Sic Semper Artificibus: The Adam J. Elkhadem Story

Written by Isaac Roller

The late Adam Elkhadem from one of his inimitable Instagram posts.

On May 28th, 2023 in Houston, Texas, cartoonist Adam J. Elkhadem was struck by a drunk driver going the wrong way down a busy freeway and killed. His death was sudden, pointless, and at age 26, far, far too soon. I won’t dwell here on the loss to his friends and family, the irresponsibility of drunk driving, nor even the loss of a favorite cartoonist to his handful of loyal readers. After all, you probably have never heard of Adam or his fantastic graphic novels, Octave (2022, Caesura Magazine) or Gluck (unfinished at the time of his death). Truth be told, I never even met him in person, but like anyone fortunate enough to have read his work, listened to him expound about comics, or participated – as I did, along with four other cartoonists – in the weekly comics critique group he had organized, I find myself thinking of Adam quite often. I never met anyone quite like Adam and now that he’s gone, I never will. However, through his art and his fellowship, Adam left me with a little chunk of the thing that made him unique. That chunk has worked its way so thoroughly down into my psyche that now any chance occurrence might remind me of Adam and hit me with the tragedy of his death all over again.

This process didn’t happen overnight. Adam’s unique perspective must, perforce, have been formed from a myriad of influences and experiences outside of the domain of the average person’s or, for that matter, my own. It seems that prior to starting Octave he had been studying law and spending his free time immersed in the classics, leaving little time for drawing, which he had majored in at HSVPA, a Houston arts high school. Yet to call Adam’s comics diamonds in the rough would be trite. Adam’s books were like those gems in the natural history museum–malachite or agate– utterly strange and beautiful, comprised of an internal structure all their own but twisted by titanic forces that shaped them. In this case Art, History, Philosophy, and Metaphysics. His work teems with arcane knowledge, historical obscurisms, and references to art history – usually to periods or movements that get little attention outside academic circles. His characters often quote Latin but translations are never provided. Kearin Ever Cook, his inker and collaborator on Gluck told me shortly after his death, “I always looked forward to hearing him go on about almost any subject you could think of.” Gluck, especially, which is set in the Flemish counter-reformation, could be hard for readers (not to mention the instagram algorithm) to latch onto, as it deals with an obscure (or at least not commonly considered) historical event that is itself a response to an only somewhat less obscure historical event in a country which no longer exists. What I want to achieve with this article is to convince anybody reading that it’s worth the work.

Left to right: Cover of Octave his first and only finished graphic novel. A single panel from Gluck, his second comic, unfinished at the time of his death, which introduces the titular character. A title card from Octave – he made one for each strip, often letting his drawings get abstract or expressive. 

Adam’s comics pulse with intelligence. And more than intelligence: sheer love for knowledge itself. This love is most magnetic in the first of his two books, Octave, in which a highly pretentious and utterly naive Houston lawyer, the titular Octave, moves to New York, after quitting his job and divorcing his wife on the first page, to pursue not just a career in art but Art with a capital A. The plot is simple and resonates pleasingly with anyone like me who foolishly pursues a career in art. Driven by an absolute faith in art as a source of divinity, a connection to all that is profound, Octave stumbles his way to the top of the art world, seemingly blind to the much baser motivations of the monied art patrons and back-door art dealers that spring up like an ecosystem around him. His paintings too are completely naive: massive canvases in which the title – always something like Flower, House, Self Portrait – and his signature are invariably the biggest thing on the canvas. Octave is continually waxing poetic or waxing philosophical in the most mundane of circumstances. His inability to see the world outside of his own eclectic brain-space leads him to many misadventures, which this same inability prevents him from seeing as misadventures. Along the way he lands in jail and is kidnapped by pirates; predicaments that he stumbles his way out of through his absolute faith in the power of art. It seems nothing can halt his meteoric rise, until he comes face-to-face with an inconceivable affront: an image he’s made has been printed on a coffee mug and sold at the museum store. I won’t say where the story goes from there, as I really encourage anyone reading this article to find the book and read it themselves. Needless to say, it’s full of laughs and thrills. Adam can always land a joke and he does so on every page. You might even find that he leaves a little chunk of himself in your psyche. But it won’t necessarily happen overnight.

While Adam’s obscure interests can be seen as neutral in terms of attracting an audience – most people have no clue what he’s talking about, but those who do love his work immediately –his work still had trouble developing a following. This was in part due to the difficulty of presenting such dense work online but also the fact that Adam was still figuring a lot out as a cartoonist. Octave was almost certainly his first serious work of comics and was in fact commissioned by his friend Patrick Zapien, who had just founded the art+literary magazine Caesura. “I asked a few artists I knew to contribute, including Adam,” Zapien recalled “[He] ended up being the only regular contributor, treating the role with a self-appointed seriousness and dedication that was really remarkable. I knew Adam would be the perfect person to develop a weekly strip that could deal with the spirit of art in all its complexity, treating the situation of the artist and the art world honestly, while still finding levity and humor in the absurdity of it all.” No one I spoke to for this article could remember him making comics before and if he had they were certainly nowhere near 100 pages long. Additionally,  seems to have been unfamiliar, at least until after the publication of his first book, with newer underground or alternative/ art-house comics. Unless you count anti-papal tracts from the 1500s as sequential art, Adam’s most sophisticated comics influences were probably Herge or Jack Kirby. The formatting of Octave changes several times throughout the book and each strip – the book was initially published weekly on Instagram – has an irregular number of panels, meaning that the punchline often lands somewhere mid-page. About halfway through the story, Adam changes all the speech balloons to squares to be square instead of circular. These glaring formal inconsistencies were mostly ironed out by the time he started working on Gluck, but as that book was so much more ambitious in terms of plot and world building, a whole host of new challenges presented themselves.  However, part of the joy of reading Adam’s comics is seeing someone so intelligent level up his comics toolset in response to each challenge it arises. 

