Behind The Zipper Club – Crafting A Symbol

I realize I’ve been a little more lax on my posts this week, but I’ve been working very hard on research and straightening out information for all of the posts I’ll be throwing up in the coming week as I dive into the events surrounding my second cardiac surgery. The one that turned my life around and has kept me going ever since. Today, after a couple days of conversation with my Zipper Club collaborator, Brenda López, I wanted to share a little something cool we’ve been cooking up on the road to getting the book into everyone’s hands by October/November.

A comic called The Zipper Club has gotten me a fair share of confused looks and cock-eyed stares when I mentioned the fact that it was for kids. People hear a term like “Zipper Club” and apparently their minds go immediately to images of BDSM and squeezing into leather gimp suits. When I tell them the book is for kids, I’ve gotten a couple of audible gasps and menacing glares. With my sense of humor and some of the awful directions in which it leans, initially, I guess that’s a fair judgement for those who know me, (My previous blog entry’s illustration had a pretty horrible gag playing off of a classic Jim Steranko illustrated Incredible Hulk cover, fergodsakes) but some of the clearly judgmental reactions I’ve gotten on occasion have hit me like a punch in the gut.

So, in the interests of keeping the weirdo crowd AND the uptight crowd from getting in an uproar, I figured we would need a plain and simple little piece of iconography to go right there on the cover of our book that will sell people on the title and the good and wholesome messages that Brenda and I are trying our best to convey. The icon idea came to me a lot easier than the cover image did when Brenda and I were knocking our heads together, trying to come up with just the right thing.

It came to me one sleepless night while lying awake in bed. So, I drew it out in a way that only A Badly Drawn Boy could do and came up with this…

That’s the idea, plain and simple. I’ve seen a couple different motifs on the “Zipper Heart” in the last little while, but every one of them I’ve seen so far was the romantic, “Valentine” version of the heart, which is all well, good, and cute, but this book is about the human heart, the strongest muscle in the human body. The point that we want to put across with The Zipper Club is about finding strength, no matter how weak or inferior we feel. To me, that cutesy little of fluff image just didn’t seem to cut the mustard for what we sorely needed.

After finishing the piece, and in the interest of uniformity, and because Brenda is clearly the owner of the more skilled set of hands in our dynamic duo, I passed my design idea onto her, to get her take on it and this was her initial response, nailing it right on the first try.

And for good measure, she shot me a colored version as well…

The colors came out great as well, but we got to thinking that maybe it would look better in a more naturalistic set of tones with a bit more variety to the colors and shades. With that in mind, Brenda’s second attempt knocked it out of the park!

I’m so in love with what Brenda did here, that we’re looking into the idea of putting together Zipper Club related merchandise centered around the design. We’ll start small with t-shirts, but I’m thinking it would be pretty cool to come up with Zipper Heart shaped backpacks and purses and so forth. (That’ll be a ways away, unless some kind soul wants to hit the “Donate” button over there and give us a little cash injection. 😉 ) I’m even thinking very strongly about getting a slightly altered version tattooed under my left collarbone in the not-too-distant. (Sorry, mom.)

Hope you guys dig this little peek into our ongoing artistic process. Brenda and I are having an absolute blast bringing this book around the bend towards home plate. We hope everyone who has and will order a copy will enjoy it as much, and ultimately “get” what we’re trying to say with The Zipper Club. I’m already in the process of writing next year’s annual which will pay off a number of the things that we’re setting up in year one.

The Weight Of A Story

The process of researching my past that’s gone into The Long Odds has provided me a measure of catharsis. In the last month, I’ve spent time researching the whereabouts of my own grave, contacting the doctor who first diagnosed my heart defect (who thought I might have died years ago) , and getting all sorts of emails from old friends I hadn’t heard from in years when that Courier Journal article hit. It’s come to put into perspective the weight of my personal story, which is something I’ve been telling so often over the last 26 years of my life that the story had just become words to me. Something that I would tell people who were just getting to know me, or telling to government officials that I might be talking to on behalf of the American Heart Association. You know how a powerful word or set of words can lose it’s meaning upon too many repetitions?  That’s how my story had begun to feel to me, and for a guy who’s been working to become a career storyteller, that’s not the best thing in the world. The experience of writing all of it out has begun to bring back the power and gravity of everything that I’ve always known, but I guess, somewhat forgotten.

