the awful daring

theawfuldaring2x

the awful daring / original wax monoprint on photo paper / 8 x 12.5 inches 


 

this wax monoprint is a single impression only (image printed wet to an unstable wax surface, then pressed to the photo paper for a permanent image)

200 g/m2, 53 lb • 9 mil

the writing is from TS Eliot’s The Wasteland

“The awful daring of a moment’s surrender which an age of prudence can never retract. By this, and only this, we have existed.”

meant for a frame, I’d say

packaged for gift giving in a clear cellophane sleeve

shipped with care (with book board)

a combination of distressed comic/pop art with poetry

monoprints are an affordable means of original art, I think

please check out my store for other affordable artworks

 and have a good day!

SaveSave

Advertisements

cigar-tin stories number ninety-one / / hysterical white people!

The long weekend (happy birthday, Queen Victoria: dead for a century, already). We start the party on Friday by meeting with our life insurance representative. He says we are old and none of this is going to end well. At least the kid is nicely covered. Afterwards, driving away, I tell C that I’ll be needing the car first thing on Saturday morning, so I can get groceries. This makes her anxious because on Saturday morning she wants to go to her friend’s artisanal market and then out to some plant store and besides, she’s going to get groceries this afternoon, it’s not a problem. It is a problem because we can’t eat decorative cat collars but I let it go. She drops me off at my studio, and I spend my time there painting the same painting in darker and darker layers of gouache before finally throwing it in the garbage. In art there is something called the happy accident but this is just a car wreck, a flaming ruined thing tumbling down a cliff. And then I needed to save the evening somehow so I draw in ink and brush on filmy paper pressed to masonite, filled with fields of textured colour. Then I take a bus home and there is a guy who won’t stop staring at me and he gets off at the same stop as me, both of us stepping into darkness, but he’s about the size of a big suitcase so I don’t worry about it. No ear buds on the walk home, though. At home the kitchen counter is not strewn with the usual pizza delivery boxes (always a party when dad’s not around) so I think maybe she did get groceries after all and I go to bed. I sleep in. When I wake up Saturday morning, there are no groceries in the house. The delivery boxes were neatly hidden under the sink. So I go get groceries in the rain. We spend the rest of the morning doing chores. After lunch, Oona and I go to the library, where I force her to talk to the librarian about a book series she’s interested in (what she’d really like is for the reference computers to have games about dressing up princesses, but oh well). I get a book about collages, then two short story collections. It’s amazing that collections still get published, considering they have all the marketability of poop or anthrax. Later, as is our custom, the two of us go get an Orange Julius and sit for a bit in the food court. It’s like a Civil War re-enactment in there, only instead of northern aggression there is Judge Judy and tacos and leggings. Saturday night is uneventful because, as previously noted, we are old. My brother-in-law comes by and complains about his bones or something. Oh, and there was some kind of royal wedding on Saturday, too, I think. But we all know that the idea of princes and princesses in the year 2018 is ridiculous so let’s not mention that. On Sunday I get up at 5:30 and go to the studio. Sunday mornings in the studio are always lovely and quiet. I do more ink drawings against miniature realms of colour, just to feel ahead on things, then give the rest of the time over to some longer assemblages that require multiple visits and some patience. We will see. I come home early in the afternoon and we all drive out to Parrott’s Bay for a walkabout. On the way there a car full of laughing girls in black lipstick makes a left-hand turn by cutting across four lanes of traffic directly in front of me but I’m in the middle of some debate with C so I just slow down and say and those girls are trying to kill me and keep going. Parrott’s Bay has no parrots but is lovely with dappled sunshine and Oona hates it because it’s not an iPad and her complaining is off the hook. Oh, and she’d already had an ice cream cone so her investment is now zero. On Saturday night I announce to C that I am watching Alien because an old DVD I had previously thought lost has inexplicably resurfaced. And I haven’t seen the movie in years. And it’s awesome. I commandeer the television like this about three times a decade but it’s still always received with a kind of desultory resentment. Trying to watch the movie the subtitles keep coming on, and it’s 1999 all over again as I go back and forth through the DVD’s main menu. Finally I say, are you sure it’s not the TV? it seems like it’s a separate issue from the DVD. C laughs. That’s crazy. You’re crazy. Yeah, like it’s some magical TV that can tell what the people in the movie are saying, she says. And, actually, it does turn out to be a magical TV, one that has closed captioning. Also, Yaphet Kotto must have had a really hard time finding shirt collars that fit. On Monday the sun is shining in all its cruelty so I am powerless against the demand to spend the day in Prince Edward County. On the way there I get to an intersection to make a right turn just as the left turn signal comes on across the way and I have to pause for a car and right behind that is a cyclist who I don’t see at first so I take my foot off the brake but then I do see him and stop and I’m nowhere near hitting him but he completely loses his shit. And he’s that typical middle-aged white guy all decked out in racing gear and he’s yelling and gesturing and doing that I-see-you thing with his fingers and I’m saying yes, sorry, great, yeah, uh-huh, thank you, that’s great, thanks. And yes I guess I am in the wrong even though nothing happened but please God don’t ever let me become a hysterical middle-aged white guy like that. It’s very American. And then a little insight as to why cops are always shooting people. Anyway, we drive to the ferry and spend the day in the county and the weather is fine and we have a nice lunch and C tells me a story about a magical bus that goes all over the city and takes her anywhere she wants to go (?) and Oona gets her picture taken for a restaurant’s social media account and also everything she wants (I picked out the sunglasses) so her behaviour isn’t bad. A nice change. While waiting for the ferry home I close my eyes and imagine the cars coming off, the drivers are giving us the finger as they go by and some of them are on fire.

