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The Powell's Playlist | June 18, 2014 1 comment
Like many writers, I'm constantly haunting coffee shops with a laptop out and my headphones on. I listen to a lot of music while I write, and songs... Continue »
A Short History of the Photocopying and Dissemination of My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppableby David Rees
I needed to submit six copies of the comic for the grant, along with a cover letter, resumé, price quote from a printer, and personal statement. I knew from experience that making six copies of the book at Kinko's would cost seven million dollars. (I made twenty copies of the book for friends at Christmas and Kinko's hijacked my reality with their high prices and spiral binding.) Since I didn't have much money, I asked a friend involved in the Boston zine community if there was a zine-friendly photocopy shop that might give a discount for homemade literary projects.
My friend recommended World's Most Ass-Kicking Printers outside Harvard Square, across from the purple waterfall. (The name and identifying characteristics have been changed for this article I think some of the guys still work there.) I dropped off the originals, but chickened out at the last minute and didn't ask if they gave discounts for self-published material. A few days later I picked up the copies and paid the bill. It was still a better bargain than "Stinko's." I submitted the grant application and that was that.
Days or weeks passed uneventfully. Then the world blossomed into a rainbow of possibility: I was approached by someone who said he enjoyed reading My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable. This flummoxed me because I had not given him a copy for Christmas as I did not know him. Was he perhaps on the review committee for the grant? No. And yet he had definitely read the book? The one with the karate guys yelling and cursing? Yes. After a little more prodding he admitted that his friend worked at the zine-friendly photocopy shop and had faxed him the entire book, page by page. (If I had asked Kinko's to fax the sixty-page book to someone, the cost would have been... remarkable. Listen, I can't stand Kinko's. Photocopy shops should not be privately owned; they should be state-run and publicly subsidized. A tax-paying citizen should be able to collate and laminate anything they want, for free. And if you don't vote, you should not be allowed access to America's photocopiers. I'd also like to say that Mail Boxes Etc. is a total scam. If you have to choose between sending your valuable package via Mail Boxes Etc. or leaving it on the corner with a note attached that says, "Please, somebody, take this to its destination," ALWAYS choose the latter.)
So the book was being distributed via fax without my permission. This is called "file sharing." I asked the guy if he thought his photocopy friend would make me some copies of the book at a reduced rate seeing as how he was already engaged in unauthorized fax piracy on the high seas of clip-art comics. He thought this was reasonable. I called the guy at the photocopy shop and we worked out an arrangement whereby I would stop by the shop on Friday afternoons with a 12-pack of beer. I would leave the beer on top of the counter and he would kick a box of books under the counter. I would lug the books (actually, collated pages) home on the subway and staple them in my living room. That is how I learned the ancient art of bookbinding.
At my zine friend's encouragement I started selling the books on consignment at a few local bookstores. I included a unique iron-on transfer with each book. The initial price was four dollars. Financially speaking, I didn't know what I was doing. But since my production cost was zero-dollars-plus-12-pack, I could afford not to understand how the publishing industry worked. Now I am sorry to say that My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable costs ten dollars. However, it is still a great bargain because it is glue-bound and therefore immune to rust.
The beer-for-books arrangement continued happily for months. Then God killed hope when the copy shop was bought by a chain of more-responsible graphical-service-solution stores, or whatever they're called. Word in the Boston zine community was that the new owners were cracking down on staff photocopies. The time had come to seek out another source of "special discount" photocopies.
Once again, the world flew into my happiness with much-needed splendor: I received some very encouraging fan mail about My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable. It turned out this particular fan was the head of an investment bank's graphics department and had access to some of Boston's most powerful photocopiers. Would he help me make more copies of the book? We met at a coffee shop and hammered out the details while playing Boggle. Weeks later, my living room was once again bedecked with boxes of books.
Do I miss those days? Absolutely I do not. However, at that time, I was still knee-deep in them.
I moved to New York, reluctantly leaving all my new photocopy friends behind in Boston. I got a job temping at Citigroup, proofreading PowerPoint slide presentations in a windowless basement in midtown Manhattan. You might have seen this windowless basement yourself have you ever sinned, died, and gone to hell? Perhaps you have also proofread the Devil's PowerPoint presentations on How to Create and Make Manifest Hell on Earth. (I was proofreading documents like, "How the Crackdown on Human Rights in Turkey Could Be Exciting News for Our Satanic Shareholders.")
Anyway, the irony was that I now found myself working in the graphics department of an investment bank! Just like my final photocopy friend in Boston! I now appreciated the possibilities that lay just outside my personal space. I let my eyes, feet, and entire body wander into Citigroup's photocopy room. Gigantic, beautiful, beige machines hummed and clattered with the relentless reproduction of text and charts on paper. I started feeling out the photocopy attendants' attitudes towards unauthorized use of said beige miracle-makers. Their attitude was one of "I don't understand what you are talking about."
Perhaps I was not being forward enough. Unfortunately my internal self-preservation compass told me I could not be any more forward, since I needed both the paycheck and debasing sense of self-annihilation provided by the temp agency. I had reached a dead end. In the words of Black Sabbath, "Satan, laughing, spread his wings."
