WHEN DARRIN BELL pays tribute to recently deceased people, depicting each honored figure on a train to the afterlife, the arc can be sharp and moving.
But when Darrin Bell pays tribute to a family member, depicting the dear relative who once worked on trains, the story is especially transporting.
This week, the “Candorville” creator has memorialized his “Grandpa Roscoe” Bell, who worked for Los Angeles’s transit system for more than 40 years. The California-based grandson shares the proud and ennobling story of his grandfather, who died last month at age 94, as he poignantly rides that rail to another realm.
“Grandpa was so proud of ‘Candorville’ that I knew he’d be tickled to know that he would live on in Candorville,” Darrin Bell tells Comic Riffs of this week’s arc. “But more fundamentally, the train to the afterlife is reserved for people who’ve made an impact on this world. And when I sat down to pay tribute to him, my first thought was: ‘Grandpa Roscoe and his entire generation changed the world forever.’ ”
“He endured and prevailed over racism with class and dignity,” the ”Candorville” cartoonist — who is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group — wrote on his blog, in tribute to his grandfather. “He fought in World War II, at the Battle of Guadalcanal and many other places. He raised a family. He drove cable cars and then a bus for L.A.’s Rapid Transit District for over 40 years, and when he retired, he turned his attention to creating the semi-annual Bell family reunions.
“He became the family historian. He was our living history. Grandpa Roscoe lived his life exactly how he wanted to, with integrity, humor and perseverance.”
Comic Riffs recently caught up with Bell — author of the new book , ”Does the Afterlife Have Skittles?” — to discuss his grandfather’s influence, example and personal legacy:
MICHAEL CAVNA: My deepest condolences, Darrin. ... How are you coping with the loss?
DARRIN BELL: “Oh… I'm fair,” as my grandfather would say to anyone who asked him the last few days of his life. The man had just days to live and he knew it -- and he was still refusing to complain. As for me, I'm coping fairly well because I'm not alone. I was his primary caretaker, but I had the help and support of my fiancee, Makeda Rashidi, and of the people closest to Grandpa Roscoe — his companion Dr. Bennie Reams, his sister Alta Faye Crawford and her husband, Mr. Nathaniel Crawford. I'm coping well because I have no regrets. I left nothing unsaid. I was with him till the end. I did everything in my power to care for him while he was with us, and I'm doing everything I know how to do to care for his legacy now that he's moved on. When you don't have regrets, it's much easier to smile again.
It is tough, though, to lose my number-one fan. He was the audience for whom I wrote. He's the only one I was afraid to disappoint. He was the first one I wanted to make laugh.
MC: In your blogpost, you mention not only your grandfather’s integrity among his great qualities, but also his sense of humor. Is your sense of humor anything like your grandfather’s — was there perhaps an inherited streak or strain of humor?
DB: Grandpa Roscoe’s humor was subtle, sarcastic, unsettling and witty. You had to have a thick skin to enjoy it, because it was easy to confuse his humor with insults. He had a way of cutting me down to size but at the same time making me feel valued. Every one of his jabs was crafted in a way that it let me know he was paying attention to what was going on in my life and that he cared about me. He used his humor to humble people who needed humbling and to lighten up grave situations.
He also loved to point out the banality of commonly asked questions. The last time he was hospitalized, we all gathered around his hospital bed early one morning. He looked so tired, so spent; and we all sort of knew this was the beginning of the end. I said, “How’d you sleep, Grandpa?” I expected him to tell us it hurt too much to sleep, or [that] the orderlies kept him awake all night, or something. He cleared his throat and said, “Well… I closed my eyes … and I slept.”
I’d like to think I inherited his sense of humor, but as in pretty much every other aspect, I have a tough time thinking I could measure up to him. I’ve never met a funnier human being.
MC: Did he ever encourage your art or humor when you were a child, and did he ever comment on specific “Candorville” strips? Perhaps he had a favorite?
DB: Grandpa and I weren’t close until later in life, when I began to visit him every time I came home from college, and when I began interviewing him on camera about his life. He didn’t encourage me with words, he encouraged me with actions. Every time I visited from college, he would immediately sit down in his favorite chair, put on his glasses, open his leather phone book, dial distant relatives and then hand me the phone. That said it all to me.
He subscribed to the L.A. Times in order to see my editorial cartoons, and later my comic strips. He flew 400 miles to attend my college graduation. When I took him to the dentist, he was lying there with a mouth full of instruments and he still told the dentist that I was “in the papers.” At a family picnic, he produced, out of thin air almost, a rolled up L.A. Times comics page with “Candorville” [in] it and showed it to everyone. He would stand up taller when introducing me to people. When he smiled at me, his face was filled with such joy and pride that it made me want to always top whatever it was I had done to earn that.
