THE SHORT VERSION
Jim Munroe is a “pop culture provocateur” according to the Austin Chronicle. His graphic novels and prose novels have been praised by Pulitzer-winner Junot Diaz and comics legend Neil Gaiman, and his lo-fi sci-fi feature films by Wired and the Guardian. His political videogames have appeared at Sundance and Cannes, and he co-founded the world’s first videogame arts organization. He was an Art Gallery of Ontario Artist-in-Residence in 2014 and he lives in the Junction neighbourhood in Toronto.
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THE LONG VERSION
I started publishing zines when I was 17, and while they weren’t very good, they were good enough. Good enough to get feedback and suggestions and to connect me with similarly minded folks. I’ve basically been trafficking in cultural capital and parlaying one small thing into a slightly bigger thing for over half my life. Money has been a byproduct of this. Enough to live off of and not enough to be a burden.
The last real job I had was as the managing editor of Adbusters, where I worked for a year in 1995. I learned a lot — but most importantly I learned that even my ideal job, with an ideal boss, was not ideal for me. It was because everything was so perfect that I realized that another job, with better pay or different people was not going to improve the situation — I needed to be working on my own projects to be firing on all thrusters.
I feel super-lucky that I found this out early enough to avoid wasting time (and other people’s time) as a perpetually discontented employee. It helped that I identify as an anarchist — my allergy to power dynamics, either as a boss or employee, was validated by a philosophy that we’d be better off without power altogether.
On the practical side of things, I’m pretty good at managing my money and my time. I had part-time jobs since I was nine and had had twenty of them by the time I was twenty. As much as I enjoyed buying records and books and gadgets, I realized at that point that I’d rather participate in culture by making it rather than buying it… and that every dollar I spent brought me closer to the time I would have to work for someone else. Because of this I have cultivated a habit of looking for ways to make and save money, and so far I’ve managed to keep a buffer in my bank account. I’ve never been in debt, spent what I didn’t have or carried a balance on a credit card — to be honest, it just doesn’t occur to me that this is an option. When I first started writing books, I calculated my “burn rate” (how much I spend just living, on average) and this has been invaluable in being able to plan my finances/life. I live below the poverty level, but I feel I live a dignified and privileged life, and actually am much less angsty and stressed about money than most people I know.
It also helped that I had had years of experience making zines on my own, and knew what that was like: fun! Plus, I’d had two years of working at the school paper in university (York’s Excalibur) as the features editor, where we each had autonomy over our own section: also fun! So I had had lots of experiences where I enjoyed making stuff and was productive.
The chief bases of power in our society are corporations, so I’m particularly uncomfortable doing business with or through them. But kind of like how someone who’s allergic to smoke will put up with a smoky bar to see a band if they’re really curious about them, I do enter them occasionally, if briefly. (Leasing my soul, but not selling it outright.) HarperCollins published my first novel but just confirmed the suspicion I had that I would find it frustrating and dispiriting to work through that system, and I left despite interest in my second novel to start No Media Kings. Indie publishing has been more work and much more gratifying.
I did a videogame column for two years for Eye Weekly, which is owned by the TorStar corporation. I really enjoyed this — I liked writing the 800-word biweekly format, and it allowed me to immerse myself in a fascinating scene I hadn’t visited much since I was 15 — but then the editor who brought me on was fired for the usual, stupid corporate reasons, and I quit in solidarity. The Cultural Gutter, a website I started to give these articles a broader cultural context, has since gained its own arts funding and audience.
But the majority of what I’ve done has been outside of the corporate sphere. Which has introduced its own challenges, because while I hate being an employee, I’m also uncomfortable being the boss. In situations where I do have to pressure or coerce people to finish a project I am profoundly unhappy. Even when I am paying them, I feel like I am beating people with the money stick. My solution for this has been to constantly reach out to people and deepen my pool of people, so that my subsets have subsets.
What I mean is: of all the musicians I know, there are a certain amount whose work I really like, and vice versa. Of that group there’s a subset that will be able/willing to work for the budget I have (usually none). And of this subset I discover through experience a subset with whom I have a simpatico working style — who can work to deadline without unreasonable stress on either of us. I treasure these relationships like rare diamonds.
