TINY UPDATE 9/6: Sun and Solitude

“Tiny Update” is a weekly free newsletter that keeps you up to date on the latest news, comic book projects and merchandise offerings from James Tynion IV and Tiny Onion Studios.

I finished listening to the audiobook of Cal Newport’s DIGITAL MINIMALISM over the last week (a recc from the comment section of one of my previous newsletters). It’s a good book, and worth reading if you’re looking for someone to help talk you off the ledge of leaving social media. I’m considering doing a more robust “declutter” as he discusses in the book (removing all intrusive digital habits and platforms from your life for 30 days and only reintroducing the ones that give you a genuine benefit at the end of it), but I do think that I’m already on my way to the aims of a declutter without needing to take that step.

The Feedly experiment has been extremely beneficial. I’m realizing that without a platform demanding my attention, there are only a few times a week I feel the need to scroll through dozens of articles. Mostly I check a handful of sources and their headlines at the top of a day and then leave it alone. That frees up my brain for other thoughts and other concerns, all completely driven by my own curiosity and interest. More than anything, I’ve found myself thinking a lot more, which is good, because thinking is the exact kind of shit that helps me come up with cool new comic books.

If there’s one downside, it is feeling a little more disconnected from my peers but I’m trying to develop the habit of actually reaching out to people when I think about them. In absence of passive connection, I want more active high quality connection with the people I care about in my life. We’ll see how it all works, but if it pays off, I think it’ll be a huge net gain for me.

There’s a concept in Newport’s book that has been sitting with me over the last few days. It gives a name to something I’ve been thinking and talking to my friends about over the last few years. “Solitude Deprivation.” The idea that the average person in the modern world is deprived of the feeling of being alone with their own thoughts, and that that sensation is a fundamental human need that we are being deprived of en masse.

I am an anxious person, and my brain is usually running in three or four directions all at once. I’m also somebody working on lots of projects that demand my time and attention, and I am usually a little behind where I’d like to be. That means that a workday can feel like I am trying to tune out all of these voices demanding my attention, and then while out socializing I still feel all of those things calling out to me, and I have difficulty letting go of what I feel I should be doing. For years, I stopped feeling present in my day to day interactions. Social Media made that feeling a thousand times worse, with the artificial responsibility to be on top of whatever the day’s conversation was, and as I grew in stature in the industry and my follower count rose, there were literally hundreds of tweets a day specifically demanding my attention or investment on top of the abstract demands of the platform. Every day was trying to carve a path through a constant roar, and trying desperately to find time that I could reach the kind of deep focus I require to write, and panicking when I couldn’t find it. I would rely on all-nighters as the one time a day where the roar died down and I could just slip into work without anyone or anything demanding my attention, and the cost to my body and my mental health would add up.

About three years ago, I took a family vacation to Jamaica. It was the classic story, I had tried to work ahead so I wouldn’t have any comics work to do on the trip, but I ended up having about three scripts to write while I was down there. I was determined not to work the entire time, but heading into the trip I was terrified that I would never get to relax and let my mind relax which is what it needed more than anything else. My partner Sam saved me from myself and lured me out to the water on the first day before I was going to sit down and write. Something happened out in the water. There was something about floating out in the rocking waves under the hot sun where the anxiety in my mind kind of just lost steam. My mind cleared, and I was just sort of thinking out there. It was impossible to check my phone or my computer, so I let the thought of checking both of them go. I felt actually present, and my mind cleared. When I sat down in front of my computer later that day, I did so deliberately without coming at it all from a well of anxiety. I finished my work for the trip in the first two days I was there, and spent the rest of my time letting my mind go blank out in the water.

About two weeks after that trip, I wrote the first script for SOMETHING IS KILLING THE CHILDREN.

When the roar kicked back up a month or so later, I discussed with my therapist the kind of options that might help me recapture that kind of peace without having to fly myself to Jamaica every time I felt overwhelmed. I quickly fell in love with “Float Therapy” in sensory deprivation tanks (there are a number of options in Brooklyn, and it does appear to have become more prevalent around the country). There was something about the combination of floating in the water, and not being reachable by anyone, where I could just exist entirely alone with my thoughts that was incredibly powerful and fulfilling. And grounding. It was like I could turn off the roar when I was in those tanks, and doing that semi-regularly (not TOO often - I tried it weekly for a bit and it lost its power) kept me grounded and helped me let go of the pressure. And I started seeing what other sorts of behavior helped me capture that feeling of zen. Getting a massage was similar. Being in nature did a lot. Going for walks (without music or audiobooks playing). Being in liminal spaces, like airports or subway stations where nothing is required of me other than being there. During quarantine last year, I fell in love with taking baths with Epsom salts with peaceful music playing, and the bathroom only lit by a candle.

