Archive for the 'real life' Category

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Beyond Outrage

July 14th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

Kanye West is a passionate dude.

The passion is what makes his art work. People connected to him because they can feel that passion. It’s visible through his work, whether it’s a banging beat or some deft observation about life. He has a habit of doing scheduled interludes at his concerts, where he talks about whatever’s on his mind. It’s the most direct way to view his passion, I think, because it feels relatively unfiltered—it isn’t, we know that, but it feels more raw than a song—and it’s not hidden behind layers of cleverness.

He’s talked about his struggle to gain traction in the fashion industry, despite his success with Nike. He’s talked about what he wants to be to society, who he respects, what he hates, and what he loves. It’s wide-ranging, but that makes sense, because West is self-admittedly a guy who is interested in a lot of things, from Margiela to Akira.

These interludes are almost always called “rants” by music journalists. Despite being planned, despite being a regular feature, they are “rants” because…Kanye West is a passionate dude, and sometimes he gets emotional when talking about things. You can see it when he goes in on Sway on Shade45 or when he got at George W Bush over Katrina.

By calling these interludes “rants,” the media is painting West with a very specific brush. The word rant implies that the thoughts are off-the-cuff, overly emotional, and therefore invalid. It’s “Look what this kooky guy said now!” instead of engaging with any of his points.

It happens to all of us, of course. We all have triggers that make us get weepy or excited in conversation, I know I have a lot of dumb ones, but that doesn’t make them invalid or malformed. It just means you care, right? And that your level of care exceeds your calm nature for a moment. The opinions you’re expressing aren’t invalid because you stumble over your words or have to pause to collect yourself.

Passion isn’t perfect. I think that’s pretty obvious. West isn’t 100% right about everything, but he has been 100% right about specific things. The presence of passion doesn’t mean that you have to believe everything someone says. It’s just a factor that will, or should, help you judge what they’re saying and where they’re coming from. By recognizing West’s passion, I can tell that he genuinely cares about the stuff he’s talking about, and that helps me evaluate how I feel about what he said and where he’s coming from.

But he’s not ranting. He’s speaking his mind.


Comics has an outrage problem.

I don’t mean people getting up in arms over things, either. That’s an issue unto itself, and like anything else, it could be better than it currently is in several different ways, but that’s not today’s conversation.

What I’m talking about is how we—the comics community—describe, talk about, and address the concerns of people who are upset about one thing or another. The way we talk about outrage fatigue, outrage-of-the-week, faux outrage, outrage-o-matic, misplaced outrage, another outrage, this outrage, that outrage, and why it’s gross and short-sighted. How we use “tumblr” as a pejorative but ignore the poison in our own forums and followers.

The way we use the word outrage suggests that the outrage in question is fake and irrational, on account of being poorly thought-out and overly emotional. It happens every time someone brings up a point to do with equality, sexism, racism, or justice. It’s the same tactic the music media uses to devalue Kanye’s rants. They’re invalid, an inconvenience, annoying, or fake because you can see the emotions driving it, and emotional reactions aren’t valid.

We use the presence of passion to first diminish and then dismiss arguments. The offended must play by the rules of the unoffended, or even worse, the offenders, in order to be heard. You have to tamp down that pain if you want to get help or fix it. You can see it when people say things like “Thank you for being civil” when arguing something heated with someone they disagree with. Civility is great, sure, but we’re forcing people who feel like they’re under attack to meet us on our own terms. In reality, passion shouldn’t be dismissed. Passion has a purpose.

The way we treat passionate reactions is unbalanced, too. We eat up gleeful reviews or tweets like they’re pudding and retweet them by the dozen. There are sites out there that have used the word “masterpiece” over ten thousand times. We promote fawning interviews and king-making, but never once question passionate praise the way we do passionate criticism.

Comics as a community tends to react to every new outrage with disbelief and scorn, lumping them in with “the crazy ones” or “tumblr” instead of looking at what they’re actually saying and figuring out what it means. Every once and a while we’ll band together like “Yeah! That IS bad!” when something is particularly egregious and “safe” to comment on, but a month later? We’re back to blindly propping up garbage men and ignoring people’s pain. The arc of the argument is the same, whether we’re talking sexual harassment or creators’ rights.

No matter how you feel about whichever issue is at hand, whether you agree or disagree or loathe both sides, you should think real hard before responding to anything. Think about what the person is saying and where they’re coming from. Think about why they’re saying it. Think about your position in society, our culture, or our dumb little hobby and think about the position of the person you’re about to put on blast. Think about what you’re about to bring to the conversation. Think about how your words will be received, even if—especially if—the originator didn’t.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow, the idea that you should take your lumps and do the work you think somebody else didn’t do. But life sucks, y’all, and if I have to choose between someone who doesn’t like somebody else’s tone or someone who doesn’t really know how to argue but has fascinating points about our culture, I’m going for the latter, even when I’m the one under the gun. One of those people has a lot to lose. The other is inconvenienced.

That power differential is important to keep in mind. Despite the petitions, despite the so-called outrage, fans have very little real control over the comics industry. As professionals, as journalists or creators or promoters or whoever we are, our voice generally has a much, much broader reach than the offended. The weight of our reactions when criticized often goes much, much farther. We have less to lose by virtue of being in a position of power by default, and that makes it exceedingly important to check yourself and your reactions.


A lot of people don’t feel welcome in the greater comics community. We created and create this environment with our words and actions. If it’s not people hassling you over taste or creeping on you at cons or making “funny” jokes about things you care about, it’s seeing how people respond to outrage. When you see a community consistently dis and dismiss people expressing their pain, you’re less likely to share your own pain when the time comes, because odds are good you’re gonna feel a lot worse when the usual suspects get ahold of your words and the blowback starts coming in.

The way we talk about outrage-in-the-abstract has a way of building further outrage in addition to diminishing other types. Where some people will shy away out of self-preservation, others will go even harder because they know you won’t listen. They know their words will be skimmed and stripped of context before being ignored and insulted. To have a point you care deeply about and then to be told that point is irrelevant and invalid—that warrants anger, doesn’t it?

