Microcosm Publishing, 2016
Paperback, 222 pp., $14.95
Review by Andrew T. Powers
I was excited when I first heard that Joe Biel had written a memoir. He’s a minor literary figure I’ve been curious about since I first began paying attention to zines again and happened across the website for his publishing company, Microcosm. He appeared to me a self-made renaissance man whose public image was in the midst of being rewritten as news broke that he had emotionally abused his now-ex-wife, and about his supposed unethical business practices. It was with this in mind that I picked up his memoir, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business with Asperger’s. (I have not met the author, nor any of the people he has written about; this review is not an opportunity to weigh in on controversies ongoing to this day.) While it is the story of a DIY filmmaker, musician, artist, author, and small press publisher who founded Microcosm Publishing at the age of eighteen, it is also the story of a man abused as a child who suffered through the misadventures of one who would have benefited from a much earlier diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome.
Growing up in a suburb of Cleveland, when Joe was five, his father suffered a stroke that left him wheelchair-bound and unable to work, an event that changed the trajectory of Joe’s life. His mother didn’t handle the situation well: She blamed his father for “his accident” (what she called his stroke), screamed out her frustrations at the entire family, and beat Joe’s father with her fists. On at least one occasion, she beat Joe too. He was sent to live with his grandparents for a time, and they insisted Joe attend Catholic school—first All Saints School, where the initial glimmerings of his artistic talents began to emerge, which coincided with his alienation from the masses of students. He suffered ridicule and bullying that followed him into his high school years at Lake Catholic School. To cope with the awful realities of home and school, he rebelled: He shoplifted, listened to punk music, got drunk all the time (his grandfather home-brewed beer in his basement), and eventually discovered zines at a local punk show.
A blur of activity followed: he joined a band; started publishing his own zine, Stink in Public; met Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, through whom he learned about Cleveland’s publishing history; and learned business practices from the owner of an Italian restaurant where he delivered pizza, eventually earning the startup money necessary to found Microcosm. About Microcosm, Joe has this to say:
Microcosm is a Greek word that roughly translates to “small world.” It represented to me how the punk scene was a reflection of the real world, replete with many of the same flaws and problems. I felt that I could draw attention to issues through documentation and writing and to begin to right these wrongs and build a platform to prop up the disenfranchised.
Joe had a head for business, capable of doing detailed mathematical problems in his head, which proved a true asset for the number-crunching aspect of publishing. His friend created a website for Microcosm, he solicited books from writers he admired, and they published two books, which he promoted through touring and through the more interesting process of going door-to-door asking stores to stock his books, many of whom carried no other Microcosm books (much in the way that Aaron Elliott sold his zine, Cometbus). The business grew, he took on more paid staff, they began publishing more titles each year, and eventually Joe decided that making Microcosm a collective was best for its future success.
While all of this was happening, Joe was moving—from the Cleveland area to Athens, Ohio, to Columbus, Ohio, and eventually landing with his future wife in Portland, Oregon, which, Joe writes, “had become something of a magnet for people involved in punk and zine cultures.” A large portion of Good Trouble details Joe’s perspective on his whirlwind of a relationship with his girlfriend/wife/ex-wife that took place while Microcosm was exclusively located in Portland. They connected on many levels, including their love of punk rock and zines, but couldn’t get along. Despite his reservations, they marry; then after seeing a counselor, they ultimately divorce. Afterward, it appeared that nothing Joe could do to make amends would placate her. Word spread throughout the community that Joe emotionally abused her, which was news to him; from his account, she appeared the abuser. Inaccuracies abounded about their breakup, and Microcosm came under scrutiny for its supposedly unethical business practices. Due to Joe’s relatively public position in the punk/zine community (and his reliance on that community to support Microcosm), he issued public apologies and followed through on his ex-wife’s demands, primarily that he go through an accountability process and seek treatment from a feminist therapist.
While a painful and confusing process, it was not all bad, as it was during this time that he eventually came to discover he has Asperger’s. He writes:
I’ve heard dozens of Aspies express a similar feeling of comfort in this diagnosis. It was the greatest revelation of my life to date. Slowly every pain, hardship, and depression in my life that others didn’t seem to experience could be explained by and traced back to a single word.
Good Trouble is a memoir of Joe’s life, and we get everything from his youth to date, but its publication is also an opportunity for him to clear the air and present his side of a story that made him look like the bad guy. In retrospect, one could argue that his public demonization was a chance for many people to confront issues long left unacknowledged in the small community, most of which had to do with interpersonal relationships. This is, after all, also the story of punk kids who, now in their thirties and forties, are realizing they have to explore the terrifying realities of a future many thought they’d never grow old enough to see.
Good Trouble sometimes reads like a dense history tome, less a cohesive narrative than a messy pile of events, likely resulting from a need to tell the whole story instead of focusing on the more salient details. Personally, I’d have liked to read more about Microcosm as an evolving business philosophy, and less about his relationship with his now-ex-wife. But despite this, I’m glad to have finally heard Joe’s side of the story, and can see this book as a necessary step in documenting a slice of the history of small press publishing in America.