Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Look Back at 25 Years of The City: Part 2

The second decade of the strip:

2000: My last Derf Cover (above) for the Cleveland Free Times caused a real shitstorm and a costly advertiser boycott. These Best Of issues, which every weekly paper does, are huge financial windfalls. They're basically, as I wrote point blank here, huge suck-ups to advertisers. When the Free Times was locally owned, we approached these things with smartass smirk and had a lot of fun with the issue. No longer. Corporate HQ took it very seriously. I drew this piece depicting a hipster butthead strolling on the riverside boardwalk in the Flats, a raucous club district in Cleveland that had become infamous for drunken escapades, muggings, bar fights and general mayhem. The summer had already seen three drownings, as plastered idiots staggered into the river and went under. Flats club owners went ballistic when they saw the figures gacking and passed out in the background of this piece, and especially the dude leaping into the river. They pulled their ads in protest. Some of the club owners stayed pissed for years!

What they didn't know is my first cover sketch (above) was of a dead body floating in the river wearing a Best Of t-shirt! That would have been an awesome cover, but the publisher shot it down (although he laughed pretty hard when I showed it to him). Obviously a prudent move, no doubt, but five years earlier The Free Times would have gone with it, I bet. Weeklies were becoming a lot less fun.

The City is picked up by The Village Voice (above). They only run it for a year, and, several years later for another six months, but at this point I can legitimately claim I was a Village Voice cartoonist!

2001: I seriously contemplated whether to retire the strip and concentrate on graphic novels. Now over 40, I could no longer write about being a young hipster. But both local papers, now owned by rival and viciously competitive media chains, made a a pitch for The City, so I decided to keep doing the strip, while working on graphic novels on the side. I took the better offer and jumped ship to Cleveland Scene (above), which trumpeted my defection. It was a tough decision and I had quite a few sleepless nights. It was hard leaving the paper I helped start, even if the current corporate product had little in common with that start-up rag. Much to my dismay, local media reported my move, which sets off mortar rounds between the two papers. This is the last time anyone really gave a shit about such things.

The City now appeared in about 40 papers. That's down considerably from five years previous, but all the remaining papers were all ones that paid their bills, which was a constant hassle in the alt biz. The scofflaws had all been ditched, as had college papers which were impossible to work with. I signed an exclusive contract with the media company from Phoenix that owned Cleveland Scene, a deal that put The City in 13 of their 14 papers, all in major cities. The lone holdout was SF Weekly, whose editor hated my stuff. It was known as a cut-throat company, but they always treated me pretty well. It's a deal that kept me producing The City for the rest of the decade. 

With the Dawn of the Dubya Regime (above, the sketch and finish of my first cartoon about the dumbass), The City became a political strip. I hadn't done much political humor since my ill-fated years as a daily editorial cartoonist in the mid-80s. Somewhat to my surprise, I discovered I was pretty good at it. 

The name of the strip was a bit confusing and cumbersome, however. The City... what the fuck does that mean? Far too generic a name in the dawning era of the search engine, too. Looking back, I probably should have re-titled the strip Derfcity or simply Derf. The strip format didn't fit standard screen widths either. Should have made it a horizontal rectangle. Not sure why I didn't do these things.

And then came that awful day in September. Virtually every political cartoonist in the country drew the exact same lame cartoon– the Towers burned as the Statue of Liberty buried her head in her hands– which was a blatant rip-off of the great Bill Mauldin's cartoon after JFK's assassination  with the statue of Lincoln in his Memorial doing the same. It's no surprise that half the editorial cartoonists in the country lost their jobs over the next five years. I went a different way with this True Story (above) about my two-year-old daughter talking to her stuffed animal, Becky Monkey. I cried like a baby as I drew it.

Tough to be a humorist in the weeks and months following 9/11. I cranked out three or four cartoons a week, a record output. Then everything returned depressingly back to normal as Dubya urged us all to do our patriotic duty and go Christmas shopping so Wall St. wouldn't suffer. 

The above strip was not well received by Bibleclutchers. That's putting it mildly. 

The above strip was one of the most controversial political cartoons I drew. In the post 9-11 era, as the country fractured along the great left-right fissure, any and all criticism of Bush and his Neocon cohorts was met with wails of outrage by his supporters. Let's rally behind our president, America! No matter how big a dumbass he is! It was a crazy time, when FoxNews ruled and scared, old, white people called the shots in America. The intertube had advanced to the point where the outraged throng could flood a paper with emails and comments. When this strip was published, I lost three papers, all of whom crumbled under an onslaught of complaints. It was, of course, an orchestrated campaign by those who wanted contrarian content muzzled.  Unfortunately, a few clueless editors couldn't see that, or maybe they agreed with those complaining. The overall performance of the media in the first few months after 9-11 was a low point in journalism history. 