I have friends who simply don’t talk about things or hold back because they know their words will fall on deaf ears or worse. My friends have been screwed with on a level that’s incredibly frustrating and continually disappointing. In watching how they’re treated and talking to them about it, in watching what happens to the men and women who would rather send out tough guy threats and harassment, I’ve learned that a lot of things don’t get said because the offended doesn’t have any real power but their words, and others with more power will eagerly leverage their power to crush the dissent in the name of “keeping the peace.”

But we talk and we share and we know who is receptive to our stories, who will pretend like they are to gain brownie points or satisfy their ego, and who’ll smile and nod and move along at their earliest convenience because they just don’t care. We pay attention to the reaction to the outrage because the odds are good we’ll be in those shoes one day, should we decide our stories are worth the cost of the telling.

We’re in a complex place right now, in terms of our culture and people who speak on it. Suddenly a lot of people who were limited by the hateful whims of our culture in the past—non-whites, women, trans persons, gay people, and more—are able to sign up for a platform to express their views and speak their truth in a way that the mainstream has largely never seen before and often doesn’t know how to react to.

As a result, we’re realizing the way we enable -isms and hate by simply going about our daily lives the way we always have. We’re seeing the anger and sadness and passion that has been tamped down and ignored for years bubble up, and the conversations are often fraught with tension thanks to both sides and every participant coming from different places and contexts. There are more moving parts in these conversations than in two Space Shuttles.

Case in point: I realized I had to put subtle disclaimers in this piece just so someone wouldn’t get at me on some “Well, I don’t think all outrage is valid like you do, and here’s why you’re dumb for thinking that.” I know for a fact that’ll happen if I don’t try to beat it, even though other adults are clearly capable of understanding that talking about a thing isn’t necessarily complete unquestioning support of that thing.

That’s what I mean about the reaction to outrage being enlightening. I know the countermoves, the derailing moves, and I have to spin my wheels trying to head off the “Why don’t you get mad about real things?” or “You’re just angry all the time” or “Oh great, more faux outrage” goons on an essay that is fundamentally about how everyone should think more, jeer less, and process things a little bit longer before they react.

It sucks right now. I get that, and I empathize, whether you’re talking about the hate for the social justice conversation or the deluge of complaints that you can’t control and wish would stop. But it’s not gonna get better by going out of your way to talk about outrage and the outraged as if they were basic children, full of fury and lacking in thought. It’s not gonna get better when we have more editorials decrying “outrage” in general than we do editorials actively discussing and dissecting the outrage itself.

It’s not gonna get better if we choose ego instead of empathy every single time we’re up at bat. It’s not gonna get better if we aren’t willing to at least appear to listen. It’s not gonna get better if we paint every passionate criticism as “outrage” and stick our tongues out at it. It won’t get better if we pre-reject what people have to say.

If we paint every outrage with scare quotes and pithy jokes about the internet churning up outrage for no good reason, regardless of the outrage in question, we’re blocking progress. We’re telling some people not to share their thoughts, and we’re telling others that we don’t deserve their respect and honesty. Both are embarrassing, frankly, and abhorrent.

We need to be more kind, and this brand of kindness takes conscious effort.

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Cord Jefferson on writing about being black while black

June 10th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

On Medium, Cord Jefferson said this:

Or maybe it wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. Maybe it was the realization that writing anything would be to listlessly participate in the carousel ride: an inciting incident, 1,000 angry thinkpieces, 1,000 tweeted links, and back to where we started, until next time. Perhaps it was a feeling that writing anything would finally be too redundant to bear, a pursuit of too many sad and obvious words to heap onto so many other nearly identical words written down before, by me, by thousands of others.

and this:

What new column shall the writer write when an unarmed black person is killed for doing nothing but frightening an armed white person? The same thing he wrote when Trayvon Martin was killed? And that’s to say nothing of when Oscar Grant was killed. Or when Ramarley Graham was killed. Or when Timothy Stansbury Jr. was killed. Or when Amadou Diallo was killed. Or when Jordan Davis was killed. Or when Ousmane Zongo was killed. Or when Jonathan Ferrell was killed. Or when Renisha McBride was killed.

I’ve written about being harassed and abused, fearing for the lives of my cousins, lamenting the options of people in my immediate circle, eulogies for men I’ve never met, and my own fear and frustration with being black in America. I did it through the lens of comics for a while, before eventually gaining the confidence to do it without a pop culture connection.

I did it because I loved it, I did it because I felt led to, I did it because I ended up with a voice people paid attention to and not doing it would’ve felt irresponsible. I did it because I believed it helped. I’ve backed off in a major way over the past year or so, trying to listen instead of talking about everything that crosses my desk, but I still do the thinking and conversating that leads to thinkpieces. It’s still on my mind, I’m still processing the data. I just don’t share it.

Jefferson’s point about finding something new to write when another brown face is killed is a critical hit. Past a certain point, it feels like justifying your existence, like making your case for being treated like an actual human being by others. It feels like explaining blue to a dog. The dog has other things to worry about and you’re going to just feel ugly afterward.

I can’t not pay attention to race and culture. In a very real sense, it’s self-defense, or a way to process the weight that settles on my shoulders over the course of my daily life. But it’s also draining. It’s been one hundred and fifty years since “Ain’t I A Woman?” and we’re still trying to prove our humanity through words. Something ain’t working.

Jefferson’s piece is well worth reading.

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Tumblr Mailbag: Quitting the Big Two

June 5th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

Someone on tumblr asked me what it was like to quit reading Marvel and DC. I’d been trying to type about it for a while, but something about the phrasing let me hit on an approach I felt was worthwhile, instead of pointless. It felt strong enough to turn into a real piece, and here we are. The answer is that quitting Marvel and DC comics managed to be simultaneously easy and difficult. Nowadays, it’s astronomically easier to abstain than it is difficult.

It wasn’t a difficult decision to make because I knew I could find something to replace the hole leaving those comics behind would leave. I was at a point where I was more interested in seeking out creator-owned works from creators than their new cape projects already, so I was halfway there. I didn’t/couldn’t do a 1:1 replacement, in part because that’s a silly idea, but I knew I could get things from people I liked elsewhere, and I hoped the others would branch out to non-cape stuff, too. (Zeb Wells and Marjorie Liu are—shhh, lean in real quick, streets is talking—two of the best writers to grace a Marvel comic. No fooling. Get familiar!)

