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Real Stuff

A life of graphic stories, in graphics

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"You're probably like me; you've got a whole battery of life stories to tell people," posits author Dennis P. Eichorn at the start of our interview. "But I don't like to be the center of attention. I don't sit around telling stories all the time." Instead, in a career move made of equal parts exhibitionism and sin-confession, this Borah High School and University of Idaho alum has offered up his lifetime of scandalous reminiscences as literary fodder for comic book illustrators under the umbrella title of Real Stuff. With the recent release of a book anthology, young fans of underground comics have a second chance to dip into the seedy side of Idaho as their baby-boomer parents hazily recall it (or heard about on Monday morning from Eichorn)--full of drugs, brutal violence and impulsive sex acts still considered felonies in our state. Brawls in Caldwell; teacher-student assault in Idaho Falls; hypersexual inter-gender boxing in Moscow; it's all Eichorn, all fair game and all real--or perhaps, more accurately, "all-too-real."

The 43 collected stories start innocently enough, usually with drinking-a-beer-on-the-porch clauses like, "It started innocently enough," "After I got kicked out of Whitman College" or "I had a mega-bummer back in 1974." From there, they leap in a matter of frames into brushes with serial killers, street gangs or really, really mean mosquitoes. Or perhaps none of the above, as in the simple strip in which a verbal misunderstanding causes a Boise pharmacist to mistakenly sell preteen Eichorn some condoms. The pleasure of the stories is the way that they alternate, like the best barroom conversation, from horrifying to quietly amusing without stopping for breath--and then ending with a nifty wrap-up line like, "It just goes to show you that even natural enemies can be friendly," "No wonder he acted so crazy!" or "The next year I discovered LSD and that changed everything."

It could easily be argued that an identical book could be written about any number of burned-out survivors from the keggers of yore. That Eichorn of all people is the lucky stiff who gets to immortalize his drinking stories in comics involves a barrage of fortuitous circumstances.

After decades of working across Idaho, Washington and California as a bartender, firefighter, process server, bouncer and a few dozen other odd jobs, Eichorn started his own Seattle-based graphic arts magazine The Rocket during the American comics renaissance of the 1980s. As such, the illustrators for Eichorn's yarns form a "who's who" of the now-revered sequentialist artists who composed in the vein of "For Mature Readers." Quite a few--most famously Ivan Brunetti, Dan Clowes, Joe Sacco and Jaimie and Gilbert Hernandez--have garnered enough acclaim to turn up in the recent comics-as-literature anthology by McSweeney's Quarterly Concern. Others have progressed to Marvel or even Mad, who now employs the immensely talented Peter Kuper (artist for the creepy Eichorn environmental horror story "Cold Plutonium Sweat") to do "Spy vs. Spy."

Many of the artists in Real Stuff are content to deliver the story in straightforward styles that show little variation from their more-recognized works, letting the story stand center stage. Others, like Carel Moiseiwitsch, artist behind the very first Real Stuff story "Fatal Fellatio," take an episode like Eichorn's encounter with a suicidal prostitute and insert elaborate artwork that adds mythical resonance to an otherwise unsettling story. The working woman becomes Kali, the vicious Hindu goddess donning a necklace of men's skulls; the john remains Eichorn, bewildered but always up for more gratification.

"A lot of [artists] add things to the script," he admits, "because they've got so much imagination--they almost resent you for embellishing their fantasy world. Some of the women especially go off on their own and don't want any help. They have their own picture of what a man's universe looks like, and it's always a lot of fun."

And a "man's universe" it definitely is. Eichorn's adventures, both in and out of Idaho, are rife with football, fists and impersonal fornication that doubtless seemed to largely male comic book audiences both a slap in the face from a jock and titillating fantasy fulfillment. He's often not the good guy, even in stories of his own creation, and the inclusion of a hilarious and irate Real Stuff parody sent in by a reader shows Eichorn can find humor even (or especially) at his own expense. "Publishing these stories in prose makes them kind of go away," he explains. "You don't find yourself telling them or thinking about them anymore--but there's always more bullshit where that came from."

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