Comics: Can They Be for Kids?

(Text of an address given to the OCM BOCES School Library System in Syracuse, NY, on April 28, 2017, in advance of the organization’s activities centered on Free Comic Book Day, May 6, 2017.)

This is a question that actually gets pondered a lot these days, as admirers of the artform lament its shrinking audience, and feel that a once youth-oriented medium has turned its back on the readership that first made it a phenomenon.


(art by David Mack)

The built-in irony, of course, is that at their height in America, comics were considered for kids but not good for them; at best a rudimentary gateway to “real” reading, in prose novels, and at worst a corrupting and coarsening pastime that would spoil them for literature if not indeed induce them to mass-murder.


The medium would hover between self-consciousness and self-confidence for many eras; the empirically unsound association of comics with so-called juvenile delinquency would help spell the demise of superhero and horror comics judged respectively fascist and depraved, but the readership too was hungering to stay loyal to the artform while putting away childish things — GIs who had just saved the world from a real-life supervillain in World War Two wanted to read about real life, so comics about their war experiences briefly became popular…


(art by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby)

…EC, the company that anti-comics crusaders had focused on, gambled to keep its already uncommonly adult audience by replacing its lurid horror parables with more grounded subject matter…



(art by Johnny Craig [upper] and Jack Kamen [lower])

…the first attempts at novel-length, everyday-world comics were made…


(art by Matt Baker)

…and romance comics, the most successful of any of these endeavors, flooded the shelves, both enforcing domestic norms and acknowledging the value of loving rather than fighting, for the largest female audience American comics had ever had to that point or would have for decades after.


(art by Jack Kirby & Joe Simon)

When superheroes returned with the optimistic, world-saving attitude of the JFK years, Marvel Comics in particular sought to split the juvenile/adult difference by incorporating the soap-opera of the romance comics into their superhero stories, and by actively engaging the social issues that raged in the 1960s and courting a college-age readership that began to gravitate toward their comics.


(art by John Romita, Sr.)

Kids do tend to sense when they’re being condescended too though, and attempts to “elevate” the medium, which were prefaced on the assumption that the medium was inferior and its readers in need of intervention, were often the true ephemera. Several generations will still remember being dissuaded from reading comics or literature from the stiff, institutional Classics Illustrated…


(artist unknown)

…and the wave of “relevant” comics, though legitimate benchmarks in the artform’s process of maturation, were ridiculed widely even in their day, by kids who didn’t know, and didn’t have to, that many of these comics originated in then-President Nixon’s appeal to comics publishers to somehow influence the tide of youthful drug use.


(art by Neal Adams)

The inauthenticity was plain to kids and teens being lectured across the so-called generation gap, though this experience probably gave a lot of them their first exercise in ironic distance from pop-cultural proselytizing.

Still, we find ourselves participating in a lecture about comics today; and in classrooms and cultural centers around the world. This is partly because the ambition and sophistication of the medium has steadily evolved; we don’t need comic abridgments of classic novels, because some comics fill the role of complex reflections on eternal issues themselves.


It is also in part because the very currency of cultural legitimacy has shifted; through a combination of generational turnover and dissolution of top-down definitions of what qualifies as significant art — not just academic but vernacular, not just European but Global, not just industrial but aboriginal, not only narratives and perspectives which favor the patriarchal — the value of art in different modal voices is more recognized as a scope of inquiry into how we can express ourselves and understand each other.

There is in fact scholarship dating back to the first half of the 20th century that indicates that the immediacy and attractiveness of comics helps develop literacy by engaging reluctant readers. A typical sentiment comes from a 1944 study that affirmed that “instruction must begin in the ongoing activities and concerns of the learner and that its effectiveness depends on the efficiency of the form of communication that is employed.” In the post-World War II period, Will Eisner, who had made his name with an adult-aimed, newspaper-supplement comic, The Spirit, which established many of the techniques we see in acclaimed graphic novels today…



…was employed by the U.S. military to produce a journal in comic form to impart techniques of preventive maintenance on vehicles and weaponry, which saved real lives; to this no-nonsense branch of government, the educative potential of comics was clear.



Ben Katchor, a contemporary cartoonist who was the first to get a MacArthur fellowship, amusingly yet pointedly asserts his view that literature without pictures is a relatively brief anomaly in the history of human narrative; that heavy illustration was common in the Victorian novel, for instance, and this tendency has reasserted itself in the current surge of graphic literature.


(art by Gustave Doré)

Much has been said and studied about the way that meaning is constructed, and shades of interpretation enabled, by the comic form’s requirement of simultaneous textual reading and visual experience, and the higher understanding that coalesces in the mind’s reconciliation of these modes. The most groundbreaking exploration of these ideas, and of the way that comics can embody the processing and perception of complex relationships because each page is both a linear progression of narrative, and a system of juxtaposed images, moments in time, etc., is Unflattening by Dr. Nick Sousanis, a thesis on cognition that he produced as a comic, to demonstrate to us and keep discovering for himself the way that creativity by its nature is a path to comprehension.




