“Don’t play with fire”, I remember someone once telling me when I was a kid, although it wasn’t my mother or father. They weren’t full of parental advice.
Growing up with little in the way of adult supervision, I would frequently buy a box matches from the man in the The Soda Shoppe because a box of matches was one of the few things you could buy for a penny in those days and it seemed like a good investment considering all that you could do with fire. I played with fire but I never got burned. I got burned all the time as a kid, but never by fire.
I began drawing on blank match book covers around 1988, during an especially obsessive period in my life during which I was spending most of my waking hours lettering comic books for Marvel. Lettering comic books 14 hours a day is not particularly creative. Like any artist, I needed an outlet for my creativity.
Drawing on paper seemed somewhat intimidating to me then. There was so much space, ninety-three point five square inches, to be precise. The possibilities were scary. There was just so much that could go wrong in a drawing of that size. I needed something smaller, where the space would be somewhat restricted, as I sensed the scope of my imagination needed limitations.
Almost by accident, I chanced upon the perfect small space for my drawings, especially given the limited time I had to devote to such non-commercial endeavors.
The kind that collected in the bottoms of cigarette machines in bars.
One day, I discovered as I was emptying out my pockets that I often had three or four in my pants pockets after hanging out the previous evening at Smokestacks Lightning, The Nancy Whiskey Pub, Lucky Strike, The Broome Street Bar, Puffy’s or Magoo’s—where I parted with a small fortune in between 1977 and 1987.
One good thing that came out of all this was about 1,000 drawings on blank matchbook covers.
They say, “Nature abhors a vacuum”. And this was never more true as it pertained to my relationship with any blank white space.
I think the first drawing I did on a blank matchbook was of a man’s bald head. I hadn’t yet figured out how to draw hair.
Soon, I was drawing men’s hats from an old catalogue I had found somewhere. Hats held a particular fascination for me since childhood, since my father wore a hat, as did most men when I was a child, and I came to associate hats with manhood. So there are matchbooks with line drawings of fedoras and homburgs.
Another catalogue I picked up somewhere had wonderful illustrations of tools in it.
Blank matchbooks were soon unblanked with small, gem-like and detailed drawings of saws, drills and hammers.
Thanks to all that lettering I had been doing in comics, combined with my fine motor coordination, I had become quite adept at putting down tiny lines exactly where I wanted them using a Hunt’s #102 flexible pen point and a small jar of Higgins #4418 Black India Ink.
Before long, the floodgates of my troubled mind had been thrown wide open and every manner of psycho, convict, ex-convict, loser, schlub, moron and assorted weirdo came poring out of my head, ran down my arm to my fingers, which let them all escape onto one of my many blank match book covers where they remain trapped to this very day.
But pictures alone were not enough. Some literary explanation seemed called for.
Strange things need to be explained.
Fortunately, when the ink was dry, flipping the no-longer-blank matchbook over revealed another blank surface. This seemed as good a place as any to add a name and a little “story” about the person depicted on the other side.
One night I was out walking my dog in the neighborhood when I noticed a shoe store with what I thought was an attractive and artistic display in its window. Remembering that I had once read that one of my art heroes, Andy Warhol, had done drawings of shoes for I. Miller I walked the dog back up to the apartment and came back with my pen and ink and stood there in the darkness and drew “portraits” of the shoes in the lighted store window.
They were nice enough to pose for me.
The next afternoon, I took the drawings into the shoe store, “Tootsi Plohound”, and showed them to the people who were working there. They liked them and placed each little drawing next to its shiny black counterpart.
If I had had any friends at the time, which I did not, I would have invited them to stand around outside the shoe store after closing time with a beer or a glass of wine and perhaps eat little cubes of yellow cheese off a tray with crackers on it.
Around this time, June of 1988, I think I heard on the radio that the famous “underground cartoonist” Robert Crumb would be making a rare public appearance at a store on 8th Street near Sixth Avenue, called The Psychedelic Solution. I had grown up about the same time as Crumb, we had both seen and been influenced by the same newspaper and comic book art and I thought my style and my drawings on matchbooks–and his– were somewhat reminiscent of that style. I decided to go and meet the great artist and give him three of my drawings on blank matchbooks. Remembering from art school that “presentation is everything,” I carefully wrapped the three drawings on matchbooks up in black paper and tied the little package with a silver ribbon.
When I arrived at the venue, there was already a long line all the way down the block. To my temporary disappointment, I discovered that people had already crammed themselves into the building like crosshatching in one of Crumb’s drawings. To make matters worse, the fire marshals weren’t allowing anyone else inside except when other people left. I took my place in line along with hundreds of others and waited for hours.
When my turn finally came to have my moment with the greatest cartoonist who ever lived, as if on cue, I found him characteristically horsing around with a couple of young beauties. He was the living, breathing, fooling-around, fun-loving counterpart to one of his drawings of himself.
“I brought you a present,” I declared from ten feet away.
Eyeing me somewhat warily, as I was dressed all in black and with my black Wayfarer® sunglasses, he slowly asked the woman to his left,
“Would you accept a package… like THIS….. from a guy… who looks like THAT?”
“Robert Crumb thinks I’m weird”, I thought.
I momentarily pondered the possibility of having that printed up onto a T-shirt.
Upon opening the package, “R” took a long, slow look at my drawings– and then told me that he, too had done drawings on blank matchbook covers.
And there I was…. thinking I had been the only one.