Make Something: NOCAZ Edition

Right before Halloween, my roommate Hannah had her friend Adele over to make costumes in the living room. Hannah was going to go as an eggplant plant (not redundant because of the inclusion of flowers). Adele was going as Weetzie Bat. WEETZIE BAT! DO YOU REMEMBER WEETZIE BAT?! FROM THE FRANCESCA LIA BLOCK SERIES, “DANGEROUS ANGELS”? DO YOU REMEMBER THIS!? Clearly, I remember it. Weetzie Bat was a pretty big part of my childhood. That’s an understatement on par with, “Recipes are a pretty big part of a cookbook;” or, “Religious stuff is a pretty big part of the Bible."

Adele, who is a librarian, had brought over her copy of “Dangerous Angels” as source material, and when I saw it, I lost my mind. It had been so LONG since I’d seen “Dangerous Angels!” It was like I’d run into my favorite friend of all time, who maybe disappeared for a decade or so, and then turned up alive and well on the floor of my living room. It was EXACTLY like that, actually, because “Dangerous Angels” was pretty much my only friend in middle school. I wish that was an exaggeration. It is not.

A dramatic reading took place. (Of course it did; it was mandatory.) Perched theatrically on our purple couch, I (loudly) recited the first chapter to a tepid audience (Hannah and Adele and the cat; who had other things to do, but tolerated me lovingly). I had to stop many times, because there were SO MANY THINGS about my adult personality that I have blatantly STOLEN from Weetzie Bat. Just straight-up STOLEN from her. I had to stop and say, “OOOH! That MUST be why I think it’s a crime not to name your car!” Or, “AAAH! THIS is why I call attractive men ‘biscuits!’” If you’re unacquainted with the books (shame on you; resolve this forthwith), Weetzie Bat is this pre-hipster ‘80s LA-club girl with a crazy blonde flat top and a hot gay best friend. She and her hot gay best friend both find hot boyfriends and they all move in together and have loads of sex with each other and have children together and never know whose child is whose, and they raise the children collectively as a big modern family. THIS CAME OUT IN THE EIGHTIES. I KNOW, RIGHT.

Here is a big thing I stole from Weetzie Bat: Weetzie Bat made a ‘zine. I remember reading that when I was twelve and knowing immediately that I had to make a ‘zine, too. That was going to be my life’s work: ‘zine making. And the crazy thing is, that it kind of HAS been. 

My first “‘zine” was this electronic newsletter (think Mailchimp, but in the days where you had to make it pretty with HTML) called “Grin.” There were a lot of pre-teenaged girls on AOL sending out electronic “‘zines” back then (I have to put it in quotes because they weren’t really ‘zines; they were e-mail newsletters. But we called them ‘zines. Sometimes we called them “zeens.” Obviously that never really caught on.) “Grin” was supposed to be about making people smile. Unfortunately, when I got my first period, I was so totally fascinated by the blood coming out of my body (seriously) that I decided that “Grin” would be about periods. I wish this was some kind of weird joke. It is not.

In high school, I bought this little red book at Powell’s called “Stolen Sharpie Revolution” for $5. It was this pocket-size ‘zine-making resource, filled with ideas and tips and tricks, all typewritten and photocopied. It’s still around, actually — it's in its fifth edition now, and it looks like price inflation has hit a little, but we can’t blame anyone for that. I thumbed through my copy of “Stolen Sharpie Revolution” so many times that I destroyed it. It’s still at my house in Portland, held together with binder clips.

Portland, where I’m from, is also where “Stolen Sharpie Revolution” is published; its founder, Alex Wrekk, was one of the founders of the Portland Zine Symposium. In other words, fate had placed me in exactly the right geographical location to fulfill my Weetzie Bat-inspired dreams and have a real-life ‘zine as a real-life high schooler. I asked my friend Lindsay (a little younger than me, a lot smarter than me, and also sometimes having blue hair, which matched mine) to join forces, and she agreed. She was the best writer at the school, and I was very bossy, so we had a very successful run over the course of five issues. We called our ‘zine “The Esplanade,” after the stretch of river walk that ran along the Willamette; we charged $1 per issue.

When Lindsay got married almost two years ago, I dug into the depths of the endless Boxes Of Stuff From High School that my parents have generously not thrown away yet. I found an old issue of “The Esplanade” in which Lindsay had included a poem about the person she didn’t know she would grow up to marry — this boy-band-faced genius named Dane. There was a moment where my chest thudded around the way it will do when you realize that things have changed, and stayed the same; but mostly changed.

I met Erin Wilson right around the time I moved to New Orleans. She’s a firecracker of a person; she flits from one place to another -- both physically and mentally -- like an acrobat. At first, I ran into Erin at parties, back when I still made some kind of effort to go to parties. Then she became close with my roommate Leah. Sometimes Erin would draw comics at our house while the cats annoyed her. She’d add splashes of color to her scanned works in Photoshop and chat excitedly about anarchy. When I met Erin, I was just starting to be obsessed with comics. Like pretty much everyone who meets her, I became obsessed with Erin.

