Monday, October 18, 2010

Are the Stars Out Tonight?

Ken Steacy’s caricature of himself as R2D2

He hit me!

I haven’t seen my old friend Ken Steacy in a decade and the first thing he does is wallop me. Granted, I gave a big hug to Joanie—his lovely wife who I haven’t seen in fifteen years—first, but it wasn’t anything scurrilous; nothing you’d see on Cinemax after midnight. Heck, I’ve witnessed more risqué maneuvers on iCarly.

Did I owe him money?

Perhaps I should back up…

Faithful Bloglodytes will no doubt remember the epic posting of a year ago (see “Jeepers Creepers”), wherein I recounted my first encounter with wild man Ken Steacy at Mid-Ohio Con. There, he took it upon himself to fashion replacement eyes for my suit, which con headliner Todd McFarlane teasingly commented as being “too small.” There was danger, suspense, and yes, hilarity ensued. More importantly, though, I survived!

Steacy drawing at the 2009 DragonCon in Atlanta. This is the first in a series of progressive photos taken by Anthony Taylor of the artist sketching a hula girl. Hey, isn't that R2D2s shirt?

I was fortunate (or “unfortunate” depending on how you look at it) to bump into Ken on several occasions thereafter throughout Canada and the U.S., while traveling under the aegis of Marvel Character Actor. On one such gig, I was sent to Victoria Island, off the coast of Vancouver, as part of a nationwide Canadian press tour to promote a series of pro-message custom Spider-Man comic books funded by the National Association of Chiefs of Police (NACP). But the press tour is a story for another time.

Ken lives in Victoria with his wife, the aforementioned and equally talented Joanie, and two boys, Alex and Raymond. When I knew I would be in his home town, I called him, so we could get together.

Joanie Steacy, a talented artist in her own right

He picked me up at the hotel soon after the early-morning press conference. I wasn’t leaving until the next day, so we had the whole day to hang. No sooner had we exited the circular drive in front of my accommodations then WHAM!, Ken socked me in the meat of my upper left arm.

OW! What the Hell?! (Actually, my response was considerably harsher but I don’t want to incur the wrath of the gmail censors and have my “Closet” closed).

“Punch buggy; no return!” Ken announced with that shit-eating grin of his, before I could put his face through the windshield.

There are some looks I have that would force Derek Zoolander into retirement. The psychic vitriol that accompanies them is palpable and intense enough that it can be delivered while I am masked and still elicit a reaction. Ken was the latest victim of my maleficent mien and quickly realized that I was not familiar with this what-I-assumed-was-a-Canadian-centric custom and he’d better start explaining himself immediately before I introduced him to some New York “hospitality!”

“You never played Punch Buggy before?” he delivered with a mixed tone of disbelief and regret for assuming this steaming 6-foot, 2-inch New Yorker might be a party to a puerile pastime—catalyzed by the sighting of a classic Volkswagon Bug—that finds one person punching another with impunity without fear of repercussion as long as the deliverer of said socking shouts “No Return!” before the deliveree can retaliate with a clout of their own.

As one might evince from my reaction… No, I had never heard of this perverse pastime. I was familiar with a traveling game when I was younger that concerned the spotting of the beloved German-manufactured half-moon–shaped vehicles made famous by the Disney Herbie films—The Love Bug, Herbie Rides Again, et al—and others, such as the Streisand/O’Neal comedy What’s Up, Doc?, but that game was far more sedate; less “Punch,” more “Buggy.” Or more appropriately, “Bug,” as players racked up points for being the first to spot the cars during road trips and shouting “Bug!” before their opponents did.

Pugilism was never a part of the game. At least it wasn’t meant to be. But growing up, my sisters and I, when we weren’t fighting, we were sleeping. Screaming was our way of conversing. As for playing together, it wasn’t a question of would it turn ugly, but when would it turn ugly. Most games never even got past the conception phase, as we’d start fighting over who would go first, color or token choices, rules, etc. before the game began. It wasn’t unusual for playtime to devolve into fisticuffs. So actually adding an element of hitting would be overkill along the lines of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Yes, my family put the “fun” in “dysfunctional.”

