Essays

Flannery O’Connor; An Altogether Difficult Character


I have long been an admirer of Flannery O’Connor’s work, and this admiration has been a difficult one, considering her curious and conflicted views towards race and religion. O’Connor was a woman who was very much a product of her time, and at once transcendent of it. She is an example of the difficulty of separating an artist’s work from what might be considered extreme views, all the while trying to give as much “rope “as  possible for them to exercise aesthetic license in order to draw forth truth…by whatever means necessary. The canon of work left behind, most notably Wise Blood, The Violent Bear it Away, and Everything That Rises Must Converge,  is indisputable proof of her genius, her ability to weave threads of realistic wisdom concerning human experience into the novels,the reading of which catalyzed individual humans  becoming more aware of themselves. It’s Curious that this was probably not her intention concerning the writing of them (the novels).

There are some allowances for genius we must make if we are going to pull the fruit  from the vines, or in some cases haul the pony out of the shit, but we make those allowances because of the value of what we pull forth. I think it’s necessary to deal with the work and life of Flannery O’Connor like that,  as we would the lives and work of Ezra Pound, Hemmingway, or Howlin Wolf.

O’Connor was born in Savannah Georgia in 1925, a town that pulsed with the tensions, struggle, and pain of the experiences of Black people, and the confusion, hatred, ignorance and fractured self-image of White  people. The Sting of the civil war was not far removed, and is still not, in many instances. Black and White were embroiled in a bloodknot , in relationship in perpetuity, like it or not. Blacks were one step removed from slaves, performing many of the same functions of servitude that they had when they were slaves. The difference lay in the degree to which Backs were exploitable flesh. There was just enough space around the black body for attentive whites to observe some cursory aspects of humanity. Cursory in that it was not enough to approximate any exchange between equals. This was the environment that O’Connor was raised in. 

Complicating the racial tensions and struggles in the South of that Era was a strong resentment on the part of Southern Whites regarding their portrayal by “liberal” Northern Whites. The qualifier of liberality meant to express that those same whites were still mired in a racism that was, in its own right, as paternalistic as Southern racism. Southern paternalism functioned on the assumption that we know how to treat “our niggers”, and northern paternalism functioned on the assumption that, like children, blacks needed to constantly be “shown the way home”. Southern Whites resented the northern liberal portrayal of backwardness, ignorance, and violent inclination as being definitive of the southern white character. They resented the fact that these northerners misunderstood the cultural nuances and graces, the sheer complication of the southern way of life, but felt they were qualified to judge this life, this culture, in Toto. O’Connor was not immune to this response, and expressed feeling along this continuum quite often in her correspondences with her great friend Maryat Lee.

O’Connor was by nature critical of sentimentality and emotional drama, never one to dig into the core of the experience of the other and feign understanding  or emotional connection outside the realm of her own experience. This was probably to her detriment in some ways, but also energized her monstrous ability to be both witness and scribe to the evil that is a by-product of our greed, avarice, desire and prurience. She examined these elements of our humanity and built characterizations around them.  So, it is not surprising to me that she could say, concerning trying to understand the “souls of Black folks” as it were:

“I can only see them from the outside. I wouldn’t have the courage . . . to go inside their heads”.

 Of course she would not. It would have been disingenuous for her to do so, and presumptive. Humanity and the truth trumping sentimentality and the need for righteous correctness.

 There is the well-known instance of O’Connor being asked to meet with James Baldwin in Savannah by  Maryat Lee. When Lee wrote her asking her to meet Baldwin she replied:

 No I can’t see James Baldwin in Georgia. It would cause the greatest trouble and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society I feed on—it’s only fair (emphasis mine). Might as well expect a mule to fly as me to see James Baldwin in Georgia”

 On the face of things this might be seen as further indication of deeply imbedded racism. The effect, the personal impact, is indeed racist, and somewhat cowardly. The intent was anything but. The intent was imbedded deeply within a southern psychological construct of always, always, respecting the order of the community. The way of life, the sensitivities of those like yourself you might offend. This was so imbedded in her it was almost an autonomic response. In New York it would be nice to meet him….O’Connor probably felt she was stretching her politeness to write thus much, about a man whom she once said:

About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent…[Martin Luther] King I don’t think is the age’s great saint…My question is usually, would this person be endurable if white? If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute.”

