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Paul Kirchner’s Apocalyptic Sensibility

Paul Kirchner began his career at Neal Adams’ Continuity Associates in 1973 and he later served a tenure as an assistant to legendary cartoonist Wallace Wood. His own surreal, meticulously drawn comics were mostly seen throughout the seventies and eighties in slick magazines such as High Times, Heavy Metal and Epic. At that time, I saw him as something of a role model in that he seemed to largely eschew the comics mainstream, preferring instead to apply his talents to more personal, full-color short stories that were closer in spirit to the work seen in European comics magazines like Pilote and L’Écho des savanes. However, his best-known work is probably The Bus, a two-tier B&W strip that was the longest-running feature in Heavy Metal. Kirchner’s inexplicably neglected 1986 graphic novel Murder by Remote Control, done in collaboration with Dutch mystery writer Janwillem van de Wetering, is long overdue for republication and reassessment. I interviewed Kirchner via email in October 2013 and he copy-edited the transcript.

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James: I wondered if you know Jim Steranko. I can see some influence.

Paul: Yes, I know Steranko. I admired his work a great deal and met him probably in 1972 or 1973. He was a very approachable guy and encouraged me a lot in those early days. I don’t remember whether I first met him at Phil Seuling’s Comic Con or whether he came into the comic book store where I worked back then (The Memory Shop, Third Ave between 7th and 8th Streets. It was only open a few years). He also used to come up to Neal Adams’ studio when he was in town. I haven’t seen him or spoken to him in decades though. The last time was at a small memorial service for Wally Wood.

James: Did Steranko ever comment to you about your work?

Paul: He liked some of my early, not-yet-published work enough to want to include me in an anthology of new artists he was planning, but I don’t think that ever came to fruition, and anyway I got involved in other things. It’s so long ago now I can’t distinctly remember conversations we had. I recall at one New York convention a couple of us went up to his hotel room to talk about comics. We also talked on the phone a few times. He was a night owl like me and liked to talk as he worked.

I really admired the thinking Steranko put into his comics–the symbolism, the match cuts, the graphic effects, his striking style of storytelling. I tried to emulate him in my work–an example would be in the story “Deep Sleep” I penciled for Neal Adams for House of Mystery (#236, October 1975). There was an interesting story behind it. Neal had fallen asleep on the subway and when he woke up his portfolio had been stolen (believe it or not, this has happened to him more than once). There was a lot of irreplaceable original art in it, including a penciled story that he was supposed to ink. Since he had lost it, he was responsible to make good on it. Neal figured I would re-pencil the story cheaply and he could rectify any shortcomings in my work when he inked it. He did a beautiful job on it, of course, though I can recognize some problems in the underlying drawing. He graciously gave me the originals, which I still have.

James: It was written by Jack Oleck—-Oleck’s stories in the old DC horror mags were tame like all DC’s comics of the time, but they really had a somber tone.

Paul: I illustrated several Oleck stories and I found them verbose.

From "Deep Sleep", inked by Neal Adams

From “Deep Sleep”, inked by Neal Adams

James: You did a good job, although I can see how young you are. Adams didn’t subsume you as much as I have seen him do to others, so he must have liked the work. I don’t really see too much Steranko in there, not so much as I see in the later Dope Rider.

Paul: What makes me cringe about “Deep Sleep” now is the exaggerated postures I put the characters in and the sometimes purposeless camera angles I went for. Also, I used a lot of horror movie swipe, and the homeowner looks recognizably like Peter Cushing in several frames. I do like the page layouts and panel transitions, though.

James: I don’t recall ever seeing your work in any DC comics.

Paul: The first work I got published was four or five stories for the horror books. It was not great stuff. I had trouble working half-up; I’ve always preferred working twice-up. It was Neal who got me connected. After he looked at my samples, he called Joe Orlando, who was editing House of Mystery and House of Secrets at DC. As green as I was, Joe figured out how he could use me. He was a friend of the inker Tex Blaisdell, who was then looking for work. By paying me a low beginner’s rate for penciling, Joe could afford to pay Tex a higher rate for inks. In addition, Tex, who had taken over the Little Orphan Annie newspaper strip after Harold Gray died, hired me to work one day a week at his house in Flushing, helping him finish up the week’s strips. When we were done I would bring them back into Manhattan and slip them under an office door in the Daily News building around 2 AM. This job only lasted a few months as the strip was losing papers and Tex could no longer afford to handle it. Of course, the strip was revitalized when the Broadway show came out and Leonard Starr took it over.

James: How did you meet Neal Adams and Wallace Wood?

