Before I go, I want to write something that matters.
The real lasting works of this world tell a story that’s about something and that can change people. And the very best of them do it when sometimes you don’t even realize it.
If I want a didactic text to tell me what to do, I’ll read a textbook. But when I want to be inspired and have new values and ideas places into my brainpan with Leonardo DiCaprio levels of Inception, then I want a damn good story that’s got a tuning fork humming at its core.
And I’m not certain you can always aim to write something so perfectly straddling that line. It’s a precarious balance of genre meets theme and it’s hard, like all good things.
Look at Romero’s Dead flicks. Night of the Living Dead spoke of racism so well, and Dawn of the Dead had that wicked consumerism bent behind it, whereas Day of the Dead spoke about the futility of the military industrial complex IN SUBTLE WAYS. Whereas Land of the Dead spoke about equality and the tyranny of any caste system and the need for tolerance and non-violent measures– especially in a post-9/11 world– and it’s fairly on the nose. It means well but it doesn’t have the panache the OG trilogy has [though for my money Dawn has been wildly overrated over time due to it having merely the best premise whereas Day is the cream of that crop so far as execution of all things attempted].
There are plenty of comics that also straddle the line. And it no doubt varies from person to person. I hope you can think of three comics that are about something to you.
I got thinking about all this as I read two comics of recent note that are quite clearly “about something.” I wanted to deconstruct them a little and see what lessons they could impart to us [because taking the subtle and turning it into a didactic column is totally what we all want/need/:[, right?]
I guess we should sound the SPOILERS KLAXON here because I’m not going to try and tip-toe the tightrope walk of talking about these book without going right into what happens.
First up is Airboy [from Image Comics, illustrated by Greg Hinkle, written by James Robinson] and it is a book that scored some huge press on entry and then flipped that good will in the next issue by dropping a very, shall we say, poorly thought out word. Now, I’m not here to adjudicate on this part of the book [that’s another column on its own, surely] but I will say it was a shame. But beyond that poorly brought together slip, I really thought this book had a lot to offer and the fourth and final issue brought that home in a big way for me.
The premise of the book is that Greg and James are tasked by Eric Stephenson [Image Comics EiC] with bringing back a Golden Age comic property, the titular Airboy. We then follow both creators as they dive into a booze/drugs swimming pool for inspiration and find themselves suddenly sitting and chatting with this unreal creation.
From there, we follow the three men on a journey where Airboy samples this world, and finds it wanting, and then they enter Airboy’s world [in story] and the two creative gents have to try to make a difference. It’s four issues and the plot is fun but breezy when you collect it. But it’s the journey along the way that matters and the actual destination we end up at that fascinates me.
The first thing we can see, right up front, is the fearless nature of Greg and James. They present these hyperrealised versions of themselves that are coke fiends, sexual deviants, and outrageously broken men. We can only hope to assume these are caricatures, or just flat out lies made up to enrich the story, but as the story progresses we peel the layers back and slowly the truth comes to light. We see what this book is about.
This is the story of James Robinson and his wildly self-defeating doubt. He’s a creator who had wild success [Starman is the obvious choice] but he’s also felt the sting of the Meh Pile. And now he finds himself at a place where he’s considered old in the game, and he’s stereotyped as the guy who brings the Golden Age charm through a relatively modern lens, and he just doesn’t feel like he’s any good anymore.
And all of this is on the page. Robinson berates himself, self-flagellating, spiralling into the inky centre he no doubt harbours. The first step is admitting you have a problem and Robinson is sinking into a quicksand patch of them. This book very quickly becomes a journey into exploring these issues, and laying them out flat on the table so we can really look over them.
Sharing the fact you don’t feel like a good writer is hard. Spraying those thoughts to the world is even harder. But there’s distance in having a terrible version of yourself do it on the page. There’s also the fact if this guy can be redeemed then maybe there’s hope for you, too.
As the story progresses, and we get meta-levels of story layers, the only narrative arc I could consider was to wonder if Robinson could indeed write Airboy after getting over his self-administered, and anchored, hurdles. In a grand display of action movie star heroism, Robinson tosses Hinkle off a bridge to save him from strafing Nazi fire, and then he blows the bridge, strategic to Airboy’s plan. Or something. Who cares. By then, this isn’t about the fictional war, or the battles, this is about Robinson stepping up. It’s just done well through glitz and design and bombast but the real moment is Robinson finally acting like the man he wants to be, first in narrative hyperbole, and then finally as he and Hinkle discuss the true job at hand.
And in a few panels, shit gets real. Or maybe it’s just me, I dunno, but Robinson cuts to the quick and it floored me. Let’s scope it out:
Robinson’s problem is that he’s comparing himself to the absolute cream of the crop with every page he produces. And of course you should hold yourself to a high standard, you should aim for the bleachers with every swing, but you also can’t die on every hill [though you can OD on mixed metaphors].
Hell, you can even go into a slump, and it doesn’t make you human garbage. But it does pose a crossroads at which you need to choose. Fight or flight.
But before doing that, step off the ledge [melting pot of metaphors on the boil] and consider those last thoughts Hinkle, via Robinson’s script, offers.
You can always be the best version of you that you can be. Comparison be damned. And I teach that to my class – of ten year olds – all the time. Don’t worry about the grades of others, worry about whether you are improving, and whether you are having fun. If one of those is a no, assess why, and hope to fix it.
I believe Airboy is Robinson’s way of working through this by actually doing it at the same time. He’s proving to himself – IRL as well as on the page – that he’s still the talent he is and wants to be. And it’s no shock he’s doing it on something creator owned, and a little different, and obviously so very personal. It’s also Robinson proving he’s his best by exposing his worst.
The book also serves as a great trumpet in my ear, severe noise therapy, to just shut up sometimes and maybe change your self-assessment metrics. Because we all do it. We bury our head in a bucket of tar and look for our souls in there and it’s stupid. It’s also wildly unhelpful.
You write because it’s fun. Yes, you have to do it, I know them feels, but if it’s destroying you, mix your game up. Make it fun. Do what you need to do because the myth of the romantically depressed artist is absolute rubbish. You aren’t broody, you’re an asshole, and you need to change that shit up.
So do like Greg Hinkle says, be the best you that you can be. And remember that some people still respect your work. Highlight those good times, they might just be the breadcrumb trail you need in later times.
For me, very personally, knowing that someone in this tier of the game still needs to remind himself to neck up and just do his best work is so relieving. That he would then create a whole comic about this lesson is sublime. You take the breaking fourth wall [but between the characters on the page and the characters on their page – which is maybe like breaking the wall at about 3.5], and you look over the gorgeous war machine art from Hinkle, as well as his ability to render the male form as both captivating and grotesque, and you see at its core this book is about one thing hidden, mostly, amongst a lot of other apparently larger and more decadent ideas.
I firmly believe writing is therapy, I use it all the time, and having sat through four issues of Robinson with his feet up on the couch, we can all feel better for it. And as Robinson shuffles out the door, and we all pause to realize we can write, we can unclench, we can do this, in walks Rick Remender and he tells us firmly, to our faces, in quite the amplified volume, that not only can’t we do this, we shouldn’t.
But he’s talking about a different kind of writing.
Y’see, to really understand Tokyo Ghost, you need to go back on Remender’s Twitter feed a ways. You need to see the time people got all kinds of out of sorts about him telling a small subsection of people to trip and die in a pool of hobo piss.
Now, again, I’m not here to proselytize on whether you should be advising people you disagree with to trip and die in pools of hobo piss, I can’t adjudicate on that sort of writing. If you wanna roll that way, well, let your freak flag fly. But I am gonna say, social media turns into antisocial media real quick around these parts. You can be a friend and suddenly an enemy at the drop of a 140 character statement.
Now #hobopissgate was just a drop in the ocean compared to Remender’s next online outing which was the furor over him writing Captain America [currently Sam Wilson] hooking up with Jet [whom many misread as being a minor] and suddenly the #firerickremender hashtag was trending and I wish that hashtag was as much a joke as #hobopissgate is. But it is not. People were tweeting the hashtag #firerickremender because they thought he was promoting pedophilia. I think. Even though it’s very clear, in story, with actual words and such, that he never was. But never let the truth get in the way of a good internet lynchin’, and so the hashtag got legs.
I remember seeing it all unfold and looking back I think that was maybe the beginning of the end for Twitter for me. A social platform I love [#love] and now I feel a little sideeye to it most of the time. Lotta people actively looking for an excuse to drink some Hatorade and rage out against the dying of the light.
And that was my initial view just watching this unfold, imagine being Remender.
After that moment, two things happened. Remender stopped being so open on Twitter and using it so freely. He also finally jumped ship from Marvel and cranked out some high quality creator owned work. And I’ve loved every page of it, Black Science is right in my old school EC sci-fi wheelhouse and then Deadly Class blew away the competition and became my favorite comic of 2015. But while those books are about stuff [toxic fatherhood and idiotic adolescence] it is Tokyo Ghost that’s recently made me consider our writing as therapy. Because this book is clearly Remender’s response to the internet.
In Tokyo Ghost, we see a future where people are plugged in all the time. And it’s toxic for them. They constantly have feeds scrolling, they view multiple ideas at once, they aren’t ever private or alone for the incessant noise of the whole goddamn world. It’s titanic and destructive and it’s really pretty much exactly how we live now. As seen through a Sean Gordon Murphy lens, it’s obviously hyped up, and Remender doesn’t shy away from making some of the links and soundbites as smutty as he can consider, but hyperbole aside, this core problem infects our world already.
Social media addiction is real. The ability to ride emotional highs based on Likes and view counts is the most ridiculous real science ever. People procrastinate with screens full of Twitter and Tumblr and Tinder and the ubiquitous and evil Facebook. The input of data to our senses never ends. We just choose to ignore the harm because it’s too subtle, so Remender and Murphy make it bombastic in their comic. Because that’s how sci-fi shows the ills of our own present day ways.
Though I can’t help but feel Tokyo Ghost isn’t that subtle. Led might be addicted to the tech, and he goes into withdrawal when disconnected, and it’s all so terrible– but he also ignores his girlfriend, choosing the tech over her right to her face, and he kinda knows it’s bad, but it’s easy, so he just defaults back into it. I assume everyone can see this is just about people using social media far too much but I really want you to consider the small things. As I read #3 this week and I saw how Led looked and felt better after a while disconnected, how his mind was clear, how he was enjoying the little things once more, all I could think about was wanting to know if Remender felt this way now. He’s removed himself by a fair degree from social media and I hope he’s getting more father time for it, and that his relationships have improved, and that he’s realized that he doesn’t need this online bullshit at all– proved by the quality of his work and the sales stemming from that.
Then it makes me consider how much better I’d feel without social media. Like I said, I love Twitter, but it’s a distraction tool, and you start using it to be social, but then you just clock in to see if you got some of them Hearts clicked on your missives [because being a star was fun but now people have to love you or not when they decide to fave your stuff and there’s no accident that change came about] and you can probably stop and recognize how good you feel when there’s notifications, and how subtly down you feel when there’s nothing despite you dropping five hot tweets in the last hour.
We are all Tokyo Ghosts and I love that Remender took a big box of things from his life [having even a vocal minority scream for your removal from your job– the way you provide for your family– because they misread something must be scary and frustrating and it’d open your eyes to realizing those highs are nowhere near worth the lows] and he painted a whole world just to trap those feels and exorcise them.
That’s what good writing should do, it should help you. It should give you something to aspire to, or help you figure something out, or be the vent for you to get something out. Airboy seems to be about figuring something out and becoming something better by the act of doing whereas Tokyo Ghost is a big fat ol’ vent, and I dig them both for what they offer. It’s nice to read anything that gives me an excuse to analyse my own life– and both of these titles cut very close to the core of things I consider on the reg.
Am I good enough?
Is social media devouring my soul? /slash/ Do I really need to tweet that? [the eternal question for our age]
The books don’t offer answers, but that’s not their purpose. They might be the creators’ ways of finding solutions but they should merely be objects to hold up for the rest of us, to see the light pass through in different colours, and then consider the funhouse reflection of ourselves we see in these characters, premises, moments, lines.
It is important to read stories about something. And it is bloody cathartic to write about something, especially when it’s something worth a damn. So I guess we all ask ourselves the question: what is it we’ve got to say?
Ryan K. Lindsay is a comics writer who has logged time at Dark Horse, Monkeybrain, Vertigo and other esteemed publishers. He currently writes Negative Space, a comic we here at Loser City love quite a bit. You can (and should) pick Negative Space up from your local comic shop ordirectly through Dark Horse.