Sunday, December 21, 2008
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
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 naïve 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.
“Just 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 cool?”
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.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
It was 1982.
My father, wearing his best shirt and tie, was stationed at the foyer, ready to greet guests and take their coats, before showing them downstairs to the wine and cheese table, which was actually the top of the washing machine, smartly covered with a silk tablecloth. My mother, meanwhile, was busy in the kitchen, cutting cheese into little cubes, diligently skewering each with a toothpick.
My very first solo art show.
I was, I must admit, not a child. I was eighteen. I’d recently returned to my parent’s house in the country, having fled a self-induced poverty in the unforgiving streets of the North Side of Pittsburgh. It was one of a few such similar retreats I would make during my earliest days trying to forge a life as an artist.
What compelled my parents to partake in this madness, to play the roles I’d ascribed to them?
I can only put it down to love, the love of the parent, that great giving resource, those energies kept waiting for just such an undertaking as the one to which they were currently surrendering all their time and dignity.
“What color wine would you like us to get?”
“I think you mean red.”
“You’ve been very noisy up there. Just what are you moving about? Maybe dad could help you?”
“No, I’m OK. Nobody can see it until the show. Where’s my sleeping bag?”
“Yeah, I need it to sleep in tonight.”
“What’s happened to your bed?”
“I can’t tell you. You’ll see tomorrow.”
“I hope you aren’t doing any damage, Jeremy.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not – I promise. Oh, I ran out of sticks for dad’s glue gun. I’m going to need some more.”
That I carried a sizable chip on my shoulder when it came the “art world”, there was no question. My hard feelings towards galleries, the insufferably pretentious scam artist whose work filled them, the inane critics who enthused over their adequacies, and the eager flock of twits that frequented their openings, was probably an inherent outgrowth of the working class roots of my parents, my father’s in particular.
Raised in the industrial north of England, the son of the delivery man for a local butcher, he knew all too well of the class divide, one his own mother, born into a considerably more wealthy family, only highlighted. She died while he was just a boy, leaving him to find his way out from under the oppressive shadow of the dirty brick council houses that obscured his horizons and stifled his imagination. His ultimate escape came with a pencil. Not the roaming, liberated tool of my existence, it was instead the rigid graphite lengths found in a draughtsman’s kit.
On the other hand, my mother, the daughter of a vegetable farmer, raised in the rural south in what today will seem like abject poverty (no running water or electricity), was encouraged to seek out her creative heart. She entered art school at a relatively early age, achieving an enviable understanding of her born talent, before marriage and children monopolized her life, causing a reassessment of her priorities for the future.
It was from these humble, yet knowing, beginnings that I was delivered, destined to further the path my mother had chosen to abort, equipped with my father’s tenacity and awareness of the hedonistic trappings of culture and the supposed wealth it attracted.
Still just seventeen when I graduated high school, I immediately entered a commercial art school in Pittsburgh, which quickly bought these inherited instincts to the fore. Almost instantly realizing that this particular institute of learning was nothing more than a highly-priced siphon, sucking dry the wallets and outsized ambition of the young and naively artistic, I rebelled, hurrying home after only two weeks, announcing to my shocked parents that I was quitting, that the school was like “a day care for idiots” and that I would find my own way in this world without, thank you.
They, naturally, set to talking me out of quitting, making me agree to return and give it a little more time. A few weeks later I was failing most classes, especially cartooning, where my projects were ridiculed and ignored by the teachers. Every assignment became an affront, my mind bunkering itself further and further. An expulsion was inevitable.
I became a furtive ghost student, coming and going as I saw fit, skipping classes, exploring the city with my sketchbook, sneaking back into the school at night for clandestine workshops with two understanding instructors, who acknowledged my frustration and dissatisfaction.
During this time, I watched those still enrolled prepare themselves for their class shows in the school gallery, bubbly events attended by a patronizing, disingenuous teaching staff of failed artists and bitter journeymen. Like the budding villain in a comic book, or a hungry waif in the dark imagination of Charles Dickens, I watched through the gallery window, witnessing wide-eyed pupils struggling to nibble cheese with the bored pedagogues. Fingering the motley collection of pencils and pens lodged deep within the pockets of my winter coat, I knew my destiny lay in never buying into such a blatantly pointless activity.
“Where did that tree in the garage come from?”
“There’s a tree in the garage?”
“It’s for my show.”
“You’re thinking of bringing that thing indoors? Not up to your bedroom? You can’t!”
“I have to, mum, it’s a vital part of my signature piece.”
“I don’t understand what it is you’re trying to accomplish, Jeremy. You need to focus on finding work.”
“I am, I am, but this is not about that – it’s my statement, you’ll see, trust me.”
“A statement on what? That you quit art college and can’t afford to live on your own?”
“No, listen, just listen! It’s about the shallow and phony art scene. I’m going to present a parody of it all, by doing just what they do, but upon matters that I really care about! See how ironic that is? Here’s what I’m doing with the tree, I’ll tell you just that much. I’m putting the tree in a planter of army men, soldiers from around the world, and throughout history – World War II, The Revolutionary War, The Civil War, The Napoleonic Wars – Germans, Australian, French, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, British, American, Arabian, Ancient Turks, even cavemen with rocks. OK? It’s all about how we perpetuate war, by flourishing from it. I’m doing Jospeh Heller, by way of Andy Warhol, if he was John Muir or Robert Frost! The armed, fighting soldiers will be the soil, nurturing the tree, whose limbs will hold the wounded and dying. It’s going to be amazing, just you wait and see! You have to wait until the show to see the rest.”
“You’re using your old collection of army men?”
“Yeah. Why not do something constructive with them? I don’t play with them anymore you know.”
“That’s a debatable statement.”
It was to be my first great, identifying event, the artistic zenith of my young life.
I’d spent almost two weeks designing and building the various installations, stealthily assembling the smaller ones in the privacy of my room and hiding them away. I’d invited some two-dozen friends from the city, a ragtag assemblage of artists, students, punk rockers, troublemakers, and self-appointed bohemians.
I viewed it as a starting point, a growing moment, the very opposite of what I knew my father was thinking. He only saw me refusing to grasp maturity, continuing my childhood, the proposed show being nothing more than another of the fanciful approximations of the adult world I was so fond of in my adolescence: the detective agency (unwittingly helping the township police locate a pot-smoking hideaway in the woods – oh, the shame!), the book publishing empire (setting up office next to my father’s actual office in the house, forever bothering him to use his stapler), the insect zoo (crushing my big toe looking for beetles in the dark), the puppet shows (knocking myself out when I leapt from a chair, hitting my head on the basement beam, collapsing at the feet of the audience, still wearing sock puppets on each hand). In retrospect, of course, I can see his point. It was a continuation of my childhood occupations and fancies, as has been most of my life. It’s what I do, it’s who I am.
My “Art”, if I can use that lofty, abused word, is an ever-running reflection of what I’m told is the legitimate structure, and subsequent culture, of our “grown-up” civilization. It is an exploration of these accepted functions and particulars, taking the shape of a voice looking in from the outside, a boy forever standing at the gates of the “other people”, those who seemingly have embraced their civilization without question, without reserve, who measure it with a seriousness, a gravity, a purposefulness that I will never ascribe to. That I have meanwhile managed to eek out a living drawing pictures as a commercial artist is beside the point. There is no wisdom gleaned from such activity, no real contentment, no true fulfillment, there is only the knowledge that I have a trade, a talent that can be offered and sold. The years since have taught me that I will not starve if I gather my wits and keep my fingers from the thresher.
“It’s starting to snow again. The driveway is nearly white.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“I don’t think anyone will drive up here from Pittsburgh tonight, Jem. I really don’t.”