(art by Nick Sousanis [above three])

This of course is a scale model of the information environment we all now live in. The visual has more primacy now than it has since the eras of hieroglyphics or religious stained-glass windows; in the current day, this is not just a matter of the displacement of the page by the (smartphone/tablet/TV) screen, where the image is dominant even though literal text still plays a major role; the complex of media we now experience is sensed spatially, a concept which makes the visual more accentuated because it is more unframed.



The page of a book is a container of information; now, the information stream surrounds us — in simultaneous audio feeds to our earbuds, textual information on our phones, and news or personal messages while we work on a computer, along with the animated billboards, monumental projections, lasers and neon of the modern public space and, soon enough, the cartoon phantoms and floating readouts of augmented reality and head-up display.

Helmet & shield


Comics both model this simultaneity, and provide a means of following it at a personalized pace. (And, often, at a size comparable to the intimate scale that we have become attached to in handheld devices.)

Thus, comics have gone beyond an aid to conventional reading; to decipher a way of life defined by systems of information is a matter not just of literacy, but citizenship; in the semiotic sense of symbols and social standards and competing beliefs all being a kind of language, texts surround us, and comics contain the apparatus to navigate these meanings.

The librarian and comics theorist Damian Duffy points out that comics fandom provided a prototype of the kind of selective cultural communities that later became common on the internet; Philadelphia librarian Matt Catron told me that his branch’s commitment to holding comic cons is intended to strengthen a sense of community by acknowledging and serving the distinct affinity groups of comics fans and cosplayers; Queens, NY children’s librarian Maryanne Olson told me that she mindfully builds graphic-novel and manga collections that will expose her dominant population to the narratives of cultures not their own, so that “the library can be a space of encounter.”

In doing this, she speaks of the balance between “the mirror and the window,” though the mirror can catch passersby too, and everyone has become more aware of how important that mirror is to those who have not been accustomed to seeing themselves reflected anywhere else.

Such identities are usually formulated in youth, of course, and it’s interesting, in light of our opening question, that the current wave of comic characters representing an unprecedented range of cultures and gender associations includes so many who are also kids. The most publicized ones have been Kamala Khan, the Muslim-American teen Ms. Marvel…


(art by Adrian Alphona [left] and Sara Pichelli [right])

…and RiRi Williams, the 15-year-old successor to Tony Stark, known as Ironheart.


(art by Jeff Dekal)

The latter is part of a telling parallel trend, of youthful heroes, often female and kids of color, who excel at science or other cerebral pursuits. Myths of inferior intellect are dispelled and ambition is modeled by Lunella Lafayette, the 9-year-old inventor known as Moon Girl…


(art by Amy Reeder)

…Nadia Pym, the young-adult Russian exile who’s recruiting an institute of unheralded girl scientists and is known as The Wasp…



(art by Elsa Charretier [upper and lower])

…boy-genius (and current Hulk) Amadeus Cho…


(art by Stonehouse)

…and my and artist Paolo Leandri’s own oceanography prodigy and highschool-sophomore mutant mermaid, Mirta del Mar, Aquaria.



(art by co-creator Paolo Leandri, colors by Dominic Regan)

Each issue of The Wasp’s comic has an interview with two real-life woman scientists in its backmatter, and popular comics from entirely on the real-life side include the recent Primates, a charming and textured entwined biography of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas.


(art by Maris Wicks)

Characters like these represent what I believe is a fundamental shift in the aspirational nature of superheroes. In his pioneering work of comics analysis, The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer recalls how much he hated Batman’s sidekick, Robin, for the reason that he could dream about one day being Batman, but he had no time to become this perfect boy champion. By contrast, characters like Ms. Marvel and Ironheart are the headliners, and very popular with fans. Whereas Robin is someone a 1940s boy already couldn’t be, yet a standard they felt held to, the Lunellas and Kamalas, flawed, promising and underestimated, are each variations of who a 2010s girl already is, but hasn’t been valued as.


The Queens children’s librarian, Maryanne Olson, told me that when she surveyed the kids about what they wanted to see more of in comics, “more girls” was the choice of both the girls and the boys; this is one demonstration of how comics can create and cross communities.

Another is a remarkable project by the Italy-based NGO known as COSV in which kids from mainstream Lebanese society collaborated on making comics with kids from Palestinian refugee camps, as a way to get these mutually isolated groups to appreciate each other; the program has paired kids and comics professionals from several other countries as well, including Jordan, Morocco, and Macedonia.




Free Comic Book Day programs could include such collaborations — cooperative activities provide a good social model for developing personalities, and the enjoyment of the process helps endear kids to a lifelong-learning practice.

