From The Comics Journal 246, 2002.
Victor Moscoso is one of the central figures of 1960s counterculture art and the underground comix revolution. He is, in many ways, the quintessential figure from that period whose psychedelic posters for the Fillmore and Avalon dance halls and hallucinatory Zap Comix work virtually defined the look of an era, albeit an era that lasted less than a decade but that continues to exert an influence on the culture, and whose staying power has not withered.
Moscoso was born in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War in Galicia, Spain on July 28, 1936, and moved to Brooklyn three-and-a-half years later. The streetwise persona he developed living in Brooklyn during his teen years is still very much in evidence in Moscoso’s pragmatic view of art: He alternates comfortably between commercial assignments and highly personal work and doesn’t mistake one for the other. He attended the Cooper Union Art School in Manhattan in 1954 and is surely the only underground cartoonist to have attended Yale, which he did in 1957. There he studied under Josef Albers, who became a mentor to him and influenced his signature color sense.
Kerouac’s On the Road helped motivate him to move from the East to the West Coast, and he landed in Berkeley in 1959. He enrolled at the San Francisco Art Institute for more concentrated study of visual art, learned stone lithography among other skills, and eventually taught there between 1966 and 1972. He started finding his visual “voice” when he began designing and drawing posters for the big ballrooms of San Francisco, advertising such bands as Big Brother & The Holding Company, Steve Miller Blues band and The Grateful Dead. He had to unlearn much of the conventional design fundamentals he was taught in school and re-learn them from the ground up — which he did with amazing speed and alacrity, and ultimately became one of the most accomplished and successful poster artists of the time (along with Rick Griffin — whom he befriended and collaborated with — Stanley Mouse, Wes Wilson and Alton Kelley).
In 1968, he met Robert Crumb, who had published Zap #1 not long before. Crumb invited Moscoso and Griffin to join the Zap collective (which would also include Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, Gilbert Shelton and, most recently, Paul Mavrides). Moscoso was just starting to experiment with visual continuities and Zap blew him away. He accepted the offer and started contributing to what would become, arguably, the most artistically successful and, inarguably, the longest running and most iconic title of the underground-comix movement. Each of the artists had their own distinctive approach to style and content, and, remarkably, held their own against Crumb. Moscoso’s was a hallucinatory, experimental graphic style that owed as much to Dalí and Escher as it did to Max Fleischer’s Betty Boop and Out of the Inkwell, Harvey Kurtzman and Winsor McCay. He was a stylistic virtuoso who could move effortlessly from highly polished and detailed surrealism to ethereal delicacy to a slashing illustrative approach.
Moscoso has lived in the same house in Marin County since 1971. It is a beautiful spread nestled in rolling hills that reminded me of the lovely homes outside Barcelona, truly a paradise.
One of the advantages to interviewing artists for the Journal is that it provides the opportunity of immersing yourself in the work of an artist who has not heretofore been a passion. I had the pleasure of gaining a great respect for the work of Moscoso, who I had never studied as closely as I had many of his fellow undergrounders. Moscoso was something of a mystery; my research unearthed exactly one short interview with him and a few spare biographies and minimal critiques. I was therefore unprepared for the voluble, articulate, intelligent, opinionated, unpretentiously self-searching artist that I had the pleasure to interview. He is as full of juice and passion as he was, one infers, when he drew his first great poster in 1966 or his first Zap comic in 1968. He was generous with his time and unbelievably helpful, copy-editing his interview in record time, supplying art and displaying patience, equanimity and professionalism in the face of an absurdly tight deadline.
— Gary Groth, July 30, 2002
[This interview was conducted in three sessions — the first one done in person on June 27, 2002, the following over the telephone on July 11 and 24 — and was transcribed by Brent Reynolds, Ilse Thompson and Dirk Deppey. It was copy-edited by the participants and Milo George. The Journal would like to thank Patrick Rosenkranz and Jamie Salomon for supplying us with some much-needed art for this article.]
GARY GROTH: You were born in Spain in 1936. What part of Spain?
VICTOR MOSCOSO: The Northwestern part, the Province of Galicia, where Franco and Castro’s father came from. We don’t fuck around up there, man. I found the papers recently that seem to indicate that I got here in March of 1940, at the age of 3 1/2 years old. I went to Brooklyn.
