Above, a dream strip from RARE BIT FIENDS starring myself, Steve Bissette and John Totleben. John is also the subject of the short piece that follows which was written for a tribute zine published as a con giveaway many years back. Enjoy.
THE DANCE OF THE DEATH CHICKY
By Rick Veitch
While John Totleben is justifiably renowned for his astonishing pen and ink techniques and stone cold visionary delineation’s of skin crawling horror, a small group of artists who knew John intimately in his student days are more apt to celebrate this gifted artist by recalling his greatest talent: puppetry.
John’s hidden marionette skills made their world debut at the FLYING DUTCHMAN STUDIO (actually a roach-ridden New Jersey flop-house shared by Totleben, Tom Yeates, Steve Bissette, and myself and frequented by various starving artists, hangers on, lost souls and subterranean culture vultures). While retrievable memory cells from those halcyon days are fortunately in short supply, I suspect it began as most things did in that hallowed environment, which was with a slowly dawning awareness among one or more of the DUTCHMEN that important bodily functions had been neglected for too long. In the case of DEATH CHICKY, this would probably have been a painful gnawing at the abused lining of what passed for stomachs among these budding but soon-to-be-lionized comic book geniuses. With the stabbing pangs would begin a mighty and increasingly frantic search of chronically empty pockets and wallets, followed by a shaking down of any hapless visitors or luckless girlfriends and capped with an archeological dig through epic piles of landfilled garbage for left over deposit bottles from the previous weekend’s festivities.
Piling into John’s Nova, the scraggly group would descend on a supermarket (a different one each time since we usually had to supplement our meager food budget with a little creative shoplifting). While most of us, doubled over as we were in the throws of painful gut cramps, would grab at whatever non-nutritious bag of cholesterol and carbohydrate that was at hand ( or decide we weren’t hungry at all and buy beer) John was different. Always immaculately frightful, he’d linger over the meat case, gently running his sculptor’s hands over the steaks and chops, not unlike a horse whisperer establishing subtle communication with long slaughtered cattle and sheep in their afterlife abattoirs.
In a darkened corner at the farthest end of the meat department, was a section where the oldest stale-dated stuff was marked down for the elderly on fixed incomes, and at the bottom of this odorous pile could
be found the cheapest source of protein available anywhere in the whole capitalist system: poultry. It is here that John would apply all his fabled gypsy powers of metaphysics, teasing the cold bird flesh with his inkstained fingers; cooing strange sound effects from the back of his throat, and listening (always listening) for a response (from who or where none of us knew).
Finally, after careful intuitive deliberation, his eyes would lock on a certain bird and that secret knowing smile would turn up the corners of his mouth. With John grasping his find with the tenderness of a monk holding a sainted relic we’d quit the store (sometimes we even paid) and motor back to the modern kitchen facilities of the FLYING DUTCHMEN STUDIOS.
While we listened to the crackling of cock-roaches being immolated en masse as we warmed up the oven, John would begin the sacred ritual, bathing of the sacrificial bird as if it were a newborn infant. Like a master Egyptian embalmer preparing his Pharaoh for the next world, John would lovingly remove the chicken’s innards with a childlike (some would say demonic) glee, apparently gleaning significance in the size and shapes of the entrails.
And then it was time.
Sliding his greased hand inside the plucked carcass as if it were a fine leather baseball glove, the man who many think of as one of the world’s greatest cartoonists, revealed his true genius to those of us fortunate enough to bear witness. What moments before had been just a headless oven roaster was suddenly alive, animated with elfin magic, leaping across the counter like a Rockettes dancer on the Radio City Music Hall stage. Accompanied by sound effects channeled from the ninth circle of Hell, DEATH CHICKY strutted the Zombie Love Stomp, the Jawless Corpse Rhumba and the Twisted Fuck with a highly charged spirit and otherworldly abandon! Enacting an ancient symbolic Sufi body ritual meant to realign cosmic forces, she kicked and swirled, reawakening our awareness of long forgotten cthonic entities, drawing us helplessly into a cyclopean maelstrom beyond time, space and, (for a moment that lasted an eternity) consciousness itself.
As quickly as it began it was over.
John deftly slipped his hand out of the bird’s ass, and the spell was broken. She was just another dead butterball on the sideboard, destined for a chicken dinner.
When she came out of the oven, we carved her up and served her up.
Sitting around the table, except for the sound of our chewing, therewas only silence. After DEATH CHICKY, life would never be the same.
Windham Hill, Vermont