Some time back I asked for help from the Kindertrauma folksÂ in remembering the name of a creepy live action movie where a St. Bernard dreams of being chased by a man dressed as a terrifying skiing cat. Here’s my original blog write-up.Â Just today a fellow named Dan Salmon, who had a similar childhood memory of having his shit freaked out by the film, sent me a link to the actual film. I am in awe and ecstasy over the power of the internet sometimes.
Turns out it was called Fantasy on Skis, a 1962 film that later showed up on Walt Disneyâ€™s Wonderful World of Color TV show. After a little research, I figureÂ I saw it in at Bremen TheatersÂ in Tinley Park in 1975, when they rereleased Snow WhiteÂ (that’s what we did before cable, DVDs, and even VHS, kids…we waited years for movies to come back to the big screen). I believe it served as a short subject before the main film.
Watching the rest of the film provides PLENTY of nightmare fuelâ€¦on skis! A scarecrow chases a pair of crows; cowboys (skiers wearing horse costumes around their waists) have a gunfight; Captain Hook chases Peter Panâ€¦itâ€™s amazing. Really, watch it NOW, but feel free to skip ahead to the “ski fantasies”.
The cat part IS especially terrifying, and starts at about the 24:50Â mark.
For a long time I was quite the aficionado of true crime books. I had a fascination with serial murder for a good part of my young life. I published a zine about it, in fact. I probably read most of the books Rule published before the early 1990s. She, John Waters (who also collected true crime and wrote an essay titled “All My Trials”), and boredom at work were the three reasons I started the zine.
Among others, Ms. Rule wrote one of the two more interesting books about serial killer Ted Bundy. Hers was The Stranger Beside Me, the other was The Only Living Witness by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. TOLW was based on hours of interviews with Bundyâ€”who never openly confessed, but was happy to â€œspeculateâ€ on the nature of the murders and the killer’s mindsetâ€”which lent it the frisson of hearing the smug bastard’s story in his own words. Rule’s book, as I recall, was nicely written and researched, but was also helped by the fact that Rule knew Ted before “Bundy” become synonymous with evil (or Married…with Children for that matter).
During my true crime fanboy period, I enjoyed reading Rule. Not always. I remember her being occasionally stilted. When she began covering scandalous family murders instead of serial killing perverts, I lost interest. According to my regressive thinking at the time, that was middle-aged chick readingâ€”weepy pap about filicides and mariticides enjoyed by pearl-clutching hausfraus. Give me dark darkness with extra dark, Laird Beelzebub, said a young, gritty, quasi-puncrock Mr. Dan Kelly. Glad I got over that…mostly. It helped that I encountered many real lost boys and girls through the mail, who refused to grow up and dabbled in muck without the slightest bit of self-examination. Geez. Of course, they also made my zineâ€”titled EvilÂ® (the copyright sign’s intended irony was lost on most)â€”my most successful. But that’s a longer story for another day.
Anyway, Rule generally reliably delivered the goods. She was an old-school true crime writer, writing innumerable articles for the newsprint detective mags and several books under the alias Andy Stack (and others) because, per her first editor, the wimmens just didn’t write true crime. For the genre she was pretty good. Not Capote or Mailer good, but she kept things percolating, did her research (she ran into some accusations of sloppiness later, though these came from less than pure folks), and, as far as I can tell, kept the exploitation and sensationalism down. Uh, never mind the early Andy Stack stuff, which was SLEAZY as hell.
I saw her many years ago at a bookstore signingâ€¦I forget where. She talked about her latest book (If You Really Loved Me or Everything She ever Wanted maybe), knowing Bundy (who’d been electrocuted for, I think, two years by then), and answered questions. Silence of the Lambs had recently come out, and someone asked her opinion of the book and film. Unequivocally, she stated she hated both, loathing the idea of a serial killer character portrayed as smart, sexy, and funny. I imagine when you discovered the smart, sexy, and funny fellow you worked a suicide line with, and who you previously would have loved to see your daughter dating, was a psychopath who secretly raped and killed 30+ women, you’re likely to view Hannibal and Dexter with a scowl.
After the talk, I asked her to sign my books (she even signed my copy of The I-5 Killer as Andy Stack!), and told her I was a writer, and that she was a personal inspiration. Which was true, though before and since there have been other more influential writers in my life. I don’t recall her exact words, but she was very encouraging, and even spoke with me a bit about the craft without a hint of brush-off or acting as if she’d rather be elsewhere. Rare behavior in my field.
Anyway, in my experience: a very nice person was Ann Rule. RIP. I may dig through my old true crime collectionâ€”what remains of itâ€”and reread one of her books in tribute.
The Internet has helped me solve numerous mysteries over the years, mostly in the vein of “What was that film/song/book/TV show where the ______ did _____?” Here’s a new one that I’d sure like to solve before I die.
Long ago, probably in the first half of the 1970s, I went to see a movie with my sister Eileen (who should chime in if she remembers this…but I doubt she will). I remember that it was a double feature. The second movie MIGHT have been Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but it may have been Pippi Longstocking, or even the Johnny Whittaker version of Tom Sawyer. Anyway, now that you have an idea of how old I am… The first film was a kids movie with a lot of skiing in it. I recall seeing the ad for it in the newspaper, and I THINK “Skis” was part of the title. I can’t recall the plot, but I do remember the protagonist was a girl and she had a Saint Bernard…and they skied a lot. I think avalanche fear was a big part of the movie, but don’t hold me to that.
So, here’s what I remember most. It gets weird.
At some point, the dog goes to sleep, and begins twitching, as dogs do, while dreaming. We enter the dog’s dream, and we see the Saint Bernard on a snowy mountainside, dressed (and this might be creative memory on my part) as Nana, the dog from Disney’s Peter Pan (who was, it would seem, NOT a Saint Bernard). The dog starts to run, kicking up snow, because…get ready…a person dressed as a terrifying black cat is skiing down the mountain toward her. The dog panics and tears through the snow trying to escape. Meanwhile, I recall sound effects of frantic music and Â cats meowing as the cat-person gets closer. Swiftly, the cat overtakes the dog. In a quick cut the cat-beast fills the screen as it slides into (presumably) the dog, and, to my freaked out five year old mind, stabs it with its ski pole. The dog wakes up, thank goodness. What sticks out for me is that I was completely freaked out by this sequence, and I started crazy laughing. At that point my sister quickly turned to me, annoyed, and whispered, “Stop it! It’s NOT funny!”
Well…it kind of is now.
Have you heard of it? I should ask the Kindertrauma people for help with this one. It certainly traumatized this Kinder.
Once, when I was a kid, I was “camping out” in the living room. This consisted of spreading out my bear-shaped sleeping bag on the shag carpeting, crawling in, and falling asleep. At some point in the night I snapped awake, thinking I heard someone call my name, “Danny…Danny…” I looked up, and there was my deceased grandfather, sitting on the loveseat, staring at me. He mumbled something I couldn’t pick up, and then he suddenly melted away, like a candlestick. Gone.
I don’t believe in ghosts, and I know I didn’t see my grandfather (sorry, you’re not going to convince me), but it’s funny how our brains work, isn’t it? Why grandpa, whom I liked well enough, but was too young to have established a relationship with? And why would he melt, rather than fade away? Weird, brain, weird.
Horror fiction is the only genre I follow with any consistency. I’ve had brief flirtations and extended courtships with genres like fantasy (I favored sword and sorcery during high school, but happily never after), mysteries (mostly the old pulp/hard-boiled stuff, though Iâ€™ve followed a few modern series), and sci-fi (briefly raiding my dad’s 40s to 70s sci-fi libraryâ€”truthfully, it’s the only genre I find a bit silly). Horror, however, is my fictional wife, or at least my mistress.
