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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Raoul by Tom Skulan

Tom Skulan was owner of FantaCo Enterprises

When I arrived at New Paltz as a fledgling art student in 1972, Raoul Vezina was already a local legend.
His art graced several bars and dozens of flyers posted in places like the Ariel bookstore.
He was in a band and had already published his own comic book (with Gilbert).

The first time I encountered Raoul I never really met him. He was in the back of one of my art classes before the class had started. He was passing around copies of New Paltz Comix and had a large group of students around him talking to him and asking him questions. He seemed like a super hero.

The first time I actually met Raoul was in Peter Maresca’s Crystal Cave comic shop on Main Street in New Paltz. Peter’s shop, one of only 100 such comic shops in the United States at the time was a big draw for me and for other comic fans. I had landed a part time job there and Raoul was a customer. He later would become an employee when the shop moved for the third and last time. He painted the Crystal Cave window sign as well as various small signs inside the shop- just as he would at FantaCo years later.

My first impressions of Raoul pretty much remained the same as long as I knew him. He was very independent, had a great and unusual sense of humor, loved to doodle often brilliant cartoons, usually late to work, had more friends than anyone I had ever met, kept very late hours and was prone to spending the stray night in jail.

After graduating from New Paltz and being hired directly into a teaching position I still wanted to be involved in a comic store.
So in August of 1978 I rented 21 Central Avenue in Albany and started to repaint and renovate the interior for a September opening.
I usually worked late into the night and left the front door open for some fresh air from the paint fumes. Occasionally someone would wander in and ask what the store was going to be. After telling them most people told me it would never work, including several advertising reps.
One of the earliest people who stopped in was Hank Jansen. Hank would become one of the most loyal, responsible and important of all of the FantaCo employees.

It seemed natural to use friends from New Paltz to help. Kevin Cahill and Veronica Cahill were from New Paltz and had just moved to Albany so that Kevin could attend law school. They were a huge help as was Louisa Lombardo and her sister Julie.
I enlisted Raoul to paint the window and store signs and hired him on immediately since he knew the operations of Peter’s store inside and out. Later I would also enlist 2 other New Paltz acquaintances- Roger Green and Mitch Cohn.

The first day, a Saturday, was a blow out. The store was packed and we did great. Raoul’s signs were a huge hit and responsible for much of the success. All of us had stayed up all night preparing the store and there are some great pictures of all of us collapsing after the doors were closed that day.

We planned a “grand opening” for 2 weeks later. I asked Raoul to do a flyer with a “rat in a space suit”, which he did. We posted the flyers everywhere and also used the character in a full page ad in the Overstreet Price Guide. Later that character, sans space suit, would become Smilin’ Ed- as named by Raoul.

During Raoul’s years at FantaCo he did hundreds of small store signs, several full page ads for the Overstreet Price Guide, dozens of flyers as well as writing and performing well over 100 radio commercials with me. The earliest commercials also featured Kevin, Veronica and Julie. We did the commercials at the WQBK studios and recorded them to tape. As far as I know we one of the first comic shops to advertise on radio. They were a blast to do and Raoul and I would spend hours at his apartment writing scripts and practicing them.

Penciled by Raoul Vezina. Inked/scanned/cleaned up/colored by Bill Anderson in 2008.

Of course there was also Smilin’ Ed the comic version. Raoul and I would spend many hours thinking up stories and writing dialog. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th issue of that comic took far longer to create than anyone might think. The first issue was rushed, late, and had to be driven up directly to the printing plant to be printed on schedule.

That Monday morning in November I received a call at 8:30 AM from Raoul’s girlfriend Dee.
I answered the phone and all I heard was “Tom, Raoul is dead”. I thought it was a pretty sick joke. After all Raoul had just started his vacation on Saturday and I thought he would be miles away spending his time with one of his friends in another state.
"This is a bad joke, Dee", I answered. She then gave me details and assured me it was real.
Raoul had died at his apartment.

It was surreal as it was the first time I had encountered a friend dying. I informed my girlfriend Mary and headed into the store. I put up a sign indicating the store would be closed Thursday and stayed in my office answering the phone.
The days that week are still a blur to me. I partially remember attending the funeral, being a pallbearer and breaking down.
What I do remember is hundreds of people, from all over, attending the funeral.
It was the most people I had ever seen at a funeral.

So that was it. A life was over far too soon.
Raoul, through his good humor, art and music had touched the lives of thousands of people.
His great cartooning, writing and performing skills were a very important part of the early FantaCo.
I still often think about Raoul. I miss having someone to create with.
As time goes by I do not think I will ever have that again.



Anonymous said...

Raoul taught me that to be an artist, all you had to do was make art. That's what I'm doing to this day.
Hank Jansen

Anonymous said...

As the person recording those ads at WQBK, I can't even begin to tell you how crazy it was in the studio. Raoul would BECOME Smilin' Ed, and then switch back, and he and Tom would feed off each other. It was so hard not to laugh and blow the take. Thanks for reminding me of all that, Tom!
Dan Boyle