Thursday, January 31, 2013

For Susan

Sometimes, life has funny twists to it.

I received the news via Facebook today that an old friend passed away. It made me sad, not because I had known her for over ten years, but because I had only recently begun to TRULY know her.

We had study hall and a few classes together in high school. She was part of the graduating class a year behind mine, and we never really talked much then. She struck me as quiet and shy…but she had a fantastic laugh. I discovered that when I let her read some of the cartoons I was drawing in class one day. There I was, the awkward guy who was always drawing in his notebook, sharing what I was drawing with someone who found it funny, and I’ll never forget the laughs it brought out in the otherwise quiet redhead in the back of the class.

After I graduated, I lost touch with her, as I did many of my former high school friends. I went off to college, made new friends, and although I reconnected with a lot of folks when the Myspace and Facebook era dawned, I heard nothing from or about that girl who had so enjoyed my drawings.

Then, one day, I got a Facebook request. It was her. Of course I accepted, as I do for just about every other old acquaintance who wants to know what I’m up to these days. But she took it a step further and started messaging me. We shared our stories, cracked some jokes, and recalled our trials and tribulations of high school life so long ago. Eventually, she called me on the phone and talked to me, and she told me that she had always admired me and my art, and that she remembered how kind I was to her when many others weren’t. She explained, in grim detail, a battle with drug addiction she had fought (and won.)  She told me about her life, her family, and her interests…things we had never discussed back in the day.

From then on, we kept in touch via Facebook and texted each other once in a while. I loved her sense of humor…she would send me jokes via text message and comment on my random Facebook updates with one-liners and sarcasm that were a joy to read.

She offered her advice and sympathy when my family was having a rough Christmas up in Fort Worth a couple years ago, and even offered to meet me for lunch, a plan that, regrettably, didn’t work out.

I talked to her right before she got married, and we lost touch for a little while again. This summer, I got word via her husband that she had been very ill, fighting a disease known as Guillain–BarrĂ© Syndrome. I later heard that she was doing much better, and eventually I got a text from her asking for my address so she could send me a Christmas card, as we had exchanged cards for a few years prior. I asked how she was doing, and she told me that she was getting better, but very slowly, and was frustrated by the slow progress. We exchanged addresses…and that was the last time I heard from her.


I don’t know if she ever got that card, and I didn’t get hers…but I hope mine gets forwarded to her new address in Heaven, and she can enjoy the laughter it brings her, forever.

I’ll miss you, Susan.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Prayers For Seven Mile Island

I was planning to post something more introspective and deep, but I had to change gears and talk about something “deep” in a different way.

I had the day off work today and have been watching the Hurricane Sandy coverage. It’s surreal to see a news reporter standing at Battery Park in New York City overlooking the Statue of Liberty, a week shy of exactly a year after I photographed the same spot with my grandmother. As bad as the stuff they’re showing of New York and New Jersey is, they’re not showing the stuff they can’t get to. But some folks on Facebook have been…and my heart hurts for them.

South of Atlantic City, New Jersey, there is a place called the Seven Mile Island. It’s technically more of a peninsula, as you can see on the map. On the East side of it is the Atlantic Ocean. To its west is a bay and a network of inlets, salt marshes, canals and harbors. My family, on my mother’s side, has deep roots there. It was a favorite vacation spot of my great-grandparents from Pennsylvania, who passed it on to my grandparents, and shared the experience with my parents, and they shared it with me. To this day, a house my great-grandfather built in the town of Avalon in 1910 still stands. After today, I’d be surprised if it survives.

I spent many happy childhood summers there. I spent days fishing and crabbing off docks from dawn until dusk. I walked the streets and boardwalks with complete freedom. I was fascinated by the nature there, and remember my grandmother teaching me the names of all the different waterbirds there and what they did: gulls, pelicans, terns, ospreys. My dad would take my mom and I out on a boat for a day and we’d come back (usually) with the best fish dinner a family could ask for. I recall days at the beach with my grandparents when my granddad was still alive. My mom has a classic photo of me with my grandfather when I was about 4 years old, dressed in the nice, clean clothes she had dressed me in…hugging a huge fish my dad caught, causing him to erupt with laughter and ruining the clothes in the process.

