary Oldman won an Oscar he didn’t deserve for Darkest Hour, in which he let makeup, weight gain, and an accent stand in for an actual performance. Bale transforms into Dick Cheney the way Oldman transformed into Winston Churchill, but Bale takes the further steps, letting the girth, the quiet voice, the air of a harmless-seeming, soft-spoken man build a real character whose words carry force, whose thoughts are terrifying, and whose motivations build into a thunderstorm of affect…and who ultimately comes across as a real person even though in one of his many terrible decisions, Adam McKay tries to undercut this.

There are two moments in the film which are surprisingly underplayed. At the start, Dick Cheney makes a promise which he will keep through the movie, until the chronological end when he breaks it. In both scenes, Bale conveys a deep, empathetic brokenness that definitely doesn’t make us like Cheney, but brings a moment of humanity in a film which refuses to let anyone be human most of the time.

 

INCREDIBLE IN A MOVIE I DON’T UNDERSTAND WHY ALL OF YOU LOVED

Ethan Hawke – First Reformed

 

PERFECTION

Regina King – If Beale Street Could Talk

 

GREAT YOUNG STAR

Ed Oxenbould – Wildlife

 

GREAT “27 BUT SELLING THAT SHE’S IN HIGH SCHOOL” STAR

Danielle Macdonald – Dumplin’

 

BIGGEST SURPRISE, AS BOTH CHARACTER AND STAR

Joanna Kulig – Cold War

 

COOLEST THROWBACK COUPLE (FOR GOOD AND ILL)

Constance Wu and Henry Golding – Crazy Rich Asians

 

BEST ONE-SCENE PERFORMANCE

Harry Belafonte – BlacKKKlansman

 

 

FORM OF A QUESTION – FIRST SIGNINGS

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So the election’s been won and I’m working on a lot of stuff to pitch in January…but TOMORROW, the momentous day arrives.
FORM OF A QUESTION will be available from your comic book retailer! And it will be everywhere on November 20th! Come get the book Paste calls one to gift for the holidays if you love game shows and extraordinary memoirs – although I wouldn’t go that far on the latter.
We’re going to kick it off with two Chicago events.
Wednesday, 11/14 5-7 pm – First Aid Comics, 1617 E. 55th Street
Saturday, 11/17 1-4 pm – Challengers, 1845 N. Western Avenue
Going to try to be setting up more events for December but for right now, hope to see you there!

A Brief Thought on the 2018 Midterms

I’ll admit it; I’m terrible at writing stuff for my own website. And I’m sorry. (On the other hand, one of my planned essays was going to be an angry couple thousand words on why the movie of Ready Player One screwed up the source material, and I’m happy I didn’t subject you to that!)

But that’s going to change. In case you missed the announcements, Form of a Question will be out NOVEMBER 14th in comic shops and NOVEMBER 20th everywhere. I have events planned for six months down the line, and there will be lots of details here and elsewhere.

I also went to New York for NYCC, which was a total blast full of old and new friends and some extraordinary nights on the town. When you’re up at 1:30 in the morning reading poetry out loud in somebody’s apartment and you feel you’re meant to be there, you can say that life’s going pretty good.

But for right now, and this is what this post is about, I’m NOT writing.

Trust me, I would rather be writing. But we live in unusual times, and that calls for unusual action on my part.

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Image obviously via Shutterstock…but I like these big, strong, anthropomorphic individuals.

For the past month AND the next two weeks, I have been knocking on doors, calling, texting. Here in Illinois but also in Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Missouri, North Dakota, Arizona, Texas…shall I go on? All leading up to Election Day.

And I am here to encourage anyone who reads this, and is considering who they will vote for, to cast your ballots with a Democratic ticket as opposed to the Republicans.

That being said, while I’m going to admit upfront I have a left-wing bias (big surprise, I know), my dad taught me to be an independent thinker, and having a D next to your name’s not going to make me automatically vote for you.

Rahm Emanuel, I know you’re reading this, and sorry not sorry.

I also follow my fair share of conservatives on twitter along with liberals, socialists, etc., because I want to know what people are thinking and what value it contributes to the national discourse.

As I’ve said before, true conservatism has a valuable place in the grand scheme of things.

With all of the above in mind, I’m going to tell you that the distinction between the Democrats and Republicans has never been so obviously clear.

 

A lot of my friends have some valid criticisms of the Democratic Party. I myself have valid criticisms of the Democratic Party. But right now there is a golden opportunity for them, and the nation, in that the Dems don’t have a leader.

For good or for ill (and I think it’s both), the two people who dominated the landscape in 2016 are not leading. Hillary Clinton has no leadership position and no influence on things. Bernie Sanders goes his own distinctive way.

