JOHN OSTRANDER: You say it’s my birthday
I share my recent birthday with a bunch of notables; unfortunately, the most famous is Adolf Hitler. I thought it would be it would be good to use the day in part for some ruminations – where I am, where I’ve been, what I foresee, fear, et al. Actually, I can do that any day of the year; a birthday is really just a number and some of what we ascribe to that date is arbitrary. Still, might as well make use of what we got.
One thing that is about my birthday fixed is that I share it with my twin brother, Joel. Joe and I are fraternal twins; we don’t look alike, sound alike or even sometimes think alike. Joe is a conservative Republican and I decidedly am not. Joe is a life member of the NRA; I decidedly am not.
However, when I called him on our shared birthday – which I always do – he picked up the phone and started doing his Elmer Fudd imitation, which I also did. It’s the way we start every phone conversation, usually with Elmer singing something inappropriate. We’ve been doing this long before Robin Williams did. We agree that Elmer is vastly unappreciated and has an extraordinary range, from the Stones and Springsteen to show tunes (he has an affinity for Lerner and Lowe – Fudd doing “Why Can’t the English Teach Their Children How To Speak?” from My Fair Lady may be the definitive rendering of that song). He also can do Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, and could play Stanley in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire; “Stehwwwwwaaaaaa!”
That is part of what forms me – family. In addition to Joe I have three sisters – Marge, Jane, and Pat. All wonderful people and all of them have dirt on me – as I do on them. I have an Aunt Helen who is going to 100 years old in June; her father also lived to be 100. So there is that in my DNA, although my father died much younger than that.
We lived across the street from the Roman Catholic church that I attended; I literally played in its shadow. While these days I am something on an agnostic – my gag is that I’m not dogmatic about it – I am very specifically a Roman Catholic agnostic. The god I have questions about is the image formed by the Roman Catholic upbringing. I was raised pre-Vatican II, back in the days when the Masses were in Latin. That also may be in my DNA.
I’m one of the baby boomer generation. I can’t quite remember a time before television but I remember a time when it was all in black and white. I can still reel off the names of most of my favorite shows – Zorro, Rocky and Bullwinkle, Ernie Kovacs (I was a strange kid), Fractured Flickers, Beany and Cecil, Garfield Goose (a Chicago kids TV show), Jack Paar when he had on Oscar Levant or Jonathan Winters (I was a very strange kid) and others. I remember the British invasion; as an early teen, I ushered at the Beatles concerts in Chicago. I was resistant to the Beatles until I saw A Hard Days Night; that’s when I became a fan. All part of my cultural DNA.
I got into theater because a Catholic girls H.S. was looking for boys to be part of their next production. A girl I liked attended that school and – well, c’mon. Being one of a few boys inside a girls’ high school? Of course you’re going to go there. I almost never saw the girl but the teacher/director – Mrs. Crawford – thought I had potential. I discovered the stage and that would form a great part of my life for the next almost twenty years. It also helped make me into the writer I am today.
And, of course, there were comic books. I loved them and my mother hated them so I loved them all the more. I discovered my taste in books ran to genre fiction – detective stories, fantasy (Tolkien and Robert E. Howard), some science fiction, some Westerns, some horror. All a part of my writing DNA.
As I recall, I started writing comics when I was 33. So this year means I’ve been in the business for about 25 years. I won’t pretend there haven’t been downs with the ups – things are getting better but recent years have been tough. Work was a bit scarce for a while. I never diversified as I should have, I never did a screenplay or a novel. Worked more on characters someone else owned rather than my own. I’m learning, however, and trying to change that a bit. More assignments are coming in. A new generation of writers – including Geoff Johns and Gail Simone – have been very generous in saying how much my work has meant to them and have made sure their publisher hears it as well. This year – fates willing – will be my busiest in five years. So that’s all good, right?
Wish I could say so.
I live paycheck to paycheck and have nothing put away. I’m a writer and I have no intention of retiring but what happens if I can no longer work? That keeps me up some nights. I have some chronic health conditions and no health insurance; getting some – even if I could afford it – is problematic. I have a house I can barely afford and I don’t know as I an sell it. I look where I am and reflect on how many people out there are in the same situation or worse.
The middle class is getting creamed. The rich get obscenely richer as the ranks of the poor grow. It seems to me that when CEOs talk about making their companies leaner to better compete in a world economy, they’re talking about the little guy getting a salary cut or laid off. They continue to collect their salaries and bonuses; to fire an executive who is screwing up their job, you have to give them multi-million dollar severance packages. All of this are decided by Boards of Directors who generally have others of their ilk on it; how many have members of the Unions or even of the Stockholders on it? It seems to me that increasingly Big Business is run not for the benefit of the company or the people who work there or even the stockholders but for the benefit of the top executives.
Maybe that’s an over-exaggeration, maybe it’s always been so to a greater or lesser degree. I simply can’t remember it being this bad in my lifetime.
I look at the future for myself, my country, and this planet and for the first time in my life I’m not sanguine about any of them. I won’t shrink from or deny responsibility for my own actions or inactions; I’m where some of my choices have brought me. Health insurance, on the other hand, is a national nightmare and is going to get worse. Health insurance is coming to mean health care, period. Once again, if you have money or job security, then you get health care. If you don’t, you’d better pray you don’t get sick. That’s one of the things this Administration wants to see, right? More prayer.
I will admit that I have not been a fan of the Bush administration since the start. I’ve watched the negative impact it has had on this country, our future, and the world with a mounting sense of horror and frustration. We have gone from a surplus of millions to a deficit of trillions. We have a war in Iraq that was based on lies, founded on arrogance and ignorance and false assumptions, botched in execution, has alienated friends and allies, been a recruiting poster for our enemies and now has no good outcome in sight. (I plan to have more to say on both these topics in future columns.) We have an environmental catastrophe in the making with which the Administration is in deep denial.
It’s not just the Administration. We, as a people, seem to insist on a lifestyle that is going to be impossible to maintain. We consume a large part of the world’s resources in proportion to our population and seem to take it as our due. “We’re #1,” we love to chant but no country remains on top forever. That’s plain historical fact. We won’t remain the world’s sole superpower forever and maybe not for much longer. The Bush Administration has had a policy of tax cuts (especially for their friends in high places) and runaway spending that will come back to bite us in the ass.
It may be I’m suffering from Incipient Old Coot-ism; I’m starting to decline so, by cracky, the dagnab country is declining as well. T’ain’t a patch on what it was in the old days, nossir, back when I was a young’un. Good Lord, I can feel myself turning into Walter Brennan as we speak and we all know it’s just a quick jump from there to Gabby Hayes.
Actually, I hope that it is Incipient Old Coot-ism. I’d prefer that to be true. I hope my crystal ball is cracked. I really want to be wrong.
I just don’t believe I am.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. His own personal blog is at www.comicscommunity.com/boards/ostrander/