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March 9, 2016

Book Notes - "Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose"

Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The Flashed anthology brings together 45 short comics and works of flash fiction from an impressive group of cartoonists and writers that includes Lynda Barry, Junot Diaz, Gabrielle Bell, Aimee Bender, Jessica Abel, Sheila Heti, and others.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Cartoonist Neufeld and writer Wilson bring together an assemblage of cartoonists and authors for a unique collaboration. Flash fiction (limited to 1,000 words for prose, four pages for comics) is produced based on a 'seed story' and broken into groups of three under such intriguing thematic headings as 'Shell Shocked,' 'Leviathan,' and 'Mutable Architecture.' The story interpretations can share a character, an incident, a trajectory, or just a particularly rich line or word, though the most potent juxtapositions riff on a particular feeling, as in the three 'Frozen' stories, which delve with differing interpretations of isolation and loneliness, or offer resonating tonal surprises, as with the 'Venus & Mars' stories, which take on relationship woes. Though as a whole the comics tend to be more boldly experimental than the prose, the book itself is a fascinating example of how a transition from words to visual art and vice versa can deepen, subvert, or transform an idea in a revelatory way, and Flashed burns brightest when fired by this alchemy of discovery"

In their own words, here is the contributors' collaborative Book Notes music playlist for the anthology Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose:

Josh Neufeld & Sari Wilson, editors
"Train Kept A-Rollin'" by Aerosmith

FLASHed took nearly four years to complete, building and connecting, story by story, "seeder" to responder, and so on. And once all 45 pieces were in the can, there was the design process, the visual linking of the prose-and-comics elements together. That task fell to talented designer Andrea Boucher, and as we were nearing the end, fine-tuning fonts, colors, and layouts, Sari & Andrea kept up the momentum with email-exchange references to Aerosmith's raucous cover of the 1950s jump blues song "Train Kept A-Rollin'." Well, with a "heave!" and a "ho!" the FLASHed train has finally reached the station, and we couldn't be more in love with the final product.

"Night Games" — Box Brown ("The Photon Illuminator")
"Is That All There Is?" by Peggy Lee

I almost used the Rolling Stones song "Shine a Light." In my piece, I used the metaphor of bugs being drawn to a light to describe how I feel about my own artistic pursuit. It's a never-ending sea of disillusionment, especially in the beginning. You strive to reach a goal, and you get there, and there's always another rung to the ladder — the feeling that success is fleeting. As a matter of fact, Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is" is based on a story by the German writer Thomas Mann called "Disillusionment." To me, the line, "if that's all there is, then break out the booze and have a ball," means to enjoy the simple act of doing. That's where success lies.

"Shell Shocked" — David Lasky ("Stop")
"Jesus, Etc." by Wilco

My graphic narrative is about facing loss and injustice. I'd been hearing news stories about rape in the military, and felt outraged that such an injustice could be done to people who were already making a sacrifice in their lives. I had also lost a few friends and colleagues to cancer, all of them too young to be facing death. I ended my sad story on a sad note, with the main character broken down in grief. But I've chosen a song that is maybe a little bit comforting. Wilco's "Jesus, Etc." begins by asking the listener not to cry. The key line for me is the message that every star is a setting sun. All of us, as we're shining, are also heading slowly towards our end, though we don't like to think about it. Is that a comfort? Maybe, maybe not. Also, this is a love song. And my story is a love story. But Wilco's mention of tall buildings and last cigarettes suggest maybe 9-11 and maybe a tragedy in the love story. How do we go on when we've lost a loved one? Maybe we try to be a burning sun, burning for the suns that have set ahead of us.

"Venus & Mars" — Dean Haspiel ("Angel")
"My World" by Sly and the Family Stone

Sly Stone's "My World" makes for a deceivingly happy yet soulfully haunting soundtrack to the triptych my monster-romance comic "The Angel" manifested. Backed by world weary horns, the song lyrics alludes to a sense of obsession that is not necessarily healthy. Love can be selfish. Love is often a grotesque projection of ideas put upon another person, desperately knitting together a narrative that doesn't exist. Unlike a cat or dog, love needs to be earned. And, after the car explodes and the house burns down, it's the smoldering person standing next to you that is the one to high-five with sunflower kisses.

"Dystopias" — dw ("Resort Town Ways")
"LBJ Orders Slacks" by Joe Haggar and Lyndon B. Johnson

This is a recording of Lyndon Johnson calling the chairman of the Haggar Company from the Oval Office to order some clothes. It has to be the only publicly available recording of an American President belching and using the terms "bunghole" and "nuts," if only because those are such purely Johnsonian things to do on a phone call. The heart of our triptych is a moment in Anthony Tognazzini's story ("Working on the Resort") when a conversation about something innocuous is colored by an imbalance of authority and power. This truly strange conversation between the President of the United States and a clothing merchant describes a similar imbalance, with perhaps both lower and higher stakes for the parties involved.

