Aesthetic Drift #23: On Finally Reading The Outsiders

Aesthetic Drift #23 by Stephen McClurg

On Finally Reading The Outsiders

One way I disappointed my high school students was by not reading one of their favorites: S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. One particular student, Caroline, frequently reminded me how guilty I should feel for not reading the book she loved. 

I promised her some thoughts when I got around to it, which only took about a decade. 

Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was fifteen, and it’s quite an achievement considering the depth of characterization. Despite the characters’ flaws, I care about them. Overall, I think I would have liked the novel more when I was younger, but I was reading Stephen King or Clive Barker, and missed many of the books we’re supposed to read when we’re young, like this one, or Catcher in the Rye. Though I hazily remember the movie for The Outsiders, I was too busy watching stuff like ET or The Thing. Plus, the movie characters looked like the kids who wore cut-off jean jackets, sang John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Hurt So Good” on the bus, and smoked on the walk home—a walk that might or might not involve punching a nerd like me. 

Caroline says she understands what I mean, and explains who she was when The Outsiders crossed her path: “I was in seventh grade, and it was just a huge part of those formative years that bridged over into early adulthood. It was a time when reality seemed more avoidable and that my dreams could still be unrealistic and easily obtained.”

While The Outsiders reminds me of neighborhood bullies, for Caroline the book is bound with her own youthful dreams, one of the topics of the novel itself, which the reader mostly experiences through the protagonist, Ponyboy. He says, “It seems like there’s gotta be someplace without greasers or Socs, with just people. Plain ordinary people.” He’s one of the greasers, who live on the East Sideof a mid-size city in Oklahoma, a blue collar part of town. The Socs live on the West Side and are upper-middle class. 

For Ponyboy, I think the “plain ordinary people” relate to having his family back together out in a house in the country. His dreams–with the exception of wanting to bring his parents back to life—are quintessential American pastoral, with farms and horses, cakes and cattle:

“I wanted to be out of towns and away from excitement. I only wanted to lie on my back under a tree and read a book or draw a picture, and not worry about being jumped or carrying a blade or ending up married to some scatterbrained broad with no sense. The country would be like that, I thought dreamily. I would have a yellow cur dog, like I used to, and Sodapop could get Mickey Mouse back and ride in all the rodeos he wanted to, and Darry would lose that cold, hard look and be like he used to be, eight months ago, before Mom and Dad were killed. Since I was dreaming I brought Mom and Dad back to life…Mom could bake some more chocolate cakes and Dad would drive the pickup out early to feed the cattle. […] My mother was golden and beautiful” (48).

Ponyboy’s grief over the loss of his mother is central to the novel. In the previous passage, Ponyboy calls her “golden”—a descriptor in the book associated with Frost’s poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay” and related to innocence and idealism in the novel. His mother is like Eve in an Eden that never existed, this dream garden of a farm and a family made whole again. Throughout the novel, Ponyboy attempts to shore up his adopted family of brothers and similarly troubled friends, the same way people today are likely to build a family or peer group through fandom. 

Ultimately, I find the absence of women and the feminine frustrating, but one that makes sense in the novel. 

But femininity doesn’t belong with the greasers social codes or either notion of being tough as described by Ponyboy. Tough has traditional masculine connotations: strength, courage, stoicism, etc. Tuff is something aesthetically pleasing or cool, like a Firebird Trans Am or a kickass jam. Given this, I wanted more scenes with Cherry Valance, a spirited girl and potential love interest for Ponyboy. Her appearance is all too brief, but she is more sophisticated, smarter, and quite possibly tougher than a few of the outsiders themselves. 

Caroline had a different reaction when she first read the book: “Personally, I loved the lack of female characters because I was a melodramatic teenager and couldn’t stand the possibility of even fictional characters somehow taking away from my own feelings. When I found out Hinton was female, though, and that the characters were semi-autobiographical, I related to it even more. I, too, was drawn to misunderstood rebellious guys with shit tons of issues for me to capitalize on and solve. My dad was extremely strict, and I couldn’t hang out with a lot of my friends. So naturally, I rebelled more and eventually grew into quite a bad influence myself. ”

There’s a moment with these misunderstood rebellious guys that I find revealing and tender and is an example of Ponyboy’s concealed sensitivity. Ponyboy, while looking at one of his brothers says, “Asleep, he looked a lot younger than going-on-seventeen, but I had noticed that Johnny looked younger when he was asleep, too, so I figured everyone did. Maybe people are younger when they are asleep” (104). Most parents can probably relate to Ponyboy’s idea and I think it plays into these boys having to nurture each other. Small moments like this show that the guys are more than troublemakers.

I remember holding my children until they fell asleep and then watching them in their cribs. I still look at them in bed at night and in the morning. It’s hard not to see them younger, even as babies when they sleep. The outsider kids try to nurture each other in ways acceptable to their codes, while showing how they are still children fending for themselves in difficult situations. Caroline says, “It was invigorating to vicariously experience those emotions with the characters. That’s always been my favorite thing about literature and I’m relieved that’s remained the same since having to grow up.”As different readers, Caroline and I read that vulnerability in different ways, which is one of my favorite things about literature. 

