Full disclosure: I don’t know Joe Biel, the author of this book, but I am acquainted with a number of the people about whom he writes. That being said, anyone in the zine scene in the past twenty years knows of Microcosm. For many years they were the largest zine distro out there. A lot has changed with Microcosm and founder Joe Biel, though. He recounts all of that experience (and then some) in his memoir Good Trouble.
Biel shares about growing up in Cleveland at the hands of an abusive mother in what sounds like a horrible upbringing under her verbal assault, belittling her husband (largely incapacitated by a stroke), Joe, and his sister. In his teens, Biel discovers punk rock and his life is changed. About this same time he also discovers zines and soon starts distributing them at punk shows around Cleveland. Good Trouble spends a fairly large time exploring the growth and difficulties of what it takes to go from a small-time zine distro to a successful DIY publisher.
Good Trouble also recounts Biel’s difficult relationship with women (including his ex-wife), as well as his co-workers at Microcosm, and eventually splitting the company in two, with Microcosm now focused primarily on publishing books and less on distributing zines. Through the course of the book, Biel begins to understand his difficulties with others are due to his undiagnosed (until the age of thirty-two) Asperger’s. It’s with this understanding that he begins to reflect on his relationships. It’s interesting to read about the development of a well-known indie publishing company, and for those interested in that type of thing (which includes myself), they’ll find this worth a read. However, Good Trouble also suffers from a number of problems. The mark of a good memoir is the ability to use the “show, don’t tell” method. This work is almost entirely a litany of, “I did this, then this happened, and after that I went and did this.” This takes away the possibility to genuinely experience Biel’s life. It made some of the reading tedious, especially when Biel throws in excessive detail about events that do nothing to push forward the narrative of his life with Asperger’s.
As many in the zine scene know, Biel has a history of accusations of abuse from former employees and his ex-wife. He writes about those experiences in his memoir in great depth. It’s obvious that there are hurt feelings on both sides, but so much of the book smacks of “setting the record straight,” which is a horrible motivation in writing a memoir. In doing so, it takes away from any ability to truly identify with Biel’s struggles with Asperger’s and how he overcame it.
As it stands, this is an interesting read for those wanting to know Biel’s take on the history of Microcosm, but his inability to stay focused on that and tell it in a meaningful way makes this a flawed work. (Microcosm, 2752 N. Williams Ave., Portland, OR 97227)