Trashy joins me in this vlog as I talk about my career as an independent artist and webcomic creator, followed by a reading from one of my old books.
Buckle up, my friends, because I have quite the post for you today!
To accompany all the personal changes I have been through over the past few years, I have included photos of my evolution over the course of my life to break up the text in this post. Some of this gets a little heavy. You may need a box of tissues. If you end up with snot on your shirt-sleeves — I did warn you.
I have been working with the same therapist every 2-4 weeks since my ADHD diagnosis in early 2019. The relationship-focused portions of this blog were read to her prior to being posted, for the purposes of feedback and refinement.
I also cleared with Stephen what I have written about our relationship.
“There [they] [go]. One of God’s own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.” – Hunter S. Thompson, sorta.
Jenny, the little asshole. First grade, likely 1987. Same haircut?! (Age 7)
I believe all my profiles have been changed to state that I am agender. The definition of agender varies from person to person, but for me, it means that I see myself outside the concept of gender entirely. I compared it to inquiring the gender of a table lamp. (I am aware some non-English languages have gendered nouns.) Unfortunately, several people found equating myself with an inanimate object to be extremely offensive. I do not have any strong preference regarding pronouns; really it/they/she, or any other non-masculine pronouns are fine.
You could be an asshole and use he, I suppose, but I do not care that much.
For myself, being able to say, “This is who I am,” is the important part.
Photo in a park in Clear Lake, Texas, 1999. (Age 19)
Being treated like a girl or woman has always felt wrong, and I have been rebelling against it for as long as I can remember. When I have taken gender-evaluating personality tests, my scores have invariably been skewed heavily on the masculine side. I feel no desire to be male, however. I am simply me. I am comfortable with being referred to as she due to my female biology. But I do appreciate people that take the time to view me in a more nuanced way.
It’s not like I own a hundred blazers styled after men’s suits, right? Or I have avoided “feminine” bags all my adult life, getting salty when someone refers to my EDC bag as a purse. Or I feel like a fish out of water every time I wear a dress. Or I outright reject most of the cultural performance of femininity.
I know gender-nonconforming women exist. Trust me, this is not that. It is difficult to describe how comfortable and free I felt after my double-mastectomy. And I was surprised by how repulsed I was at the idea of wearing fake breasts. I will do so for certain clothing that requires it to fit correctly, and if an acting role needs me to appear feminine, but breasts will never be more than dress-up.
My body is female, but I am not a woman. Not a man. Not on that chart.
The concept is a big ask for some people, but that is where I am.
In the past, I have joked about this GIF representing my gender, but it is not much of a joke. The expression of gender is a complicated social construct that varies across human civilizations. Bugs Bunny’s joyful rejection of propriety, and enthusiasm for subverting expectations, is very much something I identify with. Questioning the status quo is not a means to an end, but it is the end itself. My goal is not to make you think about me, but to prompt you to think differently about yourself. And is that not one of the intrinsic functions of effective art?
Bugs is a chaotically-good modern manifestation of the trickster archetype.
My depression has lifted significantly since unburdening myself of the things I have held back for so long, going public about the traumatic experiences and the harassment I have endured, and finally figuring out who I am. It yielded to anger and grief over the fact that I essentially pissed away half my life struggling to be a square peg in a round hole. The end result was a shadow of a person, slowly being drained of colour, vitality, and the will to live. I narrowly survived it.
Many old photos are like looking at a stranger. In a few, I see myself.
Photo in a private residence in Houston, 2001. (Age 21)
I was asked recently what I “want” with regards to speaking out about certain individuals in particular. I compared it to walking with a rock in your shoe. Though tolerable for a while — maybe even a long time — the discomfort sooner or later becomes unbearable. Your options then become to stop moving forward entirely, or to stop moving briefly so that you may cast the rock out and continue.
As I learned more information the rocks grew bigger and bigger.
For myself, being able to say, “This happened,” is the important part. Certain individuals want to pretend that what they did to me never happened. They want to pretend that they never knew me. I will not allow it. These things happened. I exist. My story is written in blood and ink. No one has the power to erase it.
I wanted — I want — to feel heard. That is all.
Photo in a park in League City, Texas, 2003. (Age 23)
Whether they choose to acknowledge it or not, certain individuals’ personal relationships with me caused, like a line of falling dominoes, cascading negative consequences to my development and my mental health. If, in the end, I meant nothing to them, that does not negate or reduce their significance to me.
Every single one of the individuals I have spoken out against could have apologized to me like a normal, well-adjusted human being, and things would never have escalated to this point in the first place. I suppose when you assume everyone is as egotistical and unpleasant as you are, the idea that one could, you know, just admit you made a mistake and ask politely that I remove the name from the post(s) never even occurred as a possibility. Too late for that now.
At least Douglas has never threatened me for speaking my piece. I can respect that. Everyone else — not so much. They gambled that I would fall apart and fail, they lost that bet, and now they are big mad that their little punching bag started fighting back. I have done my best to help people over and over, and for what?
I am out of fucks to give and truth is on my side. I got receipts.