There could also be discussion sessions, in which views are respected but can be put to the test. Graphic novels like Marguerite Van Cook’s The Late Child, about growing up in the rubble of postwar London…


(art by James Romberger, color by Marguerite Van Cook)

…or Kindred, an adaptation of Octavia Butler’s classic tale of time-travel to the slavery era, can put kids in the shoes of those facing traumas we still feel the effects of today.


(art by John Jennings)

And cultural relations are portrayed at least once as farce and once as tragedy in the selection of Free Comics your area has received. The Fresh off the Boat: Legion of Dope-itude comic has fun with both the conventions of superhero fiction and the assumptions of ethnic stereotype, while tucked into the back of the Avatar comic is a story from Briggs Land, a series about a Cliven Bundy-style bunker community of White Nationalists. These two alone cover a valuable spectrum of both hopes for harmony, and anxieties about division, that may be on your kids’ minds in these times.



(art by Jorge Corona [upper] and Tula Lotay [lower])

Between hands-on comic-making, and discussion of comics, could be a concepting session for some new story or character.

What personal experience makes a good story? What would constitute honesty and how can the strict facts be imaginatively embellished? What kind of fictional world would you see as desirable, and which might you see as dystopian?


(“Ms. America”/America Chavez art by Jamie McKelvie)

What kind of hero might you create — when you think of a hero or villain, what traits of behavior or characteristics of appearance do you picture, and what may this say about how you view your peers of different backgrounds, or certain public figures you see in the media?



(art by Frank Espinosa [upper and lower])

Comic artist and educator Frank Espinosa told me how, in conceiving the content and flavor of some educative comics he and writer Sajan Saini did for the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab and School of Engineering, he wanted to aim the work at “the 10-year-old inside of the scientist. The more we talked to them, the more I could see their eyes light up at a sentence or a word — that moment in time was what I wanted to capture; the wonder that got them started on this long journey.”

So, comics are for villages, and children, and teachers and anyone else who isn’t done learning.

Great thanks to Matt Catron, Allison Comes, Damian Duffy, Frank Espinosa, Arlene Frei, Maryanne Olsen, Andrea Plazzi, Sajan Saini, Nick Sousanis and Andrea Viscusi

Fuller references and further reading:

Damian Duffy dissertation:

Nick Sousanis’ online journal:

Be the Force

Carrie Fisher 1956 — 2016


Since a long time ago it’s been easy to forget that in a decade far, far away, the Empire and the Rebel Alliance were besties compared to the partisans for Lucas or Spielberg, some of us loyal to Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘s cosmic exchange-program ethereality, and others to the first Star Wars‘ galactic ass-kicking spectacle. I was a snob about Star Wars from opening week; the plotlines from Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and the checklist from Joseph Campbell’s collected works and the more-than-passing resemblances to Dune and Foundation and Flash Gordon, as well as the nostalgia for morally uncomplicated warfare, all seemed like stuff my 13-year-old self had seen before. One thing I’d never seen was the upfront, indispensable presence of a female hero, whose leadership and steely wisdom were admired more than (though at the same time as) her attractiveness and feminine identity were acknowledged. Carrie Fisher didn’t break any precedents with this role, she created one. And then went on to make her personal truth as much of a pop-culture classic as the fantasy she first became widely known for — all the more an achievement as we moved further into an era of filtered and staged “reality.” Redefining admissible womanhood with unapologetic self-acceptance and personal style; making marks as memoirist, novelist, scriptwriter, social observer and public counselor; hilariously disrupting the conventions of celebrity comportment because she was a continual, natural “character,” she showed generations what it looks like to be yourself. It’s why anybody can be as brave and irreverent and realistic and kvetchy and joyous as she was whether they’re fighting the addiction and mental illness her honest witness helped keep at bay, or some completely different demon, and why her life story was about so much more than her. She didn’t have answers, but she was always willing to talk, and she taught much more often than she may have known. We’d never seen anyone like her, and it’s her greatest testament that, in more and more ways, we will.



The election-cycle of 2016 may go down as The Year Without Context…but just because candidates like Trump and Johnson have an intolerably narrow focus doesn’t mean voters and pundits have to part company with reason to counter them.

When Trump said Obama was the “founder” of ISIS, the sentences which immediately followed made clear that he was speaking more metaphorically about America’s imperial stance creating enemies down the line — an important policy point that Hillary herself has not heeded in her Senate votes or her State Department performance, though, since Trump is an imbecile, and fixates onto whatever line gets audience acclaim like a five-year-old who doesn’t know when to let a joke go, he doubled down on the very word the media were gleeful to isolate.