While not having a clear figurehead sometimes leads to disorganization, there is also a clear advantage. The Clinton-Sanders primary turned into a debate about ideas, and what I have witnessed since 2018 began is a competition, indeed a rapid-fire competition, among every Democrat younger than, say Chuck Schumer. And the endgame of this competition is simple: the winner is the one who can start making those ideas that caught the popular imagination in 2016 a reality. In this past year, I have seen statements and genuine policy proposals on the following:

– Both protection of the ACA and the steps that will get us to universal health care

– Job guarantees or UBI

– Tax reform that will genuinely benefit the lower and middle classes

– Climate issues

– Codifying civil rights protections into law

– Educational reform

– Electing state governors and attorneys general who will protect voting rights

– Most recently, the baby bonds plan

– Possibly even having a TRUE infrastructure week.

(Dave Weigel’s reporting in the Washington Post, by the way, is where I learned this, since unlike many political reporters, Weigel is on the ground constantly seeing what campaigns across the nation talk about.)

This is what the Democrats are running on: a series of ideas that will revitalize the social framework of the nation. And the people who best personify those ideas are going to be set up as power figures for 2020 and beyond following the increasingly inevitable change of the guard.

Moreover, you know so many of us rediscovered the civic virtue of calling, emailing, and writing to our representatives these past two years? Imagine calling your reps not to say “don’t vote for this” and saying “Vote for this, and possibly make it better” with a Democratic House (and slim chance but possibly Senate) majority? I like imagining that.

And what we end up with is not only a true check and balance in the government, but also a series of legislative positions that whoever ends up running for president in 2020 can campaign on as a great message.

Speaking of positions and messages, let’s turn to the Republicans.

 

Here I have a key question: WHAT are the Republicans running on?

Because when I engage with conservatives on twitter and look at what’s being covered in more right-wing-leaning media, the answer gets murky.

Health care? If they are, they’re doing so in the most confusing way possible. Candidates continually talk about protecting pre-existing conditions AT THE SAME TIME Republican officials are suing to eliminate the pre-existing conditions clause of the ACA, and a Texas judge actually has a ruling that he’s sitting on until after Election Day. And there’s also serious discussion about slashing Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security coming from the Senate Majority Leader himself, which leads me to…

The Economy? It’s actually pretty good according to several indicators right now. However, there’s very little about the economy, and almost nothing about the vaunted tax reform bill from the winter that was supposed to be the cornerstone of the 2018 messaging. Because the GOP realized that the tax bill did nothing for the lower and middle classes and only bankrolled the wealthy…which is why Donald Trump is currently talking about pushing through another tax bill that doesn’t even exist. And the deficit has exploded so much that the party of small government has given us no reason to ever listen to fears about the deficit ever again.

The Judiciary? They’re confirming judges at hyperspeed, and Brett Kavanaugh was supposed to be a galvanizing force for the Republicans…which he was for a week during the hearings. But then the polling and forecasting for everywhere but the Senate returned to numbers as good as they’d ever been or better for the Democrats. Other polling has shown a lot of people couldn’t even tell you if their senators voted for or against Kavanaugh’s confirmation. (Personally, the same way that if Trump had worked on infrastructure and jobs as opposed to health care and taxes, then he would be in a better place right now…if the GOP had either waited until after the elections for the Supreme Court hearings or picked a new nominee, they would have been able to truly capitalize. They did not.)

The truth of the matter is that the Republicans have nothing. No agenda. (You can read this in more detail here.) But it’s somehow worse than having no agenda. For two reasons.

First, right now, beyond Robert Mueller, we have no idea what Donald Trump’s personal and business relationships are with so many entities around the world. The New York Times has created a clear picture of Trump committing tax fraud. His unilateral foreign policy moves are empowering China and Russia, which are not really friends of America, and propping up disastrous governments in Saudi Arabia and Israel. And the Republican Party is decidedly incurious about checking and balancing anything Trump does because he benefits them. The Democrats will actually provide congressional oversight.

Second, I won’t mince words. The Republican Party is the party that attracts the support of the Proud Boys and such. They are a party of “personal responsibility” that is increasingly determined to regulate the bodies of people and possibly deny civil rights. They have children in internment camps who have to represent themselves in court. Their candidates run race-baiting political ads. They are afraid of the opposition so much that they project everything about themselves onto the opposition and ratchet up fear, to the point where baby boomers in Minnesota are convinced Hispanic gang members will occupy their lake houses.

(Seriously, I read that article this week.)

This is to hide the lack of a real agenda. The lack of a pan to fairly govern all and value democracy.

