James Baker

Raised in Australia, James Baker is a pencil-jockey who's worked in the animation industry since 1982. He has worked at studios all over the world, and now makes his home in San Francisco. This blog is a place for him to explore personal projects in both writing and drawing.

Jul 272018
 

I recently found old faded samples of some of the first drawings I ever had “published”; some fan art submitted to BANTHA TRACKS, the 1970s/80s STAR WARS fan club newsletter.

Soon after my 13 year old mind was thoroughly blown by STAR WARS in 1977, I saw an ad in a magazine (probably a 1978 issue of STARLOG) soliciting members for the STAR WARS FANCLUB, and I eagerly sent in my application. A few weeks later, I received my first issues of the fanclub newsletter that kept mouth breathers around the planet updated on our movie obsession; the ongoing Star Wars saga. OH BOY! 

Over the next few years I sent several cartoons to the newsletter, which was a simple pamphlet folded from one broadsheet of paper, and my cartoons were even published, which was quite a thrill for a dorky 14-16 year old living in a small town on the far side of the world.

Recently finding a few faded issues of this old fanzine was a major nostalgia blast from a time when such fan newsletters and zines were how we sweaty fan nerds stayed in touch with each other, and got information on our various obsessions. A network since replaced by THE INTERNET.

May 272018
 

Earlier this month, Julia and I spent a pleasant week on the island of Santa Catalina, where we both did a lot of sketching. I wasn’t able to finish all my sketches on site but finished a few at our hotel on the island (and the rest at home). I finally scanned them all:

Though the weather was always sunny it was quite a bit cooler than nearby Long Beach, only an hour away by ferry. We stayed in a hotel on the waterfront in Avalon, one of only two towns on the island, with great views of the iconic Green Pleasure Pier. 

In the 1920s/30s heyday of Catalina there were two such piers, delivering vacationers from the mainland, but these days half the sightseers are deposited by cruise ships anchoring offshore. The island was bought in 1919 by William Wrigley (the Chicago chewing gum guy) and he developed the island as a vacation resort, and place for his Chicago Cubs to do spring training.  

A playground of Hollywood stars long ago, Catalina’s biggest town Avalon is mostly for the Jimmy Buffet hoi poloi these days. The bay is dominated by the Catalina Casino, and the word ‘casino’ is not used here in its Vegas usage but in an older meaning, as a meeting place for people to have fun, which in this case was to dance and watch movies (not gamble). We learned all this during a tour of this great old building. 

The beautiful old cinema on the ground floor was apparently the first cinema ever built specifically for ‘talkies’, which were the latest thing when the casino was built in 1929. Above the theatre is a massive dance floor where all the big bands of the 20s-40s came to play live for as many as 1200 dancing couples. The cinema is still in use, and while the ballroom isn’t used for nightly dances anymore, it is often used for private events. 

Getting around the island is expensive; it cost $45 an hour just to rent a little golf cart. A few day trips to sketch & picnic would get very expensive very quickly at those prices (and put a lot of pressure on the sketcher!) so we abandoned early plans of driving to sketch further afield, and confined our attentions to anything walkable within Avalon.

Thankfully, there were plenty of scenic things to draw right close by nice places to eat & drink, and fantastic views from the balcony at our hotel. 

Our trip back home to San Francisco was delayed, allowing me time to doodle a view from within the very pleasant Long Beach airport.

Apr 292018
 

I just tidied up and scanned some sketches drawn a few months ago while staying in Sonoma.

My Brother Jo and his wife Priscilla were visiting Northern California wine tasting with a group of their friends, and invited Julia and I to meet them on the Sonoma leg of their trip. Julia found us a posh AirbnB near Sonoma town square, and off we went for a weekend of dining and doodling. While Jo & Priscilla and their crew were visiting wineries during the day, Julia and I got in a drawing sesh in the square just a few minutes walk from our lodgings, then met them later for dinner. I also drew a study of the twee knick knacks in our B&B. 

It was only a quick trip but one of the fantastic aspects of living in the Bay Area is having so many wonderful day trips so close to home.

Feb 032018
 

The joy of writing and receiving multipage handwritten letters is a lost pleasure. My letter output now is no better than the average 21st century yahoo, but I was a prodigious letter writer in the 1980s, while working in Asian animation studios to finance extensive travel. In the pre-internet & iPhone era, travel abroad might mean weeks with no real conversation in your own language, and getting a long letter from home was a lifeline to sanity. To pass time spent in airports, planes, buses, ferries and trains, I’d pen long letters to friends and family (often including illustrations of my adventures, photographs and travel bric-a-brac) and this investment reaped dividends when receiving letters from back home.

My childhood friend PETER was getting his degree in metallurgy in the mid 1980s but would reliably pause his studies to write me back, sometimes expressing frustration at being distracted by my missives from exotic locales, that sent his mind wandering to faraway places… I answered that we should pledge to meet when he’d finished his studies, and travel together.

And so we did.

Via letter writing to and fro in 1988, we hatched a plan to meet the following year in LIMA, PERU. I can’t remember who chose this meeting place (I suspect it was Peter) but my memory of the selection process was that it had to be somewhere ‘exotic‘ that we’d never been to before. I knew nothing about Peru (wasn’t Paddington Bear from there?) but it seemed fun to meet a childhood friend in a faraway place that we knew nothing about. 1989 being long before the days of internet search engines (for planning) and cellphones (for easy communication) we had to carefully arrange our meeting. From a travel guidebook we chose a budget hotel in central Lima where we’d meet on the appointed day. My experience with such books was that even the most recent edition was researched long before publishing, and could be out of date when you needed its info, so we had Plan-B, C, & D options, in case our chosen hotel was out of business when we arrived.

I’d enter Peru from North America, after backpacking (in Canada, USA and Mexico) and doing animation work (in Chicago) whereas Peter entered South America a few months earlier, to wander about Chile and Argentina. We were unaware that Peru had widespread civil unrest that year, and much of the country had been taken over by the SENDERO LUMINOSO (AKA the “Shining Path”). My first inkling of this particularly toxic Maoist guerrilla group came while getting immunised and looking into the specifics of entering Peru while in Los Angeles. The American State Department travel-hotline had a scary advisory (which can be summarised as “Bro! Don’t go!“) but by then I’d bought an airline ticket and Peter was incommunicado anyway, so I was soon on a VARIG flight from Los Angeles to Lima.

Arriving past midnight APRIL 13 1989, the other passengers grabbed their bags and quickly disappeared into the night. LIMA‘s Aeropuerto Internacional Jorge Chávez was strangely quiet and understaffed, and when the driver of a hotel shuttle-bus assumed I was an American business traveler and waved me aboard I complied, not having any better idea for getting to the city. The hotel was probably the height of cool in 1941 but seemed a relic of the past in 1989, yet its prices were futuristic. My guidebook listed $2 or $3 dollars for hostel/guesthouses, whereas this beyond-its-prime establishment was over a hundred, meaning that I spent as much on that first night’s accommodation as for the subsequent 6 weeks. (My trip notebook shows all meals, accomodation, & transport in Peru & Bolivia – including a domestic flight – cost US$840). I opted to stay anyway, too shagged to find anything else at 1-2AM. The next day, I checked in to the cheap hotel chosen for the ‘rendezvous’, pinned a message for Peter on the lobby message board and looked around Lima till his arrival.

While eating in a nearby cafe, posters & calendars of Japan caught my eye, and I wondered if they perhaps identified the owner’s Japanese heritage. In 1989, my shitty Japanese was at its least shitty (having spent the previous year in Japan) and I enquired in craptacular Nihongo if the family running the cafe spoke any themselves. They didn’t (being 2nd or 3rd generation Peruvian) but soon presented an ancient patriarch from the back room who I communicated with in a pidgin of Japanese, my few Spanish words and his few English phrases. I ate exclusively in this family’s cafe for the next few days and regret that photos of these lovely people have not survived (as my camera and rolls of film were soon stolen).

On the appointed day (APRIL 15, 1989) I looked for Peter’s message on the hotel noticeboard. Although there was no message for me from him, someone named STUART had left me a note, explaining that Peter was delayed but on his way. Stuart had travelled with Peter in Argentina & Chile and having no plan thereafter was only too happy to meet me in Peru to pass on Peter’s message (such was the way of communication before email & mobile phones). I’m so glad that Stuart joined our reunion-party, as he and I are friends to this day.

When Peter arrived a few days later we three hit the road as quickly as possible, heading south on a night bus arriving early in NAZCA early next morning. Reading up on the area around Nazca now, there are many interesting archeological sites to see but in 1989 those excavations were not yet complete. Nazca was a flyblown little dustbowl and the only draw was the famous NAZCA LINES pictographs. Some can be seen from a tower erected near the road overlooking the desert, but we opted for a better view than can be seen from the cheap seats. The lines are best seen by plane (or spaceship, according to Erich Von Daniken) and through our hostel we arranged a driver to take us to the airfield. He showed up in a beat up old American 1950s car. 

We planned to fly over the lines that very morning, sleep during the day, catching another night bus out that same night.  At the tiny airstrip we climbed into a Piper Cub and flew over those huge cartoons etched into the desert. These lines were etched into a 280 square mile area of desert about 2000 years ago, depicting geometric patterns & animals by revealing a yellow layer of subsoil beneath the reddish surface. Virtually invisible from the ground, these mysterious cartoons were not properly studied until people had the ability to fly over them in the 1920s.

Upon landing, our driver wanted to show us something ‘interesting’ and drove us out across open desert to see a pile of human bones & hair in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by recently smashed potshards. A very unsettling sight.  The driver claimed that these were remains of ‘los Incas’ but 1989 guidebooks made no mention of any such site. We’d already heard stories of the SENDERO LUMINOSO ‘disappearing’ folks they didn’t like (small town mayors, police chiefs, and teachers mostly) so that’s where my fevered imagination immediately led, wondering if somebody sprinkled potshards over recent human remains simply to make it look more ‘archeologogical’. By the end of that trip though, we’d learned that in addition to bloodthirsty Maoist guerrillas, 1980s Peru had a problem with archeological theft, and recent reading makes me think that what we saw in 1989 was a legit archeological site that had been pillaged. Such grave remains were reassembled in the 1990s into a recreation of a traditional Nazca pit-style burial grounds, the CHAUCHILLA CEMETERY.

