"Inception":  The Back Story



From the March 2011 Issue of The Pride Cartoon™ E-News

In celebration of Johnny's Nth Birthday

 
If you're a Crazy Johnny fan, chances are you've read his profile and you know the basic story of how he came to us (5AM, hallway, screams from another world, etc.)  That is the true, but greatly abridged, story of the beginning of The Pride.  For indeed it was with the arrival of Crazy Johnny into our lives that everything went pear shaped and The Pride Cartoon was born.

Fans also know that The Pride is a reality cat cartoon.  By that I don't just mean that I tell cat stories that actually happened.  I'm truly compulsive about authenticity, right down to accurately representing the locations where events took place.  Chances are 98% if it appears in The Pride Cartoon, it not only happened, it looked like that too; or at least to the best of my ability to draw it.*  That includes even accurately representing colors of things I may not necessarily choose if I were consulting my own taste.  (For instance the disgusting shade of blue in the hallways of my first apartment building - the sickly hue that was simultaneously dull and electric, by whatever fluke of paint chemistry that's possible - that made me wince every time I saw it - we called it "Pine Blue" after Ed Pine, the super, who painted everything the same blinding shade of blue, including the apartments.  It looked like the Staten Island Ferry, and took about 30 coats of paint to cover.  Though I lived there 12 years, every time I saw it I was surprised, as if in the five minutes since I saw it last it could have been painted.)  This level of accuracy may not much matter to fans, or to the story-telling, but it's important to me.  It just feels dishonest to change things.  So only in rare instances and for important reasons will I change any significant detail of reality in a cartoon.  "Inception" is one of those rare episodes.  
 
That said, what better way to celebrate Johnny's nth Birthday than with a recap of the beginning with the full back story?  So, for those who've never heard it, and for those who want to hear it all again, here is the story of Johnny's crash landing into our world with a behind the scenes look at "Inception" and the Director's commentary.  :)

It was June 21st, Nineteen Hundred and wizee wheesy (I'm not going to give away Johnny's age - it's not good for his image), and as hot as blazes.  My husband (at that time) and I had just, that very day, bought and installed a new air conditioner.  We were young and poor and couldn't afford two, which that apartment could really have used.   We were on the top floor of a pre-war, walk-up building immediately under a roof about 3' thick with tar.  Whatever the temperature was outside, it was 20º hotter inside.  It was only the first day of summer, and already the apartment was sweltering.  We had gone to P.C. Richard, got an air conditioner, brought it home, and then had to decide where to put it.  Should it go in the bedroom to cool us while we slept?  Or in the living room for relief throughout the day?  A dilemma.  We decided it should go in the living room with the fold-out sofa so we'd have it all day.  If the heat became too intense, we'd sleep there too.  Voila! 

So on our very first night with the new A/C, 95º in the house, we slept on the fold-out bed, all 5 tabby cats (Lance, Harry, Basil, Ruthie and Janice) piled on top.   And a good thing it was for Crazy Johnny then Ogilvy now Denny.  Because that is how it came to be that in the wee hour, when all was silent and the world was asleep, we were in the right place to hear and give answer to his blood-curdling shrieks.  In the closed bedroom, at the far end of the apartment, the drone of an air conditioner may have masked his cries and left us sound asleep for his arrival.
 
At 5:00AM on the nose, piercing the blackness of dearly needed sleep came a sharp, loud, bone chilling howl slashing through the night like a machete:  
 
"YowwwWOOOooollll!"  

It came from outside the apartment door and with the first crack of it I (and every hair on my arms) sat straight up. 
 
"WWro oooll llLLnrrg!  RReiw  yoooAWOrrr- aarrrRRRigg!" 
 
Although the sound was unlike anything in my experience, my first thought was that one of our cats had inadvertently gotten locked out.  Had I been a catless person, nothing could have made me leave the safety of my covers.   Only the idea that one of ours was trapped outside, alone and in mortal danger, could have gotten me anywhere near that door.  

At least three other heads had shot up and spun toward the door at the noise. There was growling.  But it was dark.  I could not see every head to make a count.
 
"Struan!"  I hissed.  "Wake up."    

"nh." He said.  He could have slept in a mosh pit.
 
"Struan!  Wake up."  I punched him.  "Do you hear that?!"
 
"nnnnh."
 
