a rambling love letter to neil gaiman, stan lee and the world of comics.
you may not know why this photo is special. i will tell you.
this photo, by steve prue, was taken a few minutes after i met neil gaiman for the first time.
i’m sorry it’s been so long since i’ve written – ALMOST TWO WEEKS, GOOD LORD, that’s some kind of record – and there is so much to talk to you about…my collapse back to the house after 3 months at sea, the dresden dolls reunion in london, the voting party with jherek, the fact that kyrsten simena just won her senate seat (!!!YES!!!) and the epic news that’s coming down the pike about the next record….but then….
stan lee died yesterday. for the whole comics world, it was the end of an era and the passing of a massive icon.
and i wanted to talk about some things.
did you know the story of how neil and i first met?
i will tell you.
he and i had been introduced over email by my bestie, the musician jason webley, whose hand-made animated video for “eleven saints” had caught neil’s attention (and of course, nothing just randomly catches your attention on the internet, there’s always a source, and the source was olga nunes, and who knows how she found out about it. we should ask her). neil posted it on his blog, jason wondered why the fuck his little video had racked up thousands of views overnight, jason emailed neil through his website to thank them, the two of them started chatting, and the rest is history. i remember the moment…i was at jason’s parents house in seattle – hanging out with one of the bands that didn’t become my back-up band for who killed amanda palmer, estradasphere – when he turned to me and said “do you know who neil gaiman is? he just posted my video on his blog and it got like a zillion views.”
i probably scrunched my nose as a said it:
“neil gaiman…neil gaiman. yeah, sure. he’s the gothy comics guy. i’ve never read anything he’s written but one of my friends in high school was obsessed with his comics and drew this weird eyeliner squiggle under her eye every day.” (this is true. kristine masters is responsible for my teen-knowledge of neil gaiman and his comics. i did not read comics…not really. but i’ll get back to that in a second.)
jason shrugged, i shrugged, and we were both like: awesome, someone sorta cult-y famous likes one of us, and we went back to our sandwiches. we always like it when someone sort of famous likes us, it’s like you win some sort of intangible cosmic point on the grand ladder to ultimate success.
then the plot thickened. jason and neil started sending chatty emails back and forth, and jason sent neil a box of records, and neil sent jason a box of books, and neil mentioned to jason that he liked the dresden dolls. that, of course, sent my ego soaring to much more satisfying heights, and i asked jason to give me his email. .
so i read one of neil’s books to make sure i actually could say i’d read one of his books before i wrote to him, so i wouldn’t feel like an asshole. i went to a bookstore and chose coraline, becaus e it looked pleasant and unintimidating and easy to digest, and i read it, and i really liked it, which relieved me.
and then i wrote him an email and told him i was, of course, a huge fan of his work. and i heard he liked my band, and he wrote back and we started what i now like to refer to as ego-flirting with one another.
i didn’t have a crush on neil. i thought he was far outside my world, and he was british, and he was old. but i – like anybody probably would have been – was utterly flattered that anybody famous from outside my atmosphere liked my work and my band. i was also, at the time, in another relationship, a really happy one. i was dating michael, who’d just got into yale for drama grad school. i was slaving on the finishing touches of my first solo album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer. part of my vision for the album was to put a book out alongside the CD and vinyl – a collection of funny and morbid dead photographs of myself. i was only putting out the book because i knew my cocksucking major label couldn’t touch a dime of the profit on my book, and i wanted to encourage my fans to download my record for free, because internet 2008, but BUY the book from me (which i’m happy to report they did, and it worked out great). and at the time neil floated into my life as random-culty-writer-guy-who-seems-friendly, i was actually looking for a writer to add some text – just captions, really, something simple and morbid and clever and silly – below the dead photographs.
so i asked neil. i sent him a few of the dead photos to make him laugh (and understand).
and he said yes, he’d happily write some captions for my weird book.
and he suggested that we finally meet in person. i was living in boston at the time, and he told me he was headed to new york comic con.
