Saturday, February 24, 2018

Curtains: Ten Years of the Toxeum Draws to a Close

I considered myself a friend and supporter of the Toonseum up until the fall of 2015. But like
most other people who offered friendly advice or constructive criticism to the institution over the years, I have since been branded a Toonseum "detractor."

But this wasn't always the case. In 2009, I donated some 10,000 comic books and prints (the entire backstock of my self-publishing imprint, Fiasco Comics Inc.), textbooks on cartooning and comic book history, and original art to the Toonseum, as well as the drawing board tabletop my working mother had bought me in 1979 that I used to draw nearly all of my published comics.

In the years that followed, I could be relied upon to contribute auction sketches to the Toonseum and pitch in with other forms of volunteer participation (including the suggestion of an "Artists' Alley" at the 2014 "Smackdown" fundraiser). Don't bother thanking all the little people, guys.

However, on at least four distinct occasions, the Toonseum a) approached me with an idea or project that they had devised; b) enlisted my enthusiastic commitment; c) utterly failed to follow up or follow through on their promise in any way, shape, or form; and d) never found so much as the professional courtesy of informing me that they had changed their minds.

I have described one of these projects in detail here, which would still be making them money.

I don't think my experience was in any way unique, except perhaps that I was dopey enough among local professional cartoonists to let it happen to me repeatedly before I finally had had enough.

This weekend, the Toxeum -- excuse me, Toonseum -- will be closing its Liberty Avenue gallery doors for good, promising (threatening?) "pop-up" exhibits and other forms of programming around town during a "curtains drawn" period, whatever that means. (It sounds like a haunting -- ghosts pop up at the most inopportune times, don't they? And the Toxeum has surely given up the ghost.)

Needless to say, this has come as no surprise, at least to someone who knows firsthand how the Toonseum has treated its friends and supporters.

But rather than go on grinding my ax (I would also like to sharpen a few knives, but they're still sticking in my back), I'd rather commemorate the decade of disappointment that is the History of the Toonseum with a little anecdote I've never shared:
Dr. Don has taught drawing, cartooning, art and architectural history and other subjects almost continuously since 1993. This was a flyer for an offering that did not attract enough students, but it sure was an attractive design!

In the summer of 2014, I was approached by two board members about joining the Toonseum board (another of the four incidents alluded to above). I didn't even fully realize the Toonseum had a board; in any case, I cautioned them that I had a mind of my own, but they insisted that a PhD would look spiffy on their letterhead. I agreed, and a day or two later, followed up with a statement of my priorities, as I saw them, for an arts-educational institution like the Toonseum:
My personal "broken record" talking points on behalf of the comics artform in general include: 1) all-ages education (drawing generally and cartooning in particular, along with informative/scholarly lectures); 2) comics as a female-friendly hobby for creators/readers (and not just a boys' club); and 3) building bridges to the fine art/gallery/museum world and academia. I see all these goals as meshing with the Toonseum's mission and all the great things Joe has already accomplished to date, and am quite excited as you envision future growth for this local and national treasure (private email, July 25, 2014).
Obviously, I never was invited to join the board (and the story of how I eventually learned of this decision is a knee-slapper for another time!). But I still happen to think there is an opportunity in the Pittsburgh region for an arts organization committed to drawing and cartooning.

I just don't believe that organization should be called the Toonseum, or be in any way descended from it.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Just Missing the Me Too Moment

I loved my education, but I hated grad school.

On one occasion in 2014, when I had openly expressed many of my grievances on social media, I was called on the carpet by a tenured female professors.

"You think you have it bad?" she said. (As a straight white male, how could I?) "It's far worse at a lot of other place," by which she meant humanities research departments, "believe me."

She went on to allude, in very elliptical terms, the outlines of her own trial-by-fire experience, set in some indefinite past, including an uncomfortable situation with one particular male colleague whom she declined to identify. Presumably he was now emeritus or had been only a visiting professor, and in any case was no longer a current faculty member, although she was far from making any of this explicitly clear.

She said that ongoing faculty obligations required her to work alongside this male colleague from time to time, presumably on various ad hoc committees overseeing fundraising, alumni liaison, etc.