I started learning the importance and the weight that a story can hold at the age of four years old, when my mother, who was desperate to find some way to save my young life and only had a matter of years to do so, began working for the AHA as a volunteer and advocate. She used to be a very nervous public speaker until she began getting out there on the stump on my behalf.  Slowly, after a number of times with telling my story to crowds of people through a stream of tears, she became more confident in the story she told and the power of what she’d had to say. Not long after that, with my mom’s permission, began using me as their poster child for CHD research. I thought it was pretty cool, even if I only had a limited understanding of what exactly was going on.

Now that I’m spending time in my old hometown for a little while, I went to our storage locker a few blocks away from my brother’s apartment to go through some of my old things and see if I could find any old things that could be used to enrich what I’m doing here and I found a whole box full of old AHA campaign fliers from over 20 years ago which centered on my mom and myself. I brought a couple home and scanned them to share here.

What was interesting about finding a huge box full of these cards and fliers was how four year old me, in the world full of medical uncertainty I was born into, and then to see it juxtaposed against the image and words of this flier from four years later…

(The learning to ride a bicycle part? Never really took to that. Still can’t stay balanced on one of those damn things, no matter how I try.)

My time with AHA has continued and increased in the time since both of these pieces were printed. After spending my years growing up letting my mom tell her version of our story and ultimately being the champion of everything that got me where I am today. I got my sense of never giving up from her, no question. I couldn’t be more grateful for the lessons that she, and by extension my work for the AHA has afforded me. In the years since I started out as a poster child for AHA, I’ve gone on trips with them to Washington DC on numerous occasions where I have spoken to members of US Senate, Congress, as well as loads of other government officials on heart related issues for the states of Kentucky and Connecticut where I have held residence. Last year, I actually helped get a law signed in Connecticut that made Pulse Oxymetry screenings mandatory for all newborns in the state. All of that happened on the back of stories like my own and the stories of parents like my mother who spoke on behalf of their small children who would likely have passed away if not for Pulse Ox screenings.

I’m here to tell stories. Whether they are works of slice-of-life fiction like Love Buzz and The Zipper Club, biographical stuff like The Long Odds, or some of the more floaty, weird shit that I’ve been pitching lately with my agent (More on that soon, hopefully).

That my friends, is the importance of story. Everybody has one. Some of us might think they’re more boring or uneventful than others, but I don’t buy that. Unless you’ve lived tied to a chair in a dark room all your life, you have to have done something interesting with your life. Sure, life is boring about 95% of the time. I spend the majority of my time sitting on my ass in front of a computer screen all day. It’s that other 5% of the time that gives us something to talk about. You have to have the awareness to spot the “stories” in your life when they unfold.

Odds are, you’re more interesting than you might think.

A Little Piece Of Land In Georgia

      Soon after receiving the news of my health situation and rushing me to the specialists at Egleston Hospital (Now known as CHOA) in Atlanta, Georgia, my parents and I reunited for a brief matter of minutes before the decision was made to fast-tracked into a surgical suite. There, I underwent a heart catheterization which showed them the sizable hole in the wall between my two ventricles. At the time, major surgery on newborns was a mostly unheard of idea, so instead, they chose to perform a more temporary measure that commonly helped to buy children a bit more time. The procedure  that involved a small incision just below my left breast and the placement of a surgical grade rubber band around the  in my heart to keep more fluid from escaping than necessary. The hole between my ventricles was big enough that the rush of  blood that was escaping was going fast and with enough force between the two chambers that it could potentially cause a lot of damage if it were to be left to run unchecked.  The entire procedure was never meant to be any sort of remedy to the situation so much as a prophylactic measure to hopefully buy me some chance at a slightly extended future.  The idea was that hopefully with this band, I would live several more years until A) medical science advanced enough to tell doctors how to fix this problem and B) my body had matured and developed enough to withstand the type of surgery that would have entailed.

My stay at Egleston lasted for about six weeks. They performed the surgery when I was 2 days old and afterwards they kept me all that extra time to monitor my medications. I had a lot of trouble with eating at the time and ended up losing two pounds in all my time in the hospital. I went from being the biggest baby in the nursery where I was born to losing a solid 2 pounds in just my first few days. It got to the point that they began adding a special formula to the milk they fed me to give me some extra calories. My entire family remained on pins and needles for the first couple of weeks of my stay. Eventually, my dad ended up needing to go back to work while my mom stayed on maternity leave and my Grandmothers from both sides, Grandmother Foster and Grandmom Ward stayed with my mother and I at the hospital the entire time.

