Including Innocent Bystander issues #5 and #6 and Is This the Way to Fiction? The Collected Innocent Bystander Vol. 1.
1998 was a pivotal year for me, not only as a small press comics creator and publisher, but on a personal level, too. It was the year when everything changed: My job, my home, and my life. It was probably the most significant year ever for me.
My job at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, PA ended in early 1998. We had undergone a complete graphic redesign of the station’s news shows and we did the entire thing in-house. The previous design redo was done with an expensive (and annoying) graphics consultant, brought in by yet another group of consultants, one of whom was the failed former GM of a local station. But the new KDKA general manager of the station was tight with a buck, so we said we could do it and we did, probably saving the station around $500,000, compared to the previous redo. The GM was involved throughout the entire process, seeing everything we were doing and signing off on it before it hit the air. And once it did air, he wanted to take it off and start over. “I wanted a Ferrari and I got a Mercedes-Benz,” he said. In retrospect, it was the only way he was capable of viewing things, in status-oriented money terms. I had finally had enough in my 18 years there and put in my notice. I did some freelance work for the local PBS station in Pittsburgh, but none of it mattered. I decided that I wanted to do two things: Devote myself to comics for a year and see what happened … and move to San Diego. I did both in 1998. (For more on my KDKA days, click here.)
In retrospect it was a shocking move for me. Change was never easy for me, but a couple of things … well, changed that. My mom had died in early 1997, and I no longer felt tied to the state of Pennsylvania. I had fallen in love with San Diego when I started to visit on a yearly basis in 1992, mainly to go to Comic-Con. I decided I wanted to retire there when the time came, but suddenly—as of March 1998—I was sorta, kinda retired, or at the very least, jobless. I cashed out my 401K (a major misstep, but I rationalized it as “the future is now”) and used it—along with the sale of a great deal of my personal collection—to live off and finance my move west. I also took out a $12,000 personal loan to finance my comic book publishing dreams.
My 1998 line of publications: IB5 (March), the Collected IB (August), and IB6 (September).
I published three books in 1998: Innocent Bystander #5 in March; Is This the Way to Fiction? The Collected Innocent Bystander Volume 1, a trade paperback collecting issues 1 through 4, in August; and Innocent Bystander #6 in September. This was my “go big or go home” moment and 1998 also included an aggressive convention appearance schedule, which I called the “Innocent Bystander World Tour.” I had booths (or tables) at Pittsburgh Comicon in April; WizardWorld Chicago in July; Comic-Con International in August; and Small Press Expo (SPX) in September. At WizardWorld, my brother Rick helped me out, but I knew for Comic-Con and the expense it entailed, I’d need (and forgive me for using this term in much more woke 2022) my very own “booth babe,” so I asked a friend whom I formerly worked with to join me. I will confess to being an abysmal sales person, but an effervescent, cute, young woman did wonders for me.
Around this time, Innocent Bystander started to really gather some great reviews and write-ups in the fan press, including—of all places—The Comics Journal. I had briefly feuded with TCJ back in my Pittsburgh Fan Forum days, over—believe it or not—the TV show Laverne and Shirley. They had taken a comment out of the answer to a letter I wrote in PFF (the official publication of the Pittsburgh Comix Club, which I edited and designed in the late 1970s; click here for more on those years) and had a cartoon drawn about it. I (thankfully) forget the gist of the argument, but I never thought my own self-published comic would even merit a mention from Gary Groth’s publication. Reviewer Rich Kreiner said (in issue #202): “To my knowledge, nobody else in comics is tilling as faithfully the territory as Gary Sassaman tends, let alone reaping his harvest … IB addresses, directly and with a minimum of amplifying, complicating drama, the aspects of life that can only be referred to as the heart-warming. Sassaman wears his own heart on his sleeve, making it, in effect, the dominant element of a comic book wardrobe … His delivery is understated, sincere, subtle and occasionally wry. At its best, the comic lifts the curtain on how the beloved, the shared, and the lightly regarded can gracefully orbit the profound and trigger deep affirmative responses within us.” I mean, who knew I was functioning on that level, even if it was only in the eyes of one reviewer? If someone had asked me what the essence of Innocent Bystander was, I doubt I could put it such terms.
