WHEN COTTON WAS KING

I love writing but I don't like trying to sell my writing. Not to to editors and agents when it's a manuscript and not to readers after it's been published. The whole process strikes me as slightly embarrassing. I always feel like I'm being pushy. Besides, I am a retiring sort. When I find myself on display at a table piled with books in the front of a bookstore I feel as lost and panicky as I imagine I would have at a high school dance had I ever dared attend one.

The obvious lesson is that writers are sometimes the kids who spent most of their time in their rooms reading books. Some of us become writers because we are loners. Because we are not salesperson material. And the requirements of today's marketplace, that writers publicize their works, can be onerous, given the kind of people some of us are.

Obvious, except when I was in grade school I wasn't at all shy about trying to make a buck - well, a quarter - off my literary efforts.

My biggest seller, on the playground at recess, was King Cotton. He was a series character, like John the Eunuch. During a fifth grade history lesson my teacher, Mrs. Hughes, had uttered the phrase "Cotton was king in the South" and for many years afterwards all I knew about the American Civil War was that it was something to do with cotton and the North won, because the moment I heard those magic words I was scribbling on my tablet a stick-limbed cotton boll wearing a crown and carrying a sword, naturally.

I used to spend a lot of time in grade school drawing cartoons in my tablet rather than learning long division, which was the sort of thing they taught in grade school back then, rather than trigonometry and calculus, believe it or not. These efforts would be passed around to my friends, to be greeted by muffled snickers or outright guffaws, usually depending on the degree of mayhem the characters were inflicting on each other. When Mrs. Hughes noticed the boisterous reaction to King Cotton and reprimanded us, I knew I had come up with a something of merit. Something that could be sold!

I began turning out King Cotton Comics, penciled on a couple sheets of folded and stapled tablet paper. The stories involved the doughty King and his arch foes, the nefarious six-armed Boll Weevils and the King's evil, bomb slinging brother William who grinned evilly and wore a floppy, evil-looking hat. I was able to draw the simple characters very quickly, and the frequent panels featuring merely a jagged explosion and a big KABOOM went even more quickly.

My friends and I proceeded to sell these masterpieces at recess. I had identified my potential market as those classmates who I figured I could follow about and pester without risking a pummeling. My method was pretty straightforward. "Wanna a comic? Only a dime. C'mon, only a dime. OK five cents. Aw c'mon, only five cents. Eight pages too. I'll even show you the cover before you buy it! C'mon. I'll let go of your swing if you buy one. It's really funny! I'll push your swing if you buy one."

Hard to believe from someone who trembles at the thought of offering a free bookmark at a book signing.

Our methods must have been effective because we were soon moving enough comics to keep us in licorice whips, jawbreakers and Bazooka Joe bubblegum. (Come to think of it, King Cotton was actually better drawn and funnier than Bazooka Joe comics) Success encouraged diversification. Before long Morgan the Talking Dog hit the playground market, followed brilliantly by Elmo the Talking Fish.

Then we came out with a premium line, in glorious Crayola color. Those sold for a quarter. Our final product turned out to be The King Cotton Giant Annual. Drawn on full-sized unfolded paper, it featured a space adventure. Unfortunately the spaceships and spacesuits wore down my scarce silver, gold and copper colored crayons so alarmingly that we decided not to part with the comic but to simply rent it. Which required us to erase the crossword puzzle for each new customer.

Spurred on by visions of pocketfuls of penny candy, several other grade school entrepreneurs rushed to begin their own independent publishing companies. But who would have preferred Colonel Corn over King Cotton? We weren't destined to find out because Mrs. Hughes decided all this rampant free enterprise was not suitable for a playground environment and banned our efforts all the way from the sliding board to the witch's hat. Kind of the Evil Chainstore of her times, was Mrs Hughes.

Since then I have not been so enthusiastic about pushing my writing, but Mary and I make our low-key efforts because the whole point of writing is that someone is going to read it. In a few days I will be at the Deadly Ink Mystery Conference and, to Patti Biringer, who invited me to be on a panel there, honest, I will try not to be shaking like a leaf the whole time! Hmmm, I wonder how many comics I could draw in the three days remaining before the conference?



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