TCJ Archive – The Comics Journal Wed, 22 Feb 2017 18:41:36 +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 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.

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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 spent it all and ripped off all the drawings I did for them. Never saw them again. They were flying backwards and forwards, West to East coast two or three times a week, eating at the smart places of that time. I met J.C. and I met the very charming editor Dan Goddard, an Englishmen who had found my book Still Life With Raspberry in England, brought it back there. Hence the search for me: “Get this guy, he might just be the one to go with Hunter Thompson.” So the book had some effect. I met him with J.C.; haven’t seen him in ages, but he’s such a nice guy. He used to be the foreign editor of The New York Times and then he took on the editorship of Scanlan’s.

Scanlan was the name of an old Nottingham pig farmer. For some peculiar reason they decided to call it Scanlan’s. They did marvelous articles on dirty kitchens which caused quite a rumpus, and they did a few weird articles by Hunter.

GROTH: Did you know who Hunter Thompson was?

STEADMAN: No, I had never heard of him before. Anyway, I went down there [to Louisville] and I met him after two days and we spent a drunken week looking for the rattled face of Kentucky, the ghastly sight that Hunter knew so well, and we finally found it in the mirror of our own face at the end of the week. The ghastly look, the rattled look [Chuckles]. I had done my drawing before I got back to New York. I spent a lot of the time in his hotel room drawing these pictures and he hadn’t done anything. He was in this stage of trying to help his mother with a personal problem; he didn’t talk about it much. He had a few family problems. He introduced me to his two older brothers, and he also maced someone that week, in a restaurant. Everybody was maced because when you spray mace in a bloody closed area, everybody gets it, everyone was going, “Ahhh!” In a restaurant!

GROTH: What were the circumstances?

STEADMAN: To get me out, because I stated drawing people and things were getting ugly. If he hadn’t had mace, we would have been in trouble.

GROTH: Who did he mace, the waiter?

STEADMAN: Somebody stumbling over: “Hey buddy, you can’t do this to me.” Hunter would say, “I wish you’d stop that ugly habit of sketching people.”

GROTH: He just carried a canister of mace with him?

STEADMAN: Yeah. And I guess we got on well because I was quite different. He said I always said everything was “teddible” — not terrible, but “teddible.” He had a funny way of saying it. I used to listen to what he said. He made me notice things I’d forgotten. So, anyway, I went back to Scanlan’s with the drawings and I hadn’t drawn a single horse. The editor said, “Didn’t you see any horses? Can’t we have one with horses in it?” So I did one drawing of a horse with a big dong, and also a Texan with his pants open and his own dong hanging out.

GROTH: Thompson wrote a reminiscence about you and him in Playboy, and he made reference to macing the governor of Kentucky. Is that true?

STEADMAN: Yeah. He did it from above, but he did it sort of surreptitiously. It was just a disturbance. It was in the open air so it got in people’s eyes and they were saying, “What the fuck’s going on?”

GROTH: If I remember correctly, he said you were appalled and shocked by his behavior.

STEADMAN: No, I wasn’t appalled. I was just observing him. He made me realize the things you could do and get away with that I had never considered. But it just wasn’t my scene to mace people. He carried spray cans and weird things for some reason: “I might need this, y’know, a grenade.” [Laughter] We got on well; we worked together well, but I was also in a strange frame of mind having just broken up my marriage. I was a little crazy, so I went along with it all. And we found in correspondence what we were going to do next. There was an idea if the magazine had gone on that we would cover a southern wedding, go to Alaska, go down to Mexico, cross America together and do this wild thing. It never materialized because the magazine went bust. We did a few things together in Rolling Stone. We covered the Republican convention in Miami, and the Democratic one.

GROTH: How did that come about?

STEADMAN: It was after the America’s Cup thing in September 1970. I did the drawings; Hunter messed around on the boat we had, and we spent a week drugged with a rock band on board trying to screw the race up, getting in amongst the boats. We became entertainment; we had a rock band and we had a couple of big speakers lashed to the mast. I got terribly seasick and Hunter gave me one of these pills, said it was a settling pill. For three hours nothing happened, then it began to take effect. I began to see red-eyed dogs, everything looked weird.

GROTH: Had you taken drugs before?

STEADMAN: Not like that. Not hallucinogenics.

GROTH: What was it?

STEADMAN: Psilocybin, a form of mescaline. Hunter was gobbling them all week. He must’ve been somewhere else all week.

GROTH: Does he take as many drugs as he actually claims to?

STEADMAN: I think he takes more, but doesn’t like to admit it. I don’t know why he’s still alive, but he is, and he’ll probably outlive us all; he has that kind of constitution. He doesn’t deserve to. People that do usually don’t deserve to, but that’s the way it is.

GROTH: That’s right.

STEADMAN: So that became a sort of a dry run for us to do Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — that weird week at America’s Cup. Hunter decided, I think, that he wouldn’t take me along because I became a basket case by the end of the week. I got back to New York with three dollars in my pocket, no shoes. I needed a doctor when I got to New York. [Groth laughs] I did! I was actually palpitating; I was blue in the face.

GROTH: Because of the drugs?

STEADMAN: Coming down from the drugs had such a traumatic effect on me. It scarred my insides. I had a friend in New York, Ann Beneduce, and the funny thing is I had put her into a ditch, actually broke her ribs in a ditch in a car in Italy some years before. But she saved my life, which was nice of her after me doing that to her. I rang up and she happened to be in. She said, “You sound awful.” I said, “I’ve really had a peculiar week and a bad experience, can I come up?” She said she was just going out, but sensed something in my voice. I went round and she got a doctor immediately and he gave me an injection. Then he asked me, “Are you a regular kind of guy — do you often do these kind of things?” So I said, “Of course I don’t. I’m regular; I’ve got a wife and four children.” I was sort of put out by this question. So, I slept for 24 hours and I woke up on Sunday afternoon and I tried to draw what I remembered — blood in the water, jackknife, boat. I remember Hunter had bought a jackknife that week. You know what a jackknife is? A big pigsticker. And I saw the boats in the water like a jackknife, shark with a peculiar blade, and the water was red, and the moon was making jagged white knives in the water. And I was going to write “Fuck the Pope” on the side of one of the boats. I couldn’t close my eyes; I kept seeing purple skin moving. They couldn’t get me to sit down on the plane. It never really worked, this America’s Cup thing, and [Rolling Stone publisher] Jann Wenner called it the biggest, most expensive fucked-up story in the history of journalism — no, that was the Zaire story. But this one was also a fucked-up story because Hunter didn’t file his copy and Scanlan’s was going broke. Hunter rang up for more money and they said, “We haven’t got any more money; it’s gone.” The one big thing in his mind was to get back to Aspen, Colorado, to register for Sheriff on the Freak Power vote for which he got 34 percent of the votes. His maxim was: “Any drug worth taking shouldn’t be paid for. If you have any complaints, see me. I’m the sheriff.”

GROTH: How did you get the London Times stint? You were in America at the time?

STEADMAN: Yes. I was covering the Kentucky Derby with Hunter, and I got this call. I was in Greenwich Village in New York when I got back from the Kentucky Derby and I was drawing — I was trying to do those drawings for the Kentucky Derby piece — and I thought it was a marvelous idea. They said, “Can you come back [to London] in a couple weeks time?” So I thought, “Well, I’ve been here two months now so I could go back.” So that’s what I did, I went back and took this job. In a way I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d stayed on in America a bit. I’d always harbored this notion of doing something really worthwhile in American politics and in the end really did it from afar, from a distance, which may be a good way as well. The Rolling Stone stuff was done really as a stranger.

GROTH: You were in America when you did that?

STEADMAN: Well, yes, I was in America, but I was going home again. It was like I was nippinginto America for two, three weeks at a time, and then nipping back home again and drawing at home. Or maybe occasionally drawing in a hotel room. But I made such a bloody mess of the place; it became embarrassing, throwing ink around. [Laughter] That’s the problem: my whole room — I used to tell the maids to just leave it because the wallpaper was covered in newspaper and pictures and things I needed, and the whole floor around me was newspaper because I was worried about their carpets. It was just like a studio. It just became really ridiculous. You couldn’t explain, and then the bloody maid would clean up and then you wouldn’t know where the hell anything was. Then you can’t get back into it again, because I have to get a bit of a mess to get any work done.

GROTH: This would be your average Holiday Inn?

STEADMAN: Yes, or the Hyatt Regency occasionally, if you’d get a good job.

GROTH: Just so I can get the chronology straight, the London Times called you in …

STEADMAN: June 1970, to cover the election. Edward Heath and Harold Wilson were the antagonists. I did daily cartoons just the two weeks prior to the elections for them, and after a couple of weeks they called me back and asked me to come and start as a regular contributor. So that was a great idea at the time. I had nothing else particularly because I had never really worked for anybody. So I did it, and three months later they said, “Do you want to continue; we’ll renew the contract.” So I said OK, and then three months after that I got a call from a guy called Charley Douglas Humes — he’s dead now, poor chap; died right young. He called me in and said William Reece Mog, who was then the editor of the Times, was beginning to “feel your cartoons are a little seditious and I don’t think we need them in the pages of the Times, so I’ll have to ask you to leave.” And that’s what happened. I never really worked for anyone again.

GROTH: This is the same William Reece Mog who is on the Broadcasting Standard Council now?

STEADMAN: You know him! I wondered whether you had picked it up. He’s the new vacuum cleaner of filth in our broadcasting. So, anyway, I went back to England then and six months later I got a call from Thompson saying, “I got this manuscript; I’ll send you a copy; I’d like some drawing for it. Will you do it?” It was like the America’s Cup but instead of taking me he needed a lawyer to get him out because he was going to a police chiefs’ convention, a drug convention. The Mint 400 Bike Race was the same week. He thought I’d know about it. I sent him some drawings when it started coming out. I did the lizards in the bath and the blood-soaked carpet, things like that, the hitchhiker. When Hunter saw them, I got this telegram: “We’ll bring the fuckers to the knees with this one. This will beat some gongs.” [Laughter] Hot damn! This is it! Rolling Stone came out and splashed this whole thing. Jann [Wenner] was thrilled to bits. The next thing I knew, he wanted to send me to Miami for the convention and it was going to be as a team — and it became a team; we went there, and to the Watergate hearings; then they sent us to Zaire to cover the Ali-Foreman fight. That was the biggest fucked-up story; that cost almost $30,000.

GROTH: Thompson didn’t deliver?

STEADMAN: No, he didn’t do it; it was just too — I don’t know. Mayhem was taking place in his mind. He couldn’t really concentrate on the bloody thing. He went through periods — and this was one of them — where he couldn’t find the story. Eventually, it was in England; he knew that John Daly and David Frost were involved in this money scam over where the money came from for the fight, and how John Daly wasn’t allowed to leave Zaire until he had given so many thousands of pounds to President Mobutu. We sold our tickets on the night of the fight, or gave them away — one or the other — got a huge bag of grass. People were knocking on the door day and night. There was never any sleep at night. We just kept awake on coffee and drugs and whiskey.

GROTH: Was it like being with Thompson on the campaign trail? Do you have any particular recollections?

STEADMAN: Well, I didn’t do a lot of that stuff on the campaign trail except for the Miami thing, the Watergate thing. I wasn’t, for instance, in New Hampshire with him. I think they thought that wasn’t a necessary part of it because Hunter was like a roving reporter. What he wanted to do was to try to continue with me somehow, which we did sporadically because I kept going back to England — cover things like the main events. It was during those years — only three or four years in time; it wasn’t a long time — when the Nixon thing was rising to the surface, the scum rising; it was during that time that I developed this approach to drawing which became far more visceral. It was a kind of anger, really. Partly induced by Hunter, but also the screaming lifestyle of America, and I was just party to that; finding it positively exhilarating, and hateful, a combination of all that’s harmful, marvelous. I was always glad to get home again. It’d be so complex to imagine how the various events came about. I know that there was no order in it all; there was no sense of direction, but something seemed to happen which was good. It was this anarchic terrorist approach to things. We were like journalistic terrorists — and it was also essential to be on the outside looking in, scrutinizing and not be part of them. In fact, it was difficult sometimes to get a bloody visa for me to get into the country, but I managed to get one eventually.

GROTH: You mean it was difficult to get a visa for political reasons?

STEADMAN: I don’t know what it was. They made it difficult. There was always a difficulty. There was always last minute stuff. But somehow it was part of the headiness of the thing. I used to like it. I don’t any more. I can’t stand it any more, not being able to get somewhere for some bloody silly reason, because you’re a bit shifty or something. I didn’t think it could last long as a team, although we did it again in 1980 in Hawaii for “The Curse of Lono.”

GROTH: When you illustrated “Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail ’72” for Rolling Stone, were you actually on the campaign trail with Thompson most of the time?

STEADMAN: Not most of the time, no. Because you don’t keep up with Hunter Thompson. I think I would have died, although he wanted us to do something quite different, which was travel America from coast to coast and up and down and cover everything, go to a southern wedding, even touch Alaska — we were going to go to Alaska at one stage and do something up there — and just generally try to cover America in the same way we had done “Fear and Loathing.” But it never materialized because magazines that we worked for always seemed to go broke, except for Rolling Stone, which wasn’t prepared to do that.

GROTH: They went yuppie instead.

STEADMAN: Exactly. I’m afraid it’s a shame. You look at the magazine: it’s so full of banality. It’s a pity.

GROTH: Status quo.

STEADMAN: Exactly: Don’t rock the boat; don’t make waves.

GROTH: To what do you ascribe the evolution of Rolling Stone from what it was in the late ’60s and early ’70s, which was a fairly radical political magazine, to the kind of tedious rag it is now?

STEADMAN: Well, I think basically comfort and success, and then a lack of belief: “If you can’t change anything anyway … ” I think that’s the worst and most distressing thing about living generally, that it cancels out your belief. You feel as if you can change things when you’re young, and then somehow you sour with life. Some don’t. Maybe there are some around who say, “Oh, I don’t agree with that,” but somehow something goes from you. You just don’t have the same energy level of commitment or set of beliefs. You can no longer believe. I’ve known many people who can simply believe even if it’s a simple religion.

GROTH: Is there a sense in which that’s happened to you at all?

STEADMAN: Well, yes, I suppose so. But I did feel once upon a time that I could do something worthwhile and that there was going to come a time when people were reasonable and understanding. But it’s not happened. People have just gotten worse and they’re more trite; they’ve just somehow curled up into stupid antics. They’ve just developed a lifestyle of banality and empty entertainment. Everything’s like that somehow. It doesn’t feel like a healthy world at the moment.


]]> 0 The Charles Burns Interview by Darcy Sullivan Wed, 17 Sep 2014 12:00:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From The Comics Journal #148 (February 1992)

In this 1992 interview, Charles Burns and Darcy Sullivan discuss teenagers, critics, his work in Europe and the art of psychological horror.


Black Hole #7 cover

At the juncture of fiction and memory, of cheap thrills and horror, lies the dark world of Charles Burns’ art. His stories, appearing in alternative comics such as Raw since the early 1980s, take comic book clichés — wiseacre kids, sinister scientists and tough-as-nails detectives — and rearrange them into disturbing yet funny patterns. Beneath this interplay of familiar iconography lurks the real traumas of childhood, traumas of loss and alienation. Similarly, Burns’ ice-cold artwork polishes a “conventional” comics look to the nth degree, underlining the artificiality of what we take for normal. At times, Burns’ work suggests that our worst fears about mainstream comics are true: that they are stamped out by machines programmed by someone who is slowly going insane. Recently, Burns has branched out, becoming one of independent comics’ most notable writer/artists. He helped design a ballet based on The Nutcracker, did a cover for Time and produced a nightmarish cover for Iggy Pop’s album Brick By Brick. He has also steered his unusual  weekly comic strip into new markets, exposing hordes of unsuspecting readers to the joys of demented deities, inadvertent sex-change operations and dead kids who won’t stay dead. Charles Burns lives in Philadelphia with his wife, painter Susan Moore, and their two young daughters. It’s a cliché, but Burns does seem jovial and down-to-earth, not at all the lost soul his stories might suggest. At the same time, he shies away from deconstructing his art; as he makes clear, he would prefer that readers delve beneath his work’s seductive surface alone. — DARCY SULLIVAN


DARCY SULLIVAN: You were born in Washington, D.C. Wasn’t your dad a serviceman?

CHARLES BURNS: He was an oceanographer, working for the government. I can’t describe much about his job.

SULLIVAN: Did you move around much?

BURNS: Yeah … I spent a majority of time growing up in Seattle. Before that, I lived in Boulder, Colorado, Maryland and Missouri.

SULLIVAN: How old were you when you settled in Seattle?

BURNS: Fifth grade, I guess. Somewhere around 1965.

SULLIVAN: What kind of place was Seattle to grow up in?

BURNS: Well, I was lucky enough to have kind of a nice neighborhood with woods around. I wasn’t living downtown — suburbs isn’t the right word, but it was the nice part of town.

SULLIVAN: Did your Mom work, too?

BURNS: No, she didn’t.

SULLIVAN: Did you have brothers and sisters?

BURNS: I have one older sister, three years older than me.

SULLIVAN: When did you get interested in comics?

BURNS: As far back as I can remember. Before I could read; I just liked picking up stuff. My father also had an interest in them, and would bring back books from the library, anthologies of Pogo and Li’l Abner, that kind of stuff. I would look at them and somehow they struck a chord. He had the paperback anthologies of the early Kurtzman Mad, so that had an effect on me. Also, very early on, I had very early American editions of Herge’s Tintin. They must have been fairly obscure, because I don’t hear too many people talking about them.

SULLIVAN: Were your parents pretty encouraging of your reading that type of thing; did they mind at all?

BURNS: They weren’t encouraging, but they weren’t discouraging. I would be able to look at stuff that I wanted to, for the most part, and not have it thought of as trash that should be thrown out. I mean, I had friends who, if a comic book was in the house, it got thrown out. The backlash from the ’50s was still present. And I remember my father kind of checking out what I was bringing home. But there wasn’t really much that you could buy that was deviant.

SULLIVAN: Were there any kinds of comics they frowned on?

BURNS: Later on, in the early ’60s, I picked up the old monster magazines. They didn’t frown on them, but they were like, “Ecch, maybe you have too many of these.” It wasn’t any big deal. If they were concerned, they didn’t make it that clear to me. I could pretty much get what I wanted to.

SULLIVAN: What type of stuff were you buying?

BURNS: By the time I started buying stuff myself, it was just the normal fare. Mad magazine and superhero stuff like Batman and whatever was out there. I would look for anything that looked cool. And at the time, there wasn’t that much.

SULLIVAN: Did you read Creepy and Eerie?

BURNS: Yeah, later I read that stuff, too. I think I had one issue of Creepy or something like that torn up, but that was the extent of it. “I don’t want you reading this garbage!”

burns_aSULLIVAN: How about the schlocky reprint books that were often quite gory? Like Weird?

BURNS: I had friends who bought those, but I was kind of repelled by those. Now I find some occasionally and I can enjoy them for whatever they are, but back then I thought my friends didn’t have any taste. You know, “This isn’t the good stuff.”

SULLIVAN: Did you have an appreciation of artists at that time?

BURNS: Oh, yeah; absolutely. There was a look, a style of artwork that I liked. The things that affected me the most were the reprints in Mad. They really blew me away — looking at Bill Elder’s stuff and how everything was thrown in deep shadow, how it was put together. There was, for me, this very creepy atmosphere. You look at it now and it’s lighthearted and funny, but back then it seemed kind of creepy. I always liked the atmosphere of it. In a way, you get affected more by the atmosphere of [Elder’s] strips than by the way he drew a face or anything like that.

SULLIVAN: Were there superhero artists that you enjoyed?

BURNS: I wasn’t so aware of that. I always liked the kind of bad Bob Kane Batman — the shading and the shadowy characters. I always liked the cartoony stuff rather than the more serious, more realistic look.

SULLIVAN: How about artists in the newspaper strips?

BURNS: I don’t remember being affected that much. I really liked Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. That was one of the few strips that really stood out.

SULLIVAN: Were you a big monster fan when you were growing up?

BURNS: Oh, yeah. In the early ’60s, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth was putting out models, and there was Famous Monsters of Filmland and stuff on television. That fad came at just the right time for me. I loved all that stuff.

SULLIVAN: Did you read Famous Monsters?

BURNS: Yeah; didn’t sit and read it. I looked at the pictures and got creeped out.

SULLIVAN: Did it scare you?

BURNS: Some of it really did. I was in second grade — just young enough to get really spooked by it. There was this one article on [Roger Corman’s 1961 film] The Pit and the Pendulum, and this torture device really freaked me out. It was the fact that it could cut somebody. I remember not being able to look at that particular photograph. I’m still like that; there are still things that freak me out.

SULLIVAN: Did you watch a lot of horror movies on TV?

BURNS: Yeah, yeah. I watched The Outer Limits, which was really good. And in Maryland there was a show that would have a bad horror movie each week; a Giant Gila Monster one night, and The Amazing Colossal Man the next.

SULLIVAN: Were you scared by one type of situation or thing more than another?

BURNS: Psychological horror got to me. There was one particular movie that made me leave the room. It was a bad William Castle movie called The Tingler [1959]. There was this one scene where this man injected his wife with something — he’s trying to scare her to death. She’s a mute, and she can’t scream; she’ll die, or something. There’s a scene where he runs into the room like a maniac with an axe, and she runs to the bathroom. She turns around and there’s a bathtub full of blood and a hand starts coming out of the bathtub. I had to leave the room. It was getting worse and worse. [Laughter.]

It was more what you didn’t see, more what you were imagining. If there was some monster, that was fun; no problem there. But if it was some sort of psychological situation …

SULLIVAN: Were you able to share your interests in horror and comics with other kids?

BURNS: To a certain extent. I remember later on kind of forcing friends to sit down and draw, to get involved in the stuff that I was interested in, forcing them to make their own comics, too. I was always much more obsessed with all that stuff than anybody I was around.

SULLIVAN: When did you start drawing?

BURNS: Day one. It was one of the things that I could do fairly well, so I pursued it. I wasn’t great at sports, I didn’t have a flamboyant personality, but I could draw.

SULLIVAN: All your stories seem to portray adolescence and being a teenager as rough years.

BURNS: I never got over it. [Laughter.]

SULLIVAN: Was that a rough time for you?

BURNS: High school was kind of deadly for me. I think it was deadly for a lot of kids. Going to school was like a trap.

SULLIVAN: Were you a good or bad kid in high school?

BURNS: I was kind of a good bad kid; I skipped out occasionally, but I was a very average student. I’d slide by.

SULLIVAN: Did you have art classes in high school?

BURNS: Yeah. There were always ways of getting through the day. Projects where I could get out of class, like painting murals.

SULLIVAN: Were you socially adept in high school?

BURNS: I wasn’t a total nerd, but I wasn’t a big, socially popular kid.

SULLIVAN: Were you dating?

BURNS: Oh, yeah.

SULLIVAN: It always looks so dangerous in your comics, the date during high school.

BURNS: Yeah, it’s hard to explain all that stuff. I don’t know where it comes from. I guess I’ve always liked real-life horror. I can’t help thinking about that kind of stuff.


SULLIVAN: Tell me about how you ended up at Evergreen College.

BURNS: It was the same kind of a backlash [I felt in] high school: knowing that I was supposed to go to college, but not sure what I wanted to do. I was taking fine art classes at the University of Washington, at Central Washington State College, over in Ellensberg, WA. And then the last year I was in undergraduate school I finished everything up at Evergreen in 1977, because I had friends going there and I had taken a photo class there.

SULLIVAN: Was Evergreen a progressive school?

BURNS: It didn’t have a grading system. It was pass/fail. You took whatever classes you wanted and if you got enough credits, then you graduated. That’s one of the reasons I graduated.

SULLIVAN: Did you meet Matt Groening and Lynda Barry at Evergreen?

BURNS: Yeah. Groening was working at a paper there called the Cooper Point Journal, and my second semester there he was the editor. I’d bring in comic strips, and I think the second semester I did paste-up for ads and stuff like that. Lynda was a gallery director there, and I had a show there with a couple of friends.

SULLIVAN: What kind of comic strips were you doing then?

BURNS: There were a couple of short-lived, kind of science-fictiony … I don’t know how to explain them. Some girl gets kidnapped by these little mutants, or something stupid. They really didn’t get off the ground. The strips that I did after that tended to be a bit more conceptual. I had one called “Pornographic Computer Romances,” just pictures of computers moaning and groaning. Real stupid stuff.

SULLIVAN: Were you interested in the writing, too, or were you mainly approaching comics from a graphic standpoint?

BURNS: Initially it was from a graphic standpoint, but fairly early on, there were ideas that I wanted to get out, stories that I was interested in. I was always an artist first, and then I worked at being a writer. Writing is still hard. It’s always hard.

SULLIVAN: Were you still interested in comics in college?

BURNS: I wasn’t looking at too many comics then. I wasn’t reading superhero comics or buying stuff actively. Maybe the occasional underground that was still floating around. I was more interested in things like photography.

SULLIVAN: Whose work did you admire in photography?

BURNS: People like Les Krims. Diane Arbus, Gary Wino-grand. There were a lot of people I liked.

SULLIVAN: Were you taking a lot of photos yourself?

BURNS: Yeah. They had a great darkroom setup at Evergreen, so I was shooting and printing stuff pretty regularly. Even my photographs had some narrative concept. I did a series of photographs that in a way mimicked panels of comic strips. Even though they were obscure, they still had a feel reminiscent of grouping a whole bunch of images together on a page.

SULLIVAN: You mentioned the undergrounds. Were you reading them when they came out?

BURNS: Oh, yeah. As far as the sequence is concerned, I read all the superhero stuff in grade school, and it probably spilled over a bit into junior high. But somewhere in junior high, I started seeing all the underground stuff coming out of San Francisco, [my reaction was] “This is what I’ve been waiting for.” I wanted to like comics, but I was really pretty bored with them. Then suddenly it was like, “Ah, this is what comics should be.” It was really great stuff.

SULLIVAN: Which artists had an effect on you?

BURNS: The person who had the greatest effect, of course, would have to be Robert Crumb. His stuff is incredible. Kim Deitch’s work I liked a lot. The S. Clay Wilson stuff I wanted to like but it was too horrific. “Oh, God, what if my parents found this?” There wasn’t the concept of being politically correct back then, but that was how I felt; “What’s my girlfriend going to say if she thinks I like ‘Captain Pissgums’?”

SULLIVAN: Can you remember any of Crumb’s work that you particularly enjoyed, or that really stuck with you?

BURNS: Well, all of it. I would pick up everything he did. I remember a friend telling me, “Hey, there’s a new comic by Crumb called Big Ass!” I went, “Oh, God, I guess that means I have to buy a comic called Big Ass.” In retrospect I know that I was also very influenced by all the psychedelic stuff, like Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoso. Now that they’re not doing comics, it seems like they had a lesser impact. But I know that I was doing fake psychedelic stuff and fake Crumb stuff, kind of merging it all together. For this literary magazine in high school I did this thing called “Handy Comics,” with psychedelic lettering inside of this little hand. Everything in it was ripped off of Robert Crumb or Rick Griffin or somebody.

SULLIVAN: Did you like Richard Corben?

BURNS: I was always a little hesitant about his stuff. It took itself a little too seriously. Robert Crumb had his obsessions, but I guess I can buy into them a little more than the big muscle guy and the woman with the big tits and that whole thing.

SULLIVAN: One comics group we haven’t talked about is ECs. Were you starting to discover those?

BURNS: Yeah. They did some reprints in underground comic form, but that was much later. I had seen a couple of paperbacks. They were a little too hardcore when I was younger. But much later I picked up on all that stuff.

SULLIVAN: Of the EC artists, the one that comes to mind when I think of your work is Al Feldstein.

BURNS: Yeah, Feldstein and Johnny Craig I liked. I also liked some of the drier artists like George Evans and Reed Crandall.

SULLIVAN: What else was having an influence on your art style at this time?

BURNS: I would pick up on one little bit of this and one little bit of that. I could say pop art had an influence on me, and it did. But it’s always hard for me to talk about influences in the sense that I can’t point to some specific thing. It’s whatever I bumped up against.

SULLIVAN: I read somewhere that Japanese woodblocks influenced you …

BURNS: I’d always liked the look of Japanese woodblocks, and in a college course in printmaking, I learned how to do the traditional method of woodblock printing. Some earlier comics of mine have that crude Japanese perspective with no vanishing points, and Japanese-type characters. Some of it has carried over into a few characters, like Big Baby, who has a big round white face and tiny little features. Recently, my characters have bigger features, but if you look back at earlier strips of mine, they almost always had teeny tiny little features, like Dog Boy.


SULLIVAN: When you graduated in ’77, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do?

