What part did comics play in your life when you were growing up?
I misguidedly viewed superhero comics as a sort of preview of my upcoming adult life and spent more time tracing and copying the pictures than I did reading them. I’d replace the costumes with my own and stick a vision of my grown-up face on the muscular bodies, which I suppose indicated psychological problems of its own, but anyway ... Maybe comics were a way for me to define myself against my more athletic peers as well as disappear among them, because I imagined I had secret powers I would someday use to prove my moral and physical superiority in a shining burst of revelation in the school lunchroom or gym class or wherever.
It was the Peanuts collections in my grandfather’s basement office that really stayed with me through childhood and into college. Charlie Brown, Linus, Snoopy, and Lucy all felt like real people to me. I even felt so sorry for Charlie Brown at one point that I wrote him a valentine and sent it to the newspaper, hoping he’d get it. I’ve said it many times before, but Charles Schulz is the only writer I’ve continually been reading since I was a kid. And I know I’m not alone. He touched millions of people and introduced empathy to comics, an important step in their transition from a mass medium to an artistic and literary one.
Mostly, though, I watched a lot of TV. A lot. I’m pretty sure half my conscious life was spent “waiting for something good to come on” and puzzling over the inner lives of Darrin and Samantha and the Brady Bunch. I was so anesthetized by it that one afternoon I almost electrocuted myself by mindlessly sucking on an extension cord while watching Star Trek. That moment was something of a wake-up call, actually.
What effect did all that TV watching have on you?
Television was probably my first real drug. I have little doubt that it fired off the same dopamine receptors in my brain that marijuana later did. Specific hours of my childhood day would be tonally defined by what was on. Monday through Friday at three-thirty meant Gilligan’s Island, and so that particular half hour always took on a sense of bamboo and Mary Ann’s checkered shirt, later to be replaced by the tweed and loafers of My Three Sons. I was sensitive to the broadcast vibe of ABC versus CBS versus NBC versus PBS and to how their particular programs made me feel, even how the particular resolution of each channel was different.
What do you mean?
Well, ABC always felt sharp and acidic, for some reason, and NBC softer, and I’d associate or think of real moments in my life as being more “ABC” or “NBC,” as if they were adjectives. For years I couldn’t figure out why soap operas felt so nauseating until I discovered it was the thirty frames per second of video versus the twenty-four of film—a very indescribable, felt sort of thing for a kid, like the visual buzz of incandescent versus LED light that’s changing our sense of the world now.
When I started trying to make comics in high school, it’s no surprise that I ended up imitating the feeling and rhythms of television, from the falseness of the characters and situations to the camera cropping of the imagery. By the time I got to college I realized that if I was ever going to do anything meaningful, I had to completely detox from TV, so I quit watching it altogether, and I also very self-consciously tried to eliminate any influence it had on my drawing. I came to deeply distrust the kind of storytelling that defined television and movies—the three-act structure with a protagonist that works commercially for twenty-two-minute passive entertainment but has no relation at all to the possibility for narrative self-revelation on paper.
The problem, of course, is that we humans have craved these constructs and clichés, and we’re now so steeped in them that they’ve restructured our unconscious, which any writer or artist trying to deal with re-creating actual consciousness can’t ignore. And which of course has been a concern of contemporary fiction for decades now.
To read the rest of this piece, purchase the issue.
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Frederick Seidel, Aeneidos Liber Quartus
Brenda Shaughnessy, Life’s Work