What I’ve Been Reading and Writing: April 2021

I’m very excited to announce that the first issue of my second full-length comic book, Snelson: Comedy Is Dying, will be published by AHOY Comics this August. It’s a satirical comic book about a stand-up comedian named Melville Snelson who almost hit it big in the 1990s, but has been sinking into irrelevance—and bitterness—ever since. Snelson does what a lot of washed-up white dudes do: He blames his failures on cancel culture, and the kids these days, and everything but himself.

As I wrote in the announcement: “If you’ve ever stared in slack-jawed fascination at the shameless grifters who love to whine about being silenced by cancel culture in books, on podcasts, and on YouTube, you’ll absolutely love to hate Melville Snelson.”

Writing this book was a super-weird experience for me, because it just hoovered up all of my obsessions and interests and concerns and incorporated them into the story. It’s all in there, from that shitty Seattle Is Dying propaganda special that KOMO put out, to the bizarre self-victimization of Bari Weiss and Josh Hawley, to my evolving thoughts about commenters and online culture. I’m very proud of this book. If you spend a lot of time online, I think you’ll find something that might make you laugh, and you’ll also hopefully see something you recognize in a surprising new light.

And even if you hate my writing, let me tell you something: The artist on this book, Fred Harper, is unbelievable. Fred’s work is hyper-real. If he didn’t carry a bone-deep realism in all his work, I’d say he’s an expert caricaturist, but it’s more than that. His artwork is just true. He gets at the heart of a person with just a few lines, and his eye for details—the crappy all-night NYC diners, the weird fashions that young media employees wear, the devastation and beauty you can find on every street in New York City—is something special.

As I said, the first issue of Snelson: Comedy Is Dying will be out in comics shops starting in August, and new issues will drop every month thereafter, for a total of five issues. If you want a copy, please contact your local comics shop now and tell them you want them to reserve you a copy. The first issue also features a variant cover by Seattle cartooning god Peter Bagge—if you want that cover, let your comics shop owner know. If you have any questions for me about this book and how to get a copy, please send me an email: thisispaulconstant [at] gmail [dot] com.

Find me online

I’m thrilled to announce that at 6 pm on Tuesday, May 4th, I’ll be interviewing Professor Robert Reich as part of the online Crosscut Fest. Reich is one of the best economic communicators in the world, and we’re going to be discussing Bidenomics as a possible response to the trickle-down Reaganomics that has had a death-grip on American politics for the last forty years. This one is going to be a barn-burner of a political discussion, and I’m honored to take part.

I’ve been writing

For the Seattle Times, I wrote about Brick & Mortar Books, the independent bookstore in Redmond that has grown remarkably from its modest beginnings four years ago:

To put it charitably, Brick & Mortar did not quite look ready for the public on opening day. 

For one, the space was too large for the limited number of books they had in stock. “We didn’t get a bank loan when we first opened so the store was sparse,” [co-owner Dan] Ullom admits. “The review I most remember from the early days is something like, ‘They look more like an art installation of a bookstore than a bookstore.’”

If your only experience with Brick & Mortar was a visit on opening weekend four years ago, a return visit today could well knock you off your feet in surprise. The shelves have filled with books, and expanded to fit the space, and they’re lined with numerous passionate recommendations from the shop’s staff of six booksellers. One pillar of the store is adorned with autographs and illustrations from the dozens of authors who have done readings at Brick & Mortar over the years — roughly one reading per week, in non-COVID-19 times, along with a healthy slate of book clubs. It looks, in short, like a really well-stocked, general interest neighborhood bookstore — a shop that any community would be proud to claim.

At Insider, I wrote a fun column imagining what would happen if the coronavirus pandemic spread to Ayn Rand’s fictional libertarian paradise, Galt’s Gulch. (Spoiler alert: A lot of libertarians would die.) I also explored how the pandemic’s unemployment numbers disprove an old conservative talking-point about safety net programs, the signs that America has tipped over into “negative freedom” for workers, and the differences between a Universal Basic Income and an increased minimum wage.

And also in the Times this week, I wrote a profile of Seattle cartoonist Shary Flenniken, whose raunchy comic “Trots and Bonnie” was beloved by underground cartoonists and comedians alike. It’s just been collected in a beautiful edition by the New York Review of Comics, and the new book will hopefully inspire a reinvestigation of Flenniken’s amazing work:

“Trots and Bonnie” ran in National Lampoon for 18 years, and the strip’s juxtaposition of elegant old-fashioned cartooning skill and filthy ultramodern comedy attracted a rabid fan base of cartooning aficionados. Bonnie and her faithful pup represent Flenniken’s raging id, let loose in retrospect on the manicured lawns of Magnolia.

I’ve been reading

We Wish You Luck is a novel narrated by group of students at a low-residency writing program at a Bennington-like college, written by Caroline Zancan, whose bio says she graduated from a low-residency writing program at Bennington College. And while Luck never quite crawls out from under The Secret History’s shadow, and while it wraps up way too cleanly for my tastes, I still read the hell out of this book—I whipped through it, but not because of the plot. I was positively bathing in Zancan’s gorgeous prose and the incisive and raw way she describes people and places and daily happenings. You can just tell reading Luck that Zancan has a truly great book in her; until then, this will do.