There’s another scene that shows the kids taking care of themselves like adults, but with the tastes of children. It’s funny and bittersweet. Ponyboy says, “All three of us like chocolate cake for breakfast. Mom had never allowed it with ham and eggs, but Darry let Soda and me talk him into it. We really didn’t have to twist his arm; Darry loves chocolate cake as much as we do. Sodapop always makes sure there’s some in the icebox every night and if there isn’t he cooks up one real quick. I like Darry’s cakes better; Sodapop always puts too much sugar in the icing. I don’t see how he stands jelly and eggs and chocolate cake all at once, but he seems to like it. Darry drinks black coffee, and Sodapop and I drink chocolate milk. We could have coffee if we wanted it, but we like chocolate milk. All three of us like chocolate stuff. Soda says if they ever make a chocolate cigarette I’ll have it made” (104-5). I can’t help thinking Ponyboy would have it made today with the vaping craze, but I like how it’s a scene of making breakfast and coffee, but everything gets infused with chocolate and sweets. My kids have badgered me daily for pancakes, sometimes even for dinner, knowing that we will likely have them on the weekend.       

While I was reading, I kept pondering whether or not younger readers would identify with these characters. I approached the book considering it for classroom use, the old habit of a teacher. A prejudice towards YA books I have is thinking they are for someone else, not me. (What YA means as a genre or marketing tool is for another time.) I should just be asking if I felt something while reading the book. Was I moved? Did it make me think? Did I enjoy it? Yes. Yes. Kind of.

Caroline says she was invigorated by experiencing the lives of these characters; maybe I let too much of my own baggage get in the way. She also says, “I was still an oblivious kid when I read it, and I still had a lot of dreams and plans for my life. My priorities were having friends, looking cool, putting minimal effort into class, smoking cigarettes and getting the hell out of school. Unfortunately, life finally happened and my dreams currently are not being late on rent and my car insurance, finding a new apartment/moving when my lease ends in less than a month and to eventually finish school. Meanwhile, I’m a waitress and hooked on the cigarettes that I started smoking to look cool. My American Dream is holding on to the dreams I used to have and wishing I never had to grow up.” 

What she says does sound like experiences in the book. We have dreams and goals and we would like them validated. We want family and friends, to be close to others, feel loved, feel appreciated. Ponyboy might give us a model for holding onto dreams and goals while making a life of what one has and the people around us, even if that life does not immediately—and may never—look like what we have imagined.

Maybe this ambivalent equilibrium is what Hinton achieves. If she leans too far into dreams and fantasy, the book becomes YA pulp and pap. Easy to eat, but no sustenance like the chocolate cigarettes Sodapop jokes about. If she leans too far the other way, past reality, the book becomes as monstrous as those little boys stranded on an island, who not only kill their only true, wise friend, but also kill what’s true and wise within themselves. The Outsidersis a very American novel and Ponyboy negotiates with the idea of the American Dream and the difficulties of being poor in an America full of dreaming. Ponyboy has to be tough, but he also chooses to be kind. Much like the American cognitive dissonance of dreams and disparities, he knows that nothing gold can stay, but fights to stay gold.

Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.

Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #51: Another New Year.

Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #51 by Drew Barth

Another New Year.

It is another new year. Oh god, it is a new decade. And, as always, there’s new comics to get excited about and a new decade of comics to see come into existence. The comics releasing this year are the ones that might establish just how interesting this new comic decade will become. Is all of this positivity about upcoming books a coping mechanism for the rest of the year? Yes.


Umma’s Table by Yeon-sik Hong—The next graphic novel from the author of Uncomfortably, Happily is a meditation on family and food. After moving to the countryside and learning of his parent’s situation—living in a basement apartment, suffering from illness and alcoholism—Madang’s life is split in half. Pulled between his new life and worrying for his parent’s, Madang frequently remembers the meals of his childhood, notably his mother’s kimchi. Told in a black and white, anthropomorphized style, Hong’s newest story is something that promises a story of heartbreak and home that will resonate well into the next decade.

The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud by Kuniko Tsurita—After over fifty years, the short work of Kuniko Tsurita is finally going to be made available in English. As a collection of short works throughout her life, The Sky is Blue is essential reading that spotlights a creator often overlooked in literary manga circles of the time. Showcasing her work chronologically, readers will be able to see the development and shifts of Tsurita’s work throughout her lifetime.


An Embarrassment of Witches by Sophie Goldstein and Jenn Jordan—A fantasy Bildungsroman that feels hauntingly familiar in its examination of the magical and mundane. Centered around two friends, Rory and Angela, as they navigate the rest of their lives. Goldstein and Jordan craft a fantastic world filled to bursting with color and character that parallels the real world in all its everyday annoyances and anxieties. An Embarrassment of Witches looks like it is going to be one of the most fun books of the next year.