 

The Democrats (especially the rising new generations of Democrats) have something to offer.

The Republicans have nothing to offer.
The choice in my mind is clear. And I hope this makes sense for many of you as well.

A New Book and Going Backwards

Hello, everyone! It’s been a long, long while since I wrote on here; since February 2017, to be exact. Recent events have both made me a) want to get to writing more posts, indeed almost require it, and b) compel me to justify my absence from my own website. In doing so, I found that I had written a post touching on some of these ideas earlier that I hadn’t even remembered. (Winter 2017 was long and tough.) I deleted it and have restated the ideas in a clearer and fuller way.

Let’s get to A first.

A New Book

The key development in my literary career right now is that, after seven years in the making which coincidentally encompassed seven drafts, Form of a Question will be released at the end of 2018. (Read more about it here!) If you can’t believe it, especially if you and I have ever met in person, well I can’t either.

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Knowing this day would one day come and having it be set-in-stone coming upon me were two completely different things. The first write-ups say a lot, but I will tell you that even though this is technically “my” story it would not have come into being, or would be as great as I believe it will be, without a team beyond measure. It’s a broken record by now hearing me talk about Rebecca Taylor, who made me one hundred times the writer I was, but after Tay departed Boom! two other extraordinary editors, Whitney Leopard and Cameron Chittock, shepherded FOAQ through its final stages with brilliant commitment, and Sierra Hahn, our executive editor, became one of the best and staunchest supporters I’ve ever found.

But most of all, I cannot wait for the world to see Kate Kasenow’s art. I will tell you all right now that Kate’s journey to get here was a road long and winding enough for Paul McCartney to write two songs about. She overcame a lot of difficulties. But the final result is art I’ve never seen the likes of before. The cover—one I specifically asked to look like a Criterion Collection design—is a mere taste of what is to come, but Kate’s creations fill every page with complexity and emotion that redefine “magical realism.” I am biased, yes, but I expected greatness from Kate and I got something beyond greatness. Comics will not know what hit them, and Kate’s students at Savannah College of Art and Design are some of the most fortunate people there are to get to learn from her.

And I have to point out the pitch-perfect colors of Laura Langston, the flawless inking of Jenna Ayoub and Ilaria Catalani, and the crystal clear lettering of Deron Bennett. This is a team anyone in comics should want.

And as an aside, about four years ago I pitched a couple ideas to Boom! that are still simmering. One of the main ones was a horror story, a genre Tay had long insisted I could turn my hand to and do it well. I thought of that horror story, which I had structured in four 24-page issues, two months back when I realized I had not written in comics format in a long time. Now, I decided, I had to return and see if I still had it. I don’t know if I’ve ever written anything so fast in my life. The accumulation of lessons I’ve learned from Tay, Whitney, Cam, and Sierra, the experience of working with Kate and Sara Woolley, the wisdom gleaned from the Bogdanoves and Simonsons; it resulted in tight, lean pages packed with story, clever dialogue, and the right kind of spellbinding imagery—including a terseness that’s rare in some of my work. I think I finally know how to give an artist all the room they need, which is every bit of it, while remaining true to my own voice. This is a lesson that only comes with experience.

As to why I had not written in comics format for so long, we turn to B.

I wrote a novel. I’ve written novels before but this is the first one I believe is both readably original and genuinely good. And I did it by working backwards.

This novel, The Wrong Foot, which is all I will say about it for now, began life as a comics project which never got past the outline and some marvelous preliminary art before the collaborative arrangement fell through. The problem was the story was too good to abandon. Among many possibilities, I decided to make it a screenplay, keeping my partners’ names on it (as they will be on the novel should it be published).

I don’t know if the screenplay was any good, but my friends who write themselves had increasing praise for it as we cut the work to the bone. The final draft came in at 109 pages, the shortest project of its kind I’d ever produced, and still one rich in character, story, and theme. Again, I don’t know how good it was, but it worked.

I spent a year entering The Wrong Foot into competitions and met with an independent producer, but nothing came of the latter and the screenplay got nowhere in the former. Since FOAQ was also in a bit of a holding pattern for reasons beyond Kate and I’s control, this was a frustrating time for me for me in terms of stories I did not wish to let go. Then, in the summer of 2016, an idea hit me. I had once brainstormed making The Wrong Foot a novel with illustrations, along the lines of Vanity Fair. What if, I thought, I turned the screenplay into a novel?

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Don’t be exactly like him.

