First off, a very Happy Independence Day to you all (well, those of you here in America), so play safe with those explosives and have great time.  You may have noticed the new font on the comics; as I announced last week, I’ve abandoned the old Comic Sans in favor of a nice new typeface, courtesy of Blambot.  Let me know what you think (especially if, for some unholy reason, you can’t read the words!).

Now then, on to another story I have to tell: this one is actually kind of serious, so hug a pillow (or, if necessary, a loved one) and read on.

My contacts with industry professionals has always been rather sparse, but I have had the honor of knowing a few very talented pro artists in my time.  One such artist was a man named Phil Frank.

Phil was the creator, writer and artist of the comic strip Travels with Farley (known later as simply Farley).  After many years of publishing his strip nationwide, Phil pulled Farley out of syndication in favor of publishing it exclusively in San Francisco’s newspaper The Chronicle (reducing the lag-time between creating comics and seeing them in print from several months to just a few days) simply because he loved the Bay Area, its happenings and especially its people.  In this regard, Phil is something of a precursor to webcartoonists, having had the blessing of nearly automatic reader reaction and being able to comment on current events while they were still fresh in mind.

I met Phil through a college professor and had the honor of visiting him a few times a year at his studio in Sausalito for several years.  Phil was always kind and soft-spoken, a complete contrast to his big, bizarre-looking guest (who, at the time, was still going through something of a punk rock phase, weird hair and all); we would go to lunch and talk about comics and the industry and whatever else came to mind.  Phil was generous with giving information and advice (and a couple of pieces of original art!); I’ve met several older artists who feel threatened when talking to “up-and-comers”, but this was never the case with Phil.  He simply helped out because he was a genuinely good person.

The most important lesson Phil ever taught me was to be aware of my readers (he called it “finding your demographic”, but I think he meant it in a more personable way).  And he more than practiced what he preached:  after all, Phil gave up national syndication in favor of creating something special for his closest readers (which is no small thing, as any struggling cartoonist seeking the approval of syndicates will tell you).  He truly cared about his readers, working every single day to give them something special.

I had hoped that, upon graduating college, I could work as his assistant on his comics and be introduced into the industry.  Instead, that same summer I graduated, Phil died of a brain tumor.

The loss of Phil Frank affected many people; his family (including his two children and his loving wife), his friends and readers (there were a great many), and, of course, myself.  A public memorial service was held in Washington Square Park, in North Beach, SF, populated by a huge number of fans (many dressed as Farley characters), park rangers and horses, Phil’s friendly ‘nemesis’ and former SF mayor Willie Brown, and others who had enjoyed his work in the Chronicle.  It was a strangely sad and wonderful end to an artist who had given so much.

In the comic above I’ve portrayed Sausalito as I remember it (Ferry and all), and have included a number of my versions of the Farley characters (Phil himself is in the second-to-last panel).  Farley may not seem to have anything to do with the disturbing world of SCAPULA, but the bond is there, beyond the drawing style.

I don’t think Phil influenced me so much as an artist as he did a person; it’s all too easy to get caught up with that grand title of ‘professional artiste‘ (indeed, I’ve known several former schoolmates who let success swell their heads to sickening dimensions).  Phil never needed that.  He was a good person, with or without the fanfare and artistic success, and that’s something I’ve tried to understand.

For those of you interested in giving his comics a try, either mosey on over to his website or check Amazon for his books (aside from Farley, Phil was also co-creator and artist of another syndicated strip, The Elderberries).  I highly recommend his books I’m Ink, Therefore I Am and Going Local with Farley; if these can’t be found, the more readily available (and still in print) Fur and Loafing in Yosemite and Eat, Drink & Be Hairy will do fine.  These book collections contain helpful notes explaining some of the Bay Area events lampooned for those who weren’t around (or simply forgot), and are a great addition to any comic strip lover’s collection.

I’m sorry if this all feels like an inside-story; Farley was more of a local phenomenon, so readers outside of Northern California’s Bay Area may feel out of the loop, but it’s something that means a lot to me.  I’ve tried not to use this comic as a soapbox, but seeing how my growth as an artist (and person) has everything to do with the makings of SCAPULA, I thought it was necessary to share this story.

I wish you all a very happy holiday and I’ll be back next week with more comic madness.