Slow Cinema Comics, The Graphic Language Of Narrative, Falling Down A Hole

I wrote this for my newsletter back in March. I preserve it here.

I was talking to a publisher friend about a project I was working on a few years ago, before my Brain Thing happened.  The project was never announced, because we wanted it done before anyone knew about it.  But I was getting sick and didn’t know it, and the project was going through some format changes, and my brain couldn’t deal properly with the changes because it was getting sick and I didn’t know it, and then my Brain Thing happened, and I couldn’t work for a few months, which for a freelancer is bad bad bad, and so I had to go into new and simpler projects where there was immediate money, and this project I’m discussing here now sat in a cloud of confusion and stress-memory and complex calculations that my brain even now still can’t do very well.  So we were talking about it, and I discovered that my brain had actually deleted the memory of seeing some of the art.  I was being shown pages that were completely new to me, because the chemical chains that held the memory of receiving the scans were just wiped out. The structure of my brain is unharmed, but there’s a lot of chemical soup in there now, and I can’t do things like process spreadsheets or read mirror writing or handle complex documents.  It’s been weird, discovering all these little cognitive deficits.

And I was trying to describe what I remember my original goals with the book being, and it came out out like this:

“I was trying to re-find a language for comics that would accept all forms of graphics, because all forms of graphics already exist inside comics.  I always tell people when doing talks that they’ve all already read comics if they’ve been on a plane — the safety card.  I still work, in my own notes, on that language and approach.  I think of it as enrichment.  Like, I like what Hickman does with graphics and text on BLACK MONDAY, for example, but I want the “diegetic,” in-story version, where the jumps between conventional narrative art, graphics and icons, and all the other things aren’t jumps at all, but a flow inside the same language.”

Which isn’t original, but I was trying to find my own way to do these things.  My process isn’t as tortuous as Matt Fraction’s, because I don’t need a mile of index cards and a serial killer wall, but it’s just as bizarre in its way, and my notebooks will not, let us just say, be preserved for the ages like da Vinci’s.  Except possibly as artifacts of outsider art by an uneducated delusional.

I can still hold a lot in my head.  Since Thursday I have been spending 12 to 14 hours a day working on three episodes of the show at once, holding the structures of all three in my head and jumping between them as I find the voices and the ways to write discrete sections.

Painkillers-for-breakfast days.

But I suspect a certain kind of work is beyond me.  Which may be why my brain has been pushing me towards slow cinema as a model for the last year or two — Fraction calls them my “weird slow murder stories.”  I’ve actually been working on one in spare moments here and there, exclusively for my own amusement. 

(I picture them in my head. They would straight up kill any artist, so no artist will ever see them. I have a note at the top for one of the stories which says “this is either 40 pages or 480 pages.” It will never exist, except for me. This is fine and good.)

It is not as complex an undertaking as the project that fell over.  I’ve gone back and read the script for the project that fell over – I wrote half of it, and then there was a call to extend it by half again, and I couldn’t find 50% more story that worked, and my brain just [insert sound of a cow farting and the fart lighting on fire] because I didn’t know that it was fixing to shut off the right side of my body one morning in the near future. I’m honestly not sure if I can finish it — and right now, in the middle of writing the season, and finishing WILD STORM, and the other things, I’m not even sure when I’d do it.  But I’d like to.  I’d like to find a way to finish that personal opening statement about the language of comics.

We all leave bodies in our wake, in this business.  You just know more about mine than other people’s.  I regret them all, but this particular one still stings, because it comes with the memory of falling down a hole while trying to write it.

The Clock

I’ve never really had to travel constantly for my job.  But there have been times.  God, there have been times. There are those years, those moments, when you wake up at 4am in a strange hotel room in a strange city, and you’re coming up on one hundred thousand miles on the flight trail, and you look at the clock and think what the hell am I doing?  And that’s me saying that, a neurotypical log of low emotional content and dead nerves.  What the hell am I doing?  Does this stop?  Can it stop?

And in the morning you’re back in another car, on the way to another airport, knowing it’s three more continents before dinner, looking at the clock, and it keeps on ticking, and you keep on moving, and you try to relax back into the ticking and keep moving into the future.

If you can still hear yourself over the tick of the clock, you’re lucky.  Hold on tight til the sun comes up.

RSS Bridge For Instagram: Hermitage Intensifies

In talking yesterday about pulling RSS out of Instagram, I got a very kind note from one Peter Hogg telling me about RSS Bridge. This is an indieweb system designed to make RSS feeds where none exist, like the old Feedburner only with much more juice to it.

Just google RSS Bridge, as I did, and you will find both instructions to set up your own system, which to me are written in an alien language, and a few nice people who give free public access to an RSS Bridge instance.