GROTH: Do you remember anything at all of Spain?
MOSCOSO: Yeah, a few memories — like riding on the back of the horse and hanging onto my cousin, or one of the family members, and the horse was so big I couldn’t see the ground. I remember we had a pigeon coup and my mother getting all uptight because she was washing clothes down at the stream and a lizard came along and she threw rocks at it. These are the things kids remember.
GROTH: Was it a rural area?
MOSCOSO: It was a farming area, although my parents weren’t farmers. My father was a house painter and my mother was a seamstress. Both of them, from the age of 15, were out working because that’s what you did; you went to school long enough to learn how to read and write, and then you got a job.
GROTH: Your parents were presumably of Spanish descent?
MOSCOSO: Oh, yeah — way back. When I go back there, I can see generation upon generation all the way back to Celtic times — the name Moscoso is so old they don’t even know what the origins of it are. My father had been born in New Jersey. His father came over here in the 1800s, but my father’s parents broke up when he was a kid and his mother returned to Spain and took him with her — just the reverse of me. So he would speak English with a Spanish accent, even though he was born in New Jersey. It was really funny. When he went back to Spain, of course, they called him “Americano,” or “’cano” for short, because he was born in New Jersey. That’s big stuff when you’re in Spain.
GROTH: So, he moved to Spain because his mother moved back?
MOSCOSO: Yeah, and his father stayed here. Then my father met my mother in Spain. I was born the second week of the Spanish Civil War. It started near the beginning of July and I was born July 28. We were republican, but our area was taken over pretty quickly — from what I understand — by the fascists, so there was minimum destruction, unlike Barcelona and Madrid. Minimum destruction although there was a lot of murder. Civil wars are where you get your grudges taken care of, you know. It has as much to do with grudges as it has to do with politics — well, I guess politics is grudges.
GROTH: Both sides — the communists and the fascists — were pretty brutal.
MOSCOSO: Yeah. There is nothing more brutal than a civil war, because when you’re attacking another country you can always run back, but when you’re duking it out in your own country you got no place to go and, like I say, grudges come up that have been festering for years. You’re knocking people off because of grudges, not because of politics.
GROTH: And they were particularly brutal ideologies at war — communism and fascism.
MOSCOSO: Oh hell, man! They don’t tell you this in school: Franco takes on the Republican government, the duly elected government with a coalition of Hitler, Mussolini and the Catholic Church. The gang of four: people keep forgetting that Pope Pius was in bed with Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin — not Stalin, excuse me, my dictators are getting confused — Hitler, Mussolini, Pope Pius, Franco vs. the republicans, the communists, the anarchists — man what a lineup that is. That sounds like Zap Comix. There’s no unity there at all. The anarchists had Barcelona covered, they had won, but they couldn’t pick a leader to negotiate with the other leaders of the coalition and, as a result, they ended up losing. Figure that one out.
GROTH: Was your father involved in the War?
MOSCOSO: Yeah, he had to run to the hills to save his ass, otherwise they would have killed him, even though he was an American citizen. He left my mother and me. You don’t take the kids with you. You leave them and hope that nothing happens to them. It’s hard to hide a kid.
GROTH: The Spanish Civil War had ended by the time you moved to Brooklyn.
MOSCOSO: Yes. The practice for World War II was over, and WWII was starting in earnest. We made it right in that gap.
GROTH: Why did your family move to New York?
MOSCOSO: For a better life. The streets are paved with gold in the United States and, relatively speaking, they are.
GROTH: That had to be an enormous change.
MOSCOSO: It was. I didn’t realize it till later that it was a trauma.
GROTH: But you didn’t realize it at the time?
MOSCOSO: At the time, I just remember … I don’t even remember learning how to speak English. English is my second language. By the time I went to kindergarten at age 5 I was fluent in English, and having no problems playing the games. I remember my first day of kindergarten playing Mother May I — “May I take a giant step?” “No, you may not.”— I had no problems with the language. I was fluent and also picked up a Brooklyn accent. Even though I went to Yale, my accent didn’t go away.
GROTH: I was going to say you do speak with a Brooklyn accent, but it’s an odd kind of Brooklyn accent.
MOSCOSO: Yeah! It’s mine. [Laughter.]
GROTH: You Moscosoized the Brooklyn accent. What was your childhood like? Your father was a house painter.
MOSCOSO: He was an excellent house-painter, it was from him I learned about pride-in-craft. Took very good care of his brushes, knew all about color. When I was taking Josef Albers’ color-theory class, I remember having discussions with my father about color and color theory. He would say things like “See, I go up to a customer and I say ‘What color you want?’ and they show me that color and I make up a sample and show them and it’s that color, but when I mix up the paint, I make up a different color.” He knew that the amount of color — the total surface amount of color — alters the look of the color, something that Josef Albers was teaching at Yale. He learned it on the job. He knew all about it. He worked since he was 15 with color and clients, which they never taught me shit about; all the colleges I went to never once told me what a copyright was or work for hire any of that. Even Yale, with it’s fine law school, those rascals. And I was a waiter there, I could’ve poisoned half of them. In fact, that’s how I was known, I was known as the Medici assassin of the law-school dining room. They have these little clubs there — boy, talk about the upper class and how they work. Skull and Bones was right next to the art-school library. That’s George Bush’s club. We knew something weird was going on in there, and they were up to no good with that skull and crossbones on the door. You never saw anybody ever go in … or out. And the doors were like 15-feet tall.
GROTH: Back to your childhood in Brooklyn. Was your childhood happy? Were you involved in a lot of things?
MOSCOSO: Yeah, as happy as you can be in Brooklyn. I didn’t realize I really missed greenery and vegetation. Now, when I look back, I can understand why. When you’re in a city like New York, it’s the tyranny of the straight line; everything is a straight line, trees are captive on the sidewalk in little metal cages or in large concentration camps like Central Park or Prospect Park in Brooklyn. But otherwise, the tree is an invited guest, in fact, any kind of organic growth is an invited guest. And I didn’t realize how much I missed my birthplace which was just the reverse, where your mother’s washing clothes and a lizard swims by. Where was that gonna happen in Brooklyn? Maybe a rat will come by, but not a lizard.
GROTH: Weren’t the New York boroughs still being developed in the ’40s?
MOSCOSO: Yes, they were. I remember going to this part of Brooklyn, called Canarsie — we had a saying, “I’ll kick you from here to Canarsie” — where there were farms. We would go there with our parents. Ethnic groups would have their own soccer teams like “the Brooklyn Italians” would play Segura. Segura was our team, they were Spanish. My father was on the team. The Irish were “the Staten Island Favorites” and they played in the Metropolitan-District Soccer League — this and college were the only places soccer was played at that time.
We’d go out to Queens, where there were dance halls with soccer fields attached to them, out in the middle of lots of grass and trees. We would have soccer matches in the afternoons and the women would bring out the meat pies and all of that. Oh, it was great, man. I was brought up in a Spanish-Irish-Italian neighborhood and Puerto Ricans were starting to come in, but going out for a picnic out in Queens was a real treat. They’d have dancing at night. They would wax the floors for the dances, and the kids would go running across the dance floor when they weren’t dancing to see how long they could slide. It was cool. As soon as the weapons started showing up, like zip guns and chains, then I pretty much left the neighborhood, because I didn’t like the idea of violence. It wasn’t I was afraid of a fight; I did not like the idea of being ambushed on your way home, because if you beat somebody up, they’ll get you. They’ll wait ’til you’re coming home from school or something like that and then they and a gang of kids with them will beat the shit out of you.
GROTH: You’re talking about your teen years?
GROTH: Were there fights and gangs?
MOSCOSO: There were, but I managed to avoid them as best I could. One of the reasons I joined the track team was so that I could be fast — you know, “Fuck it, man, let ’em catch me.”
I was in an athletic club, played basketball and, in high school, I was pretty good at track and went on to run in college. I specialized in the mile.
GROTH: So you weren’t the typical young cartoonist-to-be, an alienated, withdrawn kid?
MOSCOSO: Nah! I was the head of the General Organization. I was the president of the student body until I realized it meant shit — they didn’t give me a budget, so what am I president of? These pseudo-meetings that gave some pretense of government?
