I had been thinking about my friend Nick a lot these past few weeks.
For some reason he was on my mind...even though I was half a world away...even though I wasn't as of yet aware of his sudden illness.
Standing in front of St. Basil's Cathedral in Red Square one day--my first time in Moscow-- I had the distinct feeling that I'd already been here!
The iconic onion domes and their riot of color became mutated as the sun began to fade. I bundled up my 20 euro coat that was my wisest purchase on a former trip to Venice (I'm notorious for never having a jacket when I need one, except on this rare occassion) and now, with a distinct European look, I imagined it allowed me to blend in amongst the jean wearing, black jacketed Moscowvites. That was until I realized that the fur hat I'd bought in the local flea market-- a fitting Russian souvenir-- probably gave me away as the tourist that I really was.
It was cold for me that day, but when I asked my friend Kostya if Russians really wore hats such as these, or just us tourists, he laughed and said "Well, maybe in Winter."
So anyway…here I was, on a solitary night, with a petrified Lenin to my right, resting waxedly and incommunicado in his mausoleum, looking--if he could-- ironically towards the massive 100+ year old monument to capitalism, the GUM department store on my left, Red Square firmly below my feet, and St. Basil's a silhouette against the graying sky, and lights fading like sand running through a glass, marking the passage of another day.
And then, just when you think the scene is over, that the world is going to sleep once again on this little plot of land that has seen so much tragedy and triumph, an array of lights hit the domes, and the brilliance of this structure that has endured it all, came to life in a whole new and wonderful way.
As if to say: I'm not done just yet.
Even Stalin, apparently, when he was rearranging the statues in Red Square to make room for massive military parades noted the importance of St. Basil's. When the architect showed him a model in which the cathedral had been torn down to make room for more tanks. He famously yelled: PUT IT BACK!"
(Wouldn't it be nice to be able to do that with people too. "Sorry, he's not done just yet. Please put him back.")
It was then that it dawned on me! Just why I'd felt like I'd seen this site before. Been here before. And that feeling didn't come from a photograph. We've all seen the photographs… What I remembered was an imprint and a feeling and a sense of place. An impression in time... A story.
And that's when I knew why….
Because Nick Cardy had been here before.
And just like Nick, he had painted this very riot of life and tangents, and his works were etched in my mind… as well as his voice… his artistic voice and the real one.
I can hear him now, with the built in chuckle, relating to me his stories of being in this very spot--and I visualized the little shoe shine boy who seemed amazed by the stick of gum Nick gave him inside this same church.. AND the Russian soldier that asked for one too; the lines of tourists following a flag, the sight of which reminded Nick for an unwieldy caterpillar, and so he painted it that way.
Yes, the art-- the art to go with the stories, always infused with that Cardy humor.
One piece in particular that I remember is of a stout Russian lady, broom of gathered twigs and twine in hand, sweeping the leaves in front of the cathedral-- you'll notice in Moscow that there never seems to be any trash, but there is a dirth of trash cans! These plain woolen dressed women with the scarves tied around their heads, I imagine (and so did Nick), are the reason why--juxtaposed in front of the grandeur of the Kremlin, sweeping, sweeping, as though to uncover the layers of history that had happened on this spot.
Mr. Cardy painted all of that.
" I need to take a picture of myself and show it to Nick." I thought. "He'll get a kick out of my being here." And no doubt the picture would bring a cascade of wonderful stories and "Nick will regal me for an hour or two."
One little spark like that was all he needed! Nick was a storyteller in words, not only in pictures, you see...
In fact, that's how Nick and I first became friends.
It was at the Baltimore Comic Con, circa 2008 and artist Michael Golden and I had the good fortune to be seated at the table with the legendary Nick Cardy-- artist of "Bat-Lash," "Aquaman," "Teen Titans," and one of the best cover designers DC Comics has EVER had.
It turned out to be an amazing evening of stories and laughter and fun, the dinner part of it ending with Nick receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hero Initiative.
I felt so honored to be there with Nick, as he humbly walked on the stage and accepted this great honor with his usual wit and humor.
Afterwards, in the glow of the spotlight, Nick alighted himself in a leather bound chair in the hotel lobby, and allowed himself a rare glass of scotch or some such thing. There was an empty chair beside him, and having enjoyed the dinner conversation so much, I took it for my own.
Stories and jokes later, we realized it was 3 am.
These are rare and treasured moments…. you know the ones. When you meet someone and you feel as though you have already known them forever. That was Nick for me.
And we were friends ever since.
It was a friendship that would lead to working together as well. Since 1997, after having been an Assistant Editor and Editor at DC, Marvel and Topps, I'd been running my own little publishing company for art books, portfolios and such, named Eva Ink. Doing so puts me in the nice position of being very choosy about the projects that I work on. And being able to produce labors of love.
So, you can imagine my excitement when a few years after meeting Nick, Golden and myself were at a show in Tampa and decided to drive to Sarasota to visit him.
While there, Nick showed us around and gave us the grand tour of his artwork-- much of which he still had-- western paintings, super heroes, portraits, and of course the aforementioned travels to Russia. Again, each one had a wonderful commentary to go with.
