GREEN: Do you find doing this weekly strip in a 150,000 mass-circulation newspaper a lot different from doing underground comix? I mean, it’s a different audience that you have for Phoebe, isn’t it?
LYNCH: Well, when we were doing the underground comix we felt that we were communicating with our peers. Now when we do Phoebe we feel the same thing. Everyone I know in Chicago reads the Reader, the paper that runs Phoebe. Today, though — I don’t think I know very many people in this town who read underground comix.
GREEN: Why is that?
LYNCH: Because they’re sold only in comic collector shops, for one thing. The Chicago Reader is available on every street corner. Underground comix, you’ve gotta search ’em out. There are maybe four or five stores in the whole city that sell them. In the ’60s they were in head shops, and there were lots of head shops. People didn’t make a special trip just to buy the comix.
YOE: Was this the reason for the demise of the underground comix craze — the transition from head shop distribution to comic shop distribution? Or is it partially tied in to the fact that the hippies became yuppies? Why didn’t underground comix make a transition to the ’80s?
LYNCH: Who knows? Maybe the comix themselves could have made the transition if the distribution system had made the transition. They went from head shops to comic collector shops, rather than going from head shops to supermarkets. The people who went to head shops in the ’60s now go to supermarkets. They don’t go to comic collector shops. YOE: Who does go to comic collector shops?
LYNCH: Comic book collectors. Usually males between 12 and 30 who can afford to spend a lot of money on these things. They want super-hero stuff. They’re not shopping for heavy satire. It’s a more specialized crowd than you’d get in the supermarket check-out lane.
GREEN: Which you’d prefer?
LYNCH: Well, I’d prefer a more cosmopolitan audience. An audience of both sexes. What I mean is that the readers whom I wanted to read what I was doing are not ... I didn’t want what I was doing in my comix to be the most important thing in their lives. I wanted it to be something casual, something to read for fun without thinking all that much about it. The reason we started doing underground comix when there were no underground comix in the first place was that there was nothing to read — and there was nothing good on TV. So we decided to do it ourselves in the form of comic books. If readers have to make a special trip to go to a comic collector shop to buy these books, it gives the books a role of importance that they don’t deserve.
YOE: So — comic books should be the servant rather than the master?
LYNCH: Comic books should be something that you read on the toilet and not worry too much about. So should everything else.
YOE: Are there valid comics being done today, or are you saying that since the death of underground comix, the potential of the comic strip form as a powerful medium is just lying dormant?
LYNCH: Underground comix are not dead. They’re here to stay. They will never die. It was bound to be that way, though I don’t know why. But I do think that for the most part, comics as a powerful art form is lying dormant in the U.S. I like Drew Friedman’s stuff. Spiegelman’s Maus is a major achievement in the field. There are a few exceptions, of course, but mostly I don’t read comics these days. And in discussions of Maus that I’ve had with friends, the fact that it is a comic book doesn’t seem to come up. I mean, it has more in common with Kafka than Kirby. It has pictures, but they’re mostly for the functional purpose of telling the story in the most effective way possible. I mean, Artie is capable of doing more detailed drawings — but in this context, more detail would detract from the work as a whole. The thing is perfect. It’s a masterpiece. The pictures are functional. In Italy you can go out and buy the biography of Gandhi in comic book form. What you get is a 300-page book. The drawing style is basic, but functional. It’s just that the comic book form is a viable method of presentation there. In America, comic books carry the stigma of being associated with children’s entertainment, so the medium has never fully developed. Maus is a major step in the direction of comix realizing their full potential — but that’s just a bi-product of the thing. It’s a great book, comic or otherwise.
YOE: Did any of the underground comic books from the heyday of underground comix similarly impress you as using the full potential of the medium?
LYNCH: Justin Green’s Binky Brown Meets the Virgin Mary is a literary classic. We’ll live to see it become required reading in college literature courses. Actually, I think there actually are some college literature courses that do have it as required reading now, but what I mean is that this book will eventually gain the prestige of “Catcher in the Rye” or — you know. Of something written in the traditional form of the novel. Also, I really liked the first issue of Reed Waller’s Omaha the Cat Dancer. His characters are really psychologically complete. His insight is amazing. There are a lot of great artists out there. But good writing is very rare in comic books these days. I think part of the problem may be that a lot of the artists and writers working now get so much of their input only from other comic books. Better their input should come from outside the medium. Otherwise, things can only degenerate.
