My Life in Comics, Part 6: The Wilderness Years …

I graduated art school in March of 1976 with a degree in Visual Communications, but I failed to become the comic book artist that I hoped to become when I enrolled at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. After some lackluster job searches (I was hired and then promptly fired from a prominent Pittsburgh advertising agency because I didn’t have a driver’s license at the time), I ended up moving back to my hometown, Tamaqua, PA … kind of with my tail between my legs, I suppose.

I semi-supported myself doing comic book type commission drawings. I advertised in the Comics Buyers’ Guide, a weekly comic book collector newspaper, and did color drawings for about $10.00 each, plus postage. Finally, almost a year after I graduated, I found a job with The Tamaqua Paper, a weekly tabloid newspaper, which had just changed hands. The new owners, a local pastor and his wife, had little to no experience in publishing a newspaper, and desperately needed someone to help them with layout and production. I, of course, had little to no experience in designing a newspaper, so I jumped right in. I remember having a long discussion with a local funeral director who, apparently not busy enough with dead people, was a kind of partner in this enterprise, and was selling advertising for the paper. He was incensed that I asked for (and got) the princely sum of $4.00 an hour for laying out the paper and getting it ready for the printer. Needless to say, he was a major pain in the ass throughout my two-plus years with the company.

Originally we did the production work in the kitchen of the pastor’s house, but eventually we moved into an office in downtown Tamaqua, and they hired an office manager named Karen (long before that name has been dragged through the mud as the ultimate entitled white girl). We got along great and found ourselves basically running the paper, since the pastor was off doing pastor-duties most of the time. He was also a part-time sports announcer, doing play-by-play on the radio for the Tamaqua High School teams, and his wife worked for (I believe) a nursing home outside of Tamaqua. The paper came out every Thursday, so Wednesday was our busiest day, getting it ready for the printer. At my urging, the pastor had invested in an electronic typesetting machine (kind of a computer, but almost a decade before the age of desktop publishing brought on by home computers) and a photostat machine, both of which made my life infinitely easier (and allowed me to produce Pittsburgh Fan Forumclick here for that tale), and gave the newspaper a much-more professional look than the IBM Selectic typewriters we had been using. The office manager did most of the typing, and I did all the layout and production work, including sizing and screening of photos, and, as needed, illustrations and cartoons. A friend of the pastor’s daughter did a weekly coloring page, too.

I got to do a lot at The Tamaqua Paper. I was basically the managing editor, art director, chief designer, illustrator, cartoonist, occasional movie critic, and wastebasket emptier. I pretty much worked only three days each week (Monday through Wednesday), which made that $4.00/hour salary even more important, since I rarely worked more than a 30-hour week. On Thursdays I would stop by to pick up a copy or two of the paper, just to see how it turned out, and tear down the layout sheets that had been returned from the printer to use again the following week.

Our office was in an ancient building owned by an ancient woman named Mrs. Beard. She was well over four feet tall and lived upstairs. It was a very imposing white marble building, which was formerly an insurance agency, run by Mrs. Beard and her family, two doors up from my own family’s business, the George L. Meredith Co., Inc., my grandfather’s printing and stationery store. Beard’s gigantic safe still stood in the newspaper’s front office, too big and heavy to move anywhere. One day I came back to work after lunch. I was standing in the vestibule unlocking the office door and I sensed something behind me. There were two black-suited men standing there, looming behind the door, silent and sullen. They asked me if I was the owner of the newspaper and mentioned his name. I said no. They asked me if I knew when he’d be in. I said no. And that was the beginning of the end of The Tamaqua Paper. They were IRS agents. It seems that my boss, the pastor, was not paying his taxes.

Sadly, I have very little left from my two + years at The Tamaqua Paper. Here’s a photo of one cover I found online in a Facebook group called “Tamaqua Then and Now.” I had just about all the issues I worked on bound into two large volumes at one point, but many moves later they were kicked to the curb. This cover, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Mickey Mouse, was designed and illustrated by me, utilizing comics from my brother’s and my collection.

So in June of 1979, I was once again jobless. I started flirting with the idea of moving back to Pittsburgh and trying to find some kind of job there, because there wasn’t a lot of art and design jobs in Tamaqua. I’m a little fuzzy on the dates, but I think I moved back in fall 1979, staying with a childhood friend whose marriage had broken up. I started working for Eide’s comics shop that year and kept looking for some kind of design job. Somehow I found out about a job opening at KDKA-TV, at that point in time a Group W TV station, the W standing for Pittsburgh business legend Westinghouse, one of the first huge companies devoted to electricity and appliances. The job was a temporary position, replacing a woman who was on maternity leave. She never came back, and I eventually became a full-time employee, even though the management was, as they so nicely put it, “looking for someone better.” I like to think my boyish charm and sense of style, wit, and grace won them over, but in reality I got the job the same way I got the temp one: I wore them down. I bugged them every day and eventually they hired me. Twice. From 1980 through early 1998, I was a KDKA employee, working mainly the night shift, from 3:00-11:30 PM each weekday, and for a few years in the beginning, on weekends (with two weekday days off).

