The Mysterious Case of John Mayer

The Knoxville artist behind the Knoxville Confidential comic strip tells his own story, most of which could be true

John Mayer may be our most unique living Knoxvillian who's yet unknown by other Knoxvillians. He's been a falcon hacker, a theme park designer, an animator, a mailman, and a comic strip artist, among many other occupations (see "The Many Jobs of John Mayer" for a complete list and commentary). This summer, a collection of his short stories and illustrations, Hex Code and Others, will be published by H. Harksen Productions, a Danish small press specializing in horror (no, really—see for the evidence). With the conclusion of the original Knoxville Confidential strip in last week's issue, we pestered him for some facts about himself. This is what he turned in.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in the country near Knoxville. We were desperately poor. We couldn't afford a TV and got our first one while I was in the sixth grade, the same year we got an indoor bathroom. When I was very young my mother cooked on a coal range. In the days of super-powered stations (250kw and higher), the coal range on occasion—but only when there was a fire in it—could both receive and amplify radio signals (somebody explained once that the edges of the doors and their frames somehow served as speakers), and those unexpected, disembodied voices could be quite startling. It had a water tank on the back through which one of our pipes ran, so when there was a fire going we had hot water in one of our two faucets, the only indoor plumbing we had at that time.

Of necessity and by the inclination of my parents to be as self-sufficient as possible, we grew a lot of our own food, including meat and dairy goats. I think I could still milk a goat or cow, and I participated in the killing of countless meat animals: chickens, rabbits, and hogs. We thought that was how it had to be. Today I'm a vegetarian, a near vegan. Our garden was often plowed with a neighbor's mule team, which is how I learned to speak the language of mules, which consists entirely of the words "giddap," "whoa," "gee," and "haw." Later my father got a used walk-behind tractor, the forerunner of today's tillers.

My father and I more than tripled the size of the little cottage we had moved into. My father is now deceased, but the house still stands, now in the city. The house didn't move; the city did. My sister and I are doing our best to try to save it.

How did you originally become a fan of science fiction/fantasy/horror?

The bookmobile. One of my classmates—Fred Myers, I think, at First Lutheran School—noticed a book titled Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1951 and opined that it was likely to suit my outré tastes. (Science fiction went through a period, after the pulps, when it was regarded as unsavory.) It did suit my tastes; I was fortunate in that that book was an excellent introduction to the genre, with several stories now considered classics.

As for horror, I'd always loved the scary stories my grandfather used to tell me as a boy. (Remember that there was no competing television for me.) In turn I sometimes tell his story of "Taily-Pole" to a new generation of kids, some of whom seem also to be able to dispense with the undemanding allure of television for the length of a story. The Grimms' fairy tales my great-grandmother Callie would read us were also pretty, well, grim. Even Little Golden Books like the Uncle Wiggily stories had some pretty darned scary menaces in them, like the Bazumpus, The Skuddlemagoon, the Pipsisewah and his creepy pal Skeezicks, and the Skillery Scallery Alligator, their pure evil given convincing form by illustrator Lang Campbell. I think all kids like at least a little bit of a scare now and then, contrary to what our literary nannies were proclaiming just a few years ago. The Comics Code Authority (their symbol appeared to be a highly modified swastika), with the well-intentioned, I'm sure, backing of Tennessee's own Estes Kefauver, in turn galvanized by the hysterical rantings of Frederic Wertham (who single-handedly discredited the entire field of psychiatry), smothered horror comics in their crib, and succeeded in putting an end to comic books as an art form. Comic books, even in the form of "graphic novels," have never recovered, now offering us little more than a plague of superheroes. Especially disappointing to me, as I did my BFA thesis on comic books.

The first "grown-up" book I purchased with my own hard-earned money (no, really; kids had to do chores for family and neighbors back then to get money) was a collection of H.P. Lovecraft stories titled Cry Horror. I traded it for an anthology representing several authors titled The Macabre Reader. It was our mutual love of horror comics that led to my high school friendship with Karl Edward Wagner, who later became a famous writer of horror stories himself.

