Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Painter Leaves the Picture

Robert J. Randisi brings the sad news that California author and painter Kenn Davis, the creator of San Francisco private eye Carter Bascombe--died from a heart attack on January 12. He was 77.

In an all-too-brief autobiography on his Web site, Davis explained that he was born in 1932 in the small Northern California agricultural town of Salinas (also home to noted writer John Steinbeck), and that he began drawing “at age 2 or 3.” However, his family didn’t stay in the Salinas Valley for long:
My mother and my younger brother and I moved to San Francisco when I was about 5 or so. I attended grammar school there--and went to painting (finger painting) and drawing classes on Saturdays at the San Francisco Museum of Art (cost a dime to attend). I think I only went to the classes 6 or 8 times; a dime was hard to come by for my mother. The museum later became the San Francisco Modern Museum.

At age 10, [in] 1942, at the beginning of WWII, my brother and I were sent off to boarding school. It was there that I decided I wanted to be a newspaper comic strip artist, and drew everything in sight, other kids, priests, nuns, gardens, warplanes, and studied hard to grasp anatomy and how things were constructed. I continued to have strange dreams and often regaled my classmates with the stories in my mind; I tried to draw some of my dreams; and odd concepts they were.

After the war ended, my brother and I returned home. I drew and drew all during my teenage high school years. I intended to become a comic strip artist like Milton Caniff, who drew Terry and the Pirates for newspapers. I realized (was told) that I had to learn how stories were constructed and began reading books on fiction writing and my comic strip adventure stories improved dramatically. Over those years I submitted maybe three of my ideas and drawings to newspaper syndicates but was always rejected.

Finally I attended San Francisco City College, and fell passionately under the spell of modern art. As a child of the Depression I was only vaguely aware of modern art. The first time I was exposed to the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico I was jolted out of my seat; Imagine! Somebody had paintied [sic] my dreams. WOW! The art teachers told us students that who or whatever was inside each of us, our art should come from the person inside ourselves. Our personalities would dictate what kind of artist we would become (assuming any of us pursued any kind of artistic career). Much to my parents’ chagrin I put aside my comic strip career.
Davis was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1952, and sent away to fight in the Korean War, but returned to San Francisco two years later. He had his first solo art exhibition there in ’56. He took up residence in the city’s funky old Italian quarter, North Beach, which had become a magnet for authors, poets, and artists of the so-called Beat Generation. “I made my first trip to New York City in 1957, age 25, and went crazy going to galleries and museums ...,” Davis remembered. “Back in San Francisco I had other exhibitions, and eventually in 1959 I had my first exhibit outside S.F., in Chicago. In the waning months of the 1950s I was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle and went to work in that newspaper’s art department. (I did that until I retired in 1984.)”

According to another short online biography, artist Davis worked primarily with surrealistic concepts, “frequently in a satirical vein. In exhibitions throughout his home state of California, as well as in New York, Chicago, Boston, Houston, Denver and in museums shows in San Francisco and Dallas, Davis demonstrated his fascination with imagination. His work was often disconcerting and deliberately so. ‘There is enough art that lulls us into feeling right with the world, but to be stimulated by the artist brings us to another level of appreciation.’ With one eye on the European Surrealists Davis admires, he casts the other directly upon the AMERICAN SCENE--and on the obsessions, passions and foibles peculiar to our time and place.” More of his paintings can be seen here.

What Davis doesn’t relate in his autobiographical note, strangely, is that he also began writing during his time as an illustrator and photo retoucher at the Chronicle. In collaboration with John Stanley, one of the paper’s busiest entertainment reporters, he penned a screenplay called The Dark Side of the Hunt. It was a mystery, says Stanley, featuring “a black San Francisco detective named Carver Bascombe. (This was before anyone had ever heard of John Shaft or Richard Roundtree.) We had even found a San Francisco-based stage actor, John Cochran, to play the Bascombe role.” But unfortunately, the company interested in making the flick wasn’t interested in having Davis, Stanley, or Cochran associated with it, so the writers nixed that deal. (“We should have taken the offer,” Stanley later conceded, “but we were young and idealistic--and very idiotic.”

Instead, Davis and Stanley went on to produce a really low-budget horror-comedy movie called Nightmare in Blood. Its plot, as the International Movie Database (IMDb) recalls, revolved around “attendees at a horror-film convention in San Francisco [who] keep disappearing. It turns out that the guest of honor is a real vampire, and his henchmen are kidnapping the convention guests. A horror writer, a Sherlock Holmes fan, and an Israeli Nazi-hunter set out to stop him.” Nightmare in Blood, released in 1978, has since become a favorite of “creature feature” film series.

Even before Nightmare was released, Davis had converted the screenplay for The Dark Side of the Hunt into a novel, titled simply, The Dark Side. (While that book is jointly attributed to Davis and Stanley, the latter says, “I really didn’t write it.”) Published in 1976, The Dark Side was the opening entry in what would eventually become an eight-book series. Both The Dark Side and a later installment, Words Can Kill (1984), were nominated for Edgar Awards in the category of Best Paperback Original.

In an article about African-American private eyes, published in January Magazine in 2000, Kevin Burton Smith touts the Bascome books:
For those who want a P.I. with good taste, you can hardly do better than Carver Bascombe, originally created by Kenn Davis and John Stanley in The Dark Side (1976), but continued for the next seven books by Davis alone, the series concluding with 1990’s Blood of Poets. Bascombe’s a young Vietnam vet with a military police background, who’s now an ambitious, art-loving private eye and part-time student working his way through law school in San Francisco. Bascombe’s passion comes in handy, because his cases invariably involve the arts somehow, be it opera, drama, literature, art photography, ballet, painting or poetry. The first few novels in this series were uneven, but by the fourth one, the Shamus-nominated Melting Point (1986), Davis had really hit his stride, with Bascombe sweating out a long, hot summer waiting to hear if he’s passed the bar, while at the same time he hunts down a missing sculptor.
Early on in his creation of the Bascombe series, Davis took a break to team up once more with John Stanley and compose a standalone “celebrity mystery” starring movie tough-guy Humphrey Bogart. Called Bogart ’48, that book (according to its back-jacket copy) involves “a nightmarish screenplay about to become a desperate reality of murder and suicide ... a chilling plot to blow up the Academy Awards ... a long black Packard and cold, watching eyes ... the immortal Bogey, the unrivaled Peter Lorre, a ravishing starlet named Norma Jean Baker and a pounding race against time.” It’s been a long time since I enjoyed Bogart ’48, but I remember it as being both rich in character and propulsive in its storytelling.

Sadly, as Randisi notes in his short post, Davis “hadn’t had a book published since 1990.” It seems he turned back to his first love, art, imparting his complex impressions of the changing times and mores onto his canvases. “I realized that my paintings were not for everyone,” Davis wrote on his Web site, “and that was all right with me, since I only needed one person to buy one painting. I prided myself that I seldom repeated a painting, and in that my work was unique. What I dreamt and imagined and thought about continued to grow.” Many of his paintings he sold on the Internet.

Kenn Davis was wed twice, his first, 20-year marriage ending in a divorce way back in 1983. Two years after that, he swapped “I do’s” with a woman named Elizabeth, and later insisted, “We’ve been happily together ever since.”

It was just two years ago that Davis’ brother, screenwriter Zekial Marko, who had written episodes of the TV series The Rockford Files and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and also turned out several paperback mystery and crime novels of his own under the pseudonym “John Trinian,” passed away at age 74, due to complications related to emphysema. Randisi explains that this coming spring, “they’ll both have their ashes scattered by their family.”

Our deepest condolences go out to Davis’ family.

1 comment:

Ed Gorman said...

Thanks for the helpful post. I've always been curious about the brothers. They were both damned good writers.