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Introduction v.2022

July 20th, 2022

How does a person get another person to like them the first time they meet?

That’s what required of us when we write these stupid distillations of ourselves.

If you hate me two sentences in, then I lose you. Definitely for the moment, most likely for today, and possibly forever.

No pressure.

I’ll start with my name. It’s Dennis. You can call me Denny (my dad’s favorite), Den, or even just the letter D and I’ll probably turn my head.

I’m glad you’re here today.

I talk about kindness a lot, and this is a photo of me giving you the finger, which doesn’t seem very kind. In actuality, my mom took this photo, and we flipped each other off all the time, and I love her more than life itself.

I’m a writer. I do other things, too, but let’s start this simple and call a spade a spade.

I was born in the 80’s and am a lifelong comics & pop culture obsessive. Pop culture has saved my life and helps me explain our existence. I’ve expressed myself artistically in a lot of different ways over the years — I started a company called Sleeping Kitty Productions when I was in high school, I released a trio of full-length music albums as The Next Step when I was a puppy, I began publishing my own books in 2013 with the help of Kickstarter, I fell into a character business called Awesome For Hire — but words are the thing that I have held onto through it all.

In 2013, I released a punk-rock sci-fi novella called Them, and in 2014, its sequel, Us; in-between those two books, I put out a novella about dreams called Flip.

I derailed my personal and creative train after releasing those first three books within a year; after getting sober in 2017, I put myself back on track.

In August of 2018, I released my first comic book: The Flying Squirrel, which is part of a flawed superhero series called The Weirdos. Over the next two years, I released a total of five issues of the series, eventually collecting & coloring them for a graphic novel volume that was published in May of 2020. The heroes in The Weirdos find each other through their struggles; they deal with things like alcoholism, depression, cancer & mental health issues. Later in 2020, I released a novella called Theia, about a silver Boston Terrier in an animal shelter who just wants to run away.

In 2021, I put out Time is a Solid State, my first non-fiction collection of essays; I also released Push, the sequel to Flip, later that summer.

In 2022, I released my two biggest projects to date: Cold World, my first full-length novel, a sci-fi story about spirituality on a future Earth where there is only winter; and Brushfire: Wave 1, my first all-ages graphic novel, about an underground society of wildlife.

I write, draw & produce all my own work. I did go to art school for a minute, said, “Nah, I’m good,” and am mostly self-taught. My books are readable steps of my journey.

The back of my business card has my motto: “Always Love.” It means to try to make your decisions based on love, as opposed to fear, or hate. To have compassion over strength, understanding over exclusion, radical empathy over power. I really believe in that, and am always trying to progress, never close to perfect.

I love my dog, I love words, I love art — and I ❤ you. And that’s it.

Visit my website dennisvogen.com and tell me I sent you.

Edging the Sword

October 1st, 2022

It’s October! Did you miss me?!

Back at the beginning of September, I decided to take the month off of writing.

I needed to reset. Blow in the cartridge of my brain. I needed a break, an adjustment, and to think about what it is that I do and why I do it.

Some months I was writing an essay almost daily. That’s like a songwriter writing a song a day or a woodworker creating a birdhouse every 24 hours; they’re not all going to be good, but some will be great, a handful transcendent, and the artist learns something with each one.

Plugging my nose and submerging myself in the murky waters of philosophy has actually given me a revelation.

“Montaigne’s works were not always consistent, which he would probably have regarded as a virtue. He was engaged in a sort of dialogue with himself, which continued throughout his life.”

This quote is a distillation of both philosophy as a whole and what I’ve been doing over here all these years.

Sure, you and I have a dialogue. On our best days, we teach each other, we learn from one another, and we grow.

Most of the time, though, comment sections are wastelands, and I can’t claim mine an exception.

And so the only way I’ve been able to carry on is by recognizing this public dialogue with myself. I’ve turned this into a place where I can make a true statement, and then contradict myself and try to make that true, too.

This is how I edge the sword.

I attack and criticize the same words I share to see which ones hold up and why. This is important because other people attack and criticize my words, too, and in order for my ideas to survive, they have to be strong.

And I think that’s really why I needed the break; neither I nor the words had the strength.

But I am back like the Sanderson sisters and oh boy do we have a lot to talk about. Welcome to spooky season, everyone.

The Comic Show @ Valley Creek Mall

September 17th, 2022

Oh, the humanity.

It can be hard to be human, especially when the world is being particularly human-y. It’s one of the reasons I’m taking a break from essays this month; I’m just not up to dealing with it all right now, and the feeling feels mutual.

But today?

I needed today. There is just something about being in a building with positive, like-minded nerds that will always remind me how wonderful humans can be.

