Looking back on it from the vantage point of 25 years later, it was probably just an early midlife crisis. Rather than a hot, young girlfriend, or a hot, expensive car, I decided to publish a comic book.
In the early 1990s, I was into my second decade of gainful employment as a television news graphic designer for the top-rated Pittsburgh station, KDKA. Those call letters were legendary, dating back to 1920 and the first radio broadcast of election results, basically creating the entire industry. In the ‘90s, Pittsburgh was slipping in market size, but KD was still the number one station. I worked the 3:00-11:30 PM shift, prime time for the evening news shows. I had a reasonably creative job doing graphics, but the very nature of it was throwaway. A lot of stuff was used once and never seen again.
But here’s the secret about TV news graphics: It’s storytelling. Lots of times there was no video to tell a particular story, so we designers (there were five of us on staff, plus an art director) had to fill the gap and help explain things a bit. Lots of times reporters had a story but no visual elements, especially those that reported on abstract concepts, like business issues. The business reporters relied heavily on the Design Department to help them tell their stories. And those boxes featuring graphics next to the anchor’s head as they read a story? They were panels, just like in comics; the TV screen was the page.
I was still in love with comics in the 1990s and attended my first San Diego Comic-Con in 1992. I hadn’t been to a “big tent” show in years. After Phil Seuling’s New York Comic Art Convention ended (around 1982), and Seuling passed away, I was too broke to go anywhere. San Diego had become THE comics event of record by the the early ‘90s, surpassing every other show in attendance and participation by major comics publishers. I first went in 1992 and fell madly in love with both the event and the city. And one of the things that I loved the most about Comic-Con was it’s rampant creativity. Just roaming through Artists’ Alley or the Small Press Pavilion was inspiring. So many great artists showcasing their work and a lot of them were self-publishers. That first year I went, I came home inspired enough to want to do my own comic book.
I didn’t realize it, but at the time, I was probably looking for a more personal creative outlet than the making of daily news graphics. While the audience was huge, and there were occasional moments of personal recognition (I created a “This Day in History” graphic that appeared on KDKA’s 11:00 PM broadcast every weeknight that sometimes generated mail or a phone call or two), I longed to create something that wasn’t seen for 30 seconds and gone forever. I wanted something on paper, something permanent, something that was mine, all mine.
There’s a great quote from author Raymond Chandler that I’ve used a number of times on this blog, but it’s something very important to me, so I always come back to it: “… 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.”
I feel very strongly about that, then and now, especially now, since just the very fact of owning design software seems to make everyone think they’re a designer. As a minor example, I’ve had people tell me not to use certain colors on graphics, including pink, green, and yellow, for whatever reason, like they shouldn’t exist in the color spectrum for personal reasons. So I wanted … no, NEEDED … to do something by me for me. Besides, I had loved comics all my life. When I told my brother I was doing my own comic book, he simply replied, “It’s about time.”
Self-publishing was prevalent in the early 1990s, and for a time, a lot of “navel-gazing” comic books were published, autobiographical stories that probably owed their lineage back to the underground comix era and creators like R. Crumb. Some were wonderful, like the work of Seth, Joe Matt, Dennis Eichhorn, Harvey Pekar, and Chester Brown. Some were quite less than wonderful, but for better or worse, that was the route I took, mainly because they say “write what you know, and I sorta, kinda knew me.
I called my comic book Innocent Bystander. It was a phrase everyone knew and it felt right, because sometimes I felt that I was an innocent bystander in my own life, that things happened around me, not necessarily 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. The book became a showcase for things I loved: my cats, the Marx Bros., my failing at relationships. I told stories about growing up, including my first date (an eighth grade dance) and how I carried a torch for that girl all through high school. I told stories of my grandparents, my family’s summer vacations, my love of Buster Keaton, and how I met two of the Three Stooges while at the Jersey Shore. And I even told stories about some of the great TV news anecdotes I had heard over the years. For six issues, Innocent Bystander was my own illustrated, tell-all book, not quite a diary, but intensely personal nonetheless.
But it took me a while to get there. I did my first page, titled “CATS” (as you can see above; click on the image to see it larger on your screen) sometime in fall 1992, after my first visit to San Diego Comic-Con. I bought the requisite Blue Line comic book drawing paper, which made it feel oh-so-professional (you have to look the part if you’re going to walk the walk). I didn’t tell anyone of my ambitions, and by the time Comic-Con 1993 rolled around, I had enough pages to publish a 24-page ashcan. (“Ashcan” is a term started back in the 1930s when companies such as DC created new titles and wanted to trademark the name, they’d publish a black-and-white comic with previously-published stories and a cover with the new logo on it.) I would work eight hours at my day (well … evening) job and get home around midnight and sit up and draw until the wee hours. My Innocent Bystander ashcan was basically a pitch to be given to publishers who were exhibitors at Comic-Con, so I (very optimistically) printed up about 20 or so of them and took them off to the show.