When I quit, I didn’t make a plan or even think about it beyond “I should do thi—WHOOPS did it.” I still don’t know if Vertigo “counts” as DC for instance, or Icon for Marvel, since they’re both more-or-less creator-owned imprints. I didn’t even bother figuring out where comp copies (as a journalist) or freebies (as a guy who is blessed to have friends) factored in to the embargo. I eventually just decided that nobody has to follow my dumb personal rules, so if somebody gives or lends me something, I’d take it instead of throwing it back in their face with a lecture like a stereotype of a Berkeley progressive. “Why be a jerk?” was my motto, I guess. Better that than “Have you even HEARD of that time Stan Lee attempted to collude with DC Comics to keep rates for artists low?!”

At the same time, it was difficult because I’ve read and enjoyed Marvels, and to a much lesser extent DCs, since around the time I learned how to read. I was twenty-eight when I consciously decided to quit. That’s about twenny three years of inertia, interest, and love to overcome. I didn’t magically stop liking their comics or the characters or the creators (I’ve probably written more about Jim Lee-era X-Men post-quitting than anybody who’s still reading cape comics) and my curiosity is on par with my guilty conscience in terms of having a continually debilitating effect on my life.

For example: I don’t eat pork. I quit swine in ‘99. I could tear up some porkchops and bacon as a kid, but it wasn’t a struggle to quit pork. I didn’t waffle over it. I just did it, and that was a wrap. I don’t look back on porkchops fondly or reminisce about those days. “Mannnn, remember how good that porkchop was back in ‘97, second week a May? Hooo whee!” That’s absurd.

But with comics, it’s different. I do that with Spider-Man constantly and in great detail—Return of the Goblin, his first meeting with Luke Cage, that time Betty Brant said something nice about him and he was like “Dang, I never noticed her before, but she’s cute AND she’s on my side” like a doggone teenaged idiot, Mary Jane going Sibyl to get a soap opera job and dodging stalkers…I can recite it chapter and verse. It’s a part of me.

While I can and did change my habits, the problem was changing my thinking, the stuff I was taking in outside of the comics, too. I had to ask what was up with this, that, and the third much, much less. I had to stop reading essays, interviews, and promo for things I had no interest in experiencing. It was silly. “I don’t care about this so much!!!”

Changing those habits takes effort, which leads me directly to why it isn’t difficult to stay away from the Big Two these days: I succeeded at changing my thinking. Wednesdays aren’t new comics days any more. I don’t read comics news sites when I can help it. I discover new comics via word of mouth or Tumblr. I unplugged in a way that let me maintain my decision instead of waffling and crumbling.

I read other comics now, and the further I get from the Big Two, the easier it is to stay away. The less I indulge, the less I want it. The guilt and frustration that led to me giving up have given way to something akin to apathy (and occasionally disappointment). I hear summaries of recent events in comics I once loved and it’s like I woke up in Ancient Sumeria for all the sense it makes to me.

But that’s okay, because I don’t care. I don’t mean that in the dismissive sense, a “who cares?” type of way. I mean it very literally: I’m no longer invested in what happens to Spider-Man. I’m still curious about a few things (the black characters, pretty much, and I like when the creators I enjoy get a cool-sounding project), but in terms of keeping up, keeping track, paying attention, entertaining the idea of going back, checking out what I’ve missed: nah, son, I’m good. I grew past it and it’s not for me any more. It’s for somebody else. And that’s cool. Win/win.

I feel good about my decision. But I started buying vinyl and various types of bottled root beers and sodas in the interim, so I couldn’t afford to go back if I wanted to.

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Ghosts of Retail Past

December 26th, 2013 Posted by Gavok

Christmas is over. I hope yours was nice. Mine was pretty great. Here’s me wearing the stuff my best friend got me.

In return, I got him this pillowcase.

There are a lot of different things that made this holiday season great, most of all being that it’s my first Christmas with my two nephews, Jack and Syd. Being an uncle rules.

A lesser, but still important, factor into what made this season so fantastic was that it’s the first time in nearly 10 years that I haven’t been working holiday retail. I had worked for Barnes and Noble for seven and a half years and with that was there for eight holiday seasons. When I discuss my time there, I tend to tell people, “I worked there for seven and a half years and enjoyed seven of them.” For a long while, I felt very loyal to the company and did my best. That got chipped away as the years went on, mainly towards the end.

There were a lot of things that set me astray, I suppose. I remember finishing off the 2012 holiday season with a feeling of, “Never again,” without putting much thought into it. Shortly after, a managerial miscommunication over a necessary day off I asked for a month in advance soured me pretty badly. Everything was beginning to wear on me and I started feeling like Randy the Ram during his last day at work in the Wrestler. Another big thing was how we got a new, stricter district manager and that led to a big “shit rolls downhill” environment in the store. Everything became more corporate and less fun, even though we were a store that consistently met our goals.

I can bore you with specifics, but one of the big things was selling the membership. Or more importantly, selling new memberships. We had quotas on that and the increased pressure made it unbearable due to the “lead a horse to water” mentality of it all. Even if you had a good week, it didn’t matter because maybe next week you don’t do so well and you get talked down to for your failure. I had my opinions on it and I had my own methods of motivation, which got results. Those got me in trouble to the point of being told I was on thin ice.

Initially, I became emotional. I was afraid for my job and I felt that I was one misstep from being let go. I told myself and my coworkers, “I need this job. Barnes and Noble is all I have.” Then I calmed myself and realized that that wasn’t true at all. I wasn’t happy anymore. I used to be, but not anymore. Even if I didn’t feel like my employment was in danger, what was I working towards? A management position? I’ve been wanting one for years, but with my patience for the more rotten customers wearing incredibly thin, all I’d be doing would be dealing with the negative aspects of my job for a little more pay. Nah, I needed to just secretly find a new job and then give my two weeks.

