Wednesday, April 1, 2009

I Was a Teenage Porn King

Cosmic Capers, the underground comic that helped send me on my way to a life of juvenile debauchery and infamy.

“And the Cub Reporter of the Year award goes to Jeremy Eaton!”
     Huh? What?
     I blinked, dazed, slumped in my seat like a wilted flower, my mind in a thousand places, not one of which was the drab assembly hall of my high school, that faceless occupation zone of middle American education, situated in the rural humdrum of Western Pennsylvania, some forty-odd miles north of Pittsburgh.
     There I sat there, hardly recognizing that my name had just been announced, even as its amplified broadcast rode over the capacity-filled auditorium like some alien cloud, born of a wind that teased at the frayed edges of the freak flag I carried throughout my latter years of supervised learning, those days of early illumination, when I checked out and checked into myself, navigating the path that would lead me to where I find myself today, a modest earner with a wholly individual occupation, a man with enough personal space to see where I end and “it” begins,
that mad caterwaul of competing noise and information we call modern civilization.

The mascot of my final school years was an armored medieval knight, more
Monty Python than King Arthur, one occupied by a patchwork student body, a strange mash-up of next generation farmers, always red-eyed and yawning from early morning chores – tobacco-chewing hunters, sporting book-sized laminated licenses on the backs of their bright, safety-orange jackets – small town jocks, all vitamin pill pimples and page-boy haircuts – Lynyrd Skynyrd-worshipping “freaks”, with their scruffy “fuck-you” beards and chain wallets – optimally un-cool geeks in their father’s old dress shirts and flood pants (the Bill Gates army, silently ready to storm society with their digital revenge) – and the occasional oddball outcast like myself, we “the unlabelled”, the aloof canvassers of the adolescent periphery.
     It wasn’t that I was a nerd. I wasn’t picked on or made fun of, I was simply an ethereal visitor, a mostly-silent witness to the testimony of stupidity I saw before me. More often than not, I found myself grouped with the motley freaks, the long-haired dope smokers and their girlfriends – girls who, at the time, matched my idea of the perfect woman, with their wild, kinky hair and slow, sensual eyes,
exhibiting an ease with their physicality that whispered the possibility of situations I could only dream about. When not slouched high in the bleachers amongst this rabble of undesirables, I was keeping uneasy company with the future valedictorians, those uber-geeks of science and language arts, my proclivity to writing and creative thought leading me into advanced classes I always felt out of place in, my hatred for the system at odds with their patriotic upholding of its every armored link.

Eaton! Get up there, jerko! They just called your name!”
     I turned, seeing the gawking faces about me, imploring me to head down the carpeted aisle to the stage, where the school vice principal stood waiting with the award I’d earned for the tepid stories I’d written during my first season with our school newspaper, all toast and cold water in his tweed suit, scanning the crowded room for some sign of a student he’d probably never heard of. It was then that the chant began, slow and soft at first, soon rising, gaining voices, quickly becoming a chorus of freak-fueled bravado, a martial beat that declared “
Porn King! Porn King! Porn King!”
     Wincing, perhaps more from the assembly recognition than from the scandalous cheers of my unwitting peers, I stumbled towards the front, thankful for the semi-darkness, shyly accepting a piece of paper I would tear into pieces before I even climbed aboard the school bus at the end of the day. It was both my great distaste for the trappings of my pedagogical prison, and the secret shame of personal betrayal, that gave me my awkward hesitancy that early afternoon back in
1978, my queasy guilt forged in the confused, amplified chambers of a fifteen year-old’s troubled psyche. I was, after all, “The Porn King”, just as they claimed, a criminal of the hallway, my standing with respectability lower than that of the buck-toothed old men who ran their grey mops across the piss and chew-stained tiles of our bathroom floors.

I still remember the cold look in Mr. Tony’s eyes, a look he might well have offered fresh dog shit discovered on the underside of his shoe, a look that said he wanted nothing to do with me, not ever again.
     If we had previously enjoyed an adverse relationship, it might have been easier to shake off such rejection, but I had been his chosen one among the forty-odd students that made up the entirety of his art elective class,
the rubber cement-scented daycare for underachiever and overachiever alike, sanctuary to greasy-faced, heavy-lidded boys and above-average looking girls, all professing a “genuine” love of the visual arts, most simply searching for another way to escape the regimented drudgery of public school captivity.
     What had turned Mr. Tony, my one-time champion,
the grey-haired Bob Ross of our school, against me? Just what had set a sizable portion of the freak population to blessing me with my infamous title?

It was Mr. Tony who had unwittingly set me on my course to moral condemnation and ruin, some two weeks before, challenging the class to create their own comic strips.
     Already being a certified cartoon junkie, I took the challenge like Michelangelo taking to the Sistine Chapel, expanding the simple mission with an acutely secular fervor, to encompass what I intended to be a fully-realized “graphic novel”, a pencil-rendered work starring my space opera hero,
Flip Rhodun, who would later go on to infamy in the greater Pittsburgh area, appearing in his own actual daily strip (see “Confessions of a Comic Strip Terrorist” for the full story of that ill-fated venture into mainstream publication). Mr. Tony, immediately sensing my dedication and understanding of the form, took my first finished page (of an epic story concerning a planet of evil, dentistry-related bandits, no less) and posted it in the showcase located at the front lobby of the school, there for all to see, student and visitor alike. I was then charged with the task of creating a new page each week, which he would pin beside the previous, ultimately creating an entire tableau of my graphite masterwork. There I was, overnight having become an instant artist of local renown, a man who could do no wrong with a No. 2 pencil –until that fateful day, the day I stupidly allowed the latest episode of Jack the Ripper Jr. to slip between the working pages of my showcased triumph.

My enthusiasm for the cartooning project having quickly made me the center of attention, my classmates crowded about me as I scrawled away at my amateur efforts. It didn’t take long for the requests to start, for some burnout to demand I draw something “totally wicked”, which translated to something involving sex or violence, preferably both, that sturdy cocktail of our entertainment culture. Enjoying my sudden ability to motivate such a response in others, I capitulated, turning out a series of clandestine strips featuring
an adorable little serial killer named Jack the Ripper Jr., the diapered offspring of London’s infamous gaslight stalker. Inspired by the recent acquisition of an underground comic, the first I’d ever seen, I created these crude toss-offs, all involving Jack Jr. and his never-ending battle with the prudes of the world – the teachers, the principals, the police, the scout leaders, the church figures – any authority figure who called for his head in a noose, simply because he’d inherited his father’s unquenchable desire for blood, especially that of a buxom blonde named Dolly, a timely approximation of Dolly Parton, who was regularly being chopped into tiny bits, only to return, whole again, to entice and scorn poor Jack anew. These were generally quite tame, especially compared to the others I gave away, the raunchy commissions that have all but been lost in the wake of my passing memory, ridiculous parodies of popular cartoons, my uninformed updates of the notorious Tijuana Bibles of the 1930s and 40s, those hastily-crafted booklets featuring familiar cartoon icons doing very unfamiliar things. It was these exploitative works that had labeled me a wizard of pornographic art, a fifteen year-old peddler of cartoon smut, The Porn King of “Corn Belt High”.

