Pictures of Plastic Men (Part II)

If you missed Part I you’ll find it at:

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s 1993. I’m 20 years old. I’m sitting on a bench atop a hill, watching the kids at my old school play at recess down below. I’m remembering a time not long before; only ten years but those might as well be a lifetime. I remember that old life, and the things in that life that meant the world to me, if only for a short time. I think back to a day in 1985, shortly after my 11th birthday when my dad came home to tell us we were moving again, this time to North Carolina. This was to be a temporary move, a 2-year “loan assignment” that meant at the end of the assignment, in 1987, we were moving back to Toronto, back to the same house on the same street, and I’d start high school with the same kids I’m in Grade Six with now. The promise of return is a salve, because I really like Toronto and our house and our pool and all of it and don’t really want to leave. But we have to, and come July, that’s what we do.

The first thing I notice about our new city – Greensboro – is the abundance of shopping malls and department stores, each with a toy section out of my wildest dreams. They have everything – GI Joe, Transformers, all the toys you’d see pictures of and commercials for but could never find in Canadian stores. And my parents, knowing this is a rough move on my sister and I, are very generous with the toy purchases. My dad even finds me a local comic book store and says we can go there once a month to buy the latest GI Joe comic book. While I missed Toronto and my friends, it looked like our time in North Carolina would be enjoyable.

Then school started. I hated it.

Bane of my existence, 1985-1986

I won’t bore you with the details (but if you are interested those can be found at http://bradabraham.com/2015/06/04/1985/). That’s all just background anyway; what’s important is that I felt I was  being torn from the familiarity and safety and, yes, a little cloistered Toronto Suburban Elementary School World of Grade 6 into Southern USA Middle School in the Year of Our Reagan 1985. It was Mourning in America, especially for me. Everyone had a southern drawl. They’d all gone to the same schools together. They thought I “spoke good English for a Canadian” which I guess was a compliment but it sure didn’t make me any friends. This was the big leagues – this was Junior High – and I had to tread very, very carefully because the last thing I wanted to be seen as was The Other. The Outsider. The Canadian.

This wasn’t like the other moves. Those were always met with some excitement. But this felt different because I was different. I was settling in. I had friends. I had a life I was happy with. And it was all being torn away from me.

Now, being into toys, and being into GI Joe at the ripe old age of 12? That was a sure ticket to Loserville, Population: you. I found this out one afternoon during school, in the first or early second month. The way the campus was set up was the main building as this big rectangular cinder block running north-south along the street, with an annex to the south, and a gymnasium building with classrooms adjacent to the north. My homeroom was in the south annex – my first class of the day was in the north building. I’d have to transverse that distance within the three minutes we had between classes before the bell rang. I was walking along the path leading to the building when I passed a group of grade eight and nine boys surrounding a Grade 7. I slowed enough to hear them calling him “baby” and “little boy” and some other words I won’t get into. Lying at the boy’s feet was a small plastic toy I recognizes immediately as Snake-Eyes Version 2 – the Ninja version. I know this because I had it too.

And still do …

I slowed almost to a stop, enough so that the kid looked at me with these eyes I’ll never forget. Like a trapped, frightened animal. I don’t know the circumstances for the toy. Maybe he brought it to school because he liked having it close. Maybe he was hoping someone else would notice it, and recognize it, and maybe talk about their toys.

Maybe, he was looking for a friend.

I wish I could say I interceded and told these much bigger kids to leave him alone. I wish I could say I called a teacher over because bullies are bullies until they’re dealt with. I wish I could say I charged in fists swinging to protect this kid. But what happened was one of the older kids looked at me, and not wanting to get involved, I resumed walking, faster now, and leaving the group behind.

3:15 couldn’t come quick enough. I took the bus home; I went up into my room and closed the door. There were some toys left out from the previous day’s adventures but somehow they felt different. I couldn’t look at them, let alone pick one up without thinking of that kid at school.

Were this a movie or TV show, I would have shown up at school the next day with a GI Joe figure and tracked that kid down and ask what he thought. I wouldn’t have cared what some Grade 8 or 9 boys who would never be my friends anyway thought. Maybe that kid and I would have become friends. But i I didn’t do that. I saw that kid occasionally around school but I never approached him to say hi or that I thought those other kids were jerks and that Snake-Eyes was cool. I wish I’d done that, but I didn’t.

1985 became 1986, but GI Joe didn’t continue with me. It didn’t seem as cool as it once was. I felt like I had failed, that I wasn’t living up to the ideals I thought the toy was supposed to instill – bravery, honor, and loyalty to your comrades. I got self-righteous; this was Grade 7. 12 going on 13. Toys? They were for little kids. How on earth could I show up with GI Joe toys at school and expect to make friends?

