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I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit by Aaron Cometbus

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I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit If you grew up in the punk scene in the 90s, chances are you didn’t get very far before you found an issue of Cometbus in your hands. The novella-sized, memoiristic zine, started in 1981 in Berkeley, California, handwritten and Xeroxed by Aaron “Cometbus,” was instrumental in turning me, and a lot of other kids, onto writing and publishing.

Long before the near-universal belief in the Internet’s democratizing effects took hold, long before self-publishing was hotly debated on literary blogs and industry websites, Aaron was showing kids everywhere that they could create their own media. At a time before digital distribution was the norm, before digital publishing was available in every teen’s bedroom, Cometbus showed us that as long as we had a pen, paper, and access to a copier, we could produce our own publication.

Most Cometbus issues are Aaron’s accounts of life on the road with punk bands, living in vans and sleeping on fans’ couches. For those times when he wasn’t on the road, his unconventional home life became the subject of his stories. Over the years the locations varied but the day-to-day remained the same, communal living, social dysfunction, and dumpster diving.

At any given time, in any given city, Aaron had at least one friend suffering from heartbreak, one in a destructive relationship, and another in the throes of a chemical imbalance. His friends reminded me of mine; it was a familiar scene, if only more adventurous. Aaron was an angsty teen’s hero. He was my subculture’s Jack Kerouac.

Aaron’s 2006 novella, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is written in the telltale Cometbus voice: the introspective storyteller electively living a hard life, equal parts amused by and concerned about his friends.

The narrator, a character named Aaron, recently heartbroken, lives in a van parked in his friend’s yard. Laura, the friend, is also recently heartbroken.

By night, the van was an icy tomb. By early afternoon it had turned into a toaster oven … It reminded me of being on tour, with everyone piled on top of each other sleeping and the van broken down on the side of the road, smoking. Those were always my favorite times, traveling. My fondest memories. Now it was like that every day. …

Yes, a broken-down van was the perfect place for a person like me. All the appearance of movement and direction without the threat of actual change.

A certain type of fiction is often accused of being autobiography in disguise and it’s hard not to think of I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit as another installment of Cometbus. Fictional Aaron’s world feels a lot like his well-documented real one, right down to his friends.

When the story opens, the first person we meet is Laura. She’s hurling bricks at a passing armament train, presumably in some anarchist-inspired protest against war. However, it becomes clear that it’s anger and frustration driving her, not some belief in a cause. Reckless melodrama dressed in political theory.

Another character, Jemuel, plays the ambivalent friend, destined to remain exactly where he is.

Part janitor, part manager, that was Jemuel’s job. Come in when everyone else was gone and clean up the store, restock the shelves, pay the bills, and do a little bit of the books. Ideal, really. … Except for one thing: he hated music. Or, rather, he resented it. Was it music itself, or the whole business it had become? Jemuel thought about it for a minute. Both. Then he put on a record.

While reading I couldn’t help but think about my early 20s; just out of college, back living in my hometown, working at a local bookstore, hanging out with friends from high school, doing the same old thing we’d always done, not sure what the next phase of my life would look like, only knowing I didn’t want to dress up and work some temp job. Life was uncertain and what happened next was entirely up to me.

This is precisely where Aaron sits: the crossroads. As with Vanessa Veselka’s 2011 indie sensation Zazen, I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit captures a moment in time capable of evoking a visceral reaction.

While one of the dangers of reflecting on an age gone by is devolution into sentimentality, Aaron’s ability to balance the romantic notion of suffering with a pragmatic view of the future helps him sidesteps the nostalgia trap. I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit is an honest look at what happens when adulthood creeps in.

Buy I Wish There Was Something That I Could Quit at your local bookstore
Buy Aaron’s other books from Last Gasp

Written by Gabrielle

January 15, 2013 at 6:53 am

On the Shelf: My New York Diary by Julie Doucet

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Grabbing the copy of the 1991 graphic novel My New York Diary as it sat on the St. Marks Bookshop discount shelf was a no-brainer. This slim comic by Canadian-born artist Julie Doucet, reissued in 2010 after being out of print, appealed to my younger, angstier self, the one who coveted zines and a punk rock ethos.

