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29th Mar 2014, 2:18 PM

Jon, Max, and Mac

Patrick Rothfuss, Paul and Storm, and the Best Night of My Life

Jonathan here. Around 2010, I finished George R.R. Martin’s A Feast For Crows, at that time the last book in his Song of Ice and Fire series. I was eager for more fantasy, but despaired of finding a writer at the same level as Martin with the same ability to completely lose me in his world. I briefly debated turning back to Lord of the Rings (the equivalent of sleeping at your ex’s), before deciding I could at least go browse the fantasy section of Powell’s books. Maybe some old dusty tome would grab my eye.

Of course I ended up in front of The Song of Ice and Fire. I wistfully stared at the four books on the shelf, trying to wish into existence the fifth book. Maybe I’d missed the release, the way I’d missed the release of the seventh Harry Potter book. I begged the laws of the universe to look the other way for just a moment and drop that fifth book into my hands, regurgitated out of some worm hole leading to a dimension where Song of Ice and Fire was complete.

And in a way, the universe listened.

A Powell’s employee appeared, a brunette girl with bright red lipstick and thick-rimmed glasses. She brusquely said “excuse me,” and knelt down next to A Feast of Crows, affixing a little sign underneath it. Then she left and I saw what the sign read: “Tired of Waiting for the Next Book in Song of Ice and Fire? Then Check Out Name of the Wind, By Patrick Rothfuss.”

And that is how I became a bigger fan of Patrick Rothfuss than I am of George R.R. Martin. Or, for that matter, of Tolkein, or Gaiman, or Sanderson, or Rowling.

Anyone who has read Name of the Wind has a story like this, about how they came to find it. This is because, for the lover of fantasy, there is nothing like the first  time you read Patrick Rothfuss… except maybe the second time. Or the third time. Rothfuss’ writing is like music. You hear different things every time you play the tune.

My father’s story is a little bit shorter. This is how he told it to Rothfuss last night, at the Aladdin theater here in Portland, Oregon: “I introduced my son to reading, and he introduced me to you.”

It’s a true story: for my whole life I’ve shared books with my dad. Last night (March 28) I bought tickets for us to share another experience, that of seeing Rothfuss live. It was a perfect evening. I wore my talent pipes and we sat three rows in front of the stage, about fifteen feet from the man I consider the greatest living writer. And we got a hell of a show.

Rothfuss didn’t show up alone. He is touring right now with Paul and Storm, a musical comedy duo who are to geek culture what Flight of the Conchords was to pop culture. Last night was a three-hour variety show, starting with Paul and Storm, then transitioning into Rothfuss, and ending with the three of them together singing “The Pirate Song.” It was like no author reading I’ve ever been to. Case in point, Paul and Storm opened with a song begging George R.R. Martin to finish Song of Ice and Fire. You can get the full song here.

If anything, it was more like being at a live showing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Portland crowd makes for a fantastic audience. There were unasked for call-and-answers. At one point, a pair of men’s underwear was thrown on stage, along with a bow tie, and an unopened DVD of Zombie Strippers. When Paul and Storm needed to use the theater screen, the audience sang the Star Wars Imperial March while waiting for the screen to slowly descend onto the stage. In short: it was a show I don’t think anyone else on the tour is going to get, not like it was last night. Quite often the performers were laughing so hard they had to stop their act. Say what you want about Portland being weird: “We entertain our entertainers.”

This flurry of comedy built up the audience nicely for Rothfuss’s entrance. He was greeted onto the stage like a rock star and then proceeded to take us through a literary journey that was funny, intellectual, melancholy, and meaningful. Trying to talk about his performance is like trying to explain Shakespeare to someone who has never read him. You can’t do his readings justice. I can’t adequately capture the emotion behind his heartfelt dilemma of feeling torn between spending time with his son and spending time with his Worldbuilding charity (which saves families from starvation in other countries). Nor can I explain how easily he transitioned from that into a story about drowning guinea pigs.

