Rosalie Lightning, 2009–2011

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How horrible to write that “headline”…

Our friends Tom Hart and Leela Corman lost their two-year-old daughter, Rosalie, on Friday night. Sari and I can’t even begin to imagine the grief they must be going through. Ironically, tonight we just came back from a weekend trip to Chicago, where we left Phoebe behind with her grandparents. On Friday, right before the flight, Sari and I talked a bit about what we hoped would happen to Phoebe — and how she would be cared for — should we both die in a plane crash. Little did we know what was transpiring that very same time, but in reverse, with Tom and Leela.

Their dear friends and fellow cartoonists, Lauren Weinstein and Jon Lewis, have more to say about the situation. I found this line of Jon’s particularly touching: “My friends are in a horror world I don’t even know if I can understand, past some mountains and behind a veil; I want to touch them and protect them but there’s no way to do that.”

Now would be a good time to read Tom’s ongoing strip, “Daddy Lightning,” inspired by his journey as a father. He says he plans on continuing the strip.

Please consider donating to the Rosalie Lightning Memorial fund (administered through PayPal), to help the family with funeral and related expenses.

Now I must go hug my daughter… for a very long time.

Victor, R.I.P.

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Victor, the long-time superintendent of my apartment building, passed away on Friday, 11/11/11. He was 71 years old.

It may seem strange to write a tribute to your super, but Victor was an amazing man. He took care of the building for more than 30 years, before ill health forced him into retirement in 2010. He knew all the residents, all 78 units in the building inside and out, and the boiler was like his own child. We moved here 11 years ago, and from the beginning, Victor looked out for us and our apartment. He had a scratchy voice, barely speaking above a whisper, the result of a throat operation, but his condition never deterred him. He was constantly animated, with a wicked sense of humor and a love of gossip — I learned more about the building’s history and the other residents from him than I ever have from personal experience.

From my prior bouts in New York City apartments, superintendent were usually gruff, unmotivated, and difficult to get ahold of. Victor was the opposite in every way. He was literally always around, available at a moment’s notice from his basement apartment. In all the years we lived here, I don’t remember Victor ever taking a vacation. He took it as a point of pride that he was a constant presence. We always used to say that the building was his life. We used to joke that he would die in the building.

And in the end it proved to be true. In his last years, diabetes had made him practically immobile, and he was sub-contracting his superintendent work to underlings. He basically couldn’t do his job anymore, and the co-op board was put in the unfortunate position of forcing him to retire and hiring a new super. They allowed Victor to stay in his basement apartment ’til the end of the year, and even arranged for a large, low-rent apartment for him and his family to move into in another neighborhood. But it became increasingly clear that Victor would never leave; the building and its residents were too important to him.

* * *

Sari and I went to his viewing on Monday night, at a local funeral home. It was the first time I’d seen an open casket (if you don’t count the Balinese cremation ceremony I witnessed back in 1992), and the first time I saw someone I had known after they were dead. It was quite weird, though not quite as unsettling as I anticipated. And in fact, I would have barely recognized Victor if I hadn’t known it was him. In his heyday, Victor’s hair was tousled, he was wearing grease-stained overalls, and there would have been oil or grease on his face and hands. Now his hair was combed and he was wearing a suit. A slight smile was on his face. His skin was powdered — he looked a little out of focus, or like a wax effigy of himself. His family had put a set of rosary beads in his hands, and his casket was decorated with a giant New York Yankees logo. The logo was actually larger than his name.

Many other building residents came to the viewing as well, to greet the family and extend their condolences. Also there was Van, the building porter and Victor’s long-time right-hand man. He sat uncharacteristically somber, contemplating Victor’s body. But then he nudged Juan, Victor’s replacement, and said, “You better watch out — this building kills supers.”