When you scroll down those sites, you find a specific slot to put an Instagram user name in, and, provided that account is public, it’ll spit out a working RSS feed for it that you can add to your RSS reader (I use Feedbin).

It worked first time.

What this means for me is that I can add my favourite Instagram accounts to Feedbin and no longer have to open the app or Grids just to see the new Lordess Foudre. I feel like I’ve recovered something from the 2019 internet.

I am very grateful to all these people for helping me the quiet shadow internet I now wish and require. No noise, no stress, just a silent river of the good and necessary things.

The Hope In Dystopia

A dystopia is a speculative situation where the absolute minority of people habitually experience hope and joy. Embedded in every piece of dystopian fiction is utopian thinking – the speculative condition where the absolute majority of people habitually experience hope and joy.

Commercial dramatic fiction requires tension between two poles. It requires stakes, change, a goal to advance towards. Conflict. Dystopian fiction is almost never actually about the dystopia itself (although writing dystopia is good, crunchy stuff with lots of detail to relish in the authorship). Dystopian fiction is almost always about the utopian reach that’s suppressed by the situation.

(*There are exceptions to every rule and statement do not @ me)

The request for more hopeful, optimistic and utopian thinking in popular drama comes around every few years. Utopias run up against the structures and strictures of popular drama. It’s hard to tell a conventional drama when, um, everything is awesome.

(Unhappily for everybody, a utopia, as a perfected human condition, is a static society, and static societies are dystopias)

Dystopia is one of those parts of speculative fiction that function as early-warning systems for bad sociocultural weather, a function I’ve talked about at length elsewhere. Dystopia is also about the fight for a better world. Every well-written dystopia is, unlike most other forms of drama, already always about hope.

(*I haven’t slept properly in, I dunno, probably two years, so don’t take this as a considered proclamation cut in stone, I’m just thinking out loud to myself.)

Please enjoy this cheerful image I accidentally took on the way into London on Monday.

(originally written 16 January 2019, recovered from morning.computer, re-upped here by request)

Please God Let There Be A #Brexitcast Tonight

For some considerable time, one of the most essential podcasts on my list has been Brexitcast, and I hope to god there’s one in the morning to help explain and contextualise what I’ve been witnessing on BBC Parliament all day. Here’s its homepage.

Laura Kuenssberg and Katya Adler, Adam Fleming and Chris Mason, and editor Dino Sofos, thank you so much for all you’ve done, all the madness you’ve navigated, and all the years you’ve clipped off your lifespans by staring into his faecal abyss for us.

Travel Kit 2019

I am rebuilding my travel kit. I did a trial-run trip a few weeks back, and what I have learned is I have forgotten how to do this.

What still works, and it must be at least six years old at this point, is the Briggs & Riley Transcend 200 Series 19″ Carry-On International Upright. It fits every overhead bin, even the ones on America regional jets. Pretty sure they don’t make it any more. Hit eBay. There was a year when that bag was being loaded on to a plane anywhere between every six weeks and every three days, and it’s in good shape.

And the Sony NWZX1060B X Series 32GB mp3 player. Which they also don’t make any more! But it still works, after ten years or more! What I did discover is that 1) I hadn’t changed out the music on it in four years, blah 2) the cheaper Sony earbuds I got to replace my expensive but irreparably dead Sony earbuds get uncomfortable after an hour or two, So we’re testing a new pair, the 1MORE Quad E1010s. (UK) (US) Because I don’t want to fuck around with Bluetooth in an airplane. I want to stick some wired earbuds tightly into my ears, put on some music, read a book and go to sleep. And the mp3 player can play for something like 20 hours straight before it asks for power.

The one thing I did do right beforehand was buy a new powerbank, the Anker PowerCore 26800 Portable Charger. (UK) (US).

My real and terrible indulgence is that I have two Kindle Paperwhites. One stays at home, and the other is either in my day bag or in my carry-on. This is what “read a book” on a plane means. The two devices sync. I have a library in my pocket. You don’t need the Kindle Oasis, it’s overkill. You just need a Paperwhite. (UK) (US)

I have a new travel laptop, a current Lenovo X1 Carbon (UK) (US). I used to use a Dell XPS 13, and still have it – its wifi reception is just too weak, and while the keyboard was serviceable (after applying a remapping application to it), it wasn’t a Lenovo keyboard.

I’m not going to blogchain this? But I will return to it, because I’m still assembling kit and trying to solve the fact that I have forgotten how to do this.

Haunted Blue Ant

A quarter of the way through Tom McCarthy’s fine new book SATIN ISLAND and I encounter what I can only describe as a Hubertus Bigend figure: one of those cultural-commercial spooks who darkly alchemise outbreaks of the future into product and wealth.  McCarthy’s Peyman isn’t as comically shadowy as Bigend, but, in his constantly moving post-geographic manifestations, just as elusive.  The sinister appeal of these characters is in part that they’re the Jason Bournes of cultural workers, teleporting through airports, known by the trail of their murky haloes of incoming data, materialising in rooms and halls to disrupt the flesh of the now with hails of information and beaming out again in pursuit of the next opportunity and the spoor of the new.