It was a long, lonely time for me. I still had the comics and still kept up my collecting with that once monthly visit to the local comic store (subsequently branching out into more mature titles like Watchmen and The Shadow). I received my last batch of GI Joe toys that Christmas. I may have played with them a bit that holiday week, but they went into the closet come January and that’s where they stayed even after we moved back to Canada a year ahead of schedule (but not back to Toronto as planned). The toys were packed up and moved up north but they stayed packed away in those boxes for the next 30 years. By the time I started Grade 8 in yet another new town, I was heavily into music and that became the way I made friends; with mixtapes and playlists and record collections. Without friends to play with, my toys were all kind of … childish.

#

Back to 1993, back to that bench in northeast Toronto, overlooking that park, and that playground. I sat there the full fifteen minutes watching kids ten years my junior playing. Kids probably born the year I discovered GI Joe and started to fit in with my new surroundings. I wondered what toys they were into now. I wondered if they helped kids make friends with other kids. I wondered how many of them would give up their toys in similar situations as I did. I remember feeling saddened by the whole thing. Childhood is one of those things you endure. Kids can become friends in an instant, and you can break that friendship apart just as quickly when you find other kids – hipper, cooler ones – that you’d rather be seen with.

The recess bell rings. They kids race back inside. The doors close, and I’m alone again. I pick myself up, trudge back down t to my waiting car, climb in, and drive home.

#

It’s 2018. I’m living far from Toronto, far from that park and playground, far from that life. I’m a father now, and am re-experiencing childhood again through my son’s eyes.  The GI Joe toys are all gone – sold off to collectors a few years ago. I kept a few favorites though, because you can’t completely part with the things from your childhood. I didn’t need the money, or even the space. I just needed to say goodbye to them and let someone else take joy from their presence. And as I saw them all exit my life, one parcel at a time, I realized they were just … THINGS. Pieces of plastic and die-cast metal. That’s it. And I think the decision to sell them made all the difference in my life.

You can appreciate your childhood, and should do so, but not at the expense of the here and now. For a time those pieces of molded plastic assembled in Taiwan and shipped overseas to fill toy-stores everywhere was our entire world. They were important to me. They meant something, at a time when I was still figuring out what life was all about. For a boy who moved around a lot as a child, those toys became my friends at a time when I didn’t have any. My childhood memories divide up into neat, tidy compartments; the toys I played with, the comics and books I read, are all linked to a place and a time.

I don’t know how long we’ll stay here in this new city. But I do know and hope that my son will find the same joy, the same warmth, the same friendship with those toys he comes to love. Because sometimes childhood is as much about the things you cherish for an all-too brief moment in time.

 

[On that sunny note, I am taking a summer-long hiatus from website updating and social media promoting to concentrate on getting my next novel underway, and to enjoying some much-needed downtime that’s been about three years coming. I hope you all have a safe, happy summer. See you in September!]

Pictures of Plastic Men

It’s December 1993. I’ve just returned a car-load of film equipment to the Film Building at my university, where I’m a student. I’m in a contemplative mood this day and with nothing else on tap for the afternoon, decide to take a little drive.

The car is mine. I was home for my mother’s birthday at the end of November and decided to drive back to Toronto seeing as I’d be coming back after exams a few weeks hence. I’m renting a house in the city’s west end with five other film and theater students so I have free parking for the month.

I drive without any real destination, but when hunger pangs hit I decide to drive up to my old neighborhood – the one I lived in ten years before, which would become, in my memory anyway, the happiest time of my life. There’s a burger joint near there I used to frequent, one of those old-school 1960s establishments that hasn’t changed in the fifty years since it was started. I go and grab my favorite meal – steak on a Kaiser with pepper and a little bit of BBQ sauce, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

I park, I eat, then I keep driving, the car smelling of my lunch. I drive north up Vic Park Ave. to Finch, hang a right all the way to Pharmacy, hang another right, then take a left, and I’m on Pinemeadow Blvd. my old street. I cruise past my old house; I swing through crescents and side-streets where I used to play with the other neighborhood kids. I swing past the house of my best friend, who’s still living there, but is at work that day. The memory tank has been refilled, but I’m not quite ready to go home yet.

I pull over and park at the edge of the local park, get out, and climb a slow sloping grade of landfill that’s been turned into a hill. We used to just call it the “toboggan hill” because that’s what we did on it in the winter. There’s a bench and a couple lonely pine trees at the summit, and when you sit there you have a view of the playgrounds and baseball diamonds, and elementary school below.

This was my old school. The one I attended for only a few short years – April 1982- to June 1985 – but it still looms large and casts a long shadow over my life then. 1993 has been a rough year for me, and December of that year marks the one year anniversary of my parents announcing they were separating. I’m so devastated I nearly flunk my first year of university, but I manage to pull my grades out of a nose-dive and pass. Barely.

