Cory Johnston is a writer, editor, and teacher from northern New Jersey. He holds an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University and has been involved with FDU’s international literary magazine, The Literary Review, since 2012, including serving five years as Books Editor. Outside of the literary world, you’re likely to find him seeking out rare and delicious sandwiches, following the summer Phish tour, or trying to befriend the local squirrel population.
Eckleburg: What captures your interest most in your work, now, as a reader of your work?
Cory Johnston: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about tone and voice. Mood. I tend to write about death, dying, loss, and other heavy stuff, but I really don’t want my essays to feel like relentless misery. In the real world I’m not a very serious person, so staying true to the content and themes of my work – which are serious and deserve to be treated as such – while also allowing my sillier, more playful side to come through is something I am constantly thinking about (usually with some frustration).
Eckleburg: What are you working on now?
Cory Johnston: Currently, I am working on a manuscript that I suppose is a collection of essays. I’m hoping to explore the themes of death, grief, determinism, and the limits of our ability to process and understand our own nature. In terms of structure and style, the essays often use conceits of speculative fiction, too, from outer space monsters to multiverse theory to the eldritch Old Ones. Hopefully it all amounts to something interesting.
Eckleburg: Who and what are your artistic influences?
Cory Johnston: I tend towards the strange and unusual as much as I can. Anything with a sense of mystery or uncertainty – I love feeling uncertain and have a kind of inherent mistrust of art that is overly didactic. Make me confused, make me think, make me wonder. More than anything else though, my basic sense of art and the nature of self-expression is influenced by the twenty years I’ve spent as a die-hard Phish fan. As a band, they are just pure creativity and ambition. They are constantly inspiring.
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It was dread. That was what I was facing if my secret ever got out. Few people would understand it, and almost nobody knew about it, because I was very good at hiding it, but it was always there in the background. My comic book collection was my very own treasure horde, and I protected its secrets like a king of misers, but it was not solely to defend it against covetous hands, since the deeper fear lay in never allowing the world to know that I identified with it in the first place. The only instances when I voluntarily exposed my hidden love for comics outside the walls of my home was every time I entered a comic book store to get something fundamental in me fulfilled.
You sacrificed some semblance of self as a comic book fan back in the day. You were an outsider, some kind of weirdo. Looking around at the monstrous success garnered by the industry today, you would at least think it unlikely. My wife thinks I’m exaggerating when I declare that in those days, we comic book fans had to hide. We, the unprofessed and reluctant “geeks,” would keep that stuff in a distant corner of our lives, unknowingly leading the secret identity you read about in the actual comic books we were collecting. Superheroes were all about secret identities, and when Spiderman changed back to the nerdy Peter Parker, it was a leap across fantasy and straight into the reality of almost every fan who was reading such stuff.
We call them geeks now, but it was far more universal back then to call such people losers. And I was no loser. The such and such person that I thought myself to be was nothing like the type who yearned for the art and stories and who carefully collected these flimsy things in bags in order to preserve their condition. I looked at myself as a tough guy, the quiet type. A loner whose mysterious qualities eventually had the ability to attract girls—if they ever got close enough. These were the things I had to tell myself for me to get as far away from that other world as possible.
The occasions when I had to enter the neighborhood comic book store certainly came with mixed feelings. What got me most uncomfortable was getting out of the car and showing any prospective passerby that I was entering a comic book store. Sunny Comics was a couple of miles from my house, and the real reason I didn’t go all that much was that I didn’t have enough money. The hardcore fans would dump all their money into this hobby, which meant they spent it on nothing else, unwittingly wearing the same T-shirts and jeans through most of their adult lives. This hobby needed certain amounts of purchasing power because beyond the flimsy magazine-style comics, nothing was cheap, and I was lucky if I had pocket change for this or for anything else. And this picture of the man without money would have amounted to another characteristic of a loser in the decade of the 1980s.
Sunny Comics! How to describe this place? The store itself was unpleasant with its dusty disorderliness and funky smell, and it gave negative appeal to staying longer than you needed. But that did not deter me; stay longer I did. For an hour or more, I would bask in the wonders you could find nowhere else. The comic book store was the only place to find such rarities, designer toys and art books in limited print runs, graphic novels that you had no idea existed. I would recognize an artist’s style or characters on the cover, and that was all I needed. And that was all I was going to get because the cover was the only thing on display. Every book and comic magazine came in a plastic bag sealed with tape, and I was not the type to open one and risk a sharp retort from the register. Outside the regular monthly comic books I’d buy, every purchase was a gamble; you either got something incredible or something not so great.
