The great baseball writer Roger Angell passed away today. He had lived an impressive 101 years. You can read his obituary in the New York Times. This is a slightly edited letter I wrote to him in 2002 (back before my beloved San Francisco Giants won three World Series in five years). I think it still makes a nice testimonial to his work and what it meant to me during my life…
Dear Mr. Angell,
Your books have given me so much joy over the years. They seem to be about so much more than just baseball. For years now I’ve been meaning to send you a “thank you” letter, but I always feel as if I have so much to say that I’ve intimidated myself! So I figure the best thing to do is just start, and see where it takes me. First off, I’m a 34-year-old cartoonist living in Brooklyn. When I first came across your work, I was a 12-year-old pipsqueak living with my mom in San Francisco. So that’s over twenty years ago!
My parents were divorced, and my dad lived in New York, and in the summer of 1977, he introduced me to baseball, by playing catch with me every day after work, taking me to a couple of Yankee games (and teaching me to keep score!), and watching the Yanks with me on TV. By the time I returned home to San Francisco and my mom, I had fallen hard for the game. I started out as a Yankee supporter, but I evolved into a huge Giants fan. Sure, the Yanks were great, with their two recent world championships and all, but they were 3,000 miles away. And who could resist the Giants’ magnificent trio of Willie McCovey, Vida Blue, and Jack Clark? I remain a Giants fan to this day. I still root for the Yankees, too (since the two teams are in different leagues), but when push comes to shove, I favor the Giants by a broad margin.
It was tough being a Giants fan in the early 1980s, when I moved with my mother back to my birthplace of New York. For one thing, in those pre-Internet, pre-sports radio days, it was nearly impossible to get the West Coast scores until late the next day. So frustrating! Secondly, all my friends were Mets fans, and despite both teams being pretty awful, my “pals” found nothing more enjoyable than razzing me about every Giants loss—especially when it came at the hands of their beloved Mets. But, what can I say? I’ve always been an underdog sort of guy, and given the Giants’ perennial also-ran status, that makes them pretty irresistible.
Baseball seemed to answer so many questions for me during that period of my life. Back in San Francisco, I spent more time than was healthy parked in front of the radio (we didn’t own a television), listening to Hank Greenwald and Lindsey Nelson give the play-by-play, as I kept pace, keeping score on my own custom-made scorecards. I got endless satisfaction from the stats, the computing of averages, and the comparisons of players from one era to another. There was comforting reliability to baseball statistics: the whole world fit into these little boxes, everything had a scoring symbol or a slot to fit into, and in my itinerant youth (my mom, a college professor and artist, took me with her to jobs in San Diego, San Francisco, Halifax, Vancouver, and finally, in the summer of 1980, back to New York), this dependability meant a lot.
I always loved playing baseball, too, although I never got very good at it. In San Francisco, the neighborhood kids and I were crazy about our version of stickball (with a wooden bat and an old tennis ball). And even my two or three years of Little League ball were fun, although I wasn’t much of a hitter (and not much better as a pitcher).
Until I came across The Summer Game,my exposure to baseball writing had been confined to juvenile fiction and simplified biographies of stars such as Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, and Joe DiMaggio. You know the kinds of books I mean: bland histories where every chapter offers a life lesson. Or the fictional stories, which always seemed to be about that terrible Little League team that over the course of a long summer comes together, bonds, and goes on to win the championship against incredible odds.
Well, stumbling across The Summer Game (sometime in 1978, I believe) was like opening my eyes to a whole new world. You brought the lyricism of the game to my attention. Even though I was far too young to really appreciate the beauty of your prose, your easy, colloquial style, your love of the quiet moments between the actions, your appreciation of the weather, the stadium, the fans around you: all of this was captivating to me. I’ve re-read your books many times over the years, from my adolescence in New York, to my college years in Ohio, and during even a stint in Prague, the Czech Republic! Since then, I’ve lived in Chicago, back in San Francisco, and now am back “home” in Brooklyn, always with your books in tow.
When I first read your books, I was absorbed by the inside-baseball; the quotes from the stars, the feeling I was vicariously getting to know these superstars (and benchwarmers too). Even at age 12, I was an avid reader of the sports pages, and it seemed to me that the players quoted in there didn’t have the ability to form complete sentences, rarely anything other than the typical clichés about giving “one hundred and ten percent,” taking it one day at a time, etc., etc. But when you spoke to those guys, they seemed real: thoughtful, opinionated, humorous, human.
And of course I loved the way you brought the big games to life, your annual recap of the pennant races, the playoffs and the World Series. It didn’t matter if I had followed every game myself. Somehow you brought those moments back, capturing the drama, the tension, the whole atmosphere. I realize now that it wasn’t the suspense of the unknown that I craved, but the sense that during those moments, this game was the content of my entire world.
Over the years, as I’ve re-read The Summer Game, Five Seasons, Late Innings, and Season Ticket, I’ve come to appreciate your abiding humanism, the way you continually embrace the changing playing field of major league baseball. In the face of greedy players & owners, astronomical salaries, stadium scandals, contraction, and the nearly endless postseason, your love of the game and its participants has never waned. Somehow you’re able to express your concerns, to plainly state why you think the most recent “innovation” does the game a disservice, and yet maintain the generosity of spirit and perennial optimism to know that baseball—the game itself—will persevere. Nay, triumph!
I feel like I’m just going on and on, so I’ll cut this short. I hope this letter brings you some satisfaction—It’s the least I can do to repay you for all the wonderful hours of enjoyment and education you’ve provided me all these years.
Thank you again; as always I look forward to your next baseball piece in The New Yorker.
I recently unearthed an old art project of mine from 30+ years in storage, and it’s a fascinating time capsule, both of the late 1980s and of myself from that period.
The object in question is a large 36″ x 48″ collage I painstakingly crafted out of images cut from magazines, postcards, and my own art and photographs. Made during my senior year of college at Oberlin — on the cusp of charting my own path as a so-called adult — I see now that the collage reflects my desires, and fears, about the future.