I’ve been reading horror novels, short stories, and comics and watching horror films and TV shows since grade school. Arguably even before that through myths, ghost stories, and fairy tales. I followed a familiar path, starting with Poe, Bierce, Stevenson, Wells, and the other classics; reading through Stephen King’s output; discovering Lovecraft and Rod Serling’s circles; indiscriminately gobbling up every vault, haunt, and crypt of terror-fear-horror EC, DC, Marvel, Gold Key, and Charlton comics offered; falling in love with my literary queen, Shirley Jackson during college; and working through everyone from Ray Bradbury to Richard Matheson to Clive Barker to Mark Danielewski, and plenty of other hacks and auteurs in-between.
Between all that I watched my share of B-movies, monster flicks, cult classics, gore fests, and arthouse horror, and delved deeply into real life nightmares like serial killers and ickier/stickier subjects, and supposedly real life nightmares in the urban legend/campfire story vein. If it was disturbing, made my flesh creep, and had me hiding under the covers, I was interestedâ€”especially so. Why? Who knows? A slow imbibition of poison, perhaps, can do a body good. What does not kill me makes me stronger as I shudder.
The gist of this entry is that I’ve seen and read a lot of scary stuff. Most of it is forgotten, some remains, but a few bits and pieces have lurked for far longer, like dark flickering shadows in the corners of my eyes. Two in particular though, not only stuck around, for years I couldn’t be sure if I’d actually seen them, or if my mind made them all up. I’d like to share them, and if I’m worth a damn as a writer, I might even help you understand why they remained with me.*
As indicated, my brain’s mouth has gobbled great greasy piles of fictional horror-steak, the quality of the meat running the gamut from terrible (as in awful) tales of terror that couldn’t scare a three-year-old, to pungent, succulent, juice-dripping stories that made my sense of reality slip a bit.
Just a little bit.
But just enough.
The latter are rare, their power depending on their originality, the writer’s skill, and my age while reading them. What scared me at age 10 wouldn’t make me arch an eyebrow at age 45, but like a chicken pox scar, some sensations remain scratched into my memory’s flesh. Hm, maybe not a chicken pox scar. More like a self-administered tattoo.
The fictional fears that stay with me are diffuse: Lovecraft’s description of Akeley’s cylinder recordings of the Mi-Goâ€™s buzzing voicesâ€”use of recording technology as a false document to cause the heebie-jeebies decades before The Blair Witch Project, incidentally. The night burial of Church the cat in King’s Pet Sematary. The cool, low-toned fear of House of Leaves, when the protagonist stops and listens to the constant grinding and shifting of the walls, floors, and ceilings as the house remodels itself. Clive Barker’s “Dread,” which ends ludicrously, but has an exquisitely horrific extended photographic sequence featuring a vegetarian, a steak, and a locked room. No easy trick for a writer when they can’t show you the photographs.
Those are memorable bits, surely, but there are two that lingered, sticking to my brain like a black tumors, and metastasized over the years, become more terrible than I knew they could have been (this entry deserves turgid, overwrought metaphors, leave me alone!). Why did these moments become so exponentially freaky and terrifying? Mostly because I encountered them once, and then never saw or heard about them again. Even worse, no one I spoke to about them knew what I was talking about. A horror trope in and of itself!
I’ll wager most of the younger folks out there have no concept of the pre-Internet age, when pop knowledge wasn’t easily acquired. Surely, you could go to the library and get your fill of info on Benedict Arnold, Art Deco, wainscoting, or other “normal” topics, but try to locate an iota of info about an obscure TV show, film, writer, or book… good luck with that pal. In my youth, while looking for works by, say, Kerouac and Lovecraft, the four or five local libraries I had access to were only able to scrounge up Tristessa and The Dunwich Horror. As for other books by those writers, or just more information about the writers themselves, the librarians did their best, finding and photocopying a scattering of articles through reciprocity agreements with other libraries. Ultimately, they were found wanting. Think of that drought of facts, and compare it with today, when punching a few words into Google turns up rafts of websites about Jack and Howard that all but tell you what they had for breakfast on any given day of their life.
One more point, a seemingly strange point: while the info they turned up was sparse, they proved that Kerouac and Lovecraft existed.
