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
Biggie regarded him,
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’.
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.
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
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
They shook. Weak
grip, bit of a tremor.
An attractive older
woman with a shock of white blonde hair came over from talking at
razzing you,” she explained. “It’s his aphasia, words get
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.”
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
“Hang on, Biggie,”
he said, and reached into his jacket’s poacher pocket, producing a
sheaf of papers.
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.
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
“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.
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
“I guess cartoons
of Mohammed are right out too,” Biggie observed.
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
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.
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
with laughter. “Sure, Tink, nobody ever tell you—fact is always
stranger than fiction?”