“They will, you’ll see. Maybe we should open one of the wine bottles?”
“Let’s just wait a little bit for that.”
“Stay at the front door, dad, in case anyone comes. I want it to be like a real gallery. You’re supposed to be the gallery owner, remember.”
Why are you doing this, Jeremy? Why aren’t you out there undertaking an entry into the real world like most everyone else? Do you want to be alone like this, to be so different?
“That jacket is an original. All those different sections, it’s like you spilled a paint box on yourself. Is that a piece of our old curtains from Blanefield?”
“Where did that bit of a bra come from? Why does it say Urgh?”
“You really need to start focusing on your future.”
Are you ever going to relent? Are you ever going to join the rest of us? What are you possibly gaining from all of this, this obstinate living inside of yourself?
“No one’s coming, not tonight.”
“I hate to say it, Jem, but I agree with your father. Don’t feel bad, it’s nasty out there, you can’t expect them to drive up here with the roads like that.”
“I’m going to put the cheese back in the fridge.”
“No. Just wait a bit more. Someone will come. They have to! It’s not too late yet.”
My father poured two plastic cups of wine, handed one to my mother and followed me, up the stairs and along the corridor to my bedroom door.
I must have looked like a Peter Max painting, standing there in my pop art jacket, my head adorned with a tweed beret to which I’d affixed a plastic cardinal outfitted with baby doll arms (an assemblage I wore often). My heart aching horribly, feeling like the biggest fool the human race had ever known, I steeled myself and opened the door, flicking on the lights.
There was a terrible, damning silence.
My bed, sitting on one end, was climbing towards the ceiling, literally covered with black ants, which I’d drawn and cut from paper. The two-dimensional insects streamed from under the covers, across my pillow, about the bedcover and over the headboard, where they marched up the wall and onto the ceiling, ending in a confused jumble about the overhead light. The sliding doors of my walk-in closet where partly removed from their tracks, left hanging like November’s leaves, revealing a torrent of old drawings, childhood renderings I’d taped to every surface within, a snowstorm of my past. The curtains at my window were similarly caught up in some invisible gale, held aloft by fishing line that ran clear across the room, to which I had attached various tokens of my past; cub scout clothing, baptismal certificate, report cards, immigration papers, all liberally interspaced with intended symbols of the damning world; magazine pages of car accidents, flooded cities, police actions, begging children, army recruiters, racist gatherings, hunters displaying their trophy dead, gloating businessmen with cigars. Beneath all of this, situated about the room, were the main events of my youth, trophies of Christmas mornings past, readdressed to confront what I saw as the injustices of the world, all with a knowing wink and a sharp elbow to the gut of artistic pretense and superiority.
There was the piece entitled The Infantree, featuring the dead arm of branches that I’d pulled from the woods, sprouting from a large planter, growing in its fertile plastic battleground, dozens of tiny injured effigies glued to its spidery limbs, bandaged American GIs lying on stretchers, fallen Union soldiers clutching at head wounds, shrieking Arabs dropping their scaraboid knives.
Then there was Modern Hell Mountain, the two-foot tall plastic Guns of Navarone Playset that I’d covered with paisley fabric and game pieces from an assortment of “conformist” dictates, old board games like Life, Go To The Head of The Class, The Dating Game, and, of course, Monopoly. Inside sat a tape player, spewing out the cacophonic noise recordings I’d made throughout my teen years.
Every component of the installation was dutifully labeled, in suitably pretentious prose. I had left little to spare. Even the light sockets were decorated with logos of “evil corporate power entities” like General Electric and Westinghouse.
My poor parents, taking deep, simultaneous breaths, proceeded to stroll about the mess, sipping their wine, smiling awkwardly. I stood nervously in the doorway, trying to imagine what they must have been thinking, just what it was that I was thinking.
