respeck yo’ elders: George Herriman

Today is George Herriman’s birthday.

Who’s he, you probably ask?

Well. He was one of the early stars of newspaper comics. He’s most famous for “Krazy Kat”, in which a mouse named Ignatz expresses his disdain for the titular Kat by repeatedly throwing bricks at her head. Or his head. Krazy’s choice of pronoun varied on a regular basis but never really made much of a difference to anyone in the shifting desert land of the strip.

He was born in 1880 and died in 1944. When I encountered his work in the 70s, as a kid reading through the Smithsonian Book of Newspaper Comics, I was blown away by his full-page compositions and surreal backgrounds.

A few years ago, I took a trip to Monument Valley. This was pretty much entirely due to falling in love with the American desert through Herriman’s sparse, shifting abstractions of the place. There’s something in those jutting alien rocks and the hot sands that calls to me in ways I really can’t put into words. But that call is spoken of at great length in the backgrounds of Krazy Kat.

“Mock Duck” in the bottom tier there is a reminder that old cartoons are full of really unsubtle ethic caricatures. This strip will be a hundred years old on my birthday; the past is a different country.

George’s history is as hard to pin down as the backgrounds of Kokoino Kounty or Krazy’s gender: he claimed to be a California kid, of Greek extraction, but in recent years some deep biographical research has revealed that he was actually born in my hometown of New Orleans, and grew up about five miles from where I did. And that he was born to a white father and a black mother. His family moved to California when he was ten, started presenting as white, and he would continue to do this for about a hundred and twenty years.

Speaking of broad ethnic caricatures of the past: This is one of the three episodes of Herriman’s early short-lived strip “Musical Mose”, about a black musician failing to pass for other ethnicities. It feels like a very different thing now that I know he was doing a bang-up job of just that.

Krazy Kat’s goofy, drifting obliqueness was never popular with most people, but it had a following among the intelligentsia of the day. That plus newspaper publisher Hearst giving him space and money to draw pretty much whatever for a long time let him accumulate a large body of work, that’s survived long enough to still have people like me deciding to put his birthday in their calendars a hundred years later.

Herriman’s scratchy, goofy pen lines bear little resemblance to my inhumanly-sharp Illustrator shapes. But the weird dimensionality I almost always give to moons comes straight from his work. And now you know part of the secret code that marks a fan of his. There are other ones; I’ll leave you to discover them yourself.

RIP, George. Thanks for the wonderful drawings.

If you would like to see more of his work:

  • I cannot recommend the Sunday Press collection enough. It’s got a hundred and fifty lovingly-restored Krazy Kay strips, both color and B&W, as well as a whole bunch of Herriman’s pre-Krazy work. It’s also a hundred bucks and half the size of a newspaper broadsheet. Great if you have the money to spend and the space to keep it, not so great otherwise.
  • Fantagraphics has somewhat less spendy collections, of various sizes and prices.
  • My first exposure was The Smithsonian Book Of Newspaper Comics, which has a decent sampling of Krazy and his other works as part of its wild ride through the entire history of the medium from the 1900s to the 1970s.
  • Check your local library, if you’re lucky they’ll have some of these books.

A fragment of memory

So. Let me tell you about a little sore tooth in my mind. A fragment of memory that just doesn’t fit with the narrative of the rest of my life as I remember it. Every now and then it bubbles up and I wonder what the hell was happening; the other day I went for a long walk through the park and… poked at it.
The scene: upstairs in a sunny house in New Orleans. Probably summer. Probably next to Bayou St. John. Probably around 1986-88.
There are two children sitting there listening to a man, dutifully taking notes. One of them is a skinny boy with black hair, who would eventually grow up to be me. One of them is a girl. Was she someone I knew in school? I don’t know. I don’t even have a solid memory of her ethnicity, let alone her name. The guy is white. I want to say he’s slim and possibly balding. I don’t have a solid memory of that either.
My brain says this is somehow related to Future Problem Solving, which was a thing I did in high school. Which is where I get the 1986 guess from.
But the content of what this man is telling me and this girl doesn’t seem to match with any kind of preparation for this very rational exercise in Creative Sci-Fi Thinking. Because I am being told a bunch of New Age sounding stuff about… well, that’s misty too. I mostly recall being shown diagrams. Concentric circles. Rounded off teardrops. A general sense of the text being about the Shape of Reality. Mystical stuff. In a relatively new book.

Something vaguely like this? I dunno. There were labels.

