Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How I Nearly Cooked Marvel's Bacon

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
     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.”
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
     “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.

Friday, July 4, 2008

A Sleepyhead Tale: Riding the Bludgeoning Carousel

Having been interviewed only very rarely in the twenty years that I have been a published, working cartoonist, I have a less than tenable relationship with the form and its experience. This absence of external narrative I must partly attribute to my stubborn adherence to content over form. I have always allowed for story to dictate drawing, resulting in a wide variety of styles, which I am sure has helped dilute any lasting impact I may have had on the collective memory of the comics reading public. Add to this a hesitancy to share too much of myself outside of my art, and the dearth of interviews in my resume is quite understandable.
     In the summer of 1990, at the outset of my cartooning journey, before this trend of unintended silence had crystallized, I was approached by a tiny art fanzine from Los Angeles called 
Inklings & Musings, interested in learning more about my weekly strip, A Sleepyhead Tale, which, at the time, was running in both the LA Reader and the San Diego Reader. The request coming during the pre-internet age, and the print run of Inklings being extremely limited, this peek into the twists and turns of my creative mind has subsequently been seen by very few.
     Recently having reread the interview, not having looked at it since it was first published, I was surprised to see how little I have changed, while, conversely, the world about me so drastically has. During the time of the interview, I was regularly riding my bicycle some nine miles, to the only decent photocopy store, making copies of my art, then pedaling back home to package it, before riding another three miles to the post office. Now, I simply scan my originals and e-mail them to their destination. I can only wonder what has been lost in this transition, apart from the obvious sweat and toil.
A Sleepyhead Tale, which ran from April 1989 to March 1992, attaining a height of only four papers, was fueled by the ambition and the anger of being young, the energy that one simply cannot sustain through life, the burning of resources that one learns to moderate in order to survive. Each strip was an exercise of literal self-flagellation. I allowed my general disgust and bewilderment towards life to take form in Sleepyhead’s outrageous anxieties, letting him explore a particular issue, always making a fool of himself, if not ultimately killing himself. This was not an arc of self-destruction he traveled alone. I was consciously following, staring down the reality I saw, prodding it relentlessly, until it inevitably struck out, knocking me for a loop, every last time. I survived this personal bullying by learning to laugh at the darkest of discovered truths, a refuge that made my cartoons – well – cartoons – and not some exhausting series of profusely-illustrated suicide notes.
     Eventually realizing I had created a narrative structure akin to a carousel where the operator heaved a bludgeon, a course from which I, and my characters, would never return, I set about rectifying Sleepyhead’s repeating dilemma and, in the final year of the strip, offered the imperiled protagonist of the poisoned pratfall a chance to grow, to overcome the impetus for never-ending ruin that had so defined him. I was, in essence, giving my cartoon creation a way out of his “cartoonhood”, something, which, through fifty-odd episodes of a serialized novella I entitled “The Island of Dr. Moral”, he did, finally reaching the point of self-awareness that I had engineered to be his escape (albeit his enlightenment was no guarantee against the whims of fate). Finishing the final strip in the Spring of 1992, I vowed to never again write or draw the character, something I have held to for the last sixteen years, apart from one pre-written appearance in the second issue of my quarterly comic
     Presented here now, for the first time since its initial publication, is the aforementioned interview, my very first, conducted at the height of my ride on the “bludgeoning carousel”. I have slightly edited certain passages for clarity.

