June 15th, 2017

James Vance 4/2/1953-6/5/2017

Vance, James Howard III
James Vance, an award-winning playwright and graphic-novel author, died Monday, June 5, in Tulsa. He was 64 and had been battling cancer for more than two years.
Born April 2, 1953 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Vance studied theater in Chicago and became a presence in the Tulsa theatrical community during the 1970s, while studying and working at what was then Tulsa Junior College. Encouraged by Carlton Winters, who ran the theater program for the school, Vance began writing plays, often directing and acting in them as well. He was especially fond of a lavishly mounted version of the Robin Hood story that played outdoors in a Tulsa park and included, among other things, live horses.

Another acting venture came when he was cast as the young male lead in the Tulsa-produced feature Blood Cult (1985), generally recognized as the first made-for-home video movie ever made. He also starred in two other locally produced pictures, Bio-Kill (1994) and Cafe Purgatory (1999).

One of Vance’s earliest successes as a playwright was the one-act Stations, a look at the societal influences of televangelism. First staged in 1980, it went on to win regional and national competitions, ultimately representing the United States at the International World Theatre Festival in Monte Carlo. He also wrote Halls of Ivory, the true-life story of the attempt to integrate the University of Oklahoma Law School in the 1940s. Produced by the Tulsa Junior College Community Theatre in 1987 as an official event of the Bicentennial Celebration of the United States Constitution, Halls of Ivory continues to be periodically revived.
A Vance play from 1979, On the Ropes, became the inspiration for Kings in Disguise, a six-issue comic-book series from Kitchen Sink Press that found Vance collaborating with artist Dan Burr. First published in 1988, this story of a 13-year-old boy riding the rails as a hobo in Depression-era America went on to win both Eisner and Harvey Awards, the two highest honors given in the comics industry. Kitchen Sink collected Kings in Disguise into a one-volume trade paperback in 1990; by the time it was issued by W.W. Norton in 2006, it had been recognized as one of the top graphic novels ever published, praised highly by creators like Pulitzer Prize winner Art Spiegelman, with Italian and French as well as American editions.

Seven years later, Norton published On the Ropes as a sequel to Kings in Disguise, with Vance working from his original play and Burr once again doing the artwork. On the Ropes also received a warm reception from critics and readers. Publisher’s Weekly, for instance, called it “as layered and encompassing as the classics of Steinbeck or James M. Cain.”

During the 1990s, Vance wrote issues of Batman, Aliens, Predator, and The Crow, and the
entire run of Mr. Hero: the Newmatic Man. Following the death of his wife, writer Kate Worley, in 2004, Vance stepped in and finished editing and scripting her long-running series, Omaha, the Cat Dancer, with artist Reed Waller.

In 1992, he was commissioned to write a monograph in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution touring exhibit Climbing Jacob’s Ladder; his script for the related public-television documentary, Hope is the Last Thing to Die, was honored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.

Also in the ’90s at various times, Vance worked both as an entertainment writer for the Tulsa World newspaper and an editor for Kitchen Sink Press. From the 1980s until the end of his life, he periodically wrote text pieces and other material for a variety of publishers. One of his most unusual – and attention-getting – creations came in 1992, when he paired with artist Mark Landman on the election-year Republicans Attack! trading-card series from Kitchen Sink Press, a politically themed parody of the Mars Attacks! bubblegum cards of the 1950s.

In 2010, Vance was inducted into the Oklahoma Cartoonists Hall of Fame, and his work was nd featured in the Oklahoma History Center exhibition The Uncanny Adventures of Okie Cartoonists.

He was preceded in death by his parents Margaret Davis Vance and James H. Vance, Jr. and his niece, Natalie Baine. He is survived by his wife Jodi (Jo) Vance & 8 children: Brigid Vance and her husband Javier Sagel, Kaitlyn McBryde and Josh Arehart, Jacob Vance, and Sarah Vance all of Tulsa, OK; Jenny and Blake Peper, Davin and Alesha Blake, Julianne and Joe Malchow, all of Adair, OK; Jessica and Ronnie Stamps of Choteau, OK; his sister, Janet Korowitz, and her husband, Bill Korowitz, of Roswell, GA; 12 grandchildren; His mother-in-law, Susan Osland of Pryor, OK; Sisters-in-laws Alicia Porter of Stoddard, WI, and Jamie Berg of Fargo, ND; brother-in-law Korey and Ester Berg of Springfield, VA and numerous aunts, uncles, and cousins.

