I sat on the bus digesting what I had learned that day. Our school was doing a fundraiser and if we sold a few thousand units of whatever it was—the actual item has escaped my memory—I could get a new bike. In hindsight, the mathematics of the situation had not entered my third-grade mind. I would have to sell 34 units per day for the next 60 days to get the bike. It would require dropping out of school and going into sales full-time. Forget the fact that there weren’t even 34 homes on Bennington Road where we lived, even if my parents were going to allow me to pursue this new career.
Arriving home, I regaled Mother with my desire to become the next Zig Ziglar and proudly displayed the brochure on the kitchen counter.
There are times in one’s life where others will poke holes in your dreams or goals. This was not one of those times. Instead, my mother rolled up in a Sherman tank and blew my dream to bits.
“We’re not buying that,” she said after I proudly asked if she would like to be my first customer.
“And you already have a bike,” she added. Using the aforementioned mathematical equation to explain the utter hopelessness of my situation, she napalmed my aspirations. I would have to sell to almost every household in the southwest quadrant of Owosso, Michigan, if I were to reach my goal. So far, not even my own mother wanted anything to do with it.
I glanced down again at the brochure, my mind grasping for some sort of lifeline. I noticed the prize for selling only three units was a short stack of comic books.
“If I sell three, then I can get some comic books,” I stammered.
“If you want a comic book, I’ll buy you a comic book,” she said, “but we’re not selling this stuff.”
And that was that. The new bike would not be in my future, but I intended to hold Mother to her promise of a comic book.
A month or so later, my father’s employment took us to West Bend, Wisconsin. I traveled with my mother to a store downtown and came across a comic book rack near the front. Remembering her promise, I perused the titles in an effort to find just the right one. Most of the names I didn’t recognize, but thanks to the television cartoon, I knew Spider-Man. There he was about to be crushed by what looked like an enormous rock on the cover of Spectacular Spider-Man #15. Artist Sal Buscema’s rendition of the webslinger was heroic, while other characters around him seemed to be unconscious. It happened to be the conclusion of the Legion of Light saga with Spiderman battling Man-Beast, Brother Power and Sister Light with the help of Razorback and Flash Thompson. All in all, it was a rather lame storyline, but I thought the art was cool.
At about this same time, my brother Eric got a small set of Illustrated Classics from the school’s book fair. One was Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles. Every turn of the page featured a small piece of line art by Pablo Marcos illustrating a part of the story. The story was terrifying and the art wasn’t much further behind. I was enthralled.
In the fourth grade, it was my privilege to sit next to Tim. Tim was not someone you wanted to cheat off of when it came to mathematics, or writing, or even tiddlywinks. But, man, could he draw. He would doodle in the morning. He would doodle in the afternoon. He shined when we went to the two art periods we had every week. He was even given the assignment to create the mural for the hallway. The rest of us were only allowed to paint within Tim’s well-crafted lines.
I don’t remember a lot of things that came from the tip of Tim’s pencil, but there was one drawing that had a profound effect on my life. Tim drew a superhero that could fly, with the area below his torso portrayed as a spinning, violent tornado. As if that wasn’t cool enough, he came equipped with a sword, but he wasn’t just carrying the sword. The hero’s right arm was missing at the elbow and the sword had replaced his forearm. The problems this might have caused with the hero being able to zip up his britches didn’t even occur to me. I was in awe of Tim’s amazing imagination.
During the following summer, I found myself with some free time on my hands and took a stab at recreating that singular drawing in the comfort of my own home. The resultant piece of artwork was embarrassing to me. I had not captured the magic of Tim’s drawing and mine appeared to be only a cheap knockoff. The idea of practicing to improve one’s talent was not even a thought and I believed myself to be a hack artist at best.