BURNS: Not at all. I went to graduate school in Davis, California for two years and did painting and sculpture. I wasn’t really ready for the real world. I was given a studio, and did stuff that I knew I’d never have the chance to do again. I did bad conceptual videos, music, and photography. I did a photo comic that’s going to see print one of these days. It’s supposed to be in an upcoming issue of Taboo. It was the first longer story I’d done. I’d always done bits and pieces of things. This is 20 or 25 pages. That photo comic led me to believe that I could do longer stories, and the story after that was “Ill Bred,” which finally saw print in Kitchen Sink’s Death Rattle. I did it in ’79, and I don’t think it was published until ’85.

SULLIVAN: “Ill Bred” already displays a lot of the themes you’ve carried on through your work: transformation and invasion, with a sexual motif. After the woman in the story is infected by this insect she seems very masculine, and the man becomes more feminine …

BURNS: Yeah … wow! [Laughter.]

burns_dSULLIVAN: It seems to be the straightest horror story you’ve done. There’s not so much irony to it.

BURNS: Yeah, that was like getting a story out of my system. There are things that come back again and again until I tell myself, “Oh no, you can’t tell another story about severed heads.”

SULLIVAN: Were you working your way through grad school at the time?

BURNS: Sort of. Little bit of everything.

SULLIVAN: Were you getting art jobs?

BURNS: No, not really, just struggling through.

When I was in school I was doing things that would fit into the idea of fine art. You created an object, and that was supposed to be something you would sell through a gallery or sell yourself, and it would be put in a frame or on someone’s wall, and that was it. And by the time I graduated, I had decided that wasn’t for me. I wanted to do something that was more accessible, and I had always liked print media. I made a choice to pursue comics. I didn’t have a game plan, like “I’m going to submit this to this particular magazine.” I was trying to send stuff to Last Gasp and places like that, but it was the end of the success of underground comics. They were starting to have pretty rough times.

SULLIVAN: Did you shop your portfolio around to art directors?

BURNS: Eventually I did, yeah. I moved out here to Philadelphia — I’ve moved around since then a lot — and I was waiting tables, being a busboy, and then coming home and trying to do comics. I would take stuff around Philadelphia, take portfolios around New York City, but I was an unpublished illustrator. Occasionally, someone would say, “This stuff is pretty good but it’s really weird, uh, come back later.” It was that Catch-22, where to get published you have to have something published. And it’s really true, if you’re an art director you are very rarely going to take a chance on someone who hasn’t been tested.

SULLIVAN: So how did you get tested?

BURNS: I slowly had a few bites here, a few bites there. A big job was this nursing magazine — I did a cover and these little interior illustrations, like I was on my way to the big time. It was a rough go.

SULLIVAN: What was the turning point?

BURNS: Getting in Raw magazine. It was like my work was getting taken seriously by somebody.

SULLIVAN: Had you done other work for comics magazines at that point?

BURNS: I was sending a full-page strip to a place in Oakland, California. It was a punk thing, one of those free advertising papers, called Another Room. And I think I brought stuff into Heavy Metal, and they were encouraging, but it was mainly illustration pieces. I still didn’t have the idea that you bring in a finished comic and try to sell that. I was saying, “Do you like my work?” Which didn’t really work that well. I found that out.

SULLIVAN: So how did you make the connection with Raw?

BURNS: The first issue said, “We’re interested in submissions” and that’s what I did. One of the few cases where someone was “found” through submissions. I set up an interview, and Art Spiegelman looked through all my stuff and said, “This is pretty good.”

SULLIVAN: Did you like Raw when you saw it?

BURNS: Yeah. My initial reaction was that I really liked the size. I liked looking at comics that weren’t necessarily narrative, but that you could just enjoy looking at, like ink on paper, and I liked the large format. I didn’t like everything that was in there, but I liked what it was.

SULLIVAN: After you had the interview and he was encouraging, how did it proceed from there?

BURNS: I went ahead and made a piece specifically for the magazine, more non-narrative stuff. And one of the strips I was sending to this place in California was the first Dog Boy strip. I was about to send it out, and Art said, “I want this.” I said, “OK, you’ve got it.”

SULLIVAN: What kind of direction or encouragement did you get from Art?

BURNS: It was from both Art and Francoise Mouly. In those days Francoise was much more involved directly with the editing. It was just having someone who could critique your work well. Someone whose opinion I would trust. Not big editorial comments: “I don’t like this guy’s forehead” or “I don’t like the way this hand is drawn,” but more how the stories were structured. That was very beneficial for me, that very constructive criticism.

The best kind of criticism is stuff that you know subconsciously already, and then someone that you trust reconfirms your worst fears. Occasionally I’ll draw something and I’ll show it to my wife or somebody, and say, “This is OK, isn’t it?” “Nah, it’s not really OK.” “Aw shit.” I already knew it wasn’t working, but I had to have that confirmed by someone else.

SULLIVAN: Did you go into the Raw office and meet the other artists?

BURNS: At that point, it was just Art and Francoise’s living area — one sprawling room with a few dividers, a big cavelike structure. Somebody was always there working, it seemed like, or somebody was coming over. When I was going to go up to New York, maybe Gary Panter would be in town, and I’d meet him, and Mark Beyer, whoever was around. It seemed like there was always a flow of people, tempers flaring, on edge. There was always this flurry of activity.

SULLIVAN: Did you get involved in projects, like the tearing of the covers?

BURNS: Not very much. I was involved with the die-cut cover [#4], trying to figure out how to do it. No, I never bagged any bubble gum. I was not a New Yorker and wasn’t there on call.

raw_fourSULLIVAN: What other markets were you breaking into at the same time? You did get into Heavy Metal. When did that take place?

BURNS: Around 1982 or ’83. It didn’t pay great, but it paid, so that was nice. The El Borbah strips were serialized in there, and at that point I was starting to take the strips that appeared in Raw and sell them in European markets. That was where my other income was coming from. But it was a trickle, it was very, very gradual. I was trying to get a strip in The Village Voice, and I had a little one-panel strip that appeared in the The Rocket [a Seattle-based rock tabloid] for awhile. A couple of them got reprinted in that “Raw Gagz” [#8]. They were dumb one-shot gag cartoons. I wasn’t very comfortable with that, to tell the truth. I had made up a bunch of samples, and I was supposed to get this space on the back of The Village Voice, because supposedly whoever was doing that was going to be booted out or something. There was something weird there. I was talking to the editor about it, and he was encouraging, but I was never very happy with what I had come up with.

At that point Art Spiegelman was working for Playboy, and that was really big bucks. I remember trying to create a one-page strip for Playboy. It was kind of a romance throwback. I just never could get it. Art was trying to help me: “You’ve just gotta think about what Hugh would like.” And I never could figure out what Hugh would like. My stuff was still much too weird for them. I had a strip called “I Married a Maniac,” about some woman who’s chained to the bedpost, and she’s washing dishes. Their response was, “Uh, Charles, you’re not quite getting it. The guys who’re reading Playboy don’t want to think of themselves as sexist pigs. They’re not going to think that’s too funny.”

SULLIVAN: You were critiquing the Playboy ideal.

BURNS: Yeah. Then I was trying to throw in this sexy humor, but I just could not get with it. It was really lame.

SULLIVAN: Lots of big, buxom gals, though?

BURNS: Well … I was too embarrassed. I ended up doing stupid stuff. A woman comes home and her husband’s in a giant bunny outfit, and he says, “Come on, honey, can’t you get in the mood?” Just real stupid.

SULLIVAN: How did Art feel about working for Playboy and trying to meet that Playboy ethic?

BURNS: He was doing it for the money. It was one of the games in town. He was smart enough to figure out how to play by their rules, and did it. I think it was fairly painless for him. But it was pretty painful for me.

SULLIVAN: Were you able to support yourself through the comics work?

BURNS: Like I said, I was struggling. I was taking the subway to work, as a waiter and busboy. And it just eventually got better. I started selling things in Europe, and it picked up slowly.

SULLIVAN: When Raw went to the digest size with Penguin a lot of people had the attitude that it had sold out. How did you feel about that backlash?

BURNS: I don’t know, there are pros and cons of the different formats. I tend to like the big graphic size myself. On the other hand, I also like reading a whole bunch of good stories, which you can’t do in the large format.

SULLIVAN: Did the pay change at all when it went to that size?

BURNS: Raw was never like a paying job. I never thought of it that way. When it was just starting out, Art and Francoise would sell their issues, and when everything was sold out, like a year later, they would get all the profits together and divide them up. But I never thought, “Oh, I’m going to be raking in the bucks now.”

SULLIVAN: How did Heavy Metal pay?

BURNS: I think it was $150 a page or something like that.

SULLIVAN: And did the Europeans pay OK?

BURNS: It depended on the magazine. Generally, they’d try to pay you as little as they can. But if they want your work enough, then you can negotiate.


SULLIVAN: How did you get hooked up with the European markets?

BURNS: A lot of people were in and out of New York, and they were seeing stuff in Raw magazine. The first person I got hooked up with was Josep Maria Berenguer, who started El Víbora in Spain. It was a pretty wild magazine. Lot of Spanish stuff, but they imported a lot of stuff, too. They’ve printed just about everything I’ve ever done. They put out a Spanish book of my work called Misterios de la Carne, “Mysteries of the Flesh.”

Copia-de-Burns-01SULLIVAN: You lived in Rome for awhile. Was it because of the work you were getting out of the European market?

BURNS: Not exactly. My wife teaches painting, and a program over there invited her over. We had visited Italy before, and I had met some of the comic artists there. I was getting stuff published over there as well. So when this opportunity came up, we snagged it, and moved over there for two years, around 1984 or ’85, up until 1986. I’m not sure. I’m bad at dates and names.

I was doing some illustration and some comic art there. Right when I got there I was doing something for a German magazine. I got involved with a bunch of Italian artists and got invited into their comics group, Valvoline. They were a group of young cartoonists who were friends and associates, and they would put together sections in anthology-type comics. They would be given, say, 30 pages per issue, and they would edit that section, it would be the Valvoline section. If someone in the group would not normally have been published by that magazine, because the publisher or editor didn’t like their work, Valvoline would be able to dictate that it was good, and [they wanted it] published. And there were other things that came up; they did art shows, portfolio silkscreen prints, and I’d be involved with those. I don’t know if you’ve seen Mattotti’s fashion illustration stuff, but I was working for the same magazine doing some fashion illustration, believe it or not. It wasn’t totally straight, it was kind of cartoony. It was like what I do, except I guess the actual clothing was a little bit straighter. I’d have women on Mars and aliens and robots and flowers — you name it. They would send me photographs and slides of models modeling the clothes, and I’d work with those.

SULLIVAN: How many artists were in the Valvoline group?

BURNS: Probably six or seven. Mattotti was involved, and Massimo Mattioli, who did Squeak the Mouse. There was Igort — Catalan’s reprinted one of his books — Daniel Broli, Giorgio Carpenteri.

SULLIVAN: Did they see themselves as having shared ideals or goals, or artistic similarities?

BURNS: They had artistic similarities. They were fairly diverse, but they had wider interests than the typical comic creep attitude of, “I like comics; I know what I like.” They were interested in literature and film and music and art. A lot of them were interested in Italian futurist artwork.

SULLIVAN: Did they have any political bent at all?

BURNS: It was mainly artistic. It’s hard … you’re talking about a severe language barrier, as far as I’m concerned. I never really figured out Italian. I could sit there and grunt and groan enough and make myself understood, but I wasn’t conversational.

SULLIVAN: How would you compare Valvoline with, say, the Raw group?

BURNS: I don’t think there was that same kind of identity at Raw. Valvoline was a much more cohesive group; they were friends, they had been together quite awhile, and they all came up around the same time. They shared interests and were discovering working with different materials, like Mattotti was starting to work with oil pastels. I think the artists in Raw magazine have an identity, but it’s not the kind where you’re all sitting in a room and deciding something simultaneously. It’s like being unified by being in the same magazine.

SULLIVAN: This group sounds pretty different from anything we have here.

BURNS: I think it might be similar to the early underground cartoonists. There was a sense of community in San Francisco, people discovering each other, discovering they had similar interests, and trying something new.

SULLIVAN: Were there a lot of Italian groups like Valvoline?

BURNS: It sounds like a comics club. [Laughter.] No, not really, it was a novelty. They were unique in the sense that they were creating their own niche. Or trying to. Since then, they’ve kind of broken off and gone their separate ways. I’m sure they’re still friends to varying degrees, but back then they were all centered in Bologna and within a short walk of each other’s houses. By the time I was there, it was already starting to be not quite as intense as previously.

SULLIVAN: Was there a leader or guiding force behind it?

BURNS: Mattotti would probably be the person, because he was the most serious, in the sense that he worked like a dog. He was very focused and very, very serious, and you can really see that: out of all those people, he’s the one that’s most visible now. Well, Mattioli was doing Squeak the Mouse, but I haven’t seen anything by him for years now.

SULLIVAN: Did you enjoy that sense of community?

BURNS: It was really nice for me, because I wasn’t an American hanging around with American friends. It was like being included and immersed in Italian culture, so it was really fun that way. And they organized a Valvoline show in Switzerland, and we all took the train up. Painting a whole room, videotaping everything, some of them were playing in a group, so the music was going on … it was fun.

SULLIVAN: What type of publications did Valvoline work for?

BURNS: I think there were a few miscellaneous early publications that I can’t remember. The first one I recall was a magazine called Alter Alter. When I got to Italy I did one of their Valvoline sections. And later on we did a few things for Frigidaire magazine. That was the magazine that Liberatore, the guy who did Ranxerox, came out of. That was its claim to fame. It was a very hardcore, left-wing comic magazine based in Rome — real notorious, always getting busted. It was hell to get paid from them, but anyway … Right after I left, Valvoline essentially created their own magazine called Dolce Vita. That lasted for maybe two years. I had a bunch of stuff published in there. It was an oversized magazine like Interview. It wasn’t just comics, it was popular media, music, film, whatever. And then most recently, there’s some other magazine, I can’t even remember the name of it … but I haven’t heard from them recently, so it’s probably gone down the toilet, too.

SULLIVAN: Was there a different sense about comics there, or about Valvoline’s position as comic artists?

BURNS: It’s hard to say, because Valvoline’s image was “young comic artists with an attitude.” They weren’t the big fan artists. There were people that everyone loved, like Liberatore. He was really admired, but these guys were too experimental and too wacked out to be that popular. It’s somewhat similar to the way it is over here.


SULLIVAN: When did you start your newspaper strip?

BURNS: It was after I came back from Rome … ’87, maybe? I gave a lecture in Baltimore at a show of Raw artists. While I was there a couple of editor/publishers said to me, “Hey, do a weekly comic strip.” One was from a Baltimore paper, and he was going to move to New York City. The other had three papers and was based in Denver. They were very enthusiastic and it was something I hadn’t considered before, because of what a weekly strip is. I like doing stories that are longer and have more complex narratives, instead of a gag a week.

Eventually, I decided that I would just try it. I liked the idea of having something that was very accessible, that you could pick up on for free, that anyone could look at if they wanted to. The down thought is that I don’t know how many people keep up with my narrative. Hopefully, they can at least have some fun looking at it each week, and get some sense of the narrative, and look at the funny pictures.

SULLIVAN: Where was the strip first published?

BURNS: It started out in five or six papers in New York, the Bay area, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, maybe Denver and Phoenix. I can’t remember.

SULLIVAN: Did having to do an installment every week appeal to you, or was that a negative thing?

BURNS: Both. Up until very recently, I’ve liked the idea that no matter what, I’ve got to do x amount of installments every single month. That kind of deadline is helpful: it pushes you to produce regularly. But the down side is that if you want to take time off and reevaluate ideas and do something more experimental, that’s more difficult.

SULLIVAN: Is the format of the strip constricting?

BURNS: To a certain extent it is. But it’s also something I’ve chosen. I like having those restrictions sometimes. But there will be work in the future where I’ll at least make an attempt to step out and try other things, because I have been working in this grid for quite awhile.

SULLIVAN: The continuity in your strip is seamless; when you read it as a whole, it doesn’t back up and tell the story over again every week.

BURNS: Yeah, there’s no little recap. I don’t know if I’d be able to read it as a weekly strip. I conceived of it as full pages, so when I’m writing it, I’m writing full individual pages. But I’m aware of where it ends each week, too.

Each week in the continuing strip you’ve got two tiers of a strip, but I’m anticipating that they’ll be put into three-tier full pages. I’m writing on two levels: to have it function as a full page and as a weekly strip.

SULLIVAN: Is there a conflict there sometimes? How does that resolve itself?

BURNS: Surprisingly, there’s not really a conflict. Because I write it in a very rigid way. It’s almost like having sentences and paragraphs. Each tier kind of functions as a sentence, and a full page is like a paragraph. In the back of my mind I’m thinking about having them as full pages, but I don’t think it detracts from the weekly strip.

SULLIVAN: Is there a point of sale that you deliver to with an editor who says, “Can you make this clearer?” or anything like that?

BURNS: Nothing like that. It’s all just me. I even lick the stamps. I have a group of papers, and it’s not so large that I can’t take care of it myself. Once every four weeks I send out four strips. It’s in about 16 papers now; something like that. It hasn’t snowballed into this tremendous success, but when it all gets pieced together, it works out pretty well.

SULLIVAN: And the papers pay you individually?

BURNS: Yeah. If you look at it as a page rate, it’s a very good page rate. Some of the papers pay as little as 20 bucks, and others pay $75 an episode. I think they average about 40 bucks an episode.

SULLIVAN: Could you give the rough order of the stories that have run in the strip?

BURNS: First was “Teen Plague,” which ran in Raw [Vol. 2, #1], and then there was a Dog Boy story, and after that there was a very long story with a character called Bliss Blister. After that was “A Marriage Made in Hell,” which, in a different version, ran in Raw #6. That segued into the current Big Baby story. He goes to camp and meets a dead boy, a ghost boy.

burns_eSULLIVAN: How far in advance do you plot one of your stories?

BURNS: I’ll do an outline, so I know basically a beginning, middle and end, and I’ll have notes on that. I know what is going to happen, but I don’t know how it’s going to happen in some cases. So I’ll do a script for a month at a time, and I’ll keep revising notes and building on the story.

SULLIVAN: There is a dramatic tension in the Bliss Blister series; about two-thirds through the story, you switch to a different point of view and Blister sort of gets lost. Is that something you had planned to happen all along?

BURNS: Yeah, I was aware of that. I wanted to have a character that you sympathized with, and he suddenly turns into a nothing, a non-entity, a pawn in this larger story. As I was working, I decided I wanted to have a structure that was larger than just a personal voice.

SULLIVAN: Was that in part because of what was actually happening in the story — the fact that his plans were getting lost in all these other machinations?

BURNS: Yeah, exactly. He’s lost in everybody’s plans, so his voice gets lost, his brain gets lost. His hallucinations take over.

SULLIVAN: You said that story had been banned. How did that happen?

BURNS: It was a paper that had picked me up fairly recently in Jacksonville, FL. I got a call one afternoon, and this guy said, “Well, we’ve been getting calls, and we’re getting some pressure about the story.” I think the first two episodes of the Bliss Blister story had run, which is like the tip of the iceberg. They had some members of the religious community down there, saying, “Look, we can’t have this story. God does not have one eye.” Basically, the guy told me, “Look, I kind of respect what you’re doing, kind of … ” I could tell he was a little worried. “I mean, you don’t actually think that’s God, right? Right?” He was a little concerned about exactly what the story was, too. He was saying, “I don’t want to have a boycott. The religious community is going to drive us crazy by boycotting advertisers. What’s going to happen in the story?” And I said, “It only gets worse,” which is the case. So he skipped to the next story. He had started with the Dog Boy story and he said, “Yeah, we had some people call in. They didn’t like the idea of Dog Boy sniffing women’s butts. That’s OK, we can live with that, but when you start with the religious community, we can’t deal with that.” Sniffin’ butts is OK; God with one big eyeball is not OK.

burns_fSULLIVAN: And blisters shaped like Jesus on people’s chests.

BURNS: Exactly. Even after we had talked about the fact that he was going to drop it, he was asking, “Well, what happens, anyway?” “Uh, I can’t tell you. You dropped the story. I’m not going to tell you; it’s too difficult to explain.”

SULLIVAN: What kind of paper was this?

BURNS: All these papers are like free weeklies. They rely on advertising, primarily, for their bucks. And they usually have a couple of comic strips just for entertainment.

SULLIVAN: Were you mad about this? Did you discuss alternatives, like not running the strip in his paper anymore?

BURNS: To tell the truth, I don’t think that a strip I’m going to do is going to have much impact in that kind of paper … in that kind of community, anyway. The idea of my boycotting them … they could care less. If I said, “Oh, well, fuck you,” I know what his answer would be: “Thanks but no thanks.” He’s not going to stand up to the community. They’re a fairly small paper, and it’s just grief. They don’t need grief. They’ve got enough grief trying to put their paper out every week. It was a Baptist minister that had called up and was saying, “Get rid of that strip now.”

I think there was one other paper that got a letter to the editor about the Bliss Blister story. It wasn’t negative; it actually was kind of funny. Someone wrote in and said, “A very similar story to Bliss Blister appears in the Bible,” and described that particular story. So that was nice; he was saying, “this stuff exists in another realm, too.” I imagined there would be a stronger response to the story. I was surprised that there weren’t more letters to the editor, or people getting up in arms. In a way it was flattering that someone got upset enough to campaign against the editor and say, “We’re going to boycott your advertisers.”

SULLIVAN: I guess that’s a disadvantage of being in those free papers. You don’t have the rationale of “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.”

BURNS: That was one of the things I really liked about being in these papers. Anyone could pick it up. You don’t have this comic community, this comic book store crowd. Not that I have any problem with that, it’s just that these papers get out to casual observers, people who just pick up something and see your work for the first time. People who would never go into a comic book store. I remember walking in New York City and seeing my comic strip rolling in the gutter. It’s not the kind of precious commodity that you’re faced with in a comics shop — not a collectible or a nice book. It’s a throwaway.

SULLIVAN: I was a bit amazed when I started seeing your strip in the L.A. Weekly, because of the sharp distinction between comic book and comic strip artists. In a sense, you ‘re breaking through that. Along with some other people.

BURNS: I tried to do that. When I think about weekly or daily strips, there are very few that I like. I mean, very, very few. I can’t think of any that are in a regular daily newspaper that I like. When I get a Sunday paper I don’t even look at the comics. They’re just too pathetic.

SULLIVAN: Why do you think that is?

BURNS: It hasn’t always been the case. I love old comic strips. I’m sure it has to do with the restrictions … there are so many restrictions. You’ve got to read a comic strip in three seconds. The exception would be something like Zippy. Bill Griffith is really getting back to what a daily strip should be. It’s amazing that an underground cartoonist is pulling something like that off. I have a lot of admiration for that. And there are a handful of very good cartoonists that appear in weekly newspapers. I like what Lynda Barry’s doing. I like Heather McAdams.

SULLIVAN: Do you get Michael Dougan’s strip out there?

BURNS: Yeah, he’s good. Sometimes he’s blasé, but when he’s good, he’s good.

SULLIVAN: How about Matt Groening? Do you read Life in Hell?

BURNS: I’ll look at it. You know, there’s nothing wrong with Life in Hell.

SULLIVAN: I think they’ll put that quote on the front of the next compilation.

BURNS: Ahhh. Put my foot in my mouth. No, it’s like a type of comic or humor that I’m not that attracted to. There are books that he’s put out and parts of his comic strip that I liked a lot. He did something that was like a grade-school diary. That was really good.

SULLIVAN: With your Dog Boy story, some of the panels are different between the newspaper version and the first version that appeared in Raw #7. Why did you change it?

BURNS: I wanted to expand on the story. At first, I always looked at Dog Boy as a one-liner. “OK, he’s got a dog’s heart, he acts like a dog and sniffs girls’ butts.” You could have an endless amount of dog jokes: burying a bone, chasing cars, sniffing, whatever. I was reluctant to expand on him as a character. I always liked him, and I found a way to flesh him out, even though he still remains fairly two-dimensional.

burns_gSULLIVAN: Have you seen Steve Lafler’s Dogboy?

BURNS: I haven’t read it. I know what you’re talking about, though.

SULLIVAN: Have you guys ever had a conversation along the lines of, “There’s only room for one Dog Boy in this town?”

BURNS: No. I just know that mine was printed before his. And there are other Dog Boys that precede me. Justin Green had a Dog Boy. And maybe there’s another one. too.


SULLIVAN: A lot of your stories are related to the horror genre, but they’re not really horror stories. How do you make the distinction? How do you see your work as different from, say, Berni Wrightson’s?

BURNS: I don’t know. Maybe it’s a different intention, or not looking at the classic skeletal structure of what horror stories are supposed to be. I don’t want to do my version of an EC story, even though I’ve come close at times. I don’t have that admiration for trying to recreate some traditional story. Whatever horror imagery comes out in some way relates to my own personal vision of horror. I don’t know how to explain it.

SULLIVAN: You’ve done a lot of stories about transformations and invasions, like “Ill Bred,” “Contagious” and “Teen Plague.” What keeps drawing you back to this theme? What are you trying to express through that?

BURNS: I get asked this question all the time … I guess it’s this fascination I have with the separation of the mind and the body. And how the body can manifest a psychological state … The way Chester Gould would draw grotesque villains to show that they’re grotesque, I do stories like “Teen Plague,” where a devil rash starts coming out of a girl’s groin. There’s this very literal manifestation of this psychological state. Now, that’s clear, isn’t it? [Laughter.]

SULLIVAN: A lot of your work is very symbolic: The characters who are getting changed are often teenagers, they’re going through puberty, and they’re trying to make out, usually with disastrous results.

BURNS: Yeah, it’s like taking that kind of symbolism and twirling it in your face. For example, in “The Voice of Walking Flesh,” [Raw #4], this guy’s got a little thing that he attaches to his neck that’s literally like a little monkey on his back, and it grows as his addiction grows. It literally translates to “monkey on your back,” a physical manifestation of dependence and addiction. And in the same story, getting back to what I said before about severed heads, this guy’s wife has her head severed — I got the idea from a bad horror movie …

burns_walkingfleshSULLIVAN: Which one?

BURNS: The Brain That Wouldn’t Die [1963]. It’s very clear when you see it that it’s stolen right out of there. There’s one part that I lifted from the movie, where the husband revives his wife’s head, and he goes out shopping for a body. That just blew me away when I saw the movie. It’s perfect, he’s looking for some big sexed-up babe … even though it’s this dumb science fiction movie, a lot of guys do that. So that’s a story about how men can objectify the opposite sex.

SULLIVAN: A lot of the characters in your stories seem to objectify themselves as well. In the El Borbah stories, people want to turn themselves into robots, or want to graft baby bodies onto their middle-aged heads.

BURNS: Yeah. Somebody doesn’t want to grow old, someone who has enough money to find out how to keep on being young forever. It’s just taking that to the extreme, where he’s actually turned into a baby again. But I don’t know if I can explain it all …

SULLIVAN: There does seem to be a strong theme of characters who are repelled by their own bodies, by aging, by all the sort of natural processes …

BURNS: Right.

SULLIVAN: … And by sex, of course.

BURNS: Yeah, it gets all lumped in there somehow.

SULLIVAN: It’s unclear whether you’re suggesting that these characters are wrong for being afraid of these natural processes as grotesque and frightening.

BURNS: I do that on purpose. I don’t like spelling something out. I like to present a series of images or ideas, and then piece them together, but not come up with an answer. Just to think about them.

SULLIVAN: The horror genre tries to strike a very direct emotional involvement with the reader — putting them in the position of somebody who is going to have something horrible done to them. You ‘re actually creating a greater distance between the reader and the story.

BURNS: Yeah, that’s fine. It’s just what I find effective. I know that I’m capable of throwing monkey blood on my audience. I’m capable of doing the kind of horror, like, here’s a severed jugular. But it’s never been my interest. I like the quiet, dry, psychological horror.

SULLIVAN: In a lot of your stories, men and women take on each other’s sexual attributes. There’s “III Bred,’’ and in “Teen Plague” the women have phallic tongues and inject men, who give birth to eyeballs that look like breasts. Are you working through something here?

BURNS: It’s not working through something so much. It’s being fascinated by those roles. Like, looking at an old movie and seeing how a woman is portrayed or how a man is portrayed, how plastic they are. There’s always something behind it; there’s a truth behind these roles. I’m examining all those things, and pushing them all together into extreme situations. “Marriage Made in Hell” is playing with all those stereotypes.

SULLIVAN: Are you being critical of those stereotypes?

BURNS: No; I’m just fascinated by them, I guess. In real life, I don’t want women to be bimbos, or men to be big lummoxes. Of course, it’s critical, in a certain sense, of roles and how women are portrayed through advertising, how men are supposed to be men, things like that.

SULLIVAN: At the same time you seem to be very critical about change.

BURNS: Yeah, no one gets off the hook.

SULLIVAN: In the El Borbah stories we’ve mentioned, you seem to be critical about ways in society in which people try to enact some radical change, either at a minute level, or at the level of trying to change society itself.

