rain: and, a Hometown Ghosts postmortem


I think what sucks the most is that I don’t feel like I belong anywhere at the moment.

The sun isn’t out this morning, replaced by a gray wash of clouds and a gentle drizzle making a syncopated rhythm on my windshield. I turn the wipers on as I pull out of the driveway. It’s seven thirty AM, Eastern Daylight Time.

I’ve been living at home for a year now. Saving up. Trying to find a stable job so I can actually have the security to move out into a place of my own. I’m getting there: I now have a part-time job at a local university, doing web design. My own job, not through a temp agency or anything. I have business cards, a placard on my desk. I don’t feel like the hired gun in the workplace for the first time in my professional career. I’m still doing temp work on the side, which results in ten- to twelve-hour days at times, and I’m feeling physically and mentally exhausted, but it’s getting there. Slowly, like I know it does.

At my last job (temp, design agency), people in the office would have parties and I wouldn’t be invited. At all. I didn’t even know they were going on half the time: I would just look up from my work and realize the entire office was empty, except for me. Here, it’s different. People learned my name immediately. I’m starting to feel like part of a team, finally. There are still some hurdles to overcome: I’m the youngest in the office by about seven years, so that’s a weird feeling, but I’m treated as an equal despite that, even if some of my coworkers have kids who are my age.

I turn onto the road that runs through the local park system. It’s not the fastest way to get to work, but I like it more than hopping on the freeway. Plus, work is only fifteen minutes away; the freeway wouldn’t even shave that much time off.

I’m terrified to let my roots grow anywhere, let myself feel like I belong, for fear that the second I do, I’ll have to rip them up and start fresh again. Plus, I know myself all too well: I don’t handle isolation great. If—when—I move out, I need to have a roommate, or else I will very likely hole myself up and become a miserable hermit who is convinced that everyone hates me. Hi-five, anxiety, thanks for showing up to the party today.

A lot of people have moved on from this city, understandably so. One of my best friends since childhood has lived out west for going on three years now. My best friend from high school is off in the service. A good number of us are still in the state, at least, but even being an hour apart is a struggle to coordinate our lives to meet up.

Memories associated with this place feel weird and overlapping. I vividly remember small moments that weren’t significant at the time, like sitting in the living room of my friend’s childhood home as a big group of us watched a poor-quality subbed version of Kiki’s Delivery Service that we had to stream from his computer, but scarcely remember things that should be important, like my high school graduation. I couldn’t even tell you who I was sitting by, but I can tell you that the group of us watched Clue more times than I can physically count, and could quote the entire movie at will.

Now, there are moments that exist here that are outside of that “high school” narrative, and there are days where I feel like I’m stuck in a time warp alongside days where I don’t even recognize the city I grew up in. They demolished the old middle school a few weeks ago, built a fancy new one behind it. They’ll be demolishing the middle school I attended sometime next year. I haven’t driven by the high school in years: the thought makes me reel. I’m done with that, part of me thinks. That story is done, and I have to live in this one.

I turn onto the street the university is on, and wince as my car wheel bounces in and out of a pothole in the road. They’re supposed to be resurfacing this street soon: right as students return to campus. Fantastic timing, as always.

I’m filled with an unfulfilled feeling of wanderlust. I feel like a ball of potential energy that’s just waiting for a spark for it to explode into a thousand lights. It’s a similar feeling to how I was right after graduation, like a skier on a hill waiting for the signal to start, but not quite the same, and I can’t quite place why. Maybe time has made a difference, maybe life experiences.

I realize this is probably what spurred on Hometown Ghosts in the first place: a perfectly-timed listening to Subdivisions just pulled all of those feelings up to the surface, shoved them in my face and made me look at them dead-on. And I—like I am wont to do, apparently—poured those feelings into a comic in an attempt to process and cope with them.

I didn’t go into making Hometown Ghosts thinking it would be a cathartic release of some of that energy. It started with a walk around my neighborhood, Rush blaring through my earbuds, and the thought: I feel like a ghost that haunts these streets, this city. It was going to be an exploration of that idea, both metaphorically and literally. It was going to be a horror comic at first, believe it or not. There were going to be literal ghosts in it.

