Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Moving day: Part One

All right, enough of my political rants. You can read that everywhere, anywhere on the web, from much better informed folks than me. Here's something you can only read here:

My 19-year-old son Dan is moving out of the house this week into his first apartment. It's a big step, a big change, and one I can empathize with, for reasons we all understand.

That, coupled with the fact that I begin my faculty work with the first-class-ever at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, VT in about a week-and-a-half, is bringing back rich memories of this very week in my life 29 years ago. As a break
from my ranting about the grim realities of this week, I'll share some of those memories with you now.

During my second year at Johnson State College, a bunch of us went swimming at a spot we'd been told about, far from the campus. My friends Dave Booz and Joe Mangelynx and me wandered away from our amigos to explore the ledges above the main swimming hole. It was a gorgeous afternoon, sunny and hot, and we decided there might be some interesting spots in the waterfall-riddled ledges above the main swimming hole. So, wearing only our cutoffs and dripping wet, we found a pathway up around to the topmost set of falls, and went exploring.

We ended up stepping our way down a series of smaller pools formed by a progression of waterfalls. At one point, the only way down to the next set of falls and uppermost pool was a rotting rope tied to a narrow but sturdy tree leading down to a wide overhanging ledge. Below the ledge was a crystal-clear pool, the sunlight shimmering off its surface.

Booz, being the ballsiest in such matters, didn't think twice: he shimmied down the rope, stepped out onto the ledge, and shouted up to us, "so, what are you waiting for?"

I made the climb down second, and then Joe did the same. Joe was (and most likely still is) a strapping fellow, built like a football player, and damned if that rope didn't break when he was about to set foot on the ledge.

So, there we were: on the ledge. The rope was gone, we couldn't go back up.

The pool was below, but there was a big problem: we couldn't tell how deep it was. The sun was shining directly down into it, and we could see every one of the perfect, round stones covering its floor with incredible clarity. We could damn near count those rocks on the bottom -- that’s how crystal-clear it was.

That pool could have been six inches deep, it could have been six feet deep: we simply could not tell.

I don't recollect how long Joe and Dave and I sat up on the ledge. We perched there a loooooong time, it seemed, until our friends were shouting up from below, asking where we were. A few shouts back and forth established we were OK and would be down soon, and all the while Dave hunkered down at the edge of the ledge, staring down into that pool. We all pondered that pool until we rationalized every possible scenario: the only option was to jump, which seemed like no option at all the longer we stared at that pool.

As the afternoon wore on and the sun moved and dropped the shadow of the ledge over us, we began to shiver: it was getting cold standing on the rock, and even with the shift in light, we couldn't tell about that pool.

Was it so shallow that we'd shatter our legs hitting those stones?

If we tried to land on our seats, was it so shallow we’d smash our hips?

Was it deep enough to cushion the sizable drop into those waters?

We just...

It was getting later and colder.

It was Dave who finally laughed, "Well, fuck it." He gave us a grin, and made the leap.

I was 21 years old and moving from Johnson State College to Dover, NJ. It was a momentous move in my life -- a definitive turning point, the most radical I'd ever dared. I was diving off a ledge into a body of water I couldn't make out below or beyond; I didn't know if I was diving into a pool six inches deep or an ocean. But this was the week I made the dive, and I've never regretted it.

I'd been a student at JSC for two years, ostensibly arriving two years earlier to study art, but instead pouring most of my energies into the theater department (thanks to Richard Emerson, who was the dept. head at that time and my advisor) and running the film program at JSC. My plans to study art were immediately derailed upon my arrival due to the small size of the college and the fact that seniors, logically enough, had first pick of classes; by the
time lowly freshman Bissette got to sign up for his classes, there were only two miserly art classes open to me, so theater is was.

As it turned out, this was for the best: Emerson was a fantastic fellow and great teacher, and I worked my ass off in his technical theater studies, particularly loving the study and application of theater lighting. The McCandless Theory of lighting the stage, it turned out, was central to the color work of two of my all-time favorite artists: the cinematic Italian horror and fantasy maestro Mario Bava, and Kansas City cartoonist extraordinaire Richard Corben. Whether Bava or Corben knew of McCandless, I had and have no idea, but McCandless's theories of light, color, its meaning and techniques beautifully articulated the visual universes of Bava, Corben, and all of theater. So, my JSC theater studies ended up feeding my art in ways I wouldn't have imagined possible. By my second year at JSC, I had talked Emerson into indulging a year-long independent study of Bava's films, and talked the rather imperious head of the art department, (the late) Peter Heller, into indulging three independent studies on comics: (1) to produce three comics publications and publish them, (2) to steep myself in a full semester of anatomical studies, and (3) to write a paper on "The Comic Epic," which was a radical thing at the time.

An aside: How did that go? Well, as for (1), only one published comic was completed, Abyss #1, that ended up being my key portfolio piece when I applied to the Kubert School; as Peter Heller said when grading time came, "This is remarkable -- I never thought you'd finish even one, much less publish it. Forget about three, I knew you were overreaching. You finished one. So, good for you." I completed (2), but Peter was so depressed by the comics I chose to analyze that he dismissed that project altogether, simply acknowledging it as "completed" and moving on. This was before the term 'graphic novel' even existed, and Peter had refused to permit adapted works (like Joe Kubert's Tarzan into the blend; thus, the works I studied in that pre-graphic novel era were Enemy Ace, Kamandi (alas, New Gods had been canceled before completion, so it had been rejected by Peter as being irrelevant), Kona: Monarch of Monster Isle, and Jack Katz's just-out-of-the-starting-gate The First Kingdom. Peter couldn't stomach looking at any of them -- Charles Schultz and Pat Oliphant were the only contemporary cartoonists he had any respect for -- so that was that. As for (3), I indeed completed initial anatomical studies to Peter's satisfaction, drawing every bone in the human body from three-to-four different views (working from the science lab skeleton and a brace of anatomy books), and four different views of the full skeleton. "Good, good," Peter muttered while gritting his cigarette holder between his teeth, "now, we get you to UVM to draw from cadavers. You must learn to draw the entirety of the human body. You've got the stomach for that, yes?" Well, no -- my one session drawing from a cadaver was a bust, not due to squeamishness, but because I couldn't take my eyes off the dead man's face, wondering who he was, had been, and how his body ended up where it was. End of aside.

