Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Five Hundred Days of Practice

What does it mean to write every morning? What is the significance of this daily ritual?

It means I begin the day thinking, in silence. Meditative. Thoughtful. I do not jump from sleep to the screen. I can process my thoughts, my dreams. I articulate. 

And because it is daily, my family, my children, respect that I have to do this.

It need not be creative, though it can be. It need not be productive, though it can be. It need not be anything, just three pages, thirty minutes.

And once I have set down my pen, then I can continue my day with the confidence that whatever else happens, I will have accomplished this one thing.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Gay Comics #19 (1993)

Ten years later. My Guerrilla Theater partner and I were on our way to the studios of WRUW. We had been invited by a DJ and fan of our show to come in and be her on-air guests and to share some sketches we’d recorded for her new releases program.

The day of our visit also happened to be her birthday, and I had even brought a gift. I’d been to North Coast Nostalgia, that used to be next to the Cedar-Lee Theatre, and noticed the recent issue of Gay Comics was entirely created by Alison Bechdel.

One of the cool things about having our storefront theater in Tremont was that the weeklies would drop papers at our joint. We got short stacks of Scene, Free Times, Plain Press, Call & Post and the Gay People’s Chronicle, to make available for our audiences. 

I had been following Bechdel’s weekly strip, Dykes To Watch Out For in the Chronicle for some time by then. It was a very important education for me, not only in the lives and concerns (and humor) of non-heteronormative women, but women in general, also also women who were African American, Asian American, Latinx ... and even gay men!

Gay Comics #19 was an all-original book in which Bechdel told stories about herself (in keeping with Gay Comics’ stated mission) and her childhood, her coming out, laying the groundwork for her later, best-selling graphic memoirs, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?

"Coming Out Story"
Alison Bechdel (1993)
Click on for detail.
I picked up a copy of Gay #19 for our DJ friend, and showed it to my colleague as we made our way to the radio studios on the Case campus. He raised an eyebrow.

“You got her a gay comic,” he said, “because ... she’s gay?”

I hadn’t thought of that, and immediately felt self-conscious. I mean, it wasn’t like I was thinking, “Lesbian comic book?! I know a lesbian!!” This was an artist I really liked, and it was our friend’s birthday, and … well, shit.

Long story short, I gave the DJ the comic, and she was delighted. “I love Alison Bechdel!” she said, and I will assume she meant it. 
"I got out of college in 1981 and went into a gay and lesbian bookstore one day and found an issue of 'Gay Comix' ... It hadn't occurred to me at that point to put together my penchant for silly drawings with my personal life and my political interest in gay and lesbian issues, but there were these people who were doing it." - Alison Bechdel, 2007
Digging through my collection this week, I discovered that I had actually bought two copies of Gay #19, and kept one for myself. Smart boy.

Gay Comics ceased publication in 1998.


Source:
“Life Drawing” by Emmert, Lynn, The Comics Journal No. 282, Fantagraphic Books (2007)

Monday, January 18, 2021

Gay Comix #4 (1983)

When I was a teenager, there was a period of time when I hung out at a comic book store. North Starr Comics was located in the storefront of a motel on Lorain Avenue in Fairview Park. There was a cast of regulars, at the age of fifteen I was one of the youngest. We would read comics, watch video of B-movies on the TV, talk shit, pull each others’ chains.

One Saturday in early 1984 the owner had scheduled a live auction, to get inventory he couldn’t move out of the place. It wasn’t a very large store. Most of what he was unloading were by lot, and I wasn’t a huge spender. But there was a lot of cajolery, mocking each other for their stupid purchases.

When he announced, “Next up, one copy of GAY COMIX!” that got a huge laugh, and I hollered, “Two cents!” It was a joke! Because, come on, who would want something called “Gay Comics”? Right? 

“I hear two cents!” said the owner, and I realized I had made a mistake. Because now I was the joke. No one else bid on it, and in spite of my desperate protestations, I won the comic. I refused to pay for it. I was informed it was free, and if it was discovered I had somehow left it behind there would be hell to pay.

So, I slipped it into my bag and hoped no one would mention it ever again. Later, I read it.

Gay Comix (later retitiled “Gay Comics”) was first published in 1980 by Kitchen Sink Press. It was created to be an anthology of short stories by gay artists on gay themes. Originally it leaned heavily on providing true stories of the LGBTQ+ experience. It had a mission to challenge the prevalent cartoonish imagery of gays and lesbians in the media, and in comics.

