[Laughs.] So we mentioned Daniel Clowes, and it seems like, in terms of getting into comics, that connection was a big impetus later on. You happened to just write him a fan letter, is that what happened?
Yeah. I mean back then there was no e-mail. So people, you know, you’d get stuff in the mail. Or you could send away for stuff and I think he interacted with a lot of his fans that way and that’s how we ended up meeting, through the record cover. And then right after he did that, he came out to Los Angeles and I met a friend of his who moved out to Los Angeles. You know, it was definitely an example of being kind of star-struck, because he was somebody who was doing such great things or whatever. He got me more interested in comics [laughs] obviously. Then he moved out. There was a time period there where he and the Hernandez brothers all lived pretty close to each other in Studio City. Sometimes I would tag along when they would they would go out to dinner and stuff. I always felt like a bother, but it was definitely fun to go and hear all the… You know, because obviously when you get cartoonists together they just trash everybody. [Laughs] They would trash talk a lot of what was going on.
I don’t know what Gilbert was like then, but when we interviewed him recently, he was a real talker.
Yeah, yeah. He’s definitely like that. He was like that then too, for sure. We went to his apartment one time, I remember he played a record of Groucho Marx singing “Hello, I Must Be Going”. He had that kind of show-and-tell thing where he was playing records, and that was fun. I never saw his artwork set up or anything. I’d go to Dan’s place and he had everything just so, with all the things that he’d collected, and his artwork there, always arranged to make quite an impression. [Laughs] You know kind of like daunting or whatever.
I don’t know if this was true back then, but I've heard that his house is almost like a museum or something. Not a museum, but there’s just so many things to look at and see.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I’m not a collector person myself. I’m not that kind of person. I don’t really hang on to stuff a lot. I don’t have collections of stuff. I enjoy seeing stuff like that, just a different kind of frame of mind. I get a lot of my stuff from the library [laughs].
I don’t know if this is how [your entry into comics] happened. But you became friends with Dan Clowes and he was friends with David Greenberger?
Well, he was, of course, doing the one-page "Duplex Planet" strips in Eightball. And I became a subscriber of The Duplex Planet. There’s a poet Ernest Brookings in The Duplex Planet, and then David Greenberger had this idea of putting those songs to music and I was on two of the volumes of that. And then he started doing the comic.
But how did you do the tracks? Did you volunteer to do them or did he come looking for you?
He came looking for me. He may have sent me a letter, here’s this thing if you want to do it, here are the parameters of it or whatever. You know, choose a poem, and I did. And then I recorded it. I only met him once, I don’t remember it too well. People were back and forth about the idea, you know, he’s just making fun of these folks, but he’s lived with the people in those old age homes for years. And interacting with that community, I think that, you know, transcends an ironical, caustic view or whatever it was. Obviously it was something that appealed to me, and then years later my sister was living a lot of times in retirement homes where they would also have disabled clients. So I ended up going to a lot of these convalescent hospitals myself. So it’s always been interesting to me. But at the time, yeah, I just did the tracks and then it was almost like he was trying figure out how to create an industry. I think he had trading cards and then he moved into the comics with Fantagraphics. I think that was the first thing that I did for Fantagraphics. Kim Thompson asked me to be in Zero Zero, but I wasn’t able to do that. I think it was after, because I don’t think they were aware of my comics at that time. I did a six-page comic and I remember, I submitted it to Drawn and Quarterly when it was a magazine, but I never heard back from them. I don’t know if they ever got it [laughs] or if they ever read it. It wasn’t any good.
That was before Duplex Planet comics?
I think that was before, yeah. It was a six-page story about a organ player with a TV show, kind of like Korla Pandit. It wasn’t good. My artwork wasn’t really so good yet.
Yeah, I have a lot of DVDs of films that are sort of disabled topic films, like there’s that John Cassavetes movie; A Child is Waiting is a good one.
I’ve never seen that.
It’s kind of like one of those ones that the studio ruined or whatever. But he shot it in an actual…
Oh, is that with Judy Garland?
Okay, I did see part of that.
Yeah, it’s not as powerful as his later movies, of course, but it’s an interesting movie. Yeah, I have lots of DVDs like that. There are creative art centers in the Bay area like Creativity Explored, where on their website you can buy a DVD that’s a documentary about some of the artists there, that’s a good one. There’s this one called Our House, directed by Sevan Matossian, it’s like a documentary this guy made while he was working in a group home that’s really great. So, yeah, that’s why it was on the list [laughs].
Did you ever consider doing anything like with your sister or would that have been too weird?
You know, I mean, I think at the time when I was living at home and she was living in a group home, again it wasn’t like a situation where there was a lot of information about her circumstances and it’s not something I understood. A lot of the problems that a lot of people have when they get into their thirties or whatever are where they start to deal with the issues of their life. And everything starts to get sort of turbulent. That happened to me and put me back into contact with my sister. Then for maybe 15, 20 years, every weekend I’d spend a day with her where we’d go out. I’d pick her up and we’d go eat somewhere and just spend the day together, because a lot times she would be living in these convalescent hospitals where she couldn’t really go out on her own. A lot of times she had mobility issues as well. I think some of my experiences with her, because she acted out a lot, it was almost like a post-traumatic stress kind of situation where it’s hard for me to use it directly as subject matter. I had a few little things, comics or writing about her situation that’s really, you know, specific. But I find it really hard. Like Paul Karasik did that The Ride Together book about his brother with autism, I think it is. I was just blown away that he could do that. Just the other day I was thinking, since I have this iPad thing, I was wondering if she would’ve liked this Vine application, where you can make a looping video that’s six seconds long. I think she might have had fun with it. It’s so painful, I don’t know how to… You know, it’s like, oh, you could make a graphic-novel memoir and it would be important and people would like it or whatever. But I couldn’t live with the actual physical process of trying to create something like that for ten years. I just don’t have it in me.
Right. That makes sense. That story you did about your sister called “Free Radicals” was pretty intense. I can imagine not wanting to do that for an extended period of time.
Yeah, I mean, that one… I did that one right after that happened and it was kind of like, you know, in a way there was no way I could do it badly. Because the information was what it was, and all I had to do was do it, but there were so many other times where she was hospitalized. That was one of the worst situations of something that happened to her, but you know, she was a lot of times in the hospital for breathing stuff, because she had COPD, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, with a lot of other different problems. A lot of times what would happen is she would smoke a lot and then just have to go to the hospital to be revived, pretty much, and I would be visiting her. You know, instead of taking her out to lunch that week, I’d be going to a hospital somewhere and visiting her there or whatever. Yeah, I’m glad I did that story though. I sometimes wish I could do more of that. But it’s also sometimes, doing comics, having somebody that’s extremely non-realistic, like Wally Gropius, is something that’s a pleasant thing to keep in your mind for five years.
A lot of times you hear that in an interview, a cartoonist will say, you know, I was doing this, but it was too unpleasant for me and or, like, I just wasn’t enjoying this. A lot of times though, I do think, you know, there’s also something to be said for being a cartoonist and sticking with something that’s not pleasant [laughs]. Like you think of that Joyce Farmer book she did about her parents dying. I was just sort of blown away that she could spend years working on that.
Well, different kinds of artists work in different ways.
Yeah, yeah, sure.
So this Duplex Planet, the illustrations, those were the first comics you published?
Yeah, I mean, I may have had some other comics published in zines at the time, but that was the first real comic book I was in.
Had you been making comics and showing them to people? How did they even know to ask you to do it?
It must have been Dan, he must have told David Greenberger, in some way, like he’s done these comics, or maybe I sent him some mini-comics that I had done at that time. I really don’t remember. If that hadn’t have happened I wonder how things would have played out for me drawing comics. I wasn’t in every issue; I was just in every couple and I managed to be in three issues I think. It was a good experience.
I have the No More Shaves collection. Was "Heartbreak of Fergie" the first one you did?
The first one I did was one called "Shut Up" [laughs]. It was two pages, I don’t think it made it in No More Shaves.
There are two, "The Heartbreak of Fergie" and "What Is a Fuzztone?"
Yeah, there was another one I did called "What’s a Quincy Sore Throat?" that I thought came out pretty good. But I don’t think that was in there either. I think that’s kind of like a “best of” situation, because it didn’t have everything. I have that somewhere. [Laughs] I try not to keep copies of all the things I have comics in though, ‘cause it’s just better sometimes to not have any reference, to have like a sense of, oh, I did this. [Laughs]
Why is that?
Sometimes it’s sort of a burden to feel like… Sometimes it’s nice to look on a bookshelf and say, oh, I did… you know. I do have a copy of Wally Gropius and Ticket Stub. But anything like an anthology, a lot of times I just don’t want to think about it. [Laughs] You know, sometimes I have it in a box in the closet or usually I just give it away.
