Unwrapping comics: Pros share their holiday memories
A couple of weeks ago, I got to thinking about the holidays and comics. More exactly, I started wondering what some creators might say if i asked them for their favorite comics-related memory. As I got into contact with some creators, they did not have a favorite story per se, but those recollections were definitely memorable. Bottom line, these storytellers not surprisingly had some great stories to share. My holiday memory is an odd one, as a kid in the 1970s reading the Doonesbury comic strip where Rev. Scott Sloan had opening remarks before the Christmas pageant, where he noted that the part of the Baby Jesus would be played by a 40-watt light bulb. A lifelong Doonesbury fan, there are few strips that have made me laugh longer than that one. Told you it was an odd one. Now on to the storytellers with far better tales. My thanks to everyone that responded. Once you’ve read them all, please be sure to chime in with your most memorable comics-related holiday recollection in the comments section.
Every Christmas, comics would show up in my stocking. They’d be rolled up, which I’m sure breaks the heart of every collector out there, but it didn’t bother me much. Comics were for reading. For some reason, my mother thought I liked Thor. I wasn’t a Thor guy, except when he was hanging out in the Avengers. I was, and still am, a Captain America super-fan. How could my Mom not know this? But every year I’d get a couple more Thor comics.
Fast-forward 35 years. I’m the official stocking-stuffer in the household. My wife is the queen of holiday organization, but the stocking assignment has always been mine, primarily because it’s the kind of job you can give to a procrastinator. I can run out on Christmas Eve and grab everything I need: gum, iTunes gift cards, candy bars, extra batteries… and comics. See, my son is 15, and he IS a Thor guy, so I usually try to round up something Asgardian for him, as well as a something with Atomic Robo or Axe Cop. I don’t understand the clothing my daughter is asking for (an “infinity scarf” sounds like something Dr. Who would wear), but by gum, I do know my son’s taste in comics.
And by the way? The comics never actually get inside the stocking, but sit there on the mantle beside it. Because Christmas tradition be damned, I’m not rolling them.
Okay fine, I’ll tell an embarrassing one. A few years ago I was renting a house here in Portland and indulged one of my vices I haven’t been able to shake: trash dumping. Not in the woods or anything horrible like that, but in any open dumpster that someone left unlocked- I can’t help it, I hate having lots of trash around and can’t wait for garbage pickup sometimes!
Anyway, I had just gotten rid of a bunch of boxes at a nearby apartment complex’ dumpster during the holidays and Christmas morning I answered my door where an angry apartment manager held up an empty box from Dark Horse that had once contained comps of something I’d done for them- with my name and address clearly labeled. I had to laugh at myself for getting busted by such a stupid slip up, and I told the guy I’d go back over there and pull my trash out. He let me off the hook because it was Christmas and a ‘don’t do it again.’ I wonder what other mysteries he’ll be out solving this holiday season?
Remember kids, using other people’s dumpsters is WRONG. (wink!)
It’d probably be getting Watchmen under the tree the year the TPB came out and reading pretty much in one sitting (in robe and PJ’s) for the rest of Christmas Day. I don’t remember if I got to Exploding Vaginal Space Squid before turkey.
One year Paul [Tobin, her husband] gave me my favorite Christmas gift EVER. It was a medium-sized box, and when I opened it there was some packing material, beneath which were fifteen romance comics from the late 60s and early 70s! I thought I’d died and gone to cheesy comics heaven. But then under all those comics was more packing stuff, and under that: ANOTHER TWENTY ROMANCE COMICS!!! Just the best.
My best Holiday-related comics memory is from right after Thanksgiving 2002, when Paul Sizer, Pam Bliss, Matt Feazell, Layla Lawlor, Sean Bieri and I all got together during Mid-Ohio Con and created a “Comics Passport” minicomic where fans could collect autographs and stamps from all of us and end up with a neat little personalized book. Sean hand-pulled the covers with his Print Gocco, and we each contributed a sketch. It was a really neat concept — it got fans of one creator introduced to the rest of us, and we had a lot of takers — but the very best part was that working on the passport together caused Paul and I to finally notice each other, after about five years of attending the same conventions. The rest, as they say, is history — we’ve been happily married and making comics together for over seven years now.
