My first writings were drawings, usually on the back of unused mimeographed tests my dad brought home from his teaching job at C.W. Post College on Long Island. Drawings of adventures in space, life on other planets. Snicklefritz the Pony and Farmer Schmilding, characters my dad made up and entertained us with at bedtime or on long drives. Dreams and fantasies.
Stapled together, the mimeographed sheets sometimes gave themselves to a kind of sequence. Sometimes a story emerged. A visual story. A comic book of sorts.
After my parents divorced when I was five, my dad married an artist, and her son Keith Crook was a huge comic book fan. I was in awe of his trunk of comic books — strictly Marvel, whereas I had always leaned towards DC — Superman and all that. Keith was a great artist with a stupendous imagination, so I tagged along and we drew comics together, sometimes derivative of what we were reading, eventually creating our own characters and cutting them out and playing with them in actual physical space.
My mom and my siblings moved away, upstate to the farm she grew up on, and at the same time I went off to boarding school in western Massachusetts. I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up, but algebra and chemistry snuffed that dream, so I turned to my other love, which was writing stories. At the University of Oregon my new dream of becoming a fiction writer was crushed by Professor Richard Lyons, who said that my stories sounded like something written by one of those guys on a Haight-Ashbury street corner waving his mimeographed manuscript around haranguing passers-by to buy it. Obviously I was heavily influenced by my dad’s mimeographed tests. Also by the fiction I was reading in my other English classes, stuff by Alain Robbe-Grillet and Jorge Luis Borges. After I recovered from Lyon’s wounds, I realized that was I was writing were twenty-page long poems, so I turned towards writing poetry.
One of my mentors, Tony Hoagland, once said to me that he was a slow learner at the art of poetry, but he had nothing on me in terms of being slow. On top of that defect, I also needed a paying job, so I became a high school English teacher, which made me an even slower learner. Classes at Writers & Books in Rochester, NY, and the MFA Program in poetry at Warren Wilson College helped accelerate my progress; hence, it only took me about thirty years of taking poetry seriously to publish my first book.
I retired last June, which has given me more time for writing, but now something else has come up: comics. My wife, Leah, has always preferred my doodles and the comics I drew for party invitations to my poetry, and when her friend Alex Sanchez told her he was auditing a class on drawing comics at Monroe Community College, she urged me to take it. I have.
The class is called Comics and Sequential Art, and is taught by this great teacher and madman, Franzie Weldgen. The course title comes from comic book artist Will Eisner, who conceived the idea that comics are a form of visual narrative. Eisner was instrumental in legitimizing the genre of the graphic novel.
Franzie is 100% enthused about comics, and lectures some on technique and careers, a lot on different comic artists and styles (Wally Wood, Joe Sacco), and tells a ton of stories. What I most appreciate is his way of giving positive and specific feedback to his students. I’ve never heard him utter a negative word about his students’ work, and yet he always has ideas — sometimes directly delivered, sometimes obliquely — about how the student can move forward. I’m talking about young and old students alike.
Franzie comes up with great assignments. On the first day of class, he had students brainstorm and then vote on a theme for an assignment for the college comic anthology. The minute we decided on the theme of “Magic,” I knew I wanted it to be about my Dad. Dad was literally into magic when I was little, and dressed up as a clown in whatever he had lying around, like his old Oberlin College sweater and a pajama top, plus greasepaint. He also invested in a set of magic tricks which I used to play with after the divorce, trying not to actually cut off my finger with the rusty blade of the trick finger-guillotine.
Eventually, his love of magic blended with the 60s, and he got really into New Age culture. He believed he was channeling Rasputin, and also that herbal supplements were going to help him live to 100. Sepsis, contracted in the hospital where he had been admitted for internal bleeding related to prostate surgery (and aggravated by some of the supplements he was taking), took his life when he was 73.
Below is the final product of my “Magic” comic, and drafts. First efforts, but I’m working to better my skill with poetry and this form. I’ll call it “sequential lyric,” if you don’t mind. Not so narrative, but still in some kind of order, resonating with the process of thought or feeling, as in poetry.