In lieu of flowers, his friends and fans are being asked to donate to a GoFundMe site that has been set up to help with the mortgage on the Vance family home.


Death Is Nothing At All
Death is nothing at all.
It does not count.
I have only slipped away into the next room.
Nothing has happened.
Everything remains exactly as it was.
I am I, and you are you,
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged.
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still.
Call me by the old familiar name.
Speak of me in the easy way which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me, pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is absolute and unbroken continuity.
What is this death but a negligible accident?
Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you, for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just round the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

by Henry Scott-Holland


August 12th, 2016

Still Not Dead Yet


When I sat down to write this entry, the idea was to describe why I’d been away from this space for the last 12 months. It was with a double-take that I realized it had actually and precisely been two full years, and here’s why it took me so long to get back online:


In late 2014, my wife Jo was hospitalized after having suffered a pair of strokes. To say it caught us off guard is an understatement; she was just too young for a stroke, but those were the facts. She had successful surgery, and I took over running every part of the household while she recovered. She had an admirable recovery, and went back to work. I kept up everything else, running myself ragged, and because I was so damned tired I assumed that my health was getting worse due to fatigue.


In the spring of 2015 I finally gave up and consulted my doctor, who sent me to a specialist. In pretty short order I was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and prescribed two separate regimens of chemotherapy – one ongoing, one at intervals – plus a program of radiation. It was all supposed to last about eight weeks, and then we’d see what our next step would be.


I was wearing a chemo pump 24/7, going into the hospital once a week to have the pump refilled. The ongoing chemo came in a container that was such a bright vile green that you expected it to have a skull and crossbones imprinted on it somewhere. Chemo has such a nasty reputation – and I remembered how it wasted Kate during her treatment – that I wasn’t looking forward to the experience. Still, I handled it pretty well for a few weeks until my energy started wearing thin. Suddenly it became harder and harder to keep food down, and I began to lose weight at an alarming rate.


I lost about 50 pounds that I really couldn’t spare, and my oncologist was so alarmed by my condition that he took me off the chemo about two weeks before the treatment had run its course. By then I was starting to look like a concentration camp survivor, and even though I wasn’t pumping bright green poison into my system I was barely able to climb out of bed and couldn’t summon up the will power to do anything. I was wasting away and couldn’t have cared less. After days of me fending her off, Jo finally managed to convince me to go to the ER. I’m convinced her insistence saved my life.


I was admitted to the hospital, and stayed for about 10 days while they ran more tests than I can remember and tried to get me straightened out. My memory’s full of holes from this point on, but I know I was treated to CTscans and a PETscan which showed that the cancer had not spread. So, good times. I went home weak and shaky and assigned to put weight on.


A few weeks later, still dizzy from some of the meds they’d prescribed in the hospital, I lost my balance and fell in the kitchen while I was alone. I slammed down hard on my side and I guess I was in shock, because I couldn’t get off the floor. Yes, I’d fallen and I couldn’t get up. I had to wait for the teenagers to come home and peel me up. Over the next few weeks, my right side grew increasingly painful and swollen. I’m told I was having trouble putting words together, and when my feet inexplicably swelled up to look like Fred Flintstone’s in mid-October 2015 (seriously, they were huge freaking cartoon feet), Jo got me off to the ER again.


I remember almost nothing of what followed; Jo says I was in the hospital for about two weeks, of which I can summon up maybe a half-dozen fleeting and disjointed images. Turns out that the swelling was more than just an abscess; the surgeons removed a full liter of infection from my abdominal cavity. They told Jo that if she hadn’t brought me in, I might’ve been dead in a couple more days. So that’s twice in just a few months that she saved my life. I was in the ICU for three days and didn’t come out of the anesthesia for 18 hours. By the time they released me I was barely able to walk, and weak as a kitten. I was checked directly into a rehabilitation center, where I went through three weeks of physical therapy. When I finally got home, I was still getting around with a walker, but I was considerably stronger. I’ve been back home since November 2015, slowly pulling myself together, and now I’m getting around unassisted and, I’m told, looking a hell of a lot better.