Rascal by Jean-Luc Deglin—We can all enjoy an adorable cat and that is what Rascal promises us. A collection of the original Crapule comics in Spirou magazine, Rascal is naps, scratches, and everything a cat promises in-between. Told in a two-tone style, Deglin is able to capture all of the odd frustrations of cat ownership and the love cat owners still extend to their pets even after all of the bites and blood.

November, Vol. II by Matt Fraction and Elsa Charretier—The second volume of Fraction and Charretier’s graphic novel trilogy, this volume promises a continuation of the mysterious crime story we had talked about previously. Anticipation for this particular graphic novel is high as the first volume set the bar so high, so to see what Fraction and Charretier can accomplish here is already getting me excited to get more of their story.


Tartarus by Johnnie Christmas and Jack T. Cole—From the writer of Excellence and the artist of The Unsoundis a new space epic from Image. Centered on Tilde and her framing as a war criminal due to her mother’s warlord past, this new series is one of the most interesting coming out next year. With a fascinating aesthetic and a plot that draws a reader in just from the synopsis alone, Christmas and Cole have created a new series to really look forward to.

Pulp by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips—How much do I have to say here? It’s Brubaker and Phillips! The team returns with a new graphic novel, this time delving deeper into the past after their previous work on The Fade Out, Pulp centers on a pulp writer in the 30s and the stories he has become drawn into. Anticipation is high, but the quality always matches what Brubaker and Phillips bring us.


The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists of the Jazz Age edited by Trina Robbins—There is always an era of comics we are missing, artists unknown to us, and stories that we simply don’t see. Thanks to Trina Robbins, the stories told by the women cartoonists of the 20s are finally available in one, full-color volume for readers to enjoy. From Ethel Hays to Nell Brinkley to Eleanor Schorer, this volume is expansive in its scope and complete in its content. As far as historical compilations go, The Flapper Queens already promises to be one of the best of the year already.

Ghost Writer by Rayco Pulido—Available in English for the first time, Pulido’s noir dark comedy already looks like one of the most interesting, and stylish, graphic novels to release this year. Set in 40s Barcelona, the story revolves around Laia, her husband’s disappearance, and the hypnosis she undergoes to deal with her life suddenly shattering. Pulido’s linework is one of the most immediate things to jump out just from looking at the cover, the cross-hatched shadows especially give off a menacing aura, and only heightens the anticipation for this superb graphic novel.

Cowboy by Rikke Villadsen—The best westerns always have that tinge of the surreal to them, and with Rikke Villadsen’s Cowboy, that surreality goes further than ever before. From flight to fading from reality, Villadsen’s western pays tribute to the spaghetti westerns of old while examining the masculinity that has come to define them. Releasing this March from Fantagraphics, it already looks like it is going to be a full-color splendor that will resonate well into the decade.

Get excited. We’re in the future.


Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.

The Lists #36: Star Wars Movies Ranked

The Lists #36 by John King

Star Wars Movies Ranked, from Best to Worst

Having just seen The Rise of Skywalker, which made me miss the contributions of Michael Arndt, but was mostly pretty okay, here are The Drunken Odyssey’s current ranking of the Star Wars filmography.

The Drunken Odyssey Star Wars

  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. A New Hope
  3. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. The Return of the Jedi
  6. The Rise of Skywalker
  7. Solo: A Star Wars Story
  8. Attack of the Clones
  9. The Phantom Menace
  10. Revenge of the Sith
  11. Troops
  12. The Star Wars Holiday Special
  13. The Star Wars Holiday Special (Again)
  14. Hitting Yourself in the Head with a Hammer
  15. The Last Jedi

Please disagree with me in the comments below, though you’ll be wrong.


John King (Episode, well, all of them) holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA from New York University.

Episode #399: Rion Amilcar Scott!

Episode 399 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on Apple podcastsstitcher, spotify, or click here to stream (right click to download, if that’s your thing.)

This week, I talk to fiction writer Rion Amilcar Scott about his extraordinary fiction collection, The World Does Not Require You. We discuss the academic world, African-American folklore, religion, music, science fiction, and post-modernism.

Rion and I in the Confucius Institute at Miami Dade College.



This episode is sponsored by the excellent people at Scribophile.


TDO Listeners can get 20% of a premium subscription to Scribophile. After using the above link to register for a basic account, go here while still logged in to upgrade the account with the discount.

Please help decide TDO’s future by filling out this 3-minute survey.

Check out episode 362, in which Rion Amilcar Scott contributed to an AWP panel on life balance for writers.

Episode 399 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on Apple podcastsstitcher, spotify, or click here to stream (right click to download, if that’s your thing.)

The Curator of Schlock #304: Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker

The Curator of Schlock #304 by Jeff Shuster

Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker

It’s Pinocchio. 

