One Fan's Opinion: Issue #10

Thu, October 13th, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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It occurs to me that we haven't been properly introduced.

The reason I'm bringing this up now is that there have been certain remarks I've made over the last several weeks, which have got people a mite worked up, and I think a lot of that might be reeled in a few feet if you knew me a bit better and understood where I'm coming from.

Or not.

And, incidentally, you might be surprised to find out just how many outraged e-mails I got from my fellow creators over a certain column I wrote a couple weeks back.

Zero.

The creators that contacted me felt challenged and inspired-- as they were supposed to. Absolutely zero creators responded in a negative fashion to me directly. Sure, a couple guys went off on it in their blogs, but nobody had the stones to actually confront me about it either in person, by phone or by e-mail.

There's a word for people like that. It's on the tip of my tongue. Perhaps a look back at that column might give you a clue what word I mean…

But I'm digressing again. I'll try to keep this on topic as best I can.

I was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I couldn't tell you a thing about it because we moved to Washington State shortly thereafter. I have an older brother named Karl and two younger sisters, named Sonja and Britt.

Karl was the guy. Karl was the big man on campus at whatever campus he was on. Karl was bigger, stronger, faster and better looking than I'd ever hope to be. He excelled in all sports, particularly Basketball, but he played Football and others as well. I was the skinny younger brother that drew a lot and tried, pitifully, to keep up with his older brother. I tried playing Basketball-- I really did-- but I was pathetic. I seldom lasted more than a game or two before quitting. My sisters didn't play sports at all.

We moved around quite a bit when I was growing up. Not because my parents were in the military or anything, but more because my parents were restless. My Dad in particular fancied himself something of a nomad. My youngest sister was born in Mt. Vernon, Washington, my other sister in Minneapolis, my older brother in Seattle. Our Dad was a teacher at Skagit Valley College for a number of years, but that didn't last forever. He was a restless sort and so quit that job and off we went, bouncing around from town to town.

I was never a particularly good student. My grades were nothing to write home about and that was some concern to my parents early on. I hated school as a small kid. I had all these things I wanted to do and school got in the way of doing them. As a kindergartener I'd often be crying at the bus stop, waiting to be hauled away from everything that interested me (or so I'm told-- I don't recall any of that). My parents had me tested and it turned out that I was a well above average child in terms of intelligence, but that I was hopelessly bored at school. So-- I dropped out of kindergarten. I was back the following fall in a different school for first grade. My parents seemed to think it was okay to let me follow my own muse. They had me go to private hippy schools (called "Free Schools"-- although they were anything but free for my folks) where the idea was that kids are naturally curious and that put in a nurturing environment where they have access to people ready and willing to teach them, kids will seek out learning on their own. And although I did a lot of drawing-- that was the case for me.

In fifth grade, I found myself living up Albion Ridge Road and going to school in Mendocino, California. It was a public school.

We built our own house. For a time we were, essentially, camping. When we pulled in the driveway of the 13-acre property that my parents purchased, it has a number of redwood trees and some tall yellow grass-- and nothing else. My parents threw together a hastily constructed home out of lumber and plastic and that was what we lived with until the fall when it started raining and we found that plastic tarps, used as a roof, which didn't have something solid supporting them collected water rather well. At one point we had a bathtub's worth of water hanging in the middle of the room. One thrust from a sharp instrument later and we had a room full of water. Our parents were hippies of sorts-- only without the weed and love beads.

And yeah-- I walked a mile to the bus stop down a dirt road and got picked up at 6:30. It was good for me, okay? It built character.

Over the next few years we'd live out of rental houses during the winter while our real house was built.

I started writing and drawing my own crude comics in third grade, as I recall. The Dragon was my main guy. He was kind of a Batman rip off. He had a cape and cowl and he drove around a car ripped off from Speed Racer's Mach Five. There was a bit of Captain Marvel in the mix as well. Flash Mercury said a magic word in order to change into the Dragon. Over the years he'd evolve quite a bit but that's what he started out as.

I excelled at writing.

At school, I all but took over the school newspaper. I filled it with goofy articles and parodies of Dear Abby and other things that interested me. I got good grades in creative writing-- even if my spelling left a lot to be desired.

I was a decent math student as well. I wanted to play sports-- my brother played sports-- but I was a hopeless klutz. I was skinny, goofy-looking, awkward and self-conscious. (These days I'm bald, goofy-looking, awkward and self-conscious-- how times have changed, eh?)

My Dad bought comics when he was a kid. His parents neglected to throw them out so we always had them around. There was never a time when I didn't have comics around. I picked up a lot of stuff looking through those old books.

The first comic book I ever bought with my own money was the "Incredible Hulk" #156. My brother got a mess of Hulk comics from a kid at school later and he traded them to me for doing the dishes. At some point, I decided to start buying my own comics. The Incredible Hulk was a given because I already had about a dozen issues, but I bought pretty much everything I could get my hands on. When Marvel books went up to 25 and DC stayed at 20, I tried a lot more DC books out. It was at DC where I first discovered the work of Jack Kirby who was doing "Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth " at the time. Prior to that, the only artist whose name I knew was Herb Trimpe, the guy that drew the Hulk.

