Written by Josh Breidbart

Contagious Inspiration

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/02/21/02202017-getting-handsy/

I reached a weird crossroads recently when it comes to my own artistry.

It’s no secret that my drawings pale in comparison to Zack’s. His abilities run circles around mine. However, I can at least revel in the fact that my abilities are above average. I recently had a chance to show off a bit in that department at work. The staff was asked to create portraits of ourselves with markers and construction paper, as an encouragement for kids to do the same in their own classes. We were urged not to feel too much pressure and to do the best we could, but I was literally bouncing in my seat, reveling in a chance to show off my – albeit limited – abilities.

Look, I’m only human. I too enjoy positive feedback.

So I went to work, probably harder than necessary, thumbing quick designs first, outlining with pencil before inking in marker and adding some crosshatching for shading. I even drew in a little Spider-Man, just so the kids would know the score. Again, this is a matter of pride. A matter of me feeling good about my own abilities. And it all went according to plan. The praise went on for weeks. And it buoyed my spirits even higher than usual.

What happened next was not a part of the plan…

People started to tell me that after they saw my self-portrait, they started over. They went beyond the simple expected pictures. They reached deeper to do something more expressive. In fact, some challenged the constraints of the project altogether. Instead of complimenting me, they took my drawing as an invitation to aim higher. And soon enough there were scores of contenders for the mantle of champion artist-in-residence, their artistry inspiring with our limited materials. A flame, once lit, can burn like a wildfire. And I was dazzled, and though the personal praise stopped, it was shared with others.

I realized just how many others when I was working late one day and five or six kids barged into my office. They’d seen the picture too, and they wanted me to teach them how to draw. Teaching is not something I’ve ever thought about doing, let alone done before. I did my best, showing them some quick tips and encouraging them to try and try again. And I got a new kind of positive feedback this time: they came back. And came back again. And cheered when I asked about making it official.

And so our drawing club was born, because I realized this was something that was needed. For the kids who really want it, to give them the platform and encouragement and time for art. To make art. To continue making art. To be encouraged to continue no matter how good or bad they are. To keep trying to make something to take pride in. And to feel good about doing it, to feel the glow of achieving something that took hard work and dedication, because that’s maybe the most important part.

Inspiration can be contagious.

Racing On

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/02/16/02162017-the-night-nurse/

You know how it feels when you’re trying to make a good first impression? With the new job, I’ve been too busy to run lately, but I’ll use a race analogy anyway. You’re at the starting block; you want to bolt out at the beginning to make a name for yourself. So you give those opening strides everything you’ve got… only to trip on a loose stone. And then, when you pick yourself back up, one of the stragglers bumps into you, and now you’re off the track again with a mouthful of dirt and grass. So you pick yourself up, yet again, and continue down the race track, well behind, limping and grumbling and utterly embarrassed.

On an entirely unrelated note, let’s talk about that new job.

Like most work, my job involves both regular smaller assignments and ongoing work towards larger projects, plus a few big-ticket items that are the real reason I’m there. I obviously wanted to make a splash the first time the latter came around. Luckily, my first major assignment was a newsletter. Between my blogging and design skills, I was looking forward to the slam dunk. Sure, I’d have to work within systems and programs I’d never used before, but I knew I’d win the race before it even had a chance to get started.

Instead, I stubbed my toe and went down hard. For a whole host of reasons I couldn’t control – reasons that no one could control, unfortunately – it all went wrong, the whole setup collapsing like so many dominoes. All I could do was try to fix it. So I did the best I could, and in this instance, it was…

Honestly, it wasn’t great. And it wasn’t because I was cocky or went in unprepared. I worked late nights and weekends, researched until my eyes bled, and sent so many test letters you’d think I had OCD. But for all my preparation, I still I got dealt a bad hand… and then another. In that moment, I wanted to die, and definitely not come back to life, regardless of how glamorous James and company make it seem.

But here’s the thing: the race was still on. It’s still on now, actually. I fixed things as best I could and went back the next day. The world didn’t end. Yes, I stumbled and crashed in front of all my new co-workers – but my efforts didn’t get me thrown under the bus, something I’ve unfortunately encountered elsewhere. That’s one of those great things about being on a team that works together. As one of them told me, “Teamwork makes the dream work.” I can’t deny that it seems easier to run a long marathon if you have people running with you, everyone cheering each other on. A good team sees you stumble and gives you a hand to help instead of pushing you back down. A good team rallies together, no matter who messes up. Even when everyone messes up. A team supports each other and keeps going. It keeps running.