“What is this?” asked Mr. Tony, flipping through the partially-finished pages of my space fantasy, coming to a short tier of panels depicting Jack the Ripper Jr. telling a man of the cloth to, in no uncertain words, “Fuck
off, priest!”
     I blanched, sinking into the floor, my short-lived glory suddenly replaced with the uncomfortable burden of a pariah.
     “It’s just something else I’m doing,” I replied, my voice fractured with guilt.
     Mr. Tony was silent for a long moment. He seemed to linger on the cartoon, as if it were alive,
as if he intended to see its heart stop beating before moving on with his own life.
     “I don’t want to see any more of this sort of thing in my class,” he finally said, handing back my folder of art, but not before tearing up the offending strip, dropping it into the garbage can beside his desk.
     I suppose I was lucky he didn’t kick me right out of his class. Nevertheless, my Flip Rhodun serial disappeared from the lobby later that day, never to return. What went unanswered was the nature of the impetus of my “indelicate trespass” on civility and decency. Was I unearthing some latent need to shock and infuriate – or was my early dabbling with the underground more a reflection of the twisted desire of my captive audience?

I’d encountered my first underground comic book that same year, during the heady,
hormonal dizzy spell we call the ninth grade.
Cosmic Capers, it was a one-shot anthology published by Big Muddy Comics Refinery, the comix imprint based in New Orleans in the early 70s. It was furtively slipped into my gym bag after track practice by, I later discovered, the star runner of our school, a shifty-eyed troublemaker who often held court in the cafeteria, holding in rapture a throng of wide-eyed hayseed dilettantes, dispensing his stories of such then-exotic heralds of the counter-culture as Bob Marley and Frank Zappa, the poets and prophets of a reality that seemed about as far removed from our rural Western Pennsylvanian existence as could be imagined. An Army brat, the speedy messenger was an outsider like myself, but one built on extroverted mettle. He had traveled not just this country’s urban landscape, but ports abroad, making him a literal svengali of the outside world, those heady neon drags of big city life we’d been informed were full of debauched sex, crime, drugs, music, and artists – the playgrounds of bohemian spirit that made our dull little lives seem just about as dull, and as little, as they in fact were.
Cosmic Capers was rather benign, certainly by underground standards. It featured neo-realistic stories by third-tier comix artists like Jim Wright (Jesus Christ vs. Godzilla) and Ned Dameron, their art scratchy approximations of silver age artists like Al Williamson, far from the graphic splendor of pen and ink auteurs like Robert Crumb. The one story that captivated me the most was a hoary science fiction tale featuring an astronaut landing on a seemingly-deserted Venus, only to find a naked hippie girl awaiting him, who quickly entices him into removing his spacesuit. Two awkward panels later her vagina is transforming into a giant Venus flytrap, devouring the horny spaceman in a final, EC-inspired image. The man-eating flower girl tortured me, arousing in my budding libido severely conflicting impulses of lust and fear, so much so that I eventually gave the comic away, but not after keeping it stashed in the back pages of a big Batman book, fearful my parents would discover it amongst my otherwise mostly-tepid comics library.

How long after my public shaming I continued producing my own underground-flavored cartoons, I’m not sure, but the strong reactions they generated stuck with me, eventually leading me to investigate the published legacy of comics spelt with an “x”, a journey that would ultimately lead me to my own appearance in alternative comics, which would, in turn, culminate with porn-based titles such as
Hump Crazy! and Busy Girls, comics filled with imagery that would surely have made Mr. Tony’s wiry hair unfurl in indignant fury.
     I can only wonder what my less-than-respectable high school readership might have made of them. Then again, I think I know.
     In fact, I can hear them chanting it right now.
Porn King! Porn King! Porn King!”
     Who? Me?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Secret Society of Super Liars

What exactly is wrong with telling a lie?
     This is a question every fourteen year-old must ponder, the indoctrination of virtue not yet fully ingrained in their fragile psyche, the juices of rebellion still giving crunch to the soul – the primal bite that counters growing civility.
     I was struggling with the ancient moral conundrum, one late spring day in
1978, crouched behind my parent’s bed, the cord of their phone pulled all the way from my father’s dresser, its coils as taut as the truth I was busy stretching. Desperately trying not to giggle, I was conjuring up the cover to The Secret Society of Super Villains No. 14, a comic book that had yet to be published. Carefully describing this phantom of the near-future to my best friend Derek, as if it were the naked body of Bonnie Gramley, the Farrah-Fawcett of our eighth grade class, I was acting on a ruthless cunning nearly the equal of that exhibited by the costumed bad guys in our favorite comic.
     Derek, like myself, was a victim of the four-color obsession, another innocent seduced by the harmful lure of pulp literature. He and I were equals in a ludicrous fascination over one of the more negligible comic books ever published, a title whose concept was so thin it fairly reeked of the marketing room. My great act of deception that boring spring afternoon was merely a symptom of this irrational fixation, one that would forever rupture a friendship, though it could hardly have been known at the time.
     As we grow in this life, we learn that others can be hurt by the utterance of a thing as seemingly benign as a lie, both emotionally and physically, often ruining relationships, reputations, even livelihoods. We discover that the untruth we weave between cunning hands is a cord of infinity, a ligature of probability, one with which we will willingly cut the oxygen from fact, murdering history in the process.

