Friday, 3 October 2014

Weekly Update #51: John Balge (1954 - 2014)

Lots going on with the restoration of HIGH SOCIETY, plans for restoring CHURCH & STATE I, The CEREBUS ARCHIVE NUMBER TWO Kickstarter campaign ($17K and counting!). However there do come occasions when "today's news" has to take a back seat.  And this is one of them.

4 May 1954 to 24 September 2014

It was pronounced "Bal-jay".  

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of John and the work we did together on his COMIC ART NEWS & REVIEWS (1972-1975) is the trips to conventions with all of us piled into a rented or borrowed van with Harry Kremer of Now & Then Books and forty or fifty boxes of comics (long boxes didn't exist back then:  they were just BOXES).  The Detroit Triple Fan Fair in 1973 where I interviewed Mike Kaluta, Barry Windsor-Smith and Russ Heath.  John and I shared a room.  Walt (POGO) Kelly died that weekend which felt terrifically significant in some way:  seeing that on the TV news in our room while we were at a convention dedicated to comics.  It seemed like we were at last breaking through to the real world.  A Buffalo convention where Russ Heath gave me his edited interview and where he doodled his "Boogers" cartoons we persuaded him to let us publish.  Cosmicon in Toronto where I interviewed Bernie Wrightson and was brushed off by Vaughn Bode for an interview.  Harvey Kurtzman's talk at York University.  John and I were always there together.  Waiting patiently behind a student reporter as Kurtzman answered a bunch of very prosaic "civilian" questions at some length.  By the time I got to him, he was "interviewed out" and answered with very terse one-sentence answers.  I tried going off on a tangent on one of his answers and he very emphatically leaned over and tapped my sheet of questions.  So I dutifully just read off the questions one at a time.  Strange things I remember:  "Where are the dancing girls?" which Russ Heath had added to the conclusion of his interview.  Watching Russ on the local Buffalo TV news in his room.  He had done a drawing on-camera and then turned it around -- and you could see him do a "take" and look down at his shirt.  "I thought I had hit my shirt with the marker," he said, glancing down again in the same way.  Ordering dinner in the Hilton restaurant when I was interviewing Barry Windsor-Smith, while he and Mike Kaluta did their $200 For An Hour Of Their Time drawings for Harry Kremer (who had won them in a benefit auction) ("Okay, I'm crazy," he said, not for the first time) (I inveigled Harry to make the BWS interview part of the package).  Linda Lessman, Barry's girlfriend at the time ordering her hamburger "rare" and Barry intoning to the waitress "Just warm it between your hands" by way of clarification.

John was there for all of those, to me, Major Events in my life.

The other thing I think of when I think of John is the justified margins.  Here in the computer age, you just "click on" the alignment icon that indicates squared off lines (as I've done for this piece, in John's honour) and away you go.  Back in the typewriter age, if you couldn't afford typesetting -- which John couldn't at first -- the only way to achieve squared off lines (like these) was to do a first draft of your text, setting the margins you wanted on the typewriter and then to stop typing short of the end of the line.  And then type as many "x's" as it took to reach the right margin.  Then type the next line.  And as many "x's" as it took to reach the right margin.  THEN, on the second "go round", you would have the first draft of the text next to you and you would count the number of "x's" at the end of the line and insert a space for each "x" in that line.  And that's how you would get justified margins like this.


I "burned with the temptation of the damned" for an electric typewriter like John had.  Mine was an old upright manual my father hadn't gotten from Hahn Brass way back when when they switched to electric typewriters.  

The headline type wasn't any easier.  That was done with Letraset.  The individual letters on a sheet of plastic.  And you would measure where you wanted the headline to go and draw a line in light blue pencil.  Then you aligned the individual letter where you wanted it to go and using a "burnishing tool" rubbed the surface of the plastic over the letter which would transfer the letter onto your finished page.  Then you put a sheet of blue insulation paper over the letter and rubbed over it with a blunt edge, like the side of the burnishing tool.  Then you did the next letter.  And then the next letter. The letters themselves were made of microscopically thin plastic so, like as not, they would stick to the carrier film and tear or fold or stick and then you'd have to scrape them off with a knife or pull them up with scotch tape and do the letter over.  OR try to patch them with a felt tip.  Which would then take a good twenty minutes to dry because if was on plastic.  

It's worth remembering when you look at the scans of COMIC ART NEWS & REVIEWS that Tim will be running here over the next few weeks, to mark John Balge's passing.  That's how EVERYTHING was done on CANAR.

Of course, later on, John ran across Dumont Press Graphix, a local socialist collective (John, at the time, was a Trotskyite) which did typesetting and other pre-press work pretty much at cost if your politics were correct and at a higher cost if your politics weren't correct.  There we worked on some of the earliest typesetting machines, where you would type your text onto a paper spool that had perforations, much like brail, each perforation telling the computer which letter in which font to print out. The computer itself took up most of a 9x12 room.   

I could spend this whole piece describing just how primitive it was, but for us, futuristic.  Computers. We were actually working on computers to do a fanzine!

