The Los Angeles-based Tim Hensley got his start as a professional cartoonist late, and has published only a small handful of comics to date, including his masterpiece, the graphic novel Wally Gropius, and a recently collected anthology of absurdist movie-themed pages titled Ticket Stub. Most of the rest of his comics work can be found scattered among various issues of Smoke Signal, Dirty Stories, The Believer, Comic Art, Duplex Planet Illustrated, and Special Editions of The Comics Journal, among other publications. Though Hensley’s artistic output may be small in quantity, his strips can be counted among the most striking and accomplished comics of the last few decades, a potent mix of Dada-esque nonsense, expertly mimicked “slick” mid-twentieth-century-style comics graphics, and acute satirical and psychological insight. Wally Gropius in particular is on the shortlist of essential graphic novels of this millennium. While it is not difficult to identify some of Hensley’s artistic influences, it is difficult to identify any true predecessors; his work is sui generis. I spoke to Hensley last year via Skype for four and a half hours, and would happily have spoken to him for four and a half more. In this first half of the interview, we discuss his childhood and family life, youthful musical endeavors, the perils of adaptation, and just a little bit about comics. If you can get on his wavelength, Hensley is a deeply funny man, in conversation as well as in his comics. Reading this interview over again before publication, I laughed out loud at least a half-dozen times. I hope you enjoy reading it half as much as I enjoyed conducting it.
Transcribed by Brooke Chin.
Tim Hensley: When you asked me to put together a list of things I’ve done, it was pretty sad. [Laughter.] I guess it should have been longer. You don’t really think about it when you’re doing it, I guess.
Tim Hodler: Sure. Well, it’ll make it easier to get through it then.
Yeah, there’s so much less to cover. [Laughter.]
I guess it probably makes most sense to start in your childhood. You were born in Indiana?
That’s correct. We moved to Los Angeles when I was three, so I don’t really remember it too much, if at all really.
What’s the first thing that you remember?
One of my first memories is being at the Indianapolis 500 time trials with my parents and there was some kind of a tornado or hurricane warning or something, and I remember being separated from my parents and trying… You know, running to get to the car. [Laughs] My parents now assure me it wasn’t that bad, that I was in no danger of being engulfed by a cyclone or whatever. [Laughter] But my memory of Indiana is otherwise blank. We ended up in Los Angeles because my dad was a musician, but also because, since it was the sixties, my parents consulted the I Ching about where to move.
It was going to be either New York or L.A. or Las Vegas and I think my mom said no, not Las Vegas, Las Vegas is not good. So I don’t know if that’s how come we ended up in Los Angeles [laughter], but it’s possible. L.A. can be a good place for musicians.
Your dad was in a band at the time?
He was doing what he could to make a living in Indiana as a musician so he was playing on a local talk show and then he had this kind of ’60s freak out band called The Masters of Deceit, and he was playing in jazz combos and night clubs and playing on commercials and, you know, whatever he could. He was always like that, so…
And L.A. and New York seemed like good places to make more money doing music?
His band, the Masters of Deceit, they put out a record on Vanguard, I think it was, and they recorded it in New York, so they had gone there. But my dad ended up being more of a musician for hire than having a band, so when he moved to Los Angeles, he did session work all during the seventies. Then he got a job playing with Neil Diamond. He’s had that job for maybe thirty years and counting? I don’t know how many years it’s been, but it’s been forever.
So, he’s still with Neil Diamond?
Yeah, the touring band, you know, and he’s played on a lot of the records too.
Did you ever see that movie, I can’t remember if it was a sequel to Heavy Metal Parking Lot or if it’s somehow related to it, but it was in the parking lot of a Neil Diamond concert?
Yeah, there’s a Neil Diamond Parking Lot. I’ve never seen that one. There is that movie, the remake of The Jazz Singer that Neil Diamond did.
I don’t remember it. My dad’s usually… I think he’s usually in the lower right in it. [Hodler laughs.] He had kind of an afro then. I don’t remember the movie too well. It might be kind of funny. I mean, I remember there’s like Laurence Olivier, saying, “I have no son” and then there’s like a punk singer in it who’s doing a punk version of “Love on the Rocks”, and Neil Diamond gets upset, like, oh, you know, “You gotta do my song my way” or something. I think there’s a part where he becomes a drifter and has a beard and a cowboy hat.
[Laughs] I haven’t seen it in a really long time. The only thing I remember is that in one scene, Neil Diamond gets in black face and plays at a black club and everyone there believes he’s black.
[Laughs] Yeah, I guess I forgot about that. How could I forget that?
Did you ever meet Neil Diamond when you were a child?
Yeah, I mean, you know, I can’t really say what he’s like as a person. I mean, you know, he’s kind of an enigma. In his office he did pencil drawings on the walls of all the band members and I “inked his pencils” to make it kind of a mural I painted that before I really had the skill to do so. They ended up photographing it and putting it on a Christmas card, and one time when I was house sitting in Calabasas I turned on Good Morning America randomly and they were holding the card up. They said “I hear Neil Diamond did this himself” or whatever, and I said no that was me, you know [Hodler laughs].
So does that mean that your dad was away from home a lot touring, or was he around?
The touring life was kind of like, you know, a father who’s home all the time and then gone for months. So it’s not like absenteeism. I got to tag along a bit on tour when I was younger a few times, and my sister did too. You know, the whole family would go sometimes. Before Neil Diamond, he toured with Helen Reddy, who did “I Am Woman”. I have some memory of being in an amusement park in Texas that I always get mixed up with an episode of The Brady Bunch where they do the same. [Laughter.]
So you have the one sister, is she older or younger?
She was three years older than me; she passed away in 2010, I guess it was.
Oh, okay, I’m sorry.
Oh, no, that’s all right. It’s, you know…
I knew she had health problems, I didn’t realize she had passed away.
She had terrible health problems through the last years of her life. I mean, she was hospitalized so many times and I had visited her there so many times, that by the time she actually passed away it was kind of like– I was sort of, I mean, I don’t know if you can be prepared for something like that. It was almost like she had been through so much that you know, I don’t know…
I understand. So back when you were a kid, was your mother working?
No, she, I mean… My sister had the disability thing. They never really had a good diagnosis of her, you know they were saying maybe you know she had mosaic Down syndrome or maybe she had learning disabilities; there wasn’t really as much knowledge of that at that time as there is now. When I was being raised with her it just never occurred to me that there was anything different. She was just my sister, and my mom was pretty overwhelmed by that situation most of her life. She did sing at these classical music concerts at churches. But, yeah, she would just take care of us and my dad would be out on the road and come back and then he’d be around all the time. That was pretty much what it was like.
Right. Were you good at school? Did you like school?
[Laughs] I wasn’t so good. I was usually about a C student, and then I became about a B+ student. I think also having a sister with intellectual quote unquote deficiencies gave me sort of a weird defiance against being in a school environment, where learning is a lot about what the mind is and what it should do, something I didn’t really consider at the time. But I think that’s what caused me a problem. But I was never really like what I would call, “I’m gonna be an A student” kind of person. [Hodler laughs].
Was your sister in a special school or was she in the same school as you?
No, she was going to special schools and when she was alive she would act out a lot and she would get thrown out of schools and thrown out of living situations, and she just had a really turbulent, tragic life. We were never really going to the same school except preschool which I don’t remember. I think they had donkey rides?
Right, okay. I saw on your blog something that, I don’t know if this is the first comic that you did or one of the first, but a comic strip about trash cans?
[Laughs] Yeah, those would be pretty early. I used to get these Mead pads from the dime store and do comics on them and sell them to my dad for a dime or whatever. But Trash Cans were… [laughs] that was like the small grocery list pads that they have at the dime store, like just one after the other. Making comics strips about trash cans; I don’t know what that was about [Hodler laughs]. My dad was a comic-book collector, so there were comics around all the time, but I was also probably influenced just by seeing comics in the newspaper, thinking like, Trash Cans could be in there.
So you were already pretty much into comics really young?
Yeah. My dad was real heavy into comics. He was a member of the EC Fan Club in the ’50s and he had quite a comic collection, and there was always stuff lying around that I would be reading that he had. He’s maybe like, you know, your standard somebody in the fifties who’s really into Mad magazine, and I think he liked Kid Eternity and he had a run of this thing called Jukebox Comics from the forties, and it was like all personality-type comics about different musicians, Spike Jones, some musician going fishing in a boat as a splash panel and stuff.
That sounds pretty exciting. [Laughs]
Yeah, you know, we would go to the comic book store in the seventies together, and he was more into Marvel and I was more into DC, I guess is the general thing. I’d read his comics. He didn’t really read mine. [Laugher] I always think about the debate over kids’ comics, like, you know, people are worried about what to expose to their children, but I was reading these EC comics where people, you know, were disemboweled on a baseball diamond and put into a fried chicken fryer and all that kind of thing. [Laughter] I mean, I turned out okay, I hope.
[Laughs] Okay, so… was it more comic books than comic strips then, or basically everything?
Everything. You know, Peanuts, of course, and Dick Tracy and Doonesbury, I guess at the time when it was really crudely drawn. Then I had a Tintin book and then I had Archie comics a lot. In the ’70s at DC Comics it was like all these guys that had done comics, you know, at the beginning of comics, and whatever had happened to them they were back at DC in the ’70s doing all this weird stuff. Joe Simon comics, you know, about strange sports stories and The Green Team. I didn’t understand at the time why was there a comic about this guy that can throw a fast ball, [Hodler laughs] like fast! [Laughter.]
I don’t know if I would have guessed that you were a DC guy, or a super Marvel guy, but I can see that your style has a kind of stiffness that’s similar to DC. I can’t explain it exactly.
Marvel comics I think of at that time as being more plugged into the “now” generation or something, people who are stoned, because my dad was reading Howard the Duck and Master of Kung Fu and, you know, I liked reading those too, but there’s something about the DC thing that definitely seemed like there was some corporate element to it; it didn’t have as much of the counterculture feel to it at all. I really liked their Legion of Superheroes and Mike Grell or whatever. I mean, why did I like that? [Hodler laughs] They were wearing these really weird spandex ice skating type suits and I remember the way he would draw people’s ribs. He did Warlord after that and I was really into that too. You know, actually a lot of the comics that I feel like people now are really into, I think of being comics that my dad liked, you know like Epic Magazine genre-looking stuff, and Heavy Metal stuff like Richard Corben or Caza [laughs]. All that stuff feels like it’s popular again, with people who are like, really young, it seems to me.
It felt like that kind of work was reviled for a long time and now people seem to like it a lot.
I always wondered if there was some kind of like weird time lag with what nostalgia you end up with depending on which generation you’re born in. Sometimes something lapses then it comes back like, the way that, you know, [how in] Sgt. Pepper, they’re dressing up like old military band musicians. How the psychedelics were also Edwardians… That’s not a good example, sorry.
No, that makes total sense. So, I was gonna ask you, was it just you and your dad reading comics or were any of your friends into them, too?
Well, my mom and my sister didn’t really read comics; my mom liked B. Kliban a lot for some reason. I used to get her whatever the new B. Kliban book was for Mother’s Day; it was kind of like giving your mom a catcher’s mitt. [Hodler laughs.] I can still remember the punch lines to a lot of those.
Yeah, he’s amazing. I’m surprised that he’s still not in print. I guess the cat stuff is, but the other stuff.
I actually saw one of his books on a remainder table yesterday, and I was like, “Is this back in print?” It was Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head, it was $2.98, and I was like, huh. But the cat work seems popular. I think someone else drew those later on, like kept it going or something.
I hadn’t heard that, but I believe it. So was Trash Cans an anomaly or were you cartooning a lot when you were younger?
Um, I was. I mean, that was before I started doing music. I started doing these kind of doodling comic strips, kind of like comics a little bit. There was like one character who was blind, he was named Blind Man Tracy [Hodler laughs] because I was into Dick Tracy, but he was blind and he had a pageboy haircut [Hodler laughs] and dark glasses and a cane. And I don’t know if I put it on my blog or not, I had this character named Omen…
I don’t know, I didn’t see it.
I think actually that was in the MOME interview, it’s like this thing I did, it’s like crayons and the characters’ like an executioner that has a black hood and his name is Omen, but its like a light-hearted thing where he has like a morgue wagon, and he’s like all about death or whatever. I guess that was because of the Omen movies at the time.
