Monday, September 28, 2015


Variety Comics, the oldest  comic book shop in Chicago, is closing.

Why does this matter? After all, there are other shops. Comics are sold mail-order and online. There's the digital market and trade paperbacks can be found in every bookstore. There are quite a few alternatives. Who needs a dingy old place like this? 

The world was a much different place when Variety first opened it's doors in 1974. There was not much in the city of Chicago for a kid growing up in that era. Downtown was basically Skid Row. The toy market was populated with Fisher-Price toys and plastic army figures. Star Wars had come out in 1977 and it took awhile before summer movies became blockbusters. Comic books were sold in super markets and 7-11.  If you missed an issue, chances were you would never find it. My family would drive through the city and the best, most exciting thing I saw was a gigantic Paul Bunyan statue at a used car dealer.
Me and the Paul Bunyan statue at the OK used
car dealer on Irving Park Road Chicago circa 1978
He didn't even have an axe.
Near where my Aunt Julie lived, in Chicago's Lincoln Square neighborhood, was a store with gigantic paintings of Spider-Man and Captain America on the store front. This was the home of Variety Comics. The store itself was shrouded in mystery. My brother Erik had been in there a couple of times and said that it was run by "a mean old man".  I was unable to judge for myself because for some reason it was always closed whenever I was around. All I knew for sure is that I was that I was a little afraid to go in alone.

My brother Erik and I outside of the perpetually closed
Variety Comics circa. 1977.

Variety was not the first comic book shop in Chicago. Opening in 1974, it was 2 years behind Larry's Comic Books (1972-2002). Any discussion about old time Chicago comic shops has to include Larry's, the first and most interesting. Unlike Variety, Larry's wasn't run by a "mean old man". It was run by a mean young man who hated children. To be fair to Larry, he wasn't the only one who was like that. Virtually every memorabilia shop and toy store had owners who didn't like their pint-sized customers. (Don't believe me? Look up Cut-Rate-Toys. ) Looking back it makes no sense to me. If you run a store that has a gigantic picture of a super hero outside, at a time when adults looked down their noses at such things, who do you think you're going to attract?

Larry's Comic Books circa 1985 courtesy of YouTube. See
those boxes in the background? They were EVERYWHERE!
But boy, could you find deals at Larry's. He had comic books stacked up all over the place. Piles and piles. The most amazing thing is he knew exactly where everything was. All you had to do was ask. "Do you have a copy of Detective Comics #400?" Larry heads over to a gigantic pile of comics (the title you're looking for with the oldest issue on top), reaches into it  at a random spot, without knocking it over, and pulls out Detective #400. It was AMAZING! Not only that, but you were guaranteed to find the lowest price there. He had everything and it was cheap! Well worth dealing with the personality.

What a typical stack of comics at Larry's looked like
(not an actual picture from the store - BUT IT COULD BE!)

 Before I go back to Variety, I want to put things in perspective. There were 3 shops in the '80's I could go to. There was Larry's which had all the comics at the cheapest prices and the only cost was a grouchy store owner and a mess everywhere, which, quite frankly, was part of the charm. There was Variety, who's owner ( I'm getting to him) was more personable and had reasonable (but not fantastic) prices on back issues. The shop  was cleaner, with some things in plastic bags and smaller piles of unbagged books then the above mentioned competitor. Lastly, there was a shop called Comics For Heroes. Everything there was pristine, wrapped in plastic, and expensive. However, the owner, Linda, was one of the nicest people I had ever met. Talkative, friendly, and helpful. Linda didn't quite trust her young customers either, although when her trust was earned she became your best friend.

In January of 1983. when I was 12, I ventured over to Variety on my own for the first time. It was  Christmas vacation and I  walked ( we sort of lived in the neighborhood) over on a Monday afternoon. Miraculously the store was open. Nervously I went inside. Apparently the store had changed hands at some point because what I found was not what I expected. The fellow behind the counter wasn't old at all and seemed pleasant enough. He waited patiently while I walked around the store for what seemed like hours looking at comics. He had comics on the wall. He had old comics in plastic in boxes ( as a kid I realized that comics in plastic bags = expensive) and he had small stacks of comics on tables in the middle of the store ( these were the more recent back issues). Along the wall he had the new comics on shelves. When I made my selection he reminded me that the back issues I took didn't really cost the 10 cent cover price ( as if I needed to be told that) I paid him and I left. 

