31 August 1982

My Life in Pictures Part Sixteen: The Funnies

It's hard to say where I was first exposed to comics and comic book art. I seem to remember an enthusiasm for Charles Shultz's 'Peanuts' from an early age, but I remember these mostly from paperback anthologies rather than the daily strips that would appear in the newspaper. These 'Peanuts' cartoons would probably have been strips that originally appeared in syndication around the time I was born, 1960-64, and were more than likely an offshoot of having seen the animated holiday specials on the television.

The daily strips in our local newspaper ('The Flint Journal') were a sorry lot to say the least, and I really don't remember having a particular fondness for any of the contemporary strips of my childhood. What I do remember, however, is finding anthologies of 'older strips' in the library, and being blown away by the creativity and artwork of strips like 'Pogo Possum', 'Little Nemo in Slumberland', 'Barney Google' and 'The Katzenjammer Kids', but more than any of these, I found a special fondness for George Herriman's 'Krazy Kat'. There was something about the constantly shifting backgrounds, the wild and crazy layouts and the creative integration of the 'logo lettering' that really caught my eye, and gave me a real sense that I had really missed out on the creative heyday of the comic strip as a work of art.

Now 'Vampirella' was never a comic book that I ever read, mostly because I was pretty sure it never would have been allowed in our house. However, as a pre-teen, I never missed a chance to sneak furtive looks at the covers and flip through the pages whenever I had a chance to loiter near the newstands.

I've mentioned in previous entries how great an inspiration 'Mad Magazine' was in my development as an illustrator, and for most of my pre-teen years, it was nearly the only comics I would read on a regular basis. I started reading some Marvel titles in my early teen years, but I tend to think of these more as escapism, and the artwork made little impression on me. I don't remember trying to emulate any of the Marvel comics artists (or even remember many of their names for the most part) the way I did with the 'Mad Magazine' stable of artists. Around the time I started college, I discovered a new title on the magazine racks, 'Heavy Metal' (an american offshoot of the French magazine 'Metal Hurlant'). I'm certain that the initial appeal to me at the time was probably the abundance of nudity and sexuality portrayed in this 'adult comic', but after a while, I began to pick out and look forward to a couple 'favorite artists' whose work consistently blew me away. Jean Giraud aka 'Moebius' was the one artist I most remember from these early issues, with his beautiful linework and pen and ink techniques (and a beautiful use of color when the story called for it) - I probably emulated his linework more than any other artist throughout the 80s.

I lost interest in this publication sometime around '81 or '82, and it was sometime during the 80s that I started appreciating comic books a bit more as an individual unique artform, rather than separating out the 'art' from the 'story'. This was a period of my life where I was spending less and less time drawing, and starting looking at independent comics in a new light.

The first comic book that I became especially fond of during the early eighties was Dave Sim's 'Cerebus'. (I think I bought my first issue on my honeymoon to Toronto in 1983, mostly because he was currently doing a spoof of a Marvel character as part of his storyline at the time, which caught my eye). I was quickly drawn into the story, with the dense characterizations and intricately layered plotlines. Here was a character that wasn't particularly likeable, that didn't spend his time fighting supervillains, had complex relationships with the opposite sex, was involved in political struggles, religion, war, greed, etc etc -- and all the while was a squat little simplistically drawn aardvark (meanwhile the backgrounds, meticulously drawn by another artist are densely crosshatched works of art in their own right).

At around the same time 'Love and Rockets' by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez were starting to make their mark on the independent comics scene, but unfortunately, I wasn't aware of these wonderful comics until much later in life (and am now doing a desperate job of 'playing catch-up' keeping up with their new output, while simultaneously pouring over all their old 80s comics). Beautifully drawn, yet with a simplicity and economy of line and detail (which is probably why they went beneath my radar in those early years), they are also groundbreaking in their storytelling skills, and seem to be able to switch effortlessly from drama to slapstick to suspense to pathos and back again, sometimes all within a few pages. One of the few comics I still look for on the shelves regularly to the present day.

Another comic I read regularly during the 80s was 'Flaming Carrot' by Bob Burden. Hard to explain why. The artwork was pretty amateurish, the storylines were usually total nonsense, but there was something about the sheer absurd joy of wallowing in the medium which appealed to me. It was a kind of scattergun pop culture mish mash that didn't take itself overly seriously (like so many other titles did, like 'The Watchmen', which I never quite got the appeal of). I will still pick up the odd issue of this comic when I see a new one on the shelf. It never fails to bring a smile to my face.

Me and comic books had a brief falling out in the late 80s. The independent titles started to peter out, and the old Marvel and DC dinosaurs just seemed like so much childishness, and it wasn't until I had a son of my own, and he started to be of an age that I wanted to start introducing comics to him, that I started to rekindle my love affair with these 'funny books'.