Merry Christmas everyone! Here we are on Week 4 of Silent Night, Deadly Night month here at The Museum of Schlock. I didn’t think I’d make it this far. Nothing puts a damper on the holidays like psychotic Santas, undead psychotic Santas, sexy witches, and killer toys.

You must watch out what you unwrap under the tree because it just might kill you. We can’t have nice things.

1991’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 5: The Toy Maker from director Martin Kitrosser begins with a kid named Derrick Quinn (William Thorne) answering the door in the middle of the night a couple of weeks before Christmas. He finds a wrapped gift addressed to him with one of those “Do Not Open Until Christmas” tags. Naturally, Derrick tears the gift open only to be interrupted by his father who yells at him for answering the front door in the middle of the night. He tells Derrick to get to bed as he inspects the box. Derrick’s father uncovers a robotic Santa Clause ball that wraps its tendrils around his neck and starts electrocuting him. Derrick’s father then falls and gets impaled through the eye with a fireplace poker. The ball detaches from his neck and rolls into a corner. 

Derrick witnessed all of this, which might explain why he hasn’t spoken for two weeks after the incident. Yeah, I guess watching your father die a gruesome death might make a small child glum.

Sarah Quinn (Jane Higginson), Derrick’s mother, decides that a trip to the local toyshop, Petto’s Toys, is in order. A new toy might make Derrick forget about his father getting a poker through his eyeball. The proprietor of Petto’s Toys is Joe Petto (play by none other than Mickey Rooney).

This is funny considering that Mickey Rooney had condemned the original Silent Night, Deadly Night. Joe Petto lives in the toy store with his good friend, Jack Daniels, and his demented son, Pino (Brian Bremer). Pino keeps shoving some kind of worm toy in front of Derrick, but Derrick wants no part of it. 

The worm toy ends up in the hands of a local motel owner. It gets activated while the dude is driving home. The worm crawls inside his head and pokes holes trough his skull. How disgusting. The motel owner loses control of his vehicle since he’s dead. The car flips and explodes immediately. I used to have this video game, San Francisco Rush. It was a racing game and every time your car would flip over, it would immediately explode. I always wondered if that would happen in the real world, but Silent Night, Deadly Night 5, with its firm grip on reality, confirmed it. 

We learn that Pino is making the killer toys with the hope that one of them will finally kill Derrick. There’s a cool scene where some obnoxious teen steals roller blades meant for Derrick and ends getting take taken for a wild ride before getting run over by an oncoming car. What else? Clint Howard guest stars as a sleazy department store Santa!

Oh, and Pino is actually a robot created by Joe Petto. Pino wants Sarah to be his mother, which is why he keeps trying to kill Derrick. So yeah, it’s a demented version of Pinocchio. Stick a fork in me. I’m done with this series.

Happy New Year!

Photo by Leslie Salas.

Jeff Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124episode 131, and episode 284) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #50: The Low Horror


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Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #50 by Drew Barth

The Low Horror

The year has come to a close. The weather is sort of growing colder. The holidays are here. So now it’s time for spooks once again. It’s difficult not to want to dive back into the spooks when there’s a new series from Joe Hill’s Hill House imprint at DC. And it’s even more difficult when that new series is from goddamn Carmen Maria Machado. As such, drop whatever you’re reading now and find a copy of issue one of The Low, Low Woods because it is already going to be your favorite series of the next decade. 

Centered on two friends, Eldora and Octavia, The Low, Low Woods begins with a mystery. After waking up in a movie theater, the two wonder what had happened to them—why were they just waking up and why were they watching a movie? What happened that they can’t remember and who knows? Their world provides no answers outside of the weird. And their world, Shudder-to-Think, is the kind of town that feels quintessentially American: an old mining town that has seen many, many deaths due to sickness, crushings, or the coal fire that has split the ground open beneath the town so a persistent coal-smoke haze lingers throughout. Recalling Centralia, Pennsylvania, Shudder-to-Think is a town steeped in folklore, history, and death. And monsters in the woods. And birds burning in the sky due to the coal fire heat. 

How do people live in Shudder-to-Think? Like Eldora and Octavia, the people are trapped. An old mining town doesn’t have much to offer outside of the mine, and when the town is owned by the Company, the outside world may as well not exist. This is Eldora and Octavia’s world and this is a world suspended in an interesting state: continually unchanged, but some things change under the surface. Even the monster that we see in this first issue—a human-like deer of flesh—is met with horror as well as a desire to keep it secret to waylay any curfew that might come from its discovery. The characters themselves mention how the world feels as though it has shifted after they woke up in the movie theater, and that’s what Shudder-to-Think feels like: the world as we know it, but shifted. 