I went there in 2007 and caught a similar fish.

The few trips I’ve made there over the years as a teenager and as an adult were like a trip back in time. To me, it’s a “fortress of solitude”. As the song by Weezer says, “On an island in the sun, we’ll be playing and having fun, and it makes me feel so fine I can’t control my brain. We’ll never feel bad anymore.”

Well, the pictures I saw today DID make me feel bad. Places I know well under water. Devastated docks. Some of the photos look black and white. Surreal. Apocalyptic. I feel bad for all the families who call Avalon, Stone Harbor and Ocean City home year-round, and for the families who own and rent vacation properties there. There’s no telling the number of memories for a lot of people, not to mention money, will be lost.

Please pray for New Jersey.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Silly Adventure in College Radio

Just now, I was listening to a webcast of a radio show hosted by some current students of my college alma mater, William Woods University. Both of the hosts are current members of my old fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, and I called the station using my silly Bugs Bunny impression to request a song. They played it. I called again admitting my identity, and shared a story with them that they relayed, and that I’d like to share with everyone else.

The year was 2006. I had already done the WWU radio class 2 years prior, with my own “Mighty Matt Show” and my contributions to the “C.P. and Flauaus” comedy show. We were all accused of a “Fiji takeover agenda”, we all got busted for being too edgy, but in the end, we all got an “A” in the class, and the shows are still fondly remembered.

My ’06 revival of “Mighty Matt” was a hit with friends on campus, but not so well-received by the then-current radio professor, and my inability to sell sponsorship for it lead me to a grade so bad I had to take a dance class to graduate. The less said about that, the better.

Grades aside, though, one aspect of my 2006 re-entry into college radio worked quite well. Perhaps not for my grade, but for show quality. I was an art major and always toiling away on some drawing, graphic design or painting project after hours anyway, so when my friend asked me to join her on her late-night radio show in the same building that imprisoned me, I jumped at the chance. She was dating my recently-graduated fraternity Brother at the time, was hysterically funny, and a huge music fan. We were (and still are) good friends, so the chemistry worked. To this day, I wish I had even a single recording of it. Her show differed a bit from my own, though, because she liked to play songs by jam bands that often exceeded 11 minutes.

11-minute songs worked fine for us, because halfway through an hour-long radio show, we wanted a break. So we’d pop in a lengthy song by a band called Widespread Panic and sneak out the back door of the arts building to engage in a conversation, a smoke and/or some caffeine. I’d wedge my wallet in the door so we wouldn’t get locked out.

One night, this routine ran into a problem: the wallet slipped out of the door. Fearing the worst, (dead air on the radio and ruined photography class prints) we had to flag down a security guard to let us back into the building.

After some begging and pleading, the day was saved. The punch line? When we finally got back to the studio, fearing the worst (dead air), the song was STILL PLAYING. On top of that, my photos had developed just fine.

These days, everyone in this story is forgotten, married, or involved in something awesome that doesn’t involve college radio or art. But I’ll never forget it. WWU radio, both times I did it, was fun…and through it, in many ways, I found my voice.

Rocko N'Roll

There are some elements of nostalgia that we remember so fondly that revisiting them can be a real letdown. We see a movie or tv show, or hear a song again for the first time in years, and suddenly wonder why we enjoyed it in the first place.

However, there are also those rare things that we enjoy even more upon rediscovery, and we realize that brilliance is often wasted on the young.

