Hi, I’m Ken Finch. The one that’s not a cartoon character. That’s Zero Bluitt. Zero has been my alter ego for more than forty years, since my college days. To describe to you who I am, I will need to tell you about Zero, too. First, however, I think I should explain the title I’ve given myself and this site: Cartoonistorian.Then I’ll present a short summary of my life and career. I’ll end by getting back to Zero and why he’s important to me.
Some years ago, I took on the task of telling in comic book form the story of some events that took place from 1969 to 1971 at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. I studied art and history there as an undergraduate, and drew cartoons for the student newspaper, Fountainhead. Our editor-in-chief, Robert Thonen, would be expelled by E.C.U. president Leo Jenkins in the spring of 1971 for not censoring a student’s letter that appeared in Fountainhead. Bill Schell’s letter supporting open visitation (by women students) in the men’s dorms was calm and well-reasoned, but ended with an expletive directed at President Jenkins. For this Bill was expelled also. These expulsions came in the wake of punishment meted out to student leaders in the campaign for visitation rights, and a subsequent student riot. Those years were certainly exciting and important to me. Yet, when the editor of the E.C.U. alumni magazine called a few years ago to ask what I might remember of the Riot of ’71, I drew a complete blank. I felt like I personified the old joke about The Sixties; if you were really there you wouldn’t remember. I became convinced it would be fruitful for me to delve into the history of those years, which was also personal history.
I had always wanted to make a comic book , so why not do this story? I began to hunt down fellow E.C.U. alums, first and foremost Bob Thonen. Bob had heard a rumor that I had died shortly after leaving Greenville in 1971. Other friends and acquaintances had also believed me long dead. Why had I never contacted them in all these years? That was only one of many questions I hoped to answer as I learned or remembered more. I decided to go back to E.C.U. to reconnect with old friends and do some research at E.C.U.’s Joyner Library. Preparing for the trip, I felt I needed new business cards that referred to the comic project . Of course, I wanted Zero Bluitt to appear on the card, too. So, while brainstorming with my nimble-minded, then-teenaged son, Erin, what else it should say, I suggested “Ken Finch, Creator of Zero Bluitt.” After a moment, we both burst out laughing! We both knew that the number of people who might recognize the name Zero Bluitt could probably be counted on one hand. A minute or two later Erin just came up with “cartoonistorian.”
I liked it immediately, and have called myself that ever since. In my mind it is a humble title. I would certainly never call myself an historian. I’m not qualified. But I am a cartoonist, and I am telling a story that is as historically accurate as I can make it. Yet even this humble title remains more an aspiration than an achievement. As I write this, the comic is not even half finished. You can view it as a work in progress at this website. It’s called Riot On!
Not long ago, at the 2011 annual Olympia Comics Festival, I had the pleasure of meeting Larry Gonick, famous creator of multiple massive tomes of history in cartoon form. Those of you who are familiar with Larry’s work might well be thinking “Cartoonistorian” would apply more appropriately to him than me. True enough, though Larry treats other subjects in addition to history, and treats history somewhat differently than I do. As he signed his latest book for me, Larry asked me who my favorite character from history was. I said the first thing that popped into my mind: Attila the Hun. I can remember taking on the persona of Attila (as portrayed by Anthony Quinn in the film Attila, Scourge of God) as I charged with flailing stick-sword a line of neighborhood boys running at my own line with similar “swords” and garbage can lids for shields. We fought until one or more of us had wounds bleeding freely, so that they needed to go home. Larry asked me a second time, I can’t remember why, and I said Buenaventura Durruti, the Spanish anarchist. Why didn’t I just say Abraham Lincoln? Not only do I admire Lincoln, but I had read no fewer than four books about him the previous year! My point is that I seem to have an affinity for the odd and different. So I guess it makes sense for me to tell and illustrate smaller, more personal stories than Larry Gonick does.
Back in 1971, as an act of solidarity with Bob Thonen and Bill Schell, I drew a cartoon for Fountainhead that used the same expletive Bill had used in his letter. I was tried and convicted for obscenity in the university justice system, but wasn’t punished, probably because I had already graduated. This was how I chose to end my career as a ” campus radical.” I have to put that term in quotes because I don’t believe any of us were SDS, Marxists or other dogmatic revolutionaries. But many of us at Fountainhead did share a belief that some things were radically wrong with our country, and it would take radical change to fix them.
I loved my country then, and I love it now. Coming from a Marine Corps family, I cannot escape a tension deep in my heart when I consider how our deeds as a nation align so poorly with our stated ideals. I mean for that tension to be also at the heart of my work in Riot On!
Personal History and Career
My mother told me I was sometimes left alone in my playpen for longish periods of time while she and my father worked our tiny dairy farm in New York state. Returning from chores one day she found I had reached into my diaper and smeared poop up and down the bars of my playpen. It was then that she knew I would be an artist. She would always encourage me, though in other media.
