That’s the thing about this thing we call life: nobody gets out alive. No matter how much money or fame or love you collect in your lifetime, death is the ultimate leveler, dishing out sweet oblivion to the rich and poor alike with the same 1:1 ratio that it has always worked with since the beginning of time.
Which doesn’t mean we can’t leave a little something behind when we’re gone — you know, something for people to remember us by. That’s what burial plots and tombstones are for, to give the living a place to remember those who have passed on. And what with comic artists being human (for the most part), it shouldn’t be a big surprise to learn many of them have left a part of them behind in their memorials.
1. Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)
Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, OH
The curmudgeonly comic book writer/file clerk pretty much invented the autobiographical comic, collaborating with underground artists to produce his American Splendor series of books about his everyday life. His life was made into a film in 2003 which, of course, led Pekar to write about the impact the movie and wider fame had on him in subsequent issues of American Splendor. I can’t tell which detail I like more about this picture, the line at the bottom that’s completely in character with how Pekar led his life, or the collection of pens and markers that well-wishers left at his grave. I can imagine his spirit showing up and grousing about how he chose the one pen in the lot that doesn’t write.
2. Jack Kirby (1917-1994)
Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park, Westlake Village, CA
A New York kid through and through, Kirby moved out west to southern California in 1969 primarily to help his daughter cope with her asthma — but being closer to Hollywood likely had some effect on his decision as well. True to his non-grandstanding nature, his stone is a simple affair, making no mention of the immense contributions he made to the comic industry (and American pop culture itself). “An inspiration to all” — a sentiment akin to “the Pacific Ocean is somewhat damp.”
3. Carl Barks (1901-2000)
Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery, Grants Pass, OR
Like Kirby’s, the simple stone for Carl Barks is a humble memorial that’s in inverse proportion to the impact Barks had on millions of readers worldwide. “The good artist” is a reference to his work on comic books based on Disney’s characters; for many years, he wasn’t allowed to sign his name to any of his work, leaving fans to demand more stories from “the good artist” who chronicled the adventures of Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge and the rest of the denizens of Duckburg (many of them invented wholesale by Barks and later incorporated into the Disney empire). He’s buried in the Oregon town in which he spent his final years.
4. Charles Schulz (1922-2000)
Pleasant Hills Cemetery, Sebastopol, CA
Another humble artist, another humble headstone. His 50 years of Peanuts strips have been read by millions (and still read by millions more, in reprints) who don’t even realize how much of their language came from his pen (“good grief,” “security blanket,” etc.). There’s a Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, CA, about 10 miles down the road from his final resting place for anyone who wants to learn more about his life and work.
5. Will Eisner (1917-2005), Mount Pleasant Cemetery, Hawthorne, NY
A simple message from an artistic giant. What more needs to be said? Besides, when your industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards is named in your honor, chances are you’ve got the legacy stuff covered.
6. Chester Gould (1900-1985)
Oakland Cemetery, Woodstock, IL
The creator of Dick Tracy, in case that wasn’t immediately obvious by the cartoon in the middle. There’s a museum in Woodstock that’s devoted to his work.
7. Jerry Siegel
Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Hollywood, CA
Famous as the co-creator of Spy Robotman, Radio Squad, Slam Bradley, Dr. Occult and that other superhero whose name escape me now — you know, guy with a cape, something about a speeding bullet — Siegel’s columbarium contains mementos of his comic-book career, including a copy of Action Comics #1 that I’m going to assume is a reproduction. The inscription at the bottom says: “His imagination was unlimited… His fight for justice lasted a lifetime… and marrying Joanne was the best decision he ever made.”
8. George Reeves (1914-1959)
Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum
Another super fellow connected to that most super of heroes, television’s first Superman was initially reluctant to take the role, preferring film to television. The show’s huge popularity proved to be a mixed blessing, as Reeves found producers were reluctant to hire a man whose face was too recognizable as the Man of Steel. Despite his frustration with being typecast, he took his duties as a role model seriously, giving up smoking and refusing to make appearances around children with any of his girlfriends. To this day, his death by gunfire remains shrouded in mystery.
9. Robert Howard (1906-1936)
Greenleaf Cemetery, Brownwood, TX
During his short life, Howard dreamed up entire worlds of fantasy, including many tales of Conan the Barbarian, selling his stories to pulp-magazine publishers across the country. By age 23, he was earning enough from his fiction to quit his stenography courses and become a full-time writer, but his mother’s failing health took a toll on his own mental health, and in the weeks leading up to his death he wrote out his will and borrowed a .380 Colt Automatic pistol from a friend. When told his mother would never regain consciousness, he walked out to his car, fetched the gun from the glove compartment, and shot himself. He shares this stone with his parents: “They were lovely and pleasant in their lives and in their death they were not divided.”
10. Elzie Segar (1894-1938)
Santa Monica, CA
Creator of the Thimble Theatre strip and its biggest breakout star, Popeye — or should that be “Pop Eye”…? In either case, there are at least three statues in the United States dedicated to the spinach-snarfing seaman.
11-14. Harold Foster (Topeka Cemetery, Topeka, KS); Georges “Hergé” Remi (Uccle Dieweg Cemetery, Brussels, Belgium); Milt Caniff (Mount Repose Cemetery, Haverstraw, NY); Jean “Moebius” Giraud (Cimetière de Montparnasse, Paris, France)
Four giants in their field, four simple monuments. If there’s a common theme with all of the headstones we’ve seen so far, it’s that there seems to be a connection between great artists and great humility… or at the very least, that a lot of the people who have the most reason to take great pride in the works they left behind decided not to use their final resting places as a vehicle for tooting their own horns, secure in the knowledge their artistic legacies will speak for themselves.