Gary Sassaman is elusive. The 43-year-old enjoys his work as a news graphic designer for KUSI-TV; he also has good friends and likes to spend time with them. But like many artists, he seems best understood by what feeds his talent and finds expression there: the cartoon world, his comic books, and his cats.
The cartoon world is tiered. Like the Escher print of interlaced stairways that rise and fall and connect without beginning or end, the cartoon world is a thriving industry with artists who produce, business people who bind and publish, retailers who stock and sell, and fans who buy and enjoy the material. Some fans grow up to serve that same industry. Gary Sassaman did. His comic book, Innocent Bystander, is drawn in a pastiche of styles, with storylines that are personal, candid, and illuminating. Innocent Bystander has brought Sassaman deserved acclaim.
It is for his cats, Stan and Ollie, that Sassaman displays his freshest insights and most heartfelt thoughts. He has done some of his best work as a cartoonist depicting his cats’ relationship with the world, with him, with each other. With this pair — one grey-and-white, the other black-and-white — Gary shows himself sharing in a world of trust and affection…tempered by a wry feline intelligence. But he worries.
“I don’t want people to think I’m like one of those little old ladies,” he explained, “the kind who hole up with their cats and leave them all their money when they die. I don’t want people to think I don’t have a life.” The comparison might be better made with the self-effacing English baron Lord Berners, who was once described as a doormouse with a bite (Berners happened to be a talented artist). Sassaman is short with dark eyes and a bald pate fringed with a ruff of brown hair about the ears. The bite part finds expression (as with Lord Berners) through Sassaman’s keen eye and dry wit. He is not avuncular.
His devotion to his cats is real, but it is neither extreme nor unusual. Like the little old ladies he fears comparison to, Sassaman is a private man, but he is not a hermit holed up with a dozen cats, at odds with the world. Actually, he says, Stan and Ollie have helped him adjust to the world. “They have made me a warmer person, more accommodating.”
Sassaman lives in a downtown apartment. The city’s skyline, framed by a large picture window, is a vision of gleaming spires cut up and down by pale vertical blinds. The studio apartment has gray carpeting, sleek Scandinavian blond-wood stools, a drawing board and computer in one corner, a filled bookcase running along a wall. A few original drawings of Dick Tracy comic strips, mounted and framed, hang from the wall. The apartment has a neat, no-nonsense air of anonymity.
Sassaman grew up in Tamaqua, a small town in eastern Pennsylvania. The Native American word for the town has two meanings. “Land of Running Water,” he explained, then paused before adding, “and Land of Plentiful Beaver.” The double entendre is not unusual. In the second edition of Innocent Bystander, an unidentified woman, perhaps a girlfriend, explains to the comic-book character Gary that all her life she has been gawky; because she is 5´10˝, she needs a taller guy to make her feel comfortable. “Look,” Gary responds in the script, “after all we’ve been through and how close we’ve become, if you’re gonna let four inches be the one thing that keeps us apart, you’re a fool.”
The line recalls Woody Allen, that famously neurotic comic. Like Allen, Sassaman recalls a lonely childhood, the longings of adolescence, and failure at intimate adult relationships. And like Allen’s comic riffs, Sassaman’s personal suffering, transformed via the mature renderings of a visual/literary intelligence, generates audience recognition.
Comic books were always important to him and his older brother, Rick. They collected them at ten cents apiece, and the piles grew. In Innocent Bystander, he writes that he and Rick had “science fiction and monsters, we had westerns, we had war, but mostly, we had superheroes.” The stuff of superheroics was an ongoing theme that began early. He writes that in 1957, when he was two, his first complete sentence was borrowed straight from Mighty Mouse: “Here I come to save the day.”
I was reminded of the late Andy Kaufman, an odd and influential comedian recently portrayed by Jim Carrey in the film Man on the Moon. On October 11, 1975, at 11:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, from the ninth floor of 30 Rockefeller Center, Saturday Night Live was first beamed to millions of viewers surfing the tube for something engaging to relieve the tedium of late-night television. Following the opening sketches, writes Bob Zmuda in his biography of Kaufman, “Andy stepped out into a lone spotlight, smiled, set the tone arm of a small phonograph onto a record, and a scratchy rendition of the theme song from the Mighty Mouse cartoon series began. Saying nothing, he bobbed along to the music until the refrain, ‘Here I come to save the day!’ which, while flourishing his hands, he lip-synched. He then fell mute until it appeared again. When the song finished, he removed the tone arm and bowed.” According to Zmuda, Kaufman’s act brought down the house.
“You’re not going to compare me to Andy Kaufman, are you?” asked the elusive Sassaman. His father was a milkman who earned $125 per week. His mother was a housewife. Theirs was not, he suggests, a happy marriage. His brother, Rick, was eight years older than Gary. “The age difference made me feel like I had three parents. Because Rick didn’t go swimming, I wasn’t allowed to go swimming. Rick didn’t have a bike, and so I didn’t get one either. And since Rick didn’t get a pet, neither did I.”
In the second issue of Innocent Bystander, entitled “I Don’t Want to Grow Up,” Sassaman lists all the pets he was not allowed to have as a child — a puppy, a kitty, a turtle, a hamster, a guinea pig, a lizard, an iguana — and his mother’s clear and final no to each. She was, he writes, nondenominational: she hated all animals. “My mother had a lame excuse about being bitten by a dog,” he told me. “I think she just didn’t want the responsibility. Animals probably scared her.”
