— Chapter Thirty-Two: The Graphic Novel
Ralph Ellison (acrylic on canvas) by George H. Rothacker
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
Just three years after the publication of Stewart’s version of Audie Murphy’s memoir, To Hell and Back, the American cartoonist Will Eisner published A Contract with God, and other Tenement Stories. Beginning his career in the 1930s, Eisner used a tenement in the Bronx as the setting for four stories of Jewish immigrants modeled after people he knew in his youth. The book ran 196 pages and was published in October of 1978 by Baronet Press, a small publishing firm financially unable to take on the cost of experimenting with the graphic novel genre. Eisner loaned the printer the money to publish his book, which over the years became the benchmark of that genre.
Unlike To Hell and Back, which was adapted by Stewart from an existing novel, Eisner’s story was original and therefore became known as the first published graphic novel.
In 1980, Art Spiegelman pushed the art of the graphic novel a step further with his story Maus - A Survivor’s Tale, which he serialized for a period of eleven years. It depicted Jews as mice, and Germans and Poles as cats and pigs, in a memoir told to a son by his father about his Holocaust experiences. The complete story was published in book form in 1986 and in 1992 became the first graphic novel to win the Pulitzer Prize.
Other graphic novels of the period included Chandler: Red Tide, by Jim Steranko, which hit the streets in 1980 in paperback format, but none were as popular as To Hell and Back, which was first published in softcover format in 1978, and in a limited edition hardback version in 1980. In 1981, Stewart’s original pen, ink and brush drawings were selected for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, further enhancing the exposure and sale of his art and his brand.
After enduring six months of grueling book signings and personal appearances on the The Tonight Show, The Today Show, and an interview with Dick Cavett, Stewart decided to take some time off to travel.
Whitney offered Stewart his home in Surrey, England, and sweetened the offer by volunteering to be his personal guide to the charms of London and the English countryside. Stewart readily accepted the offer.
From England, Stewart flew to Greece and then traveled by train to Rome, marveling at all he’d missed in the world up to that point, but ever mindful of his next project, planned for soon after his return to the States,
Stewart continued his travels through Europe for three months, but was itching to get back to the drawing board. While he was away, Stewart’s mother had been diagnosed with uterine cancer, which added to her physical decline brought on by the rheumatoid arthritis she’d developed soon after leaving her job in the art department of Gimbels. Photography had replaced illustration as the advertising medium for clothes and accessories, and Dottie had been let go at the age of 62.
Stewart wired money to them, but he knew that they might need more help than a paycheck when he returned. Fortunately, Carol and Gary lived not far away from his parents and Carol would stop in with their young children on occasion, bringing meals, helping with chores, and assisting Dottie in scheduling and getting to and from her doctor’s appointments.
After returning home, Stewart hired help for his father to assist with his mother’s care. He also gave up the apartment in Springfield and built a studio on the third floor of his North Wayne home.
With two book successes and his divorce behind him, Stewart finally was able to add balance to his life. Although still passionate about his work, he found time to putter in his garden, get to know his neighbors and foster acquaintanceships with people he’d meet in restaurants or just walking their dogs.
He was frequently asked to speak about his books, but found it interesting that it was his failures that fascinated audiences the most.
At speaking engagements he would usually start with the story of being named after a mouse and how it had plagued him through his early teens:
I was born two years after the columnist E. B. White wrote his second most famous book, a story of the adventures of a child who had the stature and appearance of a mouse. His name was Stuart Little.
My parents had no idea that the book existed when they chose my name in honor of their favorite actor Jimmy Stewart, reversing my first and middle names since they thought Stewart sounded more refined, and my father’s name was already established as “Jim”.
As I grew into my teens, many of my schoolmates had read, or been read to by their parents, E. B. White’s book about Stuart Little, and made fun of me because of my name. Instead of trying to change their minds, or change my name, I created a campaign to promote my name, and in the process developed my first skills in cartooning.
During that same period of my life, I blanked out when taking tests and became disorganized in my habits and my thoughts. No one diagnosed my problems, and my teachers thought I was either lazy or failed to study.
Since that time I’ve discovered that I most likely developed a learning disability at the age of about eleven, but what I didn’t know was that I had other abilities that might compensate for my lack of scholarship.
