Street Smart Chicago

Dime Stories: The Atomic King of Nothing

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

I grew up on comics. The Sunday funnies, Marvel Comics, Mad magazine, you name it. I was enthralled with the grotesques and rogues who populated Dick Tracy. As drawn by Chester Gould, the criminals were physical mutants as well as psychological mutants. Their transgressive biography manifested in their physicality. The Mole, Mumbles, Flattop and such were ugly because their actions were ugly. Gould’s drawing was marvelous, and it introduced an ugly kind of violence to the funny pages. Criminals were shot through the head in this comic; the fruits of crime were always a violent end, the law was to be upheld with Calvinist zeal. Tracy’s justice is dispensed with equal proportions of righteous moral fury and abject cruelty and always upon pariahs and mutants and creatures of a kind of “otherness.”

Naturally, I was pulling for the geeks, mutants and criminals. They were the fascinating part of Gould’s narrative and I suspect Gould, himself, knew this and he relished great attention on making his grotesques truly grotesque.

There was one wrinkly criminal whose name escapes me, so bedeviled by loose flesh that he had a pouch of loose flesh in his neck in which he hid a small gun and jewels; just crazy stuff, and I loved it.

I think if you scratch any figurative artist, you might find a failed cartoonist. It is certainly what I wanted to be. I loved comics. The early Spider-Man ones, the ones drawn by Steve Ditko, amazed me, as did the story. The misfortune that Peter Parker’s gift is born of… the idea that the extraordinary human is born in the suffering child was something new to comics. Marvel was full of mutants and wounded psyches—the dented-can people became heroes.

I also loved the subversive Mad magazine. Guys like Don Martin, Sergio Aragones, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood… they broke it all open for me as a kid. Art could be your satirical hammer-and-nails against the rest of the world. I remember drawing mean pictures of the nuns and my teachers in school. When I could make an unflattering caricature of an authority figure, it at least felt like I could return fire in the battles with these asswipes.

I don’t know how many nuns I drew being attacked by harpy eagles and fighter planes—they were always the same on the page—gigantic Amazons in a habit stomping on houses and kids and cars until they were brought down. It scared the shit out of the nuns who made my mother drag my ass down to Loyola to see a shrink. The guy was wholly entertained by me and told my mother that I would get in no small amount of trouble, but I’d probably be okay. He then added that he’d really like to get the nuns in his office and figure out what made them tick.

They knew I was doing it. One assistant principal; a guy I’ll just call “Rubber Ed,” used to fuck with me on a daily basis. He had a habit of spitting when he talked and a bit of a weird speech impediment where in he mispronounced damn near everything over two syllables. He was kind of a cross between Pugsley from the Addams Family and Norm Crosby. He was also a straight-up ass-clown convinced that a cartel of drug dealing was going on under his nose and he decided to turn sleuth and follow kids around in his car after school and on Friday nights. Rubber Ed had me pegged for the Pablo Escobar of this scenario. What a dipshit.

What I could never get this imbecile to understand was that I was always broke and dealing in substances required working capital. He’d taken to frisking me when I’d come into the school, whereupon I would humiliate him and pretend he was grabbing my balls. I would shout, in full view of the student body, “Hey! Easy, Ed. That’s my SACK.” And then he would turn purple and start spitting furiously while he was yelling, which for me was an opportunity to further hector him, “How about a towel with the shower Ed?” What pissed him off the most was me calling him by his first name and leaving mean little drawings of him around the school with fusillades of spit accompanying every mispronounced word, carefully rendered in talk balloons. It made him crazy. I would also quietly whisper, “fuck off” every time I passed him in the hall.

As kids, me and my friends were fascinated by the idea of creating a line of superheroes who weren’t good for anything. They had no superpowers, they just liked dressing up. Or they would have a power that was of no salient good to mankind. We never did them. Until now. I’m making superheroes who can’t do dick—not a goddamn thing—like our politicians, our celebrities, our media heroes. They will be entities for this age: shiny, attractive, perfectly coiffed, with straight teeth and perfect proportions and they will be monumentally and heroically as useless as balls on a bishop. I can’t wait.

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