Choosing a token someone else wanted was grounds for a donnybrook in my home

Twenty years ago, when Ken popped my “Punch Buggy” cherry, the once ubiquitous VW “Bugs” had all but disappeared from most of the U.S., certainly the less temperate areas of the country where the harsher weather conditions severely decreased the life of a car. In Vancouver, however, “Bugs” flourished, so it made sense that the game would continue unimpeded as well. But for me, the car and its eponymous game were a distant memory.

VW recently revived “Punch Buggy” in a series of national ads which were launched during last year’s Super Bowl; a good idea, but one doomed to failure, since the game was inspired by the unique insect-like design of the original automobile, and the new vehicles, though nice, are as indistinguishable as most every other car on the roads these days.

Appropriately enough, Ken and Joanie gifted us with this nifty Volkswagon Bug model for our wedding

My answer to Ken was a hearty smack and “Punch Buggy; no return!” of my own as another relative of Herbie sped into view. I felt nary a hint of guilt taking advantage of his inattentiveness while he awaited my reaction to his initial punch. After all, he ambushed me with his assumption that “Punch Buggy” was a universally accepted pastime, so it was only fair that I react in kind.

The remainder of the day was spent hitting each other; not the brightest thing to do to the driver of the car you are in, but the alternative was letting Ken hit me first and that wasn’t going to happen if I could help it.

Casa Steacy was a lovely Victorian with beautiful natural wood interior features. Alex (10) and Raymond (7) were Ken’s id made manifest; tag team bundles of kinetic creativity and enthusiasm that looked upon me as someone new to present their latest ideas and inventions. I couldn’t tell you which Steacy stripling was responsible for what particular parts of a creation. The two worked in tandem, often finishing each other’s thoughts as they spoke.

One of their proudest achievements was a toilet they had fashioned out of Play-Doh for a wolfman action figure. What put their sculpture above standard childish toilet humor (no pun intended) was the inclusion of plumbing. The boys has actually molded and connected Play-Doh pipes to the back of the bowl that worked. I can only imagine Watson’s and Crick’s initial giddiness when they told of their discovery of the golden helix structure of DNA strands. They presented to me what today would be considered classic Robot Chicken as wolfman stepped up to the crapper to do his business and a pea-sized Play-Doh dumpling fell into the bowl and rolled through the plumbing, exiting six-inches away.

They also showed me pages of plans for Rube Goldberg-esque inventions, for which they’d made schematics that were both ingenious and hysterical in their wackiness. I remember a particularly surreal facet of one that hinged on a man getting bored and falling asleep, at which point his slumbering body would collapse against the trigger for the next phase of the invention. And in true Goldberg fashion the insanely elaborate set-ups resulted in the most mundane outcomes, like lighting a match or turning on a faucet. As funny as their gadgets were, I got more enjoyment listening to Alex and Raymond explain each device. They put Vince, the ShamWow man, to shame!

Rube Goldbergs entertaining inventions were an inspiration for the Steacy boys own

Joanie was the Feng shui to Ken and the boy’s freneticism. Petite, sweet and charming, she was the calm, stable force of the household. But as a talented artist herself, she was no less nurturing in her husband’s and son’s creative pursuits. Thus, Chez Steacy was a perfect storm of imagination, cleverness and vision.

Unfortunately, Joanie was unable to accompany us to lunch as she had previous commitments. So Ken, Alex, Ray and I packed into the car and headed into town. And I soon learned the boys were no less adept at “Punch Buggy” than their father. They also had me at a distinct disadvantage. Regardless of their being wholehearted participants who reveled in the sadistic nature of the game—their ows followed by endless giggles with every hit given and received—I just couldn’t bring myself to wallop a child, no matter how much they tried to convince me—nay, begged me—to do so.

I’d pathetically swat their arms like a nonagenarian on pain killers, simply so I wouldn’t be pounded, and they’d razz me about the wimpiness of my delivery. Of course, my trepidation in putting any force behind my punches did nothing to decrease the power of their own when they got the upper hand, so to speak. Young and wee they may have been, but after a few hours you could have breaded my arm and served it as saltimbocca.

Lunch was pizza, during which Ken asked me about the Spider-Man costume (They always want to know about the costume); the material out of which it was made; how I see while wearing it; what it feels like; how do I put it on; etc. Ken was surprised to discover that I was unable to pull up the head over my mouth so I could eat and drink, as the suit is portrayed in the comics and movies. If the noggin area was a separate piece it would roll up, leaving a strip of revealed skin around one’s neck. Ergo, the memorable hanging kiss Spidey and MJ share in the rain in the first Web-Slinger flick would not be possible.

