You Never Know: Resurrecting a Phoenix and Moving On

I’ve been writing a lot on here lately again. There is so much else that I am needing to do, but now I just want to spend some time and really get contemplative on something.

I still find it really amazing just which of my articles garner the most attention. When I first wrote my When I Recognized Elfquest article, I had no idea that so many people would find it fascinating or even relate to it: never mind having the Pinis Favourite, Retweet, and Share it throughout the Elfquest community. The fact is, you can never predict these things. I wrote that article back in 2011 and it sat on my Facebook without input of any kind until I realized, after my hiatus, that it was time and I brought it here–with some revisions–to where it rightfully belongs. I actually have another Elfquest personal story in me. I’m not sure when or where I’ll post it but hopefully I will share it one day.

And then there is my Sequart article On the Art and Cycle of Proper Suffering: The Artist Figure in Phoenix: Karma. That article has its own personal story as well and, as I sit here late at night, I consider the place from where it came. It was originally a paper for a class in my Master’s Program. It was conceived and written in the 2008-2009 period when York University was on strike and, as such, many deadlines and time tables were severely messed up. We ended up having to do Fall term papers during the beginning of our Winter term. It was not a pleasant situation.

Nevertheless, I liked my class and I decided that I wanted to write a paper on Tezuka Osamu’s Phoenix: Karma: as I consider myself an artist, who sometimes emotionally suffers and, as such, finds sympathy with that work. I had a lot of challenges to face when writing that paper. Between continuing to live on my own at the time, and juggling my other assignments and relationships in addition to the readjustment of the school year I found that I had to ask for a few extensions on the paper.

It was towards the end of summer, or what I termed at the time the Summer of Hell when everything seemed to be falling apart, that I finally emailed the final draft to my professor. There were a lot of things wrong with my paper back then. I barely grammar-checked it, never mind read through it, and it was barely twenty of the twenty-five pages that it was supposed to be. But I reached a point where, quite honestly, I just didn’t give a damn any more. It had been hovering over my head for so long and I just wanted it done so I could finish the last of the original term’s work and move on.

After going to a much needed vacation at Dragon Con in Atlanta, I came back to find that my professor marked my paper and left it for me. I remember telling myself to prepare for the worst. Despite that, it was both a surprise and a slap in the face. The comments that my professor left on my paper amounted to the following: that I hadn’t done the work I was supposed to have and that this was not Graduate school material. He ended up giving me a B- which, I have to admit, was pretty damn generous of him.

And suddenly, the reality hit me and I felt a great deal of shame. Here was this excellent comic that I read in the remaining years of my Undergrad, while I vowed to write a modest paper on and which I rushed when I just couldn’t take it any more. I didn’t understand my professor’s instructions, despite asking him a few times and it frustrated me. I was also, before all of this, a good student and to see those words in front of me, that what I made wasn’t Grad School material, honestly made me angry. It made me so angry after everything I’d gone through that I wanted to quit my Program.

Of course, this was all ego talking and most of the suffering I went through had nothing to do with academics and more to do with the choices I made in my personal life. In the end, it was too much and I just took the paper, put it in my desk drawer, placed it under a pile of other papers and tried to forget about it and the lingering shame of failure.

Fast forward a few years. I was living with my girlfriend and we talked about the paper. She gave me a bit of a reality check and told me what I already knew: that my professor had been damned generous. So I called up a digital copy of my paper and read it. I actually read it. I looked at all the grammatical errors, the bad sentence continuity, the lack of flow between ideas, and even some outright preventable errors. And when I mean preventable, I mean I made spelling errors. I even misspelled one character’s name.

It did not sit well with me.

So I spell and grammar-checked that son of a bitch. I made more transitional sentences. I made the word flow a whole lot less awkward and painful to look at. I didn’t know why I was doing it. I finished the assignment years ago. There was no point. Maybe I planned on publishing a better version. I do know I was toying with doing more research and going beyond the narrow limits of books that my University had available on this subject at the time. But then life happened and I forgot about it again.

A year or so later, Julian Darius saw my comments and my work on Mythic Bios and asked me to join Sequart. At one point, another year later, we were informed of it being Manga Week: that we had something of a call to papers or articles to do with manga, its creators, and culture.

That was when I realized something. My professor was right. Maybe “Proper Suffering” wasn`t Grad School material.

But it is Sequart material.