And I saw so many wonderful humans today, some of whom I hadn’t seen in a while, and some who I met for the very first time.

A huge thanks to the Minnesota Comic Exchange, every single one of you, for putting on a remarkable first show. I am so grateful to have been part of it, and if you were one of those humans who sat with me and reminded me why I do this and how transcendent humanity can be: thank you, too.

I’ll be seeing you at NerdinOut Con in Rochester next month.

REDBUBBLE Shop & Comic Show This Weekend

September 13th, 2022

Hiya! Don’t worry, my September break from you still stands, so I won’t be whining about my feelings or crying about stuff or wondering about the nature of our universe today; this is just my shameless self-promotion for the week!

TWO THINGS! (Was that too loud? two. things.)

First: I will be at the Minnesota Comic Exchange’s first-ever Comic Show THIS SATURDAY, the 17th, at the Valley Creek Mall in Woodbury, starting at 9 am and going until 2 pm. It’s kicking off my Fall Tour 2022, and I really hope to see you there!

Second: I just opened an official merchandise store via REDBUBBLE!

Over the years, I’ve had a ton of people ask about t-shirts and hats and mugs and more, and it’s been difficult to figure out a good way to make great things available.

Teaming up with REDBUBBLE, I created 14 designs available for hundreds of products, which I got to curate.

For this first wave, I focused on three books: Brushfire, Cold World & Theia. The plan is to add to the collection in the future, and I am open to all suggestions.

I took some shots of pages so you can get an idea of what’s available; click on Explore Designs to choose something you like and it’ll reveal every product it’s available on.

Here’s the link:

skp-lounge.redbubble.com

Happy shopping, and see you on Saturday!

The Kind Monster

September 6th, 2022

Starting today, I’m going to be taking the rest of the month off from posting essays. I feel like you and I could use a break from each other, in a good way. I hope you’ll catch up on posts, if that’s your thing, or pick up some of my work and drop me a line with what you think and/or feel about it.

Before I go, though, I have one more.

This is called The Kind Monster.

When my mom died, she left me a lot of stuff.

I love stuff.

The most special stuff she left for me was colorful plastic boxes; inside them are words, art, photos, report cards, and notebooks she collected, starting the day I first picked up a pencil.

I’ve been using this stuff to figure out who I am.

From the moment I could draw a picture of me, I drew myself as a monster.

By all adult accounts of me, however, I was a kind, human person.

I remember being a scared kid. I was/am in a constant state of anxiety; I always felt like I had a lot of responsibility, and I also believed in everything. Ghosts and aliens, Bigfoot and Bat Boy, anything was possible and everything was out to get me.

Looking at my art from then, knowing what I know about me now, I see a child trying to control his world. He drew so many ghosts and aliens and vampires that you would assume he loved them, and he did, but I see how love and fear became the same thing.

And it scared him to think that anyone else could feel the same way he did.

So he tried to be nice.

But he knew he was a monster.

And that never went away.

As he got older, if he ever made a mistake or was less than kind, he affirmed that monster. He didn’t feel like the bad moments were the break in character, or anomalies; no, he felt like that was the true thing he was.

He lived in very dark places for a very long time because that’s what he thought he deserved.

It wasn’t until he realized he was both — he was kind and a monster — that he was able to reconcile them.

Being a monster has nothing to do with evil.

Being a monster means being different. It means you feel things deeper. It means you’re misunderstood by others. It means you don’t always understand how to deal with your feelings; sometimes they’re too much, and sometimes they’re so little you worry that they abandoned you, too.

But being kind isn’t being human. It’s being something more.

It’s being the thing in the dark that offers a light to someone so they can see. It’s offering someone understanding after spending so much time misunderstood.

It’s knowing what it’s like to be anxious, and hopeless, and so unspeakably scared, and giving comfort, hope, and a hand to hold, because that is all you ever needed.

A kind monster like you.

For You or Not For You

September 5th, 2022

When I saw the State Fair water tower on the horizon this year, the nostalgia hit me harder than normal. Instead of a general flavor, nostalgia tends to get colored by people whose loss feels recent, like yesterday, even though they’ve been gone, say, nearly two years.

It got me thinking about stories, both fictional and real.

My mom and I watched a lot of things together when I was growing up. The thing that strikes me when I think about it now is that I wasn’t critical of anything.

It was just a story being told.

And I wondered:

What if stories aren’t “good” or “bad”? What if they’re all just stories?

It’s a radical idea, especially in the age of the internet, where everyone has an opinion on literally everything, including other people’s opinions.