After the creepy bones, the driver drove us back to our hostel for our siesta, while telling us about a new archaeological dig being conducted by Italian archaeologists, unmentioned in any guidebook. The driver arranged to pick us up before sunset so we could have a look, and after our snooze the old car returned but driven by a replacement, as our original driver had taken sick. Directions to the dig site hadn’t been made clear to this new fellow, who was vague about where we were supposed to go, stopping frequently to ask questions of peasants gathering firewood. Finally, he drove us across the desert and gestured at some huge mounds that we scaled. With nothing much to see at the top except more dunes, we posed for a photograph against the backdrop of a sunset on the dunes (I can’t find this ‘album cover’ pic at present). Recent reading makes me think that the site was the CAHUACHI ARCHEOLOGICAL DIG which was excavated in the 1980s (an Italian-led dig too).

From atop the dunes we saw our driver frantically gesturing far below and figured our time was up. When we descended however, the driver was beside himself with fear. He’d been warned by a peasant who’d just wandered by that the Italian archaeologists had been beaten up and chased from their dig by none other than the SENDERO LUMINOSO that very day. Yikes. Our drive back to Nazca took much longer than the drive to the dig, because we were driving in the dark and the driver refused to use headlights, presumably to be less visible to murderous Maoists. He frequently stopped the car & listened carefully, giving every impression of a man in fear of his life. It’s hard to say if there was any truth to what he’d heard, but it was clear that he believed it and was scared shitless. I remember being grateful that this man, who obviously feared that bloodthirsty thugs might kill him for associating with lick-spittle running dog imperialist foreigners, nevertheless didn’t leave us stranded in the desert and flee to save his own skin. Even at this very early stage of the trip, Peru was feeling pretty stressful.

We caught our late night bus for the 9 hour trip to AREQUIPA. Having been told that the bus journey itself and our destination bus station were both hotbeds of pickpockets, we resolved to stay awake for the entire journey and watch each other’s bags. Arriving at Arequipa bus station very early in the morning, we hit the ground like a SWAT team, ignoring all the touts, tricks and traps that we’d heard about, making a beeline for the flophouse we’d chosen in advance. We hadn’t had a proper night’s sleep for 48 hours, combined with the stresses of the previous day, and were shattered with exhaustion when we finally checked into our hostel, found our room, and fell into our beds like stones. As we slept like corpses a cheeky sleazebag entered our room as we slept and..

..nicked my bag.

Each of us had distinctly different approaches to packing. One extreme was Stuart’s huge backpack, that contained more stuff than even such an enormous bag should possibly hold (like Mary Poppins, Stuart was always pulling supplies out of his magic bag). At the other extreme were my two tiny day backpacks; one (worn on my back) containing clothes and toiletries and the other (worn on my front) containing camera and sketchbooks. Peter was Goldilocks of our trio, with a backpack size in the middle. The contrast between my approach and Stuart’s became more pronounced as my two tiny bags were reduced to one by the theft of my camera/sketchbook bag. It was a sickening feeling to realise that I’d lost my beloved Nikon FG20 camera (which I’d taken across Asia and North America). Also lost were many rolls of exposed film, notebooks of my travels, addresses of people met on my journeys (never contacted again) and several travel sketchbooks. The thieves were definitely elated to snaffle a camera, but these personal treasures were undoubtedly tossed in the trash, even though they were to me the most valuable loss by far. Locking hostel doors had not yet become second nature, but certainly became a habit thereafter.

Thankfully, this devastating theft didn’t render me utterly destitute. In those bygone days when you couldn’t rely on foreign ATMs to spit out cash on command, globe trotters had to carry cash and/or travellers cheques everywhere they went. Having been away from home for 3 years in 1989, I had travellers cheques and US dollars stashed throughout my luggage and secreted in various places upon my still-scrawny person, and in baggage left with friends in other cities, lest I lose it all in just such a calamity. The failsafe, the redoubt, The Keep if all else were lost, was an emergency stash in the lining of my shoes, which survived the attentions of Peruvian pick pockets (perhaps camouflaged by the odiousness of my socks). Peter was my Spanish interpreter, escorting my pouty & glowering self to enquire into theft restitution at the police station.

The fact that stereotypes and cultural cliches are to be avoided in fiction, doesn’t mean that living breathing cliches can’t be encountered in real life, an example being the cartoonish cop at Arequipa police station. With ornately tooled cowboy boots propped nonchalantly on his desk, his uniform a mosaic of braid & medals, broad grin revealing a golden tooth, mirrored sunglasses and high crested fascistic cap favoured by South American police, he gave me an expressive ‘there’s nothing we can do senor‘ shrug – like Peter Sellers playing a tin pot South American cop in a 1960s comedy, instead of the 1980s real article. He advised me to visit the BLACK MARKET where I might find my camera and buy it back. I was aghast at this casually amused pragmatism (though I must admit it was handy info).

One of the highlights of the Arequipa region is the COLCA CANYON which we duly visited. Sadly, I barely have any memories of this magnificent place as I was glowering about the theft of my camera, sketchbooks and journals. As Peter & Stu snapped photos of majestic condors whirling within one of the deepest canyons in the world, I stewed in my own thoughts, and I’m amazed that I have barely any memory of the stunning vistas I was standing in that day. My one takeaway from that trip to one of the most magnificent sites in the world was that if Peru was going to serve up such sites, I’d definitely need to replace my camera.. Back in Arequipa, I had no luck in finding my camera at the Black Market, so bought a replacement at a nearby camera store. The name & address written on the strap, hinted that this replacement was probably stolen too (I later sent a letter to a SWISS address but I never heard back). I own that camera to this day; a NIKON FM2. These photos of Arequipa’s SANTA CATALINA CONVENT are the first pictures I ever took with it:

In a cafe in Arequipa’s Plaza De Armas, we met two ex-military Israelis who’d recently lost almost all their bags in a distract-snatch-and-dash. In an attempt to lure and trap their thief, they later filled their remaining backpack with rocks and left it in the plaza as bait. Several thieves snatched the bag, but were slowed by its unexpected weight.. allowing the Israelis to catch up and unload a whirlwind of Krav Marga, translating their frustration into a world of hurt for the bag-snatchers. Though never finding the ratero who had taken their stuff, the Israelis explained that bashing the bone-marrow out of random thieves was therapeutic nonetheless. Hearing such street-wise guys were also taken in by thieves made me feel less stupid. 

After flying in to our next destination of CUZCO I was light headed; ‘Oh yeah, high altitude sickness is a real thing‘. We spent a few days getting used to the 3,400 metre altitude (11,200 feet) certainly the highest I’d yet been to. Cuzco was the historical capital of the Inca empire, the gateway to many Inca ruins and an interesting city itself, with architecture a combination of original Incan buildings overlaid with Spanish colonial architecture from the early 16th century. The Spanish had the good luck to invade just as an Incan Civil War was underway, and were thus able to divide and conquer relatively easily. Cuzco Cathedral is half Inca stonework (the temple of Kiswarkancha) with Spanish trimmings, and the altar too is a Inca/Spanish hybrid; pilfered Inca silver reworked into a priceless altar piece (‘pilfering’ is a common theme in many of my memories of Peru.)

When altitude no longer gave us headaches or shortness of breath, we took buses onward to several Inca ruins. Those at PISAQ had spectacular views out across the valley, as an American hippie guy wandered through the ruins doing mystical mumbo jumbo with a water divining rod. From Pisaq village we rode another ‘bus’, which turned out to be the back of a flatbed truck. Standing crowded into this jalopy like a herd of llamas taken to market, a nearby peasant stared at me intently, as if to say; ‘I have to be here, but why the hell are YOU here, gringo?’ After a bouncy ‘bus’ ride, we stayed overnight at URABAMBA and ate at a cafe run by a small family where the wife was Inca and the husband was Peruvian-Japanese. They had two cheeky little girls who kept calling us ‘gringo’ throughout dinner, to much hilarity from the girls, chiding from Mum & Dad, and laughter from us.

After an early breakfast with them next morning we caught another ‘back of the ute express’ to the ruins of OLLANTAYTAMBO, and we had our lunch amongst fantastic examples of the distinctive intricate Incan stonework.

Next, we connected to the train to AGUAS CALIENTES; a distinctive little village, in that its main street is actually the railway, with restaurants and cafes opening directly onto the tracks (as far as I could tell, the only way to access this town was by rail). After staying at the night, we rose before sunrise to hike up to MACHU PICCHU and be there when it opened at 6AM. Our pre-dawn walk up that hill was where I saw my first humming bird, which seemed an otherworldly fairy to me; a magical bejewelled creature flitting through the jungle. On entering Machu Picchu, we had the place to ourselves for a few serene hours. 

Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is one of the few tourist destinations I’ve visited that was much better than any photograph can convey. The weather and lighting constantly changes; one minute mysterious & misty, and brilliantly sunlit the next. The 360° experience of the place defies capture within the borders of any picture. We were very lucky to have seen Machu Picchu that particular year. Everyone I’ve spoken to who’s been there since describes it as inundated with tourists, but even at its busiest in 1989, Machu Picchu wasn’t busy at all (thanks perhaps to the bad PR of the Sendero Luminoso) and remote areas of the site were empty. 

A gruelling hike up Huayna Picchu allowed us to look back down on the entire site; it was was spectacular and completely empty, but for a few llamas munching the grass. After a full day exploring this wonderful place, we walked back down the winding path to dinner by the tracks at Aqua Calientes, and to write and post letters.

In 1989 it was still possible to ride a local train all the way back to Cuzco, which we did the next day. In many of my travel adventures I rode trains, and I regret not taking more photos of those wonderful old machines, the engine and smokestacks of steam trains I rode in particular (in Burma and China). When looking through my old photographs I’m aghast at what I’ve no record of, but in those days of analog photography I had to be frugal, often down to the last few exposures on a roll of film. Replacements were not readily available in remote areas, so I had to be choosy. But I did get a few shots of riding the trains in Peru.

