Thursday, July 24, 2008

DESPITE EVERYTHING: A COMETBUS OMNIBUS


After I finished high school, I spent a few years bumming around, riding greyhound and hitchhiking, picking up disposable jobs and crashing in flophouses/communes/hostels. Eventually, it got kind of boring. Without committing to a location, you limit the sorts of things you can experience and achieve. Picking up and leaving every few months makes it hard to get beyond a shallow relationship with a place and the people living there. That's the conclusion I came to, anyway, and so I decided to drop anchor in San Francisco, and see what I could build.

Aaron Cometbus, who's been writing the Cometbus zine for more than 25 years now, doesn't seem to feel the same way. He's spent the bulk of the last three decades as a perpetual roadrunner, and Cometbus is largely dedicated to the chronicling of his experiences. This huge tome (600+ pages) collects selections from Cometbus 24-43, plus a smattering of stuff from the earlier issues.

At it's best, Cometbus makes for compelling reading, and I'd even go so far as to say that certain issues represent for me the pinnacle of zine or other periodical achievement--you couldn't put together a better magazine. At its worst (like "The week I rode the bus a lot: a greyhound hell journal" from issue 27, in which Aaron spends almost every hour, for a week long period, either sitting on a bus or waiting in a greyhound station) the zine feels monotonous, pointless, and utterly boring; similar to what aimless traveling had become for me, and why I gave it up. The whole book is kind of a grab bag, with certain issues that I really enjoyed, and other issues that came across as Aaron just feeling obligated to put something out, and raking together a pile of crap for that purpose.

One of the things that I love about Cometbus (and this might seem strange given my general lack of interest in fashion and tv and other mediums focused on visual communication) is the sense of design it showcases. A lot of punk zines are ashy nightmares, just a bunch of crappy pictures/text pasted together and poorly xeroxed. Cometbus shows a more sophisticated visual ascetic. Admittedly, part of the superior visuals in Cometbus relates to the fact that the zine is pressed instead of photo-copied, which means the pictures are pretty clear and not the gritty headaches you get when you xerox a color shot. But it goes beyond mere print quality. Aaron often laid articles out in a way that reflected the article's topic--a visual echo of the textual meaning. For example, a lot of the first-person anecdotes are handwritten, which further enhances the idea that we're reading about a personal experience--how one unique individual (unique down to his handwriting, which reflects individuality more than a uniform computer/typewriter font ever could) experienced one event. Aaron also uses borders and inserts and graphic approaches to tie an article together over the course of several pages, to help you know you're still on the right piece when you flip the page. And sometimes Aaron uses creative visual approaches to completely break away from the orthodox left to right, up to down way we read a story, like in his account of Greenday's first tour (in issue #25), which starts in the lower left corner of the page and snakes around a map of the United States, visually taking us along on the journey. All of it's done in a way to make the most out of the black-and-white format.

Another interesting thing about Cometbus is its representation of the punk culture. This book starts with an issue in which Aaron decided to stop focusing on music (no band interviews, no show reviews) and instead start focusing on the lifestyle. By doing that, he ends up framing punk-life in a broader way, a way that can be recognized as similar to other counter-culture movements (like the lost generation and the beats and the hippies). There are certain things that I view as more-or-less unique to the punk ascetic, like its appreciation of obnoxiousness and irreverence, its affection for childhood interests (sugary cereals and toys), its fascination with urban grit (dumpstering and homeless people), but there are a lot of other things that you'll find in any culture that arises as a conscious response to the mainstream. Instead of communes you get punk-houses; they look different but are pretty much the same thing. As Aaron travels from place to place, he meets up with like-minded people and experiences things with them. In the end, this fostering of a sense of community might be the most important thing about Cometbus.

Part of the community aspect in Cometbus comes from Aaron's travel accounts, but another part comes from his inclusion of columnists and guest writers. A few people turn up again and again, in issue after issue, and they add a lot to the zine. Anna Joy comes across as a cynical genius in some of her pieces; very funny and entertaining, and appreciated for her feminine (in a hard-edged way) input. Richie writes clever weirdness that brings to mind modern favorites of mine, like Sam Pink but not as dark. Here's a Richie poem, to give you a taste:

"birds"
a sunny summer's morn
the birds twitter prettily
so
i go inside
and
get my gun
and
kill them

Some of the one-shot contributors are great, too. The piece on train-hopper graffiti ("Who is Bozo Texino" in issue #27) comes to mind.

All in all, I'm really enjoying this book. It's been a chance to see some of the older Cometbus gems I missed out on, and I've still got several hundred pages to go. There's some crap in here, to be sure, but when it's good Cometbus gives you something that no big-budget book or magazine can offer: the purest (editor-free) connection with a stranger that writing can offer.

It's even got me thinking of putting together a zine of my own. I'll post info on this blog if I manage to get anything together.

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