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Jay Lynch: The Final Interview

Photo by Patrick Rosenkranz, Chicago 1972.

I did not know Jay Lynch well. I spoke to him a few times on the phone, mostly in regard to his early 1987 Comics Journal interview. I was happy to reconnect with him, and contacted him last year, at the suggestion of Paul Krassner, and asked him if he’d like to draw the cover to Fantagraphics’ recent The Realist Cartoons, a collection of the best cartoons from Krassner’s legendary satirical magazine. Jay excitedly agreed to do it and turned in one of his best drawings — which he drew and colored. This may be the last drawing he published.

When I heard he had cancer, I called him and asked him if he was interested in sitting down for an interview. He was. Jay was dying when he gave this interview and knew he was dying. I hadn’t talked to Jay in a long time, but I could detect that although he was articulate and lucid, his speech was also uncharacteristically halting, and often interrupted by coughing fits. Nonetheless, he seemed eager to talk. He was, throughout, stoic, funny, and utterly un-self-pitying in the face of what he knew was his impending death. On full display here is his encyclopedic knowledge of counter- or minority-culture of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, his unsentimental description of his chaotic family life, and his fond reminiscences of his close friendships with Art Spiegelman and Skip Williamson.

My last conversation with him was on February 29, when I was fact checking the interview and filling in a few spots that were unintelligible. He was even more talkative on that occasion, albeit less lucid, and what I anticipated would be a 10-minute conversation turned into an hour-long one. My impression was that he did not want to say goodbye. Neither did I.

GARY GROTH, March 5, 2017

This interview was conducted on January 23 and February 5. It was transcribed and copyedited by Conrad Groth.

 

Growing Up

 

GARY GROTH: Can you tell me a little about your childhood and your growing up and your relationship to your parents? Can you tell me what your parents did?

JAY LYNCH: Well, we lived in a house in which lived my grandparents, their four daughters, the husbands of the daughters — for those who were married at the time — and my uncle. So my mother worked at an army base in Port Monmouth … so it’s more like … y’know, we called our grandmother “Ma.” The daughters weren’t that much older, though, actually. When I was born, Grace was 16 and all the daughters were under 25, except my mother was 26 when I was born. So I call my mother “Alice,” and I call my grandmother “Ma.”

GG: Now why did you call your mother by her first name?

JL: I don’t know. Because I guess that’s what everyone did. In the house, there were her sisters and her parents. And she had a job in the day at Port Monmouth, and the other daughters worked for the phone company.

GG: And how many siblings did you have?

JL: I had no brothers or sisters until 1957, when my mother remarried, and then I had a half brother and a half sister. But I left home in ’63. So they were like three years old or something.

GG: Well, one would’ve been about six years old, yeah.

JL: I wasn’t spending much time in my house when I was a teen.

GG: You did not.

JL: No.

“The Young Runaways” from Bijou.

GG: Is that because you found the environment unpalatable, or because you just wanted to go out and raise hell or what?

JL: I found it hard to get anything done. My stepfather was a drunk, would often get drunk, and I would go and stay in the city until it was over.

GG: You were in Florida at this time. You grew up in Florida?

JL: Well, I grew up in New Jersey and I moved to Florida when I was 12. So I was in Florida from when I was 12 to when I was 18.

GG: When you say you would stay in the city, what city?

JL: Miami.

GG: And where would you stay, with friends?

JL: We had a junior achievement company, and I just kept going there after the school year was over. It was an office. We always lived in offices. Like in Chicago I lived in the Diversey Arms Hotel, which didn’t have any air-conditioning or anything, so I had to sleep at the Aardvark magazine office.

GG: Did you not have a home of your own?

JL: When? When I moved to Chicago?

GG: Well, when you were living in offices.

JL: No. After high school, I moved to the city and I rented a little room in a hotel that was $80 a month for rent, a bed and a bathroom. And there was a room, but it wasn’t air-conditioned and it was not comfortable in the summer. It was a common practice for people to sleep in their offices, especially if they worked for small companies and had keys and stuff.

Mr. [Harlan] Ellison I believe slept at Rogue magazine for many years.

GG: [Laughs.] Did you witness this?

JL: No. By the time I arrived he’d left to write Burke’s Law. But he was writing for Joe Pilati’s fanzine at that time. We were all very excited, because Burke’s Law is very famous.

GG: Did the two of you ever cross paths?

JL: Not until the modern era. Well, I talked to him on the phone. I did stuff for a comic that he did. I did the drawing, I illustrated the thing in Dream Corridor.

GG: I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that, was that an adaptation of a short story?

JL: Yeah, it was the thing about the genie and the can opener.

GG: How was that experience?

JL: It was good. He’d call me up and try to get me to work on “Djinn, No Chaser.” They did the script, so it’s a short story. It should’ve been three pages, but it was like six or eight. Kinda dragged out. He called up to see how I was doing. And he’s always been pleasant to me. So at the time I’d swallowed a bridgework for my teeth, I swallowed a bridge.

GG: Swallowed it?

JL: Yeah. Just two teeth. So he goes into this long thing about how to recover it [Groth laughs] by straining my shit through cheesecloth, which I did and eventually I recovered the bridge. But anyway, after he gives me the long … Oh, wait — there’s required reading for this — we should go back to the idea that I dated an actress who was on some TV show for a short time when I was in college, and once I mentioned it to Ellison, he says, “Ah, I went to the same college, and I dated Ann Margaret.” Or, I left home when I was 17, Ellison says, “Well, I left home when I was 13, and I joined the circus.” So there’s always like a one-up thing. So he gives me the instructions on how to recover the teeth and then when he finished, he says, “Oh, by the way, this happened to me and here’s what I did. And he gave me instructions. Then he says, by the way, how many teeth?” [Laughter.]

GG: As if it would be a different technique if there were more or fewer?

JL: No, it’s that when I say two, he says, “Ha! I swallowed four.” [Groth laughs.] But I don’t really remember.

GG: So the shit-straining technique was born out of experience.

JL: Well, I did it because it costs hundreds of dollars to get a new bridge.

GG: Well, it makes sense. Well now, skipping back to your teen years … Tell me about your family life in Miami. Were you in open conflict with your stepfather, or was it some other …

JL: I tried to avoid him.

GG: That’s primarily because he was an alcoholic, or were there other reasons?

JL: Well, he was kind of stupid as well.

GG: That’s a bad combination.

JL: But I think at the end, I said, “Well, look, I don’t like this and you don’t like this, so I’m going. Goodbye.”

GG: How did your mother feel about that?

JL: I don’t know. She was an enabler, she just accepted everything.

GG: What was your relationship with your mother like?

JL: I lived with her from 1956 to 1962. So it’s only six years. Before that, I lived with her in the context of my grandmother being the head of the house, so it was like … All of the girls were more like sisters than authority figures.

GG: It sounds like your grandmother was more the matriarch, and your mother’s sisters lived there. So you grew up with a lot of women. How do you think that affected your upbringing, your developing consciousness and view of the world?

JL: I dunno, what do you think? I don’t know, I never thought much about it.

“Child Martyr” from Bijou.

GG: What was your father doing when you were living in this house with your mother?

JL: I hadn’t seen him since I was three, but he eventually became a doorman in New Jersey.

GG: Why hadn’t you seen him from the age of three?

JL: Because he was kind of vilified.

GG: Did he leave?

JL: He didn’t like the idea of living in a house with all these people. And one day, he went with my mother to the movies to avoid the crowds, but her sisters were there and they were all in back of him. So this made him flip out.

GG: [Laughs.] It was just the last straw. And he left?

JL: Yeah.

GG: Do you remember that?

JL: No.

GG: So one day he was just gone?

JL: Yeah. There was a long, drawn-out legal battle where they dragged me into court and had me [testify], but it wasn’t like he did anything evil to me or anything like that.

GG: So there was litigation between your mother and he.

JL: Yeah.

GG: What did you have to testify to?

JL: She wanted to get child support.

GG: And you actually had to testify, as a child?

JL: I think so. I forget what the nature of it was, though.

GG: This was in a courtroom?

JL: Yeah. Well it was done in the Army-McCarthy hearings, I think. Or at least during some televised HUAC hearing. So I kind of thought of it as that.

GG: Sounds like you were maybe five or six, seven?

JL: I thought it was like three … Maybe the trial was a couple of years after he left, I dunno.