As someone who wrote a 1300-page fantasia of journalism, I recognise cultural fantasias when I see them. It’s a seductive confection that should be resisted.  But I booked flights to Europe anyway.

(written 16 September 2015, recovered from morning.computer)

Half A Piece Of Art

I can’t remember who said it first.  But it was said that a screenplay is only ever half a piece of art.  If that.  It cannot be a complete statement, because it is animated and changed by acting, cinematography, sound, economics and direction.  This is only right and correct, of course, as making a film is a massively collaborative act.  The nature of screenwriting, too, is that the original voice is rarely the last voice the film speaks with.  One might wonder why 97% of the screenwriting community bother writing them any more.  They can only ever be scaffolding, and very few are ever made.  And, with US cinema ticket sales at a low not seen since 1995, and writers running with open arms towards television, and Marvel and DC releasing their film production schedules for years in advance, much of the near-future output of American cinema is mathematically predictable.

I have, however, been endlessly fascinated by Cormac McCarthy’s screenplay for THE COUNSELOR.  Any number of people will tell you it’s a bad screenplay for any number of technical, classical and structural reasons.  And yet, it stands as a complete statement, in and of itself. Perhaps that’s why Ridley Scott apparently found it so hard to film, unable to save himself from treading on its fingers and speaking over its words.

Only McCarthy, of course, could offer a screenplay like that.  (Although JC Chandor’s abbreviated screenplay for ALL IS LOST, by its largely silent nature, is also odd in its way.)  And it was published as a book, joining McCarthy’s canon.   It’s a fluke.

All that said: the book makes me wonder. Film is still loved, as a concept, for its central affordance: to depict a transformational experience in two hours-ish, and, right from the start, to show things that have never been seen before.  Literary fiction has flirted, many times, with forms that resemble screenplays.  It’s easy to daydream about some (final!) phase in popular cinema.  I might even just be imagining some new iteration of the early relationship between film and theatre, I don’t know.  (I write these first thing in the morning, remember!)  Maybe I’m just sitting in front of a stack of WGA screeners, wishing for better films.

THE COUNSELOR makes me think about literary screenwriting, for the first time in years: in, I suppose, the way a beginning screenwriter must.  It’s nice to think about more things like that, before the word “film” becomes inextricably redefined as “theme park preview” and everything else is seen on home screens.

THE COUNSELOR, Cormac McCarthy: (UK) (US)

(Thinking out loud.  Still assembling a thought.)

(written 3 Jan 2015, recovered from morning.computer)

This Ain’t Walden Pond, Mate

Generic blog post about turning shit off.

A ways back, Venkatesh Rao coined the term waldenponding.

The crude caricature is “smash your smart phone and go live in a log cabin to reclaim your attention and your life from being hacked by evil social media platforms.” It is less of a caricature than you might think.

The above is drawn from the long and contrarian essay he wrote about it, AGAINST WALDENPONDING. How contrarian?

as an attitudinal foundation for relating to society and technology, Waldenponding is, I am convinced, a terrible philosophy at both a personal and collective level. It’s a world-and-life negation. A kind of selfish free-riding/tragedy of the commons: not learning to handle your share of the increased attention-management load required to keep the Global Social Computer in the Cloud (GSCITC) running effectively.

Oh yeah. I have recently noted that Venkatesh has muttered darkly about becoming a “post-Twitter being” and has locked his account, so I’m guessing he’s trying out the other side of his hellish joke. You should read the whole thing – it’s unfettered vantablack comedy.

Everybody’s made excellent points, now well-trodden, about offlining as privilege and privilege-signal. And, at the end of the day, I’m a freelance writer, and I can’t go completely offline forever.

What I can do is recognise step-changes in my career and adjust accordingly.

I always encourage everyone to tune the tools at hand until they work for the individual’s specific situation. This is something that’s gotten harder and weirder in the contemporary moment, because monolithic enterprises have grown from the financialised mechanic of making you miserable. To the point where, now, everyone does it. Here’s a whole bit from a newsletter I sent the other week:

I was going to just stick a bunch of photos of my shelves in here, but that felt like cheating, and repeating the point that streaming media doesn’t serve everybody and social media is boring. I went out of town during the week, didn’t check social media once and only listened to downloaded podcasts or music I own separately from services like Apple and Amazon. When I got home, I threw up my Tweetdeck lists on the big screen in the office as usual, and it did not appear that anything had changed in the intervening 24 hours. Except that maybe it becomes clearer that serious testing has informed all media companies that making you angry, sad or confused rrrrrreally brings the clicks home.

