1978: Superman With a Paunch


I don’t fit neatly into the baby-boomer demographic, at least not the main wave. Watergate had more impact on my life than Woodstock and I was never involved in any campus unrest. I was part of the first draft lottery but would have been called up only if  Russian tanks were rumbling down Madison Avenue. That fit into my plans; as an avid ROTC cadet I did not want to avoid service ; it’s just that I had to take frequent breaks to work and earn money for school and those breaks would have made it tough to maintain a student deferment.  My parents paid for my first year but from then I paid for everything myself  – and it took me eight long years to do it.

That set me apart from most of my classmates, especially when I got into upper division design courses. At that point most of the people I was competing with came  from “money”  – maybe not extravagant wealth, but comfortable enough that they could spend their summers travelling or serving as unpaid design interns in while my summers were spent slinging a 36″ pipe wrench as a roustabout for Chevron USA at Swanson River Oil Field.

My status as a ROTC cadet also contributed to that sense of separation, though more so with faculty members than fellow students. Surprisingly enough a subdued atmosphere of hostility toward the military persisted all the way through the decade until I graduated with my degree and commission in April of 1979. Granted, manifestations of that negative attitude weren’t as severe as they had been ten years before, consisting of intentional puddle-splashing while in uniform or barbed military-related comments during critiques. Given the conservative nature of the school it was disappointing to have instructors so relentlessly negative and I finally resigned myself to a sort of “half-life” in the department; I would continue working towards my degree but I held out no hope for any grade higher than a B; I also would not apply for any sort of program or competition a particularly Sarcastic Instructor was involved with, as I knew full well that I would be rejected “with extreme prejudice” no matter how good my work was.

That plan worked for about six months , but then March of 1978 rolled around and I was trapped by the calendar. The school had a system of commemorative weeks each semester, each week consisting of five days worth of activities, seminars and presentations connected with a particular academic program or area of interest. We had Latin America Week, Agriculture week – I think there was even an Esperanto week.  There were so many interest areas that some weeks were doubled up, which was the case when Military Week was scheduled during the same five days as “Graphic Design for Lunch” .

1978’s visiting professional designer was Don Weller, a notable illustrator/designer working out of Los Angeles who would give a couple of speeches, conduct a couple of workshop and be the sole judge of a student art competition that would hang in the secured gallery for the week. The subject was “Aging” and we were to create some sort of visual communications tool that conveyed the plight of aging Americans living in the current economic recession. It was an interesting project but unfortunately for my “half-life” plan the assignment was also made a major part of my regular illustration class taught by Sarcastic Instructor for that semester.

For a month I sat in class and listened to countless reasons  why I was going to be hammered during Weller’s critique. I came up with concept after concept, only to have Sarcastic Instructor roll his eyes, give out a theatrical sigh, and tell me to start all over again. After three restarts I realized I was never going to get any meaningful advice so I began to work on my own, keeping a low profile until the week of the conference.

Unfortunately on the night of the critique I was late in arriving, having just left a staff meeting at the ROTC building where we had been planning the most important field exercise of the year. That also meant I was in full uniform and a perfect target for harassment so I tried to ease into the back of the room unnoticed. Sarcastic Instructor must have had his nerd-radar running because he instantly turned around in his seat and skewered me with one of his patented eye-rolls before I got three steps into the room.


Thankfully my concerns were soon gone as Don Weller continued with his critique of the student assignments. As both illustration and graphic design students were involved there was quite a range of media and concepts in the projects thumb tacked to the wall but the one that stood out was a Time magazine mock-up featuring a geriatric Superman rendered in a pop-art style using black ink and colored Zip-a-tone film.  For some reason it was positioned in the exact center of the wall above all the other projects. Why did it stand out to me? It  was my project, the one that I had worked on in secret during the preceding weeks.

The critique was going well; Weller was both knowledgeable and engaging and managed to provide constructive input without damaging egos. As he was discussing a project I hissed to the person next to me asking why Superman was “front and center” without disclosing my identity as the designer (at Don’s request none of the projects were signed and had arrived separately from the attendees) She whispered back that she didn’t know why – but that Sarcastic Instructor had been looking it over closely before the critique began.

I groaned inwardly a second time. It wasn’t going to be a good night; I was going to be mercilessly pummeled verbally in front of more than a hundred other students and from the looks of things the pummeling was going to happen very soon. Weller had worked his way down to the end of the posted projects and was about done. He started into his closing remarks but  was interrupted by student’s cry: “What about Superman?”

” Yeah, what about Superman” echoed Sarcastic Instructor, flashing a wolfish grin my direction.

“Superman. Hmmmm”  Weller scratched at his beard for a moment  ” It’s very eye-catching and drawn well.  It’s very punchy and very much the kind of thing Time uses. Yes. I think it’s the best project here”

Certain that I was going to be  verbally flayed alive I had been standing in a slight crouch with my stomach knotted up as I held my breath s. When the  blast of relief/astonishment /disbelief /happiness  brought on my Don Weller’s comments washed over me …well, the closest analogy I can make here is a belly-flop. You know, when you dive off into the pool but don’t quite complete that pike at the top of your dive?  You enter the water spread-eagled and flat like a paper plate rather than making a clean entry with pointed hands leading and it knocks both the wind and the wits out of  you. That’s how I felt at that moment.

I stood there stunned for a couple of minutes while teachers patted me on the back and class-mates punched me on the shoulder, then realized with a start that it was late and I had a arduous bike-ride home would be that much more taxing with Superman tucked under my arm. It was only as I was making my way towards the door that I remembered Sarcastic Instructor.

I looked back; he was caught up in a conversation with Don Weller, the gallery manager and the chair of the art department. For just a moment he glanced over at me then resumed his conversation – and in the forty years since that moment I have yet to figure out what was going through his mind.

He had smiled – not one of his sarcastic flesh-rippers nor was it a big beaming buddy grin. It was a half-smile that almost conveyed a feeling of…respect?

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