We moved to Bladensburg, Maryland, where I remember spending countless hours inside a refrigerator box drawing, drawing, drawing, from imagination or memory. In third grade I was working on a large mural of Columbus’s ships arriving in the New World. The teacher interrupted my work and marched me to a window. “Look out there! Do you see any thick black lines around anything?” I allowed as how I didn’t. But the fact was I loved black lines. In a few more years I was able to use them to draw Donald Duck, impressing peers and cousins. Then, towards childhood’s end, I was given some paperback books, possibly by an uncle or cousin from New York City, that would impress me far more than even Donald Duck. These were the old Mad paper back books published by Ballantine, featuring the work, in glorious black and white, of Will Elder, Wally Wood, and Jack Davis. Absolute masters of the black line! My heroes! And so funny! I don’t think I was yet aware there was such a thing as writers. But much of what impressed me were visual ad libs by the artists anyway. I spent many hours trying to copy what I saw.
My birth father died in a car accident when I was nine. In 1960 my mother married a Marine Corps sergeant named Art Seabury, Jr., whom I called “Sarge”, and we moved to Jacksonville, North Carolina. At first we lived in a trailer in the boonies. By the time I entered high school, though, we lived
in a respectable house in town. I now had a half-sister and half-brother, Sherry and Arty, as well as my full-brother Bob. In my senior year I did a large drawing of The Class of “66, which featured caricatures of dozens of students and some faculty of Jacksonville High School. My friend Elliott Stein helped me get it printed. We sold many copies, making a small profit, so I consider this my first professional work.
The summer before I left for E.C.U. I started making a movie with Elliott and other high school friends. We called ourselves Whatchagot Productions. Our movie, The Crop Reporter took most of the following year to complete. I was totally hooked on film making, and came home to work on the movie every weekend from E.C.U., only 70 miles away in Greenville. I had chosen E.C.U. because it had an excellent art faculty, but was disappointed by my own work, and became convinced I would never be an artist. I switched to history, not because I was better at it, but because felt I felt I should know much more than I did. Meanwhile, I was participating in an “Honors Seminar” where we read and discussed heavyweight authors and thinkers. A visiting German professor named Schnitzler wanted to start a student exchange program between E.C.U. and the University of Heidelberg, Germany. I decided to go, along with one other student. It was a fateful decision.
It was 1968, and all hell was breaking loose. German students were leading mass marches every other day. I talked for hours with self-styled revolutionaries, with Communists and anarchists. A young woman named Irmgard Kurtz drove home the point that everything is political. She also had a lot to say about American racism. But the main subject was, of course, Vietnam. I slowly became convinced our leaders had made a terrible mistake, that we were on the wrong side of history in this war, a war in which my stepfather would do two grueling combat tours. When I got home, Sarge was also home, and he informed me he had taken some of the leftist propaganda inmy bag to Naval Intelligence. (Apparently, the Marine Corps does not have its own Intelligence.) He made a point of saying one of my margin notes showed how naive I was. I had argued that economic gain was not the main motivator for the U.S. getting into this war. He wanted to make sure I understood that all wars were about economic gain. So, everything is political, and wars are always about economic gain. Got it. But, all over the world, people were also struggling to liberate themselves from oppression. I could not help but sympathize with them.
On my way back I had stayed overnight in New York with a friend from E.C.U. who introduced me to the work of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. I was completely blown away. Cartoons could be amazingly powerful, I realized. And I could draw cartoons! Not as good as Crumb, but still… Back at E.C.U. I worked on my drawing skills, and started doing illustrations and cartoons for Fountainhead. Discovering there was going to be a first-ever E.C.U. student film contest and festival, I started working on an idea inspired by an R. Crumb cartoon called Meatball. I somehow talked fellow student Albert Dulin into partnering with me. Albert had much more technical know-how, friends who would act-apparently-in anything, plus musical ability. We finished just in time for the contest, and we won!
I’m actually still pretty proud of Meatball. In 2007 Albert produced a commemorative DVD of Meatball, with special features and everything, at his company, KeyLight Media, Inc., in Charlotte, N.C. If you’re interested in owning a true relic of The Sixties, I believe Albert can produce this gem of the Regular 8mm screen for a very reasonable fee. You won’t be sorry! No returns based on poor image quality, however. Call Albert now at 704-608-8162! Don’t wait! Meanwhile, read this:
Well, this probably wasn’t what Irmgard and the other Heidelberg revolutionaries had in mind when they spent all those hours to enlighten me. But I don’t think they would’ve had a problem with it. Besides, I was about to begin my career as an editorial cartoonist, pitting the power of my pen against the power of a (college) president and the constituency he hoped would help elect him governor.
