Sunday, January 06, 2008

Comic Book Entrepreneur at the Dawn of the Indie Age

As the Seventies stumbled to a close, I found myself at a Ramones concert just before Christmas with an ascendant case of the flu, which my girlfriend attempted to nurse with a few tiny tiny spoonfuls of cocaine. Never liked that awful stuff too much, the flu had it's way with me, yet somehow I survived the show and made it through the next week and a half to the Eighties with my newly minted Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (and perhaps enough money to last two weeks if I stuck to beans & rice).

This was something of a comedown from where I'd parked my psychological living space for my undergraduate years. Fact is, getting my art degree (with a focus on painting) was a bit of a dodge, a pleasant enough way to be “going to college” while I pursued my real education, which was comprised of writing & drawing a daily comic strip for the school newspaper. The Massachusetts Daily Collegian offered four or five much coveted slots to students to work out their chops on the comics page. By my second semester, I talked my way into grabbing a spot there, and held it for the next four years until graduating.

Luckily, my strip Aluminum Foil captured the zeitgeist of the moment, and the strip was widely appreciated at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a diploma factory of gargantuan proportions, that once earned the dubious distinction of being Playboy magazine's party school of the year. Aluminum Foil chronicled the adventures of Gerald (a stoner foilhead/everyman) and his sidekick Benb (a dapper, overweight, mute smiling scarecrow).

The highlight of the UMass social calendar was of course Halloween. At UMass in the late Seventies, Halloween was nothing less than a weekend long, full on psychedelic pagan bacchanal. Hordes of tripping, costumed students would converge on the concourse of the campus center building for a convivial mass celebration of All Hallows Eve. It was something to behold, especially for me, as many of the party goers would be dressed as Benb & Gerald (Gerald in particular being the easy costume—just fashion a helmet of Aluminum Foil, poke some eye holes in it, roll a fat doobie for a prop, and there you are!).

Which brings us back to January 1980. There I am, ego inflated beyond all reasonable proportion after four years of basking in the glow of the successful run of comics, with barely enough money for a six pack of beer. What to do? I tried a standard forty hour job for all of six weeks, working on the loading dock of a down market department store for minimum wage. This was depressing (in the dead of a freezing ass cold western Massachusetts winter, no less), and the final straw came when the boss instructed me to drown a cute little mole that had invaded the warm store during one particularly nasty freeze. Not willing to whack a mole for minimum wage, I released the little guy into the frozen tundra and resigned.

Having some experience with screen printing T Shirts, I started freelancing wholesale shirt jobs (always a popular product when it's twenty degrees outside!). This took care of keeping food in my belly and a roof overhead, but how to sweep the world of cartooning with my (obviously) unparalleled genius?!

In retrospect, it's clear to me now that I came pre-installed with the “publishing gene”. This is a genetic quirk whereby an artist or writer can (by some mysterious alchemy) justify shoveling pots and pots of money into the never ending project of publishing their precious works. To say I was burning up to get started in the field is an understatement. It was pretty much all I could think about.

I'd managed to save $150.00 from my heroic efforts on the loading dock. Armed with the idea of collecting the best of my college strips into a one hundred page volume, I dropped by a local printer to get an estimate on having books produced. Turns out they wanted nine hundred bucks to do a run of five hundred, a bit beyond my means. Just about then, an important adjunct to the publisher gene kicked in, and I became a financier as well.

Turns out one of my housemates, Betsy Hilborn, an amiable, fun loving & somewhat cynical nursing student, has been listening to me chatter about my plans and offered to pony up most of the funds for my initial publishing effort. So with $600.00 from Betsy, my paltry $150.00 is savings and another $150.00 coaxed out of my dubious parents, I threw my hat into the ring as a comics publisher.

I had penned some four hundred plus daily strips during the run of Aluminum Foil. I figured I'd publish them over two volumes, with the first one hundred page volume featuring two strips per page. I hauled my strips down to the print shop, and within a couple weeks I had five hundred copies of Benb & Gerald in hand!

Although I was a completely naive amateur, I left no stone unturned over the next several weeks in an effort to sell the books. As I'd promised Betsy that I would pay her back within a couple months, I sprung into action like a man sitting on a hot stove—I was determined to be as good as my word.

