Archive for the ‘Memoirs’Category

Here’s the Thing – Sexism, Women, & the Comic Biz

Today brought another round of discussion on Twitter about “the issues women have in comics.” Because I have four daughters who love comics and have attended SDCC since they were five, and because they want to be comic creators, I lamented…

“I’ve always been vexed & annoyed about the treatment of women in the comic biz, but now… having 4 daughters, it flat out pisses me off…”

This set off a chain discussion on how bad it really is in comics for women and girls compared to other industries.

Which lead to this post.  Now, in case you haven’t put 2 and 2 together, I’m a straight white American male. While my life has been a roller coaster of ups and downs, I’ve always been acutely aware of the advantages that are present and available to me because of genetics and geolocation.  I don’t feel guilty about this fact, but I’ve always felt distinctly uncomfortable when I’ve been in situations where “guys talk shit”.  This was true in high school in the 80s when guys would insult other guys by calling them “fag”. It was true when I was in college in the 90s and guys would call a female co-worker a “slutty whore”.  It’s still true today.

I’ve been working in comics professionally since 1989.  On the positive side, there are more visible female comic creators in this business than anyone thought likely or possible “back in the day”.  On the negative side, many still have to put up with the kind of crap that was part and parcel of being one of the scant female creators in comics back in the 80’s.

The other thing I’ve seen over the last 25 years? The thing that remains as true today as it was back then?

You cannot make surface assumptions on who’s “safe” or trustworthy, because it’s frequently not who you’d expect.

Example I:

In the early 90s, I went to a fairly well known comic creator’s place for a week to join a group of “rookies” in doing a marathon session to help pencil, ink, and color 24 pages in 5 days.  The mix was 3 guys and 2 girls (in addition to the aforementioned comic creator).

Said comic creator was “known” for having “progressive” ideas about female creators… that they were just as good as men, that there needed to be more of them in comics, that they needed to not put up with shit from men… and the fact that there were 2 women on the team seemed to reinforce that.  As someone who had looked up to this creator for years, it was inspiring to see someone bucking the trend, putting his money (he paid all of us) where his mouth was.  As a group, we stayed up making comics most of the 5 days, catnapping for a couple hours, coffee on constantly, loud music, laughter. It made me think, at multiple points, “this is awesome!”  The book got done, and the Comic Creator took us to a sauna/spa for drinks and “to unwind”.

I can’t speak for the two women, but I was certainly a bit uncomfortable when we got there and I realized “Oh, we’re all going to be in this hot tub… together… naked?!”  Everyone else stripped down without hesitation, hopped in, started drinking and BSing.  I convinced myself I was being “uptight”, and stripped down hopped in, grabbed a beer and tried to not feel too self-conscious.

That ended when said comic creator lifted himself out of the hot tub with an erection, and looked back and forth between the two women before asking “OK, who’s gonna help daddy out?

My reaction was a simple and loud “What the fuck?!? Dude… what the?!?” as I scrambled out of the tub, grabbing at my clothes, determined to get away from this situation as fast as possible.  The Comic Creator lowered himself back into the tub, laughing it off saying “it’s a joke, kid lighten up!” insisting I mellow out and get back in the tub.  I didn’t.  I was too freaked out… I kept feeling like “I’m an idiot, I thought we were a team, that we were all ‘bonding’ over comics, but…

It was a January in Seattle, I had pulled my clothes on over my wet skin, not even stopping to dry off, and I walked to the bus station (a good 3+ miles) and went home, cold and wet and freaked as hell.  The entire 8 hour ride back I beat myself up… “The women didn’t seem bothered by it, why did you get freaked out?  You overreacted, you’ll never get another chance to work on…” Those feelings got reinforced when I didn’t get paid for the work. Further compounding the self loathing and confusion was the moment I ran into one of the women a couple years later and her first question was “why did you freak out and run off?

Example II:

Dave Sim.

Now, immediately, I know a huge number of people reading this are thinking “Oh HO! What did Dave do?!” Expecting the worst.

In ’92 Dave was doing a US Tour for Cerebus, and my friend Randy and I were helping him organize the Seattle stop.  There ended up being a scheduling conflict, and the majority of the retailers at what was supposed to be a “one day con” bailed in order to go to Vancouver or Olympia for some event where a couple of the newly launched Image creators were appearing.  Dave responded by telling us “Let every creator in the area know that they have a table for free, get the word out, fuck having 20 guys selling back issues, let’s just make it about the creators” Dave did that even though it meant he’d eat most of the cost of the ballroom that was being rented for the show.