I spent the next day taking it all down, restoring order to a world I desperately desired to destroy. I wondered if the whole planet wasn’t laughing at me, if my supposed friends in the city weren’t foremost among the grinning mob.
It was only later that evening, when I received a phone call, an apology for not having been able to risk the wintery roads, that I began to feel I might survive. My spirit still resolutely crushed, an ache still deep within my heart, I sat on my bed, eating cheese cubes, declaring to myself that I’d never again undertake such a foolish performance, wondering what career my father must be lining up for me, in what factory I was to toil away the rest of my days.
Not long after, I dragged myself back to the city. Once there, I returned to the madness of a broken artistic culture, one I raged against daily, with new vim, indulging again in an unpredictable life of personal design and poverty, which I’ve essentially kept at to this very day, carrying that aching heart with me, forever seeing my parents moving slowly about the wreck of my room, witnessing the tropes of their hard work literally upended, the furnishings of an ordinary life desecrated, the objects of their accomplishment treated as the villainy of normalcy, all in the name of irony, and a young man’s bleeding self-esteem.
Though the intervening years have seen my work displayed in a variety of shows, in galleries here and abroad, though I’ve met the fleeting embrace of our popular culture, I’ve kept to my promise to never again open myself up so completely, to make my very home a venue for artistic consideration. That was, until just two weeks ago, when I decided to shake the festering monkey in the painter’s smock from my back, once and for all.
Ignoring the old feelings of ridicule and disappointment, I set to creating new work, designing a personal gallery space and sending out invitations to some two-dozen friends, inhabitants of the city I now call home.
I bought cheese too. And wine.
I’ll tell you how it all went, in about twenty-five years.
Sunday, August 10, 2008
“I told you those were collectibles! Why didn’t you listen to me, momma?” declared the thickly-built woman, her frail mother shrinking into a pile of pink and brown knit blankets. “I’ve been scamped – scamped good!”
The old lady offered some unintelligible reply, quivering under her lint tomb, turning from her daughter’s angry spew, surely wondering just what all the fuss was about.
I wasted no time getting from the porch to my bicycle, ushering along my younger sister, Soapie, whispering for her to hurry.
Her name wasn’t really Soapie, but I refused to call her anything else.
“Scamped! Scamped!” continued the irate woman, standing amidst the assembled items of her porch sale, her big face going the color of stomach medicine. “Johnny said keep the good ones out of the box, momma! He said!”
Securing my backpack about my waist, I mounted my bike and rolled from the curb onto the street, making sure Soapie was following. The new weight pulling at the straps of my pack felt like a pirate’s treasure, an unexpected jackpot on what, until that point, had been nothing more than my weekly ride to Rishor’s newsstand, to look for new comics.
“Why was that lady so mad?” Soapie asked, straining to keep up with me as we zigged and zagged through tight, dog-legged streets lined with old red brick buildings, half-expecting the crazy porch lady to be pursuing us in the purple Pinto with the cardboard rear window, the one in the driveway we’d leant our bicycles against.
“I’ll show you at Rishor’s!” I replied, my mind already feverish with my anticipated new wealth. “I scamped her!” I thought happily to myself, pedaling harder and harder. “I scamped her good!”
“Holy COW!” I gasped, my finger tracing the listings in the 1976 Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. “TWENTY DOLLARS in mint condition!”
“Is yours mint?”
“Close, I think.”
“Take it out and look.”
“No,” I replied, looking nervously towards the front window of the newsstand, relived not to see any sign of a purple Pinto. “When we get home.”
“What do you have?” asked a friendly, familiar voice.
I turned to see Janet, the pretty blonde girl who worked at the newsstand. Little did I know it then, but two years later she would accompany my older brother to the high school prom.
“Jem got Conan number three!” my sister piped highly.