GG: And did he ever return? Or did he become a part of your life at some point?

JL: No.

GG: Never?

JL: Never. And he left me a dollar.

GG: [Laughs.] Did you say a dollar?

JL: Yeah.

GG: [Laughs.] Huh. And you never saw him again?

JL: No.

GG: The last time you saw your father was when you were three years old?

JL: Yeah.

GG: How old were you when your mother married your stepfather?

JL: I think that was in 1955 or 1956.

GG: You were ten.

JL: Eleven.

GG: And what did he do?

JL: What was his job? Oh, both were named Lynch.

GG: [In disbelief] What?

JL: Both had the last name of Lynch, and this has never been fully explained to me. [Groth laughs.] But I gave up caring about that. He worked for Esso, Standard Oil, he drove a truck. Yeah, a bunch of little jobs. He worked for Sears selling fences and …

GG: So what was your mother like? Obviously, not that great at picking husbands, but other than that what was she like?

JL: Kind of like … frustrating. You couldn’t ask her a question without asking her 12 times before she’d respond. Like she was paying attention to some other plane or something.

GG: Does not sound attentive.

JL: Well, I dunno. She had problems.

GG: Did you feel like you were on your own, at an early age?

JL: Yeah.

GG: And it sounds like you became independent at an early age and remained independent throughout your life. Is that accurate?

JL: Yes, I guess. Well, my parents were divorced when I was three, my mother remarried an alcoholic, and I spent a lot of time hiding. Staying in other places.

GG: Was this after you lived in a dressing room of a burlesque theater?

JL: I lived in a burlesque theater after the war [WWII]. They seized all public housing so this burlesque theater had more than one dressing room, and the extra dressing rooms became veteran’s housing. That was when I was a baby, that was with my biological father.

Illustration by “Ray Finch” in Turned on Cuties.

GG: So this was not an active burlesque theater?

JL: It was, but it had a separate entrance.

GG: I see. Unfortunately, you probably weren’t old enough to remember much of that.

JL: It was in Asbury Park. I remember those pictures of women dressed as ponies.

GG: That may have had a profound effect on your psyche.

JL: Later Jeff Rund did those Eric Stanton prints of that imagery. This was in Asbury park. Actually, there were fake guys like there was a fake Jackie Gleason, there was a fake Ray Bolger. Of course, there’s a fake Jerry Lewis. For every famous person,  there was a lower-level comedian who looked like them and did their act almost but wasn’t them.

GG: This was in the burlesque theater?

JL: Yeah.

GG: You must have only made the connection to the real comedian later in life, because you would’ve been too young to realize who they were, right?

JL: Well, I worked in a hotel in Miami Beach and there was a comedian there, and he never became famous but his brother became famous. Jackie Gayle? Marty Gayle? Yeah I think he was Marty Gayle, Jackie Gayle’s brother. So, you know, I worked in a newsstand there and I bought his record. He would work in the lounge and sell records that he made himself.

GG: Marty Gayle?

JL: Yeah Marty Gayle, Jackie Gayle’s brother.

GG: What was your job at the hotel?

JL: I sold newspapers and cigars and stuff.

GG: And you would’ve been a teenager.

JL: Yeah. Maybe sixth, seventh grade.

GG: That’s pretty young to be working.

JL: Well I needed pants.

 

Early Influences

 

GG: Well, let me skip back a little bit. When you were nine or 10 years old, you edited and published a fanzine called the Vulgarmental.

JL: Yeah. Let me explain that. That’s in [Patrick] Rosenkranz’s book [Rebel Visions]. When we were kids we’d just get newsprint paper and staple it to slick paper and make little comics. Just one-of-a-kind things. And mine were [just full of] jokes about urine and poop and shit. So this Vulgarmental thing was a parody of the TV show The Continental, which was a European … well, Mad did a parody of it, too. So, then we’d pass it around, and some kid had mine and his father found it. And his father was a cop, and his father confronted me in a lot next to their house and told me not to do such things.

GG: Such things being putting out the Vulgarmental? This little fanzine? He didn’t appreciate that.

JL: He didn’t appreciate its content.

GG: It sounds like you were doing something right then.

JL: Well, that’s what I was about. It’s not like we fronted the thing, it’s not like we did it regularly with any editorial deadline in mind or anything.

GG: But it still suggests the need to create something.

JL: There were things like eight-pagers but not eight-pagers. There was a thing called Night in the Tropics that was a little pocket-sized thing that was in color, and it was clean, like minstrel jokes or something. Then there were eight-pagers, and these were more valuable because they were rarer.

GG: These were eight-pagers that you drew?

JL: No.

GG: These were eight-pagers you bought or found.

JL: Yeah. I guess my uncle might’ve had them.

GG: I was gonna say, where would you find these.

JL: There was a trunk of old magazines and stuff in the garage. Lilliput magazine, the World War II British men’s pocked-sized magazine. And Esquire, from the ’30s.

There was my uncle Jack who was married to Gloria who also, much of the time, lived in the house with everybody else. Occasionally, he would have a job that would have him move to another city, but eventually he’d always be back. So at first he did circulation for Collier’s, and then he did circulation for Time/Life. So in the garage there were all these racks, for Life magazine racks and posters and oak tag display kiosks and stuff like that. And pencils, paperweights — y’know, promotional giveaways for Time/Life. So as a kid, half my furniture was Time/Life, almost.

GG: That seems appropriate.

JL: But he introduced me to Mad. Time was distributed by American News in New Jersey, and they did Dell and DC comics. But they didn’t do EC, and they didn’t do the smaller titles. But one day, my uncle came with a copy of Mad and showed me it and it changed my life.

GG: Do you remember what issue that was?

JL: The one with “Teddy and the Pirates” [Mad #6]. And then I mailed away for back issues.

Mad issue featuring “Teddy and the Pirates”.

GG: You were obviously attracted to satire and a satirical point of view at an incredibly early age; was there something about your upbringing that you would attribute that to? Or how do you think you gravitated to that anti-establishment point of view?

JL: I don’t know, just like Stan Freberg and Ernie Kovacs on the television, and Time for Beany — the puppet show with Stan Freberg.

GG: But not everybody did, I mean a distinct minority of people were attracted to that.

JL: We did see eight-pagers before. I did see eight-pagers before I saw Mad. So there was some kind of a forbidden thing about Mad because they were mocking comic strip characters, as were eight-pagers. But they did sell well.

GG: You also grew up in the ’50s which was really the beginning of and almost the heyday of satirical expression, starting with Mad and moving into Stan Freberg and Ernie Kovacs. And comedians like Jonathon Winters and Sid Caesar.

JL: Yes, Caesar’s show was a big thing.

GG: Did you embrace all of that?

JL: Yeah. Really though, and then there was Steve Allen, but Steve Allen was like … the main things were Sid Caesar and Ernie Kovacs, and when Freberg was on TV.

GG: Steve Allen had a kind of anarchic routine, which was very appealing.

JL: Steve Allen worked for The Independent, which was Lyle Stuart’s newspaper. And Lyle Stuart was a business manager in Mad, and kind of mentored [Paul] Krassner on The Realist. And I saw The Realist early on.

GG: You discovered The Realist in 1958, which means you would’ve been 13 years old, which is a pretty young age to discover The Realist.

JL: Well, I was in Miami beach. I worked in a newsstand and we sold publications and we sold what was called the Mercury Press, which isn’t the famous literary Mercury press but back then it was an insanely right-wing anti-immigration, anti-liberal, precursor to The National Review, only crazier. It was like a national magazine, it was like a digest-size thing. American Mercury, was it called? American Mercury, I think. And that was interesting because it was so crazy, so over-the-top.

GG: This had nothing to do with H.L. Mencken’s …

JL: Right, not Mencken. He did a magazine with the same name, but by ’59 it had devolved into this right-wing thing. And then there was the New Republic for the other side.

GG: So you were precocious.

JL: Well I don’t know. There was a comic [I did] called Unsane — “It’s Crazier than Insane.” And then I did a comic myself called Insane — “It’s Crazier than Unsane.” But no, I always do that. When Whack magazine came out I did a thing that was like Whack.

GG: Whack Magazine, what was that?

