Tuesday, April 3, 2012

America's Cosmopolitan Heart

The conventional wisdom about the Minneapolis-St. Paul area for those of us who don't live there is that it's a hostile tundra that spends most of the year attempting to kill anything that lives. The residents I know in that area don't ever attempt to dissuade me of that notion. After my recent trip there, I'm starting to suspect that the emphasis on the vicious cold and dark is a kind of passive-aggressive defensive posture employed to discourage interlopers from descending upon the city. Because while there's no question that the climate can be inhumane, there is a powerful civic beauty, a vital cultural life, and a tightly knit set of communities beneath all that snow and ice that can stand shoulder to shoulder with any other artistic place in the United States.

I was out there for Anime Detour, a 5,000 person anime and manga convention put on by the non-profit group Anime Twin Cities. Unlike most other conventions I attend, Detour was explicitly designed as a community event above all else. I was there under the gracious invitation of Anton Petersen who invited me after I expressed an interest in participating more actively in the manga community at MIX. Anton is one of the godfathers of organized fandom in the cities, serving in some capacity at most conventions in the region. He's the head of guests at Detour, and runs a crew that includes his insatiably curious wife Linda and charming daughter Megan. I was pleased to make their acquaintance at the show.

My first night in town I got to have dinner with Ryan Matheson and his parents, who are all powerfully interesting people. Ryan was the defendant in the CBLDF's most recent case, and is a very brave young man. I've spent a lot of time on the phone with him over the past year, but meeting him and his family in person was a delight. My admiration for Ryan in facing down the false and odious charges brought against him only increased by getting to spend time with him and seeing the conviction in his eyes that he was truly prepared to fight to the mat for the art form he loves and believes in. I'm glad I got to meet him finally, and to meet his family who encouraged his moral position even under the weight of the kind of stress that would have broken the resolve of many other families.

On my second night, Ursula Murray Husted and her husband Bryan Bornmueller whisked me into downtown Minneapolis for dinner at Evergreen, a brilliant vegan Taiwanese restaurant near MCAD. I met Ursula at MIX last fall and fell in love with her novella "Drawing on Yourself" and her graphic novel in progress The Lions of Valletta. The former is a smart, unsentimental, but sweet story that honestly depicts the often self-inflected wounds young people incur while coming of age. Valletta is a masterpiece to be -- a fable about a young cat who embarks on a fearless quest for benevolence despite the derision of her peers. The book is set amongst the landscape, architecture, history, and art history of Malta. I'm confident the book is going to make some publisher fill with pride and profit one day, and I hope it's one day soon, because I want to read it, and I especially want to see my young friends read it. Meanwhile, you should go look at her books and harass her for not having a buy link on her page.

After dinner, Ursula and Bryan took me up to MCAD. I'd never been on the campus before. It's much smaller than its national reputation would lead you to believe. Size matters not, eh? There was some really interesting work to be seen.

We ducked into the comics lab where Carl Thompson and Jack Kotz were working. Carl volunteered for me at MIX, and Jack I was meeting for the first time. Carl was hunched over inking seven pages from his upcoming graphic novel Parecomic about activist Michael Albert and participatory economics. He asked me to take a look at his Kickstarter drive, and maybe spread the word. How can I say no: take a look. Jack had some really interesting work on his screen -- it reminded me at once of Gary Gianni and Simon Roy. Neither of these guys are fully formed yet, but they're off to an interesting start, and I can't wait to see their mature work take flight.

Here's Carl looking serious:

Here's Ursula busting Jack's balls about his light sources while Brian looks on amused:

And here's Jack looking like Kerouacian beatitude:


The MCAD bullpen was a fun place. I'm not sure I'd want to spend years locked in there, but I certainly can see the appeal. The walls were covered with posters, drawings, and scribbles -- some were masterpieces, and some were the kind of scatological jokes that the students would likely be embarrassed for an outsider to see. All told, it was exactly the kind of place where young people should be discovering their artistic center.

After we took leave of the comics lab I asked Ursula to indulge me as I checked out the art show on view in the gallery. Most of it was the kind of student work one would expect to see at a place like this -- some really pretty, some fairly interesting, some dreadfully obvious and boring. I was most intrigued by this piece, which is a technique I've never seen employed before:

Installed in the wall using resin on cotton fabric, Unable by Nick Kovatch was an interesting subversion of the gallery space that bent my normal perception of the installation environment. I liked it because I've never seen this particular idea executed in this way before, and I'm interested in seeing what else the artist has to say.