Huh, that’s interesting. Whether or not this is the first one, I guess it was early, "The Heartbreak of Fergie", and I thought it was interesting how you didn’t adapt what he was exactly saying literally. You draw him making out with the woman at the bank [Hensley laughs] which didn’t seem to really be what he was talking about. I was kind of curious, if you remember even, what was going was going on in your mind? Why was that your strategy?
I think what problems you get into when you’re adapting a text, it’s either going to be something you can adapt as dialogue or something that’s a narrative caption. Whatever those things were, I think you could go through it and you could say, oh, that’s obviously a line of dialogue, someone’s saying that. But then if it’s a narrative caption, then it can be bad comics if you—and it's something you often see, there's a caption at the top of a panel and then there’s a picture underneath that’s pretty much only just what is described above. So I think a lot of times I was trying to keep up something that was some contrast to whatever I felt the words were saying.
You just reminded me of the story you did in Kramers Ergot #7 story, which was also an adaptation about banks.
Yeah, it seems like I’ve done a lot of adaptations. But that was something that I had had for years. A friend of mine, his girlfriend worked at this bookstore and was given the text of that, a Xeroxed rant. I had that for so many years and read it so many times that I felt like, in illustrating it, I had more of a sense of what it was about. There are a lot of times, you know, when you have these texts where people are so paranoid, that it’s almost like they feel so forlorn that the situation becomes the opposite; where instead of feeling completely isolated, they feel like everyone is monitoring them, that tinfoil hat kind of thing, where they feel like the FBI is listening to their thoughts or whatever. I just thought it was like, you know, some guy lost his job at the bank and he felt bad. [Laughter] Basic kind of strip, but he felt that he had been framed and it was a situation where they were monitoring his thoughts or something.
How did your friend get the letter, do you know?
Well, she worked in the building where the Bank of America was downtown. I guess the guy was there. She worked in this bookstore that was in this weird underground mall. It’s one of the most depressing malls in L.A. It’s really seventies, but it’s all underground, you take this escalator to get there or whatever. It was in the building where that bank was and he was there. You know, her boyfriend, my friend, made [laughs] Xeroxes of it and gave it to people because it’s amazing.
Funny. Obviously, it’s kind of interesting how many of your stories, comic after comic, is about mental illness in various ways. I don’t know what there is to say about it, but it’s interesting.
Oh, you mean my comics were a lot about mental illness?
Well, I mean, sometimes, I get a lot of people saying, oh, everything is clever or something, but I feel like a lot of times I’m coming at it from another direction, where everything’s more about brain damage [laughter]. I was in proximity to brain damage my whole childhood and so when I think about language or that story in Kramers, it’s like, you know, it’s how somebody who has mental illness expresses themselves with language, you know, and that always seemed to be just as valid as something that was super literary. There was this anthology of writings of insane people, In the Realms of the Unreal, and a lot of that writing is really interesting, like either florid or super paranoid to the point where it’s just really funny, you know? Like, the degree that somebody takes this opposite extreme, of believing society [laughs] is monitoring them when they just end up being in an institution somewhere where nobody is monitoring what’s going on at all, really. The places I’d go, some of these convalescent hospitals, the people in there just had all kinds of mental problems and I just never knew what I would be encountering when I would go, people just shouting weird stuff and, you know, not wearing pants and that kind of thing. Or underpants, you know. [Laughs]
I think you also have said that you based some of the art for that Kramers story on the Prinzhorn Collection?
Yeah, there’s some quotations from different mentally ill artists in there. It was sort of like a combination of that artwork and then like really dreary seventies newspaper strips, maybe eighties is better, where everything’s all gradient fills, just super ugly. [Laughter]
So, maybe there’s not a good answer to this, but is it just because of your experience with your sister, or is there anything else that compels you about this kind of outsider art or art about mental illness or created by mentally ill artists?
