Reading People Reading "My Brain"
by T. Hodler
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
I’ve been checking out some of the reviews of my book floating around on the web, including here on good ol’ Comics Comics, and I wanted to take the time to articulate some of the intentions I had with My Brain is Hanging Upside Down and respond to some of the criticism.
First off, I’m really proud of this book. I spent almost five years on it. It’s not perfect by any stretch and I’m sure it will be a maddening read for some people, but it’s my baby and I stand behind it. I think of it as a catalog or a ledger accounting book. It’s an inventory of my life. It doesn’t have a traditional novelistic arc to it. It doesn’t follow the rules of usual literature and might not look like your run-of-the-mill comic book.
My Brain is a series of fractured vignettes that approximate a self-portrait, clearly incomplete— a record of who I was and what mattered to me most while writing it. More than that, it’s the best way I know to talk about my country. There’s an amazing amount of personal and cultural baggage I was bombarded with as a kid and teenager and it’s my job to sort it out and make sense of it and decide what’s worth keeping (and passing on). The risk I took was in betting that readers would find that process entertaining or moving or helpful in some way. It seems the jury’s still out, over here at least.
I used to do this a lot, but I no longer spend time wishing works of art were something they’re not. I don’t wish Stan Brakhage made commercial Hollywood films. Or that Kanye West would do something more stripped down, personal and emotionally revealing. I try to accept art for what it is and decide if it has anything of value to offer me. If I take a stance against it, especially if it’s accompanied by a righteous feeling of being sure of my opinion, I’ve found that I’m using someone’s work to further my own unhappiness, discontent and irritability and ultimately it has nothing to do with the artist on whom I’ve fixed my angry gaze.
Frank Santoro leads the discussion here with a lot of emotionally charged accusations, which for me, mostly amount to this: “Your book (of which I read bits and pieces in the bookstore) stirred up a lot of feelings in me and I’m angry at you that I have to feel these things, so I’ll pretend that it’s actually boring and that I don’t care about it.” This was disappointing since my hope is that people will actually read the book, in all its complexity, before commenting on it (I’m reminded of Catholic nuns protesting Last Temptation of Christ). But also because I’m a big fan of Frank’s work and like him personally. He has a simultaneously painterly and cinematic approach to comics that I find enlightening and educational. He was a big inspiration for me in working on the “Family History” strip of my book, in particular his book Incanto, which is a gorgeous series of drawings done at an inhuman velocity. I’ll continue to admire and seek out all his new work. No hard feelings, Frank! For real, yo.
Tim Hodler articulated some excellent points of criticism and was generous with his praise. He’s of the mind that the asides in the book, written in the present tense while I was working on it (including the “shout outs” in “Black History”, or the epilogue of “Sex History”) don’t belong and are too jarring to be included in this volume. I’m not objective and I’m sure I have a distorted view of how they come across. I think they add a further wrinkle of complexity to the story. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard from several readers that they loved reading the asides in the midst of the otherwise heavy narrative. It was like a comic relief or a moment of decompression.
I don’t have much to say to people who don’t like the way my art looks. I certainly have my own preferences and tastes and you’re entitled to yours. Hopefully I’m getting better at it. There’s plenty of other stuff out there if you’re mostly looking for traditionally beautiful comic book artwork. I think Overpeck will look a little more “fully baked.” This one was like editing together the work of 5 different people under a single pseudonym.
I want to clarify Heidi MacDonald’s comment about a panel I recently did at Barnes & Noble. She states, “Heatley was very frank about being a narcissist and how that informs his work. I got the impression that the effect on the audience is a secondary motivation for him.” What I actually said was that there’s something narcissistic about all writing. We’re people who are traumatized into thinking that the most incredible thing in the world is what’s happening inside our heads at any given time. And we constantly think about how we can use what we’re experiencing in our own work, sometimes at the expense of being present with the people around us. I went on to say that I hope that what may look like narcissism could be seen as a desire to look deeply into myself and share what I find. I don’t feel a lot of attachment to my story as something that defines me. I’m done with it. And if I’ve done my job with this book, my readers will find something useful or illuminating or entertaining in it.
Noah Berlatsky, an acquaintance of mine, and a talented, but bitter writer living in Chicago, wrote about my “Sex History” strip on a site called comiXology. The highlights of his career so far have included well-written, but scathing attacks on Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman with titles like “In the Shadow of No Talent”. For the record, back in 2002 I almost illustrated one of his poems as a comic strip, but had to abandon it because it seemed too similar to a Marc Bell strip at the time. He also contributed to an incoherent failure of an anthology I produced while living in Chicago called The New Graphics Revival. I stand behind the idea of that book, which was that given the time and materials, most anyone could produce an interesting comic strip. But I’m embarrassed by almost all of the work that was sent to us, mostly by a middling, call-for-entry gen-x set. I’m not saying that my failing to promote an anthology that contained work by him or my inability to finish a strip based on his writing could have led him to write this line: “Whether through pointlessly tangled continuity, repetitive autobio dreck, aggressively ugly art, or reflexively irrelevant literariness, [Heatley’s] comics seem determined to find some way, any way, to keep out all those readers and creators who might otherwise, and naturally, see comics as their own.” But anything’s possible!
More to the point, he claims that in the anecdotes about bad sex, longing and one night stands that make up “Sex History”, I’m depicting ciphers, not real women. “He occasionally wonders what is up with one of them — why is she behaving so oddly? Why didn’t she get me off? But he never really cares enough to find out — or, at least, not enough to waste one of his tiny panels telling the reader about it.” Unfortunately, he missed the fundamental idea behind the piece and took the work at face value. The “me” character is something of an unreliable narrator. I’m asking the reader to imagine an alternate universe where the details of falling in love and getting married deserve a single panel and where obsessive thinking about a meaningless crush or one-night stand deserve dozens. I’m certainly not defending the behavior or even the thinking shown, quite the opposite. Something I tried to expound on in the strip’s new epilogue.
The pink bars, by the way, are pretty much a non-issue outside comics circles. I think previous readers feel like I gave them something and then took it away. So now they’re angry. One plausible theory, at least.
A few words about “open ambition”, which seems to be popping up on the comments section here. I’ve never felt at home in the “indie” comics world, where authenticity is judged by how few books are sold and ultimate hipster cred is dealt to artists who are selfless enough to leave their name off their piece entirely. It’s true I’m a self-promoter. I want my book to sell. I want to make lots of money. I want to have a house and give my kids a college education. I used to think that making art and making money were incompatible. It took shedding a lot of my own self-loathing and shame to get to a place where I believe in what I do and get excited about sharing it with as many people as possible. Maybe I’ve tipped a little too far in my excitement. I’m cool with that. I’m not sure what “careerist” means. It must be the sexiest word a surly 25-year-old can muster to put a “successful” artist like me in my place. “He’s just in it for the career!” I don’t really make those distinctions. The business side of art isn’t evil. It’s interesting. If all that turns you off, there’s plenty of other work out there by sad, lonely, misunderstood artists to fetishize and worship. They need your attention more than me.
It was heartening to hear some excitement even among My Brain‘s detractors for my next book Overpeck. I think of it as the polar opposite of what I was going for with My Brain, so there’s a good chance all my fans and critics will switch sides when it’s published. Or maybe not. It should be out from Pantheon by 2010 or so. It will have a more-or-less novelistic structure with a traditional story arc and will feature the best, non-cramped art I can deliver. Yours for $24.95, if not less.
Sincere thanks for reading. And for all your comments, even the viciously nasty ones. Peace out.