I come from a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional time and place , which makes me like just about the same as everybody else , more or less .
When I tell people how I grew up , they say , ” Sounds like you were raised by wolves .”
“Wolves,” I reply, ” are good parents.” I know this because I loved Jungle Book , Tarzan and wolf man stories.
It always stunned people how well developed my vocabulary was , and even as a little kid I knew exactly where I picked up that sophisticated and eclectic lexicon. Comic books.
Now I have never been one to hunker down with one thing , you know how kids are devoted to certain things like baseball or Yugio cards. Marvel comics, Star Wars, or Superman episodes with George Reeves. Some kids get hung up on Archie or Casper. Others were into Barbie and G.I. Joe. Sure , we all have stages and I did too, but to this day I am hung up on the idea of blending image with narrative.
Of course the comic book deserves its due because there was never a more versatile medium.
Look how many times Batman has reinvented himself ; he is and was my favorite for a multitude of reasons. I think that darkness that he grapples with is what engages me. I never had much use for Superman, Captain America , Hulk, Wonder Woman , Supergirl, etc. Batgirl, I got , though I thought Batman belonged to Catwoman.
So how did this empower me? Inspiring me to read and to love reading was the first way comic books empowered me , but when I deconstruct Batman , I have to consider his mortal status. He has no super powers and he can die as well as kill (in most versions). That never really happens with the the Justice League, but they were flat beside Batman , who some people say is the psychotic.
I just think he he is pissed off and I can relate to this. Being pissed off can be a very destructive state unless you use your anger to propel change .
I picked that up from Batman.
While I took Batman seriously , I also had my morbid curiosities like Vampirella with its cheesy sexuality and hilarious Macabre. Takes from The Crypt, Wolfman, and those anti hero tropes played well with me but I moved from one to the next looking for the stuff that took ahold of me the way Batman did . I was a Mad Magazine devotee and suspect my pop culture expertise is largely a result of Alfred E. Newman and the crew of cartoonists who mocked everything.
While parents and teachers sneered disapproval at our literary choices in those days, I noticed as I got older that we comic book geeks always understood literature and history better than our more socially adept peers .
By age 10, I had discovered things that were far worse than the nutty send ups of MAD and the nocturnal misadventures of Bruce Wayne.
I was reading the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Fat Freddy’s cat cracked me up. I cannot recall where these comics came from. We could steal Cracked and DC, as well as the LuLu digests at the 7-11 when pops wasn’t flush enough to buy us copies.
To laugh the way we did reading those comic books is about the best thing we ever felt and I recall that I began to leave my more classic pencil sketching to make cartoons around 14 .
Despite my constant practice, I had failed to impress art teachers with my warped perspective. My cartoons, on the other hand impressed my peers, who loved the expressions and dialogue balloons I filled with quotes they recognized. I was not cruel or all that clever, mouth U had a way of capturing sentiment we shared as geeky outsiders .
By the time I was in junior high school, I was not taking any crap from bullies. I felt little fear of these fools who saw my courage as crazy. People are scared of crazy and I was happy to oblige that since Batman was considered crazy too.
I found the Robert Crumb masterpieces before High School and had dived right in when heavy Metal debuted. By then, I was reading classics which were very vivid in my head. from Poe to Dickens, even Steinbeck, I could see the characters in my mind’s eye and more often than not they were cartoons.
I was not a great student but I was identified as gifted , something my English teachers noted and worked on developing . I had it in my head to become an artist, but everyone else said I needed to write .
All my life I have tried to find balance with the two, but it didn’t matter much because life kind of gets in the way when you’re poor and nobody supports dreams like these. I took my life and made cartoon strips from it then I wrote about it. I knew they both were close but no cigar . So I kept after them both until I finally went to college .
Writing was my thing and ended up with two Masters degrees in Literature and Writing. I was a part time professor do a time but decided I belonged with my own kind and began teaching High School in the hood .
What I saw students do with art was inspiring so when Bill Gates came along and wanted to finance his experiments with smaller schools, I knew just what to do.
I wrote a mission statement for an arts based academy and the Gates flunkies approved my idea at the gate .
I have to say pulling kids together around the arts empowered me because I loved empowering them . They got into my favorites : Ralph Steadman , Goya, CRUMB , Pekar, Lynda K Barry, A West, and Bosch. “Tight!” They’d exclaim as I broke out my Farside Collection. They loved when I made them illustrate literature .
DRAW Boo Radley.
But what empowered me was what I learned from my students who often doodled much the way I had. I never appreciated graffiti until they told me why they wrote it. A fool for protest and rebellion for rebellion’s sake, I appreciated the super heroic skill it took to orchestrate a tag on billboards, an overpass or a wall outside police headquarters .
They turned me on to Banksy. Suddenly , I was kicking myself for overlooking Tupac and they were becoming an underground book club tapping into my massive private collection. Watchmen never came back. I was buying Cruddy every other week. And these kids liked the literature that read like cartoons: Paradoxia, Perv, Fear and Loathing in LV, the Dark Knight, Biographies of Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Warhol, and Charlie Manson.
I probably should have been worried this would get me in trouble when I had kids hitting me for more like junkies coming into their habit. Keep in mind these kids saw their homies die in drive-bys that rarely make the nightly news . The only sign of it were the memorials they made in gutters , on corners , wherever the soldier has fallen. It was not rare to spend Saturday’s at a carwash raising money to bury some kid , who was held on the cold slab until their people could scrape up the cash for a plot of earth and a marker fir the graves where the memorial was moved.
There is nothing so sad as the mother of some 16-year-old kid who grapples with such sorrow and shame as she hustles for her son’s RIP. Except maybe the dads, who fall apart usually in silence.
I started calling students art soldiers, which stuck, but it was weird how they knew to refrain from uttering it.
We had this amazing slam where Spike, a black kid who could freestyle and poets performed this very charming and smooth show in concurrency with what would be the last of the art shows. Razo, a renaissance an wuth ms, was on the news as a kool kid. There was was this buzz on the air.
I think they understood that the end was near for me better than I did. You see I was at odds with the toad to principal, but that is a very long story and so is this.
I was sent to teacher jail a couple weeks later. Thank the gods my students schooled me in facebook or I may have lost my mind. The suits didn’t give me a chance to say goodbye, but I did get a chance to embark on this:
I think my tour of duty through the district of the Damned will be illustrated , as I got my pencil skills going thanks to iPads, a paradoxical foil in my post modern memoir. A whole new comic book is being born without me, I know , but it’s all right. Comic books evolve in many ways. They are, however, one thing that is here to stay.