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Wednesday, February 10, 2010

COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL: Part Two

(For Part One, click here.)

* * *

In the late summer of 1979, my family and I moved from the city of Chicago out to the northwest suburbs, to a little "village" (their term) called Hoffman Estates.  By this time I was drawing comics at home a lot, with #2 pencils on typing paper that I procured from my Dad's desk.  I was making bad monster movie approximations, weird "Love Is..." type single-panel cartoons (no, really), and, eventually, violent Bloom County pastiches.

I continued to read Mad religiously, collecting each new issue and book I could find.  In Junior High I started hanging out at my friend Don's house, where, much to my delight, I discovered Savage Sword of Conan and National Lampoon.  I was delighted, of course, because both prominently featured boobs.  I started getting into Conan and other Dungeons & Dragons-type amusements, and Don and I would make weekly trips down to a local hobby shop called The Hobbyist, which was just down the street (mall) from both Moondog's Comics and Kevin's Book Exchange.  At the Hobbyist I'd buy my little pewter figurines of dragons, and at Kevin's I'd buy Conan.

One day at the Hobbyist I picked up a copy of Dragon magazine with a comic strip in the back called Finieous Fingers.  I must have also seen a copy of Dave Sim's Cerebus around this time, because shortly thereafter I started drawing Tales of Hogarth the Barbarian Pig, a crudely drawn, humorous approximation of the two.  This was the first of my comics that I made copies of.  My dad would take my pages in to his downtown office and make photocopies, which I'd then collate into little booklets to give to my friends at school.  This would have been about 1983.

Now, Conan was one thing, but National Lampoon was something else altogether.  Not only were there boobs, and a more "intelligent" (?) kind of humor to be found in its pages, but...  there were comics.  GOOD comics, like Trots and Bonnie (Shary Flenniken), and Mark Marek's hilarious, sadly under-recognized Hercules Amongst the North Americans.  Subconsciously, my concept of what comics could be was quietly expanding.


For a few years after that, though, I was focused more on music and fine art than comics.  I still read the newspaper funnies (albeit with a more ironic sensibility), but my Conan thing was short lived, as was Tales of Hogarth.  I dropped my subscription to NatLamp, and tried to learn guitar.

Jim Nutt: "Second- A Serious Perusal," 1983

Pretty soon I was into punk rock and art, and my tastes were getting more and more underground and weird.  I was committed to becoming an artist, and took every art class that I could get my hands on at school.  Early on, I was exposed to both the Pop Art of Lichtenstein and Warhol, and the influence comics had on them, as well as the Chicago Imagists, a loose group of figurative artists that came to "prominence" in the late 60's.  Their art was very "graphic," in an artistic sense, with brightly colored, funky, comic book-like imagery.  I began to think about comic books in a new way, and began seeking them out for inspiration.

Roger Brown: "The Young and Self Conscious," 1991

Roger Brown: "Rolling Meadows," 1979

My dad would bring home copies of the Chicago Reader for me each Thursday, and I pored over every inch of that strange, cool paper: the music listings, the classifieds, the ads, and the comics--  the great Life in Hell by Matt Groening, and Ernie Pook's Comeek by Lynda Barry.  Like punk rock, in which I found my musical voice, it was these two cartoonists that really got me interested in making my own comics again.


At the same time, my friend Fred, the bass player in our noise-punk-jazz band Bryce Hammer, was into comic books, superhero comic books, and eventually I accompanied him on one of his weekly trips to Moondog's.  I picked up a few titles, mostly cuz I thought carrying comics around in your back pocket was "funny," like something the Ramones might do.  The next thing I knew I was hooked.  I was reading Fantastic Four, Longshot, Secret Wars, Daredevil, Moon Knight, Moonshadow, and the brand new Web of Spiderman.  (Marvel only, if you'll notice, probably at Fred's behest.)