Everyone isn’t born with the same talents, skills, advantages or disadvantages. We are all unique. Unfortunately, many talented children fail to achieve their full potential due to no fault of their own. Some can lack social skills, others the ability to remember names and dates. Many are born into poverty and others born so wealthy that they never have the need or desire to earn their own achievements.
Over the years, I’ve had to compensate for the many failings I possess. I grew up poor with a funny name, and had an inability to learn from those who taught me. But I also inherited, or otherwise gained, the ability to push past my inadequacies and achieve many of my goals despite the obstacles I faced.
Though I never realized it at the time, my first success would be nurtured by living in the back bedroom of a house populated by hundreds of roaches. I would eventually turn them into a cartoon that would provide me with an income that would enable me to expand my viewpoint and my knowledge of the world.
The roaches that I feared and despised at eight years old taught me how to draw, think and survive beyond my own imaginings, and recently took me on a journey to reinvent a true story of an unlikely soldier, Audie Murphy, who eventually was awarded for his bravery.
In writing and graphically depicting the story of Audie Murphy, I had time to get to know the heroic man of whom I wrote — a man who also grew up poor, lost his mother at the age of 16, and dropped out of school in the fifth grade. He was 17 when he enlisted — and although underweight and short of stature, he became the most highly decorated soldier of his day and received every combat award for valor that existed for his service during World War II.
He had issues that plagued him throughout his life, but became an actor who starred in forty films, wrote poetry and published songs, raised quarter horses, and got in trouble now and then, and continued to make mistakes throughout his life.
He was a boy without a lot of hope, but he had the extraordinary courage to rescue his fellow soldiers, and he put his life at risk time and time again in battle.
Audie Murphy was killed in an airplane crash just a couple of years ago at the age of 45, but left a legacy of hundreds of descendents born from those lives he saved and a list of accomplishments greater than that of most of us who live out our full term here on Earth.
Stewart next used his multiple skills to create the graphic novel The Invisible Man, published in 1979 and originally written in book form and published by Ralph Ellison in 1952. He then began work on an original story about the short and turbulent life of the actor James Dean, Take Me As I Am, that remained unpublished.
On a plane trip back from Santa Monica, while doing research on Dean’s story, Stewart developed stomach cramps and was rushed to Bryn Mawr Hospital, where he was examined and received a CAT scan and a fluoroscopy, neither of which revealed any internal problems. Exploratory surgery was recommended by the internist, and the hospital’s gastroenterologist was enlisted to cut into Stewart’s abdomen, at which time a kink was found in his small intestine, and ahead of it a balloon that had weakened and exploded during the procedure, dispersing food and fecal matter throughout Stewart’s abdominal cavity.
The physician quickly removed the affected section of the bowel, but also had to remove the bowels to clean out the contents that had leaked into the cavity, hoping to prevent peritonitis from setting in.
After being sewn up, Stewart remained in intensive care for five days before being moved to a private room. A breathing tube, a catheter and four evacuating tubes were installed to drain the poisons from his system.
Following another week of unsuccessful treatment, the internist recommended a second surgery to further clean out the abdominal cavity. Stewart’s father, who was alternating the watch with Carol, had asked for a second opinion, but Stewart interceded and asked that the operation be scheduled as quickly as possible.
During a clear moment between painkillers, Stewart spoke to Carol about his new book, and said he hoped he would be alive to complete it. Although The Invisible Man was a critical success, sales hadn’t been stellar. In choosing James Dean for his topic, Stewart knew that the interest would be much greater, and would be a lot more fun since it would be set in a nostalgic era much closer to the current times.
“I have something I need to do before my operation, which I should have done some time ago. I’d like you to get in touch with Whitney’s attorney and ask if he can either draft a will for me, or recommend someone local to draft it for me.”
“Do you have Whitney’s number? We could just call him.”
“Unfortunately, Jock died in February of last year... but I do have the number of his law firm somewhere. See if it’s in my wallet that’s either in one of the drawers, or in the back pocket of my trousers. Just look or ask around for me, but please don’t let my father know anything about this.
“Something else, Carol....”
“I’ve thought a lot about what you said to me about me not caring enough to ask you to wait for me... when you mentioned dating Gary. If I would have asked, and fought for you, would I have had any chance of holding on to you?”
