April 21, I opened the last, hardest box of old sketchbooks.
I found wondrous things. Love letters to my late beloved Rob Sawyer, even more New Mutants slash art of Rahne and Dani, a sketch of my friend Chris Claremont made in fall 1986. I even found the first portraits I ever drew, coming soon.
I have been archiving my 80s and 90s art since April 2019.
Self-portraits from the ’80s! The archiving project was very hard. So hard it dragged to a halt by mid-2020. I have only barely resurrected it the last couple months.
I had no idea I’d drawn Chris!
I don’t remember drawing this, but based on the sketchbook it was I’m estimating it was drawn in the Fall of ’86. Chris Claremont was a great comfort to me in the terrible Fall of 1986.
More drawings of Dani, from ’85 and ’86.
I was working so hard to draw the New Mutants as individuals, especially Rahne and Dani. Trying to give them distinct bodies, faces and characters, as co-creator Bob McLeod and defining artist Bill Sienkiewicz had.
And of course ’80s fashion!
Wow, ’80s fashion. It wasn’t all bad.
At the same time, I was trying to learn to draw superheroes!
I had to learn the standards and aesthetic of comics, and so much technical stuff. Perspective! I have so much respect for the young woman I was and how hard I worked for my dream.
Learning to draw expressions! And movement!
1985 was a long, long year of my life. I was at Parsons, in the Illustration Program, and also studying preferred anatomy texts of comic artists all the time. And I was a junkie, on weekends.
The New Mutants, the X-Men and the Teen Titans kept me going.
I was really, really depressed and profoundly traumatized, but also so goddam determined. All I cared about were comics, my friends, and getting high on the weekends.
And then my favorite character Danielle was attacked and threatened with sexual assault, in New Mutants 35!
Jesus! I was so angry, I wrote this letter to Chris in one of my sketchbooks. I was gonna send it to the New Mutants’ letter column. Ultimately, as I got drunker that night, I sent a telegram instead! I occasionally sent drunk telegrams, in the ’80s.
Finding this letter as a midlife, long-healing queer, I love that angry girl.
Although I am saddened at how ignorant I was. Today I know that American families who have a Native American great-grandmother are families who participated in harm, not “part American Indian”. I also didn’t know the term “survivor” back then, or identify as one yet.
I was really worried that there was gonna be a Dark Mirage storyline!
I’m sure there has been, by now! But there wasn’t, then. And oddly enough, I wound up finding a lot to like about the man who wrote the story, despite his long history of writing bad things happening to women. In 1986 I met Chris Claremont, and got together with Rob.
Joy seemed to burst through the carapace of struggle, for a time.
The passion I felt for comics and the career ahead conjoined with love and hope. I went to San Diego Comic Con on a cloud of youth, ambition and drugs. And then tragedy, trauma, all the things that happened in New York in the ’80s to junkies and queers, and descent into deep addiction.
So that when I finally broke into comics in ’93, I wound up working for DC, on Star Trek, and never did get to draw teenage superheroes.
There is a new generation of amazing people working in comics.
I almost never buy comics, but when there’s buzz about a New Mutants arc, I perk up my ears. Vita Ayala, a trans non-binary Afro-Puerto-Rican writer from NYC, has been doing fantastic New Mutants work. (Their twitter is here, website here!)
I saw the panel above shared online a couple months ago and ordered the issue (plus Ayala’s other NM work), but it only arrived in Berlin today.
That’s ok, today is soon enough to see this joy, this miracle.
A whole New Mutants comic about queer community, restorative justice, personal and community accountability, healing trauma, and women kissing women! The beautiful art is by DaniloBeyruth as Artist and Dan Brown as color artist. Dani and Rahne share a beautiful scene of honesty and connection and intimacy.
What an incredible experience, to see it all said out loud.
Well, written out loud, anyway! At last, at last! Illyana speaks on rage and trauma, telling your own story, and the most important things, connection and community. Xi’an gets together with a woman character I learned is Galura, a Filipina mutant who’s also canonically a lesbian!
Xi’an, Galura, Dani and Rahne confront a long-term agent of harm with tenets of restorative justice.
Rahne chooses to give forgiveness and Xi’an chooses not to. Plus the Proudstar brothers hug! Both Dani and Ororo express personal accountability and the intent to do better, and Ororo speaks about community accountability as well. What a wonderful voyage into the present and future of comics. So grateful to Vita Ayala for the work they’re doing!
Everything I hoped for as a young woman who loved these characters and this medium, and more. Can’t wait to see the next issue, and so glad I’m done opening boxes.
Golden rose, the color of the dream I had Not too long ago Misty blue and lilac too A never to grow old.
– jimi hendrix, One Rainy Wish, 1967
Robert Johnston Sawyer photographed by Suzanne Forbes aka Rachel Ketchum in Montauk July 1986
When someone gifted dies young, the loss reverberates through a lifetime.