A recent photo of the inside of Variety (2015) In the '80's the center
of the room had tables with stacks of comics on them.
The books adorning the walls and the fake wood paneling was always
A couple of issues of Detective I bought on my first trip to Variety

That first trip became many more over the next few years. Variety became the place n which I bought my first Amazing Spider-Man issue, which grew into the complete collection. I discovered the Fantastic Four, The Flash, The Marvel Universe, and many others. I caught up with Batman and Star Wars and no longer had to rely on finding books at the supermarket. They were all there waiting for me.

The owner of Variety was Rick Vitone (1953-2009) and the best way I know how to describe him is to say he had a definite personality. He was very helpful when it came to finding or getting things you wanted. He was not always the nicest guy. There were times I liked him and times I didn't. Rick started a monthly pull list in 1984 in which  customers received 10% off their books. He was very interactive (for both good and bad)  I can not think about that place and not see him as the central figure.

Rick Vitone photographed in 2008 from the Chicago Tribune
Rick used to write  a newsletter for the store. In it he gave us customers useful information like what comics would be part of the massive Secret Wars 2 crossover. He also wrote the complete death list for Crisis On Infinite Earths. My personal favorite, though, was the newsletter that told of how John Byrne was taking over Superman. At that time, Byrne had been writing and drawing the Fantastic Four and the Hulk for Marvel. Byrne was doing complete revamp of Superman ( DC Comics had started a company wide revamp of their entire line about a year or so before he started working for them, starting with Crisis On Infinite Earths). "Nothing happened unless I say it did! I'm not bringing Ma and Pa Kent back ( from the dead) They never died!" Rick wrote describing Byrne's new Superman. Modern comics fans are used to retcons of this nature by now but at the time it was out of the ordinary. Rick railed against Byrne writing that he had to rent a "big truck for his (Byrne's) ego" Looking back, I think Rick's reaction to the retcon was more entertaining then the new Superman was.

The best part of this story is that when the book (Man Of Steel) came out it had a (what I believe is the first) variant cover. To celebrate, Rick sold issues for a dime on the day they came out. If you brought a pre-1963 dime you received 2 copies of the book. I still have mine...both of them!

John Byrne's Man Of Steel #1

The following are some of the more memorable comics I purchased from Variety:

I bought the last copy of this off the shelf .
It was expensive and Rick would not put it aside for me because of the high demand for it.
 I bought it less then a week before my
mother died in 1986

Who doesn't love a good B/W cover?
I remember opening this issue up
for the first time in late 1984

The only hardcover I ever bought from Variety
in January 1991 during the first days of the
Gulf War.

Spider-man's black costume was a big deal
this issue told how he got it (1984)

I was so excited that this was coming out that
I went to Variety on Thursday instead of Friday.
Rick hadn't stocked the shelves yet when I got there
and I had to wait for a half hour before he put it out
for sale. I suspect he made me wait on purpose.

This was the first Marvel price increase I had
experienced and wondered how I was going to afford
that extra 5 cents.

One of the classic back issues I bought.

The first issue of Spider-man I ever bought
April 1984. I now own the entire run of

The last comic I bought from Rick, January
1993. I hadn't been in the store for a couple
of years and was shocked by how much
he had expanded it.
This was during the "Death Of Superman"
comic boom. He actually had people working for him at the shop!

I recently moved back into my old neighborhood and contemplated stopping by Variety. Then the news came out that the store would be closing for good on Halloween 2015. It had been over 20 years since I had shopped there. Rick Vitone had passed away 6 years before. The people running the store now seem really nice. I like them a lot, which saddens me even more that they are going out of business. They have preserved it to almost exactly the way I remembered it, saving even the old phone on the wall. I think that is both a benefit and detriment to the store. I decided that I would buy only the things I bought when I used to shop there as a kid.

Variety Comics 2015

My 21st Century Variety purchase looked a lot like my 20th Century purchases

One of the books I purchased back in 1985

Looking back I realize how special these old shops were. It is sad to see them go. I like the new clean places with all the shiny trade paperbacks and action figures. They are a pleasure to shop at. The young, friendly folks behind the counter keep me coming back week after week and I love them. But in the back of my mind I know that in the deep dark shops of my past, amongst piles of paper and cranky store clerks, through comic books 20 and 30 years old, cracked and yellowing, I discovered a world I didn't know existed. It is in places like Variety Comics that heroes came alive!

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


I've always been a bit conservative when it comes to artwork.

When I was growing up, there was always a lot of incredible artwork around me, but few things created from imagination. With the exception of the comic books I read, almost everything was taken from life. Drawings of trees from the Chicago lakefront. Sculptures created from photographs. Toys and costumes built from plans and photos found in books. My sense of creating art came from recording what was around me. This never changed in my college courses, my work in commercials, and definitely not in my life drawing. Even my comic book work, which continues to evolve in my study of artists and practice in layouts has not changed things. I will use the script I've been given to push the limits of storytelling, and certainly see it move in my head as I'm reading it, but it hasn't changed my essential nature much. This is especially noticeable when I am drawing a story that bores me.

When I was in college art school I would walk around and look at the other student's work.  I still do that - whether I'm drawing or sculpting. Sometimes it's a matter of seeing what the other person is doing and filing a tip into my brain. Other times it's me quietly comparing my work to theirs. I almost always get something out of this - even when looking at a newcomer, or amateur's artwork.

When something comes along that knocks me over like a freight train, I know I've seen something incredible. Technique wise that rarely happens. Using imagination to create is a different story.

Anybody who's been following this blog knows that I've been studying sculpture. It's helped me tremendously in understanding the three dimensional aspect to objects. My approach to it has pretty much been my approach to figure drawing - record what you see, do not deviate from reality. A number of months ago I saw something that made me question this approach. Another sculptor took what was in front of her and created a fantasy out of what she was seeing.

The thing that makes what she did extra special is that there is more than one fantasy attached to them:  that of the sculptor and those of the viewers. They push the limits of everyone's imagination, which is a true gift of art. Below you will find pictures of some of the sculptures, created by Jordan Russell at The Palette and Chisel Academy Of Fine Art.  Jordan is a student of Audry Cramblit, who regularly teaches classes at the P&C

 I can not help taking a look at my own art, after viewing these sculptures, and thinking about ways to incorporate this type of imagination into my work.

Thursday, April 30, 2015


I had a strange experience a couple of years ago.

During an especially boring day  I randomly started googling family member names. For the most part nothing really popped up. Obituaries, house sales, things like that. Until, that is, I got to my Great Grandfather. A huge thread appeared with quite a bit of information - things about the family I never knew or heard of. It came from a distant relative in Sweden who was trying to find out what happened to the relatives that came to the  United States. Not only was the Larson family line traced back to the 16th century, but I now knew when, and why, my ancestors came to Chicago.

The Emigrants by Knut Ekwall (1843–1912) represents the artist's vision of what the 19th-century transatlantic experience might be like. Date unknown.

My Great Great Grandparents came to the United States from Sweden in 1869. Because the famine and crop failures in Sweden combined with the American Homestead Act, which offered affordable land to farmers, prospects seemed much brighter here than there. They were in Chicago for about two years before the Great Chicago Fire destroyed the city. They had 6 children and both died around the Turn Of The Century. I discovered that they are buried in Graceland Cemetery.

Graceland Cemetery in Chicago is no ordinary resting place. It's where the founding fathers of the city are buried, those that rebuilt the city after the fire and those that created the World's Fair of 1893. The monuments in the cemetery are extremely interesting. Because it's also a Victorian resting place, there are also a number of unsettling monuments.

Graceland Cemetery as seen from the Chicago Red Line train

I had walked past the cemetery on several occasions, but had never gone in. Because the first Larsons in Chicago were interned there, I felt I had to see it. During a tour in late fall, I was stuck at how bizarre the place truly is. This was just after Halloween. the leaves were off the trees, the skies were grey, and there was just a hint of a chill in the air. The first thing I saw was the grave of Dexter Graves known as "Eternal Silence"

Eternal Silence, or "Statue Of Death"

Legend has it that if you stare into the eyes you see a vision of your own death!

The statue used to be completely black before the elements washed the color away. There is some graffiti scratched into the statue in the bottom of the robes, but what was even more unsettling was that someone had placed coins at the statue's feet.

There's also the grave of Inza Clark, a 6 year old girl who died when stuck by lightening in the late 1800's. The grave is said to be haunted and the statue apparently disappears during thunderstorms only to reappear later,  and she has seen wandering the cemetery.

These were not all. I found the monuments so unsettling that I thought of what I saw for days. During the tour, my wife and I watched as a female jogger run past us, using Graceland as her own personal running track. As I watched her go down the road I couldn't help but ask myself  " I wonder what she dreams about?"

Visitations will explore that a bit. Taking place in turn of the century Chicago, we meet characters in a cemetery very much like Graceland. Who they are and what happens to them will be surprising. More information to come...

Friday, April 24, 2015



You never know what's around that next corner....

