A Real American Book! 2020 in Review

It’s after mid-February, so it’s past time time for my annual “what did I do for the last 12 months” post. Rather than running January 1st to December 31st, my book year runs from about the end of January to the start of February because I teach and traditionally the winter break is a productive time.

This year was different because of COVID. With the shutdown in March, I thought that more time at home and less traveling might mean more typing in front of my computer. But as you likely experienced in your own life, the pandemic made everything harder. For portions of 2020 and early 2021, there wasn’t time to write. Often I was not in the mood. And I count myself lucky that the pandemic didn’t hit my life and my family harder. I’ve also had non-book projects taking over, more on that below. But let’s start with the productivity, albeit limited. Since this blog post last year, I…

-Wrote and posted nine blog articles here, plus five supplementary ones. If you’re new to the blog, one of the sad duties of mine is to bear some witness when an important G.I. Joe creative passes away. Some of this past year’s blog posts eulogized toy package art painter Hector Garrido, writer/editor Denny O’Neil, and writer Marty Pasko.

-Conducted two new interviews, one with a video game guy, and one with a printer guy. Two is a small number, which reflects that the interview stage — as alluded to in previous year-end posts — is mostly over.

-Slightly modified Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 to include that first interview above and also some G.I. Joe video game history that I’d been meaning to incorporate for awhile. I hit a wall a few years back and I wasn’t sure how to approach it — a whole chapter on video games? New York-based writer/producer (and book editor) Nick Nadel suggested weaving in the material chronologically throughout the book, a section for every chapter or two. We tried something new with him tackling this research. For the whole of the book, I’ve conducted all the interviews and follow-ups, I’ve found and read all the articles, and I’ve gathered and scanned or brought-to-the-photographer all the art and prototypes. I probably need an intern to help organize my assets, but except for the occasional fact check (editor Nadel again!), it’s all been me. Here we specifically set out for him to prepare a document with links to articles, cross references, and YouTube play-throughs of all the G.I. Joe video games. With that in hand, I could crunch down each game into a paragraph or two, and I have just started incorporating the material. It’s hard to decide to rely on someone, and nice to know you can.

-Licensed two great G.I. Joe catalog photos from a professional photographer for use in Chapter 20.

-Launched the A Real American Book! instagram. You should follow it.

Drew 31 color pieces featuring G.I. Joe villains to launch an internet meme called Cobrember.

-Received from graphic designer Liz Sousa the first pass of Chapter 18. Any time I open up a PDF of laid-out spreads and see a chapter not just as text, but as images as text for the first time, is exciting. Chapter 18 is all about the G.I. Joe movies that didn’t get made in the 1990s, so I’m particularly excited.

-Was interviewed by Mark “The Funky Bunch” for the Talking Joe podcast. We chatted half about my book, and half about G.I. Joe in general. Find the episode here at Apple podcasts, here at Spotify, and here at Podbean. We talked for so long that Mark posted a bonus episode, Apple / Spotify / Podbean. Broadly, it’s great to promote my research and writing, and more specifically, it’s nice to talk about my book with a human and know that other humans will hear it, since writing is pretty solitary.

Book I read:

I read many books and comic books in a year, but in 2020 only one related to G.I. Joe: Flint Dille’s The Gamesmaster. It’s breezy, and reads like Dille is just telling you stories, both because he’s a nice and funny guy, but also some of the material is familiar for me. Dille was interview #4 for my book, way back in 2002 (and we had lunch a year or two later and I got to show him some page spreads another few years after that). The Gamesmaster presented slightly different or longer versions of stories Dille had told me. This was appointment reading, but I also needed to check off the box and make sure he didn’t say anything startling that I hadn’t heard in ’02 that needed to be inserted into Chapters 4 or 6.

Things that did not happen this year:

-No conventions. I was going to attend Toylanta (formerly Joelanta) for the first time. In fact, on my final trip out of state at the very beginning of March, I said to a friend of a friend, who works in government and is very smart, that I was cautious about flying to Atlanta. He suggested that was not a good idea, and then the show was canceled anyway. Many non-G.I. Joe events I would have attended were either canceled or moved online, such as what would have been the third annual Boston Kids Comics Fest, LadiesCon 2020, and the 2020 Ottawa International Animation Festival. That final one made a strong pivot to online, so I enjoyed all the films and panels from my couch, HDMIed from my computer to a big TV. We dimmed the lights and didn’t pause the live stream, so it felt a bit like being there. But I miss the excitement of new places and chatting with people in elevators, and I miss pulling out my laptop to show new friends a sample chapter of my book.

-No photoshoots. For similar reasons. My photographer is in Rhode Island and for some of the year we were discouraged from crossing state lines. But there also wasn’t a big pile of rare toy prototypes or oversized and unscannable art such that I needed a photoshoot. There will be a few for late this year or early ’22.

COVID/School:

I teach animation and drawing. Both classes went remote in March, and the second half of the spring semester was exhausting. I think both classes went well and my students, to the extent that they could access the internet, work alone, and navigate the other aspects of their lives, got through it. But book writing and blogging were not going to happen at all in the spring. Fall classes weren’t as hard, but everything about teaching over Zoom takes twice as long, and there’s no mental reset in walking or taking the subway home. After class I would think something foolish, like “I should watch TV,” but that’s a bad idea because I’d just been looking at a screen for four hours.

Interesting things that happened this year that aren’t directly related to the book:

The room where I wrote my book from 2004 until 2020.

I moved house. That meant a lot of packing and trips to the new place and a storage locker. (Oh, the curse of collectors, the storage locker! I had one in Maryland from 2000 to 2004 and then all that stuff got moved to another in Massachusetts. I emptied it around 2006 and I had hoped I’d never go back.) Many times when I thought “I should write,” if a light malaise didn’t prevent some book productivity, the need to put objects in boxes and drive them somewhere did.

Hub Comics interior, May 2020.

I temporarily closed my comic book shop, initially as part of the COVID shutdown, but moreso for long-planned renovations. The building in which my store sits is old and had structural weaknesses. It wasn’t in danger of falling over and it wasn’t unsafe, but sooner or later we were going to need to do something about it. The basic idea for 2019 was to rebuild one outer wall while closing off a contiguous sliver of the shop. We’d stay open, though there would be a floor-to-ceiling temporary plywood wall, we’d have to temporarily move the cash register, and there’d be noise (but no dust). When it was over, 12% of Hub Comics would be remade, although pretty close to how it has always looked.

Hub Comics interior, November 2020.

But as the shop sat idle this spring, just as the contractors were starting some demolition, the idea expanded: the drop ceiling’s a little unsightly, maybe redo that. The floor’s uneven and loudly squeaky with its 100+ year old nails, maybe redo that. The door is hung unevenly and lets in cold air, maybe redo that. Maybe the register should permanently move. And if we’re going to redo the floors, the ceiling, and one wall, maybe we should redo the other three walls. At which point we’d need to empty the place, to pack up all the books and store them and the bookcases someplace safe. Redoing the ceiling means new lights, and redoing the walls means new sockets, so that means new electrical. We had a pull-up screen and a video projector for movie nights and artist talks, but the system was cumbersome (imagine me on a step ladder fishing for an HDMI port each time). If we’re redoing the electrical, let’s redo the AV. If we’re redoing everything, then starting from scratch suggests that someone with retail design experience could plan a new store layout.

And lastly, some icing on this cake: I’ve always had a problem with the store logo. If you’re a graphic designer you see it straight away, but if you don’t see anything wrong I’ll spare you. I’d commissioned a designer two years back to redo our logo, but it didn’t work out. Someone new orbited around and it was a good fit, so now we have new logo. (As yet unrevealed.) And a new logo and a new store exterior means a new store sign. (In fact, I approved the manufacturer’s quote this morning.) Also: new windows, and new windows means our old awning won’t fit, so a new awning! It’s been exciting and a lot of work.

