for the last two years, i’ve been developing and drawing a new comic called last train to old town. i’m ready to show it to you guys now.
it has its very own website, updated with a new page every wednesday (currently there are six), where you can read the comic with flyout maps, author annotations, and reader comments (do leave some of your own, if you’re so inclined). the entire first chapter (24 pages with a map and other goodies) is also collected into a lovingly hand-made, full-color physical book, available now(-ish; i sold out of the first batch at MICE this weekend but another is on the way).
[ “the earth below” album cover illustration for terry champlin. pencil and ink on various papers with digital color and compositing, layered over the artist's original autograph manuscripts. ]
terry never thought much of my romantic decisions. i guess really he didn’t think they were decisions at all.
“you don’t know anything about her,” he would insist, though the contention was never well-received. i was not a casual dater, even in college, and “her” was generally someone i had been sleeping beside, arguing with, reeling out and back in and/or clinging to desperately for months upon years. this assertion of my ignorance would have been unpalatably insulting, had it not been so empirically absurd.
but terry has cultivated a certain curmudgeonliness to cope with his daily exposure to the unfettered whimseys of well-funded youth, and my visible offense only inspired him to dig in his heels. “you don’t know anything about any of your friends,” he’d expand.
“okay,” i would concede, having learned that such debates were unwinnable. “so i feel like it needs a bridge before the third verse, but i’m not sure i have anything else to say.”
but terry is not one to accept such an easy victory. “you think you do, because everyone goes around announcing things about themselves. ‘i’m radical,’ or ‘i’m goth,’ or ‘i’m gay.’ but none of those choices costs anything. no one at vassar loses her employment for dating women, or can’t get an apartment. no one has to take his unusual piercings to an interview. decisions without prices, without consequences, aren’t meaningful decisions.”
[ “the earth below” video production still ]
○ you can be forgiven for wondering why any of this was of any concern to my guitar teacher. did he think i would devote more time to my scales if only i could be weaned off my romantic distractions? i assure you he did not.
terry was my “classical guitar instructor,” a sub-professorial kind of “hired gun” position he still holds at my alma mater, and as such had to appraise my well-meaning renditions of his solo guitar bach arrangements. but he was also, unofficially and invaluably, my songwriting mentor, subjected each week to a new poetic re-imagining of my almost comically unhealthy and yet tragically persistent relationships. it would be too much to ask of anyone to keep his advice focused solely on lyrical missteps, when they were merely parsings of more consequential and infinitely more obvious personal ones.
and yet. i don’t need to explain that, at 19, at 21, i was not eager to be told that my friends’ decisions, and mine by extension, were meaningless, that we had no discernible identities to speak of. or, more precisely, that our identities were only to speak of, and nothing more. muttering to myself, i hauled my beloved acoustic guitar back along the icy paths that led over the crick and up the hill to the big house where i lived with my four closest friends, and the bedroom i intermittently shared with the lady of song.
○ a decade later, i no longer share a residence with any of that house’s former residents; none of us even retire to the same city. (ever the devoted monogamist, i am in fact the last straggler still clinging to the eastern seaboard.) i see them each once every year or two, usually for a few days at a stretch (i try to coordinate visits with comics festivals). it’s not much time to catch up on what’s transpired in the interim, to try to understand their careers and get to know their spouses. i love them like long-lost siblings, but waitresses overhearing our conversations must surely assume we’re on our first in-person date.
“so wait,” i will ask, considering a peculiarly cryptographic job title, “what does that mean you actually, like… do?” meanwhile, my “date” is trying to conceal his or her confusion at the rent i pay for my drafty, vinyl-sided 4th-story walk-up. “it’s actually super cheap for my neighborhood,” i try to explain, “which is, in turn, relatively cheap for the city, mainly because it’s toxic and unreachable, thank god.”