Paul: When I met Larry Hama through a friend at art school, he immediately took me up to Neal Adams’ studio to meet him and some of the other guys that worked there, like Ralph Reese. Larry and Ralph were both former assistants of Woody and they worked together on a lot of projects. As Larry’s career began taking off, Ralph started relying on me more and more as an assistant. When he went up to see Woody shortly before Christmas to present him with a gag gift, he took me along. I didn’t hear anything from Woody for a month or two, then one morning I was woken up by a call from him asking if I would come to his studio and cut zip-a-tone. He was inking a Rich Buckler job for Warren called “Snow,” and that was the first thing I assisted Woody on. After that, I worked for him nearly every day for a few years.

James: Which other Wood stories did you work on? Did you work on his masterpiece The Wizard King, the first one?

Paul: I did several Creepy and Eerie jobs with Woody. I worked on Woody’s “Plopular Poetry” for DC’s Plop–I recall I wrote a few of the poems. I also assisted on Hercules Unbound for DC. We did the Destructor comic for Atlas.  Steve Ditko penciled it but I never got to meet him (I think Woody made sure I wouldn’t be there when Ditko came by out of deference to his reclusiveness). I did work on the first The Wizard King–in fact, Woody used some layouts I did for interiors. Woody told me Ditko declared page four of The Wizard King to be possibly the best single page of comic art he had ever seen. Wood lavished a lot of care on the first four pages, which he finished before starting on the rest of the book, as he used them as samples to try to sell the idea to a publisher.

Wood's 1978 masterpiece The Wizard King

Wood’s 1978 masterpiece The Wizard King

James: Which of Woody’s Warren stories did you work on?

Paul: The Warren work I recall doing with Woody includes: “Killer Hawk,” which Woody penciled and inked. “Creeps”, Creepy #78. I helped Woody pencil it and John Severin inked it superbly. On this job we used a lot of movie stills from my extensive collection for swipes, and a lot of the lighting effects are great. Also, you can recognize some actors like Lee Van Cleef, Sylvester Stallone, etc. And, “The Manhunters” Eerie #60, which Woody penciled and inked.

James: I wonder if you could elaborate on what you learned from Wood on an artistic level?

Paul: As far as instruction, a lot of that was absorbed just by working with him closely and seeing how he did things. He would correct you if you were doing something wrong, and would also come out with little rules when they occurred to him, saying things like, “All someone needs to be a good comic artist is to draw good heads and good hands, to know how to spot blacks, and to give a page a certain over-all look.” Or, “One thing you have to say about me is that I never violate my light source. But then again, light does funny things.” Or, “There must be about 400 different positions you could draw a person running, but only four of them look good.”

As far as the work I did, that included ruling borders, drawing and inking backgrounds,  outlining figures, and lettering, which he taught me to do. I noted a contradiction in Woody in that, one the one hand, he considered himself one of the greatest cartoonists of all time, while on the other, he felt any fresh-off-the-street assistant he brought in should be able to work up to his standards.  Of course, as long as an assistant didn’t seriously overreach, Woody was confident he could touch up whatever was necessary. I recall him telling me that he trouble with some guys who wanted to “show him what they could do” while he was out of the studio and managed to botch up an inking job beyond repair. I was appropriately humble about my abilities so that wasn’t a problem with me. Woody was always pushing me to do more.

James: I guess Woody had his ”enemies list” posted on his studio wall around the time you worked with him. I was wondering if he said anything to you about Stan Lee; note that I am no fan of the old bullshitter, in fact I greatly resent that he didn’t stand up for his collaborators in any way that counted and if that wasn’t bad enough, what he did in court to the Kirby family more recently was pretty unforgivable. And so I can guess what Wood had against him.

Paul: Ah yes, Woody and his famous “shit list.” For some reason he always seemed to be pissed at Jim Warren when I was working for him. Ralph Bakshi was also on the list. Woody even had gripes about Bill Gaines, who had been very good to him. He may have had more to say about Stan Lee than I can remember now, but of course he never got taken advantage of by Stan the way Kirby and Ditko were. I do recall him telling me that the first time he went up to Marvel, Stan Lee came racing out of his office with a big grin on his face and shook his hand. “I’m feel like I’m meeting a true giant of the industry!” Stan said, or something along those lines. But Woody complained that after that Stan never again made a fuss about him and seemed to take him for granted. Well, what did he expect? I thought that was a funny thing to get bent out of shape over.

