Meet Microcosm, Episode Five—Compounds, Trailers, and Treehouses, The Joe Biel Interview!

For this episode of our Meet Microcosm blog series we talk to Joe Biel about weirdo funlands, nontraditional tours, and the importance of trash.

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Q: First off let’s talk Cantankerous Titles. You just released a new comic, the epically funny (and epically sweet) lovestory between Glenn Danzig and Henry Rollins, Henry and Glenn Forever. Tell us a little about Cantankerous…

A: Cantankerous was intended to be the stuff that either wasn’t appropriate for Microcosm to publish thematically or things that I felt were appropriate for Microcosm and other collective members did not. But Henry and Glenn Forever was something that Tom Neely approached me about because he liked the look of Jesse Reklaw’s Applicant and he knew my style. It was, of course, stupidly successful and can only continue to be that. I thought it would take years to sell out a print run but it took two weeks.

That said, I don’t want Cantankerous to feel like it only catches dregs or is more of a hodgepodge. I definitely see it as having a coherent style, form, and presentation, even if that is probably not yet clear to someone on the outside and some mistakes will probably be made along the way. Because I don’t have a nest egg to invest into printing books and don’t have a warehouse, all of the releases so far have been DVDs and zines. That may change over time and right now I’m honestly signing onto projects as they come up and don’t know what I’ll be doing next week! 

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Q: What’s coming up for Cantankerous? Any dream projects you’d like to release?

A: The original idea was that since Microcosm would not be doing DVDs anymore, I could release some classic and upcoming no-budget scrappy documentaries with it. But those films haven’t really emerged yet. I’ll probably self-release my new documentary Aftermass which should be finished in the next year and is about the new bicycle activist scene in Portland post-Critical Mass.

I would really like to become more of a beacon for filmmakers who share something of an ideological base with this idea of no-budget digital video that is more centered in journalism than art form. But I honestly don’t know how many people exist out there like that. Stay tuned. If you build it….?

Q: Tell us about the super-rad PDOT!

A: My involvement with The People’s Department of Transportation (PDOT) was kind of a spin off of working on Aftermass. I was very attuned to conversations in town around activism and a lot of folks don’t really want to bump heads or even rub elbows with people who work in official capacity of city planning and transportation. So new groups would start and I would go to their meetings and talk to people or shoot what was happening and it would kind of fizzle out as the role of the organization was being made clear in group process, rather than a few people getting together and saying, “This is what we are doing. Who is with us?”

So with PDOT, a half dozen people were talking about problems that were going on in their neighborhoods—mostly city streets like 39th, Powell, or Foster being managed as state highways by ODOT and how citizens could respond to that. In Howard Zinn’s last living interview he was asked what people can do who feel that voting is futile. His response was very simple: “Organize locally in your communities.” And that sticks with me a lot when I’m assessing how to impact a problem.

The city was building a wall between the light rail station and the bus stop in the 3rd busiest transit center of the city so The People found it necessary to embarrass ODOT for such ridiculous behavior. It turns out that the whole project started because the city had identified that area as a “crime problem” but all discussions around it talked about “jay walking” which wasn’t happening. If you are 150 feet from a marked crosswalk, it is legal for you to cross the street in what is legally defined as an unmarked crosswalk. But on 82nd Ave, where this was occurring, the biggest concern of ODOT was to stonewall any effort to make pedestrians safer, e.g. slow down traffic. And they were quite effective at creating a scenario that is even less statistically safe.

So what followed were some informational videos, a chicken suit, a series of crossing guard actions, a lot of press coverage, and numerous public figures and organizations publicly changing their stance on “The wall of 82nd Ave”

Future projects must remain slightly secretive but there is some big shit brewing.

Q: As far as living situations you live about as far as it gets from the white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and two-car garage. Tell us about the weirdo funland that is the compound, the trailer, and the treehouse…

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A: I live on six lots of land in inner-Northeast Portland with four other people. Calling it unique might still be selling it a bit short. My landlord, Fred Nemo, is proof that you don’t have to give up the dream and he’s providing a living situation and lifestyle that I honestly couldn’t afford otherwise—where I can focus on the things that I want to do instead of paying the going rates of rent around here.

I live in a travel trailer that I bought from my friend’s grandpa and have been refashioning away from trailer and more like home. It has a composting toilet, an electric stove, a normal queen-sized bed, a dining room table, and a fridge. The shower’s not working right now but now that it’s finally spring, the plumbing can finally get replaced from when it froze out two winters ago.