I followed as many books as I could afford. And if there was something from another company on sale that I didn't know about, I'd check it out in case it was something I might find worth reading. I discovered Don Newton's work when he was drawing "The Phantom." I first saw John Byrne's stuff when he was drawing "Rog 2000" in the back of "E-Man." It was neat to see these guys start out and blossom and find their styles and move on to other books. Joe Staton drew "E-Man," but it wasn't long before he was inking Herb Trimpe on the "Hulk" and Sal Buscema on the "Avengers" and later drawing "All-Star Comics" and "Plastic Man" and "Creeper" back up stories over at DC.

John Byrne went on to drawing "Space 1999" and "Doomsday+1" at Charlton and "Iron Fist" at Marvel.

Eventually, I was regularly following a number of books. I kept writing and drawing my own as well. There was a circle of kids that made their own comics. That illustrious group included Chris Vito, Mike Redfern, Aaron Katz and me. I was far more prolific than any of them were. It was at that point that it occurred to me that this was my calling. I enjoyed it and it kept me off the streets.

Mendocino was (and is) something of a hippy community. It's a picturesque little town, which often is a stand in for New England in the movies. It's the town where the movie "The Summer of '42" was shot as well as "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming" and "Racing With The Moon" and "Humanoid From The Deep" (okay, they weren't all winners). Kids would hitchhike to town and a lot of weed was smoked and it wasn't uncommon for people to get pretty out of it. A few kids dropped out and became "pot heads," bumming around town and pestering tourists for spare change.

An early press clipping.
I've never touched the stuff. And not because it was (and is) against the law, but more because I was (and am) a big fan of reality. I had enough going on in my own head and I didn't want to disrupt that. The one time that I actually got drunk, I spent more time analyzing what I was experiencing than I did experiencing what I was experiencing. The hangover the next morning was enough to let me know that it wasn't something I'd care to repeat.

After 9th grade, I attempted to grow a beard over the summer. I'd also told a girl at school that if she tried out for cheerleading, I'd try out for football. Over the summer I chopped a lot of wood and packed on some weight.

I made the team. Hell, we all did. It was a small school and they needed every body they could get. My older brother decided, much to my surprise, to sit out the season. I wasn't very good to begin with, but I was a big kid in a small school so I started and played defensive tackle and offensive guard. The only time I wasn't on the field was when special teams were on the field-- mostly, when they kicked off or received the ball. We did okay. I did okay. I picked up an award for "most improved." During the first game of the season they had to carry off some kid that I'd nailed. During the last game, they hauled off two. I'd say that was an improvement.

That was as close as I ever got to being a jock.

And I didn't get so far as first base with that cheerleader, I regret to report.

The following year we moved to Bellingham, Washington. The school there was much larger and the students far less willing to embrace a kid that hadn't been going to school with them from kindergarten on. I ended up hanging out with a group of lovable losers. One pal aspired to being a Hell's Angel, another seemed content to pump gas for a living, if possible. It was an uncomfortable fit. The rest of school (what there was

of it) was a blur.

At this point my Dad was teaching again. He taught a number of seminars all over the Western United States. He wrote a book, which I illustrated. He bought a small tabletop offset printing press to print his books on. I ran the press. My Mom was a councilor at that time and I printed up newsletters for her as well. When my Dad taught classes, I'd help drive and we'd go off for weeks at a time. I kept drawing.

At 19, I wrote and drew a Dragon story on the kind of paper you're supposed to use when you're a working professional. I used the right tools and everything-- even lettered it myself. Charlton publications (the fine folks that had brought me "E-Man," "Doomsday+1" and "Space 1999") were on their last legs. The best they could muster were reprints and a book called "Charlton Bullseye." "Charlton Bullseye" was an interesting book. The idea was that they would print comics by whoever was of professional caliber and willing to work for no money. Every issue would be by a different creative team and feature different characters. Surprisingly enough, many aspiring professionals leapt at the chance to actually get something in print (and to retain complete ownership to their creations), and Charlton had to tell people to stop sending them stories because they had too much material.

I tossed together my Dragon story, following up on the events I'd told in my unpublished comics, and mailed copies off to the editor, George Wildman, hoping for the best. I got a polite rejection slip telling me that they simply had too much backlog already and that the book was being cancelled due to poor sales regardless. He encouraged me to send my story elsewhere because he thought the work was "professional enough to do so."

That was encouraging.

July 12th, 1982 Bellingham Herland Newspaper article about "Graphic Fantasy." Check out the very young Al Harris, Kevin Keyes and Erik Larsen.
By this point I was regularly making a weekly pilgrimage to King Arthur's Comics, a funnybook store in Bellingham. In the back of that establishment they had a room where they displayed the art of whoever had the nerve to do a mess of drawings and tack them to the wall. After seeing the display of a guy named Al Harris, whose efforts were nothing but swipes, I got up the nerve to do a mess of drawings myself.