Todd Dezago was there as well, and the day sped by, in excellent company.
Just as we were about to leave, Nick said, "Hey, I don't think I've shown you these." He then handed a binder to me, I opened it up, and what unfolded before my eyes was a unique and inspiring story.
You see, during World War II, Nick had been an assistant tank driver. A job that he readily admits he wasn't in the least bit ready for. He didn't even know how to drive a car, much less a TANK!
"Remember seeing all the those edges of buildings chopped off in Belgium," he'd say "That was MY work."
While Nick may not have been a tank driver, he was an artist! And he did what an artist does.
He fashioned himself a small watercolor kit in a Sucrets tin, and packed away a small drawing pad, and with this, throughout his 3.5 years in the War, and two Purple Hearts, he chronicled his experiences.
Recording for us all the good times and the bad: The dinners in bombed out houses when they could pretend for a few hours that life was sane; the liberation of a concentration camp and pleading skeletons asking for food which they could not have least the sudden stress to the body might finish them at last; the people of Belgium harvesting newly shelled horses for much needed food; the death of a friend when a bullet took off his head as he looked out the tank; the horrified look of frightened eyes staring up from a discovered trap door; jokes played on commanding officers; and the unsuspected meeting of a German solider in the shelled out facade, as they both looked for a latrine--Nick realizing he was there from the tap tap tap of his steel toed boots… they looked at each other, turned in opposite directions, and both just walked away...
What I was holding in my hand was one man's story of the War as told through his artwork.
"Nick, we have to make a book of this," I said. Feeling an incredible and urgent need to preserve what I saw and show it to others. In fear that something so special might just vanish without anyone really knowing about it, as so many things sadly do.
"Do you think anyone would want to read it," he said.
The answer in my head was "Hell yes!" But I replied: "Of course! I want to read it. Others will too."
That was typical Nick. So humble.
So, we began the process of scanning, and interviewing Nick and writing, and putting the book together... I still have all the tapes.
It all took the better part of a year.
The result was "Nick Cardy: The Artist at War," and it's one of my favorite books I've written, and to date, and true to my prediction, it has appeared in two versions all over the world. The first, the US version by Eva Ink Publishing, printed the same size as the actual sketchbook-- something I felt I wanted to see. And the newly released coffee table edition from Titan Publishing, released as a large impressive coffee table book.
And I do think, Nick enjoyed all the interviews and all the attention paid to his sketchbook. The most recent interview published last Veterans Day in the Huffington Post. And I hope he also realized how important this artifact really was, as people had the chance to thank him for his service.
"I got the draft letter on April 1st. April Fool's Day," he laughed ."I was working at Will Eisner's studio then, and I'd hoped it was some kind of joke, you know. But of course it wasn't… I was just a kid, " he said, "We all were, on either side. And we were all scared. Just people in a terrible situation and trying to live. To get back home..."
When you take something so big as World War II. Something so terrible, so all encompassing, it's hard to grasp the import of it all. But when you distill it down to one person's story, one journey, it truly brings the event to life in a whole new way. And you are "there" in some aspect, in a way you never were before.
Nick gave us that with his sketches.
We followed up this book with a tome that covered Nick's comic, movie, and advertising work, "Nick Cardy: Wit-Lash," a title that Nick liked because he'd laugh that it was a "take off on your last name "Witterstaetter" and "Bat-Lash."
That wasn't the intent, but he liked the joke.
I am so going to miss Nick, in so many little and even at this point unrealized ways, that will become evident to me as days pass:
The sad thing about having a friend in their 90's is that you know the time is limited.
The good thing about having a friend is their 90's is that you KNOW the time is limited.
The more sad thing would be not to have them at all.
And of course, I've lost dear friends of every age…and when it happens, we know: We always need to call more, talk more, laugh more, than we ever take time to do...
Before we received the e-mail while in Russia, from Todd, telling Golden and I that Nick was ill, I'd just said a prayer for him at St. Basil's in fact-- one of those little ironies... a small Chicadee--Nick's favorite birds, washing himself in a sand pool near a window, had prompted me to do so. And I thought "I really need to try to call Nick when I get back home."
Then the message came, and by the time we were able to get through to Todd, to tell Nick we loved him, Nick wasn't able to talk on the phone. Todd told him though that I was in Russia, and Nick was able to say "Good for her!"
I'm smiling, because that was typical Nick as well.
What I know I'll miss immediately is that whenever I needed an ego boost, all I had to do was give Nick a call. If I was feeling down, he'd always say something that brightened my day. He was always giving me pep talks and telling me he thought I was doing an amazing job.
It's nice to have people like that in your life, you know.
There are always plenty of the other kind.
Nick would always apologize for "talking my ear off," I'd laugh and say "Nick, don't be silly. I love talking to you."
And it was true. Nick may have been 90+, but he had a younger heart than many 40 year olds that I know.
And Nick, my dear friend, I so wish you could talk my ear off right now. I never grew tired of listening.
November 5, 2013