Underground Ad Man

Above: A drawing of my hairy 1970s self (from the splash panel of "The Guide / My First Acid Trip," a 1979 story drawn for Dope Comix and subsequently reprinted in Dancin’ Nekkid With The Angels) alongside a snapshot of my similarly hairy workaday self, snapped as I drew storyboards for some projected Luckie & Forney commercial.
Meeting Mark Martin a few weeks ago sent me ambling down memory lane. As I mentioned in my blog entry about that encounter, Mark and I both hail from Birmingham, Alabama, where we missed meeting each other in the mid-1970s by a mere half-degree of separation.

During that period my day job was doing paste-ups (and, once in a blue moon, an unsigned advertising illustration) for Luckie & Forney, which was the Magic City’s largest ad agency at the time.

Young folk entering the field of print graphics today will most likely stare back blankly if you throw the term "doing paste-ups" at them. Once integral to the preparation of any publication reproduced by offset lithography rather than letterpress — oh, dear, I sense the need for more definitions circling in the air but I REFUSE to yield to it — physically pasting together the elements of printed pages has become an obsolete craft in our digital age. Suffice it to say that "pasting things up" was once an important part of publishing and it involved playing with swatches of paper that had wax or other sticky substances applied to their backsides and cutting bits and pieces of things together with sharp, pointy X-Acto knives that would impale themselves painfully in your foot if you accidentally knocked them off your drafting table.

Occasional foot-injuries aside, I enjoyed doing paste-up work because I could lose myself in the process of arranging photos and pictures and lining up headlines and columns of type pleasingly within a predetermined space while my mind drifted. It was like building model airplanes for a living. Days passed swiftly, and I enjoyed bantering with the other nut cases that had been corralled by the agency suits in the zoo we called an art department.

There was no need to give a damn about what the ads I was laying out contained in the way of information or allure. Caring about ad content is what art directors do, and that was a post that I fended off passionately whenever it was offered, since accepting such a promotion would have forced me to get creative about, say, making Birmingham Trust seem a sexier financial institution than its banking competitors. I preferred to quietly exercise my paste-up skills while hoarding my true creative energy for use in drawing underground comic books at home.

Every now and then I would be asked to draw ad illustrations or storyboards. Those endeavors called more of my real cartooning muscles into play than did paste-ups. Still, they asked far less of me than did the cosmic comic book fables I was writing and drawing at home. The words and ideas in advertisements were generated by account executives and art directors. They had nothing to do with "making woof, not warp" (to cite my absurdist Barefootz riff on my generation’s "Make love, not war" slogan), so I didn’t get emotionally involved.

A time finally came during my Birmingham paste-up days when my longtime dream of publishing a "solo" comic was realized with Barefootz Funnies #1. That where the Mark Martin connection comes in.

Mark, y’see, reminded me when we met last month that he had been a contributor to Southern Style, the long-gone Birmingham arts weekly then edited by one Ben Burford. Under Ben’s editorship, Southern Style did me the great favor of running a article and interview (written by David Orange, Jr. — are you out there anywhere, David?) about Barefootz Funnies when my comic was first hitting the head-shop comix racks in 1975.

Mark, as it happens, remains in touch with Ben Burford to this day. In fact, the two of them banter back and forth regularly in the comments section of Mark’s blog, Jabberous.

Remembering how desperate I was for hometown acknowledgment back in 1975, I asked Mark to put me back in touch with his old pal and my one-time benefactor so I could re-express my gratitude for the career-boost (and morale-boost) Southern Style gave me three decades ago. And while I was waiting for Mark’s response, I Googled "Ben Burford" to see what I could learn about the guy’s present-day doings.

I discovered that he has been creating some mighty fine works of art, like the examples you can peruse at his "Burf" web site. Mark classifies Ben’s dazzling eruptions of color to me as "digitally-cobbled photographic giclee prints." It’s a term I’ve never heard before, but then I’m way out of the loop when it comes to today’s cooler ways of manipulating photography. (I feel smart just Photoshopping pimples off of a photographed face!)

Anyway, thanks to Mark I did end up establishing email contact with Ben and thanking him for providing those precious inches of publicity in Southern Style. It turns out that he’s a Birmingham advertising art director himself these days.

I mentioned my personal aversion to advancing from paste-ups to art direction during my long-ago Luckie & Forney days. Ben’s temperament is different from mine, I found.

"Yeah, I’m senior art director and partner here at DavisDenny, and loving the absolute shit out of it. Being ADD and loving to do a hundred things at a time, it’s great to take Adderall and crank out art all day long. What could be better?"

About Howard

I'm a cartoonist and writer, best known for my graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, and my comic strip from the 1980s, Wendel.
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3 Responses to Underground Ad Man

  1. Shane Oster says:

    Nice blog, thanks! I really love it.

  2. Ben Burford says:

    Egads Howard! I shuddered when I saw the cover of that issue of SouthernStyle!
    We had printed 25,000 of those suckers with full color cover and all the bells and whistles. But we had no distribution of any consequence set up, so I schlepped THOUSANDS of those fokkers all around town and put them in individual mailboxes in all the big apartment complexes, all over Southside in all the crash pads there, and a shitload at Rannellis.
    Back then, it wasn’t only hard to sell advertising, it was hard to get anybody to take your paper FOR FREE, fergawdsake!
    The next week, we dropped the print run to 15,000 with a spot color cover. We were learning fast. So you were in the only full color Southern Style ever published.

    It was an amazing, maddening ride being editor of an alternative magazine with no money and no advertising back in those days. As Molly Shannon says, “Don’t get me started.”

  3. Congratulations Howard. I am sure you know that the Spanish edition of your Stuck Rubber Baby (Dolmen) has been voted by the readers as the best foreign comic in 2006 at The 25th International Comic Convention of Barcelona (the most important of this type in Spain). Quite a deserved mention, by the way.