— Chapter Twenty-Nine: The Fall —
Comedy of Errors may also be purchased from Main Point Books in Wayne.
Although the Philadelphia Chewing Gum Corporation remained in operation until 2003, the Dark Shadows green-bordered series of cards issued in 1970 was its last notable venture into the production of trading cards until the 1980s, when the company reentered the field with a new series of Baseball and Football Greats closely resembling the Emlen Tunnell prototype designed by Stewart before leaving the firm.
Without trading card licensing opportunities, it was decided by the management team in the fall of 1970 that the marketing department would be scaled back to only three employees. And although Carol Erickson retained her title and salary, the time and talents of her team would be best used maintaining the “Swell” brand and creating packaging for new confectionery products in that line rather than in continuing the tradition of producing trading cards and stickers.
During that same period, Stewart’s Kafka series continued to build its audience, particularly with younger readers, as the cartoon took on many of the issues of the day, such as President Nixon’s order to invade Cambodia and resistance to the Vietnam war, which became an ever more popular cause. Though Stewart didn’t have to worry about being drafted because of his classification, he had grown much more aware of the issues facing America, including the divide between rich and poor, blacks and whites, and the hypocrisies that he’d been brought up to believe were acceptable and unquestionable.
Knowing that any opportunities for advancement at PCGC were limited, Carol began to apply for jobs that fit her skill sets as they appeared in the classified section of The Philadelphia Inquirer. To her surprise, she received responses from several companies in need of a designer, art director or creative director, including a call from a small ad agency in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, located not far from Upper Darby, where she worked. She scheduled an appointment with the owner and creative director of the firm, Jon Newton, during one of her lunch breaks.
Newton was impressed with her production skills and her experience in managing a creative team, but was most impressed by the pen and ink works she had done while at PAFA. He offered her the position of art director with a $4,000 increase over her annual salary at PCGC.
Fenimore was disappointed when Carol told him that she was leaving, but he also was somewhat relieved, since the priorities of the business had changed from the marketing of collectible cards to the development of confectionery options that reflected the changing tastes of what had become known as the baby-boom generation.
Meanwhile, Stewart dedicated his time to expanding his world view to enhance the relevance of his Kafka series for its growing popularity.
Concurrent with his primary task of keeping up with the demands posed by the syndicate and his readers, Stewart had begun providing Norman Lear with production design options for his new series, including drawings for a set of the rooms in the Bunker household, which was similar to that of many working class homes of kids he’d known growing up.
At this point, no contract had been drafted, but in return Lear kept Stewart and his agent Whitney abreast of the development of the show without violating any of the contractual agreements Stewart and Whitney had entered into with the Field Newspaper Syndicate.
By July of 1970, Stewart had created a total of 374 Kafka panels and strips, many of them yet to be published. During the previous several months he’d won back most of the newspapers that had discontinued the series and included 145 additional papers represented by the syndicate. The increase in viewership resulted in Stewart becoming the sixth highest paid cartoonist in America in 1970, right behind Gary Trudeau, Robert Crumb, Dave Sheridan, and Ted Richards, with Charles Schultz and his Peanuts cartoon strip topping the industry since the introduction of its half-page color strip in 1952.
Whitney was amazed at how prodigious his young cartoonist had become, but had no idea of Stewart’s multiple goals and motivations. As he developed his drawing skills, he also was expanding his outlook on life and the possibilities before him in his life and career. An idea for a panel might take a great deal of time to develop, but while doing so, Stewart could listen to classical music. While he inked in his panels, he was able to execute ideas for any season of the year and place his characters in any country, landscape or alternate universe while commenting on an addition to NASA’s space program, or an undersea discovery by Jacque Cousteau.
Stewart read novels and non-fiction books when he couldn’t sleep and conceived many of his concepts while driving, washing dishes or going for a run through his neighborhood. He would often switch up the content of a panel from an editorial heard on a newscast and merge its message into a completed panel ready for submission.
As Stewart worked on his cartoons, he’d become both elated and defeated by his product, and would sometimes place a partially-done panel to one side while starting another, returning to the former cartoon with new vigor after fleshing out a concept he’d attempted, but hadn’t quite understood, at the time he began to develop it.
Whenever Stewart found a free moment, he would try to make contact with Carol, or check on his mother to find out how his parents were handling the new lives they’d built with his financial assistance. Occasionally, he’d contact Whitney to keep him updated on his progress with Kafka as well as on ideas he’d come up with for Lear’s new sitcom.
Once a week he and Carol would have dinner together, and afterwards they’d go to his apartment to be alone for a few hours. With the increase in payments made to him as subscriptions were added, Stewart had improved the furnishings in his apartment and refined its atmosphere, but Carol rarely stayed the night, using whatever excuses she could to maintain a bit of distance from Stewart.