It was there, at King Arthur's, that I met Al Harris and an employee from the comic book emporium who had his own comic book aspirations, a guy named Kevin Clark Keyes.

The three of us struck up a friendship.

Sometime later, we contributed to and self-published a fanzine called "Graphic Fantasy." That printing press my Dad bought was put to good use at last. That Dragon story I'd drawn earlier along with Iron Hawk (by Kevin) and Prism (by Al) comprised the 72-page first issue. I inked all but two pages.

The Dragon appeared in that and the next issue of "Graphic Fantasy." Review copies were sent out to "The Buyers Guide" (now called the "Comics Buyers' Guide"-- a then weekly, now monthly-- comic book trade publication) and everybody else we could think of and soon we met with rave reviews in all sorts of columns. Cat Yronwode encouraged me to concentrate on my writing career and to use my drawing ability as a way of presenting stories...others liked both the pictures and the words.

All reviews responded positively to The Dragon, which prompted Gary Carlson (a fanzine collector with great aspirations of publishing his own comics), to write to me about doing some work for him on a feature for his upcoming black and white superhero anthology book called "Megaton."

Success! My first paying gig-- even if the pay was a mere $15 a page!

"Megaton" #1 featured my first professional work in a feature called "Vanguard," which I plotted and drew and Gary dialogued, it was inked by veteran inker Sam De La Rosa. "Vanguard" was co-created by Gary Carlson and myself, he came up with the name and premise, I came up with visuals and a name for his robot companion (Wally). I ended up doing "Vanguard" stories for the first four issues of "Megaton." Issue two introduced a character of mine called Mighty Man and reintroduced on the final page of the story, the Dragon.

The Dragon was altered somewhat from his previous appearances in "Graphic Fantasy." The "Graphic Fantasy" stories followed up on stories that I'd drawn as a kid. It was clear in those stories that the Dragon had already had a long and distinguished career (if you can call bashing big bruisers' heads together a "career" that is). In "Megaton," I glossed over much of the unpublished Dragon stuff and brought his wife back to life-- I'd always regretted killing her off and this was an opportunity to start fresh so I figured who'd know other than a handful of people that bought the "Graphic Fantasy" fanzine? In any case, "Megaton" #3 and 4 featured The Dragon extensively. In "Megaton" #3 he fought Vanguard and the subsequent issue had him helping Vanguard fight an enormous crowd of villains.

Following the Megaton stories I started getting regular work elsewhere. I worked for AC comics on "Sentinels of Justice" and then at Eclipse Comics doing the "DNAgents." I did work at DC on "The Outsiders," "Teen Titans," "Adventures of Superman" and "Doom Patrol" and then I moved on to Marvel where I drew "Punisher" and "Amazing Spider-Man."

It was a long, difficult struggle to make it in this industry. It took years to get anywhere and writing and drawing comics is very solitary work. It's generally done in a room, by yourself, with little or no contact with anyone from the outside world.

You can practically feel your social skills atrophy with every page.

I learned, at an early age, not to bullshit. I won't dance around something either. I've found that it's better to tackle a problem head on than hint broadly and hope people catch on. The problem with cold, hard type on a screen or printed page is that you don't see a person's face and hear the tone of their voice.

Part 2 of that interview.
I'm an easygoing kind of guy.

Seriously.

And these words-- and most words I write in an editorial capacity-are written with the intent of being read in a casual, sitting around the funnybook store shooting the shit kind of way.

I've had a few experiences over the years where people were actively lying to me in order to get me to do work for them and, surprisingly enough, I haven't appreciated that much. Cat Yrnonwode, on the other hand, gave me a pretty scathing critique early on which stung quite a bit at the time, but which I learned to really appreciate and value over the years. I've taken to doing much the same. Which isn't to say that I'm right all the time or anything of the sort, but I have managed to make a living doing this for the last 23 years or so I'm not completely clueless. I'm pretty straightforward and I find that people grow to appreciate that. They may not take to it immediately, but they generally come around. I'd rather have a waitress tell me, when asked, that the mashed potatoes are instant than find out after the fact.

Maybe it's just me.

In any case, my brother Karl married young to a beautiful woman and they had two gorgeous daughters. His wife had a daughter from a previous marriage and she ended up being the model of sorts for Dragon's adopted daughter Angel. Karl owns a successful chemical company in Bellingham, Washington. His twin daughters are now grown up. He recently remarried and has a brand new baby boy.

He's still "the guy."

I'm still the little brother.

There's more to it than that of course. And I'm nowhere near as skinny as I used to be. But there's a brief glimpse into my life. My parents were divorced when I was 19 or so. My Mom's remarried, my Father's retired, my sister's are married and one of them has three daughters that are nearly as tall as I am (and I'm 6'2"). I got married myself a few years back and I've got a couple of terrific kids that drive me up the wall.

These days I'm a publisher and I can give people that break that gets them started in the funnybook field. And I'm drawing the same character I did when I was nine-years old. He's just drawn better now.

But that's just one fan's opinion. I'm willing to concede that I could be wrong.

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