Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bhob Stewart

In today’s Reaper Report, Thriller Guy is saddened by the death of Allen Appel’s great friend, Bhob Stewart. TG will let Appel tell us about Bhob.

There are plenty of nice obits about Bhob on the Internet. He died a month or so ago. Here’s one in Comics Journal that gives some particulars of his life.

Bhob spelled his name with the included H to differentiate his name from several other Bob Stewarts who were also in the comic book industry.

Fun Fact to Know and Tell: Bhob invented the term "Underground Comics."

I have known Bhob for 45 years and would say that he had a profound impression on my writing, something I’ll get to later. I met him around 1968. I was friends with his brother Joe Stewart, who was a writer. A bunch of us lived around Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, and hung out in the Circle and at the local dive bar, the Admiral Ben Bow. There was a gang of us, all interested in Art with a capital A. Two of the gang were putting out magazines, Joe was doing one called Mind Fuck and Bill Garrison, another long-time pal and writing mentor, was putting out one called The Circle. As you can imagine, Joe’s title made it difficult to get his magazine into traditional bookstores, but he stuck with it. His brother, Bhob, lived in New York and was in contact with a lot of comics people, notably R. Crumb, and was responsible for getting Joe some very cool graphics for Mind Fuck. Joe proposed a trip to New York to visit Bhob. Someone found a car that ran, and we drove up.

We arrived at Bhob’s many-story walkup in the West Village. It was night and Bhob welcomed us in, but he was working on a comic strip so we sat around and watched him and another guy doing their thing. Bhob had dark, Byronic good looks (see picture) with a mellow baritone voice. He was the artist for the strip. The other guy, I don’t remember his name, was the writer. He sat at a desk with a portable typewriter, and Bhob sat near him at a drawing table working on a large sheet of drawing paper laid out in squares. They had their backs to each other. The writer would type, saying the words he was typing out loud as he typed them. They were working on some sort of fantasy story that featured a Conan the Barbarian type guy with a sword. As he would type/tell the story, Bhob would sketch the scene being read as the guy read it. I had never seen anything like this in my life. I knew people who could draw, but not draw like this. To order. Fast. The scene would just come alive on the drawing paper as it was being written. I was stunned. It was the coolest act of creation that I had ever witnessed. We hung around awhile, but it was clear that these two would be at it for hours so we left. There really wasn’t room for all of us, (three or four, I can’t remember now) to sit except on the floor. It was a classic crappy New York apartment. Later Bhob told me one of the problems living there was the cockroaches kept eating the paint off the plastic cells they used when they were doing animation. I don’t remember much else from that night, we must have slept somewhere; I have no idea where.

Soon after that Bhob became involved in putting together the first of the real comics-as-fine-art shows ever attempted. This was at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art (no longer in existence) and was curated by the great Walter Hopps. So Bhob was in town a lot; we all
Walter Hopps
hung out and he and I became friends. Bhob was a great storyteller and over many shitty beers at the Ben Bow, and over many fine years to come, Bhob told me many stories of his life. I argued long and loud in an attempt to get him to write them down, but he mostly resisted. There are a few stories on his wonderful blog, Potrzeibe, but most of them are destined to be lost now, as I can’t remember the details well enough to record them. It’s a shame, because they were wonderful, terrifying and beautiful, often at the same time.

Bhob was from the south, Texas and other places. The family moved a lot. His father was an alcoholic who sold things, maybe farm equipment, but had trouble holding jobs. He flew fighter jets in the Korean War, and the way I understood it never really fit in anywhere after that. He could be violent and abusive and when drinking he was real trouble for Bhob, Joe, and Bhob’s mother. You could just imagine the sort of kid Bhob was just from the stories. I’m sure he was way smart then, too smart for the dirt poor south. He didn’t fit in and if the local kids weren’t throwing him off the roof of a garage they were tormenting him in other gothic ways. He never complained, though, when he told these stories. They were matter-of-fact and all the more powerful for being so. He rode around town on his bike, and when he was older he rode around town on a motor scooter. He wrote a sort of newspaper for his high school until he got in trouble for making fun of a local businessman and they made him stop printing and distributing it. There was a dog, that as I remember the father took away and shot because of some infraction. Like I said, Southern Gothic.

In his mid teens he hatched a scheme to get out of the south. In the 1950s there was a TV show called Pantomime Quiz  based on the game of Charades, which I remember watching as a kid. If you could stump the celebrities for two or three minutes with an original charade riddle, you could win a free trip to New York. Bhob figured he would win the trip and when he got to New York he would just disappear and never go home again. It was a good plan. At the time, there was a huge popular hit song, Come On-a My House, Come On-a, Come On-a, sung by Rosemary Clooney. It was sung in a fake Italian accent. One of the categories on the Pantamime Quiz was joke song titles. Bhob’s title take off of Come On-a My House was, Song of the Lovesick Geisha Girl: Kimona My House, Kimona, Kimona. When the show informed him they were using his gag, he thought he was a sure winner. Unfortunately, the night they used it, one of the celebrities was this goofy Japanese lady who had a small amount of fame because she was goofy. She was a frequent guest on the Jack Paar show. That night she was wearing a kimono. It took all of eleven seconds for the panel to guess the title. They sent Bhob a huge box of breakfast cereal as a consolation prize. He had to get a bit older and go off to college and graduate before he escaped to New York.