Now, imagine trying to describe something you experienced briefly as a child, without benefit of verification through images, sound, or text. Just you, babbling: “There was this cartoon I watched every day as a kid, where this alien boy came to earth, and he had a medallion that gave him superpowers. And his worst enemy was a guy who threw a buzzsaw watch.” For years I described the show to kids in my own neighborhood, trying to find someone else who had watched it on UHF channel 44. “Uncomprehending” is too light a word for their expressions. It wasn’t until I took German in high school and met a girl named Ramona who’d also seen Prince Planet that I realized I hadn’t made it all up. That sense of doubt is weird enough for an innocuous (if hyperviolent) cartoon like Prince Planet, but it becomes cancerous with a thing that scared the hell out of you. I’m sure there’s a psychological term for it. Maybe the Germans call it by some multi-syllablic name.
But I lived until the 1990s, and I light a candle and say a prayer for Mother Internet for letting me know I wasn’t going mad when I rediscovered the following spookshows.
As a kid, how old do you have to be before radio shows seem stupid and boring? I should experiment with my four-year-old son, and play The Shadow, The Whistler, Weird Circle, and other old-time radio shows for him before he becomes jaded. I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll sure as shit not play Arch Oboler’s 1962 Drop Dead! albumâ€”featuring reenactments of his 30s and 40s radio show Lights Outâ€”within listening distance of the lad until he’s at least 10. Maybe 30.
I still remember how queasy I felt after hearing the LP at a friend’s house one long-ago Halloween. If you’ve heard of Oboler’s show, you probably remember one story in particular: “Chicken Heart.” Everyone remembers “Chicken Heart.” With that title how in God’s name could you not? Orson Welles may have convinced the rubes that the Martians had landed, but Oboler left a bloody wet thumbprint of terror on the brains of multitudinous youths, including Stephen King and Bill Cosby, who did a routine on the show. I won’t summarize “Chicken Heart”; it’s best experienced through the first link. Certainly, it’s ridiculousâ€”absurd evenâ€”but there’s something there, something grotesque and wrong. Thump-thump… thump-thump… thump-thump…
For me, Oboler’s scariest, freakiest skit was “The Dark.” “The Dark” barely has a plot. Scary stuff just…happens. From memory…Sam the cop and a psychiatrist are called to an old abandoned house (is there any other kind in these stories?) because the neighbors, presumably, heard screaming and shenanigans taking place. The cop and the doc walk in and discover a madwoman, given to bursts of cackling, shrieking laughter that will drill through your head. Something stirs in a nearby room, and when the doctor, to the cop’s chagrin, opens the door they discover… a man… TURNED INSIDE-OUT! A monster shows up, as monsters do, in the shape of a shadowy mass that acts more like a pitch-black amoeba. Listen to the link before proceeding further. I’ll wait.
“The Dark” is scary. “The Dark” is also, under scrutiny, stupid. Unlike many fictional monsters, our shadow beastie makes no damn sense whatsoever. Let’s pretend a person could survive the initial, incomprehensibly painful shock of the act, not to mention that a person could be “transposed” (they can’t, sorry), and ask, what is the creature’s motivation? Whether sentient or non-sentient, why does it do what it does? According to the presented evidence, it doesn’t perform full-body prolapses to eat, defend itself, or even to meet some magical/ritualistic purpose. Notably, it does not properly kill its prey, making it unlike any known or even possible creature. Barring any yammering about alien morality, we must assume that it is sentient and yanks human beings from stern to stem simply to be shitty. That’s horrifying, especially to a young boy seeking sense and hoping for kindness in the world.**
The sound effects are the second level of “The Dark’s” horror. The good doctor’s yucky description of our reversible human being is terrible enoughâ€”we’re left to imagine a pitiable anthropoid mass of veiny, sticky, red flesh, dangling organs like a grisly purse rack. Doc’s description is merely gross, but Oboler revealed his creepy genius for radio through the sudden stomach-lurching sound effect of our poor floppy guts-man trying to stand up, pitiably mewling and wetly slapping about the floor like a landed trout. Good gravy, no wonder the cop passed out.
