John Manly, Henry Darger, and the Voynich Manuscript

I’ve been listening to a podcast about the Voynich manuscript. At the time of this writing, I haven’t finished it but the podcast is great:

Here’s the Wikipedia article on the manuscript:

Early on, the podcast mentions a researcher into the manuscript named John Manly:

The name sounded familiar and I realized it’s the name of a villain in that sprawling work by Henry Darger:

This is a portion on Manley the villain, from the documentary on Darger:

It is said that Manley was based on a boy from Darger’s childhood, so all of this may be coincidence. However, it’s fun to imagine this:

Manley’s article in Speculum about the Voynich manuscript was published within a year of when Darger was said to have started his work.

I find it interesting that the two men lived in Chicago at the same time, one creating a bizarre book and the other critiquing one.

Most likely coincidence, again, but the idea that Darger was trying to create his own version of the Voynich manuscript in a way is slightly poetic.

Granted, if Darger was going to research things, why not go to nearby DePaul?

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Why I Dislike the Banana Ladder

Several of my friends were sharing a graphic that mainly consisted of text. The text reported a scientific study that seemed dubious to me. When I expressed misgivings, my friend Chloe found an article that debunked it:

However, several people asked me, “Isn’t this story still useful as an allegory?”

If we want to pursue that, I still have my original thoughts about the conclusion of “‘This is the way we’ve always done things’ is bad,” from this particular analogy.

Thought 1: There seems to be an idea that if the monkeys can’t verbally communicate that water is going to fall on all of them, somehow the communication of “We will all beat you if you go up there!” is less valid.

Thought 2: The idea that most of us follow the rules without knowing why is communicated as a bad thing, rather than a survival instinct. As a society, we count on our fellow humans to teach us what they’ve learned so we don’t die as often. “If everyone is beating me up when I try to go up this ladder, there must be a reason for it. I guess I’ll stop and warn others!” isn’t the hallmark of a dumb animal. It’s good sense.

Thought 3: These monkeys are the victims of a sadistic, omnipotent being. These monkeys are not beating up another monkey for no reason. There is some all-powerful demon who has created a banana that can change the weather. This small group of monkeys has to deal with things beyond their comprehension. Cut them some slack.

Thought 4: Guess what? These monkeys protected themselves from getting further abused. The scientists only stopped the showers after the first five monkeys quit going up the ladder. Some may assume that the scientists wouldn’t have doused the monkeys if the replacement monkeys had succeeded in getting up the ladder, but I see no indication that this would have happened. Those scientists were jerks.

Thought 5: Of course we need people to go against the rules established before anyone remembers. However, this isn’t a great example of how to do that.

“Why do we continue to do what we’re doing if there’s a different way?”

Why indeed? However, in this story there is no “different way” explored, nor opportunity presented. The moral is, “Why don’t we try to do things in the exact same way that has failed so many times before in a rigged system within which we are powerless?”

So there you have it. It pretends to be inspiration, but sets you up for failure.

What the story needs is an orangutan who figures out that if she picks the lock and then breaks the pipe outside of the cage, all the monkeys can get the bananas without getting wet.

Orangutans are cool.

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My wife recently fell down the front steps of our rental house in Seattle. and had some minor injuries. She has a degenerative muscular condition that has been getting worse lately.

After this incident, it became apparent that:

1) She could not safely walk down the stairs unassisted.

2) We could use extra help taking care of Betty while navigating these issues.

At the same time as this was happening, things weren’t going well in my apprenticeship. A company to which I had been dispatched hadn’t been paying the union its fees, the end result being that my health insurance was canceled right before an important test for Jennifer.

The work was inconsistent. The pay did not cover our bills. Something had to happen.

So, I started looking for work near my parents’ house in Illinois.

The plan was to find a job and transition over the next couple of months.

Instead, I was offered more than I’d made in Seattle since the .com crash. There was one catch:

I had to start immediately. I had three days to get to Illinois.

I took the job.

I realize this decision may seem to make little sense to my friends back in Seattle. This area is not as bad as I thought when I was a young man. It is very affordable. There are some good people here. There are many interesting places. We will not just endure this move. We will enjoy our life and thrive.

Things will be hard the next couple of weeks. Jennifer was isolated in Seattle by the steps, now she’s isolated by a lack of a car when I go to work. My parents’ Internet is limited. We need to move to our own place, but to do that we need to get the old place cleaned out. Ben Laurance is doing an amazing job, considering we left everything right where it was. Thank you, Ben, and sorry.

