Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Whatever Meager Amount of Hope and Mercy

The idea goes like this:

Life beat you. Whether it’s alcoholism, binge eating, not eating, whatever it is, you’re stuck with it. Depression won. And to protect yourself from depression, you bought THINGS.

Flash forward a few years, and many steps towards improving your mental health, and you’re better now. You look at those things, the detritus from the mean years and you throw them away, because those things are what keep you down.

See, it wasn’t alcoholism, or disordered eating that was the problem. It was those things you bought yourself to make something of the day or week.  Those things, whether they’re periodical superhero comics (The Comics Reporter) or a video game collection (Ben Kuchera), they’re evidence of those bad months, years and maybe decades.


Those things you bought? Those things kept you alive. Depression’s a real motherfucker, and while no superhero can save us, maybe Superman can put you in a place where you can save yourself (shout out to The Hold Steady.) You bought those things to give yourself whatever meager amount of hope and mercy that you think you deserve.

There’s no piece of media that’s gonna beat depression or get you a better job or a more serene life. But what it can do is inspire you to take those first steps. And those things you buy when you’re depressed that stack up your house? They’re reminders of the person you want to be. They’re aspirational.

When you don’t need those stacks, you can begin the process of shedding them, like a winter skin. But when you do need them? They remind that at one point you thought you could do it. And your brain may/will tell you they're a sad reminder of the person you can't be anymore, but don't listen. That's the depression talking.

You can get better. It won't be comfortable, easy, or quick, but you can. So long as you can face one small fear, give yourself some time to breathe, and face a marginally larger one. Repeat that process. Seek professional help. You can get better. You're not dead yet.

You knew I'd choose Frank for this one, right? Right. Come on now, let's fix this mess. We can get better because we're not dead yet.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Complete Phonogram

Fuck what it means, that much is obvious. The Complete Phonogram as an expensive hardcover shows the team’s enjoyed tremendous success due in some measure to Phonogram. The Singles Club lead to collaborations with Warren Ellis and Journey Into Mystery, which lead to Young Avengers, which lead to The Wicked & The Divine, which became Wic/Div and the rest is a cottage industry of cosplay, fan art and merchandise (which figuratively, and literally, keeps fans in line).

How does The Complete Phonogram make me feel?

Wistful. Happy. Tired. I carried that giant hardcover around all day April 21st and it nearly wrecked my back on its own.

I carried that hardcover around figuratively much, much longer.

I read Phonogram obsessively in my raw, unemployed years and didn’t know I was burning when I was at rest. A hardcover that collects all of the comic and b-sides looks better on the shelf and is easier to reference. I won’t miss Kieron’s essays or annotations, and if I do, I’ve got the singles and trades.

A book this heavy feels like Phonogram’s finally finished now. It’d been overtaken by Wic/Div, and for good reason, the team’s busy growing into this generation’s Sandman. Now Phonogram can rest, and maybe I can too. I’m in counseling and untangling the rat’s nest of cables that’s my brain and behavior.

Phonogram’s a document of years spent listening to bands and letting it change or mutate or infect you. Or something else, in my case. Music held me together when I couldn’t manage that myself.

Do I ever wonder how music changed me? Years at a time, brother.

Phonogram’s done, and everyone’s in a better place. In 2011, I hopped a flight to London to see the boys at Kapow, and Kieron was signing alongside legendary penciller John Romita Jr, whose line (and forty years in the industry) subsumed Kieron’s. Six years later, that’s not the case, and there's a dense hardcover to prove it.

And for that dense hardcover, and what it finishes, a celebration and a task: I must happily wave goodbye to a comic that changed me.

It’s now the morning of April 22nd. There’s a secret Wic/Div party tonight, which Hannah and I’ll show up for. Maybe I’ll let her put makeup on me. Maybe I’ll go a little glam. I’ll say goodbye to Phonogram on the Wic/Div dance floor, which feels like it’s exactly the way PG would want to go. I’m closer to living a peaceful life now than I was when I first read Rue Britannia. That peace is due, in some measure, to Phonogram.

Thanks, gents.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Trap Them And Queer Them

Donald Trump won the election. Serious political commentators ignored the possibility or gave it no better than a 35% chance. Then President Trump won. It wasn’t quite Dewey Defeats Truman, but it did happen and it’s where the country is now.