James: Wood may have been angry with Warren because he allowed his editor Bill DuBay to mutilate Wood’s art and stories to nearly unrecognizable degrees. Dubay even rewrote entire stories in the sci-fi magazine 1984, while he was at it adding a degraded, sexist tone, as I recall. Alex Toth had similar complaints about Dubay and I think their gripes were justified. Likewise, Wood’s problem with Bakshi is understandable, since Bakshi blatantly appropriated Vaughn Bode’s Cobalt 60 (first printed in Wood’s Witzend) and Wood’s (and your) work on Wizard King for his 1977 animated feature film Wizards.

Paul: You’re definitely right about the reason Bakshi was on the shit list and probably right about Jim Warren. Unfortunately I can’t remember if Bill DuBay was on the list. It’s funny that it was an actual list, tacked to the corner of Woody’s large drawing table, with names occasionally added or crossed off. I think Wayne Howard was on the list when I first went to work for Woody, but they had a rapprochement shortly afterward.
Woody could definitely wage a vendetta. He once sent Jim Warren an anonymous package in which he had assembled and glued down a tableau. There was a place setting with plate, knife, fork, and napkin; on the plate was a plastic dog poop and over it was the title “Bon Appetit,” cut from the cover of the magazine of that name.

James: I am interested in hearing your feelings about your Dope Rider strips for High Times, about working for a magazine that promotes drug use. I also worked for High Times and was on the masthead as a contributing artist for some years, in my case in the 1980s. I smoked pot since I was 14, but I regretted that I ever had worked for High Times when my son became old enough for me to see how weed affected his friends who were also involved in hip hop culture. In more recent years, High Times and other pot advocates have been targeting young kids who smoke “blunts;” but I saw firsthand the bad effects of pot use on children: mood shifts, general malaise—some even quit school. I was then able to see more clearly how the drug had affected my own formative years. And, kids get addicted to the tobacco of the cigar leaves that blunts are rolled in and they hold that smoke in their lungs far too long for it to be good for them. I finally quit smoking everything altogether a few years ago. I did note that on the Dope Rider blog you set up for the strip, you said you defied your Dope Rider collector’s advice, to say that you weren’t really into any drugs.

Paul: Drugs . . . I was always leery of them. I smoked some pot and hashish when I was at art school, but it put me into a weird state that I didn’t like. Also, back in my teens and 20s, I could rely on my mind to kick out a lot of weird ideas and images, things I was using for Dope Rider, Screw covers, and my Heavy Metal work. I was worried that if I used psychedelics they might interfere with that facility (I know some would find that counter-intuitive). I have a fairly libertarian attitude about adult drug use but if my work encouraged anyone to get involved with hard drugs that otherwise would not have, I would bear some guilt for that. BTW, the Dope Rider fan who told me not to mention I wasn’t into drugs, Manny Perez, is currently incarcerated again after having been busted for his role in a huge dope-smuggling operation.

James: I didn’t really mean to make you feel bad about working for High Times—I mean, I did too!!!!! I think many of us believed certain things about the aspirations of the counterculture that failed the test of time, for instance I think a lot of the underground dated badly and reads as very sexist. And a lot of people that seemed to lean one way didn’t hesitate to bend all the way over to the other side as they got older and became subsumed in the structures they previously reviled, for reasons of greed, or desire for stability, or simple lack of commitment.

Although I still think pot shouldn’t be used to imprison people, while alcohol is perfectly acceptable even though it ruins lives, and I believe that psychedelic substances should be examined more carefully for their beneficial properties—-NO mind-altering substances should be promoted to children or teenagers. At any rate, it is hard to read your works as necessarily advocating ANYTHING.

From Dope Rider: Geckos

Banging it up with Dope Rider, from “Geckos”

Paul: Don’t worry, I don’t feel bad about my association with High Times, really. If I did I suppose I’d refuse to have the work reprinted, or condemn it like someone who’s had a religious conversion and renounces his past. Dope Rider originated because when I showed my samples to Dennis Lopez, the editor of Harpoon, he liked a surrealistic Western story I had drawn but said I should do a similar story and make it drug-themed. The drug element was necessary to have the surrealism make sense to most readers. Because of the drug element, High Times wanted to run it, and I had no qualms about working for a drug-oriented magazine if it provided an outlet for the kind or art I wanted to do.

I have always been interested in the conflict/connection between the “real” world–the world of material things, orderly transitions, and logical, predictable outcomes–and the other world, the world of spiritual forces, visions, dreams, and delusions, that follows illogical and unpredictable rules of its own. I’m not sure that latter realm is any less real in our lives.

