Sunday, August 9, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


By Rick Marschall

Pete Hamill died this week. 

There are people you can say about their passing – not many; and damn few about whom we can say this with genuine sincerity – that Pete didn’t die: he lived.

What I mean, of course, is that he savored life. In a way that few people have. He had gone through hell but wrote like an angel. He was self-aware but not self-important. It seemed like he had done everything, but always wanted to do more; and was not chary of admitting to unfulfilled dreams. He had the voice of a documentary narrator and the face of a war correspondent; a frankness only a street-wise Brooklynite could have; and the regrets of a heavy drinker. He had been all those things, and many more – columnist, fiction writer, editor, screenwriter, artist, interviewer, sportswriter. Work informed his life, just as life informed his work. Even when he gave up drinking, he wrote a book about it.

I have loved “old New York” since my youngest days, fed lore by my mother’s father, whose German parents had owned a grocery store off Times Square, “where Stern’s built their department store,” I was told a thousand times in melancholy; and now even Stern’s is forgotten. Pete was born in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and eventually worked around the world, but never left New York City even when he was away from New York City. He worked for the Daily News and the New York Post and sipped coffee at other metropolitan dailies and weeklies.

What Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane and O Henry and Bruno Lessing and O O McIntyre and Damon Runyon once were to New York City, Pete Hamill was, two generations later… but, like an ink-stained Phoenix, he was not the reincarnation of any of them, but all of them. He touched on politics; he wrote fiction; he knew the underbelly; he knew the glamour and grunge, the soaring hopes and crushing defeats; he was a cynic and a dreamer and a poet – a rare hat-trick.

We became friends and discussed the lore and trivia of “little old New York,” whose glamour to me as a scholar and collector ended in the Roaring Twenties. For Pete, his fascination was always as fresh and intense as last night’s deadline.

He had attended the School of Visual Arts, where I taught years later; and he occasionally spoke to my classes. About what?

Oh, I have neglected to share a major passion of his life: comics. Pete Hamill loved comics. He wanted to a be cartoonist. He especially loved the work of Milton Caniff, and loved Milt. We traded original artwork, and every Noel Sickles Scorchy Smith original I ever owned wound up on Pete’s wall. 

His life was hectic in the 1980s – I think it never was not hectic – the News, the Village Voice, editing a paper in Mexico City (!)… and we almost pulled off some collaborations. Projects, anyway; he wanted to write the Foreword to my book collection of Caniff’s complete Dickie Dare, but he blew the deadline. Same with a Foreword to one of my Terry and the Pirates reprints. Regrets on both sides. He urged me to reprint his stories, semi-autobiographical of course, on growing up as an aspiring cartoonist, loving Sickles and Caniff. 

There were other points of contact (for instance, Al Capp’s family had reached out to me about working on a movie, and I connected with Pete… At another time, I arranged to have him invited to the Lucca Comics salon in Italy...) but I will let some of his letters tell those stories. I hope they reproduce well. I am so proud of his “fan” letter when Nemo Magazine had its debut. He never got to write something new for us… but urged me to reprint his comics-and-nostalgia pieces, which we will do in the imminent, new, NEMO. Reciprocity; he wanted to find a way to reprint some of my work somewhere.

For years I was an addict of Imus In the Morning. Pete was an “I-Fave,” a frequent guest. Don Imus needled and made nervous almost every guest, from my new BFF Bernadette Castro, then the New York State Parks Commissioner, to President Clinton. But I never remember Imus being anything but almost reverent when Pete Hamill was a guest. OK, they shared some of the same battle scars, but so did many. So do many.

But Pete Hamill was nobility. His thrones were sidewalks and benches and his domains were forgotten parks and old storefronts, all with stories to tell. 

Pete inscribed his book of short pieces Invisible City to me: “I wish I could write as well as Noel Sickles could draw.” Oh, he did.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing a wonderful remembrance of a dear friend.