Ken then followed up with a query on how I eat when I’m in the red-and-blues (answer: I don’t). The question was rhetorical or seemed to be, because no sooner had it left his lips, then Ken went into a spiel about Spidey eating pizza. He grabbed a napkin, a red Sharpie seemed to materialize out of thin air, and he began scribbling frantically, giggling like Ed Wynn in Mary Poppins. I fully expected him to start floating to the ceiling at any moment. In seconds, he put down the marker and presented his piece, like he was a student laying aside his No. 2 pencil upon time expiring during a section of the SAT.

On the 4" x 4" canvas was a drawing of me in the no-mouth-access Spider-Man costume attempting to eat a slice of pizza. A blob of cheese covers the mouth area, clothes-lining to the slice in my hand with additional strands hanging and sticking to everything. It looked as though Spider-Man was a victim of his own webbing and it was brilliant.

Steacy whipped off this darkly humorous piece from a concept Yours Truly gave him at a convention, at which I was pulling double duty as both Spidey and Iron Man.

But seconds after finishing the mini-masterpiece, Ken crumpled the artwork in his hand, wiped up the table in front of him and tossed it onto the pile of uneaten crusts, fallen toppings and used napkins. I was horrified. I wanted to dive after the piece. How could Ken be so callous about his work? To do so, though, felt to me like a stalker groveling after a sheet of toilet paper that had fallen from the heel of the object of their infatuation after they’d left the bathroom. I still wish I’d made a fool of myself and taken it.

The highlight of my visit was experiencing Ken’s studio upon our return to the Steacy homestead. I’ve seen bigger walk-in closets, but none as magical. Clippings and artwork fought for wall space; photos of Joanie and the boys, and one of Ken in the cockpit of a fighter jet—a military brat, Ken grew up loving planes—shelves packed with gew gaws, cartoon and action figures and all manner of knick knacks, resembling the deck of a boatload of immigrants arriving at Ellis Island at the turn of the last century; and, of course, his work space.

The cover to the trade paperback collection of
Tempus Fugitive

Ken’s medium is the air brush, an instrument—connected via hose to a large standing air tank—that resembles the cleaning device of a dental hygienist only instead of a rotating polisher on the end, it sharpens to a point. Out of a hole at its tip, paint is blown, and the “brush” can be adjusted according to the desired stroke width.

Ken’s skill with the instrument is dazzling; his detail and control are mind-boggling, at times as fine as artists who paint with a single camel hair on the head of a pin. At the time I was there, he was in the midst of Tempus Fugitive, a four-issue square-bound, time-traveling adventure that he was both writing and painting for DC Comics. On his easel was the latest double-page spread on which he was working, a aerobatic dog fight betwixt to vintage biplanes. In the span of two pages, our hero is set upon by a duo of villainous aviators; outmaneuvers them and shoots them out of the sky. Damn, this Steacy guy not only paints good pictures, he’s a great storyteller as well!

Another cherished piece of Steacy art that adorns
Casa Vroom!

That trip solidified my friendship with the Steacy’s, who eventually came to my and the wondrous Audrey’s wedding in New York City several years later. But, as fate would have it, that was the last time I saw Ken and Joanie—I saw only Ken just long enough to wave in passing at the San Diego Con in 1997—until this past weekend at the New York Comic Con.

I was working for Fanfare/Ponent Mon, running the publisher’s booth as I did at SPX a month earlier. As such, I had scant opportunity to roam the main floor never mind brave the trek to Artist’s Alley on the other side of the Javits Center where the con was held. I wouldn’t have even known the Steacy’s were attending had I not received a call earlier in the week…

’Twas the week before NYCCon and barely past 10,
when the phone that was ringing, turned out to be Ken!
No greeting he made, but one question alone:
“Is this Spider-Man?” in an ominous tone.
“Why, yes,” I replied—calls like these were not new.
“It’s Ken,” he erupted like a giggling loon.
“I’ll be at the con, sweet Joanie in tow,
Would love to see you and Aud ’fore we go!”
The call was that quick, no more need to be said.
We’d connect at the show. Then I went back to bed.

Shakespearean poetry it’s not, but it gets the point across and saves you, my ever-patient Bloglodytes, from wading through my usual half dozen paragraphs of idle chatter, rants and sub-references before I get back on track.

Vroom! manning the Fanfare/Ponent Mon booth last month at the 2010 SPX in Bethesda, Maryland

Thank goodness for Jon and Beth, who helped me man the booth during the show. They valiantly held down the fort while I waded through thousands of fellow comic geeks to Artist’s Alley. I felt like Leiningen versus the ants in the classic Stephenson short story of the same name, on which the Charlton Heston movie, The Naked Jungle, was based. But once my journey to the Alley was complete, I still had to locate Ken in a sea of visual creators. Murphy’s Law was not quite firing on all cylinders as it was not the last place I looked before I found the Steacy’s.

Six billion ants vs. six bullets? Yeah, thatll work!

Ken was deeply ensconced in a commission when I approached, but Joanie recognized me immediately, putting out her arms to give me a big hug. No one would have confused the meeting with the finale of an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition episode, but it was heartfelt nonetheless. Even Joanie’s momentarily confusing me with Steve Rude—co-creator/artist of Nexus—did nothing to sour the moment.

That’s when he hit me!

“Punch Buggy; no return!” he cried in delight. My nephews don’t take nearly as much glee yelling “Tag! You’re it!” upon seeing me after a long spell. I never thought I’d miss being smacked, but after the hit, Ken grabbed me in an embrace and all the years between our seeing each other dissolved. I’m getting all verklempt just thinking about it

(Please… a moment…)

The reunion was short-lived, however, since I had to return to the Fanfare/Ponent Mon booth, and Ken had sketches he had to finish. Fortunately, he and Joanie weren’t leaving New York until Tuesday morning, so we agreed to get together for dinner the evening before. He autographed and sent me off with a couple of full-color prints he was selling, one of which from a painting he had created nearly twenty years prior. Ken had forgotten, but I would never forget. After all, I was one of the first people to see the piece upon its completion and, it now hangs on my bedroom wall!

This magnificent Magneto dismantling of a high-tech gun was one of the half dozen prints Steacy had for sale at NYCC

It was the fall of 1991, at the last of the annual conventions staged by the Devilish Darwin and Lithesome Lola (see “Survival of the Fittest,” Part I and II), Ken brought a series of non-commissioned 11" x 17" pieces of Marvel characters he had painted, which he hoped to sell to the company for use as posters. Each was brilliantly executed and offered a sly take on the heroes portrayed therein.

One featured the Punisher, pressed against a bullet-riddled wall. He faces the audience, chest-skull in full display, though he is turned toward his adversaries in the background who are charging him across a war-torn landscape. The character holds one of his signature giant guns and stands beside a pile of other weapons he has already gone through. Another takes place underwater, as Wolverine—back to the camera—faces off against an approaching Hammerhead shark. The world-famous X-Man is in naught but Speedos, but we know it is he, because of the telltale claws protruding from his fists.

This wet ’n’ wild Wolvie painting originally had the mutton-chopped mutant facing with his back to the audience, but Marvel would only agree to purchase it if Steacy turned the X-Man around

But the one that caught my eye, was a romantic nighttime scene of Mary-Jane and an upside-down–hanging Spider-Man drinking champagne atop the roof of their New York apartment building. In the distance is the Empire State Building and the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Ken created the piece to celebrate not only the Web-Swinger’s and MJ’s fifth anniversary as bride and groom, but also the impending 30th anniversary (1992) of Webhead’s creation. Marvel eventually bought the art and issued a poster in celebration of that historic event a few months later.

Ken hadn’t even taken it completely out of his portfolio, when I told him it was mine; I wanted it; how much? It didn’t concern me that the perspective whence the scene is painted was awry, given the locations of the iconic structures, a fact clearly evident to any New Yorker. When confronted with his geographical faux pas, Ken was unabashed about his ignorance. He’d never been to the Big Apple, but wanted to represent the city’s titular skyline within the limited background with which he had to work. At least he knew enough to place the towers beyond the Empire State Building.

New Yorkers know that the Twin Towers would be obscured by Mary-Jane were this a geographically accurate depiction of the Big Apple

But one error in the painter’s design was unplanned. Originally, stars twinkled playfully within the dark patch that delineates the moon’s crescent shape as if a bite had been taken out of the orb, making it possible to see the stars on its far side. But the moon is still whole; it always is. The lunar shape is dictated by the shadow that the Earth casts on its surface by the sun on the opposite side of the planet. Depending on where each celestial sphere is in its orbit determines how much of the sun’s illumination is blocked. When the moon is full, the sun’s light is unimpeded by the Earth.