Carol wasn’t quite sure what caused her ambivalence, or resistance to Stewart’s devotion, but she felt a sense of dread when thinking about losing him while also being tied to him too tightly. Stewart never commented on Carol’s aloofness, but it affected him, even while it relieved him of responsibilities that could hamper his trajectory, by rushing ahead with his life ill prepared to match his temperament with his impatience.
Stewart planned to keep his apartment in Springfield and fly out to L.A. after the New Year, when his contract with the Field Syndicate would either be revised by Whitney’s attorneys or terminated. Until that time, Stewart had only reviewed and commented on scripts that were airmailed to him by Lear, or had scripts transcribed for him to read by a freelance typist he’d hired for the task. The process was inefficient and clumsy, so during that period, Stewart’s input had little effect on the development of the All in the Family show, except for the sets of the living room and bedroom which ultimately matched closely the sketches he’d provided.
Lear’s intention was that audiences should be able to recognize Archie Bunker as a bigot. But, in fact, many viewers never grasped the concept and instead laughed along with Archie’s racist and antisemitic remarks. Although the show was an immediate hit, Lear was bothered by the misinterpretation, since the humor in the show seemed dependent on Archie’s inability to change his views despite the level-headed lectures from his son-in-law and daughter, and his relationships with friends and neighbors who helped prove his views archaic.
When Stewart finally arrived in L.A. in February, his job, as viewed by Lear, was to be “a voice of reason” that would convey the darker side of Archie without deadening the humor. Fortunately for the show, but unfortunately for the public, the humor was contagious and the writing impeccable, and Stewart was unable to provide enough counterbalance to Gloria, Archie’s daughter, and her husband Mike, to impact the audience’s fondness or disdain for Archie, a character who attracted viewers of all persuasions to the program, and kept it funny.
Stewart struggled through the remainder of season one, returning home for a short break, but in late ‘71 was assigned to the writing team of Lear’s spin-off sitcom, Maude, about a character unfamiliar to him as was the dialogue between cast members who were predominately middle-aged, and members of a family far removed from any he knew while growing up.
Before Stewart moved to California, Whitney tried unsuccessfully to have Stewart’s contract with the Field Newspaper Syndicate renewed, but with the trial two-year term completed, management showed little interest in scaling down the Kafka series to meet the needs of the cartoonist who, as they put it, chose to spend less time on creating content than in reinventing himself into a sitcom writer.
Another issue was the ownership of the cartoons, which had remained with Stewart during the trial period, but would transfer over to the syndicate if and when the contract was renewed.
Whitney chose to end the contract with the syndicate, since Stewart had recently found his way to a more secure and remunerative career, and could always jumpstart Kafka again if and when he chose to revamp the series.
The syndicate couldn’t force Stewart to continue drawing and writing his cartoon, so its management chose to terminate their relationship. This was added to a notable difference in the commitment shown over the previous two months, and the assessment that the series had lost some of its spark, and that Stewart could not be counted on to maintain the quality of his panels while engaged in another, more lucrative, job.
To sustain the series, Whitney personally shopped the cartoon around, but Stewart was unsuccessfully struggling to keep up with Lear’s contrasting goals for All in the Family. By the time Maude aired, Stewart and Lear both knew that the estimations of Stewart’s capabilities and talents had been overblown, and that it wouldn’t be long before Stewart would need to be released from his contract with Lear.
Lear generously paid the remainder of Stewart’s contract, and with the royalties paid by the syndicate, Stewart was far from indigent. Early in his relationship with Whitney, Stewart had purchased stocks in Chevron. Lockheed Martin, and General Motors, and had bought into investments managed by the venture capital firm co-owned by Whitney. Whitney realized that he might have been in error steering Stewart towards Lear’s offer, but that in the long run, Stewart had gained much more than he was losing. At 25, Stewart may have hit a bump in the road, but not a road block to any future success.
Stewart blamed neither Whitney nor Lear for his losses, but acknowledged the damage caused by his own blind ambition, on his belief that he could do well at anything he chose to do. He had more money than most people ever dreamed of at the age of 25, and still possessed marketable skills. But he also was well aware that he might never rise quite so high again, and most certainly not as quickly.
Before leaving California, he called Carol to tell her the news, and that he’d seen it coming. He’d even confessed to her in recent calls about the difficulties he had working as part of a team.
“Being part of a writing team’s like being a jazz musician,” he told Carol. “One of the group starts a joke, and another writer finishes, and then another makes it funnier, until they all agree. By the time one of the guys has written the final joke down, I’m still trying to understand the joke... and then when I laugh, they’re on to something else. It’s uncomfortable for me to joust back and forth. Despite appearing to be receptive to others, creatively I’m a loner.”
“Are you emotionally okay, Stewart?” asked Carol, obviously concerned about Stewart’s mental state. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No. I’m just glad I could reach you. I needed to hear your voice.”
“Then, you’ll be coming home...?”
“There’s nowhere else for me to go.”
“Then I think I must let you know something... I’m seeing someone.”