Comic Shop News once again plugged all three of my 1998 publications (“What The Wonder Years could have been if a savvy comic book fan with an eye for detail has written it …” they said about IB5) and David LeBlanc’s Comic Book E-Mail mag included reviews and an interview with me. Early in the year, Small Press Feedback’s Winter 1997/98 issue (#26) cover-featured an interview with me, conducted by Troy Hickman. All of this coverage got Innocent Bystander out there and helped immensely with both my sales and my resolve in trying to make this all work. And I got a fair amount of local Pittsburgh coverage in the free weekly alternative newspapers, In Pittsburgh and CityBeat.
But … well, more on that “but” later. Here’s a look at all three 1998 publications, with some pages.
Innocent Bystander #5: “And Then I Saw Her Face”
IB5 was my first (and only) long-form sequential story. I upped the page count to 32 pages (from 24) for this issue to tell the tale of my very first date in eighth grade and how I suffered (stupidly) with an unrequited romance all through high school with the same girl. It’s my most personal story and kind of painful for me to read now. It also included some modern-day interludes, a sequence about buying comics in that era at my local newsstand, plus an extremely difficult exchange between my mother and me about a girlie magazine she found (and why I felt compelled to include that, I’ll never know … but hey, it was the era of autobiographical comics and I embraced it.) Add to that, my being stupid enough to use the real names of the girl and my classmates and … well, I very much doubt anyone in my small hometown ever saw it, but it was probably a bit of a bridge-burner if they did. The title is based on The Monkees’s song, “I’m A Believer” (written by Neil Diamond), and it had an adverse effect on sales for me at least once, when a young woman picked it up at San Diego Comic-Con and huffed to her boyfriend, “Can you believe this?! Who would buy a book that makes fun of how someone looks?!” “It’s from a song, honey,” the boyfriend remarked. Either way I didn’t sell her a copy. I advertised this book with the tag lines: “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy buys comics. A love story.” Here are some pages from IB5, which debuted in March 1998.
The wraparound cover for IB5. If the depiction of yours truly seems more cartoony and far less sophisticated than that of my first date, I assure you it was very much intentional.
Three interior pages from IB5. Click on each image to see it larger on your screen.
Is This The Way to Fiction? The Collected Innocent Bystander Volume 1
Issues 3 and 4 of IB almost sold out, so I decided to do an early trade paperback collection of issues #1-4. Having a higher-priced book ($9.95—CHEAP!) to sell at conventions was also part of my plan. The 112-page book repackaged the issues in a different order. Rather than just do issues 1 through 4 as they were printed, I divided the book into five chapters, including autobiographical stories (“Strange Visitor from Another Planet”); movie stories—including The 3 Stooges story from IB1, Buster Keaton from IB2, and the complete Marx Bros. issue from IB3 (“Saturday Night at the Movies”); my true TV news stories (“Television Is My Life, Sad to Say”); my Stan and Ollie cat stories (“Tales of Two Kitties”); and everything else (“… But the Kitchen Sink”). I felt this was a different way to read and experience these stories. Mark Evanier, who—unbeknownst to me—would play an important role in my future, wrote a very nice introduction for me, which included, in part:
“I’m sure Gary’s having fun doing IB … it shows. But I’m also having fun reading it. It’s one of the cleverest things I’ve seen in print in a long while, even by so-called professional standards … He succeeds at a task at which most creators fail: He gets a lot of himself onto every page. Innocent Bystander reflects his opinions, his insights, his general worldview. Since all those kinda parallel mine, every issue is like a visit with a good buddy. That was what the fanzines of my youth were all about. That’s what Innocent Bystander is all about.”
I had a much smaller print run for this TPB than a regular issue of IB (1,000 copies vs. 3,000), and it sold out pretty quickly once it was published in August 1998. The title comes from a moment that happened to me. I was in the giant Barnes & Noble on the 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, CA (a store which, sadly, doesn’t exist anymore), and I was riding the escalator up to the top floor. I heard a loud clacking noise behind me and turned to see a very attractive young woman running up the steps, her high heels pounding against the metal escalator slats. “Is this the way to fiction?” she asked me between loud pops of her bubble gum. “I don’t know,” I said. “I’m new here.” “Bummer,” she said back to me. I had high hopes of doing a second collected volume, but it wasn’t to be. (It was to be titled “Your Lucky Star Is Shinning on You,” inspired by a misspelled fortune cookie I once received.)
