TCJ ARCHIVE

The S. Clay Wilson Interview

Let me give you a chance to respond to some of your critics.

Oh, good.

In his book Adult Comics, Roger Sabin, British guy, knocks you for being “degrading towards women.”

[Snores.]

All right, we’ll move past that one.

A woman will beat you up and yell, “Help.” Next question.

In …

Sounds like Trina [Robbins].

Trina likes you.

She loves me, c’mon. I turned her down, so what? She’s now with that tall Hawaiian cat [Steve Leialoha], who’s all right. And when Trina found out Mavrides was accepted as the new Zap cat, she said, “What? You’re gonna work with those guys? That’s like being asked to be put in the gutter.” So Trina’s been nagging me to sign her book. I’m gonna have the Checkered Demon standing with a beer in his hand, saying, “Yes. And ‘in the gutter’ is crowded.”

You put a lot of offensive racial imagery in your cartoons …

That was Screw newspaper. That was the job: “Make it as racist and sexist as possible.”

From "Racism/Sexism/Ageism/Demonism/Jismism" ©1985 S. Clay Wilson

That was Al Goldstein’s editorial directive?

“Yeah. No problem.”

And those cartoons are available in Spots, from Last Gasp. Pretty foul, but still in print.

In Mark Estren’s history of underground comics, he quotes Mike Barrier as saying you hate and fear the physical. You have contempt for human beings. You fear sex. You consider it and life disgusting. Do you think that sums you up accurately?

No. [Pause.]

Have you seen the Francis Bacon interview? This guy is going on and on and on. [Snobbish British accent] “And is it true, Francis, that you get these images from ancient Pompeii and is the carcass nailed onto the wall a crucifixion symbol?”

He goes, “Roight!”

Crumb and Spain have spoken of your influence on them. Who’s influenced you besides the EC guys?

Everything that’s art-related or drawing-related or comic-related. What was the question again?

Who’s influenced you? Another way of looking at it is, there’s a nice quote from the drummer Gerry Hemmingway that he listens to Cecil Taylor to learn what about music makes him want to play. “Like you realize as a career, it’s a joke. You can’t make any money, so you need to know what it is that’s making you do this stuff.” Who’s work makes you understand why you’re doing this stuff?”

It’s fun. [Laughs.] It’s your job. I love Cecil Taylor. I’m a jazz wax cat.

Here’s another wrinkle. When I’m drawing, I listen to music of the world. I’m influenced by the music I’m listening to. I get into a rhythm. Hillbilly music. Whatever it is. DrrYrrrDryyyDiddlyDooWhatthefuck. They’re in a zone. I’m in a zone.

Do you pick the music because you know what you intend to draw?

I turn on the radio, whatever’s playing. I’m drawing anyway. I fall into whatever zone they’re in; and it’s like, [hillbilly accent] “Well, now, this here panel I drew when I was listening to Dolly Parton. Then they changed to Cecil Taylor.” Do you know why Dolly Parton has small feet, Bob?”

No, why?

Nothing grows in the shade. Ka-BOOM! Thought I’d throw a little redneck humor in there. This is easy, Bob. You can’t shut me up.

In ’73, ’74 the underground comix boom collapses. Bill Griffith writes an article/essay in the San Francisco Phoenix saying this is partly because of cartoonists filling their work with tits, rotting corpses and naked female flesh being ripped open …

That’s why I was invited to show with Hieronymous Bosch.

Wilson illustration for William S. Burroughs story "Fun City in Ba'dan" in Arcade #4 ©1975 S. Clay Wilson

Griffith didn’t seem to apply that to you. You were in Arcade frequently, his magazine.

Hell, yeah. That’s how I hooked up with Burroughs.

Did you ever turn a project down? Somebody offered you money and you said, “Nah! I don’t want to do that.”

Yeah.

What?

I don’t remember. [Pause.] Cute! If it was too cute. Merchandising! Watterson says … I like Calvin and Hobbes. I like his drawing style. I like his wit. He said when you turn the artwork into a product, it’s too accessible.

