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Heroics

I just received some questions for an upcoming interview, including one about whether I know any real-life superheroes.

The question was meant to be part of a “lightning round” of easy options, but I’ve been chewing on it all morning. It feels like it comes paired with an unspoken definition, and I think that definition and my definition might be different.

Of course they don’t want to know about whether I actually know anyone who can shoot webs from their wrists or manipulate plants with their mind (and who’s to say I’d even tell you about those people if I did know them, hmm?), but my guess is they do want to know about people who fit a specific social profile. It’s wrapped up in the way we often talk about healthcare workers or firefighters—people who devote their lives to selflessly helping others.

I’m sure plenty of people have written about the role of superheroes in a system obsessed with power fantasies and quick fixes, but I’m going to scribble this down anyway for the sake of my own brain. Elevating essential workers to “hero” status feels akin to saying “A woman is president!” as if that solves the fact that the presidency itself is built on questionable foundations. Heroics feel given over to urgency and spectacle and performance. They create a division of responsibility, placing an unreasonable burden on the exceptional “heroes” to enact change, rather than addressing the root causes of a broken system.

So when I try to answer this question, I come up short.

The people I admire are mostly moving in spirals, guided by curiosity, poking their heads into things at odd angles, and reporting back with offerings. Often they’re taking the time to think about their values and then embody them through practice. I say “practice” instead of “action” because the latter still feels too close to…the other thing. Most importantly, they’re all in constellation with (and inextricable from) a web of other people who are thinking, wondering, helping, and connecting, too. And so it feels disrespectful to label them as “heroic”.

As Le Guin says:

[…] it’s clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.

This combination of words (rabbit/potato) makes me laugh every time.

Moving into caretaking as a practice, I’m noticing that there’s no “fixing” any of this. There’s no dramatic reversal. There’s just presence and flexibility and willingness, and that’s the best I can aspire to at any given moment. It’s a rich, sad, funny, strange stew.

Maybe I’ll just say Spider-Man.

The NEH, Racism, Good Editors, and Me

A couple years ago, my friend and fellow cartoonist Tessa Hulls got a gig speaking with the Washington Humanities Speakers Bureau. Her role (which is still ongoing) involves being sent all over the state—from city libraries to rural town halls—to share her talk about women traveling solo in the early 20th century. (A talk written, I should mention, after she’d completed a 5,000-mile solo cycling trip from California to Maine. Bad. Ass.)

Hearing about her experiences with the Bureau was the closest I’d come to seeing what state-level humanities organizations were all about. I’d heard of the National Endowment for the Arts, but never really understood what it did. It turns out that there’s an entirely separate organization—the National Endowment for the Humanities—that Lyndon Johnson signed into law at the same moment in 1965.

The National Endowment for the Humanities established 56 state- and territorial-level humanities organizations all over the country in 1973—including our local branch: Oregon Humanities. These organizations all have marginally different aims, but their overarching goal is using the study of the humanities (defined very broadly) to nurture a society that is thoughtful, creative, equitable, and proactive about engaging with difference. Some organizations focus on grant-giving, others run public discussion groups or programming, and some (like Oregon’s) put out quarterly magazines. The amazing thing about this being a government-funded organization is that the magazine is free to anyone living in the state. Seriously: you give them your address and then they just mail it to you and it’s gorgeous and full of amazing writing and illustration and all kinds of good stuff. This is no fly-by-night operation.

Anyway that’s a mini history lesson about Oregon Humanities. Hopefully it explains why I was thrilled when their editor reached out to me at the end of 2020 about doing a comic on voting rights for the Spring issue. I’ve been cranking away at it over the last few months, doing a ton of research, conducting interviews, and trying to condense, condense, condense so I can cram a bunch of complex policy issues into six scant pages.

I learned an enormous amount about the history of the franchise (aka the right to vote) during this process and found that, as with most topics in U.S. history, the highlights we’re fed in school don’t tell nearly the whole story.

I ended up centering the comic on three key areas: age, immigration, and incarceration. While the organization I wanted to interview about a non-citizen voting bill ended up having to postpone their efforts until the next legislative session, I still had plenty to work with. I took a deep dive through the state’s founding documents, explored voting access wins in recent history, and spoke to advocates about lowering the state’s voting age and securing the vote for people in prison. The resulting story, which comes out in just a few weeks, is dense, but gives a pretty solid overview of the issues at play.

