All posts by richardlowellparker

Rick Parker is an American artist, cartoonist, and humor writer well known in the comics world as the artist of MTV's Beavis and Butt-Head Comic Book (published by Marvel Entertainment 1994-1996). He is also the writer and artist of the self-published graphic novel, "Deadboy", as well as being the illustrator of the Papercutz Slices parody series of graphic novels, "Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid", "Harry Potty and the Deathly Boring", "breaking down", (a Twilight parody), "Percy Jerkson and the Ovolactovegetarians", "The Hunger Pains", and "The Farting Dead". Rick Parker was one of the four artists of The Pekar Project, which brought new original illustrated stories of autobiographical comics pioneer, Harvey Pekar to the web in 2009-2010. Rick Parker resides in Maine with his family where he draws cartoons, teaches cartooning and writes this blog.

The Matchbook Drawings

One evening, over 30 years ago, after a night out, at about two in the morning, when emptying my pockets, I noticed that I had several blank matchbooks in my pocket which I had taken from the bottom of a cigarette machine in some bar somewhere.

I had taken them, not because I smoked, but because they were free–and I thought, might otherwise “prove useful somehow”. I found this same situation repeated itself and in this manner I accumulated a large number of them.

Generally, I’d throw them into a drawer next to my drawing table.

Needing to break the day-to-night monotony of lettering page after page of comics,  I would often reach for one of these little blank squares upon which to inscribe some kind of picture. Even just a little bit of drawing provided me with much needed respite from the tedium of hand- lettering page after page of comics.

At first, I meticulously copied engraved black and white images of hats from an old men’s wear catalog I had found in the trash while out walking the dog. Then, I went through a period of drawing hammers and saws, tools based on images from an old hardware catalog.

Then I’d flip the matchbooks over and carefully letter the salient information from the listing on the other side.

At some point, perhaps an evening when I was feeling particularly stressed, wondering where my ex was, and when, or even IF she would be coming home, I reached for a blank matchbook and drew on it.

In a matter of a minute or two at most, a forlorn-looking face peered back at me. I stared down at him (it was always a him) wondering from what dark recess of my psyche he had come.

Strangely, I would feel an odd sense of relief.

I sensed that there were others like him, still inside my head, desperate to be let out. So I’d dip my pen in ink and draw another.

And another.

They all seemed to have something in common. They looked like inmates in some kind of penal colony or escapees from a mental institution.

After drawing the face on the front, I would flip the matchbook over and give him a name, and a hometown, and write a sentence or two about him.

They all seemed to have even more troubles than I had.

In fact, the whole process was SO liberating that actually I found it difficult to go back to lettering the comics pages!

Subsequently, when out for the evening with my ex, the first thing I did, even before we sat down, was to check the cigarette machine for more blank matchbooks.

Soon I was stopping work and leaving home in the middle of the afternoon and rushing around on foot to the different bars in my neighborhood in search of more blank matchbooks upon which to draw.

Soon, I discovered a company name in tiny writing on one of the matchbooks. It was in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. I called them up, and for about ten bucks they mailed me a thousand blank matchbooks. Typically, I would pick up a blank one from beside the envelope full of Spider-Man pages which I was supposed to be lettering.

But this was a lot more fun.

And then I’d grab another.

And another.

I would literally have to force myself to stop and do my lettering work.

I was out walking the dog about ten-thirty one dark February evening when I noticed a light in the window of Tootsi Plohound— a hip new shoe store that had recently opened down the block. All their shoes were black. As I looked at the shoes in the store window, I remembered that one of my idols, Andy Warhol, had gotten his start by drawing pictures of shoes for I. Miller.

I took Winston back up to the loft and grabbed a handful of matchbooks and my pen and went back downstairs. By midnight, I had drawn a dozen or so.

I had to admit they looked pretty good.

I decided that the next day I would take them into the store and show them to the people who worked there. I was actually surprised at their reaction. They wanted to display them in the window next to the shoes themselves. One person even suggested that when the shoes sold, the buyer could also have the drawing. 

This wasn’t as exciting as having my work in the window of the Hundred Acres Gallery, around on West Broadway, but it was in a store window in SoHo. That felt familar as I had exhibited my work for years in the store window of my studio on Grand Street. The Barking Dog Museum.