"Walls"
Rick Campbell (1983)
Click on for detail.
While it did feature nudity, there was an intentional de-emphasis on the depiction of sex or anything that might be construed as pornography.

Gay Comix #4, the issue that I had won, was published in late 1983. It was not only my first adventure into comics with LGBTQ themes, it was perhaps the first underground comic I had ever owned.

What does that mean? That it was my first experience with non-superhero, non-fantasy, real-life material, set down in black and white, in this case created by a wide variety of artists and writers, including a few artists of color. The subject matter is almost entirely binary, however, and leaned more into stories about gay men than lesbians.

One of the stories, Ready or Not, Here It Comes by editor Howard Cruse, was a view of the AIDS crisis, certainly my first exposure to the pandemic from a gay man’s point of view. Another, The Unicorn Tapestry by Roberta Gregory was the only piece in the issue about someone who is transgender.

I was raised to be homophobic. But I found this material to be fascinating. I was not repelled. There were coming out stories, tales of first love, some purely comic bits. Naturally, I was concerned that if anyone knew I was reading this they would “think I was gay.” I kept it to myself. Reading this book did not end my bigotry. It was the first crack in the wall.

And I still have that comic book.

To be continued.

Source: Wikipedia

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Always (musical)

There are those who point to the Abdication as the moment the British Monarchy began its inexorable decline.

Then there are those who believe it has been downhill since the Magna Carta.

Today would be a good day for this American President to “abdicate.” Most days are. Unlike Edward VIII, Trump has been impeached (this time) for inciting insurrection. All poor David Windsor ever did was to fall in love. It’s the stuff of Shakespearean drama, falling in love with the wrong person.

And so it happened that a musical was created during the 1990s (that most trivial of decades) to celebrate what was blurbed as “the ultimate love story.”

Even die-hard monarchist enthusiasts might choose Victoria and Albert as the ultimate love story, but who wants to see a musical in which the groom dies after the first song and the rest is the bride in mourning. Bit upsetting.

The story of King Edward VIII and Mrs. Wallis Simpson at least has what you might call a bittersweet ending, he loses the crown, but at least they have each other.

And that’s the problem, because the they that each of them had were awful. By all accounts shallow and selfish, and living off the British dime. They were perfect for each other.

An auspicious meeting. (1937)
My wife and I visited England in 1997. It was her first trip to Europe and for two weeks we traveled and saw many plays and performances and the first was the new musical Always at the Victoria Palace Theatre, which was in previews.

A musical about the Abdication! What a brilliant idea! We were not yet, however, into the modern era of arch, satiric, or darkly-themed musicals, at least not those intended for the West End or for Broadway. Not unless you were Sondheim.

Always is an unapologetic valentine to Edward and Mrs. Simpson, chronicling the unfairness of the world, and the nobility of romantic sacrifice. The story is even bracketed by the widow Duchess of Windsor following the funeral of her beloved David in 1972, making it a memory play.

There is no mention of their documented history as Nazi sympathizers or their visiting Hitler, not any other controversies but the main: she was a twice-divorced American, a “commoner.” And he loved her!

 
The production starred Clive Carter as David, who I had seen play Prince Charming in Into the Woods in the West End several years earlier, and Jan Hartley as Wallis, who played Christine in Phantom for over a year. 

It had some other ringers, too. Sheila Ferguson is an American singer, whose biggest hit was When Will I See You Again with the group the Three Degrees. Credited as only The Chanteuse (and the only person of color in the entire production) she sang Love’s Carousel, a song about the irresistible power of love that was meant to be a first act show-stopper.

Only it wasn’t because, like Hearts Have Their Reasons, The Reason For Life Is To Love, and (oh my goodness) If Always Were a Place, Love's Carousel is a horrible song. The show is packed with horrible songs made even more horrible because they are about horrible people.

If you didn’t know the show was in trouble already, Love’s Carousel left no doubt. Every single cast member was thrown onstage for this number, set in a Parisian cabaret, as it rose and rose to a feverish pitch. 

Once concluded, a few individuals in the balcony rose to their feet, shouting with delight, who were then loudly mocked by others -- yes, many more audience members hooted and shouted things like, “OH, COME ON, NOW” at those audience members who were either paid to attempt a standing O during the first act. Maybe they were just huge Sheila Ferguson fans, which is a fine thing to be.

During the interval we discussed the possibility of leaving. Many others did, but this was a fiasco and I was intent on seeing what happened next. I did not, at that time, purchase one of the CDs, which I regretted for many years until that Christmas my brother gifted me a copy he found in a 99p bin.