we didn’t always have so little in common. but much of what we once shared, i realize, were decisions that had been made for us. our house, for example, was roughly identical, in both layout and expense, to all the houses around it. there was very little prioritization involved in the crafting of our budgets; we all lived in the same neighborhood and ate in the same dining hall and attended the school that would have us. no one had to choose between central air conditioning with a doorman or proximity to her friends, and no course of study required you stray farther from home than any other. no matter what field you pursued, you had a warm house, and plenty to eat, and killer health care. which meant no one had to decide whether he would try to spend his time doing something he cared about. there was literally nothing else to do.
my only college-era relationship that remains more or less unchanged is that with terry. he is still a benevolent pedagogue and a brilliant composer and an incorrigible grump. he still gives my work thoughtful attention that it does not particularly merit. he still seems to appraise me by my potential, when everyone else around has long since shifted to measuring my rather less impressive record of actual accomplishments.
unlike my other college friends, who i’m just now getting to know, terry remains the person with whom i became acquainted in my late teens. and to be sure, he has had to settle up with life for the choices he’s made. he’s devoted himself to making music, classical music at that, and not even the polytonal, unlistenably academic kind that lands you tenured professorships, but dramatic melodies rooted in various folk idioms, lush and lovely and utterly unprofitable. (he was the only person who ever warned me that the price of artistic integrity was a life of constant worry about money.) he and his wife write and perform together, and stay up well into the wee hours of each morning practicing. (terry, now in his 60′s, checks his e-mail once a day before going to sleep, and i often wake to messages time-stamped after 2 a.m.). they’ve gotten to do what they love, in the absence of significant commercial success, by devoting every available minute and dollar to it, minutes and dollars that most people eventually conclude are better spent making a family.
but terry makes music, and that’s a decision with costs, and consequences.
○ despite his practiced prickliness, terry frequently betrays an odd avuncular affection for the young people in his orbit. he spends unpaid days organizing concerts and coffeeshop evenings so they can show off for their friends and potential lovers. he tirelessly tends to their original compositions, leaving structure and meaning where once was only exuberance and self-indulgence. and he worries about their priorities and choices, generously dispensing valuable advice and hard truths, despite the predictable ungratefulness of those of us not ready to hear them.
[ “the earth below” video storyboard illustration ]
perhaps because he does not have children of his own, or because he wants to see something come of all the time and wisdom he’s imparted, or maybe just because the price is right, terry’s students are often involved in his artistic endeavors. they are all over the three albums he has just released, tugging at nylon strings and blowing through reeds and even racking up engineering and production credits (even when this meant more experienced mixers and masterers had to be paid to tidy up youthful work).
though no match for terry’s compositions as a guitarist, i’m on the discs as well, if only in a more literal sense; i drew their cover illustrations (seen throughout this post), and designed the packaging and posters that sport them (below). i built a website to stream and sell terry’s music, and even got to direct a performance video for one of the more stirring vocal pieces (above; it was shot by joe victorine, and miss mandy bisesti made everyone lovely).
and i’ll be at the record release concert up in the hudson valley next weekend, because terry insists, against all reason, that his fanbase of aging classical connoisseurs will want my signature on their purchases, and to pick up some of my shitty self-published comics while they’re at it.
i know, it doesn’t seem likely. but terry’s been right about more preposterous things. we’ll see, i guess, and maybe i’ll see you there.
i went down to zuccotti park to see the marchers off, to chat with them a bit, to approximate and internalize their faces. this was not, in its conception, to be a terribly unusual use of a morning for me, but the project proved more complex than anticipated.
i’d prepared, of course, for the expected obstacle of my persistent and debilitating shyness with a self-administered pep-talk while ferrying across the east river (“it’s okay, people are nice, no one knows anyone before they do, etc.”). but i didn’t realize how substantial the liberty plaza encampment had become since my last visit. while obviously necessary to withstand the coming winter (which now seems, like zuccotti’s management company, to have called off its offensive against the protesters at least temporarily), the proliferation of tents and semi-permanent structures has left precious little room for sitting and drawing.
what slender space remained was in high demand, as an unkindness of ravenous reporters crowded their cameramen onto the steps below the infamous if inscrutable red thing, where the marchers were gathering. (cameras seem to promote a similar hierarchy to cars, the operators of the largest ones feeling implicitly entitled to spacial preference.) i shifted my position often to keep subjects in view and to avoid (not always successfully) being stepped on.
i mention all this only to suggest that you think of the accompanying sketches as impressions rather than likenesses (but deep impressions, left by deeply impressive people).