JL: Saint John’s [the publisher]. It was a 3-D imitation of Mad. It wasn’t until … Well, you know, we followed all the Mad guys and when they left Mad, some went to Cracked, and we followed the ones that went to Cracked, and then came Humbug and all this other stuff. So I was following [John] Severin which was Cracked, and [Jack] Davis was still with Mad, and [Harvey] Kurtzman had Help and before that Humbug, and Trump. But I guess I got the EC Fan-Addict Club newsletter when I was a kid, but nothing really clicked until the end of 1960. Paul Laiken was editor of Cracked, and he gave Joe Pilati a plug for his fanzine Smudge, and Smudge was news of — he would interview people who did the satire fanzines. It was a serious, interview type magazine. So I sent for Smudge, and Skip Williamson sent for Smudge, and [Art] Spiegelman sent for Smudge, Don Edwing sent for Smudge. A lot of people who then ultimately became cartoonists sent for Smudge, and many of us started drawing for Smudge. And in the back of Smudge, Pilati ran reviews of other fanzines: one was Wild and another was Jack High. We did cartoons for Wild and Jack High, me, Spiegelman, and Williamson, and Edwing.

GG: And these were all fanzines?

JL: Yeah, but they were printed. Smudge had a circulation of 80, it was dittoed. And Wild and Jack High were different than Smudge in that they were imitations of Mad. They actually attempted to do humorous stories rather than just running news of the satire business.

Jay Lynch cover.

 

GG: Did Smudge interview artists like Kurtzman?

JL: Smudge interviewed Kurtzman and [Will] Elder, and Don Martin, and Al Feldstein I think. But the ones they interviewed their photos went on the cover. Pilati was I think fourteen at the time, but his magazine was a very serious, very well done magazine. Now later, when we did underground comics, Joe Pilati wrote the introduction to Corporate Crime Comics and he worked on the Charles Stevens boycott, the thing that the Norma Ray movie, the Sally Field movie is about. And the same guy who did that — Ray Rodgers is his name — had a company called Corporate Campaign, and he would do these union things, and all of a sudden they wound up opposing Coca-Cola for their killing of union workers in Colombia. He’s been doing that for the last 20 years. But Pilati continued to work for Ray Rodgers, and I continued to do cartoons for Ray Rodgers’ organization so there’s a body of work of Coca-Cola. You know, “Don’t drink Coca-Cola” things that I did.

GG: What was Rodgers’ company? What did it actually do?

JL: Well it was like an ad agency for groups that were protesting the companies.

GG: So it sounds like an anti-ad agency.

JL: Yeah. It ran campaigns that were on the verge of being strikes. They’re still around. If you [search] “killer coke” it’ll take you to the corporate campaign pages on that topic.

GG: How old were you when you contributed to Smudge and Wild?

JL: 1960. So 15, 16, 17.

GG: During this period you were friends with Spiegelman and Williamson and can you tell me how you expanded that circle, and how that grew in the mid- to late-’60s?

JL: Well, I moved to Chicago in ’62, ’63 and I did stuff for a magazine called Aardvark, and I was in touch with Spiegelman and Williamson from the fanzines, so I sent some copies of Aardvark and they did stuff for Aardvark. In Florida, Bill Killeen, who was the guy who wrote the first Wonder Warthog for the Texas Ranger, had started a magazine called Charlatan. So I did cartoons for Charlatan and I think Williamson and Spiegelman also did Charlatan stuff. And Help reprinted Wonder Warthog from Charlatan. Their public gallery feature in the beginning was just reprints of college humor magazine cartoons. So we went from the fanzines to the college humor magazines, these beatnik-type magazines like Nexus in San Francisco, or The Idiot in San Francisco. Those were kind of like The Realist cartoons, shocking cartoons. Like I did a cover for The Idiot that’s a nativity scene except that one of the wise men says, “What do you mean it’s a girl?” Which in its day was shocking. And Skip, and I think Spiegelman did stuff for The Idiot.

Cartoons for The Idiot #4, December ’65.

GG: When you say you met Spiegelman and Skip Williamson through the fanzines, did you meet them through the mail? How did you actually meet them?

JL: I met them through the mail first, though I did meet Art in person. He came to Miami with his parents. They were on vacation and I met them in a hotel and it was the week that Little Annie Fanny came out in Playboy.

GG: The first one?

JL: Yeah, ’62 maybe. I met Skip after I moved to Chicago. I lived in the Diversey Hotel, and Skip came to town for some science fiction convention, so he stayed with me in the hotel and that’s how I met Skip. And then I would go up to Missouri and visit Skip, or I would go to New York and visit Art. I guess I was doing stuff … Topps fired Art pretty early. When I was still in school I think he did occasional things for Topps.

GG: How old were you guys? I mean you guys are roughly the same age, you might be a little younger than Art, I’m not sure.

JL: I’m 72, Art is 70. When I met Art he was 14 and I was 16.

GG: So tell me what Art was like then, at 14?

JL: Well he liked the Mad stuff, the Mad artists. We would write back and forth if we noticed an obscure crosshatching technique. We would discuss this at great length. Arnold Roth would do a line, and then do little lines inside of that line. There was a cartoon of the Trojan Horse that he did in Help and we went on and on about what that means, the line within a line.

GG: So you were both very analytical.

JL: Yeah. And wit and its relation to the unconscious — the Freud thing about writing jokes — was a big thing.

GG: You must have immediately taken to each other.

JL: Oh, yeah.

GG: How did that friendship evolve over the years?

JL: Well, I’m still friendly with Art. Art was up here a few weeks ago. Although humor is no longer his main thing, but he is a comedy genius, someday he must come back to this. Hmm, how did it evolve?

Well, one thing Spiegelman and I always wind up discussing is we did like a radio show, we just recorded for fun on tape — there was a time we’d be on the radio a lot in Chicago, but they wouldn’t play this because it wasn’t recorded by a union. And I sent it to a guy in Finland and I am told he played it, but I don’t know if he still has the tape. Whenever I ask him he never answers. But it was called “Dem Guys” — “On the Stoop with Dem Guys” — and it’s like two bums sitting on a stoop, and one wants to write a letter to his girlfriend but they don’t have a pencil, and they get a pencil but they don’t have paper, and they use a wine bottle label, and he says, “OK, take a letter: Veryl, Veryl, Veryl, my dearest of goils.” And then he writes it down and then, “What’s that?” And then he says, “Again, again. Veryl, Veryl, Verl … ” “What’s that?” And he says, “Chicken scratch?” And he says, “No they’re ditto marks, ditto marks. That means twice. Veryl, Veryl, Veryl. Twice.” I dunno. Maybe it’s bad, I dunno. I haven’t heard it for 50 years. I think it was funny. [Laughter.]

GG: Now you and Art recorded this yourselves and intended to sell it to a radio station, or try to get it aired?

JL: No, we just had a cordial relationship with the radio and TV people because I lived a block from the TV station and whenever a guest wouldn’t show up on Underground News they’d call me and I’d come over and plug the comic book. And same with the radio, we knew the radio people. So, you know, if we made something they probably would’ve played it, but in this case they didn’t.

GG: This was in Chicago?

JL: Yeah.

GG: And this was all improvisatory? It was not scripted?

JL: The “Dem Guys” show? Yeah. Right. And then Art did the leaflets.

GG: Now, explain the leaflets

JL: We wanted to meet women on the street, and we did the love leaflet, which was just the definition cut out of the dictionary of the word love and a surreal drawing. We’d give it to people and they’d say, “What’s this?” and we’d say, “A leaflet.” So that would perhaps lead to conversation … But after that, he did “Play with Yourself” and a comic on food, and a whole bunch of different leaflets. Once we did one that was just a picture of a leaf, people would say, “What’s this?” and we’d say, “A leaflet.”

GG: Did this lead to any successful romances?

JL: No. [Laughter.] Not that I recall.

GG: A complete failure. [Laughs.]

JL: Well, you know, it was fun. And we got to talk to strangers. They thought we were nuts.

Comic by Art Spiegelman for Gothic Blimp Works #7.

Well, then came the Hippies and the underground press, and we did stuff for the underground papers. So I go to New York to do stuff for Topps, and they would put me in the Hotel Earl which was eight dollars a night — it was the official Topps hotel. And people would bang on the door and say “Speed, Acid, Lids.” I didn’t know if they were buying or selling. We also did East village Other cartoons when we weren’t doing the Topps stuff at the Hotel Earl. And Art did an early book of quotes called Whole Grains. Like Eisenhower once said, “Things are more the way they are now than they ever were before.” And we knew of Crumb from Help. Real early on I remember visiting Art and Art said, “I don’t know if Robert Crumb has left his wife.” And that was shocking. But after that he’d leave his wife every year at the same time.