I was on my own.  And here is the primary way in which the cartoon differs from reality: Since he's out of the picture, and this is drawn in retrospect, there's not a lot of point developing a character that won't recur.  So, playing the part of my ex-husband in the episode "Inception" is Lance (the King) Ogilvy-Denny, a cat.  (Please, don't blow up my mailbox with tell-off letters from the Ex-Husbands Unfairly Represented in Comics lobby offended by men's roles going to cats.  Ex-husbands are hardly under-represented in cartoons.)

I threw off the covers and flew toward the door on silent tippy toes.   I was simultaneously terrified to look out the peek hole lest I see someone being torn limb from limb, and wild to get there in case the butchery was being done on one of my cats!   
 
With every tiptoe, the cries and howls got louder.  And weirder.  If one of my cats was making that preternatural noise, something truly horrible must have twisted his mind. 

To this day, no one who has not heard it believes me when I describe Johnny's voice.  It's even harder to believe he had this voice as a wee kitten.  Images of leopards and wolfmen and Janis Joplin filled my mind as I moved toward the door.  All the cats followed me.  As I reached for the peek hole cover they all crowded the door, looking under the gap and growling.  Only then, of course, did I realize, it could be none of my cats out there screaming blue murder.  Because they were all in here. 
 
< gulp >

Silently I opened the peek hole.  I looked out.  And I saw....
 
.... nothing.  
 
I looked up, I looked down.  I looked left and right.  I stretched my eyeball as far in every direction as it would go in the frame of the peekhole.  I saw only the empty hall (still Pine blue) but the unholy braying continued.  It came from just the other side of the door. 
 
'Maybe it's a joke,' I thought.  One of our friends with a tape machine and some sound effects.  We both worked in recording studios.  Engineers could make all kinds of noises.
 
I put on the chain.  I opened the door a tiny crack.  I peeked out.  And down.

On the tile floor of the hallway just in front of my door was a little white kitten.  Shrieking his bloody head off.  Long streams of vowels and consonants poured out of him.  All mixed up and out of order, of course, but muffled or distant it could have been mistaken for sentences.  
 
He threw his head backwards like a wolf and screamed all these syllables at the ceiling.  He was so immersed in his wailing he didn't notice that a door had opened.  He started toward, then up the stairs that go to the roof.  Before he went too far up (the roof could be dangerous) I went after him.  He didn't seem to notice me then either.  He walked up the stairs to the landing.   For a second he was quiet.  He put a paw on the wall and stood partially up to look up the rest of the staircase.  Wondering what to do.  Lost and confused. 

"pss wsss...." I said.  "Kitten?  Hello?"
 
He paid me no mind; did a little confused circle on the top step.  
 
"tch, tch, tch, tch...  Kitten?  ss wss?"
 
Nothing.  Then, "GREWwwWLOo - ar- aaaangggOWR-"  in the middle of which his head turned and he saw me.  The spray of syllables caught short in his throat, and he went silent with his mouth still open.  He stared at me from the top step, amazed.  He had huge, breathtaking blue eyes, wide as sauce pans.  He took a half step down.  "wllllooo oooorrrr.... rrr," he said.
 
"Shhhhhh!"  I said, and approached the stairs, afraid someone else would hear.  Not everyone on this floor loved cats.
 
The kitten leaped up to the top again.  He backed up and his tail puffed out like a brush.
 
"Oh, it's like that, is it."  I approached the stairs but averted my eyes.  I went very slowly, looking at the floor, the banister, everything but him.  The kitten stayed on the top step watching me, mouth open in a slight pant, tail bristling, very upset and not sure what to do.  I got to the base of the stairs and sat on the third step.  I looked down into my lap.  Keeping my eyes averted, after a minute I offered my hand.  
 
Creeping an inch at a time, and after thorough deliberation, the little white kitten came down a few stairs and sniffed my hand.  After a minute, he brushed his head against my palm.  After a few minutes he did the whole circuit of me, sniffing my arm, my back, my knee, my nightgown.  When he became absorbed in an examination of my slippers, I was able to stroke his back.  From there it was a very short step to gathering him into my lap.
 
This close to him, I was struck by how clean he was.  He was pristine.  Immaculate.  There was not a speck of dirt on him.  His feet were pink and spotless.  On a white cat with pink feet, if there is a single mote of dust, you will see it.  This kitten did not walk here from any distance, I can tell you that.  He definitely did not come in from the street, no way no how.  He probably didn't even walk through the hall on his own. 
 
