By the time the nineteenth speaker took the stage at the Will Eisner Memorial, most of the people in attendance were punchy, fidgeting in their seats and looking at their watches, trying to figure out a polite, inconspicuous way to exit the service. I think Byron Preiss, the publishing mogul, was the first to go. Byron was already conspicuous as one of the few cats not too proud to wear a real, bona fide suit?the rest of the ensemble had lurched in wearing the traditional uniforms of comics professionals, meaning jeans or slacks with mismatched vests, but with at least one obligatory black accoutrement in honor of the austere occasion. Earlier, as we walked down the side street and approached the Orensanz Center, Harlan had turned to me, his bright red sweater blazing like a sun going nova, and said, “Do you think I’m overdressed?” Following Byron’s lead, Frank Miller and his wife did the East Street shuffle and slipped out the back, then another and another disappeared, as clandestine as possible, whilst new speakers continued queuing up for the microphone. It was starting to look like Shea Stadium in the bottom of the eighth.
I abandoned my seat next to Jim Salicrup and Terry Nantier, who was daydreaming about his new company’s Nancy Drew launch, and headed for the men’s room just off the main auditorium. I did my business, then spent six minutes trying to figure out how to unlock the stall door?the antediluvian knob had frozen and I had visions of spending the next 24 hours with nothing to entertain myself beyond rapid flushing. I imagined being trapped until the janitor discovered me the next morning, crazy with hunger and a backache from sleeping on a toilet seat when suddenly my fumbling caused the lock to break and I escaped.
I’d nearly forgotten where I was until I stepped back into the cool, dim, candle-lit synagogue, but I took my entrapment in the loo as a sign from above (after all, this was a synagogue) and escaped once and for all into the streets of New York’s Lower East Side. It was a pleasant surprise to find Harlan standing on the front steps.
“Had enough?” I asked him.
“Jeezus Peezus,” he said, gazing back at the building. “Some people really like the sound of their own voice.”
“Thirsty?” I asked.
“No. But I’ll go with you.”
We headed down the sidewalk and around the corner to a Spanish bodega. Inside, I headed to the back and grabbed an orange juice, feeling a need for an immediate sugar fix as my glucose level dipped to dry stick. Harlan looked at the magazine rack.
“You read this?” he asked. He was holding a copy of The Week.
I shook my head.
“You should,” he said. “Terrific magazine. I read it every week.”
On the way back to the center, we chatted about the changing landscape of the city, but my mind kept racing back to the purpose that had drawn all of us together in the first place. Seemingly out of nowhere, I turned to Harlan and asked, “Do you want someone to say Kaddish for you when you’re gone?”
Harlan kept walking and a half smile took hold. I didn’t see him do it but I’ve been around him long enough to know what brings that wry look. “If it would make the person feel better,” he said.
His expression was contagious, and I didn’t say anything else for a while?just kept walking and taking in the sights. But a moment later, he added, “I said Kaddish for my father.”
I was surprised. “You did?”
“Yes. I stood in the corner every day with my head down. Yisgadal v’yiskadash sh’may raboh,” he recited from memory.
We walked a little further, not saying anything, listening to the sounds of the city?kids playing, garbage trucks, taxi horns off in the distance. Then he spoke again.
“It couldn’t hurt,” he said.
After the service, some of us stood around inside the center. I had the pleasure of meeting the superlative, sublime artist Arthur Suydam and his lovely wife.
“You’re younger than I expected,” I said to Art.
“I keep him young,” said the wife.
Art was all smile and strong handshake, a real man’s man. I no longer recall what I had expected him to look like?his physical presence and aura were huge enough to disperse any imagined image like so much smoke.
“Have you signed this yet?” Peter David asked me. He held out a huge print of a drawing Will Eisner had made portraying himself being drawn by The Spirit. Pete had somehow been volunteered to collect signatures and the piece was to be auctioned off with the proceeds donated to The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund or the American Cancer Society or somewhere else. I signed the piece then passed it to Nick Barrucci of Dynamic Forces, who was standing just to my left. Nick signed it, too.
“Ah, you signed over Will’s signature,” said Peter.
Nick examined his own scrawl.
“Where I come from,” I said to Nick, “that means your gang just declared war on Will’s gang.” This meant it was time to swap business cards.
Someone grabbed my arm from behind and I turned around.
“I want you to meet my pal, Shrimpo,” said Harlan, pulling me away. He led me to the tallest man in the room?perhaps the tallest man I’ve ever seen in person who wasn’t wearing a jersey and holding a basketball. Harlan introduced me to Mike Richardson, founder and president of Dark Horse Comics, a very pleasant man in a very serious black suit. Richardson remains, in my opinion, one of the most important members of the comics community, successfully moving comics properties into high-quality films like a skillful magician whose hand never leaves his wrist. In a relatively short period of time, Dark Horse has accomplished what no other third-place comics company?not Valiant, not Image?could do. They’ve become profitable and respectable at the same time. I was enjoying my little chat with Mike when the most important of all interruptions cut through all conversations like an echo in the Grand Canyon.
“Is anybody hungry?” asked Paul Levitz.
This meant it was time for the Second Avenue Deli. DC was buying us lunch.
As we headed for the door, Susan Ellison asked me what the balconies in the synagogue were for. I told her that, traditionally, men and women sit separately at Jewish religious services.
“Are the women considered dirty?” she asked in that very British accent.
“No,” I said. “Just distracting. The point is to keep your mind on the service.”
“So the men shouldn’t stare at the women’s boobs,” said Susan.
“Yes,” I said. “I distinctly remember learning as a boy that during the ceremony, thou shalt not stare at boobs.”
[To be continued?]
© 2004, Clifford Meth