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


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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.

Surveying my health

Sunday, October 7th, 2018

For four days last week, I was in the Mojave desert, parched, wandering, and bedraggled. The Mojave may have changed somewhat over the past hundred years, but in other ways it remains every bit as treacherous as ever. Luckily, in my travels there, I was able to find friendly watering holes when necessary, as well as the rejuvenation I desperately needed.

At a watering hole in the desert.

At a watering hole in the desert.

On Friday, freshly returned and physically replenished, and with a full day’s reacclimatization to the pleasant climes of Los Angeles, I opened my mail to find that someone had sent me a crisp two-dollar bill. The letter that came with it explained that I was free to keep the two dollars (as though they could have gotten it back from me!), but that the senders hoped I’d agree to participate in a health survey with the goal of better understanding the health needs of Californians and how to provide better care. I read the fine print to see who was behind this survey, and recognizing all the affiliated organizations as being in no way associated with Donald Trump or the Grand Ol’ Trump party or others who are hellbent on better understanding how to reduce the health of Californians, I decided to participate.

My reasons were several:

  1. Again, trying to be a good sport
  2. Hoping it’s in some way a middle finger to Trump and his co-conspirators
  3. I trust UCLA, who is conducting the survey, and I know people at First 5, which is one of the other organizations
  4. I actually had nothing scheduled for that half hour
  5. I was curious to hear what the questions would be and how I’d respond. Just participating, I figured, would give me a clue as to how I rank

What was not one of the reasons? The $2. Except for some poor unfortunate sleeping out on the sidewalk, I couldn’t imagine anyone exchanging half an hour of time, as warned in the letter, for two bucks. So… why send it? Because hard currency in an unsolicited letter gets attention, that’s why.

So I called the number on the letter, and then the people on the other end called me back to verify it was me. The survey did indeed require 30 minutes and went without a snag. I answered some UCLA student’s questions completely truthfully, including how many times a week I get exercise (seven, because they were including walking), how frequently I eat fresh fruit (every day), do I ever vape (no), how many cigarettes I smoke (zero), if I didn’t smoke cigarettes then did I smoke cigars and how many per month (two or so), how much heroin I’ve ever used (zero), and whether I use prescription drugs such as oxycodone without actually having a prescription (I don’t), and when I had my last physical (6 months), and whether I’ve had blood work and a range of other tests (yep, as part of that physical), and so forth. They asked me everything except what I thought of the season finale of “Fear the Walking Dead,” which was truly awful and about which I would’ve liked to give them an earful. I got off the phone feeling incredibly fit and incredibly lucky.

The next morning I was still radiating peace and joy. I’d gotten out of that tricky out-of-state den of iniquity whole and healthy, and now I was back here eating my fruits and vegetables and being responsible and healthy and fit. Some of it is habit, sure, I reasoned, but a lot of it is also luck:  not being genetically at risk for the sorts of addictions that too many of my friends have had; not having (so far) been so unlucky as to have rolled snake eyes at the cancer table; having gotten hit at full speed and with high impact in a car crash on a freeway some years ago, yes, but having gotten out and walked away.

I was further savoring this moment in that next morning in my bathroom while brushing my teeth. I bent over the sink to rinse the toothpaste from my mouth, coughed — and threw out my back. I heard a *pop* and felt a harpoon of pain shoot up the lower right side of my spinal column. I grabbed onto the sink before I could fall over, felt my legs go weak, and steadied myself as the realization hit that I’d have to leave in five minutes to drive to Silver Lake to sit in a chair and teach my playwriting workshop for three-and-a-half hours… and then, after that, drive back.  I did make it, but almost all the rest of the weekend was spent lying in bed gobbling down Aleve, with the next day (today) being even more painful than the first.

Good thing it was on Friday night that I took the survey.

This episode, of lying about all weekend doing no writing, called to mind Margaret Atwood’s 10 rules for writing. Rule Number 5 is:  “Do back exercises. Pain is distracting.” Yet again, Margaret Atwood is right about something.

He had a mouth, and he could scream

Friday, June 29th, 2018

HarlanEllison

When I read yesterday morning on Twitter that the combustible writer Harlan Ellison had died, and then saw on Mark Evanier’s blog that he was sorely tempted, so tempted, to write his true (negative) feelings about Harlan Ellison but couldn’t bring himself to do so yet, I decided that nothing was keeping me from doing so, and from writing about my long-ago literary run-in with him.

After all, nothing ever stopped Ellison from attacking anyone.