My parents had told me sugar-coated versions of all these facts and stories as I grew up, because I was a curious child who always knew I was different from other kids and wanted to know why.  I knew I had a heart problem and I knew that one day I would need to have another surgery to fix the problem. We just didn’t really talk much about what could happen if I didn’t get the surgery or how dire my situation had been. It’s part of why, despite my particularly extreme circumstances, I feel like I had a relatively happy childhood. I wasn’t abused, I didn’t live in poverty, (although there were some rough times in our later years, but that’s a story for another time) and I never felt unloved in those early years. Even when friction began to build in my parent’s marriage, they managed to keep my brother and I insulated from it.

As a teenager, well beyond the years of my getting through the second surgery and seeing a marked improvement in my health and well-being, I started asking more questions of my parents, who had long since divorced and become more apt to sharing some of the more darkened details of the circumstances of my formative years.  The biggest revelation I had revealed to me was that my grandmother and grandfather, who had bought a cemetery plot for themselves at Brooks Cemetary in Brooks, Georgia, had sent my Aunt Kathy, one of their older daughters out of the hospital on the day they heard the news about my defect diagnosis to buy a small piece of space for my remains to go, in the seemingly very likely event that I passed in the days that followed.  Since my grandparents have passed, we haven’t been able to find record of whether or not that space of land is still sitting there in my name. For all we know it’s been sold off a long time ago and is occupied by some other departed soul. One thing remains for sure, the idea of having a grave site waiting for you practically all of your life can have a, shall we say, dramatic effect on a young man as he grows forward into adulthood.

A Badly Drawn Boy Presents: The Sunday Sketch Dump (Vol. 1)

Something I figured I’d do since I’m pretty much making it up as I go along with this blog was the idea that, since I’m technically a professional artist ever since The Zipper Club crowd funded and actually made money off of me offering to do sketches, I’d end up posting some of the ones I did on commission, but for one reason or another, couldn’t throw up on the site for because they didn’t have any sort of place or context to be used here on the blog. Instead of letting these sketches only be enjoyed or ridiculed by the people who paid for them, I figured I’d do a round-up at the end of the week to show off the kind of goofy stuff I kicked out that was unrelated to The Long Odds.

This week, I have three.

First up…

Let it be said that as jaded as I’ve become and as little as I read mainstream superhero books anymore, I’m always going to have a soft spot for Batman. The campy, Adam West version of Batman to be precise. I love that a character that’s been tied to such bleak outlooks and darkness can also be such a bastion of insane fun and wackiness. When Brett Schenker, curator of the online comic site, Graphic Policy asked for his Zipper Club donor perk sketch to be of Batman and the Joker, the idea for what to draw came to me almost immediately. The idea of crossing over the zaniness of the former TV show with some of the bleakness of some of The Man Of Bat’s more modern story lines was too good to pass up.

They’ve currently resurrected the campy TV version of Batman in digital comic form, written by Jeff Parker and illustrated by Jonathan Case. Needless to say, this made my inner fanboy very happy and just putting it out there, if Mr. Case’s hand ever get’s tired, I’d like a little consideration if you guys need a fill-in artist. 😉

Second up, another TZC award perk, this one to comic pin-up and cover artist Joe Pekar, who asked me to do my interpretation of his cheesecake “Good girl” character, Brandi Bare. After reading a couple of Joe’s books, the idea came to me to have Brandi finally wising up to the pervy machinations of her stuffed teddy bear backpack, Bear, and his constant schemes to put his owner in compromising positions like stepping over a grate to have her skirt blown up Marilyn Monroe style. Getting asked to draw a character that I don’t own, by the actual person who does own it was pretty cool, and Joe seems pretty pleased with the job I did, (or at least was kind enough to humor me).

And finally, this one isn’t exactly a commission, but I’ll put it out there for anyone who might want to work something out in the off chance they want to purchase it. My obsession for the last five years with the AMC TV series Breaking Bad will be coming to an end starting next month when the final season begins to air, and I did this while watching an episode the other night. Can’t wait to see how things are going to end for Walt, Jesse, and the rest of the gang, although I’m sure it probably won’t end well for any of them.