I will miss everyone. Living here, however, I may be able to afford a visit.

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I don’t know how other author/illustrators work. I haven’t spent much time studying this business. I took some creative writing classes in college and was lucky enough to study cartooning with Frank Stack. That said, my style has developed mostly through bullheaded persistence than formal instruction.

Therefore, this process may only work for me. Conversely, it may be the system everyone uses. At the moment I write this, I cannot say. Also, I should point out that this process is for picture books. Other things I’ve done follow a similar pattern, but not one so precise.

I start with a drawing.

Normally, it’s a picture in my head that I put down on paper. Often the final product is different that what I’ve envisioned. That’s okay.

I stare at the drawing as if it were a photograph. Who is this? What were they doing before this “picture” was taken? Where are they going? Who are their friends. Their enemies? Where were they born? How will they die?

In this way, I create an entire history for the character. Then I decide during what part of their life my story will take place. That’s when I start the process of self-collaboration.

The creative world-builder part of me has ideas. Many ideas. Too many ideas. The outliner part of me understands this and tries to force all of those ideas into a narrative structure. More importantly, the outliner throws out things that do not fit. When the outliner’s job is done, there’s a story structure that anyone could follow without knowing much about the rest of the world.

I pass the outline and drawing off to my agent, asking if the book interests him. If my agent thinks it’s something he can sell, I move on to the next step.

I break the outline up among a set number of pages, say, 48. For example, “There she sees a dragon,” might be broken up into “There she sees,” on page 15 and “A dragon,” on page 16. When the entire outline is spread across 48 pages, I put on the author hat.

I go through each page of my outline spread and decide whether words will be needed on that page. Using the above example, “there she sees” and “a dragon” might be eliminated if all I’ll be doing is drawing a princess and a dragon. If so, I simply leave those pages blank for my artist pass. If I’m feeling forgetful I may write [DRAW DRAGON HERE].

If I run across an outline note that says, “She greets the dragon,” I replace it with text that would actually appear in the book. “‘Hello, Dragon,’ she whispered, ‘I hope I didn’t wake you,'” for example. I repeat this process for every page in the book.

When I’ve finished the written manuscript, I put on my artist’s hat. I forget about how long the book is. I try not to give myself a deadline. I put on a comedy podcast or some mindless television. I look at the words on the first page of the manuscript and I draw that. I go on to the next one. I continue until I am done or the outside world intervenes.

Once I’ve finished all of my drawings, I’ll occasionally go back and redraw the first few. I tend to improve my technique as I continue, and it is sometimes a drastic difference. I may be the only one who deals with this issue, but it is a legitimate concern. It should be noted that most of the art is unfinished at this point. My agent only requires four completed pages of art for a submission. The rest are just sketches.

Next, I import the artwork. If I’m working purely digital, this step takes no time. If I’m using traditional media, it’s a huge slog. I often take this time to watch a show with subtitles, a luxury I can’t afford when I’m drawing.

When all the art is scanned, I replace the text with the picture on each page. Then, keeping the text in my mind, I rewrite it to better fit the picture I ended up drawing. The synthesis between the words and the pictures is a hard thing to describe. I just know when something “feels” right to me.

When I have an entire manuscript of words and pictures I convert it to a .pdf and send it to my agent.

From this point forward, I try to separate myself from the book. If my agent tells me something is confusing, I don’t defend it. I pretend that someone handed me someone else’s book and told me to solve the problem. If my agent tells me a company is interested in the book but wants an ogre instead of a dragon, I submit a revised version with drawings of an ogre. I maintain this attitude until the book is sold, then recommit to it until the book is published.

By compartmentalizing each part of the creative process, I am able to move forward incrementally without being overwhelmed by the scope of the project. By separating myself from the material, I am able to make tough choices that could kill a book deal if ignored.

This may not work for everyone, but it’s gotten me through two book deals so far and I am very happy with the results.

Thanks for reading!

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Artist’s Statement

A sentiment I hear often is, “If you can do anything besides write, do that.” Substitute any other form of artistic endeavor for “write” and you’ll hear this advice echoed throughout many communities.

I believe this wholeheartedly, but not in the way I think it is normally intended.