Now that I know what went wrong the first time around, I have resolved never to let anything resembling that failure happen again. Round two on this newsletter is fast approaching, and I’m back at work. And this time, I know exactly what to do: keep pushing, and never give up.

End of story, right? Well, like I said, the race continues, but I took an unexpected detour recently.

I’d like to keep certain details of my offline life… well, offline. But I can at least tell you that I work with children. And recently, there was a kid where I work who was having trouble sticking it out and not giving up. Specifically, he was scared that Trump’s election meant that a black child like him was an unimportant part of this country. That the deck was already stacked against him and no one cared – especially, he said, not white people. It was then that my teammate, Red, stood up and brought the boy into our office and sat him down.

He spoke of the danger of condemning an entire race. He revealed that he, a black man, wouldn’t be where he is without the help of people of every color, including white; of every sexual orientation, religion, any sort of background. He said that we all have something to offer the team, and to discriminate against one group out of ignorance or fear only limits what you can achieve.

And then he brought me into the conversation, explaining that he’d grown up in a Jewish neighborhood and praising “Jewish soul food”. And by Jewish soul food, he meant a salt bagel with cream cheese, lox, and a little raw onion, the only way my people could get away with combining cheese and “meat”. The child listened with wide eyes, telling us he’d never had anything like that. John promised him that one day he would.

I was inspired. I wanted to help my teammate. So I took a walk.

The best bagel place in New York happens to be near my office. And they happen to make an excellent salt bagel with cream cheese, lox and raw onion. I know, because I got one for myself. But I also got a second one so that John could share it with our new friend (who has since asked me several times to bring more).

I’m not going for a humble brag here. It’s a bagel, only ten dollars out of my pocket (for those outside New York, yes, that is really what you pay for lox, and yes, there’s a reason we keep doing it). But small as the gesture was, it felt good to me and for me. Like getting my second wind. Like picking up speed.

The race continues, but maybe I’m not as out of shape as I thought.

Lego Batman – A Film Review

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/02/14/02142017-creepy-kidnap-bullshit/

About five minutes into the LEGO Batman Movie, when I realized I hadn’t been paying attention for the last two minutes, I knew we had a problem.

Now, I don’t want to be a dick (Grayson), and I feel like I’m encroaching on that territory. But I can’t help it. I wanted to like this movie so much. And there was a lot I really did enjoy. I enjoy the fact that we live in a world in which a LEGO Batman Movie exists. I enjoy that it’s a film, a DC film no less, that seemed to want to be there to have fun. I just wish I could have been more engaged.

I realize I might be holding this movie to an unfair standard because of The LEGO Movie. I loved (and still love) The LEGO Movie. It’s the perfect cartoon movie, speaking not just to children, but to anyone who’s ever been a child, who remembers what it meant to be a child. Its charm and wit awaken a playfulness that you probably haven’t felt since the last time you, say, built with LEGOs, or that you remember every time your parents ask you again if they can throw away your old action figures. And Batman’s presence in that movie was perfect: after all, in this world of playtime, it’s only natural that every story will tangle with other stories and worlds, to hilarious effect. Not only that, but it took the piss out of the grimdark version of the caped crusader that we’ve been stuck with for the last ten years. So when the LEGO Batman Movie was announced, I was excited. It seemed as though they might have figured out the magic ingredient in The LEGO Movie that would make this one work too.

And there’s a lot that does work. Michael Cera is inspired as Robin, and surprising no one, Will Arnett is still a flawless Batman. Like its predecessor, LEGO Batman also takes some pot shots that land better than they have any right to. The fact that Batman is a total Republican stereotype – a rich white guy who spends his time beating up poors he judges to be criminals – is pointed out in a way it hasn’t been in any Batman franchise before. It’s a timely dig at the character in the current political climate, although an early line about not paying taxes rides an odd line between “joke – Batman is bad and this is an example of his journey from selfish” and “joke – Batman is just like another big shot billionaire we all know”. But overall, the movie felt rushed. Most of the dialogue felt more like placeholders, the story more like an outline. And the action was anonymous and boring, especially as compared to The LEGO Movie’s action-via-comedy set pieces, every one of which contributed to the viewer’s understanding of the characters and the world.

And maybe I am judging this more harshly because it seemed to be trying to rope in the other aspects of The LEGO Movie – master builders, the shared universe idea – to a larger world. But if it’s going to get in line behind The LEGO Movie, that’s how I’m going to measure it, and it didn’t measure up. It seemed to want to do exactly what The LEGO Movie did, while failing to fully understand it. It was like someone saying that they want to remake the Godfather and then explaining that at its core, the movie is really about how Italians are very family-oriented.

