The Secret History of Innocent Bystander …

The name of this blog is not something I pulled out of a hat. 20 (!) years ago, I started publishing my own comic book … it was called Innocent Bystander. When I started a blog in 2004 (you can visit the first version of it by clicking here), I carried the name over. By this point in time, I figure it’s mine, all mine (although there is a wine company who would argue with me, I guess), so I finally got the URL to go with it (although truth be told, I had it many moons ago and let is lapse) when I restarted my blog just recently.

The name of the comic came from the fact that I felt like an innocent bystander in my own life. Things seemed to happen around me, not to me. That, of course, was a fallacy; everyone, including me, is an active participant in their own life, whether they want to be or not. But for me, at least at that particular moment in time, it was the perfect name for a comic that was basically about me and my experiences.

The other day I dug out copies of all six issues for a friend who had yet to see the book. And for the first time in years, I actually sat down and read them all over again. The first shock was that #1 came out in 1995, 20 years ago. While I probably started working on it in 1993 or so, it took a year or two to get my act together to publish it. When I reread it the other night, I realized how embarrassing it was, even though it had its good points. Issue #2 was a bit better, partly because of the lessons I learned off of issue #1: Better paper and no hand-lettering. At that point in time, computer fonts that looked like comic book lettering were just coming into existence, and I immediately switched to that, even though two prominent indie creators of the time chastised me in letters about it (and then one of them promptly chastised me in an additional letter for printing her letter in the first place).

Issue #3 featured the Marx Brothers, and that was the turnaround issue for me, the point where I found something good to talk about and my work improved because of it. Part comic book documentary, part personal experience, the Marxes meant so much to me in my formative years that I just had to write about them. #4 continued the “one book, one theme” format with an issue devoted to my cats, Stan and Ollie (who are sadly long gone). Issue #5 centered on my first long-form story, titled “Then I Saw Her Face,” which featured the triumph and tragedy of first love and the eighth grade dance (and maybe a little too much honesty). And #6 went back to the scatter-shot format of the first two issues with various short stories, but contained some of my best drawing work (I think). You can see a real progression from issue 1 to issue 6 when it came to the art and design of the book.

More was planned, but I up and quit my well-paying (but stressful) TV job of 18 years and moved across the country, not knowing a soul or having a job. (Kids, here’s some advice: Never quit a job until you have a new job … and oh, don’t do drugs). I had plans for an all TV issue, based on my years in television news (something I touched on in issues 1 & 2), and a special standalone issue called “Fuzzheads,” featuring “those lovable IB cats, Stan and Ollie.” I also started a book about the cats that I was sure every publisher in America would want to publish. They didn’t. (I guess I was a cat comics pioneer … all of this happened pre-Internet. Back then the only cat cartoonist was B. Kliban, and he died in 1990, evidently leaving behind a wealth of material, since there’s a calendar every year since then).

SunsetCliffsWhat happened next was I met Rich Koslowski, the creator of The 3 Geeks, and he and I teamed up for a book called Geeksville, which featured both of our stories in one book. We published 3 issues on our own (those 3 issues contained some of my best work, I think), and then at Comic-Con in 1999, Image Comics made us an offer to publish the book. We published 7 issues with them, but the minute we went to Image, the bloom was off the rose for me. Two things happened around the time we published our first issue (#0, since zero issues were all the rage back then): I got a job at Comic-Con as the director of programming, and all the joy of creating comics drained out of me once we went with Image. Image Comics then was not what it is now (now it’s the most creative and creator-friendly company in American comics … I would be honored to be doing a book with them now). Slowly my output and interest dwindled, like air escaping a slowly-leaking balloon. For 2 issues I relied on my friend Caryn to write stories about her somewhat bizarre childhood that I just drew and lettered. By the last issue, I think my contribution was a color back cover piece that I had created as a promotional postcard much earlier (seen at left).

When I look back at all this now, from a comfortable perch of 20 years later, I realize a number of things. I was going through an early midlife crisis (I had just turned 40), and I desperately needed a creative outlet. I realize now I was never really an artist; I was a storyteller. My writing was always stronger than my drawing, and I would get incredibly frustrated and impatient with not being able to translate what was in my head to what I wanted on the page. (One review at the time, called my artwork “timid.” I wholeheartedly agree).

