For a few weeks, I'm running a series of guest posts from my friends over at That Comic Smell podcast. The pieces are any length, style, whatever. The only brief I gave was to write something about comics. This time around, it's Allan Lowson.
|Illustration by Louise Limb.|
A block before the convention centre, Big Bill parked his VW bus. The old split-window model housed a complete tattooist’s parlour, as the ‘TAT2U’ custom license plate and carnie-painted exterior proclaimed.
Tinker pulled in behind on ‘Babs’, Biggie’s ULH bobber, removing his half helmet and unbuckling a saddlebag. In it went; out came a full-head rubber skull mask. He arranged its red, yellow and orange flowering of string LEDs on top into flame shapes, and switched on. Their senders had an interrupter option and Tinker had timed them apart to flicker most convincingly. Babs’s chrome security chain, worn bandolier-style with Bill’s old docker’s hook on his shoulder, completed Tinker’s black leather costume—Johnny Blaze, aka Ghostrider.
Biggie regarded him, and laughed.
“You’re just envious,” groused Tinker, admiring himself in Babs’s mirror.
Actually, Biggie was green with it, as in body paint. He wore Thrift Store pants torn into rags and split-seamed. The black wig, hacked into a fright, capped off his Hulk impersonation. After a major heart attack a year ago, Bill got serious about his health. He had lost a hundred pounds, none of it muscle, and needed no padding to look the part.
Figuring to arrive in style, Biggie got on the fanny pad and they wheelied past the crowd lined up at the entrance. No unappreciative cops around, so they mono-wheeled back to catcalls and applause before leaning Babs against a handy wall and presenting their pre-purchased tickets.
Well, it was the L.A. Comic Convention and character costumes de rigueur, many more elaborate than their impromptu efforts, with Trekkies breeding like Tribbles. Different Star Trek uniforms for different generations: ever-expendable ensigns in red, Klingons and Borg, androids and Vulcans—geeks to a man. Tinker made a beeline for the comic swap meet, while a female bodybuilder all done up as She Hulk caught Biggie’s eye, so it was ‘see you later, masturbator’—‘after a while, pedophile’.
“Any old undergrounds?” Tinker went from table to table, receiving more pitying glances than affirmatives, and even then mainly the same disappointing popular reprints. So far he had only found a dog-eared copy of Hunt Emerson’s brilliant ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’; someone having permanently borrowed his. Then Tinker caught a wave out the corner of his eye: a young stallholder across the aisle, and not a face he recognized.
“I thought you might be interested in these,” said the spotty. “Cool costume, incidentally, could be the guy in these comics.”
Tinker didn’t get his hopes up, expecting a bunch of ‘Ghostriders’--then he drew in his breath: a complete bagged set of ‘Subvert’. Trying to keep casual, hard with trembling fingers, he checked: first printing and in mint condition.
“Ah, got any more by this artist?” he asked, eyes darting all over.
For reply, the lad heaved a cardboard file box on to the table.
“Some old weirdo died and I picked these up. Thought they might be worth something.”
Tinker had stopped listening at ‘old weirdo’, however his hands were busy. Not just the Trashman strips, all leather and revolutionary ultra-violence salted with gratuitous sex ‘n drugs, the box held damn near everything the artist had ever penned. From early ‘East Village Other’ through ‘My True Story’ to the graphic novel ‘Che’; all by Manuel ‘Spain’ Rodriguez, Tinker’s personal favourite among the ‘Zap’ underground artists.
Underground alright, sighed Tinker to himself. A man’s artistic life lay in this box, and there sure wouldn’t be any more. Spain had died recently of prostate cancer, same as Zappa, and still a roster member in good standing with his old Buffalo outlaw club, the ‘Road Vultures’. Gruesomely enough, his demise had increased the value of these first editions by several factors. However, when things are too sweet they can hit a nerve.
Tinker raised his eyes to the vendor; coincidences weren’t part of his belief system. “Don’t suppose any of these are signed?’ he inquired, the soul of innocence.
And, of course, the first he took out of its bag was. Gotcha!
“So, traded for any good memories today?”
“Yeah, got a sucker’s first kiss for…” The kid stopped abruptly. “Hey, who are you? This is my pitch, bought and paid for.”
“I know,” said Tinker, leaning in. “You’re just trading paper memories for the real ones. Now, either pack up and bugger off or I’ll dispel your glamourie.” He gazed around at the motley crowd. “Even in this bunch a lower echelon tempter will stand out like a sore thumb. Angels don’t dig you lot going public either, do they?”