I understand that this movie had to come quickly on the heels of The LEGO Movie to capitalize on its success, and given what a rush job it must have been, it’s pretty good. Ultimately, I’m just disappointed because when I should have been enjoying the opportunity to see Batman from this angle for the first time in what felt like eternity. Instead, I felt as though I was looking at a checklist.

I guess I wanted to like this movie like I loved The LEGO Movie. But instead I liked this movie and it still felt like a DC movie, with the same corporate problems tripping it up, trying to focus-group answers to what the magic formula was last time without actually feeling it out. It felt as manufactured as The LEGO Movie felt like a celebration. Which is a shame, because at the movie’s high points, it really is a celebration of Batman, and what he is beyond the grimdark. But even when it matched The LEGO Movie’s swagger, LEGO Batman never matched its heart.

And without the heart, it just felt like a toy commercial.

Round 1. Ready? Fight!

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/02/09/02092017-only-if-you-give-me-a-hand/

Why do people love to fight? I’m not talking about standing up for your rights or giving your all for something important. I mean, literally, fighting. Our animal brains receiving an adrenaline kick, making us thirst for blood and viscera, or at least combat even if blood and viscera are cartoonishly absent (yes, that was a dig at the colorful Marvel movies, as usual). But my point is that even when the subject is not important, it seems like a requirement to fight. Fight. FIGHT!

Is it conditioning or is it inherent?

I came home exhausted from a long day of work, my first day back after a bout of stomach flu… only to step onto a squishy rug. Turns out that a fun little quirk of our apartment is its potential to have garbage water back up out of the drains until it starts looking like Noah might have a shipyard nearby. Coming home to this made me, as you might imagine, piss-boiling angry. It was of course not a malicious attack by my super or building manager. It was just bad plumbing. We mopped up, washed the rugs, and the super called a plumber for the next day. The water was drained, the damage undone, my shower tomorrow unaffected (after some scrubbing). What was I gonna do? Cry? Complain? Fight?

Man, did I want pick door #3. I had Civil War on, a film I have already reviewed (twice, technically), and it reminded me of how much fighting has been portrayed as heroic of late. In fact, lately it’s not even heroic. It’s habitual. The template of the action set pieces culminating in the big third act battle has become mandatory for these films, and arguably, audiences at this point expect them rather than being excited about them.

You might argue that the action is the whole point of superheroes. I disagree. That’s what we’ve made superhero movies about. But as any kindergartener can tell you, a hero is not the person who punches hardest. A hero is the person who does the brave and difficult and right thing in defense of something or someone in need of protection. Tack on super and you’re now talking about someone who goes beyond the bounds of what is normally possible, taking on more responsibility and overcoming antagonists symbolic of greater evil: greed, lust, facism, capitalism, nihilism. So I repeat: superhero stories do not need action. But that’s what we keep on getting, because it’s both the easiest way to demonstrate conflict and to resolve it. I pick on Marvel movies because I love them and they are popular, but they are far from the only ones guilty of this. That said, as a group those are the films that get the most exposure, and the version of violence they offer is by far the most cartoonish, toothless, and consequence-free.

It’s not like Marvel is to blame for normalizing and sanitizing violence. Our entire culture is built around a view of violence and fighting as entertainment. We laugh at it. We show it to our children to keep them quiet. We eat, sleep, and breathe it. So the logic behind using fighting as a way to show conflict and resolution is obvious: some people might be pacifists, but everyone understands “the big fight”. Hell, I wasn’t happy until I had what I considered an adequate amount of physical fighting in the most recent chapter of Unlife. I felt it was not only necessary, but escalated the stakes in a powerful way. And I’m only talking story development here. What about our real world celebration of it? What about the reverence we have for our troops, the major wars of the past, the need to put the term “non-violent” before the word “protest”?

But I’m getting away from my argument, because I’m not here to condemn or condone violence. I’m here to question the normalized repetition of it. For a society that claims to want peace, we certainly celebrate fighting to an insane degree. We love it. Sure, being on the receiving or losing end of it can plunge us to the greatest depths, but we don’t think of it that way. For ourselves, we see the glory of victory, of being right, of digging into ourselves and exorcising our angers and fears and frustrations, lashing out and having it mean something. Is it just what remains from when we were three and our moms refused to buy that bag of M&Ms at the grocery store? Or is it so intertwined with everything we know that the urge to use it as a crutch now prevents us from walking without it?