Here’s my memory. Not as mushy as Jane’s, but hers was pretty good!
Age 10: the marathon experience that was the opening of presents at Grandma and Grampa’s house was well under way. Two hours (out of five) in, my brain was ready to explode from boredom. Then, I opened a present from one of my uncles; How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way. History was forever altered. I don’t think I actually saw any of my other presents that year. I still have that book somewhere in my stacks.
Through most of middle and high school, my sister exhibited a distaste for reading. When she was a kid, she read voraciously, as did the rest of the family; when we moved to Kentucky (I had just turned eleven; she was nine) she fell in with a group of girls for whom reading was a very low priority, and, being a preteen girl in a new place and in want of friends, she naturally followed suit. What I assume began as affectation became character, and by the time she was in middle school you couldn’t get her to crack open a book unless there was a grade attached.
There was one clear exception – newspaper comic strip collections.
My dad and mom both had picked up comic strip books since I was very little. Our house was stocked with Peanuts and Pogo books well before I was born, and it was my dad’s first Calvin and Hobbes trade, likely brought home within days of its release, that cemented my love of the form, and my desire to contribute to it. My dad was an ardent C&H and Far Side fan, and my mom bought For Better of Worse and Cathy. We had stacks of others, usually the 1950s minimalist humor strips that still run today, but these paperback-book jobs were haphazard and gathered in no particular order from garage sales, not like the pretty horizontal Andrews McMeel deals that lined our bookshelves by series and in order of release. When Watterson and Larson retired, our influx of books didn’t halt; if anything, it increased. My mom and dad both became big fans of Dilbert (which, though oft-criticized, I still quite enjoy). My favorite contemporary strip when I was in middle school (and a chunk of high school, until Zits came along and gave it a close run for its money) was Bill Amend’s Foxtrot.
Though it may not be evident upon glancing at my comics, Foxtrot has likely had more influence on my storytelling than any other comic. I consumed Amend’s dialogue pacing with such fervency and regularity that writing dialogue in anything but an Amend-patter-pattern would be entirely unnatural to me, and my dialogue pacing determines everything on the page, including the composition of the images. Oh, yes, Foxtrot was my favorite.
My sister felt the same.
My dad couldn’t resist picking up the Dilbert books as they came out, but the Foxtrot books waited until Christmas. Why? My parents, ever eager to stoke the fires of advanced literacy in their daughter, ALWAYS GAVE HER THE MOST RECENT FOXTROT BOOK. Without fail. Every year. Her.
This would not have been a problem, in general. We were a fairly communal household when it came to books, and what belonged to one generally ended up being passed around. But as she grew older, my sister became increasingly aware of my intense desire to spend time with Amend’s newest masterpiece, and she began to use this to her advantage. I’d have to trade candy for the privilege. I’d have to give up a gift of greater value. When I became able to drive, chauffeur duties became a bargaining chip. Sometimes, just to get my goat, she’d refuse me entirely and hide the book, leading me to search, sometimes for days, whenever I found her absent.
“Well,” you might say, “You could drive and likely had a job. Why not simply go get your own copy?” The idea truly never occurred to me. Getting my own copy when my dad or mom or sister had one which I could (in theory, at least) read? It made no sense. Even now, away from home for a decade and more, I still don’t have duplicates of books that my dad has. The new Fantagraphics Peanuts collection? You’ll not find a one on my shelves. The big Calvin and Hobbes collector’s set? Nope. I make do with my old A/McM paperbacks.
