Monday, May 28, 2012

Start Again in the Month of May

The picture at left is a new piece of graffiti on the Williamsburg Bridge that I saw while walking back from Manhattan earlier today.  New is always a relative term in New York, which moves so quickly that a few days out of circulation can be enough to completely alter the landscape of your personal experience of the city.  So this was new since the last time I crossed the bridge.  This time, I'd probably changed as much as New York had in the time that elapsed.

The amount of life I packed into the two or three weeks between bridge crossings was almost as robust as the pace of life as experienced by the city that I keep my home in.  In that short period of time I've walked on the other side of the planet, spoken to audiences of librarians, academics, politicians, lawyers and reporters in three cities, and lived off of the coffee in twice as many airports.  When I was walking home tonight, with the sun setting behind me, I was returning from giving an interview on manga censorship that will air on ABC's Nightline, and visiting my friend who was blowing through town on a rapid whirlwind of a trip that might even give me whiplash.  The Arcade Fire was in my ears singing "Culture War" as the shadows grew long:
"These are different times that we're living in.
'Cause these are different times.
Now the kids are growing up so fast.
They're paying for our crimes."
Those words might encapsulate the topics that recurred in the various lectures and interviews I gave this month.  And, catching up on the world in those half-alive and lonely moments of jet lag when I'm awake at odd hours absorbing the headlines I've missed since I've been away, the other part of the chorus comes ringing to life:
"You want it/you got it/here's your culture war. 
You want it/now you've got it/so tell me what's it for."  
The last time I wrote to you, I was talking about my trip to Portland at the start of the month.  Since then, May has been a blur.  My flight from Portland landed long enough for me to get a night's sleep and head out to Long Island to deliver a presentation on graphic novels and censorship to the 37th Annual Long Island Library Conference.  Though feeling the time lag from a heavy month of criss-crossing the country, I was energized to speak to this packed room about the medium I love.  They were a terrific crowd, and they displayed a pronounced difference in the attitudes about comics and graphic novels than the one I experienced when I first interacted with the library space over 10 years ago.  Back then there was a strong generational rift between the establishment, who were affected by the Wertham-era stigma that comics were low value speech, and the younger generation who was just getting out of library school and had grown up on Neil Gaiman, Chris Ware, Rumiko Takahashi, and the overall concept of the graphic novel as a powerful form of literary expression.  Now that generation is coming into a position of established prominence, and an even younger group is emerging that takes the value of comics as a given.  So the discussion about why we should collect graphic novels seems to have given way to how should we collect them, and what are the challenges and concerns associated with doing so.  I spoke about the medium's merits, genres, and the history of censorship that informs the battery of challenges currently faced by library professionals managing the category in their systems.  I find that the success or failure of a talk can be measured by the questions one receives after the presentation, and here I was met with folks looking to delve deeper into the historical casework I discussed, and the authors whose work provoked those challenges.  This is a long way from the question of whether or not comics have a place in libraries.  "These are different times," indeed.

Less than a week later I flew to California to visit a friend and close out some writing deadlines for the Fund and for me over a long weekend.  Then it was up to LAX for the long trip across the Pacific to Tokyo.  It was my first time in Japan, and I'll be writing about it at length in a series of posts on CBLDF's blog and this one over the coming weeks.  But in short form, I was there to participate in a symposium on international manga censorship, representing the issues we face in the States that the CBLDF has had to defend.  While I was there I met with members of the Diet, Japan's legislature, and members of the Democratic Party of Japan to discuss laws affecting manga's free expression rights.  I also met with an esteemed group of representatives from the publishing industry who opened my eyes to the careful self-censorship measures that the industry takes in response to the legal climate facing the medium.

