Brian Cremins is an Associate Professor of English at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, where he’s been teaching first-year writing since 2008. In 2016, the University Press of Mississippi published his first book, Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia, a study of the role that memory plays in the work of comic book innovators C. C. Beck and Otto Binder (who got his start as a writer when he was a student at Schurz High School in Chicago). Last year he and singer Allison Felus composed the soundtrack for cartoonist Gene Kannenberg, Jr.’s asemic graphic novel Qodèxx, which they debuted at the Creative Coworking space in Evanston in July. They’ll be performing that piece again in May at Dartmouth College’s Illustration, Comics, and Animation conference, and they’re currently working on a new EP.
Born in Waterbury, Connecticut—the Brass City where Eastern Color comic books were born in the 1930s and where the Ramones played their first gig outside of New York in the 1970s—he’s lived in Chicago since 2005.
1. What’s been keeping you up at night?
After I finished my first book a couple of years ago I wondered how I might share the lessons I’d learned about the writing process with my students. I’ve been teaching first-year writing courses since 1996, when I was 22 and not too much older than my students. I feel like, after all these years, I should have a better sense of how to convey what I’ve learned through my own writing projects to students, especially the ones who find reading and writing so difficult and terrifying. Every semester I feel like I get a little closer, but I’m still trying to figure out how to describe the joy waiting for them at the end of the journey. I think it’s tragic that so many of my students believe that they “can’t write.” I hear that too often. I’m trying to find the right words to talk them out of believing that.
Every semester I feel like I get a little closer, but I’m still trying to figure out how to describe the joy waiting for them at the end of the journey
These fears might explain a recurring dream I have, especially at the start of every semester, that I’m on a stage and I’m holding a Fender Telecaster with a neck like a rubber band. I try to play a D chord and the neck wobbles out of my grip. Then I try to plug the guitar in and the neck wiggles and floats away from me. The show never starts. I know it’s a standard anxiety dream, brought on by self-doubt, but one of these days I really want to play that D chord—in the dream! I don’t play a Telecaster in real life, by the way. Only on the astral.
2. What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen or heard lately?
Is it ok if I pick a couple of tracks? First, EYE from Columbus, Ohio. Here’s a clip of them from 2016. Guitar nerds might recognize Lisa Bella Donna, who’s playing the Jazzmaster, as a spokeswoman for Earthquaker Devices, a great pedal company based in Akron. This is a track called “Searching” from their 2016 album Vision and Ageless Light:
I mean, how much better does it get than this? There’s confidence and wit and exuberance in their playing, a story in the lyrics, and those spidery guitar solos. Bella Donna is a complete musician; as great as she is on guitar, she’s also wicked on keyboards. I regret missing EYE when they played Progtoberfest here in Chicago back on October with another one of my favorite guitarists, John Moulder, who is a Jedi Master of a musician. Jazz, rock, ring-modulated noise—like Lisa Bella Donna, he can do it all. Check out his solo starting at 5:21 on this track, “Earthborn Tales,” from his recent album:
3. What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on right now?
I’m working on a new zine to debut at the BALibrary Comic Con in Barrington on March 4th. I’ve been doing research for it over the last few weeks: reading Robinson Crusoe for the first time, listening to REO Speedwagon’s You Can Tune a Piano, But You Can’t Tuna Fish, and reading a biography of KISS. I’m writing about an old and dear friend of mine and trying to remember if his high school band covered REO’s “Time for Me to Fly” or if they did “Take It on the Run.” Whichever one it was, he played the drum parts perfectly. Maybe I’ll just write about both songs.
I’m not quite sure yet what Daniel Defoe has to do with REO Speedwagon but I’m hoping I’ll figure all that out by the time the zine is done. I’m also looking forward to recording some new songs with Allison Felus, my musical partner in crime. I’ve been listening to a lot of John Mellencamp for inspiration as we work on arrangements. Every songwriter should own a copy of Scarecrow. It’s like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio only set in Indiana and with drummer Kenny Aronoff as the narrator.
4. If you could add anyone alive or dead to your team, who would it be?
I was talking about this question with a friend of mine and realized that I’m lucky in that I feel like I have a team around me now of friends and colleagues who really inspire me. I think if I had to add someone from the past it would be Margaret Fuller. I’ve just started reading her 1844 autobiographical novel Summer on the Lakes and the writing is otherworldly. When she sees Niagara Falls for the first time, she writes about a “little waterfall” where “nature seems, as she often does, to have made a study for some larger design. She delights in this,–a sketch within a sketch, a dream within a dream.” My students and I were reading that passage last week and I asked if it was ok with them if I read it over a couple of times. I mean, how perfect are those sentences, and how magical is the dream that floats through them?
I mean, how perfect are those sentences, and how magical is the dream that floats through them?
I’m also obsessed right now with mid-1970s, Rock and Roll Animal, spiky blond Lou Reed. So if I could recruit Fuller and Lou, that would be cool.
5. When the movie of your life is made, what will it be called?
I don’t know what it should be called—and I doubt anyone would want to see it anyway—but I hope Mickey Rourke appears in it as The Shadow, my favorite fictional character. Maybe I could be his Margo Lane!