This female professor was quite proud that she could suck it up and tough it out, and maintain her collegiality and dignity. The upshot was that I had to learn to do the same with my petty, ungrateful complaints.

In the course of the same little chat, the professor remarked, "People think I'm a pushover, but I'm not."

With asynchronous contemporaneities, timing is everything.

The last time I saw this professor was this past summer of 2017, at a memorial service for one of my fellow graduate students. This member of my 2007 cohort had taken her own life that past spring, only three years after earning her PhD.

At the service, the professor had spoken eloquently of the student's many contributions to the department, and to scholarship.

No male professors, including the deceased's own thesis advisor or another male professor for whom both the deceased student and I had served as teaching fellows, were in attendance.

As I was leaving the church, I paused on the steps; it was a serenely calm if somewhat hazy August afternoon. A few moments later, footsteps from the downstairs fellowship hall approached behind me. It was the professor, also leaving. We were alone for a moment.

"I've been going to too many of these lately," she remarked, meaning memorial services for various of her academic colleagues. "I hope it's a long time before the next one."

"Yes, let's hope," I replied.

Not many weeks after this, the MeToo movement began in earnest.

I have often wondered, as new stories are made public daily, what the deceased would have liked to add, and what the living have yet to add, to the ongoing narrative.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

American Dreams, 2017: You're Busted, Creep!

John Hancock: Fortunately, there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy.

John Dickinson: Perhaps not. But don't forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor. And that is why they will follow us ...

Dickinson and Congress (sung): To the right, ever to the right; Never to the left, forever to the right...

These words and lyrics from "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men," the big production number from 1776, the 1969 Broadway musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone (famously cut from the 1972 movie version at the behest of President Richard M. Nixon), convey a profound truth about America.

Since colonial times, working-class Americans have been suckered into voting against their own personal and class interests, and for the interests of the wealthy, out of the sincere belief that they too, one day, will become rich.

Hence, of the last six presidents, four from the right or far right, and two from the center.

"You're busted, creep!"
Detail from Wendy Whitebread,
Undercover Slut
#2 (Eros Comix, 1992).
™ and © Anton Drek, all rights reserved.

A similar psychology prevails more generally in masculinity. Most men have just enough power and influence (and confidence) to make occasional passes at women, and to be shot down. Only a few have the power and influence to hit on every woman (or child, or social, economic, employment subordinate) that comes their way, coerce as many of them as they can by various hihg-pressure means into sexual favors, and retaliate against the rest with the help of lawyers, non-disclosure agreements, hush money, and various enablers (often, extensive networks that include other women).

Hence Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Donald J. Trump, John Conyers, Judge Roy Moore, and a growing list of other posterboys for the MeToo Movement.

And the rest of us men, and society in general, shamefully, have been rooting for these guys all along.

Why? Because some day, every American male dreams of becoming rich and famous (and infinitely powerful). And when we do, we'll expect our endless supply of interns, starlets, young news producers, graduate students, adulating fans, groupies, Playboy Bunnies (or whatever demeaning terms we choose to name and conceive of sexual prey), etc. Such is the privilege of a successful career, according to the inviolable American dream.  (If you are a twelve year old boy; and boys will be boys).

Me too.

If 2017 has taught us anything, it is how obscene, tawdry, tasteless, self-centered, dehumanizing,  unsustainable, and destructive such delusions are. Both in the political and gender-relations spheres.

Whether or not the American Dream is actualizable (for a chosen few), fame and fortune, if it comes, should be channeled to higher pursuits than untrammeled promiscuity. And in any case our definition of sexual predation should not be the red line between assault or molestation vs. consensus, either. It should be the serial exploitation of the vulnerable that the privileged are expected to police themselves and one another against.

If you still believe a successful career entitles one to an endless supply of quarry to serially prey upon, and that coercion short of brute force is fair game, you haven't been paying attention in 2017. That kind of thinking should have passed away with Hugh Hefner earlier this year. Grow up.

And if you still think you're going to get rich, you're fired.