I mean, obviously I have my own fears of problems with my mind or whatever, but I mean it’s generally, the more you get into the idea of... especially when you’re doing what I was doing, visiting these group homes or convalescent hospitals or institutions where they kind of shuttle people away so you don’t see ‘em, it definitely takes on a political dimension. And if you read the history of it, it’s kind of like, it’s not something that gets better and better, it’s just something that’s always in flux, it’s always something that’s part of society. There’s a period of time where people are deinstitutionalized and they’re part of the community, and then there are other times, you know, where people are considered feeble-minded and, you know, you read about Arthur Miller’s son being locked away somewhere or Pearl Buck writing a memoir about her daughter and institutionalizing her. So it definitely has a political aspect to it because you’re constantly encountering a society that deals with what’s productive and what’s necessary, but to some extent it sort of has to exclude people on this basis that’s just kind of cruel. You know, there’s no easy way to think about that kind of situation if you encounter it over and over again in your life. And then you just sort of, you know, it’s in your bloodline or something, and if you look in history, just having the taint in your blood is considered bad [laughs] to some people, you know?
The obvious comics reference to me is that Chester Brown story about his mom. Have you read a lot of R.D. Laing and Thomas Szaz?
No, not really in terms of psychiatry or whether it should exist [laughs] or not. I’m definitely into Chester Brown a lot, read all the Yummy Furs and didn’t realize, you know, that he had these issues when he was writing them. I love those comics; he’s a great cartoonist, obviously. The books that I read later were more, sort of like histories of disability kind of books, and I couldn’t give you specific ones, ‘cause most of the ones I read were just so dreary. I don’t know if it’s my own frame of mind, but they were really hard to get through. They were really unpleasant and terribly written it seemed to me. One I remember that was pretty good was The State Boys Rebellion. But that was wasn’t exactly a history one. There was one about the history of the Kennedy family having to do with the Special Olympics and all that, the history summary chapter in that was pretty good. Yeah, I mean, I also don’t want to become a person who’s an advocate of saying, oh, I read this, you know. It’s not really in my work, but I talk about it in interviews because it’s this thing in my life.
That Chester Brown strip about his mother is maybe not one of my favorites of his stuff. It seems like something that informs his work, but I don’t feel like I need to know it in a way.
Do you feel the same way about his most recent book, Paying for It, which is also a work of advocacy?
I almost feel like that’s more [because of] the way the book was marketed than the content of it. I feel like if that book had come out as issues of Yummy Fur I think the perception of it would be different. I enjoyed the book. [laughs] I thought it was good. [Laughs] I don’t know what to say about it, in terms of it being some sort of referendum on prostitution. It’s an autobiographical comic, I guess. I don’t know.
I was just wondering because it was advocating a certain political position?
I see what you’re saying. I don’t know. It seems like sometimes the more you get into your own history of your life or things that touch on those kinds of things, that you end up becoming political. You sort of have to because it’s just issues that are yours. Being less specific in a way doesn’t get you out of it. I’m not real articulate about it, sorry.
Oh, that’s okay. I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable. I’ll just ask one more question about that, about something I noticed while reading your comics, which is that there are a lot of jokes about therapists and psychiatrists—there's the story where Freud gets his penis chopped off, and where the psychiatrist is a fraud.
Oh, yeah, the Simpsons Treehouse of Horror one.
Yeah the Simpsons one, that’s right. I just didn’t know if that was a simple joke or if there was more?
I mean, I saw a therapist for a few years, and it was helpful to me. But really I almost felt like you’re sort of just paying someone to listen to you talk about something that maybe you couldn’t get someone to listen to, [Laughter] you know, in real life. But I’m definitely interested in the weirdness of people’s minds and how it can affect their behavior, I guess. I don’t know if it was that specific thing of just, oh, I went to a therapist, so I’m doing these jokes about therapy, but I think it’s just something that springs to mind, ‘cause I’m usually, I guess approaching things from brain damage instead of insight [laughs].
With the Simpsons one in particular, that approach makes total sense, because that seems like that was a big common theme of Matt Groening’s work, in Life in Hell, and in early Simpsons there’s a lot of that kind of humor.
When I got that assignment I looked at all the earlier Matt Groening comics, and you know, a lot of the life of his lines and the way that he draws things is definitely lost in, you know, the way that the Simpsons has to be made into something they can manufacture as animation in other countries. A lot of the life of his artwork is lost, but a lot of those early comics that he did are funny. Basically, he has the character, that kind of silhouette. It was a recurring thing of somebody who’s grounded in a room. I was less influenced by the Simpsons TV show, because I don’t have a TV. Well, we have a TV, but because I do closed captioning and would look at the monitor so much, when I come home I don’t want to watch TV. We just have a TV monitor and a DVD player so I don’t know what’s going on on TV. Almost all the time the things that I see at work, I don’t know if they’re popular or not or if people know what they are [laughs].
Continued in Part Two.