LAIT: Does your input come from outside the comic book medium?
LYNCH: Sure. Sometimes I think that Nard ‘N Pat is pretty much derived from James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, and that Phoebe is nothing more than improvisations that spin off from Nabokov’s “Ada”.
LAIT: How many times have you read “Ada”?
LYNCH: Eight or nine. Jackie has known me for years, so he knows that I think Nabokov’s “Ada” is the greatest, most complex piece of fiction ever written. Once I did a thing for Raw called The Goodnight Kids. It’s full of “Ada” references. I figured if one person deciphered that, I’d be fulfilled.
LAIT: Did anyone write to tell you that they picked up on the “Ada” references in that Raw strip?
LYNCH: No. I don’t think anyone did pick up on the “Ada” references in that. You know, I picked up a recent copy of Pravda the other day, and I looked at the Moscow TV listings. There’s a show called The Goodnight Kids that’s on twice a week. I wonder if it’s based on the turn of the century Russian comic strip of the same name. I thought the strip didn’t survive the Russian Revolution. Could it be that the original Goodnight Kids is running in some Russian papers?
YOE: You teach a weekly cartooning class at The Discovery Center in Chicago. How do you teach somebody to write a gag for a cartoon?
LYNCH: Well, writing gags isn’t something you can teach successfully as say, making pancakes. I do have a simplification of it that I give the class, though. I break it down to eight basic methods, each of which kind of provides a springboard into a gag. Once you have the subject for a gag cartoon, you can take it through these methods, and then hopefully you’ll be able to come up with a joke on that subject. One of these methods is “the switch,” wherein you take a cliché situation and you reverse the elements of it. There was a Howard Shoemaker cartoon in Playboy years ago of an alligator wearing a Lacoste shirt with a picture of a golfer on it. All Shoemaker did was take the cliché of the golfer wearing the shirt with the picture of the alligator on it and reverse the elements of that situation. It was a great cartoon, though. I sometimes use this method. We all do. “The switch” works one out of ten times. But to really get into it ... there’s a book by Freud called Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. This is part of the Collected Works of Freud. There are two translations of this book. One is called Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious. The other is called Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. They’re both the same book, but the translation titled Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious is better, since it has footnotes that explain the societal context of many of the jokes that Freud used as examples in the text — and the footnotes are necessary for a fuller understanding of the thing. Anyway, Freud has most forms of humor categorized in there. When Artie Spiegelman and I were kids we read this book, and we corresponded about it. And I guess we’ve probably read it many times by now. Probably to the point where we’ve internalized it. This comes in handy. For many years Art and I have written Bazooka Joe gags.
LAIT: So this Freudian idea of humor is something you’ve internalized in the same way you internalized the Zen way of thought.
LYNCH: Well — to a degree, on both. A Zen master I ain’t.
LAIT: So I won’t ask you any Zen riddles, ‘cause you’ll give me smartass Bazooka Joe answers. So let me ask you this: what is humor?
LYNCH: Humor is when a branch falls off a tree in the forest, and nobody is around to hear the sound of the branch falling, so instead of making no sound, it makes a fart noise, video tapes itself, and later dubs in a laugh track and sells a 13-week series to PBS, on account of that the forest was in England.
LAIT: C’mon man. This is The Comics Journal, not the Carnegie Deli.
LYNCH: Humor is linking dissimilar elements very cleverly. What you’re trying to do when you’re making up a joke is to put yourself into a mental state that in yoga is called “monkey mind.” It’s the same as the state of mind that a child is in a lot of the time. It’s where you take two things and link them together through a form of logic that may not have much at all to do with your standard conscious form of logic. Jackie and I spent countless hours discussing this very thing at the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan in the early ’60s.
LAIT: Back then it was the Stage Deli that was the hip deli.
LYNCH: Oh. Yeah. That’s right. The Stage Deli. Today, when I’m in New York, Jackie and I frequent the Carnegie Deli. They soak the pastrami in beet juice to make it redder. Can I say that?
LAIT: You’re just guessing. Why risk a lawsuit?
LYNCH: I like the way they soak it in borsht. I like visually pleasing pastrami.
LAIT: Hey man, Nipsey Russell eats there. Where Nipsey eats, I eat.
LYNCH: Me too.