So the show goes off with a number of local indie creators in attendance.  There’s maybe 100-200 people that show up to check it out at most. Not completely a ghost town, but not bustling either.  The end result was that Dave and every creator there ended up spending a LOT of time with each person who had something to sign. A lot of original sketches got done. No one was making money, but it was genuinely enjoyable.  I was sitting next to Dave when this girl approached with a portfolio under one arm. She was in her early 20s, blonde, and looked like a model. It’s no exaggeration to say that she was stunning.  She walked up, and asked Dave, glancing occasionally to me and Randy, “I want to be a comic artist… I love comics, can you tell me what I should do?”  Dave and I looked at each other for a moment, expressions blank… knowing all too well what a dozen comic editors would say at that moment… before Dave said to me “Tell her what NOT to do, and I’ll look at her art”  She looked puzzled for a minute until I started talking…

Don’t go to a ‘meeting’ alone in an editor, writer or artist’s hotel room, don’t go out ‘for drinks’ with the just the two of you so you can ‘discuss opportunities’, don’t go over to his house alone so he can ‘show you the proper technique’…” I kept going on, and on, and on as Dave flipped through her portfolio, chiming in with the occasional addition, such as, “Remember it is ‘not the way it gets done’ no matter what any dirty old man tells you.

After I’d gone on for a while, Dave started critiquing her work.  It was OK, definitely in the “beginner” category.  The classic stage of “Keep at it for two years and do these kinds of things, and maybe you’ll be ready.”  He wasn’t mean about it, he gave very specific, helpful advice, and told her before she left “If you want to make comics, make sure you’re doing it your way.”  I don’t know her name, I don’t know if she followed through and stuck with it.

Driving back the next day, Randy… one of the few people who knows about the hot tub story… said to me “You know, everyone thinks that one Comic Creator is such a nice-guy feminist, and Dave is such a sexist misogynist, but…” and I said something like…

Yeah, but fucking actions tell all.


Magnolias ’90

A brief break from the Homecoming Game to present this poemy-thing. Enjoy.

—–     —–     —–     —–     —–

Come with me as I drive
In summer, ‘91
At night, only night
With the sweet, sweet scent
Of magnolia in bloom
Intoxicating imagination
Stirring dreams


Days unbearably hot
“It’s a real scorcher”
Says the man
With the impossible
Not a hair out of place
That fucker has AC
In his studio
With his shiny


While me
I lay prostrate
Spread eagle and sweating
In supplication
On the bathroom’s chipped tile floor
The coolest surface to be found
Behind the towering church
At Franklin and Highland
In the heart of Hollywood
(before it “sold out”)
Naked and sweltering
Not moving
But melting
With each hour.


Like desert reptiles we lived
Drugging ourselves
Into comas by day
With pills
or booze
or weed
So we could sleep in the shadow
(or at the very least, not move)
Until the sun went down
and the moon rose
with the cricket song
and nighttime noise
That spoke of cooler air
Of the hour and time
To drive.


Whispering wordless
That the workingmen had left
The arctic frost offices
Exempt from restrictions
Placed on when
and where
and how
AC could be used
In reluctant exodus they drove
Slick with sweat
and muttered profanities
Along Sepulveda Boulevard
Inchworms beating them
In their race
To stucco ovens
Their valley homes


While those poor bastards
(and bastardettes)
Tossed and turned in Van Nuys
Waterbeds of sweat
We’d slowly emerge
Uncoiling at night
Desert snakes
Time to live
To work, hunt and play
The 101
Empty and open
At speeds far from legal
As the air cooled
On a magnolia breeze


“Up the Beach” on the Stereo
Avery’s bass ringing out
Long throbbing notes
With windows rolled down
We’d speed and we’d chatter
Humming along
With gulps of espresso
Bringing fire to the hands
Toothy grins to the face
Wheels spinning, minds racing
Down Alvarado
To Wilshire
In the Bryson
We’d meet.


Black ink
Marks on paper
Dry the instant they flow
From brush or from pen
In gestures indelible
Under a canopy of Christmas Lights
Strung from trees in the back
It’s Linseed and canvas and pigment and paint
Color flies
Runs rivers and pools
To the ad-hoc percussion
Staccato beat hammered out
On welded pipe constructs
Punctuated by steam hiss
“Espresso Remix”
Pencils scribble and travel
On notebooks from pockets
Capturing it all
Trying to freeze
Struggling to hold
These moments
So fleeting.


Jerry puts on a tape
Of Jane’s new song
It’s not out yet
(But Perry’s a friend)
and we listen while working
Creating and laughing
A soundtrack with resonance
For what’s happening here
The artists and writers
Musicians and fools
All gathered together
In the wee morning hours
With cigarettes
and music
and magnolia
In the air.


