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.

joe1

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. 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 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.

Christmas Wrapping

This is a public service announcement of sorts.

We’re five days away from The Big Day, and time’s running out to nab that special gift for that special someone.  Of course, you all just wish that Mixtape #1 was in your hands already, but you’ll have to wait for that (though its February launch makes it the ideal Valentine’s Day gift – Hint Hint).

But there are several items I can recommend to anyone looking for that music or comics fan in your life.  These are the books, DVDs and otherwise that were an inspiration, a research aid and just plain instrumental in getting Mixtape off the ground.

 

The genesis of Mixtape came when I was packing my things to move to the USA.  This involved sorting through boxes that hadn’t been opened in a good number of years – since High School in some cases.  Among the many things I uncovered were many comic books, and many mixtapes.  And so, rather than packing things, I spent my time listening to these tapes, and reading comic books, and saying to myself “self, there’s a story in this somewhere”.  By the time I moved to New York, the idea was already simmering – I knew I wanted to write something about music, and how important it is to a teenager.  I also wanted it set in the 90s.  I didn’t have a format – a movie like Dazed and Confused?  A TV series like The Wonder Years?  I was stuck – until I was browsing the racks at Midtown Comics and saw a hardcover collected edition of a series called Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly.  Local follows Megan McKeenan, a young adult, over the span of a dozen years, as she moves from city to city, ranging from Portland Oregon to Chicago Illinois, to Halifax Nova Scotia.  I’m a fan of Brian’s from his amazing DMZ and Northlanders series, and naturally scooped up Local, and by the time I finished reading it, I knew what that “90s era rock and roll story” was going to be.

Local is amazing and every time I get stuck on scripting Mixtape, I crack it open for a good dose of inspiration.    By the time I finish just one story, luxuriate in Ryan Kelly’s beautiful artwork and Wood’s often haunting prose, it forces me to do better.

[Also be sure to check out the Wood-Kelly series’ The New York Four and its sequel The New York Five]

Yeah, I’ve written about Degrassi before but it bears repeating; watching the entire run of Degrassi Jr. High and Degrassi High on Hulu was an eye opening experience.  The two series spanned 1986-1992, and followed a large group of Jr High and High School students and they dealt with the pains of growing up.  The cast remained largely static  – some moved to the forefront, others faded into the backdrop.  But to watch these two shows, five seasons worth, to see these kids age from awkward twelve and thirteen year olds to awkward seventeen and eighteen year olds, is, twenty plus years later, an oddly moving experience.  To see them with braces and acne, and bad 80s hair (and worse 80s fashions), and to rectify it with the fact that this generation is all approaching 40 years of age, gives this era a “trapped in amber”  sensation. Both series are available on DVD

Here’s one little-known fact about Mixtape.  In fact I don’t think I shared it wuith anybody before, so consider this my Christmas gift to you.  An early, early version of the story was manifest in what was ging to be a YA novel I was outlining in April of 2007.  The title was ‘Daydream Nation” cribbed from the Sonic Youth album.  It was going to be the story of Brian Squares, a 40-something office worker who connects with an old High School friend — now a physisist who  works for a hi-tech think-tank.  And over drinks, Brian laments that his life didn’t turn out how he thought.  That his dreams crumbled because of his failure to pursue them.  How he’d give anything for just a taste of 1990 again.

And Brian’s friend asks him: “What if you could?”

You see, it turns out that buddy has found a way to travel back in time, to experience a period of your life – basically by inhabiting your body at an earlier point, and experiencing it again (think Quantum Leap, only you’re leaping into a previous period of your life).  Naturally, Brian takes the plunge, and is back in the halls of his High School, jamming with his garage band, and dating his High School flame.  Of course, he becomes addicted to these leaps, and when he finds out that, despite all of his scientist pal’s claims, that he can alter the outcome of events, sets out to make things “right” (including stopping the murder of a classmate).  I must have outlined a good thirty pages of the book (all of which are copyrighted, so if you’re thinking of stealing this idea, please do; I could use the money), but it never progressed beyond that stage, because Alex Robinson wrote and illustrated  a GN called Too Cool To Be Forgotten.

TCTBF is about a middle aged man who undergoes hypnosis to try and quit smoking, and wakes up back in 1985.  He re-experiences High School – the good and the bad of it – and the real reason he’s travelled back to this era is as unexpected to him as it is to us.  TCTBF is so fricking GOOD that it put Daydream Nation on the backburner, and over time I came to realize I wanted to tell this story about the 90s without the Sci-Fi aspect.   So while Daydream Nation faded away (or at least was placed in the “future projects” drawer), Mixtape is what resulted.  But TCTBF is a must read, and I’m glad I did just that.  Also be sure to check out Alex’s epic “Box Office Poison”, a massive, multi-character tale about life in the frightening post-collegiate era – an era that, with a little luck, we’ll see the characters in Mixtape experience.

So with this blog post , my Christmas holiday can begin.  Happy Holidays and I’ll see you in 2012, when the build up to Mixtape will begin in force.

Oh well, whatever, nevermind

When I was 14 there was this one album I simply had to have. I’d heard so much about it from friends, and read about it in magazines that it had attained near mythic status before I ever heard a single note of it. Remember this was back in the 1980s, which might as well be the 1880s as you look back from 2011. If you were interested in a band, or in hearing a song, you didn’t go “online” and listen to an “mp3” through “iTunes” or some other “streaming” service.

If you wanted to hear a song your options were:

1. Listen to the radio until you heard it
2. Watch MTV until you saw the video
3. Buy the album

Options 1 and 2 were fine if what you wanted to hear (for whatever reason) Madonna or Bryan Adams or Poison or Bobby Brown. In point of fact, in the 80s you couldn’t do 1 or 2 without hearing or seeing at least one of those artists. If they were Top 40/mainstream acts there was no escaping them.

But, if the music you wanted to hear was not Top 40 mainstream, you had to go with option 3 – buy the damn album, or buy a blank cassette so a friend who owned it would make a dub for you. That’s right – no “downloads”, no “torrents” – those words didn’t exist back then. It took actual effort to hear that song or album that would change your life and set you on a different path; albums groundbreaking, so essential, that everything that followed it will never be the same for you. That is why in the summer of 1987 I took three weeks of cumulative allowance to the record store (yes, you actually had to go to “stores” to “buy” music) and bought

What you were expecting a different album?

Well, I’ll get to that.

For a 14 year old – Bollocks was like nothing else. To own a copy (and blast it from your stereo) was to perform a small act of rebellion, especially living in a small, very conservative town. I even had a Sid Vicious poster adorning my bedroom wall (much to the horror of my parents) – I was a real rebel. In fact to the horror of any parents out there, I’d say a copy of the Sex Pistols’ one and only studio album is (along with the first albums from The Clash, Patti Smith and The Ramones) something every boy (or girl) between the ages of fourteen to sixteen should own.

As you can probably tell by this decree, I don’t have children.

But when I do I’d like to think I’d encourage them to find music that has meaning to them. It will probably be music I can’t stand – in fact I’m counting on it – and will prompt me to dust off my Black Flag or Butthole Surfers albums and force them to listen to it with the old man while he waxes on about how music in his day was better, same as my parents inflicted Simon & Garfunkle and The Carpenters on my ears.

Now here’s the thing; in 1987, Bollocks was a ten year old album – its impact had already been made, and for a 14 year old, one couldn’t help but think that all the best music, and all the most interesting moments in culture, had already happened. You’d missed the British Invasion, Punk, New Wave – and there was nothing remotely interesting on the horizon. One couldn’t be faulted for thinking this; the 80s were dominated by my parents’ generation — the affluent Baby Boom generation hitting forty. They were the drivers of culture and they wanted music that was familiar to them. Radio in the 80s was dominated by boomer nostalgia – oldies stations and top 40 – and what was left was music that was produced by record companies run by boomers.

But as it happens, there was great music out there – you just had to dig a little deeper. And for me, The Sex Pistols were the shovel. They were the gateway to The Clash and Patti Smith and the Ramones, but also to the Pixies and R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction and The Replacements.

And, of course, these guys:

I remember the first time I heard Nevermind – on a return trip from nearby Kingston, having blown some allowance on dinner and a movie, and a stop at the Vinyl Vendor – which remains the coolest record store ever. I actually hadn’t bought Nevermind – my friend did (I settled on Trompe Le Monde by The Pixies because – well, they were the Pixies dammit). But that friend had heard good things about Nevermind, and had seen their video ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’. We listened to both albums on the way home and the next weekend I bought Nevermind for myself. It spread through the school like wildfire, bit by bit. The younger kids – the skaters, the punks, the misfits had the same reaction we all did – that here was a band, and music that expressed the way we felt; losers, freaks, no future.

It was, well, nirvana.

The preps and jocks didn’t know what hit them. With their Polo shirts and boathouse row wardrobe, they had been firmly in charge. Now there were these kids – these weirdoes, these losers – who not only didn’t dress to conform, they didn’t give a shit about conforming either. What the hell was happening? Probably the same thing that happened at that same school in 1977, when Punk exploded – the same preps didn’t know what the hell hit them either.

Looking back on Nevermind now, it’s taken on the same mythic quality Never Mind the Bollocks did when I bought it. There’s probably some 14 year old out there right now who doesn’t feel like they fit in at school, and worries about the same things teenagers have always worried about, is going to read about Nevermind and give it a listen, and have their life changed. It will be the gateway that brings them to bands like Arcade Fire or The White Stripes or Fucked Up — it’ll change their life.

That’s because music means more to you in your teens than it ever will before or after. That fact (and it is a fact) bears repeating. It’s the time of your life that’s unlike any other – when your friends and the music you share with them are the most important things in your life. Because every life has a soundtrack – yours, mine – everyone. It’s something I’ve spent the last three years thinking about and working towards this moment when I can make it all official;

MIXTAPE, my comic book series about life, love, and music in the early 1990s, hits finer comic shops everywhere in February 2012 from Ardden Entertainment. Featuring art by Jok and scripts by yours truly, it’s the story of the 90s alternative rock revolution as witnessed by high school seniors Jim, Siobhan, Terry, Lorelei and Noel. United by their shared love of music found “left of the dial,” we follow them through the years and their many emotional travails, grappling with sex, suicide, depression, and the horrors of “real life.” Looking down the barrel of the separation that will come with graduation, they resolve to forge their bond through the music they love, but find that the friendships they thought would last forever have already begun to break apart. Only when they reunite in the present at the funeral of one of their own do they learn that what they’ve given up can also show them the way back home.

You can’t comprehend how proud I am of having come to this moment.  Mixtape had its genesis roughly three years ago, and to see it come together has been one of those rare experiences, unmatched even by my film and TV work.  Those represent the efforts of hundreds of people — Mixtape; the efforts of a half dozen.  Every new batch of pages from Jok blows my mind, and I wouldn’t have connected with him if not for the great gang at Space Goat Productions (thanks Shon and David).

Brendan Deneen at Ardden has been the real champion here — after being rejected by seemingly ever publisher out there, he stepped up. I knew he and Ardden were a perfect fit for Mixtape when I noted the huge Sonic Youth poster adorning the wall of his office.  Along with Ardden’s Richard Emms, Mixtape is in great hands, and I really hope you check out the amazing titles they’re putting out on a consistent basis

It’s been a rough week for GenX.  R.E.M. called it quits after 30 years, and its been 20 now since Nevermind changed music and the lives it touched.  Mixtape is the story of that music and the generation whose lives it touched.  Every life has a soundtrack — yours, mine — and through Mixtape, those stories will be told.

It’s happening, for real this time, and I couldn’t be happier. Makes me want to chill out, throw on Nevermind (or Never Mind) and crank it until the walls bleed.

Actually, I’ll see you later.