“Honestly, Stewart, I don’t know. I do love Gary, and he’s more of what I need in a husband, but I really enjoyed myself with you... in every way.”
Carol continued, “A marriage between us might have worked, but Gary’s a good man, and a good father. That doesn’t mean you aren’t or wouldn’t have been a good one too, but it would have been a different kind of life. All I can say is that I hope you get better, and can continue being the superstar that you always hoped to be.”
“I could have been happy with less,” said Stewart.
“Maybe, but even now, as you lie there in pain, I can almost still hear the wheels of your brain whirling.
“When do they operate?’
“The day after tomorrow, so I really need to get a lawyer here soon.”
The attorney’s number wasn’t in Stewart’s wallet, but Carol was able to get the name by calling Betsey Whitney, whose number she still had in her Rolodex. Before asking about the lawyer, she voiced her concerns and sympathy with Betsey on the death of her husband.
“Was it sudden?” she asked.
“No, Carol. He had been sick for some time. The doctors weren’t exactly sure what it was that finally got him. It might have been his liver — we both drank far too much — or pneumonia.”
“He was a good man, Betsey, from all that I gather. He was very kind and generous to Stewart.”
“He could be kind, but he was also very shrewd, and sometimes a downright bastard. You don’t get ahead in this world without breaking some eggs, and he broke a lot of them...several of them right before my eyes.”
“The other reason I’m calling is that Stewart’s in the hospital, with peritonitis resulting from surgery from a repair made to his bowel. He asked me to find out who he might use for an attorney, and I thought you might know. Apparently Stewart has most of his money invested in or through your husband’s firm.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that. He isn’t very old.”
“Only 36,” answered Carol.
“Oh, my! Most of Jock’s lawyers were corporate attorneys,” said Betsey. “Our family attorney is Jack McManus. He lives near our home in Manhasset, but I’ll contact him right away for his recommendation for someone in the Philadelphia area.”
“His operation is just two days away, so he’ll need someone to draft it at Bryn Mawr Hospital no later than tomorrow.”
“I understand,” said Betsey. “I’ll be back to you within the hour.
“By the way, Carol, if you don’t mind me asking, how is your life going? I’d heard from Jock that you married a photographer, but not much more.”
“We’re doing just fine, Betsey. I appreciate your asking, I have two healthy children, a boy who’s six, and a girl, ten, and we live in Newtown Square, not that far from Stewart.”
“I’m glad for you,” said Betsey. “I also heard that Stewart married and got divorced.”
“That’s a longer story, Betsey. We can chat later about that after Stewart recovers.
“I’ve gotta go now, so be sure to find Stewart a lawyer and get back to me.”
Less than an hour later, Carol got a call from Bob Whelan, who told her that he was referred by Jock’s attorney, Jack McManus. He told her that he practiced family law and had an office in Philadelphia, but lived in Bryn Mawr and could get to the hospital as soon as needed.
Carol called the nurse’s station to find out when Stewart would be most clearheaded, and scheduled a time for Whelan to meet her there.
Stewart’s father, Jim, was genuinely concerned about his son’s condition, and had bonded with Carol as they waited together when Stewart was in the ICU after his first operation. Dottie had passed away the previous spring and except for Stewart, his father had few friends or acquaintances with whom to commiserate about his son’s condition.
Jim’s closest allies were the men he met at the GI Joe Bar nearly every weekday morning between 9:00 and 10:00 for “eye openers” at what he called “The Breakfast Club”. The remainder of the day he drew postcards, played solitaire or watched TV.
During the previous several years he’d given art lessons to children from ages nine through eleven at the local library on Saturday mornings, and although he wasn’t an accomplished artist, the children valued him and his teaching. Each Saturday they’d work on a pastel drawing along with him of a scene from a book of paintings, and would take their finished art home with them to show their parents.
At 72, Jim wasn’t in the best of health, and just after his wife’s death had fallen outside the GI Joe Bar one morning when leaving and a bit tipsey. Most of the people who had been in contact with him disappeared after Dottie’s death, and his major contacts with the world, besides the people at the bar, were Stewart and Carol. He knew that Stewart no longer wanted to receive postcards from his father, so Carol, his dentist and Dottie’s sister, Phyllis, were the only people he stayed in touch with via his illustrated cards. Carol, Gary and their children were portrayed as bears, and Carol would call Jim and tell him how much her kids enjoyed receiving the cards he sent, on which he’d sign his name as “Uncle Jim”.