So he worked in a morgue?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I can’t remember the gags of it; I think the gags usually involve what a drag it was, because you have to execute people and horses… [Hodler laughs]
Could have picked a different job.
That’s one I always thought about going back and re-drawing. You know, I always wished a lot of cartoonists would do that on some of their old comics. I thought about doing that because it’s just weird.
Have you ever read Brian Chippendale’s Ninja?
Uh, yeah, I like Brian Chippendale.
Because the first 15 pages or so are stuff he did when he was around 11.
Oh, okay, I didn’t realize that. [Laughter] I mean, that was the big oversize…?
Yeah, the giant one. The beginning is filled with that he did when he was 11 and then when he was in his 30s or 20s he picked it up where he left off, and started it up again.
Kind of like how [Gary Panter’s] Dal Tokyo picks up 10 years later.
Though he was not a kid when he started or anything like that. When you’re a kid you don’t mean anything by what you’re doing and a lot of times you wish you could get back to that, it’s true. [Laughs]
Is that important to you in your own art; is that a goal of yours?
It’s something I think about sometimes, but it’s not something that happens at all. I mean, what I do is definitely not in the genre of being like, I’m following this free path. [Laughs] I think a lot of cartoonists always say like, “Oh, I don’t know where my story is going and I just follow whatever comes naturally,” but because I work full-time, the way that I do comics is I try to have it set up as much in advance as I can, and then I just try to react to the structure and the plan of it rather than trying to… there’s just not enough time to feel free.
Back to Blind Man Tracy. Was he a police officer like Dick Tracy?
He was really similar to Dick Tracy in that he was in profile a lot, except like I said he had glasses and a pageboy kind of long hairdo.
Was the pageboy after Prince Valiant?
I hadn’t read Prince Valiant at that point. The person who turned me on to Prince Valiant was Rick Altergott. I didn’t realize how much Doofus was influenced by Prince Valiant until I read it. Prince Valiant’s actually a pretty funny comic strip. You know the hairdo that Prince Valiant has and Doofus has is pretty similar.
So the pageboy was just the kind of style that people were wearing and that’s why Blind Man Tracy had it?
I really, you know [Hodler laughs] had no rational explanation for that. It’s not like something I was obsessed with drawing. Trash Cans was more of a… I did a million trash can jokes. I didn’t do a ton of Blind Man Tracy. I don’t really remember a lot of the comics. I have them in an envelope somewhere. They suck. [laughs].
Was it mostly for yourself or did you ever try to give them to friends or publish them or anything like that?
I was not even a teenager yet. I mean, no, I would staple them together and sell them to my dad for a dime. Sometimes I would try to hack them out so that I could get a dime. [Laugher] You know that wasn’t good practice to think about comics for me that way and ever since I’ve never definitely been able to do anything that quick or for remuneration. [laughs]
It’s funny to sell out that young.
I know, yeah. Just doing it for the money or something.
So then you said you got into music. Was that in high school?
That was as early as junior high, because my dad had a 4-track tape recorder. He would have equipment that he would have sitting around and I would teach myself how to use it. First off was the reel-to-reel tape machine and then there was a Minimoog, which is the really early main monophonic synthesizer. A great toy for a kid to have, Jesus. You know, millions of knobs where you just play a single note, where it just goes [makes synthesizer sounds] [Hodler laughs]. Whatever. You know, some of that stuff, on my Tumblr you can hear the first recordings I did [laughs]. They’re on there, such as they are.
So this is all in Los Angeles, pretty much your whole adolescence, childhood?
Yeah, we lived in the San Fernando Valley, and my dad would travel a lot of times over the hill to recording studios to do session work. My dad describes it as kind of being a golden age for being a session musician, because a lot of superfluous drug money would be fueled towards having these sessions and all these players. He would play on these really terrible things and then he has all these stories about all these famous musicians that he played with, you know, doing a session with Phil Spector or, you know, Pia Zadora or whoever. I tagged along to some of those recording sessions with my dad. It’s kind of exciting, but also kind of boring as a kid to go to a recording studio, because in the time in between the takes there’s not a lot that happens. You know, you’re just kind of sitting there and when you’re a kid you’re just like, “Hmm, what am I doing here?”