From Dope Rider: Matinee Idyll

Escheresque page from Dope Rider: “Matinee Idyll”

In my artwork, I often take situations in which there are certain understood conventions and then introduce an element of the surreal. For example, with The Bus strips, there is the banal situation of a man taking a bus. Because we all know what it’s like to wait for a bus, get on it, and sit with other passengers, it provides a mundane context against which to introduce surreal events. The same thing is true of Dope Rider, in that we have conventions of the western movie to play against (maybe this is less true for recent generations that have not grown up with the western).

James: I remembered Dope Rider as being more coherent stories than they actually are. Rereading them, I do still like the way you drew them with so much deep space and the color and that they display a range of influence across the board from Dali, Bosch, Rick Griffin, Druillet, Wood, Escher, old western movies and so much more. The drawing are very precise, increasingly so as they go on. But they really don’t go anywhere; they are more riffs on a theme, sort of in the way that The Bus is as well….except, Dope Rider is really quite dark. I wonder how many stoners examined them while out of it and really went to the verge of freaking out…they are a bad trip! Ha ha.

Paul: Maybe Dope Rider made more sense to you when you were smoking pot. You’re right, the stories were very simple, just something to hang the artwork on. When I got into High Times, Larry Hama wrote up a Dope Rider script for the hell of it and offered it to me. But I couldn’t use it, as it was story-based rather than artwork based. The art really had to come first. I couldn’t communicate a complex narrative when every frame had to be visually disconnected from the previous one.

James: I was interested that you said on the blog that you did the color for Dope Rider with Pantone sheets….was that for ALL of them?

Paul: Yes, it was an ordeal at first but as I got used to it it went fairly quickly, and the reproduction quality was good. I didn’t stop using Pantone until the early 1990s, when everyone started wanting the color done on the computer. Initially I had to farm that part out as I wasn’t set up to color on the computer.

James: Did you ever cut rubylith as in silksceen for separations?

Paul: The only time I used rubylith and screens was on Screw covers and on a few magazine illustrations where I wanted to get the old-fashioned comic book look. I really like the results of working with only two colors and cutting screens. The French publisher who is compiling an anthology of my work wants to preserve that look in the 20 or so Screw covers he plans to include.

James: Do you have any plans or interest from publishers to do a Dope Rider collection (in black & white and in color obviously)? Who has the rights to those? Or The Bus—do you have the copyright for those strips?

Paul: I hold the rights to Dope Rider, The Bus, my Heavy Metal stories, and my covers for Screw magazine, as well as some work for other now-defunct men’s magazines. Claude Amauger, who publishes through his company Tanabis, put out a beautiful hard-cover edition of The Bus last year, in both an English and French version. Funny promotional video for the book here.

James: Your 1987 collection Realms from Catalan included your Heavy Metal and Epic stories. There you run the gamut of cultural references:  a dystopian fable, a Castaneda-like midwestern epic, samurai mysticism, Kafkaesque horror, Biblical revelation, sci-fi and sword-and-sorcery.

From "Shaman" in Realms

Echoes of Carlos Castaneda from “Shaman” in Realms

Paul: I am currently working on an anthology with Claude that will include the Dope Rider strips, several of my Heavy Metal and Epic stories, and some of my Screw covers and other pornographic work from the 1970s. I have been going over the color separations, cleaning them up and making improvements here and there.

James: Like you, I did some Screw covers, in my case in the 80s when Bruce Carlton was art director, then later for Kevin Hein. Many cartoonists like Crumb, Spain and more did them…it was a sort of rite of passage for so many of us, I think. It was at the end the last place to do “old-school” ben day color, even if only in two colors.

Paul: When I first went up to Screw to check out the work availability, Steve Heller was the art director. He’s now a prestigious art writer/critic. JC Suarez also did Screw covers–he’s another one who has taken a few steps up in the world. Harry Pincus did some covers and I think Brad Holland did too. I was a great fan of Holland’s when I was in art school. I liked Ned Sontag’s work, also that of a petite woman who called herself Little Moon and drew in an Aubrey Beardsley style. I believe I did more Screw covers than anyone else, about three dozen, so for a few years one out of every four they published was mine. I didn’t think about the possibility that this was causing resentment, but as I stood among the other artists at one of the Christmas party/bacchanals at Plato’s Retreat, Little Moon said, “You’re so good we’re going to have to kill you” (that may be the best compliment I ever got). Woody got interested in doing covers because of me and did about a dozen, for which he was paid a higher-than-average rate–I got $150, he got $200. I have copies of all of Woody’s covers, but the printing is fairly grubby, unfortunately.

Cover for Screw #377

Cover for Screw #377

James: Yeah, they paid another $25.00 if you continued the design or at least the color separation through the logo, which was designed by Milton Glaser. I remember Ned and I also knew Little Moon when I first came to NYC in the early 80s. Her work was exquisitely beautiful erotica, but she stopped doing those type of drawings around a few years later, to instead do banal paintings of flowers and whatnot under her original name! At any rate, Screw was a decidedly non-erotic publication.

Paul: Al Goldstein was a total pig, but the poor guy wasted all his money and ended up in a homeless shelter, according to an article I saw in The NY Times about 10 years ago. I think Penn Gillette has been helping him out (not sure why he considers Goldstein a worthy cause). Have you seen Danny Hellman’s blog on Screw covers? Disregard the comment that I made a fortune but lost it all investing with Bernie Madoff–that was from my demented brother-in-law.

James: I did my own blog about Screw covers. On an entirely different track, I met Flo Steinberg in 2002 and she shortly thereafter sent me a copy of her Big Apple Comics out of the goodness of her heart. I see that you had a hand in the cover, along with three other people including Wood…..what, you did the cars? They are well drawn—-or maybe the buildings in the distance? The dinosaurs at least seem to be inked by Wood.

Paul: On Big Apple I maybe penciled the cars and some buildings. That was early in my assisting career. I was quite good friends with Flo, whom I met through mutual friends before I got a toehold in the comics biz.

From Flo Steinberg's Big Apple Comics

From Flo Steinberg’s Big Apple Comics

James: I was looking at the page you did inside Big Apple, and it occurs to me that you lived in Manhattan at a real low point in the city’s history, basically just before I got here….I know that it really wasn’t a safe place to be! I imagine that The Bus grew out of that—that you and other careful people must have taken the buses to get around because the subways were quite unpredictably dangerous!

Paul: I’ve always had this apocalyptic sensibility. My first story for Harpoon was also about the end of the world, inked by Russ Heath. I really thought New York was on the verge of collapse in those days–it seemed nearly out of control. For one thing, it was filthy, with litter and dog crap all over the place; that was before the pooper-scooper laws. You felt like you needed an armed escort to walk through Times Square. There were a lot of aggressive panhandlers–and aggressive hookers as well. I regularly saw fights on the street in my Lower East Side neighborhood and saw guns pulled a couple of times. Nevertheless, I always rode the subway, never the bus. When I started doing The Bus I was back living in Connecticut and had to photograph the New Haven buses, which were the same as the New York ones.

James: I believe The Bus was the longest running strip or feature in Heavy Metal—for seven years, no?

Paul: I think that’s right. I stopped doing it when they went quarterly. I was also getting too busy on other assignments. I was doing a lot of toy company work at that time, helping develop Dino-Riders, Spy-Tech, The Incredible Crash Dummies, and some other projects. I was also doing toy-based comics for Welsh Publications magazines for properties like He-Man and the Master of the Universe, ThunderCats, GI Joe, GoBots, etc.

The Bus from Heavy Metal

Bosch meets The Bus, from Heavy Metal

James: The Bus strips are quite tightly drawn and consistent; and the faux-Sunday strip format is a good way to hang a lot of variant riffs on a theme together. I love the Bosch one and the one where the bus is falling, but stops just short of the ground at the bus stop sign—and others. I was wondering about the larger strips interspersed through the Ballantine collection… those weren’t in Heavy Metal, were they? Did you do those special for the collection?

Paul: The reason I went with a horizontal format for The Bus was that I originally hoped to sell it to The Village Voice, and that was the format of all the comics they ran. When they turned it down, Heavy Metal bought it, and it was convenient for them because they often sold half-page ads and needed content to fill the rest of the page. Consistently working in a six- or eight- frame layout was a decision I made early on. The strips that were printed larger in the Ballantine edition were in the same format as all the others in Heavy Metal. I thought it would be good to blow them up a bit for the book because they had copy. The “What Is It With the Bus?” strip was in a Heavy Metal special, covering two full pages.

James: Can you give me a little background about how you connected with Heavy Metal, who were the editors and/or art directors that facilitated you?

Paul: As soon as Heavy Metal came out, I was desperate to get published in it. I drew a 13-page story, “Tarot,” and then called the editor, Julie Simmons, to try to get an appointment. Nowadays it is incredibly difficult to get anyone to meet you face-to-face; such a phone call would drop into voicemail limbo and that would be the end of it.  However, Julie picked up the phone. At the time I was doing a lot of illustration work for The New York Times, so I mentioned that to impress her. It must have worked, as she invited me up to her small office, which was part of the National Lampoon offices, and she bought my story. Heavy Metal was a tiny operation, with Julie and John Workman being the only people I ever dealt with. Julie of course was the daughter of Matty Simmons, the business tycoon who founded National Lampoon.

James: Did you have any interaction with Dionnet, Moebius et al in France at Metal Hurlant?

Paul: I was hugely impressed by the French artists but never met them.

James: I was wondering if you had been published in Metal Hurlant…but obviously you found a French publisher later though?

Paul: My work was reprinted in L’Écho des savanes which is where Claude Amauger, my current French publisher, first saw them as a child.

James: Since so many of the strips were wordless, they are quite universal—was that your intent from the first?

Paul: I like telling a story without words. It forces the reader to fill in what’s happening, and as long as your narrative is clear, I think the reader gets satisfaction from that. I’ve heard it said that a humorous story always leaves a key element out that the audience must fill in. The satisfaction of making that connection–”getting it”– provokes the laugh. Omitting words is another way of requiring the audience to make a connection. Also, I’m not always satisfied with my writing, so it avoids that problem.

The Bus from Heavy Metal

Them’s the brakes: The Bus from Heavy Metal

James: Comics are a perfect medium for the exploration of surreal dreamstates, since one can draw things that couldn’t exist and that would need immense budgets to film or simulate with special effects. Do you see your work in general and The Bus in particular as running along a trajectory with such masterpieces of the subconscious in comics as Little Nemo in Slumberland?

Paul: I love Little Nemo, but was probably more influenced by Steranko and some of the underground cartoonists like Rick Griffin and Greg Irons, as well as Moebius and Druillet. At the time I did Dope Rider, I was enamored of Sergio Leone’s westerns as well as such surreal films as Greaser’s Palace and El Topo. I was also influenced by those Warner Bros. and Max Fleischer cartoons in which pretty much anything goes. I love all surrealistic art from Hieronymus Bosch on, and have a good collection of books of such art.

The continuity aspect of the comic medium facilitates surrealism as you can start going in a literal direction and then give it a surreal twist. As far as special effects, I recall Larry Hama in the early ’70s observing that comic books were like movies but with an unlimited special-effects budget. That was true then, but of course now movies too have an unlimited special-effects budget, so cartoonists no longer enjoy that advantage.

James: Are there any plans to reprint your 1986 Available Press/Ballantine Books graphic novel Murder By Remote Control?

Paul: I shared the ownership of Murder by Remote Control with the late Janwillem van de Wetering, with me holding 75-percent ownership. I wish I had asked him to sign it over to me before his death, but at this point republication would have to be worked out with his estate. I could probably manage that through his agent. We did it in a sort of Stan Lee-Jack Kirby way (not that I’m comparing us). Janwillem would write a loose chapter outline and I would work out the storytelling and visual gags, then draw it up. When I was finished with the pencils, which took me about eight months, he wrote the script. I was disappointed with his scripting, which I felt was too expository, with him mostly explaining what was going on in the panels without adding a great deal. I made suggestions here and there that he incorporated.

Murder Kirchner 43

Deep space from Murder by Remote Control

James: That is weird that you did all of the heavy lifting for that book, but still, you are billed smaller on the cover and your name isn’t on the spine at all, although his is.

Paul: I don’t blame Janwillem for that, of course. He was the big name and the publisher chose to feature him. One major gripe I have is that the publisher went with such a dreary cover design, which I’m sure depressed sales. I had sketched up an idea or two that would have been more striking.  It also would have benefited from color. When the book came out, we got a nice review by Gahan Wilson in The NY Times Book Review, which was quite a feather in our caps, but didn’t help. That may have been the first graphic novel they reviewed; I’m not sure. I think we slightly predated Maus.

James: I’m told that the NY Times reviewed Steranko’s Chandler when it came out in 1976. However, Murder by Remote Control is also one of the earliest mass-market graphic novels. I am shocked that in that review, Wilson singles out your art for criticism, given that if there are any drawbacks, they can be laid squarely on the text, which often feels like redundant after-the-fact additions to the visuals.

Paul: I took it to heart that Gahan Wilson found my artwork too literal. That made me think I perhaps needed a more emotional line, or something a little looser. The funny thing is, my inking on that book is the best I ever did, as I was inking day after day for months (it generally takes me more than a day to ink a page). Never before or since have I inked like that on a daily basis, and my chops definitely improved, though inking is a perishable skill if you don’t maintain it. Also, the quality of the Strathmore paper was higher then than it is now, and that makes a difference.

James: Wilson also quotes your writer as being mystified that although his effort was completed so quickly, yours took so long! Oh, really!—could it be because you did so much of the work for that book?

Paul: I accept that as honest ingenuousness on Janwillem’s part. I don’t want to sound critical of Janwillem as he was a fascinating guy and we remained great friends. Let me give you a little background on how the project came about. My older brother Tom has lived in Japan since 1969; he took his junior year abroad there from Beloit College and soon drifted out of school and into a zen monastery. He was in the monastery for 15 years and completed his training. He comes home for an annual visit and on a visit in 1981 we went up to Maine, where he hoped to meet Janwillem, who had spent a year in a Japanese monastery in his youth and later moved to Maine to join a zen community there. Though he achieved success as a mystery writer, Janwillem had written two memoirs of his experiences with zen that impressed Tom greatly. Janwillem and his wife were very hospitable to us when we dropped by and put us up for the night. When we returned home, I sent Janwillem some of the comics I had done and he proposed we collaborate on a project. I was living very cheaply at the time and could afford to take a chance on something like this. I hoped Janwillem’s reputation would guarantee its success.
The story was to be a murder mystery, with a detective who was oddly formal,  passive, and very flat of affect, but who has visions when he interviews suspects that help him resolve the case. We worked mostly through the mail, with Janwillem sending me outlines of the chapters and me returning photocopies of penciled pages. I made a number of trips up to Maine to photograph locations, confer with Janwillem, and enjoy the amenities of his large hillside compound on the coast, spotted with small, quirky, craftsman-style buildings and sculptures of his own creation.

When I had finished drawing all 98 pages, Janwillem wrote the dialog over the course of a long weekend while I stayed with him. The dialog wasn’t what I had hoped, being confined mostly to explaining what was going on in a fairly straightforward fashion. I was hoping that he would take it to a new level, but I don’t think Janwillem had enough understanding of the comics medium to consider that possibility.

We got the book published by a Dutch publisher and also Ballantine, which put it out in black-and-white and in a trade-paperback size. It didn’t make much of a splash in the market place. I got my small advance, about $3,000 if I recall correctly, and no royalties beyond that. I didn’t do any more projects with Janwillem, but we maintained our friendship through regular correspondence and my occasional visits to Maine.

James: I was actually left at the end a little unclear about what happened in the book. Perhaps I should read it again…or maybe, the writer subverted his own intent to such a level that the meaning is obscured? Regardless, it is a thing of remarkable interest and aesthetic value, largely because of what you did. I recognized Gable and von Stroheim immediately; I assume the other characters are based on real people as well, perhaps people you know? Who is the lead Jim Brady based on?

Paul: I deliberately used Gable and Von Stroheim in order to have them be recognizable. I used the actress Maud Adams as the model for the witchy woman. Other characters were based on friends and relatives. Jim Brady is my handsome brother-in-law.

James: The amount of effort you evidently put into the book is astounding. The exactly drawn and complex symmetrical compositions are the best you have done, I think—-and they are sustained for quite a lot of pages! The effort is consistent throughout the book.

From Murder by Remote Control

From Murder by Remote Control

Paul: As it was such an involved project, I took photo reference for everything. I had learned, though, to draw from photographs but not trace them off on the art-o-graph—that sucks the life out of the drawings.

James: I saw mention of a color version that was published in Europe. Although I greatly admire your work in black and white (I like the zips!), it should probably be printed in a color version here—preferably with color done by you. At any rate, this book is obscure for no good reason; it needs reprinting and in a larger format—-it is hard to see your drawings at the size of the original. On the other hand, a publisher might find it more economical to simply reprint it in B&W.

Paul: There never was a color version of the book. The Dutch edition, which was printed in album size, had a colored cover, but that’s all (it had a better cover than the American edition, though it was also taken from an interior frame).

James: Do you have the original cover design?

Paul: I have the alternate cover drawing in a file somewhere. I never inked it.

James: It would be worth finishing to include in a new edition, I think. I have to say, I relate very strongly to your approach to comics, in that you have spent most of your career in comics doing self-generated pieces that you control entirely and that reflect your own personal trajectory…art-comics, if you like. Such a practice doesn’t guarantee a fat wallet, but rather the satisfaction making things to please yourself, rather than being beholden to any master. I did a short story in the early 2000s, that is still unpublished, that strikes me as very influenced by you.

Paul: It’s frustrating that I can’t think of a publication where you could place a story like that today and receive decent compensation. I can’t even think of a place where you could get it published with no compensation whatsoever! Last year I took a stab at doing another short surreal story. When I finished it, I had to accept the fact there was nothing I could do with it other than put it up on Deviant Art or some other such site. Having grown up in the age when magazines still mattered, I want my work evaluated by a magazine editor, selected for publication, and I want to receive some payment for it. But we are no longer in that world.

James: You are right that there isn’t a place for me to put that story, or a half-dozen other stories I have like that. No one wants to do anthology titles…editors always say that they don’t sell. But I always bought and enjoyed them, so I don’t get it. In the seventies, I really thought that the more sophisticated look and feel of stuff like your Dope Rider, the comics in National Lampoon and Metal Hurlant were the way comics were going….that we would see much more full color, adult-oriented work—that as the audience matured, the content would as well. But it has been a long slow road. It still seems like so many of the more interesting, mature and/or and experimental comics are often in black and white. The artists doing the more innovative work all do it for the love of the artform, for zero or tiny page rates. The mainstream has held the medium back, I think, with their regressive emphasis on superheroes.

Paul: I know what you mean about more serious short comic stories and anthologies. I had hoped that the European influence would take hold in the US and there would always be a place for more sophisticated comic stories, but it never really happened the way I hoped.

James: I notice that some of your most recent things are books of text, without art?

Paul: The last surreal cartoons I did were for a high-toned motorcycle magazine called VQ. I did a regular strip for them–about a dozen altogether. I also wrote most of Paradox Press’s The Big Book of Losers and some of The Big Book of Bad.

James: I did art in both of those, but not for stories you wrote.

Paul: I had gotten my ad agency job at that point and I had to bail on The Big Book of Bad as I was getting too busy. That also caused me to cut off the VQ job. I wrote three non-fiction books for Rhino Records in the early 1990s. In 1996, I took a staff position as art director at a New York ad agency. The money was great but the round-trip commute from Connecticut was tiresome. To pass the time on the hour-and-forty-minute train ride, I decided to write a book about a topic that interested me, that of history’s greatest individual warriors. The result, The Deadliest Men, was published by Paladin Press in 2001. It enjoyed good success and I’ve written four other books for them since. My bibliography is here.

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5 Responses to Paul Kirchner’s Apocalyptic Sensibility

  1. Thanks for publishing this interview, really great art from a favourite artist. Kirchner’s inking/drawing may not be as splashy as some artists, but he really makes the eye navigate cleanly and correctly. You might say that there’s more to his inking than meets the eye.

    I remember those Pantone sheets … and cutting amberlith blind for separations. The constraints forced you to work harder at your game … and guaranteed work for the manually dextrous.

  2. Paul Tumey says:

    Excellent interview. I love Paul Kirchner’s work. THE BUS has been a favorite, often boarded, book in my home, and I am hanging on to some old mags just for his work in them. I had not been aware of the scope of his career, his graphic novel, or that he had become a published writer. This makes sense, because Kirchner’s comics are very writerly — with rock solid narratives and crystal clear visual sequences. I look forward to digging up more of his work, now that I have more information. I have always appreciated Kirchner’s surrealism. His realistic, mimetic visual style contrasts perfectly with his dreamlike imagery. Thanks for this piece!

  3. Goodman says:

    Thank you for the interview. I’ve always been curious about Mr. Kirchner as I guess I’m one of the reprobates who enjoyed High Times pretty much from the beginning. I ended up buying it mainly for the comics and articles and interviews they’d do about people like Vaughn Bode, R. Crumb, Warhol, etc. Kirchner’s work stood out even though it was always tough to grasp the narrative. I have a copy of MBRC which I bought when it came out because I recognized his name and artwork. I still pull it off the shelf every once in awhile to peruse his lovely art, but the story never really pulled me in. The Bus, though, is one of my favorite collections, especially as one who rides it daily. At home that book has been within arms reach for 20+ years and it never gets old. I’m tempted to seek out that new collection from France and I’m especially excited to hear an anthology of his other material is in the works. I’ll certainly be buying a copy when it hits the market. What a great artist and it was wonderful to finally find out about his life first hand, so to speak! Thanks again!

  4. Tom Conroy says:

    This is what Woody said to me one day about Paul. “He knows how to draw. I’ve had other guys working for me and I would ask them to draw a chair in the back ground and the guy would tell me he doesn’t know how. All they could draw were GUYS FLYING THROUGH THE AIR. But Paul, he knew how to draw a chair.

  5. Tony says:

    The collected edition of THE BUS is solicited in the June Previews catalog:

    http://www.previewsworld.com/Home/1/1/71/920?stockItemID=JUN141254

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