GROTH: You ran for and were voted President. So you were extroverted and outgoing?
MOSCOSO: Well, I was very shy and turned out I had to be extroverted and outgoing. I won the election by putting mirrors in the boys and girls bathrooms. I said “You vote for me and I’ll put these mirrors in.” That did it, man!
GROTH: You bought their vote.
MOSCOSO: No shit! Brooklyn is not the place I chose to raise my family, nor would I, but if you survive Brooklyn you’ll learn a lot about how things work: How much cops cost so that you don’t lose your liquor license if you got a bar and a fight breaks out; when the numbers kingpin is busted you already knew ahead of time from the small talk at the bar. Business goes on as usual, and don’t give me any of this write letters to your congressman bullshit. Don’t give me this hippy love shit, man. This is the way it works.
GROTH: So, you became streetwise.
MOSCOSO: You can’t help it. If you don’t — if you cannot defend yourself — you will be forever picked upon. There was this one guy that used to take my hat off my head and hold it above his head. He wouldn’t give it to me, so I punched him in the mouth. That was the last time he did that. You have to toughen up, otherwise you become a target to be picked on. It’s a pecking order.
GROTH: Do you think that was ultimately useful for you, or do you regret going through that?
MOSCOSO: If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. Brooklyn is a good place to be from. If you can’t kick his ass, run away.
GROTH: What high school did you go to?
MOSCOSO: I went to the High School of Industrial Art. I really wanted to go to the High School of Music and Art — they had a track right next to it — but I didn’t pass the test.
At Industrial Art, which was on Lexington and 51st Street, there ain’t no room for tracks — there ain’t even no room for high schools. The Waldorf Astoria is two blocks down, and the Museum of Modern Art was only about five blocks away. It was really interesting. Rockefeller Center was just about the same distance. We used to take our lunches in brown-paper bags and watch the ice skaters.
GROTH: How was it that you were able to choose your own high school in Manhattan when you were from Brooklyn?
MOSCOSO: Since New York City has so many students, it’s able to have specialty schools. For example, there was the John Brown School of Navigational Trades — maritime trades — which was on a ship docked on the Hudson River. It was a high school. There was a school of aviation trade, those that wanted to get into the aeronautical industry would go to that high school. Half the day was spent in shop classes, the other half was spent in the so-called humanities: language, history, English, whatever.
You could pick what high school you wanted to go to, as long as you qualified for it. I didn’t qualify for Music and Art, but I did qualify for Industrial Art, where the people who didn’t get into Music and Art went. But it turned out quite well; I learned a lot of craft there and met a lot of interesting people.
GROTH: At what point did you realize you were acquiring an interest in art? How early was that?
MOSCOSO: Oh, about second grade. When I realized that you could grow up and that you could keep drawing and you would get paid, I said “Gee, that sounds like something that I could do.” Because I enjoyed drawing, “Oh what a lovely drawing,” and your mother puts it up on the refrigerator in front of everybody. I liked that, it’s nice. I enjoy drawing. And I found out that there was a profession that you could grow up to be a drawer, and then when I found out that part of your job was drawing naked ladies, that clinched the deal.
GROTH: Now, that didn’t occur in the second grade.
MOSCOSO: Actually, it did. I remember tracing Sheena the Queen of the Jungle on a piece of tissue paper that came with one of my father’s shirts. That was the closest I had come to tracing paper. I traced Sheena without her garments on, I remember I was very young, because her breasts were perfectly round circles with little dots in them. And the feeling of power that that gave me, I can still remember to this day.
GROTH: You mean to create an image?
MOSCOSO: To take her clothes off. I had the power to take Sheena’s clothes off! The image I could draw, I knew that. One of my earliest drawings was seeing a plane at night and I did this drawing of the plane and it had lights all around it. Shit, I wish I still had it. I remember it very clearly, and remember the pleasure that it gave me to be able to do that.
GROTH: What kind of art were you being exposed to, early on? Newspaper strips? Comic books?