So that’s my frame of mind as I sit on that bench and stare out over my old school. It’s just before 2:00pm. I know this because the recess bell rings a minute or so later, and the kids come streaming out. To play four-square. To throw the ball around. To jump rope and play on the playground equipment – the same I played on ten years before.

What does all of this have to do with GI Joe? Everything.

It’s April, 1982. We’ve just moved to Toronto, from Edmonton. Moves have been a fact of life for me. By 1982 I’ve lived in six different cities. I just turned 9 years old. By this point I know the drill; my dad comes home to say “we’re moving again” because he got another job transfer and promotion to go a long with it. A move means excitement and sadness in equal measure. Excitement because it’s a new city, a new house (our new one will have a swimming pool), and new friends. But a move also means saying goodbye to old friends. In this pre-internet era, goodbyes really do mean goodbye. It means never seeing those familiar friendly faced again. You move away, they move on, and pretty soon you forget what they looked like.

We move just before Easter, which means I and my sister are starting at our new schools nearly through the end of the year. I have two months of Grade 3 and then summer. Will that be time enough to make friends? So the spring as I remember it is cold, dark, and lonely.

I can’t remember the actual date, but the specifics of it, I’ll never forget. It must be some afternoon after school I first see the commercial. It’s slick, animated, and trumpeting what looks like a new cartoon series. But it’s not a cartoon series, yet. It’s not a movie either. It’s this:

Now let me paint a picture for all of you here in the year 2018. In the 1980s, things were slower. The pace was different. Your average hour long TV show ran 52 minutes. There were only a handful of TV channels. Music was on the radio. There was no MTV outside of a few small outlets in the US. If you wanted to go shopping, you went to a mall. Movies? The theater.

And Star Wars movies were released 3 years apart. Three years to a 9 year-old may as well be a lifetime. But fortunately you have the toys – the action figures, the vehicles, the play sets. You have the comics and newspaper strips – al of which is designed to keep you interested in the property until the next installment.

But there was something else these little pieces of molded plastic were important for – something the designers didn’t anticipate. They were how you made new friends in new cities. Just the act of bringing a Star Wars toy to your new school was enough to get other kids to come over and talk to you. Several friendships (short lived ones, but friendships nonetheless) began that way. I’d bring a Bespin Han Solo or Hoth Luke to school; some kid would ask what other Star Wars toys I had. I’d tell them, they’d tell me theirs. They’d invite me over to play, and vice versa. Toys were how you got to know others. They were how you found your new tribe.

By the time I moved to Toronto it had been two years since The Empire Strikes Back. Five since Star Wars. Time moves slow as a child but it moves really slow when you’re a Star Wars fan. You need toys to fill the gaps between films. Between Star Wars and Empire alone there was Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, and The Black Hole. Between Empire and the third installment due next year – Revenge of the Jedi – there’s been Smurfs, and Indiana Jones, and a lot more I’ve forgotten. But they’ve all been peg-warmers and gap fillers. By 1982 nobody is playing Battlestar Galactica. They may still be playing Star Wars, but the wait between films is so long to a 9 or 10 year-old. You need something else.

Something different.

And so it was, one evening in April, when my mother was taking my sister to the local mall to do some clothes shopping one evening after school sometime in April. I begged off to browse the toy aisle, and when I get there the first thing I noticed were the colors of red, white, and blue on the floor display.

GI Joe: A Real American Hero.

The packaging was the first thing that lept off the shelf at me. Whereas the Star Wars figures featured the toy in a plastic bubble and a photo of that character (no matter how minor) from the movie, these featured a beautiful painted image of the character in action. The back of the card featured smaller paintings of the other figures in the line, and below those, a file-card with the character name, code-name, rank, specialty, and place of birth. With nothing else to go on but the packaging you had a psyche profile of what that character’s personality was like.

I begged my mom to buy me some. She ended up relenting and getting me three: Breaker, Grunt, and Snake-Eyes. I took them home, took them out of their packages, and plated with them until bed-time. But the real fun came the next day when I snuck Snake-Eyes into my book-bag and took him to school. Come morning recess, I brought him out and it was like moths to the flame. None of the other kids had seen a GI Joe up close before, though they had seen the commercials. So here was the new kid with the hottest new toy. And from that moment, friendships were born.

That was just the beginning though. See, I didn’t really get “in” to GI Joe beyond those first three figures. They were just three tots if many, and my heart still belonged to Star Wars.

Then, in 1983, we were on vacation in Vermont, and on the first day I broke my leg skiing. That vacation became a three-month odyssey of traction and body casts and being stuck at home. And while some school friends did visit me (and I did have a tutor so I could keep up with school) it was a very lonely time.