This week, I tried Krav Maga. The urge to kick a little ass has gotten insanely tempting these days. I had to be corrected multiple times on my stance, as I was inadvertently mirroring the only fighting style I ever studied. And it was exhausting. It required more than angry force. It required concentration. A taming of the beast. Becoming its master.

I signed up for a few more classes, so we’ll see. I’m not sure if I’m any less stressed, but at the very least I can sleep better knowing I got to fight. I got to just… go for it. Maybe that’s why we like fighting so much. Because it elevates conflict to a point where it can’t be avoided. It has to be faced.

And yet… when I have one of those power trip daydreams, of triumphantly vanquishing the person who won’t fix my bathroom or shoved me on the subway or is just the unlucky schmo that I invented to represent the sum of my frustrations, all I think of is the fight. The glorious arc of words and actions that resolves everything and propels me on the path to glory.

I never imagine the shrapnel and destruction left in the fight’s wake.

Superman: Red Son – A Comic Review

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/02/07/01072017-not-all-bad/

What if Superman had landed in Soviet Russia instead of Smallville, USA? That’s the question posed in Superman: Red Son, by Mark Millar and Dave Johnson. What follows is a creative exploration of a Superman who’s in many ways recognizable, but the ideals he upholds are, you know, Soviet, and he and the world evolve a bit differently as a result. Superman has always been best as an archetype, a God among us. An alien imposing his will is an effective metaphor for this “Superpower”, and I highly recommend the book if the premise event remotely interests you.

But I want to talk about the ending, so spoilers from here on out.

I believe a good ending gives you a better look, or even a “clearer” look, at what the point of a story is. It’s why I am constantly revisiting the ending of Unlife, hoping to divine more meaning in where James’ journey is going. But Red Son’s ending does something very peculiar. Lex Luthor is ultimately victorious over Superman, and becomes responsible for the growth and evolution of the human species… but the story doesn’t end there. The comic goes on for three extra pages, in which Superman, not really dead, watches from the background. He first confesses that, as an alien from another place (metaphor!), it was not his place to determine the fate of these people. But as we peel back the iron curtain, Luthor’s leadership puts humanity on course for a future in which, lo and behold, Superman DID NOT come from the distant planet Krypton. Instead, Superman is a visitor from the last days of humanity, hyper-evolved but threatened by a red sun (theming!) that’s about to destroy the planet. He’s been sent back to change the past and save Earth. And he’s been chosen for a reason: Kal-L, as he’s called in Red Son, is a Luthor.

There is a lot to unpack here for just three pages, but I’m gonna try and keep this to 3 paragraphs. Starting…

… Now. Okay. Every artist makes choices as they work, but this one really struck me. There’s a sacredness to Superman’s back story, which is not to say that the change rankled. But because that story is so central to what makes Superman “Superman”, this change in perspective alters the very fabric of the story in a meaningful way. The ending, when I first read it, caught me off guard. It’s a major paradigm shift to drop just as your story is ending. In fact, a whole other story can be built on the actual heritage of Kal-L (including, perhaps, how and why Luthor became simply L). But in support of the themes present in Red Son, does it really matter if the superpower was from the future or from another planet? Well, yeah, actually. It does.

When you look at the “big bad” in a superhero movie, it’s typically a fictional terrorist group made of mixed races, a robot army, or aliens (or Nazis because, you know, tried and true movie bad guys). These are all safe choices, because who could they be offending? And I’ve always enjoyed that nod to inclusiveness, even though we still have a ways to go on things like racial and gender equality. But still, all of those concepts of an enemy create a separation, an us versus them. So to reveal that Lex’s greatest enemy was not only his kin, but his kin from a world that was beyond the needs of one superpower versus another, that was the product of everything they could be…

It turns Red Son into a tragedy, really. The idea of Kal-L as one of us all along, a version of us freed from labels, with only one enemy: death. To go from that united world to one consumed by the Cold War, the nuclear threat, this end all be all battle between good and evil, defined in stark terms regardless of the actual complexity of both sides. It’s easy to label an “other” as an intruder. As someone who doesn’t belong. To bar them from entry, perhaps. But, the thing is… everyone is the other to someone, and it doesn’t make any of us less deserving or less human. We all belong on this planet. Because it’s not our world alone; we’re sharing, at different times and different places. We are none of us aliens. Only humans trying to survive.

So, yeah. Red Son. Check it out.

