Laughing Matter

My brief foray into cartooning is a definitive study of the “You Had To Be There” school of comedy, not only in its subject matter (life in Chicago’s Hyde Park at the turn of the ’80s) but also what I thought was funny when I was 14. As with most things that stirred me from my trademark torpor, I was inspired by potential reward. My buddy Alex Gordon’s mom ran a kitschy card shop called Funny Papers on 53rd and she was sponsoring a cartoon contest; the best strip about Hyde Park would win. Not letting my almost complete inability to draw stand in my way, I set to scribbling.

Hmmm, Hyde Park, let’s see. What’s funny about Hyde Park? Of course it never entered my mind to sing the praises of my native soil or even poke some good natured fun at its institutions. Sure, Hyde Park was progressive and diverse, with a world-famous university and cultural landmarks, but I thought it painfully boring, as if a thin film of dust perpetually clung to everything and everyone, and that dust was self-perpetuating. More to the point, it was just so damn predictable. In my mind, Hyde Park was the residential equivalent to the sesame seed paste-based candy halva: infused with a cloying sweetness that’s really meant to distract you from its more elemental chalky and unpleasant qualities.1 To be fair, that may well be how everyone feels about their home town. And it was a town, despite being within the Chicago city limits – a remote outpost that everyone in my North side high school thought might as well be below the Mason-Dixon line. So home turf be damned, after feeling the sting of my pen, this ho-hum burg wouldn’t know what hit it.

Casting a withering glance about me (as only a high school freshman can do), I focused on the theme of boredom and monotony, hitting it hard and often. And it was like shooting fish in a barrel. The stuff just wrote and drew itself. I then submitted my strips for the contest and found out a couple of weeks later that I actually garnered an honorable mention, presumably because the judges thought the crude rendering had been executed by a much younger kid. I was told that one of the judges who worked for the Reader, a city-wide free weekly, even suggested I contact them about doing a strip, but I was too lazy and intimidated (a lethal combination of things to be, by the way) to ever contact them. I put the comics away and laid down my pencil. <Sad Trombone, right?>

Now, for posterity, I offer a selection of the original Hyde Park Comix series for their first public appearance in 35 years. Are you listening, Pulitzer Committee? See for yourself why the wait was entirely justified.

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FOOTNOTES

1My brother Michael gave me my first taste of halva around this time, which he criminally oversold as being indescribably delicious and something I had been deprived of until that moment. I can still see it through the glass of the deli counter: huge bricks of various flavors that looked deceptively like fudge. Once I did take a bite, its most distinctive characteristic (what I would learn in adult life, from people in the cold cereal game, is referred to as “mouth feel”) overwhelmed me with revulsion. My mind instantly asked me why I had thought it would be a good idea to eat something like that, responding with the perfectly understandable urge to spit it out as quickly as possible. I’ve tried it since, thinking perhaps my palate had become more discerning and sophisticated, but I stand by my initial assessment. That shit is nasty. Go Back To Reading

2“The Shocking Pink” is my hilarious send-up of the Mellow Yellow restaurant, but at first I couldn’t recall the reference for the impressively named “Carnal Lunge,” until my dear brother Michael reminded me of the Cornell Lounge, a bar at 53rd, east of the IC tracks. Credit is no doubt due to the cartoonist B. Kliban, whose sometimes risque cartoons were a big influence at this point. Note that the visual gag in the final frame is meant to be the sidewalk rolling up. Try not to piss your pants. Go Back To Reading

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