Saturday, June 10, 2006

Jack Jackson, 1941-2006

I learned this morning that my good friend, comics legend Jack Jackson (aka "Jaxon"), died earlier this week. This is a harsh blow.

The last time I saw Jack was a few years ago when he presented me with a self-published, limited-edition (only 20 copies were printed!), 80-page, signed book called “Jaxon’s Rant.”

He had made sure to reserve a copy for me because I was mentioned in the book, under my other name “Bison Bill.” This was due to something that had happened a few years before.

What happened was, the Austin Chronicle published a review of Jack’s graphic novel about Reconstruction-era Texas, “Lost Cause,” which the reviewer illogically and stupidly called racist. And to make matters worse, the Chronicle refused to publish a rebuttal Jack had written. This was important to Jack, to be allowed the opportunity to defend his reputation against a very serious slander, thus he felt grievously betrayed by the Chronicle’s staff, whom he had thought were his friends.

The day after the review appeared, Jack called me. He was beside himself with anger. He was considering legal action, at the very least. If it had been an earlier era in Texas, I think Jack would have strapped on his six-guns, marched down to the Chronicle’s office, and called out both the editor and reviewer to receive a powerful dose of frontier justice. He was that mad.

I suggested an alternative: “Publish your rebuttal on the Internet.” Jack didn’t have Internet access at that time, so he gave me the ten or so handwritten pages, which I typed and posted on the old “comix@” email discussion list.

This brought the matter to the attention of the larger comics community outside Texas, causing a great many people to inundate the Chronicle with letters defending Jack, and led to Gary Groth doing a great interview with Jack that ran in the Comics Journal.

Another effect of the episode was to demonstrate to Jack the usefulness of the Internet. He immediately got Internet access and posted his rebuttal (or rant, as he called it) on the “Austin Ghetto” discussion list. And he expanded the rant into a much longer work, posted in installments, that evolved into a memoir recounting the early days in Austin when underground comix were born.

This was the origin of the book “Jaxon’s Rant,” which contains not only the entire rant, but also his interview with Gary and a wonderful assortment of artwork. It would be great if this book could be published for a wider audience some day.

Jack lived in north Austin. His studio was in a metal building in the backyard where he would work all night, listening to country music. I remember sitting in his studio on that last visit while he showed me the artwork for his next book, “The Alamo.” I was very excited, and felt privileged to get this sneak preview.

After that, we talked on the phone a few times, but I didn’t see Jack again. I always meant to drop by and have him sign my copy of “The Alamo,” but after I moved to the suburbs I didn’t get into town much, stayed busy all the time, etc. Time got away from me. That’s the way it is; you take for granted someone will always be there, then suddenly one day they’re not, thus causing your sadness to be mixed with regret.

Jack was great. It was a joy to read his comics, and an even greater joy to know him. We're in mourning in Austin today.

Friday, June 09, 2006

How to Sabotage the NSA's Plan to Mine Personal Info on the Web

Last month it was reported that the NSA is building a database of every phone call made in the US, the purpose being to analyze the social networks of millions of Americans.

Phone records, however, can only yield so much information—a fact not lost on the NSA. Therefore, the NSA is turning its attention to a richer source of information. According to New Scientist, the NSA has begun research into the mass harvesting of personal information on social networking websites such as MySpace. (LINK)

The advantages are many. For one thing, the information is public, having been voluntarily posted by the users of these websites. Therefore, mining the information raises no troublesome questions about the Fourth Amendment, probable cause, and so forth; it is free for the taking. Also, social networks do not have to be inferred from phone logs; people list their social networks--their circles of friends, both immediate and extended--right on the websites. That’s what they're for; that's why they call them social networking websites.

Even better, people also list personal details on these websites: favorite books, movies, and music, recreational activities, political views, and so forth. And a great many don’t stop there; they also describe in rich detail their sexual activities, their drinking habits, their drug habits, how much grass they smoke, etc.—all sorts of information which, combined with other information (financial transactions, for instance, or cell phone records), could be used to build a very accurate personality profile, useful for all sorts of purposes.