I can talk about these things, tell you they happened and that they were funny or emotional, but I can’t recreate them. Not without his exact script in front of me. I’d have to present it exactly as he wrote it; he’s too good a writer for it to work right any other way. Fortunately, a lot of these writings are up on his blogs or on Facebook. You can read the one about his son here.

My favorite part of the night was Pat’s reading of The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle, his kid’s book that is not for kids… but maybe is more than you’d think. If that’s a little confusing, that’s the point. After all, this is a book that begins with marzipan castles and ends with teeth… although it kind’ve begins with teeth, too. What was great about Pat’s reading was not just the book itself, but his deconstruction of the way our mind works as we read the book. “This is my punishment for your assumptions, and anyone who buys a kid’s book because of that little gold star on the cover deserves what they get,” Pat told us, and it’s a piece of The Princess that I’d never considered before. Typical of Patrick’s depth, there is a meta-layer to The Princess that is a warning against making assumptions or relying too much on our pattern-seeking conscious minds, without engaging in critical assessment of what’s in front of us. He showed us, in his reading of the book, how blind we can be to reality when it’s presented in a certain way.

Patrick also took questions from the audience, and his answers proved as interesting and unique from other author readings as everything else about the event. I’ve been to question and answer sessions where the author will expound for fifteen minutes on  question about how they named a character or how they wrote a single scene. In contrast, when one fan asked Pat how, as a non-musician, he writes the incredible musical scenes in Name of the Wind, he answered in four words: “I make shit up.” Next question.

Nor did my question about his inspiration for the love story between Denna and Kvothe manage to launch a discussion about his process: “I love the word inspiration,” Pat said. “But the idea that this outside force enters you and fills you with ideas isn’t how it happens. That takes away the responsibility from the author for what they’ve created.” He continued: “I don’t grab people from my life and shove them into my stories. I don’t think of that as good writing, I think of that as bad Photoshop.” Next question.

Some people might views these answers as reticent, but I saw it as unbridled honesty. Patrick pointed out what I think most of us are afraid to admit about writing, because it simultaneously removes some of the elitist intrigue from it, as well as dashing the hope that words will magically flow from our fingers if we want it bad enough: writing is mostly about hard work and a lot of practice.

He did have more to say about Denna later on: “Some people really don’t like her. And because of that, sometimes I think of her as my greatest failing. Because I wasn’t able to bring her to you the way I wanted you to see her. But then I think she’s also my greatest success, because we all don’t all like the same people. That’s what makes someone real. Just because two girls are friends with the same guy doesn’t mean they are going to be friends with each other. That only took me thirty years to figure out.” The audience laughed: Pat often makes fun of the disasters of his love life. He’s shares a lot in common with Kvothe when it comes to encounters with women (I think most males do).

Patrick’s favorite question was this one: “Which of your smoking hot characters would you most want to bone?” He determined that, if there was consent and no consequences, “who wouldn’t I want to bone?” And then he got philosophical: “If I’m the writer, could I actually have sex with my characters and have their consent? Would it really be consent?”

He talked about his favorite book, The Last Unicorn, and how the language of that story is the most beautiful he’s ever read. He also talked about his upcoming book. November will see the release of another book in the Name of the Wind world… no, it is NOT book three of the Kingkiller Chronicle. It is a novella about fan-favorite Auri, the mysterious waif and former magic student who lives in the sewers underneath the university. And what of book three, then? It’s hard to tell. I think Patrick was making fun of us when he pointed to the blank theater screen as he was setting up for The Princess and Mr. Whiffle and quipped, “Here’s a picture of book three!”

I think.