As the weeks rolled by and the weather got nicer, sidewalk artists and vendors of clothing and handmade jewelry began to appear in my neighborhood.

Several times they were set up the the doorway of my building and I would have to politely ask them to step aside, or to move their display so that I could take the dog out–and then move yet again, twenty minutes later, so I could take the dog back in.

I’ll admit, I did find this a bit annoying at first.

But one day it suddenly occurred to me that rather than being annoyed all the time, maybe I should join them.

Besides, on a particularly nice day I didn’t think there would be any harm in my taking a little break from lettering to go outside for some fresh air.

My life was pretty miserable in those days and consisted of working day and night and walking the dog in between.

Anyway, I felt like I had earned it.

So one sunny afternoon, I took a small folding chair and a TV tray and a small jar of ink, a pen and some blank matchbooks and set up shop across the street near the post office on the corner.

I would do a drawing  and place it on the table in friont of me and then start on another.

At first no one paid much attention to me but when there were three or four of them on the table, I noticed passersby begin to glance at them out of the corner of their eye. Soon a woman walking a dog sauntered over. “How much are these?” she asked.

I was surprised to hear myself saying, “….three dollars each, two for five and no reasonable offer is ever refused.” She bought a little drawing of a combat boot and I made my first art sale since arriving in New York sixteen years earlier.

From then on, whenever the weather was nice out, I would take a break about one o’clock in the afternoon and head out for a couple of hours with my table and chair. SoHo had become a tourist destination by then and there were a great number of people on the street. My work seemed especially popular with Japanese tourists who had arrived by bus. Usually the first one to discover me would buy everything I had on the table and sometimes I would make $60 or $70 in just a couple of hours. I met some really interesting people this way,  some of whom were famous and known to me. Joel Grey, Geoffrey Holder, Fred Gwynne and Keith Haring all bought my work. Jim Warren, the publisher of Creepy and Eerie Magazine stopped– and although he didn’t buy anything, he said he “liked my style” and suggested that I should be doing commercial illustration. (I didn’t tell him I was working for Marvel). He took my name and address and a week later I received a humorous publication in the mail depicting how men’s hairstyles and their sexual organs were related.  I wasn’t sure whether to be appreciative –or insulted that he thought I would be appropriate for this sort of thing.

I experimented by moving around to various locations.

Once I set up shop in front of the Mary Boone Gallery and promptly drew a woman’s butt. I decided that I would do a new series “Butts of the Art Dealers” and wrote that on the top of the matchbook in tiny lettering. Then I added Mary Boone’s name to it.

A nicely-dressed young man who was going into the gallery stopped to look at it. He told me he worked for her.

“She wouldn’t represent me, so I decided to represent her,” I told him.

He seemed amused and bought it and went inside the gallery.

Something told me it might be a good time to find another location.

After a few months and hundreds of sales, I was eventually confronted by the police, who confiscated my work and issued me a citation for “blocking the sidewalk and obstructing the access” to the businesses and advised me to obtain a vendor’s license.

The idea of being licensed by the City of New York did appeal to me and I did operate as a street vendor for a while longer, but my marital problems and having to move elsewhere eventually put an end to to my operation.  

How I Became the Letterer of Spider-Man Comic Book

At some point in the mid to late 80’s, I became the regular letterer of all three of Marvel’s Spider-Man line of comics.

These books became the purview of a tall bearded fellow who had been hired to be the editor of MARVEL AGE–a brand new comic “house organ” promoting the various comics that Marvel was publishing.

This fellow’s name was Jim Salicrup but we all called him “Sauerkraut” and his office was smack dab in the middle of the Marvel Bullpen where I worked.

Along with everyone else*, I had been entertained and very amused by Sauerkraut’s seemingly effortless ability to dash-off cartoons about whoever came into the room– or whatever was happening there on any particular day.

Although none of us were doing the actual artwork for any of Marvel’s regular line of comics, I think it’s fair to say that most, if not all of us in that room could all draw fairly well and were a pretty creative bunch.

Unlike the others, I didn’t have any staff responsibilities other than to occupy a drawing table and do my freelance lettering work for the company.

