This year represents a personal milestone for me, in that I have now been creating and self-publishing my own comics for thirty years.
I arrived at a Southern art school just over three decades ago with two desires; to actually get laid*, and to produce my own underground/avant-garde comic books. By sophomore year I’d done both, plus I’d made strides towards newspaper syndication (another longtime goal) with a legitimate paying comic strip gig that would last for six years. Oh, and I founded my own cult.
[*The G.R.I.T.S. here in Georgia are the best in America.]
Back in junior high, I couldn’t get enough of Art Spiegelman’s RAW, Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot and Mark Beyer’s Agony. I daydreamed about seeing my future work alongside theirs on a prestigious, touchable bookshelf. I didn’t even know what I’d create that could compete with them; I just knew that if I went to art school, and absorbed the ambient energy and process, great work would follow.
I believe sincerely that I was right. However, this was partly luck, partly my own doing, and partly thanks to the help of a lot of people I can’t really name. That’s the way this sort of thing works. The average person has no familiarity with me or what I do, so association with me is a negative, now that we live in a world where journalistic integrity is extinct and people believe literally anything that affirms their prejudices. But I digress.
My college’s sumptuous library had two indispensable items; one, a Xerox machine that could be manipulated to print dozens of color copies for a dollar, and two, a hardcover copy of Mark James Estren’s A History of Underground Comics that was thankfully not for borrowing. Meaning, it was there whenever I needed it.
I went to the library and pored over it almost every day. Even though my friends gifted me a copy of Anarchy Comix in high school, until that point, I had never, ever known that anyone could go that far in print. I saw chopped-off tits sail through the air courtesy of the brilliant and tragic S. Clay Wilson, and severed penises doing the same thanks to the legendary R. Crumb. My own fevered teenage id was a poofter compared to what these folks had done, before I was even born. Detailed renderings of piles of writhing viscera, plucked-out eyeballs, skulls weeping with rotted flesh, colossal spiked demon phalluses plunging into wet, yielding vulvas. A nude young woman being ravaged by a cartoon warthog’s snout until she literally blows up like a balloon, flies out a window, and explodes in midair. A filthy pirate in a saloon proffering his gigantic pecker to another filthy pirate, who promptly chops off the head with a sword and eats it. A nuclear family that fucks one another, including the dog. Drug dealers who get rid of deadbeat hippies by selling them hydrochloric acid.
I did not know you were allowed to do this. I thought that if you were caught drawing this kind of thing, you’d be drummed out of society post haste. Or at the very least, neutered like Jack Nicholson at the end of Cuckoo’s Nest.
After seeing History, my desire to produce my own “underground” comic books became a compulsion. Seeing such a disparate and transgressive selection of brilliant cartoonists, all aligned in purpose and doing their thing, cemented my resolve. This wasn’t just mere inspiration; this was radicalization. Practically overnight, I was filling sketchbooks with pages and pages of my own approximation of “comix”, all drawn in technical pens like a proper artiste souterrain.
A few blocks from my dorm was a place called Home Run Video, where my friends and I rented VHS tapes. Since this is now an archaic ritual, let me delineate how it generally went back in 1991.
- You enter the store through the metal-and-glass front entrance, which is papered over with promotional materials from innumerable studios and movies. There is a loud “bing” produced by a device in the door jam, to alert whomever’s working that customers have entered.
- Immediately your senses are assaulted by shelves and shelves of VHS movies, all facing front. If you had any idea of what movie you wanted to rent this evening, it is now annihilated. Also you smell scorched popcorn.
- The dance of selection commences. As you cringe at the sight of one corny studio turkey after another, your friends call out their suggestions, which are all movies you’d rather endure a root canal than sit through.
- At last you come upon the movie you’d love to see and share with your friends. It is checked out. This will happen with every single movie you actually want to see.
- There are life-size cardboard standees of actors and performers whom you have no desire to see at life-size. Madonna had recently deep-throated a champagne bottle in an ersatz concert film, so huge 2-D representations of this overrated, gap-toothed, lace-festooned harlot were everywhere.
- Anxiety mounts as your friends grow impatient, rankled by your constant dismissals of their selections. The clerk wonders how long you plan to loiter. Your face grows hot in sync with your embarrassment.
- A customer returns a stack of videotapes. Not one of them will be anything you want. No one in the history of video stores would ever be so lucky.
- Your friends ditch you to go have fun somewhere else. It takes you several minutes to look up from the tapes and realize this.
- Mortified, you slink out of the video store empty-handed. You can’t even make eye contact with the clerk, who now hates you, on the way out.
