I was a minister’s son and Robert Illes was the son of a printer. We lived across the street from each other in south central Los Angeles from about 1956 to 1959.
Rob’t was a fun guy, and we did fun stuff. For us that meant creative work. Sparks flew when we began to make books. We went for it, totally went for it.
Rob’t’s dad brought home reams of typewriter paper for our unbridled use. Mr. Illes also gave Rob’t an old typewriter, which he made use of. I preferred to hand-print my sentences with a pencil. Some of the pages we made included our rough-hewn illustrations. We celebrated the raw irregularity of our work, the way it filled each page in a different way. I STILL love the way our first books looked even today.
We’d take out a pinch of paper from the ream and fold it at the horizontal half-point. Then we stapled it near the fold. Presto, a blank book!
Nothing holds more wondrous possibility than a blank page - or an empty canvas. Anything can happen, and the artist is always at the epicenter of whatever emerges. Rob’t and I both knew we had front-row seats.
I recall kneeling beside a bed, each of us with our own blank book. We must’ve put something underneath to provide a firm working surface. We hurled ourselves into the work. Each of us let his respective tale unfold.
My character was Flank Ander, a scrappy, tough-talkin' western hero, carrying a pair of “pop-guns” strapped to his hips. I was inspired by the programmers I used to watch with my father on Sunday afternoons, also maybe the Warner Brothers series of television westerns we were watching at the time, like Cheyenne. Rob’t invented Ben Benton, a brilliant private investigator. He was a combination of Sherlock Holmes (he had the same hat) and Joe Friday.
We passionately scrawled out our pulp novels, stretching them from cover to cover, inserting expressive drawings of the action here and there with the lines they illustrated written underneath. We just kept writing and drawing from the first page to the last. Voilà, we had a book! I can’t describe to you how significant this experience was for me. I was 9 or 10 years old.
I’d been drawing at home for several years before this. My mother especially encouraged me in it. I used to draw cutaways of underground passageway and hideouts. They might have been inspired by Phantom Empire, the Gene Autry serial or perhaps by crawling around Injun Joe’s Cave on Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disneyland.
Robert and I still can’t remember just when it was that we met. This makes me think it must’ve been in a class we were in together at 74th Street Elementary School. We were definitely in the same fifth grade class. Rob’t recalls showing our books to Mrs. Ballotte. I just noticed a spelling correction in one of the books. It might’ve been made by Mrs. Ballotte. She cheered us on. So did our parents.
Robert wasn’t a Christian as far as I knew, or at least we didn’t discuss such things. I’ve never been overly concerned if a person I enjoyed was “inside or outside” the church, anyway. I knew Dad wasn’t, either. Robert came from a family of Hungarian immigrants. I knew that I came from immigrants, too; I was a German/English hybrid critter. But, again, we never thought about that. I didn’t even learn how to pronounce his name correctly until I was in my late-sixties. Our attention in those early 78th Street days was concentrated on the wonderful things we could make for free, and out of nothing! We loved it. It was exciting, adventurous and it made us laugh.
The other kids liked to play war games outside. Each kid’d have a toy rifle or pistol. You pretended to shoot, making gun sounds with your mouth. I tried doing that for awhile, but it wasn’t nearly as much fun as making books.
When I played with the other kids sometimes I’d get into a fight about whether I was dead or the other guy was dead. I’d say, “I shot you first!” Then he’d say, “Uh-uh, I shot y-o-u first!” I didn’t like that part. When I wrote my own stories I always survived..and there was no argument. Oh, I got wounded a lot, but I didn’t have to die. I liked that a lot better.
Flank Ander didn’t take guff from anybody. He was a tough guy and a good fighter. Ben Benton could solve mysteries and figure things out. Besides that, we we had a lot of fun. Besides, it seemed a better way to go than butting heads with bullies in the street.
I soon realized that Robert didn’t have the “restraints” on him I had as a preacher’s kid. He definitely still uses words I would not employ even now. But, what was this strange compunction hovering over me? I have a feeling it might be one of the reasons we church-folk don’t enjoy life sometimes. We’re confused about many things. My mother, especially, taught me to be a “nice” boy. Robert didn’t have the same baggage. That was part of the reason I enjoyed being around him so much. It was eye-opening. It still is.
Rob’t and I have just made a new book together. When I first read the text, I heard my mother’s voice again, saying, “Now Daniel..is that a nice thing to say?!” But I weathered the lying compunctions, and hopefully stayed true to those I needed to stand firm on. Whew! I got past my initial qualms about illustrating Robert’s text. After 58 years, we’ve made a book again!
The graphic novel, I, Alien should be published soon. I’m not sure it’s as great as the books we made back in ’59, but it’s still very good. It’s a comedy about alien abduction.
Notes on the vicissitudes of the creative life.