Monday, May 19, 2014

A Look Back at 25 Years of The City: Part 1

Indulge me as I reminisce over a quarter century of work.

January 1989: I quit my full-time job as the art director at the Cleveland Plain Dealer and opened Derfcity Comics, my own cartoon studio. I was sick of mainstream media and drawing bullshit comix for squares. I was in my late 20s and figured it was now of never, so I jumped off the cliff into the unknown. Unsure of which direction to head, I holed up in my studio and experimented with comix in every form I could think of.

I created a single-panel humor cartoon (above) which was sold to the Detroit Free Press Sunday Magazine. It was my first breakthrough.

I put together a daily strip, almost four months worth, which was considered, then ultimately rejected, by one of the big syndicates.

I experimented with longer comix stories with plans to pitch a series like Eightball or Hate to one of the indy publishers. I never followed through on this, for reasons I can't remember.

And finally, I developed a weekly strip, inspired by the wild comix I was reading in the local weekly paper, like Life in Hell and Lynda Barry.  Since the syndicates didn't want me, I reasoned, I'll go underground and do it on my own.

The first strip I drew, above, was about an old homeless guy I used to see at the coffee shop where I hung out. Early on, I often wrote very melancholy pieces like this. I also dabbled in surrealist humor.  The early City was far more experimental and featured both. Not sure why I stopped doing them after a couple years. 

1990: After six months of work, I settled on a name and concept. The strip was to be a cartoon diary of a young hipster living in a big city. The name was a no-brainer. I packaged up my ten best strips and snail mailed them to the editor of The Cleveland Edition. Two days later, he called. The strip debuted the following week (above) with front page play!

The City was an immediate hit in Cleveland. For the first time in my career, at that point seven years as a pro, people were talking about my work. It was such a rush, to quote Joe Strummer, to "be in the right place, at the right time, with the right shit."

Cleveland has produced some comix greats, but very few of us stick around, so to have a strip about Cleveland was an unusual thing for the locals. The Plain Dealer had a geezer political cartoonist who'd been somnambulant since 1968 or so. Harvey Pekar was around, but that was a comic book, and we all know the crazy hang-ups Americans have about a genre they view as lowbrow. The City was a newspaper strip. It could be read without shame. In public even! That's my theory anyways.

This was long before email, so I'd walk to original art into The Edition office every Wednesday. The office was in the Old Arcade (pictured here in the Baron of Prospect Ave. webcomic) and afterwards I'd spend a couple hours in the coffee shop on the first floor with my sketchbook. The paper came out on Wednesdays and was stacked in big piles by the door and almost everyone in the coffee shop was flipping through it. I enjoyed watching people as they read my strip and chuckled, or looked bemused, or whatever. That's one of my favorite memories as a cartoonist.

The first published City strip (above).

The yuppies, Mindy and Blaine (above).

The original concept for The City had a revolving cast of characters. The Women With Big Hair were the hilariously over-coiffed mall chicks that were overrunning middle America at that point. Mindy and Blaine were a pair of psychotic yuppies, in the era when that obnoxious subset first emerged. White Middle Class Suburban Man was a clueless cul-de-sac superhero who championed the great suburban lifestyle.

The debut of White Middle Class Suburban Man (above)!

The remaining week of the month I reserved for a True Story, an observational comic culled from my wandering around town. I consider True Stories to be the heart of the strip. No matter how goofy the strip got, a True Story would bring it back to earth with a shot of grungy realism.

Above: here come the jagged, black lines!

My early style was loose, almost sketchy. With some grey zip screen thrown on (this is before Photoshop, too!) to add a little depth. The perspective was distorted. There were no straight lines at all. I called it "post-punk expressionism." I was bursting with ideas and could whip out a strip in a couple hours. My style tightened considerably over that first year and morphed into the heavily inked, jagged-lined comix that would be my signature. I liked that look, too, but it slowed me down considerably. I look wistfully back at that first year of free-and-easy drawing and gushing creativity. This is my favorite era of The City. I spent the rest of my strip career chasing that memory.

Above: the editor liked this strip so much he ran it on the cover!

The strip ran huge, 10 inches across, stretching the full width of the page. I had tons of room to work and just drew my ass off. This was the Golden Age of the weekly strip, back when they were the star features in weekly rags.

Above: my first promotional mailer.

1991: With a year of strips under my belt, I decided to sell the strip to other weeklies. A promotional mailing produced immediate results and The City was picked up by the NY Press, Chicago Reader, Baltimore City Paper, LA Reader and the St. Louie Riverfront Times. Thrice yearly mailings would add more papers each time.

Cartoons were sent out by snail mail. I had a favorite copy store near my house that had really good copiers, not the crappy clunkers you'd find in most places back then. I'd send out a month's worth of strips at a time, copying them right from the original art onto 8.5" x 11" paper. Had to have a clean original to pull this off! I'd sort them on my dining room table, stuff them into envelopes and mail them out with invoices. Took an entire day!

1992: The Edition couldn't get enough of my work in the paper. I began drawing full-page cartoons for the cover. "Derf Covers", as they became known, would be a staple of Cleveland weeklies for the next decade. I did over 50 of them total.

Above: The first Mr. Pressure True Story. He was a regular in my neighborhood. I ran into him frequently at Chuck's Diner or the bus stop, always muttering "pressure" to himself. He was truly a man for our time! After a couple years, he vanished and I never saw him again, but I had dozens of Mr. Pressure strips in my sketchbook for future use. 

The Detroit Free Press cancelled the single-panel cartoon I drew for them. I was happy to shut it down, since I was having way more fun producing The City.