Victor's plaque

The plaque our building made for Victor, now hanging in the lobby

Seth Kushner's HARVEY PEKAR Tribute

Comics, Publicity, Tribute

Today is the one-year anniversary of Harvey Pekar‘s death. One of the more extraordinary homages appearing today is Seth Kushner’s photo comic, "Harvey Pekar: Tribute to ‘Our Man.’" (It’s #25 of Seth’s CulturePop series on ACT-I-VATE.) Weaving wonderful photos of Harvey with Pekar’s own words, it takes the reader through his remarkable life and career. People like Harvey’s wife Joyce Brabner, the filmmakers behind the American Splendor movie, and collaborators like Dean ( ) Haspiel, Jeff () Newelt, and Joseph Remnant make appearances as well. (Oh, and I’m in there too.) It’s memoir, it’s photography, it’s comics — it’s Seth’s unique form of creative expression. Please check it out: http://act-i-vate.com/104-25-1.comic.

P.S. Another nice tribute is KCRW’s re-broadcast of a 2003 conversation between Harvey and Elvis Mitchell: http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tt/tt030813harvey_pekar

Harvey Pekar, 1939–2010

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I was stunned today to hear that Harvey Pekar died. Though I hadn’t worked with Harvey in a couple of years, my history with him goes back to 1994. That was when I wrote him out of the blue, sending him samples of my work and "demanding" he give me a chance to illustrate one of his stories in American Splendor. I was shocked a couple of weeks later when he called me up — and agreed to give me a story to draw! That first one-pager started a 15+-year relationship that gave me much more than just some publication credits.

Besides the many stories of his I worked on, I got the opportunity to really know Harvey and his wife Joyce and foster daughter Danielle. I guess I can’t say he was a friend, per se, but he was much, much more than just a collaborator. That was the thing about Harvey: there was no distinction between his comics and his life. So just as I got to contribute to his incredible, unprecedented undertaking of documenting a life in comics, I got to be part of that actual life. Whether it was random phone calls to ask me what I thought of a new artist he was working with, or the many times I saw him when he came to New York, or the time he wrote me as a character into one of the stories we worked on, I felt honored to be folded into the world of Harvey Pekar and American Splendor.

Most of all, Harvey was a model for me as a comics creator. Through reading his work and working with him, I learned to appreciate the strangeness of real life and the little details of daily existence. As a writer, his unflinching honesty and refusal to engage in sentimentality are qualities which I continue to try to emulate. Obviously, my own attempts at autobiography (which pale next to his best work) were directly influenced by my association with Harvey. And just as Harvey branched out from autobiography to biography and to history, my path in nonfiction comics has led me to "comics journalism."

Above all, I will miss Harvey the man. His intensity and insight made every conversation with him an adventure. Beneath his curmudgeonly exterior was a loyal, supportive, and approachable human being — the same guy who started self-publishing his stories back in 1976 because he had something to say, and found a unique way to say it.

I can’t believe that this distinctive spirit no longer inhabits the planet.

Roger Ebert: The Essential Man

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I just read a heartbreaking/uplifting profile of film critic Roger Ebert in this month’s Esquire. I knew he had been seriously ill a few years back, but had no idea that because of his 2006 illness, he lost his lower jaw and the ability to speak, eat, and drink. Just stop for a minute and try to imagine that…

I know Ebert is considered by many highbrows to be a "reviewer" and not really a "critic," but I’ve always valued his opinions and advice — and often find his tastes to echo my own. (And I’ve been reading his reviews and/or watching his TV show for going on 25 years.) Most of all, though, I’ve always been amazed at how generous a critic he is, how he always gives each film the benefit of the doubt. To me, he’s the opposite of most film reviewers, who seem to take a "guilty-until-proven-innocent" approach.

As evidenced by the Esquire piece, Ebert is a person with a wide range of references, someone who has a life outside of the movie theater. This breadth of knowledge, this appreciation of real life, has always shown in his criticism, even before the tragedy which befell him. Given the amount of movies he must see each week, I always wondered how he maintained such a fresh approach. Now I have a little more insight into that question.

So, thank you, Mr. Ebert, for all your fine work. As an avid filmgoer, I look forward to many more of your reviews in the future.