In the case of Cory Strode, his “guidance,” behaviour as a mentor, coddling, enabling, flattery, and self-serving Nice Guy™ manipulation indirectly caused me to never seek real mental health care or real diagnoses until I was 39 years old. His fetishization and objectification of me, as an artist and a sexually-desirable woman, along with his perpetual reassurances of how different and special I was, caused me to mostly skip the process of self-questioning and self-discovery that young adults normally go through. I was not mature enough at 18-19 years old to recognize this guy is full of shit, and I was essentially trapped in an adolescent state until his influence on me broke in 2016. His sexual relationship with me as a teenager, and his intrusion into my home as an adult, traumatized me deeply. For as much empathy as Cory thinks he has, he seems weirdly unable to see how a naive, 19 year-old girl might feel taken advantage of by a much older man.
At Akon 18 in Dallas, Texas, 2007. My last convention until 2015. (Age 27)
Cory, you never loved me, you loved me making you feel good about yourself. Just because you are nice and kind don’t mean you ain’t using people. You may have bought me shit, but you did it because you wanted something. You wanted to pat yourself on the back. You wanted my compliments and praise. You hoped with persistence you might have sex. You hoped if you gave enough you might groom yourself the perfect wife, or at least a friend you can brag about.
You act like a manipulative loser while seeing yourself like a fucking Saint.
People who unconditionally love you fucking own it when they make a mistake. People who unconditionally love you prioritize the pain they have caused, and the relationship, above their own ego and pride. People who unconditionally love you do not bail on the relationship or blame-shift because their self-image collapses with the faintest criticism or disapproval. People who unconditionally love you are willing to hear and speak the truth, even when it is hard — especially when it is hard — because truth is the bedrock of trust, vulnerability, and connection.
You deliberately lied about me to avoid feeling bad about what you did.
“I love you only when you make me feel good,” is not real love. Transactional relationships are not real love. Lies to be nice are not kindness. They are just lies. I would rather stand alone in a pit of snakes and be vilified for speaking the truth, than be adored for how far I can wedge my face up into people’s buttholes while telling them their shit tastes like chocolate cake. Being nice and kind to avoid criticism and confrontation is inauthentic and fucking fake-ass coward shit.
*cracks knuckles* All right, now we are gonna get really real…
Douglas Paszkiewicz — the creator of MULTIPLE MAJOR AWARDS — SO MANY AWARDS — NOMINATED Arsenic Lullaby. Douglas Pasz, as he calls himself now, because I may be one of the few people who put in the actual effort to pronounce and spell his last name correctly. Douglas’s schtick online is telling everyone else how dumb and stupid and wrong they are from behind the safety of a keyboard, while being a raging dumpster fire in real life himself. Always listen to Doug!
Most people just roll their eyes and ignore him — but I am not most people.
The post above is from the January of 2020, before the pandemic began.
“I’m not going to bother learning why the convention changed the name and logo, I’m just going to publicly shit on an organization that has been nothing but generous to me for twenty years because I still feel slighted about a plane ticket comped for another artists’ wife.” Douglas, I did not choose the new name or that lighting bolt, but I am the one that did the best I could to combine them to use as a social media icon. I am the one who spent at least 40-50 hours of my own time, unpaid, in January and February of 2020 building and updating a new website for a convention that did not happen. I am the one that deleted your dumb Grampa Simpson GIF reply. This convention is run by volunteers. You know that.
The very same people you are insulting in that post broke convention policy to comp your expenses for the fall 2018 show, because everyone felt bad about you missing the spring show for an emergency. I even offered to anonymously pay for your travel expenses, if the convention could not, despite the fact that you treat me like trash. Do you never tire of this? Do you ever really listen to yourself?
In the case of Douglas Paszkiewicz, while he dismissed me publicly as “this woman I dated for nine months,” to me, he was — and will always be — the man who inserted himself into the most pivotal, important decision of my life. I was in the process of a new start; brimming with hope, energy, and excitement. I was in the process of emerging from years of soul-crushing depression and loneliness. I was in the process of relaunching my independent career and business. And this inimitable, little frog-eyed gremlin of a man smelling of stale cigarette smoke, with the rare ability to genuinely make me laugh and the rare talent to genuinely impress me, apparated before me at precisely the right — or wrong? — moment and place in time. I am an atheist, and more generally, a materialist. I do not believe in woo. But my initial encounter with Douglas was so bizarre and unlike anything I had ever experienced before that I had to ask myself whether it was really a coincidence. He noticed it too, which is how the roller-coaster began.
I loved that beautiful, stubborn asshole with all of my heart. Like, damn.
Douglas: “We look like two people who have already gelled together and have been working as a team for years!” Douglas tells me he is crazy about me for a month, only-sorta-jokes about having me move in with him after a week. Gets angry and argumentative when I expect him to act like a boyfriend. Okay.
YES, I realize what you must be thinking right now. When Douglas eventually accused me of “stalking” him, a friend’s wife asked to see his photo. Her response was, quote, “I don’t get it.” My taste in men is, shall we say, extremely specific. I am attracted to almost no one. My therapist has repeatedly asked me if I am gay. (I am not.) I wanted to fuck this idiot until he couldn’t walk. Baked him cookies and meals. Gave all I had to navigating his moving goal posts and rules.
