Sunday, July 10, 2005

Low Rent Start Up

The Green Duck needed a new transmission—BAD! Like last week. It groaned with an industrial, metal-on-metal fervor. Let me stop here and proffer a key bit of advice: When you are a near penniless college student, and you need a car, you will, by definition, be buying at the low end of the market. Under no circumstances are you to buy a used Rambler American, formerly owned by the telephone company. The good news is that chances are real slim there days of running into said vehicle.

Sadly, this was not the case for me. In the summer of ’77, I needed cheap wheels, and through some quixotic lack of logic, I romanticized the used, industrial green Rambler with the three-on-the-tree transmission as quite a cool set of wheels. Boy, was I wrong.

So there I was six months later, my beloved Rambler in pathetic condition, barely running. It was December 1977, at the beginning of the six week semester break inflicted on UMass students by dint of some institutional lack of vision. What is a college student supposed to do at Mom and Dad’s house for six weeks in the middle of the snowy, frozen-ass winter? With a ramshackle Rambler needing a couple hundred bucks worth of transmission work, and little prospect of employment, even if the alleged car actually worked?

I hit on a plan to fix the Green Duck. I had no idea what would happen once my car was fixed, but I figured I’d think of something. Well, at least I could round up my pals, get a few six packs, and drive around drinking on slippery, icy, winding, narrow New England roads, one solution to the hopelessness of trying to score a six week job in the middle of the winter, in the middle of a recession.

Rooting around in the attic, I ferreted out my collection of hundreds, if not thousands, of Marvel comics I’d collected between the ages of ten and fifteen. This was the good stuff, the real deal. The Jack Kirby run of Fantastic Four, Thors, and more. The John Romita (senior) Spiderman’s. The Gene Colan Daredevil’s, and of course, The complete 24 issue run of Conan the Barbarian drawn by Barry Smith. Although these had been sacred objects to me for years, by the age of twenty I’d had a radical shift in priorities. The fascinations of my adolescence had faded, so I determined to pawn my Marvel collection and fix my damn car. The prospect of wrestling with one of my bevy of home town girl friends in the back seat of the Green Duck easily trumped the glory of re-reading even Jack (the King) Kirby.

Between Christmas and New Years, on a “warm” and sunny day of forty degrees or so, I set out on the perilous journey to a comic shop some thirty miles form my parents house in Sudbury (twenty miles west of Boston) that expressed an interest in buying the books. Heaving with what seemed like it’s death throes, I grimly piloted my ramshackle Rambler to the shop in Brockton, just south of Boston, where some pale, scrawny pathetic geek with a limp hank of greasy black hair ripped me off blind, giving me $212.00 in ramsom for these mags that had been the cornerstone of my adolescence. Retail on these books at the time would have been well in excess of $1500.00, but my business & negotiating acumen was far off in my future in 1977.

Still, I knew it was a raw deal, but I needed the bucks. Shrugging off the sellers’ remorse, I stopped in to see my pal Steve Beaupre at Strawberry Records, where he worked, on the way home in Framingham. I picked up Frank Zappa’s Uncle Meat, and the infamous double live LP know as “Skullfuck”, by the Grateful Dead, and my mood markedly improved.

By the time I was driving off with these new tunes to play on mom and dad’s giant console stereo, I’d solved the problem of what to do about work over the too-long winter break. I was going to print t-shirts of my cartoon characters and sell them! I had a popular daily strip in the UMass college paper entitled “Aluminum Foil”, featuring Gerald, a foil head, and Benb, a sort of smiling, zen-scarecrow, fat idiot. How was I going to sell t-shirts to UMass students over winter break? Good question. Big Picture thinking was not my forte either, at the tender age of twenty.

In any case, I stopped in at the local art supply store and bought some water based speedball t-shirt ink, a cheesy speedball “hobbyist” screen printing kit that included a small screen, a squeegee, an exacto knife, and a roll of “nu-film”, which was hand cut laquer based screen printing film. Total outlay, about thirty three bucks. I was in business!

That evening, I stumbled through the basics, and printed my first t-shirt in my parents basement, a nice drawing of Gerald the foilhead, in a Crumb inspired “truckin” pose. I actually did find one small shirt job over the break, doing a couple dozen shirts for a friends’ band. As for the Green Duck and the new transmission, I spent my way through my small stake in no time, and my mom and dad bailed me out, paying for the new tranny. Spoiled college kid!

When I got back to school at the end of January, I did indeed manage to move a few shirts each week adorned with my characters, but I quickly (and unexpectedly) found myself in demand as a wholesale screen printer. The student credit union, several dorms, student clubs and the like descended on me, asking that I print their shirts. I began to bootleg shirts for everything from concerts to track meets, making more money faster than I ever had. For years, I would see people wearing my “Amherst Smoke In” T-Shirts.

It was great to make enough money to have a car, take out girls, go to concerts and all that good stuff, but first and foremost, the appeal to me has always been the exhilarating freedom of having no boss.

The odd thing about my experience is that I truly followed the path of least resistance in order to make a living. It worked; the way was clear. This has served me as an artist also. Although I am a cartoonist, I never truly desired to follow in any of the well worn cartoon career paths. A mainstream daily strip, whether funny or adventure, was too commercial a beast for my sensibilities. Ditto political cartooning. I was not drawn to animation. And although I enjoyed superhero stuff as a kid, I had, and have, no interest in doing kid stuff, or genre stuff. The original underground cartoonists provided a clue: Use cartooning as a formal art form, a vehicle to express your own vision.

Having a solid commercial self employment base in screen printing literally set me free to be the artist I have wanted to be. I am without interference from the demands of the commercial marketplace, or even the ebbs and flows of fashion, and trend, in the small world of “art” comics. It has been my good fortune, and indeed my plan, to grant myself the freedom to commune with my own peculiar muse, manifesting the odd and wonderful as I see fit.

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