Janet gave me a sweet smile. I dropped my head shyly, sure she was going to reach out and pinch my cheek. She was that kind of a Janet. “Conan number three? Really?” she inquired, with stage-like enthusiasm, drawing the open price guide towards her. “Conan, the Barbarian, Oct. 1970 to present, Marvel Comics Group. #3 (low distribution in some areas), $10.00 good condition, $15.00 fine condition, $20.00 mint condition.”
“Jem scamped a lady on a porch. She was super mad at her mother,” Soapie offered, ignoring the scowl I was sending her way.
Janet gave me a slightly reproving look. “You scamped someone?”
“I didn’t, not really,” I tried to explain, suddenly afraid that I was going to have to give up my treasure. “The box said 5¢ EACH. I asked the old lady and she said yes that was the price. The other lady wasn’t even there then. She was inside the house, looking for her smokes.”
Janet peered into the top of my backpack, where the broken zipper had begun to come open. “Goodness – you’ve got quite a few in there! All for 5¢?”
“5¢ each. That’s what the box said,” I reiterated, feeling defensive.
Janet smiled warmly, giving my sister‘s cheek the squeeze I’d been fearing. “I think the lady and her mother had a misunderstanding, that’s all. You didn’t scamp anyone, not really, you just had some good fortune. Lucky you, eh? Any other valuable ones in there?” she inquired, touching the backpack.
I swiveled about, instinctively protecting my mother lode. Janet laughed, making a funny face at Soapie, who giggled.
“Some, I think” I said, not wanting to give away too much. Even nice Janet, who let me go into the storage room of the newsstand and take the new comics out of their plastic wrapping, wasn’t above suspicion. Maybe she even knew the pink-faced lady with the purple Pinto and was going to phone her any minute and let her know just how much the comics were actually worth. I’d be made to give them back, I was sure of it.
“He got a Captain America and a Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and a Daredevil,” Soapie happily announced, grinning up at me. Taking sides with pretty blonde Janet wasn’t out of the question, her loyalty to me only went so far and I was wise to know it. “I think you got a SubMarine too, right, Jem?” She never could get the name Sub-Mariner right. She was, after all, a comic book novice, only having recently begun collecting. Her “buy list” was as oddly diverse as it was short. Who else spent each week looking for the latest issues of House of Mystery and Howard the Duck with the same obsessive intensity?
Janet gave me another big smile, the sort that would eventually make my brother a victim of her every inclination. “Well, I’d say you’ve had quite a day already, any interest in seeing what new ones arrived yesterday? I think our distributor did a bit better than they did with Conan number three.”
I nodded with excitement, following her through the swinging half-door beside the cash register.
“Jem scamped a lady in Butler.”
“I did not! It said 5¢ each.”
My mother gave my father a quick look. He seemed to be studying the steam steadily rising from the beef casserole sitting in the middle of the dinner table. His silence made me nervous, reminding me of the time it was discovered that I was taking money from the kitchen coin jar to buy candy before school. He’d marched me up the street to return all of the uneaten candy, making me explain to the lady at the shop what I had done and why I was never ever going to do it again. “It pays to read every sign at a garage sale,” he finally said, offering me a quick smile.
“It wasn’t a garage sale, dad, it was a porch sale,” Soapie explained.
“And it pays to read every sign at a porch sale,” father continued, reaching out to rub the top of Soapie’s head. She grinned happily, revealing the gap where her tooth had been knocked out while tree climbing, just the week before. “If the lady made a mistake then it was in Jem’s favor. He was being sharp to have noticed the price.”
It was my turn to grin triumphantly. I glanced down at the stack of comics sitting on the chair beside me. “I bet Conan number three is going to be worth a thousand dollars in five years!“ I declared, bumping the table with the ends of my fork and knife.
“What have I told you about that?” my mother declared sharply. “And didn’t I tell you not to bring comics to the table?”
“He’s reading Defenders while he’s eating!” announced Soapie, leaning under the table for a look.
“A thousand dollars in five years, eh?” father chuckled. “That sounds perfect. You’ll be all ready to graduate from school in five years, we can put the money aside for college.”