Meanwhile, the cancer remains, though I’m pleased to note that it still hasn’t spread. There are a couple of options for treatment, but they can’t be pursued until I manage to put on weight – not surprisingly, events of the last year haven’t been conducive to bulking up. I’ll let you know how things are coming on the health front as news comes in. But for now, at least I’m up to posting again. And I hope to start popping up here at regular intervals again.

August 10th, 2014

Vertige’s Gorgeous “Ropes”

There was a pleasant surprise in this week’s mail: copies of a new French edition of  On the Ropes.

The big deal isn’t the fact that there’s a foreign edition – we all get them, and it’s not the only one this book has received; what made my face light up before I even opened the book was the Vertige imprint on the front cover.

These folks turn out beautiful books. Their 2003 edition of  Kings in Disguise just knocked me out with its lovely design, and impressed me no end with the inclusion of a section of explanatory historical notes by Robert Chesnais.

I’ll admit to wondering whey they bothered to collage a new cover from Dan Burr’s interior artwork for this edition, but beyond that cover the book is even more impressive than their packaging of Kings. This time, Chesnais has written nicely illustrated historical pieces at both the front and back, and Vertige has gone the extra mile by adding a few unobtrusive footnotes in the body of the story.

It’s a fine job, and gratifying to think that a house as sharp as Vertige would not only want to continue our relationship, but would put in so much extra work to be sure that their readers could appreciate the historical background. The thought of people enjoying the book, and learning something at the same time, is about as good as it gets.

Belle, et formidable.

August 9th, 2014

A Humbling “Ropes” Review

Not for the first time, I’ve been away from this space lately and busy living in interesting times. So I was surprised but pleased to learn (via Tom Spurgeon) that  On the Ropes is still being reviewed here and there, all these months since the book was first published.

The latest comes from reviewer Jerry Smith on his  Humble Opinions blog. Smith has some brief but well-considered remarks about how well the book met the goals I’d set for it,and wraps things up by calling it “an incredible story about human experiences…(that) leaves readers pondering its events and themes long after the last page is turned.” It’s the kind of reader reaction that leaves a writer flattered and humbled. You can read Smith’s complete take by clicking here.

May 24th, 2014

A Magnificent Seventh

It’s a good thing I’m not married to this blog – as if,  scoff those who note how rarely I’ve posted this year – because I just missed its seventh anniversary, which fell on May 8.

There was a relative flurry of activity here last year, with the publication of  On the Ropes and the Omaha finale, but life backstage has been even more frantic in recent months, hence the long stretches of radio silence.

For the most part and for my own reasons, I’ve made it a practice to keep my private life out of this space and keep mention of family members and loved ones to a minimum. But (with their permission) I’m making an exception here, because it’s the reason I’ve been so occupied these last few months…and because I’m so incredibly proud of these two:

I give you Jacob Vance on the right, who just graduated high school as his class valedictorian (note all that massive scholarly bling), and his brilliant and talented step-sister Kaitlyn McBryde, who triumphed in an incredible personal struggle to graduate with honors and earn a scholarship to the university of her choice. Getting them to this point has pretty much devoured all my time and resources, and it’s absolutely been worth it.

A blogging anniversary is always nice to celebrate, but this one will always be tied in my mind to a major milestone. We’ll see what future years will bring, but I doubt that any of them could be better than this.

April 1st, 2014

Honored by the NCS

Here’s a nice way to start the month: I just learned (via Tom Spurgeon’s site – thanks, Tom!) that the National Cartoonists Society has nominated On the Ropes for its graphic novel award. After all the work my invaluable collaborator Dan Burr and I put into that book, it’s nice to be acknowledged…and making the final cut with the NCS is about as nice an acknowledgment as anyone could want.

