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)

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The Week of the Dogs

Lousiana, Mississippi, and other Gulf states are now aswim in a brine brimming with the dead. Though the horrific cleanup of human dead has now begun, that soup and the tarn that remains once the waters subside completely will be punctuated with hundreds of thousands of dead pets -- cats and dogs, lots of dogs.

But the most filthy, toxic dogs of them all stand tall and blather to us now, acting as if the events of the past week can be "made right," that the same debates they've successfully tabled or ignored should once again be tabled and/or ignored, all the while flaunting their utter contempt and indifference to the grim reality of what has happened, where we are, what we have let ourselves become.

Orwell did not predict so much as he recognized, dissected, and laid open the realities of power-drunk governments and deluded nations: once a populace has been shorn from democracy and freedom, it is totally subservient to propoganda, believing what isn't true and disbelieving all that is.

Can this latest spin-cycle actually delude America after the events of the past week? I'm already hearing people who are doubting their perceptions of last week as the narcotic of the GOP and Bush spin-doctors kick into high gear, and I find myself wondering how long we, as a nation, can indulge this madness and pretend what is real is not, and what is not real is.

When the last election went down, resulting in another "victory" for Bush and his cronies, my feelings of anger, resignation, and outrage echoed a previous life experience in the comics industry -- when the direct market distribution system collapsed, and I resigned myself to the inevitable consequences to come (implosion of the market, a monopoly at the helm, the cyclical reassertion of the powers-that-have-been once again vying for domination of the once-fertile marketplace).

When Bush was re-elected -- sans Supreme Court intervention this time, amid a clearly broken election process tainted by electronic and digital voting methods too easily tampered with sans accountability -- and neighbors who are Bush-supporters crowed, I thought, "We deserve whatever happens to us as a country now."

Can any sane person continue to drink in the spectacle of the most recent events and not feel their gorge rise in their throat? The President's and his Administration's spin machine is in full cycle now -- and the ongoing and utter disconnect from reality, the absolutely sociopathic lack of empathy on the basest human level should be prompting guillotines to rise and heads to fall.

We even have our First Mother saying, with nary a hint of shame or black humor, the dead-on equivalent of "Let them eat cake." Read on, below -- where is the collective outrage and will to bring this corrupt pack of power-intoxicated mongrel dogs down? This latest global demonstration of contempt, incompetence, arrogance, and lunacy -- on the heels of Rove outed as the Benedict Arnold of the New Millennium and Halliburton and the pharmaceutical ownership of our government bringing fresh dimensions to the coining of human misery as a profit base -- outstrips Watergate (prompted by a mere bungled robbery of Democratic campaign headquarters, you'll recall) and anything Clinton or his administration ever approached. The nauseating tableau of Bush piously once again conjuring his fucking "armies of compassion/waves of compassion" while maintaining the smug opacity of a sunning reptile makes him the American Psycho to end them all.

A few recent highlights:

* Even as Katrina had immediately departed, The White House was heartlessly downplaying the impact, while its key officials (Bush, Cheney, Rice, etc.) vacationed... A reminder: The AP story for August 31st (now as remote a reailty as 9/10/01) actually was headlined, "White House Says Katrina's Economic Impact Is Modest", and read:

"Hurricane Katrina is likely to have only a modest impact on the U.S. economy as long as the hit to the energy sector proves transitory, White House economic adviser Ben Bernanke said Wednesday. "Clearly, it's going to affect the Gulf Coast economy quite a bit," Bernanke told CNBC television. "That's going to be enough to have at least a noticeable or at least some impact on the aggregate (national) data. "Looking forward ... reconstruction is going to add jobs and growth to the economy," he added. "As long as we find that the energy impact is only temporary and there's not permanent damage to the infrastructure, my guess is that the effects on the overall economy will be fairly modest."

"Fairly modest"??? An entire city was gone, along with many, many more in Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Gulf Region. Cities and communities were completey obliterated, and Bernanke was already trying to spin this into nothing of consequence!

* The spectacle of this current Administration's indifference and lack of empathy only becomes increasingly outrageous as those at the highest circles of power become more visible, tour the horrors, and open their insipid mouths... The sickening spectacle of Bush inserting himself into events has reached Roman Bread & Circuses levels of lunacy. It was utterly characteristic of our President to respond to the stunning sky-rocketing gas and heating oil prices with a pithy, "Don't buy gas if you don't need it" ("President Urges Americans to Conserve Fuel If They Can" by Nedra Pickler, AP).

