Raoul Vezina was part of a very special experience in my youth. You have to understand what it was like back then, when I was in high school. Star Wars Episode IV had just been released, and the phenomenon of that film was so new that no one yet realized that it was in fact the fourth episode in a saga. The whole culture around science fiction, comics, and imaginative gaming that we have today was just a seed barely sprouted. I envy the outlets for these kinds of things that kids have today. When I was that age, I was a devotee–someone who took comic books and science fiction completely to heart and made it what my life was about–surrounded by dabblers who had more time for things like girls, soccer, cars, and computers (and in time, alcohol and drugs) than for the things that were important to me. (I wasn’t even out to myself as gay yet.) I had visited only one comic-book specialty store in my life, the one in the Pike’s Place Public Market in Seattle, and I’d only had a chance to linger there briefly while visiting relatives. When FantaCo Enterprises opened in Albany when I was a Junior in high school, it felt as if it had opened up just for me. It was a place where I was in my own element. And there was Raoul.
While I felt isolated as a young person, at least people respected the things I could do as an artist and a writer. Everyone thought I was good–my classmates, my teachers–and I was accustomed to being able to attract a crowd in school just by opening my sketchbook. But with Raoul at FantaCo, it was different. He, too, was an artist, though he had about ten years or so on me. He was out of school, working at a comic book shop, and wanted to establish himself in his profession. Our professional interests were a bit different; he was more of a humor cartoonist and I was a strict super-hero guy. But Raoul was someone who “got” me in a way that most other people didn’t. His friendship and approval were special to me. The acceptance and encouragement I got from Raoul were acceptance and encouragement from “within the tribe”. I remember one Sunday evening when Raoul and store owner Tom Skulan were guests on a radio talk show on what was then our “album rock” station, WQBK-FM, and I made a point of calling in and helping them keep the conversation about comics, and imaginative things in general, interesting. (As if they needed it.) It was a little taste of being part of something that mattered to me.
Raoul was one of those people who made you believe there was room for one more under his wing. He always had time to look at what I was doing, or chat up the latest developments in The Fantastic Four or The X-Men or whatever I was reading. When I talked about something that interested me, Raoul actually knew what I was talking about and could discuss it intelligently. He knew the artists I liked and understood the kinds of things I wanted to accomplish. FantaCo was a place where I didn’t feel isolated, and Raoul was an important part of the reason why. He introduced me to visiting artists. I remember Raoul was there the first time anyone asked me to sign anything. I was talking to comic artist Joe Staton, who was visiting the store. He did a sketch for me and looked at some of my stuff. A little boy shopping at the store watched us, and when Joe was done with me, the little boy asked for MY autograph. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, I gave him an autograph, but I couldn’t believe anyone would ask me such a thing. Raoul, bless him, wasn’t the least bit surprised. He was just that kind of guy.
When FantaCo would have its conventions at The Egg in Albany’s Empire State Plaza, Raoul would let me come behind the artist’s table in the last hours of Sunday’s activities and sit with the pros and draw and sign things for fans. These are among my most precious memories of my student days. They made me feel as if the things I imagined for myself were actually possible. It was Raoul who gave me that experience, which I’ll always treasure. After the FantaCon, he’d invite me to have dinner out with him and the other guest artists as if I were one of them. Sometimes, in the summer, when I went in to the store to get my weekly stash, Raoul would come out to lunch with me at a little cafe next to the store. There we’d be, two artists, two friends, two members of the comic-book community, having a bite and enjoying each other’s company. That meant the world to me.
Raoul and I would have our respective Moms come to the FantaCon as well. Raoul’s mother was a gentle, soft-spoken, old-world-type lady. I thought she was adorable. Raoul liked my Mom too. One day after the Con, Raoul remarked to me, “We’re just a couple of mother lovers.” It was such a “Raoul” thing to say.
When I went into the store one afternoon to get my comics and found Raoul’s obituary posted on the bulletin board, I thought it was a joke. He was 35 years old; how could he have died? It was just unreal. It still seemed unreal–surreal, even–when I went to the funeral in Troy. At the burial, I met and spoke to his sister, and it finally hit me that he was actually gone; that I would never see or speak to him again, that we would never again do any of the things we did together. I collapsed in tears, openly weeping in my friend Walter’s arms. We all went out to brunch afterwards, and I began to let go of everything but the memories. Those, I’ll always keep.
I don’t know if it’s possible for me or anyone else, really, to do justice to the memory of someone like Raoul Vezina. He was just too special. But Raoul’s friendship was one that occupied an extra special place in my young life. I think he set a good example of how to be in the world, and how to treat people. There were so many things he could have done and so many things he could have accomplished, had his life not been cut so short. But the friendships he made, including mine, are, I think, an achievement in themselves.
J.A. (Joe) Fludd, a native of Albany, was a contributing writer to The FantaCo Chronicles series. He was also a contributing artist to Gay Comics, for which he drew the super-hero feature Sentinel (later Pride). He was a regularly featured writer at the Fantastic Four Website, FF Plaza (www.ffplaza.com), whose articles have been archived there for perusal. Joe spent six weeks at Paramount Pictures serving a Screenwriting Internship with the TV series Star Trek Voyager after submitting an unproduced script for The Outer Limits as a writing sample. J.A. Fludd’s art is showcased at The Quantum Male Art Blog (http://qmaleart.blogspot.com) and on Comicspace (www.comicspace.com/quantumartist), which house many of the works he has done for auction on eBay and for private commission. J.A. Fludd also donates original art to the annual Wonder Woman Day charity auction event (www.wonderwomanmuseum.com/WWDay3/WWDay3.html). ROG