The little demon and his goods vanished, not, however, before Tinker had clasped the comic box to his chest.
He checked it in at the cloakroom: considering the cost of a full exorcism these days, not a bad deal. On the way back, he bumped into an un-Jolly Green Giant. Bill’s lady ‘green bean’ had not only wanted to appear from the ‘other team’, she wanted to play the same way too.
“You’re such an idiot, Biggie,” mocked Tinker. “That dyke had ‘wish I had one’ written all over her same as most chick steroid-gobbling iron pounders. C’mon, I’ll buy you a beer.”
The bar looked out over the arena, perfect for people watching, and always the right time for a beer—‘for being wet or being dry, or lest we should be by and by, or any other reason why’--in Tinker’s philosophy.
He watched, with a mixture of amazement and admiration, as this reborn Biggie ordered lo-cal beer and no snacks. Bill had larded to well over three hundred pounds before his heart dialed him a wake-up call. Green greasepaint currently covered the full-suit tattoos that, as their canvas shrank, increasingly resembled intricate cameos.
A pint of Sierra Nevada’s pale ale chased a double Jack Daniels and together they mocked the worst Trekkies, Furries, and ‘Walmartians’ living out fantasies in public best left private.
The day’s events offered a bewildering array of choices: twenty program rooms with constantly changing topics, celebrity talks and, hooking Bill, a comic tattoo venue. Tinker decided to check out Artists’ Alley where he had heard there might be some underground representatives.
He nearly dropped when he saw an old guy sitting in a wheelchair at a table. White hair and goatee above a chequerboard tie; another demon, but from the pages of ‘Zap’ comix and a character raunchy as they get. Tinker first came across the Checkered Demon on the pages of ‘Zap’ #2 in ‘The American Bookshop’ at Het Spui square in Amsterdam back in late ’68. Now he could finally meet its creator.
“Hi, S. Clay, the name’s Tinker and I’m right chuffed to be able to shake your hand.”
They shook. Weak grip, bit of a tremor.
An attractive older woman with a shock of white blonde hair came over from talking at another table.
“He’s not razzing you,” she explained. “It’s his aphasia, words get mixed up.”
Tinker realized she must be Lorraine Wilson, S. Clay’s wife and caregiver. After the December 2008 Alternative Press Expo in San Francisco and a day’s heavy drinking at a pal’s on Landers Street, ‘Checks’ had been found face down in a rain-swollen gutter just after midnight. Unconscious with facial injuries, fractured neck and brain damage, S. Clay had no memory of the event, which remains a mystery. Once a prolific artist, it was all he could do now to draw breath, walking and talking being a major effort.
Tinker bought a couple of posters: Ruby the Dyke and her all-girl bike gang offing aliens, Captain Pissgums and his pervert pirates carving a path through rotting zombies, and, of course, Checks mixing it with the Hog-Ridin’ Fools. S. Clay used to ride a Hydra-glide, which probably explained why he’d been one of the few underground artists who could draw bikes accurately. Tinker handed Lorraine a William McKinley $500 bill, raising her eyebrows: they were discontinued by Nixon in ‘69 to thwart organized crime money laundering.
“I can’t change that,” she gasped.
“I can,” said Tinker, passing his hand over it. Now it became a $1,000 Grover Cleveland. “Keep the change for medical expenses. Oh, and you don’t have to worry, it isn’t counterfeit or fairy gold, and worth a hell of a sight more than face value to collectors. Put that puppy on eBay and watch ‘em scramble.”
He took his leave, happy with a Scout’s good deed for the day done. Tinker hadn’t known that Spain had been dying of cancer and missed the opportunity to help out.
He found Biggie still at the comic tattoo meeting. Greasepaint wiped off, he had been displaying his body art and taking orders.
“Hey, Tink,” he boomed, “Show these needle-freaks your tat.”
Reluctantly, Tinker hoisted his ‘Zippy the Pinhead’ tee shirt while Bill doused the lights. They wouldn’t be needed to see the Cerne Abbas Giant superimposed on planet Earth, blazing through his chest hair. It shone as if a stained glass rose window, being inked from a palette of refracted light. Needless to say, everybody wanted one. However, as with outlaw club membership, money counted for dick. You had to be chosen to become an illuminated man.
Lights back on, Tinker dragged Bill out before the questions got too pointed. They were walking past the Professional Critique room when Tinker remembered something.
“Hang on, Biggie,” he said, and reached into his jacket’s poacher pocket, producing a sheaf of papers.