This phase lasted about a year.  Luckily, Moondog's was one of those classic old-school comics shops of the 80's where there were no rules.  Alongside the usual Marvel and DC stock was a huge selection of comics from the "Black and White" indie boom, James Bond UK import comics, the early Fantagraphics releases, and oddball titles like Mister X (Motter/Hernandez/Seth) and Neil the Horse (Arn Saba).  Pretty soon, in addition to the Marvel books, I was picking up anything that looked different.  The soap-opera nature of the superhero comics was wearing thin on me, and by the summer of '86 I was reading weird titles like Lloyd Llewellyn (Dan Clowes), Neat Stuff (Pete Bagge), and Flaming Carrot (Bob Burden) exclusively.


In 1985, my friends and I had began publishing an "underground newspaper" at our High School, called Zo-Zo, and I contributed a few absurdist strips, like Oh, That Monk! (inspired by old newspaper comics, ala Thimble Theater, that I had run across in the library), and Mingo the MartianMingo really showed what was going on in my head at the time, morphing from a Mister X type Sci-fi "thriller" to slapdash, scribbled punk rock violence and humor over the course of three or four installments.



When we went away to college, my friends and I began attending this little comic convention that was held a few times a year at the Congress Hotel in Chicago.  There was one dealer, from Makanda, Illinois, who brought with him every unusual kind of book and zine.  I'd pay my admission and run directly to his table, where I could pick up things like Flaming Carrot, Raw, Gary Panter stuff, and other bizarre small press books. It was like manna from heaven for me, the stranger the better.

About this time too I began buying these cheap monster comics that I'd find in the Quarter Bins (Five for a Dollar) at the comic shops.  Titles like Monsters on the Prowl, Where Monsters Dwell, and Creatures on the Loose.  I became obsessed with these comics too.  I loved the bright, lurid covers and the demented stories; and for 20 cents how could you go wrong?  It wasn't till later that I realized these were reprints of classic stories by the great comic book masters Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Don Heck, and so forth.  No wonder they stood out to me.  To this day, these are still my favorite comics of all time.

(It was on one of my Wild Monster Chases that I came across, at a store called "Comic Cave and Karate" (yes, it was a combination comic shop/dojo!), in a bland suburban stripmall, a copy of the amazing Bad News #2, featuring the likes of Mark Newgarden, Paul Karasik, and Kaz.  I still remember the absolute thrill and impossibility of finding that book-- I was practically trembling-- in a cardboard box by the front door.  Those were different times, folks!)

Meanwhile, I continued making my zines, including a new art and poetry title called Cehsoikoe, which I began publishing in 1987.  I had been introduced to Factsheet Five and the zine world by my friend Lainie, and had become immersed in that culture.  I'd get the new Factsheet Five in the mail, and read through it, circling cool sounding zines in pencil.  One day I sent away for a bunch of comics by a girl in Montreal--  Dirty Plotte by Julie Doucet-- and what I got in the mail blew me away.  It seems really obvious to me now, but I loved how everything in it came directly from Julie's hand:  the covers, the letters pages, the comics, the writing.  I had been making my own little comics and zines now for a few years, but usually in the capacity of an editor--  I'd gather work from all over (including my own), and put it together in a book-- but Dirty Plotte inspired me to make a new zine, one that would be all my own comics, that would be my own personal reaction to and statement to the world--  and that was King-Cat.  I published the first issue in May of 1989, and never looked back.

6 comments:

  1. John -- Thanks so much for sharing this! It's a real gift for those of us who care so much about your work. I hope you'll keep blogging. Your fan, Austin

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  2. Yeah, it's pretty great to see you writing all this. Nicely written and full of deadly little nostalgia-bombs (I totally forgot about that Mark Marek comic-- holy crap yes). And I hope it does in fact help.

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  3. You connected some long-dormant neurons mentioning "Finieous Fingers." Wow.
    When I was thirteen I found a random copy of Eagle Comics Judge Dredd reprints (the one with Fink Angel and Ratty) in the totally junky dime store across the street from my Dad's house. Never saw Judge Dredd or anything else non-Marvel there again, but that comic led to some long trips around town to find more of that weird SF comic.
    Thanks for posting about your young life and influences.

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  4. Best blog TITLE of 2010!

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  5. I think I read this three years ago but only now realised I have a complementary story to tell, not that I am today an amazing and original comic artist or anything like you JP. http://lorrainecrescent.blogspot.com.au/2009/04/knockout.html

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