One of the papers, in a large West Coast city, got offended I would even accuse them of such editorial cowardice. I got in an email war with basically the entire management staff. However, unbeknownst to offended editor, some of his underlings secretly emailed me and said, yeah, what you suspect is true, the paper buckled under pressure. The Times of Acadiana, a small weekly in red-state Louisiana was once a scrappy rag, but had just been purchased by Gannett Inc., one of the most craven of big media companies. The editor, some reassigned drone from the daily paper, freaked out after a torrent of complaints from outraged right-wingers and axed not only my strip, but all the weekly strips in the paper... just to be on the safe side!

2002: My first long-form comix project was released, Trashed #1, only a thin 60 pages, but it was a start. I was nominated for two Eisner Awards (I didn't win either). Trashed gets far more attention than The City ever received. Here it is (above) in Croatian! I realized I was onto something here.

Scene, which was put together with a template out of corporate HQ, didn't want covers from me, but requested monthly fullpage cartoons (like above) for the inside. Typically, these Derf Pages didn't really pay well enough to make it worthwhile. Weekly papers never did. But I had fun with them.

Drew this map (above) for the Chicago Reader's annual comics issue, where it ran as a double-page spread. It was such a hit, I offered it to other papers and around a dozen reprinted it. It wound up hanging in a couple museum shows, too, including one in Italy! 

The return label on a promotional mailer (above). I always tried to make these attention getters, since editors were peppered with mailings from cartoonists. I figured if I could catch their eye  and generate a "what the fuck?" before they tossed it in a pile that would never be opened, let alone read, I stood a chance. This one may have been one of those "too soon" things, however. When I took a stack of 150 mailers to the Post Office, the clerk flipped out! Guess she thought it was for real! I assured her it was a joke, and opened one up so she could see the cartoons. There was a very real chance she was buzzing the FBI as I stood there. Eventually, she calmed down, but grumbled what a tasteless asshole I was. Thinking quickly, I agreed, gathered up my envelopes and split, not because I thought she was right, but because I suspected if I tried to mail them at this branch, they'd all wind up in a dumpster. I went to another branch and the clerk there didn't even bat an eyelash. I wonder how many of these mailers got opened by postal inspectors en route?

The months leading up the the Second Iraq War were ripe with comedy fodder. Saddam challenged Dubya to a man-to-man duel. That's just pure gold, and it gave me the opportunity to work a Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo reference into a strip! Scratch that off the to-do list.

The first Iraq War, orchestrated by Bush the First, was a scary thing. None of us knew what was in store and most believed the dire warnings of chemical weapons, crack troops and maybe even nukes. It was obvious the second war was going to be a rout. It was also obvious it was total bullshit. Al Qaeda was in Afghanistan, so why were we invading Iraq? Only the weekly political cartoonists took this stand at the time, however. The mainstream guys drew cartoons of Uncle Sam rolling up his sleeve or a bald eagle screaming down on a rat (with the label "Saddam"), talons out. It was nauseating. Mainstream media didn't feel it was fiscally responsible bucking war fever.

2003: In February, I'm diagnosed with cancer. Despite being in chemo and radiation for the next 11 months, I never miss a strip deadline. But treatment shelves all my other projects. There went the momentum from my Eisner nominations. I had three graphic novel projects in various stages of development, including a White Middle Class Suburban Man book, but I just didn't have the gas.

My final strip (above) about Gen X. Also my final piercing gag. End of an era. Note that I'm doing three-panel strips now. When I started The City, sometimes strips would have six panels. As newspapers ran them ever smaller, I limited the layout to four panels. By 2003, the comix had shrunk even more, so I went to three. 

The newspaper war in Cleveland took a shocking turn as the two rival chains reached an unholy, back room deal. The Free Times was sold to Cleveland Scene and closed. The mob from Phoenix that owned Scene termed it a "merger," but the entire Free Times staff was fired. The Scene staff whooped it up, but I had quite a few friends at The Free Times. Having been on the bad end of a newspaper closing, I knew there was nothing to celebrate here. At least maybe now a weekly paper in this town could become big and profitable. It took the Justice Dept. but a few weeks to give a huge thumbs down to the whole deal. The Free Times was acquired by a third media chain and the war continued, more bitter than ever, with both papers doomed to remain in a death grapple until the end. Strangely, the exact same backroom deal in Los Angeles, between the same two media chains, was allowed to stand, despite it being a far more important market than Cleveland. It cost me my LA paper. 

