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  • Writer's pictureJoe Sikoryak

The Skeleton Was Key

How a bunch of bones gave new life to my career.

In 1977, I’d moved west to San Francisco to attend film school. Three years later I completed my degree, but the only thing I’d successfully produced while at SFSU was a family (with twin sons, no less). Reality hit hard, and upon graduation I was forced to put income before ambition. I labored through six years of lousy jobs while searching for some artistic opportunity. Those years were swallowed up in a black hole of disappointment, until I returned to school to study graphic design.

After movies, I loved magazines most. After an accelerated year of coursework, I put together a portfolio and went looking for new employment. The dream was to work my way up to being creative director at a glossy national publication like Rolling Stone. In fact, I answered a classified posted by M&T Publishing in Redwood City, where I won the job of associate art director. That was a highfalutin’ title for a glorified paste-up artist. There was a Macintosh computer down the hall, but I hadn’t learned to use it yet.

My job, for Dr. Dobb’s Journal of Software Tools, was preparing pages of computer code that would be cut from printed sheets, run through a hot wax roller and carefully aligned in columns on blue-lined boards—with carefully applied pinstripe tape between each column to create the appearance of a box around the type. While I was grateful for my first creative-adjacent job, I grieved for what it lacked. Most of my workload was clerical, technical and repetitive. It definitely lacked the glamour of Esquire or SPY—or even MacWorld—and I tried to console myself that I was in the magazine biz, at least. I didn't realize that new opportunities were just around the corner.

As a reader of sci-fi and Popular Science since I was a wee lad, I had an intuitive grasp of the technology that we were covering in our pages. Our Art Director Mike Hollister was a talented designer who wielded fonts and color swatches with the best of them but was less comfortable with obscure programming concepts. So I began sitting in the editorial meetings and acting as a go-between the engineers and the artists.

Our soft-spoken leader, Editor-In Chief Michael Swaine, had recently been promoted to Associate Publisher. He wanted to elevate the magazine’s image. How do you do that with cover lines promising “real-time programming” “ANSI C” and “68000 chips” ? Often we started with sound-alike clichés (a stopwatch, a glyph in a spotlight, forged metal), but occasionally we had a relatable problem to illustrate. Like a long wait for a product. Vaporware was an industry concept, but it wasn’t personal yet. Nor was it a compelling graphic. Inspiration would come elsewhere.

This was the era of fax machines, which we depended on for typesetting proofs (from a dedicated offsite business) and layout comps (from our photographers). But there was also a steady stream of jokes and cartoons coming over the transom from other folks on the phone lines. After porn, I guess dirty limericks, stupid pet tricks and second-rate cartoons fuel new tech and help it to spread quickly. We’d get a goofy cartoon or inspirational message on the waxy paper roll and post it on the break room bulletin board. These pre-historic memes were part of the office atmosphere in the ’80s. Looking back, I can’t help but think they nurtured a jokey office atmosphere.

In May of 1987, art director Mike and I filed into Swaine’s office for our latest assignment. The editors proclaimed that the next issue’s cover concept was “80386 Development Tools.” Even though we were fully caffeinated, the rest of us blinked in bewilderment and silence. I tried asking emotional questions. Where’s the drama? What’s the hook?

I can’t say who first thought of the solution—Editor Tyler Sperry was always quick with the goofy remarks—but we determined that the story was about the long wait for the aforementioned tools. Okay—delays! Frustration! That’s something we could work with. it didn’t take long for a bunch of smarty-pants guys to cook up fax-worthy gags—from clock watching, to cobwebs, to a coder who’s turned to dust. A guy who’s waited so long only his skeleton remains.

We achieved creative frisson, with code excerpts.

Walking out of the meeting, Mike and I were both giddy and wary. “Can we do this? How do we do this?” Fortunately, I had years of frustrated film magic to bring to bear. All those years spent tinkering in stagecraft and staring in revival movie houses became valuable—useful, even. We searched for bones from medical and academic suppliers (too expensive), and eventually found a theatrical supply shop in Berkeley with a plastic skeleton—and a cobweb sprayer to boot. (Fun fact: those webs you see in haunted house movies are strands of rubber cement spun like cotton candy. Ah, the good old days before OSHA).