There were some difficulties of course. I’d evolved a different style of writing thanks to Mythic Bios: a combination of the formal and the profane as I like to say. Even my article on The Stitching Together of a Mythos: Kris Straub’s Broodhollow, for all of its relatively extensive footnoting, still had the informal aspect of contractions and some personality on my part. In the case of “Proper Suffering,” my idea was first to re-adapt my old paper into an article that specifically focused on the manga of Phoenix: Karma itself and then get rid of the internal citation and the formal arrangement of language in the paper. But first, I eliminated the extra material on Japanese modernity in the paper. I narrowed and focused it solely on the manga. I added more to the title of the thing. And then I remembered something another professor said to me about my work with comics at York. She told me that I needed graphic examples to complement my written work as that was the medium I had chosen to examine.

So I looked for scans of Phoenix: Karma panels on the Internet. I did not find much. I tried to scan my own copy professionally but it didn’t work and it would been too expensive: especially for bad copies. I did work on Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman Overture #1 in the meantime and forgot about it until I was asked to contribute another article. So that was when I decided to bite the bullet, place the graphics in that I could get, create transitional sentences between parts because, at this point, I realized “Proper Suffering” was at least three serialized parts in Sequart format. I even added in an extra part examining the kleptomaniac Buchi, whom I didn’t have the time or the energy to look at before, though she was important in the artist Akanemaru’s future decisions.

Then, finally, I sent it in.

And there it is. It still isn’t perfect. Sometimes I wish I added a bit more about how the artifice in the ancient Japanese city of Nara in Phoenix: Karma was representative of the Hindu and Buddhist concept of maya: that all of reality is an illusion of sensory addiction and suffering and how Nature leads to a truer state of non-being beyond ego: or nirvana if you’d like. I feel as though some of the graphics are not quite positioned in flow with the words of my article and then there is the occasional awkward sentence. I thought very few, if any people, would want to see something so painfully, bluntly, academic. It was a relic from another time in my life and I had reinvented myself in many ways much like Tezuka’s emblematic fire-bird.

But then I noticed something. People were retweeting my article in all its three parts. Not just Sequart and my peers there, but other places and people like Brigid Alverson and Tezuka in English. I mean, I was told by Julian that there were few scholastic English sources that focused on manga in depth, but I didn’t believe him. I thought what I made was mediocre at best or at least serviceable. I still think that to some extent.

Yet having “On the Art and Cycle of Proper Suffering” acknowledged really vindicated something for me. It’s one of the few things that from that point in my life that I could go back and give another chance. It was the only thing I could fix. And I did fix it. I resurrected that work like the namesake of the book that I examined and made it better. I suppose, in the end, in doing so I didn’t just make a good and reasonable article but in so doing I also redeemed a perceived failure and honoured a part of my life: with something to show for it in the end.

Perhaps that is one of the real lessons that Tezuka’s characters should have taken when hunting for the legendary phoenix. Like the ancient Sumerian hero Gilgamesh realizing that a mortal life of accomplishment is far better than one of perceived eternity and perfection, I realize it was the process of searching for the phoenix and that even though the pain was a part of it, it was only part of a totality.

So yes, sometimes you just don’t know which of your articles or writings people will like, or become relatable. Sometimes you just have to keep moving on.

Tezuka's Phoenix v4 p108

When I Recognized Elfquest

It took a long time for me to discover the World of Two Moons.

Back in High School, my Mom started me reading Piers Anthony’s Xanth series. It was a fantasy series with a world of magic and puns and where practically everyone had a magical Talent of some kind. At one point in the series, Piers Anthony got a letter from a mother whose twelve year old daughter Jenny was in the hospital paralysed from being hit by a drunk driver. She was very fond of the world of Two Moons: with the Wolfrider Elves and their wolf mounts: so much so, that Anthony actually created a character from that world named Jenny Elf and transported her to the world of Xanth. This was the first time I’d heard of this place, and for the longest point it was almost the last time.

This was until about a year or so before I started working. I was finishing off my Undergrad at York and I came back to the world of comics with extreme prejudice. I came to Cyber City Comix near Bathurst and Clarke where I found the DC Archives volumes of The Spirit and a strange series called Elfquest. Elfquest looked particularly strange and vintage: from the covers alone they looked like 70s adult versions of my childhood fantasy cartoons mixed with Tolkien on a beautiful manga binge for good measure. They were colourful and compelling and beautiful and also very expensive.

Little did I know that Elfquest and the World of Two Moons were one and the same, or that they would be relevant to me. I did, however, have the nagging suspicion that we’d meet again at some point. But it was not at that time. Not yet.

A lot more things happened with me. I finally moved out and got into Grad School when I discovered the black and white versions of the books at the Seneca Library at York. I was just going to read them there, but I didn’t for some reason. I kept putting it off …

A few months later, I found out that Labyrinth Comics were having a comics sale in Seneca. I planned to stop by the place after I picked up my OSAP grant and loan. Unfortunately for me, that particular day I found out that the Faculty of Graduate Studies had changed my status to part-time without my knowledge and as such withheld my loans from me: just as they had before because my previous government ID expired. I was in at a very low point at this time when I came back from the Student Financial Building to Seneca, not expecting to find anything, not really expecting to be happy for a very long time …

And then I found it. I found the first Elfquest Archives volume for $30. I put down a copy of Mark Millar’s 1985 and decided to buy this. I didn’t quite know what to expect at this point but I was glad to begin with the first volume.

Then I read it.

Somehow, something in me knew that I would relate to some aspects of this series. And that something, somehow in me was right. The DC Archives edition of Elfquest were coloured and vibrant in precisely the way that its creator Wendy Pini planned it along with her husband Richard. Her paneling is not unlike Will Eisner’s comics work in The Spirit and is varied and far beyond the traditional boundaries of squares and rectangles: bringing you closer into the world she made.

I was treated to a world that had been in existence since the late 1970s: that strange, weird and somehow marvelous place that made other things like Star Wars and Wizards.  The premise was that ages ago a floating castle containing a race of Elves crashed onto a world populated by primitive and superstitious humans. These beings drove them out of their fallen castle and their descendants had to adapt to and survive in their new environment.

One of their descendants are the Wolfriders: short, powerful Elves (not unlike a friend of mine’s drawings of other beings in our shared world) that are linked to and ride on wolves as hunters and warriors in their forest. Wendy Pini’s drawing style was this vintage hybrid of manga and North American comics illustration that just really somehow managed to touch that 80s childhood part of my heart. But what was more was in addition to magic and a really varied world, she also touched upon new elements that I was also dealing with in my life these days as well. She touched upon these in a way so poignant that tears almost came to my eyes. Suffice to say, after starting to read this series in colour, I could not in good conscience go back.

I wouldn’t do justice to Elfquest by simply summarizing it or trying to explain what the Wolfriders and their Tribe are like. They have close bonds with their Wolves, who they hunt with, and each other. Especially each other. If there is a positive archetype or ideal for the concept of “Tribe,” they would be it. In many ways, they are like humans, though not necessarily like the barbarian humans we initially see in their world, but in others they really aren’t. They are savage, and merciless but at the same time fiercely loyal, sensitive, and honourable. And they are so incredibly close with each other. I am very glad that the people at DC at that time decided to include the comic strip that others before them would have rejected in the first Volume of the Archives. And Wendy Pini was not afraid to talk about just how different Elf relationships could be: reminding the reader that for all we can relate to them and some of their ways, the Elves of Two Moons are definitely not human.

It’s sad sometimes to realize that Sending doesn’t exist in humankind, just as it is humbling to realize that Recognition as a visceral feeling of affinity with another being is weaker in us though when it’s not, it’s really not. Even so, the Elves get into conflict and this spans a great deal of a world. A world I really wanted to follow.

Unfortunately, a while ago I learned an unfortunate fact about the Elfquest Archives. The first was that they were out of print. And second was that while I could buy Volumes 3 and 4 for $30 as well, Volume 2 somehow has become especially rare. I have seen some of these copies go for over a hundred if not two hundred dollars or more. This is money that not even the creators get, but only the comics store owners. It was very disappointing and infuriating: especially since I remembered being in Cyber Comix and realizing that they were all there and I could have bought them all at that time.

But the good news is that the Pinis have taken all their Elfquest comics and put them on their website for free. That’s right. All the Elfquest run to date is online for free. You just have to look it up online and it’s right there. Granted, I know I would have liked my own complete book copies and it saddens me to know I probably never will, but you know: I’m just glad I found them at all. I have even started reading beyond what the DC Archive books contained. Coincidentally, I find that out of all the Elf characters, I relate the most to Cutter’s fierce heart, Rayek’s brooding ambitions, and Skywise’s sense of curiosity and understanding.

Personally, though, I can see myself as the leader of a group of Gliders that left the Blue Mountain in the early days before Voll fully settled and sought to reclaim magic for ourselves, and continue to evolve as opposed to languishing in stagnation. I always liked the idea of having a bird mount, even though I am not adverse to wolves on a spiritual level.

It’s funny how you find something when it is time and when you Recognize its significance in your own life.