And here's thing #2 that's changed for artistic purposes:  He was not really in a basket.  The basket is symbolic.  Because I believe he was planted.  Intelligence surfaced years later about a couple on the other side of the building whose white female cat had had kittens around the same time.  In hindsight, with those facts in hand, I have deduced that they got their fill of this loud mouth, and conspired to get rid of him by planting him on the cat lady in 4I.

Or aliens left him.  Equally likely.  (And as we know, aliens always leave kittens in a pink basket.)
 
But in that moment I was sure he was someone's pet, accidentally locked out.  Someone who came home very late, very tired and didn't monitor the floor level action as they closed the door, and the curious new kitten darted out underfoot.  Happens all the time.     
 
This was clearly a special little cat.  You don't see pure white, short haired kittens with turquoise blue eyes every day. The only place I'd ever seen cats like that is in the Dominican Republic and St. Croix.  Someone probably went out of their way to adopt this little beastie.  He would be immediately missed.  
 
In another minute, I had him snuggled up in my arms, and I took him inside.  By now Struan was awake, rubbing his eyes, looking at us, and thinking he was hallucinating.  "Who's THAT?!"  he asked.
 
"I don't know!" I said.

I took the kid to the kitchen, gave him a plate of turkey and a glass of warm milk, and when he was sleepy enough to nod off, I crawled back in the covers with him in the nook of my arm.  The King was not amused.  I got many dirty looks throughout that night.
 
Convinced that someone in the building would be frantic looking for their precious little kitten, and with the King showing me his back in disgust, first thing in the morning I put up a "FOUND" poster in the lobby.
 
The poster was not answered that morning.  It was not answered that night.  It was not answered three days later.  The poster, my friends, was NOT answered.

It was not long before I understood why.  Not only could Johnny could blow a hole in your eardrum at thirty yards, he could blow holes in all your plans and the natural order of life.  He was a howling, neurotic nut with a nursing fetish who had to yank and chew at least one full head of hair each day to cope.  (You may wonder why my hair looks like Medusa in 8 of 10  cartoon panels.  Now you know.)  Anyone else would have put him on pills.  Or worse- fear of which is the only reason I kept him.   

Fast forward: How I lived through the first 8 months of wall to wall screaming and hair pulling and riding bareback on the other cats like a rodeo cowboy, I truly don't know.  I once called a taxi at 2AM to take me to my mother's house.  I hadn't slept in 6 days.  Neighbors frequently banged on the door demanding to know what I was "doing to that cat!"  One sent the ASPCA.  It was a nightmare.  I had to call Warren Eckstein about him.
 
My mother-in-law said, "Jawnny belawngs on a faaahm, dear."   (She was English.)  Really?  What's their number?  I'll call today.  (I mean, where is that farm that everybody talks about?  The one that takes troubled animals and they all live happily ever after?  Everybody talks about it, but no one knows where it is.)
 
Despite a complex of apparent psychiatric conditions (including a nursing fetish, separation anxiety, and paranoid narcissism with delusions of grandeur), in time I learned that Johnny isn't crazy in any traditional sense.  He's a rock star in a cat's body.  The Robert Plant of cats, if you will.  He just needs to get the led out.  

Oh, and he's deaf.   Someday I'll tell you the story of how we figured that out. 
 
For now, on his nth birthday, "Inception" and the back story behind it retell the birth of The Pride Cartoon, which is synonymous with, and inseparable from the arrival of its inspiration and star, the craziest, loudest, whitest, cutest, most neurotic, worst behaved cat in all of Christendom. The winner of the Nobel Pest Prize, Chairman of the Nobel No Peace Committee, the Prince of Pandemonium, crazier than Britney and LiLoh on crack, badder than the love child of Chris Brown and Tommy Lee, Satan incarnate but we love him anyway: Crazy Johnny.  
 
And for giving me more material than I will be able to draw in five lifetimes, he deserves him all the catnip and  feather toys  a cat can get for his birthday.
 
Or not.

Happy Birthday, Johnny.  (May he sleep in a catnip-induced coma at least until Thursday.)
 
Birthday cards and fan mail for Johnny can be sent to johnny@thepridecartoon.com     -JD

***


*The Fairy Cat Mother, an obviously fictional character and creative device for explaining the inexplicable, is one obvious exception to the authenticity rule.