Too often, I fear, beginning artists fall under the idea that they must be making a living solely doing their art to be considered a professional. Worse, they fall into the trap of constructing elaborate rituals they need to observe in order to be creative. Stealing a half-hour to create something before your mind-numbing day job is impossible if you have to go through the process of making a cup of tea “just so” before you begin.

So, an established artist telling them that they should do things other than art if possible sounds suspiciously like an invitation to quit. Perhaps that’s even the usual intention. I’ve never asked. It could be selling the idea that true artists are extremely rare and special. I’ve no doubt that they are. However, the idea that a true artist must be incapable of any sort of work outside of a creative field diminishes their power instead of celebrating it.

If you view yourself as someone who can only perform creative functions, you put yourself at the mercy of the market price for art. Often, that price is not very high. If you have talents outside of the creative sphere, you have the ability to sustain yourself and produce the art you wish to make on your own terms. Embrace this.

This isn’t to say that if your circumstances allow you to spend your life making tea just-so before you create that you should stop. You are where all of us wish to be. You don’t need my advice.

However, if you are struggling to make rent each month and can do anything besides write, do that. If you can do anything besides star in a commercial for product you can’t stand, do that. If you can do anything besides design a logo for free because “great exposure” was promised, do that.

If you can do anything besides create, do that.

Additionally, keep creating.

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May 15th, 1913 – Beloved “Monkey Puncher” Erving Felsen Struck Down in Constanta

Vienna, Austria — Erving Felsen, the enthusiastic “Monkey Puncher” who enthralled audiences around the world with his county fair exhibitions, died Monday morning after being kicked in the throat by a “bull monkey” while performing for a crowd of orphans in eastern Romania.

Eyewitness accounts place Felsen’s last bout in a hospital in Constanta, where he was attempting to combat a lethal strain of bird flu by punching twelve thousand monkeys in under seventy-two hours.

Felsen, 29, was killed by what Felsen himself described moments before his death as, “the largest monkey in the room,” and the ward nurse claimed was “mustachioed and derbied, in the manner of the devil.” According to Constanta’s chief of police: “His piping voice and humorous scampering both delighted the children and struck fear in the heart of any man owning property.”

Felsen was in the area to promote his “healthful philosophy” of “Freedom from Disease Through Simian Pugilism” with Hedy Lorenz, illegitimate second cousin of Konrad Lorenz, according to Felson’s manager and “femme fausse” Jean Folle. “Damnable interference” from the local constabulary had halted a planned demonstration in the town square, so the arena was moved to a location that Felsen said had a, “less Chinese mentality towards our filthy cousins.”

Crate upon crate of monkeys were unloaded, proboscis, rhesus, even the common marmoset. Soon, the air was thick with howls and musk, but Felsen did not appear until all was past intolerable.

“He punched his way through the crowd of monkeys, and the largest, (a smelly, drunken, be-hatted beast) came up and kicked him in the throat,” Folle said.

Nature artist Benjamin Singe, citing a child’s hasty drawing of the attack, told our editor that Felsen had accidentally cornered the beast. “It had laid itself on the ground in a submissive position. Then, without warning, it performed a maneuver known as a “kip,” simultaneously throwing out its foot toward Felsen’s exposed neck,” said Singe. “It’s the edge of the foot. Sometimes referred to by the Dutch as the “voet blad” or “foot blade.”

Ambulance officers confirmed they attended a boxing related fatality Monday morning at an illegal children’s hospital, according to Austrian media.

Vienna’s Police Services also confirmed Felsen’s death and said his family had been notified.

Felsen was director of the Austrian Children’s Circus and Burn Clinic in Vienna. He is survived by his Japanese-born wife, Yumi, and their two children, Esok, born January 1889, and Flip, born April 1901.

“The world has lost a great bare-knuckled fighter, a passionate abolitionist, and one of the few true role models for the world’s anosmics,” Folle told reporters in Vienna, according to The Associated Press. “He expired in the midst of the pursuit of that for which he lived, on the wings of heavenly angels. Monkey angels.”

“Felsen was as large as a bear, and violent. His actions brought the glee and terror of the natural world to our doorstep,” said washroom attendant James Horlicks. “Sometimes, against our wishes, he would even transport it across the threshold, even if there were signs clearly stating, ‘Washing Day! No Monkeys!!!”

Felsen would often present Horlicks with the prone bodies of his opponents and urge him to “scrub until no trace of filth is left, even if the violence of your brushes cause the very beast to vanish!”