Since then, news about grotesque abuses of power and appointments of actual Looney Tunes to federal office dominates the papers and television.

Election night, I expected to feel rueful and happy for my friends inspired by Secretary Of State Clinton’s campaign. I’d never seen so many of those friends excited on the morning of November 8th, and I figured Secretary Clinton’s victory was inevitable. So the next evening, I marched and chanted and went home. I held up a sign saying I was queer, bloody but unbowed. It did feel like that, I did feel like whatever we’re calling culture now landed one really good punch, but shit, I was still here, and it would require more than one really good punch to knock me down.

(Image above from Monkey Defies Gravity.) Trap Them played Subterranean six days later. I’ve got a long history with Trap Them, and I count on the band for spectacular live shows, due in large measure to vocalist Ryan McKenney.  Whenever I see Trap Them, McKenney goes off, whether it’s jumping into the crowd or perching on top of the barrier like a vulture, eyes set to kill, forehead oozing blood.

McKenney broke both heels in Europe (and one ankle) and according to the show I saw on YouTube, did the following European tour in a wheelchair. It was wrong to see McKenney confined to a chair, gripping that microphone like a neck of a man who never saw McKenney coming. Trap Them performed admirably, but when the band’s most dynamic member broke both his heels, it’s unlikely to result in an engaging set.

(Image above is from Metal Injection.) I almost didn’t go to the Chicago date. My brain was wobbly and my head swam if I moved it too quick. It’d’ve been prudent to lie down and stay home. I almost did, and then saw the earplugs I’d been hunting for. Fuck it, I said to myself.

My brain evened out and my head stopped swimming by the time my commute to the venue, Subterranean, was over. Subterranean is a three story walkup. There’s yet another floor of Subterranean to get backstage. How did Ryan McKenney get up those stairs?

I waited. Like Rats was unremarkable, and Yatuja was technically proficient enough that I’ll remember their name, but anything else about them is gone. Sorry, gents. An admittedly generously poured vodka cranberry later, and Trap Them was finally sound checking.

No sign of Mr. McKenney. I figured he’d be on the first floor in a wheelchair, and then someone from the venue would carry him up the five or six steps from the audience floor onto the stage. There’s another way to get onstage and that’s down one flight of an industrial metal spiral staircase from backstage. But imagining him going down those stairs was ridiculous. How would they carry a person in a wheelchair down that spiral staircase?

They didn’t carry him. He descended alone.

I saw McKenney push himself cast-first down each step of the spiral staircase. He wore casts on his feet and kneepads. He crawled from the bottom of the staircase at far end of stage right to the microphone stand. The venue would’ve carried him. His bandmates would’ve carried him. He crawled.

He performed the 45 minute set on his knees, thrashing around, using whatever he could for support and maintained the baleful, wrathful presence he was known for. He flung his body like he hated it, and yeah, broke open his forehead mid set. I’m focusing on Mr. McKenney and not the rest of the band. They played well, if unspectacularly. I think guitarist (and songwriter) Brian Izzi added a few flourishes on the pre-Blissfucker material.

You’ve read enough of these know how this one comes together. Life landed one real good punch on Mr. McKenney, and he was stubborn enough to cancel zero shows. I began to despair and Trap Them reminded me I didn’t have to. And I needed to see Trap Them and Trap Them specifically. I needed the music (a combination of Entombed and Hot Snakes) played much too loud. I needed to see Ryan McKenney’s wild eyes and him performing through what I presume is meaningful pain.

(Above image from Flickr user Morten F.) I somehow got the idea my queerness is incompatible with my love for guitar music. I believed (at the cost of impugning one of my home cultures) that I really ought to listen to more, well, queer or allegedly queer friendly artists. During that seven day period, what I saw from queer friendly artists was variations on the phrase “my idols are dead and my enemies are in power”. I understand the fear. I understand the despair. But I came to fight, not resist. McKenney came to fight too, even when no one would blame him for a less evocative performance.

It was at most 45 minutes. I don’t recall an encore. Before I left the venue, I talked to Mr. Izzi, who said that we all needed this show. He was more right than he knew.