And that’s the Victoria Day long weekend folks. Thank heavens for empire.

Enjoy the short week, everyone,
djb

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

p.s. This is a version of my regular Tinyletter.

all that cold, cold, wet day / / cigar-tin stories number ninety

thehongkongjockeyclubx

the hong kong jockey club; mixed media on cradled wood panel


 

It rained today. It was raining when I woke up. Hard, clattering rain. Some part of the eavestrough was blocked, spilling water in that gurgling, fitful way. So we had a small discussion about getting up on ladders (“You’re not getting up on any ladders!”) and kept going.


It rains all the time in Kingston. It took me awhile to figure that out. Ten years in Winnipeg and my thinking had abridged to burning, freezing, live theatre and mosquitoes. But here in the East they have rain, freezing rain, freezing rain pellets, hail, mixes of snow and rain, sleet, raining turning to snow turning back to freezing rain, shut-downs on the 401. And then various things gusting. So: a bigger menu, but it’s mostly bullshit.


The Jets are in the second last round of the playoffs so the citizens of Winnipeg must be collectively creaming themselves right now. I was there when the Jets departed for Phoenix and all the mass hysteria and shameless grieving and kids offering their piggy banks that came with that. It was terrible, and not for the reasons you might think of first.


Pouring as I drive Oona to school and I look at her in the backseat and see no rubber boots, no rain jacket. Failures in parenting are never more glaring then when your kid is not dressed for the weather. I’d mentioned the rain jacket to her earlier but then wasn’t paying attention as we left so the fault is entirely my own. Her mom has an umbrella to give but this is like applying sun block before you hurl yourself into a volcano.


Anyway, they’ll probably just keep them inside all day watching movies on iPads while intravenously feeding them pizza.


Tuesday is pizza day with her “lunch” program. Also, her mom gave her five bucks for track-and-field day yesterday and she spent it on four pieces of pizza. Didn’t do well in the 100 metres, quelle surprise. And she had pizza on Friday night even though I was home and didn’t go to my studio because her mom’s back was acting up but her mom said I needed to serve pizza anyway because “otherwise she would be disappointed” because that’s what the two of them do every Friday night like it’s a party when I’m not around. And then the two of them, like little conspirators, went downstairs and watched some kid movie about spies or robots or some goddamn thing.


This kid typically has more pizza in a week then I did from the age of zero to twenty-five.


Maybe thirty.


Rainy days bring to mind how much time I spent walking the streets of our old neighbourhood around Cowdy Street. Everything was crooked and in a zig zag; you had to think of where you were going in terms of aiming at corners. And so eventually I saw everything and lot of that was how people lived and one thing that I always noticed was all the pizza boxes in the recycling. And I never had good thoughts about that.


It seems like we either treat food as holy (local, organic, artisanal, gourmet, fair trade, kombucha gluten something, etc) or sinful (drive-thru, chip truck, mochaccino, Pabst Blue Ribbon, pickles, taco cupcake something), and at the end of the best food delivery system the world has ever known, we can’t decide whether we’re dieting or fasting.


I haven’t weighed myself in weeks. People say I look thinner but people say all sorts of crazy, spiteful things.


As promised/predicted/threatened, I’m trying to use May for resolving some art and writing projects. Yes, I’m still making new work, but I also needed a venue for prints and merchandise. Plus I enjoy inventing names for things. Plus I just have so much work. If you shook me hard enough a painting might fall out of my mouth.


Which reminds me: if you’re ever in need of a present for an art-minded friend, just send me a message and I can put something together and mail it directly to them with a note on your behalf. I put together great packages! Better yet, if you live in the Kingston area, just arrange for a studio visit and you can pick something out yourself, right off the wall or a rack. Anyone who’s been to my craft shows knows how reasonable my prices are.


Okay, onward and upward. The sun is out, in that gloomy, old-Polaroid, after-rain kind of way. I’ve decided not to make supper tonight, the working day’s already too late, all adults can fend for themselves, which should make Oona (toast, fruit, cookie) very happy.

Have a good week, everyone,
djb

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things (and escape the dreaming planet)

cuba libre / / cigar-tin stories number 89

oona_and_crocodilex

So: we went to Cuba. It was cold and grey and raining when we left. It was cold and grey and raining here today, but then the sun wandered around after lunch.

I desperately needed a break. Or at least some kind of line or marker, somewhere to restart from. Sometimes you can just feel yourself drifting along.

And Cuba was filled with: megatonic sun and sudden walls of heat and winds building throughout the day, warm bottle-blue ocean, foam-crashing waves, endless white beach. And some random things…

• Someone should do a documentary called Strange Hotel Rooms. Ours at the Montreal airport didn’t appear strange; in fact, everything looked quite nice (although the view, over acres of parking and wet pavement, threatened to slide from one’s field of vision). But at night the sounds came out, the little click click clicks of the heater, the gasping of some unseen fan, disembodied voices above or below or somewhere down the hall, double muffled in cushioned darkness.

• And someone else should tell Enya that she will live on in perpetuity as long as Cuban resort staff have to lead morning exercise classes on the beach.

• The shower in our resort room reflects the Cuban idea of sophistication: lots of chrome and sharp angles, something vaguely Harkonnen. And sometimes we have hot water, and sometimes we do not. We are only four-and-a-half stars, after all.

• The food is fine. One has to try to get a few things (eggs, fish, etc) prepared right in front of you, and then some fresh fruit. And every day I eat a small island of pastries for dessert.

• Phones are still everywhere. Even in the impossible glare of the beach, people curl themselves in two just to peer into their little black bricks.

• I leave my own phone at home. A nice, mild detox. Instead I bring little notebooks and a cheap digital camera, and these work just fine.

• It must be strange, living in a world of tourists––without them, things would be much worse, but there they are, all the time, inflated with everything you don’t have.

• I read a book called Against Everything by Mark Greif. It’s terrible. And yes, the title did seem to speak directly to me. But the writing is just calcified Chuck Klosterman armed with a thesaurus and a thesis. Ponderous, boring, too clever by half. In the store the choice had been between this and Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and my pangs of regret are hotter than dishwashered butter knives.

• You come to Cuba for the sun. But there is always that point in the day where you flee for a shower before supper, because otherwise you wake up bent and aching on some damp pool chair, and everything is loud and hot and slightly unhinged, and somewhere too close they are shouting the numbers for bingo, and it all feels like the plane crash from LOST.

• Oona eats nothing. She survives solely on virgin piña coladas and pineapple slices. I let it go.

• My hands calm down because I’m not washing them every five minutes.

• One night we go to a magic show! And of course any Cuban magic show is more about dancing than magic. I feel sorry, too, for the secondary nature of the stage props… the boxes people disappeared from were more tape and glitter than wood. And while the male costumes, in particular, were a bit Zorro-meets-Lord-of-the-Rings, they do manage to do a hell of a lot with brilliant smiles and weathered fishnets. The Cubans are natural performers, in their way.

