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


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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.

Praise and gratitude

Monday, June 15th, 2020
Every day, the Academy of American Poets will email you a “poem of the day” if you sign up for it. They run the gamut from the 19th to 21st centuries, and from the well-known to the never-heard-of. I found today’s, by Angelo Geter, particularly resonant — because it’s about gratitude and praise.
 
I also appreciated what he said about it, because this is where I am as well:
 
“I wrote this poem about six months ago, around Christmas time. I was in the midst of mourning and grieving some loved ones. When I was walking, I remember feeling that in the midst of hard times and as negative as this world can seem at times, you still have to praise things. So this poem focuses on praising the things you should praise, and also praising the things you shouldn’t, such as being a headstone or not being in a police report. So that was the inspiration behind this poem. Praising in the midst of all this chaos.”        —Angelo Geter
 
Here’s the poem.

 Praise

Today I will praise.

I will praise the sun

For showering its light

On this darkened vessel.

I will praise its shine.

Praise the way it wraps

My skin in ultraviolet ultimatums

Demanding to be seen.

I will lift my hands in adoration

Of how something so bright

Could be so heavy.

I will praise the ground

That did not make feast of these bones.

Praise the casket

That did not become a shelter for flesh.

Praise the bullets

That called in sick to work.

Praise the trigger

That went on vacation.

Praise the chalk

That did not outline a body today.

Praise the body

For still being a body

And not a headstone.

Praise the body,

For being a body and not a police report

Praise the body

For being a body and not a memory

No one wants to forget.

Praise the memories.

Praise the laughs and smiles

You thought had been evicted from your jawline

Praise the eyes

For seeing and still believing.

For being blinded from faith

But never losing their vision

Praise the visions.

Praise the prophets

Who don’t profit off of those visions.

Praise the heart

For housing this living room of emotions

Praise the trophy that is my name

Praise the gift that is my name.

Praise the name that is my name

Which no one can plagiarize or gentrify

Praise the praise.

How the throat sounds like a choir.

The harmony in your tongue lifts

Into a song of adoration.

Praise yourself

For being able to praise.

For waking up,

When you had every reason not to.

 

Angelo Geter

Timesaver!

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

I got three pages into reading the article in the new issue of The New Yorker about the disintegrating cross-Atlantic marriage between two poets in 1970 before realizing that I didn’t give a shit about this at all.

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?

Not-great literature

Monday, July 1st, 2019

Orla Ryan writes in The Financial Times about the benefits of reading trash.

This seems true:

Read, say, Kerry Katona’s life story and you learn about a child so deprived she sold her pet parrot to buy tampons. Read a book written to sell rather than to indulge the author and you get less of the impressive wordplay, but great stories and sharply executed plots.

Yes. But. As I wrote here yesterday, those just slide off.

This is particular statement is particularly about her:

I am busy. I can no longer disappear into the Russian steppes for days on end. I have less time for intellectual self-improvement and more interest in escapism in the form of thrillers, chick-lit and celebrity biographies.

To which I’d reply:  In every day, you have the same amount of time as everyone else. And we’re all busy.

So while I find her piece threaded with excuses, it seems that she makes reading lowbrow lit sound like a guilty pleasure. But part of the joy of reading lies precisely in the back-and-forth between highbrow and lowbrow. The Superman comics I was reading last night were immensely clever and fun — but so, in a different way, was the collection of essays from a British museum director about the joys to be found in the crumbling palaces of ancient Rome, Sicily, Zanzibar and elsewhere.

Nobody is making her choose.

Great literature

Sunday, June 30th, 2019

TheTerrorI don’t spend a lot of time trying to discern the difference between great literature and everyday entertainment. I read all sorts of things, sliding on an average day between, say, the novel I’m reading, the non-fiction book I’m reading simultaneously, whatever’s in that week’s New Yorker, assorted comic books both old and new, and other magazines and newspapers.

I do hold onto one personal theory, though:  great literature sticks with you, while entertainment slides off more easily.