Why did I make this thing? I believe I got the idea from a birthday present I had received a few years before: a wall calendar that encouraged the owner to decorate the page above each month of the year. For some of the months, I drew something, and for some of them, I made little collages.
It must also be acknowledged that my mother, the artist Martha Rosler, had created a series of feminist collages when I was a child for which she became quite well known. (One of those series, Body Beautiful, or Beauty Knows No Pain, featured images of nude women paired with kitchen appliances!) I actually got to study my own mother’s work in college — I was an art history major with a focus on contemporary art — and while I was there she was invited to visit the school in an official capacity. So, I’m sure my mom’s work was hovering in the back of my mind as well.
Either way, I got in my head to make my own giant-size “Josh Collage.”
At first glance, the collage appears to be a straightforward catalog of my interests/obsessions from that period. My tastes back then were pretty mainstream — they still are — but what I was into, I was REALLY into. (And it’s funny: only in going through this collage in such detail do I truly appreciate how many of my interests and tastes — in music, in art, in politics — were informed by my mother. Thanks, mom — for bringing me into the world and shaping who I am in it.)
So WHY did I make this collage? I believe it was a form of “art therapy” for my insecure 21-year-old self, a way of proclaiming, “Hey, I exist!” And if so, it was a fun coping mechanism, like solving a puzzle, fitting all the images together in various pleasing (and occasionally clever) ways.
That said, it’s interesting to see what I chose to reveal about myself. Surprisingly there are virtually no images from popular movies or TV — no stills from Vietnam films (my obsession at that time), or Taxi Driver or The Godfather, or Woody Allen movies (probably for the best, that last one). No Star Wars. By the same token, there’s virtually nothing from the world of comics — other than my own artwork of the time. Clearly, I was trying to project an idea of myself, and even though I was still an avid reader of mainstream superhero comics at that point, I must have felt self-conscious about advertising it to whoever walked into my room. (This was all before I “discovered” the world of alternative comics — Harvey Pekar, Joe Sacco, et al.)
And, in poring over the collage again, I see that there was actually a larger concept behind it. The collage is roughly divided into sections — about me and my friends, about pop culture, about sports, about art, about city life, and about politics (with a fair amount of overlap). Looking at it now, though, from the vantage point of 30+ years, it seems to actually be a reflection of my anxieties and desires about the next stage of life in the “real world”: the big city, career, relationships… family?
So, here’s the full collage and my thoughts on its various elements. Prepare yourself for a trip back to 1988 — and the contents of my unformed brain…
Just in case you don’t instantly recognize these icons of the late 1980s (and in the spirit of the cover of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali), I’ve created a legend that identifies the various images that make up the collage. Let’s go through it, section by section, shall we?
This first section focuses on 21-year-old me: self-portraits, my own art, my friends, and my sense of humor. In retrospect, it also reveals some preliminary anxiety I might have had about one day becoming a father…
Self-portrait in pen-and-ink — It’s only appropriate that this self-portrait collage should start with a literal self-portrait. Like most teenagers, I spent countless hours staring (unhappily) at my face in a mirror. I drew this “soulful” chiaroscuro self-portrait in 1985, at the start of my freshman year at Oberlin. Is there any significance to the fact that I cut off the left (dark) side of my face from the original portrait? You tell me!
2. Slash vs. Blade — a panel from “Battle,” a jam comic I did with Dean Haspiel also during my freshman year, in the period 1985–1986. (Back then, pre-Internet, we would draw a page of the strip, fold it up and mail it via the post office to the other guy so he could continue the story. I was in Ohio; Dino was back in NYC.) Dean and I have known each other since freshman year of high school; this may have been our first true collaboration, predating our two-man anthology Keyhole, the jam comic Lionel’s Lament, and of course our podcast Scene by Scene with Josh and Dean. Slash was Dean’s character (inspired by Star Wars‘ Boba Fett) and Blade was mine (inspired by the Teen Titans villain Deathstroke the Terminator). In this panel, my character Blade is torturing Dino’s character Slash by stretching his mask to its fullest extent so it will snap back on his face in an extremely painful manner. (Later on in “Battle,” the two characters wind up naked and then have sex with each other.)
3. Blade as drawn by Dean Haspiel — I always loved/envied this drawing of Blade, which I felt looked cooler than any image of my own character that I had ever drawn. (Did I imagine that Dean was a better version of myself? No, that can’t be…)
4. Self-portrait reflected in a car window — my mom (also a renowned photographer) had given me a Minolta X-7A 35 millimeter camera, and I loved it. And it presented new opportunities to make “interesting” and “dramatic” self-portraits. Deep!
5. Josh & Jake — a candid shot of me and my college BFF Jake Elsas up to our usual hijinks. I’m not sure where this photo was taken, but I don’t think it was at Oberlin. Possibly one of our family homes on a spring break visit? A few years later, after Jake spent a year in the Soviet Union, he and I were roommates in a couple of too-small NYC apartments. Then, my girlfriend (and future wife) Sari moved in and Jake moved to Portland, Oregon.
6. Nikon 35mm camera — As mentioned before, I was really in love with my Minolta camera (remember, this was before everyone had a high-quality camera in their pocket). I guess I couldn’t find an image of my exact camera, but this Nikon looked pretty similar.
7. Earl the Dead Cat — “Earl the Dead Cat(TM) means farewell to smelly cat food and messy litter boxes. Earl is a cuddly, under-stuffed and very dead toy cat complete with his own death certificate. The brand new L’IL EARL also has suction cups on his paws to stick on car windows. Earl the Dead Cat(TM). The last cat you’ll ever need.” Apparently, this toy was introduced in 1985, and was featured on The Tonight Show and Weekly World News. A typical example of the “ironic” humor from that period. True, I was never much of a cat fancier, but this seems to clearly reveal anxieties I may have had about taking care of a real living thing…
8. Residents of Dascomb second-floor men’s wing — my first two years at Oberlin, I had the weird fortune of living in the same dorm room (with a different roommate each year) on the second floor of Dascomb Hall. Freshman year I drew a series of pen-and-ink portraits of roommates on that hall; sophomore year I saved time by just drawing a whole group of guys at once. (It was a fun bunch — we all had a lot of good times together despite them being so much younger than me LOL.) This is that illustration, which was probably originally drawn in 1987.
