TCJ Archive – The Comics Journal Tue, 27 Jun 2017 19:45:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Copyright © The Comics Journal 2011 (Mike Dawson) (Mike Dawson) 1440 The Comics Journal 144 144 The Comics Journal podcast TCJ Talkies is a biweekly creator interview podcast hosted by Mike Dawson at The Comics Journal. Cartoonists and other comic book luminaries will stop by the Talkie-Hut and chat about their creative process, motivation, and careers. Comics, cartoonists, The, Comics, Journal, graphic, novels, sequential Mike Dawson Mike Dawson no no The Berni Wrightson Interview Wed, 22 Mar 2017 12:00:18 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

Circa 1996.

From The Comics Journal #76 (October 1982)

Berni Wrightson, famous for his graphic portraits of rotting zombies, slavering werewolves, maniacal axe-murderers, and drooling witches (as well as the odd dinosaur or sword-wielding barbarian), is possibly the most popular artist to emerge from comics’ short-lived artistic renaissance of the late 1960s; one might say that he, along with his contemporaries Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Michael Kaluta, and Barry Windsor-Smith, were the motivating forces behind that peak period. It wasn’t just what Wrightson drew that made his work so striking, but the attitudes behind his work.

After an apprenticeship as an editorial cartoonist for the Baltimore Sun (and a fanzine illustrator for such publications as Squa Tront, Amra, Heritage, and others too numerous to mention), Wrightson graduated to the professional comics, drawing two issues of Nightmaster for DC’s Showcase. From there, he went on to revitalize DC’s mystery titles, bringing to them his zest for all things gruesome and ghoulish; during this period, his style became increasingly lush and sophisticated.

While working in color comics, Wrightson also worked briefly for Web of Horror, a black-and-white Creepy imitation that lasted three issues and also featured the work of Jeff Jones, Michael Kaluta, and Ralph Reese. Wrightson worked briefly for Marvel: the bulk of his comics work, however, was done for DC in the early to mid-’70s, and it was there that he scored his greatest popular success in comics with Swamp Thing. The feature was popular enough to spawn a feature film (albeit a poor one); many believe Swamp Thing’s success was due (with all respect to Len Wein) to Wrightson’s superb artwork.

After winning the Academy of Comic Book Arts’ award as Best Artist for two years running, Wrightson left color comics (for good, he thought) to pursue other projects, including work for Warren’s line of black-and-white horror magazines. He produced some classic work for Warren: many impressive single page illustrations, adaptations of stories by Poe and Lovecraft, and original collaborations with Jeff Jones and Bruce Jones. Among Wrightson’s other projects during this time were a series of full color horror and fantasy paintings executed in a variety of media, issued as posters by Christopher Enterprises, and an eight-painting portfolio based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.

It was late in 1975 that Wrightson began work on what might prove to be the most distinguished and important project in his oeuvre; as of this writing, he is nearing completion of his profusely illustrated edition of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein, and it has been suggested that Wrightson’s monster will stand as the definitive graphic interpretation.

In 1978 Wrightson’s work appeared alongside that of his friends Kaluta, Jones, and Windsor-Smith in The Studio Book, an artistic chronicle of the two years that the four artists shared a studio on Manhattan’s West Side. A Look Back, a voluminous collection of Wrightson’s work from every phase of his career, was published in 1979 by Christopher Zavisa.

Wrightson’s latest project, a full-color comics adaptation of Stephen King’s screenplay for George Romero’s feature film, Creepshow, has just been released.

Recently, Executive Editor Gary Groth (assisted by Peppy White) visited the smiling master of the macabre, who remained cheerful throughout the following conversation, despite a broken leg.


This interview was conducted in May 1982. It was transcribed by Tom Mason and copy edited by Gary Groth.


GARY GROTH: [Referring to Harlan Ellison’s introduction to Berni Wrightson: A Look Back] Were you intimately familiar with Katsushika Hiroshige’s work?

BERNI WRIGHTSON: Who? [Laughter.] No. I was a little dismayed when I read Harlan’s intro, because he seemed to go off on that and boy, he just lost me in that first paragraph. I thought, “Gee, I don’t know these guys.” I’m real happy for Harlan that he’s familiar with them and all and I’m glad he likes their work but I just never heard of them before. And I thank him for bringing it to my attention, and I have since looked into it and the guy is quite good and I can see all the correlations and everything but at the time, I just said, “what the hell is he talking about?”

GROTH: Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, why don’t we talk about Creepshow, the newest thing you’re doing—the adaptation of the Romero/King film collaboration. Could you talk about what it is, how you got involved in it, how big it is, who you’re doing it for, and what format it’s going to be in?


GROTH: All at once.

WRIGHTSON: Well, NAL (New American Library) is doing it. They’ve never done a comic book before but they are King’s publisher right now. So they of course want to do it; it’s going to be a trade paperback along the lines of the Alien comic book, whatever that sold for. Sixty-four pages I think, full color. So whatever those things are going for now, that’s what it’ll be. It’s kind of a comic book adaptation of the movie and I say kind of because the movie is kind of an adaptation of a comic book.


WRIGHTSON: No, it’s a very EC-like, horror comic called Creepshow. Basically it starts out with a kid reading a comic book in his bedroom and his father comes in, takes it away from him and says, “You readin’ this shit?” and throws it out in the garbage and the wind blows the comic book open to the first page (of course a storm is coming up), and the camera comes down on the splash page real tight; the drawing, which is done by Jack Kamen, becomes a freeze frame, and the first story starts. And the whole story runs through and the last shot becomes a freeze-frame, turns into a comic picture, the camera pulls back, and you see a full page and this awful skeletal hand reaches in and turns the page, and so on. And it just goes on like this for five stories. At the end of the last story it pulls back, freeze-frame, comic book, it fades out and comes back in to some garbage men coming down the street and they find this comic book laying in the garbage can. The guy picks it up, looks at it and says, “What is that?” “That’s a comic book.” “Oh great, say, I love this stuff” and he’s thumbing through it and he says, “Oh, look at these ads. Look at this. Venus Fly Trap. Look at this, X-Ray glasses. You want some of those? And how about that, A voodoo doll?” “I don’t know, somebody already got that,” and he holds it up and there’s the thing clipped out. The camera cuts to the kid’s house and his father’s sitting in the kitchen and he’s going like this [rubbing neck] and his wife’s at the sink saying, “What’s the matter honey?” “I don’t know, I slept on my neck funny or something, just kind of got a pain back there.” Cuts upstairs, kid’s got this voodoo doll and he’s sticking in the neck of it and it freeze-frames, becomes a comic book drawing, the camera pulls back and it’s the cover of the next issue. End of movie. So it’s just this really neat kind of well worked out thing.

GROTH: And King wrote the movie?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Did the whole screenplay, everything. A couple of the stories in it are adaptations of things he had published elsewhere. The longest segment is “The Crate” and runs about 30, 40 minutes, and appeared in Cavalier, Gallery, or something, and another one, the segment that King is in, which is a short one, like 15 or 16 minutes, was originally published under the title of “Weeds,” in some men’s magazine, I think. Anyhow, I didn’t get to see the whole movie because I was down there in October of last year and at that time the movie should have been done, but they were running overtime.

GROTH: Down where?

WRIGHTSON: Pittsburgh. And they were just finishing up the segment that Stephen King is in. And I was there. I was only supposed to be there for a couple of days to talk with King and Romero and try and get correlated with them about what we wanted to do with the comic book. But I ended up being there a week because I had to talk to the producer and he was out of the country. Just a lot of missed connections and everything. So, I spent a lot of time hanging around the studio, watching the movie being made and looking at footage that had already been shot. It’s not going to be Jaws, and it’s not going to be Superman, but it’s going to be a lot of fun. I got a real good feeling about it. Romero’s got a real respect for trash, if you know what I mean. The kind of trashiness that’s associated with horror comics. Or like B horror movies and stuff like that. The man has a genuine love and the movie has this kind of trashy aspect about it which is totally intentional, and it’s something that a slicker director would have missed entirely. It’s like the Vault of Horror and Tales of the Crypt movies. But those things are really kind of lame, just all the slickness, and pretentiousness and really, “Well, I know it’s coming from a comic book, but this is the movies, my good man.”

GROTH: That brings to mind Kubrick’s [The] Shining.


GROTH: Which was just ponderous.

WRIGHTSON: Right. Right. Because King has a very trashy aspect to him and about this stuff. He’s not afraid to get his hands dirty in telling a horror story. Whereas that didn’t come across in Kubrick’s movie at all. Kubrick’s movie was very prissy somehow. Even though the performances were terrific, and you can’t fault the production and all it’s just, “Christ, who wrote the cretinous script” and really changed the thing around. Creepshow is just the other end of the scale entirely. It’s like every drive-in movie there ever was rolled into one. Just real great spirit of fun about it.

GROTH: Good trash.

WRIGHTSON: Good, good trash. Yeah. Exactly.

GROTH: How many pages is your adaptation!

WRIGHTSON: Sixty-two.

GROTH: And it’s in full color?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. My adaptation doesn’t have the bridge thing with the little kid, because we figured as far as the movie goes, that’s reality and what we want to present to the public is the same thing the kid is holding in the movie, which is just a comic book.

GROTH: And the coloring is full process?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. The coloring is done by my wife, as is the lettering. I just couldn’t handle the whole thing myself, and besides, I prefer that she do it because after drawing that many pages I just don’t want to know from it any more.

GROTH: You don’t want to look at it any more.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Just take it away from me, please. [Laughter.]

GROTH: What was it like getting back into comics after staying away for a few years?

WRIGHTSON: A little stiff at first. But I was surprised. I got back into it very easily, and I think the material had a lot to do with it. I was just working with good stuff.

GROTH: Did King write the comics adaptation, or did you adapt it yourself?

WRIGHTSON: No, he offered to, and I told him I would prefer just to take the screenplay, which is like this thick [indicate 5 inches], this massive tome of a screenplay, something like 3-4,000 scenes. And I just took that and re-adapted it myself to comics. I did a lot of editing and deleting, because, Christ, the way he writes, I just didn’t want to lose a word of it. But it was just too much to put into 11 pages a lot of times, because his dialogue is just so rich.

GROTH: Have you read some of his other books? Are you familiar with his work generally?

WRIGHTSON: Oh, I’ve read everything he’s ever written.

GROTH: Really?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I’m a big fan of his. And that helped too. I’ve never felt this good about a project this big all the way through. It’s always been the case where I was real excited to begin with, and then halfway through it starts to run out and towards the last quarter, I could give a shit. And it really falls down.

GROTH: Which is what happened to Swamp Thing?

WRIGHTSON: Oh, yeah. It’s like 90 percent of my work you can look at and the last quarter of it falls flat. I just really run out of steam. And Creepshow doesn’t do that.

GROTH: I guess we’ll get into this more later, but to do comics and to do illustration must take an entirely different frame of mind. You really have to change your approach.

WRIGHTSON: It does. Yeah.

GROTH: Could you talk a little about that? Breaking things down into small panels as opposed to having a major illustration.

WRIGHTSON: It’s kind of difficult to talk about, really.

GROTH: Do you have to simplify your drawing for comics?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, which is something I didn’t realize until just recently. You just can’t go on putting all that work in there. Like when I brought out the first Frankenstein portfolio and had these things selling at conventions a couple of kids, came up and said “Boy, I really wish you were doing comics again” and I felt a little miffed because I had these illustrations and I said, “What do you mean doing comics again?” “Oh, I could see you doing comics because you do a whole comic book and every panel would look like that” and he pointed to one of these Frankenstein things and I said, “You’re out of your Goddamn mind. There’s no way I would put that kind of work into it any more.” Not that I ever did in the first place. You just can’t do it. I don’t know what percentage applies to comics … but a good deal of comics rely on spontaneity in the way it’s done and the spontaneity is communicated to the reader in a way. It seems to me that a comic book is enjoyed spontaneously in direct ratio to how spontaneously it is produced. And I’m not saying that “quick comics is good comics,” because you can work a long time on a comic book and still be spontaneous, but it does reach a point of overwork. I love Steranko’s work, and always have. Especially his comic stuff. But, too many times, I think he really overworks it and just cerebralizes it a little too much and, I don’t know about the rest of his audience, but he loses me when that starts to happen. And I can’t think of any specific instances because I haven’t seen his stuff in quite a while. But I remember that happening to me pretty often. Like once a job, at least.

PEPPY WHITE: His Outland adaptation was sort of like that.

WRIGHTSON: I never saw enough of Outland because I didn’t get Heavy Metal regularly enough to follow it, so all I could see of Outland was an isolated episode here and there. So I couldn’t really say how it worked all strung together, but I kind of got that feeling from it. Although that might be a prejudice now that’s kind of built in. I kind of expect it from Steranko. But I hate to single him out because I really like his work, but he’s the only example I can think of right now of really overwork … well, Neal [Adams] does it too. Neal at his worst. Neal at his best can be the best fucking comic-book guy in the business. The Superman-Muhammad Ali thing is just a classic and I still take that thing out and read it, it’s still enjoyable. And that’s Neal at his best. But you can look back and see where a lot of that stuff came from which was just Neal at his worst, well, not at his worst, but being experimental and all. And a lot of the stuff just didn’t make it.

GROTH: What do you think of Krigstein and his work for EC with all that over-elaborating and so on?

WRIGHTSON: I’ll tell you I’m probably least excited by Krigstein of any of the EC guys, including Kamen. You talk to anybody, he’s the guy that everybody is least excited about. I’m more excited about Kamen than Krigstein. But then, you have to understand. I’m always going to be more of an illustrator than a storyteller. And I look at the drawing and I don’t really like Krigstein’s drawing. And if I don’t like the drawing I don’t read the story. And if you don’t read the story you can’t comment on the storytelling. And I do read the Krigstein stories, but I’m really turned off by the drawing.

Panels from Krigstein’s “Dinosaur.”

GROTH: I tended to think you would be. You’re one of the few people who can be an illustrator and comic artist with equal facility. I don’t know if you consider that to be true, but it seems true to me.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, there aren’t a lot of us around. I don’t know who else I can think of … Kaluta, Jeff [Jones]. Although I really wouldn’t call Jeff an illustrator, and I don’t think he’s really done enough comics to qualify as a comics artist. He likes to dabble and play around with the medium, but he’s certainly not an illustrator and I think he’d be upset if I called him one.

WHITE: What does he consider himself to be?

WRIGHTSON: An artist. And I think that’s about as much as you can nail it down with him. I think he doesn’t mind being called a painter but there’s a lot more to him than that.

GROTH: One of the major criticisms about most of the EC artists was that they were illustrators and not comic book artists. People like Williamson, Frazetta, and so on.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, but is that much of a criticism? I don’t really consider it anything like a put-down. What the hell is wrong with good draftsmanship, good drawing? And as far as storytelling, outside of Krigstein, who, from what I understand, was just hanging on by a toenail there because of what he did to Feldstein’s stories, you couldn’t do much in the way of storytelling. Krigstein blocked that stuff out and it was all very straightforward, cookie-cutter breakdowns, never varied from the standard format, which I always thought was one of the great strong points of EC, was that terrifically overpowering format they had. Speaking more in line with the horror books it seems like any artist of a lesser caliber than they had would not have been able to survive the format, the format was that tight and that restrictive that you needed somebody who could really draw well and draw straight. Even Graham Ingels was considered a straight artist.

GROTH: Yeah, that’s because the format was so strict. I guess what we’re getting into now, what comics are developing into is a more organic process where the artist is the writer or the artist and writer work so closely together they almost become one.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. That’s good and bad. There aren’t too many artists around who work well as their own writers, myself included. Sometimes it clicks, most of the time, no. Never really have been. There have been people like Eisner, Johnny Craig …

GROTH: Kurtzman.

WRIGHTSON: Kurtzman … Woody [Wallace Wood], to some extent.

GROTH: Have you seen Miller’s work?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Yeah. I like what I’ve seen. I think he could spend a little more time on his drawing. Not too much though, he’s got it down. Personally, his drawing doesn’t turn me off to the point where I don’t read the stories. So I read the stories and it’s like … Christ, his strong point really is storytelling. I mean, aside from plotting, characterization, and everything else it’s just this cinematic, well let’s just get on with it.

GROTH: I would think the reason the drawing doesn’t bother you so much is because the narrative is so powerful.

WRIGHTSON: That might be, but I really don’t think there’s all that much wrong with the drawing. Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to that Marvel house style, but that’s something I think everybody’s gotten used to, as far as super heroes go anyway. Kirby set the pattern for that 20 years ago and, hell, we’ve all settled into it very comfortably, thank you.

GROTH: Are you a big fan of Kirby’s and that whole school?

WRIGHTSON: No, never have been.

GROTH: Do you like his work, or are you just indifferent to it?

WRIGHTSON: Not especially. My own peculiar tastes. I liked Kirby’s stuff in the horror books before he started doing superhero stuff. Although I was a carryover into the superhero stuff when he did it. Like the early Fantastic Four. The first 3 or 4 years of that were just tremendous, and Ditko’s Spider-Man and all that stuff. But superheroes I’m pretty much out of.

Panel from Kirby’s “The Scorn of the Faceless People.”

GROTH: You never were into them?

WRIGHTSON: Not especially, no.

GROTH: Well, let me get back to the beginning here. I read your book, Wrightson: A Look Back, and one thing I noticed was at the very beginning you said you were taught in Catholic schools and I quote you as saying, “It was awful.” How much do you think that had to do with your subsequent passion for horror?

WRIGHTSON: A hell of a lot, I’m sure. I mean, I’m not scared of being struck down by God any more [laughter], and I’m not scared that the Holy Mafia’s going to come after me. But I think the whole idea of that kind of parochial education is pretty twisted in a kind of medieval way. Especially for somebody who is slightly sensitive like I was, and like a lot of other kids were too. It really has deep effects. And it affects just everybody else deeply too, although a lot of people just muddle through life and never really notice it. So they send their kids to Catholic school and it just continues on and on and on.

GROTH: I went to seven years of parochial school.

WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah? Is this early grade school?

GROTH: From 1st grade to 7th. Very oppressive. Hated it.

WRIGHTSON: Well, especially from where we’re from. That was in Virginia, I presume. GROTH: Yeah.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And Maryland’s not too far off. And that part of the country is really … I hate to be prejudiced again and make sweeping statements and all … but it seems like the further South you go the more backward you get in a lot of ways. I’m speaking from experience, and my own experience having grown up in Baltimore and knowing people that have grown up in Virginia and the Carolinas and everything and Jeff [Jones], my God, who grew up in Georgia, and it’s … I’m at a complete loss for words …

GROTH: How long did you go to parochial school?

WRIGHTSON: I went for the limit. Twelve years.

GROTH: No wonder you’ve turned out this way.

WRIGHTSON: Oh, it got even worse in high school.

GROTH: Yeah?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Cause in high school you could get punched by a priest. The nuns … there was a limit to what the nuns could do.

GROTH: I got punched by nuns. [Laughter.]

WRIGHTSON: Well, yeah, but they were not as physically strong as a full grown man. Nuns were mostly little old ladies. Once in a while you’d get a young one, like an ex-basketball player or something who could really swing.

GROTH: An ex-boxer. [Laughter.]

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, in high school a lot of the priests there were ex-boxers and they still did it like for exercise, recreation.

GROTH: Practice.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, they’d spar. When it came time for a little corporal discipline, Jesus, these guys were whap, whap, whap. I mean, you can’t use the old deadly weapons thing on a priest.

WHITE: It seems like a contradiction, too. Priests slapping around little children.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Well at the time I don’t know how … They were the only ones around who could still get away with it. We had lay teachers in the same school with the priests because there weren’t enough priests to staff it, and at the time the lay teachers in parochial school could slap you around too.

GROTH: My experience was that the lay teachers were just as bad. There was really a sadistic streak …

WRIGHTSON: Oh, boy, we had some, let me tell you, we had a guy who wasn’t content to make you write “I will be a good boy” 50 times, this guy would do things like make you take off your jacket, roll up your sleeve, and hang your arm out the window in the middle of January for the whole class. He had a broken brick that he used for bookends and, this is going to sound like a sadistic fantasy but it actually happened, he put the thing down with the jagged ends up, and when some kid in the class was talking out of turn or something, he’d make him kneel on it, make him put his arms out like this and start piling books on the guy’s hands. And make him stand there like that for the whole class. And the guy’s up there trembling, y’know, and the books are starting to fall off and the guy would go and put the books back on. And the guy is whimpering up there, crying, tears, and all but wetting his pants, y’know. I was riveted between the spectacle of this poor fellow being crucified and watching the teacher really getting his rocks off in a strange way.

GROTH: That really is medieval.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, and it was really … I could give you a lot of really overt examples of all this kind of nastiness.

WHITE: You ever do any stories of nuns with axes in their hands?

GROTH: You mean axes in their heads. [Laughter.]


GROTH: Do you see a lot of your work as a kind of purging? Or do you really think of it consciously?

WRIGHTSON: No. Sometimes if I get depressed or confused I’ll start to think along those lines but usually not. Usually I’m having too much fun with it.

GROTH: It’s probably not wise to psychoanalyze yourself and your work.

WRIGHTSON: No, I have a real fear of that. I’ve got a feeling that maybe the reason I’m doing what I’m doing as well as I’m doing it is because I got bent very badly somewhere back there and if I went to a doctor and got myself straightened out I would lose just my whole motivation for working. It’s like, “Well, shit, thanks, Doc, I just don’t feel like doing this any more. I’m going to sell shoes now. Thanks.”

GROTH: Yeah, because you really do have an obsession with horror and really ghoulish aspects of life that has not diminished in the least over the years, as far as I can tell …

WRIGHTSON: I’ve occasionally tried to clean house in my own psyche and try to suppress it and get on to something else. Come along and do something like Captain Sternn and kind of get sidetracked and all. But, Jesus, it always comes back full force. I’m working on a bunch of stories right now for no particular publisher, just playing around with ideas that are probably some of the most horrendous comic book stories, comic book horror stories that have ever been done.

GROTH: Are you writing them too?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, oh yeah. I mean, these things are …

GROTH: Beyond the pale?

WRIGHTSON: Well, these things are made for reading on the toilet.

GROTH: Yeah?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I’m determined to write some horror stories that will scare the shit out of you.

GROTH: Are you at all worried about the conservative bent of the country, the Moral Majority, and book burnings and things like that, with regard to what you just talked about, the horror stories?

WRIGHTSON: Yes and no. Sometimes I think that the majority, not the Moral Majority, but the majority of the country has got so much better sense they’re not going to let anything like this happen. It’s like this block of people, fine, they’re going to live their own lives and they’re going to complain from time to time, and what it’s going to come down to is that if they don’t like a particular book, they aren’t going to buy it, and if they don’t like a particular TV show, they’re going to change the channel, and if they’re not going to like a particular movie, they won’t go see it. And that’s all that’s going to come of it. Other times I get real paranoid. And I think that this is just the groundswell, and it’s just going to grow until it takes over the whole country like some kind of awful rotten cancer. Just invade everything.

GROTH: It really is frightening because it’s based upon infringing upon certain freedoms.

WRIGHTSON: Well, that’s it. I mean, I’m a confirmed abortionist, and have no patience with right-to-lifers because they want to tell somebody what they can and cannot do with their own body. I’m sure the majority of the Moral Majority are very honest, hardworking …

GROTH: Wrongheaded.

WRIGHTSON: Well, not really wrongheaded. I mean, they believe in what they want to believe in very strongly and life works for them and all. Don’t impose it on me, because what works for you isn’t going to work for me and I am every bit as good as you are as a person. And we will meet in heaven, if there is such a place, and don’t tell me I have to do everything you have to do to get to heaven because that’s all bullshit.

GROTH: Are you a particularly religious person?

WRIGHTSON: No, not at all. Not in the standard, academic sense. I don’t practice, don’t go to church, don’t go to confession. Couldn’t even tell you if I believe in God, because I … okay I guess I do believe in God, but what is God? I don’t believe that he’s this big guy in a robe and white beard. And I don’t believe that he’s any kind of person, he’s just some force completely beyond our understanding. There’s gotta be something out there running the show. I mean, there’s gotta be something behind all this. And in that respect, okay, and as far as life after death, who knows. If there is a thing like heaven, like I learned in school with the golden streets and the gates and the harps and angel wings and like that, I’m going to go there. I’m not going to go to hell just because I’m not going to church. It’s like, I got an arrangement with the guy upstairs and I’m leading a good life, not doing anything bad, not hurting anybody.

GROTH: I’ve never known you to be a particularly political person. Are you?

WRIGHTSON: No. I’m probably the most apolitical person I know. Drives my poor wife crazy sometimes.

GROTH: Is she very political?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I couldn’t tell you how, or in what direction because I just have no interest at all. I figure there are so many people out there that are so much more hip to that than I am. For me, I’ve got better things to do, I’ve got horror stories to tell.

GROTH: Does your wife ever jump on you for that?

WRIGHTSON: Every once in a while, she gets a little despondent about it, but it doesn’t last very long. I think my saving grace is that I can only take it seriously up to a point, and then it all becomes a big joke. She refuses to see horror movies with me, though.

GROTH: Really?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Unless they’re really top-of-the-line horror movies. She’s agreed to see Cat People although I don’t know if I can go now with a broken leg. I like to see trashy stuff. I like to go see like Friday the 13th, and He Knows You’re Naked, and all this stuff. [Laughter.] And she just refuses to see that. We went to a triple feature at the drive-in last summer. It was The Fog, Escape From New York, and Scanners, and they ran Scanners last. Escape From New York was fun, we loved that. The Fog was okay. It was an all right ghost story, nothing special. And then Scanners, oh God! After sitting there and getting media burn for about four hours, they give you this thing and in the first 10 minutes a guy’s head explodes and that was a bit much for me to take, and my poor wife was just cringing under the seat.

GROTH: There’s something really disturbing about that movie.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. Can’t put my finger on it. I mean, I’ve seen other movies with a lot more splatter than that, but that one had some undercurrent of sadism which really kind of …

GROTH: I thought there was really something ugly and distasteful about it but I really couldn’t put my finger on it.

WRIGHTSON: It seemed to kind of revel in its own excesses or something.

GROTH: Okay, moving right along. You said that a TV personality actually taught you basic drawing. Guy by the name of Jon Gnagy.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, Jon Gnagy.

GROTH: Could we just talk for a minute about that?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I’m surprised you never heard of him.

GROTH: No, I never did. And of course, I lived down there.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I know he was in Virginia because Kaluta used to watch him too when he was a kid.

GROTH: My whole life could have changed if I watched this thing.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah! [Laughter.] The guy was on something like 9:30 in the morning every Saturday.

GROTH: I was probably watching Romper Room.

WRIGHTSON: Or Rocky and Bullwinkle or something. Although I think that was before their time. But it was fascinating. I mean, to this day I’ll stop on the boardwalk or in a shopping mall if there’s somebody there doing portraits or caricatures or whatever. It’s like, “Okay, I can do it myself, but I just love to watch other people draw.” I’ll be delighted for hours over at Jeff’s place while he’s working. He’s used to me hanging over his shoulder. And he can just paint away, and we’ll sit there and talk and drink beer and all and just watching him work even somebody who isn’t a goddamn genius like Jones, just some guy picking up pennies doing caricatures. I love to see that thing moving around on paper. And I think that was the basic fascination with this guy on TV. But of course I was young enough and had the energy and really wanted to give it a try and started dragging out the paper. He just had these four basic shapes, the circle, the cone, the cylinder, and the cube, and he would just show you that anything you wanted to draw was made up of these components. Which is oversimplified, but it’s like basic construction for just about anything. And that’s where it came from.

GROTH: And you took the Famous Artists Course for one year?

WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah. Never finished. Haven’t met anybody who ever finished it. [Laughter.] But everybody speaks very highly of it. It’s a real good course. I think the problem is it’s a little too good and the students who take it have learned so much in the first year, they go out looking for an art job and they get it and once you get a job you don’t have time to mess around with it any more.

GROTH: After the first year, how did you learn, or elaborate on learning anatomy, composition, all the basics?

WRIGHTSON: That was just flying completely by the seat of my pants.

GROTH: Did you study certain other artists, or was it just practice, practice, practice?

WRIGHTSON: Oh, yeah, I think any other artist I ever looked at I studied to one extent or another, and learned something from them. I guess some small part of it was natural aptitude. But I can’t really say how much because I’ve been influenced by so many people, living and dead, that it’s hard to say where anything comes from. It’s all this big hodgepodge. And it’s hopefully something original by the time I’m done with it. But you can kind of narrow it down to a handful of people like most of the EC guys, and Frazetta the paperback cover artist as opposed to Frazetta the comic-book artist, because I never really saw much of his comic book work.

GROTH: What about the early illustrators like Franklin Booth?

WRIGHTSON: I didn’t get into that until later. My introduction to them was mostly through these later guys. I found out about J.C. Cole, Leyendecker, and people like that through Reed Crandall and his work, found out about Hal Foster and George Bridgeman through Frazetta, and Alex Raymond through Williamson and it’s like everyone of them you can kind of trace back, go back to the guys that influenced them.

GROTH: Do you like Foster?

WRIGHTSON: Oh, yeah, yeah. I like Foster a whole lot better than Raymond, actually. I used to get into intense arguments with Al [Williamson] about that.

GROTH: He preferred Raymond?


GROTH: I suppose Raymond is a more romantic artist.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, Raymond is very romantic.

GROTH: Foster certainly seems a superior illustrator.

WRIGHTSON: Foster has this timeless quality about his drawing. And I don’t mean the fact that he’s dealing with Prince Valiant, which happens in the past, but it’s the actual drawing itself, you could almost call it absolute drawing. There’s seems to be very little stylization in Foster’s work. For the life of me I can’t think of anybody who can draw that well academically, that straightforwardly, with none of the flash that Raymond had. And I think that’s the key. It’s like Raymond maybe has a little too much flash. I don’t know. I can never get too much beyond this point talking about it because it starts getting very confusing and contradictory. I just prefer Foster over Raymond.

GROTH: You had a stint at the Baltimore Sun.


GROTH: What did you do there, and how old were you?

WRIGHTSON: Oh, let’s see. I was about 18 or 19 I guess. And I worked there for nine months as an editorial cartoonist, which sounds better than it was. I just worked in a big room with a bunch of other artists and most of the work was photo retouching and paste-up, layout type work and not a lot of cartooning or illustrating. I would have preferred to do a lot more and give the goddamned airbrushing to somebody else. You know, I just couldn’t handle that fucking machine. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Still?

WRIGHTSON: Still. Keep me away from machinery. I just can’t do it. I was driving the car a few weeks ago and the windshield wiper went out of whack and I just panicked, because it was a thunderstorm, and I said, “Oh God, what’s going on with this thing?” I didn’t know what the hell to do with it. I had to drive from here to Poughkeepsie, which is about 50 miles, in the middle of a rainstorm, and after the rain stopped the road dirt was being splashed up and I had to get out of the car every five miles and wipe the thing off. I finally got to where I was going to go and Jim Starlin was there and I told him, “Oh Christ, the goddamned car is just no good,” and he said, “What do you mean?” “Oh, the windshield wiper doesn’t work, and I don’t know what I’m going to do, and it’s going to cost me a million dollars, Jesus, this is so goddamn depressing.” He goes out and looks at it, goes into his car and gets a socket wrench and tightens a nut. That’s it, y’know. It wouldn’t occur to me to do that because I’d be afraid of screwing it up. It’s like I’m not going to touch it because I’m going to make a mess, and it’s just going to cost me more in the long run. When I was living in Florida, the refrigerator started to make a funny noise. I was going to call the repairman in. A friend of mine came over and said “Well, let’s pull it out from the wall and look.” And I said, “What do you know about refrigerators? Let’s call the guy in and find out what’s making this noise.” “Look, what’s it going to hurt? We’ll take the thing off and look at it.” So we took off the front vent thing and looked down there. A register receipt from a shopping bag had slipped down and gotten stuck in the thing so the fan blade was hitting against it. [Laughter.]

WHITE: So he just took it out?

WRIGHTSON: Right. Just pulled it out, and the refrigerator was fine. No more noise. I would have called the repairman, who would come in, cost me $75 just to walk through the door, just to pull the goddamn thing out. Terrific. Me and machines, no way.

WHITE: There’s something mystical about machinery.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I believe that machinery has a life of its own.

GROTH: Berni Wrightson meets the Industrial Revolution.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. I tell you, machinery to me means a pen point as opposed to a brush. I mean, it’s made of metal and if it’s flexible, that means it’s got moving parts, you know, and I don’t want to mess around with it. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Did you learn anything on your Baltimore Sun job or was it’ really drudge work?

One of Wrightson’s pieces for the Baltimore Sun.

WRIGHTSON: I learned a bit, yeah. I learned a lot of the realities of working as an artist

GROTH: Grim realities …

WRIGHTSON: Well, yeah. I learned that working as an artist was a little like a shit sandwich. [Laughter.] The more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat. [Laughter.]

GROTH: From the Sun you went to work for DC, you moved to New York. And that was a pretty big move for a 19 year old, 20 year old, or however old you were.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. It was a little weird. To this day, I keep feeling that there were other agencies afoot. I look back on it and it just somehow seems to me that a lot of that decision was completely out of my hands. I came up here with a few samples, and showed them around … I won’t bore you with the whole story, because it’s in the book anyhow. But it was just kind of word of mouth, people say, “Oh, I saw this guy Wrightson, blah, blah, blah” … on and on and on and next thing I know I get a call from Kaluta, who got a call from Williamson who got a call from Dick Giordano who said, “where’s this Wrightson kid?” And I said, “Oh really?” So I moved to New York.

GROTH: When you first moved up, you talked to Giordano?

WRIGHTSON: I think so, yeah. Or I talked to Williamson, who talked to Giordano. I talked to Williamson first, and I don’t remember if I saw Giordano at the same time, or if Williamson kind of passed it on to him or what.

GROTH: When you moved up, did you move right in with Kaluta?

WRIGHTSON: Well, no. That’s a little bit backwards. I moved up first and then he came up about four months later.

GROTH: Because around that time, the thing I remember was all you guys living in one big place.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I was there alone for a couple of weeks. And then some friends from Baltimore moved in and then Mike [Kaluta] came in December or January, I think. But that was on 77th Street. You never came up until we were on 79th Street.

GROTH: Probably, yeah.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And at that point, there were about 10 of us living there full time and at least another 20 coming and going constantly.

GROTH: Wait a minute. Ten of you? Not in one apartment?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, not usually there all at the same time, but, there were ten of us circulating through. We’d all kind of make an appearance at least once a month.

GROTH: Who other than Mike and Jeff Jones?

WRIGHTSON: Well, Jeff had a separate apartment. Jeff started out on the first floor and moved up to the 6th. We were on the 8th floor. And mainly it was myself, Kaluta, Al Weiss, always two or three girls, somebody’s girlfriend living there, and then a whole bunch of people I don’t think you’d know. They weren’t really in comics.

GROTH: Was it a kind of artistic commune?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, sometimes it sure seemed like that. Mostly it was just like …

GROTH: Chaos, lunacy.

WHITE: A big party.

WRIGHTSON: Well, no, it wasn’t really a party, it was, “Christ, where’s the money going to come from so we can get something to eat?” Although that was never really a big problem. I initiated those intro pages in the DC mystery books as a device to make money without having to do a hell of a lot of work because at the time it was just … you know, comics were still fun, but doing an eight or 10 page story took up a lot of time and I really wanted to fuck off because

everyone else was doing it.

GROTH: Everyone else was fucking off?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And I felt left out if I had to stay home and work, you know. So, I wanted to go over to the park and play frisbee, and do all this stuff. And I decided to come up with some way to make some money without really busting my ass. So … covers were fun, but there’s a limit to how many covers you can do. But the intro pages … boy, I could do three or four of those things, just kind of do a backlog between House of Secrets and House of Mystery, and I don’t know what I was getting paid at the time, maybe $50 a page which doesn’t sound like much but the standard of living was a bit lower then too. And I could do one in a night, sometimes two. So that was fun. And just knock the sucker out, get the money and I could just breeze through for another week or two. Not have to work.

GROTH: Yeah, I remember you saying once that you could do one illustration a week and live comfortably, something like that. And I also had the impression that you would prefer to do that rather than busting your chops and making a lot of money and having a big bank account. You would almost prefer doing less work and living comfortably than …

WRIGHTSON: Ideally, the thing is to do a little bit of work and make a lot of money. But it doesn’t always work out that way. But, yeah, being comfortable is just fine. I don’t mind being comfortable. As far as being rich …

GROTH: You don’t mind being rich either?

WRIGHTSON: You gotta pay the fucking tax man. And that’s where it all goes. So what’s the sense in having a whole lot of money anyway unless you’re going to spend it on something. I mean, I’m going to make out real good this year financially, but I got a lot of things to spend it on. I’m building this studio, I might buy another car strictly for business. Okay, fine. I’m not going to be left with a whole lot of money at the end of the year. And most of what I spend is completely deductible. I don’t really want $100,000 a year. I don’t know what I’d do with it. Until I find out that I could do something with the money, that I could hang on to it, I don’t want to make it.

GROTH: Are you very materialistic? Do you buy a lot of things?

WRIGHTSON: I love to buy things, yeah. And I like to buy things that I can somehow deduct, if possible, and still have my nice possessions. Yeah, I’m real materialistic.

GROTH: Since you’re an artist, the world is your business.

WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah. I love having interesting things around to look at. You know, a lot of it, you look around and think, “Oh boy, what junk.” It’s like one man’s junk is another man’s treasure and a lot of this stuff I find real appealing.

GROTH: Your first big job for DC was Nightmaster. That was the first character. But you did, I think, a mystery story or … they put you on something before that, and there was a little dispute there because you didn’t get the first Nightmaster.

Panel from Nightmaster.

WRIGHTSON: They put me on Nightmaster first actually, and I did the first third of the book, I think seven pages. Carmine Infantino was underwhelmed. I mean he was just not impressed. “Who is this kid I’ve been hearing so much about?” He very, very diplomatically said, “Well, we don’t think you’re quite ready for a full book. We’re going to put you on mystery fillers to get you started.” I was kind of disappointed, but not really, because the Nightmaster stuff wasn’t what I wanted to do anyway. I thought it was going to be like Conan, real barbarian stuff. Of course, National in its own kind of wimp way wasn’t prepared to pull out all the stops and do a barbarian comic, so it had to be this kind of wimpy, wishy-washy fantasy thing with a rock singer. Real trendy and groovy and … Yeah. Just didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do horror stories anyway, so that’s what they put me on and I was happy to be doing it. Then by the time, I guess three months later, when the second issue of Nightmaster came around. I took that on out of injured pride. Just to kind of prove to myself that I could do it. So I did it. Big deal. Really set the world on fire, you know. [Laughter.]

GROTH: You only did about two of them, right?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Believe me, that was enough. I’d really had it. After that I didn’t want to know from a fucking full comic book ever again.

GROTH: You were slow.

WRIGHTSON: Not just slow. But the material was just not your Stephen King, you know. WHITE: Slow and bored.


GROTH: Was Nightmaster the one that Kaluta and Jones helped ink?

WRIGHTSON: Everybody helped on that. Jesus. I think Steve Hickman helped on that. Steve Harper. God I forget. Anybody who happened to be passing by helped on that, because I’m real slow, real slow. I’d never been up against a deadline like that before.

GROTH: After that, did you go to work for Marvel?

WRIGHTSON: I forget, really, at what point I went to Marvel. But it was mainly over a dispute about coloring my own work at National. They refused to let me do it there, and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll go to Marvel.”

GROTH: Hmm. That’s sort of ironic, considering what happened at Marvel.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And as it turns out, I did a couple of jobs for Marvel, colored them, and decided that I didn’t really like coloring anyway, and went back to National because I just kind of liked it better over there.

GROTH: You mentioned in the book a lot of glad-handing at Marvel, a lot of pep talks …

WRIGHTSON: At the time, yeah. It’s not like that anymore, it’s a lot more business-like and loose and actually a lot nicer, freer atmosphere than National now. But at the time, I don’t know how much of it was me, because I was a little bit of a tight-ass at the time, but I just felt there was a lot of glad-handing, phoniness. Never really warmed up to Stan [Lee] a whole lot. I always thought of Stan as this kind of grinning idiot PR man that didn’t write real good comics, let’s face it. But he really knew how to sell them. And really knew how to sell himself. I’ve since changed my mind. Stan is a lot more than that. But at the time I kind of had a chip on my shoulder.

GROTH: Can you talk about the King Kull job, which more or less sent you back to DC?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, not really much to talk about. I colored it. Or rather I didn’t color it. The whole idea was trying to figure out some way to show sound draining from a soundless medium. So, I thought, of course, the lettering and the balloons become smaller. The balloons stay the same size and the lettering becomes smaller until finally you have people speaking in blank balloons. That’s good, but that’s not quite enough. Well, what if it’s a really brightly colored thing to begin with. Lots of primaries: reds, yellows, and blues, and all. And this all starts washing out, until it finally becomes black and white, as the color drains out, the color bleaches out of the thing. I thought, “Yeah, that’s interesting. I like that.” So that’s what I did. That’s the way I handled this thing. And I drew it that way in black-and-white with that in mind so that the pages where the sound was all gone were going to be in black-and-white, and there’d be lots of zip-a-tone and screens and stuff so there’d be some interest, some grays and stuff, but no actual color. Then I got the silver prints to color, colored those up, spent a lot of time on it. Really sweated on it, y’know. And paid close attention to the color chart and getting this thing just right. Turned it in, everybody said, “Oh, lovely! Terrific! We love it!” I didn’t hear anything about it until the job comes out and when it comes out … in the first place, they obviously hadn’t printed from the originals. They had printed from low-grade photostats. So a lot of the line work, especially the zip-a-tone and the screens and stuff I had done fell out, was gone, completely. On top of that, they had gotten somebody to recolor it, so that all these pages, all this real careful orchestration where the color is bleaching out. If I’m going to put all that kind of work into it, and this is what happens, why bother? Of course, I got pissed off. I went in to Roy Thomas and Stan and raised hell: “What did you do this for? Didn’t you know what I was trying to do?” What I got out of that, was, “We’re doing color comics here.”

Panels from King Kull.

GROTH: Every panel has to have color in it.

WRIGHTSON: Right, right. Like the company is going to go under if they publish a comic book with one page of black-and-white.

GROTH: You probably don’t remember this, but I coincidentally happened to visit you in New York the day you got that comic …

WRIGHTSON: I don’t remember.”

GROTH: … and the thing that I remember most is that you were raving and ranting which struck me because …

WRIGHTSON: I can’t rave and rant like I used to.

GROTH: Is that right?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. [Laughter.]

GROTH: You never struck me as getting mad that much. I mean you always seemed to be sort of an easygoing guy.

WRIGHTSON: Oh, I save it up. When I get mad, I’m a real stinker. I go off on a hell of a toot when I get angry. But it takes a while. Sometimes I go for years without getting mad. But boy, when I get mad, watch out.

GROTH: I do remember you were really hot.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. Well, even at that, I don’t think I’d get quite that hot any more.

GROTH: Mellowing.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I figure maybe I’ll live longer.

GROTH: Now at about this point in your career, you’re quoted as saying, “I’ve reached a point where I’ve outgrown comics.”

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I’ve probably said a lot of dumb things like that. [Laughter.] I guess at the time, maybe I felt that I had. I realize now that I never did and probably never will. I think what happened at that time was, I’d been in the business long enough to see what had happened to a lot of the other guys. Most notably Woody [Wally Wood], who … Christ, Woody could have had the world at his feet at one point but didn’t do it. He just stayed in comics. One of the best, maybe the best comics man that ever lived. Even his comics stuff started getting stale after a while. He was just a very unhappy man, very disillusioned, very bitter. I mean for a long time, like the last 30 years of his life. And, boy, I didn’t want to be like that. And it’s not just Woody, I can talk about Woody like that, because he’s dead. But there are a lot of other guys around, now, alive, that aren’t terribly happy men, who are working in comics. They do good comics, and I can’t fault them on that. But they could do other things, and I get the feeling that they would like to do other things, but they’ve reached a point where they can’t. And I just reached a point back then where I thought to myself, “Do I want to be 40, 45 years old, and wake up in the morning and call Jim Warren and ask where my check is?” I thought, “Nah, nah, there’s more to it than this.” I just got to get out, see what’s going on in the real world. This is just becoming too much of an enclosed little microcosm, I just couldn’t handle it any more. So I had to get out. And I’ve done that periodically since then.

GROTH: There’s a certain tragedy in watching people do comics for 30 years by rote.

WRIGHTSON: Well, after a while it becomes a formula, a system. I’m real suspicious of stuff like that.

GROTH: What do you mean?

WRIGHTSON: For myself, when I was working in comics … well you can see it with the Swamp Thing series. The whole series, #1-9 were inked with a brush. And one of the reasons I got out of color comics was, you’ll notice that issue 10 was done with a pen, and there’s a big difference, stylistically. I had convinced myself that by the time I got to issue 9 that I had passed the point of being very good with a brush and it was … the question of quality I can’t really talk about. I can’t say that I had become too good or anything like that but what I can say is that inking with a brush had become too easy and I got real suspicious of that. I started seeing myself repeating little things with a brush and that frightened me. I started seeing this kind of business where it’s getting to the point where I can do this blindfolded. I was doing it without thinking. And that really bothered me. So I threw all my brushes out and started drawing with a pen. And this, of course triggered off a lot of other things. So the result was, I decided I had had it with color comics and quit that and I think at that point I went to Warren for a while, started doing stuff for him. A lot of pen work.

Panel from Swamp Thing.

GROTH: Let me ask you something directly related to that, getting tired of doing the same thing over and over again. Isn’t part of the involvement in comics being so involved in the narrative that it doesn’t seem like you’re repeating yourself? That the story so involves you emotionally or intellectually that you …

WRIGHTSON: Now I feel that way but at the time I didn’t because I felt fairly detached from the story end of it at that time. I was working with Len [Wein]. For the most part working with a writer will do that. And I felt it’s his job to write it and my job to draw it as well as I can so I got involved with the drawing, and was the mistake I was making about comics was this kind of separation. Like you’re the writer, and I’m the artist. And if we don’t communicate, that’s fine. We don’t have to. Which is bullshit. I don’t think you can be a good … I don’t think you can do comics well unless you’re a bit of both.

GROTH: Did you work with Len closer at the beginning of the series than at the end?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Because that was the time of getting everything kind of nailed down. And after that, I didn’t have the time really to get involved with the writing aspect of it. Also, I was starting to lose interest real early on, starting with #6 … I think that was the “Clockwork” thing, wasn’t it?

WHITE: “The Clockwork Horror.”

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I think that’s where it starts to show that my mind is beginning to wander a bit.

WHITE: But I think there are some incredibly detailed panels in there …

WRIGHTSON: It wasn’t easy. Boy, it wasn’t easy. I was not into that story at all. Len wanted to do that for #5 …  

GROTH: Well, detail doesn’t translate into passion …

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Len wanted to do that for #5 and I was not ready for it. I mean he was real excited for this story, y’know, and he told me about it. “Oh, this is about clocks, and robots and stuff! Oh, it’s great!” “Yeah, yeah.” And at the last minute I backed out and I said, “Look, I can’t do it, okay? Let’s put it off until the next issue. I got this idea, we’ll do this witch thing in between. C’mon, let’s do it.” He didn’t want to do it, but I finally talked him into it. I think I said something like, “We’ll do the witch thing, or I’m going to quit right now.” [Laughter.]

GROTH: From what I can tell, you probably never worked faster than on Swamp Thing.

WRIGHTSON: That was real fast. I was averaging two pages a day of pencils. And maybe about a page and a half a day of inks.

GROTH: Not exactly John Buscema, but for you that’s …

WRIGHTSON: For me, that’s incredible. For me, that’s just super-speed.

GROTH: Well, you know in Europe of course they take one or two weeks to do a page. WRIGHTSON: Yeah.

GROTH: They turn out two albums a year.

WRIGHTSON: Sometimes I think it would be nice to have the luxury to do that. Other times I think … there’s a balance to be struck with doing comics. The time involved is a very delicate thing as far as I’m concerned. If you’re doing it too fast, you’re hacking. If you take too much time, you’re being too precious. And that kills it just as well as hacking does. But there’s a balance somewhere in between of just really being hot, knowing you’re hot and getting on with it. And being hot is not a consistent quality. It has its ups and downs and when you reach a down point you have to shift gears and really get on with it and say, “Okay, these two panels in between are a little bit clumsy. I could do better if I thought about it but I want to get on with it.” And you do it. Okay, every panel ain’t a classic. Big deal. It’s like you’ve got enough good stuff to let the so-so stuff … it’ll carry it.

GROTH: I guess the object is not to be so self-conscious about it.


GROTH: Because Jack Davis for the EC’s worked like a madman. He would do stories in three days, whereas Wood would take a week. People like Williamson might take longer, but they all worked at the speed they were comfortable with, even though some were faster, some were slower.

WRIGHTSON: And the work was always high quality, too. Like Davis has my unending respect. The guy could do such good work so fast.

GROTH: He was extraordinary.

Panels from Davis’s “By the Fright of the Silvery Moon!”

WRIGHTSON: And there were other people. Johnny Craig, I understand was their slowest. I mean, he was every bit as good as Davis, but just not fast at it, so big deal.

GROTH: And of course Kurtzman took forever.

WRIGHTSON: But his stuff is always delightful.

GROTH: Let’s see, after Swamp Thing …  

WRIGHTSON: After Swamp Thing was Warren, wasn’t it?

GROTH: No. [Laughter.] Not if my notes are accurate. Purple Pictography. Is that accurate? With Bode.

WRIGHTSON: That came before Swamp Thing, actually.

GROTH: Did it?

WRIGHTSON: I’m pretty sure. Yes it did. Because I was still living in New York when I did that and Swamp Thing for the most part, I was doing upstate.

GROTH: All that means is that A Look Back isn’t in chronological order, exactly.

WRIGHTSON: Oh, well. I never noticed. But yeah, Purple Pictography came before Swamp Thing.

GROTH: And again with that, you lost interest toward the end.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I hate to say for the same reason because it seems like I’m blaming the writer, which I’m not, but we were doing the pictography things … Vaughn and I would get together and talk about a premise and all. Mostly it was just an opportunity to get together for an evening and bullshit. So we’d sit around and do a lot of bullshitting and take five minutes off to work up a plot for the next Pictography. And it was real comfortable. We did that for the first three and it was fun. And it was mostly Vaughn saying, “What do you feel like drawing this month?” And I’d say, “Oh, I feel like drawing Frankenstein this month.” “Okay, we’ll do something about Frankenstein.” “What do you feel like this month?” “Oh, hell. I just saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Let’s do something underwater this month.” And it was easy, and it worked for the first three. And the fourth one, we didn’t discuss at all. He didn’t come to the city, he sent me a letter with a plot, not just a plot, but a full script and I just didn’t like it. It wasn’t what I wanted to draw. We didn’t have a chance to bullshit, we didn’t talk about it. And that just kind of killed it. I struggled through it, and struggled through it and couldn’t get it off the ground. Got Weiss to help me on it and he drew a couple of panels. Got Jeff to do some coloring on it. Just really was not happy with it. Don’t think I mentioned anything to Vaughn about it. And then he did the same thing on the last one. Instead of us getting together to chew the fat, he just sent me a finished script. And I just kind of gritted my teeth and got down and did it but said this is the last one.

GROTH: Prior to the fourth one did he give you full scripts?


GROTH: So it was more of a collaboration?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. We would just kind of agree on what I wanted to do, and we just did it “Marvel style.” I’d pencil it up and send it to him and he’d send it back dialogued.

Panels from “Water Job.”

GROTH: Now in the book you say you’ve been offered opportunities to work for magazines like Hustler and you’ve basically said you wouldn’t do that because you had moral qualms about some of the magazines.

WRIGHTSON: Well, times have changed. [Laughter.] When I was doing the thing for Cavalier, it was kind of an innocent, tits ’n’ ass book. And since then, we’ve gotten into all this beaver stuff, bondage—all this kind of crap. And … I hate to sound like my own little Moral Majority here and say, well, tits ’n’ ass is fine but cunt shots are definitely out. [Everybody chuckles] I’m uncomfortable with it and that’s all it really comes down to. My opinion of that kind of stuff is trash. I mean, I still like good tits ’n’ ass stuff. I still buy Penthouse, Gallery, kind of the relatively classy things. Playboy not so much unless they’ve got an interview with somebody I want to read. But the really trashy things, I don’t buy ’em. I don’t want to look at

them. It’s like … women are beautiful no matter what, right? But there’s an attitude involved with that that I just don’t like. I don’t know. It’s difficult to explain.

GROTH: Do you consider the exploitive aspect of things like Swank, Penthouse, Playboy? I mean, all of them in some way exploit women.

WRIGHTSON: It never really bothered me, because I never saw anything really wrong with it. I can’t ever remember thinking of it as pornography. And even Hustler isn’t really pornography, it’s what I consider bad taste. Well, not even bad taste, but wrong attitude. Which is even worse than bad taste. Bad taste can be fun, but a wrong attitude never is. It’s kind of a subtle difference and I don’t know if I’m explaining it well. I’m not talking about the attitude of the women being photographed. But it’s kind of an editorial attitude where the women are really … like Playboy and Penthouse, I really don’t get the feeling that the women are being treated as objects. Whereas things like Hustler, I really get the feeling that they’re being treated as objects. And that offends me.

GROTH: I think it’s the old adage that nothing succeeds like excess.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. But that’s not necessarily true. I mean, you can be excessive as hell if it works, and you’re doing it with the right attitude and it’s being received with the right attitude.

WHITE: Sort of the George Romero attitude.


WHITE: As opposed to the Wes Craven attitude.

WRIGHTSON: Right, exactly. Romero can do it and get away with it, because there’s a purpose behind it.

GROTH: A good analogy would be the EC horror comics, which were always tongue-in-cheek.

WRIGHTSON: Exactly. And which were, strangely enough, never really all that excessive. It was like they didn’t have to be. They knew that they were quality, they knew that they had good stories and the best artists around and they were top of the line. They didn’t have to fall back on all the schlock stuff. Although …

GROTH: The baseball game with entrails …

WRIGHTSON: [Laughter.] That’s still an awful good story.

GROTH: It’s still fun.

WRIGHTSON: And it would not have succeeded if you hadn’t shown it. It’s that kind of thing. You had to see the guy there where all the schmutz and stuff hanging out of his head to be impressed for the story to make its point. It’s like “Yeah, of course,” and that’s not offensive at all.

GROTH: There was an odd kind of integrity at EC to even the worst stuff they did, because it was so beautifully crafted. Just to get back to Swamp Thing for a second …  Have you seen the movie?


GROTH: Do you want to?

WRIGHTSON: If it ever comes around, sure. I’m not going to break a leg to go see it. [Laughter.] It is supposed to be on Sneak Previews next week, so I’ll catch that.

GROTH: Yeah. I told you we saw it. God, was it incredible.

WRIGHTSON: All I know is what I’ve read in the magazines, fanzines and all and the stills I’ve seen.

GROTH: What’s the general reaction been, because I haven’t really been following the reviews?

WRIGHTSON: It’s been remarkably quiet. I haven’t heard anything from anybody. I don’t know if they have the mistaken notion that I don’t want to talk about it or anything. Or if they feel I’m embarrassed, which is completely erroneous. I couldn’t give a flaming fuck. [Laughter.] I’m curious. I would like to see what they did with my character.

GROTH: Or to.

WRIGHTSON: Or to, as the case may be.

GROTH: I—we—saw it at a preview and for the first half of the movie the audience was polite. Then, toward the second half, the film was so ludicrous that even at this preview where you’re supposed to be civilized, and the guy who produced it is sitting up, people in the audience were still screaming, giggling … Whenever this guy who looked just like Curly from The Three Stooges would appear you’d hear somebody in the audience go “Whoop, whoop, whoop, whoop.” [Laughter.] Did you see Craven’s Last House on the Left? I mean, that was a sick film.

WRIGHTSON: I saw a part of that and I can’t remember the reason for leaving. It had nothing to do with the movie, but I don’t recall it.

GROTH: It was not humorous or charming or …

WRIGHTSON: I never saw the end of it and I hear that was the best part.

GROTH: Yeah.

WRIGHTSON: Or the most notorious part. What else did he do?

GROTH: I don’t know what else Craven’s done, but I did see that one movie and thought, “Holy hell.”

WRIGHTSON:  No, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a Wes Craven movie. Although his reputation does precede him.

GROTH: Well this, I guess, is as good a time to get into that, just briefly. You were actually considering suing DC?

WRIGHTSON: Not really. That’s kind of a mistaken notion. What I wanted to find out … See, what happened was, they went and did the movie and I had to find out about it by reading it in your publication, as a matter of fact. I got pissed off. Here’s this whole movie, it’s practically done, and nobody told me about it. Then I hear that Len and Joe are flown to South Carolina in some kind of advisory capacity and it’s like … I mean, I like free trips [laughter], I like to go somewhere on somebody’s expense account. I mean, I’m not asking to be involved with the movie. I probably would have turned it down anyway, because I don’t think it’s a good idea for a movie [laughter], I just don’t think I would have been.

GROTH: They should have used you for an advisor.

WRIGHTSON: I don’t think it can be done. Or if it can be done, do it in the dark, for God’s sake.

GROTH: Without Adrienne Barbeau … [Laughter.]

WRIGHTSON: Anyway, I got mad that this all seemed to be done. It seemed like I had been singled out to be excluded from this …

GROTH: You were only the artist.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. And I didn’t know why. I have been referred to as one-third of the creative team, I’ve been referred to as a co-creator. So, how come? Why am I being left out? I was not about to call National to ask them why I was being left out. So I went to a lawyer and told him the whole deal, and said I was pretty pissed off. What is my situation legally? Am I in any position to get any satisfaction out of this? And they said they’d look into it. I guess that’s where it still stands.

WHITE: They’re still looking into it?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Well, they’ve called me several times. What happened was that they were looking into it back in October when this Creepshow thing came along and once I started on Creepshow, I was feeling too good about that job … going along with it, getting it done, just sailing along and having a real good time. Whenever the lawyer called and wanted to get together in the city, I kept putting him off. I didn’t want to go down there and get aggravated about all this when I was feeling so up about this job. Besides, I had a real tight deadline and didn’t want to waste a day going into town. I guess they got tired of calling me after that. And then, after Creepshow, we had to go see my parents because we had to see them for Christmas, tax time came along and I had to worry about that. And, I broke my leg. [Laughter.] So there just hasn’t been time to see what’s going on and frankly I’ve still been feeling too good about things in general that I don’t want to talk to a lawyer and be brought down.

WHITE: You seem like a happy man.

WRIGHTSON: Well, I am. I am happy, not content. I believe it’s a mistake to be content. You should always want to strive for something more. Happy? Yeah, yeah. I’m real happy.

GROTH: The lawyers will fix that.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I have paid this guy a good sum of money to look into it for me and I figure he probably feels by now that he’s earned it. So the next step is to get together and see where the lawyer can take it from here so the lawyer can make some more money from me. At this point, I’m feeling too good about it and I think I’ve pretty much changed my mind about it. I don’t think I’m going to do it. I’d just be letting myself in for, win or lose, three to five years of aggravation with this thing. I figure maybe the worst thing I can do to National is to just never work for them again.

GROTH: Did DC pay you something for the film?

WRIGHTSON: I got $2000, which pissed me off even further. Got a check for $2000, which said “Swamp Thing Film Bonus” which was really kind of weird. Because to get a bonus, you should get something else ahead of time. I mean, you should get something first, and then the bonus comes. [Laughter.] So, here’s the “Swamp Thing Film Bonus” and a little note from Jenette thanking me for my most wonderful creation … I cashed the check. [Laughter.]

GROTH: And gave it to your lawyer …

WRIGHTSON: Well, not quite. $2000 is $2000, and I deserved it. I mean, it was partly my creation, they made a movie of it, I’m entitled to something. But $2000, gee, this is a movie, a major motion picture. This is Avco-Embassy. And I just started to think about how my $2000 stacks up to what National’s been getting, you know, of the fruit of my fucking labor.

WHITE: Or Len.

WRIGHTSON: Well, I don’t know about Len. I haven’t talked to him. I think that Len at this point is probably scared to death to talk to me. Probably thinks I’m some kind of fire-breathing ogre that is out to see that he loses his job and I just don’t care.

GROTH: Have you seen the new Swamp Thing comic?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, ran into it a couple of weeks ago.

GROTH: What do you think?

WRIGHTSON: Uh, it isn’t the same. And I’m not tooting my own horn, because I think I have a pretty good handle on the perspective of all this. I thought that the character died with #10. And I’m not being full of myself when I say that. It was just a very personal thing from my standpoint and when Redondo took it over, I mean that guy can draw circles around me. He’s a much better artist than I am. But he didn’t know Swamp Thing. He didn’t know the character, he didn’t know that little universe. It was just not the same. And this new fellow, Tom Yeates, looks like a perfectly competent artist. He seems to enjoy doing comics. I met him briefly, he showed me some original pages that he had with him. He’s a real nice guy. It’s just not the same thing. He doesn’t have any more of a handle on the character than Redondo did, visually. And the thing is … Swamp Thing is a real limited character. There’s only so much you can do with him. I even strayed away from the limits you could take the character to. For the most part I tried to keep him in this kind of grim little foreboding universe where it worked. Wasn’t such a hot idea bringing him to Gotham City, y’know. [Laughter.] But, hell, at the time I wanted to draw Batman. It was fun; I enjoyed it. They wouldn’t let me give Batman a gun. I always preferred the old Batman when he had a gun. He was more like The Shadow. I thought it would be great if he came up against Swamp Thing. Yeah, give him a gun. Fill him full of lead. Like shooting a cabbage.

GROTH: Glad you mentioned The Shadow. You did a sample page but that didn’t go through.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, at the time I was up to my ears in Swamp Thing, and foolishly thought I could handle two books at one time. Because like I said, I was really hot. I was penciling two pages and inking a page and a half a day. I thought it would be a breeze. Swamp Thing’s bi-monthly and I’ll fill in the other month with The Shadow. Only it didn’t occur to me that I was taking the whole two months to do the book. So I did the sample page and I think I was even slated to do the first issue of The Shadow. This was before it really started going through a lot of changes. I think Len was going to write it. And I came to my senses, fortunately, before ever starting on it. And just said there was no way I could handle two books. So I stuck with Swamp Thing. It’s more in my line. And they said, “Who’re we going to get for The Shadow?” and I immediately said, “Kaluta.” And they didn’t hear that. They said, “Who’re we going to get to do The Shadow?” So then they went through all that bullshit with Jim [Steranko], I don’t know who all …  

GROTH: [Alex] Toth.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And finally settled on Kaluta, who I still maintain is the best possible choice all along. And for no other reason than he really wanted to do it. I mean, he was really intense about it.

GROTH: Now, you went to work for Warren. But you worked for Web of Horror first, didn’t you?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, that was pretty early on. That was what ’69, ’70?

GROTH: That sounded like a real anarchic situation.

WRIGHTSON: It was weird. I had this fellow, Terry Bisson, come along one day and at the time, Warren was just reprinting a lot of stuff, and the new stuff he had was just awful and the thing had really gone down the tubes. And I know the real story behind that, and I’m not going to tell you. No, Warren told me the whole thing behind that, and I’m sworn to secrecy.

GROTH: Well, he got into deep financial trouble …  

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, but that was more a symptom, not a cause. But I can’t tell you the cause. So, I’ll just titillate you and your readers with that. But the magazine’s a really bad one, and we’re all sitting around saying, “Aw, Creepy used to be so good, look at this piece of shit, this is awful.” And by we, I mean myself, Jeff, Bruce Jones and Kaluta, and into the middle of all this complaining, and pining for the good old days walks this fellow, Terry Bisson from …  Major Magazines. They published some romance things and Cracked magazine. Up until now, he’d been writing blurbs for the backs of the romance magazines, or for the covers. “I spent the night with my father-in-law,” things like that. He walks in and says, “My publisher wants to put together a horror magazine.” “You mean, like Creepy?” and he says “Yeah, exactly like Creepy. See, at our magazine company, we do nothing but rip off other magazines.” [Laughter.] He was real upfront about it. “We want to do a Creepy rip-off.” [Laughter.] “Oh, yeah, that sounds great, what are you paying?” And the money wasn’t bad. “Okay, yeah, we’ll do it.” So we get together, he had a place down around Canal Street and we’d get together, kind of have conferences and all. And he dug up some writers from somewhere, and he was writing some of the stuff himself and none of us knew any better. I didn’t know good scripts from bad scripts. We’d all just get down and do this stuff and it was like all of us there in the same building, virtually, all living together, just working for the same outfit. “Aww, this is just like the EC days, man, this is great! This is great!” And they had the monster contests. And it was just fun. We were real high on this thing. Even though the first couple of issues were really just crap. Awful stories, and the art wasn’t too much better. But there was a certain kind of enthusiasm that was coming through in this stuff. I thought so. And evidently, the magazines were doing well. People were buying this stuff. So it was looking real good. And how many issues did it go? Three?

GROTH: Yeah, three. And you did the cover for the fourth one.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, the fourth issue. Terry Bisson left. After the third issue, he just split. And just disappeared. “Say, what happened to Terry?” “Oh, he joined a commune in Colorado.” “What are we going to do? Who’s going to be our editor?” And Richard Sproul, the publisher, said, “Look, the magazine’s doing okay, I want to go on with it, why don’t you boys work it out?” “Well, shit, yeah, all right, yeah.” Bruce and I would get together with Mike and Jeff and say, “Hey, man we need an editor for this thing, and there’s nobody in control.” Mike and Jeff said, “Oh, leave us alone! We just want to work.” And so Bruce and I said we’d be co-editors. So we start handing out scripts to everybody … There was a backlog of stuff, some real bad stuff which was scheduled for the fourth issue. Bruce and I got in there, we took the whole goddamn thing apart. We took just about everything that was going to go in the fourth issue, threw it out and started from scratch. We gave Ralph Reese a script and Ralph did the best job that he had done up to that point in his career. I mean, just beautiful. He came in with this double-page splash of this galleon floating in space that you could just fall into. Just gorgeous. Bruce did this incredible space opera thing. Real EC type stuff. Terrific. Michael did a thing about a sea monster which eventually got printed somewhere else. I did a story called “The Monster Jar” which to this day I don’t know whatever happened to. And the cover for that issue. I forget who all we had in there but it was all good stuff. We were taking the best, the cream. This was going to be the best issue.

The only reason I did the cover for the fourth issue was that we had Krenkel lined up to do a cover, a headless horseman cover which would’ve just knocked your socks off, but he got sick. So he couldn’t do the finish, all he had was a little rough. And I wanted to go with the rough, but Bruce talked me out of it saying it was a little too rough to go with, and I guess he was right. But it was great. It was just this head-on shot of the headless horseman riding straight at you, the horse cut-off at the breast, charging out of the picture, just flaring nostrils, and this headless guy just whipping the horse. Trees flashing behind it. Aww, it was just terrific! It would have been such a great painting. And we tried to get Frazetta, but he wasn’t interested. He said he didn’t want to do the horror stuff. So we got Krenkel and he was all set to go with issue five with this headless horseman. Oh, and the best part of this whole thing, we were going to come up with a winner for this monster contest. The entries had been pouring in. Sproul takes us in to the back room, it’s like this closet where they store artwork, and says “Here’s the contest stuff.” The room looked like Fibber McGee’s closet, he opens the door and this stuff is just pouring out. Tubes, packages, and Bruce and I are carting this stuff out to his house. And it takes a whole day, between Sproul’s office which was in Long Island City and Bruce’s place, which was in Rushing. It involved something like two different buses and a long subway ride to get there. So we’re doing this, all day long, back and forth, carrying it by the armload, because he doesn’t have a car. Finally get it all to his apartment, we spend the whole weekend going through this stuff. Some of the stuff is just terrific. There are some talented kids out there that are never going to get anywhere because Bruce and I fucked up. We picked winners, then we had to restructure the whole prize thing for this because there was so much good stuff. Originally, it was supposed to be one winner per issue. We broke it down so that it was first, second, and third place and two honorable mentions. Just so we could fit all this stuff in. We were going to start announcing winners in the fourth issue. We get the whole thing together, do the paste-ups, came up with a new logo, all this stuff. Just restructured the whole magazine. It looked great. Got the whole thing done, and we spent our last weekend putting it together. And it’s looking great, we’re going to take it in and show it to Sproul. Go into Long Island City, to the office, Monday morning knock on the door. And the door just creaks open, y’know. And the office is empty. I mean, the desks are gone, everything is gone. Some scraps of paper blowing across the floor. It was just like the Twilight Zone, there was just nothing there. All the artwork, everything, all the contest stuff had disappeared. Not a word. We found out years later that the guy relocated in Florida. And I don’t know what the deal is. We tried to get people’s artwork back. Just couldn’t get it. Ralph Reese lost his thing, I lost my thing, Kaluta was late turning his in so he was able to hang on to his. Bruce lost his story. Frank Brunner did a real nice job for us in pencil or wash. That was gone.

GROTH: You must have been very depressed.

WRIGHTSON: Well, shocked. “Just what the hell is this?” We couldn’t believe it. And nobody had been paid, so there was all this money owed to us.

GROTH: You ever have the inclination to track this guy down?

WRIGHTSON: For a while we talked about it, but never quite got it together to do. I think something happened about that … I think Ralph Reese managed to get some money out of them somehow, by just being persistent. I think Michael did too, I don’t remember. But I know nothing ever happened for me. I got mad, and then it dissipated and I just decided I couldn’t do anything about it. I was just going to get on with the next job.

GROTH: Where did Abyss come in?

WRIGHTSON: Somewhere in there, it was around the Web of Horror time. Somebody, I think Bruce, sat down with pencil and paper and figured, “Well, you’re making $50 a page, and this book is selling for 35 cents or whatever it was and they print so many of them and look, there’s millions of dollars coming in off this book and you’re just getting $50 a page. So if we published our own magazine, we’d make a lot of money. All of that money would come to us and we wouldn’t have to pay the publishers.” Yeah, great, terrific! So we did Abyss and we got, I think $25 a page. No, not a page. $25 each.

GROTH: About $4 a page.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, only, out of this. That was our big moneymaking scheme.

WHITE: Not quite what you had in mind.

WRIGHTSON: No, no. We just didn’t know what the hell we were doing. Told the printer we wanted 2,000 books and he printed 1,000 and charged us for 2,000. Of course we go down to the printers and there’s all these boxes with books. I’d never seen 2,000 books before in boxes. “Yup, that’s a lot of boxes, looks good to me.” So we take them all back and realize we got shortchanged by a thousand. Call the printer up and said, “You owe us a thousand books.” He said, “Oh, no, the order was for a thousand books.” I said, “But you charged us for 2,000.” He said, “Oh, no, it says 1,000 on the bill.” And sure enough, it said 1,000. But the price he quoted us was what 2,000 copies were going to cost.

GROTH: So you guys really got screwed, huh?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, this guy really saw us coming. [Laughter.] So that’s Abyss.

GROTH: It’s amazing you guys weren’t more violent.

WRIGHTSON: We were a bunch of wimps. [Laughter.]

GROTH: How old were you about this time? About 20, 24, mid-20s?

WRIGHTSON: Not even that old, I think. I must have been like, 21, 22.

GROTH: Jeff’s older, of course.

WRIGHTSON: All the other guys were older. I was the baby of the bunch. Until Barry. And then he was younger than me. Mike’s a year older than me, Jeff’s five years older than me. Bruce is three or four years older.

GROTH: You are 34?

WRIGHTSON: I’ll be 34 in October [1982].

GROTH: And, Badtime Stories?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, that was pretty early on. It was a fellow named Ron Barlow that I knew from Baltimore. Well, we had been talking about doing a magazine before I came to New York. And he kind of held on to the idea through everything. I worked on these stories while I was working for National, kind of between jobs I’d do this stuff. He was paying me something like $25 or $30 a page, just to kind of keep it going, to keep the interest up and all. And I finally got it all done, and put it out. Never made much more money over the original $30 a page initially. But that’s okay.

GROTH: It was really an excellent collection of stuff.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, it really was. I enjoyed doing it. Ron never put any pressure on me. It was always, “Do it at my own pace.” And I’m just amazed that it ever got done. And I’m still pretty proud of it.

GROTH: And it was nicely written, too.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I had fun with the stories. It was the first time I really had a chance to write my own story.

GROTH: Of course, you did each story in a different style and different approach.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I think that was maybe a little pretentious. I should have just concentrated more on telling the story, instead of worrying about technique and all. But I was into technique at the time.

GROTH: Here’s a quote that might go nowhere … whoever wrote the text for A Look Back

WRIGHTSON: Chris Zavisa did.

GROTH: He wrote, “Comics tend to distort an artist’s ability to draw individual illustrations.” I assume you concur?

WRIGHTSON: What is the context this is in?

GROTH: Let me just dig it out and see if it makes any sense.

WRIGHTSON: Well, it’s a real provocative quote, but I think I need a little more in front and in back.

GROTH: [Still looking for the quote, Wrightson continues to talk.]

WRIGHTSON: I feel like I should babble on or something. Make some noise for the tape. [Looks at phone.] Yeah, this is great. Jim Starlin came over the other day and rewired our wall phone so I could use it as a desk phone. He said he’d have to rewire it to put it back on the wall when my leg gets better.

GROTH: Starlin?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Starlin is an absolute genius as far as I’m concerned.

GROTH: Did you see his Captain Marvel book?

WRIGHTSON: I loved that book!

GROTH: Did you?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah! I really enjoyed that.

GROTH: Did you see his other book?

WRIGHTSON: I’ve got it but I haven’t read it. But the Captain Marvel book I was real impressed with.

GROTH: And that’s superheroes …

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, well that’s the whole thing. I just don’t follow that and …  It’s not my thing. So I’m a little surprised at myself for being that taken by a superhero story, but I really liked it.

GROTH: Well, Captain Sternn is sort of a superhero.

WRIGHTSON: In his way, yeah. But that’s a funny thing about superheroes. I’m going to be involved with superheroes sometime soon, after my leg heals. [Whispering] I wonder if I should even be talking about it.

GROTH: One thing’s for sure, you shouldn’t badmouth superheroes if you’re going to be involved with them.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. [Laughter.]

GROTH: How are you going to be involved with superheroes?

WRIGHTSON: I don’t really know that much about it. George Romero has an idea for a superhero movie, which he called me and asked me to be production designer on and also to do the storyboards for the movie in comic book form. Very much like Creepshow. Which could subsequently be published as a tie-in with the movie. So, it looks like I’m going to have to be doing a lot of thinking about superheroes in the future.

WHITE: And he discussed the character with you?

WRIGHTSON: No, all he did was call for like 10 minutes.

GROTH: And you agreed to do it?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, that was the whole reason for the call. He said he had this idea involving superheroes for a movie and he wanted to know if 1 was interested in being involved. And I said, “Of course.” [Laughter.] And also, Romero’s doing The Stand. And I’m going to be doing the movie poster. It’s one of these deals where they want the poster first. Because what happened with Creepshow, they got that Jack Kamen thing which you’ve probably seen. Kamen did that before anything had been done on the movie, and they kind of made a bunch of copies of this and put them up all over the place and said, “We want to stick to this. This is the kind of spirit we want to maintain for this.” And he said it worked so well that they had this kind of visual key to kind of go by through the whole thing. And they want to do the whole thing for The Stand.

GROTH: I was surprised that you didn’t do the poster for Creepshow.

WRIGHTSON: It turns out that Kamen is an old friend of the producer.

GROTH: Because horror was not Kamen’s forte.

WRIGHTSON: Judging from the poster and the few things I’ve seen that he did for the movie, it’s more his forte now than it was back then.

GROTH: Sort of a reverse Davis syndrome.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I think he draws a hell of a lot better than he used to. He is a lot looser and freer.

GROTH: Well, I can’t find that damn quote so let’s let it lie.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I really don’t know where to take that.

GROTH: The Warren stint, 1974 and 1975 you did a lot of work for him. Could you talk about how that came about? Maybe you can say some nice things about Warren to balance out …

WRIGHTSON: I have nothing but nice, things to say about Warren, strangely enough. I may be the only person in the world that does. I think Warren is a terrific person. I got tired of color comics, just got tired of seeing bad reproduction and terrible heavy color on top of fine line stuff. And just decided I wanted to try black and white comics for a while, because you pretty much get what you do as far as reproduction. By this time, Warren was once again top-of-the-heap in black-and-white horror comics.

Panel from “Black Cat.”

GROTH: About the only heap.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I think he was the only person doing them at the time. But he had survived his own bad times. He had survived all the crummy imitators who came and went. And there he was, seemingly back on his feet doing pretty good stuff, some interesting things. I think DuBay was in charge. The magazine was looking good to me so I went down to see him. He’d been after me for years to work for him. And of course, I’d heard all the Warren stories and everything. This guy sounds like a maniac, I don’t want to work for him. [Laughter.] But at this point, I thought if the guy was crazy, I can handle that. So I went down to see him and the guy was just terrific from the word go. I mean, I’d heard all these stories about people’s first meeting with Warren and crazy things. And he did do some crazy things that I kind of expected because the man’s reputation did precede him. For one thing, he trapped me into some kind of dumb thing, got me to make some kind of statement and then said, “No, you’re wrong about that.” “No, I’m right.” “No, you’re wrong.” “I’m right.” “Wanna bet?” and I said, “Yeah, a dollar.” “Show me your money.” So I took out a dollar, put it on his desk, and he took out a dollar and put it on his desk and then he proved me wrong and he took my dollar and said, “Would you sign it?” “Yeah, sure.” I signed his dollar. He opens his desk drawer, pulls out a wad of dollar bills like this [indicates a thick wad of bills]. Vaughn Bode, Billy Graham, Ken Kelley, Frank Frazetta, Reed Crandall, anybody who ever worked for him, he trapped into this stupid thing and got them to sign a dollar bill. It was terrific. [Laughter.]

I went in and he said, “Okay, you want to work for me. That’s terrific, I’d like you to work for me. I like your work. But you work for me, you understand that I own everything. I own all the rights, you don’t have anything. You get your originals back, but I get all the rights. I can do anything I want with what you do for me. I can repackage it, restructure it, anything. I own all of it. Agreed?” I said okay. That’s no worse than I am now. And I’m getting my originals back, too. And he said, “About getting your originals back, you get your originals back you can do anything you want with them. You can wipe your ass with them, line your garbage can, hang them up, you can even sell them.” And I said I probably would. “Okay, and if you sell them and the guy you sell them to sells them again and it gets sold again and again, and again and again and the 12th person down the line that it’s sold to prints it, you’re responsible. Can you deal with that?” I said sure. “All right. And on top of this, I’m going to pay you the best money you ever got.” [Laughter.] “Have we got a deal?” I said we had a deal. It was fine, it was always completely pleasant with him. It was great.

A funny thing happened soon after I started working with him. I was going to move, I found this great place. I was going to move out of my apartment and into an old church. Didn’t have enough money for the deposit for all this, so I went into Warren and said can I have an advance on the job I’m doing for you because I want to move into this place, and explained the whole thing to him. He said, “I never give advances to people, and here’s why.” And for an hour and a half he goes into this tirade about why he will not give anybody an advance; because you can’t trust artists, not me personally, but generically, artists are irresponsible people blah, blah, blah. On top of that, what if I give you this money for an advance and you have all your good intentions and everything of paying me back and then you get hit by a truck and you never finish the job. And I’m out the money, and I’m out the work blah, blah, blah. For an hour and a half he goes through this whole thing. I’m sitting there getting depressed as hell because I’m not going to get the money and then he finally says, “So that’s why I won’t give you an advance, but I will give you a personal loan.” And it was for something like $400. He writes me a personal check. Everything is fine. I walk out of his office, go and get the place. Couple of weeks later, I finish the job, turn it in, he pays me, I deposit the check, wait for it to clear, and pay him back his $400, we’re square. Then about a month after that, I break up with the girl that I moved into the church with and I’m moving back to the city. I’m going to move to Queens. Again, I’m strapped for money. I go in to see Warren, and I say “Jim, I know this is awful close on the heels of the last time, but I really have to ask you for a personal loan.” He said, “I never give anybody personal loans.” [Laughter.] For an hour and a half he sits there and gives me the same reasons why he doesn’t give anybody personal loans, and they’re the same reasons he doesn’t give an advance. He goes through the whole thing, and at the end he says, “But I will advance you on the job you’re working on.” [Laughter.] He’s a maniac. [Laughter.]

GROTH: This is apparently the sort of thing that drives other people berserk.

WRIGHTSON: I thought it was great! I loved it! The man was just totally unpredictable. All this time I’d been dealing with Carmine Infantino who was just a sweetheart of a guy, Stan, Joe Orlando, all these folks, really good people. And then I go down there to Warren and the guy is completely off-the-wall. I loved it.

GROTH: Yeah, I’ve heard some great Warren stories. I heard that when Dave Cockrum was working for him Dave walked in and asked for a raise. Warren pulled open his drawer and pulled out this box, pushed the button and the box started laughing at Dave.

WRIGHTSON: I’ve heard stories that go back a long way. Like originally he was really courting the old EC guys to come work for him and the guy he wanted most that he just couldn’t get was Davis. He wanted to start off doing a whole book of Davis’s stuff. “It’s horror stories, Jack, I want you to do all horror stories.” And Jack said, “I don’t do horror stories.” “C’mon Jack, one story, eight pages, come on Jack.” “I don’t do horror stories.” Finally he got it down to “How about designing a character? How would you like to design Uncle Creepy? C’mon Jack,” offering him money and all this stuff. And Davis said he didn’t want to be involved in the horror stuff, “I’m a cartoonist now, leave me alone.” A few days later, in the mail, Davis gets a Sony TV, small color TV, real expensive. No letter, no card, nothing, just the TV. From somewhere in New York. A few days after that he gets a tape deck. And he’s getting all this stuff. After a couple of weeks of getting all these gifts, Warren calls up. Now, this stuff has become Jack’s possessions and Warren has what he wants just by blackmail. [Laughter.] I can’t substantiate that. It’s just something I’ve heard.

GROTH: Well even if it’s apocryphal, it’s still good. So you were always on very good terms with Warren?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, yeah. And when the business of this book [Berni Wrightson: A Look Back] came up, I was living in Florida, Chris Zavisa in Detroit. He started advertising the book, saying that there was going to be work from DC, and I think he printed some pages in the ad. He got a letter from DC’s lawyers threatening to sue him if he didn’t get permission to use this stuff. So we got real panicky, and said, before we did anything else, let’s arrange a trip to the city and talk to everybody and get some permission. So I flew up from Florida at my own expense, Chris comes in from Detroit. I had previously made arrangements and set up appointments with everybody. And I set up the appointment to see Warren first. And I told Chris, “Look, Warren and I have always gotten along fine, but you’re a stranger in this, and I don’t know what he’s going to be like because the man is unpredictable. And he might suddenly become a totally schizoid, crazy person. Let’s go see him first because this is probably going to be the worst. National we’ve got them knocked, we don’t have to worry about that. I’ve worked for National for lots of years and we’re on good terms. Let’s go see Jim first and get it out of the way.” So we went in to see Warren and there was kind of a misunderstanding at first. Chris pulls out a dummy that he has and is showing it to Warren as kind of a presentation thing, and Warren is immediately from page 1 going, “You can’t do that. You can’t spread it across two pages. You’ve got to break it down into one page. You can’t go full color, full bleed, no way. Gotta enclose that in a border or we do that in black and white.” We’re going, “What, what, what?” and this goes on for like 10 or 15 minutes, and it’s really crazy. We’ve only gotten two pages into the thing and Chris is getting pissed off and I’m more and more confused and I say something and Warren says, “You mean you don’t want me to publish this?” I told him “No, this is the publisher, he wants to publish this book on me, and we’re here to ask permission to use stuff that I’ve done for you in the book.” And he said, “Oh, yeah, use it all! I don’t care! Use everything! Anything you put in there is going to look good on me. Use it all. Fine.” And it took that long to get permission from him and then we sat there for 30 or 40 minutes and schmoozed. [Laughter.] Yeah. It was terrific. Very pleasant. He made us coffee. He told us stories about the old days. Very nice. Then we go to National for the appointment and got nothing but grief.

GROTH: Really?

WRIGHTSON: Right. One of the things we wanted to do was print all of the Swamp Thing covers, full page black-and-white. “No, you can’t do the whole run. You can do the whole run, but you have to print them in color from the comic book.” And I immediately blurted out, “Well that sounds like a goddamn perfect waste of a few pages of good color,” and it seemed like when I said that, they insisted that I do it their way. That’s why it’s in there. There are like these weird arbitrary conditions they put down. We wanted to print some representative pages from the mystery stuff and they said we couldn’t do that. But they let us print that whole Plop! story, “Gourmet” in its entirety. And everything we wanted to do they countered with some reason why we couldn’t do it. And we weren’t asking for anything unreasonable. This book would have been another 50 pages longer if we had gotten everything in the National chapter that we wanted to. As it turns out, the National chapter is real skimpy. So we spend two or three hours up there in the office, arguing with Jenette about all the stuff we can and can’t do and why we can’t do it.

GROTH: Who actually wanted you to publish things like the covers? Was that Jenette?

WRIGHTSON: I don’t know where that came from. I don’t think it was Jenette. That came from upstairs somewhere. The kicker, the punch line comes a few weeks later when Chris gets a bill from National for $1,500.

GROTH: For what?

WRIGHTSON: For the rights to publish this stuff.

GROTH: Did he have to pay it?

WRIGHTSON: He never did. I hope he never does. Fifteen hundred dollars. They really need the money to print whatever it is, the 20, 30 pages. Jesus, petty fucking people.

WHITE: Just to put a burr up your ass or something.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And we didn’t even have to go to Marvel. Chris wrote a letter to Stan saying he was doing this book, lots of color, this many pages, blah, blah, blah, very big deal. We’d like to use selected pieces Berni Wrightson did for you. Stan wrote back and again, carte blanche. He said use anything or everything, and citing pretty much the same reasons that Warren gave, saying it’s only going to reflect well on me and the company.

GROTH: DC really is anal retentive.

WRIGHTSON: Jesus. Those people … I just couldn’t believe it. So it didn’t come as too much of a surprise when the whole Swamp Thing crap happened. Why is it like beating my head against a wall dealing with these people?

GROTH: Will you ever deal with DC or Marvel again?

WRIGHTSON: Marvel I have nothing against. Back at the time they pulled that business on King Kull, they were doing that to everybody. That was just kind of symptomatic of what Marvel was at the time and they don’t really do that any more. They’ve gotten a hell of a lot more reasonable in recent years. In fact, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the new contracts that Marvel is offering, but these things are just dreamy. And as soon as I’ve got some time, I’m definitely going to work for them. I’m going to do something. I’d love to do a horror book for Shooter. But I just don’t want to commit myself until things open up a bit. I’ve got a few other things on the fire right now. But National, never again. Those people have screwed me for the last time.

GROTH: Ever work for Warren again?

WRIGHTSON: I don’t see why not. I just haven’t really gotten around to it. As far as I’m concerned, I’m still on good terms with Warren.

GROTH: What do you think of stuff like 1994?

WRIGHTSON: I don’t even look at it. I hardly ever buy comics.

GROTH: You just read The Comics Journal to keep up.

WRIGHTSON: Only sporadically. [Laughter.] Only when your subscription department sees fit to send it to me.

GROTH: When you got out of comics, you started painting, which was another entirely new departure for you.

WRIGHTSON: I dabbled a bit before that.

GROTH: The paintings that really impressed me here were the paintings from Poe.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, they were some of my few oil paintings.

GROTH: How did you tackle painting when you really got into it seriously?

WRIGHTSON: You mean technically?

GROTH: Yeah.

WRIGHTSON: It was basically not knowing anything. I was living in Queens when I started the Poe portfolio and I had done the Telltale Heart there. Jeff [Jones] was living upstate, and I went up to visit him and I brought up a canvas and started working on that there, “Descent into the Maelstrom.” And I remember going into his studio, early in the morning and he was already there, working on something of his. And I set this thing up on a spare easel, and he said, “Oh, you’re going to start painting, huh?” And I said, “Yeah yeah, I’ll give it a shot.” And he said, “You’ve got a blank canvas.” I said, “Yeah, I know what I’m going to do.” So I squirt out some paint on the palette and just start picking up these great gobs of paint with the brush, whap, whap, whap. He was appalled. “You can’t do that! You can’t do that! You’ve got to lay some groundwork, lay some underpainting.” He was frantic that I was just laying this stuff on. And I’m starting to paint water directly on there. Waves are starting to appear. “You can’t do it, you can’t do it!” And I got real discouraged because he’s a painter, he should know. So I didn’t do any more work that weekend. Just kind of hung around, walking through the woods and all, wondering what I was doing wrong. So I don’t have any really conventional method of working. It’s whatever seems good at the time.

