A Path Strewn with Stones

[This look back appeared in Strange Armor, a retelling of Concrete’s origin. – Paul]

Concrete turned twelve just prior to the publication of this volume. Since Concrete took about three years to first get into print, he’s been with me a good fifteen or sixteen years. Retelling his origin has made me look back to those early days, when my plans were inchoate and each new idea seemed a lightning bolt from the sky to me.

I resolved to keep a notebook with me and in every spare moment doodle and jot ideas. Then one day I sat in the audience during a taping of “Jeopardy.” My then-girlfriend was a contestant, I brought along my notebook, of course – and left it. Calls to the studio were fruitless, and all that work was lost. All that I couldn’t reconstruct, anyway. To top it off, my girlfriend got steamrollered by an up-and-coming champion.

These days I make notes on yellow legal pads and put the pages in three-ring binders, which never leave the studio. I learned my lesson.

I do have another sketchbook from that era, though, and the drawings retain their exploratory, half-formed quality. For me they represent memories of being in an altered state of dreamy pleasure. I remember my then-studiomate Richard Hescox’s remark: “Gee, I wish I had an obsession.” I certainly did. It seemed like every setting I was in, every news story I heard, each experience I had was evaluated for how I might use it in Concrete.

Many elements of Concrete came from my life. I think this helped overcome its deficiencies in writing and art to achieve some charm. It seemed personal, unpolished, exuberant.

The characters have aspects drawn from friends and family. Ron Lithgow was, in fact, originally named Ron Harrison, after cartoonist Ron Harris. Now an animation director, Ron and I knew each other in our youth through an amateur press alliance called Apa-5. It was a small franzine-exchange club with some of the qualities of an online chat-room. Later, after I graduated form Art Center, Ron took classes there and we roomed together. In those days he drew both (!) the Star Trek and Dallas newspaper strips. He also was preparing his terrific retro-aviation adventure fantasy, Crash Ryan, which was later published by Epic. Seeing Ron develop and sell Crash gave me a model for getting Concrete into print and gave me the courage to give it a shot.

Ron is a few years older than I am, with insatiable intellectual curiosity and a weakness for old Studebakers, paperback cover art, and period travel literature. He was a huge influence on me, and his fingerprints are all over Concrete. He’s the reason Concrete chose to be a travel writer.

After reading an article on the actor John Lithgow, who was then a fresh face I never expected to become a household name, I got a case of the cutes and changed the surname. “Lith” is the Greek root for rock, of course.

Why did I make Ron Lithgow a speechwriter? My mother once said that my father would have been happier as a speechwriter than a lawyer. Though hugely intelligent, with a vast vocabulary, Dad has never been a natural performer. Having Concrete be a behind-the-scenes type thrust onto life’s stage seemed right to me.

The name “Concrete” had no particular source I can recall. I remember making lists of possible names. One I like was “Stone John,” resonant of Olaf Stapleton’s novel Odd John. But I knew there would be too many rock toilet jokes, and so discarded “Stone John” in favor of “Concrete.”

In some ways I associate Concrete, especially in his armchair, with Mark Verheiden. He and I also roomed together when he first came to L.A. to break into screenwriting. Later, Mark moved to an adjacent apartment and got a big brown armchair. He’d sit in it and tell me stories about his coworkers at the Los Angeles Times, where he worked. I could listen to Mark for hours; he has a fine eye for absurdity and craziness (and sometimes seems a magnet for it). That sane, dryly humorous voice is something I’ve striven to give Concrete (though, as it has been pointed out a hundred damned times, Concrete is me).

Larry Munro (who comes into this story in issue three) was a mix of several sources. His last name came from my friend Alan Munro, then an illustrator but now a commercial director and visual effects maven. But Larry could not be less like the hilarious, cynical, abrasive Alan. For a model for Larry’s goofy charm, I looked to Matthew Harrison, whom I knew slightly through Mark Verheiden. Matt, Mark and (my now-editor) Randy Stradley were partners in a generally disastrous effort to produce a horror film set during the Civil War. Their contacts in the Civil War reenactment community were going to supply props and costumes. But after thousands were spent they had little to show but the necessary legal documents for a limited partnership and a short trailer, fairly eerie, with Union and Confederate zombies shambling around some smoky woods. Matt’s now a successful sound editor, by the way.

What impressed me then was that Matt, a good-looking guy, seemed to go through a lot of girlfriends. But he didn’t have a scorecard attitude: no, he seemed terribly taken with each one, truly smitten with each wonderful, sweet woman. Or so was my perception; I may be all wet about Matt. Nevertheless, this was my conception of Larry, a womanizer in love with love itself.

I also thought a lot about Stephen Bishop when writing Larry. Bishop was a soft rock crooner whose heyday was about 1980 (“On and On” was his big hit). Apparently a pal of John Landis, Bishop was the “charming guy with guitar” (his screen credit) in Animal House, who has his instrumental smashed by John Belushi. Thereafter, he did cameos in other Landis films (in Twilight Zone he was “charming Marine”).

Bishop’s songs were almost uniformly about the pain and uncertainties of love. A pervasive, laconic silliness kept them from being too whiny. This romantic self-conception I took Bishop to have (and certainly identified with) was at the core of Larry, too.

Finally, Larry was based on my memory of a photograph of my uncle John Halsey, who died in a car wreck when I was an infant. He was 25. He still had his Navy flattop crew cut, from where Larry’s spiky hair comes. He was a photographer, stationed in the Antarctic. Later, family legend goes, he did surveillance behind the Iron Curtain. His plane was shot down, and he was smuggled out with a broken arm by the underground. Had he been captured, he might have been the focus of a Cold War crisis, like U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Someday, I hope to look into this and get the official story; one friend suggests I use the internet to this end.

Having never known him, I didn’t miss Uncle John growing up. But I later realized how great it would have been, having an uncle younger than my parents who had lived so many adventures. As a child of divorce, I surely would’ve adopted him as a hero figure. No doubt a subconscious yearning figured into bringing him into my life in the form of Larry Munro.

Maureen is visually based on my wife (then fiancée’), Elizabeth. Actually, an early version of Maureen looked like another young woman I dated (Janet, when you cooled on me you missed this shot at immortality!). I wouldn’t say Elizabeth is a vague and remote as Maureen can sometimes be, but her sensitive hearing can strangely cut out when I’m saying something she’s not interested in! After I’d been doing Concrete for a while, Elizabeth went back to school to study biology, just one of the odd things that happened in my life after I put it in the comic. But she was looking to bring that knowledge to her painting, not become a biologist.

I have a stupid reason for naming her Maureen. “Mo” is a nickname for Maureen, and along with Larry, that would make Concrete, with his bald pate, Curly. I have no particular love for the Three Stooges, so I have no explanation for this besides temporary insanity. Her last name is a bald tribute to my hero Kurt Vonnegut, who saddened me recently by announcing that his latest novel, Timequake, will be his last.

Senator Mark Douglas has a more personal lineage: the aforementioned Mark Douglas Verheiden. Though we’re the same age, I ‘ve always seemed developmentally a little ahead of me. So this was a natural for Ron’s father figure.

Joe Stamberg, visually based on me (my dark side?), has a less emotionally resonant name, I listen far too much to National Public Radio, and at the time their news show “All Things Considered” was hosted by Susan Stamberg.

It gets worse. Tawny Hill is an amalgam of newswomen Tawny Little and Sandy Hill. I sometimes think I should have hired someone to name my characters for me!

Davis Mattingly (who turns up in issue #2) is a near miss on David Mattingly, my first Art Center roommate, a master SF illustrator and godfather to my son. I’m sorry I didn’t give Dave’s moniker to a more recurring character. Davis looks nothing like David, though he resembles Isaac Asimov a bit.

I placed concrete in Eagle Rock because of the stone connection and because I lived in the adjoining neighborhood. Highland Park.

One might accuse me of a failure of imagination in all this, but I think all creativity is a matter of new combinations of the familiar. And using personal elements has the benefit of emotionally charging the material for the creator right off.

PUBLISHING HISTORY

Concrete first appeared in 1986 as a short story in the first issue of Dark Horse Presents, and continues there irregularly to this day. Two reprint volumes of this material have appeared: Complete Short Stories 1986-1989 and Short Stories 1990-1995. I think the short stories are the best introduction to Concrete, and I often wish I did them more frequently these days.

In 1987, the original black-and-white series began, running ten issues. Concrete played bodyguard to a rock star, revived a failing farm, grew antlers, traveled to Nepal, and paid a call to his dying mother. These were Concrete’s glory days: the series garnered a number of awards, including the Harvey Award for Best Cartoonist two years running. Looking at those stories now, they seem somewhat over-compressed and full of potentialities never explored. The miniseries length I later embraced for Concrete stories was always my natural inclination, I now see. On the other hand, there’s much to be said for a non-continued comic, the rara avis of our field today. These stories are collected in a massive tome, The Complete Concrete. The first six issues also came out in three reprints that weren’t quite comics and weren’t quite books: Land & Sea, N New Life, and Odd Jobs. I couldn’t resist the temptation to add story pages when theses were assembled, and the additional pages are included in The Complete Concrete.

After those ten issues and a number of Dark Horse Presents short stories, I felt drained. It was also a time when many things were offered to me. I realize, with some regret, that I lost focus and substantial momentum – and good will among readers. I took odd jobs, a Superman story, some painted covers for comics and books. I seized the opportunity to be production designer on my friends the Wheat Brothers’ film, After Midnight – an experience I don’t regret for its own sake and for how it inspired Concrete: Fragile Creature. But I wish I’d gotten back to Concrete sooner. Some people just have to learn some things the hard way.

My return to Concrete was Concrete Celebrates Earth Day, done at publisher Mike Richardson’s suggestion (and actually dominated by the wonderful Moebius story and Charles Vess’ contribution), in 1990. It was important personally, because it forced me to research the environmental crisis, leading to an abiding concern. Since then I’ve usually had at least an essay on the subject in each issue of Concrete.

Concrete: Fragile Creature appeared the next year. It was the first Concrete miniseries, detailing Concrete’s employment as a one-man special-effects department on a trouble-plagued movie. Strangely enough, his experiences paralleled mine on the film I had worked on a couple of years before. Of course, Concrete had bigger disasters – and a deep mystery – to deal with. But in fact the series is mainly about what moviemaking is really like, an ongoing crisis in which nobody, usually, dies.

1993’s Concrete Eclectica, two issues of rather offbeat Concrete stories, introduced a backup feature: 100 Horrors. It’s appeared erratically and, you will notice, not at all in Strange Armor. At the rate I’m going, watch for the collection of all 100 in the year 2010!

Concrete: Killer Smile appeared in 1994. In it, Larry is kidnapped and dragged on a crime spree. Although Concrete attempts to rescue him, the story focuses on Larry and how he copes minute-by-minute with the threat of death. It was my attempt at an out-and-out suspense story, and I think permanently changed Concrete for the better in that way. Suspense, I’ve decided is a story quality I can never ignore for long. It was also, partly due to the comics boom and the launch of the Legend imprint, the best-selling Concrete series so far.

1996 saw my most ambitious Concrete miniseries, Think Like a Mountain. It involves Concrete being invited to chronicle the efforts of some Earth First!ers to save an ancient forest in Washington state. Through means both overt and subtle, they eventually persuade him to join the fight. I consider it my best work, although I suspect potential buyers may have been wary of its environmental theme, suspecting a tiresome eco-sermon. I would have been wary myself, to tell the truth. But I think I avoided the worst sort of ain’t-it-awful preaching and gave the story a measure of thrills and fun.

That year also saw a trading card collection, Fifty Concrete Watercolors, which reproduced the ink-and-watercolor pieces I have done for art collectors (in lieu of Concrete story pages, which I hang on to for reprinting purposes).

All these are in print, and you can have your retailer order them at any time, by the way. Just so you know.

That’s not a bad resume, but there ought to be half-again as much, in my opinion. Contrary to experience, perhaps, I feel I can do much better in the next dozen years; 1997 was my most productive year ever, and I’m over my grass-is-greener feelings about the illustration and movie work I was frequently drawn back to in the past.

I’ve slowly come to appreciate that a comics writer-artist in my position – with a publisher as patient as Job, a modest but devoted following, and the time to produce – has a rare freedom and opportunity. I don’t have to scramble for work or submerge my sensibilities or engage in the thousand hassles most creative people must deal with. So I’m free. Free! To devote all my energies wrestling with my own self-doubt, sloth, perfectionism, fear, artistic shortcomings, desire for approval, distractibility, and disorganization.

In short, Paradise.

-- Paul Chadwick


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