• Especially when re-interpreting The Final Countdown (speed it up, roll all the r’s, chant cha! cha! cha! a lot).

• I lose my prescription sunglasses in a giant wave. My own fault; for some reason, I just did not remember that I had a tie strap for them. Forgetting things is troubling, I think.

• FLY UNITED EMIRATES t-shirts are everywhere.

• I have a dream about painting over a painting. The painting is not mine; it’s a gift from someone. And just as I’m spreading primer that person walks in and catches me. Shock, horror, flight. Then I set everything on fire.

• In real life, I would never do that. Unless I disliked the person, and then I would do it with enthusiasm. The fire, I mean.

• We spend a day out and about with a guide. Oona gets to hold various reptiles. At lunch, the guide looks askance at my use of moist towelettes. C keeps asking him about the economy. “We have nothing!” he keeps replying. And it’s true. I look at Cuba and I wonder how this all ends, how long it can limp along. How skinny can those horses get?

So I’m dedicating the rest of May to finishing some long suffering projects: things half-finished or never done properly. And rethinking a lot, too (creatively, one just has to do a full stop every so often, and think about who you are). I have so much material just to get out, just to push out into the world, and see what has legs to land on.

Have a good weekend, everyone,
djb

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things. 

getting the cut that suits you

Driving through Queen’s campus on a Sunday afternoon and everything reeks with SUV’s parading vanity plates emblazoned BUNNY1 and KITSCAR and PRFXN2, it’s no-holds-barred parking and everyone chauffeuring like slow-motion heart attacks, all expensive heads lolling out the window and the rearview mirror completely obscured, and suddenly we realize that these are PARENTS picking up their KIDS from university––it’s the end of the semester and here’s mom with fourteen scarves to frame her blazing face, calling dad an idiot and telling him to circle the block while she stuffs Wilder’s or Saxon’s or Audrey’s dirty stinking clothes into a brand new hamper from THE BAY. It’s time to regroup. It’s time to go back to Sunnybrook and lick our wounds and talk about failure and plans for the future and money not very well spent after all and things we might do differently. If only we can try. Don’t worry, none of this will last. All falls will be cushioned and quickly uploaded to Instagram. Who wants to ruin the mood for summer? Don’t do it, dad. Don’t be an idiot. Again. Everything will be fine! New clothes the cottage the trip to Italy the new computer should we hire a tutor who paid for that tattoo? awaits. What have you been eating? Your skin is terrible. Why don’t you get a cut that suits you?


For some reason I have warm memories of my university days from this time of year. Certainly it resonates, but darkly: all roads narrowing, the end of pretending that certain issues could still be resolved, that certain causes could still be rescued, the desperate blankness of summer employment, the realization like falling lightning that money was needed and had to come from SOMEWHERE. Jesus. And that pale sun emerging like a sick joke, flaring on the survivors staggering down the hill, shining on their no-hope-of-rescue. In fact: no money, no ideas, no exemptions, no anti-depressants, not a single vitamin to be found anywhere in the bloodstream. All those skipped classes, all those cheap noodles, all that ambition left to sour on the counter.


Oh God we were so broken and willing to debase ourselves. In fact, an entire tree planting industry was floated on this, carelessly, on the economic model of press-ganging stupid white kids into the incinerator of predatory employment. Work like a back-breaking maniac and make a couple of grand maybe. Brilliant. Too bad about the scurvy and the skin infections and the way your poo turned green for six weeks.


In fact: I was planting trees in northern Ontario when a provincial police car appeared to take me to the local station. A cinder block bunker with chipped desks. A phone dialed and handed to me. And on that phone was my mom, telling me about some generic application I’d put in with the government, and how it landed a summer job at a mental hospital. Steady, decent money. Like a small lottery win. All I had to do was come up with a lie to my boss in order get the deposit back on my tree-planting tools (no problem), hitchhike into Thunder Bay (interesting), get to a money transfer joint to pluck the $100 my mom had wired me (okay), and then use $97 of that princely sum to buy a 24-hour bus ride back to Saskatoon (see the least interesting one-third of the country! talk to maniacs with fiddles! starve!). So I did.