Then my dad came home from work one night with a gift for me. Well, two gifts anyway. One was a new GI Joe called Snow-Job, the other was a snowmobile called the Polar Battle Bear.

Which I still have, by the way.

Maybe he picked those because he knew our ski vacation had been cut short and I blamed myself, maybe it was just because he wanted me to have some fun while I was bedridden, but it did the trick. By the time the cast came off I had acquired more GI Joe toys. I. Was. Hooked. By the time September rolled around Return of the Jedi had come and gone, but I was fully on the GI Joe train. Joe became the linkage to my friends, and their interests (including the aforementioned best friend who I met that September because he was talking about James Bond, another of my childhood touchstones).

And for a GI Joe fan the hits kept on coming. That September saw the release of the 5-part miniseries A Real American Hero, which aired on a local station after school Monday-Friday. That Christmas I added a whole slew of new GI Joe toys to my collection – the MOBAT Tank, VAMP Jeep, Dragonfly Copter, the Headquarters Command Center, and more figures. Joe became my life, but in no bigger way than the following summer when visiting some old friends out in Vancouver who introduced me to the Marvel comic.

The first issue I ever bought. Still have it too.

That span of years, from 1983-1985 were some of the finest of my life, and it was largely due to those little plastic men and women.

Then, everything changed.

[To Be Continued in Part II]

Why We Write

NOTE: This is an updated version of a post I wrote five years ago, about the writing process, or at least “my” writing process. As we near the release of Magicians Impossible I wanted to revisit this piece, and add some additional flavor. 

I’m not much for talking about my “process”. There are plenty of places you can look to read about “process”, and there are plenty of people who are happy to share what their process is. They’re all interesting and informative, and also contradictory and probably of little use to you. That’s because they’re talking about their process; they aren’t talking about what process works best for you. Some insist on powering through the first draft and revising after it’s finished; others swear by revision as you go. Some obsess on word count or pages per day; others are concerned only with “good” pages. Some brave souls rise at 5am and write for three hours before starting the day proper; others write in the evenings when the day is done. Some say you need to write every day; others say weekends are fine. They’re all right … and they’re all wrong.

So here’s a piece about my process. Please feel free to ignore it.

For me it all starts with the idea. Sometimes it’s a detailed idea; other times it’s just a rough sketch. From there I think about whose story “my” story is; the characters. Male or female, child or adult – I’ll try various combinations and complications before settling on POV. From there, assuming the story I’ve put together is any good, and the characters I’ve conceived are going to be interesting enough to follow, I clear the decks, close my door and start writing. I outline before I draft, I treatment after I outline, I look for leaks and plug plot holes the best I’m able, and once that’s done, I start writing. Because if I don’t, this happens:

Pictured: What happens when you don’t plug leaks, or when your manuscript/screenplay hits an iceberg.

But before I do any of the above … I listen to music. Music may in fact be the most important part of my process. If I haven’t decided on what music I’m going to write to, chances are I won’t be able to do any writing, and what I do write will be shit.

Okay maybe not shit, but difficult.

My favorite approach to this is to assemble a playlist or mixtape to accompany whatever particular project I’m working on. This is music that gets me into “the zone”, but more importantly into the character’s heads. I’ll tailor a playlist to a specific character, and use the songs I choose to illustrate their personalities, their hopes, their fears, their everything. I’ll create several such playlists for any given project, and I’ll listen to them when I’m focusing on a particular character or subplot.

Pictured: my soundtrack

There are a couple of reasons for this. The first I already mentioned; to get into the characters and the world they inhabit. But the second is more basic; to get me going. Because some days you just … can’t … get … into … the writing part of writing.

You have lousy sleep or a lousy day. You’re at one of those points in the story where you’ve lost the plot. You want to do anything but write. Every writer has days like this. But since I started creating playlists those days are fewer and come further between.

That’s where the playlist comes in. Because you’ll sit there and you’ll listen to it, or you’ll throw it on your iPod and go for a walk, and pretty soon the story will come back to you. And once the story comes back to you, you’re able to write it down.

Now, this music doesn’t have to be of the period the project is set in; in fact I’d strongly advise against that. The reason you create a playlist is not to be authentic but to be real. To connect with the characters and the story on an emotional level. So unless you grew up listening to Civil War era grassroots music, using that music to score your Civil War era story is going to make it a dry museum piece. Ask yourself what your characters would listen to if they were alive today (and seeing as they are your characters they are alive). Would they be into rock? Punk? Country? Hip-hop? Put yourself in their headspace and assemble a list of songs that relate to them, their trials, and their troubles. See them as living, breathing people, not just words on the page and an idea in your head. Once they become “real” to you, they will be to the reader.