When you’re young, before the world teaches you how to be critical and cynical, you only have one decision to make when it comes to stories: whether or not they are for you.

If they’re not, you simply don’t return. If they are, you adore them, you cherish them, you live in them; you seek out plots and characters and worlds like them, and storytellers who tell stories like the ones that spoke so deeply to you.

But they’re not good or bad.

They’re for you, or not.

There are a lot of old storytellers who tell other storytellers to watch their ego; once you think you’re good at what you do, you’re dead in the water.

I understand that to a degree; I believe all humans should forever be open to learning and growing, and that takes a level of humility.

But it takes ego to create, and especially to share.

A storyteller should be bold in telling their story, not because it will help them tell a good story, but because no matter how they tell it, someone will think it’s bad.

It takes an ego to know yourself, know your voice, and to use that voice, unapologetically.

And it takes no ego to simply enjoy or leave a story, no further action necessary.

Stupid Questions

September 2nd, 2022

“So I was looking at the long term / Three quarters and I quit school / Now I break hearts as a learning tool.”

– The Next Step, “Honesty & Happiness”

As that lyric accurately describes, I did not go to college for long. Even calling it “college” doesn’t feel right.

But because of my lack of formal education, I’ve spent long periods of my life focusing on subjects that I feel are important.

I’ve spent time on science, and time with religion, and writing and music and nature and animals, and right now I am in it deep with philosophy.

I often tell new people that there are no stupid questions.

A lot of philosophy is stupid. Like, very, very stupid, and I mean that objectively. But reading a paragraph of a bad idea that a person spent their entire life obsessed upon will give you perspective on humility, openness, and how to live your own.

In an era where we’re really focused on the meaning of privilege, it is no surprise to find that most of these philosophers had means; it’s been said an animal needs not to understand nature to survive it, and someone who isn’t fighting for survival generally has a lot of time to wonder about the nature of things.

Philosophy itself is often just a man: loud, narcissistic, bragging about knowing it all while actively knowing so little.

But I do have to give it something.

Religion and science are two distinct colors; they live in different spaces. Philosophy is a blending tool between them.

And the history of philosophy, the characters that populate this timeline of asking all the questions, even the stupid ones, is fascinating.

It’s good that they asked them, because I would have been too embarrassed to myself.

I’d love to hear about your favorite philosophers, philosophies, and stupid ideas in the comments.

2

September 1st, 2022

Today is my two-year anniversary at Harry’s.

(This is not a photo of us celebrating my anniversary. This is from a wedding a few weekends ago where I was the minister-bartender. Barnister? Minitender.)

In 2020, a lot of people lost a lot.

I lost more than I ever had in any other year of my life.

In the spring of that year, I lost my job of almost thirteen years at Old Chicago. I’ve talked about my “ex” a lot, but it’s fine and isn’t the kind of talk to inspire jealousy, because she’s dead.

I didn’t know what I wanted to do past that. I considered leaving the industry. (I work in an industry where I consider leaving the industry every day.) Over the summer, I scanned the job sites and would occasionally throw a line to a job I wasn’t qualified for.

As fall approached, I decided to get serious and I put in an application to just two restaurants.

Harry’s was one of them.

My interview went very well; the current GM there worked with my former GM at OC. I don’t know what he said (but knowing Joe, it was at least half sarcasm); instead of calling me the following week, I got a call that day and I was hired.

Two years ago today.

Two weeks later, my sister called. Something was wrong with my mom.

Exactly one month after that call, I lost her, too.

I think about this all the time. What happened next could have gone a million different ways. I could have run. I could have closed myself off and built walls a hundred feet high. I could have disappeared.

Instead, these weirdos at Harry’s held onto me as hard as they could.

When I got back to work, my co-worker Kelvin said simply, “I’m glad you’re here,” and it was most comforting thing I ever heard; they became the four words I use the most when someone tells me they lost someone, usually followed by two more: “It sucks.”

This group of people had the unenviable task of meeting me at my best and my worst; we’ve spent the last two years working in an industry that is perhaps the hardest it’s been in decades. Within just a few months, the rollercoaster of the pandemic turned my serving job into bartending and then rose into management, too; I’m not great at any one job, but I can do many of them.

And I would rather do this with nobody else. My friends are bright and charming and obnoxious and strong and kind and stupidly funny and I get to be one of them, with them on their best and worst days, too.

Okay, I’m done talking now. Get back to work.

Heard

August 26th, 2022

Yesterday afternoon, I encountered a family of three who seemed overwhelmed.

I asked how they were and they told me, understandably, that they had been better.

I looked at the documents and photos spread across the table.

They had to plan a funeral over lunch.

I told them I understood.

