A moment before the audience settles in, before the lights come up, before the funny happens.
Peepshow Menagerie presents: Burlesqueland VII, 3/27/2015. Photo by Markus Alias.
Okay, fine. I’ve been known to “act” on occasion. And yes, there was a time when I most certainly was an actor:
In my most secret of thoughts, I fancy myself Mycroft Holmes-esque: gobsmackingly brilliant, but too damned lazy to do anything with it. I think perhaps the second part of that computation is the truer part. Anyway, Here’s me, acting:
Some would call that “acting.” I call it “doing a solid for a friend,” the friend in this case being Phillip Kelly, the Mr. Buddy to my Mr. Snapper:
What we do may not be acting, but it is something.
A year (or two?) ago, we mounted a sketch comedy show in Hollywood, “Die Gruppe presents: In the Hooker’s Duffel Bag.” Here’s me, acting:
Geez … I guess that was three years ago. We really need to do another sketch show.
All evidence to the contrary, I still don’t consider my an actor. I just want to entertain people, whatever it takes.
I had a crazy idea yesterday.
Finally reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and it’s blowing my mind. It’s expanding my perception of what the medium is capable of, much in the same way Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics did. Or, hell — in the same way Krazy Kat, Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes books or Warren Ellis’ recent run on Moon Knight has. I find myself engaged with storytelling that is taking advantage of its medium to tell its story.
It makes me want to do something crazy. It makes me want to turn my play Tracing Sonny into a comic book.
Tracing Sonny is a romantic comedy about the baggage we carry with us from childhood, and how that baggage has the potential to dominate our personal relationships as adults. If you’re interested in taking a look at the play, you can find it on my writing samples page.
Sonny is a voice-over artist living in Los Angeles. He has found his soul-mate in Luci, an effervescent animator. They are madly in love, creating a life together; they speak the same language. But two things stand between Sonny and a happily-ever-after: His parents. We follow Sonny and Luci through vignettes that capture the arc of their relationship, and the problems caused by the unwanted, ingrained personality traits of his parents.
Here’s the thing that has me excited about this crazy idea: these ingrained personality traits; these “daubs of paint” on the canvas of Sonny’s life are represented onstage by actors who swing in when the parents take over in a scene. Between the present time vignettes we discover the pain and heartache at the root of Mom and Dad’s doomed relationship.
I made a conscious effort to write a uniquely theatrical piece, a play that takes full advantage of the medium of live theater. I think the comic book form offers just as unique a milieu — if not more — to tell this story.
In the play, Sonny addresses the audience in a sort of “limbo space,” essentially, his mind. In the comic, this could be represented by unbound panels. No borders in limbo. The memories of his childhood could be rendered in a way completely different from how his adult years are rendered, and framed in a unique way. For instance, borders that suggests photographs pasted into an old photo album.
His parents can run their commentary in the “limbo space” just outside the panel borders that contain present-time action. When Sonny’s parents step in for him, the art can shift. Maybe Dad’s reality looks like old Dick Tracy comic strips. Maybe Mom’s looks like Cathy strips.
I’m just spitballing here. When I work with an artist — or artists — on bringing this to fruition, I’ll want to collaborate with him/her/them on the exact look of the thing. And that’s another exciting possibility! I could work with one artist who can shift styles, or a number of artists who each take on on aspect of Sonny’s story. One artist who does Dad’s panels, one artist who does Mom’s, etc.
The play premiered in 2009 in North Hollywood, and did pretty well. It resonated with people, which is all that mattered to me. My one regret with the show is that so few people got to see it. And it’s over. I can look at the photos, remember the performances, but like any other piece of theater, it’s all just ephemera. Memories.
A graphic retelling will last. I can always pick up a copy of the finished work, and it will be as fresh as the first time I read it. I had that experience recently with The Dark Knight Returns, a book I hadn’t read in close to thirty years when I picked it back up a couple of months ago. (Side note: Folks who bitch about the book probably haven’t read it in a while.)