In my teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction, I read what there was of Ellison to read. Here’s what that meant:  short stories, his intros and outros to other people’s short stories in “Dangerous Visions” and “Again, Dangerous Visions,” and comic-book adaptations by other writers of his work.

That, plus 27 teleplays, looks like the bulk of his work.

He wrote a couple of dime paperbacks when he was young, and what the Internet is generously calling “novellas” (one of them weighing in at 91 pages, no doubt with wide margins), and… not much else in a writing career that theoretically encompassed 60 years.

For many years now, I have checked in on the Ellison oeuvre to see what I’ve missed, or to see if that long-promised “real” novel would finally get finished and printed, or if the “Last Dangerous Visions” collection of short stories (again, by other people) would ever get printed. Nope, and nope.

There is no law that writers should write a lot, and sometimes it’s better if they don’t. Harper Lee famously wrote one novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and infamously had her poor first draft, “Go Tell A Watchman,” published by her caregivers just before her death. Ralph Ellison, justly acclaimed for “Invisible Man,” struggled to finish a second novel; his posthumously published “Juneteenth,” cobbled together from drafts and notes, did nothing but harm his reputation. But the difference between those notably unprolific writers and Ellison is that they weren’t so mouthy about their supposed status as great writers. Ellison was a poseur.

As a teenage writer, I started to get published. I published some non-fiction first in amateur, non-paying markets (comics and science-fiction fanzines), and then started to get published in actual paying markets. In addition to news and features, I was writing a lot of essays and reviews, mostly, as I recall, of music, comic books, and science fiction. Somewhere in that span of time from about age 14 to 18, I got into a literary feud in print with Harlan Ellison.

I wrote something that was published.

He wrote in a response that was published.

I wrote a reply that was published.

And so on.

And so on.

I don’t remember where this was published, and I don’t remember even what it was about. But what I do remember is that I was in a tit-for-tat with a well-known, television-appearing, minor-celebrity writer who was extremely well-known and lauded in genre fandom circles.

And who was I? I was a 16-year-old kid typing away in his parents’ basement.

And at some point in all of this, something occurred to me:  I was 16. He was about 44. It was cool picking on him and having him respond… but why did he have time to do this? Shouldn’t he be writing? And, toward the end of my Ellison-debating, Ellison-reading stint, I started to ask, Shouldn’t he… grow up?

And that’s what happened: I grew up.  He didn’t.

One week when I was an undergrad studying writing, my fiction professor got called away for the week, so he hired me to substitute-teach one of the class sessions in his absence – an absolute thrill! – and I assigned the Ellison short story “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man!” because I remembered it fondly and because we hadn’t read any science fiction. The class dutifully read that assignment and whatever other story I assigned and we discussed it. When the professor, a widely published writer who won the Pulitzer and who still frequently publishes in The New Yorker, returned, he wanted to talk to me about that Harlan Ellison story I’d assigned. And here’s what he pointed out:

The Ticktock Man is a straw man, set up to be easily knocked down. You are set up to disagree with him from the beginning; he makes no great case for himself; and in the end, he is proved to be a hypocrite.

Easy.

And by easy, I now mean: adolescent.

That’s about when I realized that Harlan Ellison’s life work was adolescent. It could be fun, in the way that good low art and good popular art can be fun, but it couldn’t be grown-up. It wasn’t serious. It didn’t require any work on the part of the reader. Everything was easily handed over, and quickly, for instant gratification.

The truth wasn’t that Harlan Ellison had plenty of time to argue with a pimply boy 30 years his junior (although he did). The truth was that it was a priorityfor him because that’s how adolescents are. And that adolescence, which I don’t think he ever shed, informs all of his work.

Because, really, what is his legacy? F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of schlock – the Pat Hobby stories are really terrible, as are many of his other short stories – but, BUT, he did write “The Great Gatsby.” Isaac Asimov was a genre writer who wrote about 300 books all tolled, but some of them are magnificent, and leave a last legacy – certainly the Foundation books, and some of the Robot series.

Really, what is Harlan Ellison’s legacy? Writing a good episode of “Star Trek” (which he was on record as hating) and a good episode of “The Outer Limits.” Editing the two “Dangerous Visions” collections of others’ work. Having a run-in with Frank Sinatra that became a set piece in a magazine article 52 years ago. That’s more than most of us get, but it’s nowhere near enough to justify the fame that he worked so hard to establish and keep.  And it’s not enough to make up for all the goddamn arrogance.

