Friday in the refugee camp

The title says Friday, but God only knows when this will actually go up. It's been a hell of a week here at the Hatcher household. Medical scares, family drama, workplace panic, and so on and so on. Along with all that we had our regular lives to somehow keep in motion, jobs and classes and rent and all that stuff. Not a lot of time for this, I've had to kind of do it in-and-around everything. Our computer's at a desk in the bedroom and Julie is crashed out on the bed to my left, exhausted, as I write this. I am trying to type quietly.

We got through all of it okay, thanks for asking. But it did remind me of other turbulent times in years past. The common factor wasn't the traumas, those varied widely; but rather, the coping mechanism. Comics.

Sometimes it would all get to be just too damn much, whatever it was, and I'd need an escape, to turn my brain off somehow. For me, that doesn't mean drinking or dope or the casino out on the reservation, like it does for most folks here in our part of town: my break for the last few decades has been entertainment. Fiction.

TV or a movie never has done it, they don't distract me enough, and prose is on the other end of the pendulum, it's too engaging. I have always gone straight to comics when it's a refuge from the world that I'm looking for. Comics are perfect because of the actual physics of the medium itself; it's reading, which means total immersion and insulation from the real world, but it's EASY reading, so my concentration doesn't have to be maintained the way it would with prose.

Any comic will do. Mainstream, indies, superhero, funny-animal, slice-of-life, I don't care.

This week I spent a lot of time with Essential Hulk volume four and Lea Hernandez' Cathedral Child, because that's what I had with me in my book bag.

I know from experience that actually making comics of my own will serve the same purpose, as well. When my grandfather died in 1968, I remember vividly sitting in the dining room with a tablet and a pencil, while the adult grief and panic was swirling all around me as the phone kept ringing and I could hear my Mom and Dad arguing in hushed tones. (Sometimes I think their coping mechanism for everything was to go home and tear a few strips off each other. But let's not go there.)

I just sat at the dining room table with my tablet. And I made comics. Methodically, I turned that blank tablet into the adventures of three astronauts (it was '68, remember, Apollo and NASA were all over the news then) who went to the moon and found a ruined city.

I think that would have to be the first original story I ever did. At six years old. And it was done specifically to keep me from losing it, because the way my family was acting was so terrifying. I needed to be somewhere else. The Moon seemed about far enough. I wish I still had that tablet-turned-book (I had discovered that if you turned a writing tablet on its side, you could open it like a book, and that was how I laid out the pages.) I must have done hundreds of thousands of drawings from when I was four years old on up through to college, a great many of them original comic pages, and I've forgotten what almost all of them were about (I think most of them were probably pretty forgettable.) But I remember that astronaut one vividly, I can see the splash page I did that night and the pages that followed, like I'd done it yesterday. It saved my life. That was what it was for. I don't think I ever even showed it to anybody.

Not that there was ever anyone to show it to. This was back when comics were still trash, remember. I learned quickly that if I shared my comics work with anyone actually in a position to help me -- like an art teacher -- I got a lecture about how I was wasting my time on that crap. It wasn't until I got to college that there was anything like the possibility of being taken seriously, and by then I was thinking less in terms of doing actual comics and more just working as a writer and/or illustrator. Which is what I do now.

As I have mentioned before, I also teach comics and cartooning at a couple of the local schools and that's actually blossomed into my main job over the last three or four years. It gets bigger every year, which is fine with me because it's also my favorite job, it's easily the most rewarding and entertaining freelance gig I've ever had. Helping my students and watching them take their comics from an unfocused idea into a finished printed piece is even more fun than making my own. People often react to this particular job like I'm doing something noble, but honestly, it's mostly just a goddamn hoot. I still can't quite believe schools pay me for this. I'd pay them.

What I discovered this week is that not only does my classroom work as a refuge, same as anything else connected with comics does for me, but it's not even just my refuge. It's the kids' refuge too.

