First off, let’s get the moniker straight. A number of you have written to ask what my name is. Even Jason Brice, comics-webzine-and-storage-media guru, popped the question when I began writing Past Masters: “Is Meth your real name?” This wouldn’t come up if it weren’t sick out there, and getting sicker. Witness: Last November, when I was in California for the big fire (don’t ask), I opted for a one-day jaunt into Tijuana. I crossed the Mexican boarder effortlessly?just parked the car and dropped six pesos for a bus. But returning to San Gringo was a mule of another color. The lines were long, and then the border guards were right in my face. One of them?a crew-cut Aryan j.d. legitimized by a badge?painstakingly examined my passport, then bored into my baby blues with his baby pinks.
“And what kind of name is Meth?” asked this holstered thug, the ridiculous drug-implications dripping from the word.
“Dutch,” I said. “by way of Botswana.”
The geographically deprived dunderhead squinted at me. “Bluh?” he asked.
I looked over my shoulder, then leaned towards him and said, in a hushed tone, “It used to be Methadrine, but we shortened it when we arrived at Ellis Island. Thought it might throw off cognitively challenged Checkpoint Charlies.” Which cost me 45 minutes of detainment whilst they searched my clothes because no one likes a cutesy smart-ass.
Anyway, the name really is Meth, and it’s Yiddish or Polish or Galicianish, not Dutch. We trace it back to the mid-1800s when peasant farmers, like my progenitors, were compelled to assume surnames in lieu of Son of So-and-So. Meth (spelled mem-eyin-tes-hey and pronounced mate) was a type of honey wine indigenous to the region. Sort of says something about my ancestors.
What’s all this have to do with comics, you ask? Be patient, my friends. Indulge the writer? We were talking about names, as in a rose by any other?
The story of surnames dates back nearly 5,000 years. For those of you uneducated in onomastics, allow me to enlighten: The first folks to acquire surnames were the Chinese. Legend has it that the Emperor Fushi decreed the use of family names about 2852 B.C., or 4856 B.P.C. (Before The Passion of the Christ). Chinese customarily have three names. The surname is placed first and comes from one of the 438 words in the sacred Chinese poem Po-Chia-Hsing. The family name is followed by a generation name taken from a poem of 30 characters adopted by each family. Fortunately, Alan Ginsberg’s poetry was scrawled four millennium after this odd custom or the expression would not be “more chins than a Chinese phone book,” but rather “more buttocks.”
Early Romans had only one name but later changed to three. The given name stood first and was called a praenomen. This was followed by the nomen (designating the clan), while the last name?the cognomen?designated the family. Some Romans added a fourth name, the agnomen, to commemorate an illustrious action, or remarkable event. As in George Walker Bush GayMarriageEmbolus.
And this is relevant to comics because what? Ah, you jump ahead, again. The race is not always to the Swiftian. Back to our lesson:
While the early Middle Ages found people referred to by a single given name, the custom of adding another name gradually helped distinguish individuality. Distinct traits became commonly used as a part of this practice. For instance, the place of birth: St. Francis of Assisi. Or Lambert Le Tort, an old French poet whose name means Lambert the Nisted; or use of the father’s name, ala Leif Ericsson. Applied today, Eli Katz would not have become Gil Kane, but rather Eli the Rhinoplasted.
By the 12th century, use of a second name became so widespread that it was considered vulgar not to have one. And while vulgarity may not have concerned vulgarian Image artists such as Joe Cry-For-Food, the eventual outcome was a striking of the trait-laden surname and acceptance of the modern practice of surname heredity, leaving us with the frightful possibility of Joe Cry-For-Food, Jr.
Inherited surnames sprang from Venetian aristocracy in Italy in about the 11th Century. Crusaders returning from the Holy Land they’d just defiled noted this custom and spread its use throughout Europe. By the 1370s the word surname was found in documents, and had come to acquire both emotive and dynastic significance.
Comics, you say? Patience, I say.
Six hundred years ago, family names gained in popularity in Poland and Russia. But Turkey waited until 1933, when the government forced the practice on its people. In nearly every case, surnames were first used by the nobility and wealthy landowners, and the practice then trickled down to the merchants and commoners.
