He recalls his childhood, with its denials and limitations, in a sharp, almost chilling voice. He describes his family as “close-minded.” By junior high school, Sassaman was the kid who wanted to disappear, who’s learned to neither sit in the front of the class nor the back but somewhere in the anonymous middle; the kid who does not attract attention, rarely gets in fights, and never throws the first punch. They are seldom without weapons.
“Actually I’m pretty cynical,” he admits, “and for sure saracastic.”
“Friends like he are hard to find” was the inscription under his high school graduation photograph in the 1973 Sphinx, the Tamaqua Area High School yearbook. The grammatically incorrect statement was made to sound both generous and insincere. Sassaman likes the paradox.
After graduating from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh in 1976, Sassaman went into TV. Soon he was the lead graphic designer for KDKA-TV, the station out of Pittsburgh. The CBS affiliate offered five and a half hours of news each day. While by day Sassaman worked with his staff to ensure the studio set looked upbeat, the graphics up to the minute, at home each night, he drew cartoons. In 1995, he published his first issue of Innocent Bystander. It met with critical praise, as did the following issue. Both issues explored its creators’ obsessions. Sassaman did a piece entitled “Hollywood Hair” and another called “Political Hair.” In the first he drew portions of hair, just the forelock, ranging from Lon Chaney and Alfalfa to Marilyn Monroe; in the second were similar bits of hair whose owners ran the gamut from George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Newt Gingrich to members of the Kennedy clan. I found the personalities instantly identifiable, proof that Sassaman’s renderings reflect an astute eye.
“Are you going to write about my hair?” asked Sassaman, who began to lose his locks in the ninth grade.
Neither the first nor the second issue, however, was as successful as Innocent Bystander number 3, devoted to the Marx Brothers. Sassaman’s affection informs each image. That issue sold out. With each issue, Sassaman gained authorial confidence; by the publication of Innocent Bystander number 4, Sassaman was on a roll.
That issue was devoted to his cats, Stan and Ollie. He showed what cats saw and what they might reflect on. Unlike the smug one-liners of the comic strip Garfield, each frame in Innocent Bystander number 4 offered — in intensely observed moments — examples of the cats’ introspective, independent feline natures set against the mysterious workings of humans and the material world. Sassaman’s touch could be as rough as a cat’s tongue or as soft as a kitten’s paw; but the deft killer claws always peeked out, if ever so slightly.
Stan and Ollie, he writes, were not his first cats. In 1982, a friend at the station offered him a yellow kitten that looked like a lion. Sassaman, then 27 and living alone in a Pittsburgh apartment, figured a kitten would be entertaining. He took him home and named him Keaton, in honor of Buster Keaton, the silent-screen comic.
Sassaman found sharing his space took some adjusting. Keaton was affectionate and quickly became attached; when Gary worked late or went out with friends, the cat chewed on the dust jackets of his books and ripped album covers. He craved attention.
“I hate the smell of canned cat food and decided on Tender Vittles because it’s semi-soft and hasn’t got much of an odor.”
In the end, he thinks it may have been the cat food that helped do Keaton in. When he was three and a half, the cat developed a urinary tract infection. While Sassaman says this condition occurs in many neutered male cats, he feels an ongoing diet of semi-soft food enhanced Keaton’s chances of infection. The cat had to be catheterized.
“He was doing well when he came out of surgery. I wasn’t allowed to stay with him and went home. I think when he came to and did not see me, he felt abandoned. I got a call later saying he’d suddenly died.”
When he speaks of that phone call, Gary’s voice almost breaks with pain. Three months later, he got Stan and Ollie. “This time I decided on two cats, from the same litter, because I wanted them to be company for each other when I wasn’t around. But they had different personalities and fought like a couple of old ladies. I’d come home, and you could tell by the way they acted that they’d been at each other. Yet when it was time to eat — I fed them only dry cat food — I’d put their food in separate dishes, they’d always share the same bowl.
“With two cats there is the problem of the cat box. The one they have is the size of the Mojave Desert. It gets cleaned twice a day.”
Stan and Ollie have been with him almost 14 years. They give him, he says, the unconditional love he didn’t get as a child. The cats came with Sassaman west when he moved two years ago after visiting San Diego for the annual comic-book convention “Comic-Con,” one of the largest of the many conventions San Diego hosts each year, he says. Besides his television work, Gary maintains the Comic-Con website and, with a friend, authors a comic book called Geeksville (which includes signature Innocent Bystander material). Sassaman expects Image Comics, the third largest comic-book publisher in the U.S., will soon become their publisher.
When I told Sassaman that despite what I’d learned, it was still hard to pin him down, he replied that he had a job he liked and good friends he enjoyed. “I haven’t had much luck with women. I’d love to have a relationship someday, and I’m not saying it won’t happen. Who knows? But right now I get all sorts of love from my cats.”
He seemed, in fact, very much like his cats: private, distinctive, temperamental, and successful at eluding an easy grasp. “It’s a relationship,” he said, “and it’s easy to forget that they choose you, too, that they also have a say in the matter.”