9. Sammy Safesex sez… “Slip It On Before You Slip It In!” Another example of what I found HILARIOUS back then. Anyway, note how Sammy Safesex is strategically placed over my self-portrait’s crotch from no. 8. Safe!
10. Life in Hell cartoon by Matt Groening — two panels from “Childhood is Hell: Chapter 2: How to be a Wily 1-Year-Old,” probably from 1988. I loved the Life in Hell strip, which ran weekly in alternative papers (and at that point was the closest thing I got to so-called “alternative comics”). Matt Groening, right around this time, was creating The Simpsons, an animated show that changed American humor forever. But I can’t help but find it significant that I chose and placed this strip, focused on childhood, in the vicinity of the above condom cartoon…
11. The Ocelot — When I was still in high school, I hooked up with an APA (amateur press association) called The Chain that was set up to help wannabes like myself get work in the comics industry. I met writer Gene Phillips through The Chain. He and I collaborated on a number of stories in the late 1980s — none of which ever saw print. This image, drawn in the late summer 1988, was of our superhero The Ocelot, whose powers derived from her allegiance to the Aztec god Itztlacoliuhqui. Following every sexist superhero comics trope of the time, I designed her as a scary/sexy cat-woman. Tsk. Hiss!
12. Frisbee — my dad is the one who first taught me to throw a frisbee, and I’ve loved tossing one around ever since. (There’s nothing more “Oberlin” than a frisbee.) While I was still at Oberlin, a pal from another school commissioned me to draw a T-shirt for his Ultimate team, Dasein.
This next section — the biggest part of the collage — focuses on what were my pop culture interests: music, TV, and sports. (I still find it odd that I left movies out of the collage. Maybe there was just too much for me to condense down to a few images?) Again, many of my musical interests back then reveal what was foremost on my mind (hint: it’s spelled S-E-X)…
14. Prince — I was a HUGE Prince fan during this period (I still am), buying every single, every 12-inch, every bootleg, and of course every album he released. (To this day, my favorite Prince song is the album version of “Purple Rain.“) I also tracked down every article I could find about Prince in every magazine. Prince’s whole image and much of his music were centered around sexuality and its taboos. This photo looks like it’s from the Controversy period (circa 1981).
16. The Beatles — my first musical obsession, dating back to when my mom introduced me to their music when I was about ten years old. I still have my vinyl LPs of all their American albums and a few imports. According to Discogs, this image is from the Swedish edition of the “Hey Jude” single, released in 1968 with “Revolution” on the B side. (Since you didn’t ask, I would say my favorite Beatles songs are “A Day In the Life,” “I Am the Walrus,” “I Want You [She’s So Heavy],” and “Ticket to Ride.”)
17. David Letterman — from the get-go I loved Late Night with David Lettermanand Dave’s send-up of the traditional stodgy talk-show format. Late Night‘s combination of absurdist humor, wacky segments, and awkward celebrity interviews — sprinkled with huge heaps of irony — really spoke to me and my ilk. Back then, it seemed like a big deal that a late-night host wore sneakers with his suit!
18. Michael Jackson — It wasn’t exactly cool to like Michael Jackson during this period (which is probably why I chose this image), but I really did love his music, beginning with Thriller and continuing on with Bad. (I retroactively came to love Off the Wall as well.) But one couldn’t help but be fascinated with how odd Michael was — little knowing how much more bizarre he would become (tragically). This was from a British tabloid image of him walking the streets in “disguise,” coming off a bit like a skinny Reggie Jackson — no relation — from the 1970s. It looks like Michael put in fake teeth too? Oh, Jacko!
19. Terence Trent D’Arby? — It’s small and blurry, but I’m 85% sure that this photo is of Terence Trent D’Arby, because the cap and leather jacket are extremely similar to what the singer wore in the video to “Sign Your Name Across My Heart.” I’ve also seen a live rendition of “Wishing Well” where he wore a coat even more like the one in this photo. See no. 16 for more on the singer now known as Sananda Maitreya.)
20. Madonna — Is it a shock that I was really into Madonna (oh, and her music too)? This photo was taken in New York City on September 11 (!), 1988, when Madonna ran the 5k event Sport Aid 88: The Race Against Time, which was held simultaneously in cities all over the world. Madonna is shown here holding up her running bib number 1,000,001 (fellow pop stars like Sting, Steve Winwood, and Eurythmics took part in Sport Aid 88 as well). Sponsored by CARE, the race was part of a slew of charity events all inspired by Bob Geldof and Live Aid.
21. Prince — yep, him again, looking quite fetching. This iconic androgynous photo is from the cover of Lovesexy (1988).
22. Terence Trent D’Arby — As soon as I heard the music from his 1987 debut album, Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby (this image is from the cover), I was in love. And how could I not have been, given how evocative of Prince he was in both his music, his stage presence, and his general vibe? Though D’Arby’s follow-up albums had some good stuff, I wasn’t as into Neither Fish Nor Flesh (1989) or Symphony or Damn (1993), and I lost touch with him after that. I wasn’t even aware that he had changed his name to Sananda Maitreya until I looked him up again recently.
23. The cast of M*A*S*H— My favorite TV show for many, many years, a show that artfully combined humor and pathos (“dramedy”). I identified with the character of Hawkeye Pierce to an extreme degree, and I think my personality was greatly formed by that admiration. (I became equally obsessed with Alan Alda for similar reasons.) A shared love of M*A*S*H in high school and college lead me to a number of lasting friendships. Even though the show had gone off the air some years earlier, while at college I watched daily reruns on a tiny black-and-white TV in my dorm room. This postcard shows the latter group of cast members, including B.J. Hunnicutt, Colonel Potter, and Charles Winchester; but no Radar, Trapper John, Frank Burns, or Colonel Blake.