I do not believe she saw this statement as an analysis of a Black Man per se. Although she mentions his Blackness, the comment was made concerning a man she saw as  irritating and self-important. She felt the need, in my opinion to mention his Blackness because she felt it thrust against her, like a gauntlet being thrown down. She probably felt that her opinion of his essential “Blackness” mattered little in the context of what troubled her (in her view) about Baldwin as a man. She obviously would not have held much admiration for him if he were White.

 O’Connor’s following words are probably the most indicative of how she truly saw the world and its inhabitants, all of its inhabitants, independent of race, creed, or religion:

Love and understanding are one and the same only in God. Who do you think you understand? If anybody, you delude yourself. I love a lot of people, understand none of them. This is not perfect love but as much as a finite creature can be capable of.”

 Again, she professes her ignorance of the understanding of any individual. O’Connor was first and foremost concerned with our collective nature, with the truth about humanity, not individual humans. She knew a damnable amount about many individual humans, but contributed a universe of significance to our understanding of human nature, writ large.

 It is most interesting that O’Connor’s response to the impetus of the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement was to say that “she did not understand” how anyone could not see any efforts to improve the situation in the South concerning race relations as not being a good thing. This is not surprising, because it is not an elicited opinion at the expense of the reality of the southern way of life. It is an independent assessment of what is right to do concerning the treatment of humans, not an adversarial trap, to her possible thinking.

 In the end, genius that recognizes the truth must be given its way. Flannery O’Connor was a difficult character, but one who ultimately left behind much more illumination than shadow.

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Interviews

Ross Campbell’s Wet Moon


Ross Campbell’s five-part graphic novel series Wet Moon is punctuated  with the angst of young people in their 20’s, sexual confusion, a potential serial Killer, family dysfunction, and a mysterious Asian girl with a truncated limb that has been (the girl, not the limb) shrouded in mystery from the first novel. All of this is ornamentation to brilliant, real dialogue. These kids are believable, and poignant. I won’t try to avoid the corny cliché…I feel like I know these characters. This is a series that I will introduce my daughter to when she is old enough, because it is emotionally intelligent, artistically sound, and incredibly well-drawn.

Wet Moon is a fictional southern town loosely based on Savannah Georgia, even though it is set in Florida in the novels. The swampy southern aesthetic is a strange backdrop to the stories centered on Goth girls, Black, White and Asian. Male characters take a back seat, and to my thinking, Campbell does a phenomenal job channeling young women…the ultimate decision of whether this is true would rest with young women, and by the proportion of his fan base that is indeed young women, it seems they do concur. I have not enjoyed reading a graphic novel series so much in quite some time, and along with 100 Bullets, Wet Moon ranks amongst my favorites.

PH Ross, Wet Moon has vibes with me deeply, because I feel that I really know these kids. You have created real characters that interact with the reader in a weirdly real-time way. I just did an interview with filmmaker Hal Hartley, and he spoke of only wanting to write about every day things, the beauty of the mundane so to speak. Your style seems to echo this. What was your motivation to create Wet Moon, and who are these characters? Are they based on people in your life, or are they completely fictional?

RC Thank you! I’m not sure if I had any specific motivation or inspiration to do Wet Moon. Its characters had been kicking around in my head in various forms for years before I ever sat down to do the first comics, but I guess I wanted to do a story that didn’t bother with traditional pacing and traditional emotional plot points, and plot almost entirely, and something that was more like how real life goes: plotless, often meandering, and depending on who you are or where you live, filled with mystery or terror or death, often without warning. I think “mundane” is a relative concept and changes depending on if a person lives in some sleepy American suburb, or if a person lives in a place filled with violence, or if the person in the sleepy suburb suddenly finds themselves confronted with something horrific, so what is mundane is different things to different people. So I wanted to do something where the notion of what is mundane or “slice-of-life” is challenged, at least in terms of how “slice-of-life” has become sort of a genre in itself, because it’s ALL real life wherever you go, and I have Wet Moon mimic that as best I can based on the context of where it takes place and who the characters are, if that makes any sense. Same goes for the characters; I want them to feel like real people as best I can, even with my more recent cartoonier artwork. The characters are mostly made up from scratch, none of them are based on any specific people, but more mish-mashes of aspects of people I meet or myself combined with things I make up entirely.