Coming Soon

Watch this space for more information

Thursday, December 4, 2014


I have a confession to make- as a kid I never built models. There was something about the glue and the paint that always scared me away from it. So when I decided that I would start creating three dimensional buildings I should have been at a disadvantage. However, watching my father build toys and models when I was a kid showed me how put things together. I also understood the importance of carefully planning before starting something.

One of the model houses my father built from scratch about 30 years ago

For as far back as I can remember I wanted to try to build a  model house from scratch. I had a couple of options and every once in a while I thought "It would be cool to do this..." or  " When I do that..." Walking through an art supply store I would stop and look at illustration board and foam core board- the former was what my father used to build toys and models, and the later what what I used when I had an interior design class at Loyola University. Finally I bought the materials and decided that I would build a series of buildings. The first being the house I grew up in. If all went well then I would do more. If not, I would abandon the whole thing.

My old house was a perfect choice to start with for a number of reasons. It was a fairly simple construction- a bungalo with a basement, which meant that it would not be a massive structure. Also, I knew it well: where every room window, door and closet was and how that corresponded to the overall look on the outside. Lastly, although the house is still standing and somewhat recognizable from the time I lived there, significant changes to the look of both the front and the back have been made, which meant that I would be relying not only on photographs that were 20 years old, but my own memory had to fill in the blanks of what no longer exists and what was not in the photos. That made it a fun challenge.
Three of the four existing photos of what the house looked like
from the  outside when I lived there

The house as it currently stands, The front and back porches  had both been replaced
and the siding changed in the back

The last reason was a little more personal. My mother had bought the house less then a month before I started high school. Teenage years are significant in any persons life, and mine were no different. In the ten years that I lived there, I went to high school, got my first job, went to college, and decided what I was going to do as a career. There were a lot  of first, and significant, life experiences that made me who I am today. In addition to that, and more significantly, I lost both of my parents while living there. I tend to be nalstalgic about people and places and creating a minature that house I had a personal stake to get it right and accurate.

I found almost right away that fate was on my side. When I was looking for pictures of it online I found that the house had recently been sold and that the floorplans were available. That made the initial stages of this project easy because I didn't have to guess how big this room was to that one and how they related to the third. It was all right there.

The house plans I found online. Though the living room
was smaller when I lived there, the size of the house and placement
of the windows allowed me to set the correct proportions.

The first step was to draw the outside walls and create a paper model. This was really important becaue I was able to see some of the potential problems that would pop up and solve them before actually starting. I also could see what was missing in photos and memory and work to solve it.

My initial paper model along with the floor plans

Probably the most important step after creating the first paper model was to go over to the actual house and see where I was right and where I got it wrong. As stated above both the front and the back were significantly different from the time I lived there, however, there were things that didn't change and those were the things I was interested in. I took pictures over the high back fence and around the sides where I could. Those pictures really filled in the blanks. After that I created the second, more accurate, paper house.

Photos like this were invaluable because
I was able to see how the windows were laid out
on the side of the house.

Once I was satisfied that I had it right I started the construction of the actual model. In addition to the illustration and foam core board, I bought balsa wood, siding, and paint. Then I transfered my drawings into the illustration board and started cutting. Illustratation board is an incredibly tough surface. It's hard to cut and very sturdy. I was lucky to find siding that matched that of the house. Through photos it was clear that the siding on the front was smaller then the siding on the back. so I had to use 2 different kinds.

The two paper models and the start of the real thing.

The first thing built was the front and back porches. They were the most difficult parts of the house and I decided to get them out of the way first. I found that I ended up monkeying around with them after I got the rest of the house built, because their dimensions changed due to the material I was using. Foam core is thicker then illustration board and the siding ended up making everything even bigger. These things were unaccounted for in the paper model.

The completed front and back porches

Once the porches were built everything went easier. Siding was added to the wall pieces and painted, the windows and doors were created, and everything was glued together. The back of the house in reality was an add on- an enclosed back porch that was turned into a sunroom/bedroom. Because it was separate, I treated it separate, adding it onto the rest of the house after the main portion was completed. The top of the add on juts out from the bottom, which added challenges during construction ( also unaccounted for in the paper model), Once everything was built the roof was added.

Adding siding to the pieces

Lastly, I added a front lawn and some bushes. These do not exist on the property as it now stands, so I again consulted the old photos.

The actual house circa. 1994 and the model

Overall this was a really fun project to work on. Besides being able to create something from scratch, I got to relive some of my memories of my teenage years while doing it. The next project will be a tad more ambitious but just as much fun. I'm going to construct the apartment building I lived in from the time I was in college to the time I got married. It is about twice the size of the house- three stories up. I can't wait!

My next project