The first step was to stage a publishing party. It was my good fortune to be friends with Carl Mayfield, lead guitarist and vocalist for Martian Highway, a local party band with a strong following. Carl was an accomplished illustrator as well, and we jammed on an 11” x 17” poster for a Martian Highway gig that would double as a costume ball / publishing party.

Given the tenor of the times, Carl hit on the clever idea that we would print the poster in silver ink on black paper. Why? To make it look like a giant hit of blotter acid, of course! Sitting down with our drawing gear and a stack of late Seventies punk rock and Grateful Dead records (go figure), we created a gorgeous drawing featuring Benb & Gerald driving a late model Ford with an electric, glowing Martian in the back seat. Carl added the requisite typography, and we scribbled a manic cast of characters over every square inch of the art, including the first image of my future lead character, Dog Boy (although I did not name him in this drawing, the fully formed image was there).

One wag suggested that we were quite bold to produce a silver on black poster that was “virtually unreadable”; I had no problem reading the poster myself! We papered the UMass campus and local towns with the poster. It stood out like a beacon to those in the know, and the party was well attended by costumed, tripping revelers.

Green kid that I was, I felt disappointment with selling 33 books at the party, and another 40 or so from my prepublication advertising and marketing. In retrospect, I recognize that it was a pretty good first day as a small time publisher, making a nice dent in the money I owed Betsy. The following month saw me hawking books in front of the UMass campus center building dressed as Gerald, replete with Aluminum Foil mask (but only once—too embarrassing!), making a critical connection with the book buyer at the campus bookstore, and placing books in every local book & record shop that would take a few.

With the unrelenting verve & energy of youth, I managed to make the whole thing work and somehow sold enough copies to pay back the loan to Betsy ahead of time. Other key breaks came along, for example I received a positive review from cartoonist Jay Kinney in a column he was then writing about underground comix for Heavy Metal magazine—this one review alone sold a good thirty books via mail order.

By the time mid summer rolled around, I'd sold all but a handful of my run of five hundred books, turning a modest profit. Considering I'd had a near captive audience of 20,000 daily for four years in the Amherst – Northampton area, it wasn't unreasonable for me to assume I could pull it off. In any case, it was a remarkable initiation into the rough & tumble world of comics publishing for me, making a profit my first time out despite being almost completely ignorant of the biz. It whetted my taste for further adventures into the world of indie comics publishing at the dawn of the Eighties.


Anonymous said...

Hey Steve. I found this blog while Googling of all things "Martian Highway." I think about Carl and Peter from time to time and wonder what became of them. I stay in touch with a few Happy Valley comrades from the 77-81 time frame, and we do have reunions, more or less frequently. My buddy Neal (you may remember him as "Stoney") and I were thumbing thru my autographed copy of the Aluminum Foil book last fall. I'm waiting (still) for it to be a collector's item. Naaa, it is and always has been!

All the best,

ps what happens when Benb eats Froot Loops?

Anonymous said...

I was also present 77-81 in the Happy Valley.I attended the dorms for a bit and then lived in Northhampton. I fondly remember the comic strip and loved seeing my old friends Gerald and Benb on your blog. I saw the Rathskellar (Rat Cellar) is defunct....oh how I loved that place; the beer, the weed and the pinball machines. Who needs libraries?

All the best,

Chris Doyle SF, Ca.

Steve Lafler said...

Yup, the rathskeller in the basement of the Drake was one fine place to down about seven Rolling Rocks out of the bottle on a hot September evening in the late 70s!
The positive vibe and energy of Amherst/NHamp in that era still informs my approach to life and aht!

Anonymous said...

Ha! Steve & Bart, it's Petah Mahshun heah. How cool to find a bit of Alumartian history on this here Web-thang. Hope everyone's well. Say Hi to Stoney for me. I inhabit the Pittsburgh, PA sector currently and am doing just fine, thanks. Twirl on, Dudes.

Steve Lafler said...

Wow, Pete Martian! Cool. Hope you are still playing a bit of guitar. I sure had a lot of fun seeing you guys play back in the day. Still amazing to think about all the blotter I gobbled up back then... probably about 100 plus hits in a three year stretch, if memory serves me.
My conclusion: I'd do it all again in a heartbeat!

William Charlton said...