Inklings & Musings: How old are you?
Jeremy Eaton: I’m 26 years old.
Where were you born?
Did you attend Art School? College?
Nothing like that. Just doing it for myself, year after year.
Did you collect comic books? Which ones? Do you collect anything else?
My first American comics were those sold in plastic bags, three to a pack, at KOA camper’s shops, next to the miniature soaps and disposable toothbrushes. Titles like Strange Tales, Jungle Action, The Invaders, Kamandi, War of the Worlds and, oh, many others. I read them in the back seat of the car on long trips, traced my favorite figures, put new costumes on them. Pretty normal stuff. This was all back in the 1970s, of course, with The Osmonds and The Jackson 5 bubble gum cards, Wacky Packages, those little, bug-eyed parachuting toys, the “fuck you” cover of MAD magazine, banana seats and popping wheelies…
Were you into “punk” music? What kind of music do you like? What was the last record or CD you bought?
Throughout the late 70s and early 80s I was too stupid and too shy to notice. I knew the names of some obscure bands but not their music. But I did once hitch a ride on a potato truck into London to see the Bad Brains. If music doesn’t inspire my mind, it sweetens my tongue. I’d be embarrassed to divulge my fancies.
What jobs did you have before you broke into cartooning?
Oh, many silly things; bicycle messenger, clown, artist’s model, sign painter, children’s storyteller, puppeteer, staff illustrator at a daily newspaper and, well, I was a giant Andrew Carnegie, making my appearances at various museum functions. A lot of hot and bothersome things.
Is “cartoonist” a title you accept? Is there a title you prefer? Like “Graphic Novel” vs. comic book, is a rose by any other name just as sweet?
I strive to become a cartoonist. This may sound goofy, but at this stage I feel like I am really just illustrating my stories. Cartooning is a massive language I am beginning to learn, in bits and pieces.
How did you break into a syndicated comic? Do you distribute it yourself? How do you do it? Is the pay OK? Worth it?
Sometimes it’s hell, real hell. Other times? It’s the best thing in the world to me. It’s always worth it in the end though, always. I didn’t have any great moment of inspiration and I didn’t have to pass any life-threatening audition. A Sleepyhead Tale exists in its own little way purely because one person wanted it to. I started by working up a batch of about ten strips, this took about four months, maybe five. I didn’t have any addresses at the time, didn’t know where to send it, other than the Village Voice. I called their art director and learned that there was such a thing as the A.N.N. (the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies). I wrote to them and told them of my objectives and they sent me their latest membership roster. I’d suggest anyone with a strip to shop around should write to them like I did. So, with my list of about sixty newspapers printed on a weekly basis in north America, I started stuffing envelopes and awaited any replies. I also found the courage to cold call people like cartoonist Ben Katchor, to get any advice I could. I was once told, by Lynda Barry’s business assistant, that for every one hundred submissions sent out, you will be lucky to receive one positive response. Does quality have anything to do with this? The answer terrifies me. Don’t even think about the mental competency on the receiving end of your submission, just persevere. Don’t stop and your chances won’t either. When it first happens and you suddenly find yourself having to produce a weekly cartoon, then you quickly learn a system and become a vegetable, strapped to a drawing table. Make your deadlines comfortable and find the best way of getting your work there safely. Recently, I’ve shouldered the extra expense of having to overnight my work. The U.S. Mail sometimes puts deeps creases across my brow. I’ve lost my faith there and try to stay away from it as much as I can.
     The money earned from this cartooning is purely based upon momentum. To start with, you shouldn’t expect to earn very much. I earn little more than one hundred dollars a month. Yes, a month. I have earned as little as eight dollars a strip and as much as fifty dollars. The rules just don’t exist. Expect everything and everything will be expected. I manage financially by currently living at my parent’s house and by doing one or two newspaper illustrations each month. But, with me, the inspiration does not come from the potential bags of money beyond the horizon. I cartoon because there is nothing else I can do at this time. I guess I lied about this being a real “hell”, heck, when you don’t have any choice about it, life is easy! I rarely take a day off and when I do I begin to itch to get back to my work. Initially, this as a choice that I made, but, now, sooner you ask me to chop off my left arm than to quit cartooning/storytelling. I guess I’m just sick.
What size is your original work?
My originals are about 11“ wide by 13“ deep. I can’t go any larger than that because I send out photocopies to the newspapers and most copiers won’t take an original wider than 11“.
Who carries A Sleepyhead Tale? If my Chicago friends want to see it…
It currently runs in the San Diego Reader and the Los Angeles Reader. It has also appeared in the first two issues of BUZZ, a comic magazine put out by Kitchen Sink Press. It ran in a paper out of the Boston area, but that paper died very quickly. A Sleepyhead Tale in the Chicago Reader? I wouldn’t mind it. They’ve yet to take a bite. I guess you’d have to write to the editor and just demand it. Who knows?