In the long run, Innocent Bystander, the comic book, was a failure, at least from the standpoint of sales. I lost my shirt. I can safely say now, I racked up over $15,000 in debt trying to make this work. In 1998, when I left my job as a television graphic designer in Pittsburgh, PA, I took half a year to try and make this comic book career thing work. I published 3 books in 6 months (IB 5 and 6, and a trade paperback collection of the first 4 issues, which you can still find in various comic book stores throughout this great land of ours), and did 4 conventions (Pittsburgh Comicon, WizardWorld Chicago, San Diego Comic-Con—little did I know what was in the future for me with that particular con—and SPX). But … and this is a big but … it did garner me some fans from around the world, some of whom were very vocal about their love of the book and my work. I received a fair amount of mail and it was all very nice and kind and thoughtful. And I got mostly positive reviews. If the Sally Field Oscar line (“You like me, you really like me!”) wasn’t such a hoary old cliché, I’d be tempted to use it here.

Eventually, I realized it was time to move on and start over and stop spending money on something that just wasn’t going to happen for me. So I loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimmin’ pools, movie stars. (Well, actually it was a Honda CRX and I came to San Diego, where I’ve been ever since. I’m still amazed by palm trees, by the way.)

A few years later, I entered the comics industry by a side door, and I’ve been in it ever since. Every once in a while I’ll meet someone who remembers Innocent Bystander, the comic book. The most recent was a fellow Pittsburgher, Ed Piskor, who won an Eisner Award this year for Best Reality-Based Work for his Hip-Hop Family Tree. It’s nice to be remembered, especially by someone so talented and committed to his comics work. (Yes, I name drop.)

It’s also nice to look back at this portion of my life with a certain amount of fondness. I’ll never feel the money was wasted. I’ll probably never (I stress that word “probably”) ever do a comic book again, or an online strip, or even draw something. But those few years that I did so were among the most satisfying moments in my life. I can honestly tell you there’s nothing like getting a shipment of books delivered to your door and opening up that first box. The smell of ink on freshly-printed paper—mixed slightly with blood, sweat, tears, and money you’ll never see again—is something one never forgets.

Top image: The world of Innocent Bystander circa mid to late 1990s. Top row (left to right): The “Ashcan” issue I prepared to try and find a publisher (which resulted in the decision to self-publish); Issues 1 through 4. Bottom row (left to right): Issues 5 and 6, the first trade paperback (there never was a second), the “World Tour” catalog I prepared for the 4 conventions I exhibited at in 1998, and the cover to Geeksville #3, the Christmas issue, and the only Innocent Bystander cover of that series. All art © Gary G. Sassaman.

Lower image: Stan and Ollie at Sunset Cliffs. © Gary G. Sassaman. Stan and Ollie, RIP.

That Time I Made A Movie In La Jolla …

Remember Flip videos? They were this little recording device that was all the rage for like 3 months back in 2009-2011 or so. We got one at work and I took it to La Jolla one weekend in March 2011 and shot a whole mess of scenes of the ocean and those cute little almost-but-not-quite-squirrels that scamper around up there. Then I brought it home and edited it together and, for an extra dose of pomposity, I added titles and music in French (“Le Mer,” basically the French version of “Beyond the Sea”).

This is the first and only “un film de Gary Sassaman,” so enjoy it while you can. That big Hollywood contract never materialized and those Flip camcorders died the minute people started shooting videos on their smartphones.

Jack Kirby Would Have Been 98 Today …

It’s hard to imagine comics without Jack “King” Kirby. The comics industry as we know it today would not exist without him. He was a pioneering artist in the 1940s, co-creating Captain America with Joe Simon. The Marvel Cinematic Universe would not exist without him. Kirby had a hand in the creation of almost all the Avengers movie characters (with the possible exception of Hawkeye and Black Widow), so his impact today is more important than ever, stretching way beyond just comic books. His characters are household words, if (sadly) he himself isn’t.