When Johnson didn’t remember where or what Aleppo is or why he should care, he regrouped almost immediately, showing a firm grasp of the Syria debacle, not to mention an utterly irresponsible vision of the U.S. somehow ceasing the bloodshed by trusting in Putin and Assad’s collusive good intentions.

Aspiring leaders-of-everything like this provide more than enough lack of substance to be called out on; those of us who live by the soundbite can die by the negation.

I remember calling up the local Libertarian congressional candidate the first year I was eligible to vote, and asking him about animal-rights issues, and him fumbling for a minute before saying his party had no position on such issues, but might be for animal welfare measures since pets are “property” — those looking for an alternative to Trump like to see the Libertarians as being trustworthy technicians who are above politics; Johnson’s logistically thorough and emotionally perfunctory view of Syria is just another demonstration that his party is above citizenship and basic human community.

The Greens in this country are more a party of symbol than a matter of fact, focusing on national stature more than building foundations for a meaningful presence up the social chain from school boards to town councils to statehouses (though the symbolism Jill Stein purveys, and the spotlight it can attract to issues that are under-reported by the media and under-acknowledged by politicians, like the Dakota Access pipeline, could be a crucial supplement to supposed liberal standard-bearer Clinton’s conscience).

Ironically, since she’s the only nominee left standing who has significant government experience, Hillary Clinton is the candidate judged most on her deeds rather than her words. Every week it seems that an extra shoe drops that makes it necessary for me to strenuously block out facts in order to take the self-preserving step of voting for her in a field of contenders who are even more remote, rightward, or questionably viable than she is.

Context is, in this case, not everything but nothing. Giving Hillary our vote may be the best way of buying a bit of time. But how did we get to the point where, to avert the unthinkable, we have to agree not to think?

The one you’re with


Lotta hostility in the webmosphere, from both “sides” in the Bernie/Hillary contest — if, strangely, a bit more from the “winning” one — and I think it’s because both of us still feel helpless. When that happens, blame is what balms us, because that’s always something to “do,” after the fact, when we feel we can’t do anything beforehand. For weeks, I’ve seen some Bernie supporters talking about who they’ll “blame” once Trump gets elected, since Hillary seems less likely to beat him in polls; ever since Hillary claimed victory, the posts warning Bernie-ites to vote for Hillary or be responsible for everything from mass deportations to nuclear war have increased exponentially. We all fear this country is in an irreversible decline, and are focusing on the recriminations.

Whether Bernie or Hillary became president (and Hillary still might), it would be the beginning of 4-8 years of hard work for every one of us, either to hold them to their promises or make sure they can get anything done (we all went to sleep after Obama won in ’08, thus ceding the the country, and maybe the future, to the extreme right in 2010).

Blame is a passive sport. Bernie supporters, it’s A VOTE; voters’ choices in a democracy are sacred, and I don’t consider any of my friends who chose Hillary to be agents of military intervention or mass surveillance; only the leaders themselves do those things, and we citizens have to stay on (free-)speaking terms. And Hillary backers, it’s A CAMPAIGN; candidates fight it out and raise controversies and stay in for the sake of the many people who supported them, and if they don’t win, they sometimes continue to lead their constituency, because all voices are supposed to be at the table in a democracy.

Let’s all keep talking — to each other — and working, rather than just talking. As to November, Bernie-ites, if the system is rigged, then I guess those who pull the lever for Hillary aren’t “culpable” anyway (spoiler: they aren’t in any way either); and Hillary-ites, since Hillary “got more popular votes than anyone,” then if the relative minority who didn’t vote for her in primaries don’t vote for her in the general, it won’t affect her chances, let alone be an endorsement of sexism and genocide. To both “sides”: do the math.

Guess We Can’t?


I think the main reason to paint Bernie Sanders as the candidate of the too-young is that he and they have two generations of libelous stereotypes in common. His lack of “realism” is code for the 1960s counterculture that produced him, a hippie stereotype that’s been rebooted for the well-informed, clear-eyed millennials who respond to his message. Bill Clinton ran against his own involvement in the dissent of the ’60s, and Hillary invokes an antagonism to it in how she characterizes Bernie.

At the same time, she tries to portray herself as a more legitimate veteran of it. It’s been well-memed that Bernie’s credentials as a principled and dignified dissident in those days are much stronger and more clearly documented than Hillary’s (she was supporting ultra-right candidate Barry Goldwater in the same era). The interpretation of the years since presents a similar paradox.

Sanders, a bit absurdly for a 74-year-old man, is depicted as some naive outsider, and Clinton, as the resourceful professional who has made the system work from within. But Bernie has been in the system for 35 years, holding office and getting elected to ever higher positions and accomplishing many progressive goals.

He is a living example of how humanist values can survive in the context of American politics; he is only a rare one because it is so seldom tried, and the machinery of political parties’ leadership tends to discourage it and desert its adherents.