"Winter Walk" — Joy Katz ("Don't Walk")
"Don't Get It" by Lil Wayne [Fade at 2:50 (end of Nina Simone sample)]

Nina Simone, on the sample, gives you the idea that there's a civilized way for us to be mad at each other. Even if I hurt you, sings Simone, you're bound to see my other side: "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good, Oh lord please don't let me be misunderstood." Lil Wayne cuts in, "You don't understand me so let me explain…. I don't give a fuck if you see me." The contrast between these two perfectly re-creates the conflict in "Don't Walk" — the female voice and the male, I never mean to hurt you versus I'm seizing all the power and I don't care what happens. Then, there's the way the song slowly spins out, like a car spinning in slow motion: "Don't Walk" being a drastic slow-mo of a few seconds of panic. Besides all that, it's always great to hear Nina Simone's voice. I love this song.

"Amerika" — V.V. "Sugi" Ganeshananthan ("Shutdown Country")
"Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" by Arcade Fire

If memory serves, on the evening I drafted "Shutdown Country" there was an actual government shutdown, or the threat of one, and I was pretty fed up. Government shutdowns, or the threat of them, always make me envision dystopias with tough teenage protagonists. (Or... the threat of them.) I wanted to poke fun at the clichés of a post-apocalypse posse. This song has the right lyrics and pulse to encapsulate Athena's ferocity, optimism, and skepticism. (Power's out, but whose fault is that?)

"Awakenings" — Sherrie Flick ("The Possum Possesses a Full Mouth of Pointy Teeth")
"Release Me" by Kitty Wells (1954 version)

I've picked this early recording of Kitty Wells singing "Release Me" to represent my story in Flashed. I love Kitty Wells and the mournful subtext that bubbles up underneath everything she sings. That subtext, and this song in particular, echoes the loneliness, longing, and isolation of my main character, Joan. I also think the lyrics here—the begging for (instead of demanding) release—connect each piece in my triptych to the other. This sense of longing that the world could be better, if I could just… .if you would just, please…. It's important that the lyrics are "Please release me" and not just "Release me." A request filled with quiet patient pain. And finally: the tempo of this song matches exactly the possum's cowboy swagger at the end of my story. It's the possum's soundtrack, as it cowboys itself into the sunset, clutching some peas in each paw.

"Brothers" — Jon Lewis ("Two Ways to Nadir")
"Symphony No. 7 in C Major Op. 105," by Jean Sibelius — Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Lorin Maazel conducting

When I started blocking out this comic, the notion from the prior text that became a germ for me was"'a pair, and the contrast between their trajectories." Going up, going down, the discoveries that can be made up high and down low, and especially how one person feels about the trajectory of the other. What we think the other guy's trajectory says about us. No composer ever found more riches in setting one trajectory off against another than Jean Sibelius, especially in his seventh and final symphony, one big thriving organism grown from just a couple of germs, twenty unbroken minutes packed full of interrelated ascents and descents, with equal wonders in the clouds and the depths. I used to listen to it every New Year's because it just seems to have so many possible approaches to life encoded into it.

"Leviathan" — Brendan Leach ("Narrow Waters")
"The Whole of the Moon" by The Waterboys

Picking a song to represent my piece of the "Leviathan" triptych felt exactly like creating my piece of it. Immediately, a wall. A loud, paralyzing, blinding wall. Not a blockage of thought, but almost like too much thought, too many possibilities, options, decisions. I can't adapt something articulately enough, or condense a work (even of my own) down to it's essence. I'm not that smart. But there's one idea in there, "Yes, of course that's the solution!" But no, not really, right? That's a first thought. Everyone will see my first thought for what it is, too obvious, to derivative. I've got to overthink this and look smart here. So throw it away, start again, work on it some more, re-overthink it again. But that first thought, still there. Maybe it's an instinct? An artist impulse? Who knows, I'm running out of time! "The Whole of the Moon" was that first impulse. Too on the nose, too sentimental, but I couldn't shake it. It was really the only answer. The longing in his voice, almost from the first lyric, almost breaking with longing. That propulsive beat, pushing you to admit what you wished for, what you thought you saw, admitting maybe you missed the big picture after all. But you still wander down to the rocky shore, filled with more hope than defeat. And God, those trumpets. Too high, too far, too soon.