“Rocko’s Modern Life” definitely belongs in the latter category. I ordered the season one DVD of it on a whim, having seen a couple of episodes in reruns recently and enjoyed them. Holy shit! This was definitely not a kid’s cartoon at all. Much of the humor went over my head when I watched it as a kid, and being able to see multiple episodes in a row without commercials is a revelation. It didn’t just push the envelope, it stuffed the envelope, stamped it, and put it in the mailbox. Gags and stories involving sexually frustrated toads, nudists, bodily functions, phone sex, and a restaurant named “Chokey Chicken” are only scratching the surface. How about an episode in which a dog is so filthy that his skin is host to a Honeymooners-style sitcom starring a tick and a ringworm? Or the infamous recurring bit in which Rocko finds himself wedged between the breasts of a fat hippo lady, causing her to exclaim “How DARE you?!” before wadding him up into the shape of a volleyball and spiking him. Or even a cow going to “heck” and being tortured by a devil named Peaches who has milk-spouting udders growing from his head?

The characters are just as quirky as the situations they find themselves in. Rocko is the relatively normal one. A mild-mannered wallaby with an Australian accent and a taste for Hawaiian shirts, he lives in a dilapidated house with his dog, Spunky. His neighbors are a pair of toads named Ed and Bev Bighead. Ed is a cranky blowhard with what Rocko calls a “permanent wedgie”, while Bev is the original “desperate housewife” who tries to seduce Rocko on multiple occasions. Rocko’s best friend, Heffer, is an extremely fat, yellow cow with green hair and red overalls whose adoptive family is a pack of wolves. Heffer’s insatiable appetite is often the catalyst for conflict. Then there’s Filburt, a bespectacled turtle with a fondness for comic books and a nervous, Woody Allen-inspired personality.

Aside from its subversive humor and weird characters, “Rocko’s Modern Life” has everything that many cartoons being made today lack. The animation is fluid and spontaneous, often reaching levels of “squash and stretch” that you’d otherwise find in a cartoon from the 1930’s. The design style is unique. Everything in the backgrounds is crooked…catawampus houses, bent lamp posts, dented trash cans and impossibly-shaped trees. Incidental characters are oddball animals ranging from koalas to rhinos to elephants. The show is filled to the brim with funny sight-gags, with an emphasis on visual, rather than verbal, humor. A baseball playing shark steps up to bat and gets his eyeballs knocked out of his head. A vacuum cleaner has a dog neutering function (the icon is the shape of a dog, a minus sign and two baseballs!) a roller coaster called the “Nose Bleed” is literally shaped like a bleeding nose. Rocko’s reactions to some of these things would make Tex Avery proud: his eyes bug out, his brain pops out of his skull, and his face contorts into impossible expressions of surprise, fear, and rage.

There’s also plenty of slapstick. In one memorable episode, “Canned”, Rocko loses his job and is hired as a product tester for Mr. Bighead’s company, Conglom-O (We Own You!). The various inventions punish both Rocko and Bighead in violent, amusing ways.

The plots are well executed, following a golden rule that is often ignored in cartoons: keep it simple. Most are 10-to-15-minute shorts, built on seemingly basic situations: Rocko goes to buy something, Rocko goes to the beach, Rocko and Heffer go to the movies, trash day (a very dangerous day!), a trip to a baseball game, a conflict with the Bigheads, etc. Every time, though, something goes horribly wrong, turning something Rocko thinks will be easy into a nightmare.

Perhaps what makes such a bizarre concept work so well is the likeability of Rocko himself. He’s not a heckler, an idiot, a badass hero or a hapless kid getting bullied in school. He is an everyman in a world gone mad. He is, to a certain extent, us. We’ve all put off cleaning the house too long and faced the daunting task of cleaning it up before trash day. We’ve all had a quarrel with a neighbor. We all have that freeloading friend who eats us out of house and home, and we’ve all had to endure a trip to the DMV. These are situations that, while funny to us as kids, are even funnier on an adult level because we’ve now experienced them ourselves. It’s surprising how much life can imitate art!