I’m going to do this. I think I’ll enlist Pamela’s help to adapt it. She groks me, knows the play better than most, and she gets comic book storytelling. I’ll probably ask Phillip for some editorial help, because he’s actually done this sort of thing before, and he also understands me and this play.
As for the artist or artists, I don’t know yet. I have so many incredible artists in my life, but I feel way too humbled to approach any of them. Maybe I’ll post an ad on Craigslist. We’ll see.
H.P. Lovecraft was a unique artist with a powerful gift of imagination. Unfortunately, his wildest flights of fancy left him incapable of seeing past his ethnic and racial prejudices, which were extreme even for his time.
A writer who created worlds as fantastic and detailed as those of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lovecraft’s place in literary history is indisputable. His purple prose, thick and tendinous, can be difficult to read. But once you give yourself over to his words, relax into the soupy dread he cooks up, you cannot help but become a fan.
Lovecraft’s racism, bald-faced and stubborn, is nevertheless the gristle that irritates, oftentimes making his delicious prose otherwise unpalatable. Born of a genetic predisposition towards anxiety and possessing of an incipient xenophobia, his racism and ethnicism is the expression of a morbidly frightened man. Whatever the source of his racism, it matters little. It is the most odious thing about his writing. (He wasn’t particularly science-positive either.)
I could draw out specific examples — it’s frightfully easy. The poem that WFA 2011 award winner Nnedi Okorafor quotes in her petition to have Lovecraft’s name and visage removed from the award is a particularly horrifying example. “The Rats in the Wall” is nigh impossible to stomach for what Lovecraft chose to name the black cat that features prominently in an otherwise fantastic yarn. Even on the rare occasions where Lovecraft attempts some semblance of equanimity towards other races and ethnicities, it falls painfully flat, reading as the worst sort of backhanded pandering. “The Transition of Juan Romero” comes to mind:
It was not long after my arrival and employment that Juan Romero came to the Norton Mine. One of the large herd of unkempt Mexicans attracted thither from the neighbouring country, he at first attracted attention only because of his features; which though plainly of the Red Indian type, were yet remarkable for their light colour and refined conformation, being vastly unlike those of the average “greaser” or Piute of the locality. It is curious that although he differed so widely from the mass of Hispanicised and tribal Indians, Romero gave not the least impression of Caucasian blood. It was not the Castilian conquistador or the American pioneer, but the ancient and noble Aztec, whom imagination called to view when the silent peon would rise in the early morning and gaze in fascination at the sun as it crept above the eastern hills, meanwhile stretching out his arms to the orb as if in the performance of some rite whose nature he did not himself comprehend. But save for his face, Romero was not in any way suggestive of nobility. Ignorant and dirty, he was at home amongst the other brown-skinned Mexicans; having come (so I was afterward told) from the very lowest sort of surroundings.
Juan Romero is noble, see, just not that noble.
It’s not my intention to beat up on Lovecraft. That’s the job of clickbait sites who have just discovered what fans have known all along, and who are trying to give an author who, three-quarters of a century after his death, has soared in popularity, the Mel-Gibson treatment. Any maybe he deserves it.
The point is this: We know better. We can correct Lovecraft’s mistakes, apologize for his character flaws, and make some measure of amends as we create in the sandbox he left behind.
This is what we humans do: Celebrate accomplishment, condemn failings, and build on a reconciliation of the two. It was a slave-owner who wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The history of my country has been one of building on the accomplishments of men who were all too fallible. The struggle goes ever on.
That is what we are doing with Miskatonic West. MW has a diverse cast representing a broad spectrum of race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Lovecraft created a wildly heterogeneous cosmology. To meet it with a homogeneous cast would be a sin.
The first season also touches on the Pacific Coast Native American tribes, treating them not as the ignorant primitives of so many Lovecraft stories, but rather as brave human beings who stood up against the unspeakable unknown. Running the risk of cultural appropriation is a concern. We don’t want to go too far in fetishizing other cultures, pandering, or engaging in a superficial multi-culturalism for the sake of multi-culturalism.