You haven’t pursued any merchandising? Checkered Demon Zippo lighters or T-shirts or…

No! In fact, I’ll show you an example of why I hate merchandising. [Pause while Wilson produces a six-inch tall Checkered Demon.] The guy who did this makes toys for McDonald’s. He was on me like white on rice, trying to chat me up. He really wants to do the Checkered Demon action figure.

“No. No.”

“We have to discuss this.”

“No.”

So he goes ahead and puts this figure on his website. “I’m just advertising what I can do.”

“This is my character. It’s a copyrighted character. I’m not doing merchandising, and when I decide to do merchandising, I may or may not let you know.”

The Checkered Demon comic, three issues, appear ’77, ’78 and ’79. Whose idea was it to do a full-scale Checkered Demon comic?

Those strips ran in The Berkeley Barb, one a week. Women were running The Berkeley Barb, which was held together by the porn/stripper ads in the back. “Y’wanna really good time?” Tits’n’ass. Y’know, supported by the smut industry. And they took umbrage to the fact that in this one strip, which is the space issue, Checkered Demon #3, the Checkered Demon is visited by an intergalactic hooker [laughs]. And she is saying, “Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me! Fuck me!” They objected to that.

I said, “Why do you object to that panel?”

“You’re showing a victim being raped, and she’s enjoying it.”

I said, “That’s called ‘fucking.’” So they banned the Checkered Demon because he was getting fucked by an inter-galactic hooker, just like all the ads holding the newspaper together.

Then Last Gasp ran those strips as comics?

Yeah. And all those comics are out of print, but — more odious self-promotion — the stories are available from Last Gasp in The Collected Checkered Demon. I don’t know how many were sold, and I won’t, unless I go down there with some guys in leather trenchcoats and demand to see the papers.

From The Checkered Demon #3 ©1977 S. Clay Wilson

Your last comic was Kingdom Of Evil, in ’91.

Right. All that stuff’s gone, and lawyers were involved in that. The artwork was sold. A big, huge black guy and a skinny white guy. But, OK, I needed the money, so I did it. It was fun, but I did it actual size, so it’d be faster. I don’t know what happened to the artwork at all. Where it’s been reprinted or if it’s been reprinted. It’s time for a reprint, and I have an issue to shoot from, if any publishers are interested.

If you had your druthers would you do comic books as opposed to …

The way it’s going, I’m still doing large color artwork. I’m already filling up the next book.

Any interest from Hollywood?

Gus Van Sant wants to use our house as a set for his Harvey Milk movie.

I’ve noticed that at conventions you don’t like to do sketches in fans’ books or sign books

No, because you lose traffic. [Tremulous voice.] “Would you mind drawing the Checkered Demon? I don’t have any money.” “Could you please draw the Checkered Demon, and would you have him sit on my Harley with my pet dog?”

“No!” A) I don’t like to work during conventions because I want to take care of business; and B) I work here, and it takes a lot of time, so while you’re fucking around doing a sketch, people are going by. [Wails] People are going by with money, Bob. And the traditional reply, which I got from Moscoso. “I love your work. Do you do sketches?”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a plumber?”

“Would you fix my sink for free?” Then they pause — and leave.

How’d you get into Hustler?

Me, personally?

Your artwork.

God, that goes way back. I’m not sure. They like my work. I’m down with Larry Flynt. I think pink, absofuckinglutely. I’ve done a lot of illustrations. I didn’t do gags. I’ve never done gags. I’ve been doing it for years. They pay good, and I probably could still do it. I still will do it. I prefer my own imagination to illustration work, but I love Hustler. Gimme a call, Larry!

You did the Hans Christian Andersen book in ’94 for Malcolm Whyte. How did that come about?

At one point I wanted to do children’s books — but to write and illustrate.

Were you pleased with the result?

Yeah, everyone was. I probably got gypped.

Wilson illo for the German edition of Burroughs' The Wild Boys ©1980 S. Clay Wilson

You illustrated some German books by Burroughs. Did you get to work with him?