Lorenz’s footman issued a statement that “Her ladyship is still in Austria with the family of her friend, the slain Mr. Felsen. I am actually quite unsure if she shall ever discharge me from my post so I may have a brief meal. When not idled by whimsical fancies that my companions are legs of mutton rather than swarthy luggage-men, my thoughts are with those young Felsen left behind.”

The once abandoned hospital is said to soon re-open as “The Erving Felsen Memorial Orphan Hospice, Discount Child Clothing Center, and Monkeyrarium.”

The hospital also pursuing the creation of a Erving Felsen Monkey Puncher Fund. The fund will support simian protection, re-education and cleanliness, as well as aid Felsen’s Children’s Circus and provide educational support for Esok and Flip Felsen, the hospital said.

Austrian Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand said he was “shocked and confused at Erving Felsen’s death,” according to his footman. “I, and the Austrian people, would never have expected to see a giant monkey slay this friend to all monkeys. He loved monkeys, and also, I am told, loved to punch them.”

Felsen became Austria’s ambassador to the world due to his relentless pursuit of his goal to “punch every single monkey Satan’s foul orifice has seen fit to spew upon the earth, down to the last callithrix pygmaea.”

Felsen’s enthusiastic approach to monkey-based pugilism and the health of children won him a global following. He was known for his exuberance and use of the catch phrase, “Affew√§sche!”

“His message is really about cleanliness: He really wants to leave the world a cleaner place for everybody,” Midtown Gym’s Maury Smithe explained. “It’s unbelievable, really. No one could be covered in blood and monkey dung and still take your daughter on a moonlit boat ride, no one but Felsen. I tell you what, Jack, there’s many a lonely night when you wish you was on that boat instead of your little girl.”

Smithe, a friend of Felsen’s, noted that Felsen’s persona of the Monkey Puncher was no act. Felsen grew up around monkeys as the son of a missionary in India, and had developed a knack for striking them with force since he was a young boy.

“Erving really knew what he was doing. He was one of the finest monkey folks in the world. He knew more about monkeys than anybody did. He sure liked punching the hell out of them, too,” said Smithe.

Though monkeys can be threatening, they are not known to possess any great degree of martial ability. The “bull monkey” that delivered the fatal blow to Felsen was according to Felsen’s dying words, “trained by the damnable hindoo.” But Singe disagreed. “I have supped with monkeys, and I have lain with them in my garden. These noble beasts could not be moved to the violence visited upon Mr. Felsen, be they trained by the Hindoo or the Chinaman.”

“A monkey is like a cannon of rage — its fuse burns brightest before the report,” Smithe said. “You have to respect their fury.” But, he added, some say the blame may not rest solely on the primates’ beast-like nature. “Some have claimed that punching monkeys for ‘no good reason’ may contribute to their aggressive behavior, and it turns my stomach. I still wonder if the monkeys realize what Erving was trying to do for them.”

Felsen became popular with his fairground attraction, “Monkey Puncher,” which started in Austrian folk festivals in 1892. Eventually, the show was invited to perform at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, establishing Felsen as an international curiosity.

His popularity led to a series of dime-store novels, “The Monkey Puncher: Freelance Detective.”

Felsen was caught in a minor flap in May of 1901 when he used his five-month-old son to put out a gasoline fire caused by, “A well-meaning attempt to bring simian culture out out of the dark ages.”

In 1904, Felsen spoke via a “radio broadcast” in Graz about how he was perceived in his home country.

“When I am in the train car, I am seen as the violent man who breaks monkeys all the time with the fist,” he told his listeners. “And yet when I return in my own country, some people find me weak. You know, they are saying, ‘The monkeys are so small! When will you punch a bigger thing?’ ”

At the Children’s Circus in Vienna, “bales of dead monkeys” were dropped at the entrance, where a huge fake monkey holds a burning child.

“Erving, from all the primates, thank you. You’ve won this round,” was written on a card stapled to a small macaque.

“We’re all very frightened. I don’t know what the circus will do without him. He’s really the only thing keeping those filthy monkeys from eating us as we sleep,” said Adolph Franke, a local resident and volunteer at the circus, after dropping off a belt made of capuchin tails at the gate.