Addendum. The British writer Christopher Priest, who to my immense delight once commented on this blog, legendarily took Harlan Ellison to task for his hypocrisy in never completing “Last Dangerous Visions” while holding all the other writers’ stories hostage. His popular piece demythologizing Ellison and recounting the “Last Dangerous Visions” nightmare is available for free reading here. I recommend it.

And now, an op ed from the most naive man in America

Monday, April 30th, 2018

This Republican pundit is shocked to learn that his side’s media outlets no longer want any content that isn’t 100% supportive of Trump.

“If, among those who supposedly cherish freedom of expression, certain widespread viewpoints become taboo, where does that leave us? In a dishonest media atmosphere.”

Gee, I hope this movement doesn’t leak over to Fox News, which always has news we can trust. Thank God we have a press secretary we can count on to share the truth with us.

p.s. Please note that this guy’s outrage manifested itself on the day he realized he’d lost his paycheck.

My life with Jack Kirby

Monday, August 28th, 2017

JackKirby_selfp

In my life, I have known about a dozen MacArthur “genius” grantees — generally, very noteworthy writers and performers whose names you would know. But I think that for range of vision, for sheer scope of work and for lasting influence, Jack Kirby, who was largely unrecognized as a genius during his life, tops them all.

I was very lucky to meet him, as well. Which I’ll get to in a minute. But first, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, I have to pay tribute to his genius.

To credit Jack Kirby as the (co-) creator of the entire foundation of the Marvel universe — and the resultant Marvel Cinematic Universe — is to lavish him with faint praise.

Jack Kirby created entire categories, and subcategories, of American popular culture, inculcating multi-billion-dollar enterprises along the way, while bringing new thrust to his special undertaking:  the dynamic depiction of story.

Yes, Jack Kirby created, or co-created:

  • Captain America
  • The Fantastic Four
  • Thor (Marvel Comics’ version)
  • Iron Man
  • The Hulk
  • The Fly
  • Spider-Man
  • Boy Commandoes
  • The Newsboy Legion
  • Groot
  • The Inhumans
  • Black Panther
  • Doctor Doom
  • The X-Men
  • Darkseid
  • Kamandi
  • Ego the Living Planet
  • the Silver Surfer
  • Mr. Miracle
  • the Forever People
  • Ronan the Accuser
  • the Watcher
  • The Kree
  • The Skrulls
  • The Supreme Intelligence
  • The Challengers of the Unknown
  • The Eternals
  • The Celestials
  • The Avengers
  • and the list goes on and on

(And just for the record, and although I’m somewhat sad to bring this up, what did the far more glorified Stan Lee create without his primary creative partner, Jack Kirby? Just about nothing. Meanwhile, Kirby created noteworthy characters long before his partnership with Stan Lee, during his partnership with Stan Lee, and long after his partnership with Stan Lee. The only constant factor in this incredible 60-year outpouring of creativity was:  Jack Kirby.)

But Kirby also created:

  • Entire new mythological universes, as with “Thor,” and his “Fourth World” series
  • Kid-gang comics (“Boy Commandoes,” “The Newsboy Legion”)
  • the entire genre of Romance comics
  • whole strata of the DC and Marvel Universes (both the upcoming Justice League and Avengers movies directly spin out of Kirby underpinnings)

Kirby also created new methods of illustrative storytelling.

He created Kirby krackle. Here’s an example of a layout without it, and with it.

Kirby Krackle

Once you know what it looks like, you’ll spot Kirby krackle everywhere. It brings energy to the panel.

Kirby also brought forced perspective to the page. Note how Captain America seems to be leaping out at us:

Kirby forced perspective

Kirby’s work hummed with action and virility. Compared to Kirby’s, most other comics artists’ work of the time just stood there.

(For a list of even more of Jack Kirby’s innovations, click here.)

When I was a boy, I was awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. It is hard to remain awestruck about anything in one’s fifties, but I am still awestruck by Jack Kirby’s work. That’s why it’s all the more memorable to me that, at age 11, I got to meet Jack Kirby.

At age 11, I was someone who very much did not want to be living where he was:  out in the woods, far away from the thrum of Manhattan. In Manhattan, it seemed, one could run into Doctor Strange or the Human Torch or Daredevil out on the street, because in Marvel Comics these heroes were on every street corner — recognizable street corners. Over in the pallid land of DC Comics, things happened in “Smallville” or “Gotham City” or “Metropolis” or “Coast City” — places that didn’t exist on any map. But with Marvel, it looked like you could go to the Upper West Side and walk right past Avengers Mansion. That, plus the interconnectedness of their comics, lent Marvel its verisimilitude, its uncanny shimmer that made everything seem so possible.

