The second installment opens with Jackie renting a room at a cheap flophouse adjoining a dancehall called Ruby Ray's Parisian Cabaret. This episode of the story introduces a few characters who are important to the first part of the Belligerent Piano story.
The dancehall is owned by Ruby Ray Palmyra, also known as the "Prom King", a past-his-prime, one-time famous crooner from the late 1920's & 1930's. The basic model for Ruby Ray was Frank Sinatra (although Sinatra would've been much younger than Ray) in a kind of surreal, boozy, haunted carnivaleque "what if" worst case scenerio. In the late 1940's and early 50's, Sinatra's popularity had declined dramatically (Sinatra later referred to those years as "all Mondays", which I think is a great way to describe a stretch of bad luck). It wasn't until he won an Academy Award in 1953 for his portrayal of Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity that his popularity rebounded. Ruby Ray is my take on what might've happened to Sinatra - or someone of his type - if his career had never recovered. Ray personifies a kind of self-aware decadence; a sentimental, tragic comedian in the form of an over-the-hill boy singer. As the Belligerent Piano story opens, Ruby Ray is on a European comeback tour (which ultimately flops). The illustration below depicts Ray in Paris "relaxing" after one of his performances.
(The Prom King in Paris, drawn around 1994-5)
Ray's right-hand-man is Lyle, the caretaker of both the dancehall and the flophouse. Lyle is a Communist who fancies himself as an intellectual. He also frequently sees flying saucers and is completely, although reluctantly, in love with Ray.
Old Lobos - also referred to as "Old Injun" - is an ex-circus performer, a side-show knife thrower, who suffered a debilitating stroke. He's one of the flophouse residents.
A third character is the Lobster Boy, another ex-carny, who occupies the room neighboring Jackie's. He introduces himself shortly after Jackie's arrival, and mysteriously warns the drifter that "none of this shit is real" and he's "in to some strange things."
Much of both BP episodes #1 and #2 are a combination of work drawn in 1994-5, then partially redrawn between 2001-5. I redrew certain parts of the story so many years later because, although I wanted to maintain it's original look, I felt that, due to my inexperience illustrating comics, too much of it was subpar. All of the original second installment was drawn while I was living in San Francisco and Oakland, CA - which means, in some cases, drawn while sitting in a booth at a taqueria on Mission Street or at a little flophouse table next to a window overlooking Valencia Street - a window outside of which blinked and buzzed the neon sign advertising the dump: The King's Motel (if I remember its name accurately); itself a scene, it would seem, out of the very story I was writing. I couldn't have been happier (in a depressed sort of way). Nobody at the King's Motel was ever up before noon. The guy who owned the place took my nightly $15 through a hole in the grating seperating us. The strung-out, emaciated lady at the end of the hall was always asking me for cigarettes: "Gotta cigarette for me today, Blondie?" I can still see her squinty smile. Wonder whatever happened to her.
This was research: Like a method actor living the life of a character. I did this sort of thing quite often for the sake of creating a sense of authenticity to Jack. It seemed like a worthwhile endeavor, although I discovered that, by doing so, I would remain seperated from him in the most critical way: Jackie's aimlessness is his signature personality trait; I was behaving in an opposite fashion by seeking out experiences that would bring me nearer to understanding Jackie's experience - it was, ultimately, my goal, my focus, my aim. Maybe you see the paradox. But I suppose that's going too far. Looking back on it now, it seems I was chasing - or at least following in the footsteps of - a ghost.
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