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Got the Milkman?

[whitespace] Reid Fleming
No Place Like Gnome: Reid Fleming, the World's Strongest (and Strangest) Milkman, makes his morning delivery rounds.

David Boswell brings fabled 'Reid Fleming' back to life

By Harvey Pekar

FROM BOTH aesthetic and economic standpoints, comics are in bad shape these days. Several years ago, the largest companies--Marvel and DC--set up exclusive arrangements with rival distributors, igniting a battle that ended up leaving only one large comic wholesaler, Diamond. As a consequence, independent, alternative comic publishers have had considerable difficulty getting their books into retail stores, and some have been folding.

Beyond that, the quality of superhero comics has apparently been getting worse, although it hardly seems possible. I don't read them, but that's what I'm told. At any rate, they're not selling as well, causing some comic retailers to go out of business and creating even more trouble for independent publishers. Currently, some fine independent creators are left with self-publishing as the only option.

As bleak as things look now, there has been at least one hopeful event: the return of David Boswell, creator of Heartbreak Comics and Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman, to the comics scene. Among the very best comic-book artists to emerge since 1980, Fleming writes very well; he's very funny and knowledgeable; and he's a top illustrator.

His last book before this year came out in 1990, but now he's gotten into self-publishing Reid Fleming again. Boswell began his career by serializing Heartbreak Comics for the Vancouver newspaper Georgia Straight in 1977. Before that, however, he had lived in Toronto, which has a large Hungarian population, which was the inspiration for Heartbreak's protagonist, Laszlo, the Slavic Lover.

Actually, Laszlo's not Slavic, he's Hungarian, a Magyar who gets insulted when mistaken for a Slav. Even when called a slob, he replies, "I'm not a slob, I'm Hungarian." Laszlo is a takeoff on the continental lovers of 1930s movies.

As Heartbreak opens, Laszlo's having an affair with Fleming's wife, Lena, when Reid arrives unexpectedly, causing Laszlo to jump out of the window. His shoes follow, hitting him in the head and convincing him that, as far as the thrice-divorced Lena is concerned, the game is not worth the candle.

During the rest of the book, Laszlo pursues Constance, a secretary, while Reid follows him seeking revenge. On page 35 of a 41-page book, the two engage in a brutal, no-holds-barred showdown that leaves Laszlo unconscious. He recovers sufficiently to visit yet another old flame, embracing her and declaring, "I'm nothing without your kiss."

In the final panel, we see Laszlo's shoes in the foreground, a chair with Laszlo's clothes hanging on it in the middle ground and the bottom of a closed bedroom door in the background--a cinematic shot if ever there was one.

Arguably, Heartbreak is Boswell's best-written book, but for some reason--maybe its subtlety, which the broad masses did not appreciate, maybe the fact that small portions are written in Hungarian--Reid proved to be a more popular character than Laszlo.

Consequently, Boswell turned his attention to producing Reid Fleming strips in 1978. A Fleming comic appeared in 1980, while Laszlo had to wait until 1984 for the release of a complete Heartbreak book. The first Fleming book was extremely funny and well received. Reid, the mighty milkman, was shown constantly outwitting and sometimes physically harming his supervisor, something that most readers fantasize about.

Reid may possess superstrength, but he's bald and has a protruding, rectangular nose--someone the common man can identify with, the salt of the earth. Favorable reaction to Reid Fleming caused it to be picked up by Eclipse, then the nation's third-largest comic-book company (though far smaller than the first two), which published some issues in a series titled Rogue to Riches.

Meanwhile, Boswell, a great film enthusiast, wrote a Fleming movie script that Warner Bros., in 1987, seriously considered producing as a vehicle for Bob Goldthwaite, who was then projected as a future comedy sensation. Unfortunately, Goldthwaite's film, Hot to Trot, bombed at the box office, and the Fleming movie was scrapped.

Then Eclipse, already financially overextended, went under, owing Boswell a good deal of money. To compound his troubles, Boswell was seriously injured in a traffic accident. From 1990 to 1996, Boswell did illustrations for a local newspaper, but the number of jobs he was able to get was diminishing, causing him to return to comic self-publishing. Using a computer, he does much of the production work himself. This year, he's already gotten out two new issues of Reid Fleming as well as reprinting older editions with new material.

Happily, inactivity has neither eroded Boswell's skills nor dulled his sense of humor; the new books are top-notch. David told me he'd like to begin some new comic projects, but this goal depends on his reestablishing an audience for Reid. Boswell is one of the few contemporary creators whose stories demonstrate that the comic-book form is as good and versatile a medium of expression as any that exists. His work has the potential to attract other gifted writers and illustrators.

(If you're having trouble finding his publications, try him directly at Deep Sea Comics, #702-207 Hastings St., Vancouver, BC, Canada V6B 1H7 or at [email protected])

Harvey Pekar is the creator of American Splendor comics.

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From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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