“Art school,” I corrected, giving Soapie the evil eye.
Mother shot me a stern look. “Take the comics up to your room and hurry back,” she instructed.
“Scamped,” father intoned, shaking his head. “That’s definitely a local expression.”
“Fuckin’ scamped!” Soapie whispered, leaning towards my chair.
A great silence suddenly fell upon the table. No one said a word. I didn’t dare move, my eyes glued to the stack of comics now on my lap. Mother gave Soapie a withering look.
“But that’s what the older lady said when we were on the porch steps. I heard her.”
“We don’t use that word in this family,” father stated.
I began to giggle. It was impossible not to.
My heart jumped, the way it always did when my mother addressed me by my proper name. It was never good.
“Do you know what that word means?”
Oh, God, I thought, don’t, please don’t.
“Of course – I’m almost thirteen, mum,” I groaned, my face going hot. Mother seemed to relish picking the worst possible times to educate us about such things. And she was always a few years behind our learning curve, which I’m sure would have horrified her to know.
“Take the comics to your room, like your mother asked,” father suggested, giving me a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “I wonder what’s for dessert?” he quickly added, winking at Soapie, clearly keen to change the subject.
A moment later I returned to the table, avoiding my mother’s eye.
“Well, that was quite some day you two had, eh?” exclaimed father, smiling.
“Perhaps we should think some more about this whole art school idea,” mother sighed, speaking to no one in particular.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
FIRST PANEL: Peter Porker is eating lunch at his desk when J. Jonah Jawsome rushes out of his office, holding a phone.
Jawsome: “Porker! Grab your camera and get down to fourth and Herriman! They’re about to parade the fattest living woman in Swineville – Gorgeous Edacity Binge!”
Porker: “But, JJJ, I’m still eating my lunch!”
SECOND PANEL: Jawsome takes Peter’s lunch and eats it himself. Peter looks glum.
Jawsome: “Now you’re finished! Get going – if you want to see another paycheck!”
This is how, in early January, 1988, at the ripe age of twenty three, I began what was to be my first, and last, scripting assignment for Marvel Comics.
Having been offered the writing reigns of a particular red and blue, web-slinging, wise-cracking superhero, I promptly proceeded to offend, bewilder, dismay, and otherwise utterly confuse my editor, so much so he refused to even speak to me, instead putting his assistant on the phone to read me the riot act, while I sputtered explanations, desperately trying to justifying my cause, having less effect than a brine shrimp arguing before the maw of a hungry whale.
My crime? I had tampered with the sacred structure of one of America’s preeminent publishing empires, an ignoble gesture, I was told, which had sullied the intricate groundwork laid before me by generations of hard-working writers.
Entrusted with the narrative care of a treasured commercial property, I had quickly set to all but eradicating its every recognizable trait. It was as if, having been asked to write a James Bond novel, I’d instead turned in a manuscript concerning a ninety five year-old Englishman who spares the world imminent destruction by accidentally spilling his cup of tea. Though, in my defense, it needs to be noted that the “cherished” character I had been asked to chaperone into new respectability was a pig.
That’s right, a super-powered, masked pig.
To those of you not currently residing in your parent’s basement, the title Peter Porker, the Spectacular Spider-Ham will mean very little. To those of you who are, it will also probably mean very little. Spider-Ham was Marvel’s “funny animal” parody of their popular Spider-Man character. Initially part of their Star Comics imprint, a clumsy attempt at cornering the massive market for children’s comics held by Harvey Publications and Archie Comics (I’m being sarcastic here), Spider-Ham endured seventeen issues of his own bi-monthly title, before being cancelled and relegated to a five-page back-up feature in Marvel Tales, a repository for reprinted Spider-Man stories.
Which is where my genius came in.
Having sent a sample script to Marvel editor Jim Salicrup, one featuring my own character, Buster Crook, a one-eyed, long-haired dwarf adventurer/crime fighter who traveled the globe in a car shaped like a cow, I’d received a fairly prompt reply, one making an offer I’d not bargained for. Salicrup, not seeing much commercial potential in my Buster Crook premise (just why I can’t fathom), nevertheless spotted something in my “imagination and inventive sense of humor”, enough to suggest I might be the one to help reinvigorate Spider-Ham, who was by then spoiling away in the back pages of Marvel Tales. He explained that “the character has never been handled well and I’ve been searching for someone to give the strip an identity of its own, to make it more than a funny animal version of Spider-Man. It would be great if it could be funny too.”
I suppose being tossed such a wastrel of the Marvel Universe, a pig dressed as a man bitten by a spider, was an appropriate trial for an untested rookie, much like batting for a junior farm league team somewhere in central Ohio, but I couldn’t help feeling just a little bit “utilized”. I was, after all, a writer, a writer of uncommon good taste, a writer with ideals to meet, lofty principles to honor. The funny animal genre was a mongrel I’d hardly even raise a foot to, especially the sort of thing that was then passing for the form; sour, leaden, four-color tragedies like Spider-Ham and Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew!, titles whose humor hinged upon animal-related puns so horrible entire species were regularly taking offense. I aspired to something a bit higher on the ladder of respectability, even if it had to involve animals wearing pants.
“You changed J. Jonah Jackal’s name to Jawsome,” declared the indignant assistant.
“Well, right, that’s because he’s not a jackal any more,” I replied.
“He’s not a jackal any more? Then what is he?”
“He’s a pig.”
“You changed Mary Jane Waterbuffalo to Mary Jane Majestic.”
“She’s a pig too?”
“Everyone’s a pig – that’s my big change.”
“You can’t just make everyone a pig! What about continuity?”
Taking Salicrup’s plea for something more than a funny animal parody to heart, I had set out to craft a ten-page story that would forever imprint upon the collective comics-reading consciousness a character so unique, so unexpected, so utterly unheralded it would make even the collected works of Alan Moore seem mundane by comparison. Happily digging through my sizable morgue of reference and inspiration, I had built a template for a new spider-powered pig product, framing it with the time-tested conceit of one of my very favorite cartoonists, Carl Barks. As Barks had done so successfully with his stories featuring Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge, I chose to simply ignore the beastial appearance of my character, thus eliminating the whole premise of Spider-Ham even being a funny animal comic. If making it more than a funny animal parody was desired, I had reasoned, then why not make it something altogether beyond one?
To accomplish this ritualistic “de-swining” I followed Bark’s lead, but took it to its logical conclusion, making all of Peter Porker’s friends and relatives members of the order sus scrofa. I quickly saw to it that there were no supporting characters of indeterminate origin like the Beagle Boys, who had always confused me. Were they, in fact, beagles? If so, how could one help but conclude that all of Bark’s similar-looking characters were canine also, setting up a reality with a bizarre, two-pronged zoology, a world of dogs and water fowl only?
“You changed Star City to Swineville?”
“Yes. It’s a city full of pigs now. I thought it would be a funny name.”
“You turned The Daily Beagle into The Daily Testimony.”
“Right. Beagle seemed wrong for pigs.”
“Why – why did you think you could just do all of this?”
“Uh, well, you asked me to make Spider-Ham different, and better, so I did.”