GROTH: You’re a real autodidact.

WRIGHTSON: I beg your pardon. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Self-taught.

WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah. Listen, care for a cookie?

GROTH: No, thanks.

WRIGHTSON: Oh, these are good. These are the kind that are never crisp. They’re always kind of soggy. [Laughter.] I like soggy stuff.

GROTH: I can’t wait to transcribe that. [Laughter.]

WRIGHTSON: I got real pissed off when as I was growing up, about 12 or 13, you couldn’t find a cereal that got soggy in milk anymore because the big selling point was that the cereal stayed crispy. I like a cereal that just sops it up. Becomes soup. Like the old corn flakes. Nowadays you can leave the corn flakes in there for a day or two and they get soggy.

GROTH: Let them soak overnight and then come back the next morning.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, right. But I like that stuff. I like granola now, because that gets soggy.

GROTH: You do have certain peculiar tastes. One of them is the painting called “Momentos,” which you characterized as not a sick picture. And you said, “Had I gone for that effect, I would have put feet on the fence instead of the heads.” I thought this was an interesting revelation. Can you talk about why the feet would have made it a sicker picture?


WRIGHTSON: It’s because when you think of things like axe murderers, most people have this kind of pigeonhole that they put someone like an axe murderer into. This kind of comic-book thing of a guy with an axe chopping off somebody’s head. Somehow it makes it easier to deal with. And you can talk about axe murderers, “Oh yeah, axe murderers, hahahaha.”

GROTH: It’s become accepted.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. In a strange kind of way because it’s a cliché, the axe murderer chopping off a person’s head. Whereas a real axe murderer might not go after a head, or any particular part of the body. Maybe just be concerned with killing you, maybe chop you in the chest or something. Nothing gets severed, really. But if you’re going to sever something, it seems a lot more horrible to me to think of a row of severed hands or, worse than that, fingers, just all lined up on a shelf or something, than heads. It’s like a head, a complete severed head—I mean, let’s get into this—sitting on a shelf, there is still that humanity about it. Gruesome as it is, it could be somebody sticking a head through the wall playing a joke. So there’s still this association with humanity attached to it. But you get to something like toes or kneecaps, elbows …

GROTH: And you know there’s a guy out there without elbows.

WRIGHTSON: Right. It’s like suddenly, “Oh my God!” The other thing is, you can cut somebody’s toes off and they can still live. Cut somebody’s head off, that’s pretty much it, except for some, um, athletes. Even like whole limbs. You can cut off a whole leg and there could be a person out there without a leg. So thereby hangs a tale.

GROTH: It’s the implication that’s so creepy.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Whereas the head, that’s it. There are headless bodies laying somewhere and they are most certainly dead. But if you get into other parts of the body you become increasingly creepy. I have the feeling I’m not explaining things terribly well today, but we’re covering a lot of ground so, why not? [Laughter.]

GROTH: I don’t know where to go from that. [Laughter.]

WHITE: I remember there’s a quote in the book that says you like axe murderers.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I think that was at a point in the interview where I was getting tired and just kind of running out of things to say.

GROTH: One thing I’m curious about, and this probably has no bearing on the interview. All your quotations in the book didn’t sound like you. I know how you talk and you’re very informal and casual. It sounded like you were being more formal, more careful.

WRIGHTSON: There were spots in there where I went over it and Chris cleaned it up too. Because I told him I didn’t want an interview where you put in all the “you knows” and “uhs,” stuff like that. So he kind of went through there and chopped bits and pieces.

GROTH: Why don’t you think people don’t kill other people? Neal [Adams] has a theory about this and I just wanted to get yours.

WRIGHTSON: Why people kill other people?

GROTH: No, why people don’t kill other people.

WRIGHTSON: But people do kill other people.

WHITE: End of discussion. [Laughter.]

WRIGHTSON: I mean, it’s on the news every day.

WHITE: Why do you think people do kill other people?

WRIGHTSON: Because they’re there. [Laughter.] It’s because person A has something that person B wants. And to person B the only way he’s going to get it is to kill person A.

GROTH: Why the hell didn’t I think of that when Neal was telling me? Neal gave me a theory about why people don’t kill other people and I don’t know why I didn’t sit there and say, “But Neal, people do kill other people.”

WRIGHTSON: What’s his theory, briefly?

GROTH: It’s because people won’t trust you if you go around killing a lot of people. You’ll become untrustworthy. The way Neal explained it …

WRIGHTSON: Is he talking about primitive man now?

GROTH: No, this was modern technological society. Say I killed your wife, you wouldn’t trust me any more.

WRIGHTSON: No, I probably wouldn’t. [Laughter.]

GROTH: And that’s why I don’t do it. [More laughter.]

WRIGHTSON: But, on the other hand, I’d probably kill you. [Laughter.]

GROTH: That’s probably true too. [Laughter.]

WRIGHTSON: So that kind of throws the people not killing each other theory out the window.

GROTH: Neal pontificated on this for about a page in the magazine.

WRIGHTSON: If everybody realized that then nobody would kill anybody. We wouldn’t have war …

GROTH: If we could get you and Neal together. I think we’d have a fascinating conversation.

WRIGHTSON: It wouldn’t go very far because Neal and I, and this goes back a long way, don’t argue. Invariably, we’d have a discussion and it would reach a point where I could see no point in going on, because Neal was completely wrong and I was completely right, and I would just shut up, leaving Neal with no one to argue with.

WHITE: And very sad.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And not a little angry. And I remember he got pissed off quite a few times at that. Where I would just kind of end the thing by saying “You’re wrong.” [Laughter.] And not saying anything. He’s becoming increasingly “Space Cadetish.”

Panels from Adams’s “The House that Haunted Batman.”

GROTH: Wait until you read the interview. It’s really something.

WRIGHTSON: I’m looking forward to it.

GROTH: Neal always sounds very reasonable.

WRIGHTSON: Well, he’s always been that way. There was a time when he could have probably convinced me that the sky was pink.

GROTH: You did a book for Neal, didn’t you?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Freak Show.

GROTH: Has that ever been published?

WRIGHTSON: It’s in the process of coming out in Spain.

GROTH: Because you did that about two years ago.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. When did I finish that? Last year? Yeah.

GROTH: We published a couple of pages from it. It looked like nice work.

WRIGHTSON: It was pretty good.

GROTH: You wrote it yourself?

WRIGHTSON: Bruce [Jones] did. I don’t know when it’s going to come out over here. Heavy Metal wants it, but they seem to have some kind of problem with Neal about it and I don’t know what that’s all about. But it’s coming out in Spain now.

GROTH: Is it going to be in color?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, it’s sort of in color. I’m not happy at all with the reproduction.

GROTH: You’ve seen it?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I’ve seen one segment of it. And I’m not happy at all. Michelle [Berni’s wife] colored it and it looks like they didn’t photograph it right to begin with and then they had somebody retouch it, because it photographed pale, or something. She colored it very carefully with watercolor, brushwork and all, and they came and did the retouching with what looks like magic marker, solid colors, whacking away at it. Really looks bad.

MICHELLE WRIGHTSON: And it’s just in this Spanish Creepy. [Laughter.]

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I thought it was going to be … Well, originally it was going to be Pilote, but there was some problem with that. And then I thought it was going to be some frankly, more prestigious Spanish thing. And it’s in the Spanish version of Creepy.

GROTH: I hope they don’t use the same coloring over here.

WRIGHTSON: They will.

GROTH: They will?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. That was part of the deal, that they get the separations cheap.

GROTH: That’s a real goddamn shame.


GROTH: It would be almost better to print it in black-and-white. I really like your black-and-white work.

WRIGHTSON: It takes a lot more time.


GROTH: I mean, you’re one of the few people, who, if you do a comic strip, adding color doesn’t mean that much to it. And I almost prefer the black-and-white in a lot of cases.

WRIGHTSON: Well, it depends. If I’m working for color …

GROTH: You did this specifically working for color?

WRIGHTSON: Oh yeah. So there are lots of open areas … Actually, this thing might hold up in black 6k white.

GROTH: The pages I saw were in black-and-white and they looked good.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. This would probably hold up more than Creepshow. Because that was really done for color. There are lots of wide-open areas. In fact, in a lot of places, no line to hold the color, and the color helped that an awful lot.

GROTH: I want to talk about your Frankenstein project. You’ve been at it for a long time now.

WRIGHTSON: It looks like it’s finally going to come out sometime soon.

GROTH: Is it completed?

Thumbnail from Frankenstein.

WRIGHTSON: Yes, it is completed. There were one or two drawings to go, and I just came to the realization recently that I’m probably never going to do them. I’ve probably burned myself out on the Frankenstein project, and if I keep holding it up to do a couple more drawings the thing will never get done. So I’ve decided that … I took a look again through the structure of the thing and I thought that I would have to do a drawing or else I’d have a chapter or something without an illustration or there would be some kind of imbalance. But it turns out that there isn’t, so …

Yeah, I was going to get on it before this happened [banging cast], so I guess sometime this summer if I can squeeze it in between everything else that’s going on.

GROTH: Are you going to publish the book yourself?

WRIGHTSON: Definitely, yeah. It’s reached a point now where I couldn’t possibly let somebody else do it and expect to make any money. I’d be losing money anyway, except by doing it myself. And even then, I’ll probably lose money, so …

GROTH: What format is the book going to be in? It can’t be small.

WRIGHTSON: No. It’s going to be hardback, about so big …

GROTH: Similar to A Look Back?

WRIGHTSON: Maybe an inch smaller all around. Maybe 8 ½” x 11” then. Or whatever the next standard size is, down from that.

GROTH: Is it going to be on 800 pound paper? [Laughter.]

WRIGHTSON: I’m not really sure, that’s something else I’ll have to check. I want something pretty opaque. But it’s going to be all black-and-white, there aren’t going to be any color illustrations.

GROTH: A color painting for the cover?

WRIGHTSON: No, no. The cover, if you go up to use the bathroom, you’ll see it. It’s hanging up in the hall. Or even if you don’t have to use the bathroom. It’s a wraparound cover, black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawing. With maybe a second color for the title.

GROTH: You probably don’t even know, but about how many copies are you going to print and where are you going to sell it?

WRIGHTSON: Well, I’m planning to print around 5,000 copies for the first printing, maybe more. I’ll probably be wholesaling it mostly to comics shops everywhere. I’ll be handling a bit of retail sales myself, but certainly not too much. Because that becomes a full time job. I’ve got the thing pretty well structured for a wholesale business.

GROTH: How do you go about selecting which scenes from the novel to illustrate?

WRIGHTSON: It isn’t easy, it really isn’t.

The final version.

GROTH: You must know that book inside and out.

WRIGHTSON: Oh, boy do I ever. I’m so sick of it. [Laughter.] It’s a ridiculous book. It really is silly. The thing just defies all logic and all good sense, but what the hell, it’s fun. As far as selecting things, I have a stack of drawings this big that aren’t going to appear in the thing. Finished, complete drawings and these things don’t get knocked out in a couple of hours. I spent a few days on them. You can put that much time into doing a drawing, and really become involved with it and everything, and then decide you’re not going to use it. Or, what’s even worse, deciding that you don’t like it. After investing all that time and energy into it and really being convinced that you’re doing a great picture, and get the whole thing done after a week’s work, and you look at it and go, “Nah.”

GROTH: I’ve never heard an artist say that after putting so much time into it he just didn’t like the drawing.

WRIGHTSON: I don’t know how many artists go through that. I certainly do. Not all the time. Most of what I’ve done, I like. I like to look at my stuff. But still, there’s an awful lot of stuff I do that I just put a lot of time and energy into before it really connects that this ain’t a good picture and I don’t like it.

GROTH: It’s surprising to me that you wouldn’t make that determination far before it’s finished.

WRIGHTSON: Surprising to me, too. I mean, sometimes I do. Sometimes it doesn’t get beyond a pencil drawing. Just look at it and say, “This ain’t working,” and put it aside. But more often than not, I just finish the thing, and then decide that it’s a piece of garbage. [Laughter.]

GROTH: How many drawings are going to be in the book?

WRIGHTSON: About 40 full-page illustrations, give or take one or two.

GROTH: I think at one point you said you had 100 possible illustrations but decided it looked like a Big Little Book or something.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. I really had to cut it down. With that, there would have literally been a drawing every other page. And that was just too much. If you’re going to go that far, do a comic book.

GROTH: This also sounds like one of the few projects where you didn’t run out of steam near the end.

WRIGHTSON: Well, actually I did kind of run out of steam. And that’s been the problem for the past couple of years. I haven’t done anything on it in at least a year, maybe more. So I really have run out of steam. I’ve just been putting it off, saying I’ll get around to it. And, like I say, I just came to the realization maybe two months ago, that I better get this sucker out soon or it’s just not going to get done.

GROTH: Do you have a problem where your technique might change over the period of doing the drawings so that you can tell the early drawings from the later drawings?

WRIGHTSON: Well, you can, actually. I can. Because the technique improved. It’s kind of strange. The technique improved, and then it got too good. Or, like I was saying earlier on, it became too easy. And I can see that. I don’t know if anybody else will. But there’s a middle period, fortunately it’s a very broad middle period, of what I consider to be the best stuff. On the early stuff, the technique isn’t quite there, and on the later stuff the technique is completely overpowering. To me, anyway.

GROTH: Can you elaborate on that, when your technique improves? How do you improve your technique? Is it the quality of line?

WRIGHTSON: It’s a question of getting to know what you’re doing.

GROTH: Control?

WRIGHTSON: No, not control. Well, control has something to do with it. But that’s not everything, because the control was there all along, but it was just knowing what to do with those lines. I’m kind of aping Franklin Booth on this thing, I’m trying to do it all with single lines varying in thickness, to kind of imitate an old steel engraving or woodcut. So there’s not a lot of cross-hatching. There’s not a lot of that kind of pen texture. So it’s … Well, let’s call it an engraving technique, with a pen. It’s just taking this engraving technique and after you’ve done 20 or 30 pictures, you really start getting the hang of what a line this thick is going to do when you narrow it down across the space of seven inches to a hairline. And then lay another line exactly like it, next to it. And the next one is a little bit thinner so you can get a gradation. And after a while it becomes remarkably easy to do it. It does for me, anyway. And I don’t think I’m going to be using this technique much after this. I’m going to find something else.

GROTH: Is there a point where you can over-embellish?

WRIGHTSON: Oh, hell, there’s always that point. Yeah. I always run that risk. There are so many things of mine that are just overdone. I could have used that fabled “second artist” standing over my shoulder to take it away when it was finished.

Illustration for Frankenstein that didn’t make it into the final book.

GROTH: Again, about the Frankenstein book, what I’m interested in finding out is what is the intent of the illustrations? Are you intent upon adding another dimension to the novel?

WRIGHTSON: Not really. I started this in 1976. All this time, and all this work, all this effort and aggravation and what not have gone into this simply to embellish this old book. Which, when I started out, I thought was a terrific book. Now, six years have gone by, and I don’t think it’s such a terrific book, anymore. Okay, we’ve got some good drawings to go in there, some of them are spectacular. And for anybody who does like the book, this is going to be a real good edition of it. My personal feelings have nothing to do with that at all. You should just buy the book because you want it, and enjoy it, and don’t worry about how I feel. When I did the drawings, I was really involved with the book and my intentions were really good when I did them. They had to be or my drawings wouldn’t be that good. I really believe that an artist can’t communicate to a viewer unless he really pours himself into it and tries to do that. And I tried to do it with that, and they work. So, I’m not apologizing for that, I’m not apologizing for anything, I’m just saying that I’m glad I’m still not doing it, because my attitude has changed completely.

GROTH: It sounds like you think a little less of the book now than when you first started.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I guess I do.

GROTH: Who are some of your favorite authors?

WRIGHTSON: Stephen King.

GROTH: Poe, I guess? Or isn’t he one of your favorites?

WRIGHTSON: He was real good to start out with, but I don’t think I’d ever read him again. Wells, H.G. Wells, in limited doses.

GROTH: Lovecraft?

WRIGHTSON: Nah. He was always a little too ponderous. I have a hard time with the language. There are a few things that he’s done that I’ve really enjoyed, but for the most part I can’t take him.

GROTH: What do you like about King?

WRIGHTSON: What do I like about King? Damn near everything. The guy has an uncanny knack for creating characters who are people that you know, just really solid people. A storyteller par excellence. Absolutely riveting from the first page. A terrific command of the language and colloquialism and slang and bullshit and whatever. And on top of that, he can scare the fucking pants off me.

GROTH: That’s what friends tell me.

WRIGHTSON: Have you ever read him?

GROTH: No, I never have. And friends have told me that they’ve actually gotten frightened reading his books. And I can’t imagine that.

WRIGHTSON: If you’ve never experienced that, I envy you. Because I wish I could re-experience that feeling for the first time.

GROTH: I keep intending to read The Shining, but I’ve not gotten around to it.

WRIGHTSON: I think you ought to start out with Salem’s Lot.

WHITE: How about Firestarter?

WRIGHTSON: Firestarter and Salem’s Lot, I think, are the two best stories he’s written.

GROTH: Did you see the King story in the Marvel comic?

WRIGHTSON: “Lawnmower Man,” yeah.

GROTH: What did you think of that?

WRIGHTSON: I thought Walt went a little bit off the deep end on that. Hard to explain. I like Walt’s stuff. It’s hard to talk about it with King’s stuff because when I read the story I saw it completely differently. So I see Walt’s thing, and for the most part, I disagreed with it.

GROTH: Did you disagree with the caricature aspect?

WRIGHTSON: No, no. Because that’s one of the things I like about Walt. I’ll tell you the thing that really bothered me was the layout. Usually, Walt’s stuff makes perfect sense. It’s just easy, you can breeze right through it. That one for some reason, boy, it just kept getting in the way. I was constantly reminded that I was reading a comic book that was trying to force my eye in directions that it didn’t want to go.

GROTH: Did you like the story?

WRIGHTSON: I liked the story, yeah. And I like a lot of Walt’s intentions, what he was trying to do with it, and for me, he just didn’t succeed. Maybe he succeeded for everybody else and I’m just funny that way.

GROTH: Did you like his Alien?

WRIGHTSON: I loved his Alien. That was with a little trepidation, because they offered it to me first, and I turned it down, because they said, “we want it last week.” I think they had two months for 48, or 64 pages. It might have been something like 48 pages in a month or 64 pages in two months or something absolutely ridiculous like that. Full color. I reluctantly turned it down, because they were ready to fly me to England right away. And I’d never been to England.

GROTH: Did you see the movie?


GROTH: Did you like it?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, the movie’s a classic, I love it. I’ve seen it four times.

GROTH: We just saw it again a couple of weeks ago. It’s great for midnight shows.

WRIGHTSON: I don’t like Giger’s work. I don’t like his painting.

GROTH: Why don’t you like it?

WRIGHTSON: I don’t know if I can explain. His work seems very affected to me. Phony isn’t the right word. But there seems to be too much reliance on a certain set of devices recurring, and recurring. And I don’t like to see that. Stylistically I don’t mind seeing a recurring style, because that’s what you have, but Giger doesn’t strike me as having as strong a style as he does a reliance on objects and paraphernalia.

GROTH: It’s not genuine.

WRIGHTSON: Yes and no. That’s sort of it, but not quite. It’s a real hard thing to put your finger on. This is all a prelude to saying that the stuff he did in Alien was brilliant. For that movie, it just worked so well. And I just don’t think we’ll ever see anything like it.

GROTH: And we’re all in love with Sigourney Weaver.

WRIGHTSON: Oh, yeah, yeah. What a heartthrob.

GROTH: And Moebius, of course, designed some material for the movie. Do you like Moebius’s work?

WRIGHTSON: What I’ve seen of it, yeah. Actually Kaluta pointed it out to me, it was in The Making of Alien, it had all these sketches and everything. I don’t know how, but we got into talking about Ron Cobb. Evidently Michael doesn’t have a real high opinion of Ron and said, “Look at this,” and he shows me the book and we’re flipping through it. And I get to the costume designs. And I’m flipping through and I get to the Moebius design, which is the one they used. And I said, “Boy that’s Moebius, huh.” And Michael said, “Yeah! That’s it exactly! Right! That’s it!” And I said, “What are you talking about?” “You just flipped through 15 pages of Ron Cobb’s costume designs and Moebius comes through with one picture and they pick it!” [Laughter.]

GROTH: Let’s get in to what you like in terms of art. Not necessarily specific artists, but what do you look for? What kind of thing do you pick up on?

WRIGHTSON: Mostly, I’m really fascinated with the stuff I can’t do.

GROTH: Which would be?

WRIGHTSON: Just about everything. When you come right down to it, I’m really pretty limited about what I can and can’t do. I really admire technical facility. Not really as an end to itself, but abstractly. You can have all the technical facility in the world, and still make bad pictures, I realize that. But, still, there’s something about being able to whip something out with no effort at all, or draw a perfectly straight line with a brush, or do a perfect circle. And working with airbrush … I’m just envious as hell of people who can do that. Although, strangely enough, most of the work I’ve seen done by airbrush, I can’t stand.

GROTH: Do you like [Richard] Corben?

WRIGHTSON: When he doesn’t rely too much on the airbrush, yeah.

GROTH: About 3 percent of the time.

WRIGHTSON: [Laughter.] Yeah. No, I like a lot of what Rich does. And I’m probably pretty typical. I probably like the same things about him that you do. And dislike the same things.

GROTH: What about underground artists? I’ve never heard you talk about them. Ever. Do you follow them, do you like them?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I like most of the guys for different reasons. I always think of Corben as an underground artist. And I think as far as an artist he’s the top. And there are a lot of other guys like S. Clay Wilson, I really like. And I don’t like his drawing especially much. But I like what he does with it. That certain twist of mind that he has. Crumb, of course. Bill Griffith I think is a genius. I really like his stuff. Zippy the Pinhead.

GROTH: Have you seen Raw?

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, I’ve seen an issue or two. I haven’t really had time to sit down and go through it, so I can’t really comment on it.

GROTH: There are a lot of strange things in there.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, Art [Spiegelman]’s kind of off-the-wall. He’s a character. I like Art. Did you ever get to see his lecture?

GROTH: Well, not really. He invited me over, but I haven’t gone yet.

WRIGHTSON: Actually, I kind of like early Chester Gould stuff. Again, not for the drawing but the guy was a hell of a yarn-spinner and the stuff … well, for the last 25 years, it’s been anemic as hell. But early on, it was really grim. Gangbusters stuff. No-holds-barred stories with these great characters like Flattop, Puss Face, and all these people.

GROTH: [Laughter.] How about the newspaper strips? Did you like Harold Gray?

WRIGHTSON: I haven’t seen newspaper strips in so long …  

GROTH: McCay … any of the old stuff?

WRIGHTSON: I love all the old stuff. Yeah. Little Nemo and Hal Foster, we talked about him before.

GROTH: Of course, nothing like that is being done these days.

WRIGHTSON: Well, that’s it, you know. Prince Valiant is just a joke.

GROTH: It’s really tragic.

WRIGHTSON: Well, of the funnies up here, Prince Valiant is the only straight thing. And the rest of it’s all humor stuff. And I’m not too crazy about most of the humor stuff either. Ever since Doonesbury everybody’s coming along, being laid back, in the goddamn humor things, and … Whatever happened to people being hit on the head, and pies and stuff, Sure, it’s probably just fallen out of fashion and will come back, but I really miss that stuff. Slipping on banana peels.

GROTH: Yeah, there’s nothing like McCay, Herriman, and Feininger today.

WRIGHTSON: It’s probably reflecting the mood of the country. All conservative and wimpy.

GROTH: Feiffer’s good.

WRIGHTSON: Feiffer’s always good. Feiffer has just been consistently brilliant through the years. Charles Schulz has gotten tired, I think. I think he started getting tired with the goddamn Red Baron. That wore out its welcome.

GROTH: It seems like when someone does something for 20 or 30 years, he just starts to burn out.

WRIGHTSON: I don’t see how these guys can keep up with it. The only guy I know personally that does a strip is Williamson, and he’s not even doing that one any more. He’s doing the Star Wars strip now.

GROTH: Yeah, he quit Agent X-9.

WRIGHTSON: Right. I haven’t talked to him in years but I’ve heard that he is so much happier now. I mean, he’s finally away from civilian stuff and he can do people in boots and tights and outrageous machinery and stuff.

GROTH: The pay has to be better.

WRIGHTSON: Oh, I don’t know, the money was always good. Although it’s probably better, astronomically better, with Star Wars, than it ever was with Corrigan. Because Corrigan was never carried by that many papers. But he was still making a hell of a good living at that.

GROTH: What about Captain Sternn, speaking of such things?

WRIGHTSON: I did the strip, just for the hell of it, and never really had Heavy Metal in mind and Jeff came over and wanted to know what I was going to do with it, and I said I didn’t know. You think maybe Heavy Metal? He said, sure. But it wasn’t done for anybody but me. I started it while I was living in Florida, I was working on Frankenstein down there. Got bored and felt like doing a strip, so I did Captain Sternn. Got bored with that, put it aside. We moved up here and were here for a few months and then I completely forgot about it and I was digging through some old stuff and ran across it and said, “Aw Hell, I ought to finish this up.”

GROTH: What did you think of the animation?

WRIGHTSON: I was tremendously pleased with it.

GROTH: I thought it was the best thing in the movie.

WRIGHTSON: Well, I tried to convince myself that I liked the movie. I saw it twice. And then came to the realization that I couldn’t stand the movie, but I did like my part of it. And thought there was nothing wrong with that, because that’s the way it is, isn’t it? I think mine was the truest, the truest to its original form, and stayed the closest to me stylistically. And I can’t think of the guys’ names who did it, but I never talked to them, was never in contact with them. But they put their finger on the exact quality I was going for with that. Just this kind of Warner Brothers feeling. And I’m real gratified that they picked up on that immediately.

GROTH: Are you much of a film buff?

WRIGHTSON: More or less, I guess. But I don’t get out to the movies much. Certainly not now [points to leg].

GROTH: Are you kind of isolated out here?

WRIGHTSON: Not really. Kingston is 10, 15 miles away and they’ve got five theatres over there with seven more on the way. Of course, they do a lot of Smokey and the Bandit and they’re still waiting for Chariots of Fire. So they do a lot of good old boy, redneck, kick ass, drive-in stuff up here. [Laughter.] But they still get some good stuff. If you haven’t seen it yet, see the new Richard Pryor movie. It is devastating.

GROTH: Which one?

WRIGHTSON: Live on the Sunset Strip. Well, see them both actually. Because he is so good. He’s just got to be the funniest man alive.

WHITE: In the world.

WRIGHTSON: Outside of Jerry Lewis. [Laughter.]

GROTH: What kind of movies do you like? You said you liked horror movies.

WRIGHTSON: I love comedies. Horror movies. I loved Reds and Ragtime, whatever you want to call those. Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, pretty much what everyone else likes. I’m fairly typical in that respect, except that I like a lot of really bad horror movies that most other people don’t. [Laughter.]

GROTH: You have to love Tod Browning’s Freaks.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. Well I think you had to have grown up in the ’50s. That’s a big part of it. You had to have grown up during the days when you had a double-feature, bad science fiction movie every week. Always involving giant bugs or some kind of thing.

GROTH: And then you get addicted.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah. And those things were so bad. Of course, they only cost a quarter, for two movies. No, it was 50 cents.

GROTH: Yeah, you aren’t that old.

WRIGHTSON: Maybe that was a matinee or something, because I remember standing in line half way around the block when Rhodan was playing. Which was one of your all time bad Japanese movies. But I just loved it. He’d flap his wings and the buses would go flying off into the air. [Laughter.]

GROTH: All the toy buses went flying into the toy buildings. [Laughter.] You didn’t like The Shining much.

WRIGHTSON: I was real disappointed in The Shining. I saw it twice, once in the theatre and once on HBO at a friend’s house. I had great hopes for that. I thought, “Stephen King, Stanley Kubrick, Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Scatman Crothers, Wow! It’s got to be great!”

GROTH: Nicholson gave a really effective portrait of a loony.

WRIGHTSON: Yeah, but the thing that really disappointed me was that he was acting too crazy too early. I mean, he’s supposed to be a little bit troubled at the beginning, but he doesn’t become a raving lunatic until later on. But you don’t trust this man from the very beginning. And Shelley Duvall was even a little on the weird side. And it wasn’t their fault. It was Kubrick, the direction.

GROTH: Duvall twitching and smoking cigarettes constantly. She looked a little off.


GROTH: So, what are you doing now?

WRIGHTSON: Well, I’m just kind of laying around. Just starting to read The Stand for about the fifth time.

GROTH: You mean you haven’t started it five times, you’ve actually read it?

WRIGHTSON: I’ve read it four times and I’m starting in on my fifth.

GROTH: Holy hell.

WRIGHTSON: I’ve read just about everything he’s ever written at least twice. And it takes a really good writer to get me to read something more than once. I mean, he’s good even when you know what’s coming. You can go through it a second time and just marvel at how well he manipulates you. And you have to marvel at it because you can’t figure out how he does it. It just works. It gets you all fired up and interested the second time around. Not many people can do that.

GROTH: Well we certainly should ridicule your volleyball feat here [pointing to Berni’s broken leg].

WRIGHTSON: I figure I have a slot reserved for me in the Volleyball Hall of Fame. There aren’t many people who can fall on themselves and break their leg.

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The Skip Williamson Interview Mon, 20 Mar 2017 12:00:27 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

Photo by Harriet Hiland.

From The Comics Journal #104 (January 1986)

Of all the underground artists, few seem as simultaneously linked to their moment yet transcendently funny as “Flippy” Skip Williamson. With his flat-blacks and obsessive crosshatching, his broadly self-reflective caricatures, Williamson’s combination of Kurtzman-inspired cartoonery, hallucinogenic political analysis, and midwestem moralizing made him the ideal reporter of Life in the Hog Butcher circa ’68–’74. The most political of underground humorists (in the most thuggishly political of American cities), Williamson began as just another fanboy artist in the days of many Mad-imitation fanzines, gravitated to the Chicago alternative press (first in Jay Lynch’s short-lived magazine Chicago Mirror, later in the Seed plus sundry Yippie-edited papers), then joined forces with Lynch and R. Crumb in producing Bijou #1, one of the earliest, longest-running undergrounds.

Williamson’s underground style, steeped in Art Deco flatness and crammed with calculatedly unhip scatology (“Holy cow! Some elephant doody!”), carried the same joyful resonance―the love of doing comix that nobody would’ve dared to do 10 years earlier―that sparks Crumb’s early work. But where Crumb’s primary comics aim was introspective, concerned with the character of those living through the ’60s (himself included, of course), Williamson took a broader look, skewering both left-wing trendiness and rightwing overreaction to a time of much-publicized leftwing trendiness. Crumb’s approach may have been more personal, more artistically “legitimate,” but to those of us struggling to make sense of the sociopolitical chaos, Williamson was frequently the funnier.

Bijou #1 first introduced Snappy Sammy Smoot, Williamson’s middle-aged innocent in confrontation with the times. A compulsive and naive nice-guy, brilliantined Smoot strove to find his place in the volatile counter-culture, only to be repeatedly mauled and exploited by the folks he thought were on his side. Despite his open alignment with leftist radical politics of the day (exemplified by Conspiracy Capers, a Williamson-edited one-shot done to raise money for the Chicago Seven), Williamson maintained a satirist’s skepticism about the era’s elevation of rhetoric over humanity. In “Sammy Smoot Gets Assassinated” (Bijou #3), for instance, our hero is killed by an “over-zealous” government man, given the chance to return to life by the devil only to be stomped to death by zealous radicals rioting in protest of Smoot’s first demise. The road to hell is paved with zealotry, Williamson seems to be saying.

Sammy Smoot lived through it all―drug experimentation, Weather-styled revolutionary mayhem, hip Christianity, serial killing, intergalactic encounters―with his innocence unscathed. (Compared to Sammy, Candide was a hardnosed intellectual.) In later issues of Bijou, Williamson introduced Ragtime Billy, a rightwing foil based on the midwest radio commentator Paul (“Fellow Americans”) Harvey. Crew-cut and loudmouthed, unswerving in his dogmatism, Billy thrives where Sammy gets victimized, a comment both on the rapid-fire obsolescence of the period’s countercultural trends and our country’s unwaveringly conservative backbone. In one strip Billy wiped out most of the United States with a broadcast of his bigoted diatribe yet remained unpunished. (One can’t help but think today of our current regime’s reluctance to pursue present-day reactionary abortion clinic bombers―or to even label them “terrorists.”) If anyone really wishes to know when the promise(s) of the ’60s and early ’70s weren’t realized, all they need to do is read Skip Williamson’s Bijou strips.

In more recent years, Williamson has maintained a more mainstream (I’m tempted to say “Yuppie”) profile: appearing in Denis Kitchen’s failed attempt at reaching the Marvel audience, Comix Book; working as art director for Playboy (an experience he, typically, would satirize in one of his Comix Book strips); as well as producing a strip for Playboy’s comics section. But for those who lived through the political and cultural quagmire that was the underground era, Skip Williamson is still the quintessential underground comix artist.



GRASS GREEN: Well, Skip, it’s nice being in your office again. I’m wondering, how many of your fans would know that you work for Playboy, and have worked for Playboy for … how long?

SKIP WILLIAMSON: It’ll be eight years in October, 1984. It depends on how close people can keep in touch with what I’m doing. Playboy’s a mass magazine, I would think that more people know about Playboy than knew about the underground comics. I mean, Playboy’s circulation’s a lot more than Bijou’s was.

GREEN: Twenty-eight, 30 million.

WILLIAMSON: Not that many. It’s a broad audience, but it’s probably a different audience. A lot of people don’t read Playboy, too. And some of the people who read the undergrounds don’t read Playboy. I constantly come across folks who say, “Oh, I didn’t know you were there, I don’t buy the magazine because it’s too expensive,” or, “I don’t like it,” or some reason or the other.

GREEN: Well, now they’ll find out. Because even―I won’t mention any names, but even a person of high rank with The Comics Journal wasn’t aware that you were an art director at Playboy.

WILLIAMSON: Even in the early days of the underground comics, I’ve always held a job working in an art studio of some kind, as a designer. I even designed the Post Raisin Bran cereal box. Started out as a keyliner, that’s where everybody starts out, I think. Then, in the meantime we did the comics, and I worked my way up through various magazines art directing, and then up here, which is fairly illustrious, really, in terms of art directing magazines. I can virtually go to any artist I want. It’s been a learning situation for conceptual thinking, which is a lot like writing cartoons.

GREEN: Yes, and 1 think that the idea that working for Playboy, the kind of cartoons and stuff that they use, any of the old lechers like me, who come up with a really good idea regarding sex and all that kind of stuff, they still have this outlet, without being considered the old style pornographer, you know? I mean, get to draw T & A, boobs.

WILLIAMSON: Around here you can be as soft-core as you want.

GREEN: I’m not talking about the gross-out stuff like would be in certain other publications.

WILLIAMSON: You mean in Hustler? You know, I was the first art director for Hustler magazine. I worked with Larry Flynt for about two weeks, and the only thing I really art directed for him was the cover of the first issue and then I left, I quit. But, historically, I was his first art director. So I’ve been in the tits-‘n’-ass business for years. [Laughter.] It’s true, I worked as art director for Gallery magazine when it was in Chicago, for the last six months it was before it moved to New York City. I’ve also worked in massage parlors. So you know, I’ve worked the seamy side of the street.

GREEN: All right. Need an assistant? I was going to ask you if you still do Snappy Sammy Smoot.

WILLIAMSON: I’ve just started a new Snappy Sammy strip. The only problem is that there’s no real outlet for it, but I’ve started one anyway. It’ll probably end up being 10 or 15 pages long. Snappy Sammy being tax audited―

GREEN: I’ve been through that.

WILLIAMSON: Me too. Every year, they come and get me. In the strip Smoot is audited and then he goes home. Ragtime Billy’s there, and Snappy Sammy’s three nephews live with him now. They look just like Snappy Sammy Smoot, except they got punk haircuts, and their names are Huey, Dewey, and Newton. And one of them’s black. I’m doing this strip just because it struck me that I wanted to. I don’t know where or if it’ll be published, but I’m writing. In it Ragtime Billy suggests that Smoot go to a survivalist camp to get away from this tax problem duty.

GREEN: Do you think that the underground market will ever return? Even on a limited, less hostile, less super-duper unedited basis?

WILLIAMSON: It’s still around in some form or the other. I don’t think it’ll have the vigor it had initially. When you come up with a new form like that, there’s a lot of creative energy, and a lot of excitement. There were a cluster of good artists, of course, like Crumb, and Shelton, and Jay Lynch, and all the other people who were involved in the first wave of underground comics. I don’t think you’ll find that kind of vitality in the second wave or in the new wave of comics. There just isn’t the intensity of energy that there was in the early days, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s a progression, it evolves, it continues, there are other ways for people to vent their work, through places like Playboy. There’s Playboy Funnies, you know. There’s the Lampoon, there’s Heavy Metal, there’s RAW, there’s Weirdo. There are a lot of different directions to go. But few of these markets have anywhere near the creative freedom of the original movement.

GREEN: But, there are so many artists nowadays. Clay Geerdes has this little mini-comics thing, and that’s a nice outlet for people who can’t draw but have this need to express themselves to somebody, if it’s 10, 15, 20 people.

WILLIAMSON: And there’s Weirdo. Weirdo’s publishing some artists that I haven’t seen. And then of course, there’s RAW Magazine.

GREEN: I’ve heard a lot about RAW, but I don’t think―

WILLIAMSON: RAW is Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. Art was one of the original Bijou boys. RAW has more of an art with a capital “A” feel to it, it’s a little more serious than some of the goofy stuff that I do. But it’s well done, and it utilizes new artists, a lot of innovative art, and an experimental, large-page format. That’s real nice. A class magazine.

Bijou #5 cover.

GREEN: You mentioned Jay Lynch among others. You’ve known him for a while, haven’t you?

WILLIAMSON: Jay’s an old friend. We started out in the fanzines together, corresponding with each other. This was when I was 15, 16 years old, and the only reason I moved to Chicago was to come up and be with Jay, and start a magazine of some sort. He originally had the idea, and this was before the advent of underground newspapers, around 1963 or so, of publishing something called the Old Town Underground Newspaper. We never did. When I did finally move to Chicago in 1967, we started the Chicago Mirror together, which was kind of a magazine somewhere between the Realist and Mad. It had a lot of psychedelia in it, too. After we did that for three issues, we said, “Hey, we should be doing comic books.” Robert [Crumb] had come out with Zap and Gilbert [Shelton] was about to publish Feds ‘n’ Heds, so we converted the Mirror to a comic book, named it Bijou, and that’s how the whole thing began. Anyway Jay’s always been a strong influence, and a partner. We see each other less now, but we talk on the phone all the time.

I might also say that the concept of Bijou Funnies is not over with. I’ve been talking to Jay for some time now, and suggesting “Let’s do a Bijou that would be like a humor magazine.” I’ve got another Snappy Sammy Smoot strip. Maybe we’ll come out with another issue. We probably will. It’s an open-ended project. It’s been a long rime between issues, but so what? It’s a flexible format and you can do that.

GREEN: When people read this, that should give them something to look forward to.


GREEN: I’m certain that you have gobs and gobs and gobs and gobs and gobs of fans out there, wondering, “Hey, whatever happened to Skip Williamson? I’m dying to see something new by Skip Williamson.”

WILLIAMSON: I’m still around. I’m doing new things all the time. There were some strips in Playboy Funnies, although I tell you, I’m disillusioned with Playboy Funnies. I find them consistently unfunny, and the project stale. I’ve drawn back from it. I was doing a series called Neon Vincent’s Massage Parlor, which is the perfect Skip Williamson vehicle, because the protagonist looks like an insect. He’s a real sleazy kind of operator.

GREEN: He’s got that long mouth and that cigarette sticking out.

WILLIAMSON: Kind of like an anteater look.

GREEN: Yeah! yeah, exactly.

WILLIAMSON: He never takes that cigarette out of his mouth. Then I was doing a series called Nell ‘n’ Void that I liked a lot. Nell ‘n’ Void were a new wave couple, but Playboy decided not to use it any more. They said, “This whole new wave thing is over.” That was three years ago, and I think it just permeated the culture. I’m upset by their lack of humor. I helped initiate the Funnies. Playboy brought me in because I knew comic strips, and said, “Would you put together a funnies section?” So I went to New York, and assembled a group of artists, with Michelle Urry and the cartoon office. We came out with Playboy Funnies, which has been in the magazine ever since, every month. But then, when I stick with a project for a while, I tend to get bored with it. I don’t want to be stuck in a rut, especially under the rule of the bund.

GREEN: It’s true, the Playboy Funnies, like a lot of the daily strips, they’re supposed to be funny, and they’re not. Every now and then Playboy has something in it that really cracks you up, though.

WILLIAMSON: I find that’s seldom true of the Funnies. I find that unfortunately it does look too much like the Sunday papers. The jokes are consistently weak. There are some interesting things, but by and large, the Playboy cartoon office is an inhibiting factor. But I’ve continued to cartoon and I’ve been negotiating with Denis Kitchen, of Kitchen Sink, to publish a sketchbook collection of cartoons. I’ve written a lot of strips that have not gone into final, or a finished stage, but they’re clean and well written. I’ve also been painting on canvasses for about nine years. This was kicked into high gear by the Carl Barks duck paintings. When I first saw those I said, “Wow! That’s a really nice concept. Cartooning on canvas.” Eventually I’ll put together a show of my painting. Another thing that I’ve been working on is a cartoon history of Hugh Hefner. [Laughter.]

It involves about 32 separate cartoons, and they are mainly gag type cartoons. I can be very flexible with it, and Hefner is hot on the project. It’s called “Hefner for Beginners,” and it’s designed to be a six-page cartoon spread in the magazine. Which will be real interesting, full color, the whole shot. When I first presented the idea, the editors were a little skittish, because of my sense of humor. I tend to be a little vicious at times. They were scared to take it out to him. But when he finally got a look at it, Hefner said, “You’re letting this guy hold back too much, let him get freer, let him go after the jugular if he feels like it, that’s his style.” Hefner is very good that way, because he’s always been a frustrated cartoonist himself. He has great admiration for cartoonists. The first time I ever met Hefner, we sat down and we talked for a long while about cartoons. Talked about Jack Cole, talked about people he liked, people I like, and it was just a very nice casual thing.

I’ve been writing a lot. I’m working on producing, directing―as well as having co-scripted―a feature film called TV Dinner. It may be released through Playboy cable, if they want to pick it up. It’s funny, it’s very visual. It’s unlike a lot of the talky kind of sitcoms, or even Saturday Night Live, that sort of thing. It’s more visual. You’ll see the cartoon influence a lot. It’s very fast-paced, and we’re going after characters, exaggeration, and lots of bright colors. So, there’s been a lot going on. I’ve done quite a bit of illustration, too, over the years. Eventually, I want to put together a collection. But is there a market? Are there people out there who are willing to lay down the bucks for a collection of Skip Williamson art?

GREEN: Is this the book you have lying in wait? Wow! I am looking at a veritable stack of Skip’s work, folks. It’s black-and-white, but it’s beautiful from right here.

WILLIAMSON: There are some color things in there. It goes to when I was in college―you know, cartoons, sketches, and some commercial things … posters, caricatures. Here’s one of Slim Whitman. Slim Whitman’s great because he looks like he would have been drawn by me. He’s like a real Skip Williamson character, you know?

GREEN: When you work, do you work better days or early mornings, late nights? When is your best hour of production?

WILLIAMSON: Right after I’ve smoked a joint. [Laughter]. It really doesn’t matter. My schedule now is that of having babies, so I’m in bed early, and up early.

GREEN: And kind of watch where you smoke the joint.

WILLIAMSON: The first rule of parent-dom is don’t pass the reefer over the crib, but I digress. I don’t work at night that much any more.

GREEN: What’s the real story behind you and the Cripple Creek Colorado thing?

WILLIAMSON: That is a long story, I don’t know if there’s time in this interview. It’s a whole other project. I’m writing a book about it. I’ve been plugging on this one for some time and it’s a true story. It happened in 1965 … it’s the story about how I was kidnapped by mafia lesbians who drove Good Humor trucks in Kansas City.

GREEN: If you’re writing a book, then don’t tell us.

WILLIAMSON: I’m not going to give it away to you. All that I can really say is during that summer, I worked publicity for a transvestite review in Cripple Creek, Colorado. I was going to school, it was a summer job, and I was still living with my parents. In the process of things that happened, the FBI, the Illinois Youth Commission, and the State Police of five states were looking for me, and the FBI told my parents that I had been murdered.

GREEN: That’s enough, I want to read the book. You’ve been with Playboy eight years?

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. I’ll tell you something else about Playboy. It’s a good learning situation in terms of art direction.

GREEN: You could go almost anywhere, couldn’t you?

WILLIAMSON: This year I’ve won two awards from Communication Arts, a silver award from The Society of Illustrators and one from Print, and a gold award this year from the Art Directors Club of New York City. It’s concept-oriented work, as I mentioned earlier. It’s a lot like cartoons. For instance, I did a layout on journalism news wars, network TV news wars. And the idea I came up with was a hand grenade. Each one of the little segments on the hand grenade is a TV screen, with a different newscaster on it. And I just did a piece with Boris Vallejo.

You know, who I’d love to work with is Don Martin from Mad magazine. I’d love to do a piece with him. He sent his portfolio, and as soon as something comes along, I’m going to assign something to him because he’s always been one of my favorites. One of the original crazy cartoonists, you know.

Illustration for Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book.

GREEN: Yeah, really. Did you do stuff for Abbie Hoffman?

WILLIAMSON: Abbie? I was always more political than most of the other underground  artists. Or  anti-political. I believe honestly that if you vote for these bastards, you only encourage them. They’re all a bunch of thieves and crooks. There’s no government like no government. I’m a philosophical anarchist, a social sore on liberty’s privates―always have been. And, so, during the big upheaval of the late ’60s, I naturally became involved with a core of people. The ones who really appealed to me were the Yippies, because at least they had a sense of humor about the whole thing. I ended up editing a comic book to raise money to pay for the conspiracy trial. I did a little bit of hanging out with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and those guys, and published that comic book, Conspiracy Capers. That’s about the extent of it. See, I’m reticent even to admit that kind of connection, because that aligns me with a group of people in the same sense that it would align me with, say, the Republican Party.

GREEN: Yeah, some political group.

WILLIAMSON: It’s still a political group and I don’t need to be categorized or aligned with any specific group. I liked the Yippie energy but where are they now? Jerry Rubin is a stockbroker, Eldrige Cleaver is a Nazi, and Abbie Hoffman is a liberal.

GREEN: Everybody passed through that phase and went back to the establishment that they were fighting in the first place.

WILLIAMSON: Here’s what happened to the radicals, I think. In a Third World country, they’d line them all up and shoot them. In Mexico, during this period, they had student demonstrations in Mexico City, and they shot over 200 students. Now what happened here―this is your basic white Anglo-Saxon country, right? And all these young white kids from the colleges came out onto the streets and said, “Hey, we don’t like it any more, we’re going to tear it down.” All the authorities had to do was waste four of them at Kent State, and the kids changed their minds. And that’s what happened, that’s the difference.

GREEN: In all these countries where the people don’t have all that much, and they don’t have much to lose, it’s easier for them to become suicidal with their mission. But Americans have too much to live for: “You shot down my buddy … well, shit.”

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, “”I’m going to stop throwing bricks at the cops and to make some money. The Revolution is over and I won.” I think that was the attitude of a lot of people.

Panel from Snappy Sam Smoot “Ol’ Sam Has a Revelation.”

GREEN: I’m kind of jumping around here, but how did you get your job with Playboy? We know you’ve been with them for a while, but were you shaking with fear when you first came in?


GREEN: You had that kind of confidence?

WILLIAMSON: In our early days as cartoonists, both Jay and I wanted to be published in Playboy magazine. That was during the heyday of Playboy, in the early ’60s. It was the hip magazine of the era. They were publishing Ray Bradbury, Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce. We admired this, and wanted to be part of it. Actually I had been published in Playboy long before I’d began working for the magazine on salary. As a matter of fact in 1969 or ’70 when Playboy did an article on underground comics, I did the opening illustration for that piece. That was the first illustration I executed for the Big Bunny. So from then on, I would get illustration assignments.

GREEN: I got that issue, because I remember thinking, “Boy! Skip’s stepping up.”

WILLIAMSON: So anyway, eventually, I got a job working for Playboy Press, which was their book division. Not with the magazine. I worked as a designer, designing paperbacks and flats, that sort of thing. So at least I got to know the people. Then I was away for a considerable period of time, and at some point in my life, got fed up with the job I had and went to see an art director here, Roy Moody, and said, “Hey, listen, are there any art director’s jobs available?” It just so happened, it was really a matter of luck as well as I guess talent, but there was a job available, and I was hired by Art Paul. And I’ve been here ever since.

GREEN: What was your favorite college humor magazine?

WILLIAMSON: Texas Ranger. Well, it varies, my first influence in terms of college humor was probably the Texas Ranger, because I was born in Texas, my daddy got his doctorate at the University of Texas. This is when I was 10 or 11 years old. And, of course, I’d see the Texas Ranger all the time. There was a guy drawing in there by the name of Gilbert Shelton, who was an undergraduate student at that time. I moved out of Texas a few years later, Jay and I began  drawing cartoons for Bill Killeen and some boys in Gainesville, Florida. They had an off-campus humor magazine called Charlatan. Shelton was drawing for them, too.

GREEN: He got around.

WILLIAMSON: Later Jay became the art director of Aardvark, The Kicked-off Campus Humor Magazine for Roosevelt University in Chicago.

GREEN: Okay, my next question brings us to one of my all-time favorite publications. I don’t remember your work there so much as I do Gilbert Shelton’s. And that is, Help! magazine.

WILLIAMSON: Help! was the first magazine to accept a cartoon of mine for national publication. Harvey Kurtzman had the vision to publish the drawings of Jay Lynch, Robert Crumb, and Gilbert Shelton in Help!, and that was the basic core of underground comix. And I think that says as much about the corrupting influence of Harvey Kurtzman as does anything. We were real neophytes at the time. I look at those early drawings and they’re bad. But there was a glimmer of humor, and you’ve got to start somewhere, and that was a place to start. Help! had a section called the “Public Gallery.” They’d pay you $5 a cartoon. Nineteen sixty-one was when I had that first cartoon published. I was in high school. This was the time of the early civil rights struggle. The subject of the cartoon were two garbage cans in New Orleans. One said “Negro trash,” and the other said “white trash.” It was printed in the issue with Hugh Downs on the cover, #8. I think it was also mentioned on the old Jack Paar show. Jack Paar was the host of the Tonight Show before Johnny Carson. Dick Gregory was on. He mentioned the cartoon, and boy, what an ego boost for a high school kid in Canton, Missouri. That really gave me a shot to want to keep going. By the way, you might be interested to know that the editor who accepted that cartoon was Gloria Steinem.

GREEN: I wanted to ask you what you thought of a few artists. What do you think of Robert Crumb?

WILLIAMSON: Robert’s the best! In terms of craftsmanship and ideas, he was the progenitor of this whole movement, so you’ve got to respect the guy. I think he’s getting a bit crankier these days, but that’s part of his charm. He’s the irascible guy.

GREEN: Okay, how do you feel about Shel Silverstein?

WILLIAMSON: Shel’s become a friend of mine since I’ve been at Playboy. I’ll tell you how I met him. He was in town working on a collection of cartoons called “Different Dancers” that was going to be published in an oversize format. And he was stuck, he had a cartoonist’s block, a writer’s block. So Shel and I sequestered ourselves in his hotel room and worked it out. Shel was one of my influences, even though Shel tells me he can’t see it in my drawings. He’s been doing this stuff for eons. He’s a guy that really, I think, understands about not putting yourself in one narrow category. Take off the blinders and don’t self-incarcerate your talent. Spread the gift from plateau to tier to plateau.

GREEN: I’ve always loved his spreads in Playboy. How about Gahan Wilson?

WILLIAMSON: Gahan Wilson was at one time more of an original thinker although I have admiration for his work.

GREEN: The stuff’s still funny.

WILLIAMSON: When I was in college, and I was just trying to be a cartoonist, I sent him some of my cartoons. He took the time to write me back a three-or four-page letter, explaining what he liked about them, what he didn’t like about them. And it was considerate of him, at his peak at that time, to take the time out for some kid he didn’t even know, and do that sort of thing, I thought was very sensitive and very good. It’s important for a young talent to hear from professionals whom they admire and respect because it does give them the impetus to push on.

GREEN: What do you think of Jack Davis?

WILLIAMSON: I’ve got an original Jack Davis. A color cartoon he did for Playboy in 1963. I treasure it. Some of his recent work is commercial, but he’s making a lot of money. He’s not working with the great detail and finesse that he did when Kurtzman was his editor. He’s one of the artists who work on a tight deadline. He likes to play beat-the-clock. When I was young, I used to trace Davis all the time. I paid a lot of attention to what he was up to.

GREEN: What do you think of superheroes?

WILLIAMSON: I’m much more interested in humor. I’ve used superheroes as an influence, though. I did a strip called “Super Sammy Smoot battles to the Death With the Irrational Shithead.” So I used the form. I’m not knocked out by superheroes … Get it? I met Neal Adams when I was in New York. He reminds me of Jimmy Breslin. He sits back and smokes cigars and tells you what he thinks of you. I’m influenced by superheroes in the same sense Harvey Kurtzman was influenced by superheroes to write “Superduperman.”

Panels from “Super Sammy Smoot Battles the Irrational Shithead.”

GREEN: Satire.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. Although I have admiration for the technical skills of a Jack Kirby or a Steranko.

GREEN: Okay, that’s what 1 was going to ask you next, about Jack Kirby. Because he’s my main man.

WILLIAMSON: I can look at it, and say, “Boy, this guy really knows how to draw musculature.” I like Rich Corben a lot. Corben sent me a couple of strips that I forwarded to the cartoon office. Shel Silverstein and Rich and I were working on the project for Playboy once that didn’t get very far. It kind of fell through the cracks. Corben felt like he was losing control over it. He was right.

GREEN: I was making the mental notations of the difference between you and Jay. Jay is more the historian, and he’s a little bit more soft-spoken while with you, you’re kind of like me, an animated talker, and you really like what you’re talking about.

WILLIAMSON: Jay has a perceptively bizarre perspective of the universe, and probably his best quality is his canny vision of the way things operate. When you talk to him, you get insight.

GREEN: Yeah. He once told me how to do the definite super-selling superhero, and he’s not even interested in the thing. If I can ever sit down and get him to talk at length on the subject, enough to grasp the idea he’s talking about, it makes sense to me. But compared to me, Jay has a photographic memory. He just tells me so much stuff, it just boggles my little weak brain, you know? He carries a lot inside his brain.

WILLIAMSON: Yes, he does. We’re two different personalities. Maybe one of the reasons we work so well together has to do with that.

GREEN: Opposites, yeah.

WILLIAMSON: I don’t know if it’s so much opposites, but it’s differences. Jay is more of an intellect than I am. I think he does a lot more intellectual reading than I do, and he absorbs details and knowledge. Everything from the arcane to the political to the frivolous, he absorbs it. If you read Phoebe and the Pigeon People, there are references that probably escape most people, but who cares? It’s great, it’s wonderful, it’s thought and cartooning. So if you only hit a small audience and make them laugh and think, who cares?

GREEN: Well, his strip is running regularly in the Chicago Reader, so that attests that somebody is digging it, or else it wouldn’t be there that long if nobody liked it.

WILLIAMSON: I don’t mean to say it doesn’t have an audience. A lot of people like it. He’s very popular with art students at the Art Institute of Chicago, I know. And, I’m sure, elsewhere too. Of course, he’s had the collections of Phoebe published, too. You know, it’s an interesting story. I was doing the strip for the old Chicago Daily News, called Halsted Street―Stories of Torment and Drama from the Hog-Butcher. At this time, the Daily News was in its final decline, and they were about to go out of business so they were trying to save it. What they did was come up with an idea for a supplement called “Sidetracks,” which was like an underground newspaper, stuck into a regular daily newspaper. It came out once a week, every Thursday, and I did this strip. Jay took the idea of Phoebe and the Pigeon People to the editors, and they just did not understand, you know? They said, “Why are you here with these people-headed pigeons? We don’t understand what you’re talking about.” I didn’t last very long with them either. Editors can be so linear. I finally offended everyone on the paper, when I suggested that hyperactive children should be stuffed, mounted on roller skates, and trucked off to Montessori parking lots. They didn’t like that one. They said, “We don’t think that was funny, and we don’t want you to do comic strips for us any more.” I thought it was a funny notion.

GREEN: It’s funny―people get their own little mental concepts of what the artist is like until they meet him in person.

WILLIAMSON: But that’s pretty much the same with any recognizable artist, don’t you think? People have a certain mind set from reading the work, and then when you meet the person he seldom meets your expectations, or he has a totally different kind of reality.

GREEN: You weren’t as far off in my perception of you, related to what I’d read by you, as Jay was. I mean, in Crumb’s stories, in his work and everything, he gets vicious, and just crawling all over women and everything. But they say that he’s really very mild-mannered.

WILLIAMSON: Although you know what he’s doing. Robert, as well as a lot of the underground cartoonists, are taking their inner selves, you know, that turmoil that’s going on inside and putting it on to the page.

GREEN: I think that’s what has made him so well-loved.

WILLIAMSON: I’m sure. He puts all the dark secrets out. Everyone’s got similar neuroses and psychoses going on, so what he’s done is said, “Look, I don’t need a psychiatrist. I can write.”

GREEN: I think psychiatry is a bunch of bull poopy, anyhow.

WILLIAMSON: Some of the most fucked-up people I’ve ever met are shrinks. And speaking of shrinks, you know who’s another artist we haven’t heard from in a while, is Justin Green. Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary, one of the great all-time comic books.

GREEN: He did a couple, didn’t he?

WILLIAMSON: He did a lot for Bijou, too, he was one of our regular artists. Justin was another one of those artists that could take his guilt, in this case Catholic guilt and neuroses, and put down on the page, and resolve it in that fashion. He was one of the best―still is, unless he’s stopped working―cartoonists of that time.

GREEN: I’m holding in my hand here a very beautifully rendered color strip, Area Code 666. And I could easily get off on a series like this.

WILLIAMSON: Area Code 666 is a mythical area that’s inhabited only by Christs and Anti-Christs. Nobody seems to want to buy it. This is the only strip I’ve taken to finish. I have two or three other ideas, but I don’t have a market. One of the problems with my art is that it tends to be so strange sometimes that there’s no place to publish it, especially if I’m working in color. It’s one thing to render something in black-and-white. There are probably a lot of places that would take a black-and-white strip, because it’s less expensive to reproduce, but I really enjoy the color, the added impact of color is important sometimes. I’ve got another series that I’m working on, called The Butcher Shop of Love. The Butcher Shop of Love is like your neighborhood meat market. They’ve got big salamis and pulsating hearts in the case. The lady patron says to the butcher, “Is that a thumb on the scale, or are you just glad to see me?” I’m writing all the time, new ideas, new strip ideas, but there’s no place to vent a lot of this material, never throw anything away. But I don’t know where to publish this stuff. Playboy Funnies isn’t interested. A lot of people think that I’m responsible for Playboy Funnies, in other words, that I put it together and edit it. That’s not true. All I do is the layouts for ’em, and then I’ll forward my own work to the cartoon office and they’ll say yes or no. The ratio of acceptance is about 50-50, for all the Neon Vincents, for all the Nell ‘n’ Voids, for everything that I’ve done for Playboy. There are at least as many other strips as there have been published, so I have a reasonable selection of unpublished strips.

GREEN: I like your style too. Anytime you have anybody in a strip with a mouth like that―wide, big, open, showing lots of teeth, and tongue―I love it.

WILLIAMSON: Well, I like the exaggeration, that’s one of the things I enjoy―the broad exaggerations, the possibilities of character.

GREEN: You also have some guys who are emulating your style.

WILLIAMSON: I would say, without being too bumptious, that I’ve rubbed-off a lot of people in terms of style. That happened fairly early on. Even advertising agencies would go out and hire people and say, “Do Skip Williamson.” But they wouldn’t come to me.

GREEN: Well, they probably thought that you’d be expensive.

WILLIAMSON: No, I don’t think that’s it. I used to do a bit of advertising work. I’ve done things for McDonald’s and United Airlines. I did pretty well one year, and then I went to meet the main art buyer for J. Walter Thompson, and he sat me down, and said, “Well, listen, political times have changed, the Nixon administrations’s in, and you’re out.” That’s essentially what he said. He said, “You are just too political.” I was blacklisted. And also, the fellow who was my rep told me the same thing. I didn’t get any advertising assignments after that. I’m beginning to pick a few things up here and there, but that doesn’t interest me so much. The bad thing about advertising, you don’t have much creative input, but it pays well. And of course, we’ve come full circle again, we’ve got Ronald Reagan in there, and he … it’s the same old shit. The same basic asshole politicians and their spooks. They’re all there.

GREEN: Well, I’ll tell you: Reagan, whether you like him or not, in a way, he’s not doing badly, and in another way, he is―like the way he’s gnashed all the money going to the needy. But to me, our system pushes a guy. If he goes in, and he’s relatively clean, our system is so corrupt that he can’t get anything done until he’s corrupt also.

WILLIAMSON: I think that’s true. To pursue politics as a vocation taints the individual. What is the megalomania that makes a man want to pursue something like the presidency, in that sense?

GREEN: Sense of Power.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, power. Ultimate power corrupts, ultimately. It’s an old theorem but true. Ronald Reagan is sitting there wearing more makeup than Boy George with his finger on the button. He’s the most dangerous guy we’ve had around in a long time.

GREEN: But I like him.

WILLIAMSON: You like Reagan? You’re the craziest black man I ever met. I like that quality.

GREEN: But Reagan’s not like Nixon.

WILLIAMSON: Nixon was this uptight guy.

GREEN: “I am the president.”

WILLIAMSON: Right, you could see the evil.

GREEN: I’m always making the point with the family when my niece starts rattling down about Dirty Reagan. But we had a born-again Christian like Jimmy Carter in there, who was too wishy-washy and trying to do the good things―you can’t do that with these people in the world. I don’t want anybody like Jimmy Carter in there again. They wouldn’t even let the hostages go until Reagan stepped in. “Oh, this guy might push the button, we’d better let them go.” You know, just [snaps fingers]. Then they’re out.

WILLIAMSON: Ronald Reagan might push the button. Then where are we going to be? You know, french fries. Plus, what kind of trade-off is 40 hostages for 300 dead marines in Beirut? I have no respect for any politician. Especially tight-assed publicly moral Republicans who don’t give a shit for life and liberty. I really don’t.

Caricature of Reagan.

GREEN: What do you do to work off stress?

WILLIAMSON: One of the people that I worked with here at Playboy is a Senior Editor by the name of William J. Helmer, this Bill “Mad Dog” Helmer. Bill came out of Austin, Texas at the same time as Gilbert Shelton; they were both classmates together. And so there’s always been a connection between “Mad Dog” and Shelton, and that whole Texas group of wonderful craziness.

I respect Shelton’s sense of humor, more that any of the other underground cartoonists. A lot of it has to come out of Texas bravado. Wonder Warthog, the Freak Brothers all have that certain kind of bombast that you wouldn’t find had Shelton not come from that background. I’m currently collaborating with Helmer on a number of projects under the sponsorship of the Mad Dog Artists and Writers Consortium. Apparently, Shelton is involved in this too. We plan to produce a series of books and writings through the Mad Dog Artists and Writers Consortium. Now, Helmer has also introduced me to the manly art of firing automatic weapons, so we go out, up to McHenry County or up north sometimes. I tell you, there’s great joy in firing a Thompson sub-machine gun, or an Uzi, or a grease gun. It’s wonderful stimulating activity. I even told my wife, Harriett, once: “Listen, one of these days, those Fascist bastards are going to come crashing through our doors, and drag me away kicking and screaming, can we please get an Uzi, so I can pick a few of them off before they get me?”

GREEN: Can you get a what?

WILLIAMSON: An Uzi. An Uzi is a machine pistol popularized by the Israelis during the ’67 war. It’s the gun that’s favored by various elite corps, including the U.S. Secret Service. Wonderful piece of machinery. I might say also, that when we do shoot, we are with a federally licensed firearms dealer who’s licensed, and it’s all perfectly legal. Although I’m not above breaking the law, you understand, but in this case … Usually we find a kindred spirit with a farm, and we fire our rounds into a hill―I’ve fired everything from a 30-caliber on down to 9mm luger, shotguns and pistols. We make a point of either shooting into the ground or into a hill, because these can travel as far as 20 miles. And we are working with live ammunition, armor-piercing ammunition. There are guys who go out into the Arizona desert and blow radio operated model airplanes out of the sky with 50 caliber machine guns. Helmer and I are envious of this, and may put together an expedition to join these armed aficionados in their casual fun.

GREEN: How do you like knives?

WILLIAMSON: I’m not really into knives. But that’s strange, because I come from a Mexican Indian background, and you’d think I’d like a knife in my pocket.

GREEN: Would you like to see mine? [Laughter.]

WILLIAMSON: Let me see that blade, brother.

GREEN: No, well, actually, I was looking for a switchblade.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, that’s a nice one, nice lock-back knife. You can get switchblades in Mexico, but they’re more difficult to smuggle in than pot. They’ve really cracked down on switchblades.

GREEN: Yeah, I had a beautiful one, but my wife took it.

WILLIAMSON: [Laughter.] Part of the settlement.

GREEN: You like to shoot guns, but it’s different to shoot for fun and because you like it than to aim it at somebody, knowing you might scatter their brains, like that guy we saw last year. You want to tell about that?

Panel from “Those Lovable Weirdos.”

WILLIAMSON: The last time Grass was in town, we were walking down Michigan Avenue, and  some guy jumped off the Hancock Center and―

GREEN: Seventh floor.

WILLIAMSON: No, he jumped off the 90th floor. So he was pretty much scattered all over the sidewalk. He landed on his head and splattered all over Bonwit Teller’s windows.

GREEN: You remember, the people were packed around us, so we stepped out into the street, and that dirty look that cop gave us―“You guys want to get back on the curb?”

WILLIAMSON: Surrounded by urban violence, the people were animated and excited like at a sporting event. These are the things cartoons are made of.

GREEN: That’s right. A while back, you were talking about the Playboy Funnies and the first thing that entered my mind was, “Now that people will have read this, you can probably expect a batch of mail coming your way with all kinds of weird ideas, new stuff for the ‘comics page’.”

WILLIAMSON: I would suggest that they not send it to me. I would prefer that they send their ideas directly to the cartoon office, 747 Third Ave, NYC. 10017. Send it to the attention of Michele Urry. It should go directly there, because otherwise I’ll have to forward it, and that’s an extra step. There’s no sense in me being burdened by that. There’s also no sense in the people who send it in being delayed by that much. The cartoon office claims that they’re always looking for new ideas, although I haven’t really seen anything new in that section for a while. One of the people I tried to get in this section early on was Wally Wood, and I talked to Wally. He was ready, he was willing to do it, and we submitted things, and they didn’t bite on it.

GREEN: Oh, really? The way I understand it, he was pretty bad off health-wise, wasn’t he? Alcoholic and a bad heart and cancer.

WILLIAMSON: He got some bad news, probably figured the best way out was just to snuff it. You know, there was an item in the newspaper yesterday that said that 47 percent of the population have suicidal thoughts. That’s a lot of people. Of course you can ask, “Who took the survey? And who are they surveying?” But it seems fairly rampant, those feelings of despair.

GREEN: It’s this high-pressure living system. You know, high inflation, high taxes, both husband and wife working, the kids are shunted off somewhere, you know. Make the money, make the money, and we’re geared very high for cracking up.

WILLIAMSON: Then let’s make cartoons and make people laugh! Why not? You got to do something. I tell you, when I was younger, I used to have, I don’t think you’d call them suicidal thoughts, but morose thoughts. Since I’ve been professionally involved in my art, I don’t even get bored. I don’t understand people who get bored, it’s beyond me, people who wrap themselves in their own ennui. You have to take it upon yourself to resolve your own problems. There’s so much to do and so much to say, so many creative ways to express yourself, how can anyone actually be suffering from terminal tedium? I don’t get it.

GREEN: Okay, now, see, maybe there are some people who are in a situation like me, I have so many ideas, so many things that I would like to do, and that I could do myself, except for lack of funds. 

WILLIAMSON: We’re all in the same situation, in a way. I may be a little bit better off in the sense that I’m nestled in the corporate womb of the Big Bunny, and I have enough of a name that I can go to people with a variety or projects without having the door slammed in my face. But I still have comic strips and ideas that I can’t get published. I’m working on a film project that may never even happen because someone may not want to put up the loot. How unreasonable that someone won’t part with three quarters of a million so I can make my movie. I think, honestly, just because you don’t have the funds to do it, doesn’t mean you can’t go ahead and try to do it anyway. That was one of the important lessons of underground comix: A bunch of guys got together and said, “The comic book establishment’s not going to let us publish because of the Comics Code, they’re not going to let us do the kind of fantasies we want to put on paper, so we’re just going to have to go out and do it ourselves, and sell them on the street corner.” And that’s what happened. There needs to be more of that kind of spirit of “go out and do it,” and not be defeated by the obstacles because the obstacles are always going to be there, especially if you’re on the creative edge. People are going to say, “You’re crazy, man! I’m not going to publish what you’re doing, this isn’t funny, this isn’t creative.”

I’ve run up against it time and time again. I’ve cartooned for every major newspaper in Chicago. I used to do cartoons for the old Chicago Today, editorial page cartoons, every Sunday. Chicago Today was owned by the Tribune Company. I was cartooning Spiro Agnew as the insidious buffoon he turned out to be. In the meantime, the Tribune was in Agnew’s pocket, so I didn’t last there very long. So much for freedom of the press. When you’re dealing with a certain mindset, it’s very difficult to penetrate it, but it can be done. It happens all the time. It’s just a matter of keeping in there chipping away at the superstructure.

GREEN: And also, 1 think it’s finding the right person at the right time.

WILLIAMSON: Partially. A good amount of reality, I think, has to do with where you are and who you know. Well, it’s like anything else. Whoever you are, you’re influencing people around you, and people around you are influencing you.

But the underground comix phenomenon didn’t have much to do with who we knew. It had more to do with what we had to say.

GREEN: Okay, I understand what you’re saying. I’m relating everything personally. I come from Fort Wayne. Nobody comes to Fort Wayne, and very few people leave. Paupers are left. Now Fort Wayne’s dead.

WILLIAMSON: Thanks, Ronald Reagan.

GREEN: But I love Chicago. I love walking down the street with my portfolio, whether I’ve got work or not I just love being here, because I know this place, and art is all over.

WILLIAMSON: I came out of Canton, Missouri. If you think Fort Wayne’s dead, just visit Canton. I’ll tell you something about Chicago. Chicago is a secret that shouldn’t be let out. New Yorkers equate

Chicago to Bulgaria. In L.A. the same distorted disposition reigns. I would just as soon people to continue to think that way. I wouldn’t want them to discover it and destroy a good thing as they would. Chicago’s the most livable of the big cities.

GREEN: Otherwise Frank Sinatra wouldn’t keep coming back.

WILLIAMSON: Of course, Frank’s got obligatory connections here too. The guys in the sharkskin suits.

GREEN: When I come into Chicago, talk to you, and then I go back, boom, man, I’m just swell up. I’m ready to draw, draw, draw, and I get back and start drawing, and then it poops out and I got to come back and refuel.

WILLIAMSON: One of the best things an artist can do is to talk to other artists. We have seven art directors here at Playboy. When we have our meetings, and we’re working on an idea, the sparks can fly. You can sit around all day by yourself trying to think of a concept, but if you bounce ideas off of other creative people, it flows, it builds. I think you need the input of other people, generally speaking. There are those who work very well independently and are very reclusive about it. In my own case, I knew I was going to move to Chicago so that I could be with Jay Lynch because together, the ideas came. And Bijou was born. Then when the other cartoonists Crumb and Shelton and the rest would come to town, it was good for the old creative momentum, too.

GREEN: Well, just like last year, when you, Jay, Pat Daily, Suite, and I went to lunch. Now, that was probably, just kind of average, ordinary to you. But boy, you could tell by the way Pat was going to her it was really something. I was just thrilled to death. Here’s five cartoonists walking down the street. Hey, boy, if a car came along, it couldn’t hurt us, we’d just threw it off the street, you know? 

WILLIAMSON: I’ve got a cartoon on my office door, here at Playboy. It’s got this guy walking down the street with two women on each arm, and people look at him admiringly, and there’s a cop pushing a blind man out of the way. The cop says, “Out of the way, a cartoonist is coming through!” That’s a B. Kliban cartoon.

GREEN: One of the reasons that I’m glad to be here hanging out with cartoonists is the inspiration. Because for a while, I just got so disgusted that I didn’t draw anything, for a long time, and that is horrible for a cartoonist.


WILLIAMSON: We all go through dry periods. We were talking about Shel Silverstein before and how he’s got his fingers in so many pots. I’ve noticed this through him―when you have a variety of things to do, then you can go from one to the other, and switch back and forth, and alleviate that kind of dry problem. You can go from writing a story, to drawing a comic strip, to art directing, in my case, the film project, and it really helps if you have a broad base. There are paintings, too. that’s therapeutic because if I’ve got nothing else to do, I can sit down and put 10 hours in on painting. So I’ve got a lot to keep me busy. I enjoy what I’m doing, and I continue to build my reputation. But it would be nice to really be independent, and work for myself only. In a way, I’m jealous of the guys who have done that, people like Crumb, who have been singleminded enough to say, “I’m not going to work for a corporation. I’m going to what I want to do. I’m going to determine my own destiny as much as possible.” But I’ve always been a worker in the sense that I don’t mind working for and with other people. I enjoy the interaction. I’m not such an “Artiste” that I feel like I’ve sold out because someone’s paying me a salary.

GREEN: You’re a bit different from Jay in that he keeps a lot inside.

WILLIAMSON: He does and he doesn’t. He tends to be a quiet person, but he’s got a lot more going on in there. I think a lot of people realize the intelligence and abilities of Jay Lynch, but the way he realizes it is through his work, primarily. And then if you get to know him, he also opens up, he’s got one of the great comedic minds I’ve ever met.

GREEN: Yeah. He kills me. He said that the reason that he didn’t go for superheroes is because they’re not real. Most of his collection of magazines and books deal with humor. He says he’s not interested in super-heroes.

WILLIAMSON: That echoes my feeling. There was a period when Marvel tried to introduce a certain human quality, a reality. The first couple of issues of the Hulk, and the first Fantastic Four, and when Ditko was illustrating Dr. Strange. That kind of thing was pretty interesting.

GREEN: But then they overworked it.

WILLIAMSON: I think Stan Lee runs a factory. He’s more a P.R. man than a cartoonist. I’ve watched Stan Lee and Harvey Kurtzman together on convention panels. Kurtzman is the artist and Stan Lee is the businessman and those realities show up in their work. Stan Lee is a rich man, but Kurtzman is rich in spirit. In terms of admiration, Kurtzman’s got all of mine. I mentioned the history of Hefner that I’m working on. This constitutes a new direction for me. It has occurred to me that this would be a new way for me to produce comic art in a book format. It isn’t really a comic-strip but there are as many cartoons per page as there are panels in a comic strip and the history aspect gives it chronology. It might be diverting to take it further. I could take any given situation, in this case it’s Hugh Hefner and his life, but I could take anybody and produce an unauthorized biography or history―an illustrated history, by way of satire and parody. It’s an intriguing form. It’s similar to a sketch book report, which of course is nothing new. I started out doing single-panel gag cartoons when I was a kid. I didn’t start writing and drawing comic strips until 1967 or so. Jay Lynch and I were corresponding while I was in college. He was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago and producing surrealistic, stream-of-consciousness comic strips. I was editing the literary magazine at Culver-Stockton College, and I got Jay into a couple of issues. Then we started jamming, doing the strips together. The attitude of these cartoons were kind of like early Bob Dylan lyrics, put to visuals. They didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but we were excited enough to continue using the comic strip format. Leaf and Lung and Silent Celery were the titles of a couple of Jay’s strips. He sent some copies to Salvador Dali, to get a second opinion on them, but I don’t think Sal responded. Anyway it led us into underground comix. It could be that this illustrated historical pasquinade form could lead to excitement and transition, too. Of course, it takes a lot more research than comic strip writing usually does.

GREEN: You have to take the time to get the background.

WILLIAMSON: The background, and I’ve got to take the time to come up with a solid gag for most every panel. Comic strips are more like a flow, you start at one point and the action moves until you come to the resolution. In this case, each shot is a concept in itself. I like it. I’ve got an envelope sitting over here with 100 extra Hefner drawings in it. So if I take what’ll be published and what’s stashed away in the corner, I’ve got a considerable volume. The cardinal rule of cartooning is, “Never throw anything away,” because you can always come back to it, improve it, or resubmit it. I’ve taken ideas that I’ve submitted to Playboy Funnies, rejected ideas, reworked them a little or not at all and submitted them, and they’re accepted. It happens. You never know if you’re going to get to an editor on a bad day. I keep ideas, even if I just write down a sentence.

GREEN: Hey, I wanted to ask you―your little girl Molly, she’s about two now?

WILLIAMSON: Two and a half.

Sketch of Molly.

GREEN: Note, do you want her to be an artist, a cartoonist like dad, or …?

WILLIAMSON: I want her to be a lawyer or a doctor or a C.P.A. so that she can support me in my old age. Her tendency now is to draw a lot. I’ll sit down with her and she’ll say, “Draw Daddy. Draw Mummy,” I’ll do a quick drawing. Then I’ll ask her to draw daddy and mummy. Because I draw, she does. I have another daughter, Megan, who’s 15. She doesn’t live with me, so she’s not really oriented towards drawing, but she’s creatively directed toward theater. She’s an actress, and is pursuing it with fervor. She’s got the same zeal that I had to be a cartoonist when I was her age. She’s already got on-the-boards experience in community theater stage productions and is systematically pursuing all aspects of the performing arts. I don’t know what the single-mindedness is, but there’s a definite creative streak happening there even though we haven’t lived together for a long time. My wife, Harriett Hiland, is a writer and a photographer. She is a journalist currently working for the New York Times on a regular basis, and as I said, she’s a photographer, too, with a bunch of years at the Associated Press under her belt. So there’s definitely what one could call a media atmosphere around our place. We both pursue our individual mania, and we have reached a certain level of aptitude. I’m sure that has to wear off on Molly, or definitely influence her in some manner.

GREEN: How old were you when you first started drawing?

WILLIAMSON: My earliest memories were that I wanted to draw cartoons. I would get in trouble when I was in grade school for drawing Mickey Mouse instead of doing my homework.

GREEN: But what is your earliest remembrance of drawing?

WILLIAMSON: My mother has a drawing I did when I was three or four years old. It’s a crayon drawing of a monkey, and it has the tail. It’s got a little hat on, and a little cup. It’s an organ grinder’s monkey, but I don’t remember drawing it. People are very discouraging to kids who want to be cartoonists because they regard cartooning as a low form. I think it’s an American folk art, it is the art of our times. It has been since Hearst newspapers started Publishing them and the first comic books came out, and now, of course, it’s an international phenomenon. The Europeans respect cartooning more than Americans do, and in some respects, we have bigger reputations in Europe than we do in this country.

GREEN: Europe reveres everything about America more than we do.

WILLIAMSON: Jazz had to go to Europe because the musicians couldn’t make a living here. My earliest recollection about cartoons was getting in trouble for drawing them. Then later on, when in art class I would draw, I would paint and everyone said, “That looks like a cartoon!” So I was coerced into making these things so they didn’t look like cartoons. Finally I came to the realization that the reason I was drawing cartoons was because that’s what I wanted to do. Of course, the early Mad comics were a big influence around that time. I would trace the drawings of Jack Davis, Will Elder, and Wally Wood. When I was in grade school and later in high school, there was a core of guys, there were three of us, and we were totally fanatic about Mad. We would sit around and try to out-Basil Wolverton each other. I’m the only one who became a cartoonist. One of that group is an artist, but he doesn’t make a living at it, and the other one teaches music. But it was a good thing because here were three teenage jerks who were constantly competing with each other over who could draw the most outrageous bug-eyed monster. The input of other people can give the drive to keep going. And that drive took me to a certain point. The point where I finally got a cartoon published, in Help! magazine. That gave me the impetus to go further. After that first cartoon, it was two more years before I got another one published in that or any magazine. And I was sending batches every week, 10 or 12 cartoons a week. And I’m talking really bad cartoons.

GREEN: Ah, the good days when postage was cheap.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah. But I wasn’t discouraged in this foolhardy pursuit by my parents. I grew up in a liberal family. My dad was a professor, and he never said, “Ah don’t want mah son to be an artist, he can’t make no money doing that.” I think in his heart of liberal hearts, he didn’t mind me being an artist and he figured I’d outgrow this cartooning thing.

GREEN: I think if your parents were like most parents, especially in today’s time of drug-oriented youth, they were glad to know what you were doing, instead of you being out running the streets, and they don’t know where you’re at.

WILLIAMSON: Aw, I was out running in the streets, too. I think most of us go through a certain stage where we drive our parents totally nuts. But the thing is, as I got older, I got more and more into my cartooning and so I tended to stay home more than running the streets with the guys. I wasn’t aimless. I had a focus.

I had some fun with the guys, too. My dad had to haul me out of a pool hall once, he was all upset that I was hanging out in a pool hall.

GREEN: Oh, I’m not saying that I was the perfect kid. I got beat before the word child abuse became just a national household word. My father whipped me with everything from ironing cords to leather straps, to belts.

WILLIAMSON: That was the style of the time. Now, you can’t do that and remain respectable―not that child abuse ever deserved respect. That was the disciplinarian style that came out of the depression. Everyone came back from fighting the Nazis and the Nips, and they had discipline. What this kid needs is discipline. And they would give it to him, they would give it to me, they gave it to you, they gave it to everybody. Look out! Whap! Ow! That was the style of the culture. We’re a little more understanding now, and most people don’t believe in that kind of daily violence.

GREEN: But it’s too easy. That’s why Dr. Spock said, “Don’t whip your child” and now, 20 years later, he says, “I admit I was wrong, we have raised a nation of selfish bastards.”

WILLIAMSON: The nation has always been a bunch of selfish bastards. It isn’t because we didn’t beat our kids. The people haven’t changed, the culture has. It’s the same collection of self-serving scumbags as ever. People talk about the Holocaust, and talk about the murder of six million at the hands of Hitler, but we totally eliminated the Native Americans as a race. Genocide is genocide. It’s been happening since we clawed our way out of the primordial ooze. Man did not evolve from monkeys. Monkeys are a fun-loving group of vegetarians. Man evolved from small, intelligent rodents. Our ancestors were rats. Rats bit babies and spread plague. I’m absolutely certain that we are destined to become extinct by our own hand. Throughout civilization, the fortunes of the few have been built on the bones of the many. And this is the truth. I don’t think that our generation represents the lowlife meatbag aspect of humanity any more than previous generations. Perhaps we’re even a little more enlightened because of television. It was rough during the Middle Ages. There were no rights. They could cut you down and serve you up. It wasn’t that long ago that stealing a loaf of bread was a capital offense.

GREEN: The only thing that keeps coming back to my mind is that today’s kids, although they’re more bored than any other generation, I think, they have more. Naturally, because the world is progressing, but when I was a kid, I had a little pedal car, pedaled my damn legs and feet off to get around the corner. These kids nowadays―

WILLIAMSON: They put it in overdrive, and take off. But every generation complains about the same thing. “Well, Ace, when I was a kid, life was terrible torment. And kids these days, they got everything.” But that’s the march of civilization. That’s the commercial society, the legacy of the industrial revolution.

GREEN: But that’s money.

WILLIAMSON: It’s the American way, isn’t it?

GREEN: Now, your major influence is the same as mine―the Mad group.

WILLIAMSON: Some other people, too.

GREEN: But I mean prior to that, from your early life on through.

WILLIAMSON: Walt Disney was the first major early influence that I can remember. Of course, Snow White came out before I was born, but as soon as I could see, Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia, Uncle Walt ran it. Disney was probably, culturally, the most important influence on the country at a certain formative period because he caught all the baby-boomers. He caught all the little rug rats like you and me, and he twisted our minds into a never-never land mindset.

GREEN: Not only that, but even though it had Walt Disney’s name on it even as a youngster I recognized the different styles in the drawing, and certain ones appealed to me.

WILLIAMSON: One of the good things about Disney was that he put all those wonderful German and Teutonic illustrators to work. He hired the best people, which was wonderful in terms of style. Unfortunately, he chose to become homogenized and politically he was reactionary. But his early work was excellent, and I think that was kind of the hallmark for the generation. The Sunday Funnies were a big influence in those days, too. I was named after a comic strip character. My grandparents nicknamed me Skippy after the Percy Crosby comic strip character, Skippy. So, it seems almost that I would end up scratching out a living doing this. The focus came very early. It was almost out of my hands, and that’s not a negative.

GREEN: That’s most definitely a positive. Especially if you think about it in that positive manner. But, I’m confused. Fandom has given me the nickname of “Grass Green.” Now, does that mean that pretty soon I’m going to go on pot? Because I’ve never smoked pot in my life.

WILLIAMSON: Oh, you’re the one. I knew there was somebody.

GREEN: What is your favorite reading other than cartoon-related items? Jay likes humor, but he reads some deep stuff.

WILLIAMSON: I don’t read a lot of novels. I read a lot of magazines, and pay attention to media, because of the business that I’m in. I’m not one to devour a tome. I’ll seldom read a thick, heavy book. I find that I get bogged down and I never get back to it.

GREEN: Something light and breezy, hopefully.

WILLIAMSON: It’s not that so much. I pick up a lot of information. I read manuscripts all the time. They come across my desk every day, so I read the best authors and what they’re writing. It’s just that I don’t read huge volumes. I read a lot of information. I read the New York Times, I read all the newspapers. I read all kinds of periodicals. I’m not really a reader of books.

GREEN: You mean Mickey Spillane, Ernest Haycocks, stuff like that?

WILLIAMSON: Mickey Spillane I like. Mike Hammer’s wonderful. Mickey Spillane is basically a cartoonist. He’s a practitioner of the vulgar arts, like a cartoonist or filmmaker. There’s a great parallel between film and cartooning, and cartooning and film. Fellini was a cartoonist. Panel-to-panel, structuring of a scene is like a storyboard. And that’s the basis of all film work. Creating a scene, a plot, a pattern, and following it through to resolution. So there is definitely an affinity. If you look at Will Eisner, in the Spirit, you see a lot of the influence of Eisner. In Film Noir the influence is obvious down to the lighting and the angles, it’s amazing.

GREEN: When you mentioned storyboards, I’m reminded of when Jerry Lewis was popular. He was known for being able to conduct an orchestra very well. Then they showed us how he did it. He storyboarded the whole thing. He had his signals written down as to what he wanted the guys to do and they would do it.

WILLIAMSON: The best storyboarder of our time is Harvey Kurtzman. He has a real cinematic sense. I don’t know why he never went into filmmaking. It’s our loss that he didn’t. The man who’s picked up on that cinematic  flair  in  the  undergrounds  is Gilbert Shelton. He uses the same sort of systematic storyboarding. He gives a humorous time sequenced set-up, just in the visuals alone. It’s very sophisticated. I also have the suspicion that it’s not planned out so much as it occurs intuitively. Hence my interest in film. Cartooning to film is a natural transmutation. I think I’m also intrigued by video. What I like is the small screen, because the small screen is like a panel. It’s not an enormous image in a dark room that becomes your world. The video screen is the panel, and the approach to video would not be as detailed, as much as it should be color and character. Did you see the film Alien

GREEN: Yeah.

WILLIAMSON: Alien was a very dense, dark and detailed movie. I saw Alien in the theater and I liked it, but when I saw it on videotape, I couldn’t see what the hell was going on. But if you take video and use it the way it should be used, with more simplicity, I think it’s a whole other form. You’re dealing with a less dense quality. It’s more direct, almost a more cartoon style, which is, I think, the best video.

GREEN: Well, when you know that you’re dealing with a more limited medium, space-wise, you’re talking about compaction. And so, you would tend to eliminate a lot of detail that would actually detract from the message.

WILLIAMSON: Sometimes the sense of reality is lost. For instance, the Muppets work well on TV, but when they made the transition to the big screen they didn’t look real anymore. They are a small-screen item. When I was a kid, I saw The Wizard of Oz and loved it. But I saw it recently on a big screen, and I could see the wire holding up the Cowardly Lion’s tail. The reality went right out of the window. On television, it still looks wonderful, because the small screen hides imperfections.