He and I worked on many projects together, some successful, most not. Over the years he taught me how to write. I wrote my first book that would go on to be published, Time After Time, in the early eighties. After I finished a first draft, I asked Bhob if he would take a look at it. I sent him a copy of my typewritten manuscript (that’s how we rolled back in the olden days, Little Ones). A couple of weeks later it came back in the mail. I opened the package, and I was shocked. Every page was covered in blood-red ink as Bhob slashed through almost every line I wrote. And made merciless fun of me in the process. I would write something stupid like, “His mouth curved into a smile.” And Bhob would run a line through it and write, “What else would he smile with? His ear? Change it to, ‘He smiled.’” Line after line, page after page, dripping with blood. I rewrote the whole book and took every suggestion he made, wincing with every sarcastic comment. Here’s just a bit of what I learned: If someone knows better than you, take their advice. Even if I didn’t agree with his suggested change, I knew that just because he had remarked on a line or word meant that I should rewrite it some way, if not his way. And I learned to develop a very thick skin when it came to my literary abilities, which were pretty much zero. After every rewrite Bhob went through it again, and there were seven re-writes. The last time the manuscript came back in the mail it was pretty damn clean and there were very few jokes made at my expense.

Bhob did this for me for every book in my Pastmaster series. There are five books in the series. The last book, In Time of War, is dedicated to Bhob. For the first three books I had no money to pay him, and he never asked for any. After I started getting better advances I would send him what I could afford. He cashed the checks, but never mentioned them. There was a time, when I was in the middle of the series, where I would lay awake at night worrying about Bhob’s health. It seemed to me (he was an incredibly heavy smoker) that if he died I would never write another book. Or I would never publish another book. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it without him. Eventually I did write other books without having him do his editing thing. I felt like it was such an imposition, that it was asking so much of his time and labor, that I couldn’t ask. I already owed him more than I could ever repay. But I think they would have been better books if he had.

As time went on and I was publishing without his help, I decided to pay it forward, or whatever that ridiculous phrase is, by doing the same thing for other writers that he did for me. And so for years I have line edited my friend’s books (as they have done mine) for free. Now I do it for others, only I charge for the service. Unfortunately, when someone is paying you it doesn’t seem right to make fun of them while you’re editing, but I still think it’s good training for writers. As regular readers of this blog know, Thriller Guy cannot stand writers who think they are capital W Writers. Bhob taught me it’s a job, and the important thing is the story. Story, story, story.

I said Bhob was a smoker, This is how much he smoked. He and I had gone to a conference together in Montreal. We were sharing a room. In the middle of the first night I woke up and Bhob was sitting in a chair across the room, in the dark, smoking a cigarette. He told me that his need for nicotine was so great he had to get up two times a night to smoke so he could go back to sleep. The last years of his life were not kind to him. His lungs were shot, and he was a semi invalid. Then it got worse and he had to live in a nursing home. For several years while he was in the home we Skyped a couple of times a week, or more. The only thing I ever heard him complain about was how someone kept stealing his tuna submarine sandwiches out of the communal refrigerator. Bhob loved tuna fish subs, above all other foods.

Bhob died two days after the last time we Skyped. We had our usual conversation; me asking him for help with my latest book. I’m writing a sixth volume in the Pastmaster series and have been wrestling with plot problems, structure, characters and ideas. Just like everyone does when they’re writing a novel. And Bhob was firing off title suggestions and plot twists, just like he always did. He was particularly passionate about the theoretical underpinnings (it’s a time travel series) and we were tossing back and forth the possibilities of using a multiverse explanation and synchronicity, which was one of Bhob’s favorite theories. Then he lay back in his bed and asked me to tell him the story of the book. So I started, and for a half an hour I told him the story. He didn’t say a word. I thought he might fall asleep, but he didn’t. When I finished, he thanked me, said it sounded like it was going to be terrific and that he was tired, so we hung up. Later, I realized that I think that was the first time I ever told Bhob a story, at least a story of any length. It was always the other way around. And it felt very good that he approved of it.

I don’t know where Bhob is now. I never heard him say if he had any views of the afterlife. But wherever it is, I hope for three things. One, they serve tuna subs, and two, he can breath again, and three, that he’s happy and his lips are curved into a great big smile.

RIP, Bhob Stewart.

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