Derek was about my height, with curly, sand-colored hair and heavy-lidded eyes. He always seemed to be somewhere else, his mind distant, slow to respond, especially when we were at his house, the old Craftsman located just down the road from the volunteer fire hall, next to an antique shop that never seemed to be open, its dusty windows stuffed with colorful and enticing things, forever to remain mysteries. His house was marked by a certain strangeness, an air of unease that I could only presume came from his younger brother, who was severely autistic, a boy trapped inside himself,
crawling about the house like some injured crab. His thump, as he made his way up the carpeted stairs, digging at each step with his hip, hoisting himself like a sack of potatoes, was a common sound. Often I’d hear it, like Poe’s beating heart, while sitting upstairs at Derek’s bedroom desk, drawing or writing the latest of the numerous super hero fanzines we produced under the banner of DJ Comics. It was an unnerving atmosphere, one only made more so by the presence of Derek’s two older sisters, dark-haired beauties who lingered like sirens in unseen rooms, biding their time, until the day they would lure me into their intoxicating physicality.
     DJ Comics was the glue of my friendship with Derek, an enterprise identical to many others I’d experienced, the creative course to allegiance that has colored my life. We had begun earlier that year, with the first issue of
Deadly Duo, a team-up comic featuring two super villains of my creation, SweatBee and Conductor, a production that had me cribbing panels from dozens of Marvel and DC comics, redressing the likes of The Wasp and Spiderman with costumes that Derek had created. This was, in fact, his only real role in the DJ bullpen, apart from hand- coloring the covers to the dozen or so duplicates we’d make on the copy machine at the cluttered department store his father managed. I would write the stories, Marvel-style, making them up as I went along, flipping through our combined comic collections for the next suitable image to swipe, adding the off-the-cuff dialog at the very end of the process.
     It was through such avid devotion to the genre that we first met. Derek had been trading comics with another budding nerd, at the back of the school bus, passing around bright objects that had caught my eye, hinting at the feverish hours we’d wile away together over the next fifteen months or so, the willing surrender to fantasy that would culminate in my lie, and the lurid glee I experienced fabricating a comic I knew would have Derek drooling like an addict.
     Much like our own amateur effort,
The Secret Society of Super Villains exclusively featured a roster of “do-badders”. That we were both so attracted to the rogue side of the super-powered equation made my little crime more than a bit ironic. There I was, feeding a mutual desire, the mad anticipation we both regularly suffered, waiting the eternity for next month’s comics to fill the rack at the drugstore. It was a reality wherein the truth was forever held at bay, our imaginations fixating on the tiny blurbs that teased of the coming issue’s content. It was with this impetus of madness that I found myself that fateful afternoon, doing the devil’s work in my fiendish retreat, half-covered by the curtain of my parent’s bedspread, luring my best friend into a wicked trap, having decided that, no, there was nothing wrong with telling a lie. Wasn’t I just using my imagination, after all?
     Perhaps the real question to ask is, just what is pure of fancy? What is free from the shadow of falsity? What action, what thought, what feeling we experience in this maddeningly elusive existence is utterly free from fabrication? How many times a day does the parent lie to the child, doing so only with the child’s good in mind, as much reflected through their own fears as those they imagine belong to their offspring? And how often are we hurt more by the truth than the lie? Who hasn’t used the knowledge of the truth to hurt someone? And to what great sanctity do we ascribe such a truth? Can we save face while acknowledging the noble lie?
     It is circuitous questions like these that have given birth to culture as we know it, this structure of so-called reasoned living we call society, the order of things based on the demarcation of good and evil, of right and wrong. It is this wholly subjective blanket, the companion we clung to as infants, hide behind, hold for confidence, eventually crawling from the crib still clinging to it, that carries with us the rest of our lives, reappointed as morality, the key to gods and heroes and the fiction that reflects their image.

Of all the American comic books I puzzled over as a teenager, it was
The Secret Society that spoke to those questions of right and wrong still bubbling in the puritanical cauldron, the artistically tepid title that Derek and I had nevertheless feasted our imaginations on, like Golding’s savages dancing about the head of their slaughtered pig. Published by DC Comics, from June 1976 to July 1978, lasting a mere fifteen issues, it was one of a few titles testing the appeal of the “anti-hero”. This appetite had already been sensed in The Joker, the Batman foe’s own brief, self-appointed title, also Marvel’s bad cop/bad cop curiosity, Super Villain Team-Up, which pitted the infamous Victor Von Doom in cahoots with a different up-and-coming baddie each issue, often turning upon one another by the end, there being no honor in thieves or super villains, it would seem.
     I remember clearly the day Derek showed me his copy of the thirteenth issue of our favorite comic, something I wouldn’t acquire until a week later. I was sitting at his little desk, hunched over the enticing publication, staring at the art, trying not to spoil the story before I had my own copy. So transfixed was I in the doings of
Gorilla Grodd, Sinestro and Star Sapphire, that I didn’t even hear the younger of Derek’s two sisters approach me from behind. A plump girl with dark hair, she was as fully bosomed as most mothers. Without warning, she pressed her herself against me, wrapping her arms about my scrawny chest, leaning over my shoulder. “What are you reading?” she asked, her voice a wet purr in my ear. She moved herself against my back, side to side, like a cat marking a banister. “Secret Society,” I croaked, my face burning, not daring to turn and look, feeling her breath on my hair, her warm softness. The fact that, just the week before, her older sister had walked into the same room, wearing only peach-colored underwear (such things one doesn't forget), gasping in a mock surprise when she saw Derek and I huddled over our latest self-publishing project, made me only more nervous. The thoughts I’d been entertaining of her had put a dawning libido on full alert. Slim, but with the same dark, straight hair, the older sister was the true object of my lust, a girl so perfect in form I’d secretly been drawing her every time I traced another panel of Star Sapphire, cavorting about in her pink, evil-doer’s bathing suit. That Derek gave all of our female characters skimpy costumes, enabling me to indicate the luscious lines of meeting breasts, made the sister’s always imminent presence all the more uncomfortable. “Is it any good?” the younger sister asked, now playing with my hair, her full weight against me. “It’s OK,” I managed, closing my eyes, wishing she would go away, the desire to turn and put my face right into her was overwhelming, so much so it terrified me. I was still a year or two away from learning first-hand of that magnetic pull between animals in heat, the compulsion of the sexes, a thing as inherent as our capacity to lie in the face of what we perceive as the truth.

As a fourteen year-old, still navigating a new country, as well as his own increasingly foreign body, the lure of the super-powered individual who chose to turn on society and its demanded code of righteousness, was strong. It played into my general dislike of the “boring characters”, the ever-popular
Superman and Wonder Woman, the messiah-like emblems of virtue.
     I generally preferred super villains, plain and simple. I liked the passion they seemed to bring to their work, the sense of humor they exhibited, the keen recognition of irony,
their upfront admittance of cowardice and self-interest.
     In myth, we are given the villain in order to define the hero, the divination of light from dark, of dark from light. Each we define by the absence of the other’s characteristics, a notion, in reality, about as practical as cutting the Earth in two in order to halve its burden. That the villain represents the inclinations a good man learns to suppress in himself is a suspiciously accommodating set of circumstances, the very devotional challenge of the hero giving birth to the concept of his existence, like an egg giving birth to itself while the attention is elsewhere. This is the flimsy origin of the man who has risen beyond base influence,
the caped wonder drinking apple juice in the Garden of Eden. And such an ideal demands purification of the soul, the squelching of deep-seated desires and contemplations, all natural aspects of our brain chemistry and its shadow play of the heart.

“Who’s on the cover?” Derek asked, short of breath, a fish oblivious to the hook.
     “Gorilla Grodd is punching Captain Comet into a big vat of acid! It’s super
cool!” I gushed. “He’s saying: “Perish, Comet! All who defy Grodd shall die!””
     “Wow! I‘ve got to see it! Where’s Sapphire? Is she there?” breathed the innocent victim, my well-rehearsed performance working perfectly. I was a pretty excellent liar. Some will say I still am, but I don’t want to press the issue.
     “Yep!” I replied. “And, man, her tits are almost hanging out! They’re like super duper big!”
     Derek made a funny noise. I bit my tongue, tears in my eyes. I was the king of lies, the master of the burn. I was all-powerful! Bring it on, Grodd, let’s see what you have against
the natural momentum of a fourteen year-old in a lying groove.
     “I’m coming over!” Derek almost cried. “
Mom! Where’s my bike?” I heard him yell, having left the phone of the hook. His mother, once a cocktail bunny at the Playboy mansion, was also a clandestine source of inspiration for Star Sapphire’s glorious cleavage. That she looked more like her eldest daughter’s peer, than the woman who gave birth to her, only aided this heated fancy. God, how I loved and both feared visiting that house.
can’t!” I wanted to say, but couldn’t, the phone now more like a barbell in my hand. Caught in my mendacity, I was helpless to escape it. “OK,” I said, setting the phone back in its cradle, wondering what I was going to do when he arrived. Creeping from my parent’s bedroom, I had a sudden ache in my gut, the coming pains of a guilty conscience. That Derek lived almost two miles away only made things worse.