Sometime during the 1960s (fear not?Mark Evanier will correct me in his column if I’m off by a week or two), the rise of androgyny?masquerading as liberalism, feminism, and other isms?gave way to a new phenomena in the naming convention: the hyphenated surname. This practice allowed female Americans, who were still referred to as women during those dark ages of pre-menstrual enlightenment, to maintain a link to their original birth surnames. Of course, it wasn’t long before certain men of public renown fell under the hypnotic allure of these dark times, and it was thus that, in 1971, Sir John Winston Lennon of Liverpool was re-christened John Ono-Lennon.
And then the sickness spread. And then it spread to comics.
Witness: In 1976, at the age of 15, I met the aspiring artist William Francis Loebs, Jr. at the Waldorf in New York City, the scene of the very first MarvelCon (Marvel Comics’ attempt to usurp the convention monopoly from conventioneer Phil Seuling). William and I were introduced by mutual friend Bill-Dale Marcinko, a big-name fan editor of some repute, best remembered for inserting raisins into his fanzine AFTA. Anyway, William and I continued to correspond and oft times collaborated on projects: He designed a character I’d created, Captain Power; did a strip with me called “The Streets” about a mute monster-hero who walked around looking for muggers to maul; William even offered to illustrate some of my terribly serious poetry. I still recall coming home from school and opening that package of new illustrations?my poems illuminated like a sacred manuscript?only to find page after page of Barks-type ducks. I knew right away that the man was a pervert. Ducks, for chrisakes!
But the withering of Loebs’ intestinal resolve, whatever that means, revealed itself on the day of the artist’s nuptials, the day he married Nadine. The day he became?it pains me to even say it?William Messner-hyphen-Loebs. The shame! The outrage!
Nevertheless, we forgive friend William his hyphen for, indeed, it is the only fault we have found with him lo these 28 years of creative camaraderie. In three decades of friendship with Bill (he said affectionately, switching to the diminutive), his art and writing (yes, he writes, too!) have been flawless. He learned great things from his teachers?among them, Will Eisner?and brought his inimitable style to many a fine book, such as the acclaimed Journey series, which began as a back-up story in Cerebus (Aardvark-Vanaheim) in 1982, and then came unto its own with a move to Fantagraphics. The series won an Inkpot award and deserved no less.
Bill’s first pro work appeared in 1977 in several titles from the tiny, Canadian indy company, Power Comics. Not surprisingly, the Power folks freaked when they discovered Bill’s brief (six-minute) association with my own Captain Power. Scandal! But it was just as well?he was on to bigger and better, moving from Aardvark to Fantagraphics, as noted, and eventually coming to rest at Piranha Press with his series Epicurus the Sage (the coffee-table version of which is now available from Wildstorm).
Bill’s work continued to pop up here and there, notably with Comico (the first 32 issues of Johnny Quest) and eventually with DC’s Impact imprint on Jaguar. But the big break?and his most impressive work?came with the four- and three-year stints on Flash and Wonder Woman, respectively. Although it’s a foolish oversight, DC has not yet collected these phenomenal runs, unlike Bill’s run on The Maxx with Sam Keith, which was graphic novelized by Image.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of anthologizing two of Loebs’ short stories in Aardwolf Publishing’s collections Strange Kaddish and Stranger Kaddish. Soon, I’ll have the increased pleasure of editing Bill again when Aardwolf debuts Joshua Y’ar, his first novel. The release date hasn’t been announced yet, but it will be worth waiting for. And if you can’t wait, go out and grab the Journey compilations Tall Tales and Bad Weather, which are still in print.
Loebs is an original. So original, in fact, that Joe Rubenstein used to grab him at conventions and hold him up for all to see while proclaiming, “This is what a mid-western Jew looks like.”
Today, as Mel Gibson’s “Jesus Chainsaw Massacre” debuts, that little statement would’ve gotten both stoned.
Clifford Meth is the author of the forthcoming god’s 15 minutes from Aardwolf Publishing. It’s a good book. You should have it. It’s a 252-page tour de force that features a cover by Michael Kaluta along with art by Joe Kubert, George Perez, Dave Cockrum, Marie Severin, Mike Ploog, Joe Sinnott, Gene Colan, Gray Morrow and other comic-art legends; as well as introductions by Harlan Ellison, Robert Bloch, Al Feldstein, Steve Gerber, and Roy Thomas.
That’s not enough? Okay, try this: The book comes with a full Money-Back Guarantee. Buy it, read it, and if you don’t love it, return it for a full refund.