What Machado and Dani have done with the first issue of The Low, Low Woods is create something complete. While it is only the first issue, there is a continual sense of completeness to Eldora and Octavia as characters, Shudder-to-Think as their setting, and the general mood of the story itself. As a first issue, it’s hard to think of anything that’s missing. The Low, Low Woods stands as another series that further cements the idea of DC’s curated lines as one of the most fascinating and innovate areas in monthly comics at the moment. If there has ever been a time to try a new series, this is absolutely it.

Get excited. Get spooky for the holidays.

Drew Barth is the one on the right.

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.

Episode 398: E. Jean Carroll and Jonathan Safran Foer!

Episode 398 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on Apple podcastsstitcher, spotify, or click here to stream (right click to download, if that’s your thing.)

I share two interviews this week. The first is with the great E. Jean Carroll,

and the second is with essayist and novelist, Jonathan Safran Foer.



This episode is sponsored by the excellent people at Scribophile.


TDO Listeners can get 20% of a premium subscription to Scribophile. After using the above link to register for a basic account, go here while still logged in to upgrade the account with the discount.

Please help decide TDO’s future by filling out this 3-minute survey.

Episode 398 of The Drunken Odyssey, your favorite podcast about creative writing and literature is available on Apple podcastsstitcher, spotify, or click here to stream (right click to download, if that’s your thing.

The Curator of Schlock #303: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation

The Curator of Schlock #303 by Jeff Shuster

Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation

Clint Howard finally enters the Museum of Schlock!

Yes, someone apparently made a Silent Night, Deadly Night 4. In the United Kingdom, the title of tonight’s movie is Bugs. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say this movie isn’t conceptually part of the Silent Night, Deadly Night series.  I think someone made a horror movie that takes place at Christmastime and decided to slap Silent Night, Deadly Night on it. You won’t be finding any slashing Santas in tonight’s movie, but we do get a poorly-groomed Clint Howard so there’s that.

1990’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 4: Initiation from director Brian Yuzna begins with a young woman bursting into flames before leaping from the top of a building. A disheveled man named Ricky (Clint Howard) gets distracted from his dumpster diving and sticks his hand into her charred remains.

Enter Kim (Neith Hunter), a fearless reporter looking for her big break and this story, naturally, is it. Her boss, Eli (Reggie Bannister), hands it off to her boyfriend, Hank (Tommy Hinkly), and asks Kim to fetch some coffee. Kim decides to investigate the story on her own and stops at the local bookshop.

While looking for a book on spontaneous human combustion, Ricky touches her butt. Can you imagine browsing in a bookstore and Clint Howard walks up to you and touches your butt? I think I would see red and go into a homicidal rage.

This won’t be the last time Ricky does something inappropriate in this movie.

Anyway, Kim screams. The bookstore owner, a statuesque woman named Fima (Maud Adams), chases Ricky away. Fima gives Kim a free book, something pastoral landscapes and Celtic lasses. Yup. Fima is some kind of devil worshipping witch. Fima gives Kim a date to snack on and I suspect that date is really a roach. Oh, and Fima invites Kim to a picnic so she can meet the other members of the coven. 

It’s not long before Fima slips Kim slips some sleeping powder in her tea. When she wakes up, Fima and the other witches are stripping Kim down. Ricky throws a giant larvae under the blanket covering Kim and before we know it, the larvae is pushing its way under her skin. You can use your imagination as to how it got inside her, but maybe you shouldn’t. Kim then throws up a giant roach…or was it a beetle? Fima says something about Kim giving birth to her fear and it’s about this time that I’m wishing I were watching a movie with a psychotic Santa Claus. 

And then there’s Clint Howard—I mean Ricky. I seem to recall a scene where the coven was oiling up a naked Ricky with roach oil, prepping him to mate with Kim. I can’t really get that scene out of my head. There’s another scene where Ricky strangles an old man to death with Christmas lights and then the family Christmas tree catches on fire. I guess this makes this a Christmas movie.

I’ll leave you now while I go contemplate my life choices.

Merry Christmas!

Photo by Leslie Salas

Jeff Shuster (episode 47episode 102episode 124episode 131, and episode 284) is an MFA graduate from the University of Central Florida.

Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #49: Live from Miami Part 3—Kat Verhoeven

Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #49 by Drew Barth

Live from Miami Part 3—Kat Verhoeven

From webcomic to brand new book on your shelf, Kat Verhoeven’s Meat and Bone is one of the most recent webcomics to make the leap to published book. From its dialogue to its color palette to its subject matter, there has never been anything on the page as distinct, memorable, and heartbreaking as Meat and Bone

At this past Miami Book Fair, I had the opportunity to sit down with Kat Verhoeven and dig deep into what makes Meat and Bone such a phenononal work. 

Drew Barth: First off, congratulations on Meat and Bone getting from that webcomic to this published work. 

Kat Verhoeven: Thank you. 

DB: Now you’re part of that pantheon of creators who have made the leap from being strictly webcomic into that physical medium like Meredith Gran and Andrew Hussie. Was there ever a plan for you to have it be a physical book or was it just wanting to get the story out there regardless of physical medium?

