Harlan, and Good and Bad Things

He finally went and did it. Died. Deshuffled the most mortal of coils. A fiery, arseaholic ball of emotion and invective with an Edisonian ability to invent new tales burned out and went forever silent. He wrote amazing things, and I considered him a hero for a long, long time.

Then I started hearing about his sexist behavior. Odd, I thought, since he was such a fierce advocate of the ERA and feminist ideals. But sometimes the people we admire do awful, hurtful, damaging things. We can’t shy away from talking about that part of our erstwhile heroes, if we talk about them at all, and sometimes if we don’t want to. Harlan shamefully groped Connie Willis on stage, and was reportedly grabby with a lot of women through the years. This is unacceptable sexual assault, and he should have been called out on it a lot more than he was. He apologized to Willis, who accepted. That’s to the good.

He inspired millions of us to write and to create new worlds and to never give in to the powerful who wanted to crush or steal our dreams. But he hurt people and sparked fear in some innocents he denigrated, and womenthe woman he touched inappropriately, and that will shadow his brilliant work forever, as it should.

Here’s my Ellison story:

I was attending Comic-Con in 1995 or ’96 as an exhibitor for my comics series Greymatter. I saw that Harlan was going to be meeting and greeting at a booth in the middle, somewhere, and even though I was terrified at the thought of confronting such a fierce and forward man, and the real possibility that he’d excoriate me and my work, I had to go get in line.

I waited, I walked up, I handed him a pile of books. He was delighted, and gracious, and welcoming. He said, “Ack! You waited in line to give me comic books?!” with a giant grin and slight head shake. He accepted my fanboying with tolerant good humor and thanked me. And I left, exhilarated I’d met yet another of my favorite creators.


Cory Doctorow wrote a better obit than this one, about HE, and how to think about someone we admire who does bad and good things and it’s here, and it’s worth reading.

It Falls Apart

Losing it is a big deal for most of us, at least while we’re in the midst of it. Let’s talk a bit about it.

While failure is nothing to be ashamed of—I mean I’m in favor of it—and it’s only human, anyway, losing it is us coming to a compromising emotional state over it. Either we court it directly as an end in itself, because we’re despairing or self-destructive, among other things, or we obsess on it and bring ourselves to despair.

I’m not sure there’s an easy way to cure such a tendency long-term without professional guidance, should you find you’re a habitual self-sabotage, say. But there are two things that can mitigate it. Wait, three things.

  1. Physical exercise: get out, away from your workspace into the outdoors. Walk around. Be brisk, breathe deeply. Stay out for a while.
  2. Keep working. Just do the daily piece of whatever you do, even if it seems futile and terrible. Inevitably, creators who look back at what they’ve done can’t tell when the good days and the bad days are by what the stuff they made is like. Step #1 has an all-purpose steadier: breathe deeply, in. Out.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Remember you have tomorrow and today’s piece is only a small part of the whole. As in #1, breathe.

Trying Try, Try Again Again

Picking oneself back up is the perennial topic of any number of motivational speakers and books. It’s rare you’ll be a person who can consistently and sustainably get yourself to the creative task you’ve set, day-after-day. For the rest of us, we just have to realize we’ve not done work for a bit and get to work again.

I write on this a lot, but I think it’s because I need to remind myself over and over: it doesn’t just fix the problem to know about it. Greater than knowing you’re going to slip up, though, is the idea that it doesn’t matter. There’s no real world penalty for missing a session or two in the studio—substitute wherever you do your work for the word “studio,” here—while you’re distracted by shiny things on the internet or plain old daily life. No one fines you for not working on your paintings or album. You’re just one day fewer without something done.

But, again, it doesn’t matter. We all fall short of our most lofty ideals at some point. It’s part of being human. We spiral around again, we trip over the same stupid crack in the sidewalk. But what isn’t often discussed in the talk of our failings is the corresponding attribute of our successes. Nobody’s going to glorify your completion of the next piece of the artistic puzzle you’re figuring out. But we spend collective hours and miles of text lamenting shortcomings. It doesn’t have to be of any more significance, in my not at all humble opinion.