Duchess & Duke of Windsor
(Richard Avedon, 1957)
The play officially opened on July 10 and ran for three weekends, closing on my birthday when I was safely out of the country. The review in the Times of London read “Wallis & Vomit.”

The following year, we visited my other brother, the one in Minnesota, and took in an exhibit of the photographer Richard Avedon. Avedon could be kind of a dick in his attempts to make famous people not pose fake. 

Knowing that the Duke and Duchess of Windsor reportedly loved dogs more than people (more than certain people, anyway) he idly told them a made up story of how his taxi had run over and killed a dog on his way to the studio. The result, seen here, is less than glamorous.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

The History of Underground Comics

When Ohio University announced its first graduate level course in sequential art, The History of Underground Comics, I was still an undergrad. It was 1988, Fall quarter of my junior year. But if there was going to be a course on independent comics, by God, I was going to be taking it.

I was, at that stage in my life, immersed in comics. I had been reading commercial comics or “floppies” since I was a kid, and the 1980s were a golden time for the superhero genre; reconsidering it, turning it inside out, and creating the template for today’s Industrial Superhero Film Industry. Books like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and the heyday of the "Uncanny X-Men." 

Also, I had been drawing a daily strip for the college paper and though my art was pretty crude, I was not only taking inspiration from mainstream comics. I had begun to discover alternative works, including those of Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), Matt Groening (Life In Hell), Art Spiegelman (Maus) and those artists that appeared in Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw anthologies.

So, if there was going to be a course on comics, then I, David Hansen, creator of the controversial strip Breaking Point, would have to be accepted. 

Breaking Point (1988)

This was a mistake. Fall quarter my junior year was a disaster for me for a number of confluent reasons. I was cast in an extremely challenging mainstage show which conflicted with much of my attendance for this evening class. I underwent something of an emotional breakdown as I negotiated my poorly-managed interpersonal relationships. 

And the fact is I had always been a bad student. I skated through my classes. I knew enough to pass, even occasionally to do well. But I was never a deep study, or a good reader, of texts. Pleasure reading, sure. Not work that was assigned.

Cover, "401"
Art: Ken Kastely
The professor was skeptical. An undergrad can’t just take a graduate level course. I had to submit a portfolio, and a letter of intent. Only then was I grudgingly assigned a slot. 

But there were texts to be read and papers to write, and debate in class and a final project which involved the class collaborating on creating an original, physical comic book.

The comic, titled simply “401” after the class's room number in Siegfried Hall, was a missed opportunity for me, one in which I could have pushed myself and broken form. As it was, I drew two pieces involving suicide (I didn’t know at this time how thoughtlessly trite that was) and a third which was just a cheap shot at one of my classmates, a woman with a strong feminist agenda.

This one is a single panel depicting myself reading Kate’s final monologue from The Taming of the Shrew as my “humorless” classmate approached from behind wielding a baseball bat. No, I will not be sharing that image here.

It was my beef with the women in the class that I am most ashamed of. There were, to me, a surprising number of women in the class; self-possessed, confident, intelligent women, who were into comics and had an agenda to explore and expand the form. I was a young, callow, white male of privilege and I was challenged by them, or should I say I felt challenged by them.

Another signifiantpart of our grade was a class presentation, for which I planned a take-down of Dr. Friedrich Wertham’s seminal work, Seduction of the Innocent, which documents a direct connection from comics to juvenile delinquency.

I cannot imagine I actually read the book. Worse yet, I had a performance the night of my presentation. I provided a booklet of photocopied images from the book, images from horror and superhero comics of the kind Dr. Wertham asserted were the cause of sociopathic behavior, and also a cassette recording of a stream-of-consciousness rant in which I quoted Wertham's claims and then just said that he was wrong.

The next class, the final class, I avoided anyone’s gaze and received my materials back from the professor. The cassette itself has been recorded over by members of the class to provide their response. I think I got a couple minutes into it. I never listened to the entire thing The tape began with a lecture from one of the women (a woman of color, if I recall correctly) describing how unprofessional my work was and spelling out in no uncertain terms the errors in my scholarship.

I dropped the cassette into the wastebasket, not out of resentment but shame. I had fucked up, and I knew it.

There’s always that guy in any class, you know the one. Often absent, does substandard work. You don't know who they are or what may be going on with them, but you do wonder, why is this person even here? For that class, that guy was me. I got a D for the course, which I believe was generous. 