Harry, Noah, and I can only go about this with the best of intentions, open honesty, and sensitivity. And by acknowledging that we are making reparations for where an otherwise incredible author fell horribly, miserably short.
It’s not difficult. Writing for a diverse cast of unique characters is an absolute delight. We are all people with universally felt desires and fundamental needs. In a cosmic sense — certainly in a Lovecraftian cosmic sense — we are so excruciatingly small, painfully impotent, our differences are infinitesimal. Unnoticeable.
We all go mad in the end, no matter what we look like on the outside.
I’ve blogged before about Miskatonic West, the Lovecraft-inspired webseries that I’m co-writing with Harry Kakatsakis, and that was created by Harry and Noah James Butler.
The Kickstarter campaign to get the ball rolling on production has gone live:
To contribute to this project, follow this link.
The first Lovecraft story I ever read was “The Tomb.” Being the sort of person who is drawn to musty, old paperbacks, I’ve found myself perusing many a shelf in many a used book store over the years. I say “found myself,” and I mean it. The mere sight of a used book store is enough to trigger a kind of somnambulistic trance; a waking sleepwalk wherein I follow some unnamed spirit to those dusty, worn shelves crammed with long-forgotten yet perhaps once well-loved books.
How intoxicating! The aroma of binder’s glue and paper breaking down, mixed with the faintest trace of mildew. The muffled silence of those shelves.
It was on one such shelf I found a Del Rey-published copy of The Tomb and Other Tales. The cover, depicting a human figure cocooned in spider’s webbing, mouth frozen in a scream of terror, promised hideous delights within. I began reading “The Tomb” there in the aisle, and soon after bought a treasure worth so much more than the dollar-fifty pricetag scratched in grease pencil on its inside cover.
I had heard of Lovecraft before, via my favorite author, Robert A. Heinlein. In his book, The Number of the Beast, a group of adventurers find themselves hopping through different literary universes. For instance, they visit Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom and L. Frank Baum’s Oz. The only catch is that all four adventurers must have read the same book prior to their journey. They write up a list of all the books they’ve read and compare notes:
“Is H.P. Lovecraft on that list?”
“He only got one vote, Zebbie. Yours.”
“Cthulhu be thanked! Sharpie, his stories fascinate me the way snakes are said to fascinate birds. But I would rather be trapped with the King in Yellow than be caught in the worlds of the Necronomicon.”
I knew him by reputation, and he did not let me down.
It is a delight to play in the singular, unnatural sandbox Lovecraft left for us. Along with Harry and Noah, I’m having way too much fun building our own eldritch sandcastles, and I can’t wait to share them all with you.
I did a brief spin through a telemarketing gig a week ago. It lasted for less than a week, but not because it was unbearably awful — it was surprisingly pleasant! Nope, I landed a long-term temp day job that is paying me handsomely for my brainpower. That’s a nice feeling, and it’s keeping the lights on at Maison du Snapper.
While I was at the telemarketing gig, I got the idea to write way-too-sincere poetry about telemarketing. It amused me to no end. Perhaps it will amuse you, too:
jump right in
waste no time
get to work
to dial …
… dial …
… dial …
and hope someone picks up
dregs seeking out dregs
hoping chance will sweep us away
desperate for a connection
we did not know we missed
longing for that voice
we’ve never heard before
trying to remember what the
real thing feels like
to defeat you
don’t listen to their words
their broken, hurtful words
listen to their motivation
and pity them their inhumanity
madly dialing numbers
desperate to hear a voice
hear me speak
talk to me
tonight I’m not selling
tonight you’re not buying
tonight we are two
it is not a personal failing
to miss a connection
no one is to blame
for bad timing
to hear your recorded voice
is not to resent you
(how much I would prefer
I am here; I know you’re out there
living our lives