The front cover of the first (and only) Collected Innocent Bystander; the back cover featuring all four original covers; and one of the chapter title pages from the interior. Click ’em to see ’em big.
Innocent Bystander #6: “Random Thoughts in a Less than Random World”
IB6 returned to the short one- and two-page stories of issues #1 and 2, but it also contained one 9-page story about my grandparents. “I Am Joe’s Stomach” was titled after a series of articles in Readers’ Digest, a magazine that I could always find at my grandparents’ house. It was the most boring magazine I ever saw in my young life, containing excerpts of articles from other magazines. “I Am Joe’s Stomach” was a take-off on the kind of medical article the magazine featured, that told the reader about how the stomach works (ostensibly the Readers’ Digest guide to digestion, I suppose), but my version chronicled the later years of Nana and Gramps, as I called them, my mom’s parents, and their slow slide to death. It was one of my favorite stories, not that I wanted them to die—they were an important part of my childhood—but I loved the bittersweetness of the story and it’s sort of “silver lining” ending, which celebrated the love between my grandparents that I never really knew existed. Issue #6 also included more Stan and Ollie stuff, “I Quit My Job,” my true-life expose; a two-parter called “Comics That Haunt Me,” devoted to a couple of comics of my youth; and “Atlantic City Revisited,” a sad follow-up involving a revisit to AC 20 years after my childhood vacations chronicled in IB1. IB6 premiered at the San Diego Comic-Con (along with the TPB of issues #1-4) in August, but its official ship-date was September 1998. Here are some pages from IB6.
The cover of IB6 and some interior pages; the bottom tier is from the story about my grandparents.
My 1998 publications also included a cute, little bonus: An official Innocent Bystander catalog. This 8-page, black and white, digest-sized mag was published to give away at my convention appearances and included a new, color version of a page from IB6, “Con Men,” as its back cover and the official IB World Tour badge on the front. I don’t know how many books it sold for me, but it made me feel like I had a publishing empire, at least for one brief, shining moment. During 1998, I also continued with my FIB (Friends of Innocent Bystander) newsletter, which I sent out (the old-fashioned way, in envelopes with stamps) to my mailing list.
The back cover (left) and front cover of my 8-page Innocent Bystander World Tour catalog.
Remember that “But …” a while back? Well, here it is again. Despite my devoting the better part of 1998 to my comics work, I pretty much knew by the time I finished Innocent Bystander #6 and my convention “World Tour” that the book was dead. I had gotten myself into a large amount of debt and had no real job for the bulk of that year other than the comics stuff, so no means to finance a seventh issue. I needed a major change, a chance for a complete restart, so in October of 1998, I hopped a plane to San Diego to look at apartments. Once again, I reasoned that “the future was now,” and there was nothing left for me in Pittsburgh. I took the slowest plane flight ever (over 6.5 hours) from Pittsburgh to San Diego. It was the week that the San Diego Padres were playing the New York Yankees in the World Series (the Yanks tucked away the Friars in four straight wins), and I happened to be on a plane going to the first San Diego game; with so many flights flying into San Diego’s relatively tiny airport, all of them were told to back off and we meandered over the Great Lakes for at least an hour, until—I’m guessing—our pilot got worried about fuel consumption. I had a few apartment rental interviews lined up, but I took the first one I visited. It had a large studio apartment opening up in the beginning of December and was located in the heart of the Gaslamp District in downtown San Diego. The building manager told me I had the best credit score she’d ever seen (if she only knew how much debt I was in and that I had no job), and I signed on to rent an apartment in a city where I had no job prospects, basically knew no one, and was paying triple the rent I had been paying in Pittsburgh.
Welcome to California.
And while I was done with Innocent Bystander, comics weren’t done with me. Tune in next time for My Life in Comics Part 8: Geeksville.
I still have a very small number of copies of Innocent Bystander #5 and #6 and The Collected Innocent Bystander Vol. 1 available for sale, along with other issues. Contact me at email@example.com for information.
Yours truly at my booth at WizardWorld Chicago in 1998.