Why am I sharing this humiliating piece of personal history? Because this semester I am taking a graduate level course in Comics Studies and Queer Theory. Among other goals, I plan to make up for past failures.

Thursday, December 31, 2020

DDT-V (Revisited)

The DDT-V All-Stars
(Can you spot Doug Dieken?)

Fred kept us honest. Any expression of ego was roundly mocked. We were kids, making a cheap comedy show. 

DDT-V (“Lethal Television”) was created by high school and college students, and broadcast intermittently on our community access channel from 1983 to 1986. It was a collection of sketches, fake news shows, and a lot of commercial parodies.



Fred was the driving force, no matter what any of the rest of us thought. He wrote most of the sketches, did so many of the voice-overs, even appeared in front of the camera a couple times.

After he died from a heart attack two years ago (on my fiftieth birthday, as it happened, thanks, Fred) I came into possession of the archive of our work.

Some of it holds up surprisingly well. And even where the humor is a bit obtuse, at least it has style. We used every square foot of the studio building, went all over Bay Village, hosted an entire episode from a booth in the North Olmsted Denny’s, did a location shot outside Cleveland Municipal Stadium downtown. 



When we held a charity baseball game against the high school faculty to raise funds for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, our team had a ringer in the recently retired Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Doug Dieken.

Cartoon, The Bay Window
March, 1986
Watching these episodes I am able to track my development from a self-conscious freshman to a cocksure senior, which is a blessing and a curse. The one big regret I have, looking back, is that I never wrote anything for the show. That’s not true, I wrote one sketch that was recorded and aired. It’s not great.

I was intimidated. I didn’t know how it was done. Most significantly, I had nothing, at last, to say. I still believe that, at that age, I actually did not have anything of value to say. Or I did not know if I did. Most of what I did write and put out into the world, in the form of op-eds for the weekly high school paper, took the form of snark and grievance.

My editorial cartoons weren’t bad, however. They improved by the year. I suppose there is a lesson in that, that if I had tried to write, at that time, I would eventually come up with something worth being produced.

I guess that is exactly what I have been doing ever since. 

Wishing you creativity and happiness in 2021!


Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Christmas This Year



We have a modest house. Three small bedrooms, one and a half bath. Some would call it a “starter home” but I have lived here since I was 24 and I believe I will some day die here. I hope so, to be honest, if I had to choose between that and somewhere else. 

And yet, this was the very first year I have ever had Thanksgiving dinner in my own home. Always at my parents’ house -- including last year -- on the other side of town. Or at my wife's folk's place. Never here. That changed this year, for obvious reasons. And the only Christmas morning I have spent here was in 2002, when my wife was expecting our January-born daughter.

So. A modest home. I love it here. But it’s not very big. And this year many of the things that would otherwise happen elsewhere are happening here. And it's taking up space.

We often wrap presents at my mother-in-law's house, to be doled out to nieces and nephews and other relations in person on Christmas Day. Our dining room has become not only this year’s wrapping central, but also the site for packing boxes for shipping, most of which has thankfully already been completed.

Normally, those presents that wrapped pre-travel would be stashed away somewhere, waiting to be stacked into our car. This year they are crowded under our usually present-free tree. They are stacked high, off to one side of the tree, or we would not be able to navigate the fireplace and the furniture of our living room.

There is also a cache of snack sized bags of chips and mini cans of coke and water and bars to put out for the delivery workers, postal workers, UPS, FedEx, Amazon, who stop by two, three, four times a day, working overtime to ship things which otherwise might be shopped for or brought personally to their destination.

The snack table has become an anthropological experiment. Given the choice of only Coke or water, most choose Coke. Chips over Nutrigrain bars. Doritos over potato chips. If I was delivering packages, these would be my choices, too.

Already one of our available downstairs tables has served as my quarantine office, there is little additional space to spare. The crèche of my childhood, recovered earlier this year from my mother’s house, is for the first time on display here, featured on the piano. I do not know its provenance. Norway? 

The child is made of wax, it has been kept cool and dry and has lasted I do not know how long. There is no longer anyone for me to ask. 

So here we are, we four. There is no one else I would more prefer to have in my company. We plan to rise late, open presents, Zoom with uncles and aunts and cousins and the grandmother. We will watch movies plays games, and dine on Chinese food. We have it good.

And the weather report is for a winter storm over the next three days. We may, indeed, have a white Christmas.

A COVID Christmas Carol
One of the grand prize winners of the Great Lakes Theater
"A Christmas Carol" Writing Contest (2020)