Thumbing through the dusty pages of our forefather’s prosperity, the tomes of ancient story that have infected our world, we find men who cannot suppress their wicked inclinations, those emotions we have been trained to hide away. From this comes the root of our curiosity, and the notion of a fall from grace, ever the trope of our mythological language, the very crux of evil’s origin.
     It was with all of this largely unrecognized baggage that I originally came to
The Secret Society of Super Villains, immediately enraptured by its core group of buddy bad guys, now the stars of their own book, crowding the stage with their own evil ambitions and conflicts, numerous colorful rubes and trollops, offering me stories where the sudden appearance of the hero was often reason for despair.

“Where is it? Let me
see!” exclaimed Derek, sweat lining his forehead, a wild look in his heavy eyes. I’d rarely seen him so focused on any one thing.
     I grinned uneasily, the previous issue of
The Secret Society held at my back, out of view. I had grasped it, in a last minute act of desperation, not knowing what else to do. That it was the very comic he’d first acquired the month before, flaunting it before my eyes the day his sister had offered me such confusing intimacy, only amplified my guilt. “You really want to see it?” I teased, a victim of my own villainous progress.

It was a fine line that DC walked with
The Secret Society’s premise, that of super villains combining for their own common good, a device that necessitated still portraying the criminal in an essentially negative light, all the while nurturing reader interest in their well-being.
     If the ultimate precondition of the reader’s identification with a fictional character is that he or she wishes the protagonist not to perish, then followers of The Secret Society like myself were genuinely empathizing with the bad guy. It was the appeal of the “devil”, that red-skinned embodiment of our sin, the mirthful master of the eternal below, the angel thus fallen. In our embrace of this evil, we are told, so do we forgo our virtue and
join the hot lord in his fiery, molten playground of everlasting damnation. All sinners go to Hell, all liars are kin to Satan, every fibbing boy an agent of his dark majesty’s wanton designs. Idle hands indicate a scheming mind, both the tools of all wickedness.
     It was with such thoughts, such learned fears, that I presented my best friend with a comic he’d already read untold times, its cover etched upon the lining of his loquacious eyelids. The look of disappointment on his face made me feel my eminent membership in Gorilla Grodd’s gang was all that was left for me in this life. I was a “bad seed”, just like the old neighbor whose peas I’d eaten had claimed to my mother some years before.
     Swallowing his disappointment, Derek lunged at me, calling me the “F” word, shoving me off my feet.
     Moments later we were fighting, a fury of arms and legs, two opposing forces crashing with all the might of our Godly teachings, Derek the Virtuous claiming his moral supremacy over I, the wretched liar, beating me to death, sending me to meet my maker and stand trial for the error of my ways.
     We parted, only the most tenuous of friends. I watched him pedal off down the hill, his slow eyes holding a grievance they would never quite relinquish.
     A couple of weeks later, when I paid my thirty cents for an actual copy
The Secret Society of Super Villains No. 14, I didn’t even bother calling him. That it turned out to be the penultimate issue of the series did little to make things any better. I had destroyed the joy of sharing.
     It is of such lines drawn that life is made.
     This we learn, as we navigate our way through the byzantine avenues of our emotional inheritance, leaving friends deceived and foes born, while societies of separation become more than just imagination, they become their own secret shame.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Septimius Versus Power Man on the Living Room Floor

He wore a tiny, yellow plastic barrel on his collar, in which his vital statistics were stolen, his dog tag for feline invasions into foreign territory.

With his bright yellow shirt lapels direct from the wardrobe of
James Brown, his stainless steel tiara the envy of any member of Parliament-Funkadelic, his prison-issue wrist bands and chain link belt, he was easily the most street-savvy and fashionable character in comics during the mid-1970s.

He was named for Septimius Severus, warrior emperor of the Roman Empire from 193 to 211, and for being born in the month of September.

I first stumbled upon him in issue fifteen of his monthly title, back when it was still known as
Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. A black, ex-con, mercenary of justice, he was constantly fighting the system and “the man”, about as far removed from the generic superhero template as one could imagine.

Septimius was a sleek ribbon of stealth and attack, a dark dart in the eye of any rabbit too timid to flee, a lashing draft of claw to the sleeping dove, sated on seed.

Too young to have been visiting the theater to catch blaxploitation flicks like
Shaft, and Dolemite, Cage was about as close as I came to experiencing the rough and tumble urban milieu of pimps, hookers, and racist cops. His comic fascinated me like no other.

There was no cat in the family tree like Septimius, not brash and strong Tom-Joe, not winsome, wide-eyed Suzie Wong, not noble, warm-hearted Ben, none could match Septimius for his feline prowess. He was the undisputed king of his terrain, and yours too if you weren’t careful.

To a newly-arrived, pre-teen English immigrant, the American inner-city alone was an exotic locale, one peopled with a litany of mesmerizing characters, so often the trope of marginal fiction. Any comic, or book, that offered me a glimpse into this strange world was an attraction, but nothing prepared me for the mother lode of badass histrionics to be found in the pages of “
America’s First and Foremost Black Superstar!”, the spearhead of Marvel’s typically over-stated social out-reach campaign.

Seppi, as we came to know him, was nevertheless a loyal companion, in as much the way a cat can ever truly be. He would gaze upon your impatience with a patience of his own, sitting in the sun-baked door, waiting to be let out, or welcomed in. He seemed to recognize our shortcomings and he forgave us them.

Peopled with the likes of Albert “Billy Bob” Rackham, the rabbit-toothed, pig-nosed racist prison guard, who spouted the jargon of a white southern “cracker”, referring to Cage as “
That crazy black boy”, spouting dialog as regressive as “Blast the chicken feed luck I been havin’! If that boy Lucas is still as hard-headed as he was at Seagate –”, the early issues of Hero for Hire were the equal of anything I might have seen in the cinema, parading both white and black stereotypes with a manic efficiency.

His eyes were the color of lemonade in a green glass, two luminescent buttons split by black Vs, grey, smoky dark petals that breathed with the advance of color and light, eminent portals that disappeared behind falling lids when the business of being a cat was done.

Interestingly, these initial stories were written and drawn by African-American creators, something I can only believe was Marvel’s attempt at legitimizing the content.