Home Run Video was better than all this. To protect the innocent, I will refrain from using my friends’ names, particularly because at least one of them lost a job due to my shenanigans. I never knew the guy’s name who worked there (or owned it), but if you lived in Savannah in the late 80’s/early 90’s, I can simply say “the fucking hilarious dude at Home Run Video”, and you’ll know exactly who I mean.
A few cherished memories of that location:
- The owner had little battery-operated “abuse generator” keychains for sale. He would lean on the counter and silently press the buttons, and elfin cries of “EAT SHIT” and “FUCK STICK” would fill the air, delighting and confusing the customers present. His absolute deadpan expression while doing this caused one of the hardest laughs I had experienced up to that point.
- We were allowed, despite our average age of eighteen, to peruse the “adult” section of the store, as long as we behaved in there. This was, in reality, a trap. Behaving in the adult section was impossible. Please allow me to collect myself, and explain.
The first thing I saw upon entering the adult section was a glossy, oversized VHS cover, featuring what appeared to be a nude adult man climbing into an enormous, alabaster bean-bag chair. There were several pictures of this tiny man clambering about the giant chair, which dwarfed him as he changed position seemingly at random. When I finally stopped squinting out of prudence, I saw that the chair was actually a woman, one so massively obese that her limbs were indistinguishable from her body. Her head was practically an afterthought. Despite this, the expression on her miniscule-by-comparison face was one of great pleasure. The tiny man was actually of normal size. His exertion was clearly visible.
In near-gibbering madness, I glimpsed the title.
“Too Fat To Fuck?”
Doubled over in hysterical laughter, I heard a small yet authoritative voice warn us from the ceiling that if we kept up the hoopla, we would be summarily ejected. This was the owner, over an intercom. I worked this fact out some days later.
Somehow, I composed myself. My friends were more acclimated to hardcore porno than I was at the time, and were able to comport themselves with at least some decorum. That is, until the owner sensed that we were “discerning customers”, and began making suggestions over the intercom.
The key to all this is that we had no idea where the voice was coming from. It was just above us somewhere, presumably from an employee. There would be stretches of silence as we restrained our laughter, and then a little voice from the ceiling:
chicks with dicks
In an impromptu recreation of the Biggus Dickus joke from Monty Python, all of us exploded into shrieking laughter and hysterics. My friend took a loud inward gasp, flung his arms outward as though he’d been blasted through a window, and fell backwards onto one of the tape racks, collapsing it. We fled the store and into the night before we could be reprimanded. It was like being savagely beaten by a gang of uncontrollable laughter.
Of course we went back, otherwise I couldn’t tell you about the most crucial part of the place- they had a huge rack of underground comics across from the counter.
Speaking of “huge racks”; for whatever reason, they stocked several issues of SCUZ About Town, from “Eros Comics”. This was when I learned about “exploitation”, and “why women used to avoid these places”.
One of my biggest pet peeves is cartoonists who draw women like they hate them, and resent having to render their bodies artistically. Drawing people as ugly is all well and good, but it’s easy to see when the ugly is there out of contempt for the subject. The “women” pictured above are basically balloon animals. They’re repulsive instead of alluring. And in my opinion, this artist’s most egregious habit is a common one of the era; bigger breasts mean bigger circles. The bigger the boobs, the more it looks like the woman in question is blowing giant gum-bubbles with her ribcage.
My friends; I am of the unwavering belief that female breasts are the finest example of natural splendor (at any size) that this planet has to offer. I have studied them for longer than I have drawn cartoons. They are like snowflakes, in that no two pairs are alike; hell, most of the time two of the same pair are somehow different. There are literally billions of exciting and interesting variations and textures to a woman’s breast; artists have rendered them for millennia. A mere photograph of breasts has been proven to sell virtually any product and actually extend men’s lives. We have put men on the moon, and yet science can produce nothing that feels close to a real breast. For almost everyone, the first thing they ever saw in life was a tit.
So, if after all that, you feel content to draw boobs as perfect circles, it implies that you’re grossed out by the female body. If I’m gonna draw gigantic breasts for my soft-core porno comix, then the first thing I do is either locate a real woman with gigantic breasts who’ll allow me to use her as a model (this costs money), or image-search one and use her (much more probable). This way I can observe how her mammary fat distributes and “floats”, how her nipples are sized and positioned, how her areolas expanded from the weight (or didn’t), her delicate veins and tiny stretch marks, the list is endless. The reason women make the best muses is because their bodies are a freaking festival of interesting things to muse over, sculpt, or draw.