I have never felt greater satisfaction than when I could make Douglas laugh. Even when he was acting like a crotchety, miserable old man, I have never been so happy to simply quietly be in someone’s presence to the degree that I felt with him. Call me a loser, laugh at me, whatever — I do not give a fuck anymore. It is the truth. This man’s hands looked like mine, and it meant everything to me.
Douglas was reserved, but I cherished every bit of himself he shared.
He tells me he loves me right before Christmas. Calls me “Jennifer Paszkiewicz.” Promises me that I will “win” his colouring contest, and that after the holidays, we will not be a “secret” anymore. Later in January, he walks it all back.
In my last phone call with Douglas, I did not intend to end our relationship. I wanted a real apology and a real explanation for broken promises. I wanted to be with him more often than once a month. I wanted to be an active and visible part of his life. Normal things to expect from someone who says they love you. Our conversation turned into an argument, I lost control of my words, he hung up on me, and that was that. Only a few days later, Douglas was right! “I told you so!” “Women!!!” “We’re just not compatible.” Motherfucker, you did not even try.
Douglas refused to discuss a compromise for us to spend more time together instead of breaking-up. He untagged himself from our only two photos together. He gave me a pile of restrictive post-breakup rules. When I could not stop reeling from confusion and pain, he finally blocked me on social media. Like none of it ever happened. If he did not want to be with me, why so damn angry? If he did want to be with me, why treat me like that? I was so distraught and heartbroken. My previous worst break-up, I was dumped for an ex; at least it made sense.
I have never hurt so badly; especially without understanding why.
For the first few months after our break-up, I emailed and texted Douglas frequently, begging to reconcile, or at least understand what the fuck happened. After mid-2016 or so, I contacted him once in a while, usually around convention time, mainly trying to establish a friendship. I admired him and his work, even if he did not want to be with me. Many of my messages to him were about Al and Steve, his friends, who had gravitated to me on their own. In mid-2018, Douglas accepted about $400 from me through his online store and Patreon. I learned he needed help through a mutual friend. I discovered strong circumstantial evidence that he was monitoring me online. When I finally confronted him via email about everything, later in 2018, he published a blog accusing me of “stalking” him.
His blog post kicked off an “anonymous” smear campaign against me.
These are the actions of a man deeply hurt and taking it out on everyone else.
Douglas utterly destroyed me, and it is through the process of dissecting his words, examining the rubble of my relationship with him, and rebuilding myself, that I have reached this point. Clawing and grasping to understand how my own actions contributed to something so unusual slipping through my fingers, why it got away, and prove him wrong about me, were the driving motivations to dig to the source of my issues and get better. Douglas said many upsetting things to me that were unnecessary and even abusive, but he also said things that were true. And because his opinion mattered to me, I listened. Douglas’s part is inextricable from my story. I am not sure how long it would have taken to get here without him. I am not entirely confident I would have ever gotten here at all.
“Do not talk about me, do not talk about us, act like we never happened,” was monstrously cruel. Not only did it make me feel like my entire time with Douglas meant nothing to him, it also robbed me of the primary way I emotionally process the things that happen to me — through my art, comics, and writing. Of course, eventually I realized that he has no authority to censor me or my work.
If I come across as more forgiving of Douglas than Cory or Stephanie, that is because of the three, Douglas is the most honest and self-aware about himself. There were times, in person, where I could sense I was with the real Douglas. He oscillates between periods of insight and lashing out in self-defense. I witnessed him fighting his demons, and second-guessing his decisions, in a way the other two never seemed to. He did not hurt me out of malice, but because he did not know how to not hurt me. (That does not make it okay!) He was cognizant of his repetitive self-destructive cycles. It would be hypocritical of me to judge him for being in a similar state as myself. Neither the way Douglas treated me, or the way I treated him after we split, is acceptable. But it is understandable.
I did not want to change him. I wanted us to get better, together.
I wanted an equal partner I could work in tandem with, to become greater than the sum of our parts. Like Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, though I did not learn about Crumb’s wife until later. Even Douglas admitted we were “pretty great together.” He denied it later, but he recognized our creative symbiosis.
Doing all this with someone felt more fulfilling than doing it for myself.
I was so energized by the idea of sharing all my hard work and success with Douglas, that on top of the agony of our break-up, losing that goal was the first major blow to my motivation. I sputtered along powered by spite for a while, but I am neither angry nor vindictive enough to get much mileage out of spite in the long run. More recently, evolving past the psychological need to prove myself to anyone has left me asking: Why am I doing this at all? Becoming interested in politics again has helped, somewhat, but I am still sorely lacking inspiration.
My drawings of Douglas and I were the genesis of my current cartooning style.
Douglas repeatedly accused me of attempting to rush our relationship, but sometimes you just know, you know? I have a good record of recognizing the people I am able to cohabitate with. Because of my autism, I have to consciously accommodate everyone, which in practice has made me extremely adaptable and accepting of people with unusual lifestyles or needs. Douglas used the fact that I cannot have biological children to manufacture drama and distance whenever we started to grow closer. That is not personality incompatibility, that is sabotaging the relationship out of fear of being potentially embarrassed and hurt.
Douglas said things over the phone or text that he knew would upset me, then got angry I was “pushing his buttons” when I reacted predictably poorly. Ignoring for a hot minute that that is abusive, it was, again, sabotaging the relationship. I tried to explain this to him, in an effort to improve our communication, but it was pointless. Douglas was too invested in his forgone conclusion. He decided how things would end nearly from the beginning. We never even had a chance.
