Sunday, September 4, 2011

Opinion: Case of the Clandestine Cartoonist

Cedar Rapids/Iowa City Gazette weekly column, “On Topic,” from 09-04-11

This column, intended to be about careers and identity, almost became a detective story. My search to find a missing friend ran into false leads, misdirection, a doppelganger, hidden identities, foreign intrigue and even foul play, if you can count a tick bite as foul play.
The notion was to look at professionals who had followed the less-obvious path. One self-created person I wanted to write about was Douglas Michael, though I’d not had contact with him in, I hate to say it, maybe 15 years.
But, heck, how challenging could be to find anyone in this age of Google-as-oracle, right?
I first met Doug when we both were freelancing cartoons for a glossy entertainment magazine called “Living Single.” (Typical topics included romantic getaways, fitness and “Oh, why doesn’t he call?”)
My contribution to this fluffy enterprise was a one-panel cartoon that often featured a bulbous-nosed character who favored wide-collared shirts as he tried to crack “the dating scene.” (What can I say? It was the 1980s.)
But Doug’s work, titled “Rupert’s Travel Companion,” would run across a couple pages and depicted such bizarre travel highlights as glacial ice surfing and the first American team of female impersonators to reach the North.
We hit it off, possibly because we both were poking fun at the very publication that was paying us. Later, I coerced Doug to create cartoons for an arts quarterly I edited.
One installment of “My Life in Art” told how a painter couldn’t sell his bricks-as-canvas art. So the man became a performance artist who’d receive money to toss his bricks at buildings, parked cars and even the people who commissioned him.
I loved Doug’s work, with its seemingly simple line drawings but subtle facial expressions and body movements.
Doug moved to New York City, where he wrote and drew, among other things, a series of semi-serious-instructional books under the title “A Cartoonist’s Guide.”
He also wrangled a deal with big-time Fantagraphics Books to publish his comic books, “Tales From the Outer Boroughs.” It was there he introduced a disconcerting old man named Mister Seebring.
Letters from New York dwindled over time and I moved, more than once.
But a few weeks ago when I began my hunt, the only online references I could locate were sales of used copies of his “A Cartoonist’s Guide” and some 1990s writers’ group website with ancient email addresses.
I did uncover a Doug Michael who drew cartoons for “The Baptist News,” but he pretty quickly turned out to be a red herring.
The next day, Rollo May-like, I suddenly remembered “Tales From the Outer Boroughs.” A flurry of research revealed a one-line reference to William Seebring, “reclusive New York playwright.”
So I searched for “William Seebring playwright,” and up popped a couple plays by him. One was “The Last Wish Baby.”
Then it all came back to me — Seebring, the character from Doug’s comic books. “The Last Wish Baby,” another of Doug’s absurd storylines, this one about a baby born without a heart and the media circus that followed its every napping moment.
I then unearthed a bevy of productions of “Last Wish Baby” by Indian theater groups in the United States and Bangalore — an adaptation by an Indian-American student. “The Original Last Wish Baby,” credited to William Seebring, was staged all over the place.
One production was done at Cornell College in Mount Vernon during its 1999-2000 season.
Had the cartoonist been swallowed up by his fictional creation, who in turn had evolved into a published playwright?
At a dead end, I turned back to that old email address and sent a message.
Within an hour, to my shock, came a reply. And the good news is it was from Doug, not a cartoon character.
As it transpires, Doug had remade himself, but not into a facsimile of his own imagination.
A few years ago, after being bitten by a tick, he’d contracted Lyme disease. As part of his recovery, he discovered the doctrine of Weston Price, the influential nutritionist.
A big part of that system includes sprouted bread. So, in 2008 in a small town in Pennsylvania, Doug began baking bread.
He started selling his loaves at a farmers’ market. His business, Columbia County Bread and Granola, received mention in More Magazine, he started blogging about it, and today it’s “morphed from a manageable sideline into a huge, demanding business,” he told me.
“I desperately need to find some new ovens, and I’ve suddenly got three employees.”
Doug still does cartoons on occasion for and once a week for his former hometown newspaper, the Bedford (New York) Record Review.
The cartoonist is now a happy, full-time baker. And, on occasion, he’s still lobbing bricks.

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