And Jabberjaw on Pico
Is like Paris
Or Berlin
Or New York
In the 20’s
Except that it’s here
and “at this moment…”
(Now twenty years gone)
Each minute sang
and things inexorably changed
For good
and for bad
But never the same
As those nights
When we’d drive
The future



10 2013

Here’s the Thing – Part 2 (Thoughts about San Diego Comic-Con)

Continuing on the relationship I have to San Diego Comic-Con, which I started writing about yesterday. Trying to explain the mixed and somewhat conflicted feelings I have towards the show.  In the last entry i talked about the first time I attended in 1987.  I won’t cover every year… we’d be here too damn long, it’d be even more rambling and pointless than my writing usually leans towards, and it wouldn’t hit the 3 ‘notes” that I want to… like Gregorian Bells ringing out… either to announce Mass, or Funerary service, or perhaps a baptism.


So, then…


After the debacle of SDCC 1987, specifically my throwing away my job because I was so. goddamn. sure. I was going to work in comics, I did a move that actually displayed some degree of sanity.  I decided I “needed to work on it”, and so my intention was to go the the Kubert School in NJ.  I had missed admission for the upcoming academic year, but I moved back to Washington State, camping out at my Mom’s house, and proceeded to work on samples, and comics and drawings.  Trying to write stories, trying to draw stories.  Sucking very badly at the beginning.  getting a little better here and there. Bit by bit.  I had the advantage that it was the 80′s and the Black and White small press explosion was in full effect.  You did short 4-8 pages for companies like Innovation, or Eternity or Calibre, and you knew it was “small time” because those anthologies only sold around 40-60k copies each, which meant you only made around $2-4k for your crappy little Black and White story, but it was learning, and you were getting paid.


(and yes kids, the irony is completely dripping off of that previous paragraph)


Roy had gotten hooked up with a guy who put out Kung Fu magazines, and who decided that since this comic book thing was taking off, he wanted in on it, so Roy and I ended up editing Tales of the Ninja Warriors, Tales of the Kung Fu Warriors, and… inexplicably… a skateboard-themed comic called SHRED.  Neither Roy or I skateboarded. Neither one of us knew crap about martial arts. Didn’t matter. Each month we were doing 16-24 pages of comics across three different books.  we used our editorial position to get friends some of their first gigs, and to hire people that we admired or dug (since the book actually paid a page rate).  Getting Ted McKeever, pre-Plastic Forks to do the cover for Shred #1. Getting Bernie Mireault to ink my pencils for Street Rott… these were golden moments for us, and I found myself drawn more and more to the “stories about the people”.  The struggles of “normal humans” were the stories that I was becoming obsessed with drawing and writing, and the Spandex Overblown of the pre-Image-exodus Marvel just struck me as cold.  I was becoming an Indie-nerd when it came to comics, and by that point I was smart enough to know that if I didn’t have a “real job”, then I couldn’t do the kinds of comics I wanted to do.


In summer of 1990, I asked a couple of friends from when i had lived in LA back in 86-87, Andrew Brandou and Tori Amos, if I could “couch crash” for a couple weeks at each of their places while I tried to line up a steady storyboarding gig either in animation or on Rock Videos.  They were incredibly giving and helpful and said “come on down!”


May turned into June, turned into July, and I hadn’t found a gig.  Klasky Csupo said I wasn’t “quite right” for storyboarding the Simpsons.  There were some rock videos for Marty Callner here and there with the Scorpions and Aerosmith, but nothing steady, and my finances had fast reached the point where I would have to make a choice of fish or cut bait.


I decided to go back to school. This time, I’d go to a “real” four year college. Get a full degree, maybe a Masters degree and teach while I made my comics.  Because at that point, that was the motivation… i just wanted to make the comics. I wanted to tell people stories. I wanted to make them laugh or make them cry, or fear, or love.  I wanted to reach out and say “hey… this is what being human is, don’t you think?”  I registered for WSU in Pullman, Washington and would head back a couple weeks after Andrew and I went down for SDCC that year.




Over that 3 month period of job hunting, I had basically been camped out on Tori’s couch.  It was one of the hottest summers in decades, and her apartment had NO AC, so she and then-boyfriend Eric Rosse had ensconced themselves up at his climate controlled place in Tarzana while they worked on new tracks, trying desperately to produce some 11th hour miracle songs that would get Atlantic to agree to put out the incredible music she’d been working on for the last two years.  During the days, Andrew and I would drive to Hi De Ho comics in Santa Monica or Golden Apple, and I’d pick up issues of Grendel, or Sandman, or Taboo, or Beanworld, or try to complete my back issue hunt for issues of Cerebus.  These expeditions… multiple times a week… resulted in 12 stacks, 3 feet high, of comics and graphic novels, neatly arranged around Tori’s apartment, like monoliths.