GG: [Laughs.] Until he no longer had to.

JL: Yeah.

GG: That’s when he left Cleveland to go to San Francisco? That’s what you’re referring to?

JL: He worked for Topps. I guess he moved to New York and Kurtzman gave him a job as assistant editor of Help. But the day he showed up for work they were moving the furniture out of the office. So Kurtzman got him several gigs, one was assisting Jack Davis. And Jack Davis said, “This guy is so slow, how can this be?”

GG: Yeah that lasted about three weeks.

JL: Yeah, but Crumb wound up doing stuff for Topps and Woody Gelman, who was the creative director at Topps, who also had all these side things going. He had Nostalgia Press, and he published a magazine called Nostalgia Magazine.

GG: And this would have been around ’65?

JL: ’65 or ’66, what was the bubblegum thing … I think Glenn Brown was doing Sonny and Cher cards at this time.

GG: And you would move in and out of New York.

JL: I would go to New York for two or three weeks and I would stay with Art if he was living there, or I would stay with whoever I knew that was there at the time. I used to stay with Don Lewis who was the art director of The [Chicago] Seed [who] then became the art director of The East Village Other.

 

Precursors to Cartooning

 

GG: Skip Williamson moved to Chicago in 1967 so you could start a humor magazine, and I think that was the Chicago Mirror.

JL: Yeah.

GG: And then that segued into Bijou [Funnies], if I remember correctly.

JL: Right.

GG: Can you tell me a little about that, how you and Skip got together to collaborate on that and how you decided that he would move there? It sounds like you were both planning on being entrepreneurs.

JL: Yeah. Well we just finished the banana story. In the papers then it said that people were smoking bananas to get high. And we made up this thing that they were smoking dog poop. [Laughter.] They were called “shitheads,” and the most popular variety was Lincoln Park Brown. We told readers how to cure dog poop. But it was basically satire. So we were selling the magazine on the street and a kid comes up and he says, “Hey, thanks for the tip on the dog poop. We’ve been smokin’ this stuff for a week, it’s great!” [Groth laughs.] And I said, “No, no, that’s humor, that’s satire. You’re not really supposed to do that.” [Groth laughs.] And he says, “Hell, it works.” And around that time Crumb sent me Zap #1. So I thought … We’ve been misjudging our audience. If they’re gonna believe the dog poop thing, maybe we should just do a comic book. And that’s what we did.

GG: So it was a combination of Zap #1 and the dog poop that inspired you.

JL: Well, I think the dog poop was the crucial factor.

GG: [Laughs.] Well, of course.

JL: We never thought to do a whole comic, and even in The Mirror what we did mostly was one-panel gag cartoons.

GG: Now what format was The Mirror in?

JL: Well, it was like a magazine. Mostly articles with one-panel gag cartoons breaking them up, and an occasional full-page comic strip.

GG: Was Zap #1 the first underground comic you actually saw? Did you not see God Nose or …

JL: I saw God Nose in ’64. Jackson sent me a bunch of them to put in the Roosevelt University bookstore back then. They were in the Roosevelt store and they were in Barbara’s Bookstore on Wells Street.

Charlatan cover by Jack Jackson.

 

GG: But that did not inspire you to do something similar?

JL: No. Charlatan magazine was running God Nose comic strips at the time. And Wonder Warthog was a regular feature in Charlatan.

GG: But the God Nose comics format didn’t inspire you to do something like it?

JL: Right. It did not.

GG: I guess the time was not right.

JL: There were other things. There was something … It was yellow, it was on legal-sized paper folded over and it came out of Austin and it was like your humor magazine that was comics plus writing. And I have it somewhere, but there was only one issue. Then there was the Austin Iconoclastic magazine, which was a newsletter then, kind of like … There was a thing called Monocle that was a political satire magazine. But no, we didn’t think to do a comic book like God Nose.

GG: Were you dead-set on becoming a cartoonist?

JL: Not so much a cartoonist, but a humorist. And not even a humorist. Some of us in Chicago used to speak at coffeehouses and it wasn’t like we were telling jokes or anything, we were saying things that made people nervous and they therefore would laugh.

GG: Not humor exactly though.

JL: Well I guess it was humor, but when you repeat it 50 years later it’s not funny any more.

GG: Would this have been beat inspired?

JL: In a way, although it wasn’t that we liked Allen Ginsberg or Kerouac or that. We liked Albert Ellis and [Alfred] Korzybski . Not the art part of the beatnik thing but the social sciences part of it, I think.

GG: You wanted to stir things up politically and socially.

JL: Yeah, we did a newspaper called The Old Town Newspaper. Madalyn Murray [O’Hair] was in all that stuff that we did.

GG: Now The Old Town Newspaper, where was this and when was this? And who was this?

JL: This was in ’64 in the Old Town neighborhood of Chicago. It was a four-page paper published in letter press, without type. The first we had Nelson Algren writing about capital punishment.

GG: Let me just talk about this for a moment. First of all, who is we? You and who else?

JL: The Publisher was a guy named Karl Sonkin, who in recent years has been a news anchor in San Diego. Now he works for Kaiser, the insurance outfit in San Diego — he’s like a PR guy for Kaiser. Well, Carl was with Aardvark, he did stuff for Aardvark. And Skip [Williamson] was in The Old Town Newspaper. And Howard Shoemaker, who was a Playboy cartoonist and who at one point was in The Realist and all these alternate magazines.

Cartoon by Howard Shoemaker for The Realist.

 

GG: Now you would’ve been 19 years old at the time, how could you guys afford to do this?

JL: Afford?

GG: I mean how could you pay for the printing of this newspaper.

JL: It was 50 bucks.

GG: [Laughs.] Well, that was a lot of money back then.

JL: We sold ads. The first issue was good. There was a photographer in Springfield — the capital of Illinois — and at the back of the electric chair there was a no smoking sign. So I suggested that the photographer go up there and take a picture of that, and get the no smoking sign. So he goes up there and he takes pictures and they’re all these solarized, artsy-fartsy pictures, and you don’t see the no smoking sign. So that kind of pissed me off, so the caption I wrote was, “Here’s the electric chair in Springfield, not depicted is an ironic no smoking sign in the background.” Photo by whatever the guy’s name was. Just to embarrass him, you know. Ultimately, it got to where the paper was just trying to make money and they’d write reviews of restaurants and articles about people they sold ads to, and it just wasn’t of any merit. So I left, and it evolved into something called Skyline, which was a newspaper for high-rises. It’s the same corporation but last time I looked — maybe 20 years ago — it was called Skyline.

GG: So its gentrification was complete.

JL: Yeah.

GG: You said you were inspired by Zap when that came out, that would have been ’68, and then you started to form a community — Skip Williamson and Art Spiegelman and eventually Robert Crumb and so on—of underground comics and it became something — it was no longer an abstract idea, it was happening; did you then have a sense that you were changing comics, that you were no longer following in the traditions of mass market comics, with the exception of Mad, and that you were doing something —

JL: Yeah, we always wanted to change the [Comics] Code. That was our main goal.

GG: The Comics Code.

JL: Yeah. Chill the Code.

GG: Was there the conscious sense that you were pushing the medium in a different direction, or using the medium in a different way than it had been?

JL: Yeah. But I didn’t start doing comics as comics until the underground comics thing. Before that we did magazine gag cartoons, because we thought comics were killed by the Code and there was no place within it for us.

GG: And you were right.

JL: Yeah.

GG: Because you had to create your own place. It’s interesting, because without the historical moment being what it was, you couldn’t have done that. Without the counterculture, without the advent of head shops, without that distribution network, you couldn’t have done that. And I wonder what you would have done, but it might not have been comics.

JL: Did I tell you about the Pageant magazine article?

GG: No.

JL: In 1954-5, Pageant ran a piece on the Mad staff, of the comic book. So I bought Pageant. And in that issue of Pageant was an article called “Pills that Chase Away the Blues,” and this was about early LSD. And one thing it said in the article, it said that people who took this new drug reported seeing a Walt Disney black dwarf fighting with a white Walt Disney dwarf, and they spin around in a circle and turn into a yin and yang symbol. So of course when I took acid, twenty years later, that’s what I saw. Crumb did a strip in Underground Digest, a pocket-sized magazine, where there’s something like that, a dwarf spinning into a yin and yang thing. So I mention this to Crumb, and Crumb I guess also as a youth bought that issue of Pageant. So could it be that the suggestion of that influenced what he saw and maybe changed the course of comics? I don’t know. [Groth laughs.]

