Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Ghostly Sketches From The Past

Something haunting happened to me last fall at the Fan Expo event here in Toronto. I’m still thinking about it, and wondering what happened, exactly.

            The Fan Expo is an enormous event, a multi-geek-fandom affair featuring horror, anime, gaming, sci-fi and, of course, their poor country cousin, comics. Thanks to my old buddy James Armstrong, I always have a table in artist’s alley.

The Toronto Fan Expo
Home away from home for
the Geek hordes.

Over the years it isn’t uncommon to have a friend or acquaintance from the dim dark past recognize my name and stop by my table to say howdy. It happened a few years ago with a gent named Joe Arena, who was actually the first man to publish my comics, way back when I was a cocky, seventeen year old wanna-be with a very long way to go. I also had the eldest son of my old shop teacher, Ross Andrews, come up with greetings from the old fellow himself. Mr. Andrews (as I still think of him) was the first person to encourage my drawing when I was just a goofy, long-haired thirteen year old, trying to construct a box from tin sheets in his grade seven shop class.

            Usually meeting an old friend is a rather pleasant experience, catching up with people, (or the sons of people) who played some role in my past life is nice now and then. However, last year a chance meeting with a former buddy of mine went rather a different way.

            I only knew Fletch for a few years.

In my hometown of Tillsonburg there weren’t too many comics freaks. This was the seventies, and the exploding collectors market was still more than a decade into the future. The grand master of comic collecting in our town was a guy named Mason Armstrong. He was older, in his mid twenties, and he possessed an impressive collection. (His Fantastic Four collection started with issue #9!) Mason was a tall, sandy haired, soft-spoken guy, with thick glasses, who worked in his parent’s drug store. He’d stake out the comic spinner in the store and make contact with the town’s other budding comics addicts, like myself. There were only four or five of us. A few desperate, continuity starved, square pegs who made the rounds of all the drug stores and convenience stores in town, vainly seeking to satisfy our personal four color addictions from the titles available from the spotty local distribution.

It was Mason who first introduced me to Fletch. Fletch was about my age, but taller and more athletic, and much more conscious of his appearance and looking ‘cool’. He was pure 70’s, while I was clinging to the fading hippie aesthetic. (A look I still haven’t abandoned!) We were both into comics and rock music and drawing. At that time, Fletch was probably a better artist than I was. He seemed to have a keener grasp of anatomy and proportion, whereas I was a little better at storytelling and continuity. (I wish I still had some of his drawings to post.)

We did what most fifteen year-old boys in Tillsonburg did. We fought valiantly against the crushing boredom! We hung out, listened to The Stones, Alice Cooper, and Aerosmith, swilled down crap like potato chips, Oh Henry bars and Coke, and schemed to meet, and theoretically date, girls.
Teenager food.

            And we drew piles of superhero pictures.

Batman, Superman, Conan, the Incredible Hulk, and the amazing Len Wein Dave Cockrum re-launch of the X-Men were our bibles. We copied poses, and fearlessly attempted our own pin-ups and pages. We debated the relative merits of our favorite characters and companies. He was a DC man, and I was a Marvel fan, he liked Batman, and I liked Conan. I remember that the great Jim Aparo was Fletch’s favorite artist, while I preferred the comics stylings of John Buscema. (In retrospect we had both chosen great role models, though I admit the fact that Aparo penciled, inked and lettered his own work was unique at the time.) 
It was a productive rivalry. We had great fun, pushed each other to do better, and dreamed of drawing comics for a living.
Similar poses from two comics giants.
(Click for larger image)

We were thick as Zamorian thieves for a few brief months.

I never got a clear picture of what was happening, but Fletch began to have a lot of trouble getting along with his parents. We started to meet exclusively at my house as tensions rose between he and his folks. They were one of the wealthier families in town, and perhaps Fletch’s career aspirations, or lack of them, were a sticking point. I honestly don’t know. We got together less and less frequently, and then I heard nothing from Fletch at all. It was Mason who told me, some weeks later, that he was no longer living at home. I don’t know if he left, or his parents threw him out. I later heard a vague rumor that Fletch had some sort of unpleasant brush with the law, but I can’t confirm the truth of this.

