MARBLEHEAD – “So what’s this column about?” a smiling, curly-haired woman asks a bewildered, wiry-haired man with a goatee. The two go back and forth for a bit before deciding that the column should be an impressionistic take on life’s small, sensory wonders, like finding the perfect pickle – the kind they used to make in the Chelsea of yore.
Marblehead cartoonist Marty Riskin had a version of that conversation with his partner, Marblehead journalist Bette Keva, about a year ago, before translating it into the comic strip it is today. The two had decided to collaborate on a newspaper column that Keva would write and Riskin would illustrate. Just like her illustrated avatar, Keva didn’t get it right away.
“It took a long time for me to really understand it,” said Keva. “It’s about …”
She trailed off for a second before reciting the poem the two have devised to describe the somewhat elusive concept animating their new column “Pickles in the Mist” that will be featured in 18 weekly papers: “A column about what has stood the test of time, what’s still an adventure sublime, a luscious taste to the lips, a sunset not to be missed, an escapade worth the risk.”
Their first somewhat risky escapade that gave the column its name fulfilled all of the above criteria. Riskin yearned for the delicious pickles of his Chelsea childhood – a “wonderful, garlicky little pickle floating in a briny wooden barrel,” as Keva wrote in their inaugural column on June 20. As Riskin waxed poetic about his dream pickle, Keva remembered that a Russian deli on Broad Street in Lynn had exactly what he was describing. They went, Riskin bit in, and was transported back through the mists of time.
He grew up in the ’40s and ’50s, just steps away from the briny pickles of a Chelsea deli, into a home that was as culturally Jewish as such a milieu would suggest. He loved to draw, and took lessons at the Museum of Fine Arts. After graduating Chelsea High School, Riskin attended Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and became a commercial illustrator. A nasty recession in the ’70s deprived him of many clients, so he began submitting cartoons to local newspapers, including the Jewish Journal. After he had amassed over 5000 cartoons distributed in over 25 newspapers, Riskin published several books of bawdy, irreverent comics.
Like Riskin, Keva demonstrated an aptitude for her craft early on. As a sixth grader at the Wallis School in Peabody, she wrote an exposé in the school newspaper about a fellow student walking on the roof of a commercial building in Peabody Square. She honed her skills editing Salem State University’s newspaper, and after graduating served as editor for the Mansfield News, Jewish Advocate, Marblehead Reporter and Jewish Journal. She has also freelanced for the Boston Globe.
Keva had met Riskin while working for the Reporter, but they had fallen out of touch, before reconnecting in a manner that would not be out of place in a “Pickles in the Mist” comic. “I live in Marblehead, and she lives very close to me. I was looking out the back window,” said Riskin. “She happened to be walking by. I had no recollection of her name, but she recognized me, and she said ‘Marty?’”
They began to talk, and Riskin told her that he was looking for a writer to help him with an upcoming project.
It took some convincing, but Keva eventually signed onto this “escapade worth the risk.” Since discovering that first Proustian pickle, the couple have moved onto pot. Their June 27 column recounts – entirely in the third person, intriguingly – waiting in snaking lines at Salem’s Alternative Therapies dispensary so Riskin could procure some “Blissful Wizard” (the name of a strain said to bring about joyfulness and relaxation, though it could arguably also serve as a moniker for Riskin himself), and Keva could try out some “Durban Poison” (for energy and creativity). If Riskin’s cartoon is to be believed, all either strain did is make them so forgetful they couldn’t even remember the name of the dispensary.
“Granted, it’s not a pickle, Marty,” Keva writes. “But man does not live by pickle alone.”