I did my best to love him. Douglas did his best to prevent it.
When I moved to Saint Paul, I rented an apartment large enough for us both. Douglas often complained about needing to “get out” of Milwaukee. The six hour drive between us was unsustainable. Minnesota offers better public services than Wisconsin, especially medical care. Douglas had friends here in Saint Paul, and was familiar with the city. We could share living expenses. It was not a great leap. I was trying to help us both. I ended up living daily with his ghost.
Me: “You made me look mean.” Douglas: “No… formidable.”
I do not buy the notion that you have to love yourself to be deserving of love from others. But if you hate yourself, then it logically follows that there must be something wrong with anyone who loves you. And at that point, you have set yourself up to fail. Self-honesty, not self-love, is the exit key to that prison.
The pursuit of self-honesty leads to inner peace, fearlessness, humility, healthy boundaries, and unflappable confidence. You will become a ship too steady to be rocked by every little pissant wave and thunderstorm thrown your way.
Let me tell you from experience: The journey is worth it.
Things loaded into the cab of my truck for my first trip to Milwaukee, 2015.
Douglas has a blog post he wrote, long ago, about suicide that he shares each Christmas season. It has been several years since I last read it, so please excuse my rough summarization. The core message is that, if you are on the edge, to do whatever it takes to bring yourself enough pleasure to avoid pulling that trigger. Cigarettes, drugs, sex, anything less self-destructive than actual self-destruction. And, especially in the first few months after we broke up, when it felt like my life was spinning out of control and Cory was closing on me like a vice — anything was the memory of Douglas gently chastising me for eating wrapped candy from a stranger at a flea market. Anything was the memory of collapsing into his chest while I laughed myself to tears at a YouTube video, and the physical sensation of his hand in a cotton glove, pressed on my arm to keep me upright. Anything was the memory of him pranking me with hard-boiled eggs while I was making cookie dough in his kitchen; of him declaring he would not eat “bachelor cookies” baked in his toaster oven; of him tousling my hair as I fought to stay awake while the timer ticked away on the final trays. Anything was the memory of him insistently paying me back the dollar he borrowed to buy a small container of ancient nails at an estate sale. Anything was the memory of his face I glimpsed, in a window, eyebrows furrowed and mouth twisted into a scowl as he watched me drive away to Saint Paul. Anything was the memory of that first trip to Milwaukee, where in piles of sketches, books, and rusted tools, I briefly had everything I wanted.
Is that healthy? No. Do I have many happy memories, generally? Also no.
I was never suicidal, but some nights I sure felt like I was dying.
For Douglas, I may be no more than another female in his Rolodex of “poor choices and mistakes.” But for me, he was the closest I have come to intimately sharing the most important thing in my life — my work — with another artist, er, illustrator whose work also resonated with me. I do not have memories like this with anyone else — these crystallized moments where it felt like all the planets and stars were aligned, and maybe, just maybe, it was my turn for things to finally work out. It is unavoidable: that loss is going to bleed into my art.
Preliminary sketch for “Reap the Whirlwind” Krampus artwork, 2015.
I do not have the language to describe to you the feelings that his sketches elicited in me; how I wanted to swim in the curves of blue pencil lines, or warm myself in the chaotic energy of red. I do not have the language to fully explain to you how completely natural it felt drawing his characters and colouring his lines, as if they were my own. I have known, and I know, hundreds of artists. I have been in relationships with other artists before. But have I never experienced that kind of connection with anyone else. I do not expect to ever again. And I realize this makes me sound batshit fucking insane, so just let me have this one.
How does one grieve losing something like that? I still struggle with it.
“Reap the Whirlwind” lines by Douglas Paszkiewicz, colour by Jin Wicked, 2015.
The last time I saw Douglas in person was — I think — at Grand Rapids Comic-Con in Michigan, in November of 2019. I submitted an application to it because I knew he attended every year, and I wanted to test if the individual(s) behind the “Jin Wicked Veritas” page would succeed in having me banned. Spoiler: I learned later that they never even tried. I was also friends with another creator expected to be a guest. I have to say I think because the final morning of the convention, after Steve and I stepped into a crowded elevator headed up from the parking garage, I saw someone who looked like Douglas in my peripheral vision. He was wearing a hoodie, and appeared to be trying to melt into the elevator wall. Our eyes met for a fraction of a second, and I turned away to ask Steve if he had our badges. After leaving the elevator, I glanced behind me, and Douglas was already gone; scurried away faster than a cockroach. If that really was him? I could have confronted him at his booth at any point during the entire convention, but I did not. And I could have confronted him at his booth at any point during San Diego Comic-Con, but I did not. I am aware that I did something wrong by contacting Douglas when I should not have, but this “fear” of me goes way beyond anything rational. I was in that elevator with Steve. The guy who used to be his friend. The only “contact” I had had with Douglas, for more than a year by then, was being “anonymously” smeared online because of a blog he posted. If he, or anyone, believed I am dangerous, why provoke me like that? It makes no sense.
Me alone at the Milwaukee Zoo on 4 October 2015. I also visited Lake Michigan by myself. Douglas: “Take a picture of a zebra for me.” Avoidant, much?