2010 Ford C. Frick award winner Jon Miller

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San Francisco Giants radio play-by-play announcer Jon Miller yesterday was declared the winner of this year’s Ford C. Frick award. That means he’s going to the Hall of Fame! As a long-time baseball fan, I couldn’t be happier with his recognition. I’ve come to appreciate quite a few radio play-by-play announcers over the years, from Hank Greenwald & Lindsay Nelson, to Vin Scully, to Phil Rizzuto & Bill White, to Ed Coleman & Bob Murphy — but I like Jon Miller the best.

Miller has an uncanny ability to illustrate the action, to bring the game to life. It’s a true art, and through him I’ve really come to appreciate it. Miller’s terrific sense of humor is his chief tool (I love his banter with the other Giants announcers, especially the end of the game wrap-ups), but I also enjoy his easy, colloquial style, his appreciation of the weather, the stadium, and the fans. Not to mention his home run and double play calls.

I especially admire Miller’s sense of perspective. No matter how serious the situation, how dire things look for the Giants, he always reminds us baseball is after all a game: entertainment, a diversion. Baseball games are long (and occasionally tedious), and Miller’s anecdotes and stories of other gigs and other games enliven what could otherwise be dull radio. (Miller also does hilarious impersonations of other announcers, including a dead-on "Vin Scully".)

I think the moment I most enjoyed was the leisurely afternoon game he was calling where he spotted a guy with a radio headset sitting in the stands next to some friends of Miller’s. I’ll never forget the hilarity as Miller described the scene and got the attention of the guy, who was, of course, listening to him on the Giants flagship station KNBR! I imagine Miller might have gotten in a bit of trouble that day for "breaking the rules," but it was a treat to listen to, and really brightened my day.

Overall, Miller conveys a strong attachment to the Giants and their players, but combines that with an uncompromising honesty. He’s no "homer," unwilling to criticize the team or point out a bad play. That’s probably the highest compliment an announcer can receive, and I think Miller has struck the perfect balance. His Hall of Fame induction is well deserved.

P.S. After becoming a Giants fan as an 11-year-old kid in 1978, I left San Francisco for New York in 1980. Despite living out here in Yankees-Mets country, I stuck with my San Francisco team through thick and thin. (And most of those were pretty thin years.) As luck would have it, I moved back to San Francisco in the summer of 1997, which is where I discovered Miller and his unique announcing style. Knowing what little I do of Miller’s career, it seems our paths were somewhat similar in that we both had spent at least parts of our childhoods in the Bay Area and then returned later in life — in 1997! Though I moved back to the East Coast in 1999, it was a great pleasure sharing those three seasons of ’97–’99 with Miller and rest of the Giants’ announcing crew. Now, in New York, I am able to listen to many Giants games online, through mlb.com. I don’t get to tune it to quite as many games as I’d like, but thanks to a DSL connection and the fact that I’m self-employed and work at home, it’s turned out surprisingly well.

"Michael, We Hardly Knew Ye"

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That was the text message I got informing me Michael Jackson passed away. How bizarre that on the very day I wrote a tribute to Prince’s Purple Rain that the extremely troubled former King of Pop should die. The similarities between the two stars are many, the most obvious being their ability to transcend musical (e.g. racial) boundaries and draw people of all stripes to their music.

If the summer of ’84 was to me Prince’s summer, then the summer of ’82 was obviously Michael’s. Thriller dominated the world in a way probably no album has since. That summer I was also a camp counselor (at Beth Elohim, in Park Slope, if you must know), and I can’t say I was plugged into Jackson’s music before Thriller. I mean, I dug it and all — especially "Billie Jean," which is still one of my favorite Jackson songs — but he didn’t do all that much for me until… that moonwalk on the Grammy’s in 1983! Holy crap! I never got the glove thing, or all that sparkly stuff, but that man could perform! The combination of his Tourettes-like yelps and rubber-band-man dancing made him the most kinetic entertainer I’d ever seen. (Even Prince, with all his stagecraft, had to take a back seat to Michael.)