There is also “The Treehouse” which is a freestanding structure built around a tree that we keep adding on to the monstrosity of. When I first lived in it in 2006, it had gaping holes in the walls and was very obviously incomplete. Now it has a deck on the second floor, an overhang for keeping wood dry and bike parking, and all of the cracks upstairs have been patched and reframed. My friend Sara Stout lives downstairs and upstairs is a communal artspace/living room.

I think it’s very important to live somewhere with creative people who are producing and you can respect their work that are also respectful and supportive of each other. I’ve got a rare circumstance like that. And when something breaks we just fix it. I honestly just find that arrangement so much easier than relying on someone else.

The Tour Game!

1 What five things should every person who tours bring with them?

Toothbrush, shaving razor, nail clippers, telephone with email, laptop. I think I’ve honed my craft enough that if I had those things, my merch, and projector, I could have a functional tour. 

2 Ideal tour vehicle…

Lately I’ve been thinking it’s either a Sprinter or a Vanagon. But I was totally wrong and it’s an Xtracycle or regular bicycle and Amtrak combo. 

3 Ideal tour-mate…

Must I choose between Dave Roche and Joshua Ploeg? It should be clear based on my habits of the past seven years.

4 Best place to table in the States…

Minot, North Dakota. 

5 We’re stealing this question from Pitchfork: If you could have one thing on your merch table, some dream piece of merch (sky’s the limit, of course, money is no option, neither is rationality or common sense) what would it be?

I would like to get some actual cast chainrings made of the Microcosm logo that could actually be used on a bike but could be sold for $10.

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Q: You’re going on tour this summer and it’s going to be pretty nontraditional. Tell us a bit about that…

A: It’s still not entirely clear. Basically, I get invited to table, speak, present, or show movies at all kinds of events all the time. But summer is often the worst because there will always be multiple things on the same weekend. Some of them can pay money and some of them can’t but if I can string together enough dates it becomes practical to make it into a “tour.” It started when the City of Boise asked me to run a workshop on graphic novels for teenagers around the same time that Minnesota Indie Arts asked me to come and present a panel on bicycle activism. Quickly, Billy had roped me into showing some movies at Why Not? Minot Festival and I was going to Minneapolis twice! I had to cancel the tour in January/February because I broke some ribs in a bike wreck and so there were already a number of events that I should do a makeup for. And there’s still plenty of gaps to fill in. It’ll be between Portland and West Bend, WI. Now the only question is, “What kind of transportation makes the most sense?”

Bike-related Word Association!

  1. Biking in Portland! dangerous.

  2. Broken bike! normative.

  3. Safe bike! burgeous.

  4. Mean bike! typical.

  5. Bike zine! inspirational.

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Q: You’ve been to known to haul trash across great expanses of Portland on a regular basis. What’s the deal with that? Why is trash important?

A: Well, because of the size of our yard, it’s hard not to collect things. I’ve been known to bring home giant wood scraps and intend to build one thing out of them and end up building something else. From what I can tell, my brain has a cataloging system of where I need or could use some kind of better arrangement system and a shelf could be built or an item of “trash” could contribute to solving a problem. So this past week I collected some discarded dresser drawers to make a new patch display out of at work, some little light fixtures, plenty of clothes, a fair share of 2×4″s, and even bottles of pills.

Conversely, with a property with so many former roommates, we have lots of rotting discarded items to get rid of. So part of my job is to bike the trash from the compound back to the trashcan.

Q: Finally, the question we ask everyone, what do you do for Microcosm day in, day out?

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6 AM: I create another draft of the proposed cover design for a new book that comes out next month and submit it to the author and the collective.
8 AM: I write checks to zinesters for money we owe them and figure out royalties owed on the books that we publish.
10 AM: I figure out how we are doing financially in our current month and update our publishing production chart based on any email updates I’ve gotten from the authors, designers, or editors.
Noon: I answer email while eating lunch.
2 PM: I bike down to the Microcosm store and make restock orders based on what we’ve sold in the past week. I clean up and rearrange the shelves and often this week—build more new shelves!
6 PM: I check our mailbox and mail out orders for the day. Even though most of the actual order fulfilled is done in Bloomington, there’s always a handful of things that need mailed from Portland each day on top of mailing all of the checks out.
8 PM: I recline in the chair and contemplate if I have enough energy to ride my bike home.

6:48 Feel guilty about the sheer amount behind at work I am.
8:12 Ride bike while pondering appropriate responses to difficult to answer emails.

(Photo credit: All non-blurry photos by Elly Blue)