Essay | Requiescat

There were some amazing artists on this planet. There's the common saying that artists suffer for their art, because that's one of the most common routes for passion and ideas. But some suffer more than others. Some suffer for their art until they just stop suffering. And making art. And breathing.

Is that an enticing enough introduction yet? I'm here to write about three awesome artists in three different fields that all up and died unexpectedly.

The first one I wanted to talk about was comic book artist Seth Fisher. I had always known of him and his style, but it was only fairly recently that I really got into his work. His style was and still is unlike anything else in comics. He is one of those talented enough to morph his art on different books, but not so much that you can't tell it's him. It's all Seth Fisher's signature style: Bizarre, detailed, beautiful and mind-blowing. I've only read two of his works so far, but each one is an intense looking experience.

Vertigo Pop! Tokyo is a four issue series that was perfect for Seth Fisher. It's tells the story of an American techie living in Japan falling into the bizarre intersection of the Yakuza and the Harajuku district cosplay scene. There's kidnappings, concerts, idols and costumes all mixed in with the beautiful, hyperactive colors of modern day Japan and its schizophrenic pop culture. In this, he plays more with angles and perspective. A lot of it is drawn to a deceptively difficult grid - sometimes isometric, sometimes top-down, when other artists would simply go with an easier, more sensible medium side-shot. Seth Fisher didn't draw easy.

This is even more apparent in the 2001 superhero work that got him noticed and nominated for awards - Green Lantern: Willworld. It features GL Hal Jordan lost in some bizarre, non-sequiter land called Odd which is populated by floating heads, aliens of all stripes, powerful obese naked men with Tibetan flourishes and dozens of tiny, tiny egg samurai. It is insane but consistent in its insanity. It is an eyeful. Here, Fisher's work is more fluid and in-step with the storytelling. The brilliance here is in the detailed imagination. It is so ripe with intense intricacies and variety that reading it takes longer because you end up staring at every panel like it's a Where's Waldo? puzzle. Every background character or rusty piece of a building is so wonderfully imagined and conceptualized that you wonder just how much work was put into simply coming up with the idea of what to draw. That's a creative process in and of itself, nevermind the hours it takes to get pencils and inks down.

In the same way Darick Robertson creates and fills the cyberpunk-ish world of Transmetropolitan with telling and multi-dimensional background characters, Seth Fisher did that times eight. The characters here pull from everywhere, all art styles, all eras, and are designed to break your mind if you look in awe for too long. He plays with paneling and storytelling here more than he did in Vertigo Pop!, and he can hang with the best of them in this regard. There are particularly amazing pages where the white space between panels - that incomprehensible place between moments in time - turns into an angry face. There's a scene where Green Lantern breaks through the panels of the previous page, scattering them like cards.

Seth Fisher died in 2006 when he fell off the roof at a club in Osaka, Japan. He was 33 years old, just 5 years after he was really taking off in the comics world. A few things have been published posthumously, mostly illustrations, but it's sad to know that he probably hadn't even peaked yet. We will never get to see his best work.

Another one of my favorites that we lost too soon is comedian Mitch Hedberg. He was a unique comedian, which is something rare when crudeness and risque offensiveness seems to get you a show on E! anyway. Casual fans don't realize how hard stand-up comedians work at writing jokes. It's not a matter of being naturally funny and then telling jokes you thought of on-stage. Like any writing, it takes meticulous brainstorming, editing, rewording and refining. Mitch Hedberg's jokes were so good, so clean and sharp, it was hard to imagine they were ever written.
"When I was a boy I used to lay in my twin sized bed at night, wondering where my brother was."

"One time, this guy handed me a picture of him, he said,'Here's a picture of me when I was younger.' Every picture of you is when you were younger. 'Here's a picture of me when I'm older.' 'You son-of-a-bitch! How'd you pull that off? Lemme see that camera!' "

"My friend asked me if I wanted a frozen banana, I said "no, but I want a regular banana later, so ... yeah"

Mitch Hedberg was fucking brilliant and I will fight you if you disagree. When we lost him, we lost more than one person, but also a slanted perspective on the world. His observational comedy was bizarre yet on-the-nose, accessible to every comedy nerd and random channel flipper. It's what observational comedy should be, before Seinfeld defined the style. It's looking at the world and, packed into a single punch, exploring that angle we forgot.
"I like rice. Rice is great when you're hungry and you want 2,000 of something."

"I'm against picketing, but I don't know how to show it."

"I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that's funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down. Or if the pen's too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain't funny"

I don't know who else is doing this kind of humor. Jack Handey? Someone tell me, because Mitch came from a point of view that, I think, is really rare. It's a creativity that we can't comprehend, a unique perspective that won't be explored with his absence.

