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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Monthly Archives: August 2021

That block of text is my 2017 essay “Refining the Comics Form” published in European Comic Art, which has since evolved into my book manuscript The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, which I just finalized and submitted to Bloomsbury for copyedits today.

It includes a discussion of word-images:

“The word ‘word’ has at least two definitions. In alphabet-based writing, a word is a combination of letterforms, and it is a set of meanings including connotations linked to that combination of letterforms and experienced in a reader’s mind. Neither refers to a specific instance of a word’s appearance as an image, which may be termed a ‘word-image.’

The same chapter discusses word-image art, including extreme cases where “word-images’ non-linguistic qualities don’t add meaning to their linguistic content; they replace it.” In one example, the “layered words are not legible and so arguably are not word-images but the equivalent of paint strokes that produce the non-linguistic content. … Instead of word-image art, the page consists of images composed of word-images that are only minimally graphic when not layered to produce non-linguistic content.”

While letters-as-tiny-paint-strokes is already its own visual arts genre, I’ve been developing my own approach by exploring (yet again) the usefully limited yet somehow oddly expansive possibilities of MS Paint. The following images use the above text as both canvas and palette. I begin with the block and then select and scissor segments free-hand with the mouse, overlapping them either transparently (which creates white lines and spaces) or non-transparently (which creates darker lines and spaces).

I’m calling them “text-ures,” which is probably too corny. Each surpasses the adage: ” Every picture is worth a thousand words.”

The first stage direction in The Zombie Life begins: “As audience arrives, various objects can be seen arranged carefully on the mostly bare ‘seminar room’ stage.” The script went through many many developmental changes during the rehearsal process, but that sentence remained the same. Why? Because it didn’t need to change. Ultimately, what’s on the page doesn’t matter. But what those words allow to happen on an actual stage does.

Also, it’s literally not my job. My vague “arranged carefully” was all that Todd Labelle, Firehouse Theatre’s production designer, needed. He sketched this ground plan:

Which became this actual stage design:

The stage directions later describe the Therapist (the play is his seminar as he tries to convince the audience to convert to being zombies to avoid human pain) “laying out a smorgasbord of objects with a reverential attitude.” The “reverential” is an actor’s problem, but AC Wilson, Firehouse’s prop designer, had to take my “smorgasbord” of weird objects (Liquor bottle, Rifle, Condom package, Pussy hat, Confederate flag, Crucifix, Child’s doll, etc.) and acquire, adapt, and/or make actual objects for the Therapist to use:

Each object contains the memories and personality of its former owner before they became a zombie–which is how my sister and I answered the dramaturgical question (before she become the show’s director, Joan played the role of dramaturg during our months of drafting): How can these zombies speak?

My stage directions say not a word about what any of the characters are wearing. So Annette Hairfield, Firehouse’s costume designer, had to plumb the script for inspiration. We talked a lot during early production meetings about whether the Therapist was part of a larger corporation (Todd dubbed it ZombieCorp), but we decided that, no, this guy is just a lone lunatic. That nixed the idea of a ZombieCorp logo on the convert’s polo shirts. But it still left room for other possibilities.

Annette wrote after a meeting: “So…We talked about zombie inner human self being evident in progressive wear on their clothing.. What if Mother showed the staining on the abdominal area from touching her baby. Father’s pant pocket area from clinching his fists in his pockets or rubbing his palms on his upper thigh. Sex Worker knee and lower leg area from, well, we know what. Chef’s apron front area from wiping his hands . Mortician’s pant hem distressed from all the standing and walking at funerals. No specific thoughts about Nun just a progressive overall darkness.”

Small production choices also steered the text in slightly different directions, as when the Zombie Chefs became Zombie Butchers because of the meat cleaver and bloody apron:

Joan’s directorial approach is also physically focused, helping the cast learn ways of embodying themselves that seem to lead inevitably to declaring the words in the script. I now can’t image anyone other than these six actors being these six characters:

Ken Moretti, Shalandis Wheeler Smith, Keaton Hillman, PJ Freebourn, Marjie Southerland, Jacqueline Jones.

Rehearsals began in a nearby church basement (either very appropriate or very inappropriate for a play about zombies) where Joan and Dan Plehal, Joan’s long-time dance collaborator and the production’s movement director, developed movement vocabularies for the zombies as they changed characters and scenes. One section of the script was entirely Joan’s idea and focused on the zombies’ accidental discovery of a harmonica and an ensuing rendition of “When the Saints.”

