It all started back in Akron Ohio when I was in the third grade. As city kid, I walked to school every day and the route and timing of the trip were all under my control. Halfway through the year when we moved to a consolidated school district in a rural area, I was suddenly faced with the existential crisis of having to ride a school bus every day. It was daunting. I remember getting off of my bus at school the first day and trying to memorize every aspect of it so I could be sure to find it again at the end of the day. It was yellow.
Thus began my traumatizing travails as a recovering school bus rider. What followed were seemingly endless days of running down the driveway with my school books, my trombone case, and my paper-mache volcano on a plywood board trying to catch the bus. If he wasn’t able to cause you to miss the bus completely, my driver would then play a game I called “bowling with elementary kids”, wherein he would hit the gas hard causing you to tumble down the bus aisle, with points accrued for distance tumbled and whether or not your lunch box opened up scattering your noontime repast under the seats. The thought of facing this each morning would keep me up nights.
Flash forward to a book tour for my newest Funky Winkerbean book. I was leaving a TV station in Atlanta when I was told the receptionist had a message for me. It was from a Funky reader who liked the strip and who had a suggestion. Actually, two. First the reader said that I needed to add a school secretary, and, second, that I should consider adding a school bus driver. I thought that maybe the school secretary idea was really promising and during my travel downtime, I began making notes for such a character. I also jotted down a couple of possible school bus driver names: Max Axelrod and the name that I would eventually go with, Ed Crankshaft. Later, when I began to work on my school bus driver, all of the repressed little horrors and trauma came bursting forth. My school bus driver from way back when became the model for Crankshaft, although I had to tone him down some or he would have been too unbelievable for a comic strip. They say that the specific reveals the universal, and it was never truer than with Crankshaft. I was suddenly hearing from readers regaling me with similar stories of how much Crankshaft reminded them of their bus riding experiences. All of this began to snowball to the point where Crankshaft was beginning to dominate Funky and threatening to take over the strip. I was faced with either dialing him back, or spinning him off into his own strip.
Long story short, Chuck Ayers came on board as the artist, Crankshaft was picked up for syndication and he the gas as hard as my former bus driver used to. Along the way we learned how his aborted dream of a professional baseball career gave rise to the frustrations he feels today. Later all of these baseball story arcs were collected and published as Strike Four by the Kent State University Press. The book would go on to win a top Independent Publishers Award. As time went on Crankshaft’s world expanded to include his bus garage cohorts, his friends the “back booth boys” who meet for the conversation and bottomless coffee mornings at the local Dale Evans restaurant, and his neighbors Lillian and Lucy McKenzie. The McKenzie sister story arc dealing with Lucy’s Alzheimer’s eventually became the Eisner nominated book Roses in December.
Today, along with the help of artist Dan Davis, the story of Crankshaft’s struggle with the universe continues, and whether it’s a backyard grill, a leaf filled gutter, a squirrel invested bird feeder, or one of Lena’s inedible brownies in the bus garage he continues to soldier on in his own inimitable and cranky fashion.