○ the marchers, though demographically diverse, share a tendency toward excited smiles and awesome hats. they seem also to share the impression that the country is in the process of “waking up,” and that they are its courtesy call. some were giddy at the preposterousness of what they were about to undertake, while others presented the relieved confidence that comes with finally finding one’s appropriate home, a community to support what you were up to anyway.
sarah belonged clearly to the latter camp. because she projected a demeanor perhaps more approachable than that of your average activist, she was a favorite of the newsfolk. she explained, patiently, repeatedly, the importance of witnessing the nation’s occupations in person, eloquently articulating the march’s hope to bring the movement more intimately to less urban locales (where, despite social media and the various technological marvels through which we embrace them, outreach has proven more difficult). america, she felt, was ready for the message they were bringing it; people were “ready to stop working jobs they hate” to sustain lives that don’t make them happy.
for sarah, the principle was easier done than said. she had tried, she assured me, having a home, sleeping in the same bed from one day to the next, settling in and down. but it didn’t suit her, and for more than ten years she’d been happily transient. three years ago she met her equally telegenic boyfriend garth, who had similarly “dropped out of society,” and they have lived ever since united in perfect peripatesis. (they relay their joint pursuits at pursuing nothing.)
○ delayed by the unexpected media onslaught and the swelling of their numbers from seven to twenty-five in the preceding twenty-four hours, the marchers were already behind schedule by the time their ambulations began. and yet they were determined to get to elizabeth, where a generously offered roof awaited them, before calling it a day. with only two planned days of rest (at the occupy philly and occupy baltimore camps), their schedule could suffer few liberties and still deliver them to d.c. in advance of the congressional super committee’s imminent deadline.
after finding “ken from new jersey,” with whom the marchers had become acquainted via couchsurfing.com, and on whose parents’ floor they would sleep that night, they set off, circling the square by way of farewell. “come see us off!” they called to the assembled crowd, who readily accepted the invitation.
“who wants to take this bag?” intoned a middle-aged, conservatively attired jewish couple, lugging a bulging sack alongside the protesters. “it has a tent, a sleeping bag, a warm coat…”
a marcher suggested they bring it down to the comfort station, where such donated niceties are freely distributed to occupiers as needed. “no, we’re giving it to one of you,” they informed him. “you don’t realize it yet, but someone’s going to need it.” (if they’re following the march’s twitter feed, they saw their concerns vindicated a few hours later, but i don’t suppose they required any such confirmation.)
the swarm of marchers, media attendants, well-wishers, and gawkers became somewhat dispersed as they tried to negotiate the already bustling sidewalks. “wait, did they go that way?” a scattering of voices began wondering, but everyone asked seemed to share the question. which ferry was it they were walking to, anyway, and how were they getting there? the march had been hastily organized, many of its participants having only become aware of it in recent hours, and this information had not really been disseminated.
the fine gentleman atop this post (whose name i foolishly failed to record) was separated from the pack. he started off one way and, seeing no signs or heavy packs or bulky video equipment, reversed course. he expressed heart-breakingly deep disappointed, so i was happy to see he caught up with the procession before it crossed the hudson.
○ what happened next, they can tell you themselves, but things seemed to be going well. unrequested police escorts ushered the marchers from municipality to municipality, as truckers honked and onlookers cheered. the first day was not without incident, but they all arrived safely at ken’s parents’ house in elizabeth, where tea and a warm jacuzzi awaited them, and where they held the march’s first general assembly. so far, so good.
○ so let’s go. we can meet up with the marchers on monday, their day off in philadelphia, and join the second leg of the trip, walking and drawing and blogging our way to d.c. i know and share your reservations; we’re too busy, too broke, too committed and settled and old for this sort of thing. we have rent to pay and cats to feed. but we should probably do it anyway. as they say, we’re only going to be old this once.
i’m prepared to be this irresponsible; i just need a travel buddy. let me know if it’s you.