More on the abuses of Academic Privilege | Related: When Ethics Falls Prey to Collegiality

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Me Three: The Tip of the Predator Iceberg So Far

What the Me Too movement has revealed is not simply that men have been hitting on women, children, and every manner of subordinate and worse; it's that these people (Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, TED Talks participants, Roy Moore, Charlie Rose, and many, many others) have networks of enablers and retaliators (not to mention lawyers, colleagues, and institutional administrations) to silence victims, and critics.

I know this personally because in 2014, I made elliptical allusions to certain well-known open secrets in the graduate program I had recently completed, and the retaliation was vicious and comprehensive. (Not only did several of my professors inform me that they would never compose a letter of recommendation that would be anything other than a poison pill in a tenure-track job search; but one cultural creative I once regarded highly stabbed me in the back as a freelance act of solidarity with the academic class, and exploited his influential position in the community to encourage other artists to turn on me for completely spurious reasons). And I was only a third-party ax-grinder shooting off my mouth; I can only imagine what it must be like for actual victims in such situations.

This is why I don't do political or editorial cartoons: I just don't have the requisite subtle touch!

Be that as it may, the standard should not be the line between consensual or non-consensual behavior; it should not be whether the grope was invited or not; it should not be whether the prey was underage at the time according to state law. It should be whether the predator was in a position of authority, influence, and power over the prey, such that they had the means (economic, social, psychological, legal, collegial, referential, institutional, and otherwise) to retaliate against the accuser, and thus to enforce silence.

If a perpetrator is, say, a tenured professor at a research institution who is reputed to have bagged nearly every one of his female graduate students since the 1970s (for example), and has the power to withhold letters of recommendation (among other tools in the ol' toolbox), or is a renowned neurosurgeon who never saw a young nurse he couldn't keep his hands off of (an even more far-fetched hypothetical), it doesn't matter if every cheating affair their wives never suspected was completely consensual.

If someone takes advantage of their power over someone else to try to obtain love, and the wherewithal to take revenge on their object of affection when they are rejected or not, they are criminal. Because in such cases informed consent is a logical impossibility.

And it is time for the enablers and retaliators (male and female) who form codependent support networks for these predators to fess up.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Whither Drawing?

Here's what the 2016-2017 Handbook of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design has to say about a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in drawing (p. 103-104):
a. Understanding of basic design principles, concepts, media, and formats. The ability to place organization of design elements and the effective use of drawing media at the service of producing a specific aesthetic intent and a conceptual position. The development of solutions to aesthetic and design problems should continue throughout the degree program.
b. Understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the drawing medium.
c. Knowledge and skills in the use of basic tools and techniques sufficient to work from concept to finished product. This includes mastery of the traditional technical and conceptual approaches to drawing.
d. Functional knowledge of the history of drawing.
e. Extensive exploration of the many possibilities for innovative imagery and the manipulation of techniques available to the draftsman.
f. The completion of a final project related to the exhibition of original work.
Note that there is no mention of human anatomy, figure drawing, or manual perspective drawing (although computer-aided perspective is an advised competency).

From "Teaching Cartooning" in Streetwise (Two Morrows, 2000).

Here's what the handbook says about computers in general (p. 101):
Digital Media. The Bachelor of Fine Arts is appropriate as the undergraduate degree in which digital technology serves as the primary tool, medium, or environment for visual work. Titles of majors for these degrees include, but are not limited to: digital media, media arts, media design, multimedia, computer arts, digital arts, digital design, interactive design, Web design, and computer animation.
No mention of mastery of traditional fundamental drawing principals, and digital technology is the "primary tool."

This is why I am a self-taught figurative artist, and why I advise students to make the most of their college tuition pursuing a well-rounded "book-learning" liberal arts curriculum (English, languages, history, philosophy, sociology, etc.), and skip the BFA.

Art school in the broadest sense only makes sense for a profession that requires actual accreditation, such as architecture or interior design.

See also: The Withering Away of Drawing

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

'S Prose, Not Superheroes: Recently Read Real Books

I'm going through my second childhood--only this time, I'm reading prose fiction instead of wasting my time with dumbed-down ol' comic books!