I tiptoed gingerly around my parents for a few months after that.

About two years later I saw Fletch for the last time. I was about to head off to college and this was my last summer of freedom. Mason and I were about to make a final trip into nearby London Ontario, to visit some great comic shops and used bookstores there. Mason mentioned that we were also going to pay a visit to Fletch.

Naively, I brought along a stack of my drawings. I still hadn’t fully grasped the fact that Fletch was out on his own, and had more pressing concerns than doodling Batman poses. I foolishly assumed he had been drawing the whole time.
Aparo was the king of
drawing spooky mists.

We met Fletch at his apartment, which he shared with a few other guys, and was a bit of a mess. He seemed really excited to see us and we yakked about nonsense for a while. He mentioned he was working at some sort of manual labor job, construction, or public works, I can’t recall what, exactly. Finally, Fletch pointed to my portfolio and asked to see my drawings.

Due to the exceptional art classes I’d been taking at College Avenue Secondary School in Woodstock, I’d made a lot of progress. I proudly yanked out my artwork. Not just comics pages, but life drawing, portraits and caricatures, as well.

Fletch looked it all over in silence, and then looked back at me and said: “Wow, you’re like, really good now.”

He handed back the stack of drawings and I put them in the portfolio. I asked if he had any new drawings.

“No, man, I been too busy working.”

I was aware enough to realize that the mood in the room had changed, but not quite sensitive enough to understand why. Fletch put up a good front, but after a few minutes he cut things short, claiming he had to get to work.

Then, last year, over thirty years later, he showed up at my table at the Expo.

I was working on one of the many commission sketches I drew that afternoon, when I noticed a rather imposing looking dude stopped a few yards away from my table. He gave me an intense look. The guy was tall, very muscular and beefy, wearing a body hugging T-shirt, and jeans. He looked at me, and then up at the big name tag behind me a few times, and finally approached me.

“Dude, you’re from Tillsonburg!”

I laughed and admitted I was.

“It’s me, Fletch!”

Suddenly, I could see the face of my teenaged friend through the wrinkles and graying hair. I was thrilled to see him. He was very excited at first, and we did the catching up thing.

“Dude, I knew that was you,” he said, “I can’t believe you still got all that hair!”

“I would never give up my hair, man! You got some real muscles there, Bro, you must do a lot of weight training.”

“Nope, just from working,” he answered.

It was nice for a couple minutes.

Then he started looking at my drawings. He seemed to become more pensive.

“This stuff is great, man. You’re working in comics now?”

“A little. I worked in animation for a long time. Now I mostly do storyboards for movies and TV, but I do a bit of writing and drawing for the comics when I can.”

He got this very distressed look on his face.

“I’m getting a bit freaked out here,” he said. “I feel like I’m gonna cry… I gotta go.”

“Come back later,” I called after him, as he moved off into the crowd.

“Yeah, man,” he called back.

But, he didn’t.

I don’t know for sure why Fletch got so emotional.

It could be because I had industriously traveled a road he’d once considered for himself. Or, perhaps he wondered what his life might have been like if his parents were a bit more supportive of his interests. Hell, maybe he just missed drawing.

As the afternoon wore on, and it became clear he wasn’t going to come back, I began to feel very sad about it.

If he had come back, I’d have told him some important things.

First, I never realized any of my most prized goals. I wanted to draw for Marvel and DC and I never did. I wanted to animate for Disney, and I never did. I wanted to write and perform television comedy, and, so far, that hasn’t happened either. I’m glad I attempted all these things, and I try never to regret my life choices, but man, I can tell you, failing hurts like a sumbitch.

Second, I made choices in my life too. A few were good choices, but many were extraordinarily bad. Yes, I stuck to my path, and I worked hard and I had a few successes here and there. I’ve had some flush financial booms, and a few creatively rewarding experiences. But, I’ve also many periods of hardship, including right now.

Fletch, you lived your life. You made your choices, for better or worse, and you’re still here. You survived. For a human being, that’s plenty.

            I really hope you come back to the Expo again this year.

I miss you buddy.
One of my Batman sketches, in honor of
Fletch, Danny, Albert and all the other lost
comics buddies from my past.
(Click for larger image)