Tour Guide of the Toxic

By Benjamin Spencer

Newtown Creek

Newtown Creek, a fetid tributary of the East River, will not be an easy clean-up project for the Environmental Protection Agency. Photo by Benjamin Spencer.

Usually it’s not a great thing when your memory of the first time you met someone person is inseparable from a terrible, gag-inducing stink. But with Mitch Waxman, it comes with the territory.

A lifelong New York City resident, Waxman is an indie comic-book artist, photographer, advertising retoucher, prolific blogger and self-taught expert on Newtown Creek. In recent years, he has taken upon himself the task of giving curious visitors to the fetid, horribly polluted East River tributary a uniquely grand ecologic-historic tour. The experience is eye-opening – and often nose-wrinkling.

“You smell it?” Waxman asks as we approach a major combined sewer outfall at Maspeth Creek. He turns his face toward my friend Steven and me, his dark beard peppered with gray. I can only nod and try to keep from breathing in. “Come here in the summer, brother. Holy God!” he says, cackling.

“The funny thing is, this is actually what I do for exercise,” he says later as we hoof it past the Maspeth Creek tributary. “A lot of people run through parks. I walk through toxic waste dumps.”

Despite that less-than-glowing appraisal of the Environmental Protection Agency’s newest Superfund remediation site, Waxman’s infectious love of this area shines through. Pointing out the sights as he strides along – sidestepping refuse and muck, black trench coat flapping, digital SLR camera ever at the ready – he gleefully delves into the kind of gasp-inducing history that most communities would rather paper over.

One complication for future EPA dredgers, Waxman says, could be the tendency in the past century for waterfront gangs and organized crime to use Newtown as a dumping area for their – um – internal problems.

“You know,” says Waxman. “I have a bunch of friends who are on the job, and they say they’re gonna be pulling bodies out of this. This is gonna solve like half of New York’s murders.” (“On the job” means police officers.)

Of all the landmarks in New York City to develop a fascination – bordering on obsession – with, Newtown Creek might seem an odd choice. But Waxman has a fierce interest in all things neglected, misunderstood, or conveniently forgotten by the powers-that-be.

“It’s the kind of place which strains your sense of the real,” Waxman says of the creek. “The history of the watershed is so tremendous. So over the top. It’s just a magnetic, terrible, beautiful place which is largely unknown. And right in the dead- bang center of New York City.”

Waxman knows a lot about New York City, most of which he can recite from memory with the same casual ease as one might read from a newspaper. Though he now lives in Astoria, Queens, Waxman grew up in Canarsie and Flatbush in Brooklyn, the grandson of Jewish-Russian immigrants who fled persecution in Europe in the early part of the past century.

“My uncles fought in World War I, my dad in Korea, my cousins in Vietnam,” he says. His grandfather, he says, fought in France during WWI as well – though, as it turns out, he didn’t quite join up out of the usual swell of patriotism.

“Funny story,” Waxman says. “My grandfather got off the boat at Ellis Island. And a guy in a very nice set of clothes with a really nice haircut says to him, ‘Son, you wanna be an American?’ My grandfather goes, “Yes. I want to be an American.” So the guy says, ‘Sign here’. My grandfather signed. The guy says, ‘Welcome to the United States Army!’ And he didn’t even get to go into New York. They put him on a boat, they sent him back. He did basic (training) on the boat.”
Waxman laughs. “You know, all Jewish humor comes down to bein’ a schmuck. And that’s a classic schmuck story.”

Waxman himself narrowly avoided death, though perhaps not in quite such a dramatic fashion. After a very close call with his health seven years ago (chronicled by Waxman himself on the comics website, www.weirdass.net), Waxman started walking around the neighborhood for exercise. “I found the creek,” remembers Waxman. “I started looking into it, you know, started researching it – and Holy God, it’s the classic puddle, you know. You go to touch it and you go in up to your shoulder.”

Mitch Waxman

Mitch Waxman likes to take the curious on tours of Newtown Creek. Photo by Steven McCann.