Case in point:  About 15 years ago, I read a novel by Brad Meltzer. I had met Mr. Meltzer, a best-selling novelist who also happened at that time to be writing comic books, at the San Diego Comic-Con. A very nice guy, he gave me one of his novels, a thriller about two brothers who happened to somehow come across a load of cash. I read the book, as they say, cover-to-cover, in about… I don’t know… a week or two. It was gripping, fast-paced, enormously enjoyable, and completely forgettable. The limited plot summary I just gave you is the extent of what I can remember about it. Beyond that? Nothing. I can’t even remember the title. Hang on, I’ll go check Wikipedia. … OK, I’m back. I still didn’t recognize any of the titles. I had to read the summaries online. The book I’m talking about is The Millionaires. Every chapter end was a cliffhanger, in the style of those great pulp novels of the 1930s and 1940s, and as with those novels, of which I read probably 50, I now can’t remember any of it.

Contrast that with:  The Road (Cormac McCarthy) or Tender is the Night (Fitzgerald) or The Canterbury Tales or Shakespeare or 1984 or any of hundreds or thousands of other things I’ve read. The difference is that the plot isn’t the point. It’s what lies beneath the plot; it’s the theme that makes up the entire point of the enterprise.

That’s what I’m getting at in my workshop, Words That Speak, when I ask the playwrights, “What’s this play about?” I’m not asking in terms of plot — I’m asking in terms of theme. Because it’s got to be about something, and not just about what happens.

What brings this to mind is the novel The Terror, which I finished reading at 3 this morning, all 771 pages of it. As I read this book about a true-life polar expedition that got trapped in arctic ice in 1845, which I had never intended to read, and which I had picked up thinking it was a thriller of sorts, the sensation started to grow in me that this was not only not a thriller, and not only not just literature, it was great literature. The list is short of contemporary novels that make up great literature;  you saw me put The Road on that list; I’d put The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes) on that list as well, and then I’d have to think about it. What makes The Terror great literature is that it is not purely restricted to the issue-at-hand of the men’s survival; no, it occurred to me somewhere after page 700 as I began to wonder just why this novel was so engrossing, so impossible to put down, urging me forward to read 20 or 30 or 50 pages every night, sometimes staying up hours later than I should have, that this is a novel about the natural order — about man’s place in the universe, and of each individual’s place in his own natural order, his own life. The novel takes beautiful turns and, as one reviewer noted, is oddly optimistic for such a bleak tale of men freezing and dying in horrible ways in an icebound climate with little hope of rescue.

But the particular reason I bring this up is that, after finishing the book and still caught in its afterglow sometime around 3 a.m., I decided to go online and read the New York Times’ review from the book’s publication date of 2007. It’s a bad review. Here’s the concluding bit:

When a novel goes north of, say, 600 pages, we naturally become impatient, demanding, potentially mutinous, and the questions we ask of the writer can turn testy: Where are we going and why, and will the whole grueling experience be worth it? Or are we just stuck in something we can’t seem to get out of?

Oh, I realized. The fault in this review lies with the reviewer, who never adjusted his expectation. And I wonder if he ever got past those 600 pages — because it’s past those 600 that the depth and extent of this work comes clearly into view. The reviewer expected it to be a thriller. But it isn’t. It’s great literature.

It’s important to know the difference.

Now, today, I’m back to reading Action Comics for a while. I don’t expect it to enter the literary canon.

Lasting impact

Sunday, April 14th, 2019

 

ScrewIranColoringBook

You see above you the legendary “Screw Iran Coloring Book,” written and published by me and my then-business partner, in 1980. Back in 2007 on this blog, I shared the story of how this came to be created (you can read it again here) and how we were unable to sell it at the time.  Since then, the thing was listed in The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, has somehow wound up in the collection of the Michigan State University libraries, gotten identified  as a “Head Comix” (which it isn’t), and is the subject of periodic unsolicited emails and phone calls that I get from strangers asking if they can buy a copy — which they haven’t been able to do for almost 40 years.

Well, as you can see from the photo above, I found some of them. Actually, while looking up in the “Anne Frank Room” (my wife’s name for a hidden storage space in our house) for something else, my 16-year-old came across them and asked me what they were. I had him bring them down, I held onto the four above, and I contacted the people on my decades-long wait list to see if they still wanted them. They did — and so yesterday I started shipping them out.

My wife Valorie’s immediate suggestion was to put them on eBay for $25 each. I told her that one of the people on the list, who’d waited more than 10 years for a copy, had already immediately sent me $25 via PayPal as soon as he got my email. That seemed like too much — I was just honored by the interest of people who wanted it — but he insisted on sending it. (And I’ll tell you in a minute what I spent that on.)

