RIP Tom Spurgeon
Transcribed and touched up some from my personal journal
NOT THE CALL I WAS EXPECTING It's been a little longer than a week since I found out that my friend Tom died. Caitlin's number had shown up on my phone, but she didn't leave a message. I called her back because I figured that she was maybe locked out of her house and needed someplace to hang until Erik got home. It's kind of weird that I assumed that particular scenario, it's never happened before, but that's what I somehow what I figured was up. Silly me.
Of course, I was wrong. Caitlin was making the rounds, telling everyone she could think of in our close knit Columbus community the bad news, so they wouldn't have to read about it the next day on social media. She asked me to call a couple of people for her, which I did to help alleviate her hard hard work for the evening. She was looking for comfort from that community at the same time, too, I think. I'm sorry sis, I feel like I could have done better helping on both accounts, but I was stunned and shocked, which made me slow and stupid.
Slow and stupid is what I'm still working my way through. At first I wasn't going to write about Tom, knowing that others were going to be doing the same thing. People much closer to him and with much longer relationships and those who are much better writers than I am: Friends. Family. Professionals. But it became apparent to me that, as the days went on that I needed towrite and draw in my journal for personal therapy, so I did that without thinking that I would ever share it. A couple more days passed after my first few journal entries and I realized that I would need to share it to complete that therapy.... so here we are.
MIX SYMPOSIUM 2013 "Friend" is a loaded word, despite social media companies' ongoing efforts of dimishing the complexity, value and beauty of the word. Friends can be the acquaintences that you share early morning "I hate mondays" with on the bus. They can be the family you chose for yourself, who you have invested in emotionally. Like so many subjective things, friendships fall on spectrum. Though our friendship was short in terms of time, I think that it was on the deeper side of any such mapping. Tom was more good friend/family than mere pal or chum. I looked forward to sharing stories and ideas with him when we met for coffee or ran into each other at events and parties. You know, he was a presence in my life, if not a daily feature.
We met each other in a thoroughly modern and basically transactional way. I got in contact with Tom for coverage of Nix Comics stuff on the Comics Reporter website. He was one of the few journalists willing to give me and my dopey comics a little time, and certainly the one with the farthest reach. The first time I met him in person was at Moccafest. or maybe it was SPX? I don't know for sure, but it was a handshake and smile and "nice to put a face to the name" sort of exchange. Later that year we met again on the artist alley floor at New York Comic Con and had more of time chumming around. I remember him liking my somewhat nihilistic take on life in the 'Alley at NYCC.
The chuminess first turned more towards actual friendhsip when Tom started to come to Columbus more frequently, I assume as part of a try-out process for moving here. If I have my timeline unmuddled, which I won't swear to, was for the Columbus College of art & Design (CCAD) hosted Mix Symposium. I was running the merchandise table for the whole show and we had several good conversations throughout the weekend as he stopped by in between lectures and panels. I am grateful to James for putting me on a panel talking about the Columbus comics scene with Tom, Jenny Robb, Bib Corby and Jeff Stang from the Laughing Ogre. It was after that panel that I think I got my first ever compliment from Tom.
"You did really good on the panel." Doesn't sound like much, but dude was on a LOT of panels in his day.
SICK WEEKEND Since friendships is a wavery sort of thing existing and changing on that spectrum I was musing over, it can be hard to pinpoint exact times when a friendship changes, unless its the direct result of a crisis of some sort. I think Tom's and my friendhsip started in earnest when he got sick not long after moving to Columbus and I stopped by to visit him in the hospital. (So yeah... recurring health problems. This time it was blood clots in his lungs.)
I was on my way home from work and I wanted to stop in and see him. I know that being in a hospital is tough enough when there are lots of people close by, and could only imagine what it would be like somewhere new, where you may not have as many friends and no family around. I had with me the 18x24 posters I had illustrated and printed for the Sick Weekend punk festival . We both thought it was funny that I hadn't even thought about the poor etiquette of bringing a poster for such a named festival to a hospital of all places. He outright laughed when I told him that this only was my latest instance of drawing a picture of someone barfing in a toilet and expecting eople to pay me for it.
THE EARLY GAME
I've seen a lot my Columbus friends talking about how Tom always showed up for parties and community events.. and it's true, he did show up for EVERYTHING he could. I think it was an important part of embracing the community that had extended an open arm welcome. Throw a comics-thing and Tom would not only be there, but be there early. Funny thing is, he would also leave early, not quite sneaking out, but definitely being stealthy leaving a lot of people saying "Hey, is Tom still here?" I'm not sure how many people noticed this was SOP for Tom, but I did. I do the same thing. In fact, it became something of a game between us to catch up after a party and brag on who managed to sneak out first.