One evening Tori came by to pick up some stuff, and was stunned at the stacks of comics.  She wasn’t a comic reader, had no interest in them, but she asked “OK, so if I was going to read ONE of these, what should I read?”  I thought for a second, knew the frustration she and Eric had been going through with the new songs, and handed her issue #17 of The Sandman. “Calliope”.  She sat down on the couch, I went back to sweating over color and line samples for an animation company. A few minutes later, she’s looking at me wide-eyed… “Do you have MORE of these?!”  Within hours she had all of the single issues I had with me, plus one of the trades, and was on her way back to Eric’s.  I was stoked that I had gotten a friend to like A comic book.  The first step is always the hardest…


A week later, Tori showed up at the apartment with a tape with 5 new songs.  She asked if I wanted to hear them.  I said of course, and the notes rolled out… blue shiver of something undefinable as I heard her tell someone goodbye by saying “If you need me, me and Neil’ll be hanging out with the Dream King. (Neil says hi by the way…” I might have cried. I know I shuddered.  I told her “this is GOLD. This is AMAZING.”  She wasn’t sure, but I knew, good god I knew.  She left the tape.  SDCC was the next week.


And Mr. Neil Gaiman… he was going to be a guest.


I didn’t tell Tori I was taking the tape. I certainly did not tell her I was going to give it to Neil.


Andrew and I had, for the last few years, been putting together an annual mini-comic called “OUCH!” that contained two 8 page stories, where we would each draw the story the other wrote.  Each year there would be a “theme”, and other than that, it was wide-open crazytime.  We’d “release” these each year at a room party held at the Hotel San Diego… a fleabag dive that cost $32 per night for the two of us. No AC, roaches the size of Texas… and usually the day before the party we’d hand out flyers to pros we admired or knew to try and get them to come to our sketchy dive of a party.


THIS was social networking in caveman years.


Once at SDCC, we located the Spiderbaby Grafix booth, where Neil was signing with Michael Zulli for their adaptation of Sweeney Todd that was being serialized in Taboo. Clive Barker and Steve Bissette were there as well to promote the adaptation of Rawhead Rex.  I waited in line to see Neil… only 8 or 9 people deep, but to this date it is the ONLY time I have waited in line to see someone… and when I finally got to the front, I shambled and rambled and muttered about the release party, giving him a flyer and wouldn’titbegreatifhecouldcomebutdon’tfeellikeyouhaveto, and I finally gave him the cassette with Tear in Your Hand, Precious Things, Little Earthquakes and a couple other songs on it, telling him “This is a friend of mine… she’s got a label deal so she’s actually ‘real’… she sings about you and she loves Sandman, please don’t sue her!”


Neil did the patented “Curious Neil” headcock, not unlike that of a Westie or Scottie dog, grinned and said “OK”, and I moved down the line to Mike Zulli.  I stopped, and Mike looked a bit startled.  Most people in line went from Neil, then exited, not bothering to stop, but I loved the Puma Blues.  The last few issues were MAGIC and dear god I wanted to be able to create stories like that.  I asked Mike if he was doing sketches, and he said yes, what did I want.  I told him “please draw what YOU want, what would make you happy.” He sat back a bit, looked a bit surprised, then happy, then drew the most beautiful Puma in ink and colored pencil and chalk for me and it’s still one of my favorite pieces of art I’ve ever gotten.


Two booths down from Spiderbaby was TSR, who had decided to get into comics, and were doing “theme” lines… horror, Sci Fi, Fantasy, etc. with games in the back of each issue. Roger Silfer was running the place and saw my portfolio and called me over.  I went. This time no Eeyore Presence.  I’d been published enough times that I knew I could do comics. Maybe I wasn’t great, but I didn’t suck complete ass. I wasn’t a “plumber”.  He really liked my stuff, wanted to hire me to do 4 issues… I’d be working with Doug Moench as the writer and my editor would be Steve Gerber.  Two of my favorite comics of ALL time are Howard the Duck and the Moench/Sienkevitch run on Moon Knight. So, being told “hey we want to pay you a page rate to work with these two” out of the blue, with no warning… that was some kind of small, wonderful treasure stumbled upon.  We could go home and not even have the party that night, because it couldn’t possibly get better.