Back in Cuzco, I bought an exercise book for notes and scribbles (the sketches were all work related, sadly) but some notes survive:

notebook entry, May 2nd 1989 – Cuzco Peru:
“The start of a new diary as my last one, along with my camera, was stolen two weeks ago from my hostel room in Arequipa while I was sleeping. I’ve more or less replaced the camera already with an (obviously stolen) Nikon I bought at a camera store two days after the theft. The diary will be harder to replace of course. I’ve seen the highlights sites of Peru with Peter and his friend Stuart. All we’ve got left is to visit Lake Titicaca and then head on to La Paz in Bolivia”

On a 6 hour bus trip to lake Titicaca, I sat next to a very cute child that reeked like a very smelly llama. Mind you, I was no fragrant rose myself at the time. In a region where water was still carried to your basin, a bath was the last thing you’d waste it on. Thankfully, this funk was offset by something refreshing; as the bus jounced up winding dirt roads fragrant eucalyptus forests reminded me of Australia. These trees, native to my homeland, were planted in the early 20th century in arid regions of North and South America. Growing well in dry soil, they stabilise it from erosion and flourish in the conditions of the Peruvian altiplano. Recently there have been efforts to replace the eucalyptus forests with native trees, but in 1989 there were still many such forests near Lake Titicaca, and the smell of gum trees brought on a wave of nostalgia for a certain Australia who’d not been home for 3 years. 

In PUNO we met a big Kiwi bloke & his girlfriend, anxious because he’d been bitten by what might’ve been a rabid dog, and the local clinic didn’t have specialised needles for the procedure. Stuart dived into his bottomless blue Tardis (cloaked as a blue backpack) and pulled out a full set of rabies needles. Stuart really outdid himself that day! The Kiwi scurried off to begin his course of injections. Later, we 3 were in a restaurant eating our regular of  ‘pollo con arroz & Inca Cola‘ when a gaggle of happy kids walked by outside. They noticed 3 gringos, and reflexively went into an elaborate pantomime of abject misery, asking for money. We’d seen such zombie beggar performances before all across Peru, often prompted by the kids’ own parents, but this time the theatricality of the routine was so plain that we called the kids on the artifice. They gave some “you got me” shrugs, laughed, and went back to being natural kids again..

From Puno we rode a boat across LAKE TITICACA, stopping briefly at one of the famous ‘reed islands’, a huge raft woven from reeds and caked dirt. It seemed a very grim existence to live there. The children were all beggars hassling for sweets and pencils. Our eventual destination though was AMANTANI, a beautiful island with no electricity, plumbing, or tourist amenities of any kind. Local families came down to the little jetty to offer accomodation to travellers in their own homes.

notebook entry, May 6th 1989 – Amantani, Peru:
Stuart Peter and I just arrived on this (Amantani) island about an hour ago after a 4 hour boat ride across the lake from Puno. The altitude (12,000 feet) means that the sky is deep blue and the atmosphere is clear, almost to the point of suggesting that there is no atmosphere at all. Upon arrival we arranged to stay in two separate homesteads. Peter and I in one, and Stuart in the other. The place we are in is probably little different to a peasant cottage of Middle Ages Europe. This island seems untouched by the rampant begging that one can see in frequented areas of Peru.”

On Amantani people had a weather beaten look, and even young children often had noticeably old looking hands. I took this to be the effects of the strong sun at high altitude and a life spent working out of doors. We stayed in a little stone farmhouse with a young family, and the courtyard was teeming with guinea pigs scurrying this way and that. How cute! As we were taken to our room I heard a distant SQUEE! and soon our hosts served a dinner of something scrawny; ‘Ah, Guinea Pig! Magnifique!‘ (it had about as much meat on it as a baby’s hand). Après pig, Peter and I went out on the roof, only to witness the most beautiful night sky I’ve ever seen. The view of the Milky Way is much more spectacular in the Southern Sky but is utterly magnificent when seen from 12,000 feet in an area with no pollution & no electricity (and thus zero light pollution). I’ll remember that sight for the rest of my life.

Back in Puno, we met the Kiwi (rescued earlier by Stuart’s needles) and a likeable scrappy Aussie, and all traded travel tales over a meal. I have many memories of such conversations while travelling, where people shared personal disasters to comedic effect. The Kiwi told a cringe-ably hilarious story of being mugged by caca on Titicaca; diarrhoea on his own trip across the lake. Oh no… The boat was merely a big dinghy and had no ammenities. With no choice but to hang his huge white arse over the side, he was given a bucket by the captain to uses as a loo. This added an amplified WAH WAH acoustical effect to an already mortifying predicament, much to the horror of a captive audience of locals also riding the boat (and the hilarity of us listening later). I commiserated with my own similar terror toilet tale. We all traded Peru ripoff horror stories, and again, I remember thinking that if so many others had been ripped off too, then perhaps I was in good company.

At COPACABANA we crossed the border into BOLIVIA, and onward to LA PAZ. In 1989, Bolivia was so much more relaxed than Peru. A multilingual Canadian at our hostel (who’d traveled repeatedly to the region) said the reverse was true just a few years prior, when Bolivia had been tense and Peru had been easy going. When reading about La Paz today, it seems to be crime-ridden again, so perhaps it has taken its traditional position ahead of Peru in the pick-pocket pecking order. For many years I had a few trinkets I bought at the Witches Market in La Paz, from a charming old lady. I’ve lost them now sadly (whatever they were they were, they clearly weren’t LOSS charms).

The ‘witches’ market’ in La Paz.

notebook entry, 16th May 1989 – La Paz, Bolivia:
“I have had my first ever game of golf at the highest golf course in the world here in La Paz; 9 over par on just about every hole. Another sport I can add to the long list of games that I don’t particularly enjoy. Stuart has gone back to England, in fact he’s probably just about touching down now as I write.. as we head off to Cochabamba. Today we went up to 4,800 meters (15,700 feet) to visit a beautiful ice cave. We shared a taxi cab out there with a few English people, a Scots lady & her Spanish boyfriend. “

My first ever game of golf, at the highest course in the world.

The US$/Peruvian INTI exchange rate almost doubled to our advantage while in Peru, so the free-falling economy wasn’t all bad news (says the foreign carpet bagger). Before his departure, Stuart bought an obscene amount of almost worthless devalued INTIS, to use as business cards when he got home to the UK.

The ice cave visited outside La Paz is a non event now, melted due to global warming. I cannot remember the name of that cave, so I can’t be totally sure, but it appears that you must go much further and mount quite a strenuous hike these days to see such a sight, whereas in 1989, a bloke was able to drive us practically all the way there, and it was only a brief hike from the road. Next, was a 7 hour bus ride to COCHABAMBA.

notebook entry, 18th may 1989 – Cochabamba Bolivia:
“Sitting in a kind of cake shop in the (Cochabamba) town square. Caught a bus ride from La Paz day before yesterday, an overnight trip of about 7 hours that arrived at about 4 in the morning. The bus station area was very busy until daybreak with buses arriving and unloading the huge high stacked piles of luggage from atop their roof racks. Peter and I ate at a street stall table till daylight. It reminded me of a similar stall I spent a few minutes at while changing buses in Dali, in China; a blue black sky and a full clear moon and the little halfway village ringed with mountains, (and in the similar memory) old Chinese people doing Tai Chi in the streets already hustling and bustling a 4 or 5 in the morning.”

After a brief visit to Cochabamba, Peter & I went back to La Paz briefly, before heading back to Peru. La Paz back to Lima was done in two MEGA BUS TRIPS. Firstly, La Paz-Puno-Arequipa, a route with particularly steep and windy roads. One time it was Pete’s turn to act as luggage-guard in the aisle seat as I slept. I awoke with my head against the window to an utterly heart stopping view out my side of the bus; a precipitous sheer drop, falling away thousands of feet from the road as the bus wobbled along a windy mountain trail. Peru’s winding hillside roads were frequently dotted with little crucifixes, each representing a traffic accident, and it was a sobering thought that each of those crucifixes thus represented about 60 people, if each bus was as crowded as the one we rode in.

La Paz, Bolivia.

After a night in Arequipa beat kinks from our spines, yet another MEGA BUS TRIP took us all the way back to Lima. Having had experience with the dodginess of Peruvian bus travel in general, and Arequipa in particular, we decided not to budge from our seats on this last marathon bus ride. If one of us went to the loo or buy snacks at a rest stop, the other guarded the bags. This worked well for the first 15 hours of the gruelling 16 hour trip, but was thwarted when the bus driver kicked us off the bus, just outside of Lima. We made a fuss but he shooed us off anyway. Grabbing our luggage, we grudgingly got off and had a proper sit down meal together. When the signal came to re-board, Pete went to the loo in the restaurant and I was the first at the door when the driver unlocked the bus. As I took my assigned seat there was already a dude already sitting behind me, which struck me me as weird, but I didn’t think too much about it at the time. Peter rejoined the bus from his potty stop, the bus filled up with the rest of the passengers, and we were on our way again.

Not far from Lima, the bus went through a security checkpoint. A posse of soldiers came aboard, bristling with weaponry, checked IDs, searched here and there, then got off and waved us on. About 10 minutes further down the road to Lima, the bus inexplicably stopped again, out in the desert near a few cars parked by the side of the road. I felt a weird sensation under my arse; “What the?” and turned to see two shady characters behind us, pulling about 8 bags of coke (or heroin, or god knows what) from slits under our seat cushions, flashing we two gringo patsies shit-eating grins as they left the bus… It was a sobering moment when we realised what had just gone down, and what would have happened had the soldiers found the illicit stuff, whatever it was, under our seats. The bus driver must have been ‘persuaded’ by these goons to vacate the bus, giving them time to plant whatever they didn’t want the soldiers to see. Out of 60 seats, they’d chosen the two young gringos as fall guys. I was fed up with such nonstop shady shenanigans, and was looking forward to getting the fuck out of Peru by this point.