It was run by a family that allowed lounging floor space for their several dogs. The dogs were so quiet, you sometimes stepped on a paw before you noticed it was there. The family appeared as if running this store were a drudgery, and any questions directed at them would be met with the same stare of weary indignation.
The old lady in charge had that one expression permanently stamped on her face, but at least she was pretty knowledgeable. She always knew what was coming, when, and by whom. There came the day the industry came to a sudden halt—nothing was on the shelves! I slowly made my way to the counter and politely got her attention in order to ask her why. Before I said a word, she was already explaining that an entire month’s worth of issues was delayed because of a fire that had wrecked the color separation sweatshop where almost all the publishers did their business. I think I was shocked, and I might have told her it was shocking, or something like that, just to say something. But I wasn’t adding it up until later. One fire could wreck everything I looked forward to! And her information eventually gave me a twisted glimpse at the incestuous relationships these publishing competitors actually enjoyed. All of them used the same color separator, and thus all of them were late with their titles that one summer.
Another characteristic of a loser was a lack of friends. I liked to believe I knew a lot of people, but who were the people I actually felt close to? And how many of these people were into comics?
I did hang out in those days with a college friend on campus who was a diehard fan. He talked the lingo, and it was cool to have someone who understood the ins and outs of these incredible stories. The problem with Gabriel was that he had no sense of propriety. There’s a certain time and place to bring this subject up, and he didn’t get it. Like me, Gabriel was a Cuban kid, sort of a cross between a dork and a lawyer with the clean haircut and glasses. His problem was he had that temerity that lived in so few of us to talk about comics in front of anybody, anywhere. He wanted to chat about it in classrooms and halls, talking about the storylines and the art. He would do all the talking, and I would take furtive glances around me to see if anyone I knew was anywhere near our vicinity.
I knew better than to come out with this hobby in plain view of a society that scorned it. Though I loved this fake, plastic world that I concocted around me with the help of cues from action figures and the inspiration of comic books, I was never stupid enough to advertise it. It was a guilty love, much like that kind you might have for someone whom you were simultaneously ashamed of, like a stupid-looking chum or a girl you liked that everybody thought was ugly.
Gabriel and I, one day, were sitting with a group of his friends in that hangout spot that every two-year college seems to have, and there were about three or four attractive girls present. I didn’t know them. They were people he knew. They were all done up in their shopping mall attire, and for this one brief moment, I was in a social circle with hot chicks! They were snickering at some other girl walking by in leg warmers and high heels; the fashion faux pas that poor girl had committed was lost on me, but it was obvious to every offended lady at the table. And this is the setting that Gabriel chose to bring up Wolverine, Kitty Pryde, and the rest of the X-Men.
I was struck with the likelihood that my own secret identity, even among these strangers, was going to be compromised. My tough guy public persona was on the verge of collapsing. I was frozen on the spot, training my eyes solely on Gabriel, trying not to look at the group reaction to this ludicrous conversation. To my horror, one of these hot girls turned to us and asked us who Kitty Pryde was, wondering if we were gossiping about soap operas. My friend looked at her with his wry smile and said, “Something like that.”
What the hell was wrong with him! What if she put two and two together? Didn’t he know chicks don’t dig comics?
No, chicks didn’t dig comics. But what the hell did I know about chicks? And wasn’t he the one with all these female friends in the first place? I wasn’t adding it up back then, but maybe Gabriel didn’t want to give in to a double life. He might have been the type to have backbone, the kind of person who really didn’t care what others thought of him. Commendable, I think, especially now when I look back on it all. I could have taken some pointers from him, but if I were honest—I didn’t have the balls.
I didn’t know anybody like Gabriel. I only knew one other guy at school with the same interests who had the good sense to keep it to himself like I did. The only time Eddie Castro and I would talk about these matters was at the bus stop in front of campus—in lowered voices, with no one around. Like spies, we would mutter about the John Byrne years doing the X-Men or scratch our heads at Frank Miller’s deviation to a sketchy drawing style in that Batman graphic novel that was in all the actual bookstores. Eddie also knew Gabriel, but I don’t think he knew him very well. I may have introduced them for all I remember. Eddie had the same reactions to him that I had, awed by how Gabriel could bring up superhero names and their powers in public, along with the rest of the alphabet of superhero trivia without flinching, making the alter egos that sounded so very cool as you were reading their exploits with your inner voice seem so ridiculous out in the stratosphere of aspirated syllables and actual reality. Shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders, Eddie would say, “Gabriel is cool and shit, but he just doesn’t get it. I’m like I love talking about Spiderman and Wolverine,” and Eddie would point to the ground and say, “but not right now, man.”
