|Jack Mystery in the '80s|
Eighth grade was the closest I came to fitting in since leaving elementary school. I still didn't actually fit in, mind you--I was as square a peg as I'd always been--but camaraderie, normalcy, seemed almost within reach, more so than at any time since fourth grade. For the rest of my life, I would never come that close again.
1972 to '73, eighth grade, was my final year at Roxboro Road Middle School. I hated that place, though not as much as I would come to hate high school after that. Nonetheless, that year offered glimpses of bliss, sporadic moments of contentment. My quirks were acknowledged and, if not quite embraced, at least tolerated. I had a few friends. I started a comic book club at school. I wrote. My love of Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Brothers was met with an indifferent shrug, which was better than being met with rolled eyes and insults. It was as near to a happy time as anything else I can remember from secondary school.
One of the happiest memories was art class with a teacher named John DiGesare. Mr. D was the teacher everyone liked, a gentle and enthusiastic soul who encouraged all of us to create. He would play records in class--usually Carole King's Tapestry or James Taylor's Sweet Baby James--to provide atmosphere and inspiration. While I might have preferred to listen to The Beatles or Badfinger or Alice Cooper, the music on Mr. D's turntable served the essential purpose of nurturing our nascent adolescent artistry. One week, as Sweet Baby James played, Mr. D charged us with the task of making something based on the music we heard. I used the mourning of "Fire And Rain" and the ersatz blues of "Steamroller" to conjure a comic strip called The Adventures Of James Taylor, depicting our intrepid title character mourning the death of a close friend while contending with an imposing spectral figure in the cemetery: Death personified, crying out a defiant introduction, I am THE BLUES!!
Okay, it was neither Proust nor Spillane, not Will Eisner, not even the cartoon equivalent of Ed Wood. But it was mine, created in an environment that encouraged the pursuit and exploration of ideas: pure, fanciful ideas.
I have several specific memories of Mr. D's class. One Spring day, I brought in a couple of comic books--Batman # 250 and Shazam! # 4--to show the teacher, and any other interested parties. I recall my classmate Marge Dugan--whom I always thought was kinda cute--thumbing through the Batman comic, and not seeming openly dismissive of the idea of superhero comics. Cute girls digging superheroes? Well...cool! And Mr. D and I discussed his childhood favorite, the original Captain Marvel. I told him that DC Comics had recently acquired the character from former rival publisher Fawcett, after successfully suing Cap out of existence in the '50s. Mr. D dismissed DC's claim that Captain Marvel had been a copy of Superman (and therefore a violation of the Man Of Steel's copyright) with a disdainful one-word response: Rubbish!
My love of The Marx Brothers prompted me to make a paper mache Groucho, which lacked the accomplishment of my friend Richard Dean's W.C. Fields, but which I kept for years thereafter until it was decimated by time (and, possibly, Erin Fleming). My only negative memory of art class with Mr. DiGesare was the time Richard Dean, Jeff Greco, and I got carried away with horseplay and began throwing clay around the room. Our obnoxious antics were finally enough to try even Mr, D's seemingly infinite patience, and he yelled and sent us to the Dean's office. The Dean, Mr. Mandarino, was visibly shocked that anyone could have ever misbehaved badly enough to make John DiGesare lose his cool. Mr. Mandarino contained his surprise just enough to ask us, What did you do...?!
(Many years later, I recounted this story of my trip to the Dean's office to Mr. DiGesare, and he was mortified. He started to apologize, but I immediately told him, No, we deserved it!)
But my favorite among favorite memories of Mr. DiGesare's art class was Jack Mystery. I had never really let go of this superhero I'd created as a child. Given an opportunity to work on any long-form art project of our choosing, it was inevitable that I would want to work on some comics. Inspired by the vintage strips I'd recently been reading in a hardcover collection called The Collected Works Of Buck Rogers In The 25th Century, I settled on the idea of doing Jack Mystery as a newspaper comic strip serial.
Man, I worked on this, diligently, every day. Okay, as diligently as you'd expect from a lazy and distractible 13-year-old, but I did work on it. By making it a daily strip, I was able to work in black and white, and not be concerned with adding the color I knew I'd just mess up anyway. I worked in pencil, on cheap-cheap paper, reflecting the superhero's pulpy roots. Mr. D often tried to cajole me into working with ink, but I insisted on pencils only. I felt greater control with pencils, and Mr. D acquiesced.