What I especially loved about Marvel was Kirby’s primary triumph (with Stan Lee, who provided dialogue), “Fantastic Four.” The Fantastic Four were not superheroes. Superheroes confront arch-villains, evildoers and ne’er-do-wells. The Fantastic Four were primarily science explorers (modeled after Kirby’s previous creation, The Challengers of the Unknown); as such, they explored outer space, inner space, alternate dimensions, the past, the future, and the limits of human cognition, meeting different races and different beliefs all along the way and expressing the very best of the human race in a meeting of the minds. Sometimes they did battle on behalf of their (our) beliefs — but frequently they found common cause with strange and outwardly alien people of all types.

And that’s what I wanted to do:  to get out of the woods, to meet new people and different viewpoints, to exchange ideas, and to advance together.

Maybe it’s naive, but that’s still what I want to do.

So, you see, Jack Kirby shaped my life.

But when I was 11, I was just amazed to see him in person. It was like seeing Leonardo da Vinci or Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ or some other enormously great historical figure in the flesh. How was it even possible?

That July, just a week-and-a-half before my 12th birthday, my father took me to the 1974 New York Comic Art Convention; this was an incredible gift, which I’m still grateful for, 25 years after his death. And there, in some little room, back when comic-book conventions were far far smaller, I stood at the back of a line of maybe 10 people waiting to meet Jack Kirby.

Kirby was seated at the left of two folding tables, drawing sketches and signing autographs and chatting with whoever was next in line. To his left (my right) was his longtime inker on “Fantastic Four,” Joe Sinnott. (Mr. Sinnott, aged 90, is still with us.) Although Kirby by this point had left Marvel for DC, and I had read some of those DC comics, I was still completely enamored with “Fantastic Four” — as was seemingly every person in line ahead of me. One by one, each of them remarked upon “Fantastic Four.”

But I didn’t want to be like them. Who would want to approach the godhead and seem like just another supplicant?

So, when it was finally my turn to approach the great man, I said with as much of a squeak as I could register, in something like a high-pitched mumble filled with nervous anxiety, “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

Now, for the record, Kirby’s work on “The Avengers,” while displaying the same dynamism he brought to pretty much everything, was nowhere near on a par with his work on “Fantastic Four.” And I knew this. I said this only to be different. At age 11, and small in stature and frame and tiny in self-confidence in front of Kirby in particular, it was, in retrospect from 40 years later, a little brave for me to say:  “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

To which Jack Kirby replied, “What?”

At age 57, he hadn’t quite heard what my pipsqueak voice had said.

Fully intimidated to be in his presence, I couldn’t even bring myself to look up and see the great man sitting eight inches in front of me. I just trembled and managed to say in a quaking voice, “Oh, never mind” and stood quaking as Kirby signed an autograph for me.

I am not exaggerating this encounter.

And I have never again been so intimidated in my life. Not because of him — he was eminently approachable — but because of what he signified:  everything that was important to me.

Joe Sinnott, God bless him, saw my extreme mortification and called me over and drew for me a full sketch of the Thing, a member of the Fantastic Four, and wrote my name and signed it and I cherish it to this day and am still struck by his monumental kindness.

I got to meet Jack Kirby twice after that, many years afterward, after I moved to Los Angeles in 1988 and started attending the San Diego Comic Con (now Comic-Con International), where he was an adored guest and fixture. He was a very nice man, and, honest to God, a genius. And, it must be said, he was a true entertainer — someone who filled countless hours of my life then and now with enjoyment. I think Kirby viewed himself as a cartoonist, but when you look at the panoply of his work you see that he was much more than that. As much as Homer or J.R.R. Tolkein, or any other noteworthy fantasist, and moreso than most of them, Jack Kirby was a world builder.

And because he was also a progressive and an optimist, he helped build in me an ongoing thirst for a better world.

I’m in his debt.

 

Poor plodding

Monday, June 26th, 2017

I find that I’m not as enthused about W. G. Sebald as his reputation would have it, or, at least, I’m not as enthused about his 1990 novel Vertigo as critical opinion would have it. Nevertheless, I’ve been reading my way through it, slowly to be sure, and trying to pick up why his work is in such critical favor.

