The S. Clay Wilson Interview

Who’s your basic audience these days? Have you done demographics?

Demographics? You need another toke, Bob. Relax. Let the world take care of itself. Lorraine’ll be back. She’ll talk your ear off. Take a day off. Pretend we’re working brothers.

Handbill for a 1982 Wilson exhibition at the Museum of Surreal and Fantastique in SoHo

What do you think of contemporary artists like Jeff Koontz and Damien Hirst?

Hey, rock on, brother. Make fun of everything. Why the fuck not? The bigger the better. I’m like the Eastern European cobbler. One nail at a time. I shit you not. That’s the way I work. Get the equipment; take the equipment apart and here’s a picture ‘n’ here’s a picture. I don’t like digitized images because there’s such a huge catalog of riffs you can use that makes everybody an artist. It’s like punching buttons on a goddamned machine, which is abhorrent to me, your humble narrator. I’m not, like, hire some idiots that make gigantic chrome bunnies either. But I admire their spirit — and that they fucking get away with it. Anything that pisses lots of folks off and makes tons of money can’t be all bad.

Here’s one of Adele’s questions. As you’ve been aging, have you noticed...

[Yiddish accent] Aging? Oy Vey! Y’can’t gittit up. Vy’d’j’ask me am I aging? Djsee that blue-eyed gul? She drives me crazy. I know she’s a girl though. She’s tough and she has a size eight skull. As one anthropologist to another, it’s full of yak-yak, but I love her.

... any changes in the execution of your cartoons or your thinking or your images?

My execution ...? [Pause.] Yes.

Care to amplify?

Keep it clever. Keep it moving. I think it should be a whole issue though. Don’t you think?

So, any changes in your drawing?

Changes in my drawing? It is easier to draw a dense-pack panel than to explain the process a cartoonist uses by which to enlighten his vast, unwashed public. Did you write that down? You don’t have to.

James Stark said of the demon, as he’s getting older, “his pecs are getting doughy, his gut hangs out, bangs under his eyes, crow’s feet, smokin’ and drinkin’ and in general dissipating himself. Wilson at times could be mistaken for this description.” Think that’s accurate?

No [laughs]. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree, Bob. See, now you’re getting cute. Well, get as cute as y’want.

Another Adele question. Usually artistic creation is thought of as a sublimation of sexual energy, but your work is so sexual in itself, she wonders whether you ever have to take breaks from the work in order to ... um ...

Fuck. [Laughs.]

... relieve yourself?

You can put “fuck” in there. It’s OK. It’s constant. I’m never lonesome when I’m eating or mad when I’m coming. I love to draw. It’s therapy. But what happens, I’ve noticed is if you draw something, it’ll show up. So be careful what you draw.

What books ...

Let’s just get real drunk. We’ll get a ton of material. They’ll review it, and it’ll be a whole issue, and, you know, 50-fucking-50. Am I wrong?

... are you reading, movies are you watching these days?

My Dark Places. James Ellroy. D’j read it?

His autobiography? Yeah. Very good.

Fucking chop-and-chop. No fucking frills. When I’m drawing, it’s a different ballgame, but it’s like that. The way Ellroy talks is the way Spain draws. I see parallels when I’m reading. “This sounds like I draw.” If you’re, like, loaded enough, everything’s everything, right? But a tone or an attitude, turns of phrase have parallels in the world of art, certainly in comic strips. It’s just as elaborate. Like, “I know where you got that quote.” Like when we’re drawing, jamming, “You got that chop from Wally Wood in 1958.” It’s not ear; it’s eyeball, but it’s the same music. You’re gonna get graphic music and eyeball music.

Who else you reading? You showed me the Charles Addams biography.

I read a lot. Martin Amis. I like the old man. He’s sour. But there are parallels. Drawing’s one thing. Literature’s another. That’s why I talk to you. ’Cause you have an ear and, for some reason, interview cartoonists. It’s probably more entertaining in a way than fucking artists who are pompous assholes — as are some cartoonists. Don’t want to tar everybody with the same brush.

Do you go to shows at museums, like SFMOMA?

Yeah. I’m gonna go see H.C. Westerman with my buddy Ace, who I’ve known since high school. H. C. Westerman’s a great artist.

Are you gonna see the Joseph Cornell boxes?

Joseph Cornell, yeah. I’m reading his diaries.

He was ... an interesting guy.

Oh yeah. I love Joseph Cornell, and me and my old friends that are still alive always did, going back to high school, which is [whispers] 1954. We were kids. Now we’re [whispers] 60-fucking-6. And all the influences ... My old buddies were this circle of influences ... It’s almost nostalgic-like — not like seeing old movies — seeing stuff that changed the way you looked at art. So going to see artwork we were into as kids, now seeing it as adults ... [Pause].