24. The Death of Rhythm & Blues — I never read this book by Nelson George, but I loved the cover art, which to me evoked cubism and art deco. I periodically read George’s column, “Native Son,” which ran in the Village Voice around this time, and I remember his work as being passionate and challenging. I’ve read that in this book, George partially blames Michael Jackson and Prince for bringing R&B to the white mainstream, which helped “kill” it as an art form. And now they’re both dead too — RIP.
25. Sam Cooke(“Shake”) — After she got me into The Beatles, my mom introduced me to the music of Sam Cooke, and I still get a thrill when I hear his distinctive, heartfelt voice, especially on songs like “A Change is Gonna Come” and “Frankie and Johnny“. My mom has good taste in music! This album, Shake, was released in 1965, one year after Cooke’s untimely death (murder?).
26. Sheila E. and Cat — Two of Prince’s sexy protegés from the Lovesexy era. Sheila E. is an awesome percussionist who was associated with Prince for much of the second half of the 1980s — as well as heading her own band — and Cat Glover (“Woman”) is a dancer, singer, and choreographer who performed with Prince in the late ’80s.
27. Prince — Mr. Rogers Nelson looking cool as can be; this image is from the cover of the “When Doves Cry” single (1984). When I first heard the song, I hated it — I think it scared me. After I saw the Purple Rain film, and came to appreciate Prince for the genius he was, I came to accept “When Doves Cry”… and now I rank it as one of my favorite Prince songs.
28. Porky Pig — he’s a funny little cartoon pig with a stutter. (He also looks like a baby, which is probably why I glued this pic down next to nos. 8, 9, and 10 of the previous section.) It’s crazy to think that many people today are unfamiliar with Porky, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and their Looney Tunes friends.
29. Jack Clark — My dad taught me to play baseball when I was about 11 or 12, and I soon became obsessed with the game. Right around that time, I moved to San Francisco, becoming a Giants fan, a team I have stayed loyal to ever since. Jack Clark was the team’s indisputable star, and I was obsessed with him — even after he left the Giants I followed his career with great interest. (I still have pretty much all his baseball cards from every stop along the way.) I took this photo when I went to see him play in person in mid-September 1988, when the Yankees visited Cleveland Municipal Stadium to play the then-Indians. (Clark only played one year for the Yanks.)
As I’ve mentioned, I was an art history major at Oberlin, and this section features reproductions of European fine art, mostly of paintings I had seen in person when I spent a month traveling around France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands on a Eurail Pass in the winter of 1987–1988. That trip followed a fall semester I had spent at University College, London. Oberlin’s study abroad program was extremely expensive, so to get to London, I temporarily transferred to Beaver College, which ran a much more affordable study abroad program in the U.K. (I never actually set foot in Beaver College, which was located in Glenside, Pennsylvania.) And, yes, before you make any dumb jokes, Beaver College changed its name in 2001 to Arcadia University (in large part because its name was being filtered out of Internet searches due to the “other” meaning of “beaver” LOL).
31. Le Déjeuner sur l’herbeby Édouard Manet (1862–1863) — I was an art history major at Oberlin, and really came to love French 19th Century painting; this originally infamous image of a luncheon on the grass is one of my favorite works from the period. (I’m sure the fact that it features a nude woman sitting with two fully dressed men has nothing to do with that.) It hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
32. Nude with Coral Necklace by Amedeo Modigliani (1917) — My dad had a pair of Modigliani reproductions — of a clothed man and a nude woman (there’s that theme again) — hanging in our apartment for many years, and I studied them intently. This particular Modigliani painting hangs in Oberlin’s very own Allen Memorial Art Museum, which is where I got the postcard for my collage.
33. Still Life with Red Onions by Paul Cézanne (1896–1898) — Cézanne was an artist I had to be taught to appreciate; when I first saw his work I was put off by the angularity of his work. When I later studied him in art history class (thank you, Pat Mathews!), I came to love Cézanne: the vibratory tension, the geometry of forms, his beautiful understanding of color — and that brushstroke! This painting also hangs in the Musée d’Orsay.
34. The Charging Chasseur by Théodore Géricault (1812) — Géricault is another favorite artist of mine. When I first visited England and France, as a high school teenager, my mother was dragging me through the Louvre Museum when I caught sight of Géricault’s epic history paintingThe Raft of the Medusa (1818–1819). According to my mom, I audibly gasped, and stood there for ten minutes just taking it all in. That may have been the moment that led to me eventually majoring in art history. The Charging Chasseur also hangs in the Louvre, which is where I got the postcard.
35. The Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503–1506) — as beautiful and mysterious as everyone says. Also hangs in the Louvre.
36. Peter Slips Under the Fence by Beatrix Potter (c. 1902) — my mom was a huge fan of Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit, and she read me the stories when I was kid, pointing out how beautiful Potter’s illustrations were. I grew to love them as well; I picked up this postcard when I was studying in England.
37. Bedroom in Arles (3rd version) by Vincent Van Gogh (1889) — What’s there to say about Van Gogh‘s work that hasn’t already been said by people way more articulate than me? This painting also hangs in the Musée d’Orsay.
38. Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo (1508–1512) — I got to visit the Vatican during my 1987-1988 Eurail adventure, an experience I will never forget. Being in the actual Sistine Chapel, staring up at the ceiling Michelangelo painted was as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever had. I bought this postcard in the Vatican gift shop.
This section focuses on city life — featuring monuments, crowds, deserted streets, and images of implied violence. Living through the 1980s in New York felt like an achievement, and though I wore that experience like a badge of honor, I was clearly a bit apprehensive about my imminent return to the Big Apple! But I think that after spending the better part of four years in the quiet corn fields of Ohio, I felt the need to reclaim my urban origins.
39. Big Ben in London — The “city section” is bookended by two towers; this famous clock being one of them. My semester in London was foundational for me. I made some good friends, I had a lot of adventures, and I learned a lot — about history, art, and myself. I also spent a lot of time involved in an ill-advised long-distance love triangle, which entailed various periods of panicked phone calls and letters back to the U.S. Oy!
