Not What We Expected To Learn


I must admit that when I say it simply, it still sounds like a silly bit of dinner party wit, even to me, but I actually was part of a socialist comics collective way back in the late 1980s (my early twenties). Each of us had various talents drives and interests, all of us had a goodly dollop of self-seriousness, so it seemed obvious that we could accomplish more if we worked together using what we thought of as our socialist principles, and forged a mighty team of working class propagandists to challenge the oppressive and enslaving system.

Now at this point I could go several different ways, to tell several different stories about it – but like my multiple angle take on “The Arts and Letters Club” I’d rather do several takes together, even if they are at odds in some ways, instead of paring it down artificially to make one narratively clean story that throws away a bunch of perfectly good lessons.

Our Political conception wasn’t crazy, nor was the idea of reaching a big audience with comic books (a hope now several decades in the past). This was the exciting era when Frank Miller was redefining Batman, Bill Sienkiewicz and Alex Ross were adding fine art techniques to make magnificent use of new higher quality printing, and even the always corny DC was getting political and artistically deep. Cool independent comic stores were all over the place (I literally had two open within blocks of me, while I was working on this project).

The story we wanted to tell was designed from the start to include a peek at many levels of society. My experiences as a courier and the senior member’s as a cabbie were especially fertile for clues there. So much of what the upper class always hides from the middle class is actually quite obvious to the working class people who serve their various needs.

We had characters and sub-plots designed to take us into the weapons trade, political corruption, banking and stock market games and the largely hallucinatory (and yet no less harmful) financial system in general. We had a hacker undermining confidence in currency transactions, and even a poor man’s DIY electromagnetic attack on the stock exchange.

The ultimate result was to throw the rich into such a panic about their situation that they called out martial law on the streets of peaceful (and proportionally naive and smug) Toronto. We wanted to show ordinary people reacting to circumstance of extreme state force, and suddenly questioning assumptions which had always seemed adequate in good times.

But all of that fictional drama has been rendered completely anti-climatic by the course of events!

Our traumatic G20 experience (which, as my good friend put it perfectly, proved above all else that former prime minister Steven Harper hated Toronto) showed everyone how fast the hard policies come down, how rapidly citizens rights are dispensed with, and even how vicious some former police chiefs remain about the city that always despised them (Fantino was the rat-bastard behind most of the grotesqueries for which Blair took the heat, like a good soldier – hence Blair’s many political rewards since). Police ultimately paid almost 17 million dollars to citizens who were wrongly arrested and mistreated in this particular display of pointless mass state brutality.

The two thousand and eight financial crisis showed anyone who was paying attention how tenuous, hallucinatory and predatory the financial system really is. A tiny club of arrogant psychopaths gambled with our money and almost destroyed everything – and somehow taxpayers all around the world had to make them rich again to fix it?

Ludicrous, extortionate, and incidentally rock solid proof right from the start that whatever it was that Obama was about, it wasn’t ever left. (‘Murder Tuesdays’ is a close second).

Okay now how about the practical side? Let’s do the good news first. There was one simple thing we did which I must recommend for all working on team efforts – especially if they are, like we were, terribly broke. Every time we showed up for a weekly meeting we each chipped-in five bucks. Not much, but enough that over time when we needed an expensive reference book or key source material, we always had a hundred ready to spend that week – so we didn’t have to wait until we could save it up, before we could move that part of the work forward.

This works just as well for a band, an art collective or even a poetry group. Keep chipping-in a few pennies on the pile, and you can all have access to key tools none could afford alone.

Ah – but what about the really crucial practical part – getting work done? That was a lot more complex. None of us really understood how to put together a comic or how to effectively manage a large creative project, so we made some decisions that were outright silly. My illustrations of buildings and interiors were pretty good at the time, and the other artist had a wonderfully fluid natural line and a good command of human form. We thought we’d do a sort of manga mash-up with clean rapidograph backgrounds by me, and his far more expressive variable-line brushwork or marker figures inhabiting these scenes. I must note, the Bros Hernandez already solved this two-artist problem perfectly. Don’t mix two styles (unless you are expert at this) simply tell one story in one style and another in another, but put them in the same universe and comic book (in their case the brilliant and forward thinking “Love and Rockets”).