The moment I made that decision, I felt so free. It was amazing. I was quick in finding a place that wanted me and was able to say my goodbyes and move on. It was a good thing too because while I certainly had my problems with the place’s new direction, I wasn’t the only one. In the month or two surrounding my leaving, there was an exodus of like a dozen employees for a variety of reasons.

Oh, and they changed it so that people can only apply for jobs there via online and that slowed down the process so much that it was like four months before they finally filled my position. Jesus.

This year, I didn’t have to deal with all the holiday madness. Sure, my current job got pretty busy in the last week, but it was a drop in the bucket compared to B&N making $7,000 an hour in sales. I didn’t have to spend hours cleaning up messes of people who decided to take out ten books and leave them in a pile in the café. I didn’t have to endure the impossible parking and extended hours. I didn’t have my Christmas ruined because I’d need to get to sleep early and wake up at 4am because I was scheduled for a 5am shift on the 26th. I also won’t have to deal with two months of assholes wanting cash back for a gift that somebody else bought them with a gift card.

As a way to celebrate, I thought I’d tell some stories. I have a million tales from that establishment and since they most certainly didn’t want me mentioning them while I was on the payroll, I guess I might as well have some fun. These are just some from the top of my head.

- I once gave a piggyback ride to a customer. It was a weeknight and the place was pretty dead. I was at the information desk and a couple showed up to ask me about a book.

“It looks like we have it.”

“Can you show me where it is?”

“Hell, I’ll give you a piggyback ride if you want.”

“Okay.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“All right, then. Let’s do this!”

Then I walked over, had him hop on my back and walked him over. He proceeded to give me a $5 tip. I went back to the info desk, feeling pretty good about myself. Then I saw that the next customer was like 300 pounds and knew that wasn’t going to be a repeat.

Later on, I was reading my horoscope and it said that I’d make a small fortune in an unorthodox way. Swear to God.

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Our Mutual Experience Gap b/w Feeling Bad About Feeling Mad

December 16th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

There’s a Village Voice piece on R Kelly going around. Voice writer Jessica Hopper interviews Jim DeRogatis, a journalist who helped break the story of R Kelly being a sexual predator years ago. It’s a good read, very thorough and timely, and it looks like it’s getting the reaction the writer (presumably) hoped for: people are reading and talking about it. Which is good.

I’ve been watching it spread over Twitter since I first saw a link this morning. My black friends have met it with a “yep :/” or whatever whatever, acknowledgement that it’s real, true, and that they’ve been known that fact. My non-black friends and followers, though, are coming with surprise, shock, “I can’t believe it,” that kind of thing.

The reactions from non-blacks tend toward the sympathetic and horrified almost universally, which is entirely appropriate and (for lack of a better word,) welcome, but—and you’ll have to pardon me if this is too flowery, but I’m trying to choose my words very carefully—the reactions feel like what happens when someone is initially dragged from ignorance toward knowledge. That combo of shock and acceptance, horror and belief…

I remember when the George Zimmerman thing happened, and myself and several other black people spoke out like, “Hey, this is real life, this happens all the time, our mothers constantly live in fear.” The reaction from black folks, men and women, then was “Right on, I’ve been there, keep your head up, stay safe.” A lot of us had shared stories or tips, too, like driving to a well-lit area when you’re being pulled over because you should never be alone with a cop. From non-blacks? “Holy crap are you for real? You have to live with this? I’m so sorry, I had no idea,” and so on.

I can’t fault somebody for not knowing, and I try to avoid treating people who don’t know the things I know differently. There’s a lot I don’t know, and there are some things I definitely should know that I don’t. Learning is part of being alive, possibly the best part of being alive. I think it’s important to educate, to put people up on game, before you condemn them for not having had the privilege—no matter how painful or ugly—of knowing what you do.

And part of me knows this is unfair, but the other part of me just watched a group of black women take part in a wide-ranging Twitter conversation on R Kelly with first-person accounts not two weeks ago. The other part of me knew about him messing with girls in the ’90s, despite living in Virginia and Georgia, away from the girls he preyed on. The other part of me has a mom who told him how to stay safe when dealing with the police before he was a teenager. The other part of me knows men who got beaten up, stabbed, and kidnapped for garbage reasons. The other part of me spent forever pulling teeth to write about race and comics and watched white people eat while I got stuck with the beef. That part of me says “Fuck fair.”

There is a gap, a gulf, between us. Between me and you, between black and white, between Latino and Japanese, between everyone. Every time one of those “This is what racism is” things roll down tumblr, and it’s somebody getting dragged behind a truck or beaten up on account of their skin or left in poverty because it’s economically convenient, I want to roll my eyes, which is a terrible reaction to sympathy. But I have that reaction because sure, this over-the-top and horrible example is racism, and that’s bad! But so is you calling your butt a “ghetto booty,” so is what motivates that dude at parties (literally every party I’ve been to with strangers as an adult) asking me stupid questions about my hair, like if I can store things in my afro. Racism is the Klan, but racism is in us, too. Racism is a lot of things. It’s the death of a thousand minor humiliations.

There is a difference between my experience and yours, is what I’m getting at. I don’t know the fullness of your experience, and you don’t know mine. I figure if you aren’t in it, you aren’t in it, so it’s unfair of me to expect you to know. I know that intellectually, as someone who makes a little bit of money spitting words for profit on occasion. But it still sucks to see your reality treated as a source of surprise. “It’s like that?” hurts when it’s been like that, when it’s never not been like that.

The gap in our experiences is real and the reasons for the gap are complicated. Sometimes it’s down to happenstance. Sometimes it’s thanks to the white supremacist standards that this country was founded on and which still infests a significant part of it today. “Black” news is special interest news. “White” news is the punchline to a joke. There’s a reason for that. And for situations like this, where R Kelly raped a lot of girls or a lot of boys live in fear of the police, that’s painfully relevant. The girls and boys are black, which makes it a “black problem.”

