By Rick Bannister
It’s a brave new world, where boys don’t always have to be so brave anymore, thanks to illustrator Keith Negley.
Men might be cooking risotto, folding the towels and staying home to mind the kids nowadays, but we’re still not talking about our feelings. Not really. A few might have started opening up to their partners, but the dude who’s overly expressive to his mates, or pouring his heart out to his son, remains a rare beast.
And while there are new, softer role models around for young boys, including superheroes with imperfect personalities, it’s safe to say the premiere of Emotionally Accessible Man (saving the day with his incredible empathy!) isn’t coming to a theatre anytime soon.
Illustrator Keith Negley realised this one day, after going to watch his young son, Parker, play sport.
“He was playing soccer and he stole a ball from another kid,” recalls Negley. “Then the other kid came and got the ball and pushed him down. Parker got up and didn’t know what to feel about it, so he went to the other side of the field and sat by himself. He just wanted to be alone. I could see it in his eyes. He was feeling a lot of different emotions, all at once. A lot of new emotions, like fear, embarrassment, guilt and anger. So he went out and sat by himself and didn’t want anyone to talk to him.”
That night, Negley remembers he desperately wanted to reach out to Parker, and explain that what had happened, and what he’d felt, was completely normal. But it wasn’t easy, because this wasn’t a conversation he ever had with his own dad.
“It was actually really hard,” admits Negley. “Which is what got me thinking how it would be cool if there was a book that could broach the subject. So I looked online, and I went to some bookstores, but I couldn’t find anything that really did the trick.”
This is where Negley’s first book, Tough Guys Have Feelings Too, came from.
Negley and Parker had always watched a tonne of cartoons together, they both loved Star Wars movies, and they played video games together–the common thread between all these different mediums being that they feature a lot of stoic, heroic characters, always savng the day, forever being tough, and often with something clever to say, too.
“The thing is we never get to see how these characters react when they have a bad day, or when they screw up,” says Negley. “Not in a realistic sense. So the book is just a series of quintessential tough guys having their own bad day.”
It’s a simple premise, but there’s something great about seeing a buff wrestler anxious before his big match, or a scary-looking biker crying on the side of the highway because he’s accidently run over a squirrel with his chopper.
“It’s a way for dads to broach the topic and be able to talk to their sons,” explains Negley. “To say that ninjas are awesome, and it’s fun to play with swords, but at the same time, you don’t have to feel ashamed because you want to cry, or guilty because your feelings got hurt. It’s okay to acknowledge it and roll with it.”
Tough Guys has been a hit, so Negley has no doubt it’s been a welcome tool for dads everywhere to better connect with their sons. But he also has a hunch there’s still some work to do.
“It’s funny,” he says. “We’re talking about men expressing their feelings, and I’ve got friends who are parents, and it’s very much like, ‘Hey … got your book … it was pretty funny’ and that’s where it ends. It’s usually the mums or women who are like, ‘Oh, this book’s awesome! It’s been so helpful! I love it!” They get way more animated about it.”
Before becoming a dad, Negley was your stereotypical Seattle local, playing drums in a rock band, skating around town, riding vintage motorbikes and collecting tattoos.
His band was doing well, and Negley was content within the world he’d created for himself, but eventually he found the right girl, they had a baby, and suddenly he wasn’t doing any of that other stuff.
“It was a struggle for me when Parker was first born,” he says. “I never thought I was going to be a dad. Then you meet someone amazing, and all of a sudden it doesn’t sound like such a bad idea. Then you’re like, Holy crap, I’m a dad!
“It shook me to my core, and it was hard for me to switch gears. It took me a long time to realise I’m not the most important person in my life anymore. My time comes second to this other person’s time. Also, I wasn’t able to really bond with Parker until he got to be three or four, so the first two or three years were really rough.
I was like, Okay, there’s this little potato on the ground and I can’t relate to him. I have no idea what he’s into; he doesn’t laugh at my jokes. I don’t know if this is even fun. I’m not enjoying this.”
During this period, Negley was finishing his masters in fine arts and for an assignment he created a story recounting a normal day when Parker was a baby, and how the two of them didn’t get up to much, not in comparison to his kid-free life.
Negley remembers it felt really cathartic, exploring the disillusionment of fatherhood, but the project didn’t go any further, sitting as a file on his laptop, until years later, when he started thinking of follow-up ideas for Tough Guys.
“I don’t play drums anymore; they’re stuffed in my closet,” says Negley. “I don’t skate anymore either, but I do hang skateboard decks on my wall, and that’s where the idea came from for this new book. For Father’s Day my wife bought me a vintage skateboard deck and it showed up in the mail in a glass case. Now Parker’s older, he’s got into skating too, so we opened it up together and he’s like ‘Whoa! It’s a skateboard!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, isn’t this cool?’ And he says, ‘But it’s in a glass case? Where are the wheels?’ I was like, ‘This one doesn’t have wheels. It’s going to hang on my wall,’ and he said, ‘What? That doesn’t make sense. You need to get wheels for your skateboard, Dad.’ At that moment, it occurred to me … Oh, he thinks I’m lame. He thinks I’m not cool anymore.”
Using that memory as a jumping-off point, My Dad Used to Be So Cool explores the perspective of a kid looking at his dad, seeing the musical instruments he never plays, and the skateboards he never rides, and wondering what the hell happened.
And while the concept of sacrificing something you love for someone you love might be tricky for kids to grasp, Negley says it’s struck a chord with a surprising number of older guys.
“I’ve been getting a lot of emails from grown men and they’re buying the book for their dad,” he says. “One guy’s dad was really sick, and he bought the book because it was basically a self-portrait of them. He described how he was reading it to his dad, and they were both welling up with tears. It was really powerful. I also get other guys who play music. I think there’s a whole generation of us who spent our twenties playing in rock bands and sleeping on people’s floors, and then all of a sudden they found themselves with a mortgage, a wife and a kid, and they don’t know what happened. Someone gives them this book and they reach out to me like, ‘This is exactly my life!’ It’s been awesome to know I’m not alone. There are others just like me, and I was able to create a connection, so they also know they’re not alone.
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