(It needn't be this way: As my dear friend Diane E. Foulds informs me, things are different in other countries. She sent me the following: "The price of gas at Czech filling stations has risen by several crowns since Hurricane Katrina hit the US city of New Orleans. Petrol is now selling for about 32 crowns per litre, or roughly 5.25 US dollars per gallon. ...the Labour and Social Affairs Ministry has announced that as of January 2006 it will increase the annual transportation subsidy given to disabled people in light of rising fuel costs. The Finance Ministry is also considering giving a subsidy to trucker and other professionals most affected by higher fuel costs." Of course, the Compassionate Conservative thing to do is to merely advise an oil-dependent population, "Don't buy gas if you don't need it." Spoken like a true oil man, George.)

The jaw-dropping ugliness of Bush waxing with a smirk about the high ol' times he once had in New Orleans as a youth (ya, we can all imagine: snooooooorkt!) is astounding, as is his belief that he is somehow comforting the masses with Good Ol' Boy small-talk chit-chat predictions of sitting on ol' Trent Lott's rebuilt porch. Not of Lott's one and only home, mind you, but just one of Trent Lott's many houses -- Bush said it was "a fantastic house - and I'm looking forward to sitting on the porch." Surrounded by sycophants and toadies who applaud these appalling revelations of Bush's true nature, he revels in the spotlight like Caligula, while any sane person in earshot shudders in the firm knowledge that we are fucked. Bush is seemingly incapable of shame -- as if the New Gilded Age bloat of rich bastards rebuilding mansions and palaces has anything but vile connotations in the context of the poverty levels of New Orleans and the vulnerability of those who scraped out livings in the shadow of that porch. Bush is beyond clueless: he is clearly reveling in power without consequence, incapable of grasping not only the Ground Zero of Katrina and her aftermath, but the reality most Americans live with. It all eludes him: the scope of the tragedy, the shameful magnitude of our country's growing poverty (according to the most recent August 2005 US Census bureau press release, the US poverty-level-and-below populace is now at 37 million, up 1.1 million from their 2003 figures), the lack of services for all those on the bottom of this new Gilded Era imbalance of wealth (45.8 million Americans are now known to be without health insurance -- and that's just the available statistics; what about those beneath the radar?). Poverty levels have only increased since Bush took (and I do mean "took") office, but he is nonplussed, and bucking for permanent "tax reform" for the rich and the corporate. Ya, those Americans eking through this coming winter with record-smashing gas and heating oil prices dwindling their meager $44,389 median 2004 household income (unchanged from 2003) can't fucking wait to take in the view from Trent Lott's porch.

Bob Hebert in The NY Times accurately stated, "Mr. Bush's performance last week will rank as one of the worst ever by a president during a dire national emergency. What we witnessed, as clearly as the overwhelming agony of the city of New Orleans, was the dangerous incompetence and the staggering indifference to human suffering of the president and his administration."

As the Editor & Publisher website demonstrates, the apple hasn't fallen far from the tree. The September 5th E&P staff headline reads, "Barbara Bush: Things Working Out 'Very Well' for Poor Evacuees from New Orleans," and the snapshot of 2005's elder Marie Antoinette is complete:

NEW YORK -- Accompanying her husband, former President George H.W.Bush, on a tour of hurricane relief centers in Houston, Barbara Bush said today, referring to the poor who had lost everything back home and evacuated, "This is working very well for them." The former First Lady's remarks were aired this evening on National Public Radio's "Marketplace" program. She was part of a group in Houston today at the Astrodome that included her husband and former President Bill Clinton, who were chosen by her son, the current president, to head fundraising efforts for the recovery. Sen. Hilary Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama were also present. In a segment at the top of the show on the surge of evacuees to the Texas city, Barbara Bush said: "Almost everyone I’ve talked to says we're going to move to Houston." Then she added: "What I’m hearing is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this--this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them."

As comic historian Richard Arndt commented in his email to me, "Ah, yes. Those lucky bastards."

* This President's and this Administration's arrogant, pathological contempt for genuine science has finally taken a measurable human toll, and it numbers in the tens of thousands. This storm, this disaster, and this outcome had been predicted and forecast, methods of coping dismissed out-of-hand, and already the conservative pundits are trying to divert that bitter reality into finger-pointing at disenfranchised local civil authorities. I ask those so eager to once again rationalize Bush's lack of culpability: When does the power Bush so transparently boasts about require some measure of responsibility?...