Berlin, 2016: It’s 30 years this month, but in this city of graffiti and skateboarders I dream of him constantly, and the grief still kicks like a mule. The history of my life broke open at that point. I go weeks without thinking of my first husband, but I think of Rob every day. Robert Johnston, who was intending to change his name back to his mother’s, Sawyer.
So to me he was Rob Sawyer, my great love at nineteen. He was twenty.
His talent, his love for his family, his sadness.
I remember his artistmother, just returned from a trip to Paris with her third husband, bringing him bandes dessinées, all of us gathered in their Crosby St. loft around her. I am older now than she was then, unimaginably, and I hope will be as third time lucky.
I once showed a picture of him to a Millennial friend. “Wow, he was a classic 80’s bad boy!” she said.
Huh, I said. I mean, he rode a motorcycle and wore a leather jacket and he was an art criminal- but I never once thought of him as a bad boy. I always thought of him as pure goodness, the boy who was so much better and truer and kinder than I deserved.
Also, compared to some of my other boyfriends, with the drug dealing and guns?
Rob’s life by when we got together of making art, going to art school, spending time with his family, hanging and drinking with his downtown friends and skateboarding seemed relatively low-key. He was in Fine Art at SUNY Purchase, painting delicious ice-cream pastel still-lifes, and taking photographs too. He had taken some experimental drugs at school, and that worried me, but who hadn’t?
Of course there were dark days when I first met him, when I was fourteen and he was fifteen.
He was a serious graffiti writer, not just getting up, but an artist who had keys to the 6 Yards. He had spent much of the years from fourteen to eighteen out all night, his messenger bag rattling with cans, creating full-car t-to-b burner pieces of extraordinary beauty. His sister Cecile, who I loved deeply, took me in when I ran away the first time, at fourteen. That was when I met him, at the Crosby St. loft in the Winter of 1981. His bedroom was completely covered in graffiti, a gallery of color.
His tag was “Scribe”, which is objectively brilliant.
One night we had blue margaritas at a restaurant on 8th Avenue.
We came home drunk. We were always drunk, unless we were drunk and high. He was the first boyfriend I had who was just always down to get as drunk as me, ALL THE TIME. We lay in bed talking for hours, as we did sometimes. I would ask him questions about being a boy, like “Have you ever been in a fight? What did it feel like to you?”
That night he told the story of his friend who had touched the third rail, back in his writing days.
He told me about how when they found his friend’s body the rats had been eating it. He was crying and I remember the heat in his cheeks, the way it felt to hold him to me, like it was yesterday. He hadn’t had anybody to share things like that with, as close as he was to his family. It was a terrible night, being open to his pain like that, but it was beautiful too.
People we knew were always dying in those days.
One time we were standing outside the office of my Upper East Side gynecologist, after I’d taken a pregnancy test. “If you’re pregnant, I’ll marry you and we’ll have the baby”, he said lovingly. “If I’m pregnant, I’ll have an abortion!”, I said, shocked and outraged at his presumption over my body and my choices. He was the son and brother of women who’d gotten pregnant and married very young and cherished the children who resulted; I was the daughter of a woman who’d had two illegal abortions, then later fought to have two carefully planned children despite her husband’s resistance.
I didn’t know, that July morning, that I was late because I was doing so much more heroin than I ever had.
“Any old time is a good time to stop drinking the suttee-flavored Kool-Aid of survivor’s guilt.”
I recently found that written on a scrap of the Oakland Tribune Food section from 2007. I must have believed it when I wrote it; why have I made so little progress since then? He would not have wanted me to marinate in this corrosive fluid; he fucking LOVED me.
Practicing his signature for returning to his mother’s name.
And, he LOVED ME. He wrote it on my bed, which was all tagged up, too.
He loved to photograph me.
He was always bringing me little gifts. He slept with me at the apartment I shared with my mom on 20th St. every night, but he would go home to Crosby St. for an afternoon to pick up clothes and hug his sisters. He’d stop in the Village on the way back to buy a cigarette lighter with an Alphonse Mucha print on it or a pair of huge baroque shell earrings from a street vendor.
We fought and made up; we fought fiercely, like siblings.
I woke up slowly, in the air-conditioned chill of my tiny bedroom, his arms snug around me as always, his long body spooned behind me as always. Reached for glasses, cigarettes, turned in his arms to nuzzle his cheek, downy with soft golden beard. We talked of the usual for a little bit, the catch-up of what I’d missed in the blacked-out parts of the night.
Then a shock came through me like a blade, as he said, “You hit me last night.” “What??! Why?” “You said you loved me and I said I didn’t believe you.” I was overwhelmed with remorse, and more, fear that it was true. I desperately reassured him. “I know,” he said, “I know.” “I was just drunk.”
Reading comics together was our great joy.
We would go to the comic store every Thursday and come back with our stacks.
The new Swamp Thing, Vol. 2 #52, was the first thing we read from the Thursday pile.
Shoulder to shoulder at the dining room table, “Now? now?” to turn the page.