That was from the Burroughs story I illustrated for Arcade, what, 30 years ago. The other gigs for illustrating Burroughs were through the Krauts. [German accent] Zweitausendeins. They published the book in German. It’s never been in English. That’s why I put the Burroughs illustrations in a book. Pictures don’t need subtitles.

And you did meet Burroughs, right?

The Krauts were gonna do a whole book of my artwork, but Lutz Reinecke Kroth, jawohl, married a woman who hated comics.  Zweitausendeins is like the gnat’s ass. You know the Krauts, nitpicking assholes that they are. They are a great press. They do books, like Salvador Dali. They did a Crumb sketchbook. You make a correction, and they correct it. I don’t know exactly how this loop happened, but they wanted me to illustrate the Burroughs book. They didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak German.  So we went to lunch in Frankfurt, with someone to interpret, and “We’ll have a surprise for you when we get back.”

So we came back from lunch, and there’s this huge table covered with weird animal hides, snake skin, eel skin, shark. Upstairs in the building from the press [had been] this place that made top of the line, pricey, women’s purses, shoes and gloves of exotic animal hide that are pliable and can be made into anything. In World War II, when the shit hit the fan, they left and left everything behind. So “Pick out a hide and we’ll make you an edition of one for you and one for Sabeth.”

Who’s Sabeth?

Sabeth Thomas, my ex-old lady. We had a long run. She’s a great lady. Very intelligent. Stacked. Beautiful. And a great artist. She did the lettering. She wanted water snake and I wanted scales. Shoulda hung onto that fucker. Ken Lopez has a copy for $16,500 … Probably a little more than you wanted to know, but…

I’m still waiting for you to meet Burroughs, hang out with Burroughs, do drugs with Burroughs, whatever.

Burroughs is great.  I knew this whole crew of guys in Lawrence, Kan., where Burroughs ended up. He was from St. Louis, Mo., but he liked the vibes. I can tell you anecdotes about Uncle Billy because he’s dead now, and I can’t be sued, right? He had a nice little house. It was kind of his hideout. I was part of that crew that used to get fucked up with him and go down to the shooting range with Uncle Billy. Burroughs was a gun nut. The guy was a pretty good shot, so, like, maybe it wasn’t an accident. [Interviewer’s note: Referring to Burroughs killing of his wife while attempting to shoot a water glass off her head.] I don’t know. Don’t go there. It’s over now, Baby Blue.

I think I can piece together an answer out of that.

That’s how I met Kathy Acker.

All right! Kathy Acker’s right here. [Indicating list of questions.] Tell me about Kathy Acker.

See, I’m right behind you. That’s another whole story.

Well, tell it. You illustrated the inside cover of one of her books or something.

It was a record cover, and they fucked it up. I liked Kathy Acker. We got along great. But this rock-star friend of hers — [Lapses into retarded redneck accent] rally loves my artwork — but he wishes he did it, and didn’t, so he changed the title. He changed my text on the album cover. Anyway, we had a good time. I got a picture of her standing on this table with a navy cutlass and a rose in her mouth wearing a British cop hat. She was fun. So we meet at Burroughs’ 80th birthday. “What’re you doing here?”

“What’re you doing here?”

I’m trying to find a hook here in this less than linear report. What is it again, Bob?

Did you know her before the party?

I knew her before. I did this job ’cause she’s a lady pirate. I do lady pirates. You know about the Chrissie Hynde thing, right?

No, tell me about Chrissie Hynde.

The Chrissie Hynde thing — and the Pogues thing. God, I could just go on and on and on. Sounds like I’m bragging. Been there and back. You name it, I’ve had something to do with it.

We’ve still got Bukowski to cover, so …

Bukowski is covered, God rest his soul. Kathy Acker’s neat, and she died, and it’s too bad. I don’t know if we should mention names here. I trust you, Bob. Do you know about the Bucktown Pub, the Vincent motorcycles and the Underground Hall of Fame, the stretch limo and the parties. I have another life, but not right now. Anyway. I’m getting drunk. You brought beer. It’s your fault. Just keep reminding me. And get rid of the deadwood. What was the question you really wanted me to answer?