The evening ended with a chorus of “The Pirate Song,” some of which you can watch here. Unfortunately, I stopped filming right before a ten minute segue about a sequel to Everyone Poops, called Nobody Poops, that left the audience and Pat, Storm, and Paul doubled up with laughter on the stage. Okay, it might sound a little childish now, but I assure you, it came from a good place (specifically a play on William Shatner’s name… Shat? narrrr… I’ll let you figure the rest out). Smiles and roars of approval were on every face in the crowd: from the family and their two young kids crying with laughter behind me, to a cute giggly twenty-something girl with blue hair a couple seats in front of me, from my beaming sixty-year-old dad, to my own splitting grin. It’s a sign of how many generations Pat has touched, and how connected we all are through his writing and through the larger umbrella of utter geekdom that he encourages us to embrace.

It was the perfect way to end a perfect night.

23rd Mar 2014, 9:39 AM

Jon, Max, and Mac

Big Red turns 20: Hellboy

Jonathan here. Ever have one of those moments where you learn how old something is and your first reaction is, "no way?" Ah, but then you start to sort through the pictures in your memory and admit that the object in question has had an impact for longer and through more life events than you thought.

This was the experience Max and I had yesterday night (March 22), as we set out to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy at Things From Another World. We were last here for the Gail Simone signing and TFAW threw just as good a party this time, complete with beer and food. I hear the red velvet cupcakes were home-baked, and whoever made them should know they were delicious.

On hand for tonight's event were three Dark Horse heavyweights and H.B. alumni: Scott Allie (editor in chief of Dark Horse comics and writer/editor of DH titles Conan, Serenity, Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and Solomon Kane); Dave Stewart (eight-time Eisner Award winning colorist who has worked on titles for Dark Horse, DC, and Marvel); and Tyler Crook (artist for B.P.R.D: Hell On Earth, Bad Blood, and Petrograd, and winner of the 2012 Russ Manning award). Also Red himself. Max has the pictures to prove it.

It was a great chance for comic fans to ask questions like “how does an aspiring writer get into comics?” Scott’s answer: “Do it obsessively. Generate a lot of material, then team up with an artist and get some of it drawn. Don’t turn in scripts, and don’t try to go for your epic opus right away. Create a relationship with someone by doing a few shorter issues, see if you guys can work together… and then you’ll have these end products that you can show around. That’s the portfolio you need to break in, and your artist is going to want that, too. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship.”

People at the event were enthusiastic, and that has a lot to do with the sheer variety of the comic. We’re talking about a superhero who fights demons from the Bible, witches from Russian folklore, horrors from the mind of H.P. Lovecraft, werewolves, and Nazis. No other graphic covers this sort of distance, with a guide this overpowering. Here’s a red giant, cocking a gun with a barrel you could fit your whole fist into. He chain smokes. He’s got a glare that could stop a charging bull. He’s 300 years old, but everyone calls him Hell BOY. In short, he’s a monster, and part of the fun is watching him go toe-to-toe with other monsters, especially since he always just barely seems to win. It’s like mixing the Hammer Horror films with Wrestlemania, complete with all the humorous side-line taunting.

But then there’s a lot to unpack underneath all that. Hellboy isn’t all about quips and one-liners (though they are there in spades). There is a tragedy and loneliness to the Big Guy that’s hard to put into words, maybe because he himself never does. From the very beginning, Hellboy has seemed exhausted by his battles. It doesn’t mean he’s going to stop; he’s NEVER going to stop, and maybe that’s the tragedy. He can’t stop. He’s stuck doing this forever, for the protection of a humanity that can’t allow him to stop, and for the entertainment of a readership that doesn’t want him to. Hellboy is nothing if not a performance artist, and he knows his role well.

Scott, Tyler, and Dave know the role, too. One of the questions asked tonight was how they prepare for the creation of a Hellboy novel, and their answers were all essentially the same: they try to get inside Mike’s head. They have to know that role he’s created for Hellboy and how far he would take it. Scott elaborated: “[As a writer and editor] I get to work with some intense people, and I learn a lot about them… and I have to do what I think they would do, if they had the time to be the writer on every issue and every story involving their character.”

