If I told you I spent a good portion of my youth reading MAD magazine , would you really be all that surprised? While most teenage boys were probably reading to snicker at the fart jokes, sexual innuendo, and the occasional cartoony glimpse of a breast, I found myself taken in by the artists who brought my favorite movie characters to life. I studied every panel, taking in every detail the artists buried inside.
I began to pride myself in the fact that I could identify the artist without reading the tagline, and if one of them had work that popped up in another magazine, I spotted them there, too. Forget Rodin, Picasso, Monet, Dali, and DaVinci. They didn't draw fun Moonlighting parodies and fill my head with countless random images like Sergio Aragones, Jack Davis, Bill Gaines, Don Martin, Antonio Prohias, and Mort Walker.
My favorite, though, was an illustrator named Sam Viviano.
I first became a fan of his when I was even younger and an avid reader of Dynamite magazine. It's been out of print for some time and for those who don't know, it was kind of like a cross between People and Disney's Magazine for ADD Tweens. Viviano was known for his crowd scenes, and I remember one particular two-page spread that featured Darth Vader, Valerie Bertinelli, E.T., and Indiana Jones.
As a kid I always enjoyed drawing and doodling, most of the time copying the cartoons I found in MAD and Cracked. But when I looked at the detail and attention in Vivano's art, that's what sold me. This guy was good. Take the above picture of Steven Spielberg. He didn't just draw a picture of Spielberg holding a letter but also added references to a bunch of the movies he was associated with: Gremlins, E.T., Hook, Saving Private Ryan, Close Encounters, Raiders, Jaws, Jurassic Park, 1941, Munich....you get the idea. (Of course, he could have been told to include those references but in my mind, it was all Sam's doing.)
Because I was operating under the belief that every dream I had could be attained by writing a letter, I decided to write my artistic hero. I was 14 years old. I don't remember exactly what I wrote in my fan letter, but I remember starting off by telling him I was his GREATEST and MOST DEVOTED fan. And then I continued by asking if he would draw a picture of Indy, Willie, and Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and send it to me. You know, because apparently I thought this poor guy had nothing better to do than draw pictures for kids - by request - and for free on top of that.
I sent off my letter and life went on. I wondered if he got it. I wondered if I would get an Indiana Jones cartoon. And then life went on some more and as the weeks turned to months, I forgot I had ever written the letter at all.
Until, one sunny day (I still remember it exactly. I was in the back yard trying to get up the nerve to try to teach myself how to do a backflip but I was too afraid of breaking my neck. Weird, huh? But that's what I was doing, I promise you) when my mom brought me an envelope I'd received in the mail. In the upper left hand corner it said "VIVIANO" and the postmark was from New York.
I then proceeded to freak the hell out.
Not only had he written me back ("A whole page! He wrote a whole page!!") but he also included an autographed reproduction of the cartoon I had seen in the pages of the magazine (the one with Indiana Jones). I put the cartoon on my wall and tucked the letter away for safe keeping.
He wrote me back. Sam Viviano actually took the time out of his schedule to write back. That was the coolest thing ever. It wasn't long after that I stopped copying other people's cartoons and started drawing my own. That was 1986.
It's 2009 and I'm still doodling. I'll be the first to admit my doodles are nowhere near the caliber of Sam Viviano (who, by the way, the internet tells me is now the art director at MAD), but doggone if I don't have fun drawing them, and really, that's kind of the point.
I'm sorry to say I don't know what happened to that cartoon he sent me.
Somewhere between middle school and 23 years later I misplaced it.
But this story's got a happy ending. For Christmas Mom made a photo album for each of her three kids, kind of chronicling our lives in pictures and achievement certificates and report cards. And there, nestled about halfway in, was this:
Pretty cool, huh?
**December 3, 2009: UPDATE! There's more to this story! Sam Viviano found my blog and left a comment (see below)!! To find out the rest of the story, CLICK HERE!