Here's a snooty selection of what I've read over the past year or so, in no apparent order:

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling--I read all seven books and watched all eight DVDs in eight weeks in the summer of 2015. I'm a late adopter--having worked at Border's in the early 2000s and probably handled (conservatively) some 10,000 individual copies of the various HP editions through the end of 2005 as a part-time bookseller. I never read a single sentence at the time, being exclusively interested in non-fiction (which lead to me returning to college for a decade-long stint). But I've read pp. 317-421 of The Prisoner of Azkaban (the Shrieking Shack sequence) a total of eight times--it's the most brilliantly orchestrated piece of storytelling I am aware of in any media.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins--starts out very strong, but she's too committed to her three-act structure to see that it's going off the rails (and becoming mind-numbingly repetitious) by the middle of Catching Fire. Should have followed her instincts into the political satire of 1984 and Brave New World, and fattened up each book as she went, like Rowling. Hope she will do a grown-up dystopian exploration of this world someday.

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos--a somewhat coldly modernist experiment, would have been better if he had followed the actress who is the de facto main character more thoroughly. Just the coolest title of all time, and no wonder Tim Hauser named his vocalese quartet after this book--even though the actual Manhattan Transfer was a completely unglamorous railroad stop in the middle of New Jersey swampland (as the book briefly depicts)--not the long-lost romantic transit hub a la Pennsylvania Station Hauser must have imagined.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Bloom--mid-century secular suburban assimilationist propaganda hearkening back a lost Golden Age when we all watched three networks and ate Campbell's Soup. Margaret's obsession with "developing" is a literary theme I completely missed as a boy Marvel Comics reader.

An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve--a literary memoir (full book review forthcoming, so I don't want to spoil it), but also about a girl's life, and its aftereffects in adulthood. Moving and brilliantly constructed.

City of Ashes and City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare--the faux-glamorous pseudonym should tell you all you need to know. I read books one and four in the Mortal Instruments series after seeing a young reader buying a stack of them at B&N. The Shadowhunters series (pleonasm, anyone?) tries to conjure the feeling of the later Harry Potter books--kind of a junior Order of the Phoenix--with steamier teens. Too many build-ups to clever ideas that go nowhere, like the Institute and the restaurant where you can order werewolf cuisine--Rowling would dramatize these ideas memorably, not just have them pedantically explained to Clary by unlikely character she meets. The fourth book shows some improvement, at least insofar as generating more compelling cliff-hangers.

The Barsoom Trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs--I read the first three John Carter books on my Nook (they are in the public domain on Project Gutenberg), and really was astonished. This guy is one hell of a writer, albeit politically and socially regressive. A nineteenth century American sensibility that could have only been formed between the Civil War and WWI. Reading The Cave Girl now, a much choppier work (but it seems to be getting better as it goes along) that I suspect was an earlier manuscript rejected before the success of Tarzan of the Ape and A Princess of Mars allowed ERB to unload it on a pulp magazine. All his main themes are present, albeit in primitive form--particularly the effeminizing effects of civilization, which apparently can always be reversed by a quick trip to the jungle.

End of Days by Susan Ee--unfair to start with the third book of a trilogy, I know. Aside from the complete trivialization of the incredibly compelling Watcher Angels material from the books of Enoch, I agree with the critics that it seems rushed and first-drafty, particularly in the second half. I couldn't tell if characters were in cars, flying, or water-skiing, but at least it was kinetic. Like Clare, suffers from rather wan humor.

About Harry Towns by Bruce Jay Friedman--the entire second-half of a lifetime takes place in the span of about ten years in this cocaine-saturated, Playboy-era satire of Hollywood and New York. Why isn't this guy more widely read today?

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern--not as good as the critics would have it, but well-written and compelling. Not much of a contest ever really materializes between the two magical protagonists, but that doesn't matter because it's such a thoroughly realized world. Would like to read more.

Time and Narrative (three volumes) by Paul Ricoeur--okay, not prose fiction, but a work of literary theory that, along with Harry Potter, forms the most important educational experience I've had since grad school. I wonder if Rowling has read it--not that she has to, she already seems to have internalized its lessons of Aristotelian muthos or "emplotment."

Originally published on July 30, 2016; update July 11, 2017.