Seppi came with us to America, saying goodbye to the heather and the hills of rural southern Scotland. In a plastic bin he was pinned, hunched shoulder bones angry neo-wings upon his back, his neck long and taut, his sharp cheekbones like echoes of his piercing eyes, the life within him focused on the dark corner of his temporary, yet seemingly eternal cage.

Hero for Hire ultimately had as little to do with reality as an episode of Welcome Back Kotter was beside the point, it was completely intoxicating to me, so much so that when, with issue seventeen, the title changed its name to Luke Cage, Powerman, and began exhibiting more standard super villain foes and storylines, I was (in a word I’d recently adopted) bummed, but not enough to give up on my favorite character, for he had already become an indelible part of the American cultural landscape I was so eager, and desperate, to embrace.

Septimius Severus Eaton, brother of Septimia Octavilla, a creature I never did see. Septimius, charge of my mother, the bearer of his unusually-distinguished name. Septimius, the pouncer of mouse, the slayer of shrew, the nuisance of untold generations of flies and moths. Loving, brutal machine Septimius.

Such a change in my comics-reading diet would have been hard to imagine, just a few short years prior, when I was still steeped in tea-stained British funny book fare like
The Wizard and Hotspur, the America shown in their pages almost chiefly one of a historical nature, the Wild West being, by far, the most prominent in their oeuvre. But an epic plane journey across the Atlantic changed all of that.

You survived another move, didn’t you? This time in a cage that rocked in the back of a station wagon, a vehicle making its way south and west, to the cornfield stretches of Western Pennsylvania, the womb of the family farm, a glacial unearthing of brown grass and busy tree, a wild newness that would not long after become the address of your tomb.

On August 1, 1971, at Prestwick Airport, in Glasgow, Scotland, my family and I boarded a British Airways 747, bound for New York, a three thousand, two hundred and eleven mile-long flight, piloted by one Captain N. V. Bristow. Joining us on our ocean crossing were a rabbit, two goldfish, and a cat, a feline immigrant with short, inky fur, the creature who would, one late afternoon in the year 1976, rake his magnificent claws across the single-most prized component of my
Power Man armory.
     Go ahead, laugh if you will, show that you just don’t understand the conflicted hurt of my adolescent fury, its blinding hate and subsequent love for this blessed animal, the brother who had lowered his arms to walk the earth. Ultimately, my devotion to his existence offered me the space in my enraged heart to forgive him his trespass, when, in actuality, none had existed.
     Forever dreaming of one day owing one of the classic spinning racks decorated with the omnipresent
Hey, Kids, Comics! placard, the only genuine place to keep my comic book collection, safe from interested fingers and paws, I was left to devise strange substitutes, utilizing everything from the slats in my closet doors, to empty cereal boxes, always inventing new ways to store my ever-growing library of Marvel and DC titles, the garishly-colored totems that magic made from my pocket money, before the numbered eyes of the newsstand register.
     By the summer of ’76, my
Luke Cage collection had grown measurably. I had every issue from number fifteen up to number thirty-four, an impressive little archive of hormonal fantasy that I topped with perhaps the single most-loved comic in all of my four-color holdings, the unrivaled glory that was LUKE CAGE, POWER MAN ANNUAL #1, emblazoned with the ridiculously sublime physical theatrics of a Dave Cockrum cover.
     How could I resist displaying this enviable treasury for all to see? How could I not set to laying these eighteen editions of pulp-hewn pleasure upon the living room floor, fanned out about the all-mighty Annual #1, like the multi-colored tail feathers of a peacock in heat? But, equally, how could I ever imagine this was a safe place to leave them, when the long summer nights left the screen door ajar, a space just enough to offer entrance to the warrior emperor, his hands full of knives?
     So fierce was my anger, upon discovering the furry-tailed fiend, sprawled across the legacy of the man born Carl Lucas, the man framed with a pocketful of cocaine and sent to prison, the man who, infused with a bastard strain of the
Super-Soldier serum, broke free, only to be hounded by the likes of Rackham, and others he’d squared shoulders with in the maximum security confines of Georgia’s Seagate Prison.

Comings-together ain’t always time for rejoicing, children.
Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #15, November 1973, scripted by Billy Graham and Tony Isabella.

How I desired to thrash the life from Seppi, to punish him for doing only what he was designed to do, scratching away the dead outer layer of his claws, a task to which he’d entrusted the bright red cover of Cage’s first and only king-size annual.
     Lacerated deep, with wounds that punctured through many pages, into the flesh of the spine-bound comic, the lower right half of the cover was in tatters, shreds of dialog and rippling muscle jettisoned across the carpet like the downy breast of an unlucky sparrow.
     But those eyes, those beautiful, accepting eyes, their black Vs now big, round, dark aching orbs of forgiveness, forgiving me my stupidity, my lack of grace under loss, forgiving me my very humanity – how on earth could I stay angry with the breathing mantle of such divinity?
     I love you, Septimius Severus Eaton, I love you still. May you have been shredding king-size annuals all the past twenty-two years since you left us, lying eternally in sunny contentment, the rays of heaven at your back.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag

A Mighty Marvel Yuletide Greeting! sang the red italicized lettering, situated within the yellow heart of a Christmas wreath that covered part of The Mighty Thor’s cape. The god of thunder was cast as a reindeer, tethered just behind The Incredible Hulk, who played a green-nosed Rudolph. They were careening across the rooftops of an unspecified city, large snowflakes falling all about them, the sky a midnight blue. Sitting in a green sleigh was The Thing, taking the role of Santa Claus, waving to all the boys and girls, as Spider-Man and Iron Man traversed the periphery. It was one of the Marvel Treasury Editions, a series of tabloid-sized paperbacks that had, since 1974, included an annual holiday collection of seasonal reprints. On the back cover, under a yellow banner that offered an additional “Season’s Greetings”, were assembled Captain America, Giant-Man, The Wasp, The Silver Surfer, Hawkeye, The Black Panther, and The Vision, looking more than ever like a red and green Christmas ornament. Steve Rogers and Hank Pym (the good captain and the giant respectively, to those uninformed), were both smiling broadly, the sort of smiles you find on posters in a dentist’s waiting room. So too was Hawkeye, and the Wasp, held high in Giant-Man's Kong-sized hand, like a seasonally-attired Fay Wray. The alien Surfer and the android Vision were wearing their customarily brooding glares, the holiday spirit clearly not registering in their searching souls. Meanwhile, The Black Panther sat on the edge of a snowy rooftop, his face obscured by his inky black cowl. I can only believe a man driven to sitting during such a celebratory occasion is a man with some holiday-related issues of his own – perhaps one too many pressurized family dinners at the Wakandan homestead?
     This was the publication I was holding onto, that inclement December Saturday in 1976, feeling a strange and horrible guilt, as my father and I drove away from Rishor’s, my favorite newsstand.