That two-year college was the center of my life for both those years. I hardly had a friend (a real friend), and I barely knew a single girl, but I had high hopes anyway. And it was no accident that as an art student, I was learning more at the college about the history of comics than about the art of the Renaissance. Between classes I would spend an hour at the campus library, looking for anything that looked interesting—autobiographies that read like novels, how-to books on making movies. One day, I found large books that depicted the history of comics. I didn’t even know comics had a history! I took them home. I was curious about the old art of these newspaper strips and early comic books. Could this musty, old work be any good? A lot of it was rubbery-looking or scratchy. But I found some interesting work that made me pause to think about possibilities in art and stories. These history books were forming ideas in my head. They created a fresh interest in antiquated comic strips from before World War II.
It was not just the art these books would sample generously in their pages. It was what was said about the work. They seemed to be propounding a level of importance and seriousness that I found fascinating. One of these books even equated comics with jazz, claiming that they were the only two true American art forms. These allusions and comparisons armed me with enough tidbits to help me argue the point that comics were indeed important. Now that I knew that comic books should be defended, I embraced the crusade needed to inform the public that this was a valid art form, and I would go on and on about them, even if my audience were limited to close family and one or two friends.
If a comics history book elaborated on the salacious work in the underground comics from the Sixties, I would defend the position why comics had the right to print whatever they liked, promoting the idea that it was in our best interests to allow comics to show naked women, for example. The truth, as I could see it, was that the very best comics, the ones that exhibited the most superlative craft and content, were intended for mature audiences anyway, and that meant that it usually came with naked women. But like I said, my sermons had a limited circulation, and even if it extended beyond the handful of people I harried with these ideas, my powers of argumentative reasoning were underdeveloped.
Regardless, those books opened up my world in ways I was not even aware of. Their hold on me was unforgettable, though I was not too keen on the tone and syntax these writers had to take. And that was the one thing that confused me about these wonderful history books on our American art form. Though I was not going to question the gravity behind those aficionados who would write their introductions and essays on comics with the same sobriety, if not the same verbal manner, as scholars and serious-minded people, it all sounded kind of pretentious. It was something I never dwelt on, but I must have reflected on it once or twice why these “comics historians” would attempt such an academic position on this, their favorite subject.
Not for one minute did I complain about such intellectual diversions with the subject, and actually, that seriousness was feeding my own outlook on how the medium was an art form of the very highest order. Nevertheless, these forays were making me think of the art history classes and the slide shows and the anecdotes about which fresco painters pissed off which bishops when plopping their painterly messes onto scaffolding and floor.
Was it the same thing? I didn’t think so. I had a lot more love for the art in comics than anything European or religious. In the company of other comic book lovers, I would flagrantly say that Michael Golden was a much better artist than Michelangelo. And my colleague and fellow comic book collector would be like, “Are you crazy!” gasping at such words, because they knew where to draw the line, it seemed, and I was one of those fanatics when I was inspired and inside closed doors, well-hidden and protected from the public, from the outsider opinion— from the real barbarians! In such opportunities, I would tell it as it is! Then, my colleague’s subsequent argument would be that Michelangelo was the very first superhero artist, and he would make links to how Michelangelo informed heroic proportions, how the figure of God was the template for Captain America, and the power and the muscles and all that, but I wasn’t buying it.
It was that scholarly interest that was crossing the fun and personal with that institution of learning subjects such as fine arts, which had apparently been gathering their steam for hundreds of years just to be able to present their slides, anecdotes, and kernels of knowledge to a largely dumb and uninterested audience of youngish students. “Institution” is a good word; it was the institution versus the personal joy.
But that didn’t bother me either. It wasn’t that. Actually, I don’t think anything about their introductions to handsome editions and their argumentative articles about the importance of this work even so much as knotted my brow. But it somehow felt off, as if they were doing something wrong, committing something to be ashamed of, and I was there implicating myself because I was reading it—and believing it!
