part two

‘Hi, are you Harry?’

The date was Thursday, December 16, 1976. I had prevailed in my badgering of Harry Kremer and had the first (and only) REAL job I would ever have — sales clerk of the downstairs half of Now & Then Books. I didn’t recognize her as the brunette from the convention at my high school (that realization would come some weeks or months later). No, I was not Harry — could I help her in some way?

She and some friends were putting together a magazine like Dark Shadows, she said. Would Now & Then Books be interested in advertising in it or carrying copies for sale? Thinking she was referring to a cult horror/parody TV series of the time, I asked what sort of content she intended. ‘Like Dark Shadows,’ she insisted. Insight dawned.

‘Do you mean Dark Fantasy?’

‘Oh, right. Dark Fantasy.’ She never missed a beat — a trait I would come to know well over the next few years. I kept her talking for a while, trying to get some picture of her level of expertise. It was pretty clear that she was a novice in the publishing world. I offered my own services in assisting her. After all, I (ahem) had been published in Dark Fantasy. That got her interest (a genuine first for me — interest from a female). She left me her name, address and phone number. I wrote down my own. Kind of exciting really, since I had had my own one-room apartment for all of sixteen days. I had sold all of my comic books for approximately two thousand dollars and took the job running the downstairs at Now & Then Books for seventy-five dollars a month and rented the apartment for $120 a month — it was ‘freelance artist/writer sink-or-swim’ time. She recognized my name from Dark Fantasy.

She came by the store the next night around the same time to invite me over for dinner (she admitted later that she walked home thinking, ‘What am I? Mary Tyler Moore? I don’t cook dinner for people’). After dinner she pulled out a file with various stories and poems spilling from it. The ‘friends’ turned out to be her brother Michael and her sister Karen. A family friend, Eric Hope, was the only artist in the writing group. To my delight, I found out he had little or no artistic ability. With the methodical efficiency of a would-be suitor seeing his expertise (however limited) as a trump card in the game of romance, I began taking control of the magazine as a means of ingratiating myself to Denise Loubert de Neuilly (the ‘de Neuilly’ was an affectation of sorts Michael had done some research on the origins of the family name and had determined that it had originated in Neuilly, France).

It was an unexpected switch for me to go from being a marginal presence at Dark Fantasy, a largely unpublished ‘wannabe’, and to find myself a kind of final authority on creative, production and business matters on Cerebus. That was the name of Denise Loubert’s proposed magazine: Cerebus.

Early in 1977, I designed a logo and did an illustration for the front cover. The logo appeared on the first fifty issues of this comic book you’re reading now. When I was done, there was something missing. I told Deni that she needed a name for the publishing imprint. Dark Fantasy was the name of Gene Day’s publication, but it also had the imprint name and logo of his publishing company: House of Shadows. She thought about it for a while and decided to solicit Michael and Karen’s input.

Michael’s suggestion was ‘Vanaheim Press’. I think he made the name up. It had the Nordic ring of Valhalla or Midheim or whatever else. I always took it to be synonymous with Valhalla — a mythological place where good and dutiful warriors go.

Karen’s suggestion was ‘Aardvark Press’. There was that damned quadruped again. It seemed that in her circle of friends a passing fancy had consisted of resting finger and thumb tips on surface and then raising the middle- finger from the surface: four legs and an elongated snout -- aardvark.

Having aspiration to become part of the family in the not too-distant future (don’t laugh — it had taken me twenty years to find a girlfriend and I wasn’t about to risk having to wait another twenty years for the next one), I wasn’t going to play favourites and suggested combining the two names: Aardvark-Vanaheim Press.

I have no memory of drawing the first picture of the aardvark mascot. I was doing so much freelance work (both commissioned and on spec) that the work I did for my girlfriend’s magazine was more of a hobby, an afterthought to the day’s work. I only did the one version (‘A Boy and His Aardvark’ was still fresh in my mind, so I don’t think I even referred to the little picture in the dictionary): a cartoon barbarian aardvark (in keeping with the fantasy theme intended for the magazine). I probably knocked it out in about twenty minutes with an extra thirty seconds for the tone.

As the first issue started to come together, it was Dem who realized that the fanzine’s title, Cerebus, was misspelled. The three-headed dog who guarded Hides in Greek mythology was Cerberus. ‘Not to worry,’ I said, somewhat less than eager to reletter the logo and figure out how to squeeze in an extra letter and transpose two others, We’ll just say that Cerebus is the name of the cartoon aardvark mascot.’

