A View From The Cheap Seats:
Seeing With New Eyes
By Rich Watson
Seeing with new eyes: Tellos' Thor Badendyck
I wish I could say I knew Thor Badendyck better than I did. We both attended LaGuardia High School, a specialized school for visual and performing artists, in New York, and though he was a year behind me, we knew each other through mutual friends. We shared a class or two. We traveled within the same cliques and saw each other fairly often; we were even part of an art club for a brief time. In my yearbook he drew a couple of cartoons, one of himself, and wrote, "Good luck with your art. P.S. Keep in touch with the club eh?" Unfortunately, after I graduated in 1990 I never saw or heard from him again - that is, until a couple of months ago. And although the turn his life has taken since is one I would never have dreamed of, he has turned a horrifying tragedy into a phenomenal comeback - one worthy of his comic book namesake.
From the age of three, Thor began reading, and by the time he hit preschool comics had already captured his attention, and though they weren't the only thing he wanted to do artistically, they were what fascinated him most. "I started drawing partially because I would get an image in my head that I wanted to see," he says today, looking back. "So, in order to see it, I had to make it. I became fascinated with the concept of taking a blank paper, and essentially, making anything I could imagine out of nothing. If you've ever read the children's book "Harold and the Purple Crayon" (it's essentially about a kid with a Green Lantern ring), It does a good job of explaining how amazing the concept of drawing is. Also, [I] wasn't a very patient spectator. If I saw something that looked fun, I had to be able to do it too. At some point, I figured out that these comics were coming out all the time. Someone had to be making them."
LaGuardia, one of New York's most prestigious schools, is an amalgam of two schools, Music & Art and Performing Arts; the latter being the inspiration for the movie and TV show Fame. During the time Thor and I attended, however, comics weren't exactly a high priority in the curriculum. "At the time, they seemed almost entirely geared toward 'fine art,' or what I would call Gallery Art. For the most part, they didn't think comics were art at all (which I found very hard to understand). I'm sure they're much hipper now. The only commercial art lesson that I got was just from the fact that, like any other homework, the art assignments had deadlines (important lesson though!)." What he appreciated most about his time there was being exposed to others like him. "When you're in class trying to use charcoal to make something that looks like fruit, there's a kid next to you trying to do the same thing. I learned at least as much from the other students as from the teachers. Plus, there were vocal majors singing gospel in the stairwells. It was an amazing place."
Thor graduated in 1991 and served an apprenticeship as an illustrator before going freelance and eventually moving upstate with his family. He began working on a comic of his own, as well as making contacts within the industry - the most notable being Sensational Spider-Man and Impulse writer and Tellos co-creator Todd Dezago. "We got to be friends working on a book together for a company that a mutual friend was starting - creator-owned, black-and-white. I guess we were kind of recommended to each other. I was working on a book of my own, and then [I] also started doing pencils for a story he had called Miracles. We had only gotten into the second issue when I had my accident."
In January 2000, while out driving, an approaching tractor-trailer made an illegal U-turn that blocked the road. The sun's glare blinded Thor for only a moment, but it was enough - he collided into the trailer, shredding the top half of his car off completely and crushing his spinal cord just above the base of his neck. Six weeks within hospitals and rehabilitation centers followed before he was able to return home, but the damage had been done. "After my condition stabilized enough (barely) for me to be transferred to a rehab hospital, I was told, as per standard medical dogma at the time, that I would hopefully be able to breathe, speak, eat, and over the next year or so, regain somewhat more feeling and function, and that all happened. But basically, my body would be dead weight for the rest of my life."
The road to physical - not to mention mental - recovery for Thor would prove to be a long and ongoing one in the subsequent months and years, but through it all, the question of when he could return to the drawing board persisted in his mind. The answer came relatively quickly. "One day, working with a physical therapist, we were trying to see if I could sign my name holding the pen in my jaws (although in certain cases someone else can sign for me, in important cases we thought it would be a lot better if I could do it myself). It sort of worked, looking like my old signature done while riding a mechanical bull on a moving train. But a funny thing happened; the same thing that would happen when I held a pen in math class. I kept scribbling and it turned into eyes… and then a face. I wish I could tell you what that felt like, but I just don't have the words."
An engineer at the rehab hospital, guided by Thor's suggestions, put together a special easel that Thor would draw on, tilting his wheelchair to a near-upright position and holding the pen (with an extension) in his mouth. "It was incredibly exhausting, but it was its own reward. I think I was motivated by a mixture of stubborn, angry determination and that same love for the process of making images appear that I always had. So, at least partially, drawing gave me the strength to draw. When I finally came home, I started sketching more, and, once it got physically a little easier, more of the joy came out."