And yet, while the “New Democrat” movement spearheaded by Bill Clinton has capitulated time and again to the right wing of the GOP, often before the legislative battle begins (on lopsided, corporation-favoring trade deals; on wars of choice), Bernie has gotten significant legislation passed, to make alternative energy affordable, to protect pensions, to help ensure healthcare for veterans, to reign in excesses of the financial class, in many cases with Republican co-sponsors.

Hillary, on the other hand, is not known for adjusting the ideals of the ’60s, but abandoning them. Her legislative record is almost 100-percent Republican (voting for the Iraq War, the PATRIOT Act, etc.). She runs on a background of accomplishments —- like her signature service with the Children’s Defense Fund — that all occurred when she was not holding elective office; and when she was a policy-maker in the first Clinton White House, the CDF’s founder broke with her bitterly over the social services gutted by the 1996 “welfare reform” she championed; not the most encouraging indicator for when she might govern. Most troubling of all, she runs not only on what Bernie “can’t” accomplish (i.e., single-payer national healthcare), but on what she herself couldn’t (i.e., her failed “Hillarycare” of the early 1990s, which in fact was defeated due to another clumsy ceding of the narrative to the plan’s opponents) — this rallying cry of expectations curtailed before you start should not be an agenda for anyone to feel they are voting “for.”

Bernie’s generation of youth saw the world for what it wasn’t but should be; many of his peers self-destructed in antagonizing radicalism, or self-defeated in joining the status quo and becoming indistinguishable from it. Some, like Bernie, adapted their convictions to the daily realities of those they seek to serve, and keyed their message to the interests that reasonable, struggling people can share. The current young generation sees very sharply “how the world works,” and recognizes, in paralyzing student debt and narrow employment prospects and perpetual war and environmental peril, that it is not working for them. They are ready to do the work of citizenship themselves, seasoned by the uphill battle against moneyed interests and conformist politics and ingrained demoralization and suppressed democratic processes they have already taken on in supporting Sanders. They are hearing his call to participate in their own country and destiny, based on the example he has set for decades; not to trust in a unitary figure to do as president the exact opposite of everything she is on record as having worked for (war, big business, secrecy) in previous positions.

There’s a big difference between being tempered by the realities of politics and being compromised by its preconceptions. If Bernie is not the standard-bearer for a genuinely-named Democratic Party in November, it won’t be because of what he “couldn’t” do, but because of what the elites of our divided society, and we its weary and discouraged citizens, won’t do.

Do It Yourself


When did we become a country that always insists on “facing reality” rather than challenging the odds? It’s probably a mark of our detachment from the processes of true democracy that the concept of persuasion rather than conquest has become so unknown to us — the majoritarianism of the Reagan era put an end to discussion, and Bush the First’s militarism put an end to diplomacy, and subsequent Democratic presidents left those gaps in place, since it makes their own base and hopefully the broad electorate easier to manage.

The media, fixated not so much on the status quo as on predictable outcomes, since they too have been influenced by this national allegiance to the undemanding, is already fitting the Sanders campaign into a pre-set narrative of his inability to “win.” When Sanders says the race is not about electing a candidate but spurring a revolution, it is editorialized that he’s softening the blow of defeat for his supporters; when he vows to keep campaigning after losing more Super Tuesday states than he won, he’s described as “defiant.”

The first assumption makes no room for the idea that campaigns can be for principles rather than personalities; the premise of the second is that hierarchy supersedes all legitimate issues that might be raised, and the “frontrunner” must be deferred to. In a nation of followers, demoralization sets in when the single individual that citizens have focused their hopes on is defeated or departs from his or her principles; Sanders’ emphasis on a movement rather than one man is disruptive to the permanent bureaucracy’s status quo and to the media’s predictable narrative.

A dynamic electorate necessitates an alert leadership and media; that alertness requires adaptability and dialogue. The presumptively foregone nature of Hillary Clinton’s nomination is the only criterion by which Sanders or any other challenger could be considered “defiant” (and I suspect that the stability of Clinton’s dynastic ascent is a comforting concept to a media that refused to see the viability of Trump).

Inexorable succession of established interests and familiar political brands has set in as a generational commonplace — for the first 25 years of my life, only one president (Reagan) ever completed two terms (LBJ got in because someone was shot, then only ran again once; Nixon left less than halfway through his second term to avoid imprisonment; Ford served out Nixon’s time and was never elected at all; and Carter was cashiered after four years), so political ferment felt natural. In the subsequent 25, excepting Bush Sr.’s single term, *every* president got reelected and stayed in, be it Bill Clinton (originally sent to Washington with less than a majority in a three-way race, and later surviving an impeachment), Bush 2 (originally installed by a court order), or Obama (elected handily each time yet opposed by at least half the country, and not just the yahoos but his disillusioned base too). America can scarcely remember a time when elected office was not a prize of the dominant rather than a dispensation of the masses.