Welcome to The Zipper Club

One project you’ll be hearing no shortage of updates on in the coming months is my upcoming all-ages graphic novella series, The Zipper Club with artist Brenda Liz López. The Zipper Club is half the reason I started The Long Odds blogging project after the success of our Zipper Club IndieGoGo campaign provoked an increased interest in my own, personal story with heart disease.

Not long after Love Buzz‘ debut, I was approached by Andrew Goletz, the founder of Grayhaven Comics, who liked what Michelle, Dave, Tom, and myself did so much that he asked if I had any ideas for the new all-ages anthology series they wanted to put together called The Gathering. After spending several days racking my brain for ideas and coming up with a couple of rather uninspired concepts about imaginary friends and mystical adventures that I wasn’t absolutely in love with, I started getting emails about the upcoming yearly gathering of Camp Bravehearts back in my old Kentucky home. After a little bit of wistful reminiscing, I realized that I had my next great story idea.

The story of The Zipper Club, inspired by my own journey growing up with heart disease, as well as my 12 years of experience as a counselor for a congenital heart defect summer camp called Camp Bravehearts inspired me to write a comic book about the kind of kids I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know in all that time.

At age 8, Cliffy Goldfarb was the recipient of an emergency heart
transplant. At age 9, Cliffy is now struggling to cope with the
limitations his still recovering body is undergoing, and the fact that
because of this, he has trouble relating to his peers. When his mom
suggests spending his summer at Camp Bravehearts, a place for kids
living with heart defects like his own, he has some trepidations about
going this camp for “special” kids, but soon learns his worries were
all over nothing when he meets a young girl named Rosie who introduces
him to a group of new friends who encourage him by showing off their
surgical scars to one another and inducting Cliffy into The Zipper
Club.

Over the next year, Brenda and I produced a series of six separate short stories, following the different themes given to us by each subsequent issue of The Gathering‘s editors (Despair, Heroes, Romance, a two part Ghost story in subsequent horror issues, and Myth) and managed to make each theme hit the right note to tell it’s own story while still building on the continuing saga of our kids and their first summer together at Camp Bravehearts. The goal being that when read all together, the shorts would come together to read as one complete story of five kids forming a unique bond over the course of one week at summer camp. The story within the first Zipper Club book is only the beginning, too. Should it become popular enough, Brenda and I have plans to do 4 more books on a yearly basis, telling the story of the five kids, one year later in their lives and development from the ages of 8 years old to 13 by the time we’re done. Our goal is to make each annual book into something akin to the same experience of coming back to summer camp to see the smiling faces of your old friends again and see how their lives have developed. I’m currently wrist deep in scripting next years annual as Brenda finishes up art on the book for year one.

You can pre-order copies of The Zipper Club in The Long Odds’ store on bigcartel.com for just seven dollars. The book will hold 54 pages of content, including 40 pages of fully colored Zipper Club story, as well as several pages of fun back matter, such as games, puzzles, pin-up art, and so forth, all in a digest sized, prestige format package. I’m also working hard on a way to sell copies in bulk for interested retailers and more importantly, children’s hospitals and pediatric cardiac care clinics all over the nation. If anyone reading this is interested in a bulk buy, please shoot me a line through the Contact page  and we’ll see what can be worked out.

We hope everyone enjoys reading it as much as we’ve enjoyed making it.

PRE-ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE ZIPPER CLUB NOW!

DON’T FORGET TO LIKE THE ZIPPER CLUB ON FACEBOOK, TOO!

A Badly Drawn Boy

When I tell people I work in comics, the first question they ask if I’m an illustrator. In all the years since I have started, I concocted a stock answer to this question, which I have used hundreds of times ever since.

“I just write them. I can’t draw to save my life.”