I’ve got those four copies above remaining. If you don’t already have one coming to you via express mail from me, and really really really want one because you just can’t get enough of the chuckles sure to be brought to you by this 40-year-old hostage drama, let me know — I might part with another one or two. Side note:  the art by Rich Mayone, whom I’m back in touch with via Facebook, really holds up; I think his Jimmy Carter (seen on the back cover above) is lightyears better than Neal Adams’ version in that artist’s Jimmy Carter coloring book from the same period.

So, what did I spend that 25 bucks on?

JamesWarrenBioTwo weeks ago, I finished reading the new biography of comics publisher James Warren, written by Bill Schelly. (You can learn more about that book here.) I was interested in the Warren biography because I’m always interested in the business aspect of the arts (being an artist who is also a businessman), and because as a teen I had read my share of Creepy and Eerie, and had lusted over the horror- and comics-related merchandise I couldn’t afford in the back of my neighbor Donny’s copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland. The book was just about unputdownable for me, partly because of Warren’s story (determined climb from poverty and obscurity to publishing success; major setbacks; big rebuilding; then a final bankruptcy and the mystery of what had happened to Warren, and why he hadn’t even tried to save his company), and partly because so many people I’ve known in my life were name-checked:  comics conventioneer and distributorPhil Seuling, artist/writer Walt Simonson, Famous Monsters editor Forrest Ackerman (upon moving to Los Angeles in 1988, I want to the Ackermansion and spent the morning with him), writer Don McGregor, and many others… including Harvey Kurtzman, founder of Mad (both the comic book and the magazine) and of Help!, an influential humor publication published by James Warren and that, legend has it, led to the naming of the Beatles’ second movie.

In the 1980s, I did a fair amount of writing for The Comics Journal, including reviews and essays, and, when they assigned them, interviews. For the magazine’s landmark 100th issue, I was assigned five interviews, and one of them was with Harvey Kurtzman. The last time I took a look at that interview was 12 years ago — because I found it reprinted, without my permission and without any payment or even notification, by Fantagraphics Books in a big oversize book of theirs about Kurtzman. I alerted my attorney, who sent them a demand letter, we got back a letter from their attorney, and there was a settlement — which included a copy of that book and, finally, more than 20 years after publication, a copy of the printed edition of something else I’d written for them and had been asking for a copy of ever since (as they had promised).

As I was reading the Schelly biography of James Warren, and noting the references to Kurtzman, and then noting that the publisher was Fantagraphics, and then learning on Wikipedia that Schelly had also written a biography of Kurtzman himself, I got a strange feeling, one that Google confirmed.

Yep. I’m listed three times in the index of the Kurtzman biography.

So I spent the 25 bucks, plus a little more, on ordering that. I used the money from a 39-year-old writing and publishing project of mine to get a copy of a book referencing another three-decade-old writing project of mine.

In my life, I’ve written filing cabinets full of stuff:  plays, essays, book reviews, short stories, news stories, interviews, opinion pieces, and lots of corporate writing. At this point, it’s clear what will last:  the stuff related to genre. The books that have survived the millennia are those that were most cherished by adherents; monks fleeing fires or infidels grabbed what they thought was most important. Well, nobody loves their stuff more than fan boys. My good friend Larry Nemecek is this universe’s foremost expert on Star Trek; he’s a bestselling author and international lecturer on the topic. Given my own experience in my little corner of the comics world, where people will wait decades to lay hands on an obscure underground coloring book, or will endlessly reprint a brief, bad interview of a major comics figure conducted by a callow youth, I now believe that of all the well-known people I’ve known in my life, Larry will be the one with the most lasting impact. His maps of the Star Trek universe, and his many years of magazine coverage of every rivet and bolt on all the various incarnations of the Enterprise, will live on and on. As will, I hope, my writing about comic books.

 

A period of transition

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

I was just searching for something in my Evernote file and found this:

We’re in a period of permanent transition. Nothing will settle.
It’s not an age of reading — it’s an age of looking. Looking at print or looking at screens — some of the print is interactive with sound and motion.

The old forms needn’t die. People are still buying tickets to the theatre, which has been dying for thousands of years.