KV: There was always a plan. From the very first page, I was trying to consider print formats and how it would reproduce best. I’ve been working on this for so many years that as I was working on it I realized what I thought was good information for how to format things was only actually half-good information, so it still needed a lot of work when I was adapting it to actually be printed, but probably a lot less than if I hadn’t always wanted it to be a book in the first place. I just felt webcomics was a more accessible way of getting the story out when I really didn’t have any sort of reputation or following at that time to get a publisher, at least that’s what I felt. 

DB: Yeah, you see that a lot with other webcomic artists where that is the start of building the audience. 

KV: Yeah, and I think there’s some downsides to that now where you pretty much have to create a big thing for free and market yourself for possibly years before you can make the leap to published work, which most of the time still does pay better, I think. There’s still some people who are wildly well-paid off Patreon or through their webcomics, but it’s not everybody. Printed books are still, in many ways, the best way to live off of comics.

DB: We’re still in that weird place too where it’s hard to know what good webcomics are out there. 

KV: Like the only things that exist are these terribly maintained lists, like the webcomic list is basically just a wild west Craigslist of everything and there’s not a lot of ways to filter it. And then sites like Smackjeeves, which just had some sort of thing happen with it where it’s changing its format or it’s getting rid of domain names, or Webtoons or any of those, they’re unreliable. And they are, especially Webtoons, very algorithm based, so it’s harder to break in there and if you’re starting without a reputation, or without some sort of following, it’s harder to break in and it’s still not easy to make their best-of lists, so it’s still hard to get discovered. I do sometimes think back to the Megatokyo days where, when you looked up webcomics, you were going to get one of five results, basically. 

DB: And if you wanted to find more you could go onto their “comics I’m reading” lists.

KV: Yes!

DB: And now you don’t really see a lot of those anymore. 

KV: No, and that’s kind of too bad. The friends link thing is a beautiful throwback to the early internet. 

DB: I still remember I got most of my recommendations from John Allison’s Scary Go Roundyears and years ago and not knowing what Achewood was and checking that out, and following down the rabbit hole from there. 

KV: Yeah, but in its way, that became a lot of the same cartoonists of that level wound up sharing their own links on those sites, so to find anything that was coming a couple years after those cartoonists, it wouldn’t necessarily be shared in the same way. So there’s always going to be a problem, I think, of the systems that are working to discover new talent. You need to find out how to infiltrate them, work around them, or just be clever. It’s always going to change. 

DB: And speaking of change too, I also wanted to touch on how Meat and Bone character changes have worked throughout the entire series. This is a very long format piece of comic prose and what was your approach to Anna, Gwen, and Jane and how you were able to develop them throughout all those years. [4.15.74]

KV: When I started working on Meat and Bone I always had this bullet list plan and originally I was trying to do it in the true webcomic fashion where I’m like “I know the points I want to touch on, but it’s going to be serialized and it’ll just go on forever and I’ll write it as I go.” But very early on I was like “oh, I have working like this.” I wound up tightening up that script and creating more controlled narrative beats for the characters and more traditional development arcs. Then I tried to write it all at once and get it done all at once to make it like a story. With the characters, they’re all kind of trying to, without being too moralistic, have a journey that comes to some sort of conclusion, whether that’s a conclusion that’s positive or negative or neutral doesn’t matter as much so long as it shows these important aspects along the way. 

DB: And that’s something I really enjoyed too in the comic is that you really play a lot with negative character development where people aren’t necessarily becoming better versions, but they are changing in some way. And I think that’s something that, especially for a lot of LGBT focused comics, everything has to be good or else it’s weird to portray. 

KV: I get where that’s coming from because a lot of the older LGBT characters—don’t even talk about LGBT stories because they didn’t exist—the characters were miserable or got killed off or died of AIDS. It’s the trope of the LGBT tragedy. And so now we’re kind of in this moment of trying to take that back and to give queer characters positive stories and to let them be happy and let them have good endings. But I love darkness and I love struggle and I love suffering. I definitely consider myself more in the “drama” than the “comedy” camp and even more into tragedies. I would rather leave a movie feeling harrowed than light-hearted. It was actually very scary in some ways writing queer characters who are complex and not necessarily showing that respectability that “everything is good, everything is okay” side because I thought I was going to get a lot of negative feedback. But so far it hasn’t happened, so fingers crossed that people appreciate it for its complexity. 

DB: Yeah, I think that integrating those more negative aspects makes them more well-rounded because not everyone can be perfection all the time. 

KV: I think so. And queer people should get to be complicated and messy. Marshall in particular is a queer trans woman who has an eating disorder and is kind of a jerk most of the time. And I don’t see any other characters like that , but if somebody came to me and told me “I have a real issue with this” I’d understand where they were coming from because she is really, really difficult. But I kind of love her for that. And I’m glad I wrote her that way without being scared.