I'm currently reading or have recently read John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy; Starship Troopers by Heinlein; Asimov's Foundation series; Wm. S. Burroughs Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, and others; The S.P. Mystery by Harriet Pyne Grove; To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Farmer; Triplanetary (expanded) by E.E. "Doc" Smith; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by Steinbeck; Idylls of the King by Tennyson; and a bit of Le Morte Darthur by Malory. More on those later.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Recently I have composed a number of reviews for book editor Tony Norman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here is a running list of the links:

June 4, 2017
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis (academia, society)

April 23, 2017
Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia (cultural criticism)

August 7, 2016
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (non-fiction/sociology)

July 10, 2016
The Haters by Jesse Andrews (young adult fiction)

March 6, 2016
Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes (art criticism, memoir)

September 20, 2015 
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Goldberger (architecture, biography)

December 27, 2014
Lowriders in Space, Book 1 by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (graphic novel)

December 14, 2014
Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague by Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli (graphic novel)

September 7, 2014
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World edited by Monte Beauchamp (graphic novel)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Recently I have composed a number of reviews for book editor Tony Norman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here is a running list of the links:

Forthcoming, 2016
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (non-fiction/sociology)
An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve (memoir/psychology)

July 10, 2016
The Haters by Jesse Andrews (young adult)

March 6, 2016
Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes (art criticism/memoir)

September 20, 2015
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Goldberger (architecture)

December 27, 2014
Lowriders in Space, Book 1 by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (graphic novel)

December 14, 2014
Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague by Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli (graphic novel)

September 7, 2014
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World edited by Monte Beauchamp (graphic novel)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Whirled Building: The Working Out of Megaton Man's Megaverse

This is an unpublished page from 1984. Megaton Man #1 had already been accepted for publication by Kitchen Sink Press in April of that year, but a series of hang-ups with printers and promotion would delay the release until December. Over the spring and summer, asked if I could turn the one-shot into an ongoing series, I struggled to envision a series for the satire, producing dozens of stream-of-consciousness pages, none of which added up to a coherent whole. Later that summer, on a nice sunny day, I went for a long walk around Midtown Detroit (from my off-campus apartment near Wayne State University around the General Motors and Fisher Building in the so-called New Center area, rumored to be Ground Zero in case of Soviet missile attack), and got the idea for the second issue, which I drew from scratch in about five weeks. Of the 64 aborted pages, several made it into subsequent issues as set pieces and dream sequences. Other pages, like the one here, penciled in a manic emulation of Neal Adams, was never inked, but many of the narrative ideas were later redrawn, and still resonate in the new Megaton Man material I have been dreaming up!

Fans familiar with the original series will recognize the landing scene from issue #9, when the Partyers from Mars finally land in Megatropolis Central Park, albeit in a more primitive form. Uncle Farley, the Golden Age Megaton Man appears, along with Stella Starlight, Megaton Man's estranged girlfriend, now emphatically pregnant. While Stella appeared in civilian clothes in the published comic, here she appears as The Earth Mother, a persona she will not take in the Megaton Man narrative until Bizarre Heroes, the series I self-published in 1994 through 1996. The Devengers also appear (they appear for the first time in Megaton Man #8), except that the Angel of Death (not penciled in yet) is referred to as the Corpse Lady. In fact, Bad Guy hadn't even appeared in the series yet (he would not appear until #3), and yet here he is already a long-time nemesis of Megaton Man, and turning into Good Guy! Captain Androgynous has never appeared in any of my comics.

What is remarkable is how consistent my ideas have proven to be over the years. This piece of art would have been buried in storage when I was drawing Bizarre Heroes ten years later, and essentially forgotten, and yet the Earth Mother persona still resided in my imagination, her basic costume design (a kind of maillot unitard with gloves and boots) remaining intact, although the logo I would later give her looked more like the symbol for ecology. Colonel Turtle looks like an actual in this first draft; later he would be decidedly a middle-aged guy in a cumbersome costume.

There have been numerous other instances over the years of making notes, sketches, and misfired pages, and either misplacing them or simply never referring to them again, and yet when I finally get to putting an idea in a comic book story, I somehow manage to realize the original idea in most of its main its essentials, Later, when I unearth the original conception, I am surprised at how consistent my imagination is. I have also found this to be true for particular characterizations of such characters as Rex Rigid and Pamela Jointly. When I've written them into new storylines, I think I'm having them behaving in new, selfish, or malevolent ways, but then I go back and reread earlier comics, and realize that that has always been a part of their conception. It is reassuring to know that when I imagine something and establish it as "real" in my mind, it seldom gets lost just because I can no longer locate the original note or sketch.