The reason I’m writing this, though, is to document the most valuable part of working on the project.

My friend Sarah Mirk, who’s also contributing a comic to the issue, got assigned to help edit my piece. This was great news, since we’ve worked together before and I admire her skills and ethics immensely. When I turned in the first draft of the script, I was feeling overwhelmed by the amount of information I’d ingested and worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it all justice in such a small number of pages. I was particularly scared to tackle the wide-reaching impact of racism and White Supremacy on these systems. It’s a topic that many of us have engaged with very closely in the last ten months (and beyond), and it can very easily come to feel obvious.

“Of course these systems are founded on rotten policies that disproportionately impact people of color,” said some part of my brain. “Everyone knows that.

So I punted.

I didn’t think I’d punted, but when I look at the first draft of the script? I punted. I turned in a comic that talked about a variety of issues and historical facts and angles, but never explicitly stated that voter disenfranchisement is inextricably entangled with racist policy-making.

That unwillingness to be explicit stemmed from a scarier feeling: “This is so big and I feel like I still have so much to learn—there’s no way I’m capable of doing it right”. It’s a feeling tied to zero-sum thinking and perfectionism (both hallmark principles of White Supremacy—surprise!) that ended up pushing me to elide crucial information.

And Sarah, because she is a great editor, read the first draft and twigged this right away and said “There is a huge piece missing from this story, and I know it’s a lot to engage with and weave in, but I believe you can do this“.

It turns out I just needed permission to try. And (again, because she is a great editor) Sarah had a ton of practical suggestions for quotes, sources, and imagery to include that would make these links and themes clearer. This piece as it stands wouldn’t exist without her.

I’m not saying the comic is now The Best Thing Ever—there’s still so much that had to be left out—but the reason I wanted to write all this up (rather that doing another “Here’s the roughs and here’s the inks and here’s the colors” kind of process post like I usually do) is that I think many of us have probably been in situations like this: moments where we recognize the impact of racism, but worry that we don’t yet have enough knowledge or language or mastery to call it out.

And the role we can play for each other, as editors or just friends with eyeballs looking over a project, is to create trusted relationships where we can encourage one another to lean into that discomfort and practice. It’s very easy to feel like getting this stuff wrong will doom us, but in fact the opposite is true. We don’t get better without being willing to goof it up sometimes.

So that’s a lot of words about relatively few pictures. I’m really looking forward to sharing the whole comic when the magazine launches later this month.


P.S. Go look up your local Humanities organization. I bet you won’t regret it.

Pay to Play

Austin shared some lovely sketchnotes from a talk on writing as a form of prayer yesterday, and this bit really leapt out at me:

Out of all the interesting subjects they discussed, I think I was most taken by Father Martin’s explanation of how his vow of poverty affects his writing. Martin is “editor at large” at America Magazine, and as he explained it, he basically has the freedom to write about whatever he wants. The same goes for his books: All of his royalties go to the magazine, so he’s mostly unconcerned about sales. […] Writing, for him, is never a struggle.

Absence of pressure as a prerequisite for pleasure. I love this.

I’ve still got Luke’s phrase “financial profit is not possible here” reverberating around my skull from the launch of GOES yesterday, which has me wondering:

What happens to a creative practice when you proactively divorce it from capitalism? (And what form does that divorce need to take in order to be an effective means of culture-shift for the individual and their wider community?)

I think of this as the inverse of those well-meaning friends and relatives whose first words after seeing something you’ve made is “You could sell these on Etsy!” You might as well say “You could siphon all the joy out of this practice and replace it with crippling performance anxiety!”

Who are the people in my life whose response to any nascent creative work is: “Have you considered trying to make this as un-commercially-viable as possible?”

And more importantly: what allows someone to follow that instinct?

Shing and I have talked a little lately about feeling the hustle go out of us in our 30s, and how following the course of that ebb is a privilege earned by hustling a lot in our earlier career days (alongside other factors, of course). Overfunding a Kickstarter or landing an unexpectedly lucrative illustration gig—or even, on a more sustainable scale, running a Patreon—is a means of buying your own creative freedom for a spell, but all of these still involve an initial influx of cash. You have to pay to play.

(The string layer is back on.)

What Goes Around

Okay, listen: I’ve been pretty consumed lately with barking up my own mental redwood tree about patronage and interdependent communities and what it means to try and support artists during late-stage capitalism, but this morning I got an email from my friend Luke Kruger-Howard that felt like turning around and realizing that this isn’t just one goddamn redwood. There’s a whole forest out there.