But you can read about all that in Riot On!, eventually. I’ll just say here that I stayed an extra year in Greenville after graduating, because I felt it was where I needed to be. By the summer of ’71, however, I was convinced there was no future for me in North Carolina. For no good reason, I decided to head for Boston, only to discover there was no future for me there, either. But one day, as I was riding on the subway, my hair very long, my corn cob pipe stuck in my belt, reading Film Quarterly, a guy named Ted Beck introduced himself. Was I interested in making film?, he asked. Was I ever! Ted and I would spend the next few years trying our darnedest to make a film. Nobody ever tried harder.
Our film was called Diazoman. Ted helped get me a job where he was employed, a company that copied blueprints on a microfilm stock called diazo. I began writing a completely bizarre story about a secret government program whose purpose was to produce loyal, patriotic supermen, like Captain America. The main character was a guileless microduplicator operator named, of course, Zero Bluitt. As the story evolved, by chance, another homeless bum was also transformed into a “super” character who became “Uncle Snatch”. We failed to attract any real actors to the project, so that I had to take the lead role of Diazoman , while the role of Uncle Snatch would be played by Bob McCormack, an insane but skilled amateur. The lead female role would be played by a former Playboy bunny named Rosa. It all came to a tragic end when our apartment was burglarized and all our equipment, including shot film in the camera, was stolen. But Ted’s wonderful parents helped him buy more equipment. We were back in business, but had only a little time before we both left Boston. I came up with a new story, much shorter, called The Spirit of ’76. It featured Bob McCormack as the spirit, and the masks I’d made for Diazoman. We called them “motherfuckers”. Years later, they would be called “agents” in The Matrix.
The Spirit was shown at a couple of bicentennial film festivals, including one in D.C. where it followed A History of the Marine Corps. Ted and I couldn’t be there, but Ted’s mom was, and was asked to explain. She deftly described it as our vision of a possible future America if we failed to remain vigilant. Close enough.
You can actually view The Spirit at email@example.com, Ted’s Photography, My First Film. Diazoman, however, will never be seen. Perhaps one day Ted and I, before utter senility sets in, could sit on a couch together and be filmed as we recount the almost making of Diazoman. I think I’d like that. I bet there were a thousand other guys out there at the time trying to do something similar. But I also bet none of their projects were quite as bizarre as Diazoman.
I badly needed to change my life. I felt like some sort of narcissistic fool for trying to act in Diazoman, as well as write the story, produce the props, etc. The opportunity to move in another direction appeared, as fortune would have it, in the form of a woman I’d met when we were both students in Heidlberg. Jackie Chevalier and I hitchhiked across North America and back with her dog Dusty. We later married in Germany and had many happy years together. Jackie’s love of the natural world reawakened a love in my own heart for wild creatures and this planet that sustains us. For how much longer would the Earth sustain us, I wondered, given the rapacious nature of what we call civilization?
We gave to groups like Greenpeace, Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and my favorite, Die Gesellschaft für Bedrohte Völker ( “The Society for Threatened Peoples”, meaning indigenous peoples ). But this was clearly not enough. What would Diazoman do? I was working on a new comic book version of Diazoman, which was also doomed never to be completed, when the opportunity arose for an interview with a production manager at Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg, a medical and scientific publisher. Frau Grosshans looked at a handful of pages I’d penciled for a comic book version of Diazoman, and gave me some work. She liked the result, especially that I’d researched the subject, plants of the Amazon. Soon I would be observing and illustrating surgery. My work for Springer-Verlag can be viewed in the Heidelberg and Toronto wings of “The Gallery” of this website.
My last years in Germany were shared with other free-lance illustrators in a wonderful studio we called the Werkstatt. We formed a partnership headed up by the remarkable Jörg Kühn. Jörg had studied sculpture in Berlin, but taught himself watercolor to make a living as an illustrator. I wish I had more of his amazing work to show you. He was the main reason we never lacked for work. He and I were able to work closely together. I, for instance, did the pencil drawing for the piece at right, and Jörg did the water color. We never gave a thought to computer graphics programs.
That made it rather difficult when, after many years, I returned to the U.S., where the first question was always about which programs I used…Huh? What?
Hey, Ken! Remember how you said this was going to be a short, as in SHORT story of your life? Anybody who’s actually read this far has learned more than they wanted to about you, so IT’S TIME TO CUT TO THE PART ABOUT ME AND WHY I’M SO IMPORTANT, don’t you think?
Uh, well, I guess so.
What have I told you? You’ve got a problem. Did you read that copy of Culture of Narcissism I gave you?
Uh, yeah. But I didn’t really understand it all.
Well, you only really have to understand this: our culture over-emphasizes the individual so we obsess about ourselves and buy more products to make us feel better. We then become so distracted we can’t even hear what someone like Derek Jensen is trying to tell us.
Didn’t you read that copy of Endgame, Vol. I: The Problem of Civilization, and Endgame, Vol. II: Resistance I gave you?
I’ve, uh, just started reading that.
Read faster. The well-deserved end of civilization as we know it is coming. If you want to be one of the survivors you need to understand what’s happening. It boils down to this: you cannot just go on killing the planet and still expect to live on it. That’s insane.
(To be Continued…)