My earliest recollection of noticing storytelling in a single picture came in church one Sunday. I was probably about ten-years-old. My cousin and I had traveled to Idaho to visit my grandparents. My sweet grandmother had purchased us each a Hot Wheels car to commemorate our visit. We had hid them in our pockets for church. Sitting quietly in our pew, my cousin took my Datsun 280Z and drew a picture of it in profile. I was impressed, but he wasn’t done. The car was jumping over what appeared to be a dilapidated bridge. Still not satisfied, my cousin added cops on both sides of the bridge, a police boat in the water below, and a police helicopter overhead. Bullets filled the air. It was obvious some nefarious individual, wanted for some reckless deed, was driving the Datsun. The picture intrigued me.
In 1983, I found myself thumbing through a newspaper at the kitchen table. I had looked at the comics before, but all seemed quite boring to me. A comic strip near the bottom, however, caught my attention. The third panel was crazy and I cracked up when I read the text. Just like that, I was a fan of Bloom County. Over the years, I think I learned the most about comic pacing from the comic’s creator, Berke Breathed.
In February of 1984, we moved to Stockton, California. The experience was quite dreadful. I was a nerd, but the only two people who befriended me made me look like the star quarterback. It was video games, roleplaying or comic books with those two, day in and day out. I participated in the Dungeon & Dragons conversation periodically, but pretty much ignored the rest. On one particular day, Nerd #1 came to school excited to show Nerd #2 something he had just purchased. It seemed Spider-Man had up and changed his outfit. This had occurred in Amazing Spider-Man #252. It would be revealed later that the outfit was in fact an alien symbiote intent on taking control over the webslinger, but I remember how excited both nerds were about it. Their excitement was contagious and I looked through the issue myself.
Thankfully, we moved just down the road to Concord, California, right before my sophomore year. I was fortunate to spend my last three years of high school at a school I really enjoyed.
I was sitting in German class and started doodling in my notebook. The artwork that came from the tip of my pencil was nothing to write home about (it was of a helmet-clad individual doing a jump on a three-wheeled all-terrain-cycle). I liked the drawing enough, however, that I thought I should sign it. All famous artists had a unique signature. I needed one, too. But what signature should I use? After horsing around with a few different layouts, I ended up just going with my initials with the F and the R connected at the top. The drawing itself is long-since gone, but I find it interesting that I’ve never gotten bored with the signature. I made a couple of attempts at a redesign about ten years later, but decided I really liked it as it was. It truly became my artist’s mark. And I got a “B” in that German class.
In the summer of 1985, my Dad picked up a Readers Digest. I heard him chuckling to himself as he read. I asked what was funny and he showed me an interview with a new cartoonist named Gary Larson. There were a few examples of Mr. Larson’s work, but the one that completely cracked me up dealt with a man bringing what I took to be his pet lion onto an elevator. Now this was funny! The image was stored away in the back of my mind for later.
When I was in the fifth grade, I decided to become a lawyer. I’m still not clear as to how I came to that decision, but I had never deviated from that course. Everything changed in the fall of 1986.
Our band director, Mr. Accatino, made the comment that he always felt like he was battling tempo when it came to leading us in one particular song. An image popped into my head and I spent most of my social studies class later that day drawing the cartoon. I sat back and examined my creation. Looking at it now, one might wonder why someone would be impressed with it, but I was. I realized, however, that for a cartoon to work, the audience would have to be impressed as well. Taking my drawing to band the next day, I passed it amongst my friends in the brass and percussion sections. Their responses were positive. Mr. Accatino was not as enthusiastic in his praise, but he was only a band director after all. What could he possibly know about fine art?!
I was hooked. I drew another cartoon about the band the next week. It was not as well received, but I realized I needed to expand my topics. The Rim of Humor was born. In retrospect, I believe my friends were very kind in their positive reviews of my work, which helped my confidence level. Our band trip to Washington D.C. in the spring of 1987 solidified my new career choice. The Smithsonian Institute had set up a huge display dedicated to the Far Side cartoons. I thought perhaps my artwork would someday hang on these very same walls.
I was accepted to Brigham Young University and started attending classes in the fall of 1987. I read the campus newspaper daily. For the first time, I thought about doing an editorial cartoon. I created my first editorial cartoon and took it to the editor. He was probably about six years older than me. He looked at my cartoon and made some suggestions for some possible future work. He would not be running this particular one, however. He was very pleasant but he had rejected my work. But he was only a newspaper editor after all. What could he possibly know about fine art?!