I have, to be fair, stolen a good number of my parent’s books for my own collection – I consider it a child’s prerogative, and will not begrudge my own children such luxury when they someday fly the nest. But, though they sit not in my sister’s house in Alabama but at my parent’s in North Carolina, I have not taken the Foxtrot collections. Whereas taking from my dad is hardly stealing (sorry, dad), taking from my sister would be. So, by virtue of Christmas tradition, I live more or less Foxtrotless, save the occasional bumper compendium snagged at a Borders failsale.
My husband, Mitch, has a good one. Christmas of 1992, Mitch age 13. His dad gave him his very first comic book, Spider-Man 2099 #2. As soon as he pulled it out of his stocking and flipped through the pages, he knew he wanted to be a comic book artist.
This year will also be one for the memory book. Mitch surprised me by sneaking our little family, fat cat and all, into the holiday issue of Journey Into Mystery #632. What a treat!
My recollections are both Marvel-related. I can remember having two different people give me a copy of Stan Lee’s Origins of Marvel Comics as a kid and I can recall getting money from my parents to buy gifts for other members of my family and blowing part of it on a copy of Rampaging Hulk #1 (the b&w magazine) and getting some grief for doing that.
When I quit a career in broadcasting in exchange for a budding comic book career, the first few years were hard going. But Christmas time brought a few moments of splurging, and Laura would justify getting me hard cover collections of classic comics. I still have those, and they are every bit as priceless to me as the original pulpy beauties they reprint. Later, after Madman started taking off, she started scoring me original comic book art for Christmas gifts. The ultimate collectable from the ultimate wife. Laura is the best thing about Christmas and comic books.
When I was 4 or 5, there was nothing cooler in the world than G.I. Joes. It’s fair to say I spent months in the lead up to Christmas poring over the Sears and JC Penney catalogs looking at the Joe toys, trying to decide which ones to ask for (we lived far from any toy stores, so the catalogs were all I had). Christmas morning, I know I had a couple of Joes waiting for me under the tree. But despite all of my excitement for the toys, I can’t recall which ones I received. All I really remember is that I also got my first few comics: issues of MAD, Captain America and Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe. I still remember the stories from those issues—Roadblock was arrested!—even though hundreds of readings long ago disintegrated the copies into dust.
On a New Year’s Day about 10 years ago, I was working in a ski rental shop at a small ski slope in New Jersey with my bff. They’d been very insistent that we come in on New Year’s bright and early, but it was in the 40’s and the snow was all melted. With few customers and little to do, we started putting together the shipment of kid’s skis that were waiting to be assembled, and when rentals employees called to see if they should come in, we said yes, not realizing that at a certain point the managers made an announcement that the slope would be closed in the afternoon because of the weather. (There was no speaker in the rentals room, nor supervision, nor heat.) We accumulated some boxes from the skis & bindings, and so my bff & I decided to set up a city of boxes and live out a Godzilla/Rodin fight to break them down. Within a minute of the fight’s beginning, the laughter and cheering of a dozen onlookers alerted a manager who showed up to see what all the noise was about. As he yelled at us for not leaving, we protested it was impossible for us to hear the announcement, and that no one had told us to leave or stop more employees from coming in. During the entire argument, we kicked & stomped down boxes. We were then criticized for being inefficient in box-waste removal, which everyone jeered at. Then we got to leave work early!
It was long, long ago — right about when I became a full-time comics writer. In fact, it was exactly then.
I was back in my home town visiting my father for the holidays when I got a call from Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson. I don’t remember how he got my father’s number (we had only communicated through my home # back in Brooklyn) but he did. I’d been writing part-time for a few years, working a variety of day jobs, hammering away on scripts at night. You can do that in your 20’s. Just 8 page stories here and there, nothing regular. Anyway, Mike was calling to offer me a series (Terminator) which would require a full time writing schedule from me, meaning I would have to quit my day job. Seems like an easy decision in retrospect, but there was no “retrospect” then. Still, I knew what I wanted, and so did Mike. I remember what he said very clearly: “You want to be a comics writer, John, then be one.” He was, of course, right.