Or, you can just go “circle equals boob”. I mean, hell, Crumb drew tits like the tops of fire hydrants, and he did alright both as an artist and a lover, right? Aside from the insufferable part-time wife? Hey, what do I know. It’s not like beautifully-rendered tits are highly lucrative, or anything. Plus Bob Fingerman, SCUZ‘s creator, has sold a fuckton more comic books than I ever have, or probably ever will. He has a really nice style, ball-boobs notwithstanding.
[To anyone who now feels compelled to label me a “tit fetishist”; you know art like a pig knows Palm Sunday. Sit down and shut the fuck up.]
IIRC, there was an issue of SCUZ About Town where the titular character found Bettie Page (extant at the time), who was drawn as a haggard, zeppelin-titted old slag. What I’m about to say will sound like more lunacy, so I must once again abuse the list feature.
- Believe it or not, there was a time were Bettie Page was legitimately “obscure”, and not at all an arguable icon known by every single female you could ask.
- Her classic photos all became public domain; she never saw a dime in royalties or licensing until she was elderly, battling schizophrenia, and had been in and out of prisons and mental asylums. The late great Greg Theakston, whom I was lucky to call a friend, played a huge hand in Bettie’s resurgence and modern public recognition.
- There were Marilyns before Marilyn. There were no Betties before Bettie.
- In the 80’s, during Bettie’s “comeback”, so many of her old images were made available in the form of trading cards and zines, that there was something of a “Bettie backlash”, resulting in unflattering comics like the half-remembered SCUZ I described.
Christ alive, where was I?
Oh yes! The video store, with the excellent comix section. Some of the great books I bought there were “Bob”‘s Favorite Comics from the Church of the SubGenius (with a Care Bears parody that legitimately traumatized a college chum), the Double Diamond collection of Sam Hurt’s spectacular Eyebeam, and Glenn Head’s first Snake Eyes anthology.
This was an 82-page all-star game of independent cartoonists and artists, plus Charles Bukowski thrown in for good measure. We’re talking Bob Sikoryak morphing Superman with Camus’ “The Stranger”, Doug “Steven” Allen doing what he does best (girls, cars and art), Julie “Dirty Plotte” Doucet crafting an arousing anecdote about alcoholism and fellatio, industry legends David Mazzuchelli and Alex Ross playing completely against type, Chris Ware setting loose Quimby the Mouse, and side-splitting pages from Mark Newgarden and Mack White. Wayne White, too (no relation far as I know), providing the hilarious Vaughn story. Krystine Kryttre scratches boards into art like only she can. Dennis “Stickboy” Worden closes the book with “Mohammed, Jesus & Moses Go For A Stroll”, which is not only brilliantly funny but a terrific example of how religious terror has destroyed free expression in this fucking country. I haven’t even mentioned the magnificent work from the guys on the cover, and I forgot Brad Johnson’s uproarious piece. Also Steven Cerio. And Jonathon Rosen. All this for eight bucks.
Without Snake Eyes, there wouldn’t have been a first issue of Mike The Pod Comix. You could even expand that to include “Bob”‘s Favorite Comics, Eyebeam, and Home Run Video. All these elements, none of which are easily accessible in 2021, combined with my nascent artistic being to officially launch everything you see here. I don’t see these things recognized anywhere else, so I must repeat; I exist because these things existed, at a crucially formative point in my life.
Inspired by the apocryphal story of R. Crumb selling ZAP out of a pram in Haight-Ashbury, I stapled together a display box, and got myself kicked out of my college’s art festival several times by selling Mike The Pod for a dollar a copy. It literally never occurred to me that this was extralegal, just like it never occurred to me that you shouldn’t use office copiers after hours when everyone’s gone home to print your comics. I work with divine purpose, and it paid off. I sold a lot of copies.
Someone who worked at a local newspaper saw my work, and I was hooked up with a weekly comic strip gig, starring my above alter ego. Lemmings would run for five years, until I was dismissed for goofing on my alma mater too roughly in a cartoon I did for Creative Loafing. By then, I had already dropped out, and produced three self-published issues of Drop Dead, which continued the adventures of some of the Lemmings cast.
Meanwhile, from 1992 to 1998, I worked at a couple of record stores, and my resentment at punching a clock combined with my total paucity of people skills to provide two decades’ worth of material.
And here we are. I’m either lucky, blessed or cursed to have survived for this long.
Here’s to the next thirty. Thank you for being here.