Some examples: my first (unpublished) novel was a murder mystery set in Renaissance Italy. It was written primarily to 60s British Invasion and 90s Britpop. There are two main characters, each with alternating perspective chapters. One was 50-something, the other a 20 year-old. Any time I was writing for the older character I lived on a steady stream of Rolling Stones, The Hollies, Manfred Mann, and the Yardbirds. For the 20 year-old, it was Blur, Oasis, Elastica, Inspiral Carpets, Happy Mondays, and so on.

Squadron, a TV series I’m developing with Copperheart Entertainment, was largely written to early 90s alternative; grunge mostly, but a lot of Pogues, Dropkick Murphys, early U2, Depeche Mode, and Duran Duran. I wanted to capture a feeling of excitement in the lives of WWI flyers, all young twenty-somethings taking to the skies to vanquish their enemies. Because a substantial portion of the story deals with the after effects of being the most famous killers in the world, I balanced fast paced rock with more introspective music for the quieter moments.

There are other examples. A suspense thriller I wrote some years back (also unsold – see the pattern?) was scored to a lot of Madchester-era music, which is appropriate given the main character has walled herself off from the world and is living in something of a nostalgia bubble. It made sense for her to be into the music she was into as a teenager, like she never grew past 2000. A thriller I wrote for a prod co about an EMT on the edge had a lot of 70s Punk in the mix – The Diodes, The Demics, The Clash, The Ramones. Music that reflects the thoughts of a main character living on the edge.

And there’s Magicians Impossible.

The Magicians Mixtape (which will be released on Spotify September 12) is pretty eclectic, featuring Metric, The Kills, The Dread Weather, T. Rex, David Bowie, The Jam, The Vaselines, XTC, The Human league … the list goes on. That playlist is distilled from about seven separate ones I created, each focusing on a major character or moment in the story. Because a novel has more working parts than a screenplay or comic book, I needed to go into greater musical depth. The end-result 50 track mix loosely follows the plot of the book and is a great accompaniment (though I recommend you listen to it after reading the book).

That all being said if your particular project is of a period where music – contemporary music – is available, use it. If there’s an emotional component also, even better. The novel I’m drafting right now features music as a major plot point; specifically one-hit wonders of the 80s and 90s. The music the main characters – all teenagers – would have grown up listening to because that was the music of their parents’ generation.

So that’s it, really. That’s my process and it probably only works for me. But maybe it’s worth a shot if you’re stuck on a plot point or something with your story that just isn’t working for you. If you can’t figure out where your character goes next, why not think about the music they would enjoy and the memories that would be associated with it?

In the end, you need to find what works best for you, and stick to that. Don’t let people like me or anybody else tell you what you’re doing is wrong because it’s not wrong; it’s right for you. As long as what you do works for you it’s better to stay on that track than try and write like someone else.

Because they can already do that. Your job is to write like you.

The Dog-end of a Day Gone By

To call 2016 challenging is to undersell it. It was certainly the most difficult year I’ve endured, and that’s just on a personal level. Caring for a 1 year-old while managing a career as a writer is no easy task. There have been frayed nerves, sleepless nights, and the ever-present worry that this is pretty much it for me and my career; that I can’t do both those things without failing at one of them. And yet, I’m still here, you’re still here, and we need to be because 2017 will probably be worse. It’ll take away people and things we love, the bad guys will keep winning. This is the beginning of the winter George RR Martin’s Stark family keeps telling us is coming.

But it’s important not to give into that despair. You have to fight, you have to strive, you have to marshal resources and press on. Because capitulation is not victory. It will feel like it for a while, but those things you’re trying to hide from will find you eventually.

Think of it this way; we all have some sort of comfort food. Some meal that you love, less because of what it is than what it represents. For me, it’s the traditional roast beef diner my grandmother used to make. The roast was always a little dry, the gravy a little starchy, but I’ve spent the last twenty-three years trying to re-create. But that really isn’t the point; the point is when I do make it, I get a minor taste of what that meal represented; the closeness of family, the smiles, the laughter of people now long gone. There’s warmth to it, and sadness. It’s nostalgic, the comfort meal.

As Michel Houllebecq wrote;

Nostalgia has nothing to do with aesthetics — it’s not even connected to happy memories. We feel nostalgia for a place simply because we’ve lived there; whether we’ve lived well or badly scarcely matters. The past is always beautiful.

That’s comfort food; and art can be comfort food for the soul. Books, movies, TV, music … those perennial works you return to over and over again, not because they remind you of happier times, but because they remind you of a time in your life that you survived. So in the spirit of the season, here are some of my artistic comfort foods.