Yeah, not something easily forgotten, to say the least.
This is a Christmas story that happened to me last year.
Living in Taiwan they do not celebrate Christmas. You’re on your own, and you try to make the best of things.
I went to a Taiwanese Bar with my friend Paul and we are going to order some hamburgers. We sit down and there’s a drunk guy in the bar who speaks poor English that wants to talk to us and says the same thing over and over again, the guy is kind of scary, and I just nod to be polite, hoping he’ll leave.
In Taiwan there are street dogs everywhere. This black stray dog goes into bar and just starts humping the crap out of the guy’s leg. He’s drunk and can’t do anything about it.
Meanwhile all of these Christmas songs are playing while the dog is going at this guy’s leg nonstop with his face so happy and his tongue hanging out of his mouth and it almost seems to synch up to ‘it’s the most wonderful time of the year’. The dog would go away and then come back and hump this drunk and incoherent Taiwanese guy’s leg.
It went on for a good 30 minutes with the music playing like it was out of a film.
I turned to my friend Paul and said, “This is it, this is our Christmas Eve. Eating a hamburger and watching a dog go to town for 30 minutes on a drunk Taiwanese dude’s leg. Merry Christmas Paul.”
Last year, I desperately wanted a copy of Duncan the Wonder Dog for Christmas, but could not find it in Nashville. My LCS couldn’t get it for me in time for the holiday; I had waited until too late to ask. So I tweeted about my great sorrow, my failure to acquire Duncan the Wonder Dog, to several hundred of my closest internet friends. Like you do.
Well, the amazing folks at Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina, were listening. They have one of the best graphic novel sections in the US—not only in my opinion, but according to the fine folks at Publisher’s Weekly—and they sent me a copy of Duncan. It was a Christmas miracle under my tree. I sent them a bunch of home-made ornaments as a thank-you. Best part: the book was every bit as wonderful as I wanted it to be.
In March 2009, my first published work, Strongman, appeared on shelves (from SLG Publishing, a fine group of people if ever there was one.) The Christmas before that, I was home to visit my family in Michigan – in Grand Rapids, specifically, at my dad’s house. I had some advance copies of Strongman with me, and I intended to give a few to my siblings and my father as Christmas “gifts.” Yes, I know that’s pretty dubious as far as gift-giving goes. I might as well have given them a framed picture of myself. Signed. (Hmm… maybe I’ll do that this year.)
Anyway, I got everyone something “real” too, but I was (and still am) very proud of Strongman, and wanted to share it with them. On Christmas morning, everyone opened up their stuff, oohed and aahed and thanked, and we moved on to the customary post-gift breakfast. Good stuff. Traditionally, my family will go to a movie Christmas afternoon, or do something else as a group. That year, we trooped out to see The Spirit, god help us. My dad declined to come with us, which was weird – we weren’t all together that much over the year, because my family is scattered all over the country, and normally he’d hang out with us the entire day. He decided to skip the movie because he wanted to stay home to read Strongman (or possibly because he’d read a review of The Spirit, but I choose to believe he wanted to read the book.)
My siblings and I saw the movie, came home, and my dad and I talked about my first published book for a while. He was a comics reader from childhood, and introduced me to them – my first comic was a Fantastic Four he bought me, and I use to read his tattered T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents issues in his old bedroom when we’d go to visit my grandparents when I was little. So, he knew what he was talking about, and he had some good things to say and some critical points to make. It was amazing. One of my favorite Christmas memories of all time, not just comics-related. Unfortunately (putting it very mildly) that was the last real Christmas we got to spend together, but that afternoon we had no idea that bad things were looming on the horizon, and we just talked. I have a million memories of my dad and books, but it’s hard to top that one.
My comics-related holiday memory is the issue of Spawn that had “Santa Spawn” on the cover. That is easily one of my most remembered comic book covers ever. It hit me at the time when I had just decided that comics were what I wanted to do and I just stared at it forever wondering how the hell someone could draw something that cool.
