Tom Hart’s ROSALIE LIGHTNING

RosalieLightningI just read Tom Hart‘s new book ROSALIE LIGHTNING (St. Martin’s Press), and I was blown away. What is it about? It’s about My Neighbor Totoro, and Ponyo, and EC Comics, and Metaphrog, and James Bond, and Kurosawa movies, and Thich Nhat Hanh, and “O Superman,” and Jeff Mason. And it’s about real estate, and bike rides, and corn mazes, and getting your car stuck in the snow, and being adrift on a raft, and big moons in the sky, and dreams, and trees, and acorns, and about the “capacious hole in your heart” when your child dies.

I’ve known Tom and his fellow cartoonist wife, Leela Corman, (who’s basically the co-star of this book) for a really long time, as fellow travelers on the road of alternative comics—Sari & I were guests at their wedding—but I hadn’t seen much of them in the last 10 years, particularly after they left Brooklyn and moved to Gainesville, Florida. I only met their daughter Rosalie once, probably around 2010, shortly before they left town. I was in Chicago when I heard the horrible, terrible, tragic news of Rosalie’s death—I even wrote a short post about it back then. And the next time I saw Tom & Leela was the fall of 2014 (when I visited them at their school The Sequential Artists Workshop), when they had the gift of Rosalie’s little sister Molly Rose. This book fills in all that missing time.

Tom is a master storyteller and cartoonist, and if he never did anything else the world would always have his creation Hutch Owen. (Where would Bernie Sanders be without Hutch Owen?!) But for Rosalie Lightning he has created a new art style—malleable, scratchy and impressionistic (when needed), and deliriously vibrant, even though it’s “limited” to half-tones. It’s an incredible, gripping book, which I stayed up late into the night reading all the way through. It’s destined to become a classic.

When was the last time a book made you cry? For me, it had been a long time. As a father myself, unable to even imagine the pain Tom & Leela have been through, it was often tortuous to read, and I dried my eyes a number of times. But I’m so grateful for the experience. (I even forgive the book’s “hate letter” to New York, because I feel like that sometimes too.) Thank you, Tom, for this brave, and ultimately triumphant work. Your daughter couldn’t have a better memorial.

Rosalie Lightning, 2009–2011

How horrible to write that “headline”…

Our friends Tom Hart and Leela Corman lost their two-year-old daughter, Rosalie, on Friday night. Sari and I can’t even begin to imagine the grief they must be going through. Ironically, tonight we just came back from a weekend trip to Chicago, where we left Phoebe behind with her grandparents. On Friday, right before the flight, Sari and I talked a bit about what we hoped would happen to Phoebe — and how she would be cared for — should we both die in a plane crash. Little did we know what was transpiring that very same time, but in reverse, with Tom and Leela.

Their dear friends and fellow cartoonists, Lauren Weinstein and Jon Lewis, have more to say about the situation. I found this line of Jon’s particularly touching: “My friends are in a horror world I don’t even know if I can understand, past some mountains and behind a veil; I want to touch them and protect them but there’s no way to do that.”

Now would be a good time to read Tom’s ongoing strip, “Daddy Lightning,” inspired by his journey as a father. He says he plans on continuing the strip.

Please consider donating to the Rosalie Lightning Memorial fund (administered through PayPal), to help the family with funeral and related expenses.

Now I must go hug my daughter… for a very long time.

Victor, R.I.P.

Victor, the long-time superintendent of my apartment building, passed away on Friday, 11/11/11. He was 71 years old.

It may seem strange to write a tribute to your super, but Victor was an amazing man. He took care of the building for more than 30 years, before ill health forced him into retirement in 2010. He knew all the residents, all 78 units in the building inside and out, and the boiler was like his own child. We moved here 11 years ago, and from the beginning, Victor looked out for us and our apartment. He had a scratchy voice, barely speaking above a whisper, the result of a throat operation, but his condition never deterred him. He was constantly animated, with a wicked sense of humor and a love of gossip — I learned more about the building’s history and the other residents from him than I ever have from personal experience.

From my prior bouts in New York City apartments, superintendent were usually gruff, unmotivated, and difficult to get ahold of. Victor was the opposite in every way. He was literally always around, available at a moment’s notice from his basement apartment. In all the years we lived here, I don’t remember Victor ever taking a vacation. He took it as a point of pride that he was a constant presence. We always used to say that the building was his life. We used to joke that he would die in the building.

And in the end it proved to be true. In his last years, diabetes had made him practically immobile, and he was sub-contracting his superintendent work to underlings. He basically couldn’t do his job anymore, and the co-op board was put in the unfortunate position of forcing him to retire and hiring a new super. They allowed Victor to stay in his basement apartment ’til the end of the year, and even arranged for a large, low-rent apartment for him and his family to move into in another neighborhood. But it became increasingly clear that Victor would never leave; the building and its residents were too important to him.