Mitch Hedberg died 2005 at 37. The official cause of death is multiple drug toxicity including cocaine and heroin. He wasn't a wholesome comedian, his drug use was no secret, it was even the source of a few jokes. I had read reports of his shows before he died where he would just lie down on stage, as if so messed up he couldn't concentrate or do a show. If you've seen any of his early clips, you saw a different guy: No sunglasses, different manner of speaking, much more normal on stage. But still somewhat afraid of the camera and the huge crowds. He was as unique as ever, but he had not yet settled into a persona. Maybe he never should have.

Elliott Smith is probably the most famous person on this list. He is the kind of tragic fabled musical idol in the same way that Kurt Cobain and John Lennon were when they passed, but to a smaller, cult following. He has been a favorite of every sad person at some point, myself included, though I was only 10 when he was starting to break out. Unlike the last two people on this list, Elliott Smith had a big library of work. Not a full career, but he covered 6 studio albums before his death and countless unheard demos, which leaves fans with plenty to keep them company. Maybe not enough, but it's not like we never got to know the guy.

What makes Elliott Smith's case interesting, to me, is the heavy, sincere mourning that followed and still follows to this day. He was the kind of singer-songwriter that people attached to because he created the illusion of intimacy and raw bareness with his music: the lo-fi acoustics, the multi-tracked voice, the above-whisper singing. There are a lot of those around, singers who can quietly call upon your empathy through your headphones, but Elliott Smith was one of the best. His music was the kind of the deceived you into thinking you understood him and he understood you. That was never his intention, but whether he liked it or not, that became his myth.

But it is a deception, because to believe we understand anything about an artist through their art has the tendency to be arrogant and assuming. But it's something that can't be helped. When Elliott Smith sings about drug use in Needle in the Hay, listeners have to decide whether it's an outlet, or a fiction or a metaphor. When he sings, "I can't prepare for death more than I already have," on "King's Crossing," the imagination runs wild and considers that maybe he already knew where he was headed. That song finishes with a pleading, fading, "Don't let me get carried away / Don't let me be carried away," and for better or worse, people want to believe it was more than just song drama.

He's become lost as a person and absorbed as an archetype: the tortured artist that meets tragedy. It's as if our cultural memory needs a replacement every few years. He also becomes a moment in time that ripples forward: every artist whose misery and pain comes across so earnestly, clearly and powerfully, we wonder if they're going to end up like Elliott Smith. If this new one, too, will suffer more for their art.

Elliott Smith died on October 21, 2004 from two stab wounds to the chest, thought to be self-inflicted at the time. Although eventually it would be ruled be inconclusive, it was at the time crazy to think about in this light: His depression was so deep that he chose a slow, personal and horrendous method. He chose to stab himself in the chest, remove it, and then summon the willpower -- without regret -- to do it again. It was appalling. How great does your pain have to be that pills, guns, nooses and other forms of suicide wouldn't do? How heavy can life get that the end has to be so deliberate and gruesome? Whatever happened on that night, suicide or not, has terrible implications.

One of his album covers uses a design from a mural outside of a stereo/music shop here in LA. When Elliott Smith died, it became an impromptu memorial. People left writings, lyrics, flowers, candles, anything to express love, mourning and loss. It was an organic and beautiful community-driven gesture. Every once in a while, the mural becomes covered, some taggers deface the whole thing, the store owners re-paint it, and the fans come back to leave more messages. It has happened at least twice now, judging from photographs, but the messages keep coming, the fans keep scrawling messages to Elliott years later.

I got a chance to visit the wall. I didn't want to be sappy and sentimental about it -- I'm very self-conscious about attaching so intimately to artists, let alone one that I hadn't even known while he was still  breathing. I had heard about him at the age of 16 because his death was making the news, particularly on the internet. But I stopped by when I was in the area because 1) It was easy to find, the location can be looked up and 2) I wanted to be a witness. I wanted to witness the spectacle of spontaneous, communal mourning for an artist who suffered that none of us knew but we felt like he was one of our kind anyway.

There were still messages, drawn in white, black and silver sharpie all over the wall. A lot of hearts, a lot of his lyrics, a couple beautiful images. It was five years after his death. At the bottom of the wall, there was a single wilted rose and an old candle. I don't know how long they had been there, but it couldn't have been too long. Fans were still taking it upon themselves to feel his absence, and in many ways that was nice.

I didn't write anything or say a little prayer. I didn't want to presume to know what the ghost of some Omaha, Nebraska singer-songwriter thought about the wall or the memorial. I could never know what he would have preferred or hated. I decided the best thing for me to do would be to just be present for it. When I was driving away, I still thought about him, and the things he'll never make, and the creativity that we lose when artists suffer.