DB: Yeah, and that’s something I wanted to touch on too. How do find that balance between the positive and negative aspects of a character where people can still enjoy this person despite some of the negativity before it becomes too negative and people think it’s too much?

KV: With me, I try to just be honest with what I need the characters to deliver and let that go as deep as it needs to in that character. I’ve been kind of surprised that people seem to care less about how dark and bad a character is, like lots of people tell me they love Marshall even though she’s kind of awful. But I think not a lot of people like Anne too much and I think it’s really because Marshall is unapologetically who she is, where as Anne is absolutely a mess and doesn’t know who she is and is kind of wishy-washy and insecure. And I think people admire the force of Marshall even if it’s bad compared to the complicated mess that is Anne where she doesn’t really act honest to herself most of the time. So I think it’s less about who’s good and bad and more who’s genuine and who’s not as a character.

DB: You said you get that audience feedback as well.

KV: I get a bit.

DB: So how does audience feedback play into—once you put a page out there and you’re a few pages ahead and have already worked on more of the story—how the audience would respond in a specific way? Were you able to integrate that into the upcoming pages you were working on?

KV: I didn’t really have that experience. I didn’t actually get a big readership as a webcomic and by the time I got a bit more traction, I had already written the whole story. So I never actually really took audience feedback and incorporated it. I think the one exception to that is kind of the relationship between Ryan and Daniel, where people seemed to really like the relief of a slightly more straight-forward romance story, so I actually beefed that up for the book, so they have a little bit extra stuff. But mostly it was just me writing with some feedback from my friends and other peers, but not so much from the readers.

DB: It’s also really nice how you have that support network of having your peers there to help with what may not be working so well, which I feel is really important for illustrators and comics being made now. 

KV: And I’m spoiled living in Toronto. It’s a really strong queer scene, it’s a really great strong cartoonists scene, I can talk to a lot of people directly about what I’m doing and get feedback from them. I’m really just lucky to live where I live. 

DB: Something too I noticed in your comic when reading through is that your dialog is so good, I can’t come up with a better word off the top of my head. 

KV: I always wonder “does this sound natural? I’m not sure.”

DB: It does sound really natural and I was wondering how do you approach dialog in this way to make it come out in a way that’s like how people genuinely talk and have it be unique to each character?

KV: I always pray to myself that I hope this is working, because I never feel sure. I put a lot of effort into writing how people talk and maybe it comes off so well because I’m so worried about it being stiff or fake or whatever or too twee, which is something I don’t like in books. But as a reader and just as someone talking with my friends or out in the world, I love banter so, so much. So reading banter that’s well written just makes me so happy. When I’m speaking, I try to use a lot of fun words and quips, and I love turns of phrase, and I don’t care if it makes me basic, but I love Shakespeare. 

DB: Another craft things too, I also noticed your color palette throughout the comic is also incredibly strong. Like the use of red in a lot of moment, especially with Marshall’s hair, is this all encompassing thing. 

KV: My publisher did not like the cover because Marshall’s hair is blue on the cover, it’s this purple fade to blue and I think with the atmospheric lighting and the way the rest of the cover is lit, you can tell she’s a red head even though red is not there at all. And my publisher was like “you should make her hair red” and I was like “…no. I won’t do it.” And throughout the book, of course, her hair is always red and it’s shades of anything from tangerine to blood to a burgundy wine color and it’s whatever it needs to be. I feel that way about color, it’s that you don’t need to have a natural palette to convey what color is and it’s really where I let loose and let myself have fun. In the drawing and the draftsmanship I try to be gesture-like and lively, but still have a strong, structural underpinning. But with the color, I’m just like “yeah, let loose, do whatever, green skies.”

DB: You wanted to make sure that this work was reality grounded, even if you had some of those more magical aspects integrated in, especially with the depictions of Barbarella, so what was the decision to make sure it was much more grounded and not potentially leaving a fantastical element?

KV: It partially comes from my background being more in fantasy and lore, and then I did this story that’s very serious and urban and serious fiction, and so having a fantastical palette in those scenes, the Barbarella scenes, these dream-to-reality sequences, gave me a bit of an outlet for this deep love of fantasy and genre that I have. I kind of needed that to get through such a serious story. And [Barbarella] is a really good person fro Anne to contrast herself because she’s just impossible, a person like that couldn’t exist and Anne would absolutely choose someone like that as her idol because she’s never reach it. Even if you read Jane Fonda’s biography, her trying to fit into that role was really, really difficult and damaging to her, so even for Jane Fonda, it’s impossible. 

DB: The last thing I wanted to ask was do you feel like this is the end of Meat and Bone as a story or do you feel like there could be something else you might want to work with some of the characters like Anne and Marshall and everyone?

KV: I think I could work with the characters more, I don’t think I’d want to soon, if not ever. It is a self-contained story and I don’t really want to go there again. I don’t know if I’ll still feel that way in ten years. I do think there’s lots they could still do and explore about each other and learn. I think Marshall is probably due for a redemption arc, but that’s not the story I’ll work on next. 