I eagerly pursued any time I could be alone with my own thoughts and let go of the responsibility of being plugged in. Filling my time with those sorts of moments, and prioritizing them was nourishment for my brain. It was like when you start drinking a glass of ice water when you haven’t been aware that you are dehydrated, and you can feel the genuine physical response you’re experiencing as you rehydrate. I didn’t have the term of “solitude deprivation” until this week, but I do think it describes what I was feeling perfectly.

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that once I started prioritizing those kinds of moments, I started writing the best received work of my career.

Now I’m working to enter a whole new phase of all of this. I have this one idea that sounds so appealing and so terrifying that I don’t know if I’ll ever go through with it… But there’s a big part of me that wants to start leaving my smartphone at the office when I go home at night. Maybe I’ll get a lo-fi, un-smart phone for emergencies that I’ll keep on hand. Something only my loved ones and closest friends will have the number to. I would very much like to start reclassifying my smart phone as a tool with a specific purpose, rather than a strange kind of extension of myself. I want to be conscious of what I want to do with it every time I pick it up, and when I’m done with that task I want to put it down. I think the more reasonable first step in this separation is to start leaving my smart phone in the office when I go to lunch.

I do have a feeling a few decades from now we’ll look back at the ubiquity of smart phones and the “necessity” of always being connected to the hive mind of the internet the same way we look at the thick fog of smoke in every workspace and restaurant in movies from the mid-late 20th Century. I have a feeling we’ll learn more and more about the damage this is doing to the world’s psyche, and similar to the tobacco companies, we’ll learn that the execs have known the dangers for way too long, and in spite of that, have worked to make their products more addictive.

But anyways… I splurged for this LA trip and got an AirBNB with a pool, and I’ve been spending about 30 minutes in the morning every day just floating and treading water, re-centering my mind and grounding myself before heading into the day. As always, frequency reduces the value of each dip, but it’s been a nice ritual to start the day. Leaving my phone turned off and charging while I have a cup of coffee, go for a swim, and then hop in a shower. Choosing the moment I want to let the noise in, and having control over the aperture. It won’t be a system I can reproduce in my Brooklyn apartment, but I’m eager to try and build a new system for myself to best equip my mind for the concerns of the day so I can approach each concern without getting lost in the noise.

This fall I’m going to have a more rigid schedule, locked to the computer for a set time every day for a few months, and I’m looking at that schedule greedily, thinking about how I might be able to best build a whole new set of habits around it to better fuel this next part of my career.

Anyways, I’m rambling, and I need to head to the airport! Time to leave sunny CA and head up to Portland for a few days before I can finally escape the West Coast and return to my rightful place in Brooklyn. It’s been a wonderful week. I got to hug friends I haven’t seen in way too long, sign some comic books, and got to see one of my oldest pals in comics get married (Here’s to you, Andrew & Jessica!).

This week, we are going to be dropping the first chapter of BLUE BOOK into your inboxes. I’m going to make this first chapter available for all subscribers, paid, and unpaid… But after that, you’re going to need to pony up for a full subscription to get your twice monthly dose of UFO magic by me and Michael Avon Oeming. But you should get ahead of the game and just subscribe now!

Now, let’s get into the mix.

Fear State has begun! This week will see the story pick up in the pages of BATMAN #112! Based on my research I think this is the only Fear State issue dropping this week, but it’s got a brand new back-up feature starring the one and only CLOWNHUNTER written by the incredible Brandon Thomas! I’m going to be giving shouts out to all the Fear State tie-ins as they drop, but here’s a handy checklist since the email didn’t go out properly last week.

You should check them all out, because all of the Bat-Books are kicking ass right now!

W: James Tynion IV/A: Jorge Jimenez/C: Tomeu Morey/L: Clayton Cowles/
COVER A: Jorge Jimenez and Tomeu Morey/ COVER B: Jorge Molina
1:25 Variant: Lucio Parrillo/1:50 Variant: Kael Ngu/ AE: David Wielgosz/
E: Ben Abernathy

Fear State begins! The Scarecrow has unleashed a coordinated attack on Gotham City through his manipulation of Simon Saint and Peacekeeper-01! But there are other forces at work with the emergence of an Anti-Oracle spreading fake news across all channels and inciting terror and violence on the streets of Gotham! 