Jim and I traded cartoons, each of us trying to outdo the other.

He usually won.

So, when Jim eventually got promoted to editor of the Spider-Man line of comics, I was elated when he chose me as his letterer, above all the great letterers working for Marvel at that time.

I will admit, though, that years later, I was just a tad disappointed to discover that it didn’t have anything to do with my artistry as a letterer, he claimed that it was just so he could pretend to be J.Jonah Jameson and yell, “PARKER!!!!” at me from the Spider-Man office across the hall whenever he felt like it.

Meeting Will Eisner

Artwork: Will Eisner

In 1998, I was walking down a corridor at SDCC and saw a sign which said that the legendary cartoonist and teacher Will Eisner was speaking in Room 3 at 11:45 a.m.

It was nearly 1  o’clock, but the door was open so I walked in.

Will had just concluded his remarks in front of a large audience and our eyes met and he held his gaze for a couple of seconds as if to say, “ You look familiar–do I know you?”

As people got up to leave I walked right up to him and introduced myself. ““Hi, Will–I’m Rick Parker, artist of Beavis and Butt-Head Comic Book….“, he shook my hand.

“I just want to tell you how important your work has been to me over the years…”

“Have you had lunch?”, he asked.

Why don’t you come with me and let’s grab a bite to eat.”

“This is almost too good to be true”, I remember thinking.

I accompanied him down the hall a short distance to the V.I.P. Room. People passing in the hallway didn’t seem to know who he was. On the outside of a blue curtain was a piece of paper upon which someone had scrawled, “V.I.P. Room.

There were about a half dozen artists and writers getting sandwiches and bottles of water. I didn’t recognize any of them. Will picked up a pre-packaged salad from a table and we both sat down and he quickly began eating.

(I didn’t get anything because I don’t like to eat in front of people I don’t know.)

I told him that I first became aware of his work from army technical manuals twenty years earlier when I was in the service.

“Where were you stationed?” he wanted to know as he put a fork full of salad into his mouth.

“Wow–! He’s eating healthy,” I thought.

“I was an officer and mainly involved with a Pershing missile Battalion at Fort Sill for most of the time.” 

The great cartoonist swallowed and took a sip of water from an unopened  bottle someone had left on the table.

“And what have you done in comics?” he asked.

“ Well….I started off as a letterer for Marvel.”

“I see….and now you’re drawing Beavis and Butt-Head..”

“Well…actually they canceled it…”

Oh….so what are you going to do next?”

I had co-written several proposals for new comics that didn’t go anywhere and illustrated a few stories for DC–and tried out for MAD Magazine, but didn’t make the cut, but I didn’t want to tell him about any of that…

…but what I really wanted to tell him was that I wanted do my own graphic novel.

Just as I opened my mouth and sounds began coming out, someone off to our left recognized Will and got up from his table and made a bee-line straight  to ours.

“WIIILLLLLLL—-!!!!!

The man knelt down and gave Will a big hug as he was putting another fork full of salad into his mouth….

…and that was pretty much the end of my conversation with the great Will Eisner.

NEXT: Meeting Harvey Kurtzman

The Feet In the Box

A long, long time ago, when the streets of Lower Manhattan were still dark at night and only the brave, foolhardy or stupid ventured into the deserted area they called Soho, in the age before video games and computers, and before I was really into comix, I was one of ten New York City artists chosen by ten outgoing artists to be in the 1980 Ten Downtown Exhibition. The idea was that ten New York artists would open up their studios to the general public for four consecutive weekends in April.

I moved all my stuff to the back half of my home/studio and built a wall to hide it all and to create an empty space up front where I could display my work. Into the center of the wall, I cut a rectangular opening at chest height of the average viewer on the “gallery” side of the wall. I closed it off with a thick sheet of glass.  Into the wall and higher up, I had cut a small opening through which I could vaguely see the viewer as they looked through the “window”.

Then I built a wooden platform behind the wall that I could sit on so that my legs extended into a wooden box I’d constructed with two “leg holes” cut out of the top.

Next to the “window” on the “gallery” side of the wall, I hung a black and white photo in an aluminum frame of two mannequin legs I had found in the trash. The photo had been taken out on the street corner and was photographed as pedestrians walked by.