Nevertheless, life indulged in a final unleashing of symphonic positivity: I met someone else who had enjoyed the hand-stapled edition of My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable and sent a nice note. That man may or may not now be my editor. He might have worked at another publisher at the time, and may have been kind enough to enlist his production department in making a few hundred copies of a book.
At this point, I felt I had reached the limits of free photocopies. A hundred copies at a time was generous indeed, but I was selling the book in enough stores that I could see needing over a thousand copies.
So I pitched an exciting business opportunity to my parents If they loaned me $2,000 to print up a real, paperback edition of My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable, I would repay that loan WITH TEN PERCENT INTEREST WITHIN A YEAR. We signed a contract and ate dinner.
The printer I used was based in Jersey City. The printer did not do a very good job with the book that is to say, he did the worst possible job with the book. The printer brought the first few boxes of books over to my apartment in his minivan. When I took a look at the book for the first time, my heart sank.
I had used a nice dark tan cover for the self-published edition, and wanted to make sure the new edition had the same color. The printer insisted he could match the color exactly by using "some stock I have here in the corner of my office." That color turned out to be more beige than tan. A fitting tribute, perhaps, to the color of a majority of photocopiers, but not what I had dreamed.
Another problem was with the pages that had gray pictures. Since the printer had said the original pages would be difficult to scan, I was told to rebuild them on my (wife's) computer. But there was a problem with the printer's photographer or something all the gray images came out blurry and overweight. (When I asked the printer about this, he said, "Oh, yeah.... the photographer mentioned something about the grays not being clear. I never told you. It looks great!")
The final crazy thing concerned payment for the job. The printer asked if I could address my check not to his company, but to his daughters' daycare. I started to wonder if the guy was printing the book without letting his supervisors know about it. Story of my life!
When it came time to publish My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable with Riverhead, we decided to make sure the book looked exactly like the original homemade edition. I scanned each original page into my computer and used them as templates to rebuild the book line for line, crappy image for crappy image. This was my first experience with forgery.
Actually, I made a mistake in the above paragraph. I was not able to scan "each original page" into my computer because my printer lost the original pages. (Yeah, self-publishing is really fun!) All he could find was the film they had shot of the book's layout. After months of my needling, he finally relented and delivered the film to Riverhead's offices. He then asked my editor if Riverhead would consider using his company to print the book. After all, they had experience printing it and would do a great job! Unfortunately Riverhead is not allowed to finance printers' personal day care arrangements by secretly manufacturing books in Jersey City and losing all the client's originals.
All in all, things worked out pretty well. I'd like to dedicate the following personal statement, written for that grant years ago, to everyone who has ever made me free photocopies of My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable.
My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable is a comic book made using computer clip art. This comic takes a limited set of public domain art as its visual foundation and builds an intense social system of combative personalities. The aggression of the language and absurdity of the mis en scene play against much of the imagery's mundane character.
I created My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable using Microsoft PowerPoint on Windows Office 98 software. Using the computer allowed me to make the comic in a job situation where traditional drawing equipment would have been too conspicuous. I initially decided to use clip art for its convenience; I later came to realize it influenced the thematic elements of the comic.
Although it takes place in a karate temple, the inspiration for this comic comes from MC freestyle battles in rap music. An obsession with lyrical technique, and how one's technique compares to that of one's peers/enemies, is one of the thematic cornerstones of "battle rhymes." Similarly, many of the confrontations in My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable reduce to arguments about technique. Much time and energy is spent gossiping and conjecturing about other fighters. Physical combat itself is almost beside the point. A fighter's size and strength are not important; instead, having a new technique or being a metaphysical anomaly (e.g. an imaginary fighter who becomes real) is the surest way to intimidate others. In this social system, fighters are more afraid of being confused than of being beat up. In its environment of anxiety and paranoia, the karate temple may not be that different from a competitive sales department.
There are very few determinate characters in My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable. In many cases the same clip art is used to denote multiple people. Similarly, some strips differ only in dialogue, with identical sequences used to denote different characters in different situations. A few unique characters with extraordinary physical attributes See-Through Man, The Fingerprint Fighters, etc. were inspired by what sort of clip art I found online. Most of the time, however, the reader is swept along by the adrenaline of what amounts to a foul-mouthed Greek Chorus a chorus which ultimately turns in on itself to defend against a few extraordinary fighters. Despite the anonymity and posturing of most of the characters, my goal was not to make a cynical or mean-spirited comic. The fighters in My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable are sincere about their craft, curious and passionate about fighting. They are willing to admit fear and wonder. Most are sympathetic characters despite their aggression.
I would like to distribute My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable nationally. Clip art is a good way to introduce the art of comic narrative to people who might otherwise be intimidated by a perceived lack of "artist talent." Clip art usually serves a strictly utilitarian purpose, and its anonymous, often un-copyrighted, perfectly reproducible public nature is an intriguing contrast to other types of art. It can serve as the impersonal structural units through which more creative personal art is produced. The amount of free clip art available online is virtually unlimited. People like myself, who do not own a computer, can make entire comics quickly and cheaply using computers on the job or at the public library.
Comics seem to me the simplest and most elegant way of creating distinctive social systems and sharing these new worlds with other people. Using clip art allowed me to streamline this rewarding creative process even more. I would like to share (the admittedly bizarre) My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable with people across the country and thereby spread the word that it is within everyone's grasp to make up new worlds.