I dutifully took notes on a yellow legal pad. I don’t know if I copied any of the diagrams. Or wrote down the name of this book.
I don’t know where those notes went.
I don’t remember talking to this man ever again. Or anything else along these lines.
I have a memory of wondering what the hell this new age bullshit had to do with anything but this might actually be a memory of remembering this later on and wondering just that.
I’m pretty sure my mother was there. As was the other kid’s mother. I don’t know if she was listening to all this. I don’t remember talking with her about it later. And I can’t ask her about this any more; I’d have to perform a seance for that.
I can’t recall any more details. And to be honest I would be suspicious of the truth of any more details I managed to dredge up; I’ve read enough about how easy it is to get people to remember things that never happened.
It feels weird. It feels like something that tugging on hard enough could be the start of a paranoid conspiracy novel set in the eighties, with children being recruited and programmed into… well, pick your own narrative here, really. Indigo Children becoming soldiers in a secret psychic war or whatever.
My memory of most of my teenage years is a tapestry of holes. I’ve always just assumed it’s due to the depression I fell into after my father died; when every day is grey and sad despite the blazing New Orleans sun, it’s easy to disassociate and just… forget. But pulling this out into the light suggests an alternate story of… something. Something secret and buried and hidden from me.
Part of me is reluctant to talk about this publicly. What if there is some kind of Secret Society involved? What if They see this and decide it’s finally time to activate my programming or whatever? What if I really am in a Phillip K Dick novel instead of the sensible mundane life I’ve always thought I had? Maybe you’ve only ever heard of me because this was a test that I failed, so I was left to make my own way through the normal world instead of being a character in a real-life version of Psychonauts. Or the X-Men I guess but I’d rather imagine the goofy cartoon version.
I wish I could remember anything about the title of that book with the diagrams. Anything to ask Google about. But I can’t.
It might just be a dream I had. I’m pretty sure the time I walked into my parents’ bedroom at night when I was five and saw a glittering crystal cavern hidden behind their dresser was a dream, for instance. But this feels like a thing that really happened.
Welcome to the hole in my head. I don’t know how deep it goes. I don’t know if I want to find out.

Nostalgia

It is 10:30 on a Saturday night and I am lying alone in my living room looking at a list of New Orleans area BBSs and feeling impossibly old. This is promoted by someone asking “what was your first screen name” on Twitter and me replying that it was “Raccoon” on a bunch of c64 and ms-dos BBSs*. Mostly running Ivory and WWIV.

Later on I switched to “F.R.E.D. III” which was the name of a robot character I drew for a while. Then there was the Internet and mucks and moving to California and, well, about twenty years of things happening.

Most of the boards I was on aren't on that list. No c64 boards, very few Amiga boards. But a few are. Assassin's Guild. Ravenloft. The Bowels. The Land of Rape and Honey, which changed its name from that Ministry reference to something I can't remember. And other names are hanging at the back of my brain, not quite coming out. All my notes from then are long gone so I'll never find an old notebook with records and phone numbers to trigger memories.

I sort of miss the days when it was this weird little zone of freaks and nerds and weirdos. Now everyone's on the Internet. Your whole family's on Facebook and there's Uncle Racist posting another hilarious reason Facebook tries to hide posts it thinks you won't enjoy.

And on the other hand last night my ex-with-benefits told me some of the younger postfurries** are getting excited about rebooting the MUCK my exes ran back in the early 00s. They're digging up the old database and the wiki and using it for a starting point to reimagine it. I got asked if I wanted to have a hand in writing the new version of one of the zones (Strangewarp, infested by a curiously polite dataplague) and kept on almost falling asleep, then having to pick up the iPad next to the bed and scribble down ragged fragments of broken prose hinting at my vision for the place and a new character to play in it and and and. I don't know if my having discovered the joys of marijuana since Puzzlebox collapsed will make my contribution to the new version better or worse; I don't know if anyone will be able to tell since I plan to try and write it in the disconnected, fragmented syntax of the repeat-suicide butterfly I played for a while.

Nostalgia. I don't have a point here. I'm just thinking about what triggers it for me. Apparently a list of 504 BBSs can.

 

* BBS: Bulletin Board System. Run a terminal program on your computer, connect it to another one sitting on a phone line, leave public and private messages, swap files of various types and legalities. What we had before the Internet ate everything. Usually very local because long distance calls cost money back in those days.