What gave you the original idea?
It started out as direct interpretation of dreams, Sleepyhead was a nameless figure who suffered the travails of my own dreams. Quite different from where the strip is now. I let it take its own course.
When did the first Tale see print?
It first appeared in late April, 1989, in the San Diego Reader.
If I wanted to buy an original, what would it cost? Do you have a dealer or a gallery to get in touch with? Is there a waiting list for them?
Ahhh…no, no gallery, no dealer, no waiting list. Just a stack of Bristol board to my immediate left. I couldn’t bring myself to part with any of the originals because, well, they’re important to me. Sorry. (NOTE: I’ve since fitted myself for the heels of a whore, offering a few select pages of this strip at Comic Art Collective).
Who are your art/illustration influences? Walt Kelly’s Pogo? Will Eisner?
Many, many subconscious influences, I’m sure. Conscious ones? Let’s see, first and foremost is Jack Kirby (from way back to my KOA days), his composition, dynamics, spotting of black areas, storytelling, all really solid. I don’t care what sort of comics you are drawing, you can learn from Jack Kirby. Also Roy Crane (building a consistent reality, a sense of atmosphere, his subtly), Ronald Searle (letting your hair down and letting the ink flow), and Robert Crumb, of course (for all those sweat beads, tear drops and other things), and others, I’m sure I’m forgetting, like, oh, of course, Wally Wood and Bill Elder (sound effects and that ethereal language of cartoon action). How’s that? I feel like some Tinkertoy creation looking back on that list, not that I’m able to match the above-mentioned, but I am aiming, or at least I think I’ve spotted the target.
Which comic strips do you like now? What do you think of Lynda Barry? The Simpsons? Are there any comic books you like or buy?
I really like Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl and Julie Larson’s Suburban Torture. Bill Watterson understands cartooning better than most today. Bill Griffith is an inspiration, with stamina from another planet (I sometimes fear I’m stepping on his toes, or maybe stuck between his toes). The same goes for Kim Deitch. Lynda Barry is a great writer, a great cartoonist. She’s created her own sort of cartoon. That’s really something. The Simpsons? Honestly, I’ve never watched The Simpsons, but I have heard it from another room and it sounded quite funny. I don’t buy comics right now, haven’t for a long time, but I would like to find some issues of JIM and Yummy Fur and Dirty Plotte. I’m curious about these. Also Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell.
Do you do any painting, writing, or anything else art-related? What do you do for fun?
I am writing constantly, but at the moment it’s all unconstructed phrases and ideas and chunks of dialogue. One day I’ll bring it all together. The illustrations that I do for various newspapers are usually an interesting diversion, but I do feel a need for something completely non-structured. I used to make painfully horrible homemade recordings, but that has stopped. I sometimes do get the time to make doll-like sculptures from discarded plastic. Painting is something I have never done, but the interest never goes away.
How far do you see this going? Sleepy-themed Nintendo games? Bootleg T-shirts? Molded plastic, battery-operated toothbrushes? Do you want to do it as long as possible or do you want to get into other things?
No products, please. Please? I think the cartoon is enough in that regard. At the moment, this is my outlet for the stories that I want to tell. Who knows what may change? Will the pictures become redundant? Will the words? Will it all? I’m glad that I don’t know.
Are you interested in animation?
Not really. Cartooning is cartooning, animation is animation, you know? It’s apples and oranges. I don’t think the apple is sitting there waiting to be an orange. And I can’t imagine trusting my stories and characters to anyone but myself. It just wouldn’t work. I know I’d regret it.
How is Sleepyhead being received now?
I hear very little from the outside. Doing a short interview like this is quite a “stepping out” for me, believe it or not.
Do you have trouble coming up with ideas? Do you get most from newspapers, television?
No. I’m actually afraid of having too many ideas and losing the better ones in the pile. The input comes from anywhere and everywhere, but what I rely upon is the filter in my head that distills it all.
A cliché question, I know, but do you have any advice for anyone interested in entering the cartooning profession?
Well, I don’t want to sound presumptuous, I’m a novice who’s just finding his own legs, but there is one thing I have to stress and that is perseverance. It’s essential. Unless, of course, you happen to land smack into the nation’s warm embrace with your first doodle, a situation I can’t even ponder. The blood drains from my body. Other than perseverance, I’d suggest finding out just what a cartoon is, why it is, so that you can ask yourself if it’s really a necessary thing for you to do. I don’t think that a cartoonist is someone who can draw a funny face and I don’t think a cartoonist is someone who can tell a funny joke. That’s a caricaturist and a comedian, respectively. A cartoonist is something else completely. I guess that’s about all the advice I have, oh, one more thing – find yourself a hard, straight-backed chair. Your posture will be the better for it in the long run.