 

From Men’s Magazines to Underground Comics

 

GG: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think it’s ZAP #1 that really galvanized the underground comics movement, but there was so much activity before that and you were very much a part of that. There were the college humor magazines that preceded underground comics. There were the fanzines you were referring to that also preceded them and that fueled, that inspired the work by you and artists like Spiegelman and Skip Williamson. I’d like you to talk a little bit about that pre-ZAP #1 period, and what led up to it.

Cover by R. Crumb.

 

JL: Well, when underground comics came, originally we were mostly doing one-panel gag cartoons for men’s magazines, and when underground comics came we did strips. So there were a lot of one-panel gag cartoon guys who just didn’t ever get into underground comics. There was a guy named Hank Hinton, who did a strip called Charlie Carrot Charisma for Cavalier, he was really good. He did Frat Man for Help magazine, Joel Siegel wrote it, I think. But he wound up getting a job at the LA Times, and he was like their caricaturist, he was like their David Levine guy. And he did that for 20 years. He did some stuff for Hot Rod Cartoons, the hot rod magazine that [Gilbert] Shelton did stuff for. And Howard Shoemaker was a one-panel gag cartoonist, he’s a great cartoonist.

GG: He did a lot of work for The Realist.

JL: But he was of a generation that was a little older than the hippie thing. But, you know, people began to show up who were good cartoonists and I tried to get them to do stuff for my books.

GG: It sounds like you were basically scrambling to work for whoever you could work for. Men’s magazines or college newspapers or …

JL: Well, men’s magazines then had to have a certain amount of sexually redeeming copy. And there was a lot of good stuff in them. Playboy in those days would interview Bertrand Russell. Now, they’ll interview Chris Rock.

GG: [Laughs.] It’s a sign of where we’re going, yeah.

JL: You seen the new Playboy?

GG: I have seen the new manifestation, yes. Pretty dismal.

JL: Yes.

GG: What’s your opinion of it?

JL: It’s like it’s not there. It’s like Maxim or something. They send me Maxim for free, but I always gave it away. There was one issue, though, that had Spiegelman and Molly Crabapple — they sent her to Iran. And there was article on Dan Clowes. And that was just the one issue, and before that and after that it’s just been boring.

GG: [In disbelief.] You’re talking about Maxim?

JL: No, Playboy. Maybe six months ago they did one good issue.

GG: Huh, I didn’t know that. Must’ve been a mistake.

JL: Well, Molly Crabapple’s in Vice. So they might’ve thought that Vice is good to be like.

GG: [Laughs.] This is sad.

JL: Eh, Vice is nice. Johnny Ryan is my favorite cartoonist. He’s a laugh getter. [Laughs.] That’s the only stuff I laugh at.

Cartoon from Back in Bleck.

 

GG: So you wanted to be a humorist and it sounds like the most efficacious way you could pursue this was through cartooning.

JL: Especially after the underground comics thing. Because there was a lot of that, a lot of underground comics. Before that, I would write for the college humor magazines just as much as I would draw.

GG: And these would be skits or stories?

JL: I did this thing, Money Talks, like, Walnuts, Jack Whal’s thing where he has small objects talking to each other.

I did a thing called Money Talks in Charlatan, where it’d be coins talking to each other. So it’d just be photos of coins, with captions. But I wrote … Oui magazine sent me to track down snuff movies and I wrote a thing about that, and Hustler sent me down to track down Howard Hughes’ urine and I wrote a thing about that. I did a profile of Paul Harvey for Chic magazine.

 

San Francisco and the Underground Scene

 

GG: Let me bring you back to the birth of the undergrounds. You met Skip Williamson and Art Spiegelman, I think you met Gilbert Shelton and Jack Jackson as well, part of the Texas contingent of underground cartoonists. Shelton was publishing in the Texas Ranger

JL: Jackson submitted stuff to Aardvark and he came to Chicago, and I didn’t really see him … I didn’t really hang out with him until after they all moved to San Francisco. Shelton was the same thing, I went to his house to help him bind Radical America Komiks

GG: In San Francisco?

JL: In San Francisco, to staple them, yeah.

GG: Did you meet Shelton in San Francisco?

JL: I think that might be the first time I met him. He was on the staff of Charlatan and other Texas humor magazines I contributed to.

GG: What year did you go to San Francisco?

JL: ’68 I guess, yeah.

GG: So that was very much near the beginning. So you met Shelton and Jackson; can you describe the beginning of the underground scene? I guess Crumb was there, Print Mint and Last Gasp were operating …

JL: It might have been before Last Gasp that there was the Print Mint.

GG: How about Rip Off? Had Rip Off started by then?

JL: Yeah. Gary Arlington had his company.

GG: Right, right. His store.

JL: But it was the same press. Rip Off Press, the printing machine printed Gary’s books. Oh, I guess ultimately they had the guts to print it elsewhere. Plymell lives up around here now, Charles Plymell lives in Cherry Valley, New York.

“A Typical Afternoon at Rip Off Press” by Gilbert Shelton.

GG: So when you landed in San Francisco, where’d you go and how did you go about …

JL: Well, Crumb would stay at my house in Chicago, so I stayed with Dana, but Crumb wasn’t in town the first time I went. And he had this cookie, like an Oreo cookie, from the 1940s that … relief on the cookie was really well sculpted, so for some reason he saved this cookie since his childhood.

GG: Crumb did?

JL: Yeah. And then Dana said, “I’m gonna get rid of this, I’m sick of this cookie” and she threw out the cookie. [Groth laughs.] Then [Rick] Griffin came over and I said, “Dana threw out Crumb’s cookie.” And so Griffin salvaged the cookie from the garbage, and then I guess he gave it back to Crumb when Crumb returned.

GG: [Laughs.] I wonder if Robert still has this.

JL: [Laughs.] I don’t know, maybe it was a reward for a spelling bee in kindergarten or something.

GG: This was a real cookie?

JL: Yeah, it was green — the middle of it, the icing turned green and yellow … [Laughs.]

GG: It’s probably still edible today. [Laughs.] It’s interesting what you remember, isn’t it?

JL: It’s always the top stuff. I don’t remember any job we did, but I do remember what everyone ate for lunch or where we went for lunch.

GG: Yeah, it’s fascinating what odd details one remembers and what larger things one doesn’t. Now, getting back to your trip to San Francisco, I assume the reason you went to San Francisco was to become part of underground comics.

JL: We printed the first printing of Bijou #2. It sold out pretty fast, so I went to give it to the Print Mint and they reprinted it.

GG: And how long did you stay in San Francisco?

JL: Maybe two weeks.

GG: Oh, is that all? OK. Can you give your impressions of the underground scene at that moment in history? I mean, who was there, and was there a sense of community?

JL: Kind of. Gary Arlington always wanted people to jam, and nobody wanted to. But it was Roger Brand and Jim Osborne, Art [Spiegelman], Rory Hayes … I dunno.

GG: What was your impression of Roger Brand?

JL: Well, I knew Roger in New York.

GG: He was quite knowledgeable about comics history, right?

JL: Right, he did fanzine type stuff in the beginning. I actually have a jam that we did where we all penciled something and we all passed it on to the next guy and he tight penciled it and then passed it again and the third guy inked it. It’s me, Roger, and Osborne. Roger Brand was the guy who discovered Eugene Teal, the Frogs: Sunday Funnie guy.

Eugene Teal’s magnum opus.

GG: Were you ever in touch with Frank Stack?

JL: Yeah. Not much, just for the Adventures with Jesus. I gave the Billy Ireland Museum the letters from that era. That was what, like ’63, ’64? So that was earlier than God Nose.

GG: Yeah, I think by some months. Right.

JL: Well, we thought he was Gilbert, and eventually we realized he was another person.

GG: [Laughs.] You thought Frank was Gilbert.

JL: I think it’s from Foolbert Sturgeon.

GG: What was your impression of Jack Jackson when you were in San Francisco? Did you have much of one?