The first two titles that we immediately fell in love with were Jeff Smith's 'Bone' and Mike Allread's 'Madman'. Both had an infectious sense of fun about them, beautiful artwork, and engaging stories that didn't seem to be mired in trying to reach an exclusive 'adult' or 'child' audience. 'Bone' in particular became a particular family favorite, and we would make regular pilgrimages to the comic book store to pick up the new issues as they came out, and then sit around on the couch as a family reading them together. (we have since turned our young niece's and nephews onto this title, now that my own son has grown, and it is nice to see them reissued in attractive full color book anthologies).

'Madman' was a little less of an obsession, and came out much less regularly, but my son has remained a fan of the title through its ups and downs and offshoot titles.

Around this time I was also trying out other titles of a more 'adult' variety, just to see what new things were going on in the comics world since I had been away. One title in particular became a favorite of mine (one of those situations where I found myself digging up back issues just so I could catch up). Daniel Clowes' 'Eightball', which is more of an 'anthology' series of short stories rather than an ongoing narrative (although he will sometimes continue a story feature for several issues before concluding it). It has been enjoyable seeing this title go from rather crude beginnings to mature into an impressive expansion of what the comics medium is capable of.

There are of course other comic book creators I've barely mentioned that have made an impact on me, and I'm always discovering new ones. Chris Ware's 'Jimmy Corrigan', Harvey Pekar's 'American Splendor', Art Spiegelman's 'Maus', Jim Woodring's 'Frank', Tony Millionaire's 'Maakies' and 'Sock Monkey', Ruben Bolling's 'Tom the Dancing Bug', Lynda Barry's 'Ernie Pook's Comeek', Matt Groening's 'Life in Hell', Bill Waterson's 'Calvin and Hobbes', Berkely Breathed's 'Bloom County', and practically all the output of Robert Crumb (I've been told more than once that my work is similar to Crumb's, but I think rather than being influenced by him, I think we were just influenced by a lot of the same artists), just to name a few off the top of my head. I had at one time harbored an ambition to become a comic book or strip cartoonist, but as the years progress I think I'm starting to understand that it isn't drawing skill that makes you best suited for that kind of work, nor writing skill, but a strange mixture of both. I have great respect for those that can pull this off, and I haven't quite given up yet.

01 August 1982

My Life in Pictures Part Fifteen: Workin' for a Living

In the late summer of 1982, after floundering around for a few months after my second disappointing year in college (Kendall School of Design 80-82), I applied for a job as a 'paste up artist' for a small Graphic Arts Shop in Grand Rapids. I was the first employee hired by this one woman shop, a family business connected to a pair of 'Speedy Printing' franchises on the south end of town. I started out part time, doing paste up and keylining, and working for the print shop as well, doing bindery and front counter work. Eventually the business grew enough that I worked at the graphic shop full time. I learned how to use the stat camera, designed logos, did a drawing once in a while.

left: a sample of my wife's business card from the late 80s (when we had expanded to three locations), with my logo and card design.

I took a typing class a couple years later and learned to typeset on a Itek machine. I remember being quite thrilled and excited to learn how to make that machine 'draw forms' and eliminating a lot of time and effort in painstaking ink work and paste-up (the perfect job for my obsessive compulsive personality).

right: One of my logo designs that has survived to the present day. I was quite keen on the Avante Garde typestyle, especially the 'extra letters' in the font that leaned one way or the other, like the 'W' in this design, and a few of the letters in the 'Graphic Arts Workshop' logo above.

The company added several employees over the years and I gradually moved into a management position (for which I was poorly suited), and when the shop added another location, I managed the new location on my own (for which I was better suited). My wife began working for the same company in the mid-eighties (at one point we were working together in the same 10x10 office all day), and was still working there for several years after I left in 1989.

Most of the work that I did for this company in the eighties no longer even exists as a recognizable career these days (typesetting, keylining, paste-up, stat camera operation, halftones and mezzotints, etc etc), since computers revolutionized the business in the 90s. I did very little illustration work in my years at this company, although I did a little here and there. A few logos I designed and a few cartoon illustrations are still in use by a few companies around the Grand Rapids area (which I will try and dig up for laughs).

My wife tells me that the logo above was one of my designs (which I found in the yellow pages recently), but to be honest, I'm not all that sure. I have no memory at all of designing this.

left: this logo design was for a local sewing machine company, and is still in use today. I remember getting recruited by this client to paint a large sign for their shop at one point in the 80s, and my wife remembers me cursing up a blue streak because of it.

A local African-American Newspaper still uses a few cartoons of mine from the eighties, and another of my logos for a local foundry is still painted on the side of a building downtown (although I think the company actually folded recently), and another of my logos still adorns the signage for an Apartment complex on the south side of town.

ADDENDUM January 2014 (while outside a bar where we were watching one of our friends' band's play, ran across this truck in the parking lot -- I guess they are still using the logo I designed for them about 30 years ago):