GREEN: Yeah, one of my big disappointments about the movies when I was a kid and saw Francis the Talking Mule I thought, “My God! They’ve really got a talking mule.” But then, in a couple of scenes, they had the camera at a wrong angle and you could see there was a wire on his mouth, and they were jerking it.

WILLIAMSON: Your sense of reality was betrayed. It’s like when somebody told you there wasn’t any Santa Claus. Want to know how I found out that there was no Santa Claus? From reading a comic strip. The Blondie comic strip in the Sunday Funnies when I was a kid. Dagwood and Blondie were trying to figure out how they could convince Cookie that there was a Santa Claus. So, essentially, they were saying there wasn’t one. Comic strips and cartoons have held great weight in my life. My earliest recollection of film was having the shit scared out of me by a Bugs Bunny cartoon. In it, Bugs Bunny goes to Hell, and my mother had to take me out of the theater because I was terrified. The Warner Bros. post-war cartoons were great. Better than Disney because of their sense of insanity. We can talk for hours about animated cartoons.

GREEN: I was going to ask you―are you pretty heavily into animation? Have you done any animation projects?

WILLIAMSON: No, I haven’t. People are constantly asking if I’ve done any animation. My style would lend itself to animation because it’s so broad. The problem with animation is the cost. So if I was going to do animation, I’d need to have to have a studio of animators. Otherwise, I’d have to spend six months out of my life doing it; meanwhile, who’d pay the rent? I’m in a position now, maybe through this film or through a couple of other routes that I can eventually do a piece of animation. It would be fine with me. But I need a studio, and I need to be able to supervise it with an iron fist. I would have strict creative demands.

GREEN: The reason I asked you that was because I think that with your style, with you at the helm, you could probably turn out one of the funniest films. I saw one cartoon where there was an ugly princess. She laughed, and her mouth dropped over halfway down the screen. Man, I roared. I almost fell out of my seat, because you don’t see that. Everything is usually minimal exaggeration but cartoons are supposed to be exaggeration.

WILLIAMSON: Exaggeration is the key. You need somebody to do wonderful voices. You need a Mel Blanc. You can even work with a limited animated style like Terry Gilliam did for Monty Python. He used the limitations to his advantage and did it well. Now Gilliam’s directing film. He directed Time Bandits and he has one almost in the can called Brazil. With Bullwinkle, Jay Ward used the limitations of his budget to the best advantage. Bullwinkle was funny because they had good voices. They had wonderfully deranged scripts that appealed both to kids and adults. They had exaggeration. Hanna-Barbera uses jerky limited animation. But there’s nothing funny happening.

I think eventually animation will come to me. The circumstances have to be right. And you’ve got to have a market for it. I mean, where are you going to market these things? I’ve also been thinking in terms of puppets. One of the guys I’m working with on this film project is wonderful at doing little puppet monsters. As a matter of fact, he has a puppet show on film. It’s something like Uncle Ned’s Puppet Theatre. Uncle Ned is a janitor at Genetic Laboratories, and there are these little mutant puppets, genetic mistakes. They let them out of the cage, and they have to come out and clean up after business hours. One of them is named Gristle, and one of them is named Hook. Gristle steals Hook’s pet rat-tail, so Hook gets out a chainsaw and saws Gristle in half. It’s wonderful. Blood is spurting all over the glass. There are a lot of ways to go. You could do a show like the Muppets, make it adult humor, make it sexy or sick or whatever.

GREEN: I don’t think it’s been done.

WILLIAMSON: Everything’s been done, so I wouldn’t be surprised. But I haven’t done it yet. There are so many projects that there’s no time to do them. How could a person possibly be bored when there’s so much to be done?

GREEN: I don’t think I get depressed from boredom. I get depressed from either lack of inspiration or time. Having too much to do, I don’t know what to do. So I’ll go watch TV, get my mind off of it, and then, slowly, some priority will come up. “I don’t know, I’ll do this.” I’ll get up and leave the TV. And that’s rare because I am a TV addict. I watch commercials, cruddy commercials I’ve seen before. I’ll sit there and cuss at them, but I’ll watch them. I am a TV addict.

Comic from “Chicago Cartoon.”

WILLIAMSON: I am too. I consume large amounts of TV. Chicago doesn’t have cable TV. It’s one of the last cities in the country not to have cable. But I just moved out to Oak Park, and I got cable. And I am in heaven, man. I’m watching all the time. Even when I work, I have the TV on as a background noise. Like the Great White Hope, it’s the great white noise. I don’t have to pay attention to it, but I can still absorb it. I can draw, whereas if I’m listening to music, it diverts me. I have to listen. Television is another great vulgar art form, like jazz, like movies, like cartoons. Liberal snobs enjoy putting down television as being without worth when it’s really the liberal snobs who are without worth. The potential for TV is absolutely amazing. The form itself is innately educational, it’s informative, it’s immediate, it’s in your own home.

GREEN: But it’s run by those in power who are money-hungry.

WILLIAMSON: I have faith that those bozos will go belly up due to their own lack of vision. Because what’s happening is every year networks are losing more and more viewers to cable, where there’s more flexibility. The future is in cable, pay-TV, and public access. It’s very embryonic at this point. Cable and pay-TV are mainly showing movies, and rock videos.

Programming is beginning to happen. Actual producing is beginning to happen. The reason that’s beginning to happen is because so many viewers are switching over. And that’s part of the reason I’d like to be involved. There are similarities to the early underground comics movement. You go out and do it. There are differences. You really have the opportunity now to just go do it, to put together a script, even if you can’t sell it to like HBO or Showtime, or the Playboy Channel. There’s always public access. Public access is free time. Take your script and your friends, and stand in front of the camera, and do it.

You know, there are some very funny things on cable. Canadian broadcasting through the Canadian film board has a lot of animated shorts, and there are experimental concepts broadcast, some of which are boring, but some of which are very interesting. Experimentation is happening, at least in between the movies.

GREEN: I wager that as a cartoonist if you were to go to Europe, you could almost call your own shots. The reason I say that is because somebody like B.B. King ran around America most of his life, got the term King of the Blues, but is still recognized only by the black people. But he goes over to Europe, man, they eat him up, they keep him over there five or six years. He wants to come home, and they don’t want to let him go because they think he’s fantastic.

WILLIAMSON: In 1963, me and my friends used to go down to East St. Louis to hear B.B. King playing at the Red Top or at the Paramount Club underneath the railroad tracks in East St. Louis. Nobody knew about him except the blacks. It was a wonderful time. A couple of young white boys hanging out where they shouldn’t be. But it was fun. The times were different then, though. There wasn’t nearly as much hostility as now.

GREEN: You think there’s more hostility now!

WILLIAMSON: I think so. See, I could cruise with the people. We’d buy some wine, we’d get some reefer, we’d go over and spend all night long, until dawn listening to electric blues. You know why? Because of the early civil rights movement. There was affection for people who were trying to cross over and appreciate another’s culture. Since then, the lot of most black people, and this also goes for latinos and other minorities as well, has been improved so little, that there’s a lot more hostility toward the whites and for good reason.

GREEN: Well, I think it really kind of depends on the individual. The way I see it, most white people see Jesse Jackson up there spouting this and that, “The black people this and the black people that,” I don’t like Jesse Jackson, speaking as a black man.

WILLIAMSON: Jerry Falwell and Jesse Jackson are cast from the same mold. They both use “Reverend” in front of their names, but the only gospel they preach is the gospel of Jerry and Jesse.

GREEN: I’ve talked to a lot of black people who don’t like him. I don’t like him and I don’t want any white person―or any Jewish person or any Italian or Indian, Mexican―I don’t want anybody thinking that Jesse Jackson speaks anything at all about what I ever think or feel. Nobody speaks for me. If I were to go on nationwide TV and someone asked, “Well, Grass, what do you think of the―” I’ll let them know. Hey, I speak for myself.

WILLIAMSON: The whole point is that you speak for yourself. That should be the right of every human being. We don’t want to hear you say, “I’m a credit to my race.” That kind of statement feeds racism. If I eat babies, then I eat babies. If I eat watermelon, then I eat watermelon. It doesn’t have anything to do with my race, or my creed, or my color, or my religion, or whether my mother before me chose to eat watermelon over eating babies.

GREEN: Yeah, well, there have been some racial cartoons. I’ve done a few.


GREEN: But I’ve tried to keep it light. Being black, I’m kind of aware, from Supersoul comics, of the way I feel about things offending black people.

WILLIAMSON: I understand that. I did a strip in the Comix Book that was about how Snappy Sammy Smoot can’t pay the rent, so he puts some Drano in a baggie and tries to sell it as heroin in the ghetto. He gets hooked up with these guys who drive pimpmobiles, and these guys come up to him with guns. He says, “Oh, are you gentlemen collecting for the United Negro College Fund?” [Laughter.] I imagine a lot of people were offended by that.

Panel from “Snappy Sammy Smoot Meets the Black Mafia.”

GREEN: They’ll say, “Skip Williamson is a bigot.” And that’s another thing about cartoons that as cartoonists we understand. We’re trying to get an idea or point across not necessarily a deep, innate personal point of view, but we’re just saying, “This would be funny.”

WILLIAMSON: But you have to watch yourself in terms of drawing blacks with big lips, right? The women’s movement criticized the undergrounds voraciously as being sexist. I just think that we reflected the sexist society around us. We are satirists. It’s the same way with our opinion towards the blacks, like Robert Crumb’s Angelfood McSpade.

GREEN: I love her. But the average black man wouldn’t.

WILLIAMSON: Right. The same people didn’t like the Amos and Andy Show.

GREEN: I like them.

WILLIAMSON: Our role, I think, is not so much to teach, or to preach, as much as it is to mirror the foibles of society. It’s the role of the satirist. Like Jonathan Swift. Like Chaucer. Like Dickens. Like  Thomas Nast. We cast a jaundiced eye at a society as a whole, and when we talk, we talk that satire talk. We use humor as a means of observation. We are the conscience of the culture. To be true to myself, to have integrity, I can’t hold back the stereotypes and the realities of the culture. I am required by integrity to show politicians in the dark and dank light in which I see them. To show the racist in the culture, to display the sexism. It doesn’t mean that I’m a racist or a sexist. But what it does mean is that I’m doing my job as satirist. I’m fulfilling the role of social observer. I’m justifying my narrow personal vision. If people like us aren’t strident, then how’re you gonna find the truth that will set you free? I’ve had people say to me, “I don’t believe anybody should be offensive.” On the other hand, I believe that offense is the road to progress. Jesus offended, otherwise they wouldn’t have nailed him to the dogwood tree. They shot Lincoln. He must have really pissed someone off. Every time there’s been any social progress, people have been offended. You gotta be turned around every now and then.

GREEN: When I was a kid, growing up, if a white person said, “Hey, look at that guy, he’s black.” Man, you better get your fist up and be ready to fight. Then the next generation came up, Martin Luther King Jr., and James Brown, and these guys. They said, “Say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.” Today’s kids, you don’t call them colored, you don’t call them negroes, you call them blacks, because they’re proud, see? I’ve had a number of white people say to me, “Well, 1 don’t know how to talk to you people.” So I tell them the best way that I know, going by how I feel. My father, when he came up, preferred being called “colored.” When I was coming up, the title was “negro.” Now, today’s kids, I’d say, if they’re under 25 or 30, I’d say you refer to them as “black.” If they’re between 30 and 45, “negro” or “black” is okay. But if they’re over 50, your best bet would be to use the term “colored.”

WILLIAMSON: I prefer to be called “mulatto trash.” [Laughter.] My mother came from a Mexican Indian heritage, my dad came from Virginia dirt farmers. On my mother’s side we were Mexican Indians chased out of the U.S. territories by the White Eyes. We were part of the Apache nation forced to live in the Chihuahua Desert. It’s my relatives who are down there in the border towns, making tortillas and clay pots and selling them to the turistas..

GREEN: You mentioned that you don’t get The Comics Journal regularly, but you’ll buy a certain issue.

WILLIAMSON: Well, here’s what I do. I usually hit the Chicago Comicon every year. I’ll check out all the fanzines I missed during the year, all the books I wanted, all the European books, and the Russ Cochran collections. I’ll catch up all at once. Occasionally I’ll go into a comics store and pick up The Comics Journal, if there’s something on the cover that catches my eye. There was a Harvey Kurtzman issue, probably two years ago now. Generally speaking, I am not a fan of the superheroes or of what I would call the “straight comics,” but if there’s something particularly that has to do with the underground or experimental, or something that gets my attention, then I’ll pick it up, and I’ll read it. But generally speaking, I don’t pick it up on a regular basis.

Original art for Kurtzman’s “Silver Linings.”

GREEN: What kind of music do you like-jazz, blues?

WILLIAMSON: I like all forms of good music. I enjoy country music, but good country. I like the authentic. I don’t like this bullshit Gatlin Brothers/Oak Ridge Boys/Dolly Parton pop music. I like Little Jimmy Dickens and Ferlin Husky, all that real old wonderful stuff from where the Everly Brothers came from. Currently, I listen to John Anderson, because he goes back to the old roots. I like good jazz. One of my friends is one of the foremost jazz guitarists in the country. He used to play with Louie Prima, and Keely Smith in Vegas. When Peggy Lee comes to town, he plays guitar for her. His name is Bobby Roberts. Bobby is like a real historian of jazz, too. I like less and less rock and roll these days, I tell you, the more I hear, the less I like it. When I do listen to rock ‘n’ roll, I like people like Bob Seger, I enjoy the authentic rockers, people like T-Bone Walker. I like the early rockers, like Little Richard. I like the less pop kind of stuff, the things that have been homogenized. I like the pure forms of music.

GREEN: You’ll find that despite today’s kind of music, some people are coming out with a good ’50s rock ‘n’ roll sound.

WILLIAMSON: The Stray Cats were that way. The Stray Cats did a passable rockabilly. I worked on a regular basis with a music section at Playboy. I produced the music package, what used to be called the “Jazz Poll,” now it’s the Playboy music poll. Playboy tends to focus on the real commercial acts. It seems to me that I crave the more obscure sound, less commercial.

GREEN: Well, you know who Jimmie Smith is, right?


GREEN: He does two different kinds of albums. He does his old, funky kind of thing― WILLIAMSON: Then he’ll super-produce a totally commercial album.

GREEN: Yeah, it doesn’t even sound like him. I by mistake bought one of his commercial tapes, and I played it once. And that was the most expensive Jimmie Smith thing I ever bought, and I threw it out. It was just shit. I didn’t like it at all, because I’m used to hearing him play that stuff, and he could make that organ talk and make me feel something. But his commercial stuff, he’s just flying over the keys, and lots of brass, and lots of strings, and lots of drums. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. Sorry, Jimmie.

WILLIAMSON: But it’s true. There’s the pure form and then there’s the adulterated form. The pure form is the most authentic and the best, the most interesting. Same way in comics. That’s why I think the undergrounds are important. They’re a pure form. They were a pure form because the artists didn’t have someone telling them what to draw, they didn’t have someone inking, they didn’t have someone pencilling. It all came from inside. It came from Robert Crumb, it came from Gilbert, it came from Jay, whatever. It was the pure light. It may not have been drawn well, but it had an authenticity. Sometimes you get happy mistakes.

GREEN: Yeah!

WILLIAMSON: It’s like a happy error. This is a wrong note, but Jesus it sounds great! That’s the creativity. When you homogenize, when you have someone telling you what to write or what to do, there’s no room for that wonderful error. That magic. In a way, it’s a shame to see. I hope that outlet isn’t shut off for people who need to be able to express themselves. There has to be someplace for some kid to go who really desperately wants to do his own cartoons without having to go to some editor who says, “Yeah, well, this isn’t funny, now get out of my office.”

GREEN: Well, I think this “Newave” thing has kind of taken care of that because now all they’ve got to do is go to someplace where there’s a photocopier. And they can make two or three copies or 50 copies, as much as they can afford.

WILLIAMSON: That’s like fanzines. I was publishing a fanzine when I was in high school. It was called Squire, and Jay Lynch used to contribute. It was mimeographed, and we had a print run of like 80 copies. At that time, fandom was mainly science-fiction boys. And if you were into satire and humor fandom, then man, you were garbage. So Jay and I, we were the garbage boys.

GREEN: When you draw, do you do a rough layout and then go over it and tight-pencil it, and then color and stuff, or do you just draw it direct, and then color it?

WILLIAMSON: What I’ll do, generally speaking, is a sketch fairly tight, fairly clean. That’s because I usually have to submit it. Editors have got to see something, but I’m not going to go to a finish and get a “NO.” So, I’ll do a sketch, and then from that, a tighter sketch. Then make a tracing onto a board, and then finally tighten it up and add color, so there’s about three or four stages. Some people don’t like that system. Shel Silverstein tells me, “How can you draw like that? I don’t understand people who tighten their drawing. You got to draw free!” He’s from that school that says the only way to draw is to just let it come out of your hand. He’s a freehand fascist.

GREEN: Yeah, well, that’s kind of neat, too.

WILLIAMSON: I can appreciate his solution, but I also can appreciate the system that I use. There’s more than one way out of here.

GREEN: A trick that one of the ad artists showed me is, you do your rough like this, then you slide it up on to this sheet of paper, and then you tighten it up, and if it’s not quite what you want, then you tear that off and slide that up like that. And I thought, “Boy, that saved me a bunch of erasers.”

WILLIAMSON: You can move things around that way if you draw with tracing paper, and then you move the actual elements around. Shel talks about free drawing, but do you know what he does? Since he mainly only draws in black-and-white, he’ll do his drawing. If he doesn’t like the position of something, he’ll cut it out with scissors, and paste it over here on the other side. [Laughter.]

Williamson sketches.

GREEN: We all have our own way of cheating.


GREEN: An easy out.

WILLIAMSON: Well, it’s not an easy out. It’s just technique, and everybody’s got a different technique that can’t really be taught. You can go to art school but you can’t really learn technique. You can discover little tricks and devices, but people develop their own technique. You’ve got to have your own system, everyone’s got a system that works well for them individually.

GREEN: Jack Kirby is my favorite, and you can see his influence in a lot of my stuff. There’s only one Jack Kirby, and I’ll never be able to draw like him, but the time that I come close, I feel good about it.

WILLIAMSON: But there’s no reason to be Jack Kirby. It’s good to show the influence. People will notice that this guy’s influenced by someone good. But who needs to be another Jack Kirby? The thing is, there is no other Jack Kirby, there is no other Jack Davis, there is no other Kurtzman.

GREEN: That’s the sad thing. For one thing, I don’t have a Jack Kirby’s fantastic mind or his fantastic talent. The only other artist that I saw whose way of doing perspective and stuff actually fascinated me like Jack Kirby was Murphy Anderson. When he did Plastic Man for DC, he did some―

WILLIAMSON: But you can’t compare that Plastic Man to the original Plastic Man that was drawn by Jack Cole.


WILLIAMSON: I mean, the original was the best. I own a piece of Jack Cole art. I enjoy collecting comic art. I’ve got a Sunday page from Li’l Abner from 1940. I got a Nancy and Sluggo from the ’40s.

GREEN: You know what amazes me? The vastness of difference between what appeals to each individual artist for what they want to collect. I look through a comic book and I see Joe Kubert’s work, I think, “Nah.” But I’ve got an original page by him I wouldn’t part with for anything. And Jesse Marsh, who did Tarzan for Dell and Gold Key for so long, I’ve got one or two of his pages. I don’t know what it is, but I just think he’s fantastic. A lot of people say, “He can’t draw. His contrasts are too great.” But he is great. He’s like Caniff, a great user of black mood stuff.

WILLIAMSON: All right, now, one person I haven’t mentioned as an influence is Chester Gould. Very important. I’ve even done strips that are direct homages to Chester Gould. As a matter of fact, Max Collins, who now writes Dick Tracy, owns one of the pieces. I’d like to own a vintage Chester Gould.

Original art for Gould’s “Dick Tracy.”

One of the things I first did when I came to Playboy was I shot a fumetti. You know what a fumetti is? It’s a photo comic strip. Kurtzman did a couple of them for Playboy in the ’60s. I wrote two complete fumettis and we shot one. But it never went anywhere. It’s another project. There are so many projects that I’ve done that have just―

GREEN: Kind of fizzled.

WILLIAMSON: Yeah, well, they lay fallow. It’s not that they fizzled. The work is good, for one reason or another, it doesn’t get used. But like I said, never throw away an idea.

GREEN: Yeah!

WILLIAMSON: What’s happening now is that this movie project is happening, and I’m going to transpose some of the ideas that I used in the fumetti, in terms of idea and actual shots. So it all works out in the end, one way or the other.

GREEN: Kurtzman is the layout master. There are probably people who can’t stand Harvey Kurtzman’s work, but for people like me he’s been a major influence, I think the man can do no wrong.

WILLIAMSON: I agree with that. And there are people who don’t like my work. The people who come to me and say, “Boy, you stink! Where do you come up with the ideas?” And I say, “By looking deep into your eyes, sweetheart.”

I probably have the lowest opinion of my work of anyone. In a way that’s good, because it creates a climate of improvement. When you’re overconfident, your work deteriorates. That’s an old axiom, but it’s true. Once you’re totally satisfied with what you’re doing, then why bother doing it?

I find that one of the most gratifying things is taking on new knowledge and working at a new form. Like the film project. I’m excited by it because there’s something new that I can get into and, really sink my teeth into and learn, and do it. And like the fumetti. I never did a fumetti before, but I went ahead. When I started comic strips, I’d never done them before.

GREEN: I’d like to get into airbrush, but they tell me it’s a lot of work: one mistake and you’ve messed up the whole panel and all, but I want to do airbrush.

WILLIAMSON: That’s not true. You can airbrush acrylic, so you can go right back over it again. You can use any medium through an airbrush. Actually, right now would be a good time to get into airbrush, because airbrush technique was utilized by so many guys for so long. Everybody was airbrushing. Now, it’s not so popular, so now would be a good time to get into it. You wouldn’t be typecast so much.

GREEN: You’ve done airbrush, haven’t you?

WILLIAMSON: No. Never have.

GREEN: I thought I saw something by you … I would have sworn―

WILLIAMSON: A lot of people look at some of the things I do and say, “That’s airbrush.” No, it’s not. It’s just rendering, you know.

GREEN: The Master speaking. No, I think that’s fantastic when your work can look like something else. Well, to wind up this interview, Skip, are there any profound words that you would like to lay on the reading audience?

WILLIAMSON: Don’t wee-wee on your TV.

Gag for “Playboy Funnies.”

Skip To 1985

In 1970, while a designer at Playboy Press, I assembled a Coffee Table book titled Thank You, Mr. President. The cover was a photo of a lit candle sculpted into the profile of Richard Nixon. The Table of Contents had similar images of the Nixon candle beside each listing. With each particular, the candle melted further until, at the last item of the index, all’s left was a pool of wax and smoky vapor. The preface was illustrated by a full-bleed spread of the George C. Scott-as-Patton-scene in front of a vast American flag. Except it was Nixon as Patton instead of Scott.

Don Myrus, the Editorial Director of Playboy Press and my boss, was accountable for the words and concept. The direction of visual style and the selection of artists, art, and photos were mine.

The parlance consisted of direct quotes from the Nixon coterie. Agnew, Martha Mitchell, Erlichman, Haldeman, the whole delicious crew fairly crackling with oleaginous mendacity, hanging themselves with their words and demonstrating the felonious proclivities that would become public knowledge after Watergate. For months we worked tethered to our bookish scheme which, at the end of its fated course, realized itself as a visually dynamic palisade and an insurgent’s reference to some of the more detritus mossbacks of the day.

In order to actually publish we needed the nod from recluse libertarian, champion of First Amendment rights, and Chief Operating Officer, Hugh M. Hefner. Hef said “No.” Considering the growing menace of the Department of Justice, the punitive mood of the IRS, and the monopolistic nature of the Post Office, Hef opined that it would be politically unwise to publish such strident truths. Still, it pissed me off that so much time, talent, and zealotry were so misused. The luster was clouded enough that before very long I resigned that tenure and secured other means to pay the rent.

The prerogative to remain loyal to irrational biases and false vanities is scribed in the blood of our ancestors. An acre of ground, a mule, and the freedom to single-mindedly pursue lunatic doctrine and entertain politically retarded notions. It’s the American Way. And in my spare time, I was availing myself of that inalienable, God-given function by publishing comic magazines with Jay Lynch.

In those days Chicago was like downtown Titograd. A gray, cold, and oppressive working-class gloom ruled by iron-fisted police upon the orders of corpulent and unctuous cigar-chomping bureaucrats. Fear hovered the lakefront like a sinister and poisonous veil. Brutality was Law in the south and west ghettos, and parochial intimidation reigned glorious in the white ethnic precincts north and northwest. It was, as a matter of fact, a terrific climate for the novice comic-book artist. Plenty of social injustice about which the fledgling crackerjack cartoonist could endlessly harangue and, for fear of bodily harm, no reason to venture outside. Numerous hours normally wasted on simple existential despair by so many of that generation could then be utilized more efficiently to hone the old brain/eye/inkwell skills.

Suddenly it’s 1984. Fourteen years of change later. For one thing, there are no comix to speak of anymore. And the city has changed since those haunting days of alienation. The haute monde boutiques on Oak Street are just as haute in their monde as their counterparts on Champs-Elysees. The gay laughter of the gentry and the tinkle of transpicuous crystal wafts from sidewalk cafes where the well-turned bon vivant can deftly dip its croissant into its cafe au lait while unsavory elements are kept at arm’s length by iron-fisted police upon the orders of corpulent and unctuous cigar-chomping bureaucrats. And I’m working as an art director at Playboy magazine where, for eight years, project after project consumed time, talent, and zealotry. Practically nothing realizes print. Some things never change. Some things are Corporate Policy.

Consumer’s Digest March/April 1985 cover.

So, shortly after this interview was recorded in the summer of 1984, the combination of a humorless editorial reality, no possibility of vertical movement within the company, and an offer I couldn’t refuse lured me away from an environmentally sybaritic yet creatively barren employ at Playboy.

Since then I’ve been gainfully employed as Corporate Art Director of Consumer’s Digest, a company that publishes a couple of magazines and has given me the hands-on opportunity to eyewitness the iniquitous and artistically corrosive practices of the American Business community.

In the meantime, as if to bolster anarchy incarnate, my wife Harriett and I have become the parents of twin girls and my three year old, Molly, has taken to cartoon drawing as a cunning means of self-expression.

So, if nothing else, I’ve succeeded in polluting the gene pool.

―SKIP WILLIAMSON, September 1985

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The Jay Lynch Interview, 1987 Mon, 06 Mar 2017 12:20:40 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From The Comics Journal #114 (February 1987) 

Jay Lynch held down the Chicago end of the underground comics movement. Bijou’s Funnies, which he edited, was second only to Zap as an underground anthology. Bijou’s

, and Rory Hayes. The best-remembered issue was probably the full-color #8, which featured a cover by Harvey Kurtzman and parodies of underground comics in the manner of the early Mad.

            Lynch was born in East Orange, New Jersey, in 1945 and studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. A compulsive cartoonist since early childhood, his first published work appeared in Don Dohler’s fanzine Wild (as did Williamsons). While at the Art Institute his cartoons appeared in the notorious college humor magazines Aardvark and Charleton. By 1965 he had appeared in the “Public Gallery” section of Kurtzman’s Help! and had written for Cracked.

            With the rise of the underground press in the late ’60s, Lynch moved on to the Chicago Seed newspaper where he introduced his most famous characters, Nard and Pat. In 1967 he and Williamson started an underground magazine called the Chicago Mirror. Crumb’s Zap inspired them to abandon the Mirror and start an underground comic book, which they named Bijou, after the movie theatre.

            In order to confound crank phone callers angered by his cartoons, he began signing himself “Jayzey” Lynch. This seemingly transparent subterfuge was enough to baffle lower primates such as Chicago Tribune readers, who didn’t associate “Jayzey” with “Jay” in the phone book. Lynch’s cartoons mix an attractive crosshatch style reminiscent of the ’30s “bigfoot” cartoonists with contemporary themes. His most famous cartoons feature the conflicts between the conservative wallflower Nard and his bohemian ne’er-do-well cat, Pat. Two Nard ‘n’ Pat collections have been published by Kitchen Sink (the first was originally published by Cartoonists’ Co-Op Press). With Gary Whitney he did the syndicated alternate-paper strip Phoebe and the Pigeon People, three collections of which were also published by Kitchen Sink. This interview was conducted en masse by Lynch’s pals and associates Richard “Grass” Green, Craig Yoe, and Jackie Lait. It was transcribed by Tom Heintjes, former managing editor of the Journal.




GRASS GREEN: You were born in January 1945, right?

JAY LYNCH: Yep. With a Rapidograph in my hand, screaming and crying for 3-ply Strathmore.

CRAIG YOE: And your father was a cartoonist?

LYNCH: My father did cartoons for his army base newspaper. There are a few printed samples of his stuff that I have that have survived over the years.

YOE: So in what ways did he encourage you?

LYNCH: He didn’t really encourage me that I can recall. He was in the Army, and I was born at the end of World War II. Then he was discharged, and he and my mother and I lived in a dressing room of a burlesque theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey, for a while. Burlesque was dying, so the theatre had a number of not-being-used dressing rooms, and they were requisitioned by the government and designated as veteran’s housing. Soon I wound up living with my grandmother, though. My parents got divorced, and I haven’t seen my father since 1947 or ’48. I have the impression, though, that maybe my mother may have encouraged my cartooning on account of the fact that my father was into it.

GREEN: Can you remember your first drawing?

LYNCH: No, but I can remember an early drawing experience. When I was 2 … maybe 3 years old, I saw a crack in the sidewalk in front of a vacant lot. The crack kind of vaguely looked like Mickey Mouse, so I went home and got my crayon and enhanced it so that it looked more like that affable rodent in the Disney cartoons. Then I hid in the bushes and watched and listened as passersby stopped to discuss this artistically enhanced sidewalk crack among themselves. As people walked by they’d say “Aah! What a clever young child it must have been that did this, y’know?” So I enjoyed hiding in the bushes and listening to their critiques a lot more than I enjoyed the physical act of doing the drawing.

YOE: Is that the appeal of cartooning for you? The audience reaction part of it as opposed to the actual doing of it? Has that changed over the years, or does that maintain a constant?

LYNCH: Oh, I definitely like the audience reaction part a lot more than the doing of it. But the doing of it has become much more mechanical — much more automatic to me over the years. It’s not something I sweat and suffer over so much as I did when I was a youth.


LYNCH: Yeah. Like maybe 25 years or so ago Jackie and I — and all of our friends back then — we’d hang out at coffee houses and discuss the way of Zen all the time. By the mid-60s I was so OD’ed on Zen talk — I remember when I got married then, my wife of that era wouldn’t let Jackie, or any of my Zen pals in the house. So we stopped out constant discussions of Zen, but …

LAIT: But then years later it turned out that we’d all unconsciously internalized it, and …

LYNCH: C’mon Jackie man. Let’s not get into a Zen discussion here. We gotta talk comics.

LAIT: Spider-Man, Schneiderman, The Blue Beetle, The Green Hornet, The Yellow Discharge …

YOE: So what you’re saying is that Zen helped you in …

LYNCH: In making the act of drawing a cartoon a lot more automatic. Yeah.

GREEN: But in the final analysis, you’re seeking praise and approval from others more than just the enjoyment of putting lines on paper. Right?

LYNCH: Well, I’m seeking to communicate with others, yeah. It doesn’t matter if it’s praise, approval, or anger — or total hatred of what I do on the audience’s part. As long as it gets some kind of reaction that makes it permanent.

YOE: What kind of things are you seeking to communicate?

LYNCH: Probably the same thing that everybody seeks to communicate: that everyone should be like me, and that it’d be a better world if they were.

YOE: What is Jay Lynch like?

LYNCH: Well — uh — I never killed anybody. That’s good.

GREEN: But in terms of — like — what would be the moral of your work?

LAIT: That’s a heavy “Q,” Lynchboy! What’s the “A”?

LYNCH: I dunno. Probably that I think that people should think about the consequences of their actions — be responsible for their behavior. I think that would be the moral of my stuff.

YOE: Do you think all cartooning does, or should have a message to it?

LYNCH: No, but I think that the readers should accept it for what it is. I mean — there are two kinds of stories, or comic strips. And even in non-fiction — there are two kinds of communication. First, there’s the “cautionary tale,” which is like. … A mother will tell her kid, “If you’re going outside, wear a scarf. There was a little kid up the street who went out — and he didn’t wear a scarf, and he got pneumonia and died!” Now that might not necessarily be a true story, but it’s a pretty basic example of a yarn that has a message that gets to the kid, so that the kid will know to wear his scarf. It’s a cautionary tale. Many superstitions are just Readers’ Digest version of what once were longer cautionary tales. “Don’t walk under a ladder if there’s a can of paint resting on top of it. On account of maybe you’ll jostle the ladder, and the can of paint will fall on your head.” This original story then becomes shortened to the superstition: “Don’t walk under a ladder.” A few hundred years went by, and some iconoclast sees a ladder, and since the superstition makes no sense to him he defiantly walks under it. Then “Splat!,” a can of paint falls on his head. Now the cat knows why he shouldn’t walk under a ladder, and he can tell his descendants about it, and the cycle repeats itself.

GREEN: And what’s the other method of communication?

LYNCH: The other method is the “I’m screwed up, and I want you to be screwed up” approach. I think most, if not all, communication breaks down into these two categories. But usually the author is unconscious of it.

YOE: And your own personal cartooning, which of these two methods does it fall into?

LYNCH: Well, I’m only human. I admit some of it over the years probably falls into the latter. But originally it was my idea that all of my stuff should have a didactic purpose behind it.

YOE: When you say “originally,” how far back were you conscious in your own work that this is what you wanted it to be?

LYNCH: I guess I first started to think about it in ’63 or so. We were doing a college humor magazine called Aardvark back then. Once we had a meeting and we decided at the meeting that everything in the mag should have didactic purpose. That idea was soon abandoned by the Aardvark staff. I think we did one or two “didactic purpose” issues, and then that was that. I dunno, though. I never really abandoned that idea. Last year I wrote a comic book version of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Commando. Hilary Barta drew it. It comes with the Commando six-and-a-half-inch Action Figure toy. While I was writing it, I kept thinking, “Well, at least I don’t have to do Rambo.” At least it’s a movie where — I mean in Commando, they do kidnap some guy’s daughter, so maybe he might be justified in killing everyone in sight, but …

LAIT: So is that hypocrisy on your part or what?

LYNCH: I hope not. I hate hypocrisy. But after the comic book came I gave $25 to The Great Peace March. I’ll still probably rot in hell, but …

LAIT: But doing this Commando comic book was a commercial job. In terms of your own work — the stuff you have total control over. … What are the main ideas that you want to espouse?

LYNCH: My main holy cause is that there should be a free exchange of ideas. So, getting back to the two types of communication I was talking about, I think that both categories should have the right to see print.

YOE: You were one of the founding fathers of the underground comix movement. Which of the two categories of fiction did the work generated by the underground cartoonists fall into? Didactic or nihilistic?

LYNCH: The underground comix movement more or less started with the publication of Robert Crumb’s Zap Comix in 1967. If the underground comix did anything good, it was that they opened up the field of publishing to a non-censorship type of situation. Whereas, before you couldn’t buy Henry Miller’s work here in the U.S. James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned here until a lengthy court trial, at the publisher’s expense. There was a climate in this country where ideas could be stifled. Usually the fact that these books or publications had a sexual tone to them was an excuse to prosecute the publishers, ostensibly for pornography — but in reality for other ideas that the power structure may have found threatening.

Nard N’ Pat #1 (April 1978)


GREEN: Such as?

LYNCH: Well, for instance, there was an issue of Playboy in 1962 or ’63 that was removed from the stands here in Chicago because it had a nude pictorial on Jayne Mansfield. Supposedly the Mansfield pictorial was considered obscene by the local authorities, and that was the reason that this particular issue of Playboy was removed from the stands in Chicago. Now up to that point, every issue of Playboy had naked women in it — and it was hard for me to imagine at the time how come this particular nude pictorial was any different in the eyes of the local law. But in fact, this same issue of Playboy also had editorial material in it which criticized the administration of Mayor Daley — which is something they’d never done up to that point — so this is the one local authorities chose to jump on. The reason given was that the magazine was pornographic because of the Mansfield pics. The real reason is that the mag was critical of the Daley administration.

YOE: So you feel that underground comix then, had a direct impact upon publishing in the United States, and upon opening up more freedom for exchange of ideas?

LYNCH: Yeah. But what I thought was that after the press was open to this, we’d have ten times as many Henry Millers and James Joyces and Nabakovs. And what happened is that after it was open, the public did not especially want that — and what we got was Larry Flynt.

YOE: So, if you had it to do over again would you do it, and if so, how would you approach it differently?

LYNCH: I would have done the same thing. Regrets, I have a few. But then again, too few to mention.

GREEN: One thing I’d like to cover here is your aversion to super-heroes, which I know about since I’ve known you for so long. You didn’t even have a thing for the super-heroes comics when you were a kid? Most kids idolize Superman. I know I did. But you didn’t.

LYNCH: It’s not only super-heroes that I didn’t care for. I didn’t care for Western stuff, and I don’t think much of barbarians.

GREEN: No Westerns? That’s un-American!

LYNCH: I remember once, this kid came over to my house. This fellow kid, this was in 1950 or so. And the Lone Ranger was on TV. I never watched the Lone Ranger. To me it was silly and boring. The Lone Ranger was on opposite a panel show hosted by Conrad Nagel called Leave It to the Girls. This is what I preferred to watch. One of the panelists was Eloise Mackelhone. I guess she was an author or something. So I would watch this show to look at Eloise Mackelhone. She was cute. I enjoyed watching her and listening to her opinions. Anyway, this kid came over — and he wanted to watch the Lone Ranger when could watch Eloise Mackelhone? I’ve never understood this.

GREEN: And super-hero comic books?

LYNCH: I just don’t have any interest in that genre. Just because they’re comic books doesn’t mean I’m interested in them. That’s the thing about the comic book business. When you say “movies” some people think of, say, Star Wars, and other people think of the Ingemar Bergman trilogy. Movies can be anything, but comic books gotta be super-heroes? No. This is wrong. It’s a medium that can’t realize it’s full potential until the public grows up and gets off this super-hero kick. The comic books I save are comic books that have to do mainly with humor. I mean, I like some super-hero type stuff by guys like Jack Cole and Will Eisner, but that stuff has a satirical edge to it. Mainly, though, the comics I save are the comics that relate to what I do.

GREEN: So when I said “aversion to super-heroes,” — Perhaps the right terminology in your case would be “apathy towards super-heroes.”

LYNCH: Well, it’s like this. … If I were involved in the writing or drawing of the super-hero type of comics, I’d be making money off of the promotion of idolatry. I’d be helping to create false gods. I’d be defying the. … See, it’s not that I’m religious in the usual sense of that term — in light of what it has come to mean to the sensibilities of Western culture, but … what you’re doing with satire is that you’re destroying idols. Satirical comics in that sense are the exact opposite of the books that elevate super-heroes as idols — the books that promote false gods. So in the Judeo-Christian ethical system, super-heroes are incorrect for me to draw. Satire is correct for me to draw. I have no interest in super-heroes.

YOE: But you have worked on super-hero related projects over the years.

LYNCH: I know. I could say it’s unavoidable in this business, but I could say anything I want. I know Stan Lee insists that all of the Marvel super-heroes have Achilles’ heels. They all have their weakness, and therefore, if I were to accept that rationale, the Marvel super-heroes are not true contenders for false-god status. In the late ’60s I wrote a lot of the gags used in the Topps Chewing Gum Marvel Super Heroes series of bubblegum stickers. The one that I remember — It’s a sticker of Captain America, and he says, “I think I’ll run up the flagpole and see if anybody salutes!” — which was a twist on a popular Madison Avenue advertising lingo cliché of the era. It was a gag, like all of the gags that I wrote for that series, that kind of mocks these super-hero figures just enough to make me feel I’m justified, and that I’m not promoting the idolization of these mindless might-is-right type characters. Not that I really thought that much about it in those terms while I was doing it, but …

“Little Creeps” comic (1981)

GREEN: So in order to write these gags about Marvel super-heroes, you must have read some of the comic books, then.

LYNCH: Yeah. In order to do that sticker series I had to read about a dozen Marvel comic books to familiarize myself with the characters. I remember reading those books was painful. It was very hard for me to follow the stories, but I had to. It was like reading F.D.A. regulations for lead content of ink used to print jar caps — or a book about upholstering or something. Those are too subjective to be good examples. What I mean to say is that to me these Marvel books were dull, and it was a major effort for me to get through them. But I know that the fans like them. That’s cool. I like to read the New England Journal of Medicine, which to most folks is plenty dull. ‘Nuff said.

GREEN: But the EC comics were drawn realistically, and …

LYNCH: And they were well written, and the stories had points to them, and I loved ‘em. The science fiction books from EC were great! And the war comics that Kurtzman did were great. EC is in a class by itself. These were more than comics. EC was great American literature. Before the EC books, when I was a real little kid, there was this show on the radio called The Witch’s Tale. I lived in Newark, at 721 Highland Avenue with my three aunts, who were teenagers at this time. We had a ritual for listening to this show. One of my aunts would put a big kitchen knife on top of the radio, just in case anybody tried to break into our apartment during the program. There was a witch that would introduce the dramatized stories, and she would call the audience “kiddies,” like, “you’ll like this little fable, kiddies.” To me, this show was the scariest thing that there was outside of the stuff that was going on in my own head. I really dug The Witch’s Tale — and later when the EC horror books came along, I enjoyed them in the same way. I mean, when I’d read the EC books, I’d hear the radio witch’s voice as the voice of the EC horror hostesses who did the narration in the comic books.

LAIT: You were a pretty famous baby, no?

LYNCH: Well, I was in a soap ad that was printed on the back cover of a newspaper Sunday supplement in the ’40s. In the ad I was naked — so I guess that did something to my psyche. I mean, I was nude in print before I could speak, and. … Hey! This is kind of an interesting cartoon related thing. The first picture of me in a baby parade in Asbury Park from a 1947 Pathé newsreel. The second is a World War II Dubout cartoon. The third is a early 1970s postcard by the Dutch cartoonist Evert Geradts. What does all this mean? No one knows!

LAIT: Your aunts were professional photographers?

LYNCH: Yeah — but don’t emasculate me, man. This interview goes in a mag for comic fans who are hard-pressed these days for positive role models! Anyway, then when I was about 2-and-a-half I cut off the tip of my finger playing with razor blades. They sewed it back on, but they hadda put this device on my arm to keep me from messing with my finger until it healed, and this put an end to my big-time modeling career.

LAIT: Yeah. You can see the bandages in this baby parade picture. So like, what does this mean? There are no accidents, man. At age 2-and-a-half by all rights you should have been passing from the oral to the anal stage of psychological development. But this razor blade finger shtick is indicative of some sicko acting out of a phallic stage castration-anxiety fantasy, wherein you …

LYNCH: Jackie, you know well and good that you’re crazier than I am, even. Cool it! Sometimes a finger is just a finger.

YOE: Speaking of crazy stuff, what was this magazine you did called Fanboy? The original Fanboy was done as a gag by me, Glenn Bray, Bob Armstrong, Jay Kinney, Cathy Goodall, Denis Kitchen, Alan Dodge, Justin Green, and a bunch of other folks. This was in 1974 or ’75. We did it as a gag. Glenn Bray only printed six or eight copies. They were Xeroxed. Then there were several other Xeroxed small printings of it. We all signed fake names. We just did it for kicks, but now it’s a priceless collectible.

GREEN: What comics did you read as a kid?

LYNCH: Well, my first vivid memory of really being blown away by a comic book story is … 1947 is the year. I remember looking at the pictures (this is before I could read) of a Vince Fago story in a book called Ding Dong Comics titled “The Callico Pup.” About 20 years ago I found a copy of this book. I located Fago — this was in 1967 — and he told me he was now into Zen. In the late ’60s he was doing these Zen cartoons and humorous verse books. He still is, I think. So, when I’m 2 years old in 1947, I remember laying on the couch drinking a baby bottle full of orange juice and marveling over this Callico Pup story. You can’t deny that the funny animals that Vince drew in the ’40s are cute — but there’s also something weird about them, there’s something vaguely maniacal in their half-moon shaped eyes. They stare into space — and. … I don’t know what it is, but there’s something that attracts me to the Fago funny animals even more than the Disney funny animals, or the Jack Bradbury funny animals. There is something about Fago’s stuff that …

YOE: There’s definitely an edge to them. Wonderfully weird! What else?

LYNCH: Well, I only retroactively liked Carl Barks. When I was 4 or 5 years old, I guess I thought the stories in the duck books were too long or something. In the early ’60s Don and Maggie Thompson started doing a fanzine called Comic Art. It was in Don and Maggie’s zine that I first began to read critiques of Bark’s duck yarns. So I went and got the old Barks duck books — and sure enough — the guy was a master storyteller. But as a kid, Fago was my fave rave before I discovered the Kurtzman, Elder, Wood, Davis crowd. Before Bill Gaines took over EC, the old M.C. Gaines EC Comics put out a book called Dandy Comics, wherein Vince Fago did a strip called Handy Andy. Later Standard comics, in the early ’60s, reprinted these Handy Andy yarns, and the title character’s name was changed to Happy Jack. I liked the John Stanley Lulu books as a kid. I liked a book called “Dodger de Squoil” from Brooklyn. A little later I got into Jack Cole and Will Eisner. To this day, I don’t really follow many realistically drawn comics — but there’s still something I dig about Cole and Eisner. There’s some sort of subtle anxiety in the facial expressions and actions of these guys’ characters that I like. And the camera angles that Cole and Eisner used to tell their stories were great innovative stuff. Also, in The Spirit, Ebony was the only one who was drawn in a cartoony style while everyone else was drawn realistically. In Plastic Man by Cole, Woozy Winks was drawn cartoony, and the other characters were all drawn realistically. So to me, Ebony and Woozy were pretty heavy characters when I was a kid. It’s like an intrusion of a different reality system. I mean, what if you went into your kitchen late at night and saw the Pillsbury Dough Boy standing next to your oven? You’d be scared out of your wits. You’d probably try to kill the thing with a broom.

YOE: But when you first saw Kurtzman’s Mad comics in 1952, that was pretty much it for you.

LYNCH: Yeah. My uncle worked for Colliers, then later he worked for Time Life in distribution. A friend of his at one of the local warehouses would, at the end of each month, lay copies of all of the major magazines and comic books on him, copies with the covers torn off. So as a kid, I was pretty hip to the zine scene. Even before the St. Johns 3-D Mighty Mouse book came out, my uncle gave me an oversized dummy of that book, which was part of a limited press run for the distributors to use as sales samples. It was printed on good paper, and it was a little bit larger than the final product. You don’t see it in Overstreet, though. I lost mine in ’56. It’d probably be worth a fortune now. So anyway, I got all the Dell and DC stuff for free. And I’d also see a lot of the Archie stuff. I guess I’d trade coverless books that I’d read with my friends for other titles, like the Archie series. But I was more into magazines than comics as a kid. I wanted to be the editor of Colliers when I grew up. Then one day my uncle brought home a copy of the Mad with “Ping Pong,” the King Kong parody, and “Teddy and the Pirates,” the Terry and the Pirates parody in it. He and his distributor friends loved it, and he gave the mag to me when he was done with it, and it totally flipped me out. So from that point on I was a big Mad and EC. fan. I used to trace Elder’s stuff when I was a kid. I remember thinking that Mad was one of the few comic books in the early and mid-50s that didn’t talk down to its audience, and I dug it. Seeing that something like Mad comics was possible when I was a kid is what made me want to be a cartoonist.

Nard N’ Pat #2 (June 1981)


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The Jack Davis Interview Mon, 24 Oct 2016 12:00:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> davismain

This interview initially ran in issue #153 (October 1992).

Of all the EC artists, Jack Davis found the greatest success later in life — he is one of the country’s premier illustrators with a style that is instantly recognizable. This interview was conducted in 1985, and since then, Jack Davis has moved back to his beloved Georgia, and William Gaines and Dik Browne have passed on.


LEE WOCHNER: Have you always been attracted to art? Did you ever imagine that one day you would be a professional artist?

JACK DAVIS: When I was in grammar school, I would copy Henry and Popeye and Mickey Mouse and the whole bit. And in high school, I drew for the school paper. Then, when I was in the Navy, on Guam, I drew for the Navy paper in the Marianas Islands, and when I was at the University of Georgia, I took a little journalism and contributed to their paper. And then I struck out for New York. I didn’t graduate from Georgia. I came up through the G.I. Bill and went to the Art Student’s League at night, and looked for work during the day.


Popeye by Elzie Crisler Segar, December 3, 1933

WOCHNER: When did you first become involved in EC and how did that come about?

DAVIS: When I first came to New York I was going to art school at the Art Student’s League and I was also looking for work during the day. I was trying to get to the newspaper syndicates. I had a strip and [the syndicates] would say, “This is bad,” or, “This isn’t so good,” and I was really starting to get down on everything. I had finally gotten a job with the Herald Tribune inking The Saint via the school I was going to — the Art Student’s League — and that didn’t last too long. So, I started going into the comic book bit, and I went down to EC, which was way downtown, not uptown, and just walked in and met Al Feldstein, who was the editor. Al liked my work. And it was through the horror bit that I got started. They’d give me work, and I’d take it home, do it, bring it back, and they’d pay me, and I’d pick up another story. I’d do that about once a week. That’s how I started. They liked my work. Finally…! After I had gone all over New York! It just so happened that EC liked what I did. I was about ready to go back home [to Georgia], I’ll tell you.

WOCHNER: What year was this?

DAVIS: I was married in 1950, so it was somewhere around there.

WOCHNER: How long did you look for work until you wound up at EC?

DAVIS: Only about a year.

WOCHNER: I have to ask you about this story because it’s so amusing. When you first came to New York — you were 20 or 21 — someone sold you a diamond ring?

DAVIS: Oh yeah. Some people down home knew that I was up here and they came up to visit me. They gave me tickets for a Broadway show because they couldn’t go, so I went by myself and I was thinking about getting married … I was engaged… I came out of the theater and was walking down the street and this guy comes up to me and says, “You want to buy a ring?” and I said, “No way, forget it,” and he says, “This is a real diamond, it cuts glass. I was in the Astoria washroom and somebody had left a man’s diamond ring.” He showed it to me, and it was a man’s ring with a big old diamond in it and he said, “Let me show you how it cuts glass.” So we stepped over on the side and he took the ring and made a big mark across the storefront window — a big scratch — and he said, “How much money do you have on you?” And I said, “I have 35 bucks.” And he says, “O.K., I’ll give it to you for 35 bucks,” so I took it. I walked home practically backwards — I lived up near Columbia, and I knew that he was going to try to knock me in the head and take it away from me, or something. I ended up staying up all night looking at it under the lamp… it looked good to me. I went to school the next day at the Art Student’s League and these guys who grew up in the area said, “It ain’t worth a dollar…” [laughter]. And it wasn’t.

WOCHNER: That was your last 35 dollars, right?

DAVIS: Yes. The last that I had on me.

WOCHNER: That was your first education in New York City?

DAVIS: Oh yeah. And then I had my automobile stolen. I came up from school — I had a convertible Chevrolet — and had made some good money working for Coca-Cola in Atlanta, so I had bought a car, a used car. I came up here and drove it all the way up. I came up on a Sunday and went through New Jersey. This was before they had the turnpike. I came through Camden… I could see the skyline of New York off in the distance and traffic was pretty bad. I guess people had come back from the beach. I went through the Holland Tunnel, came up, went over the Brooklyn Bridge, and wound up in Brooklyn! Got lost looking for the YMCA, ’cause my mother made reservations for me at the YMCA. I finally found it. While I was staying up there and trying to find a place to live — I found the one on 104th Street — I had a date one night with a girl over on 5th Avenue — Central Park, a real nice section. I went to pick her up and I took the key out of the ignition… and I came back and there was no car. I thought maybe the doorman or someone had it picked up, so I ran around asking everybody, “Did you have this car picked up?” So I called the police and the police said, “We can’t do anything unless you come to the precinct and give us the whole rundown.” By the time I got a taxi and went to the precinct, the car was long gone, and by the time they found it, it was in Buffalo.

WOCHNER: How long had you been in New York when this happened?

DAVIS: Oh, I guess three or four months.

WOCHNER: Was that about enough to get you to go back down south?

DAVIS: Getting pretty close. Yeah.

WOCHNER: And work was tight, right?

DAVIS: I think now there seems to be more openings for cartoonists and things like that. When I came up here there were no cartoonists at all except for the syndicates and comic books and there weren’t that many of them. The syndicates were pretty tight with who wrote for them. Now we’ve got a whole lot of syndicates and a whole lot of people working for them.

WOCHNER: You mentioned a comic strip you were taking to the syndicates. Was that Beauregard, or did that come later?

DAVIS: No, that came later, after EC broke up. We went out on our own. In my comic strip I did a football player who was gotten up in the clothes of someone like Li’l Abner, except he was real ugly and big and strong, and I wrote it myself. It was just no good [laughter]. I had been drawing cartoons at the University of Georgia when I was down there studying art and everything, and I did all right.


WOCHNER: Why did you think it was no good?

DAVIS: He was grotesquely drawn, that’s all! And that’s where I feel the horror came in… and, then again, it wasn’t funny. I thought it was funny and then other people read it, and there was no laughter, so forget it. So I stuck to drawing rather than writing. And that was about it. And then I was involved with Ed Dodd doing a strip for him that he was trying to sell, and it never did go, and all that was on speculation. That was a good lesson. I learned to never do that again. I thought it was ready to go, and then it wasn’t. And then I tried Beauregard. I wrote that myself. I thought I’d learned a little more, and some of it was fair, but most of it wasn’t.


WOCHNER: What were your early days like at EC?

DAVIS: Well, I’d go in and pick up a job, go home, and do it and bring it in. I’d only meet with the editors when I’d come in like that. Al Feldstein was the editor who [I worked with] at the very beginning. And Al was Al. He was very businesslike. I was impressed because they were impressed with my work, and that made me respect them a lot. I was about 21 or 22 years old, and I looked up to them. It was not like going into the office and working with them every day. I’ve always worked that way — by myself, at home — and I’ve never been in any office, or employed by anybody. But EC was a good account. I stayed with them.

WOCHNER: What were the EC artists’ reactions to Fredric Wertham’s charges that comic books were corrupting America’s youth? What was the mood around the office?

DAVIS: Well, I lived up in Scarsdale, N.Y. I’d see the issues come out… the horror bit didn’t upset me too much because I enjoyed drawing scary things. Then, all of the sudden, some of it was really getting a bit grotesque, but they were paying me, and I was doing it. Then they had the investigations, and Bill Gaines had to go down to Washington D.C… So I felt that we were evidently doing something wrong. I felt pretty bad about it, I really did. I think I had a lot of old comic books up in the attic, and one night we just burned them. ‘Cause I would hate to think that I had frightened some kid. Nobody likes to think things like that. But at the time I was doing that, I didn’t think that it would get that kind of exposure, and it did. Nowadays, publishing has all kinds of pornography and stuff being done, and nobody does anything about that, but they did clean up the comic books and I had to go with it. But it was always frightening to think that I could be out of work because, well, what else was I going to do? I was drawing horror, and that was the one reason people were buying EC: to get the horror. The other titles didn’t do that well. And that’s where MAD came in. They had to come up with another magazine, and that’s when Harvey stepped in with MAD. It was a funny book, a satire book, and that kept EC going.

WOCHNER: If I shoot some names at you, maybe you can give me some profiles about what you remember of them. Bill Gaines…

DAVIS: Bill was always just a very generous person. He was a big guy. I think he’s kind of shy, but he’s his own man. He’s full of a lot of love for people. He’s just a very giving person, and he’s a good businessman, and I respect him an awful lot. If it hadn’t been for him, I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. I might be somewhere else, of course, but I like where I am now and I owe it all to Bill. There’s a certain chemistry we all had with the horror bit. He enjoyed the horror bit, he enjoys his humor, and he enjoys having a good time… and it’s a family thing. I think that when people come in from the outside, be it a writer or an artist, it’s pretty much a compliment because he’s the one who says, “OK, bring him.”

WOCHNER: Al Feldstein…

DAVIS: Al is the guy who gave me my first job and I think he’s a very good editor. He makes sure that everything runs right, that deadlines are met, and he’s put me on the carpet quite a few times for being late, and I’ve never had that from anyone else. I’ll be late sometimes, but Al really used to chew me out, and I needed it. I think, also, he was a genuinely good man, but he was concerned about MAD and running everything right, and he did it that way, and expected in return that you do a good job and not lay back. Every time I’d bring something in, he’d say, “Well, you didn’t knock yourself out on this,” and I didn’t — sometimes I would, and that would make me mad, but that’s an editor, and that’s his job.

WOCHNER: Did you work a lot from his scripts?

DAVIS: Oh, yeah. All of the horror stories.

WOCHNER: Were his scripts easy to work from?

DAVIS: Yeah, because they would have a description on each panel, and of course my mind was going with the horror bit, which I liked, and it came off pretty good.

WOCHNER: Harvey Kurtzman…

DAVIS: Harvey is one of my closest friends. When I first came to New York, he and his wife invited me to their apartment. I was up from the South, and they kind of took me in as a friend. I’d eat supper with them before I was married, and after I was married, we’d get together and go out and eat. Harvey was kind of a low-key editor, but he was very hard. I think he’s still one of the greatest talents when it comes to drawing. He could draw really, really well, and he did his thing but he could have done… I don’t want to say better, but he had so much potential to do other things that he never really got a hold of. Whatever he did, like when he would do a story, he’d put every ounce of energy into it that he could. He would sit down and read the story with you, practically act it out, get you all the scraps that you needed, go over that with you, and when you walked out, you knew that he wanted a good job. He expected it.

Again, it wasn’t the horror bit, and I liked doing the war stories, and I enjoyed working with him very much.

WOCHNER: Wally Wood…

DAVIS: I respected Wally for his art ability so much… He was an off-shoot of Harold Foster and Alex Raymond, and he was just a very, very talented guy — so far ahead of himself, and again, what he did with his life was his business. I respected him so much. I did not know him personally. The only time we would ever get together would be at Christmas parties at Bill’s or at Halloween parties, things like that. I respected him very much as an artist.

WOCHNER: Now that you’ve mentioned that you feel that Wood followed in Hal Foster’s footsteps to a degree, do you feel that you have inspired anyone to adopt your style?

DAVIS: Well, the only thing I see in my own work that comes out in others’ work are my feet, my hands, all over the place and whether that’s inspired somebody, I don’t know. I do see a lot of my work come out in younger guys. I don’t know, but I’ve always been inspired by other people. I do hands and big feet from other artists from way back.

WOCHNER: Who have you been inspired by?

DAVIS: Walt Disney. I think with all of his characters, the feet are big and the hands are very expressive. And again, I always loved Harold Foster’s work, although he’s pretty much of an illustrator, but his action is just unbelievable, and all of those great details! I think that when Harold Foster came out with his first Sunday page of Prince Valiant I wrote him a letter and he sent me the original art. I still have it. I haven’t framed it, I’m afraid it might deteriorate or something.


Prince Valiant by Hal Foster, December 10, 1944

WOCHNER: How about the Raid TV commercials? That certainly resembles your work.

DAVIS: No, I think the guy’s fantastic, though. I’d love to draw like that, and if I drew that, it would be that way… But, whoever it is, it’s good. I think he’s an animator. It’s that kind of Walt Disney type of stuff, you know, that rock ’em, hit ’em real fast, and big eyes and big mouth, and real quick movement. That kind of stuff doesn’t animate too well. I’ve got a whole reel of TV tapes I’ve done. Some are real enjoyable — they’re automatic, where the action doesn’t move. The ones that move get to be kind of grotesque and hard to animate. When I do a cartoon for TV that’s animated, like grotesque noses and things, it moves pretty well, and that I’m pleased with.

WOCHNER: What’s the difference between your cartooning style and your animating style?

DAVIS: Well, I’ve got about three or four different styles, and when I do work, sometimes it’s a loose style, like the bulging eyes and big nose, and some quick lines, and then somebody wants to see a realistic expression which still has humor. There’s all types of cartoonists, like Bingham, who was with Punch, and Lowe, who was with Punch also. They’re not Walt Disney type cartoonists; they’re pretty much illustrators, but they will bring in exaggerated heads and feet and hands and these are to me the really true masters. Not old masters, but they were very big during WWII.

WOCHNER: Did you work hard to establish a cartooning style of your own, or did it just develop?

DAVIS: I think it just developed. I never really copied anybody else. I just love Walt Disney’s animations and actions, and that kind of rubs off.

WOCHNER: Do you ever draw anything and then stop and say, ”Well, that’s not really my style and I have to change it and make it my style”?

DAVIS: Once in a while, I’ll get something where they want a pretty illustration, and I just don’t enjoy doing that too much. I like what comes out of my own head.

WOCHNER: Bill Elder…

DAVIS: I just respect him. He could be a comedian on TV. He’s a funny person, a nervous kind of guy, always coming up with something wild, and he was kind of the original MAD artist, because he’d put wild things in the background every time he’d draw something, and he’d put in crazy things that had never been done before. He always had a great sense of humor. I respect his painting ability. He is really just fantastic about that. Maybe Willy should have been drawing and painting and doing his own rendering — I don’t know — but he was always sort of doing that. Now he works with Harvey. Harvey pretty much lays everything out for everybody anyway. All you have to do is just render it, so they have a good thing going there. I enjoyed working with Harvey on “Little Annie Fanny” in Playboy. That paid pretty well. It was security for awhile.


Little Annie Fanny, “From Annie with Love,” by Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, and Jack Davis, January 1965

WOCHNER: You did backgrounds for awhile?

DAVIS: Yeah, and then it got to be where three or four guys were working on it, and I’d rather do my own thing, so that didn’t last too long.


WOCHNER: How did you break into advertising?

DAVIS: I started when EC folded. I needed money, and, again, EC had been a great showcase for me. I went down to RCA Victor and the guy there was a MAD fan. I got about three record cover jobs from them, and they paid about $300 a cover, which was pretty good next to comic book work. From that, it began to grow and then I met the man who was doing It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He was a MAD fan, and he got in touch with me somehow. I don’t know whether it was through MAD or not, but the billboards and poster work brought in a lot of money. All of the sudden, it was a different kind of work for me. I had a big campaign with NBC, and Gene Shalit was a big MAD fan, so that helped a good bit. Advertising is a lot more lucrative than the editorial or the comic book business. Agencies paid pretty good money.

WOCHNER: Was this the mid-’50s?

DAVIS: Yeah, I think it was the late ’50s…

WOCHNER: Can you give us a brief rundown on some of the advertising work you’ve done? You’ve done a lot for automotive trade journals.

DAVIS: Yeah, well, what happens… a lot of this is trade magazines and consumer magazines, things like that, but one of the greatest things that happened to me was doing the Time covers.

WOCHNER: Was that your first? [Points to framed original of Time cover with Democratic donkey and Republican elephant.]

DAVIS: No, Joe Namath was… and I think that’s my high water mark. I’m proud of that.


WOCHNER: You’ve done a lot of work for TV Guide also.

DAVIS: Yeah. Off and on. I think I had 36 Time covers. That’s pretty good. I would have been happy just to have one.

WOCHNER: Pretty lucrative too, I would imagine.

DAVIS: Well, it paid pretty well, but again, not like advertising. The exposure was unbelievable. You were paid for just that Time cover and that’s what I enjoyed. The covers back then, I think, paid $2,000… that’s pretty good.

WOCHNER: How long would it take you to do a cover?

DAVIS: Well, they would call on a Monday and say, “Get ready, because this is what the cover story’s going to be,” and then on Tuesday they would come and say, “OK, this is the cover story,” and then we’d go in and get some ideas. I’d go in maybe on a Wednesday and take maybe 10 or 12 ideas and they would pick one and I would wait until they picked it, and then they’d say, “OK, go with that,” and then I would go home that night and bring it in the next day. Then it would go out on Thursday night and be on the newsstands Monday. So they really worked fast. Usually, they have about two other covers that are being done.

WOCHNER: Was that a watercolor?

DAVIS: Yeah. And I had to change the whole background. It was just going to be Joe Namath, and I had a lot of girls chasing him and cameras… that was in his heyday, and then, all of the sudden, he didn’t do too well in a game and the powers that be said, “OK, let’s go with an all-quarterbacks story.” So we put all the quarterbacks in that were doing well then.

WOCHNER: Did you really do that in a couple of days?

DAVIS: Overall, the artwork, when I was actually sitting down at the board, took maybe about a day’s work, but I would work that night, and then get up in the morning and finish it then and take it in.

WOCHNER: You’ve got a reputation for being very, very fast.

DAVIS: Yeah.

WOCHNER: Do you feel sometimes that you sacrifice quality for speed?

DAVIS: I think sometimes I do, really. Haste makes waste. But then again, once I get into the flow of working real fast and I’m doing it, then it comes off pretty good. Some of my best stuff is done the quickest. I have it in my mind and I picture it, and then do it. I can take something and start working on it and rework it and it just comes out horrible… but the other day I had to do seven frames for Pepsi-Cola — some slide production thing — and I sat down and whipped it out like I was doing the cartoons, and it came out great! But if I had to sit there and fiddle with it, you know… it works both ways.

WOCHNER: So you meet that deadline with adrenaline?

DAVIS: I do. The older I get the harder it is to get going. I used to work late at night, but I’ll never do that anymore. I used to work sometimes on weekends, but I won’t work on weekends that much anymore. But I’ll get up at 5:00 in the morning sometimes, and it’s hard getting up, but once I’m up, it’s a pretty time of day and it’s quiet. I get the radio going, and I have something done by 10:00.

WOCHNER: How much do you draw in an average day? Do you work five days a week?

DAVIS: Pretty much, but not long days. Like I said, I get up early — start work at 9:00, and work until three. I’ve been averaging an ad a day.

WOCHNER: Does your rep call you with these assignments?

DAVIS: Yeah. I get a call at 9:00 every morning saying, “There’s a job coming,” or, “This job is due…” I never discuss prices with him at all. He does all the pricing and all that, and he knows what it’s worth — the whole thing. I just keep up with him.

WOCHNER: How did you find him?

DAVIS: He found me. They had two women who were working for Gerry Rapp’s father back then, and also Gerry’s dad at one time was asking me to do a lot of work, and I never really wanted to get involved with a rep because I always liked to be my own boss. I would always get calls, and so finally I [got a representative], and these unbelievable jobs would come in, and the pay would be great. I wouldn’t have to work so hard, and I didn’t have to go out and see anybody. I didn’t have to wait for pencils to be approved. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I recommend it to any young person who’s really got talent… there might be bad reps, but I have a very good rep.

WOCHNER: So, basically he’ll call you up and say something like, “I need a rough of Joe Namath. Give me a few ideas and send them over…”

DAVIS: Usually he’ll send out a worksheet, a work-order, with a layout that the art director has done — a rough layout of exactly what he wants — if it’s going to be in black and white, or color, and the size, the date that it’s due, and all those things. I’ll look at it, and it’ll say, “Pencils are due next week,” or whatever, and I’ll get on my telecopier and send him the pencils, and then he takes it to the client, and they OK it, and if there are any changes, he’ll send them back over the telecopier, and let me do the changes, and then I’ll do it.

WOCHNER: You’re really a product of the 20th century.

DAVIS: Yes, and it’s going to get better! I mean, there are ways of copying things better, but this machine is just unbelievable. I can take it with me wherever I go, as long as someone else has the same machine to pick it up.

WOCHNER: In The Art of Humorous Illustration, Nick Meglin says that you’re a real procrastinator.

DAVIS: Oh, yeah. I’ll get a lot of jobs, and work at them. Each one is procrastinating, but they’re all piled up in a week. I’ll pull them off — say, if I get up, punch the clock, get up early in the morning, sometimes just go at it each day and do it. I’ll let a MAD job go until a couple of days before it’s due, and then I’ll jump on it. And I know I can do it.

WOCHNER: There’s an anecdote about you going on a fishing trip and then realizing you forgot an assignment…

DAVIS: I took some bubblegum cards with me that I was doing for Topps and I hadn’t finished them, and I took them with me because they were little things that I could take with me in a pack —

WOCHNER: You were drawing them at actual size?

DAVIS: Yeah… not too big. I took them with me when I went to New Hampshire or somewhere to fish, and I was going to take them to the post office the next day, but the mail up there is so bad, they were probably late. But I do remember sitting out in front of the headlights of the car inking because I’d forgotten to bring a lamp with me. [Laughter]

WOCHNER: What have you been doing lately?

DAVIS: I just finished a book for a publisher out in San Francisco on alcoholism. It’s a good book. It’s not a book, but a pamphlet, like a comic book, that will be distributed to offices and people who might have a drinking problem. Also, there’s another book about alcohol in the home. Other than that, I’ve had this thing for Pepsi that I’m doing, and the cover for the Westchester Classic Golf Program. Every week is something different. I’m doing something for an insurance company with sports in it, and I never get to do sports. I love to do sports. I go crazy doing sports.

WOCHNER: Do you have an agreement with your rep as far as assignments you won’t take or that you don’t want to do?

DAVIS: He knows my work so well. He knows what I like to do and what I can do, so that’s never a problem. The other day MAD sent me out something that was a take-off on Coke or Pepsi, and I said, “I can’t do that!” [laughter] Because I’ve done ad work for both of them. Other than that, I don’t go in for the preaching editorial bit. I do my thing.

WOCHNER: Are there any kinds of assignments you really don’t like?

DAVIS: I don’t want to do the sex thing. Hefner, that bit with him, even when I did cartoons for him, I would do cartoons that were funny but that didn’t have sex in them. That’s one of the things I kind of stay away from. I don’t want to get into any real controversial thing either.

WOCHNER: Do you think it’s an easy laugh? The sex motif?

DAVIS: I really don’t read the gag cartoons in Playboy. Could be, and then again, I think TV and a lot of the stuff now — when someone gets knocked down and stepped on, people laugh — all the humor’s kind of gone. It should come back. There’s a comic-strip out now that I think is one of the greatest — The Far Side.


DAVIS: That’s the greatest thing! Here’s somebody fresh, and the art is just beautiful. It knocks me out. I show it to my wife and she won’t grasp it. But I just love it! It’s humor, it’s just unbelievable. And I love Dik Browne’s Hagar the Horrible. I love B.C. and The Wizard of Id.


The Far Side by Gary Larson

WOCHNER: How do you feel about Doonesbury?

DAVIS: I think Garry Trudeau is probably a good writer. I really don’t know. Again, I don’t like to see people preach stuff like that in cartoons.

WOCHNER: Did you ever get the urge to go back into newspaper comics?

DAVIS: Yeah, but I think I’d have to write it myself. It would take up too much time to be involved with somebody. What I’d like to do someday is to do some humorous books on my own, but I haven’t had time. I’d like to do one on golf. I’d like to do one for kids. Just humor, different things.

WOCHNER: And write them on your own?

DAVIS: Yeah. If I could be that funny. I could draw some funny situations, but I wish I had the ability like the guy who does The Far Side — he’s just so great.

WOCHNER: You don’t think you’re a good comedy writer, then?

DAVIS: No. But I can appreciate good things.

WOCHNER: How did you get involved with the Children’s Television Network?

DAVIS: Again, probably through MAD. One of the editors was a MAD fan.

WOCHNER: What did you do for them?

DAVIS: I did a Sesame Street calendar. I met Jim Henson, which was a great thrill because I think he’s a very talented guy.

WOCHNER: Did you work directly with him?

DAVIS: No, we talked over the phone about the puppets. I think that every time someone draws his puppets, he wants to make sure that the colors are right. He’s a real stickler for that. You don’t go off and put legs on them. They’ve got to be just the way they are.

WOCHNER: Well, they’re big stars.

DAVIS: Yes. And they’ve got to be perfect. My biggest reference is the World Book that I got for my kids when they were in grammar school. That has everything in the world in it, pretty much, but I really don’t need references… people usually give me that, like when I do work for Time. I’ll need a face and they’ll come up with any kind of face I want.

WOCHNER: Is there anything that you’d like to do that you’ve never had the chance to do?

DAVIS: Maybe in a couple of years I’ll retire and go down South to do watercolors of the areas. Go out with a camera and take some pictures of old shacks, as there’s not many left, and old filling stations — things like that.

WOCHNER: In a couple of years you do intend to stop cartooning?

DAVIS: I’ll never, never quit, as long as I’m drawing. But, then again, like I said, I’d like to try some of my book ideas. Gahan Wilson had a book out on wine. It was just one illustration per page and it was beautiful, just fantastic. I would love to do something like that. I’m not sure I could do what he does, but I’d like to try it.

WOCHNER: When you see a book like that, do you have trouble separating how you feel about it as a reader as opposed to looking at it from the artist’s point of view?

DAVIS: No, I appreciate what I see. Everybody has their own taste. That Wilson book knocks me out.

WOCHNER: Do you ever miss doing comic book work?

DAVIS: I like to do cartoons, but… what I do miss I make up for with MAD because I enjoy doing MAD.

WOCHNER: What advice do you have for young artists just starting out?

DAVIS: I’ve given that a lot of thought. I think that you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing, first off. You have to have faith in yourself, believe in yourself. You have to have something to give. You’ve got to be dedicated to working. To really get started I think you’ve got to have good exposure. I would forget about all the money in the beginning and try to have whatever you draw printed somewhere, somehow, whether for the church, or the community, for the school, or whatever, but have your stuff printed in the local papers. That way people see your work and ask for it and pretty soon, they’ll say, “What’s it going to cost?” You bill and keep on billing. Exposure’s very important. The main thing is to enjoy. I love to make other people laugh and see them enjoy what I do, too. I get a kick every time something of mine is printed.

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A Conversation with Jack Davis Mon, 01 Aug 2016 12:00:51 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Davis-G-davis-by-davis-copyThis conversation between artists Jack Davis and Jim Woodring took place in 2000 and was published in The Comics Journal #225.

In my sweet naiveté, I’d assumed that readers of The Comics Journal needed no introduction to Jack Davis, one of the handful of cartoonists who gave the old EC comics, especially Mad, their distinctive, protean appeal. However, a few carefully placed feelers among younger cartoonists of my acquaintance revealed to me that his name and achievements are unknown to many of today’s vigorous young bulls, though they all had seen his work. “Oh, that guy,” they’d say when I trotted out the old Mads.

There probably isn’t a person with eyes in America who hasn’t seen Davis’ stuff. For the past 50 years, he has churned out an unbelievable number of comics, cartoons, ads, magazine covers (notably Time and TV Guide), movie posters and illustrations. Offhand, I can’t think of another illustrator who has achieved and maintained for so long such a high level of visibility.

When I was a lad, Jack Davis was the cartoonist I wanted to be. To a clumsy but ambitious youth, his skills were miraculous. He could draw loose or tight, humorous or serious, straight or zany: in brush, pen or pencil. He could caricature brilliantly. His painting style was stunning, seemingly intuitive and utterly delicious. Even the elements of his work that were obviously dashed off sparkled with virtuosity.

I had heard that he was unbelievably fast … that he painted with mud when watercolors weren’t available … that his pencils were negligible … that he produced comps on demand in waiting rooms and offices … that he used a children’s watercolor set to do his paintings. What a guy! I was dying to meet him.

I finally got the chance earlier this year at a symposium hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design. Seventy-six years old, in great health, sharp of wit and firm of hand, he was the very picture of a Grand and Venerable Practitioner. He showed slides of some of his recent work, most of it sports-related, talked at length about his career and patiently answered a slew of dumb questions.

He was perfectly friendly and accessible, but one felt that he was playing ’em close to the vest. Everything he said was interesting, but there were no spontaneous outbursts, no forays off the beaten track. This tallied with his reputation as a soft-spoken Southern gentleman who went to considerable lengths to avoid ruffling feathers and who was disinclined to say anything bad about anyone except General Sherman.

Still, I jumped at the chance to interview him. I had an idea that I could get him to open up a bit and tell some gritty anecdotes. After all, he had been present for nearly the entire life of EC’s vaunted run of horror, science-fiction and suspense comics and had, I presumed, a lot of first-hand information about the quirks and peccadilloes of the other EC artists and editors. I was hoping to coax from him stories of, say, a bleary-eyed, Ghastly Ingels cutting macabre capers at staff parties, or of Bill Elder pulling creepy pranks, or of a soused Wood acting badly.


Alas, this was not in the cards. Predictably, Davis declined to tell tales out of school. As often as I offered him the chance to dredge up some juicy, salacious story he never rose to the bait. His reputation as a gentleman of the first order remains untarnished, despite my efforts to drag him down to my level.

And upon reflection, I’m glad it turned out that way. He seems to be the kind of man who would fret over indiscretions, and who would suffer if he thought he had been unkind.

As you’ll see, the interview came to an abrupt end well before I had asked all the questions I’d wanted. I intended to resume the proceedings later but then decided not to pursue it. All along I’d had the feeling that for him the interview process was a bit of a bore to which he had graciously acceded but which interested him not a whit. Rather than impose on his good nature further I chose to let it go; it was plainly the gentlemanly thing to do.

— Jim Woodring

JIM WOODRING: I’d be interested in knowing what artists you looked at when you were coming up and you were developing your skill, what artists you are interested in now if you are a museum-goer: if you have any favorite old masters. If you are interested in fine art, if you’re a Sunday painter. I’m interested in how you feel about art beyond specifically what you do as a cartoonist and an illustrator. I wonder if you ever do paintings that people might consider serious paintings, serious spiritual paintings or anything like that. [Pause.] I realize that’s a lot of questions.

JACK DAVIS: I would like to probably do some watercolors on my own. I liked to do old filling stations, old houses, things like that. And I’ve always wanted to do a children’s book on my own. You know, write it and maybe draw it, but I’ve never done that. I probably never will. I enjoy going to museums if they’ve got interesting paintings. I like certain paintings. My wife likes that landscape here in the lobby that’s very nice. She likes certain things. I like certain things. We never really agree. [Laughs.] I have always been open to going to museums and looking around. I went to Paris. You could spend a week at the Louvre to see the old masters’ paintings. I like Daumier. I like Heinrich Klee.


DAVIS: I said yesterday that Walt Disney was always an inspiration. Segar who did Popeye. Alex Raymond and Harold Foster. I know that they were pretty straight illustrators, but in their work, I can see things — action and stuff — that lead to cartooning. The anatomy was great. When I was in college, when I got out of the Navy I took fine art. They didn’t have a commercial art course. And I took life classes over and over to learn the figure. I really wasn’t good at it, but that paid off. Back in those days, they did not have cartoon schools or anything like that. What I’ve picked up is just what I’ve enjoyed drawing and seeing. My sense of humor’s kind of wild. I like to kid people, tease people … My wife says I’ll never grow up.

WOODRING: That’s great.

DAVIS: I’ve never been good at school academically. I always got through by the skin of my teeth. I never graduated from college, but I had four years on the G.I. Bill, which was a pretty good education. I just had a good time. Life’s a good time.

WOODRING: Sounds like you’ve had an absolutely wonderful career. I liked it yesterday when you said you felt you’ve been unemployed all your life.

DAVIS: Yeah. I have. I think the only steady check that I had was when I was working with Hefner. Hefner would send out a check just once a month or something like that, but it didn’t last that long.

WOODRING: You said that you took a lot of life drawing classes at the Art Students League in New York.

DAVIS: Not a lot. When I went up to New York, the Art Students League was crowded with veterans. I think most of them were there to get the money and to see the models. But my life drawings really came at the University of Georgia, where I did it over and over and over. They weren’t nude or anything. They used clothes or drapings and we drew a lot, sketched a lot.

WOODRING: Have you ever felt the need to take any kind of a touch-up course in anything?

DAVIS: Hmm … touch-up?

WOODRING: Well, sometimes artists will feel that, after they’ve been drawing for a long time, they’ll feel that, “Oh, I should take another anatomy class.”

DAVIS: I think it’s just what you see and what you draw. And I’m very critical of what I draw. I mean, after I do something I’m very disappointed because I want it to look better. I see other people’s work, it’s beautiful, and I don’t see how they do it. They’re very realistic. But I’m not too impressed with any cartoonists, like in the old days.

WOODRING: You mean newspaper cartoonists?

DAVIS: You know, cartoonists now that draw like in the old days. There was one … Cisco Kid. The story wasn’t that great, but the drawings were beautiful. And now you open the pages and it’s just the same repeating and repeating. They go on gags more or less. I loved Gary Larson who did The Far Side. His artwork was great. It was good. I mean, it was funny.

WOODRING: It was funny.

DAVIS: And nobody could draw like that. Calvin and Hobbes was good. That’s really it. And I like [Jeff] MacNelly, you know, the editorial cartoonist.

WOODRING: Sure. Sure. Do you know Pat Oliphant’s work?

DAVIS: Yeah. He’s from Australia, I think. I know his work.

WOODRING: Do you like it at all?

DAVIS: I like it. I like it. It’s had a big influence from Mad.

WOODRING: Oh yeah. Yeah.

DAVIS: They all kind of fall into a little bracket of pen and ink and that Craftint, Zipatone. And the more you draw the more you get it. I think that if you look back at a lot of my work and stuff, it’s pretty crude. But you draw and draw and draw you’re bound to get a little better.

WOODRING: Well with your work, and like I say I’ve got a lot of it, sometimes it seems like you had less time and sometimes it seems as if you had more and that’s a big difference.

DAVIS: Well, it depends. If you’ve got a deadline and you whip it out, bat it out, and it’s not any good. And sometimes I overwork something. You’ve got to really enjoy it. I like to look forward to getting to the drawing board because I know where it’s going to come out, why it’s going to be printed and I want to do a good job.

WOODRING: Of course. Do you still get a charge out of seeing your work in print?

DAVIS: Oh, I still get a big kick out of that. I do a program at football games in Georgia. You sit around and you see people who’ve got the magazine and you want to say, I did that. You don’t.

WOODRING: [Chuckling.] No, you can’t do that. You mentioned Clifford McBride who drew Napoleon, among other cartoonists of that era. One of the thing that almost frightens me is to think of all the great work that’s been done in this century that’s just disappearing into the sand. Especially around the turn of the century, there were cartoonists like T. S. Sullivan …

DAVIS: Yeah.

WOODRING: … who’s one of my big favorites. Iggy Frost.

DAVIS: Oh, yeah. Frost. Oh my God, he was great …

WOODRING: They achieved so much and they’re practically unknown today. But I don’t think that’s going to happen to you because your work has been involved in so many… You know, Mad magazine, it seems kind of weird, but it’s like, a huge cultural thing. People will never forget it.

DAVIS: That’s funny. It hit a spot in communications in whatever way, but Mad just really took off.92343e07b34a2f87be4b5f11de141c9c

WOODRING: It did. And your style in particular. I’ll sometimes say to somebody, “Oh, I really like the work of Jack Davis.”

And if they don’t know cartoons, they’ll say, “Who’s he?”

And I’ll say, “Oh, you’ve seen his work. He drew this.”

And they’ll go, “Oh, it’s him.” So if they don’t know your name, they know your style.

DAVIS: But I liked George Baker, I liked Hank Ketcham. You can’t dismiss the design of them. The guys working for him are also good. But I could never have anybody working for me. If I make a mistake I want to make it. I do what I do.

WOODRING: So you’ve never had an assistant or an apprentice or anything like that?

DAVIS: No. Never. I think a couple times, going into New York, when I was probably late with a deadline going to Mad, or to EC, back in the old horror biz, and I’d drive from Westchester into Lafayette Street, way down at the other end of the island, and I had not erased my pages. And my wife, who is not an artist, who doesn’t really care anything about cartooning or anything, she sat in the back seat with an eraser and erased the pages before I’d take them in. Because it would take about an hour to get into town, an hour or more. She’d sit in the back seat erasing them.

I used to go fishing with a buddy of mine. We’d go up into Vermont or New Hampshire. I was doing bubblegum cards for Topps Chewing Gum.


WOODRING: Oh, right. Yeah. I have some of those.

DAVIS: And I had a deadline to get that in, but we were camping out. No electricity or anything. I sat in the headlights of the car and started drawing little baseball cards.

[Woodring laughs.] Well, I’ve had some real experiences.

WOODRING: I heard a story once, and I’ve always wondered if it was true, that you were on a camping trip and somehow some editor contacted you and wanted you to do a painting real quickly. So you did, and you used water that had mud in it from the lake, and…

DAVIS: Oh yeah. One time I used bourbon or something.

WOODRING: Oh, that’s good. [Both laugh.]

DAVIS: I think it was that one time only. I mean, I haven’t done that frequently. But I’ve enjoyed it. It’s been a good, full life. I’ve been very lucky. As I say, I’m blessed, but I’m lucky.

21448152798_0a1ea0faac_oWOODRING: All of us who love drawing have been blessed by having so much of your work around to look at. It’s made a big difference. It’s kept a lot of cartoonists going, just the energy in your work. For a lot of people, it’s a struggle to draw. And you’re proof that it can come as naturally as breathing, as everybody knows how fast you are and how much you love it.

4383704-01DAVIS: I don’t know how to explain it. Again, I can sit down and make real quick sketches and go right in. It just comes. I don’t labor over anything at all. It kinda goes fast. It’s always been that way.

WOODRING: That must be what makes it sing like it does. There’s that book of your work called Some of My Good Stuff.

DAVIS: Yeah.

WOODRING: I saw that and grabbed it right away, and then I was so happy to see that a lot of it was idea sketches and quick drawings, that really captured your line.

DAVIS: All of the stuff that I send over the fax machine … I usually Xerox it on a copy machine before I take a pencil and I copy it on the Xerox because it comes out blacker. I’ve got a stack about that high of just regular writing, you know, typing paper, with all of these sketches on it. Someday I’m gonna weed out the good and the bad because some of that’s my best stuff.

WOODRING: [Ecstatically] Oh. Well, I love that collection. Just being able to see your line right out of the brain so to speak. That’s wonderful. I wanted to ask you a couple of questions really quickly about Mad and EC in general. One of them is that everyone knows that Harvey Kurtzman was a stickler for detail.

Mad 009 Jack Davis 001
DAVIS: Oh yeah.

WOODRING: … and made you get everything just right. Would you say that that brought better than average performances out of the people he worked with?

DAVIS: I think it did. Harvey was a great teacher. Really. And a great artist. He would teach you, say “This doesn’t read well,” or something like that. And it didn’t read. I’d overwork it and he would simplify. And I’d say, “Oh, I liked that thing.” But if you simplify it reads better, and it looks good. So he taught me a lot. It’s just a shame that he didn’t get more recognition than he did.

WOODRING: Yeah. That always seemed very sad to me that Gaines did so well and Harvey had such troubles. I have to ask you something about the horror comics: I’ve heard you say that you felt bad about doing them. Was that simply because you had a professional attitude? Did you enjoy doing them, but felt bad about the problem that they might cause?

DAVIS: As a kid, I loved ghost stories. I loved Frankenstein. That scared the hell out of me and I love that. It was just so great.



DAVIS: So I learned to draw it. It comes out that way: gruesome. I guess that’s the bad side of me …

WOODRING: Well, I don’t think so. What I want to know is did you enjoy …

DAVIS: [Interrupting] But I’ve never been that. I’ve never been one to draw romantic things or sweet or nice things. I’ve always drawn grotesque things.

WOODRING: I guess that’s why I like it so much. I’m wondering, when you were drawing those horror stories, if you felt bad about doing it, or if you were worried about the bad effect they might have on society?

DAVIS: When I was doing it, I just cranked it out. Like I said the other day, I just turned it out and you’d get paid. And I figured everybody else was doing it, so I did it. Some of the stories I didn’t particularly like, and of course my wife didn’t like it. I drew it and I was good at it. It didn’t bother me too much. What bothered me later was with Mad. Like when people would come up and say certain things, or draw pictures of people in bed together and the whole…

WOODRING: It all changed.

DAVIS: It’s just the way things are going now.

WOODRING: It is, unfortunately.

DAVIS: I just don’t know if my grandchildren will read it and say, “That’s your dad,” or something. And I did that with Playboy. I did the gags when my kids were just born, or just going to school. I never did anything real risqué in Playboy. I did something like Johnny Mercer singing … make it one for baby and one for the road. And a guy standing at the bar with a baby. And like Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood speaking at an old gangly bartender or something. I enjoyed doing things like that.Playdavisplayboybar

WOODRING: I have a collection of those. Those are the pictures that I used to cut out of Playboy. The cartoons.

DAVIS: But Johnny Mercer’s wife. You know, he’s from Savannah. Johnny Mercer.

WOODRING: Oh yes, I read that book.

DAVIS: His wife put out a book of all of his songs and lyrics, and she reprinted that cartoon.