There’s a precedent for such a plan that runs backwards to how things usually go. Erich Segal wrote Love Story as a screenplay first, then wrote a novel while he and Paramount worked out production details. Paramount had the idea that a novel might generate buzz for a film. The book became a best-seller, and the film became the #1 hit of 1970 despite being very bad. The whole “film-to-novel” plan, though, was one of the two great things Erich Segal did in his life. (The other was co-writing Yellow Submarine.)

Because I offer this to my fellow writers: if you have an idea for a novel, writing it as a screenplay first is a great idea. It’s time-consuming, yes, but I’ve never written anything worthwhile that didn’t take time and this order has some clear advantages I learned by doing.

First, screenplays, even the most artistic ones, have to be written in a format that demands airtight structure. You only have 120 pages max to write a script producers and distributors will look at, so you need to have a method for hitting all your beats and fast. In transferring the script to prose, you’ll enter your novel with a story in place that will leave little room for digression and fat, and if you want to try anything interesting, such an experiment would succeed due to excellent planning.

To explain “something interesting:” this is the third time I’ve written a novel but the first time I’ve gone beyond a first draft. My earlier works were marked by multiple narrative levels, with the first going out of sequence for no good reason and the second featuring a midway tonal shift from slice-of-life impressionistic ramble to murder mystery with Greek Epic overtones.

I’m a pretentious bastard, sometimes.

With The Wrong Foot, although the story plays with time a bit, the intriguing parts lie in a series of revelations that power the last third. It was laying the careful groundwork for building up to these surprises over a limited authorial space so they didn’t come out of nowhere but felt organic to plot and character, not narrative gimmickry, that gave everything interest. Focusing on how to hit every necessary point gave the story the best structure it needed…

And served the second advantage of keeping it SHORT. Both my first two novels ran well over 150,000 words and were full of digressions and esoteric material. Keeping to a structure and only expanding on the material enough to reveal more of the characters’ inner thoughts, The Wrong Foot clocked in at 85,000 words. This made it much less of a daunting task for my beta readers and much more likely an agent would read it. I also knew exactly what information I wanted to convey that the screenplay sometimes only hinted at, thus keeping me from getting tangential. (If you ever want to hear about embarrassing tangents, I might share a list of some of my worst one time.)

Third and last, when I look back over my previous stories, there was very little in the way of a theme. They were vague maturation plots with nothing too cogent to say about life except taking chances (which FOAQ deals with better) and general dismissiveness about certain modern cultural elements. The Wrong Foot was a story that from the beginning had a clear point I wanted to make—indeed, doing so helped me understand things about myself I’d never come to terms with before—and I wrote the screenplay with an imperative to make every part serve the theme and further the main three characters’ goals. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to write a more meaningful story until I try again, and that came from starting in a way where I could not waste a scene.

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Don’t be exactly like him.

So that’s what I’ve been up to: four drafts of writing, rewriting, avoiding the curse of having rooms full of Andrew Rostans talking, and stomping out my tendency to be overly literary and sound too much like Henry James. (The last point came from JJ Ranvier, a close friend and a brilliant writer: listen to her The After Disaster Broadcast to hear outstanding and concise storytelling).

That took a long while. So does writing query letters to agents, a process I underwent only after heavy research. And the first round didn’t fully work so it’s time to commence the second, which may be the perfect words to end this post with: tenacity kept me going through the FOAQ development and it’s going to help me find a home for The Wrong Foot, and it’s why I believe one day I will write full-time. Like my sense for storytelling and conciseness, I built up determination over the years and that strength is paying off. Let it pay off for you as well.

UPDATE

I wrote this essay a few weeks ago and in the delay before posting, something happened that drove my point home even more.

While preparing the second round of query letters, I had a conversation with a new acquaintance, the terrific author Whitney Gardner—whose successful query has been shared on many websites. As with comics, I learn from the best. She reminded me that my first ten pages were the sample many agents want to see, and I had not been feeling sure about my first ten pages. Her push was enough for me to make them better.

This was a case of following the screenplay too closely. I’d planned to open the film with a brief, silent, cross-cutting introduction of the three main characters. Initially, I was sure it would work in prose as well, but now, a reader looking at the first ten pages would only be confused as to who two people seemingly popping in at random were.

I shifted the key introductory scenes to later in the novel and rewrote the ten pages so there would be a clear thrust of dramatic action that anyone could understand. Not only is it better, but it served to remind me that adapting the wrong way around has its challenges as well!

(I then sent out the query letters and have two rejections already. Life goes on.)

Next time: I’m going to be a bit critical, praising and blaming, of several films I’ve seen over the past twelve months. It’s going to be a poor imitation of FilmCritHulk, but I’ve got ideas I think are worth sharing on why certain blockbusters are…not good, I’ll be kind.