My wife has called me a “promiscuous collaborator” (exact quote), so I find all of these choices exciting. Joel Bassin, Firehouse’s producing artistic director, paid me a high compliment when he said I wasn’t like other playwrights–you know, the ones who think their words are sacrosanct and that the theatre’s main job is to satisfy the playwright’s preferences (not an exact quote). I’m entering theater from the lonelier realm of fiction writing, one of the least collaborative art forms. Usually it’s just me and my laptop clacking away, so the idea of my words lurching off to inspire new kinds of creative mayhem is horrifyingly delightful.

Grace Brown, Firehouse’s stage manager, kept meticulous track of it all, sending detailed rehearsal notes after each rehearsal. They tell a dozen stories themselves:

“The rehearsal knife has been further dulled.”

“We have tentatively cut the condom wrapper and checkbook lines, and permanently cut the flag and rifle lines on pg.13 in the Objects Hold Memories section.”

“Please note we may need to use a thicker knife for the chef’s knife so that we can dull it down further or perhaps a different prop entirely for the chef. We discussed perhaps using a wooden spoon or a more blunt kitchen tool instead. We will further discuss.”

“Please note the bourbon bottle should have tea in it.”

“We discussed potentially moving the sound board from SL to SR and moving all objects with sound to the table on the same side of the stage as the sound board.”

“Ken will not be wearing socks so that he can just take off his shoes when he’s eaten.”

I did stage crew in high school, so I couldn’t help but notice all the work that Emma Avelis and Scott Shephardson, Firehouse’s crew, did behind the scenes too. (Spoiler Alert: the seminar doesn’t end as “carefully arranged” as it begins.)

My one non-textual contribution to the production was the poster design–not something playwrights usually do, but I’m a promiscuous dabbler too:

It was even a thrill to see the digital art take physical form:

The larger physical context matters too. One of the “dangerous objects” is a Confederate flag that triggers a Klansman group monologue performed with “I Wish I Was in Dixie Land” piped over the stage speakers (which you probably didn’t notice changed position from Todd’s original design sketch). Richmond is the former capital of the Confederacy, and the empty pedestal for General Robert E. Lee’s former statue on Monument Avenue is two blocks from the theater:

Lee exited on July 10th. The Zombie Life closes on August 29th.

I had assumed raising your hands to protect your face when you fall was an automatic reflex, but my mother’s Alzheimer’s proved me wrong. She fell a lot that last year in the second-floor memory unit of her assisted living facility. She kept looking for the door that would lead her out again. After the worst fall, they had to ambulance her to a Richmond hospital an hour away. When I got there, the horror wasn’t just her face—which looked uncannily like the make-up for a zombie extra—but the emptiness in her eyes. She had not the slightest idea who I was.

I grew up in a Pittsburgh suburb a couple miles from the mall where George Romero shot Dawn of the Dead. There was a video arcade instead of a gun shop, but otherwise it was the same. I didn’t see the movie till college—and then the ongoing horde of other movies and TV shows still shuffling after it. I used to teach the Walking Dead comic book in my first-year writing seminar too. One of my best, though unpublished, short stories is titled “The Zombie Monologues.” Zombies apparently come naturally to me.

The single good thing about my mother’s Alzheimer’s was how it forced my sister and me together. We’d been estranged for a few years, and probably would have remained that way, but then we were digging out our mother’s nest of a condo, and researching assisted living places, and juggling the chaos of her thankfully deep finances. Her actual death brought a slew of new work too, but then that would be it. I was no longer driving over to Williamsburg once a month. There were no more plot contrivances to keep us in the same scene.

My sister is a dancer and choreographer. I’d seen the movement direction she’d done in the theater department at William and Mary, particularly for a production of Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a sequence of vignettes performed by a student cast changing roles for each piece.  I thought: Monologues are like vignettes. And then I said: Do you want to make a play together?

We started meeting for long brunches once a month in a little town exactly half way between Williamsburg and Lexington. She played dramaturg, asking questions about the evolving script: How do the zombies change roles? They touch objects and become infused by the former owners. Who is presenting these monologues? A therapist trying to convince people to become zombies. Why would he do that? Because he’s sinister. No, two-dimensional villains are boing—I tell my fiction writing classes that every semester. He’s something much much worse: he’s sincere. He actually thinks he’s helping his patients by ending their suffering.

Joan suggested new sections too, helped figure out the arc of the sequence, as we also plotted the new story of how one evening the therapist’s seminar goes terribly wrong. As much as he would like to think his zombies are happily emptied vessels, there’s still some disruptive humanity swirling inside them. That’s a good thing. In fact, it’s the only thing keeping them alive and the therapist from achieving his tragic success.

After our mother’s funeral—we spilled her ashes into the hole the groundskeepers dug in front of the family gravestone six months after her New Years death—the artistic producer at Richmond’s Firehouse Theatre said he’d like to stage the show. My sister had worked there before, and had showed him the script after we’d revised it into the best shape we could without seeing actors actually perform the words and movements.