Ironically, as the Contract With America/Tea Party/Trump revolution the post-Reagan GOP stoked now spins completely out of the old-guard’s control and the post-Clinton New Democrat takeover has long since supplanted that party’s traditionally liberal rank-and-file, we’ve seen the DNC do everything it can to cement a one-candidate primary season (not yet successfully) while Republican figureheads like Romney are calling their voters to ensure a contested convention (in the likely case that truly nothing Trump does can cause a self-destruct) — on the surface a strange switch of the parties’ historically-assigned egalitarian and top-down roles, but with each endeavor in fact designed to keep the lid on the independence of each party’s own voters.

In representative politics anywhere else in the world, and in our own country before 1984, a crowded field and a contest of ideas was a given. That kind of debate emulates an involved discussion among the populace, while current American leadership merely models submission to authority. But in 2016, the feeling of either “side” having an heir-apparent and of business-as-inevitable is lower than it’s been in 30 years, and voters’ sense of investment in and influence over the outcome (both Democrats and Republicans) is higher than at any point in that time. The real reason that political and media establishments alike fear Trump and Sanders is that they represent popular choice. Trump is additionally feared, of course, because he’s asking people to “choose” a dictator; in the oligarchy that America has become, Sanders is even scarier to entrenched interests, because he’s asking people to shoulder their own, participatory leadership.

That’s why both candidates should keep pushing their causes, to the conventions or even into independent runs. But what is of most importance is that, on November 9th and well beyond, the 320 million who aren’t running stay in the fight.

Gun From Your Head


The “ticking time-bomb” is what we often use to justify pre-emptive law-enforcement (or lawlessness) — what we fail to realize is that that is more useful as a metaphor than a hypothetical.

We think of the ticking bomb as a danger unrecognized until too late; there was a time when we might more likely have thought of it as consequences come to fruition. Speaking of urban unrest and misordered social priorities, Martin Luther King said that “the bombs that drop in Vietnam explode at home”; we can think of both appeasement of Hitler by Britain and the installation of the Shah by America as long fuses lit.

Those sentiments, of course, came from a time when we thought of ourselves as members of a nation, not a collection of isolated individuals. Westerners in general, and Americans in particular, of course seek individual fulfillment, even recognition, but in America once, as in Europe still, this is conceived of in a consensual context of opportunity. With no guaranteed financial (or even existential) future, under the example of rogue capitalists crashing the country and unitary executives bombing as they please, each American is a country of one.

Members of groups, including well-functioning capitalist cultures, think in terms of what collective context will maintain the well-being of the individual; solitary personalities contextualize everything that might affect others in terms of how it will affect them. So, nations and their leaders used to think about blowback, at least nominally, before they acted (not torturing so that our soldiers wouldn’t get tortured; slaughtering Iraqis but not thinking we could take over their country; taking care, per a government regulation, not to kill more than 10 percent of any nation’s people so as to avoid society-wide psychological damage and blowback). People with no sense of nationhood (which Americans are now; if the essence of “America” is to be left alone, then there is nothing to cohere a real country), people with such an outlook don’t ask themselves “what am I doing?”, they wonder “what could happen to me?” — so the ticking time-bomb is always something someone else has set, or could be starting to.

Our answer to bombs, of course, is guns — we must be armed so that the government we fear can never come for us, but that government should also be armed, to protect us from foreign agents who wish us harm — the only function of government, in the audible right’s view. But the danger that is building up is always in our minds. Not imaginary, I mean; shaped by our thoughts, or our thoughtlessness.

The bomb that goes off, the trigger that is pulled, is on the apprehensions we have accumulated. Within minutes of the San Bernardino shootings, CBS’s Twitter account had one comment calling the shooting site “an Obamacare facility” and blaming “the terrorist GOP,” and another right below it blaming “Islam” and “our idiot president” — both swiftly deleted, but indicative of the hair-trigger assumptions simmering in our divided citizenry. We have points to make and we try to win the last war with the certainty only retrospect offers. To believe a standard rule can predict tragic behavior is to feel that we could have seen tragedies coming. Hence our adoption as individuals of our leaders’ post-Reagan tendency to put conclusions before examples — immigrants make you uncomfortable, so they’re what caused the Paris attacks; you’d rather not live near African-Americans, so when one white cop is killed by a black assailant, that invalidates anything you have to listen to about an unending wave of unarmed innocents being on the other end of the barrel; radical Republicans’ words are ugly, so they must also be deadly.

