A cartoon moose reclines on a couch, complaining about a lost love while the therapist sitting next to him scribbles on a notepad.
“She left me,” he says, “for a guy with a bigger rack.”
It’s the type of cartoon that adorns thousands of Maine-themed cups, magnets and postcards in souvenir shops across the state, their clever puns and mild double entendres eliciting chuckles from thousands each year.
The man behind the moose, cartoonist Jeff Pert, who lived in Brunswick, died Friday at 55 while en route to the hospital with chest pains.
Pert spent his formative years in Winslow before his moose and lobster drawings came to be indelibly associated with Maine’s character.
Most of the tourists who enjoyed Pert’s work were probably not aware that the talent behind them was a staunch supporter of the local creative community as well as a funny man whose acidic barbs were appreciated by a wide range of friends.
For years, Pert was the guy who might be seen at the Maine Comics Arts Festival, or signing his books at the Maine Coast Book Shop and Cafe in Damariscotta, or hanging around Casablanca Comics in Portland, which advertises with the slogan “Making Geekdom Fun!”
When a local cartoonist, artist, craftsman or novelist made a public appearance, Pert was the one who showed up to give a word of encouragement.
Pert touched the lives of many, including Rep. Mattie Daughtry, D-Brunswick, who had no idea who he was when she knocked on his door while campaigning.
She estimates she knocked on 5,000 doors, but few of them made the impression that Pert did.
“He’s in my top three favorite doors,” she said. “Maybe my favorite door. I came home that day with a huge smile on my face. Within an hour of meeting him, he literally changed my life.”
Daughtry said Pert really wanted to talk to her, not about politics, but about cartooning. When he learned that she had abandoned her childhood dreams of becoming a cartoonist, he persuaded her to pick up a pencil and give it another try.
“He’s very encouraging to young artists,” she said.
Because of her friendship with Pert, which continued with online communications and meet-ups at the local dog park, Daughtry has accumulated a drawerful of sketches based on her experiences in the state capital. She’s not ready to release them to the public, she said, but they have helped her cope with the stress of political pressures.
But Pert wasn’t all warm sunshine and fuzzy cheer. His sense of humor could be ferocious.
Daughtry said his cutting brand of humor identified him as a kindred spirit.
“I’m very snarky myself,” she said, “so I really appreciated finding someone with such a dry wit and a sharp tongue.”
Pert’s friends remembered him as a very kind guy who often said very mean things.
“He was curmudgeonly,” Rebecca Labbe, of Waterville, said Tuesday.
The two met in an online comic book forum, talking about the superhero Batman, seven years ago. Along with pulp horror, comics, and especially Batman, were lifelong passions of Pert, whose knowledge of the genres was encyclopedic.
“He was more than an aficionado,” Labbe said.
By the time he died, she said, he had become like a big brother to her.
“He’s the most devoted friend. And he had thousands of friends,” Labbe said. “We’re all reeling from it.”
About once a month, he would meet her at Barnes and Noble in Augusta, where they would read books and drink coffee.
His humor — described variously as cutting, biting, sarcastic and snarky — always made her laugh.
Once, while they were preparing in their respective homes for a comic-themed event, she posted online that she was “just getting herself together.”
“Good luck with that,” came his reply.
Pert came by his position in the local alternative arts scene honestly — by loving and contributing to the arts for his entire life.
Jon Pert, of Westbrook, said he remembers his older brother as a happy-go-lucky personality who was born with a sense of humor and a love of cartooning.
“My earliest memories of him, he always had a sketchbook, sort of doodling,” he said. “If he wasn’t sketching, he was writing or reading.”
In fourth grade, Pert and his best friend, Jon Dumont, would obsess together over comic books.
They would read superhero comics and then draw their own, with shamelessly derivative imitations of their favorite characters.
After reading the Fantastic Four, Dumont said, “I would have a guy who looked like rocks. I would call him something else, but it was the Thing.”
Even then, Pert was interested in sharing his drawings.
So, in fifth grade, they loaded up a bunch of copies and went to local stores to ask if they could sell their comics alongside the mass-produced ones on the shelves.
“Some of them bought them,” Dumont said. “They probably gave us the money and then threw them in the garbage, but we were happy.”