Knowledge is key and spreading that knowledge is vital. But at the same time, it’s draining to see people demonstrating their ignorance of something that is very plain to you, something you took for granted as being a capital T Truth, something you’ve lived with so long you can’t imagine life without that weight on your back. So you feel triple-bad. You’re frustrated at the situation and the country that let it happen due to malicious negligence, you’re frustrated at your friends for not realizing how much it matters to you, and you’re frustrated at yourself for being frustrated at your fam for matters beyond their control.

Y’all really shoulda known about him and Aaliyah, though. That’s on wikipedia.

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“A tree never grown, shade that was never known”

November 8th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

I’ve got a rep.

Actually, I have several reps depending on who you’re talking to, and some of them are actually pretty cool, but the one that always bugs me is my rep for being negative or pushy. I bristle at that description in part because I think it unfairly turfs the vast majority of stuff I’ve written in favor of focusing on a small aspect of my work. And yeah, I have gotten in fights and damned things I thought were worthy of eternal damnation and being removed from the sight of God forever and ever amen. I freely and proudly own that. But the entirety of what I write about, my “body of work” if I can sound like a real writer for a moment, feels overwhelmingly positive to me. But that’s my rep, amongst a certain group of people: negativity.

I know why this is my rep. Spending five years writing about the intersection of black culture and comics every day for a month doesn’t really get links, and neither does writing about how much I like Katsuhiro Otomo or Frank Miller. But pointing out that a comic has some mildly racist undertones or is tone deaf in some way? Hoo boy does that get people talking. So if they see that, but not the other stuff, I can’t really blame them for how they perceive me. They only know me that part of me.

It still grates, because I spend a lot of time thinking about how I approach writing, especially racial issues. You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody in comics I’ve called a racist. I spent a long time only associating that word with acts, not specific people. That was a purposeful choice on my part. I know how people—white people, specifically—react to the word “racist,” so I’ve avoided it. I’ve made sure to structure my arguments in such a way that they weren’t purely inflammatory or pointlessly insulting, included context and history and excuses and disclaimers and things that would soften the blow of saying, “Hey, this thing you did? It’s ugly and hateful and you should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking it.” I mean, count how often I’ve cussed here on 4l!—less than fifteen times since 2005, probably? I do quote a lot of rap songs, though, so maybe it evens out. Anyway.

I did and do that extra legwork because of how I was raised and who I am. I mentioned on tumblr the other day that I’m worried I might have a near-pathological fear of being seen as an Angry Black Man. That’s because I learned that Angry Black Men are someone to be avoided, someone that’s easily discounted and dismissed because he represents loudness or anger, instead of knowledge or power. I didn’t want to be that guy. I want to be taken seriously. It’s an insecure stance, but it’s one I can’t shake.

I bite my tongue a lot, I take great pains to avoid a certain type of offense even when throwing a jab, and it doesn’t work, because I don’t get to decide how people feel about me. They’re gonna feel however they’re gonna feel, and if that’s going to affect my personal and professional lives…been there, done that, and came out the other side with twin middle fingers, a mean mug, and a bad mood. But the idea that I can’t control the reaction to my work is a hard lesson to learn and an even harder one to internalize. I’m still not there yet, so I balk whenever I see it.


This thing, biting my tongue to avoid offense, is part of a concept called “respectability politics.” This recent post by Maurice Dolberry is a good primer. The short version is that respectability politics is a system in which you sand down your rough edges (pull up your pants, cut your hair, erase your accent, dress differently) in order to appeal to the majority. In America, that means white men, nine times out of ten.

It’s common, super common, and I can’t really blame people for buying into it. If you don’t have power, you don’t want to alienate those with power, because that just makes your life worse. Respectability politics argues that you should hide your light under a bushel because it might make somebody who doesn’t know you and will never care about you turn up his nose. It makes sense, because it’s basically “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” But it still doesn’t do any good, because it requires a level of control and equality (in power, in position, in dialogue, in society) that simply doesn’t exist. Respectability politics blames the powerless for their powerless status irregardless of history, and prioritizes the comfort of others over your own personal comfort.

You can’t win. The only thing you’re doing is diminishing yourself at the unspoken behest of someone else. It’s a “love me please” that tends to fall on deaf ears.


A few weeks back, I let a young black dude use my phone on BART. After I handed it over to him, he laughed and said that he knew he had to ask me, because none of the white folks around us would have let a young black guy hold their phone. “You know how that go,” he said, and I laughed, because I do. Some of them would have, but for the most part? Even money on a very high chance of getting a rude response.

A big part of being black in America is being constantly aware of how your blackness affects others. It’s being aware that you might could get away with something in one situation, but you’d get murdered trying that same thing in another situation. The guy knew he could ask me because, even if I still had a bunch of internalized racism (I do, it’s killing me inside), there’d still be a good chance I’d have a voice in the back of my head telling me I’m the same as him and should treat him properly. Our shared experience of being suspicious first, of being not-normal, was what made that transaction possible. I’ve been on both sides of similar interactions with other black folks, both out here in Oakland and in Georgia.

I got a flat tire on my bike last week, so I had to take to riding the bus to and from work until I was ready to fix it. One morning, while walking to the bus stop, I saw a car at a stop sign with the hood up. I looked in as I walked past and there was a lady just sitting in there, doing nothing, but obviously upset. Her car’s busted, it’s pushing 0900 so she’s probably late for work, that’s a bad scene.

My bus stop was across the street from her, catty-corner, but close enough that I could see her sitting in the car at the sign and watch as cars paused in confusion before looping around her. I got to the stop early (full disclosure: late for the bus I wanted, early for the bus I settled for) and I had plenty of time and nothing to do but look around.

I saw that there was space for her car in a red zone just around the corner, maybe 15 feet away from where she was. It’d take her out of traffic, it’d be less embarrassing (I’ve been stuck in traffic with a busted car—it’s awful, especially if you don’t know how to or cannot fix it), and it’d be safer when whoever she called showed up to help her. I had ten minutes on the bus, and I could’ve easily pushed her car over there for her. I’ve done it before for friends and family. It’s easy. It would have taken longer to convince her to let me push her car than it would to get it where it needed to be, particularly since she was at the bottom of a hill, but still on the incline.

