Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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Book return

Thursday, February 18th, 2021

One night last week, after about 20 years, I had a guy I know over for drinks and cigars and to talk about theatre and writing and books and music.

One thing about the pandemic: Suddenly we both had time. The social options normally available have telescoped down into almost nothing.

We already knew we had some things in common: We’re both playwrights and stage directors, we’ve both done work with Moving Arts (which is how we know each other), I’ve seen his plays and he’s seen mine, we both have wives and kids, and we both live in Burbank — within walking distance of each other. I learned the latter fact some time last year when he told me that whenever he’s at his kids’ school, he sees the fundraising tile my wife and I sponsored some years ago. More recently, he and his wife bought one too, so that’s something else we have in common.

Over the course of two-and-a-half hours in my back yard under a glowing patio heater and during half a bottle of bourbon, we took turns shooting references at each other that, yep, the other would actually get. When I compared the Stan Lee / Jack Kirby dynamic with the Edison / Tesla dynamic, both of them revolving around a genius largely unrecognized during his life, he was armed and ready with the tragic details of Tesla’s last years. We shared our admiration for the work of Ayad Akhtar. When we wandered into music, and the role of noise, and John Cage, and I inevitably brought up Pere Ubu, and he offered his love of their songs as songs, and then added Wire, I just about fell over. How often can one find someone equally capable of discussing Marvel comics, brilliant 19th century inventors, particular contemporary playwrights, semi-obscure postpunk bands, the practice of being a writer, Fran Lebowitz, and, especially dozens and dozens of books you’ve read?

What are the odds of this, and with regard to the books in particular? Not to put too fine a point on it, but it takes time to read a book. Most Americans read four books a year. In 2020, I read 33 books; my average is 26 books a year (I just checked; thank you, GoodReads), which I think is pathetic. Although it’s possible to read 100 books a year, distractions like eating and sleeping and other functions get in the way. So finding that you’ve both read Paul Auster and Joan Didion and Julian Barnes and Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates and Philip Roth and some of the Russians and Fitzgerald and Hemingway and on and on while also having all those other interests in common is a bit… disconcerting. Wasn’t the final grandmaster chess tournament in “Queen’s Gambit” like this?

It did turn out, though, that there were two books I’d read and heartily endorsed that he hadn’t read, and two that he swore by that I hadn’t read. The next day, still thrilled and knocked off-kilter by the experience of having someone walk over to my house and have that sort of conversation with me over bourbon and cigars for almost three hours, I went on Amazon and sent him the two books I love that he hadn’t read: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.

He texted me two days later to thank me and to say that he’d already gobbled down the Barnes book, adding a few salient points about it. And then the other day, when I opened my front door to see why my annoying dogs were raising high holy hell this time, I found a package from Amazon on my own doorstep: He had sent me the two I hadn’t read, pictured above.

After I read these, we’ll have four more books we can discuss. And this time, we won’t wait 20 years. We’ve already set the date.

Not comical

Monday, July 27th, 2020

Last week, I did not feel great. Was, in fact, partially laid up here and there for days. Stomach virus? Or: was it weighing on me that Comic-Con was canceled?

To give you a sense of the role of Comic-Con in my life: I’ve been married to my wife only one year longer than I’ve been married to Comic-Con. Comic-Con and I have been an item since July, 1988; I got married the previous Halloween, so there’s not even a full year between these two anniversaries. Not celebrating the one felt wrong.

Oh, to be sure there was “Comic-Con @ Home,” in which the people behind the Con put together digital versions of what they could of the Con. And I give huge props to the very nice people who run Comic-Con for making the effort. Untold millions of people who’d wanted to attend for years and years (and years) were finally able to get some semblance of Comic-Con (even though that semblance essentially boiled down to watching prerecorded videos of people talking about comic books and, I guess, other, lesser, pop culture).

I too partook.