Stories: Path of Destinies – A PS+ Review

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/02/02/02022017-our-lives-are-not-our-own/

I really wish I could review these PS+ free games as they come out and make it a “thing”. But sometimes, it takes a bit longer to find the time to complete them. And sometimes, when you review a game too early, you can miss out on how it will ultimately makes you feel. And in the case of Stories: Path of Destinies by Spearhead Games, what started as elation ultimately turned to disappointment as the game betrayed the original concept that first drew me in.

Stories is an action adventure game with a “Choose Your own Adventure” style of decision making. The choices you make ultimately determine whether you live or, most likely, die. In fact, all choices lead to death except one. It’s up to the player to experiment with the choices, uncovering the truth in order to safely navigate the narrative and live to see the end. As a writer, there’s a lot to love about this. The idea that the story can’t be finished until you’ve gotten to the truth is very meta, and resonated with me. The game is also pretty funny, most of it being what I’d consider “Dad humor”. It’s full of goofy puns referring to popular memes and pop culture references. It’s silly, but endearing, especially since there’s only one voice actor between the narrator and all the characters. It comes off as a father reading a bedtime story, one that the child is allowed to navigate. I even really liked the gameplay, a rhythm based swash-buckling combo system reminiscent of the Arkham games. All in all, nothing revolutionary, but solid. Each time I played through, I learned something new, something I could use moving forward in pursuit of the ending that awaited me. I didn’t care about the repetition because, for a while, it didn’t feel like repetition. It felt like I was getting closer…

But then I relearned the same fact four times in a row. I’d played every level to death, my weapons long since enhanced to their max. What started out exciting became an incredible slog, as one wrong choice meant a doomed path, which meant another hour of gameplay, growing staler with each playthrough. Gameplay should be a reward, not a threat. Maybe you’re interested in seeing all the endings, and I get that. But after enough playthroughs, the battles were no longer exciting. I wasn’t trying new things anymore; I was rushing to conclude the game. And when I found myself skipping the same cut scenes over and over because I was tired of them, I realized the game had lost the thing I liked the most about it.

But I might have gotten past this if I hadn’t reached the end only to find that the clues I found and choices I made were suddenly meaningless. See, to reach the true ending, the game breaks its own rules. For example, throughout the game I’d learn certain things: this weapon corrupts the wielder, that another character is a liar, so on and so forth. I’d see these proven repeatedly, and immediately lose if I guessed that the holder of the weapon was too strong to be corrupted, or that the lying character, well, wasn’t lying. But once I got to the true ending, I had to make choices identical to those that had gotten me killed before, and this one time they worked out. Ultimately, winning the game is about making a guess that makes no sense in context. And that seems like a betrayal of the premise.

(In addition to all this, I thought the ending itself was unearned blahness that didn’t conclude the story in a satisfactory manner, making all my choices and frustrations for naught. So, there’s also that.)

Ultimately, I really want to recommend Stories for that first half I played of it. It was that good, that funny, that charming and inviting. But in the end, whether it was being crushed by the weight of its own premise, or ultimately not being able to deliver, I couldn’t recommend this game to anyone unless they got it like I did: free.

Fan Boy

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/01/31/01312017-it-never-ever-stops/

You may have guessed that I’m a fan of comics, anime and video games, all the hallmarks of a die-hard nerd. What you also may have noticed is that – cue record scratch – I complain about them a lot. I often have more to say about what was done wrong versus what was done right. And that might seem like a hindrance, keeping me from basking in the ephemeral post-credits glow of movie or TV or video game magic, but it’s all from a place of love. Being mean or tearing something down is never something I do for the fun of it. It’s about holding storytellers to the high standard that I know they are more than capable of reaching. Nothing gets carte blanche unless I actually don’t care enough to speak critically about. It may be a cruel kind of love, but it’s still love.

This also, I think, explains a lot about me, but that’s a whole other post.

Oddly, my critical response seems to take people by surprise. As a nerd, I am EXPECTED to give carte blanche. There’s a new Star Wars or Marvel movie? I am expected to see it (ideally the day it opens) and love it, quality notwithstanding. Many people seem to think that an admitted love of a property, especially a nerdy one, implies some sort of all-acceptance of everything related to it. But a sticker implying this is from the makers of X and Y doesn’t automatically instill confidence in me. A piece of storytelling needs at least one hook in me before I will even consider allowing it onto my radar. Hell, even brand new Dragon Ball episodes, which I previously mentioned, aren’t high on my list because of the impossible standards I have for the show. Yes, I always wanted an expansion of the lore, but though this is a fun one, it’s just not good enough. And if something isn’t good enough, I refuse to waste my precious hours of freedom on it.