“what’s that?” i asked.
i’m sure he explained. i’m sure i stared blankly at the phone.
so i took a train from boston to new york just to meet him for an hour or so, and talk to him about our project. and that is how i found myself in the basement of the javitz center in new york city, having been wrangled through some labyrinth of glass and steel down into the bowels of the building, where neil was holding court and hanging out with fancy people and doing whatever famous comics people do in the basement green room of a comic convention. i had brought my laptop with me to show him the photos and play him some of the clips from the record (it was JUST in the finishing stages), and i remember my laptop was so fucked that it actually had to be plugged into the wall in order to function because the battery was dead, and i remember sitting there with neil, showing him dead photos of myself and playing him some of my record, when our work was interrupted for a second by an entourage of people on the other side of the room.
and neil turned to me and said:
“that’s stan lee.”
and i said:
and he said, blinking and looking at me like i was incredibly stupid:
and i looked back and blinked at him like HE was incredibly stupid and i said,
and then he looked at me with a kind of awe.
and he said:
“that’s the man who created spiderman.”
and i said:
“oh. i’ve heard of that!”
and i think it could possibly be the moment that neil decided he possibly had a crush on me, because i had actually provided him proof positive that there was no way i was interested in him because he was Neil Gaiman, Prince of Dreams and Comics, but, rather, because he was this nice dorky writer that shared my friend’s video and who said he’d write some dead-picture captions for me and possibly help me sell a couple more goddamn books by doing so.
he insisted that i go across the room and get a photo with stan lee. and i was like: sure!
so here i am, with stan lee, minutes after meeting neil, and not knowing who stan lee was. a few notes on this photo: i was about 20 pounds heavier then than i am now. neil has often described the fact that we were not attracted to each upon our first meeting because i looked like a
nice, pudgy lesbian”. i’m not sure i’m going to argue with him. and look how totally stan lee looks.
the photographer, steve prue, who was the official photographer down there, then grabbed neil and asked if we could all take a picture together. so we did.
this is me and neil, about a half hour after we met each other for the first time.
neil’s beloved dog, cabal, had given him a black eye.
i heard him tell the story of that black eye a few times while i was down in the basement of comic con. listening to neil tell a story over and over again gives you a very good idea of who neil is.
then this other guy came around and neil said:
“that’s bill hader.”
and i blinked and said:
and neil said:
“the guy from superbad,”
and i said:
**grimace, shrug, this is getting embarrassing**
and neil said:
“he’s on saturday night live.”
and i said: “YES!! i know that! i used to watch it in the eighties!”
so here is a picture of me and neil and bill hader, who i did not know who he was.
but here’s the more interesting part of the story, now that we have all of the dressing room slapstick out of the way.
when i met neil, i really didn’t understand comics. i mean: i understood that they existed, and i understood that some were dumb and some were arty and smart, but i didn’t read them, and i didn’t collect them, and i didn’t think they were really for me, or for people like me.
but you can’t get into a relationship with a guy like neil gaiman and not wander curiously over to his shelves, and for the most part, it was the personalities that ultimately drew me in. i wanted to read “maus” by art spiegelman for no other reason than i met art spiegelman, and thought: anything he’s written has got to be good.
in my opinion of myself, i was simply turned off by the entire comics world: it was macho, it was sexist, it was cartoony…it was gross.
but i had to reality-log the fact that my prejudice against comics was manufactured. because while i really didn’t consider myself a comics person, i read a TON of comics as a kid: i was an avid collector of Far Side books, and one of my most beloved books as a teenager was a collection of one-page comic drawings by john callahan. and at some point in my teens, i was lucky enough to have a boyfriend whose comics-pushing friend looked me up and down and recommended (and loaned me) julie doucet’s “dirty plotte” as the comic that would probably be my gateway drug. and he was right: i devoured every “dirty plotte” comic he let me borrow. i’d never read or seen anything quite like it: a frantic, female, self-flagellating, neurotic comic book artist anthropomorphizing her bedside condoms and tampons!!! i was IN LOVE.
but there were only so many issues of dirty plotte (5?), and then that was it. and it never occurred to me to go into a comics shop and ask for more feminist comics with anthropomorphized tampons any more than i would have thought of going into the local dude-porn shop and asking for a nice vibrator. no way.
it wasn’t until i saw neil speaking at a literary festival about four years ago that my head actually wrapped itself around the true power and beauty of comics, and what he said was so incredibly graceful and simple.
he said, to paraphrase, that there is no other art form in which the beholder of the art can confront silence of indeterminate measure. no art form in which the artist can show silence in time.
as in: you can explain in a book that a character is sitting in silence, but your eyes move to the next page. you can make a silent sculpture, but it remains fixed in time. you can have a film in which a character stops and does not speak, but the film rolls on.
in comics, you can turn a page and be confronted with a silent character, and there, you can linger, for as long as you need, to absorb the full measure of what that silence might mean.
and i will tell you something:
for a girl who thought comics were generally silly and Not for Me, i sat in a chair at that literary conference, listening to neil explaining this to an audience, and i felt overcome with pride, tainted with a kind of subtle shame that i hadn’t totally absorbed how comics, as an art form, actually did stand apart from all the other art.
and also, let’s just say i wanted to fuck him right then and there.