Youtube won't load properly, so instead, have Chris Maggio recording drums for Darker Handcraft. He's incredible.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Tour In The Vampire Bund

If I wanted something good, I never would’ve bought Dive Into The Vampire Bund volumes one and two. I’d completed reads of works by serious female authors and my brain needed a break. On my way back from buying comics, I entered Books A Million and saw their remaindered section carried a lot of manga.

Upon closer look, it was all stuff from Seven Seas, an American publisher known for a couple licenses and the thankless task of releasing manga from non-Japanese authors (manga-ka) to a market that dismisses non-Japanese manga out of hand. The most appealing of the remaindered lot was Dive In The Vampire Bund.

A spinoff of Nozomu Tamaki’s Dance In The Vampire Bund, a manga best known for vampire matriarchs unfortunately frozen in the bodies of pubescent girls, Dive didn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but I had eight bucks to gamble with and figured it’d be a read I don’t have to think much about. “It’ll be a Japanese brand of White Wolf, it’s a complete story arc, and I’ll suffer through the genre requirement of uncomfortably sexualized middle school looking four hundred year old vampires,” I thought. It’d be trash, but I’ve blown eight bucks on worse.

I wasn’t ready for my eight bucks to pan out.

Dive’s story begins with a half-Brazilian half-Japanese man (Garcia Fujisaki) caught in his friend’s bug chasing vampire tourism.* Somehow, that goes bad, and Mr. Fujisaki is stuck in the Vampire Bund (a mostly vampire island of a coast of Japan) with 72 hours before he too is turned into a vampire.

The monsters of the week are intelligently applied, and while you won’t be mistaking Tamaki-san for Eiji Otsuka, I admit I wasn’t expecting to see Tamaki-san bring up the 442nd and the Bosnian/Serbian conflict as methods of fleshing out the world. I also wasn’t expecting to see a confession of by a male character to a female character be rejected and have that be the end of the matter. Dive has some progressive story beats that I would not have believed had I not read them myself. I don’t recall a manga with a mixed race lead character. They must exist, but I don’t know about them. Throw in zombies and vampires actively shouting nativist jeers at the main character and I found a manga willing to make the subtext obvious, or at least acknowledge a country’s xenophobia.

(America and Japan are not unique. Every country is xenophobic, if you look.)

I told my friends Dive is better than it has any right to be and I stick to that. Sadly, Mr. Fujisaki is drawn almost exclusively in tight t-shirts, but when he’s fleshed out, he talks about the immigrant experience and being “stuck” in Japan.

I bought more volumes of Dance on the strength of Dive and the ROI there wasn’t as high. There’s a great moment in Dance In The Vampire Bund II, volume one where we learn about a vampire’s choice to stay in the human community not because she wants a couple centuries worth of coercive power, but it’s the only place she’s ever wanted to live. Getting to that point (shown below) was more of a chore than I cared for.

Another spinoff, Dance In The Vampire Bund: The Memories Of Sledgehammer, features an American war hero (Hama Seiji) who protects an openly vampiric Bund candidate (Reiko Gotoh) running for Japanese office. Unsurprisingly, Ms. Goto is the woman Mr. Seiji loves,  While I wouldn’t recommend it except if you’re already interested in the main series, I’m two of three volumes in and Memories of Sledgehammer has not yet buckled under the weight of its many tropes.

I'll look for the third and final volume of Memories of Sledgehammer at cons and maybe give in and buy it on a Black Friday sale, but I don't think I'll go any further into the Vampire Bund proper. Never say never, but the odds are real, real low. I can recommend Dive... and even with reservations, I wasn't expecting that.

*Yeah, bug chasing vampire tourism is a hell of a phrase, but imagine how silly some of our genre fiction must seem to the rest of the world, if described quickly.

