R.I.P. Stuart McLean

I started listening to The Vinyl Cafe because of a joke.

A longtime listener of the podcast The Irrelevant Show, which is a great sketch comedy show on CBC Radio, they had a segment a few years back called Stuart McLean gives directions, which is very funny and I won't quite do justice to it. Of course being American I had no idea who they were talking about but at some point between this and a few other Stuart McLean jokes, I picked up on the fact that this was a real person. So I looked him up.

For Americans it might be easiest to compare McLean and his radio show The Vinyl Cafe with Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion. It's not an exact thing, but they do have a lot in common on the surface. Both are Award-winning writers with good reputations. Both have music - though I would argue that McLean has better taste than Keillor (though not as good as Chris Thile) and is much better about letting them have fun. And unlike Keillor, McLean doesn't insist on singing every week. McLean does sing on the Christmas show, but he also has fun with it, and of course he's trying to get everyone in the audience to sing along so it works because he's getting into the spirit of things and having fun.

Also while Keillor had comedy sketches throughout the show - The Lives of the Cowboys, Guy Noir Private Eye, etc - most people know him for and remember Tales from Lake Wobegon. It's a mostly improvised meandering story in which Keillor talks about the lives of residents of this small town. In truth I long along lost track of just how many characters he tackles. But it's about mood and tone. McLean is quite frankly a better storyteller and he takes a lot of care in crafting a series of stories

McLean's main character Dave is a comedic figure, one that everyone who's ever seen a sitcom will recognize, as is his wife Morley, and McLean's world that he crafted around them is just as finely tuned and designed as any good sitcom. The neighborhood is filled with various foils and characters, there's a lot of confusion. It's not mean or cruel, though. It can be sentimental, but it often earns that sentiment. Right now the idea that kindness, that niceness, that being neighborly is not just a virtue, seems a little foreign, but it is also a comfort.

I think this is part of where it being a radio show really helps to define what the show is because this aired on the CBC and in a sense McLean was crafting a program that could be listened to by the entire family, that was offering a mirror of what Canada and Canadians were. Perhaps more accurately a funhouse mirror, slightly distorted, that showed what they could be.

There was an episode of the show from a while back where McLean discovered that some of his stories - there have been many collections of his stories published over the years - were being taught in schools. McLean was a bit flummoxed by this and when he was confronted by some questions about the symbolism of birds in one story, he responded, I saw the birds that day and so I mentioned it, which led his producer to joke that he would fail the test about the story he wrote. McLean then brought on two teachers and the conversation the three had was a fascinating dive into the story that McLean wrote, and really opened his eyes about what it meant. Not just to the teachers, but also to his own life in a way that surprised him.

It brought me back to why I first started listening to the Vinyl Cafe. Because it's one thing to listen to one episode and get the joke, but I remember the first story which really stood out to me. "Morley's Birthday Bash" was about Dave planning a party for Morley's 40th birthday and he had been planning in advance and invited friends and neighbors - but the caterers set up in the wrong house. So there was confusion and running around, the family that had just moved in tried to figure out what was going on, but in the end there were a few funny scenes, a great scene about their son trying a cigarette for the first time and his exchange with his mother, everything worked out okay, and Dave and Morley are dancing in the kitchen.

It earned its sentiment.

And that's not to say that McLean and the show always hit its target. It's a hard target to hit, but McLean understood how people listen to radio and he understood what it could do. And today a lot of could use that kind of story about how we can be kind neighbors and understanding people and how things can work themselves out. That's one of the things that stories can do. That's one of the things that we need from stories.

But no matter whether I found the musical guests lacking, had no interest in stories submitted by people or found the main story too maudlin or too cloying for my taste, the truth is that I always looked forward to hear what McLean would read. Before it became the new big thing, McLean did Christmas concerts and took the show on tour in Canada and the US. I never got to go to one.

Maybe there's a lesson in his work and life. About building a community and an audience. About engaging people. About using audio and stories. About what we want and what we want to be. I was, and remain, an unabashed fan of The Vinyl Cafe and Stuart McLean. And I miss his presence and voice on the airwaves.

Rest in Peace, sir.

Articles Published the Week of March 19th

Remembering Bernie Wrightson

The great artist Bernie Wrightson died over the weekend. He's a man I met a few times and had the opportunity to interview once and CBR asked me to write a few words about him.

7 Books to Read to Celebrate the Will Eisner Centennial

March is the centennial of the late Will Eisner, who remains one of the great masters of comics, and I wrote a short piece about his work for CBR about what people should read and why, especially if they've never read Eisner. I also talk for a bit about how I love his book A Contract with God.

Jessi Zabarsky conjures magic with fantasy adventure Witchlight

Jessi Zabaraky's book Witchlight really charmed me. It manages to be very familiar in some ways - Jessi describes the book as "shojo-adventure" and Studio Ghibli fans will see aspects of the tone in the book - but it also is visually dynamic, it plays with a lot of ideas the genre tends to avoid. And in some ways the ending wasn't a surprise but in other ways, in other ways it was surprising and charming.

Articles Published the Week of March 12th

Film Review: A Critically Endangered Species

I had the chance to review two films appearing at SXSW. One was A Critically Endangered Species and I was not a fan of the film, but the reason I wanted to see the film was because of the lead actor Lena Olin, who is amazing, and this is one of her best performances. I think in the end the film has a lot of narrative problems, but whenever Olin is onscreen, you don't really care. It's a reminder of just how good she is and how rarely we see her on screen.

R Sikoryak Talks Bringing the iTunes Terms and Conditions to Comics

Sikoryak's book Terms and Conditions sounds insane. He adapted the iTunes Terms and Conditions into a graphic novel. He did so by using every single world and doing each page of the comic in a different style and uses actually comics pages that he transforms. It's beautiful and amazing to look at just how well Sikoryak can draw like Romita and Macfarlane and The Walking Dead and My Little Pony and dozens of others. We talked about the fun and insanity.

Film Review: Spettacolo

I was blown away by the film Spettacolo and the story it tells. For fifty years a small hill town in Tuscany has been putting on a play each summer, a play about themselves. It's a story about community, about art, about how the world is changing and how ordinary people are struggling to keep up with everything. It's the story of us. And maybe we don't all put on plays about how we're struggling with the state of the world, but maybe, just maybe, we should.

Articles Published the Week of March 5th

Johnston and Perkins Prepare for Atomic Blonde's Coldest Winter

So I am a great admirer of the writer Antony Johnston, and we've taken a number of times over the years. He's written a lot of graphic novels and video games and other projects and I think 2017 will be his biggest year yet. The upcoming movie Atomic Blonde - starring Charlize Theron, James McAvoy and others - comes out this year based on his book The Coldest City, and the prequel to the book, The Coldest Winter (starring McAvoy's character) is just out from Oni Press. I spoke with Antony and artist Steven Perkins about the project and we talked about the unusual preparation Perkins had which prepared him for this, trying to capture this period of Berlin, and Cold War intrigue.


Sitcom Realism Nitpick: Superstore

I feel no shame in admitting that I really love Superstore, the sitcom starring America Ferrera, Ben Feldman, Mark McKinney and a great ensemble cast. The show centers around a crew that works at Cloud 9, a big box store in St. Louis. The show was created by Justin Spitzer, who was a writer on The Office for years

The first season was good, but in its second season I think the show has really found its footing. The Olympics episode was really entertaining and the election episode was hilarious. And I say this well aware of how hard it is to make an episode around an election funny and not political, but they managed. Also the Good Friday episode was great.

I do have to say that while on the one hand last week's episode "Super Hot Store" which was written by Joe Barrasas was funny and well-acted, it did fail a pretty basic test of what I like to think of as, this just isn't at all how a workplace operates.

Now I am aware that most sitcoms - and indeed, this show - is not how most workplaces operate. For good reason. But this one just stuck out for me.

The thermostat in the store is malfunctioning and so everyone is hot and irritable. It leads to a lot of really funny scenes, but here's the problem. If this happened in winter, it wouldn't play out like this. The warehouse part of the store is less insulated than the rest of the store. Let's be honest, only employees are there. Plus of course the garage doors are there and opening and closing all day as shipments arrive. Therefore the warehouse part would be reasonably temperate - caught between the cold outdoors and the sweltering store.

If anything the warehouse workers would be so used to working in layers in the cold that they'd either be celebrating the warm temperatures or freaking out.

But really the fact that the warehouse is nice would mean that they would keep the doors open. Which means that the warehouse crew would refuse to deliver anything onto the floor because of the brutal temperatures, engaging in their own work stoppage. And the crew of the floor would find any excuse to go into the back - because of course with Dina they would need a reason as to why they were going into the warehouse.

For example a customer would ask for something and ask if there's more or a different size or something like that and ask - or sometimes demand - that the employee go check "the back." Now whenever I was asked this, I would walk into the back room, hang out for a bit, get a drink of water, chat with another employee and then walk out to say, "nope, sorry."

I keep picturing each employee coming up ever more elaborate reasons to go into the back room and the warehouse staff coming up with ever more elaborate reasons as to why they can't work on the floor and just how much of the staff can lounge around in the back room together until Dina and Glenn's noses. And then of course things spiral out of control and, well, you get the idea.

Having said all that, I did really like the Super Hot Store episode. Clearly I just worked in stores where we, um, tried not to do so much work.

(BTW if I wrote this up as an you think I could get a job writing for the show...? Asking for a friend...)