The pandemic hit a few months after that, just weeks after the first read-through. We pivoted to Zoom and created a shortened online preview version of mostly solo performances, reprising the old title “Zombie Monologues.” Then at the start of this year, we again got the green light for an August stage production and started rehearsals back up, soon with three new cast members. That process was oddly ideal, combining actors who were familiar with the material with new actors who very quickly leapt to the same level. After the first stumble-through rehearsals, I got to revise with a new ear for how the words actually worked in performance. My sister’s directorial style is not surprisingly movement based, so she would ask for specific revisions and additions based on how the play was actually unfolding physically on stage. Our two skill areas, text and movement, are a perfect collaboration.

The project has achieved my initial goal of staying close to her. That’s probably ironic for a play about zombies trying to convince people to let go of all human connection. It’s hard work. You have to walk with your hands reaching in front of you. You can’t worry about falling. Just keep grabbing anything you can before it disappears again. The Zombie Life opens this week and closes the week after.

I was lucky to participate in last year’s Outer Dark Symposium, originally scheduled in Atlanta in March, then moved to Zoom in August due to the pandemic. An audio recording of my presentation came available via the Outer Dark Podcast last December, and a video is in the works via the Outer Dark YouTube channel.

Below are my PowerPoint slides, and if you’d like to follow along with my voice, it starts about nine minutes into the audio recording:

TOD 088 Deep Down: The Weird in Conversation with Southern Gothic, Black Gothic Revival, and Other Regional Strange Tales

My argument in a nutshell: white supremacy is in the DNA of early 20th century Weird fiction.

Here are my notes from the excavated gravesite:

[This post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Roanoke Times on July 24 under the title “Gavaler: Transgender issue isn’t left. vs. right”.]

Last month, the Supreme Court let stand a lower court’s decision to allow trans students to use restrooms that correspond with their gender identities. The case was from Gloucester County, Virginia, where the school board had instead created a small number of single-person restrooms for trans students, while still barring them from facilities that didn’t correspond with their biological sex. The Fourth Circuit Court declared that policy unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court agreed when it voted 7-2 to decline hearing the school board’s final appeal.

All three of Donald Trump’s conservative appointees—Justices Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett—voted with the majority. That means they agree that trans students should be allowed to use their preferred restrooms. Did Trump pack the Supreme Court with radical leftists? Obviously not. As Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell orchestrated one of the most ideologically lopsided Courts in the history of our country, barring two-term President Obama from making any appointments, while giving his one-term successor three. 

Yet the McConnell-Trump Court also backed trans rights in 2020, when it ruled that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects gay and trans employees from discrimination based on sex. Justice Gorsuch, Trump’s first appointee, wrote the majority opinion: “Today we must decide whether an employer can fire someone simply for being homosexual or transgender. The answer is clear.”

But instead of attacking the Republican-appointed Supreme Court for this new status quo, many conservatives blame Democrats. Last year, the Democratic-controlled Virginia Legislature passed a law requiring “the Department of Education to develop and make available to each school board model policies concerning the treatment of transgender students.” This year those model policies specify that students “should be allowed to use the facility that corresponds to their gender identity.”

Some conservatives call that policy pro-pedophilia and label anyone who agrees with it a pedophile. Unless they are Supreme Court justices appointed by a Republican president.

Now, since our conservative-packed Supreme Court has made explicit that barring trans students from their preferred restrooms is unconstitutional, Virginia, like every other state in the nation, will have to do more than just “make available” “model policies.” Trans rights are now undisputed law. For a school to disregard federal law is not only illegal but also a trigger for lawsuits with an insurmountable legal precedent. The Gloucester County school board lost all of its appeals, and now so will every other school board that violates trans rights.

But don’t blame progressives. Blame Trump and McConnell. Or maybe when a hyper-conservative Supreme Court doubles down on the rights of trans people, it’s time to accept that trans people are just people?

The problem isn’t that the radical left is taking over the country. The problem is an unwillingness to let go of a past wrong. It used to be considered okay to openly ridicule and discriminate against trans people. It also used to be okay to openly ridicule and discriminate against gay people. If you grew up with those norms, they may still seem normal and reasonable—even when some of the most conservative judges in the country say otherwise.

Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett recognize that earlier anti-trans bigotry was wrong. They recognize that fact while also remaining firmly conservative. It’s not a struggle between left and right. Go back fifty years, and progressives of the 1970s were certainly not advocates for trans rights either. They were generally as bigoted toward trans people as everyone else. What’s happened now is the recognition of trans rights across the political spectrum. It’s a shared American victory we should celebrate together.

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