The decision to even apply to the Kubert School had been a major leap of faith. Peter told me from our first discussion, "Listen, little man, you're going to be competing with New York City art students to get in there, the best of the best. Look at your chin: I can see the weakness in you there, in your face. You won't be able to hack it. You need to stay put here. There's nothing for you there."

I spent that final blissful summer in Johnson, prolonging my JSC stay by tutoring at the College's summer learning program. The campus was and remains an insular, lovely spot, and it was a great way to see out my stay at JSC. That was a maturing process: I was tutoring high school students who still didn't know how to read or write, which astounded me at first. I worked in particular with two students, one a tow-headed young man who was frustrated with anything that forced him to work indoors, the other a brunette young woman with intense green eyes who grew up on a horse farm and didn't see why reading was so important, though her frustration and the toll it took on her sense of self-worth was readily apparent at the close of our first session. She was hungry to make connections, doing so often by diverting our studies: knowing I loved horror films, she regaled me with her account of a film she'd seen that spring at the drive-in, Don't Open the Window, which had made a big impression on her. I assigned her to write a synopsis of the film, and write a new ending; it was the only writing assignment she'd completed with any passion. I was accepted as a peer by the other tutors, most of whom were older than me, either seniors at Johnson or graduate students, while I was a lowly college sophomore bolting from what would have been my junior year to pursue a new adventure: entering the first-class-ever of a wholly new college in Dover, NJ, The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, Inc.

To everyone but my closest friends at JSC (including the three who had talked me into going to the Kubert School: Jack Venoooker, Mark 'Sparky' Whitcomb, and Steve Perry), this was a crazy endeavor. In 1976, the thought of anyone, much less a hick from Duxbury and Waterbury, making a career in comics was a reckless, delusional undertaking -- I mean, comics weren't a profession, they were a hobby (to quote my old buddy James Harvey, "Art it just a hobby"). To be pursuing it at a brand-new college that wasn't even accredited, could not offer or accept grants or scholarship, and was furthermore based in (groan) New Jersey, seemed crazier still. Only Peter Heller took it seriously, but did so only to test my mettle; when I applied even after Peter stared me down and cut me down verbally, he called me into his office with an arrogant wave of the hand, pointed to the empty chair next to him, and bellowed, "You did it anyway, didn't you?" I nodded yes, and he smiled and said, "Good for you." And that was that.

My parents (who, thankfully, are still with us) were making the big move to Florida from our home in Colbyville, VT. My Dad had worked hard to convince me to stay put, to take over the family store and make Colbyville my home. I think he thought I'd settle down with Jill Chase, my high school sweetheart who lived up on Blush Hill (Jill would marry and remarry, live in Japan, and raise a daughter). I had no interest in such plans, much less staying in Colbyville.

More on that in a moment: first, I have to impress upon you the precipitous drop I was about to make from that cliff-ledge into I-didn't-know-what was made all the more perilous by the fact my parents had sold the store and home and were pulling up stakes to move to North Port, Florida.

There was, after this week 29 years ago, literally no going back. There would be nowhere to go back to.

So, my saying no to considerable pressure to take over a thriving business -- the store and our home, a living and a house -- was a big fat no, and one at the time that seem completely irrational. Give up all that -- a certain future -- to try and find a means of making ends meet in comics???. It made no sense to my father.

But I had to do it, I had to give it my all. I knew if I didn't, I might regret not taking that plunge every day of my life -- whatever it led to, I knew I had to make the leap.

When my best friend Bill Hunter was found dead in his basement two years before (an apparent suicide), I swore I would make use of the time Bill no longer had and do what I wanted to do with my life. That was making comics -- and the Joe Kubert School sure looked like a lifeline to me! My father had always expressed his disgust with my staying indoors and drawing, and my desire to make comics made no sense to a man who'd served in four branches of the US military, worked as a lineman for the Green Mountain Power Company, and went into business for himself twice: once with the Eagle Oil Company (a heating oil business based in Duxbury), and again with Bissette's Market, of which there were three incarnations. My brother had done the Bissette name proud when he joined the Air Force, but I wanted no part of it, and my need to draw and tell stories simply didn't fit Dad's worldview.

That all changed in a heartbeat: the moment my father and I met Joe Kubert. When Joe shook my Dad's hand -- that steel-crushing Kubert handshake I still love -- my world was forever altered, for the better.

(Continued tomorrow)

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Blogger Gene K. said...

Steve, I know this essay is continued tomorrow - but, dammit, how deep was that frickin' water?!?!??

Seriously, this is fascinating stuff. I look forward to more of your Joe Kubert memories in particular; I've only had the honor of meeting him once (when you introduced Kate and me to him at Northampton's late, lamented Words & Pictures Musem, what seems almost a lifetime ago). But it was clear from our brief conversation that the man has the gravitas (the true kind, not the pretend-political kind) to match his artistic chops. In fact, I even think I saw that kid from 29 years ago standing next to him...


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