PH Wet Moon is a fictional southern town in Florida, and the late teens to early 20’s characters that populate the story are a surprising mix of ethnicities and culture, including at least 3 significant Black female characters. The Black characters are also deeply rooted in this sort of urban hip gothic style. I’ve not seen much of this among black youth.  What is your motivation to create this sort of fantastical united colors of Benetton cast for Wet Moon? Do you feel that young people are truly starting to break down these barriers of style and affiliation, or is this your projected hope?

RC A lot of that comes from my own college experience. The main reason I picked a college setting is that, in my experience anyway, people from various walks of life and backgrounds are romped together and they meet and hang out with people they might not otherwise have ever been in contact with, whether because of background or race or subculture or whatever. When I went to college my exposure to a huge range of people, culturally, racially, geographically, exploded, and I was really affected by that and by how the art school was a big facilitator of people coming from all sorts of different places and converging in one small area. The “urban hip gothic” style of the black characters in Wet Moon you talk about is definitely pretty small, I think, but it exists, especially among people associated with “nerd”-related spaces like comics and anime and other kind of pop-artsy stuff like that, although I don’t consider Mara urban at all, she’s totally small town/almost-rural-suburban like a lot of the other characters, but she definitely has some gothic in her, especially in her early appearances, so I consider her sort of “suburban gothic,” ha-ha. Audrey is pretty firmly-rooted in some kind of hippie-casual style which is kind of hipster-urban but not gothic at all, but then I think Malady fits what you’re talking about.

 I feel like there’s some breaking down of barriers of style and affiliation (great way to put it by the way), yeah, and again, especially in the art school setting and other “arty” kind of scenes; after the pretty insular cliques of high school, in college I was amazed to see Goths hanging out with hippies hanging out with skater kids and other kids whose styles and backgrounds broke the stereotypes, and so forth, so I guess it’s both, it’s both I think that it is happening to some degree, and that it’s also somewhat idealized because I love seeing that and wanted to have a group of characters who can come together and hang out despite their different backgrounds.

PH One of the things I love about your characters is that they are vulnerable, silly, immature and anxious without being saccharine or uncharacteristically wise, urbane or hip. They are not clever manikins…..what is your process for creating dialogue, and how do you maintain the continuity of each character’s personality, traits, oddities?

RC I try to really listen to how people talk, whether it’s somebody I’m talking to or somebody I overhear, and even how people type online. Obviously there has to be some editing and stylization when the characters speak, but I try to at least keep the dialogue as convincing as I can, and have each character talk differently from one another. There’s no specific process that I do when writing the dialogue, and a lot of it seems to just flow out of me and certain characters feel like they write themselves, the stuff pours out. One of the things that’s most frustrating for me about comics is that it sort of limits the amount of dialogue in a way, because if you have too much text it threatens to overwhelm the artwork (and the reader), and sometimes simply doesn’t fit onto the page, so it’s tough having those restrictions and having all this text I want to include. I think I’d like to write a novel someday so I could have sprawling, detailed conversations with tangents and interruptions, things that would take 800 pages in comics and which nobody would want to read. Although then if I did that stuff in prose, I’d lose the expressions and subtle body language I can only do visually. I can’t win! The continuity part is pretty easy, if I have a character really developed and solidified in my head, they’ll never contradict themselves. I think the only continuity that I sometimes have a hard time with is specific events, like if in one book I have a character relate an anecdote about something that happened to her in the past, sometimes when I’m writing a new book I can’t remember if I had that character mention that or not, or I can’t remember how it fits in the timeline of the character’s history, things like that. I should keep some kind of chart of that stuff but I never get around to it. Sometimes I also mess up visual continuity, like I’ve accidentally forgotten tattoos or something that’s on a character’s left side I’ll mistakenly draw on the opposite side, things like that, that’s much harder to keep track of not because there are so many characters swirling around in the comic and I get turned around in my head sometimes.

 PH What type of music, film, writing or other art do you consume? Who and what inspires you?