BURNS: OK. For example, in the El Borbah story where kids are turning themselves into robots, for me it’s fairly clear-cut that at a certain age all you want to do is conform. This is a situation, not of people wanting radical change, but wanting to conform, wanting to be with this group that has no emotions, that’s just zombie-like. That theme has been in a lot of my stories: the acceptance of some greater bland culture scheme, the need to accept what’s at the end of the spoon.

burns_jSULLIVAN: What about the story where men are exchanging their bodies for babies’ bodies? They’re not conforming, they’re trying some sort of radical self improvement.

BURNS: No, it’s just greed. They’re able to do that because they’re rich businessmen. They’re taking scientific technology and using it for their own end. The improvement doesn’t strike me … all they want to do is continue with what they’ve got.

SULLIVAN: So it’s more a form of stasis rather than actually changing.

BURNS: In this particular case, yeah. It’s like buying youth. “Well … at least he has your hat.” The “Teen Plague” stories are more to do with sexual anxiety. Obviously, the direct AIDS metaphor is there — there have always been sexual diseases floating around, but now there’s a killer. I was just thinking about sex being this dangerous and frightening thing rather than what it’s supposed to be, which is just the opposite. I think when you’re an adolescent, that’s what’s affecting you the most, that kind of anxiety about who you are and what sex is. So that’s the reason it’s got that teen focus. I also like teenage movies, teens in general. They’re trying to find an identity, and being faced with the ultimate nightmare. The ultimate nightmare is that you’re at an assembly and someone says, “We’re checking everybody here for disease,” and you’re like, “Oh, shit. I’m going to infect my entire school.”

SULLIVAN: In the traditional stories you’re playing on, there’s a good pole and a bad pole. The good pole is being normal, not smoking, getting good grades. And the bad pole is being the evil teenager, who takes drugs or has sex or does whatever. In your stories, there are two bad poles. There’s the pole where you disintegrate into some skeletal creature, and there’s the pole where you’re this plastic, conforming, regular teenager.

BURNS: Right. That’s the anxiety I always had in that part of my life. I never wanted to fit in to that plastic conformity; I was always totally repelled. On the other hand, I felt like, “What’s wrong with me? I guess I should like to go to pep rallies. I should like to do all this other stuff that is just garbage.” You realize that you’re an alien in that kind of environment, and you question yourself because you don’t fit in. I’m fascinated by sexual roles, taking those roles and flipping them, examining what the consequences are.

burns_kSULLIVAN: They seem to be pretty horrific, usually.

BURNS: Yeah, I guess that’s so. I should lie down on my psychiatrist’s couch down here.

SULLIVAN: In “Ill Bred” there was less distance, less irony. There was a much greater horror, a more repulsive idea of what happens to this man in the story, but at the same time it was strangely attractive. It’s sort of a positive domination fantasy.

BURNS: I see what you’re saying. Somehow it gets resolved in the end, even though it is a horrific result. The problems are resolved in a very weird way.

Sometimes when I’m working through a story, I’m analyzing it and figuring out what effect things are going to have; occasionally I rely on a gut reaction to things. I don’t analyze why I’m coming back to this theme again and again. I mean, if I were Robert Crumb, I’d be coming back to big butts.

It’s difficult for me to analyze why I’m fascinated with these things. Do I want to be tied up and have eggs injected into me? Not really. I don’t think that’s the case at all. In one way [“Ill Bred” is] more personal because it’s told in a first-person narrative. So you’re a little bit closer to the character.

SULLIVAN: And he is more sympathetic as a character than some of your others. There’s always a distance between us and, say, Big Baby or Dog Boy.

BURNS: They don’t have a character, there’s no voice. They’re explaining the narrative or pushing the narrative forward. They don’t have this internal voice.

SULLIVAN: Aside from El Borbah, your protagonists always seem a little wimpy. When you were growing up, did you ever feel like you weren’t “one of the guys”?

BURNS: More in terms of what was in the media, not so much in my everyday life. I was a pretty average guy with friends who were pretty average.

SULLIVAN: But the media were presenting the “uber-males’’?

BURNS: Oh, yeah. I remember going to a James Bond movie and thinking, “Oh, God, I wish I could be more like that. He’s so cool. I mean, like my life is totally fucked.” It’s funny now, but I was dead serious. For one evening. The next day I was normal again.

SULLIVAN: Was there a point in your life when you became more directly critical, when you could say, “Yeah, I know what they were trying to push off on us … ?”

BURNS: I was always critical to a certain point. If you were reading Mad magazine, you were always aware of that edge: “Don’t take things too seriously.”

SULLIVAN: There are some similarities between your work and what David Cronenberg has done in his films. The critic Robin Wood has assaulted Cronenberg as a reactionary, saying he’s making horror films that portray sex and any kind of sexual deviation as absolutely negative, that this is homophobic and misogynist. What if somebody said that about your work?

BURNS: People already have. I’ve had people say, “You treat women like cardboard dolls.” I treat everybody like cardboard dolls. I can’t take it too seriously. I can only take it on a personal level; I can’t say, “I’m making a comment on sexuality.” I mean, I’m making comments about all sorts of stuff, but on this direct, personal gut level. I’m not trying to pass this big judgment that “Sex is evil.” I’m just having fun with those things, those ideas, those things that bump up against each other. Why am I fascinated with this? I’m not sure. I still don’t have the dead teenagers … the teenagers that come back from the dead … out of my system.

SULLIVAN: Do you think of alienation as a positive force? Do you think it propels people toward more creative endeavors?

BURNS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. It’s the nature of the work I do — there’s very little interaction. I sit in a studio and work for eight hours a day. I need to spend that amount of time alone, work all that stuff through. That’s just the nature of comics. I guess with the Marvel style, you’ve got a writer, inker, all that stuff. I don’t know if they all sit in the same room … I kind of envision everyone in an assembly line, where everything’s passed down to the next person.

SULLIVAN: Now they fax it to each other.

Do you consider yourself an ironic artist? Do you intentionally create irony or distance between the story and the reader, the story and the subject matter?

BURNS: I purposefully inject humor into stories so they don’t take themselves too seriously. Occasionally, I’ll find myself taking myself really seriously, and I’ll try to inject some humor into the material.

SULLIVAN: What’s wrong with getting serious?

BURNS: There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not the way I feel comfortable writing. It bothers me when I reach a certain point, it’s like going over an edge that doesn’t feel right. It’s not a fear of revealing myself, it’s just being too self-serious. I just need something to leaven that seriousness.

SULLIVAN: Do you think that affects the seriousness with which people perceive your work?

BURNS: I don’t know how people perceive my work. I’m sitting in a room and writing a story primarily for myself. I don’t know how people react to it.

SULLIVAN: You’ve taken as one of your artistic models these old comics which we now see as being very campy and stilted. The work is clearly not a reflection of something real. There’s a lot of that in your work. It’s almost like reading something you read naively as a child, and finding something grotesque in it as an adult, seeing what it was really about.

BURNS: Yeah, it’s also the other way around. There are things that I looked at when I was a kid that were actually very wild and amusing and entertaining, but I took them too seriously. I would build a whole story around a very simple image. It was meant to be fairly harmless, and would sit there and worry about it, trying to build this story.

I remember seeing anthologies of comics, and you’d see bits and pieces of all these different strips — a very small segment of a large body of work. Some fairly dull, pedestrian strip looked like it had endless possibilities by looking at one little tiny segment. What I was coming up with was a lot more interesting than the thing was in reality.

SULLIVAN: There’s a good example of that in Curse of the Molemen. We never learn what these creatures are that have this person apparently imprisoned in these tunnels underneath this suburban area. We just get this one image, and then bing, it’s all gone. The ending of that story is very odd. What were you trying to do there?

BURNS: It was like Big Baby had a certain larger understanding of the adult world. When you first see the men that are working on this pool, they’re playing around with him, going along with his fantasy about monsters under the ground. In the end, he’s accusing the adult world. He’s learning that it’s not what it seems.

SULLIVAN: It’s really chilling when Big Baby says, “You shouldn’t have lied.’’ The idea that this little unformed character has all the forbidden knowledge of the adult world …

BURNS: Yeah, in that one segment he’s starting to see the underbelly of adult reality, and he doesn’t like what he sees.

burns_lSULLIVAN: There’s also a sense that he can’t go back.

BURNS: Sure. I’m working on a Big Baby story right now that’s very similar, but pushing it even more. He sees too many things and slowly starts to close himself off to people around him.

SULLIVAN: That’s the scary thing about Big Baby — he seems incapable of normal psychological growth. So any sort of information he picks up gets added to some distortion.

BURNS: That’s how I use him as a character. It seems to be the theme that I keep going back to. He functions as a naive who learns about the adult world, the bad side.


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The Great Comic Book Heroes Intro & Afterword by Jules Feiffer Fri, 22 Aug 2014 12:00:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From The Comics Journal #200 (December 1997)

In this expanded intro and afterword to Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes, he explains how the art and business of comic books has evolved since its origin.

Published by Bonanza Books 1965

Published by Bonanza Books 1965

In 1965, Bonanza Books released The Great Comic Book Heroes, a 192-page book of reprinted 1940s comic book stories “compiled, introduced and annotated by Jules Feiffer.” For many who purchased the book or studied a library copy, The Great Comic Book Heroes is fondly remembered for providing a first exposure to a battery of artists and cartoonists from Joe Shuster to Bob Kane to Will Eisner. But for others, the value of the book was not solely in its reprints, but in Feiffer’s introductory essay and concluding remarks. In a long, personal and clear-headed reminiscence, Feiffer engaged comic book art in a serious and enlightening way: dissecting the psychological underpinnings of popular superheroes, extolling the virtues of various craftsmen, and all the time holding the art form itself to a high standard it didn’t come close to meeting.

Out-of-print for several years, the complete text from this seminal essay is proudly presented here in a new format.


1. Comic books, World War II, the Depression, and I all got going at roughly the same time. I was eight. Detective Comics was on the stands, Hitler was in Spain, and the middle class (by whose employment record we gauge depressions) was, after short gains, again out of work. I mention these items in tandem, not only to give color to the period, but as a sly historic survey to those in our own time who, of the items cited, only know of comic books. Eight was a bad age for me. Only a year earlier I had won a gold medal in the John Wanamaker Art Contest for a crayon drawing on oak tag paper of Tom Mix jailing an outlaw. So at seven I was a winner — and didn’t know how to handle it. Not that triumph isn’t at any age hard to handle, but the younger you are the more of a shock it is to learn that it simply doesn’t change anything. Grown-ups still wielded all the power, still could not be talked back to, still were always right however many times they contradicted themselves. By eight I had become a politician of the grown-up, indexing his mysterious ways and hiding underground my lust for getting even until I was old enough, big enough, and important enough to make a bid for it. That bid was to come by way of a career — (I knew I’d never grow big enough to beat up everybody; my hope was to, somehow, get to own everything and fire everybody). The career I chose, the only one that seemed to fit the skills I was then sure of— a mild reading ability mixed with a mild drawing ability — was comics.

So I came to the field with more serious intent than my opiate-minded contemporaries. While they, in those pre-super days, were eating up Cosmo, Phantom of Disguise, Speed Saunders; and Bart Regan, Spy, I was counting how many frames there were to a page, how many pages there were to a story — learning how to form, for my own use, phrases like: @X#?/; marking for future references which comic book hero was swiped from which radio hero: Buck Marshall from Tom Mix; the Crimson Avenger from the Green Hornet . . .

There were, at the time, striking similarities between radio and comic books. The heroes were the same (often with the same names: Don Winslow, Mandrake, Tom Mix); the villains were the same: Oriental spies, primordial monsters, cattle rustlers — but the experience was different. As an apprentice pro I found comic books the more tangible outlet for fantasy. One could put something down on paper — hard-line panels and balloons, done the way the big boys did it. Far more satisfying than the radio serial game: that of making up programs at night in bed, getting the voices right, the footsteps and the door slams right, the rumbling organ background right — and doing it all in soft enough undertones so as to escape being caught by that grown-up reading Lanny Budd in the next room who at any moment might give his spirit-shattering cry: “For the last time stop talking to yourself and go to sleep!” Radio was too damn public.

My interest in comics began on the most sophisticated of levels, the daily newspaper strip, and thereafter proceeded downhill. My father used to come home after work, when there was work, with two papers: the New York Times (a total loss) and the World-Telegram. The Telegram had Joe Jinks (later called Dynamite Dunn), Our Boarding House, Out Our Way, Little Mary Mixup, Alley Oop — and my favorite at the time, Wash Tubbs, whose soldier of fortune hero, Captain Easy, set a standard whose high point in one field was Pat Ryan and, in another, any role Clark Gable ever played.

For a while the Telegram ran an anemic four-page color supplement that came out on Saturdays — an embarrassing day for color supplements. They so obviously belonged to Sunday. So except for the loss of Captain Easy, I felt no real grief when my father abandoned the Telegram to follow his hero, Heywood Broun, to the New York Evening Post. The Post had Dixie Dugan, The Bungle Family, Dinky Dinkerton, Secret Agent 67/8, Nancy (then called Fritzi-Ritz), and that masterpiece of sentimental naturalism, Abbie an’ Slats. I studied that strip — its Sturges-like characters, its Saroyanesque plots, its uniquely cadenced dialogue. No strip other than Will Eisner’s Spirit rivaled it in structure. No strip, except Caniff s Terry, rivaled it in atmosphere.

Abbie an’ Slats (1937) written by Al Capp, art by Raeburn Van Buren

Abbie an’ Slats (1937) written by Al Capp, art by Raeburn Van Buren

There were, of course, good strips, very good ones in those papers that my father did not let into the house. The Hearst papers. The Daily News. Cartoons from the outlawed press were not to be seen on weekdays, but on Sundays one casually dropped in on Hearst-oriented homes (never very clean, as I remember) and read Puck, The Comic Weekly, skipping quickly over Bringing Up Father to pounce succulently on page two: Jungle Jim and Flash Gordon. Too beautiful to be believed. When Prince Valiant began a few years later, I burned with the temptation of the damned: I begged my father to sell out to Hearst. He never did. My Hearst friends and I drifted apart. My cause lost its urgency; my attention switched to Terry and the Pirates — in the Daily News — more hated in my house than even Hearst. Why, I must have wondered in kind, was it my lot to be a Capulet when the best strips were Montagues?

It should have been a relief, then, when the first regularly scheduled comic book came out. It was called Famous Funnies and, in 64 pages of color, minutely reprinted many of my favorites in the enemy camp. Instead, my reaction was that of a movie purist when first confronted with sound: this was not the way it was done. Greatness in order to remain great must stay true to its form. This new form, so jumbled together, so erratically edited and badly colored, was demeaning to that art — basic black and white and four panels across — that I was determined to make my life’s work. I read them, yes I read them: Famous Funnies first, then Popular Comics, then King— but always with a sense of being cheated. I was not getting top performance for my dime.

Not until March 1937, when the first issue of Detective Comics came out. Original material had previously been used in comic books, but almost all of it was in the shape and style of then-existing newspaper strips.*1 Detective Comics was the first of the originals to be devoted to a single theme — crime fighting. And it looked different. Crime was fought in larger panels, fewer to a page. Most stories were complete in that issue (no more of the accursed “to be continued…”). And a lot less shilly-shallying before getting down to the action. A strange new world: unfamiliar heroes, unfamiliar drawing styles (if style is the word) — and written (if written is the word) in language not very different from that of a primer.

Detective Comics #1 (March 1937) cover penciled and inked by Vincent Sullivan

Detective Comics #1 (March 1937) cover penciled and inked by Vincent Sullivan

In every large city there are G-Men. In every large seaport there are G-Men known as Harbor Police. “Speed” Cyril Saunders is a special operative in a unit of the river patrol.
So began story one, issue one of Detective Comics. The typical comic book circa 1937-38 measured about seven and a quarter inches by ten and a quarter inches, averaged 64 pages in length, was glisteningly processed in four colors on the cover and flatly and indifferently colored on the inside, if colored at all. (For in the early days some stories were still in black and white; others in tones of sickly red on one page, sickly blue on another, so that it was quite possible for a character to have a white face and blue clothing for the first two pages of a story and a pink face and red clothing for the rest.) They didn’t have the class of the daily strips but, to me, this enhanced their value. The daily strips, by their sleek professionalism, held an aloof quality which comic books, being not quite professional, easily avoided. They were closer to home, more comfortable to live with, less like grown-ups.

The heroes were mostly detectives of one kind or another; or soldiers of fortune; here and there, even a magician. Whatever they were, they were tall, but not too tall — space limitations, you see; they were dark (blond heroes were an exception, possibly because most movie heroes were dark, possibly because it was a chance for the artist to stick in a blob of black and call it hair. The blond heroes, in every case, were curly-haired. The dark heroes, when full color came in, turned blue); they were handsome — well, symbolically handsome. The world of comics was a form of visual shorthand, so that the average hero need not have been handsome in fact, so long as his face was held to the required arrangement of lines that readers had been taught to be the accepted sign of handsome: sharp, slanting eyebrows, thick at the ends, thinning out toward the nose, of which in three-quarter view there was hardly any — just a small V placed slightly above the mouth, casting the faintest knick of a shadow. One never saw a nose full view. There was never a full view. They were too hard to draw. Eyes were usually ball-less, two thin slits. Mouths were always thick, quick single lines — never double. Mouths, for some reason, were rarely shown open. Dialogue, theoretically, was spoken from the nose. Heroes’ faces were square-jawed; in some cases, all-jawed. Often there was a cleft in the chin. Most heroes, whatever magazine they came from, looked like members of one or two families: Pat Ryan’s or Flash Gordon’s. Except for the magicians, all of whom looked like Mandrake. The three mythic archetypes.

That first Detective Comics, aside from its ground-breaking role, is memorable for the debut of Craig Flessel, not then a good illustrator, but within the first half-dozen issues to become one of the best in the business — a master of the suspense cover. And another debut: that of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, then in their pre-Superman days, weighing in with a slam-bang, hell for leather cross between Victor McLaglen and Captain Easy (with a Flash Gordon jaw), appropriately named Slam Bradley, because slamming was what he did most of the time. Always, of course, against bad guys — and always having a wonderful time. It was this action-filled rawness, this world of lusty hoodlumism, of Saturday movie serials seven days a week that made the new comic books, from their first day of publication, the principal reading matter in my life. That, plus the pragmatic insight that here, in a field where they hardly knew how to draw at all, I could make my earliest gains.

I studied styles. There was Tom Hickey, who lettered with disconcerting open W’s; who used an awful lot of dialogue (“printing” was the hated word for it in my neighborhood) to tell a painfully slow-moving story, full of heroes named Ian. Too thin-blooded. Too English.

There was Will Ely, a Caniff gone wrong, whose Pat Ryanish heroes lay flat on the paper, the shadows on their clothing more imposing than they were. The villains were usually bald with a few MacArthurish strands of hair — burly butcher boys smelling of sweat. In a fair fight they could easily take the hero — and often did, the first couple of time. Never in the end. But by that time I no longer cared. If the bad guy won every fight save the last, I had my doubts.

There was Fred Guardineer, whose career was magicians — he drew more than anybody, all of them looking like Mandrake. Top hat, tails, flossy tie, mustache, glassy eyes. Each magician was equipped with an enormous brown servant not named Lothar. Guardineer’s magicians, whatever they were called, wherever they were published, cast their spells by speaking backwards. “SKCOR KAERB NWOD LLAW!” Zatara would cry and rocks, rising from nowhere, would break down that wall. A fine point: could anybody speaking backwards have Zatara’s magic — a villain or instance? The metaphysics shaky, the drawing style stiff, I gave up on Fred Guardineer.

The problem in pre-super days was that, with few exceptions, heroes were not very interesting. And, by any realistic appraisal, certainly no match for the villains who were bigger, stronger, smarter (as who wasn’t?), and even worse, were notorious scene stealers. Who cared about Speed Saunders, Larry Steele, Bruce Nelson, et al, when there were oriental villains around? Tong warriors lurking in shadows, with trident beards, pointy fingernails, and skin the color of ripe lemons. With narrow, missile-like eyes slantingly aimed at the nose; a nose aged and curdled with corrupt wisdom, shriveled in high expectancy of the coming tortures on the next page. How they toyed with those drab oafy heroes: trap set, trap sprung, into the pit, up comes the water, down comes the pendulum, out from the side comes the walls. Through an unconvincing mixture of dumb-luck and general science, the hero escaped, just barely; caught and beat up the villain: that wizened ancient who, in toe-to-toe combat was, of course, no match for the younger man. And readers were supposed to cheer? Hardly! The following month it all happened again. Same hero, different oriental, slight variance in the torture.

Villains, whatever fate befell them in the obligatory last panel, were infinitely better equipped than those silly, hapless heroes. Not only comics, but life taught us that. Those of us raised in ghetto neighborhoods were being asked to believe that crime didn’t pay? Tell that to the butcher! Nice guys finished last; landlords, first. Villains by their simple appointment to the role were miles ahead. It was not to be believed that any ordinary human could combat them. More was required. Someone with a call. When at last appeared, he brought with him the deep satisfaction of all underground truths: our reaction was less “How original!” than “But, of course!”

Leaping over skyscrapers, running faster than an express train, springing great distances and heights, lifting and smashing tremendous weights, possessing an impenetrable skin — these are the amazing attributes which Superman, savior of the helpless and oppressed, avails himself of as he battles the forces of evil and injustice.

Superman, Action Comics, August 1939

2. The advent of the super-hero was a bizarre comeuppance for the American dream. Horatio Alger could no longer make it on his own. He needed “Shazam!” Here was fantasy with a cynically realistic base: once the odds were appraised honestly it was apparent you had to be super to get on in this world.

The particular brilliance of Superman lay not only in the fact that he was the first of the super-heroes,*2 but in the concept of his alter ego. What made Superman different from the legion of imitators to follow was not that when he took off his clothes he could beat up everybody — they all did that. What made Superman extraordinary was his point of origin: Clark Kent.

Remember, Kent was not Superman’s true identity as Bruce Wayne was the Batman’s or (on radio) Lamont Cranston the Shadow’s. Just the opposite. Clark Kent was the fiction. Previous heroes — the Shadow, the Green Hornet, The Lone Ranger — were not only more vulnerable; they were fakes. I don’t mean to criticize; it’s just a statement of fact. The Shadow had to cloud men’s minds to be in business. The Green Hornet had to go through the fetishist fol-de-rol of donning costume, floppy hat, black mask, gas gun, menacing automobile, and insect sound effects before he was even ready to go out in the street. The Lone Ranger needed an accoutrement white horse, an Indian, and an establishing cry of Hi-Yo Silver to separate him from all those other masked men running around the West in days of yesteryear.

But Superman had only to wake up in the morning to be Superman. In his case, Clark Kent was the put-on. The fellow with the eyeglasses and the acne and the walk girls laughed at wasn’t real, didn’t exist, was a sacrificial disguise, an act of discreet martyrdom. Had they but known!

And for what purpose? Did Superman become Clark Kent in order to lead a normal life, have friends, be known as a nice guy, meet girls? Hardly. There’s too much of the hair shirt in the role, too much devotion to the imprimatur of impotence — an insight, perhaps, into the fantasy life of the Man of Steel. Superman as a secret masochist? Field for study there. For if it was otherwise, if the point, the only point, was to lead a “normal life,” why not a more typical identity? How can one be a cowardly star reporter, subject to fainting spells in time of crisis, and not expect to raise serious questions?

Superman #1 (Summer 1939) written by Jerry Siegel, penciled and inked by Joe Shuster

Superman #1 (Summer 1939) written by Jerry Siegel, penciled and inked by Joe Shuster

The truth may be that Kent existed not for the purposes of the story but for the reader. He is Superman’s opinion of the rest of us, a pointed caricature of what we, the noncriminal element, were really like. His fake identity was our real one. That’s why we loved him so. For if that wasn’t really us, if there were no Clark Kents, only lots of glasses and cheap suits which, when removed, revealed all of us in our true identities —what a hell of an improved world it would have been!

In drawing style, both in figure and costume, Superman was a simplified parody of Flash Gordon. But if Alex Raymond was the Dior for Superman, Joe Shuster set the fashion from then on. Everybody else’s super-costumes were copies from his shop. Shuster represented the best of old-style comic book drawing. His work was direct, unprettied — crude and vigorous; as easy to read as a diagram. No creamy lines, no glossy illustrative effects, no touch of that bloodless prefabrication that passes for professionalism these days. Slickness, thank God, was beyond his means. He could not draw well, but he drew single-mindedly — no one could ghost that style. It was the man. When assistants began “improving” the appearance of the strip it promptly went downhill. It looked as though it were being drawn in a bank.

But, oh, those early drawings! Superman running up the sides of dams, leaping over anything that stood in his way (No one drew skyscrapers like Shuster. Impressionistic shafts, Superman poised over them, his leaping leg tucked under his ass, his landing leg tautly pointed earthward), cleaning and jerking two-ton get-away cars and pounding them into the sides of cliffs — and all this done lightly, unportentiously, still with that early Slam Bradley exuberance. What matter that the stories quickly lost interest; that once you’ve made a man super you’ve plotted him out of believable conflicts; that even super-villains, super-mad scientists and, yes, super-orientals were dull and lifeless next to the overwhelming image of that which Clark Kent became when he took off his clothes. So what if the stories were boring, the villains blah? This was the Superman Show — a touring road company backing up a great star. Everything was a stage wait until he came on. Then it was all worthwhile.

Besides, for the alert reader there were other fields of interest. It seems that among Lois Lane, Clark Kent, and Superman there existed a schizoid and chaste menage a trois. Clark Kent loved but felt abashed with Lois Lane; Superman saved Lois Lane when she was in trouble, found her a pest the rest of the time. Since Superman and Clark Kent were the same person this behavior demands explanation. It can’t be that Kent wanted Lois to respect him for himself, since himself was Superman. Then, it appears, he wanted Lois to respect him for his fake self, to love him when he acted the coward, to be there when he pretended he needed her. She never was — so, of course, he loved her. A typical American romance. Superman never needed her, never needed anybody, in any event, Lois chased him — so, of course, he didn’t love her. He had contempt for her. Another typical American romance. Love is really the pursuit of a desired object, not pursuit by it. Once you’re caught the object there is no longer any reason to love it, to have it hanging around. There must be other desirable objects out there, somewhere. So Clark Kent acted as the control for Superman. What Kent wanted was just that which Superman didn’t want to be bothered with. Kent wanted Lois, Superman didn’t — thus marking the difference between a sissy and a man. A sissy wanted girls who scorned him; a man scorned girls who wanted him. Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did — but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn’t. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s or Superman’s was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they got hit so hard.

The Shield — symbol of Americanism and all America stands for — truth, justice, patriotism, courage. The Shield is no importation from another planet nor an accidental freak of nature. He is the product of years of painstaking toil, the climax to brilliant scientific research.

The Shield, Shield-Wizard Comics, Winter Issue, 1940

3. The problem with other super-heroes was that the most convenient way of becoming one had already been taken. Superman was from another planet. One of the self-denigrating laws of all science fiction is that every other planet is better than ours. Other planets may have funny-looking people but they think better, know more languages (including English), and are much further along in the business of rocketry and destruction. So, by definition, Superman had to be super: no outer-space weakling had ever been let in. The immediate and enormous success of Superman called for the creation of a tribe of successors — but where were they to come from? Not from other planets; Superman had all other planets tied up legally. Those one or two super-heroes who defied the ban were taken apart by lawyers (nothing is as super as a writ).

The answer, then, rested with science. That strange bubbly world of test tubes and gobbledy-gook which had, in the past, done such great work in bringing the dead back to life in the form of monsters — why couldn’t it also make men super? Thus Joe Higgins went into his laboratory and came out as the Shield; and John Sterling went into his laboratory and came out as Steel Sterling; and Steve Rogers went into the laboratory of kindly Professor Reinstein and came out as Captain America; and kindly Professor Horton went into his laboratory and came out with a synthetic man, named, illogically, the Human Torch. Science had run amok!

Human Torch #3 (Winter 1940) written and penciled by Carl Burgos, inked by Harry Sahle

Human Torch #3 (Winter 1940) written and penciled by Carl Burgos, inked by Harry Sahle

And not only science. With business booming comic book titles, too, ran amok: Whiz, Startling, Astonishing, Top Notch, Blue Ribbon, Zip, Silver Streak, Mystery Men, Wonder World, Mystic, Military, National, Police, Big Shot, Marvel-Mystery, Jackpot, Target, Pep, Champion, Master, Daredevil, Star-Spangled, All-American, All-Star, All-Flash, Sensation, Blue Bolt, Crash, Smash, and Hit Comics. Setting loose a menagerie of flying men, webbed men, robot men, ghost men, minuscule men, flexible-sized men — men of all shapes and costume blackening the comic book skies like locusts in drag.

Skyman, Sky Chief, The Face, The Sub Mariner, The Angel, The Comet, The Hangman, Mr. Justice, Uncle Sam, The Web, The Doll Man, Plastic Man, The White Streak — all scrambling for a piece of the market. Their magazines were competitively dated months ahead, so that if Big-Shot released an issue in January and dated it March, in reprisal All-American would date its February issue August. Aficionados began to check: comic books not dated a minimum of four months in advance were deemed shabby. One was hesitant to be seen with them.