As for this page, the new graphic novel I am working on, Megaton Man: Return to Megatropolis, still draws upon themes established in my mind practically when I came up with the name Megaton Man. Nuclear terror, psychotic machismo, extended non-traditional family arrangements, and in fact Simon Phloog, the son of Megaton Man and the Earth Mother, are all intrinsic elements in the ongoing storyline. Rest assured that as I have been elaborating new storylines (and endeavoring to retroactively World-Build), I have reread all the old comics so as to preserve established character history, which is how I've realized how consistent my notions are. (Or maybe I just don't have as many new, original ideas as I thought I had!) Previews of this new material can be seen in abundance almost as it is coming off the ol' drawing  board on the Megaton Man blog, with further publication details to be announced soon!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Chain Culture: The Loss of Borders and the End of a World

When the Borders brothers sold their budding bookstore chain, the company was well known for its impeccable customer service, top-notch inventory system and large-format approach that uprooted the way the books were sold.

But the Borders shopping experience eroded over the years as the chain grew in size, management became unwieldy, the Internet encroached on sales and electronic books emerged as an alternative for avid book readers.[1]
A number of reasons have been given as to why Borders, a used bookstore founded in Ann Arbor in 1971 that became a retail chain in 1992, ended in bankruptcy in 2011. Among the most prevalent are: the rise of the ebook, competition with Amazon, overexpansion of retail locations, overinvestment in music sales, and various mismanagement decisions. quipped, “It died by a thousand—OK, maybe just four or five—self-inflicted paper cuts.”[2]

But Nathan Bomey is right when he places the erosion of the Borders shopping experience at the head of the list.

A shopping experience may be a more difficult thing to quantify than the ubiquitous assertion of mismanagement, but it is very real. In the case of Borders, the erosion of the shopping experience was deadly.

I grew up in suburban Detroit in the 1970s, about 40 minutes from Ann Arbor. Two youth counselors at my church had been students at the University of Michigan, and were well acquainted with the first Borders Store on State Street, and took us there on an expedition. This was not its very first location, but it was already a fully mature destination of wonder. Large, with brick walls and multiple levels, it seemed to have every coffee table art book under the sun, scholarly titles, mystical new age books, books on world cinema, and cultural journals. I never had any money in those days, but in the early 80s, when me and my friends haunted the art film houses ensconced all over campus, Borders was a place to explore before or between screenings. (Undoubtedly, the mystique of Borders influenced the naming of 1980s science fiction comic book saga Border Worlds.)

When store #9 appeared in the South Hills of Pittsburgh in the early 90s, I did have money, and I spent a lot of it there. I can’t remember if I saw the store logo driving past, or heard about it from a friend, but as soon as I learned that a Borders store had opened, I realized that the world had become a better place. It was not as great as the Ann Arbor location, but it was still a destination and a treasure house. I spent many a rainy Saturday night there, sipping coffee and coming home with Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth, or Joseph Campbell, or many a coffee table book that I still have in my library.

When store #174 open in the North Hills, it was not as great as store #9, it was still good. From 2000 to 2005, I worked there part time on and off. It was there that I was inspired to go back to school, finally earning my PhD in art history in 2013. This was during the heyday of Harry Potter and Chicken Soup, and one of my own freelance illustration jobs, for Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right appeared. It was only slightly absurd that the book for which I had drawn The Adventures of Supply Side Jesus was one of the innumerable items I rang up as a cashier, or helped people to locate as a bookseller. (No, I never mentioned that, by the way, I was the cartoonist!)

But I was not that unusual in having an example of my work on sale at Borders. A number of the staff were highly creative, particularly in music but also in theater. The manager recorded a smooth country album produced by another employee that played on the store sound system for several weeks, and other employees often had publications and creative offerings of one sort or another featured in the store.