I learned a lot of self-discipline from John.  I had a tendency to just throw things together (I put together most of CANAR No.1, myself. Originally, John was just going to pay the printing bill and do a regular column called "The Red Beaver") (he was a Trotskyite, remember).  I knew I would never be AS painstaking as he was.  Lately -- forty years later -- I've been getting closer.  But, it was a revelation how much greater pride you could take in something you had worked on if you took more time and care with it.  

"Where has CANAR been all my life?" Harvey Kurtzman wondered in a letter after I had interviewed him at York University (which was very sweet gratification on my part after getting short shrift from him) and we had devoted most of an issue to him.  That was the kind of thing that really kept us going.  Comics professionals who looked forward to getting the latest issue and who appreciated being asked interesting questions.  I was a big fan of the PLAYBOY interview and definitely wanted to apply that sensibility to the comics field.  That was my painstaking end of things. Interviewing as many professionals as possible at a convention and then transcribing the tape, line by line and phrase by phrase and then taking it over to John's place on Admiral Road where he would turn it into meticulously justified type.  Studying to be a professional comics artist, but I didn't know, at the time, that's what I was doing.

It was Dan Graham who called and left a message yesterday that he had found John dead in bed a week ago today.  

John and I had definitely drifted apart shortly after CANAR came to an end.  He and Dan went to all the Rangers games, Friday nights at the Aud, and John hadn't turned up for the Rangers' second game of the season.  From what Dan said, John had died sometime Wednesday.  It's one of those things that you think about when you live alone and no one would really...miss you...for a period of time.  John was lucky, in that sense, to have a season ticker holder seat-mate who would notice his absence (and to whom, significantly, he had given a duplicate set of keys). 

In my own case, I think it would be a lot longer than two days.  Pete Coka -- to whom Gerhard dedicated one of the trade paperbacks -- was actually mummified when he was found.  

It happens, I gather, a lot more often than you would think.  

"You and me and John were the only ones there when Harry Kremer's (the founder of Now & Then Books, from 1971 to 2002 one of the longest lasting comic book stores in existence) ashes were interred," I reminded Dan.  "Now there's just you and me."  Life is full of such sobering thoughts.  

Dan knew John's family -- five brothers and two sisters.  Our phone conversation was, literally, the first I knew of them.  I had only known his younger brother, David, whom I had met at the K-W Book Exchange, Kitchener's pre-Now & Then Books comic-book hangout.  It was David who introduced me to John.  I thought there was just the two of them.  The Admiral Road house was tiny.  

There's no big surprise in my not knowing about John's family. It's the way I've always been and, I'm pretty sure, the way I always will be.  It's about the work.  I work on different things with different people.  But, it's about the work.  That was what John and I talked about.  We talked about comics, but as comics applied to COMIC ART NEWS & REVIEWS.  What were we going to do in the next issue? I doubt he knew that I had a sister. I couldn't picture a context where it would come up. 

He gradually wrote less and less and I wrote more and more and I never asked him why. I'm not big on "Why" questions with the people I work with.

We visited Al Hewetson in St. Catharines where he was editing the Skywald Horror-Mood line for an interview in NOW & THEN TIMES No.2.  Through Al, we connected with a freelance writer he had recently hired who was in Gananoque (it was pretty weird thinking that this line of New York City magazines was being edited in St. Catharines and part of it written in "The Gateway to the Thousand Islands) Augustine Funnell and through Gus found out that we needed to contact his roommate, a guy named Gene Day who, according to Gus, was doing a lot of what we were doing.  

John had been paying me to do art for CANAR.  Not much.  $10 or so.  There wasn't a lot of money. It was a real labour of love paid for by John's full-time job at Spae-Naur (very anachronistically, John worked at Spae-Naur all his life).  CANAR was where I was first published regularly and professionally starting with an untitled one pager in No.4.  John started buying more work from Gene Day and I can't say as I could blame him when you look at what I was drawing and what Gene was drawing at the time. For Gene it was just one of a long list of markets he relied on for $10 here, $8 there. 

There came a point where I had to get more serious about the career in comics I hoped to have:  that I didn't see working on a fanzine as fitting in.  The more often I went to visit Gene Day, the more sure I became of that.  By 1975, John decided to pack it in.  

As I wrote yesterday to David Balge when I dropped off a disk with all 32 issues on it...

[one of those "eternal regret" things: I had had it on my list of things to do to burn a disk for John and mail it him -- he didn't have any of the issues himself and The Cerebus Archive has only the one set -- but for that I needed a postal code for his Ellen Street address.  I didn't know him well enough at this point to just go over and ring the buzzer.  But I needed to make a mental note to look up his postal code when I was at the post office -- which is now just every other Friday.  And I'd never remember.  I was actually thinking of a way to remind myself for next Friday's trip...]