For the music? Back to My Chemical Romance and getting some of that sweet vampire money.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Come Off It Jason Pettigrew

The web never sleeps, which means the news/content cycle never does. "Jack White Has Dinner, Uses Napkin" isn't what a seasoned reporter would call a get.  -Alternative Press Editor In Chief Jason Pettigrew

I'm not enamored of Jason Pettigrew's half of the feature with Scott Heisel about web music journalism. I think he's disingenuous in the spots where it's not overly bitter. In his defense, there are legitimate things to be bitter about. Posting a tracklist and an album art counts as news, for someone, and "link-whoring duty" is an actual phrase used by Gawker. Reblogs of wacky internet videos poison the well, but keep a certain, ever declining number of readers engaged. Pitchfork reviews of punk and hardcore records leave me foaming at the mouth. Careless reviews of pop superstars make me question my sanity.

Pettigrew longs for the days of the noble gatekeeper, when a person had to be vetted by an authority before they could write about music for a magazine. And now, he says? Everyone's got an opinion. Well, sure. They always did. Now they can express it publicly and people might actually look at it. He aches for the days when access was limited (and this part is worth repeating) and he had it. But now, it's not and Good Lord, one does not have to first be approved of by Creem Magazine before writing or hearing the music. The horror.

"the days when gatekeepers (read: music press) were given the responsibility for having well-informed, articulate opinions regarding the material they were to wax wise about...All it takes is one sticky-fingered, disgruntled intern or one unscrupulous person to receive the wrong package...and the introduction of a band's new work belongs to the masses."

Mercy, sir, a person could be introduced to the record by listening to it themselves without the precious context of whatever the writer decides to copypasta from the press release, a quick Google search and a list of cliches too long to name? I am mortified. (For best results, read this paragraph again in Foghorn Leghorn's voice.)

Admittedly, that's a disingenuous summation of his argument. Those days of gatekeepers being paid a maybe decent amount of money to have opinions is gone, and we lose that, while we gain, and this is crucial, immediate access to the work itself, rather than sitting around for the intermediary of the music critic's judgment. I'd love to be a professional music critic, admittedly. But, everyone listening to it alongside each other means more people get the experience sooner. And our judgments were always a half measure towards other people giving an album their attention.

At bottom: I think this development sounds fantastic.  I don't think improving a person's filter on what they read is a bad thing. Shit, I think you should be doing it anyway in every aspect of your life. Democracy means there are more critics, yes. But those experts still exist. They haven't gone anywhere. You can still find them. And some of the critics today will be the experts of tomorrow, as they'll keep writing, going to concerts and turning over songs in their heads. Democracy also means you have to do the legwork to decide what opinions and beliefs are most valuable and useful to you. You can still get those opinions from somewhere else, if you as a consumer don't want to do the work.

Two other points: 1) Pettigrew's not required to read the ramblings of the imaginary, but almost certainly existent college freshman who is obsessed with Nirvana. 2) That imaginary college freshman Nirvana obsessive? That was us, once upon a time. Nirvana might not have been my or your focus, but those ramblings could easily be his, mine or ours.

There's a lot of resonant scenes in Almost Famous, but the one where Lester Bangs offers William Miller $35 for 1,000 words about Black Sabbath is instructive. Here's the catch, Pettigrew aches for the time when he could be Lester Bangs, dispensing sage advice and long assignments to reporters or freelancers. Those days of access and using that access as a megaphone to which the kids will flock are done. They're not finished, certainly. The Rihanna airplane debacle proved that. But, like a knife to the armpit, you're going to bleed out and die and Pettigrew sees that coming.

Here's to whatever comes next.

This is years and years old, but I kept coming back to it privately. I didn't post it because of cowardice, but now that time's passed, it can finally exist outside my own head. As for this choice of song, well, "fuck the glory days" feels pretty appropriate.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Four Years Too Late: Some Thoughts On Mass Effect 3

Hannah and I completed a run of Mass Effect 3. It’ll be on a podcast in the future, but I want to get my thoughts down before yelling into the microphone. We haven’t played 1 yet. I confess the vehicle sections of Mass Effect 1 frighten me off of the game. We'll probably do a full playthrough at some point in the future, but, due to the ending, not any time soon.

I originally put this on Facebook earlier this morning. I'm refining it here and adding a couple photos.

Major spoilers, obviously, but my guess is if you’re interested in my take on this, you’ve already played the series.

BioWare/EA was too aggressive with the release date of Mass Effect 3. Hell, the game got another six months, it appears, and it still came out this way. Mass Effect 3 is an example of what happens when you’ve got resources but not time. There’s about five different BioWare offices credited at the end of it.  Art is never finished, only abandoned.