Carol met Bob Whelan at the entrance to Stewart’s hospital room, gave him an update on Stewart’s condition, and then took him inside to introduce him to Stewart. She then left the room quietly to allow the two men to discuss Stewart’s bequests.
Approximately an hour later, Whelan exited the room, found Carol and told her that he’d need a witness other than Carol to sign the papers, but would also need Carol’s signatures, since Stewart was appointing her as the executor of his estate.
“There are a few papers I have to check on with Stewart’s financial advisor, but Stewart informed me that he’s fairly sure he’s got everything else in order.”
After Whelan left, Carol checked in on her kids, who were staying with her mother, before returning to Stewart’s room.
Stewart was yellow, and very weak as he tried to smile, but winced in pain, hoping to soon be permitted another dose of painkiller.
“I appointed you as the executor of my estate,” he told her.
“So I heard, but you won’t need me to do anything since you’ll be fine.”
“Fine or not, I’m glad you’re here, and I’m also very pleased that Gary doesn’t mind.”
“As far as he’s concerned, you’re a good friend, and he’s the one who won me over you.”
“Yeah. I did lose you, but you’re here now when I need you most.”
“Nah. I think you needed me most back when we started dating. I was the tart that made you into a man.”
Stewart again smiled wanly.
“If all goes well, I may just try to win you back,” he said.
“Well, that may be a problem, but I’m glad you care enough to try. It’s always good for a girl to feel wanted, especially after two kids and twenty pounds of extra weight.”
Noticing that Stewart was dropping off to sleep, Carol kissed him on the cheek and said goodbye, but sat in the chair until Jim showed up to take over for her.
Two days later, Stewart was sent to pre-op and then wheeled into surgery. Carol held his hand as long as permitted, and then stood and watched him being taken into the surgical suite alongside Jim, who smelled mildly of rye and unwashed clothing.
Three hours later, Stewart was wheeled back out into the ICU, and the surgeon spoke to Carol about the operation, telling her that he had cleaned out the abdominal cavity and inserted additional drainage tubes. At this point all they could do was pray for the best.
Stewart hung in for a day, but then grew weaker and remained asleep most of the time. At 2:00 a.m. the managing nurse in the ICU contacted the doctor in charge, who pronounced Stewart dead. The surgeon contacted Carol, who then called Jim with the sad news. Carol went to the hospital to see Stewart one last time after the tubes had been taken out. His eyes were closed, as if he were sleeping.
On her way out of the hospital, the nurse in charge handed Carol an envelope that contained a few pages of hospital stationery on which was roughly scrawled in pen:
If you’re reading this, I didn’t make it through the operation quite as well as we might have hoped. At least Gary doesn’t have to worry now that I’ll be stealing you away from him any time soon.
It hasn’t been easy to concentrate on the words I’m writing, between the pain and the breathing exercises they force me to do, but in my lucid moments I’ve thought of just how thankful I am for having met you and to have been a part of your life — for so long.
I realize that I’ve been self-consumed, and often had dreams of grandeur. I could say that it was all to prove myself to you, but it was mostly to justify my own existence. I’ve realized recently that I’ve made too few friends along the way, since I was preoccupied with my own success, but I also believe that I honestly loved you more than anyone I could have hoped to have loved for any amount of time.
I want you to know that I’ve made you the beneficiary of all my assets, except for money placed in trust for my father’s current and future care. I’ve also left money in a trust for both of your children to help pay for their education, and for whatever else you think they’ll need without ruining them by taking away any hunger they may have for accomplishment.
My drawings, sketches and original art panels are also being left to you to keep, donate, or sell for any income you might need as well as royalties and licenses from my cartoons, published books, as well as the current and future sale of rights from any and all reproduction of my work,.
Since I have no idea of what charitable organizations to support; I’m trusting you to give gifts to those you believe are valuable, and, if not, to use whatever money you gain for whatever reason. You deserve it.
Just knowing that you’ve got my back makes me smile, since I know that there’s a part of you that’s thinking, “Goddamn that Stewart, for all the work he’s expecting me to do!”
I’m not sure of my own capacity for love, but I believe I am one of the most fortunate men on Earth to have had your friendship.