Luke’s email (and it was an email, addressed tenderly to many friends, which is the kind of thing I love getting) announced a new physical publication (Goes #1), released under the aegis of a new publisher (Goes Books), but it stopped me in my tracks because there was something different going on.

He wasn’t running a crowdfunding campaign. He wasn’t encouraging people to preorder. He wasn’t even asking for money.

Instead, I got to read this sentence:

This comic will be free for all readers, gifted by other anonymous readers along the way.

Hear that? It’s the sound of my heart exploding.

The only encouragement in the email, beyond asking people to talk about it which, like, DUH OF COURSE HOW COULD I NOT TALK ABOUT THIS I WILL NEVER SHUT UP ABOUT THIS, is to sign up to receive a free copy of the comic in the mail. That’s it. 2,000 copies of this new beauty are headed into the world and they will all be gifts. I already have so many questions! Is there a Mysterious Benefactor who financed the initial print run so that, potentially, every copy could simply be given away even if nobody chose to pay it forward? Or is there no initial capital beyond Luke’s own savings and this is just a massive trust fall? Is it more or less of a trust fall than running a Kickstarter?

Whatever the answer, I’ve never rushed to give somebody $20 faster in my life.

In the delightfully-illustrated financial transparency page, Luke writes:

This is an investment in the relationship between artist and reader—between stranger and stranger. Financial profit is not possible here.

The comic will always be free.

The comic will always be free.

A screenshot of the Goes Books website with the title Pay It Forward. 
The body text reads: would you like to gift a copy of goes to another stranger or strangers?  simply use the button below to pay with paypal or credit card. no financial profit is had in the making or distribution of 
these books. money received by goes books will be put toward gifting copies of these books to other readers. any money earned beyond that will be donated to charity. it takes about $4 to make and send a copy of goes to a stranger - more or less than that is perfectly wonderful, friend. <3

Oh yeah also P.S. any money raised beyond what’s needed to pay forward all copies of the comic will be donated to RAICES. HELL YES TO THIS.

I’m going to save all the other yelling I want to do about this for Friday because you can bet your ass I texted Luke the moment I finished reading the email and begged him to sit down for an interview. If there are things you’re interested in hearing us talk about, let me know.

Ramble #27.2

Haven’t been super exact about remembering to cross-post when I release new Rambles, but I wanted to be sure I shared my latest one because people have said some deeply thoughtful and lovely things in the comments over on Patreon, and I think this is a discussion worth having right now.

Broad Themes: similarities between grief and creativity in both their acute and ambiguous forms, what to do when there is nothing to be done, Vaccine Feelings, broadening the window of tolerance for discomfort, models for social and economic validation, the metrics that matter in understanding Patronage, object permanence and online audiences.

Guest Starring: a lot of birds.

(If you prefer reading to listening, you can download a transcript here.)

April 10th, 2021
Ramble #27.2

A Waffling Muddle

Take an old man’s word; there’s nothing worse than a muddle in all the world. It is easy to face Death and Fate, and the things that sound so dreadful. It is on my muddles that I look back with horror—on the things that I might have avoided. We can help one another but little. I used to think I could teach young people the whole of life, but I know better now, and all my teaching of George has come down to this: beware of muddle.

— E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

I underlined this passage hard when I read it last year. Muddle. Yes. I know this state well, although I often refer to it as waffling.

Here’s what I notice about waffling: I do it often, and it’s almost always to justify not doing something that I know, deep down, will bring me joy.

  • Quitting social media platforms that no longer make me feel connected to my community
  • Leaving relationships that aren’t fulfilling or functional
  • Starting creative projects that intimidate me
  • Getting in the sea
  • Doing literally anything that I think of as benefitting me and me alone

Solidarity Economy

Of course Mara has already been talking about these questions for years. Of course she posted a link to this report just a couple weeks ago. Of course there’s a huge body of ongoing work unfolding around these questions across every industry at this weird crisis point in history.

A circular diagram with "Solidarity Economy" written in the center. Arranged around it are different categories for Creation, Production, Exchange/Transfer, Consumption/Use, and Surplus Allocation with alternative models to strict capitalism.
(Diagram from the Solidarity Not Charity, commissioned by Grantmakers in the Arts)

Of course!