Oh, but it did.


Andrew and I expected maybe 5-6 people to show up to that year’s “OUCH! Release Party”




Instead, by 10pm, the one 20 x 10 foot room was packed with dozens of people, and dozens lined out into the hall.  The room fridge had broken, there was no AC, two of the three windows had been painted shut.  It mattered not in the least.  It was a Great Time.  Neil had come along, telling pretty much EVERYONE over the course of the day about “this interesting party”, so Bob Schreck, Neil, Kate Worley, Heidi MacDonald, Pia Guerra (at her FIRST SDCC), Reed Waller, Derek McCulloch, Mike Dringenberg, Chip Mosher, and dozens of others came in, did drawings, shot the shit. Got to know each other.  Friendships were formed that night that last to this day.

Neil & I argue dead mystics over warm beer

At one point, Neil and I sat on one of the beds, sweating our damn asses off, drinking warm Miller Beer, arguing the relative merits or the writing of Aliester Crowley.  There was the infamous “shirt swap” (A story I’ll leave up to Neil to tell).  At 3 or 4am, the last of the folks petered out and it became one of those parties that, again… to this day… has become one of those “oh, holy shit you were there too?!” events at SDCC. An event that happened because I handed someone a tape and a flyer to a party for a minicomic no one knew of.


That was 1990…


Part 3 to come…

Here’s the Thing – Part 1 (Thoughts on the San Diego Comic-Con)

Here’s the Thing…

I’ve had more than a few people over the last handful of years ask me the question:

What do you think about the San Diego Comic-Con?

The frequency of this question has only increased over the last couple of years since I and the wife  and the comic-con-loving daughters have moved down to San Diego.  Kids at school find out that the girls get in because their Dad is a “pro”, and invariably at some point I have a parent or two asking “how do I get tickets?” What’s the secret?”  I tell these people “The secret is run. Run far. Run fast. Run the fuck AWAY! Odds of you getting tickets are stacked against you, it’s too expensive, and you will find yourself more miserable in a short period of time than you ever thought possible!

(or, a more-polite, parentally acceptable version of the above.)

That response, to both casual acquaintances, and to fellow pros and long-time SDCC fellow attendees is a reflexive response at this point. I don’t even think twice about saying it, or some variant of it
(with embossed foil cover, sold two weeks later on eBay at a 400% markup, no doubt)

The truth, however… the truth is a bit more complex. A little more… melancholy and regret.

I first went to Comic-Con back in 1987, when it was in the old Civic Center building.  The building is still there. Walk up Front Street to 1st Ave if you want to see it, and marvel at the fact that… that year, in 1987, they broke convention records by having 40,000 attendees.  I had driven down with my then-art school classmate, Roy Burdine, because we had seen an ad in the Comic Buyer’s Guide. A FULL PAGE ad that had Captain America pointing his finger straight at you saying “MARVEL COMICS WANTS YOU!“, followed by the fact that Marvel would be looking for new artists, new writers, new inkers and letterers at the Con.  Roy and I looked at each other for about 3 seconds (if that) then got to work on creating a Deathlok story… a 4 page short that basically riffed on the moment between Frankenstein & the Little Girl in the classic Universal Film.  We had no idea what we were doing, this being pre-internet, and managed to produced 4 pages that… in MY mind… were awesome.  They certainly were impressive considering i had never in my life tried to create a professional comic before.  Being that I had sound judgment, and a good head on my shoulders, I quit my job the week before the con, and Roy and I made the drive from downtown LA to San Diego. Paid the $10 for the weekend pass (registering on the spot) and I made a beeline for the Marvel Booth.

I say booth, but at the time, the Marvel booth was four folding tables, arranged in a box, no background, no table skirt. Some comics and posters scattered here and there. If you saw such a table in Small Press Alley today at any convention, big or small, you’d immediately dismiss them as being a shoddy operation.  At that time, at that place, the Marvel “booth” was PLUSH. They had an enclosed space people could not walk behind them while they sat at their table.

I, obviously, had to be a part of this.

Now, as we’ve determined, I had a good solid head on my shoulders. Which is why i made a beeline to the Marvel table, identified the man who was the Editor in Chief at the time, slapped the portfolio with the illustration board samples in it on the table, stuck out my hand and said:

“Hi, I’m Rantz Hoseley, your new inker!”

The EiC raised an eyebrow, and looked at me, looked around to see if someone was fucking with him… this long-haired rocker-looking kid grinning at him couldn’t be real, right?… then once he figured out that it was indeed “for real”, he slowly started going through the pages.