[ i'm actually not certain if this gent was a marcher or a fellow well-wisher; i didn't get a chance to talk to him. UPDATE: confirmed: he's on the march. ]
○ this is my first, and very probably last, political cartoon. it has been carefully crafted to piss off almost everyone i know, from my obamaniac friends to my most reactionary relatives. you can read the whole comic (it’s only a little bit longer) and leave me angry rants over at act now.
you’re looking at the people’s reference librarian. one of them, anyway.
○ within minutes of my initial descent into liberty square, where the much-heralded occupation of wall street is now in its fifty-first day, i realized i’d been woefully misled. this was not so much a matter of bias, which, as an oft-obsessive consumer of news, i feel capable of identifying and accounting for. it was instead an utter lack of understanding among the vast majority of those assigned to report on the protest of what it was they were looking at (it doesn’t help that many didn’t bother to show up before settling in to pontificate). this haziness on the part of our media intermediaries has been widely perceived as a lack of purpose or organization among the occupiers themselves, but the absurdity of this appraisal reveals itself to physical visitors almost immediately.
[ the clarinetist in a pop-up jazz trio (which quickly morphed into a quartet, and then a quintet, as strangers joined in the jamboree. ]
i found myself back on the india street pier waiting for the ferry to wall street the next morning, and the morning after that, and many of the mornings to follow, with my sketchbook and my long-dormant political intensity in tow. i brought books (with and without pictures) to the people’s library. i attended general assemblies and meditated in (and on) the plaza’s sacred space. i received non-violent(ish) direct action training from some of the most formidable anarchists i have ever encountered. i arrived before dawn with the national lawyers’ guild’s hotline sharpied on my leg when the encampment’s eviction seemed imminent, to help prevent it if possible, and document it if not.
[ my direct action training facilitator. ]
i became quietly obsessed with the ambition to correct the record, to grant occupy wall street a fair hearing in the court of public opinion, to explain to the less proximate world that it is not a rally or a march or a clash with the authorities or a set of demands or even a steady procession of the above, but a place wherein such things have room to occur, like a campus on which everyone majors in revolutionary whimsy. i came home and posted a couple sketches beside my initial impressions of the people’s mic, in what i intended to be the first in a series of illustrated dispatches.
but the bulk of my thoughts ended up in a photographically-illustrated article over at act now examining the culture and community of this unexpected place. within a day it became my most widely read essay (not so tremendous a feat, but still), and has since multiplied its audience several times over. if you’ve been wondering what exactly the protestors are doing, or what it is they want, or why they’re camping about it, you may find it instructive. or a fun read, at least.
○ i draw slowly, as those of you waiting on my promised new comics have on occasion pointed out to me. because zuccotti park is an unusually vibrant place these days, and the revolution does not stop to pose, i was forced to capture some of the encampment’s more ephemeral sights with my camera. all non-crappy photos from my visits to the occupation can be found, and used freely for non-commercial purposes (under this creative commons license), on the boykenan flickr page.
○ the aforementioned act now blog, where members and friends of one of new york’s largest progressive mobilization organizations air grievances and hatch schemes, is looking for people who draw less slowly than i (as noted, an easy bar to clear) to contribute political cartoons (comics, animation, collage, what-have-you). because we are an all-volunteer organization (unlike, say the huffington post), there is sadly no money to be distributed to deserving contributors. but artists and authors retain all rights to their work and gain access to a wide audience of politically active new yorkers. holler at kenan [at] actnowny [dot] org with submissions.
[ the bassist of the aforementioned trio, quartet, and quintet. ]
○ of course, i am not the only activist in the family. inspired by the fearless displays of solidarity emerging across the nation and the world, midnight has begun an occupation of her own. you can follow her revolutionary whims and political wisdom on twitter at @occupylap. it’s activism at its sexiest and most sedentary.
[ it would probably be both too hierarchical and too militarily-coded to call this man the occupation's drum major, but it would probably not be inaccurate. ]