This was not easy for me. I am an extremely introverted person, and selling myself is difficult. To compound that, the first publisher I took it to actually threw it back at me. “I don’t want that!,” he yelled at me. “No one will want that!” (Ironically, years later when I worked for Comic-Con, I had more personal dealings with this person, even though he didn’t remember me. Suffice it to say, I replaced him as editor and designer of Comic-Con’s publications, a job he used to do for the convention. Payback is a bitch.) After that first encounter, I was crestfallen and just took the remaining ashcans and left them on the freebie table. I did get a nice note from someone who picked one up and asked when it was coming out … but I didn’t know the answer to that.
So I went home and thought about it. And thought about it. And THOUGHT ABOUT IT. And I came to the conclusion that the only way Innocent Bystander would see the light of day was if I did it myself. I came up with a name for my publishing company, something that paid tribute to both my past and current (at the time) life: Ollie Ollie! Oxen Free Press. Ollie was the name of one of my cats and “ollie ollie oxen free” was what we yelled when we played games as a kid; it meant that everyone should come home, the game was over.
I found a printer in Texas that specialized in comic books (they exhibited at Comic-Con), and in 1995, two years after what became known (at least to me) as, “The Ashcan Incident,” I published my first issue. I remember coming home from work late at night to a stack of boxes on my front porch. The minimum print run was 3,000 copies. It was a black-and-white book, 24 interior pages, plus color covers. I took the boxes inside. You could still smell the ink even without opening them. I lugged one 300-copy box upstairs (comics are heavy!) and with shaking hands opened it up. And I cried. I was so happy to have it in my hands, so proud, so full of self-achievement. I did it. I published my own comic book. Innocent Bystander was out in the world.
I learned a few things from that first issue. First of all, newsprint was horrible paper, so I vowed if there was a second issue, I would change the paper to what was then called (I think) “Bright White.” And I hated my own hand-lettering. Even though it was very unpopular at the time, computer lettering (and coloring) was coming into the comics industry, so I bought a hand-lettered computer font (I think it was called “Blammo” or some such) and did all my type on my computer, printing it out on adhesive-backed paper and pasting it up on my original art boards.
There was an issue #2 (a year later in 1996), followed by issues #3 and #4 (in 1997). In early 1998, I quit my job at KDKA and decided to try and make this comic book thing a full-time job. I published issues #5 and #6, plus a trade paperback collection of issues #1-4 titled The Collected Innocent Bystander Vol. 1, and I hit the convention circuit, grandiosely calling my participation the “Innocent Bystander World Tour.” I even did a separate catalog and a tour badge, featuring Stan and Ollie, the world famous IB cats. I did four shows that year: Pittsburgh Comicon (in my backyard), WizardWorld Chicago, San Diego Comic-Con, and SPX (Small Press Expo). I also took out a loan to finance all of this, to the tune of about $15,000. My commitment was serious if somewhat financially frivolous. I didn’t have a real job at the time.
It didn’t take long until I got sick of the business end of self-publishing. I was not only the writer, artist, letterer, cover colorist, editor, and publisher, I was also the production person, the financial guy, the person who had to carry the boxes upstairs and fulfill the orders from the distributors (by 1998 there was really only one distributor left, Diamond Comics, and sending them books—especially to their Los Angeles distribution point—was always an adventure) and mail them out. I took on the added burden of publishing a newsletter that coincided with each new issue, called FIB (Friends of Innocent Bystander), a four-page (11×17” folded) black and white publication that kept my faithful readers in the loop on all the latest IB news. At it’s best, I had about a 250-person subscriber base, all of which had to have the latest issue of FIB sent to them, free of charge, which meant folding, addressing, stamping, and mailing them all, not to mention late-night Kinkos runs to print and fold the newsletter. It was fun for a while … and then it wasn’t.