40. Empire State Building — I’ve long had an appreciation for the Empire State Building, which to me always represented the essence of New York City. Looking back, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t have the same affinity for the Twin Towers. *Sigh*
41. Penciled Panel from The Ocelot — this panel from The Ocelot #2 ostensibly takes place in Houston, Texas, but I didn’t have much photo reference for Houston, so I drew my version of a neglected NYC street instead. This page was penciled in August 1988; I finally finished the 8-page story in February of 1989 (probably working on the bulk of it during Oberlin’s Winter Term).
42. Batmanby George Pérez — this is the only example of professional comics in this whole collage, and I couldn’t resist adding an image by one of my original artistic heroes, George Pérez. (Batman stands here atop a Gotham building; Gotham was a comics analog for New York City.) My early attempts at superhero comics were greatly influenced by Pérez and John Byrne. Pérez recently announced that he has inoperable cancer; his last wish is to share his final months with his family, friends, and fans. What a brave and generous spirit.
43. Cleveland, Ohio (Michael Dukakisrally) — In September of 1988, I went with a busload of Oberlin students to nearby Cleveland for a Dukakis presidential rally, which is where I took this photo. See nos. 52–55.
44. V13 Gang Members — Despite being a typical Oberlin peacenik, I was (not so) secretly obsessed with images of guns and portrayals of gun violence. The photo, by Merrick Morton, of a baby-faced Venice 13 gang member pointing his gun right at the camera, was irresistible. It accompanied Mike Sager‘s Rolling Stone article, “Death in Venice: The Effect of Crack on Gangs in Venice, California,” (September 22, 1988), which helped open my eyes to the “hardness” of life in American cities other than New York.
45. Surgeon General’s Warning: “Quitting smoking now greatly reduces serious risks to your health” — I was really anti-smoking! I didn’t even like my friends to smoke around me (which is probably why I didn’t have any friends who were poets or intellectuals). Smoking is certainly not confined to urbanites, but back then the image of cigarettes and tough city streets really went together.
46. Sidewalk? — Hard to tell, but this looks like one of my own photographs, maybe a bird’s eye view of city sidewalks, shot out of a window from the second or third floor.
47. Blade from Slash vs. Blade — “Yo, man!” Blade is very upset with Slash because in the previous episode of “Battle,” Slash cut him in half. From what I recall, this scene took place in the city where Slash and Blade were having their battle. (It also probably just fit really well in that particular spot of the collage.)
The final section of the collage features politics and the world around me in 1988. A big focus is the 1988 election for U.S. President (already alluded to in no. 43), which pitted Democrat Michael Dukakis against George H. W. Bush. Spoiler: Bush won. By a lot. It was a depressing time.
48. Unknown Civil Rights Pioneer — The best I can tell, this is a photo from the Civil Rights era, of a lone Black woman escorted by FBI agents and flanked by National Guard soldiers — possibly bravely desegregating a Southern school? Like many college students during this time, I felt very engaged with the anti-Apartheid movement during this period, so the connections between what was then going on in South Africa and the American South during the 1950s were very clear. My guess is that this photo was from a Rolling Stone article about the Civil Rights era. If anyone can identify the woman in the image, I would be most grateful.
49. Sean Tucker — Sean was on my hall in Dascomb during my freshman year, and this image is from the drawings I did of various sets of roommates. He had this inherent gravitas, and this great deep voice, and it always seemed to us that he was destined to become a politician, which is why I drew him speechifying at a podium! Sean was from Cleveland and I went to visit his family once. I also once flew with him and another Oberlin couple in a tiny 4-seater prop plane; they flew the plane to an island on Lake Erie, we ate dinner at a restaurant and then flew back to a local airfield outside of Oberlin. Sean and I went back to our respective cities after college, and we fell out of touch. I don’t know if he ended up pursuing public service.
50. Anthony Lewis — My mom got me a subscription to the New York Timeswhile I was at college, and I actually read it — well, at least the sports pages and the op-ed page. Lewis was one of my favorite columnists — his At Home Abroad column always helped me see the alternative point of view during that period of conservative Reaganism.
51. William Greider — I was an avid reader of Rolling Stonemagazine during this period, and I loved Greider‘s columns. He wrote powerfully about finance and income inequality in ways I could actually understand. (I had never taken an economics class.)
52. Jesse Jackson — Jackson’s name artfully placed over the eyes of the eventual Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis (see 53). It’s hard to overstate now how exciting was Jackson’s run for the Democratic nomination in the spring of 1988. A civil rights leader who had worked with Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson was leader of the National Rainbow Coalition, and an inspiring public speaker. At that time, 20 years before Obama’s election, it was so thrilling to imagine the possibility of a Black president. By the time Obama won in 2008, it felt like most people had forgotten how far Jackson got in ’88 — winning 13 state primaries and caucuses, and accumulating over 1,000 delegates to the convention. I voted for him in the primaries and always thought he would’ve been a far better candidate than was Dukakis. After college, I applied for a job with the Rainbow Coalition, though I never heard back from them 🙁
53. Michael Dukakis — I always think of that video of him riding around in a tank. Meant to make him look tough and “presidential,” it instead made him look like a silly little kid.
54. BU ll SH itin 88— get it? Summarized my thoughts on the guy who beat Dukakis — in large part due to Lee Atwater’s infamous “Willie Horton” strategy.
55. Oberlin students at the Dukakis rally, Cleveland, Ohio — I clambered up a lamppost or a stanchion to take this shot of a bunch of Obies in the crowd.
56. Spuds MacKenzie — the cute bull terrier from those Bud Light commercials. Spuds was attacked by politicians because he (actually she) supposedly made beer seem attractive to kids. Big industries like beer and tobacco would never stoop so low as to target underage consumers, right, Joe Camel?
Phew! So there you have it: thanks for taking that trip back in time with me.
The collage itself, once I finished it, was obviously very important to me, because I ended up framing it for wall display. I think I actually did hang it on the wall of my first New York City apartment, but by the time I moved in with Sari, barely a year and a half after graduation, it had been put away, never to be displayed again. Like I said, a time capsule.
And you know — I shouldn’t have been so anxious about the future… Life since college has been pretty good: I’ve discovered my calling as a nonfiction cartoonist, had the opportunity to travel widely (pre-pandemic), and have gotten to share my knowledge with later generations. And best of all, I’ve been able to spend 30+ years married to my best friend, and together we have a wonderful daughter.