He recalls his childhood, with its denials and limitations, in a sharp, almost chilling voice. He describes his family as “close-minded.” By junior high school, Sassaman was the kid who wanted to disappear, who’s learned to neither sit in the front of the class nor the back but somewhere in the anonymous middle; the kid who does not attract attention, rarely gets in fights, and never throws the first punch. They are seldom without weapons.
“Actually I’m pretty cynical,” he admits, “and for sure saracastic.”
“Friends like he are hard to find” was the inscription under his high school graduation photograph in the 1973 Sphinx, the Tamaqua Area High School yearbook. The grammatically incorrect statement was made to sound both generous and insincere. Sassaman likes the paradox.
After graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1976, Sassaman went into TV. Soon he was the lead graphic designer for KDKA-TV, the station out of Pittsburgh. The CBS affiliate offered five and a half hours of news each day. While by day Sassaman worked with his staff to ensure the studio set looked upbeat, the graphics up to the minute, at home each night, he drew cartoons. In 1995, he published his first issue of Innocent Bystander. It met with critical praise, as did the following issue. Both issues explored its creators’ obsessions. Sassaman did a piece entitled “Hollywood Hair” and another called “Political Hair.” In the first he drew portions of hair, just the forelock, ranging from Lon Chaney and Alfalfa to Marilyn Monroe; in the second were similar bits of hair whose owners ran the gamut from George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Newt Gingrich to members of the Kennedy clan. I found the personalities instantly identifiable, proof that Sassaman’s renderings reflect an astute eye.
“Are you going to write about my hair?” asked Sassaman, who began to lose his locks in the ninth grade.
Neither the first nor the second issue, however, was as successful as Innocent Bystander number 3, devoted to the Marx Brothers. Sassaman’s affection informs each image. That issue sold out. With each issue, Sassaman gained authorial confidence; by the publication of Innocent Bystander number 4, Sassaman was on a roll.
That issue was devoted to his cats, Stan and Ollie. He showed what cats saw and what they might reflect on. Unlike the smug one-liners of the comic strip Garfield, each frame in Innocent Bystander number 4 offered — in intensely observed moments — examples of the cats’ introspective, independent feline natures set against the mysterious workings of humans and the material world. Sassaman’s touch could be as rough as a cat’s tongue or as soft as a kitten’s paw; but the deft killer claws always peeked out, if ever so slightly.
Stan and Ollie, he writes, were not his first cats. In 1982, a friend at the station offered him a yellow kitten that looked like a lion. Sassaman, then 27 and living alone in a Pittsburgh apartment, figured a kitten would be entertaining. He took him home and named him Keaton, in honor of Buster Keaton, the silent-screen comic.
Sassaman found sharing his space took some adjusting. Keaton was affectionate and quickly became attached; when Gary worked late or went out with friends, the cat chewed on the dust jackets of his books and ripped album covers. He craved attention.
“I hate the smell of canned cat food and decided on Tender Vittles because it’s semi-soft and hasn’t got much of an odor.”
In the end, he thinks it may have been the cat food that helped do Keaton in. When he was three and a half, the cat developed a urinary tract infection. While Sassaman says this condition occurs in many neutered male cats, he feels an ongoing diet of semi-soft food enhanced Keaton’s chances of infection. The cat had to be catheterized.
“He was doing well when he came out of surgery. I wasn’t allowed to stay with him and went home. I think when he came to and did not see me, he felt abandoned. I got a call later saying he’d suddenly died.”
When he speaks of that phone call, Gary’s voice almost breaks with pain. Three months later, he got Stan and Ollie. “This time I decided on two cats, from the same litter, because I wanted them to be company for each other when I wasn’t around. But they had different personalities and fought like a couple of old ladies. I’d come home, and you could tell by the way they acted that they’d been at each other. Yet when it was time to eat — I fed them only dry cat food — I’d put their food in separate dishes, they’d always share the same bowl.
“With two cats there is the problem of the cat box. The one they have is the size of the Mojave Desert. It gets cleaned twice a day.”
Stan and Ollie have been with him almost 14 years. They give him, he says, the unconditional love he didn’t get as a child. The cats came with Sassaman west when he moved two years ago after visiting San Diego for the annual comic-book convention “Comic-Con,” one of the largest of the many conventions San Diego hosts each year, he says. Besides his television work, Gary maintains the Comic-Con website and, with a friend, authors a comic book called Geeksville (which includes signature Innocent Bystander material). Sassaman expects Image Comics, the third largest comic-book publisher in the U.S., will soon become their publisher.
When I told Sassaman that despite what I’d learned, it was still hard to pin him down, he replied that he had a job he liked and good friends he enjoyed. “I haven’t had much luck with women. I’d love to have a relationship someday, and I’m not saying it won’t happen. Who knows? But right now I get all sorts of love from my cats.”
He seemed, in fact, very much like his cats: private, distinctive, temperamental, and successful at eluding an easy grasp. “It’s a relationship,” he said, “and it’s easy to forget that they choose you, too, that they also have a say in the matter.”