Service-Agnostic Environments

I know the title of this post sounds like absolute corporate hokum, but I tried tweeting these thoughts ages ago and then realized it was really more of a discussion for long-form writing and so I started a Patreon post and then forgot about it and now it’s many, many months later and I’m blogging again so here I am putting it in a blog post.

Last summer Wendell and I ended up talking about “service-agnostic environments” for online community-building, and the question of generating adjacent, overlapping communities centered around particular groups of creators.

The whole practice of being an Online Creator (i.e. A Charming, Hyper-Available, Vulnerable Internet Personality, or CHAV-IP, as I have just decided to call it) feels centered around siphoning people into these isolated social buckets where you can make demands on their time and attention and finances. But this doesn’t make for a sustainable and interconnected ecosystem. An audience member can only be a part of so many tiny silos before it becomes overwhelming.

For example: there are a lot of people who probably follow both my work and Shing’s work, but each of us also have readers uniquely drawn to our particular brand of BS (boat stuff and Bunyan statues, probably). We have both built followings on public social platforms and in more private, paid spaces like Patreon and Discord.

What would it look like to have a combined location where our overlapping readers could talk to each other?

My general obsession recently (and I know I’m not alone in this) has been more about getting audience members to connect with one another rather than singularly with me. I want people who enjoy my work to see themselves as part of an ecosystem—to cross-pollinate and experiment and build and play.

I brushed up against this when Shing invited me to begin playing in the Mercantile Gnome Universe (MGU?) they’ve built over the past handful of years. I became a representative of the Boat Gnome and started offering to trade pins with people through the mail. The game revealed a lot of crossover between our audiences, but it also encouraged more of my people to learn about Shing and vice versa. If I had been supporting a creator who did something similar, I think I would’ve found the experience exciting. It feels more like a treasure hunt and less like product placement. An invitation written in code, delivered with a wink and a tip of the hat.

It makes me think of Robin’s Republic of Newsletters—a section of his newsletter that used to keep up with other interesting and adjacent written projects as if they were physical outposts in a shared landscape. It’s webrings and blogrolls, cross-links and quotations. Everyone loves to feel the thrill of discovery, but it’s sweeter when the core of that experience is someone you trust taking your hand and saying “Wow, look.”

What is the landscape of affinity for my work? Who are the creators I find myself sharing fans with? Which subjects do we mutually gravitate towards? Where are we different? How is a creative community like a map? 

I have very few answers and a lot of questions.

All I Want

After a couple extremely chaotic late-night email threads at the start of our collaboration on Seacritters, Kate and I quickly agreed that the best thing to do would be a weekly phone check-in where we could talk about story issues, share sketches, and debrief on any notes we’d received from our editor. I’m not used to working in cahoots with this many other people, and I find it overwhelming keeping everyone on the same page, so the ritual of a weekly call seemed both helpful and necessary.

This morning’s was only vaguely concerned with the book, though. We talked about story questions for about thirty minutes and then just…meandered off. We covered a lot of ground (Commonplace Books! Patreon! Gesture drawing equivalents for writers! The Emperor’s New Groove!), but the thing that really stuck with me was the phrase “This was time well spent”.

Kate said it, and it set off that little zing in my brain that registers as truth. This is what I’m looking for, when I draft things or draw things or design things, no matter how tangentially related they might be to my primary aim. And when I’m in a rut, as I am now, it’s often because anything I lay my hands to feels divorced from any context that might make it “worthy”.1

On the good days, everything feels connected—a giant wall of conspiracy string. But on the bad days, every gesture and thought sits in isolation. It’s like I’m looking at the same board, but someone has turned off the layer containing the string. Rather than an electric galaxy of potential I just see…a mess. Disorganized, aimless, futile.

While I would love to be in a position to turn that layer off and on at will, sometimes it’s out of my hands. Those are the moments when I miss the drip-feed of social validation that comes from sharing things on public platforms. It’s a steady piping cry of “Yes! Keep going! This matters!” that can make all the difference between enthusiasm and despair. But I don’t want to rely on it. I don’t want to give away that kind of power.

Talking to Kate got me excited again about ideas that had, only yesterday, seemed dull and lifeless. She made me think that it might not be about the public validation at all. It might just take an enthusiastic co-conspirator to say that it all matters. Everything is new to somebody.

This was time well spent.

1. The whole question of what constitutes worthiness in a creative practice is another matter entirely.