The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

RIP, DAVID CARR: Eisner-nominated cartoonist Derf pays tribute to his staunch alt-press ‘champion’

DAVID CARR (Reuters/Chester Higgins Jr/New York Times/archive 2008)

AT SOME POINT, on some level, most cartoonists need a champion — some clear-eyed soul who not only can detect talent in your hand and mind that maybe you yourself weren’t even fully aware of, but who also can see your gifts within a bigger picture. Cartooning, by its nature, is often an act of keeping your head down. To get anywhere meaningful, to turn talent into traction, we need both a true believer and a heads-up human GPS.

For Derf, the acclaimed Ohio cartoonist with the industrially muscular style and the punk-rock heart, David Carr was such a seer and believer. Derf held art papers. Carr held road maps.

David Michael Carr was laid to rest yesterday, as his laid-bare life was memorialized by family and friends and media/entertainment figures during a funeral at Manhattan’s St. Ignatius Loyola Roman Catholic Church. The movie star of a media critic, this journalistic high priest, died last week in his New York Times newsroom, a death related to lung cancer, at age 58. And as such, he has been widely eulogized.

I was especially struck, in recent days, by a cartoonist’s eulogy. Carr’s journalistic roots famously held firm in the world of the alternative press — first in Minnesota, then in D.C. — and as a good alt-weekly editor should (alas), he had a passion for alt-weekly cartoons.

John Backderf, who goes by the nom-de-toon Derf, benefited from that passion, and shared his memories of Carr on Facebook. (Derf granted The Post’s Comic Riffs permission to excerpt his words here.)

Derf is now the Eisner-nominated bestselling author of “My Friend Dahmer,” as well as two other acclaimed graphic novels, “Trashed” and “Punk Rock and Trailer Parks.” But in the ’90s, Derf was launching his alt-comic “The City” and trying to get a professional toehold.

“He was one of my staunchest champions in the alternative press,” Derf writes of Carr, “first at the long-defunct Twin Cities Reader, then as editor of the DC City Paper, back when I was a young cartoonist enjoying my first meager successes.”

“When he moved on to become the star reporter at the Times,” Derf continues, “writing about media, every time I saw him at newspaper conventions, he greeted me with a big hug and immediately dragged me off to lunch, happy to yak with one of his cartoonists, instead of with bloviating weekly press barons.

“Our last lunch was in San Diego, at the alternative-newspaper convention there. We sat together at an outdoor cafe near the con. All around, envious publishers, always puffed up with importance at these things, eyed me: How did that damn cartoonist get face time with Carr of the N.Y. Times?” continues Derf, who calls Carr “one of the sharpest, but most down-to-earth, dudes I’ve ever met.”

Carr launched into “a fantastic conversational journey.” Derf enjoyed even the compliment that was this conversation. And then…

“He told me something at that lunch,” Derf writes, “that changed my life.”

“Leaning over his plate to whisper, and then NOT whispering so everyone around could hear, he said, ‘The dirty little secret of this f—–g convention is that 90 percent of these papers suck! Most of them will be gone in 10 years.’ I laughed, but those words stuck with me the rest of the weekend as I watched the alt-weekly royalty at work. … I realized he was right. I was already having doubts about the future of weeklies anyways, and Carr’s brutal, but spot-on assessment cleared the fog.”

The road-mapper had shifted the artist’s sense of the lay of the land.

“I came home and started working on ‘Punk Rock and Trailer Parks’ in earnest.”

When a believer so profoundly changes your life, he lives on in your work, and the work of everyone he influenced and inspired.

And if there’s one healthy addiction, it’s that of championing your peers and protégés. That fire burns too high to ever be extinguished.