I was treated to dinners at back alley dives and high end restaurants where I spoke to lawyers who litigated on behalf of manga, academics who study the art form and its cultural import, foreign scholars who are charting its impact on the world in real time, and advocates who've dedicated their lives to advancing the medium even in the face of government censorship and public confusion.   I was taken to world class bookstores where manga enjoyed full floors, and manga specialist stores that composed 3, 4, or 5 floors of nothing but comics and anime.  I was taken to Akihabara, an entire city district given over to the forward looking subculture of manga, anime and video game fandom, and technology enthusiasm.

Through all of these experiences, I encountered a robust culture of individuals and institutions dedicated to the power of comics as art and expression.  Even more significantly, I encountered representatives of communities that haven't met all of their counterparts that exist internationally, and who feel, in some respects, that they are facing their challenges to protect this important medium all alone.  As the Arcade Fire sang to me as I contemplated this trip tonight, "We're soldiers now/In the culture war. We're soldiers now/But we don't know what it's for."  I know I walked away from the trip with a sense of solidarity in the fight to protect comics as free expression, and with a new understanding of the issues facing my international compatriots.  I hope that they experienced the same sense of common cause.

I was only in Tokyo for four days.  And, of course, if you read this blog, you know that I have a curiosity for wherever I am, so I spent as much of the free time I had wandering the streets to uncover life as it's lived, art as it's made, and the communities who make both happen.  I'll be posting about what I saw in the days to come.  But, in total, it was a brief but amazing time.

When I got back I had enough time to take a day and a half off to manage the jet lag, and then it was back to the office where I prepared to speak at a continuing legal education event sponsored by the New York State Bar Association about comics and manga in the wake of the Protect Act's designation of drawings and cartoons as part of a category within the  new crime "obscene child pornography."  That was another heady conference where I spoke alongside prominent legal scholar Amy Adler and Michael Delohery, chief of the High Technology Crime Bureau at the Westchester County DA's Office.  Michael drove home the complex landscape he faces as a prosecutor seeking to prosecute the truly contemptible criminals who contribute to the sexual victimization of children, alongside a world where every horny teenager has a powerful computer that records and transmits media in their pocket, and a legal landscape that, on paper, doesn't distinguish between drawings and reality.  He's one of the good ones, who does prioritize prosecuting the real criminals.  But, as my presentation showed, there are still cases involving people being prosecuted for mere drawings where no real people were hurt.

The long weekend arrived shortly after this presentation, and today I began a new work week speaking about all of these areas to a reporter for ABC News who was putting together a story for Nightline.

Heady times.

When I first touched down in NY at the start of May, I knew that the month represented a long road, where I would confront the matrix of art and law that affects comics in the United States and Japan.  But coming out the other side, my perspective in enlarged, and so is the stage where I share it.   

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Four Days In Bridge City

My favorite way to think of Portland is that it reflects an alternate reality where John Lennon was never assassinated and Ronald Reagan was never elected. There’s something deeply loveable in the city’s homebrewed hipster sincerity. 

I know hipster is a term of derision in the contemporary setting, but I’m bored with hipster hating.  Hipsters are just the most recent permutation of the Bohemian impulse.  It’s an attractive impulse, one that says that the world doesn’t need to be the way that the forces of commerce, or politics, or propriety say it should.  It’s an impulse that says life can be lived artfully, creatively, on one’s own terms, and without permission from the powers that are.  

Hipsters and Portland are maligned for upholding a certain air of affectation in assuming those values.  So is my home base of Williamsburg.  And certainly there are the insincere poseurs within those ranks.  What most people don't notice is that most fleeting hipsters aren't insincere so much as they're just trying an identity on.  I say more power to them.   Phonies are phonies, and they’re easily flushed out and more easily dismissed.  The more people asserting or attempting an alternative mode of living to whatever happens to be mainstream, the better.  Humanity grows through diversity.  Diversity thrives amongst the oddball enclaves, whether we call them hipster, or hippie, or punk, or beat, or beatnik, or bohemian.  

Portland is one of the United States’ most vital places to assert that life can be organized in a fashion that is idiosyncratic and strange and, most of all, beautiful precisely because of all that.