Purportedly (though perhaps apocryphally), Oboler achieved the inside-out sound effect by filling a rubber glove with cooked macaroni and slowly reversing it Mercifully, he avoids the likelier sounds of such extreme body modification involving the bones, or the effects of reversal of the lungs and larynx. Perhaps in the words of the several dozen insensitive bastards I’ve met in my life, I’m “too sensitive,” but “The Dark” put the fix on my head for two reasons: it didn’t just make me imagine my own insides slithering out, it offered the scenario of discovering someone so reversed, and the feelings of frustrated compassion and helplessness it would entail. Gut blowout isn’t something you can kiss and slap a Band-Aid onâ€”the first sensible reaction available to a lad of eight or nine years.
Then there was that one story…
I’ll bet you have one too. A tale you read by daylight, which laid in wait in the back of your head until bedtime, emerging from the closet to say, “Hey, kid! I’m gonna keep you awake for the rest of your life. That cool?”
I read mine in seventh grade. At the time (I think I was 10) it scared the bejeezus out of me, and for years, even after maturity sapped it of fear-power, it returned in some form or other on nights that seemed excessively lonely and dark.
A great deal of its strength rested in its formatting. Someone in my class, I don’t remember who, passed along a manuscript. That’s how I remember it: a typewritten stack of eight or so pages, not a photocopy (fairly uncommon in the classroom in the late 70s), though it might have been a mimeograph; I have a memory of the ink being purple, but I can’t verify that. If it had been passed along to me as part of an anthology or a torn-out magazine page, I would have been fine. What it resembled was a sworn statement, some sort of confession, or an MS found in a bottle. I took my turn with it that night and brought it back the next day. For a long time after sleep wouldn’t come.
In summary, a young boy named Tommy is frightened of his basement, and has been so from a very young age. The door stands in the kitchen, the single room in the house where Tommy doesn’t act like a perfectly happy little fellow. When open, he screams bloody murder until mom or pop closes and locks it, taking the extra measure of stuffing the cracks in the doorframe with rags and the like, worshipping the lock with kisses and caresses. Childhood binding magic.
His parents, total yokels, are put out, and employ old-time parenting techniques like “thrashing” him and sending him to bed without his supper for this single bit of insolence. Tommy grows up, and at five years of age, in preparation for school, they take him to see the family doctor. Naturally, he is perfect health, but his basement fear is brought up. In private, Tommy tells the doctor there’s something down there, something bad, but when pressed to describe it, he reveals that he doesn’t know what it is… he just knows that IT is down there. The doc advises Tommy’s parents to nail the door open and leave Tommy in the kitchen for an hour so he’ll see his fears are groundless. Since this isn’t inspirational glurge from Reader’s Digest, you can guess where this is going.
And here was my other bout with self-doubt and potential false memory. I knew the story existed, but other than a vaguely remembered title (“The Thing in the Basement” sounded right, but seemed too vague). I couldn’t find it at the library, and I wondered whether it was the work of a classmate’s older sister or brother (hence the typewritten manuscript). The story, as I recalled it, was a perfect frame on which to hang a horror story. The tropes are all there: helpless, frightened victim whom nobody believes; a subterranean place that radiates evil; clueless authority figuresâ€”it seems like it could only exist in the abstract, as every horror story.
But time heals all wounds and, with luck, makes one smarter. I didn’t know Shinola about good writin’ back then. I concentrated on plot, and the plot for “The Thing in the Cellar” is scary as hell because it’s fill-in-the-blank. When you’re a child, you spend most of your time filling in blanks, often with erroneous info. See, I knew what Tommy was afraid of, I knew it because I had my own basement monsters. Somewhere I encountered a picture of a Metaluna mutant, and for a month I thought one was huddled behind the couch in my dad’s basement den. I can still it in my mind’s eye, shambling up the steps, ready to rip off my head with its claws. Now I’d probably just side-kick it back down the stairs and run like hell.
The fear got worse. I read about the “true” story of a girl who suffered periodic attacks by an invisible assailant. My unimpeachable source, by the by, was a Ripley’s Believe It… or Not! comic book, in a story titled “The Thing with Claws” (I sense a trend). My Metalunan metamorphosed into a see-through clawed assassinâ€”the unknown became the invisible and vicious, compounded by an unseen and horrific result, namely, Tommy’s death in the story.
