Tag Archives: pain

Six Boxes: Deconstructing and Illuminating Bonnie Jo Campbell Part 3

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Data is beautiful, even when it is meaningless.

[Part 3 of the presentation I gave at the Symposium of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here.]

Part III

Memory

Another thing we can do in comics, which is more difficult in print (but not impossible, if our text is digital) is quickly scan for information. Picking out the most important symbols made the themes of each story pop out from the page, so it was easy to create a graphic interpretations of those themes (see graph), but after I did so, I realized that basing the graph on the comics presented, of course, my own bias. I drew far more metaphors for women’s bodies than I drew the visual and physical assaults on those bodies. In the books, the assaults outnumber the metaphors. Sometimes, I had to look away, because the stories were so immersive, in their way, that the rural noir world of Campbell’s Kalamazoo threatened the world I live in, a world in which I have so much privilege that it’s possible for me to look away, even as I’m intentionally fixing my gaze on the subject.

But I also know what a privilege that is; in many senses, the ability to look away from things that may distress you but don’t affect you is the definition of privilege. In the American Salvage comic book, I devoted an entire page to examining my privilege in the face of Campbell’s work, so instead of talking even more about myself now, I want to finish by talking about a colleague of mine, Sarah.

I met Sarah at the same time, in the same place, as I met Bonnie Jo Campbell, on the campus of Western Michigan University in 2002. I asked her for permission to share her story with you and she enthusiastically approved.

Sarah was born in rural Michigan and lived the first part of her life in the physical and emotional space occupied by many of Campbell’s characters, at risk, in socioeconomic distress, in Kalamazoo county. Her parents might have sprung from the pages of Campbell’s books: her father was a schizo-affective Vietnam veteran who would sometimes mistake Sarah and her brother for Viet Cong and hold them at gunpoint in his home. Her mother was a narcissistic alcoholic who brought a parade of strange and sexually inappropriate men into the house. One of Sarah’s oldest memories is of her mother arguing with her flavor of the week and both adults driving away from the house in anger. Little Sarah, perhaps five years old, chased after her mother’s car, begging not to be left behind, but her mother, who thought her parenting was more than good enough, disappeared down the road, and my friend fell into a muddy ditch, where she cried until she couldn’t cry any more, realized that no one was coming to save her, and then climbed out of the ditch and went home to clean herself up. She voluntarily chose homelessness at fifteen, because anywhere felt safer than her mother’s house. Her arm still bears the scar of that tumble into the ditch thirty-five years ago.

Sarah tells people, “If you want to know where I come from, read Bonnie Jo Campbell.” She says, “The thing I have most loved about Bonnie Jo is that I know her characters. They’re real, not fictional.”

Ultimately, Sarah didn’t become a Bonnie Jo Campbell character herself. She finished her master’s degree, recognized that physical separation was the only way to escape her family’s cycle of insanity, and headed out to the Bay Area.

Today, Sarah, the impoverished, neglected, hurt kid with the crazy, unpredictable, unprotective parents, the girl who came up in Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Kalamazoo, is the Lead Techwriter for one of the largest internet companies on the planet.

At the same time that I read Bonnie Jo Campbell as a window into a world outside my experience and learned to see situations uncommon to the world of my childhood, Sarah, straddling the blue collar and academic points of view, reads these stories and feels heard. Knowing that Campbell has verbally recreated the conflicts of her origin is almost an assurance, decades after the fact, that someone actually was listening when a small child cried in a muddy ditch for a mother who would never come to her rescue. Decades and miles removed from the trauma of her early years, Sarah cherishes the honest, brutal, funny portraits of the world she knew, grateful that Bonnie Jo Campbell is listening for these voices, delighted that someone is recreating characters she find familiar, giving voices to the unheard and putting the unseen in the spotlight. Because Bonnie Jo is watching, listening, and writing, Sarah’s truth is seen and heard.

 

November 1

no halloween

We could have this stuff 5 days a week, what do you think?

No, I don’t want to talk about it. Unless you think you’ve got something to say to me.

I know that a lot of people think Smarties are gross. I used to think I liked them. Tonight I didn’t even want the good chocolate.

On the plus side, I’m a finalist in a writing contest. If you want to cheer me up, you could vote for me. You can check out the complete list of finalists and all the entries here.

Dragon Comics 150

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Seriously, though. I really hurts.

Trying to remain upbeat. Let’s call that the theme for 2017. Trying to remain upbeat in the face of overwhelming downturn. Not taking it personally.

For example, today I got a takedown notice on a T-shirt design based on Dragon Comics 35 because, apparently, you’re not allowed to dress cartoon characters like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top to make a joke about how only the guys from ZZ Top look cool doing ZZ Top. My personal understanding is that fair use dictates that artists have every right to use the likeness of famous musicians in satire, and if I had half the money of ZZ Top I could hire a lawyer to sort this situation out. But I haven’t made any money off this particular design and am unlikely to ever have the reach and power of Bravado International Group Merchandising Services, Inc. and their team of overzealous content protectors.

It drive me crazy on general principle. Poor Dragon has used up all of Dragon’s good fortune and now must suffer indignity after indignity as the Wheel of Fortune crushes Dragon’s will to live. Ha ha. Just kidding. It’s just that everything rubs me the wrong way.

Tomorrow is another day, as my mom always said. Tomorrow I won’t feel paranoid and cursed and as if I already used up every iota of my deserved fortune in life.

Man, it’s not even a picture of Billy Gibbons. It’s a picture of The Man wearing Billy Gibbons’s beard and clothes. I thought it was hilarious when I drew it.

And there you have the Wheel of Fortune.

Big Gem Mandala

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Do you know how hard it is to find matched stones?