JL: No, he’s like a Texas guy. He had a beautiful wife and he wore a cowboy hat. No, he was in Chicago and he called and somehow he wound up in the ghetto — he thought it was another neighborhood or something, I dunno. But I never saw him when he was in Chicago, I just talked with him on the phone about “Where am I? How do I get out of here?” [Groth laughs.]

Jesus Meets the Armed Services #2 by Frank Stack.

GG: He was doing some vicious satirical strips at that time. Really ballsy stuff.

JL: Yeah, in the college humor magazines too he was doing this one-page Jack Davis-looking thing. And there’s a bunch of them that Aarvark had that they were gonna print, but then Aarvark kind of stopped publishing because of the hippie thing. Instead of humor magazine they opened an underground movie theater. And the way the humor magazine was — it was a different era — it didn’t look like it was hip. It looked pretty academic.

GG: Really?

JL: Before the hippies, yeah. And Playboy used to influence their layout. They’d run an interview in Aarvark with three photos on the bottom of the page in italic quotes like Playboy did. It’s the only magazine that ran an interview with Shel Silverstein. He never did an interview except the one in Aarvark.

GG: Do you remember who interviewed him?

JL: No. Howard Cohen maybe?

GG: Was it good?

JL: It was good. He predicted stuff that would happen in the future. He said, “Someday they’ll say fuck on television and nobody will notice.” [Groth laughs.]

 

Little Ladies—the Ladies of the Underground

 

GG: I was curious about one odd thing I read, which was that your wife, Jane, published something called Little Ladies, which was about the spouses of the underground and girlfriends of the underground cartoonists.

JL: She would print a dozen and they went to the wives of the people we knew who Jane met on our travels. So Margaret Osborne and Dana and Trina …

GG: And what was that like?

JL: Little Ladies? Just complaining, mostly. But it was humorous, I guess.

GG: [Laughs.] Humorous complaining.

JL: Yeah. I did one called Big Men, it was like the opposite of Little Ladies. I did two issues of Big Men just for kicks. [Groth laughs.] Wilson and his girlfriend hated Little Ladies, so in Big Men we said, “We call ourselves by our last names. We don’t use the first names that were bestowed upon us by the matriarchy.” [Laughs.] So Wilson did some cartoon of that — I dunno, castrated penises or something, signed Wilson — for Big Men. His girlfriend complained about Little Ladies. She thought it was divisive, kind of subversive, and it was adding argument, making the women rebel and that kind of stuff.

GG: Do you still have copies of these?

JL: Yeah I do, I gave them to the Billy Ireland Museum.

GG: Speaking of men and women in the underground movement, it’s pretty undeniable isn’t it that it was a pretty sexist environment, I mean, male dominated?

JL: It was.

GG: Very few women cartoonists.

JL: Yeah. There were a few — Shannon Wheeler and Pat Dailey [who had published in the Berkley Barb]there were a few who actually did satire.

GG: Now, Shannon Wheeler’s not a woman cartoonist and not of that generation.

JL: Oh, no? Well, who’s the one who did …

GG: Shary Flenniken, do you mean?

JL: No. She was in the Hot Rod magazines too. She had some kind of Irish name. Shannon something. She’s dead now.

GG: I’ll try to look her up.

JL: She did a cover of one of the underground comics, a basically green cover with a guy holding a bunch of products, like how Wacky Packages did parodies of products. But, like Bijiou, I rejected Trina [Robbins] it is true. But Trina wasn’t humor.

“Speed Queen” by Trina Robbins.

GG: You’re saying you rejected it on the merits of the work, not because she was a woman.

JL: Right. Well, actually, the strip that I rejected was … she had some guy in his underwear and she’s got him in bondage, making him make her a tuna fish sandwich. And it wasn’t humor, it was more of some kind of power fantasy.

GG: [Laughs.] Reverse Crumb.

JL: Yeah.

 

Vietnam and the Myth of Freedom

 

GG: [In the ’60s] were you angry at what you were seeing around you, socially and politically? Is that what fueled a lot of this?

JL: Yeah. The myth of freedom, and the draft, and all the restrictions that are laid upon the average citizen.

GG: Vietnam was not really a part of that at that moment, as early as ’64, right?

JL: No, maybe ’65 I started having draft physicals. Eventually I got a CO status. So when I was in the alternate service — I wasn’t in the Army, I was in the alternate service — I went to Renewal Magazine, which was put out by the church federation in Chicago. It was about urban renewal as it was about integration, and they would print Martin Luther King’s speeches, to be the paper or record for that, so when Tribune or the regular mass media misquoted him you could always go back to the Renewal printing of the speech in an unedited, unadulterated form.

GG: And this was published by whom?

JL: The Church Federation of Greater Chicago.

GG: What is the Church Federation?

JL: Jim Mcgraw was the editor. It’s the liberal ministers, during the Malcolm Boyd, Harvey Cox craze.

GG: You are not religious are you?

JL: No, I’m more or less anti-religious, but then so were a lot of these ministers at the time.

GG: What was your job there?

JL: I don’t know, because they sent me the cover of the conspiracy trial. Mostly I drew pictures.

GG: But you were on staff?

JL: Yeah.

GG: That’s a pretty good job. [Laughs.]

JL: Well, it didn’t pay well, but it kept me out of the army.

GG: You were in the alternative service? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that. Not the ROTC, but something else?

JL: No, if you have conscientious objector thing — I guess it’s 3A status, or something — I can’t work in a hospital, because you’re carrying weapons, but I could do certain things and that’s what I got. And then when it was over, my draft status is now 4W, the “W” stands for “Worked.” I think I’m the only 4W in the country, I’ve never run into another one. We don’t get benefits or anything.

 

Identity Politics and the Limits of Humor

 

GG: Well, one thing you have said was that when you worked for The Seed, and by the way, was that an anarchist periodical?

JL: It started as such, but it kind of evolved into one of those permission-seeking “legalize marijuana” kind of papers. And that never interested me, that attitude.

GG: Why would that not interest you? I mean, would you not want to see marijuana legalized?

JL: I would. But the way to do it isn’t to beg for it. The way to do it is to just, everybody smoke marijuana and if that happens all of a sudden it will be legal.

GG: So you’re opposed to the strategy.

JL: Yeah. Well, it started as a … There were surrealist papers in Chicago, and it started off as a spinoff of those. But then it evolved into a political thing.

Skip Williamson cover for The Seed.

GG: Now I think you mentioned that you ran afoul of their political doctrine, where they rejected work by you because it was not politically pure. Did you experience a lot of that? You said at one point that hippies don’t have a sense of humor.

JL: With The Seed, yeah. Once I ran a cover with a man thinking of a woman wearing a brassiere, a pointy brassiere. And that was sexist to them. But it ran in the Madison-Milwaukee Bugle-American as the cover, they printed in. But The Seed lost all of my art and all of Crumb’s art, and when they printed it they’d print it in purple ink, so you couldn’t really reproduce from what they’d printed.

It was kind of … If a free press and the free exchange of ideas is the goal, it wasn’t that. It was: “This is sexist. This is not good for the revolution.”

GG: Have you become more sympathetic to that point of view, sexism and racism as unpalatable sources of humor? How do you feel about that?

JL: Well I think what he did wasn’t really racist, but it was a mockery of racism. And I think it’s good what we did, because there was a reverse discrimination type thing going on. When I worked for Renewal [magazine], we ran a — Jerry Farber was the guy’s name — article called “Student as Nigger,” which compared college students protesting against the war to Negroes working within the system during protests in the ’50s. So for the illustration to that I drew a guy that was split in half, and one half was a student wearing a tweed jacket with patches and carrying schoolbooks and having a beard — all the clichés of what was a student then. The other half was a plantation Negro holding a watermelon, and that was the analogy that was in the article. But even the editor of Renewal at the time made me change the whole watermelon-carrying half to a Negro with a black suit on, like Sidney Poitier. So there was a taboo, but it meant that all black people had to be Sidney Poitier. Like there was a big outcry against Amos ’n’ Andy, but really Amos ’n’ Andy is just The Honeymooners but they’re black. It’s not like the janitor Lightnin’ represents all characters in the thing, any more than Ed Norton represents all white men. So as a reaction to the overly sensitive depiction of blacks in the liberal media, I think that’s what I did and that’s what Angelfood McSpade kind of was.

GG: I was going to ask you if Angelfood McSpade would fall into that category that you’re describing.