I was looking for Kathy Acker stories, Bill Burroughs stories, but move onto Bukowski. You illustrated over a dozen stories of his for …

Oui magazine. I never met Bukowski. Here’s another one. I supplied ammunition to Burroughs. Hunter Thompson gave him this pistol. Did you see that Hunter Thompson documentary? He did kill himself. They have Ralph Steadman trying to illustrate his stuff, but that’s the thing. You have the illustrator and writer, when they get together, they become a package. I don’t want to be a package. I don’t want to be illustrating Hunter S. Thompson. I don’t like Steadman’s style that much. He’s a good graphic artist, but … [Pauses.]

Let’s move onto The Collected Checkered Demon, Vol. I, Last Gasp, 1998.

It’s been in print, how long? Probably 15 years. I don’t know. Call Turner and ask him and ask how many have sold and how many are left.

You never get royalty statements?

If we nag ’em enough, we get a brief statement. So us Zap cats, we’re on a “OK, who are we going with? Who is gonna do the boxed set?” But I don’t want to talk about business that’s yet to be resolved. Being a lawyer, you probably understand, Bob. [Laughs.]

So you don’t know how the book did?

No. I try calling. “How many Checkered Demons you got? How many Spots you got? How many Felchs you got? How many this, that, that and the other d’you have?”

“We’ll call you back.” Or “They’re out to lunch.” Now they’re gonna be out to lunch, because we’re not gonna let them do it, but I can’t talk about it. I’m involved with eight or nine or seven guys, whoever’s left alive, of the Zap cadre.

The book you did for Ten Speed, The Art of S. Clay Wilson. How did you connect with them, since they’re not known primarily as a publisher of cartoonists?

That would be Susie Schiffer, an old flame. Susan Subtle is her nickname. I’ve known her and her beautiful Scotch-swilling mother a long time.

She brought you to the attention of the publisher …

Yeah. Phil Wood. I brought him over here and put up a big screen and gave him my slide show — enlarged, in color, the size of this wall — and knocked both of us on the floor. Like “Fuck! I am a good artist.” And Peanuts … It’s like the less you draw, the more money you get, because there’s more room to dub fantasies in. “Oh, this is so great.” Fuck them, badly. You expected this, didn’t you, Bob? You’ll have to boil it down. Give me chaff-into-wheat.

Questions? Who needs questions? All I gotta do is turn on the tape recorder and I’m gonna get what I’m gonna get.

[Cries out] I know! I know! You brought beer, see. So Susan Subtle was instrumental in hooking us up. And Phil Wood’s a neat guy. Owns a lot of property. Drives a Rolls. Publishers are making good money. Are we making good money, Bob? You’re a lawyer. I’m a cartoonist. But we’re having fun in this tiny little window of opportunity.

You’ve been pleased with him as a publisher?

Yeah … Except, I shoulda had it camera-ready. Now I know. Learn from your mistakes. One thing was done there twice, and they didn’t do a different registration for each one, for the color. Some are foggy; some are real sharp, and [some are] all the gray areas in between. They should be equally brilliant, sharp and incisive. I thought that was the publisher’s job. Now I have everything on computer discs.

Did having a non-comic-related publisher get you a better reception?

Yes. The book’ll never go out of print, and the book’ll never be remaindered. I ask for royalty statements, and it’s here tomorrow morning. How many were sold, who they were sold to. And there’s the possibility for future projects. That’s Phil Wood. He’s a rich cat, but he’s a friendly. His bunker [Interviewer’s note: Ten Speed’s premises in northwest Berkeley] is built out of a covered bridge that he bought and installed like a big Zen retreat. And Ten Speed’s a more esoteric venue. It’s an art book. Lots of folks were unaware that I actually did color — unless they read old Hustlers.

You’ve earned back your advance from them?

They’re moving along. Now I gotta do the next book.  I’m working or trying to. I’m using you as the opportunity, Bob, to fuck off and drink beer and make your life a living hell, soon as I chug this beer and take a piss and let you rally, so you can ask me the next question, which will blow the fog away from the confused readers. But they won’t be confused, Bob, because you can boil this muck down into something [Implores] incisive that makes me sound intelligent.

I don’t want to boil it too far down, because they’re paying by the word, remember.

[Cockney accent] Roight! Let’s tell amusing anecdotes. Let’s make ’em up as we go along.

From The Art of S. Clay Wilson: "The Atomic Penelope" is an example of Wilson's student work, ca. 1963.

It’s a fine line to tread here. [Laughs.]

So we’ll do the whole issue, and I’ll get paid for the artwork.

Are you doing the cover?

They don’t like me. But now they do like me. Groth likes me because they want to do the Zap big box, but so does Norton, so does Nike …

You could get a Checkered Demon sneaker out of Nike.

No, that is called Vans. It’s already happened. A black-and-white, checkered sneaker. And I don’t get royalties. See, I got fucked.

Mark Bodé got a deal for a Cheech Wizard sneaker that goes for a couple hundred dollars a pair.

Did I tell you how Von Dutch shot one of my paintings six times because it really upset him? Cecil Whitworth: British Schoolboy. Oil on canvas.

I see we get money back on these bottles. We’re gonna have to split that too.

OK, next question, do you read comics now?

Some.

Who?

My own work.[Laughs.]

Another Message Board question is: Do you see anyone you’ve influenced or who works in your spirit?

Yes.

Who?

[Laughs.]

I don’t mean to pin you down.

You can’t. I’m elusive. I don’t even draw this shit. What’re you picking on me for?

I’m just asking who you think you’ve influenced. Or who you read, if anybody.  Are you confessing that you really don’t read any contemporary cartoonists?

[Belches.] Pretty much.

Here’s a question George Plimpton asked Ernest Hemingway, more or less. What’s the best training for a cartoonist?

Poverty.

Are there any projects you’d like to do, you haven’t done, or do you do what it is you want?

Yes, pretty much.

Any chance we’ll be seeing a radical change of departure? Autobiographical strips from S. Clay Wilson, or …? Here’s another Paris Review question. Should the artist concern himself with the sociopolitical issues of the times?

Right now I’m doing it. By getting this fucking [Shrieks] information out there. It’s OK to be a cartoonist. It’s OK to be dirty! Ask Lenny Bruce. You can draw anything you want. Hitler is dead.

How do you hope people will react to your art, to your stories?

I prefer none of it be burned.

What do you think the role of art is in society?

Artists are cartoonists. Like I always say, Bob, “If you’re not good enough to be an artist, maybe you can be a cartoonist.” No, I always get that backwards. “If you’re not good enough to be a cartoonist, maybe you can be an artist.” It’s the same old dirty coin. There’s all this snobbery involved in both directions. People want everything in neat, safe categories and have things explained to them, like this interview.

So you think being a “cartoonist” counts against you?

No, I think it’s favorable. Artists? Who ain’t an artist? But you meet a cartoonist. “Oh really?” Art can be anything, right?

Yeah. Duchamp said anything that a man made was art — and there was no such thing as bad art.

That’s right. And Fast-Rappin’ Granny Annie used to … She was Iggy Pop’s road manager. Oh, gosh, getting old. She met Marcel Duchamp and … Great lady. She’s gone now. And she wanted to figure out how to do artwork, so she shows up, and Marcel Duchamp liked spaghetti with no sauce or was too busy or something. He liked chess more than anything and he was all the time pondering the board. “Forget it. Forget it. Forget it.” She kept coming back to learn about art. Back ’n’ forth, back ’n’ forth, back ’n forth.

They’d play a little chess and talk, and finally she got frustrated. “What about the art lessons?”

He stops and says, “I’ve been teaching it to you all this time. Chess is more plastic. It has more moves.”

Cartoons are political from jump, anyway. The guy that came up with the cartoon balloon … That was radical. Forget the spray can. It was the cartoon balloon where characters in pictorial sequence were talking to one another. I should loan you this movie called Spitting Image, about Gillray and Hogarth and all these guys that were cartoonists essentially, but they’re artists. They make fun of the powers that be. The king wanted to get rid of them, but if he reacts to a cartoon and gets pissed off … So Gillray is selling pictures of the king turning into a pear, and people were taking him off the walls, but at least he was getting coverage of his campaign.

There’s, like, all these different categories, and all labels are odious because they put you in a box. Who’s to say at what point jazz became bebop? Was it dropping acid with Crumb and saying, “Draw anything you want,” or was it “Hey, man” and deedeepandipdip? The people that were dumped on, like fucking Bob Dylan in fucking Time magazine, and that fucking Don’t Look Back, with fucking lots of coke going on. They fucking poured it on and on the guy. I’m not saying I’m Bob Dylan, but I’d rather be cult than popular, because I’m doing something wrong if they’re eating it up too quickly.

What are the similarities between you and Hieronymous Bosch?

Vision. Imagination. Talent. Drugs.

What drugs was he taking?

Belladonna. But that’s too fierce.

Is that where his details came from?

I don’t know. He ain’t talking. I showed with him. Did I tell you that story?

No.

I was invited to show with Hieronymous Bosch. Sue Coe, Crumb, me, and a couple other weirdos in Rotterdam — in Antwerp — fucking Holland. So I rounded up some artwork, which was sent over there. That was a very big token to play, being part of the show. ’Cause I was invited to participate. Not [sobs] “Could I please be in …” You are selected. I’m like, “Do I wear an Iron Cross or a cigarette?” So they got the work, including the Checkered Demon book cover, which George DiCaprio gave Leonardo for his birthday.

The Queen of the Netherlands was having a huge church service, opening the show, and  this was a lovely venue. I had to go over there. This may never happen again. [Hollers] but there’s this little voice from deep inside saying, “Don’t go.” The last time I ignored that little voice was at this gallery that ripped me off. The vibes were wrong. “Don’t deal with this guy.” I dealt with the guy. They robbed me and H.R. Giger. This is New York. The NYPD came in to track these cocksuckers down. Pretty colorful back history.

Continuity, Bob. You’re in charge of continuity. What was the question I was trying to answer?

It had to do with Hieronymous Bosch … And Rotterdam.

Right! And going over there! Very good. And the little voice saying, “Don’t go.” And I’m like, “I really oughta go to meet all these fucking collectors and all these frogs and fucking Paris and all that shit. Getta lota money.” Didn’t go. Ignored the little voice earlier; got it wrong. I turned in my tickets, and it turns out my flight was to return on …? [Pregnant pause.]

September 11th. 9/11. You got it. Now, I would’ve been returning. It doesn’t say I wouldn’t’ve had a good time and that I might not be better off than sitting here, bonding with you, Bob. But I don’t think so, really, because the little voice … [Pauses.]

So did that show have the effect you’d hoped of jacking your prices up?

Yeah. [Laughs.] That’s to say, [adopts yokel’s voice] “I don’t give a fuck about … Who the hell’s Hieronymous Bosch?” Some redneck’s sitting at home wanting a picture of the Checkered Demon, I’ll send it to him. You play both.

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2 Responses to The S. Clay Wilson Interview

  1. Randy Fleming says:

    This stuff is too good , I’m afraid , to catch an audience in today’s self absorbed market . They’ve even stopped teaching the concept of irony or O’Henry’esque in schools / colleges…. 28 – 30 year olds playing ‘ Candy Crush ‘ , would lose interest in nihilist story telling like this , from Monsieur Wilson’s pen . There are exceptions , i. e. actor Leonardo DiCaprio , who did write a foreward to one of S. Clay Wilson’s collected pubs ( I consider him nearly millennial . ) .

  2. John Sonnett says:

    “There are exceptions , i. e. actor Leonardo DiCaprio , who did write a foreward to one of S. Clay Wilson’s collected pubs ( I consider him nearly millennial . )”

    Hardly, he’s 40 years old, squarely in Gen X. Well, the Millionaire Model Fucking Contingent of Gen X.

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