Makes me wonder what a contemporary version of this collage would look like. Well, that’s a project for another day. (And then I can revisit that collage when I’m in my 80s and analyze it to death as well!)
I’m excited to share a new comics piece that’s just been published in a benefit anthology. “Supply Chain Superhero” is about New York City and the COVID-19 pandemic, and it features my very own brother, Jake Neufeld.
We’ve all seen a lot of stories about the medical professionals on the front lines of this crisis. But the doctors and nurses aren’t the only ones in the hospital. Jake, my bro, is the assistant director of emergency management at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), NYC’s cancer hospital. The story covers the way he and his team responded to one of the worst days of the crisis. The story sheds light on what challenges the “behind-the-scenes” people at hospitals (now in other parts of the country) are facing during the pandemic.
Put together by Dean Haspiel and Whitney Matheson, PANDEMIX has 56 pages of comics related to these crazy times, by 18 creators, most of them based in New York. It’s a fabulous collection, with a variety of different takes on what we’re all going through.
PANDEMIX is available for PDF download on Patreon, with all proceeds going to The Hero Initiative, a nonprofit organization that helps comics creators with emergency medical aid and/or essential financial support. All you need to do is donate $5 and it’s all yours!
When I saw this week’s cover of The New Yorker, “Still Life,” by cartoonist Chris Ware, I was immediately reminded of a comics piece I had drawn nearly 30 years ago. Chris’ cover is a multi-panel non-narrative portrait of New York City under coronavirus lockdown. My piece, from the fall of 1991, is a multi-panel non-narrative portrait of the U.S. in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm (the first Gulf War).
The origins of my piece stem from a period when I was first starting to think about different ways I could use the comics form. Up to that point, pretty much all I had ever drawn were superhero-style comics, but I was losing interest in the genre and I was confused about what other possibilities there were for the form. So this piece, which is untitled, came out of that search.
The page mostly features familiar motifs of the first Gulf War era — camouflage, American flags, military helicopters — and some signs of the season — bare tree branches, fallen leaves. But it also has other more fanciful features. It’s like an impression of a certain time — in the life of the city, and in the psychology of a young man of that era.
One of the most striking similarities between the two pieces are images of New York City’s iconic skyscrapers in the page’s lower-left areas: Chris’s portrait of the illuminated Empire State Building at night, and my portrait of the towers of the World Trade Center, shrouded in fog. (If you are darkly sentimental, it’s easy to imagine those are the towers surrounded by the smoke of their own destruction on 9/11 — still some 10 years in the future.)
It just so happens that I know Chris Ware. We met in Chicago a few after I drew this piece, through a mutual friend, and our occasional get-togethers were very meaningful for me as an aspiring “alternative cartoonist.” Chris was always encouraging to me, and he taught me a lot about the practice of comics; and it was fun getting together with him and his wife Marnie.
Before you ask, he definitely never saw my non-narrative comic, and it has never been published — or until now, even publicly exhibited. I was just struck by the two piece’s superficial similarities.
(By the way, I colored the piece directly on the page with Design markers — probably the last time I ever used markers of any kind on my comics. Pre-PhotoShop!)
P.S. My very astute wife points out that Chris’s piece is very clearly NOT non-narrative (now that’s a confusing sentence). If you “read” it left-to-right, top-to-bottom, you realize that the story progresses through a day from morning to evening, and much of it is from the perspective of one person stuck in their apartment. There’s so much more to his piece than just an aspect-to-aspect series of images. Proof once again that Chris Ware is a genius!!
As a native New Yorker, I don’t visit Times Square very often—too noisy, too bright, too many tourists. Of course I was aware how much the area has changed over the years, with the banishment of the porn palaces and prostitution, and the Disneyfication that began during the late 1990s. Back in the day, if you walked around the area, you’d get “asked for a date” ten times per block. Now, improbably, the area had returned to its early 20th-century roots as a tourist Mecca.
But when I did walk through the area a few years back I couldn’t help but notice a whole new group of inhabitants: Elmos, Minnie Mouses, Spider-Mans, and packs of others in Sesame Street and superhero costumes, posing for photos with tourists for tips. It was like they had come out of nowhere and had taken over the Square. (By the way: did you know that the area is actually not a square at all, but really more of a bow-tie shape?)
When I first began noticing the costumed characters it was really freaky and random to me, totally out of left field. And now, a few years later, it’s just another fact of life in NYC. Despite the shiny electronic billboards and chain restaurants, you still can’t walk through Times Square without being accosted. Maybe times hadn’t changed that much after all.
All this got a ton of local recent coverage, particularly in 2014. And believe it or not, the City Council held hearings on the matter—including the idea of requiring you to undergo a background check before you can put on a Spongebob costume—and instituted some new restrictions.
I was intrigued, so I spent a little time hanging around the area, and I couldn’t help put notice that most of the people underneath the costume were Latino. I wondered about them. Where do they come from? How much money do they make? What’s it like to do that job all day long? I decided I would find out–and show what I learned in a comics piece.
I spent two months doing research and interviews, and another couple of months writing the script and drawing the piece, which includes more than 50 panels of comics. (Much credit goes to The Nib editor Matt Bors for helping me winnow down the more than 70 panels I originally envisioned!)
The pull of the story, of course, is its sheer wackiness—plus, for those not from New York, this whole scenario is new information. And that’s how I suck you in. But then, halfway through the story, I go “behind the mask” to get the other perspective—that of the people in the costumes. And with all the new regulations spurred by the hyperbolic press coverage and local business associations like the Times Square Alliance, the real story comes into focus.
This story in particular is perfect for the comics treatment because of the costumed character aspect. It’s all be very meta, with the reader not being sure if he or she is looking at someone in a costume or just a drawing of the actual character from the cartoons or comics… (In that vein, I had fun with the color concept of the piece—let me know if it works for you.)