Grandpa never said he liked my work, but he would always say, “Now don’t let me keep you from your work” as if I were doing something very important. He never told me [that] anything I created touched him, but he asked me for dozens of copies of the Obama inauguration strip, to mail to family and friends.
MC: Was it an easy, or difficult, decision to depict Grandpa in your strip? I am sure he would have loved the tribute (and the drawing of his face is beautiful) -- how did you approach doing this?
DB: There was no decision, it was the only thing that made sense. First of all, Grandpa was so proud of “Candorville” that I knew he’d be tickled to know that he would live on in Candorville. But more fundamentally, the train to the afterlife is reserved for people who’ve made an impact on this world. And when I sat down to pay tribute to him, my first thought was: “Grandpa Roscoe and his entire generation changed the world forever.”
MC: Given your Grandpa’s career in public transit, including those cable cars, it’s tough not to see your trains to the afterlife in a whole new light. Is there a connection?
DB: I first used the metaphor when George Carlin passed away, and I recall doing it because of Grandpa. Grandpa’s father was what was called a “boilermaker helper.” He built engines for steam trains. Whenever Grandpa would tell me the story, there were two things that would fill him with pride: the fact that his father would come home from work, take a bath, and then put on a suit to go sit out on the porch… and the fact that his father was involved with the railroads.
When Grandpa went to Chicago to meet his first love, it was on a train. When he left Marshall, Texas, to go north for boot camp in 1941, he had to stand up to men who surrounded him and tried to humiliate him… and that happened on a lonely train platform. After the war, Grandpa drove cable cars for years, before Los Angeles abandoned them — and then he drove buses. Trains and Grandpa go hand in hand, he loved them, and every time I drew the train to the afterlife, I was doing it for him.
MC: What do you think your grandpa would most wanted to be remembered as, or for? What legacy would he want to leave?
DB: He raised a family, he organized the Bell family reunions, and connected us all. Family was everything to my grandfather. Even up to his last breath, he could tell you what pretty much anyone in the family was aspiring toward or had accomplished. His pride in us made us all proud of ourselves. His dignity made us all want to be dignified. He was the role model that defined who we want to be as people and as a family. The legacy he would want to leave is us.
MC: With your grandfather’s military service, and his sense of family and community and leadership, he seems to embody what’s especially “great” about the Greatest Generation. Could you speak to that?
DB: Grandpa Roscoe would recount trials he faced in life — from racism, to war, to crime, to health problems — but never to complain; only to provide testimony about how you can overcome obstacles by being persistent, by not thinking life is supposed to be fair, by not thinking the world owes you anything, and by being true to yourself. When he had just four days left on earth, my grandfather could barely speak. But when his nephew Gary Williams, who’s studying to become a preacher, came to give him communion, I watched my Grandpa give him comfort and advice. He said: “It’s hard. You try. And you try. And you try. And you try. And you try… And another year… And you try. And you try. And you try. And you try …And you try.”
Grandpa’s last words to Gary pretty much exemplify his entire generation. They came of age during the Depression and they braved the horrors of World War II, then they went on to build families and businesses, then they took us to the moon. And they went about it all as if it were no big deal, as if they were just doing what people are supposed to do. They were right. We’re supposed to be great. We’re supposed to be like them.
MC: What was it like to write such a personal and intimate blogpost to your readers, and what has the reaction been like?
DB: People are reacting how they should: by talking about their own parents and grandparents.
Grandpa chose me to be with him till the end, and that’s the greatest honor of my life. It was his last gift to me, and I felt like I was supposed to share it; because there are millions of Grandpa Roscoes out there who are blinking out like shooting stars now, and millions of people like me who are helping ease their way. The Greatest Generation is coming to the end of its time on Earth, and we can’t let any of them just fade away. Not because they’re better than us, not just because we love them… But because just as Grandpa Roscoe embodied the best of our family, his generation embodies the best of us all. Celebrating them is celebrating what we all can be if we just try, and try, and try, and try, and try.
MC: Between the blogpost and the strips, what would you like readers to most know, and understand, about your grandfather?
DB: My grandfather was a product of his times, but never a victim of them.
MC: Are there any other thoughts you’d like to add?
DB: No, as my grandfather would say, “It’s important not to go on too long.”