Dan Adkins & Another Lesson On Mortality
Dan Adkins: March 15, 1937 – May 8, 2013
Here's the thing, I hadn't known until today that Dan Adkins, one of my mentors, had died. Stick with me, there's a lot to this, so let me lay this on you slowly.
Lately you may have noticed a certain pattern in many of my posts; posts written prior to this latest loss. I have been thinking a lot about mortality and old friends. I've been thinking a lot about my own mortality and the death of many people I have known. Death is not something I generally like to focus on, but lately it's been rising in my consciousness, I think I was supposed to have been paying attention. The universe, the Gods, have a way of sending us messages if we are smart enough to see them for what they are rather than taking the easy way out and using science as an excuse to ignore such things and foolishly dismiss them as superstition.
Just last night I was getting impatient with a friend who I love very much, but who has a rotten habit of living in a seemingly perpetual state of "one of these days" thinking, not that I'm unfamiliar with that. My grandfather was the king of "one of these days," or, "I'll get around to it." Of course, now, he's dead. I wonder, with no comic intention, how much he never got around to. I wonder that a lot, and not just about him, but about my friend, other friends, and myself.
I had been pressing my friend to come and see me here, and though I am generally highly emotional, for some reason this particular need to have him here has been pressing heavily on me, far heavier than is logical. Last night, after speaking with him and getting ready for bed I had a panic attack about it, and I realized in an inspired burst of clarity exactly why my emotional reaction is so strong in reaction to his "one of these days" stance--and that of others and myself.
People die. I will die. And it could happen at any given moment. The intimacy with which I understand mortality is something that only comes with facing your own... and that of many others.
Read over my prior blogs, and you will find plenty on that 6 month period when I had not only been diagnosed and treated for cancer, but nearly drowned in Thailand. I had faced my own mortality in a very hard way twice in 6 months. Add to this the gruesomely personal experience I had with my ex-father-in-law's death, the suicide of my childhood friend Andy, the hanging I witnessed in my backyard, Tom and Leela's loss, the loss of one of my jamming buddies Joe, the loss of George (who died of the same cancer as myself), the loss of Scott from the Folkatorium, the loss of Phil to obesity, the loss of my grandfather, of Jeffrey Catherine Jones... and so many more. Keep in mind the risk I am under of bloodclot, stroke and cancer... and I think you can see that I have looked into the eyes of death one-on-one.
One of the losses that I feel that lacks the most closure was with Jeffrey Catherine Jones, yes, THE Jeff Jones! I have written an entire unpublished graphic novel about that loss. Catherine was one of my dearest mentors. A few years back I decided to reconnect with her, and I tried, oh how I tried, but nothing much came of it. Then, in the midst of my final efforts to get back in touch with her, to find her, she died! She died before I could say goodbye, she died with our friendship unresolved. This has haunted me for some time.
About a year or so ago I started realizing a certain urgency in all this, and I began reconnecting with people, especially people who were as important to me as Jeffrey Catherine Jones. I reconnected with Frank Thorne, and he said to me over the phone, after I had vanished for almost a decade, "We were really close once." That hurt, to know that he had missed me in my absence. It also hurt that I was not able to make out how dear Frank felt about me now. He seemed a little upset with some of the changes I have gone through. I simply do not know where we stand now.
Shortly after that I decided to reconnect with another of the great artists who helped form me, who offered support, criticism and encouragement, the great Jim Steranko. Fortunately that conversation went well. Jim was clear in his gracious acceptance of me. He suggested with some urgency that I reconnect with Dan Adkins. I took Jim seriously, did some digging, and found my old rolodex and address book, but could not find Dan's number anywhere. I wanted to call Dan. Dan, after all, was the end of the line, was as close to Wally Wood as my lineage got. Dan taught P. Craig Russell and Val Mayerik, and Dan learned from Wally, and I learned from Dan, Craig, and Val. But I could not find Dan's number. I took it for granted that he would be there. Like a fool I figured that "one of these days" I would call Jim and get Dan's number.
It's far too late.
I just learned today that while I was one-of-thes-days-ing... Dan died.
Just like Jeffrey Catherine Jones, Dan died, and I never had the chance to reconnect and say goodbye.
And this is entirely my fault. Entirely. And that is a bitter pill to swallow. I'm not sure I ever will swallow it, it will just sit there bitter in the back of my throat. I'll have to choke on it, forgive myself, and live with the fact that I blew it. I alone blew it.
I met Dan thanks to Val Mayerik. Val took me to Dan's studio in Reading Pennsylvania many many years ago, decades ago. I had heard a lot about Dan, all of it eccentric, weird, and wholly loveable. A few of the Adkins stories had become legends among his circle, stories that were confirmed in the first hour of our meeting.