I believe it’s everyone’s responsibility to do the best they can in their work, pushing to always grow and improve. And for what it’s worth, I hold Unlife, as well as my other work, to similar standards. Sometimes that means getting notes pointing to holes you didn’t see or hoped no one would notice. And sometimes it means being the one giving those notes. And that can feel uncomfortable, or even wrong. But when the alternative is blanket trust and passive acceptance, especially when it’s something I love so much… I just don’t see the point. As an audience, we have power. We vote with our voices and our wallets to determine what gets made next. The only reason there’s a Justice League movie in development is because, regardless of the awful things we say about Zack Snyder and his universe, audiences have continued to financially support his efforts. And if people are happy with that quality of movie, go for it. Enjoy. But I can’t and I won’t merely because I was told it stars a character whose name I’m familiar with.

Like a great many people, I have a busy life and limited free time, and I try to devote that time to things of value. Writing Unlife and this blog are on the list, but so are my wife, friends, family, video games and a whole truckload of others. And to reduce my time with them to make space for things I don’t believe in or that frustrate me, simply because they carry the Marvel logo …

It’s easier to be a consumer who just accepts what they’re given, but if there’s a hair in my dish, dammit, I’m going to say something.

And that’s a shame because I can’t deny that it has actively ruined some potentially good experiences. Most recently, I saw Arrival, a clever film about aliens, language, and time. There’s a lot to enjoy here: the film is technically sound, with great writing, directing, acting, and production value. And yet, its lack of artistry held me back from being able to fully engage. A small example is the literal language of the aliens: it sounded like the guttural “monster” cries I have heard in 1,000 other films. Yes, their written language was clever and called the themes of the story into play in excellent fashion. But when the sound design came so close to tonally similar marvels like Under the Skin or Interstellar, and yet fell so short of the haunting, evocative qualities of the other two movies, it kept me from fully engaging. Still a great movie, but for me…

Is that too much? To ask for more? To demand to be blown away? Is setting my sights so high a detriment to me, or an advantage in that it allows me to keep pushing? The thing is, 20 years ago, this wouldn’t be an issue. Hell, were I still a child I would have loved both Batman v Superman and the cartoonishly bad X-Men Apocalypse. Because when I was a child I did accept things; “I got what I got”. Fuck, I even loved the reviled Mortal Kombat Annihilation, not because it was a good movie, but because the bright colors and characters I loved were brought to life. And back then, that was a thrill.

But today I’m an adult, and times change, and the mere image of something I love isn’t enough. Maybe it’s oversaturation, or the fact that I have engaged in this medium for so long that I can’t see it through a child’s eyes anymore. I have grown up.

Is it so wrong to ask that my media adjusts accordingly?

The Power of the Sun in the Palm of my Hand

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/01/26/01262017-chill/

I’m writing this at about 5:30AM, after nearly 10 hours of sleep. That’s slightly less than the 14 hours I got the night before last. After what felt like months of waiting, Martin Luther King Day (aka: Josh’s special write-all-day vacation) was upon us, only to see my getting sick. It was one of those stomach flus that doesn’t warrant a trip to the doctor – just rest and the odd sip of ginger ale – but naturally, it sapped just enough brain power to prevent me from pursuing the writing tasks I had hoped to achieve. It’s hard not to see the timing of all this as purposeful. Not that I brought sickness upon myself, but rather that I held it at bay until it was the most “ideal” time to experience it. And since the days and weeks before that were filled with myriad work and familial obligations, I was left with only one option. As though I blocked the dam and let it burst when I was sure the area was evacuated… before I was evacuated, I guess.

It’s actually less like clogging a dam, and more like just “clenching” all day. Sucking in your gut so the pretty girl doesn’t think you drink too much beer. Holding it in and hoping there are no long term ramifications other than the current physical discomfort of sucking your fat inwards, and the mental anguish of waiting for her to turn around so you can breathe again. And I think there’s a little bit of that “clench” in going to work every day – standing up a little straighter than we naturally would, pushing down bad habits that we only share when we’re alone, that mental gut spilling out like the aforementioned floodwaters. You attempt to put forward the best, most professional version of yourself, which is only somewhat natural. It takes a sense of control and awareness that isn’t always kept on.

Maybe it’s the nerd in me, but I found an equivalence to describe my job to fellow nerds, and it’s Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. You know, when you first see Doc with his passion project, an endless renewable fuel source, and he attaches these horrific metal arms to his body so that he’s equipped to keep this self sustaining star in check and under control… or else it could explode and take everyone else out?