That love of mysterious history informs his non-creek work, as well. When I suggest, on the evidence of his blog posts and comic-book artwork, that he might have a minor obsession with the early 20th century cult writer H.P. Lovecraft, he scoffs. “Minor? You haven’t been reading carefully enough. The guy was a genius who ‘saw’ the 20th Century and did very, very careful research. There’s a million little things he opined about that modern science is just proving.”

True to Lovecraftian form, Waxman’s comics, drawn mainly between the late 1980s and 2008, are replete with monsters, sci-fi mash-ups of history and mythology, and fedora-wearing gumshoe heroes. In his first major series, “Plasma Baby,” a four-issue black and white that he created while studying under comic visionaries such as Will Eisner at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, he explored his fascination with the ancient Aztecs.

“They were clipped out of history just as they were attaining their apex,” he says of the Aztecs. “The analogy I always use is, imagine if Caligula’s Rome just disappeared one day, an entire culture at the apogee of their civilization, just gone.”

All very academic – but of course, this being Waxman’s “baby”, as it were, there is a twist. In this version of history, after 400 years of exile the Aztecs seek revenge on the world that deposed them by calling up a monster-sized infant formed of pure plasma to wreak havoc. The series’ subtitle is “Vengeance of the Aztecs.”

Another of Waxman’s projects was “The Starry Ones,” a long-running 3-D online comic written by Ancram Hudson, illustrated by Waxman and serialized on the pair’s website, (www.weirdass.net). Remarkably, Waxman and Hudson created an original, wildly colorful multi-panel entry nearly every week for 173 weeks (2000-2003), detailing an original universe of warring alien empires and mystical gods – complete with esoteric references to real ancient cultures and technologies.

For over 20 years Waxman has been involved in just about every aspect of comics – production, publishing, writing and drawing. But he says as he grew older, the long hours, low pay and sedentary nature of the work became more and more oppressive. As he puts it, the comics industry “eats its young and isn’t interested in its old.” And after he became, as he says, “fat and sick” seven years ago, he realized that the rigors of comic art had taken a dangerous toll on his mental and physical health.

“Comics is a really insular life,” he explains. “You stay home and you draw fuckin’ Spiderman for 18 hours a day.” At the same time, he says, the work is so sedentary that “your muscle tone turns to jelly. And it’s one of those things – you’re alone all the time, you’re sitting in front of the board. It makes you crazy.”
So, the last few panels Waxman drew in 2008 for weirdass.net might be his “swan song” in comics – at least for now.

But it is simply not in Waxman’s nature to sit on his laurels. He immediately relaunched himself in photography, freelance advertising, walking tours, and regular activities with the non-profit Newtown Creek Alliance, where, he jokes on his blog, he fulfills a role not unlike that of “Gleek the supermonkey” from the 1970’s cartoon show “Superfriends” – “often used as comic relief”. He started several blogs, the most renowned of which is the Newtown Pentacle (www.newtownpentacle.com). The site is a showcase both of Waxman’s peculiarly compelling urban landscape photography, and of his exhaustive historical research into New York City’s most sordid characters and events – along with stream-of-consciousness direct from his own fertile (okay, morbid) inner mind.

Waxman recently published a photo and history book chronicling the Newtown Creek area (“Newtown Creek for the Morbidly Curious) and a compendium of the first six months of his and Hudson’s “The Starry Ones” comics saga. As if all this weren’t enough, Waxman and his Newtown Creek Alliance cohort, Bernard Ente, lead frequent boat tours up the creek, and are slated to head up a Centennial celebration walk over the Hunter’s Point Avenue Bridge on Dec. 11. “This is all part of our ‘getting away with murder’ thing me and him do,” says Waxman of his and Ente’s exploits. He laughs almost disbelievingly. “We were parade marshals twice last year!”

All in all, it hasn’t been a bad recovery for Mitch Waxman.

“You know something?” he says. “I’m lucky. In midstream, I actually found something new I’m very interested in, and it’s led to a whole new group of people that I never thought I’d be meeting. So, you know. It’s cool.”

TO LEARN MORE ABOUT MITCH AND HIS MUSE:
http://www.newtowncreekalliance.org
http://www.newtownpentacle.com
http://www.weirdass.net and http://weirdasscomics.wordpress.com

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