His name was Chuck Beckum. He was in two of my art classes when I was a graphic design student at San Jose State. It was 1981. I was 20, and had just moved from my hometown of Antioch, California to go to school. I had been living with my boyfriend Dave in a small house on W. Madill, and toward the end, our relationship had waned considerably; we were going through what I thought only miserably married adults went through. The timing was good for me to leave Antioch, to go off to college and become a kid again.
I had such a huge crush on Chuck Beckum, starting around the end of my first three weeks of that first semester, and the crush continued off and on into the next year. Such a nice guy; tall, lanky, shy, with captivating blue eyes. He was very talented, but humble. He was always missing class, which was very disappointing to me, as I so looked forward to seeing him. I could tell that he was struggling financially, sometimes wearing the same clothes to school a couple days a week.
He had a very bland-looking girlfriend named Ann, who worked in the campus bookstore. She is the main reason why I never pursued him; but he and I still carried on a friendship, chatting during classes.
Chuck was a cartoonist, and had a comic strip called “Zack,” which was not bad for a college newspaper. Someone wrote in to the newspaper and trashed the strip day, and I came to Chuck’s defense, writing a letter of retaliation. I was hoping that Chuck would be impressed and flattered, but he told me in our next class that the guy who wrote the letter was actually an acquaintance of his, who wrote the letter as a joke.
I felt somewhat foolish, but oh well, at least he knew where I stood regarding his talent and integrity.
Unfortunately he and I didn’t have any classes together after that first semester, but we’d always see each other in the hallways and briefly catch up. His locker was by mine during our second year, and one day there was a note on it, telling me to give him a call during the holiday break between 1982-83.
Good things come to those who wait, or so it seemed at the time. It turned out he’d broken up with Ann and was interested in getting together with me for lunch sometime.
Having a feeling he might still be struggling, I invited him to come by my apartment and I would make him lunch. It was an enjoyable afternoon, and it was then that he admitted that he had had a bit of a crush on me, too, during our first semester together. But he had been devoted to Ann, and although he thought I was attractive, spirited and funny, it wasn’t enough to pull him away from her at the time.
But here he was, free and interested in me. I was on a cloud like no other. Even my roommates, who had known about my earlier crush on Chuck Beckum, were in awe of me.
We wound up having a brief tryst during that holiday break. Silly me, we never actually went out on a date; I cooked for him a couple times He told me I looked sexy while making him spaghetti one night at my apartment, while we listened to Supertramp, Kenny Loggins and Dan Fogelberg (who he reminded me of, but blonder, and without the beard).
Anyway, he was very confused at the time on what he wanted (he even wound up in tears one time) and as my luck would have it, it turned out he was simply on a break from Ann. I was apparently the fire to her water. He liked me a lot; my vibrancy, my sexuality, but he missed the comfort zone he had with her.
I’ll admit that I was also a little needy, putting him up on a pedestal, which clashed with his low self esteem at the time.
Even though it was a brief relationship, I was glad to have had the opportunity to fulfill my fantasy. I can’t say it was painless to have him leave me for his ex, but it could’ve been worse. At the time I chalked it up to the price one pays for being “easy.” That, and cooking for him as well (at least it wasn’t puttanesca sauce on the spaghetti)?
I used to tease him about only liking cheese pizza with no toppings, and, in a final attempt to win him back, I sent him a home-made greeting card with a caricature of me, eating a slice of pepperoni-mushroom pizza, encouraging him to be adventurous. But he chose to stay with the cheese pizza (Ann).
I saw him in the hallways a couple times after that; once he even told me to “wait up,” like he wanted to talk to me, but I told him I was late for a class. That’s the last I ever saw of him.
Curiosity gets the best of us at times, and the internet makes it all too easy, so around 2007 I looked him up to see if this talented, shy young man had ever made anything of himself.
He had. He’d changed his last name to “Austen,” to disassociate with his deadbeat father. His life had taken a complete 180, first with him drawing for adult comic books (porn), then graduating on to superhero stuff, then on to video games, TV, writing, you name it.
Still a bit skeptical and curious, I sent him a note to verify that he was the same guy, and to ask if he remembered me. A couple weeks later I got a nice email from him, confirming it was indeed him, and that he had married a different “Ann,” who he had a baby son with and two step-daughters.
He wrote that he had fond memories of me, and was very glad that I had met someone to spend my life with. He found it a funny coincidence as well, that I had married a “Chuck,” while he had married an “Ann.”
He told me a little about his work. Without him going into much detail, it sounded like he was taking a hiatus from the comic book business for a while, and working for Nickelodeon instead.
We really didn’t correspond much after that, but once it was confirmed this was my old crush, I did some more reading up on him on the internet, and looking at some of his artwork. It was intriguing to uncover so much about someone so very different in college — different, except for the vast amount of artistic talent.
Never being a superhero comic book fan (Archie & Jughead, Richie Rich, and Little Lotta were more my speed as a kid), I was ignorant when it came to how passionate and obsessive fans can be in that business. Reading a handful of articles about Chuck Austen and his work, it became apparent that, within the comic book community, he has been worshipped by fans, and labeled “genius” and “extraordinary” on one end of the spectrum, while being lambasted with words like “misogynist,” “asshole,” and “a sellout,” on the other end.
In our short correspondence I never asked him if he ever evolved to anything more than cheese on his pizza. Considering how much he had accomplished since I knew him in college, I had a feeling he did.