Bands also figured out a version of the same lesson – even if some are better at songwriting than others, everyone in the band gets to write a song for the whole group now and then, and it’s better to just let them have their full voice, back them up and give them their chance, than to try to standardize or smooth it out to fit just one predictable and established “house style”.

The big bonus for our foolish decision? I had to turn myself into a photographer, in order to get clear reference shots of all the real world Toronto locations we wanted to use for our story. This even aligned perfectly with my Grandmother insisting I must have a small trove of master prints by my Grandfather – who was an accomplished photographer back in the 1930s – a collection which still inspires (and humbles) me to this day. I did take a pause of almost a decade between analog photography and digital, but as my friends know well, I am overjoyed to be participating in that most fleeting and fascinating medium again. One of those rare arts which we can still access fully even as our bodies become less willing to contort and spend fifteen hours straight, rendering (though I can still get swept away into that sort of binge mixing music, if not inking a drawing).

Our comics collective meetings though? Wow – comical in so many ways I have never quite been able to dismiss the idea of a play (not that I’ll do it, it just suggests itself for that, so eagerly). Not only did we never even finish one single comic, we didn’t even have a final script for the first series – and sillier still – we never even got past endless arguments and decided on a title.

I was strongly in favour of “Faction Comics” as a play on the original “Action Comics” the first comic in which the character Superman appeared. You might think the opposition was from people who didn’t want to pick a fight with the fearsome lawyers at DC comics (not crazy), or from those who wanted no external commercial referent at all (also artistically sound).

WRONG – the part which was deemed unacceptable (and it is completely impossible for me to convey how seriously this was taken, by all concerned) was the doubt about our using the all important revolutionary word “Faction” too casually, and potentially causing harm to it. How dare we risk weakening a tool the proletariat might need for revolution, any minute now?

Exactly how many ways you have to take yourself too seriously to get into a mental trap like that might be impossible to fully innumerate. Multi level self-deception for sure, probably a full philosophical plus a second full psychological infinity. Thank goodness we’ve left that sort of paralyzing pompous blowhard egotistical nonsense firmly behind us nowadays, right folks? ;o)

So now let me do it as a story about people and their feelings. I was a newlywed and an apprentice technician at the time. I was also playing weekly (if not more) in an improvising ensemble. Since I always loved comics and loved to draw, I stared working on a comic about myself and a few of my courier pals (the job I had just left) who saw a lot of funny things around the city that others would not ever suspect. Mostly it was just a way for me to make fun of the customers who really drove me nuts, since you can’t ever speak hilariously simple truth right to an asshole-customer’s face until you own the place, and by the time you’ve got that much debt on your shoulders, you no longer rank your dignity ahead of their money!

Anyhow – I had a good bit of fun with it – especially playing with weird panel layouts. I was and remain somewhat obsessed with Will Eisner – one of the earliest and still one of the most creative comic book artists of all time. Soon I had my technician character making a few slightly post-reality gadgets – long before cellphones or even laptops, I wanted to give him a small portable computer (a “Wearable” in modern parlance) that he and his best buddy could use to hack bank machines. From there I started thinking about how the banking system would react to tech like that – and how much of a mess it could become politically, if a Robin Hood intention like that got too popular, too fast (the concept of “Virality” had yet to be invented then – like the internet itself).

My friends liked the silly comics I was making. We talked a little about how much bigger a story we could make if we pooled our efforts. Slowly, the team project began to form.

This is a really nifty stage in all kinds of groups of pals. I’ve seen clusters of friends turn into fantastic bands, become wild and interesting little schools of art, and even drive each other on to write poetry with truly heroic courage, where others with very similar capacities never dared try anything more risky than whatever would bring them a passing mark in school.

Excellence is something we almost always do with others – and they do it to us, every bit as much as we then do it to the world. Hanging out is fantastic, I honestly think friendship is the single most underrated experience in life itself. But I am still endlessly fascinated by how many other things a group of friends can suddenly become, when an idea takes hold of all of them.

One of the mistakes I made back then, which I could only see years later, was to pressure my older friend into taking a leadership role because of his intellect, even though the other lead artist and I were relentlessly and naturally productive, and he’d never managed to forge that habit. As Idries Shah brilliantly said, “Affection does not produce capacity.” Then again, this sort of false modesty blind-spot is a lot easier to create when you feel fatherless and would love some caring mentoring. Thing is, he was kindly offering me this anyhow, and I should have left it at that and been glad of it, instead of handing him the helm of something that was already working well for me.

Outside of discovering a life long passion for photography, the second best bonus for this dead-end project was the fantastic time Catherine and I had making up characters. We started on this the day after the other guys decided to join the project. We sat down in the corner of a large restaurant at King and Bathurst (Cadillac Jacks at the time), began to survey the busy restaurant full of King street artists and scene people (there were glorious acres of cheap rent studios down there back then) and the long bar full of Friday afternoon businessmen, I spread out my notebooks, and the wacky characters just started presenting themselves to us, one after another, fully realized.

Alongside my original technician and his neighbours we soon had an arms dealer named Pierre Monaic (as close as we could get to maniac, though he was personally refined and snooty) a banker named Phil T Luchre, a bike courier named Despaccio, and a canny high-class prostitute who could provide a narrative link between these odd worlds, named Keri Meighoff.

I have enjoyed collaborations with many others on music, art, writing and even game design, but I have to say I have never had more fun or created in a happier spirit than with Catherine, rare as these treats remain. She is not only ultra fast of wit and funny with backstories and people observations, but also an intuitive monster with a TR808 Drum machine – if only they hadn’t become the Ur prize for hip-hop posers (and instead remained the obscure phone-jack candyland of the CV synth crowd) I might still be able to put one in front of her, and we could all be dancing to the resultant raptures. ;o)

So here’s one final lesson I learned which seems important. We started as a team of three, and in a rather over-serious way we made clear formal agreements about our approach, our way of working together, and especially our respect for one another’s process. Soon after we began the legwork for our grand project, a fourth person wanted to join, but he made it clear from the outset that he did not want to agree with any of the agreements we three had already made, even though they weren’t restrictive, and were clear and fair (albeit somewhat formal).

I felt sure that he should either agree as we had all agreed, or else remain an associate to the project, rather than a key member of the team. I was outvoted. But sure enough, the dynamic changed from that point on – that was when the importance of making creative progress became stifled and then completely overwhelmed by petty arguments about political theory instead.

I still have a stack of preliminary drawings and studies I did for the project – and I went on to fail all by myself at an even more ambitious comic project (based upon the extraordinary Soviet space station program, a rescue of Mir from Salyut Seven, to be precise) – so I don’t want to sound as if I was thwarted by this funny failure. I learned tons and tried even harder afterward.

But I did feel it was necessary to close the crazy and frustrating chapter properly. Hence this very silly two-page spoof of our efforts, a nice memento of lessons learned.

I know I’m not the only one with a creative metabolism like this (Bradbury hints at a very similar dynamic in his “Zen and the Art of Writing”). Something sits in your head and just drives you sort of nuts. You turn it over looking at the different angles, you try to understand if there were clues you ignored, you wonder what you should have said or done differently – right up until you manage a satisfying creative articulation of the key point – and then it has finally been said and you don’t ever have to spend any more time worrying about how to say it. Phew! Next (Au suivant! – in the Brel-est possible way) ;o)

Yeah, I know – not that anything in the universe ever stopped me from going on rather a lot about pretty much anything at all, right?

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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