One of the things Scott learned about Mike early on in their relationship is that his favorite book is Dracula. Mike’s creative mind has been defined by Bram Stoker’s gothic horror tale of a monster stuck in a role he has no hope of ending (seeing the influence?) Along those lines, one of the little teasers dropped last night was that Mike wants to bring more vampires into the Hellboy storyline. Will that be in the form of an overarching plot? Maybe. Scott, Tyler, and Dave all expressed that Hellboy in Hell is their favorite story arc yet, and that’s a continuing storyline that is bringing in all the horrors that Mike wasn’t ready to touch on in the original series. From Dark Horse’s excitement about the series, it sounds like the arc to get into, whether you’re new to Hellboy or not.

One thing that isn’t going to come out is another film, at least not for a good long while. It was made clear last night that Hellboy 3 is officially off the table. This doesn’t come as a surprise. Though the first two films didn’t do poorly at the box office, they are expensive to make because of the need for practical make-up effects to create the central character, and heavy computer graphics to create the wide range of villains he faces. Even so, I could feel a wave of disappointment pass through the room at the news. Guillermo del Toro and Ron Perlman, in particular, made the transition from comic to screen brilliantly and captured the feel of the character in exacting terms.

I’ll admit, Hellboy was only on the periphery of my comic experience until the films came out. Max was a more avid reader of the comic. That said, I remember Hellboy from back when I was still wearing plaid and listening to a Walkman. It was always on the higher shelf of the comic book shop I used to visit in middle school, and every time I would reach for it, the owner of the shop would give me this look like I was reaching for the porno section. Then his eyes would flicker perceptibly over to the X-Men or Batman stacks. The implication seemed clear. This comic was for heavies. The other comics: those were for kids.

Last night I finally bought my first Hellboy book: Darkness Calls. I could still feel the eyes of that shop owner as I paid for my copy, but for the first time I wondered if maybe I had misinterpreted his look as a child. It wasn’t a disapproving and warning glare, it was a look that said, you’re about to get into something good. It was a testing look, to see if I would take the plunge, a look of deep respect for a graphic that has always remained different and fresh and inexorably separate from other graphic experiences. Hellboy is a superhero like the X-Men and Batman, but the difference is that he is a literal monster and when you stare into him, a little bit of you stares back.

16th Mar 2014, 10:01 AM

Jon, Max, and Mac

Pencils and Script: Off Rails

Full page: the train jumps the track and crashes. Details to show: train jumping the track; train flipping onto its side; carnage. The cars are still connected but are over turned and wreckage sprawls all over the ground.

Panel 2, bottom. Same shot as Panel 1 and 2 from last page, but now smoke pours out from the right side of the panel. Chandler is getting to his feet, hands on his knees, the way a middle-aged man rises. It’s time to go to work.

13th Mar 2014, 11:34 PM

Jon, Max, and Mac

Underground with Portland Comics

Jonathan here. I have to give Portland credit. No matter how long you spend in this city, there's always another nook to explore, a niche you haven't embraced, an experience you haven't had. Here's a city that I've spent most of my life in (and a good chunk of that has been spent as an independent graphic novel fan) and yet tonight was the first time I'd ever been to Comics Underground.

Comics Underground is an event held roughly four or five times a year, at the Jack London Bar (which is literally underground, hah hah). It was started and is organized by Alison Hallett and Erik Henriksen, two editors at the Portland Mercury (these two pretend like they just happen to like comics, but I secretly suspect they love them). There was a palpable fervor in the air when I entered the underground, an energy running through the packed room that had an almost carnival quality: it made me feel like I was about to be shown what was behind door number three—I was about to be shown something different.

And different it was. If you've ever thought of comic writers and artists as shy, introverted people, then this would be the event to prove you wrong. It turns out that the main gimmick behind Comics Underground is that the artists essentially do live performances of their artwork, complete with simulated sound effects, a couple props, and (of course) the artwork flashed up on a giant projector.