Basically, my right thumb is jacked. It was sort of offering hints that it wanted to rest but it was already committed to a variety of time-sensitive projects and now it’s not really performing much at all, unless you count a symphony of pain as a performance. I’m trying to keep it immobilized. Usually, this passes in a week or 2. It’s been worse. But it’s also been better. I’m scared to seek medical attention because the last time I did they just made it worse.

So I might not draw comics this week. There will be other stuff to post about. With pictures. Gotta try to make this thumb lasts the rest of my life. At this rate, it won’t.

Golden Snowflake Mandala

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I know it looks like I spilled coffee on this mandala, but I don’t drink coffee, so I can’t say what that stain is, but it’s probably not coffee.

I wrecked my hands pulling weeds this weekend, because I received a letter from Big Brother explaining that my property was in violation of local law, and if I did not pull weeds, the city was going to pull my weeds for me, and charge me for the privilege. It’s a pretty irritating system. For one thing, I don’t believe in weeds. A weed is a plant growing where a human doesn’t want it to grow, and I was perfectly happy to let those plants grow in my yard. The birds and lizards seemed to appreciate  my laissez-faire approach to landscaping, as did my cat. So, I could argue, there were no weeds on my property to begin with.

The other super-annoying this about this is that I still live in Arizona, and these plants only grow in the monsoon, and the monsoon is over, so in a couple weeks, they’ll all be dead anyway. But no dice. The city doesn’t care about the natural cycle of the land. Remove all weeds and grass within 10 days, or I would be abated. Abatement does not sound like something you want.

The third terrible part to this is that I need my hands to draw webcomics, and now they are covered in blisters and micro-abrasions. The blisters are pretty prominent. I only figured out about the micro-abrasions later, because I promised the kids lemonade after they helped me. And really, the kids aren’t that much help at all. But they drank most of the lemonade. And I got to figure out where exactly on each hand I had a tiny little cut.

Still, tomorrow is the last scheduled BJC comic, which I have been writing for a month now, and tomorrow is also the day that I write with the Fox, and also get a massage to help undo the ravages of time and the physical strain of drawing webcomics 25 hours a week, which doesn’t leave a lot of time left over for shilly-shallying.

To You, as a Woman

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I don’t think there’s anything even darkly funny about this one. 

“To You, as a Woman” may be the most difficult story in this book, the hardest luck, the saddest progression. It took a long time to see my way into the comic, and it wasn’t until I took a big step back from the second/first narrative and to a distant, plural, third that it was even possible to reframe the piece into this format. For a while it seemed insurmountable. Just like real life trauma, the story jumps around in time and emotions, jumbling an entire sequence of terrible events together so that each cut runs together while standing alone with its own bright pain, less simple to pull out the threads.

About an hour before I sat down to write the script, a woman who’s been reading these comics asked where she could buy Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, and I sent her an Amazon link, and then, because it’s my regular habit on Amazon, I clicked to see the 1- and 2-star reviews, which are usually hilarious. Not today. Here we have people wholly incapable of engaging with literature on a critical level, disguising their misogyny with crude dismissal of nuance and reality, blithely unaware of their own massive prejudices. These are the people who read a book about 16 different characters and claim that all the stories are the same, not because they are, but because they think all women are the same.

You don’t have sympathy for substance abusers, or unwed mothers, or people who receive food assistance? Maybe you should ask about the myriad, lifelong jabs of physical and emotional pain that led them to make those choices before you judge. You don’t like authors discuss rape too often? The 1 in 3 women who are sexually assaulted in their lifetimes don’t like experiencing it. And let’s face it: if you’re born into poverty and raised up in poverty and struggle through your life in poverty, the odds of being sexually assaulted are probably higher. Go read Fifty Shades of Gray and tell everyone what a remarkable piece of quality fiction it is if you think there should be happy stories about rape and you’re just the informed critic to spread the good news. This book is about the way people actually are: vulnerable, flawed, attempting, every day, to pull themselves out of the miasma of their circumstances despite the constant pain of being alive.

It’s sickening, how easily some people manage to look at huge segments of the human population and decide those people aren’t human. You expect that kind of ignorance in the comments section of YouTube, or Reddit. Not from an Amazon book review. I wonder, what circumstances in your life taught you to be so self-centered, so casually cruel, so unwilling to exhibit empathy? Why do you read literature at all if you’re only content with work that reinforces your narrow beliefs? Isn’t the point of literature to better understand the human condition, one point of view at the time?

 

Stung

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I guess you’d call this creative non-fiction, but it would have been more creative if I had used the actual Anglo-Saxon expletives that were called upon in the situation instead of the family-friendly grawlixes.

I didn’t write a comic last night because chronic pain prevented me from feeling or expressing humor. I figured I would have better luck today, but as it worked out, chronic pain is still preventing me from feeling or expressing humor. So here’s a sad slice of life instead.

Since the artwork is so simple, I gave shading another try, and it seems to have worked out nicely in the first 2 panels. However, that technique doesn’t appear to translate to the up-close view of panel 4, which, frankly, is a bit of a failure. I’m not sure it even looks like a leg, let along a leg with a giant bee sting on it. I hope the inclusion of more grawlixes expresses the pain, at least. It’s supposed to be a picture of a leg, with a giant, swollen bee sting below the knee. Since I work from photos half the time, it’s perplexing to me when a finished drawing doesn’t resemble anything. I mean, what’s up with my toes in panel 2? Whatever, I’m done. Maybe I’ll have better luck tonight. Who knows? In addition to the usual suspects, and this gigantic bee sting, I also created the world’s largest blisters on both my heel from wearing Doc Martens without socks.

It’s a hard knock life.