The world is a pile of grunge – Jo Stafford

It was the mid-nineties. Kurt Cobain was a couple years dead. Grunge was still staggering along, Hip hop went mainstream. Punk was back …sort of.

While not a golden age, it was a time before the 24 hour news cycle brought us under constant assault from the Britney Spears type pop machine, and before we were drubbed mercilessly by the omnipresent Spice Girls and their ilk. (It can be hard to get away from the ilk).

There was also a regrettable dalliance in those lost years of the mid 90’s with a horrible thing called the Macarena, but let’s just chalk that up to Mass Psychogenic Illness, Collective Obsessional Behavior or paint huffing and move on…

Tucson, where I lived at the time, had an interesting music scene and some great musicians playing out. Much of the music had a punk edge. I had been in bands and played in clubs and coffee shops for years, but I was playing mostly solo acoustic and slide guitar music.

I put together a three piece band with a couple of friends, and we were almost ready to start playing out – lots of practices, big set list, new gear.

The bass player showed up for practice one day and said he was quitting to form a Punk Rockabilly band, and while we were talking, the drummer called to say he was quitting and moving to Spain.

The first of this series ran about a week later.

“All things grow with time – except grief” – Jewish Proverb

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I met Charles Schulz once. I was in my early twenties, and I was drawing comic strips and editorial cartoons for a bunch of college papers at the time. I heard that Schulz was in Tucson, where I lived, filming a live-action sequence for some Peanuts special at the local skating rink. Well, when I was a kid I loved the strip, as did anyone my age. He did artwork for the Apollo 10 moon landing, for god’s sake. Snoopy was everywhere, and Christmas and Halloween weren’t the same if you missed the Peanuts specials when they aired. So the strip was a bit of a touchstone for me, and Schulz was certainly the most successful cartoonist imaginable.

Well, being an industrious young man, I decided it would be a good idea to head right down to the skating rink and show him my cartoons, thinking of course, that he would instantly recognize the sterling quality of my work and then he would, um… he would… uh, give me a key to the cartoonists executive washroom or something??? I don’t know what I thought he would do, but I wanted him to see my work.

So, down there I went and wandered into what was essentially a busy movie set, and saw him finishing a conversation with a guy with a clipboard and saw my chance to introduce myself. Which I did. I explained that I was a fan, and asked him if he would take a look at my work, handing him a huge, bound collection of comic strips.

Well, he looked annoyed, but took the cartoons from me, leafing through them quickly. From a brief five second skimming of the entire stack, he weighed in: “You have the unfortunate distinction of being influenced by two of the worst cartoonists working in the field today; Berke Breathed and Gary Trudeau”. At least he recognized my influences, I thought. Berke Breathed’s Bloom County and Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury were certainly influences, and I enjoyed their work immensely, at the time. He then looked up from the cartoons and asked, “How old are you?”

“Um…twenty one,” I answered weakly.

“Well…”, he sighed, and paused for a beat.

“You’re still young”.

Then he pressed the cartoons back into my hands, spun on his heels and walked away.



Staggering Heights – the first strips…

In 1994, after years of drawing several different strips, panels, and editorial cartoons for publication, I created what I thought was a one-off character named Jake for a comic strip titled Wolfbane, then published in over 50 college papers nation-wide through a college syndication service.

I guess I had been reading a lot of Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, and Raymond Carver at the time. The music of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, early Bruce Springsteen were omnipresent in my studio, and the comics pages seemed overrun by cutesy one-note family humor that I wasn’t interested in (and couldn’t have made if you held a gun to my head). What about adults who liked comics? What about adult ideas, and adult humor?

The first appearance of Jake in Wolfbane, an earlier comic strip

The first appearance of Jake in Wolfbane, an earlier comic strip from 1994

I’d been looking to have some fun with the form and threw in this character as a lark. The character was a hit, I was having fun, and so I set off to develop a new strip. Created with more influences from fiction, music, poetry, and film noir than from the comics pages, and with Tucson, Arizona as a backdrop and inspiration, there was plenty to riff on. What possessed me to think this would all translate into a good comic strip is still a bit of a mystery to me.

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The first Staggering Heights cartoon 1995

So, Staggering Heights started its weekly run in the Tucson Weekly in 1995 and ran in a constantly changing number of alternative press papers until 2003, when after 20 years of cartooning – comic strips, cartoon panels, editorial cartoons, children’s books, editorial illustration, I put it aside to concentrate more on my painting, which I had also been pursuing at same time (see and