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He THOUGHT He Was An Artist! (Memoirs From Back At The Drawing Board), Chapter 2: Hero

Dark and gritty, 1976. Eat your heart out, Frank Miller!

When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an artist almost as much as I wanted to be a writer. I kept writing, and I got better at it; I didn’t really stick with the art to the extent that would have been necessary, so those skills never improved. 

I think that Hero, my 1976 attempt at dark ‘n’ gritty superhero storytelling, slightly predates Agent 690: Man Of Action!, the over-the-top action hero comedy detailed in this spot last time. Both were done for Mr. DeAngelo’s art class when I was 16, in my junior year at North Syracuse Central High School. They may have even been related assignments, like, “Do something serious, then do something funny.” Maybe not. That specific memory is not gonna repair itself, so we’re stuck with guessing. Whatever path its origin tripped over, let’s have a look at my oh-so-dramatic, tortured superhero called…um, Hero.

Looking back, I am reasonably certain that no one working at Marvel or DC was worried about competition from me. Actually, this would have been around the time DC rejected a Batman script I had submitted, a tone-deaf story called “Nightmare Resurrection.” “Nightmare Resurrection” was an inept attempt to slap together–the word “craft” would be inappropriate here–a tense and mature take on The Batman, and the attempt failed miserably. It was self-conscious, it was violent, and it–what’s the word?–sucked. I am not being too hard on myself in this assessment. Seriously, I’m a big fan of me. I’ve done a lot of work that’s pretty good, and I’m not shy about putting that stuff out there. But “Nightmare Resurrection” wasn’t good, and DC was right to reject it.

Hero was perhaps similarly misguided, but I think it kinda works as a one-off art project. I don’t think I ever had any intent or interest in expanding it into a complete story; it was meant to be a conceptual snapshot, a snippet of a tale already in progress, no beginning, no end. I like it in that limited context.

That said, Hero was obviously created by someone whose talent did not match his vision. That’s okay; I was 16, and trying things out is how you improve. The writing is stiff and pretentious, but I think it shows promise. The artwork is even stiffer, clunkier, but I view it now without shame. Well, other than the clumsy application of Wite-Out. That’s a little embarrassing. 

And sure, the faults are glaring: no backgrounds, not even an attempt at creating a scene for the characters to frolic and fight within; the tacit admission that backgrounds and scenes were well beyond my ability to execute; no evidence of a working knowledge of anatomy; shaky use of panel structure, inhibiting the flow of visual storytelling; the sloppiness of a would-be artist lacking any discernible finesse. But the effort’s there, the experiments with lighting and shading, the attempt to vary perspective. It was all mine. I wish I’d thrown in some swipes to make it look better, but if I did this work in the classroom, I probably wouldn’t have gotten away with propping open a comic book so I could try to copy some Neal Adams figures, nor an anatomy book so I could try to get some plausible feel for how human beings should look in various poses and positions.

But again: it was mine. 

I was not a particularly good art student. Mr. DeAngelo didn’t discourage me, but I clearly lacked the motivation, dedication, and work ethic to hone whatever skill I may have had. Although I’ve never stopped drawing, I realized in high school that art could never be my primary creative endeavor. I could write, and I could improve as a writer. That possibility was potentially within my reach. I could never be great as an artist.

The package I submitted to DC also included art samples by my friend Mike DeAngelo, Mr. DeAngelo’s son, who was a far more accomplished art student than I ever was. Alas, those few pages weren’t sufficient to catch an editor’s interest, and they were rejected right along with the mistake I called “Nightmare Resurrection.” 

As noted in our previous chapter, Mike and I worked together on a few comic strips for the high school literary magazine The NorthCaster. I wrote, Mike drew. I think the depiction of The Shadow shown above was the only artwork I ever did for The NorthCaster. The Cafarelli-DeAngelo collaborations were all humor; I don’t think we ever tried to do any adventure or science-fiction for The NorthCaster. The closest we came was a one-page pirate story called “The Jolly Roger,” about a masked pirate who plundered other pirates, but it all built to a gag ending. It was also the impetus for Mike and I being kicked off the paper in ’75, when a dirty word made its clandestine way to the bottom of the published page. It was a stupid stunt, and I regretted it immediately. The editor wouldn’t even speak to me again after that, and I don’t blame her. Karmen, wherever you are, I am sorry. I was sorry then, and I still am. You were right to be pissed at me.

We were allowed to return to The NorthCaster the following year, chastened and humbled. We did a little more work together, but the new editor definitely preferred for me to concentrate on prose humor rather than comics. Mike graduated in ’76, and I did the same in ’77. We remained friends, though our paths eventually diverged, as paths tend to do. Those paths did merge a time or two in subsequent decades. That’s a story for another day. I have great fondness for the DeAngelo family, for Mr. and Mrs. DeAngelo, for Mike, for his sister Lissa (who became one of my closest friends after Mike graduated), and for their younger brother Mark, whom I barely knew, and who left this world at an ungodly young age. That’s a story I’m not qualified to tell. Its memory saddens me anyway. I caught up a bit with Lissa at Mr. DeAngelo’s wake in 2007, and Mike was one of the dedicated caregivers helping my Dad in hospice at the VA in 2012. Mike and I had a short conversation via Facebook just yesterday. The connection remains.

As years went by, as I wrote more and drew less, I continued to doodle, usually pictures of Batman. Go figure, and that still hasn’t changed. In the ’80s, I bought myself a sketch book. We’ll talk about that sketch book when He THOUGHT He Was An Artist! returns.

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