  1. I watched a panel covering the debate over who deserves what credit for the Marvel Age of Comics, Stan Lee or Jack Kirby. (On which panel former Marvel editor Danny Fingeroth, who worked with Stan, said the intellectual property was jointly created, but the brand was all Stan. He gets points from me re the brand statement — the way covers were designed and written with blurbs seemingly ripped from the sort of movie posters young people couldn’t resist in the 1960s, and the way the urgent, melodramatic dialogue separated the entire line from, say, the assembly line monotony of Justice League of America dialogue, in which every character, whether Batman or Wonder Woman, had all the personality of See Spot Run, Run Run Run — but re the IP, i.e., the characters and storylines, I’d have to point out that Kirby did that for decades before Stan, and also for decades after Stan, and Stan was part of that only with Kirby. Kirby invented whole genres of comics that are now generating billions of dollars of revenue, while Stan was succeeding mostly at promotion.)
  2. I started watching a panel on the recently deceased Denny O’Neil, one of the most influential comics writers. I knew Denny when I was much younger (as I wrote about here), and although I knew he wasn’t well these past few years, his death still felt like a shock, like another part of my own history slipping away. (One advantage of Comic-Con @ Home: I can watch the rest later.)
  3. And I completely loved the latest iteration of Scott Shaw!’s “Oddball Comics” slideshow. I’ve seen this presentation of the strangest, wackiest, lewdest, most just-plain wrong comics almost every year for 30 years, and can testify that this year was the best presentation ever. (Here, judge for yourself.)

But what made that so completely hilarious? Yes — Scott’s clever deadpan narration. And all the new books slotted in this year. But also: I was a little down in the dumps about not having a physical Comic-Con to go to — and so enlisted my friends Paul and Joe, who also love Scott’s show, and the three of us watched it at the same time and group-texted throughout. So: For those 80 minutes at least we had a more vibrant simulacrum of Comic-Con.

Because without driving down in a vehicle stuffed with friends and suitcases, and a suite we’d all be staying in, and cigars, and drinks and poker in the room, and meals around San Diego, and laughing our fool asses off for five days… it just wasn’t Comic-Con. I congratulate the Comic-Con organizers for making their best attempt, and they accomplished a lot, and a lot of people, including me, are grateful. Moreover, they made the entire affair free.

But it wasn’t Comic-Con.

The other thing I missed about the Comic-Con that wasn’t? Getting to spend hours pawing through thousands of glorious moldering old comic books. So I decided to pull out 15 of my own long boxes (about a third of my collection — er, “investment,” in case my wife reads this) and “reorganize” them.

Which not only made me feel physically better — but enabled me to make a list of the comics I’m going to look for at the 2021 Comic-Con. In person.

Actual Comic-Con at Home

Breaking with tradition

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

Any other year, I and between three and eight pals would now be tumbling out of a tightly packed minivan and into Comic-Con down in San Diego. But, this isn’t just any year. No, this is the year of the pandemic, when the Con is virtual (and, let’s face it, not really “the Con”) and I’m posting this blog from my bedroom. Insert sad-face here.

It is nice to see, though, that the convention center is missing us, too. Comic-Con has been held at the “new” convention center since 1991, so my relationship with the Con, which I started attending annually in 1988 predates that of the convention center. I hope we’re just taking a breather here and this isn’t the end of the relationship. I gather that the convention center feels the same way — hence this video.

Yes, I’ll attend some virtual panels. (At the very least, Scott Shaw!’s Oddball Comics presentation, tomorrow at noon.) And I recognize, in all fairness, that at least this year all eleventy billion people who’d like to go to the Con can finally get in. And although I can’t paw through hundreds of thousands of delicious decades-old comic-books at the Con, I did receive a couple dozen in the mail today courtesy of my pursuits on eBay. But what about poker parties in our hotel room? The virtual Con has no way to make up for that annual tradition!

What’s next

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

This weekend, as with most weekends recently, has been consumed with straightening up my comic-book collection and working on my new play. I’m slowly running out of thousands of old comic books that still need to be paired with nice plastic bags and boards and carefully slid into comics storage boxes, and I also may finally be running out of ways to rewrite the same 119 pages, at least in a way that theoretically improves upon them. I’ve already got more delicious rotting old comic books on their way to my house, courtesy of eBay and Mercari, and at some point I suppose this play will be done.

