“Respect My Craft!” – Commonplace Books

In this consumer-based industry, it can be easy to forget the years of hard work that the people in the business put in. Behind every panel, it takes a skilled writer, artist, inker and colorist to make the product complete. Behind each scene goes hours of preparation. Hush Comics’ weekly article “Respect My Craft” will dive into the history of these comic book and pop culture greats that will hopefully give a new perspective on how the men and women behind the pen (or stylus) contribute to the collective awesome-ness of the nerd world, or at least give you a reason to invest in their work.

Names: Joseph Fink, Jeffrey Cranor, Cecil Baldwin, and Disparition.

Professions: Writers, actors, artists and musicians.

Notable Works: Welcome to Night Vale, “A Commonplace Book of the Weird; The Untold Stories of H.P. Lovecraft”, and “What it Means to Be a Grownup”

“A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.” – Cecil Palmer, Welcome to Night Vale, Pilot Episode

 

Fiction, in it’s nature, is a little bizarre. It might seem commonplace, but when you actually think about our ability to suspend our disbelief while enjoying these stories, it’s quite remarkable. Then, of course, you have horror, which requires us to not only suspend disbelief, but voluntarily engage in something meant to make us afraid. You also have comedy, which requires our full attention and intelligence to enjoy. Break fiction down and our fascination with it is quite impressive.

Then there’s Commonplace Books, which is anything but commonplace. Co-owned by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, this group of writers, actors, artists and musicians take weird to a whole other level. With wit, expert pace, and a Lovecraftian feel, the stories they turn out are absolutely captivating and just plain strange. Their main project, Welcome to Night Vale, hit the top ten podcasts list in July 2013 and surpassed This American Life in the same month, becoming the number one podcast on the charts. It is currently just shy of being in the top ten at spot 11. More on Welcome to Night Vale in a bit.

Commonplace Books has two published books titled A Commonplace Book of the Weird: The Untold Stories of H.P. Lovecraft (available in Kindle format) and What it Means to Be a Grownup (currently out of print). A Commonplace Book of the Weird: The Untold Stories of H.P. Lovecraft is a collection of stories inspired by a list of 221 story ideas supposedly left behind by H.P. Lovecraft. It ranges from horror stories to memoir to poetry written by various writers of across the country and is edited by Joseph Fink. “What it Means to Be a Grownup” is also a collection of writing, but rather than containing post-mortem Lovecraft, various writers speak to what adulthood means to them. In the format of essays, short stories, charts, letters and one picture book, over thirty contributors can be found in the book including writers from The Onion, SomethingAwful.com as well as comedians Niel Hamburger and Kyle Kinane.

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“There is a thin semantic line separating weird and beautiful. And that line is covered in jellyfish.” – Cecil Palmer, Welcome to Night Vale Episode 22, The Whispering Forest

Welcome to Night Vale is just plain weird. When trying to recommend it to my friends, I’ve always had trouble describing it. Some attempts have been along the lines of “It’s like NPR from the Twilight Zone”, “It’s a radio drama podcast told in the format of a radio show from the weirdest desert town in fictional history” and, “It’s like if Stephen King and Neil Gaiman created a Sims world and then left it running for several decades” until finally settling with “It’s amazing. Just trust me and listen to it.” Commonplace Books describes it as “a twice-monthly podcast in the style of community updates for the small desert town of Night Vale, featuring local weather, news, announcements from the Sheriff’s Secret Police, mysterious lights in the night sky, dark hooded figures with unknowable powers, and cultural events.” It is heavily inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, and David Lynch.

Co-writer Joseph Fink came up with the idea for WTNV in 2011, having become fascinated with podcasts. He wanted to bring something to the art form that no one had done before. Joseph has always been a huge fan of conspiracy theories. He doesn’t believe but constantly reads them, which is where the idea for WTNV came from. He thought of a town where all conspiracy theories were true and a few months later, the first script had been written. He recorded the first episode with help from his friends actor Cecil Baldwin and musician Jon Bernstein of the band Disparition who do the background music for the show. While this episode had originally been just a concept piece to convince Jeffrey Cranor to join the project, it became the pilot and was uploaded to the iTunes Podcast section on June 15th, 2012. Two years later, the radio drama has been wildly successful, with two tours already under their belt and another US and Canada tour starting June 30th in Montreal and ending at San Diego Comic Con.

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WTNV is narrated by Cecil Baldwin who also plays the main character, radio host of Night Vale’s local news show “Welcome to Night Vale”. Curiously enough, the main character’s name is also Cecil but with the last name Palmer. He is vaguely described as neither tall nor short, thin nor fat, allowing fans to create their own image or “headcanon” of what he looks like. Cecil is an extremely well crafted character. He has a broad emotional range from dark, serious, and at times terrifying, to hilarious, exuberant, and “fangirly.”

Cecil is particularly giddy when it comes to the character Carlos, a scientist and the only “normal” character. This leads to another great part of WTNV. Cecil is openly gay and while there is a whole episode dedicated to SPOILER his first date with Carlos END SPOILER, it’s a very small part of what makes the character great. Cecil is gay, but being gay is not the only facet of his character. So many stories today have gay characters whose sole purpose on the show is to be gay. They are the butt of a joke, the management’s way of seeming more progressive, or a way to make the show more scandalous. Cecil is none of these things. He is a radio host and he’s gay. He’s a reporter and he’s gay. He plays a major role in a revolution and he’s gay. He is not “the gay character”. He is the main character. WTNV is also extremely trans-postivie, having various metaphors and characters to represent transsexuality and non-binary genders.

When I first listened to WTNV, and Cecil announced the weather section, I was expecting a weather report that was strange but nonetheless had something to do with the climate. This was not at all the case. WTNV’s “weather” section, in fact, has nothing to do with weather, but is rather a different song each week from various independent artists. This part of the show is a fan favorite. The weather of WTNV varies in genre, but is always well selected and attributed at the end of each episode. Some favorites include “These and More Than These” by Joseph Fink, “The Bus is Late” by Satellite High (my personal favorite), and “A Little Irony” by Tom Milsom.

While all fandoms are creative, the WTNV fandom may have the rest of them beat. As WTNV is an entirely audio experience, there is not much to go off of when it comes to cosplay and fan art. However, the creations that come out of this vagueness are truly remarkable. Some of the best cosplay I’ve seen comes from WTNV and the fan art is just as exquisite. Given complete creative freedom as to what their favorite characters look like, fans have gone above and beyond. Depictions of Cecil range from suit and tie to parka to actual canon furry pants, yet various themes tend to pop up time and time again. While it is not always the case, most fans agree that Cecil has a third eye and at least half sleeve tattoos, often depicting octopus tentacles (a possible homage to H.P. Lovecraft) How did this headcanon come to be? No one knows. Cecil is never described as having either of these, yet look at any depiction of him and nine times out of ten, he has at least one of these attributes. Similarly, other characters have been depicted in a variety of representations, showing how truly creative this fandom is.

Another truly amazing thing about Commonplace Books is that they are completely advertisement and sponsor free. They are able to produce their content entirely through donations from fans and the sale of merchandise. Not only is this impressive, but it just goes to show how dedicated their fans are, some donating as much as $250 – even though the podcast is absolutely free. Commonplace Books survives on the idea that if people truly love something, they are willing to help the creators behind it.

Commonplace Books has cranked out a lot of amazing content in the past few years, but they aren’t done yet. A WTNV stand-alone novel is set to be released in 2015, which will explore parts of Night Vale that Commonplace Books hasn’t been able to cover in the podcast. They are also set to do another crossover show with The Thrilling Adventure Hour July 26th at the Spreckels Theatre in San Diego at the end of their much anticipated US and Canada Tour, tickets for which are on sale now. For those of you who live Colorado, they will also be stopping in Denver July 19th at the Paramount Theatre.

This strange, little group of underdogs are incredibly talented, wildly successful, socially conscious, and gut-wrecking hilarious. Their completely independent project, while little, has met incredible feats, being of low budget and surviving solely on the adoration of their fans. As Cecil Baldwin put it in a recent interview with Geek and Sundry, “You don’t need a lot of money, you just need creative people.”

Photos courtesy of Commonplace Booksvidentefernandezprince-virelaigelegenheits-stalkerJillian Fleckderpkind, and Charlotte Renken

 

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