Friday, September 23, 2011

Looking Back at My First Book - PETEY

In 1996, when I was attending Temple University’s film school, I didn’t sleep much at all. I don’t sleep much now, but back then, I was averaging about two hours per night. Needless to say, a good bit of my college memories are a blur. Some are very crisp, vivid, and intense though, like when I created the character Petey MacDew. Initially, I drew Petey in my sketchbook in 1996 while hanging out with Joe Wichert. Joey worked a night job with me at a bank Senior year. He also attended Temple U with me, but I don’t really remember which years we were at the school together. I just remember hanging out all hours of the night. After we’d knock off work, Joey and I would hang out drinking beers, bumming around, watching movies and cable access teevee. When I look back, even though my lines were shaky and crunchy, my life was like a constant stream on inspired work. I think my college years are when I started to feel at home in my own shadow and understand who I really was. This is when I realized I wanted to draw silly cartoons for the rest of my life, no matter what else I was doing.I toyed with the drawings of Petey in the sketchbook. It was a rough draft of a story. For some reason, Joey was very encouraging of this idea. I am embarrassed to say the name Petey came from an Alec Baldwin SNL skit, a soap opera spoof with twin brothers named Pierce and Petey.

I shelved the sketchbook when it got filled up, then picked it back up again in 1998. I was working at a warehouse at the time. I’d been working there since the day I graduated college almost a year earlier. I was frustrated and awake to the fact that a college degree does not land you and instant high-paying job. So I decided to give myself projects on my own time to try and achieve some progress. Petey was the first big project I took on. I made the story into a children’s book with a very dark theme – child abuse. At the time, a Buddhist friend of mine took me into the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center to do art and music projects with kids who were victims of all kinds of crisis. My life was changed. Although I was amazed at the obstacles these kids overcame on a daily basis, I was also very angry about the abuse life had thrown on them. So I finished Petey as a children’s book. Sonia Sanchez, an amazing poet, friend, teacher, and human being, was kind enough to look at the book and give me some notes. She told me the book was too frightening, too “downbeat”, that it needs a brighter end. She was right, but at the time I was exhausted by the project, so I shelved it again to take a step back.

In 2002, four years after I shelved Petey, I read about the Xeric Foundation (please click here to read more if you are a self-publishing comics maker). I couldn’t believe that Peter Laird (of Ninja Turtles fame) was giving away money so people could create independent comics. My mind was grasping for ideas until I realized that I have a project that could be reworked into a comic. I took Petey off the shelf and spent a month redrawing panels, scanning the original art, laying out the images as comic panels instead of full pages. Between 1998 and 2002, I had learned a lot about Photoshop and other digital art programs. I used everything at my disposal to make a 32-page comic book, and I gave it the uplifting pieces it needed to not be completely downbeat as Sonia suggested years earlier. Also, a few artists and writers helped me with language and pacing. Lucky for me, members of the Philadelphia Cartoonist Society were nice enough to give me pinup pages to fill in the extra space I had (thanks, Andrew Hart, Andrew Hoffmann, Chris McD, Bob Dix, Scott Derby, and Alan Thomas). I whipped together my six proposal copies, got a price quote from a local printer, and sent everything off to the Xeric board.

Unfortunately, I was declined for the grant. Could be my print quote was too high. Could be my work wasn’t good enough. Whatever it was, I didn’t make the cut. When I inquired about it, I even received an encouraging phone call from A.C. Farley at Mirage Studios telling me not to give up. So I didn’t. I asked around all the indy companies about the least expensive place to get comics printed. Drawn & Quarterly turned me onto Westcan printing in Canada. Back then, in that economy, Canadian printing cost a fraction of what it cost locally. So I decided to go with Westcan and self-publish. My Dad was nice enough to lend me the dough for printing cost, (and I paid him back the day I got my check from Previews, the comics distributor). A guy named Chris Young worked with me to make printing my first comic go very smoothly.

I was about to send everything off to the printer, but almost didn’t when I saw “Goodbye Chunky Rice” in Fat Jack’s. I thumbed through the book and saw a turtle with a bindle leaving home and looking for love, and Craig Thompson did it brilliantly. Luckily, I was with Alan Thomas at the time, who ripped the Thompson book from my hand and told me to read it after I made my own book. Alan said that I’d worked too hard on this since college. He was right. So I sent it to print. I dedicated the book to my parents and the kids and staff at the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center. My buddy Rich Marcej let me put the book on his Baboon Books imprint so distributors would carry it.

When I opened my first box of books – I’ll never forget that smell of fresh ink being unleashed from the box. It might be my favorite scent of all time (maybe even better than my Mom’s cookies or Christmas trees).

Sonia endorsed the book when I had a local release party, which made me feel pretty good. I officially released the book at the first annual Toronto Comic Arts Fest in 2003. I did okay with the Petey. It went to second printing, and eventually I even ran out of those doing festivals, conventions, and kids workshops. There was a time for a few years when I cringed every time I read it. Some of it is so young and so awful. The work shifts so drastically at parts because I took such long breaks in getting it to its finished state. But a few weeks ago, I looked for a copy and realized I had none left. I had to order a few from Mile High Comics. It’s been a couple years since I have seen the book, and I will tell you what – when I got that package in the mail, I got kind of psyched again. I didn’t cringe. I didn’t hate any parts of it anymore. It was my first solo book. I was proud of it, even with its bits of awfulness.

More than anything, Petey reminds me that I should be making another book.


JPDJ said...

Hey bro, I never told you this but at the time of Petey's release, I was working a bunch of part-time jobs to make ends meet. Wasn't drawing for myself much at all. After seeing what you accomplished with Petey, I made up my mind to take comics a little more seriously. It took a couple years and a LOT of rejection letters but I eventually landed a strip (Ellington) with United Media. Still have my copy of Petey, by the way! And I still think it's great!

Jeffro said...

James - that is a very touching and heartwarming story. Let's BBQ soon and draw some cartoons! Thank you, brother.

Christine Larsen said...

This is probably one of the best stories I've read in a long time. I'm glad Petey happened, and I'll be looking forward to the next book you do (though I don't think you should count out your Sketches of Fishtown books. Those are pretty brilliant).

Den Cob said...

really appreciated that story. i'll have you know that your one of the folks i go online a' stalking when my work process seems like banging head to wall.

Chris Cummins said...

That comic really knocked me off my feet when I read it. It was so well done and inspirational. Great to hear the story behind its creation.

Jeffro said...

Wow. Thanks for this feedback and the kids words. I am surprised and greatly appreciative.