JOHN OSTRANDER: Genius and Barbecue
There are ways of getting ComicMix E-I-C Mike Gold to do what you want. Most of them involve barbeque. It has to be good barbeque, mind you, and we’re talking beef rather than pork. Smoky brisket, a sharp sauce, maybe some hushpuppies (forget the cole slaw), fries, and a coke – get these into him and he becomes remarkably malleable.
Another really good way is talent. Mike is seduced by talent. I’m not talking big names; Mike knows plenty of people who are “names” and it’s no big deal. I’m talking about talent. He loves being a part of what happens when talented people do things; hell, Mike’s plenty talented in his own right. But he really enjoys how creative minds work.
It’s how I got him to originally go for Munden’s Bar. The character that Tim Truman and I created, GrimJack, had proven such a hit in the back of Starslayer that he was being promoted into his own book. Given the page count of comics at the time, it meant we needed an eight page back-up feature. I wanted GrimJack to be all set in the pandimensional city of Cynosure where the main feature itself was set so I proposed that we do an anthology series of eight page stories set in Munden’s, the bar that GrimJack owned and used as his office. Each story would be complete unto itself, each could have a different artist, and maybe I’d even let another writer in. Occasionally. Maybe.
Mike wasn’t sold. His objections were that anthologies could be a lot more work, they didn’t always sell very well, the company liked to use back-ups as launching pads for new series which Munden’s Bar was unlikely to do, and the idea with backups was to have something separate from the main feature that would draw in a crowd perhaps on its own, as GrimJack had done for Starslayer.
These were all reasonable objections. I couldn’t really dispute any of them so instead I fought dirty and appealed to Mike’s love of talent.
I told him I thought I could get Del Close to co-write some of them with me.
Let me tell you about Del. He was an actor, a teacher, and most of all he was the director at Second City in Chicago for twenty-plus years. He was teacher and mentor to some of the biggest names who came out of Second City and later founded, with Charna Halpern, ImprovOlypics – out of which came more students who became important people in comedy. Like who? John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Murray, John Candy, Betty Thomas, Stephen Colbert, Mike Meyers, Steve Carell, and so many others that I could spend the rest of the column just listing them.
Simply put – Del Close is one of the greatest influences on late twentieth century comedy and humor in America and, thus, the world. He influenced his students and they in turn are influencing others. Del shaped the sensibility of Second City for two decades. Without it, there is no Saturday Night Live, no SCTV (Del created the format for that show), none of the other improv groups that have also fed American humor in all its forms.
Hyperbole? If anything, I think I’m understating it. Del is perhaps the only individual I have ever personally met whom I would call a genius. It’s not just a matter of intellect although Del had a considerable brain; it wasn’t just a matter of knowledge – Del was enormously well read on a multitude of different subjects. It was perception; he knew how it worked because he saw the patterns. I think Einstein knew what the answers were; he had to then find the proof. Same thing with Del.
I met Del while I was an actor, doing A Christmas Carol at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. We shared a dressing room the first year and Del decided he wanted me in one of his improv classes. I objected that I didn’t do that sort of thing very well and going on SNL was not a goal of mine. He then became insistent – I was exactly the sort he wanted in his class. He preferred doctors, lawyers, writers, postal workers – anything but the ones looking at it as a stepping stone to get on SNL.
It was the most liberating writing class I ever had. Del warned that if he caught you trying to be funny, he would throw chairs at you – which he was known to do. He said he was bored with exposition – “start in the middle and go on past the end,” he would tell us. He wanted us to be fearless, to throw ourselves off the comedic cliff so we would either fly or plummet to our doom. He warned us not to go for the laugh; “Reality is funnier than you’ll ever be,” he told us and he was right. The goal was to be real.
From Del, I learned not to be hard-wired into structure. I knew structure well; the trick was to forget it and pursue what was messy and real. Structure would find its own way. Del taught me to go with the most interesting premise and not to try something that was playable. He blew my head open and altered my way of thinking – without drugs, thank you. (Del was into doing what he called “bioassays” of various substances but they weren’t required of anyone else; it’s just how he lived his life.)
In sharing that dressing room with Del, I learned that he loved comics and devoured anything about sci-fi and horror. He used to claim that he spent his money on dope and books and, having been to his apartments, I can believe that. What fascinated Del about comics was that he felt it was a truly American art form in which the first great work of art had yet to be created. (Since then, we’ve had Art Spiegelman’s Maus which I think would qualify by most standards, In fact, I would argue for Will Eisner’s Spirit stories but that’s a different column.) I felt certain that Del, if he had the time, would jump at the opportunity to work in comics.
I could see Mike’s mind working when I mentioned Del. Of course, Mike knew all about Del. Everything he had said against doing a Munden’s Bar series remained true but… Del Close. I could see the possibility seducing him.
In the end, Mike couldn’t help himself and we started Munden’s Bar until we could find “something better.” We didn’t, not really. We wound up with some wonderfully talented people coming in to do stories – Tim Truman wrote one that is the basis for our current GrimJack story, The Manx Cat. Del and I would later team up again on Wasteland, the psychological horror/comedy anthology we did (with Mike) at DC.
Given the realities of publishing monthly books, it no longer seemed possible to do Munden’s Bar stories. Given the realities of publishing on ComicMix, however, it is and we are and we will invoke Del’s spirit as we do so.
I’ll have to admit that, at first, I wasn’t sure about doing Munden’s Bar again; there’s some pretty high standards at work there. However, we’ve got some pretty good artists coming by and the stories are coming out pretty cool. And I couldn’t resist; Mike bribed me with some barbeque.
Potent stuff, barbeque.
Munden’s Bar reopens for business on Friday, October 5th right here at ComicMix with a story by John Ostrander and underground comix legend Skip Williamson. It is, of course, a tribute to Del, who died March 4 ,1999, five days before his 65th birthday, but, typically, just after his 65th birthday party – thrown for him at the hospital by Bill Murray. We miss you, Del. – MG