The first indie comic I ever read is a short-lived series called Ismet. It’s very obscure, and even a lot of the better-versed comics fans often know nothing, or very little, about it. I came across it at the tender age of 12 (going on 13) because a few years before that, I used to ride into school on the same bus as the guy who would go on to create it, Greg Wadsworth.
That first paragraph needs a little unpacking, so here’s a little background: I grew up in an unincorporated rural community in Oregon’s Willamette Valley called St. Louis (about 15 miles north of the state capital, Salem), and I went to school in a little town called Gervais about 3 miles away, so the rural route bus run by the high school district in that same town took all of us kids to and from school every day – me and my school-mates all went to the Catholic parochial elementary school in town, but the bus also picked up the kids who went to the town’s public elementary and high schools. And there was a bit of a divide and hierarchy in the seating arrangements on the bus: the little kids (grades 1-2) in front, and then on up through the really cool high-school teenagers in back. And those of us who went my school, Sacred Heart Elementary, mostly kept to ourselves (there were only a few of us, anyway).
Now in the first and second grades, besides me, a few of my buddies were also into comics, and we would often have a few with us and flip through them and talk about them on the way to school. This caught the attention of an older kid named Greg, who went to the public school and who was in the 6th or 7th grade at the time. So he did something unprecedented: he broke the school bus seating hierarchy, and also crossed that, admittedly not entirely rigid, parochial/public school boundary and sat in the front with us little kids, to talk comics and to joke around in general.
Needless to say, me and my buddies thought this was a coolest thing ever: an older kid who not only didn’t bully and/or mock us for reading comics – or just for being littler than him, but rather joined in on our conversations and treated us like equals. Thinking about it later, I realized that Greg was probably a bit of a loner who didn’t have any kids his own age who shared his interests. (Otherwise, I recall that once my older sister, or maybe brother, who was about the same age as Greg, saying something about Greg, although super-intelligent, often getting into trouble at school for acting out, I think – not entirely sure about this – mainly because he smarted off to teachers.) Unfortunately; by the time I finished second grade, Greg and his older sister, Becky, had been transferred to another school – apparently a private school somewhere in Salem or Portland, none of the other school kids really knew.
At this point, another digression is required to say something about Greg’s family, the Wadsworths. They were somewhat mysterious to us kids in the area. They were very wealthy and lived in a – there’s really no other word for it – mansion down the road from where I lived that was about a quarter-mile from the main road on a private, paved lane (something very posh, as everybody else around had gravel driveways – heck, not even all of the actual roads in that area were paved at the time). There was a forest that ran adjacent to their property that I would roam around in with my friends as a kid, and from it you could see their house and the grounds, which had a swimming pool and full-size tennis courts. As far as I know, the parents didn’t socialize with anybody in the neighborhood, so little was known about them. All we kids knew was that they family was somehow involved in banking and/or finance – some of the older kids claimed the family may have even owned bank in Portland.
So fast forward a few years: it’s the late winter/early spring of 1981, I’m 12 going on 13, in the seventh grade, and Greg’s older sister Becky is riding the bus again. That’s because at the time she was finishing college, majoring in education I think, and she was doing some kind of internship at the public elementary school, and instead of driving in, she took the bus (it never occurred to me at the time to ask her why, i.e., whether it was an additional requirement of whatever internship or certification program she was enrolled in, or if she just wanted to (re-)immerse herself in the whole elementary school experience). Anyway, she remembered that my buddies and me pretty much idolized her kid brother, and told me and another school-chum, one of the few besides me who was also still into comics at that point, that Greg was producing his own comic book! Of course, we thought this was the coolest thing ever, especially since at the time Greg was still a senior in high school.
She promised my buddy and me that she would bring us copies to buy, and sure enough, a few weeks later, she brought two copies of a comic called Ismet (price: $1).
The story revolved around the anthropomorphic canine titular character, who is exiled from his planet, Wert, by its evil alien conquerors called the Humes for leading a rebellion of his fellow anthropomorphic animals (not just dogs, but also frogs, cats, rats, snakes, songbirds … even ants). Ismet lands on some rugged, rough-and-tumble planetoid that has both human-like (they have tails) and anthropomorphic animal residents and has some adventures there while trying to figure out a way to get back to his world. Back home, Ismet’s comrades-in-arms organize an underground resistance. The character of Ismet, by the way, was based on one of the family’s actual dogs of the same name.
It’s a solid story premise, and it was pretty well-executed, especially when you consider that it was done by a 17/18 year-old. The art in the series looked very, well, indie or underground, or – which was actually the case – like it’s done by someone who’s still learning the craft. As the issues progress, the evolution and improvement of Wadsworth’s talent can definitely be seen.
Anyway, Becky brought me and my pal the first two issues on the bus, but by that time summer vacation was rolling around, so the continuation of the school-bus distribution channel was out of the question. Luckily, though, I noticed that both issues of Ismet had ads for a comic book shop called Rackafratz, in relatively nearby Salem. The shop’s owner, a certain Max McNamar, was Greg’s friend and also the editor of Ismet.
So that’s how I discovered my first comic book shop. It was located about a block away from a shopping mall that my mom and/or older siblings went to occasionally, so one day that summer I walked over and checked it out. Man, what a revelation. The place not only sold comics, new and back issues, but also old paperbacks. It was like I had died and gone to heaven. Anyway, on that first trip I was flush with birthday cash, so I not only got the next issue of Ismet but also a stack of other comics. And I had a nice chat with Mr. McNamar, who was happy that the ads in Ismet had led me there. And later that year, in the autumn, I snagged the first issue of another indie comic, Jack Kirby’s Captain Victory published by Pacific, and became a big fan of Pacific’s other output for a while.
Only five issues of Ismet were ever published, despite assurances by Wadsworth that a sixth issue would certainly be published. Even the fifth issued was published with a delay, partially due to the fact that Wadsworth had started attending art school in Portland.
Fast forward many, many more years: it’s the early ‘00s, and I got back into comics in a big way, and I recalled my first indie comic and how I came to read it. So I did some searches at online back issue sites and was surprised to find that the whole run of Ismet was (and is) available and quite inexpensive (initially, I thought that the back issues would be really hard to find, and costly on top of that). I also became really curious about whatever happened to Wadsworth. As far as I can tell, he pretty much disappeared from the comics scene after Ismet, never doing anything else (unless he assumed a very well-guarded alias). It’s even hard to track him down using simple Google or FB searches (I’ve never done a deep-dive investigation and have no intention of doing so – if someone’s not stupidly easy to find online I figure there’s a reason for that and I like to respect people’s privacy). But I still find myself thinking about him occasionally, and wonder what he would have done had he stuck to comics…