Comic Art Friday: Off the cliff

In last week’s Comic Art Friday post, I noted several theme commission collectors whose galleries continue to inspire my own efforts. With today’s featured artwork, I’m reaching back to one of the first theme collections of which I ever took serious notice.

Tesla Strong, pencils, inks, and markers by comics artist Phil Noto

Walt Parrish is revered in comic art collecting circles as “The Cliff Guy.” As you look at Phil Noto‘s drawing of Tesla Strong (daughter of Tom Strong, hero of Alan Moore and Chris Sprouse’s eponymous series for America’s Best Comics), which moved from Walt’s collection to mine about three years ago, you can appreciate where the nickname came from. Walt’s theme was “comics characters on a cliff.” That’s it — simple, elegant, evocative. His online galleries once held hundreds of artworks, from rough sketches to elaborately finished pieces, built around that concept.

Artists always seemed particularly inspired by the “Cliffs” theme, perhaps because it challenged them to come up with some unique way to depict a character on a cliff. So they played around with perspectives, angles, and poses. Characters stood on cliffs, fell off cliffs, dangled from cliffs, or even looked up at cliffs. Quite a number of the “Cliffs” drawings were intensely dramatic. Almost as many were humorous. All were unique.

About three years ago, Walt sold a large portion of his art collection. At the same time, he took down all the images from his “The Cliff Guy” website. His remaining galleries at Comic Art Fans, last updated in December 2010, showcase a smattering of pieces marked as “Art I Used to Have.” I don’t know whether Walt stopped collecting altogether, or if he merely decided to downsize his holdings and forgo a public presence for the remainder. I certainly don’t know his reasons for doing whatever he did, and it would be unfair for me to speculate.

All I know is, I miss the Cliffs.

I’m glad to own a reminder of Walt’s terrific theme. But I have to admit — it makes me more than a trifle sad to look at it, thinking of the once-inspiring collection whence it came.

Tesla seems sad, too.

At the moment, I’m engaged in a massive project: a comprehensive inventory and catalog of my comic art collection. It’s a ton of work, but it’s also been great fun, as I reconnect “up close and personal” with every single piece of art I own. I’m forced to recall how I acquired each item — both those I’ve commissioned, and the many others I’ve purchased that existed before they came my way — and the reasons for each acquisition. I’ve rediscovered a few pieces I’d completely forgotten that I owned — today’s feature being one example. I’ve certainly encountered some that made me question my judgment at the time of purchase. For the most part, I’ve experienced profound joy at seeing these creations again, at holding the paper in my hands and admiring each pencil line, pen mark, and brush stroke. The scans you see here never reveal the complete extent of the artist’s mastery. Only when observing the physical artwork directly can you truly drink in all of the magic.

Yet, with all of the laughter and wonder I draw from this exercise, there’s a darker undercurrent. I ask myself whether the day will come when these images no longer impart any pleasure to me, and I will find myself with endless stacks of paper that afford no value, tangible or intangible. Will there come a time when my galleries lie empty, save for a sorrowful sampling of “Art I Used to Have”?

I thought I might have reached that point three years ago, when KJ died. (For the benefit of any newcomers in the crowd, my first wife — referred to herein as KJ — passed away in 2010 at the far-too-young age of 44, following a 10-year battle with breast cancer.) To say that KJ tolerated my art collection is to understate the mystery that said collection — and my obsession with it — presented for her. Never having been a comics reader, she felt neither attraction nor attachment to images of fictional characters in outlandish costumes, and never really comprehended why I felt both. She certainly distressed at times over the fiscal investment that fueled my predilection. Yet, she graciously (or at the very least, mostly silently) went along as I filled ever-increasing numbers of portfolios and frames with superheroes and superheroines, with little more than a head shake and heavy sigh.

Amid the crushing, debilitating sadness that accompanied KJ’s final months, and the aftermath of her passing, I often asked myself whether she was right.

Indeed, I contemplated at more than one juncture selling off the entire lot that would sell, and destroying the rest in a bonfire. I thought perhaps that would be a fitting tribute, given her disdain for all of it. I could not see, at times, that even I would ever find happiness in these admittedly temporal, juvenile pictures again.

But eventually, the darkness parted.

And I stepped back from the cliff.

I have always been, and fear that I always will be, an insular creature. That I have lived so much in the fields of my own imagination stems largely from childhood circumstances that I’ll sketch in the briefest terms — I grew up an adoptive child, and an only child, in a family that moved constantly (my dad was career Air Force) and loved sparingly. Always a highly intelligent (I could show you the test scores) yet socially awkward kid, my closest friends were often the characters in fantasy novels and stories I read, in science fiction films and TV shows I watched — and especially, in my omnipresent comic books.

These heroes and heroines became an essential, inextricable component of my inner self. They gave the childhood and adolescent me the power to soar, to strive, to subdue, and to survive.

I’m an infinitely more complete person as an adult. These days, I read precious little fantasy literature, even comics. (Most comics being published today aren’t being written for me, anyway.) But the images in my comic art collection are like talismans, of times when I treasured the company of superheroes. I still see my would-be self in these characters. Just as I now see my daughter in, say, Tesla Strong.

These days, I just enjoy the pictures. I feel a tickle of nostalgic happiness when I look at every drawing in my collection, especially the ones I’ve commissioned. So I guess I’ll keep looking, at least for the time being.

Sure, I know they’re just fantasy. But also I remember all the times when they kept me off the cliff.

And to some extent, they still do. Even now.

Thanks, superheroes.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

Explore posts in the same categories: Comic Art Friday, Reminiscing, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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