January 6th, 2014

Appreciating 2013

In some ways, 2013 was the same old thing for the comics world –

We lost more irreplaceable people, perhaps none more so than Kim Thompson. Among other notables, though hardly all of them: Carmine Infantino, Bill Fugate, Stan Lynde, Nick Cardy, Al Plastino, Dan Adkins, Joe Manley – heartbreakers all.

Male creators who didn’t have the excuse of being morons continued to sexually harass women just as guys in comics (and the rest of the arts and, hell, everywhere else) have been doing for years, but this year a few of them were called out in public instead of just being whispered about through the grapevine. The ensuing outrage, followed by inadequate apologies that sparked additional disgust, may have finally put present and future offenders on notice that at least in our corner of the world, this isn’t going to be tolerated. Nobody wants to hear these stories, but let’s hope we’re seeing the beginning of the end of such stories being suppressed for fear of reprisal.

“Adorable,” after several years of persistence, became the single most irritatingly overused word online. Toughen up, you saps.

And ostensibly grown men continued to chase normal people away from comment sections with tedious, vicious arguments over who was the better writer, Jack Kirby or Stan Lee. Here, let me settle this issue once and for all:

But this is a personal appreciation of the year just passed, so let’s get to that before the new one gets any older. And, of course, before the werewolves get here.

For me, 2013 was pretty darned successful, what The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon described as “a quietly major year” in which a lot of hard work paid off in a lot of personally satisfying ways.

The Kings in Disguise sequel, On the Ropes, was published in the spring to reviews that were almost unanimously favorable. I’ll admit that I was a little surprised by the fact that more major newspapers, magazines and general-interest websites reviewed it than the regular comics press – though those industry-centric sites and blogs that did respond were, as the man said, cherce; I’ll take phrases like “masterpiece” and “truly epic” any day of the year. There were also some sharp and incisive interviews on both sides of the comics border, possibly the best being a lengthy interview conducted by Spurgeon (though he had some stiff competition there, and I’m grateful to every one of them).

It was worth the years of work that went into the creation; if it didn’t change my outlier status among most of the stuff that’s out there these days, it’s nonetheless a piece of work of which I’m particularly proud – both for my collaborator Dan Burr and myself – and I believe that in years to come it may equal the reputation Kings has come to enjoy since it first appeared a quarter of a century ago.

And of course, Reed Waller and I finished Omaha. I’d felt a huge sense of relief when I completed my last page of that story, but it was nothing compared to the mix of emotions that came when I finally held the published book – the knowledge that I’d kept the most important promise I’ve ever made.

It was richly fulfilling to hear of the welcome Reed received in San Diego; longtime fans were thrilled to see him, and I heard of one who hugged him and thanked him for Omaha having made it possible for them to come to terms with their own sexuality…not the kind of reception most comics artists usually get (or earn), I think. It apparently hasn’t sunk in on the community that Reed announced that the conclusion of Omaha signals his retirement from comics. I hope someone picks up the cue in the months to come and shows him the appreciation he deserves for having created and completed what Johanna Draper Carlson called his “significant, consuming achievement.”

Not to drag out every little thing I did this year, but one smaller gig gave me particular pleasure. Denis Kitchen, my first comics publisher and the man who gave Kings in Disguise a chance when no other company would, returned to publishing in 2013 and I was asked to write an introductory essay for the first book to be released under his imprint. That was The Best of Comix Book, reprinting a big chunk of the not-quite-underground-not-quite-mainstream magazine Denis produced for Marvel back in the 1970s. It was a hoot revisiting that old material, and a pleasure to interview contributors Trina Robbins, Kim Deitch, Howard Cruse and Justin Green for the essay. Denis and his partner, designer John Lind, turned out a gorgeous volume that I’m proud to be a part of. And I’m pleased to note that I’ll be doing similar duty with a new project slated to appear late this year or early in 2015.

Finally, I was honored with an invitation to speak at the opening of the Billy Ireland museum at Ohio State University in November. The talk was part of a panel about Will Eisner on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of A Contract with God – that’s me doing that very thing in the photo above, courtesy of Jared Gardner – and I think it’s safe to say that we pulled it off.