** Postfurry: a combination of “posthuman” and “furry”, a bunch of furries who like to pretend to be robot cats and hypnotizing alien space vixens and silver metal elephants instead of plain old animal people. Possibly a bunch of pretentious over-educated asses, possibly just a bunch of genderqueer nerds with more brain than they know what to do with, depending on who you ask. Puzzlebox is now a legend among the younger generation of this subset of furries.

the dream of my mother’s six-car fetch quest

I dreamed I was in New Orleans. My mother had apparently left me five or six cars, parked around the city. I needed to go acquire them. My father was helping me get them – never mind that he's been dead a lot longer than she has, he was around in this dream. I was using my phone to help navigate to the first one. Eventually we got there.

There was a gap, and I was walking. A sports car in transit livery pulled up, and I got in. Apparently New Orleans was experimenting with high speed transit, as this car then drove off at high speed with me and the previous two passengers, all in the back seat. I realized I'd just gotten in the first bus that pulled up, and took out my phone to figure out if I was on the right one. It took a while to type in its route number properly (25), but I got it eventually. It was a weird one that went a long way across the city, well outside the eastern and western bounds of New Orleans proper, careening through the Quarter at high speeds, sometimes on the sidewalk – it was not obeying normal traffic laws, that's for sure.

It's worth noting that this is possibly the first time I have gotten any use out of my phone in a dream. It used to show up as blocks of wood carved into the shape of a phone, or 1970s approximations of a smartphone or something.

Then I was faced with trying to figure out where the other cars were, so I could decide if I was on the right route. And I could not figure out how to do that on my dream phone. Especially while also trying to figure out the logistics of my father being the one who drove, and me being the one who could navigate to the car.

The woman sitting next to me asked if I was alright and I kind of unloaded on her about just having gotten off an airplane the other night, and my mother being dead. She looked at me with her weirdly huge golden eyes, which had immensely dilated pupils. “She must be rolling,” I thought to myself. She got off the sports-car bus at a corner where there were multiple people with similar eyes, and even a couple dogs with similar eyes, so maybe not.

As we drove through the corner gas station lot full of these golden-eyed people staring at me, the other person in the sports-bus – an old guy who had seemed to be with the woman – took out his phone and started fiddling with it. Every time he touched a key it made a loud click like an old mechanical keyboard, with occasional noises like a dot-matrix printer spitting out a line that I knew were him hitting return. It was pretty annoying.

And then I woke up.

An Amiga Moment

Sssso apparently some folks on the Internet have declared today Amiga Day. It’s the birthday of Jay Miner, the guy who designed its graphics chips.

I wasn’t planning to do anything for it beyond snark about how the Amiga was ten years ahead of its time when it came out, then Commodore refused to do any R&D for the next twenty, but then Auntie Pixelante put up a font that she described as “evoking the feel of dumping cracked Amiga games”. And then I found myself in Illustrator, putting a fake copper-list through the text, and starting to warp and twist it in a manner seen on a lot of demo crew logos. While listening to Jarre.

cracked-by-collapsar!

The Amiga shaped one of the fundamental ways I approach color; I grew up using Deluxe Paint, which worked fairly directly with the Amiga’s thirty-two color palette entries. So I got used to a process of blocking out shapes, then fiddling with the color sliders to get just the right look – and possibly fiddling with those sliders as one of the last few things done on a piece. Being able to reproduce that method with “global” color swatches is the reason I started using Illustrator when I shifted from Amiga to Mac; the infinite scalability was a nice perk, but I was really after that very selective power to change colors with very little effort.

shelvin’

IMG_0704
Yesterday I got the second printing of Rita 1. All 600 books.

IMG_0708
IMG_0709
This morning, I put them all into the shelves I store my merch on. These shelves are now pretty much completely full.

I am kinda worried about what happens when 400 copies of book 2 arrive. It’ll go down to about 200 once I ship them out, and removing the two boxes full of first-edition copies of book 1 that were sold to backers of the second Kickstarter should help – but I am pretty sure my studio will be annoyingly full of boxes for a few days. Ah well. That’ll motivate me to deal with the shipping sooner, I guess.

Some comics-making friends of mine are talking about sharing a warehouse downtown, both to store our various books in and to have a place to work that is Not Our Homes. I will be delighted to have this happen, as it will mean I can have my closet back!


What else. The other day I sent a photo and brief bio to a tumblr called “We Are Comics”, whose aim is to make a statement about the perception of the old superhero guard that comics are By Men And For Men. Here’s the photo. If you can identify all that stuff then you are cool.

IMG_0701

Most people seemed to just go with holding up signs (or word balloons) that said “I Am Comics” but I felt like being more elaborate. So I raided my library for stuff that was Important to me as a kid growing up, and threw my own books in the pile as well. All SF and fantasy and strange worlds; screw the corporate-owned superdudes.