“Melbourne dog attack leaves boy with serious facial injuries.” Is this world news suitable for placing into your global Twitter feed, The Guardian? No.  World-class news story there – dog bites somebody.  But it will make people sad and angry, right?  “Megan Rapinoe: Can a pink-haired lesbian be an American hero?” That’s from BBC World News.  And someone has actually thought about that, because it invites Ian Betteridge’s “law” – any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.  So, angry and confused and sad.  All the clicks.  You would kind of hope The Guardian and the BBC would do better – the BBC isn’t even “a business” as is commonly framed, it’s a public-funded national entity, the oldest and largest broadcaster on the planet, and it does not need to show its arse for clicks.

(I wrote all this last night while v tired, and was going to delete it this morning, and then BBC News South East lead out with “two puppies die in fire” so fuck it)

And that’s just the social media-facing corporations. That doesn’t even take individual actors into account. The Global Social Computer in the Cloud — which, as ever, is mostly just people hired to sit in badly lit rooms and slave themselves out for data entry – is just noise. Murky, immiserating noise that demands sorting-braincycles that I can put to better use elsewhere.

I process a lot of stuff, and keep up with a lot of things, and a shift is required to allow for the career step-change. You can’t be dogmatic about anything. Situations tend to be fluid and dynamic, and you need to be able to flow and adjust in response.

I’ve been filling my office with DVDs and Blu-Rays and CDs for reasons.

I’ve killed all social media notifications, moved IG to a folder at the back of my phone where I will quickly forget about it, deleted some of its more egregious news apps (bye, New York Times) and generally turned stuff off. I’m not doing that thing of “making a dumbphone” or greying out the screen. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I am likely to have to appear more present on some services in the immediate future, but I’ll be doing that in as mediated, buffered and time-shifted a way as possible. This is a whole new stage of gone for me, and we’ll see how it goes.

And this whole post has really just been a way to lay it all out in front of me so I can see it properly.

How I Nearly Died

While I’m telling stories, I don’t think I ever told this one.

Four years ago, I woke up and the right side of my body was dead. Couldn’t move it. Couldn’t feel it. My right lung wasn’t working. Vision was weird in my right eye. Confused. I sleep on the right side of the bed. I couldn’t get out of bed. Flopped around like a dying fish. Tried to yell for help for a while. Which would not have immediately done me any good because nobody was home at that precise point. Someone came home ten minutes later. Breathing was becoming interesting at that point, but I managed to make enough sound to summon help.

I was helped out of bed. I was fully aphasic at that point. Two minutes later, I was fine. Very weird. But I thought, shit, I better go to the hospital, right? I was clearly still confused, because it didn’t occur to me to call an ambulance. I packed a bag and went to the hospital under my own steam. Checked in at the counter, gave them a full report of the experience, and sat down to wait to be seen. Sixty seconds later it happened again. It took three people to wrestle me into a wheelchair and transport me into the room. I was conscious but aphasic and the right side of my body was dead. Five minutes later, I was compos mentis enough to understand that I was being conveyed to the Acute Stroke Unit.

I was there three days.

On the first day, I was told I’d had a massive stroke.

On the second day, they told me it was a trans-ischemic attack, which was explained to me as an early warning for a stroke.

On the third day, they told me they had no idea what the hell had happened to me, because there was no trace of stroke or TIA and you can’t cure a stroke by standing up, and so they named it a Miscellaneous Neurological Event and sent me home.

Now, fifteen years previously, I’d had what they believed to have been a high blood pressure event (although it turned out at least one visiting doctor thought it was a brain tumour and had told my partner to call him if I was still alive in the morning) that rendered me mostly unconscious for some six weeks. So, yeah, this wasn’t the first time I nearly died. This one did give some clarity. It’s not high blood pressure, it’s “massively fluctuating” blood pressure, in tandem with acute hypertensive stress and some physiological fluke wherein the pressure surge or drop happens across a cluster of nerves that control or affect a bunch of stuff in the right side of my body. Basically, if my stress reaches a certain point, it trips an Off Button.

“You’re young to have hypertensive stress this bad,” said the consultant.

“Hi, I’ve been a freelance writer for twenty-five years,” I said.

I’ve had a few brushes with it since. And, frankly, the last couple of weeks haven’t been great. Anything that smells of threat or crisis, the numb patches start appearing and I get vertigo and blurred vision. But, so far, I haven’t needed to be back at the hospital for more than a day, so we live in home that we have the procedures to calm it until it’s fully understood.

I remain a source of frustration to doctors, because they can’t figure out how the mechanism works. Until they do, all I can do is carry the meds that’ll save me if I can get to them, and try to avoid stress.

Hi, I’m a freelance writer and producer who works in television and comics. How do we think that’s working out?

So that’s how I nearly died, that time. Hopefully the next one will be nearly too.