This morning I had a very nice surprise on the weekly Pere Ubu live show on Patreon when the band’s manager, the smart and very talented Kiersty Boon, sang me happy birthday, which even earned a nod from David Thomas. Again, a nice surprise. If you’re not on the Ubu Patreon platform yet, you’re going to want to watch that and much here, so here’s the link. Earlier in the week, I had posted on Facebook that all I wanted for my birthday was a new-new Pere Ubu album (a new one having just come out a month or so ago), at which a fellow fan and friend remonstrated, “Oi, Lee! You’re such a greedy boy!” But on the show, Kiersty and David announced that there is now indeed a new-new Pere Ubu album available for download, proving yet again that when you want something, you should put that want out into the universe in order for it to happen. In retrospect, I wish I had wanted Donald Trump out of office for my birthday.

While doing my self-appointed chores today (laundry; work on play; straighten up more comics; complete the online Sudoku Mega; pick more avocados from our tree for my wife to barter at work), I still found time to take on a bunch of objectivists, libertarians and crackpots on the Facebook page dedicated to the late Steve Ditko, best known as co-creator of Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and as an acolyte of Ayn Rand. The thread started when someone posted a lunkhead op-ed claiming that the nation had met its ruin because we weren’t adhering to the most extreme sort of religious evangelism, and equating protesters with rioters (never mind that the nation was founded protesters who rioted, and that most of us who have protested several times in our lives have never once rioted). When, finally, after much back-and-forth between myself and several other people posting, the original author admitted that he’d never even read the thing he linked to, for which he then got eviscerated by others, I declared victory and left the discussion. But not before one of the commenters assured us all that if he were in charge, this rebellion would be put down fast! I offered that Google could provide driving directions, should he gather the momentum, and that in the meantime he should beware paper cuts while reading those old comics.

Whenever I finish a TV show or movie or book, I get an email from Netflix or Goodreads asking me “What’s next?” Y’know what, guys? When I know, you’ll know. Let’s just leave it at that. Especially in 2020, no one knows what’s next.

Joe Sinnott, R.I.P.

Thursday, June 25th, 2020

I was sad to learn this morning that Joe Sinnott had died. He was 93, and that’s a reasonable amount of time for anyone, but he touched my young life and left a lasting impression, not just as the premier inker on “Fantastic Four,” but also in my one personal encounter with him.

When I was 11, I met both Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott at the same table at Phil Seuling’s comics convention in NYC. I told that story near the bottom of this longish blog post three years ago, and how awed I was to meet Kirby — and how very kind Mr. Sinnott was to me. 

This was one of the most meaningful encounters of my life — the only time in my life I’ve been awed in anyone’s presence, matched with a moment of incredible kindness and attentiveness from his artistic partner. These guys were heroes to the men my age who were boys back then.

Later, I’ll update this post with the sketch Mr. Sinnott did for me.

Con-viviality

Monday, July 29th, 2019

Comic-Con was only four days — July 17th through the 21st — but it was even more excitingly overpowering, so much so that I took a week off blogging just to recuperate. Sure, I had plans to post things here during the Con, but I’m not sure how I would have done that. The event was stuffed — overstuffed! — with things competing for my attention (which isn’t unusual, even though this was the 50th anniversary celebration), so finding the time would have been challenge enough. Add in the fact that, as tracked by my phone, I walked seven to eight miles a day and did it on five or six hours of sleep each night, and you get a frenetic pace that fully required some recovery time.

(Plus, I was pretty busy when I got back.)

A few highlights:

  • Finding many excellent Silver Age and Bronze Age comics at reader’s prices. What qualifies to me as a “reader’s price”? Under the current cover price of (gasp) $3.99. I found lots of great old comics in $2 bins, half-price bins, and even, sometimes, for a buck each. Awesome sauce!
  • Seeing “Shazam!” the first night we got there. It was loads of fun and laugh-out-loud funny, Zachary Levi’s enthusiasm in the role was catchy, and it rather faithfully built on the source material while in plot points and in tone. A real joy.
  • Catching the documentary “Closer Than We Think,” about futurist artist and industrial designer Arthur Radebaugh. I’d never heard of Radebaugh, whose sleek designs and stunning artwork of the 1930s and 1940s made me jump online to buy a book of it… only to discover that no book of his work exists. Somebody:  Go collect this stuff into a book! In the meantime, you can see some of it here.
  • Getting to talk with Eddie Campbell, a comics writer and artist I follow (From Hell; The Playwright; Bacchus) and picking up his new book
  • Hearing comics great Jim Steranko take an hour to share three anecdotes — but one of them was pure brilliance, from his years as an escape artist, when he came up with what promised to be his greatest stunt:  escaping from a moving ferris wheel. Let’s just say that when he was rotated to the top, 80 feet up in the air, he got out of the coiled ropes a little early. “And what happened?” someone asked. “I fell,” he said. Luckily, one of the bucket cars on the wheel caught him after about 15 feet, purely by chance.

I got to see lots of other great things — Scott Shaw!’s “Oddball Comics” slideshow, which never disappoints; the “Quick Draw” live sketch event; lots of clever costumes; and the sheer amazement of my 15-year-old great nephew at his first Comic-Con experience, both at the excitement in the convention center and the near-pandemonium spilling onto all the streets of San Diego for about a square mile — but here, bar none, was my favorite bit of Comic-Con this year:

David Rosing (NASA JPL Mars Sample Return system engineer), Shonte J. Tucker (JPL thermal engineer), Kobie Boykins (JPL Mechatronics Engineer), and Laura Kerber (NASA JPL Mars research scientist) discuss how they go boldly where there’s no one around to fix it. Hear stories from the trenches of the heartbreaks, close calls, and adventures of real-life solar system exploration on the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Q&A session following.

Yeah… no. That in no way conveys what the panel really was. Here’s what the panel really was:  government-funded scientists giddy with excitement about all the cool stuff they’re working on for the moon, Mars, and beyond, and what those new discoveries and possibilities might mean for us, all of it positive.

I cannot tell you how thrilled I was to hear government-funded scientists beside themselves with glee about science and what we’re learning every day, and about their hope for the future.

So I decided to get up and tell them that.

I got to the microphone and said, “I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here in a room with scientists who are so excited about the future. Usually it’s not you guys in the headlines — instead it’s the anti-science guys from the government. So:  thank you. I’m really glad you’re here!”

That elicited big cheers and applause from the room, which was packed with about 200 people feeling exactly the way I did about it. We were all cheering the scientists.

Then Dr. Rosing noted what a good investment science is, and how careful they are with how they spend taxpayer money.

“Oh, I’m happy to have you get my tax money,” I said. “It’s the other guys I don’t want to fund!”

More cheers and applause from the crowd for that.

As much as I loved the comic-book part of it, and all the costumes, and the great time with family and friends, hearing Dr. Laura Kerber excitedly pitch just how much we’re going to learn when she finally gets to launch her project exploring the deepest part of the moon in a crater so vast it’s wider than a football field and deep enough to accommodate Big Ben… well… that’s something I’m going to remember. If it’ll help, I’ll gladly send her $20 to help with Project: Crater Diver.

The price of freedom

Friday, July 19th, 2019

My 15-year-old great-nephew Brody is here in San Diego with me, my son Dietrich, and my two friends for Comic-Con. He lives in Galloway, New Jersey, where I grew up, and says he’s loving California.

Our first night at Comic-Con when we got back to our room he asked me an economic question that I answered thoughtfully. I told him that history has shown that the free flow of ideas and culture between societies benefits everyone:  that the secret to Genghis Khan’s stunning success was that when he took control over a group he shared with them the technology he’d gathered elsewhere, and let them keep their own culture. This meant that the people Khan conquered generally did better under his rule than under previous rulers, and did so because Khan supported the exchange of ideas and commerce. China, by contrast, had a literally walled-off society that halted progress for hundreds of years.