it was then that i gave myself permission to explore, and to buy comics like persepolis, and david mack’s kabuki comics, and this one that i just finished a few weeks ago, called “the prince and the dressmaker” by jen wang, a beautiful tale of a cross-dressing prince and his clear-eyed feminist ally…
i needed, as bill hicks would have said, to have my third eye squeegeed a little bit.
and in reading about the legacy of stan lee and the emotion and pathos he brought to the world of comics, let’s just say i’m more ashamed than ever of not understanding the intersection of history within which i was standing as i stood there watching neil gaiman meeting stan lee, chatting about whatever they decided to chat about.
i get it now.
and since i have you all here, i’d love to get your comments below about comics, your relationships with them, and any recommendations.
i’m exploring, always.
yesterday, i texted neil my condolences about stan lee dying. (i’m at home and neil just left for a tour … he’s in edmonton tonight, and if you’re in salt lake city, there’s still tickets for his show on the 17th).
stan was 95, which means it didn’t feel like a tragedy (and neil has seen a lot of tragedies in the death department lately, from terry pratchett to harlan ellison to david bowie all leaving this spinning orb well before old old age). but still. it gongs the bell of time and mortality, and when the gong gongs, we sit in silence.
i asked neil if he had any of those photos from the day we met, because looking through my computer (and asking hayley and michael to go digging online and in my archives) left me empty-handed. and he didn’t have them either. so he contacted the photographer (who he luckily knew). and steve prue, said photgrapher, sent over not only the stan/neil/bill hader photos, but an entire batch of photos of neil from that day, and it was those photos that made me pause, and think, and wanted to write about.
it was a batch of photos of neil with his fans, that day, in 2008.
here are some of them (there were dozens and dozens).
(and i had to throw this one in, because this is such a quintessential Neil Pose…he does this thing when he’s talking where he balls up his fists and puts his arms out like nervous little wings. i love him so much.)
(all of these photos by steve prue).
but the point is:
look at him.
look at how he is with people.
this was what i saw, when i met him all those years ago in 2008.
not what he’d made, but how he was with people.
how available he was to be hugged, how hungry he was to connect, to be with, and to entertain a relationship, however brief, with these people who loved and appreciated his work.
i felt such tenderness for him when i looked at these photos. he’s such a fundamentally loving guy. this was why i decided, back then, to overcome my own skepticism and have a crush on neil gaiman.
a crush i’ve maintained to this day.
i’m at home right now, for the next few weeks, working on a really difficult and deep writing project.
the new solo album i’ve been writing for over 6 years (there was Who Killed Amanda Palmer in 2008, and then there was the infamous Theatre Is Evil/kickstarter record in 2012, and now there is The New One) is now completed, and true to form, i’m writing a book to go along with it.
but instead of putting together a jokey book of dead photographs with fun morose captions, i’m sitting down to try to honestly chronicle the stories behind these songs, the stories of the last seven years. the stories will be printed and bound along with some photographs that reflect the emotional reality of my life. it’s been relentless. since neil and i got married, we’ve seen many of our loved ones die, we’ve endured a four-year cancer battle that relocated us against our will, we’ve made it through two abortions, a birth, and a miscarriage.
all of it went into my songwriting, and all of those songs served as differently-shaped survival life-rafts. neil makes comics, and writes stories, and fiction.
i do this.
it feels to me right now, at this moment, that there couldn’t be a better use of my art-making, of my patron’s money (yes, there will be a special patron-edition of The Book), of my time, my brain.
this is what it is right now. women telling their stories, in whatever media is at hand, be it comics, film, novels, songs, paintings….this is our critical job right now, as artists. telling our stories. fuck the Fake News Media or Whatever Its Opposite is. we create our own media. we have to tell the truth, unapologetically.
and we stand on the shoulders of giants of all forms and sizes, in all media.
the universe has plenty of room. it can encompass it all.
let us get to work.
RIP, stan lee.
neil gaiman, i love you, and i am so glad you’ve widened my artistic and emotional understanding of this world.
bill hader, i glad i finally got to see some of your movies. you’re aces.
to my artists: may the silences of indeterminate measure that you are trying to convey be brought forth from the page, from the fermata, from the silk, from the mud. the silences we need to explain are infinite and critical, and sometimes, so much more important than the loudnesses. and so much harder to convey.
let’s get to work.
in these trying times:
more art, more art, more art.
p.s. i just went to google the Who Killed Amanda Palmer book, for which neil ultimately not only wrote captions, but also penned a couple weird short-short stories, and saw to my chagrin that it’s going new for like $600. this is so stupid. i should re-design and reprint it. gimme a year or so.
——THE NEVER-ENDING AS ALWAYS———
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