Now decades into the copycat Postmodern Era, we wonder, when the hell did the news of the day become just another product to be processed and squeezed into a profit-making shape? Recent coverage of the Hurricane Katrina story demonstrated how far the networks are willing to go, reckless-wise, to make a hot story glow even hotter. But before O. J. Simpson’s whacky trial, and talkative Monika Lewinsky's mischief, and dead Laci and smarmy Scott, and so forth, we weren't used to the pounding of the 24-hour news cycle.
Richmonders experienced an abrupt change in the standards by which news was gathered and presented 21 years ago: Having terrorized the town with a series of grisly murders five years before, on May 31, 1984, brothers Linwood and James Briley led the largest death-row jailbreak in U.S. history. In all six condemned men flew the coop by overpowering prison guards, donning the guards’ uniforms, creating a bogus bomb-scare and bamboozling their way out of Virginia’s supposedly escape-proof Mecklenburg Correctional Center.
While their four accomplices were rounded up quickly, the two Brileys remained at large for 19 days. The FBI captured the duo at a picnic adjacent to the garage where they had found work in Philadelphia. Linwood was subsequently electrocuted in Richmond on Oct. 12, 1984; likewise, James on Apr. 18, 1985.
My sense of it then was the depraved were being transformed into celebrities so newspapers and television stations could sell lots of ads. Once they were on the lam, if it came to making a buck it didn’t seem to matter anymore what the Brileys had done to be on death row.
“OK,” I said to a Power Corner group in the Texas-Wisconsin Border Cafe on a mid-June evening, “if the Brileys can be made into heroes to sell tires and sofas on TV, how long will it be before they're on collectable cards, like baseball cards? (or words to that effect).” To illustrate my point I grabbed a couple of those Border logo imprinted cardboard coasters from the bar and drew quick examples on the backs, which got laughs.
Later at home, I sat down at the drawing table and designed the series of cards. To avoid race humor entirely I used a simple drawing style that assigned no race to the characters. The sense of humor was sardonic and droll. I elected to run off a hundred sets of eight cards each, which were put into small ziplock plastic bags, with a piece of bubble gum included for audacity's sake. I figured to sell them for $1.50 a set and see what would happen.
Traveling about the Fan District on my bicycle it took about three days to sell the first press-run out of my olive drab boy scout backpack. New cards were designed, more sets were printed, more plastic bags, more bubble gum. A half-dozen locations began selling “The Brileys” on a consignment basis. Sales were boosted when the local press began doing stories on them. For about a week I was much-interviewed by local reporters. The Washington Post ran a feature on the phenomenon and orders to buy card sets began coming in the mail from Europe.
Reporters called me for easy quotes to fill articles on death penalty issues, as if I was an expert on the subject. That I was opposed to the death penalty seemed to strike them as odd. Moreover, finding myself in a position to goose a story that was lampooning the media’s own overkill presentation was delicious fun. I announced on the air that T-shirts commemorating the Brileys' 1984 Summer Tour were on the way soon.
Apart from my efforts, the hated Briley brothers’ chilling crime spree and subsequent escape inspired all sorts of lowbrow jokes and sick songs, and you-name-it, which did indeed fan the flames of racial hate in Virginia. Naively, I felt no connection to that scene until a stop at the silk screen printer’s plant suddenly cast a new light on the fly-by-night project that summer's effort was. Walking from the offices to the loading dock meant passing through a warehouse full of boxes, stacked to the ceiling. Suddenly, I was surrounded: Four young men closed in and cornered me.
Some of them, if not all, had box cutters in their hands; all of them were definitely black. At that moment I felt whiter than Ross MacKenzie. No direct threats were made, but the mood was extremely tense when their spokesman asked if I was the man behind the cards and T-shirts.
As it was not the first time I’d been subjected to questions about the cards, I quickly asked if they had seen the cards, or had only heard about them. As I suspected they hadn’t seen them. Luckily, I had a pack in my shirt pocket, which I took out and handed to the group’s leader. As he studied them, one by one, his cohorts looked over his shoulder. I explained what my original motivation had been in creating the cartoons. They didn’t laugh but the spell was soon broken. I let them keep the cards.
Later I was in a drug store, restocking one of my dealers for the cards, when a white lady with blue hair approached me. She worked there and had seen the cards, which she found unfunny. She told me her husband was on the crew that had cleaned up the crime scenes after some of the Briley’s murders. Then she said if I was going to profit from all this I should be man enough to hear her out. I did. She gave me specific details. It was mostly stuff I had known, or suspected, but the way she told it was brutal.
At this point the success of my performance art project seemed to be going sour. I got a call from a reporter asking me what I had to say about Linwood Briley having made some disparaging remark about my cards. I got peeved and asked the scribe what the hell anybody ought to care about what such a man has to say?
Like it or not, I had become a part of what I had been mocking in the first place. Shortly afterward the cards and T-shirts were withdrawn from the market. Three years later I was in the Bamboo Cafe, standing at the bar at Happy Hour, having a beer and talking with friends about sports (probably). A middle-aged man I didn’t know stepped my way to ask furtively if I was the guy who “drew those Briley cards.”
After I said “yes,” and introduced myself, he asked me a few questions about the cards. Then he spoke in a hushed tone, saying something like, “What about those missing cards?”
“Missing cards?” I returned. “Are you asking why I skipped some numbers?
He nodded and reached in his pocket to pull out a full set of The Brileys, still in its original plastic bag.
Wanting to end the conversation quickly -- that he had the cards with him was too strange for me -- I put it plainly: “OK. First, I wanted to imply there was a vast series out there, without having to create it. Then, I wanted the viewer to maybe imagine for himself what the other cards might be.”
The collector put his cards back in his pocket. He stepped away, plainly disappointed with my rather easy answer, which gave him no dripping red meat to savor. It seemed that night the mild truth was of little use to my public, such as it was.