Innocent Bystander never set the world on fire, but I did develop a pretty faithful following and got some nice letters from people from as far off as Australia and Germany. (I even got an order for a back issue from Japan once. The postage cost far more than the cost of the book.) I got decent reviews, too, pretty much across the board, even from (shockingly enough) The Comics Journal. The first and second issues were all anecdotal comics stories about my life, but with issue #3 I focused entirely on my love of the Marx Brothers, who I discovered as a teenager. Issue #4 showcased my cats, Stan and Ollie (sadly long gone), and issue #5 was my first long-form story, titled “And Then I Saw Her Face,” after the song by The Monkees. It told the tale of my first date to an eighth grade dance. Issue #6 went back to more anecdotal stories, but it included one of my personal favorite stories, “I Am Joe’s Stomach,” taken from the title of a series of Readers’ Digest articles about bodily functions. That magazine was a mainstay at my maternal grandparents’ house and this story was all about growing up with them.
After those four conventions in 1998, I realized that even though I thought my work had matured and gotten better, I had peaked. Another factor was I was tired of living in Pittsburgh. I had fallen in love with San Diego through my yearly Comic-Con visits and had vowed to retire there, even though retirement was at least 20 years away. (“The future is now,” I told myself.) After I left KDKA and had gone through my convention tour (which I hated … dealing with the public was not my forte), I decided it was time for a change and picked up and moved across the country to a city where I knew only two other people, cartoonist Batton Lash and his wife, Jackie Estrada, the Eisner Awards administrator, and to rent that was easily three times what I was paying in Pittsburgh. And, if I may add, no job.
In 1995 at Pittsburgh Comicon, I met cartoonist Rich Koslowski, who had just self-published his first 3 Geeks comic, How to Pick Up Girls If You’re a Comic Book Geek. We hit it off and after I moved to San Diego, we made plans to exhibit at APE (Alternative Press Expo), Comic-Con’s independent comics publisher show in San Jose, in early 1999. It was there that we commiserated on how much we hated doing all the non-comics things we had to do as self-publishers. We came up with the idea of publishing a book together, to be called Geeksville. Rich’s 3 Geeks characters had gotten a bit of an audience (more than IB had), but we both admired each others work and it just made sense to combine our resources to do a book together. The lion’s share of the book fell to Rich each issue, but I also contributed production work (including cover design and coloring) and computer skills to the mix, along with my own stories. We were excited about this new publication, and in 1999 we got a booth at San Diego Comic-Con and published our first issue to debut there.
By that time, I was freelancing for Comic-Con, working on their website and doing the PowerPoint presentation for the Eisner Awards. Rich—along with his wife, Sandy—and I shared an endcap booth that Comic-Con graciously upgraded us to, free of charge. It was there that Larry Marder and Jim Valentino of Image Comics approached us about publishing Geeksville through Image. Valentino was leaving as publisher and Marder was taking over. They both liked our Innocent Bystander and The 3 Geeks, and felt that a combined book would be a hit for Image. Sadly, it wasn’t true.
Image at that time still had some of their core founders (Valentino, Todd McFarlane, and Erik Larsen, etc.), but they were also publishing a lot of other creators’ books. In retrospect, it seemed like they were throwing as much material at the wall to see what stuck, if only to get better deals on printing and paper. Our Image rep was constantly urging us to up our print-runs and once again, finances became an issue. While we got a great deal on printing with Image and they handled all the distribution issues with Diamond, we barely broke even each issue. After seven issues (including a “Zero Issue,” which were popular then), we threw in the towel. Rich went on to produce graphic novels for Top Shelf (he also continued to freelance as an inker for Archie Comics) and published some more 3 Geeks stories, and I went on to become Director of Programming at Comic-Con, a post I held until 2007, when I became Director of Print and Publications, editing and designing all the publications for Comic-Con, WonderCon, and APE, including Comic-Con Update magazine, which became Comic-Con Magazine, which became Comic-Con Annual (it’s complicated). I continued doing the Comic-Con Souvenir Book through 2020 and was the main writer and in-house editor of Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans and Friends, which was published by Chronicle Books in 2009. Innocent Bystander, the comic book, became just a warm memory, and these days my creative urges are fulfilled by writing on this blog and mainly photography, which I showcase on Instagram (@gg92118). I no longer draw or do comics; it’s almost like I got all of that out of my system in the 1990s.
But still, I look back at my Innocent Bystander years with a great deal of fondness, and over the rest of this year, I’m going to revisit them here, including scans of some of my favorite art and stories from IB and Geeksville, and some unpublished work from planned books like Fuzzheads and A Tale of Two Kitties, both based on my cats, which never saw the light of day. I currently plan to cover one issue at a time, so keep an eye out for more installments of “My Life in Comics: The Innocent Bystander Years” in the near future. Because navel-gazing never goes out of style (isn’t that what blogging is all about?).