You failed! But everybody fails, every last one of us. You’ve got to let go of that harsh voice and be kind to yourself. It matters that you don’t let it get to you, beyond that initial disappointment. You’re still alive, you have one more day to pick up where you left off. Once you finish a thing, that’s the time we should be all appreciating you, acknowledging you made that thing and it’s done. Maybe it isn’t perfect, that’s also not important.

If you have the urge to make things about and for the world, all you have to do to rise above our darkest emotions and harshest contempt is to start again.

Keeping Things

There’s a point in Brian Jay Jones’s Jim Henson biography I knew was coming: Jim’s huge disappointment over The Dark Crystal’s reception, after spending years conceptualizing, developing, producing, and finally co-directing and performing in it. It might have seemed like years of wasted effort, even though the movie made its costs back and then some.

But it wasn’t what he wanted. The artist had a vision of how his work might be received, and that vision didn’t match reality. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have expectations, or that it’s even possible not to. It’s akin to asking us not to dream. But when we are disappointed with how our work is received, we can mitigate it. Or, sometimes, we can accept it with grace, knowing one thing:

The work still exists and it is ours.

Even when sold, the thing we made is attached to us. Jim, crushed by his disappointment, still had the thing he’d made, and it is forever his, for all its flaws and triumphs. Even though he isn’t here, his work lives on. There’s much wonder in it. I have a wonderful volume of Brian Froud’s conceptual drawings on my bedroom shelf. I marvel at the breadth of what The Henson Company was able to create out of mere ideas. I read that there’s an upcoming 4K screening of the film in February 2018 in selected theaters.

What you’ve made is yours, no matter what people think of it. Sometimes, if you believe in the vision you made it out of, it gets another chance, or two, or ten. Opinions change, and art can always be seen by new eyes.

When Heroes Disappoint

Just as we’re sometimes disappointed in our work, we often find ourselves disappointed in the artists we look to for inspiration, either in their own art or for the way they carry it and themselves forward through the world. They make something we don’t like, or even that we think is categorically bad. Or worse, act in an inappropriate or appalling way to other people. It can happen for anyone we admire or want to emulate, our heroes and idols, public servants and officials. It’s often called “becoming disillusioned.”

Disillusion’s counterpart is illusion, often a key component of art itself. Paintings and drawings have from the beginning embodied that quality, and film & video carry it even further. The cinema phenomenon, sitting in what is basically a glorified cave watching flickering images on a wall, is a well-advanced example of the persistence of vision—a high-order illusion.

Illusion is a suspension of belief, in a way. The metaphor could be extended to the magician’s art: fooling us with misdirection or quick manipulation, or an undisclosed set of preparations to change the objects we think we’re seeing whole and unaltered.

We give in to what we think we perceive, even though it might be something else, something mundane and imperfect, underneath. Disappointment in what we once were fascinated or impressed by is often the result of seeing that ordinary reality. We watch a behind-the-scenes video of a favorite film, or of someone explaining how a magic trick is done, and it’s hard not to feel a little cheated by the revelations.

I’m not at all saying this is intrinsically bad. We love our illusions, but we also want basic levels of truth and justice and efficacy in the world. Living in a world of illusions is a temporary goal, and reality, as messy and boring as it can be, also contains untold wonders of experience and understanding. As we work to increase equality and awareness of justice in our world, it’s perhaps only to the good to accept our disillusionment as part of that process.


Just came across ResistBot. It links you to your representatives in Congress, “no downloads or apps required.” In case it was in question from the general tone of this post, my goal is not to be neutral on this blog. For Americans (I’d rather be more accurate, but United-Statesians is awkward), at least, it’s a way to keep our politicians aware of our stances on issues like social justice, sexual harassment, environmental pillaging, net neutrality, and everything else.