Erin published her first book, “Snowbird,” in 2012. In a word, it is perfect. It is simultaneously sad and funny, and it’s expertly drawn. Erin’s work is both careful and unapologetic. It fluctuates seamlessly between autobiographical storytelling and informational politics. It’s alarmingly intimate but it resonates for anyone whose ever dealt with unrest or depression or anxiety or love or any of the things people regularly deal with. It’s a masterpiece and you should buy it right now if you haven’t already bought it.

Around the same time “Snowbird” was taking off, Ben Passmore, who also makes freaky-brilliant comics and lives in New Orleans, started to publish “DAYGLO A-HOLE,” which he describes as “a humble comic about the apocalypse.” Ben was also a friend of mine, and I followed his work enthusiastically and constantly. This is all to say that some really high-quality self-publishing was starting to happen not only in my neighborhood, but in my tertiary friend circle. (I should mention here that just outside my tertiary friend circle, there was great art happening, too — including the inimitable Kate Lacour, Caesar Meadows, and more; I wrote more about them a few months ago, here.) 

Erin and Ben started talking with people inside their IMMEDIATE friend circle about the possibility of hosting a comics and ‘zine festival in New Orleans. People were on board. Wheels started turning. And because Ben and Erin are such go-getting brilliant geniuses, I got to spend last Saturday at the first-ever New Orleans Comics and Zines Festival. And it was wonderful.

While I was sitting at NOCAZ on Saturday, I daydreamed about writing this post. I wanted to memorialize everything about it: I loved walking through the mysterious back door of the New Orleans central library; I loved eating the salty fresh bagels set up in the toasty atrium; I loved the way the gorgeous librarian showed off the massive graphic novel selection I was set up next to. (“Make sure no one tries to re-shelve the books! If people put the books on the cart, the library knows people are reading them, and then we can buy more comics,” she said. When no one was looking, I pulled out a bunch of comics and put them directly onto the cart for good measure. Not an unbelievable amount; just enough to prove to the library that comics are important.) 

I sat next to a thirteen-year-old named Kara selling monster comics for her dad. She was precocious and awkward in all the right ways; she spent the morning somewhat-shyly drawing monsters on printer paper while people idled by her dad’s table. I told her I liked the one that looked like it had a bucket for a head, and she kind of shrugged at me. Halfway through the day, I came back from the bathroom to find the bucket-headed monster cut out and resting on top of my cash box with a note that said, “To: Sophie.” 

I felt so happy and so full and so complete being around all those smiling people trading their ‘zines for other ‘zines that I thought I might burst. That’s what I imagined I would write about: how HAPPY I was. I thought I would tell stories about the people I met; I thought maybe I’d even excerpt their ‘zines and recommend you read them. But I just finished reading the pile of beautiful material I swapped on Saturday for my comics about cats and pizza, and I feel strangely attached to them. I want to keep them for myself. They tell the story of MY experience; they are treasures that belong to ME. It’s mostly selfish, but also, I don’t know that other peoples’ treasures always universally useful.

So instead, I’ll tell you where I think all this happiness really came from, because it comes with some potential real-world application. I think the human species is beautifully unique in just one way: we want to CREATE. As far as I can observe, along with all this convoluted consciousness, egoism, and destruction we seem to uniquely engage with (not so beautiful, in my opinion), we get this one great perk: WE MAKE STUFF. We make art, sometimes just to make art. We interpret everything that is muddled or difficult or weird on pieces of paper, or into the hands of stone, or with a piano, or into the ether of the Internet, even. It’s like we take a look at our place on this green earth and decide to add to it in ways that feel really BEAUTIFUL. And that comes out of some deep, unnamed part of our humanness; it flows through our bodies; and we wrestle it onto pages or into songs as best we can. 

Armed with some reverence for this great creative mystery, my advice is this: make your own art. Even if you are not an artist; even if your truth is complicated; even if you are inside your struggle right now; MAKE something. And once you’ve made something, go out and APPRECIATE something. Love what others make. Accept the appreciation of others, and contribute to the ongoing conversation. Make, appreciate, be appreciated, celebrate humanity (when it is possible to do so), repeat. 

I have gone on and on in the past about why I think books are the most perfect encapsulation of artistic expression known to man, so I won’t bother you with that again here. But suffice it to say that NOCAZ felt like the full creative cycle of making and appreciating and participating incarnate. Elsewhere in the city, Exhibit Be was happening, and Hell Yes Fest, and Fringe Fest was starting to boil; the many celebrations of our various ways of MAKING swells wildly out of the corners of this place, and that feels downright holy. Enjoy it.