Douglas, are you really afraid of me, or are you afraid of acknowledging how thoroughly you shattered my heart? Are you really afraid of me, or are you afraid of what I represent in the back recesses of your mind? Do you have any remorse for enthusiastically making yourself a part of the biggest change of my life, and then using the fact that my life was in upheaval to justify treating me cruelly and erratically until I snapped? Did you need to distort my desperate floundering to figure out what happened, and later overtures to be your friend, into “stalking” in order to resolve your guilt? Why did you feel safe monitoring me, selling art and books to me, and firing off accusations and insults from afar, but you could not endure being physically near me in a crowded, well-lit room full of people?
Would me smiling at you and saying, “Hello!” be that terrifying? Why?
Are you really sure it was me you have been running away from?
Douglas, I am sorry that I hurt you. I have never had, nor do I have now, the desire to hurt you on purpose in any way. All my anger was vented when I went public about this last year. I am not angry about your #MeToo blog post, or any involvement you had in the “Jin Wicked Veritas” pages, anymore. It was wrong for me to continue contacting you after you asked me to stop, and I am sorry that my actions made you feel those responses were necessary. I am sorry that my communication frightened you. I am sorry that you have suffered, and that I have contributed to your suffering. I am sorry that I only made things worse with my clumsy attempts to help you. I am sorry that I have had to resort to writing this, and dragging everything into the light, for my own well-being. More than anything, I have always wanted, and will always want, for you to be happy.
Douglas, you are a diamond; roughly-hewn and faceted by your own trials, tribulations, and inner turmoil. Flaws do not make diamonds less beautiful, but unique. You are a one-of-a-kind man of cleverness, talent, and vision. My wish for you is that, if you have not already, you someday free yourself from the cycles of self-destruction, and the collateral suffering that they inflict upon the people who care about you. My wish for you is that, if you have not already, you someday learn how to wholeheartedly apologize, and forgive both others and yourself. You deserve care, love, happiness, and respect. I hope that your life is abundant with energy drinks, Mr. Pibb, grape soda, gummi bears, cookies, breakfast sandwiches, old drafting tools, a working hot water heater, and everything else that your heart may desire. If I ever happen to come across a functional centrolinead, you will get a surprise package in the mail from me, whether you like it or not.
You unknowingly gave me something very special, and I needed to understand why you abruptly yanked it away. I needed to be “allowed” to write about it. All I ever required from you was kindness, patience, and the sense that it was safe to freely express myself. You remained true to yourself as an independent creator, and were living the life that I wanted/want to achieve. I looked up to you.
You owed me nothing, but is that really all you felt I deserved?
Douglas, I care about you. Even at the angriest and most frustrated I have ever been with you, I still cared about you. Even when you confused, confounded, and hurt me, I still cared about you. Even when you slammed your heart shut, and by doing so crushed mine, I still cared about you. Even when you posted my pain for all the world to ridicule in retaliation for your own, I still cared about you. Caring about you does not mean accepting being treated poorly, or failing to stand up for myself. Caring about you has not prevented me from doing what should be done, and moving forward with my life as best I could. But I still care. And I will always care. I will care until my final breath. That is my nature. That is who I am. If caring makes me mock-worthy, I could not give less of a fuck who laughs.
I care about everyone who has played an important part in my life.
I care about the entire fucking Earth and everyone on it. I just care! A lot!
Douglas, you are AT LEAST as crazy as I am, you gloriously-exasperating bastard. You infuriatingly-likeable wretch. You charmingly-self-piteous slob. You… you…
maddeningly-enigmatic old codger… hardheaded… bugger… you…
…ahem. But I digress.
Because of how I was created, my ability to communicate has often been wanting. When I am frustrated, the intention of what I actually want to say is sometimes scrambled between my brain and the words that come out. I have put a tremendous amount of effort into slowing down and speaking more mindfully in the past two years. I am no longer afflicted by the nervous anxiety and insecurity that were side-effects of not knowing myself. Nothing excuses my behaviour, but regardless, I have never purposefully hurt you — with words, or in any other way. I do not want to hear secondhand about you becoming ill or dying, at some time in the future, without the knowledge that I at least tried to make things right.
I will never regret looking the fool, to avoid the actual foolishness of regret. I should loathe you for all that you have done to me, but in the end I cannot help but care. I forgave you long ago so that I could enjoy the happy memories I have of our time together. Your words cannot hurt me anymore. I cannot help but see the whole Douglas: flaws, strengths, and all. Please understand that any criticism I have levelled at you, today or in the past, stems from the desire to see you not just survive, but thrive. It tore me up watching you undermine yourself.
I am not asking you for more than, “Hello.” I am not asking you for more than pleasantries if we should bump into each other at a convention. I am not asking you for more than to please stop running away. I know I am being selfish, but I just want to see you smile. Anything beyond that is 100% your decision.
It feels like the world is ending, so one last time: Douglas, I miss you.