RC I’m super picky so it’s really hard for me to find things I like, and I feel like such a party-pooper sometimes. I’m always the guy raining on other people’s parades. For music, most of what I like right now is some metal and synth pop stuff, and I’m starting to get into some hip hop. I get sick of music a lot, though, I get bored of most of the musicians I listen to except a select few that stick with me and never get old, like Goth rockers Bella Morte and synth pop masters Erasure. Right now I’m really into O’so Krispie who is AMAZING, Hopie Spitshard, Seal, and the Protomen who do apocalyptic Mega Man rock opera. I was really into metal for a while but I’m starting to get burned out on it, it gets really transparent after a while, and even though the musicianship and technique is technically great and everything, it’s like all the new music you find sounds the same and the people sing about the same things. Some of the tried-and-true metal groups for me are Iron Maiden, Dark Tranquility, Dragonforce, Cadaveria, and Bal-Sagoth.

For movies I like mostly horror or sci-fi horror, monster movies, that sort of stuff. My favorite movie is the first Alien, followed closely by the assembly cut version of Alien 3, and I also love macho action star guys like Stallone, Carl Weathers, Arnold, Vin Diesel, and I’ll watch anything with them in it. I wish The Rock would do action movies again. I also love watching bad movies, preferably movies that don’t realize how crappy they are and which are played seriously; Jaws 4 is probably my favorite in that regard, movies don’t get much more bombastically ill-advised than that.

Although I read a lot, I’m not a big reader, I have a really hard time finding books, both prose and comic, that I like. I like reading non-fiction and YA stuff, with the occasional horror book in there. The books I like are sort of the opposite of the movies I like, I like young adult type stuff with female protagonists making bad decisions and melodrama and stuff like that, but I hate that kind of thing in movies. My favorite books are “Towelhead” by Alicia Erian, it is so funny and intense, it has these nerve-wracking, nail biting scenes, I love it; and “The Shadow Speaker” by Nnedi Okorafor which is a rare sci-fi/fantasy book that I like, it takes place in a futuristic post-apocalyptic Nigeria and follows a Muslim girl with mystical powers and there’s a talking camel and a portal to a parallel dimension and it deals with tough things like murder, vengeance, war, it’s really good. My favorite comics are “Potential” by Ariel Schrag, I don’t usually like autobiographical comics but all of Schrag’s stuff is amazing and hilarious; “I Kill Giants” by Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura, which I think is one of the best comics ever made. I don’t usually have visceral reactions to comics like I do with books and movies and music, but “I Kill Giants” is one of them. I also love “All-Star Superman” by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Now THAT’S a superhero comic! I also love Morrison’s “New X-Men,” particularly the Riot At Xavier’s story.

PH What is your story? How did you come to be a graphic novelist? Please don’t hesitate to give the long version.

RC There isn’t really a big story to that. I got into reading comics kind of late in life compared to most comic-readers.  I think I started when I was 9 or 10 and never got into Marvel or DC until much later, I was a child of the early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comics and Image Comics and “Calvin & Hobbes.” That stuff set me on the comics road, and I used to do comic strips and goofy comics with friends. In high school I didn’t even want to do comics as a career, though, I wanted to be a novelist or regular illustrator and I even considered going to college for fashion until I realized I’d have to sew the clothes for class. Even though I went to school for sequential art/comics, I didn’t really get serious about it until senior year, I just never cared about anything up to that point because our art school was such a fantasy world of no responsibility and video games and goofing off or whatever. Anyway, the first thing I did was show my work to Oni Press at a convention and they liked it, but it took them a while to get back to me and I was really depressed for a while because I was living with my parents, working part-time, couldn’t get anything going, Oni had rejected my Wet Moon pitch, but finally they gave me some really small fill-in stuff on Hopeless Savages, a book they were putting out at the time.

After that I drew a book called “Spooked” written by Antony Johnston, and when that was done Oni finally said okay on Wet Moon, and that really kicked things off. My first big financial break, though, that allowed me to move out of my parents’ house, was Tokyopop signing me to do “The Abandoned,” my now-defunct zombie opus which was supposed to be three books but I only got to do the first one. That’s a whole other story, heh.

PH Wet Moon is rooted in the South, but I am not under the impression that you are southern. What was the impetus to place this town below the Mason Dixon line?