The legs in the photo wore my old army boots.

The same boots that I was now wearing as I extended my legs into the box. I also shaved my legs and dusted them with talcum powder so that they would more closely resemble the mannequin legs in the photo.

When the viewer looked through the glass “window” at the legs in the box, most viewers assumed that they were looking at the disembodied mannequin legs in the photo. The person would usually pause there for a moment and then move on.

Just as the viewer seemed like they might turn away, I would flex my toes ever so slightly and the person would suddenly realize that the legs were real and that there was a live person on the other side of the wall.

Sometimes they would let out a startled shriek but most of the time, they would silently become in on the joke.

Then they would drift off to the side and wait and watch –for the next person to come along. 

How I Got My Marvel Comics Nickname

When Stan Lee wrote the credits for the comics, he became Stan “The Man” Lee, and Jack Kirby became Jack “The King” Kirby.

One of the cool things about Marvel in those days was that the people who worked there would acquire nicknames.

Soon all the editors, writers and artists were giving each other names. There was “Rascally” Roy Thomas, “Happy” Herb Trimpe, “Marvelous” Marv Wolfman, “Jaunty” Jim Salicrup, “Fabulous” Flo Steinberg….and in time, the people in the Marvel Bullpen followed suit and gave each other names, as well.

But they weren’t nearly so cool.

My boss, Danny Crespi, who had been with the company for many years and had acceded to the job of Production Manager, was “The Old Fart” and occasionally “Mongo 1” as opposed to his nephew who handled paste-ups and was was known as “Mongo 2”. The guy who pasted up the letter columns, a Japanese/American was affectionately known as “The Old Fool”, “Moishe” (his real name was Morrie)…or depending who was addressing him, simply, “Jap”.  

After I went back to work there I also acquired a nom de plume.

One day, while my boss was at lunch, I saw a clothing catalog from a department store on the filing cabinet outside his office.

On a whim, I took a brush and some Doc Marten’s Dye and colored someone’s face red. I was amazed at how “realistic” it looked–almost as if it had been printed that way.

Emboldened, I added some blood dripping down the legs of one of the bathing suit models. A few pages later two children who had just built a snowman, had left bloody handprints all over it and a trail of blood in the snow.

I placed the catalog on my boss’s desk.

Later, he emerged from his office and asked, “Who left this here…?”

Everyone looked at me.

Whereupon he exclaimed, “You know what, Rick–you’re Sick…!” and immediately, one of my coworkers said, “Yeah—-! He’s Ricko th’ Sicko”.

The name stuck.

Fortunately, most people dropped the end part and I became known simply as “Ricko”.

Fishing for Compliments

Late one Friday afternoon, Roger Stern, the editor of X-Men walked down the hall from his office to my drawing table in The Bullpen. He was holding a batch of pages.

It was The Uncanny X-Men #115 by Chris Claremont with pencils by the latest rising super-star, John Byrne.

It was another freelance job. I put the pages into my portfolio and zipped it up. One of the other letterers rolled over on his chair to talk to me.

“Rick–this is the X-Men–Marvel’s top book—you’ve gotta do a really good job on this….”

By this point in time, I had already lettered a whole bunch of  Marvel’s titles. I wondered what kind of job he thought I had been doing on all those books. I took the job home that evening and decided I would show him!

Rather than just grab the script and “boards” and start lettering in the word balloons, I decided to pencil in all the lettering and the corresponding  balloon shapes FIRST–before inking them. That would take TWICE  as long to do, but I could get the spacing of the words exactly right in order to draw perfectly symmetrical balloon shapes around them and there would be no divided words. The end result would be worth it. I worked all weekend on it, got up early on Monday morning and finished the last two pages before heading off to work.

I left the job on Big John’s desk and went back to my seat at my drawing table just as Big John and a couple of others were arriving at work.

All day, I expected to be called into Big John’s office– or at least into Roger’s– to receive some kind of praise–but no one said a word!

A month or so later the comic book came out– and still, no one had complimented me. Then a few days later I saw the X-Men’s writer, Chris Claremont standing out in the hallway outside my door talking to another freelancer. I got up from behind my drawing table and sauntered out into the hallway. I walked right up to Chris who had just finished his conversation and was standing there alone.

“So, Chris—-(I had never met or even spoken to Chris before)—how’d you like that LETTERING  on the X-Men….?”

Chris looked confused by the question–as if at a loss for words.

Then said, “It was all right…..”

I walked back to my seat and picked up a page of Spectacular Spider-Man # 316 and added an extra “P” to the sound effect, “THWIPP” and vowed to never again ask anyone what they thought of my lettering. And no one ever said a word about it.

They just kept giving me more and more work.

DEPTARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

They gave me a desk right by the door of the Marvel Bullpen.

My job would be to do lettering corrections.

I thought it might be fun to have a little sign made up to put on the door, so on my lunch break I went to a tiny hole-in-the-wall place a block or two away that made plastic signs.

I decided on a small black sign with incised white block letters.

The old lady behind the desk gave me a little piece of paper and told me to print neatly on the paper EXACTLY what I wanted the sign to say. She explained that whatever was written on the paper would be what they would put on the sign. “That way there can be no mistake” she said with a smile. I wondered if she thought I looked like the type of person who was prone to making mistakes.

So I wrote: “DEPTARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS”.

I paid in advance and she told me the sign would be ready in four or five days.

The following Monday morning before work I went to the store to pick up the sign and when I opened the bag, I realized they had made a mistake.

The sign said: “DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS”.

Someone had taken the liberty of correcting my mistake. When I pointed out the mistake, the lady turned to a man in a small room in back and said that the sign did not match the order form, he looked at the order form, made a resigned face and sighed.

I came back in a few days and picked up the corrected sign and put it on the office door next to my drawing table.

The ArtisT

On a cold Pennsylvania morning in 1973, with a few hundred dollars in my pocket, I placed an old mattress, a borrowed suitcase with all my clothes stuffed in it and my extra pair of army boots into the back of my old pickup truck, rolled down the hill and away from the old schoolhouse and my old life, popped the clutch and headed off into the unknown.

I was determined to be an artist in New York. 

The sky was grey but clear and I had been having trouble with the engine overheating, but had replaced the radiator fan with one from a junkyard just the week before.

The old truck was running fine as I drove the 75 miles to the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel, paid the toll and followed the other cars and trucks  into a big gaping hole in the rocks.

Down under the river I went and all I had to guide me was a double white line and a sea of red tail lights.

Just as I thought I could make out the light at the end of the tunnel, suddenly all the red lights brightened and the cars and trucks slowed down– and then stopped.  

I looked at the temperature gauge and it was past the halfway mark. I no longer had the benefit of the cold air rushing past my radiator. 

As I sat there, I decided it might be prudent to shut off the engine until the traffic started back up again.

In a couple of minutes the red tail lights of the cars in front of me dimmed and the cars started to move forward.

I shifted into neutral and pressed the starter button on the dash.

I could hear the engine turn over but it would not start.  

The car behind me started to honk his horn. Then the ones behind him began to blow theirs.

I looked in the rearview mirror and it looked like Christmas lights as far back as the eye could see. 

Although the sign clearly said it was illegal to change lanes in the tunnel, cars and trucks began to pass me on the right and their drivers give me dirty looks.

I pressed the starter button a few more times and the truck finally started up and most of the horns stopped blowing.

As I slowly shifted into second, a guy on my right rolled down his window. 

“You’d have to be a hick from the sticks to pull a stunt like THAT!”

Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but I think you get the idea.

I exited the tunnel into the cool crisp air and got my first glimpse of New York.

I had arrived! 

And to a TUMULTUOUS welcome!

Crossing Greenwich Village on Bleeker Street, I pulled over and asked some guy on a bicycle how to get to Brooklyn. 

“Just go over to Broadway and follow it all the way down. It’ll lead you right onto the Manhattan Bridge.”

After crossing the bridge into Brooklyn I stopped to ask further directions but didn’t see anybody on the street. Then, off to my left, I saw a guy walking in my direction. 

“Hey Buddy—can you tell me how to get to Pratt Institute?”

He looked at me briefly and just kept walking.

Somehow I found my way to the campus and parked. 

I went into the first office building inside the gate. There was a bulletin board. I saw a yellow index card with someone’s handwriting: APARTMENT FOR RENT/ NEAR PRATT $175 per month. CALL SAM and then a number. 

I found a payphone, called the number and a gruff voice told me it’d meet in front of the building in fifteen minutes.

It was on a block of Brownstones only a short walk from the campus. 

Sam was short and dumpy and had the butt of an unlit cigar wedged into the corner of his mouth that did the talking. He had a lot of keys on a keyring attached to his belt.

I followed him up the stone steps like a man on a scaffold follows his executioner on the way to his own hanging.

He unlocked the heavy glass and wooden door and we entered a dusty hallway that was illuminated by a single light bulb. There was a door down at the end and he unlocked it and we went inside into a large room with three or four tall dirty windows looking out onto a broken wooden fence and a trash-laden yard. The wind was making a bare tree limb rub up against one window and it made a plaintive sound against the glass.

Sam looked impatient and bored and said nothing as I walked around trying to get a “feel” for the place. There was an adjoining room off to one side with a sink, stove and refrigerator. 

“Well…”?  He asked, shifting the cigar butt to the other corner of his mouth.

“Okay, I guess I’ll take it,” I told him. 

He said the rent was $175 payable in advance and held out his hand.

I reached into my back pocket and took out my wallet and handed him a hundred, a fifty, two twenties and a five. He quickly pocketed it.

He handed me two keys tied together with a bent paper clip and walked out leaving the door open behind him.

There was a tired old broom leaning against one wall so I took it and began to sweep and make a little pile of dust in the center of the room of dust,  a gum wrapper and a crumpled cigarette pack. 

As my back was turned to the open door as I swept a voice startled me.

“Just movin’ in?” asked an abnormally thin guy in his early 30’s who was leaning against the door jamb. He was wearing grey pants and a white sleeveless undershirt and held a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He looked like he hadn’t shaved in a long time and should’ve been at work somewhere at 3 oclock on a Monday afternoon. 

“Yeah, just tryin’ to clean it up a little before I bring my stuff in.”

“Where are you coming from?, he asked.

“Moved here from Pennsylvania. I’m going to be a graduate student at Pratt…”

Oh, I didn’t bother goin’ to college. Never finished high school, either.”

I didn’t know what to say, so I just kept sweeping. 

He continued to stand in the doorway watching me sweep until he had finished his cigarette and then dropped it at his feet and stepped on it with one shoe to make sure it was out.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you around,” he said and turned and walked away. 

Then I heard a door open and close and in a few minutes I heard a toilet flush as I walked over to close my door.I It was then that I realized that we would be sharing the same bathroom in the hall right outside my door.

It was late afternoon now and the apartment was beginning to get dark. There was a bare light bulb hanging from the center of the ceiling. It was off.

I looked around for a switch on the wall and couldn’t find one. It was then that I realized that I couldn’t spend even one night there. 

I called Sam back and told him I’d changed my mind. The phone went silent for a few seconds and I wasn’t sure if he was still there.  Then he told me to meet him in Mike’s Luncheonette diagonally across from the campus in a half hour.

When I walked into Mike’s I saw Sam seated in a booth off to one side drinking a cup of coffee. He finished his coffee and stood up as I approached him. 

“I’m sorry, I can’t stay there.” I said apologetically. 

“Gimme the key.” 

I did as I was told. 

He turned to walk out the door and I followed a step behind, “What about my money?”

Sam pushed open the door and walked back out into the cold.

I didn’t bother following him.

Portrait of the Boy as a Young Artist

Screen Shot 2020-06-24 at 10.18.32 AM

For reasons too complicated to explain– and which only became evident to me long after they had all died, my parents moved in with my grandmother when I was a month old.

Into the same house my mother had grown up in.

The war was finally over and my parents bought a laundry with the proceeds from the sale of their former home which my father had designed and helped build with his own hands.

The plan was that my mother would run their new business.

My father quit his job in Florida as a lawyer for the railroad and had gone back to his old job as a telegraph operator at the railroad station in Savannah. 

My parents both worked from 8 o’clock in the morning until after 6 in the evening five days a week– and from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Saturdays.

Consequently, from the time I was about a year old, I was entrusted to the care of my grandmother, 58, a widow who had lived alone and whose husband had died suddenly when she was 41.