In commemoration of Hurricane Sandy’s one-year anniversary, Medium is debuting “SuperStorm Stories: A Red Hook Family” (part one), a piece I reported and drew about a Brooklyn family’s experiences during the storm and its aftermath. This segment specifically deals with the family’s love of books (and music), and the horror of seeing some of their most treasured memories destroyed by the “gasoline- and poop-filled water from the Hudson River.” Jim, the dad, speaks memorably about “black-bagging a favorite book” and its resemblance to “a mangled body.”
For some reason in recent years it has been my lot to be connected to hurricanes; first with Katrina and A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge, and now with my home city of New York and Sandy. (I wrote in this space about the frustrations of being “stranded” away from New York during the actual storm last year, while on my journalism fellowship in Ann Arbor.) As an artist, I can’t stop thinking about floods and rising waters—nature’s inexorable, nightmarish consumption of all things fragile and man-made. I think I was first awakened to this fixation by the horrific events of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. And my contributions to the 2010 ABC Primetime special, Earth 2100, about catastrophic climate change, only contributed to that obsession. Well, if Al Gore is correct, I’ll have plenty of fodder for this in the coming decades. ;->
It’s been a week since Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast and I’m just now coming to understand how devastating the impact was. A good part of the reason for this disconnect is that I am currently living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship. (One of the conditions of the fellowship is that you must live in Ann Arbor for the academic year, and you are forbidden from publishing anything professionally during the duration of the program.)
Weirdly enough, the first person I heard from after Sandy passed was Leo, one of the heroes of A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. Obviously, a guy who lost everything in Katrina would be supremely attuned to the effects of the “superstorm” which hit the East Coast. He wasn’t sure whether I was back home in Brooklyn or still away, and was relieved to hear me and my stuff were okay. (Our apartment is on the fifth floor of a building in Prospect Heights—e.g., not near sea level.) In fact, thankfully, my family and pretty much everyone I know well in New York was relatively unaffected by the storm.
But as the days have gone by, we’ve been hearing more about others in our wider circle who weren’t so lucky. There’s the staff member at Wallace House whose family lives in Breezy Point (they lost everything), and one of my fellow Fellows, Amy Haimerl, who hails from Red Hook. Her husband Karl drove back to NYC the day after the storm to help with clean-up; Amy is coordinating efforts from afar via social media.
I think, understandably, my main focus has been on what’s going on in my hometown. This morning I was streaming WNYC radio, which was performing their civic duty of spreading the word about the storm, and cleanup and relief efforts. They were crowdsourcing listeners: people calling in from Staten Island, the Rockaways, and other devastated areas. As with Katrina, certain mantras were repeated over and over: the police didn’t know where to go or to contact to donate stuff or labor; FEMA was hardly in evidence; rumors swirled. (Although the New York City Department of Sanitation was getting high marks for their round-the-clock cleanup efforts. Let’s hear it for New York’s Strongest!) Again like with Katrina and New Orleans, there are so many communication gaps: people in one part of the city have no idea what’s going on in another.
And there are still so many regions without power; even now, a week later! The areas most badly hit—no surprise—host large numbers of public housing high-rises, and residents there, especially in the upper floors, are trapped with no elevator access, no lights, no heat, and often no way to get food & water. And the cold is setting in. (Word is that the Occupy Wall Street folks have been down in affected areas like the Rockaways doing great work.)
Sari pointed out this morning that, as New Yorkers we’re used to manmade challenges—political red tape and corruption, socio-economic barriers, over-crowding, etc. We’re not used to dealing with natural disasters like this. It’s almost like we grew up believing things like this only happened to other people, far away—sort of like that famous Saul SteinbergNew Yorker magazine cover, “A View of the World from 9th Avenue.”
So now we’re facing the reality of up to 40,000 people permanently displaced, maybe up to 40 public schools that won’t be able to re-open until next summer. Again, these are the images from post-Katrina New Orleans.
I had been thinking a lot about A.D. this week, regardless of the storm. Last Thursday I presented my work to my Knight-Wallace compatriots; on Friday I was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, site of a series of devastating tornadoes in April 2011, to present A.D. to freshmen students there.
Back in 2005, when I volunteered with the Red Cross, and in 2007–2008, when I was working on A.D., I was an outsider come to document the post-Katrina Gulf Coast experience. Now, with Sandy, now I am an “expatriate” New Yorker forcibly removed from the event. I desperately wish I was in New York right now: to help, to bear witness, to be where I belong.
The final component of the Rubin Museum‘s “Karma-Con” approaches. This Wednesday, April 18, the Rubin will unveil the finished illustrations of the “Cartoonists’ Wheel of Life.” After interacting with the art that inspires us, discussing the significance and merit of the Wheel of Life as an artistic image, working collaboratively in an open studio setting and individually in our own studios, artists Molly Crabapple, Sanya Glisic, Ben Granoff, Rodney Greenblat, Steven Guarnaccia, Michael Kupperman, Katie Skelly, and myself unveil our completed works as a unified Wheel of Life.
As I’ve mentioned before, my section is the world of humans. The human world is typically portrayed as one of suffering. These deprivations include:
separation from friends
being attacked by enemies
not getting what they want
getting what they don’t want
Humans also suffer from the general maladies of:
pain of childbirth
A careful viewer will see examples of all these sufferings in my image, as well as allusions to the Occupy Wall Street movement (and a sneaky self-portrait of the artist).
The evening includes a Himalayan happy hour & spiral music, a pre-program tour of the Wheel of Life and second floor galleries, the unveiling of the new Wheel of Life and a discussion with the artists moderated by comics historian Christopher Irving, and a post-program tour of the accompanying exhibit Hero, Villain, Yeti: Tibet in Comics. And did I mention the whole evening is free?!
Wednesday April 18, 2012 @ 7:00 PM
Last Sunday, Sari, Phoebe, and I came up to Sari's parents' place in Austerlitz, NY, or a two-week working vacation. Summer camp is out, Phoebe starts pre-K after Labor Day, and we've been enjoying the end of summer here in the "country." And now, with a new hurricane forming — ironically heading to my neck of the woods — it all comes around again.