So as much as my community building has come from political belief and idealism, it also serves this practical purpose of introducing me to tons of active and creative people and deepening this pool. When I first started No Media Kings I put the DIY Books articles on the site as a way of breaking down the barriers to publishing for people, letting loose the power inherent in secret knowledge. It meant that I ended up meeting a ton of folks across the world who were just as excited about indie publishing. I asked them for help promoting my books in their towns, and dozens of people actually hosted events and I got to meet them in person.
A lot of those folks were into doing it for like-minded indie press types who weren’t me, and so I started the Perpetual Motion Roadshow to send other creators on the road. Mostly I did it because I wanted other people to get to experience touring, because people were excited to tour, and because I realized that it could be done.
I try a lot of things simply because I realize I can do them. Movies were a lot like that — in 2000, a pal had a camera, another pal let me edit on his computer, and pow, I made a movie. Again, it wasn’t very good, and probably people who enjoyed my books were thrown off by the lack of polish. But it was good enough that I met a bunch of people as a result and got enough juice to make another one. To me it was funny that I was making vids, mixing it up with “real” vid makers, many of whom had no idea I also wrote books. Doing things I’m not supposed to do gives me a charge while it drains others, which explains why I go against the grain a fair bit.
While they weren’t good, I felt they were interesting. In my hierarchy, “interesting” trumps “good” every time. The world has an excess of quality, polished cultural product. A good friend (who I met through making zines, of course) opened me up to the world of the crappy-yet-fascinating, and it has been my creative compass ever since.
I believe in growing up in public — who knows, by our amateurish thrashing about we might discover something new accidentally? — and I wanted to get my vids out into the world. So I put together Novel Amusements, “a digital lootbag” that started as a CD-ROM and ended up as a DVD-R. It was a compilation of videos I liked on some kind of theme. I liked the idea of short experimental video but too often I found myself feeling trapped in my chair during a screening, wondering how long this particular meditation on carcasses or grassy fields was going to drag on for. I wanted Novel Amusements to have a zine-y approachability and also give the viewer the choice of skipping to the next one if they were bored.
It was through this project that I met most of the folks who were the directors on Infest Wisely, a lo-fi sci-fi feature in seven episodes. We were all at the point where we’d done a couple of shorts, and so the idea of doing something a bit longer without a huge time commitment was appealing. It was a creative and logistical challenge, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
I like working. I work all the time, pretty much, but 99% of the time on projects I’m excited about and in a way that I’m comfortable with. I suspect it’s a pretty delicate ecosystem, in a way. If one thing was thrown off I would start to associate work with something I don’t want to do, and it would be more difficult to do. As it is, I’m productive because I’m happiest being productive — when I don’t/can’t do anything I consider worthwhile I find I get depressed. (2017 UPDATE: I’ve done some therapy around this and I’m better at enjoying downtime these days.)
Case in point, I started making the movie because it was going to take a year to draw the graphic novel script I’d written. There was nothing for me to do, since with a graphic novel 80% of the work is up to the artist. Some people would be fine with this dynamic, but I much preferred working on the movie. When things got stuck for a director, they didn’t have an actor for a part or a location or a prop, I could help them, while with the graphic novel artist there was very little I could do.
My working style is much better suited to making movies, in other words. (2012 UPDATE: We just finished another lo-fi sci-fi feature, Ghosts With Shit Jobs, which was two years in the making.) I’ll be doing more of them, for sure. When I can’t participate in the process I feel unfulfilled. I like getting my hands dirty. As the Barcelona Pavilion sang, “How are you people going to have fun if none of you people ever participate?”
(2012 UPDATE: Since I wrote this, I’ve helped found the Hand Eye Society, a videogame culture organization in Toronto. The videogame world’s interest in new models is a refreshing change from the conservatism I encountered in the publishing scene, and internationally game culture is at a really dynamic point of realizing its artistic potential. I’m having fun and getting things done, in other words!)
(2017 UPDATE: I’m stepping away from the Hand Eye Society at the end of the year, to let the new crew do their thing. I’ve also decided to end the No Media Kings project for a variety of reasons, but will continue making and releasing politically-engaged art under my own name.)
Any questions, feedback, responses welcome!