There will be no Tinyletter next week. I will be in Cuba. It’s the vacation we can afford, and the beaches are glorious.

I will talk to you soon,
djb

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things. Always.

p.s:

HOT TRACK TAKEAWAYS

GET THE CUT THAT SUITS YOU

LAST DAYS OF THE FOREIGN EXCHANGE

cigar-tin stories number eighty seven / / you’re labelled wrong

Good morning. It is, in fact, 6:23 in the morning as I write this. We’ve changed our mornings around as of late, trying to save on the cost of before-school care, which makes for more time before perp-walking Oona off to school. I could sleep in. Especially since I usually make lunches the night before, I could sleep in. But I’ve been getting up at 5:30 for what seems like forever now, and the jello wiring of my brain seems to have set that way. Besides, I only ever get things done in the morning. By late afternoon all hope is lost.


Last week’s Tinyletter was received with some staticky kind of complaining along the lines of not-enough-Oona. FINE. This week you get the full dose. I hope your hair doesn’t fall out.


Driving Oona to school, she asks me what time we’re going to get there.

We’ll get there in plenty of time, I say. Just before the supervisors come out onto the schoolyard. And the bell doesn’t ring for another ten minutes after that.

You don’t know what time the bell rings, she says.

I do know what time the bell rings.

No, you don’t. How do you know that?

Because I looked it up. Because that’s my job. Because I looked it up on the school website and I read it with my brain and my eyes. You’d be surprised what I can see with my eyes.

No, I wouldn’t, she says.


At the end of the day, coming home from school, we go through the drive-thru, then sit in the parking lot and eat while everything’s still hot. This is an anomaly, a treat, something that her and I do a few times a year, something that her mom would find very gauche. We listen to music or Jesus radio or a podcast about science and enjoy the hundreds of calories flooding into our digestive systems. On some level, I guess, it’s almost meditative. At least until Oona insists on telling me a riddle that “her friend” has made up. Do you want to hear it, daddy? Not really, but my mouth is full. So the riddle goes like this:

Three brothers live in a house. One night they go to bed (I don’t know what they do other nights) and there is a fire on the roof. Everybody dies. Who set the fire?

Give up? I don’t blame you, this is a tough one. With the no-clues aspect. And the self-annihilation business. The answer:

It was the first brother. After supper he went out to the fireworks store while the other brothers had a bath together(!). Then everybody went to bed. The first brother was the only one who had time to start the fire before he went to bed.

Feel stupid? You should.


Because I am still chewing, I roll my eyes at the mentalist in the backseat.

Why are you looking up like that? Oona asks. Are you trying to look up through your skull at the bald spot on the back of your head?


Afterwards we go get groceries. The complaining about this is off the hook.

But most of these groceries are for you, I remind her. It’s a constant struggle to keep your lunch stocked with things that you’ll actually eat.

You should go do it on your own, you’re wasting my time, she says.


We are in the snack aisle. Okay look, I say. I’ll let you pick what kind of cereal bars are going into your lunch.

Strawberry, she says. I only want strawberry.

Strawberry is fine. We’ll get that. But why don’t we try a new flavour, too? How about apple-cinnamon?

No, I only want strawberry.

Fine, I say, putting both in the cart.

Hey! You took apple-cinnamon, too!

No, I didn’t, I lie. That second one is labelled wrong.

You’re labelled wrong! Your label says ‘Nice Guy’ but that’s wrong!

Maybe, I say.


Going through the check-out with an eight year-old is always a bullshit bingo so I usually send her off to the card aisle to “go look for a card for grandma or Uncle Jaime”, and once there she immediately gets bogged down with some nonsense that plays music when you open it and is appropriate for no one, and I get to complete my grocery purchase in peace. This time I send her off to get a card for grandpa, who is sick with gallstones.

Amazingly, she actually returns with a card. Believe in yourself, it reads. You can do anything.

Your grandpa is one thousand years old, I tell her. It’s a little late in the game for the whole ‘believe in yourself’ business. He’s not reading The Secret. His only secret is a shortcut to the bathroom.

What’s The Secret? she asks.