Even though I would not be submitting any more cartoons to BYU’s newspaper, I was undeterred in my goal. I found myself skipping class and drawing in the library. It was also in October of 1987 that I noticed a strange feeling in one of my testicles (how’s THAT for a segue?!). I didn’t see a doctor. I was having way too much fun at college and had no desire to ruin it. My sister had leukemia and had suffered through numerous rounds of chemotherapy. The thought occurred to me that what I was going through would have a similar outcome, but I would wait until after the school year to face it.
Needless to say, the summer of 1988 stunk. Four sessions of chemotherapy, two surgeries and a great team of doctors at Children’s Hospital & Research Center in Oakland, California, fixed the problem, but I was drained. Cartoon ideas continued to spring up in my mind that summer, but the topic of testicular cancer doesn’t usually resonate with the public at large, so none of them hit the page.
My dad’s job moved us yet again, this time to Indiana. We were stuck in a hotel for a month while our house was being finished. My siblings went off to school and I found myself with time on my hands. I picked up a sketchbook and started getting images down on paper again.
I went to work as a floor employee for Big Wheel—a department store like Walmart before Walmart knocked them out of the business—in Goshen, Indiana. With employment came a paycheck. In 1989, I wandered into The Bookworm, a used bookstore in Elkhart, Indiana. They had tables set up with boxes and boxes of old comic books. I had never seen anything like it before. On the wall rack were the new releases of Spiderman, Superman and Batman. I remembered Amazing Spider-Man #252 and wondered what had changed since the last time I read an issue. In the rack was Amazing Spider-Man #321. The cover was eye-catching. I opened it up and was captivated by the images I saw. Spider-Man was always in a cool pose. His webs were everywhere and they actually looked like webs—well at least as realistic looking as I thought webs would be if proportionate to the size of a man. The artist was Todd McFarlane. I bought the issue.
I purchased #322 the following week. I also realized that the boxes on the tables could possibly be holding even more secret treasures. I spent well over an hour leafing through them. I came across Amazing Spider-Man #254, drawn by Rick Leonardi. While not as overly stylized as McFarlane’s work, Leonardi’s art had a fluidity to it that I found compelling. A family friend suggested I also look at the comic Punisher War Journal. It was drawn by Jim Lee. I recognized that Mr. Lee had talent. I added the Punisher to my list of monthly titles. I picked up a copy of New Mutants #90. Rob Liefeld’s art was quirky and the story was interesting. One other artist whose work inspired my own in those early, heady days of collecting was Mike Mignola. I found a mini-series by him titled Cosmic Odyssey. His artwork seemed simple, but it was beautiful in its austerity.
I left on a church mission in August of 1990. The mission served as perfect fodder for my cartoons and I started to add them to my letters home. My father submitted one to a church magazine, The New Era. They purchased it for $35. It was exciting. I was now a “professional” cartoonist. The cartoon, however, was never used in print. On the bright side, my cartoons did start to make appearances in the mission’s newsletter from 1990-1992.
I returned home, got married and started working for a cabinet factory in Goshen, Indiana. My wife worked for a health club and I spent my evenings working on a portfolio to send to Marvel, DC, Image and any other comic book company I could think of. The rejection letters came back in droves. It was quite disappointing. But they were only comic book companies after all. What could they possibly know about fine art?!
Our first child was born, my wife was given a management position at her place of employment, and my father decided he wanted a divorce. All of these things led me to ponder my position at the factory. I decided I didn’t want to be there anymore. I answered an employment ad at the Elkhart Truth, the local newspaper, for a part-time advertising photographer position. The manager thought I was overqualified, but I convinced her to give me the job. It was 15 hours a week at minimum wage (yes, I’m married to a saint). I worked hard to prove and promote myself and within three months, it became a full-time position. I became acquainted with the staff in the newsroom and looked around for an opportunity to draw something … anything.