With cigarillo in a brown vintage leather patchwork jacket, 2020. (Age 40)
I do not know what Douglas is doing now. I hope he is healthy, well-fed, and safe. If he finally accomplished his white-picket-fence American Dream, then I, without reservation, am happy for him. Part of me will forever be sad about the failure of my relationship with Douglas. If we had not become intimate, we might have shared a meaningful friendship. We might have been able to collaborate as colleagues. Our now-mutuals immediately clicked with me in some of the most comfortable and effortless friendships I have ever made. Because of me, Douglas slipped away from them; like the AWOL last piece of a jigsaw puzzle, the picture incomplete. That was never my intention, and I feel sad about that, too.
The possibility that Douglas despises and fears me makes me feel sad. The possibility that I will never see him smile or tell a joke again makes me feel sad. The artwork and prints that I shredded in a fit, and I can never have back, make me feel sad. The dollar bill he repaid me, which I kept in my safe for years, until finally using it to buy a bag of chips from a vending machine, is honestly pretty funny but also makes me feel sad. For the most part, I am a content and happy person, but this is a source of sadness that I have had to learn to live with.
My life has been filled with loss, but this one has always felt so distinct.
I still struggle with it. Maybe I will always will. I do not know.
Ms. BlueHair, if you ever read this — I would never have written what I did if it had occurred to me for a second that you would see it. That was not about you at all. I was regurgitating how Douglas describes his ex-girlfriends and women in his writing, because I was angry with him for that. In reality, watching you get hurt over and over caused me a great deal of distress, which I did not have the ability to communicate to you or manage effectively. I am sorry I caused you additional pain. I am sorry I could not offer any explanation when you were upset with me. It was wrong of me to involve you in my personal conflict, and I am sorry.
Pencil sketch with Cthulhu drawn on 6 March 2016.
Independent of the outcome of this, and my other recent posts, disclosing my past and learning to correctly articulate my feelings has been a crucial milestone for my artistic process, personal development, and growth. Feeling unpermitted to say the things I have needed to say, particularly while I have been monitoring an increasing volume of suspicious activity across my websites since the fall of 2020, has been a persistent source of unease and even physical illness. Are these person(s) circling vultures, watching for my demise? Are these person(s) worried about me? Curious? Feeling threatened? I have my circumstantial evidence and my theories, but I cannot know. My remedy, therefore, is to tear this bandage off and reveal all to unbiased eyes, where my words cannot be selectively covered by black boxes to mean anything other than what I intend. Much has changed in the last year, Douglas, including me. Speak to me, or don’t, but I have laid out all my cards upon the table. I have nothing to hide, and I am not afraid. Going forward, I will have the peace of knowing that I have left nothing unsaid. No matter how you, Douglas, or anyone else chooses to respond, or not — neither myself, or my work, will fade away quietly as you might have hoped. You cannot erase yourself from my story. You have only the power to write yourself a different ending.
There is an ending I would prefer — obviously. But that is your decision to make, Douglas. Have you done any soul-searching about how you treated me? Have you considered that, perhaps, you misjudged me? Has five years been enough time to observe me and learn who I really am? Do you truly care so little about me that you can stand back and watch others try to destroy me because of a blog you posted, when you almost certainly know the truth? Is that what you want?
Is that really the ending you want? For you? For me? For both of us?
I suspect that it is not. But I admit: I could be wrong.
Stephen assisting at my booth at Chapel Con in Albert Lea, MN, 2017.
In other changes, Stephen and I have ended our relationship as anything more than friends, permanently. We have been little more than roommates for quite a while now. I love Stephen, and I thought that perhaps I could be happy that way, this time, but in the end I cannot. There has to be an exchange of a specific kind of kinetic energy for me to maintain a lasting physical attraction to anyone, and however rare it might be, a relationship without it drains the life out of me.
I have also been bailing out Stephen as he lurches from crisis-to-crisis, nearly from the beginning of our relationship. Emotionally, financially, psychologically; I am depleted. I am not able to support him anymore. Stephen initially utilized his relationship with me as an escape route from the unhappy, ten-year relationship he was in. After five years of angst and drama surrounding his ex-girlfriend and her family, alcohol abuse until 2018, car problems, being fired or quitting multiple jobs, extended periods of unemployment, breathtakingly-bad long-term financial decisions, inability to reliably pay bills in-full or on-time, spendthrift behaviour, filling up the apartment with bins and boxes of “store inventory” i.e. comics and toys, constant noise and television watching, lack of concern for my needs and personal space especially when I am working, our conversations consisting mostly of Stephen complaining about someone and/or something, daily weed use that he promised and failed to quit, and broken promises about taking care of his health, I am tapped out. What am I getting of this relationship, you ask? Hugs. I get lots of hugs. Which was enough, for a while. Stephen brings home food, and does the laundry often. But he also leaves trash everywhere in random places, and I feel like I live in an episode of Hoarders. I feel like a prisoner in my own home. I feel more like a back-up retirement plan and a status symbol than a partner. We have broken up over these issues multiple times. We have had conversations about these issues dozens of times. Any improvements last maybe a week.
How long can someone watch me struggle and just… be okay with that?
I attempted to end our relationship in the summer of 2020, but was unable to because of the pandemic, and the issue that Stephen did not have a vehicle. He depended on me to drive him to work, which I had no choice about, if I wanted to receive his share of the rent. Partly due to that, over the fall I descended into my most severe depression in years. I did the legwork and loaned him the money to get car insurance and an old beater car at the end of 2020, before my surgeries. Stephen has paid me back the money he owes me, but he cannot replace the energy and time I have wasted managing his problems, on top of my own.