I am thinking of one of these people, Bill Blackbeard, and the name alone conveyed a certain eccentricity behind the personage—I thought it was a pseudonym. It turned out to be a real name. My first meeting with that name came in the foreword of a hardcover book I felt compelled to buy at Sunny Comics. It was the third volume of the complete Terry and the Piratesby Milton Caniff. Before entering college, I had never heard of Terry and the Pirates, but one of those library books enlightened me about the greatness of this old adventure strip from the 1930s and ‘40s. Basically, a young American and his ward were having adventures around the war-torn landscape of divided China. This theme was strange to me. Why China? Were all of their adventures set just there? The setting, the absurd title all lent it an idiosyncratic air. Hardcover compilations were coming out in those days. Sunny Comics had some of them. They were $32.50 plus tax, during a time when the saddle-stitched flimsy comics were going for 75 cents. Like I mentioned, I hardly had money for the regular comics, so this money in 1987 for a striving college student was nothing less than grave. But I bought it anyway. In the foreword, Blackbeard goes on about the origins of adventure strips and such stuff.
Apparently, this Bill Blackbeard was important within the right comic strip circles, given how his thoughts prefaced the hardcover I now had. I thought he was an editor or a publisher. It turned out that he was an avid collector of newspaper strips, and when most people were taking out the newspaper to pad boxes or to roll fish up in, he was carefully clipping the comics sections so that posterity could have a peek at them—so that the artists of that day could have their work somehow preserved. Something I was not aware of was that almost all of the original art had been thrown out because the actual drawings themselves—the sheets of Bristol board that held the India ink drawings—were considered obsolete once printed! It was only in the fugitive newsprint that these gems were saved from vanishing. How else to compile a full story run of a given strip? Someone had to clip them from their printed sources.
Blackbeard was a collector just like me, except he was a man with a mission, and instead of a loser, or a dweeb with a lot of time on his hands, he was considered an “archivist” whose private collections were being published.
Over the years, I would keep running into the name. When I moved to San Francisco, I learned Blackbeard was associated with the Cartoon Museum there. I would encounter interviews of his and slowly acknowledge his inestimable worth to the existence of this work—this work that nobody else cared about, that he single-handedly preserved by going to the libraries at a pivotal time in their history. When microfiche was becoming all the rage and libraries were photographing their periodical collections and then throwing away the originals, it was Bill Blackbeard who came in at the nick of time to save them from destruction! Essentially, if it weren’t for him, I would never have been able to read Terry and the Pirates.
Today, when I read large books detailing the biographies of great cartoonists such as Milton Caniff, I pick up the importance of cartoon scholars and what they have done, and I don’t think twice about it. It helps that the art of the comics is far more respected as a cultural property today than it ever was before. Comic strips may have had their heyday a long time ago, and the comic book industry has progressively shrunk, but today there is more in-depth appreciation for this medium. People are coming out of the woodwork professing they are comic book fans. Even if the industry is shrinking, the present-day creators are getting more money and respect than ever before. The comic book conventions have become such giant events (thanks largely to the movies and video games associated with comic book properties), they are even outgrowing their host cities. If today, you say I like comics, you are considered cool, and there are also more and more ladies getting into them. I would never have seen any of this coming in a hundred years. In my world, it was as impossible as wishing away the nuclear missiles.
There was a girl in one of our classes. Marisa looked out of place. Her style was all wrong. I mean it reminded me of the late 1970s, when frizzy hair was left unchecked. It reminded me of the old neighborhood, a working class black part of town I used to live in, and she might have been part black herself. She sported a look I knew well, that casual pep from the street musicals of the late 1970s, that faddish rant from gritty street gang movies from the same era. This was only her look, mind you, because she was actually quiet, unobtrusive.
I could still picture her today with those features that made her strange to me. She had her tight curly hair pulled back in a cranial bun. Her nose was not that long but it went forward, like the rest of her profile, as if her head were aerodynamic. I was attracted to her for that one semester, and I didn’t know why.
I would sneak glances at her while she was drawing. Besides looking at her, I didn’t know what else to do with her. How would I know? Such adventures went beyond the stock of my experiences. I didn’t even have the awareness to know that taking a girl out on a date required money, and that was the one notch in the armor of my public persona that would have dismantled my entire tough guy act.
We would sit next to each other, talk polite matters about drawing and those kinds of things. I was never too forward, but I sometimes softly expressed an opinion or two. She also had the same negative views of modern art I had, and it made me feel strange being in the same camp as this alien girl I found disturbing but attractive nonetheless.
The clearest words I can bring back from the distance of years and years that still belong to her (without any invented turns of phrase or embellishments) was the time our model in this figure drawing class we were taking was a rangy man who had all the qualities of a heroic protagonist. This man was a tall, handsome cowboy type with a chiseled body, and he was posing in the nude. “Finally, muscles!” I thought, after half a semester of drawing fatty women and old men. This would be great practice for the heroes I would bring to life in my own comic stories!
Yet something about this male pseudo-champion was not quite right. His facial expression surrendered the idea that he was off in other worlds, as if he had no recollection that he was in a class with twenty-five people looking at his johnson; he was watching the floor as if scanning for the three square meals he was promised for this modeling gig. If I can jump to conclusions for a minute, I would say he started looking a little like he had a dormant mental illness, and it must have been obvious to every single person carefully watching him as they were drawing these features, even through the muscles and heroic proportions he was bringing to the table. There was a moment when this man started laughing to himself in the middle of his pose. Nobody said anything except this Marisa person, who mentioned, “He’s cracking up!”
And those were her exact words, unexpurgated, perfectly recreated here. Quote, He’s cracking up, end quote.
Now for years, I interpreted this to mean that this strange artist’s model was going insane. One day, years after the fact, it dawned on me that what she likely meant was merely that he was laughing, just a throwaway comment with no qualitative conclusions. I was coloring it with my own perceptions of the man. And it made me wonder if I were the only one in the room who felt there was something wrong with our fearless model.
And it made me wonder about her too, after the fact. Through the safe topics about drawing utensils and about the traffic on the way over to school, the few words we wasted on each other were still words, and yet we may have never been communicating on any level, even the most prosaic. What would the audacity of modern art mean for her when it meant certain things for me? If such art were repugnant to me because of reasons I couldn’t even explain, what could it have been for her? I am now sure we were not talking about the same things.
I must have known that from the start. We were totally incompatible; even my foolish eighteen-year-old mind must have come to that conclusion. And yet I was still drawn to her, and I worried about what she thought about me. I don’t think Marisa knew Gabriel, but I can vaguely detect a memory still dog paddling in my brain about how the three of us were hanging out in the hall during a break, and suddenly, he pulls out a comic book from his backpack and how I performed immediate evasive maneuvers by stepping out of the hall without a word to either of them. I just couldn’t let her know about my shameful, secret love affair with comic books.
In the light of not understanding Marisa or the heroic model who could have been neurotic or not, maybe Eddie Castro and I were the only ones who thought Gabriel was indiscrete about his favorite subject of conversation. It could be possible that we were the exceptions and not Gabriel. Maybe any other collector would have thought Gabriel was normal and that what he did was A-Okay. I have met some people like Gabriel over the years. So, I will admit that Gabriel’s talk might not have been as out there as Eddie and I concluded.
On the other hand, Gabriel knew what he was doing, and I feel some part of him must have enjoyed our stifled reactions. Gabriel, I have no doubt, was not just bringing up this questionable topic because he wanted to; he was doing it to be outré. I’m almost sure of it.
I don’t know. We were never really that close. Gabriel came to my house just one time. I don’t remember what the occasion was, but he was checking out my comic collection. I was saving the jewel of my possessions for last. It was a well-kept copy of Journey into Mystery 83, when Thor makes his first appearance—worth almost a thousand dollars in those days. When the time came, I pulled it from the back of the long box and displayed it almost with a flourish. Expecting surprise, I got nothing of the kind. His reaction surprised me!
He was appalled; he couldn’t believe I kept this thing in a yellowed bag. I looked, didn’t understand what he was talking about, and then spotted the evidence. Until that moment, I never noticed the stained surface of the bag, as if it were doused in nicotine. In fact, all my bags were yellowed. And right there, he stated that yellow bags would indubitably age the comics instead of preserve them. “And you can’t just bag them, you have to board them too,” he advised. Boards kept comics rigid so that they wouldn’t bend in the box.
I didn’t have the money for this extravagance. But what choice did I have! Soon, I was at Sunny Comics. I bought hundreds of bags but without the boards. At the time, I had about a thousand five hundred comics and so could only rebag about a quarter of my comics, the best of my collection. When I noticed four hundred bags were not going to be enough for my very best, I was back at Sunny, forking over more dough and feeling regret about the whole thing—no, feeling remorse, as if I were doing something wrong.
In later years, I would lament not buying the boards.
There is an elementary drive in this behavior. To be a collector, you have to be meticulous. Meticulous boys are picky about what they eat, who they hang out with, and the girls they like. That might have been the single biggest reason I didn’t get laid until I was twenty.
