It was coming up on Thanksgiving 1981, and two Woods had died in the same week. First there was the movie star Natalie Wood, who fell off a yacht and drowned. The other one hit a little closer to home. Comics great Wallace Wood blew his brains out. He hadn’t been in the greatest health (bum eyes and kidney problems) and he seemed old for his age, which was 54. He was also prone to big depressions. I got to know Wood a little when I was still living in New York City. It was the late 1960s and I was just getting started drawing comics. I met Roger Brand for the first time at a big New York City comics convention in 1968, the same day I also met Wallace Wood and Art Spiegelman; by my reckoning that was a pretty good day.
I knew who Art was and I sure knew who Wallace Wood was, but I had never heard of Roger Brand. I think he was about 26 at this time, a few years older than me. He had a long flowing mustache, not exactly a handlebar, longish hair and squinty eyes, but he came off as fairly good-looking. He was nattily dressed and very peppy. I soon learned that much of the pep came from speed, which was already Roger’s longstanding main drug of choice.
My brother Simon was with me and, frankly, we were both a bit put off by Roger’s gushy demeanor. At some point Spiegelman, I guess picking up on this, pulled me aside and said, “You know, Roger is really very knowledgeable about comics.” I soon learned that Roger had worked as an assistant to Wood, and even more significantly, we would later find out, to Gil Kane. He’d also recently done some jobs in his own right for Witzend, a fanzine that Wood had recently started with the idea of broadening the horizons of the comics medium. Witzend is also where I first saw Art Spiegelman’s work. Ultimately Witzend promised more than it ever delivered, but it was a sign post that interesting things were in the air where comics were concerned.
Hell, I was living proof. In 1968 I had a paying job working at an underground newspaper drawing comics. I was earning while learning and boy oh boy I sure had a lot to learn! Well, where not only myself but other crazed fools like me learned a heap about comics was from Roger Brand. We saw Roger again at a party that same day. Armed with Spiegelman’s tip about Roger’s bounty of comics knowledge, we paid more attention to him this time. Joints were going around the room and Simon, I, Roger, and others were taking hits in a desultory kind of way, when someone came in from a beer run. Can tops popped. Roger took a long pull on his and said, “You know, this marijuana is all well and good but when all is said and done, there’s nothing like good old beer.”
Simon and I agreed. We looked at each other and silently nodded. It was the beginning of our friendship with Roger. Why was Roger so knowledgeable about comics? Well, he was a bright guy who drew them and loved the medium. But what set Roger into a more rarefied realm of comics knowledge was his long association with Gil Kane.
Gil Kane. What a man! Okay, maybe Gil Kane wasn’t the world’s greatest comics creator. But he could draw, you bet. His comics credentials went back to the Golden Age 1940s. He was a sharp articulate guy with an encyclopedic knowledge about comics. And it wasn’t just a geeky tunnel vision kind of knowledge, all comics and nothing else. He was a cultivated individual, distinguished in appearance: a silver haired, nattily dressed guy. In retrospect, I think Kane’s natty appearance may have also influenced Roger’s initial tidy appearance and demeanor. It’s not that Roger seemed to imitate Kane in that way, but he also had a sophisticated manner and look at the time that would have made him seem at home even in much more discriminating company. I don’t think the same thing could have been said about Simon and me in those days.
So there was Roger, working side by side with Gil Kane for quite a while. Gil Kane must have been one of the greatest raconteurs that comics ever saw. He knew the great stories, rivalries, successes, and failures in the world of comics, and was cultured enough to tie it all intelligently to the rest of culture, popular and otherwise.
On a more picayune level he could, for instance, tell you who penciled for Will Eisner in most of 1946 (John Spranger). He had files and could whip out classic Jack Cole jobs and tell you exactly why they were so revered by the old pros. All of this and more came pouring out of Kane and into the mind of Roger for years, and Roger seemed more that willing to pass it all on to us!
We used to go and drink beer with Roger for hours on end while he kept us and others spellbound with tales of comics and their creators, both lurid and technical. It was fantastic. On top of all that, Roger really did seem to have it all together. He had a great and pretty girlfriend named Michelle whom he later married. He seemed to be pulling down decent money working for Kane and others. And he was making embryonic underground comics of his own on the side.
And Roger really could draw. He knew something about anatomy and perspective. Some of it just came naturally and also, I suppose, from assisting comics greats like Wood and Kane. But this would be a good place to bring up an idiosyncrasy about Roger’s work. He could really pencil and drew solid figures. He had a good hold of the entire comics drawing discipline (he was so-so as a writer, but not uninteresting). But execution was where he shined, or at least it was when it came to penciling. Inking was another matter. When inking, Roger tended to go right through it until a page was over inked into muddiness. He did it just about every time! Why? Well, one of the things we are talking about here is the pros and cons of amphetamines (speed). Speed has been an insidious lure for artists for as long as it has been around. It can give you some great moments for sure. Many great pieces of art have emerged under its dubious auspices. But it’s not so good for the long haul. I’m not going to list all of its shortcomings here, but they are legion.
Essentially a common speed arc, particularly if you are really habituated to it, means that you really need something to come down from it, and all too commonly that something ends up being alcohol. It’s hell on your nerves. So, speed freaks very often turn into drunks. And I never saw such a relentless living example of that arc as Roger Brand. Roger had some bad problems lurking inside of him, but his smooth manner masked them to a certain extent. At least at first.
Around 1969 the big general news among guys trying to grab onto the underground comics boom was this: If you were really serious about pursuing it, the immediate future seemed to be in San Francisco. That is where most of the publishers worth talking about were setting up. So just about everyone I knew doing comics on the East Coast was relocating out there. Roger grew up in Point Richmond, which was on the fringe of the San Francisco Bay Area and he made the move back there between three and six months before I got my butt out to San Francisco. But I ran into him almost immediately one day in Gary Arlington’s legendary San Francisco Comic Book Company store.
Roger wasn’t quite so natty anymore, but he didn’t really look bad. His hair was longer. Maybe he wasn’t shaving all that regularly, but all that really came down to just then was that he looked more like a hippy, like the rest of us. He had a steady job doing a strip for one of the sex newspapers, a hundred and fifty plunks a week, and that was more than any of the rest of us was making just then. And he and Michelle seemed to be getting along.
Was he drinking more? Maybe. But here’s one thing that was masking the situation further: Another comics artist that Roger grew up with in Point Richmond was Joel Beck. Beck had made some serious noise in the early and mid ’60s in comics, even before the underground thing occurred. In fact a legitimate case could be made that Joel Beck was a pioneering founder of underground comics.
The only trouble was that now that the boom was on, Joel was pretty well burnt out. He’d had most of his big moments on speed and was now a flamboyant and rather tiresome drunk. I didn’t really like Joel at first. He’d never go out unless some Point Richmond crony was driving him, and he always traveled with a big gallon jug of red wine. He was a sloppy falling down drunk, and the first few times I met him Roger seemed to be functioning as his keeper, guiding him about in their travels. Little did I know then that eight to ten years down the road, when Joel had perfected his drinking into a respectable tipple, and Roger’s had gotten worse, I would frequently see the same situation reversed, with Joel guiding Roger around. But that was later.
Still, Roger was already slowly going down hill. Something like six months later, his steady job ended. He was still doing jobs and covers for underground comics, but he got markedly less prolific over time. He was still a marvelous fount of comics lore and information though and I’d like to recount an incident to illustrate that. At some point in the ’70s, Art Spiegelman got a job in a school teaching a course about comics. It had been going on a while when one day Art invited me to come over and talk to the class. When I got there, there was Roger! It seemed that some weeks earlier Art had invited Roger to the class. Roger made such a hit and seemed to enjoy it so much that Art had ensconced him as a kind of comics authority in residence. In other words, once Roger had visited Art’s class, he never really left, which was just fine with Art. He knew the value of Roger Brand even in decline. I was glad to see Roger at the class, too. It had been a while since I’d seen him, so I drifted out of the class with him and he took me over to meet his new girlfriend. Well, I’d heard that Roger and Michelle had broken up and was sorry for it, but these things happen. But it gave me pause when Roger introduced me to the bimbo he was now traveling with — make that Bimbo with a capital B!
Worse yet, they didn’t even last all that long. It was getting clearer all the time that something was seriously wrong with Roger. Around this same time, Gary Arlington had latched onto a nice money lecture gig which the comics historian Bill Blackbeard was somehow connected with. Roger and my brother Simon were getting a hundred each to sit on some stage one evening and pontificate a little about comics. Long story short, they both showed up stinko drunk and made a shambles of the event. Roger in Art’s afternoon class was one thing, but Roger after the sun went down was a whole other kettle of fish.
And it got even worse. At some point Roger seemed to be more or less homeless. He’d tried to make some money dealing dope, but ended up selling some acid to an undercover cop the very first time out. Roger had spent some nights in various drunk tanks already. This time he pulled a three-month prison sentence. When Roger was released Gary Arlington took him in. Gary had control of an apartment underneath his where Roger set up camp. I remember visiting Roger there one night. It was kind of dim because the electricity was not on. Instead, a long extension cord attached to a single lamp in the apartment Roger was in went out the window and up into Gary’s pad, where it was plugged in. Well, I have to say this about Gary Arlington: He is a fine man. When Roger was still going strong he looked down on Gary. In fact I can remember a near brawl one time when Roger suddenly physically attacked Gary. Don Donahue had to pull him off Gary. It was an ugly moment. But now Gary was taking an active hand in helping Roger. Besides giving Roger shelter, he gave him a daily five dollars (enough for a six pack and smokes in those days). In return, Gary required Roger to make one inked picture every day. In this way, Gary kept Roger drawing when he was beyond the point when he otherwise might have been doing so. This impressed me.
And there was the strange Joel Beck factor. One day Joel came by under his own steam and without a gallon of red wine in tow. He wanted to know if I would throw in with Roger and him on a three-way comic book. I guess we could have called it All Drunk Comics, but somehow the title Banzai was arrived at. I didn’t really feel like doing it, but I felt even less like turning them down. Joel pretty much straw-bossed it and Denis Kitchen published it in 1978. In the months that followed, I still saw Roger at parties and things, always looking increasingly scuzzier and generally rowdier, but we were still friends.
One day in Berkeley I saw Roger bounce out of a drugstore on the corner of Shattuck and University hugging two precious six packs of beer to his chest. I’d heard he’d been working shifts behind the counter of a local comic book store in town. He was walking fast, like every second counted, so I did not call out to him. But I stopped and watched as he continued chugging furiously down the street. For some reason that image of him is burned indelibly into my brain.
Getting back to Thanksgiving of 1981 and the week that Natalie Wood and Wallace Wood came to their untimely ends. Wood’s death shook me up! I was never big pals with him, but through Roger I had gotten to know him better and he was very kind and indulgent. I liked him. By this time it seemed clear that Roger’s days were probably numbered. Anyone who knew him could see he was digging his own grave just as sure as the sun came up and went down every day. It hit me that this priceless resource of comics lore would soon be gone. And so little of it had been in any way recorded. I knew another guy around this time named Bruce N. Duncan who put out a rather inimitable zine chronicling the bohemian doings of Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue. Bruce was an acquired taste but kind of brilliant in his own crack brained way. I’d been interviewed for the Tele Times, Bruce’s zine. Hell, he’d even interviewed the great R. Crumb.
The wheels of my brain were turning. Wood was gone. And at the rate Roger was going, could he be far behind? It occurred to me that perhaps I could arrange to have Roger interviewed for the Tele Times and preserve a bit of Roger for the ages. Of course I knew in my heart, it was probably a bit too late. Roger was definitely becoming more mentally fractured by this time. Even so, I decided to give it a shot. My girlfriend was going out of town for Thanksgiving. So I decided to invite both Roger and Bruce over for Thanksgiving dinner, with the idea of making a Roger Brand interview happen. Bruce was for it and I got a hold of Roger somehow and he said he was down for it. However, come Thanksgiving, no Roger! I got on the phone and somehow got a hold of him. He’d spaced on it and was just getting ready to go get a Thanksgiving dinner at some soup kitchen.
I started talking fast. I told Roger I had a turkey cooking and if he’d just get over, my girlfriend was out of town and I’d keep him in beer for the weekend. That finally managed to do the trick and he showed up at my place in the early evening. The first thing he said to me when I shook hands with him was, “Gee, wasn’t this a lousy week for Woods?” It took me a few seconds to process that, but then, “Oh right, Natalie and Wallace.” So the interview went down and it really wasn’t vintage Brand, I’m sorry to say, but this was one of those take-what-you-can-get situations.
We talked a lot over the weekend and drank beer and talked some more. We even talked about Roger’s own rather obvious impending doom. He said some people from AA had visited him. He said they were okay, but clearly they weren’t really reaching him. And one thing I noticed about Roger that seemed to bode ill was that he wasn’t really eating much. He picked a little (very little) at the turkey I’d cooked, but that was about it. Well, come Sunday it was all getting old and I knew I had to get rid of Roger before my girlfriend returned. She knew he was there, but I knew it wouldn’t be good for her to walk in on me and Roger still knocking them back. I told him up front that I had to get him out of there and clean up a little. So I walked him to the bus stop, gave him the fare, and wished him luck. The last thing he said to me was the same thing he said when he first arrived: “Gee, wasn’t this a lousy week for Woods?”
One side effect of this was that I’d shown Roger a good enough time so that he started popping in more often. But things weren’t going all that great with me by this time either: My 11-year run with my girlfriend came to an end and I drifted out of town and lost track of Roger. Then one day in 1985, when I was living in Los Angeles, I got a phone call from a friend in Berkeley telling me that Roger had died. He was 42 years old.
A short time after that, when they were still located in suburban L.A., Fantagraphics threw quite a party. Even Jack Kirby was there, and so was Gil Kane. I knew Kane, but had never really had an actual conversation with him. But this night he buttonholed me, wanting to know what had happened to Roger. I asked him if he’d ever read Theodore Dreiser’s novel Sister Carrie. Knowing his erudite reputation I figured he probably had. I was right. The reason I asked was that there’s a character in that book whose spectacular downfall from dandy to falling-down drunk always reminded me of Roger’s fate. Anyway, after drawing the analogy, I told him how Roger died, just as it was told to me.
It went like this: Somebody, probably one of his Point Richmond homeboys, had taken Roger in. One Saturday night they were both sitting around watching Saturday Night Live. Roger was in good spirits and laughing. During a commercial he went to the bathroom to take a leak. His friend heard the toilet flush but didn’t hear Roger jiggle the handle after to make the water in the toilet settle. He went to see what was up and there was Roger, slumped on the floor, his dead eyes still open. That was it! Not a pretty story, but Gil Kane asked and I told him. Thus ended the first and last conversation I ever had with him. For a while, I had it in my head to do a drawing of the death of Roger Brand, but finally decided it was a cheesy and bad idea. Of course I’ll never forget it and I suppose it serves as a good object lesson. It certainly was a good one for me.
I will always remember Roger. He was deeply flawed, but he was also a good guy, a great teacher and even a better friend. Sometimes conversations I had with him years ago suddenly spring into my head. So I guess you could say a bit of Roger lives on in me and others who were lucky enough to know and appreciate him.
UPDATE: Nov. 5, 2011: Courtesy of John Benson, here is his interview with Roger Brand, in manuscript, with Brand’s corrections. It was published in final form in Graphic Story World, v. 2, no. 1, Feb. 1972. Click here to view and/or download the pdf.