  1. Bond. James Bond.

bond

I grew up with James Bond; the Roger Moore ones specifically, because they were the first ones I saw. I remember how a Bond movie would often be the ABC Saturday night movie; the World Premiere of Moonraker or something Over the last month and a bit my wife and I watched (in reverse order for some reason) the Moore Bond series, and the Dalton ones. We’re now into the Brosnan era. There’s just something about them that gives me a warm feeling, and that, I think, has been their success; by offering us what we want while tweaking the formulas ever so much. From Octopussy on I saw every Bond in the theater, including Never Say Never Again, though I shamefully confess I missed Spectre, being a newly minted parent my movie watching was pretty much impossible. To this day remains difficult – last I saw in the theater was … actually, I legit can’t remember. It was summer, I know that. Maybe X-Men Apocalypse (which was terrible by the way). Did I mention the year that was has been rough? Well, yeah. No time for movies.

2. High. Degrassi Jr. High.

degrassi

Not much time for TV either, though one seminal series turns 30(!) next year. Yes, on January 18, 1987 a little Canadian TV series called Degrassi Jr. High made its debut on CBC. My friends and I all mocked it, for its cheesiness, for its obviously plotted by adults for kids aesthetic, for the Canadian-ness of it (growing up in Canada in the 1980s it was anything but cool). But we still watched it – I know I did, mostly because it was filmed in, and set in Toronto, which I loved, and I would just groove on the scenery. When the final TV movie “School’s Out” aired five years later, I think everyone in school must have watched it because the next day all people could say was “You fucked Tessa Campinelli?” Over the following years it aired in reruns, was relaunched as an enormously successful show called Degrassi that’s still going strong. But now, 30 years on, it’s become comfort TV, for me anyway, because of the cheesiness, because of the plots, because of the amateurish nature of using non-actors. It even makes a brief cameo appearance in my next novel. Those kids are all in their 40s now – and I’m sure the ones who grew up not watching it but actually watching in secret still remember the theme song.

3. God Save the Queen
queen_band_members

If you know me this will come as a shock, but I grew up listening to Queen. First instance was when we moved to Scarborough Ontario in 1982, and at my new school, had to participate daily in a thing called the Health Hustle. Let me back up; by Age nine I was used to starting over in a new school. I’d lived in Mississauga, in Vancouver, in Edmonton, and now Scarborough. First days in a new school were always weird. Being the new kid, for one, being the kid who had no idea in hell what he was in for was another. So on my first day at North Bridlewood public School, around 11am an announcement came over the PA telling the children it was time for today’s Health Hustle. This was an initiative from the Ontario Public School board dating back to the early 70s, to include mandatory physical activity for school children (recess twice a day was not enough apparently). So when the announcement came we were marched to the gym, where a teacher led us through the health hustle routine of jumping jacks and running in place. I had no idea what or why it was, but there was music on the PA, and that year the music was Queen. We Are the Champions, and We Will Rock you in particular (along with some other songs and bands I’ve forgotten, though I think bad Leroy Brown was one of them). That was my intro to Queen, though they would pop up periodically through my life in the next decade, especially as Much Music arrived on the airwaves. I even remember the day Freddie Mercury passed away. They were always bigger in Canada than they were in the US, which is why when Mike Meyers paid tribute to them in Wayne’s World the next year, Bohemian Rhapsody climbed the charts once again. Incidentally Meyers grew up in that same Scarborough neighborhood, and was a friend of one of my friends’ sisters. To this day a Queen song takes me back to those years and memories.

Just don’t ask me to do the Health Hustle.

4. Stand By Me
sk

People ask me who my favorite author is, I typically say Joe R. Lansdale because he’s awesome and everyone should read his books. But for various reasons Stephen King holds a special place in my heart and it was seeing Stand by Me in the theater that summer that prompted me to seek out Stephen King’s books – specifically the novella The Body, which the film was based on. I remember the surprised gasp that tremored through the theater when “Based on a novella by Stephen king” appeared on screen as the end credits rolled. That Stephen King? It bore some investigating, and I did, scoring a used paperback of Different Seasons the novella collection containing The Body (and Apt Pupil, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and the lesser-known The Breathing Method). I read The Body first, and was shocked by how dark it was. I won’t spoil it for you, but it was mournful in a way the movie wasn’t. The sadness at lost friends, and lost years, suffuses every page of The Body, and in the years since I think I may have read it every year or two. I get older with each read, but Gordie LaChance, Chris Chambers, Teddy Duchamp, and Vern Tessio remain the same age I was when I saw Stand by Me. As a father to a young boy, it resonates even deeper now. Revisiting The Body is like revisiting old friends; ones you’ll never forget.