Well, let’s fill in some stuff. Back in the underground years, ’68 to ’72, San Francisco was the red hot center, were you hanging with ...

Hanging? You mean like Abe Lincoln’s Indian chiefs? Seven in a row.

... rock musicians, political activists ...

Now we’re getting a rhythm going.

Do you have any favorites among your work that you thought, “Boy, I’ve really done it this time!”

That’s “Behind the Eight Ball.” Remember those shorts? “What’s he gonna do now?”


It’ll all come back. When you get drunk, you remember stuff when you were drunk previously.

Are the drawings you do now already ordered and paid for? Do they tell you what they want or ...

They pay everything up front. Period. And they don’t tell me what to draw. Period. The more they spend, the more they get.

You sell through a gallery in Massachusetts, too?

Geoff Young, a poet. Great Barrington, Mass. He’s an East Coast guy. I keep the antenna wiggling out there. Which means, artwork, I can get my price, and there’s two theories. “This is my price, and I won’t change it.” Or “This is my price,” and the gallery says, “OK” — and doubles it, so they get their half. I thought that might screw up the market, but maybe not. People are queuing up. I don’t know who’s out there, but I’m plugging away. I want to sound like a humble worker instead of an arrogant, flannel-tongued one-night stander.

You send them work?

I send them artwork as often as possible. You got any money? You want to buy some art?

What movies are you watching these days?

All of them. I’m a movie addict.

Why do you like Killing of a Chinese Bookie so much?

’Cause it’s genius, and they’re all drunk and fucking clueless. And they’re adults. And I love fucking Timothy Carey. Cassavetes, you either like him or you hate him. I fucking love him. Woman Under the Influence, bar none, Bergman roll over. Unless you’re a Bergman guy. You look like a Bergman guy. Is that blood coming out of the corner of your mouth?

You have a TV now. Did you watch Deadwood or The Sopranos?

I’m too chintzy to buy HBO. I get them when they come out later. Nelson Lyon, this photographer buddy of mine down in L.A., another big, tall, insane motherfucker. (We’re scary if we all show up at once.) Anyway, the guys who write it, he says, the Deadwood writers, they drop acid. And the more frequently you hear the variations of the word “cocksucker,” be it Chinese or Irish or Yid, that means the deadline’s getting closer, and it’s, you know, publish-or-perish; and you have to be witty, so you milk one fucking word. Actually, two if you count the hyphen. [Imitates Deadwood’s Wu.] “Cock-sucker.” [Imitates Deadwood’s Swearengen.] “Cocksucker.” So it’s filler, but because it’s a dirty word ... It’s kinda like Lenny Bruce, but Lenny Bruce didn’t use it as filler; he used it as shocker. So write that down. What started off as a shocker is now a filler, because you gotta meet the fucking deadline, so you can say, “cocksucker,” and people will fucking order it on their fucking television in front of their wee fucking white [undecipherable]. But the shock is gone — just dreary redundancy — kinda like this interview.

I don’t think that’s true.

Who cares?

I love that story, but as a writer, I think that word’s serving more of a purpose in there than that.

What word served what purpose than what?

What Milch [David Milch, Deadwood creator] said is that when you go back to what they were really saying as obscenities, back in the 19th century, in Western towns, it was, like, taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain. Like, “God damn it” or “God this” or “God that,” and he said that would have no shock value today, so ...

Yeah. It’s lost its legs. Drawing and only drawing, might I add, is a universal language. I’m in Rome. I order a beer. How do I order a beer?

Oh, I thought you meant Rome, the HBO series.


[Laughter.] Which part were you playing?

[Undecipherable mumble including the words “Caligula,” “Peter O’Toole,” “Venus,” and “heart-wringer.”] What was the question?

Being in Rome, and I said, “I thought you meant the HBO series,” and you said “Venus, Peter O’Toole ...”

Before that ... [Both laugh.]

I asked where you were born.

We could do both ...


You’ll get stoned and I’ll get stoned.

I’ve decided to go with this format for the interview.

I think so. And I’ll interview you. We’ll split the take. When I do comic strips, I hear it before I write down what they say. I do the voice. [Louder] “Tell that kid to shut up.” I’m a cartoonist. I gotta hear it before I write it down, so I know what it sounds like. When somebody reads it, it’ll have that initial thrust.

And by doing your own lettering, you can emphasize or call attention to words or phrases within the balloon, the way you want.