WOODRING: Oh did she? Great.

DAVIS: She didn’t know who I was or anything.

WOODRING: When I was a boy I knew this man named Gene Moss, who was a voice actor. He did a record called Dracula’s Greatest Hits. I was a fan of his, so I sent for this record. And when it came, you had done the front cover and the back cover and a set of cards on the inside. And I must have been 13 at the time, but I still remember the joy I felt when I got that record and saw that it had a bunch of your artwork. Your pen-work with all of the lines and outlines.

Dracula's Greatest HitsLPFront1DraculasHitsLPBack1tumblr_nm8ptuypQO1r18mzfo1_1280DAVIS: I don’t work with a pen like I used to. I did a lot of things for Random House. God, I knocked myself out. Random House had never really done a children’s book then. Random House was a big outfit that did North American Indians, and I love Indians. And did some stuff with Abe Lincoln and the Civil War. I forgot about that.

WOODRING: Oh yeah, and your Humbug work is that way too.

DAVIS: It was the pen and ink. Now if I do something like that, I still enjoy it, but I’ve got to get my hand going, just like warming up in baseball or something like that. You’ve got to get that hand going and then it flows. But if you start right off, it doesn’t.

WOODRING: Do you ever sell your originals?

DAVIS: No, I haven’t. I give them away, sometimes, but I have a big collection. And what I’m going to do is probably give them to my kids. They can do what they want to with them. Sell them or whatever. I had some stuff at Sotheby’s, you know, that I gave. Some of it went pretty good, some of it didn’t. Again, it’s how they present it to people at auctions. Some people are interested; some are not. A little disappointing, and yet I was pleased to get an offer when you see what it goes for and what people like.

WOODRING: In that book of Hank Harrison’s called The Art of Jack Davis, there’s a reproduction of a four-panel comic that you did at the age of 12, I think. It was printed in Tip Top Comics. That was your first published work, I guess?

DAVIS: Right.

WOODRING: Do you remember when that came out?

DAVIS: Somebody sent me the Tip Top comic books, and I’ve got it here somewhere, but it seems like it was back in 1937 or something.

TipTop018fcsmWOODRING: Do you remember being a kid and seeing your work in print for the first time? What a blast that was?

DAVIS: Oh sure. I got a big kick out of that.

WOODRING: I’ll bet you did. So I guess by the age of 12 you made up your mind to be a cartoonist.

DAVIS: Right. And I think I got a dollar for that drawing.

WOODRING: Probably a dollar went pretty far in 1943.

DAVIS: And in the front of the magazine, Tip Top Comics, they had Tarzan by Harold Foster, and my God, he was my idol. I pored over every little brushstroke he made because I couldn’t draw like him, but I sure loved his work. But he was in that issue of Tip Top Comics.

WOODRING: He was? Was he doing Prince Valiant for that?

DAVIS: No. This was before Prince Valiant.

WOODRING: Wow! So that must have been a thrill, to be in the same book as your hero, there.

DAVIS: Oh, lord yeah. But mine was so crude, it was embarrassing. But evidently they printed it.

WOODRING: Well, it looked pretty good to me for a 12-year-old. It looked amazing. Did you take any kind of correspondence course or get any other kind of …

DAVIS: I did once, and it didn’t last too long. I think it was the same course that Sparky Schulz took, too. I could be wrong, but that was about the only school or correspondence back then that was around. I don’t think there was a cartoon school. So I sent off for that and it lasted for a while. Then it cost money and I think it got to where either I couldn’t afford it or I lost interest in it. I think they offered me a job to help correct drawings or something like that at the end. They sort of promised to find you work when you finished your course. It never happened.

WOODRING: In that same book, there’s a drawing that you did for your high school yearbook of a bunch of kids pushing an old flivver, it looks like a scrap drive or something.

DAVIS: Right. That was the old scrap drive, where, you know, World War II, they were trying to get all the metal that they could to make into weapons and all that bit.

jdyb004WOODRING: Right. That’s an amazing drawing for a high school kid. It’s really ambitious, and it’s obviously your style, even then.

DAVIS: Well, it’s kind of gruesome.

WOODRING: Your style is? Gruesome?

DAVIS: Well, I don’t know. To me. It was there. I don’t know why, but I was just lucky I guess to have it in the yearbook. I had a teacher who liked my work and I did posters for different activities — football, basketball and whatever came up.

WOODRING: What amazes me about that drawing is that it’s recognizably a Jack Davis drawing. You’ve probably been asked this a million times, but where did that style come from? Do you have any idea?

DAVIS: Again, it comes from Walt Disney, I think. And Popeye, and then again Harold Foster, the action shots and the feet. And Alex Raymond — just everything he did was a beautiful piece of work. You just don’t see that anymore.

WOODRING: No, you don’t. But I don’t really see a lot of Disney or Segar in that style. It looks like you had a conception of how to draw faces and people and hands and postures and everything just …

DAVIS: [Interrupting.] Jim, it’s hard to explain. I wish I could explain it.

WOODRING: I appreciate you trying. I realize it’s kind of an idiotic question, but it’s something that’s been chewing away in my mind for years. Because it just seems so natural, so perfect, and it’s spawned so many imitations.

DAVIS: There was a book, and it was kind of a fairy storybook, and it was beautifully illustrated about a giant, a great big giant, and he had large feet and hands. And I think that impressed me, too, sometimes. You know, the old fairy[-tale] books and children’s books.

WOODRING: Right. You wouldn’t by any chance remember the name of the illustrator who did that book, would you?

DAVIS: I wouldn’t. I’m sitting right here now, and there’s just no way. Like I say, I’m getting to be 75, and it’s bad to remember anything. [Laughs.]

WOODRING: OK. After you went to the Navy and you went to college, you went to study at the Art Students League in New York. Is that right? Around 1950 or thereabouts?



DAVIS: I went to the University of Georgia, and took fine art on the G.I. Bill. Coming out of the Navy I had four years coming to me, so I took three years at the University of Georgia and I took one year up in New York with the Society of Illustrators, and I would look for work. I went to New York to study under McNally. Ed Dodd, who drew Mark Trail, recommended that I take his classes. I would take them at night and look for work during the day. I had drawn up cartoon strips, and I went up there very excited and got deflated real quick. I was about ready to come back when I got work with EC/Mad. It wasn’t Mad then, but it was Bill Gaines’ EC.

WOODRING: Right. You say you studied fine art. Was that to help you as a cartoonist, or did you think you might want to be a fine artist?

DAVIS: I think it did, in a way. Because you look at the figure, the life figure, in different poses, and I took a lot of courses over again because I knew that I wouldn’t graduate with a degree and I had some good professors who would let me do that. So I took a lot of life classes, and they were quick poses. They weren’t something you would sit for an hour drawing a nude model or something. You would make quick sketches. I think that helped a good bit.

WOODRING: Were you still, at this point, absolutely certain that you wanted to be a cartoonist?

DAVIS: Oh sure. All my life as a little kid I wanted to be syndicated. I wanted to have my own strip, and that never, ever happened. And while I was in the Navy, I drew for the Navy News, which covered the Mariana Islands. And I had other jobs to do. I was a brig warden, I was with the fire department and with the master at arms — that was while I was on Guam — and drew a panel for the daily news. It flowed pretty well because I had a little guy, kind of like Sad Sack, a Half-Hitch that Hank Ketcham did…


DAVIS: I did that for about a year.

WOODRING: I’ve seen those Boondocker strips. They must have been hard to do.

DAVIS: I sent home every issue of the paper, and my dad had it all bound into one big hardbound book, and I still have it. I treasure it.

Davis-Boondocker04WOODRING: Oh, that’s great.

DAVIS: I pull it out and look it over and read where the Japanese were surrendering on Guam. So it’s good to look back on things like that. I looked back and there was Bill Mauldin’s stuff in the paper, too — Willie and Joe.

WOODRING: Neat. Then when you went to college after that, you sort of modified Boondocker into … What was his name? Georgie?


DAVIS: Yeah. Like in the school paper. I took one little journalism course, but God, I couldn’t type. I was just not an academic student. I just loved to draw and have a good time. I was in a fraternity that was one of the best on campus, and it was a life of luxury in which I’d never had. I enjoyed that for three years.


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The Brian Chippendale Interview Mon, 29 Feb 2016 13:00:16 +0000 Continue reading ]]> uKZ6P

Brian Chippendale in 2003. Photo by Dan Nadel.

2016 Introduction: 

I remember going to see Brian for this interview, which was commissioned for TCJ‘s “Fort Thunder” issue. It’s a measure of how impactful the Fort work was (via mini-comics, Teratoid Heights, Paper Rodeo, and Kramers Ergot 4) that TCJ would devote an entire issue to comics that were very difficult to actually see. Anyhow, Brian picked me up from the train station and we drove to his place, which was, at the time, his alone. I remember it as a plaster and brick cave, with a stuffed-animal-wrapped telephone pole out front. I had made plans to also interview Jim Drain that trip but never did find him that day. I was 26. I’m 39 now. I had attempted to convince Brian to contribute to The Ganzfeld, but was still a little ways off from publishing his books via PictureBox. That would happen a couple years later. Anyhow, what follows is very much a moment in time, after the Fort, at a time when Brian’s work could only be found in mini-comics and Paper Rodeo, and the community was splintering. Oddly, this interview feels, like the cliche goes, yesterday. But Providence is a very different place now. Most of Brian’s peers have left, Paper Rodeo is long gone, etc. But Chippendale is still there, still making incredible comics (his newest, and the occasion for this republication, is Puke Force), music and art.

From The Comics Journal # 256 (October 2003)

Jacket image from "Maggots Vol. 3"

Cover of “Maggots” .

Brian Chippendale grew up in suburban Philadelphia before finding himself at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991. Chippendale, 30, lives in a cavernous work-space near the old Fort. We met there on May 31, 2003, and he spoke candidly about life in and after the Fort, drawing and the challenges now facing the group. — Dan Nadel

DAN NADEL: When did you end up at RISD?

BRIAN CHIPPENDALE: Fall of ’91. I just applied to three schools during suspension from high school [laughter] and everyone told me that was a good one.

NADEL: Were you drawing all the way through high school?

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. I drew a lot as a kid. I went in and out of comics. From seventh to maybe tenth grade I was trying to draw comics; me and my friend would compete with these ninja comics. But I really got away from it in the middle of high school. That’s a bad period. It was a fun period, but I started to think that some weird, more serious art was necessary.

NADEL: And when you went to RISD, What did you intend to study?

CHIPPENDALE: I originally didn’t know what I was going to do. I went into printmaking; I almost went to school for ceramics. I was really into ceramics, too. I think I’ve always been into making stuff.

NADEL: At RISD, when did—

CHIPPENDALE: Mat Brinkman was my freshman roommate.

NADEL: Oh. That’s how it happened; by accident?

CHIPPENDALE: I think we both put God Flesh down on our favorite band list. I think we were probably the only kids in school that both wrote God Flesh.

NADEL: So, they put you together. How far into school did Fort Thunder start?

CHIPPENDALE: That started way later. Mat and I were in school for two years. We both dropped out. I came back a year later, and what should be my senior year, I didn’t actually ever finish. It was ’95. I spent my senior year at Fort Thunder.

NADEL: How did it happen? You and Mat were friends.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, we were room-mates on and off, and we lived on the East side, the college side, of town for a year. I think we were inspired when we went to one loft party downtown, or a couple, that older kids had: “We gotta get a warehouse space where we can have shows and parties.” So we sublet this place for the summer of ’95. We’d been looking around town and a little bit over in Olneyville. We asked the landlord, who was a kid, and he said, “Oh, my friends are moving out of this loft.” So me, Mat, Rob Coggeshal and a guy named Freddy Jones moved into it.

NADEL: Before that, you were already doing minis and things, right?

CHIPPENDALE: I had been drawing comics. I started my first ongoing comic, which is what became the Maggots minicomics, I think at the end of ’93, beginning of ’94.

NADEL: What was the impetus?

CHIPPENDALE: I’d been trying to draw comics on and off for a long time. I’d always try to write up stories and pencil them, and I thought, “I don’t work this way. I can’t think stuff up and lay stuff out.” I had a sketchbook, prior to the one I started Maggots with, where I’d occasionally do some narrative stuff. I thought, “Maybe I’ll collage these pieces together,” but I started a new book and decided to take that aspect of the last book and start a panel at the top and go. What was stopping me was my inability to deal with pre-thought and layout and all that kind of crap. So I thought, “Let’s eliminate that, and I’ll just draw guys standing there, and have them move around.”

NADEL: Was this a lined notebook?

CHIPPENDALE: It’s an old ledger, and it didn’t really have that much stuff in it. I found it in a building. There were some parts where I used it as a journal. I didn’t realize I was going to cover the entire thing. So I later ended up drawing over top of some stuff I had written. And there might be occasional little pieces of old penciled stuff from, like 1920 or ’30 or ’40. We used to explore old buildings and got some old books from them. This one’s from the ‘20s. So that started around the end of ’93, beginning of ’94. I was out of school.

NADEL: You were out of school where?

CHIPPENDALE: In town. Right around when I started doing it, I went on this road trip. It was exciting; I realized this is an art form I can put in the car, take with me and do whatever.

NADEL: Because you were just doing it in your notebook. And the comics you basically just draw straight in ink, you just go.

CHIPPENDALE: Just go, with ink, and just go.

NADEL: And then, you started drawing over printed pages of a novel.

Pages from the second "Maggots" sketchbook, drawn between October 1995 and April 1996

Pages from the second “Maggots” sketchbook, drawn between October 1995 and April 1996

CHIPPENDALE: I looked at my shelf, and knew I needed to start drawing a new book. This guy, Adam, who also went to school for printmaking, gave me a Japanese catalogue of books, and suggested I draw on it. So, I just did, and that became the book that Highwater will someday publish. After that, I picked an English copy of The Spanish Inquisition. I thought, “I’ll read this book and I’ll draw as I go.” I thought maybe I’d interpret it, it’ll seep in, then I thought, “I don’t want it to seep in so much that I’m actually reading the text, so I’ll start from the back.” This one was weird because I did it after the Highwater book, which was like 400 pages long. I went into this one. I really loved this one. It was a pain, because I spent so much time scribbling out all the letters — it’s bold ugly English type, like the Times font or something, not beautiful and graceful Chinese characters.

NADEL: Right. But then, having to scribble them out adds to the aesthetic of the actual comic.

CHIPPENDALE: You’ve got this shit everywhere, where I’m scribbling it out, The problem with this book is, I had these huge plans for it. There’s like 40 characters; they all have their own story. In my earliest comics, I had a rule that I would never leave the character doing something. The adventure had to start and end — like the adventure of eating a bowl of soup or something. The next day, when I sat down, I wanted a fresh slate. So I have basically gone from comics with one guy in a panel with maybe 40 panels on a page to one page with one panel with 40 guys, half of whom are talking with these little stamped-out letters.

NADEL: Why the stamp letters? Explain how you do it.

CHIPPENDALE: Well, it switched over in the book that Tom has. I got a book of stamps from Staples, with little letters; I: got a stamp pad; I got tweezers. And I’d take a letter out, stamp it in ink … At some point, I thought, “Wow, these are really pretty.” I was talking so much in my comics, I decided I needed to start drawing more and talking less. Less talking heads. It becomes really easy to not draw. Now, I’m actually excited just to have some people talk. I want heads talking.

Opening Up the Fort

NADEL: How did Fort Thunder snowball as it did?

CHIPPENDALE: Fort Thunder started in September 1995. I’d been in Lightning Bolt, which is me and Brian Gibson — and a since departed singer, Hisham Baroocha, another RISD student who now plays drums for the band Black Dice — since December ’94. Lightning Bolt practiced there, and we were there for five-and-a-half years and played 110 shows in that time. We had the space, and it was what we always wanted to do. We had bands come, and we had two-thirds of a whole floor of the building. About a year later, the landlord said he was going to move these other people into this other third, and put a hallway across our space to the fire escape. And so we told him, “No no no! We’ll take it. We’ll find our own people.” That’s when Jim Drain, Brian Ralph and Paul Lyons moved in. They were a little younger than us. I kind of knew Brian Ralph; he was the Fireball guy. Paul, I kind of knew; we hung out on occasion. Everyone hung out a little bit. It’s a small school. Jim, I didn’t really know very well, except that he was a guy that had smashed a window once at our place. They moved in around the beginning of the second year. We went up to seven people, and then Fred moved out. There was one room that was cursed, with this turnover of people. I think Fort Thunder, over the whole period, had about 24 people that came and went.

NADEL: Were you and Mat in charge all along?

CHIPPENDALE: Not really. That’s not the right phrase; we had a weird seniority that…

NADEL: Somebody had to be organizing things.

CHIPPENDALE: Mat was the main do-er of shows. I was interested in doing a little bit of that stuff, and helping him do it. So we were in charge of shows, for the most part. We were bullies about things, in a weird way.

NADEL: Bullies?

CHIPPENDALE: Kind of. Like, “We don’t care if you guys don’t want to have shows. We’ve been here the longest. That’s what this place is for.” We were definitely control freaks, and [sing-song voice] “We got this place for a reason! And we’re not going to change.”

NADEL How did the communal aspect of it — making it the whole world of things that you made — take shape? When did it start?

CHIPPENDALE: When we got there, but I don’t remember what the first thing I stapled to the wall was. Everyone started slowly building rooms. Some people never even finished. No one ever really finished, entirely. Mine was pretty over-grown, and I had to close it off with socks in every crack and hole. It was a slow evolution. Everything about that place was a slow evolution. Need roommates? People would show up, and we’d say, “Well, I guess there’s still room in that corner.”

BCTHUNDERLEAFELVESNADEL: Did you like it? You’ve said you wanted privacy.

CHIPPENDALE: Well, I was lucky because I was there in the beginning, and I had a room on the two-thirds side — the main space. Most people were shuffled in on the one-third side, which was a long space. So I had maybe a little more space, and I was really demanding about the band room so I had a place to play my drums. Lightning Bolt practiced at 9:00 almost every night. So, I had what I needed, and I had my drawing table. It was an amazing nightmare. Sometimes it sucked; I’d try to go to the bathroom, and four hours later, after five conversations, I’m back in my room wondering what was I doing. There were so many people around.

NADEL: People would just hang out?

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, in the kitchen, people would just hang out.

NADEL: Strangers or friends? Was it basically open?

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, for like a year and a half, the lock was broken, and we had all sorts of people wandering in. But not crazy. It could be the quietest place in the world, too. There was a guy named Leek or Lake or something, some dude who just came in that nobody knew, and he just sat down in a chair; he sat there for a week or something and then he just left. Things like that; some weird dude sleeping over there. [Laughter.]

NADEL: When did it start to get a national reputation? It became someplace to stop through on the indie circuit.

CHIPPENDALE: In the first couple of years, bands started to hear about it. For the first year or two — I don’t really remember — we invited bands that we’d want. After a while, we didn’t even have to contact bands anymore; they were contacting us. We were getting phone calls from all sorts of shitty bands. We made a rule that bands only play once, which was basically just to tell people so they wouldn’t call us anymore, but we’d let bands we liked play more than once.

NADEL: Did you charge admission?

CHIPPENDALE: We did, but it was all donations, basically. Anybody could get in. If you had no money, it’s not a big deal. Fort Thunder definitely started out as a RISD hangout. We slowly bridged over to the Providence scene that was already going on. I’m not sure when it started to become more than just this place to play. By the end, I would just hear weird legends about Fort Thunder. I’d say, “Oh, really? [Laughter.] I’ve been there every day for the last six years, and I didn’t know that ever happened.” But that’s the way it worked. Of course, now, there’s probably more talk about it than ever. It was very slow growing.

NADEL: Did it start to take the place of art school?

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. Mat dropped out and went back for a year. Leif finished. Paul Lyons didn’t finish. Jim finished. Andy [Estep] finished. Rob left the house, so he finished. Most people finished. Peter Fuller, Eric Talley and Maki never went.

NADEL: So, people were able to function in RISD and in the space?

CHIPPENDALE: Kind of. My first year, I had a studio at RISD, so I’d spend most of my time at RISD. And upon gradu — uh, leaving RISD, I lost my studio and thought, “All right, here I am.” Because I was always in there, my studio was pretty heavily worked on, too. It’s slowly happening in my new space. It’s really important for me to define my space and feel like I’m in control of my situation. I did a lot of decorating. A lot of times, I feel like Mat would bring home all the junk, but I’d be the one to deal with it. He would pile it up, and I would put it up. Or all the trash that people left — a lot of it got put up. Most people were putting some stuff up.

Building Your World

NADEL: That making-your-own-space impulse is a classic urge, but you seem to have taken it to new extremes. I wonder about your world-making: Most of the artists who came from there make worlds, on paper or physically. Lots of them just have junk or their paintings around, but you actually made tangible physical spaces that correspond in some ways to your comics, which are also making fantasy worlds.

CHIPPENDALE: Originally I felt, “These comics are getting some ideas out which I will then make real.”

NADEL: As in three-dimensionally?

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. I love thinking about these worlds of comics. I love it. Reading The Lord of the Rings or whatever, I thought, “This is it, making a well thought out world is it. It just seems amazing.” But after a while, you’ve got to get up and affect your real world.

NADEL: By building something?

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. I feel like I’ve got to make some of those things I do on paper.


CHIPPENDALE: I get restless, I guess. It’s really weak to just draw all the time. You can sit at your desk and imagine all you want, but your body’s shriveling up.

NADEL: But J.RR. Tolkein wasn’t building things —

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, Jack London never left his fucking house.

NADEL: There are two levels: in mediocre superhero comics, where the world isn’t that well thought out, and another —

CHIPPENDALE: Where the world’s really thought out.

NADEL: — in Tolkein, where he doesn’t need to build it physically, because it’s completely there on paper.

CHIPPENDALE: But he wouldn’t have written such a thorough world if he didn’t really want to be there.

NADEL: Right.

CHIPPENDALE: It’s sort of sad. Maybe in his mind, he was entirely there. I don’t know.

NADEL: Maybe it was just fun.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, maybe. But I feel we can be …

NADEL: You can be there?

CHIPPENDALE: Kind of. One of my favorite comics growing up was Daredevil. I’ve always thought that was amazing. I’ve always been into climbing on stuff; I’ve always been a really physical person. I’m still sort of convinced that someday I’ll be Daredevil… I don’t want to live my life with my head in a book or something, but I love it. I’m conflicted about it.

NADEL: The funny thing about Fort Thunder is that everybody was really physical. You’re dressing up in costumes, going out into the woods or whatever. Lightning Bolt is incredibly physical. So, in a way, you do it.

CHIPPENDALE: Well, to some extent. Lightning Bolt is a weird vehicle; obviously drumming is really physical and I got a mask on — I’m a fucking superhero!

Pages from compilation entitled "Burning" with instructions for navigating panels

Pages from compilation entitled “Burning”


NADEL: [Laughter.] Is that what the mask is for?

CHIPPENDALE: Well, the mask is mainly a holder for my microphone. It’s a decorative holder for the mike.

NADEL: Is that because you’re drumming so hard that you can’t sing properly?

CHIPPENDALE: I don’t want to have to aim for a mic stand. I don’t sing much but it’s important to me, as little as it is. It’s like a bridge. You can understand. I am not so into instrumental groups, except a few brilliant ones. I like the human voice; it connects you with the audience. Every human can relate to the human voice. I really like singing. On another note, when I draw all the time, I get freaked out and nervous. And I need to do other stuff — run around, staple something to the wall, hammer stuffed animals to the telephone pole outside — because I have bigger ideas, and I don’t want to just draw them on paper. Hammering stuffed animals to poles, for example.

NADEL: Like a paper house.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. The other thing is that I want to make some of that stuff outside. Losing Fort Thunder was a big shock to that whole system — we could do whatever we wanted in there. Every idea I could do in there, and now I don’t know where to do it, exactly. It was escapism, too; we were building real things, but it was still like in a book, within those walls. Now it’s in a book. It’s important, if you have an idea, to follow it up no matter what the medium is. I don’t want to be limited to comics — which makes me sad, because I feel that if I were limited to comics, I would just go forever. There’s not enough time to do all the different things. I’m almost half-assing it in some weird way. There are people with focus — I was just reading about some comicbook guy who draws for 12 hours — I’ve gotten to points where I was drawing comics six or seven hours a day, but a week later I’m driving around the country, playing drums.

10022_medium_imageNADEL: I want to go back to Fort Thunder for a second: it’s funny that it was a group of people that seemed really interested in making worlds. Was that something that sprang from you and Mat, or were the people who came in interested in that, as well?

CHIPPENDALE: That’s a hard question. That’s a question that has to do with the break-up of Fort Thunder, which is still going on now; it’s a question that some of the guys have to come to grips with, because there were people there who really knew what they wanted to do and people that didn’t know quite as much and did stuff that the others were doing. I know that I really like building and decorating, drawing and playing music, all intertwined. Everyone had a piece of that, but I think people definitely got swayed in certain directions.

NADEL: It seems that Mat would be the same as you.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, Mat’s pretty much the same. Maybe I have more of a driving urge to coat everything with stuff than he does, but he has a weirder urge to collect stuff and stack it up than I do. That thing in the Whitney I view as definitely Forcefield, but it was also a collision of celebrating Fort Thunder ideas mixed in there, too. There’s been a lot of issues now with us and some people who spent time at Fort Thunder and are now getting involved in the art world. They don’t have to, but they might need to take some time and reevaluate what they’re thinking, and what they picked up along the way.

NADEL: Are you talking about money or credit?

CHIPPENDALE: No, I’m talking about … I’m getting into touchy stuff, because one of the ideas Forcefield came up with for the Whitney was to build a house inside the room and cover it with patterns and have the dudes inside that.

NADEL: Which didn’t happen.

CHIPPENDALE: But if you went into Fort Thunder, there was one room coated with patterns; it was mine. So when you’re living with a group of artists and you decide to become a professional artist, you might want to be wary of taking ideas that your neighbor has and making them yours. It’s like anything. You learn something new along the way and you use it. Happily, the house idea was quickly voted out of the Forcefield Whitney plan.

NADEL: But it’s also tricky when there’s a collective involved — especially if Forcefield is breaking up.

CHIPPENDALE: Forcefield is basically not supposed to exist anymore. Jim and Ara are changing it so it’s not Forcefield anymore, because you can’t take Mat Brinkman out of Forcefield and keep it Forcefield. I had a RISD friend call me up, like three days ago, and say, “Brian, I just made a little building with painted silkscreen papers on the inside, covered with green. It looks like grass; it looks just like your thing, and I feel really guilty.” What am I going to say? “Take it down”?

NADEL: Does it bother you?

CHIPPENDALE: It doesn’t bother me so much because I didn’t invent wallpaper, houses or installations. I went and saw her thing and it’s different from what I’m doing, but I can see it. I feel that at some point, everything will come clear. And if people take some credit they’re not supposed to, it may be embarrassing for them in the future. Maybe not. Maybe it’ll never come out.

NADEL: That’s generally what happens.

CHIPPENDALE: I don’t know. People should do whatever the hell they want, but they should also have a little bit of respect.

NADEL: How did you feel about the Whitney project?

CHIPPENDALE: I was conflicted, because I was weirdly jealous. [The curator] took three of the main Fort Thunder people and they had a show and I wasn’t involved. It was only Leif, Jim and Mat — and Ara Peterson, the Forcefield member who never lived in the house, although he did sleep in a closet for a little bit and on the roof. We all did installations in Philadelphia as Fort Thunder, with Peter Fuller and Andy Estep; Raphael Lyon was a big part; Erin Rosenthal, the list goes on. And also, Forcefield had never been an installation group — Fort Thunder was an installation group — Forcefield was more a multi-media performance group. I know the Whitney guy came to Fort Thunder and looked at everything, and then went back and asked Forcefield to do a show. So I was jealous, but I was also happy. They came together and were given a deadline and made this awesome group of figures and all sorts of awesome stuff. I’m super happy they did it, and I’ve come to terms with my own lingering jealousy about being in it. Lightning Bolt went on tour in Japan at the same time anyway.

No One’s Super-Happy

NADEL: Had the attention changed the scene here?

CHIPPENDALE: Well, yeah. I don’t know what is driving people to move to Providence, but when we go on tour, there’s always one or two people in every town that wants to move to Providence or has heard great things about Providence or likes bands from Providence.

NADEL: But has it changed you guys? Your relationships and your art and —

CHIPPENDALE: Well, success has hurt the relationships between the Forcefield guys, and they’re dealing with that. We’re fucking pissed; we’re angry. We miss our old house; prices are twice as much in this town. There’s like three times as many people; it’s not the town it was. It’s the cheapness that made everything so lively. We’re either going to have to leave or cope, and coping means being more of a salesperson. It’s a weird spot right now.

NADEL: When you say coping means being more of a salesperson, do you mean deciding to sell stuff? There’s hustling and then there’s selling stuff. Isn’t there a happy medium to be found?

CHIPPENDALE: Well, everyone’s always needed to sell stuff. Rent was 200 bucks for Fort Thunder. I’ve always had to sell stuff to get 200 bucks a month, but now I’m trying to raise 600 bucks a month. I’m a month behind; utilities are almost shut off all the time.

NADEL: Well, what if there was a New York gallery that’s very mellow and owned by a nice, super connected guy who shows work you like. Would you be averse to sending him a package and saying, “Hey, do you want to sell my work?”

CHIPPENDALE: For a really long time, I have not asked somebody to show my, work. I have this thing where I won’t ask, so if they really want to show my stuff, they should come talk to me. It’s a weird pride issue.

NADEL: If they came to talk to you, would you be open to it?

CHIPPENDALE: Maybe. We just; turned down a show in L.A. This hip gallery woman wanted to do a show at the end of the summer.

NADEL: New Image Art?

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. I think it’s a good place; I don’t know that much about it. But it sounds like it’s a good location and she’s got Chris Johanson. I met him a few times. He’s a really nice guy. I saw him at the Whitney. He’s supposedly a big Fort Thunder fan. But all that stuff is just in the air.

NADEL: It’s all very crafty; it’s based on, hand craftsmanship.

CHIPPENDALE: It’s also the movement. I feel there is some sort of world-building.

NADEL: There is. And there are people that got much bigger already, like Barry McGee and Johanson. That’s something that’s going on with people our age right now.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. I don’t think you can get away with just hanging your paintings on the wall right now. You gotta hang a painting, have a thing, but it’s fucking bullshit, it’s just like it’s hip. It’s not affecting anything. It’s a learned language: you put a 3-D object with a 2-D object, you make a connection and do something on the fucking roof. It’s not good enough.

NADEL: Why is it not good enough?

CHIPPENDALE: Because it still comes down three weeks later, and there’s still a bunch of suits and ties … I don’t know! It’s a weird commodity. That’s what thrilled me about Fort Thunder; we were living inside this thing.

NADEL: You and Mat don’t want to be commodified in the art world.

CHIPPENDALE: Pretty much, but it’s hard to figure out how else to survive.

NADEL: How did Johanson survive? He’s been totally commodified in the art world, but his art remains just fine and he’s a swell guy.

CHIPPENDALE: I don’t know what Johansen used to do, or ever wanted to do.

NADEL: He was a house painter.

CHIPPENDALE: Really? I think he’s psyched to be a successful artist. He gets flown around for shows. I feel that being flown around the country would be a distraction. Or having three different galleries call me in one day, I’d be like, “Give me a break. Call me in six months.” I’m not built for it. Just give me enough money to pay my rent for a couple months; I’m just going to draw.

NADEL: What about ten years from now?

CHIPPENDALE: I’m not worried about that; I’m just trying to get through the summer. We’re looking to buy a new building — that’s been a new thing, a group of us, so we can start it up again. But its difficult in Providence right now.

NADEL: Have you guys thought about going nonprofit and trying to get grants, or is that too much in that world?

CHIPPENDALE: We can’t even spell. That sounds great, but realistically? I actually got a grant for like $5,000 last year. If we run into someone who’ll sit me down in a chair and help me fill out the papers, I can do it. It sounds great; there are a couple guys in town who’ve offered to finance a building for us, or give us all kinds of aid.

NADEL: You don’t want to —

CHIPPENDALE: No, I’m into it. Its got to feel right. I’m not going to jump into something, not to mention that I’m busy right now. I don’t know. We’ve got a problem because none of us are happy. I’m not super happy. Mat’s not super happy. Leif’s not super happy. It’s not what we want. Jim was trying to jump in with Forcefield, I think, and he was like, “Look, Leif, Mat, I’ve got this ticket to money and power in the art world, come along.” Jim wanted, I think, the best for everyone: “We can be a success. We can use this as a bridge to get what we want. Make money and get what we want later on,” but I feel everyone — at least Mat and Leif and me — we don’t know if you can go through the process of the art world to make good money and come out the same way on the other side. Come out with the ability to think clearly on the other side. Lightning Bolt is trying to not find acceptance, to some extent.

NADEL: [Laughter.] Not doing a very good job! But what are you going to do? You’re not going to reverse the process.

CHIPPENDALE: Well, you could try to kick it around a little bit, but…

NADEL: Did it hurt Sonic Youth?

CHIPPENDALE: They still do good stuff. They’re definitely a band that came through on the other side with their integrity pretty much intact. It can happen. There’s got to be others.

NADEL: Do you really worry about that with Lightning Bolt?

CHIPPENDALE: The only thing I worry about Lightning Bolt is, once again, we have an aesthetic: We play on the floor, we like small places and small crowds.

NADEL: Let’s talk about Lightning Bolt. You play drums and Brian Gibson plays bass guitar. And you play on the floor.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, for the most part. And we’re loud as hell.

NADEL: Why do you play on the floor?

CHIPPENDALE: If you’ve been at the club a million times and seen a million shows, playing on the floor will separate the memory of that night.

NADEL: But people can’t see you a lot of the time.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, that’s true. [Laughter.] That never used to be an issue, and now it is. To some extent, I’m thinking maybe lots of people will stop coming — but maybe not, maybe they’ll still keep trying to get a glance. You’re just not going to get me up on a stage, through a P.A. system.

NADEL: It’s not even through a PA. system?

CHIPPENDALE: No. Brian’s amp is huge and my drumming is really loud. We bring everything. I need two different plugs. That’s it. I don’t want your sound system; I don’t want your P.A. guy. I don’t want some sound guy translating our sound into the club’s sound. We’re a loud band, but we’re sometimes way quieter. Being different is all I want.

A Sphere Of Control

NADEL: Let’s change subjects and talk about the comics.

CHIPPENDALE: But I think it all ties in. It’s all about having a sphere of control.

NADEL: That you wouldn’t call up the gallery is interesting.

CHIPPENDALE: Well, there are places in town where I’ve installed stuff. They’re not galleries.

NADEL: That you describe it as pride is interesting.

CHIPPENDALE: I don’t like asking people for stuff I don’t want to presume that somebody would want my frickin shit in their shop. And I’m also not a hustler. It feels like begging. I get embarrassed when people do that. I think you get a lot more respect if you don’t. That was the whole thing with Fort Thunder: I was trying to make a living making posters, and the whole city’s our gallery. I’ve got posters all over the place, I don’t need to have something in a gallery. People will see it, they’ll ask people how to get it and they’ll come find me. But I’m not going to go put my stuff in a gallery. Although I sell stuff in a bookstore in town and Armageddon, a record shop. That’s a new movement for me. I have more than twice as many bills to pay. Some people have a lot more freedom in life; their parents send them a check every month, and the world’s an open book. Good for them. And not that it’s that important, but both those shops asked me to sell stuff, just to reinforce my little pride issue. Oh pride, American pride, isn’t pride a sin?

NADEL: [Laughter.] Did you start printing posters at Fort Thunder for your own shows, and then people started asking you?

CHIPPENDALE: Pretty much. I was a printmaking major in school, but I didn’t do a whole lot of printing. I felt like school was a playground; I did everything but what I was supposed to do. Fort Thunder was a playground, too, but it was different. It was like we were desperately making a playground.

chippendale_print16_1000 chippendale_print70_1000NADEL: Desperately?

CHIPPENDALE: Nothing’s been as free-wheeling as school was. Ever since school ended, things have been a little more serious. When I was in school, my parents were paying my rent. As soon as you have to make money and support yourself, everything’s different. Somebody knocking at your door, saying, “I’m shutting off the electricity in two hours if you guys don’t come up with some money.”

NADEL: But, desperately is a funny way to describe it...

CHIPPENDALE: Well, none of us can make any money; we were really bad at it. Me and Mat fucking freewheeled it all through Fort Thunder, just printing stuff. He was better at it than I was. He made more posters and people wanted Mat’s stuff more. He kind of backed out; he got sick of it.

Closing Down The Fort

NADEL: Fort Thunder ended when?

CHIPPENDALE: I think it was 2000.1 was on tour and came back to a chain on the door. Pretty much. We were there for almost six years. It would have been ’95 to 2000. I think it was 2000 summer. I think if we had made it to 2000 September, that would have been six years. The fire marshall shut it down. Chained the door. Locked us out. We got permission to go back in and get some stuff. I actually got some walls stashed, and some other shit. Now it’s dirt … it’s a vacant lot. It’s gone.

I drove by one day — we’d been out of there for eight months or something — and they knocked a big hole in the back of it. So I snuck in that night and took some photographs. The next day, it went. Me and Mat went to see the debris. It was kind of amazing; it’s a weird sentimental thing, just the two of us standing there. It was funny because they only knocked down our half of the building. We had one side; and the other side was still standing there. It was just like they took us out. Which is kind of funny and awesome. Everywhere you looked, there were little pieces of pattern papers and little shit just starting to blow in the air. It was almost like they set us loose. You know, we used to go outside and have parades and do weird shit, maybe to try to get into the public eye more. At some point, we went into Fort Thunder and just never came back out. Maybe it’s a better solution to be that way. But it seemed like in knocking it down, they’re actually letting loose this thing. But it’s only served to frustrate us, for the most part.

NADEL: Do you miss the camaraderie?

CHIPPENDALE: Not really; everyone is here.

NADEL: What is it?

CHIPPENDALE: The space. I miss the space and the cheapness, honestly. We had so much confidence behind that specific location and good feeling in there. From day one, I thought, “I’m not leaving this place till it’s really the end.”

NADEL: They shut it down because it was unzoned?

CHIPPENDALE: They shut it down for so many weird reasons. The building got bought, but it hadn’t been turned over yet. The people upstairs didn’t get kicked out till the following January. There was a big to-do over the project; they were putting in a shopping mall, and hundreds of people were coming to the meetings and saying, “We don’t want this! No way!” and it was kind of centered around Fort Thunder. The fire marshall came into our space, looked around, said it was a death trap and we all had to leave. But he went upstairs, two flights up, where they had one exit from all their spaces — they couldn’t even leap from the windows — he said it was fine and let all those people stay. So there was some sort of corruption going on. People were moving out, and there were only a few of us stragglers, and we said we weren’t leaving. Certain people were jumping the boat, and the landlord was just being a total asshole. He basically said we had to tear down every single thing in there if we wanted to stay. And we thought, “Forget it. We’re not going to spend all our time to tear down everything we built, and get kicked out. We’re not going to clean the space for you,” although it would have been nice if we had, actually, because then we’d have all our stuff. But the fucking junk can go back to the streets where it came from, all the couches can go back to the fucking junkyard where we dragged them from in the first place. The whole point of Fort Thunder was that we really felt like we were in charge, that we owned this place — which we learned wasn’t true. It was a heartbreaking blow. It was definitely a lesson hard learned. Someone else owned it and they sold it to an asshole, or one asshole sold it to another asshole. And now, I know it can happen again, so what are we doing? How do you really do what you want to do? We’ve been trying to find a building or some land to buy. But it just comes at a hard time in Providence’s history — it’s expensive now. I feel we, to some extent, instigated this area’s gentrification and now we gotta deal with it, and we can’t. And we’re not buying-minded people; none of us are going to walk into a bank and get a loan. Maybe in a couple of years we’ll be able to deal with that kind of stuff, or someone will step up. We found a building that was $100,000 down the street, and a guy we knew was basically going to come over with a suitcase with $100,000 in it. He’s a friend of ours who owns some buildings around. He’s a little bit older, he’s involved with some city stuff and he has development money. He was a big fan of Fort Thunder.

NADEL: What happened?

CHIPPENDALE: It’s confusing. All these buildings are environmental hazards. You’ve got to spend like $5,000 on environmental testing first. You might buy a place, and before you know it, you’ve got the Environmental Protection Agency knocking on your door with a $3,000 bill. Or you’ve got a $300,000 clean-up for a $50,000 property. Everyone said, “This place is a toxic-waste dump. It’s got a basement that, for some reason, they filled with sand and cement. There are a lot of problems with the place.” We were just out the door of Fort Thunder and desperate. Fort Thunder started with two of us saying, “We need a place to be loud!” and ended with like 10 people saying, “We need to find a place to live together.”

NADEL: The “we” right now is who?

CHIPPENDALE: It’s boiled down to me and Mat, Leif, Peter Fuller, who worked on bikes — that was his main thing there — and Christopher Forgues is lurking in the shadows. It’s a pretty serious little gang. But, you know, I haven’t even paid this month’s rent, yet.

NADEL: Right. But you’re all also doing incredible work now.

CHIPPENDALE: Maybe. Or our worst; a friend of mine told me, “Man, I hate telling you this, but your comics were so much better back before you got into politics.”

NADEL: But Leif and Mat and Christopher —

CHIPPENDALE: Oh, Christopher for sure. Did you see that melting man, one-page thing that he did, where the guy stops at the inn? That thing’s amazing! It’s the best comic ever! But he’s got the same fucking weird problem that we all do about exposure. Mat has it the worst of anybody; Mat sees success in front of him and walks 180 degrees the other way, then shoots himself in the foot and limps off in a different direction. Mat has always been the best at all the things that he’s applied himself to; he was the best at doing posters; he was drawing amazing comics freshman year. But he doesn’t draw comics a whole lot, really, and he doesn’t make posters anymore. With Forcefield, the door was wide open, but he didn’t want to deal with the art world. Which, more than even the art world, there are a lot inner problems among them anyway. I don’t know. Mat has his own issues to deal with, success issues, He’s the greatest comic-book guy ever, but has only done a handful.

Tom Fucking Devlin

NADEL: I want to go back to the beginning: You started doing comics that were, in some weird way, autobiographical. Your figures kind of represented you, and the comics tended to be like a lot of the Fort Thunder-ish stuff guys walking around —

CHIPPENDALE: Discovering things. I heard that Ron Regé was influenced by that at some point. I forget what he said, like, “I’m just going to draw dudes in the dark discovering things!” Fort Thunder books. A lot of my approach to that was; that I would sit down with no idea and draw comics. Very rarely did I approach it with a story in mind. So, me and the character were discovering what was happening. We didn’t know what was going to happen, and then you get into the motion of moving your arm and, in an hour, you’re focused. You’ve tuned everything out and your imagination lets loose.


NADEL: For somebody who said earlier that you always feel split into different directions, you’ve drawn, what, a few thousand pages of comics now?

CHIPPENDALE: Probably. It’s up there.

NADEL: What is the Highwater book?

CHIPPENDALE: Well, Maggots Book One is made up of the four minicomics I published, and it should probably have two or three more in it. But the Highwater book is a whole separate Maggots volume. The minicomics aren’t a part of it, so, we’re going to call it Maggots something. On the cover, it says Maggots Fort Thunder, actually. It’s loosely about, I mean, none of them are specifically about anything. But it’s a group of characters; it has something to do with them living in this place called Fort Thunder. It has loosely to do … I haven’t read that thing in three or four years, because Tom fucking Devlin ran off with it! And I don’t even have a copy, I don’t even have photocopies of it. I had a bunch, but I left them all at Fort Thunder, and now they’re gone. I think the main character is this guy named Hot Potato. It’s something to do with … What is that thing about? It’s just little subplots. There’s a character of power who people are seeking. In other words I don’t remember what the hell it is about. They eat peanut-butter people; they run around a lot; there is a bad guy who is a capitalist; its like life: a lot of little tiny stories and finally something erupts that actually changes things.

NADEL: The comics you’re doing are basically fantasy comics.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah, pretty much.

NADEL: We should talk about influences then, because it’s a funny thing for you to be doing. What are you a product of?

CHIPPENDALE: Marvel Comics. I don’t like alternatives. I don’t know if they still draw stuff like couples sitting in coffee shops talking about their love life or whatever — it’s boring. It’s not visionary. I don’t like that Generation X mentality. It’s a waste of time, and it’s backwards. But I draw a character just sitting around and talking about their favorite candy bar for a minute, but then it flies away. It’s a mixture of stuff.

NADEL: Do you follow comics now?

CHIPPENDALE: I’ve actually been getting a litle bit of stuff, having partially to do with my discount at the comic-book store. I’ve been reading the New X-Men. I think Alan Moore’s stuff rules. I thought Top Ten was amazing. I’m reading League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I started getting He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, [laugher] which sucks, but the drawings are all right. I’ve been getting Daredevil. I like Mike Mignola and Hellboy, even though he dumbs it down a lot. Paul Pope I think is really good, although if I have to see another picture of him in his studio blowing smoke, I’m going to puke.

NADEL: I saw a bunch of Lone Wolf and Cub volumes here.

CHIPPENDALE: I went on a big Lone Wolf and Cub binge. After we got kicked out of Fort Thunder, I was living in this attic for a while — electricity coming up from the first floor, no running water — and I felt this weird connection to the simplicity of Lone Wolf and Cub. But I can’t read that stuff now.

I was actually talking to Christopher about this the other day. It’s the same thing in Lightning Bolt; a lot of times, while I’m playing and singing, I’ll be thinking about Madonna or something like that. I’m thinking about pop music. But I feel that when you read comics or listen to music, it gives you a feeling that’s not the same as what it is. Like, when you read X-Men or something, you get like this feeling of wonder, but I don’t want to make that stuff. For one thing, someone’s already making that stuff. That’s fine. I don’t need to do the same thing. And the other thing, it’s like I’m translating that through my own weird retardation. I could sit down and try to play what I think are pop beats, but the truth is, I’m hyperactive. I can’t slow down. It thrills me to go nuts on the drums. So I’ll be singing that song, and it’s almost like the feeling of euphoria that I get listening to certain stuff. But when I actually show you what that feeling is, this is what it turns into. It’s like, my love of comics and it’s what I love about comics, but it’s translated through my inefficiencies and weird interests. Gary Panter comes up as an influence, too. Especially the Dal Tokyo stuff I saw and early Jimbo. I didn’t start seeing that stuff till like three years into Fort Thunder. I was already drawing pretty scrappy stuff. My friends had seen Panter’s stuff. Mat loved Pee Wee’s Playhouse, but I’d never even really seen it. I wish I had. I’d like to still see it, but I was living in a Pee Wee’s Playhouse of my own making, but it’s probably because I was watching the other Saturday-morning cartoons.

NADEL: Were there painters and people like that who influenced your style?

CHIPPENDALE: What influenced me? I don’t know. I used to try to draw like Frank Miller when I was a kid [laughter], because I love that Daredevil stuff. Gary Panter has been big, only at that point when I saw him, I was definitely shown that you can do anything you want. But a lot of it was just seeing what Leif’s drawing, what Mat’s drawing, what Jim’s drawing or this weird thing on the floor that someone dragged in from the trash. For some reason, I can’t seem to remember any fine artists. I went thought my litle Basquiat phase [laughter] and, of course, Darger — which was obviously later. Talk about world-building.


NADEL: One of the funny things we talked about earlier is that your work is not seen by many people. What are you trying to get out of it? Do you want to communicate to other people? For example, a typical criticism of the work is that it’s incoherent. Is that a concern? Does it bother you that very few people have seen it?

CHIPPENDALE: It doesn’t bother me, because I know that people will see it eventually — unless every copy of it is destroyed, like if this table caught on fire right now. This stuff would be gone, and I’d be sad.

img_5520NADEL: [Laughter.] And the coherence?

CHIPPENDALE: I look at Paper Rodeo and I think “I can’t read this crap! What is that stuff?” I look at mine and it actually seems like the most digestible stuff in there. But maybe my stuff now is more digestible than it was. But it seems pretty damn coherent to me. Because —

NADEL: [Laughter.] You’re doing it.

CHIPPENDALE: It just takes a little bit of commitment. All that stuff does. Like a lot of Paper Rodeo, if you feel like taking the time to read it, it’s there. It’s not so difficult, but we are asking a lot. My parents don’t read my stuff. I give them everything. They haven’t read it. Maybe little bits.

NADEL: Are the comics more of a private endeavor? As opposed to the music?

CHIPPENDALE: Well, it obviously used to be super private, ‘cause these books aren’t easy to reproduce.

NADEL: Was it better that it was private? Did you want it to remain private?

CHIPPENDALE: No. I like showing people the books. For the new stuff, the Ninja stuff, I wanted to do a monthly comic. I needed money, and I thought, “I’m going to make a comic and sell it. If you can make money off Marvel comics, I can make money off Ninja comics, around here,” which is also me interpreting major things in my own minor way.

Panels from "Golden Peanut Butter Ninja" drawn in 2003

Panels from “Golden Peanut Butter Ninja” drawn in 2003

NADEL: Right. The Ninja comics are funny because you started it when you were how old?

CHIPPENDALE: I drew like 17 episodes of the Ninja when I was 10 or 11. All the characters from my childhood are moving to this town called Groin, and they’re waiting in line, which parallels this dilapidated city. I’m trying to overpopulate this huge city because I want to draw parallels to Providence, but at the same time I want a city that seems unending, which is what I love. And the Ninja will come into play. I think the Ninja has become this black sphere. The character I drew as a kid called “The Ninja” would basically break into places and steal money or something. I think he would break into evil places. He would kill all the people — as a kid, that’s what I was into. It’s a little hard for me to just kill people, in the last couple of years, so the ninja character was exploded into a weird, evil black mist that people will have to … I don’t know, but I’ll deal with it at some point. Like all my comics, it’s all about tangents. I’m trying to do a town where there are so many characters, and every time I sit down, I come up with new one, and I’ll go draw a part of the story and I’ll come back with more stories and new dudes and eight more places. I’m utterly confused about it…

NADEL: Yeah. That goes back to the coherence issue that people complain about. Do you ever want to force yourself to stick to these characters?

CHIPPENDALE: I think, in the new stuff, they have a little more consistency — but I can’t get away from the fact that life is incoherent. For things to have stupid, sweet endings where everything works out is utter crap. Life works in this weird way of things leading other things, and you can’t control that, and I don’t want to be in control of that when I’m drawing. Because when I sit down and I’m utterly in control — it’s all mapped out. I don’t want to go through the paces, although I can do that a little more now.

Destroyed By Politics

NADEL: The other funny thing— like in the Grasslands strip that’s running in Paper Rodeo — is a conflation of Bush’s war and the shuttering of the Fort.

CHIPPENDALE: That friggin’ paper comes out once every four months, so the idea of trying to do a continuing story line is a joke. Grasslands is boiled down to political satire. I just ditched the characters.

NADEL: There was a continuing story going, but now it’s gone.

CHIPPENDALE: I’ve been destroyed by politics.

NADEL: Was the closing of Fort Thunder the catalyst?

CHIPPENDALE: It was everything: the war, President Bush — I can’t stand that guy! It’s getting harder and harder to live with the idea of what our country represents and our place in it, playing this huge game where everyone pretends all this crazy shit isn’t going on. Politics are fucking killing me.

Screen printed inner cover for "Golden Peanut Butter Ninja 4" 2003

Screen printed inner cover for “Golden Peanut Butter Ninja 4” 2003

NADEL: Me too. But I want to break down your comics output, so we can get all of this clear, there have been three issues of Ninja, which started about a year ago. Maggots was a continuing series of minicomics, four of which have been published. When were they published?

CHIPPENDALE: Like, ’95 to ’97, somewhere in there.

NADEL: Grasslands runs in Paper Rodeo. That’s a catch-all of sorts.

CHIPPENDALE: Right. There’s been 12 or so of the 11 by 17 Grasslands.

NADEL: And the however-many-thousands of pages of unpublished comics. Is that all Maggots?

CHIPPENDALE: That’s all Maggots. It’s supposedly from the same story.

NADEL: Ninja’s leading into that world as well.

CHIPPENDALE: Ninja takes place on the other side of the mountains in the Grassland, which takes place on a level lower than the book that Tom’s putting out, which is like a cave below the original dark Maggots level. There are gardening levels. And the sandlands, where Ninja takes place, was a garden that was ill-farmed. It’s a used-up area of land that’s now a desert. So the grassland, which I think is soon to be a garden, a field that has a regenerative plant planted in it to bring back the nutrients, or something. I just made that up. This mud land is the waste level and maybe the Fort Thunder level is maybe where a lot of people live. It’s all sort of barely there.

NADEL: [Laughter.] But it’s a world that you’re trying to delineate.

CHIPPENDALE: Flesh this thing out. But there are so many tangents; it could go everywhere and anywhere. The thrill I get out of sitting down, coming up with ideas and spending a few hours drawing can be so wonderful. It’s also great to play drums in front of 400 totally excited people. But better to play in front of 40 really excited people.

NADEL: I want to talk about drums for a second. Well, I want to talk about three things at once. One is patterns; the other is drums; the other’s storytelling. The way you tell stories seems very, very similar to the way you play drums. I’ve heard Lightning Bolt described as having “micro-beats.”

CHIPPENDALE: Lots of fast beats.

NADEL: You’re playing incredibly fast and hard. And the stories are very dense — they also have micro-beats, because you’ll take a single action and stretch it out over several panels.

CHIPPENDALE: I’ve been doing that less.

NADEL: But the earlier stuff, like Lightning Bolt, is incredibly fast but also ambient. Like dub music.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. It’s funny. People say that even more so about my playing, because it’s all electronic.

NADEL: But do you see a connection?

CHIPPENDALE: Its just a need to take care of every little space. If it’s on paper, I fill it up. If it’s my walls, I want to fill it up.

NADEL: Well, even down to the story-telling, you’re filling up time. And the patterns, like your posters: They’re heavily, heavily patterned. Is that a similar urge, to fill up space? What is it with patterns?

CHIPPENDALE: I was printing, and I just got sick of these blank fields of color. You can do almost a similar blank field of color, but with way more action. I like the feeling of movement and aliveness, and you can capture that with a series of little marks playing off each other, more so than a field of flat color. It comes alive. I’ve been printing this wallpaper stuff on newsprint. You can surround yourself with it, and make it your whole world. It just all comes more alive, colorful vibrant stuff, all sort of vibrating. So, that’s another solution for covering everything. I like figuring out solutions.

tl 12-2006

Silkscreen, 2000

NADEL: The other interesting thing about it is that the patterns are almost classical. They’re beautiful; they’re almost classically beautiful.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. Some of them lean toward almost Japanese or Chinese characters. I’m really enthralled by Asian stuff. I just got this Japanese book of monsters yesterday. I love this stuff! Talking about influences, these old prints and scrolls and paintings of demons and monsters and samurai. Just like the mark-making. Yeah, it’s really beautiful. But I don’t want to be restricted by that either. I’m doing a new print, a new wallpaper. I’m making a collage out of three different colored papers cut into angular pieces that are glued down to a larger piece of paper. It’s sharp and angular, done in a new way. I have a new solution I just figured out. It’s like a crayon coloring-book style on the M&M print I made, printing the outline first and then doing the layers of color with a crayon so each printed color has a crayonesque feel when printed with the acrylic ink. It leaves that hazy overlapping coloring book-look, like actual M&Ms.

The other thing I’ve been doing, which I think is a big deal, in my comics, is that I’ve got this black-and-blue style going. I keep the blue pen in my left hand, and the black pen in my right hand. I’ve actually been doing it for years. I mention this because I’m really psyched about it. It adds a weird element of chaos. I feel like you get really good, like I was with my right hand, the art can become stiff — so I though maybe if I just brought the other hand in to basically scribble on top of what I was doing, it would become more alive. I want to keep things alive. I feel you’ve got to fuck yourself up to get some liveliness.

NADEL: Well, the blue and the black is also the vibration you get.

CHIPPENDALE: But you don’t see that. My plan is to take these into the computer, separate them and silkscreen a book of this stuff. Black and blue, on a little bigger scale. I have 60-something pages here and I hope to hit 100, after I finally get sick of Ninja. I want to go back, reacquaint myself with the grueling task of stamping and finish that story up. Which is more story than ever, but so many stories in one. It’s a brain-collecting tree, but at the same time collecting seven pyramids rising to the sky, and the cloud people are coming back, and I don’t know. It’s overstimulation. I see more stuff. I haven’t even processed the stuff I learned in kindergarten.

NADEL: And you’re processing it all into this sci-fi fantasy epic, basically.

CHIPPENDALE: Kind of. Half of it is sci-fi fantasy.

NADEL: Is it? Are you being facetious?

CHIPPENDALE: No, no. I’m serious. I’m into science-fiction and fantasy stuff. I’m into all sorts of stuff. I was talking about movies that I love the other day, and I definitely love sci-fi books and movies and fantasy stuff too, and I also like other modern, realistic —

NADEL: Is it because sci-fi fantasy gives you a freedom that another genre wouldn’t?

CHIPPENDALE: For the most part. It’s also laziness, maybe. I’m not going to draw this room, all this shit in every panel. But you’ve got these science-fiction worlds that are really minimal, which means that you draw less.

NADEL: But they’re not minimal in the way you draw them. Yours are incredibly ornate.

CHIPPENDALE: But a lot of times it’s just the scribbling that’s ornate. This stuff isn’t ornate. It’s mark making. A little while ago, someone mailed me a Comics Journal that had Jason Lutes talking about his comic Berlin, which I had never seen. I remember that guy used to have Jar of Fools in the paper here. But now, he’s doing this period piece. When I see period movies, it’s great. I think I’m glad they’re being made, but I can’t believe that people do that stuff. Trying to get all the details right — it blows my mind.

NADEL: You’d rather just imagine it?

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. I’ve been doing a lot of bike riding, since it’s an excuse to get fresh air and I’m looking at buildings. There’s a few buildings around town that are just so amazing, I want to take photos and bring them in for drawing. But still, they’ll be surrounded by other weird shit that doesn’t exist. I can’t be limited by reality.

NADEL: And the panels are usually the same small size, usually just big enough for a figure surrounded by marks, especially in Maggots.

CHIPPENDALE: I’m at my best when I’m being repetitive. It’s the same with Lightning Bolt, playing drums: When I really concentrate and get into a groove, that’s when my mind is really starting to work. When I sit down to draw, I shit out a bunch of ideas haphazardly and then I focus. The way I focus is through repetition.

NADEL: Which accounts for the wallpaper patterns. Would it be correct to say it also accounts for the kind of figure-panel figure-panel figure-panel compositions you use?

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. It accounts for all that.

NADEL: And then occasionally it explodes, like in Non, where you suddenly move to full pages?

CHIPPENDALE: ‘Cause I’m thinking; you can see me thinking. I’m drawing and thinking, just wandering around, and then it reaches what I’ve been thinking about.

NADEL: I think what’s very exciting to me, and probably other people, about this work is that it’s image-making and mark-making which vanished from comics for a while. There was Panter, Kim Deitch, Chris Ware and some other people. But otherwise, the imagistic power of comics was rarely seen. Straight image-making as opposed to just storytelling, which are two different things. A lot of your work is about drawing. Is that conscious on your part?

CHIPPENDALE: I want to be able to go off and just draw, to the destruction of everything else. I think that’s what Paper Rodeo is about, even more so than me. I stick to stories more than a lot —

NADEL: Paper Rodeo is really about drawing.

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. It’s an extension of the Fort Thunder mentality. It’s a fucking free-for-all, anything goes. Comics aren’t necessarily drawing, but I want to make sure that they can be.

NADEL: The ideal is when the drawing and the storytelling are equal.

CHIPPENDALE: Sure. Gary Panter gets that. I have talking heads, which isn’t exactly about drawing, but it’s still drawing.

NADEL: Was that always your interest!

CHIPPENDALE: Yeah. I like to draw.

NADEL: Do you feel related to what’s going on in comics now at all?

CHIPPENDALE: As I said, I’ve been reading the New X-Men. It kind of sucks, but it’s kind of good. Daredevil’s boring.

NADEL: No, I mean do you feel connected to more “alternative” comics?

CHIPPENDALE: I’ve always felt connections to the people here. It’s the same musically; Providence is a big music town, but it can be limited in scope. When I want to go look at great art, I walk over to Mat’s house. I’m lucky being surrounded by this stuff.

NADEL: It’s a world unto itself.


NADEL: But do you sometimes feel it’s restrictive?

CHIPPENDALE: It’s totally restrictive musically and artistically. We could all use some fresh air here. There are a lot of new people moving here — new people are fresh air — but there’s not a lot of, space for them. An hour drawing opens this untapped world. There are too many ideas in my head and not enough time to do it. So, in a weird way, I don’t need influence; all I need is time. We’ll see. I say that and then I get frustrated. I need some land and a big building.

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An Interview with Kaz Mon, 08 Feb 2016 13:00:20 +0000 Underworld. Continue reading ]]> Kazimieras G. Prapuolenis — or the artist formally known as Kaz — first burst onto the comic culture scene in the late 1970s through his appearances in Art Spiegelman’s RAW (along with his School of Visual Arts classmates Drew Friedman and Mark Newgarden). Those early strips, an edgy mix of punk rock and classic comic aesthetics, served notice of the arrival of new voice that was both pioneering as well as grounded in the medium’s traditions. And like fellow RAW alumni Gary Panter (with whom he shares more than a few influences) and Charles Burns, Kaz’s style has evolved to where it is instantly recognizable — especially when it pops up in the work of other artists he’s “influenced.”

Born to Lithuanian immigrants in Hoboken, N.J. in 1959, Kaz has created an impressive and immense body of comic strip and illustration work through his apprearances in Weirdo, Bad News, the East Village Eye, The Village Voice, Details, Nickelodeon, The New Yorker, Swank, Eclipse, N.Y. Rocker, Screw, and Bridal Guide, along with many other comics, magazines and fanzines.

Since 1992 his weekly comic strip Underworld has appeared in alternative weekly newspapers across the country. Along with Glenn Head, he co-edited the comics anthology Snake Eyes, and has three collections of his work available from Fantagraphics: Buzzbomb, Underworld, and most recently, Sidetrack City. Other projects include the cover for writer Mark Leyner’s book My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, various work for Topps Trading Cards and Pee-wee Herman Toy Designs, as well as several animation and Internet projects currently in the works.

At the time of this interview (1995-96), Kaz lived in a pop culture-cluttered apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side along with his girlfriend, Linda Marotta, a book buyer for Shakespeare and Company and book reviewer for Fangoria magazine. The following is an excerpt from the interview appearing in TCJ #186. It represented the first major inquiry into the life, mind and habits (work and otherwise) of this most singular artist.

John Kelly

kaz underworld



JOHN KELLY: Before we talk about your schooling as a cartoonist, do you have any opening statements?
KAZ: Underground comix made a man out of me.

KELLY: Did you go to art school right out of high school?
KAZ: No, I worked for a year or so.

KELLY: Doing what?
KAZ: I had a few factory jobs. The first job I had was at a plant called Springboard Records that had a license to press the Chipmunks’ albums. I swept the floor. That was my first job right out of high school. And it was completely disheartening to think that this was going to be my life. The forklift drivers felt so bad for me that they would lift me up on the forks of these vehicles that would rise up really high and deposit me up onto the top shelves of the warehouse where I would sleep all afternoon. I had a job working at a factory called Boyle-Midway that made Black Flag spray, and carpet cleaner, oven cleaner, that kind of stuff. It was an assembly line job. You would sit there next to the conveyor belt and watch the line in case a cap falls off a bottle. You’d have to put it back on. Or if a can had a leak, you’d toss it into the trash. The most dangerous spot on the line was right after the compression room where they forced the oven cleaner into the cans. Any one of those cans could blow up. One night I was sitting there with my dorky safety glasses on fantasizing about something when I heard a pop. I looked up and my whole face was drenched in oven cleaner. I felt my body being lifted up and then my head was shoved into a water fountain. A co-worker thought my eyes may have gotten sprayed. I also worked in an air conditioner factory. It was another mind-numbing assembly-line job. With an air-powered screw-gun, my job was to put in two screws that held the cooling unit into the air conditioner frame. That was it. All day long. The machines would come down the line non-stop. It was Modern Times. The place was big, hot, and noisy. I had some friends who worked there and they would drop Black Beauties and puncture holes into the compression tanks just to break up the monotony. One guy’s task was to line the cardboard boxes with plastic foam that had a sticky side on it. It would come off these gigantic rolls. One day he wrapped that foam around his head until he looked like a mummy and walked off the line. There he went, wandering throughout the whole factory in a daze. People were jumping out of his way. He finally made it to the nurse’s office where he declared, “My brain hurts!” He was fired on the spot.

KELLY: How long did you work there?
KAZ: About a year. I had my own breakdown. I disengaged from the machinery much like the main character in my strip, The Little Bastard. One morning I got a bit ahead of myself on the line when I stood back and watched the whole factory disappear. It was like at the end of an old cartoon where blackness engulfs the picture leaving a small circular view until the circle itself disappears. Then I blacked out. I woke up in an ambulance. I later learned from the hysterical Puerto Rican women who worked beside me that I fell down and started to thrash about banging my head on the conveyer belt. My screw gun, which was stuck in the “on” position, was flapping about on my crotch. No one wanted to touch me. They were convinced that I was a drug addict anyway, so they assumed I was having a freak-out! Later, the doctor at the hospital told me that I had some sort of seizure but they weren’t sure what it was. Two weeks later, I learned, the doctor blew his own brains out. I actually went back to work there. But it was so embarrassing. Everybody kept their distance waiting for me to freak out again. That’s when I decided to listen to my heart. I always toyed with the idea of being a cartoonist. And now it seemed if I didn’t try, I would die right there in the factory. So I quit and went to art school where the freak-outs were more pleasant.

KELLY: And this was in Hoboken.
KAZ: This is when I was living in Rahway, a suburb of New Jersey.

KELLY: When did your parents come to this country?
KAZ: My father came here in the early ’50s and my mother arrived in the late ’50s. He was responsible for getting my mom’s family over here, both being Lithuanian refugees. They had escaped Lithuania which had turned Communist. My father was a Lithuanian nationalist who was forced to fight for the Russians in WWII. The Baltic countries were a real mess at the time, what with the Germans and then the Communists stomping all over them. He had a lot of near misses and almost wound up being shot by a German firing squad. Or was that a Russian firing squad? It all sounds so confusing. I have this picture in my head of my father running around a battlefield like Charlie Chaplin being blown from one side to another. He was eventually approached by the CIA to spy on the Communists and he realized that if he took that job he would not be long for this world. There was an underground pipeline to America, so he took it. And all he ever wanted to be was a priest who worked in a leper colony.

KELLY: What did he do for a living when he got here?
KAZ: He worked in a factory. He had no other skill and he had no interest in improving his English. He also organized anti-Communist protests and taught Lithuanian classes to immigrant children and dreamed of one day returning to his beloved motherland. My mom was a housewife and then she worked in factories too.

KELLY: So you were born in Hoboken, NJ in ’59?
KAZ: I was born in 1959. I have a twin sister named Laima. We both have Lithuanian names. I also have two younger brothers, Vincent and Thomas.

young kaz

KAZ as a TOT.

KELLY: What was it like growing up there?
KAZ: We were poor. Lived in a tenement building. Bought our clothes at the Salvation Army. Ate my mom’s horrible Lithuanian cooking. But we didn’t know any better. My dad had two jobs, so he was never around. We played on the streets, the city parks, abandoned buildings, the Hoboken piers. We were the Dead End Kids. There were always big family parties where the adults got drunk and the kids went insane. My favorite toy was an Alvin the Chipmunk bubble-bath container. But the Salvation Army also sold toys, so I always had a lot of junk. I watched a lot of kids’ shows and cartoons. I could see the Empire State Building from my bedroom window. Then, when I was ten, my parents had saved up enough money to put a down payment on a house in Rahway, New Jersey, and off we moved to the suburbs. The people next door had a big yard with swing sets. I thought it was a public park so we played there until we were kicked out. It was my first taste of someone having something bigger and better than me. So instead of the Dead End Kids, we were now the Little Rascals. We played in the woods and built soap box derby cars and tree houses. But I always knew that my family was different. For instance we were forced to speak only Lithuanian in the house. My friends were convinced that it was a practical joke. As if we were speaking gibberish just to fuck with them. Nobody had ever heard of Lithuania, and I was beginning to doubt its existence myself. My father forced us to take Lithuanian classes at a Catholic parish in Elizabeth, NJ on Saturday mornings. Saturday mornings! I was deeply into television cartoons at the time. He had a hell of a time each week rounding us up for the car ride. We’d hide under the porch, up a tree, anything. And I couldn’t tell any of my friends about it. At these classes we would be forced to participate in Lithuanian folk dances. My brother and I would intentionally step on the other dancers’ feet just to get kicked out. I finally ran out of a class in a middle of a lesson one day and refused to return. Well, my father couldn’t do anything to get me back. He tried beating me. But one of my heroes at the time was Papillion, and I could take anything he dished out. Eventually I won and got to watch Scooby Doo to my heart’s content.


KELLY: What was high school like for you?
KAZ: Oh, it was miserable. Torture. I was a bad student. I had a hard time getting interested in lessons. I later learned that my high school was one of the worst in the state. I tried. I really tried to be normal. I even joined a baseball league at one point. But I hardly played at all because all my teammates were championship players, so I sat on the bench the whole time. I won two trophies, but I barely touched a ball. Just my own balls. I went through periods of joining clubs and other periods of being a total loner. Just staying home and watching television. Most of my pals were misfits. But I also dated and had girlfriends. Some kids thought I was cool because I could draw. They kept saying, “He’s an artist. He’s an artist.” Until I eventually became one. Though my grades were bad, I never thought I was stupid. I just didn’t give a shit. Four years of prison. Just counting the days.

KELLY: Did you start going into the city a lot when you were in high school?
KAZ: When I discovered there was a train station in Rahway that was connected with New York City, I’d play hooky and explore the city. All the television stations that we got in New Jersey were broadcast from Manhattan. So we never knew what was going on in our own hometown, but we knew everything about New York. I felt like I lived there, anyway. When I found where CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City were, and that they would serve me liquor, I was there practically every week.

KELLY: So you were going to see bands and shows?
KAZ: It was the beginning of the punk scene — ’75, ’76. And I was completely into it. The Ramones, Blondie, Richard Hell. And then later the British punk bands. It was very exciting to a kid like me. I read all of the rock press. My friends were all into the leftover bands from the ’60s — Led Zep, the Stones, the Who. Although I liked those bands just fine, here was a new rock movement springing up practically in my backyard. I could not convince anyone to check out these bands with me. They sneered at me. As far as they were concerned, punk sucked and was for faggots. I alienated everyone. With my ripped jeans and leather jacket I stood out in sleepy Rahway town. People would scream, “Punk rock sucks!” at me as they drove by in their vans.

KAZ meets an early hero, Richard Hell. KELLY: Were you reading Creem?
KAZ: I read Creem, I read Rock Scene, Circus… you don’t really read those magazine because there’s no real writing in them. You look at the pictures and you skim them.

kaz with Hell

KELLY: Were you drawing all the time?
KAZ: I started really drawing in junior high school. All through school, art class was my favorite. No rules. I got the best reinforcement in art. In junior high there was this kid, Bernard, who sat in front of me and drew these fantastically funny monsters. Big Daddy Roth monsters mostly. I wanted to emulate him and get some attention, too. Plus, it was more entertaining than doing math. He was good at drawing cars, too, and I was good at monsters so we would compare notes and crack each other up. I got real good at shading on a school desktop. Nice enamel surface. We’d leave these elaborate monster/car battle scenes for the janitor to clean off at the end of the day. Even then we would get upset when some other kid would cop one of our drawing licks: “Hey! You copied that from me, you thief!” Meanwhile I was copying everything out of MAD magazine!

KELLY: Nothing has changed.
KAZ: I was reading a lot of comics at this time, but I didn’t share my passion with anyone else.

KELLY: It was a secret?
KAZ: I didn’t hide it, but there was nobody in my immediate circle that read them. There were times when I didn’t have anybody to hang out with so I would just collect comics and read them off on my own. After a while, I became a comics junkie. I started to buy everything. I loved Spider-Man, Conan, and all those weird Kirby DC books like The New Gods and Forever People. I started sending away for back issues of Nick Fury Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Not Brand Ecch! I was soon scraping the bottom of the comics barrel buying Jimmy Olsen and Archie’s Madhouse Funnies. Any fuckin’ thing so that I wouldn’t have to live in reality. I started to draw my own homemade superhero comics, which were utterly pathetic.

KELLY: Well, look what you’re emulating.
KAZ: Then I discovered underground comics and everything changed.

KELLY: How did that happen?
KAZ: You know, after you start collecting enough comic books, you start running out, because they only come out once a month. You wind up with piles of the stuff and so you start reading the ads for a change. There were ads for back issues — you know, Golden Age and Silver Age books — so I sent for a catalog. In the back of one of these catalogs were ads for the underground comics I remembered seeing in a head shop once but was too young to buy. It took me a couple of months to get up the courage to send for some titles. I wrote that I was over 18 years of age and I felt like such a bad boy. I knew I was buying something nasty. Something worse than MAD or National Lampoon. Well, the first two books I got were Rubber Duck and a copy of Zap #3, the one with the S. Clay Wilson story of Captain Piss Gums and his Pervert Pirates. Well, it blew my little mind. Here were cartoon characters fucking, doing drugs and chopping each other’s dicks off! I hid them under a loose floorboard in the attic and quickly sent away for more. I wasn’t allowed to have MAD magazine in the house because my mom saw a back cover once that had a hippie crucified on a hypodermic needle and she said it was sacrilegious. And now I had Captain Piss Gums and Joe Blow!I had already had a taste of this kind of stuff with National Lampoon. I loved their “Funny Pages” section. I was a big fan of Bobby London’s Dirty Duck. It’s not cool among my contemporary cartoonist pals to have liked Dirty Duck, but I thought it was hilarious. I also loved Vaughn Bodé, another no-no, the way he mapped out an entire universe from his mind. The mythology and space ships. It was all very unique and drenched in drug and hippie culture. It was Tolkien as an underground comic. Cheech Wizard was very funny. Cobalt 60 anticipated Heavy Metal comics and cyber-punk. And he was a true eccentric who cross-dressed and died accidentally during sex play. What’s not to like? This idea of creating your own private world has always fascinated me. That’s why I liked those Kirby books.

KELLY: I would buy those and just stare at them.
KAZ: Yeah, they look really good even today. They’re pretty amazing. All that demented machinery. His characters look like they’re made out of granite. They all wore expressions like they had permanent headaches. His writing was really blunt and at the same time mind-bending. Characters were constantly being hurled through time warps and dimensional trap-doors.

KELLY: When you were going into New York in high school, were you going to those comic book conventions?
KAZ: Oh, no. I didn’t even know they existed. I had no idea. The first time I ever went into a comic book shop it was a very weird experience. It kind of scared me. Because it was kind of dark and everything was in boxes. It smelled pretty bad in there. This was pre-Jim Hanley’s Universe and St. Mark’s Comics.

KELLY: I remember seeing my first comic shop when I was 10 and just being paralyzed by the sight of it. Anything you wanted was there, it was really traumatizing… When did you start going from imitating other artists’ styles to doing your own work?
KAZ: After my dismal failure trying to draw superhero comics I pretty much gave up drawing until I discovered the undergrounds. I would imitate Crumb’s comic book covers and I found that cartoony style more natural for me. I remember once copying a Mr. Natural cover with watercolors. My mom liked the Mr. Natural cover so much she hung it up on the living room wall. So that was very encouraging. Crumb’s work was very important to me because he drew in a style that I recognized from other comics but his stories were free from formula. They were truly shocking to me. And I met that challenge by drawing my own underground comic book called Bird Turd Funnies which I never finished. Crumb’s work is so organic and real I can’t say enough about it. Viva la Crumb!Another important influence was a hard-bound edition of Krazy Kat comics that I sent away for. Again, here was a guy who had created his own universe with a deceptively simple drawing style. I felt like I could walk around in Coconino County and taste the ink. There was a photograph of George Herriman that I would stare at ’til I put myself in a trance. It’s a picture of him sitting at his drawing table with his hat cocked, dreaming about his comic. I would fantasize myself in his place sitting there in the newspaper office working on a cartooning deadline. Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy was another important influence for me. I would clip the Sunday strips and paste them into a scrapbook. Reading them over and over again, I was slowly teaching myself the mechanics of comic strip storytelling. In Penn Station, New York, there was a bookstore that had on one of their shelves a hardcover copy of The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy. It had no title on the front of the dust jacket. Just a drawing of Dick Tracy’s famous profile. Whenever my family and I would come back from a show or circus in New York City we’d wait for the local train home in that station and I would stare at that cover, too shy to ask anyone to pull it down for me. The thought of that big book containing nothing but Dick Tracy comics from the ’40s was driving me mad. I would stare at that cover until I was hypnotized. I finally saved the money to buy it and fell completely in love with it. It was dark, violent, and weird. drawn in a style that I could learn. You can still see Chester Gould’s influence in my drawing style.

KELLY: I think Dick Tracy is a big strip for a lot of people, although a lot of them wouldn’t admit it.
KAZ: They won’t admit it? Really? Dick Tracy is the seminal strip for cartoonists who draw detective/crime comics. There would be no Batman without Tracy and the grotesque criminals Chester Gould invented. Each panel is like a blueprint drawing taking you deeper and deeper into his dark, twisted Chicago cartoon gangland. I find his drawings to be like graphic noir. Sinister. I also collected the Crimestoppers Textbook panels.

KELLY: They always gave the best advice. I remember one that said you shouldn’t let people into your house to use the phone if you were an old woman. Did you read Nancy?
KAZ: Nancy I read without even thinking about it. Sometimes clipping them because the local paper ran them. It wasn’t until I went to the School of Visual Arts and took a class with Art Spiegelman and Jerry Moriarty who drew Jack Survives for RAW that I started looking at and reading Nancy a little closer. Moriarty had a very Zen-beatnik way of talking about Bushmiller that really clicked with me. Nancy soon became a celebrated strip among the RAW crowd. And whenever anyone would say it was stupid or they didn’t get it, we would just close our eyes and smile. Nancy was so corny it was beyond corny. It somehow shifted into the kind of meta-world that only Zen masters navigate.

KELLY: That was right before Bushmiller died.
KAZ: Right. [a moment of silence]

KELLY: So you weren’t studying Dondi, though.
KAZ: I read everything. I always loved Smoky Stover. Even when I was a kid. I remember reading it but not understanding it. I understood Spooky, the cat strip that ran at the bottom. Little Orphan Annie, when I was a kid, I remember had too many words and not enough action, although I remember liking Maw Green. Nobody talks about the influence of Harold Gray’s Maw Green on my work.

KELLY: I think Smoky Stover had a big impact on you.
KAZ: It sure did. But I didn’t think about it again until much later, when I started thinking about what kind of sensibility and style my hand was suitable for. There was that piece I did for Snake Eyes #3 called “Zak Smoke.” The look of that strip was intentionally goofy because the story itself was so dark and depressing. Zak catches a glimpse of his own impending death and then he runs from one death symbol smack into another until the strip ends with his enlightenment. The sign pops up like the corny puns that mushroom all over a Smokey Stover comic.


KELLY: What made you choose the School of Visual Arts in New York?
KAZ: I went there because somebody told me once that SVA was the School of Cartoon & Illustration, which I believe is what it used to be called. So I went there with a portfolio of drawings that I drew in high school. I actually had a strip that I did then called Mr. Roach, and my idea was that I was going to submit this to syndicates to get a daily comic strip. It was really bad. Badly written, badly drawn. It didn’t even have gags. But I did a few things right. I had six weeks’ worth. I learned about photostats. I paid for all the printing and I sent them out to all the syndicates and got rejections. I was sending copies of the strip to newspaper cartoonists looking for feedback. The only guy who wrote me back was Russell Myers, who draws Broom Hilda. He was very encouraging. His letter was written on green Broom Hilda stationary with a green envelope that had all of his characters frolicking about on it. It was very exciting to me at the time. I thought, “Maybe I can actually do this!” Although he did say that I should go to art school and learn how to draw.

KELLY: What did the syndicates say in their rejection letters?
KAZ: One of them said basically there was no way they’d ever print a strip about a cockroach [laughs], so right away I was doing the underground comic thing. I still love that daily comics form. But my sensibilities and humor are more in tune with the underground. The writing in Underworld is all over the place. One week it’s R-rated, the next week it’s a G.

From WEIRDO, 1984.


KELLY: Well, I think the strip is such a traditional strip; I mean, it’s black and all….
KAZ: Right. And the gags revolve around heroin, death, and mutilation.

KELLY: But if you change a couple of words around, it looks like a classic.
KAZ: That’s the way I designed it. To getcha. To make it look appealing.

KELLY: What did you submit to get into SVA?
KAZ: Stuff from high school. I literally sat down and did a drawing specifically to submit.

KELLY: Seconds after it was done?
KAZ: On the train! They must have been desperate for admissions, because those drawings were pretty awful. From what I understand, it wasn’t that difficult to get in at that time. I don’t know what it’s like now. I went with the thought of getting into animation. But they expose you to everything: painting, sculpture, photography. My head was swimming with the possibilities. The more I thought about animation, the less I wanted to do it. I took Art Spiegelman’s cartooning class. Only after I had signed up did I go back to my underground comics collections and pullout a bunch of his strips. Although I did remember the story that Maus came from in the Funny Animals book. I remember reading that strip over and over again. It was a very powerful story. Then after I took his class I went back and I looked up all the back issues of Arcade and I got a copy of Breakdowns and I really appreciated where he was coming from. He was very dry and arty, He was so passionate about the possibilities of comics that I got sucked in allover again.

KELLY: Was that when you met Mark Newgarden and Drew Friedman?
KAZ: I met Mark and Drew in Harvey Kurtzman’s class. Harvey’s first class assignment was that we had to pair off and do cartoon self-portraits. I drew Mark and he drew me. He drew me as a cartoon punk from new Jersey. I was wearing a black leather jacket, spiky hair, purple jeans. I thought punk was cartoony to begin with. And that attitude eventually encompassed everything: the visual arts, writing. It was starting to affect the arts at the time. This was ’79, ’80.

RAW #8, 1986 with a cover by KAZ.

RAW #8, 1986 with a cover by KAZ.


KELLY: So you show up at SVA with spiky hair and you meet up with Drew Friedman and Newgarden. What did you think of each other?
KAZ: We weren’t friends at first. I’m not sure what they thought of me. Mark and Drew and a few others were kinda cliquey. Drew seemed pretty self-absorbed, always cracking jokes. Mark was the same, joking and laughing during class. We didn’t socialize. I remember when Spiegelman started RAW, he called Drew, Mark and myself after class and asked us to contribute some comics. He said he wanted some experimental student work. I was looking for people to relate to. I was into the whole idea of scenes. I was reading about the surrealists and they had a scene. The punk rock thing was a scene. I was looking for a cartoon scene but it didn’t really happen until a bit later with Bad News and Snake Eyes. And even then it wasn’t much of anything. It’s hard to keep people together in New York. There’s too many distractions. So Spiegelman started this workshop class after his lecture class. He hand-selected a few students for it and that was fantastic. I learned so much in that class. Art was the best teacher I’ve ever had. I don’t know how he felt about me at the time. I remember him calling me a snot once.

KELLY: That’s just about what he said on the back of your new book. But you’re funny, which is what saves you.
KAZ: I wasn’t trying to be funny then. I was trying to do art comics. I was into Krazy Kat and all this avant-garde stuff. So I was gonna be the guy who would experiment with page design and layout. Trying to incorporate the narrative into strange page designs. In my second year at SVA, I already had a regular comic strip being published in The New York Rocker.

KELLY: And it had a punk feel to it.
KAZ: I guess it did. But I always thought comics did, anyway. I mean, The Yellow Kid had a punk feel to it, Barney Google, Snuffy Smith…I mean, Snuffy Smith was like a hillbilly punk. He was lazy, you know, shooting people, drinking moonshine.

KELLY: There’s a lot of proto-slackers in the history of comics: Jughead, Wimpy; Sluggo, and all those hillbillies.
KAZ: Maybe cartoonists admired those types because it’s a lot of work drawing cartoons so you wish you could slack off.

KELLY: What was the Kurtzman class like?
KAZ: It was a complete waste of time. Unfortunately, he wasn’t teaching what he was good at, which was comics. But for some reason, he was teaching gag cartoons. It was a silly class. He would come in and he’d say, “Okay, today we are going to practice WORD BALLOONS!” Or cartoon sound effects. So we’d sit there going KARANG AND BADOOM and POW. It was really stupid. Here’s this master who created MAD and Two-Fisted Tales completely wasting his and our time. Friedman and Newgarden were real palsy-walsy with him, trying to upstage him with silly sounds and whatnot, so sometimes nothing would ever get done.

KELLY: They were palsy-walsy with him after they made him cry.
KAZ: The story I remember about that day was Kurtzman was showing some slides and Friedman and some clowns were in the back making Three Stooges noises. All I could think about was that he’d been working all day trying to sell some piece of shit cartoon to Hugh Hefner, driving all the way down from Connecticut to teach this useless art class to a room of students that couldn’t give a shit, and all we had to offer him was, “Hey, Moe!” and “Nyuck, nyuck!” Making wise cracks at everything he said. He looked tired. Real tired. He finally bowed his head and turned on the lights and walked out of the classroom. Leaving us there in stunned silence. Then he comes back in and goes into a sad speech about how he doesn’t have to do this to make a living blah, blah, blah. It was sad and pathetic. Everyone was nice to him after that, but it was too late.

KELLY: What types of things would Spiegelman focus on?
KAZ: He ran the gamut. He would talk about everything from the story-telling to the actual words that the cartoonists would use, like the way Herriman would use dialect. He gave you the whole scope of it. He talked about inking styles a bit, but Spiegelman isn’t really a techno-nerd the way a lot of cartoonists are. It was theoretical. He had an intellectual approach that I found refreshing. I never heard comics discussed that way. He made you want to do smart comics. There was nothing else you could do. You had to do comics that reflected your intelligence and knowledge of art and literature. Aspire to greater heights. At least that’s what I got out of it. I found myself going through the whole history of comic approaches and trying them on for a while.

kaz cards


KELLY: In Buzzbomb, I can identify several different phases of your work. the post-psychedelic stuff; etc. The Tot story seems to stick out as most like what you are doing now, maybe a little darker.
KAZ: With that work, I was moving away from comics as pure design and I was trying to tell a tale. I found that people remembered characters and stories more than they remembered style. Very few people come up to me to compliment me on my layout or style. They remember something a character said or did. So I taught myself how to tell a story. After dropping out of art school, I moved back into Hoboken and wasn’t doing much of anything except taking two months to draw a page of comics. I would draw and re-draw panels like a lunatic. Peter Bagge was living in Hoboken at this time, and we would visit each other occasionally. We’d met before when I submitted a comic strip to a publication he was editing at the time called Comical Funnies. At this time, he was working on STOP! with John Holmstrom, JD King, and Ken Weiner. I got to know the whole gang and they would tease me for being in RAW. Apparently, they all tried to get into RAW, but were rejected or something, so they all hated Spiegelman. They literally saw themselves as the antithesis of RAW. Funny, disposable, lightweight. I liked the idea of a purely funny comic book so I submitted some comics. But I always felt they were suspicious of me. You know, I was one of the RAW guys. Peter and his wife Joanne would often throw these drunken dinner parties back then. Everybody was drawing for SCREW. They were a fun bunch of characters. After I did Buzzbomb I. had decided I didn’t want to draw comics anymore. I was just getting nowhere with it. Underground/alternative; publications pay $50 a page, and I just wasn’t making any money. So I started doing illustration work, and that started taking up a lot of my time. But still there was this nagging feeling that I had to express myself with comics, so I started working on a comic strip in secret. I didn’t talk about it to anybody. I didn’t think I was ever going to finish it, and I didn’t ever know what the story was going to be. I just started it and it wound up being Sidetrack City. It pushed me right back into comics. I was going through a real tumultuous time in my life. I had broken up a relationship of seven years, I moved into an apartment with a friend of mine–Alex Ross, who’s a painter–and getting into psychedelic drugs, and reading books on philosophy, just living this complete bohemian, intellectual art life. And all that spirit and energy went into Sidetrack City. At the same time I was doing a lot of illustration work, I was doing Pee-Wee Hennan designs with Gary Panter, comics for National Lampoon, which got me to exercise my funny bone. I remember Drew Friedman giving me that job saying, “Just do a page. The only thing is, it has to be funny.”

kaz desk

Kaz’s old studio in New York City at 109th Street and Broadway in a photo taken in the mid-1990s, around the time of this interview was conducted.

KELLY: It seems like that period had a big effect on your current style.
KAZ: Because I was cranking out more comics, I had to reach deeper into my skull for ideas. Anything that seeped out, I used. In the past I would usually approach a strip as if I was doing something important. I wanted the work to be arty. Pretentious was not a dirty word to me. But now I had more deadlines and funnier stuff slipped out. I was staying up, working later and later. All those old gag comics began to look tragic to me. One morning I woke up and everything in my room and apartment had a black outline around it, with crosshatching and color separation. I had gotten cartoonal knowledge! I learned to relax and allow my drawings to get cruder so that my comics could get more organic. Closer to the way my brain worked. Glenn Head was starting up the old Bad News comic book, which became Snake Eyes. And I was excited to get involved with that, because there were a lot of talented cartoonists living in New York that did not have a regular outlet. I envisioned a book that showcased the New York style of cartooning that had come out of SVA and RAW.


Snake Eyes, #1

 KELLY: What was it like working with a co-editor?
KAZ: It was fun to sit around and plan the books and talk about comics. We had a similar vision about comics. We both love that gritty urban wiseguy school of cartooning. For me, the most rewarding aspect was contracting artists whose work I admired and asking them to draw a few pages. My hands would tremble as I opened the envelopes. Since we weren’t paying much and didn’t really crack the whip as far as deadlines went, the issues took forever to put together. Some of the strips were too weird for most people; Jonathon Rosen, Jayr Pulga, and Brad Johnson–their visions seemed too private for most readers. At first, I had a hard time convincing Glenn to run Brad Johnson’s work.

KELLY: It looks like it’s drawn by a retarded 12-year-old. Which is why I like it.
KAZ: To be fair, Glenn tried to get me excited about certain cartoonists that I couldn’t see until much later. Dan Clowes is one example. At first I thought he was too slick and surface-oriented. But I was wrong. Now he’s one of my favorite cartoonists. And he’s doing work with so much depth, it’s astonishing. Now I see people on the streets and I automatically think, He’s a Clowes character!” I wasn’t looking below the surface. But for the most part, Glenn and I agreed. It’s just that we don’t seem to have any commercial instincts. I tend to gravitate to work that looks wrong. I can remember Alex Ross and myself trying to draw like someone who was insane or retarded. Instead of attempting, like everybody else, to be really sophisticated or smart, we got into this idea of American dumbness, like Philip Guston, whose work looks completely dumb on the surface -big eyeballed guys, big giant feet -but there’s a sensitivity there. Basically, he was still doing Abstract Expressionist painting, but he was using these really simple symbols that looked wrong on the surface, like Mutt and Jeff. Philip Guston was called a stumblebum painter by a critic once. Captain Beefheart sounds like Guston paints. I think it’s a way of being nostalgic for the things you liked as a kid, like Popeye, but also being sophisticated at the same time. That’s sort of what I do with Underworld. Some of the gags are really dumb, but they make me laugh so I leave them in. If it wasn’t a weekly strip, I’d be a little more thoughtful. But because I have to put it out every week, parts of my personality that would otherwise be guarded pop out. So you see me as the dumb vaudevillian guy, falling down for a laugh.

KELLY: So Snake Eyes is no more?
KAZ: It was too difficult editing a comic book and balancing an illustration career and doing my own comics and having a social life. I was also co-hosting a weekly radio show. Glenn Head did a wonderful job on that book, but it was driving him batty too. Fantagraphics was not paying us anything for editing and designing it. We were only getting a page rate. And it didn’t seem like anyone besides our fellow cartoonists were interested in an anthology comic book with no theme that only came out once a year. It kicked the shit out of us after three issues.


KELLY: I want to ask you about the influence of psychedelics on your work, since you’re currently on a natural amphetamine…
KAZ: Ginseng.

KELLY: When did you first start doing drugs?
KAZ: [laughs hysterically] It depends on the drug. I drank beer and smoked pot in high school like everybody else.

KELLY: I can’t imagine drawing on pot.
KAZ: I’ve inked on pot. Then the next morning I would see that I’d done these elaborate cross-hatching jobs that would go on forever and there would be thousands of little characters in the background. It was too much. Plus the idea was a lot worse than you had imagined it when you were high. Some people can do it. As far as other influences, I’m not sure that psychedelic drugs are a direct influence in the way my work looks. I think there’s a difference in the type of story that I might approach. Psychedelics put your head in a place that allows you to look at things differently. It’s not necessarily the right way, but it’s different and that’s what I’m after. It could be a dangerous thing playing with your consciousness. Your concept of the world changes. It becomes organic and infinite. I never did much drawing on hallucinogens. My hands were too shaky and my mind was exploding with visions. I jotted down ideas. Lot’s of ideas. STRANGE ideas.

KELLY: Do acid and mushrooms affect you differently?
KAZ: They sure do. Mushrooms to me are more physical. Your body feels more rubbery. And the mushroom make you want to lie down. The mushroom peak has a shorter duration. But the visions are just as intense. At first geometric shapes evolve into full-blown hallucinations. Whereas LSD gives me a more high-tech feeling. The world machine grinding away.

KELLY: Can you draw though?
KAZ: I was once staring at a piece of paper and seeing the most amazing things. But when I put pencil to paper to try to draw what I was seeing, the visions would quickly mutate. I found myself chasing these elusive images. You wind up in places that you wouldn’t normally go. Down a rabbit hole.


KELLY: You see it as affecting your storytelling, but in Sidetrack City, the overload of images seems like you’re recreating a trip.
KAZ: Well, it was an inner and outer journey for the main character. The landscape and the architecture had to reflect Bizmark’s inner life. So in that sense, it was very psychedelic. There was the sense of being lost and pushed around by sinister forces that recreated the deep paranoia that can accompany a psychedelic trip. Schizophrenic delusions and a sense of reality being only a shabby backdrop to the real reality happening behind the curtain. At the same time, there’s the magic. The knowledge that you create your own story. I wanted it to be emotional. The drawings had to be fun to look at. Lots of inventive backgrounds and playful layouts. You can tell what I was looking at. I didn’t care if the drawings looked like someone else’s or if the characters were in proportion. What mattered was how I was feeling at the time. Cartoonists always play this game of accusing others of stealing styles. It’s the guys who assimilate styles that learn and move on the quickest. At one point, your own hand will come out and by then you will have had all this experience. Then anything you draw will look like your own. You can recreate the whole world in your own hand. Now that’s psychedelic.

Original art for an ad for KAZ’s Sidetrack City, 1996. The strip originally appeared in Snake Eyes, #2, 1992.

Original art for an ad for KAZ’s Sidetrack City, 1996. The strip originally appeared in Snake Eyes, #2, 1992.

KELLY: So how often do you do drugs now?
KAZ: I’m tripping right now. [laughs]

KELLY: Drinking certainly has a long and venerable tradition in the world of cartooning.
KAZ: It’s a pain killer.

KELLY: The thought of drawing Bazooka Joe for a living could be unbearable.
KAZ: Bazooka Junkie Joe.

KELLY: Do you see a difference between your art pre- and post-psychedelics?
KAZ: Yeah, but growing up in the ’7Os meant that you swam in the cultura1 debris of the ’60s which was left over psychedelia. Trippy black light posters, underground comics and Peter Max 7-UP ads. More than create that kind of world for me, the psychedelics allowed me to understand it.

KELLY: What is your process for working on a weekly strip?
KAZ: I’ve got a couple of things I do. One is if I have the time, I’ll sit down and work in my sketchbook. I’ll draw a panel, create a character and stare at it until I imagine what happens next. I wind up with a lot of three-panel strips with no punch lines. I just leave it alone and then weeks later I’ll re-read it and come up with an ending. Or if I have a good idea, I’11 riff on it, so that I’ve got a little series of ideas going. Quite often, I will sit down the day before and just bang something out.


kaz in can


KELLY: Have you thought about what it would take to do a daily strip?
KAZ: Yes. A lot of money and a crew of assistants.

KELLY: The whole concept of “underground” is totally bizarre at this point. Stuff that was underground 10 years ago is mainstream now. Everything from music to magazines and fashion.
KAZ: But the extremes are still hard to put over on the general public. For instance you don’t hear many groups that were influenced by Captain Beefheart being played on the radio. You never hear Frank Zappa on the radio. There are examples of success stories of great weird stuff, Tim Burton, The Simpsons. So it’s part of the evolutionary art process. Someone takes a chance with something really weird or you have a visionary artist with a small audience and somebody else takes a piece of it with a much broader appeal and that becomes successful. Primus reminds me a little of Zappa but more homogenized. Life in Hell has the attitude of an underground comic. But it’s written more professionally and it’s easier to look at.

KELLY: If you got the opportunity to do a daily strip on your own terms, would you do it?
KAZ: Yes. It would probably kill me, but if it were on my own terms I know it would be a success. People would be shitting in their pants while reading it.

KELLY: What if you had to just tone it down slightly?
KAZ: Meaning I would have to get rid of the hypodermic needles? I could do that.

KELLY: What if you had to tone it down completely but you were going to be paid a lot of money?
KAZ: Well, why would they bother asking me to do it at that point?

KELLY: Do you have any favorite source material?
KAZ: Sometimes I look through old comic strip collections. I don’t get specific ideas, just little random nudges. In Underworld, a lot of the pieces hearken back to things that look familiar, like the arms and the heads. I sample old bits that I find funny looking. My other comics style is meant more to be creepy looking than funny. Now I’m beginning to think that Sad Sack is a long-neglected American classic.

KELLY: Beloved by millions. I can see the Sad Sack influence in some of your earlier stuff, the folded over noses and the eyes.
KAZ: Total lids. Gary Panter does a character called Henry Web who kind of looks like Sad Sack, too. It’s getting back to the Mutt and Jeff thing. The bad, grungie drawing style. These low-rent American characters, scheming for a living. There’s poetry there. I grew up in a tenement building in Hoboken. Now I live in a tenement building on the Upper West Side. I watched The Honeymooners. I have an affinity for the bluesy, trash can, bare light bulb, scratch-a-funny-face-on-a-Chinese-menu style of cartooning.KELLY: There’s so much despair in that stuff.
KAZ: The Salvation Army School of Cartooning. Dirty sinks, loose floorboards, cigar butts, a half a bottle of beer . I dunno…. Nasty pin-ups, scratchy records, and dust everywhere. Patches on everything. Blankets, couches, dogs, foreheads!

KELLY: I kind of cringe even asking this. but what do you think of post-modernism?
KAZ: I think it’s a beautiful thing, man. [laughs] No, really, modernism just ran out of steam and had to double back on itself. In fact, I think one of the first post-modernists was Harvey Kurtzman with MAD. I’m convinced that he influenced all these painters. They all read MAD when they were kids. So David Salle grows up and puts Tex Avery cartoons next to a pornographic image and blows everybody’s mind. I do it, too. Mixing old-fashioned animation, newspaper cartoons and underground comics. Twisting it, finding my own voice in that. It’s tough in comics because you have to draw figures and have them walk around in landscapes. If you make the thing look too original readers will lose their bearings. For somebody like Mark Beyer, who’s a complete and total original, sometimes he’s difficult for people to read because he’s coming straight out of his own head. There are no sign-posts. As a matter of fact, one road out of post-modernism is outsider art. We’re now moving into post-outsider.

KELLY: It’s interesting that you, Newgarden and Friedman all studied with Kurtzman during a period of your artistic development and today your work all comments on the history of comics and entertainment–either in content or style–as much as anyone’s. Yet, without exception, you all say he was a terrible teacher. You’d think there would be more of a natural link between his work and yours.
KAZ: By the time we had him, Kurtzman’s ideas had already been assimilated into the culture. It was probably more Spiegelman’s “Language of the Comics” lecture course that sparked ideas. When you’re a student, when you’re young, you’re stepping into other people’s ideas and feeling what it’s like. We had assignments to draw a comic strip like so-and-so or take a page from a novel and draw it as a comic strip. Then again, Drew Friedman walked in with a stippling style and walked out with the same stippling style. I used to see his graffiti in the school bathrooms where he used a more traditional cartooning style. Stippling on the toilet was too time consuming perhaps?


KELLY: Do you ever go back and look at your old stuff?
KAZ: Sometimes. I’m not embarrassed by it, except for the grammar and misspellings. But that was just me, where I was at the time.

KELLY: I notice you sometimes re-use characters from older stories.
KAZ: One of the hardest and most rewarding things is designing a new character. And there are some characters I just love drawing. That’s why I did so many Tot stories. I just loved drawing that head. Same with Little Bastard.

KELLY: The main thing I think of when I see your work is that it’s really its own unique universe. You’ve really created your own world. Is that all the same world even in different stories?
KAZ: A lot of the stories take place in Sidetrack City. One of the reasons I create my own world is because I was never very big on going out into the street and sketching. I do it when I have to. Even when I use photo references I change them considerably. Basically, I’m dissatisfied with how the world looks. Nature is perfect, but cities and houses could be more interesting. Why not live in a house that looks like a big baby’s head? Why don’t corporations look more evil than they do now? Instead of water fountains in front of their buildings, why not flames?

KELLY: Who are some cartoonists that everybody might not have seen that you think are doing good work?
KAZ: Right now I’m working on a comic strip with Timothy Georgarakis for Zero Zero called Meat Box. I’m writing and doing Breakdowns and he is drawing, inking and lettering. His drawings are amazing. Weird, funny, inventive. I really like Ted Stern’s work. Chris Ware is great. He’s like some mutation of a golden age cartoonist and Sam Beckett. Dan Clowes continues to do strong personal work. Tony Millionaire who draws Maakies for the New York Press does real nice work. He’s a big cartoon character himself. I watched him fuck a slice of pizza in a bar the other night. And then there are the cartoonists whose work I’ve always liked: Gary Panter, Mark Beyer, Charles Bums, Brad Johnson, Krystine Kryttre, Mark Newgarden. There was this weird guy from Texas, A.C. Samish; who would draw dominatrixes and steam engines.

KELLY: The first time I met you, I knew you as much from your cartoon work as for your radio show on WFMU. [A free-form radio station in East Orange, New Jersey.]
KAZ: Yes, The Nightmare Lounge with my co-host Christ T. Playing punk, art damage, hillbilly blues, noise, space-age bachelor pad music. We’d get drunk and take on-air phone calls. We interviewed Peter Bagge, Robert Williams, Gary Panter , Mark Newgarden, Joe Coleman, the Friedman brothers. I did it for a couple of years. After a while, I felt that I was spending too much time playing other people’s art work when I should be home drawing.

KAZ artwork for the TOPPS produced PEE WEE’S FUNHOUSE FUN PAK products, 1988. Art direction by MARK NEWGARDEN.

KAZ artwork for the TOPPS produced PEE WEE’S FUNHOUSE FUN PAK products, 1988. Art direction by MARK NEWGARDEN.

KELLY: What direction do you see your comics going in now?
KAZ: I’ m trying to decide if I should take the plunge and do a solo quarterly comic book or if I should continue to push the weekly comic strip. I’m also planning out a graphic novel. I’d love to design and write an animated cartoon. I’m even drawing comics for children in Nickelodeon magazine. “Just don’t make it scary!” the editors keep telling me. It’s not the kids who freak out–it’s the neurotic, parents. I used to read Captain Pisspants and His Pervert Pirates, and look at me.

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The Dennis Eichhorn Interview Wed, 14 Oct 2015 12:00:06 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From The Comics Journal #162 (October 1993)

From the now-stilled football fields of Whitman College to the iron and cement of the Idaho State Penitentiary, from the acid-soaked bars of Santa Cruz to the rain-swept city streets of the Northwest, Dennis P. Eichhorn has led a colorful life by any account. However, unlike many who lead such lives, he was not content merely to settle down, raise some kids, and bore his progeny by endlessly repeating tales of his youthful exploits. Instead, Eichhorn took to writing his experiences down and, even more uniquely, having cartoonists illustrate the stories in comic form. Under the titles of Real Stuff, Real Smut, and Real Schmuck, Eichhorn’s history has been laid out panel by panel, rendered by a who’s who of alternative cartooning, for all the world to see. Here, in conversation with Dennis Daniel, Eichhorn ruminates on the nature of his work and worth of the examined life, as well as the responsibilities of the Sexual Revolution.

DENNIS DANIEL: You’ve got everything in your autobiographical comics: from blood, gore and guts, to everyday reflectiveness. What made you want to be so confessional about your life and to put it into comic book form?

DENNIS EICHHORN: Well, I didn’t really want to. I originally just wrote two stories for two different artists when I was an editor of The Rocket. These are artists that I had met in the course of working there, and it just happened that they were autobiographical stories. They could have just as well been prose stories — in fact, they were, initially. And then Jim Woodring suggested that I ought to put some more together and do a comic book, and since I already had two in that vein, I just went ahead and did some more. I don’t know what the sense would be to do autobiographical material if you weren’t going to be honest and forthright about it. I’m not in competition with anybody and none of the people who are doing autobiographical comics really are; everybody’s doing it for their own reasons. I’m sure that Chester Brown’s reasons are a lot different than my reasons, but I’m not sure either one of us know what the reasons really are because things like that are usually hidden. I just don’t know∂ once you get started you just carry ahead with it. I know what makes a good story, so a lot of times I try to include elements that will make it more readable and more interesting. I know the kind of stories that I like to read, so I try to stick to that school.

DANIEL: One of the things that astounds me about your stuff is how many experiences you’ve had in your relatively short life. How old are you?

EICHHORN: I turned 48 on August 19th.

DANIEL: You’re 48. Like I say, you have covered the gamut. Did you ever think, way back when, that these experiences that you were going through would make good fodder for writing?

EICHHORN: Well, at times I did, but I don’t think you realize at the time when something has real meaning. These are all things that stuck with me in my life for one reason or another. It’s the punch lines that are generally the gist of the whole story. What I’m trying to say is, I didn’t go around having experiences with the thought that someday I would write them all down. I knew at the time that I’d be foolish to sit down and write them because there’s a feedback you get when you’re writing about your day-to-day experiences and publishing them. People treat you differently and then you sort of close the door.

DANIEL: Yeah, Harvey Pekar has gone through that a lot.

EICHHORN: Sure. I do too. But it only happens in a small circle … Only a few people know who I am. I’m not a famous individual, so I can have a pretty normal life as long as I don’t go running around with handfuls of comic books showing them to people. Very few people would ever suspect that I’ m doing autobiographical comic books unless I told them.

DANIEL: You remain a pretty consistent character throughout all of your autobiographical work. Your attitudes and your basic way of looking at life is pretty consistent.

EICHHORN: Well, I just feel like I made a lot of mistakes in my life, and this way people can find out about them and not make the same mistakes themselves.

DANIEL: There are some stories that I don’t believe are autobiographical. For example, a story like “Fatal Fellatio.” [Real Stuff #1]

EICHHORN: That is absolutely true.

DANIEL: This is true?

EICHHORN: Yeah, it’s absolutely true.

DANIEL: In the story I never got the feeling that that was you, though.

EICHHORN: Well, that’s probably because Carel Moiseiwitsch drew me real grotesquely, the way that the story made her feel. Unless they’re clearly labeled as somebody else’s story, then they’re my stories and they happened.

DANIEL: So everything that’s in Real Stuff, you are the main character, for the most part.

EICHHORN: Yeah. I can’t think of any where I’m not.

Drawn by Mark Zingarelli for Real Stuff #4 (November 1991).

Drawn by Mark Zingarelli for Real Stuff #4 (November 1991).

DANIEL: You wrote a couple of what I thought were fictional little stories, like the one where you actually kind of meet “Hank,” who is of course Charles Bukowski.

EICHHORN: Yeah, that’s prose, that didn’t happen. But on the other hand, it says “Real Fiction” on it.

DANIEL: Right.

EICHHORN: Actually, that was a story about what I would have liked to have done for Charles Bukowski. I would love to take him to the racetrack and get him in the way that I did, which was for free on the backside with all the horse people sitting around in the cafe with all of the stablehands, laying bets at the window with the trainers, and the totally different look at racing that you get that way, than what Bukowski gets where he pays his dough and goes and sits in the stands and buys a program and is part of a mob. I mean, I’m sure he loves it and it’s a big release for him, but it would be great if I could take him along for a day and show him this other thing — ride around with the vet and look in the horse’s mouth before you bet on it, and that kind of stuff, because that was something that I was able to do, but I know that there’s no way I could ever do that because he’s an unapproachable guy. I would never intrude on his privacy, and I kind of endorse his attitude. But I labeled that “Real Fiction.” There are a couple of other stories too where I’m talking to a bunch of little kids and telling them stories, and it’s clearly storytelling.

DANIEL: You’ve obviously written about Bukowski a lot, and you’ve also had some experiences with him when you had your paper, the Northwest Extra. Did you actually solicit work from Bukowski?

EICHHORN: No. What happened was, the guy who owns Water Row Books, Jeff Weinberg, deals in Beat material for collectors. So he’s got some sort of business relationship with Bukowski. Somebody sent Jeff Weinberg some copies of the Northwest Extra and he in turn sent them to Bukowski. The next thing I knew, I got this unsolicited poetry from Bukowski, because he’s kind of got a history of supporting small publications. And I think he liked the company he would be in because there were all these other really good writers — Hunter Thompson and Joe Bob Briggs and Harvey Pekar and a couple of others — who he probably feels like he’s in the same league as. It made me really feel good; it kind of indicated what I was trying to do, which was if you keep the quality up on your contributors, then you’ll attract quality contributors. That’s true. It’s not like he’s my best buddy or anything, but he’s written me a couple of letters and has sent some poems, which I passed along to Pat Moriarity for Big Mouth … with Bukowski’s permission, of course.

Drawn by Pat Moriarity for Real Stuff #4 (November 1991).

Drawn by Pat Moriarity for Real Stuff #4 (November 1991).

DANIEL: When you’re writing your stories, in what way do you actually construct them?

EICHHORN: I do them like little screenplays. I have a panel by panel breakdown with the dialogue and the captions and the sound effects. Then I’ll have descriptive material there that provides a little universe for the artist to compose in.

DANIEL: Do you provide photographs of any of the principals that are involved in the stories?

EICHHORN: Quite a few of the artists ask for that. Some of them more so than others. People like Peter Bagge don’t need anything. But there are a number who really like to have photographs to work with.

DANIEL: Do you write with specific artists in mind?

EICHHORN: Oh yeah. Now that I’ve gotten into it, yeah, I’ll have a story and I’ll think, “Oh, J.R. Williams ought to do this one, this is perfect for him.” Or I’ll have a story that a lot of artists might hesitate to tackle and I’ll give that to Holly Tuttle because she can draw anything. Sure, you bet. There are some times, I’ll see somebody’s work and it will make me think of a story, so I’ll sit down and write it for them. I get portfolios from different artists, and sometimes I’ll look at it and it will just really ring a bell and I’ll have no trouble … In fact, with Howard Chackowicz I wrote him five stories right away, and I’d never done that with an artist before. But other people, I’ll get their work and it just doesn’t do anything for me. I’m not saying they’re not talented, it just doesn’t inspire me to write a story. So I just shelve that and go on.

DANIEL: When you’re trying to think about experiences in your life that you want to turn into a comic book story, does it ever enter into your mind that a certain story may not be appropriate for public consumption?

EICHHORN: Well … I try not to repress anything. There are a couple of stories that are real painful for me to deal with, and I don’t have the right perspective on them yet. And if I ever get it then I’ll include them. But I’m not really trying to make myself look good — I don’t think that I do. The only times that I’ll look good is when some artist will make me thin or give me a Peter Parker physique or something like that. I kind of shy away from the ones who do that. But that’s in terms of looks. In terms of behavior, it’s obvious that I was real troubled while I was growing up and into my adult years, and there’s no way I can avoid that so I try to include it — and it’s pithy stuff, and lot of the people are just as fucked up as I am, so they can identify with what I’m doing and the mistakes I made. It’s an exercise in anti-heroism. The really good biographical stories that I like are often that way: Charles Bukowski is such a great example of that. Henry Miller is another good example of that. They didn’t paint themselves as beautiful people. They were just real honest about what they did, and I find that real appealing.

DANIEL: Do you find that writing about something that might be particularly painful is cathartic for you in that once it’s down on paper and it’s been written about, it’s gone?

EICHHORN: Yeah, I’ve found that a lot of these stories are little tales that I have carried around with me and told to people at various times throughout my life, and once they’re actually published, I forget about them, and it’s like they never enter into my mind again. So it’s obviously clearing out parts of my mind for new thoughts. I think that putting them out there so that other people can share them with me is of course a catharsis — it’s a form of cheap self-analysis with no insights on my part. It’s changed the way that I think and look at the world, to a certain extent. I think that’s good.

DANIEL: Is it getting harder as you go on to come up with stories from your life that are worth drawing comics about, or do you have a million of them?

EICHHORN: I think I do have a million of them. I don’t see any immediate end. I know I can go through 20 issues of Real Stuff, and probably more, and I have six issues of Real Smut, plus Real Schmuck which I’m self-publishing with Starhead Comics, and the upcoming Amazing Adventures of Ace International … then there are other stories that have been in Drawn & Quarterly and Naughty Bits and various publications … I mean, I’m sure I’ll run out sooner or later …

DANIEL: That’s amazing to me, because every time I read a story, I think to myself, “What the hell else could possibly happen to this guy?”

EICHHORN: There is lots that I haven’t put in yet. I don’t know though, I kind of feel like if almost anybody took a close look at their life, they’d find a lot of material there for stories and they could do the same thing I’m doing. There are a lot of people that have had more interesting lives than I have. Many people have experienced a lot of things that I haven’t. Like for instance, Tim Cahill. Let’s suppose Tim Cahill decided to get into comic books … God, that guy would have an incredible barrage of stories, I mean, that guy has climbed fucking Mt. Everest and gone down into the deepest cave on earth; he’s driven from Tierra del Fuego to Prudhoe Bay … What a life!

DANIEL: Yeah, but you know something? As monumental as those things that Cahill has done are, I like it to be more down to earth and real life. When I read Real Stuff, I can, in most cases, say, “Well, that could happen to me. I could have done that.” I mean, I don’t think I could have climbed Mt. Everest, but I can read Real Stuff and say, “You know, I might have done that.” I find myself in a lot of instances empathizing with you.

EICHHORN: I’m sure you’ve done things that if you thought about it, and wrote stories about it, would be real interesting to a lot of people. Then you might find you’ve got another one … and yet another one. And then … it doesn’t take that many. You’d be surprised. I’m not saying that I haven’t had an interesting life, but there are others who have had more. It’s just the fact that I was in this position to start working with a bunch of cartoonists. It would be pretty hard for a lot of people to do it. Plus, there’s no money in it. If I didn’t have a job to support myself, I wouldn’t be able to do this. I enjoy it. I feel fortunate to have been able to sort of fall into it. ‘Course if it wasn’t making money, nobody would go along with it. But yeah, it’s OK, it’s not limiting at all. In fact, one of the best things is that I’ve made some really good friends in the course of it with the different artists, and there is really a special link that I sometimes get with some of the people who render these stories. Some of them are really nice people. I like artists in general, so I appreciate what they’re doing. It’s a healthy way for me to meet people that I never had before. It’s just like going to a nice party and meeting a whole bunch of great people and doing things with them that are productive and uplifting. It’s great. And, as Mark Zingarelli once said: “It’s a great way to meet chicks.”

DANIEL: Harvey Pekar’s stories tend to be very basic (I hate to even use the term “mundane”), but he could talk about a very basic subject matter

EICHHORN: He’s a very clear-headed person, though. And his thoughts are worth reading. That’s the essence of, for want of a better word, gonzo writing.

DANIEL: I won’t ask you what gonzo is. [Laughs.]

EICHHORN: Well, we’d have a tough time defining it. Bill Cardoso made it up, and I think he said it’s from the French-Canadian “gonzeau” … But it basically is just reportage done very first person, and the thoughts of the narrator are as important as the events being chronicled. If you’re not clear-headed and don’t have good thoughts, then your reportage isn’t going to be very interesting. And Harvey is real clear-headed and he’s super-intelligent, and he knows what he’s setting out to do — the stories might appear mundane to some readers, but that’s just because they’re about everyday life instead of about some thrilling thing. I’m really inspired by his work. He’s got a handle on something, I’m not sure what it is …

DANIEL: Do you find that his name comes up very often whenever anyone ever talks with you about your work?

EICHHORN: Oh, every so often.

DANIEL: Have you gotten into any lengthy discussions with people about how Harvey’s stuff is better than yours, or one of those types of deals?

EICHHORN: No, nobody’s really ever said that, although people like my work for different reasons than they like Harvey’s. He tends to go with realists and I like to use people who are more abstract and cartoony.

DANIEL: J.R. Williams comes to mind right away.

EICHHORN: Yeah, he’s really got a great sense of humor. He adds a lot to my stories. He’s one of the artists that really brings quite a bit with him. Whenever I have a story of two teenagers getting into trouble, I always think of him with his Bad Boys … they’re really mean little kids. He did a funny one for issue #14 of Real Stuff, the Wildman Fischer story — I don’t know if you know who Wildman Fischer is …


Drawn by J.R. Williams for Real Stuff #14 (August 1993).

Drawn by J.R. Williams for Real Stuff #14 (August 1993).

EICHHORN: You will after you read the comic. He’s a legendary pop star in American music. He was bigger than the Beatles — that’s what he says, anyhow. You’ll know all about him when you read Real Stuff #14.

DANIEL: One thing I wanted to find out about is the Capitola Joe’s “universe” — I don’t even know if that’s the proper word, but you’re always returning for some kind of story.

EICHHORN: A lot of things happened to me there.

DANIEL: How many years were you at Capitola Joe’s?

EICHHORN: I wasn’t even there a year, it must have been nine months, and there are three or four stories I haven’t used yet.

DANIEL: Another subject that you have written about extensively is your college days, your football days. The story that really bent my head was the one where you kicked the guy’s eye out. Were you taking creative license or did you actually blind this guy in one eye?

EICHHORN: That’s exactly what happened. I used to see him riding around town on his motorcycle wearing an eyepatch after that.

DANIEL: Good Christ!

EICHHORN: And they practically gave me a medal for it. So you know, I’m just trying to tell a story of these misplaced values that we have.

DANIEL: You seem to also have a lot of interesting one-nighters or two-weekers or whatever with women.

EICHHORN: Well not that many — when they’re all in a little lump like this it looks like quite a few, but there’s not that many if you count them all up. I’ve almost mined that dry by now. But I wanted to say something that you made me think of — Mary Fleener said this when we were talking about the promiscuity and the free sex and the one-nighters — a lot of us lived through this period of time, the late ’60s and into the ’70s when it was OK to be promiscuous and stoned all the time — or at least a lot of people seemed to be. It was sort of “the good ol’ days,” in a certain sense, and she says we owe it to people to chronicle this because it was a unique time in human history. All of the things that went into LSD drug culture and the antiwar movement and free love and all of the things that are almost tired clichés now, but those things meant a lot to we who were living it, so we have an obligation to tell about it. And she does in her stories as well. So anyway, I kind of took that to heart, because I thought that was really constructive of her. In a way, that is what I am trying to do.

DANIEL: You’re absolutely right, because you can read underground comics from the ’60s and early ’70s and see many elements of this in them, but it was being written at the time it was happening. So you can look back on it and say, “This is a historical document representing a period in history — here it is 1968 and here’s what they’re writing about,” you know, R. Crumb — he comes to mind right away.

EICHHORN: That’s true, R. Crumb is the biggest inspiration for anybody who’s doing autobiographical material. I mean, he totally laid himself bare for people, and did it in a way that nobody else can equal.

DANIEL: Very angry, self-loathing …

EICHHORN: And real honest, without really caring what anybody thought about it. And another guy is Justin Green, Binky Brown. I mean, that guy is really … When that was published, that was quite a work of sequentialism.

DANIEL: While we’re on the subject, just talking about the comics of that particular period, R. Crumb and Justin Green, does anybody else come to mind that really, to this day, has still bent your head, and maybe even some people that you actually finally got the opportunity to work with?

EICHHORN: Sure, S. Clay Wilson and Spain are two really good examples. I’ve always really liked their work, and I got a chance to work with them to a certain extent.

DANIEL: What have you done with S. Clay?

EICHHORN: He did a cover for the Northwest Extra.

DANIEL: That’s right. Did he do the Checkered Demon on it?

EICHHORN: Yeah. And I’ve talked to him about doing a story — there are a couple of stories that I’d like to do that have bikers in them and that I think he’d really be perfect for —

Cover drawn by S. Clay Wilson for Northwest Extra #14 (1990).

Cover drawn by S. Clay Wilson for Northwest Extra #14 (1990).

DANIEL: God, yeah.

EICHHORN: But I don’t think that at this stage of my development I can afford it. The same thing with Spain. I met him and talked to him about maybe getting him to do a cover but it didn’t work out. I hope it will before the Real Stuffs have run their course. Spain’s another guy who I can’t really afford that could probably afford to take time to do a cover, but as far as the stories go, the page rate is so low that some of these people can’t take time out to do it.

DANIEL: S. Clay would be perfect for a Real Smut story.

EICHHORN: Oh yeah — in fact, there are a couple that I’d like to get him to do. But there are other people who can draw a good motorcycle.

DANIEL: You’ve had some really beautiful, quiet, and reflective love stories — I’m thinking of the one where the girl says, “This is thrilling, isn’t it Dennis?” And you say, “It sure is, Krystal.” Issue #4. I think that’s a beautiful little story.

EICHHORN: Yeah, you know, she got real mad about that.

DANIEL: No kidding!

EICHHORN: Yeah. Krystal moved to France and went to mime school — I think I said that in the story. She married and had a little child. I sent her a copy of the comic and she wrote back a real frosty letter and told me not to use her any more, she didn’t like being interpreted by artists — she probably had her husband looking over her shoulder while she wrote the letter. But I disobeyed her and used her again in Real Schmuck, in Danny Hellman’s “Iron Denny.”

Drawn by Holly Tuttle for Real Stuff #4 (November 1991).

Drawn by Holly Tuttle for Real Stuff #4 (November 1991).

DANIEL: Another cartoonist that you work with is Pat Moriarity. Why did you pick Pat, who has a very cartoony approach, to draw “Death of a Junkie,” which is so utterly grim?

EICHHORN: I didn’t know exactly what approach he was going to take, because Pat can do a lot of different styles. But that was one case where an artist wanted to do a story. Pat arrived in Seattle and started working for Fantagraphics as an art director, and he asked me if there were any stories I had that he could do and I said, yeah, I’ve got a couple that were just kind of sitting there without anybody’s name on them. I gave him that one because he could go to the Seattle Center and draw the Space Needle and all that, and I just thought it would be convenient. I like the way it worked out.

DANIEL: Well, the character’s dead, and yet he draws him like some cartoon character that’s been hit over the head with a hammer. It took the sting out of it, for me. If it had been drawn realistically, I think it would have really repulsed me.

EICHHORN: I think that mirrors our culture right now — we’re becoming as desensitized to death as they are in Latin American countries, after all our years of shoving them around. And TV and the media and even comics have trivialized death, it’s part of that.

DANIEL: The “Them Changes” that you did with Seth and Chester Brown in issue #6 … Did it take a long time for you to get the artwork from Seth?

EICHHORN: Yeah, it sure did. Seth sent me Palookaville initially, and I saw it and I thought, “Now this guy is really honest about his life, this is quite a thing he’s done here.” I thought, “Well, I’ll try and be equally honest.” One of his stories was about him getting punched in the eye by some asshole on the street or something like that. So I wrote a story where I’m the asshole and I punch somebody, and then this person pulls a Christ move on me and forgives me and tells me that it’s obvious how much pain I’m in, which was true, but I had never realized it. It really happened, it just absolutely floored me. It was a beautiful thing, really a genius thing to do on this person’s part. So I sent it off to Seth and he started working on it and then he had some kind of crisis in his personal life and he just broke down and he couldn’t do any work for a while, and I know how he feels because that happened to me before — you get all wrapped up in your personal life and everything else is secondary. It just didn’t come and didn’t come, and I called up Chester Brown, who I didn’t even know, asking him what the problem was, and Chester was being real helpful. Anyway, to make a long story short, Chester actually drew the last page of that. He and Joe Matt went over and just sort of sat down and did the story. They were able to imitate Seth’s style.

Drawn by Chester Brown and Joe Matt for Real Stuff #6 (April 1992).

Drawn by Chester Brown and Joe Matt for Real Stuff #6 (April 1992).

DANIEL: So you’re saying that page ten in issue #6, that was drawn by Chester and Joe?

EICHHORN: Yeah. Mainly Chester, I think. But the two of them were able to ape Seth’s style. Chester’s about as good as you can get. I mean, he’s really a great artist. He applied his talents to that task and pulled it off. [Laughs.] I’ve had a couple of people have nervous breakdowns on me — he’s one, I can’t remember who the other one was. [Laughter.] Another one is Chris Oliveros. All of his artwork has got hands in it; he sent me some work, and the hands were exaggerated like crazy. That made me think of a story about hands, so I sent it to him, and he had it for over a year. I’ve got him scheduled now for issue #15 of Real Stuff and he says he’ll do it for that … now he’s gotten Bernie Mireault to pencil it, so I’m afraid the hands will shrink a bit … we’ll see. Another guy is Jeff Johnson, a talented artist in Atlanta. In his work hands are a predominant feature too. He reminded me of Chris Oliveros a lot. I wrote him a story about a guy getting his hand cut off and sent it to him —

DANIEL: This is again a true story.

EICHHORN: Oh, yeah. It’s about this guy, a bartender in a bar I used to frequent because I worked with the band that played there a lot. One night the owner of the bar got real pissed off at the bartender and cut his hand off with a meat cleaver. It really stopped the music, I’ll tell ya. The guy lived, and eventually came back to work as a one-armed bartender. It didn’t traumatize Jeff Johnson — he did a superior job on it, it didn’t seem to bother him at all. But if I had sent that one to Chris, I don’t know what would have happened.

DANIEL: There are certain artists who, just by looking at their work, I think they have a lot of pain. The first person who comes to mind is Carel Moiseiwitsch …

EICHHORN: Yeah, she does have a lot of pain. She grew up in London during the Blitz; she was a little baby when London was getting bombed and she lived through that. She’s had quite a life. And her artwork has kind of carried her through. She’s a brilliant artist, one of Canada’s best known painters. Her work is unbelievable.

DANIEL: I physically felt revulsed while reading it and seeing the way she was trying to —

EICHHORN: Yeah, she captured the sordid aspect of it all. It’s a strong story. I told her this story when I first met her. She won an art contest that The Rocket hosted, so she came to Seattle from Vancouver and we met. I think she asked me if I had any good stories that would be suitable for cartoons, and I told her the story and she jumped all over it.

DANIEL: What led you off from Real Stuff to Real Smut?

EICHHORN: About the time I got to issue #5 or #6, there were two or three sex stories in each issue and somebody said, “This stuff could just as well be in Eros,” Fantagraphics’ pornography wing. I thought, “Well, I’ve got all these stories, and it’s taking so long between issues that I could be doing two titles at the same time, and if I put all the sex stories in a few issues, then it would make it easier to get Real Stuff into Canada and the United Kingdom.”

DANIEL: Have they stopped it a couple of times?

EICHHORN: Yeah, it’s been seized a number of times. So I asked Gary Groth what he thought, and he thought that was a good idea, so I went ahead with it. At first it was going to be three issues, and then it got to be six, and I’m kind of running out of material, so six is about right. So as a result, there hasn’t been any sex in Real Stuff since issue #9 —

DANIEL: Which was the killer sex issue! [Laughs.]

EICHHORN: Right. But they didn’t want to go past #6 of Real Smut — they said it wasn’t “masturbatory” enough, is what I heard. I guess I really do feel that most of the titles that Eros have published have had very little social redeeming value to them. They’re nothing but vehicles to make money off of weak-minded idiots who will buy them. I thought it would be nice to do some stories that had sex in them and also had a storyline and maybe a subtext and a moral. I’ve tried to use it as a vehicle for that, and some of my best stories have been in Real Smut. One of my very favorites ones is the one Peter Kuper did for issue #3 about Hanford, the nuclear reservation. There’s a gratuitous sex scene in there like Hollywood would put in a movie just to satisfy a certain audience. There’s a lot of information in that story, though, about what’s going on at Hanford, the pollution, etc.

Drawn by Peter Kuper for Real Smut #3 (December 1992).

Drawn by Peter Kuper for Real Smut #3 (December 1992).

DANIEL: Do you like to see yourself drawn in so many different ways by so many different artists?

EICHHORN: Well, you have an idea of what they’re going to do before they even start out because you’ve seen so much of their work. But no, my ego doesn’t get gratified so much from that. It’s more from just being able to tell the stories. There have been so many different interpretations of me — the people who have hit me the closest are Holly Tuttle and David Chelsea. Holly knows me pretty well. We’ve seen a lot of each other over the last 10 years or so, so a lot of times the body language she’s drawn is really pretty good. She’s a top talent, I think. She did a story called, “New Age Date” with me which was right on. Holly did a sex story for Real Smut #6, [laughs] that’s like a double sex story — it’s very strong. There’s a lot of great artwork in Real Smut #6.

DANIEL: Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like most of the stories are pretty much in the past. There aren’t too many that are recent. EICHHORN: Right.

DANIEL: Why is that?

EICHHORN: Because I don’t want to get too close to home. I don’t want to be writing about things that are happening today, because it affects the way people relate to you. Then again, it does anyhow, but a lot more if you’re chronicling your day-to-day activities.

DANIEL: If you wanted to, you probably could come up with some stuff that happened to you yesterday for that matter, right?

EICHHORN: Well, I do in some of these. Yeah. There are a few stories that have happened in the recent past that either have been published or will be. Like I met this guy that had a banana in his pocket all the time and he’s always in the bar drinking with his banana in his pocket. This happened recently. I asked him, “How come you always carry a banana around?” And he says, “Well, I drink all the time, and I might get pulled over by the cops, and if you eat a banana right before they give you a breathalizer test it fucks up the breathalizer, so I always carry a banana with me.” That’s pretty funny!

DANIEL: That sounds like a one-pager.

EICHHORN: It is. Yeah, I gave it to Steve Hess, a guy I’d never worked with before. He did a good job with it.

DANIEL: How many people do you think are actually reading the comic? EICHHORN: Well, I think they print 7,000 of them. The first three issues have sold out. It takes nine months or a year to sell each issue. They have orders for about half when they publish them.

DANIEL: The sales aren’t as important as the work itself. The only thing that matters is the work and how you feel about it.

EICHHORN: Oh, I agree. I’m not writing this stuff for my mother. And I’m not writing it for my lover or whoever. I’m doing this for me, and my offspring … and it’s nice that there’s a market for it. Otherwise I’d just be sitting here writing stories and nobody would care about them but me. And I still am pretty unknown and that’s nice too.

DANIEL: Your work has absolutely had an effect on me. It was such a pleasure to sit down and read them all again and enjoy them again and know that they’re always going to be there for me to go to.

EICHHORN: Yeah, they’re like little tombstones, that’s the way I’ve always seen them. That’s the way I think of my published work, you know? They’re like the grave markers at Arlington Memorial.

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The Richard Sala Interview by Darcy Sullivan Wed, 03 Jun 2015 12:00:18 +0000 Continue reading ]]> The Comics Journal #208 (November 1998)

Richard Sala worries that you may not understand his work. And he’s right to worry. His preoccupation with genre archetypes has made it easy to miss the meaning in his work.

Certainly anyone halfway familiar with alternative comics of the last 15 years can describe the superficial elements of Sala’s oeuvre. Sardonic stories of duplicity, doppelgangers and murder. Twisted streets from German Expressionism, vamps and no-goodniks out of hard-boiled pulps, sinister glee a la Edward Gorey and Charles Addams. An evocative style that has evolved from a new wave scratch to a supple illustrators signature.

After self-publishing a magazine-sized comic, Night Drive, in 1984, Sala became “the king of the bad anthologies,” as he puts it himself. Not all of them were rubbish, of course, and they gave him the space to grow in three- and four-page spurts. After his “debut” in Raw, he appeared in Prime Cuts, Snarf, Blab!, Buzz, Twist, Street Music, Rip-Off Comix, Taboo, Escape, Deadline USA, Drawn & Quarterly and (amazingly) others. He and Charles Burns even found their way into a mainstream anthology, MTV’s animation showcase Liquid Television, which included Sala’s Invisible Hands. This was not, however, his ticket to success, and he returned to comics, producing a single issue of a comic called Thirteen O’Clock for Dark Horse in 1992.

Meanwhile, Sala found greater success as a magazine illustrator, with work in high-profile places such as Entertainment Weekly. His short comics-collected in the Kitchen Sink volumes Hypnotic Tales (1992) and Black Cat Crossing (1993) — began to look like a way for Sala to indulge his obvious obsession with horror noir archetypes.

Those archetypes also dominated his small book The Ghastly Ones and his magnum opus to date, The Chuckling Whatsit, serialized over 17 issues of Fantagraphics’ Zero Zero. A cliffhanger dense with malevolent motives and grotesque revelations, Whatsit extends the quests that dominate Sala’s work to epic proportions.

In doing so, Whatsit suggests that there is more to Sala’s play with genre than just, well, a chuckle. Sala is, in fact, much more aware of the symbolism and meaning in his work than most cartoonists — not for nothing is he married to a psychologist. All that secluded violence, all those masks, all those baffled heroes waking from dazes to find that they’ve joined secret cabals, killed loved ones, or simply forgotten their girlfriend’s birthday — Sala can pick it all apart with the adroitness of the sharpest Journal critic. There’s always a Big Secret at the heart of Sala’s stories, and his endless variations on this theme suggest it has more resonance for him than simply a nifty plot hook or MacGuffin.

The interview opens a door on that meaning. Given Sala’s new series Evil Eye, there’s no better time to address his work in a more serious light.

What this interview may not fully reveal is Sala’s humility, so strong it borders on a lack of self-esteem. An articulate and perceptive artist, he repeatedly admonished himself for not being clearer, now and then suggesting, “We should just start over.” Nonetheless, he was any thing but removed or paranoid – a warmer, more engaging interviewee would be hard to find. (It no doubt helped that we share fond memories of an Arizona children’s program, Wallace and Ladmo.)

This interview was conducted on May 31,1998, in Sala’s longtime Berkeley home. It was edited by myself and Sala.

From Maniac Killer Strikes Again, Fantagraphics Books 2003

From Maniac Killer Strikes Again



DARCY SULLIVAN: Let’s start now, as we’re looking at some of your childhood photos. I love this one of some of your prized possessions on your bed — comics, books, photos. But why are there dollar bills on top of the comic books?

RICHARD SALA: Maybe it was some sort of collage thing I was going for, I would have to go back and commune with my 1969 psyche to remember why I took a picture of that stuff.

SULLIVAN: So when did you move to Arizona? Because you were born in Chicago.

SALA: I was actually born right here in the Bay Area. At Kaiser Hospital in Oakland. Our family moved to Chicago when I was three and then to Arizona when I was in sixth grade. I remember being really happy in Chicago. And then Arizona was total culture shock — or lack-of-culture shock — because unless you liked cowboy art you couldn’t find much culture there. I have very affectionate memories of Chicago. I remember being totally absorbed by the museums — the mummies, dinosaur skeletons and caveman dioramas. At that time the monster craze was in full swing, I have photos of me in my Wolfman T-shirt and my Aurora monster models.

SULLIVAN: Dan Clowes told me that you ordered everything from Captain Company [a merchandise company advertised in Warren magazines like Famous Monsters] that they ever sold.

SALA: Well, jeez, no, not everything. Dan exaggerates.

SULLIVAN : When did you start collecting all this stuff?

SALA: I probably started collecting or rather — accumulating — really early. Both my mom and my dad were collectors. In fact, my dad was a professional collector. He restored antique clocks. I grew up going to flea markets and antique stores, and talking to dealers. When I was a teenager, I began really loathing the whole collecting thing, and by the time I was an adult, I got rid of almost everything. But there was some stuff I couldn’t bear to get rid of, and that I put in storage. It was only after I was in my 30s that I wrote to my mom, who’s still in Arizona, and had her send me the stuff I’d saved.

SULLIVAN: She still had it?

SALA: I saved it in boxes and told her, “Please don’t throw this away.” She owns her own house in Tempe, Arizona.

SULLIVAN: That’s where I lived as a boy.

SALA: I lived there for awhile, too. She may have gotten rid of some stuff. I had a scrapbook of all the monster ads from newspapers, like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and Dr. Phibes. I’d cut them out and tape them in the scrapbook. That appears to be gone. But I have my scrapbooks of Dick Tracy and Li’I Abner comic strips that I cut and saved as a kid.

One of the reasons I had my mom send stuff out was that I was trying to finance my life. I knew that a lot of the stuff I had as a kid was now valuable. At the time, I just needed to live and I didn’t care about collecting. I was living a pretty spartan life, believe it or not. I know it’s hard to believe now — I’ve pretty much gone back to being a packrat again.


SULLIVAN: OK, now let’s start at the beginning.

SALA: My mother and father met at U.C. Berkeley, right down the street from where I live now. My dad was the son of Sicilian immigrants. He was a janitor at Berkeley. My mom was a student who came from a WASPy Protestant stock and both her younger sisters had married well-to-do men. I suppose when they got married people said it would never work, and of course, it didn’t. I was born in 1955.

My mother was from the Chicago area, so after a few years in the Bay Area, my father got work with my mother’s father’s company in Chicago, so we all moved to West Chicago. I spent all my formative years there. The first comics I remember reading were the Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko Tales to Astonish, and all that Atlas monster stuff. I just loved those. You read them now and it’s like reading the same story over and over again. But for little kids, they were great,

I remember the whole Marvel renaissance. I bought all those early copies. I can still see my copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 in the toy box. In pieces. It was sitting there for years. I was always more a Marvel guy than a DC guy. I remember buying the old Batman 80-page giants. I liked those, because I liked the old-time Batman style. The new Batman stuff didn’t appeal to me at all.

When we finally had to move from Chicago to Arizona, it was partly my fault, because I had asthma. I was kind of a sickly kid. At that time — in ’66 — Arizona was being advertised as a really healthy place to live. Of course, now Phoenix is a valley filled with smog. But at the rime, it was considered to have really fresh air, and there were all these advertisements on TV: “Send your sinuses to Arizona.” When we moved, I took all my comics and taped them up in a dresser.

My mom had said, “Throw them all away because we’re moving, we need to travel light,” but I didn’t want get rid of them. So I taped them all up in a dresser, and of course when the dresser got to Arizona, they weren’t there.

SULLIVAN: They weren’t there?

SALA: No. I told my mom, and she said, “Well, the moving men probably opened it up and just tossed them.” I remember that the moving men lost a lot of our stuff at the time. My dad had all these great antiques — he had two old manual phonographs with the big horns, and we only got one. I still remember when I was closing that drawer, the very first Doctor Doom issue of Fantastic Four (#5) was sitting on the top of the pile, because that was my favorite. I loved Doctor Doom. And I remember thinking, “OK, I’ll see you in Arizona!” And he never made it. That was one of those things that probably turns you into an obsessive collector. Because you spend the rest of your life trying to find it. Back then there were no comic book stores and no place to find back issues. In fact, I had a recurring dream that I would walk into a store and they sold nothing but comic books — years before any comic stores even opened.

Another thing that was a huge influence on my childhood was the huge nostalgia craze for the ’30s that ran throughout the ’60s. A lot of elements of ’30s culture in my work have come secondhand because of that craze. Everybody had posters of the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, and Frankenstein on their walls. There was Flash Gordon and King Kong everywhere, and everything was campy and pop-art. But of course as a little kid, I didn’t really get camp. It just seemed like everyone thought that ’30s culture was fun and cool.

SULLIVAN: You didn’t know what was new and what was old.

SALA: Right. I’d get up really early and watch the Flash Gordon serials on Chicago TV and take them really serious. They were very melodramatic and earnest, perfect for a little kid. It wasn’t until later I found out that people were laughing at them. I was one of the many kids in my generation who thought the Batman TV series was dead serious.

The Great Comic Book Heroes was one of the first big books I ever owned beyond, you know, Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak books. That was a massive influence on me. I never got tired of looking at the really crudely drawn Golden Age comics. I just loved that aesthetic — I love seeing the struggle to work something out.

I also have a half-brother who’s much older than me. He had cool hot rod magazines, and issues of Famous Monsters. Dan and I talk about this, the older brother syndrome. If there’s an older brother that has cool stuff, the younger kid often gets hooked.

SULLIVAN: Now, of your “whole” siblings, are you the oldest?

SALA: I’m the middle child. My other brother is two years older than me, and my sister is three years younger than me. They both still live in Arizona, too.

SULLIVAN: You’re the only one who moved away from Arizona?

SALA: Yeah. I had to get away. I never really took to Arizona. In Chicago, I was pretty well-adjusted, as I recall. We lived on this great old street with lots of really old houses, with a very mysterious kind of feeling. I remember bats flying around the school during the fall, and things like that. We had a house filled with antiques — grandfather clocks, lots of old clocks, always chiming and ticking away. There was an old woman down the street who all the kids thought was a witch. We had a player piano and my dad had a workshop for making lead soldiers out of vintage molds.

And then I moved to Arizona, and it’s all sunny and hot and I’m paler than every kid around. Everybody’s healthy and blond, and they’re all into sports. The main exercise I got was running from one patch of shade to another. There were scary-looking guys with bolo ties, buzz cuts, and cowboy boots who had rifle racks in their pick-up trucks. This is the late ’60s. I never fit in. I think that’s the beginning of my whole outsider mentality. Shortly afterwards, when I was in high school, I discovered Kafka, and his stories really spoke to me personally. I understood the feeling of being in a place where you’re different from anyone else.

I grew up hearing my mom and dad talk about the Bay Area. It always seemed like a cool place. So it was always somewhere in the back of my mind to return. When I got accepted into art school in Oakland I just came back and never left.

SULLIVAN: Is Sala your full name, or your dad’s full name?

SALA: Yeah, it is. It means “hall” in Italian. Although I’ve seen translations that say “dining room table.” Since the meaning of Richard is “ruler,” I like to think that my full name means “ruler of the dining room table.”


SULLIVAN: You were in Arizona for a few years, because you went to —

SALA: Very many years, actually. An eternity. I did go to a pretty liberal high school though. In your senior year you had electives, which was really good, because they let us read like crazy, and I loved to read. I’m not sure when that started — maybe the seventh or eighth grade. I discovered the reprints of Doc Savage, The Shadow, and The Spider (more of that ’30s culture), and I devoured them. I could read them in a couple of afternoons, and sometimes even in one sitting. Anyway, as a senior you had electives, and one of the classes was Developmental Reading, where you could sit and read all the time. You would count how many books you read and make a little report. I read things like Catch-22, all the Kafka books, the Salinger stuff, Aldous Huxley. At that time Hermann Hesse and Aldous Huxley were being released in paperback with groovy Milton Glaser covers. I remember writing reports on — you know — the poetry of Leonard Cohen and so on. Another student there was Sandra Bernhard, the actress. She was a year younger than me, and I remember seeing her around. She was another horribly miserable outcast.

SULLIVAN: What was the name of the school?

SALA: Saguaro High. About 10 years ago, I was asking somebody about it, because I never was invited to any reunions or anything, and they said, “Oh yeah, it was overrun by people taking drugs, and it’s no longer there.” I have no idea whether that’s true or not.

After high school, I went to Arizona State University because I didn’t have any money to do anything else at the time. I was resigned to living there. I had a girlfriend and we lived together — and I still had no idea what I was going to do with my life.

My dad was a frustrated cartoonist, I think. I remember him drawing when I was really little. I remember sitting around the table with cousins and stuff, and them all being really impressed that my dad could draw. So I started drawing at a real early age. One of my earliest memories is of my kindergarten teacher complimenting a drawing of a tree I’d done. That seems to have been an important moment. So I drew and drew — I created my own comics. Dan and I have shown each other our excruciatingly embarrassing casts of comic books characters we created as kids. Naturally I went on to take art in high school. The problem was that I had the same damn art teacher every year. And he was a really boring, boring guy. He wasn’t really a bad teacher, just mediocre, but it shows how a mediocre teacher can really kill interest in something. I lost interest in art. I was reading a lot, and I decided that I wanted to be a writer. So by the time I was a senior in high school, I wasn’t even interested in art, even though when I was a junior I was winning these little competitions that my art teacher would enter me in. But I just lost interest. I was reading things like Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme. I loved that kind of stuff. Of course, a lot of it has not held up very well over the years, but at the time it seemed really fresh and innovative. So when I went to college, I majored in English. I wanted to be a writer.

I was living with my high school sweetheart who was really stable. When I started college, the whole feeling of being an outsider crept up on me again. Taking English classes in lecture rooms, I didn’t meet anybody. A lot of my friends from high school didn’t go to college or went out of state. I was becoming increasingly miserable, because I still didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I checked out some art classes, but at ASU you had to be an art major to go on to more than one or two classes. So I decided to change my major. I thought, “I probably have just as much chance of making a living being an artist as I have being a writer.” One of the other problems was that I loved writing, but even my best friends wouldn’t read anything I wrote. It was impossible to get feedback!

SULLIVAN: I think all writers have that problem.

SALA: You would lend people a short story or a manuscript, you say, “Hey, tell me what you think?” And two weeks later, they’d go, “Yeah, I haven’t got a chance to read it yet.”

SULLIVAN: It’s five hundred words ­­—

SALA: Nobody’s interested in reading amateur unpublished stuff.

SULLIVAN: But you can get them to look at your pictures.

SALA: Well, that’s more immediate. And that wasn’t lost on me, believe me. I liked the immediate reaction. I’d go into these art classes, I’d see all these cute girls wandering around. This is Arizona, it’s warm, and people are wearing shorts —

SULLIVAN: The whole time.

SALA: And I’m just like — “Damn! I’m sitting in these horrible lecture rooms with all these boring people talking about Shakespeare. What am I doing?” So I changed my major, I took art classes, and I felt renewed again. I had fun in art school. I don’t recommend it for people necessarily, it’s not even slightly practical, but had a lot of fun. You have a great time sitting in coffee shops passionately discussing Surrealism, going to art openings for the free snacks, or doing all-nighters in the print-making department while blasting music.

When I think back on my 20s, I don’t think I started living as a serious person in the real world until I was over 30. I mean, in art school I did really develop as an artist and I did some good work, but still, I think of my years in art school and in college as playing. People who know me now wonder why I never take vacations, I never go anywhere, I’m always working. I tell them that the whole decade of my 20s was one long vacation. I got it out of my system. I didn’t really grasp it then but I realize now that I was also very neurotic. Those feelings of being an outsider never really left me and I was grappling with anxiety and depression.

SULLIVAN: Were you doing illustrations during this period?

SALA: Yeah. When I was at ASU, a friend of mine was president of the Cultural Affairs Board. One good thing about small scenes like Tempe is when you go to the weird little art shows, movies, or parties, you keep running into the same handful of people and eventually get to know each other. This is right before the years that punk really hit, in the late ’70s, and it was certainly before it hit Arizona. We were sort of proto-punks, and we founded this thing called Art Brut Graphics — we didn’t really found it, we just named it that. We did all the posters and movie schedules and stuff for the Cultural Affairs Board. Mostly my stuff would appear in the State Press, which was the newspaper for ASU. I started doing work for some of the local weeklies as well. The people at The New Times in Phoenix are my heroes. The New Times gets a bad rap these days because they’re a chain alternative newspaper. But I was there when those guys were starting, and to be an alternative newspaper in Phoenix in the ’70s was like putting a target on your back.

SULLIVAN: Didn’t they have Bob Boze Bell?

SALA: Bob Boze Bell was one of the many art directors I worked for. I often worked with the editor, Michael Lacey. The third cover I did for them won the graphic arts award for the best illustrated cover of the year in Arizona. There was a banquet for the Arizona journalism awards with all these conservative businessmen, and they were showing the slides of the winners. Michael Lacey told me with great pride that when my cover went up, there were a lot of dropped forks in the room. I mention winning that award because in a way it showed me that I was on the right path, and until that point, I never really knew that I was.

From The Keepsake

From The Keepsake



SALA: Like a lot of people, when I was younger, I always thought of my family as pretty normal, boring even. It wasn’t until I had the hindsight of an adult, that I virtually slapped my head in disbelief at how fucked up we were. I won’t go into most of it, but I realize now that it is pertinent to the discussion of my work to say that my dad had a horrible temper. He threw lots of fits of irrational rage, where you never knew what he was angry about. He’d just go insane and smash things, and terrorize us kids. I see now, looking back, that my whole interest in the irrationality of violence stems from this childhood.

I remember my dad, once, because he was frustrated about something in his life, I guess, walking over to my brother’s little Yogi Bear guitar and just smashing it with one stomp of his foot. Here was a little musical toy, something that gave pleasure and joy, and suddenly this hurricane of anger would come into the room and smash it, and we would all be cowering and hiding. And, you know, in those days, spanking and hitting kids wasn’t frowned upon. In fact, I remember teachers hitting kids all the time!

SULLIVAN: Was it temperamental? I mean, did your dad have chemical problems or was he drinking?

SALA: He didn’t have the excuse of being an alcoholic. He was very insecure. He had lots of insecurities, and I think he felt really powerless. His life hadn’t gone in the direction he wanted it to, or whatever — who knows what? I haven’t analyzed his anger that much. I basically wrote him off. I’ve been estranged from him for many, many years. He’s still alive somewhere. He’s in his 80s.

SULLIVAN: Did you and your brother and sister bond over this?

SALA: I think so, but there’s a little bit of that whole survivor guilt thing, and also that — what do the veterans have? Post-traumatic stress syndrome.

There were lots of horrible arguments. I mean, it was the ’60s, too, so definitely there was a generation gap that played into it. I was into late ’60s youth culture and my dad didn’t understand that. You dreaded every dinner time, because you had to get together and sit at the dinner table. I think I was 13 or 14 when my parents got divorced and suddenly there was a huge relief in the house. I didn’t realize how horrible of a scene it was until it was over. Then it really felt like freedom. Of course, we still had to go through the legal bullshit of weekend visits and so on. My siblings and I hated him, but we had to see him on weekends to go to movies or meet his new family. Eventually he stopped paying child support, so we were like, “Why the fuck do we have to pretend to like him?” My one real regret is that, although I was rude to him, I never really told him to go fuck himself to his face. You know — really big man, terrorizing little kids.


SULLIVAN: You moved out to the Bay Area after you went to ASU?

SALA: Yeah. I got accepted at Mills College in Oakland. It’s a woman’s college but on the graduate level, it’s been co-ed for decades, and it’s a great school for graduate art students because it’s very small, and you get your own studio, and the core faculty that teach there are great. My painting teacher at the time — I was her teaching assistant — was Jay DeFeo, who was a Bay Area legend, a beatnik abstract-expressionist. There was another guy there, Ron Nagle, who was also a bit of a legend, an amazing ceramicist and musician. But of course, art school is a cult. It separates you from the real world and really builds up your ego —

SULLIVAN: It builds up your ego?

SALA: Yeah. When you’re in art school, you think you’re terrific. If you’re good at what you’re doing, you feel you’re going to go out and take over the world. And probably the people whose ego isn’t built up during art school are the ones who are the most successful, because —

SULLIVAN: They try harder.

SALA: Well, they’re more realistic about it. I’m talking about fine art school now. I did try taking graphic design classes when I was an undergraduate, and that was a whole other thing I wasn’t interested in. It was dead to me, just sterile. “Come up with a concept for a skating rink.” I’d be sitting there going, “What?”

I was still in that childlike mode of just wanting to draw pictures of the things I liked. I couldn’t believe the freedom I suddenly had, that I could draw pictures of whatever I wanted. I would bring them to classes, and people would talk about them.

And teachers will single you out and say, “You’re really good at what you do, you’re great, you won’t have any problem getting gallery shows, I’ll help you out, I’ll give you the name of my gallery director, I’ll give you a recommendation for getting teaching jobs.” But then the teachers mostly lose interest in you once you graduate. They’ve got a whole new crop.

The fine art scene, just like any other cultural thing, is susceptible to shifts in taste. When I was in art school as an undergraduate, painting had been declared dead by somebody somewhere in New York. Conceptualism was in. Colleagues of mine would paint for a while, and then they’d build teepees, or build structures out of twigs, or do performance art. By the time I was almost finished with graduate school, there was a big renaissance in painting in the ’80s. Even the people who were doing piles of leaves as their thesis were starting to do representational painting. And I only ever wanted to do representational painting. So I thought, “Well, I’ve got a chance of getting into the galleries.” But I needed money when I got out of school. So as soon as I got a day job, I thought, “OK, I’ll work, because I need to make money, and I’ll decide what I’m going to do.” And I ended up getting involved in this job, and creating art took a back seat to my new job.


SULLIVAN: When did you get out of art school?

SALA: ’82.

SULLIVAN: And you worked at a university, as a librarian?

SALA: Well, I was a library assistant, even though I did everything a librarian does. Everything except catalog the books, which I technically wasn’t allowed to do. The reason I couldn’t be called a librarian is because I didn’t have a degree in library science.

SULLIVAN: You can’t catalog books without a degree in library science?

SALA: That’s one of the reasons why I faced a dilemma. I mean, I’ve worked in libraries throughout my entire adult life. So I’ve got a lot of experience in the nuts and bolts operations of libraries.

So after art school, I got a job as this library assistant at a small private college. The school’s real claim to infamy is that it had a parapsychology department. So we would get all these people who were interested in poltergeists, shamanism and UFOs. They had ghostbusters teaching there, guys who would go on the Today Show or Nightline talking about ghosts. We would get these guys trying to bend spoons and stuff like that. There were these incredible collections of old books on hypnotism, vampires, and the occult. So it was fascinating to work there. It’s a very small library — and I’d be the main guy there at night and on the weekends. When they hired a reference librarian and his job was basically doing the same thing that I had been doing all along — helping people with research, etc. — that’s when I found myself at a crossroads. He was younger than me, but because he’d spent two years getting a library degree, he automatically made more money and had more authority, despite the fact that I had more experience. So I asked myself, should I go to library school and have a cozy career? Or should I pursue the dream of living as an artist?

At the same time, I was doing occasional illustrations. It was mostly the New Times and other weeklies who kept calling me, even though I had never promoted myself. At the time, it was just a way to make some extra money. I still wanted to be a fine artist, so I would make these goals for myself, to do enough watercolor paintings to fill a new slide sheet. There’s 20 spaces on a slide sheet, so I’d do 20 watercolor paintings over a period of six months, until I’d fill a new slide sheet, then I’d send that slide sheet around. If one gallery rejected me, I’d just put the slide sheet away: “Well, I failed again.”

I was concentrating on survival. I loved reading, so I would sort of sedate

myself in the world of books plus go to movies, hang out with friends. But there was a creative side that wanted to come out.


SULLIVAN: Were you following comics during this period?

SALA: When I got out of art school, I had totally forgotten about comics. But I would always go into comic stores, because I never stopped loving Dick Tracy. Chester Gould is my primary influence, from the time I was little all the way through now. At my graduate thesis show at Mills, the secretary who worked in the art department came up to me and said, “Oh now I get it. Dick Tracy, right?” She was old enough to remember the heyday of the strip. I started clipping Dick Tracy out of the newspaper in 1964. Thank goodness I clipped those out, because a lot of those have never been reprinted.

Some of my earliest memories are trying to figure out these Dick Tracy things, these very interesting scenarios drawn in this style that I found fascinating. It was a Chicago strip, so every week it was on the front of the Sunday paper. There were all these scenes of violence and all these really grotesque, ugly villains. Even secondary characters were grotesque. I think a lot of people who grew up in Chicago probably feel the same way. There’s an artist in Chicago named Jim Nutt who’s obviously been influenced by Chester Gould. Then you have someone like Lynda Barry whose obviously very influenced by Jim Nutt. I always loved comic strips, but I lost interest in comic books sometimes in the ’70s. I think it was about the time Neal Adams and his ilk showed up.

SULLIVAN: That’s funny, because on the painting side, you were more representational than what was current, and yet Adams represented the advent of the super-representational into comics.

SALA: When I say representational, it just means I wanted to draw the figure. Jack Kirby was drawing the figure perfectly fine for me, and so was Chester Gould. I’m always more attracted to something idiosyncratic and stylized. Gould was much closer to the kind of figure drawing I liked in art school, the German expressionists like Grosz, Kubin, and Dix. It wasn’t just the way Neal Adams drew the figure that I objected to. I objected to the emotionalism and posturing. And I objected to the way he broke up the comic pages, all that stuff about breaking the borders of the comics —

SULLIVAN: The angles —

SALA: The exaggerated foreshortening, the fakey naturalism. I just hated it so much. He just seemed the antithesis of someone like Roy Crane who was an honest craftsman. Adams, no offense to him personally, was more of a show-off. I think everybody loves most what they loved as a kid. That’s where our tastes are formed. By the time Adams and his imitators were dominating comics, it was probably the mid-’70s. I was in high school, I got interested in girls and lost interest in comics. Probably the last comic I bought before I stopped buying them altogether was Jack Kirby’s Demon, which I loved.

SULLIVAN: Those were great.

SALA: It was a throwback to the early Atlas and the pre-hero Marvels and the early Fantastic Fours. I just loved that rubbery, everything-looks-like-a-toy quality. At that point, Kirby looked as idiosyncratic as Chester Gould.

I stopped reading comics around the time they canceled Mister Miracle. I’d done some work that was sort of comic-oriented when I was at Arizona State. There were some other students who were sort of into comics, but it was all really non-linear, early Heavy Metal, underground comic-type stuff.

By the early ’80s when I was out of art school, I started seeing stuff like Raw, and I became interested in doing comics again. It was around the time I turned 30. I had kind of settled down with the girlfriend who would become my wife. I read that book All in Color for a Dime. I think I was going through a second childhood. I was remembering how I used to love popular culture, and I suddenly remembered that my mom had all this stuff in storage. I started having her send things piecemeal. I didn’t want all of it, because I was still living a kind of spartan existence, and I didn’t want to be overwhelmed with junk. So I asked her, “Could you send me just one box of my Famous Monsters?”

The other thing was, I started reading a lot of old mysteries and hard-boiled detective fiction, tracking down old, out-of-print copies. Some books that had a huge impact on me at that time were any books by David Goodis, Kenneth Fearing, Jonathan Latimer, and Fredric Brown — all incredible stylists. Also The Red Right Hand by Joel Townsley Rogers and The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterson, which isn’t hard-boiled in any sense, but it just blew me away. Of course, I’ve always loved movies, especially old movies — Hitchcock, Fritz Lang — but I really got obsessed with film noir in the early ’80s. The Pacific Film Archive is just down the street from where I live right now. It was always showing great old movies, and so was the UC Theater, which is in downtown Berkeley. Gigantic screen. I remember in the early ’80s at PFA they were showing Sam Fuller and Joseph H. Lewis retrospectives and lots of film noir. The writer and film expert William K. Everson would come and lecture and show forgotten thrillers from the ’30s and ’40s. I finally got to see Judex which had intrigued me since I saw photos from it when I was little, plus the five-part French serial Fantomas by Feuillade.

Before video was so widespread, the only place to see old mystery and horror movies was in repertory theaters or at four in the morning on TV. I think that’s how a lot of film noir and old horror movies should be seen. I’d set my alarm for three in the morning, get up, and watch Stranger on the Third Floor, Somewhere in the Night, Fallen Angel, or Phantom Lady. And then I would go back to sleep, and when I got up it was almost like it was a dream. That’s the way I saw movies I liked since I was a kid, staying up past my bedtime to watch Atom-Age Vampire or Weird Woman or I Walked with a Zombie.

Anyway, I was really getting sort of immersed in “low” as opposed to “high” culture again, and I was reading the early Raws. They appealed to me, because I still thought of myself as a fine artist, and attitude behind Raw seemed to be, “Yeah, we like comics, but we’re better than that. We’re looking at comics in this ironic way.” At the time, that’s what I was ready for. I’ve since turned around on that — now I’m proud to be a part of the whole tradition of hack cartoonists and illustrators. I’m serious. But at the time, I’d just been to art school, and I did think that way myself. For almost an entire decade, I was immersed in academic criticism. So suddenly I was like a kid in a candy store, discovering all this stuff again. “Oh, this is OK, but I can only like it from a distance. I can only like it ironically.”

[laughs] I’m going on too long. I can see these pages, it’s like: “Darcy: Zzzzzz—”

SULLIVAN: That’s the best kind of interview, Richard.

SALA: Jesus!


SULLIVAN: When did you do the stories that appeared in Night Dream?

SALA: Night Drive.

SULLIVAN: Night Drive.

SALA: You’re not the first person to make that mistake. The guy at Bud Plant who rejected carrying it said, “Four dollars is a little expensive for Night Dreams, don’t you think?”

SULLIVAN: When did you do those stories?

SALA: I did those stories when I was 29 years old, believe it or not. Right now to me it looks like juvenalia. I was a really late starter. Night Drive was the start of a certain period and The Chuckling Whatsit is the start of a new period. I look at my work from that first period and all I see is the struggle. If people like the work I’ve done, I’m glad. But I think the best is yet to come. You know, Chester Gould was in his prime in his 40s. That’s when he created Flattop and some of his best characters.

But as far as Night Drive, I wasn’t sure if I was doing art or popular culture. I think I thought I was making art. There is a clue in there as to the direction I would eventually go. At the very end, there’s a story that I almost left out, called “Invisible Hands,” which was my take-off on my love of pulps. It was non-linear, it was broken up, and I didn’t really bother to end it. I thought it didn’t need an ending. It was supposed to be a chapter from a non-existent serial — it’s like Andre Breton and the surrealists. They loved stuff liked Fantamos. Andre Breton did this famous thing where he’d walk into the middle of a movie and watch a part of it, and get up and go into another theater and watch part of another movie, and would never see the entire movie.

So I did this thing, “Invisible Hands,” which was not meant to be taken seriously. The rest of Night Drive has more to do with the world of fine art than the world of comics.

I had never stopped writing. I would take the BART train to work every day, writing, then at home, I’d draw pictures to go with the stories. The main influence on me was not so much Raw or Weirdo, but Mark Beyer’s Dead Stories; when I saw that, it was a revelation. I really related to his feeling of negativity and his primitive art style. I looked through it to see who the publisher was. I couldn’t find the name of a publisher, and it dawned on me that this guy did this himself. I followed Mark Beyer’s format with the card stock cover, magazine-size, for Night Drive.

If I haven’t said it before, I should say that I never thought I would make it to 30. One of the reasons I couldn’t really imagine becoming a successful artist in my 20s was that I had been thinking about suicide every day since the time I was a teenager.

SULLIVAN: Seriously thinking about it, or romantically?

SALA: There were times when I felt really bleak, and I just felt negative all the time. I couldn’t see a future. When I was living in Arizona, that was another thing — I didn’t relate to any older people.

SULLIVAN: Lots of older people there!

SALA: White shoes and white belts, and they’re wearing bolo ties. You’d look at these guys, with their beer bellies hanging over their tight jeans, and you’d think —“That’s me when I get old?” I couldn’t picture it I thought, “I’m not on the same planet as these people.” I didn’t get how to go from being this kid that I was then to being that person.

But when I came to the Bay Area, I started seeing old people who looked like I imagined I would like when I was old. Guys that were like me, but they were old. My God, that’s what I would look like old! I can’t tell you what a revelation that was. Because until then I thought a guy like me wasn’t meant to live beyond a certain age, because I didn’t see anybody who looked like me and was old. I was a little crazy.

So when I read Dead Stories, it really hit a chord, that whole feeling of helplessness, hopelessness. It was almost a validation that a person with my attitude, my feelings, could do something like that. Of course, it was the time of punk, everything was sort of do-it-yourself, and I thought, “I’m going to do it myself. I’ll do my own book.”

Like I said, I had no knowledge at all of how the market worked. I knew about Bud Plant, because I’d seen his name around. I remember ordering Crumb undergrounds and Rick Griffin undergrounds from him when I was in high school. The only other thing that I knew was I saw Raw being sold at City Lights. So I went into City Lights with Night Drive, and they took some copies. So there was a time when the only comics being sold at City Lights in San Francisco were about 10 copies of Night Drive and a bunch of copies of Raw, I was really proud of that.

To this day, people from around the world will tell me that they first got a copy of my book at City Lights. I also was carried in Printed Matter in New York, and also to this day, people tell me that they found copies of Night Drive in New York during the mid-’80s. There were also some copies in Portland and Seattle, but I’ve never heard any people tell me about buying them [laughs] so who knows what happened to all those copies?

SULLIVAN: Did it lead to more work?

SALA: One of the reasons I did Night Drive was to try to get other people to give me illustration work. I sent it to some places in New York that I thought were hip places, that paid no money, of course. There was an alternative weekly out here that I had seen some of Charles Burns’ stuff in called Another Room. I sent them some stuff and they ran something.

I had sent a copy of Night Drive to Raw, too, and I heard back from somebody at Raw, I think it was Francoise Mouly, saying that they liked Night Drive, and would like to see more stuff. So, suddenly, I was motivated — ’cause I loved Raw. I did a couple of strips for them and sent them off.

Then, there was a really long period where I was just waiting. At one point, Mark Newgarden sent me a copy of this magazine called Bad News, which was sort of an off-shoot of Raw. He was working on Raw at the time as Spiegelman’s assistant, and he told me, “You’re not going to be in Raw but you’re going to be in Bad News, which we’re doing in a format like Raw.” He sent me a sample copy, and it looked great. I remember there was a Kaz cover. So I did a three-page thing for Bad News and sent it in, and then waited for another long period of time and never heard anything. Occasionally I would call or write Mark Newgarden, and he’d say, “Oh, don’t worry about it, everything’s fine.” But I was fatalistic, and thought, “It’s never going to happen.”

Then, one day I got a letter from Newgarden saying, “The bad news is that Bad News is canceled. The good news is, now you’re going to be in Raw!” I was like — “Oh my God!”

That’s when I heard from Art Spiegelman. He told me that I’d have to condense a three-page story into a one-page story. Then I could be in the next issue of Raw, which as it turned out was the last large-size issue.

SULLIVAN: Did he give you any other direction besides turn it from three pages into one page?

SALA: Yeah. Actually, they mocked up a copy showing me how it could be done! I saw him and Francoise as true editors. They were trying to edit their magazine, their vision, so I went along with it. What I didn’t know was that that issue of Raw would take like another year or more to come out. I was waiting for it to come out, and so many times I gave up, like it was never going to come out. I stopped telling people I was going to be in Raw, because it would just seem like a pipe dream. I thought, “As soon as Raw comes out, I’ve made it.” Of course when it finally did come out, no one noticed me anyway.

By then, I was aware of Fantagraphics, and I was interested in what they were doing. So I sent Gary Groth a copy of Night Drive, and told him I wanted to do a book. I think he wrote me back, saying he wasn’t sure about a book, but that they were going to start their own anthology, which was going to be a West Coast version of Raw. I got excited about that, because it seemed like they might be able to pull it off.

SULLIVAN: Was this Prime Cuts?

SALA: It ended up being Prime Cuts. I think even Gary now would tell you it was nowhere near a West Coast version of Raw. But I got really excited, and I sent them a bunch of stories. I was really hyped to do it.

I think I was in the first issue, maybe the second issue, but then he ended up sitting on some of my stories for a long time, and sometimes even forgetting that he had them. I would have to write him and remind him, “Gary, I sent you this other story.”

From The Fellowship of the Creeping Cat

From The Fellowship of the Creeping Cat



SULLIVAN: Tell me about you got into Blab!

SALA: Monte Beauchamp was one of the first people who bought Night Drive when I was advertising it in the Comics Journal. Bhob Stewart saw the ad and wrote to me, saying, “Look, I do reviews for Heavy Metal. If you send me a copy, I might review it.” At the time, I was so broke, I was like — “This guy wants a free copy, goddamn it!” But I did it. And he was true to his word! There was a little blurb about Night Drive in Heavy Metal, with my address, and it was amazing what that did. I got orders from Scotland, New Zealand, and other, you know, far off lands. I didn’t realize how wide a circulation Heavy Metal had. I really was grateful to Bhob Stewart for that.

Monte ordered a copy from the Journal ad, too. He’d seen my work in Prime Cuts, and so by about the third issue of Blab! he wrote me saying, “I like your work, and I want you to be in the third issue.”

I’ve been in Blab! every issue from the third issue on. He’s a good person to work with. He pretty much lets me do whatever I want to do. He used to throw a theme out at me, like, “What do you think about doing a story about alcohol in this issue?” I’d work his theme into whatever story I want to do, and that seemed to work out just fine.

SULLIVAN: You did a story with Tom DeHaven for one of the anthologies —

SALA: For the last issue of Raw. Yeah, it was interesting. I respect Tom DeHaven a lot. I had read Funny Papers, and it’s a really, really good book.

That was an interesting experience. Spiegelman felt that cartoonists should try to broaden their horizons by collaborating with “real” writers. I was game, because it was Raw.

Luckily, Tom DeHaven liked my work and was sympathetic to what I was doing. Bless him, I think, he tried to write a Richard Sala story, which I appreciated. But when I got the script, it was like a movie script. It was huge. There was no way we could do it. But he was nice enough to realize we couldn’t do it as written, and we played around with it. Most of it’s his, but I added a few of my own touches.

I’m not interested in collaborating anymore. I have my own stories to tell. I think that an artist’s singular vision is important. The whole reason I got into doing comics is because I liked to draw and write.

SULLIVAN: You were in Drawn and Quarterly for a few issues, and then not in it. How did you get in, and why did you get out?

SALA: Chris Oliveros sent me a copy of the first issue and asked me to contribute. There was some good stuff and some bad stuff, as in most anthologies. But what attracted me to it was that he was going to do color. I did something for the second or third issue, and then he would call me and ask me to do some other things, and as long as it was color, I was really interested.

But it was bad timing, because the color in those early issues is atrocious. I was doing these colorful watercolors, and they came out all muddy and horrible. The reproduction was blurry, it was off-register, printed on some terrible paper. So I tried to simplify the line work and lettering but nothing helped. Chris kept saying they’d fix the color on the next issue but it never seemed to happen. They looked awful, and every time I was more and more discouraged. And at the time I didn’t want to do these little one- or two-pagers any more, but that’s all he wanted me to do. I think he could tell my heart wasn’t in it.

Actually what happened was kind of funny, because the last one I did was a black-and-white, three-page piece. It was my all-time favorite of all the ones I did for him.

SULLIVAN: Which one was it?

SALA: It was called “Time Bomb,” and it was very personal. Once again, I was writing sort of enigmatic prose poetry. Of course, no one else liked it. No one could make heads or tails out of it.

SULLIVAN: That was one of your best ones!

SALA: Well, no one else seemed to like it. When Chris wanted to pick a piece for The Best of, I said either that one or “One of the Wonders of the World,” which is my only other one of those that I liked. And he went for one of the really easy early ones.

SULLIVAN: “Credo”?

SALA: That was it, yeah. That’s fine, but I’ve got notebooks filled with stuff like that.

I think that was the nail in the coffin. There’s no bad blood, as far as I know. But this happens a lot as an illustrator: You work for various clients, and then they become tired of you, or they think, “Okay, I’ve seen it, that’s enough.” Thank God Monte has stuck with me and wanted to use me in every issue, and let me experiment, A lot of times, an artist’s work can really flourish if they’re lucky enough to find an editor who’s sympatico with them. Of all the anthologies I’ve been in, my experience with Blab! has probably been the best, because Monte has let me experiment. And I’ve been in a lot of anthologies.

SULLIVAN: You did seem ubiquitous for awhile there.

SALA: I was in just about every fucking anthology that ever existed. Some I’m proud to have been a part of, like J.D. King’s Twist and Mark Landman’s Buzz, but I’ve also been in some really, really bad ones. My girlfriend, now my wife, was in school, studying to get her Ph.D. in psychology, which now she has. I was trying to support us by working at the library and getting illustration work.

When these anthologies started coming along, it was almost like an exorcism, like I was doing these stories to get something out of my system. I look back at them now — most of them are collected in Hypnotic Tales — and they all follow a certain rhythm, a certain pattern, like a recurring dream.

But at the time, when I was writing for these anthologies, I wasn’t going back and reading the other ones, I would just write a new one and send it out.

My idols were people like Kafka and Borges, who were masters of enigmatic short stories, my favorite form. I was reading Grimm’s fairy tales every night before going to bed and I’d wake up with a new, bizarre premise. Another guy I love is Donald Barthelme, who has a quote, “Fragments are the only form I trust.” There’s this great Borges quote that I ran in Night Drive — “The solution to the mystery is always inferior to the mystery itself.” Looking back now, I think that my obsession with unexplainable enigmas was a reflection of where I was at the time — at some kind of unconscious crossroads, not knowing which path to take.


SULLIVAN: While you’re mentioning writers, some of your comics reminded me of a writer named Barry Yourgrau, and I wanted to know if you were familiar with him.

SALA: I am. When I discovered him, I was like, “Wow — this guy’s on my wave-length.” I have a couple of his books —

SULLIVAN: Wearing Dad’s Head and —

SALA: A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane, yeah. I think I can tell who his influences are, they’re my influences, too. They’re Russian writers, Daniil Kharms, Aleksei Remizov, Gogol, etc., Kafka, again, Absurdists. I’ve always had a healthy — or an unhealthy — love for the absurd. When people say that Yourgrau’s stories are dreamlike, or when people say that Kafka’s stories are dreamlike, they’re missing the entire point. They’re little slices of the absurdity of life. I think it’s selling them short to say they’re like dreams. It says there’s no art to them.

SULLIVAN: In your Super Anthology Man period, there seemed to be a phase where your stories were less to do with the pulp, Edgar Wallace archetypes, and more to do with your dad menacing you or your friends betraying you, where the situation would get more and more surreal. Those are the ones I related to best. On the face of it, events are completely absurd, at another level, you’re thinking, oh my god, I know exactly how this feels.

SALA: There’s a feeling of being alienated.

I was going through my notebooks recently, and I noticed that I once considered doing a book of illustrated Kafka stories, but I decided that because his stories are so strongly psychological, they just shouldn’t be illustrated.

SULLIVAN: Well, the feeling that underlies writers like Kafka, and that underlies your work, I would say, is guilt. For example, in some of your stories, the character has forgotten that he is supposed to do something important, like go to a party, or that he’s meeting somebody. In the most extreme cases, the character has forgotten that he’s in fact killed a few people [laughter]. He shows up at the beginning of the story as a person who thinks he has forgotten where his watch is, or something, but in fact turns out to have forgotten something much deeper. Your lead persona is often a blank, blond, happy-faced guy, who suddenly realizes he’s in this terrible world, and is he part of it?

SALA: And you’re asking where does that come from?

SULLIVAN: I don’t know. Maybe you’ve already told us. [laughs]

SALA: I think this goes back to what I was saying before about being at some crossroads, about being stuck. In Arizona, I used to get terrible migraine headaches. When I moved to California, the migraines went away. During the time I was working at the library, and doing illustration work and anthology pieces for comics, I was feeling pretty stressed out. While I was at work one day, I was sneakily working on some sketches for an illustration, sketches I had to send the following morning. I was trying to do all these things at once, and I felt all this pressure. I wasn’t getting enough sleep or enough to eat, and I was busy trying to do too many things. Suddenly I got a migraine headache, right there at work. I had just arrived for my night shift, but it was so bad that I had to leave. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a migraine …

SULLIVAN: No, thank God.

SALA: They’re so debilitating that you can’t even talk or see. So I rushed home, and I was panicking: Am I going blind? Am I going insane? Why am I getting this again? I’m trying to do too much. I’m burning the candle at both ends. My diet’s fucked, you know, and I’m full of anxiety.

After that day, I’d start going in to work, and I’d remember the migraine attack, and I’d start being afraid that I was going to have one again. It affected my performance at work, and it made me think, “What am I doing? I want to be an illustrator, and I work in this library.” I was stuck.

I started thinking about my life. I’ve always been interested in subtext, something behind the surface. I suddenly realized that the whole library system, which I’d worked in since I began in college, is a maternal system. All my bosses were women. It was very comforting and very cozy, these rooms that were carpeted and soft and quiet. I suddenly realized — this is maternal, this is the womb, this is the mother. The other thing, the thing about being an artist, about drawing, my urge to create, is the paternal side. My father was the frustrated cartoonist. That’s the person I’m having a struggle with. I had so many problems with my father, that at some point, I swore that I would never be like him.

Now, the creative side of me was being held in because some part of my unconscious thought I was becoming more like my father. If I chose illustration, I’d be a small businessman, self-employed like my father.

Suddenly I was at this crossroads. Am I going to join the ranks of my father, or am I going to be in the protective womb of the library, surrounded by people who are smart and polite, surrounded by books. By the way, these are academic libraries, not public libraries. [laughs] Big difference.

SULLIVAN: But even in a public library, the whole point is order. It’s the ultimate controlled environment, where everything is in its place.