Thinking about China brought to mind the joys of true capitalism, and the irony that Communist China, with its mandated economy, is working to succeed with capitalism. True capitalism, I told Brody, benefits everyone:  As opposed to other systems where you might wind up stranded your entire life in your current low position, people allowed into the market have a chance to improve their lot, and a stake in doing so. A truly open, free market encourages innovation and the spread of wealth. Unfortunately, our current system, which benefits the massively wealthy at the terrible expense of the middle class, is closer to the rigged economy our elected leaders say they abhor. As we strip-mine the middle class, through taxes and fees, and move toward shrinking benefits in order to continue this massive transfer of wealth upward, we increase economic anxiety, which is fueling so much of the ground-level horror we’re seeing on the streets:  rampant homelessness, enraged shooters, road rage, and an overall creeping psychosis. Want to improve the feelings of everyone in our community? Fix the tax code.

Finally, I said, the further shame is that we’re so indebting your generation — via absurdly high college tuition, expensive student loans, and a federal deficit that will throw a lid onto the economy — that we’re making you pay the mortgage on our current, short-term success. If we really wanted to invest in the future, we’d build out our infrastructure so that we weren’t lagging the Scandinavian nations (!!!) and the emerging Asian nations, and we’d actually invest in young people:  restructure the cost and burden of higher education, and figure out a way to help young people afford homes earlier in their lives so that they could accrue wealth.

At this point, I caught myself and wondered just how far afield I’d wandered from his initiating question. So I looked at him and said, “Wait, what was your question?”

He said, “Do you ever actually find anything good in the dollar boxes of comic books?”

What’s unfilmable?

Monday, July 8th, 2019

Now that Netflix has taken on adapting Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — with Mr. Gaiman on board, thankfully — the internet is once again having the discussion of “what are some unfilmable books?”

Let me settle it:  There are no unfilmable books.

There are also no filmable books. And no bookable films.

These are separate media, and even if you do your best to closely approximate each, it’s impossible.

Last week, I was going on about Dan Simmons’ novel The Terror. The book was excellent. So, in numerous ways, was the miniseries. But there are seemingly subtle differences that dramatically alter the shape of the story, differences of character and motivation — but also necessary plot differences, because of what is lost in a film lacking interior monologue and epistolary exchanges, versus a novel where those literary elements were crucial. (And, also, in a book where we can conjure an image of the devastating monster stalking the explorers, versus the miniseries where the CGI thing just looks silly.)

Samuel Beckett and Nathalie Sarraute, among others, wrote anti-novels. Some form of those could be filmed, but does anyone want to watch a two-hour movie about someone slicing a tomato? (Anyone other than Andy Warhol, who did the same sort of thing with film.)

So the question isn’t what’s an unfilmable book. The question is:  Do we really want to make a film version of this book? Does it add anything, or does it just damage our fond memory of the book?

Weekend revelations!

Sunday, July 7th, 2019

1.

On Friday night at almost midnight, I finally finished humping all those heavy boxes of comic books back and forth. At some point in my past, I weighed some comics boxes and discovered that each one, fully loaded with comic books, weighs about 60 pounds. Did I mention that I was moving 20 of these boxes from the “office” in my house to the kitchen to a staging area to sort, then out to the back yard, and some of them back inside? So that’s 1200 pounds hither and yon for about 12 hours.

My first revelation was:  Maybe I should give up that gym membership and just do this three times a week.

My second revelation was:  My life would have been completely different if I had collected baseball cards instead.

 

 

2.

On Saturday, my playwriting workshop resumed. I started running this workshop, “Words That Speak,” in 1993. Twenty-six years later, it and I are still here, and in the same location. (Moving Arts, in Silver Lake.) We’ve got stick-to-it-iveness.

When you invest three hours most Saturdays for 26 years in going over people’s pages and trying to relate why something is working well in them, or is not working well, or could work better, you dip into not only past playwriting and teaching experience, but also life experience. I heard myself share this, about how your perspective changes as you age:  “When I was a kid, I was always right, and my parents were doing everything wrong. Now I’m mostly a parent, and it’s my kids who are doing everything wrong.”

Driving home, I realized:  Hey, but I was always right!

 

 

3.