The City: Collected was published by SLG Publishing. It was the best of the first dozen years of the strip.  I was finishing cancer treatment and the prognosis was good. I had long desired to release a book collection, but had gotten nothing but rejections. The City:Collected didn't sell much, like most strip collections, but it was a personal triumph to put it out.

Myspace was launched. Free social media quickly spelled the end of the personal ads in weeklies. Another lucrative revenue stream gone. Their doom is ensured, weeklies began their free fall into the tar pit.

2004: I signed a contract with Gocomics (above), the comics website operated by Universal Press Syndicate. This marked a tipping point. For all practical purposes, The City was primarily a webcomic from this point forward. I was just buying time. I knew it was a dead end.

2005: I drew a monthly Derf Page (above) for Cleveland Scene, but I just didn't have the sense that anyone was reading anymore. Used to be, I'd walk into my coffee shop and see dozens of people reading the weekly. The only person reading a copy in that same coffee shop now... was me.

Cleveland Scene put out a 35th anniversary issue and I was asked to draw a Derf Page. This was the hardest one I ever drew. First of all, I loathed the old locally-owned Scene, a lowbrow music rag for suburban stoners that was the bitter rival of my first two papers, The Edition and The Free Times. Scene, in fact, drove my beloved Edition out of business with some underhanded ad sales tricks, something I would never forgive. Secondly, Scene was now owned by the corporate mob from Phoenix, who had immediately fired everyone in the building when they took over the paper a few years earlier. I didn't want to dance on the graves of folks who had been given the boot. The whole thing made me quesy: out-of-town suits claiming the "history" of a publication they had nothing but contempt for and no connection with. Especially since I was also the only real Clevelander on staff. All the others were carpetbaggers. Most were outstanding, true, but they weren't local. So I just made shit up. That seemed a safe strategy. The issue was not terribly well-received by Cleveland readers, who knew damn well Scene was now nothing more than a cog in a multi-millionaire's media chain.

After finishing runner up to Tom the Dancing Bug for four years, the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies named The City its Cartoon of the Year. I got a nifty trophy at the association's annual convention, which was shattered on the plane ride home. 

I had lunch at the con with an old pal, a former alt-weekly editor and now a reporter for the NY Times. "The dirty little secret of this gathering," he told me, leaning over the table, "is that 90 percent of these papers suck."

I attended these cons every year to peddle my wares to editors, as did most of the other weekly cartoonists. This year, it was just me and Max Cannon. Neither of us got a nibble and spent much of the weekend at a nearby Tiki bar sipping Mai Tai's. It was great fun for that reason, but it was the last con I attended.

2006: On a whim, I submitted a portfolio of cartoons (some are above) to the Robert F. Kennedy Awards, second only to the Pulitzer in prestige. I won the damn thing! My selection, however,  resulted in a showdown at the RFK Memorial. Board chairman Kwame Holman, of The Lehrer News Hour, hated my cartoons and demanded that the judges pick another cartoonist. They refused and threatened to resign if the honor was snatched away from me. Eventually, Ethel Kennedy herself defused the situation and my selection was affirmed. It's never easy for me! Holman blew me off at the ceremony at Georgetown University. Needless to say, I never bothered to enter again.

This, along with the first year of The City, is the other notable era of the strip. Here in the dark depths of the Dubya Junta and the unfolding debacle that was the War on Terror, I was doing political satire that stacked up with anyone's, if I say so myself. Granted, the political cartooning genre was almost completely bankrupt, populated by lots of hacks and copycats who all drew identical cartoons. Big corporate dailies had no interest in provocative cartoons. The days of Bill Mauldin and Herblock and Paul Conrad were long over. 

It was a long way from the goofy Gen X humor of the early City, an entirely different strip really. To be perfectly honest, it wasn't a change I wanted. The cartoons were good, but I wasn't having as much fun.

Nor was I getting as much feedback. In 1990, a weekly paper was read by all sorts of people, with views spanning the political spectrum. That was no longer the case. Our society had split into two camps that only consumed the media that fit their politics. I felt I was preaching to the choir. That was ok, because lefties desperately needed a laugh or two during the interminable Dubya Era.

I buckled at last and started adding color (above)  to The City. Yep, I held out this long! B&W represented, to me, the DIY essence of the strip. Just a piece of bristol, a couple pens and a marker. I was reluctant to to give that up. 

Over the summer I wrote Punk Rock & Trailer Parks.

2007: Lynda Barry selected a portfolio of City strips for Best American Comics, the annual collection from Houghton-Mifflin which she guest-edited this year. Lynda had always been very complimentary about my strip. I've told her several times how inspirational her work was to me in the beginning, but she always looked very uncomfortable when I said that. Ha. The honor has absolutely no impact on my strip business. Editors could give a shit.