There continued to be the kind of tension that exists when you feel like you’re dealing with something that no one else could possibly comprehend, until one of the women turned to me and asked:

“When’s the last time you had to write an obituary?”

“Last year,” I said, matter-of-factly.

And that tension dissolved.

Suddenly, they weren’t grieving alone; they were grieving with a friend. I knew they felt less alone, and I felt less alone being with them.

This is why I’m always telling you to talk about the hard stuff.

Talking about the hard stuff, like planning a funeral while eating lunch, while continuing to spin on this planet like nothing is different but everything has changed, opens the line between isolated islands of grief and pain.

We can check on each other, we can be there for one another, we can understand.

We can make unbearable moments of our lives sublime with connection.

I’m glad I got to be the person they ran into yesterday, not because I feel like I did something for them, but because, selfishly, they comforted me.

I never told them who I lost, or why, because it never came up, and it didn’t matter.

They understood. I knew that. And that was the only thing that mattered.

Trauma Like Candy

August 25th, 2022

When I was growing up, my dad took us camping a lot.

That meant a lot of s’mores, mosquito bites, boat rides, sunburns, worms pierced with hooks, hammocks, and campfires.

On one particular trip, during elementary school break, I had become fascinated with the fire pit on the grounds. It was made with giant stones, and when there wasn’t a blaze roaring, I found myself endlessly walking in a circle on those stones.

(Camping is boring, y’all.)

One morning, I was up early and decided to do some fire pit rock hopping. At this point in the story, I should mention that I was not wearing a shirt. I should also mention something that had not been mentioned to me: the adults had been up very late, very early, so the fire had been put out just moments before I took my first step.

I slipped. I fell into the still-very-hot pit on my back. I managed to push myself up mostly using my pinkie, but I had severely burned my lower back.

The next few minutes were both vivid and a blur, but my dad played the scenario in his head and his solution was to take me for a walk.

He had me walk off a severe burn.

This is not an indictment of my dad. (He was sincerely doing his best.) This is also not what I would do if my son had experienced the same situation today.

This is a commentary on generations.

I saw a tweet that (correctly) assessed that people can be split into two camps:

1. “I suffered, so you should suffer, too.”

2. “I suffered, but I will do everything I can so you don’t have to suffer, as well.”

The “you should have to suffer crowd, too” tend to have an interesting perspective on it; they often claim that even though they suffered, they turned out alright.

I don’t know if I have ever met a human being who is actually alright. And the quirks and flaws and character defects we possess can sometimes be something we’re born with, but most of that comes from trauma inflicted upon us.

Humans do not have it figured out. We know this because we still pass along trauma like candy.

We are supposed to be the helpers. If there is a generation younger than you, you have a responsibility to them: do less harm.

Not until we stop inflicting harm on the generations we are supposed to be raising and protecting will we even be close to a society that has got it right.

We are not close.

I Am Not An Illusion

August 24th, 2022

Mystery is an amateur magic show.

I get frequently asked why I tell people stuff on the internet. Like, the stuff you shouldn’t really tell people, the stuff people don’t talk about like I think they should, the stuff that is heavy or hard.

I do it because I feel like we should all play with our cards face-up on the table; I played for too long with indoor sunglasses and extra cards up my sleeves, bluffing and lying and cheating my way through games.

I figure if I give everyone the ammunition and evidence they need to know they are a better person than I am, then they might find themselves open about being open with me, in mind, heart, or opinion. They repeat what I tell them.

“You’re a drunk.”

Yep.

“You’ve said and done shitty things.”

Uh-huh, yeah, turns out people find that relatable.

“You’re still kind of a dick.”

I am, but I am also actively working against that, to change that, even when I fail. Especially when I fail. And I fail a lot.

I fail more when I’m not honest with you.

Some say that people should earn the right to really know you and your secrets; that your story is special and only individuals you trust should have access to those rooms in you.

There are a lot of people who believe in being mysterious, and that there is some kind of honor and dignity in keeping things to yourself.

I’m here to reveal that mystery never helped a person get better. I want to tell you that if someone had given me an instruction manual on how to help myself that I could understand, I would have gotten better a long time ago.

Mystery is for people who do not want to help; mystery is spectacle for people who don’t want to do any work. Secrets are kept by those who want to retain power; sharing secrets gives power to other people.

I am not mystery. I am verbose, urgent, messy. I am exact wants and specific needs. I am here, shouting into a black electronic void of our own creation, not sure if anyone can actually see or hear me, but screaming all the same.

I am not an illusion. I am the pain and pressure of showing you how the trick works, and the ecstacy of pulling it off in front of a live audience.

The actual magic is in the giving.