I entered the world of television graphic design right at the start of the computer age. For the first year or so I was there, we did things the old-fashioned way, creating graphics and shooting slides for the newscasts, which meant the news department had to have their shit together enough to order the graphics they wanted for the 5:00 and 6:00 PM broadcasts by 3:30 PM. When I first started, we were using what was called “hot type.” We set titles for over-the-shoulder graphics (which were superimposed next to the anchors reading the news stories) letter by letter, using traditional newspaper-like metal type, which we then heated on a hot plate (I’m not making this up), and pressed into a white tape directly onto an art board. That impression left behind a white title on a black strip of cut paper, which, in turn, was pasted onto a dark blue piece of matte board, with an illustration pasted below. We eventually “graduated” to a machine that pressed the letters onto a strip of white tape which you transferred onto the board, thus thankfully removing the means to burn your fingers every time you did a new graphic. Soon after I started, computers came in that were, at first, specialized for TV graphics. Our first one was a Colorgraphics weather system, that had 28 whole colors and was essentially purchased to do weather map presentations, but we used it for special graphics like show openings, since it had limited animation capabilities. Eventually we got to the top of the line, the Quantum Still Store system (a computerized image bank, replacing the need for photographic slides) and the Quantum Paintbox, a high-end professional graphics system, with an electronic pen and drawing pad and digitization capabilities. Now it’s all done with Photoshop.

My primary job at KDKA was as a TV news graphic designer. This job also entailed typing in and calling up lower-third text graphics during the live news show broadcasts; identifiers such as names and locations, plus sports scores, weather stats, etc. We were on headset for all the shows, in touch with the control room and the shows’ directors, while we displayed these graphics in real time for the director to insert over video and anchors. My duties also included designing and doing live graphics for the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball games. Me, who hated sports with a passion, became a baseball expert. I sat alongside a stats person (whose habit of chewing tobacco and spitting into a cup I ended after one game … so much for the baseball ambiance he so craved). He kept track of the pitch count and fed me info to update batting averages, etc. It was fast-paced and fun and sometimes boring, when you had to sit through extra-inning games and rain delays. (Our go-to rain delay show during weekend games? The Three Stooges. I kid you not.)

Like The Tamaqua Paper, I don’t have a lot of work left from my almost 20 years at KDKA-TV. Most of the stuff I did was for television broadcasts, used once or twice and never seen again. These three pieces represent some print applications … the KDKA Picture News was a retro logo I designed for something that—I think—never saw the light of day; the Wake Up with Larry Richert logo was a morning show based around a well-liked local radio personality; and A Conversation with Mr. Rooney was a graphic done to commemorate the retirement of Steelers owner Art Rooney.

But the news was a relentless beast, requiring tons of graphics each week. Sometimes reporters had no video, so they needed graphics to tell their stories. This was particularly true of the business reporters who dealt with a lot of abstract money issues, not easily shown in a visual medium. There are only so many stacks of money you can capture on video. That part could be fun, but most times the news was tedious and sometime it was downright horrifying, I was there when the first Gulf War started and had to stay until 2:00 AM for a number of nights, since KDKA, as a CBS affiliate, was responsible for seven minutes during each half-hour of live coverage. I was there when USAir Flight 427 crashed in 1994 on approach to the Pittsburgh International Airport, killing all 132 people on board. It was a gut-wrenching night, with wall-to-wall coverage that was picked up by CNN, in essence making KDKA the TV station of record. In the mid 1990s, I was offered a job as art director at a competing station across town, and the news director at KDKA counter-offered a job as lead news designer, with a substantial raise. I stayed at KD, which was considered the top station in Pittsburgh, due to both its CBS affiliation and its longevity (KDKA was the first commercial radio station in the country, starting in 1920).

I met and worked with a lot of great people in my 18 years at KDKA from 1980 through 1998, a few of which continue to be dear friends. And I met and worked with a lot of jerks in that time, too, including the final general manager I worked under. We underwent redesigns on a regular basis, every few years, and the 1998 one proved to be the straw that broke this camel’s back. In the previous one, an outside consultant was hired and the new look cost about $750,000, a big sum for a smaller market station in the 1990s (the redesign also included a new news set). When we decided to do a redesign in 1998, we did it in-house. The GM was part of the process all the way, seeing everything we planned to do in advance and signing off on it all. When we debuted the new look, created entirely by the KDKA design staff, on a Friday, he immediately wanted to take it off the air on Monday. His reason? “I wanted a Ferrari and I got a Mercedes.” As the lead news graphic designer at the time, I turned in my resignation. We saved the station a ton of money, and all we got was a whiny, left-handed compliment (that was really an insult) from a general manager who was, at best, a problem child for the entire station and all of Group W. (They had to hire a full-time, in-house attorney to work with him since he was so prone to generating lawsuits). He was also the cheapest man I ever worked for. I could write an entire book on my almost-20 years in television news … but I won’t. Those days are gone forever.

At the very top of this post is a graphic that was created by a dear friend as the cover of a special notebook compiling some stuff I created while at KDKA, including the closing lines from the credits of Wake Up with Larry Richert, a morning infotainment show that aired at 6:30 AM, proving once again that comedy is not for the faint-of-heart, especially that early in the morning. Each credit sequence ended with a pithy little sign-off line; the first one was “Go back to bed, it was only a bad dream.” And the very last one was “Go back to bed, it was only a bad dream.” (Search YouTube for “Wake Up with Larry Richert” to see the original opening for the show and an animated version of my logo.) The notebook was given to me at a party in my honor, celebrating my almost-20 years at KDKA when I left in March of 1998.

You’re probably wondering … how does all of this relate to “My Life in Comics?” Well, all this time, from roughly 1978 through 1998, I was still reading and collecting comics. They were still the defining thing in my life. I visited my local comics shops (both Eide’s and Phantom of the Attic in Pittsburgh) religiously each week. They were my houses of worship. And at some point in the early 1990s, I experienced what could only be called a midlife crisis. I didn’t buy a Porsche or date a woman 20 years younger than me. I finally bit the bullet and created my own comic book series … but that’s a tale for next time.

Coming soon: My Life in Comics, Part 7: The Innocent Bystander Years

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