Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
Part one is here; part two is here. Now let’s leap forward another ten years… to a really glorious year for comics. And a pretty good one for me, in retrospect, though it didn’t feel like it at the time.
When you are addicted to drugs and alcohol you don’t really notice as your life gets narrower and narrower. It’s a kind of tunnel vision. The things you care about get chipped away from you, a little at a time, and it doesn’t really bother you as long as you’re still buzzed. Then one day you come out of it and everything’s gone, you’re surrounded by wreckage and ashes and your friends all despise you. And you wonder how the hell it happened. You didn’t mean to.
I’d been selling off my books, and even my comics collection, to finance my drug habit. I’d started in college. A little at a time. Chipping away. By ’84 or so I wasn’t even pretending to collect them any more and there wasn’t any money left for stuff like that anyway. By the time I decided I had to clean up, in the summer of 1986, I’d flunked out of my fifth school and it was all gone.
What really graveled me was that it was my own damn fault.
Oh, I could put some of it off on genetics, I suppose, but even so, the bottom line was that I’d known what I was doing. I’d grown up watching my parents self-destruct right in front of me, I’d seen how badly the odds were stacked against me biologically …and I’d decided to go ahead and play in the traffic anyway. Any idiot could have seen how that would turn out. Any idiot but me, apparently.
When the drinking and the drug use got really bad, bad enough that there was no kidding myself any more about what I had turned into, I seriously considered killing myself …but I couldn’t do it. Chickened out.
That left sobering up.
I had a crummy job, selling upholstery repairs and setting appointments over the phone. Telemarketing attracts a lot of alcoholics and addicts — all you have to do is talk on the phone, no one can see if you are hung over or have the shakes, and you are usually paid in cash. Rehab was out of the question on those wages, with no insurance. So I gritted my teeth and sweated it out. I fell into a kind of trudging, grim routine, those first few weeks of cold turkey. Go to work, go to my meeting, go home and brood.
Only sitting and brooding was no good. It was July, it was hot, and sitting alone in a stuffy apartment was just an invitation to start fantasizing about a cool drink. And I was too jumpy to sit still for long. Walking helped ward off the shakes.
So I walked. And because I was still a nerd at heart, I walked to bookstores. I visited every bookstore and comics shop between Tacoma and Canada that summer, I think, and most all of them on foot. I went back to the material I always went back to when I was feeling low. Comics. Pulps. Superheroes.
In the back of my head was the idea that maybe I’d rebuild the collection, try and get back the books I’d unloaded for dope money. It was a project. Something to do, something I could pick at with my meager finances that would occupy my time for a while. And it was a more feasible hobby, with my budget, than anything else. Plus there were all these new comics retailers springing up all over the place.
As luck would have it, 1986 was possibly the single best year I could have picked to get interested in comic books again. I’d had no idea how much awesome new stuff was out there. My God, what an amazing run of good books that was. The summer of 1986 to the summer of 1987, especially — that year was an explosion of creativity. It seemed like every DC character I’d ever liked was getting a fresh coat of paint and a sassy new relaunch.
Didn’t matter if it was the A-listers…
…the second-tier guys….
…hell, even the characters I thought no one cared about but me.
A lot of people hated Chaykin’s Shadow, but I thought it was great. I’d been a Chaykin fan since he’d done Monark Starstalker and The Mark of Kane, way back when, and I was okay with the revamped Lamont Cranston. He still had the hat, the laugh, and the guns, after all. As far as I was concerned it was just one more cool new book that summer.
I also really liked the DC revamps of the Charlton characters. I suppose the Ditko purists were horrified, but I adored the Denny O’Neil Question and the Cary Bates Captain Atom.
The other discovery I made was the new independent outfits that had sprung up while I’d been gone. First. Pacific. Eclipse. They were doing the kind of comics I’d only seen briefly in Star*Reach a decade ago.
I had no idea who Baron or Rude were but I was instantly a fan of Nexus from the moment I laid eyes on it. And of course I fell swooningly in love with Ms. Tree. Spillane and comics? They had me at hello.
I also enjoyed Eclipse’s forays into the superhero genre; I didn’t care that much for Airboy but Prowler and Strike! were both fun books that deserved a better shot.
The real Eclipse find for me was Miracleman. I’d read about it in Amazing Heroes, and in 1986 it was pretty easy to get caught up. If you haven’t ever seen it, yeah, it really is that good, even today. But in the mid-80’s? It was revolutionary.
And of course there was Watchmen.
Today everyone knows it’s a classic, it’s accepted. When it was coming out as a monthly, it was just that revamped Alan Moore Charlton thing. No one could quite believe it, and it kept ramping up. By the time #6, the Rorschach spotlight, came out? “The Abyss Gazes Also”?
…Jesus. Everyone in comics was just staring with their collective jaw on the floor. I sure as hell was. No one thought you could DO that. And this was a DC Comic for Christ’s sake, not some underground indie thing.
For that matter, Amazing Heroes was a pretty great read.