I still have those Jack Mystery strips. Somewhere. Somewhere here, in this vast accumulation of stuff. I haven't seen them in years, but I remember the vague story of police officer Jack Mystery, wounded while thwarting a robbery, somehow gaining super strength and resilience in the process. Mystery quits the police force to become a superhero, aided by his brother Carl, who develops a jet pack that enables Jack to fly. Jack and Carl investigate the crime ring terrorizing the city, and eventually discover its mastermind to be Jack's former boss, the chief of police. Seeking to escape justice, the crooked police chief murders Carl Mystery, but is unable to elude the wrath of the grief-stricken Jack Mystery. The serial ended with a single color Sunday page, as Jack Mystery captured his brother's killer, and vowed to remain vigilant in protecting the innocent and thwarting the corrupt. Carl Mystery's sacrifice would not be in vain.
I wrote and drew at the same time, with no blueprint or master plan. If I were to read it today, I'm sure its amateurishness would make me cringe. But I would still take pride in the effort, in the sheer, fevered exuberance of the creative act, no matter how puerile the result, how feeble the execution. It was mine. It still is.
Mr. DiGesare encouraged me the whole way, spurring me on, suggesting I try working in ink, and having me talk to Mr. Yauchzy about doing Jack Mystery for the school newspaper. Mr. Yauchzy compared it to Dick Tracy, and said he wanted to find out what happens to the poor guy, but I never pursued that. I think Mr. D may have also mentioned that I oughtta do it in ink.
The single best day of this whole experience was when Mr. DiGesare took a bunch of his students away from the school, and had us set up in the lobby of a bank for an afternoon of work on our projects. I can't convey the meaning such a simple setting can have for someone who wants to pursue a creative endeavor. Here's a forum. Here's a platform. Here's a stage. Here's a soapbox. Perform. Create. Imagine. Do. Your work is worthwhile. Keep working on it. I labored contentedly on my Jack Mystery comic strip, writing and drawing before this passive audience of tellers and account holders, and I knew with absolute certainty that this was what I wanted to do with my life.
But I didn't do that.
Eighth grade ended, and I bid farewell to Mr. DiGesare and to Roxboro Road Middle School. When ninth grade commenced at North Syracuse Central High School the following September, I told my freshman art teacher that I really wanted to become a professional comic book writer and artist, and that I hoped he'd be able to help me hone my skills to achieve that dream.
He didn't like my attitude. Later on, at a parent-teacher conference, he told my mom and dad that he felt he needed to break me. My freshman year art class was a disaster. I took one more year of art after that, and then never took another art class again. I continued to sketch and doodle--I still do that constantly--but I didn't see a path to becoming an artist. So I gave it up.
Never underestimate the value of a good teacher. Never underestimate the danger of indifference either, nor the dangers of a closed mind and a rigid attitude. Could I have ever become an artist? I don't know. I had some ability; it was raw, and in desperate need of development, but it was there, in all its unformed uncertainty, waiting to be set free. Mr. DiGesare opened the door; his successor locked it and sealed it shut. My failure to overcome that is still on me, of course; if I'd been more persistent, and worked harder to improve my craft, I could have overcome the sudden lack of support and encouragement. Can't always blame others for my mistakes. Just sometimes.
For all that, though, I didn't quite surrender the notion of creating. I kept writing, for sure; no one would ever be able to take that away from me. But I kept drawing, too. I slowly got a little better, and I can only wonder how much better I could have become if I'd felt encouraged to continue with it.
I see Mr. DiGesare occasionally. He's a regular customer at the store where I work. When he sees me, he tells me to get off the computer and get back to drawing something. I reply that I'm writing, and that's just as good. But then I also show him the scraps of paper all around me, the quick sketches I've done recently (usually of Batman; no, you grow up). He smiles, and encourages me to keep at it. Never stop drawing. It's good advice, from a great teacher. And it's a good memory, from as good a year as I ever had back then.
My eighth grade Jack Mystery comic strip was the only complete story I ever did with this character I created so long ago. But, in the '80s, I had some ideas. I never got very far with them, but I was thinking of ways to do a Jack Mystery comic book, completely revamped, centering on the story of a dissipated young movie actor who finds himself cast in the role of a comic-book superhero, and finds himself literally becoming the super character he plays. We'll discuss those plans when Unfinished And Abandoned: Jack Mystery concludes.
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