The house still has no TV, but they've upgraded to DSL, which helps us stay abreast of things. Like the residents of the Gulf Coast back in '05, we're tuning into the latest developments, doing our own storm-tracking, and preparing for things like power outtages, flooding, and the like. But here in the Berkshires, Irene shouldn't be too bad, nothing how it could impact coastal areas from the Carolinas all the way to New York City. Our whole lives — our home, our friends, most of our family — are back there, and once again I'm absent — not there to experience the event for myself, to prepare, to help do what I can. And if the storm is bad enough here to knock out our electricity, I'll be just as in the dark (literally) as I was six years ago. Actually, more so!
When I first started a blog, I swore the one thing I would never do would be to write about getting a haircut. I mean, what could be more boring? But I guess rules are meant to be broken. Prepare to be bored!
For decades, anyone who grew up in New York City knew about Astor Place Hair — or as we knew it, simply “Astor Place.” It’s a downstairs, no-frills downtown barbershop with over fifty haircutters (I hesitate to call them “stylists”). For $15 you can walk right in and get a cut, all done in about twenty minutes. No need for a reservation, and the place is open until as late as 10:30 at night — perfect for getting a trim right before heading out on a Saturday night. Totally Old School, Astor Place has the requisite collection of Polaroids taped on their front windows of freshly-shorn hip-hop artists, singers, movie stars, and professional athletes — most of them sadly dating back twenty years or more. (When I first discovered Astor Place in the 1980s, they were known for their trendy cuts like boxes and fades. Later on, they offered karaoke as part of the hair-cutting experience, but I don’t think they do that anymore.) With its loud ambiance, peeling linoleum, bad lighting, and brusque employees, Astor Place always a late-night, seedy quality to it. It’s a real New York institution.
For years I went to Astor Place, and eventually found a barber who I thought did a good job with my unruly blonde locks. That’s part of the Astor Place tradition as well, finding your “special” barber. My barber’s name was Jay and he was from one of the Soviet republics. He had a brother named “Dr. Mike” who also cut hair at Astor Place. I always felt a little stupid, though, waiting behind two other customers for Jay when three barbers around him were sitting at their chairs with no clients. Was he really that superior?
Jay was known for whipping off the apron at the end of each cut and yelling out, in his thick accent, “Perfect professional cut!” He also not-so-subtly pressured over-tipping from his customers by waving the bills in the air — it seemed like some of his customers paid him a bigger tip than the cost of the actual cut. (Despite the pressure, I always stuck with $5.) By the early 1990s,when I had graduated from college and was living back in New York, I even had my roommate Jake and my girlfriend Sari going to Jay. Later, I heard that my dad and my half-brother became Astor Place customers as well.
Then Sari and I went off on our big round-the-world backpacking trip, and eventually moved away from New York. We stayed away for almost ten years.
When I did return to the Big Apple, I didn’t go back to Astor Place. I got the idea that the place was no longer “cool,” that it had become a pastiche of its former self. (Viz. the karaoke.) Also, I didn’t need the drama — all the yelling and the bad lighting. I started going to a small, family-run barbershop on 23rd Street. The guys there were also Eastern European, and the atmosphere reminded me of the first barbershop I went to on a regular basis, Lou’s, a place on Eighteenth and McDonald Aves. in Brooklyn.
After awhile, though, I became dissatisfied with my 23rd Street barbers. Like many factory-style places, they insisted on cutting my hair with electric clippers, not the traditional scissors, and I wasn’t happy with how the cuts were coming out. My wavy hair just doesn’t respond well to that method, and I was looking for a cut with a little more “character” to it. However, given that I’m way too cheap to shell out $50 or more for a high-end stylist, my options seemed limited.
Eventually, my brother-in-law Evan tipped me off to the Aveda Institute on Spring Street. Aveda couldn’t be more different than Astor Place: a view into the high-class world of the hair salon. The stylists are all students training in the patented Aveda method, with the cuts overseen by their teachers. The clientele are almost all women, a total one-eighty from the testosterone-heavy atmosphere of Astor Place. Best of all, a haircut, free herbal tea, a head & neck massage, and a shampoo only costs $18!
The downside of Aveda, beyond the obvious risk of a student cutting your hair (and the attendant mistakes which may result), is the difficulty in getting a reservation — a two-week wait is standard — and the duration of the actual cut. It’s not unusual for a haircut to take upwards of two-and-a-half hours. As a freelancer, however, I didn’t mind the long time in the chair, and enjoyed bantering with the students, most of whom were just getting started on “grown-up” life.
I ended up going to Aveda regularly for about eight years, but this year it’s been increasingly difficult to find time for an apppoinment. I’ve been so busy traveling, continuing to do A.D.-related appearances, and most of all, working on my current project, The Influencing Machine, that I just haven’t been able to block out the four-plus hours — minimum — required. Throw in the fact that with Phoebe in preschool, I need to be around home more, and the fact is that life is getting more busy and complicated.
The first time I “slipped” was back in May when I was in Sydney, Australia for a week-long writer’s festival. I really needed a haircut, and I found a barber who offered a scissor cut for a slight premium. The cut turned out fine, and since then I’m ashamed to admit I’ve only made it back to Aveda once. And guess where I usually find myself instead? Yep, Astor Place. The fact is that it’s convenient, cheap, and open late — plus a scissor-cut doesn’t cost extra! Sure, I miss the homey, spa-like Aveda atmosphere, but Astor Place just fits into my current situation.
The amazing thing is that my old barber Jay is still working at Astor Place! (He “found” religion while I was gone, and now sports a yarmulke. Otherwise, he seems the same. And Dr. Mike has retired.) It feels too weird to go back to Jay, though — too many years to reel in — and I’ve since found a new “personal” barber. Sarra does a good job with my hair, and even throws in an eyebrow-hair-trim when the situation requires. (The indignities of getting older…) And best of all, I’m in and out in a half hour, tops.
Sari says she doesn’t like my Astor Place haircuts as much as the Aveda ones, but to be honest I don’t see much a difference. I admit to missing the neck message and the shampoo treatment, but the fact is that the time-saving just can’t be beat.