That was why a girl like Marisa… I don’t know. What could I have seen in her? Yes, I admit, I was reluctantly into her, but I don’t think anything could have come of it, even if she returned her interest in me. My tough guy persona would have cracked after too much wear and tear in directions I had zero experience in, when finally landing my space fleet of ideas and preconceived notions on unknown worlds and discovering more about myself than about the new terrain. The fact that my weapon systems were in fact inoperable due to malfunctions created from prejudices developed years before, when the space fleet was first being assembled. As soon as the hatch door opened, the tough hero would have cracked at the extremities before completely crumbling under the weight of this new atmosphere, the visage of this alien woman cooly peering through the smoke and debris with an expression that meant, “I thought so.”
That hypothetical debacle never happened because Marisa and I never allowed it to go there. And after that one class with her, what became of Marisa?
Though I should have expected to see her again in a school whose art department was so small, I actually never did, until two years later when she walked into Kinko’s, the Copy Center. I was on the job, and so I had to go over and ask if she needed help with the photocopier. We started talking about what she needed as a customer. The most amazing thing was that neither one of us acknowledged that we were once acquainted. It was like nobody wanted to admit those drawing class days ever happened.
The art of snubbing someone was a valid sport in that decade of Reaganomics and action movies. This was wisdom grown in the shopping mall where you might say hi to someone you knew and that person would walk past you. If anything sums up the attitude of those days, it was this constant snubbing that happened between people who were often doing it because they didn’t want to be snubbed in turn. So snubbing someone was a preemptive strike, just in case! It was clearly an Eighties thing and something that is so alien to society today, that we only know about and use the word in conjunction with celebrities and the crude things they do to one another. But those days were different. And Marisa?… I don’t know. We were pretending not to know each other. In that sense, we finally understood each other.
That world we were coming from was just no good; I knew it beyond a shadow of a doubt. This was not just about working-class neighborhoods, girls that ignored you in and out of the shopping mall, or people who didn’t respect people who read comics. I was looking at the big picture, as it was being presented to me in art school, how these Modernists could do whatever they like, slap it with a label that came with a steep price, and make a killing off of calling every single inanity art. It was about the inescapable rising rate of crime and the way corruption was just an accepted fact at all levels of politics, legal matters, and large businesses. It was about all the other things I was learning in school and in life and not liking it one bit. Like I escaped in my comics, I sought a real escape in other places. I started recognizing that beyond this nation of insulters and thieves, utopia existed.
During my time as a closet geek, I found my salvation in a paradise that was located in a faraway land I kept reading about. In addition to homegrown comics, I had also been a manga and anime buff long before the hordes took over and made these Japanese forms into American mainstream cultural properties. I learned that Japan was a land that had an open policy on comics, where everyone read comics, and where comics were not relegated to the kids. In Japan, comics were everywhere! On top of that, it had the other qualities every utopia had to have: there was hardly any crime, and everyone was polite to everyone else. This was a very special place, and I swore I would one day go.
I never thought it would happen, but one day it did. I found a job, made a decision, and was off within three months. Escape! Finally. Yes, but no. Everything they wrote about Japan was true, but it was not true in the way that I had inferred it. Yes, everyone read comics and they were everywhere, but this birthplace of the “otaku” (the maniac fan) was different from what the promoters of these ideas were feeding us. Yes, comics were important to the fans, who were in greater numbers (though no less meek and quiet) than they were here, but comics were far less essential to the businessmen and housewives, who were also target audiences. Everybody was reading comics on the trains (out in the open and without shame, regardless of the panels containing asinine toilet humor or women in lewd positions), but they were also tossing them as soon as they had finished, like any other form of throwaway entertainment. Even if almost everybody read them, that didn’t mean they were respected. And there were many Japanese who didn’t touch the stuff. Every time I asked about manga to a Japanese acquaintance, the regular response was, “What? Oh that.” Nobody I knew actually read them.
The grand irony about all this is that by the time I made it to Japan, I wasn’t reading them either; I had long given up on comics. I was no longer a real fan. The stories were lackluster, the same old crap. The art was being churned out according to contemporary industry standards. And my art submissions had been rejected one too many times. How could I still be into them after having concluded one day that it was just another money-making industry? It was fitting that I would finally make it to Japan, but about ten years too late.
Other than that, nothing changed. The dire fact was that so many years after the era of snubbing and so many miles away from the effrontery of nonbelievers, I still had no friends. I mean, I knew all sorts of people. I was out all the time. I had romantic adventures. There was danger and even the occasional episode I filed away in my brain as an encounter with the supernatural. But the people I knew in Japan were no different, when you took out the social mores and the other cultural distinctions. In Japan, you had to work your ass off, and you learned to appreciate the short time you had to have fun. The relationships I pursued could never get beyond a certain superficiality.