Most Sundays, I do the grocery shopping. That’s because I have a budget of $180/week and I stick to it. I mean, If I had extra money to throw around on groceries, I’d rather spend it on more comic books or more theatre tickets. (My wife’s version of grocery shopping is to spend twice that amount and crow about how much she “saved.”) I make a grocery list, yes I clip coupons, I stick to my list, I tabulate the expenditures as they pile up in the cart so as to ensure that I’m within budget, and then I carefully select a preferred checker, one who will ring me up correctly and accept all my coupons. Last year, there was a lady who not only rang me up wrong three weeks in a row but was quite nasty about it even when, I promise you, I was quite nice about her almost costing me six dollars extra. The whole endeavor takes me 45 minutes. You could set your watch by it. I don’t know how the invasion of Normandy was planned, but the weekly incursion of Ralph’s supermarket is plotted to a tee.

My favorite checker is a guy about my age named Raul. I like Raul for three reasons:  He rings me up right; he’s a store manager, so if there’s anything questionable, he never has to call for a store manager; and if there’s ever any question about any of my coupons or any sale item, he just takes my word for it. (As he should; I would never cheat them.)

Today he asked, “Why’s your hair look different?”

“I just left the gym,” I said, thinking momentarily of the dime I’d found at the gym and slipped happily into my pocket. “I took a shower there and dried my hair, but I didn’t style it. If I put in styling paste now, then I’d have to wash it in the morning, when I don’t need a shower — because I just took that shower at the gym. This way, I can just wet it and go. And get 10 minutes’ more sleep.”

“You’re like me,” he said, “always thinking two steps ahead. You have to when you have kids!”

Raul’s always grumbling about his kids. I didn’t know what they had to do with it — but on the other matter, the more I thought about it, I thought he could be right:  Maybe I am always thinking two steps ahead!

In 2006, I took the employee of a client out to lunch so I could learn more about the client’s company. She asked me what I was doing for them, and how it worked, and then when she fully understood, she turned to me and said, “So you think all the time? How exhausting!”

Well, it can be exhausting. (And it sure isn’t helpful for sleeping.) But… maybe… it also helps me stay two steps ahead.

I’ll have to think more about this.

Not Mad

Friday, July 5th, 2019

Worry

No, I’m not happy either that Mad magazine is going under.

But — sorry — here goes:  How many of the people bemoaning its loss were still reading it?

I know there was me, and one good friend, and another friend I know who got it briefly and then I believe let it lapse, and… about six other people. According to reports, before its relaunch about a year and a half ago, it was down to 123,000 readers — and, after that, even fewer. That’s down from a one-time number of 7 million.

I think the time of Mad magazine was over before this announcement.

Let’s look at it this way:  The people before me were into coonskin caps; my generation, not so much. My kids have always had zero interest in reading Mad magazine, and believe me, I tried to get them interested. Lately, my interest in it, even as a subscriber, has been about zero; nothing in it compares with the heyday of Don Martin except, of course, Sergio Aragones — and he’s a holdover from that heyday. I’ve got three of the recent issues waiting for me to read them because I just couldn’t muster the interest. It’s not because I’m no longer 12 (and it’s no longer 1974); it’s because Mad is irrelevant. The Onion is doing a far better job in a far better way — in byte-sized bits, frequently the day-of the thing they’re satirizing — and so are  John Oliver and others on TV.

What will I miss about Mad? The comics from Sergio Aragones, and knowing that 98-year-old fold-in artist Al Jaffee still has a regular gig. That’s about it.

For me, the true upset is this:  the company that owns Mad (Warner Communications) has pulled the plug on a fan-oriented publication with a readership hovering around 100,000. Last month, except for the top five, every comic book published in America sold fewer than 100,000 copies. Batman sold 82,000. Avengers sold 49,000. When the Avengers can’t sell 50,000 copies, the end is near.  (Black Panther sold 20,000 copies. Twenty thousand! On what Earth is that sustainable?) Most of these comics are published by the same Warner Communications or their cross-town rival here in my home town of Burbank, CA, a little company called Disney. The only way these blockbuster corporations are going to keep the lights on for these little comic-book things is to serve as the equivalent of a think tank, supporting new ideas for movies, television, games, merchandise, and licensing.

Barring that, what happened to Mad is going to happen to the equally outmoded comic book.