It’s a book about believing you can get whatever you want just by wishing for it. It’s for people who believe in angels and magic and special destiny. The only thing you can attract with your thoughts is a headache. You can’t will luck to fall from the sky.

What if you think bad thoughts? she asks.

According to the book, then bad things happen. If you’re mean or you’re negative about life, then bad things happen to you. But that’s not true. 

You’re right, that’s can’t be true. If that was true, you would have been dead a long time ago, she says.


We get a weekend ice storm. People in Kingston are very wary of ice storms, I find. Whereas in Saskatchewan, where I grew up, we’re more wary of sliding into a ditch and freezing to death beside some forgotten highway.

The following Monday, Oona and I are sitting in the car, watching the rain and the empty schoolyard and waiting for the right time to go in.

What time is it? she asks.

The clock is right on the dashboard, I say. Read it yourself.

You read it, she says. When does the bell ring?

I thought you said I didn’t know when the bell rang. I thought you knew better.

Just tell me, dad. You’re wasting my time. You’re always wasting my time.


Okay, it’s 6:57 and I need to keep moving. There is snow in the air but the sun is somewhere around, and maybe by the end of the week this little re-visit by winter will have faded away.

djb

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things. 

p.s. Jane, that app is called WeCroak, and I highly recommend it.

cigar-tin stories number eighty six / / after the whale

I make a painting called after the whale. It is very blue. Blue is a difficult colour to work with; like the sea or the sky, it tends to crowd out everything else. It is both overarching and subsuming at the same time. As for man-made things, blue contains a certain industriousness: things big or naval. But it also has a dreamscape quality, as in things imagined, out of reach, or middle-distance, there but not there. And obviously: rain, melancholy, absence. There is certainly no whale there, anymore.


What is there are the remains of two other paintings: one that serves as background, the other one torn into thin strips and then crowded and rearranged and worked through with blue.


Art is often expressed within the categories of argument or something decorative. Yet for me, an artwork is a memory, and either that memory has power or it doesn’t. These two paintings did what they could, for awhile, but ultimately failed to insinuate themselves, failed to convince. And here they get a new life. Becoming secret ingredients, for what that’s worth.


My favourite quotation about blue is about the ocean, and it comes from Werner Herzog: “What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.” This quote speaks to the fact that Werner is (a) obviously German and (b) obviously a maniac.


I make an ornamental art box, decorated with collage from vintage advertisements for toy soldiers. Appropriately, the box is metal––like a mini foot locker, in burnished steel. The collaged sides have a gloss varnish, smooth to the touch. You can see a little video about it here.


I love those vintage comic-book ads. The illustrations are absolutely over the top––always the battlefield is a crammed pandemic of frantic violence, its soldiers with the animating mindset of enraged professional wrestlers, all bulging eyes and vein-popping war cries.


Of course there are no bodies, no wreckage. Everybody still has their head,** and everybody gets a medal.


From my office window I can see my coworkers come and go. People make up their hours, carry in their excuses. The trick, I think, is never saying anything, and always acting normal.


We have a meeting about our office space. Everyone crowds around a floor plan, pointing at things. We are getting many more managers, and they all want the offices with windows (they also want to be all in a row, so they can “talk to each other”), which means the rest of us will be moving into the basement.


I already have a basement office at home. C started it for me. It has a folding table and an exposed ceiling. Think: wires. One of my nieces wanders into it looking for the Wi-fi password. “Whoa, this office is sketchy,” she says. I try to clean it up, put up a string of fairy lights over the cork board.


I read a book about Internet shaming. I read an article about a con man (which reminds me of a podcast about a con man). I read an essay about low-wage work. All of these things are about disposable people.


What does it mean to be a citizen? What is the animating idea for a social democracy? Who called this meeting anyway, and what’s all this about the common good and a just society? Do you have any meaningful say in the forces that govern your life?


Mostly I just try to move forward, which is not the same as progress. Some days are not for seeing. Some days are like a scar across the back of your hand, and everything is about not thinking, not remembering, not providing context. The news is exhausting. This is what what it must be like to live in Russia, I guess. The light at the end of the hall is neon in dark pink and it reads, LEAVE THIS ALONE. People fantasize about time travel or invisibility but selective forgetting is really much the same thing.