Without absorbing Jackson’s music first, I don’t know if I would have been able to truly appreciate Prince’s. They were both extremely… odd… human beings (and the 80s was known for some pretty outrageous fashion choices) but Jackson’s G-rated persona paved the way for the more "sophisticated" role played by Prince. (Though of course as Wacko Jacko came more and more to the fore starting in the 1990s, who could’ve guessed how R-rated — or maybe I should say NC-17 — he would become?)

Another great memory was during some random free period in high school, back at the old Harlem building of Music & Art. I was sitting in the auditorium reading an X-Men when the "Thriller" music came on somebody’s boombox. I looked up on stage and there were about twenty of my fellow students doing an impromptu yet perfect step-by-step run-through of the "Thriller" video choreography. It was freakin’ awesome!

In the end, you have to agree that no matter your personal musical tastes, there was no way of escaping Jackson’s music or it impacting your life. The closest personal connection I have to this moment is when my mom woke me up on a cold December morning in 1980 to tell me John Lennon had been shot. As with Lennon, this is my generation’s Elvis moment. I’ll remember this day for the rest of my life.

My Michael Jackson Top 5 — probably not too many surprises here:
5) "The Way You Make Me Feel"
4) "State of Shock" (with Mick Jagger)
3) "Ease on Down the Road" (with Diana Ross)
2) "Beat It"
1) "Billie Jean"

"Purple Rain" Turns Silver

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The summer of 1984 was the summer of Springsteen, Ghostbusters, and Madonna, but more than anything that summer’s soundtrack was Purple Rain. You couldn’t escape Prince, the songs, or the movie, and I was one of the millions who fell under its spell. I was a teenager working as a camp counselor that summer, and it was the beginning of a lifelong obsession with the Purple One: his racial and sexual ambiguity, his warring themes of sexuality and spirituality, and most of all the rockin’ funky brilliance of his music. "Let’s Go Crazy," "Darling Nikki," and most of all "When Doves Cry" were all unlike anything I’d ever heard before — transgressive, titillating, just plain buck wild — and that was before I discovered the unparalleled brilliance of "Computer Blue" and "The Beautiful Ones." And the album version of "Purple Rain" will always be my personal anthem — romantic, bombastic, silly, profound, beautiful, but in the end, perfect.

I had my first beer that summer, at a showing of the Purple Rain movie, thanks to Dean Haspiel, and I’ll always credit Prince and that album for profoundly loosening me up. Up to then, I had been a weirdly repressed and judgmental kid; something about the Purple Rain summer helped get that stick out of my ass. Probably a month hasn’t gone by since 1984 that I haven’t listened to Purple Rain; it’s cool to hear the songs out in the zeitgeist again amidst all the tributes.

Phil "Scooter" Rizzuto, dead at 89

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Ex-Yankees player and broadcaster Phil Rizzuto passed away today. I listened to The Scooter during my prime baseball-fan days, as an adolescent, and he shaped my feeling for the game. I loved the way he combined a passion for baseball with a clear awareness that it was just a game, not to be taken too seriously.

He was known for his distinctive “Holy Cow!” exclamation, and I also loved how he called people “huckleberry.” During his prime as a Yankees broadcaster, he teamed up with classic straight man Bill White. They made a great duo, the wise-cracking, diminutive old Italian-American bantering with the tall, distinguished African-American.

During broadcasts, Phil would get so involved in anecdotes, stories, or noting fans’ birthdays and anniversaries, that he would forget all about the game. The resulting non-sequitors made for classic TV and radio. And if a summer thunderstorm passed by the Stadium, he would literally run out of the broadcast booth to find shelter!

Years ago, the Village Voice took a few classic Phil monologues and transcribed them into poetic form. It was pure brilliance. Eventually, Tom Peyer & Hart Seely put together a whole book of his “selected verse.” Here are some of my favorite Rizzuto “poems”: