[Editor’s Note: The story of “Inky” Grant and his comic strip will appear here every week or two. Read the whole saga from the beginning, if you wish.]
In early October 1923, still awaiting his meeting with an editor at George P. Brett & Co. the following Tuesday, Inky Grant was on top of the world. He would spend the morning at the library, reading science journals and taking notes, he would write and draw in the afternoon, and in the evening, he would hit the town. When he returned after midnight, he would often sketch absurd, feverish visions of his science fiction “Starguards” heroes in absurd, outlandish situations in the future world of 2023, battling aliens, hurtling through the cosmos.
Happily, many of these sketches have survived; in the late 1950s, they made an appearance at the Inkwell gallery. The gallery is said to have been located in a town called “Willowbrook,” although the exact location of that quaint sounding town is lost to history. What is known is that Inky’s sketches lingered for months without a purchase; when the gallery lost its lease eight months after acquiring Inky’s work, it seemed his oeuvre would not find a home. Happily, comics fan (and future comics historian) Eugene Kovalenko (1930-1985) saved them from the dustbin, shortly before the gallery’s closure.
One week before Inky’s scheduled meeting with the publisher, he attended a premiere of The Exiles, a John Gilbert film, at the Strand Theatre in Manhattan. This was a happy bit of serendipity; he had crossed paths with Barbara La Marr the night before at the Cotton Club; the “Girl Who Is Too Beautiful” was going through one of her estrangements from Hollywood. She and Inky met mid-bender, and by 1 a.m., Inky was her date for what promised to be a star-studded film premiere.
When The Exiles concluded, Barbara offered to introduce Inky to the film’s star. To Inky’s delight, Gilbert was familiar with the cartoonist’s recent, short-lived daily comic strip, which, as previously mentioned, concerned a flapper whose young “nephew” could destroy whole city blocks with his mind.
“So much havoc,” the moving picture star exclaimed. “Destruction, chaos, a beautiful promiscuous girl and a monstrous sin-child!”
According to Inky’s diary, Gilbert invited him to the Oak Lounge, which Inky claims operated at the time as a speakeasy, discreetly serving alcohol to its discerning patrons. To the public, what was previously dubbed the “Men’s Bar” had closed in 1920, and reestablished itself as a café, but Inky insisted that the back half of the establishment was a hidden gem, tucked away within the grandeur of the Plaza Hotel.
The secret entrance, password whispers, and dimly lit ambiance must have added an air of excitement and exclusivity to the experience, as Inky, Barbara and the Gilbert entourage found themselves sipping illicit cocktails, surrounded by the whispers of forbidden indulgence.
This clearly had an impact on Inky, and his diary indicates that both Barbara and the remaining Gilbert entourage left the bar by two a.m., but that Inky and the moving picture star remained.
From Inky’s diary, we know that he was enchanted with Gilbert. In fact, he’d developed what we would now call a non-sexual “man-crush,” and his diary description of the evening would certainly be misunderstood and misinterpreted if read today, and thus we will not quote from it here. We also know that Inky hoped that Gilbert’s support might help his career, and that his drinking that evening was excessive even by Inky’s standards.
The drinking left him with a spotty memory of the evening, which sent him to church for a week while he tried to dry out. Nevertheless, his mind whirled with ideas, and he imagined writing “comic books” about heroic men in the Gilbert mold, which could then be adapted into moving pictures.
He was rather happy with the world; rather than change it, he wanted to preserve this moment, when life was good and possibilities were endless.
“If only the future could be just like today,” he wrote in his diary. “The films of Gilbert, the music of Mezzrow, the intellectual achievements of Millikan, the literature of Harold Bell Wright! This is a golden age that man will remember always.”
All of this explains the theme of the third strip, which he hammered out in the days following his meeting with John Gilbert, Gilbert’s prominence therein, Inky’s additions of silent screen intertitles, the giddy mood of the strip, its divergence from the main narrative and the startling religious imagery with which the entry concludes.