Understandably, this Pandora’s box of men-of-steel was viewed gravely by Superman. One story of the time, denied by everyone, but for years a legend in the business, and reported as such, was that rival impresarios, worried lest the Superman people bring legal or marketing reprisals (their distributive arm circulated not only their own, but most other comic books), volunteered certain major concessions. Such as capes. It was granted that Superman, being the premier danseur of super-heroes, was the only one entitled to wear a cape. All others were, with appropriate ceremony, circumcised. (One could imagine the scene: The Shield, G-Man Extraordinary, standing in a field, his modest emblem, the American Flag, plucked from his burly shoulders, folded in half, then in quarters — neatly — so that no part touched the ground. Buried in Arlington, a choked-up marine playing taps; J. Edgar Hoover, a prominent character in the strip, standing alongside. Rumor had it that he sent flowers.)

The most savage reprisals in comic books were, just as in revolutions, saved not for one’s enemies but for one’s own kind. If, for a moment, Superman may be described as the Lenin of super-heroes, Captain Marvel must be his Trotsky. Ideologically of the same bent, who could have predicted that within months the two would be at each other’s throats — or that, in time, Captain Marvel would present the only serious threat to the power of the man without whom he could not have existed?

From the beginning Captain Marvel possessed certain advantages in the struggle. In terms of reader identification, Superman was far too puritanical: if you didn’t come from his planet you couldn’t ever be super — that was that. But the more liberal Captain Marvel left the door open. His method of becoming super was the simplest of all — no solar systems or test tubes involved — all that was needed was a magic word: “Shazam!”

“Pie in the sky!” retorted the pro-Superman bloc, but millions of readers wondered. If all it took was a magic word, then all that was required was the finding of it. Small surprise that for a while Captain Marvel caught and passed the austere patriarch of the super-movement. More than that, Captain Marvel was gifted with the light touch. Billy Batson, the newsboy, who Captain Marvel truly was, was drawn by artist C. C. Beck an oval-faced, dot-eyed, squiggly-haired boy familiar to any child who ever sent for a how-to-draw-heads course. The magic for readers in Captain Marvel was that not only did it appear easy to become him, it looked easy to draw him. Deceptively so. Captain Marvel was better drawn, really, than Superman. C. C. Beck followed in the tradition of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs, drawing with virginal simplicity that at time was almost sticklike — but still there was style. Villains ranged from mad scientist Dr. Sivana (the best in the business), who uncannily resembled Donald Duck, to Mr. Mind, a worm who talked and wore glasses, to Tawky Tawny, a tiger who talked and wore a business suit. A Disneyland of happy violence. The Captain himself came out dumber than the average super-hero — or perhaps less was expected of him. A friendly fullback of a fellow with apple cheeks and dimples, he could be imagined being a buddy rather than a hero, an overgrown boy who chased villains as if they were squirrels. A perfect fantasy figure for, say, Charlie Brown. His future seemed assured. What a shock, then, the day Superman took him to court.

Happily, I did not learn of the Superman versus Captain Marvel lawsuit until years later. It would have done me no good to discover two of my idols, staunch believers in direct action, bent over, hands cupped to lips, whispering in the ears of their lawyers. No one should have to grow up that fast.

The Superman people said that Captain Marvel was a direct steal. The Captain Marvel people said what do you mean; sheer coincidence; isn’t there room for the small businessman; we don’t know what you’re talking about. It went on that way for years, but the outcome was clear from the start. Captain Marvel fought hard but he was a paper tiger. One wondered whether he was beginning to drink. He was losing his lean, Fred MacMurray look, fleshing out fast in the face, in the gut, in the hips, moving onward and outward to Jack Oakie.

Then too there was great disappointment in the word “Shazam!” As it turned out it didn’t work for readers. Other magic words were tried. They didn’t work either. There are just so many magic words until one feels he’s been made a fool of. How easy it became to hate “Shazam! Shazam! Shazam!” That taunting cry that worked fine for Captain Marvel but didn’t do a damn thing for the rest of us.

I had the vague feeling that Captain Marvel was making fun of me. More and more his adventures took on the tone of parodies — item: Billy Batson being turned into a baby by mad scientist Dr. Sivana and thus not being able to say the magic word, it coming out “Tha-tham!” I was not prepared for frivolousness on the part of my super-heroes! When the Captain Marvel people finally settled the case and went out of business, I couldn’t have cared less.

Whiz Comics #13 (February 1941) written by Bill Parker, penciled and inked by C.C. Beck

Whiz Comics #13 (February 1941) written by Bill Parker, penciled and inked by C.C. Beck

The ‘Batman,’ a mysterious and adventurous figure fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong-doer, in his lone battle against the evil forces of society … his identity remains unknown.

Episode One of Batman, Detective Comics, May, 1939

4. Batman trailed Superman by a year and was obviously intended as an offshoot, but his lineage — the school of rich idlers who put on masks — dates back to the Scarlet Pimpernel and includes Zorro, and the Green Hornet, with whom Batman bears the closest as well as most contemporaneous resemblance. Both the Green Hornet and Batman were wealthy, both dabbled in chemistry, both had super-vehicles, and both costumed themselves with a view toward striking terror into the hearts of evildoers. The Green Hornet buzzed; the Batman flapped — that was the essential difference.

Not that there weren’t innovations: Batman popularized in comic books the strange idea, first used by the Phantom in newspapers, that when you put on your mask, your eyes disappeared. Two white slits showed — that was all. If that didn’t strike terror into the hearts of the evildoers, nothing would.

Batman, apparently, was in better physical shape than the Green Hornet, less dependent on the creature comforts of super-vehicles, or the rich man’s use of nonlethal gas warfare. Batman got more meaningfully into the fray and, in consequence, was more clobbered. Though a good deal was made of his extraordinary stamina much of it, as it turns out, was for punishment — another innovation for super-heroes: there was some reason to believe he had a glass jaw.

But Batman was not a super-hero in its truest sense (however we may have liked to think of him). If you pricked him, he bled — buckets. Superman’s superiority lay in the offense, Batman’s lay in the rebound. Whatever was done to him, whatever trap laid, wound opened, skull fractured, all he had to show for it was a discreet patch of Band-Aid on his right shoulder. With Superman we won; with Batman we held our own. Individual preferences were based on the ambitions and arrogance of one’s fantasies.

The Batman school preferred a vulnerable hero to an invulnerable one, preferred a hero who was able to take punishment and triumph in the end to a hero who took comparatively little punishment, just dished it out. I suspect the Batman school of having healthier egos. In my own case the concept of triumph over adversity was never very convincing. My own observations led me to believe that the only triumph most people eked out of adversity was to manage to stay alive as it swept by. With me, I didn’t think it would be any different. I preferred to play it safe and be Superman.

Another point: I couldn’t have been Batman even if I wanted to. If I were ever trapped in a steel vault with the walls closing in on all sides, I was obviously going to have to break out with my fists because it was clear from my earliest school grades that I was never going to have the know-how to invent an explosive in my underground laboratory that would blow me to safety. I was lousy at science. And I found the thought of having an underground laboratory chilling. My idea of a super-hero was some guy, bad with his hands, who came from an advanced planet so that he didn’t have to go to gym to be strong or go to school to be smart. The sort of super-hero I admired had to be primarily passive, but invulnerable.

What made Batman interesting, then, was not his strength but his story line. Batman, as a feature, was infinitely better plotted, better villained, and better looking than Superman. Batman inhabited a world were no one, no matter the time of day, cast anything but long shadows — seen from weird perspectives. Batman’s world was scary; Superman’s never. Bob Kane, Batman’s creator, combined Terry and the Pirates-style drawing with Dick Tracy-style villains, e.g. The Joker, The Penguin, The Cat Woman, The Scarecrow, The Riddler, Clay-Face, Two-Face, Dr. Death, Hugo Strange.

Detective Comics #36 (February 1940) written by Bill Finger, penciled by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, and inked by Bob Kane

Detective Comics #36 (February 1940) written by Bill Finger, penciled by Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson, and inked by Bob Kane

Kane’s early drawings, pretentious and stiff, coordinated perfectly with his early writing technique — a form of florid pre-literacy so typical of comic books of that day (as witnessed in the excerpt introducing this chapter). Or another example from a Kane feature of that time:

Africa — the dark continent whose jungles teem with insects, beasts, fever, and wild natives. A land of terrible secrets no man can read… up the river in the shore of Kenya, Clip Carson, vagabond adventurer, paddles his canoe.*3)

Despite it all, I remember Clip Carson warmly — and who, having once noted Batman smart-assing his way through a fistfight, has not forever been taken with him? Kane’s strength, as did Shuster’s, lay not in his draftsmanship (which was never quite believable), but in his total involvement in what he was doing (which made everything believable). However badly drawn and crudely written, Batman’s world took control of the reader. If Kane said so, men did pose stroking their chins whenever they weren’t fighting, running, or shooting in such away that hand and chin never quite made contact; if Kane said so gangsters did wear those peculiarly styled hats and suits — bought of the rack from a line nobody in the world had ever seen before; if Kane said so heads were not egg shaped, but rectangular; chins occupied not the bottom sixth of a face but the bottom half — because Kane’s was an authentic fantasy, a genuine vision, so that however one might nit-pick the components, the end product remained an impregnable whole: gripping and original. Kane, more than any other comic book man (except Will Eisner, who will be discussed later), set and made believable the terms offered to the reader.

Batman’s world was more cinematic than Superman’s. Kane was one of the early experimenters with angle shots and though he was not as compulsively avant-garde in his use of the worm’s eye, the bird’s eye, the shot through the wineglass, as others in the field he was the only one of the Detective, Adventure, Action Comics line who managed to get that Warner Brothers fog-infested look.

For just as the movie studios had their individual trademarks, their way of lighting, their special approach to subject matter by which they could be identified even if one came in at the middle, so did comic books. National, who produced the D.C. line, was the MGM of the field. It had the great stars, the crisp-brittle lighting, the elder statesman touch — smoothly exciting, eschewing the more boisterous effects of its less wealthy competitors. Superman was the best, but the most humorless of the super heroes (befitting his position); Batman was the best, but the most wooden of the masked heroes (a bit of early Robert Taylor there) — neither was quite touchable. They were State Department White Papers of the mind. And National, who issued them, was the government in power.

The opposite extreme was Fox — the Monogram Studios of the industry. Fox had the best covers and the worst insides. The covers were rendered in a modified pulp style: well-drawn, exotically muscled, half-undressed heroes rescuing well-drawn, exotically muscled, half-undressed maidens. The settings often as not, were in the conventional oriental-mad scientist’s laboratory — hissing test tubes going off everywhere; a hulking multi-racial lab assistant at the ready to violate the girl; the masked hero crashing through a skylight, guns, aimed at nobody, flaming in each hand; the girl, strapped to an operating table, screaming fetchingly — not yet aware that the crisis was passed. Since the covers of Fox books were drawn by good men and the insides by bad men, the hero on the cover could only be connected to his facsimile on the inside by the design of his leotards. Fox, like Monogram, had few stars and a deeply felt plot shortage. It pushed hard on the Green Mask, a slender, inadequate-looking hero who beat up slender, inadequate-looking criminals. While this business of fighting crime within one’s division had something to recommend it, The Green Mask, somehow, never caught on.

To recoup, Fox made a star of the Blue Beetle, another Green Hornet derivative (in this case, a cop in real life), who, in order to fight criminals outside the reach of the law, liked to dress as a beetle, this being his idea of a symbol that would strike terror into the hearts of evildoers (not the first cop to work outside of the law, but one of the few who had the decency to take off his uniform while doing it). As it turned out — and unpredictably — evildoers were impressed with the Blue Beetle. His sign — the shadow of a great beetle projected into the evildoer’s lines of vision — struck terror into their hearts. He wore a Phantom-like uniform, with scales — rather unpleasant looking without being impressive. He was a great favorite for a far longer time than he deserved.

Fox Titles included Mystery Men Comics, Wonder World Comics, Science Comics, Fantastic Comics — all of them washed out, never looking quite alive or quite finished— existing in mechanical limbo. The good men working for Fox soon moved elsewhere. Fiction House, a better outfit by inches, was often the place. As Republic was to Monogram, Fiction House was to Fox. Its one lasting contribution: Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, signed by W. Morgan Thomas (a pseudonym), drawn and very likely written by S.R. Powell, who was later to do the best of the magician strips (not excepting Mandrake): Mr. Mystic.

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1 (Spring 1942) cover penciled and inked by Dan Zolnerowich

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1 (Spring 1942) cover penciled and inked by Dan Zolnerowich

Sheena was a voluptuous Tarzan who laid waste to wild beasts, savages, and evil white men in the jungle of her day, always assisted by her boy friend, Bob, a neat, young fellow in boots and jodhpurs who mainly stayed free of harm’s ways while Sheena, manfully, cleaned out the trouble spots. Not as unfair a division of labor as you might think once you saw the two of them back to back, for while the boyfriend was supposed to be taller and more muscular, it was Sheena who gave the impression of size. Standing proud in the foreground, challenging an overmatched lion to hand-to-hand combat while her admiring young man stood in the tree shadows holding her spear.

Sheena was the star of Jungle Comics, a book I looked at only when there was nothing but novels to read around the house. Beating up lions did not particularly interest me; my problem was with people. Nor did the people Sheena laid out interest me very much; they were the usual crop of white hunters in search of the elephants’ graveyard, a strip of land so devout in its implication to jungle-book fanciers that one could only assume the elephants took instruction in the church before dying. Fiction House books had a boxed, constipated look. Balloons were rectangular, restricted-looking. Anybody knew — or should have known — that good balloons were scalloped bubbles floating light as air on the tops of panels. Free and imaginative. Rectangular balloons were depressants — something architectural-looking about them; something textbooky. They were no more to be trusted than those cartoons that gave up balloons entirely and ran an open narrative across the bottom of the panels — cartoons trying their damnedest not to look or sound like cartoons — set in the present tense, full of he saids and she saids. The past tense was a violation of comic book decorum (and newspaper strips too). Comics were too immediate an experience to subjugate the reader to a past tense. Written narratives posed a deliberate similarity to real books: those wordy enclosures that threatened knowledge, threatened advance, threatened a hold on one’s soul so that one could not keep it to mark time with, but must move ahead, learn, grow — all dubious outside values. (Prince Valiant too was guilty of that bookish style but it was set in King Arthur’s day. So I learned to live with it. But I couldn’t put up with it in Tarzan and I could barely tolerate it in Flash Gordon. And I didn’t like it anywhere else.)


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The Tom Tomorrow Interview Fri, 25 Jul 2014 12:00:38 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From The Comics Journal #165 (January 1994)

The entity Tom Tomorrow first appeared to the public within the pages of Processed Word, San Francisco’s infamous corporate conformity-subverting journal. His focus was originally on America’s rampant, runaway consumerism, but now Tomorrow, the “nom de plume” of one Dan Perkins, is concentrating his caustic satire on that grandest of American whipping-boys, national politics. Gary Groth spoke with the left-leaning Tomorow both before and after the 1992 Presidential election about comics, politics, and many other matters vital to national security.


GARY GROTH: Are you a San Francisco native?
TOM TOMORROW: No, I mostly grew up in Iowa City, Iowa. It’s a lovely little college town and if it weren’t for the horrible Midwestern weather, I’d probably like to move back to it at some point. My folks split up so I moved around a lot; I lived in a lot of different places: Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, I went and lived in New York for a couple of years, in my late teens, early 20s.
GROTH: Manhattan?
TOMORROW: Yeah, working on one of your competitors at the time, a short-lived magazine called, what was it? The Comic Times.
GROTH: Yeah, yeah I remember. About 12 or 13 years ago?
TOMORROW: Yeah. I worked a lot of crappy minimum wage jobs, went back to Iowa for a few years, I was going to school before that and after, which I never really finished, and eventually moved out here. I moved to San Francisco in 1984. This is probably the longest I’ve lived in any one place in my entire life. My folks moved around a lot. I just chose the place where I was going to stay and, by God, stayed there!
GROTH: So you were interested in comics at least 13 years ago.
TOMORROW: Oh yeah, I drew cartoons ever since I was a little kid. Mad magazine-style things. I was reading Mad magazine as far back as I can remember. I’ve always been interested in comics. This stuff that I do incorporates a lot of collage and that sort of came in later. For a while I was just playing with collage while going to art school and screwing around with this stuff, and eventually combined the two interests.
GROTH: When did you actually develop enough of an interest in comics to think you could really be a cartoonist?
TOMORROW: When I was in junior high I would draw these Mad magazine-style parodies of magazines with a #2 pencil on that notebook paper you have. So it was always just something I did. I was never going to … I don’t know.
GROTH: Was there a certain point at which you said, “This is where my talent lies and I think I’ll pursue it?”
TOMORROW: To a certain extent. But you know there were always people a lot better than me — I was hanging around a lot of people who wanted to draw for Marvel Comics and that sort of thing that were much better than me in terms of rendering. Had I become aware of say, Matt Groening a few years earlier, I think I would have had a little more confidence to just do what I did. But it wasn’t ever anything I actually thought I would make a living at, particularly; it was just an ongoing evolution. I just started playing around with this idea of appropriating these obscenely cheerful advertising images and giving them new messages — at that time I was more focused on consumerism, and that gradually segued into politics. A cartoonist, if you do work and nobody reads it, it’s like a tree falling in a forest — it doesn’t matter if it makes a sound or not. So I was just trying to do this thing and trying to get it published more than actually trying to make a living. I mean, I was still just working at temp jobs or crappy paste up jobs or things like that while doing this at home.
GROTH: Where did you get published first?
TOMORROW: A magazine called Processed World in San Francisco, which is sort of a journal for radical and disenfranchised office workers, focusing on what they call “The underbelly of the information age.” They were the first ones to actually publish my stuff, it was a very appropriate thing. Processed World would do stories on office sabotage and things like this — they weren’t gentle in their critique of office work, so if that was how you were making your money, you didn’t necessarily want your bosses to know you were associated with this magazine advocating occasionally dumping coffee in your computer keyboard or something. So there were a lot of pen names, and that’s how I ended with mine. When I started making the transition into the weekly papers, I took the pen name with me because I was kind of used to it at that point. So now I’m constantly saying, “My name is Dan Perkins, I do this comic strip under the name ‘Tom Tomorrow,’” rather than just being able to say, “I’m Dan Perkins.” So what could be just a simple introduction turns into a half-hour soliloquy.


GROTH: Are you ever going to dump “Tom Tomorrow?” Has it become a burden?
TOMORROW: I think I’m kind of stuck with it now. But it’s like Dr. Science — everyone knows that’s not his real name, it’s actually Dan Coffey. Or another Duck’s Breath [Mystery Theater] alumni, Ian Schoales, who is actually named Merle Kessler. Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens — famous pen names throughout history. It’s sort of a mnemonic. I think it’s easier for people to remember when they haven’t necessarily read a lot of my stuff. It adds this quirky note to it.
GROTH: I know we published an eight-page strip by you a long time ago in Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy.
TOMORROW: Yeah, that was pretty early on.
GROTH: How did you evolve your critique of politics and consumer society? Where did that come from?
TOMORROW: A few different things worked towards this. Part of it was just that the more I became aware of politics, the more I studied up on things, the more I became confident in my own ability to express my opinions and a turning point, because that was the point at which I actually realized I really did have people reading my comic strip — because it had just started running in San Francisco, and so readership was less an abstract concept suddenly. Also the paper that started running it, one of the local weeklies, was putting it on their editorial page. So it started me thinking in terms of actually being on this editorial page, having a political focus. One of the cartoons in the book is about the Gulf War TV coverage, it’s one of the first ones I did that helped me to consciously realize that things I was angry about I could actually express, that I had this public forum. I had been out protesting with my girlfriend and maybe a hundred thousand people on one of the Saturdays right when that whole horrible thing started. And I went home, and the TV coverage of it was such that you had ten seconds of footage of a hundred thousand protesters, or maybe 20 seconds, and then an equal segment on the half dozen pro-war protesters in some suburban community burning an Iraqi flag. And these two things were like, well here’s the crazy anti-war protesters and here’s the good Americans and they were presented as if they were equal on the scale. So I went and called the station and yelled at the voice mail and that wasn’t really the most viscerally satisfying thing to do. Then I realized I had this comic strip and yes, people read it. So I went into my studio and did this one that night. And that was one turning point. Now politics is what spurs me on to stay interested in doing this thing every week because … I don’t know how anyone does it daily. It’s a really slow process for me. I’ll sit and stare at a wall all day before I come up with an idea, and then I’ll spend another day getting the words exactly the way they need to be in order to convey what I’m trying to convey. Because if you read my stuff, often times in the four panels, each panel makes a separate point, all of which builds up to the larger point. So it’s sort of like one of those sliding puzzles where you have to put everything in exactly the right place for the whole thing to make the picture.

groth_tomorrowG GROTH: Where did your left-leaning politics comes from? Were they inherited, or — ?
TOMORROW: Oh God, good question. When I was a kid, I was in a college town at the time of Vietnam War protests, so that was something that was just going on around me, like the weather. My folks were not necessarily politically radical by any means. But the more I talk to my dad now, the more I realize he has this real common-sense Midwestern liberal view of the world. He saw the S&L thing coming, for instance. He’s pretty smart about finances and it’s not really liberal or conservative, but just if you look at what’s going on and say, “OK, we’re living on credit cards,” which is what Reagan and Bush had been doing, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that sooner or later there’s going to be a bill in the mail. Your ideology determines whether or not you admit that fact or not. And my dad has enough common sense to admit that, which I suppose makes him liberal. And I remember him reading newspaper stories a lot and saying, “OK, what they’re really doing here is …” So I guess just from osmosis I learned to not just read the media, but try to figure out whose agenda is at work here.
GROTH: But he’s nowhere near as dissenting as you are.
TOMORROW: No, not in the least. I would put him a lot more in the middle of the road, but in this country, the debate extends from the extreme right-wing to the middle of the road. That’s it. The left is just excluded.
GROTH: And what about your critique of consumerism? Where did that come from, how did that evolve?
TOMORROW: I couldn’t even tell you. It just seems like there were a lot of people doing that at that point. That was right when punk was at its heyday, and there were a lot of those punk fanzines and consumer society is a pretty easy thing to do on an intuitive level. The advertising images I appropriate — that I steal, basically — they’re so blatant. Advertising has gotten a lot more sophisticated over the years. But you read through these old magazines — I have one old ad in my files at home where there’s a woman coughing and the caption is, “He won’t love you if you cough.” When you’re in a society where people are saying, “If you buy this, you’ll be happy,” it’s a pretty easy thing to make fun of, especially using the old images. I think what I ended up doing was then taking the same images and saying, “If you believe in trickle down economics, you’ll be happy.” It’s the same thing, it’s all this happy talk.
GROTH: Now, it’s clearly a calculated decision to use all of these cheerful ’50s advertising images to subvert the messages by placing them into a modern context. Do you ever feel like you’re running out of satirical steam using that strategy?
TOMORROW: Well, I’ve thought about that from time to time, yeah. I wonder if society will change to the point where the images no longer have the effect. It’s not happening at this point. I’ve introduced this penguin. I’ve also just brought in a Weekly World News space alien as sort of an observer on society, because sometimes I’m watching things and I feel like I’m from Mars, and I thought that he would be a good way to convey that feeling. So I’m throwing in these other things. But if that happens, I hope I can adapt and change and do something new. Sometimes I worry that there’s a certain visual sameness to the strip, but you read some of these — without mentioning any names — things in the daily comics page, and those people might as well just have four drawings of their characters that they’re Xeroxing and putting in every time. I try to make every strip I do look unlike any other one, even if the differences are subtle. I don’t always succeed, but I try. I try to keep it varied and different.
groth_tomorrowC GROTH: I was unsure how much you actually draw the strip and how much of it is photo-referenced.
TOMORROW: It varies from strip to strip. Most of the time I’ll draw in people’s bodies and their hands if they’re holding things, that sort of thing. The main thing that is photo-referenced at this point are the faces because it’s a certain look and it’s a hard thing to mimic this photocopied look, which is a deliberate thing that I’m trying to put in. The penguin and the space alien are always drawn freehand.
GROTH: This isn’t meant as an insult, but I was wondering how well you drew.
TOMORROW: Oh, it’s atrophied a lot, so I don’t really know how anymore. I’m certainly no Paul Mavrides, I’ll put it that way. But I can do what I need to do to make the strip work.
GROTH: One of the many sources of depression, as far as I’m concerned, is even though I love the work you do, and the work Tom Toles or Bill Griffith does, it doesn’t seem to me that it actually changes anything. Do you actually write and draw this with that in mind? Trying to affect the world, trying to affect the people who read it? Or are you giving solace to the people who agree with you?
TOMORROW: I have always only viewed it as something that is comforting the afflicted. Because as I say, when the debate ends at the middle of the road, to even get a more progressive perspective in print, I think, gives people a certain amount of comfort. There’s just a constant battle of ideology in this country: “You can’t print that! You can’t print that!” The religious right are especially bad about that. I think the left tends to be more, “OK, you print your thing, but for Chrissakes, let us get a word in edgewise occasionally.” Of course the right just cannot tolerate dissent. “You simply cannot print that,” and most of the time they get their way, whether they realize it or not. It’s continually amusing to me that conservatives go on about the liberal media bias. I mean it bloody well hasn’t kept the conservatives from running the country for 12 years, has it? So occasionally I get a letter from somebody who says, “I’ve always voted Republican but you really made a good point here,” and that’s nice, but it’s nothing I expect at all.
GROTH: You have one interesting strip in there where you actually address the problem of reductionism in comic strips.
TOMORROW: The one where I jam all the words into the one panel? Well, that was one where I actually did get a letter from someone.
GROTH: You actually defend the practice.
TOMORROW: Yeah, well, look how many words I use in any given comic strip. I mean, yes, I know there are Democrats involved in the Savings and Loan fiasco. I know it was not entirely Republicans. I know it’s a very complex issue. I’ve read entire books on the subject, and many articles. What I will do, I don’t just throw something out when I don’t know what I’m talking about, I tend to read a lot. Before I did this comic I read the Pizzo book, Inside Job [by Stephen Pizzo, Mary Flicker, and Paul Muold], the one about the looting of the S&L industry, and William Greider had some terrific articles in Rolling Stone, and there was another guy who did a good thing in Harper’s that really helped put everything into perspective. So I understand that it was a bipartisan thing. I think the case could be made that it was largely the fault of Republican mentality which came in and said, “Let’s deregulate everything because that will be good for the economy.” Well, we can see how well that’s worked out, now can’t we? In fact, right now the banks are about to collapse entirely, according to William Greider, due to deregulation, and everyone is doing the same thing they did with the S&Ls: avoiding the subject until after the election. And then, “Oh, by the way, here’s another 50 trillion dollar bill for you!” So this was addressing that, that there’s only so much room in a four-panel cartoon. I have to start out with certain assumptions and hope my readers have read at least some of the things I’ve read or hope that they’ll at least trust me to have read these things and not just be making things up. Because there is only so much you can squeeze in.
groth_tomorrowR GROTH: The implied criticism, as stated in there and generally about comic strips, is that reductionism is in itself a disservice to readers. Do you think that makes sense?
TOMORROW: I have largely ignored any advice anyone has ever given me, and a lot of the advice I have gotten from people is, “Use fewer words. Reduce it down. Don’t try to cram so much copy into it.” That’s the sort of input you get from mainstream editors at syndicates. There’s one editorial cartoonist who does progressive work — I don’t know him actually, I know his work — who signed up with Chronicle Features Syndicate, and I met his editor at this conference of opinion page editors that was in town a couple of days ago, and she was saying, “Oh, I’m constantly telling him to take out words.” And I’m thinking, “Jesus, this poor guy,” because I effectively turned down an offer from United Media because I did not want to have some 50-year-old woman who wears pearls telling me that I use too many words. I don’t know any of the people at United Media, I’m not meaning to put them down, that’s not the point. Just in general, I don’t want someone who wouldn’t necessarily understand my work telling me how to do it. I mean, here you have a room full of people and 70% of them were over the age of 50. It was basically a roomful of people who think The Far Side is pretty out there. So I’m coming in, I’m from Mars, you know. I’ve got stuff that I’ve done on hieroglyphic tablets or something as far as they’re concerned. “Here! Look at this!”
GROTH: That sounds dismal.
TOMORROW: Yeah, but there are always exceptions. There are a few editors at daily papers who sort of understand what I’m doing, and I’m certainly grateful for them, but overall I’m just awfully grateful, I’m just awfully happy and thankful, that there’s an alternative press in this country, or I would not be doing anywhere near as well as I’m doing.
GROTH: Well now, even given the number of words that you do use these days, do you think there’s a sense in which by reducing complex issues, you’re actually playing into the worst aspects of modernity and the requirements of the mass media?
TOMORROW: It’s not really about the requirements of the mass media as much as the fact that I have four panels to make a point as effectively as possible. And my way of doing that is generally to use more words than almost anybody else — but I have faith in readers. I mean, that’s why they’re called readers — they read. If I were playing into it, I’d be reducing everything down to maybe one or two words per panel, like Jim Davis or someone — who, incidentally, is rumored to be considering the purchase of United Media, according to Editor & Publisher magazine.
GROTH: It think it probably won’t change much.
TOMORROW: [Laughs.] No, they won’t. Well, they were interested in picking me up …
GROTH: You distribute yourself.
GROTH: How many papers?
TOMORROW: Sixty. Maybe a couple over. I just found someone to handle college papers for me, so he’s been adding some papers, but it’s right around 60.
GROTH: Are these mostly alternative papers?
TOMORROW: Mostly alternative weeklies.
GROTH: How difficult is it to syndicate yourself?
TOMORROW: Oh, gosh. Getting it set up and convincing the papers to run it is just hell.
GROTH: How do you do that?
TOMORROW: Years and years of pestering people, and eventually they see your work enough and other papers run it and it develops a credibility and then they’re more willing to pick it up themselves. But that just takes forever. I feel like what you had was a first wave of people like Matt Groening and Lynda Barry who went through uncharted territory and made a mark. And then I came along as maybe the next wave after that, and Matt and Lynda and a few other people pretty well had the spaces staked out, so it was hard to get in, but at the same time they had opened up the territories. So eventually I’ll be able to get a fair number myself. I think for people just starting out today, it’s really tough, because these things build exponentially and now everyone sees the alternatives as another way to possibly break in to avoid the syndicates. And I talk to these editors and they say now they’re getting hundreds of submissions. It would be really hard if you were just starting out to just stand out from that crowd; you have to be really, really good, I think, or have a real unique sense of what you’re doing. I wouldn’t want to discourage anybody though, because the only way I picked up all these papers was by just not listening to anyone; I really had a sense of what I wanted to do and continued to push it, and continued to pester people.
GROTH: What’s interesting is that most of the alternative syndicated strips by artists like Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, Michael Dougan, a couple of others, are all really of substantial quality, and what hasn’t happened yet, which almost always happens, is that that market niche would get flooded with a lot of crap. That, miraculously, hasn’t happened.
TOMORROW: I think that the weekly editors are filtering out the crap because they don’t have enough space. You may question some of their judgments sometimes, there are a few things out there that I’m not thrilled about, but overall, they don’t have enough space to run the crap. It’s not like “product.” For the dailies, comics are product. They’ve got to fill this page. They’ve got to suck the readers in. Period.
GROTH: You mentioned Barry and Matt Groening. Did you have any artists that you looked up to when you first started cartooning that you wanted to —
TOMORROW: Different people at different stages. When I was a kid, when I was very young, Charles Schulz had a remarkable effect on me. I still think he does fine work, considering how long he’s been doing it. But his work, when I was a kid at that point, it just had this wonderful surrealism to it, you know? Snoopy’s doghouse would have a Van Gogh painting inside. Or the Red Baron stuff, or whatever.
GROTH: What period did you read that strip? The early ’70s?
TOMORROW: The mid-’60s. Mid- to late-’60s. I remember reading it as a kid and it really awakened something in me. There was a real spirit to it that maybe only Calvin and Hobbes equals today in its own way. And then I went on from that to the various Mad magazine artists. Bill Griffith has been — and this may sound a bit disingenuous because he wrote the introduction to my book, but I wouldn’t have asked him to do that if it wasn’t something that meant something to me — his work for a long time has just, in its uniqueness and intelligence, been a real source of inspiration.
GROTH: Were you ever interested in comic books? Did you read comics?
There’s sort of the missing link, I suppose. I had a friend who had a lot of the early Marvels, so I read a lot of the very first Spider-Mans and the very first Daredevils and the old Jack Kirby stuff, and those sorts of comics that I thought were really wonderful. And I went from that to undergrounds — Robert Crumb, Griffith … There was a comic book called Meep! and another called The Balloon Vendor, put out by Dave Sheridan and Fred Schrier, which I really loved … And of course the Freak Brothers. Basically I’d read any underground I could get my hands on, though.
GROTH: Was that in the early ’70s?
TOMORROW: I was reading them in the mid- to late-’70s, but they were reprints and that was still when there were head shops around the country and you could go in and buy them, so they were fairly accessible.
GROTH: Back in the good ol’ days.
TOMORROW: Yeah, well, those were the pre-comic book shops days, so the underground comics were only available in the paraphernalia shops — not that I ever went into any of those for any other reason … [Laughs.]
GROTH: And if you did, you never inhaled.
GROTH: Do you go into comic book shops today? Do you look at cartooning much?
TOMORROW: Well, what I look at today is the newspaper stuff. I don’t follow comic books so much as the editorial comics, most of which I despise, though there are a few that I think are brilliant. Tom Toles is just a real genius. There’s an artist named Matt Wuerker who’s up in Portland who’s mostly in the progressive, alternative-type press. He does really good work. I think he’s sort of a Thomas Nast for our day and age, basically. He does these wonderful caricatures, and he’s got a book out from a small publisher, Thunder’s Mouth Press. You guys ought to do something on that. I don’t see his stuff that much, and I think he does really marvelous work. He needs more exposure. I follow people like that. When I go into a comic book shop I just can’t figure it out anymore. I get overwhelmed, because I don’t really want any of the superhero stuff, and I can’t figure out what else is good, and I get depressed and I leave without buying anything. [Laughs.] I used to have a roommate who was more into it and would buy these things and bring them back to the apartment and then I could read them. When I no longer had that situation is when I stopped following comics to a large degree.
GROTH: You lost your filter.
TOMORROW: Yeah, exactly.
GROTH: Have you ever had the interest in doing longer strips?
TOMORROW: The thing now is that I have these deadlines, I do two a week—I’m weekly but I do an extra each week for the Examiner. So that fills up a lot of my time, that and the administrative/small business-type stuff that I have to deal with every week. Lately I’ve been doing all these signings and interviews because of the book and I’m been feeling really swamped. So it’s partly a time problem, and it’s partly that I think in four panels now, you know: bomp-bomp-bomp-punchline.
GROTH: Get a rhythm down.
TOMORROW: I’ve got the rhythm down and it becomes an intuitive thing and that’s a rhythm that I’m real comfortable with.
GROTH: What is entailed in syndicating your own work — do you have to bill every paper?
TOMORROW: Well, what I tend to do is rely on the kindness of strangers, as Blanche du Bois said. I tend to pretty much say, “Put me on your automatic payment plan.” And 99% of the time there’s no problem with that, and I keep track of everything by occasionally going through my books and making sure everybody’s paying me, and I’ll write them a letter if they’re not, and then they do.
GROTH: Find a deadbeat from three years back?
TOMORROW: Yeah, and then it’s nice because you get a $300 check or something. [Laughs.] So I try to keep track of it with as little effort as possible, so I don’t really like to invoice.
GROTH: And you can just mail 60 stats of your work to each paper?
TOMORROW: Actually, high-quality Xerox. I think most cartoonists are mailing out Xeroxes these days. I think that’s pretty much what everybody sends out. The quality is as good as a stat.
GROTH: Do you keep in contact with the newspapers?
TOMORROW: Yeah, to varying degrees. There are some editors that I talk to almost every week or every couple of weeks. We develop these phone relationships with people. There are others that I just almost don’t know anyone at the paper.
GROTH: Do you supplement your income doing any other work?
TOMORROW: I used to have to. Right now I’m at a point where I’m able to pay my bills just from the comic strip. That could change. I hope it doesn’t, it’s a nice way to live.