I’ve posted weekly 60-second renovation updates since June. If you’d like to make a meal out of it, here’s a playlist with the first half and a playlist with the second half. If you’d like six minutes of highlights, may I suggest these five ads:

Update #1: “SHUT IN” – May 17, 2020

Update #3: Where Are the Bookcases? – July 21st, 2020

Update #14: “TEN FOOT BANNER” – September 29, 2020

Update #18: The Staging is Down – October 27th, 2020

Update #33: “PLODDING ALONG” – February 16th, 2021

I recognize the trade-off, that shooting and editing a weekly video is time not spent writing. But it’s important to keep in touch with our customers, making these is fun, and it’s a way to process the feeling of missing my shop. It’s been strange to order new comics and graphic novels and receive (smaller!) weekly shipments, to chat with my manager and to update the shop’s website and social media presence, and yet to not have the store. It’s an empty husk. Owning a small business, particularly one that involves people coming through the door every day and asking for recommendations, involves a certain feeling of pride. Where do I put that pride if there aren’t really any customers? (We do phone hours with limited pick-up, but the comics are off-site.) Shooting these videos also gets me out of the house, and I need that right now.

This renovation grew substantially from when we started planning it. That and the supply chain delays you’ve heard about in the news have slowed it down, but we do make progress every week, the building itself has been fixed in the form of rotted beams now replaced by modern LVLs, and the new Hub Comics is going to be gorgeous when it does reopen.

I started a company. New York comedy writer/producer Nick Nadel (who you’ll recognize from this blog because he’s my book editor) as well as New York comedy writer/producer Kevin Maher and I wanted to produce content, so we started Atomic Abe. We’ve made 13 videos in our first year, which includes one animated short, several miscellaneous narrative parodies, and four episodes of our video essay Behind the Backdoor Pilot. Our top video is up to 90,000 views in three months, which I hear is great. If you like laughing at funny internet videos, head to YouTube and subscribe!

Talking Joe podcast/Interesting thing that is related

As Mark “The Funky Bunch” and I chatted during my Talking Joe interview, he mentioned that his co-host, and in fact the founder of the podcast, Chief Stride, was retiring after 109 episodes and would I be interested in returning for a few episodes? This was flattering. I’m always ready to talk about G.I. Joe, but I feel more comfortable on the topics of the comics and animation over the toys, and most of the Facebook groups are into toys. Talking Joe is about the comics. That link again!Talking Joe.co.uk

We’ve settled into a rhythm. Even numbered episodes feature Mark and I on the current Real American Hero issues. Odd-numbered episodes feature us plus Jay Cordray reading through the 2001 Devil’s Due Press G.I. Joe comics.

What’s next?

This next year is a little up in the air. We all hope the vaccine rollout goes well and that life returns to something like normal. At some point the Hub Comics renovation will be done, we’ll bring all the inventory back and restock, and I can return to a normal weekly rhythm there. Hopefully I don’t have to teach over Zoom in September, as everything takes twice as long and we’re about 70% as efficient. But regarding the book, sorry, these are similar to last year’s year-in-review:

-Finish Chapter 20

-Edit and revise Chapters 1-10

-Figure out images for Chapters 1 and 20 and have designer Liz lay them out.

I hope your year has been okay. Thank you for your patience, your hits and comments here, your listens on Apple, Spotify, and Podbean, your views on YouTube, and your comments on Facebook and instagram.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Behind the Scenes, Writing Process

2 responses to “A Real American Book! 2020 in Review

  1. Dan P

    Just curious about this: Licensed two great G.I. Joe catalog photos from a professional photographer for use in Chapter 20.

    What company or merchandise does it cover if I can ask?

    Sent while on the run.

    >

    • Kim Simmons is one of the original photographers for Kenner Toys in the ’80s and ’90s. It appears that the only 3 3/4″ Joes he shot are the two ’97 Joe four-packs, but he has about 15 photos of 12-inch stuff from around then.

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