“What’s that, your last will and testament?” joked Bill.
“Nah, I strung together a few of my diary entries into a story for fantasy submission,” Tinker replied. “I’ll hand it in now and come back later after the real writers have had a butchers.”
“There you go with that Limey rhyming slang again,” grumbled Biggie.
Tinker patted the hook and chain slung over his shoulder. “Yeah, butcher’s hook for look,” and nipped in quickly to submit his effort.
“Hey, let’s dump the costumes in my van and grab a bite somewhere,” Bill suggested on his return.
“Sounds good,” replied Tinker. “My belly thinks its throat is cut. I’ll drop my posters and box of comics there while we’re at it.”
“So, what got you into that kids’ stuff anyway?” asked Bill, polishing off the last of his cottage cheese and undressed salad.
“Well, being half gypsy I got picked on as a ‘dirty tinky’ at school. My only pal was Specs, who was bullied ‘cos be were a ‘four-eyes’. He had relatives Stateside who sent him comics: Captain Marvel, Blackhawk, Plastic Man etc. Britain had nothing to touch them until the ‘Eagle’ came along and Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare blew everything else away.”
“No, Tink, I meant as a grown-up.”’
Tinker pointed at Zippy on his tee shirt. “The Undergrounds, then DC’s ‘Vertigo’ line after flower-power faded.”
“Okay, but why comics?”
“You’ve heard a picture is worth a thousand words, right? Well, they also preceded writing. Think cave art, and once that evolves into sequential images, you get hieroglyphs which tell a story same way as comics. Speed it up and you got movies. Comics were the only way to warn illiterate street orphans in South America about AIDS. Comics cut across time, language barriers, class lines, and unmotivated readers—people just love pictures.”
Tinker pointed at Biggie’s technicoloured arms. “Daubed on cave walls, injected under the skin, or made 3-D by sculpting, we all want to make our ideas permanent as possible. Marry language and art, you can tell better stories than either alone and reach all ages, everywhere. What’s not to like?”
“Guess you weren’t big on the Comic Code Authority,” said Bill, teasing him.
“That bastard, Fredric Wertham, and his bullshit book ‘Seduction of the Innocents’ put the boots to Entertaining Comics back in ’54, although they had the best artists and writers.” Tinker had taken the bait. “Hell, the Code even nixed strips with black lead characters and a writer whose name happened to be Wolfman. ‘Mad’ only survived because it was a magazine, not a comic.” He grinned, “Of course, Undergrounds simply ignored those ignorant book burners.”
“Didn’t they try to ban anti-fascist stuff too?”
Tinker nodded. “And the British government wanted to prohibit Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ while still in production as part of their appeasement policy to Hitler. So did other European nations—at least till the war started.”
“I guess cartoons of Mohammed are right out too,” Biggie observed.
“Yeah, ‘Jyllands Posten’ in Denmark found that out the hard way. Still, fifty other countries re-published the cartoons, unlike the wimps in Britain, Canada, and America. Funny how religions think they can force their fantasies, no matter how nutso, on non-believers under threat of death.”
Bill finished his coffee, and got up. “Fuck ‘em all, Tink. I’ll ink what I want on my own skin and anyone wants to cut it out is welcome to try.”
Biggie slept with a loaded Civil War Colt under his pillow, could play darts with throwing knives, and definitely not the man to irritate in a dark alley. You wouldn’t need to strap on a suicide vest to be fast-tracked to the joys of an imaginary paradise.
Back at the convention the joint was still jumping, geeks and freaks, nerds and fans, all milling around on the main floor. Tinker and Biggie worked their way through the throng to the program rooms. The Portfolio Review one wasn’t hard to find. Starry-eyed authors and artists, clutching folios to their chests, were emerging from it with spirits high and hearts aglow from professional praise.
Tinker popped in for his share while Bill got buttonholed by an artist taken with his original skin work. Biggie designed all his personal paints, and living skin is an infinitely harder medium than paper or canvas, with no room for error where eraser and whiteout don’t cut it.
Shuffling out, Tinker’s long face told it all—rejected!
“Hey, what gives, Tink?” asked Biggie, with a malicious grin. “Didn’t that mean ol’ panel dig your manuscript?”
Tinker stuffed his story back into the jacket’s inside pocket, stifling a sniff.
“Can you believe? They said it was utterly incredible, way too far out even for fantasy.”
Biggie convulsed with laughter. “Sure, Tink, nobody ever tell you—fact is always stranger than fiction?”