SALA: That’s why I’m making the point, because public libraries are a lot more chaotic. Although, believe me, we did get our share of crazy people. All libraries do.

Anyway, I found myself facing this dilemma. I was aware of this split right down myself. I’ve always been fascinated by concept of the double. I don’t believe in astrology but I’m a Gemini, and as a young kid, someone said to me, “Oh, that means there’s two sides of you.” Somehow this got wedged in my subconscious. Now there was this maternal side fighting with this paternal side, and I didn’t know what to do. I’ve always felt a struggle with duality, between two sides of myself. For example, how do I reconcile the side that loves fine art and literature with the side that loves lurid pulp fiction and comic books?

I saw a psychologist, who really helped me. A lot of the things I can talk about easily now, I couldn’t talk about then: My family and my father and everything. I came to understand, for example, that my love of monsters and scary movies may have helped me significantly in dealing with my childhood anxieties. Horror movies have never scared me. I’d go to them purely for enjoyment. They’re somehow reassuring to me.

So I made the decision to quit the library, and even then it was hard for me. My boss was so nice, she let me go on a leave of absence for six months, to see if I could make it as an illustrator. I was already earning more money as an illustrator than I ever made at the library. I was like, “Wait a minute! I’ve only been an illustrator in my spare time.” [laughs] “How is that possible?” Once I took my leave of absence, I never went back.

There was some unconscious turmoil going on, and somehow my stories were exorcisms for me. Certainly I want people to bring their own experience to the stories and enjoy them, the way I relate to Kafka, for example. At the same time, they’re little psychic snapshots of my psychological state at that moment. People are welcome to look at them and see deeper meaning, or they’re welcome to say, “Oh! Another story based on a dream,” which of course they aren’t.

from Zero Zero (May/June 1995)

from Zero Zero (May/June 1995)


SULLIVAN: How did you hook up with MTV and Liquid Television?

SALA: I got a call from Colossal Pictures in San Francisco, who were planning a cartoon show for MTV. They liked this one story I had done in Night Drive, “Invisible Hands” — the one I didn’t think anybody else would like or relate to because it was based on love of ’30s genre-stuff and I couldn’t believe that that’s what MTV would want. I said, “Are you sure? That’s the one you want?” And they said, “Yeah, but we want you to finish it, and turn it into a real story.” I even wrote them some other treatments, saying, “If you want a cutting-edge thing on MTV, why don’t you try something like this?” They’re like, “No, no, we like this one.”

That was great because that was what I really wanted to do — write these cool mysteries with horrific overtones. That started me going in that direction.

SULLIVAN: Some of your stories seemed almost component-based. You have a range of components: a secret cabal, a severed hand in a box, etc. Some stories seem to be constructed entirely of these archetypes. And I wondered whether you — being an introspective person, unlike many cartoonists [Sala laughs] — struggled at this. Whether you thought, “I’ve really got to go in a different direction, but I’m tempted to pursue my obsession and do another story about the secret cabal.”

SALA: Well, I’m a great believer in a personal vocabulary. These were motifs that I was using as personal symbolism for my own life. At that time, I couldn’t have done a story about an unwed mother working in a sweatshop in New Delhi. I was exploring a personal vocabulary that I felt very comfortable with, and exploring it over and over again, to the point of obsession or compulsion. I certainly feel like I do fall back on things that I love. As you can imagine, I have notebooks filled with lists of things like wax museums, and I’d have to check them off. It would be like — now, you’ve already used that one, Richard. You used the taxidermy shop, and you used the wax museum —

SULLIVAN: The clock shop —

SALA: Well, the clock shop was a personal experience, because my dad had the clock shop. Yeah, a lot of it was stuff that I obsessed about as a kid, these mysterious little neighborhoods, mysterious little shops. You have to wonder: “Am I repeating myself, am I spinning my wheels, or is it just what I do? Is this just who I am?”

Many artists actually have a specific vocabulary of obsession. Look at Hitchcock: he told very similar stories over and over again, and those are the ones that people love. When he tried to do something different, a screwball comedy or a period piece, people just didn’t accept it. As an artist, your goal should be to recognize your own personal obsessions, your own personal vocabulary, and use it. There was a review of my work where a guy said, “Enough with the mysterious killers and secret societies.” That’s like saying, “I’d sure like Peanuts a lot better if it didn’t have those kids in it.” I mean, it’s what I do. If you don’t like it, read something else.

SULLIVAN: I’ve often had the sense that you were trying to get to the ultimate example of your work. “When I arrange these pieces in exactly the right order, I will never have to do this again. Because it will be perfect.” Which I guess is the obsessive-compulsive thing.

SALA: Sure.

SULLIVAN: But as you say, you’re also doing it for the audience, trying to get them to get something. What do you want them to get? What do you think they’re not getting when they read the story the first time?

SALA: Maybe it’s not so much that they’re not getting something, as I’m not being heard. You can see the motif in a story like “Hidden Face,” where no one recognizes the guy. I suppose there’s a certain amount of insecurity and paranoia that no one notices you. On the other hand, look at episodic television, where the same motifs, characters and plots are recycled endlessly. Just consider my stuff part of that same cauldron of popular culture.

SULLIVAN: Here are some elements of your vocabulary — is there a meaning inherent in the symbol itself that makes you say, “It’s okay for me to keep bringing that one back”? We just talked about losing face and losing identity. Dismemberment?

SALA: Dismemberment, at its base, psychological level, is certainly a castration symbol, and it’s over-used. I remember watching the first season of Liquid Television, where every fucking cartoon had cute bunnies chopping the heads off other cute bunnies, or people chopping things up. And then on came my cartoon with a cut-off hand. I was like, “Jesus fucking Christ! Is every white male in the country obsessed with castration?”

I don’t want to get too Freudian about any of this stuff. Let me say this, as a caveat to all these questions: When I was in art school, people were always appropriating symbols from other cultures, primitive art, folkpainting. They thought that somehow that would give their painting meaning, the same meaning it gave to some primitive culture, which is absurd. We have our own symbols in this culture. A telephone to me is just as powerful a symbol for my culture as something like a spiral was to some primitive culture. What’s wrong with just painting a telephone, or a guy talking on the telephone? That to me is just as symbolic as a painting of an open hand, which might have lots of meaning in, say, some aboriginal culture, but doesn’t have any meaning per se in this culture.

So I started thinking about dealing with my own personal vocabulary, working up my own symbols, various kinds of things that would be my touchstones, my visual language: curio shops, hypnotism, plastic surgery, crystal balls, lots of things appropriated from that great well of ’30s culture.

SULLIVAN: So the question is, why are these your symbols? Why, to take another example, puppets?

SALA: I guess because they are somehow — they’re — I don’t know why. [laughs] Possibly they hold some twinge of nostalgia, whether I’d seen it in some old movie, or it’s something that might have seemed mysterious to me as a child. With puppets, once again it’s something behind the surface. Who’s working the puppet? The puppet may be smiling, but what’s the face of the puppeteer look like? You could actually talk for hours about all of the metaphorical meanings of a puppet. To me, a puppet is filled with symbolism. As a matter of fact, I have a puppet in my new story [laughs] that I’m working on right now for Evil Eye. But once again, that’s who I am, that’s what I do, you know. Next.

SULLIVAN: The duality you’re talking about is going to run through a lot of the hypnosis and the secret cabals, but here’s an interesting one: Weddings.

SALA: Hmm, weddings.

SULLIVAN: Even though you don’t overtly deal with sex much in your material, you have a lot of people getting married.

SALA: I like to take things that are happy in our culture — birthdays or weddings — turn them inside out, and have fan with what’s behind the surface.

It’s that whole “David Lynch quality.” When Blue Velvet came out, everybody was tripping over themselves to say “Oh, he’s seeing something that’s behind the surface of something that’s really sweet.” Our culture — especially critics — has such trouble with anybody who can see the enigmatic in everyday life. For a long time anything that was enigmatic or strange, their word was Kafkaesque. Then for awhile it was Lynchian, then it was Tim Burtonesque. Well, in Europe, you’ve got Bunuel, you’ve got Cocteau, Polanski, Bergman — this stuff has always been there. It’s as if in America, it’s amazing when people see behind the surface. “Oh, there’s something more going on!”

Yeah, there is something more going on. There’s always been a lot going on. That’s what I’m interested in, what’s behind the surface. So when I do “Honeymoon,” there’s a guy who finds out his marriage is not what he thought it was going to be. “Proxy” was Tom DeHaven’s idea. But in “Birthday Party,” where the guy’s birthday goes wrong from the first moment, that’s almost me making fun of myself and my feeling of guilt, as if I can’t allow myself any kind of joy without things instantly going bad. Even at my most neurotic, I attempted to write stories like that, that poked fun at my feelings of guilt and paranoia, much as I think Kafka also chuckled at his own neurosis.

SULLIVAN: Everyone in your stories seems paranoid.

SALA: Paranoia does play a role. I’ve always been a bit paranoid, though certainly not in the clinical sense. But the feelings of paranoia I do have are apparent to people, I think. My art teacher Jay DeFeo, during one of the first conversations we had, said, “You’re a bit of a paranoid, aren’t you?” And I said, “Why? Am I? Do I look that way?” [laughs] And she said, “That’s okay, I’m paranoid myself. It’s good to be paranoid, because paranoia sharpens the senses.” I’ve always remembered that.

I went to Disneyland as a kid. Here I was, almost an adolescent, looking at these figures of Goofy and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs wandering around, and all I could think about is, “What does their face really look like behind that? What do they really — they’re not smiling like that. They might be frowning.” But there’s this facade — the big happy heads.

SULLIVAN: Does it bother you that people would pick up on the personal vocabulary and just see it as repetitious?

SALA: I guess it should bother me. I don’t want to be someone who — well, I don’t know. Should it bother me? [laughs]


SULLIVAN: It should bother you, but does it? Do you think, “I’d better switch gears here, because if I do another story about people meeting in the cellar with hoods over their head, people are going to accuse me — ”

from The Chuckling Whatsit

from The Chuckling Whatsit

SALA: But see, I do those stories for myself. Like a lot of cartoonists, I’m not really doing comics for money. I’m doing them for myself, and if people don’t want to read my work, they don’t have to. I love the conventions of the thriller genre. We were talking before about Doc Savage — did you read a lot of Doc Savage books as a kid?

SULLIVAN: Yes, I’m embarrassed to say.

SALA: Well, wasn’t there something comforting about them? If there were some elements that were left out — say, Ham and Monk didn’t argue in a certain book —didn’t you feel there was something missing? There’s something comforting when the same elements get mentioned.

SULLIVAN: It was comforting until I read that book by Philip Jose Farmer —

SALA: Doc Savage: An Apocalyptic Life.

SULLIVAN: —where he explained that … I can’t remember the guy’s name who wrote all the books.

SALA: Lester Dent.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. He used a formula. And he actually had the formula written down.

SALA: But I loved that!

SULLIVAN: It was disturbing to me, because I want to think that stories are organic manifestations of something that might have happened, instead of just, “Doc has to be in disguise in Chapter One. In Chapter Three he reveals himself” — oh, man!

SALA: But see, I love that. I admire any writer who’s got a formula that they can make work. We’re talking about popular culture and genre fiction here, right? Not high art. I love the writer Walter Gibson, who created The Shadow. He could never have written as many Shadow stories as he did if he didn’t have a formula. Look at the early James Bond movies, which all follow a very similar, comfortable pattern. There have been tons of parodies of Bond movies, but the originals have out-lived all of them, because the originals didn’t take themselves seriously, they embraced the formula. I mean the formula, ideally, is in the plotting, not the writing, so the reader is pretty much unaware of it. It’s simply a springboard for inspiration and for getting the job done.

Another writer that I’m fascinated with is Harry Stephen Keeler, whom I’m sure many people would consider a classic bad writer. He wrote lots of really “bad” detective novels that involved absurd coincidences, absolutely unbelievable names and events, ridiculous dialects, and mind-numbing digressions. He’s forgotten now and completely out-of-print. There’s a little group of us who are into him. Apparently, he’s even got a web site [laughs]. He had a formula, too. He had files and files of clippings and ephemera. Whenever he started writing a story, he poured stuff on the floor, and just picked elements out at random, and that would make up the story, which I think is a brilliant way to write.

So whenever you come up with a formula, I think that’s great. A formula is just a way to harness the creative process. If you have any talent at all, and you’re interested in writing at all, the drive is there. What you just need is the structure.


SULLIVAN: There don’t seem to be very many children in your stories.

SALA: Yeah, true. I don’t know why. There was going to be a kid in The Chuckling Whatsit. He was going to be a computer genius. I took him out. He was going to be my very first foul-mouthed character. But then it just seemed so clichéd and old-hat to do a foul-mouthed kid. So he got cut out.

In the first issue of Evil Eye there are some little hungry kids.

SULLIVAN: I liked those guys. I thought, “I’ve never seen this in a Richard Sala story.”

SALA: That’s true. You know what? I’ve drawn kids hundreds of times in illustrations, although it’s not really my forte. One of the very first times I had to do an illustration of kids, the criticism that came back from the art director just floored me — he said the kids looked satanic. It helped me realize that the way I was drawing adults wasn’t working for kids. I was drawing little slanty eyes, and a bit too expressionistic, so that the kids didn’t look like innocent children. They looked like … Nazi gremlins.

For the longest time I tried to draw them as little adults, and it just didn’t work. Wally Wood and Jaime Hernandez — two of the greatest comics artists ever — both always draw kids as cartoons and I learned from them. That works really well.


SULLIVAN: One thing I’ve always wondered about your stories is how you are intending somebody to take them. I don’t know if I should admit this to you, but when I saw “Invisible Hands” and when I read Chuckling Whatsit, they didn’t work for me as mysteries. Everybody seemed culpable, and once you know that everybody in the cast is a murderer, who committed this particular murder loses some of its formal significance.

SALA: [sighs] Well, they’re not whodunits. They’re thrillers.

SULLIVAN: Yeah, but the driving momentum was “Who did this?” And I was wondering, do you intend for somebody who reads The Chuckling Whatsit to read it as a story, and to be involved in the narrative? And if not, what do you think people are going to with the thing?

SALA: Like I said, I do them for myself, and if they don’t communicate on a certain level, I guess that lets a lot of people out. But it sounds like what you don’t like is my love of film noir and German expressionism. In those worlds, everyone is a suspect, everyone is culpable, even the hero. The world is a threatening place, filled with grotesque faces, dark alleys, and the constant possibility of sudden, violent death. Anyone who identifies with a bewildered innocent, caught up in some kind of mess, in a dark, corrupt place, will allow themselves to be drawn into that world. Everyone else can read power fantasies about muscle men wrestling in Spandex, or little alternative cutesey-pie tykes, or whatever else is out there on the racks.

SULLIVAN: But do you mean your work to be ironic or …

SALA: All my work is tongue-in-cheek, to some degree. I remember one of these Gen-X kind of slacker cartoonists talking to me when Thirteen O’Clock came out. He says, “I didn’t get it.” “What do you mean, you didn’t get it?” “I didn’t get it. I read Thirteen O’Clock and I didn’t get it.” It blew my mind, because I realized I wasn’t sure what his expectations were. The story wasn’t meant to be taken seriously, but it wasn’t a laugh-out-loud comedy, either. It certainly wasn’t ironic in any kind of “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” way, but it’s tongue-in-cheek and possibly a bit post-modern in that it’s self-referential. A good analogy might be the old Avengers TV show from the ’60s, which I loved. The ’60s were the golden age of spoofs, camp, and black humor: The Avengers, Dr. Phibes, Barbarella, The Loved One, Dr. Strangelove, etc. Maybe the world has become way too earnest and uptight to understand any of that now.

I guess I want people not to take it simply on the surface level. Look for something more. There might be something in there you’ll find that is universal: the universal feeling of anxiety, helplessness, mistrust, paranoia, jealousy, whatever. I thought Chuckling Whatsit was a very romantic story.

The stories in Hypnotic Tales are me exploring my subconscious. I wrote Chuckling Whatsit as a thriller. But it ended up telling me a lot more about my own unconscious than I had prepared myself for. Symbols can be perceived by any sensitive reader. The final conflict at the end — the shattering of the perception of the “good” mother and father and the revelation of the “bad” mother and father — stuff like that, artists have to allow to come out of their unconscious. A reader doesn’t have to notice all these things to enjoy the strip. All I’m saying is that it makes the story richer if it can be read on more than one level.


SULLIVAN: You talk about subtext and what’s behind things, yet it’s all done at the level of the images and the symbols, because you employ characters who are always two-dimensional. That is, if they’re not one-dimensional. You don’t seem interested in telling stories about people with varied sides to their personalities.

SALA: Well, to be honest, I’m not, you know, all that interested in characterization.

SULLIVAN: You say it like it’s a dirty word, like of course you hate characterization! Who wouldn’t hate characterization?

SALA: What I’m writing are fever dreams. One person thrashing about in a world he doesn’t understand. Don’t bother searching for anything resembling a folly-rounded character. Don’t bother looking for any situation that has anything to do with reality. In other words, characterization is subordinate to plot and atmosphere. I’ll sacrifice characterization in a second for atmosphere. I don’t care what the character had for breakfast.

I mean, these stories are basically extensions of my own personality. People used to ask me, “Why don’t you do autobiographical comics?” And I would say, “I’ve been doing them. These are my autobiographies.” That’s why I did that one comic as a joke, “All About Me” — it couldn’t be less about me.

SULLIVAN: But take Chester Brown. There are a lot of different aspects of characters that come out — subtly. He’s not banging you over the head with it. But the story wouldn’t make sense without that. You have to have been picking up on what was driving him, as opposed to “I do this because I’m the hero and I do this because I’m the mad doctor.”

SALA: Well certainly I’m not in Chester Brown’s realm. We’re going for different things. And if by “mad doctor” you mean Vogardus in The Chuckling Whatsit, both he and Celeste are as developed characters as I’ve ever done, though it’s up to the reader to put the pieces together. The Chuckling Whatsit is really Vogardus’s story. The epigrams at the beginning are about him. The character Broom is kind of like the reporter in Citizen Kane — actually I had Mr. Arkadin in mind — he helps the viewer assemble the pieces.

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The Daniel Clowes Interview Fri, 24 Apr 2015 12:00:19 +0000 Continue reading ]]> from The Comics Journal #154 (November 1992)

Conducted by Gary Groth and Peter Bagge

I conducted the following interview with Dan Clowes in two sessions. The first took place on the Saturday evening immediately following the close of the 1992 Chicago Comicon, the second a month or so later. (The first half is a remarkably coherent document insofar as we were both in a stupefied post-convention fog, a state of mind that became markedly evident only when we realized that I’d spent more than 12 seconds asking Dan questions about his inking technique.) My professional affiliation with Dan is acknowledged periodically throughout the interview, and given this transparent conflict of interests — more illusory than real insofar as there is no known moral turpitude surrounding Dan’s career about which I could’ve flogged him (unfortunately) — I may as well take advantage of it.

I was especially looking forward to finding out how Dan had effected the transition between Lloyd Llewellyn and Eightball. Lloyd was, after all, an ingenious but artistically modest parody of ’50s middle-class hipster culture; Eightball is infinitely more personal and demonstrates a range that is both broader and deeper than Dan had even hinted at in Lloyd. As an editor assessing cartoonists’ submissions, I have to be latitudinarian enough to look for virtues of a somewhat lesser nature than unadulterated genius — otherwise, one wouldn’t publish anyone who hadn’t already established his credentials. When I received Dan’s Lloyd submission, I thought it was good but not, in all honesty, great. This made Eightball all the more astonishing because it wasn’t so much an evolution from Lloyd as a sudden, mammoth shift, an artistic growth so enormous as to be completely unexpected, and therefore all the more exciting.

I was frankly worried that Dan and I had talked so much over the last few years that we’d stiffen up during the recorded interview — knowing someone too well can be as big a problem as not connecting at all when conducting an interview. Looking over the transcript, though, this is the Dan Clowes I know, his cynical, dry wit intact, and a quiet thoughtfulness that neither he nor his work wear on their collective sleeve.

 GARY GROTH: Let’s get some background out of the way. Did you grow up in Chicago?

DAN CLOWES: Yes. [laughter]

Eightball #7 (November 1991)

Eightball #7 (November 1991)

GROTH: This is going to be bad. [laughter]

CLOWES: I was born in Chicago, lived here until I was 18, went to school in New York, lived there for six years, moved back to Chicago, end of story.

GROTH: What kind of upbringing did you have? Was your family middle-class?

CLOWES: My family were kind of academic types. My grandfather was a professor of Medieval history at the University of Chicago, and my mother was a faculty brat. My dad was a genius engineer-guy. They had my brother by accident and were forced to get married … and I’m not sure how I was born, because I don’t think they liked each other very much at the time I was conceived, so it’s a miracle that I exist.

GROTH: Did they divorce?

CLOWES: Yes, about a year after I was born. So I don’t remember living in a conventional nuclear family.

GROTH: So who raised you?

CLOWES: I was sort of raised by committee, by my grandparents and my mom — who, after divorcing my dad, married a guy from the south side of Chicago who was an auto racer and owned an auto shop. He was killed in an auto race in 1964.

GROTH: Do you remember him?

CLOWES: Yeah, I was just a little kid when he died, which is a really surreal thing to happen to you when you’re a little kid. My mother still runs the auto shop, even though she never drove again after my stepfather died … even though he died in a race. This was before they had all this safety equipment in stock cars, and it just rolled over and he was crushed.

GROTH: So she was raised an academic, and she’s Jewish, and now she runs an auto shop in the worst ghetto in Chicago?


GROTH: Very weird. Perhaps Dan Quayle would understand Eightball now. Well, was this traumatic for you, either at the time, or later in life?

CLOWES: Well, no, but I think I have this pathological fear of dying in an auto wreck. Once in a while when I’m driving I’ll realize that I’m hurtling at this incredible speed in this piece of machinery … all I have to do is turn the wheel a fraction of an inch and I could die easily. So I think about that a lot. I think that hits home with me, because as a three-year-old kid I learned, “Oh, cars kill people and crush them.”

GROTH: Could you just describe generally what your childhood and teen years were like?

CLOWES: I was an incredibly shy kid, and I was a real outcast, for my own reasons … I just could not deal with kids in a socially comfortable way. So I retreated into my world of fantasy. [laughter] This involved a lot of drawing, which is how I think a lot of these underground comic guys become what they are. They can’t find people to hang out with who will put up with them, so they sit there and draw pictures and create their own little fantasy world.

PETER BAGGE: So you were practically an only child?

CLOWES: Yeah, I had a brother who was ten years older than me who I never saw after I was about five or six. That was around 1968, and he was heavily into the hippie thing.

GROTH: Have you seen him since then?

CLOWES: Yeah. He was in prison for a while. Now he’s rehabbing houses. He’s a slumlord.

GROTH: Are you two close?

CLOWES: I don’t see him that much … but when we do get together, it’s funny — someone will say the setup for a joke, and we’ll both say the same punchline. Even though we’ve never really discussed that particular joke, it’s just that we have very similar senses of humor, and we tend to know the same pop culture references and things like that. He’s really a frighteningly smart guy. When he was in prison his IQ was tested, in California, and he had the highest IQ in the history of the California penal system. It was like 195 or something. But he never really put it to any good use. I mean, he was the kind of guy who could take apart an airplane and put it back together again after one time or something. But he never really applied himself to anything like that.

GROTH: So you were pretty alienated as a kid.


GROTH: Did you hate other kids?

BAGGE: Did you have a case of the shys?

CLOWES: Yeah. Yeah, I was shy. Yeah, I had a case of the shys, that’s pretty good.

GROTH: What about your teenage years?

CLOWES: Oh, it just got worse and worse. [laughter] Yeah, it was pretty bad. See, I went to this high school; it was like a school designed for the kids of the faculty of the University of Chicago. So it was children of really smart Jewish intellectual liberal types. So there was this intense sameness about the kind of kids who went there. After about the third grade I knew everybody in my school — there were only about 75 people in my class — and I got really sick of all these kids. I had done something to offend everybody in my school at that point. And then I had to go another ten years with these same kids. So by the time I was in high school I just hated everybody, and they hated me and everybody hated each other …

GROTH: Did you offend them because you were obnoxious, or they were hypersensitive, or both?

CLOWES: Umm, I just didn’t take the same stuff as seriously as they took seriously, the academic stuff.

BAGGE: Did Pete Friedrich go there?

CLOWES: Yeah, Pete Friedrich and Gene Fama, who are both involved in underground comics.

BAGGE: And you hated them?

CLOWES: No, they were my friends. But the average kid there was not somebody I got along with.

GROTH: Were you a good student?

CLOWES: I was a pretty good student. It was a school that was founded by John Dewey, and it used to be called the Laboratory School, and it was an experimental school to teach teaching techniques. So we were guinea pigs for teaching techniques, and we had to take tests every week just to get a random sampling of what kids our age knew. So after a while I got so good at taking multiple choice tests that you could give me a test on, you know, Swahili Algebra and I could get like a 60 on it. Just ’cause I knew the pattern of the tests. It’s scary.

BAGGE: Was this your John Phillip Sousa period?

CLOWES: [laughs] That would have been early high school. All the other kids were listening to what I found to be obnoxious rock music like Santana and Genesis and Yes. I decided that I would listen to something that was the most opposite of that that I could find, which resulted in John Phillip Sousa 78s that my grandfather had. It was a pretty pathetic time in my life.

GROTH: Let’s dwell on that …

CLOWES: Chicks did not dig me at this point …

BAGGE: Would you march around the room? Did you really like it, or was it only a statement?

CLOWES: Yeah, I liked it in a way, but of course the reason I liked it was ’cause I knew that kids in my high school wouldn’t understand it.

GROTH: So you didn’t date in high school?

CLOWES: No. [laughter]

GROTH: So you graduated from high school and went to New York?

CLOWES: Yeah, yeah, and then my life changed.

GROTH: Was there any time lapse between graduating and …

CLOWES: No, no, I split immediately after I got out of high school.

GROTH: Was that because you just felt so trapped there?

CLOWES: Oh yeah, yeah. ’Cause the thing of going to school with the same 80 kids for your entire life is that if you were to try to change your personality at all, these kids knew you so well they’d know it was some kind of phony thing, that you were just trying to create some new image. All my life I’ve been wanting to re-invent myself in the way I knew I could be, and it was just very uncomfortable to be pigeon-holed like that from my earliest years. ’Cause I think that I started to feel really socially inept and shy around these people when I was really young, and then I could never get out of it ’cause it was the same people.

GROTH: So you’d drag that baggage around with you everywhere?

CLOWES: Yeah. I was really desperate to get to a new scenario.

BAGGE: But looking back, didn’t you feel that some of those kids might have been in the same boat as you? Especially coming from …

CLOWES: There were a lot of kids way, way worse off than me.

GROTH: You mean in terms of social skill?

CLOWES: Yeah, yeah. Really, really … some really depressing people. But, I was so self-obsessed that I didn’t see anyone else’s problems.

GROTH: So you liberated yourself by fleeing to New York.


GROTH: What were your intentions?

CLOWES: As I fled to New York?

GROTH: Yeah. Did you have money? Did you have a plan?

CLOWES: Well, that was before Reagan was in office, and since my stepfather had died I got this incredible social security thing. I got something like four or five hundred bucks a month from the government. And I got my college tuition paid for free, because the University of Chicago also has this plan where, if your parents are employees of the University they will pay your tuition at any other school, up to the equivalent of their tuition, which is pretty amazing. I don’t know if they still do that now that tuitions are like $40,000 a year. So I got to go to college basically for free, and I had all this spending money besides that. That was the greatest time of my life.

GROTH: Why New York?

CLOWES: Where else? It’s all “happening” in New York. I was really into Chicago. I was really into the city of Chicago. But New York seemed liked the only place that was a cooler city than Chicago.

GROTH: Well, let me just get something straight. You graduated from high school …


GROTH: And then you went to New York?


GROTH: And they paid for Pratt?

CLOWES: Yeah, [pause] Not the high school, but the University of Chicago.

BAGGE: You lucky motherfucker.

CLOWES: I know, I know. It was the luckiest thing in the world.

BAGGE: I busted my ass just to …

CLOWES: I know, everybody I knew had, like, three part-time jobs and …

BAGGE: I had, like, no shoes … [laughter] I got fired from my job because my shoes were just coming off my feet, and it’s like I had no money to buy another pair of shoes.

GROTH: Let me just skip back: when did your interest in comics first …

CLOWES: Well, that began before I could even read, ’cause like I said, I had this brother who was 10 years older than me, who was like this media junkie, and he bought probably every DC comic and every Marvel comic, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, and Hot Rod magazines and Playboys and all that stuff, and just had it all lying around. And nobody ever tried to keep me from any of it; they just left it there in this communal room that we had.

It was pretty amazing. I mean, I can remember looking at a lot of old DC comics before I could read; I can remember trying to figure out the plot, and really studying every panel. And reading them like hieroglyphics, and there’d be, like, a panel where people are kissing, and I’d be [thinking], “He’s trying to bite her face off.” I wouldn’t really know what they were doing.

GROTH: What age were you when you started drawing?

CLOWES: Four or five. I remember at the time I’d do drawings and show them to people and they’d be really enthusiastic about them. And I now realize that they were just being nice — it was like my parents or my friends, and they were saying, “Oh, that’s great!” But they would have said that to anybody. They would have said that if I’d drawn the worst piece of shit. But at that time I really took it as encouragement. I think I just really got caught up with this encouragement thing, so I just kept trying.

GROTH: And did you read comics continually through your childhood?

CLOWES: Yeah, I got tired of regular comics after awhile, but I still read them and stuff like Mad for a long time.

GROTH: What about undergrounds? When did you come upon them?

CLOWES: See, my brother had undergrounds right when they first came out, right around 1969. And I didn’t really think of them as comics. I mean, he had a million of them lying around, and I kind of thought that it wasn’t cool that I was reading these; I kinda hid them. I’d see that he brought home undergrounds and I’d sneak ’em over to a corner somewhere, and read them when nobody was around ’cause I thought it was utter pornography. I thought my mom might even get mad at my brother for having them, much less me. They were pretty outlandish when I was like eight years old. Even now it’s pretty heavy. I remember reading those when I was about eight, and they used the term “blow job,” and I remember thinking, “What the fuck is a blow job?”

GROTH: But you knew at the time there was something illicit about the material?

CLOWES: Well, yeah, it was pretty obvious. I mean, this was not your run-of-the-mill stuff. I remember, actually, a little earlier than this, I was staying with my aunt, and after I left she sent me this package with a note that said, “You left these comics at our house.” And I knew I hadn’t left any comics at her house, and it was all these Zaps and Wonder Wart-hogs and stuff — I guess some other teenager had visited her house and left these, or something. But she thought they were mine, and she hadn’t even looked at them or anything. It was like, “I guess you left these hundred thousand dollar bills at our house.” It was the greatest day of my life, [laughter] I still have some of them.

GROTH: How did your interest in comics evolve from the time when you were a kid until the time when you were 18, 19, 20?

CLOWES: Well, I got more and more interested in comics — or more interested in cartooning. I wasn’t really interested in comics. I was kind of interested in becoming a Mad artist. I always had the impression — since you see guys like Jack Davis and Mort Drucker on Time magazine covers — that these were the big shot guys who live in the suburbs, and make big bucks and had trophy wives. So I thought I would pursue this field. And I would do things like caricatures of kids in school and that would get me a lot of attention. I would draw pictures of teachers picking their noses and stuff like that. It was the one thing I could do that people liked. And I’d always go farther than the other artists in school. I had no taboos.

GROTH: Were you a disciplinary problem at school?

CLOWES: No, not really, not really. Because I was too much of a wimp to do anything to draw attention to myself. At a certain point I could have gone another way and become drug addict or something … but luckily I had comics to fall back on. [laughter]

GROTH: So when you went to Pratt were you primarily interested in being a cartoonist, at that point?

CLOWES: Yeah, at that point I had kind of gotten back into it. I had gotten back into the undergrounds and stuff like Zippy and American Splendor. Those were kind of interesting to me, and I was learning about older stuff, like the ECs.

BAGGE: What did you make of things like American Splendor when you first saw them? Did you like them?

CLOWES: Well, I remember at the time thinking what a bold concept it would be to just do comics about real people and real life, and that was a real crazy idea at that time. I remember thinking EC was the closest thing to that. Like the Shock SuspenStories, ’cause it had stories just about people wearing suits, you know; they weren’t in costumes. So when American Splendor came out, I thought that was pretty cool, and I was into Crumb, and Crumb drew it, so I thought it was pretty cool. I thought it was a good thing.

GROTH: So when you went to Pratt, did you intend to become a cartoonist? Or weren’t you quite sure what you wanted to do?

CLOWES: I was just trying to find some way to waste four years. Since I could go for free, it was a boon. Yeah, I wanted to become a cartoonist. See, at that time there was American Splendor and Raw had just started, and Weirdo started while I was in school. But there was really nothing.

GROTH: Well, that was ’81, ’82 …

CLOWES: Yeah, so that was late …

GROTH: The tail end of your academic career.

CLOWES: Yeah, I guess that Arcade was still coming out at that point, but it looked pretty dead. At that age, you would see something like Arcade and think, “These guys make a million dollars — you know, it’s an actual magazine.” I remember thinking that there was still a market for the stuff, but it really looked like it was dying, and that’s when they were closing down all the head shops and stuff. Not too many comic stores had opened up yet. And I remember thinking that if I became a big shot illustrator guy then maybe I could do illustrated books or something, because of my clout as a big shot illustrator. So I thought, “First I have to become a big shot illustrator, and then I can illustrate my own books.” But that was such a vague idea; I really had no idea. [I thought], “I’ll just fuck around for four years, and then maybe the world will have ended.” There was a real apocalyptic feel in the air around that time, ’cause it was around 1979 and Reagan was about to be elected and Carter had just reinstated the selective service. So we were all thinking that if Carter had reinstated the selective service, then Reagan, no matter what he says, will send us to Afghanistan to use laser cannons and be blown to bits. So I was pretty sure we were all going to go and fight the bad guys. So I didn’t really care about my future too much at that point.

BAGGE: You were that sure?

CLOWES: Well, everybody was pretty sure at that point, as I remember. Looking back, you don’t really think that. But I remember everybody was sitting around going, “Fu-u-uck.”

GROTH: Well, especially with Iran.

CLOWES: Yeah. The whole Iran situation. And then when the Russians invaded Afghanistan, it was like, “Oh, shit.”

GROTH: Were you very politically-minded?

CLOWES: No, not at all. I was completely selfish. I just did not want to go at all.

GROTH: No desire to visit Afghanistan?

CLOWES: No, other than that I really didn’t give a shit. I’ve always been pretty much interested only in my own little world.

BAGGE: So did you reinvent yourself at Pratt?

CLOWES: Oh yeah, immediately. I mean, I had already reinvented myself, I just couldn’t, you know …

GROTH: Implement it?

CLOWES: Implement it on these sarcastic high school guys who would laugh at me.

BAGGE: So on your first day you went, “Here I am, girls.”

CLOWES: “Here I am, goils … ”

Eightball #7 (November 1991)

Eightball #7 (November 1991)

GROTH: Well, describe the years at Pratt, even though you’ve done a strip about it.

CLOWES: Yeah, well, just take that strip and embellish it with the fact that art school is actually a whole lot of fun. Considering I didn’t have to pay for it or anything.

BAGGE: It’s day care for 20-year-olds.

CLOWES: It’s day care, and it’s a great way to meet chicks, and it’s a great way to meet other disenfranchised assholes from other high schools.

BAGGE: Well, at least the jocks are gone.

CLOWES: Yeah, exactly, the jocks are gone …

BAGGE: For some inexplicable reason, the girls on average are much better looking than the high school girls.

CLOWES: And the guys are ugly.

BAGGE: So you only have to compete with geeks and homos galore.

CLOWES: [laughs] That’s right, and your homework is to do a painting of “how you feel.” That’s a lot easier to do than, you know, to write a report on The Critique of Pure Reason, which was the kind of stuff I had to do in high school.

GROTH: Was any of the art instruction valuable?

CLOWES: No, not really. The one guy I remember that actually had something to say was this guy who did cover paintings for Harlequin romances. And that’s all he did, and that’s all he knew how to do, and he taught us as if that’s all we were learning how to do. And he took us through the whole process; on the first week of class we went to his studio, and he took photographs of hired models kissing. Then the next week he took these photographs and he showed us how to lightbox it, or to project it onto a canvas, and then he penciled it, and then he watercolored it, and then he did acrylics over it, and then he had a finished painting. And from watching him do that … I really had no idea how they would do a Harlequin romance cover, how they would do these amazing things, and that’s how they do it. I mean, I really learned something from this guy. And he would say, “Here’s how you mix a flesh tone: you take this color out of the tube, and you take that color out of the tube, and you mix them, and then you have a flesh tone and that’s it.” And nobody else ever tried that. I mean, now that I look back on it, a lot of my teachers who professed to be professional illustrators hadn’t had stuff printed since 1971. I mean, I guess they were living off their rich wives, or something. I guess that’s why they taught at art school. It was the only paycheck they could get.

GROTH: So this gothic romance painter was the most valuable instructor you had in four years?

CLOWES: He was the only guy who was honest about actually teaching us a specific technique, and he’s the only guy who ever comes to mind when I think, “Who taught you something?”

GROTH: Did they teach fundamentals, like anatomy?

CLOWES: I took an anatomy class. It was taught by this guy who was not an artist; he was a doctor, really. And he taught us the exact musculature of the human body with all the Latin names. To this day it’s still a mystery to me. I mean, it’s really confusing.

GROTH: So even though you went to Pratt for four years, you’re actually self-taught.

CLOWES: Yeah, that’s kinda what gets my goat, that a lot of people have said, “Well, you went to art school and that’s why you know how to do this or that.” And I learned nothing of what I do now in art school. Absolutely nothing. Every bit of it I had to figure out for myself. I didn’t even have tips. I mean, nobody would ever have told me, “If you want to have that kind of line you have to use that kind of brush.” I had to finally figure that out through trial and error. I tried every kind of pen in the world …

BAGGE: You didn’t ask other cartoonists?

CLOWES: Yeah, but they all had a different story. Most cartoonists use really weird things. “I use a toothpick to ink with” or something.

BAGGE: Well, it’s just too darn bad that the Kubert school wasn’t …

CLOWES: No, it was there. Actually, I guess the John Buscema school was there at that point. But I thought, “No, I’m not that pathetic. I’m not going to do this.”

BAGGE: You would not only have to teach yourself, you would first have to unteach yourself.

CLOWES: It’s really funny — one of my roommates at Pratt was this guy named George Pratt, who is now a big artist for, I guess, DC.

GROTH: That’s right.

CLOWES: And he now teaches at the Kubert school.

GROTH: What was your life like during Pratt? Had you ever been to New York before?

CLOWES: No, not at all. So this was New York, in kinda the post-punk days. But everything was still kinda wacky and I would go and hang out every night with people with orange hair and shit like that.

BAGGE: Were you excited by all that stuff? All that punk stuff?

CLOWES: Oh yeah, for a while, yeah.

BAGGE: Punk was in.

CLOWES: Yeah, it was in. It was pretty interesting at that time.

GROTH: What did you like about punk? Did it affect you the way it did the Hernandezes?

CLOWES: Yeah, probably a lot in the same way, ’cause, like I said, I was listening to John Phillip Sousa records in high school to be different, and then here is this music that is sort of designed for people who wanted to listen to music to be different. And it took me awhile to realize that that, in itself, is not a good idea. But at first I thought, “Wow, this is made for me. This is really speaking to my generation.”

GROTH: What did you think the music was saying?

CLOWES: Basically, my attitude was that we were all going to be blown up soon, and it didn’t really matter. Life was hopeless, anyway.

BAGGE: I think the most influential people in punk — not only from listening to their music, but also from reading their life stories — are cut from the same exact cloth as someone like you.


BAGGE: Like Mark Mothersbaugh? Well, you’d said, “The guy’s worse off than me,” and that would be like Mark Mothersbaugh or DeeDee Ramone … Like the total outcasts who don’t care, so they say, “I’m going to play this geeky music,” and fellow geeks are like, “Yeah!”

CLOWES: Yeah. That’s right.

BAGGE: It’s something that’s less obvious now, because the two things have kinda mushed together, but at the time there was such a reaction against the hippie culture and the hippie philosophy, it was a threat …

CLOWES: Well, that was a good part of it too. I grew up in this intensely, almost socialist atmosphere, a very intensely PC, liberal atmosphere. And you know, it was the kind of neighborhood where all the parents would listen to folk songs and talk about Eugene Debbs and stuff like that. It was very hard for me to rebel against my parents, ’cause they were so cool and hip and accepting of anything I would do. You know, I could come home and say, “Here’s a drawing of a guy with his dick chopped off,” and they would say, “Oh, that’s very nice.” And so it’s really hard to rebel against parents like that. You know, I could have dyed my hair green and gotten a pierced septum and come home and they would say, “Oh, you look cute.” Basically, the only thing I could do was embrace the punk philosophy of utter stupidity, [because] that would be the only thing that would offend my parents, the really crass stupidity…

GROTH: Right.

CLOWES: So that’s what I kind of grooved on in the punk thing. Like the Ramones were into the idea that you could like bad fast food and watch cartoons when you’re 25 years old. Things like that. Read comic books.

BAGGE: All the stuff that you were supposed to feel guilty about liking.

CLOWES: At the time it was really liberating; it was a real sense of freedom, that I didn’t have the social responsibility to do whatever, which was instilled in me all my life.

GROTH: Hmm. Is that what punk symbolizes in general, a kind of consumerist, hedonist, nihilistic …

CLOWES: I think that at that time the hippie culture was so ingrained in the media — especially in things like The Village Voice and Rolling Stone and magazines like that where all these aging hippies were writing the stuff — that it was so cool to say “fuck you” to those guys.

GROTH: Well, why didn’t you just become a Republican? If you wanted to rebel …

CLOWES: Well, it wasn’t that far from it; I mean, in a lot of those ways.

GROTH: Yeah, I can see that.

CLOWES: In a lot of the attitudes. I wasn’t political enough to do that. I wasn’t that crazy.

GROTH: Not that nihilistic? [pause] So what were your other impressions of New York? What else did you do besides go to concerts? How much of the city did you actually take in?

CLOWES: I ran the gamut. I really fell in love with the city for a while, ’cause I really liked the fact that it was this decaying island of hedonists. It’s pretty amazing. It wears on you, but for awhile, you just got the idea that around any corner anything could happen at any time. It was really exciting.

BAGGE: It’s a good place for a 21-year-old.

GROTH: Was George Pratt only one of your roommates, or was he your only roommate the whole time?

CLOWES: No, he was just one of many.

GROTH: Did you pal around with people from Pratt? Or were there other social relationships?

CLOWES: Yeah, well, most of my best friends now are guys from the Pratt years. I don’t really see anyone I knew from before I went to New York. I don’t have any old friends from high school. [laughter] For obvious reasons. Yeah, I’d say that the greatest value of Pratt, or art school in general, is to meet these like-minded sociopaths with whom to carry out your grand schemes.

GROTH: Who were a few of the people that you met there that you’re still friends with who aren’t comic artists?

CLOWES: Well, one of my best friends is this guy, Charles Schneider, who recently edited this book called Cad. And he’s just this eccentric guy who’s involved with all these things. He’s just a wacky guy I knew at Pratt. He was always coming up with schemes for, you know, practical jokes. Like one time on April Fool’s Day he came by my room and he had this giant plastic bag with him. He said, “C’mon, I’ve got this great stunt.” And I said, “Well, I’ve got to go to class.” And he asked, “Well, can I leave this bag in your room?” And I said, “Oh, OK.” He said, “Well, I’ll meet you here later and we’ll do this stunt.” And so I came back later and this bag is sitting on my bed, and I’m kind of looking at it, and I heard crickets. So he comes back and says, “C’mon, let’s go pull this prank.” And I say, “OK, what’s in the bag?” And tells me, “Oh. I bought $50 worth of crickets. “ I mean, this giant heavy bag was completely filled with crickets. They hadn’t been making any noise because it wasn’t the right time of day, or something. But …

GROTH: Just black crickets?

CLOWES: Yeah. I guess you buy ’em to feed reptiles or something. Anyway, we take this giant bag of crickets, and he’s like, “We’ve got to do something with these crickets.” We didn’t really have any enemies, and we couldn’t think of anybody to dump these crickets on. But there was one fraternity at Pratt, and so he says, “Well, there’s the frat house, and people in fraternities are always assholes. So we can go there.” He had these two masks in his pockets, so we put these on. We go to the frat house and ring the doorbell. Some sorority girl answers and Charles throws this bag of the most crickets that anyone has ever seen into the frat house, and then we run away. [laughter] And the next day we were in the cafeteria, and we heard these frat guys saying, “Somebody threw crickets in our frat house.” So that was the kind of thing we would do.


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Yoshihiro Tatsumi Interview Tue, 10 Mar 2015 12:00:46 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Gary Groth interviews the seminal gekiga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi.

From The Comics Journal #281 (February 2007)

From "Who Are You?" in The Push Man.

From “Who Are You?” in The Push Man.

Yoshihiro Tatsumi is a pivotal figure in the history of manga. Like American comic books of the same period, manga in the ’40s and ’50s was dominated by a juvenile idiom. There was good work done within the parameters of this idiom, but to an artist with serious aesthetic ambition, it was too confining, indeed stifling. At about the same time that a handful of cartoonists in the U.S. — Kurtzman, Eisner, Krigstein — were bucking the trend and trying to create work that was more literate and graphically sophisticated than the editors and publishers wanted, the aesthetically restless Tatsumi broke from the industry norm in Japan and started making comics of an intensely personal kind. In 1957, he began writing and drawing comics that he called gekiga (literally “dramatic pictures”), which exorcised his own private demons and reflected his intensely subjective perception of the world around him. He still had to make a living by drawing commercial comics (and even became a commercial comics publisher himself) but continued to draw his own comics when he had the time and an outlet.

The first (authorized) English translation of his work came out in 2005: Push Man and Other Stories, edited by Adrian Tomine and published by Drawn & Quarterly. A second volume of short stories came out last year. In late spring of ’06, D&Q’s publicist Peggy Burns called and asked me if I’d be interested in interviewing Tatsumi at Comic-Con International in San Diego in August. I got back to her after I’d looked through — but not read — Push Man and agreed to interview him. Cursory research indicated Tatsumi was a fascinating historical figure, and the work looked meaty and interesting. We set up a time and a place and secured a translator.

In the interests of full disclosure and critical honesty, I should say that after I’d read Push Man, I had misgivings over his work, which were not allayed by reading the subsequent volume, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, which seemed to me largely supererogatory. Greg Stump in his accompanying essay, points out how relentlessly, uncompromisingly bleak Tatsumi’s stories are. And indeed they are, but this isn’t by itself a recommendation any more than a happy ending is reason to condemn a story. Although there have been exceptions, I usually only interview artists whose work I like, and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable interviewing Tatsumi. I was troubled by a number of tics that comprised the backbone of Tatsumi’s aesthetic: the narrowness, aridity and sameness of the vision; the dramatic implausibility and jerry-rigged mechanics of many of the stories; characters who are either stereotypes or ciphers (albeit purposeful ciphers); and a tendency toward heavy-handed, literal-minded metaphors (the rat in “My Hitler,” the piranhas in “Piranha”).

That said, the work was clearly a sincere expression of Tatsumi’s convictions, and his artistic choices, whatever my reservations, took courage and tenacity; I thought I could do a good job and looked forward to interviewing him. Tatsumi’s schedule was booked solidly throughout the convention; the interview was supposed to take place Saturday afternoon between public appearances at the con. I hadn’t quite reckoned with how cumbersome and time-consuming the translation process is; I would ask a question, which would be translated into Japanese; Tatsumi would answer in Japanese, and the translator would translate it for me into English. The interview therefore yielded less than half the conversation of an interview where both parties speak the same language. When we had finished lunch, I asked him if he’d be willing to continue the interview in the early evening after his last convention panel (and before dinner), to which he agreed. We clocked in over five hours of taping altogether.

Physically, Tatsumi is a compact man with a gracious manner (and obviously patient); his conversation is straightforward, and his sense of humor was, well, given his work, surprising. I’d like to think we got along well. I would especially like to praise our translator, Taro Nettleton, whose translation reflected the talk’s colloquial nature, and who navigated the ebbs and flows and back-and-forth of the conversation expertly. I hope this interview serves as both an introduction and deepening explication of Tatsumi’s life and work.

— Gary Groth, January 2007

GARY GROTH: I’d like to begin by getting a little background information. You were 10 years old when World War II ended, and I wanted to know what your recollections of the war were, and how you think the war affected your later life and your perceptions of life.

Yoshihiro TATSUMI: Obviously, since I was 10 years old, I didn’t go to war. But it was still a very immediate experience, so I watched my neighbors’ houses being burned down. I watched landscape get turned into rubble, firebombing by firebombing. And luckily, my house, my family’s house, was not burned down, but I saw corpses firsthand, everywhere on the streets. So, the  tragedy of the war inevitably influenced my experience.

GROTH: What city did you live in?

TATSUMI: I lived only about 10 minutes away from Itami Airport. The airport was a target, so my house actually had a couple of bullet holes going through the walls. One of the things that was most unforgettable was the scent of the rotting corpses on the streets. That they would be left there for days on end, and to this day, I can’t forget that, the smell of rotting flesh.

GROTH: I assume that that was a pretty deeply etched part of that experience. Did that affect your later aesthetic sensibility?

TATSUMI: Well, what really was ingrained in my mind was the  juxtaposition between ugliness and beauty, wealth and poverty, and this idea of the outside and inside and the discrepancy between the two. And so even when Japan started to enjoy economic growth —

GROTH: — Prosperity?

TATSUMI:  — prosperity, I was still unable to shake the feeling that this was only a façade and right beneath the surface was all this kind of ugliness still.

GROTH: Do you think that that is empirically true, or merely your perception? Have you investigated this?

TATSUMI: It was true to my own experience, and for me, I started really writing comics in my 20s, and I’ve always targeted my work to readers of my own generation. So, for my intended readers, I think that this was a certain kind of truth, but perhaps for younger generations of readers, they may have felt some discomfort or alienation from this kind of depiction.

From "Beloved Monkey," collected in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.  All stories in Abandon the Old in Tokyo were translated by Yuji Oniki and edited, designed and lettered by Adrian Tomine.

From “Beloved Monkey,” collected in Abandon the Old in Tokyo. All stories in Abandon the Old in Tokyo were translated by Yuji Oniki and edited, designed and lettered by Adrian Tomine.

GROTH: What was your experience as to how people behaved during and after the war?

TATSUMI: It seemed to me that while the public was very ready to forget the past and move on from the war, for me it was extremely difficult to let that go. And so even today, when I visit the United States, I can’t help but think of World War II, in a sense. Especially in San Diego, because of the strong military presence here, and there’s been Japanese politicians coming to inspect the nuclear carriers. It’s very difficult to separate the two, kind of the past and the present. This is my first time in the United States. Actually being here, I feel San Diego is a beautiful place, and I feel comforted, almost enough so that I can forget the past.

GROTH: When you say that it’s hard to forget the past, do you mean that you harbored an animosity toward the United States about the war?

TATSUMI: No, I don’t harbor any animosity against the United States. Although, as a child during the war, we were all taught that the Americans were the devil, you know, that they were evil.

GROTH: The usual demonization, yes. [Laughter.]

TATSUMI:  But immediately after the war, the reality was that we had no food, and we went to the soldiers. It’s sort of a famous phrase in Japan — that children would run up to the soldiers and say “Give me chocolate, give me gum.” So, I had direct contact with the soldiers, so that definitely worked toward changing the ideology that I was taught. It really changed the way that I felt about Americans. It’s not included in this work, but I actually have a story that deals with my childhood experience in the immediate postwar period.

GROTH: Is that right? Depicting children. This is autobiographical?

TATSUMI:  Yes, it is. But the protagonists are adults, but it’s told from the perspective of a child. It’s called “Goodbye.”

GROTH: Can you tell me what year you did this?

TATSUMI: ’Seventy-two.

GROTH: Looking at the story, this particular work reminds me, especially this panel here, of Will Eisner … Do you know Will Eisner’s work?

TATSUMI: No … What decade was he working?

GROTH: He started around 1938, but he died last year, but he continued working until he was 84. In 1976, he started doing much more naturalistic work, similar to this. This is uncannily similar to his in terms of technique, and drawing and composition and figures.
TATSUMI: Well, there’s really only so many ways I can draw sexy. [Laughter.] But in this panel, I tried to draw it in the least vulgar way possible, because it wasn’t intended to be an erotic work.

GROTH: Right. And it isn’t.

TATSUMI: So this isn’t, obviously, told from the side of the victims of the war, but this is the lover of an American soldier and this is her father.

GROTH : And there’s some tension.

TATSUMI: She’s a prostitute, and he’s coming to get money from her. Almost like, yes, almost like pimping her. So her father’s a huge burden on her, and she really wants to disassociate herself from her own family. And so here, she’s seen partying with the American soldiers, riding in the jeep. And she’s ridiculing all the Japanese men.

GROTH: Right, right.

TATSUMI: So, her father is completely powerless. He has to come to her for money. It’s not really that he’s pimping her out, but he’s dependent on her, and that’s part of the reason that she despises Japanese men, because like her father, at the time, all Japanese men were quite powerless.

GROTH: Is this true to your experience or understanding?

TATSUMI:  Yes. I was only a child, but looking at the men around me in my neighborhood, they were completely powerless to say anything. They basically just had to watch silently, as women were going with American soldiers, because they were desperate even to find food. So there was nothing that they could say or do.

So, to finally sever ties with her father, she seduces him.

From "Good-Bye," collected in Good-Bye and Other Stories, translated from the Spanish version by David Rosenthal.

From “Good-Bye,” collected in Good-Bye and Other Stories, translated from the Spanish version by David Rosenthal.

GROTH: [Whistles.]

TATSUMI: So then he finally leaves, after he’s slept with her. So you know, it’s unknown what’s going to happen to the father, but he clearly cannot return to his daughter. And he’s, in this panel, calling himself an animal, a beast.

GROTH: When you were in the postwar period, reconstruction, you were going to school, I presume? When did you acquire your interest in drawing, and specifically drawing comics and telling stories?

TATSUMI: Since grade school, I always did really poorly in art classes, and high school was as far as I had in formal education, but since grade school I had fun. I had very bad grades in art classes. And you really had to be rich to be able to go to college at the time. About half of my classmates dropped out after junior high school and started working. The only reason that I was able to attend high school was because I made my own tuition by submitting comics to newspapers and magazines for cash prizes. So when I was in junior high school, I wasn’t very good at drawing. But my older brother, who’s two years older than I am, was really good at drawing. My brother had to go to an abacus school. That was sort of required by the educational system.

GROTH: What is an abacus school?

TATSUMI: Just where you learn to use an abacus.


TATSUMI:  But it was after school, specifically, to learn how to use the abacus.

GROTH: I see.

TATSUMI: And so my brother would be at the abacus school, but he would just be drawing comics during class. All of his classmates loved his drawings. And that’s when he started to have an interest in drawing. So at around that time, my brother submitted what was called a postcard comic to a magazine. And he won a prize that was this very shiny medal, and so that inspired me to start submitting my own works.

GROTH: A postcard comic is exactly what the term implies? A comic the size of a postcard?

TATSUMI: Yes. He would send in the postcard that would have the comic on it. There would be four or eight panels on a post card.

GROTH: I see. And when you were making cartoons and comics for cash prizes, would you have been 14, 15 years old?

TATSUMI: I was in seventh grade when I started submitting those.

GROTH: So you would have been 12 years old?

TATSUMI: Twelve. So many magazines and newspapers were soliciting comics at the time, because there weren’t very many comics artists working. And one time I submitted a work and I received a cash prize, and it hadn’t happened before. So suddenly I was hooked on this cash-prize idea, and from then on, I limited myself to sending works to papers and magazines that offered cash prizes.

Before the war, my father ran a laundry shop; we were living in Osaka, but because the air raids started to get so bad, we had to move to a suburb called Toyonaka. And that was around 1944. [It states in Tatsumi’s  biography that his family also evacuated to Nara Prefecture in 1944.] And so my father could no longer operate a laundry business in this new suburb, that we had moved to, and he tried a lot of different businesses, but he didn’t have much of an income. So, for an eighth-grader, I was making a pretty good amount of money at the time from these comic submissions. And so I started to help support my family at that.

GROTH: Would your family have been considered working-class?

TATSUMI: Yes. I mean, they weren’t white-collar. Our family had operated a business out of our home before the war, but during the war, there were six people in my family, so anybody who could work, had to do their part.

GROTH: You had three siblings?

TATSUMI: Three siblings.

GROTH: Your mother is what we would have called a housewife?


From "Unpaid" in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

From “Unpaid” in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

GROTH: Now these comics you were submitting when you were 12, 13,14, 15 years old, what were they like? What were they about?

TATSUMI: They were just very ordinary, kind of benign comics. They had some humor. People would fall down and it would be funny, that kind of thing.

GROTH: Slapstick.

TATSUMI: Slapstick, yeah, basically slapstick. And I was working with single-panel, and  four-panel comics. So typically, in the newspapers, they have four-panel comics, and there was one contest that was organized by the author of Sazae-San. Do you know Sazae-San?


TATSUMI: It’s the  Japanese equivalent of Blondie, basically. It depicts kind of a middle-class …

GROTH: Domestic situation?

TATSUMI:  A domestic situation. And it was immensely popular. Much later on it would also become a [TV] show, but at one point, the author, Machiko Haseagawa, stopped running the strip in the paper. It was published in Asahi Shimbun paper, and the readers were so upset, that she had to start publishing it again in the paper. They wouldn’t let her quit. So she ran a contest that was only for women, and it had really, really good prize money.

GROTH: So you submitted!

TATSUMI:  So I submitted something under my younger sister’s name, pretending to be a housewife, when I was 12. [Laughter.]

GROTH: Did you win?

TATSUMI:  Yes, I won about $600. And he —

GROTH: Your sister won.

TATSUMI: Right. [Laughs.] Yeah, she asked for her cut. [Groth laughs.] So this contest ran in this women’s magazine that was published by the Asahi Shimbun [newspaper]  Machiko Hasegawa, the author of Sanzae-San, wrote her criticism of the winning cartoons. She said that for a housewife author, this work that I wrote was unique. [Laughter.] It had something to do with — I can’t quite remember, but something about a drunk husband coming home and a wife getting angry at him. It was, in a way, a work of social criticism, and that was the first time I had drawn a comic that was critical in that way.

GROTH: Was it written from a woman’s point of view?

TATSUMI: Yes, right, I mean it was a woman’s magazine.  I think it was called House Asahi or something.

GROTH: Was this domestic strip like Blondie as bad as Blondie?

TATSUMI: No, its not that bad, you know, the punch line is usually kind of a common one. It’s a comedy of errors sort of thing, but while Blondie focuses on the relationship between wife and husband, Sanzae-san depicts a strange and complex family structure, so there’s small children, a husband and wife, and grandparents involved. As a depiction of the family, its quite sophisticated and interesting, at least, so that’s why it was a big hit with families.
GROTH: And you did this submission of a sort of social criticism when you were 12?

TATSUMI: I was in eighth grade, so I was 12 or 13 maybe.

GROTH: My son is 12. [Laughter.]

TATSUMI: Is he making money for you yet?

GROTH: No, but I’m going to talk to him about this when I get home. [Laughter.]

TATSUMI: I feel for sorry for your son. [Laughter.]

GROTH: It occurs to me you had an enormous responsibility thrust on you at a very young age. Did you feel that your childhood was abbreviated?

TATSUMI: I don’t really feel that my childhood was abbreviated. I think that I played like any other child during that time. But we didn’t have a lot of forms of entertainment. Of course, we didn’t have a TV, and my family didn’t even have a radio at that time, and so what my friends and I did was to try and entertain ourselves in ways that didn’t cost any money. So we would play baseball, but of course, our ball would be made out of cloth, and our gloves were sewn by our mothers, and our bats would just be a two-by-four or a piece of wood we found in the street. But there was never a lack of space, because there was a lot of —

GROTH: The fields were bombed out?

TATSUMI: — bombed out [laughter] fields.

Yomiuri Shimbun used to run a magazine that was for boys called the Shonen Giants. Or Tokyo Giants. So one time, I submitted a comic to this magazine, Shonen Giants, something like, The Boy’s Giants [referring to a baseball team] and I won a nice leather baseball glove. But it was so embarrassing to bring it out to show my friends, because we were all playing with cloth gloves, that I never even had a chance to use it. I just kept it at home. I couldn’t bring it up.

GROTH: Because you didn’t want to be seen as too affluent. 


From the titular story in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

From the titular story in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

GROTH: Obviously I’ve been disabused of this here, but I thought your first published work was Children’s Island in 1952. Where does that work actually stand in your career?

TATSUMI: High school starts at ninth grade —

GROTH: Yes, so you’d be about 14 —

TATSUMI: — In 10th grade. So my second year in high school was when I created that work, Children’s Island. But it took a year for that to be published, so it came out when I was in my third year of my high school. But before that, when I was in ninth grade … I’m getting confused. Third year of junior high school would be …

GROTH: Well, we don’t have three years in junior, but that would probably be the ninth grade. 

TATSUMI: When I was in ninth grade, this time I submitted the work to Mainichi Shimbun. Shimbun is “newspaper.” Manichi is “daily.” And they were running a special editorial, specifically for summer vacation about … the title was something like “Genius Comics Children.” It was about kids who were interested in comics. So I submitted a work, and they were interested in me, and one day this limousine with a flag on it pulls up to the front of my dilapidated house, and my mother thinks I’m being taken away to the police station. I was whisked away back to the newspaper offices, and we conducted interviews like this [interview]. This ties into the first time I met Osamu Tezuka. I was being interviewed, and the reporter asked me whose works I liked to read, and at the time I was reading a lot of works by Osamu Tezuka, and I said, “Boy, I really like Tezuka’s work.”

And the reporter said, “Oh, you like Tezuka, too.” And I felt that the reporter had this sort of re-recognition of the popularity of Tezuka in the Kansai area at the time.

GROTH: Kansai area?

TATSUMI: Kansai and Kanto. The Kansai area includes Kobe, Osaka and  Kyoto, so it’s  the western area, and Kanto is the eastern area, which includes Tokyo. And so the reporter told me that he actually knew Tezuka, and he asked me if I would like to meet him. And I said of course, he’s like a god to me. And that’s how I got to meet him for the first time.

GROTH: And you would have been about 15, 16 at the time?

TATSUMI: Fourteen, 15, I think.

GROTH: So at that age, you were recognizing the names of cartoonists, and following them that closely.

TATSUMI: There were other authors that I liked, but Tezuka at that time was overwhelmingly popular. And all of my friends really loved Tezuka’s works, and some of my friends had his books. But while Tezuka was working with stories, kind of longer works, I was still working with these four-panel comics. But I found out through the reporter that Tezuka was my neighbor; he only lived about 15 minutes away from my house. So starting in about 10th grade, I started to bring him my panel comics to have him critique my work. So I was bringing him all of these strips. He seemed slightly exasperated. I don’t know if maybe they just weren’t any good. He suggested that from now on, comic artists are going to need to make longer works. “So why don’t you try your hand at creating a story, a longer piece?”

So when I was in high school, I started to create short stories that were maybe 30 to 50 pages long. And of course that was in school and I had to go to class and everything. So it would take me about three months to come up with a 30-page piece. I would then bring those to Tezuka, and he would critique them, and I would rewrite them sometimes. But those works I never submitted; I kept them to myself. So in the second year of high school — that actually would be 11th grade, I created a longer work, about 96 pages, and around that  time, Tezuka’s name had spread to Tokyo, and so he was becoming popular in the Kanto area as well. And then because I started to have publishers in that area, I had to move from Osaka to Tokyo.

From the titular story in The Push Man.

From the titular story in The Push Man.

GROTH: That was probably a greater industrial area with more commerce.

TATSUMI: Yes, they were completely different. Osaka was sort of known more for business, but compared to Tokyo, it lacked a sort of cultural —

GROTH: It wasn’t as cosmopolitan?

TATSUMI: Cosmopolitan, right. But also the publishing industry was much more centered in Tokyo. There were almost no publishing companies in Osaka at the time. And if there were, they were sort of specialized businesses that only pressed small numbers of books. But one area of publishing that did thrive in the Osaka and the Kansai area was the rental comics market. That started in Kobe, and by this time, it had spread to about 15,000 rental bookstores nationwide. But these were not very sophisticated publishers. There might have been a person who was running a vegetable stand, and suddenly they started publishing rental comic books. So that was the degree of sophistication. And many of the comic artists who were writing comics for these rental books, were former sign painters, who painted the boards for films or kamishibai. There was a thing in Japan where there were traveling candy sellers. And if you bought candy, they would tell you a story. And the way that the story was told was that there would be a frame like this, maybe a wooden frame, and you would have panels inside it. So he would show a picture, and the man would narrate a little bit, and then pull that one out, and then he would show the  picture underneath. So the story would be on this side, right.

GROTH: And he would read it on that side.

TATSUMI: And he would read it on that side, and the story would progress like that. So people who ran that business, selling candy and telling stories, also turned into comic artists.

GROTH: Good comic artists?

TATSUMI: The stories that were told in this kamishibai thing tended to be violent and more explicit than the kind of stories that were… It was a low genre, basically. They would be horror stories or samurai stories. And they would be more violent, more explicit and somewhat more vulgar than the type of comics that you would find in Tokyo. So it definitely had its own flavor.

OK, now it’s coming together. So this 96-page work that I did, this first longer piece that I drew, that was the Children’s Island.

GROTH: Ah, it all comes together.

TATSUMI: With that work, I had to send it to Tezuka, because he was no longer in Osaka. So Tezuka critiqued it for me, sent it back to me, and then I sent it to this other cartoonist named Noboru Oshiro, and he passed the work on to a publisher in Tokyo, Ysuru Shobo. And that was how Children’s Island came to be published in 1952.

GROTH:  I see. And what kind of story was it?

TATSUMI: It was about these children who were living on an abandoned island, and they make do to make their lives as normal as possible with the materials that they had, kind of like Lord of the Flies. But a complete children’s comic.

GROTH: Not as vicious as Lord of the FliesWere Tezuka’s criticism of your work useful and productive? Was he a good critic?

TATSUMI: I‘m sorry. The Children’s Island, I didn’t send to Tezuka. I sent it to Oshiro. The only works that Tezuka critiqued of mine were the short panel stories. And his critiques were not that useful. It was, you know, this is good, this is not good. Since they were really short four-panel works, I wouldn’t rewrite them. If he said it was no good, then I would just come up with a new one. But Tezuka’s works were very useful to me, much more than his criticisms.

GROTH: Useful in the sense of understanding the mechanics of comics?

TATSUMI: I mean, certainly I was influenced by his drawing style, but more than that, what was most useful or influential to me was the fact that he seemed to be depicting a world that had never been depicted through comics before. So it was radically new to me.

GROTH: And that inspired you to do the same?

TATSUMI:  I never thought that I could create a new world through my art, or that I could create a world like Tezuka’s. But it was more the possibility that comics have that his works made me realize, that you could do this kind of thing.

GROTH: Many American cartoonists had that kind of epiphany, where a single work allows them to see the possibilities of comics.

TATSUMI: I wasn’t interested in following in Tezuka’s footsteps, but I wanted to create a world of my own. But with my first work, this Children’s Island, was definitely influenced, strongly influenced in style by both Tezuka and Oshiro.

GROTH: When you say you wanted to create a world of your own, do you mean that you wanted to be an original, not to imitate anybody?

TATSUMI: Yes. So I didn’t want to make a work that would fall, you know, within Tezuka’s world. The world that I could create, perhaps it wouldn’t be as expansive as Tezuka’s world. But even if it was small, I wanted it to be my own.

From "Piranha" in The Push Man.

From “Piranha” in The Push Man.


GROTH: [Distracted] There are way too many Americans here. What the fuck is this? There’s this endless string of old ladies. It’s like my worst nightmare. [Laughter.]

TATSUMI: We could go downstairs, unless they’re all going downstairs, and try to call Peggy and tell her that we’re …

GROTH: The restaurant’s right on the other side of the hotel. Do you want to have lunch?


GROTH: Peggy would manage. You call it.

TRANSLATOR TARO NETTLETON: [Laughs.] He says he’s used to this kind of scene, because women traveling in groups is very popular in Japan. In fact, they’re everywhere you go.

GROTH: These are not the best conditions to do an interview in. This is weird.


GROTH: We just moved to a restaurant, so we shall continue apace. I wanted to ask you if you considered Tezuka a mentor.

TATSUMI: I don’t know that he would have considered me his student, but I definitely considered him my mentor. So yes, I mean, he critiqued my works, I definitely thought of him as my mentor.

GROTH: Did you stay in touch with him over the years?

TATSUMI: There was about a five- or six-year period after he moved to Tokyo, when we didn’t have any contact. I moved to Tokyo myself about three years after Tezuka. And I was at a party that was thrown by a publisher, and I heard Tezuka’s voice getting closer and closer, but I got nervous and ran away from him. And part of the reason that I ran is that Tezuka had become an enormous figure since he had moved to Tokyo. He was not the same person that I was visiting in Osaka, but I also knew that the work that I was making at that time — I was creating violent works, which I knew was exactly the kind of work that Tezuka detested.

GROTH: I see.

TATSUMI: So I didn’t know how I would greet him or interact with him, if I had seen him.

GROTH: Was this the work known as gekiga? Or was it something else?

TATSUMI: Yes, this was already gekiga. At this time, Tezuka knew that there was this new genre of comics called gekiga coming out. And although he hadn’t read it, he asked his assistant apprentice, if he had read this gekiga work, and whether or not it was any good, and his assistant said yes, it’s wonderful. And Tezuka got so mad that he kicked him down a flight of stairs.

GROTH: [Laughs.]

TATSUMI: This was written in a biography by the assistant. [Tatsumi revises this story later in the interview.]

GROTH: Wow. How would you describe your relationship with him over the years? Did you become friends, or was it purely professional?

TATSUMI: After two or three years had passed, after I had run away from him at the party, Tezuka was starting to become less busy, and, I think he also felt … He started to realize that his own work was, in some ways, becoming more like gekiga style. And so he would call me every once in a while. But I couldn’t call him, because he has managers and assistants, and there was no way I could reach him directly. But every once in a while, he would call me, and we would talk. I definitely wouldn’t say that we were friends, because he’s older than I am, he’s my senior. But, I felt, at some point, that we were rivals in a way. I didn’t really talk to him about our works, really. But there were points when he worked on several autobiographies, and I would speak to him when he was working on those, to talk about our past.

GROTH: Did you continue to admire Tezuka’s work?

TATSUMI: After Tezuka moved to Tokyo and he started publishing works in magazines, I felt that his works became quite boring. And actually, at that point, my colleagues and I were all quite anti-Tezuka, and we were, if anything, determined to sort of take him down. I was quite disappointed in his work when he started to publish in magazines, because what I enjoyed about his works previously, when he was working with his paperbacks that were book-length works, the looseness, because there was more space, and it was also more playful. And as soon as he started to have to publish in much shorter stories — maybe it became three and eight pages, eight pages at the most with these magazine stories — there were more panels in each page, so the page would become very cluttered. And there was no flow between the panels. So I became quite disappointed in his work at that point.

Yesterday, I sat on a panel with five other authors and we discussed the difference between graphic novels and serialized works. This was basically the same idea about him, that I was interested in Tezuka’s graphic novels. But as soon as he started to publish these in a serialized format, I felt that they had turned into comics.

GROTH: So you felt that the reduction in space constipated his storytelling?

TATSUMI: It was claustrophobic.

GROTH: Yes, right, right, to the great detriment of his cartooning skills. Would that be accurate?

TATSUMI: At this time too, he was working with assistants. And I could tell, looking at his work, that it barely had any of his own —

GROTH: Line drawing?

TATSUMI:  — line drawing in it. So there’s no way that I could positively evaluate a work like that.

From "Occupied" in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

From “Occupied” in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

GROTH: Yes. What did you think of Buddha, which is, I think, one of Tezuka’s later works, one he did near the end of his life?

TATSUMI: I’ve only really read it in pieces, so I can’t really say, but from what I’ve seen, you definitely get a window into Tezuka’s religious outlook. But I myself am not religious or Buddhist, and I think that it would be considered one of Tezuka’s major works, but at the same time, I think, as a work, at points, it’s quite boring. And in a way, I feel that the world he created is not a very Tezuka-like world. Buddha is already out in the States. I’m not going to say any more but — [laughs].

GROTH: I should probably preface this by saying I’m not an expert in Japanese comics, so some of my assumptions might be wrong, but apart from the drawing, it seems to me that your aesthetic sensibilities are antithetical. Tezuka’s seems light, frivolous, more commercial, whereas yours has an existential dimension that I don’t see in much of what I’m familiar with in Tezuka.

TATSUMI: I think that it makes perfect sense that you would see our works as being antithetical. Actually, that pleases me that you would see it that way. In filmic terms, Tezuka’s work is a Hollywood work, and while Tezuka’s greatest theme is love and humanity, my work focuses really on the other side of …

GROTH: The lack of love, the lack of humanity. [Laughter.] But, yes, much as I admire his cartooning, it does seem like Tezuka is more of a Spielberg, whereas you are more of an Ozu.

TATSUMI: Well, I like to watch Hollywood films for entertainment, but as far as what I found influential, it was mostly French and Italian films.

GROTH: Italian neorealist films, like Roberto Rossellini and —

TATSUMI: I don’t really remember the names of the directors, but I haven’t seen too many neorealist films. I’m not that familiar with Ozu’s work, either. I tend to like works by unknown directors.

GROTH: Come to think of it, Ozu is not a good analogy; Masaki  Kobayashi would be closer to the mark. Do you know his work? He did a film called Sepukku.

TATSUMI: I’m not sure if I saw Seppuku, but I like Kurosawa’s work.

GROTH: Like High and Low, the period in the … Well, do you like both his samurai and his contemporary drama?

TATSUMI: I don’t really like his later works that much.

GROTH: You were a manga publisher in the ’50s, so naturally, I want to know how that came about. Did that come after you moved to Tokyo? And what kind of manga did you publish? Gekiga, or Tezuka’s kind, or some other kind?

TATSUMI: After I moved to Tokyo, I was essentially out of work. So I started my own publishing company out of necessity, primarily so I could continue publishing my own work. As I said before, a person who was running a vegetable stand could start a publishing company, so it didn’t require very much capital, and it so happened that at the time I had a friend who moved out from Tokyo who had just sold his house, so he was willing to put up the kind of start-up costs for a publishing company. I started a publishing company to continue to publish my works for the rental comic-book industry. But eventually, there weren’t any comic-book rental stores, so obviously, there was no distribution route left for me to use. Then  I started to publish books that would be sold at regular retailers.

Maybe I didn’t touch on this, but the rental-books industry and the regular publishing industry had completely different systems set up. Different distributors. So I started to work with one of the major sales distributors, for publishing works in Tokyo, which also distributed all the mainstream publications. That meant I was publishing in larger numbers, but it also required more capital investment on my part. As they were publishing for mainstream distribution routes, and publishing in larger quantities, I could no longer afford to run the publishing business just by selling my own works. That’s when I started to ask other authors to contribute works. I would offer up collections of works by popular authors, other work that they had published in magazines. But this also meant because they were popular authors that I had to pay them quite a large sum of money for their works, so I went further and further into debt. I published books for about seven years. I went further and further into debt, and I was really at a point where I could not continue to run the business any more, but it was right around that time that the major comics magazines started to solicit work from me, like Shonen magazine and big comics. I think that in some ways those weeklies had seen the books that I was publishing and had evaluated them positively. So in the seven years, I published about 200 paperbacks, and of those, maybe 30 were my own works. And the rest were probably by about 20 different authors.

GROTH: The work of your own that you initially published for the rental market, was that gekiga?

TATSUMI: Yes, yes.

GROTH: Was that well received at the time?

TATSUMI: Well, the popularity of gekiga really declined along with the popularity of the rental comic-book business. So in those seven years that I was publishing, which mainly took part after the rental industry had started to collapse, most of the works I had published were not in the gekiga style.

GROTH: That you drew yourself?

TATSUMI: So now, my works were in the Gekiga style, but the majority of the works I published were by other authors, and so they encompassed works for kids that would be published in these weekly magazines for boys; there were also girls’ comics. So the majority of works were not gekiga, but my own work was.

GROTH: Did you publish work that you yourself weren’t fond of?


GROTH: How did you feel about having to do that?

TATSUMI: It was just a part of business, really. If I published the work that would sell, then that would make it easier on me financially. It was just business. But I think at the time, in general, my passion for comics had somewhat lessened.
GROTH: Why do you think your passion for comics diminished at the time?

TATSUMI: Because I felt that gekiga, and the rental comic-book industry, was being inextricably tied, so that I felt that meant that was the demise of gekiga as well. I felt that gekiga could only be articulated through longer works, through book-length works. I was afraid that was the end of gekiga.

GROTH: Your passion must have been resuscitated at some point not long after that.

TATSUMI: Around this time, when my passion for comics started lessening, about a year or two before I stopped publishing altogether, I was approached by a third-rate comic magazine that published erotic works. And while the pay was very small, and it was a third-rate magazine, I was able to do pretty much what I wanted, there was some freedom with what kind of work I could submit. And, although it was a third-rate magazine, the magazine had a very good editor, who had a very good understanding of comics. It was in this magazine that I published the eight-page stories that are collected in The Push Man.

From "The Push Man" in The Push Man and Other Stories.

From “The Push Man” in The Push Man and Other Stories.

GROTH: And what year would that have been?

TATSUMI: Nineteen-sixty-nine.

GROTH: That’s quite far from the ’50s, when you were a publisher.

TATSUMI: I was involved in publishing in the ’60s; I stopped publishing in ’71. I was publishing [my comics] in this third-rate magazine while I was still publishing. So around ’69.

GROTH: The information that I had was that you were a publisher in the ’50s. I must’ve found this on the Internet, so it’s suspect. I just want to get this straight.

TATSUMI: It was probably in the ’50s when I started drawing gekiga style. Nineteen-fifty-seven was the beginning of the book gekiga. So next year is the 50th anniversary. [Laughs.] And your magazine is on the 30th.

GROTH: Yes it is. I also wanted to know why gekiga was so much more popular in the rental market. Was it a class distinction? Was it a class issue?

TATSUMI: It wasn’t so much about the class of the consumers, but more about the structure of the business. Because the rental comic books were published at a much smaller scale. That meant that, combined with the fact that there were so many authors and so few editors, the works would sort of pass by the editors to the publishing stage with relatively little censorship or inspection. They would barely even read the work, and it would go straight to publishing, which meant that in terms of content, you could make and create whatever you wanted. That’s why they were able to write comics that were addressing people of their own age, rather than writing for children. And that would probably not have been possible in the Tokyo market, where they were more mainstream publications.

GROTH: I see, I see. So it’s regional to some extent.

TATSUMI: Yeah. But also the business structure was completely different.

GROTH: But if they proved popular, wouldn’t commercial publishers jump on that, like piranha on raw meat?


GROTH: As they are wont to do?

TATSUMI: It was immensely so with the rental comic-book scene. There were, at the height of this industry, 30,000 comics-rental stores nationwide in Japan. But although the publishers and editors of the mainstream magazines liked gekiga, and knew it was popular, the content was still too violent for them to carry in their own publications.

I have a correction to make. Tezuka did not kick his assistant down the stairs.

GROTH: [Laughs.] Wait a minute, I liked that story.

TATSUMI: He got so mad that he fell down a flight of stairs, because he was so excited and angry.

GROTH:  The earlier story is better.

TATSUMI: Yeah, I know it is. [Laughter.] For Tezuka, his own work is the pinnacle of comic-making, so the fact that any other work could be good, according to his assistant, just infuriated him — that any other work could be considered good was infuriating.

GROTH: Tezuka had a healthy ego. [Laughter.] Do you know if Tezuka kicked anyone down the flight of stairs, ever? [Laughter.]

So, the commercial publishers were simply skittish over the content of gekiga.

TATSUMI: There was some sense that this gekiga rental-comics thing would not last forever. That may have been part of the reason why the mainstream publishers wouldn’t have been involved either — because they assumed it would be a short-term sale.

GROTH: You started gekiga in 1957. There’s a missing six years between 1957 and 1963 when you started publishing. What did you do in that time?

TATSUMI:  I was creating works primarily for the rental-books industry, in those six years. And I was publishing through this one publisher called Henomaru Publisher, and the president of this publishing company had aspirations to move to Tokyo. Masumi Kuoda brought the idea of publishing a collection of shorter works up to me, and so the publisher thought maybe this could lead to something else, primarily publishing a magazine, a monthly magazine in Tokyo. So he took this idea, and he started to run this collection of shorter works, which was then this book entitled Shadow, and this went on for about a decade. And it was really this format of the  collection that became wildly popular at the time. And while I and my colleagues believed that gekiga was most suited to book-length works, and I certainly created book-length works at the time, it was these collections that were the most popular. And that’s really what spread gekiga style. These collected volumes were about 128 pages long, and they would come out each month, and at the height of their popularity there were hundreds of these collections coming out each month.

GROTH: And what inspired you to change direction from more commercial work, to work of a more intense and personal nature?

TATSUMI: I had seven colleagues, with whom I moved to Tokyo from Osaka. And we had a discussion about how we could promote our work, and at this time I was the only person doing this gekiga, and so one of my colleagues asked, “Could we all use this term gekiga, to kind of label our works? And that way we could promote and sell our work better when we go to Tokyo.” And so that was the decision to use the phrase. Actually, in terms of content, even before they started using this phrase gekiga, they were already working in that direction. And the name basically was adopted or used, because there was a need to distinguish the comics that I and my colleagues were working on from those comics that were meant for children. It created a category that helped guide how to shelve them in these rental bookstores. Although my own works were not that violent, some of my colleagues’ works were quite violent. So people started to feel that they shouldn’t be shelved with other comics that are for kids.

From "Black Smoke" in The Push Man.

From “Black Smoke” in The Push Man.

GROTH: What year did you move to Tokyo?

TATSUMI: Nineteen-fifty-seven.

GROTH: Was there a point at which you recognized that the medium was a serious medium of expression? Or was it an evolutionary part of your thought process?

TATSUMI: Two years prior to starting to do this gekiga, as an experiment, I created a longer piece that was drawn very roughly.  And I was sure that the editors would turn it down, so I went, luckily, on a day when the editor wasn’t there, and I was sure that later on, I would hear that they couldn’t publish it. But, to my surprise, it went straight through, and it was published, and in fact it did quite well. I even heard from my colleagues that they really liked the piece, and that they felt that it expressed something new. It was at that point that I felt confident in this kind of new direction I was taking, as a more expressive kind of form.

GROTH: Was the content of this longer piece substantially different from what you had done previously?

TATSUMI: It wasn’t entirely different from my previous work. The previous genre I was working in was mainly detective stories, thrillers, that kind of thing. And with this experimental book-length work, I was dealing with everyday events, very familiar events, kind of everyday occurrences. Maybe, you know, a child would suddenly be involved in some sort of incident. But they were everyday occurrences. And since no one else was doing that kind of work at the time, I was sure that it would fail, but …
GROTH: Am I correct in inferring that comics were dominated by essentially children’s fare at the time?


GROTH: So this would be a radical departure from that?

TATSUMI: Well, yes, it was very different from the kind of mainstream comics. And the kind of content that my colleagues and I were creating was only possible in the rental-comics genre. And yes, the main difference was that we were addressing an audience of our own age. But I found out later, that many of our readers were laborers, workers who had recently moved to Tokyo from more rural areas, and found whatever jobs they could find. And also I heard — we couldn’t really research who were reading our works — but afterwards I found out that there were also a lot of prostitutes reading our works. [Laughs.]

GROTH: Was that a big market?

TATSUMI:  Not yet. I would get some feedback when the distributors came to pick up the books from the publishers. They would tell them what kind of people were renting out the books. So I did have some indication of the fact that the readership was increasing in age.

It was in October of 1955 that I published my first self-conscious gekiga work, which was called “The Black Blizzard.”

GROTH: Now, between ’57, when you were in Tokyo, and 1969, when, I understand, that the stories in Push Man originally appeared —

TATSUMI: That’s correct, yeah.

GROTH: Were you doing longer stories, between ’57 and ’69? And then you had to start doing shorter stories, which appeared in a magazine called Gekiga Young, which was a young men’s magazine? Is that correct? I just want to make sure I get my facts straight.

TATSUMI: What was the name of it?

GROTH: Gekiga Young.

TATSUMI: Yes, almost all the works in The Push Man were published first in Gekiga Young. And I started to write these shorter pieces for magazines. Basically the rental book business collapsed. And then, I had to start writing for monthly and weekly magazines. That meant that I had to write these shorter pieces like the ones that are in Push Man. The ones that I wrote for this Gekiga Young, the pay was pretty poor, and the conditions were not that good. But, it was the first time that I found an editor that I could work with at the magazine. And so I would talk with him about what kind of themes I wanted to explore. And it was the first time I was engaged in that kind of a situation where I could discuss the work I was doing with an editor, and to have that be published.

From "Disinfection" in The Push Man.

From “Disinfection” in The Push Man.

GROTH: Your stories are so personal, they’re such personal expressions, that I can’t imagine an editor could do much to mold them one way or the other. I’d like to ask you why your vision is so despairing of humanity, which seems a constant in the two books that Drawn & Quarterly has published so far. Could you elaborate upon your perception of humanity as shown through the prism of your artistic sensibility?

TATSUMI: Uh, yes, definitely. The works are completely a reflection of the kind of anger and the pain, the desire to escape that I felt at the time. And for me personally, to try to express that within eight pages, which is quite short, was quite a struggle for me.

GROTH: Did you feel constrained by the requirements of eight pages?

TATSUMI:  Yes, I found it quite claustrophobic. I think I touched on this before, but, when Tezuka moved to Tokyo and started working for magazines, I felt that his work had become really cluttered and claustrophobic. And I realized that I was going through the same process, and it was then that I understood what Tezuka was going through. That meant that there had to be more panels on a page, so it was very claustrophobic. But even beyond that, with Tezuka’s work, I just started to feel bored by them, even beyond or before this sort of technical analysis, I just found it boring. And so I was very conscious that the short-story format was very easy to become boring, to become stale, unless you composed the short story really, really well.

GROTH: One of your consistent techniques is for the men in your stories to be passive, to rarely speak. They drift silently through your stories, whereas the women are veritable chatterboxes. I’d like to know why you use that technique as consistently as you do. What are the aesthetic reasons behind that?

TATSUMI In part it was strategic, because Gekiga Young was an adult magazine, with erotic themes, sexual themes. All of the other stories in the magazine, and especially the ones toward the front of the magazine, were longer pieces — the authors got 24 pages that were relatively easier to work with. They were all sexual content, and so my strategy was to create the opposite of what was being depicted in those works. In those works, it was always the men who were the aggressors, the women were passive, and the men would dominate over the women. So to do the opposite, I thought, would create interest in the readership. At the same time, the narratives that were depicted in these other people’s stories, didn’t ring true to me.

I thought that men are not always stronger than women, and men can be weak and vulnerable and passive. But in terms of the men being silent, I think that that is a very perceptive point that you make. I’m really glad that you noticed that, because actually, the way that happened, in these discussions with this editor that I liked, at the time, I was still making works where I was relying on the speech balloon to explain the situation in the stories. Because the pieces were already short and cluttered, my editor suggested that I take out most of the speech bubbles, and that getting rid of those would not take away from the story in any way. That way you could see the image more clearly, and he thought that would be a more effective way for me to work. That was how I got to the silent character, by getting rid of the speech balloons.

From "Projectionist" in The Push Man.

From “Projectionist” in The Push Man.

GROTH: Now, was the magazine essentially pornography?


GROTH: So in a way you were writing and drawing these stories as an antidote?


GROTH: The women in the stories are almost always depicted as opportunists or parasites, and I was wondering why you made that decision, or if you even agree with my description. [Laughs.]

TATSUMI: Really? Are the women parasites? [Laughter.] [Looking at his wife.] No, it’s partly to do with my personal experience that I can’t really express right now. [Laughter.]

GROTH: [Turning to her] Mrs. Tatsumi, it might be time to interview you. [Laughter.]

TATSUMI: Umm, it’s hard for me to speak in general terms, about, you know, the way I depict women. Because Push Man collects about 20 stories, and I’ve written about a thousand … And I think that I have depicted strong men in other works, but certainly during that period, I think I did have some anxiety and fear of women.

This is a little bit off the topic and I apologize. But, my works obviously didn’t fit in very well within this magazine that was essentially a pornographic comics magazine.