It took him about 5 minutes, he cocked his head and looked at me with a wry grin and said “Sorry, Can’t use you.”

I stood there, A flood of cold ice pouring down my back, feeling as if I’d been delivered a death sentence. “But… is… uh… could I… uh… do you have a place for interns or anything?!?  I can…” He waved his hand, making it very clear the discussion was done. “Kid, trust me, go be a plumber. What you got there? you should be a plumber!”

Roy muttered something along the line of “holy fuck” as I turned from the table an aimlessly walked through the hall. I had NO reason to stay there.
Now, understand, I’d dreamed of being involved in comics since I was in 2nd grade. Since I figured out… hey, there are people that do this for a living. Marvel was, up to that point… the pinnacle. What the fuck was i going to do?! What worth did I have?  None. Not a bit. I’d completely and utterly failed. Done.

I’m wandering like a gutshot soldier.  Not quite dead yet. But numb and knowing death is coming. It’ll be here any minute, when a lanky guy from behind a different table a few rows over calls out “Kid! Hey, Kid! C’mere!”  I wander over, notice that the hand-lettered sign says they are “Dark Horse Comics” I’ve read The first 3 issues of Dark Horse Presents. I’ve read the one issue they’ve put out of Concrete… one of the weirdest comics I’d ever seen aside from the Flaming Carrot… so I know it’s a “real” company, if a small one.  The lanky guy grins, sticks out his hand “I’m Randy, you’re an artist? We need an artist to help us finish up a book, let me see your stuff.”

I manage to somehow not cry but tell him in my Very Best Eeyore that I’m NOT an artist. The EiC at Marvel said I should be a plumber.  Randy waves the assessment off telling me to ignore that asshole, insists on seeing my stuff.  So I show him.  He spends almost 20 minutes going over the pages, then looks at me, nods, and says “Look, you’re not ready yet, but there’s something there.  I’m not an artist, but you need to work on things like line weight and spotting blacks…”

He pauses and calls over Michael T. Gilbert to get his input. They both nod and point to areas where I’m off in the weeds, but just as often pointing to things I inadvertently did right. Mike takes a brush pen, the first i had ever seen, and in 2 minutes does a sketch of me standing there, that is all gesture, not detail, but INSTANTLY nails the scene, the setting, the characters, the depth of the environment. It was like living in a Black and White world for your entire life then discovering hey kid, there’s this thing called color…

Randy Stradley then apologizes for not having business cards yet, but proceeds to write the office address and phone number down on a piece of paper for me, and tells me to stay in touch.
I believe him when he says it.

Roy and I wandered, dazed out into the main lobby. Sitting on a bench, talking about what a fucked up deal that was with Marvel, what a horrible ass I had been, and how incredibly cool Dark Horse was (From that day on, I have been an Evangelist for Dark Horse, and even did some little work for them back in the 90s).

As we sat there, with the few purchases we’d made, within rapid succession, I saw Jack Kirby come around the corner with Roz. Roy and I both bolted upright like soldiers in the presence of a general. He shook our hands, said hello, talked to us briefly about comics and art and the ups and downs. “You love it? Yeah? You keep fighting. Remember that” Kirby said and Roz led him off.

That was just the first year I went.


Mixtape 365 – 8

The Unforgettable Fire

During the “bleak years”… the period from 87-89 where my mental state was so bad that I wondered multiple times daily if my life was over before it had begun… this song was part of the ongoing soundtrack. Ironically, a song about battling despair and the fathomless hollow of addiction was one of the few things that gave me strength. I’d be in my room, tears cutting hot trails down my cheeks, as I sang in a sobbing wail along with Bono “I’m wide awake… I’m not sleeping”. It became a mantra to myself. A truth you don’t believe, but say repeatedly. Hoping that one day… hoping it won’t be too late… hoping that the words would become truth. For almost a decade after that, I couldn’t listen to this song. Just the opening notes would summon up those feelings… that mental state. An audio mnemonic device that would threaten to send me spiraling down. Now, years later, the song is a marker. A stone over the grave of what was… and what almost happened. I appreciate it, and wish I’d had the wisdom and knowledge then that time has given over the years that would follow.

Moments from 1987

This isn’t a story I’d intended to tell until my “memoirs”… I’d held it inside as one of those great stories to tell “someday”, but a couple things recently changed my mind.

The first is that I recently read Steven Tyler’s autobiography; “Does the Noise In My Head Bother You”.  I’d been reading research and project-related books at a rate of 4-5 a week, making copious notes during the process, and found that I wanted… desperately… to read something “light and mindless”.  Tyler’s book wasn’t mindless, but the humor and insight he brought to the page served as the “break” I needed, and also reminded me of my experiences with him back in 1987-88.

Which brings us to reason #2 for writing this…  Namely, that there have been a lot of deaths lately. Actors, artists, musicians, and astronauts… people who inspired me or brought something to my life over the 40-some years I’ve been stomping around on this Earth. With each unexpected passing, I’ve been served up the painful and brutal reminder:

Don’t assume you have until later to tell a person of the impact they have had upon you.

So, whether he sees this or not, I think it’s important to tell the story while he is alive.*

(*Not that I am assuming his death is eminent, of anything of that sort, mind you. I just… urgh… I’m going to stop explaining the logic behind it before I dig this hole any deeper.)

So, then… it’s 1987.

I had just finished my first year at Art School (Otis/Parsons, which was located in sunny South Central LA at the time), and rather than head back to the safety of my Mom’s house in small-town Washington State, I decided to spend the summer working.  This was partly driven by ego… proving I could “make it” on my own in a very sketchy part of one of the biggest cities in the US… and partly driven by the cold, practical reality that if I didn’t, I would have no way to pay for the upcoming 87-88 school year.  Mom couldn’t really help out financially, and even with Student Loans, State and Federal Grants, and work study, I would still need to raise around $7,000 before September if I was going to attend my second year.

Through an ad in the LA Weekly, I’d found a job at an “adult” magazine as a “Paste-up artist” (Go ahead and make the pun-based jokes now, I’ll wait for you.).  The job, which sounded great on the surface… Mon-Fri, $700 a week, working in an actual art production department for a publisher… ended up being horrific.  This was 1987, pre-indoor smoking codes, and EVERYONE (myself included) chain smoked in the 20’ x 20’ enclosed room that was the art department.  I was scared shitless to spend ANY money, as I worried incessantly about that huge $7,000 total looming in September, and so I lived on a box of Mac and Cheese or a pack of Top Ramen a night, staying upright during the day through non-stop black coffee and cigarettes.  By the end of July, I had dropped down to around 120 lbs… you could see every rib through the skin in my chest. The chemical and alcohol abuse (provided for free by helpful friends) didn’t help matters.  By August, I knew I’d have the money I’d need for the coming year at art school, but I was also hyper-aware of another fact…

If I stayed in LA for another year, under these conditions, I likely wouldn’t live through it.

I spent weeks tormenting myself about this… leaving = failure.  I’d set out to prove that everyone I went to High School with was wrong.  I was meant for bigger and better things than small town life and a job at the mill.  I was meant for the Big City.  Now, I was facing the struggle of… do I go back and live, or do I stick it out and die?  To say that I hated myself by that point, would be an understatement in the extreme.  Self-loathing however wasn’t enough to overcome the tiny part of survival instinct, and so I decided to pack up, head back to Washington, and try to figure out a different school to go to… a different route to take. One that wouldn’t end with my premature death.

I was in the process of packing up when I received a phone call from John Caldwell.  Two summers prior, I had worked for John on an “extended form rock video” called Motown’s Mustang. It was basically a 90 minute commercial celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Motown and the Mustang, tying the two icons together in a narrative that spanned from the 50’s to modern day. It was the first professional art gig I had ever had… doing over 200 pages of storyboards… the summer before my sophomore year in High School.  I have no idea how John tracked me down, or got my phone number… this is WAY pre-internet, and so it was very easy to lose contact with people, especially when they moved frequently… but he was calling to see if I was available because “they need a storyboard artist who GETS rock”.  The gig would be a couple of weeks, and would pay a pretty sizable hunk of money, so I agreed to it without even finding out what band it was, wrote down the address in Beverly Hills, and made arrangements to meet them the next day.

After getting stopped twice by Beverly Hills police officers (who wanted to logically know what the long-haired junkie-looking weirdo in the Datsun spray-painted with zebra stripes was doing in the “respectable” part of town) I made it to the location… a secluded and stylish house with a Frank Lloyd Wright feel in dark woods and stone.  John introduced me to Marty Callner, who had become the “man of the hour” for directing videos in this seminal era of MTV such as Whitesnake’sHere I Go Again” (With Tawny Kitaen writhing about on the hood of a sports car) and Cher’s infamous “Turn Back Time” (on the Navy Destroyer).  Marty and I had a long talk, shooting the shit about the visualization of music… what videos worked, what didn’t… what bands we liked (both old and new) and after a while, he evidentially decided I “passed” as he began to talk about the video they were working on.