Please have a good week. Every day there’s more light in the morning.

djb

Draw things, paint things, write things, make things.

** Back in 2007 I wrote a little essay about headless soldiers. It ended up in a magazine called Filling Station. I’m pasting it below. Some of the tech references already seem dated!

Roman Soldiers

These days, when a graphic designer is desperate or uninterested or simply has no budget, this is what ‘research’ comes down to: typing words into Google’s image-search engine. On this occasion––for a poster announcing some stupefying guest lecture on the fall of the Roman Republic––I tried the words “Roman Soldiers” (please Google, do not filter my results). The Google entity responded with its usual brutal dragnet (the information highwayman, hijacking whatever, whoever, making one for something shiny), and many Roman soliders duly appeared, but the only thumbnail which immediately jumped out as a prize came by way of Wikipedia (another mechanized golem, throwing around handfuls of received information like so much sand) and an ad for toy soldiers that I recognized immediately because it seemed to run on the back cover of every comic book I ever touched as a kid.

132 PC. ROMAN SOLDIERS SET
ONLY $2.25
2 COMPLETE ROMAN ARMIES:
Fight again the battles of the old Roman Civil War — Roman against Roman! Or mount your own attack against a town or city. Every piece of molded plastic — each on its own base. Two complete armies, one in blue, one in yellow! Your satisfaction guaranteed or full refund.
Here is what you get:
4 Generals — Mounted
24 Cavalrymen — with Spears & Armour
4 Cavalrymen with banners
16 Spearmen with Shields
16 Archers with bows
16 Slingers
4 Chariots with drivers
4 Working Catapults
16 pieces of ammuntion (harmless) for catapult
24 Foot soldiers with broadswords and shields
4 Buglers
RUSH COUPON TODAY

The full-page ad was done in primaries plus black, with an electric emphasis on red type over blocks of yellow. Dominating everything is the illustration, showing the moment of impact between two Roman armies as they smash into each other.

For my little-kid brain, that ad was like crack. The illustration is frenetically alive with energy, the entire scene seething with brutality and viciousness: soldiers storm ladders with shields held high against the murderous rocks hurled down at them, siege towers strain forward, charioteers careen madly right into the thick of battle, archers strain at their bows even as arrows poison the sky, foot soldiers slash and stab away. The soldier closest to the foreground, in particular, sets the tone for the promised experience––his sword raised in defiance, his howling face nearly insane with rage. This was something more than two war machines merely wound up and pointed at each other; this was some demented, free-for-all bloodlust of the highest order.

But I never did send away for those soldiers. And I can’t tell you why. Then, as now, I really had no budget for that kind of extravagance (also, I probably understood that my mom, the person who’d have to do all the heavy lifting in any mail-order scheme, would have advised me, in her disappointed way, that the product was most likely ‘crap’). Back then, my thoughts and ambitions often got lost between the spaces of my own imagination. Besides, how realistic was this illustration anyway? My dad had a whole bookcase full of war books (he’d sign up for some historical series and then never pay the bill; as a result, all of our wars ended abruptly in mid-conflict). The pictures found in those volumes were real enough. The Roman soldiers from my ad were too perfect––the lines of their hard anatomy too implacably clean, the hues of their armour too fiercely burned in. Where were the dead? Where were the wounded? Even better, where were the hacked-off arms, or the headless torso’s stumbling around the battlefield, spouting fountains of blood?

I soon got my answer. It was Christmas. I was maybe six or seven years old. My older brother was two grades ahead. Improbably, we got each other’s names in the Sunday School draw. And what did he buy me? A bag of 100 toy soldiers, plastic Americans from World War Two. I was surprised. Part of that surprise was down to the fact that I didn’t have anything to give him. Again, I have no idea why. But I did feel bad about it.

I felt worse when my brother stole back my bag of soldiers and bit all their heads off. Every rifleman, grenade thrower, bazooka team… headless. He also removed a few arms and legs, just for good measure. Also, after being so abused in the process, most of my soldiers no longer stood up very well. You kind of had to lean them against things. And while my twisted, prostrate, headless soldiers were not so much fun to play with, they did look very real.