From Fantagraphics, it was easily as smart and funny as The Comics Journal but a little more easygoing in its attitude. Sort of like Wizard, but for grown-ups.
That was also when trade paperbacks and graphic novels started to really penetrate into bookstores. That was how I found American Flagg!, one insomniac Friday night at Tower Books.
And Sable; I first encountered that in a trade collection that year too, I think. It probably was at the same Tower Books on Queen Anne Hill. Long gone now.
That was how I kept myself distracted while I slowly got over the shakes and reacclimated to humanity. More than that –seeing all these countless new approaches to energize stuff I’d thought was a lost cause (I mean, seriously, suddenly Green Arrow was a happening book, for crying out loud) got me remembering that once upon a time I’d been trying to be a writer and artist, too. But then I’d discard the idea, figuring I’d blown my chance. I should just count myself lucky not to be dead or in jail.
There was a guy I saw around in meetings, a grizzled old street veteran named Gus. One night he said to me, “Look, kid. Everybody — everybody — has something that’s their thing, it’s unique to them. A gift. You don’t damage that with drugs and alcohol. It’s still there for you, if you want it.”
Now, normally that would have gone in one ear and out the other. You hear that inspirational fortune-cookie crap around recovery meetings all the time. “God has a plan for you.” “One door closes, another one opens.” Whatever. My first impulse was always to sneer. Maybe they can make a nice inspirational AfterSchool Special out of your life, grampa. But I’ve got real problems. I’m surrounded by wreckage. Everything good about me got flushed years ago. It’s all I can goddam do to stay clean one more day without shaking apart, so I’m not really up for a chorus of Kumbayah right now, thanks.
But I didn’t. Even through all my self-pity and bitterness I could see these people meant well and were trying to help, so I’d usually just grunt and go out for a cigarette or something.
But Gus was different. For one thing, he had a nasty, sarcastic streak that was worse even than mine. And secondly, he’d been through the wars. He’d lost a leg in a car crash driving drunk and that hadn’t even slowed him down, he’d carried on ripping and running for another decade or so before finally getting clean. He had, I dunno, eight or ten years sober under his belt by the time we met. To me, who thought getting eight weeks sober was going to be impossible, that was an awe-inspiring achievement.
So when Gus jabbed a finger at me and snarled that I had a gift, everyone had a gift, and it was stupid to waste it, it carried some weight with me. I knew he wasn’t just mouthing a platitude.
But even more, Gus didn’t just tell me that. He showed me.
See, Gus’s own gift, the thing he’d given up for dope and drinking, was theater. In college, decades ago, he’d been an actor and had hoped to pursue that, until his addictions got the better of him. And when he got sober, he decided that, by God, he was going to go back to it.
And two days after he’d been berating me about not wasting my life and giving me the pep talk about gifts, Gus got a part in a play up in Edmonds, a little community theater production of Rehearsal For Murder. It’s a great play and Gus was terrific in it.
Well, I thought, if that nasty one-legged old bastard can pick up where he left off, I guess I can too.
My gifts had always been writing and drawing, especially cartoons and caricature. I’d been almost afraid to pick up a pencil after I cleaned up, terrified I’d find out that drawing was something I could only do loaded. Thankfully, I found out that whole idea of drugs opening you artistically is mostly crap. If you have any talent at all, chances are that you do better with it when your vision’s not blurred.
What I did find — that I didn’t think I had– was patience. A newfound willingness to learn, and to take the time to do something properly rather than just banging it out. A joy in the simple exercise of craft… or even just in the fact that I still could do it. It was a start. I started to sketch more, and started putting a portfolio together. That sense of experimentation and explosive possibility that filled the comics industry in ’86 and ’87 was infectious. Maybe I could get some kind of art job, somewhere. What the hell, I’d wasted a lot of years but I was only 26. I still had a shot. Maybe.
Six months later, still clean, I was the art guy for a tiny west Seattle company that published event program books; like the programs you get at a play or a ball game. I’d walked in with my portfolio the same day their artist had huffed off in a huff and they had a deadline looming. So they gambled on me.
It was a good gamble. I was there three years and I did some nice work for them, in the process learning a lot about printing and production and darkroom work. It ended up being the education that I thought I’d thrown away.
The samples that initially caught their eye were a series of caricatures of famous people and a Batman pin-up drawing. I’d thought about leaving them out, but at the last minute decided to keep them in the book, mostly just to pad it out a little and make it look bigger. But it got them interested.
Twenty-plus years later, Gus and I are both still clean. We don’t run into each other the way we used to — people get cleaned up, they get jobs, they get lives, paths diverge. But I see Gus’s name in the local arts weekly every once in a while. He’s still getting acting jobs. A play here, a TV credit there. Journeyman stuff. It always makes me smile to see that he’s still doing his thing today … and so am I.
Gus’s gift, his thing that was uniquely his, was theater. Mine… well, I’m not sure what exactly you call it. But I am sure that whatever my thing is, it’s inextricably intertwined with comics.
See you next week for the wrapup.
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