Guest Post: Simon Berman and Problem Glyphs

When last I blogged on this hallowed page, Aeryn had invited me to promote my then-current project The Book of Starry Wisdom. I know for a fact a number of Rejectomancy readers backed the Kickstarter, so let me first say thank you! Aeryn and I go way back at Privateer Press where we worked together on a number of projects, and it’s a pleasure to see he’s gaining a loyal and adoring audience—even if they seem to be tuned in mostly to see his rejections—but I digress!

Since last I blogged here, my own career has taken a path somewhat parallel to Aeryn’s as an independent author. The success of The Book of Starry Wisdom resulted in a number of other projects falling in my lap, and I’ve subsequently launched a publishing company to support them. Strix Publishing is my new baby, and while I’m currently neck-deep in getting it off the ground, I’ll be blogging about my experiences as an independent publisher later this summer.

At the moment, my current endeavor is in support of an art book for Eliza Gauger’s Problem Glyphs project. Gauger is an established and prolific author who has collaborated with numerous high-profile creators, including Warren Ellis and Jhonen Vasquez. You may remember the original “baby head” logo for iO9, which was one of her earliest commercial works. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Gauger for several years on a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time comic book Black Hole Wizard and the gasmask-chic role-playing game of neo-Victorian horror Unhallowed Metropolis, about which I will have more news soon, but again, I digress.


Problem Glyphs is a project I’ve had the privilege of observing since its earliest nights as something of a whimsical experiment with illustration software in the autumn of 2013. Since then, Gauger has crafted over two hundred sigils in response to the deepest, darkest problems submitted anonymously online by thousands of individuals. Drawing upon her background in fine art, mythology, and the occult, Gauger responds to these problems by creating intricate, symbol-laden glyphs that are published online with an accompanying descriptive title, free of charge

Gauger approached me about working on an art book sometime ago, but it was only after founding Strix Publishing that I felt confident I could produce a book to the standards required by a project that is not just illustratively beautiful but also emotionally important to thousands of people.

After months of discussion, mockup layouts, and printer samples, we settled on a format we think will do the project justice.

The Problem Glyphs art book contains 100 glyphs and their associated submissions, accompanied by an introduction by Eliza Gauger and a foreword by award-winning writer Warren Ellis. Problem Glyphs will be a premium edition, display-worthy art book, measuring 10″ x 12″ and featuring a Smyth-sewn, genuine clothbound hard cover with gold foil-stamped cover illustrations. The estimated 220 interior pages will be printed on beautiful matte coated art paper. Tremendous care has gone into every aspect of the book, from its binding to its typography, the beautiful and storied Doves Type. The choice of Doves Type was particularly special due to the strange circumstances in which the Type was thought lost in the depths of the Thames only to resurface nearly a decade later.  I’ve blogged about it elsewhere, but it may be of interest to anyone fascinated by typography or just stories that could come straight out of an Edgar Allen Poe tale.

As a thanks to Aeryn for letting me shamelessly promote here, and as a thanks to Rejectomancy’s readers for their support of my previous project, I’m happy to end this blog with the first excerpt from Gauger’s introduction to the Problem Glyphs art book. I hope you enjoy it and perhaps take a look at our Kickstarter.


—Simon Berman

Introduction from Problem Glyphs by Eliza Gauger

“I don’t know how to explain Problem Glyphs.

Usually I tell people I’m a career illustrator, and that I’m running a project where I “make drawings in response to problems sent in by the audience.” It started November 2013, making it my longest continual project. As of this writing, there are over 200 glyphs, each with a name and origin, almost all of which have accompanying problems submitted by the audience. That’s roughly twice the size of a standard tarot deck. The first glyph, [I STAND MY GROUND], was posted to the blogging platform/social network Tumblr on November 3rd, 2013. That’s about two glyphs per week. Each glyph takes between 5 minutes (the very earliest, simplest ones) and 5 hours (the most recent, complex ones), including research and an artist’s obligatory staring-into-space time. I use a specialized, free drawing program called Alchemy, and sometimes Photoshop. That’s the nitty-gritty. There’s a tutorial on the Problem Glyphs site if you want to know more.

Although you’re holding a book in your hands, my long term plan is to make the glyphs into a deck of cards, something like a tarot. To this end, they have five “humours”, like suits, for which I owe entire credit to my friend Ada Darwin, who writes a lot of music I listen to while drawing glyphs. She suggested humours as a system of classification and contributed the majority of the grunt work towards determining what those humors should be.

So every time I get the next glyph request, I start research. Here’s the one I’m working on now:

I am mildly manic-depressive, and I regularly fuck up my relationships by being incredibly sweet one minute and then sinking into a depression the next. When depressed I tend to start ring emails to my girlfriend blaming her for my problems. I always regret it: she’s great at helping me face my moods in person, but she’s devastated when she gets my angry email tirades. I need a reminder that it is wise to take a breath, take time out, and stay away from the keyboard when I feel like shit.

—Anonymous, July 9th 2014, 6:43:00 pm

This is how glyphs start: I mull over my own experience with the problem, and recall how it feels. How it feels to fuck up, or to be fucked up. To be frustrated enough to ask for help. In this situation I always feel “radioactive”, as if my presence was enough to sicken and wither the people I loved. And it is, sometimes. I have learned to avoid people, or excuse myself, when I feel it coming on. I opened four or five tabs about radiation sickness, radioactive half-life, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Nuclear fiction is a passion of mine, Fallout 2 being one of my earliest obsessions. I remembered a PDF I read once about a think tank that had to come up with a way to warn intelligent beings, 12,000 years in the future, to stay away from the nuclear waste we are burying now. I looked that up. I spent hours reading the PDFs on the Waste Isolation Pilot Project and Yucca Mountain websites. I looked at official biohazard and radioactivity warning insignia, clicked through dozens of Wikipedia articles, sifted through forums and official archives. Then I sat still, and thought about it for a few hours.

Warren Ellis calls this the “compost heap” method of writing: You shovel enough garbage into a midden and it’ll start to stew; come back a few weeks later and something useful will be there. He’s right, although in my case it’s more like a garbage fire . The finished glyphs are the last pulsing coals, raked over and ready to be walked across.

I don’t agree with platitudes much, particularly “it’s going to be okay” or “this too shall pass”. Sometimes—most of the time, you could argue—it’s not going to be okay. It won’t pass. It stays exactly the same, or it gets worse. Medications don’t work sometimes, or they stop working. Sometimes we can’t afford them in the first place. People change, or die, or stop talking to us. We break up, we divorce, or, best case scenario, we get to watch the person we love most in the world die of old age.

There’s a lot of gloom in Problem Glyphs, which is an odd admission from someone who’s more or less running an advice column. I’m not prescribing despair, though, nor resignation. “Acceptance” also doesn’t feel like the right word, although it’s close. My message is more berzerk than zen. What I want to convey is that pain and illness, and realism, even fatalism, are not incompatible with ambition, success, love, or happiness.

I was eleven years old when I accidentally told an adult I was thinking about killing myself. Sent to a child psychologist, I learned two things: that people who really wanted to help me (and were qualified to do so) sometimes couldn’t, and to stop bothering people with my problems. I tried therapy, and a variety of different medications , during various times in my life. They simply weren’t effective, or the toll was too high; in one of medical science’s cruel little jokes, many antidepressants cause a total loss of creativity. For someone with a typical job, that feeling of numbness or “zombification” with which some people react to SSRIs can sometimes be tolerable, or even a relief. But for someone who trades off their ability to draw from imagination on demand, the loss is catastrophic. It is, without hyperbole, my entire life. The compost heap won’t digest, the fire won’t light. Eventually, I aged out of my family’s insurance coverage and stopped having access to medical treatment at all. If I wanted to survive (and I did, usually), I had to try something else.

That “solution” was to own suicide – keep it like an ace up my sleeve.

Decades later, I still think about suicide a lot. But I’m still here, and will be until I decide otherwise. There are a few glyphs about that. [FORGIVENESS OF DEATH URGE], [LET’S DIE ALONE TOGETHER], and especially [DEATH WAITS WITHOUT RANCOR], which was one of the earliest glyphs that got “popular”.

If Problem Glyphs has any kind of agenda, it’s to meet Doom with eyes, arms, and mouths wide open. Legs, too.

Eliza Gauger

Simon Berman is the owner and founder of Strix Publishing. He has worked as a staff writer for Privateer Press on the award-winning miniatures war games, WARMACHINE and HORDES, and the Iron Kingdoms Full Metal Fantasy Roleplaying Game, winner of 4 ENnies awards, as well as the ENnies nominated roleplaying game, Unhallowed Metropolis. He has also worked as a social media manager on Kickstarter projects for WARMACHINE: Tactics, Widower’s Wood, and The Book of Starry Wisdom. He currently lives in Seattle, Washington.

Eliza Gauger is an established freelance artist who has produced illustrations and flavor text for magazines, books, and role playing games. She has collaborated as an illustrator with Jhonen Vasquez and writer Warren Ellis, and has written for WiredKotaku, and Destructoid. She has taken part in solo and collaborative fine art shows in Berlin and Munich, including STROKE festival, and her work is in the permanent collection of the Hatch Gallery Berlin.

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