Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Many Faces of Jackass

During the early weeks of 1996, Seattle’s venerable alternative weekly, The Stranger, commissioned a handful of cartoonists to create installments of a comic feature entitled Black & White & Read All Over, the theme being the print newspaper and the reader’s participation in the perennial form of print communication. I responded to the limited space and one-time opportunity by developing a seemingly innocuous image, one I only ever imagined would appear once. It was a head, a male head with an endless smile, an almost gleefully empty visage, the look of robust optimism, a countenance I more often than not associated with the blissfully simple-minded or pharmaceutically-enhanced. I set this giddy totem, complete with his own shadow, to face down the ravaging indifference of the fourth estate, having the front page of a newspaper literally wrap itself about him, blown by the wind, departing on another breeze, leaving its indelible mark upon his eternally-smiling face.
Meant as a singular comment on the lasting effect the news media can have on our lives, the four-panel exercise in pantomime quickly became the starting point for a whole series of similarly silent episodes, cartoons that began appearing later that year, running sporadically in the weekly paper up through 1997 and into early 1998. Initially entitled Jackass (later becoming “I am a Jackass”), the strip was an experiment in conceptual cartooning, each successive sojourn through the apparently restrictive four-note form being another test of my inventive capacity, as well as a test of the reader’s patience. The strip’s tone soon became increasingly fatalistic, which was perhaps my reaction to that ever-grinning mug, a presence that begged for a brutal awakening, or at least a good slap in the face from reality’s firm hand. Not surprisingly, it proved a divisive feature; you either got it or you didn’t. Fortunately the editors of the paper “got it” more often than not and the strip only ended when I decided it had run its course (a rare case of self-cancellation, almost unprecedented in my bumpy career).
Through its relatively short run, consisting of less than thirty episodes, the sheer impertinence of the feature, and the derision it received from certain quarters, inspired me to inflate the dada nature of the never-changing head by merchandising it in a series of limited products, offering Seattle much more of the same, again, and again, and yet again. Below you will find a variety of examples of this conflagration of “Jackass-ness”, from T-shirts, to paper airplanes, to potato stamps, and many items between. I hope you enjoy the sudden disclosure, coming a good decade after the fact.

The very first appearance of Jackass, from the February 14, 1996 issue of The Stranger.

My favorite of the strip’s year-plus run, featuring crows and an apple. For a slideshow of a sampling of the series, click here.

The original pencil thumbnail for the above cartoon, along with a field a pen point squiggles.

The collected Jackass, in book form, a smart edition published by Drink Me Press in 2006. A few copies of this limited edition are still available. Contact the publisher, the smartly erudite Jason Miles, if you are interested in acquiring one, along with what may the last of the very-limited collector’s button, as seen below.

Jackass apparently caused a bit of a stir within the cartooning community during those “heady” days in the late 90s. Here are two fairly pointed parodies of the strip, the first by Sam Henderson, the second by Michael Kupperman (as P. Revess).

More print controversy, this in the form of a cutting letter to The Stranger from a comics fan named David Cowper, asking the editor to remove Jackass from their pages. Even more incinedary is the response by K. Thor Jensen, the creator of one of the other strips Cowper requests to be expelled, who threatens Cowper with bodily harm. It can now be revealed that David Cowper was, in fact, the creator of Jackass himself, simply seeking to stir up some extra fuss over the confounding cartoon. And, Thor? I didn’t take your comments personally, I assure you. I do hope you’ve gotten in touch with those anger management issues though.

Here is Jackass, as he exists today, engraved in the sidewalk right outside of my front door. I performed this little bit of public sculpture with the blessing of the city crew who poured the new sidewalk, the foreman going so far as to tell me it’s the only bit of cement graffiti he’s ever liked. I’ve been told the impression could well outlive me, a scenario any artist would envy, I’m sure. Adding to this new form for the eternally-smiling character, I have photographed it at various times throughout the past year it has existed, creating a real-life version of the strip. For a slideshow of these images, click here.

During the summer of 1997, the madness surrounding Jackass reached such heights I was forced to create an entire line of official Jackass products, which I peddled at various small press exhibitions. These included T-shirts, Jackass paper airplane kits, a twenty-volume series of tiny Jackass Readers, each taking one weekly strip and incorporating the four illustrated panels into a poem written especially for the particular cartoon, Jackass bookmarks, and a variety of other Jackass sundry, doorstops and pretzel bowls included. It goes without saying that I became a very wealthy man, though short-lived the riches were. Why, oh why, did I ever reply to that invite to the dog track?

“We’re all Jackass readers” indeed.

My proud parents, modeling the Fall ’97 line of Jackass T-shirts.

The silkscreen from which the two most popular Jackass T-shirt variations were produced, by the brilliant artisans at Schlopinski Impressions.

Here is Jackass, smiling broadly from the cozy window of Milky World Gallery, in Seattle’s Belltown district.

Jackass permeated even the four basic food groups. Here is the official Jackass Potato Stamp, as it exists today, some ten years after its creation, wonderfully adorned with a chapeau of flowering eye nodules.

A sheet of Jackass impressions, made by the Jackass Potato Stamp during those halcyon days.

The one-sheet Jackass Flyer airplane kit, which may look extraordinarily complex but really isn’t. With a little concentration and patience for simple origami, anyone could have themselves a paper sky machine that excelled any other. Truly. It was the world’s greatest paper airplane. And it came in four delicious colors.

The instructions for the Jackass Flyer, which were printed on both sides of the paper ribbon that held together each packet of four. A proud moment for all at Jackass Industries.

The front of the official Jackass Holiday Card for 1997, sent to all friends and associates that year, picturing a star shooting over a snowy landscape.

The interior of the Jackass Holiday Card, revealing the shooting star and snowscape to actually be the magnified curl in his hair.

Here Jackass appears in public, behind an apparently footprint-proof shield, as he grins up from the floor of Milky World Gallery, awaiting his creator to sit down and give an art lecture of some sort.

Here Jackass is mounted on wood, for all to step on, no protection deemed necessary. This was, in fact, a conceptual performance piece held at Seattle’s Small Press Zine Festival. The inscription on the wooden block read: Patience for this one. Here is THE PIECE OF WOOD I AM A JACKASS. It is a thing to bind generations and stabilize nations. Are you afraid to touch this thing? You should be. It is not for sale and who can blame you for asking.

This was a coupon offered at the Jackass Boutique, a small, spinning rack I placed at Milky World Gallery, offering all Jackass product for sale, on a consignment basis.

This I stumbled upon near the end of the Jackass run, a photograph of the late Christopher Reeve that looked uncannily like Jackass, so much so that I couldn’t resist cutting it out and giving it the appropriate shadow.

Another page of thumbnail notes for possible future strips, some of which didn’t make the cut. My process for vetting ideas for Jackass was merciless. For every idea that made it to print, there were at least a dozen that didn’t pass muster. Jackass was a cartoon of delicate foundation. Its wordless, four-panel arc of silence, never deviating from either starting or ending with the identical smiling head, was a narrow passageway through which to pass the mind, forcing me, again and again, to beat my own head against its towering gates, until they finally budged.

And, finally, here is a wholly unwise and justly failed attempt at re-envisioning Jackass as a talking character, complete with a darling little pint-sized son, who, nevertheless, ends up lunch, in his father’s non-existent gullet.