“He has left a legacy: Thousands and thousands of angry monkeys that need to be punched by anyone with a strong arm,” said Franke. “People forget that for all of his spectacle, Erving had a simple message. ‘Monkeys are filthy creatures who will make you ill if you don’t clean them in a manner that involves quite a bit of punching.’ I want my countrymen to remember Erving Felsen for the man he really was, which was a man who would find monkeys, apprehend them, and keep punching them until sick children became well again.”

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That New Rain

I know we’ve been pretty happy
With clouds until now
But they’ve been discontinued
All rain must be be planted
In the form of small gray cubes
The little old man
In his powdered blue coveralls
Will place a wet box in your hand
Then snap is fingers
And flash a grin
Unashamed by the disappointment
Of his teeth
You’ll open the box
Fingers slipping on the wet twine
And gingerly slide the damp cube into your palm
Don’t hold it too long
It’ll drip through your hand
If you let it
Drop it in the hole
The one they told you to dig
It sounds like butter
Sizzling on the pan
And that cube spreads out
Saturating the ground
Just like that rain you remember
Without all its unnecessary

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The Monster Tour

“You are a monster,” they say to me.
It is not a question.
It is never a question.
Their heads turn slowly
Viewing my cave
“I know,” I sigh.
“I am terrible.”
They gaze at me as I tell them my past sins
The curses I visited upon the world
I show them the bone box.
Fifty feet high and leaking at the seams
“Its creation was just awful,” I assure them.
“And it doesn’t even work.”
I show them where I poisoned the waters
Driving anyone who has drunk from them mad
“Eventually they all became sane again,” I explain
“Because madness is relative.”
I call it a shame
I gnash my teeth
Ask for forgiveness
“Each room is a trial,” I explain
Every passing moment I evolve
I whisper to them
I constantly become aware of my past wrongs
I swear off of them
Hoping to become better
Free from wickedness
When in fact
I simply graduate
To a higher state of evil
Existing beyond the minor transgressions of the past
Though aware of this process
I am doomed to persist in my course
Of repentance and degeneration
I exchange honest tears
For their dead stares
“Why are you alive?” They ask.
“Why have you not destroyed yourself?”
But of course I don’t answer.
Because I am tired.
I remove my hands from their mouths.
And nestle myself beneath leathery wings.

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Back in the Saddle

It seems so easy
No, laying
Back on this pile of dirty laundry
Wait, is it lying?
Oh, boy
I’m not even really trying to figure it out
I’m just switching
Switching so often that you don’t care
That I’m lying
About this laundry
That I’m on
That I should be doing
But I’m writing
Like I used to write
And it seems so easy
Because it has to be easy
Otherwise I would sink through this floor
Into the ground
Just below the surface
And stay in the cool dirty dark
While my daughter talks
Of the Gingerbread Ender Man
And I know that she’ll surpass me
Even now
“Why aren’t you Vining me?
She asks.
“This is really good.”
And I wonder if whoever reads this
A hundred years from now
Will know what Vine is
And I wonder how mad they are
That I’m not telling them
And it finally dawns on me
That believing someone will read this
A hundred years from now
Is some great narcissism
Speaking of
My daughter has asked me to stop writing
She wants me to see how many Likes she has
And I don’t wonder
Where she gets it from
I only wonder
How many likes she has
And she smiles
And laughs
For cameras that aren’t here
For the future people
With the pony tails
Who she says spy on us
From the trees
And this laundry will never get done
Because neither of us care
And her mom needs us
To lift it up
But doing laundry is hard
And this
It seems so easy

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My Birthday Wish

Howdy, folks!

Tomorrow, May 15th, is my 41st birthday.

Those of you who know me pretty well can guess what I’m going to ask for this year. It doesn’t even take intimate knowledge.

In lieu of gifts, I’d like you to purchase a copy of “When Elephant Met Giraffe” for a kid you know.

Here’s the link:

When Elephant Met Giraffe

You can also find it in the kids’ section of most book stores.

If that’s not your speed, you can always purchase one of my old books.

I’ve had a lot of good things happen to me this year. Thanks for being a part of it.



UPDATE: Don’t have any money? Have you sworn never to purchase another book ever again? You can still help in the following ways:

1) Write a great review of my books. That would be super cool.

2) Write a Wikipedia message about me. I want one of these. I don’t have one. Can YOU help? Help!

3) DON’T write a bad review of my books. Feeling like spreading some bad news around? Maybe hold off a bit. Heck, if you already have written a bad review, delete it! That would be great.

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