Since I lived the closest, I was tasked with leaving early and making the run to Stagecraft Studios on Alcatraz Avenue. The bare, unassuming storefront belied what lay within. Behind dusty curtains was a carnival of color and a riot of funk. Huge paper mâché masks stacked in one corner stared balefully at me as I picked through the boxes of faded fedoras and racks of vintage costumes. My footsteps echoed between stacks of painted flats and lighting gear. Standing in the corner was my date for the evening, a yellowed skeleton known around the shop as “Seymour.” I was glad to meet him—he would be my escort into a new phase of employment.

Driving home across the Oakland Bay Bridge was extra enjoyable with a full-sized, realistic human chassis in the passenger seat, turning heads at the toll booth and across the span. The ordinarily tortuous stop-and-go commute to Daly City was almost pleasant that evening, drawing stares from all the passersby. I felt a little like a celebrity. My nine-year old boys flipped when they saw what dad brought home from work—months before Halloween—and I busied myself patching over the hinges and joints to make our plastic replica look more authentically human.

Once a month Mike and I got to spend the day at a photo studio and stretch ourselves, but this was a new dimension of fun. Our regular photographer (another Michael!) was delighted by the change of pace. As he set the lights and pulled down the seamless backdrop (I suggested green, as it was the traditional color for ghosts and spirits), Hollister dressed our bony star in ratty jeans and a faded, custom-printed “OS/2” shirt while I lovingly applied strands of crepe hair and chalk dust. An overturned can of Jolt Cola (the energy drink du jour) finished the scene.

It felt like we were making a movie. It was years since I had been on a set, and the experience recalled the joyous hours I’d spent in high school and college wielding a super-8 camera in service of a story. But this was better—I was a paid professional. I got goosebumps, not from the chilling tableau, but from the application of my full talents. This was not just a job, it was my calling, and I loved every moment of it. I could hardly sleep that night, replaying the thrills of the day.

Back in the office with 4x5'' color transparencies, Hollister began to mock-up the final cover, laying strips of type over a pencil tracing of the image, which we had enlarged on the office copy machine. We’d already created a stir in the office with this crude approximation and that’s when the circulation department entered the picture. The women were wondering what exactly we were planning for the next issue. The drawing set them back on their heels.

Was it, they asked, wise to put a corpse on the cover? Don’t we want to encourage sales, not repel them? According to Swaine, circulation and advertising revenue were growing, and the magazine was supporting a lot of people. Pressure was on to shed the funky image and look more ‘professional.’ Regardless of the conversations that took place above my pay grade, there was a deadline looming and dollars spent. We were committed and the concept prevailed. That was my secret thrill: I felt like an auteur facing down the suits at some Hollywood studio, and this time we got “final cut.”

Turns out the cover proved pretty popular. We got letters from readers (paper ones, in the mail!) applauding the cover. It was exactly the kind of plain-spoken, pop wisdom that our audience appreciated. Emboldened by this deviation from dry, abstract concepts, we tried to replicate the success with covers featuring a baby duck, an office avalanche, even a caveman fashioning a stone wheel (I was even more proud of that one). We built miniature sets for props, enlisted hapless co-workers as cover models, and pushed the envelope with pre-photoshop computer imaging—but nothing clicked like that skeleton, which is fondly remembered to this day.

Ultimately, the hits and misses didn’t matter—Dr. Dobb’s had a pretty steady, reliable audience. We worked within our limitations and made the magazine a little more fun. Especially for the staff in general, and yours truly in particular. Feeling more confident, I convinced the editors to make more design changes. The letters page had included a Vaughn Bode-inspired, underground-style cartoon panel for years, that still carried a strong whiff of the ’70s. With the enthusiastic support of the editor and art director, I was allowed to draw a more contemporary—if still technically obscure—cartoon each month in full color.  It was my first professional gig as a cartoonist, and unexpectedly laid the groundwork for my current path.

Those five years at M&T shifted my career path from failure to success, however modest. It provided a welcome creative outlet and a chance to grow as an artist and storyteller, straining against the commercial limits of the humble “trade rag” format. I never achieved the feature film career that I dreamed of, but I exercised a lot of the same muscles clearing those artistic and technical hurdles. Thirty-six years later, “The Skeleton Cover” remains one of the most memorable artistic projects I’ve contributed to—and I’m proud of how it fits into DDJ’s legacy. So is Editor Emeritus Swaine:

“I wasn’t listening to any pushback from advertising about the skeleton. I knew a good cover when I saw one — or anyway I knew enough not to get in the way of an artist with a vision.”

After seven long years, I was starting to have a vision for myself, as well…


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