It is Big Brother’s wet dream come true, perfect for a total surveillance society. In fact, it is so perfect you would almost think these websites were set up by the NSA for that very purpose, to lure the unsuspecting into a carefully-set trap.

Well, that may or may not be true; it cannot be proven, although the fact that Rupert Murdoch owns MySpace should certainly give us cause to wonder. What is certain, however, is that the NSA fully intends to mine the Web for personal information.

So what do we do? Do we let paranoia get the better of us and stop posting our personal information, political views, etc.? Should we cancel our MySpace accounts, shut down our blogs, and run in fear from our own computers? Hell no. We should never let the government scare us away from the Internet, or intimidate us into silence, especially with regard to political views. Rather, we should raise our voices louder. The whole point is to make sure the criminals in government hear us, so that they will be the ones who are intimidated.

However, a certain caution about what we post on the Web should be exercised. For instance, don’t tell the whole world which drugs you use, how much you use, where you use them, who you use them with, etc. Don’t make anything public that could be used to compromise you, or set you up. Always remember that Big Brother is reading.

And here’s something else you can do. If you have a MySpace account, throw in a few personal details that are untrue. Mix them up with the true details in such a way that it renders your NSA personality profile highly unreliable, if not totally useless. It is a tried-and-true tactic used by the intelligence community itself. It’s called spreading disinformation. The intelligence agencies have been using it to confuse each other for years. And they've been using it on us, too; now let’s use it on them.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Big Bus Trip of '68, Part 11

The diary begins a few weeks before the Big Bus Trip. As I am skimming the first few pages, a certain eventful week in late June catches my eye. I read it all the way through. I find that reading the diary does not disturb me at all, as it did some 20 years ago when I last read it. Instead, I am fascinated and amused. It perfectly captures the way I talked and thought in those days, and reminds me of so many things I had completely forgotten--how I spent my days that summer, and especially a certain matter that was weighing heavily on my mind in the days leading up to July 4. The excerpt below comes complete with all the bad grammar, spelling errors, awkward sentences, and slang exactly as they appear in the handwritten original. Persons' last names, however, have been omitted:

June 27, Thursday - This morning I got up and threw papers with my father. It was 6:00 and I felt terrible. - Got that done & then had to help him in the yard. - My mother's birthday. Gave her her present. - At 1:00 me and my father went to the State Park and fished. Thought I saw Rita there, but July 4th will get here soon enough. - At 8:00 we went to the P- 's to eat. I went over with Roger and Wayne P- and Tolbert D- to look at a boat. Tolbert & me recalled a fight I had in the 7th grade with Billy B-. Later I went with Roger and Wayne to the Dairy Queen with some girls and their mother. When we got back we talked, then I had to go.

June 28, Friday - Went to the office to work. A man, a teacher of journalism at Ranger was there using the darkroom. - I cleaned up the place, washed venation blinds, set headlines, etc. - Went to bank to cash check of $9.51. On the way I heard a girl's voice say, "Hi, Mack," quite distinctly. Turned & saw Barry & two girls in a car. Waved at Barry, he waved. Never did figure out who the girls were. Barely saw them.

June 29, Saturday - Woke this morning and watched part of an Abbot & Costello movie. Wish I could have seen all of it, but I had to go to the office and work, setting headlines and type for an ad supplement to different papers including ours. - Had lunch at Chaf-In. - Kept the office until 4:40 while my father went to get a haircut. He's growing a mustache again. - Meant to get Richard's letter off today, but didn't. - Am finally beginning the first chapter of my novel. Still don't have a title. - Bob B- came by. Haven't seen him since he got his eye put out in a baseball game.

June 30, Sunday - Went with my father to George's Creek today. We were looking for rocks (flat ones) to make a rock path in the yard. First time I've been there since me and Rita broke up. I'll be out there again July 4th. Lot's of good scenary out there. Good thing I have lots of scenes take place out there in my book, which I'd like to make a movie of one of these days if I get the money. While there we stopped over at Pop M-'s place. They were just sitting down to eat & they invited us to join. We did, and that makes 2 Sunday dinners for today. A record. But right now it feels like I had 2 hundred Sunday dinners. - Anyhow we'll be out there at Pop's again for the picnic July 4th. I'm somewhat anxious about that. That was where I met Rita, as she's a neighbor of there's. She might be there. Must admit I felt rather nervous as we passed her house today.

July 1, Monday - Today began rather draggily. I slept late and lounged around the rest of the morning. Not being much for me to do at the office I got off early. - Hoping to rid myself of the "blues," I decided what I needed was a record album. On the way to the record shop I passed the newstand and decided what I needed was a good book, instead. I bought the biography of Laurel & Hardy which has been exceptionally good.

July 2, Tuesday - Today a man, native of Cleburne & under a huge sentence for larseny, escaped from the jail. Sheriff W- and the deputies were standing around talking with their backs turned to him while he was shaving to get ready to go to Huntsville. Then he came up from behind and took the sheriff's gun out of the holster, and made the Sheriff & all the deputies go upstairs and locked them in jail. They were up there for a long time yelling out the window for someone to let them out, but everybody thought they were just prisoners acting up. Finally a colored man figured out who they were and let them out. - The prisoner was loose for about 3 or 4 hours & caused quite a stir. There were road blocks everywhere. Me and my father went driving around the east side with the Sheriff. He was looking for the prisoner there because somebody said they saw him going that direction. The Sheriff was upset and his hands were shaking so bad he could barely hold on to the wheel. He got a call on the radio that they were stopping the trains over at the shops to search them, so we went over there. We got out and my father told me to stay a good ways back, then him and the Sheriff started to walk over to where they were opening up a freight car. But the sheriff remembered something he had to do and gave my father his rifle and drove off. My father couldn't hold the camera and the rifle at the same time, so one of the police took it. They never did find the prisoner, so we got a ride back to the office. Finally, at about 6:00 it was learned that the guy was hiding out in a law office on Caddo St. with 3 hostages. Me & my father heard it over the police radio. My father grabbed his camera and we ran down there. The street was full of police cars from all over everywhere. All the TV stations from Dallas and Fort Worth showed up and so did some of the major radio stations. There was also a big crowd of people who came out to watch. My father told me to stay back while he went up closer to get some pictures. The police started getting ready to go in to the office. It looked bad, because the hostages were still in there. I started feeling sick about it. But the prisoner surrendered meekly and greeted the crowd with "Hello, everybody!" A photographer with the Fort Worth Press had me hold his equipment during the excitement of newsmen clamoring for pictures of the guy. He gave me 4 tickets to a soccer game in Fort Worth for my help. Later on while we were all in the law office taking pictures of the hostages & getting interviews, he saw me holding my father's camera and figured out my father runs the county newspaper. "I see you're a professional camera-holder," he said. I may never use the soccer tickets, but there a good souvenir. - Russ Bloxom from Channel 5 came in to the office with a TV camera man and interviewed the hostages for TV. The way it was found out that the prisoner was in there was that one of the secretary's husband showed up to pick her up and thought it was funny that the door was locked so early. So he called the police. The secretary said he saved her life and kissed him on the cheek. All the camera flashes went off but they missed the kiss, so they had her do it again. - Me and my father went back to the office and worked until 5:00 A.M. The sudden events called for an alteration in the front page news. We got some durned good pictures & the whole page was devoted to the escape. The city judge saw the lights on in the office and came in to talk to us for awhile. We took the pages to the printing center in Fort Worth, then had breakfast at a 24-hour truck stop outside town. Then went home to sleep. Bed never felt so good.

July 3 - Awoke today at 12:00 and had a sausage sandwich with catsup. What a thing to wake up to. I gagged and ate it. Then hurried to the office to roll papers. Threw some and will throw other half tomorrow. - Speaking of tomorrow, it is the 4th! I can't believe tomorrow is the fourth, already. Anyway, by this time tomorrow, I shall know for sure what happens. It brings back such sweet memories of when I met her at the picnic. I don't know how I'll feel if she is or isn't there.

July 4 - Well, now I know. It's been a rotten day. - Early, at about 6:00 I threw papers. - Got home and learned how to operate camera. - Then, we went out to Pop's. Behind us on the dirt road I saw Rita driving her red pickup. I panicked. Luckily she turned into her driveway. - Once I got there at Pop's I began to have a good time taking pictures & all, but after a while my spirits began to drag. Some girl came up there for a while. She was over 21 though. - My spirits got lower and lower. Suddenly while I was sitting restlessly on the porch with Dale, Bill, and Russell, the phone rang. It was the familiar ring of Rita's number. (Everyone out there is on a "party-line.") I eased inside & after a small self-debate I picked up the phone & heard her talking to her new boyfriend. I listened for a very short time, then hung up. Now I felt terrible. I laid down on the couch and covered my eyes. Suddenly I felt sick. I went outside and walked around in circles. At last I struck out for the pasture alone and felt sorry for myself. Went back & popped firecrackers with everyone else. This kept me occupied and happy for a short time. Finally, after the fireworks were over & done with, we went home. It was after dark and as we wound around past her house I saw the lights on inside. My only wish for now is that I'll get over this soon ...

I did eventually get over it, but not soon. My lost romance with Rita would haunt me for at least another year.

And now I turn the pages to the week of my trip to Tennesssee ...

to be continued

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Big Bus Trip of '68, Part 10

We slept so soundly we did not hear several busloads of new campers arrive during the late-night hours. Nor were we disturbed when some of these campers entered the cabin. Therefore, we were surprised to wake up the next morning and see all the beds filled.

We introduced ourselves to our new cabin-mates, then got dressed and headed to the Tabernacle where Paul met us. After the Morning Devotional, we went to breakfast, then back to the Tabernacle for the first full sermon of the day--this one from another minister (there was a whole staff of ministers at this camp) who preached another fire-and-brimstone sermon designed to frighten us into salvation.

In the afternoon, we went swimming, but were forced to abandon that activity when it began raining.

It rained off and on throughout the afternoon. Everyone crowded into the open-air rec area. Richard and I played ping-pong. Paul wandered off. I kept losing at ping-pong. Someone else took my place. In the meantime it had stopped raining, so I took a walk.

I had not gone far when I heard Paul call out, “Hey, Mack!”

I turned. Paul was standing behind the Tabernacle. Two girls were with him. My heart leapt. Girls!

“This is Diane,” he said, indicating the long-haired blonde with sultry eyes and full lips standing close beside him. It was apparent he had already laid claim to this one. The other one, a pretty brunette, stepped forward, smiling. “And this is Sheryl. They’re from Illinois.”

We strolled the grounds with the girls, talking. In a little while, they said they had to go back to their cabin to get ready for the evening. They agreed to sit with us at dinner and the evening church service.

Paul and I headed back to the boys’ side of camp, grinning from ear to ear, very pleased with ourselves. It was not a “score” in the sense of making out with a girl, but felt like a score nonetheless. We were satisfied just to have some girls to hang out with—which was good, because that was the best that could be expected at this camp.

I am writing this 38 years later. Certain events from that trip are as clear in my memory as if they happened last week—the big events mainly, such as the bus wreck in Memphis. But, when I try to recall exactly what happened during the remaining days of camp after we met the girls, I find that I can only pull up a few random memories, out of sequence and indistinct. However, there is a solution: I can look at the diary I kept that summer.

It has been in an old suitcase all these years, along with a great many other juvenile writings and drawings of mine. I have moved the suitcase from place to place, always storing it deep in the recesses of whatever closet I was using at the time, but never opening it to examine the contents.

Oh, I did once. It was some time in my 30s. I opened the suitcase, took out the diary, read a few pages, closed it, and said, “Never again.”

The problem was that it brought back too many memories.

That is the trade-off. Indistinct memory is rose tinted, while perfect recall is the stark, unadorned, unexpurgated truth. And sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes we do not want to re-live the past in that much detail, not so much because of what happened, but rather, because it means becoming reacquainted with ourselves as we were. And nothing can bring that back more vividly than reading something we wrote . And the longer ago we wrote it, the more painful the experience can be.

That is why I said, “Never again.”

But, if I had really meant what I said, I would have burned the diary. I didn't mean it. I kept the diary, kept moving it from place to place, because I knew that some day I might be up to the task of reading it all the way through.

So am I ready now? Am I ready to do more than simply remember what can be remembered on my own, without prompting? Am I ready to open the diary and actually remember it all--actually slip back inside the mind of the adolescent I was 38 years ago and become him again? Is my curiosity great enough that I am willing to pay that price?

Yes, I think it is. I think I can handle it. After all these years, I think I am ready, finally, to go to the closet, open the door, take out the suitcase, sit down at my desk, open it, pull out the blue spiral notebook labeled “Diary 1968,” and go back in time …

to be continued

Interview with Glenn Head

My good friend and fellow cartoonist Glenn Head, who edited the new comics anthology Hotwire which features my story about Lee Harvey Oswald, was recently interviewed about the book by Dorian Devins on WFMU. To hear this very interesting interview GO HERE. To order the book GO HERE ...

Monday, June 05, 2006

Bollywood Beatles

The Days Grow Longer

The days grow longer ... It is still sunlight when I get into bed and turn on the television. I watch an hour or so of a movie before falling asleep. I wake up two times a night … 1:00 … 3:00 … Sometimes it takes as much as an hour to go back to sleep, but usually it only takes a few minutes. The dreams get longer and more intense as the night progresses. Last night I dreamt someone borrowed a bunch of my books without asking—an entire bookcase full of books. I was angry when I saw the bare shelves, then relieved when I woke up and realized it was a dream …

On week mornings I wake up at 5:30, get the paper, turn on the coffee … While getting ready for work, I listen to the weather and traffic reports on television. Around 6:30, I kiss Diane goodbye and leave for work. These days the sun is up at that hour ... The days grow longer … I drive down the freeway in the sunlight, sipping coffee and listening to the radio. It takes twenty minutes to reach central Austin. I park and walk to campus. I unlock my office at 7:00 … I work … At lunch I write something for the blog, or not … for the past few days, it’s been not …

I leave my office at 4:00. I drive home on the same freeway. Sometimes I stop to pick up a few groceries. It is around 4:40 when I get home. Most days Diane and I go to the swimming pool. Sometimes we are the only ones there, other times there are a few other people—young couples with little kids, young people sunning themselves, an occasional person closer to our age …

A couple of weeks ago, as we entered the pool area, we saw a little boy no more than three years old wandering around in his pajama bottoms, completely alone. He started to get into the pool. Diane stopped him. Had he gotten into the pool, the water would have been over his head and he surely would have drowned ... I went to the office and told the manager about him. She jumped up from her desk and followed me out to the pool. On the way she told me that one of the maintenance men had seen him earlier wandering around the parking lot; he had lost sight of the boy and had been trying to find him ever since. She took the boy by the hand and led him into the office. She called the police. Later she told us he was put into protective custody ...

We never found out who the boy was, or where he came from, or why he was wandering around alone. Nor did we find out how he managed to get through the locked gate into the pool area ... Later, it occurred to us that, if we hadn’t gone swimming that day (we almost decided against it), no one would have been there to prevent him getting into the pool … I dreamed about the boy that night … So did Diane …

The days grow longer … We swim in the afternoon. After swimming, I drink a glass of mineral water with a lime and answer my email. I scan the news. I write something for the blog … or not … for the past few days, it’s been not … I read a book last weekend, so didn’t have time for the blog. It was a history of Galveston. We want to go to the coast, but money is tight … Still, maybe we can find a way. We need a change of scenery …

The days grow longer. It is still sunlight when I get into bed and turn on the television. I watch an hour or so of a movie before falling asleep. I wake up two times a night … 1:00 … 3:00 …

The days grow longer … We swim in the afternoon …