MOSCOSO: Yes. My first memory of art was in Spain and it was an animated short. I’m assuming it was a Walt Disney Mickey Mouse because it was in color, or at least that’s the way I remember it. It was at the Rosalia Castro Teatro, a Spanish movie theater. It’s still there. Actually, Rosalia Castro was quite a lady, I think she manned the cannons against the English or the French, I forget. Quite a feisty lady. She was a hero in our area.
So my first memory was an animated cartoon; after that it was comic books, in particular, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories. In particular Carl Barks, though I didn’t know what his name was then, and the Walt Kelly covers. Those were like the one’s that stood out. And some daily comic strips, like Barney Baxter in the Daily Mirror. Beautifully drawn. An aviation thing. In fact, he was going to the moon the last I remember it and he had this round spaceship, like a cannonball.
I also dug Jingle Jangle by George Carlson. Interestingly enough, Robert Williams says Carlson’s an influence too. He was far out. Not only was he an excellent craftsman, he had this real off-the-wall humor. It was kinda like the Marx brothers. It didn’t really make sense necessarily. Joe Kubert — the Vigilante driving an Indian motorcycle, and his little Indian buddy in the sidecar. It was an Indian motorcycle. I remember drawing one of the splash panels he did with a brush and doing a very good job of it. I was very impressed by him. The list could go on.
GROTH: The ’40s was a great period for newspaper strips like Dick Tracy. Was that something you would have read?
MOSCOSO: Oh, I did. I dug Dick Tracy. I loved Gould’s use of black and white. He was so graphic. I loved Steve Canyon. I liked them all, man. They were all good. I look at the paper today and I try, I really try to like them and they suck!! Sally Forth, Family Circus, gag me with a spoon, man. The only thing I got to hand it to Bil Keane is that he can keep knocking that out year after year after year, like Charles Schulz. I really dug Peanuts.
GROTH: Do you have any siblings?
MOSCOSO: Yeah I have a brother Jim who’s eight years younger than me.
GROTH: What was your family life like?
MOSCOSO: We were close. My mother was a good cook. We would go to Coney Island a lot, which, even though a million people on one mile of sand sounds like a little much, it was actually fine. When you’re going from pavement to at least a little bit of sand, with the ocean there, it was neat. There were a lot of other kids, which is fun, plus games. I took one ride on the Cyclone, and that was the last time I went on a roller coaster. It scared the shit out of me when I felt the wheels go off the track, I said “This is it. My life is over.” They have catcher wheels underneath, of course, but every time we came to a turn I was sure that we were gonna go right off the track to the street ten floors below and I’d be dead. I got off of that thing and said “Fuck this, man. I don’t know how people can consider this fun. It’s like getting run over by a truck but doesn’t leave any marks.” So that was it, I left my stomach at the top, which is a near-vertical drop, and never went back. I don’t get off on that. I know there are clubs of people that go around the country sampling them and they got some really ferocious ones now. You know, forget it, man. Forget eating a couple days before.
GROTH: You were looking at comic strips and you were drawing as a kid, drawing naked Sheenas. Did you see the Sheena movies?
MOSCOSO: With Irish McCalla? Yes, on TV. She was out of sight. Nice big breasts. Just beautiful. Like a blonde Sheena in the jungle makes a lot of sense, but fuck, man, none of it made sense, except that she was a beautiful woman.
GROTH: That’s pretty much what it was all about.
MOSCOSO: Fine with me — fuck the story. So you have some animals and Sheena. What else do you need?
GROTH: So you were drawing a naked Sheena by second grade?
MOSCOSO: Ah no, before that.
GROTH: You didn’t have the natural aversion to girls that young boys have?
MOSCOSO: No. I loved girls. I was shy and my trouble with girls was not being forward enough, until I got the hang of things.
GROTH: That had to be at least, what, the fifth grade or so?
MOSCOSO: I don’t know. When does puberty occur? Thirteen. Fourteen. Before then, I had no trouble with girls. I used to jump rope with them; they were my pals. In fact, some of the girls were on the softball team and were better than the guys. Girls develop faster.
GROTH: And then, with puberty, your troubles began.