* * *

Sari and I went to his viewing on Monday night, at a local funeral home. It was the first time I’d seen an open casket (if you don’t count the Balinese cremation ceremony I witnessed back in 1992), and the first time I saw someone I had known after they were dead. It was quite weird, though not quite as unsettling as I anticipated. And in fact, I would have barely recognized Victor if I hadn’t known it was him. In his heyday, Victor’s hair was tousled, he was wearing grease-stained overalls, and there would have been oil or grease on his face and hands. Now his hair was combed and he was wearing a suit. A slight smile was on his face. His skin was powdered — he looked a little out of focus, or like a wax effigy of himself. His family had put a set of rosary beads in his hands, and his casket was decorated with a giant New York Yankees logo. The logo was actually larger than his name.

Many other building residents came to the viewing as well, to greet the family and extend their condolences. Also there was Van, the building porter and Victor’s long-time right-hand man. He sat uncharacteristically somber, contemplating Victor’s body. But then he nudged Juan, Victor’s replacement, and said, “You better watch out — this building kills supers.”

Victor's plaque

The plaque our building made for Victor, now hanging in the lobby

Saving art from the trash

Sari’s company recently got bought out and absorbed by another company, and they basically shut everything down and let everyone go. They were an educational publisher, and instead of archiving, donating, or selling their office contents, they just threw them away. That meant their inventory, furniture, library, computers, office supplies, etc. were all going in the trash.

They let (ex-)employees salvage what they wanted, so we went over there in a rented truck one Saturday before everything was gone and took a couple of key items, like two flat files, a small bookcase, and a dictionary stand. The whole thing was so depressing — and infuriating: so much useful equipment being unceremoniously tossed.

But what really shook me was when I saw a huge pile of original artwork sitting in a dumpster. As an educational publisher specializing in language arts, the company had for years commissioned illustrations for their various textbooks. Back in the day, before everyone had computers, most artwork of this kind was sent in to the client, where it was photostatted for later placement. The theory was that the artists would get their originals back, though sometimes the company bought the work outright and retained the originals. Presumably, Sari’s company had bought the work or had never gotten around to returning it to the artists. In any case, sitting there in the dumpster were hundreds of paintings, drawings, pastels, and pen-and-ink illustrations. And some of these pieces are really gorgeous! As a sometimes commercial illustrator myself, I just couldn’t let all that hard work be destroyed.

So I salvaged the art and tossed it in with the stuff I was bringing home. I was determined to at least return what pieces I could. And now, with the aid of my assistants, I’ve been contacting the artists (when I can track down them down) and letting them know what I have. As long as they can arrange postage or FedEx transport, I’m happy to wrap the pieces up and return ’em. As I said, the vast majority of the pieces are quite old — from before the home computer era — so a good number of the artists have only vague recollections of the illos in question. Nonetheless, they’ve all been thrilled that I contacted them, and are all anxious to get their stuff back. Which is exactly how I would feel if I were in their place.

salvaged original art
just a small sample of the original illustrations I saved from the trash pile

George Corbett out of my life

Today I packed up all of George Corbett’s papers (including the developed photos) and sent them off to FOUND Magazine. I never heard back from him or his wife about claiming the stuff, and I was sick of having it around my apartment. So maybe the good folks at FOUND will find some use for it. (By the way, if you’re wondering who the hell I’m talking about, click on the link to “George Corbett” in my user tags, and you’ll be able to read all my previous posts about the stuff.)

Gone Seeing “Gone Missing”

On Saturday, Sari & I went to see the new production of The Civilians’ Gone Missing, at the Barrow Street Theatre, in the West Village. Gone Missing is a wry and whimsical documentary musical crafted from company interviews with real-life New Yorkers about things gone missing: keys, IDs, a Gucci pump… or one’s mind. Directed and written by Steven Cosson with music by award-winning composer Michael Friedman, The Civilians portray more than 30 characters in their signature storytelling cabaret style. This is The Civilians first open-ended Off Broadway production, which is a real coup for them!

As The Civilians cartoonist-in-residence, I was handed the assignment of coming up with art for the show’s publicity materials. Given the subject matter of the show, one of the ideas I came up with was the iconic milk carton image, stuffed with details about the show. Both the company and the venue loved that concept, so that’s what ended up being used for the poster, the program, etc.

The show has received raves (a “Critic’s Pick” from The Times, five stars from Time Out, and various accolades from Variety, The Times of London, The Village Voice,, and all the other New York papers), and I was excited to finally see the show in person. I’ve seen parts of it on DVD, but even though I did a two-page adaptation of one of the scenes for The Vagabonds #2, I’ve never actually seen the show live. And it was all we hoped it would be: inventive, often hilarious, and filled with great music. as always, I was a huge fan of Jennifer R. Morris’s work, who doubles as a woman who loses her pump and a professional organizer.

If you like offbeat live theatre and are in the area, make sure to see the show. And look for copies of The Vagabonds #2 and the (I Am) Nobody’s Lunch/Gone Missing paperback (which I did the cover for) on sale in the lobby.
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No Words

No WordsHere’s another of my collaborations with the independent theater group The Civilians. Early last year, they approached me about a book they’re putting together based on their show, Gone Missing. As they said when they contacted me: “The show is about loss and about how the loss of small things can seem enormously resonant despite the relatively trivial material value of something. Six actors portray more than 30 characters who have lost everything from rings and phones to dogs and favorite toys and family heirlooms.” Again, right up my alley!

