One boomer’s appreciation of a real outsider

This is nice: one baby boomer paying tribute to another. Poet and editor R. W. Watkins, from Newfoundland, Canada, appreciates the work of a boomer who didn’t even start his craft until he was in his sixties. And now, he is indefatigable, regardless of the odds.

The past two decades have not been kind to cartoonists, which were a mainstay for us as baby boomers when we were kids.

The demand for comic strips has dropped as the demand for newspapers has dropped, the remaining syndicate dailies becoming smaller and smaller as papers shrink in size. Similarly, so-called “comic books” have never fully recovered from the collapse of the misguided speculators’ market in the mid 1990s; the surviving companies had to compete with the internet and an invigorated ‘gaming’ culture in the wake of bankruptcy and cancelled titles.

R. W. Watkins

Now, just staying afloat is a daunting task for many a cartoonist in the midst of the upheaval and detrimental change. And the only thing even tougher than staying afloat in the industry is breaking into the business in the first place. Finding a home for a new strip or magazine series can be next to impossible — especially if the aspiring cartoonist is 63 years of age.

I first encountered the comics work of Bill Harvey in 2011, shortly after launching my latest ongoing side project: a Google website known as The Comics Decoder. The idea was to present analytical articles written by those who are well-versed in comics history and dynamics, but primarily from arts and disciplines beyond the mainstream of comics criticism. To augment the articles, I decided to devote a large chunk of each issue’s landing page to a ‘Funnies’ section, consisting of strips and single-panel cartoons by ‘alternative’ or ‘underground’ comics artists. I don’t remember exactly how and where I stumbled upon him, but somehow I convinced Bill Harvey to contribute three examples of his new single-panel creation, The ODDS, to the sophomore issue.

The ODDS focusses on Tad and Elmira Odd, a geriatric husband and wife duo who find themselves in the most absurdly precarious of situations that contemporary society has to offer. Imagine a married heterosexual Odd Couple as drawn by Jack Kirby and written by Gary Larsen. At its best, the strip serves as a window into a stage of existence which is all too familiar, and can be simultaneously touching and hilarious without ever being exploitative.

Of course, like Frank and Ernest before them, the two characters also function like cut-out paper dolls, adopting different guises in various alternative realities. Tad in particular often finds himself living some extraordinary lives in the most bizarre of parallel worlds.

Born into this world himself in 1954 near Detroit, Harvey discovered Marvel comic books around age six and knew immediately what he wanted to do in life. The bold and dynamic style of the aforementioned Jack Kirby was particularly influential upon the budding young artist, and by the time he was 16 and had purchased a drawing board, he was completely committed to grasping and mastering ‘King’ Kirby’s techniques. He continued to hone his skills into adulthood, attending John Buscema’s Workshop For Comic Book Art in the process. Along the way, he worked in retail and earned certification in electronics, leading to a job building and testing mainframes for IBM. When the company moved him to their manufacturing hub in upstate New York, the drawing board went with him.

Six years later, he left IBM to return to Michigan, finding sporadic work as a contractor for various technical service providers. His evenings and weekends continued to be spent at the art table, plotting and drawing the Kirbyesque sci-fi superhero tale that would come to comprise DangerWorld #1, the black-and-white comic book Harvey independently produced in 2007. Adequate distribution sadly eluded the magazine, and any further issues were subsequently deemed unfeasible. By this time, however, Harvey’s interests at the board were shifting, and he would soon set his eye on doing a single-panel humor strip. It was while considering the odds of finding success in that field that he landed on the comic’s title.

The ODDs now appear regularly on at least two other websites besides my own, with Todd and Elmira continuing to comment deftly on everything from dubious technology to the 2016 presidential election. But true success comes only from a deal with one of the syndication companies. “I’ve been sending them samples for years,” says Harvey, “but I’ve heard nothing affirmative back yet. Maybe it will happen. I’d like to think so.”

Harvey remains positive, but he hasn’t lost touch with reality. “One practices one’s craft which builds up one’s body of work, which can help boost confidence and maintain optimism. On the other hand, I am 63, without regular work, and haven’t a day towards a retirement pension. The economy’s still in a tough place. Perhaps we need humor these days more than ever.”

So, one presumes, it’s back to the ol’ drawing board for Harvey.

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2 Comments

  1. Thank you, RW Watkins. I will add “The Odds” to the short list (exactly two) of comics I regularly search out. I will recommend the others to you; Mark Parisi’s “Off the Mark” and “XKCD” by Randall Munroe.

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