GREEN: So you were talking about humor — and how kids tend to make humorous associations as a natural way of ...
LYNCH: That reminds me of a good cartoonist anecdote as well. Back in the mid-70s or so, Justin Green came to town to visit me. He had just broken up with his girlfriend in California at the time, and he had shaved his head as some form of penance or something. So Justin and I got on a bus, and this 3-year-old kid on the bus points to Justin and says to his mother, “Ma, is that a baby?” See, the kid saw Justin had no hair, but he wasn’t old enough to be bald. The kid knew that babies had no hair, so ...
YOE: How does a child do this?
LYNCH: A baby is a universe unto himself. As he gets older and learns different things, in a sense he is actually forgetting different things. The ancient Greeks said that a baby is born with all the knowledge of the universe. But he cries — and doesn’t talk — and he can’t communicate, because he has all the knowledge. His “education” has to be a process of limiting that knowledge to a point where he can communicate. If you can, for a few seconds, slip into a comfortable method of being, like a baby, without ego boundaries just long enough to grab yourself a joke and run with it back to your ego, this is the ideal situation. But you have to be able to turn it on and off at will. Because if you get stuck in that situation for good, then you’ll be committed to a mental institution or something.
YOE: What are the essentials of the visual side of cartooning?
LYNCH: The main thing is clarity. Elder has it — and Ernie Bushmiller had it. You know, both of those guys draw or drew very clear cartoons. Elder uses a lot of detail — his presentation of clarity. Bushmiller was a minimalist. These two guys’ styles are as different as night and day, but both do very clear, easy-to-read work. A cartoon that the reader can’t digest (at least on one level) at a glance is a cartoon that fails to do its job, I think. So clarity is the main thing.
YOE: Most artists or cartoonists that I know have a relatively small ...
LYNCH: Mine’s real big.
YOE: No, no, no. Not that! Most artists have a relatively small body of reference work — and its usually used as reference work. But there aren’t too many artists that are gung-ho collectors. You are one of the few artists that I have met that seems to be fanatical about building up an archive of cartoons and comics throughout history. Why? Why do you do this?
LYNCH: Well, the copies of the original issues of Mad comics that I own today are the actual copies that I got on the news stand in 1952. But I didn’t start placing a heavy importance on building a personal archive of this stuff until a few years later. It started in 1956, when I sent a gag to Jimmy Hatlo’s “They’ll Do It Every Time” comic strip. I sent a joke idea, and I got a real nice letter back from Jimmy Hatlo. It made specific reference to the gag I sent and it wasn’t a form letter. I licked my finger and rubbed it across the ink of Hatlo’s signature, and it was real ink! Jimmy Hatlo actually commented on the cartoon idea that I had sent. So from that point on, I saved every letter I ever got. When I was 11, I started to develop these delusions of historical grandeur, and I decided to save every letter so that historians could paint an accurate portrait of me and stuff. Years later I met Hefner. He did the same thing. Saved every letter he ever got since childhood. It may sound compulsive to most — but these letters chronicle the changes in the society. The letters I’ve saved show the details of the development of the college humor mags, the underground comix, the free speech movement, all that stuff. These letters from Skip Williamson and Spiegelman chronicle their early careers in detail. Letters from Crumb and Shelton tell of their plans for the first underground comix. But it goes back even further. I have a letter in there from Lenny Bruce that details his attitudes on an early obscenity bust. I have letters from lots of people who changed the course of history — and in these letters these changes are what we were discussing. On one level, of course, “history is bunk,” as Henry Ford said. I don’t got no letters from Henry Ford, of course, but it’s like ... in the early days of this country, Walt Whitman, Poe, Hawthorne ... a bunch of those guys who we now think of as the pioneers of American literature — they were sitting in a coffee house, and one of them said “Hey, man, this is a relatively young country — and there is no American Literature yet. Let’s be American Literature!” And then maybe Poe said “Cool idea, man! We can get jackets, and ... ” You know what I mean? That’s how things happen. So a bunch of us decided that there were no underground comix — so we’d be underground comix. So to get back to the question of my vast archives, I have several tons of printed matter that I saved which relate to this whole free exchange of ideas thing. A small portion of it is comix. Mostly it’s the printed word. I’ve saved the work of a lot of artists that I like, too. But actually, I have very few comic books in my collection in relation to all the stuff I have that’s not comic books.