Then just thirteen years old, I was a shy and introverted teenager, one under the spell of a keen, if fleeting, interest in the superhero comic book genre. Like other such nerds, I spent inordinate amounts of time obsessively cataloging my personal archive of
Marvels, DCs, the occasional Gold Key, even a few Charltons I’d found orphaned in a local hardware store, the top half of their covers roughly torn off, a returns practice I wasn’t privy to. “Why did someone want just the tops?” I’d asked my father, not being able to accept his quick explanation, refusing to acknowledge how patently ridiculous my theory of some top-hording thief was. I would soon become familiar with the distributor system, the following year, when my older brother’s girlfriend would start working behind the counter at Rishor’s. A pretty, blonde cheerleader, straight out of a Riverdale malt shop, she quickly became a distracting element of my weekly trip to the brick-faced storefront, located on one of the snaky arterials that ran west from Main Street, in the city of Butler, a tired little huddle of homes and businesses, located some forty miles due north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
     Having pestered my father without cease that stormy late afternoon, imploring him that I was especially situated to judge the drivability of roads unseen, we’d set off one on of my periodical, periodical treks, my hopes high to find the latest issue of Ghost Rider
 or The Defenders. Little did I know, fidgeting with my seat belt, watching the sky shifting through varying tones of grey, that I would, in a few short moments, encounter something so unimaginably terrifying the memories of it would still trouble me, some thirty-two years later.
     It wasn’t our first shared meeting with horror. Only a year earlier, in Northern Quebec, we’d seen the dark shape of a man holding his young son, dying in the flame-filled cab of an over-turned hay truck, an image my mind still carries with it, like some morbidly curious panel in a faded comic book. But even that hadn’t prepared me for what I was about to confront, on a wet, snowy stretch of Route 8, the main road leading into Butler.

I’m not sure if my experiences with death and terror have been ordinary in this respect, in that they feature a quilt of memories, some sections as vivid as the screen of my computer, others as hazy as a long ago dream. I have endured, in the past, moments of physical conflagration where I appear to have momentarily blacked-out (scoring a goal in a soccer championship, extreme anger, an early sexual experience), a condition I now ascribe to a latent epilepsy. I have always assumed the patchwork bed of remembrance of this unfortunate afternoon to be subject to such gaps in recollection, if not complete consciousness. This would account for the wrath-like way I seem to move in these memories, like some ashen, caped ghost, floating from scene of horror to scene of horror, hardly feeling my limbs.
     “Stay in the car! Don’t move!” my father had ordered, undoing his seat belt, the car having come to a sickeningly abrupt stop. From the corner of my eye, I watched him open his door and tentatively step out, my attention on the wreckage and debris that now lay only a few feet before us. Sitting there for a long moment, more so out of an inability to move than in heed of the warning, I could feel my heart pounding against the ribbon of nylon strapped across my chest. I was reliving a devastating motion picture, one that had just burned itself, seemingly forever, upon the threshold of my awareness.

Two cars meeting at a right angle, doors bursting open as windows explode, seatbelts flapping about like seaweed in a storm, two bodies jettisoned free, as if the very atmosphere had sucked them out, limbs careening, turning head over heel as they shoot through the air, across a grey sky festooned with sparkling shards of safety glass.

     What compelled me to step out of the station wagon and disobey my father’s stern order I don’t know, my fear of being alone, or my fear of being left inside a car. By this time he had reached the adjoined vehicles. They sat crushed together, nose-to-nose, like brash lovers kissing in a doorway. I had watched him walk out into the center of the two-lane roadway, where a dark brown shape lay across the yellow line, so near I can still see the silver buckle on the man’s boot. It was the driver of the car on the right, the one that had suddenly pulled out of the gas station ahead us, directly into the oncoming vehicle. Whichever one of the two crossed the middle of the road I’ll never know, suffice to say there was a meeting of great speed with sudden obstruction, resulting in grievous harm, doing to the fallen driver something so unappealing it made my father, after stopping and leaning over the body, practically run on to the smoldering cars. It was this thought that gripped me, the moment before my senses must have gone numb, a curiosity born of the primal fear that had descended upon me like the heavy winter sky. On my spectral heels I floated, drawn to the crumpled body, set on its side like a sleeping dog. I can see the brown corduroy coat and the black leather boots, the dirty white fleece of the man’s collar, beside which rested a major portion of his head. The rest, a piece about the size of a grapefruit, hair attached, lay some fifteen feet away. I can’t see the blood involved. That aspect of the grisly scene apparently went right through the gaping maw of my disbelieving mind.
     Fleeing the overwhelming presence of death, I found myself moving towards the wreckage, where my father was busy removing the keys from the ignition of the empty car. As I came upon the second, I could see its driver still sitting, his neck slung to one side, as if it were broken. I then noticed the passenger of the first, his back to me, sitting on the wet road, his head between his legs, his palms slapping at the ground, making a strange cooing sound. As I took a few steps forward, he suddenly sat up, beginning to fall towards me. The rear of his head was a wild mass of black corkscrews, the untidy afro of a white man in his late twenties, wearing a plaid hunting jacket and flared blue jeans. Without thinking, I held out my hands and caught him about the shoulders, steadying him the best I could. He was like a bottom-weighted punching toy, wavering to and fro. I don’t know just how long I knelt there, staring into the thick nest of his hair, before the dark blood began to bubble up, a helter-skelter fountain that ran onto his jacket, warm as soup about my cold fingers. Just then I felt a firm hand upon my wrist, followed by a soft voice in my ear, telling me everything was going to be okay. I turned to see my school bus driver, a middle-aged woman with a motherly face. She took me in her arms and escorted me to the side of the road, where I began to notice other people, my father included, moving around the side of a school bus, as police sirens descended upon the scene.

When we finally got back into our car and strapped ourselves in, I was afraid to meet my father’s eyes. I was still numb. “We have to turn around,” he said, in a thin, distant voice, as if he were on the opposite side of very thick door.
     “Can we – can’t we maybe, maybe still go to
Rishor’s?” I asked, my voice no more than a squeak.
     “I really don’t think I can drive through Butler, Jem.”
     “Please, dad, please. You can do it – it’s not very far. Please! 
I won’t be a minute inside – I just want to see if any new ones have come in – that’s all.”
     I couldn’t help myself. I pestered and pestered him to take me, soon begging the point. It was as if the accident had never happened. He finally relented, driving around the half dozen flashing police cars that were assembled before a roadblock of burning flares. One of the officers gave us a solemn smile, waving us by. I think he was the one my father had spoken to, giving out his account of the accident.
     Only when I was alone inside the newsstand did I begin to feel the horrible guilt. As my eyes ran feverishly up and down the two spinning racks that provided the great majority of my weekly comics fix, it followed me, like the cold eyes of an accusing angel. Finding nothing new to buy, fighting the growing sickness in my stomach, my gaze drifted to the magazine rack where, among titles like
Heavy Metal and Fangoria, I saw the brightly-colored tabloid comic, Giant Superhero Holiday Grab-Bag, its festive cover imploring me. I knew it was just a selection of over-sized reprints, but I suddenly wanted it. Grabbing it, I dug into my pocket for the small fold of dollar bills that constituted my comic allowance. As I did, I looked up, seeing my father on the other side of the rack, reading a magazine, grinning at me, like some sad clown lost in a tragedy. He’d followed me in, a thing he rarely ever did.