Just now I picked it up and couldn’t find my place. Usually I’m good about remembering where I am in a book. I generally don’t use a bookmark because I like to make of this a little memory test for myself: Can I remember where I left off?  Tonight, I found my page:  43. Ah, yes. Our unnamed hero is on some sort of little tour with a friend he’s gotten out of the asylum for the day.

I read for a bit, then started to feel tired, so I put the book down. But before going to sleep, I figured I’d update my Goodreads status. I like the app because I use it to maintain a queue of books I’m going to read, and because by tracking the books I’ve read, or am reading, it helps me hit my annual goal of at least 26 books. I opened the app to enter my progress in reading Vertigo. And there was my last entry, showing where I’d stopped:

Page 46.

Three pages after where I’d just started again.

So I’d reread pages 43-46, and had absolutely no recollection of them.

Either I have Alzheimer’s, or I’m dozing off while reading this thing, or this is pretty dull stuff.

Why do old books smell so great?

Monday, April 10th, 2017

Three words for you: “woody,” “smoky” and “earthy.”

Thanks to Doug Hackney for letting me know about this!

Musical legacy

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

We don’t always recognize the people who’ve made a significant impact on our lives. Sometimes it’s the engineers we can’t name who built the roads and bridges we drive; sometimes it’s the people who created the systems we use; sometimes it’s the person who designed, say, the handy squeezable ketchup or mustard bottle. Sometimes it’s artists, and sometimes it’s the business people behind the artists. Usually, those business people behind the artists get a (deservedly) bad reputation.

Which made it all the sweeter today to read about a tribute to Robert Hurwitz, who just retired as the head of Nonesuch Records.

During his 33 years heading up Nonesuch, Hurwitz helped helm the careers of John Adams, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Kronos Quartet, Randy Newman and many others. All of those names, and several others in his professional legacy, can be found in my music collection. It’s nice to see a “suit” get some credit for having taste, and for helping the masses share in that taste. Although I’d never heard of him before, it turns out that for decades Robert Hurwitz has helped to curate my listening.

Thank you, sir. Enjoy your retirement.

No news is bad news

Sunday, September 4th, 2016

The New York Times is ending its coverage of regional theatre, and restaurants and culture in its suburban delivery areas. (Here’s more on that story.) If you’re a theatre in New Jersey, Westchester, Long Island or Connecticut, that’s pretty bad news.

On one of the theatre groups I belong to on Facebook, people were predictably outraged. Sample comments:

“This is shortsighted and totally lacking in regard for the need of the wider community for access to its own cultural scene!!!!!!”

They seem to be denying their motto’All the news that’s fit to print.’ “

“As long as I get my Justin Bieber updates. That’s all that matters.”
 “They’ve seen their future. So I hear they’re starting a Justin Bieber SECTION.”

It was these last two that got my goat. So I posted this:

“This is the point at which I ask, ‘How many of us who are shocked and upset have been PAYING to read the New York Times?’ Some, sure — but the numbers are way down. I remember when the LA Times had 1,000,000+ readers in print; now it’s… 250,000? The advertisers started leaving these papers after the subscribers started leaving. I’m now the ONLY LA Times subscriber on my block. On a similar note: How many people here are willing (and PROUD) to write for The Huffington Post, for free, while its founder made millions from it and while its unpaid parasitic repurposing of newspaper content was helping to eat those newspapers alive? Newspapers have had to PAY to cover those stories (unlike the HuffPo). Without our support, they’ve been forced to make tragic cuts.”

So, yes, I was once again on a familiar tear about The Huffington Post, which enriches a select handful of early investors, including Arianna herself, while asking all the writers to contribute for free, and while taking paid newspaper content, aggregating it, and turning it into clickbait.

Today, though, I realized how even more apt my comparison of that organ to a parasite was. Unchecked, parasites kill the host — and then they themselves die. Newspapers in their present form won’t — can’t — survive. But the need for actually reliable news, the sort that comes from having paid news gatherers go out and develop connections and do research and develop and report stories, will continue. It may even become more valuable, as it becomes more scarce, and that means it will cost more. Maybe that will mean that the HuffPo, with a business model built on unpaid writing and filched reporting, would have to pay for its content. Wouldn’t that be a shame?

A few weeks ago, John Oliver delivered a hilarious but tragic takedown of what’s happening to newspapers. This, I promise you, is well worth your 19 minutes.

 

What time is it?

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

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It’s time for the LA Times, which is part of “Tronc,” to hire a new copy editor. Because that’s not a clock.