Ah, as for that. These two sentences stick with me to this day.
Trembling, he examined all that was left of little Tommy.
The mother threw herself on the floor and picked up the torn, mutilated thing that had been, only aÂ little while ago, her little Tommy.
They sting worse now that I have kids.
We know the result of the cellar thing’s attack on Tommyâ€”presumably a moment of joyous triumph for the creature, since it had the only being aware of its existence in its powerâ€”but we don’t know its extent. “Torn.” “Mutilated.” “All that was left.” Perhaps you’re picturing a few well-placed, deep scratchesâ€”something whipped up by the Buffy the Vampire Slayer make-up/special effects department. Not me. Not with my stupid, scared child brain. I conflated the integrity of Tommy’s corpse with a story I overheard my father telling; the one about the family who adopted a poodle as a companion to their Doberman. The next day they returned home to discover cottony viscera all across their living room rug. My child’s mind made it worse, picturing Tommy left in stringy tatters and a single red chunk of gristle staining the kitchen tiles. Tommy? Did I say Tommy?
Sorry, I meant me.
That was me.
I was there. Dead. Shredded. Violated. By the Thing in the Basement.
Rereading the story, there’s another segment that may have gotten to me. The oafish Mr. Tucker takes out his toolbox and pounds nails while explaining to his clearly terrified son in English spoken not by people who real are:
And IÂ am going to nail the door open, Tommy, so you can not close it, as that was what the doctor said. Tommy, and you are to be aÂ man and stay here in the kitchen alone for an hour, and we will leave the lamp a-burning, and then when you find there is naught to be afraid of, you will be well and aÂ real man and not something for aÂ man to be ashamed of being the father of.
I should make the point that my parents loved me and were plenty sympathetic whenever I was afraid. Mom was nurturing and reassuring; Dad rationally explained away fearâ€”I tend to do both with my son whenever he’s afraid.*** But no kid, no adult, ever gets rid of the fear that the only thing worse than Mom and Dad not being there is Mom and Dad not giving a shit or acting, by intent or omission, as agents for one’s invisible claw monster destruction.
Closing thoughts? None, really (though if anyone wants to pay me to expand on this essay, I’m all ears). When people ask me why I writeâ€”which happens ALL the damned timeâ€”I explain that I write about two subjects: what I love and what I fear. I write about what I love because I want other people to enjoy and preserve those things. I write about what I fear because, for as long as can remember, I’ve been a fearful fellow. And I don’t like it. As my former dentist told me, “Fear is the mind killer.” By reading and writing about what I fear I become not only stronger but smarter; and as I become smarter I become a better person. As personal meanings of life go, that’s not a bad policy.
As an addendum, and FYI. I’ve never mentioned the above to anyone for as long as I can remember. I figured it was time to exorcise those particular demons.
*Also, I’m reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and I’ve been itching to throw in my two, no, let’s make it nine cents on the subject.
** Side Note: I imagine Oboler had Doc specify his mouth as the final piece covered by shadows in order to avoid suggesting he was turned inside-out starting at the rectal end. Which, from an engineering perspective, makes slightly more sense.
*** My favorite technique for when Nate is afraid of somethingâ€”say the giant frog-shaped shoe and sock basket on his closet doorâ€”is to punch it out and encourage him to take a few swipes himself. Mom and Dad did a good job, but I wish they’d encouraged me to go a few rounds with my monsters. In hindsight, they were all wusses.
Letter from summer camp to my parents (postmarked July 1979), rediscovered in an old photo album at my parents. I loved Boy Scouts, but I always hated camping as a kid. No idea what Mom and Dad’s reaction was to the Dave Litt part. Interestingly, Dave introduced me to the movie Alien (via the Marvel comic adaptation), and explained the mechanics of sexual intercourse. Verbally, not physically.
Dear Mom and Dad
Hi! Our Troop has had tick problems. Ralph has had one. I have slept well. Our tents have no bottom. I have taken some nice pictures. The lake is nice.