Was it lack of communication or understanding? That was a social ailment that seemed to be following me for so many years of my life that I was not surprised to also find it here.
Now that I was in the land of my dreams, I could no longer go up to a girl and start talking to her because, for one thing, she probably didn’t want to converse in English if she knew it at all. And for another, this was not the way things were done here. In addition, I was a foreigner, which was not necessarily a plus or minus but certainly a stumbling block for most people to overcome.
The only way I could meet a girl was by using social internet sites that left listings. The pretense was that it was going to be a language exchange. “Young Japanese lady willing to meet foreigner for language exchange. Would like to talk about movies and life in America. Hobbies: watching movies and going out with friends.” Though it might have been hanging there in the background, there was never any mention of sex.
With sex on my mind and no longer associating myself with comics, I would tell a date that I was not only an ESL teacher, but I was also an artist. And this went over a lot better than, “I’m an aspiring comic book artist.”
I would tell girls that I wanted to draw them, and they would always be flattered. It was always bullshit. In those days, I no longer drew from models. In my art, I would make stuff up and allow my notions of reality to come through without seeking them in the details of the world. Asking them to pose was just my way of getting them back to my place. And it never worked.
I lived in Kanagawa, and I worked in Tokyo. In one more twist of irony, even though I had quit comics years before, I would still find myself digging in the garbage tanks for comics that were laid out on Sunday night for the garbage men to collect the next day. Though I shunned them, I still loved them. What did I feel about stepping into a dumpster in plain view? Where was my old sense of propriety? In this faraway world where no one knew you, you would never give a shit about who saw you lurking in the trash to get these otaku treasures. There was only one person, and that was my flat mate, the nicest guy from Ohio, and he never said a thing about what I would haul into my room. But by then, with the passing of enough years, I could hardly give a shit about anything anyway. So in my tiny room, I would gather piles of this stuff I couldn’t even read in order to find some meaning in all of it, in order to get inspired, in order to sustain and feed my voyeuristic appetites. I was looking for violence and naked women doing stuff they never did in our comics, and at times, I’d strike gold when an inventive art style shaped perversions in situations implied solely through the panel progression. And it inspired my own vision in the drawings I was making, drawings that were debilitated by sex and violence.
What was the connection between my art and my interminable love affair with comics? Though I was plumbing the depths of all manner of comic book imagery, these ink paintings of mine did not possess the same consistency we find in comics where an ear is always shaped like an ear, and a head of hair fashioned in such a layered hairstyle would always belong to the same character. Though I had purpose, my drawings allowed too much of the accidental to creep in, and this might have felt less deliberate to the going comic book aficionado. Visual consistency is what fans tacitly required, and thus comics fans, though familiar with the type of imagery I was making, might not have understood where my art was coming from. This artwork from this very special time was, therefore, larger than life for me; as a viewer, you either got it or you didn’t, and I was now at that point in my career when I didn’t care if you got it or not.
Long having given up on trying to make it into comics, I was now working freeform with the images that would occur to me. Those dumpster comics did their part in inspiring me, and I was coming up with the most inventive drawings of my life, mixing the scattered techniques I had picked up in art school with the vile imagery I was absorbing from my piles of manga.
In drawing a naked werewolf who was splaying his limbs and throwing flourishes of gore, I was depicting the aftermath of one of his square meals, and I was carving muscle detail on the long corded arms, the sharply defined torso, the lanky legs—even delineating the veins on his dangling testicles. I immediately dubbed the ink drawing Werewolf Ballsand still hold it in higher esteem than most anything I have ever made.
I would use ruined brushes to stamp splotches of ink that intimated faces and would then get a fine brush to bring out the features, taking advantage of the things that would come up at a moment’s notice when the ink mixed with the water in unpredictable ways. Such chaotic combinations might offer me seven robotic animal humanoids all in a row or provocative poses from people I thought were women, but actually today look to me androgynous.
These new drawings stank with life, and the sour flavors they may have formed in most palates were standing in for whatever notions of success I had had till then. Success, for me at that juncture, was nothing more than total freedom to make the art I wanted, and viewer reactions be damned! The only losers in art were those who expected anything else.