Dezago found out about the accident after returning from a trip to France to promote Tellos. "As the weeks and months passed, we were updated on Thor's progress, and after a phone call or two, I went to see him at the Rehab Center for spinal injuries and stuff," he says today. "He looked great, positive, ready to get back to life. And he had painted several pictures, all of them great, all of them showing a bit of the old Thor, all of them burned into my memory forever. I was both awed and thrilled and asked if he'd tried a pen yet. He had, but very little. After a few more weeks, I went back and he showed me some sketches. I told him he was there."
Suddenly, the two began thinking about making comics again. "I asked if he'd be able to do panel work, storytelling, etc.," says Dezago. "He said sure. I wrote him a ten-page Tellos story. He turned it in faster than anybody else I've ever worked with. Amazing." The story, "Clothes Call," appeared as a backup in Tellos and eventually made the trade paperback subtitled Maiden Voyage. "I like to work with artists who know how to tell a story (this is a lot more important than most comics readers realize!) and Thor was always that. He knows how to move a story, designing the page to lead the eye from panel to panel, image to image. I feel that he is an incredibly talented artist and I try to work to people's strengths… I go to conventions and point out Thor's work to everyone, telling them that it's the story of which I'm proudest. I then tell them about Thor and the fact that he drew it with his mouth. Always the same expression. Eyes wide with shock, mouths drop open. I love that reaction."
"Can't say enough good things about him," says Thor about Dezago. "Great writer, full of ideas, and a lot of fun to work with! Seriously good guy too. He's got a lot of good karma coming back to him." Dezago, for his part, credits Thor's own perseverance. "I don't know that I had much of a role in getting Thor back into drawing. He was gonna do it anyway. I just got to him first 'cause we're friends."
Many others have been part of Thor's recovery process. A local benefit show, organized by friends and family, raised money to help him pay for a van to carry him places. Now Thor is able to get out much more often. "I was lucky enough to have successfully hypnotized several people in my life into believing that I was a person deserving of their constant love and support," he jokes. "These people are far better human beings than I, but nonetheless my plan is working perfectly so far!"
Weeks ago, actor Christopher Reeve, another quadriplegic after his horse-riding accident in 1995, was able to move one of his fingers for the first time since. His perseverance in making a recovery is well documented. The cinematic Superman found out about Thor and gave him a call. "When someone becomes quadriplegic, they have to monitor their health in a whole new way. So he wanted to make sure I was taking care of myself and staying on top of what I needed to. It was really, really good to talk to him. I had only been injured for five or six months and he was the first person in a similar situation I had talked to. There's a level of bull and pretense that you can cut through if you don't have to try and explain things that almost have to be experienced to be understood. One of the last things he said was that a cure was a lot closer than most doctors thought, so I should keep my body in good shape [he said], 'because you're gonna need it.'"
Which brings up the thorny issue of stem cell research. For those unfamiliar with it, a quick primer: stem cells are indistinguishable cells that renew themselves, by dividing, over long periods. Under certain conditions, either physiological or experimental, they could take on specialized functions, such as keeping the heart beating or producing insulin. Studying how this works could conceivably lead to stronger preventative measures against major diseases (like cancer), and also spinal cord injuries, by harvesting the cells and getting them to become specific types. There are those, however - primarily those who oppose abortion - who feel this destroys human life at the embryonic stage. Last year, President Bush approved limited federal funds to go towards research on existing stem cell lines in which the embryos have already been destroyed. "It looks like the cure will probably come from stem cells," says Thor. "The ridiculous controversy has really slowed down research, though. Some people still seem to confuse it with human cloning… So the moral of the story of my accident is don't stop wearing your seat belt and support stem cell research. Because even if you're not stupid, the other guy might be."
As for the comics, Thor continues to pursue them. He has finished a second Tellos story that will appear in the new TPB, subtitled Sons and Moons, and according to Dezago, his art has gotten even better. "See, Thor can't not draw. He's always gonna be doing it. He just needed to figure out how to do it in a new way… Thor is a good friend who I like working with in this crazy storytelling business. When I think about it though, it does seem kinda prophetic - we were working on Miracles when we first started. And now I just watch one happen every time we work on something."
"Drawing is a way of seeing," says Thor. "It's in the mind. Your hand is just as much a tool as the pencil or pen. Hopefully, after a while the reader can forget about how the work was done, and just enjoy!"
As I said, I wish I knew Thor better in high school - but I feel privileged to know him again now, and to know that he has found the strength he needed to not only resume his life, but to live it in the manner of his choosing, a lesson we can all take great solace from. "I went back to drawing for exactly the same reasons that I was drawing before," says Thor. "I love to create. And even if I didn't, I don't really seem to be able to stop."
A graduate of New York's School of Visual Arts, Rich Watson has been a self-published cartoonist since 1993, and whose output includes the superhero drama CELEBRITY and the romantic fable RAT: A LOVE STORY. He currently resides in New York and gets his comics weekly from Jim Hanley's Universe and Midtown Comics. Talk to him and comment on his column by visiting his message board.