R. Crumb drawing from Zap #2.

JL: Yeah, I dunno, I don’t understand Robert. [Laughs.]

GG: You don’t understand Robert Crumb?

JL: Yeah, when he did that thing about “When the Jews Take Over America,” [“When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America”] “When the Blacks Take Over America” [“When the Niggers Take Over America”] … I talked to him about it, and his thing was like, “Well, everybody is racist, you can’t get around that.” But I don’t think so, necessarily.

GG: You don’t think everyone has innate bias?

JL: I don’t, when it comes to race, I don’t think so. Like toward the end, Martin Luther King was doing an anti-utility company thing against the monopolies that were the utility companies then. And that actually had potential to unite poor blacks and poor racist southerners, because both of them had this common enemy. And that’s when they killed him. All the other stuff was divisive, or at least it could be manipulated into that. And then after that black leaders became opportunists, you know, Jesse Jacksons, Al Sharptons.

GG: How do you feel about the rise of identity politics?

JL: Which is what?

GG: Which is a much more strict political point of view based upon your gender identity or racial identity. Do you think that’s …

JL: You mean, the what do they call them, political action warriors?

GG: Social justice warriors?

JL: Social justice warriors. Right. No, that’s crazy. That too has the same Jesse Jackson concept that you can’t be not racist if you’re black, you are racist if you’re white, no matter what.

GG: You mean you can’t be racist if you’re black.

JL: You can’t be racist if you’re black, yeah. I don’t like that. There was a time when things were more natural.

GG: How do you mean more natural?

JL: People didn’t think about who was black, necessarily. There wasn’t a time in the mass media, like if you look at old Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, those shows where Sammy [Davis Jr.] is … any joke directed at Sammy would have to do with him being black, but there was a time … I was the roommate of a guy who was the father of Chaka Khan, and I dunno, the black thing didn’t come up much at all.

GG: Are you saying that that was healthier?

JL: Yeah, I think.

GG: Are you of the opinion that there’s no subject that’s off limits to satire and humor?

JL: Yes. What would be one?

GG: Oh, the Holocaust. [Laughs.] Racism. There’s a lot that today could be …

JL: I’ve never seen a good Holocaust denier gag. The guy who shot Rockwell was a cartoonist, but he wasn’t that good. His stuff wasn’t that funny.

GG: That could be something to strive for. A good Holocaust denier gag. Do you remember Lenny Bruce’s famous skit?

JL: “Six Million Jews Found Alive in Argentina”?

GG: Yeah, yeah.

JL: Well, that’s okay.

GG: That’s pretty inspired.

JL: The opposite of what were traditional National Inquirer headlines of the day. Yeah, that’s the thing about The Realist Cartoons book, the context of a lot of the gags is always forgotten.

 

Election 2016

 

GG: Well, I have one last question at the moment, which is, what was your reaction to the election?

JL: Well, first of all, I never signed anything that said that I agree to be governed. It’s not my election, I don’t care about this crap. The political system is corrupt. It’s just a bunch of people who decided that they would govern the others and take their money. And I don’t want any part of it, and it doesn’t matter if it’s Trump or Hillary or who, it’s a bunch of evil opportunists who want to take the wealth of everyone else. And I don’t care about electing somebody so I have to buy them a new shirt every day. It’s not part of anything that has to do with the reality of things, except when everybody agrees on it and it is. But I don’t agree on it, so I don’t really care.

GG: Did you care whether or not it would be Trump or Clinton?

JL: They were both terrible.

GG: [Hesitating] True, but was one more terrible than the other? Does that matter to you?

JL: I thought Hillary might’ve been more terrible than Trump.

GG: Really?

JL: All of those murders, and …

GG: In what way?

JL: The whole drug thing in Arkansas, and various people she had bumped off.

GG: Oh, you believe that, huh?

JL: Yeah. What’s not to believe?

GG: Well, you’re not referring to Vince Foster, right?

JL: To who?

GG: Vince Foster?

JL: I don’t know. No, not especially, but a lot of people. I think it’s interesting that whenever the newspapers do a survey of who the most admired American is, it’s always the worst opportunistic piece of scum. [Groth laughs.] And what do they think, do they think, “Oh yeah, you scum. You’ll screw everybody, but you’ll take care of me.” But he won’t.

GG: Well, there’s something rancid about the American character that appreciates that kind of predatory mentality. Admires it. I think that’s because we’re such an opportunistic, predatory culture. We’ve championed that in modern life. The ultimate opportunists.

JL: I don’t know, but as you get older it seems like it’s easier.

GG: Easier … ?

JL: To make a living. If you just live long enough, people respect you.

GG: Oh, I see. Right, right, right. It’s like what John Huston said in Chinatown.

JL: What?

GG: I think he was referring to whores and buildings, that they get respectable if they last long enough.

JL: Oh, yeah.

 

Jay Lynch, Painter

 

GG: Now, I understand recently, or at least in the last ten years, you have been doing commissioned paintings …

JL: I do paintings and I auction them off.

GG: Can you talk a little about that? Do you do recreations of underground covers or your characters or what?

JL: No, I just do paintings that are kind of in that style. I just paint what I feel like painting and then I sell it on eBay. I’ve done about a hundred of ’em. Actually, I have scans of all of them, but they’re in four parts. Somebody’s gotta put them together, my Photoshop program doesn’t work for that.

GG: What medium do you use?

JL: Acrylic.

GG: And how long have you been doing this?

JL: Well, I’ve been doing painting since … Did you see the Antiques Roadshow painting of mine they had?

GG: I don’t think I did.

JL: If you [search] “Jay Lynch” plus “Antiques Roadshow,” some guy found a painting I did in 1965 in a dumpster, and he brings it in and they estimated it as $7,000. The video is on the web somewhere. It’s like that section of Antiques Roadshow where they go over the painting. But yeah, I did it in ’64, ’65 and I guess I pretty much always did it, except I didn’t do it in the ’70s. But it did it most other decades.

Lynch’s painting that appeared on Antiques Roadshow.

GG: And you’ve been doing these painting that you sell on eBay for how long?

JL: Since we have had eBay.

GG: So at least a decade or so, I guess. You must have quite a few.

JL: Yeah, probably a hundred. And then there’s ones that I never saved a copy of from the ’60s …

GG: And you did these basically to sell? Not to …

JL: In the ’60s? Well, I went to art school and we had to do paintings, and I just always did paintings.

GG: Do you still have those?

JL: No. I know I still have some. Well, there’s the Roadshow one. And Arnie Winograd, who was the vice president of Pabst, bought one that was a really important one. You know Sue Williams?

GG: Yeah.

JL: It’s kind of like what Sue Williams now does. So Arnie Winograd bought it, and this was in about 1967, and he got divorced, his wife Verna Winograd has it — she’s a real estate agent, I think in San Francisco now. I think she still has it, but maybe they just left it in their garage. Maybe they just bought it to be polite, I don’t know. And there’s one that Rufus Diamont has. But most of them I don’t know where they are.

GG: I’m looking at your Antiques Roadshow painting right now [Antiques Roadshow video playing in background].

JL: It’s oil, so the oil is intrinsically worth more.

GG: And were you on LSD when you did this?

JL: Not when I painted it, but during that time, yeah. Outside from the school was a Billboard for this guy Woods who was running for Sheriff, and I showed him and his family. So that’s what the painting is.

GG: Was this a significant source of income for you, in the last decade or so?

JL: No. I don’t know, maybe $600 each.

GG: Oh, not $6,000.

JL: No. Well, some. I did one of Wacky Packages for some guy for $5,000. All the Wacky Packages characters.

But Wacky Packages are like a negative … If it’s Wacky Packages, you can buy it for 20 bucks. If it’s underground comics, it’s more. There’s a bunch of stuff up now on Heritage, from Eric Sack’s auction. So he sold the initial stuff, but most people don’t know that they continue to sell his stuff of mine and Crumb’s. They do. Some pages sell for $5,000 and one page — the back cover of the Speed Freak Mask from Bijou #4 — sold for $500. So $500 now is like $50 in 1968. But eventually, everything that is made by hand will be valuable.

One of Lynch’s Wacky Packages.

GG: And you have most but not all of your paintings that you —

JL: No, I have none.

GG: No, I mean you scanned them or took photographs of them or something?

JL: Yes, since the advent of computers I scanned them all.

GG: Billy Ireland is getting all those scans?