Last month I got to spend 4 days in Portland for the Stumptown Comics Festival.  Here's what I saw.

I hit the ground running on Friday, going over to the Portland Convention Center to set up the CBLDF booth at the Fest.  The onsite team was on top of things and made getting the booth in a breeze.  After the booth was ready for the next day, I zipped down to Floating World for the Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever launch party.  The boy band above are author/instigator Tom Neely on the left, Benjamin Marra in the center, and Ed Luce on the end.

Floating World is a few blocks away from international bookstore icon Powell's and near Chinatown -- it should be a must visit if you're looking for funky comics in Portland.  Jason Leivian and his crew do a remarkable job curating a store of handcrafted art comics, prints, and objects, while also hosting a positive range of current comics & graphic novels, and vintage records.  It's a good thing I didn't have a lot of room in my travel bag, or I could have put some hurt on my budget in this place.  Here's a few snaps.

Floating World had a show of Benjamin Marra's American Psycho art up.  I've never seen Ben's originals before, and they were fun to look at.

After Floating World, Zack Soto of Press Gang, and Study Group, and many other comics oriented things including his own book Secret Voice gave me a lift up to Michael Ring's excellent shop Bridge City Comics on Mississippi where they were hosting the Stumptown Drink & Draw welcome party.  They were extremely crowded, even when I got there around 10, so I didn't get as many pictures.  This is another great store, though.  Clean, well designed, with a terrific graphic novel and current comics inventory.

After Bridge City, Zack & I headed to Waypost, where we just missed the night's comics reading, which is a drag, because Theo Ellsworth was one of the artists in the set, and he's one of my favorites.  I mingled there for a bit, then caught a lift with Tom Neely to the Horse Brass on Belmont where we had a nightcap with Andrice Arp, Sean Christensen, and Emily Nilsson.  I hung out a little bit after those guys left to grab a cab and was treated to some Slayer for my troubles.  Life was good.

The con started the next day, and I was lucky to have Craig Thompson signing for us.  He's a real class act, and did terrific sketches in everyone's book.  Here he is with Breena Wiederhoef, who was showing off her new book Picket Line.

Cory Marder passed at the end of Saturday, so I didn't have the gusto to go check out the party at the Jupiter for very long, but from what I did see it was extremely well attended and looked like fun.

Sunday the con was robust, and I got to go check out the floor a bit.  I picked up a lot of comics, but I'll leave that to a separate post.  Teardown at the end of the show was a breeze, and when I stepped out to flag a cab this dude picked me up:

He was cranking Overkill, so we talked about metal until he dropped me off at some brew pub where I caught dinner with Brett Warnock and his young son Carter, Jeff Lemire, Nate Powell , Emi Lennox, Joe Keatinge, and Chris Ross.  Jeff, Joe & I talked comics over some killer Asian fare, until Nate brought the topic over to metal, where I switched sides (of both the table and the conversation) and joined Brett, Nate and Carter in a conversation about favorite bands.  After that, Brett drove me down to Pony Club where I got to spend an hour with Ben Marra talking NFL and art.  Ben unpacked what was going on with the Draft, and we lamented the circus that will be the 2012 New York Jets.  I also expressed my strong desire to see Ben do a football comic.  It would be amazing!  After the event, Shannon Stewart took me to Dot's for a beer.  I love their bathroom doors:


Monday I had a Stumptown board meeting at the new IPRC. This is one of my favorite non-profits and I was excited to see it move into this killer space:

Later that day I met up with Shawna Gore to see Mares of Thrace, an astonishing metal two-piece from Calgary.  The singer Thérèse Lanz plays a forceful custom guitar made to behave as both guitar and base with a huge 20 piece effects set.  She rocks equally convincing cookie monster and classic vocals.  She also should be cast as Anne Bonney in a Kathy Acker meets Ridley Scott pirate movie.  Drummer Stef MacKichan had a huge, goofy happy grin as she played ferocious but spacious percussion.  This group is terrific metal, and a lot of fun to see live.  I really hope they open for High On Fire and come to New York, then my metal year would be complete.

