My friend Chris Reilly passed away this week.
I first met Chris Reilly in Bethesda, Maryland at the 2003 Small Press Expo. SPX was a lot different then–as was I. The Expo was held in a smallish hotel in the heart of Bethesda proper and it was a much, much smaller event than the indie comics behemoth it’s become. It wasn’t as polished as its current incarnation, but there was a sense of comradery to the event that came with the turf for a not widely-known event in the very beginnings of the “graphic novel boom” days.
As for me: I was at SPX for the first time as an actual comics creator hawking my own book (Farewell, Georgia)–and not just by myself at a table, but at the big SLG table, alongside tons of other actual, well-known comics people. I’d been to Heroes Con a few times and to an earlier SPX (or maybe two?) but I’d never been behind a table selling a book before–and to a newcomer that comradery can seem like an impenetrable barrier. As if I weren’t nervous and awkward enough, when I showed up to pick up my badge, my name was nowhere to be found. Ultimately the situation got sorted out (you can see I had to hand-scrawl my name on a blank badge) but it was a rocky start to an intimidating situation. My trajectory through the world of comics would likely have been a very different one if I’d not had the good fortune to be seated at the SLG table next to Chris Reilly. I’d eventually get to know and be friends with lots of people I met at that SPX, but I walked in not knowing a soul (remember, this is pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter) and left feeling like I was–even in some small way–part of a larger community of like-minded comics practitioners, and Chris was instrumental in that.
If you’ve met Chris, I don’t need to tell you that he was one of the most enthusiastic, energetic, outgoing, and just plain amiable people you’re likely to encounter. He introduced himself, said he’d read and liked my book, and we immediately hit it off. Hanging out with Chris in the hotel bar at the SLG-sponsored afterparty in the company of big name comics folk like Evan Dorkin and Frank Miller is to this day one of my fondest memories from any comics event.
In the years that followed, Chris and I became good friends, spoke regularly, and collaborated on many comics projects. Chris’s enthusiasm for comics was infectious. When he got an idea in his head, there was no stopping him. The first project of his I got involved with was an anthology he and his friend Steve were putting together called Strange Eggs. Comics people ruminate on anthology projects all the time but all to often never actually put the projects together, but within a few weeks of agreeing to do a story for Strange Eggs and maybe “help out” a bit with production (I wound up doing pretty much all the production work on the series), Chris was emailing me completed story after completed story by people like Roger Langridge, Derf, Crab Scrambly, Tommy Kovac and tons more. We did two more issues of Strange Eggs and more odds and ends projects together than I can list here, often with me illustrating Chris’s stories.
(Page from The Boxing Bucket. Words: Chris Reilly. Pictures: Ben Towle)
Chris’s writing was as manic and unpredictable as he was. “Madcap” is an overused term, but his writing was indeed madcap: sometimes dark, always funny–in a way that used to be a lot more commonplace during the “black and white boom” than what followed. Beyond his actual comics storytelling, though, Chris was a consummate storyteller of all varieties. Answering a call from Chris entailed an hour-long commitment at a minimum. Get a few beers into Chris at a con hotel bar and he’d regale you with stories about being bitten by a rabid raccoon (he thought it was a cat and tried to pet it), playing in a band with Cheetah Chrome (“Gothic Snowtire”), or trying Flaming Carrot-style to read every single submitted single issue comic in one sitting the year he was an Eisner Awards judge.
More so than anyone else I’ve ever known, Chris was a creature of comics conventions. No one enjoyed being at comics industry events the way Chris seemed to. His already vigorous personality fed off the bustling energy of any comics convention he attended. He was genuinely perplexed by people wanting to “decompress” (a phrase he particularly loathed) after a day tabling at a con.
As far as I could tell, Chris Reilly didn’t sleep. There were many times I remember leaving Chris at some afterparty or late-night bar at a con hotel at two or three in the morning. I’d have been bleary-eyed, stumbling back to my room….and yet, the next morning bright and early, there’d be Chris–apparently unfazed–setting up his table, regaling me with tales of some hotel room party I’d missed out on in the wee hours.
Chris often seemed to be operating just on the periphery of the comics community. In one of the most bizarrely ignored comics events of late, he successfully sued Dreamworks for copying the design of one of his characters from his 90’s comics series, Rogue Satellite Comics.
The last time I saw Chris in person was at the San Diego Comic-Con last year (2013). One of his lifelong infatuations had been Art Clokey’s Gumby and he’d finally gotten the chance to follow in the footsteps of one of his favorite comics of all time, the Gumby Summer Fun Special (Bob Burden and Art Adams, 1987) and write a licensed Gumby comic. The first issue or two had gone well, but he was clearly frustrated that he’d written an issue (and I’m guessing paid partially out of his own pocket for it to be illustrated) that wasn’t being released.
Chris had a backpack full of Gumby issues with him and we were poring over them at this semi-cheesy San Diego bar in the wee hours of Saturday night when a crowd of tipsy twenty-something women burst through the door with their dudebro companions. The ladies asked us about the comics we were looking at and when Chris explained that he wrote Gumby comics, they went nuts. “OHMYGAWD! YOU WRITE GUMBY?! I FUCKING LOVE GUMBY!!” Chris–as was his nature–gave out Gumby comics to everyone and signed copies for anyone who asked. The drunker these women got, the more they loved Gumby apparently. “I FUCKIN’ LOVE GUMBY!!”
I spoke to Chris after San Diego 2013 via phone several times and I could tell all was not well. He hadn’t been well, in fact, since he suffered an exhaustion-related health event (a stroke of some sort?) when he was an Eisner judge in 2007. Since then, his behavior had been erratic and on the phone he often seemed scatterbrained or oddly out of it. Other times, he was his “old self,” though.
“Comics will break your heart,” Charles Schulz famously said. I sure think comics broke Chris’s heart.
I could have been a better friend to Chris. I should have been a better friend. I don’t, though, realistically think there’s anything I could have said or done that’d have would have altered the course Chris was on.
I could choose to have my last remembrance of Chris be my final phone conversation with him–where I had to make a rude early exit thanks to the appearance of the cable installers. I won’t, though. Instead I’ll remember him after Comic-Con, embraced by some random girl raving “I FUCKING LOVE GUMBY!!” while he proudly and generously gave away signed copies of his work.
I miss you, Chris.