"Cheating" — Zoe Zolbrod ("Thrum")
"Me-Jane" by P. J. Harvey

Listen to that bass line. Picture it played by a rangy, ringletted bassist giving you the blue eye. Then the toms come in, pounding right at groin level. Finally the chorus explodes, along with the realization that he's looking at you. Yes! You might kinda forget about monogamy for a minute there, too, just like the characters in this triptych do. But the lyrics, like "Thrum," the last story in group, tell a tale of domestic frustration. If Jessa was singing these words, she'd be giving voice as much to what she's not saying to her child—"Stop your fucking screaming"—as to her husband—"Can't you see I'm bleeding!" He wants her to get pregnant again, doesn't recognize her dissatisfaction. "Don't you ever stop and give me time to breath in?" The pent-up frustration becomes indistinguishable from the lust.

"Mutable Architecture" — Jedediah Berry ("The Chambers")
"Sabertooth Tiger" by Breathe Owl Breathe

I live in Amherst, Massachusetts, in an old house for which the word "rambling" feels right, but not only because the place is a labyrinth of stairs, crooked passageways, and odd little rooms. It's also home to a number of writers, artists, and musicians—a wandering, rambling crew of movers and shakers. I didn't live here when I wrote "The Chambers," so it's almost as though I've written my way into the setting of the story. So why this song? Well, there's the cello for the cellist in the story, and there's the feeling I get from a lot of songs by Breathe Owl Breathe: of rooms opening upon rooms, of abiding playfulness, of surprise and wonder buried inside the old and familiar ("when you were gone for good / I didn't know you were here for now"). I strive for these same qualities in my fiction, and I hope that shows through in this story.

"Bronté" — Rachel Cantor ("Lives of the Poets, Pg. 85")
"Wuthering Heights" by Kate Bush

I listened to this song obsessively as a teenager, long before I read Wuthering Heights; I'm sure it influenced my assumptions about Emily Brontë: she wasn't just the woman who wrote about jealousy, greed, passion, possession, darkness, dreams, loneliness, and pining (as the song says); she embodied those things. In researching Emily's life and, of course, her death, I came to realize that in fact, we know little about Emily's life (or, especially, her inner life). Presenting her death in the form of a children's comic--and specifically that species of comic that offers simple stories of famous people--is a nod to this idea that our understanding of her is something of a fiction.

"Curses" — Andrea Tsurumi ("Calamity Insurance")
"​Dark Arts" by ​Man Man

My story takes the idea of horrible misfortune and throws in some hapless bureaucrats trying to mitigate these brutal curses but ending up despised for doing that. I love that this song is full of dark and dirty bad things but is also high energy and funny. The singer is swept up by the misery and insanity of his life or his relationship ("There must be something in the air/that's making us all go crazy here") and desperately trying and failing to get away ("These days I feel like a pariah, / An albatross with my feather on fire/stop and drop and roll the flames / but they don't slow, they just grow brighter").

"Frozen" — Alan Gilbert ("Local Conditions")
"I Remember Nothing" by Joy Division

I'm guessing it was producer Martin Hannett's decision to add the sound of shattered glass to Joy Division's song "I Remember Nothing" on their album Unknown Pleasures. Hannett famously took the band's more conventional punk aesthetic and made it icier and shard-like by isolating the snare drum and adding various digital effects—much to the group's initial consternation. There was only so much he could do with lead singer Ian Curtis's ominous vocals, but he surrounded them with a crisper instrumentation that made the music decidedly lacking in warmth, as if recorded in the back of a cave. "I Remember Nothing" evokes John Porcellino's "Frozen" and its barren black-and-white winter milieu (further echoed by Peter Saville's stark Joy Division cover art). And in sluggishly chugging—both in its lyrics and music—toward no conclusion and painful stasis, the song beautifully reflects the haunted voice in a bleak landscape of "Frozen," which is what, in turn, I tried to portray in my own response.

"Incommunicado" — Myla Goldberg ("Float")
"Black Girl" (AKA "In the Pines" or "Where Did You Sleep Last Night") by Mary-Anne Paterson

So, even though it's got no literal association to "Float," the song that plays in my head when I think of it is "Black Girl," as sung by Mary-Anne Paterson, a Scottish folk singer. The deeply lonesome quality of that song and the sense of separation really tie in for me with the image of Blum making an attempt for the far bank and our nameless hero staying behind on the raft, watching him go.

Flashed: Sudden Stories in Comics and Prose links:

the book's website
the book's introduction
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
New Pages review

SmokeLong Quarterly interview with the editors

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)

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