The experience touched off a long and colorful childhood of trying to make art in a town that had little of it on display.
“We were always scheming together,” he said. “We always had a plan.”
As they grew older, Dumont said, they realized that Winslow wasn’t a nurturing place for two self-styled budding rebellious counterculture artists.
“We just weren’t quite sure where, in a dying mill town, we could fit in,” he said. “We were never gonna drive trucks.”
But without any alternatives, they created their own art, in every medium they could get their hands on.
“His fantasy life is where he flourished and where he lived,” Dumont said.
Mark Pelletier, who went to school with Pert and has since returned to the school as an English teacher, said Pert and his friends were always the eccentrics, the nonconformists. In junior high school, they recreated Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketch during a talent show.
“A lot of the kids probably laughed at it and thought it was really silly,” he said. “They pulled it off to a T, and very few kids noticed the greatness of it.”
When Pert’s father, former Maine Sunday Telegram writer and photographer Perleston Pert, gave Pert and Dumont a tape recorder, they used it to record comedic bits or insert funny sounds into the routines of comedians Steve Martin and George Carlin. In ninth grade, when he got a Super 8 video recorder, they began filming comedy sketches and their own short horror movies.
One, a black-and-white 15-minute version of “Dracula,” was actually pretty good, Dumont said.
“It was kind of gorgeous,” Dumont said. When Pert showed it to instructors at Emerson College in Boston, they allowed him to skip some of the lower-level film courses.
Pert came of age just as the glam rock bands were hitting their heyday, and so his music idols included Aerosmith, Kiss and Led Zeppelin.
So it was only natural that Pert would form a garage band of his own, Jade, in which he was the frontman for schoolmates Eric Falconer, Dennis McKinnon and Paul Gilbert.
The band, which Dumont said was fueled more by enthusiasm than musical talent, stood out for its flash, with outrageous costumes and revolving police lights.
“There were a lot of explosions on stage,” he said. They fashioned the explosive devices themselves out of gunpowder and tin cans. People were coming to see them perform. They were living the dream, even if they never made a penny.
Pert’s brother said his costumes were infamous.
“He’s known throughout that community as the guy who wore the white tights while performing,” he said. “I would say he had a bit of courage back then.”
In addition to cartooning, Pert continued to explore his creativity in other ways.
In 2010, he performed as part of a two-man stage show with organist Rob Richards, who played the Kotzschmar organ while Pert drew for the audience in Portland’s Merrill Auditorium. Afterwards, Pert offered free cartooning lessons for attendees. He appeared in classrooms, wrote graphic novels and developed a standup comedy routine.
“This was a guy who could do a lot of things,” Dumont said. “His interests were so broad that he struggled to focus.”
For all of his talent, there was always a piece of Pert that remained critical of his own achievements and the way he might be perceived by others.
He was acutely aware that his obsession with Batman wouldn’t make him popular with the mainstream.
“He used to say, ‘Doesn’t that make me a date magnet?’” Dumont recalled.
It’s one of many examples of self-deprecating humor he would use to deflect praise or accentuate his own faults.
“As talented and as funny a guy he was and as many people he made laugh and applauded him, he always had a hard time accepting that and believing that,” Pert’s brother, Jon, said. “He was a super-talented guy, and I think he was just overly modest and wouldn’t let himself take credit for that.”
Jon Pert said his brother was typically humorous and self-deprecating about the lobster and moose images that brought him the most commercial success.
“‘Those are two of the funniest looking creatures anyway,’ he would say, ‘so it’s not hard to make them look funny.’”
Labbe said he was often the subject of his own cutting humor.
“Sometimes it made me wonder if he were just being sarcastic and cynical to cover it up,” she said. “He was a dark guy.”
When Pert collaborated with three other artists to produce a graphic novel based on their life experiences, Pert focused on his own 2011 bout with prostate cancer.
The self-drawn cartoon version of Pert reacts to the diagnosis with his trademark self-deprecating wit.
“Seriously?” he says. “I barely used the thing.”
In the end, Dumont said, Pert’s family and large circle of friends were proud of his success, with his artwork forming the basis of Maine’s identity for thousands of visitors to the state every year.
“He got to live on his terms,” Dumont said. “He lived the life of an artist and he worked on his art every day.”