Over Our Heads and 18-month-long Discoveries

Optional Soundtrack for this One

A couple weeks ago, I had a long conversation about comics with Keith Burman, who is not only a major fan of the medium but also the exceptionally talented bassist/lead singer of the Chicago punk-rock band Private Instigators. We were plotting out a story that may yet see the light of day, but during our talk, Keith said something about comics in general that struck me.

The current trend in comics storytelling is to eschew stand-alone issues in favor of arcs and events, which can be annoying but is wonderful if done well. Keith’s point was that one of the ways to do a story arc well is to always end each portion of the tale with the main character in over their head.

It may not work for this guy.

It may not work for this guy.

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Why I Am A Feminist

I had another amazing time at C2E2 last weekend and had originally intended to write a Winchell-esque piece about “who I saw and what I did and where I ate” and all that, but the best panel I attended: a magnificent conversation about being a woman on the Internet moderated by The Mary Sue co-editor and (now) excellent published author Sam Maggs inspired me to change the tenor.

Because this is important to me. Very important. In the past few years, this has become the major shaper of my writing, my political leanings, and my overall public demeanor.

Some of you may choose to see this as a firm declaration, others as the start of a conversation that I’ll be happy to have. It is both.

I am a feminist.

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Anthony Trollope at 200

During my first visit to my alma mater, Emerson College, the head of the film department peppered me with questions about my writerly ambitions and among the many pieces of advice he gave me was this: “You should read some of Anthony Trollope’s books. That man knew how to write for movies before there was such a thing as movies.”

Trollope

It took me three tries to get through a Trollope novel, with Can You Forgive Her? (a book Stephen King thought could have been titled Can You Possibly Finish It?) being the one I finally cracked. This would be the start of a lifelong journey. I now have two shelves on my bookcase filled with nothing but books by and about Anthony Trollope, who turns 200 today. I’ve never read more by a writer, written more about a writer (during my year in grad school I wrote my master’s thesis and two other papers on Trollope), or been so inspired by a writer.

I’ll also be the first to acknowledge that, while many of his books are thankfully still in print and his reputation has only grown in the past decades, Trollope can be a foreboding proposition. He is one of the eminent Victorian novelists, but he has little in common with the grandiosity of Charles Dickens, the sharp-tongued satire of William Makepeace Thackeray (who was Trollope’s own hero), or the tragic nature of Thomas Hardy. He comes closest to George Eliot, who said several times that Middlemarch owed a debt to Trollope, but even Eliot had a poetic spirit in her that Trollope lacked.

Trollope was the realist of realists, the English-speaking Balzac or Tolstoy, a man who filled his novels with masses of detail external and internal, to the point where readers could close the covers after 800 pages and realize that not very much happened. The length is not the only obstacle. His books are peppered with references to current events and classical quotations that need footnotes, and above all, his novels were almost all linked together in the same fictional universe, with characters and plots carrying over between books. His greatest achievements are the six-volume Chronicles of Barsetshire and ANOTHER six-book series, the Palliser Novels, based around a supporting character in the fifth Barsetshire book. Knowing you have to read five other novels to fully appreciate one is an understandable turn-off…yet I have to say that Framley Parsonage and The Eustace Diamonds, two of the most outstanding novels I’ve ever read, only get better when placed in the sequence. Further, his stand-alone works (which are still linked to his grander narrative) are not quite as good. His most celebrated story, The Way We Live Now, is half-visionary masterpiece, half-some of his weakest romantic plotting (he was a Victorian, after all, and multiple love stories dominate each book) taking up way too much space in place of really interesting ideas, plus a tinge of anti-Semitism. He Knew He Was Right and The American Senator are his finest stand-alones, but they’re also two of his longest.

To finish it off, Trollope’s style can come across today as excessively strange. He was firmly planted in the social ethos of 19th-Century Britain, and his books are dominated by a deeply felt Christian morality—the entire Barsetshire series concerns itself with the duties of clergymen, but this morality is best expressed in his treatment of women. He shows elaborate concern for “proper” female behavior, and the only person he laughs at more than a feminist is an American feminist.

Yet I love this writer.

Anthony Trollope had a gift that all the great writers possess, but few in so acute form: the ability to depict human beings in all our psychological complexity. His novels lack the one-note supporting characters of Dickens or clear-cut heroes and villains to root for. All his characters have great and terrible traits alike, and Trollope makes it clear to his audiences why they are all equally worthy of praise and blame. Resolutions do not come easily (although they do come) and the conflicts are recognizable and relatable to our own existence, for Trollope understood the importance of money, vocation, and the day-to-day struggle of life for rich and poor alike, and wrote about these issues brilliantly. Trollope’s sympathy for his characters also counteracted his chauvinist streak, as the women in his novels are often brilliant, daring, strong-willed, and almost in spite of the author depicted as equal to his men. (That first Trollope novel of mine, Can You Forgive Her?, is also the strongest of several books with LGBT-leaning plotting, which in its case made sense. Trollope had a long, happy marriage to his wife Rose Heseltine, but also nursed a passion (which at that time was at its height) for the bisexual American feminist Kate Field. Never let it be said that the Victorians were boring!)

Trollope also had an astute understanding of politics, which is the central theme of the Palliser novels. Many of his complaints about how people win and hold offices are still on the nose, but more importantly, he had a political theory, expressed in many of these books, that I have adopted in real life. Trollope described himself, with the same realism found in his novels, as “an advanced conservative liberal.” (This was also the view of his great altar ego, Plantagenet Palliser.) He was not naïve enough to think that class differences and the power structure could be eliminated overnight. He believed there was a ruling class, and that there was much in culture and practice for any society that needed to be preserved and kept safe from reform. At the same time, he believed that

  1. human society will always be moving towards equality
  2. all of our actions need to promote this tendency
  3. and following that, every politician must recognize their duty to the individuals who give them a place of power
  4. to be completely fair, Trollope also felt that all individuals must submit to the ruling class…his one streak of idealism comes in hoping that this system will create knowledgeable voters who choose good leaders. I have always felt he would take America today greatly to task.