JL: Yeah. Billy Ireland has all my photos too, they just haven’t organized them yet.

GG: Does Billy Ireland come to your place and pick things up? Or how does that work?

JL: A year ago, they came and looked at everything and took 25 percent of it. There’s a lot that they don’t know what it is — like I have [Antonio] Prohías’s newspaper Zig-Zag Libre from the days of the Bay of Pigs. So it’s just like Prohías’s political cartoons. And no one has it, the Cuban Museum doesn’t have it. But I have these, and I’ll explain to them what it is. And then Spiegelman and I are in there doing cartoons when we were kids — once, we were each in it once. And I have every rough for every Garbage Pail Kid I ever devised. I never threw anything away.

GG: That’s good.

JL: They don’t know why I have it. Like the Jay Ward stuff. I was in touch with Jay Ward, I wrote an article on Jay Ward for Wild. And Jay Ward sent me all this publicity stuff that was intended for the newspapers. So I have that, but their explanation of why I have it doesn’t seem to indicate that I have anything other than the common publicity stuff that everyone was allowed to see. But I guess if someone studied all this, it would be clear.

GG: Well, you can bet that academics are going to be studying it.

 

Facing Mortality

 

GG: Are you willing to talk about your medical condition?

JL: Yeah, although I don’t have any final, authoritative information. It is lung cancer and it is malignant, and there isn’t a cure. And it’s — what do you call it — a lymph node thing. Lymph nodes. So at first they said, “Well, you might live five weeks,” and that struck fear into me to get the chemo and radiation. Then they said, “Well, you could live two years,” and they said, “Well, you could live five years,” and they said, “Well, you could live five weeks.” But I don’t have anything in writing on this. I don’t have a diagnosis in writing, just what a doctor wrote when I demanded it when I was in his presence. So it’s small cell lung cancer.

GG: Can I ask when you were diagnosed?

JL: Around Thanksgiving [2016].

GG: And that came as a surprise, I assume.

JL: Well, I had a shortness of breath, so that was debilitating because I couldn’t breathe. So I went to the hospital, and they kept me for a week and gave me all kinds of tests and told me this. So now it’s better in that I can breathe, but I’m very weak and everything I do takes about five times as long. Like tying my shoes takes ten minutes.

GG: Are you undergoing chemo and radiation?

JL: Yeah. I have had nine radiations and two chemos so far.

GG: That’s pretty brutal stuff.

JL: Yeah. The chemo takes away your taste for food. So I have to eat, but I experience nothing resembling hunger. So it’s on my list.

GG: Eating?

JL: Yeah, yeah.

GG: Well, I guess that frees you from the burden of wanting flavorful food. Well, I’m sorry to hear that. It has all kinds of horrible side effects, doesn’t it?

JL: Yeah.

GG: Well, I have to say, it seems to me, based on the limited conversations we’ve had that you’ve been dealing with this with enormous equanimity. How, if I can ask, do you cope with that, philosophically?

Lynch’s satirical take on the afterlife.

 

JL: What is, is. I leave my body, I become one with the universe, then I come back in tiny segments. Not necessarily as a human or animal, or even anything that exists in our reality, but infinity is a vast thing. Ever since I was a kid I always wanted a certain degree of immortality that in our system represents being able to talk to unborn generations, and that being through the printed word. So I got that as good as I can, I don’t think I have anything really to say.

GG: Well, now is that true or do you feel that your criticism of American society through your satire is something that you feel that needs to be said?

JL: I don’t know.

GG: Do you feel satisfied with what you’ve accomplished?

JL: I don’t know. It will be interesting. Well, you know, like during the days of LSD when you leave your body you realize that near-death experiences — even before LSD — there’s a point where nothing matters, and then again everything matters. But, you know, it’s there, it’s hip. I don’t know how to articulate it.

GG: Well, I can’t imagine that there’s anything more powerful than facing death.

JL: True. [Laughs.] I don’t know.

FILED UNDER:

9 Responses to Jay Lynch: The Final Interview

  1. Skip Williamson says:

    Excellent. I knew Jay was dying in December. After that I talked to him about once a week. About this time Artie was talking to Jay every week. There was a dark humor about it all because now we both had terminal diseases. His was cancer. And I have Congestive Heart Failure. During one of my many trips to the hospitals I experienced Cardiac Arrest … so I knew what it was like to die. So Jay and I would joke about it. But, as I said, in a darkly humorous way .

    The last time I talked to him was the day of his death. You could talk to his caretakers and they would deliver messages. I called and talked to
    Mike. Mike said “The just this moment he died. Then mike started sobbing. Then I started weeping…which is pretty much what I’ve been doing since.

  2. Groth says:

    Thanks for your note, Skip. This is the first I’ve heard of your own health problem. Sorry.

    For those don’t know, Skip’s book, The Scum Also Rises, was among the earliest collections by an underground cartoonist Fantagraphics published —around 1987 if I recall. I was and remain extremely proud of it.

    Jay and I had several conversations that weren’t taped or part of the interview during which his black humor was on full display. He retained his humor and his pragmatism to the end.

    Here’s to you and Jay and all the rest of you guys who were ripping up the comics landscape and paving the way for the rest of us.

  3. I’ve only just sarted this, but Gary, this is amazing! I’ll finish it on the week end and offer comments at that time…….

  4. Ron Murphy says:

    Jay , was a wonderful person. Way back in 1988, a friend of mine, and I signed up for a weekly cartooning class (in Chicago) that was taught by Jay, we soon became friends, and before long we were hanging out at Jay’s apartment working on a monthly newspaper called ” Chicago Spitune”. Once Jay invited me over, and gave me a personal tour of many of rare items in his archives…at the time, I did not realize just how fortunate I was, but now it is a very treasured memory.

  5. Ok. I just finished reading this. It is VERY touching. In some ways I think parts of this will live with me forever. In this situation of Jay’s count down to death, 3 people will always stand out to me. There’s Patrick Rosenkranz for his very great obit of Jay. And I am very much looking forward to reading the book he will eventually write about Jay. There is Art Spiegelman who recently visited Jay in Candor and who was very supportive to Jay in his final days. And Gary Groth, who thought and felt enough about all this to make this final, moving interview with Jay happen.
    Finally: Skip Williamson. I am very saddened to hear about your health situation. I wish you the best of luck going forward.

  6. I interviewed Jay a dozen times in the past year and a half in preparation to writing his biography and assembling an anthology of his comix work. It was personally inspiring to witness his courage and practicality after he was diagnosed with a death sentence to come maybe weeks or maybe months in the future. He wanted to get his will in order so that his estate would go to Billy Ireland Museum, and he wanted to see to his funeral arrangements. We discussed the merits of different gravestones. He knew that limestone eroded in the acid rain in upstate New York. We both liked bronze. One day I called and he told me he thought last night was going to be his last night on earth. The pain was too much. I asked him what went through his mind. He started describing a problem he was having with his lawyer. I said, didn’t you think about lost loves, regrets, highlights of your career, personal friends? No, he insisted and finished the details about how he planned to sell something to cover the lawyer’s expenses after he was gone, in case a long lost relative or ex-wife decided to challenge his will. Every day he stared at his hospital bills, wondering how he was going to pay them. You’re a brave man, Jay Lynch.

    Jay reveals a very personal side in this interview, and a sense of humor that didn’t quit. He didn’t like to talk about his family for instance, but he does here. He told me they were more dysfunctional than Crumb’s tribe. Gary description in the introduction that Jay coughed a lot and had trouble breathing, but he was eager to tell his story was what I experienced as well. He asked me not to tell people he was dying, because he didn’t want people to bother him when there was nothing that could be done. I don’t care how stoic he was, I didn’t believe him and I did it anyway and I’m glad to hear that his oldest friend made his way to his home to visit him one last time.

  7. R. Maheras says:

    An important and revealing interview. Thanks.

  8. Pat. It’s up to you now. I never really understood Jay, even though I liked him very much. You will now have access to all of his legendarily extensive papers Explain this man to us whose life was consecrated to the almighty joke. But whose life was also, it seems, a tragedy. Miserable Dickensian childhood, two famously interesting failed marriages, a derailed promising career in comics chasing the almighty dollar, and not even really succeeding there. There is a lot to talk about here.

  9. steven samuels says:

    ” and assembling an anthology of his comix work…”

    Very good news. Needless to say, way overdue.

    Rest in Peace.

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