Lenticular Norwegian Jesus birthday card bought in Cuzco, Peru.

notebook entry, 28th May 1989 – Lima Peru:
“Other than the possibility of having been the unwitting accomplices to drug smuggling operation, the trip from AREQUIPA to Lima by bus went smoothly. Hopefully only a few days away from departure to LA. At present I’m wait listed for next Tuesday evening’s flight. Hopefully by Monday I’ll get onto the reservation list.”

In a neighbourhood out by the beach (that could have been LA if you squinted your eyes) we visited Lima’s MUSEO de ANTROPOLOGIA. It was meaningful to see its archeological artefacts after visiting the sites where they’d actually come from. Display after display mentioned the by-now common theme of theft, with a new angle; foreigners (sometimes galleries & museums) stealing priceless artefacts from Peru. Not long after this trip, perhaps sometime in 1990, I saw one of the INDIANA JONES sequels. The famous adventurer archeologist struck me as a monumental dick this time around, as he galavanted about the 3rd world nicking cool shit from the various peoples of remote planet Earth. That fact was completely lost on me the first time, when I enjoyed Indy’s derring-do along with everyone else, so this understanding of the ramifications of his actions was something acquired on this Peru/Bolivia trip.

Not long before we left Peru, I was helping Peter take a long exposure nighttime photo of Lima’s Government Palace, not far from our hostel. As we hunkered down and fussed about with cameras and tripods, our equipment drew the attention of jumpy palace security guards, armed to the teeth as usual. It was startling to be engrossed in something so mundane as setting up a tripod to take a photo, only to be eyeball-to-muzzle with machine guns wielded by grim-faced, leathernecks with eager imaginations..

Presidential Palace, Lima.

notebook entry, 30th May 1989 – Lima Peru:
“Sitting in the Japanese cafe across from the hostel. These are some of the friendliest people I’ve met in Peru. It’s quite a laugh communicating in a mix of Japanese and Spanish. I first met them 6 weeks ago, on my first or second evening in Lima. Just saw Peter off on his bus to Ecuador, it turned out to be an enjoyable trip. My flight leaves tonight. Judging from the number of entries in here about my flight, it’s easy to see that I’m keen to leave this country!”

I had envied Stuart’s beautiful Fedora, and decided to splurge on one of my own in my last few days in Lima. I arranged a ride to the airport via a connection at the hostel, for a very late departure, at around 1AM. My passport departure stamp says; MAY 31 1989, arriving in Los Angeles around lunch o’clock.

—————————

I soon forgot that Fedora on a Greyhound bus. I bought myself a lovely hat a few times in my travels, but lost them  very soon after (the first hat was bought in Korea and lost in China, the second hat was bought in Peru and lost somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco). I can keep a crummy $5 ball cap for 15 years, but will probably lose a lovely Fedora within a week.

Mostly I went travelling by myself. I’d meet people along the way, travel side-by-side for a day or a week, but inevitably separated ways. The trip to Peru & Bolivia was the only time I traveled the length and breadth of a country with companions, and I’m glad of that, because traveling through Peru in 1989 on my own wouldn’t have been enjoyable. It was a very tense time, with politics topsy turvy and the economy in free fall. My trip to Peru at times harrowing, and the fondness I have for the adventure is because I did it in the company of two fine friends, one had since childhood and the other made on this trip.

Jan 102018
 

Here is a watercolour sketch of German Christmas ornaments seen at Julia’s parents house.

Her parents live on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, where we spent Julia’s birthday on a rainy New Year’s Eve, just last week. Each time we’ve visited beautiful Bainbridge I’ve always wanted to sketch, but the weather is often too cold and/or rainy rainy to sit outside for long, hence choosing this cosy interior view instead.

Happy New Year everyone!

Dec 262017
 

The day after Christmas, Julia had planned to work at home but discovered she didn’t have the password to remotely access her company computer and left to work a full day down the peninsula. I planned to get coffee with my pal Tony, before assembling with Gale & Julia for dinner. After a lazy morning reading in bed I showered after 11am, noticing pins & needles in the heel of my right foot as I stepped out of the shower and went back to bed to wait for the numbness to pass, becoming engrossed in my book.

A few chapters later I got up to use the toilet and my right leg almost buckled under my weight. Surprised, I lurched to the toilet and sat down heavily. When I tried to stand up, my right leg gave way completely and I went down. HARD. The kitchen is the worst room for a fall, with plenty of hard and/or heated surfaces & pointy things to mess you up but the bathroom is no fun to tumble in either, with many immovable objects bashing me on my way to the floor; sink- WHAM! toilet bowl- WHAM! wall- WHAM! tiles- WHAM! (a tapestry of bruises and sprains told this tale much later). Looking back at the timeline it’s quite possible I was briefly knocked out, but in the moment I felt I had a full grasp on reality and my place in it;

I was on the floor, awkwardly wedged between toilet bowl and sink and when I tried to sit up, half of my body would not respond, as if the connections to my right side had been severed (which was precisely what had happened, I discovered later). When you’re accustomed to using your entire body to sense the world and orient yourself, suddenly having only half your sensing and motor equipment is shockingly strange. It took an incredibly long time to simply sit up, because I couldn’t maintain my balance and would fall over the other way, slowly get up again and fall over the opposite way, and so on. Eventually, I pulled myself somewhat upright, but was afraid to walk or hop, as my leg and arm were useless and my sense of spatial awareness was shot completely. Even crawling was impossible.

The paralysis was not just the obvious stuff – my arm and leg – but all all the obliques, abdominals and back muscles on my right side as well, and it turns out that those muscles are a crucial part of holding yourself upright and adjusting your balance. Even now, after 5 years experience dealing with this battered & often useless body of mine, it amazes me how difficult it is to perform even simple tasks when half my body weight wants a free ride. Back at ground zero for this disability, it required all my focus to simply move; pulling and kicking with my left-side limbs as my right-side hung limp and heavy, like a corpse. After a long period of trial and error I was able to slither out of the bathroom inching along the floor. It was extraordinarily hard work.

To an amazing degree, I was emotionally calm, even though I knew without a doubt that something was terribly wrong. I was in no pain whatsoever, with no clue as to what had happened to my body, but knew I had to find my cell phone and call for help. Where had I left my iPhone? From my worm’s eye view on the floor I couldn’t see it, but hoped it was on the shelf by my bed and slithered over there as fast as I could. While inching along like a slug, my underpants were incrementally pulled down by the carpet. Fate had not only pummelled me to the ground but enjoyed a vindictive chuckle at the sight of this middle-aged, bare-assed man grimly struggling on the floor.

The distance from our bed to the bathroom and back is not far, but a harrowing saga ensued on that few feet of carpet that changed my life forever, all happening in slow motion. A multi-hour surrealist epic, written by Spike Milligan, ponderously directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and starring little old moi in the role of slithering idiot/butoh dancer writhing on the rug. Was I conscious for the entire time, between when subtle symptoms first appeared at 11am, to the onset of full debilitation & that fateful fall in the bathroom, until finally getting help that evening? Hard to say. Although I always felt mentally present and thoroughly focussed, perhaps time was dilated by cognitive impairment from the get-go, possibly heightened by periodic bouts of actual unconsciousness.

I only realised how thoroughly banjaxed I was upon eventually finding my phone (I’ll spare you another long drama of locating it, pulling myself upright and retrieving it from a high shelf). Phone finally in hand, I stared at it.. ‘How do I open this?.. a code.. What is the code? Oh no…‘ My mind looked back at itself, and was surprised to find itself severely lacking, and no longer capable of doing what it could normally do. It is a truly strange experience to reflect on the failings of a mind from within that mind itself. The realization dawned that not only my body but my mind too was in serious trouble, and that my already dire situation was worsening. My time was running out and I was fighting for my life. The calm I felt in the face of this expanding horror surprises even me, as I think back on it now.

I knew that to survive whatever had devastated me I had to operate the phone, but this was such a monumental task for my enfeebled mind that it’s entirely possible that most of my all-day struggle was spent wrestling with my iPhone – remembering my code, opening it, and then figuring out how to navigate from whichever app was already open; ‘what are these tiny pictures?.. icons… for apps.. which one is for messages?’ ..into the message application to open a message thread to JULIA. My will to succeed was strong, but dwindling powers of concentration and memory made the task slipperier than a well oiled eel.

Like a hacker trying to break into a computer while in a burning building swarming with killbots, I finally got a message open to Julia, but had trouble grabbing concepts from my mind, translating them into words, decoding those words into text, and then having the dexterity to type those letters on the teensy digital keyboard.. My cognition was dissolving but still grasped the cruel irony of that moment – after struggling to find this lifeline gadget, my mind was reduced to sloppy quicksand when I eventually needed to use it. In frustration I randomly mashed alphabet buttons, then SEND. Mashed more alphabet buttons, then SEND. Again, and again, hoping that these bursts of incoherent babble would alert Julia.

They did.

Julia was by that time already driving home at day’s end. Startled by these texts, she pulled over to call me and I was able to pick up her call. As I’ve mentioned before, my emotional state was surprisingly calm, given the thorough unravelling of my mind, and I explained my predicament clearly and simply. Or so I thought.. What poor Julia actually heard at her end of the conversation was incoherent wailing, as if Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein’s monster had stolen her boyfriend’s phone. Though shocked and frightened, and not even 100% certain where I was by that time, Julia had the presence of mind to first call an ambulance to our apartment before driving as fast as she could to my side, finding me sprawled naked on the bedroom floor not long before paramedics arrived, to hustle me onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. During the ambulance ride I was shot full of drugs, and have a hazier grasp on my memory from this point onward – jarring impressions, resembling those fish-eye shots you’ve seen in movies;

-I’m urgently wheeled through hospital corridors, as overhead fluorescent lights strobe past. People look down at me, barking how many CCs of drugs must be administered, ‘STAT’.

-Being hustled bodily into a cylindrical scanner of some sort, my emotions calm despite feeling as if I’d been inserted inside a jet engine, so TOTAL was the noise.

-I’m in the ICU. More peering, jabbering heads, more rapid commands. I’m a thing. A faulty piece of broken equipment, as engineers discuss how to prevent my head from destroying itself. A fog drifts in and I’m gone..

