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Next Door Neighbor by Various Creators

Essay and Interview by John Seven

Everybody, just everybody, has a weird next door neighbor story — and we all have speculative thoughts about our next door neighbors, too. We may not all be Gladys Kravitz staring out the window at them, but I’ve never met anyone who didn’t pay attention to what their neighbors were up to and weave theories about it behind closed doors.

In this series presented by SmithMag, an array of writers and illustrators contribute to an anthology with exactly this understanding and way, far beyond it. In the first, Jonathan Ames and Nick Bertozzi weave a tale of urban paranoia involving cockroaches — in the second, by Kevin Golden, the noise from a neighboring apartment begins to set the tone for a couple’s relationship. Meanwhile, John Cebollero’s “A Print From an Old Negative” examines a freak, angry interaction between neighbors built on a misunderstanding and years of resentment, while Ed Piskor’s “My Neighbor, The Dickhead” unveils a normal kid’s life in a crime-ridden Pittsburgh neighborhood, with the unfolding violence and horror of his neighbors — and the eventual punchline that points to a kid’s sense of humor in such a situation. Hilarious and superbly dark without the intrusion of an adult sensibility.

My favorite of the bunch, however, is Joan Reilly’s “Hank and Barbara,” which follows an all-too-familiar friendship between two girls, one of whom lives in the standard “bad” house that each neighborhood has. Amidst the ugliness, the girls learn how to bond on their own terms and how personal allegiences may not be able to stand up to larger forces. It’s a simply done coming-of-age tale that anyone can connect with thanks to the emotions of the moments involved.

Hank and Barbara by Joan Reilly
Click a thumbnail to view comic.

Materials: I always use the same materials, whether it’s for print or web: non-photo blue pencil, Winsor & Newton Series 7 Size 0 brush, Higgins Black Magic ink, Micron pens for lettering, and bristol board (any old kind). If I need to color it I usually do that in photoshop.

Interview with Joan Reilly:

Q: Was this the first story you thought to tell about a neighbor?
A: I’ve been fascinated and amused by my neighbors for as long as I can remember. I suppose everyone is, to some degree, but my neighborhood growing up seems exceptional in its weirdness. Across the street there was a guy who seemed to never wear any clothes—all his windows were covered with newspaper, and he came out wrapped in a towel to get the paper. Next to him was a guy my Dad called “The Neanderthal,” who would stand out in front of his house and loudly, honkingly blow his nose for a full 5 minutes, EVERY morning. In the yard adjoining ours on one side, a 40-plus man still living with his parents used to spend his afternoon hours running a boat motor in a bucket of water, and was purported to have pulled a gun on his mother more than once. At the end of our block lived a recently divorced “playboy” who had somehow gained custody of his two kids, who were a few years younger than me. The girl had these fungus-y looking, nubbly patches of skin covering her arms and hands—she said it was a birthmark…I always guessed that it was caused by her parents’ drug use. The playboy dad used to leave copies of Hustler magazine out all over the house, and once put the animated soft-core porn movie “Heavy Metal” in the VCR for us to watch (I was 10, the kids were 6 and 7). The arcade-sized Frogger game in the kitchen and the hot tub on the back porch made the house seem like an amusement park for us, so we just ignored his weird sex obsession and played to the point of exhaustion all summer long.

Q: What did your friendship with Cass reveal to you about yourself?
A: I think it brought out leadership qualities that I hadn’t known I had—I was completely dominant in that relationship, despite the fact that I was a pretty shy, passive kid in all other aspects of my life.

Q: Your story shows an innocence of sorts, both in the girls’ imaginative play and in the acceptance of different family lives — do you think that’s something mostly confined to kids?
A: I suppose that society as a whole discourages that wide-eyed, all-accepting innocence, but the artistic segment of the population is almost required to keep that aspect of the psyche alive and accessible, in order to create original and challenging thoughts, imagery and objects.

Q: Your story speaks a lot to the hidden lives of kids — is that something that disappeared for you soon after this story finishes?
A: Oh no—I went on to become a very secretive teenager, and young adult! At a certain point, though, I guess around age 30, it felt necessary to resist that impulse in favor of being straightforward with people (including myself).

Q: Do you know what happened to Cass — or wonder?
A: Weirdly enough, after 25 years of being out of touch, she “friended” me on Facebook just as I was finishing up the pencils for this story—it was as if I had conjured her out of the ether. I found out from her Facebook profile that she now lives in the Northeastern US and is a conservative Republican, which made up my mind about whether or not to tell her about the comic: I had been hesitant to begin with, because I worried that she might be insulted by the way I depicted her family, and/or embarrassed by my straightforward presentation of our innocent sexual experimentation, but once I found out about her political leanings, I figured it was better for her not to know about it. So hopefully, she still doesn’t know (obviously I didn’t use her real name)…

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