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Make Like Picture

It’s 1984. Dad says, “Let’s go to the movies.” So we head to the Lynbrook Theater and catch the original Karate Kid.

Not the first time I’d seen bonsai trees, but, the flick sold me on them. Soon as I could, I got my hands on a sorta-kinda bonsai from Home Depot, but it was little more than a twig in a shallow pot.

Flash forward to 1992. We’re shooting the Cry For Dawn TV commercial, and Robb Horan is unloading crap he’d bought for set dressing Dawn’s lair. One of those items? A bonsai tree. Day hasn’t even begun, and I point to it, tell him, “When the shoot’s over, that goes with me,” and when it’s all said and done about 90 hours later, he’s trying to explain to me how ‘prop selloff’ works. 

Think about this. We’re shooting in a pro  soundstage in Manhattan. We’re using a model we’ve never met, who Robb says is a little iffy. Me and Joe had gone to Jersey the night before to get some motorcycle forks and biker gear from our friend, J.C. So, I’m going on a 4-day non-stop stretch, where cash is king. I probably had $1,500 in my pocket in case of emergency. 

“Robb, how much?”

“Well…we had to get this at such-and-such staging, and usually the rate for props after shoot is about 50%, and…”

“Dude, how much for the fv@king tree?!”

I think it was $22 bucks. I would’ve given him a hundred. It looked Miyagi-trimmed. I didn’t give a damn about how this-or-that worked, I had coin, I wanted the tree, it was not a tough sell.

“Trust,” Miyagi tells Daniel.  “Concentrate.  Think only tree. Close eye. Make a perfect picture, Down to last pine needle. Got it? Remember picture? Make like picture.”

“How do I know if my picture’s the right one?”

“If come from inside? Always the right one.”

At one point, I had about a dozen really sweet looking bonsai trees in my apartment in NY. Karate Kid quality. Once the lights went out, though? Time took ‘em.

3 years ago, I’m with Billy at Lowe’s, getting planter dirt. I mentioned the story of my first bonsai, and sure enough, there’s a couple there. Terrible specimens, the lot of them, but when I asked the salesperson about bluepoint junipers, she directed us to what they had, and I found Tree. In the BEFORE pics, he’s pretty bushy, hadn’t been trimmed in a while. And, even when I snagged him, I knew the trunk structure would be less treelike than I wanted, but…to possibly get back into it? Blind??? That was an easier sell than the Cry For Dawn shoot. 

Tabletop sized bushy bonsai tree

Spent about an hour and a half last night with him, trying to get him into shape. I don’t have my good bonsai snippers (and gonna have to get some light gauge wire to train some branches), but…not hideous. For Christmas, Mom got me a bluepoint, and while it’s not what you’d have seen in Miyagi’s workroom (imagine a 2 foot tall Evergreen with virtually no side branches to get creative with), it’s the kind you trim simply by pinching back—almost exactly like the ones Miyagi gives Daniel and his mom. 

I have no clue how Tree is gonna turn out, but like Pat Morita teaches Daniel in the first couple of films, the key isn’t making mistakes or getting anything ‘wrong’. You can’t. Treat it right, and the tree will continue to grow. Leave it alone, it’ll thicken up, get bushy, and you can again, try to “Make like picture.” Me? I don’t have any pictures left. And I couldn’t match things up anyway. But, I can feel for the crossed branches. Tell where things should and shouldn’t be insofar as a real tree would’ve grown. Won’t deny, felt pretty successful when Pam came out to take the AFTER pics and told me how Tree had changed. 3 years now, and he’s still hangin’ in there. Could be I should name him, huh?

Trimmed Bonsai tree

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But Joe — What About Your Work?

Something that’s come up in the wake of this MAUS controversy (which is totally manufactured, BTW), is my stance on not just books and graphic novels, but my own work in particular. If you’re not familiar, I came up in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s comic scene, doing books that were labelled: Underground and extreme. I have a great clip of David J. Schow (The Crow, John Carpenter’s HELL) introducing me at a Chiller Con as “One of the godfathers of splatterpunk.” 

But…my titles? What about them? Should Cry For Dawn have been available to middle-schoolers, like the kids the Tennessee censorship feud is about? In a word: No.

I can picture the reactions. Huh? WTF? But Joe—you’re anti-censorship! You oppose bans! What gives?!

It’s pretty simple. While I wholeheartedly oppose censorship (demands to silence Joe Rogan, for instance), Cry For Dawn was not for 12-and-13 year olds. There is nothing wrong with that. Our comics contained subject matter Diamond Comics required labeling as ‘Mature Readers’. We had nudity, we had profanity, we had rape. We had a vagina with teeth. We bent every rule we couldn’t break, telling stories designed to make people think, and to get a reaction. 

Cover to Cry For Dawn Volume One with caption: Banned In Canada; our initial printer refused our job after accepting it.

Doesn’t mean we had to hand it to middle schoolers, though. Here I am, 30 years later, talking about my interview with Art Spiegelman and discussing why there is no censorship going on in TN, because the truth is: there isn’t. Making a kid wait until he/she’s 16 to read a Mature Readers comic title? That’s no different than keeping that same kid out of an R-or-X-rated film. Preventing kids from seeing Cannibal Holocaust? Think about it. No kid’s being robbed or denied the opp to see that flick, there’s just a restriction on when. That we’re talking a Pulitzer prize winning graphic novel or a comic that broke new ground matters not. Good content being temporarily withheld from a reader is no crime, and it certainly doesn’t qualify as censorship. 