-I remember coming to awareness in the ICU, with my pal Tony sitting by my bedside watching the TV mounted on the wall. ‘Oh, Rambo, First Blood. This is a good one‘ I slurred; the speech of a man with a swollen brain and only half a face to speak with. We chatted briefly and then the fog blew in again, dissipating my conscious mind, though our conversation may have gone on longer.

There’s a period I have little memory of, and mostly know about from loved ones. Some out of town friends were in San Francisco that Christmas (Tony & Rhode) and along with local friends (such as Derek) they rushed to my bedside. Flying from Virginia, my brother Jo was with me within 24 hours and two more brothers followed from Australia soon after (Rob and then Dom). According to these folk, I was sometimes awake but babbled all kinds of nonsense.. Eyes open, I was somehow not aware. Where was my conscious mind during those lost days? Where was ME? (Perhaps in that place where the minds of dreamers and sleepwalkers go, and drunks who navigate home, unaware?)

During this babbling fugue state, periodically the consciousness of my true & real self would bubble to the surface of an otherwise stormy mind, and I’d be momentarily aware & present, giving me isolated memories from that lost time, including fleeting impressions of visiting loved ones. Though barely sensed through my mental fog, these impressions of LOVE gave me untold comfort, like a lighthouse beacon glimpsed through a storm. I was lost at sea, but began to realise what I was desperately struggling back to, before again being submerged by my fever-dream…

-More glimpses of debating medicos, discussing me.. I was out of the danger zone of more brain bleeds.

As my mind slowly gained more connections to shared reality I was moved out of the ICU and into a nearby ward, where I was tended to by a bearded & tattooed nurse who treated me with great gentleness. The beds were surrounded by curtains, and next to me was a terminal patient I never saw, but could hear. He was cheerful and sunny with visitors to his bedside, but would quietly sob to himself for long hours after they left, as he faced alone the end that was inevitably coming for him.. My mind could barely operate at the time, let alone offer comfort to this poor man, but I still think of him, often.

I was moved to another facility for several months of physical rehabilitation, where I was taught to talk and walk. Eventually, it was explained what had happened to me: a small blood vessel had leaked into my left lower brain, an area called the thalamus, and this rupture caused a stroke, severing connections to my entire right side. I had to be told more than once, because for several weeks after this fateful event I had the mind of a kitten – very little long term memory and my short term memory was non existent, forgetting questions asked of me mere seconds before. Initially, my mind was such slop that I didn’t notice these lapses, but soon became aware, and I vividly remember the anguish of first realising that I couldn’t remember the names of people I loved most in the world.

As my mind began to slowly re-write itself, the knowledge of how utterly broken I’d become was devastating. I was completely helpless, needing assistance to dress, to eat, to bathe, and to use the toilet. For weeks my paralysed throat couldn’t be trusted to swallow, and I was given thickened water so I would not choke. Vision distorted by the brain swelling, I could only see any object from the corner of my eye, but such strange effects gradually passed as the swelling of my brain subsided. The haemorrhage, the ensuing swelling of brain tissue, and steady cocktail of drugs to mitigate that damage, had fogged details after my stroke, but somewhere deep within me the earlier memories were preserved, to be retrieved later, thankfully.

5 years later, I’m still a mess in many ways. My ability to speak eventually came back to me, though with a slight slurring that can make me sound tipsy when sober (and completely shtonkered when merely tipsy). Movement is still a constant struggle, and sadly my drawing arm is thoroughly kaput. I wish with all my heart to be the able bodied man I once was, but must face the likelihood that I’ll henceforth always walk like a drunk zombie with twisted pantyhose.

However, I’m grateful that I’ve progressed from that broken wreck of a man I was on Boxing Day – December 26, 2012. Visually impaired, mentally unmoored, emotionally devastated, physically half paralysed, & financially drained; a man with 220K of medical debt, who’d lost his means to make a living (and dig himself out of his pit of despair). After 4 years of practising to draw with my left hand I’m back working in animation, and although my left-handed drafting skills are only as good as when I was 17 years old, they got me back in the game (after all, it was 17 year old me who got this job in the first place).

A week ago I had a reminder of my harrowing tale of haemorrhaged brains & palsied muscles, when my iPhone battery swelled up like a toad, pushing the faceplate off and startling the staff at the Apple store. They replaced my phone on the spot, and reinstalled its memory from a backup done a few days prior – restoring photos, contacts and everything, except a few days of texts not included in the backup. This process reminded me of the swelling of my own CPU 5 years ago, damaging my own memory chip, the loss of my operating system, and the eventual reinstall of myself. In that case too, some of my own memories from December 27, 2012-mid January 2012 were lost, but the life leading up to my stroke I remember as well as I always did, and that day struggling for my life is remembered with vivid detail.

And yet, the reinstall of my phone worked because of the external backup, but where were the memories of my life stored, during those weeks when my own corrupted hard drive was sending error messages, and ME was unavailable to me? The experience of being connected to myself, then disconnected, and reconnected again is strange indeed, leaving an uneasy feeling that perhaps this reinstall isn’t quite the real thing. How many of these ‘recovered‘ memories were fudged on the spot? But does that happen to some degree anyway? Even long before this trauma upended my life, I’d already wondered if any certainty of ‘self’ is an ongoing self-fulfilling fiction.

This idea can be ghastly or liberating, depending on your point of view. If memories define us, but might be imaginative embellishments of what actually happened – that’s potentially UNSETTLING. By the same token, that opens the possibly of rewriting who we are into who we want to be – which is WONDERFUL. Given that I’m obliged to rebuild my life anyway, I choose to take it as a positive that at any moment we can rewrite our own stories, and our own attitudes. One thing I’ve learned in the last five years is that the human mind is quite capable of eating itself in moments of despair, but is also capable of bettering itself too. Choose wisely.

This is exactly what I’m trying to do. On this anniversary of my near fatal system crash, I’m thankful for my reboot – my chance to rewrite my own code (even if my hardware still needs an upgrade). I’m grateful too for people believing in me, despite my deficits, and giving me opportunities and encouragement on this difficult journey to the person I’d like to be.

THANK YOU.

Oct 222017
 

Late 1996, I resigned from Colossal Pictures, the only full time staff position I’d ever had. By then I’d been working in animation for 15 years, but recent job disasters had soured me to the industry, and I was unsure what to do next. After traveling for a few months, I’d decided to focus on the enjoyable aspects of being a cartoonist by creating some projects of my own, and by February 1997 I came back to San Francisco to draw. Although my plan was to save money by working at my kitchen table, Robert Valley suggested that I sublet some space at an animation studio he’d founded in 1995. I did, and it represented a turning point in my creative life.

For several months I didn’t think about paid work, but came up with silly characters and goofy situations for them to be in. I’d recently created some characters for a company and loved the creating part, but the process of getting it made wasn’t a fun experience at all. To rekindle the joy I once felt at being a cartoonist, I resolved to make something primarily for fun. My own thing, not tied to schedules, budgets and the whims of others. I started doodling in the solo medium of comics, and gradually, I began enjoying drawing cartoons again. ROCKET RABBIT, SEPHILINA, and many other personal projects, were all born out of this period of play.

Rocket Rabbit Rocket Rabbit Rocket Rabbit

At around the same time, more freelancers moved in to Robert’s studio; Bosco Ng, and Steward Lee, two more colleagues from our Colossal Pictures days. Maverix slowly became a shared workspace for a loose collective of freelance artists, each working on their own professional or personal projects, while sharing resources and sometimes collaborating on certain jobs, and my American freelance career had begun. More artists joined; Sho Murase, Derek Thompson, Vaughn Ross, and Robert’s brother, John. I’d been on staff continually since arriving in the USA, but once Maverix became my base of operations I could try my hand at a variety of different projects at many different studios, both in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Following various leads (from ex-Colossal Pictures colleagues) I worked for ILM (‘Frankenstein’) Pixar (‘Finding Nemo‘) PDI (‘Tusker‘) and on various commercials and shorts projects at Wild Brain.

The balance between my career, private life, and personal projects had always been hard to manage. When working in a professional studio, I’d get wound up in the cogs of production and think of nothing else but my job, but working at home as a freelancer didn’t give enough structure and I’d waste my downtime. At Maverix Studios however, I had the freedom of a freelancer with the routine and inspiring camaraderie of a studio, allowing me to do my personal projects for the first time. The studio changed its spelling from MaveriCKS  (initially named for the NorCal surf spot) to MAVERIX, to mark the transition from the commercial studio it once was to the collective it had become (besides, that domain name was available). Around 2000 we bought a shared G4 computer (the first time I’d ever used Photoshop) and soon after got a shared website:

Maverix at times became a hive of industry, that expanded from the core membership to include friends helping with various animation projects (commercials and the like) and this meant that it was often a raucous place to work, with loud music, people playing video games, a barking dog running around, and friends of friends dropping by with beers. It could be a difficult place to concentrate in, and ironically I sometimes had to work on my kitchen table at home simply to get away from the noise in my paid workplace, but it was always an energetic and inspiring place to brainstorm, despite those distractions. When we were buzzing with activity, we’d take breaks by playing video games. I remember those competitions fondly, even though I was the loser every time, and the brunt of good-natured smack talking that was a fun feature of these bouts of digital fisticuffs.

During a slow spell at the studio in early 2001, Bosco Ng, Derek Thompson, and I were sitting with nothing to do, and somebody suggested that we should each make a comic for that year’s Comic-Con and actually exhibit. We’d all been attending and submitting portfolios for years, but actually making something to sell had never occurred to us before. We were perhaps inspired by the recent example of a colleague from ILM, Steve Purcell, who had a Comic-Con table the year prior to sell his own artwork. We decided to do something similar ourselves and just make something for a change, instead of getting raked over the coals by snotty art-directors at portfolio reviews. Many times throughout my career, in eager beaver conversation in pubs or coffeeshops, such notions had been mentioned before (“let’s make an animated short!” etc) but this was the first time we followed through, and made the things we said we’d make: three separate comic books.

We knew nothing about printing or exhibiting, but it was remarkably easy to exhibit at Comic-Con in 2001; there was no waiting list, and in February 2001 we booked a table for July that same year, which would be unthinkable now. We’d committed to exhibiting and the ensuing period of making stuff remains one of the most pleasant stretches of several months in my entire career. Each day, the three of us would come in to the studio, jazzed to draw our comics, excited about what we were each doing, and what the other two guys were doing too. My effort was NERVE BOMB (my first Rocket Rabbit book) Derek made BINDU (a collaboration with Brian McDonald) and Bosco made METALUSION. We got them printed just in time. It is quite common for a group of artists to self publish these days, but it wasn’t as common back then, and we got a good reaction simply because of the novelty of a booth containing three artists selling their own stuff. A high point was when Mike Mignola visited our table and bought our books.

I got a rude shock when I finally got my bill from the printer. I’d cut the print deadline very close, and asked the printer to ship a few hundred of my comics expedited direct to San Diego, so they’d make the convention deadline, and ship the remaining 1800 books to San Francisco, at regular rates. They instead sent ALL the boxes to San Diego. The bill for expedited international shipping (from Canada) for 2,000 books was brutal. As that last minute transaction had been all arranged on the phone, I had no paper trail as to who said exactly what & when, so when the printer sicced a collection agency onto me I had to pay up. This was my first lesson that getting things printed was often the sour note in self publishing..

The next few years saw all Maverix members exhibiting their own projects at Comic-Con. There was the annual drama of getting various personal projects drawn and printed in time for the show, shenanigans with printing companies, Kinkos, or ink-jet printers. Hare-brained money-saving schemes to drive to the Con, all Maverix members crammed into a rented van, like the Scooby Doo gang or some lame rock band. Several years of fumbled bookings in shitty San Diego hotels, and assorted shenanigans; Robert accidentally drinking Sho’s contact lenses (twice) or getting stranded in Tijuana without his passport. Oh, such tales could be told (and might be one day.)

Maverix was a chaotic band of loons that nevertheless helped me break the cycle of my own creative lameness. I am not sure why it took me so long to actually make something of my own, except that when younger, I had no idea how to get things printed or made. Researching the means of production wasn’t easy in the 80s and 90s, and it’s only relatively recently that those technologies have been accessible to your average Joe & Jane. Even so, I deeply regret not getting off my arse many years earlier and making something. Anything. I always thought about it, but somehow had the feeling that I needed permission or validation from someone else to move forward. The younger generation of artists today do not make that mistake, and self publish books and make short films right out of school. This is definitely the way to go. When you’re young and before you have a family, you should make stuff of your own as much as you can, as personal projects are the gymnasium where professional artists get to train their creative muscles and stretch themselves.

Maverix became known as a fun place to hang out. The studio was not far from San Francisco’s South of Market club scene, and would often serve as a staging area for night club away teams, and after-parties. There were themed movie nights (“Ape Night” or “Monster Night”) or we’d simply gather to watch the latest anime blockbuster or foreign hit film on Bosco’s groovy projector. Maverix knew how to throw a very fun party on any pretext at all, and members of other bigger studios would all mingle on our common ground.

On the fateful day of September 11, 2001, I was the only person working at Maverix. This was before the era of carrying the internet in your pocket, and I was unaware of the world-changing attacks on The World Trade Center. I walked into work early that morning, and assumed that the police vehicles surrounding City Hall were there for another episode of ’Nash Bridges’, and continued to the studio, where I was working on paper and therefore not connected to the internet. By mid-afternoon, no one else had come to work but I didn’t think much of it, because Maverix was the kind of place where people kept odd hours. Later in the day, I went out to get something to eat at a nearby deli, where the the radio broadcasted something hectic in Korean. The guy making my sandwich was agitated about something in New York, but didn’t speak clear English, and I assumed it was a sporting event. After I walked all the way back home at about 11PM that night and turned on my TV, I finally saw the nightmarish images of airplanes dissolving into the Twin Towers. It still took 20 minutes for it to sink in that this was NOT a movie. That this was real. For the next 24 hours I stayed glued to the TV trying to make sense of it all. Al Qaeda who? Osama Bin What? Why?

My girlfriend at the time was in Europe traveling with her family, stranded by the USA flight ban imposed in the wake of the attacks (for everyone other than the fleeing Bin Laden family). It was a stressful and gruesome time. At the national level there was great distress, but many things in my own life started to fall apart after 9/11. Freelance work started to dry up almost immediately, and most of my friends were out of work for a long time. As the disasters stacked up – political, personal, professional, financial, psychological – it was almost comedic, like a sequence from a movie where a shlub (a Jerry Lewis or a Jim Carrey) is subjected to one humiliating pitfall one after the other, to teach him ‘a lesson’. The difference being that everyone was experiencing this spiral of disaster at the exact same time. For me this grim period culminated in a bitter break up with my girlfriend in September 2002, leaving me dejected about life in America, about relationships, about work, and human beings in general. It took several years to find my optimism again.

The original 9th Street address of Maverix Studios was in a seedy part of town. My memories of Maverix itself are overwhelmingly positive, but any negative memories come from that low-rent tawdry neighbourhood, rife with petty crime and scuzzy ne’er do wells prowling about. I had two different bikes stolen from inside the studio itself within three months, and I wasn’t the only Maverix member to have issues with theft. There was a strange ecosystem of Fury Road shantytowns in the alley behind the studio near our dumpsters, ruled over by a semi psychotic Hobo Warlord in camouflage combat pants, stripped to the waist. This methed-up alpha hobo was known to us as ’Hatchet Man,’ because we’d often see him out our back window flexing his muscles and practicing tossing his tomahawk into a telephone pole; wzzzz THUD! We’d have to thread our way gingerly past Immortan Joe and his underlings to put stuff in our own dumpster.

The back alley shanty town would grow, and periodically the city would swoop in to roust the squatters, and steam clean their paste off the alley. Then another shanty would slowly re-assemble, only to be purged when it too became a festering sore. The City wanted to offset costs for these frequent cleanups, and clearly the hobos had no money, so The City would attempt to send US the bill for these cleanings. One time I was at home in the shower in my own apartment when there was furious rapping on the door, with an officious voice demanding; “Open up! City Trash Police!” (or some such). I opened the door in my bath towel to be confronted by a guy we came to call ‘The Garbage Nazi‘, an enforcer with the city who’d found a scrap of rubbish in the alley bearing my name and address, and this was to be the justification for a BILL from City Hall; if any of our trash was strewn about by the human racoons that lived in the alley (as it often was) we’d get hammered by The City for alley cleanup. There were already stiff penalties for not having a padlock on our garbage can. However the entire system broke down when the guys driving the garbage trucks and emptying our dumpsters wouldn’t put the locks back on after emptying our trash. Then our garbage cans became prime scavenging sites, and even impromptu porta-potties for Hatchet Man and his homies (yes, not kidding).

The initial draw to the area was cheap rent, when most businesses around us were fabric sewing sweat shops, likewise taking advantage of low costs. The first wave of internet start ups happened around that time, and when the tech boom hit the neighbourhood, suddenly those crappy sweatshops were turned into tech lofts and the area was awash with hipsters on scooters. But the .com boom of San Francisco wasn’t all glamour. Sometimes, when working late, we’d overhear tawdry transactions taking place in the medieval monkey cage in the back alley below the studio. It’s a strange disconnect to be working on a child’s cartoon at 2 in the morning, when you hear some drunk tech-nerd stumble out of a nearby bar to haggle a drugs-for-sex swap with a hobo-junkie. This sleazy Blowjob Bartertown was an aspect of the SF tech boom not covered by WIRED magazine.

Maverix soon lost its lease due to the escalating crazy rents brought on by this .com boom, when our landlord suddenly wanted us to pay something like $10,000 a month for a space that cost less than $2000 a month previously, which was very indicative of the greed of that time. The combo of tawdry sleaze & crummy infrastructure and high prices was brutal (and became the problem with San Francisco in general). When it was time to renew our lease in 2003, we couldn’t afford to be in the area any more, so the studio moved to 17th street and the new space was infinitely better than the original place. By that time, some of the members chose to become a proper LLC company, and the loose collective dissolved, and I left Maverix (thinking that we could barely manage the studio trash cans, let alone file paperwork for an actual company). This separation was 100% amicable, it was simply that our different goals for the studio had changed. Although I was no longer officially a member, I still participated in many Maverix events, and often dropped in on my old studio mates. We are all still good friends to this day.

One of the things I was most happy to collaborate in were the Maverix charity art auctions. The first was held out of a desperate need to express our love and support for our friend Mike Murnane, who’d been brought low by a tragic accident. He required surgery but had no insurance, and thus no funds to cover his ballooning medical expenses. The broader Maverix community came together to generate money in the only way we knew how; by making and selling artwork. Organised in a matter of weeks, this first auction raised a significant amount of money, even though many of us were out of work ourselves at the time. It became the first charity fundraiser of many, and such auctions became regular events at the studio. People from Pixar, PDI, ILM, Wild Brain, Ghostbot, and other studios in the Bay Area all assembled for good times and good causes.

This was my first experience of artists doing what they do to raise money for charities without any goal of self-promotion. I have seen similar things since, but for me the Maverix auctions were always the best. They may not have raised the cash of bigger art auctions that came later, but they were always all-inclusive and immensely rewarding to be part of. Lately, I’ve had a visceral sense of what such fundraising activities can do for a person who’s been medically devastated, when I was a beneficiary myself (in 2013). Though the money is very welcome, I found the support from the community to be the real force for good.

I’d recommend any freelance artists who work at home to find like-minded friends to share a workspace with, at least once in your career. In my opinion, an essential ingredient to make the whole thing work is a sort of rulebook (or ‘manifesto’ if you prefer) to ensure that the day to day nitty-gritty of bill paying and trash removal happens smoothly, and it it’s clear in everybody’s mind’s to what extent the studio is a workspace, and to what extent it is a fun space. If you can get those things mutually understood, this is one the most satisfying ways to work as a commercial artist.