But again: I’m very aware of who I am and where I am. Strange black dude knocking on her car window in a moment of distress? Maybe it would’ve been okay. But as a counterpoint, my beard’s mad scruffy lately, my hair’s slowly getting longer, and I was probably in a t-shirt, jeans, and a backpack, because waking up blue means just throwing on clothes that sorta match and leaving the house. I was dressed “regular black guy,” not “respectable black guy with a decent job,” and a lot of times, “regular black guy” is not good enough to avoid people looking at you as a threat.

I had to choose whether or not doing something to help someone, which wouldn’t have involved going out of my way or anything resembling actual work, was worth the risk of getting dissed and dismissed first thing in the morning, whether that was a curt “no thank you” without eye contact or her jumping in fear when I tapped on the window.

I chose to go to work.


Renisha McBride was murdered in Dearborn Heights in MI recently. She had a car accident and was walking door-to-door looking for help. She knocked on a door, the man inside saw her and recognized a threat, and shot her in the head. She was nineteen and unarmed. He has not been charged, and the prosecutor’s office says they need more information before they decide to file charges.

Jonathan Ferrell was murdered by the police. In a cruel twist of fate, he had also experienced a car accident and was looking for help. He went door-to-door, looking for it. A woman opened the door, thinking it was her husband, realized it wasn’t, slammed it shut, and called 911 to report a home invasion. The cops arrived, Ferrell ran to them, and was tased, shot, and killed. The charge is voluntary manslaughter, and the cop who killed him is free to walk the streets after posting bail. Ferrell was twenty-four, unarmed, and had been in a wreck so bad he apparently had to crawl out of the back window.

These are recent incidents, but they are far from uncommon. These situations? These are my mother’s worst nightmare. A lot of what she taught me—including the respectability politics—was delivered with the intent of preventing my early and sudden death or a trip to prison. Like anyone else, I have a right to my anger, to my frustration, but I know that that frustration, no matter how eloquently I express it, will be seen read differently than anger from a white man or white woman, and I will be treated as more dangerous by default. It’s not my fault—it’s the result of centuries of white supremacy—but I have to live with it.

ComicsAlliance EIC Joe Hughes tweeted some things recently that were the truest tweets ever wrote:

Renisha McBride was shot in the back of the head for the crime of being a black woman who asked for help in a white town. She was 19.

We won’t talk about it enough. The story won’t go viral. Because as much as this country hates black men, it hates black women even more.

I doubt Jonathan Ferrell’s family will ever actual know justice, but at least we TALKED about his story. I doubt Renisha will get even that.

Every day I fear being shot to death while unarmed, my family going through a media circus that ultimately leads to nothing. Every day.

And so I’ll sit here and fear for my life, and my sister’s. And I’ll feel horrified and enraged for Renisha McBride’s family.

And when I’m done working, I’ll head home and hope to god that no one shoots me dead, knowing full well that they’d get away with it.

And somewhere, my sister will do the same. Because that’s what we do. Every day.

This is real life. This is truth. It sounds like paranoia, but paranoia suggests irrationality, or that you’re at fault. This is fear, and more than that, justified fear. If there’s a shooting near my area, or near places she knows I frequent, Mom will email me to make sure I’m okay. She knows that white America hates black bodies, and that colored life isn’t worth too much. She shouldn’t have to live under that burden. We shouldn’t have to live under that burden.

Killer Mike, one half of the duo Run the Jewels with El-P, said this on their cut “DDFH” (“do dope, fuck hope”):

Cops in the ghetto, they move like the gestapo
Drunk off their power and greed, they often hostile
My lil’ homie talked shit back and they beat him bad
That boy in the hospital now, he lookin’ bad
and I’m with his mama and dad, we lookin’ sad
My own mama called me said, “Baby, I’m just glad
“They ain’t put they hands on my child and kill his ass
“Please don’t rap about that shit ‘fore they murder yo’ black ass!”

And this situation is fictional, it’s storytelling raps, but every line of it is drawn from real life.

Vince Staples on “Versace Rap:”

I asked my mama what’s the key to life, she told me she ain’t know
She just try to take it day to day, and pray I make it home

I don’t quote these songs to prove a point so much as to illustrate how we think about the fact that we can get dropped any day of the week. Some of it is typical parental concern, but there’s a morbid edge, a fatalism, tucked in there. We prepare for this, train for it, because it is a real enough possibility that we worry about it. And in that sense, we accept it. We reject the violence, we reject the post-death smear campaigns that always follow, but we accept the reality of the situation, which is that we might just get killed by the people who are theoretically responsible for our safety or total strangers who fear our skin. Sometimes it’s glib, a lot of times it’s a joke, but underneath the gallows humor is the truth: “Please, God: any one but me or mine.”

Respectability politics are a self-defensive move. I modulate my self. I avoid police as a general rule, I avoid the appearance of wrongdoing, and I’m very careful and discreet when doing something I know I shouldn’t in a way that none of my white friends have ever been. I don’t ever lose my temper in public, I’m polite, and I’ve never thrown the first punch.

But it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. I can’t fix any of this. I can’t make anyone feel better. This is the kind of problem that manifests itself in major and minor ways. You could get murdered for being black or dissed in a store. Both results are unacceptable to me. But all I can do is try to figure out how to survive and steal a little happiness for myself without simultaneously diminishing myself.

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The Top of Your Intelligence: My First Two Years at Upright Citizens Brigade

November 6th, 2013 Posted by Gavok

This week was kind of a landmark for me. I got a notification that I’ve completed my Sketch Writing 301 class at UCB. This is big for me, as it means I’ve hit all the core curriculum classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. There’s far more for me to do and I intend to do it, but for now, I’m pretty glad to have reached this goal.

Outside of their Comedy Central show from years back, I knew of UCB via a friend inviting me to a couple shows back when I was in college. At the time, I was going through some major depression and seeing ASSSSCAT (the main UCB show) took a lot off my mind. The show itself featured Amy Poehler, Jack McBrayer and Rob Riggle and was seriously hilarious. Someone brought up that they had their own improv comedy school, but that wasn’t happening for me. I didn’t have my shit figured out at the time. I was jobless and no way was I going to be able to be making regular journeys into New York City, let alone paying however much the classes were.