So yeah, something like that, with less my wife being murdered and driving me crazy. That’s the goal, at least.

My point is, with those arms on my back all day, taking them off at 5:01PM feels more like crashing. It’s even tougher having worked freelance for so long, with only myself as boss and officemate. I’m still figuring out how to handle playing to a much wider, and inevitably less understanding, crowd than me, myself, and I. So I suck in that gut, all day, every day, and when I get home…

It all spills out. Happiness, anger, frustration, sadness, disappointment. It all just pours out, unrelenting and unstoppable. It’s weird, because even when I’ve had a great day, even when I’m smiling and calling my wife with big plans for the night ahead, I come home to find my heart feeling… not unlike my skin this very sick weekend. Sensitive and on fire from the slightest touch. Everything hurts, even happiness. Because it’s just too raw to feel anything else right now.

Especially with Unlife and the blog still in the mix, I almost always have more to do. More to accomplish. More to write. I could always cut more things from my life, channel some of that water from the dam elsewhere. I’ve already pulled away from habits that I worried were leading me astray, like overindulgence in video games and comics, or even just staying up too late and eating like a pig. I’ve always been better with just going cold turkey or… hot turkey, I guess? Is that the opposite of cold turkey? Is there only clenched and unclenched, on and off, 1 and 0? There must be a middle ground. Medium turkey?

Maybe I just need to keep my belt a little bit looser and start there. Maybe then I won’t crash when there’s a stretch of free road again. And with that choice, I’m already feeling better.

To Be Good

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/01/24/01242017-good-enough/

I do, truly, believe that everyone wants to be good. I think it’s universal to want to be smart and savvy enough to handle the world and provide for the people we love. And I believe that most people feel that they know what “good” and “right” are, that these things are obvious, just like I do. But unfortunately, our definitions vary, sometimes hugely, ultimately hindering us from being able to relate to each other. So, knowing all this, why do I and the rest of the world find it so hard to get our shit together?

I mean, granted, I find it hard to be good sometimes, and I don’t have a billion eyes on me and every sentence I utter at all times. I want to be good, really. But sometimes I also just want what’s mine. What I think I’m entitled to. Basic things, like a full 7 hours of sleep, a working toilet, or the ability to not have to worry about some boogeyman enslaving my world. I think we can all agree, on any side of the political spectrum, that we don’t want to live in fear of some pendulous shadow of an encroaching evil. We’ll do whatever we can to strike back against what makes us afraid. And I sometimes feel that way with my own anger and frustrations: consumed with avoiding them, I forget about trying to do what is good, switching to what is necessary. To win. To exist. To feel good, because being good doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

It’s been a while since I talked politics in this space. In truth, a lot of that was me pulling away from that feeling of helplessness. On a technical level, yes, I am far from helpless. I can get out there and be more involved in politics, get people on my side, call my senators and representatives, etc. But I don’t, and realistically, I won’t. Not because I’m too good for it or it’s not my responsibility, but the same way I don’t plan on dropping everything in my life to suddenly become a doctor, a pledge to suddenly and drastically increase my involvement would be disingenuous to who I am and how I answer that starting question about what is good. Or more to the point, how I use my concept of “good” to help others. Which is not to say that I’m throwing my hands up. Rather, I see it as everyone’s responsibility, including mine, to do good in the best way we can, and to the best of our ability. The alternative appears to be unproductively seething at the information about our new Congress and Cabinet, Russian hacks, and all the shit that seems so scary that I want someone to tell me it’s a prank already and not as bad as it sounds and I hate it hate hate all this…. ughhggjgg!!!

See, this is what I’ve been avoiding. The hate hyperbole vortex, spiraling down a never ending drain of negativity. Especially when there is nothing productive about swimming in those waters. And I want to be clear about something: I want President Trump to succeed. Really, super badly. I would rather Trump be remembered as the best President we ever had. I disagree with him in almost every conceivable way, and yes, I feel I have very reasonable concerns about his administration given how he and his team have behaved in the days leading up to and after the inauguration, but I would rather he achieve greatness and prove me wrong than have all of my worst fears come true. I mean, the guy seems like a shit that should be flushed down the toilet, but for God’s sake, I’d rather America not be in the splash zone.