Harvey Pekar died yesterday. If the name doesn’t ring a bell you probably weren’t a comic collector in the 80s and 90s, or you missed the film version of Pekar’s comic American Splendor where Pekar was played by Paul Giamatti (accompanied by James “Doc Venture” Urbaniak and Judah “30 Rock” Friedlander as Pekar friends R. Crumb and Toby). Pekar was an irascible writer and jazz critic who fell into comic-making. It helped that he was friends with R. Crumb, who illustrated several seminal American Splendor stories and covers in the early issues. Starting in 1976, Pekarâ€”a file clerk at a veterans hospital for much of his lifeâ€”wrote stories about his daily toils that other cartoonists illustrated. Once a year, American Splendor came out, bearing stories about Pekar’s record-collecting, job travails, home life, and general philosophizing (a friend referred to him as a “blue-collar philosopher,” which suited him well).
The critics and mass media took notice of Pekar in the mid-80s after Doubleday released a trade paperback anthology of his work. Comics were coming into their own then. Frank Miller created the Dark Knight (which is why people think of Christian Bale before they remember Adam West when they hear “Batman” now). Alan Moore was re-imagining comics with Swamp Thing, Watchmen, and Miracleman. Art Spiegelman was midway through Maus. Neil Gaiman shimmered into existence with the Sandman, and Dan Clowes, Seth, and Chris Ware were warming up in the minor leagues.
Harvey, however, had been going at it for awhile, and on his own dime. He published every issue himself, paying the artists for their work, and distributing the comic strictly by mail and word of mouth. This was during an age when comics were still the exclusive province of dorks, and it was unthinkable for normal folks to consider curling up with a comic, whatever the subject. The man thanklessly toiled in comics Siberia for many years, only emerging once in a while to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman.
(This story led to me reading New Grub Street, which remains one of my favorite and most influential books.)
I heard about Harvey and American Splendor through a friend of a friend. He had a copy of the trade paperback, which I borrowed and devoured. I was, as you can imagine, different from most kids my age. Yes, I did the superhero thing through most of grade school and high school, but I needed something smarter. Then my friend (and his friend) introduced me to what we called, without irony, “alternative comics.” Alternative to what, you ask? DC and Marvel, and the adolescent male fascination with god-like men and women in spandex. Much of our taste was informed by the Comics Journal and Gary Groth’s take no prisoners criticism (which, when I read it now, reads more like a desperate, fretful, flailing attempt to be taken seriously), but while my friends took the hard-nosed “This Is Good/That Is Bad” approach, I just went with my gut. To this day I still don’t see what was so fantastic about Love and Rockets, though older me can appreciate the series’ lovely art. Comparatively, I saw something in the initial googiebation style of Dan Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn that bespoke greatness. Much of my taste and personal philosophy developed during this period, and American Splendor contributed to it in no small way.
Most reviewers, positive and negative, harped on Pekar’s everyday approach to storytelling. His life wasn’t adventurous; hell, most of the time it wasn’t even interesting in and of itself. Stories revolved around collecting jazz records, grocery shopping, finding a girlfriend, arguing at work, and so on. This was before a slew of GenEx cartoonists took Harvey’s idea and began churning out tales of their hand-to-mouth existences, toy collections, shitty dietary habits, and masturbation sessions. The difference was that Pekar was an introspective American polymath with a hardscrabble background. His type of personality and viewpoint, informed by the Beats, Yiddish culture, and old school lefties, isn’t so common anymore.