GROTH: Right, that was my next question.

TATSUMI: So at a certain point, the editor was … well, the magazine wanted to stop publishing my series within the magazine. And so the editor was told about this decision, and this editor, who I liked a lot, said “The only reason that I work at this magazine, which I find boring, essentially, is because Tatsumi’s work is printed in it.” And so actually, when my work was dropped from the magazine, the editor quit the company, and moved back home to Nagoya.

GROTH: In protest.

TATSUMI: The works that are collected in The Push Man essentially killed this editor’s career.  Unfortunately. [Laughs.]

GROTH: Was the editor a man or a woman?

TATSUMI: He’s a man. He was quite young at the time, and when The Push Man came out through D&Q, I tried to find him, because I thought he would be really excited about it, but I haven’t been able to find him.

GROTH: When the editor quit in protest, did the magazine relent and continue to publish your work or were you out?

TATSUMI: When the editor was told that they were dropping me, the editor said that well then, I really have serious doubts about the conscience of this magazine, and I’m quitting. And he quit, and the serial was dropped. Or the serial was dropped and he quit. That was that.

GROTH: It’s my experience that people buy pornography to read fantasy. And the last thing in the world they want to read are grim existential protests against modern life. So why in the world did they let you do that in the first place?

TATSUMI: I don’t think that the publishers would have felt that opposed to it, because I was quite conscious about the kind of magazine that it was. And so, I was very aware of what I could get away with, and to stay within those boundaries. I do include sex scenes, for example, in my works, to sort of appease the [publishers].

GROTH: Would you have done even harsher stories if you didn’t have these restrictions?
TATSUMI: I’m really not sure.

GROTH: That’d be brutal. 

TATSUMI: It’s hard to say, it’s hard to speculate, because if they were any more tragic or devastating, they wouldn’t have been published. I was very aware that I was walking a really fine line. It would have certainly been much easier for me to create erotic stories. I mean, I would have had more pages to work with, as well. But I wasn’t really interested in making that kind of work.

GROTH: One of the motifs, or at least, one of the reoccurring symbols I noticed in your work is the individual within a crowd. And both stories “The Push Man” and “The Burden,” as well as the story that you showed me earlier in this book, that was drawn in 1972, I think, end with the individual within a crowd. Does that image or the idea behind it have a special significance to you? In “Beloved Monkey,” the person in the very end of the story says, “The more people flock together, the more alienated they become.” Could you elaborate on that and talk about the significance of the individual in the crowd. 

TATSUMI: Well you know, that’s a basic fact, that you’re much lonelier. If you’re just with one other person, it’s fine if you don’t know them. But when you’re with 10 other people that you don’t know, you feel that much lonelier. It’s the condition of urban living. When you move to the metropolis, and you don’t know where you are, and you don’t have any work, I think that that can be a very alienating experience. Furthermore, I think that, when you’re living in those conditions, you start to envy other people that are around you, you start to imagine that everyone around you is living a better life than you are. I think that that’s a basic condition of living in the city. And when you’re with just one other person, and you envy them, you can just not see them. That’s fine. But that becomes very difficult when you are living in the city.

GROTH: Is this a condition of modern life that you deplore, or that you accept simply as a part of life?

TATSUMI: No, I accept it as an inevitable part of life. I think that a crowd, a mass of strangers, is essentially frightening. When you’re walking down the street and a mass of people that you don’t recognize or don’t know come toward you, I think that’s a frightening experience. I think that the last scene of the “Beloved Monkey” story is when the traffic light changes, and you’re waiting for this mass of people to come walking towards you. I think that’s a scary experience.


From "Beloved Monkey" in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

From “Beloved Monkey” in Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

GROTH: Do you see your stories as a criticism of alienation, or as simply a depiction of what is?

TATSUMI:  It’s like half and half, really. I think it’s part reality and part criticism. I think, with gekiga, it’s still manga or comics, and really, criticism is an essential part of comics. I think if I just depicted reality, it would be boring. You can’t really just do one or the other.

GROTH: Do you think criticism is an essential part of art? That art is intrinsically critical of the status quo, or of life?


GROTH: OK. My next question may be a little long but: Mass production really came to the fore in the 20th century, and it was enhanced by World War II, when mass-production techniques had to crank up due to the war economy. What sociologists have referred to as the phenomenon of Mass Man was introduced after World War II, where  intellectuals were concerned that individuals were going to be subsumed by mass culture. Were you acutely aware of this evolution, and did you think things were getting worse? During your lifetime or up to this point, did you feel that things were worsening in terms of alienation, lack of empathy, lack of community?

TATSUMI:  In short, yes. [Laughter.]

GROTH: I feel like I‘ve failed when my questions are longer than your answers. [Laughter.]

TATSUMI: Ah, you know, I was kidding. [Laughter.] Mass production, by definition, means that the value of objects drops. Maybe that’s good in terms of the production of culture. But I do feel that, although our lives may be becoming more and more convenient, there is a lack of sympathy between people or the relationship between people is lessened by all this convenience. And, I do feel that I had a very direct experience with this. During the war, when mass production was used in our lives, basically anything metal in our house was taken away to create bullets and airplanes, so we saw this kind of evaporation of materials for the war effort. And houses were burned down, so you know, even before thinking about mass production in relation to the war, the war itself had such an incredible effect on our lives, it basically leveled Japan. That in itself had a huge effect. I accept mass production, certainly, as an inevitable part of the modernizing process, but I can’t help but feel that there is something more valuable beyond this modernization and mass production. I can’t help but look at it critically and think that there’s something more valuable than that. I mean, when you talk about mass production, you’re not talking about the production of comics, right? I said, no, I think, more to do with the kind of worldview that’s expressed in —

GROTH: No, I meant it more in the sense of the wider societal picture and your perception or involvement in it.

TATSUMI: I ask, because, you know, in Japan, this magazine Shonen Jump is the most …

GROTH: Yes, a mass magazine of comics.

TATSUMI: It prints four million copies a week, and this sort of mass production in direct relation to comic books has benefited a few corporations, but at the same time, ruined a lot of comic artists, so I can’t but think about it in relation to that, as well, in a more contemporary framework.

GROTH: Yes, right. Certainly comics are a part of mass culture. Over here they are very tiny part of it.


GROTH: And certainly not our kind of comics; we don’t worry about mass production.

TATSUMI: [Laughs.] I think that’s a really great thing, that’s still small.

GROTH: Well, there are mass-produced comics over here, and they are just as bad, I assume, as yours.

TATSUMI: [Laughs.]

GROTH: Actually, I think that’s a great way to end this, on the subject of your philosophy as part of your art.  tcj

Translated by Taro Nettleton; transcribed by Ben Fischer.

]]> 2
The Dame Darcy Interview Mon, 02 Mar 2015 13:00:51 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From The Comics Journal #171 (September 1994) 

By Darcy Sullivan


If Dame Darcy doesn’t have a cult following yet, give her time. Her comics are winningly preposterous blends of girlish whimsy and macabre invention, full of absurd plot twists, loopy young women, wisecracking animals and sinister daddy figures. Her artwork is at once avant primitive and evocatively old-fashioned, ornately detailed with the kind of frills precocious teenage girls doodle in the margins of their poetry.

And comics are just part of the legacy Dame Darcy is weaving. She’s also a musician. A palm reader. A fluent speaker of pig latin (she claims she speaks it sometimes without realizing it). An actress. A lover of Victoriana, glitter, and clams. A divining rod for paranormal activities. A wildly digressive raconteur, whose tall tales — true or not — cry out for a Real Stuff-like book of their own.

The similarity between our names — her full name is Darcy Megan Stanger — probably made our interview one of those fated meetings in comics, like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the Thing and the Hulk, Jaime Hernandez and Gilbert Hernandez. She insisted we use our first names throughout — “It’s part of my plan”— but in the interests of reader friendliness, we have appended her self-bestowed title to hers. Our discussion, with its jarring transitions and illogical flow, is probably confusing enough as it is.

DARCY SULLIVAN: You’re into this Victorian thing, aren’t you?

DAME DARCY: I’d say I like the 1880s to the late 1920s. The ’30s start getting bad. Everything back then was so luxurious. Everything was dripping with floridity, everything was beautiful. First of all I like it because it was just the beginning of our modern-day conveniences, but you could actually look at a machine and look at its inner workings and watch the cogs moving together. If you cranked it up it would work; you didn’t just push a button and trust by the face of God that it was gonna go. Plus, everything that was practical, they also made it look really fanciful and beautiful.

That’s just one aspect of why I like the 1800s through the ’20s; there are like so many other aspects of that time period that I like. I like the fact that everybody was uptight and really conservative and bound, and they had these twisted views, this weird morbid society, that they romanticized death because it was around them, it was such a big part of their lives all the time. They accepted death rather than trying to hide it beneath all this crazy youth culture plastic ideology like they do today.

DARCY: But they hid sex the way that we hide death.

DAME DARCY: They did, but they didn’t. The average American family would put a skirt on their piano so you couldn’t see the table legs because leg was a bad, nasty word. But prostitution and call girls, child pornography, never did better. And there were all kinds of crazy sideshows and acrobatic sex acts going on then. They’d start up a gold-mining town and one of the first things to start up was a prostitution den.

Panel from "The Juicer and the Cake Walk," one of Dame Darcy's Victoriana ventures in Fantagraphics' Meat Cake #1.

Panel from “The Juicer and the Cake Walk,” one of Dame Darcy’s Victoriana ventures in Fantagraphics’ Meat Cake #1.

DARCY: You want to give a bit of personal background?

DAME DARCY: My grandparents were in agriculture, and they were one of the top Appaloosa horse breeders in the world. My dad and my uncle grew up in this atmosphere on a farm in Idaho, and they were also artistic though, and they started playing bluegrass in their late teens. My grandpa died and we had to sell all the horses, which was really sad. My uncle still runs the farm, and my dad used to do sign-painting for 16 years and now he does some kind of graphic design thing.

I was born in 1971 in Caldwell, Idaho, and the nurse came out and told my dad that I was a boy. And I costed $100 and I was a month late. [Laughs.]

DARCY: Why did they think you were a boy?

DAME DARCY: Because the nurse was some stupid nurse in Caldwell, Idaho, who didn’t know …

DARCY: Well, she must have known the difference.

DAME DARCY: Apparently, she didn’t. I don’t know what happened. See, I always took this to mean that I was supposed to be a boy, when I was younger.

I grew up in a community that’s very conservative, very Republican, everybody was Mormon. The population of Idaho Falls, Idaho, has more Mormons per capita than Salt Lake City, Utah. Everybody’s parents worked at the Site, which is a nuclear power plant in the Arco Desert. And all the mothers worked at Smiths or Safeway as checkout women, or at the fabric store. Everyone had 10 kids in their family, and they all went to the same church, and they all worked at the same place and knew each other. It kind of reminded me of the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, how if you’re different they point at you and make that weird noise.

I was an outsider because my mother was from Pasadena, so she didn’t grow up in Idaho. Her mother was a top government official in the ’50s; my mother just didn’t come from this thing where you’re raised to be a brood cow and you’re raised to be Mormon and you’ve only lived in this insular place all your life. My father was an artist and didn’t work at the nuclear power plant. Plus, we were Catholic and not Mormon. So in so many accounts I didn’t fit in, plus I was a weirdo and didn’t fit in anyway.

DARCY: Were you raised pretty Catholic?

DAME DARCY: Yeah, I went to Catholic school for the first, second and third grade. By the time I was in third grade I said to my mom, I am not going to be in this Catholic school anymore, and I’m going to let my hair grow — cause she’d always cut it in this ugly ’70s mushroom haircut, and I hated it so bad. I always wanted really long luxurious beautiful shimmering golden locks, and my mother would just cut them off.

That is the same year I realized the Virgin Mary was only a vehicle for Jesus, that she wasn’t God. I thought she was higher than God, because she was the mother of God. You never see statues of God, always of Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary. So I thought, obviously, she’s better. When I was nine I realized she wasn’t and my whole system of religion started to crumble. I started to hate being a girl. I also found out about menstruation, and I knew it was going to be hell, which it is, and I hate it. [Laughs.] Despite these things, it was the best year of my life, I think.

DARCY: Why is that?

DAME DARCY: Because I loved my baby brother a lot. And I had some real fun friends. I was real popular in my class for being a spaz. They didn’t condemn me for it, they liked me for it. I would make up all the games in the playground, and I started writing poetry that year. I read Alice in Wonderland and memorized all the poems. And I read Through the Looking Glass and memorized some of the poems. And I read a lot of Pippi Longstocking books. And I started writing all these poems. I think that’s how come now I can make up rhymes really quickly and easily, because I had a lot of practice.

DARCY: That seems like a real formative time for you. There’s a lot of Alice in Wonderland-type stuff in your cartoons.

DAME DARCY: Well, I didn’t know whether to mention this or not, I didn’t know if this should be in print, about me and my … See, I’ve had extensive experiences with ghosts. When I was 11 I would see ghosts all the time and they would talk to me. I was very psychic, I could guess 45 or 46 cards out of 50 right. I would get 95 on tests in seventh grade when I had no idea what the material was even about. I would go down the test and know what number to circle, it would sort of glow. I started reading palms at 11 and I was always really right. I would guess what the insides of people’s houses looked like, people I’d never known. Strange things would just come out, like that their mother had a light blue coat she wore a lot, and I’d never seen their mother. I’d have prophetic dreams about major events and later on I’d hear about it in the news.

And then when I was about 12 I went to junior high and everybody despised me.

DARCY: ’Cause you were weird?

DAME DARCY: Yeah. You know the kid in school that everybody in school totally beats up on? That was me. I didn’t go to their church, and I dressed funny ’cause I was poor. First, I didn’t like their stupid Idaho hick fashions that they got at the stupid Grand Teton mall, and second, I couldn’t afford them anyway ’cause we were poor. I wore my older second cousin’s corduroy pants. And my mom hated to go shopping. Nowadays, though, I’m a clothes horse. [Laughs.]

Exploring the archetypal Victorian fear of being buried alive in Meat Cake #3's "For Whom the Bell Tolls."

Exploring the archetypal Victorian fear of being buried alive in Meat Cake #3’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”




DARCY: Did you still see ghosts when you were 12?

DAME DARCY: OK, here’s what happened. There was this old woman’s barn across the alley and we had this clubhouse up there. The ghosts were living in the barn. See, they weren’t living in the barn until I called them into the barn, and then they wouldn’t go away.

DARCY: What would they do?

DAME DARCY: They would make the room ice-cold in the middle of the summer, when it was like 90 degrees. It would be like a freezer! Because ghosts are freezing cold. I’d opened a porthole for them to come through, and now they’d come through and I didn’t know how to handle it. I was only 11 and I didn’t know how to deal with it. Later on, when I was 17, they tried to possess me. It was really scary. [Laughs.] See, I constantly see and hear things, and some people might say that I’m crazy and I’m delusional. But I am not. They are always there, it’s just that some people can see them and some people can’t.

DARCY: Were these ghosts dead people?

DAME DARCY: Of course. They were children who had died early.

DARCY: They were all kids?

DAME DARCY: They were between 4 and 13. One of them tried to make my lungs stop one time and that was really scary. The ones that tried to possess me later weren’t the same ones. The four-year-old told me that if I stood with my back to her and took a mirror and looked over my shoulder, I would see her reflection in the mirror, and that way not only could I hear her but see her. I didn’t do it, because I was too scared.

I found out this later: Where I would hear them talking was in the back of my head, not the front of my head, where your thoughts are. At school I found out that’s where the [sense of] sight is. I found this out when I was 14 and I said, “Oh, my God, that makes so much sense!”

Then, when I got a concussion about eight months ago … I bashed my head against a headboard by accident and got a concussion in Pasadena — I was trying to drive from Guerneville in the Redwoods to Providence, Rhode Island, and the car was breaking down. I was so excited when we stopped at this hotel that I threw myself back on the bed and smashed my head really hard. [Laughs.] I got a concussion and blacked out and after that, OH MY GOD, I was so intuitive, I could guess anything. I was really really really really psychic. I don’t mean to be a flake, I know it sounds flaky when I say things like this, but I’m sorry, this is my life, I can’t help it. So anyway, I think it’s because I bashed that part of my brain. When I got the concussion, I was not conscious, I was blacked out living in this black void that’s the closest to death I’ve ever been. I’ve seen it a couple times. I’m hypoglycemic, if I don’t eat I’ll faint. And that’s the worst feeling, I hate it. It’s not like sleep, it’s like death, honestly. It’s even scarier when you’re in this place and you’re not aware of what you’re doing. You’re walking around and functioning and maybe even talking, but you aren’t in control of it, so who is? What’s going on? Are you dead? And this other thing has just taken over? And what is this other thing? Does this open you up, does it open up some sort of doorway for demons to enter your body? You’re not there to guard it? It’s scary to me.

Anyway, when I had my concussion, my boyfriend at the time didn’t see me do it, and when he came in the room he thought I was just lying there, watching TV. I guess we were watching The Ed Sullivan Show. But I don’t remember watching The Ed Sullivan Show, I’ve never seen it in my life. That song comes on, “God didn’t make little green apples, and it don’t rain in Indianapolis in the summertime … ” [Laughs.] You know that song?

DARCY: I know that song.

DAME DARCY: I’d never heard that song before, right? So I was blacked out and I heard this. We finally did get to Providence, and I made a movie this summer in Boston. And while we were making the movie, I was walking around in this antique store looking at this religious manual from the 1800s, and I heard that song, “God didn’t make little green apples,” and I thought I had never heard it before, and suddenly this wave washed over me and I remembered where I was when I was in this past-death thing that happens when you’re unconscious but your body is still moving, and I felt like I was two centuries old and like my body wasn’t my body: I could move it around but it didn’t belong to me. And this terrible wave of like a nauseous feeling but without the actual nausea in my stomach, and blackness, everything just black black black, when I heard this song. And I wondered, why is this song causing this reaction? And I remembered that I’d heard it when I had my concussion, and I remembered where I was in this black void and hearing it.




DARCY: Why did you move to New York?

DAME DARCY: Because I could play my banjo at the clubs here and get fairly larger crowds and it actually mattered. In Providence the same 30 people show up. I could get art exhibits in New York — I’m in one now. I could do comic book signings here and not the same 30 people that would show up at the shows would come. It’s a bigger pond, it’s better for publicity, I guess. If you get everything squared away you can live wherever you want to. You can work really hard and suffer when you’re young and you don’t have to so much when you’re older, and that’s why I’m a workhorse.

Dame Darcy playing her banjo in 1992.

Dame Darcy playing her banjo in 1992.

DARCY: What do you see as your career? Are you a cartoonist, a musician, what?

DAME DARCY: I never wanted to be a cartoonist. I wanted to be an animator. From the time I was 8 years old, I wanted to make animated films and show them on TV and in theaters. The only reason I do comic books is because I can’t animate all the stories I think of.

DARCY: Why can’t you be an animator?

DAME DARCY: It takes like two years to make one story, all by myself.

DARCY: Most animated films, a bunch of people work on them.

DAME DARCY: See, this is the thing. I want to get my comic books … I can’t tell this! This can’t be in print, because then they’ll know my secret plan.

DARCY: Who’s they?

DAME DARCY: The public!

DARCY: The public doesn’t read The Comics Journal.

DAME DARCY: No, I’m not going to tell you. You’re just going to have to see. But basically, the only reason I’m a cartoonist is because I think of about five new stories a week, and there’s no way I could animate five new stories a week.

I’m also a cartoonist because, when I was 16 years old, I said, I can do several things. I can paint and I can draw and I can play the banjo. So what do I do? I asked my dad, and he said, “I would pick one thing and get really good at it, and then the other things do on the side as a hobby. That way you aren’t just medium good at two things, you’re really good at one thing.” And I said, that’s good advice.

So I said, “Do I want to be a musician?” And no, I do not, because my mother says they’re the craziest people in the world. And I think that they are, I think musicians are the pinnacle of insanity. [Giggles.] I never wanted to go out with a musician. All of my boyfriends have been musicians, not because I want them to be but because it’s all I know. I have a fetish for men in ties. I have a fetish for tall, dark pale men with ties on and wingtips on.

DARCY: So, like, undertakers would really set you off.

DAME DARCY: Well, no, but like those guys who have those snappy ’40s teal suits with the nice ties and the wingtips, parading around with that Vitalis in their hair — I think that is so sexy. I love businessmen. I go down to the financial district, I just go crazy. I want to eat them all up like cake.

I was wondering why I have such a fetish for these businessmen. I think it’s because they are exactly the opposite of who I was raised with and the people that I know. People usually romanticize cowboys and artists, but since I grew up in that atmosphere, I romanticize businessmen. It’s so cool to think about them going off and leaving me alone all day. This way they’re not around all the time bugging you. They leave.

DARCY: So are you playing the banjo on the side or being a cartoonist on the side?

DAME DARCY: I’m sorry, I got off the track. So when I was 16 I decided I didn’t want to be a musician, because second of all the music industry is crazy. You’ve gotta know someone who’s going to press your records for you, you’ve got to put up thousands of dollars to get anything out of it, and you probably won’t get anything out of it. And I come from a very poor family, I was raised poor and I want money. I want to have a warm house and money to travel, nice clothes and jewelry and things like that.

DARCY: [Incredulously.] So you’re gonna be a cartoonist?!

DAME DARCY: I’ve got a big plan, and it’s going to work.

Also, I was really bad in school. I think I have a learning disorder. I can only remember concepts. I run on a logic that works for me, but it’s not a logic that other people can understand, unless they really try hard. So I didn’t do well in school, and my mother from the time I was 12 or 13 said, “Darcy, let’s face it, you’re not very good in school but you are a very good artist. You’re going to have to make it as an artist, and it’s very hard.” And I knew it was very hard, because my dad is an artist and he barely makes it. I said to myself, I am going to make it, and I’m going to have a lot of money and I became very driven.

So at 16 I decided I didn’t have thousands of dollars to put into records. I mean, I don’t love art enough to do it just for the sake of loving art. I’m from a poor family, so it’s gotta have some practical value. When I was 6 years old, I would just cry and cry and be so frustrated. I would pray to God and say, “God, you can take all the talent if only I could add. You could take all my talent so I could be normal. I’m tired of being this way.” But I have no choice, so I have to make it as an artist.

I moved out of the house when I was 17, and I was living on my own in San Francisco. It was really, really hard. I didn’t have any friends, I didn’t know anybody. I’d lived in a small town isolated in the middle of Idaho for 17 years, suddenly I’m in the middle of one of the bigger cities in America, alone. And I needed to make money. I was going to school in San Francisco. I went to the Art Institute for a year and a half and took animation classes and film classes. I didn’t take drawing classes ’cause I already knew how to draw.

I decided that I would make cartoons because I knew somebody who worked at a photocopy place. He would copy them for me for free. I put out my first two comic books, with zero overhead, so I made 100 percent profit. And I did it for the money.

I started drawing books when I was 2 years old. The first book I drew was about cats in love, and they had little hearts above their heads, and the boy cat had testicles and my mom thought that was really funny. Her and her friends all came over and pointed at the boy cat’s testicles and started laughing, and I was really insulted.

DARCY: What were your first self-published comics called?

DAME DARCY: They were Meat Cake. Another reason I put them out was that I thought, if I’m a painter, I have to sell one $200 painting, let’s say. First of all I have to get people to come to my opening. And then I have to sell my painting for $200, all in one lump. Who, first of all, wants to come? How do you get people to come to an opening of somebody who nobody even knows about? Second, the likelihood of selling a $200 painting when nobody knows about you is really unlikely. You can keep working away at it, but you’re probably not going to immediately get any money. And I really wanted some money. So I decided that painting was also out.

I decided if I was a cartoonist I could make these comic books for free, and if nobody bought them, at the very least I could stand on the corner and give them to people. I took them around to the local comic book stores. I did a second one with a color cover. I hand-glittered them all because I believe in luxuriousness, it’s very important. To change the aesthetics of America is my goal in life, and glitter is one way of doing it.

I could only do 50 at a time because if my friend printed more than 50 at a time he could get caught. We had to sneak. I think there are about 200-300 of the glitter ones in circulation. I only have a couple myself; I had to sell them all, because I was poor and I was doing it for the money. I self-published a calendar last year, and this year I self-published another calendar, and I’m coming out with three or four books, and three of them have records or something like that.

DARCY: How did you hook up with Iconografix?

DAME DARCY: Somehow I got in touch with Ed Brubaker, and he was with the Iconografix company. Company of fools. He’s a jerk! Not Ed Brubaker … Ed Brubaker gave me he-who-shall-not-be-named’s number, and I called him and sent him some stuff, and he said he liked it. He said he was gonna put out my comic book. I gave him the stuff that April and it didn’t come out until like eight or 10 months later. And when it did come out, two of the pages were in the wrong order, and the cover looked awful. That was a painting I did and all the colors were really off.




Xanthochroic Xanthippe and her "suit"or in Meat Cake #3.

Xanthochroic Xanthippe and her “suit”or in Meat Cake #3.


DAME DARCY: Last year, when I was 21, I got in a lot of fights. I would beat people up all the time, and sometimes I’d get paid so I wouldn’t really care.

DARCY: [Incredulously again.] Who would pay you to beat somebody up?

DAME DARCY: I was in Suck Dog, and we went on tour and I beat people up.

DARCY: Yeah, but they weren’t paying you to beat the people up, were they?

DAME DARCY: Sure they were, that was part of the show.

DARCY: Good show!

DAME DARCY: I guess so. And I got like 53 marriage proposals.

DARCY: Did you beat all those people up?

DAME DARCY: Some of them I beat them up and then they would propose marriage to me. And one of the people I beat up, he’s my friend, and me and Lisa [Carver] tried to pull off his pants and we were riding him like a horse and beating him up. Exactly a year later I moved into his house and I lived there for free, and if I hadn’t beat him up he wouldn’t have let me do that.

DARCY: So beating up people turned out to be good for you.

DAME DARCY: Yeah, but now that I’m 22 I don’t beat people up anymore. I’m a pacifist.

DARCY: Why did you beat all those people up last year?

DAME DARCY: Because I was being tortured for a year and I had a lot of aggression and I was being … kooked.

DARCY: What do you mean you were being tortured?

DAME DARCY: It’s a long story. I was being mentally and physically tortured. I don’t really want to talk about it.

DARCY: This isn’t related to possession, is it?

DAME DARCY: No, not in the least. But my days of beating people up are no longer in existence.

DARCY: So attendance probably went way down at those Suck Dog shows, huh?

DAME DARCY: We don’t do Suck Dog shows anymore. Lisa lives in San Francisco now, she writes a magazine called Rollerderby, and I’m featured it in frequently.

DARCY: What was Suck Dog?

DAME DARCY: Lisa and Jean-Louis Costes and me. We made up an opera about Siamese twins girls who loved each other. First me and Lisa would have an Indian leg-wrestling match. And then Lisa and me would get in a big fight, and we’d start running around, and we had these luxurious outfits on. Lisa had on her mother’s ugly orange bathing suit with tic tac toe on the stomach, and “Go Hogs” on the butt in sparkling glitter puffy paint, and she had a weird swirly cape. And I had a baton and this thing that said “Darcy” on the top and then “#1” over my cunt, and then I had this cape that had feathers and said “Darcy #1” that my mom made; it was blue silk with purple letters and blue letters. And I could twirl my baton and we would get in a wrestling match and then sometimes we would involve people in the audience.

But then we got slapped in the face by these stupid girls in Boston, who thought we were being sexist. One girl kicked me really hard, and when I turned around she was running up the stairs because she was afraid I was gonna beat her up. And back then, I would have really kicked her ass.

I have beaten so many men at arm-wrestling. I am 5’ 9”, 130 pounds, and I can beat any man up. Actually, several men have proven to me that I can’t beat them up, but I really try. I get an A for effort. But I don’t beat people up anymore and I hope you don’t focus on this beating up of people in your interview, because I am a very sweet, kind, Catholic pacifist, who loves the human race.




DARCY: OK, how did you go from Iconografix to Fantagraphics?

DAME DARCY: I was living in the Redwoods in Guerneville, and I was destitute, and it was freezing cold, and I was miserable. I’d been a preschool teacher for two years. I was like, “I need some money real quick. Maybe I’ll be a stripper. I don’t want to do it because I know I’ll go insane. But I have no other way of getting money quickly.” And my ex-boyfriend said, “I will help you publish a book with a cassette. You can hand-color the covers and sell those and you won’t have to be a stripper.” So that’s what happened. I self-published Are You Afraid to Die? It’s an eight-page book with a hand-colored cover that comes with a tape of me playing banjo and singing “Are You Afraid to Die?”, which is an evangelist song by the Louvin Brothers. I got some money from that, and then I also self-published the second Meat Cake calendar.

I wanted to be on Fantagraphics since I was like 18. I’d sent them some of my stuff earlier and they rejected it. Then I finally sent them stuff when I moved to Providence and they accepted it. When I found that out I was so relieved. I felt the same way I had when I graduated high school. I probably haven’t felt so elated since. This was about a month before my 22nd birthday, so it was May [1993].

DARCY: How come you didn’t want to stay with Iconografix?

DAME DARCY: They suck. They lie, they didn’t give me any money. Excuse me, I can make money off self-published stuff, it’s not that hard. I can distribute 1,000 things and make money off it, so being published by someone else, I expect more than that. Being on Iconografix will lead you nowhere but misery and disappointment.

DARCY: Doesn’t Fantagraphics seem like a boys’ club, though?

DAME DARCY: Comics in general is.

DARCY: Does that bug you?

DAME DARCY: No, I love it. [Laughs.]


DAME DARCY: Because I can be a luxurious show pony and stand out even more.

DARCY: [Laughs.] No wonder those feminists were coming after you in Boston. A luxurious show pony?

DAME DARCY: What’s wrong with being a show pony? If you’ve got it, flaunt it, that’s what I say.


One of Dame Darcy's innovative two-way strips.

One of Dame Darcy’s innovative two-way strips.

The flip side of "Puppet Show".

The flip side of “Puppet Show”.



DAME DARCY: What else was I gonna say … The angels, they speak to me now, I can hear them in the bells. I don’t mean to sound crazy, OK? But if you listen, anybody can hear them. The ringing sound in the bells is the voices of the angels, and I couldn’t make out what they were saying, because I was afraid. Because if you could make it out, you get afraid you’re crazy. You get afraid that maybe God is actually speaking to you. You get afraid that maybe you might not want to hear God.

DARCY: What’s the difference between angels and ghosts?

DAME DARCY: Ghosts are the souls of dead people, usually children, women, suicide victims, young people. Angels are ethereal spirits that are lightness and goodness that guide you to hopefully the right end.

DARCY: Uh-huh. What’s the difference between dead people and spirits, though?

DAME DARCY: [Exasperated.] I told you! A dead person is its own self who now has no body. A spirit is the feeling, the positive or negative feeling that is sort of condensed into a form. A spirit is like the holy spirit. It’s a lot less tangible than a ghost that you can see in a New York window if you just go walking down the street!

DARCY: OK [Flustered.] Are you in a band now?

DAME DARCY: I’m in two bands now. One is called Grouse Mountain Sky Ride. I play banjo and we have a tap dancer and a fiddle player. They are called Miss Christine and Mr. Christe. We do a lot of songs from the 1800s and older songs, like child ballads from the 1600s, and Christine tap dances and plays banjo and does harmony backup. Mr. Christe plays fiddle, and sometimes when just Christine is playing, Mr. Christe and I will dance or sing.

Bluegrass songs have this haunting quality of people being controlled by their passions and by the earth. This manifests itself in visual form through my comics. The songs I sing and was raised on are very similar to my cartoons, except for the gag cartoons, which I do to break it up.

The other band is still unformed, it’s in its fetus state right now …

DARCY: [Laughs.] For a second, I thought that was the name of it. I thought it was called Fetus State.

DAME DARCY: No, it’s still in its zygote state.

DARCY: You’re living in a condemned place right now?

DAME DARCY: No, my stuff is living there. I am living at my manager’s house. My manager and my dear, dear, dear friend, Miss Victoria Wheeler.

DARCY: How do you have a manager?

DAME DARCY: I have a manager, I have a lawyer, I have a director, and I have a benefactor.

DARCY: Why do you have a manager and a lawyer, may I ask?

DAME DARCY: Because I am a professional. I need a lawyer to look at my contracts, and I need a manager to look at my promotion.

DARCY: What does the benefactor do?

DAME DARCY: What do you think?

DARCY: He gives you money?



DAME DARCY: Cause he likes me. He thinks I’m a good artist.

DARCY: Is this like a sugar daddy thing?

DAME DARCY: No, I don’t have a sugar daddy anymore.

DARCY: Why? Did you fire him?

DAME DARCY: [Laughs.] Well … Why don’t we not talk about my personal life.

DARCY: That’s what people want, all the personal facts.

DAME DARCY: They cannot have them. [Laughs.] Maybe if they call me up and give me some money I’ll tell them all about my life.

DARCY: You sent me a picture of you in all National Enquirer clothes. How did that happen?

DAME DARCY: When I was 18 I was living in Santa Cruz, in a shack in the backyard of a woman who was a friend of a friend of mine who was a millionaire. I was reading The National Enquirer and there was a contest for if you make a fashion out of The National Enquirer using glue and staples and sewing and nothing else you can win $300. So I made the dress. I sent it in. It had Gilligan on it, and I made these Call for Love hearts thing over my heart, and the lace was made of missing children’s heads, and the skirt was made out of a man jumping through flames on a motorcycle.

DARCY: Did you win?

DAME DARCY: No, I didn’t, and I didn’t even see who the winner was. Maybe it was all one big scam.

DARCY: Maybe putting the big pointy boobs on the dress wasn’t a very good idea if you wanted to win.

DAME DARCY: What was wrong with that?

DARCY: Well, they’re kind of a “family” newspaper.

DAME DARCY: That’s the way boobs should be.

DARCY: All the girls in your cartoons have pointy boobs. Why are they so pointy?

DAME DARCY: Because that’s the way mine are. They have luxurious little pig snouts at the end with one nostril. Little pink pig snouts, shell pink, they’re so pale pale pink, like the color of the pink underneath your fingernail. Actually, they’re not pointy but they’re not round.

But I like ’em like that, pointy. They’re like weapons, like knives. They’re so inviting, yet if you were to lie on top of this girl her breasts would pierce you and stab through your menial, peonic male heart. [Laughs.] I’m sorry to say that, I am just kidding! I love men and I love the human race. Put that in print.

"Paper Doll" cut-outs.

“Paper Doll” cut-outs.



DARCY: When I brought up Lewis Carroll before you immediately brought up ghosts. What’s the connection?

DAME DARCY: Here’s the thing. When I was a child, these were my biggest influences: the drawings of Sir John Tenniel [illustrator for Lewis Carroll’s books], John R. Neill [illustrator for the Oz books] and my mother’s medical books. My biggest influences were those two artists, plus the lithographs from the 1800s, because I like how everything looks like it’s fluid but stiff. Later on, when I was 18, Winsor McCay was a huge influence, and that books Real Life: Louisville in the Twenties by Michael Lesy and Wisconsin Death Trip are like bibles to me. So is the Sears Catalog 1903.

DARCY: Why are your comics called Meat Cake?

DAME DARCY: When I was 18 I was obsessed with meat and cake. I would eat cake and I wouldn’t eat anything and I’d eat a hamburger and then I wouldn’t eat for two days. I wanted to indulge in these things yet I didn’t want to be fat, so I thought if I starved myself I could work off enough calories that I could eat again. I’m a vegetarian now, because I read something. But anyway, meat is the most decadent thing you can eat. So is cake: It doesn’t have any nutritional value, it’s very beautiful, and you only eat it on special occasions. If you eat it every single day, every day is a special occasion. So meat cake is the epitome of decadence. I also had this thing about dogs and angels, and I think cake is the food of the angels and meat is the food of dogs. I was really obsessed with dogs and angels and meat and cake.

DARCY: Why do you call yourself Dame Darcy?

DAME DARCY: Because I’m American royalty. I am related to two presidents and a murderer of a president. I’ m related to John Quincy Adams, the Adams family, and John Wilkes Booth.

DARCY: Where did the character Strega Pez come from?

DAME DARCY: I used to have a Pez bunny that I got for Easter. And I thought it was so morbid to make this candy for Easter, the day of Christ’s rebirth. This fake plastic bunny whose head tilts back and candy comes out of its slit throat. Well, hallelujah! So I thought of this character that speaks by doing this, and Strega means witch.

You know, you didn’t ask me any of the questions I wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about fairy tales. The Grimm brothers were these Christian patriarchal men who took all the fairy tales, which before the patriarchy had only been translated by young women — the mothers were not the ones who told the fairy tales, it was the young women who watched the children. The tales were passed on in an oral tradition, which is considered not important in a patriarchal society that made up writing and then said that everything that isn’t written isn’t important, which it is. Fairy tales a lot of times have to do with rape and incest, women being brutalized, and how you should be wary of this. The Grimm brothers would take these stories that used the evil man who molests the daughter, and they said, the man only did it because the devil made him do it, or it isn’t a man at all, it’s a witch. This way it turns it around and it’s seen through the eyes of this patriarchy, and it robs the matriarchy of their past and thus their power.

DARCY: What matriarchy are you referring to?

DAME DARCY: I’m talking about before patriarchy, they worshipped these goddesses, and the Christians came along and eventually it was seen that Mary was the vehicle through whom Christ passed, but before that Mary was the goddess. That’s why she’s such a big symbol of Catholic ideology … You’re putting me off the track! I wanted to tell you this thing about fairy tales. They would take out the sex and put in more violence because that was considered OK in a patriarchy. 

Strega Pez in Meat Cake #1.

Strega Pez in Meat Cake #1.



DARCY: Tell us about the independent film you starred in, Check-Out Time.

DAME DARCY: It’s about the end of history. I play a rich eccentric girl who likes to wear Victorian clothes. I was a lot like this girl when I was a teenager, really self-obsessed and kind of bratty, but I wasn’t rich. I was kind of snobby. I used to go around thinking, “Oh, how dare you insult me, I am obviously not anything of your ilk, how dare you even compare me to someone at your level.” Not that I was necessarily smarter, but I knew I had more insight than these hicks that lived in Idaho. When they insulted me I would just blow it off like that. I had to, or I would be totally self-deprecating and dead by now.

I have almost died five times in my young life, between the ages 16 and 22, two times last year. That’s why I really fear the winter time, because I almost die every winter.

DARCY: What were the almost deaths from?

DAME DARCY: Well, the concussion was one. And I almost got hit by a semi when my car stalled. The semi was barreling toward us and didn’t see us because our lights had gone out. My boyfriend heroically leaped out of the car and pushed it to the side and we were safe.

DARCY: Why didn’t you just get out of the car?

DAME DARCY: Huh? Because I didn’t want my car to get hit by the semi! Another thing is, my door wouldn’t open and I was trapped in the car, and I had my concussion and I wasn’t thinking very good. I almost got hit by a train when I was 16, and the other times I almost died I don’t want to talk about.


DAME DARCY: Because I don’t. Don’t make me sound like too much of a crazy person with the ghosts and stuff.

DARCY: A lot of people think you are crazy if you see ghosts. I can’t do too much about that.

DAME DARCY: Well, I tell you, one of the main influences on how I draw and my stories has to do with fairy tales and the ghosts I see. I got attacked by a ghost when I lived in Guerneville, and I have a scar to prove it.

DARCY: How did it attack you?

DAME DARCY: It threw a plate at me.


DAME DARCY: Because it didn’t like me. I don’t know. Things like this happen. I’m also hypoglycemic and I’ll hallucinate on call if I don’t get something to eat.

DARCY: How do you know you’re not hallucinating when you see the ghosts?

DAME DARCY: Because before I was hypoglycemic I saw ghosts, and hypoglycemia brings on a physical reaction that causes me to hallucinate, and when I see the ghosts I have eaten. And I also get this feeling like my heart and diaphragm are being pressed together. Everything becomes still … the depths of darkness, shadows, become like black depths that you can reach into really far. Everything becomes like a two-dimensional screen, like a movie screen that everything’s printed on …

DARCY: I think you should get some help here.

DAME DARCY: I sound crazy, don’t I?

DARCY: Affected more than crazy, I’m afraid.

DAME DARCY: What do you mean?

DARCY: It sounds like you’d like to believe this stuff more than you actually do.

DAME DARCY: No, no! I’ve spent a lot of my life living in this two-dimensional, flat surface. Hold on … It was two-dimensional. Just recently, though, I’ve been able to start seeing things in 3-D. And it’s a wondrous sight. You think I’m just pretending I’m crazy?

DARCY: No, but it sounds like you’ve willed yourself into this world of the occult and arcane powers.

DAME DARCY: I have not! I’m really psychic. I can read palms, I’m not making that up. I don’t want to come off like Shirley MacLaine, like, “Oh, I’m the all-knowing psychic power being of the world, I see ghosts and blah blah blah.” It just so happens that’s what happened to me. I was born blonde with blue eyes, I was born psychic, I was born in Idaho. It’s just facts.

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The Problem with Editorial Cartooning Today Wed, 18 Feb 2015 13:00:02 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From The Comics Journal #119 (January 1988)

This is a 1988 panel about the viability of satire in editorial cartooning, featuring Jules Feiffer, Chuck Freund, Brad Holland, David Levine and Peter Steiner.

One of the biggest topics at last year’s Association of American Editorial Cartoonist’s convention was the perceived decline of hard-hitting, politically committed satire in editorial cartoons in favor of a softer, non-controversial style of humor. This perception was heightened by the Pulitzer Prize awarded to Berke Breathed for Bloom County, a gag strip with topical overtones.

This particular panel was prompted by an article by Charles Freund, author of the “Zeitgeist Checklist” column in The New Republic, lamenting the decline of satire in America. Three influential veterans of the political wars of the ’60s and ’70s were brought together to discuss the subject: David Levine, perhaps the most renowned caricaturist of our time and regular contributor to The New York Review of Books; Jules Feiffer, for over 30 years one of this country’s most original and incisive cartoonists, as well as a novelist and playwright; and Brad Holland, award-winning illustrator for The New York Times and Playboy. The panel was moderated by Peter Steiner, and transcribed and edited by R. Fiore.

Jules Feiffer’s June 4, 1958 Sick, Sick, Sick strip, originally published in The Village Voice.

Jules Feiffer’s June 4, 1958 Sick, Sick, Sick strip, originally published in The Village Voice.

PETER STEINER: Starting on my right is Chuck Freund who is a contributing editor with Spy magazine and a writer at The New Republic, who wrote an article once talking about the dearth of good satire in this country that kind of sparked this panel. Next to him is Jules Feiffer, who’s been publishing cartoons in The Village Voice and elsewhere and who recently won a Pulitzer Prize — we won’t hold that against him. Next to him is David Levine, whose caricatures you’ve known for years from The New York Review of Books and elsewhere. On my left, by himself is Brad Holland, a wonderful illustrator. I thought we might start with my reading a little piece that might focus the discussion a little bit, and then let it rip. In The Washington Diarist column in The New Republic not long ago, Chuck Freund wrote about the paucity of serious satire in our country. He wrote, “The closest thing to satire with teeth that the culture is sustaining is Doonesbury, and Trudeau’s getting away with it because his medium is the comic strip, and ergo not recognizable as a serious form.” There are many here who will want to take issue with Mr. Freund’s dismissal of editorial cartooning, but I’d like to use his thesis as a point of departure for our discussion today. The Random House Dictionary defines satire as “The use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule, and the like in exposing, denouncing, or deriding vice, folly, etc.” It goes on to say that satire “often emphasizes the weakness more than the weak person, and usually implies moral judgment and corrective purpose.” I contend that the problem with editorial cartooning today — and that would have been my choice for the title of this discussion, The Problem with Editorial Cartooning Today — is that editorial cartoonists have become partners to and beneficiaries of the very folly we are to satirize. We aspire to jobs in the best newspapers, want wide syndication, dream of prizes, want to make good money. We respect success too much. It seems to me that the result is almost bound to be cartoons that, for the most part, poke gingerly around political issues and regard moral indignation and outrage as quaint and slightly out of date, embarrassing, really. Satire is an outlaw genre. Given the difficult choice between being a success and doing a really lethal piece of art, we are for the most part no different from the rest of society. We’re like court jesters. Now, it seems to me that being a court jester can be an honorable profession. Court jesters can be witty, intelligent, insightful, and funny. But they can’t be satirists if they want to keep their jobs. By the same token, we can’t be the uncompromising champions of virtue from our positions of privilege. We will always be compromised by our ambitions and our fear. Cartooning that sincerely attacks the folly of our age must come from elsewhere. [Applause] Would anyone like to respond?

DAVID LEVINE: When I talk to a group this large, my tendency is to revert to my old flaming liberal form and start out by saying “Comrades!” Something was said yesterday — I didn’t go to it, so I didn’t get the exact quotation, but it was said to you by your leader. Ronnie said, “You keep us here in Washington from taking ourselves seriously.” He thanked you for that. And I think the fact that you were all there, and were talked down to that way is essentially the problem: that you are keeping everybody from getting serious about it rather than fighting for a position on the editorial page, which is equal to the columnists and is not questioned by the editor. Until you reach that status, you’re really just the wagging of the tail by the editor. [Applause]

JULES FEIFFER: I’d like to second what David said. When cartoonists, editorial and otherwise, are not berating their status as second class citizens of the arts, they go around demonstrating why they continue to be and why they should be. It’s one thing to go as a group of adversarial artists to the White House to scope out the land, but to, as number of you did last time when you went to lunch at the White House, or as even more of you did yesterday when you were a part of the president’s act, and help take the heat off him. [See sidebar.] I think you’re doing yourselves and any seriousness you can be taken with, a grave offense. I see no point to it. The fact that you not only go, but that you’re glad to go, and you’re glad to have the invitation, and you’re thrilled by it, and you chuckle about it, shows to me a real problem with image and real problem with your sense of your own craft, and it embarrasses me, and I think it should embarrass you. [Applause]


The convention festivities had included a visit to the White House to meet President Reagan. The event was described in Target: The Political Cartoon Quarterly #24 in Kendall Mattern’s “American Drawing Board” column:

“The President addressed the group in the Rose Garden. On the outskirts of the gathering was the White House press corps. At the end of Reagan’s prepared remarks Sam Donaldson of ABC News, began to question Reagan about the latest developments in the in the Iran-Contra hearings. At that point Doc Goodwin, of the Columbus Dispatch, shielded the President from questions by making the motion that the meeting be adjourned. Donaldson, among others, was incensed. He told several passing cartoonists, ‘I thought you people considered yourselves journalists.’

“Later, at the AAEC business meeting, the cartoonists narrowly passed a resolution criticizing Goodwin for his actions. The motion was introduced by Steve Benson of the Arizona Republic. Bill Sanders of the Milwaukee Journal described Goodwin’s actions as ‘the most embarrassing moment I’ve ever had in this business.’ Oliphant remarked that such action as Goodwin’s represented an abrogation of ‘our role as journalists.’

“Goodwin apologized but commented that he had no regrets. He believed that the television people were trying to override the AAEC’s meeting with the President.”

CHUCK FREUND: I’m supposed to be the adversary here, but actually I want to come down on their side. Everybody does that here — I mean, the White House press corps does it, the guys who are supposed to be putting the microscope to the White House. Forming that relationship is not necessarily cutting the rug out from under your adversarial relationship with the power structure.

BRAD HOLLAND: It doesn’t bother me that anyone went to the White House; I’d be kind of curious to see what it looked like myself. I caught a little bit on the news last night when Reagan upstaged everybody.

FEIFFER: What a surprise.

HOLLAND: No, it’s not a surprise. He had some of your cartoons — I saw the scene where there’s a big balloon, and Reagan’s filling in the balloon, then pretended not to remember. Reagan’s got the upper hand there, because your picture wasn’t moving, and Reagan was — it’s a perfect TV spectacle. But I’m curious, in a larger sense, what serious satire is in the first place. I mean, if that’s not a contradiction in terms, and I’m also very curious, what was that last phrase, about satire ought to attack the folly of the age, was that the deal?

STEINER: Something like that.

David Levine’s Richard M. Nixons, 1972—75.

David Levine’s Richard M. Nixons, 1972—75.

HOLLAND: This age is attacking itself, it’s eating itself up from the very tail, and it’s getting to its innards already. Satire has moved from what anything an artist can deal with to the front pages. We’ve got a garbage scow sailing the waters of the western hemisphere, trying to find a port. We’ve got a presidential candidate who’s carrying his Kennedy imitation into the bedroom and thinking he’s gonna get away with it the way Kennedy got away with it. Sonny Bono is running for mayor of Palm Springs, I mean, how can you satirize that? It’s gotten completely away from you. We elect presidents by the twin arts of polling and advertising. How can you satirize that? Every day we’re supposed to turn on the TV and see what someone believes in a poll. Fifty percent of the American people believe in flying saucers. That’s some sort of fact. I read last week that Elvis Presley has been sighted in a flying saucer. He’s apparently always expressed an interest in seeing the universe. How can you satirize this kind of stuff? There’s very little left to do. In my life I’ve spent a little bit of time in some police precincts in various cities. I try to tell my mother some story about being picked up for this or that, or being in to bail some friends out, or being in for one reason or another. My mother thinks she knows what I’m talking about because she’s seen Hill Street Blues. She’s seen the inside of a jail. And most people know what they know from television. Almost the only good these days can be done on television and can be satire of television. SCTV was a wonderful show, because it was satirizing television, which is in effect satirizing peoples’ notion of what real life is. I think it’s a hell of a time to be a satirist. You’re dealing with a culture that is already a satire on its own original principles. America is now a satire on individualism, it’s a satire of freedom of the press, it’s a satire of the democratic process. What’s left to satirize?

FEIFFER: We can satirize, if not a Teflon president, a Teflon electorate that doesn’t seem to care any more who’s homeless, who’s got money and who doesn’t, who’s in office and who isn’t, where values become indiscriminate. What’s interested me the last couple of days is that we’re finally taking sex away from the evangelicals and bringing it back to the people who know how to do it. [Laughter] From the time I started out in the ’50s, I’ve been hearing comments like Brad’s. There was nothing to satirize in the days of Eisenhower and there was nothing to satirize in the days of Kennedy, and real life has become to satirical to make any point about. Well, that may have less to do with what’s really happening than our attitudes about what’s really happening. There’s an awful lot out there other than the cosmetics that the press throws us and the media throw us about basic attitudes that are changing among us as a people in regard to social conditions, in regard to foreign policy. Now we’re suddenly terrified that we might have a limited arms treaty. How scary. It seems to me that for satirists who are serious commentators on what’s going on there’s as much to do as there ever has been. It may be difficult to find, but that’s what the business is all about. The easier stuff anybody can do.

LEVINE: I want to bring it back to us, because I think whereas the news media caters to an audience of a hundred million at any given minute and the subjects that are dealt with are contemporary, nevertheless, they are still doing it through a banking process, through a commercializing process. Nothing is being said that really insults, informs, or really digs at that public. If we gain our freedom, if we gain that strength and freedom to appear on an editorial page without somebody saying what we should say, we have the means of doing this in our own hands in a way that those television programs do not have. There’s too many people, in too many committees and so on. We could be doing and saying something very directly, and I think everybody here starts into this field because that’s an urge. You may start off doing funny pictures, but when you get to the point where you want to be an editorial cartoonist. you’ve already thought out a lot of feelings that you want to project to a public. I think it’s a question of how we go about gaining that freedom and not whether there is material out there; there will always be material out there.

HOLLAND: Well, how do we gain that freedom?

LEVINE: I’m not sure, I’m not sure at all, because I’m in one of those fortunate situations where I don’t have that struggle, I don’t have an editor who I have to sit and approve anything with. How about a strike? I know it comes off as a joke, and it isn’t a question of super-organization or a union, or any question like that, but nobody knows what we feel as a group about the question of being censored by editors. We don’t have any PR talking about the problems with editors. I never hear any griping from the columnists I run into about whether they get a chance to say what they want to say. This is a group that has that as a problem, and I’m just wondering if a strike wouldn’t make everybody aware. It’s like a little of Lysystrata.

STEINER: Shall we take a vote?

FREUND: I don’t draw. I’ve been on strike a long time in terms of cartooning. [Laughter] The question I addressed in the column that brought me here to begin with, which is that I appeared to have dismissed editorial cartooning in general as a vital form of satire, because, in a sense, of what David just said, the question of equality in terms of editorial freedom and so forth. When you’re on the editorial page, how big an audience in the end are you addressing? You’re addressing a group that is obviously an informed group interested in issues, which is not necessarily the same thing as vital satire. Which is why I picked out Doonesbury. Doonesbury addresses a very wide audience, the people who are addressing the readers of the editorial page are addressing a considerably narrower audience. This is not to say that this is a field that I’m dismissing, because I didn’t dismiss editorial cartoonists. In fact I think that editorial cartooning is much more interesting than it was years ago. It’s getting more exposure than it had years ago. You no longer have to live in a newspaper’s region to see the cartoons. You have many more places that are running editorial cartoonists from various papers and presenting them to a national audience. The Washington Post does a page on Saturday and The New York Times does a page on Sunday, Newsweek does a page. Frequently people refer to editorial cartoons, it seems to me, in your standard saloon conversations, “Did you see the one about so-and-so?” This is different, it’s grown, it seems to me, in terms of the audience it has, and in many ways it’s a form which has its own kind of position in the U.S. But that’s different from the kind of satire I addressed in the thing that you read an excerpt from. In other words, I’m suggesting a development in the way in which editorial cartoonists are reaching an ever-widening audience and affecting the political debate with their humor and with their commentary. In fact, that is potentially a direction for further development in the future, that would be of interest to pursue by people inside the field. I don’t have a plan that will help editorial cartoonists get to the next stage in terms of their field. There have been developments that have taken editorial cartooning from one stage to another, and there may very well be some more, which actually flips out going on strike, trying to reach an ever-widening audience in different forms. So I throw that on the table for what it’s worth.

Garry Trudeau’s December 13, 1973 Doonesbury strip.

Garry Trudeau’s December 13, 1973 Doonesbury strip.

HOLLAND: I’ve never been convinced that a drawing of a politician is by definition a political drawing. Jules said a few minutes ago that people said back in the ’50s there was nothing to satirize. I don’t know, I wasn’t paying attention to anything back in the ’50s. I remember something that Bill Mauldin said back in the early ’60s, that the job of the editorial cartoonist was to throw a snowball at the guy who was wearing a top hat. Well, no one wears top hats any longer. We’ve got presidential candidates being asked whether they’ve committed adultery. I continue to think that something has really changed profoundly about the culture. I know a woman who had a bathroom installed the other day, and the carpenters did this incredibly lousy job, and she complained about the thing afterwards, and the guy said, “Well, lady, if you wanted the kind of job you’d have got 25 years ago you’d have to pay extra for that.” Back in the ’50s we had this post-war economy that allowed us to think we ruled the world. It allowed everybody that I was going to grade school with to want to grow up and wear suits and get jobs with good companies and work for those companies until they died. Now we’ve got people moving from place to place to place within months. I don’t know that the job of an editorial cartoonist — I’m not even comfortable with the term — I’m not sure what you guys do is editorial cartooning, and I think what you guys are doing is brilliant stuff. [To Feiffer:] I don’t know why they gave you Pulitzer Prize [only recently]. It was an absolute mistake. They have been giving Pulitzer Prizes year after year after year to people who weren’t doing stuff anywhere near as good as you were doing back in the ’60s, and finally just before they start giving a Pulitzer to Berke Breathed, they give one to you. It’s stupid. You were doing brilliant work whether you drew Reagan, Ford, whether you did Jimmy Carter. The “Dance to Spring,” to me, goes deeper into the psyche of American life than drawings of Reagan and Carter and Nixon, not that that stuff is beside the point. Levine’s watercolors I think are his most brilliant contribution. There’s no way in the world I could do caricatures the way you do.

LEVINE: I give a course.

HOLLAND: You’ve got an absolute genius for that, and I love the work. I remember the crocodile tears, Lyndon Johnson’s scar, I saw those things out in the Midwest and thought they were brilliant. What I’m trying to say without being able to make the point sensibly is that we’ve become a culture that no longer knows how to produce anything except cheeseburgers and second-rate movies. We have to put a tariff on Japanese products because Americans want to buy decent products, and they don’t want to buy anything that’s made here any longer. Just doing anything good, whether you’re a good carpenter, whether you’re a craftsman, whether you just do the kind of drawings these guys have been doing for years, is to me a more profound contribution than doing a drawing of Reagan or Carter. I know this is essentially outside the context of what you guys are talking about, but I remember when I was a kid there were “John Q. Public” editorial cartoons all the time, those Ding Darling cartoons. And then there were the Herblock cartoons, and then there were the Pat Oliphant cartoons. And we go from generation to generation to generation, and all this stuff looks alike, and they’re all concerned about the headlines, and to me there’s more subliminal stuff going on that … I’m sorry, I’m really not that familiar with your work so there’s nothing I can say about your stuff …

FREUND: You can throw a compliment. [Laughter]

HOLLAND: … but these two guys I’ve seen for years, and I’ve loved their stuff even when they’re not being political. To me it’s a more profound contribution than simply doing a drawing a cartoon about whether Gary Hart slept with somebody last weekend. You can see why I’m sitting here by myself. [Laughter] I’m carrying on my own little dialogue with the world. The panel is over there.

FREUND: Now wait a minute, is Holland suggesting that they shouldn’t be taking headlines as subject matter?

HOLLAND: No, I’m just saying that if we’re talking about what satire is …

FREUND: Nobody’s done that yet. [Laughter]

HOLLAND: I mean, there’s satire in Picasso, but did Picasso sit down, his only attempt at a political cartoon was The Lion Dream of Franco, and what was that?

FEIFFER: Just another cartoonist to me. I accept with gratitude your comments on me, I even accept with gratitude your comments on Dave [Laughter] but I think one of the points you’re talking to is one that’s always interested me, and that is how all of us, very much including me, find it convenient, easy, and docilely comforting to be governed by the headlines. Why are the headlines the story of the day? Because The New York Times tells us, because CBS and the other networks tell us, but there are other stories I go on. One of the things that has bothered me during the Reagan Years as much as the politics of this administration was the comment it seemed to make on the American people and how willingly most of us, even those of us with different politics, went along. Take a look at the Democratic Party this morning. With Gary Hart, hardly a force for strong political content, suddenly we have Jesse Jackson as a frontrunner and most serious candidate in the Democratic Party. That means we haven’t had any serious politics of opposition since the Reagan years began, or possibly before. If we had, Jimmy Carter wouldn’t have been elected.

HOLLAND: We haven’t had serious politics since the Kennedy years.

FEIFFER: I think that’s true also. And why there is no politics of opposition, why there is no left or even pseudo-left any more is a question that has to be looked at. Why there is increasing fragmentation on all levels of the society so that groups have retreated basically into their own constituencies, and the result is that no one is really seriously interested other than in conversational terms in any other constituency, so that TV is the only thing that draws us together, the only thing we share in common. I think that has to be looked at. As someone who also writes for the theater, I also discovered in the last 20 years how there is no such thing as a theater audience any more. You can’t find enough people who will share the same experience under one tent and know what you’re talking about if you’re writing anything but sitcom or musical junk. That there is not a constituency to engage anymore except on the smallest of levels. So when you say “trying to reach a broader audience,” I wonder where that audience is on a profounder level, if that audience exists at all and why it doesn’t exist and how we get it to begin existing again if there is any way.

FREUND: Yeah, but they have something that almost everybody involved in political satire doesn’t have, and that’s a base audience.

FEIFFER: And one thing that must be said about how you double the base audience is the thing that must be said about at least a group of editorial cartoonists in the Reagan years is, where op-ed pages and everything else has shifted to the right, often it’s the cartoonist alone who will say anything true or nasty about what’s going on in these years, and you had to look to these people. Not many of you, but enough of you to find strong comment. And what a relief that was.

STEINER: Couldn’t it be that the audience hasn’t disappeared so much as the theater and the newspapers have become another branch of government? That is, they no longer operate as opposition.

FEIFFER: Vietnam and Watergate were the first breaks from … On foreign policy the press used to publish handouts from the State Department or the Pentagon and treat them as real. That is still sometimes the case, but no longer the entire case. In many ways it used to be worse, and you never knew about it unless you read Izzy Stone or somebody.

David Levine’s Benito Mussolini.

David Levine’s Benito Mussolini.

STEINER: Well, do you have any idea of what has caused that change, why that opportunity for you in theater to find an audience, or the opportunity of editorial cartoonists to be strong voices of opposition has disappeared?

FEIFFER: I think that it’s the opposite. I think there are more strong voices of opposition in editorial cartoons today than there were when I was coming along in the ’50s. There was virtually nobody. There was Herblock, there was Conrad, there was Haynie, but hardly a quorum. There are many more today, many more, and really good ones. And as I say, sometimes these are very lonely voices. For that matter, where are the columnists today? Murray Kempton is still the only Murray Kempton around, and he has no rivals. There aren’t many. And not many places to be published. There are a host of George Wills and very few Mary McGrorys.

LEVINE: It brings me back to that question again. It’s in our hands, how do we get that breakaway protection to be free to say it, that is, freer to say it. We do say it. What Jules is complimenting everybody about is that there is a strength, there is an oppositional sense, there is digging where there is no digging elsewhere. But, still, to be with the latest event and really digging, to question anything that’s going on, is still being held back by the editors.

I have an anecdote to tell. Long time ago it was my very good fortune to share a studio space with the top Russian spy, Rudolf Abel. And he gave me a book while we were — of course I didn’t know he was what he was at the time, or I would have joined him [Laughter] — but he gave me a book by Arnold Hauser on art history, and it was a Marxist history of art and so on. And somewhere in one section it dealt with the Inquisition of Veronese in which he had people dressed in Swiss Guards uniforms and he had dwarves in a painting in which Christ appeared. And they hauled him in front of the Inquisition, and they said, what are you putting these guys in for, and isn’t it an insult to have a dwarf in the presence of our Lord. He said, “Look, I’m just an artist, what do you expect from me?” And what he did was he conned them into believing that what he was doing was right for the day; after all, a rich man’s house would have guards and that’s the kind of clothing they wore, and typical entertainment, that’s what anybody who had any money did, and Levi, the House of Levi, where all this takes place, that’s the way it would have been. And Abel wrote in the margin, “every group of artists in every generation will always have censorship, and they just have to be smarter.” He was talking about your editors. You’re just going to have to be smarter in getting around it. But I think you need something else. I think this organization can do something to inform everybody when somebody is in trouble, when somebody’s being put down, when somebody’s being fired for one reason or another when it’s a political difference. I think something more has to be made available to you.

What else would you like to talk about?

FROM AUDIENCE: I’ve heard sweeping generalizations about lack of freedom. I’ve never had that much problem with censorship.

HOLLAND: Part of the problem, I think, is that in most of what I see as political cartoons these days they’re essentially gag cartoons with pictures as set-ups. [Applause] It’s essentially Bob Hope material. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s less trenchant than some of what Johnny Carson does. I don’t mean to single out any particular person or anything. A lot of the cartoons are funny; Bob Hope has made some funny jokes from time to time. Over and over and over. That’s in a sense a form of self-censorship, is it not?

FREUND: What, being funny?

HOLLAND: No. If what you’re doing is in a sense stripping, if there’s something that really troubles you — oh, screw it, I don’t know.

FREUND: Being funny is a good thing. You get a bigger audience. People start to turn to the editorial page perhaps when they might not have earlier, because they might get a good guffaw out of it.

HOLLAND: Oh, I have nothing against humor. [Laughter] I’ve heard of it before.

FREUND: It’s good that a lot of them are gags. I don’t see any problem with that at all. What we don’t have in the U.S. is a political culture of humor. It seems to me that the political cartoonists who do gags add to the number of people who might be interested in participating in that kind of a culture should it ever actually form.

HOLLAND: It also turns it into a kind of business, does it not? If what you do happens not to be funny, if it happens not to be a gag, then it’s somehow —

FREUND: It’s outside the field of satire.

HOLLAND: Not necessarily.

FREUND: Not everything has to be a banana peel.

HOLLAND: What’s satire in the first place?

FREUND: Let’s everyone define satire for ourselves for a moment — [Laughter]

HOLLAND: The New York Times attempted, when Harrison Salisbury was editor back in the early ’70s, to try to find different ways of presenting political art. And they began going around the world collecting work that, some of it was hit-and-miss, some of it was pretentious, some of it was absurd, as long as the editors of The New York Times didn’t know what was going on it kept going through. The minute they found out what was going on, they got a handle on it. The first thing they did was they got rid of everybody original, and began to hire people who were essentially quite willing to illustrate whatever the editors wanted them to do. What was being done originally was at least experimental. What’s turned out is the insipid op-ed style that just befouls every newspaper in the country these days with this kind of meaningless symbolic stuff. But in its early days it was an attempt by a lot of people to experiment that was choked off by the editors the minute they found out is was appearing on their pages.

David, I went on strike against The New York Times back in 1974. It made absolutely no difference because I couldn’t find anyone else to walk out with me. They were all quite happy to take the work that I was turning down. And not only that, they were happy to use my idea.

BILL SAUNDERS (from audience): If a political cartoonist or a satirist looks at an issue in terms of “what can I say that’s funny about that?” and draws that gag, it may get a lot of applause, and it may get a great deal of readership, but it also trivializes the subject, it trivializes the profession. That’s not to say that you don’t look at a subject and say, “How do I feel about that, how do I comment on it, maybe with humor.” That’s a different thing. If you’re suggesting that pure gags are doing something that’s valid, I think you’re really wrong.

FREUND: As a group, rather than as individuals facing their drawing boards, as a group, is it a good idea to try to build the audience for this kind of a culture, the culture that’s implied by what everybody here does on a daily or regular basis? Is it in fact a negative to have funny gags as part of the thing? I don’t know. I don’t think it’s a problem. I don’t think that gags are overwhelming the field, I don’t think that gags define out the other kind of stuff, but I think overall it gets more attention for the material and it tends to build the readership, build the number of people who might be interested. Because, in fact, the first reaction is an easy one. I don’t have any difficulty with the fact that the gag tends to get an easy reaction and may not lead to a more thoughtful thing in and of itself. There’s just a problem of trying to build the kind of political culture from which satire flourishes. I try to work from Washington with Spy magazine in New York, there’s a built-in problem about what people in New York think is funny about politics and what people in Washington think is funny about politics. There isn’t that focus, and we’re just talking about two ends of this megalopolis. There’s a built-in problem about what people share in terms of political events. We don’t have at all anything like Private Eye, the British publication. There’s a publication that’s full of gags, but it’s also the center of … one of the centers of political culture that defines itself around those kind of gags. And they don’t only deal in banana peel humor at all, they in fact do something that is never done here, or is hardly ever done here, which is to go after people who are fashionable. That’s relatively rare. More of that would be fine, and gags at the expense of people who are fashionable would be completely welcome, it seems to me …

SAUNDERS: That’s like the Playboy magazine syndrome, where you run pictures of naked girls and a Jules Feiffer cartoon.

FROM AUDIENCE: Another trouble is that a lot of us have internalized our editors, and actually we’re tougher editors on ourselves than our editors are on us.

FEIFFER: I think that’s a good statement. I think that on hot issues that really tends to be a problem, and I find on hot issues to be a real problem. And I’ve found over the years when I do a cartoon that really scares me, and I wonder if I should do it, that is a signal to me that I’ve got to put it through whether I like it or not. Fear can be a very useful thing. It’s a good governor. It’s a kind of applause meter. If you’re really scared by something you do you know you’ve done some good work, and it’s time to push it forward rather than to retreat from it. But the other thing is that there are gags and gags. There are gags that are benign comments, not even a plague on both your houses but a joke on both your houses. But there are very strong commentaries done in the form of gags, whether it’s Mike Peters or Tom Toles or Tony Auth, Doug Marlette, these are very funny cartoonists, and they are also cartoonists with extremely strong points of view, and you know what their points of view are when you see their work. And there are others, I’ve left out a lot of names, but one can be funny and at the same time reveal a strong political posture. And one can also be whitebread, and there is too much whitebread around, there’s no question of that.

Jules Feiffer’s December 4, 1957 Sick, Sick, Sick strip, originally published in The Village Voice.

Jules Feiffer’s December 4, 1957 Sick, Sick, Sick strip, originally published in The Village Voice.

HOLLAND: I grew up in the 1950s, and I was really influenced by movies. I was drawing comic strips of movie characters when I was four or five years old. When I was a kid I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to grow up to write for the old Garry Moore Show or to be an artist. If I wanted a large audience I’d write for the movies. The one thing about being an artist is I don’t need a million-dollar budget, I don’t need to please a lot of producers, I don’t need to please financiers, I can do a drawing with a piece of paper, I could do drawings back when I was broke, I could do drawings when I was living in the slums in New York. I didn’t have to worry about pleasing a lot of people. When I began working I was working for the underground press back in the late ’60s, where you could do a drawing in a couple of minutes, run it down to the printers, have it printed two or three hours later, and there was no editor scratching his head and stroking his beard and wondering if everyone was going to get it. That’s almost the only virtue I can think of in being an artist in a society that’s so dominated by motion pictures and television. If you want a large audience, I’d say write for television. If you want to do something individual, that’s about the only rationale left for being an artist. [Applause]

FROM AUDIENCE: Seems like every one of these conventions I come to it winds up with this one segment of the audience telling the rest of us we’re all doing our jobs wrong. I don’t feel I ought to be ashamed of my work.

HOLLAND: I think what I was saying a second ago was precisely this: That there was that kind of Ding Darling style of cartooning with John Q. Public back in the ’40s, there was Herblock, we go through these cycles. Is everybody who’s drawing like Pat Oliphant these days [doing] what they wanted to do? Are all the Levine imitators doing what they want to do? I don’t know what you draw like so I’m not addressing anyone in particular. What I’m saying is precisely that I think everybody ought to be allowed to develop a personal style, and it’s an extremely difficult thing. It’s difficult to develop it in the first place, it’s much more difficult to sell it, it’s difficult to maintain it, and it’s especially difficult to maintain it when you’re swamped by imitators.

LEVINE: I don’t think what we were saying was that what everybody here does wasn’t adequate. On the contrary, I think there’s much applause to be made over the very significant role in stopping a war that was a very unjust war. I think we contributed. I don’t think the dog is wagged by his tail, but I think we played a significant role. What I find every time I come to the conventions is, when we’re not at home thinking we seem to come like puppies to anybody, and give drawings to those in power, and let ourselves be talked down to, and so on. I just think it can be stronger. I think the whole question of confronting power, which means right, left, or anybody who’s got power, is the question for us.

DRAPER HILL: Does the panel feel that there’s anything self-contradictory about a political satirist working on the editorial page? And some of us also produce comic strips that go in the other direction. Both products can be superb, sometimes they aren’t. Here we are, complaining about the Breathed award, but aren’t we sending out a different signal there?

HOLLAND: I was simply saying that, think of the artists that haven’t had Pulitzers. Where is the Pulitzer Prize for Saul Steinberg? Where was the Pulitzer Prize for James Thurber when he was drawing? Where was the Pulitzer Prize for Robert Crumb back in the ’60s?

HILL: My point is not the wisdom or the lack thereof on the Pulitzer committee.

HOLLAND: No, I understand what you’re saying, but I was trying to make a comment on them finally giving one to Jules after Lord knows how many years of brilliant work. It was ridiculous to keep ignoring him for so long. They, in a sense, distinguish themselves by giving one to him, but Jules didn’t need it to feel distinguished as far as I’m concerned.

HILL: Does the drawing of a comic strip energize a cartoonist’s editorial work? Is it not possible that it stretches him in contradictory directions that are bad for him?

HOLLAND: I’ve always confused Jeff MacNelly with David Hockney to begin with. I don’t know. I like those cartoons, I don’t see anything wrong with it.

FEIFFER: One would have to then say that [Mike] Peters’s work has suffered since Mother Goose and Grimm and MacNelly’s work has suffered since he’s done Shoe. I don’t think there are many people who would make that argument. So I guess the answer is no. I’m talking as somebody who strongly advised Mike Peters against doing his comic strip. Shows you how smart I am.

FROM AUDIENCE: I want to take up a point Jules made about chasing the headlines. In order to get behind the headline, get the underlying thread, it takes wisdom and insight, which usually come from experience in many different ways. I was wondering if part of the problem now was that you have a lot of young guys coming in without that experience?

FEIFFER: I am now old enough to know that experience is often meaningless. All it teaches you is what you were determined to know when you were 25 anyhow. You just re-focus it in different ways over the years. I think when you are young the advantage is that you should come in with a passion that may dissipate over the years, and if you don’t have that passion when you’re in your 20s or early 30s, it seems to me you have no business in the business, because it’s not going to get stronger, and if you don’t start out having it strong virtually to the point of obsession in the first place, then you’re not well prepared for the long run. That passion makes up for a lot of what you call a lack of background. One of the things that has always bothered me about this society is the credence we give “experts” and “qualified sources.” If Henry Kissinger is an example of such, I think we don’t know the kind of trouble we’re in. Or for that matter, Charles Krauthammer.

LEVINE: I just don’t think the state of the art should become the art of the state.

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Cartoons of Mass Destruction: The Whole Story Behind the Danish 12 Sat, 10 Jan 2015 13:45:04 +0000 The Comics Journal #275 (April 2006) offers a multitude of perspectives — from cartoonists, Danes, Muslims, Danish Muslims — and is being rerun to help supply context for the Charles Hebdo killings. Continue reading ]]> In 2006, 12 Danish cartoonists controversially drew pictures of Muhammad at the urging of Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish weekly Jyllands-Posten. This news story from The Comics Journal #275 (April 2006) offers a multitude of perspectives — from cartoonists, Danes, Muslims, Danish Muslims — and is being rerun to help supply context for the Charles Hebdo killings.

Michael Dean and R.C. Harvey, with the assistance of Eric Millikin and Houria Kerdioui


It’s not often that the Journal contemplates covering a lead story that has been pervasively covered in the mainstream press, but the Muslim backlash to editorial cartoons published in the Danish press has become not only the biggest comics-related news story since the last issue of the Journal, but possibly the biggest comics-related news story ever.

As a result, the Journal is in the rare position of reporting on events that can scarcely have escaped the attention of anyone on the planet. Readers are accustomed to finding the comics field covered in greater depth by the Journal than by other sources of comics news, especially mainstream media, but for once, we had to ask ourselves what the Journal, lacking a Middle Eastern or European bureau, could add to a story that seemed to have been pursued around the world from every conceivable angle.

Via television, newspapers, magazines, radio and the Internet, the publication of the cartoons and the wrath of offended Muslims were reported, the economies, cultural attitudes and immigration policies of Denmark, France and Europe in general were explored, the religious doctrine and history of Islam were explained and debated, Danes were profiled, Muslims were analyzed, and opinions were expressed, ranging from the need for calm and patience to the need for righteous execution and dismemberment. It was a story that could not help but perpetuate itself. Since the event was essentially a figment of the media to begin with, born in the pages of a newspaper, its very coverage — each new fair-use publication of the cartoons — engendered new stories, like aftershocks that spread and then rebounded upon themselves. The cartoons were so charged with power that most papers reported on them without reproducing them. But even that omission became news of a sort, evidence of a betrayal of free speech by those reticent papers and their host countries.

Ultimately, the story was like an out-of-control fire that only reached its limits when it was brought up against an even larger fire as extremist Muslim factions turned their rage on other Muslims in Iraq in a series of violent sectarian attacks. The cartoons were finally displaced from headlines by events that threatened to explode into a civil war in Iraq.

By that time, it seems safe to say that literally thousands of stories had appeared in the various media about those 12 Danish editorial cartoons and their repercussions. By and large, though, these stories tended to focus on updates of the latest riot or the latest public statement by a world figure, and when there was no news to cover, then a particular piece of tangential turf was staked out: How has Muhammad been depicted through the ages? What are Danish attitudes toward Arab immigrants? What does the local Imam think about it all?


Coverage in the Middle East seemed to see the Danish cartoons as Western provocation, an insult on top of a history of injuries to the nation of Islam, and debate centered on whether to defend Muslim pride by violent or nonviolent means. In the West, there was disagreement over whether publication of the cartoons was an appropriate use or an inappropriate abuse of the principle of free speech, but, in its simplest formulation the conflict, as represented in the West, boiled down to one of free speech (however misguided) versus violence and religious censorship.

In considering what the Journal could add to such a massive media response, we realized that the one thing the Journal had that the other reports lacked was time and the perspective that comes with time. Whether simply updating events or focusing on some related angle, coverage of the Danish cartoons has been on the fly: a few paragraphs here, a few more there. As much as we each have been bombarded by the Danish cartoons story, we have inevitably been exposed to it in fragments. What the Journal has tried to do is assemble an overview and synthesis of the events of the story, as well as the many ways of looking at what it all means. Now that events directly related to the cartoons seem to have wound down, we can chart the arc of events that led up to and followed publication of the cartoons. We have also searched far and wide to collect in one place a range of voices interpreting and commenting from various perspectives on the cartoons and their aftermath. Finally, we have considered what these events have to tell us about the power of cartooning to capture and convey convictions and ideas, whether benign or dangerous. Twelve pictures — 12,000 words.


Though the story exploded in the media and in the streets early this year, it actually originated back in September when Flemming Rose, the culture editor of the Danish weekly Jyllands-Posten, concluded that publishers were self-censoring themselves by observing Muslim religious taboos as to what can be shown and what cannot. Specifically, the matter was brought to Rose’s attention by the dilemma of publishers who were having a hard time finding illustrators willing and able to represent the prophet Muhammad in print. Muslim prohibitions against idolatry have been interpreted by some to forbid the rendering of any image meant to represent the prophet. Rose issued a challenge to 40 artists in Denmark to draw a cartoon featuring Muhammad. A total of 12 of them responded with a mix of lighthearted sketches and satirical comment.


In the Feb. 13 Time, Rose explained: “In mid-September, a Danish author went on the record as saying he had problems finding illustrators for a book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The [eventual] illustrator insisted on anonymity,” Rose continued, giving the reasons for the illustrator’s trepidation: “Translators of a book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali Dutch politician who has been critical of Islam, also insisted on anonymity. Then the Tate Britain in London removed an installation called ‘God Is Great,’ which shows the Talmud, the Quran and the Bible embedded in a piece of glass.” He might also have mentioned the 1989 death threat against writer Salman Rushdie for his portrayal of Muhammad in his novel, The Satanic Verses. His Japanese and Italian translators were stabbed, the former, fatally; and his Norwegian publisher shot. And then there was the murder a year or so ago of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, killed by an Islamic fundamentalist for harshly criticizing fundamentalism.

“To me,” Rose went on, “all those spoke to the problems of self-censorship and freedom of speech, and that’s why I wrote to 40 Danish cartoonists asking them to depict Muhammad as they see him. Some of the cartoons turned out to be caricatures because this is just in the Danish tradition. We make fun of the Queen, we make fun of politicians, we make fun of more or less everything. Of course, we didn’t expect this kind of [violent worldwide] reaction, but I am sorry if some Muslims feel insulted. This was not directed at Muslims. I wanted to put this issue of self-censorship on the agenda and have a debate about it.”

Believing that self-censorship is as inhibiting to free speech as official censorship, Rose wanted “to examine whether people would succumb to self-censorship as we have seen in other cases when it comes to Muslim issues.” The debate Rose hoped to start would, clearly, involve protesting the climate of intimidation that he saw surrounding Islamic concerns. In picturing Islam’s revered prophet, the 12 cartoonists who responded to Rose’s call couldn’t have done a better job of inflaming the Muslim population if that had been their intent. The traditions of Islam prohibit artistic representations of any of the prophets — whether Muhammad, Jesus, Moses or Abraham. In some of the strictest branches of Islam, not even the human form can be depicted.

Since the aim is to prevent idolatry, however, it would seem to be a prohibition directed specifically at good Muslims. Christians, for example, have had no compunction about representing Jesus in a multitude of forms and Muslims have never seen that as an offense in need of violent correction (though Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was banned in most of the Middle East because of the same prohibition against idolatry). Moreover, Islamic tradition on the matter is not as ironclad as some who have cited it as a reason for protesting the cartoons would have us believe. Muhammad has appeared through the centuries in hundreds of paintings, drawings and other imagery both in the West and in Islamic countries without a word of complaint in the Muslim world. Images of Muhammad and other sacred persons similar to Orthodox Christian icons are commonplace in Shi’ite communities, particularly in Iran.

In any case, idolatry can scarcely be an issue in the case of the Danish cartoons, which are far from idolizing their subject. It is in fact the very irreverence of the images that clearly accounts for much of the anger expressed by Muslims. From a certain perspective not entirely unfamiliar even in our own country, comics and cartoons have traditionally been considered comical and instruments of ridicule. Anything “cartooned” is therefore belittled, diminished, which, in the case of the prophet, is a highly blasphemous act. Beyond the generic defamation that being the subject of a cartoon might entail, some of the cartoons carried a satirical bite. Some of them played off the violence lately committed in the name of Islam. One shows Muhammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with its fuse smoldering. In another, Muhammad stands on a cloud in Heaven, saying to newly arriving, freshly deceased suicide bombers, “Stop! Stop! We have run out of virgins!” In one, the cartoonist depicts himself at a drawing board, furtively drawing Muhammad. (One location where all 12 cartoons can be found.) Unflattering portrayals, no question, but hardly the first time unflattering pictures of the prophet have appeared in the West. As one blogger calling him—or herself Soj pointed out, such derogatory images have appeared in venues ranging from Dante’s Inferno to South Park without provoking “rioting, storming of embassies or CNN coverage.”Cartoon-6


Nor was there much outrage expressed initially to the Danish cartoons. At first, apparently the only objections to the cartoons came from the Danish Muslim community shortly after the publication of the 12 cartoons on Sept. 30. A peaceful demonstration involving 3,500 Muslims took place Oct. 14 in Copenhagen. The protesters, reacting to what they saw as a xenophobic, if not racist, expression of discomfort with the Muslim population in Denmark and a public equation of the Muslim religion with acts of terrorism, demanded an apology. The paper rebuffed the demand. Three days later in Egypt, the Cairo weekly newspaper Al Fagr published the cartoons, and three Egyptian magazines did the same — all to little effect, apparently. It wasn’t until Oct. 20 that an official objection surfaced, when the ambassadors in Denmark from 11 Muslim nations signed a letter of protest sent on that date to the Danish prime minister. The ambassadors requested a meeting, which Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen rejected, saying, “I have no tool whatsoever to take actions against the media — and I don’t want that kind of tool.”


The newspaper initially refused to apologize, citing its longstanding policies: “We must quietly point out here that the drawings illustrated an article on the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world. Our right to say, write, photograph and draw what we want to within the framework of the law exists and must endure — unconditionally!” Editor Carsten Juste added: “We live in a democracy. That’s why we can use all the journalistic methods we want to. Satire is accepted in this country, and you can make caricatures. Religion shouldn’t set any barriers on that sort of expression. This doesn’t mean that we wish to insult any Muslims.” But, he concluded, “if we apologize, we go against the freedom of speech that generations before us have struggled to win.” At about the same time as the ambassadorial protest, an Islamic group called Holy Brigades in Northern Europe threatened terrorist retaliation.

The prime minister, while resolutely defending the independence of the Danish press, explained to the Muslim ambassadors that they were not without recourse. “Danish legislation prohibits acts or expressions of a blasphemous or discriminatory nature,” he wrote. “The offended party may bring such acts or expressions to court, and it is for the courts to decide in individual cases.”

The embassies evidently applied to the courts on Nov. 1. A spokesman for the group said: “We have based our action on the article that the drawings were published alongside, and the intention of the article. We believe that it was the newspaper’s intention to mock and ridicule.”

By then, the Danish cartoonists were in hiding, having received death threats, and the Danish prime minister had introduced a bill to stiffen penalties for those convicted of threatening and harassing people who, in the exercise of their legal rights, make statements about such topics as religion.

On Nov. 19, a group of Danish Muslims announced an expedition to bring the cartoons to the attention of Muslims in the Middle East. The unofficial delegation made several trips to the Middle East in December to circulate a 43-page dossier on “Danish racism and Islamophobia.” They met with scholars, Arab League officials and senior clerics in Cairo and Beirut. The dossier contained the original 12 cartoons. But at least three other images had been added. Muhammad is seemingly depicted in one with a pig’s snout; in another, as a pedophile demon. A third cartoon showed a dog raping a praying Muslim. It was later revealed that the image with the pig’s snout was actually taken from a photo of a costumed participant in a pig-squealing contest at a French festival and had nothing to do with Muslims or Muhammad. Some pointed to this misrepresentation as evidence of a cynical conspiracy to foment outrage in the Muslim community. But it might also have been an honest mistake, since the additional images were included in the dossier because they had allegedly been sent to Muslims who had complained publicly about the original 12 in Jyllands-Posten. British Daily Telegraph correspondent Dennis Rennie interviewed the group’s 31-year-old leader, Ahmed Akkari, who denied that the inclusion of these extra cartoons was intended to exacerbate Muslim ire against the Danish newspaper: He maintained that the extra images were always expressly identified as not being among the cartoons the paper published. In the dossier, he said, they were separated from the original dozen by pages of letters and other contents and simply included as examples of racist images that were circulated in Denmark, thereby supplying “insight in how hateful the atmosphere in Denmark is towards Muslims.” Akkari said his hope was that the religious leaders to whom he showed the dossier would combine to bring international pressure to bear on the Danish government to apologize for the blasphemy committed in one of the nation’s newspapers.

The strategy was highly effective, at least in the Middle East. Following a regular Dec. 9 summit meeting in Mecca, the leaders of 57 Muslim nations issued a closing communiqué expressing “concern at rising hatred against Islam and Muslims and condemned the recent incident of desecration of the image of the Holy Prophet Muhammad in the media of certain countries” as well as “using the freedom of expression as a pretext to defame religion.” In Egypt where, ironically, the government had cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood in the weeks leading up to the national elections, the foreign minister branded the Danish cartoons a scandal and launched a multinational effort to prevent recurrence of such insults to Islam. In Iraq, a Shi’ite newspaper demanded an apology from Jyllands-Posten. In Pakistan, fundamentalists reportedly offered a reward of 500,000 rupees ($8,333) to anyone who killed the cartoonists.

The summit, according to Hassan M. Fattah writing in the New York Times, was “a turning point.” Anger at the images became more public, and in Middle East countries, government-controlled press coverage “virtually approved demonstrations that ended with Danish embassies in flames.” What was initially a popular “visceral reaction” provided the avenue to another objective: It gave autocratic Muslim governments a popular movement to sympathize with and to join in, hoping to “outflank a growing challenge from Islamic opposition movements.”


In the first weeks of January, 2.5 million Muslims made the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. It was an ideal venue for the rumbles of discontent over the cartoons to spread. By mid-January, Muslim anger had turned to fury and erupted, widespread and vicious. Protesters in the Arab streets were calling for beheadings and attracting the attention of television news cameras.

In response to the protests, a small Norwegian evangelical magazine called Magazinet reprinted the cartoons Jan. 10. Meanwhile in Denmark, a Jan. 11 poll of 1,047 readers by Jyllands-Posten showed 57 percent in support of the original cartoon publication and 31 percent opposed.

On January 26, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark, and Libya followed suit Jan. 29. According to Fattah, “Saudi clerics began sounding the call for a boycott, and within a day, most Danish products were pulled off supermarket shelves.” Fattah quoted a Cairo political scientist, who said: “The Saudis did this because they have to score against Islamic fundamentalists.” The fundamental Islamists were gaining in power because of Muslim anger over the occupation of Iraq and “the sense that Muslims were under siege.” Out of dissatisfaction with the status quo, Muslims who participated in elections were voting for Islamists and the established governments, by adopting an Islamist posture on the Danish Dozen, undoubtedly hoped to undercut the strenght of fundamentalist opposition.


Whether or not Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak or Saudi rulers exploited outrage in the Arab streets for their own purposes, it’s clear that the protests had quickly moved beyond spontaneous demonstrations of popular opinion, and the culture war was perilously close to becoming a real war. In Beirut on Sunday, Feb. 5, Rory McCarthy of the Guardian reported, “heavily-laden coaches and mini-vans” drove down to the seaside Corniche and disembarked their passengers, “young, often bearded men who wore headbands and carried identical flags with calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic such as, ‘There is no god but God and Muhammad is his Prophet’ and ‘O Nation of Muhammad, Wake Up!’ There were soon as many as 20,000 of them filling the streets.” The crowd grew restive, then fierce, and before the day was over, they marched on the Danish embassy and set it ablaze. “Then,” McCarthy continued, “in the afternoon, as suddenly as it had all begun, it ended. The leaders of the mob turned to the angry young men beside them and told them it was time to leave. Obediently, the crowd thinned out and began walking back to the buses.”