It’s what cartoons SHOULD be: funny, visually expressive, relatable, and completely insane. It’s safe to say that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore…and that’s a shame.

UPDATE: Fan Kevin Martinez brought to my attention that in its day, the show wasn't well received by critics. Take, for instance, this article from Cinemafantastique magazine, in which the author dumped on it, lumping it together with other 'toons of the time and calling it a Ren and Stimpy ripoff. Needless to say, I believe the critic is way off.

Monday, February 6, 2012

28? Really? Now, What Have I Learned?

In keeping with my resolution to blog more, I figure that with my 28th birthday waiting for me at the end of the week, I should take a look at where I am right now in life.

Professionally, I never really know what I’m going to be doing on any given week. I don’t regret getting a Graphic Design degree in college, because I enjoyed it. But nobody could’ve predicted back in 2006 that it would become such a limited and competitive market. Am I doing much with it now aside from freelance work? No. But it DID open the door to other opportunities, and over the past 6 years I’ve done EVERYTHING. I actually have a hard time narrowing down my resume, because of the sheer number of jobs I’ve held, both temporary and long-term. If I haven’t been blessed with a lucrative, long-term career, at least I’ve been blessed with able mind and body and a good work ethic. My unofficial motto is that if you pay me 10 bucks an hour or better, I’ll do just about anything, right down to scrubbing your toilet. I’ve designed business cards, logos, fliers and album art. I’ve built things, proofread documents, written things, worked in warehouses, made phone calls in call centers, organized file cabinets, prepared food, worked with animals, archived important documents, organized events, shipped packages, mopped floors, and sold various items. With every door that opens, another is around the corner.

Graduate school is still on the table. I love to draw cartoons and have a place in mind to earn a degree in illustration…but I’m still on the fence about it. Will the degree actually help me, or do I just need to find the right opportunity on my own? I have some talent at voice acting, and as soon as I can nail down a few minutes in a studio or with a high quality recording microphone, I’m going to send out a demo to every agent I can find.

You miss every opportunity you don’t take, so they say. I have plenty, and the bottom line is, I just need to try harder at taking advantage of them.

For all the uncertainty career-wise, at least I’ve managed to make things work out well socially. For the first couple years I lived in Austin, I was rarely bored, but often lonely. I didn’t know many people my own age, the people I worked with didn’t really welcome me into their circle, and fresh from a stint in college out of state, most of my best friends lived far away. Many began to get married and start families, and through no fault of their own, grew more and more distant.

But eventually I began to meet new friends, maintain bonds with many from the past, and rekindle some that have surprised me. Facebook has been a big help. Meeting a core group of local friends has helped even more, and has branched out over the past couple of years to include a colorful cast of wonderful characters. The last two summers in Austin were brutally hot, but they managed to bring a great group of friends together through swimming pools, barbecues and beer. There’s rarely a Sunday afternoon now, regardless of weather, when at least a few of us aren’t doing something together. You’d be hard pressed to find a TV reality show with such a diverse group of people, all with wildly different jobs, interests, origins and beliefs…but somehow, it works. For all the complaints everyone makes about how Austin has lost its soul and purpose, it’s only done so on the surface.
So, as I enter my 28th year of life on Friday, I can proudly count my blessings. I still haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow up, but I still have paths to explore. I’ve worked hard, played hard and gathered great friends along the way. Whether they live right down the street and I’ll see them next Sunday, or they live far away and talk with me often online or on the phone until 4AM, or I rarely hear from them unless the Cardinals win the World Series and they call me to gloat about it: I hope they stay on board. This ship’s still sailing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Setting Sale

I hate solicitors. I really do. I'm not a big fan of the sales field in general, because there are a lot of slick, scheming scam artists out there who will try to convince people to buy a moldy turd in exchange for your last dollar. The worst are the telemarketers.