These resentments mount, and they look for release, and madmen’s bullets lance the boil. It justifies our conflicts rather than furthering any resolutions. In a time of national division more severe than anything since the undeclared civil wars of the late 1960s/early ’70s, as some rush toward the fire — the brave cops at the Colorado Planned Parenthood massacre; the ordinary people pulling victims to safety in France — many more of us run from each other. We don’t have time to think…but time is the only thing we can, in fact, make. The silence of death around us can be matched by a stillness of thought — those who conduct slaughters plan them coolly and carefully. We must be ready to listen and learn, not be armed — worse even than physically — with prepared assumptions.

I drive into and out of the city nearest me, and one lone police officer is standing there, sometimes not even with a visible weapon, at the entrance to a tunnel or bridge crossed by thousands each day. What can this one person do, if a horde of combat-ready monsters appears? Or even a handful. Maybe, even as many of his kind act like an uncontrolled paramilitary themselves, this guy has it right. He’s in a position of protection, not retaliation. Perhaps just serving as a symbol of it. Not an isolated individual, but one literally taking a stand. A vulnerable image which makes any human want to come to his side. A reminder that individuals — who are precious — are what gets lost when we fight without thinking. That one human face reminds us who we are.

Those who advocate for no restraints on physical guns have a figurative one to the country’s head. But we can perhaps finally overwhelm them with a language they can’t understand, by dropping the weapons we’re aiming from within.

Fast Forward


I was wrong about Fantastic Four. That’s easy to say before you’ve seen it, but the filmmakers, like me, actually thought about what the franchise means before there was a movie to see. And they got it right-er. So much so that it’s genuinely more than a franchise, it’s a concept, like popularly-generated mass-culture was meant to be.

I was relieved when Franklin Storm was revealed to be a major character, since he supplies the daddy role so essential to the FF’s familial structure (created and cursed by father-figure Reed in the comics). I still suspected the all-twentysomething team as being too undeveloped for this Cold War-era, (literally) nuclear-family concept. But this is exactly what lets them develop. Kirby & Lee accumulated such a mythos and extended family of characters in the comics, that to present them fully formed would be overwhelming even if any filmmaker ever figures out how to do it.

Unlike in the previous two FF movies, we actually get a feel from the new flick for who there characters are, and why they’re like that. The brainy outlier Reed, the intrinsically strong and rational Sue, the loyal, hostile Ben and the impulsive, good-hearted Johnny; personalities, not powers, are what you have to get right. Though the powers look cooler than in either of the last two films. We even get the first menacing, emotionally armored Doom — always a dilemma since there’s been a perfect Dr. Doom onscreen for 38 years, and he’s called Darth Vader.

In the Cold War, the FF were created when Reed steals a rocket he’s been working on to beat the “Russkies” to the moon; it’s Victor von Doom who attempts dimensional travel to contact his beloved dead sorceress mom — and it’s a mark of America’s now-unrestrained ambitions that the experiment that goes wrong has been shifted from the villain to the “goodguys.”

This Fantastic Four plays like a claustrophobic 1950s sci-fi film, and that befits the end-times hopes and last-ditch efforts of our war-torn, freakishly warming world. In the climactic struggle Doom, who longs for Susan from inside his head, says “I imagined another future for us,” and that’s the crux: the future will decide what happens in it, and some choose a good one by navigating it — the FF are ever explorers — while some can try to seize it and break it in their hands. In this movie, the FF grow up — and the future, which I hope to see, is theirs.

As Herself


Type What Now

A World Premiere Play at the New York International Fringe Festival
Conceived, Created, Performed and Produced by Jessie Bear
Directed by Stefan Hartmann
With Anne Flowers
Graphics by Sebastian Soler Moya
Music by Stephen Bennett
Dramaturgy by Erika Marit Iverson

August 17-29, 2015

The White Box at 440 Studios
440 Lafayette Street, 3rd Floor
New York, NY  10003


Sick-shaming is a condition I’ve observed much. When my wife got a rare breast cancer that showed up last fall and killed her nine months later at 47, everyone wanted to know if she hadn’t had a mammogram (she had, this kind doesn’t show up on it), or juiced enough, or neglected to be vegan, or paleo, or had too much estrogen in milk products, or similar effects from soy. (We were relieved at our lack of culpability when it turned out that estrogen didn’t matter, because her rare disease was also not hormonally based, and thus unresponsive to the major lifesaving medicines, yay!). At one point I noticed on hospital discharge papers that her BMI put her one point into “obese,” which I was pretty thankful for, since she hadn’t taken one bite of food in three weeks. (In college she used to agitate with ACT UP at the height of the AIDS pandemic, in the ultimate struggle to stop people from being blamed to death.)

So when Jessie Bear lives her story in front of us of developing Type 1 diabetes at 26, it’s the simultaneous story of the not-nearly-as-rare state of self-recrimination, and moralizing from most everyone else, for having brought it on herself — most people don’t manifest it that late in life, and Bear is “overweight” at the start, leading everyone to assume she’s “given herself” the disease through socially unacceptable habits and self-image.