It was one of those occasions when you’re in distinguished company from morning to night, and – to repeat myself – you’re honored just by having been asked to attend. I spent the week walking around starry-eyed at all the legendary work on display in the museum and managed to make new friends and re-engage with talented people I hadn’t seen in years.

In short, despite the several years I’ve spent working quietly on major projects, 2013 was the year when I truly came back. Thanks, 2013, and thanks to all the people who extended generosity and support as the year unfolded.

I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

December 24th, 2013

Season’s Wishes

Maybe just for one day

All our troubles could be out of sight

December 10th, 2013

Looking Good for Comix Book

I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that The Best of Comix Book, the mid-‘70s collection of underground comix for mainstream readers, was just named one of Amazon’s Best Books of the month.

This is the first publication from the new Kitchen Sink Books, being distributed by Dark Horse, and besides the personal enjoyment of seeing Denis Kitchen publishing again, I’m also pleased to have been asked to write an introductory essay.

You can read my thoughts on the book in this earlier post – or just skip to the Amazon page here and order it.

December 2nd, 2013

Will Eisner, Writer

(This is the talk I gave during the academic conference at the recent Billy Ireland Museum opening festival, part of a panel celebrating the 35th anniversary of the publication of A Contract with God. Assigned the title, “Eisner as Author: Will Eisner as the Writer of His Graphic Novels,” I’d been asked to make it informal and personal, which made mine a sort of outlier among a lot of that week’s scholarly papers. And, of course, it was delivered to an inside-baseball audience guaranteed to catch my references without providing a lot of background, so you won’t find any footnotes here. Since I agreed to post it, I’ve reproduced the text as originally written – for the spoken word – instead of recasting it as a more formal piece. I have added a few illustrations here and there, but the original presentation was delivered without any visual aids at all.)


Will Eisner, ladies and gentlemen, the Dean of Comics:

…from a piece of work published in 1939 called “Muss ‘em Up – A Complete Story.” And I think I can say without contradiction that no one reading that story when it first appeared in Keen Detective Funnies would have believed that we’d be discussing its author’s work all these years later.

Will once told me that he’d never thought of himself as a writer. Now, Will was an old-school gentleman, and I think he was mostly being polite, since writing was the only thing I could do in comics. (My daughter did think I could draw a world-class Godzilla, but she was eight at the time.) Will, of course, could do it all…but, like a lot of people of his generation, I think he had the feeling that “pure” writers were on a different, higher, artistic plane than mere commercial cartoonists.

I remember him specifically mentioning “Muss ‘em Up” as an example of the goofy stuff he turned out early in his career. He wasn’t ashamed of those old stories, but he largely lumped them together as commercial piecework, widgets cranked out to fill a quota.

They really couldn’t have been anything else. Will was one of the pioneers of the comic book assembly line back in the ‘30s, a setup that demanded fortitude and rewarded technical development, but sophisticated literary expression was strictly optional.

In the illustration and cartooning world of that day, comic books were pretty much the bottom of the barrel. Unlike the big names who drew and painted for the Saturday Evening Post, or those artists whose work was syndicated in the daily newspaper, comic book people had no one to despise but their own readers. Naturally, the most ambitious comic book creators aspired to more.

Will regretted his lack of formal education, and became a voracious reader to fill in the gaps. And when he got his chance to move up and began producing The Spirit, he turned the assembly line into something approaching the platonic ideal, turning out material that slowly became more and more ambitious. Even in its silliest period, the pre-World War II years, he was determined to make it more than just another widget. – Bob Powell, who did the “Mr. Mystic” backup strip for years, never managed to break out of the back of the section and sell a Spirit script. The Spirit had to be something special, something to aspire to.

In the stories written after he returned from active duty, you can see Will starting to flex his creative muscles in new ways – not just the inventive design work for which the postwar Spirit is remembered, but in his willingness to draw on more than just other comics or kids’ adventure serials for inspiration. It seemed as though he was processing new sources constantly, and refining them for his own ends faster and faster – The Spirit reflected the movies he saw, the radio dramas he heard (it was still a commercial property), but also reinterpreted the news of the day, and the plays he saw, and the literature that he devoured.