As I wrote it, it quickly became an exorcism of sorts, a way to communicate the frustration and futility I was feeling that was running a through-line in my daily thoughts. Some of the original inspiration kept its ground in the finished product: the wall was an idea that appeared during that initial walk, and while the metaphor is heavy-handed in retrospect, there are days where I feel it in my chest (and, in turn, days where I can feel it crumble, little by little).

They’re still not done with the parking lot by the administration building: the building where I work. I turn down a side street and keep driving toward the student union so I can park there. It’s a walk, but it’s not terrible, even with the rain.

It’s sometimes hard to explain why I make these sort-of-auto-bio comics a lot. Some people get concerned for me when they read them, friends I haven’t talked to in months texting me out of the blue and asking me if I’m “ok”, and I get it (even if it is, in some respects, infuriating): comics are one of the few places where I don’t dilute what I’m feeling and what I’m saying, and that can be startling, especially to people who only know me on a certain level. But I make these things, these “sad comics”, to cope. I draw them on the page so they’re not floating around in my head and weighing on my chest every day. I make them physical so I can look at them and know that I can make it through this. It’s why I made Paper Cranes. It’s why I make practically all of my work, now that I think about it, no matter how removed from reality it might be. I see those elements in the lighthearted fantasy work I make, the goofy slice-of-life comics. It is a fundamental urge that drives me to create. And when you give an intangible feeling physical form, suddenly it’s a lot less scary.

I pull through into a parking spot. My stereo is loudly blaring a song from Rent: La Vie Boheme. Mark loudly declares through my speakers, “The opposite of war isn’t peace: it’s creation!” It’s still raining. The song dies as I click the keys into the off position, and I start digging around my front seat to find my umbrella.

I have a convention this weekend: Matsuricon, my first three-day convention as an artist. I’m a little nervous, a little excited, a little thrilled just to be able to spend time with friends who have been so amazing and supportive and encouraging and I love them very, very much. I’ve reached the point where what’s done is done in terms of merch and prints to sell: the rest of my week leading up to it will likely be filled with eight-hour days at the university, followed by freelance design work at home. Two weeks from this convention, I’ll be up in the Poconos mountains trying to convince myself that I belong in the same room as a ton of other really cool creative people who make things that I actively enjoy on a day-to-day basis (did I mention that a good chunk of time working on Hometown Ghosts was spent listening to The Adventure Zone and My Brother, My Brother and Me? Because, hah, hahahaha, hahahahahah, oh god what am I doing).

I feel both absolutely detached from and exactly like how I felt two months ago when I made Hometown Ghosts. It’s unsettling and confusing. There are days where my identity and personality feels muddled and lost in a fog, trapped behind a wall. I worry about how I appear to other people, how I present myself, how I’m perceived. I don’t remember having any of these anxieties at this level during my senior year of college. What happened to the confident person who stood in front of a panel of professors and convinced them that an experimental interactive visual novel could be presented in a gallery?

It takes a minute of searching before I realize my umbrella is still in my bag from last Thursday; I had never taken it out and placed it back in the car. I chide myself and pop it open as I step outside, fumbling with keys in an attempt to lock my car. I push the Night Vale Community Radio tag out of the way to press the lock button on my key fob-actual key combo. The locks click and the car beeps complacently. 

Hometown Ghosts wasn’t supposed to end the way it did. I had initially planned an extremely dour ending to the short comic, one that suggested lethargy and complacency, instead of the promise of a wall that, even though looks insurmountable, will be destroyed with enough effort. Maybe that’s why I was surprised when some people responded with concern when they read it: the ending, in my mind, was hopeful, much more hopeful than I had initially felt when I had the idea. I think, despite everything, I’m an optimist at heart. I have to be.

I cram my keys into my pocket and start walking. It’s not too hot out, not unbearable. The rain relieved some of the oppressive humidity from the weekend, but my hair is still frizzing out and suddenly I’m Hermione Granger, and all of the effort I put into getting my hair straight this morning is gone in an instant. A few raindrops sneak under my umbrella as I walk down the street. I smile.

If you haven’t read Hometown Ghosts yet, it’s up on Gumroad for free download. Check it out. It means a lot to me.

one thousand

At the end of last year, I made a video game. Some people might argue that it’s not really a game, and at the time, I would have nonchalantly told them that I honestly don’t care about what the proper “definition” of a video game is, and in fact, here’s a ton of research I did about video game development functioning as art therapy that explains how putting walls around those concepts is, for lack of a better term, elitist bullshit.

These days I’ve become much less confident on the matter. Call it what you will, imposter syndrome or what have you. Maybe it’s that age old issue that every artist has: distance (in time) makes the fondness for old projects wane, because you increase in skill, so you look back at old work and think “man, I could have done so much better.”

I had worked up the courage—after Paper Cranes went live—to email some people about it. It was a long shot: in this day and age, who’s gonna answer an unsolicited email from someone asking them to look at the game they’ve made (especially since it’s such a common scam tactic on social media now). But wouldn’t you know it, the one person that actually responded to me was probably the one that had the possibility of mattering the most: David D’Angelo from Yacht Club Games. You know, Yacht Club Games, the people who made Shovel Knight? Yeah. It was a big deal to me. Still is.

You see, last summer, I picked up Shovel Knight (they were playing it on Game Grumps, and I thought, dang, this game looks amazing!) and it rocked my world. I was coming off of an extremely rocky semester, I doubted everything I had been aspiring to become, I doubted if college had even been the right decision, and Shovel Knight turned everything upside down. I fell in love with that game, with the music, the characters, the feel of it. But more importantly, something clicked in my head when I played it. Something in me looked at Shovel Knight and thought, hey…I could do this! I could be a game designer. I could be a part of the world that captivated me all of my life, that basically fueled my entire artistic aspirations.

So here’s this guy, who was a part of the thing that basically made me realize that game design is a thing people do, is a thing I could do, who took the time to play my game and respond to my email. And I couldn’t believe his response, because he told me it was good. He told me that, if this was the first game I had ever made, that I was on my way to making better games than them. I was floored.

I don’t think I would be able to have the courage to send that email now.

Shortly after I finished Paper Cranes, I felt a massive disconnect from it, and from a lot of my work thus far. It’s the reason Dream State has been on a long-term hiatus: I just feel entirely detached from it. They both feel lifeless to me, even though it was me writing everything, drawing everything, working from those deep places because that’s just how I communicated at that point. It feels to me, in some respects, fake.

Around the same time, I read The Last Unicorn. There was a forward in the version I had, and it struck me hard:

For all that spontaneity, the truth is that The Last Unicorn was a grubby, sweaty, joyless job of work, except now and then. It was squeezed and twisted out of an imagination that never felt as though it had very much to give. I went through black cycles of depression and self-disgust, lightened by occasional periods when I felt that the book had been a bad idea in the first place, and at least it wasn’t as though I was messing up something pretty. But most of the time I knew that the unicorn, Schmendrick, Lír, Molly Grue, and all the rest were alive, and that I was failing them. I don’t know for sure that that’s the worst feeling an author can have, being still new to the trade. But it’s the worst one I know so far.

And further on:

But I’m with Disraeli when he says “Madam, when I want to read a good book, I write one.” I wrote The Last Unicorn for me to read, and for no other reason that I understand just yet; and when I was through with it at last, and off the tightrope, I couldn’t bear to look at the thing. People whose opinions meant a good deal to me liked it, and I was glad, but it didn’t make any difference. I couldn’t see anything but me hacking away on the text—without grace, without love, without pleasure. Hell of a way to treat a unicorn.

I read this, and I started sobbing. Here, on the page in front of me, was the exact same thing I was feeling about my work, put into words I couldn’t find myself. I went on to finish reading the book in one sitting. It really sticks with me. Especially Molly Grue.

I don’t know who or what Hase and Katz are anymore. To my professors, I played them off as these grand metaphors for two parts of myself, two parts that combine to make a whole, at the end. Some days they feel extremely different, not the yin and yang I once imagined. Most days, they don’t even really feel like me at all. Not anymore, at least.

To date, 78 people have downloaded Paper Cranes. Maybe to some people that’s not a lot, but it’s more than I ever could have imagined during those late nights working away on my laptop in my dorm room, and I am extremely touched and humbled by that. I am also, in some respects, embarrassed by it.

I hope one day I can look back at Paper Cranes and feel better about it. Maybe it just takes more distance. I’ve just never been a patient person.