Trollope’s personal and political philosophies were huge influences on me, but it is his writing ability that has most touched my life. The Emerson professor was absolutely right about Trollope’s plotting: for books where not a lot happens, these stories are perfectly paced and structured, with the multiple plotlines given appropriate space and perfectly interacting with each other. He continually reminds me to do the hard work of creating realistic characters with goals, flaws, and a perpetual sense of empathy. And above all, discovering more about Trollope’s life gave me my sense of discipline. Most of his career as an author coincided with long service for the national post office, and he would rise every day at 5:30 without fail to write. If he finished a book or short story and there was still time left, he would move on to the next tale. This commitment paid off for him, obviously, and it is now starting to pay off for me…it is a model every writer should adapt.

Finally, Trollope was hilarious. His writing style borders on the postmodern with frequent authorial intrusion and digression, and his ultra-opinionated narrative voice often produces a chuckle. (My favorite Trollope anecdote, which is characteristic of his narrative style, is that at a banquet someone made a long, tedious speech about a subject, and Trollope leaped up and yelled “I disagree with you entirely! What was it you said?”) Some of his scenes, characters, and chapter titles are uproariously funny, in part due to Victorian phrasing and humor, in part due to his own inward sense of mirth.

Anthony Trollope’s legacy lives on two hundred years after his birth and is stronger than ever. This year, the final Palliser novel, his valedictory, poetic rumination on the passing age, The Duke’s Children, was restored to its original manuscript length with the return of 65,000 words Trollope had been forced to edit out. The thought of a longer text is one that excites beyond words.

So with my emotions in mind, I wish Anthony Trollope a very happy birthday. I’ll be tweeting my favorite Trollope chapter titles all day today, so I urge people to give a look and respond with favorites of their own.

The Great C2E2 Artist’s Alley List

C2E2 is this weekend!
One of the things I love about conventions is that I get to see so many friends and make new ones…people whom I usually interact with on twitter and Facebook and see only at the cons.

C2E2 Wired

This year, there are so many people whose work I love and admire at C2E2 and I thought instead of making some gigantic run of tweets, I’d compile a master list of people whose tables at Artist’s Alley are definitely worth your taking a look. Because everyone needs a convention budget…or else you end up just buying everything that catches your fancy…and these individuals are the best people to acquire beautiful works from, whether books, little curios, or art ready to be framed and hung on the wall. I have bought much and given to kickstarters for many of the people on this list, and they are wonderful individuals.

I must give pride of place to Sara Woolley in T7 because she and I have been working together for over a year on a project which shall be discussed on this site all the more in the coming months. I met her in October 2013 at NYCC when I walked by her table and her art made me stop and look. Time for all of you to have the same sensation!

Then going down in alphabetical order

A4 – Chad Sell 

G4 – Four Star Studios, and I must single out Sean Dove

I11 – Ramon Perez 

K1 – The Sun Brothers

K2 – The Satrun Sisters

M17 – Drew Gaska

N2 – Dave Scheidt

N3 – Eric Roesner

N12 – Bill Willingham

O3 – Brent Schoonover

O12 – Ray Fawkes

P12 – James Tynion IV

Q9 – Janet Lee

S14 – Jeremy Bastian

U1 – David Petersen

U3 – Amy Mebberson 

U4 – James Silvani

V3 – Thom Zahler

Have a wonderful con, everybody! I’ll be reporting on it next week!

(Photo from Wired)

Place of My Own

I’ve written in a lot of different places in my time.

– Dorm rooms at Emerson College

– The first apartment on Ardmore in Los Angeles, where as Paul Brindley honed his acting skills and figured out the best ways to kill zombies, I wrote the story and first drafts of An Elegy for Amelia Johnson

– A lonely studio apartment in Burbank

– Hunched over Mike Pintar’s computer after mine crashed on a hot spring week in Los Angeles, and in that one week I rewrote 75% of Amelia 

– More coffee shops and libraries (including Bates Hall, pictured above) than I could ever count

– The three-bedroom apartment over a gyro shop in Hyde Park, Chicago, where I sat facing a window and wrote my life story in prose, in order to translate it to Form of a Question

And for the past three years, I’ve been writing in an Ikea chair that rocks back and forth as needed under an Ikea lamp, balancing a MacBook Pro on my lap. I sit under artisan paper I got from a specialty store in Ann Arbor on the way back from Alex and Becky’s wedding. There’s a coaster at my feet for my water glass, or a glass of something stronger or weaker. To my left are Travis’s books, including a selected set of DC, Marvel, and the complete Sandman. To my right are my books, including two shelves of Anthony Trollope alone. There will be jazz, classical, songs from my grandfather’s record collection (thanks to the miracle of Spotify), or the Grateful Dead playing. Sometimes Travis will plop on the couch for some sports on the nearby television, or a watching of How I Met Your Mother, and these familiar comforts become my soundtrack. In this chair, I have written stories I never dreamed of writing. Better and larger stories. Stories I will soon, God willing, be sharing with you all.

This is my place. There will be more places to come which I know nothing about, and more people to share those places with me. But when the time comes to leave my Wrigleyville home, I will vacuum and swiffer out this nook now devoid of bookshelves and then look at the emptiness and know it was never empty before and never can be empty again, for universes were created within it.

Chair