Bryan and Ursula kindly dropped me back at the hotel where I had to drop my denial about the onset of con crud. I was full on congested, and getting feverish. It's an occupational hazard of living on the road. After enough trips and the ensuing lack of sleep, eventually there's gonna be a germ that breaks the immune system's back. So I was relieved to see signs for Uncle Iroh's Tea House. I weaved through the boisterous youngsters in costume cutting loose on the way to the rave, getting sugar high at the open door room parties, or pursuing other highs behind the closed door ones and found a cabana suite where one was asked to remove shoes before stepping in. Within the room was a tranquil space lined with tatami mats, bamboo leaves and low tables, and in the back Iroh and his companion were avatars of kindness. They poured me a wonderful, large cup of brown rice tea and sent me off to bed to convalesce before the show's final day. I'm still grateful. Here they are, my angels of good breathing:


I soldiered through Sunday with the aid of cold medicine and the kindness of Anton's team who spelled me whenever I had to step away from the table. This was by far the best day of booth encounters, with attendees coming out in clusters to learn what my "Manga Is Not A Crime" sign was all about. I covered all this on the CBLDF's blog, but basically we've still got a ways to go in making an impact in this community. But I still met some really interesting and motivated new people despite that.

Sunday night Ryan and I got to go to the staff and guest dinner at a Mongolian BBQ place down the street, and on the way there I met Sarah "Sully" Sullivan from Funimation, who thanked me for the work I do with CBLDF. Although I'm grateful for it, that kind of thanks always feels weird to me, because I'm just doing my job. Sully joined me, Ryan and Linda Petersen for dinner which became an extremely interesting, free-wheeling conversation about fandom, free speech, and community.

The restaurant was a snapshot of high spirits. 200 mostly happy staffers and guests were at last able to breathe a giant sigh of relief that the months of hard work that went into creating the convention had at last come to a close, and the result was a good time that raised money for local, national, and international charities. My favorite moment was late in the evening, after the rounds of applause for the contributors to the charity efforts, after the applause for the upbeat restaurant staff, and after the applause for all the volunteers who made the show happen, when Anton went back to the ingredients bar and someone called, "Anton's getting seconds, let's hear it for seconds!" and the place went nuts. I think that's probably the only kind of applause he'd be even partially comfortable with.

After dinner Ryan and I went back to the hotel for some last minute hanging out, and then I crashed hard in front of an NFL Network analysis of the classic Patriots game that gave us the Tuck Rule. Fuck those guys.

Next morning I went down for breakfast and ran into Linda again. She admitted her admiration for Ryan for living through his awful ordeal and then coming forward to help others from having to suffer the same fate. I had to agree. It takes strength to do that, and I hope Ryan knows that. Anton came in towards the end of this conversation as Linda finished her eggs, and asked her to please knock on the door of a guest who wasn’t responding to wake up calls. He reasoned the guest would respond more kindly to her soft voice accompanying knocks on the door rather than his booming voice. When Linda went upstairs, I complimented him on the show, because it served as such a strong, safe space for people to explore their fandom, and their personal identities. I admire that. It prompted us to talk about our belief that service to a community one cares for, whether it’s working at a shelter, developing a safe place for local fandom, or protecting rights is one of the most rewarding vocations one can pursue. As if by way of case in point, we only had a moment to bask in that fellow-traveler-well-met glow before Anton's phone went off and he was pulled away to do his duty.

Following breakfast I met up with Frenchy Lunning, who edits Mechademia, teaches at MCAD, makes music videos, and has served CBLDF as a legal expert. I’m not the only person who’d question whether Frenchy is actually human or is, in fact, a creature composed of a type of magic. The woman possesses an infectious, boundless well of enthusiasm, curiosity, and energy. Our conversation ranged from rights to art, to rock music, to feminism, to comics, to politics, to food, to videography, to creativity, to manga, to geography, to travel, to literature, to transportation policy, to burlesque, to education, to sexuality, to economics, to messaging, to, to, to, to -- there's nothing she's not interested in, informed about, or wanting to learn more about.

