Let Some Birds Fly to Catch the Worm – On Writing

Good friend and collaborator John O’Hara told me to focus on getting CS done. “Let some birds fly to catch the worm,” he said. Those little gems folks pass on fill the sails.

I haven’t sent an update to the CS Kickstarters in a while. I’m not thrilled that the project has taken so long to get done. So instead of updating I’m waiting until I have something tangible to share. That should be very soon. Possibly next week.

Now, on to a random firing of neurons manifesting in black marks on a white background.

I think about when I started this project, nearly eight years ago, writing feverishly on the Trolley on the way to work, early in the morning, smell of stale beer and old ciggy-refries from the can collector on his way to the El Cajon Recyc Center, sound of Manu Chau “Welcome to Tijuna” in my headphones, feeling inspired and writing as fast as my hand could dictate the ideas in my head on a semi-fresh Moleskin with a black ink Signo Uni-ball.

That morning, the character of the Alchemist appeared, near fully formed in my head.

Rodia Grigoryevitch Zaytsev, AKA The Alchemist (El Paraguas – The Umbrella)

Owner of The InterZone, COO of Arnelle Liquidation Associates.

The Alchemist is a tall, barrel chested man who is balding with a large beard that rests on his chest, full lips, deep-set eyes and aquiline nose with a prominent bridge. He has double-zero gauge ear lobe plugs and is usually pictured wearing a rubber apron with large black rubber gloves, he is also sometimes seen in a meticulously tailored three piece suit. He smokes cigars. Drinks mescal. He is hacked into the Agility DAS Surveillance network and can watch things happening all around the city.

He was refined over time but the basic concept remained. From there Anton and Xispa and Arellano manifested and the initial treatment for Caustic Soda was totally different from what I have now but I loved every aspect of creating the world of these characters.

The real thrill of writing is the doing. Getting it out. Working it out. Finding that rhythm that happens when the story is hot on the brain pan and you can’t stop thinking about what happens next. How your characters will react and what will become of them in the fictional sequence of events unraveling from wherever they are conjured.

I’ve had interactions with writers. “Writers.” Man, they’ll tell you all about the idea for the story they’re planning on writing. Bragtalk about the vintage typewriter they set up in their cloistered space, where they machete narratives from the tangled jungle of ideas. There are those who’ll try and convince you that writing is something “they love to do.” They love writers and the writerly things they do. Drinking scotch, staying up late, speaking like Old Bull or Bukowski. Name dropping. Smoking cigarettes. Listening to Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Random sex. Bad relationships. Heartbreak. Pain. Whatever helps you get the words out, indulge those impulses but not at the expense of the work. The work is what matters. Words, rather.

My grandfather, survivor of a few bypasses, was diagnosed with ALS in his nineties. Just recently he found out he has terminal cancer on top of his terminal ALS. Unable to communicate, he wrote “I wish I had more time to do everything.” At 92, even 100 years of life seems insufficiently short.

Paycheck is a real drag though, man. Writing takes time and effort. Time is in short supply. The economies of art making are asymmetrical. My mentor and friend, Harold Jaffe writes, “Possibly the hardest factor for concerned younger artists to accept is that there will always be an incommensurateness between their imaginative efforts and results. The primary obligation is to not avert your eyes: to bear witness.”

CS is an action sci-fi western. Peripherally, it is an examination of technology, surveillance and power. A look at the drug war, mediated and filtered through graphic narrative.

It’s real and its unreal.

Imaginings of an ideal. Point is, you have to get the work out. Find writers who write and want to share their work. Writers who talk about writing are full of shit. Myself included.

I try to be less full of shit everyday.

Embrace being one of the unrehearsed.

With CS, at least in the beginning, I was working from my gut. Punk rock graphic narrative. My script for Issue 1 was a mess to navigate. No wonder it took two years for Dan to illustrate it. I sent him 5 or 6 versions over the course of two years.

Of interest is a recent quote from Scott McCloud on Tatsumi [read full post on AV Club]:

And then gradually [Tatsumi’s] artistic convictions began to overtake his survival instincts until finally he was able to do something that was more meaningful in the long run to him and more aesthetically adventurous. But there’s still that sense that you are as an artist, this is your job and you’re part of a society that only values you to the extent that you can give society what it’s looking for, what it wants. And that determines the shape of that career, and so you can feel a bit like a pinball just going from bumper to bumper trying to make your way in that life. But in the end, those artistic convictions did carry Tatsumi through it all. And without some kind of coherent aesthetic desire or sense of mission, one can just get rolled over by the day-to-day needs. And I see a lot of artists suspended in the present. I see artists just trying to work to do what they think everybody wants to see, and I feel as if I can already see how it’s going to end up. Even if they’re talented, even if they’re getting some success, if they’re not stretching beyond that, then it may not end happily for them. Fortunately, Tatsumi did transcend that day-to-day struggle.

Getting space to create. That is the struggle. Time as well. Those two are like twin helix, space and time.

Back to CS. Rodia, the Alchemist, doesn’t suffer fools. He’s a killer and a poet. Foil to Anton Nevona. I imagined him as a modern day Raskolnikov (his name “Rodia” is Raskolnikov’s patronym) minus the conflicts of conscious or propensity for being a bumbling fuck up.  I saved the bumbling fuck up character for Anton–modeled him after someone I know intimately, the cowardice and the desire to not be exposed as a coward. But The Alchemist was also born of my impression of “K” from The Trail if he were instead a functionary of the state rather than a man trapped in the absurd spiral of prosecution and bureaucracy. A killer and an accomplice. A realist. Someone to build a better mousetrap. A guy who will always fail better.

Putting together a 3 issue mini-series on a DIY budget is a big accomplishment. Getting the words to appear as illustrations by a capable and talented artist is an accomplishment. Convincing people that the vision and the story are worth supporting is an accomplishment. I have no idea if anyone will “like it.”

Writers, they’ll tell you that the work they do is solitary. Lonely. That writing is therapeutic. Cathartic. Sure those things are true. But anyone who identifies as a writer cannot possibly be a writer without readers.

Over the summer I was approached by a gentleman who wanted to make CS into a film. I put together a synopsis. Sent it out. Tried to follow up. Tried to connect. Nothing doing. Did I dream momentarily of going “pro”? Yeah. I did. I reached out and made some connection but it wasn’t quite enough. Did I take it personally? Yeah. It takes so much energy to make a movie.

How the fuck do so many shitty movies get made? A friend who works in the movie biz agreed to look at my pages and he was incredibly generous and helped me refine the piece. If there were more of this type of dude helping young writers/artists navigate the sea of bullshit, maybe less shitty movies would get made. But he’s just one fella. I owe him a debt. No bullshit goes a long way. Really, it does. That goes for those folks in your inner circle. You know the ones who always encourage you despite the chorus of disapproval in your head, telling you it can’t be done. Hold those people dear.

Getting discouraged by rejection can be kryptonite to any creator. Any creator worth a shit will plug their ears and keep hacking away at that jungle until they clear a semi-coherent path to the gooey center.

Fail better. Always.

This post is a fail better post. Somewhat random and incoherent, loosely tied together with string, barely wrapped for your delectation.

Within the next few months, Caustic Soda Hello, the War is Here will be done. Nearly 80 pages of a graphic narrative about a guy bumbling his way through a dangerous and indifferent world.