Tuesday Katrina came flouncing in an hour late, with an expression that would sour milk, and handed me a hall pass. Please admit Katrina to Cartooning, her absence is excused. Followed by a rather spiky administrative signature.

I glanced from the pass back up to Katrina's fearsome scowl and decided not to ask what she'd been sent to the office for this time. "....Um, okay. Well, find a seat, kiddo." Yes, the Divine Miss K is back and yes, folks, she is again a disciplinary nightmare for teachers of the Boring Classes. (A previous installment of the continuing saga of Katrina can be found here, if you scroll down a bit.)

Thankfully I am not one of those teachers, which is not to say that Katrina and I haven't gone a couple of rounds here and there the last couple of years -- she can be really arrogant sometimes -- but I understand misfit, school-hating, artist geniuses better than most teachers in middle school. Hell, most of the comics people I know are like that, and I think Katrina senses it. When she saw I wasn't going to bark at her for being late -- she'd had a defensive tirade all ready, I could tell -- she relaxed and settled in with her pages.

Lindon, her best friend in class, leaned over to her and said, "What happened?" Meaning, dish, girlfriend.

"I don't want to talk about it," Katrina said.

7th-grade girls don't catch cues as well as adults. Lindon pressed, "Why not? What happened?" Must be really good. Dish, dammit! Now Madeline and Amanda were interested too. Good dish? C'mon, give it up.

"What part of 'I don't want to talk about it' didn't you get?" Katrina's voice escalated into shrillness a little at the end, the preface to throwing something or screaming or crying.

Lindon looked wounded.

I decided to intervene. "Katrina, that will do. Lindon, drop it."

Lindon turned the wounded look to me. "But I was just asking--"

Gently, I smiled and said, "Lindon, I had a family phone call this morning that I didn't want to talk about either, and if anyone had asked me about it I'd probably have beat them to death. I completely sympathize with Katrina here. Sometimes that's just how it is. Let it go." Lindon considered it, then nodded.

I turned to Katrina. "But sympathy doesn't mean we tolerate screaming at people in here. You can be artistic without being a temperamental ass. This is a studio and we're on a deadline. Whoever you're mad at, it's not anyone in here. Save it for your own time. This is class time."

Katrina nodded, looking a little abashed.

I added, "While you were gone we decided on a jam cover for the first one this year, it's going around the room. So if that page comes to you and you don't know what it's for, it's the cover. One character, pencil and ink, anywhere you want, then pass it on. You know the drill."

Katrina nodded again, this time with a completely professional face. Time to clock in.

While they worked for the next half hour or so I watched their faces, and as they drew, the magic happened for them. I saw it. It was a physical change. Faces, body language, everything; both girls relaxed and went to the place you go when you are hiding out in a comic. It was almost beatific.

So that's what it looks like from the outside, I thought.

After about half an hour Katrina leaned over and whispered something to Lindon and that broke the ice. They were friends again and in a few minutes more, the table was once again the giggling controlled chaos that I'm used to. I never did find out what the trauma was. But the cure was obvious.

Sometimes I wonder about comic fans, and occasionally I mock them rudely. I admit it. What is not always clear is that I absolutely am one. I am as fiercely devoted to my favorites as anyone on the internet. My geekiness expresses itself mostly in creative pursuits -- I was always a 'zine-contributing guy as opposed to, say, a costume guy or a web-page shrine-building guy --

...but I get just as viciously angry when my favorite book or character is mishandled as you'd see from the most rabid fanboy on any message-board freakshow. Honestly, it's actually embarrassing sometimes.

Occasionally I wonder where that viciousness comes from, the way we can go from zero to kill-you in 8.2 seconds just on the strength of a rumor or an advance cover pic.

But weeks like this, well, I remember why. It's the protective instinct. It's because comics have always been my safe place. And buddy, you just don't fuck with the Safe Place.

See you next week.

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