Abby and Alec were in New York.
It was so intense we could hardly breathe. My mom laughed at us.
The July issue of Swamp Thing was called “Natural Consequences”.
He always put his skateboard in our fireplace, at an angle.
He wore the same sneakers Kyle Reese wears in Terminator. He liked The Three Stooges. He had read “Ulysses”. We hung out with my ex Tom, who had been my boyfriend before Rob, and Stefan, who had been my boyfriend before Tom. I called Tom “Babe” and Stef “Honey” and Rob “Angel”; all three of them were “Sweetheart” when I needed someone to pass me an ashtray.
In mid July we went to his family’s cottage in Montauk and had a dream weekend getaway of bondage nights, photoshoot and fried clam days. We went to Tom’s birthday party at his family’s house in Connecticut; Rob and I made love on the lawn under the stars and I got 45 chigger bites on my right leg alone.
We went to see “Labyrinth” at the theater in East Hampton with Stefan and then hung out in the graveyard drinking. Rob’s remains are interred there, under a stone with his tag. His mother is amazing. She also has a tattoo of his tag.
We would go uptown to score smack, then hustle over to Riverside Park to watch the sunset.
I would make omelets for breakfast. We drank Becks, constantly. We listened to T-Rex all the time.
We got yelled at in Manic Panic cause he was buying me bustiers and he came in the dressing room to look.
He loved my Betsey Johnson dresses, my garters and stockings and four-inch vintage heels. He put ice cubes in his beer when it wasn’t cold enough – and it was always hot, that summer in New York. He was going to summer school at the New York Studio School; I was going to summer school at Parsons.
At summer school I reconnected with my oldest friend, Victoria, and Rob and Victoria and I became a pack, a family unit, for the last weeks of his life.
We went to Rye, and he met my father.
Rob could drive, and my mom let us use her car whenever we wanted. Rob was the only partner I ever took to meet my father. On the way there we pulled over to the side of the road to try and get a YIELD sign to go over my bed, but the bolts were rusted shut.
My father gave us a handful of cash, and we went to Rye Playland, and rode on every ride, and the rollercoaster twice. All the time in the world.
We went everywhere together, did everything together, for less than 90 days and nights.
Anything I needed to do, he went with me. And I helped him through getting his wisdom teeth out! He protected me, and I have never been protected again, or allowed protection.
Comics were the center of our exhilaration, and of my ambition.
He supported me like no one else ever has. He drove me to the airport for San Diego Comic Con on July 31, after a July of incredible adventures. He was a person of loyalty and bravery, and to love someone like me took nerves of steel. It didn’t help that I’d slept with Rob’s best friend (above, reading the new John Byrne Superman) right before Rob, or that I was also really close to Chris Claremont.
It seems impossible that someone so full of love and talent and kindness and anger could go from the world in one night.
But he did, the weekend I was in San Diego for Comic Con. My friend Sheepdog had introduced Rob to crack, and Rob bought a personal stash of heroin for “while you’re away”, and he overdosed on a hot summer night at his family loft on Crosby St.
Suzanne Forbes With Cecile Sawyer Rooftop August 1986 by Victoria Aronoff
Rob’s sister Cecile and I were photographed by Victoria on our roof in Chelsea, sad goths in humidity.
Rob’s mother put together a beautiful show of his art in the East Village, but I was too messed up to go.
I had been attacked in San Diego, and the events happening simultaneously created a nest of trauma that I couldn’t understand for thirty years.
All his friends blamed me for his death, with reason, as I was the person who gave him heroin for the first time. He had asked others, but I was the one who did it with him.
His mother and Cile were kind to me, and I am forever grateful.
In September Abby returned home to her empty house, as I returned to my empty bedroom, and we grieved together.
These violent delights have violent ends
And in their triumph die, like fire and powder,
Which, as they kiss, consume.
I wrote the draft of this post in July 2016, when the poison eggs of my 1986 PTSD finally hatched.
It was a spring and summer of terrible pain and grief, and then it stretched into years of finally feeling what happened in the first days of August 1986. The Kavanaugh hearings were the last straw, and I started EMDR therapy with a gentle and loving Berlin trauma therapist. It helped so much.
I began unbinding my grief for my loss, his family’s loss, and the world’s loss of this beautiful boy.
It has not ended. It is part of the fabric of who I am, today, in a gentler way than it was the last thirty-plus years. He is never forgotten, always in my heart.
I put his tag in the first comic I ever drew.
As well as in several later ones, and in the most detailed painting I ever made.
The painting at the top was made in 1990, when I made several paintings to try and process Rob’s death. It has T-Rex lyrics written all over it in silver Pentel ink, which has proved remarkably archival. Much like this love.
This painting had never been photographed; most of the photos have never been published online. Until now, no online record of them existed – if we had a fire or flood they would just be gone forever.
I am so grateful to my Patrons on Patreon, whose monthly financial support makes it possible for me to take time to document my art archives.