“Did you get anything good?”
     “No, just this,” I sheepishly replied, lifting the tabloid to show it more clearly, as we pulled way from Rishor’s, the outside of my window thick with condensation, making the buildings of Butler look as if they were lying under ice.
     My father didn’t reply. Regarding the comic with a weak smile, both hands tight on the steering wheel, he turned back to the road, his eyes glistening.
     “I’m sorry it happened,” I managed, almost too quiet to hear, my eyes glued to the gaudy holiday fantasy sitting on my lap, wanting things to feel normal again. It was the last thing either of us said, the entire rest of the way home.
     The accident wasn’t even mentioned that night at dinner, even though I knew my parents had already discussed it, in hushed tones, as I sat in the next room, thumbing through the latest addition to my collection. Nothing was said about it the next day either, or the next.
     And not a word of it has been uttered between my father and I since, not all the days, and years, gone by.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

My Life in the Op-Ed Trenches

I’d just ordered a glass of orange juice and a plate of hash browns in a well-worn diner at the top of a long hill, a five block walk from the third story room I rented above an old family-run print shop with an imposing brass door worthy of a story by Dickens. It was a wet, cold, early winter morning. Not yet six o’clock, the grey sky lay like a lid over the stretch of historic brick townhouses that climbed Liberty Avenue, a commercial/residential gauntlet that formed the main arterial of the Bloomfield neighborhood, in the city of Pittsburgh. The year was 1987.
     Being awake at such an early hour was unusual enough, having had the wherewithal to position myself at the cracked counter of such a sleepy eating place was unprecedented. I was a late riser, accustomed to wolfing down a frenzied breakfast at home before jumping on my bicycle to race perilously down Liberty into the heart of the city, to the editorial offices of the
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the city’s long-standing morning paper. My near-miraculous awakening had been spurred by the advent of my latest entry into the editorial pages of the respected daily.
     Having been hired, at the ripe age of twenty-three, as the paper’s sole staff illustrator, I had only recently begun to appear on the Op-Ed galleys, an invitation which had given life to a budding sense of social awareness. Determined to draw with both my mind and my hands, I took these editorial stabs as monumental forums for expression. In my young, overly-idealistic mind, I saw them as the print stage upon which I would enlighten and bring change to the staid order of the depressed industrial settlement I’d called home for much of the decade.
     I had raced out of the gate with my very first such piece, a reactive and cynical criticism of the nation’s cattle farmers and their insatiable demand for federal subsidies. It was a hastily-drawn cartoon, a depiction of a cattleman who looked much like the
Hee Haw buffoon Junior Samples, bemoaning his lot, as his cattle starved around him in the heat of a summer drought. It promptly attracted numerous letters from angry and offended local farmers. Taking this hostile reaction as a clear validation of my power to influence, I’d practically lunged at the next such assignment handed my way, a cartoon meant to accompany a piece by Michael Kinsley, editor of The New Republic, pointing to the hazy ethical arguments of then- Attorney General Edwin Meese, a man who seemed to feel his actions filtered through an intangible alternate universe where scrutiny was left to wholly subjective devices. Seeking to tackle this potent subject with my na├»ve pluck, I had made it my mission to challenge the paper’s long-standing readership, the working class men and women who sat about me that dour morning, breathing in their black coffee and eggs, pawing through the pages of the Gazette’s early edition. My obstacle to their routine involved more than a shift in perspective or opinion, it was an actual demand for hands-on participation in my art. It was this tactile adventure that had compelled me to set my alarm for the ungodly hour of five, a time for bakers and street sweepers to be roaming the Earth, not editorial cartoonists.
     The interactive hook I’d built my cartoon upon involved optical perspective. Utilizing the old trick of drawing an image in an unnaturally stretched form, I’d rendered my caricature of Meese to run more than three quarters the height of the column. When viewed in the customary fashion it appeared partly out-of-focus, but the caption at the bottom invited the reader to take the paper and hold it so that it was positioned at a right angle to the eye. By doing this, and placing one’s face close to the page, the elongated image would “magically” compress and the identity of the hard-to-pin-down Meese would become clear. Not exactly a groundbreaking premise, but it was nevertheless a concept I had been forced to battle for the previous day, cracking heads with the assistant Op-Ed editor, then the Op-Ed editor, then the editor of the paper himself, before finally finding myself in the cluttered office of the publisher, putting on a cocky show of unearned bravado that seemed to leave each of the previous gentlemen (all old enough to be my father) looking rather bewildered. It was becoming all too apparent that they had hired an illustrator with ambitions far outside the decorative arts (and his own reach). It was an uncompromising desire that would eventually see me packing my things and quitting my post only a few months later, the pathway I’d worn to the publisher’s door having become a trail of increasing frustration and fatigue. But that dreary morning, perched on my counter stool, I was still full of verve, one eye on my greasy breakfast, the other moving about my dozen fellow diners like a hawk, breathlessly anticipating their coming to the editorial page, hoping against hope that they would take my challenge and activate the prescribed action, folding the paper and holding it up to their rough-hewn faces, the steely jaws and ruddy jowls of men and women who I presumed had little time for such artistic conceits.

