Cometbus has cut a mighty swath over the past 20 years. Sometimes it has taken the form of a regular magazine, with articles and features and regular columnists; but at other times it has appeared to be one man's journal, or a travelogue; at other times still, it's been a collection of short stories; and let's not forget those issues that were self-contained novels. A few very recent issues consisted entirely of interviews with a specific group of people (with Aaron as the invisible interlocutor) or a specific subject. One issue was all comics (by longtime Cometbus contributor Bobby Madness), and before that there was at least one issue of Cometbus that was a vinyl LP. And I'm reasonably sure that I'm forgetting some things here. Throughout, Aaron has put together every single issue of Cometbus himself (including Despite Everything), with his own two hands: No editors or secretaries or marketing strategists were involved.
And that's just the format: We haven't even gotten into what is actually being written about in those individual issues, and that's an even bigger can of worms.
We're working backward now, and 20 years is a long time. Aaron started his first zine, which would eventually turn into Cometbus, back in 1981 at age 13. This was long before the zine revolution of the mid-Nineties, and Cometbus was basically what every young punk zine should be: messy, loud, rambunctious, and obsessed with its immediate surroundings (i.e., punk). Eventually, though, Aaron apparently got tired of writing solely about bands and records, and after taking a couple of years off, he changed the rules entirely.
I have no idea to what extent Aaron knew what he was getting himself into, but the new Cometbus (beginning with #24) concerned itself with people's lives first, and punk rock second. It set him (and Cometbus) on a course that would drag his ass all over God's green earth from that moment until, well, today. And--lucky us--we get to read about it. Cometbus has doggedly pursued this interest in people all over the country (and the world). Issues of Cometbus have been written while Aaron was living in Chicago, and Richmond, Virginia, and New York City. Aaron even settled down for a while here in our little Minneapolis, where he worked overnights at a Kinko's. (The written record testifies that although he liked the West Bank and the river, he had less appetite for the cold.)
Some people go on vacations; Aaron walks around some town he's never been to, getting as lost as he possibly can, then eventually finds a coffee shop. Other people go visit friends; Aaron goes looking in dumpsters in Florida until he makes one, then they both get some beer and that new friend that Aaron just met tells Aaron the story about the time he found a dead body down by the river...and then we read about it in Cometbus.
I heard that the guy walked from Minnesota to Kansas, just because. That story hasn't been substantiated, but the point is, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if it were true. The fact is that Despite Everything is, in every sense, almost psychopathically all over the map. Aaron (and the other Cometbus folks) have done things and lived lives that, by common standards of what is normal or safe, could be considered certifiably insane. From hopping trains to riding through Europe with flame-juggling street performers, from working a shitty, soul-destroying job to living entirely by your wits, from love to frustration to hate and back around again, from wide-eyed idealism to world-weary cynicism--Cometbus is about all those things and a hell of a lot more.
My own story ended up just like something out of Cometbus. Aaron and his pal hauled me all over the nooks and crannies and secret places of Chinatown. We snuck in, over, under, and around the streets, scrounging for leftover firecrackers and climbing up lampposts for a better view. We had a veritable shitload of fun, and at that particular moment in time, it kind of saved my life.
At some point, after the parade was long over, the three of us were wandering the empty streets, searching through detritus. I looked up and the person next to me was this pretty (but unknown) girl, just looking around, same as me. We ended up sort of idly looking for stuff together, and when I glanced up from the street, Aaron was gone. So was his pal. Those rotten sons of bitches. I was (and still am...) far too repressed to make friends with that girl, but still I had a dandy night for the first time in ages, and that was enough.
I stayed in Oakland for two and a half years, and they were, hands down, the most insane years of my life. I ran into Aaron a couple of weeks after the event described above, and yelled at him: "Why the hell did you ditch me?! What was that all about?"
He looked genuinely surprised: "Well...I just figured that was the time for me to leave....You and that girl searching the street for garbage--it was just too great and I didn't want to stick around to see how it worked out, you know? It was just too perfect."