I don't need to link you to sites conservative readers will dismiss out-of-hand to present this as a fact. Rick Veitch and I cited a National Geographic article earlier in the week, and Fran Friel referred me to an even more thorough and mind-blowing piece from Scientific American, circa 2001, which I recommend you read right now and
  • right here.
  • It's six pages, but well worth the read -- c'mon, read it. You know our President didn't, and won't. But of course, Bush doesn't read Scientific American, do he? We aren't bantering about "evilution" or the absurd notion of "Intelligent Design" as somehow equitable as a science (it isn't) here -- we are faced with the consequences of ignoring cold, hard scientific pragmatism, shorn of religion or ideology as a shield. There is a point where willful stupidity as a characteristic of leadership becomes untenable and truly malicious, and I believe we are finally unarguably there.

    * Meanwhile, money (sorely needed) is thrown at the disaster like a balm from on high, while our national economic present and future has aleady been ravaged by the unnecessary "preemptive" war this President and Administration willfully engaged in, despite overwhelming evidence countering their lies and deception... Before Katrina hit, Reuters had already reported that the Iraq War is costing more per month than Vietnam ever did (go to Alan Elsner's August 31st report,
  • "Iraq war costs more per month than Vietnam").

  • Elsner wrote, "The report, entitled 'The Iraq Quagmire' from the Institute for Policy Studies and Foreign Policy in Focus, both liberal, anti-war organizations, put the cost of current operations in Iraq at $5.6 billion per month. This breaks down to almost $186 million a day. "By comparison, the average cost of U.S. operations in Vietnam over the eight-year war was $5.1 billion per month, adjusting for inflation," it said. As a proportion of gross domestic product, the Vietnam War was more significant, costing 12 percent of annual GDP, compared to 2 percent for the Iraq War. However, economists said the Iraq war is being financed with deficit spending and may nearly double the projected federal budget deficit over the next 10 years. ..."Broken down per person in the United States, the cost so far is $727, making the Iraq War the most expensive military effort in the past 60 years," wrote authors Phyllis Bennis and Erik Leaver. ...The total cost of the Vietnam War in current dollars was around $600 billion and there are some experts who believe the Iraq War will eventually surpass that total. For instance, the Congressional Budget Office estimated this year that if the United States managed to reduce its troop deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan to 50,000 by 2010, the cost over the next decade would be an additional $393 billion, which when added to the dollars already spent would exceed the Vietnam total. While there are far fewer troops in Iraq than there were in Vietnam at the height of that conflict, the weapons they use are more expensive and they are paid more."

    And that was before Katrina struck, further increasing our deficit spending to unprecented levels. The Administration continues to doctor the reality of that deficit by simply leaving the costs of the war off the table when discussing the mind-blowing deficit sure to impoverish our children -- my children -- and those now pitching in to take in Katrina evacuees into their own impoverished households.

    This is just more reprehensible duplicity by the authors of this war, who have also kept the other costs as invisible as possible: according to Elsner, these include "the deaths of an estimated 23,000-27,000 Iraqi civilians and more than 2,000 U.S. military personnel and civilian contractors; the social costs of domestic programs slashed to meet the budget shortfall; the loss of income to reservists and National Guard troops who spend long periods away from their careers and businesses as well as the anticipated costs of treating returning troops for mental health conditions as a result of their service." Mental health? How about the thousands returning disfigured, maimed, and without limbs?

    Hebert again in The NY Times this week: "At a time when effective, innovative leadership is desperately needed to cope with matters of war and peace, terrorism and domestic security, the economic imperatives of globalization and the rising competition for oil, the United States is being led by a man who seems oblivious to the reality of his awesome responsibilities."

    (With thanks to my friend HomeyDJ) I leave you with something reflecting the reality of the many Americans with brains, souls, eyes, and open hearts, those who have responded to Katrina's wake, the plight of hundreds of thousands, and the incompetency (at best) of our government with true caring, charity, and efforts to aid:

    "The task of man is to help others; that's my firm teaching, that's my message. That is my own belief. For me, the fundamental question is better relations; better relations among human beings-- and whatever I can contribute to that."

    - HH Dalai Lama

    Labels: , , ,