I wrote that on July 25, 2014 (at Comic-Con in San Diego), no doubt as a jumping-off point for something I didn’t wind up writing. Since then, the permanent transition has continued, and nothing has settled.

By happenstance, I went to WonderCon today. I spent half of my time in the exhibit hall searching for just where comic books might be, then discovered that I was in Hall C of the Exhibit Hall — an area mostly devoted to independent artists and people lumbering around in gigantic bulky clumsy costumes representing things I didn’t recognize — and that comic books were in a small quadrant in a corner of Hall A. I’m now calling that one of the sections where “old forms needn’t die.”

I’ve been going to comics conventions for 54 years, and can remember when the exhibit hall was a smorgasbord. You’d have a comic-book dealer next to a science fiction dealer next to somebody selling Tribbles and around the corner from somebody hawking his own new board game. That’s how you’d come across new things you never knew about or thought about. Now we’ve got redlining:  comics way over there; whatever Funko Pops are and similar novelties in a separate hall, gaming stuff way back there, and so forth. At a time when the people of the U.S. seem more divided than ever (almost; we haven’t hauled out any cannons yet), someone has now split fandom down into its constituent elements too.

I remember being warned about this in the 2000s:  that, increasingly, we’d get served only the news we wanted, and blithely ignore the things that didn’t pertain to us, that we didn’t select. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook and tell me that that isn’t exactly what’s happening. And who is the perfect avatar of this dynamic? The guy who lobs one distracting new “emergency” after another into the chattersphere. It’s aggravating how much oxygen and attention he consumes.

Still, the old forms needn’t die. We’ve carved everything and everyone into smaller and smaller niches, just as the Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted in “The Third Wave.” It’s all still here, just smaller and discrete. Which is fine in many ways. A lot of the mass market didn’t serve a lot of people, including me. Television was very bad when I was a kid; ironically, there’s so much great television now that no one could possibly watch all of it and most of it looks bland. Turn on your TV (or device) and there are so many high-quality choices that none of them seems compelling. A lone diamond sparkles against velvet, but looks lost inside a gem mine.

Now we search, in a time when everything is findable. Nothing need go out of print (or “print”) any more, and no market is too small for some attention. At the convention, I picked up a newly published book called “Comic Book Implosion:  An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978.” The book relates the story of DC Comics announcing a big “DC Explosion!” of new titles in 1978 — and then canceling the entire effort two months later. Not exactly “The Story of Civilization,” right? Pretty arcane — but, still, there’s some interest in the topic somewhere (like, here — with me), so it exists. I also would assume that the topic exists on Wikipedia, and it does. In 2001, I attended a speech by Thomas Friedman wherein he talked about what he called the “Evernet” — being ever-available, ever-on, because of the cellphone and the internet.

That was six years before the iPhone, which solidified the Evernet, increased immediate access to information, and also increased the immediate sharability of information — as well as disinformation. Since then, the permanent transition has continued abated. And now, thanks to speed and availability, fluctuations will increase (economic; sociopolitical; cultural) and nothing will settle.

last request of 2018

Monday, December 31st, 2018

I just got another email request for “The Screw Iran Coloring Book.”

I couldn’t give these away in 1980. Now that they’re relics, there’s low but persistent demand.

 

 

With great career comes great gratitude

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Of all the tributes to Stan Lee that I’ve read in the past day-and-a-half, it’s Gerry Conway’s that has touched me the most.

Conway succeeded Stan Lee in scripting Spider-Man at age 19 (!!!). He was a significant comic-book writer for Marvel from 1971 to 1977 (and a minor writer for DC for three years before that), and thereafter became a major comics writer elsewhere, before transitioning into television. So he knows what he’s talking about — and he attributes his entire career to the jolt given him by an early issue of Fantastic Four — and, therefore, to Stan Lee.

What I most appreciate about this piece is that he looks at Stan unsentimentally — noting the shortcomings many of us saw — but comes away recognizing just how essential Stan Lee was to revolutionizing both comic books and pop culture.

What, according to Gerry Conway, was Stan Lee’s most significant achievement? Making it cool to want to work in comics… and to love comics.

“Nobody aspires to play in a rock band if they’ve never heard of a rock band. The Marvel Bullpen of the 1960s was comicdom’s first rock band.

“That was because of Stan.”

Spot on.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

‘Nuff said.