A fan pointed out this error to Ken during the convention. He reacted with a hearty, self-deprecating laugh, and almost took pride in his stupidity as he explained the mistake to everyone who saw the piece thereafter. In the artist’s defense, hundreds of people saw the masterpiece without commenting on the gaff, myself included, before the young Copernicus-in-training espied it.

The phases of the moon, showing the important role the Earth plays

At the show’s completion, when I was ready to take the art home—arm and leg in hand as payment—Ken told me I’d have to wait until he fixed the problem. He would ship the work to me after he was done. I told him I didn’t care, but he insisted. Actually, I told Ken I wanted the art with the blunder intact. It would make for a better story when I showed it to friends, telling them what a dodo he was. Ken thought this hysterical, but he still refrained from giving me the art before he’d fixed it.

That Monday night following the New York ComicCon, Ken and I met with our respective honeys as planned. The Wondrous Audrey had only met the Steacy’s once at our wedding more than fifteen years before, and it wasn’t as if she had much exclusive time with either to kibbitz and get to know them, what with the scores of other guests to greet; the toasts to share; the dancing and eating. She knew them vicariously through me and my stories—I’m surprised she didn’t frisk Ken for X-acto Knives at the restaurant (If you haven't already seen—and why haven't you?—see “Jeepers Creepers”).

Audrey and Joanie got along like they’d gone to high school together. From an outsider’s POV, it would’ve seemed like it was they who had known one another for years and Ken and I were the spouses dragged to the affair.

It turns out that for the last few months, Ken has been teaching art at a school in Toronto, a six-month assignment that would have him and Joanie returning to Vancouver in December. They saw the NYCC as the perfect opportunity to reconnect with old friends and network with publishers at the show.

Ken was heartened by the reaction he received by the latter. “Ken Steacy?! I love your stuff!” was a common refrain he heard throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, it was immediately tempered by “I thought you were dead!” But beggars cannot be choosers.

Also ironic, was one particular recurring criticism: that his work was not cartoony enough. When Ken sprang onto the comics scene in the early eighties, he was a pioneer in introducing North American readers to the classic manga style, made famous by Osamu Tezuka, Godfather of Manga, through his most famous creations, Astro Boy and Jungle Emperor Leo (known in this country as Kimba, the White Lion). Then, Ken’s designs were considered too cartoony.

His talent was never in question. Big companies just didn’t know what to do with him. The ultra-detailed, testosterone-fueled stylings of artists, such as Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, were the hot sellers of the day, and Ken’s work didn’t gibe. He did get work with smaller publishers, like Now Comics, with which he worked on Speed Racer and Astro Boy. But other than the occasional cover and isolated projects outside their mainstream titles—the aforementioned Tempus and a couple of Iron Man stories for Marvel Fanfare—the big two had nothing to give him.

With the explosion of manga in the past decade, which has lead to a cartoon-ification (if you will) of the industry in recent years, Ken now finds his stylings not quite in sync again, but for the opposite reasons.

In the 80s, Steacy also produced the covers for the three-issue Ultraman comic series by Ultracomics

Overall, Ken was pleased with his Big Apple convention debut. Longtime fans were giddy with excitement to finally meet him and get his signature. And more than a few unenlightened young’uns were transfixed by his artwork and wanted to know what brush in Photoshop Steacy had used? How else could one attain such sharp, vibrant colors? He left more than a few scratching their heads wondering if maybe this “airbrush” of which he spoke was a new feature of CS5 and slavering anticipation of getting to work with it.

Sorry, kids, there’re no keyboard shortcuts for the results that Ken achieves; no layer styles; no distortion, emboss or blur effects; and no magic wand. You will get paint on your hands and it won’t be from changing ink cartridges. The good news is you won’t lose your work, if the computer crashes. And there is no fear of developing Carpel Tunnel Syndrome. The bad news is, if you make a mistake, there’s no “undo.”

“Command Z” certainly would’ve made correcting a few erroneously-placed stars in the Spider-Man anniversary poster art a lot easier.

Ken and Joan Steacy at the 2010 New York ComicCon