Type What Now takes us through the story she’s been over so many times in her head. Bear is an almost one-woman show, with doctors, acquaintances, boyfriend, et al. played by a game and able Anne Flowers. The voices outside her head blur, as Bear’s initial plummet of weight-loss from the dangerous disease is misjudged by a doctor as a social benefit, and as she prays for the less manageable Type 1 since “it would mean I hadn’t done it to myself.”

Bear recites much of the story and enacts some; the barrage of information and described incident can be overpowering, but is not untrue to the encyclopedias that afflicted people and their loved ones have to digest and often spit out. There is a defense mechanism in the rush of words, but to be vulnerable is not to be pitiable, and when Bear slows down or she and Flowers act out painful, scary or comic interactions, we are let into her life and our sympathy rushes with us.

This is true theater verite, as Bear gets alerts on blood-sugar levels and signals her insulin pump to work a few times during the show. We are seeing her live for her art.

She has beaten the negative body image she grew up with too, and looks back with the right kind of shame at how she viewed herself or other “fat” people facing medical challenges. She realizes that some people who ask about her illness are not accusing; and blesses a human community of sick and well still, so far, living together; and says she’s beautiful and each of the audience is too, and makes us realize why: she is standing before us individual, not alone.

Special thanks: Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons

Hip, Irreplaceable


After a concert by one of my top-3 self-made bands Supermajor given to celebrate guitarist and vocalist Adam Swiderski’s 40th birthday, it seemed a good occasion amidst the sundry social-security jokes to reflect on how far he has otherwise come.

Swiderski is your go-to for gallant and damaged leading males, moonlighting as an unironic and unassailable (but again not uncomplicated) pop idol.

He’s that kind of talent that is without precedent but with a long lineage of predecessors for viewers to compare him to and him to be conscious of. A hilarious post-patriarchal Petruchio in American Shakespeare Factory’s Taming of the Shrew a few years back could not have happened until about now, but Swiderski’s knowing smugness and magnetic self-approval, lovingly at home in what it lampoons, was there to be unlocked, like other dimensions have been, since the 16th century. In what may still be my favorite role of his, Swiderski looked into even a present we can’t see clearly, as a G.I. in Iraq having a supernatural experience in Jeff Lewonczyk’s Babylon Babylon. Here Swiderski gave an unvarnished, humanizing portrayal of someone whose sensitivities struggle against his disdain for the broken land he’s come to “save,” in a way that challenged most in the audience’s intellectual luxuries.

Swiderski’s compromised detective in the revival of Ian W. Hill’s World Gone Wrong/Worth Gun Willed was the quintessential noir protagonist (be they male or female), through the telephoto of Swiderski’s received sadness and wisdom — a figure of beauty who knows how to use their exterior as some burdensome shell blocking our view of the suffering soul underneath.

I watched Swiderski survive on his considerable wits and vast reserves of inner observancy on the last day of the terrible Breaking Kayfabe, a professional-wrestling melodrama by Temar Underwood in which Swiderski’s past-prime character is out of the ring and being grilled by a reporter. The latter actor, after a whole run, was still forgetting his lines every few minutes, and Swiderski never missed a beat to naturalistically fill up and move along. The underwhelming revelation of something his character did wrong was handled with a remorse, a precipice-drop between his surface and self-concept, that Swiderski reached deeper for than to anything Underwood had actually written, and with a pathos that brought me to tears where any other actor would’ve had me laughing (except, ironically, Underwood himself).

Surface need not be superficial at all if there’s no subtext to begin with, and in my own Thor spoof Norrga the Thunderer Swiderski achieved that elusive balance, the knowing portrayal of a very dumb guy — but also a guy too singlemindedly noble to know why valor and self-sacrifice should be so dumb. In casting him Hill may have had, and I certainly did have in mind, Swiderski’s role in Trav S.D.’s Manson satire Willy Nilly, in which Swiderski played the in-over-his-head and too-deep-inside-it Brian Wilson stand-in, a living one-dimensional trading card trying disastrously to deface itself with complications.

That’s a proper historical segue to Supermajor, a band of resourceful, multi-referential power pop and Wildean wordplay, with a somewhat rotating ensemble but always anchored by Sarah Malinda Engelke’s arena-baroque keys and operatics and Swiderski’s guitar antiheroics. And his presence, as the most unapologetically theatrical pop voice since David Cassidy — Bowie’s or Brian Ferry’s or Gaga’s is self-consciously theatrical; Swiderski’s, like that of the comparison you may have stopped reading at, is self-acceptingly theatrical, with a sense of what captivates people individually about intense emotion and determined uplift before they zoom back out into being part of a crowd.

I’m leaving a lot out — fight choreography, the straight sci-fi that mirrors his dayjob, etc. — but he’s got lots more left to do, and doesn’t choose his battles lightly.