Kirby was the first artist who really meant something to me. At the ripe old age of six, I discovered the Fantastic Four. Kirby and Stan Lee’s signatures on that first page made me come to the startling revelation that someone actually wrote and drew these comic books I was so fond of. As a kid, I would coerce my friends into playing “Marvel Comics” with me. I would be Stan and whomever was unlucky enough to be stuck in our cramped, comic book-filled playroom would be Jack. We would “smoke” pretzel rods, because all top comic creators smoked big, fat, stinky cigars. I would say “What’s in our next issue, Jack?” and my friends would look at me with a blank face, convinced that I was weird beyond belief. But I was obsessed, and in the decade of the ‘60s, when you went to the newsstand and were confronted with 3 or 4 or 5 Kirby-drawn Marvel comics in any given month, the powerful opiate of 4-color comics was enticingly persuasive. Especially when you’re ten years old.

For me, Kirby was never as good alone as he was with Stan Lee … as a team, they were the Lennon & McCartney of comics. Like the Beatles, they didn’t always get along, but the work they did together was absolutely amazing. It’s doubly sad to see a train wreck such as the new Fantastic Four movie. Lee & Kirby created a blueprint for an amazing ongoing story, more than enough for multiple movies. For anyone to abandon that already-created storyboard is a crime.

We still miss you, King. Happy 98th birthday.

Above image: Hulk (from Avengers #3, I believe), 1964 © Marvel Characters, Inc. • Kirby portrait by and © Michael Cho

Flashback Foto #002 …

That time in Seattle when I took this photo. Sadly, I think that iconic coffee cup sign is no longer there. This is from spring 2012. And the sky wasn’t really green. This has had quite a few filters added to it (it originally appeared on my Instagram account).

I think a million people took this same photo, probably a few hundred on the same day as I did. But I still like it.

Some Helpful Tips for My New Blog …

I’m still learning this blog software, but here’s a helpful tip (I lied in the headline … I only know one; not so helpful I guess, but I had to sucker you in): There’s a whole other menu up there in the corner. See those three little dots up there on the right? Click on that and you’ll launch a top menu that includes other navigation, including my most recent posts, comments, my Instagram feed, and my recently added Goodreads ID, where I chronicle the books I currently read.

If you’re viewing this on a tablet or smart phone, the three little dots work the same, but there may also be what is technically known as “the hamburger menu,” which is 3 little boxes stacked on top of each other, like bun-meat-bun. That opens up the sidebar menu next to the title which contains my About page, a link to my old blog, and a “Contact Me” link, which lets you send me a real, live email. And I might even respond and email you back … “might” being the operative word.

I know, I know … this is all thrilling news. Contain yourselves.

Lately I’ve Been Thinking About Cashews …

No, dementia hasn’t set in … but any day now …

I bought a bag of cashews at Target on Friday and I’ve been slowly munching my way through them. By slowly, I mean like 6 a day. I have this thing where most nuts bother me. With the possible exception of almonds, every nut affects … shall we say, to be polite … my digestive tract. My tolerance for things like peanuts and peanut butter is open only to very small doses.

I love cashews, probably because of their sweet and salty nature (although this particular bag isn’t salty enough). But the cashew in and of itself has a nostalgic effect on me. It carries me back to Saturday afternoon shopping with my mom in downtown Tamaqua.

Those Saturdays, weather permitting, meant trips to Scheid’s Department Store, the National Store, maybe Kutcher’s TV and Appliances to make a payment on our television set or pay our cable bill. It meant a long exploration of Moser’s Newsstand, both when it was on Broad Street in its big location and when it was in its little maze-like original store on Swatara Street, near the Citizens’ Fire Company. There I looked at the latest comics (and sneaked a peek at the racy paperback book covers), while my mom bought a copy of Redbook or Ladies’ Home Journal or (shhh!) True Confessions (she evidently liked a little sleaze, too).


Not the Tamaqua Newberry’s that I grew up with, but darn close. Image © Respective Owner

The capper of the trip would be a visit to J. J. Newberry’s, the town’s sole 5- and 10-cent store after Woolworth’s closed. Newberry’s was the Target of its day, a variety store that sold just about everything (except groceries). Clothes, hardware, kitchenware … you name it, they had it, especially an amazing toy department filled with the most outrageous and cheap junk any kid could ever want. I was big on the giant bags of one-color (olive green) toy soldiers that were 99 cents each. I got my fill of Batman toys there in 1966 and 1967, when every kid in the country went bat-shit crazy (pun intended) for a TV show that is bewildering to me now. (I watched this? REALLY?) I remember their high counters with bins filled with toys, and the glass (safety first, kids) dividers they had at each end and in between to separate them. I was barely tall enough to see what was up there. They also had kids’ books and coloring books and of course, Little Golden Books. And oh, yeah … dolls. Yuck.