My new comic is filled with graphic imagery and subject matter. It’s basically Cry For Dawn 10, or what it could have been had we continued in the 1990s. It is rough stuff. Am I concerned that I may not snag as many teen readers as were sneaking into comic shops to grab Cry For Dawn in 1992? No. I don’t plan on going anywhere. I’m going to keep writing comic stories. I’m going to keep writing prose stories. Some are going to flip people out. Some are going to have people up in arms, like with Kids Meal in 1990 and BIRTHMARKS in ’91. Because, that’s what I do. If a kid needs another year or so to catch up? So be it. I am content to wait, rather than rush an audience into material they’re not ready for. Average 12-and-13 year old kid shouldn’t have access to Caligula, either. Doesn’t mean there’s anything ‘banned’ or being ‘censored’. I refuse to play victim simply because there are some rules in place for age-appropriate material, which is why I stand with the school board in Tennessee.

Illustration of a woman firing a crossbow to a zombie's head. Caption: Panel from my new MATURE READERS title — this is as tame as it gets.

Not that I’m gonna bitch if a kid like me skirts the rules and finds a way. Hell, that the kid is reading in the first place is impressive enough… I just hope he or she’s ready. The hard truth is, plenty won’t be, and I don’t think it’s worth the risk simply because a few whiners are screeching about something that hasn’t happened. 

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The Media Mockery Concerning MAUS

Before knee-jerking, please give this a moment to sink in. I got to interview Art Spiegelman back in the day, thanks to Fred Greenberg. So, let’s get this out of the way: The content of MAUS is incredible—Pulitzer worthy. It’s gotten awards, and is a holocaust masterpiece. Okay, we all settled?

It’s also rough. Art himself spoke to this at the time. It’s about the holocaust. If you don’t understand that there is ugly, hard-to-stomach content, then you’ve never read the book and shouldn’t bother going any further, because you’re unequipped to understand the debate.

Cover to MAUS

Art knew why MAUS would wind up being a ‘Mature Readers’ selection via distribution networks. Same as Rolf Stark (another talented creator I had the chance to interview), who understood full well that his graphic novel concerning the same subject matter would rile folks up. Not everyone would be giving him a pat on the back for depicting hard truths in a graphic way.

In 1985, I was part of the ‘pull’ put on at Elmont Memorial High School, where the PTA had had a hissy-fit and demanded that One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest be pulled from the library and classrooms. That, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Heart of Darkness—all destined for the dumpsters because of content concerns. (Yes, I filled my backpack with those titles and more slated for the ban-bin.)

Now, let’s return to today. We live in a world where Huck Finn hasn’t been able to go down river in most HS libraries for the better part of a decade. Why? Same thing: content concerns. Now, let’s go to Tennessee. Is this a case of anti-semitism, as knee-jerkers on FB and Twitter are claiming? No. Read the statements and the list of citations by the school board. Is it about bigotry? Holocaust denial? Again, the media is having a field day, but no, that’s not even part of it. Nudity, rape and profanity? Now, there’s the issue. Just like with Cuckoo’s Nest, which contains rape and violence and profanity, MAUS contains some of these elements, and…it’s a graphic novel. It isn’t prose. Thus? art/images of nudity and violence. 

We’re talking about a middle school. They have rules concerning what gets into the library. If you’re so easily huckstered as to think that a book that’s over three decades old is suddenly being ‘targeted’, you’re naïvete is showing. There is no sex in Huckleberry Finn. There is no murder or rape. There is no mass-extermination based on the characters’ religion. And yet, it isn’t in most middle school libraries, and it’s removal from high schools nationwide has been the subject of countless articles. In other words, the amt of ‘objectionable content’ is minimal in comparison with a graphic novel with everything depicted visually.

I feel terrible for Art, and his book MAUS deserves better. First and foremost, though, what it deserves is for the media to report accurately on what actually happened, without trying to spin events to turn it into something it wasn’t. MAUS is a book I highly recommend and have for years. Would I give a copy to a 12-year-old, though? Would I find a better solution for kids in middle school who want to read it, such as having parents sign it out, same as I would for Cuckoo’s Nest, The Jungle and The Shining? (Another book that used to be in the Elmont Memorial HS library)? Yes. But the discussion should be about what actually occurred in TN, not what the media spin machine has tried to make it sound like. That’s the true crime here, not the ban and not the debate.

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Halloween For the Win!

Miniature pumpkins adorn large plants and small, planted trees.

After the disaster that was Halloween 2020 (which included government threats, unnecessary fearmongering over going door-to-door, kids stuck walking a circle in a parking lot for trunk or treat ‘events’), thrilled that many refused to buckle last year and did the best they could, while today/tonight? It would appear Halloween is coming back with a vengeance.

My place is in the middle of nowhere. We always need to set up at someone else’s house where they get (at least, used-to) hundreds of kids and parents. I’m looking forward to getting back in my casket, and scaring the hell out of people once again. At the house, though, I couldn’t go without doing anything, so got some pumpkins in the planters to be a bit festive, Pam can use ‘em for pumpkin pie when we bring ‘em inside on Monday, and at least the feel is back. Bringing candy over to Mom’s even though she lives in a retirement community, hoping some kids’re staying with grandma and grandpa and will be walking the cul de sacs. Hope you and yours—especially if you have kids—are rockin’ it this year! Stay safe, enjoy, and bring on the darkness!