I mentioned previously that I need to be productive, and there’s nothing less productive than complaining or even trying to prove Trump wrong. There is something so frustrating about the unending pipe dream that the next beyond-the-pale comment, the next offense to our sensibilities, the next sign that he doesn’t even seem to want to be President, will be the Jenga block that topples the tower. But it never is. This isn’t a movie or story where that one perfect sentence changes everyone’s mind and saves the day. Everyone wants to make America great, but each with their own vague definition, and the result has been an America that feels… not so great. It feels more like it’s coming apart.

And this is why I needed to be productive elsewhere because none of this feels like the work of good.

Recently I started devoting my days to helping real causes I believe in. And now that I’ve gotten involved with people who need my goodness, bringing out the best in me, building the America I believe is great… I feel different. Better. Because crying for change in a world that’s moved on is pointless, and I was sick of feeling that way. So I got involved. And while it hasn’t made this Presidency any more palatable, I at least can now say: I can do this. We can do this. This is the real test of who we are, and this is our chance to do something that counts. To do good. To be good.

So let’s go.

The Humans – A Broadway Play Review

Originally posted at http://unlifecomic.com/2017/01/19/01192017-lyft-is-also-acceptable/

Though I have discussed a variety of mediums in this space, I’ve never explored the variety that takes place on stage. I grew up on Broadway shows, believe it or not, my family marking almost every birthday and anniversary with tickets to something new. I’m especially lucky in that I’ve seen so few duds; almost every show I’ve seen wrapped me up in the magic that only an amazing stage performance can provide, starting with Jerry Lewis in Damn Yankees and continuing right through Hamilton, just before it blew up. So when another anniversary rolled around recently and I had a chance to see the new Broadway darling, The Humans, I knew I had to write about it here – especially because its themes relate so much to why I love (or even need) to write Unlife.

If you haven’t heard of it yet, The Humans is Marvel’s newest play, a prequel to their upcoming Inhumans television show, and I would love to keep this joke going, but that is literally all I know about the Inhumans. I prefer my super powered genetic freaks to come from the Xavier mansion. Anyway…

The Humans is a new play by Stephen Karam, in which a family’s Thanksgiving dinner takes place in real time. That’s kind of it, really: the show begins with the family’s arrival, and ends with their departure. But what happens in between is unique, at least in my experience. The show adopts a firmly realistic tone, with people lying, stepping on each other’s lines, even hiding in more secluded areas of the set to get away from each other. Entire conversations happen just to illustrate a relationship dynamic in action. It’s kind of insane to get an outside look at how many little things we take for granted in typical family interactions, and to see it being played back, warts and all. And there are warts.

The major theme of the play is facing the unknown, both in yourself and in the world. More specifically, it’s about how scary it is and how we don’t want to face it, especially when we feel it’s unfair, that there should have been another choice. The characters are all dogged by circumstances outside their control that threaten their most basic concepts of identity and self-worth: medical problems, breakups, failing careers, even certain infamous days in history. With varying degrees of success, they struggle to come to terms with these facts and move forward. Very little actually “happens” in the play, and in fact most of the major plot beats would fit very neatly into one paragraph. But it’s not the plot, but how the play navigates these events, that keeps everything engaging and makes it feel… dramatic, for lack of a better term.

There’s a lot to discuss about who says what, and why, and how, and what it all means, because the tradeoff with realism is that – as in real life – what’s happening underneath only appears in tiny snippets. But in those moments, there’s something very honest, very human. Early in the play, a character jokes about humans being the ones the monsters are afraid of, the first (and maybe only) time that the play uses the term “humans”. But though the mood in the final scene was tense enough for me to clutch my wife for a full 10 minutes, it isn’t remotely a horror or scary story. The tension happens because the play builds a sense of impending doom, of “something” happening. Something awful and chaotic, like an incident in lower Manhattan 16 years ago, or in a downtown clothing factory 90 years before that. That evocative quality makes it all the more special to watch the characters move from start to finish and see what happens when it’s time to go home.

While watching the show, I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. Mostly because of that ending. It got me invested, made me care about these characters living their lives. I wanted something good to happen, something to resolve things and even make it all alright. A building nightmare runs under the text of the play, the idea of watching the you that you know slip away, replaced by a stranger. I wanted the characters to face down that challenge and win. And the eventual conclusion hit home. It made my fears feel… normal. And even better, it achieved that through those tiny, significant moments of clarity, more impactful than a third act final battle with aliens could ever be. Instead, we get just a snippet of something greater, the prospect of which is still on the horizon. And I like that.

If you have the chance, definitely check out The Humans. It ain’t no Marvel film, but by God, that’s what makes it great.