The first shocker was that the band was Aerosmith.  Being a musical addict, devouring both music and news related to it like a starving man, I had heard the rumors that Joe Perry was back with Aerosmith after the less-than successful outing without him, “Done With Mirrors”.  I had no idea however that they had a new album in the works, much less that it was DONE.  I had been a fan of Aerosmith for years.  I thought their swagger and gritty mix of the street hustler and carnival barker was something that never got enough credit.   So great was my appreciation for the band that, when I inexplicably was elected Senior Class President, I insisted on having “Dream On” as our “Class Song”.  When one of the “popular girls” protested that “It sounds negative! Like ‘you think you can graduate? Oh, dream on’!” I (barely) kept my patience when I suggested that she needed to actually listen to the lyrics, and that perhaps she was the one suffering from a negative world view, as the song encourages the listener to follow their dreams, not give up, and “dream until your dreams come true.

Marty put on a “Studio copy” of the album… a blank white cassette with the names of the songs typed on the cardboard liner, and watched me as I listened.  The tape rolled, blasting through the surround speakers in Marty’s home editing bay and right from the start, I was stunned… this was the Aerosmith I knew… but better.  Song after song, you felt like the band had something to prove, that they were determined to show the naysayers that they weren’t has-beens.  That in a world populated by Aqua Net, Poison and Great White, that THEY were the real deal.  Song after song played, and I got more and more excited.  The taped ended, and Marty asked me point blank;  “Which song do YOU think should be the first single?”  I said that there were a lot of great tracks, but that “Dude” seemed the obvious choice, especially as a “Comeback” song.  Marty settled back with a smile… I’d passed the test.  “Yeah, that’s the video we’re working on right now. You’re doing the ‘boards for it.”

Over the next two weeks I drew Joe Perry and Steven Tyler.  A. Lot.  Close-ups of Steven kissing a woman’s taut belly. Pictures of Joe bursting through a Promo Poster on a brick wall.  A worker with a jackhammer that turns out to be a woman.  It was a joy.  I was getting paid to draw out the scenes for a new video from one of the bands I loved.  Marty and I talked a lot about music, about the album, about how we thought it would do when it came out.  Both of us thought it would be a monster if the label got behind it. That it would push the band into the upper stratosphere.  The label, however, wasn’t behind it.  As we were wrapping pre-production and all the storyboards, Marty called the team in to explain that Geffen wasn’t willing to pay the budget.  The shots were too expensive for a “Band that was risky”.  All of us were pissed and we dug in.  Boards got re-drawn, concepts got thrown out or re-worked, scenes were scrapped or added, and locations got changed.  Finally we had boiled it down to two days of shooting… one for the “story” sections, and one for the “performance”.

When I arrived at the set for the “performance” shoot, I still hadn’t met the band in person.  I didn’t want to be a “fan”, or an annoyance, because I knew how tight our shooting schedule was so I hung back and watched… even though the “little kid me” inside was very excited to see Joe, Steven and the rest of the band walking around, checking out the length of the stage, and the like.  Marty called me over and introduced me to Joe and Steven… Joe gave a polite nod, while Steven told me how much he dug the storyboards, saying he loved comics and that the drawings I had done made him feel “like a superhero!”  I stammered my thanks, told him that I thought the album was the best they’d done since Toys in the Attic, and backed away to let them finish getting ready.

That would have been enough of a cherished memory for me, but moments later, as the crew was setting the lights, Marty yelled to me to “Get up on the stage”, so they could do the lighting for Steven (since I had long hair, and was about the say height, and skinny-no-eating-build).  I made my way on to the stage, struck by how weird and surreal this was… me standing in for Steven Tyler… while he’s right below me, watching and getting his makeup done.  Me, the small town escapee who wanted more from life than the fate of becoming another drone at the Mill.  Marty told me to “Move around, rock out a bit” so that they could check the lighting… the music started blaring over the speakers, and I started moving around, doing all the “rocker moves” I’d practiced so many times in the mirror as a kid.

The music cuts, Mary yells “OK, that’s good!” and then Steven yells to me from his makeup chair;

“You look great, kid… like you belong up there!”

I managed to stammer out my thanks as I stumbled off the stage, and they went on with the business of the shoot.  I’m sure that, for Steven, it was just a bit of polite banter. Something said to show appreciation, and to break up the long, boring process of the shoot.  For me… at that time in my life… when I felt worthless, a failure that was leaving in defeat… Having the man who sang “Dream until you dreams come true.” telling me with a grin that I looked like I belonged on a bigger stage… that was fuel.  Fuel that gave me power and strength during some very cold days.

So, to Steven Tyler… thanks, man.  Truly, thank you.