This is a semi-untruth. If someone were to come and put a gun to my head and say “Draw me a sad clown eating a bowl of cereal with the milk of his own tears or I’ll pull the trigger”, I’d put a pencil to paper and draw the least anatomically correct, flat looking, and undetailed clown possible, but I’d at least try and make it funny looking enough to keep my gray matter off of the downwind wall.  I would think it would be enough to save my life because if a gunman had sense of humor enough to tell me to draw a clown eating cereal lubed with its own tears, their sense of humor was in my wheelhouse. Clearly, if I thought I absolutely couldn’t draw, I wouldn’t be centering this blog around some of the goofy crap my brain cooks up and scrawls out regularly. I may never be good enough or have the patience enough to figure out how to professionally draw a comic on my own, but maybe I’ll take that plunge some day. I’ve learned not to say “no” to almost any possibility, and in the last year, I’ve begun to take that notion to further and further extremes. My confidence in my artwork has never been huge, and even these days, it’s only slightly bigger than “never been huge”.

As a kid, drawing was something I really loved to do. My time spent in and out of hospitals made me an avid comic book reader, and I always envied the guys who got to draw them.  The iconic characters, the vivid settings, the outlandish storytelling, the crazy action that the special effects of even the best of the 1980’s flicks just weren’t able to touch. All of it! That crap was better than candy to me, and I wished I could do it as well as the guys who were paid what I thought were “the big bucks” for bringing these epic stories to life. I wanted to be one of them, really badly.

My wonderful mother was nice enough to encourage, or perhaps just humor me in this endeavor. She was there stocking me to the gills with art supplies, a few cartooning lessons, and an unwavering level of support which has run strong through every other “pie in the sky” dream I’ve had ever since. Slowly, I began to hone my skills as an artist in ways that only a boy with hands so rickety that they could screw up a straight line even with the assistance of a ruler could do. I went on for a couple of years drawing crude story books and comics until I found myself under the tutelage of a rather draconian at art teacher when I reached middle school. A typical day in class would sound something like this.

“What are you drawing, Ward?”

“A picture of my dog, Michelangelo playing laser tag!”

“Your form is all wrong!”

“B-but…”

“No! It must be done like this!”

Obviously, I’m dramatizing a bit, but you get the picture. When you’re young and you are told you’re doing it wrong pretty much every time, you can become easily discouraged. I put away my pencils and shoved that dream into a drawer next to my dream of being made an honorary Ninja Turtle and moved on to wanting to be a baseball player despite being too terrified to swing at a damn ball.

In the years that followed, I would make sporadic attempts at picking up the pencil again. In an ill-advised move, I very nearly considered drawing the entirety of my first published graphic novel , Love Buzz, all by myself. Thankfully, I realized what a horrendous idea that would’ve been and I went about seeking out artists who could do the job properly. That’s how I ended up finding Michelle and Dave for the task.

Simply put, I stopped caring. I embraced the fact that my art is nowhere near professional, but that my hands and my warped brain can sometimes communicate to come up with something so silly that people can’t help but laugh, no matter how bad it looks. I even got the wild urge to try and include a personally drawn sketch with our Zipper Club crowd funding campaign and it turned out to be one of the most popular items we sold. What’s more, it now technically makes me a “professional artist”. I chuckle to myself every time I hear the words leaving my mouth, but it’s true. I’m even thinking of including hand-drawn sketches in The Long Odds store as well as offering t-shirts of some of my more far-out drawings.

Sure, the anatomy is wonked all to hell, the coloring style is pretty strictly flat, and I still can’t draw a straight line if you had a gun to my head, but something about what I’m doing amuses people, and I’m done ignoring that. I’ve learned that if you embrace your weak points just like you would your strong ones, you’ll live a lot less stressful a life. It becomes one less thing that someone else can use as ammunition against you to make you feel small.

I had written myself off as an “artist” due to all of those experiences over the years. Fortunately, I discovered my knack for writing and telling stories as a teenager and began pursuing it with the same stubborn sense of tenacity that kept me from going crazy as a sick kid and angsty teenager. That became my creative outlet, while the art became something I had written off for a long time. Fortunately, I’m thankful for the half-joking idea I had that made me offer my own sketches through our Zipper Club IGG campaign, and even more thankful for the number of people who were awesome enough to plunk down money to actually buy some. I can’t promise the work you’ll buy will be Norman Rockwell, or even Rob Liefield, but I can promise it’ll at least elicit a light chuckle. If you’re going to do something badly, at very least, do it with style. You might have some fun in the process.

BETTING THE LONG ODDS – An Introduction

These are the words of a boy who should have died.