They continued: “Anyway, we are working to produce a book based on Gone Missing. It’s not exactly a published version of the play. Rather, we’re taking the monologues and pairing each vignette or story with an artist or illustrator. The book will be primarily an art book, something to look at rather than something to read, and I’m very excited about it because its a way for The Civilians to expand the range of artists they work with and the methods behind their philosophy of engaging with the ‘real world.'”

They provided me with a monologue from the show, a harrowing personal reminiscence alternately called “Drunken Englishman” or “No Words.” I’ve never seen the show, but it was my initial feeling that the monologue would be very difficult to adapt. But I love a good challenge — in many ways, that’s what makes a collaboration come alive — so I went at it. I approached the piece from a formalist viewpoint, imposing a series of restraints on myself. In the end, I wanted it to be not exactly comics, not exactly a straight recitation of the monologue, but something in between. Most of all, I wanted to use the panel format to capture the rhythm — the beat, if you will — of the spoken piece. The result is for you to judge.

So, without further ado, I present “No Words.”
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George Corbett exposed

As with many real-life “adventures” this one seems to be coming to an anti-climactic conclusion. When I wrote about George Corbett in May we all had fun imaging the lurid details behind the stuff I found, especially the photos in the camera. Then when I heard from George’s wife last week, I found that he was fine and his car had simply been broken into. Now I’ve got the photos back from the shop, and as much as I wish there was some juicy stuff to report, that’s anything but the case.

The 15 pix I got back from the unfinished roll seem to be of a family get-together, with various family members in posed and candid shots. Here’s a typical one: (Ignore the date on the pix; according to the camera, today’s date is January 7, 1994 – the damn thing is obviously busted.)

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Nice looking family. Other pix show a young boy, some men in their late teens/early 20s, a woman in her 30s, and an older guy. Nothing that really communicates much about the personality of the shooter, although this one tells me George may be a leg man…!

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There is also a bunch of pictures of a wall of family photos, including some vintage faded wedding pix from what looks like the late 1960s or early 1970s. Finally, there’s a photo of a car on what looks like a New York City street. But no, it’s not the street on which I found the camera and notebook and no, there’s no reflection of an axe murderer in the car window.

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I wish there was more to share, but there just isn’t. The most frustrating thing about all this is none of the pix seem to be of George himself, so I still don’t know what he looks like. He remains an enigma. And he still hasn’t called me to arrange picking up his stuff.

George Corbett update

Back in May I wrote about the mystery of George Corbett. Since I had exhausted all other options, I was encouraged to develop the film in his camera to see if it yielded some clues. I finally got the chance to drop off the film last Friday, but before I got a chance to pick up the developed photos, I got a phone call. From George Corbett’s wife! Seems one of the telephone numbers I found in George’s notebook actually had gotten through, to a decaying answering machine which the Corbetts finally listened to.

Mrs. Corbett was very grateful that I had called them. She told me George’s jeep had been broken into that fateful night on Grand Army Plaza, and I had recovered what the thieves left behind. I felt bad that I had developed the film, but she wasn’t concerned. Now I can return the camera, the notes, and some photos.

The only thing is she told me that George himself would call me back to arrange picking everything up. That was four days ago, and I haven’t heard from him. Does he exist or not? The mystery deepens.

Tonight I’m going to pick up the developed pix…

Where Have You Gone, George Corbett?

About a month ago, on a misty night, Sari & I were taking Plaza Street East on our way back home from Park Slope. As we walked along, I spotted something strange. Lying there on the trunk of a car was a Canon Sure Shot (in a vinyl protective case) and a bunch of papers. Going up to investigate, we discovered the camera contained a partially shot roll of film and, among the miscellaneous papers, newspaper clippings, and bank receipts, a little red notebook. The items obviously hadn’t been there for long, because it being so windy and wet, they were still relatively dry and undisturbed. But there was literally no one else around.

Needless to say, my curiosity was piqued by the mystery. Had someone been mugged, and the contents of their bag dumped there by the thief? Or was there another reason for their abandonment on that particular street, that particular car? We decided to gather everything up and try to return them to the rightful owner. Leafing through the papers and the notebook, we determined that they belong to a guy named George Corbett. Unfortunately, everything in the little collection is almost three years old, with the most recent dates being late 2002. There are a couple of contact numbers in the notebook, but two of them are out of service, and the third has an automated message which has so far not resulted in anyone calling me back. Other papers point to Corbett being a resident of Valley Stream, but none of my Internet searches have revealed any such person.

Besides the mystery angle, I find a certain connection to Corbett because he was such a pack-rat. I mean, he’s got old horoscopes, coupons, notes on napkins, index cards — a guy after my own heart! I wanna do the right thing and reunite George with his stuff. I know if I were him, I would want it back.

But this is were it gets creepy: from what I’ve been able to piece together, back in 2002 George was in school, at Nassau Community College. His major? Mortuary Science! So what’s next? The obvious, right? Develop the pictures in the camera. But you just know they’ll reveal something grisly. I’m not sure I wanna know.

Where’s a good private investigator when you need one?