There was a period of time during junior high and high school when I was convinced music wouldn’t be a part of my life. I couldn’t afford to get a guitar or a keyboard, I didn’t have the outsize personality the other rock kids had, and I found it terribly difficult to put across my ambitions to even the few people I entrusted with my goals. I focused more on the possibility of going into comics. Just as some of my earliest recollections are of songs, I also have an undiminished affinity for Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. In those high school years my attention was fixed on the artist Al Williamson, whose superrealistic, detailed style was so perfect in the notorious EC science-fiction comics of the late ’50s and early ’60s. In my mind, his work on Marvel’s adaptation of The Empire Strikes Back and his subsequent work on the Star Wars newspaper strip are the epitome of great comic book art.
In the past month I’ve been rooting through the boxes in my attic, looking at the stuff I’ve squirreled away up there over the years. I came upon a small cache of drawings, paintings, and such, gave them a once-over, and decided maybe it was a good idea to bring them downstairs and get some quality scans together, just to have a decent record of their existence. I doodle from time to time, but my dreams of being in the business of comics are long gone. This is partly due to the quality of what’s out there, specifically the writing. In the past two decades Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller have made that once unimaginable leap from the “funny books” to honest-to-God literature, and they didn’t even have to change their addresses. With the often funny but deeply felt Bone saga, Jeff Smith made a brilliant epic out of something that might have been relegated to a goofy kids’-comic limbo at one time. And then there’s Jon J. Muth’s insanely awesome adaptation of Fritz Lang’s M. Each example not only deserves space on the snootiest of bookshelves, but some deserve to kick a few warhorses off those shelves just for breathing room.
At the same time, while the writing has become incredible, the art has become less so. With the advent of computer assistance, tricks like blurs, manipulations, digital coloring, and such have taken a degree of craftsmanship out of comic book art. All the superheroes look the same now. The rampant and inflated T&A has turned “the comics rack” into a totally new kind of double entendre, and there’s something mechanical about it all that’s just not very fun or appealing. I thought about all this when I was looking at my own art. I made the right decision when I chose not to pursue that career.
First off, my storytelling was lacking in subtlety or nuance. Everything said was everything meant, a kick was a kick, and a kiss was a kiss. Lots of teeth gnashed together in exaggerated angst, even if the characters were only slightly peeved. Worse, there was a darkness in the stories I never would have expected. The following is a strip I was developing that starred Sylvan, a turtle character without a shell, and Geret, a snail with a foul mouth and bad attitude. Back then, that sort of thing constituted humor for me — weird animals saying four-letter words. Haha, so clever. Why I chose the infamous Nixon/Elvis drug summit, I’ll never know.
I’m sure this gave me a chuckle once, but now I can’t fathom how its inception would have given me much joy or satisfaction. Another strip I was working on involved an insane mime. How could you tell he was insane, you ask? Well, he spoke, for starters. Wacky.
I named the mime Ratchet (probably because of memory residue from one too many viewings of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). One installment had him pretending to be famed TV art teacher Bob Ross, complete with happy little easel and massive Jewfro. Sure enough, by the end of the installment Ratchet was violently attacking his painting, stabbing the canvas with his happy little fan brush. Like the “Sylvan and Geret” strip, maybe I found it funny once, but now it disturbs me to look at it. Was Ratchet my proxy? Was I really that angry or did I have a belief that anger was marketable and so what the hell — have a crazy, talking mime hack away at a peaceful endeavor like a serial killer would.
My drawing of Keith Richards, while kind of cool, also doesn’t really look like him at all. Sure, the figure on the right has sunglasses and is disheveled, with a bandanna holding up wildly askew hair and a cigarette dangling precariously from paper-cut lips. From a distance it could fool someone, but up close it lacks the certainty of a portrait. It’s a near miss in my eyes. I’ve seen portraits that have no real logic to them, are abstract in the strictest sense, and yet manage to convey, dare I say it, the essence of the subject. I don’t capture that essence here.
But then I see this painting of a hand holding a snow globe. If you squint, it’s also Atlas holding the world on his shoulders. It’s simple, not deeply detailed, but the underlying illusion says very much. It expresses how I was feeling at the time, how on the surface everything was easy and carefree, like a shaken snow globe in the summer heat. Meanwhile, my father’s business was collapsing, my mother was growing ill, and money, as tight as it already was, was growing even tighter. Little did I know that after graduation I wouldn’t be taking out a loan for college like I told everyone I would — I’d be taking it to keep our house from foreclosing, and I’d be diving headfirst into the working world to pay it back. I look at the painting now and wonder which one I was when I created it — the hand holding the world or the neck barely supporting it.
It wasn’t long after that I finally procured a guitar, and with a cheesy setup of two boomboxes and a lot of patience in a damp, musty basement, the songs started coming out. I’m still not a working musician — more like a musician who still has to go to work — but there’s a joy in what I do that causes me to miss long spans of time, putting together words that form meanings both contextual and subtextual, and notes that, with any luck, stay in the brain of the listener after they’re played. Drawing, on the other hand, seems like it was a crutch — the thing I did to drown out the fact that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to do. Stylistically, there’s nothing wrong with these pieces, but emotionally, there’s not much right about them either.