DB: And that’s all the time we have here today. Thank you so much, Kat. 

KV: Thank you for talking. 

Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.

Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #14: Sweating to the Goths

Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #14 by Stephen McClurg

Sweating to the Goths

In middle school, I couldn’t elude the yearly discussion of the science fair project on how different music affects plants. In English classes, someone would try to recycle their report as their English research paper.

Today, there is keen interest in the link between music and physical performance.

Much of the research shows how music supports workout intensity better than other activities. As much as I like reading, I’ve never been able to read and exercise. Unless I’m walking or cooling down, I don’t maintain workouts with podcasts or audio books either. That bears out in the study in which people gave a thirteen-percent higher happiness rating when listening to music rather than podcasts. 

My gym time is now essential. For complicated reasons and another essay, I ended up weighing 400 pounds and on the verge of some serious health issues. I worked with my doctor on diet and exercise, and had some counseling on changing behaviors. I was able to drop over 100 pounds, but like so often happens, I’ve gained 30 pounds or so back, which I’m working on getting rid of now.

Having to go to the gym has also meant that I have had to figure out ways to make the experience something that I want to do. I’ve found music essential. 

The way I choose music goes through phases. Preferring albums, I don’t like playlists. Initially, because high tempo music can increase exercise rates, I started with uptempo music that I knew well: most of Public Enemy’s records, Ice Cube’s The Predator, a variety of rock and metal, especially Entombed’s Wolverine Blues, The Misfits, and Faith No More’s albums through Angel Dust. These are still favorite records for workouts, but I had to find ways to vary it.

I discovered that I could listen to almost anything that had one of three drummers: Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, or Billy Cobham. They are ferocious, master musicians, who propel their music forward. Oddly, a fourth drummer I deeply love, Zigaboo Modeliste from the Meters, just does not work for me a workout. Modeliste has one of the deepest grooves ever, but I find his music too relaxing, maybe too bound with Mardi Gras, revelry or something. Modeliste makes me dance. Elvin Jones has a similar deep pocket, but he also has the forward propulsion of someone like Williams, albeit approached dissimilarly.

Another phase of listening has been simply checking out new music, whether a new release or an older album I’ve never heard. I never thought this would work, but workout intensity hasn’t suffered. If a record just isn’t keeping me going, I skip to a new one. If I check out three that don’t work, I go to an old faithful like almost any Fishbone album or Mastodon’s Moby Dick-inspired Leviathan, which was I found through this process. Even when I’m working out, I need music of some substance. I’m not much of a dance fan, and though I like electronic music, I can’t workout to it. Hearing some of these rock and pop records from year’s past has worked. I also get to hear new releases that I normally wouldn’t. Lizzo’s work has been refreshing and energizing lately.

One of the records that I didn’t expect to enjoy with workouts is Bauhaus’s In the Flat Field. I had only seen “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” on MTV’s 120 Minutes, but I had never listened to an album by the group. For whatever reason, Flat Field was recommended to me and I thought it was contrary to my setting enough to be fun, like listening to Joy Division or The Cure and looking at brightly lit rows of ellipticals and tank tops. The first song, “Double Dare,” has a slow descending riff like “Bela,” so I thought that if this is their thing, then I was going to have to listen to it at home. As the song continued, though, I found myself settling into my workout. 

In “Spy in the Cab,” the guitar felt oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it. And the drums, which sound like some sort of hand drums were also messing with my musical memory. A few minutes into cardio–it hit me. Secret Chiefs’ “Renunciation.” The guitar parts and arrangements, forwardness of the melodic component as well. Peter Murphy’s voice in the case of Bauhaus and Eyvind Kang’s violin/viola in the case of Secret Chiefs. I thought Bauhaus–though not an impossible–but at least a strange influence for SC3, but they certainly share some theatricality–especially the live versions.

Then I remembered that “Renunciation” was a cover. It was originally written by Ananda Shankar. Maybe it influenced Bauhaus, too, and that was possibly the connection. 

Stigmata Martyr” seems like an obvious influence on Ministry, particularly “So What” and maybe in title only– “Stigmata.” For one, even early on Al Jourgensen was singing in a British accent not too removed from Murphy’s own. The approach toward basslines, the noise, the repetition, all seem cut from the same prayer cloth. I love Murphy’s exorcism in this song, as scary as anything Ministry has done. The bands project a similar chaos and energy on stage as well, though Ministry was certainly upping the ante throughout the ‘90s. 

I’ve thought about music as something fun, spiritual, or intellectual most of my life, but there’s been a joy in experiencing music in a practical sense–How fast can it make the flowers grow? I’m too late for the frizzy hair and leather pants, but I feel lucky to find In a Flat Field when I needed it, on the elliptical, bathed in the most unflattering fluorescent lighting.

We should all be lucky enough to find the music when we need it.

Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.