groth_tomorrowHGROTH: Do you see this country’s priorities changing in any way?
TOMORROW: Well, it’s finally what progressives and liberals have been saying for 12 years: “God, maybe this election, things will be so bad that people will see they’ve got to vote for Democrats this time.”
GROTH: Do you think that will make much difference?
TOMORROW: I don’t think so, really. But I think that what small difference it makes will matter a lot. I can’t remember the exact number, but there are a couple hundred judges that will be appointed one way or another depending on who gets elected. Noam Chomsky said in Rolling Stone a few months ago that it’s all pretty much a horse race and it doesn’t really matter — except that if Bush wins we’re going to have a fascist judiciary in the country, basically. So for abortion, that’s where it really matters. I know there are a lot of people on the left who think they should just sit the election out because the Democrats and Republicans are just the two wings of the national business party, and that’s effectively true, but for what little difference it makes, it matters.
GROTH: Yeah, it seems to me that Clinton could mitigate the slide a bit.
TOMORROW: Yeah, but the thing is, Clinton is not going to be able to turn this thing around in four years, and so then he might get blamed for the continuing fallout of Reaganomics and then we might end up with another 12 years of Republicans and again playing this game of, “How bad does it have to get before people will finally wise up?”
GROTH: It shouldn’t be allowed to get worse.
TOMORROW: Yeah, I mean, how “worse” does it get? It’s like, OK, maybe by the time that nine people out of ten are unemployed, then people will realize. Maybe by the year 2052 people will finally realize they’ve got to stop voting for Republican greedheads. I mean, you could play that game forever.
GROTH: Could you give me what you think are the top three or four or five most sinister problems facing this country and its citizens?
TOMORROW: Oh golly. The top problem is to what extent corporate America sets the agenda. Because corporations are this weird thing: they’re made up of people who probably … You know, the North American Free Trade Agreement is a good case in point. You have the Maquilaporos, along the Texas-Mexico border, where there’s already a free trade agreement along this certain stretch of the border, so US corporations have gone down, completely ignored environmental regulations, and are paying these people I think 60 or 75 cents an hour and they’ve so polluted the environment, that for instance, babies are being born without brains. So you take some guy from Bechtel or something, some mid-level manager, and he’s probably got a family, and you say, “Hey, do you want babies to be born without brains?” He’s probably going to say, “No, of course not.” And mean it. But there’s this thing where these people all band together into a corporation and the corporation just takes on a life of its own and it becomes a living entity; it’s own survival is the main focus no matter if babies are being born without brains or not. You see this battle being constantly fought everywhere, of the corporation versus the individual, which I find very ironic because the corporations are nothing more than collections of individuals. But of course the whole corporate mentality is, as anyone who’s ever worked in an office knows, to subjugate your individuality into this greater good. It’s a very fascist sort of thing.
GROTH: Yeah. Brilliant in its own way.
TOMORROW: It’s something I think … I think the misplaced priorities of corporate America and the willingness of government to go along if not actively abet in that is the top five problems in America.
GROTH: Isn’t the bottom line that people will have to understand that there are certain limitations on luxury and comfort and that their standard of living may have to go down if we’re to live in a civilized environment? I mean, Carter made the mistake once of saying that Americans have to realize certain limitations exist and of course he was booted right out. No politician has made that mistake since.
TOMORROW: Our economy is supposedly based on this model of continual growth, and the only thing that grows continually is cancer. There have to be limitations, and I think our generation is the one that’s going to get hit by that the hardest. I think the next generation will understand it better, but we’re the ones who grew up thinking, “Oh, we get to have more than our parents.” I don’t think so. I don’t know too many people who own houses, for instance, especially in the Bay Area where it’s just so out of reach. My dad had probably been through his first couple of houses and cars by the time he was my age.
GROTH: That’s something that can’t continue ad infinitum.
TOMORROW: Barlett and Steele did that book, America: What Went Wrong, a series of articles from The Philadelphia Inquirer, and something that they addressed at length was how a combination of things caused this, including a deliberate shifting of the tax burden from the rich to the poor. This is demonstrable, there are graphs, there are charts, this happened. This is a fact, this is not an arguable point. The tax burden has shifted from the rich to the poor and middle class. It’s shifted downward so the rich can buy more yachts and the rest of us cannot conceive of buying the most basic things that our parents could buy.
GROTH: The conservative argument being that it employs yacht-builders. TOMORROW: [Laughs.] Right! So maybe the yacht-builders can afford to buy a house. GROTH: Do you have a theory as to why … you know, Clinton has proposed, I think, that the top 50% income-earners gets taxed more, so that the burden of public expenditures is carried by people who won’t suffer therefrom. And the Republicans are actually using this as another one of those “liberals just want to tax people” scare strategies, and people seem to be falling for this.
TOMORROW: It’s a funny thing — Republicans are really good at that, at cutting top income tax rates, which means that everyone else has to pay higher taxes, and yet saying that they’re cutting everyone’s taxes. And I think what happens is that in America everyone identifies with the elite. Everyone thinks that maybe they could end up being rich, and if so, at that point they’d want to keep their money. So they’ll pay more of their taxes now in the hopes … And it’s something the Republicans have been very good at. It’s a very peculiar type of propaganda which has you identifying with the problems of the rich. I mean, the logical outcome of that would be to have middle-class people sitting around complaining about how hard it is to get good help. [Laughs.]
GROTH: How do you explain that? It almost seems too stupid to be true. That the entire middle class can assume one day it’s going to be part of the rich. It’s such an insane proposition it’s hard to believe.
TOMORROW: Well, that’s part of it, and I think on a more basic level people just don’t think that much about it and so the other thing that politicians in general, particularly Republicans, are really good at is that sort Nazi big lie of saying over and over again, “Democrats will raise taxes, Democrats will raise taxes.” So people think, “Oh, Democrats are tax-and-spend,” when the Republicans are the bloody tax-and-spend people with their military build-up. And so forth.
GROTH: Right. Well now, how much of a Populist are you? In other words, what is your —
TOMORROW: I did not support H. Ross Perot, if that’s the question.
GROTH: [Laughs.] Well, it wasn’t. That’s certainly an interesting avenue. What did you think of Perot?
TOMORROW: I think that he was a sort of an interesting side show in American politics. I mean, a Populist billionaire. What can you say? That’s ridiculous. Right now he’s one of these people who is telling us — he’s going to maybe reenter the campaign, supposedly just so he can be allowed to buy ad time to tell the rest of us how we’ve got to tighten our belts. I just did a cartoon about this. What we’ve got is a situation where the upper income people in this country have been feeding at the treasury like pigs at a public trough for the last 12 years. And now that the trough is emptied out, they’re telling the rest of us how we’ve got to tighten our belts. And Perot is one of those people saying, “Oh! You’ve got to do that!” You know, Tsongas and Rudman have teamed up to go out and tell everyone that the real problem with this economy is entitlement programs.
groth_tomorrowP GROTH: Who is doing this?
TOMORROW: Paul Tsongas and Warren Rudman. It’s a bipartisan effort to let the country know that social security recipients are to blame for our problems. I just think that’s so absurd. They’ve bled us dry and now they’re trying to make us pay to make up the difference.
GROTH: Tsongas?
TOMORROW: Yes, he was sort of a Republican in Democrat’s clothing all along.
GROTH: Well, let me get back to the Populist question: How much of this problem is due to the acquiescence of the American public — and not only the acquiescence, but the innate greed of the individual?
TOMORROW: I think largely it’s just a matter that people are living their lives and they do not follow events as closely as probably you do or I do. Most people just turn on the evening news. I mean, one thing I remember was I was in the bank around the time of the Thomas hearings, and for some reason the teller was looking at my checks and saying, “What do you do?” because I had this pile of checks from newspapers. I said I was a cartoonist, a political cartoonist. And she said, “Oh, are you going to do something on that guy? That judge guy?” And you know, I think a lot of people just don’t pay that close of attention. So it’s a matter of who can win the propaganda war, and the Republicans have been pretty good at that. It’s just that this year the results of their policies are, I mean it’s so obvious that it’s impossible to ignore, which has given the Democrats a bit of an edge in their own propaganda.
GROTH: Do you think it’s that, or do you think the middle class is just finally being economically squeezed enough to notice?
TOMORROW: Well, it’s the same thing.
GROTH: Yes, but it’s self-interest that’s motivating it, not —
TOMORROW: Probably. Because what else would explain the whole Reagan thing if not self-interest?
GROTH: I always wondered why blue collar workers voted overwhelmingly for Reagan, when they were going to be screwed the most by Republican policies.
TOMORROW: I just watched the Republican convention, and what I had forgotten is just how charismatic Reagan is.
GROTH: You thought he was still?
TOMORROW: Yeah, I mean, no matter how much you hate him, he has this innate charisma he projects. And he can be blaming the problems of the country on welfare mothers and just do it in this incredibly likable manner. If we didn’t have a two-term limit, he would still be president. No one else would have a chance until he died. Bush is just such a whiner that nobody really likes him that much anyway, so when things start to go wrong, it’s not that hard to write him off.
GROTH: You actually attack the stupidity of the average American in your strips. Like Toles, you don’t really let voters and citizens off the hook. Is it a bit despairing that you’re opposed to all these political machinations but in a way you’re also opposed to the electorate?
TOMORROW: [Laughs]
GROTH: You really are in the minority here. It seems like a legitimate point of view to me, but it also is pretty despairing …
TOMORROW: Yeah, for a long time it’s been like primal scream therapy. Don’t think it’s Californian like that, remember I’m a Midwesterner, but it’s just, “Here’s how I feel, goddamn it.”
GROTH: Given how the media functions and how the economy functions, and what the media has to do to pander to that economic self-interest, do you think the American public could ever be educated to the extent that they see long-term interests —
TOMORROW: Well, that’s a lot of it. Media bias is … There’s a group called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting that I work with from time to time — they did that famous Nightline survey in which it was proven that an overwhelming majority of the people on the show were white male administration sources and they’d have debates between say, Henry Kissinger and Al Haig or something. And something that I try to bring attention to a lot is that that’s always going to be the way it is, so think about it. Read two or three newspapers. Read the alternative press. Think for yourself. Think about what it means when NBC is running a pro-nuclear power documentary and they’re owned by GE, or they’re doing news coverage on nuclear power and it doesn’t seem to be very hard-hitting. You know, just think about the sources of information. I was just talking to Jeff Cohen at FAIR and the thing is, when he goes on a show like Crossfire or something, he’s always basically handcuffed to some right-wing lunatic like Reed Irvine whose basic point is, “The media are all Communists and we should have an American Pravda which just prints what the government tells them to.” And Cohen was complaining to me, “My God, I go out, I can’t get on these shows unless I’ve got a right-wing lunatic following me around,” because they’ve always got to “balance” his point of view. I saw him on Crossfire once, paired up with one of those right-wingers, and basically Kinsley and Sununu, neither of whom I have much respect for, just sort of said, “Oh, these guys are both crazy.” [Laughs.]
GROTH: Now, ideally, what would you like — if Tom Tomorrow ran the world, what kind of government would we have ? What kind of economic system?
TOMORROW: You know, Sparky the Penguin™ is running for president, and about the only platform he has put out is, “Tax the rich and feed the hungry.” I don’t have answers for everything. It’s silly to expect a cartoonist to have any answers for anything, for that matter. I think really my point in doing this thing, the reason for me to do this is to continue to bring things into the public debate that might otherwise be overlooked. I’m a gadfly on the body politic. It’s not really my place to have answers so much as to be an irritant and fight complacency.
GROTH: Right.


TOMORROW: We should talk about comic syndication a bit. Ask me about comic syndication. [Laughs.]
GROTH: You mean daily newspaper syndication?
TOMORROW: Yeah, I mean, I went through the whole process, with the offer from United Media.
GROTH: Did you try to get syndicated?
TOMORROW: Well, at one point about a year ago when I was first running in the Examiner, I thought, “Oh, maybe I should try to hook up with a syndicate if I can, that would be a good thing to get into more dailies.” Because I knew at that point that it was going to be much harder to get into dailies than into weeklies. So I sent out a blind packet to most of the major syndicates, and most of them could not reject it quickly enough. But Sarah Gilespie of United Media did like it and was interested in it. I certainly don’t want to disparage her here, because I had good talks with her, but she was sort of constrained by the system in which she’s working.
GROTH: So it’s not her fault.
TOMORROW: Yeah. I mean, it’s not her fault in particular, it’s just the way it’s set up. The thing with syndicates is you have to realize that they’re basically a literary agent. They basically mediate between the artist and the newspapers in the way that an agent mediates between the author and the publisher — except a literary agent takes 10% of what the author gets, and the syndicates take 50% after their expenses. That’s absurd. They also demand a lot of control — United Media, when we first started negotiating, wanted to take my bloody copyright! “You people are out of your minds!” was my response. “Of course you can’t have my copyright. That’s ridiculous!” And I was in a privileged position because I was already paying my rent off these things, so I wasn’t like 99% of the cartoonists who either sign on the dotted line or forget about being a cartoonist. And there’s the chance that if you sign with them you could take off big, but a lot of strips also fail. I didn’t want to end up losing what I had because of the syndicate. Another major problem — and there were a lot of problems — in the contract was that they have the right to bring in another author or another cartoonist to do your strip if they don’t like the work you’re doing — and then charge you for the cost of this. I mean, you get this contract which is yea big, I don’t know, 20 or 30 pages just full of gems like that. The thing that killed it was that they were uncomfortable with the fact that in papers where I’d been running for years and years in a certain city, I wanted that paper to have it exclusively. I didn’t want the syndicate to be able to come into, say Baltimore, where I’ve been running in a weekly for a long time, and sell it to The Baltimore Sun, you know? It’s one thing if you’re doing daily strips and the weekly only runs one of them, there’s a certain argument to be made there. But for me, I’m doing one weekly strip and these papers that I’ve built these relationships up with, I don’t want to just trash all that. There are 1,500 daily papers in this country; the cities where exclusivity would be a problem, we’re talking about 30 or 40 tops, and maybe not even that. But they just couldn’t go for that. I was down at the American Booksellers Association convention where we talked — they’ve got a publishing deal with one of the publishers, and I walked up on a conversation with one of the very biggest bigwigs, I can’t think of his name, from this syndicate and a cartoonist who goes through him, and they were basically, at that moment I walked up, talking about this crazy cartoonist who had all these outrageous demands — me. I tried to point out that all I wanted to do was treat my long-term papers fairly, that there is a right way and a wrong way to do these things. But it just went by him, he didn’t seem to understand a word I was saying.
GROTH: Did every syndicate reject you except United?
TOMORROW: Yeah, and they’d just say, “I don’t think we can sell this at this time,” you know, those sorts of rejections.
GROTH: A form letter type thing?
TOMORROW: No, I would get personal letters from the people saying they liked the work but they didn’t think they could sell it. And they may have been right. And maybe United couldn’t have sold it, maybe none of them could. That’s why I didn’t want to give up the ground I’d gained.
GROTH: Sounds like you probably did the right thing. How do you explain an exception like Bill Griffith?
TOMORROW: I don’t know. Bill is just in a category of his own.
GROTH: There are three or four comic strips in the paper that are readable and Bill’s is one of them.
TOMORROW: It’s just remarkable that he can do what he does on a daily basis. It’s an amazing thing. He is really the exception to the rule.
GROTH: What are a couple of other strips you follow? Do you follow any strips at all?
TOMORROW: Some of them I read and just sort of grit my teeth and can’t believe how awful they are. But the ones I like in the daily paper would be Calvin and Hobbes and Doonesbury. That’s about it, really. And I’m not including editorial people.
GROTH: What about Feiffer? Do you follow him?
TOMORROW: Oh yeah. I wasn’t thinking in terms of weeklies. Yeah, I like Feiffer’s work. Mark Stamaty, who does Washingtoons, is another … I admire his complete originality.
GROTH: Are there political cartoonists like Toles that you’re really into?
TOMORROW: The thing with political cartoonists that I have to say is that too many of them just don’t think. We were talking about media bias earlier, and too many of them play right into that. During the Gulf War they did cartoons about Saddam Hussein being worse than Hitler — whether you believe it or not, it doesn’t help anybody here to do that cartoon. That’s just propaganda. That’s just saying, “Hurray for our side!” I don’t care what the country’s going through, that is not the point of an editorial cartoonist; it’s not their purpose to say, “Hurray for our side!” When they did cartoons about how smart the  smart bombs are, “They’re reading books,” ha-ha-ha. I don’t have time for that, I don’t need that.
GROTH: They’re reducing a political cartoon down to the level of a gag cartoon.
TOMORROW: Just a gag cartoon that makes no point. I mean, if it’s a gag, it’s fine if there’s an underlying comprehension of the news and of reality. There was a cartoon by a guy that was reprinted in The New York Times a few weeks ago showing Clinton, and it said, “Look for the union label,” or something like that, and the label of Clinton’s jacket read, “Whatever you guys (meaning the union) say.” And that is so far from the truth that it’s pathetic. It plays on this stereotype of Democrats being in the pocket of unions, and it’s easy to do a cartoon on a stereotype, I mean you could show Jesse Jackson eating watermelon, it would be on the same level, it’s just a stupid stereotype. The point with that is the Democratic platform did not mention unions, it was this totally pro-corporate document. The DLC, which Clinton helped found, the Democratic Leadership Council, its main purpose has been to move the Democratic party to the right. The unions basically endorse Clinton because he went to them and said, “You’re stuck with me — it’s either me or Bush. Take me or leave me.” And so they endorsed him. But it is superficial to take that and then do a cartoon saying that Clinton is going to be in the pocket of unions.
GROTH: Yeah, considering that the unions are impotent. I mean, even if he was in the pocket —
TOMORROW: Yeah, so that was one that just aggravated me because it wasn’t even that I disagreed with the underlying ideology, it’s just that it had nothing to do with reality.
GROTH: Would you argue that no right-wing point of view has anything to do with reality?
TOMORROW: No, I would not argue that. You can make the arguments, I can disagree with them, but if you have a well-thought-out base, a well-thought-out philosophy, then at least there is some belief there. And you may piss me off thoroughly —
GROTH: But you wouldn’t go so far as to say any right-wing point of view is per se thoughtless.
TOMORROW: No. I mean, it’s a close call. [Laughs.] It is pretty thoughtless when you try to blame society’s problems on welfare mothers or that sort of thing. But if you’re saying you believe the capital gains tax cuts honestly will spur investment and growth, I look at the economy and I would have a different point of view. I would tend to think that’s not really true. But at least you’ve given it some thought and thought it out — the capital gains tax cut gives the guy more money which he invests which creates jobs, I mean you have at least thought that through and you believe it, however wrong-headedly.
GROTH: It seems to me though, that almost any incredibly stupid point of view or any point of view expressed by some ignoramus will eventually find intellectual justification.
TOMORROW: That’s true. That’s what all those guys on CNN, like Sununu and Buchanan, (before he decided he was presidential material), their whole thing is they’re these paid lackeys who defend these indefensible things.
GROTH: Yeah, I’ve heard Buckley defend McCarthyism, and you figure someone who’d defend McCarthyism could defend anything.
TOMORROW: Yeah, and Buchanan is a big fan of Franco.
GROTH: There you go.
TOMORROW: So yeah, maybe you’re right, maybe we can just make a blanket statement that right-wingers are complete idiots. I was trying to be a little accommodating, but you know, maybe …
GROTH: This is The Comics Journal. There’s room for blanket statements like that.
TOMORROW: Yeah, OK, Republicans are fools, I think they should take them all out and shoot them, it’s as simple as that, Gary. [Laughs.]
GROTH: There’s the kind of quote I like.
TOMORROW: There’s a pull-quote for you! [Laughs.]
GROTH: That’s right. Just the sort of thing that got you to read the Todd McFarlane interview. That’s what we have to resort to in this day and age.
TOMORROW: [Laughs.] Yeah, you and your shoddy tabloid journalism.