After that I went out to meet up with Zack Soto, ending up at a house party where I spent the better part of the night talking to a fellow who taught me about the Coast Guard.  He'd served for many years, and made a convincing case about it behaving as the most civilized branch of the Armed Services.

See, this is Portland for you.  My passions are comics, metal and meeting people.  In my short stay I got to indulge in all of it. The folks I met were fascinating oddballs, every single one of them.  And that's the charm.  Sure, the world as we know it would likely be too dysfunctional to survive if everywhere was like Portland.  But the place is a good argument for the notion that the way we organize ourselves isn't the only way to live, and there's a great way of life to be found in pursuing an idiosyncratic path.  I love it for those reasons, and always get joy out of visiting the town and its people.  Portland shows that the way it is is the way we make it, and don't let anyone else tell you different.

Keep at it Bridge City.  You're a beacon of hope for the rest of us.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


It's the night of the super moon, and of course the clouds covered the heavens tonight, leaving New York to its own devices under this profound celestial event.  I'm writing to you from The Levee in Williamsburg, where, at this moment, a shirtless man in a Luchadore mask is talking to the bartender in a way that leads me to believe they're co-workers.  To the credit of the folks in this extremely crowded bar, no one is looking twice.  That's New York.  The weirder the spectacle, the more we feign to ignore it.

Really, today is a grand trifecta of strangeness -- Derby Day, Cinco de Mayo, and a full moon passing closer to the earth than usual.  I'm in the crash cycle after the last week of travel, so had a hard time waking up today, not properly motivating to get out of the house and over to the gym until sunset.  After the gym I went to my usual writing spot of Think Coffee to work on a deadline due Wednesday.  When I got there, the baristas were having a dance party memorializing MCA, who passed at the disgustingly young age of 47 earlier this week.  When "Brass Monkey" came on, the blonde crew leader said, "Oh my god, I'm gonna go buy forties! I'll be right back!" Then she sped out the door.

I was wide awake when they shut their doors at midnight, so I walked down to the Williamsburg Bridge and over towards home.  On the way to the bridge there were large packs of white dudes in tacky sombreros stumbling lazy "s" shapes down the sidewalks.  I pitied the barkeeps - so many amateurs were out with their zombified eyes and tacky apparel signifying "I'm here to drink, and I don't know how to tip."  I stepped onto the bridge, hoping to catch some glimpse of the super moon.  The closest I came was a dude with his pants around his ankles, keeping watch on passerby bridge traffic before going back to fucking the impatient skirted person in a leather jacket in front of him.

The Plasmatics were on my headphones the entire time I was walking.  Never was there a better band to listen to while taking in this New York insanity.  The Plasmatics were truly the last dangerous rock n roll band, and their subversive science fiction lyrics are more necessary now than they've ever been.  As I stepped off the bridge and left the couple fucking in the shadows, the Hassids walking their families to Manhattan, the hipsters skating at high speeds down the entry ramp, I heard the dearly missed Wendy O. Williams say:

While You've Still Got The Time
What You've Done To Yourself
While You've Still Got The Time
What You've Done To Yourself
With The Rape Of The Earth
You Were Not Made For This
With Your Campaign Of Hate
Before It Is Too Late
The Bell Tolls
The Bell Tolls
Bringing The Moment Of Truth
Ringing Its Warning
It's Ringing
The Moment Of Truth

Friday, May 4, 2012

Use The Fourth

Walking home from the gym on a zombified post travel-evening I cut through Washington Square Park where I saw this happening in the central fountain:

The older guys were showing the little guys the various fighting styles of nerd kenpo while a 7 piece djembe drum circle kept time in the near distance.  Life goes on.