Time passed and while my financial situations got better, I totally forgot about my desire to do an improv class. Then my brother enrolled me into Improv 101 as a Christmas present back in 2011. My class would begin in February of 2012.

My teacher was Tim Martin, known these days as the voice of the dog from the Optimum Hotspot commercials. That took me aback when I first realized it because that’s his regular speaking voice and I didn’t pick up on it for a while. Kind of like how it took me forever to realize that Colin Ferguson was Roddy from Freakazoid. Anyway, Tim was a really cool guy and the class was completely laid back. There were 16 of us with 12 of them being ladies. I turned out to be the most eligible bachelor as the other three were either married, dating or gay. Not that it did me any good.

It was a lot of basics, mainly focusing on the idea of “yes and.” That’s the term for taking what somebody says and agreeing with it while building on it with another piece of information, like a verbal game of ping-pong. Agreement is the key here and it was rather funny how one woman in the class, Cintrella, just didn’t give a damn and did whatever she wanted, even if Tim had to interrupt. Like someone told her that her ankle was broken and she immediately said, “No it’s not. It’s totally fine.” She did whatever the hell she wanted, but she did it with such gusto that we kind of let it slide at times.

We’d get eight classes for three hours each, followed by a graduation show. At 30-years-old, this was my very first time performing on stage and I was nervous as hell. In the footage of the show itself, it’s blatantly obvious because I’m completely overwhelmed with desperation for the first few minutes. The way the show would work is that we’d get a word from the audience and someone would walk forward and do a monologue about that word. Some kind of story that it reminded them of. Then we’d do a series of improv scenes based loosely on that, someone else would step forward and we’d get another monologue. Rinse, repeat.

During that first monologue, I’m in the background, looking like I’m trying way too hard to come up with a concept. My scene turned out to be a fun opener, where I played a babysitter who was enraged with the mother after I found a taped football game in her closet, without the expressed written consent of the National Football League. It turned out well, but it also showed off my biggest weakness as a performer, which I’ll get to later. The whole show came out pretty good for a first show by a bunch of people who learned the basics.

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We raised $1010 to combat cervical cancer!

October 4th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

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I saw a bus ad for Prevention International: No Cervical Cancer‘s fifth annual walk/run event, a 5k around Lake Merritt, a few weeks ago. I decided to do it, despite never having run a 5k before. I posted about it here originally.

I believe in charity and I believe we should leave this Earth better than we received it. A moment of kindness can change a life, I know this for a fact, and I try to do my part. Largely this is a monetary thing—I donate to charities, I do school fund raisers, I try to donate to libraries, and I talk about race so much in part because what we have is broken and the only way to make it better is to spread the word.

But I rarely donate my time. I’ll help someone if I see they need help on a minor, person-to-person level, but I usually don’t show up at places that need help, outside of a church function, and I haven’t done that in years. Running a 5k for charity meant donating time, money, and energy, and when I saw the ad for it, I couldn’t think of a reason not to do it. All the reasons were thin.

When I run, I generally run a mile at a time. I’m aiming for speed, because I feel like if I can consistently hit a certain marker, hitting markers past that will be easier. It’s laying a foundation. Five kilometers is a little over three miles, roughly triple what I normally do, but it’s doable. I ran several in the weeks leading up to the event, with my first being my fastest and the ones closest to the event having the most consistent pace. I got sick in the lead-up to it, too, which was aggravating, but I still practiced.

Part of running the 5k was fund raising. I have a megaphone compared to most people in the form of my website and Twitter. I tweeted about it once a day over the two or so weeks I had to prepare for the run, wrote about it on my site, and did a Tumblr thing about it. In the end, the internet raised $1010 to fight cervical cancer, a nice chunk of the organization’s final total of $22030 for the event. It started raining around a mile into the run, and my time ended up being around thirty minutes.

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I was the runner-up top fundraiser, which was nice to find out. I was hoping to double the goal, but we blew past that. I met the founders and board of the organization who were very gracious and marveled at the fact that I not only saw a bus ad and decided to join up, but that I managed to solicit donations from across the world. I got a tank top, a hat, a watch, and a hoodie for fundraising, and I got to see a bunch of other active, engaged people doing something they felt was right.

I keep wanting to close this out with a moral, some big discovery I made about myself or my life, but I don’t have one. I didn’t have a big epiphany, I’m not going to dedicate my life to charity like people do in movies… I’m still working out who I am. I’m not who or where I want to be yet, for reasons that are both under my control and completely outside it. I’m a work in progress, fueled by depression, self-loathing, and the desperate thirst to be better than I am, not just better than I was.

The closest thing I have to a moral is something I’ve tried to live by for a while. I feel like if you’re able to help, and willing to help, you should help. Offer your services and time. But if you’re not able, or not willing, that’s cool, too. Passing it along to someone else or speaking on it are enough. There’s a balance in there that’s different for everyone.

Thanks to everyone who donated or said encouraging things. I feel like we did a good thing.

Photos in this post were taken by Eugene Clendinen, and more can be found here.

5k-run

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Tumblr Mailbag: We got jokes on jokes on jokes on jokes

August 10th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

On tumblr, franzferdinand2 asked:

What are your favorite pieces of comedy? Like, from movies, tv shows, stand up, etc.

Talk about the best question for a Saturday morning! Let’s get it:

My most favorite stand-up bit ever, like bar none forever and ever amen, is Richard Pryor’s “History Lesson,” off That African-American Is Still Crazy, a bonus disc on a boxed set of his work (my set is old, but it should be on No Pryor Restraint: Life In Concert (7 CD/ 2DVD)). He starts with talking about the black revolution lasting just six months before dudes went back to singing groups, how the Bicentennial was celebrating two hundred years of white folks dominating the world and killing natives, and ends the first half of the bit with “But it only happens in dreams, though… you motherfuckers killed dreams.”

He’s got a lot of pointed, crucial, hilarious stuff in here, and goes off on this tangent about America getting away with two hundred years without getting murdered that I like a lot, and then he flips it and asks:

I wonder how it would be though if niggas was taking over? See, if niggas take over tomorrow, not only would white people be in trouble, a lot of niggas would be in trouble. Be in court for lot different shit, though. A motherfucker’d be in court for…

“What’re you here for?”