IMG_0144

Then I was all, hey, I need to put these comics away so I have my studio back, but before I finish I think I’ll have lunch with an old friend I haven’t visited in a while.

IMG_0145

Oh yeah. Still as utterly amazing as it was when I was five.

Anyway. Now I should take a shower and maybe get some drawing done before Nick comes over. We might go hang at a friend’s boardgame night, or we might just chill around the apartment, because he’s driving me to a con in upstate WA tomorrow. And then there’s the Glitch Mob show on Sunday evening, which I’m also dragging him to. BASS! DANCE! WHEEE!

some old art going into storage

 

 

While I was at the store grabbing those little notebooks, I also got a cheap portfolio to finally put a loose pile of old art into the closet instead of having it kicking around the living room.

IMG_0487
College stuff. Cut paper on the left, ink and colored film on the right. I feel like the Thoth poster (assignment: ‘do a cut paper poster for a Mardi Gras krewe’, I chose the one that let me get away with TEH FURREH) may have been one of my first attempts at my current Illustrator style, perpetrated in the unforgiving medium of cut paper. And oh man I was such a Matt Howarth fanboy when I did the one on the right.
IMG_0488
Text: “Miss July, 1990 Paul Trauth”. I think it was not insignificant that I allocated this ‘centerfold’ to my birth month. I was still a guy at this point – but the gender stuff was definitely an undercurrent, I think.

IMG_0489
IMG_0490IMG_0491IMG_0492

There’s like three more pages of this but they really look like I was sick of the story and just wanted to finish it. I really love the way I was so consistent with the Cubist nature of that treasure chest.

IMG_0493

Guess what? I didn’t quit drawing her. Didn’t get a sex life, either. From a college-era sketchbook in the same pile. Which is completely full of hesitant pencils and overly-precious inking like this. I stuck this sketchbook on the shelf where all the sketchbooks go – mostly the ones I’ve filled since Katrina, but there’s a few early ones in there as well that I chose as representative of a giant box of the things my mom still had.

There was some other stuff in this pile too – a scratchboard drawing of a lamia in front of a full moon, an ad layout pasted up for an already-obsolete-as-I-was-taking-it graphic design class, other college stuff. Maybe I’ll photograph some of it the next time this portfolio surfaces.

IMG_0485I stuck all the flat stuff in the portfolio, then grabbed a marker and drew this on the outside, and stuffed it into the deepest recesses of my living room closet. I’ll find it in another few years when I move out, giggle at it, possibly post some of it again (I know I’ve posted some of this shit before), then stuff it in the new place’s closet until the next move.

Always label your storage, even if it’s just to calligraph an elegant “WTF?” on the side of a box filled with miscellaneous stuff.

 

the sound of my nostalgia

At long last, I have finally found a source for mp3 rips of the music from “Shadow of the Beast”. I’d had the music from Beast 2 and 3 for a while, but the best I had for the original game was the off-key music from the PC Engine port.

I don’t know if it really holds up for new listeners. It’s a mere four channels of 8-bit samples. There’s no humanity to the playing, despite some very earthy, windy instruments. But to me it was the sound of wonder; Shadow of the Beast was the first game that really started to experiment with what the Amiga could do in terms of sound and video. Sadly it was also not really much as a game, with terrible disk load times to boot. But who cared? It was light years beyond what the other home systems could do.

Anyway: I got the music from here, and it’s a pretty decent rip. It sounds like being eighteen and amazed did to me. And because this stuff seems to be so rare, I’m also posting it right here to my site, after cleaning up the tags and adding some album art. Enjoy.

01 Intro
02 Main Title
03 Beast – Deep Cave
04 The Forests
05 Battle on the Fields
06 Beast’s Stronghold
07 Underwater

oh hello seattle

I open the blinds and look out the window. Grey skies. Rain. Wind. Oh man it's gonna be cold out isn't it.

I open the window and lean out. And it's a little chilly – but I can also hear the rain now. And I can smell all the ozone it's carried down from the sky. And suddenly, I'm happy about this weather. Now I kinda want to go for a walk.

I may have gone native here.

Though on the other hand if it was ten degrees warmer it'd be a perfectly normal New Orleans spring day. And the sound of cars shoooshing by on a wet street is a comforting noise to me, after growing up on a moderately busy street down there. Maybe this is triggering childhood memories despite being about as far from home as you can get in the continental US.