It was a Saturday night around 11 p.m., the bewitching hour usually reserved for nightcaps of the wearing and/or drinking variety. The above was a text was from my older brother who plays lean with his hyperbole.
Better known as C. Martin Croker to fans of Adult Swim and Cartoon Network, some refer to “Clay” only as Zorak, Moltar, or Dr. Weird, which he voiced and animated for the groundbreaking Space Ghost Coast to Coast and Aqua Teen Hunger Force. Industry insiders, coworkers, and the enlightened call Clay an unsung hero of animation and a legend behind the microphone.
To me, Clay was the hilarious and flirtatious best friend of my brother Tony that I’d known since middle school. Over time he’d become my close friend and coworker as well. So, no questions were asked; I threw it into reverse, floored it, and headed over.
When I arrived, Clay was dead on the floor of his modest Atlanta ranch house. At 54, he died uninsured, heavily in debt yet surrounded by a priceless collection of art, rare collectibles, personalized book and photographs, correspondence from Bettie Page (who sent Clay and his wife April Stephens Christmas cards sometimes with a $100 bill inside), Chuck Jones cels, extraordinary hand-painted models, vintage toys, and hundreds of meticulously catalogued comics in mint condition.
Most of his treasures were carefully posed and grouped on shelves throughout the basement studio, home to his company Big Deal Cartoons. It’s where Clay spent incalculable hours drawing background art, inking cels, storyboarding and designing characters such as Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad. Prior to their divorce, Clay’s wife often acted as his production manager, bookkeeper, and even helped with inking.
According to Stephens, Adult Swim had a bad habit of “losing invoices” submitted by Clay for months at a time. Consequently, bills would go unpaid, the utilities would get turned off, and deadlines would get missed.
“They kept him just busy enough so he didn’t have much time to go looking for work elsewhere, but then constantly threatened to cut him off,” said Stephens. “In an effort to stay on good terms, Clay gave them unrealistically low quotes. I would just shake my head and tell him the bid was way too low; then they’d come back complaining that they couldn’t pay him the lowball quote and would offer an insanely lower amount.”
With no representation or agent, Clay took the money. Others in the animation community also expressed similar sentiments regarding the uniquely bad treatment of Clay, including Dave Newton, a graphic designer and Clay’s friend of 30+ years.
“My impression was that the [Adult Swim] producer was doing this deliberately, which led Clay to suffer unfathomable stress,” Newton said of the missing payments. “They should’ve kept Clay busy with animation and voiceover work, but unfortunately they took his talents for granted.”
Artist Joe Peery (Archer, Ugly Americans) collaborated with Clay on many projects and was also a personal friend. Peery said that many artists agree that Adult Swim was often unfair to him.
“He was a wealth of information, ideas, and flat out talent that Adult Swim took deep advantage of. He was never compensated fairly for his work,” said Peery.
Back to that Saturday night in Atlanta, EMTs failed to revive Clay when his heart stopped. He’d been complaining of an upset stomach all day and wrote it off to bad sushi. After I watched him go out in a body bag, I sat amongst his worldly possessions and remembered his ashen appearance when we celebrated his birthday in New Orleans the previous year. Instead of chastising him for not taking better care of himself, we drank copious amounts of alcohol at the Spotted Cat and I discounted his next day’s lethargy as a hangover.
The following year he complained of a tooth that needed attention, yet he only chose to self-medicate with rogue pain pills and the occasional bong hit – but he never bought dental insurance.
We all knew that Clay once sacrificed a Fantastic Four #1 to pay the mortgage, but refused to part with so many other rare items that might have afforded him proper healthcare, like the original Grinch cel that now mocked me. But that was Clay, who also left behind a vast and unfathomable amount of his own art dating back to 1970 when he doodled on every scrap of paper he could find.
“In those stacks lurk his true genius, unbridled joy taken in no-holds-barred, debauched, and absolutely hilarious drawings,” said Peery. “Every page is crammed full of his infectious madness, inviting any and all to join him in pushing everything over the edge.”
Clay kept and catalogued the drawings of his artist friends, whose credits include Archer, Ugly Americans, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Adventure Time, Squidbillies, and Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law.
Late nights at Clay’s are now the stuff of legend where everyone was expected to participate somehow. If you weren’t doodling or sketching, then you were modeling or perhaps you were choosing a VHS tape from his vast collection for background entertainment while the zaniness transpired.
“If Clay shoved a sketchbook in your hands, you were along for the ride and there was no telling where or when it would end,” said Peery.
One page might have character designs and ideas for the original Space Ghost show, the next a collaborative storyboard with anyone who was in the room at the time about a “’Lil Church that Shit Blood.” Then you might see a sketch from John Kricfalusi or some other infamous industry artist.
An invitation to one of these nights was to be invited into the world of a genius. The younger generations still revel in the memories of them – kids who knew the latest animation software programs while Clay still drew everything by hand.
“Clay was in competition with a lot of young animators that he had trained,” Stephens recalled. “He always said, ‘I taught them how to drive a truck and then they ran over me with it.’”