GREEN: And it all started with a letter from Jimmy Hatlo, which is interesting — because in the late ’70s and early ’80s you did a comic strip in Playboy magazine called “Give ’Em an Inch” and the format of that strip was essentially the format of “There Oughta’ Be a Law” and “They’ll Do It Every Time.”
LYNCH: Yeah. But with sex. That strip was fun. It paid real well, so I had lots of time to concentrate on the drawing part of it.
GREEN: And the chicks in that strip? Man! I like the way you draw chicks.
LYNCH: Thanks. I’m hoping that ... naturally the women I draw look like the kind of women that I like to hang out with in real life, so this “You get what you draw” thing to me is ...
GREEN: Women with large breasts, you mean?
LYNCH: Yes. No. Yes and no. It depends. I’m talking about the general look. The facial structure. The attitude of the characters. Somehow these women I draw in the stuff I do that’s like these “Give ‘Em An Inch” strips are like ... they’re like glorifications of the basic look of women I lusted after from the neighborhood when I was a little kid in Newark. Or glorifications of Eloise Mackelhone.
LAIT: Or kind of a weird cross between Brigitte Bardot and Imogene Coca.
LYNCH: So send in those Polaroids, you women out there in readership land who look like the women in my “Give ‘Em An Inch” strips. And this is kind of an unofficial contest, see. I will be the judge. It’s very subjective. So I’m not saying that the winner will be graded on a curve. I’m not saying that out of all of the photos I get whoever looks most like what I draw is the winner. ‘Cause what if I get only three entries, and nobody really looks anything like the women I draw. No. In that case, nobody wins. But just on the slim chance that somebody actually does exist who looks like this. I’m willing to offer a prize of one year sub to Psychoanalytic Review, which I will purchase out of my own pocket, but only if I’m 100 percent convinced that the entrant looks exactly like my drawings. Otherwise, no prize.
GREEN: Do you have any other plugs you’d like to get in?
LYNCH: Next to women, I enjoy money best of all. So I will say this. The first 500 people who send me a check for $1 between the date on the cover of this magazine and one year from the date on the cover of this magazine are in for a unique treat.
GREEN: Which is?
LYNCH: I will endorse each check, and draw a quick picture of a fish on the back of it above my signature. This way, for a $1 dollar check, each person will get a piece of signed original art by me on the back of their check, when the bank returns their cancelled checks at the end of the month. Send all checks (and look-alike photos) to Jay Lynch, 3506 Merchandise Mart Station, Chicago, Ill. 60654.
GREEN: Would you draw Nard n’ Pat on the back of these $1 checks?
LYNCH: No! You miss the point. That would be unfair to people who have sent me checks for the Nard n’ Pat check-endorsement series that I did in the past. This is the fish series! Just a quick pic of a fish. Drawn real fast. What do you want for a buck?
GREEN: Let me get this straight. The look-alike contest and the fish-check deal are two separate things?
LYNCH: Yeah. Chicks, send pics. Dudes and chicks send checks. One has nothing to do with the other. Two separate scams.
YOE: There is a school of thought that says that the earliest thing that person consciously remembers is ... some say that your life would have a tendency to be structured on that which is your earliest conscious memory. What do you think about that?
LYNCH: My earliest conscious memory is when I’m in the cradle, and it’s before I can speak. I’m like a year-and-a-half old, and I have only a limited range of words and symbols that I know. Someone has read to me comic strips from the newspaper — or I have at least looked at the pictures, and perceived them as representations of lifelike forms. In this dream that I remember waving while I’m lying in the cradle, there is the character Denny Dimwit from Winnie Winkle. He is this pinhead kind of guy. I don’t know his name when I’m a year-and-a-half old, I just know his image. So in this dream, there are like six or eight little Denny Dimwits, and they are conspiring and talking about me. And what they’re doing is ... they’re speaking in a limited vocabulary — ’cause I’m a baby, and I only know a handful of words, so what they’re doing is speaking of me. And they’re talking and saying that they’re planning to grind me, Jay Lynch, into cotton. To grind me into cotton! And this is my earliest conscious memory.
YOE: And what has happened?
LYNCH: What has happened? Well, this cartooning biz, it seems, has ground me into cotton! I have been searching for an earlier memory upon which to structure my life from this point on — but I can’t find any. So ... uh. ... Women! Send Polaroids!