RIP C. Martin Croker

I loved going over to my grandfather’s house when I was a kid. He’s 6’4″, and was this larger than life man who gave my brothers and I as much candy and toys as we could handle. To top it off, he had cable, a luxury that my family couldn’t afford. We would arrive at his apartment on Friday after school and play football with the neighborhood kids until long after the street lights came on. There was no bedtime, so my brothers and I would watch Cartoon Network all night as we stuffed ourselves with pizza and soda. Finally, at midnight, our favorite show would come on: Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast.

If you’ve never watched Space Ghost Coast 2 Coast, I can try to explain the basics to you. The show is a re-purposing of the late 1960’s cartoon Space Ghost and Dino Boy. In the original show, Space Ghost is a standard square-jawed superhero having galactic adventures with his sidekicks:

The animation for Space Ghost, Zorak, Brak and Moltar was taken from the original and turned into a late-night talk show, where Space Ghost alternates between interviewing celebrities and fighting with his former enemies-turned-coworkers:

That description hardly does the show justice. Each episode consisted of “interviews” sandwiched between non-sequiturs, sight gags and the insane ramblings of Space Ghost, Moltar and most famously, Zorak:

You either loved SGC2C’s dry humor or it grated on you until you turned the channel, and I absolutely loved it. SGC2C is one of the foundational television shows of my childhood, on the same tier of importance as Dragonball Z and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. It’s strange then that I didn’t know anything about the show or the people who created it. I’m obsessive in my knowledge of the other TV shows, video games and music I enjoy. I never read about SGC2C or talked about it with many people. It felt too niche, even in the world of nerd shit that I’ve lived in. After all, who else had watched an animated 15-minute talk show at midnight on a Friday?

As it turns out, alot of people did. I was scrolling through Facebook back in September when I saw the AV Club’s article remembering C. Martin Croker. I’d never heard of Mr. Croker, but I read the article anyway:

As reported by various sources, including rapper MC Chris and Adult Swim creative director Jason DeMarco, longtime Adult Swim animator and voice actor C. Martin Croker has died. Croker was best known for playing both Zorak and Moltar on Cartoon Network’s talk show spoof Space Ghost Coast To Coast—the series that essentially established the template for what would become Adult Swim. Details haven’t been released, but the tone of DeMarco and MC Chris’ posts suggest that Croker’s death was “sudden.” He was 54.

He was the voice of Zorak?! This man that I knew nothing about was one of the main creative forces behind SGC2C. Remembrances poured in, and I tried to learn as much as I could about him. Details are scarce, and even his Wikipedia page is only a barebones account of his animation work. Where did he go to school? How did he break into the industry? I was looking for inspiration from the man who had provided the voices of my childhood, after he was no longer alive to offer it himself.

2016 has been a hard year for me, personally and professionally. Yet it’s also the first year that I allowed myself to ask, “What do I want?” I spent my twenties focusing on what I had to do- I had to finish college, I had to have a job, I had to take care of my son. I never took the time to think about whether each of those must-do situations was leading me to a can-do place, where I could finally begin to work and grow in a direction that fulfilled me. Part of that is because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. As much as I’ve written over the years, and as often as I’ve been paid for writing, it never actually seemed real to me that a person can be a writer as their profession. Writing as a professional seemed as unobtainable as making it to the NBA or NFL. My understanding of professional writing was very narrow. I thought that you wrote short stories and novels, and that was it. I didn’t know about journalists, TV writers, playwrights, communications writers, marketing writers, researchers, analysts or any of the other ways that people get paid for putting words on paper.

When I think about it now, after years of experience and learning about the world and how it works, I look back on SGC2C and think, I want to do that. I want to tell stories that move people beyond the day in, day out drudgery of their lives. I want to help people feel what I felt when I watched Space Ghost and Star Trek and Dragonball Z- that I was being transported somewhere else, away from the pain and uncertainty of this life. You can do anything, be anything, when you use your imagination. C. Martin Croker took me to another reality, fifteen minutes at a time. I want to do that for the other people like me who need that. But how? How did he earn that opportunity, that privilege, that I want so much?

Fortunately, 2016 has showed me what’s possible when you try. For all of the objectively terrible things that have come to pass this year, there have been some amazing events as well. One of those was the premiere of Insecurestarring Issa Rae of Awkward Black Girl fame. I didn’t watch Awkward Black Girl, but the trailer I saw for Insecure made me interested in both the show and Issa Rae. Unlike Croker, Rae has an extensive Wikipedia page, and I was amazed by what I learned. She didn’t major in film or theater, instead getting her degree in African and African-American studies. When the time came, she made the leap and studied theater in New York City. She managed to move from creating her own show on YouTube to co-creating and starring in her own HBO show in five years. Success on that level is rare, but it’s not impossible. 2016 has helped me to stop asking, “What makes them so special?” and start asking, “What can I do to be more like them?” Issa Rae has shown me a path to the place I want to be someday, where my stories no longer sit in my head or on my computer but instead in the homes of people around the world. At one point, Issa Rae was Jo-Issa Rae Diop, just some regular person who wanted to do something more. Regular Jamil Ragland can be Storyteller Jamil Ragland someday too.

C. Martin Croker is one of the people who made me want to tell stories in the first place. There, in my grandfather’s apartment, I was transfixed by the power of imagination. When people say they don’t get Space Ghost or anime or science fiction, I want to ask them, are you really watching it? Are you seeing how anything is possible not only for the characters, but for the people who created them? I didn’t know who C. Martin Croker was until he died, and he was still able to influence me more profoundly than many of the people I’ve known my whole life. That’s the power of stories, and he helped to teach me that when I was still a kid. Rest in peace, Mr. Croker, and may your oven always be lit.

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