5. The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of …

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Of course I can’t leave 2016 without mentioning comic books. My career as a comic book creator has been on hold ever since our child was born, and I descended into the world of Magicians Impossible, but I hope to get back into making comics in 2017. To prepare for that I’ve been rereading several seminal titles, the greatest of which, to me, remains Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. Everything’s been written about Sandman, its influence, its importance, over the last twenty-five, almost thirty years so what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Nothing. But for me it’s as unique as it was when it first appeared; both cosmic in its scope and intimate in its reach. I’d read periodic issues of it when they first came out, but it wasn’t until 1999, when I became a screenwriter by trade, that I had the money and the time to collect the trade paperbacks, and read them from start to finish. Maybe it’s the fact that it told a complete story. Maybe because every turn of the page felt strangely familiar. Reading it now it’s like an artifact from an earlier age, where my career as a writer was just beginning. But mostly because this story, like all stories, mattered to me, and had the power to change myworld, starting from the smallest speck of dust.

So, as we close up shop on 2016, I encourage each and every one of you to indulge in a little comfort food over the holidays. Listen to that album. Watch that movie. Re-read that book. Get some rest, see some family and friends. And when 2017 arrives, be prepared to fight your hardest for those people and things that mean the most to you.

UPDATE:

January 12, 2017 (Addendum)

There’s one more bit of comfort food I have to add, and it’s this …

Netflix has every Star Trek series available to stream, and I’ve begun what looks to be an epic re-watch of the Original Series. It’s been years since I watched any of these episodes, and i’m reasonably certain that, despite it being my favorite of the Trek series, I actually haven’t run the entire series. There’s episodes I’ve seen, ones I remember vividly (working a summer at a Star Trek exhibit in the mid 90s will do that to you), but many I have never seen or have no recollection of – mostly season 3 episodes, natch. So It’s going to be a fun little ride the next while. Lord knows I’m going to need the distraction.

Knowing Is Half The Battle

I’m about to drop a major truth bomb on you. Sitting comfortably? Good. here it is:

Writing is work.

Yes, there’s art, yes, there’s craftsmanship to it; but make no mistake it is work.

Say it again:

Writing. Is. Work.

It’s hard work too; anybody who tells you otherwise is probably the same person who says “Oh, I always wanted to write a book or a screenplay – they seem easy enough,” but waffle on why if it’s so “easy” they never bothered to try.  Writing is deadlines. Writing is submissions. Writing is rejection. Writing is redrafts and notes and edits. Writing is being handed your check and shown the door and someone else taking over and rewriting you. It is a job, and some days just getting the job done is the victory.

One question I like to ask the aforementioned who say “I just want to take a year off and write” is this even simpler one; “why”? What’s the end-game with your imagined year-long sabbatical?

Get your book published, obviously. Get your screenplay produced. Get your play performed.

And when that doesn’t happen, what then? Do you take another year off to write another? Or do you chuck it, and say, “this is bullshit”, which it often is (but you get used to the smell after a while).

Believe me, I know of what I speak. I just sold my first book. I created a critically acclaimed book series. I’ve had two screenplays produced, along with a mini series, and been a hired gun on three different childrens’ TV series. That’s my last 18 years so to speak (if you look at iMdb).

What you don’t see are the rejections. The passes. The turnarounds. The rewrites that obliterated my screen credit. The film/TV/comics/novels that didn’t happen.They were all hard soul-crushing, back-breaking work, and they’re all currently gathering dust.

Which brings me … to G.I. Joe.

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Now I’m going to divert from the main thread for a moment. It’s all because of my son, really. He’s at the age of exploration right now which means he gets into everything. And by everything I mean everything. So it was only a matter of time before he discovered what was in those longboxes I had in the living room.

Yep. My comic book collection, which has followed me around pretty much everywhere since 1984, from Toronto to Greensboro, to Brockville, back to Toronto (and through 4 apartments over the space of 12 years) to Niagara-on-the-Lake, to St. Catharines, and finally to NYC.  So it was only a matter of time before grabby hands got his little mitts on them.

The damage wasn’t too severe; some were creased and folded, but I managed to get them away from him before the damage was permanent. And really, I’m not one of those “must remain mint” types. There are 30 years worth of comics squirreled away in those boxes, but today I want to talk about one title specifically.

From roughly 1984-1986 G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero (w: Larry Hama for the most part, art: various, including Herbe Trimpe and Marshall Rogers, Todd McFarlane and Andrew Wildman among others) was my favorite comic. It was actually the comic that started me buying comics on a regular basis. More astute readers – ones “in the know” who for their part will agree “knowing is half the battle” – will likely agree that 1984-1986 was the heyday of the toy and comic line. I had a pretty solid collection of the comics – the first 50 issues – but by the time I moved to Brockville in 1986 I was falling out of love with the Joes. I had other interests – music, girls, movies – so the exploits of these Real American Heroes were less important. I still bought the book though mostly out of loyalty, but even then my comics buying had changed and I was gravitating more to Swamp Thing and Hellblazer and The Shadow and Sandman. Judging by my collection as it stood I tapped out around issue 70 , save for a minor buying-binge of issues in summer of 1993. But after I re-sorted them, I realized I was pretty close to completing the set. And I thought to myself; with eBay and other resources, why not finish the  finish the series? So what I did, and over the last couple of months, completed the set. And I then read them, all of them, start to finish.

Reading them through an adult perspective, what was really amazing to realize now is how much of the series was informed by the Vietnam War, and Hama’s experiences there.  It’s hard to remember now but in the 80s Vietnam was everywhere – a decade after the war ended America was finally starting to come to grips with it, and with how it treated its veterans. You saw this in movies like Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, and TV like China Beach, The A Team, and Tour of Duty. Even Magnum P.I. was a ‘Nam vet.

But Larry was the one who introduced me and my friends to Nam, making its most popular character Snake Eyes a vet, along with Stalker and Storm Shadow. And that was a thread that ran through the entire series run, up to and including issue 155, the final issue, in which Snake-Eyes pens a letter to the son of a former colleague planning to enlist in the army. The war was the thru-line of the entire series; it kept on changing lives years after it ended.

It wasn’t always pretty; by maybe 5 years into the run it became formulaic; new characters were introduced, they got a moment to shine, then you never saw them again. A catastrophically ill-conceived crossover with the Transformers in the 90s pretty much killed the series, which limped to its conclusion a year later. The readership, which began as kids in the early 80s were in college now, and they’d moved on. I know I had.

But you can’t fault Larry and his team for the missteps. They had a job to do and that job was to support the toy line. They were handed the characters and story-lines to use, and they did the best they could. The fact GI Joe lasted 12 years is a testament to their great work. It was one of Marvel’s top selling books for a time, and the back issue market was ridiculously expensive.

If you own a copy of this, congratulations on being rich

If you own a copy of this, congratulations on being rich

What it all boils down to is Larry had a job to do and he did it, to the point that when IDW picked up the GI Joe license, they invited Larry back to continue the original line from where he left off at issue 155. With the toy line pretty much dormant he has the freedom to tell the stories he wanted. But that doesn’t denigrate his work on the 80s  run on GI Joe at all. His task was herculean and for GI Joe to remain so good for so long, that takes talent. That takes work.

So what has G.I. Joe got to do with writing?

Because writing is about getting the job done.

It’s about telling a Robocop story that satisfies network and fan expectations, while working in some personal stories into it at the same time. it’s about charting the end of the world in all its ridiculous SyFy carnage while still telling the story you originally wanted to; about a person who devotes his life to crazy conspiracy theories and finds out one of them is coming true in the worst possible way.

It’s about the work.

The reason I’m most excited creatively about Magicians Impossible is because it meets the criteria of a personal project and a mainstream one. It’s got a major publishing house in its corner, it has a great team of editors and designers aboard, and it’s being released next summer.

But it was hell to write. Easily the most difficult thing I’ve ever undertaken. And that was before our child was born, roughly mid-way through the writing. Then it became nearly impossible. I look at that first draft and I can pinpoint the exact moment I became a parent. The quality of writing drops precipitously and never really recovers. Still, I soldiered on, even when in the act of creation I realized what I was writing was not working, that there was a much better way to tell the story, and somehow between the endless overnight feeds and chronic fatigue, I managed to figure out just what the story was about. Even when suffering a major back injury that meant the longest I could sit and type was an hour before the pain became too much, I still wrote. And in the end, Magicians Impossible is by far the best thing I’ve ever written, and the one I’m most proud of.

I did the work because writing is work, and it is my job.

That’s the lesson I take from reading these old comics with new eyes. Because sometimes getting the job done is the point.

Now you know. And knowing is half the battle.

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*UPDATE: Someone asked me if I included GI Joe Special Missions (the short-lived spin-off from the main title, published bi-monthly between 1986 and 1989, focusing on stand-alone missions) in my big read-through. Not initially and not as part of the overall run. But after I finished G.I. JOE I decided what the hey, and went thru the 15 or so copies of Special Missions I owned. Boy am I glad I did! G. I. Joe: Special missions are consistently closest to “Classic” G.I. Joe stories – darker, more violent, more intense, more realistic. Plus nearly the entire series was drawn by the late great Herb Trimpe – who for this guy anyway remains the quintessential Joe artist. I’m in the process of tracking down the remaining issues of G.I. Joe Special Missions now.

**UPDATE UPDATE: after some mulling over (and on the advice of a fan) I decided to pull the trigger and start into the TPBs of the IDW continuation of the series, written by Larry Hama, which picks up after the events of issue 155. I have to say this was a great decision. It’s like Larry, free of the demands of introducing new characters and vehicles every couple of issues, is finally getting to tell the GI Joe stories he’s always wanted. Reading these new stories is very much like catching up with old friends. And after the year we’ve had, sometimes old friends are the best ones you have.