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2020: the Year of the Rat

2020: the Year of the Rat published on

A new year opens, for both the West and the East. On behalf of Doc Rat, I wish you health and success. I hope you attain your goals and surmount your problems. I hope you open your eyes, ears and minds to people with opinions that differ from yours. I hope you cut a little slack, compromise and learn how much common ground there actually is for all of you to stand on.

2020 is the Year of the Rat
Doc Rat wishes you a happy Year of the Rat

My country, Australia, and the world in general, faces many grave problems. The prospect of what could come to pass in this year of 2020 fills me with dread. But I remind myself the future is human. We can use our minds poorly, or we can use them well. At our best, we can find solutions to problems and then cooperate to apply them. We have brains and access to expertise that can get us to the answers – perhaps not the ones we want to see, nor the ones that conform to our deeply-held opinions, but the answers that are most likely to be correct, and therefore the ones most likely to work. This is not a game we’re playing, this world of ours. This is real. We’ve got to get it right to save it.

When Doc Rat has to make a decision between appendicitis or a stomach virus, he has to get the right answer. As he says: Diagnosis is king.

In 2020, may we all strive to get the right answer. And it’s a paradox, but to do this, all of us…ALL OF US… have to be prepared to meet a little more in the middle so the majority of us can move this thing together. And that may mean taking journeys outside of our comfort zones. Just the opening of your mind is an act of heroism, and upon my oath 2020 needs heroes.

What does 2020 hold for the Doc Rat comic strip itself? More of the usual light laughs and soulful philosophy: Doc will keep taking broken things and mending them. But there will also be some very exciting news, but more of that later.


Keith Howington April 9, 1954 – December 9, 2019

On the 9th of December last year, I lost one of my closest friends, who was also one of the most remarkable human beings it has ever been my privilege to know. In a remote part of California, at the age of 65, David Keith Howington passed out of this life, from the final of many complications of a severe, disabling illness.

 Level Head and octopus in Pittsburgh Zoo, portrait by Jenner

Keith was a dedicated fan of Doc Rat. He loved what I wrote and drew with such a passion that when in 2010 he sent me an email through the contact form about what he thought of it and why, I knew our minds worked on identical wavelengths. He would send some comments from time to time. Then, on a day in March 2011, while I was working in my studio on the latest strip, Keith sent an email with a pun. I punned back, and…well, it led to a reply in verse, to which I gave a riposte in verse, and for the next hour we duelled in everything from limerick to iambic pentameter to Doctor Seuss. Yes, from that day onward, we were firm friends.

Keith was a genius – a polymath, computer expert, systems organiser, writer, and a thoroughly decent person. He was good-natured, accommodating and generous. He had a sparkling wit and an incisive intellect. No stumbling block in the world seemed to be beyond his capacity to forebear with an even temper. A legal colleague once told him he had never seen someone as level-headed as he. So, when it came to choosing an on-line alias to participate in a web comic forum (and for very important practical reasons, a strict alias was necessary), “Level Head” was it. Level Head threw himself into the role of Doc Rat’s greatest advocate until he was, in effect the comic’s United States agent. Our dream was for him to be the mail-order distributor of Doc Rat books for that part of the world. But events changed this.

Keith was a self-made man. He devised software and took commissions in writing grant applications. He made fortunes, and fortunes were taken away from him. From partying in the Playboy mansion to facing down the Mafia, Keith’s level-headedness kept stability. But of all the fortunes he lost, the greatest of those was his wife, his beloved, to whom he always referred as “the lady Anne”. They had had, as far as I can tell, a beautiful relationship throughout the course of many adversities. But it was in 2014 that both Keith and Anne, after a celebratory dinner, came down with severe campylobacter food poisoning. After three days ill in bed, the lady Anne went into cardiac arrest, and all Keith’s efforts to resuscitate her failed. The date was April 4th. To say Keith’s life was devastated would be an understatement. And yet I never heard him feel sorry for himself; rather, he counted himself blessed for the time he and Anne had together. However bad was the down side, he could always find an up side to lift him.

Subsequent months saw Keith developing very severe metabolic abnormalities. I helped with advice from a distance, as I could. Keith’s comments were that this helped him a lot.

I had met Keith in person in July 2012 at Anthrocon in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. Along with cartoonist Aaron Neathery (Endtown), the three of us had a wonderful union, some may say historic. I had wanted to meet up again with Keith as I passed through Los Angeles on the way to Anthrocon in June 2014, but he was in the middle of moving house, so he was on the road. I was able to phone him from the airport, and I was surprised by what I heard. Not only did my friend tell me his arms and legs were becoming weak and numb, but also his speech sounded unmistakably slurred. This turned out to be the start of a rare, severe neurological illness, a progressive, insidious auto-immune condition. His body was reacting to the campylobacter infection earlier that year. He sought medical care on the occasions his health insurance covered it (the insurance industry was going through great changes, and there were moments his coverage fell through the cracks, to the cost of his life savings), and this took him to a neurologist. When the neurologist diagnosed Guillan-Barré syndrome and reassured him there was no treatment but to expect it with time to clear up completely, Keith in his inimitable fashion did his own research and insisted it was chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), which will never clear up without immediate and expensive blood-modifying therapy. He was right. He got the therapy. And as far as it went, it worked.

Keith lost the use of his legs, most of the use of his arms but none of the use

A get well card from 2016

of his brain. He could still type, only very slowly. Amazingly, then, he was still able to work, albeit to a limited extent. He continued to post and comment on Doc Rat strips in the Cross Time Café forum. Severe muscle spasms would wrack him with pain. Severe enough and he could pass out, only to be found slumped in his chair a few days later. Keith came near to death many times. But on every occasion that he resurfaced, he would make light of it. Friends helped him set up a motorised chair lift to help him negotiate the two floors of his residence, but a series of blows to his health and finances saw him relocating to a single-room accommodation in the Morongo Valley, in the Californian desert.

At the last count, Keith reported that feeling was starting to return to his legs and his seat. Although it was good news, it also meant a return of pain, even more pain than before, which made it impossible to sit. He had to recline, and meant that eating and drinking put him at constant risk of pneumonia.

I have no doubt that, given the option, Keith would have preferred pain to death, as he battled – and maybe at long last would have prevailed over – the illness that had robbed him of a functioning body. Feeling and power would return to his legs, dexterity to his fingers, the ability to stand and walk, and the ever-present prospect of his brain interacting with the world for one more day, and then a day after that, and so on. Keith wasn’t the sort of man to let agony stop him when there was work to be done.

The final get well card from 2019

Against my better judgement, I started to think of Keith as indestructible. But even the most remarkable being is still flesh. Keith went into hospital and never came out. It was hard to contact him, and the best I could do was to draw a card and email it to a friend of his, who showed him the picture from his phone. I regret I could never have final words with him. I hope he knew he was in my thoughts and of course loved. In Keith Howington, the world lost one its most remarkable inhabitants.

Keith and I both followed the web comic Endtown. In 2011, just for fun, I started to write fan ‘filk’ lyrics based on popular songs and post them on the GoComics site in the comments section. By and by, I was producing them more frequently, and Keith started chipping in with his own. The trick was to see the latest Endtown strip, write as quickly as possible a song to fit the latest episode, and post as soon into the new day as possible so the entry would be near the top of the queue, in full view. Keith and I were vying with each other, each producing five new songs a week. I admired his creations as he did mine. Someone aptly called Jenner and Level Head “the lyricist and the bard”.

Level Head has appeared occasionally in Doc Rat as the eagle Lev Headland.

Keith wrote, during the lady Anne’s lifetime, a wonderful treatise on the secrets of a happy relationship. I hope I can make this available for people to read and consider.

He was a thoughtful person, and of the many things I learned in a decade of association with Keith was the ability to share commonality even in the presence of difference. Keith would describe himself to the right side of politics, while I lean somewhat to the left. That’s if labels were actually mean anything important, which I argue they don’t. We both agreed on finding the factually right answer to a question, and in that we were cooperative. Keith wasn’t much for following the news cycle or social media, so he didn’t parrot the litany of ‘conservative values’. He just believed in reward for personal effort and endeavour, and he thought his country’s media misrepresented that sound principle. I believe a nation functions best and most cooperatively when it feels socially secure, and any reasonable media will reach that conclusion. Without saying it overtly, Keith and I knew these two tenets were not mutually exclusive, therefore there was no point in falling into arguments over it. We knew our friendship was dearer than that, and squabbling was a waste of time. Yes, we did have some issues that were irreconcilable – we put those to one side and got on with the job of getting good things done. “Make right happen,” as Doc Rat would say.

Keith and I shared a decade on planet Earth. He will not learn what happens in the story of the decade to come. He lived his life in a way that will inspire me to get the best out of every day. He would have wanted me to commemorate not what never got to do, but all the achievements he did. He was, in a very true sense, a humble hero. The best way we can honour him will be to look at his ethos, learn from it and add it to our lives