Beginning when I was first able to walk down the hall from my room to hers, I’d climb into bed with my grandmother every chance I would get, cozy up next to her and she would read to me while I looked at the pictures in the books. She read the Bible to me–and illustrated Bible Stories–and Aesop’s Fables–and children’s books I had received as gifts– but best of all, she read me the newspaper comic stripsMany of those characters in the comic strips looked suspiciously like people I knew from the real world.

In “Bringing Up Father”, the main character’s nagging wife, Maggie bore an uncanny resemblance to my father’s Aunt Maggie, whom we would occasionally visit. The comic character, Roscoe Sweeney in ‘Buzz Sawyer, ’ looked exactly like my parents’ friend Ed. Little Orphan Annie was the spitting image of Ruthie, a little girl with orange hair who lived two houses away. The comic strip Nancy was obviously based on my cousin of the same name.

And there were others.

But the one that really struck me the most was HENRY— a strip about a little boy with a bald head and big ears. It had to be about the boy next door. It looked exactly like him. And his name was “Henry”.

I assumed it was just a matter of time until someone did a comic strip about me.

My father grew up on a farm and hated to waste things. He worked for the railroad, in the telegraph office. Information about freight and passenger trains from all up and down the “line” was constantly being printed out by teletype machinesThese machines were fed by large rolls of yellow paper– and if the paper ran out, the machines would keep right on typing –and all that information would be lost. To prevent this from happening, the last few yards of paper on the roll were dyed pinkThis alerted the “operators” that it was time to put on a new roll. My father would bring these almost-empty rolls of pink paper, which would otherwise have been thrown out, home. He showed me how to use a wooden ruler to tear paper off the rolls and make it  into “sheets.” He would type personal letters on some of the paper, but most of the sheets he gave to me.

There was also a never-ending supply of pencils from the SEABOARD AIRLINE RAILWAY.

Years later, he would give me the sheets of white cardboard which came with his freshly-pressed white shirts.

My earliest memory of receiving any approval for my artwork from my parents was the day after my mother had given me some crayons and a coloring book to distract me so that she and my father could go out dancing, dining and drinking for the evening. 

I was around three.

A year or so later, my mother made a big deal about a drawing of a squirrel I had seen in the backyard.

Once, when my father and I drove to Florida to see his mother, my grandmother sat me down at the dining room table with paper and pencil and had me copy a framed photograph of him. I wasn’t about to disappoint her. She might give me a“switchin”–or even worse–another one of those “enemas”. But I knew I could do it– and I wanted to please her.  I liked it when people seemed pleased with me.

By the time I was seven and in the second grade, I looked forward to those times when the teacher would hand each student one sheet of Manila Paper and we’d all take out our crayons and draw something. You could draw anything you wanted. One afternoon I drew a ship in a storm. It was being tossed about by big waves. Lightning was striking the ship and it was sending out an S.O.S. signal.  Afterward, a girl went around the room and collected all the drawings and brought them up to the teacher’s desk. A few minutes later, Miss Sutlive got up –and walked over to the blackboard– and pinned my drawing up so everyone could see it. The way she was talking to my classmates about that picture gave me a strange new feeling. I could even feel a couple of my classmates starting to like me. Up until that time, I just figured that everyone could draw. From that day on, I began to think of myself as an “artist”— someone special –who could do things that most others could not.

When I was at home after school and my parents were still at work and I didn’t feel like hanging out with my grandmother, who had fallen and broken her hip when I was four and was confined to bed or a wheelchair, I would often sit at the table in the dining room and draw pictures. 

Hours passed like minutes. 

Battlefield scenes with airplanes, tanks and soldiers were a recurring theme. I went through my “Sunken Ship with rotting timbers and open chest of treasure guarded by menacing sharks while a skeleton in a deep sea diver outfit with a big brass helmet and a severed air hose that somehow still emitted bubbles” phase. In a couple of years people were referring to me as the “best artist” in the school and there were several other kids who regularly asked me to draw things for them. I remember this kid named Rolf always asked me to draw sports cars or a motocycle. 