“Trying to get someone to murder him.”

“What did you do?”

“Well, he was fucking with me your honor, so I tried to kill the motherfucker.”

“Come here. Why did you make this man angry at you? Twenty years.”

There oughtta be some shit like that, you know? It oughtta be against the law to make a motherfucker want to kill you. I think that would be a good law, ‘cause a lot of people are in jail for killing good people… that needed to die at that particular moment.

I don’t know why, but this kills me every time. Just slays me. The whole scenario is outrageous, but then you realize that what he’s saying is that black people are no different from whites.

Immediately after, he says, “I’ma win you motherfuckers back. See a little racism sets in, I love it, then I can fight against that. ’cause humor… breaks through all that shit.” And he laughs a nervous laugh and goes, “Does-doesn’t it?”

Dude is basically the boss of all bosses, and the way he knows how to work the crowd and throw jabs at them always impresses me.

But I also really like this Hannibal Buress bit called “Bomb Water” off his Animal Furnace album:

The album is amazing, from the intro to the outro, and I could easily pull like five “favorites” off it, but “Bomb Water” is too hard. I don’t even want to talk about it because you can just listen to it. By the time I got to “sippable bomb water” I was through, straight laid out, and the bit stayed great even after that.

Later in the album he says “Why don’t we let time kill Jimmy Carter?” and that’s part of another favorite bit. “Nah Jeezy, those are closets.” I’m listening to this album right now.

My favorite bit of comedy tv is Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast‘s “Flipmode.” There’s a transcript here but you really have to watch it. It’s perfect, as far as I’m concerned. Every joke hits. Maybe it’s because SGC2C had built up a lot of goodwill with me by this point, but honestly, it’s just incredibly funny and utterly nonsense. None better, forever.

My favorite comedy series, at least at this specific moment in time, is gdgd Fairies, which is like… absurd extinction level event-quality meta-humor. It’s exceedingly low-quality visually, but at the same time, it’s the perfect quality for the show’s sense of humor.

It’s about three fairies who live in a forest and have conversations. The conversations start as something innocuous before getting complicated thanks to one character’s stubborn laziness and then absurd thanks to another character’s prankster nature. Then they play hypothetical games or do things like trying to raise the popularity of the show by staging a livestream. The third segment in the fifteen-minute show is usually Dubbing Lake. The fairies watch a lake, and in that lake they see what are basically wacky and brief youtube videos. Old men doing weird things, Mochida Fusako guest appearances, gorillas watching a knight and another guy make out, and so on. Then the voice actresses improvise dialogue, music, and everything for those clips, often shedding their character entirely in the process.

It’s great. It sounds like the least appealing thing ever, but it’s so well-written (there’s an impeccable time travel joke, a great Super Mario Bros. joke, several DARK jokes) that I ate it up.

There’s a sister show, Straight Title Robot Anime, that’s about a trio of robots try to end the thousand-year robot civil war by mastering humor. They do this by explaining how a type of joke works, trying and failing to make those types of jokes, but the failure itself is usually a great example of that type of joke, and then they do things like run hypothetical situations to lower the tension of the robot war. Things like “What if everyone made dramatic glances at each other?” and “What if the robots kissed instead of fighting?” and so on. It’s not gdgd, but it’s pretty good.

The closest American joint to these is The Eric Andre Show, which is uncomfortable and amazing. It’s like nightmare comedy.

I don’t read a lot of funny books, but Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) was great, I really like Erma Bombeck, and Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black was fantastic. But the GOAT is probably ego trip’s Big Book of Racism!. It’s devastating and hilarious and should be required reading for anybody talking about race on the internet.

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maybe i’m just like my mother?

May 1st, 2013 Posted by david brothers

There’s this story I’ve been telling for years about how Frank Miller, specifically his comic Sin City: The Big Fat Kill #5, was the bullet that got me into crime fiction in a big way. It’s a tipping point for me, and I feel like there’s a definite shift in my tastes from pre-BFK to post-BFK. I’ve said it here on 4l!, I’m pretty sure I said it on ComicsAlliance, and I’ve definitely poorly told the story in person to a bunch of people about how that comic blew my mind in the way that you do when you like something too much and can’t decide what to say. It’s a big comic for me, maybe The Comic, in a way that most comics are not. I can trace a lot of the grimy crime stuff I like to things from that book easy as pie.

I was talking with friends about novels a little bit ago — forty-five minutes ago, if we’re being perfectly honest with each other. (We are — I am.) We talked about what our parents read when we were kids, what we read ourselves, the stuff of theirs that we read… just sort of a nice conversation. “Here’s some stuff. Let’s react to each other and see where this goes.” John Sanford, James Patterson, Anne Rice. I didn’t get to mention Eric van Lustbader and Tom Clancy, but I sure was thinking it. A name pops into my head: Kay Scarpetta.

Was she a writer? A character? Probably a character. I haven’t read any of these books since the ’90s, so it’s no wonder they’re a little fuzzy.

I googled her. Created by Patricia Cornwell in 1990, Kay Scarpetta was a Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, VA for a while, and I believe that’s where I found her. Around ’94, I was living in the Hampton Roads area and ten-going-on-eleven, so reading about places that were nearby — nobody ever wrote about Small Towne, GA, where home still is — was cool. Very cool. I ate those books up, alongside the Pattersons and Sanfords and such.

Wait, I read those Scarpetta books around ’94? Maybe ’95 at the outside? I couldn’t have gotten Big Fat Kill from my uncle until 1996, 1997, when I was just barely a teenager. That doesn’t make any sense. But I definitely read those novels first and Big Fat Kill later…

As it turns out, I got my interest in crime from my mother. Frank Miller was where it crystalized, I guess, but mom came first. My life? A lie.

Here’s a brief list of other things my mother gave me:
-The Roots
-Erykah Badu
-Meshell Ndegeocello
-Sade
-No Doubt
-Probably Fight Club
-Definitely The Jackson 5 (we used to sing “ABC”)
-my temper.

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