I’d returned to reading comics in the summer of 1985. By the summer of 1986, I blush to confess, I had become an ardent letter-writer to multiple titles, a letterhack as the term went then, as well as pen-pal with several other people with the same behavioral disorder (remember: no email, no internet, no personal computers, nothin’ but paper letters and the phone, people). The top comic for me, no question, not even a smidgeon, was First Comics’ Grimjack. There’s lots and lots to write about this title, but for now, the point is that my typed missives went out to each and every issue from the point I started buying it, and I went to the first comics convention I’d ever attended, in Chicago, making it my business to meet John Ostrander. I did, and met Kim Yale as well, then just beginning her writing for comics.
Unlike a lot of writer and cross-eyed fan encounters, we became close friends. I started spending a lot of time at their place in Chicago’s Boystown, a wonderful old greystone house with a real grave in the back yard, and we spent many a night at a long-gone memorable bar called the Bucket O’Suds. We overlapped our respective social circles to see many new friendships begin. John was of an age with my older brothers and took on that role with me as I went through college graduation and my subsequent years of zoological employment at the Field Museum of Natural History. Kim and I were more like mischievous buddies, prone to geeking out about stuff or arguing about how I was screwing up this-or-that romantic situation.
I don’t want to over-present my introduction to the pro comics world, and I stress that I have never written comics professionally. If you think there’s a hard line between fan and pro, I guess I’m fan. However, I did get to meet and know a lot of comics people and started socializing in those circles, and as seems to be the case for me, arrived at and started a lot of new connections. I often wound up at surprising insider situations, mostly parties but also at one point attending a D.C. editorial meeting. My friend Ed got deeper into that world initially through his connections via me. So maybe that hard line isn’t really there.
The hobby crossover went both ways, as I introduced them to a little bit of role-playing, which we set in in Cynosure, the multidimensional crossover city that first appeared in the comic Warp (based on the play Warp!) and became the setting for Grimjack. GURPS had recently come out in its original form, the first really explicit “you can do anything!” generic rules-set, and both Ed and I were the target market for it. I think we pushed that marketing claim to its limits and learned a bit about what a generic design can and cannot do, but that’s for another post, about GURPS: Supers. Some of the content from our game showed up in minor references in the later issues of the comic.
Kim was a minister’s daughter, and as with many who’d broken with an intense and demanding religion, she was often invested in seeking and faith. I think she’d be surprised to be described as a spiritual exemplar, but I think she might qualify. She was a person of strong, complex feelings, from a truly wicked sense of humor and tolerance for disturbing depths of horror, to a sympathy for pain that could bum her out completely.
None of which would be any of your beeswax except that Kim was unafraid to open her heart and past into her writing, with a special affinity for those broken by life, bringing real power to the whole psychology and what John Sayles calls the ecology of a story.
One of her most prized assignments, and arguably one of the hardest, was Munden’s Bar, the famous backup strip in Grimjack. Wikipedia is a little bit misleading in not distinguishing between the main and backup features of the title; John never let anyone else touch Grimjack scripting. Her first Munden’s story was illustrated by Joe Statema, in Grimjack #44.
Which I suppose means I should talk about sex. Kim wrote a lot about it, with a keen eye for the problems with (1) using sexual contact to obviate morality, or (2) vice versa, when morality gets constructed to try to control sex. She was more interested in the humanity, not the spectacle, and spun the dial for how much spectacle there’s be based on the tone she wanted for that story. She was no prude – the Munden’s story shows you how far she’d go in one direction, in this case right up against First’s hard editorial limits. On the other hand, one of my favorite titles by John was Gotham Nights, an underrated four-issue series about ordinary people in Gotham City whose lives are peripherally affected by Batman. (This was before Marvels). But it wasn’t merely that they saw him or had their car squashed in a super-fight or anything like that, but rather how much they projected their own needs or fears onto him in some way, and how extreme their actions might become when circumstances put pressure on them. Some of the actions were pretty extreme and some weren’t, but still important. My favorite was the hood who was neither going straight nor a faceless minion, but my point here concerns the subplot about a one-night stand, in which it seems being romantic or unromantic about it are equally wrong. Kim and I argued a while over who was the “bad guy” in that scenario, which as I see it, meant I was actually conceding her main point in the first place.
On a related point, she and John were the only writers not to Sue Batman into the ground during this period, best understood as Wolverine’s and Batman’s arms-race regarding whose mask had the longer ears.
I think she really came into her own with the four-issue Deadshot, such a great touch with the relations of ordinary people, strong feel for the masked/powered characters being pretty bent without making them stupid-crazy – even the ones who were in fact clinically deranged.
Someday someone will put some effort into understanding the range of stories and themes they wrote about violence, especially gun violence. It doesn’t track to the simplistic, post-1996 caricature which liberal-conservative rhetoric has become, and maybe not even to the more complex discussion before then. One of John’s Spectre stories seems like a simple indictment of handguns but … well, the broader picture includes shocking ruthlessness that might give William Gaines pause. Neither John nor Kim had any compunction as a writer about [their characters] shooting someone in the face, or their leg off, or in the guts. At some distance, or at close range. For drama or for laughs. But when they were serious, in my view, it was Kim’s eye for the psychology and story-ecology which gave weight to exchanges like this:
- The man who has just raped and killed Deadshot’s son: “I need help!”
- Deadshot: “You need a grave.” [bang]
- [in one of our discussions, quoting the above] John: “They’re both right.”
It came off so much better-done, with so much more depth to it than the ordinary Golan-Glabus style material, which might use the same lines, that was so common at DC at the time. We connected well about this issue at some level: of the original Grimjack art I own, my favorite is what John took special care to give me for a birthday present: the … unusual but undeniably therapeutic way Jim Twilley concludes his therapy in issue #61. (sadly Google is not helping)
For further perspective, Kim and I both appreciated the first Marshal Law series as a thoughtful, genuine superhero story, and we discussed the sexual assaults’ role in that story with some care. (We also both agreed that the whole thing went sour immediately after that series.) Among many other reasons of course, I wish her nuanced voice about these issues could be heard to clear out the dense, absurd fog that has accumulated.
I can say with pride as well that I consider The Killing Joke a vile story – without, and I stress this, without the virtue of being a good story. There are lots of stories that I dislike in terms of theme and morality which I can describe as good – maybe with shielding words like “effective” or “well-structured,” but face it, I mean good. This isn’t one of them. We talked about it in detail. John said, “It’s an old joke, and not a very good joke,” the point being that if you’re going to frame a whole story around a “killing joke” it better be at least funny. Kim said (paraphrasing), “If the Joker’s crazy, fine, but that doesn’t mean everyone else suddenly turns into an idiot,” and (not paraphrasing), “The Joker wants to fuck – no, wants to get fucked by Batman,” which for my money settles the entire history of fanwank about those two characters. Her point being that if you’re going to “go dark” about them in a story, that’s where you need to go and anything else is a cop-out. For my part, I was irritated at the low-grade existentialism. At least Tim Vigil’s Faust owned its own sophomorism in claiming “if the world is crazy then the crazies are the sane” – it knew it was a B-action fantasy.
I was impressed that when she and John set to addressing this issue in their writing, they did it without retconning or cheating in any way. Oracle is an example of a lot of work I got to look at and discuss before it was published – even sometimes copy-editing in the sense of “hey look they misspelled ‘affectation'” (not Oracle; specific titles & issues undisclosed), though DC and First never knew about it. I saw how much they cared about consistentcy, consequence, comparison, and constraint in writing comics.
Friendships end or diminish, sometimes when they shouldn’t. I moved to Florida for grad school, and they moved to Connecticut. We corresponded and talked by phone, but trailed off – and when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn’t much help or close enough to be involved. That was a time of many deaths for me, including both my father and stepfather, and one of my closest friends in grad school, and I might have been overwhelmed by that point. Understanding that doesn’t help my regret for the missed goodbye.
Some links: The Mission
Next: Superhuman endurance
Posted on May 7, 2015, in Absent friends, Commerce, The 80s me and tagged Batman, Cynosure, DC Comics, Ed Dunphy, fanwank, First Comics, Gotham Nights, Grimjack, GURPS, John Ostrander, Kim Yale, letterhack, Marshal Law, Munden's Bar, Oracle, The Killing Joke, The Spectre, The Suicide Squad. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.