In short: it was weird and awesome and completely unexpected and very Portland and I can't wait to go to another one.

Jeannette Langmead was first up, presenting a menagerie of work, most of which can be seen on her website "Cats Are Gross." Jeannette's presentation was hilarious, jumping seamlessly from comics about being jobless in Japan (after the company that hired her went bankrupt) to having doggy-style sex with Michelangelo (the Ninja Turtle, not the painter), and finally to penuses erupting from under eyeballs (based on what actually happens to some poor molusk in nature, I kid you not). Probably the fan-favorite moment was when Jeanette played footage of the 1990's "Coming Out of their Shell" musical tour. No. Seriously. This existed. I remember this. Though I had forgotten until Jeanette reminded me... so, um, thanks for that? Probably my favorite thing about Jeannette had to do with her art and her self-representation in it. Jeannette portrays herself in her comics exactly as she is in person. She hasn't transformed herself into a busty goddess who beats up supervillains or has giant anime eyes. She's normal in her comics, and funny and tough and wonderful. I went home and immediately read most of the work on her website, and found that her work deals with subjects like looks, social groups, and little addictions. These aren't presented as problems, but just as something that we face every day. It shows me that, behind all of her humor, is a strong social statement about how we think about ourselves, and I plan on continuing to read her work to get more of that message.

Next up was Zack Soto, known mostly for his comic The Secret Voice, which he acted out tonight in rare form. Zack I've heard of before, in conjunction with giving artists a voice. Zack started Study Group Comics, which is a webcomic site that seeks to give indie artists a venue. It's a cool way of reading comics, too, as most of the comics don't run with a page-to-page format but rather use a scroll method, where you scroll down through the artwork. It's a unique way of doing things and an interesting reading experience that I highly recommend you check out. Aside from that, the whole idea of the site is a great initiative, and Zack has followed it up this year with the Lineworks convention, a new comics event in April, which will showcase local artists and creatives (we'll be attending!) And see, that's AWESOME. Anyone who is giving as much thought as Zack is to creating places where new artists can be seen and appreciated is doing something right in the world.

The final show was a showstopper, a three man (and one woman) reading event featuring Douglas Wolk's Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two mini-series—and Wolk himself. Wolk is my favorite kind of writer, the kind who is not afraid to do an extremely accurate impersonation of a Judge's police scanner in front of a live audience. Wolk was joined by three others whose names I didn't catch, but I believe two were artist Ulises Farinas and colorist Ryan Hill (the woman I'm not sure on). Regardless, the voice acting was superb, like watching a Saturday morning cartoon from the good ol' days (I mean the 80's). Wolk took over a couple of the remaining voices in tonight's reading, though the real prize goes to his writing ability. It's almost cliché for me to call Wolk a good writer (the man has written for the New York Times, Rolling Stone, has won both a Harvey and an Eisner) but I can't say enough how perfect his Dredd mini-series is. In just the small sample we got, it was evident this is a wonderful take on the fish-out-of-water template. The short: Dredd finds himself working in the falsely utopian Mega-City Two. If Mega-City One is New York post-apocalypse, then Mega-City Two is Los Angeles NOW. Dredd is assigned a film crew instead of a police unit, and runs around trying to bag criminals with a woefully ineffective teddy-bear gun, under orders of a High Judge who is best known for his role in the autobiographical mini-series Bulletproof. Dredd's main reaction to all of this, besides disgust, is increasing rage and violence. It's great, less like fish-out-of-water and more like shark-out-of-water.  If only the movies had been like this, Dredd would be a household name.

Overall, tonight's Comics Underground event served as a great reminder that Portland is a town that loves comics. But even more than that, the artists who performed tonight showed that it's a town whose comics love the fans. Portland is a great place to a be a comic book fan, and that's mainly due to the fact that people like Jeanette, Zack, and Douglas have kept themselves accessible and willing to get down and dirty with readers. A huge thanks to Erik and Alison for providing a time and place for it all to happen.