When I first fell in love with San Francisco in the early 1990s, the Bay Area had a healthy cross-section of big studios, medium-sized studios, and small studios. Over 25 years later, the middle of that ecosystem has died. There are still a few big places (impenetrable fortresses like Pixar, and ILM) and a few tiny studios too, but the mid-size studios are gone (perhaps because animated commercials are neither so common nor lucrative as they once were). Mid-sized studios were my favourite places to work, providing the bulk of the freelance jobs for people doing what I do, while taking more chances on younger talent than bigger studios. I miss these mid-sized studios a great deal. A lot of innovation is happening in the South Bay in GAMES, but my focus has always been on animation for broadcast or film, and in that respect San Francisco is not the vital town that it once was, sadly.

In 2011, MAVERIX STUDIOS finally closed its doors, marking the end for this fantastic collective of independent, Bay Area animation artists, though ex-members have gone on to work on many high-profile projects in a wide variety of media, from comics & games to film & TV. All members look back on the studio with fondness, despite some setbacks here and there. It was quite an achievement that such an unwieldy group of screwballs could operate so well for so long, during some very difficult years in the Bay Area media community, when many studios with ‘business plans’ and MBAs all went kaput. For many years I’d toyed with the idea of making some projects of my own, but it wasn’t until Maverix that I actually did it, and interestingly, it made me a more professional worker for others, when I had an outlet to do my own thing. Becoming a self publisher led to exhibiting at comics conventions, which I did for about 10 years and got a lot of satisfaction from. Being a member of Maverix Studios remains one of the most fruitful periods of my career.

Founders of the Maverick commercial animation studio: Robert Valley Jeanne Reynolds.

Initial members of the Maverix Studios collective: Robert Valley, John Valley, James Baker, Steward Lee, Bosco Ng, Sho Murase, Vaughn Ross, Derek Thompson.

The 3rd wave: Tom Rubalcava, Osamu Tsuruyama, Tony Stacchi, Sergio Paez, Ted Mathot, Chris Petrocchi, Garett Sheldrew, Ed Bell.

Other friends who collaborated, or hung out: Patrick Awa, Mike Murnane, Gennie Rim, Granger Davis, Lyla Warren, Charlie Canfield, Dan McHale, Chris Carter, Charlene Kelley, Victor Gascon, Sam Hood, Dedan Anderson, Joel Hornsby, Jamal Narcisse, Lance Hughes, Ken Kaiser (and many more!)

Sep 302017
 

Although I’ve worked in animation since 1982 and loved the medium my whole life, there was only one time that I made an animated project on my own (apart from flip-books). At the age of 15/16, my obsessions were WARNER Bros CARTOONS, STAR WARS and MAD Magazine, influences clearly seen in the crudely made parody finished over a year later. In 2014 I found the spool of super-8 film containing all 6.5 minutes of ‘SPACE FLiK‘, and transferred it to digital media. Watching it again for the first time in over 30 years brought back so many memories…

Initially, I’d intended to fully animate the whole thing, but quickly realised that would not be possible. Apart from the time that it would take, I couldn’t find (nor afford) animation cels. I made a few myself (out of shirt box lids and the like) but only enough for one scene. Even animating on paper presented its own problems (the pencil-mileage of redrawing backgrounds, or not having any backgrounds at all). After fiddling around, a hybrid technique developed; some scenes animated and shot on paper, some scenes done with cut-out animation (inspired by Terry Gilliam‘s book on the subject) and some animated scenes on paper, with individual poses cut out and temporarily glued to my few reuseable cells (or manipulated under camera on a homemade multiplane). It was not the ‘Illusion of Life‘, by any means, and barely even the illusion of the Illusion Of Life. It was NAFFimationâ„¢.

The drawing was fiddly but was something I loved to do, whereas the filming took me into unchartered waters of complexity and frustration. The only camera I’d ever owned was an Instamatic, and I knew nothing at all about exposure & focus, and had to learn by trial and error (heavy emphasis on the error) with a borrowed super-8 camera. In those pre-digital days, we were never sure what we’d shot on film till it came back from the processing lab, when I’d discover badly exposed sequences, weeks after shooting them. My town had no lab for super-8, so the film had to be sent away to be processed, and this iterative cycle of – shoot, wait, watch, scream, reshoot, wait, watch, scream, etc – took a lot of time. Time which ran out long before I was done. The borrowed camera had to be given back to the institution that owned it, and I had to simply remove failed scenes from the final print and submit it to my HSC art course.

Finally, after more than a year of drawing, and a few months of tinkering with borrowed camera and editing equipment, the premiere screening of all 6.5 minutes of ‘SPACE FLiK‘ was in the ‘good room‘ of the Baker family home in 1981 (on a borrowed super-8 projector) for an enthusiastic group of family and friends. The second screening was for examiners of my HSC. Hilariously, the third screening was at the Sydney Opera House in early 1982, at the National Youth Film Festival, where none other than Peter Weir was keynote speaker. My high school art teacher Ross Cochrane had heard about about this contest, and suggested I enter my film. I did, and it was accepted. By the time of the event, I already knew that I’d not won anything but was thrilled to attend and see all entries, including my own, screened in that famous building. I was very impressed with the quality of the other films shown, and some of the award winning young filmmakers went on to become prominent within the Australian film industry.

We contestants all received detailed critiques of our films written by the festival judges, who were film critics, film makers, or film lecturers at various universities. In my memory, the feedback was savage and I regret to say that I threw it away, but the truth is that all these critiques were absolutely right and I’d enjoy reading them now. At 17, I’d already understood the technical mistakes I’d made (bad timing, shoddy focus & exposure, etc) but the tragedy of expending a Herculean effort on a flimsy parody, rather than something original of my own, was only starting to dawn on me. Sadly, I became ashamed of this silly film. Although I’d intended to show SPACE FLiK to the animation studio in Sydney (Hanna-Barbera) where I’d hoped to work (and eventually did) my film was never screened again after the Opera House Ego-Massacre (besides, pro studios didn’t have super-8 projectors, and I didn’t either, so it wasn’t easy to show even if I’d wanted to).

However, all these many years later, it was wonderful to see this fun reminder of the eager young dork I was back then; a wide-eyed fan in a pre-internet small town with no resources and even less of a clue, but with enough raw enthusiasm to make a film anyway. When I discovered that the box containing the film spool also included all the original 1981 artwork, I began a fun project to restore mis-shot & deleted scenes, and add the simple soundtrack that I’d planned long ago, but didn’t then have the resources to do. A 53 year old professional learning Premiere-Pro simply to fiddle with his own teenage amateur work is self indulgent perhaps, but as the original project was a Star Wars parody, a Lucas-style revised “Special Edition” should also be fair game for the lampoon;

Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been waiting 35 years, till the ‘technology was available‘ to complete my ‘original vision’. Without any further ado, please enjoy ‘SPACE FLiK: The Corrector’s cut‘.

Aug 292017
 

One of the first colour images I ever drew of Rocket Rabbit was of being chased by a big blue robot, who came to be called THE BLUDGEONATOR.

Although that image became the cover for my first ever Rocket Rabbit comic book, I never drew any continuity for this robotic showdown back then, but I’m roughing out the story of their confrontation at the moment, in a short 6 page story called ROBO-BRAWL.

This will be part of a 20 page prolog story that explains why Rocket & Professor abandoned their vagabond lifestyle, and came to work in San Fiasco as do-gooders working for THE COMPANY.

I have a BIG book planned with over 100 pages of story, about half of which will be existing material and the other half completely new. ALL of it needs to be coloured, so it’s a lot of work, especially in my current condition, but it will mean so much to me to finish this project, especially if I can seamlessly integrate my new left handed art with the pages I drew with my right hand.


I hope to chip away at it over the next few years with small, 6-10 page stories. So stay tuned!

Jul 252017
 

Sell ticker rain jurrs, wee chwonn?!” Said he. “Huh? Oi dahnd unnerstehnn wotcha saiyin!” Said I. It was my first day at primary school in Glasgow and a mutually unintelligible clash of regional English accents was under way; Glasgow Scots vs Rural Aussie. Like me, the other kid was a knock kneed 9 year old Celt, but wearing a belligerent expression on his pasty dial, and I had no idea what his agitation was about.

Another ginger haired Scots tyke told him that my incomprehension was because I was Australian, at which my stroppy interrogator huffed off someplace, muttering (I think) about kangaroos. Dad later decoded this tense exchange for me after school, as we trudged home along the Crow Road shivering in the clammy gloom (Glasgow nightfall was as early as 3:45pm in winter, meaning that it was already twilight when I got out of school, and pitch dark by the time I’d walked home). Dad said that my adversary had been asking “Celtic or Rangers, which one?!“ but this was still utter gibberish to me, even when I understood the individual words. Dad explained that the boy’s question had challenged me to swear allegiance to either of two local soccer teams who were mortal enemies. What I know now but didn’t yet understand back then was that the important subtext of the question was that one of these teams was historically Catholic and the other was Protestant, and my inability to understand the question had probably saved my head from being punched in, as I was Catholic. The wrong answer in that area. More to the point, I didn’t (and still don’t) give a toss about sports anyway, but as luck would have it, I’d soon assert myself as a soccer savant purely by accident.

The school had one soccer pitch where multiple games were played concurrently during our lunch break. Exactly how many only became clear by counting the number of goalies in each goal mouth, often upwards of four. These kids had to make sense of multiple matches and call any game headed toward goal as “MINE!” when other goalies would briefly step aside to let him face the oncoming storm. I was running in this swirling melee myself, trying to understand crisscrossing swarms of tykes in the exact same school uniform kicking a multitude of soccer balls every which-way, when a ball cannoned out of nowhere, savagely caromed off my face and into goal. By pure luck, it was the ball from the game I was associated with and won a point for my team. With ears still ringing and my face throbbing five shades of red from chin to hairline, I did my best to pass off this fluke as a famous Australian header technique, and was hailed as the athletic hero of the day by one and all. I further cemented my schoolyard network when it turned out that a few classmates were Cub Scouts.