I’ve come to be known as a great many things across the span of my thirty year life. Comic book writer, outgoing heart health advocate, internet malcontent, real life malcontent, “that weird kid from high school who showed up dressed as a Catholic schoolgirl that time”, or even “Who the hell are you?” The odds are that if you’re reading this right now, you probably know me as any one of the things on that list. We all come to be defined by our deeds or attributes as our lives progress. It’s something that just can’t be helped because we simply can’t “get to know” everyone, so we often have to label them with our own snap judgments. Above all of these and any other words that might define me; the one label that I truly feel has defined me throughout my entire lifespan thus far is a single word.

Survivor.

I was born in 1982 with a congenital heart problem known as an endocardio cushion defect with a hypoplastic left ventricle, a congenital birth defect so rare that if you Google it, my name is pops up in literally every result. Until recently, children born with the defect were sent out of the hospital with their parents with it going unnoticed until the infant would die mere days later. Doctors have told my family that to their knowledge, I’m the oldest living survivor of my condition. This is due in part to the fact that not long after I was born, medical science advanced so much that my specific condition became identifiable and even treatable in utero.  However, when I was born, the prognosis for children with my defect was so bad that none survived. If not for a keen-eared doctor, I would have ended up as one of those statistics.

For many years, my health problem was something I didn’t like talking about, not because I was timid or ashamed of it, but because it  had become something I would have to talk about so much that the impact of my experiences didn’t hold the same weight for me anymore. They had just become words to recite to doctors at routine physicals or to politicians I was trying to advocate on behalf of the American Heart Association. With the recent success of crowd funding my latest comic book project, The Zipper Club with artist Brenda Lopez, I began to realize again the level of weight that my personal story continues to carry.  Just as I would like for The Zipper Club to become a handbook for teaching children how to deal with adversity in the face of health problems, I began to realize I had so many more stories to tell on the subject.  It helped to reconnect me with the power of a personal story.

Any way you slice it, writing any form of autobiographical work typically involves at least one or two degrees of a self-serving delusion of grandeur. Anyone who writes one of these things and tries to tell you otherwise is a lying goon, but I digress. I intend to try and keep this as low to the ground as possible and insert my own weird brand of humor and insight in an effort to break up some of the more tense entries. What I can promise is that this will not be a grueling, constant slog through my own personal sense of morbidity.  Though it will delve into a fair share of morbid topics from time to time, the central idea of The Long Odds, more than anything, is celebration of life from a guy with the odd perspective of being written off for dead several times before he got a chance to truly start living.

I’m a writer. Statistically speaking, we’re not the sunniest bunch of people who ever lived.  Like most who choose to pursue this as a profession, I deal with your standard depressions, anxieties, and the occasional feelings of inadequacy, but then again, who doesn’t? Unlike most stereotypes that follow writers, I’m not a drug addict, I only drink socially, have never smoked a cigarette in my life, and I’ve never entertained a serious suicidal thought.  My condition no longer requires my having to take any form of medication and hasn’t caused me a single problem since I was eight years old.  I exercise regularly and am working hard to expand the limits of what my body and my heart can take. I’m physically healthier than I’ve ever been, and I’m ready to see what life plans to throw in my path next.

What will follow in the weeks, months, maybe even years ahead will be an uncompromising introspective into the large and small facets of my life as it’s been, as it goes, and what I hope it can become as the seconds on the meter of my borrowed time continue to tick upward.  As unflinchingly honest as I and my admittedly spotty memory can recall (the rest, I’ll either find through research or will either come right out and say it may or may not be slight to total bullshit).

I’ve failed more times than I’ve succeeded at a great many things, but if being written off while lying in hospital beds throughout my formative years with stitches in my chest and tubes coming out of various parts of my body have taught me one thing, it’s that no matter how bleak an outlook gets, there’s no excuse to give up. My hope is that people reading this, no matter what their walk of life, whether suffering from health problems, or just chasing a dream that most of their family and friends shrug off as a fool’s errand,  that my words will speak to at least one of them on an intimate level and help encourage them to keep fighting until they’ve spent their last ounce of strength and then getting in one more punch for good measure.

When that “worst case scenario” hits, when somebody tells you that anything you want to do is impossible, even when the only person stubborn enough to believe in you is you,

Take the bet and roll the dice.

The win’s always bigger when you’re playing the long odds.