7th Mar 2014, 11:10 PM

Jon, Max, and Mac

Matt Wagner and Will Eisner Appreciation Week

If you haven’t been read aloud to in a while and if you love comics, then tonight’s event with Matt Wagner at Floating World would have been as magical for you as it was for us.

Max here, reporting in on the aftermath of another wonderful Portland comics event. For Eisner Appreciation week, the folks at Floating World Comics hosted comic legend Matt Wagner. The night began with Wagner reading along to the  projected pages of the relatively short but powerful Mortal Combat, a piece from Eisner’s compilation Invisible People.

Lined up in front of our narrator like huddled schoolchildren, the crowd watched Wagner as closely as they did the transitioning images on the screen. While not an orator by trade, Wagner did a great job affecting the different characters and voices of the story, seamlessly transitioning to and from the visceral affectations of Eisner’s lost, broken, and tragic-comic characters. The quiet setting and subdued atmosphere lent itself perfectly to the intimacy of Eisner’s work and allowed Wagner’s dynamic personality to lead us through the heart-and-ground breaking narrative.

The Spirit was the first Eisner comic I ever bought,” Wagner explained after the reading. “It was up on the top shelf of the magazine rack, just out of my reach—which made it seem naughty and dangerous.” Wagner says that what drew him to Eisner’s work, specifically The Spirit, was its departure from the classic trope of the superhero. The Comics Code Authority of America was, during Wagner’s childhood in the 60s and 70s, the most staunch censorship organization in American media. “Eisner was trying to escape the Comics Code,” Wagner said. “He created characters that were dramatic but humane as well. There is a sense of consequence for Eisner’s characters. That heroes suffer for their bravery was a new concept for comics of the time.”

Wagner reminisced (as he drew an original piece of art to be raffled off at the end of the event) about an early The Spirit comic he read that had a profound impact on him as a boy. The story, as Wagner tells it, starts with the local police force in a stand-off with a cornered serial killer in an abandoned warehouse. “This guy is conducting a study in murder, shooting people from his window and gauging the reactions of passerbys and the police. He’s writing about the effects on his typewriter. This was no Dr. Doom—this guy was scary.” The Spirit arrives and hatches a plan to climb up on the roof and burst in and thwart the villain. While attempting to crash through the skylight, the police—finally pushed too far by the mad-man—open fire and their stray bullets riddle The Spirit’s legs. After crashing into the warehouse and defeating the bad guy, The Spirit is seen next issue recovering in a hospital. The diagnosis is not good; he is on crutches and hobbling along the hallways of the hospital, while the doctor’s notes read something to the effect of “bone infection spreading” and “shrapnel in the legs will likely result in amputation.” Wagner recollected his reaction to the moment with four words: “my fucking head exploded!”

It’s a proclamation about Eisner’s work that Eisner would no doubt have greatly appreciated. Eisner’s greatest wish was to see others, especially young artists, inspired to break boundaries in the comic world. As Wagner put it, “If Jack Kirby was the comic book world’s Michelangelo… then Will Eisner was our Leonardo, a creator involved with insight and innovation, and exploring the inner depths of the human heart.”

While Wagner is perhaps best known for the long-running and influential Grendel, it’s his self-acknowledging work Mage which introduced Team Dahlia to his method of storytelling. And on that note, we managed to get some good news from Matt: he has not given up plans of completing the Mage trilogy, responding with a wholehearted “Oh god yes,” when Jon asked him about its future.

A big thanks to Floating World Comics for hosting the event and to the great crowd of thoughtful and engaged participants who were present. Also a huge thank you to Matt Wagner for the amazing drawing of The Spirit (Jon won the drawing in a raffle). Photos of the event can be found on our Facebook page and Twitter feed.