There was nothing textbook about this. And most people who knew I was an artist didn’t get to see my work anyway, though they might have expressed interest. (I almost never showed my artwork to anybody.) Yet, if someone asked about my art, I would unflinchingly go into the starkly scented lechery of it all by providing discourse that was cemented in art school but that really had its origins in the theories and language from those Bill Blackbeard days of long before. As much as I might have resisted this scholarly attitude, the mere voicing of any explanations on these visceral energies almost demanded an academic vocabulary.
Though I was lonely, I was living it up as an artist within the small hole of my traditional tatami room in an insignificant corner of Kawasaki City, like a Heian Period scholar from of old, brush in hand contemplating the rice paper. Equipped with a traditional table, I even sat in the same manner as an ancient poet or landscape painter, effectively completing the image of this corny metaphor.
Planning to live there indefinitely, I was in Japan for that one year and was inundated with many optical wonders, but in the end of it, I was done with the Japanese version of everything that life had to give. Ultimately, my disillusion with Japan was all my own doing because words and images in the old books about Japanese comics can never catch the totality of any reality we find—and Japan made itself my own personal reality, even if I never wanted one.
Escaping from reality was the theme of my life. Now that I had escaped from one side of the planet, I found that I became a foreigner and still tried to escape on the other side. What else could I be but a foreigner in Japan? The hypothesis here is this: If you feel like a foreigner, then you will live like one. Was there any other possibility?
Was there? Now, I’m not so sure. I sit here and contemplate that question as if it backfired and hit me in the face. When I asked that question of possibilities just now, did I intend to answer it or was it a rhetorical question? It was supposed to be the latter, but I sit here and consider it, turning it around, like it seems I’ve done with everything in my life. If there is an answer, I would like to try to search for it in that period of my two-year college experience, now that my mind is lingering on these memories, and perhaps find it in Gabriel.
The last time I saw Gabriel on campus, he was going to move, to another school or city—I can’t remember. He was pulling out action figures in broad daylight, telling me he was going to the art supply store for enamel paints, the kind you used for model cars.
The action figures and the model paint—they weren’t equating anything for me, so I asked him why. He said he was going to paint their scratched surfaces to make them new again.
I must have looked dumbfounded. It never entered my head you could do something like that. I too still had a couple of action figures, and I kept impeccable care of them, but when the brown paint scratched off the hair displaying a head with what looked like thinning hair, I never thought you could rewind time and give him a full head of hair again with enamel color.
Where would he ever get an idea like that? I came away from that episode wondering why Gabriel didn’t walk the line like everybody else. To survive a social climate, I have always believed that you needed to present what is socially acceptable while simultaneously hiding those features that are only yours and hence unexpected to the greater world. I know I walked the line because I would partake in what gave meaning to my life but I would keep it to myself like a serial killer. Such a person makes up morality on the go since this person has no real interactions with people. And this underscores any delusions I had about myself and the opposite sex, when I was judging them for scorning me at shopping malls in their oversized pullovers and pastel leggings. If I were a foreigner everywhere I went, it was because I was one to myself as well as to others, and what Gabriel would eventually prove to me in hindsight was that you didn’t have to be one to yourself.
Those of us who loved this art form were all foreigners, but each of us engaged with this limitation in our own way. Bill Blackbeard himself must have been a foreigner to the normal people of his day, but that never stopped him from doing what he was doing. Think about the neighbors for a second. At some point in his quest, Blackbeard had an incredible storage problem in his home where he was keeping stacks and bundles of countless newspapers that libraries had given him at his request. The newspapers were clogging his garage and the living spaces in his house, even spilling into his yard. The neighborhood must have known he was holding several truckloads of this stuff on his home premises. What kind of person would they have concluded he was? Who knows, but if they had looked long enough into his life, they would have found that those very materials were not only used to make numerous compilations of work that otherwise would have been lost to civilization just like the paintings of the Ancient Greeks but that he later also donated this massive collection to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum, where scholars and archivists today find rare works that are now designated as emblems of our national culture.
The only way you can become a Bill Blackbeard is to take your convictions and do what you feel is right, even if the rest of the world might judge you in unattractive ways. I know where Gabriel stood on the social parameters he was given, and I wonder what accomplishments he has done with his audacity, but it also makes me wonder about Eddie Castro; how would he have dealt with thinning hair on an old, plastic hero? I wonder if Eddie still enjoys comics, or if it was a passing thing, as it has been for so many youthful collectors from my day—a thing you did before you got into chicks and fast cars.
Art/photo at the top of the page and the art for the author’s bio are by Rey Armenteros.