It’s true that it was young Jules Feiffer who wrote or co-wrote some of The Spirit’s finest moments – “The Haircut,” drawn from a Ring Lardner story; the wonderful “Ten Minutes”; and “The Story of Gerhard Schnobble,” a fable of superhuman abilities that ended not with a bang

but a shrug –

but it was that atmosphere of striving for more which Will created, that made that work possible.

A lot of those influences stuck with him; years later, when Will asked me to write a prose novel about The Spirit, he let me know that he hoped I’d “make it funny, like Sam Spade” – a character who’d never been funny except on the radio series that ended before I was born.

But his influences and points of reference had also continued to expand and mature…and by the time Will returned to comics with A Contract with God, he was no longer the master of the assembly line, but a one-man show. Whether he’d admit it to himself or not, he’d also become the kind of writer he’d always aspired to be. And he carried the graphic novel upwards at the same time.

A Contract with God certainly wasn’t the first graphic novel – it wasn’t a novel of any kind – but it was the game-changer. Some talented people had created their own long contained comics narratives from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, but they were all genre pieces. A Contract with God, by contrast, was Will Eisner daring to work without a net…neither pulp nor parody, but a serious personal work that carried the achievement of Lynn Ward and his predecessors’ silent allegories into the modern day, and it influenced the true graphic novels that would follow it for years to come.

Nobody was influenced by that book more than Will himself. Some of the finest work he would produce in the years that followed revisited A Contract with God’s Dropsie Avenue setting, fleshing out its history and the inner lives of its citizens – a little patch of the Bronx made into his own Yoknapatawpha County…but with laundry drying on the fire escapes.

Coming from such a beloved figure, Will’s graphic novels often display a surprisingly jaundiced view of humanity. A Contract with God is filled with worthless bastards, and the book that followed, Life on Another Planet, seems dedicated to proving that the entire human race consists of chumps and assholes.

Yet it’s all tempered by his understanding of what makes us this way. A Contract with God’s Frimme Hersch is both villain and victim: he’s endured unbearable pain, the same loss of a child which Will revealed, years later, that he had suffered. Even more than To the Heart of the Storm, A Contract with God may be his most personal and bravest work.

So…was Will a good writer? He certainly never claimed to be a prose stylist. The pages of text that he occasionally incorporated into his graphic novels could be so straightforward and prosaic that they seemed absolutely artless. – In his multi-generational stories he was perfectly capable of effecting a transition by having a character walk into a room and essentially say, “Hi, it’s World War I now!” Will was a cut-to-the-chase kind of guy, and at times you can hear him thinking, Let’s get this exposition crap out of the way and get on with the important stuff. His book The Name of the Game has a number of text passages that could and really should have been deleted entirely…or, better, turned into actual comics pages. In Will Eisner’s case, one picture was often worth a hell of a lot more than a thousand words.

Where his books sang and soared was in the interaction of his characters, who loved and hated and ignored each other vividly. Frimme Hersch’s big moment, where he repudiates God for welshing on their deal, is a thunder-and-lightning climax straight out of the Yiddish theater of Will’s childhood – a role that Boris Tomashevsky would have eaten with a spoon. Though he never attempted to recreate those fireworks again, those sentiments and the urge to pull out the stops reappear throughout his career as a graphic novelist…perhaps most effectively in Jacob Schtarka’s bizarre low-key monologue to a cockroach in A Life Force.

Beyond the bravura moments, though, were the countless and gorgeously realized little portraits of homely lives filled with fleeting joy and quiet frustration…bitter victories and life-shattering defeats that could only be greeted with a shrug.

And yet, on the opening page of To the Heart of the Storm, Will could describe young men going off to war like this:

“It was a time to reflect, to take inventory, not as dying men – for they had still to face that – but rather to shore up their strength against what lay ahead. They knew instinctively that their values and prejudices would soon be tested and that perhaps not again in the rush of living would there be such a moment as this.”

So yeah, despite his quirks and infelicities, he was a damned good writer.

No other graphic novelist has equaled Will’s achievement in chronicling the depths of the human heart, an achievement whose centerpiece was A Contract with God. That’s why we still remember and celebrate it 35 years later.

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