I discovered that I was also able to think of funny things to say in class which would crack up my classmates. I loved to make the other kids laugh. But, in general, the teachers were not amused –and a couple of times, I was sent to the principal’s office. But the urge to make others laugh was stronger than any fear I might have had of getting into trouble. 

Eventually, I realized that drawing funny pictures–and passing them around —seemed like a safer way to get attention. I longed to fit in– and be accepted by the others. But after the laughter died down, I still felt like a reject with no friends.

One day when I was 12, there was a knock at the front door. Nina, our maid, whom I loved dearly, came into my room and told me there were some “boys from school at the front door” and they wanted to see me.

I never got any visitors

There were six or seven of them. I was thrilled. Finally I was going to be accepted into a group! 

Nina invited them into the house and they all crowded into my room. Somehow, they had  heard about my room and wanted to see it. My bedroom walls were completely covered with drawings of monsters and aliens I had copied out of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. They loved it! But my feelings of elation quickly dissipated when I realized they were just stopping in for a minute because my house was on their way to The Coastal Empire Fair in a nearby park and one of the guys had to use the bathroom.  Almost as an afterthought, they invited me to come with them and I tagged along, basically ignored, and as soon as we got there, “Carey”, the “coolest kid in school” and leader of the group– began flirting with some girl in such an inappropriate and shocking way that it made me feel very out-of-place– and I was suddenly overwhelmed by an overpowering urge to flee. I half-walked, half-ran back home, went directly to my room and further retreated into the world of my own imagination.

One day Nina announced to my Mother that, Ricky is going to be an artist when he grows up…”  It seemed to me at the time that Nina knew me better than my own mother did. 

I received further validation when I was around 14. I was over at a friend’s house and it was a rainy day–and we couldn’t play ball outside. His older brother, whom I looked up to and respected– handed me a magazine with a photograph of newly-elected president John F. Kennedy on the cover. He asked me if I could draw a picture of the new president. I sat down at a table in the den and in an hour or so,  got up, walked down the hall to his room and showed him the drawing. He was very impressed with it and left his room. I followed. He went to show his mother the drawing. “Look at this, Ricky is going to be an artist…” There didn’t seem to be any doubt in his mind whatsoever.

And that was enough to convince me.

Concentration Charlie

 

snakebox When I was growing up, there was a boy in my neighborhood who was several years older than I was–and he was fond of bullying me. One morning, I was alone shooting baskets in our driveway when he approached me from the street. 

He was holding a small cardboard box. 

There was something weird about the way he was holding that box– away from his body –and out  toward me. He was holding it from the top and I could see there was a hole approximately 3 inches in diameter cut out of the front of the box and something was sticking out of that hole with some straw– or dried grass around it. 

The thing that was sticking out was a copperhead snake–with its mouth wide open. 

I dropped the ball and ran into the garage and jumped up on top of my father’s car and scrambled up into the storage space next to an old wicker rocking chair that was being stored there. The boy with the snake pursued me.

Or tried to. 

He jumped up and caught hold of a crossbeam to pull himself up and as he did, his hand came straight down on a rusty nail that was sticking up. He pulled his hand back, ripping it open. He ran screaming up the driveway, cradling his bleeding hand in his other.  He had dropped the box on the ground and I cautiously approached it. 

The snake, or about 8 inches of it, was still sticking out of the hole in the cardboard box with its mouth wide open,–but it was clearly dead. He –or someone– had cut off about a foot of it, jammed a bent coat hanger inside it to keep it taught and then pried its mouth open to show its fangs. 

Then he had come looking for me. 

I wish I could say that was the last time that boy bothered me, but it wasn’t. 

Many years later, right after I got out of the army,  I ran into him at the beach. I was happy to see him, actually. Aside from my parents, he was the first person I saw that I knew after I had gotten out. 

As it turned out, he had been sent to Vietnam, so I asked him what it was like. 

As we stood there in the sunlight looking out at the ocean, he told me that his favorite thing was when his artillery unit fired “Concentration Charley” onto a predetermined position on a known Vietcong pathway at night. 

Then the next morning he and a few others would go out into the jungle to “see how many arms and legs they could find”. 

I’m no psychologist, but I know for a fact that he suffered terrible abuse as a child. 

I suspect the trauma of those events resulted in making him abusive toward others.