According to Geoff Keighley’s book, the main exposition character Javik got cut because BioWare ran out of time, and so the plot had to be reworked around that absence. The Citadel invasion was supposed to happen after Thessia. On The Illusive Man’s orders, Kai Leng would kidnap Javik, and the subsequent Cereberus invasion would make sense. Because Javik was moved to DLC because of time constraints, the story took on water.

And yet.

Despite a botched ending, DLC that was planned for the main story but got cut because the game needed to ship, and a missed shot on an open net with Omega, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 are still two of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. Maybe top five, even. If EA commissioned a game of the year edition, I suspect critical consensus would be kinder to Mass Effect 3. As it stands, though, I found Mass Effect 3 only a tremendous experience. Admittedly, BioWare and EA may not be interested in reopening that can of worms.

In any story of this scale, you have to accept plot holes. I can forgive quite a bit. I can forgive the extended ending. I can forgive that because the story set up the Reapers as an actually apocalyptic level threat beating them back will require sacrifices on a frightening scale. But the instant the Star Child shows up, the game falls apart.

In short: It’s a brutal invocation of deus ex machina alongside contradictory cues about what effects your choice will have in universe. It’s a drastic shift in mechanics and tone at the worst possible time. It’s remarkable in that Star Child spends all of my goodwill built up over two games inside ten minutes.

(The post-credits scene was unforgivably corny. I was bewildered, confused and disappointed by the ending, but only the post-credits scene made me fucking livid. Buzz Aldrin was allegedly the main narrator, and given that context, I'm shocked they couldn't find something better for him to do than reheat sf/f cliches from 60 years ago.)

Maybe Mass Effect 3 was always going to crumble. Massive stories written by many people usually do. What’s energizing is that BioWare held off crumbling right until the end. Recalling only the anger  obscures that for 30 hours of my life, I was enraptured. By remembering only the bad, I forget I said that I wanted to savor as much time with those characters as I possibly could.

I'll go back for the Leviathan and Citadel DLC, but when those are done, I don't think I'll go much further. It's a great game on its own merits, but absent an investment by BioWare or EA to right the ship, great is furthest star it'll ever reach.

Keelah sa'lai.


Entropy Magazine published a long piece about choice in the Mass Effect series, and it's absolutely worth your time. There's a massive chart of the choices, too. Go look. Pictures are from the developer, Kotaku and Ars Technica, in descending order. I've been listening to The 1975 singles for the past eight odd days, and the song that's currently ruling my headphones is by them, and it's called Chocolate.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Final Wave Goodbye

Goodbye, Bane.

The Massachusetts hardcore band plays their last two shows Friday and Saturday. Their influence on my life is too big to calculate right now.

There are so many stories. Most of them are variations on a theme: I am scared or low and listening to Bane makes me more confident and more kind. This happened in Chicago, in Pittsburgh, in Washington D.C. and in Rome. I saw them in two Bottom Lounges at two very different parts of my life.

Obviously, this is only the end until a good friend of the band has horrible medical bills and Bane does a benefit show. Then maybe eight people on the internet will complain how dare a band reunite after they break up. As for Bane's legacy, like every band, it's in how they made the audiences feel and how they treated their fans.

What matters is that Bane's last two Chicago shows were the best I remember seeing them. They looked like a band rejuvenated and played with obvious joy. The crowd for both shows yelled at them for multiple encores. What matters is that I sobbed through my cries for one more song. What matters is that I'm crying as I type this.

What matters is that Bane wants me to know it's okay to cry. What matters is that when I wasn't equipped to handle my life and couldn't find a way out of it, Bane helped me navigate.

And now that I'm beginning to equip myself for my journey, Bane says goodbye.

After night two, Bedard and I talked about comics and counseling. We talked about facing our fears as adults. I'll regret running away from Dalbec to catch a bus for the rest of my life. I'm sorry about that, Aaron.

So, to Bedard, to Dalbec, and to everyone who's ever been in Bane: Goodbye, thank you, and I can't wait for what you're doing next.

I think I can type this part without crying. I think I can. Ciao y arrivederci.
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