think about!” I’d declared the evening before, standing in the stately living room of the multi-floored apartment I shared with a photographer and his girlfriend. “I have the power to make everyone in Pittsburgh fold their paper in half and hold it to their face. It could happen all at once. At six in the morning I could make literally thousands of people stop what they’re doing and play my visual game!” I was giddy with the very thought of it, drunk on my own enthusiasm. The afternoon’s victory of will over the paper’s masthead had only heightened my myopic dreams of supremacy. I was a young man who, given an inch, would quickly claim a mile.
     “You’re going to leave newsprint on everyone’s cheek,” grinned the girlfriend.
     “Exactly!” I beamed, failing to catch the sarcasm in her comment. “I’m like the puppet master, pulling the strings. Isn’t it
     The photographer rolled his eyes. “It hasn’t happened yet. How are you ever going to know, anyway?”
     That was the instant I hatched my little plan of clandestine field study. I quickly settled on the most habitual of all the local eating spots, an aluminum-sided bulwark of more than fifty years of service, a multi-generational hash-slinger with roots as deep as the city’s still-smoldering furnaces of iron and steel. Setting my notepad and pen beside my alarm clock that night, I pushed my head into my pillow, my mind full of romantic notions, imagining myself some Diane Fossey of the working class coffee-sipper, my subjects like gorillas in the mist of the cook’s grill.
     It was a moment I’d never have anticipated just a few weeks before, finding myself living back home at my parent’s house in rural Butler County, some forty-odd miles north of the city, scraping by on what little freelance illustration work I could find. I was, in fact, standing atop a ladder, painting the eaves of the house, the day the unexpected call came from the assistant editor of the Gazette, letting me know that an opening had suddenly appeared in their graphics department. It was, of course, a happening far more complex, and bound in incidental history, than one surprise phone call. My relationship with the
Post-Gazette, and its editorial staff, went back to my earliest days in Pittsburgh, to the reckless pursuit of a neophyte’s search for artistic integrity in a city that shouldered far more practical concerns. This was the Pittsburgh of the Reagan era, a defeated metropolis of industry yet to fully acknowledge it had been fitted for a coffin, a city devoid of any real national cultural identity, a place where a dusty warehouse still occupied the block that would become, almost a decade later, the world-renowned Andy Warhol Museum.
     The sad incident that had spurred the phone call was the recent death of the paper’s chief illustrator, a boldly graphic artist whom I had met on my very first visit to the editorial offices, some four years earlier, just a week after I had quit an unhappy and short-lived stint at Pittsburgh’s only commercial art school. Stuffing a series of marker drawings I’d made of the denizens of the city’s pigeon-strewn parks and benches, I’d marched into the bustling newsroom, outfitted in my trademark wool beret and ancient overcoat, commanding the assistant editor’s time, along with most of his desktop. Being a patient and kind-hearted man, he’d heard me out, listening with what seemed genuine interest as I laid out my plan for a Sunday Magazine feature on the city’s street characters, the homeless and aged with whom I mingled every day on my jobless wanderings. Along with copies of my dozen portraits, I presented him with a first-person written narrative of these individuals and the strange world they inhabited. It was a bold move for a failed, nineteen year-old art student with no professional credits to his name. Not surprisingly, the feature was ultimately rejected as being too “narrowly-focused”, but not after it went through the legitimate channels of editorial discussion, the very gauntlet I would regularly face some four years later. Despite this rejection, my debut achieved two invaluable things. One, it gave me a viable contact with an editor, who soon after began offering me freelance editorial illustration assignments. Two, it introduced me to the then-current staff illustrator, the man whose death would create the vacancy I would eventually fill.
     This artist, a forward-thinking individual whose work was just beginning to appear in nationally-prominent periodicals like
The New York Times and Newsweek, was the very first person I knew who had a computer and who was utilizing the earliest graphic programs to aid his drawing. He, in fact, on our third or fourth meeting at the offices, offered to teach me the program and, to my great surprise, give me license to mimic his style (one centered on traditional woodcuts, infused with the bold cartoon flourish of the likes of early Charles Burns). He was asking me to be his “ghost illustrator”. He claimed this was needed as he was getting too much outside work, but didn’t want to give up his post at the Gazette. Being a victim of a furious pride, I instantly declined, refusing to even consider such an invisible tenure. Little did I know, this was actually a very gracious, and ultimately heartbreaking, offer from a man who had been diagnosed with multiple cancers and given only a limited time to live, a man who had somehow managed to keep these dire health issues secret from the majority of his co-workers. Upon hearing that he had died, images of him, a relatively young man, arriving for one of our lunchtime art chats with a perceptible limp, leaning on a walking stick, raced back into my mind. I later learned that he had suffered a series of operations to remove parts of his infected vital organs, surgeries that had literally caused his body to collapse in upon itself.
     Thus, there I was, atop a rickety metal ladder, a paintbrush sticking from my shirt pocket, excitedly agreeing to (unbeknownst to me at the time) fill the shoes of the man who had attempted to steer me in that very direction some two years earlier.
     When I was introduced to my desk the following week, and the full tragic story was conveyed to me by the others in the small graphics department, I suddenly felt a weight upon my shoulders, a challenge to live up to not only my own demanding standards, but to honor the kindness of the benefactor I had never truly recognized. I’d like to be able to say that I achieved something of these goals, but my growing frustration working within the rigid structure of such a long-standing daily paper was to get the better of me before I had the opportunity to establish myself in any lasting way. If I managed to forge a recognizable style in those few short months before I quit in frustration, it went unrecognized, even by me, my usual schizophrenic approach to illustration, reacting to each assignment with a different artistic voice, ruling the day. If I did anything, it was to perhaps awaken the editorial hierarchy to the existence of illustrators who desired to achieve more than a fluency of craft, to those who wanted, and needed, to impart an individual worldview in their work. An idealistic notion, to be sure, but one I still stand by.

“Want another refill on this OJ?”
     I was startled out of my reverie, finding the middle-aged waitress leaning across the counter, her fingertips at the rim of my empty glass. I quickly nodded I was, keen to return my hopefully unnoticed gaze to the grizzled-looking gentleman in the hunting jacket and earflaps, who had just settled upon the territory of my scrutiny, the morning’s Op-Ed page. He held the section of paper against his lap, a shield behind which rose a steady tower of steam from his unattended coffee. I caught a squint and a furrow come to his brow as he followed the lines of my clandestine illustration, to the bottom, where he brought his eyes closer to the paper in order to read the caption I had created using rub-off prestype. I watched breathless, seeing him roll his shoulders and begin to lower the paper, positioning it as I had intended. I could hardly believe it, he was actually following my instructions, doing something I imagined he had never been asked to do with a morning paper in his life.
     It was a moment of victory, one I hadn’t expected to see, for it was almost seven-thirty and I had yet to witness a single reader do more than stare perplexed and move on in silent irritation after encountering my “groundbreaking statement of artistic purpose”. But here he was, the proof of my obvious genius, the blue collar Joe, the no-nonsense vessel into which I would pour my ideas. I straightened my back, rising high against the Formica counter. When the waitress slid my third glass of juice before me I almost declared out loud “Do you
see that? That guy’s folding his paper and holding it up to his face! And I made him do it – with art!”
     But my elation was short-lived. A moment later, the man was shaking his head in apparent confusion and rustling on to the next page, my monumental achievement pressed again into obscurity between the wrinkled pages of a journal that would soon be mingled with the morning’s coffee filters and cigarette butts, lost at the bottom of a neglected garbage can.

To such events do we ascribe experience, the teeth-cutting to a perspective beyond youthful idealism, the lesson learned of our own insignificance to the greater scheme and unfolding of things, but it is still hard for me to not feel that swelling in my chest, that electric moment when I thought I had conquered the world, when I truly believed the images and ideas generated within my skull could reach out and shape the reality of others, if only in a operatively tactile way. And I suppose that feeling has never quite gone away, not completely, not after all the years between then and now, as I continue to struggle through the mornings, my pen and paper the prime tools of my trade. If I can leave anything of permanence with the work I do, be it the editorial cartoons, the sequential narratives, even the more decorative illustrations I am regularly commissioned to produce, I hope it might be to impart that perseverance is its own reward, that sticking to one’s strengths, no matter how meager the return, is something more than just the foolish bluff of a soul forged through idealism, that it can be the validation of oneself, in a world all too eager to wear that spirit down. I also want to believe that it makes a difference, somewhere, to someone, even those no longer tethered to these unfolding days.

Dedicated to the memory and art of Robert Patla.