I had been a Cub Scout in Australia, and after my family moved to Scotland I joined a Cub Scout pack near our new home in Glasgow. I was a novelty right away because of my old style blue uniform and distinctive Australian merit badges. The Scots wore khaki/green outfits and their way of denoting rank was ARROWS on the sleeve (like sergeant’s stripes) whereas in Australia it was BOOMERANGS. I’d earned a bronze boomerang by accumulating a few art/craft merit badges and my one great Cub Scout achievement; raising the most money in a ‘Bob a Job‘ fundraiser. In every other field of Cub Scout endeavour, requiring bushcraft or physical coordination, I was mediocre at best. Like a dog pack, a Cub Scout pack could sniff out the status of other Cubs by merely looking at this resume of little boy achievement on our uniforms. (If this merit badge system continued into adulthood you’d know immediately if your date was worth your time by his ‘Good Boyfriend‘ badge — semiotic icon: peeing with seat UP). In my brief time in Scottish Scouts I attended weekly meetings where two grown men referred to as ‘Akela & Baloo‘ (in kilted scout outfits) tried to channel the energies of their pack of little wolves toward the high minded ideals of the organisation (a lot of ‘Queen & Country’ bollocks in hindsight) while the pack itself often focused on a simmering rivalry with a similar organisation of tribal brats a few blocks away (that variation on the ‘Lord Of The Flies With Supervision‘ concept was called Boys’ Brigade).

The main memory I have of my time in Scottish Scouts is of a several-day trip to the Scottish Highlands. After a bus drove us Cub Scouts all the way up there, we slept in a large empty hall, rather than tents as I’d done at similar Jamborees in Australia (called ‘Coroborees’ down our way) but inside camping worked well in the Highlands, as the weather was shitty most of the time, and the pack went rambling on moors and craggy coastlines between intermittent downpours. One afternoon we Cub Scouts were dodging rain and amusing ourselves back at the hall when I noticed a concerned huddle of Akela & Baloo. They glanced furtively at me and discussed some paperwork, before quietly taking me aside and asking me; “are you Catholic?” in hushed tones of concern and fear, as if asking “do you have ebola?” Weeks earlier my parents had filled out a permission form for me to go on the trip, with the usual stuff (medical issues, allergies, and so on) and even though the religion section clearly stated that I was Catholic, Akela & Baloo appeared to need further verbal clarification from me to believe this particular detail (apparently unnoticed until we were already on the trip). Upon careful consideration, I had to admit that I wasn’t exactly sure, but; “Maybe I might be Catholic?” Their tension eased a little; “So your family doesn’t go to church, then?” they enquired. “Oh no“, I corrected, “We go every Sunday“. Their shoulders sagged. “Where?” I described the drive from our house in Glasgow to our church, and Akela & Baloo drooped even further, exchanging looks. They seemed to know where I meant, but I could not decode their reaction.

At the time, I was oblivious to the pickle that me & my form had dropped them in. I did not yet understand the distinction between ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ at the age of 9, but in Britain of the early 1970s, with the IRA tossing bombs about the place, and Catholics being occasionally shot by military forces in Northern Ireland, it was a very important distinction indeed. Later that same year my family saw ground zero of this Catholic/Protestant clash in Belfast. I still have jagged impressions from that day, of a broken grey town, spooled with barbed wire, patrolled by grim-faced troops wielding machine guns & driving Saracens, all seen through the wide goggling eyes of a small boy from a small town half a world away. At numerous checkpoints our family car full of 4 tiny children was inspected by armed soldiers, as my family drove through Belfast on our way to connect with a ferry back to Scotland. It was the first time I’d seen a real machine gun, and by the end of that day I’d seen quite a few. 21st century Britain is afraid of Muslim terrorism, but in 1974 Muslims were simply the people who sold us comics and sweeties at our corner store, and terrorism was the exclusive speciality of Catholics.

These many years later, I understand this context for the furtive glances and kid gloves that Akela & Baloo handled me with back then, when I was a little boy; Catholics were clearly testy nutjobs, and God only knew what the Australian variety might be capable of. Better find this kid a Catholic church pronto, unless his roo-riding parents launch an Aussie Left-Footer fatwah on the Jordan Hill scout hall. However, even in Glasgow we had to drive a long way from where we lived to attend a Catholic church (I remember my family picnicking near this church after mass, when a throng of angry blokes in orange shawls appeared. “What are those men yelling about?” I asked Mum & Dad. “Us!” they replied, as Mum gave me my sticky bun). Way up in the remote Highlands, Akela & Baloo had less options for finding me the right flavour of church to kneel in.

That Sunday we Cub Scouts got up VERY early before church and went for a long drive in our bus out into the beautiful heathered bleakness of a Scottish Highland moor. To my surprise, the bus stopped at an intersection out in this barren landscape and Akela gestured at a tiny rustic chapel, saying this was the right church for me, that they would pick me up after mass, and to please be patient as it might take a while. I got off the coach and walked over to the tiny stone chapel out in the backside of beyond, as my Cub Scout pack zoomed away to attend their own brand of Church on time. Imagine that classic scene in a western where all the owl hoots in the Dodge City saloon turn to see the new gunslinger walk through the swinging saloon doors. Now substitute the dusty saloon with a tiny rundown chapel on a Highland moor, for the piano player swap a Celtic crone seated at an organ, replace the bar patrons with a few elderly parishioners, and the new kid in town standing backlit at the door is me, in my garish Cub Scout uniform. Thinking back on it now, I must have been a bizarre sight from the point of view of these Highland parishioners waiting for mass. Outside they’d heard the squeal of brakes, the pneumatic hiss of an opening door, and turned to see a solitary sawn off creature in blue crossing their threshold.

In total silence I took a pew at the very back of the tiny chapel and waited. Slowly, more craggy Highlanders came in and took their seats. It was only then that I realised I’d broken with some local protocol. Unlike my parish, these Highland Catholics preferred that all lads sit on one side of the aisle and all lassies on the other, and I had been sitting amongst the womenfolk (though I fixed my mistake after communion). When the service got under way I had great difficulty in understanding what was being said. I’d eventually learned the rhythms of Glasgow speech, but this Highland Scots accent was impenetrable to me. It occurs to me only now that the service may have been in Gaelic, depending on where I was, but I couldn’t even guess where it might have been. Wherever I was, it was a long way from everywhere else, and my Cub Scout pack had gone well out of their way to get me there. Thankfully, although the priest’s words were opaque to me, I knew the rhythm of a Catholic mass by heart, and when to stand, sit, kneel, mumble or be silent.

After the mass ended, the tiny congregation quickly dispersed and hobbled away into the mist. I’m racking my memory as hard as I can now to remember if anyone queried me after mass. Even though it seems reasonable that somebody might be curious to know the identity of the mysterious tiny stranger in the blue uniform festooned with arcane symbols, I don’t have any recollection of even one of this taciturn crew talking with me, not even the priest. Let’s assume however that the good Father did check in with me, if only briefly, and after I assured him that I’d be picked up presently, he too hightailed it back into the Highlands. Thereafter, was a very long wait in the misty middle of nowhere until the rest of my Cub Scout pack returned.

Later, when I got back to Glasgow and Mum & Dad heard about Akela & Baloo’s furtive pre-church interview, the efforts my Cub Scout pack had taken to get me to a Catholic church, get to their own mass, and then drive back to pick me up, it became clear that none of it was necessary. Though touched by these efforts, Mum & Dad wouldn’t have minded in the slightest if I’d been taken to a church of another denomination. However, Akela & Baloo had never encountered someone of my peculiar breed in their Cub Scout pack ever before, and decided the best policy at the last minute was to be sensitive to causing offence. Everywhere in Scotland was a clan and/or a feud. Were you Catholic or Protestant? Celtic or Rangers? Campbell or MacDonald? Cub Scout or Boys Brigade? Highlander or Sassanach? Akela & Baloo clearly knew the protocols of dealing with Scots clans, and erred on the side of caution.

Our school too was divided into clans of a sort, the separate competing school houses (Harry Potter style). My schoolmates with classic Scottish surnames displayed their traditional clan tartans with utmost pride, on scarves, socks, hats, and other clothing accepted in school uniform rules. Not just clans, but hierarchies too were important. As a school newbie, I initially sat in the seat closest to the classroom door, and it took me a while to understand why the teacher (a fierce though loveable Scottish war hammer who could’ve been the model for Professor Minerva McGonagall) would rearrange our desks every fortnight. I eventually learned that placement of students within the classroom denoted their academic rank (a variation on the the at-a-glance merit badge ranking system used by Cub Scouts). Everyone knew exactly where you were within the hierarchy based on seating order; the front seat closest to the door (where I’d started) was for dummy numero uno, and the kid sitting over by the window at the back was class brainiac (for the record, I’d almost climbed to my traditional academic sweet spot of ‘the middle’ by the end of my time in Scotland).

With this pecking order humiliatingly displayed for all to see, each child asserted their own hierarchies in constantly revised lists taped to the underside of their desk lids. Not just the standard lists of fave bands, movie stars, athletes, and so on, but also best friend lists. These were prominently displayed as each student opened their desks to retrieve a book, when surrounding classmates would check to see whether their own currency had risen or fallen in these multiple social stock exchanges. My own ranking, if I made any lists at all, was once again ‘bottom of the middle’. It was all a lot to keep track of; the ‘LIKES’ of 1970s social media.

It was while in Scotland that I learned about British comics (such as Valiant, Beano & Dandy) and my drawing made a quantum leap as a result. I eagerly digested daily TV helpings of Brit Sci-Fi (Doctor Who, Space 1999, UFO) and Supermarionation (Captain Scarlet, Joe 90 and Thunderbirds). In Scotland I belatedly learned to ride a bicycle, camped by Loch Ness (fervently seeking Nessie) visited real castles and torture dungeons, and was impressed by many other things that made indelible impressions on a little boy. But my time there was extra special for personal reasons too. Though raised in Australia by Australian parents, I’d actually been born in Scotland (in Edinburgh while my father studied there) and my mother was of Scots ancestry on her father’s side. She was a STUART (clan Stuart of Bute) and during the year I turned 10 years old and my family briefly lived in Glasgow, I learned about my mother’s clan so fierce and proud; THE SCOTS.