Wanting to give the series an edgy milieu (a late 80s comic book phrase if there ever was one), I’d quickly decided to tweak my initial premise, allowing for a literal allusion to my character’s piggish appearance, creating a bogeyman or, more succinctly, death, an oft-alluded-to (but never seen) “butcher”, a grim reaper who would, when one’s time was up, offer you a one-way “ticket to Chicago”, referring to that city’s noted history in the slaughterhouse trade. I soon had grand ideas of making Swineville a city-sized metaphor for the meat industry, making each day, and night, an exercise in surviving the inevitability of that ride to Chi-Town. I imagined rooftop soliloquies, a graven Spider-Ham casting his weary gaze out into a thunderous sky laced with lightning, my lavender prose evoking the sound of “butcher’s knives sharpening against stone”. But, after a few days tooling with this approach, I soon realized it would only appeal to comic book readers who were as religiously devout as I in their current vegetarianism. Which meant me, and a lonely, fifteen year-old girl living in Poughkeepsie.
So, I shifted tone once again, this time opting for a more, well, a more “Disney” approach. My mind racing for that something special that would set my treatment aside from all others, I though “why shouldn’t I treat Spider-Ham as if indeed it were the latest Barks-influenced Disney property?” Why not set it up to catch some of the attention that then-popular cartoons like Rescue Rangers and DuckTales were garnering? In other words, I wasn’t now just ignoring funny animal comics, I was altogether ignoring the general readership of funny animal comics. It was mutiny.
“But your sketches, in the layouts you made, they don’t even look like Spider-Ham!”
“Well, you know, the old Spider-Ham looked more like an aardvark – a lot like Cerebus the Aardvark, in fact.”
“I don’t agree.”
“I think kids will relate to a more traditional pig shape.”
Well, isn’t that what Marvel, in all its infinite wisdom, was essentially reaching for with the Star Comics line? Of course, no right-thinking American boy or girl would be caught dead with an issue of Planet Terry or Royal Roy (forever Donald Trump to Richie Rich’s Bill Gates), but the “House of Ideas” seemed oblivious to this, thinking they could saturate a weak market with inane knock-offs and a web-spinning pig.
Working diligently for the next two weeks, positive I was onto a sure thing, I ended up with ten, finely-tuned pages of a script entitled “An Ample Infatuation”, a chummy, kid-proof little tale chronicling how Spider-Ham is snared into an “arranged” marriage with Gorgeous Edacity Binge, the fattest woman in all of Swineville. The story introduced three new regular characters, of my own design: J. Jonah Jawsome’s irritating nephew, Winchester, who only spoke three words: Pow! Pow! And Pow!, Morton C. Exposure, Peter Porker’s new adversary in the freelance photography biz, and last, but not least, Snappy, Peter’s sentient, talking camera. Clearly, this was an unimpeachable bit of classic comic book writing, a fully successful introduction to a vastly improved Spider-Ham, one which was funny, exciting, and cute – and most definitely not a parody.
Brimming with anticipation, convinced I would soon be writing regularly for Marvel, I prepared an elaborate package for Salicrup, going so far as to draw a complete panel-to-panel layout for every page, which I included with the typewritten text. Also, wanting to make my “Barksian” approach clear, I photocopied a variety of pages from Donald Duck stories, offering, about the margins, a running lecture on the virtues of Bark’s genius and just why I felt it would save Spider-Ham. Placing all of this in an envelope I’d decorated with cut-out photographs of real pigs, colored to look as if they were wearing the familiar red and blue costume of everyone’s favorite web-slinger, I hurried to the mailbox, imagining the glory that was soon to be mine.
“You changed almost everything.”
“You can’t do that. We wanted a different take on the characters we had.”
“Oh. Well, maybe mine’s just a really different take?”
“Sorry, this isn’t going to work.”
That was it, my audition was over. I had been extinguished. My star would never shine amidst that constellation of monthly and bi-monthly titles known as the Marvel Universe, never would I share a bench with all the comic book greats in the Mighty Marvel Bullpen. I did, however, a few months later, receive a partial script for something called West Coast Avengers, asking that I might try my hand at “making it work”. I didn’t even reply, having, by that time, exhausted my enthusiasm for writing anything close to a conventional super hero comic. I was already embarking on a journey to a real alternative universe, one where I could write, and draw, the sort of comics I wanted to, pigs and continuity be damned.