But in my latest string of odd jobs through the temp agency, I've come upon a phone sales gig that, surprisingly, I've enjoyed. When I first heard it was a call center job, I cringed, but I bit the bullet and decided to give it a shot anyway. My agent decided my voice and personality would make me a good fit for it, and since they've rarely steered me wrong, nor I them, I figured I owed 'em one.

As I approached the building on a chilly Thursday morning I was wary already...observing this big, glass and metal castle that looked like something out of the Jetsons. But I soon discovered that it housed the call center for a company that's working to fix the housing crisis...and making a hefty chunk of change for themselves in the process.

I don't know all the details, as I know almost as much about real estate as I know about advanced mathematics (less than zilch.) But In the last two days I've learned more than I did before. Basically, this company is both making a killing AND doing a service: helping to clean up the mess of housing foreclosures. Oh sure, they're selling something...but it's a certification course for real estate agents that teaches them how to help customers and banks alike without being crooks or predators. It's called "short selling" houses facing foreclosure.

Anyway, given a script, some basic facts and talking points, and some pricing info, I've been able to improvise and engage people, and even make a sale. If I'm gonna spend 8 hours on the phone selling something, it's nice to know I'm doing so to people who already inquired about it and want it, as opposed to bugging someone during dinner to sell Grandma a funeral plot or save them money on rain gutter insurance or something.

It's not something I want to do for the rest of my life, but I do have to tip a hat to the various business, communications and radio classes I took in college for making me adaptable to a work experience I'm so new to.

I'll see how it goes, it's supposed to last at least through next week.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Keeping it Simple With Batman

I went to a comic book store that was having a clearance sale today, and they had a ton of Batman stuff. I picked up a compilation book of classic comic stories entitled “The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told” (compiling highlights of Batman’s nemesis). I also snagged a couple of random Batman comics for a buck a pop. Honestly, even though I’m a huge cartoon fan, I’ve never been a huge fan of superhero stuff. But I love Batman. Batman has no “super powers” at all, other than a brilliant mind. He’s just a regular ol’ human with a tortured past and a lot of money.

He was created as a comic book hero in the 1940’s by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and those early comics were as film-noir as you can get. But what made them so good is that they were SIMPLE. There was a hero, a mystery, and a villain. The stories weren’t intertwined and scattered across multiple issues of multiple comic book series. You could just buy a Batman comic book for a dime and get one or two really good stories. Batman and Robin, in the 40’s and 50’s, weren’t TOO dark or TOO campy, but a nice balance. They were really more like Holmes and Watson than anything else, with Bruce Wayne even using chemistry and smoking a pipe. Various artists and writers eventually added to the Batman legacy and created new villains, and they’re still making Batman comics today. And cartoons, and movies, and merchandise.

But looking at the comic books themselves, I think this is really a case of “the original is always the best”. Take, for instance, this page from a 1952 story drawn by artist Dick Sprang. Look at how well drawn and staged it is, and how expressive the characters are, yet simply drawn. Sprang’s not trying to be photo-real, he knows this is a comic book. Sure, you could do something like this in a photo-realistic style, but why?

This page from a “Batman: Gotham Adventures” book from 1998 by artist Ty Templeton draws its inspiration from the early stuff. Actually, it’s based on the 90’s Batman Animated Series that was running at the time, but because that series was based on the classic material, it was, in my opinion, the best interpretation of Batman ever done. Simple, linear designs once again…but it looks awesome.

Then, well, there’s this. Kevin Smith, who directed the Jay and Silent Bob movies among many other films, is a huge comic fan and wrote a Batman comic series in 2009 called “The Widening Gyre”. The artist here is Walter Flanagan. BEAUTIFUL drawings, but it’s almost TOO realistic. The coloring is also trying so hard to be epic that it just doesn’t read as well as the simpler stuff. I bet the original sketches for this were awesome, before some overzealous inker and digital colorist got a hold of it.

My point: keep it simple. Batman's greatest enemy is not the Joker, but the artist who forgets he's drawing a comic book.