The fanzine was never published. The originals and a cheque for (I believe) $175 were sent to an address in California of a Deep Discount quick printer. The magazine and the money vanished without a trace.

Of course, when something like that happens, it doesn’t happen right away. I recall the optimism and anticipation of the arrival of the first issue gradually giving way to anxiety, then anger and finally resignation. Subsequent issues were left half-finished. The awareness that a magazine like Dark Fantasy operated in the red, financed by Gene’s freelance paychecks, and that Cerebus would be lucky to break even in some distant future — that in fact it would be lucky to lose only a few thousand dollars over the first few years – such awareness, coupled with the loss of the cheque and the originals, dashed the original dream on the rocks of hard truth.

And it was not just Deni Loubert’s dream of making a living from a digest-zine ‘like Dark Shadows’ which had been dealt a blow. Gene Day had started getting more freelance work from Marvel Comics as an inker on Star Wars, Marvel Two-in-One and other titles. Dark Fantasy took a back seat to this job, which would pay his not- inconsiderable mortgage on his new house on First St. in Gananoque. Hellhound, his long-planned magazine-format comics anthology, was dead in the water. Pigeons from Hell, a Robert E. Howard short story for which he had purchased the rights from the Howard estate to do as a comics adaptation, languished as well. His logic was irrefutable. Every hour spent at the drawing board inking Marvel super-hero comics solidified his reputation as a reliable finisher — which garnered him still more work. Every hour spent on Dark Fantasy, or Hellhound, brought him closer to the day when he would have to pay a printing bill, pay the contributors and trust to the unlikely possibility that there would be a profit left over. His experience as a publisher told him that the profit would be insufficient to pay for the printing of the next issue. As a hobby, in Gene’s mind, the satisfaction had to be weighed in the balance against the money and time it consumed. As a livelihood, it was a treadmill to oblivion.

My perception of Gene began to change. I had imitated his ‘hell-bent for leather’ approach to freelancing — swimming like a shark in search of new markets, inundating editors and publishers of all shapes and sizes with work produced on spec, taking my acceptance by publishers A and B and using it as a crowbar to pry an assignment out of publisher C. I had pursued the ‘small press’ opportunity presented to me by Deni Loubert and her magazine Cerebus to mirror Gene’s efforts with Dark Fantasy. As a freelancer I was experiencing far greater success than I could have imagined. In talking to Gene, I recognized that Cerebus was not going to be a moneymaker — either for its publisher or her boyfriend-layout- paste-up-design-illustration guy. The question became one of ‘where to from here?’ If I was to continue following in Gene’s footsteps, I had to build my freelance career with smaller publishers and attempt to interest someone at Marvel or DC in using me as a writer (my greatest ‘strength’, as perceived by editors and publishers), layout artist (my second greatest strong suit), penciller (unlikely) or inker (impossible). In visiting Gene, the first rush of seeing actual Marvel Comics penciled pages in my friend and mentor’s studio gave way to the disheartening awareness of the crippling workload, Gene’s new status as a small cog in the Big Machine. Even more disheartening was seeing the full-size photocopies of the finished pages and comparing them to their published incarnation — most of Gene’s brushwork and attention to detail languishing beneath pools of magenta, crimson, navy and orange — each page a riot of chromatic inconsistencies.

For my part, my most lucrative jobs in 1977 were Revolt: 2000 — a quartet of super-hero stories I had written and drawn as a commissioned work from the long- departed and never-lamented lrjax Enterprises — and Phantaca’s first issue, drawn from a full script by Jim McPherson. As much as I thought that Gene had taken a wrong turn with his Marvel freelancing, I was left contemplating my own situation — doing second-rate imitations of the (even then) formulaic Marvel style at a fraction of the Big Two’s page rates and for publishers who could only muster a fraction of Marvel’s or DC’s circulation.

In the first weeks after creating the aardvark mascot, I had done a single comic-book panel — just to see what he would look like from a different angle. Some months later, after the loss of the originals and printing bill for Cerebus No. I, the digest-zine, I drew a sample page, incorporating the original logo. It sat on a she in my studio in Deni’s and my first apartment — 48 Weber Street East — through the spring and summer of 1977, as I completed Phantaca No 1 (including a two-week period where I was confined to bed with a virus resembling mononucleosis).

Next: Mr. and Mrs. Aardvark-Vanaheim.