What inspired you to create Knoxville Confidential?

I'm not sure what inspired it, but I believe it was my work with Helen Lann, a veteran of radio drama in its golden years on the West Coast. She and her husband had been friends of Jack Webb, among other radio notables. She began a series of radio dramas on WUOT, back during its golden years, back when it was still community-oriented. Though I had no theater experience, I had participated in some of her radio dramas and thought it great fun. I had thought it might be amusing to do a noir-ish detective series set in Knoxville. I wrote the outline of the story while living in a tent somewhere in the Great Smokies doing falcon hacking. Somewhere along the line I stumbled into the offices of Metro Pulse by mistake and started talking to one or another of the staffers there: Coury Turczyn, Ian Blackburn, Rand Pearson, and Jared Coffin about a local strip. And so Knoxville Confidential came to be. In vitro fertilization and the ethical issues surrounding it was making news when I was writing the basic storyline. There was a much-publicized case in Knoxville involving custody of certain zygotes, but I'd already written the outline by then.

There are a number of homages in the strip to both classic detective stories and to old comic books, sly references that were hilarious to those who were in on the joke, which group seems to have consisted entirely of me. One was the name of the main character himself, identified early on as the son of the second-best detective in New York City. My German having grown a bit rusty by that time, I erred when I mentioned that Panzer meant "panther." Actually, the German word for "panther" is "panther." "Panzer" means "armored," which would have worked, too.

Another of my obscure homages was the McGuffin itself, the frozen embryo. That was based on a frozen sphere containing the rarest and most expensive element in the world, bombastium, which Uncle Scrooge struggled to preserve from Russian spies through an entire issue of one of the great Carl Barks issues of his comic book. (Carl Barks was, of course, the Best Duck Artist. However, the Second Best Duck Artist, and, I believe, every bit Bark's equal as far as storytelling is concerned, lives just a couple of hundred miles north of us, in Kentucky. His name is Don Rosa, and he'd probably come to Knoxville to sign autographed copies of his work if anybody asked him.) The episode wherein the zygote almost rolls into a vat of molten paving tar is swiped from—that is to say, is a direct homage to—that story, which is why Panzers utters in alarm the phrase, "Oh, my stars and garters!"—one of Scrooge McDuck's most frequent expressions. There are a number of other obscurisms, related to mysteries, comics, and the city of Knoxville that I'll leave for you to find, lest I spoil all the fun.

How much of it is true?

I'm not at liberty to say. Panzer's hired muscle, Rick Conner, is a real person, a man who's lived life pretty much on his own terms and has spent precious little of it working nine-to-five for petty bosses. Much of that life he worked as a professional wrestler, but he was too much of a maverick even for that profession, and had to deal with a certain amount of blackballing. He also suffered from actually being a genuinely skilled, tough wrestler of the old school, and not trained in acrobatics or theater. A guy who used to spar with Knoxville's world heavyweight champion John Tate just for fun, he was and still is a genuinely tough guy.

The black police captain Capt. Roland was inspired by—not based upon—the late James Rowan, a captain in the Knoxville City Police Department and a man I admire. I don't know how many black police captains there have been in KPD's history, but I'm betting Capt. Rowan was one of very few. For years he funded, out of his own income and whatever meager fees it brought in, the Olympic Center at Five Points as a haven for inner-city kids, some of whom might otherwise have had very little discipline in their lives. I worked out there for a while and, while art director at the News Sentinel, more or less on a dare, and with considerable initial hesitancy on the part of participants, organized a News Sentinel Boxing Club (with fitness as the primary goal), with about a dozen of the paper's employees showing up on a weekly basis. Capt. Rowan also trained professional fighters, one of whom was a young white woman.

