Now, it was time to put my money where my mouth had been all those years. I had to actually sit down and produce a comic book- doing the pencils and inks all myself and I’d gotten my then-art student/girlfriend to agree to letter the project. This was the point where a lot of the poseurs and wannabes are separated from the real pros. It’s one thing to draw lots of pretty pictures of Batman, Wolverine and Phoenix standing around and looking dramatic with no real backgrounds, but when you’ve got to TELL THE STORY WITH PICTURES, make it interesting and authentic and throw in some kind of “cinematic magic” to boot, that’s where it’s all at. I’ve seen so many kids and even adults who are SO sure that they’re the next big thing in comic art crumble and drift away sheepishly once they actually get a real script in hand and they see that copying a Jim Lee or McFarlane splash page has virtually nothing to do with actual sequential art that I can see them coming from a mile away now.
This, however, was my turn to shine or fail and skulk off to a lumberyard or some worse fate and I was determined to not allow that to happen. I gave my all on that book, staying up sometimes more than 24 hours straight, drawing, redrawing, hitting the library (pre-Internet) for reference, trying to stay “current” with the look and storytelling of the piece, sometimes second and even third-guessing myself into a near nervous breakdown of worry (which, admittedly, I came to do again and again even once I’d “made it in the big leagues” a few years later) and doing my best to not only impress Tom and Roger, but to try and out-mainstream the mainstream comics that “my book” would share rack space with. I’d pencil a page or 2, then pop into the store to show Tom and Raj what I’d done, then head back to the proverbial and literal drawing board sometimes high as a kite and sometimes near-suicidal as I had to pencil, repencil and even cut and paste up some pages combining 2 or 3 pages into one . This was occasionally very frustrating, but now, in retrospect, I realize that ALMOST every change was for the better and that this was the first real editorial input I’d ever had outside of school work and the volunteer work I’d done on theatrical projects and etc.
There were a few times when I practically begged Tom to let me ink a few pages, to not only get ahead, but to break up the monotony of the thing, but he insisted that, except for the cover and ONE page that would be sent around to the Comics Journal and such for promotional purposes that the entire book had to be pencilled and lettered before we’d all sit down, go over it, making sure evry panel of every page was complete, cohesive and coherent before I’d be allowed to commit the project to ink.
Phew, “tough room”, I thought, but not as tough as the times I’d have with the lettering. As I stated previously, my then-girlfriend had been recruited to letter the book. She’d never really even read comics and was struggling her way through art school, and, in the interest of complete honesty and disclosure, we did end up breaking up during the production of SOLD OUT!- once for a few days on the first issue and then permanently and badly a few pages into the second book. She was in over her head on the book, but in all fairness, she did give her all most of the time and she really had gotten involved to support me and in retrospect some 20 years later, that was a good and decent thing and I’ll do my best to say as little as possible in regards to this subject from here on. I was constantly throwing her copies of Simonson’s Thor which was lettered by John Workman- the only letterer whose work was not only competent, but practically jumped off of the page and actually added to the compositions and storytelling. I wanted “our” first project to be a winner and as strong as possible, but at times, I was too close to it and I didn’t handle the pressures as well as I should have. I’d spend days banging out a page, then I’d drop it at her house for lettering-sometimes only a panel or two, then feeling it all slipping away when I’d come back a couple of days later and find out that nothing had been done. It was agonizing; I couldn’t let this book fall apart, I had to get it done – the right way. It was my portal to the big leagues and out of Palookaville.
I got more and more stressed and was sleeping less and less, spending more and more of my awake time at the board after everybody at my house had gone to bed, and then crashing and sleeping the day away, only to begin again once the sun went down. I was a vampire without a cape and hokey accent, and I was hating it and loving it at the same time. As tough as doing a regular comic is, this was even tougher on some levels because it had to be FUNNY on top of all else and, as many have said before, “Comedy is tough”. We had to load the book up with loads and loads of sight gags, yet not overdo it and burn the reader out, we sought some weird state of balance where we’d go deeper and deeper into the absurd and twisted, then veer back into straight narrative-it was great and a true challenge as I had no problem diving into the absurd, but I sometimes needed (and still need) guidance to find my way back. The sight gags and plays on words and titles that I crammed into oh so many panels were inspiring, when I’d get a small notebook page with “John-go nuts here” scrawled on it, I did, feeding off of the guffaws and giggles I’d get from Tom and Raj when I’d plop the corresponding pages down on the desk for their look-sees.
It nurtured my need for not only reassurance and acceptance that every creative person craves, but it sustained my constant need to entertain- a flaw I still carry with me which is why I still stock a book of office traps and pranks on my desk to this day and why my cohorts at the firehouse and I spent two years planting broken lawn implements in one particular guy’s truck. It’s a sickness like drugs, drinking or gambling (at least two of which I know a bit about), but for the most part a benign one- although the lawnmower guy would most likely dispute that.
There were times it seemed like I’d never finish the project, that it’d never be an actual, tangible book. I kept working and reworking, getting closer, yet further from completion. The comics business was actually writing the damned thing for us with its absurd bombardment of the market with more and more awful small press black and white comics, some so ludicrously titled that we couldn’t even have come up with them. I sometimes think that it was a good thing that the book took us so long as we had had time to look at what was going on and say “Whoa, gotta put that in there!” The first pages completed- both in pencil and ink were actually the cover and the last page, when I got the go ahead to actually ink ’em, it felt like one big psychic enema, it was the break in the monotony that I needed – I could breathe again…for a few days, but thank God for those late night showings of HBO’s comedy specials on more than one occasion, they kept me from running screaming off into whatever night I was in the midst of.
There were a couple of inspirational moments on the project as well. The first started out absolutely horribly. I’d had a “Big Brother” when I was a kid because I’d grown up without a Dad of my own and my “Big Brother” and his family and I were and still are, close. Jack had a son named Erin who’d had a lot of behavior problems for years and had just seemed to be getting a handle on them when he was murdered by his mother’s boyfriend on July 8th, 1986. As a tribute to him, I put Erin in the book, arguing with a doppelganger of FantaCo’s own longtime counterman Matt Mattick over a jacked up cover price and some 10 or 12 years later that very same panel was reprinted in a comics news magazine as accompaniment for a letter on speculation and distribution issues.It was self-serving, but I’d do it again in a minute.
Bottom panel is John’s tribute to Erin, on the left; I had no idea. A pretty good likeness of Matt on the right. – ROG
The second “uplift” if you will, came near the end of that summer when The Comics Buyer’s Guide printed the cover of SOLD OUT! #1 in their coming attractions section. I’d picked up a copy while dropping pages off at the store and retreated with she-who-was-not-to-be-ignored to this great little dive of a mexican restaurant where she had lunch and I stared at the cover art on that cheap newsprint blankly. I’d arrived. It’s funny, that Mexican place was still going strong until the owner died 4 or 5 years back. It’s a coffee place now; my office is basically spitting distance from there, and every time I pass it, I can’t help but think of that warmest of afternoons.
To be continued………