I can't pretend to have known Dan well, but I knew him well enough to love him. Funny thing was, you didn't have to know Dan well to know way too much information about him. One of the very best stories about him involved a detailed recounting of the way he almost died masturbating. Yeah, you read that right. Everyone I knew knew the story, recounted it, and recounted it in Dan's voice. He was entirely too easy to imitate. When I went to meet Dan in his wonderland of a little attic studio, he poured over my work and within in a hour of meeting him he said, "Eh... your work reminds me of Vaughn Bode. You like Vaughn Bode? You know how Vaughn Bode died?" I nodded, of course I loved Bode, of course I knew how he died (who didn't? though Frank Thorne insists the legend of how Bode died is entirely false and the truth is actually somewhat more unpleasant... which is hard to believe considering how unpleasant the legend is). "I almost died like that, you wanna hear about it?" Dan asked. Well, of course I wanted to hear about it. I had heard the story second-hand and had repeated it verbatim myself, but the chance to hear it from the man himself, from the Master, was far too grand to pass up, so I didn't let on that I knew the story and nodded eagerly. And let Dan tell the story in his own words. As far as I can recall... it went like this...
The first bit of information is to know that however it was that Bode died, it involved masturbation or sex. Dan's story involved... well... wait for it, let's not get ahead of ourselves here. Dan started by telling me that his wife Jeanette (pictured at top and to the left, stunning woman) didn't approve of pornography, so Dan had pornography on slides that he would view with a slide projector as the slides were easy to hide from her. Dan was in the bathroom sitting on the edge of the tub projecting his porn on the door. At some point in the middle of these... er...uh... proceedings he smelled something burning! In the midst of his... uhm... passion(?) he realized that it was the electrical chord burning. He, pants around his waist, reached down to unplug it, but the part where the chord attached to the plug had melted and when he grabbed it the volt-n-jolt blasted him back into the tub... pants down around his ankles. As he laid akimbo in his tub, pants down around his ankles, he thought, "I coulda died like Vaughn Bode."
Of course I had many other adventures with Dan, he was possessed of a natural vaudevillian humor that was one part sarcasm, one part exhaustion, one part insight, and one part a shameless knowledge of what was funny. I recall him picking at his food in a dreadful "country cooking" restaurant in a mall, the concerned waiter (flamboyantly gay, and with a runny nose) had become terribly concerned about Dan and his uneaten but incessantly picked at meal. About the fourth time the overly-concerned waiter came over to ask him if he wanted to order something else, an exhausted and depressed Dan just said to him, "Tell you what, I'll write a book and let you know how it all turned out." The mystified waiter sniffled twice, turned, and left Dan Adkins alone to pick at his food all he wanted.
Dan was very much a fifties rock sorta guy. Check out those great pics of him in his T-shirt and fabulous hair! And Dan wasn't just an ordinary rock fan, but a passionate one. He had a wide variety of tastes, and from a wide variety of decades, but he liked his stuff straightforward. God bless him for it, too!
Dan was one of the classic inkers, as straightforward and classic an artist as the musicians he loved! Dan knew his way around the brush, and his drawing style was simple and spot-on. Not a lot of flash but twelve tons of substance! Dan was an amazing person to show work to. Dan was an amazing person to learn from, and generous, so generous that it brings tears to my eyes. I should have contacted him before he died. He was down, Jim told me his wife had died. Dan deserved better from me.
When I was deep into life as an inker, Dan sent me a couple brushes. Of course I had gone out to see him several times in his studio, but we also corresponded by phone and mail. The brushes Dan sent me were immaculately mounted on cardboard in a side-by-side comparison complete with instructions in perfect and stylish cartoonist handwriting. He was teaching me how to singe the extra hairs from the end of a brush with a lighter. The brushes he sent me, two brand new Winsor Newton Seris 7 #2 brushes, were examples for me to use. One brush had not been treated with a lighter, the other had, and he sent me the two so I could use both of them and understand the difference.
Every time I went to see Dan I walked away with an original or two. Add to this that when he worked for DC Comics on their Olympics-related tie-ins, Dan mailed me a couple lovely drawings, my favorite was of Wonder Woman in a pool swimming laps competitively. It was one helluva a delightful little illustration. Wow... this is hard to write about.
Dan, of course, stepped up to the plate and inked a drawing of my favorite character, Mara, a character of my own creation. If I recall the story correctly Dan had liked the pencils and asked if he could ink it. Of course, of course Dan could ink it.
And now that he's gone I am filled with regrets, with a total lack of closure, and sense of shame and guilt that will stick. Oh, it will heal, but it will leave a scar, just like the scar left when Jeff Jones died, just like the scar left when the great French director Jean Rollin died without my ever doing the comic that I had agreed to do for him. And I am left feeling a little too ashamed to call Jim Steranko. I have some explaining to do, don't I, Jim? Your friend, your dear friend deserved better than a "one of these days" from me.
I hope this is the last time I have to live with these sorts of regrets. I hope this is the last time I take anyone for granted and assume that they will be there when it's convenient for me, and I hope that some of my readers will learn that lesson from me rather than having to learn it the hard way.
People die. One of these days... often before you are ready for it, they will die, and people need to truly understand this.
One of these days, one of these days.
Salmon Falls (Harry Nilsson)
Each drop of rain falls a million times its own length To crash upon this floor, and with its pain cause life to start anew Each second fights its way magically through your entire life Like a salmon traveling upstream to its final destination And with his goal in sight, life ends - to start anew Each man lives far beyond his span And writhes the life of all mankind And not until his kind has passed will he... And not until he dies Each second of your life conclude And not until it crashes against the Earth Will a drop of rain have fallen Not until all men are dead Will you die And life will start anew And you will have traveled a million times your own time And magically And magically Salmon falls