My New York Diary is made up of three autobiographical stories. The first is the awkward loss of her virginity—a cringe-worthy event involving a near-homeless, possibly inappropriately older man. The second is of her time at junior college studying fine art where she lives with a conspiracy theorist and attracts unstable men, one of whom attempts suicide in her room the night before her final project is due. The third, and meatiest, is the story of when she left her native Montreal for New York City. In the spring of 1991 she moved into the Washington Heights apartment of her pen pal, a guy who had become her boyfriend after one visit the month prior.

Following the book’s leitmotif, the guy turns out to be a bit unhinged, controlling her friendships, feeding her drugs, and distracting her from cartooning with games of Candy Land and bottles of alcohol.

Doucet first published her mini-comic Dirty Plotte by way of a Xerox machine but her year in New York coincides with the time she spent working on a book for Drawn and Quarterly, an independent comic book publisher in Canada. Her style is dark and detailed with thin lines, cross-hatching, shadowing, and other textural techniques. Her characters look ragged, half-starved, and drug-addled, which might have more to do with the company she kept rather than the manner in which she chooses to draw. Throughout the book she’s surrounded by depressed, struggling artist types who work odd jobs, if at all, and drink and take drugs to excess. No one appears to have enough money for a vacuum cleaner— including Doucet herself.

From a quick glance, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that she was published in Robert Crumb’s magazine Weirdo. This inclusion in a 1981 issue earned her critical attention and future offers from The Village Voice and New York Press.

Having grown up in Montreal, English is not Julie’s first language and it shows in the writing for My New York Diary. There are minor grammatical errors and sometimes strange language usage, however it’s never confusing and only adds to the quirkiness of the book and the artist.

In bitch magazine, once co-editor and publisher of Punk Planet and current-day media activist, Anne Elizabeth Moore, said of Doucet’s work, “if I really think about something I read that made me gack with identification—that spoke to me in a pretty deep way about being a girl in the kind of world I was living in—it would have to be Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte comic books.” If you’re feeling particularly nostalgic for your DIY-loving days or are craving some unabashed, punk rock memoir writing, My New York Diary is for you.

My New York Diary at IndieBound
Special edition with DVD
Julie Doucet’s website (in French)

On the Shelf: Here are a few things that will go well with My New York Diary:

13 Songs by Fugazi (1989)
One of the greatest punk (or “post-hardcore”) albums ever. Here’s an interview with lead singer, Ian MacKaye, in Pitchfork about the recent release of the band’s archives.

LP by Minor Threat
This was MacKaye’s first band before forming Fugazi. They’re mostly known for coining the term “straight edge”. This album is fast, loud, and angry. In short: awesome.

Despite Everything: A Cometbus Omnibus by Aaron “Cometbus”
In 1981, Aaron Cometbus, as he’s known, began this hand-written, photocopied zine in Berkeley, California. Most of his material is about living in punk houses, touring with bands, and living on the bare minimum with emotionally unstable friends. He’s still writing and co-owns an independent bookstore in Brooklyn.

BUST magazine founded by Debbie Stoller, Laurie Henzel, and Marcell Karp
BUST began in 1993 as a photocopied zine. I know because as an intern in the 90s I had to scan the early copies so they could be archived online. It’s a women’s magazine for indie-minded women: women who give the finger to convention but wear makeup and dresses, women who know how to change the oil in their car but who can also knit a mean scarf. Still going strong, and in a bi-monthly glossy format, BUST is core reading material for women who think Vogue cover stories could just as easily be written for The Onion.

Feminism is for Everybody by bell hooks
“In this engaging and provocative volume, bell hooks introduces a popular theory of feminism rooted in common sense and the wisdom of experience. Hers is a vision of a beloved community that appeals to all those committed to equality, mutual respect, and justice.

hooks applies her critical analysis to the most contentious and challenging issues facing feminists today, including reproductive rights, violence, race, class, and work. With her customary insight and unsparing honesty, hooks calls for a feminism free from divisive barriers but rich with rigorous debate. In language both eye-opening and optimistic, hooks encourages us to demand alternatives to patriarchal, racist, and homophobic culture, and to imagine a different future.” [ via IndieBound]

Gardenburger Veggie Medley burger
“A farmers’ market blend of delicious vegetables and grains with broccoli, rolled oats, savory onions, red and yellow bell peppers, crisp carrots, brown rice, and water chesnuts.” Gardenburger is my favorite veggie burger maker. They use the least number of processed ingredients and their patties are never dry—even when you toss them in the oven. You really can’t go wrong with any of the different varieties but I usually grab the straight-forward Veggie Medley.

Written by Gabrielle

December 30, 2011 at 6:08 am

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