When we were kids, my brother and I used to collect yellow legal pads and make cartoons in them. Each page would have it’s own large-scale picture, and we’d draw a single story, careful to use every page. We would spend a great deal of time and thought designing cover pages and producing exciting copy for the cardboard backing. When one was full we’d get another and continue with the same characters. Nothing made us happier than when Mom or Dad came home with a shrink-wrapped bundle of three legal pads for each of us. It was literally the most exciting thing we could dream of.
We started with the Ghosthunters. My character was named Jack Jorgensen. He was 43 years old (I think it was my dad’s age at the time, so it seemed the appropriate age for an action hero), was married to a long-suffering wife named Mary, and routinely went off on wild monster-slaying adventures. Indiana Jones loomed like a grizzled god in my mind back then, and so Jack faced the forces of evil with a gun and a whip. His chief nemesis, appearing every third issue or so, was Gambar, King of the Ghosts.
He floated through the air, about as big as a minivan. Why I thought it was reasonable for Jack to shoot bullets at ghosts, I just don’t know.
At some point it occurred to us that we could divide each page into four panels, instantly quadrupling the size of the story we could tell. It was like discovering fire.
Eventually we got tired of the ghosthunters — too serious, I guess — and we moved on to the antics of cartoon animals. My brother did Funny Farm, and I did Crackers! (That exclamation point is part of the title, because I needed you to know that what you were going to encounter inside was crazy. And in case you were still in doubt? That “k” in the middle of the word? Backwards. Do not doubt it.)
I ended up with 27 pads of Crackers!, not including magazine specials and movies Bing the Cat starred in. I’m looking through them now and it’s kind of a startling window into my developing brain. The jokes, especially in the beginning, are cringe-worthy. But towards the end I can see how I was starting to develop as a storyteller. (You can also see where I started to head into adolescence; towards the end of the series, some of the female characters seemed to find themselves naked with increasing frequency, for various absurd reasons.)
It’s a far cry from anything the world needs to see — I can’t see myself ever showing this to anybody — but I have to admit I’m kind of impressed with the large scale interweaving of gonzo plotlines I was attempting. Over the course of several pads there was an evil landlord who eventually became Lord of the Sewers and developed an acrimonious friendship with a ninja; an egotistical cat who became a movie star, and in retrospect was pretty much a sociopath; a mermaid rabbit; and a frog who won a trip to Africa, and was accidentally jettisoned into space while trying to save the world from an ant uprising (several pads later he comes back as the head of an alien attack force; he’s pissed his friends made no effort to rescue him so he’s going to destroy the earth for revenge (he succeeds, thereby ending the series at last)). There were many more: humans, snakes, mailbox monsters, walking oil slicks. They all shared a house and drove each other crazy. They would routinely break the fourth wall and berate me for the things I was doing to them, criticize my awful choices, whereupon I would punish them with further calamities. It’s both humbling and sort of exciting to sit here and look through it all again.
It’s funny, when you get a chance to look back and see the origins of who you have become. I tend to write character pieces now; some of my short stories can barely be said to have plots. When I open up a blank page for a new story these days, the excitement is tinged with a feeling of anxiety. So it’s a little inspiring to see myself as I was, throwing lightning bolts with wild abandon, riding the crest of the wave with no thought to how I would land or how it might look.
It was just raw, excited, frenetic creation.
Fun: plain and simple.