I’ve had great luck finding satisfying done-in-one sci-fi paperback novels lately. This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, is a high-concept time travel war story, told in deliriously over-the-top love letters. This one got a lot of attention when it was published a couple years back, so you probably don’t need to hear about it from me. But one that completely flew under the radar was Zed by Joanna Kavenna, a good-old fashioned sci-fi read that evokes Philip K. Dick and Pynchon’s early work. Set in the near future, it’s about using behavioral algorithms in policing, AI predictions of human activity, and tech-powered panopticons, so it couldn’t be any more current. If you’re looking for a brilliantly conceived stand-alone sci-fi thriller with a good sense of humor and a clever sense of storytelling, this is the one for you.

I was in the mood for a cheesy, fun mystery, and One By One, by Ruth Ware, fit the bill nicely. It’s a riff on And Then There Were None, featuring a group of unlikeable tech mogul-types trapped in a remote ski lodge. One by one, they start dying, and suspicions run high. You know the drill. It’s fun while you read it and then it leaves a little sore spot on your brain for a day afterward, while you tease apart all the problems with the story—pure junk food, is what I mean. Nothing wrong with junk food, to be clear, but you should know what you’re getting into before you eat the whole box of chocolate truffles.

Amy Falls Down, by Jincy Willett, was first published almost a decade ago. I found a remaindered copy on one of the front tables at Elliott Bay like three years back, and I finally read it this week and really enjoyed its sly comedy and big heart. It’s about a writer who hit the big time exactly once and then settled into a comfortably obscure late middle age. But one day as she waits in her back yard for a local reporter to come give a softball where-are-they-now interview, she falls down and bashes her head on a bird bath. In the throes of a concussion, she gives an unhinged interview that makes her a literary phenomenon again. I loved Willett’s story collection Jenny and the Jaws of Life, and I think her novel Winner of the National Book Award was unfairly ignored. But Amy Falls Down is by far my favorite of hers—a sweet, cleverly written, generous story about an older woman who finally learns how to be comfortable with herself.

Seattle writer Brian McDonald and Portland artist Les McClaine teamed up for Old Souls, a graphic novel (in the most appropriate sense of the phrase: a hardcover comic with a beginning, middle, and end) about a man who gets sucked into a seedy underground society devoted to investigating past lives. The world of this book is entirely immersive; all these characters feel like they existed before and will continue to exist after the book has been read. McDonald knows when to back off and let McClaine tell the story with atmospheric wordless passages. I do have to ding the book for one notable scene: As the main character begins his descent into the world of reincarnation exploration, his wife immediately loses her mind, throwing a cliché of a fit and demanding that he remember his responsibilities as a husband and father. I wish McDonald had given her a bit more room to demonstrate some supportiveness before pushing her into the role of the joykilling wife. Every time I encounter the angry wife character in fiction—and it happens a lot—I wish the writers would give readers the grace of demonstrating why this couple married in the first place. I’m not saying every fictional spouse needs to go along with every single bad idea every protagonist comes across, but presumably they’re at least a little bought into the hero of the story, and they should do more than simply serve as a plot obstruction. But that’s just one scene, and the book is otherwise excellent and worth your time—especially for fans of fiction about the unknown.

I was entirely charmed by The Leak, a YA comic by Kate Reed Petty and Andrew Bell about a teenage girl who has to learn how to be a journalist. We follow Ruth as she tries to blow the lid off a local polluter, requiring her to learn the rules of responsible journalism along the way. It’s a compelling story, a journalism how-to, and a gripping defense of good local reporting. I can see young readers setting The Leak down and immediately picking up a local newspaper to learn more about their neighborhood. It’s an inspiring and educational story, illustrated by Bell in a pleasant style that blends cartoony animation-style art with pixelated video game graphics.

That’s It for this month

Oberon on the left, Wallace on the right.

Some of you have been asking for an update on my dogs, and I couldn’t be more pleased to oblige.

As I mentioned in February, we adopted a second greyhound named Wally at the beginning of this year. Wally is a 2-and-a-half year-old male, just off the track in Florida, and we were told the agency wanted to place him before he completely lost his sight due to a genetic condition that’s pretty common in male dogs. They estimated that Wally had about 20 percent of his vision when we brought him home. The decline has been pretty rapid ever since; I think now he can only tell the difference between bright light and dark.

Thankfully, the condition doesn’t affect Wally’s health in general; he’s an active and curious pup, and he gets along well. He’s a little more vocal than other greyhounds I’ve met, and he has anxiety when meeting new people, but he’s calmed down a lot after the three-month mark, which is when most adoption agencies say dogs begin to understand that they’re in their home.

I’m happy to report that Wally and our first greyhound, Obie, are getting along really well. I’d go so far now as to call them buddies. They look for each other when they enter a new room, they take turns sharing the couches, and they’ve finally learned how to romp in the back yard together.

If Obie’s acclimation provides useful guideposts, I expect the next six months or so will bring a little bit of drama as Wally begins to get a little too comfortable and starts testing limits. But Obie, at seven years old, has been pretty good about keeping Wally in line—growling when he gets too rambunctious or aggressive, walking up and leaning against him when he gets scared. This incredible social connection has been thrilling to observe, and it is again reminding me that I really ought to become a vegetarian. Anyone who doubts if animals have interior lives and emotional intelligence needs to work from home with a pair of dogs for a few months.

I get the second shot next month and will be fully vaccinated by May 31st. I couldn’t be more excited. I hope you’re getting vaxxed-up, too. Maybe I’ll see you out in the world this summer.

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