As I detailed in this previous post, I was fresh out of high school, sick of bagging groceries for a paycheck and had just submitted a few samples to Marvel and DC Comics. This was back in 1998, when I thought my career as a hotshot penciler was gonna start almost immediately, especially when I saw this in the mailbox:

I thought it contained my first Marvel assignment, like a loose plot for a short story, or maybe it was a standard contract to get things rolling. I could even forgive them for misspelling my last name, nobody’s perfect, because this was IT! What “IT” turned out to be was this:

I wish I could say that I handled it well but I was pissed, disappointed and confused; I was convinced that my work was superior to the stuff I saw on the racks. Youthful arrogance can lead you to believe all sorts of silly things, but it’s what kept me going up to this point and beyond. I quit my supermarket job in defiance and decided to forget corporate comics in order to obsessively work on my own characters and my own comic book. I had saved some money, so I began drawing new pages immediately without worry. I was even thinking of printing it out myself, like a large format zine. I wasn’t even thinking about submitting it to the small press. It was one extreme to another, mainstream gig or Xeroxing my opus. I used the rejection from Marvel as further motivation to start working on my own grand vision. That vision was called Service Deco.

This here’s the cover. Jumps right off the shelf, don’t it?

Here’s an unfinished drawing of the main character, clearly giving someone the “Mariah Hand” for some reason.

To clarify further, I loved superhero comics and never had a problem speaking that language, but I had been absorbing tons of new independent comics at a rapid pace. I enjoyed reading Love & Rockets, Maus, Zippy, and anything Crumb at the local Borders. It was a perfect place to sit and enjoy these wonderful classics that were a bit too expensive for this unemployed aspiring cartoonist. I was inspired beyond belief by reading these works I had only heard about, thrilled at the notion that anything could be done in comics, and I was reading the proof.

Naturally, I ripped off Jaime Hernandez. “Tear it up, Terry Downe” was the story that did it for me. That story, employing the multi narrator/perspective approach, took L&R and turned it from a title I really enjoyed to a comic I couldn’t live without. Being influenced is a nice way of saying stealing, but let’s face it, I was stealing from the best and you wouldn’t even have known it.

I also had a childhood’s worth of Chaykin and Miller-isms coursing through my veins. How did I ever reconcile such different sources? By making my main character jump off rooftops, of course. In a nutshell, Service Deco was a 16 page mess that only made sense to me. That didn’t stop me from photocopying 50 copies and driving with my girlfriend from Miami to New York City in order to sell them. It was a loose plan but it was exciting. There I was, feeling like I finally took control of my trajectory and I had results to show for it. I was ready to take on the world.

Once I got to NYC, though, I froze. I didn’t even have the balls to ask the manager at St. Mark’s Comics if he’d take my comic on consignment. We tried selling them on the street for a buck a copy, but no takers. Humiliated, I then begged my girlfriend to at least hand them out. We couldn’t give those things away!

Can you blame them?

Getting stage fright in the middle of meeting your dream head on and then trying to convince yourself that you’re ultimately doing the right thing is not the funnest way to spend a summer as a teenager. It was a long drive back to Miami.

We didn’t stay in Miami for long. We moved to the small college town of Gainesville, FL. Money was running out. I needed a job but I didn’t want to go back to bagging groceries at a supermarket. I needed to hustle if I wanted to get paid drawing my own comics. Even I knew that all the publishers were either in NYC or out west but I was desperate, so I looked in the Yellow Pages for comic book publishers. Little did I know about Alternative Comics.

“Alternative, huh? My stuff’s pretty alternative,” I convinced myself. I called up this “Alternative Comics” and asked if they were looking to publish new work. The guy on the other end of the line said they had a small roster of college humor type stuff but he’d be more than happy to take a look at my samples. That guy turned out to be Jeff Mason, who scheduled a meeting with me the very next day. This was my second chance. Finally, some progress!

Call me naive, but I was surprised to see that Alternative Comics was a house in the suburbs, not an office building. There was no conference room but a living room with a sofa instead, which is where Jeff and I sat. It was all very casual. Jeff looked over Service Deco (which I was still proud of) and a few newer pages that I was working on. I noticed that there was a small mountain of comic book long boxes on the other side of the living room and an intern by a computer handling some sort of online sale. It wasn’t Alternative Comics back stock that was being handled, it was superhero comics. Jeff said he had a side business of selling comics, but I don’t remember if it was wholesale, sets, single issues or what.

Jeff finished looking through my comics and very kindly told me that it wasn’t the kind of material he published. He was nice enough to give me a copy of the latest comic he was putting out, Triple Dare, as an example of the work he favored. Jeff said that while my work was more suited for Caliber or Dark Horse, I still needed to refine my style before contacting them. He gave me my first straightforward critique including suggestions on inking, perspective and anatomy. For example, see that scene up there? The backwards throat slit? Jeff pointed out that my torsos were too long, like snakes. He was right about it all, and my soul died every time he spoke. Cartoonists know exactly what I’m talking about. Your stock is measured by how well you take the sting and whether you learn from it or not. I can’t stress how appreciative I am of Jeff for taking the time to look over the crappy little comic that was brilliant to no one but me. Back in ’98, however, I just wanted to get out of that house as fast as possible.

I went back to my new apartment feeling deflated. Marvel didn’t get it, now this indy guy didn’t get it either. And sure, my anatomy could’ve used some work, I thought, but look at those Triple Dare guys! They draw like little kids! Yeah, yeah, craft is in the eye of the beholder, I GET it, but I didn’t get it then. I conveniently forgot the initial excitement about comics being able to look any way and be about any thing. I look at that Triple Dare issue now and like it, and Jeff has gone on to publish many great books, so what did I know? The mastermind behind Service Deco was actually a typical young cartoonist: stubborn, sensitive, and had a lot to learn.

It didn’t help that I went back to look through the Yellow Pages (don’t ask me why) and came across a picture of Jeff Mason in an ad for a law office. Jeff Mason was an attorney? Yes he was. Still is, actually. Here was a publisher who had a day job as an attorney AND sold random comics online AND published college humor comics? I was confused then more than ever.

Service Deco panel.

I bit the bullet. I went back to being a bag boy in a grocery store. I had to finance my passion as Jeff was financing his. I was biding my time working while drawing my ass off in my spare time. Hell, I was even thinking about resubmitting samples to Marvel, maybe because I thought I understood their standards a little better (turns out their barometer of quality is just as baffling as any other publisher’s). For the time being, I was making do by asking “paper or plastic?”

Sharpie doodle on a paper bag during a break.

I then saw Jeff Mason in my grocery line, wearing his business suit, probably on a lunch break. I think he was buying potato salad. I’d like to think he didn’t recognize me, but he was probably just being polite by having said nothing to me. I felt awkward and slightly humiliated for those few seconds, as if I had lost a childish battle by stepping down from my high horse to toil away in my bag boy apron while the comix clubhouse kept its doors barricaded. I bagged Jeff’s item then I counted the minutes until my shift was over.

I’m pretty sure it was potato salad he was buying.


Next: Postcards and MegaCons.

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