I share some culpability for allowing this to continue for so long.
Everything that I have accomplished since 2017, I have done while dragging Stephen’s failure to take responsibility for himself behind me, like an anchor. I have given of myself until there is almost nothing left over the past six years. I am the proverbial crab in a bucket, being ever-pulled back down inside.
Stephen has a good heart, and our relationship has been a period of intense change and personal growth for both of us, but this is where our paths diverge for good. I have become so drained by our relationship that my creativity and passion are dying. If I do not course-correct now, the rest of me will die.
Perhaps writing this will serve as the kick in the pants Stephen needs to finally get his shit together, because nothing else has, including the threat of losing, “the love of his life” as he enjoys calling me. He has had five years to begin acting like a responsible adult while I addressed my own issues. That is quite enough.
Stephen, I will always be here for you as a friend. But you create most of your problems. I have told you this. Other family and friends have told you this. When, if ever, are you going to take responsibility for your choices and your life?
You are too old to be living this way, and you are running out of time.
I am frugal. I take care of myself. I work hard. I do these things with minimal to no complaint. I ask only for the same. Life is unlikely to get much easier from this point on, and anyone wishing to run with me needs to care more about grit and perseverance than comfort. These traits, and honesty, are what matter to me.
I am not a trophy, a toy, or an infinite resource to be exploited.
I am a person. I deserve to be treated with respect.
I can sense another crossroads or turning point coming for me soon. Whether connected to the books I am working on now, or something else, I do not know. My creative flame is barely more than smouldering ashes at the moment, and it is not a state of being I can tolerate indefinitely. I grow from being challenged and being challenging, on experiencing novel-to-me hypotheses and perspectives, on intellectual curiosity, and on outwitting others and being outwitted. That is mostly missing from my life at the moment. Signs are pointing me toward becoming involved in the Twin Cities acting, comedy, and improv communities.
Gigs and roles are being posted again, and I want to try an open mic night.
Left, 2012 (Age 32) / Right, 2021 (Age 41)
On 9 May, I caused a bit of a kerfuffle on my social media by uploading the nakedest photo I have ever shared. To recap, the photo on the left is from 2012, not yet at the nearly 180lbs I ultimately reached by the beginning of 2015. The photo on the right is me now, at around 110lbs. Working a draining, physical full-time job and the pandemic derailed my previous effort to get swole. Recovered from my surgeries, and COVID-19 vaccinated — I am ready to try again.
Below is a woman named Claire Max. She started with less body fat than I have in my lower torso and upper thighs, but it is encouraging to know this is possible with a year of consistent work. My personal goal would have a bit more bulk in the legs, but this is close to what I would like to achieve and maintain.
Food will be one of my biggest obstacles, as I am still having problems eating.
My pecs need serious attention. In the right light, you can see all my ribs.
One of the serendipitous things about no longer having breast tissue of any kind is that future fat loss will have to come from elsewhere on my body. Ask almost any woman intentionally trying to lose weight: one usually has to go through significant breast shrinkage before seeing results on the rest of the body.
I find Hybrid Calisthenics helpful for at-home routines, combined with what I learned previously at the gym. I brought my stair-stepper and elastic bands back out to build myself up to lifting heavy again. (The physical therapist said I am all right to go, but I must be careful.) I am making a focused effort to be able to do push-ups for the first time in my life. I may even throw a punch, inshallah.
"Celeste and the Aurora Borealis" Mix-and-match jewelry collection for my personal wear. Click to view more detailed photos on my Instagram.
I added some fitness-related items and protein to my Amazon wishlist. You will see many beading and jewelry-making items there, too. I created a collection of new and updated jewelry for myself while I was powering my way through the emotional and psychological muck this year. I also dusted off my DSLR and photography equipment. It feels good to pick up these dropped threads.
There is not much else going on health-wise, except that I got new glasses. I have something called a pterygium forming in my left eye. After a lecture about UV rays from my eye doctor, I decided to upgrade to Transitions lenses. I also have to use a warmed compress and moisturizing eye drops. Exciting.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Jin Wicked knows!
On 15 May, I stopped by my first comic book convention since the pandemic began. The MCBF held a small event compliant with health and safety restrictions. I stayed for a couple of hours to catch up with everyone and take pictures for the social media pages. At the beginning of this year, I shipped my twentyish-year-old hat to Clearwater Hats to have it refurbished, for lack of a better description. (The people who originally made my hat have retired, and the company is under new ownership.) I donned my refreshed hat for the “Spring Fling,” and a few readers stopped me while I was wandering to chat. It was a good day.
I am sure my feelings will change with enough time, but right now I have no desire to return to exhibiting at conventions. Hauling books and merch, wrestling with banners, hustling behind a table for eight or more hours, repeating my sales pitch over and over until my voice is hoarse? It is too much. I have also had my fill of the competitiveness, fragile egos, and bitching about who-gets-what. Even after a year off, I am still burnt out. I enjoy volunteering — setting up chairs and tables, socializing with my fellow volunteers and creatives, taking pictures, and even sweeping up afterward. I am not under any pressure to be entertaining or perform for people. I do not have to endure flirting and awkward, uncomfortable conversations. Crowdfunding, e-commerce, and social media have always been a better investment for me, anyway. So I will cover other artists’ breaks, fetch hot dogs, and do whatever else needs to get done behind the scenes, until I feel ready to exhibit again. I am tentatively booking limited events for 2022.
While there are wonderful people involved on an individual level, the comics industry as a whole has revealed itself to be toxic as fuck. I am grateful that it has never been central to my business strategy, and that I do not rely on it.
I am not in “competition” with anyone except past versions of myself.
Left, Houston 2015 (Age 35) / Right, Saint Paul 2021 (Age 41) – My growing convention badge collection and drawing desk. The grumpy face in the left photo was drawn by Douglas in my sketchbook at the party where we met. “We’re all going to die anyway,” is from Douglas’s work. The notecard was from Cory.
Recently, I noticed quite a few more grey hairs have popped up in my bangs. They are almost white, and I like the way they catch light at certain angles. My makeup box has gathered dust, as I find myself using it less and less. I am tired of the dog-and-pony show. I am tired of glossy, formulaic celebrities. I am tired of the endless churn of recycled pop culture. I am tired of forced nostalgia and phoney positivity. I am tired of being bombarded by empty consumerism and commodified sex. I am tired of disposable junk that is not easily repaired.
I am tired of the gig-and-grind economy that endeavours to monetize every moment of life itself. I am tired of the worship of Mammon by “Christians” who were warned explicitly by Jesus against it. I am tired of all the hypocrites.
Beauty, to me, is unfiltered reality. The essential work. The foundation upon which all else is built. Show me the people with lines in their faces, and dirt and grease on their hands. Show me the people with bodies bent and broken by hard labour. Show me the people on the front lines in their communities, walking the walk, fighting the good fight to make the world a better place for everyone.
These are the people most deserving of society’s admiration.
While I am certain they are nice, talented people, I do not care who is drawing and/or writing the fifty-thousandth adaptation of Batman. I am not impressed by bank account balances and fancy cars. I am not impressed by status. I do not care who you believe you are, or what you believe you have accomplished.
Show me character, creativity, passion, and the contents of your heart.
I am fascinated by, and starting to explore in more depth, Jungian analytical psychology — especially the concepts of psychic death and shadow work. I also pulled out my copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying to revisit. Outside of a classroom, where does one physically find people interested in subjects like this? Where does one find people contemplating “big picture” questions?
Are there book clubs? Social groups I do not know about? Where does one find the unexpected? Where does one find innovation? Where does one go to find invigorating discussion and debate? I am searching for these things.
This illustration, Off My Chest, was finally completed utilizing an experimental technique (for me) combining pencil, ink, and watercolour. It was so experimental that the first attempt back in January resulted in an unsalvageable mess, and had to be trashed. It is perhaps a little too metaphorical for my life in the intervening months. This will be the first illustration in my eventual second art book.
I may, or may not, make prints of this. I have not decided yet.
On 19 May, the publisher of Berserk announced on Twitter that Kentaro Miura had passed away suddenly on 6 May, at the age of only 54. Miura was a master of fine detail, mood, line work, and expression. There are very few artists in this world whose work makes an impression on me in the way his did. It hit me hard.
I spent over an hour ugly-crying at my computer desk that night.
I know it may seem silly to be so attached to someone I never met and knew little about personally, but in many ways I seem to be able to emotionally connect more with art than people. Berserk is a grisly dark fantasy story about characters that suffer excruciating tragedy in a bleak and unforgiving world, who openly defy their “fate,” and somehow always find the strength to keep going. The characters are as complex and rich as Miura’s exquisite artwork. Miura was truly a living legend. Berserk’s influence has reached anime, films, games, and beyond.
Nothing in this life is “flawless,” but for its medium, Berserk is about as close as any artistic human endeavour may ever come. It is flawed in the same ways that humans themselves are flawed; visibly evolving and growing over its lifetime. It occasionally pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable; sometimes touching, sometimes shocking. In a story full of horrifying violence, its quiet moments are the ones that stick with you. In a story full of literal monsters, it has some of the most human characters ever put to paper. There is nothing else quite like it.
The creative world is much poorer for having lost Kentaro Miura. It is very possible that the stresses endemic to being a mangaka contributed to his early death. Let his death serve as a reminder that artists are human, too, and that the unrelenting pressures of crushing deadlines can be, all-too-literally, deadly.
Miura’s death turned my mind to another comic creator taken from the world far too soon: Drew Hayes, the creator of Poison Elves, who passed away at age 37 in 2007. Poison Elves was hugely influential on my work with pen and ink, and I was blessed to enjoy a brief long-distance friendship with Drew in the late 1990s. My multiple ear piercings were inspired by, and eventually became my own personal memorial to, Drew and Poison Elves. One hope I maintain, with the advancement of my career, is that I am eventually in a position to help keep memories of Drew and the legacy of Poison Elves alive. He was there for me, with encouragement and support, at a critical time in my life. I feel like that is the least I can do.
Take care of yourselves. Take no one and nothing for granted.
None of us are promised a tomorrow.
Photo at Como Lake in Saint Paul, MN, 2021. Credit: Ben Cooper (Age 41)
We’re all gonna die anyway.