Pekar could be a major pain in the ass in his stories. Back when I was writing for a comic zine I was both in awe of his work and vexed by his selfishness. His worst comics usually dealt with his cheapness. One demonstrated how he kept crossing a street in New York to get free candy bars from street hawkers, filling an entire shopping bag. Intended to be humorous, I’m sure, it only seemed self-serving (though I did pick up the phrase “I gotta make hay while the sun shines.” from the comic’s final panel). Likewise the strips where he bitched about being ill-treated and unappreciated by editors, or, more memorably, on the Letterman show seemed like unreasoning self-immolation to my young, unpublished self. Re-watching that clip and rereading those old stories, however, after about 20 years of being a published writer, I found myself sympathizing with Pekar. The interviews aren’t Letterman’s finer moments, and while Pekar comes off like a grouchy nut, they reveal what a shallow fratrat Letterman could be back before the heart attack, baby, and blackmail attempt. Dave wanted Harvey to be a performing monkeyâ€”some crazy crank pulled off the street and bull-baited into crazed rants about not getting free donuts or what-have-you. Harvey wouldn’t have it, choosing instead to call out NBC’s parent company, GE on their evil ways. By not playing the game, Pekar was one of the few folks to strike Letterman dumb, and while I’ll always love Dave’s comedy, he needed to be taken down a peg or two back then. Banning Pekar for several years did not impress me, nor the nasty remark about Pekar’s “little Mickey Mouse weekly reader.” As it turned out, Pekar sold no more copies of American Splendor after appearing on the Late Show than he usually did. So much for the brass ring everyone kills themselves to reach.
Above all, I liked Pekar’s pragmatism. When he presented a thought on morality or manners, it was a rough-hewn jewel. The below panels still come back and speak to me after 25 years.
(Yes, John. I remember that Mike M. picked some of these panels too.)
I saw Harvey exactly twice, I think. But I might be splitting the same encounter into two separate ones. The superhero-loving fans at the 1986 Comicon didn’t know what to make of Pekar. As I recall, the fanboys swarmed Howard Chaykin, Steve Rude, and George Perez’s tables, but Pekar and his wife entertained a small group of four folks, three of whom were me and my friends. Pekar’s wife, Joyce, as I recall, was ranting about the appearance of the cover of American Splendor #4 on the back of a Dr. Demento LP (“That’s like fucking with MICKEY MOUSE!” she shrieked), and they chatted a little bit about sending the good doctor a cease and desist letter. Later on, when the “crowd” thinned out, and the somewhat scary Joyce had left, I walked over to Pekar’s table and asked him to sign my trade PB of American Splendor. “Sure,” he said, signing it with a simple, “To Dan, Harvey Pekar.” “I love your work, ” I opined with startling originality. “Well, thanks, man!” Pekar rasped. Then I told him what my favorite stories were: “How I Quit Collecting Jazz Records and Published a Comic Book with the Money I Saved” and a few others. I mentioned loving Crumb’s work, though I’d only just started collecting reprints of his underground comicsÂ (again, this was pre-Internet, when complete compilations of most comic artists’ work weren’t readily available). “Yeah, Crumb is one of America’s finest cartoonists,” said Harvey, and he went on to describe his friend in large, historical terms. We chatted some more, and then I asked him if I could take a picture or two with my dopey little Instamatic for the comics-based amateur press alliance I wrote for back then. “Sure, sure,” said Pekar. Before taking this one he asked if he should be doing something. “Whatever you like,” I said. So he started stacking American Splendors. “All right! Harvey Pekar action shots!” I said, which made him chuckle.
Then I took this shot, which pretty much says it all about Mr. Harvey Pekar.
It kills me that, in these pictures, he’s only about four years older than I am right now.
A week after the con, I sent Pekar a fan letter, money and an order for a few more American Splendors, accompanied by the photos. He wrote back something like, “Dan, Thank you for the photos, which were good ones. Please pick an issue of AS of your choice.” Naturally, I was flabbergasted. For my poor 18-year-old self, this was incredible largesse… and from a TV celebrity no less! There’s that “elementary sense of social responsibility,” or as I wrote back, “Quid pro quo LIVES!”
R.I.P., Harvey. I haven’t followed American Splendor for quite some time, but I have to say that I’ll miss the man. He made comics a lot more interesting.
Sent to me by my friend Kathy, who is plundering her personal archives. From The Nose… July 1994. Edited down from a longer piece (I was told that it was “too literary” and needed to be tacked back a bit, which is fine, because The Nose wasn’t Harper’s). Oh, so much has changed since then. And so little.