Life without Culture: Undoubtedly, the mystique of Borders influenced the naming of 1980s science fiction comic book saga Border Worlds. An unpublished panel.
But during my time at Borders, the shopping or customer experience did erode noticeably, along with the employee experience, at the end of my time there quite precipitously. At the beginning, each store had its own CRC or Community Relations Coordinator, a person responsible for scheduling events such as folk singers in the café, local author signings, or weekly or monthly meetings of the poetry group; it had a rack of free brochures and local independent newsweeklies; a plethora of scholarly titles; and still a wide selection of off-beat magazines. Most importantly, it had knowledgeable employees who cared about culture in its manifold forms.

But quickly the CRCs were replaced by regional staffers overseeing multiple stores, and finally event planners in the corporate headquarters. The quirky folk singers were routed out, and events were stripped down to a few big-label music releases. Author signings followed suit, with local authors eliminated for fewer, bigger national names. Groups that were once given coupons for free cups of coffee and announced over the store sound system were quietly eliminated. The number of sofas and chairs strewn about the store for customers were eliminated, as well as (maliciously) the stools for employees manning the service desk. The brochure rack disappeared.

None of these clunky, handmade aspects of Borders were profit centers in and of themselves, and many of them were inefficient and bothersome to employees. I personally found the local iteration of the Socrates Café, a meeting of overly loud bullshitters named after the book, extremely fatuous. But they all contributed to the atmosphere of Borders as a unique, even sometimes bizarre experience, and their loss contributed to the erosion of the shopping experience and, guess what, the bottom line.

A word about those knowledgeable employees: a typical Borders bookseller was college educated, perhaps changed majors too many times to complete a degree, maybe had even dropped out of grad school, or was by temperament or otherwise unsuited either to academia or the corporate business world. For these sensitive souls, work at a chain bookstore at slightly above minimum wage might not have amounted to a career, but it allowed them to utilize their minds and earn an employee discount, and to be among some of the rich cultural resources that they loved.

Such a labor pool certainly existed in Ann Arbor in the 1970s, and nearly every major city and college town into which the Borders chain initially expanded had a ready supply of such employees. In more than one way, the growth of the chain eventually outstripped this labor pool, and by the early 2000s (myself notwithstanding), such knowledgeable, geeky, cultured, and book-loving employees were in increasing short supply. (College, it seemed, had become too expensive for humanities majors, or at least for humanities majors to drop out before completing their degrees and getting a real job to pay back their student loans.) New employees could have been working in any kind of retail or fast food business, and manifestly could not have cared less about books or culture. Indeed, many of the older, knowledgeable employees of the type that built the Borders brand were consciously being routed out by management as the 2000s wore on, along with the free weekly newspapers, the quirky folk singers, and the pompous poetry groups.

While ringing up a Schaum’s Algebra workbook in 2002, I had a serendipitous (serendipity being one of my church youth counselors’ favorite words) moment, and realized I should go back to college. I started part-time in January 2003 at the Community College of Allegheny County, and was full-time by the fall. I earned 60 gen ed transfer credits and started at Pitt in 2005. During this time I phased out my part-time employment at Borders, which finally concluded with the end of the 2005 Christmas season (a notoriously bullying manager that had been transferred to our store was summarily fired after the holidays). By this time, the chain had already cultivated a corporate feel virtually indistinguishable from Barnes & Noble.

It is important to note that even as store stock contracted and the notorious Categories scheme was implemented (turning the de facto control of entire genres over to the highest-bidding publishers), it was still useful to work part-time at Borders even and especially as I returned to school full-time. Familiar with the ordering system, I could make SPOs (special purchase orders) of virtually any title in print and quite a few out of print (particularly those I needed for school), usually at the highest employee discount rate, and virtually risk-free, making it more convenient than Amazon. At some point, however, working at Borders became not worth it, and ordering through Amazon became the preferred mode of acquiring necessary books during grad school.

I still occasionally shopped there, but my own shopping experience was noticeably less enjoyable than in the past. Selection was curtailed, bland bestsellers dominated, games and gifts replaced scholarly titles, and it became easier to order books for school online. It was no longer a destination or a treasure house, but a cold, unfeeling, alienating experience.

The shopping experience had eroded over the years. Was nobody watching?

I still miss Borders every rainy Saturday night, like one sometimes yearns for a bygone lover.