Much of the storyline, of course, is whimsical. However, the core plot device, the International Aztec Conspiracy, is all too real. Though it has been driven even further underground since the story was published, the movement has been secretly marshalling its forces for centuries, is resourceful and resilient, and not so easily extinguished. There are rumors that its cells throughout East Tennessee are gaining new strength, particularly in Newport.

Why haven't you drawn any more comic strips?

I was the first person in my family to finish college. I could have chosen any major. I chose art. I somehow assumed that "starving artist" was just a figure of speech. Always a precarious profession, finding work in any art field has become even more daunting since the advent of the miracle of the Internet, which has made every American looking for artwork a potential offshore outsourcer. It is now possible to find what appears to be an original, custom-designed logo for five dollars. Some of those bargains have resulted in lawsuits filed by those who really originated those logos. Serves the cheapskates right. Anyway, I'd finally come to my senses, a couple of decades late, and went back to school to train in an actual profession. I have a BFA from UT, but, since I was no longer active, I let my artist's license lapse. I'm afraid I'm too rusty, now, to pass the state art boards, even if I could come up with the testing fee. I have toyed with the idea of continuing the strip with someone else doing the art, though. Probably someone in the Philippines. Or, maybe, a young artist fresh out of school who doesn't recognize the danger.

Did any particular experience invest you into social justice issues?

Well, I've suffered some miscarriages of justice myself, including once, with two friends, being arrested for running in a bowling alley parking lot. I know, sounds preposterous, but it happened. We were the last ones out of the alley late one night, there were no cars that might have presented a hazard, there were no residences around. But two KPD cops—they were a different breed in those days—probably decided to check us out to see if we'd been drinking. We hadn't but they didn't like the attitude of one of us so they arrested us anyway, an arrest that has come back to plague my job search after all these years.

But I really don't think it was my own experiences that evoked my social concerns. I've always had a strong sense of right and wrong, probably derived from my parents. Though we killed animals for food, my father was never unnecessarily cruel to them, was, in fact, a great animal lover and that might have been the origins of my inclination toward animal rights issues. There was also the one clandestine entry into an animal experimental lab looking for a friend's missing cat that gave me a hard look at what was being done in the name of "study and research" in such places.

As to issues of human rights, well, first it helps to meet people from a variety of backgrounds. Knoxville is not the most racist of towns, but we've not been free of it. I don't know that I can claim I was never tainted by the more passive form of racism around me, but I think I might have been spared the more virulent form of it, in part, because my grandfather was a door-to-door salesman, back when there still were such people, taking his assortment of Raleigh and Watkins products around to rural areas, to people that, in those days, might have had a harder time getting to the store to replenish their black pepper or vanilla extract or lineament. A great number of his customers were black, so I saw black people at an early age as people to be respected and treated with courtesy.

I don't know, really, but for one thing, I believe that a certain level of altruism is natural to us, is present in even lower orders of animals, and it requires an active suppression of that tendency to be purely self-serving, to take the attitude of "Greed is good," or "I've got mine; screw you, Jack."

What would you change about Knoxville if you could?

I wish our leadership would be a little more proactive, a little more inclined to think outside the routine, to go out of their way to seek new directions for our city. I also wish some of our leaders would take their jobs more seriously, would regard advocating for the average Knoxvillian as their noblest duty, and quit constantly sucking up to those with the most money, instead of those with the best interests of Knoxville at heart. The way in which the Candy Factory, one of our city's most utilized resources, possibly our most vibrant meeting place, was practically given away to developers, still rankles. Developers are after profits, the quicker the better, and they don't give a rat's ass about the future of Knoxville. Those politicians who do care should bear in mind the old saying: "Who eats with the developer must use a long spoon."

Some of our leaders have had some good ideas. This would be a great time for Knoxville to take the lead in a green economy, especially in conservation, the one thing that worked during the Arab Oil Boycott and a technology that does not demand new breakthroughs to be successful. Councilman Chris Woodhull wants to do a Green Roof demonstration project, as championed by Majora Carter who visited here about a year ago. It turns out that Knoxville may just have the oldest Green Roof in the country, so that should be regarded as part of our heritage. But there's no groundswell, it seems to make that sort of thing happen, even though it would be good for our nation and even though Ms. Carter has proven in the South Bronx that it can be a way to create jobs. Joe Hultquist has long spoken of the desirability of light rail between Knoxville and the tourist destinations of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. He also has a long-standing interest in solar energy. Why can't we as a city make some of these things happen?

And why can't we, as a city, support those of our citizens who happen to live in the eastern quadrant? Those who run this city have pretty much turned their backs on East Knoxville, repeatedly cutting off its main thoroughfares, killings its businesses, routing what little traffic they might have gotten from other parts of town through visits to the zoo and Chilhowee Park around that part of the city so that they can visit East Knoxville without actually driving through East Knoxville. "East Knoxvillian" has become a pejorative term, the Knoxville version of the n word. Why not just call us "easters," which would, at least, imply the hope of rebirth. Maybe as a "wester."

It's time that our political and business leaders made a real effort to establish some things in East Knoxville to both galvanize and involve citizens of that part of town while attracting patrons from other parts. One idea that has been floated around is a sort of African Bazaar, with food courts where foods of some of the many different cuisines could be featured, without a major initial investment by those adept at preparing regional specialties. King Tut's, whose owners have said they're looking for a second location and which already has a following, would make a perfect anchor eatery. There could be African crafts, vendors of various products, and, perhaps, a farmer's market offering both local produce and a few exotic fruits and vegetables native to Africa. How many here, for example, have ever actually eaten a yam? Not a sweet potato; a yam. Very few. There could be educational exhibits focusing on Africa, helping the youth of that area appreciate the greatness of their heritage. Maybe a performing center where African dance, music, puppet shows and so on could be featured; it would be a sort of year-long Kuumba festival. Perhaps other ventures and venues would be created around this focal point.

Why does Knoxville need a Karl Wagner festival?

Karl Wagner, who grew up and began his writing career in Knoxville, is one of the most highly regarded horror writers in the world. There is a yearly fantasy award named after him in Britain. Yet he is scarcely known in his hometown. The public library, last time I checked, had one book in the entire system written by him. One of the admirers of his work, an editor in Australia, offered to begin a subscription to build a monument to him, here in his home town. When I presented that proposal to the lady to whom the city administration directed me, Mickey Mallonee, she could not have been less interested. I have gotten a little more interest from others more recently when the notion of the Karl Edward Wagner Fall Fear and Fantasy Film and Fiction Festival was added to the mix, as a successful festival means money in our tills. But even there little of the energy has come from those in city government.

I've written about the proposed festival at length on the site. Bringing in some tourist dollars is one good reason to do it. I've had people from as far away as Tucson, California, and even the U.K. say they would definitely come if the festival were a reality. Horror is big business. The University of Tennessee is making plans to have a literary event focusing on horror that weekend (the weekend after the anniversary of Karl's death), and William Mahaffey's successful horror film festival will be held here on that same weekend. Celebrating Karl Wagner's literary achievements as part of those events will provide a natural Knoxville tie-in to the festivities.

But there is also the point that we should celebrate the accomplishments of those Knoxvillians who have given this town its creative soul. We have more to be proud of than a football team that is mostly recruited, like the artists who do our public monuments, from out of town. We barely even acknowledge the man who is probably our greatest writer (though there are, now, another contender or two), James Agee. Thanks to the tireless efforts of people like R.B. Morris, there is now a small park in his honor, and a street in his name. But at Cumberland, James Agee becomes Phillip Fulmer, all too symbolic of the thinking that has tried to limit what Knoxville represents.

Note: This expanded version includes answers we couldn't fit into the print edition.