GROTH: The first interview was conducted a few months before the election. The election has now come and gone … What were your feelings as to the outcome?
TOMORROW: I was reading over the transcript of that interview and one of the things that struck me, I don’t think I come across as overly optimistic about Clinton, but even at that, I made some comments about how Clinton might not be able to turn things around in four years, and then we’d get another Republican president, which implied that at the time I believed on some level that he would turn things around if he could. That may have been a bit naive on my part because I think Clinton is just as in thrall to the corporate powers that be as Bush ever was. Which is not exactly a surprise, I knew it at the time — but I was still somewhat optimistic, though I should point out that it was optimism tempered by a great deal of cynicism. In fact, I did one cartoon — I was running in color in the Examiner’s Sunday supplement magazine Image (which incidentally just folded), and due to the printer’s requirements I was working about a month ahead. So for the issue which was going to come out the week after the election, I had Sparky concede his own defeat and make some comment to the effect that a corporate-financed white guy had won the election, which I thought was a good way to handle the fact that I didn’t know who had won ahead of time, because it seemed like that was going to be true no matter what! [Laughs.] An interesting side note to that little story is that the “liberal” editor of that magazine at the time wouldn’t run that cartoon — he was a very wishy-washy Michael Kinsley sort of liberal, and he wouldn’t run it because he thought it was too radical, which is really ironic because I think most people assumed during those days that I was probably getting the most trouble in my daily papers with my Bush-bashing stuff, but the only time I was actually ever censored was by a middle-of-the-road liberal defending Clinton. Especially right after he got elected, there was a sense that we can’t attack him, whatever he does, we’ve got to stand by him. Even now people are saying that labor unions just have to defend Clinton anyway because the alternative is so much worse — but I think the left should be his harshest critic. The left is supposedly his constituency, at least to some degree. I don’t think it behooves anyone to remain silent. I think we have to speak out as much as possible.
groth_tomorrowOGROTH: Did you happen to read the interview with Clinton in the latest issue of Rolling Stone?
GROTH: Toward the end of it, during that last tirade of frustration —
TOMORROW: When he blew up at the liberal press?
GROTH: Yeah. What did you think of that?
TOMORROW: Well, I did a cartoon recently based on a thing I read in The Nation about how Disneyland has just installed an audio animatronic Bill Clinton robot which actually gives a speech, and in my cartoon, Sparky has snuck in and switched the tape so Bill Clinton is saying, “I supported NAFTA, I’m returning Haitian refugees and I’m even joining George Bush in decrying the liberal press. Basically there’s hardly any difference between Democrats and Republicans any more — the only difference is between outsiders like you and insiders like me.” I think it’s absurd that he decries the liberal press. It was especially ironic because that came out the week the “liberal” press had been praising him to high heaven for supporting NAFTA.
GROTH: Aside from NAFTA, can you give me examples of policy decisions he’s made that reflect his slavishness to corporate power?
TOMORROW: Well, NAFTA is certainly the best example of that. Another thing, which is insidious because it’s being painted the other way, is his health care reform. The media perception has been that Bill Clinton is taking on the insurance industry. The fact of the matter is, what Bill Clinton is taking on is medium-sized insurers who will probably be wiped out if his reform happens as is. But his plan is embraced by the top five or six insurance companies in the country, the really major ones, because they’re buying up all the HMOs, they’re going to run the whole show. They’re going to make incredible profits on this whole thing. So it’s pretty disingenuous when Hillary Clinton goes on TV and says, “We’ve got to stand up against these insurers,” because as Norman Soloman the media critic has pointed out, their plan could eventually be called the Health Insurance Preservation Act. But it’s a really insidious thing because you get the Rush Limbaugh listeners calling in and complaining about how it’s socialized medicine. Reality gets so skewed.
GROTH: Do you think Clinton’s health care reform is worse than what we’ve got now?
TOMORROW: It’s hard to imagine anything worse than what we have now. I was talking to a filmmaker from Canada who called me up to talk about working on a project together, and I got him on the subject of health care and he was completely befuddled by our system, it made no sense to him whatsoever that we have these middle men, the insurance industry, standing between the patient and the doctor for no point except to line their own pockets. He just couldn’t comprehend the point. I realized he viewed health care in much the same way as we view the police department: pay your taxes, it’s there, you don’t think about it, and you don’t have to mortgage your house if you need their services.
GROTH: Well, actually health care is very much like the police department insofar as the police don’t protect the poor either.
TOMORROW: Wow! [Laughs.] OK, the police department in the best of all possible worlds. Maybe that’s a bad analogy, but you see what I’m getting at. And the thing with health care is that it’s perfect Clinton because he should have come in pushing for a single payer system and then maybe allowed himself to be compromised down to this managed competition plan. But by coming in and putting out managed competition as the first proposal, then this thing, as flawed as it is, is going to be chipped way out and weakened even further by all the various special interests who are reluctant to give up any of the cash cow they’ve been milking for many decades. So it’s a very frustrating thing to watch. He’s just a bad poker player, basically — he puts all his cards on the table from the start. I mean, maybe he’s giving himself room to bluff here, maybe he considers managed competition just an opening bid—but if that’s the case, we’re in more trouble than we know.
The thing with Clinton is, he doesn’t stand up for anything. The incident with Salman Rushdie was perfect Clinton — he has a meeting with Salman Rushdie, which is the right thing to do, but then he backs off as soon as anyone gets mad at him. He says, “Oh, we didn’t really have a meeting, we just sort of passed each other in the hallway.”
groth_tomorrowB GROTH: Right, that was pretty contemptible even by his compromised standards. Let me ask you a minor philosophical question which is, assuming you weren’t as naive as you were about Clinton, and you knew what was going to happen, do you think the best course of action would have been to vote for him anyway, or would you have abstained altogether?
TOMORROW: The point is we’ve got him now so we’ve got to push him as much as we can. But what choice did we have? Bush or Perot? I mean, choose the least of three evils. I know plenty of people who just didn’t vote because they didn’t want anything to do with it. But I would still stand by what I said a year ago, that the differences are pretty marginal, but you sort of have to take what you can get sometimes.
GROTH: Not withstanding the one cartoon being rejected from that one paper, how is the strip being received? Are you adding papers?
TOMORROW: Yeah, I’ve added about 20 papers in the last year.
GROTH: So Tom Tomorrow is a growth industry.
TOMORROW: [Laughs.] Yeah, I’m thinking of taking it public.
GROTH: Has the strip changed in any way over the last year? Have you changed?
TOMORROW: I think I try to constantly experiment with it, but I don’t know if it’s changing so much as just evolving.
GROTH: Do you have any new venues for the strip?
TOMORROW: I’m going to start doing a monthly strip for Spin magazine which I’m excited about, for the broader scope, appearing in a national magazine which has a pretty hip, educated audience. I think it’s going to be a good thing.
GROTH: Their audience is Generation X?
TOMORROW: I guess that’s how you’d put it.
GROTH: What is your feeling as to the potential of Generation X? There is a question about whether they’re all just a bunch of slackers …
TOMORROW: No, I don’t buy that at all. I have a problem with identifying a whole segment of the American population by their birth date. In fact, the first one I did for Spin is about how the media try to pigeonhole potential consumers in this way for the benefit of their advertisers. If you’ve been reading these trend stories, the whole Generation X thing started about ten years ago when I was 22, and now it’s used to identify people who are now 22. So the whole thing is very malleable depending on who’s writing the article, and what point they want to make. There’s a young cartoonist here in San Francisco named Dave Eggers who’s starting up a magazine aimed at that age group, but he’s taking a real different tact — he faxed over one of the articles, a very funny put-down of the lifestyle articles—it’s How to Write a Generation X Article, and it goes through all the clichés, and concludes by saying, “Don’t forget the obligatory disclaimer, such as, ‘The only thing one can really predict about Xers is their unpredictability.’” I think that too often this whole generational identity thing is just a media fiction being exploited by self-promoting hucksters. There was a real good article in The Nation a few months back called, “Me and My Zeitgeist,” about what the writer called the Zeitgeist industry — particularly these guys in this organization Lead or Leave, which professes to be a grass roots organization in which 20-somethings are organizing around the problem of the deficit. In other words, they’re trying to sell the idea that there’s a spontaneous youth movement around whether or not people in their 20s will get Social Security when they’re in their 60s, which doesn’t seem like the most natural topic for a youth movement to anyone who gives it a second’s worth of thought. But the media have bought right into it. Part of the reason for that is that it’s got this real sexy hook because it’s generational warfare, they’re going along with the Paul Tsongas and Warren Rudman line that the main problem with our society is greedy Social Security recipients and their entitlements. I happen to think that a civilized society takes care of its weakest members. I know my aged grandparents lived on Social Security and would have been in serious trouble if they hadn’t had it. I think it’s one of the better social programs. It may have its problems, but I think it’s a darned good thing.
groth_tomorrowYIt’s really ironic when you consider the military budget right now. All of Clinton’s supposedly enormous cuts to the military budget have left us with just 10% less than George Bush’s Cold War budget. We’re still just basically burning billions of dollars so we can fight two or three wars at once. It looks like we’re going to build another nuclear submarine that we have no need for. There’s pork just being thrown out across the land and these morons in Lead or Leave are saying how we balance the budget is by cutting Social Security. I don’t have the statistics on this for sure, but someone told me recently that Harper’s Index noted that the Pentagon loses 40 billion dollars just on overcharges and contractor fraud every year. Why not a youth movement which says: what we need to do is rearrange our societal priorities, that we need to take some of the military budget and start paying off this deficit. There’s also just a great fallacy — our deficit actually is smaller as a percentage of GNP than it was in the ’40s, which not many people realize. It’s smaller than France’s or Italy’s. What this Nation writer pointed out is that paying off the deficit quickly would enrich wealthy bondholders of all ages at everyone else’s expense — that, in other words, it is a class issue, not a generational issue. I mean, it must be great fun to set yourself up as the voice of your generation, but frankly, I don’t think there are a lot of people in their 20s waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat thinking, “Oh my god, the deficit!”
GROTH: So regarding this strip in Spin, are you changing the focus of the strip slightly to aim at that audience?
TOMORROW: I’m not really sure. I never really have any kind of far-reaching plans for the strip. I’m really just going week to week or in this case, month to month.
GROTH: Is this a full page, by the way?
TOMORROW: No, it’s going to be four panels, I’m not sure how big they’re going to run it, I just wanted to do it in my usual size. The first one I did is about how the media manipulates youth trends, youth movements. I imagine that I will tend to focus on things that might be of more interest to Spin’s audience. The thing with an opportunity like this is I’ve got this audience that I know will understand the pop culture references that I’m making, so it gives me a sort of freedom. So I’m going to aim it at them but I’m going to do what I’m going to do. It’s quite an intelligent magazine. I was just reading the new issue and they’ve got an interview with Neil Postman and a big article on the aftermath of nuclear testing in the ’50s — it’s not just some mindless music magazine by any means. •

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The Al Feldstein Interview Mon, 05 May 2014 12:00:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> In this 1995 interview for The Comics Journal #177 (May 1995), Al Feldstein takes Steve Ringgenberg behind the scenes of Mad, EC, show biz and more.

1978 Feldstein photo courtesy of E. B. Boatner.

1978 Feldstein photo courtesy of E. B. Boatner.

Al Feldstein is one of the true originals of the comics business, a multi-talented writer / editor / artist who has been imitated for 40 years. For all his talent and undisputed creative influence, Feldstein has remained a relatively unknown commodity.

Feldstein’s output is impressive: during the EC era, he produced hundreds of literate, well-written scripts, as well as dozens of covers and hundreds of pages of interior art, all rendered in his stiff, but graphically powerful, style. When EC folded its tents in the mid-’50s, leaving Gaines with Mad magazine as his sole publication, it was Feldstein who kept Mad alive. Feldstein did more than that; he presided over Mad’s transformation into one of the icons of the publishing industry.

Feldstein has been interviewed infrequently. This is one of his longest interviews to date. I found Feldstein to be frank, outspoken and funny. His intimate knowledge of the EC era and Mad history makes him an invaluable historical resource.

— S. C. Ringgenberg

STEVEN RINGGENBERG: When did you become interested in comics?

AL FELDSTEIN: I was going to the High School of Music and Arts, studying to be a fine artist before I made up my mind that I wanted to be an art teacher and I needed money. This is back at the end of the Depression. My folks could hardly afford to give me the money for the subway fare, no less money for dates, so I had to seek ways of earning money. I’d heard that one of the guys in the school was doing comic-book artwork and getting paid very well, like $20 a page, which seemed like a lot of money at the time. I had never read a comic, so I got a couple. I borrowed a couple of comics from somebody and made up a sample portfolio and I went around looking for work. I got a job at an art service, a studio that was working for various publishers.

RINGGENBERG: Was that the Iger studio?

FELDSTEIN: That’s the S.M. Iger studio. It was originally Eisner and Iger, and when I got there they had just broken up and Will Eisner had gone off on his own. Jerry Iger was still servicing various [publishers]. Fiction House and Quality Comics and a few of those. I met some of the really great artists of their time who worked there. I started by erasing pages and running errands and eventually worked up to inking backgrounds and then drawing and inking backgrounds, and eventually worked up to inking figures. It was kind of an assembly line.

RINGGENBERG: How old were you when you started?

FELDSTEIN: I was 15 when I first started to work after school for a few hours at five dollars a week, running the errands and erasing the pages and stuff. Then I worked there during the summers, and eventually I was going to high school. When I graduated from high school, I had a scholarship to the Art Students League and I had made up my mind I wanted to be an art teacher because the teachers at Music and Art lived a pretty good life and I thought, “Wow, gee, $10,000 a year.” You see, I was going to Brooklyn College during the day and going to the Art Students League at night and working in the summers in this art studio, and then along came the threat of the draft. This was during the ’40s, so I enlisted in the Air Force. When I came out of the Air Force, I was going to go back to school to become an art teacher and I took a job in the interim, until the semester started, and I started to make more money than as an art teacher after I left Jerry and started to freelance. I went back to Jerry Iger’s place for a while, and then I started to freelance.

RINGGENBERG: Tell me, was working for Iger pretty good training?

FELDSTEIN: Excellent, because all you did was draw or be exposed to other people’s art.

RINGGENBERG: Who were some of the people you worked around?

FELDSTEIN: Well, let’s see. There was Bob Webb, who was doing Sheena, and there was Reed Crandall.

RINGGENBERG: So you knew Reed Crandall before he worked for EC?

FELDSTEIN: Oh, yes. When Reed showed up to do EC work I was delighted to have him. You know, a lot of the names slip my mind. You’re talking 45 years ago.

RINGGENBERG: A long time.

FELDSTEIN: But there were a lot of good ones there.

RINGGENBEBG: Did you ever work with Matt Baker?

FELDSTEIN: Yes, I worked with Matt Baker. When I came back from the service, Matt was at Jerry’s. I worked with Matt and with Jack Kamen. Matt died but Jack came to work for me at EC.

RINGGENBERG: Had you ever worked with Graham Ingels before he worked for EC?

FELDSTEIN: No. I met Graham when I came to Bill Gaines.

RINGGENBERG: Was Graham already working for Bill?

FELDSTEIN: Yes, he was.

RINGGENBERG: He was doing Westerns, wasn’t he?

FELDSTEIN: That’s right. That’s what I did too when I first … After the war, when I started to freelance, I ended up packaging teenage books for Fox and I was doing a magazine called Junior and one called Sunny, and then an adaptation of the radio script for a magazine called Corliss Archer. They were teenage books and I was kind of unhappy with Fox. The teenage market really was not that great.

Bill Gaines’ father had been killed in a motorboat accident on Lake Placid, while Bill was going to college. There had been a business manager there named Sol Cohen who was looking for ways to continue the business for the family and he sent word through my letterer that he wanted to talk to me about a teenage book. So I went down there and met Bill and Sol, and Bill drew up a contract. I was going to do a magazine for them called Going Steady With Peggy. Then the sales on the teenage market were showing a weakness. This was something I will get into again, but this was a problem in the industry. There were 600-and-some-odd titles at that time. This is before television and the Senate investigations going on — that kind of hurt the industry. What would happen is that somebody like Simon and Kirby would come up with a romance magazine, or Bob Wood would come up with Crime Does Not Pay for Lev Gleason, and they would start to sell, and everybody would jump on the bandwagon and do a crime magazine or a romance magazine, or a teenage magazine like Archie, you know?

So it was an industry of a few innovators and a lot of followers. Anyway, when I came down there, Sol wanted to follow this teenage trend, and of course the trend was starting to die because then the leaders stay up there, but the imitators start to die because there’s a flood of them. So I said to Bill, “Well, let’s tear up the contract,” which he was very grateful for. I mean, he put me to work writing and drawing whatever I could. I started to do scripts that he had been getting, but I said, “Listen, I can write my own scripts better than this.”

So I was doing Western and crime and I came to him one day and said, “Look Bill, why are we following these idiots and, when the trend dies, getting caught? Why don’t we innovate, and why don’t we have people follow us?” At that time we were very good friends. We used to go to roller derby together and he used to drive me home because we both lived in Brooklyn. We’d chat on the way home and we got to talking about what we liked when we were kids. Bill was a science-fiction and horror fan, and I was a horror-movie fan, and I said, “Why don’t we try horror?” I reminded him about the “Old Witch’s Tale” on Lights Out, Arch Oboler’s stuff on radio.

Feldstein wrote, and Jack Kamen drew, this page from Haunt of Fear #16

Feldstein wrote, and Jack Kamen drew, this page from Haunt of Fear #16 (July-August 1950)


RINGGENBERG: Was “The Witch’s Tale” on the radio your inspiration for EC’s Old Witch?

FELDSTEIN: Yeah, kind of. Yeah, of course. Well actually, what happened was we used the inspiration for the Crypt Keeper. Then Bill wanted more than two, so I did the Vault Keeper, and then I did the Old Witch.

RINGGENBERG: So you were the one who created those characters?

FELDSTEIN: He said, “OK, let’s try it. Let’s put one of your horror stories into Crime Patrol. So I invented what I called “The Crypt of Terror,” or “The Crypt Keeper.” I wrote a story and drew it and then suggested that we try one in War Against Crime. So in War Against Crime we did “The Vault of Horror.” Suddenly the magazine started to show a little sign of increased sales. Even on a basis of check-ups, not on the basis of final sales, he said, “Let’s just change the title.” Now, in those days, magazines were distributed by the U.S. mail through something called Second Class Entry, which was the specific way to ship magazines through the U.S. mail. You had to maintain a Second Class Entry status, and there was a fee to start the status. To avoid a new title and having to pay a new fee, all you’d do is change an old title and hold the same Second Class Entry, so War Against Crime became The Vault of Horror, and Crime Patrol became The Crypt of Terror, for a few issues, and then it became Tales from the Crypt.

He said, “Let’s do a whole magazine.” It was in The Vault of Horror, I think, I first did The Witch’s Cauldron and then eventually did The Haunt of Fear, which was the Witch’s magazine. Now originally I did all three, but then, of course, it was getting to the point where I couldn’t do all this artwork and write the stories too, because Bill had gotten really excited about starting to plot stories when he realized I could write them. He wanted to get into the plotting end of it. He had trouble sleeping because he was constantly dieting and taking Dexedrine and Dexedrine would keep him awake at night. It would also kill his appetite, but it would keep him awake at night, so he’d read. He’d come in in the morning — and this became the modus operandi so to speak — he would come in in the morning with what he called “springboards,” which were little notes about some of the stories or things he had read.

RINGGENBERG: How long were these? Maybe a sentence or two?

FELDSTEIN: [Laughs.] They weren’t even a sentence. Not a sentence. And of course we would try very hard not to steal the story completely, you know, but they would become springboards. We would chat about what to do with that kind of idea, and we would try and do variations, and eventually we started to plot. I started to write four stories a week — well, eventually it was seven titles that I was writing for. On the fifth day we would edit. What would happen is, we would plot it in the morning, and then we’d go out to Patrissy’s and have a big Italian meal. Then I’d go up into the studio, which originally was in the main office, but eventually he got me a studio upstairs so I’d have privacy and not be disturbed. I’d write the story directly onto the illustration board. And I’d start the balloons two lines below the border of the panel, after I’d rule it up and lay it out. Then Jim Roten would letter in the balloons, and that’s how he could read it — because I’d leave a space. But this is all kind of technical.

RINGGENBERG: Why did you choose to use the Leroy lettering?

FELDSTEIN: Bill had been using it. I didn’t particularly care for it. And especially because I was doing a lot of underlining for reading assistance, and the bold lettering would be too big. When Harvey came to work for us, he did Frontline Combat and refused to use Leroy lettering. I think he was right. I think that the EC stuff would have been much better without Leroy lettering but we were stuck with it, and Jim was a friend, and you kind of have loyalty. Bill always had loyalty so we just stayed with it.

RINGGENBERG: OK, so you were doing the horror comics. Then …

FELDSTEIN: The horror, then we did science fiction. That was the next thing because Bill was a science-fiction fan. Now our science-fiction magazines, Weird Science and Weird Fantasy, when we instituted them, were never as successful as the horror ones. As a matter of fact, the horror ones kind of supported them for a while until they took off. They were never the profit-makers that the horrors were … but we loved them.

RINGGENBERG: Did they make any money?

FELDSTEIN: Oh yeah. They did not lose money. But they weren’t as big as the horror. We enjoyed them and they caught on after a while because we entered into that period where they were sighting UFOs and things were getting interesting. Science fiction was getting a little more popular, so we were doing well with those two. Then we invented two crime-type magazines, but they weren’t crime in the Crime Does Not Pay sense; they were snap-ending, poetic justice, O. Henry-type stories in the crime venue. They were Crime SuspenStories and Shock SuspenStories.

RINGGENBERG: The material in those was pretty hard-edged, I think, because it was more realistic than the horror comics.

FELDSTEIN: Yeah, well, as a matter of fact that’s where we did a lot of preachy stuff, a lot of, you know — we hit the drug area, racial area, things like that. That was my love because I was an ultra-liberal when I was young, and a socially conscious person, having grown up in the Depression and seeing my parents lose their home, etc., etc. So this was a good outlet for some of the stuff that I wanted to do, that had some social commentary, and which was a predecessor of the social commentary in Mad.

In the meantime, a young man walked into my office, and I was at my peak at that time. I just couldn’t write any more, and I was not even doing as much artwork. I was doing covers and occasional lead stories. So Bill was paying me an editorial fee rather than an art fee, which maintained my income. So Johnny Craig took over Vault of Horror. Well, he took over the lead story anyway, “The Vault Keeper,” and Graham took over “The Old Witch.” But we would write the rest of the stories. Well, Graham didn’t write his stories. We wrote all of Graham’s for him, but Johnny wrote his own.

RINGGENBERG: Didn’t Craig eventually take over editing Vault of Horror?

FELDSTEIN: Vault of Horror? Kind of, yeah. He kind of edited it with Bill. But he only wrote the lead story. Bill and I would write the rest of the stories in it. So it was like he was appointed the editor because he did the lead story.


RINGGENBERG: Did you ever have days when you were blocked and you couldn’t actually write the script you needed that day?

FELDSTEIN: [Laughs.] Well, it’s funny you should ask. Yes. Once we had a blockage, and I had been fishing that weekend, so I told Bill that I’d write a story because I had gotten a feeling for a story while I was fishing. I had a Surfcaster in Long Island where I lived, so I did the story where the the guy is fishing and he picks up the sandwich and gets dragged into the water. You remember that one?


FELDSTEIN: Well, that was a block. The other one that I remember clearly as being a blocked day was when he said, “Oh, Jesus, I can’t do anything today. Go write something.” So I went upstairs and did “My World,” which was a science-fiction pièce de résistance, I think, that Wally [Wood] drew so well, and it became a pretty famous story. But it was really mine because I wrote it.

RINGGENBERG: You say that was the result of a blockage, but that story really is a classic. It’s been reprinted so many times.

FELDSTEIN: Yeah, well, when I said blockage, I meant an idea block in terms of plot and not blockage in terms of my writing. I was prolific and I loved to write. In fact I think I overwrote in some instances. But yeah, that has become a classic. The interesting thing is that in all of these stories I wrote I never got actual credit for writing, although little by little the fans have discovered that [I wrote] all of those early stories. I didn’t start to work with writers until later on. And still, they were completely rewritten.

RINGGENBERG: The story of how EC came to work with Ray Bradbury has been gone over many times.

FELDSTEIN: Whatever story it is, it’s true. Bill and I adapted an idea that we thought was different, and it turned out that it was pretty close to Mr. Bradbury’s story, and I didn’t know anything about this. See, I was not the springboard guy, Bill was. He wrote to us and said, “Hey you guys, you stole my story.” And Bill says, “No we didn’t. But here’s $25 and can we steal some more?” So he allowed us to, because he liked what we did. He allowed us to adapt his stories, and that’s where I really got kind of interested in writing. Because I absolutely admired and adored Ray Bradbury’s writing, and I tried to imitate it in some of the writing I did for the science fiction and later on for the rest of the stuff.

RINGGENBERG: Were there any other science-fiction or horror writers whose stories you paid to adapt, like Katherine Kurtz?

FELDSTEIN: No. I think we adapted [Otto] Binder’s, there was something called “I, Robot”…

RINGGENBERG: The Adam Link stories.

FELDSTEIN: Adam Link. I think we adapted a few of those. But nothing as extensive as Ray Bradbury. We only had four stories an issue and to do one adaptation — we’d still want to do originals. Bill and I enjoyed plotting them.

RINGGENBERG: I remember seeing one credited for the original inspiration to Guy de Maupassant. I think it was the one about the emerald necklace.

FELDSTEIN: Oh yeah, yeah. We adapted stories with switch endings like O. Henry’s short stories, like the hairbrush and the watch fob — you know that one?


FELDSTEIN: We did many switches on that kind of thing. We also got into some formulaic plots too, like what we called “The Preachies,” which were poetic justice kind of things. You step on a cockroach and a cockroach steps on you kind of thing.

RINGGENBERG: It seems like you gave a lot of those to Graham Ingels — the-worm-turns, little-guy-gets-his-revenge stories.

FELDSTEIN: In the horror trend, yeah. But we also did them in science fiction. We had interesting science-fiction plots where space explorers would end up in zoos, things like that, plotting an alien civilization. We just tried everything. We really had a wonderful time doing all that stuff. And of course, in the mid-’50s, ’53 or ’54, Estes Kefauver wanted to be president and he started a Senate investigation into organized crime in America. As part of this investigation committee, there was a subcommittee on juvenile delinquency which was getting to be a problem for the young parents that had come back from the war and were used to having the Army tell them what to do.

They wanted people to tell them how to bring up their kids, which is why Spock did so well with his book. So they all wanted a little help in this thing, they wanted some sort of guidance. Of course it went overboard, like everything else goes overboard, and the Senate Subcommittee investigating juvenile delinquency took on the comics because they had this self-appointed expert named Wertham. Of course this was like the end of our Golden Era, as it was, because we suddenly became these terrible people who were doing these awful things. All we were doing was entertaining; I wrote a horror story that was all tongue in cheek. The Crypt-Keeper made terrible puns, horror puns, about the plot or whatever, much like it is now being adapted on HBO.


RINGGENBERG: Bill Gaines’ reaction to the whole Senate hearing thing has been well documented. How did you feel at the time, Al? Were you scared?

FELDSTEIN: Well, I was concerned in terms of my bread and butter. I had a wife and babies, a mortgage, and yes, I was scared. I appeared in a closed session with them and they never called me to appear in public — I guess because I explained to them that I was acting as a professional and writing what I thought would sell, that we had no intention of destroying American youth, we weren’t forcing people to buy the magazine and the whole thing really was off to a lot of undercurrents. There were a lot of things I’ve heard since and have come to understand since. For example: There was a whole movement to try and enter into the freedom of the press area, in terms of censorship, and that  helped to champion this particular cause. Also, the industry was annoyed as hell at us because we were starting to take away some of their sales from their funny little animals and their kids’ stuff.

We were writing rather adult material and the kids loved the horror and the science fiction, and we were upstarts. They would have liked to have put us out of business, which they eventually did with the self-censorship group, the Comics Code Authority, which gave me such a hard time, even with my New Direction stuff, that I eventually … It was just awful. Eventually, we had to go out of business. Bill Gaines became enamored with a gentleman named Lyle Stuart, who was running a kind of a muckraking newspaper called The Independent. Old Mr. Lee, who was our business manager, took care of the books and managed the office, and was going to retire. He invited Lyle to become the business manager of the office. So Bill and I were no longer as close as we were.

RINGGENBERG: How did you feel about Stuart? I mean personally?

FELDSTEIN: Well, he was an interesting guy. I had admiration for him for protesting the bounds of censorship in those days because I really believed in freedom of the press. I believed that anybody should be able to read what they wanted to read and probably should be able to say what they wanted to say, and I always have stuck to that, even through the Mad years. But the point was, Lyle had antagonized Walter Winchell, who was quite a powerhouse in those days, in his Independent newspaper with exposés, etc.

"Night Before Christmas" parody from Panic #1, written by Feldstein and drawn by Will Elder (February-March 1954)

“Night Before Christmas” parody from Panic #1, written by Feldstein and drawn by Will Elder (February-March 1954)

I wasn’t too familiar with what he did, but I found out that Walter was after him and that’s one of the reasons we might have run into trouble with some of our [comics], like Panic, in Hartford, when they banned Panic because we did a takeoff on the “Night Before Christmas” poem. I mean, it was getting ridiculous! But Walter Winchell had some friends in various places in the New York City Police Department. We got raided for a Mickey Spillane takeoff. Panic got a couple of blasts. Look, I’m not sure if this is true, and it’s something that I will not attest to, but it was discussed with me by a gentleman who interviewed me like the way you’re interviewing me in terms of writing about that item, and about Walter Winchell and his influence.

RINGGENBERG: That’s interesting. Tell me, was Panic a success? Did it sell well?

FELDSTEIN: It sold. I didn’t sell like Mad, but it sold. It was at least my training ground for taking over Mad when Harvey left. I was doing the New Direction magazines and Panic and having a hell of a time getting all this stuff through the censorship judge — what the hell was his name? Murphy was the czar at that time. They were really tough on us. I think they were too tough on us because they wanted to nail the publisher. There’s that famous story about the science-fiction story we liked to rerun, about the orange robots and the blue robots and this space galaxy investigator comes to see whether this planet is ready for admission into the galactic empire, and he decides that they’re not ready because there’s prejudice.

RINGGENBERG: Right. “Judgment Day.” Another classic.

FELDSTEIN: Right. Yeah, and the last scene was that he took off his helmet and he was black, which was a socko demonstration that yes, racial equality now existed in the universe. And Murphy wanted to change it. He couldn’t be black. I mean, we were really disgusted. It was arbitrary. It was unfounded. [He] had no reason to be on us about this. But that’s what we’d been going through. After we had had so much fun doing all this stuff, it was really kind of a drag. And the other [thing] of course: What happened was that Leader News Company, who was distributing our stuff and imitating our stuff, putting out their own horror comics and science-fiction comics, when the debacle happened, they got caught and not only started to lose money on their publications, but they were getting into trouble with the distributor and we were in trouble with [them] because financially we were dependent on them for our advances and for our settlements of our sales.

So when they went bankrupt, we really were in big trouble, and that’s when Harvey … Well, we had taken Mad out of that mess because we knew Mad could not get through the censorship code and we turned it into this 25¢ larger magazine, and had luckily gotten a different distributor for it. Harvey saw the handwriting on the wall that EC was going to go down the drain, and he had been contacted by or he contacted — I don’t know which — Hugh Hefner, to do a kind of slick version of Mad. So he came to Bill and demanded 51 percent control of the magazine, and Bill told him to go to hell. Meantime, I was out looking for a job just because we had dropped everything except Mad.

RINGGENBERG: What did you do after all the titles except Mad folded?

FELDSTEIN: It was about a two-and-a-half-month period. I’m not sure exactly how long it was because I’ve repressed it. But I wrote a couple of scripts for Stan Lee and I was looking for a job with a publisher starting a new line of comics and I had lots of ideas and I had dummies and everything I had made up. I had just made a contact and the guy was extremely interested, and we were going to have an agreement conference. I got off the Long Island railroad after being reassured that I had a place there and that he was very interested. I got off the train and there was Bill waiting for me in Merrick, Long Island. He said. “Harvey quit. What do we do? I want you to come back to work for me.”

I said, “What do you mean, what do you do? You do Mad is what you do.”

He said, “Well, do you think you can do it?”

I said, “You’re damn right I can do it. And I’ll do it the way I’ve always dreamed of doing it.” Now, you have to go back, I want to go back for a minute. Harvey and Johnny and Bill and I, at work, we were kind of a family, and we had a lot of bull sessions together. We would brainstorm together. I used to walk Harvey home from the office to the subway station and chat with him. When he first started Mad, he was doing nothing but satires of the kind of stories we were doing in the other magazines, which is what originally Mad started out to do — to satirize our stories, the science-fiction and crime stories.

If you look at issues #1 through #3 or so, that’s what they were. I said, “Why don’t you satirize other things besides the comics industry? Why don’t you satirize America? Why don’t you satirize movies? Why don’t you satirize comic strips? The radio programs and stuff like that?” So he started to do that. The Lone Ranger was one, then “Superduperman” kind of  helped Mad take off. Then he started to do King Kong and the rest of them, and that was the pattern. Then of course when Mad was turned into a slick, he was pretty well set on where he was going — but it all came out of a cooperative input on the part of all of us, especially me. So I told Bill, “You know, Bill, I…” and I showed him a dummy of a magazine I had been carrying around that I had wanted to do. It was a little more sophisticated than Mad, and was going to be a showcase of all of these new comedians who were showing up, like Nichols and May, and Shelly Berman and, if I could keep him clean, Lenny Bruce.

I wanted to do this magazine where they would have a free rein in it. That’s the first I did when I took over Mad, aside from adopting a mascot, because Playboy had the rabbit, and Esquire had the old lecher, Mr. Esky, with the high hat and bug eyes. I said, “Let’s take this little thing that Harvey was fooling around with, and actually make it into something that we can use in our cover all the time instead of just in the border.” So I hired a portrait artist to paint this definitive portrait, and I gave him the name, Alfred E. Neuman. Alfred E. Neuman was a name that had been kicking around the office, and I had used it as a pseudonym in the Picto-Fiction magazines. Whenever there was a second story that I had written I gave Alfred E. Neuman as the author because I didn’t want it to seem that I wrote half the book because there were only four stories in it. So there would be a story with my byline, and there would be a story with Alfred E. Neuman’s. You can find those in those old Picto-Fiction magazines. So, I kind of liked that name, and when I started to use Alfred as our cover logo mascot and started to define the philosophy of the magazine, I had him named Alfred E. Neuman, and I had Norman Mingo paint the portrait, and that’s where we started from.

Finally I took over Mad and as an experiment I went to Ernie Kovacs, and Bob and Ray and I said, “You know, I’d like to adapt some of your stuff into this magazine, make it kind of a showcase for you.” You can see that the early issues had lots of Jean Shepherd, Danny Kaye, and Ernie, of course, and that’s how I developed two wonderful talents [Bob and Ray] that became mainstays of the magazine. Tom Koch was writing for Bob and Ray and I had picked up a couple of his scripts and was adapting them for Mad and I asked him if he’d like to write for us too, and that’s how he got started with us.

Then I needed some artwork, or artists, because Harvey had taken everybody when he went to Hefner, and some kid walked into the office and he had been doing kind of hillbilly stuff and some work for DC. His name was Mort Drucker. I said to him, “Mort, did you ever do a caricature?” He said no. “Well, I’ve got this script here of Bob and Ray and I need to have somebody who can make it look like Bob and Ray are doing the characters. Here are two 8-by-10s, one for Bob, and one for Ray,” He brought back these caricatures of Bob and Ray, which we published on the top of the first story of the adaptation of the Bob and Ray stuff, which was “Mr. Science.” Which was the takeoff of Mr. Wizard, and that’s how Mort Drucker got started in caricature, and I think now he’s probably one of the best caricaturists in the country.


RINGGENBERG: It’s interesting how many of the EC alumni, like Jack Davis, Drucker and Frank Frazetta, have gone on to be fabulously successful.

FELDSTEIN: Well, Frank had been moderately successful in the comic business and we were lucky to get him for the time that we did, and he did that wonderful painting for me of Ringo Starr for the Breck ad that we ran.

Frank Frazetta drew this Breck shampoo ad parody for Mad #90 (October 1964)

Frank Frazetta drew this Breck shampoo ad parody for Mad #90 (October 1964)

RINGGENBERG: He only did a couple of things for Mad.

FELDSTEIN: We ran into this problem that his wife had decided she would not permit anybody to buy his artwork outright. Bill was not having any part of it, so we just couldn’t use him. I felt it was a legitimate claim and I had always been empathic to artists, but I was always empathic to writers too, because the artists weren’t worth a damn without good writing. As a matter of fact, it was through my efforts that eventually — and when I started in the business I used to get seven dollars for a page of script and $21 a page for of art, or something like that, three times the amount — and very quickly on, when I started to use script writers and especially when I took over Mad, I convinced Bill that the writing was extremely important and that these artists were great, but we needed the words to help the pictures. Because just pictures alone isn’t going to do it. We eventually got to the point where we were paying equal rates per page, for art and script.

When we were developing the writers for Mad, a lot of them were found through the mail by both myself and Jerry DeFuccio and Nick Meglin, who had come to work for me. Writers like Larry Siegel and Stan Hart and Arnie Kogen, I had pushed to pay them for each page of Mad as much as the artists got, because without it, we didn’t have a magazine. And that, of course, I assume, continued since I’ve left.

RINGGENBERG: I think Mad pays some of the highest rates for script in the business.

FELDSTEIN: Well, I can’t tell you what’s gone on since 1984, when I left, but we were paying very well. The only thing is, guys like Hart and Siegel and Kogen went to California and got jobs with Carol Burnett and Bob Newhart and people like that, and they were getting paid a lot of money — yet they were kind enough to continue to write for me out of a kind of loyalty and an appreciation for the fact that I gave them their start. When they went west to the television city, they would tell me that their best credits were the credits that they had written for Mad, and that that had got them entry into many, many jobs. So that was kind of gratifying.

RINGGENBERG: Was that when you started realizing that Mad was becoming a cultural force to be reckoned with?

FELDSTEIN: Yeah. Well, it became a culmination of my dream as an editor/writer/artist that I was able to have a product that was as effective and as far-reaching as Mad became. As an aside, when I first took over Mad, it was doing fairly well, and I’m talking about through the mid-’50s. I took over in spring of ’55 or fall of ’55. I took over some of Harvey’s material and then started to develop some of my own as I finished that inventory.

RINGGENBERG: How much material did Harvey leave you with when he left?

FELDSTEIN: I closed up an issue that he had done, and then I had about half an issue of material he had bought for the next issue. I disposed of that in the magazine.

RINGGENBERG: Were you in the position of having to really scramble to get that next issue out?

FELDSTEIN: It was tough, yeah. Jerry and I wrote the whole thing ourselves because we didn’t have any writers and I think our first writer who walked in was Frank Jacobs. I welcomed him with open arms and started buying material. I tell you, it was like I was under a charm. I was really extremely lucky when I took over this project of trying to continue Mad and make it work, because out of the woodwork came all of these wonderful associates. Bob Clarke walked in looking for work. I told you about Mort Drucker, but that was a little later on. Early on, Jack Davis came back from Harvey and started to work for me.

A little later on Al Jaffee came back from Harvey and started to work for me when Harvey got into trouble. The writers started to appear through the mail or directly. Don Martin walked in one day very early on, this kid from I-don’t-know-where, Florida, Jersey, somewhere. But he came in with his little bent feet and funny cartoons. I immediately said, “Let’s pick up a little page for you.” I think originally it was an advice page, then later on he started to do just these crazy, crazy continuities, single-pages, cartoons.

RINGGENBERG: When was it that Don Martin joined the staff?

FELDSTEIN: Very early on. It was probably ’56 or ’57. I can’t remember exactly because it was chaotic. It was one of these periods in my life when things were just flowing into place and working right, and we got a new distributor and the magazine started to sell better … And then of course there was this interesting aside, which made me wealthy. [Laughs.] Well, not wealthy, but maybe very highly paid. Bill and his mother and sister owned the magazine and they had money in their own right, and in those days, in the late ’50s, there was a graduated income tax. It went from God knows what, to maybe 90, 89 percent, something like that, on an ordinary income it was really not like today where there’s a 32-, 38-percent top or whatever it is, and Mad had started to do well.

I had gotten it up to a circulation about 450,000 or so, 475, and the IRS said, “Hey, you got a surplus of a million dollars, and either you invest it in another magazine, or do something, or you’ll have to declare it as a dividend, because you can’t just keep this after-tax, corporate surplus.” So they got a little panicky, and their accountant came up with the idea of finding a company that had a tax loss where they could shelter this surplus. They found a textile machinery manufacturer called Premiere Corporation, which had this write-off from, I don’t know, machinery that didn’t sell, or machinery that was returned to them or whatever. So Mad was sold early on to Premiere Corporation, for I think it was about $5 million. It was a million dollars down, which was the surplus. So they took over the company and gave Bill the million dollars surplus, and he paid capital gains on it, he and his mother and sister, which at that time was 33 percent. So that’s a lot better than 85 percent, and that’s why they did it.


RINGGENBERG: You had said while the tape was off that you felt when Bill sold the magazine that it was kind of a slap at you.

FELDSTEIN: No, no. It was a slap at the magazine. Well actually, see, I don’t think Bill ever really understood Mad. I mean, he understood the horror and the science fiction. He participated completely on the crime stuff. He was part of the creative effort and he felt part of it. But Mad was something he had no feeling for. He enjoyed it as a fan, but I had full rein. When the magazine went to press, he would get the dummy, the mechanicals, and he would read it for the first time. He had no idea what was going to be in it or anything like that. He rarely instituted any kind of censorship except where I might have over-stepped legal bounds, or he thought he might get sued for copyright or something like that. But aside from that, he never said a word.

We were at different poles politically, and some of the things he didn’t agree with politically, but he still let it go because it was a cultural, social-comment magazine and he knew it had to cover all bases. Anyway, he sold the magazine and I was furious because I had wanted a piece of it. I said, “I didn’t want what Harvey wanted, but you should have given me a piece of it before you sold it so I could be in on the gravy too.”

He said, “Well, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Al, I’ll give you a work contract with a percentage of the magazine. And because it’s going into the hands of a corporate entity, we’ll keep their expenses out of it by giving you a percentage of the gross sales of Mad.” So he gave me a work contract with a percentage of the gross, which meant at the time, about a $25-30,000 raise from what I was making. Which was kind of nice, you know? I mean, we’re talking now about the late ’50s.

RINGGENBERG: You must have been thrilled.

mad-maureen-mggovernFELDSTEIN: Well, I was at least a little pacified, because I said, “OK.” I said to myself, “Well, now it’s up to me to do something with this magazine.” Well, it went from 435,000, to 2,800,000. That was the highest sales — the Poseidon Adventure issue. It went from nothing to 200 paperbacks. It went from nothing to 11 foreign editions. [Laughs.] This all after that contract. So Bill ended up going around bragging that I was the highest-paid editor in the world which wasn’t exactly true because there were higher-paid editors like Henry Luce and Hugh Hefner. But I was doing very well at the time that Mad was acquired, through a series of acquisitions.

First, Premiere sold it to Lionel. Lionel sold it to Independent News/National Comics, DC, and then everything went to Warner, which was Steve Ross’ burgeoning entertainment conglomerate. So we ended up there. Of course Steve had looked at the Superman material and the distribution of the magazines because he had bought the magazine-publishing companies, so we entered into kind of powerful arenas, and that’s how the magazine, our magazine, Mad, became successful — because we had good distribution and everything else.

RINGGENBERG: Whenever the magazine turned over, did it have any effect on the day-to-day running of the magazine?

FELDSTEIN: No. Absolutely not. Nobody came near us, not even the Warner Communications Group. There was a mystique that Bill had built up about him and his staff that we don’t get touched. Even when they bought the building in the Rockefeller Center complex, when they bought their own building and brought all of their conglomerates into that building — the publishing and the books and the paperbacks, and the magazines and the records and everything like that — we refused to move.

Bill refused to move in. He wanted to stay at 485 Madison Avenue, Mad Avenue, and not have anything to do with them. Because he felt they would start sticking their noses in, that we would be disturbed, that our artists and writers would become enamored with what was going on. So we maintained our independence. They’re still there over on Madison Avenue, although I think when the lease runs out they’ll probably end up, now that Bill is gone, in the Warner Communications [building]. It’s Time-Warner now.

RINGGENBERG: Do you think Bill’s refusal to move also stemmed from his being a creature of habit, not liking change?

FELDSTEIN: Oh, absolutely. And that of course was part of the reason why I retired. I saw the handwriting on the wall. I mean, we’d had a good run, but we had, I felt, to expand the scope of the magazine to include other things, especially other media that were becoming prominent, such as tape, movies, television. We should be in that, and it grieved me that shows like That Was The Week That Was and Saturday Night Live were coming on the air and we weren’t doing anything. And that even our competitor, National Lampoon, was doing movies like that frat movie — what the hell was the name of it, where they threw the food around? Well, anyway…

RINGGENBERG: Had you stayed with Mad beyond ’84, what would you have liked to do with the magazine?

FELDSTEIN: Well, the reason why I didn’t stay was because I couldn’t do anything with the magazine as long as Bill was in charge. Bill refused to take advertising. I felt at that time we had passed from something we were very proud of, the fact that we had not taken advertising and therefore would not be subject to the pressures of advertising, which was a kind of a paranoia that existed in the ’50s and ’60s, and that now teenagers were becoming acquisitors, they were buying things. I thought we could have an advertising area in Mad that would not affect editorial in any way, that would assist in making the package a little more attractive, and that we could even do humor advertising and have our own advertising agency.

Anybody that wanted to advertise in Mad would have to go through the Mad advertising agency and do a humorous ad. But he wasn’t having any part of it. Because Bill basically was a comic-book publisher, and also he did not own the magazine, so he didn’t want to have a big, sprawling organization with a lot of headaches when he didn’t need it. He just wanted to have a place to come and work, and go out and eat. Anyway, we started to have some conflicts, Bill and I. I had all kinds of ideas. I wanted to do a tape, a VHS version of Mad, if I could. I wanted to investigate the packaging of a monthly or bimonthly or a quarterly tape and have it at a price that was really reasonable because tape in and of itself, the cassette, doesn’t cost that much. We probably could have put out something for $4.95 as a quarterly where we would give them an hour show of the magazine, uncensored.

I wanted to do traveling college players that would go from college to college with the Mad Show and have a writer traveling with them so they could update the material as it happened, you know? Like when we had this kind of blah invasion of Haiti. We could have done something on that, you know? I had all kinds of ideas, but Bill was having no part of it. So my last contract was for, instead of five years, I only took three years because I figured I was going to quit. In the last year of my contract, my third year of my three-year contract, my wife developed lung cancer and I left anyway. But I would have left whether she had had lung cancer or not, but Bill thought I had left because of my wife’s condition, and that wasn’t really true. I saw the handwriting on the wall. When I left Mad. it had reduced in sales from 2.8 million to about 1.75 million. And as of now, about 5-700,000. It’s really sad, you know. I pounded on doors … I didn’t want to hurt Bill in any way, but I had certain friends over at Warner Communications and I would tell them what was happening and what should be happening, but they couldn’t touch him. He was the guy in charge and he had the mystique that without him it would fall apart. Well, he’s not there now, and it’s going on fine.

RINGGENBERG: After you left the magazine did you continue to have a decent relationship with Bill?

FELDSTEIN: Oh yeah. Well, it was cordial. It wasn’t as close as it had been before Lyle Stuart. I mean, that’s when we were really close. It had never been as really close as over the Mad period, because I was making money, you know. He wasn’t happy about that and he was terrorized that I had so much power. Not that I wielded this power, you know, but he was dependent on me to continue developing the magazine. But there came a point where I just felt we weren’t going to go anywhere and I had proved to be right because the magazine has deteriorated in sales. It could have been just natural attrition as well as anything else, but I felt that there was enough scope that we could have offset it with other kinds of things.


RINGGENBERG: When you were doing Psychoanalysis I had heard that there was a psychiatrist TV show that you worked on.

FELDSTEIN: Yes. I was approached by the Steve Allen group, and I went down to talk to them about it. Steve preceded Jack Paar at the Tonight Show, who preceded Carson, who preceded Jay Leno. Steve Allen was the nighttime TV wonder boy at the time and he discovered Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme and he had, oh God, some of the comedy people he had went on to do wonderful things in other programs. He was in analysis at the time and he called me up and said, “I read this, somebody showed me this thing. Come on down. I want to talk to you.” So I came down to his studio and of course I was very impressed. I mean, here was this big TV star, and all the people around him and everything. He said he wanted to adapt this to TV, he thought it would be great, and he thought that he would give a kind of a pilot show based on something like this, on his whatever it was, two hours at the time, or an hour-and-a-half to two hours every once in a while.

Jack Kamen drew "Ellen Lyman Session #1"  for Psychoanalysis #1 (March-April 1955)

Jack Kamen drew “Ellen Lyman Session #1” for Psychoanalysis #1 (March-April 1955)

I said, “Gee, I’d love to participate.” So he put me together with a writer named Howard Rodman, who was a fine TV writer of his time on a par with Rod Serling and the rest. We’re talking now the ’50s, you know? I think he put two on. We wrote two together, and I wrote one by myself, but that never got on. And NBC said, “Come on, you’re a nighttime variety show. What are you getting serious for?” Of course then the thing was redeveloped by another producer, and they called it The Eleventh Hour, which was on for a while. Yes, there was a TV show, and yes, it was inspired by Psychoanalysis, which Bill and I had come up with as part of our “New Direction” after we were censored out of the horror because we had both been going. I was in analysis and he was in analysis. It was the ’50s thing to do when you had a little money and you had problems.

RINGGENBERG: How long did the Eleventh Hour show run?

FELDSTEIN: I have absolutely no idea. I know it ran for at least a season, maybe two. [It ran for two seasons.]

RINGGENBERG: Did you and Bill have any involvement with it?

FELDSTEIN: No. We had absolutely no involvement in it. And the Steve Allen thing, which was called The Psychiatrist, never got anywhere. He did two pilot episodes on his own Tonight Show or The Steve Allen Show, which was on at 11:30, after the news in New York. I don’t know how it ran for the country. He would have this show, which is now like Jay Leno and David Letterman, but it preceded Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. It was that show that lead into those guys. He did it on that show. He did two dramatic sequences of The Psychiatrist.

RINGGENBERG: Were they just the psychiatrist with one patient?

FELDSTEIN: Yes, it was a little drama, it was a kind of an instant analysis thing, you know?

RINGGENBERG: Yeah. Solve all your problems in 15 minutes.

FELDSTEIN: Right, with a little dramatics, and a person comes to the psychiatrist with a problem and they talk about it and there’s some little flashbacks and some searches into what he remembers or what he dreams, and then they act that out, and all of a sudden, the revelation comes, you know? It was fun. What I really enjoyed about it was becoming a friend of Steve’s and we kept in touch for many years after that.

RINGGENBERG: I assume being the ’50s, that the Psychiatrist segments were done live on the show?

FELDSTEIN: Oh, yeah. The whole show was live. The skits were live. That was the wonder of television in those days. Playhouse 90 was live, all of the dramatic shows were live. And because they didn’t tape — or actually it was wire back then, I don’t even think they had plastic tape — the electronics were not that good, so when you see some of those old ’50s shows, the only way they were able to record them was filming it right off of the screen. Some of the very old shows that you see replayed, not I Love Lucy, but like the old Jackie Gleason Honeymooners, the very early ones, those are called kinescopes.

Kinescope was actually photographing it as it came on the screen. There were certain adjustments that had to be made because a movie Camera! takes a 30th of a second. And the sweep on the screen was out of sync with it, so you’d get a moving bar running up it. So they had to re-sync, and shoot them differently. Your Show of Shows, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and those guys, that was all live. It was a great time because it was spontaneous and things happened: Scenery fell down, extras walked behind sets and screwed things up … And there was no such thing as canned laughter. A comedian either got a laugh or he didn’t. Milton Berle was live.

RINGGENBERG: I know that back in the ’60s you put on The Mad Show. What was the genesis of that?

FELDSTEIN: The daughter of Richard Rodgers, the music creator of South Pacific and all those great musicals, wanted to do a musical, and a producer — his name escapes me — came to us because he had an idea of doing The Mad Show off-Broadway so we gave him permission and Larry Siegel and Stan Hart wrote it. Well, they adapted a lot of stuff out of the magazine, and wrote a few originals. They were very fortunate because they got together a very interesting cast, which included Joanne Worley, who later went on to be one of the stars of Laugh-In, and there was Linda Lavin, who became the waitress in Alice.

Then there was Paul Sand. I mean, the cast was marvelous, and they all went on to do well, and the show sustained itself in this little theater, and it came in after another show was on, from 8:00 to 10:30, this show would go on at 11:00 or whatever it was, for a while, then it became full-time. It was at least a chalkboard for us to see what we could do. And that’s what I was excited about. But Bill had an interesting … I don’t know whether it was a lethargy, or a fear, or what, but he made it very difficult for packagers of TV shows and movies to work with him. For example, he would not allow them to use any of our writers. He had a whole list, if somebody could find a copy of these impediments that he would set up, they would see why we never really got into any of this stuff. It was too discouraging. Not only that, but he wanted advertising approval of the TV shows. He didn’t want to advertise beer and cigarettes, which essentially were knocked off the air anyway. I mean, not beer, but liquor. He wanted actual approval for advertising. Well, that was the death knell right there. It might very well be that right now some cable people would be interested because they didn’t have advertising anyway, or at least some of them.

The very fact that the producers of Tales from the Crypt have had such a phenomenal success is kind of interesting too, and that of course was great for Bill and his ego because when EC, not Bill Gaines, but EC, which included me I think, was inducted into the Horror Hall of Fame, he didn’t even tell me about it. He didn’t invite me to the dinner. When he accepted the Horror Hall of Fame award, he thanked Lyle Stuart because he felt this was a culmination and a final vindication of his embarrassment at the hearings and of his terrible reputation that he had that finally all of this stuff that we had done was now being totally accepted. In fact, there were actors and directors who were dying to do this thing because it was such an “in” thing to do, you know? Schwarzenegger directed. You’ve seen the stars who have been in them.


FELDSTEIN: These HBO things, it’s interesting. And Bill even, I think he made sure I was no part of it.

RINGGENBERG: That’s terrible.

FELDSTEIN: Well, they were interesting final years together.


RINGGENBERG: As far as your science-fiction covers, who were the artists who influenced you? Chesley Bonestell?

FELDSTEIN: Yeah, well Chesley Bonestell influenced me with my covers, and also with my paintings because I’m trying to get that kind of very realistic style. Chesley Bonestell, as far as science-fiction landscapes were concerned, was my hero. As far as comic-book art was concerned, I really had no particular guy who I followed. I tried to develop my own style.

RINGGENBERG: Were there any newspaper strip artists who influenced you?


RINGGENBERG: Really? Well, it’s interesting you should say that because I’ve always felt your style was very unique. You really did not look like anyone else.

FELDSTEIN: As I told you at the outset, when I first got into this business, I had never read a comic book. I just borrowed a couple to make samples to get this job with Iger. In fact, I developed that philosophy with Gaines in the comics. I said to him, “Bill, we don’t want any artists to be imitating other artists. Just because Simon and Kirby are doing well doesn’t mean we should have everybody drawing like Kirby, or we should not have everybody drawing like X or Y or Z. We should have each guy doing his own signature.” That’s how we allowed Graham to do what he did in the horror and Johnny of course, did his style, and Jack Davis developed his own hairy little scratchy style. So I’ve always felt that people should … That’s what made Mad and the EC magazines unique: All the artists had their own individual, recognizable styles.

RINGGENBERG: I think that was one of the reasons EC has been so well remembered and so influential.

FELDSTEIN: I think that was what made it collectible — they were unique and of course the stories were good. [Laughs.] You know, as I said before, I never really got too much credit. It’s been the collectors, guys like you and Jerry Weist and the rest who have probed into this, who discovered the true story because it’s not that apparent, even in the Cochran reprints. As a matter of fact, I only appear once in all of the Cochran reprints, my portrait, and that’s as the “Artist of the Issue.” They took new portraits of Bill, they took new portraits of Johnny even, but they never bothered with me, and I think that was a problem. I think Bill had gotten to a point where he really was kind of jealous of me or something. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t make any accusations. That’s one of the reasons why I went to San Diego this year. I had always refused to go to these conventions. Did you go to the awards dinner?

RINGGENBERG: No, I was there right afterwards.

FELDSTEIN: Well, there was an awards dinner and I was shocked I got an award for Lifetime Achievement. I didn’t expect it, you know? I told them all, “This is my first convention. I have never come to these before. Bill and I had a cash-and-credit arrangement. He paid me cash and he took the credit.” [Feldstein laughs.] I said, “But I decided I wanted to come and assuage my ego.” So I thanked them very much because you know, that was kind of nice. I never expected it really, and they treated me very well, and I’d be happy to do it again. As a matter of fact, I’m going to be doing a convention in Seattle only because my wife and I want to go up into the Canadian Rockies afterwards, or at least in that area, this summer in August, so I’ve agreed to appear in a convention in Seattle.

RINGGENBERG: Were you at the EC convention in 1972?

FELDSTEIN: Yes. That was the only convention I had ever attended. I was living in Connecticut at the time. That convention was a lot of fun. I was on a panel with everybody else and I was doing Mad at the time, but it was mostly about EC. Jack Kamen was there and Harvey, and it was fun. I enjoyed it … And Bill was there. That was the only convention I had ever attended before the San Diego one. I won’t go down on my own expense. But I will go. They treated me so wonderfully. They put me up in this wonderful hotel, they picked me up in this stretch limo. I mean, my wife and I felt very, very special. It was just a fun time. I enjoyed being on the panels. I enjoyed my presentation and I was happy to see that it was well attended.


Al Feldstein self-portrait

RINGGENBERG: Within the comics industry, your work is highly regarded by other writers and professionals who are in the know.

FELDSTEIN: You know, it’s funny. I’m kind of proud of my writing, but I was never particularly proud of my artwork, I always felt that the artwork was a little stiff, but it was stylistic. It did tell the story, so I did do the best I could. I was pleased with my science-fiction covers, but generally speaking, my figure drawing wasn’t that great. That’s one of the reasons why I was very happy to encourage other artists to join our group — then I could write for them and assist them in concept of the storytelling, but I wouldn’t, I even refused to do what Harvey was doing with Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, which was making tissue overlays and making everybody follow his layouts. I felt that would stymie the artist’s own creative ability, so I never did that. I would sit down with the artist and we’d go over the story. And there was no script. It was written right on the page, and I’d say, “What I had in mind here was, Joe is up on the cliff and he’s looking down at this or that.” He could take it from there. He could even show some below, or from above or halfway or whatever. That was the artist’s [choice], and I never had any qualms about giving them that kind of freedom.