W: James Tynion IV/ A: Alvaro Martinez Bueno/ C: Jordie Bellaire/
L: AndWorld Design/ C: Alvaro Martinez Bueno/ Variant C: Tiffany Turrill/
AE: Marquis Draper/E: Chris Conroy

A terrifying truth about the house is revealed! David wants nothing more than to make his fellow residents of the House laugh. He’s the Comedian, right? That’s what he does. But if no one’s in the mood to laugh, then perhaps it’s time for him to perform the other function of comedy: to tell his audience an unbelievable truth…

A note about this week’s Nice House… Back when the series first launched, and I was trying desperately to convince you all that I didn’t pitch this series after the pandemic (It was approved in 2019!), I got the question about whether anything in the series DID change after the pandemic happened and I actually started living the quarantine life. This issue shows one of the biggest changes. The mechanism for them all to get things used to be a kind of storage room that replenished when no one was looking… But then, living at home with a deluge of cardboard boxes arriving at my door each week, the beat of the story changed.

I was telling someone at the signing this week how surprised I continue to be about how many people love this series, and how heartening it is that a book about a bunch of young people trapped in a house at the end of the world can be the juggernaut this series has been… Although I DO hear you that it’s easy to lose track of the names. I have this taped up in my office to help me when I’m writing, so it seemed like it was worth dropping it here in the newsletter, too!

Hope you enjoy this one… It packs a punch, and builds up to a reveal that’s going to start shaking up the established order that Walter has built for all of them.

I had an AMAZING time seeing everyone this past week at TFAW at Universal Citywalk, and was thrilled to meet a bunch of folks who subscribe to the newsletter in person! Thank you so much for your enthusiasm! We are just getting started!!

Just want to remind everyone that I am going to be signing this Wednesday in the PORTLAND, OR location of the incredible, incredible store THINGS FROM ANOTHER WORLD. Quick note here, when I started promoting this, I was saying it was from 8-10pm, because my computer was still on East Coast time!

I’m very excited to see you all there!!

  • I read “YOU HEAR WHAT EDDIE GEIN DONE?” By Harold Schechter and Eric Powell over the weekend, thought it was a really well done encapsulation of the whole Ed Gein case (Gein, for those of you who don’t know, is the inspiration for Norman Bates in Psycho and Leatherface in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre). My favorite new piece of information in the whole graphic novel, though is that Errol Morris and Werner Herzog once plotted to dig up Ed Gein’s mother while Morris worked on a documentary about Gein that he never finished, but Morris chickened out and left Herzog alone in a cemetery, which led to a falling out between the two. Digging to learn more, I found a great modern day interview between the two documentarians about the whole sordid affair which is just fascinating.

  • In the last week, I also read TORSO by Brian Michael Bendis and Marc Andreyko, THE GREEN RIVER KILLER by Jeff Jensen and Jonathan Case, and MY FRIEND DAHMER by Derf Backderf. (Gee, it’s almost like I’m researching a new project or something). All of these books, with FROM HELL leading the charge form a kind of graphic novel canon about serial killers. I appreciate they all feel deeply human, rather than fixating on the horror from a more sensational angle. If there’s anything else in this vein you think I should be putting in my brain before I start writing the book I’m setting out to write, drop the book’s name in the comments below!

  • I also finally read ECHOLANDS #1 by JHW3 and Haden Blackman, and holy shit, what a comic book!! Somehow in all my anticipation, the fact that it was actually going to be printed how it was completely escaped me, which was a delight to learn when I finally got to hold it in my hands. What a phenomenally gorgeous book. I can’t wait to read more.

  • Between trips to the Annex at Skylight Books, Secret Headquarters, and Wacko’s Soap Plant in the Los Feliz/Silverlake area, I am going to need to buy a new carry-on at the airport to bring all the amazing books I picked up home. Extremely excited to visit Floating World Comics for the first time while I’m up in Portland, too! Go visit these shops! Pick something up outside the usual direct market stuff! There are INCREDIBLY exciting things happening in comics right now outside of our corner of the industry.

I am very tired. I owe a bunch of folks emails, and I need to finish a few scripts that I was overly optimistic that I’d be able to knock out while traveling. I’m hoping I’ll be fully done with at least one of them before I land in Portland this evening. Otherwise I’ll be chaining myself to the desk in the hotel before my editors and artists have me fed to sharks.

As always… Go to the Tiny Onion store to buy Enamel Pins and other cool stuff, and go follow @ReadTinyOnion on Twitter!

James Tynion IV
Los Angeles, CA