The end of our weekly Newberry’s foray meant a stop at the lunch counter (or maybe it was a candy counter?) up front for a bag of hot, salted, roasted cashews. They came in a little red and white paper bag, which was warm to the touch, the perfect thing to take outside in the cold winter months and to munch on all the way home. I think they cost a dime or a nickel … I don’t recall. I wasn’t buying. The clerk took a shiny metal scoop and scooped them right into the bag, fresh and hot, a treat for the long walk (every walk is long when you’re ten) home, trudging up the hill from downtown with our packages and home to my dad and older brother immersed in Saturday’s slate of college football on TV.

None of this exists anymore. It’s all gone. The last J. J. Newberry’s closed in 2001 in Portland, Oregon. Maybe I’m remembering this because of the bag of cashews I bought on Friday or maybe I’m remembering it because today is my mom’s birthday. She would have been 96 years old. She died in 1997. Thanks for all the 99-cent toys, the comic books, and oh, yeah … those hot little bags of cashews in Newberry’s. I still remember them all these years later.

Today’s Walk: 8.27 miles …

I walk … a lot. Last year I walked just a smidgen over 900 miles. For the most part, these are walks that are calculated to be just me out there walking, with the exception of work-related days where I walk all over Convention Centers in Southern California and rack up 10, 12, 13 miles a day. Those I count. But I don’t count my daily to and from work, etc.

Today’s walk included both Seaport Village and Balboa Park. The view you see above is looking west on El Prado Bridge over Highway 163 (or as we call it, “the 163”). Those aggressive looking stakes are there to prevent people from doing crazy stuff like throwing things off the bridge … including themselves.

Flashback Foto #001 …

So if this is going to be primarily a photo blog, I guess I should start by uploading a photo, eh?

This is one my all-time favorites, from the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica. As magazines die, the outdoor newsstand is quickly becoming a dinosaur looking up at the comets spinning through the sky. I’m sure no one makes a ton of money selling magazines to the public, but I love the lure of racks covered with … well, covers. This nighttime shot was grabbed a few years ago on one of my sporadic trips to the City of Angels.

Let’s try this again …

From 2004 into 2013, I blogged—at times, almost incessantly. I not only blogged, but for a period of time, I became an evangelist of blogging, urging people to do it, too (only 1 or 2 people did so, but hey … like the monkey said when he peed in the ocean, every drop counts).

After a while, my posts became less about things I was doing and more about things I was seeing … in essence, a photography blog. I started walking in 2011, due to a minor health scare, and that, coupled with the rise of a better camera on my constantly-upgrading iPhone, made me realize how much I loved taking–and sharing–photos.

Around 2012, my blog became almost exclusively a photo blog, a chronicle of my walks and travels. And also that year, my work life took an unexpected turn when I took over our company website, which included its own blog. The fire in my belly for my personal blog went out, and I walked away from it. (It’s still out there in web space, because as we all know, the Internet is written in permanent ink. Click here to read it.)

Recently, I’ve gotten a little of that fire back (it normally occurs when I eat anything with a tomato-based sauce). And I realized I missed having a personal forum to show my photos, make my snide comments and reviews, and just generally grind an axe with the rest of the world. So here we are again … with one caveat: I felt the overwhelming urge to start over, a fresh start, as you will. I hate to ignore the 8+ years of content that already exists, especially since some of it doesn’t make me cringe (much). But I’m older now (I am officially at an age where I can say “I’m too old for this,” according to the New York Times), and hopefully just a tad more mellow. Your definition of “tad” may vary.

So let’s try this again. I think it may end up being largely a photo blog, but we’ll see. I do love to write. Oh, and yeah … there’s always this, from a writer I hugely admire:

…and there comes a time when that which I write must belong to me, has to be written alone and in silence, with no one looking over my shoulder, no one telling me a better way to write it. It doesn’t have to be great writing, it doesn’t even have to be terribly good. It just has to be mine. —Raymond Chandler

I hope you’ll join me as we start this journey … again.