Politics & Media
Feb 14, 2024, 06:29AM

Dusty Mail from New York

The first hate mail I ever received and my response, 21 years ago in New York City.

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The other night I found the first piece of hate mail I ever received, something I remembered vividly but couldn’t quite place—2002?—and, like much of the New York Press archive, I thought it was lost or at best buried deep beneath a chain of dead links and red herrings that might eventually lead to some fractured corner of the internet where some of the text of these issues still survive. I used to write and draw a comic strip for my dad’s New York Press, called “Idiot Man.” It ran from April 2001 to October 2003. Maybe it ended a bit earlier or a bit later, but by then we were in Baltimore and my dad, Russ Smith, no longer owned the paper; nevertheless, he continued writing his column MUGGER for several years before it was dropped, too.

It’s another life led, one I’ve never been able to stop thinking about; not reconciled. Manhattan in the 1990s: center of the universe. The year 2000 in that city. I was there. And then everything ended so horribly and abruptly the following year, and by June 2003 we were here in a new city, one which I came to love in just a couple of years. Looking back, the luck of landing in Baltimore in the early-2000s and being the prime age to experience the music and arts scene here led by Wham City, High Zero, and so many others was just as crazy as growing up next to the Twin Towers in the last eight years they stood. 1972 to 2001. Next year I’ll be older than they ever were.

Bit of a ways away from the topic at hand, my first hate mail, New York Press, January 22, 2003: "The sporadic MUGGER Junior comic always seems to inspire the queasy feeling I get when watching pro-life parents stick anti-abortion protest signs in their kids' hands and send them marching around the clinics. It's sad and more than a little creepy. A child will do anything for Dad's approval, even act as a mouthpiece for issues they don't care about or understand. Ick. I really doubt the kid gives a shit about Joe Lieberman (‘Idiot Man,’ 1/15) or any other of your conservative bugaboos. If you can't stick to your column, MUGGER, start your own damned comic. Let your kid enjoy his childhood.

Lawrence Renwick, Manhattan”

Whoa! 21 years. Two decades and this moron STILL infuriates me! I’d forgotten the substance of the hate mail, besides the fact that I couldn’t draw, which isn’t in the note at all; there might’ve been an earlier note, because I do remember being called “half-retarded” at some point in print. It was really fun—I had a comic strip in a free newspaper with big circulation in Manhattan. It was a family business. Even after 2001, my dad and I kept working together, and have ever since.

One thing he’s never done is make me put anything in his paper or this website—that’s what pissed me off so much back then (and now) about that piece of hate mail! It’s true, as another reader (Chris Beneke, Brooklyn) wrote the following week, that I “really can’t draw.” I couldn’t then, and I can’t now. I think Chris was right that most people that liked the strip probably took it for, as he put it, “faux primitivism [conjured] playing upstairs at one too many Outsider Art Fairs in the Puck Building.” The guys at St. Mark’s Comics in Tribeca—Jeff, Alex, Greg—were fans and we became close friends (Jeff gave me the script for Hellboy as a going away present in 2003, nearly a year before the release of Guillermo Del Toro’s film; it was the first screenplay I ever saw.)

Whatever politics I “articulated” in “Idiot Man” were entirely my own. My dad rejected strips that were deemed too offensive or personal; but he never limited my political opinions. He influenced them, as all parents influence their kids, but as I’d write, my main political concerns in the first three years of the 21st-century were the capture and execution of Osama Bin Laden and the humiliation of Joseph Lieberman, then campaigning against violent video games. The latter was a whimper compared to the PMRC trials of the mid-1980s, while the latter came 10 years too late, and even then, a pyrrhic “victory,” now something meaningless and just as confusing and unresolved as the rest of 9/11 and the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Here’s my response to that hate mail, January 29, 2003:

“Last week's anti-‘Idiot Man’ letter (‘The Mail,’ 1/22) ticked me off to a limit that I can barely handle. If you're reading this, Lawrence Renwick (if that is your real name), my dad had nothing to do with the creation of ‘Idiot Man’ or this strip in particular. I dreamt up the idea of a politically incorrect idiot who ‘fights for his right to party.’ Oh, and I do give a ‘shit’ about Sen. Lieberman. He's tried to censor videogames like Mortal Kombat, as well as movies and music. So the next time you crave attention, take it out on McDonald's, asshole.

N. Smith, Manhattan”

Pretty juvenile, and I was never really a fan of the Beastie Boys. Idiot Man was a guy who wore a giant sock on his head covering his eyes and nose, with an “IM” on the front, with his square-headed sidekick Blockhead. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the foresight to archive my work, and both the originals and the issues of the paper are largely lost to time. I can still draw Idiot Man and Blockhead—it’s that easy—but I really don’t remember much of what the strip was about when it ran more than 20 years ago. I was a massive fan of the New York Press’ Neil Swaab and his The Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles; meeting him at the paper’s Christmas party in 2002 was a thrill. Tony Millionaire and Maakies were fantastic, as well.

It was infuriating when Baltimore’s City Paper fired him in 2015 for some innocuous joke that no one remembers. Great coverage of Freddie Gray’s death and its aftermath in the city, but otherwise, these people were a long way down from those I grew up around. The people working at New York Press in the 1990s and early-2000s were excited, creative, smart, and serious—all qualities I missed in all of those new City Paper people, all more concerned with launching book careers or landing pundit spots than publishing an interesting and challenging paper.

It doesn’t matter anymore, just as the current squabbles between David Simon, the Baltimore Banner, and the Baltimore Beat are insignificant; regardless of the politics of either paper, Simon’s argument that he wants a “daily paper” more than anything is hopeless. There were more than 600,000 people when I moved here, a fraction of New York’s eight million. Now Baltimore has less than half a million people, and Simon thinks it can support a daily newspaper? He’s out of his mind. But the Baltimore Beat is as limited as my own publication, The Servant. Pissing in the wind. I hope that paper is creating as many personal and professional relationships as my own has.

One more long lost article I found during research, my dad’s introduction to the New York Press Best of Manhattan 2001, sad and strange for obvious reasons. A couple of excerpts:

“There are also New Yorkers who've hindered the recovery process in less heinous but still vaguely malevolent ways. I happen to live below Canal St., as of this writing the demarcation line of the no-vehicle zone and can say with certainty that it'll be a long time before Tribeca, the financial district and Battery Park return to a semblance of ‘normalcy.’ Fires still erupt from the wreckage; the smoke and stench in the air is thick; and the blank faces of neighbors trying to go about their daily lives are haunting. Just last week I was speaking to a cop; the process of presenting photo ID and proof of residence is now an ingrained routine, and he told me how dozens of tourists have begged him to retrieve a piece of rubble from ‘Ground Zero’ for a souvenir.

"No novelist could make up this sick state of mind… But one of the awful consequences of Sept. 11 is that even if terrorism is eradicated to the extent possible, and the country does return to peacetime, President Bush's visionary views about immigration have been dealt a fatal blow. I don't expect students to fully understand the far-reaching implications of this national disaster. American history and the Constitution aren't emphasized in college curriculums, but surely the masses of citizens who've immigrated to the United States and prospered realize this is a catastrophic setback for the country.

That's not returning to ‘normal.’” 

No, we never did. But all of that holds up pretty well.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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