I don't know Tom's reason for playing the Early game for sure, but I suspect that it was similar to mine. I'm a pretty private person, something that happened naturally as an emotional self defense mechanism, and but at the same time I love and crave time wen a roomith people. But I don't act on that desire for comminity as much as I should, I have a hard time getting over the social anxiety. It's hard work: even in a room of like minds I get the sinking feeling that I'm the weird kid even in a room full of weird kids. That hard work makes me tired, so I sneak out. (Also... drunk people make me cry... but I think Tom shared that problem.)
Anyways... A bunch of us got together the night after we all found out about Tom. (Caitlin's idea and at Caitlin's house. because she has the best ideas and the best house.) Everyone there was heartbroken, which is to say sad above all, but also experiencing all of the other emotions that make up heart break: Regret over times and opportunities lost, anger at the end of a friendship that should be ongoing, thankfulness for having known Tom. All of that was in everyone's eyes, but only some of us could find enough breath to pass the words through their lips. It was a night of crying, long stares and nervous laughter when almost appropriate.
I found myself laughing and crying over the fact that Tom and I will never lay the Early Game again.
TOM WAS A PRESENCE I already said that above, didn't I? If not, I'm saying it now and if so, it bears repeating. Tom was a presence in the comics community, in Columbus and in my life. He wasn't part of my day to day life, though, and that lends itself a particular weird form of grief. I notice that Tom is gone, but I likely wouldn't have seen him for a few weeks. Maybe the Holiday party I'm hosting?
That feeling of loss has come and gone over the past week. Ranging in intensity from a dull ache to an acute pang. Its made it hard to accomplish my day-to-day tasks. Not impossible, but definitely uncomfortable. I had to give a group presentation with some other students for a class last thursday, for instance. If those other kids' grades weren't dependent on me showing up, I might have taken the hit on my grade and blown it off... But I didn't want to do that to my peers, so I stood in fornt my Public Management class and talked about the NYC Center for Economic Opportunity, positive that tears were rolling down my cheeks the whole time. (They weren't. I asked my professor after class.)
My heart goes out to Tom's family and closest friends. The people whose day-to-days did involve Tom. Needed Tom. I hope that they are doing what they need to. Sleeping. Eating. Getting therapy. If you're in that group, and you need help from me, please let me know.
James came by my work for some comiseration that Friday. We had both been to the get together at caitlin's the night before, but I don't know if either of us had been able to talk it all through yet. He stayed later than I did that night, so he had already processed more with the group than I had, having left early. (Old habits die hard... that win in the early game was a clear cheat.)
James defiitely had some interesting thoughts about Tom's death that I hadn't thought of. We had both spent a lot of time glued to social media, reading condolences and tributes for Tom. It was the first time either James or I had lost a friend with such far reaching respect and such a broad extended community. Tom had only been here in Columbus for five years or so, and despite our deep attachment, had a lifetime of good works beyond Columbus comics. To see so many people praising Tom for his place in their lives, careers, well being was amazing. It was a confirmation, James put it, that he was who we thought he was. That Tom left a great legacy.
I know that Tom thought about his legacy a lot. He used that very word more than once in coffee-shop conversation. It was usually in the context of us talking about our ineffably esoteric comic collections. We would laugh about somebody trying to sort through our piles of obscure comics and art, autographed by people important to us but maybe nobody else.,That would inevitably segue into a more serious conversation. Tom would start by saying something like "I'm sure you've thought about your legacy" as if his lifework hadn't already eclipsed all that I'm likely to accomplish. (That was kind of Tom-all-over, not really admitting the difference, making me feel raised up.)
Honestly, it was always a weird conversation because I don't actually think a lot about my own legacy. I figure people will say what they will about me when I'm gone. It's likely to be a small group of people talking and I think, hope that I've done right by most of them. Tom, on the other hand, had to think about it because he touched so many people's lives. It was part of the responsibility he felt to those people. I'm just kind of getting that now.
"OH GOD... NOT GUNSMOKE. ANYTHING BUT GUNSMOKE"
That's what he interjected into a conversation at the release party for my last western comic. Somebody had asked me what my favorite old western TV shows were and I was kind of running down the current MeTV line up. I don't think that I praised or condemned Matt Dillon and crew in particular, because I think the show was sometimes good but mostly boring. Tom had apparently much worse than ambivalent feelings to the show, but the conversation moved on before we could talk about why. I always wanted to ask him about why he had such a hate on for Gunsmoke. I hoped it would come up in conversation again. I'm sad it never will.
I have a lot of silly hangings on like that. Unresolvable silly qiuestions about pop culture as well as deeper, more serious things. We were sore at each other recently about non-profit stuff, trading some prickly emails revolving around what constitutes fair and equitable treatment of artists on the floor of festivals. We reached a point on that where we both made accomodations for each other's point of view,(i.e. stopped sending each other shitty emails) and agreed to talk about it sometime after this year's CXC. Sometime around now.
That's part of the sting, right? You always have the stuff undone and the opportunities missed when someone passes...
This is where I stopped journalling. I remember misting up and realizing that I was on the precipice of diving face first into a non-therapeutic emotional word salad. Our friendship didn't last nearly long enough, Tom. Rest in peace.