Perhaps shaken by the magnitude of the backlash, Jyllands-Posten editors met with a moderate Muslim group in mid-January seeking a way to make peace. The Jan. 22 Brussels Journal quoted Muslim spokesperson Ahmed Akkari as saying, “ We want Jyllands-Posten to show respect for the Muslims. This can happen with an apology, but it can also happen in some other way. We will leave it to Jyllands-Posten to come up with some ideas.”

Editor Carsten Juste said, “It was a good and constructive meeting. We agreed that we need to find a solution.” On Jan. 30, gunmen briefly surrounded the Gaza office of the European Union demanding an apology. On the same day, Jyllands-Posten apologized on its website for any offense given to Muslims but stopped short of disavowing its decision to print the cartoons in the first place.

For most Muslims, it was too little, too late. In any case, round two was already heating up, as newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland expressed solidarity with Jyllands-Posten by reprinting the cartoons Feb. 1. The large Danish-Swedish dairy company Aria Foods told the BBC Feb. 2 that its sales in the Middle East had dropped to zero due to boycotts. Norway closed its mission to the West Bank Feb. 2 in response to threats from two militant groups. The Brussels Journal reported that Norway Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre issued an apology for publication of the cartoons by Magazinet in a statement that was e-mailed to Norwegian embassies.

Three of the cartoons were reprinted in Jordanian independent tabloid al-Shihan, along with an editorial by Jihad Momani, saying, “Muslims of the world be reasonable. What brings more prejudice against Islam, these caricatures or pictures of a hostage-taker slashing the throat of his victim in front of the cameras or a suicide bomber who blows himself up during a wedding ceremony in Amman?”


Frank Streicher facetiously summed up events as of Feb. 2 for the Canadian website Halifax Live: “Furiously worded diplomatic letters start to arrive in Copenhagen, ambassadors are withdrawn by the boatload, Havarti is declared persona non grata in Saudi Arabia, and half the Middle East is occupied trying to find Danish flags to burn. In the end, all three of them get torched.”

There was a fresh outbreak of demonstrations in several European cities Feb. 3, most notably in London, where some 300 Muslim protesters marched from holy-day prayers at a central city mosque to the Danish embassy, where they burnt the Danish flag, threw eggs at the embassy building and held up signs reading “Exterminate those who insult Islam.” On the same day, according to a Reuters report by Per Bech Thomsen, Copenhagen Imam Abu Laban was more conciliatory in a speech to 1,000 Muslim worshipers, accepting the newspaper’s apology and promising that “25 million Muslims in this continent will never hijack Europe and Western civilization.”


On Feb. 8, three people were killed during protests in Afghanistan, bringing the cartoon-related death toll there to 11. That same day, the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo ran all 12 Danish cartoons and added several of its own, after a legal attempt by French Muslim organizations to block publication was rejected by a Paris court. The cover showed a mortified Muhammad saying, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.”

By Feb. 9, newspapers in 16 countries had supported the cause of free speech by running the Muhammad cartoons. The Parisian daily France Soir not only reprinted the Danish cartoons, it added one of its own depicting Muhammad beside Christian, Jewish and Buddhist holy figures, with the Christian god saying, “Don’t worry, Muhammad, we’ve all been caricatured here.” France Soir Managing Editor Jacques Lefranc was fired immediately by the paper’s owner, an Egyptian-born Catholic, but the staff stood by the paper’s position, running a front-page editorial the next day defending the right to free speech. Eric Fauveau, director general of France Soir’s publishing group Presse Alliance, was appointed to take over as interim managing editor, but he refused the appointment and resigned his position at Press Alliance, calling Lefranc’s dismissal “inopportune,” according to the BBC. Le Monde, the influential French daily, ran an editorial asserting that French law permitted religions to be “freely analyzed, criticized and even subjected to ridicule.”

Fairly soon, most papers that reprinted the cartoons enjoyed another benefit: increased sales. The circulation of France Soir, in financial straits and up for sale, increased by 40 percent on the day it published the cartoons, prompting some critics to speculate that publication of the cartoons had been a cynical stunt to increase the paper’s selling price. The Associated Press’s Jamey Keaten quoted the ironic remarks of Fouad Alaoui, the vice president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, who said: “Here’s some advice to those newspapers today facing ruin, bankruptcy or collapse: All you need to do is insult Muslims and Islam, and sales will get hot as blazes.”

Quoted in Le Monde Feb. 9, Jacques Chirac said, “I condemn all the obvious provocations that could dangerously arouse the passions,” and stressed the importance of safeguarding the security of French citizens abroad.

As of the beginning of February, only The New York Sun had reprinted the cartoons in the U.S. The Inquirer in Philadelphia decided to publish the most inflammatory image on Feb. 4. Editor Amanda Bennett said good journalism required them to publish, because, as the controversy persisted, people needed to know what the fuss was all about. She compared it to decisions in the past to publish photographs of the bodies of burned Americans hung from a bridge in Iraq and to the 1989 photograph of an artwork by Andres Serrano showing a crucifix submerged in a jar of urine. “You run it because there’s a news reason to run it,” Bennett said. The day after the cartoon’s publication, a dozen Muslim protesters peacefully picketed the newspaper offices.

That same day, the entire editorial staff of the alternative weekly New York Press resigned over the publishers’ decision not to run the cartoons. In Texas, the Austin American-Statesman eventually ran one of the images. And so did the Daily Press in Victorville, Calif., and the Tribune-Eagle in Cheyenne, Wyo., where the Muslim population is minuscule. Among television networks, ABC and Fox each showed one cartoon; NBC and CBS declined.


In Algeria, according to the Feb. 13 Algiers La Tribune, the newspapers Essafir and Panorama and the Moroccan newspaper Le Journal Hebdomaire ran the cartoons. The editors were arrested Feb. 13 and the newspapers suspended. Journalists were also prosecuted for publishing the cartoons in Jordan, Yemen, Syria and Indonesia.

Egypt’s Mubarak and Afghan President Hamid Karzai issued warnings and condemnations of the cartoons, but in the West, most European heads of state declined to weigh in on the subject. Not so, the U.S. A Feb. 3 Reuters report by Saul Hudson ran on the ABC News website under the headline “US backs Muslims in cartoon dispute” and quoted State Department spokesperson Kurtis Cooper as saying, “These cartoons are indeed offensive to the belief of Muslims. We all fully recognize and respect freedom of the press and expression, but it must be coupled with press responsibility. Inciting religious or ethnic hatreds in this manner is not acceptable.” The following week, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice more or less reversed that position and blamed Iran and Syria for fomenting violent reactions among Muslims, saying, “Iran and Syria have gone out of their way to inflame sentiments and to use this to their own purposes.”

Western businesses in Pakistan were literally in flames, as a series of violent protests tore through the country’s major cities in mid February. On Feb. 14, two people died and fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut were set on fire. Police detained 125 people, according to a report on Ireland Online. In Islamabad on the same day, police repelled a mob of 1,000 students with tear gas and water cannons after they invaded a residential enclave for embassy personnel. A total of 142 students who refused to disperse were arrested. Violence continued in Peshawar the next day, as 6,000 demonstrators took over a busy intersection, chanting, “Death to Denmark!” and burning Danish flags. Police broke them up with batons and tear gas. At the same time, 2,000 protesters gathered in the nearby town of Tank and set fire to music and video shops. One policeman was injured by gunfire, according to Ireland Online.

Back in Denmark, polls released Feb. 12 showed most Danes blamed the Danish Muslim organization that had visited the Middle East for the protests. Peter Skaarup, Deputy Leader of the Danish People’s Party called for an investigation of the group and its trip.


There’s a perverse sort of pleasure in seeing the humble comics form drawing global attention, lowly cartoons awarded such enormous potency. A mid-February editorial cartoon by Jeff Stahler in the Columbia Dispatch showed a throng of people fleeing an angry man who was brandishing a sheet of paper and shouting, “I’ve got a cartoon & I’m not afraid to use it!” But some would say the conflagration the cartoons sparked owes more to the volatility of political and cultural conflicts between the values of the West and those of the Middle East. As the Feb. 2 New York Times quoted Rose as saying: “This is a far bigger story than just the question of 12 cartoons in a small Danish newspaper. This is about the question of integration and how compatible is the religion of Islam with a modern secular society — how much does an immigrant have to give up and how much does the receiving culture have to compromise.”

Certainly the Danish 12 have been used to further an array of disparate ends, many of them having nothing to do with either free speech or Muslim dignity. For example, Rose hinted at some of the motives involved when he told The New York Times (Feb. 12), “People are no longer willing to pay taxes to help support someone called Ali who comes from a country with a different language and culture that is 5,000 miles away.” Though Denmark has had a relatively open immigration policy, it is not immune to the resentment that has been growing among European nations. The Danish People’s Party holds 13 percent of the seats in the Danish Parliament, partly on the strength of its resistance to immigration. A spokesperson for the party told The New York Times, the party was considering sponsoring a bill to freeze Muslim immigration.

Given that environment, the purity of the paper’s invocation of the principle of free speech is questionable. The West, after all, can hardly claim to have been a haven of boundless free expression, and Denmark is no exception. In April 2003, Jyllands-Posten had reportedly refused to publish cartoons about the resurrection of Christ on the grounds that they could be offensive to readers and were not funny. In this country, Abdul Malik Mujahid, chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, spotlighted the essential double standard by wondering whether an anti-Semitic cartoon or one showing the Pope in a compromising sexual position would have been tolerated in Europe the way the cartoons of the prophet were by those who published them. The perhaps comparable example of Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live might be cited as evidence on either side: The act provoked considerable outrage and calls for boycotts among her free-speech-loving Western audience, not to mention threats of violence — but on the other hand, no lives were lost or buildings burned.

Nor can those who waved the banner of Muslim religious tradition in response to the cartoons be considered entirely free of hypocrisy. As previously noted, there’s no reason to suppose that the prohibition against representing the prophets, intended as it was to safeguard against idolatry, should apply to non-Muslims. And there is ample evidence to suggest that it hasn’t been consistently applied even to Muslims. Jonathan Bloom, a historian of Islamic art at Boston College told the Christian Science Monitor Feb. 9, “In Iran in the 14th century and during the time of the Ottoman Empire, manuscripts often contained illustrations of him.”


Michael Ryan, exhibition director for Ireland’s Chester Beatty Library, was quoted in the Feb. 4 Irish Times as saying, “The Sunni Muslims [who make up 90 percent of the Muslim population] in particular find the idea of an image depicting Muhammad extremely difficult.” But even if it’s allowed that exceptions to the prohibition are limited to certain historical periods or sectarian branches, the fact remains that images of the prophets, especially Jesus, have been commonly rendered and even caricatured in the West without inciting Muslim riots around the world. When a bobble-head Jesus can nod in the back window of a car, a caricatured prophet can’t be taken very seriously as grounds for Jihad.

So why have the Danish images turned out to be so infuriating to Muslims? It may well be that, given post-9/11 tensions and the economic pressures surrounding European immigration issues, the real problem with the cartoons was not so much their violation of Muslim religious taboos as their repeated linkage of the Muslim religion with terrorism. Imam Abdul Wahid Pedersen, a Danish convert to Islam told the Feb. 12 New York Times, “Blockhead right-wing politicians in this country are saying Islam is a terrorist religion, that our prophet is a con man, that we take their jobs and steal their women.”

The Feb. 9 Christian Science Monitor quoted Hartford Seminary Islamic Studies Professor Ingrid Mattson as saying, “These are racist depictions. They are deliberately offensive and are aimed at a minority that is already feeling marginalized.”

Pedersen told The New York Times that only five percent of Muslims in Denmark — immigrants from countries like Turkey Pakistan, Iran and Somalia — describe themselves as religious. He added, ominously, “Stigmatization of Muslims in this country risks turning the cliché of the radical Muslim into a reality.” But of course, the flip side is that real Muslims play into that stigmatization when they allow themselves to be turned into the cliché of the raging, dismemberment-threatening religious zealot. Apparently conscious of the potentially vicious circle, Muslims in Denmark have shown a strong preference for peaceable demonstration and compromise.

Rabiah Ahmed, spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, told the Christian Science Monitor (Feb. 9), “We are concerned that people are not responding the way the prophet Muhammad would want. He was the kind of person who would turn the other cheek if someone slapped him. He preached love and tolerance.”

Love and tolerance, however, were not what spread through the Middle East in the wake of the Dec. 9 summit meeting. The Danish cartoons, especially when combined with the deliberately vicious racism of the cartoons added to the folder by the Danish Muslims in their mission to the Middle East, could not help but stir up already existing resentments over the American occupation of Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if the aim of Jyllands-Posten was to show that fear of radical Muslim violence was restricting free expression in the West, then the angry Middle Eastern mobs and murderous vows have made that point far better than the 12 cartoons ever could have. Instead of being cowed by the violence, the Western press drew a line in the sand, and the public image of Muslims in Western countries has never been worse.

For the most extreme of Muslim zealots, those whose goal is not peaceful coexistence but a glorious Armageddon between the forces of Islam and the forces of Satan, the cartoons were an ideal tool for escalating hostilities. While that segment of the Muslim world may be a small minority, those Muslims in the Middle East who look to their religion for a restoration of political power and cultural dignity are a growing majority — a trend underscored by recent electoral results throughout the area. It was therefore in the political interest of even the most secular of Middle Eastern states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to publicly join in the condemnation of the cartoons.

The 12 cartoons were therefore used:

  • by the cartoonists themselves to express their particular points, as well as display their skills and bravery;
  • by free-speech advocates to rally the world to that cause;
  • by anti-immigration forces in Denmark and Europe, as well as garden-variety racists, to exacerbate resentment of foreigners;
  • by faltering print publications to increase revenue;
  • by politicians to score political points;
  • by Muslim extremists as an incitement to Jihad;
  • by Middle Eastern leaders as an inspiration for alliance with popular Islamic power bases;
  • by Muslims around the world as a target for their anger at being pushed around by the West for too long;
  • and even by some as an occasion for dialogue.

As for the U.S., its indecision about how best to exploit the crisis was evidenced by its initial impulse to win a few Muslim hearts and minds by condemning the cartoons followed by its subsequent seizure of the opportunity to point its finger at Iran and Syria (but not at Egypt and Saudi Arabia).

And somebody somewhere undoubtedly used the cartoons to get laid.

The Danish cartoons may clarify the limitations of one attribute of comics: the ability, ascribed to them by historians like Coulton Waugh, to communicate transparently and clearly across cultural and linguistic barriers. When the same cartoons can be used as symbols of both Muslim intolerance and intolerance of Muslims, it’s evident that they are as manipulable and subject to interpretation as any text. But ambiguous or not, there’s no denying what a powerful tool they have demonstrated themselves to be, even if much of that power rests in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps the best example of how cartoons can be a vessel for projected interests was in the cartoons contributed by Halifax Live, a website that claimed to be the only Canadian news source to run cartoons of Muhammad: Complaining it couldn’t afford the $12.05 syndication fee charged by the Danes, Halifax Live, ran its own cartoons consisting of blank white panels with captions like, “Mohammed loses his toque on Agricola Street during a blizzard,” and “The Prophet looking for 40 virgins in Halifax (during the same blizzard).”

A more personalized take on the Danish 12 by R. C. Harvey is available to subscribers to his website at tcj


Danes on the Danish Dozen

“What no one could have foreseen was the extent to which globalization has changed the way these things work.”

It’s not always easy to talk about free speech. One Danish scholar was worried that he could inflame the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad controversy, saying “I do not want to provoke people, on either side. There’s been enough of that.” One Danish cartoonist sought to minimize his professional ties with the artists out of fear that it might endanger other artists that they work with. One Danish-American worried that if the Journal published his name it could lead to reprisals from Islamic fundamentalists.

The closer the Journal got to the 12 cartoonists, all of whom are reportedly in hiding and under the protection of the PET (the Danish Secret Service), the more quiet people became. “I wouldn’t give [any of the 12 cartoonists’ contact information] to anybody, not even The Comics Journal,” said one Dane. “If those guys need anything right now, it’s to be out of the limelight.”

However, in late February a group of Danish-Americans, Danish artists and Danish scholars put their fears aside and talked to the Journal about the Muhammad cartoons, the political situation in Denmark, and where the world goes from here. They chose their words carefully.

Henrik Nielsen, a 41-year-old Danish-American computer programmer originally from Løkken, Denmark, hesitated before allowing the Journal to publish his name. After a moment’s thought, he relented, “I guess it’s OK. ‘Henrik Nielsen’ has to be only about the second most common name in Denmark.”

While Nielsen’s worry that Islamic terrorists might track him down based on his comments to a comics magazine may seem unusual, the type of violent anti-Dane protests that he has seen lately have been similarly unprecedented. “When you hear about the burning of your flag and huge protests around your embassy it opens your eyes to what Americans must feel to see that happen to their symbols,” Nielsen said. “It makes you scared because some people react violently because you express your opinion. I don’t think it’s something Denmark has ever seen. I’ve never been afraid to travel around the world with a [Danish] flag on my knapsack or whatever. But I’ve heard of a Danish colleague who claimed he was Finnish when he was traveling through Egypt.”

Nielsen worries about what the controversy has done to Denmark’s image. “As a Dane you always thought of yourself as friendly and humorous because you can laugh at anything, even yourself,” he explained. “You know the European soccer hooligans? The Danes were called the ‘roligans.’ ‘Rolig’ is Danish for ‘calm.’ We were like the ambassadors of fun and good will and suddenly you’re portrayed as demons and you’re hated and your flag is burned.”

Matthias Wivel, a Danish art historian conducting his PhD research at the University of Cambridge and also co-editor of the Danish journal of comics criticism, Rackham (, is similarly concerned about the damage to Denmark’s reputation.

“It’s been almost surreal,” Wivel told the Journal. “Most Danes are used to being a rather innocuous, well-liked people wherever we travel, and we also usually perceive ourselves as very open to the rest of the world. We are, for example, one of the countries that provides the most foreign aid per capita in the world. That anybody would want to burn our flag or our embassies is thus hard to grasp — until one starts thinking about it, which is what I think this situation has belatedly prompted.”

Wivel was not impressed with the cartoons. “With the exception of three or four of them, I think they are rather inferior cartoons,” he said. “The take on Islamism is pretty hackneyed, the jokes are largely quite stupid, and most of them are badly and uninspiringly drawn.”

“I think Jyllands-Posten were inconsiderate and boorish in publishing these cartoons as a single, unified, insulting statement, but am not sure the cartoonists themselves can be accused of anything else than trying their best to exercise their métier within the often rather limited scope of their talent.”

Wivel saw the cartoons as an attempt to inflame the anti-immigration sentiments simmering in Danish politics. “It should be stressed here that the decision by Jyllands-Posten to publish these cartoons more than likely was motivated by the political climate of Denmark, where Muslims are constantly the object of negative discourse, where immigration laws have developed to become the most draconian of the [European Union] and where there’s a lot of popular support for the kind of hard-line thinking that has prompted this development. It was an asinine, cheap shot at an already marginalized minority. Preaching to the choir, in other words. What no one could have foreseen was the extent to which globalization has changed the way these things work.”

Paw Mathiasen, owner of the major Danish comics publisher Fahrenheit ( also believes that Jyllands-Posten was unnecessarily provocative. “They offended Danish Muslims — and later the rest of the Muslim world — in printing these cartoons,” he said. “In my opinion the newspapers are of course free to publish these cartoons, but for me it’s difficult to see the point in doing it that way. I also suspect the Danish newspaper for having a hidden agenda. It’s a notorious right-wing paper which for many years has been very critical to immigration from the Third, and especially the Muslim, World.”

While Wivel and Mathiasen agree with each other on the possible political motivations of Jyllands-Posten, not all of Denmark sees things the same way. “The population of Denmark are divided on this topic,” said Mathiasen. “The Danish PEN organization are divided, politicians who on other subjects share the same view are divided, comic-fans are divided and discuss it a lot on Danish message boards. Everybody is divided. Unfortunately the big winners in a crisis like this are political radicals among Danes and religious fundamentalists among Muslims.”

Per Jauert, associate professor in the Department of Information and Media Studies at the University of Aarhus, also sees right-wing politicians gaining from the controversy. “It’s obvious now what has happened over the last four or five weeks now has really given strength to the Dansk Folkeparti, the extreme right-wing party,” Jauert told the Journal. “I just saw a poll this morning telling that they had around 30 percent, a third, of the voters behind them now, meaning that they have grown around eight to 10 percent over the last five to six weeks.”

The Dansk Folkeparti, or Danish People’s Party, is currently the third largest party in Denmark’s multiple-party political system, behind the right-of-center Liberal Party of Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen and the more leftist Social Democrats. While the far right makes gains, Jauert sees the controversy as a potential liability for Prime Minister Rasmussen.

“The Prime Minister likes to be seen as a tough guy and as a great statesman and he’s been now attacked for the way he handled the situation,” said Jauert. “There’s a growing awareness that if our Prime Minister had taken a meeting from 11 Islamic countries in October then he could have performed damage control without giving anything away or having to sell out of the principles of freedom of expression. On the one hand you have our prime minister who is very much in line with Jyllands-Posten; they are kind of fundamentalists in the way they look upon freedom of expression,” said Jauert. “And on the other hand you have one former foreign minister, Liberal foreign minister, [Uffe Ellemann-Jensen] who is in a huge, very tense opposition to his own party and to the present prime minister because he says that, ‘OK, you have a right to freedom of expression, but you have to use it carefully.’ And with that he’s in line with a lot of Social Democrats and people to the left, and intellectuals of different kinds saying that it’s OK to make cartoons and to be provocative, but it’s not OK to [direct them] at minorities. If you have to use cartoons and you have to be provocative, you should aim against the ones in power.”

Jauert also sees a positive: moderate Muslims joining the political process to make sure their voices aren’t lost during the controversy. “One of the more encouraging things that has happened recently is the establishing of a new association for moderate, more critical Muslims in Denmark wanting to integrate into the Danish society and be part of the Danish society, respecting the fundamental democratic rights in our society,” said Jauert.

Jauert found the cartoons to be relatively harmless, as long as they remained within a Danish context. “The general opinion [is that] they are considered harmless, well, compared to normal Danish standards,” he said. “There was humor in them also. The one who maybe went over the edge was the one with Muhammad with a bomb on his head … Most people considered them quite harmless but these were meant for a Danish audience and now the Danes have just to consider that you’re living in a globalized society and what you say here can have consequences in other continents as well.”

Frank Madsen, creator of the Kurt Dunder comics series and chairman of The Danish Guild of Professional Comics Writers and Artists (, also saw little that was shocking about the cartoons, especially when compared to other Danish arts controversies. “Fifteen years ago a Danish artist [Jens Jørgen Thorsen] under much media coverage painted Jesus with a huge dick on the wall of a train station,” said Madsen. “And in the mid 1970s, a Danish comic book depicted the Dead Sea Scrolls as toilet paper and Jesus as a hippie. A few politicians protested, but most Danes did not make a great fuss about it, because we take pride in our sense of humor and do not like the mix of politics and religion.”

Madsen sees the Muhammad cartoons as part of Denmark’s long history of rebellious political cartooning. “There is a long healthy tradition in our country for cartoons to ridicule authorities, including religious ones,” said Madsen. “That stems from the mid 19th century, in the oppressive years just before democracy was introduced in our country, where cartoons were an effective way of undermining the king’s rule. Even today, the prime minister is drawn as a primitive caveman with a huge club in Politiken, the leading liberal newspaper, and the leader of his supporting party is portrayed as an angry, old harp lying in a pool of mud. No one takes offense, not even the prime minister. It is a part of the game.”

It was within this tradition of subversive political cartoons that some artists tried to subvert Jyllands-Posten’s project. “I know several of the cartoonists personally, and they are kind, tolerant people,” Madsen told the Journal. “One cartoon showed not the prophet Muhammad, but a dark-haired schoolboy, whose name was Muhammad and a blackboard behind him with a text written in Arabic: ‘The editors of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten are a bunch of reactionary provocateurs.’ Ironically, this cartoonist was one of the first to be forced underground by death threats, probably by someone who had not read the text or had not [caught] the irony and support of Muslims that the cartoonist tried to express.”

No matter their individual motivations or the content of their cartoons, all of the cartoonist’s lives have changed dramatically since the controversy erupted. “The Danish equivalent to the Secret Service has told the 12 to keep a very a low profile,” explained Madsen. “They are under heavy surveillance and have regular talks with the police about the security situation. I think it is a long and wearing situation for all of them.”

Danish-American cartoonist Henrik Rehr, who moved from Copenhagen to New York 12 years ago, also feels sympathy for the cartoonists. “I happen to know some of the cartoonists personally, so it’s hard for me not to feel terrible for them being in a situation where their lives are threatened,” Rehr told the Journal. “The controversy may have started with the cartoons, but they were only the spark that ignited a powder keg just waiting to explode. I suspect that most of the people protesting never saw the actual cartoons.”

Rehr’s own religious beliefs, or lack thereof, also influence his take on the cartoons: “I’m a hardcore atheist, so I think it would be fair to say that I’m not particularly sensitive to insults to any kind of deity or prophet. That said, the cartoons are not exactly incendiary, most of them are quite tame. Seen in the context of where they were published, Jyllands-Posten is a right-wing newspaper, the question is not so much the actual cartoons, but whether they were a test of free speech or a deliberate provocation of a minority. A bit of both, methinks.”


Rehr sees the controversy as the product of years of friction between Denmark’s Muslim minority and far-right political elements. An extremely right-wing political party, Dansk Folkeparti, with a semi-racist platform, has steadily grown stronger, especially after 9/11, influenced the immigration policies and in my view pretty much poisoned the waters. I really think that a majority of Danish Muslims feel looked-down upon and regarded as second class citizens by too many Danes.”

— Eric Millikin

Muslims on the Danish Dozen

“This is not about free speech.”

Samer Kurdi (a Jordanian painter living in Seattle, who also works in the “tech sector”): What made me angry wasn’t so much that the cartoons depicted the prophet, or that they portrayed him (and by extension all Muslims) as a terrorist. The point of contention for me was the pretense that the republication of these cartoons was somehow a defense of free speech. You can say and publish many things that would offend or hurt many different groups, but a real demonstration of freedom of expression can only make sense in defiance of those who can shut your newspapers down; i.e. your own government.

As a Muslim, I felt that the constant republication of these cartoons was just about rubbing it in; the message: “We will insult Muslims not just in fringe journals but in ‘respectable’ mainstream media as well”. Publishing these cartoons suddenly became every second-rate newspaper’s cheap ticket to being relevant, the blue pill that was supposed to place them on the front lines of the battle for free speech. Why not? We live in an age where wars and battles have apparently become fashionable and Muslims the fashionable enemy. In the eyes of many Muslims, however, this was merely cheap posturing at our expense, and very few people in the west were prepared to call these journals and newspapers on it.

This is not about free speech. The real question is why insulting Muslims has become such a cheap proposition.

Hinde Dhiba (works in the Recruiting Department of a French Corporation based in Paris): I’ve seen the cartoons (some people didn’t want to see them), and it’s not a big deal, but it’s all about symbols. These cartoons use the Prophet, which represents a whole religion, a whole ideology. It’s not like drawing a random man. It’s true that there is freedom of speech, but freedom stops where respect for the other starts.

I condemn the fact that some people — who called themselves Muslims — take vengeance on innocent Danish people. It’s like doing the same thing as those who stigmatize Muslims. Reactions of some Muslims have been extreme with violence, but reaction of politics and media has been extreme, too, using more subtleties through media, cartoons. They never talk about the good aspects of the religion, there is a lot of positive about Islam, there is Sufism for example, and so on … but they always talk only about the worst. So Islam in France has a bad image, there is an anti-Islam feeling. There is a fear of Islam in France, where it’s the second religion, and in Europe.

It’s tiresome. Everybody asks us about this. Once again we have to explain and justify ourselves. It’s about time to understand that there are many, many Muslims. There is one Islam but there are many human beings with different levels of understanding and different ways of practicing.

Hafid Bouazzaoui (aeronautics technician, Eastern France): These cartoons really wounded Muslims, who were already overwhelmed by the majority of the media which see in each practicing person a potential terrorist. These drawings did nothing but add to the uneasiness and the lack of understanding that Muslims in Europe and in the rest of the world were already feeling.

After the legitimate reactions of protest in the world, they started to talk about freedom of speech. For my part, I would say that there is persecution of a group of people (Muslims), victims, on the one hand, of the extremists who terrorize the public, and, on the other hand, of the journalists (and cartoonists) who built their business on this same fear, and forget their first duty, which is above all to inform.

Jamal Rahman (A Seattle-based Muslim Sufi, he is currently co-minister at Interfaith Community Church of Ballard, director of Sacred Psychology School and adjunct faculty at Seattle University. He is the author of The Fragrance of Faith — the Enlightened Heart of Islam, recently published by the Book Foundation.): It does not require too much talent or skill to insult or to mock, to destroy, or to make profane what is sacred. What requires talent or skills is that which creates healing, peace, enrichment, ennoblement. So, to me, these cartoons really are more of an expression of a childish outburst of temper tantrum or rebelliousness. And … that’s OK, but it’s important that we recognize, when we encourage this, that we are exalting, glorifying what appeals to the basest in us to that which is undeveloped in us, to that which is basely egoistic within us. It has no redeeming value, no heart in it; it has no appeal to open up the mind, or the heart.

I’ve read some articles which said that it is very important for freedom of expression, and I believe very much in freedom of expression. But I believe that with it comes a responsibility. This, to me, has no level of responsibility at all. It’s totally unnecessary provocation. I find nothing too much valuable, meaningful in publishing this, and, to harp on it and say how important it is, it is missing the point.

I also think that there is a double standard. For example, I am a Muslim that believes in the security of Israel, who believes in a two-state solution in Israel, but I also noticed for example that in some Western places, if you deny the Holocaust, you are jailed. Like this historian that was given four years in Austria. Where is the freedom of expression there? So, I, as a Muslim, I am wondering if there is a double standard.

On the other hand the reaction of some Muslims, in indulging and engaging in violence is equally childish. It is also the expression of a childish temper tantrum and undeveloped reaction.

The Quran says: “Repel evil with something which is better so the person with whom you have enmity becomes your bosom friend”. Rumi, advising a Muslim who was feeling very insulted because Islam had been criticized, stated, “If Islam is as beautiful and spacious as the sky, if you believe that, then if somebody spits at the sky, it doesn’t make the sky dirty, and in fact the spit comes back to the person, so why are you so touchy, upset, reactive about this?”.

The timing for publishing, and republishing these cartoons is so inappropriate.

In Islam we say, it is one thing to rub salt in a hand, but if you rub salt in a hand that has open wounds, it is a very different feeling. Some Muslims already feel that they are under attack — true or perceived it doesn’t matter — this is how they feel. So when you have these cartoons that are like rubbing salt in a wound, you have a reaction which is very different.

People have done worse things about the Prophet. For example, Franklin Graham has said several times that “Islam is an evil and wicked religion.” Other Christian leaders … have said “Prophet Mohamed was a pedophile, a child molester,” such terrible things but that had not created riots in Muslim countries. These cartoons have, because the time is such that some Muslims are believing that the West is out to not only insult but to destroy Islam. They see it in what they perceive as the occupation of Palestine by Israel, the occupation of land in Iraq, the befriending of monarchs, and tyrants and dictatorships, where the Muslim population is being oppressed.

The West, the countries that support that, don’t care, so they see that the West says something about democracy but does something else. This time people are really fed up. That is why you find all these protests. It’s not only about the cartoons, it’s about something much greater than just a cartoon. They are feeling that their entire being is being destroyed, insulted, being trampled upon by people in the West who are non-caring, who are indifferent with their needs, but who call this freedom of press. They feel very wronged at this time. That’s why the reaction is totally out of proportion. These cartoons are just a spark that has created a fire of a lot of pent-up repressed anger of the past against the West.

Most Muslims I’ve met are upset about the cartoons, but are equally upset by the violence. They feel this is really pandering, catering again to the same feelings of the basest of the undeveloped part within us and Muslims are reacting the same way as those people who claimed to have freedom of expression. I found it a fairly fair expression of what is happening. I’ve met very few who are so angry that they said that the violence is OK. Ninety-nine percent said this violence is totally unacceptable.

Islam has no official organization in Islamic priesthood, and that’s a problem. There are lots of Muslim and imams who have protested and spoken against the violence but unfortunately, the one that shouts the loudest and the craziest are the ones picked up by the press actually. And no matter how much you tell the rest of the press about all those different people saying these things, they don’t listen to them.

There are all kinds of Islam. In so many different cultural areas, just like Christianity and Judaism, but the one picked by the press are only the ones that are the most conservative of the conservative. There are priests or people in Muslim countries who carry the violence, but the vast majority of Muslims are very peace-loving. The truth is that Muslims in the world are the poorest among the people in this world. The most illiterate, the most economically deprived, the most politically deprived. They don’t have time to debate and discuss all those theological subtleties and niceties, and they are too busy just trying to survive. That is not understood in the West, because they don’t have a lot of experience about those countries. All the experience they have is some fighting in Iraq, which is not religious, it’s political. How many Westerners know about real Muslim societies? Not many.

Islam has produced the largest amount of mystics. In this country the most widely read poet is Rumi. All his writing is about the inner meaning of the Quran. There is something very beautiful in Islam, which appeals to people who become very deeply spiritual. There are many, many mystics in Islam that have abounded proliferate in Islam, but most people don’t know that.

I lived in many Muslim countries and it is not true that they don’t have humor. Humor is very big, very much an integral part of Islam, like music is, laughter is, humor is, family is, friendship is. I would say from my experience more than in Western countries. People who are living in the most difficult circumstances, in poverty, have the most beautiful humor.

I feel that if you insult a religion it’s like a hate crime. I, as a Muslim, and most of the Muslims I’ve met, would be equally insulted if the same insult and mocking and making profane were done with Jesus, Abraham, Buddha, Krishna or any other religion. I would feel the same. Basic respect is lacking and it is not being socially or spiritually responsible.”

— compiled by Houria Kerdioui

Danish Muslims on the Danish Dozen

“In Danish we say ‘Nothing is so bad that it isn’t good for something.’”

Dr. Tabish Khair, born into a Muslim family in India, is a poet, novelist and associate professor of English at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. He elaborated on the situation that Danish Muslims face. “I think there is a feeling that Denmark has been much too anti-immigrant and even anti-Muslim and that it has been getting worse since the present government took charge,” Khair told the Journal. “Major Danish parliamentarians have made statements calling Muslims a ‘cancer’ in Danish society and such, and some very strange laws affecting personal freedoms have been put into place to stop immigration. Denmark is known to be among the two or three most strongly anti-immigration countries of Europe, and currently the most rightist of Nordic lands. Plus, Muslims still do not have a separate graveyard or an official mosque in Denmark, even though they account for about 4 percent of the population.”

Khair believes that some of the shock that Danes felt upon seeing the protests can be traced back to the government’s handling of the situation. “The Danish government largely kept us in ignorance of how the issue was building up elsewhere until it all went out of hand in late January,” explained Khair. “It now appears that various groups in Denmark and international bodies — even, according to Indian newspapers, non-Muslim governments such as the Indian government — had expressed sadness or outrage as early as October and asked the Danish government to take serious steps to resolve the controversy. Instead, the government put the blame on a handful of Copenhagen imams and even now most Danes seem to believe as if these imams are the only reason why the matter went out of hand. Danes are very upset at their flag being burned and embassies attacked; the media discourse appears to have focused a bit less on the fact that the people killed have all been Muslim protesters.”

Khair warns against oversimplifying the controversy. “People are talking across each other or willfully seeing only one side of the story,” said Khair. “Also, on both sides, we have a degree of fetishization: ‘freedom of expression’ as an abstraction and the ‘sacred’ as an abstraction. … Anyone who comes up with facile quips, fighting slogans and needless provocation on either side is being very irresponsible. We can properly discuss the real issues only when we get back to showing some mutual decency.

Like Khair, Cüneyt Pala also straddles both the Danish and the Islamic worlds. Pala, a co-founder of the Danish comics magazine Free Comics (, was born and raised in the Muslim culture of Ankara, Turkey, before moving to Denmark in his early 20s. “My mother is very religious, but she doesn’t mind praying in a church if there aren’t any mosques around,” explained Pala. “My father became more and more religious after he turned 60.”

Pala hopes that these cartoons can help the Western and Islamic worlds understand each other, and tries to maintain his sense of humor during the controversy: “In Danish we say ‘Nothing is so bad that it isn’t good for something.’ Although a negative focus on not only Danish cartooning but everything that is Danish caused many people to now know that Denmark exists and it is not, as some thought, the capital of Norway. The same goes for the Western world that learned a little more about Muslims and their prophet. I only hope the anger and pride of the sides will soon fade so that we can use this new knowledge to build a better future.”

— Eric Millikin

Cartoonists on the Danish 12

Garry Trudeau (quoted in the Feb. 7 San Francisco Chronicle):

I may not agree with [an editor’s] reasons for dropping any particular [Doonesbury] strip, in fact, I usually don’t, but I will defend their right and responsibility to delete material that they feel is inappropriate for their readership. It’s not censorship; it’s editing. Just because a society has almost unlimited freedom of expression doesn’t mean we should ever stop thinking about its consequences in the real world.

Ann Telnaes (on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation Feb. 9):

I have a little bit of trouble with people that are talking about, you know, where is the line in editorial cartoons? An editorial cartoon, by its very nature, is very provocative. [T]here are countries that an editorial cartoonist will be arrested for something that he draws just because people don’t like being offended. So, I have a little bit of a problem with saying that there has to be a line where an editorial cartoon will stop, because I think that’s a very slippery slope. … I do quite a few cartoons on Sharia law, because it has to do with women and equality. That’s Islamic law, and is that going to be off limits? I guess I just don’t really understand who’s going to make these lines.

Art Spiegelman (quoted in the March 6 issue of The Nation):

There has to be a right to insult. You can’t always have polite discourse. Where I’ve had to do my soul-searching is articulating how I feel about the anti-Semitic cartoons that keep coming out of government-supported newspapers in Syria and beyond. And, basically, I am insulted. But so what? These visual insults are the symptom of the problem rather than the cause.

Tom Hart (to the Journal):

It’s a bunch of hotheaded oppressed people howling and screaming. It has little to do with the cartoons. … I think few of them are really cartoons — This has bothered me. They are all caricatures, and as such, say very little. A political cartoon, I think, says something. One or two caricatures were dumb and offensive, but there’s a long history of dumb, offensive cartoons. To say these couple went too far is silly.

Joe Kubert (in a press release):

[Political cartoons] are one of the most powerful forms of communication. Censorship would be a mistake. It would give any religious group veto power over the cartoons — or writings, or speeches — of its opponents. … Western leaders need to say clearly that while Muslims may find the cartoons offensive, the violent response to the cartoons is absolutely unacceptable. Establishing the ground rules for how to conduct a civilized debate, not searching for ways to appease the angry mobs, should be our goal. Surely we must strive to live in a world governed by reason and civility rather than one in which cartoonists or their editors must fear for their lives.

Joe Sacco (quoted in the March 6 issue of The Nation):

“I think maybe the idiot cartoonist should feel a need to be a little more self-censoring, when it comes down to it, but a thinking cartoonist weighs what he or she is doing. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about these Danish cartoons. In the end, yes, there is a principle about the freedom of expression that concerns me, but I’m always sorry to have to rush to the defense of idiots.”

Tim Kreider (to the Journal):

My reaction is at least fourfold: 1) Professional jealousy. I’ve been trying to cause a furor every week for years and so far nothing. Now these Danish cartoonists draw some unfunny pictures of Muhammad and the world is calling for their heads. American Christian Fundamentalists must be a bunch of sissies. All they ever do is call for boycotts. 2) Secret delight that cartoons are actually making headline news instead of ineffectually commenting on it for the first time in over a century. 3) Incredulous horror that people are actually getting killed over silly pictures. 4) The exasperated wish that religious fundamentalists would get over it and catch up with the freaking Enlightenment already.

I think their intention was to insult and provoke outrage, in a pretty stupid and obvious and puerile way. … In principle, I don’t object to mocking religious fundamentalists of any faith, who are the stupidest and meanest people on the planet, but going out of your way to insult a people who have already felt themselves insulted, oppressed and impoverished for the last thousand years just seems gratuitous and unsporting. Nonetheless, I am hard-liner on the issue of freedom of speech and support the right of any cartoonist to print spiteful, wrongheaded and mediocre work.

I just wish religious people would get used to being offended. I’m offended by almost everything I see and hear every day. This is what it means to live in a pluralistic society: being constantly offended by other people’s stupid and wrong opinions. … But it’s also only fair to keep in mind that the media only shows us the most fanatical extremes of any group — this is a matter of lazy journalism, sensationalism, ratings. We always see angry chanting flag-burning fanatics as though they represented the whole of Islam, just as the only Christians we ever hear about are fag-bashing Creationist dingbats. My mother provides health care and builds schools in Guatemala with the Methodist church. She doesn’t make headlines.

Lynn Johnston (quoted in the Feb. 20 Atlanta Journal-Constitution):

They’re simply hate literature. … If something is that thoroughly blasphemous, it’s unfair and promoting violence and mistrust. There’s no point in doing it.

Ted Rall (in his Feb. 7 blog at

[That] the cartoons were offensive to the point that they crossed the line [is] an impossibility as far as I’m concerned, but then I make my living because of freedom of the press.

Bruce Tinsley (on WISH TV Feb. 17):

I wish [the American news media] had been that sensitive and caring back when newspapers and other media outlets did stories that offended Christians.

Daryl Cagle (to the Journal):

The perception of the Danish Muhammad cartoons as “political cartoons” is chilling to real political cartoonists who are suddenly perceived as ticking time-bombs that can explode at any time. Unless we defend our funny little drawings with the same zeal that we see from the victims of our irreverence, we’ll continue to see our freedoms constricted by the loud voices of those we offend.

— compiled by Eric Millikin, R.C. Harvey and Dirk Deppey

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Ralph Steadman: Into the Gentle Darkness Fri, 24 Oct 2014 12:00:06 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From The Comics Journal #131 (September 1989)

In this 1989 interview, Gary Groth picks Ralph Steadman’s brain on the topic of his growth as an artist, changing interests, loss of faith and times working with Hunter S. Thompson in a career-spanning conversation that always finds its way back to politics and all that’s wrong in the world.

America, 1974.

America, 1974.

EVERY ARTIST’S WORK IS DEFINED BY HIS OBSESSIONS, or put more baldly, by what he loves and what he hates. As a commonplace, so far so good, but I think one can go further and say that no artist becomes himself until he discovers precisely what to love and what to hate. Ralph Steadman’s collaboration with Hunter Thompson, which began in 1969 and continues to this day, appears to have been instrumental in helping Steadman focus his passions, and marked a turning point in his career as an artist.

Prior to this time, Steadman had done good work, but it was only that: good, not inspired. It was at this point, or so it seems to me, that Steadman’s work attained a scabrous authority that has become his recognizable trademark. It was as if he had been waiting for just the right subject matter to unleash the fury within, and the vulgarity, greed, delusion, and limitless folly of what had become the American Experience (and continues at a frighteningly accelerated pace today) combined with Thompson’s catalytic presence, was it. Not that he was, even then, only or even primarily a political cartoonist; in fact, his political cartooning took on another dimension because of his intense interest in personal expression.

Steadman was born in 1936 in Wallesey, England, a suburb of Liverpool. His high school years were marred by persecution by the headmaster, which proved something of a defining conflict. He left school at the age of 16, became an apprentice at an advertising agency where he stumbled into cartooning almost by accident, and, because he knew nothing about drawing, took a prominent mail-order drawing course. This led him to acquire enough competence to sell political cartoons to a number of newspapers beginning in 1956, including the famous English humor magazine Punch in 1959, and do an innocuous one-panel gag cartoon called “Teeny” for the Helmsley papers. He also attended art school, where he cultivated his great love of both drawing and social commentary.

Throughout the ‘60s, Steadman appeared in various magazines and newspapers on a freelance basis, but rarely agreed to a steady gig that required turning out work on a continuous basis or on a weekly deadline (although his stint as the Statesman’s editorial cartoonist for over three years in the ‘70s is an exception to that); he illustrated children’s books as well as the work of such authors as Lewis Carroll and Flann O’Brien; and started drawing for Private Eye, a satirical political magazine, an association that lasted nine or ten years.

Then, in 1969, Scanlan’s magazine called him and asked him if he was interested in covering the Kentucky Derby with a little-known writer by the name of Hunter S. Thompson. Scanlan’s was a radical, left wing magazine with money, and offered to fly Steadman to New York and on to Louisville, Kentucky, where he’d join up with Thompson on an expense paid journalistic foray into the landmark sporting event. During the course of the assignment, according to Steadman, Thompson soaked a restaurant full of people with mace and, at the Derby, even managed to spray the box of the Kentucky Governor.

Thus began a long, artistically prosperous, albeit volatile, relationship. (Its volatility is fruitfully — and amusingly — chronicled in an exchange they had over an illustration of Thompson that Steadman drew for the 91 November 1996 issue of Rolling Stone; see sidebar at right.) Steadman went on to illustrate Thompson’s travelogue of the 1972 US presidential election, and though he did most of the drawings in England (“Because you don’t keep up with Hunter Thompson; I think I would have died.”), he did accompany him to the Republican and Democratic conventions. Two years earlier, at America’s Cup, Steadman nearly expired from ingesting an hallucinogen given to him by Thompson, who told him it was a sea-sickness pill.

Steadman had found his creative footing and was incredibly prolific from that period, not only illustrating Thompson’s various books (Campaign Trail ‘72, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas, The Curse of Lono, and others) but completing a dizzying array of large-scale projects, from illustrating Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to writing and drawing a huge, full-color first-person narrative of (or by) God.

He is most identified in the public mind as a purely political cartoonist, the quintessential visual equivalent of gonzo journalism, which is something of a mixed blessing, because although this association with Thompson marked a turning point in his approach to political cartooning, it also has had the unfortunate effect of over-shadowing his other, perhaps even more personal and artistic, creative work. Like Jules Feiffer, Steadman’s interests and needs as an artist were not confined to politics and political commentary. Feiffer, for example, dealt with the social, the psychological, and the sexual in his strips, and examined these subjects further in his plays and screenplays. Although much of Steadman’s art is driven by his outrage over political injustice, he’s also something of an aesthete who can talk unabashedly of the “spiritual” dimension of life and art.

So political cartooning could never encompass Steadman’s total needs as an artist. After a breathtakingly prolific period from the ‘60s into the early ‘80s, creating some of the most potent social and political commentary ever committed to paper by a cartoonist, he had something of a crisis of faith in the efficacy of political cartooning. He became thoroughly disenchanted with politics, politicians, the political process, you name it; even the single political system to which all must pay strict obeisance, democracy itself.

As everyone knows, in the ‘80s the principles of the left started to erode in both Reagan’s America and Thatcher’s England. Steadman was an idealist, not a political insider or pragmatist, and the constant compromising on the part of the left represented a betrayal that affected him deeply, politically and artistically (since for Stead-man the two are inextricably linked).

In the ‘80s, then, he moved away from specific ideological commentary, toward a number of artistic and intellectual passions by way of writing and drawing the biographies of Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, and God, in that order. This allowed him to remain thoroughly engaged but without the suffocating (and depressing) baggage of contemporary politics.

All of which leads somehow inevitably and logically to Steadman illustrating George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Steadman is still obviously passionate about politics in the broader philosophical sense that politics represents the practical, collective moral expression of civilized man. Orwell was not merely a political gadfly; he was a humanist and a literary figure who in all his novels (as well as his essays) attempted to combine political insight and truthful observation of the life of ordinary human beings. Not unlike what Steadman appears to have been moving toward all these years. Moreover, Animal Farm seems a particularly apt choice given Steadman’s disillusionment with politics, since it is essentially a chronicle of Stalin’s betrayal of the communist revolution in the form of a fable. Or, as Steadman himself has put it:

Animal Farm is a great book with uncanny insight, which grows brighter with the benefit of hindsight. It would be nice to dream that it might be timely enough 50 years after its first appearance to inform a new century that this century was not the way to go, then disentangle the wisdom from the bullshit in our own world, throw it away and never go that way again … “

I conducted the first, long interview with Ralph (composed of several conversations) in 1989 over the course of a few months, once or twice by phone and once in his home in Kent. When his illustrated Animal Farm appeared in 1995, I interviewed him specifically about that project. He is one of the most prolific artists I know, in perpetual aesthetic motion; I knew that three of his books — Gonzo: The Art (1998), Alice in Wonderland, Tales of the Weirrd, and Freud had been reissued in 2003 by Firefly, a Canadian publisher, but I hadn’t kept up on what he’d done since I last interviewed him (shame on me). So, in June 2004, I asked him. This is his characteristically spirited reply, a combination of philosophical tidbits and hard facts:

Listen Gary

I done good, OK! I have tried for nearly five decades to put cartoonists off cartooning, but they keep playing the stoopid game. Cartoonists make themselves unworthy of the title. To be a Cartoonist proper is to be so utterly independent; you become unemployable in the conventional sense. At their best Cartoonists are the suicide bombers of Art and are social pariahs in the general annual round of silly prize giving Dinner Prattle. Prizes are the badges of mediocrity, but cartoonists are unhealthily hungry for them. Since Animal Farm, where you bin?? Shit! you ain’t been seen’ wot I done boy! GONZO the ART, Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce. Animal Behaviourists — a study of bestial splendour. Wine, an outsider’s guide to where to get it when everyone throws you out the door. Crack and the common man. God’s Drawing Board. A musical play for a third Creation (see my website!). Love Underground. A tragic love story on the subway. The classic though, has to be — don’t know where you get your ideas from. AND Threshold. Bum Skid. Time for Bed. An old people’s Guide to sex. PLAGUE & the MOONflower — an eco-Oratorio, music and pictures with Ben Kingsley and Ian Holm, with John Williams on Guitar. Then countless New Yorker pics, Vanity Fair, Outside Magazine, The Independent weekly column with Will Self called PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY. Wine labels, Medical Foundation for the care of victims of torture — drawings for them and events. I haven’t started any wars or beaten up old ladies though living with my 101 year old Jewish Mother-in-Law, I have come close! Re-publications of ALICE Books, Tales of the WEIRRD, sage, prophet of Doom, friend of little furry creatures in my garden. Nothin’! I done nothin’!!



There you have it. It’s been a privilege to know Ralph these last, almost 20 years. I think the following interviews accurately capture his honesty, his passion, and his liberating, unorthodox, life-affirming perspective that makes him such an uncategorizable genius.

Gary Groth

June 2004


Ralph Steadman, age nine.

Ralph Steadman, aged nine.


GARY GROTH: Let’s start at the beginning, or as close as we dare get. You were an apprentice engineer at the age of 16?

RALPH STEADMAN: Yeah. I actually left school with a very poor certificate. I hated school because I was persecuted by the headmaster.

GROTH: You’re referring to high school or its English equivalent?

STEADMAN: Yeah, high school. We call it grammar school, or we did. They don’t exist now. Now it’s comprehensive. Everything is the same. However, I was at this school, it was in North Wales. I hated it and I used to make model airplanes to get away from it all. I didn’t do much drawing, though I did do a bit, moons and landscapes.

GROTH: How old would you have been at this point?

STEADMAN: 14,15, or 16.

GROTH: Prior to that you had never drawn?

STEADMAN: No, I didn’t really do much. I didn’t do much until I went to de Haviland aircraft company because I got a job there. And I found that I was very good at engineering drawing — that is, I had an aptitude for it and I was encouraged. I actually started drawing in columns, looser things, combinations. The engineering drawing would start off sketchy. That was discouraged because it was all supposed to be engineering. But I knew there was something in there I liked, but it wasn’t that. I even got 100 percent on the exam. That’s almost unheard of. I think he gave me that because I used to be a bit cheeky. I think he disliked me, but at the same time thought I had promise. So to show that he didn’t have any bad feelings towards me, that there was no persecution, he gave me 100 percent. Anyway, after 12 months I left. I didn’t like factory life.

First self portrait, age fifteen

First self portrait, aged fifteen.

GROTH: Now those engineering drawings would require incredible precision, wouldn’t they?

STEADMAN: Well, if I have to be I can be precise, or I could be. I say I could be because my sight is not as good as it was, and I find I hate wearing glasses to draw; it takes the sense of three dimensions away from the paper; it does for me anyway. It’s a weird thing. So, I try not to wear them when I draw.

GROTH: You’re farsighted. You need glasses to read?

STEADMAN: Just to read, yeah. But that’s only happened since I started wearing glasses. [Laughter] I used to be perfectly good before I “needed” glasses. I used to read before, then I got glasses and I couldn’t read any more. I’m sure that glasses are bad for you. Well, they make you nearsighted, they help make you rely on them. I think they make them slightly out of sync with your eyes, so that your eyes adjust to them, then without them you need them … So that’s part of the larger plot in the world to get me. [Chuckles] I’m sure there is one. I’m sure there’s a huge conspiracy.

GROTH: I’m sure we’ll get into that more later.

STEADMAN: Well, the world is conspiratorial. I find that absolutely everyone seems to be out to get you. And those who join the bureaucratic regime seem to be saved from it because they just become the oil in the works.

GROTH: Can you describe your upbringing?

STEADMAN: Well, you met my mother. She’s a gentle soul.

GROTH: Yes. No one would possibly believe that she spawned you.

STEADMAN: No. It’s funny that way. My father was humorous.

GROTH: What did your father do?

STEADMAN: He was a commercial traveler. He used to be a surveyor. And he wanted to be an engineer; he wanted to make cars. It was the turn of the century. He was born in 1893. He died a few years ago, in 1982. I was born late. So in a funny sort of way — actually in a very real sort of way — there was a great gap between me and my father. Except that we got on OK. But he was very often on the road traveling. He went into the First World War and he got wounded three times and he came out, never once thought of dying. He was in the trenches. He never told me much about it; he’d occasionally mention something about a horse or something. He had a way with horses apparently because he was in the cavalry to start with. He had a big sword which he used for making toasts. His regiment became redundant because tanks were coming in. He told me a few things. It was a funny little place near Liverpool where I was born. I have early recollections of standing on the street corner waiting for my father to come back. I’d walk out to see if he was coming. Of course, at that time there wasn’t the fear that a little boy standing on the corner would suddenly get kidnapped.

GROTH: What was your neighborhood like?

STEADMAN: Very basic, fairly lower-middle class. We have a terrible class system here.

GROTH: Was that the city or the suburbs?

STEADMAN: That was Wallesey, a suburb of Liverpool. And it was good for my father because he worked the whole of the northwest of England — Manchester, Liverpool, Chester, Lancashire. He was very nice indeed and I used to go with him on his trips but I’d wait for hours in the car because once he got talking shop he wouldn’t be selling anything, he’d just be talking. He was very charming. They liked him arriving, because they were old-fashioned ladies’ emporiums, which is sort of a grand name for a shop, but it was a large place and sometimes they’d have beautiful ceilings in them, like nice glass conservatory-type roofs — that’s where the light came from, otherwise the shop would be completely dark inside; they got their light from above. There’d be racks of things and boxes on the shelves. They always liked to see something come out of a box. By the time they served a customer the counter would be piled up with stuff that they’d shown the customer that the customer didn’t want. Then they’d have to spend the next quarter of an hour putting it all back in the boxes and back on the shelves again before they could serve the next customer. But they had time for that then; it was easy. There was no hurry. In fact it was part of the day: if you’re going shopping, down to Mrs. Morgan’s Emporium, she knew you, you knew there were only two people in the shop. It would take all afternoon because they’d have a talk; they talked about all the different things in the village and there’d be all that gossip. So, shops were used in a community sense.

GROTH: With the advent of shopping malls, retail commerce has lost even that value.

STEADMAN: Yes, absolutely. Get in and get out.

GROTH: Was there anything in your formative years that was exceedingly influential?

STEADMAN: I don’t know, you mean like a shock or something? I think the most formative thing was this wicked headmaster giving me the fear and hatred of authority. I’d been at the school one year — I was 11 — and this new, vicious headmaster came who liked canes, whipping boys. He was sick, really. I think within seven years of arriving at that school he developed a tumor and got some problems. He was hated by everybody; nobody liked him, even the teachers. So, I really wanted to leave school as soon as I could, which I did. I used to immerse myself in model airplanes to hide. I used to do my homework immediately because I was afraid of the retribution. So I was fairly well-behaved and did what I was told. And I left school as soon as I could. I was lucky to get this apprenticeship at de Haviland, but then after 12 months I didn’t like the factory. And so I then got a job at Woolworth’s as a training manager, sweeping floors, making paper bales in the stock room. The headmaster actually saw me outside sweeping the front of the shop, and he said, “You’ve messed your life up.” I was too young to know that I’d messed my life up; I was only 17. He said, “You had a good chance there and now you’ve thrown it away. Now look at you — sweeping the pavement.” An unpleasant bastard. He couldn’t even say, “Well, at least it’s honest work,” I hadn’t taken to crime or anything. Anyway, I tried then to go into the Royal Air Force as a pilot, but I couldn’t do all the tests so that was that. Now when would this have been? This is 1952 to ‘54. I left school in ‘52. From ‘54 to ‘56 I went into the forces and lived in military bases in Devon and Wales. In ‘56 I came down to London and became a cartoonist with a northern group of newspapers based in London. I got the job by chance. I started writing letters to this group with cartoon drawings and then started to do it. I was very influenced by a cartoonist in England called Giles who works for the Daily Express and the Sunday Express. There were lots of things going on in the cartoons, landscape-shaped pictures, and it was my dream to do that for some reason, to be that cartoonist doing those drawings. I used to try and copy his drawings. During the time I was leaving school trying different jobs, I started doing this kind of weird drawing. So I knew I couldn’t become a pilot — I just digressed for a moment and now I’ll try to get back to the point, which was that I couldn’t think of what to do next, so I went to the youth employment office. The man there said, look you’ve tried this, you’ve tried that, you’ve tried the other — I even tried to get into a bank. He said, “It’s hopeless, so I’ll tell you what; I’ll give you this Careers Encyclopedia and you take it home and look at it over the weekend and come back Monday, and if there’s nothing in there you want to do I can’t help you because that’s all there is.”

First published comic, Manchester Evening Chronicle 1956.

First published comic, Manchester Evening Chronicle 1956.

GROTH: How old would you have been at this point?

STEADMAN: Seventeen still. One thing I came up with — and I don’t know why I chose it — was advertising. It said, “Employs artists, writers, to do drawings, copy … “

GROTH: Perhaps you were too lazy to get past the “A”s.

STEADMAN: Yeah. [laughter] Maybe it was because it was the first one in there. So I went back and he said, “I know someone; in fact, I’m playing golf with him this week. I’ll have a word with them.” He actually did get me a job as a tea-boy with an advertising agency in Colwyn Bay, right by the seaside in North Wales. Holiday town.

GROTH: What is a tea-boy?

STEADMAN: A tea-boy just makes the tea and runs errands down the road and things. And I was getting 30 shillings a week, one pound-fifty. And gradually over the nine months I was there, before I went in the military service, I was given the odd thing like a trademark to do, and there was a guy working in the office there called Mr. Fidler and he had had polio — he’d hold his pen in a certain way, but he still drew. He was the one who was supposed to be the cartoonist amongst the advertising staff. And they were awful cartoons, and they were very stylized. They said, “You’re the one that does that; you seem to have a facility for it.” In retrospect, he had absolutely no facility for it, no humor in his drawing. It was the kind of drawing where he’d do cartoon eyes — the flat bit at the bottom, the semicircular top, and the round black eyeball with the white V-shape to make it look shiny; you know that type of convention? But nothing humorous. But it sparked something in me because that was when I started doing cartoon drawings. So it might have been Mr. Fidler.

GROTH: But as a teenager you were never preoccupied with drawing?

STEADMAN: No, it never held my interest. Actually, I would copy drawings because they said to me, “You have to do some work to learn to draw.” So I didn’t know what to do; there were no art schools around, and I hadn’t done my military service — I knew that was coming. So I used to draw things; I copied Rubens. My mother’s still got one, a pencil drawing of a Rubens head called Annunciation. It’s very religious — funny that it’s coming out again. It’s a peculiar thing; I’m not religious, but I’m now very involved with themes like life and death and God, so it’s odd as time goes by, seeing odd reflections of your past coming into play again. I find in some ways we all go full circle.

GROTH: Perhaps that’s where life leads.

STEADMAN: It does. It goes back to where you start. You start getting interested in your own past, which you wanted to reject at first. Then it becomes an estrangement with which you need to re-familiarize yourself. So, anyway, I eventually had to go into the forces. But before I went I saw an advert which said, “The Percy V. Bradshaw’s Press Art School Course. You too can learn to draw and earn pounds.” So my mother and father who were by this time a little distraught because I didn’t have a proper job, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, said, “If you’d like to take the course, since you’re drawing now, we’ll pay for it.” It was 18 lessons: 12 lessons spread over 12 months on how to draw, and the other six months learning how to be a cartoonist. The whole course cost 18 pounds — a pound a lesson, something like that — very cheap. My mother and father paid for it and then I went into the forces and whilst I was in the forces I did the course. I wish I kept the letters from Percy V. Bradshaw to me because of my complaints about the old-fashioned style of the course, and he’s saying, “Ah, my boy, the principles of drawing never change.” He’d get me to draw a pair of boots, put them on a table and draw them in dots, a pointillism technique, and gradually build up a pair of boots, and that would give you a sense of tonality. And then I’d do these various exercises and send them back to him. The guy would do a fairly descriptive criticism of what was either wrong or right, but what he couldn’t do by post was really demonstrate that strange thing about breaking down a two-dimensional surface into three dimensions, of relating one thing to another, of really learning how to put the hand and the eye and the mind together in some kind of coordination so when you’re drawing, if you wish to exaggerate, you can exaggerate, or, if you want to try and get it right, you can actually get it right because you can do it by relating various points in any given scene as if you’re looking through a glass window — you can put everything into a related place, because it has a place in that space. You look at a window there; you can draw those trees by making a linear grid and then draw the bits in and get it almost photographic. And that’s what he didn’t go into. But the cartoon course was very interesting. What he said is, “What you need to do is go out into public places and look at the people and keep a sketchbook and that way you’ll learn something about caricature.” He said, “It’s no good trying to think of a funny face and believe that’s cartooning, because it isn’t.” That was quite a good little piece of advice, because he’s right: there’s more to a cartoon face than just getting a funny nose. In fact, it’s almost impossible to teach it. What he got me to do was draw in pubs — which of course started me drinking. [Laughter] I mean, I used to draw and get a pint. “

So, it went on like that and I actually did learn about caricature, but I still hadn’t learned to draw properly. But I was learning to draw cartoons; I was getting more and more like Giles, and I started selling these pictures I’d done to Punch and to various newspapers. The Kemsley newspapers had a northern group and asked me to come see them, and I had three months to go with my national service. I went to see them and they said, “How would you like a job; you seem to have ideas … “ They probably liked my resemblance to Giles — there were always a lot of cartoonists like Giles on Fleet Street because editors found it popular to have a Giles-like cartoonist because he’s like a national institution. There’s about four in England that draw like Giles for national newspapers; that is the state of cartooning. He’s been going since before the war and he’s still going. I think he must be nearly 80, and he’s still doing it. The marvelous thing about him is that he had an extraordinary facility for capturing a scene in the simplest possible way, the whole scene: an old street, the sense of summer, a lazy afternoon, flies, the smell of manure, all in black and white. Really quite an economic draftsman. I learned a lot from that. Eventually, I learned to go against it. The thing I never did is draw for reproductions; I was always drawing just for the drawing, and it’s always been a problem. We always have this thing about my work never looking right in reproduction.


GROTH: When did you begin with Punch?

STEADMAN: I got my first one in Punch after three or four years of submitting, and I started submitting in the forces — 1955 — and it was near the turn of the decade, ‘59-’60. I finally got my first cartoon in Punch after all that time of trying, week after week, and they finally said they’d take one. I couldn’t believe it; I went out in the street and told a complete stranger.

GROTH: I understand in 1956 you did something for Manchester Evening Chronicle.

STEADMAN: That was the northern group of papers. That was where I did my first literal cartoon — I did one about Nassar, and I did another one about Bulganin and Kruschev. My first cartoon was a tank with these two in it. I can’t remember what the cartoon was now, but it was done in sort of quasi-David Low style, because that was the sort of thing that was expected: if you did a political cartoon, it had to look like David Low. Nothing had come on the horizon yet for me. I hadn’t yet found George Grosz. I hadn’t even found Picasso. I had not really found anybody at that time.

During those years, the late ‘50s, I was going to a night school and that’s where I met Leslie Richardson, who taught me a lot about connections between all the things that happened in this century, that art isn’t in a tower, that art is a part of life, and that it’s connected in all different ways by all different impulses and influences from all over the place; photography’s a part of it; music’s a part of it; engineering’s a part of it in a sense. So these are the things I found fascinating, heady, and I knew there was something I could do in drawing if I could ever find a way in, and it wasn’t what I was doing, but I had to earn a living somehow. I would go in at 10 o’clock in the morning and finish by three. I’d do my cartoon and I’d do six roughs and show the features editor; he’d say, “They’re not very good, but if you must — that one.”

GROTH: This was where?

STEADMAN: In London, for the Kemsley newspapers. I didn’t work properly for Punch. That was just as freelance.

GROTH: These were editorial cartoons?

STEADMAN: These were editorial cartoons, and I did a weekly panel as well, a little teenage girl called “Teeny” which ran for two years. This little girl and her little friend, and they’d talk about boys — a bit zany. It would be a shock for people to see those today.

GROTH: These would be very lightweight, kind of gag panels?

STEADMAN: Yeah, with one-liners underneath. I had to do five a week, from Monday to Friday. Then I’d also do social comment which they’d send around. One of the funniest cartoons I remember ever doing is a guy going into the optician’s [stands up and demonstrates] and there’s the door and he’s going [bumps into the wall, laughs]. And it’s just the way his hat was flattened; it made everyone laugh for some reason. In fact, that sort of idea was used by Peter Sellers in one of his Clouseau films when he said, “And have a word with your architect.”

GROTH: Were you politically astute at the time?

STEADMAN: No, no. I just felt it was something I ought to do. I felt I ought to be able to do cartoons because it seemed like a respectable job.

GROTH: But you didn’t have a passion for it?

STEADMAN: No, I was afraid of politicians, actually. They represent the authority, so there was this fear in the back of my mind, a fear of people in important places. I’ve often wondered if I hadn’t become a cartoonist I might have been an assassin.

GROTH: Some people would say you are.

STEADMAN: It’s just that I don’t think I could pull the trigger. I wouldn’t want to get myself in that position because it’s irrevocable, isn’t it? The one thing about a cartoon — you can sort of say, “Chew on that, dick-head,” and it hasn’t really done anyone any harm. When you’re pulling a trigger, that’s it, isn’t it? You can’t reverse the film to get out of that situation. There was a thing on television the other night about the Turkish man who shot the Pope in 1982 and you find yourself thinking you could get into that position. It’s a frightening thought that you could become one of those people.

GROTH: Do you see yourself capable of doing that?

STEADMAN: I think most people — I don’t know. Maybe most people wouldn’t, but it seems as though part of the thing I did with Hunter Thompson was that kind of subversive stuff. Politics are about subversion. How we approached the Nixon regime — to get the bastard out somehow. It was the only time I got really intense about it. For Hunter, of course, it was a damn sight more personal and close because, of course, he’s American and he feels, and still feels, that it’s his Constitution and that Nixon was walking all over it. He’s a proud kind of redneck in some ways; he believes in the flag and all that stuff. But at the same time he believes that the country’s there to be molded and pushed decently by decent people, not pigs and swine.

GROTH: Now, you don’t mean to minimize the importance of your work by comparing it unfavorably with an assassin, do you?

STEADMAN: My work isn’t really — I don’t think it is that important, because it is disregarded. Did you see the thing last week in Time magazine: “Mighty Pens” — completely disregarded! I thought I fit in there somewhere. I meant to show it to you, a piece on political cartooning in the world today. They mentioned [David] Levine and people like that. Not a bloody mention of me. And yet they rang me and asked me about it and then that’s when I told them this idea I had about ignoring political figures, which might have gone against the grain of the article. It’s all bull, of how every day these cartoons are the scourge of politicians and they save them and so forth. And there were these terrible cartoons in there. It was so bad. Most of them can’t draw — they’ve got no bloody idea of anything.

GROTH: Did they have Oliphant and Feiffer in there?

STEADMAN: They might have had Oliphant. It was peculiar, actually. They chose some rather odd ones — an Argentinean and a Puerto Rican — what the press are doing around the world, “mighty pens.” But it had Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan on the cover with all these pens going towards them done as a model from Spitting Image. I was a bit upset with it because I should have got a mention. I know that I have done political cartoons in the last 12, 15 years that have influenced a lot of people, a lot of other cartoonists if not a lot of other people. I’ve never known if my cartoons have much of an interest to the layman, but they get noticed by other cartoonists.

GROTH: I believe you said at some point that you thought you were about the only cartoonist in the ‘70s in America who had drawn blood.

STEADMAN: The magazine Scanlan’s that I worked for got on a blacklist — I got that from John Dean, who told me what had happened. Scanlan’s was beginning to get noticed as a magazine: it got a bit nasty for Nixon’s taste — he was the only one allowed to be nasty.

GROTH: But do you believe that’s true, that you were the only …

STEADMAN: See, I don’t know what the others were doing. There was not anyone really being savage, was there? Oliphant is the only one I can think of that had any kind of bite.

GROTH: What about Feiffer?

STEADMAN: I never think of him as savage — incisive, but not savage. But, a lot of people would say, “All Steadman ever did was throw up all over the bloody page!” [Laughter] Maybe I did; maybe that was me being savage with myself. Anyway, if you want to go back to my first cartoon in Punch, I went out into the street — and I think I had just got married for the first time; I was 23 — and I stopped an old man in the street and I said, “I’ve just sold my first cartoon in Punch.” I had to tell somebody. He got a bit weird; I got a funny feeling when I looked at his face. And the next week I sold two and after that I didn’t sell any and I couldn’t sell any for ages. Then one more. Then I’d have to redraw them at the request of the editor: “Don’t like the feet; the way you draw feet is too extreme. You don’t need to be extreme to make a point.” I was trying to find my style, trying to find my way. If I was drawing funny feet — in fact people wear shoes like that, so they weren’t such funny feet. There’s a couple in Between the Eyes.

GROTH: You did work for Private Eye in 1961?

STEADMAN: Right, in issue number 11. I was the first outsider to get in it.

Punch cover, 1965.

GROTH: How did that come about?

STEADMAN: I did this cartoon called “Plastic People” for Punch. They were complaining: I was doing cartoons of a social nature and they weren’t going down too well. They said, “No, we want New Yorker-type gags.” I was writing in this way which is a bit Feiffer-ish, I suppose; it was just lots of words that went with the pictures. They said, “What are you trying to do? Either be a writer or a cartoonist.” I said, “I just wanted to do this kind of cartoon which somehow told a story about the situation.” I did one called “The Speculator,” another one about remembering grandma, but instead of thinking back to the old days I was drawing it from some future looking back to today. They didn’t like those, but they were taking them uneasily. About this time, Gerry Scarfe came up to me at the one and only meeting I went to of the newly founded Cartoonists Club. He said, “I like your line; I’d like to come see you.” So he came up one day in his car and he brought his drawings with him and they were awful drawings. He had some funny ideas, very good ideas, but his drawings were sort of commercial art drawings. The kind of cartoons that lack humor because they were drawn in pen and wash and the wash was done as a very conventional — a bit on that side, a bit on this side to give it a sense of depth and breadth, and three dimensions. No real contribution as a funny part of the drawing, nothing aesthetic; not like that guy I showed you, Descloseaux: very delicate, sublime. A bit of wash is sometimes right when it’s needed. Anyway, he showed me these things and said, “Can you help?” I said, “I’ll introduce you to my teacher, Leslie Richardson.” And after awhile we became so alike, which is where the whole thing began of our similarity, and we never really got out of it. I know where lots of things came from and he knows where lots of things came from because we had an interchangeability about our styles.


GROTH: You became known as a twosome.

STEADMAN: Yeah, we were the terrible twins. We went to Punch together with our cartoons.

Really, it’s sad that we fell out. It became irksome. Neither one of us liked to accuse the other that we were copying each other, but you can’t help it when your styles are somehow similar. People were writing to Punch asking, “Are they the same person?” Leslie still sees both of us occasionally and tells me of Gerry’s new work, but we never meet, never refer to one another — although I do. I think he had an extraordinary effect on caricature. He’s taken caricature to extraordinary places.

GROTH: Can I ask why you fell out?

STEADMAN: Yeah, I’ll tell you why I fell out. I went into Private Eye with a drawing. We went in together and I said, “I’ve got to sell something; Punch doesn’t seem to want them. I’m going to take one in.” And Gerry sort of got upset and said, “I don’t see why; we said we weren’t going to do anything unless we did it together.” So I said, “Do something.” He said, “No, I can’t.” Well, I said, “I’ve got this cartoon; I’d love to see what happens.” “OK.” So I took this thing along called Plastic People and they looked at it and they gave me five pounds and said, “We’ll publish it. More power to your elbow.” I was thrilled to get into this new weird paper. They gave me a double-page spread for this Plastic Family Tree — you hung your relatives up as they died on the tree, and you could have plastic guests and pump them up and they’d flatter you for hours, plastic babies, plastic love and affection.

It was coming in, that sort of feeling that everything was getting very tacky.

GROTH: You and Scarfe had an agreement where you would submit everything in tandem?

STEADMAN: It was a tacit agreement. We used to do everything together. He said, “I’m really fed up with you” after that. I said, “OK, Gerry, I won’t do it again. Forget it, we’ll do everything together.” So that was agreed upon. The very next issue there was one of his in there. So I thought, “Shit, this is terrible.” He said, “You did it, so … “ I said, “OK, that’s fine.” But something had started then. And then my first wife got pissed off at him and she wrote him a letter, which she should never have done, which accused him of copying and faking everything from me, and now preventing me from submitting my own work again. However, it was open for grabs by then because both of us were submitting work weekly. It was sort of peculiar. That’s how it broke, just a silly thing like that.

GROTH: It broke quite decisively.

STEADMAN: It definitely did. And the letter from my first wife hurt him so deeply that he never wanted to see us ever again. And he’s my first daughter’s godfather, my daughter Susannah who’s 26 now.

GROTH: Do you regret the rupture?

STEADMAN: I’m sad about it. I’ve always said hello to him. We’ve always had a kind of uneasy talk when we’ve met. But I don’t think you can forget something, particularly if it’s written down. I wish she hadn’t sent it. She asked me, “Should I send it?” I Said, “I wouldn’t send it, but it’s your letter.” So she sent it.

So then Gerry started getting stuff in a lot and did that more and more. And I kind of took a side track and started doing my own serious work in a little more esoteric way. I did things based on Hogarth, early pictures called “Marriage a la Mode,” and I did a series of things called “The Gospel According to St. Eadman,” which were biblical sayings that have a relevancy today. Then I did a thing called “New London Cries,” which is also based on older themes; I did pastiches of H.M. Bateman — there’s a cartoonist you should look at: really funny; he did these cartoons like “The Man Who Dropped His Rifle on Parade” and everyone’s reacting; “The Man Who Asked for a Gin and Tonic at the Pump Room at Bath.” So he was doing the faux pas of society. In that time, in the ‘20s, it was really quite shocking.

We have a thing called the “two-minute silence” in England on November 11th for Armistice Day, on the signing of the peace treaty of the First World War, when every year a group of veterans go to the Cenotaph and stand in silence in respect for the dead of the two wars. It is observed on the Sunday nearest to November 11, and they sell poppies; it’s poppy day. I met H.M. Bateman — I went to see him and he was 80. I was going down with Michael Bateman, who wasn’t a relative but was going to do a book called The Man Who Drew the 20th Century. I met H.M. and he drew me and I drew him. He said, “Promise me you’ll never do one thing” — I had shown him the pastiches I did on him: “The Man Who Asked for a Private Eye,” “The Man Who Touched a Bunny,” “The Man Who Stood for the National Anthem” — and he said, “What’s that?” He said, “The Man Who Farted During the Two-Minute Silence.” That’s the one he thought of doing. He said it wasn’t fair, “old chap” — he was an old English chap. He said it wasn’t cricket: “It’s going a little too far — Promise me you won’t do that.” It made me laugh, but I didn’t do it. It could be a good one to do. The thing is, the irreverence — it’s about a caring time for a few people who lost members of their families and it’s unnecessary. However …

Anyway, Gerry and I fell out. He got involved with the Sunday Times as well and started doing his cartoon, which he’s kept going for the last 20 years.

GROTH: Is that a weekly cartoon?

STEADMAN: Yeah. And I never worked for anybody. I was more the maverick again. I started illustrating children’s books, and books such as those by Flann O’Brien, an Irish writer.


GROTH: Let me skip back a little bit. I wanted to try to trace the genesis of your artistic evolution from when you were still groping to fully express yourself. At some point you obviously reached a satisfactory approach.

STEADMAN: No, I was never satisfied with anything. Always apprehensive, uncertain, and then suddenly have a flash of something which gave me comfort, and then it would disappear again. That’s how it was, like a cycle. Being an artist is continual uncertainty, continual self-doubt. It’s constant — it never leaves you. Two minutes after you’ve done a cartoon and felt pleased with yourself, it starts to trickle away.

GROTH: Was there a point, though, when you became recognized as Ralph Steadman the cartoonist?

STEADMAN: It started to happen in the late ‘60s in Private Eye. It really became apparent that there was a sort of line, but then it was unfortunately evolving along the same lines as Gerry Scarfe. And it was a bugger, but I couldn’t help it. Luckily, his stuff started to go into a sort of elasticated form. I found this most peculiar. But I got more angular and angry.

Paranoids, 1986.

Paranoids, 1986.

GROTH: At what point did you diverge?

STEADMAN: I think it was about 1966. I tightened up actually where he loosened up. I think he had a facility that came from the time he used to illustrate a mail order catalogue, before caricature really took him over. He used to do those: bed sheets, coffee makers, anything like that. And he’d draw them in watercolor wash. That’s how his cartoons started, that commercial art wash, that weird style that everyone associates with commercial art because it’s got a slick look to it. So that, I think, is what gave him that facility which he then pushed. He had a thing about distortion, how to draw the race, so he tried pushing the face as far as he could and still keep the likeness. I wasn’t quite so interested in that; I was still interested in illustration, drawing. So my line was tighter — my framing had been tighter; I had more control. I don’t think he ever really got deep into a course of intensive life drawing, and I did; I had folders of the stuff.

GROTH: At what point did you actually learn drawing, learn formal composition, deep space, and so forth?

STEADMAN: Whilst I had this job at Kemsleys and whilst I was doing freelance cartoon work — Fleet Street stuff — I was also going to art school. Because I was knocking off at three o’clock in the afternoon, I’d go up to the art school. I’d be out five night a week at night school. And Saturday mornings, Wednesday afternoons, and sometimes Tuesday afternoons, all day Thursday, I’d be at the Victoria and Albert Museum drawing from the antique. For seven years. That’s a lot of time drawing.

GROTH: So you were a pretty vigorous student.

STEADMAN: I was intensely interested in learning how to draw. This is what got in the way of me being just a cartoonist — it always has. I always thought maybe I should be an artist, but I don’t know what being an artist is if it isn’t being what I’m doing. I believe in a certain area of art, which is about social comment — Daumier, Dore, Goya, Hogarth. They’re the sort of people who were sort of outside the mainstream of what people consider to be art. Daumier wanted to be a painter, but he’s known as a cartoonist. Goya, of course, was acknowledged as a painter but part of his work were etchings that were really cartoons: The Capriccios; the Napoleonic Wars [The Disasters of the War]. So that was the area that really excited me because I knew that within it I could be honest. I didn’t feel that I was being arty-farty; I was being genuine. I was actually using drawing for a real purpose; I wasn’t trying to decorate people’s walls. I was actually trying to do something worthwhile, but within my scope. I suppose it’s always been like that, and I know when I’m being fancy and not doing it properly and simply doing something to make some money. Unfortunately, I have to do it. What I could do, I suppose — and I had thought about it — is sell this place [Steadman’s mansion-like house] and not worry about money again.

GROTH: You could move to Seattle.

STEADMAN: Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

GROTH: When you refer to decorating people’s walls —

STEADMAN: I meant modern art, say, which I would consider to be interior decoration, nothing more, nothing less — nothing in it. I don’t know what I can justify as content. It’s just that there is something coming out of the paint that speaks things, independently of what you think; it actually gives you thoughts; it actually has a proper dialogue with you. So I guess that’s what I consider to be content and there’s not a lot of it about. It’s not just eye titillation; it’s something else; it’s something in the mind stirring. It’s that provocation, I suppose: mind provocation. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I try to align myself with people like that, and I’ve decided that the top was with the best, the Goyas of this world. And Van Gogh became wonderful because in his drawings he was portraying the peasants in Belgium, and miners — the peasants in the field which he learned from Millet.

GROTH: Do you like Brueghel?

STEADMAN: Oh, he’s fantastic — a Middle Ages cartoonist. Brilliant. Hieronymus Bosch: another cartoonist. It’s all in there, that thought. I realized, “Jesus, that’s the area where painters really get expressive, when they become a cartoonist.” So what is this fine art thing? It’s something galleries work out for themselves because it fits their economic yardsticks: “How can I flood this thing and keep it precious?” It makes light of the thing we now look upon as art, because they’re rare and fine and beautiful. I figured it wasn’t really what I wanted to do, just to be a painter. First of all I couldn’t sit at home trying to think of gags everyday, and I couldn’t sit at home trying to paint paintings every day to suit people’s walls, to go with the wallpaper. That wasn’t right. So, gradually, out of this terrible conflict about what the hell I was trying to be, evolved an approach to cartooning which I consider to be my own, as near as I can get to being me. And, awkward as it was — and I must say it was awkward — I still like Still Life With Raspberry; you can see in that the parts which are good and the parts where I’m struggling and searching for something.

GROTH: When did you not think that you could express yourself truthfully through painting?

STEADMAN: Well, I’m still trying, actually, but I go soft. Maybe it’s because I need the incisive line. I don’t know what it is, but that speaks for me, that does something.

GROTH: Do you think that a good cartoonist has to be a good draftsman?

STEADMAN: I think so, although not if he’s James Thurber — and that’s another kind of drawing I love. I laughed at William Steig. Oh shit, I’m trying to think of some of those people …

GROTH: Gilray?

STEADMAN: Wonderful. I felt these were my people. I wanted to be part of that.

GROTH: Did you go through a period where you discovered all these cartoonists?

STEADMAN: Yes. When I found Grosz … It was Leslie Richardson who introduced me to a lot of people. But he said, “Be careful of them. Don’t try to suddenly draw like them. You’ve got to feel it. They came out of a period, a certain situation, a certain feeling. Be very aware of the changing, fickle nature of fashion — and not just fashion but also the pressures of social change that created these things.” He tried to make me aware of the events that caused it. It’s not just a style; it’s very much a part of a response that came — it’s like a stylistic response, but it’s definitely not a style. You don’t simply say, “I’ll do this for a style” — bang! — and that’s your style. It came out of your stringent approach, an acid-tight way of how to draw these poor bastards of the Weimar Republic.

GROTH: Which gives the style meaning.

STEADMAN: Absolutely, because there’s a reason for it. It’s like the technology around today: use it if there’s a reason for it, but it has to be a content reason. It has to be expressive of content, not just expressive of itself. Just another technique: “Oh, that’s wild!” It has to be the very driving force, the purpose overrides the style. All style is secondary, but if the style is helping to express the thrust, then go for it and augment your intentions. It’s that serious if it’s good.

GROTH: Were you ever under another cartoonist’s stylistic spell?

STEADMAN: Well, Grosz. And Picasso. I thought Picasso the most exciting painter, artist, and draftsman — still do, actually. A great draftsman. He’s a liberator. He’s also a bloody nuisance because he’s invented it all, done it all. It’s tough to beat the rap of Picasso’s limitless invention. And if it wasn’t for age, he’d have gone on. That’s an extraordinary thing. Titian is the other one in the history of painting. Most of them — Goya, Renoir, Rembrandt — suffered from arthritic complaints, poverty and general debilitation, but still drawing marvelously. The Rembrandt self-portraits must rank with the most incredibly incisive investigations of self.

GROTH: Aside from obvious vestigial antecedents, do you consider yourself pretty much original?

STEADMAN: Um, I’m original only inasmuch as I don’t think I’m particularly easy to deal with as a cartoonist. Like editorial work in the bloody newspapers: it works for a while, and then it gets awkward because I get restless and want change. I don’t want to stay there; I don’t want to fill the space up like this; there must be another way. I always had this hankering for a new kind of cartoon, which is where the Paranoids came from, but I don’t know whether that’s going anywhere because in a funny kind of way I should have invented that in 1972 when the bloody thing first came out. If I had had all that time to use them against Nixon — bringing those out in Rolling Stone in the ‘70s would have been terrific: melting the bastard.

Paranoids, 1986,

Paranoids, 1986,

GROTH: Can you explain what the Paranoids are?

STEADMAN: Well, it’s a way of taking a picture or a combination of pictures from any source whatsoever, putting them together — preferably parts of the same face of a person making a collage, photographing that with a Polaroid SX70 camera, and warming it next to my heart. There are three places on the body where you can warm them: next to your heart, under your armpit, and I forget the third. [Laughter] That’s what I tell people, anyway. And you warm it, because you need that kind of moist heat. If you put it on the stove, I find it goes brittle for some peculiar reason. The moist heat keeps it gently soft.

GROTH: And it melts it somehow?

STEADMAN: Yes, it keeps it in a gelatin form. Then with a pencil — about an HB with not too sharp a point, because if that point starts to break through the back of the Polaroid with too much pressure you can never move it again — what you’ve got to do is keep the gelatin moving and you almost ease it down. You move it backwards and forwards with tremendous pace with the pencil. You have to try to do it in one movement, like that. [Demonstrates] You gradually ease it, so you’re feathering it down. Gradually the stuff starts to give and you start pulling it and the stuff actually goes. So what you’re doing is moving flesh around. It seemed to suit me perfectly.

GROTH: Plastic surgery.

STEADMAN: It isn’t too far removed from that. Then I found a new way of doing it when I did the collage. I found I could put different relative sites of the same face together and recreate the face even more radically. I could meld them together, because once you’ve taken a photograph of it I can lose the joins so that I can make it look like the same picture. There’s one that came back today in print, in the London News — the first politician I’ve drawn for ages, Cecil Parkinson, Maggie Thatcher’s favorite man. I said I wouldn’t draw him, but I’d do them a Paranoid.

GROTH: Is he the one in charge of the EEC? She replaced somebody with him.

STEADMAN: Yeah. He’s damn near chairman of the party.

GROTH: His job is to slow down the coming of the Common Market, right?

STEADMAN: Yeah, he’s the one. There was this kind of scandal: he gets his mistress, Mary Keays, pregnant, and now he was married, and he had to leave office. Now she’s brought him back to the fold. It’s terribly sad — the child is autistic. However, he’s one of those men, old school tie, a “Hooray Henry.”

Anyway, I never really wanted to have a regular job, so that’s been a problem, getting a political cartoonist position, although I did it for The Statesman for three or four years towards the end of the ‘70s, and did their weekly cartoon. And I enjoyed it. I used to like going in there Thursday, taking the cartoon in; I’d get a nice reception. So that was the only time I worked as a regular cartoonist, and it was a political-left-wing politics. At the same time, I was doing stuff for Hunter [Thompson], Rolling Stone, covered the Watergate hearing.


New York City, 1970.

New York City, 1970.

GROTH: How did the Scanlan’s job come about?

STEADMAN: I was in America. I’d been with Private Eye about 10 years. It was 1969, my marriage broke up, and I decided I had to do something else, so I thought I’d go to America. I went in April 1970, stayed two months, then was called back to be the Times cartoonist. Then I went back to the US again in September to do the America’s Cup with Hunter for Scanlan’s. But that was when Scanlan’s was dying. The first time I went, I got a call from J.C. Suares — quite well known in the graphics world, a wheeler-dealer kind of person. He rang up and said [in a gruff voice], “We’ve been trying to track you down. I got your number from somewhere in London and they said you were in East Hampton, Long Island. Can you come to New York this week? I want to talk to you about an assignment. Do you want to go on assignment? Do you want to meet an ex-Hell’s Angels, just shaved his head? He’s in Kentucky. He used to live in Louisville. Have you ever been to Louisville?” No. “Well, do you want to go?” So I went into New York and J.C.’s office, and they were all ex-pugilists running the place: Sydney Zion, Warren J. Hinkle III. It looked like some part of an underworld operation. They got three quarters of a million dollars from somewhere to run this magazine. They ran through it in nine months, they s