RINGGENBERG: Do you have any thoughts on why you think people are still reading and collecting ECs 40 years after the company stopped publishing comics?

FELDSTEIN: I have absolutely no idea. I have often thought about it. I really don’t understand it. I don’t know why they’re doing it.

RINGGENBERG: Do you think perhaps the fact that you and Bill Gaines were trying to reach an older audience had some impact on the comics’ staying power? That the stories were a little more mature?

FELDSTEIN: Well, yes we were. We weren’t firing for any audience. I don’t know why that would intrigue people today. There are plenty of adult paperback books being written and all kinds of things. But at the same time, I have to admit it was at a time when there was a very small amount of television in our society. And that was a new medium and expensive, and I don’t know whether we would have been able to go where I wanted to go with the comics in lieu of the onslaught of television and its fascination.

RINGGENBERG: Do you think the high quality of the art had something to do with EC’s popularity?

FELDSTEIN: I guess so. You know, it was good-quality artwork. It wasn’t high-quality. You have to judge it on a level with what was being done at the time. There’s a lot of high-quality art I see in comics today but the stories are, you know, there’s something lacking. I’m not sure what it is. And they’ve got all kinds of weird ways of doing things too today, I understand. When we worked, we wrote a story, I put it down on the board the way I thought it should break down. I discussed it with the artists and that was that. Today I understand that they do outlines and then the artist takes over and then it goes back to a writer, and it’s kind of all, you know, hodge-podge.

RINGGENBERG: The Marvel style works from written descriptions, and then it’s penciled and then it’s dialoged and captions laid in.

FELDSTEIN: Yeah. I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. I think that the writer should have his control up to a point and then the artist should take over from there. But you know, we were also the first to realize that writing was an essential element of the success of a good comic book. That the stories had to have a quality to them and the writing had to have a quality to them even though it was a visual medium.

RINGGENBERG: Once EC really got rolling, did you and Bill strive for a sort of uniform tone for your whole line of books?

FELDSTEIN: What do you mean by that?

RINGGENBERG: Well, there’s a certain “EC feel.” Many of the stories, even if they’re not a horror story, like the science fiction or the suspense, have that kind of O. Henry punch ending. That seems to be a stylistic trait of EC.

FELDSTEIN: That I think was partially due to the fact that we plotted all the stories together and we as a team, Bill and I, had a feeling for the kind of story we enjoyed, which was that kind, with the snap ending, or the kind with some social injustice that we could chastise. And then of course I would write it. That may be part of it. We’re talking about the early ones before I started to use script-writers; it may have reflected my style of construction, because I did most of the horror stories and mostly all of the science fiction. It may have been my fault that it had that kind of uniformity.

RINGGENBERG: But it wasn’t anything conscious?

FELDSTEIN: The only consciousness I strove for was to improve the writing quality. I was very impressed with Bradbury when we got the rights to do his stuff. And as I was adapting his and writing my own, I think I was very affected by his styles and that may be why, probably why I got a little wordy. But, obviously, today, the kids are enjoying that, or not the kids, but the collectors are enjoying that.

RINGGENBERG: Yeah, it’s definitely an older market. I mean the kids are still reading comics, but there are a lot of older fans.

FELDSTEIN: The kids can’t afford to buy the comics. The collectors, they can buy… The San Francisco reprint crowd that did the reprints of the stuff, I don’t know who they are. And I don’t know whether the kids are discerning today. Geez, they sit in front of the boob tube and they swallow anything, you know.

RINGGENBERG: Unfortunately, a lot of the kids today seem to be hung up on what their collection is worth rather than just enjoying the comics.

FELDSTEIN: Well, I’m battling with that in my own personal life today. I’m painting now. I’m back doing what I started out to do before I ever became a comic-book artist and I had a scholarship to the Art Students League, and I was at the High School of Music and Art studying oil painting. And now I’m painting. I’m painting wildlife and Native Americans, Indians and landscapes and stuff. And I’m now involved with galleries and with selling paintings.

You’d be surprised how many people buy a painting for what they think it’s going to be worth down the road, not because they really love it, you know? And there is, I’m sure, a parallel with the comic-book collectors today that are buying because they think it’s going to be worth something more than what they’re paying for it, rather than enjoying the product. I’m wondering, you know, and I think it’s kind of sad that some of these guys buy an old EC comic and put it into a plastic envelope and never open it and look at it because they’re afraid to damage the mint condition of it. So it really becomes a commodity rather than a source of entertainment.

RINGGENBERG: That’s one reason I think it’s good that Russ Cochran and the other people are putting out the ECs as regular cheap comic books in color, so if people want to just read it and enjoy the story, they can.

FELDSTEIN: Is Cochran doing that? I thought he did the box sets. I thought someone else was doing the color comics.

RINGGENBERG: He did the box sets and he started the color comics. I think Russ retired now.

FELDSTEIN: Yes, I know that.

RINGGENBERG: But that’s being carried on.

FELDSTEIN: Good! Then you see, at least they can buy those and read them. They don’t have to worry about the value of them being destroyed or the fact they probably will not reach the value of the originals. But you know, you can’t fault collecting of scarce material whether it be postage stamps or an original comic book. It’s a phenomenon that is a part of our culture, and the Franklin Mint and the plate manufacturers are all doing that, even these people who put out these plates, for example, kind of hint that it’s going to be more valuable, like you can enjoy it, but it’s also going to increase in value. So we live in an investment, capitalist society, and that’s the game.


RINGGENBERG: Who were your favorite artists with whom you worked?

FELDSTEIN: They were all my favorite artists. I really wouldn’t … Jack Davis was great in his kind of superficial horror. Ingels was great in terms of the real classic horror. Are we talking about EC, or the Mad times?

RINGGENBERG: Well, among the EC artists if there were any you particularly liked, and then when you were doing Mad, was there anyone you particularly liked?

FELDSTEIN: No. I loved them all. I really did. They were all so talented, and they all handled everything so well. Bill and I were starting to write specific stories for specific artists based on their style and what they did well. Kamen always did the domestic-violence type of thing with the wife and the husband and the kids, because he did this kind of Marcus Welby-style of drawing, you know? The American family. And Graham always did the corpses and the classical dripping things.

RINGGENBERG: With Graham Ingels, I was curious. Why do you think he dropped out of sight after the EC days?

FELDSTEIN: I think Graham had a problem. I had heard that he had an alcohol problem.

RINGGENBERG: I had heard rumors of that, but I never really heard anything definite.

FELDSTEIN: I wouldn’t make any statements, because I really have no knowledge. I know that he had difficulties even when he was working for EC.

RINGGENBERG: I think what I had heard over the years was that Ingels was living in Florida and teaching painting.

FELDSTEIN: Yeah, well he was a fine artist and Bill Gaines had a wonderful painting of his of the Old Witch.

RINGGENBERG: I was in Bill’s office and I saw that painting, and I also saw a science-fiction painting you did. It was a landscape.

FELDSTEIN: Yeah, right.

RINGGENBERG: Was that something you did just for fun?

FELDSTEIN: I did that for Bill because he had come to my home and I had not done much in the way of straight art as I worked for EC and Mad, and it wasn’t until I retired and have gone back to it now that I’m doing it full-time and doing a lot of it. But right after the war I had done a landscape, a kind of moody landscape that was reminiscent of where I was in Blytheville, Ark., of an old beat-up shack with a rutted road and an old dusty tree with moss on it. Bill walked in, picked up that painting and said, “I want this.” So he took it.

I let him have it for a while, and then I thought, “Gee whiz, what’s that doing in there anyway?” So I said, “I’ll make a trade with you. I’ll trade back that painting and I’ll paint you a science-fiction painting.” And that was the painting you saw. I painted that for him. It was my first science-fiction painting, and the precursor of the kind of thing I’m doing for Jerry Weist for Sotheby’s.

RINGGENBERG: Interesting. Al, just to backtrack again, when you took over Mad after Harvey left, were there any subsequent ill feelings between you and Harvey?

FELDSTEIN: Absolutely not. As a matter of fact, here’s another story, which is not of public knowledge. Harvey went from Trump, which failed not because of his editorship or his abilities, but because Hefner became overextended — thank goodness [laughs] because it was good for us, it was good for Mad that we were surviving and they stopped. Harvey then went on to do  Help! and …


FELDSTEIN: Right. Humbug was first, then Help!. Humbug had failed, and he was doing Help!, and I said to Bill Gaines, “You know, Harvey worked so well when he was part of our organization.” One of the reasons that Mad was successful was because we bounced things off him and kind of chided him into staying on track, and when he went off track there was a lot of kibitzing. I said, “Why don’t we bring him back into the organization? Mad’s, Mad, but let’s bring another magazine in. If we got Harvey to come back and we backed him and gave him his head with  Help!, he could do the adult and I would do the kid magazine, or vice versa, make Mad more adult. It would be good. Like the soap companies have all their own competition, you know? Why don’t we bring him into the fold?” So we went down to the restaurant and he and Harry Chester and Bill Gaines and I met and we offered him this deal: Come back, let us publish  Help! for you. You be editor, it’s your baby. Let us help you distribute it, help guide you. But he wasn’t having any part of it.

RINGGENBERG: I never heard that before.

FELDSTEIN: [Laughs.] Yeah, well, there are things that nobody has talked about. That is one. That was my idea, and we had this lunch and Harry Chester and Harvey said no. I guess they were afraid we would take it away from [them]. I don’t think Harvey trusted Bill, I don’t know. But I was open to it, because I thought it would be a wonderful thing to have — to have a publishing company with several different kinds of approaches.

RINGGENBERG: I know Harvey came back and did some freelance work for Mad.

FELDSTEIN: That was much later. That was even after I retired. It was when Harvey was on the balls of his ass financially, and Little Annie Fanny had been dropped from Playboy, which was his mainstay income-wise. So he came back and started to do work for Mad again, which I thought was very sweet and kind of Bill to allow him to do that, although I think at that time he was already beginning to suffer a little from his physical problems. That was after ’84. I retired in ’84. I once tried to get Bill Elder to come work for me but he refused because he was afraid of antagonizing Harvey.

RINGGENBERG: When artists like Davis and Wood returned after leaving with Kurtzman, was it a little awkward?

FELDSTEIN: Wood never left.

RINGGENBERG: Wood continued working for you and Harvey.

FELDSTEIN: Wood never worked for Harvey.

RINGGENBERG: I thought he worked on Humbug.

FELDSTEIN: Oh yes. Maybe, I don’t know. He did?

RINGGENBERG: Yes. I know he also did some work for Trump.

FELDSTEIN: Wait a minute. He worked for Humbug after I let him go. After he no longer worked for Mad. Wood never left to go to Hefner, to Trump. Wood was one of the first artists I acquired when I took over and he did that little mouse thing, you know, that space thing about sending up the mice. But Wood had a problem too. I was a consummate professional, and I only wanted to work with consummate professionals.

From "My World" in Weird Science #22 (November-December 1953) written by Feldstein and drawn by Wood

From “My World” in Weird Science #22 (November-December 1953) written by Feldstein and drawn by Wood

RINGGENBERG: Is that why Wood started doing less and less work and then eventually stopped?

FELDSTEIN: Yeah, he wasn’t dependable and I had deadlines. You can’t hold up a press with a 400,000 print run for more than a day. I mean, if he wasn’t going to make his deadline I just couldn’t. As a matter of fact I absorbed all that when I was editor of Mad. I developed an inventory of almost three issues, which was partially my desire, and partially how I felt about writers and artists. Any artist who finished a job always had a job waiting for him when they came back, because I was very empathic to the freelance artist’s needs. Also, any writer who gave me a good idea, I would have them write it, regardless of whether I needed it or not and I’d stick it into inventory. Bill was aware of it, but I don’t think he was really aware of the financial amount of money we had in the inventory. It was well over three issues, I think closer to four issues probably, which means close to 200 pages.

RINGGENBERG: Well, I guess given Mad’s success at its peak, that was no problem financially.

FELDSTEIN: Yeah. And from my point of view, it was great. I could go on a vacation and also, when it came time to make up a magazine, I could balance it well. The only things that I put into inventory was stuff that wasn’t timely; anything timely was scheduled immediately. But as far as the inventory articles were concerned, this was two things: It was good for us editorially, it was good for the artists and for the writers. It really wasn’t that much money invested.

RINGGENBERG: When Davis returned after leaving with Kurtzman, was there any awkwardness?

FELDSTEIN: Maybe on his part. I was happy to see him. I was a freelance artist and a freelance writer so I know what it’s like. You’ve got a wife and kids and a mortgage. You’ve got to go where you can make money. If you’re going to let your feelings get in the way and say, “Well, you went with Harvey so I’m not going to take you back,” that’s dumb. That would be cutting my nose to spite my own face. Jack Davis was a fantastic artist. [When he came] back to do “The Man In the Gray Flannel Suit” for me I was delighted. I think he felt a little awkward and also I think he was worried too, because he never really liked the horror stuff. He was kind of embarrassed about that.

RINGGENBERG: He has mentioned that in interviews.

FELDSTEIN: Yeah. But he was still one of the best, and he did the job great. But then he was a consummate professional, as I said. He’s the guy who I wanted to work with. When he did a horror cover, he did a good horror cover. When he did a science-fiction cover, it was good. He was a pleasure to work with, and when he came back, I’m not sure who approached who, but I was delighted to have him, and the same with Al Jaffee.


RINGGENBERG: After working on Mad for 29 years, did you ever have a period when you were feeling absolutely burned out by it?

FELDSTEIN: Well, that’s when I decided to retire. I was not burned out. I was never burned out, I was more kind of bored. There wasn’t enough challenge to fill the magazine. I thought basically I had done every kind of approach to satire I could think of. We were the first guys to do the coloring books which later some other publishing companies published, like the JFK coloring book. We had been doing coloring books in Mad, we had been doing primers, we had done all of these different kinds of formats presenting satirical concepts and I was starting to feel limited.

I would have loved to have been able to do television or movies or tapes or the stage, theatricals. So that was part of my desire to leave. I also felt that, and I had made a lot of money, I felt that there was more to life, and I thought I had enough. I was not wealthy, but I had enough to retire. I could buy some tax-free bonds and have a fairly decent income if I didn’t live in New York in a fancy co-op apartment as I had, so I decided to retire. And that’s why the last contract was only three years.

RINGGENBERG: From the sounds of it, it seems like you’re enjoying your retirement.

FELDSTEIN: Oh, absolutely. This is a dream for me. I’m painting. I have my own studio, which I added on to this ranch house. I paint in the winter and during the summer-time I fly fish. I’ve got horses, I ride, and it’s just great. We live in a fantastic area. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the valley that’s north of Yellowstone National Park.

RINGGENBERG: I’ve been to Yellowstone.

FELDSTEIN: Well, this is north of Yellowstone National Park. It’s called Paradise Valley. It’s where the Yellowstone runs up north in Montana and then turns east in Livingston. We’re 14 miles southeast of Livingston. We have the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness looming over us in the east and the Galatin Mountains looming over us in the West. We’re in this valley and it’s just spectacular.

RINGGENBERG: Do you winter up there?

FELDSTEIN: Yeah. I only have this one place and we’re very comfortable here. Yes, we get snow, but it isn’t as bad as it was in Jackson Hole. I first moved to Jackson Hole from Connecticut. My wife and I came to Jackson to go skiing and we fell in love with it. We bought a house four days after we were there and sold the place in Connecticut. But Jackson became a little too much. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted. The people who were coming in were coming in for the wrong reasons, I thought. I left my urban life, I changed my life to a western thing, but a lot of the people were coming from California or New York or wherever and they were bringing their philosophy with them. They wanted to put in ornamental shrubs and lawns and get rid of the deer and the moose, and I loved this wildlife. I was painting it.

I’ve got six horses, four dogs, 15 cats between us and the barn cats. I’m painting. I’m in several galleries. I’ve gone back to my original, this is the full-circle kind of thing. I am now doing what I started out to do back in the days of the Art Students League and the High School of Music and Art before I got into the comic-book business. I am painting. And I’m doing very well. Back in the end of ’90 when I was in Jackson Hole, Wyo., I was approached by Jerry Weist, who is an authority on comic collectibles, and he called me up and asked me if I had any old EC comics that he could sell at this first Sotheby’s auction he was going to run for comic collectibles. I said, “I’ve never kept any of them.” Who the hell knew they were going to be valuable, you know? I said, “I’ve got some bound copies, but those are my own personal copies.” I decided that from a collector’s point of view, that destroys them when you put them into a volume and snip off their spines. The only value that they might be is that they’re my personal collection and I guess if I sign each one of them I could sell them.

He said, “What are you doing?”

I said, “Well. I’m painting, and I’ve just gotten two paintings in The Arts for the Parks, which is a prestigious competition.”

He said, “Why don’t you paint one of your old covers for me and we’ll auction it off?”

I said, “Well, what do you think I could get for it?”

He said, “I don’t know, $3,000, $4,000.”

I said, “Really? I can’t get that kind of money for my landscapes.” Not that I need it, you know? So I painted one of the Weird Fantasy covers and it sold and the next year I painted two, and they sold, and the next year I painted three, and I’ve been painting them for him ever since, and I’ve been accepting commissions from other collectors on re-painting some of the old covers, and I’m also doing original sci-fi landscapes.


RINGGENBERG: Looking back at your long career, do you have any favorite EC scripts or Mad stories you did that you particularly liked?

FELDSTEIN: I told you about “My World.” Oh yeah, there were a lot of stories that I couldn’t think of offhand that I loved — mostly when they had some significance of social comment or, of course the one I mentioned about the black space[man].

RINGGENBERG: “Judgment Day.”

FELDSTEIN: Yeah. As far as Mad was concerned, I don’t know. There were so many great things. I loved “East Side Story,” for example, where we did a take off of West Side Story at the UN with the gangs at the UN and I had this great idea of going down and photographing the UN and having Mort do cels over these halftones, over these black and white backgrounds, and that kind of worked out real neat. There were lots of exciting things. I remember with great delight the 3-D saga in the comic-book industry, where we discovered the patent holder and bought the patent for the last four months of its existence and when there was a company going who knew about the patent and knew it was expiring, was selling the rights to their system, and I developed how to do it for us with the 3-D comics. That was fun.

RINGGENBERG: I had heard stories about the FBI coming to the Mad offices.

FELDSTEIN: Oh, the FBI stories were simple. I mean, they showed up one day because we had done a board game where, as you finished the game, you sent your name to J. Edgar Hoover. They said, cease and desist with that crap, which we thought was kind of funny. Then, either the FBI or the Treasury showed up one day. We had published a three-dollar bill as some part of an article in the early days of Mad, and it was working in these new change machines which weren’t as sensitive as they are now, and they only read the face. They didn’t read the back. They demanded the artwork and said it was counterfeit money. So Bill thought this whole thing was ridiculous, but here, take it, here’s a printing of a three-dollar bill. We never were in trouble with them or anything. I think it was called “Draft Dodger,” that board game with the FBI.

RINGGENBERG: Do you ever think you might want to write your memoirs or an autobiography?

FELDSTEIN: Oh, I don’t know. I think it might sound like sour grapes. In fact, I think in retrospect some of the things I’ve told you sound like sour grapes. There have been several books written, one by Frank Jacobs called The Mad World of William Gaines, which gave the early years of EC and Mad. There was a tremendous book written recently by Maria Reidelbach about Mad. She spent as many hours as you are now spending with me and more, and there was a lot of what I said that was not going to be allowed in the book by Bill because he didn’t like some of the things I said, so they were left out, and I was relegated to the position that I occupy in that book. Of course, the book would not exist without the permission to reprint all of the material you reprinted from the magazine, so …

I just want it to be known that from ’49, when I first started to write The Vault of Horror, The Crypt of Terror and The Witch’s Cauldron, and even wrote them for, well I wrote the Witch for Graham forever, until we started to use script writers. Johnny started to write The Vault of Horror after a while, but I was writing all the rest of that, and Bill and I were plotting it and I don’t know what percentage you put on writing and plotting, but Bill and I would get together and plot a story, then I would write it. Now, does that mean that I did two-thirds of the story, a half of the story, you know, complete? Because plotting and writing are worlds apart. You can have great plots, but if you don’t write it right, it doesn’t work. I wasn’t seeking any lauding or fame for this; I was seeking a check so I could pay my mortgage out on Long Island and get these kids of mine grown and pay for the car and whatever, you know. So that was the drive on my part. I was turning out a product that was deserving of the compensation I received.

"Spawn of Venus" was cartooned by Al Feldstein for Weird Science #6 (March-April 1951)

“Spawn of Venus” was cartooned by Al Feldstein for Weird Science #6 (March-April 1951)


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“The Nostrand Zone” by Bhob Stewart Fri, 07 Mar 2014 13:00:34 +0000 Continue reading ]]> From The Comics Journal #96 (March 1985).

Today, Howard Nostrand’s name is well known through the National Lampoon, and his work is seen by millions when he illustrates the Lampoon’s color comics stories (as in the April 1983 issue). But back in 1968–74, Nostrand’s unsigned contributions to comic books of the ’50s were veiled in such mystery that Nostrand’s obscurity was, in fact, a prime reason I felt com­pelled to interview him.

Just as Carl Barks was once labeled “The Good Artist” because readers deprived of his name needed some way of identifying him, Howard Nostrand was known during the ’50s (and later) as “The Mystery Artist” and “The Jack Davis-type Artist.” And, like Barks before his name became known, Nostrand had no realization that his work for comic books had made a lasting impression, or that his identity was, decades later, a conversa­tional topic among comics readers.

It was, we might say, bad timing. The right talent in the wrong place at the wrong time. Entering comic books at the age of 19 as Bob Powell’s assistant in 1948, Nostrand worked anonymously along­side Powell for four years on stories for Street and Smith (Shadow Comics), Harvey Comics (Witches Tales, Black Cat Mystery, Chamber of Chills, Tomb of Ter­ror), and other publishers. Nostrand’s forte was humor, and this was the direction he took after splitting from Powell. When the Harvey Comics Mad-imita­tion, Flip, began in the spring of 1954, Nostrand and Powell shared the book. By issue #2 it was evident that Nostrand’s knack for satire put Flip far ahead of the other Mad imitators of 1954. But no sooner did the still-anonymous Nostrand start to give Flip a cohesive direction by scripting the entire book (in effect, becoming a Flip editor-writer-designer, as well as lead cartoonist), than the Comics Code Authority was formed (Sept. 16, 1954), bringing the Harvey humor/horror titles to an unscheduled climax. The Comics Code served to erase Nostrand’s name from comics history. Rather than remain snarled in the starting gate, Nostrand dropped out of the race. His name still unknown to his readers, Nostrand left the comic book field (along with scores of other writers and artists).

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A Bat Masterson page by Herron and Nostrand.

A few years later Nostrand’s signature and byline appeared in newspapers when he began his 1959 Columbia Features comic strip, Bat Masterson (a spin-off of the 1958 Bat Masterson television series starring Gene Barry). Not many comics readers made the connection. One who did was Hames Ware and his letter about this in the letter column of Graphic Story Magazine #11 (Summer 1970) not only touches on the confusion Nostrand created in the ’50s (when some readers believed he actually was Jack Davis) but also indicates the conundrums and enig­matic signature fragments that masked the Mystery Artist’s true identity:

I first saw this artist’s work in an old Harvey comic I bought back in the early ’50s. I discounted Jack Davis, as the feet were not greatly out of proportion, but I was struck by the similarity. No name was signed. But, diligent as ever, I did not give up. Also in the same com­ic was a story drawn by Bob Powell. In a newspaper that one of the characters carried was a headline stating, “POWELL BEATS EPP IN BIG RACE.” The name Epp rang no bells, but turning back to the mystery artist, I found the name on a “VOTE FOR … ” poster in a store window. I thought I had identified my man. 

Several years later, I picked up one of the many Mad magazine imitations that were popular in the ’50s. There, under art credits, were three names — Bob Powell, Howno Strand and Marvin Epp. This was the clincher, I felt, as I pored through the magazine. Sure enough, here was the Davis-like art. But, instead of seeing Epp signed to the story, I found three letters scribbled across the work: “NOS.” No matter how I looked at them, those letters just could not come out Epp.

Again several years passed, and I am now reading an out-of-state news­paper’s comic section when I see a comic strip with the Jack Davis-like art. The strip is Bat Masterson, and the artist’s byline reads, “By Howard Nostrand.”

Howard Nostrand — Howno Strand — “NOS”?

When I got back home, I looked up the old Harvey comic and found that the store in which the “VOTE FOR EPP” poster was displayed was named “Nostrand’s.” At last, I felt that another mystery was solved.

The only rub was that in the Bat Masterson comic strip, barely visible on a wanted poster tacked to a tree, were the words “WANTED — Marvin Epp.”

In the mid ’60s, when I first learned Nostrand’s name, I would have just men­tally catalogued it under “Comics/Subhead: Mystery Artist Identified,” except that, around that same time, I acquired a copy of Witches Tales #25 (June 1954) with Nostrand’s astonishing Kurtzman/Eisner homage, “What’s Happening at 8:30 P.M.”, a comics noir laden with mood and atmospherics. Shlup-shlepping through the mud comes a sad-faced humanoid character, yet with antennae and bulbous-nosed head. He is shunned as he meanders through a near-deserted city, splashing through puddles, shlepping into the night. It is 8:00 pm. He meets a friendly stranger who expresses defeat and warns him to get out before 8:30. Instead, still perplexed but now fearful, he continues his slow pace through the city. At 8:10, seeing others fleeing, he panics, runs, crashes into an ashcan, and veers into a dead end. Arri­ving hysterical at a storefront, where he spots the time — 8:30 — on a clock inside the store, he experiences a moment of self-awareness only a split second before he is burned alive by a scorching stream that pours down on him from above. By ignoring the closing explanatory punchline captions (“He was a germ! And the streaks were … all-consuming … all-powerful … X-rays!”), the story can be read as pure fan­tasy, a foray into back alleys where Eisner never ventured, while also recalling Buster Keaton’s dramatic pantomime in Film (1965) by Samuel Beckett. Like Keaton in Film, the isolated and alienated characters of  “8:30 P.M.” are mainly shown in views of their backs. There are several other fascinating parallels with Film, a 22-minute, black-and-white short directed by Alan Schneider. Film attempted to show two dif­ferent “visions” of reality by intercutting subjective camera shots with objective shots: an all-perceiving “eye” (E) observes an object, while the object (O) observes his environment. O (Keaton), aware he is being perceived by E (the camara), covers his face with a handkerchief and flees through the streets, trying to escape this and all other perceptions (some imagined). In the closing scene, as E maneuvers to face him directly, O’s efforts fail. O cannot rid himself of self-perception, much as the “8:30” character, in the next-to-last panel, “realized what was happening …  and what he was …”

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From Howard Nostrand’s What’s Happening at 8:30 PM.

In his notes, Beckett described: “Climate of film comic and unreal. O should invite laughter throughout by his way of moving. Unreality of street scene.” In the same fashion Nostrand avoided a “straight” style and chose to give “8:30” an appeal through the “Mad-style,” Beckett and Schneider sought a similar stylization by the casting of a comedian, as described in 1969 by Schneider:

From the beginning, in keeping with Sam’s feeling that the film should possess a slightly stylized comic reality akin to that of a silent movie, we thought in terms of Chaplin or Zero Mostel for O. Chaplin, as we expected, was totally inaccessible; Mostel, unavailable. We hit upon Jackie MacGowran, a favorite of both Beckett and me. Jackie is a delicious comedian and had been an inveterate performer of Beckett’s plays in England and Ire­land … Jackie got a feature film which made his summer availability dangerously tight … Sam reacted to all developments with characteristic resilience and understanding. During a transatlantic call one day (as I remember) he shattered our desperation over the sudden casting crisis by calmly suggesting Buster Keaton. Was Buster still alive and well? (He was.) How would he react to acting in Beckett material? (He’d been offered the part of Lucky in the original American Godot some years back, and had turned it down.) Would this turn out to be a Keaton film rather than a Beckett film? (Sam wasn’t worrying about that.)

In “8:30,” everyone but the central character seems to know “what’s happen­ing.” In Film, while O is running from E, E has direct camera close-up confrontations with other people (who express the “agony of perceivedness”). Beckett’s six-page outline called for a setting of “Period: about 1929 … small factory district,” and the exterior locations were shot in lower Manhattan near the Brooklyn Bridge, where Schneider had the streets watered down. The “8:30” character and Keaton are costumed almost identically in hat and trench coat, and just before the denoue­ment, both Schneider and Nostrand (page four, last panel) employed full-front angles with hats causing shadows over the faces. In the opening shots of Film Keaton is introduced in right profile. With his hat, coat and handkerchief-covered face, he bears an astounding resemblance to the character in Nostrand’s splash panel — seen in right profile with a shadow-covered face.

From Samuel Beckett's Film (1965).

From Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965).

In its sympathetic depiction of this fan­tasy creature’s amnesiac dilemma, tightly rendered in the stylistics of the comic book greats, “8:30 P.M.” stands apart from other comic book s