"We only had one serious conversation about CANAR, back in 2009 or so when I was starting to publish CEREBUS ARCHIVE.  I asked if he was interested in doing a book collection of the material and he made that wry face he used to make when something was well off his radar screen.  So, I dropped that but then pointed out that, in my opinion, we owe a debt to the historical record.  With CANAR being completely unavailable, a lot of information that was only published in there is lost to comics historians (of which there are many now).  I offered as an alternative, Print On Demand (which I was then using to publish CEREBUS ARCHIVE).  A single book and any time anyone purchased a copy, John would make a small amount of money (I didn't and don't want anything for myself).  He allowed of that possibility: "If someone REALLY wants all that stuff..." (the way he said it indicated that he thought that EXTREMELY unlikely) "...yes, fine, I have no problem with them having a place to get it.  But that's all it should be.  No solicitation through Diamond or a big glossy hardcover or anything like that."  

So, that's where it sits right now.  When ComiXpress folded, that was the end of my contact with the world of Print on Demand.  It will be up to the family as to what happens with CANAR, but, pretty clearly, those were John's "last wishes" on the subject.

I can't say that I KNEW John at all well except for that 1972 to 1975 period.  And, as I've indicated, I only knew him as "the guy who did CANAR".  As soon as we weren't doing CANAR, I'd only see him occasionally at Now & Then Books.  He collected Montreal Canadiens hockey cards for a while, I remember and he had a collection of Canadian Whites -- the wartime Canadian comic books.  I don't know if he still had them or if he still added to the collection or thought about it.  

Dan said, going through John's filing cabinet, he found a file with Harry Kremer's name on it and inside, the very top sheet, was John's eulogy that he read at Harry's funeral -- headlined "Harry Kremer The Legend" -- in 2002.  

"I just lost it, at that point," Dan said. 

I almost did myself when he told me.


Anonymous said...

I would love to see those issues of CANAR collected.


Jeff Seiler said...

As ever, Dave, very classy. You are a faithful "friend".

Eddie said...

My condolences to John's family and friends. I'm sorry for their loss ( as well as yours Dave, knowing how important a role he played early on in your career, even before it was a career).

I too would be interested in reading those issues of CANAR. Especially after hearing all the hard work and devotion that went into producing them.

Dan Graham said...

Dave, Thank you so much for coming to the Memorial Service yesterday. I'm sorry we didn't get a chance to talk but we will catch up with a coffee after the election. I learned a lot from your post, as I didn't meet John until 1974 and we never talked about CARAR other than I knew he did it and you helped him with it. Yes, at Harry's grave it was just the three of us, and now only two. We lost a good one, but he didn't suffer and he lived life on his terms for 60 years. Thank you again for taking the time to write this wonderful tribute to John.
2 out 3
Dan Graham

CerebusTV said...

"..the K-W Book Exchange, Kitchener's pre-Now & Then Books comic-book hangout."

There was even more at the Regina Street Book Exchange, a K-W *basement* comic book hangout, though strictly speaking in the twin city of Waterloo. You'd enter through a basement door which rang a bell, whereupon someone would come down the basement stairs to make sure you didn't stuff any comic books down your pants.

CerebusTV said...

It appears that 40 years later, the "Moody Blues Book Cafe" is at the same Regina Street North address as the old Regina Book Exchange. Is it still in the basement?!?

Anonymous said...

So sad to hear of this, Dave and I can see by what you write that John was a a real human being. You gave me a DVD with all the issues of CANAR on it last year to try to get it to John. It was impossible to get a hold of him. He apparently had become quite reclusive, but when I visited Waterloo, Andy of Carry on Comics said that he visited periodically and that I could leave the DVD with him and he would pass it on to John the next time he was in. I do hope that this happened and that John got to see all those great issues again last year.

Ivan Kocmarek

Bud Plant said...

I enjoyed this tribute, Dave. I was just reading Ivan's latest blog about the Canadian Whites and he led readers here. Canar rings just the faintest of bells...i wish I could say I was handling it back in the day, along with other 'zines and comix, but not sure without some digging.
Gene Day was such a talent, seeing his early work would add to the interest for a collection...though your own would also be the bigger draw. The many interviews sound like fun. Perhaps you could blog one or more of the best ones. Like Jackie Estrada's new book of photos from 1970s San Diego Comic-Cons, its fascinating to see and read of the pros in those very earliest days of growing recognition of their work.
Bud Plant

Unknown said...

Of course, I'm reading this 8 years later but this was a fascinating read to me.

As a kid, I knew John as the guy my dad would give a ride home, to and from Spaenaur. He was always very nice. I only knew him as the guy who worked with my dad, and the guy who had a messy collection of vinyl records - several of which he made cassette copies for my mom.

One of the strange memories I have of him is where he lived. I can't remember the street, but I remember it was an apartment that had these long, twisty stairs that lead to the ground. I always worried that he would fall during Winter.

My dad was pretty sad when he found out about his death. I always was curious about John's personal life, as he was single and as far as I knew as a kid, didn't have a girlfriend. Which as I became a teenager, I thought he was gay. The things we kids think about.

Learning he was influential with Canadian comic books is really cool.