THE CORNER POCKET
I was a fat and cowardly child. Growing up in South Dakota, I feared everything from the boys in the locker room to big dogs. I bullied and was bullied. It’s a mystery to me how I managed to hang on to some of my childhood friends, but here we are, fifty years later, tighter than ever.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, I moved to Boston to work on weekly “alternative” papers. I ended up in a basement apartment in Brighton, a half block from the Ja Shin Do Academy, a storefront karate school. Every day on my way to the MTA, I passed that school. I would stare through the mist-covered windows at students moving around the hardwood floor, hearing their thumps and kiais. Like most young men, I was fascinated by karate. One day I said fuck it, and went inside to talk to the teacher Andy Bauman. Andy acquired his black belt while stationed in Korea. He could punch through a wall.
I trained at the Ja Shin Do Academy under Andy, Joe Demusz, and Jane West. It was very traditional, very hard. I can’t believe some of the things we did. Thousand kick night was a regular event, as was picking up a teammate in a fireman’s carry and running around the park.
One day a lanky young man came in, went up the makiwara screwed to the wall, and punched it, breaking his hand. He never returned.
When I returned to Madison in ‘77, I resumed training at Choi’s Karate, under Jim Henry. Jim was a charmless thug, but he knew his stuff. I trained with Vince O’Hern, founder and publisher of Isthmus, Madison’s “alternative” weekly, for which I was music editor. Amazingly, Isthmus is still with us, following the collapse of ninety per cent of the alternative weeklies in the country, due mostly to the rise of the internet. I was about to test for black belt when Choi’s went belly-up. Vince and I continued to train together, sometimes at the UW Natatorium or at Lathrop Hall. Lathrop was a beautiful old brick building with a pool in the basement. It’s gone now, like so much of the classic campus, replaced by an ugly building.
I let training slide for years, working out in the basement of my house in Fitchburg. I designed, built the house, and paid it off. It had an in-ground pool. But I made bad choices and ended up losing it and moving to Colorado.
But before then, I found a group of fighters training in the basement of a community center under John Fehling, who’d trained with Danny Inosanto. It was my first exposure to stick fighting. Not that I love stick fighting! Who needs it? It was interesting.
I picked up my first comic in South Dakota, Uncle Scrooge. At UW, some friends turned me onto Steranko and Neal Adams. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I couldn’t believe people could draw like that. I was hooked.
I lived in Boston when the first Master of Kung Fu came out. I bought multiple copies. It was only twenty-five cents. Steve Englehart wrote and Jim Starlin drew it. Doug Moench Gulacy took over. It took Gulacy a few issues to find his stride, but when he did, it was explosive. He took Steranko one step further. But even then, looking at the beautiful drawing of Shan-Chi throwing a flying sidekick. I sensed something wasn’t right. We didn’t see any fighting.
When Hulk waves his fist and five thugs fly off-panel head first, we don’t really see what happened. We get the comic book rush and understand the story. But it’s not like looking at a real fight.
These comics, Master of Kung Fu, Richard Dragon, Iron Fist, purportedly about martial arts, had very little. Only Denny O’Neil, who created Richard Dragon, understood something of the fighting arts. I wanted to show martial arts in a comic like a Jackie Chan film. I wanted to see the techniques unfold so that we understand how Shang-Chi ends up on his back. Comics are no competition to film. Film has many advantages including sound, controlling the pace, and choreographers who understand that the audience wants to see the kung fu. Those magnificent, highly choreographed fights you see in Enter the Dragon, Drunken Master, or Ip Man aren’t realistic, in the sense that the brawl in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is. But they are masterful action entertainment and you know you are seeing real kung fu, even if every move is carefully choreographed. Jackie Chan routinely shot scenes hundreds of times to get one perfect take. Comics only need to draw it correctly from panel to panel.
Comics have one big advantage. They can legitimize story material that would be laughed off any sound stage. You will believe a man can fly.
I was working at an insurance agency when one day I got a call from a friend who was an editor at an “alternative” newspaper that erupted due to a union dispute. “There’s some guy down here trying to sell us his drawings,” he said, “and he draws just like you.”
I met Steve Rude on the steps of the Student Union. Until then, I’d been trying to draw. I met the Dude on summer afternoon, he opened his portfolio there on the veranda, and I stopped drawing. Once Capital City picked up Nexus, I proposed a comic about a Druid wizard, cuz that’s what Jeff Butler wanted to draw. Milton Griepp said, “Give us a costumed crime-fighter.”
Why would anyone put on a costume and fight crime? They’d have to be crazy. Thus was Badger born, and the forum in which to showcase martial arts. I urge anyone wishing to understand what I mean to get Badger #9, “Hot August Night,” and look at the fight scene between Badger and Cobra Crisp. Using some photo ref, as well as my childish drawings, Bill Reinhold nailed it. I choreographed every fight scene, usually by drawing it out by hand.
I wrote Kato for Now, first with Brent Anderson, then with Val Mayerik. Val is an accomplished martial artist as well as one of the finest painters of his generation. Go to www.valmayerik.com. We took pains with Bruce Lee to make the fights not just realistic, but in keeping with The Little Dragon’s philosophy.
Q-Ball popped into my head. A stick fighting pool hustler. Some people say, “If he’s Q-Ball, why isn’t he bald?” Wait. Q-Ball is on a journey of discovery. We have big surprises and epic fights.
The friends you meet in martial arts are true friends. Www.karatewestinc.com