Frenchy took me out to St. Paul to visit The Source, a store that has been profoundly generous to the Fund over the years and that I'd never been able to visit before. They just moved to a new location near the fairgrounds. I knew the store's Nick Postiglione for years through his attendance at the CBLDF's auctions in San Diego and elsewhere, and through his support as part of the Midwest Comic Book Association, who host SpringCon and FallCon every year. We drove through the astonishingly beautiful historical main drag of St. Paul and out past the fairgrounds and a shopping district that was lifted straight out of a Kevin Huizenga page. The Source is tucked off one of the intersections out there next to a fast food place in a big, but externally unassuming commercial space. We were fifth in a line of cars pulling into The Source at 11:00 on a Monday morning. Frenchy and I joined the parade into the store, and I was so astonished when I stepped through the door that I felt like a religious person entering a singularly impressive cathedral. I'd have knelt if it didn't mean looking like a complete yutz.

The Source is 11,000 square feet of new comics, graphic novels, back issues, manga, anime, games, toys, art supplies, art reference, model kits, mini-comics, statues, t-shirts -- everything. Everything. Everything. It's quite possibly the best full-service comic book store I've ever seen. It's very clean, very bright, very welcoming. Nick and the staff told me "give us a year, we're just moving in," but even just moving in, this is hands down one of the greatest comic book stores I've ever seen. I was especially impressed by how the endcap on every bookshelf was used to rack small press and self-published work. In the back there's a big area with tables for community use -- gaming, comic making, whatever the community wants to do. This is a shop that gives a serious damn about comics and that has very clearly done a lot of work to serve its community and provide it with a hub to participate in this amazing field. Here's some camera phone pictures I'm almost embarrassed to provide, because they truly do not do justice to this amazing shop.

The view from the front door:

A view from the middle of the store. That mini-comics racking solution is really suave:

Looking up:

New issues:

Back issues. Another extremely elegant display solution:

This is a truly amazing store to be proud of. And the thing that stands out the most is that, sure, The Source is definitely a very successful store, but the cornerstone of its success is that it's a fulcrum of community effort. My favorite illustration of that came when Nick was telling us about the move. He said that 400 volunteers came out to get the store from its old spot into the new one. At one point he was driving a truck back to the old space to pick up a new load and coming up the road was a burly, leather clad guy on a roaring motorcycle with a sidecar full of Warhammer boxes waving as he passed by. The Source is located at 1601 Larpenteur Avenue in Falcon Heights, MN.

Frenchy & I took leave of The Source and rode down University Ave, where the light rail is being installed. This is a major public work that's going to do a lot of good for this city where, from what I can see, driving tends to be a current requirement. Along the way I spied all manner of international cuisine -- all kinds of Asian, all kinds of African, Indian, even some Mexican. I hadn't expected such an international flair in the heart of the Midwest, but that's another surprise about the Twin Cities, they're handily as cosmopolitan as any other great American city, but they don't brag about it like the rest of those cities do. They also have been quite welcoming towards refugee and diaspora communities, and after the most recent African atrocities opened their doors to that population. Again -- the spirit of compassion flows quietly through the area's character. We stopped at Trieu Chau for nuclear pho and the best iced coffee I've ever had.

The clock was ticking towards Frenchy's student obligation and my flight, so we went to the Whittier lab for MCAD where graduate students in painting and design ply their work. I was glad to eavesdrop on a crit Frenchy gave, and especially to poke my head in at the various student studios. These folks really jumped out at me.

Sherri Days
, whose use of typography and cartography made some very powerful points as political art & design:


Kyle Harabedian, who had some really attractive pages in progress from a comics piece that looks to be about the political conflicts of Eastern and Western cultures in the period before they became interdependent:


Jammo, one of Frenchy's students, who the World Wildlife Fund may as well prep a dump truck full of cash for and drive up to her apartment, because this series of canvases about the extinction of a species is powerful, universally gripping stuff:




There's so much more I saw and didn't shoot. The beautiful St. Paul historical homes. The De Stijl highrise that made my heart skip a beat. The shockingly verdant early spring trees against the cerulean sky. The late night coffee houses full of local paintings. This is without question one of the more culturally rich places I've visited in the United States, but you don't hear that much about it because there seems to be an ingrained humility in the character of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area that keeps the people who are doing amazing things there from calling attention to themselves. Well, I'm not from there so I can call attention to them. There's some extremely interesting art, some extremely beautiful places, and some warm, fascinating people in Minneapolis-St. Paul and you should go visit them. You'll be as charmed as I was. Just don't think about moving there, because the cold, well, apparently it'll try to kill you.



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