I also remember reading that issue. It’s hilariously cheesy, but in the best way possible. It’s like every Christmas related kids movie with the sappy ending. But the stuff leading up to the ending was insane violence and Spawn looking badass. What more could you want?
This time of year generally means two things at our house: comics-related presents and wicked deadlines. Usually the gifts are special edition books or maybe rare action figures, while the deadlines are always urgent and seldom as nice to look at.
Last year I wanted to get something extra special for my husband Gabriel Hardman though, and after much hunting I found an original page from The Tomb of Dracula #14, drawn by Gene Colan and inked by Tom Palmer in 1972. I carefully wrapped my treasure up, convinced that I had scored a great bit of comics history.
Meanwhile, Gabriel was hard at work penciling and inking Hulk. The holidays are always hectic when you’re a freelancer, so when he was asked to do an extra “point one” issue on top of his normal workload something had to give. He agreed to pencil the book, but wanted someone else to ink it. And who did that someone turn out to be? None other than the legendary Tom Palmer. So in a nice bit of symmetry Gabriel now has an almost 40 year old Palmer-inked page hanging on his studio wall as well as his name next to Tom’s on a book from 2011.
My favorite holiday recollection was the time Howtoons went to the Kipp Bridge Charter School in West Oakland to teach 8th graders how to make snow globes through our comics. We projected the cartoon up on the wall and then just laid out the supplies. The kids were pretty stoked you only needed a peanut butter jar, water, and glitter. The decoration we left to their imagination. The results were pretty fantastic. I also remember it being freezing that day, and we all wore our winter coats the whole time while inside the classroom.
Shawn Crystal on The Cartoonists Holiday
It’s dark outside, and cold. My two kids, Zoe and Zac, are tucked snuggly into their warm beds. My wife, Stephanie, sits watching Family Guy while wrapping presents.
I wish I were there, home with my family… relaxing.
Instead, I am at my studio, working tirelessly under the relentless pressure of a tight… VERY tight, deadline. This is my life, the life of a cartoonist. We don’t get down time, vacations, or holidays. We work when we have work. We relax when we don’t. The lucky ones are constantly working.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m just painting a portrait of what a cartoonist’s life is like.
When I was a young wide-eyed child with a head full of dreams, my biggest wish was to be a professional comic book artist for Marvel. Every Hanukah, I asked for drawing supplies, comics, and Marvel related toys. As I grew older, I wished for books on storytelling, cinematography, anatomy, and photography. Always focused on the big wish, to draw for Marvel. Decades later, here I am, doing just that.
I didn’t just wish for this lifestyle, I worked hard to achieve it. I was focused and driven to draw comics. I don’t think many of us (cartoonists) truly understood the demands of this job before we had it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a damn cool job to have.
It’s a bittersweet time for me.
I miss being with my family, but I LOVE that I am drawing comics.
On the day of Hanukah, I’ll be busy frying Latkes and grilling steaks. Passing out presents to my family while shoveling Belgian chocolate gelt into my mouth. I’ll be full, happy, and half drunk.
So, I’ll get some downtime…even if it’s just for a day. After that, I’ll promptly return to my studio, ready to grind while I listen to Marc Maron’s “WTF” podcast.
To my family, I love you. Without your support, I wouldn’t be able to do this. My job asks a lot of you. You work with me to make it all happen. I’ll see you soon, with a table full of food, and presents to pass around.
To all the cartoonists, my brothers in arms, fighting the good fight in the trenches of publishing…you’re not alone during these cold nights. You’re making comics, and you worked hard to be able to do this. Take a moment to enjoy your success. Soon you’ll be with friends and family, doing your thing. Only for a short while though, there’s a deadline waiting for you…. and he’s a nasty lil bastard.
Did I mention that I run the Sequential Art dept. for SCAD Atlanta as well? That’s another story for another time.