1993: In March, The Edition folded, a devastating loss of my home base. The end came suddenly and I was totally blindsided. Had I finally found my place in the comix world only to have it snatched away? By this time I was in 20 papers, but it's a lonely feeling to be without a forum in the city where you live. I tacked up copies of my strip in local coffee shops just to remind people I was still out there.

In October, the Cleveland Free Times (above) launched. I helped start the paper, which was bankrolled by a wealthy Cleveland lawyer and activist and staffed by Edition regulars. I served as the paper's first art director. The City got primo play in the new paper, stripped the width of a page on the letters page right inside the front cover. The first thing readers saw when they cracked open an issue.

This also marked the tail end of the Gen X subculture that had been my inspiration to date. The Xers were now all hitting 30. I'd already passed that mark. Geezers indeed! 

1994: I receive my first death threat when I do a cartoon riffing on gun nuts. I got two more before the decade was out. Great fun!

Above: my last Women with Big Hair strip.

My original cast of characters dwindled to just White Middle Class Suburban Man. I dumped the Yuppies when every stand-up in the country began joking about them. Editors in hipper cities began griping that there were no Big-haired Women in their towns. I didn't really believe them, but reluctantly retired those characters, as well. A couple years later, inspiration hit and they were re-introduced as the Woo Girls. But I couldn't conjure up a regular fresh gag with them. The City became less character driven and more topical. And a lot harder to write! The above strip was also one of the last complex multi-panel strips. Weeklies were running strips smaller and smaller, aping the mistake of their daily rivals. I opted for simpler strips just to keep them legible.

1995: I became the target of a rightwing radio ranter in Kentucky, who mustered up an advertiser boycott of the local rag. He got his panties in a bunch over a True Story about the toddler son of a pal who enjoyed sticking his vibrating Tickle me Elmo between his legs. The radio ranter thundered that it was "child porn." The local paper refused to buckle and got quite a lot of publicity out of the showdown. A year later, they screwed me out of a year's back pay and dropped the strip. Nice, huh? There were a lot of creeps in the weekly biz.

1996: Strangely, I had a steady side career doing one-panel gag cartoons for magazines., mostly for editors who were fans of my strip. This one (above) is for Fast Company magazine, which was a yuppie biz publication. As time wore on, however, I had great difficulty writing one-panel gags. I was just too wired to write in 4-panel strips. So I gave it up. Later I would encounter the same problem when I started doing graphic novels and then struggled with writing 4-panel strips!

1997: My new base paper, the Cleveland Free Times, was winning the local newspaper war with a rival, lowbrow, weekly music rag, in some measure because of my cartoons. The rival rag couldn't counter with a cartoonist of their own because they weren't any others. In addition to the strip, I drew monthly Derf Covers, as well as full-page (or sometimes double-page) cartoons inside. This was the peak of my Nineties heyday.

Above: this t-shirt for the Free Times sold out almost immediately. For some reason, the paper didn't print more. I still run into people wearing threadbare shirts around town.

Above: He-boobies and Bad Piercings was what I was most known for in the Nineties. Wasn't really sustainable. How many piercing gags can you do?

I topped out this year at 75 papers, mostly weeklies, plus a couple college newspapers and comix rags. Doesn't sound like much when compared to Dilbert's 2,000 papers, but in the alt-weekly biz only Tom Tomorrow and Matt Groening had more papers than I. Unfortunately, however, my strip never achieved their respective popularity or acclaim. The City had a devoted following in Cleveland and a few other cities, but it just didn't resonate with readers on a larger scale, or with critics. If my strip was mentioned at all when the weekly genre was discussed, it was as an afterthought. Maybe it was the lack of characters, or maybe the work itself, but it just didn't break out. It was frustrating. What was I doing wrong?

I felt I had reached a dead end creatively and decided to try my hand at graphic novels.

1998: debuts, built with Dreamweaver 1.0 on a first-generation iMac and formatted to fit the small screens of the day, all of 800 pixels wide!

1999: The Akron Art Museum put on a retrospective of my work. This is the museum I used to visit on grade-school field trips. The public opening is packed with several hundred people. My dad, in attendance, is flabbergasted. I think it was the first time he realized what I was doing wasn't just a silly waste of time.

By the end of the decade, only White Middle Class Suburban Man remained of my initial cast of characters.

This is also what I call my Brutalist Phase, the least favorite era of my strip. The above full-pager, for the Vann's Warped Tour program, is an example of this. The characters were all hideously distorted, all popping eyeballs and bulging veins, spit flying everywhere. It was grotesque! I'm still not sure why I drew like this and wince when I look at strips from this period. I guess I was trying to stay cutting edge as it was becoming increasingly hard to do so. What was underground and edgy in 1990 was now lame and mainstream. Hell, there wasn't an underground anymore. I felt a bit antiquated and lost. 

This would have been a good time to end the strip, in retrospect. Close out the Nineties and shut it down and move on. Problem was, The City now appeared in virtually every major weekly paper in the country. Hard to give that up.

Later in 1999, Craigslist incorporated and went national. Almost overnight, classified ads were sucked out of weeklies. As those pages of agate type disappeared, so did the comix that ran on those pages. Some migrated to the front of the tabs, usually on the letters page, where they were shrunk even smaller. I was forced to simplify strips and make the type larger, just so they could be read. It was depressing to see weeklies, which I once viewed as the saviors of newspapers, mimic the exact same fatal mistakes of the corporate dailies.

Above: this strip was as Brutalist as it got, but was a pretty funny one.

Above: the first Rudolph the Red-state Reindeer strip. This became a popular annual feature.

Both rival weeklies in Cleveland were sold by their respective local founders to large media companies. Just like that, the business became a lot less fun as that all-for-one spirit was quickly trampled by edicts and head loppings from corporate HQ. At the Free Times, we had FOUR editors in the first six months of the new ownership!

And the first decade of The City came to a close.

End of Part One.