2008: As the Great Recession hit the newspaper biz like a tsunami, I lost over half my client papers in the first few months of the economic crisis! 

The reason? Corporate groupthink panic! When I first started the strip, I, like all my brethren, swiped Matt Groening's business model; self-syndicate to as many individual papers as possible so you'll never be reliant on one source of revenue in a business that is fickle, often economically fragile and constantly churning its content. What none of us anticipated was the rise of the alternative media chain! Media companies bought up locally-owned alt-weeklies, centralized their operations and, like all media companies, wildly swung the budget ax at the first sign of economic downturn. Comix were the first thing to go. Most chains in the weekly biz dumped all their comix, not just mine, this year. All at once and across the board. To the beancounters, comix were just a budget item, one that could be easily eliminated to pump up the bottom line just a tick. Comix were a "luxury" in a business that could no longer afford luxuries.

What they forgot, or maybe never knew, or maybe just didn't give a shit about, was the crucial role comix played in the rise of the weeklies. The only reason people picked up these free rags in the first place back in the Eighties was because they were filled with great comix. Before the intertube, weeklies were the only place you could read these things. It's no mystery that when weeklies started lopping the comix, their readership plummeted. You can't replace Tom the Dancing Bug or Red Meat with another 1-900 Hooker ad and expect people to stay interested.

From this point on, I focused primarily on graphic novels. It was an easy decision and The City moved to a back-burner. I'm not sure why I kept drawing it, to be honest. I was still doing good work, and still enjoyed it, so I soldiered on. But my priorities had shifted. I didn't even bother sending out promotional mailers anymore. Papers just weren't buying comix.

Ten years ago, I was a strip cartoonist who dabbled in graphic novels. In 2008, I was a graphic novelist who dabbled in comic strips! And the only reason it took me that long was because of my health issues. 

2009: The Cleveland newspaper war finally came to a sudden, stunning halt, as both papers were purchased by a THIRD out-of-town media chain, this one from Scanton, PA, which owned half a dozen other weeklies. The Free Times again closed, but this time the Free Times staff took over Scene, which HQ decided had a more recognizable name. The Phoenix company pulled out that day, cherry picked the staff and left the rest to face pink slips. The bizarrely empty newsroom was run by a disinterested skeleton staff for the last month. I patched things up with the Free Times publisher and joined the new Scene. I drew one last Derf Cover for the last ever issue of the Free Times (above). Seemed fitting.

One of the final Derf Covers (above) was one of the most talked about ever. When I was asked to do a cover for the annual Football Issue, a big deal here in Browns Town, this idea came to me in a flash of inspiration. It was the talk of the city.  Local tv and radio and the daily paper all did stories on it. Scores of readers took it at face value and demanded to know which players I was outing! Hilarious.

The publisher told me he spent his lunch hour on a bench outside the office and watched people walk by the newsbox, snap their heads around when they caught a glimpse of the cover through the display, then grab a copy and stare at it in disbelief! Witnessing something like that was such a rush. That's what it's like to matter, even if it's just to bring a brief laugh or a bellow of outrage or whatever. I never got tired of that, but as weeklies changed and fewer and fewer people bothered to read them, it's something that became ever rarer. In fact, this cover was the last time that happened in Cleveland.

Early optimism quickly went sour, as the new owners slashed the budget to the bare minimum. I can't figure out why they even bought the paper if they were going to run it this way.

2009: The end (above) of the long national nightmare that was the Dubya Regime took a lot of energy out of the strip. I was tired of writing political stuff. This was yet another point where I logically could have, and probably should have, shut it down. 

Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, my first major graphic novel was released. Scene put it on the cover (above). Scene could no longer afford to buy covers from me. I gave them this one for free, since it was a nice promotion for PR&TP.

PR&TP sold modestly, it turns out for reasons out of my control, but the critical reception launched my career as a graphic novelist, my late renaissance. I began working in earnest on My Friend Dahmer immediately after the release of PR&TP.

But then...

Radiation damage from cancer treatment seven years earlier had so fucked me up, I was forced to undergo emergency open heart surgery. I penned a farewell strip and gave it to a friend with instructions to send it out if I didn't make it. I lost an entire year to recovery, but still didn't miss a strip deadline. I drew the above strip in my hospital room the day before surgery. Had to send it out in B&W.

There was something comforting about having that weekly deadline. I could barely walk up a flight of stairs, but I could sit on the couch with a lap board and scribble out a comic strip. I needed that routine. So I kept going. Work until you die, that was my motto.

All in all, a tough decade. My body fell apart like a 1975 Chrysler, and the industry I loved was obviously dying, but I accomplished things I never dreamed of when I began first scribbling cartoons at Ohio State all those years ago.

End of Part 2.