Hi Steve, finding your blog by accident brought back some memories long lost, like stopping by your house in sudbury with Mark Verhey to smoke some fatties and listen to the new Jeff Beck album on your brand new Nikko stereo, later meeting you again at the big-smoke in at Amherst while living in JQA. Sadly I don't have a copy of Benb and Gerald to laugh at today. Reprint in the future? Happy to read of your successes.
Bill Charlton

Steve Lafler said...

Hey Bill, great to get your comment. Can't believe to hear from you with our encounters being so distant past. I certainly remember Mark with a smile, we had lots of fun. Mark had the distinction of proudly being the worst cross country runner I've ever met! He used to hide in the woods during races, then he'd pop out at the end and finish last. Hilarious.

Anonymous said...

So, Twirley Dudes,

I am in the process of having my analog music turned into digital music. So the Martian Highway 'CD's came with a picture of one of Carl's posters. I did a search to see where the guy found it and found that site, and this one.

This is ej (Eric Johnson). I ran into you Steve when we lived in Burlington, VT ~1983~ Met your sister in the shoe store she worked at 'cause I had my Martian Highway/BENB t-shirt on(we spent one New Years Eve with our siblings as I recall). I then tracked you down in CA having discovered Dog Boy. I've been wondering where you went so it's fitting that I find you because of the Martians. I was wondering were Peter went (I ran into him as I was moving my way back to the Happy Valley and last I knew he was in CT).

I still run into Stoney, and Bart, every now and then.
The Drake (and the cellar, where, "anyone caught smoking a joint will be given a tresspassing notice") holds fond memories.

So, if you're will doing comics let me know where to take a gander.

And now that I have The Martians in digital form, copies are easy.

I'm in the Noho, MA phone book,

p.s. hi bart, hi peter("fewwww")

Steve Lafler said...

Hey Eric, So you are in N'Hamp? You've come full circle! I would like to get ahold of Martian music. As for me and my comics, just do a google search on Steve Lafler + graphic novels and you will pop up with lots of options, I'd recommend "BugHouse" as my best overall book. I'm now living in Oaxaca in Mexico, working on my next graphic novel to be called El Vocho, I'm posting it as I go here

I've fallen in with a group of ex pats who get together on Thurs night to play guitars. AFter being a lazy lazy guitar player for nearly 3 decades, I'm digging in and learning to play, and it's a fucking ball. Carl had showed me a few chords in like '80 but I never did too much with it until now.
Anyway, I last heard from Carl around '94, he was living in Seattle at the time. I wonder what happened to him???
Great to get a note from you Eric! Give my regards to the Happy Valley, I truly miss it (I grew up near Amherst, in Longmeadow).

Anonymous said...

Howdy Steve. Loved Aluminum Foil. Anyone remember the Collegian comic strip from the mid 80's that featured a rectangular dog and a guy with a square head? I cant rememebr the name or the author. Thanks. Jeff B

Anonymous said...

Hey Steve,

Best $600.00 I ever invested.


Steve Lafler said...

And it's still payin' out, Betsy!

Anonymous said...

Don't know what made me google "Benb"... maybe the thought that maybe he and Gerald were still out there somewhere. Anyway, I'm glad I did since I found this blog. Brought back many fine memories of opening the Collegian right to the comics so I could get my day started with a good laugh before my first class at 11:15. For some reason, I still to this day draw Benb's head and leave his image staring at people from unlikely places, I guess hoping to trigger a good memory from an old UMie., or a "What the hell is that?" from someone else. Or maybe I simply stared at him too many times while under the influence of an illicit drug, and he's permanently etched in my brain.

Best Wishes,
John '79
Pittsford, VT

Steve Lafler said...

Hey John, sounds like Benb has become one with your genetic code.

Steve Lafler said...

Martian Highway fans, it would appear that the lead guitarist of said band may be reached at the following:
virulenttwirlist "at"


Anonymous said...

Hey Steve,

Like others, I Googled Benb on a whim after going through my bookcase looking for an envelope for my taxes and came across a stack of Dogboys, Buzzard and Guts that I bought when the internet was a baby.

Doubt you'd remember me. I was a freshman and you were a senior when we hung out one afternoon at Puffer's Pond with a bunch of guys from Sylvan (Eddie Coleman, Jay Something and others). We sparked a fat guy and I sat and watched you draw Aluminum Foil freehand right there on the spot. I even remember that Benb, upon returning from spending time with pygmies, had made Guido's head to ten times it's normal size, something that bummed Guido to no end until he realized what a great Halloween costume this would make. But after carefully figuring out how many shrooms he need to take for the big bnight based on his new head size, Benb burst into the room andf changed Guido's head back to0 normal, eliciting a refrain that my UMass friends and I still use to this day..."Very funny, I'll end up tripping my brains out!"

Meeting you sent me to the Collegia. Alas, unable to draw, I spent a couple of years as the Sports Editor and columnist, eventually having a career in journalism and later, as a speech and script writer.

I've always wanted to reach out and find you to say thanks. You were such a hot shit that one day that it essentially changed the trajectory of my life. In homage, I ended my UMass "career" as well as my newspaper career by quoting, as you did to close Aluminum Foil, with the immortal Dead line..."lately it occurs to me...what a long strange trip it's been..."

So thank you, Steve Laffler. I wish you the best,

Jim Floyd UM Class of '82 (yes, the journalism five-year plan)

Bart said...

Wow look what I started :) I'm on the phone with Neal now . . . hopefully he can figure out how to post here.

Eric -- I'd love to get some digital Highway moosic! I had a couple of sound board cassettes back in the day, but they are long gone.

Peetah! Very cool to hear from you! Neal and I would love to catch up with you sometime and shoot the bull. Honestly we talk about you from time to time, all in a good light.

Any and all of you degenerates are invited to email me -- bart001 at usa dot net.

Bonus nostalgia trivia: I know the "motivation" for the Lord of the Flies Song -- I saw it many times hanging in your kitchen in . . was that Sunderland?

PS: Fondest Carl memory was him and me "exploring" the Mass. State House on a rainy summer Saturday(?) in Boston; the scheduled Booze Cruise had been rained out.

PPS: One of those early for-hire T-shirt jobs you did, Steve, was commissioned by Neal -- our "Super Tuba" t-shirts.

Anonymous said...

wowza - I don't even know where to start...

yes Bart - see what you started ? I too am a proud owner of an original signed by artiste Aluminum Foil - a true collector's item. I used to hide it from my kids on the same closet shelf as the porn mags. Still not sure which could be more destructive to their psychies.

Great mention of the Drake. A bunch of us ex-Ummies from the Boston area heard they were tearing it down and went up to 'close it in style' or - lack thereof.

Anyway we ended up bartering with the bartenders for the beer signs and furnishings. When we went out to the parking lot with our 'loot' and some celebratory ballons ('nuff said) we were approached by the local constabliatory who had no idea what were were doing - I am not sure if they were more confused about the N2O tank or the graffiti filled men's room door that we had leaning up against the car !

Anyway - great to (try) to remember all the great memories from those days again. Times sure are less fun these days but then again it would be near impossible to recreate them.

take care

Neal (aka Stoney)
- soon to be grandpa to twins(yikes)

Petah - e-mail Bart and he will give you my info - I am in PA too !

Anonymous said...

How about you folks make some of that digital Hyw available to the great unwashed masses?

Tyroan said...

Twirlys -- that's what we play
Every night and every day!

Bartolo said...

Dang this thread died. I want my dig-it-al Marshun moosic! I'll have to seek out Eric . . .

Email me: bart001 at usa dot net

Foggy Notion said...

Still looking for someone to post that archival Martian audio out here to the web somewhere.

You know ho you are and you know you've goi it: Help out an old Valley hippie who's down on his luck and paste it up in a DropBox account somewhere....

Anonymous said...

Following a night of partying which leads to Gerald getting sick...the last frame..."Benb felt left out he cut loose to...*Sploosh*...sick through the eye holes...without question your best and most memorable momentever!

Steve Lafler said...

I forgot about that. Good one for Benb. Hooray for Foil!
By the way, I'm going to be at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon art in NYC on July 12 with my new "Complete Bughouse" book. I'm bringin' my guitar too for a "Oaxacabilly" interlude. Special guests may appear to help with la musica.

Unknown said...

Hiyas Spacewalkers! This is Joeno of said Martian jam band...,am living in Springfield,would like to get in touch with anyone who was there in the "Ancient Archaic Spaced-out era"!Still playing drums,just down to earth jamming...,

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