Right, right. Walt Kelly was instrumental in [my] using different kinds of lettering. That’s probably where I got it. I used to read Walt Kelly religiously. He had all different lettering styles, which made more art, y’know. But it’s a con. It’s emulating naïveté. It’s complicated, too. What sounds as dumb and dense-pack as a drawing looks like? What’s the equivalent? Not stuff like, “I’m smart and the drawing’s dumb.” You know and I know and you’re paid up and you can fucking sell it. So what does it say? Does it say: “The Checkered Demon, as usual, liberates Star-Eyed Stella and her pussy posse out of the mutant death camp in outer galactic space right around the corner this year”? No. There’s a balance. A tailor told me this. “The more elaborate the cloth, the simpler the cut.” (I’m fucking 66 years old. I’m losing my mind.) So if you have a simple cloth, like watercolor and paper, make a real elaborate drawing. You gotta lotta shit going on, y’know, put it on a piece a Bristol board. Make a suit out of it, as opposed to ... What’s the alternative?

The more elaborate the material, the simpler the cut, as opposed to the simpler the material, the more elaborate the cut. So if you had burlap, you would ...

So denim, you make a trenchcoat out of it, with the inside pocket. Or what good is the cow that gives the milk and kicks over the pail? Now we can have fun. It’s like the jam I’m doing with Gierlich. “What’re we talking about?” “What jam?” “Fuck you.” “Fuck you.” “Fuck you.” So do it — and who’ll read it? Anyhow, lots of material, and the job starts when what-goes-where. Use your expertise. My job is done.

I’m remembering when Hunter Thompson couldn’t write that story of that motorcycle race, so he sent all his notes back, and Jann Wenner just ran them like they came in; and they became Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I figure this’ll be sort of the same thing. I’ll transcribe this and send it in, and it’ll be ...

Beer and Loafing...

... Fear and Loathing in ... What’s this neighborhood called?

Pricey. From 16th & Church down, it’s The New Bohemia, which is a joke, and they fucking exploit the shit out of it. There’s a lot of bookstores down there. Creativity Explored has an art gallery for the retards. All the artists are good cartoonists. It’s great shit.

Do you think society draws an artificial and unfair distinction between artists and cartoonists?

Hey, it’s a crap shoot. I’m in a big art book and the guy, Sir Kenneth Clark, I think, compared me to Hogarth, which I really appreciated, y’know, to get the art thing going on, along with the comic stuff, even though Hogarth was very comical. That Gin Alley and stuff is all these black-and-white dense-packs with people doing illicit activity, which was inspirational to me. While I was reading comics [as a kid], I used to look in art books and stuff related to pictorial images. Am I making any sense, Bob? Am I nailing this fucker down? [Blows nose in a checkered handkerchief.] I got this for Christmas. I really wanted a lump of coal.

So the name of the neighborhood ... Last time you told me it was “halfway between the fags and the Mexicans.”

Roight. And the poor old fags, oceans of ’em, the cops come Halloween. It’s closed down. The Nazis are in power. Nobody shows up on the street. No parades. No nothing. The horror stories are true, and you never see it on TV because, [Bawls] Britney Spears has a third nipple. Meanwhile ...” If I can get my passport through, I’m ready to split. But go where? I don’t want to panic early, but 66...

OK, we’re down to our last 20 minutes.

Let’s get really fucked up and then really watch the clock and do it minute-by-minute. That’s the way I draw. That’s the way you should interview me.

So if drugs are helpful to creative artists ...

Drugs are helpful to artists without an ounce of creation in their fucking, miserable souls. Why are you gilding the lily?

... what’s the big deal about professional athletes not being allowed to take drugs? Do you agree with that?

Making a billion dollars a fucking minute, so fuck it. I could give a fuck less about football players.

Baseball players?


Hockey, what?


What about them?

What about ’em? Do you bet?

No. Hmmm. Any last words for your fans out there in comicdom?

See, you wanna be the cartoonist. You wanna be the guy being interviewed. Sorry, we’re all full up. [Laughs.]


5 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.

  3. Macey Tanseco says:

    This was amazing to read. I’m doing a report on Wilson for my Comics Course at College and this was the type of shit my classmates will piss themselves after hearing. It’s going to be an awesome presentation.

    Really great stuff though – the “Fear and Loathing” thing going on was the right choice.

  4. I’ve always meant to give credit properly. That quote I hissed to Michael McClure, in the beginning of this interview, was actually from “Car Wash”. It was said by the character Lindy, a cross dresser. I think I told Bob that, at the time, but it didn’t make it in. I Saw that movie on 8th Street, in NYC, when it came out, and never forgot that fabulous line. It was a perfect retort to McClure at that moment. I didn’t dilute its impact by giving credit at the time, but want to reveal its source here. I can be clever, but I’m not a plagiarist!

    Quote: “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be, and more of a woman than you’ll ever get!”

  5. Larinda Nomikos says:

    Actually Pete Townsend said this long before the movie Car Wash.

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