MOSCOSO: That’s when your troubles begin. The girls that I didn’t care about sexually, no problem. With the ones I cared about sexually I’d be putting my foot in my mouth, like “uba uba uba.” It’s like “You schmuck, why’d you say that for?” I even wrote a strip on it not too long ago with these cartoon characters where that happens [“Schizophrenic Phunnies,” Zap #13]. One character walks across the strip to the other one, and says “Why’d you do that for you schmuck,” and that’s really how I felt. I was looking at myself, and that was awkward, but I worked my way through that one. You have to.
Working In Hell’s Art Department
GROTH: As a cartoonist you were a late bloomer. When you were drawing in your teen years, and before that, what were your goals?
MOSCOSO: At first, I wanted to work for Walt Disney at his Burbank studio. That was the first job that I aspired to. This was before high school and just into high school. Then I found out what he paid, what you would have to do and what his politics were, and I was already growing out of that anyway. Then I discovered the world of design and illustration — people like Paul Rand, Leo Lionni, Herbert Matter, and illustrators like Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth, even though he had been earlier — and I said, “I’ll be a designer/illustrator.” First a designer, then an illustrator. That’s what I was intent on at the High School of Industrial Art. I was in training to be a commercial artist, which I did at the worst office in the world. They give you these lofty goals in high school and then you go out into the “real world” and you get shit. The best thing that we did was the Brooklyn College catalogue — that was the artistic highpoint, man. One thing that was good about it, though, was that it was a printing house that had everything on one floor. The job came into the office, then it came over to the art department, from the art department it went to the camera department. The camera department would shoot the film and expose the piece with an arc lamp. The two carbons would go “snap, pop” and let out this sulfuric smell. It was like Hell. The white smoke billowing and they’d take them out, put the plates on the press — they had several rows of off-set litho presses, and that’s where I got to love the smell of the ink.
GROTH: At what point did you work for this printing outfit?
MOSCOSO: I worked for them during high school. When I was 16 I was working for them part time, and as soon as I graduated — I was still 16 — I went full time.
GROTH: What was the name of the outfit?
MOSCOSO: Graphic Industries Inc. at 20 East 20th St. About three buildings up from where Teddy Roosevelt was raised. At the time that he lived there, it was uptown , and when I worked there in the early-mid-’50s, it was the garment district. It’s interesting how in New York you can have an industrial area and a very upper-class area within a block of each other; or a slum and an upper-class area. I don’t quite understand how it works, but there it is.
My mother didn’t understand why I wanted to go to college. She said “You got a job. What do you want to go to college for? You’re making money.” It was a terrible job — real schlock artwork in the middle of the garment district of Manhattan. I’ll never forget it. There was this big clock across the street and all I could do was watch the clock and it never moved. It drove me to college, that job.
GROTH: What was your job, exactly?
MOSCOSO: Doing dry-brush explosions: You get a brush, put a little bit of ink on it, feather it out and, from the center out, draw this feathery explosion. When you finish it, you can shoot it for line — you don’t half to half-tone it — so it’s cheaper, and then you letter “SALE!” right over it.
GROTH: These were for advertisements?
MOSCOSO: Yeah. This was the level of advertisement: “Sale! Orchids from Hawaii — only 25 cents,” with a big dry brush explosion behind it. When they had put too much leading in-between the type, it was cheaper for them to have me cut out one lead of space between each line of type rather than have it reset.
GROTH: These would be galley of type?
MOSCOSO: Right. So here I am doing a whole page of text cutting out maybe a hundred lines — one lead thick — and then moving the lines down, so that all the text fits on the paper. White space was something to be filled.
GROTH: Well white space is potential advertising space, right?
MOSCOSO: Yeah. I would describe it as schlock.
GROTH: Was that in any way a valuable experience?
MOSCOSO: Yeah. It got me to college; I said “I’m gonna do this shit for the rest of my life? Get out of here. I’m going to go increase my tools. Improve my craft.”
GROTH: How long were you there?
MOSCOSO: About five months, and then I went to another place — it was a little better — a window display place for a couple of months. So for about a half-year, before I went to college, I worked at art jobs so I got a little taste of reality about how you make a living as an artist. And I had learned how not to make a living with those two jobs. It’s as important to learn what you don’t want to do as well as what you do want to do. That drove me to college.