In fact, Adam exemplifies something I like about comics in general. There are no hard and fast rules, only conventions that can be tweaked, omitted, or made up out of whole cloth. Anyone with an idea and some pencils and paper can make comics. Adam’s lack of experience creating graphic literature is actually a good thing. Had he been more familiar with the conventional ways of doing things he wouldn’t have come up with the innovative solutions he did. In Gluck, Adam realizes a number of conventions which, if not totally new to the comics idiom, he pulls off quite nicely. First among these is that the story is introduced by none other than God, the lord of hosts. On page one, our paternal Father freely admits even His powers are limited and even He gets tired at the end of the day. As proof, He directs us to Gluck, the fool in 16th century Flanders, just one of countless failures the Lord has seen fit to create. Another convention he utilizes quite well are his title panels. Though he had used them in Octave they were often isolated from the rest of the strip. In Gluck, however, they were clearly made along with the rest of the page and even began integrating with the overall page design.

I spoke to Kearin Ever Cook, who worked with Adam, inking Gluck and had known him since high school about Adam – as an artist and person. Two things she said come to mind now. First, as a high-schooler Adam kept obsessive notes and spreadsheets about such things as, “Probably over 800 songs with drum breakdowns, including the length of the breakdown and the length of the song and the ratio between the two.” Second, that when he was working on Octave, Adam used to come and bang out five or six title panels at a go, which, along with the fact that the strip was already done and the addition of a title panel often made the strip harder to fit on the page, indicates to me that the making these title panels sprang from the same obsessive tendency as his graphomania. The fact that he harnesses an eccentricity some would choose to ignore or let fester into neurosis into art, and does so more proficiently over time shows enormous personal and artistic progression. In that way Adam turned every little bit of himself, his peculiarities included, into comics. When asked whether Octave was at all autobiographical Kearin could only muse, “when you read Octave on the page talking, I mean that was Adam.” It seems that Adam Elkhadem had finally found a medium through which could express the profundity of his thoughts with the immediacy of visual art: Comics! And this writer can only confirm that the comics Adam would have made if not for his passing, would have been greater than the ones he did. Some of them might even have been classics. Indeed, speaking to both Cook and fellow cartoonists about Adam since his death, one thing that’s come up repeatedly is the tragedy of the books Adam never got to make. Jon Allen (Author: Ohio is For Sale), a fellow member of our comics critique group just shook his head, “He was so young.”

Fortunately, there is hope for Gluck. A group of Adam’s closest friends and family are teaming up to complete another 120 pages of the Gluck story in addition to the 40 that have already been produced. Adam left voluminous notes on how the story of Gluck would continue and the historical significance of his movements through the Northern Renaissance.  As Kearin inks the 26 new pages that Adam had penciled before his death, Nick Walton and Adam’s father, Joe Elkhadem write new strips according to Adam’s voluminous notes which Nick’s brother Ben then pencils. Adam’s sister Ellie and his mom Megan Lazarou help with scheduling and organization. It sounds like quite the operation, and Cook, for her part, is vehemently dedicated to seeing it through. “We see it as a duty,” she told me. “There’s no world where it just sits there on a shelf!” I couldn’t quite get a timetable from her when the book will be finished – I wouldn’t want to give out hard and fast dates if I was in her position either – but it does seem that the team has at least reached the point where they know the full structure of the story from beginning to end and are apparently adhering to a strict timetable of one page a week. I fully believe this project will be finished and I will be first in line to buy it. What remains to be seen is if the inimitable style of someone so unique can be replicated. To me, it seems as difficult as recreating one of those gems at the natural history museum but if anyone can do it, it’s a team of at least six of the people who knew him best, many of whom are themselves accomplished writers and illustrators.

So, in closing, I’ll leave you with the words of Octave’s motto, which in the Elkhademian tradition, I will not be translating: “Sic Semper Artificibus!” You may be able to translate it online, but to really understand what it means, you must read the book yourself. It’s available online through Caesura, the magazine which originally commissioned Octave. Now that the article has reached its end I can confess that I mostly wrote to convince you readers to buy the book. Not because Adam wrote a blurb for one of my books, or because a burst of interest in Adam’s first comic will buoy the spirits of the yeomen working to complete his second, but because, as Octave himself muses, “though everybody must die, man can live on and on forever, through his works.” That’s what I want for Adam. That’s what his art deserves but alas, Sic Semper Artificibus.

Buy the book here: