A Journey with Jayson - Part 1

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You may never have heard of a little comic called  Jayson. It was featured in underground books like Meatmen and  Gay Comix, and hasn’t been seen for quite a while. Neil Figuracion met up with Jayson’s creator (and Archie Comics afficionado) Jeff Krell at the  Prism Comics booth at San Diego Comic Convention to discuss his place in the history of gay media.

Part 1 – Coming Up and Coming Out

BROKEN FRONTIER: Jeff, you grew up in Amish Country…

JEFF KRELL: Well, not really. My character did. I grew up on the fringes of Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and used that as inspiration. We encountered some Amish people from time to time. I was not one of them. When you’re doing a comic strip you have very little space in which to make a point. You tend to broaden things. If I went through the whole explanation of where I came from, people would just be bored. So I made Jayson’s parents Amish because it was an extreme example of the kind of upbringing I had.

BF: I see. So what was it like coming up (and coming out) in a more conservative part of the country?

JK: I didn’t come out there. I moved to Philadelphia. I went to the University of Pennsylvania, which is where I met Andrea Jartman. She would be proud for me to use her name and let people know she was the inspiration for Arena Stage, who is Jayson’s fag-hag in the strip. She actually lived above Dirty Frank’s bar on 13th and Pine, which is where Jayson and Arena live. In reality, I lived about ten blocks away. I think I was too smart to move in with her because of all the conflicts that would have ensued - that I imagined instead and pursued in the strip. But we remained friends for a long time and visited each other. So there were many happy hours spent on her sofa in her efficiency apartment. That was one of the inspirations for the strip, but it wasn’t until I moved to Philadelphia and went to Penn that I came out.

I came out on Campus and to my friends before I came out to my parents. There’s one one-page strip that I did for the Philadelphia Gay News that was about me coming out to my parents. It was just six panels and that was pretty much based on reality. They had come to visit me in Philadelphia. It was after I had graduated college and had a job. It wasn’t much of a job, but I thought they’re poor and they were never gonna support me financially anyway. Well, what do I have to lose here? And I kind of got tired of keeping two rolodexes – who was I out to and who wasn’t I out to? I thought if this is gonna be a problem, let it be their problem. So they were visiting me, which they didn’t do very often, but I felt emboldened on this occasion. I had my own apartment and my own income and I wanted them to know the truth.

They didn’t deal well with it. My father said two unsurprising and completely contradictory things. He first said “I always knew” and then he said that it was a choice and I’d made the wrong choice. If he’d really thought about it, both of those things couldn’t be true. This was just his emotional reaction. My mother’s emotional reaction was just to cry.

Click to enlarge

BF: That must have been tough.

JK: She probably thought it was her fault, or at least thought “what could I have done differently to prevent this from happening?” That answer, of course, is nothing.

We’re better now. It took about twenty years to get better.

BF: That’s good to hear.

JK: They love my partner, Bud. They love when we come to visit. My mother always includes him when she sends letters; always includes him on greeting cards. So he’s a part of the family. We had a commitment ceremony a few years ago. We live in Los Angeles – they still live on the fringes of Pennsylvania Dutch country, same house I grew up in. They didn’t come to the ceremony. In fact, I didn’t exactly invite them. I more like informed them it was happening. That way, they didn’t have to feel obliged to have to turn it down. They don’t travel, they’re in their eighties. In the 80s collection there’s a single page where Jayson comes out to them and the father says something like “your lifestyle makes me vomit.”

BF: It seems like Jayson is your icon in comics. What are the origins of the Jayson comic strip?

JK: The Jayson strip… Well, what happened to me on Christmas Day in 1982, which I say is the last Christmas I will ever spend with my family - It was not a great day. I was very uncomfortable.

BF: Was this after you came out?

JK: No, I had not come out yet. This was the year I graduated from college. I was really struggling financially. A lot of the first year out of Penn with a Liberal Arts degree, [I] just struggled to get a job and find something that wasn’t menial or something that even required a High School diploma. I discovered too late that a Liberal Arts degree, even from an Ivy League University, it’s a one way ticket to graduate school. It really in and of itself isn’t something you can get employment with. I was the first person in my family to go to college so no one really prepared me for what I was experiencing.

 I thought, you go to a good school and you study what you want and someone hands you a job at the end. That’s certainly what everyone’s always told. It’s this goal to get to college and your life is going to be better as a result. And ultimately it was but certainly not in the beginning. I wasn’t prepared to accept the kind of employment that I could have gotten without a degree. Plus, I had student loans to pay. So it was a very frustrating time for me, but at the same time I was writing all this press about how great my life was; how I loved my job; had this whole fantasy life I’d created for [my family] that I knew wasn’t really true. I didn’t want to admit how bad things were. So I came home and things had always been sort of tense. Part of it was all the unspoken-ness.

That Christmas Eve I returned to the basement and just started doodling and sketching as I always had. As you note, I’m a big Archie Comics fan and I’d always done my own comics as a child. I went to the basement and started sketching out what turned into the Jayson strip. I wrote about my relationship with Andrea Jartman. I did some strips about my relationship with Walter, my ex.

I drew back from it and I was laughing – doing that whole tragedy plus time equals comedy thing. Trying to truncate it slightly – Let’s have less time between the tragedy and the comedy. Let’s laugh sooner!

BF: Yes! That’s great!

JK: I thought this is funny. This should be published. I was creating the kind of strip that I would loved to have read, but never saw anywhere. I took it back to Philadelphia and I started drawing it up nice, for publication.

BF: Where did you first try to submit the strips?

JK: The only place I knew that might want this sort of thing was The Advocate. So I contacted them and I think they sent some kind of form letter. They never bit.

We had something that was going strong at the time called The Philadelphia Gay News. It was a local newsweekly, and I took it to them and the publisher really liked it. He liked the idea of having an original cartoon. There wasn’t much of a gay syndication market.

Tomorrow, in the second part of Broken Frontier’s conversation with Jeff Krell, we discuss the landscape of gay comics, the evolution of characters over decades and Jayson’s loudest critics.

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