For International Womens Day (The Comics Edition)

It's International Women's Day, and right now I'm in a cleaning/organizing phase and so I wanted to say something about the state of comics. Namely, the greatness of the artform that is comics is due to the presence of women. They didn't start making two years ago and ruining old fanboys' fun with their cosplay and readers of many ages. They've been making comics for decades. They've been making great comics. So I pulled a few names from my interview files and people will read this and go, well, I don't like person X or person Y. Which is fine. But comics without this list of people would be poorer, less intelligent, less interesting, less fun, less inventive.

This is the greatest time in comics ever with more talent, more great work than ever before. Women make up a massive chunk (if not the majority) of those creators. To say nothing of how much of the audience they make up. We're at the point now where not believing this means that you either hate women or you're an idiot.

So these are a few of the people that I've interviewed over the years. Not everyone on this list is still with us, sadly. Some people I've become friends with. Some people didn't seem to like me very much when I talked to them. Some of them are to my mind among the greatest, most creative people alive today. 

Jessica Abel
Zeina Abirached
Nancy Ahn
Meg-John Barker
Kate Beaton
Alison Bechdel
Gabrielle Bell
Lucy Bellwood
Paige Braddock
MK Brown
Nina Bunjevac
Peggy Burns
Nancy Burton
Sophie Campbell
Jennifer Camper
Emma Capps
Lilli Carre
Emily Carroll
Genevieve Castree
Roz Chast
Becky Cloonan
Chynna Clugston
Colleen Coover
Leela Corman
Danielle Corsetto
Molly Crabapple
Camilla D'Errico
Dame Darcy
Anya Davidson
Eleanor Davis
Vanessa Davis
Felicia Day
Alex de Campi
Aimee de Jongh
Kelly Sue DeConnick
Vanessa R. Del Rey
Colleen Doran
Julie Doucet
Jamaica Dyer
Rene Engstrom
Leslie Ewing
Joyce Farmer
Christa Faust
Emil Ferris
Jess Fink
Mary Fleener
Shary Flenniken
Ellen Forney
Lora Fountain
Ramona Fradon
Aisha Franz
Renee French
Amy Kim Ganter
Shaenon Garrity
Julia Gfrorer
Sarah Glidden
Phoebe Gloeckner
Annie Goetzinger
Sophie Goldstein
Meredith Gran
Isabel Greenberg
Roberta Gregory
Barbara Hambly
Lisa Hanawalt
Jennifer Hayden
Faith Erin Hicks
Joan Hilty
Emily Horne
Kathryn Immonen
Rebekah Isaacs
Joelle Jones
Miriam Katin
Megan Kelso
Caitlin R Kiernan
Mia Kirshner
Aline Kominsky-Crumb
Meredith Kurtzman
Miss Lasko-Gross
Elaine Lee
Caryn Leschen
Kate Leth
Renee Lott
Lisa Lyons
Lee Marrs
Carla Speed McNeil
Dylan Meconis
Barbara Mendes
Melissa Mendes
Lena Merhej
Rutu Modan
Erika Moen
Patricia Moodian
Francoise Mouly
Hazel Newlevant
Anne Nocenti
Diane Noomin
Danica Novgorodoff
Diane Obomsawin
Andrea Offermann
Sarah Oleksyk
Sydney Padua
Nina Paley
Xenia Pamfil
Sarah Pichelli
Liz Plourde
Mimi Pond
Rhianna Pratchett
Hilary Price
Liz Prince
Lauren Purje
Jen Lee Quick
MK Reed
Amy Reeder
Sandrine Revel
Rachel Richey
Trina Robbins
Sharon Rudahl
Sara Ryan
Nicola Scott
Tara Seibel
Gail Simone
Dana Simpson
Taki Soma
Jen Sorensen
Nadja Spiegelman
Fiona Staples
Leslie Stein
Bianca Stone
Liz Suburbia
Jillian Tamaki
Mariko Tamaki
Sarah Stewart Taylor
Raina Telgemeier
Maggie Thrash
C Spike Trotman
Carol Tyler
Anya Ulinich
Sara Varon
Emma Vieceli
Jen Wang
Shannon Watters
Christina Weir
Maris Wicks
Rebecca Wilson
G Willow Wilson
Teri S. Wood
Evie Wyld
Gina Wynbrandt
Ru Xu
Chrissie Zullo

Articles Published the Week of February 26th

Ray Billingsley Reveals the Hard lessons that Will Eisner and the Comics Industry Taught Him

I've been reading Ray Billingsley's strip Curtis for years, and I had the chance to talk with the man about the long-running strip and his career which began when he was only 12. He opened up about his career, his friendship with the late Charles Schulz, his teacher the late Will Eisner, but also the problems he's faced within the industry and continues to face. I really appreciate that Ray was willing to open up. We need people who are willing to be blunt and honest.

I also mentioned one of my favorite recurring gags from Curtis from when I was a kid (way back when), the music store which sold rap, and which kept getting burned down by angry parents only to re-open under a different name. It's no longer there for obvious reasons, but I always loved that gag.