RC I’m not Southern, no, I grew up in New York, but my mom’s side of the family is mostly from down south and I both went to school and lived in Georgia for several years. Savannah, Georgia is the inspiration for the city of Wet Moon; I love the atmosphere, the vegetation, the architecture, the culture, the weather, the weird, mysterious undercurrents of the city that I can’t really explain… It was a very affecting place for me so I drew a lot from that.

PH   Issues of sexual identification are a central theme of the series. These young women are toying with being lesbians, fearful of their own sexuality, and eager to experiment.  The young men seem to be rather more one dimensional emotionally as well as sexually. What is your reason for this?

RC I think the guys being off to the side is a byproduct of the series being focused on the girls. One of my writerly shortcomings: I admit that I’m often unsure about what to do with a lot of my male characters, I sometimes feel confused when I’m writing guys, like what they would do or what their emotional reactions would be. I don’t know what that means or what it says about me, since I’m a guy and I should probably understand what makes fellow guys tick, heh. I’m trying to get better at it, though, and I’m really trying to give the main Wet Moon guys, Martin and Glen, more to do and explore them more in upcoming books, both emotionally and sexually.

PH Wet Moon is very much a tale about young women.  As I intimated above, men seem to be afterthoughts. Does writing male characters inherently disinterest you, or is there some other motivation behind their lack of presence?

 RC I wouldn’t say I’m disinterested in writing male characters, I think that might have been true at one point in the past, but these days I find myself MORE interested in working with various types of male characters because I want to branch out and I like challenging myself (or attempting to, anyway), but like I said I feel unsure when I try to write them. I think part of it is that when I create guy characters, they tend to be too much like myself, and when I start writing a character who is too much like me or has motivations too much like my own, I lose interest. So I’m trying to really dig into the guy characters now, trying to make them more distinct and more their own people. The first guy character I really feel sure about is Noah in my new series “Shadoweyes”; he has a fairly small part in the first book, but he takes the stage in Shadoweyes volume 2, I’m excited about it. There’s also another male character I’m excited about, Nootzaza, in the new version of my self-published “Mountain Girl” series. Wet Moon also has the misfortune of being much older than those other two stories, so it’s harder for me to revise these characters that I created almost a decade ago. But I’m trying!

PH The young black women in Wet Moon have this sort of sensual Nubian sexiness that leaps of the page. Even when Mara or Audrey is doubtful, hurt, or vulnerable, they come across as capable and strong. The White women can be equally as capable and creative, but come across as more in need of care, fragile, and indecisive, in my opinion. Am I completely off base in this observation, or is there some element of purposefulness in this presentation of these characters?

RC That’s interesting to hear, because it’s meant to be the opposite. I think there’s this attitude, in both fiction and real life, that black women are supposed to be “strong” or “tough” or whatever, and don’t need to be saved or cared for or whatever in the same way as “fragile” white women (not that there AREN’T strong/tough black women and fragile white women, too, of course). Like people view black women as less “feminine” than white women so when a black woman is upset or needs help or needs somebody to listen, people think “they can handle it, they’re tough,” something like that, I’m not articulate or knowledgeable enough to explain it, but I wanted to go against that, particularly with Mara who I think wants to act tough and distant, but she has so many fronts up to conceal her mushy, emotional interior. I think if anyone in Wet Moon is in need of care, it’s her, I think she’s the most confused and indecisive of the whole cast. Mara is the one character who’s most in need of a hug, ha-ha. I think Audrey is probably the most capable character, though, I agree with you on that one, although she’s also meant to be capable in a way that is potentially tragic, like she knows what the right thing to do is, she’s very socially conscious and moral, but in doing the right thing, it always seems to cause trouble and drive other people away from her, so she’s meant to be very torn and internalizing all these doubts about who she is. Actually maybe Penny is the most capable one now that I’m thinking about it. Yeah, she accidentally got pregnant and I haven’t been able to explore her much in the series, but I think she’s handling it really well and is appropriately shrewd about everything she does; Penny gets the job done!

PH   So, when do we get the Showtime or HBO adaptation of your beautiful, quirky, challenging and heartbreaking series?

RC Ha-ha, I wish! That would be awesome but seems unlikely to me, maybe just because I’m my own worst critic, I don’t know. Thanks so much for the kind words, in any case.

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