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“Totally Righteous” Lower East Side Cartoonist Dies

Alan Shenker AKA Yossarian, March 3, 1945-January 14, 2013.

Alan Shenker, New York, December 1972. Photograph by Patrick Rosenkranz.

Alan Shenker gave up a good job at the Post Office to join the underground press in the late 1960s. When he quit his steady civil service position as a letter carrier he knew he had to make his new career work. He learned the craft of cartooning on the job, by hook and by crook, like many of his contemporaries. He had no formal art training but before he knew it, he was art directing several publications.

“Everyone got experience with underground papers, which was great,” he said. You didn’t have to be professional. You were able to learn the trade as you did it.”

He produced illustrations and comics for the East Village Other, Gothic Blimp Works, The Rat, Kiss, and the New York Ace. He also produced pages for several underground comix, including Douglas Comix, Illuminations, Insect Fear, and the paperback collection Swift Premium Comics.

It was a free for all subterranean publishing heyday during the 1960s and 1970s but like all good things the counterculture press eventually met the end of the era around the same time the Vietnam War was done. Yossarian also blamed the demise of the East Village Other on mismanagement.

“It just kept getting worse and worse. It went from weekly to whenever. It lost typesetting. It just got to the point where the staff walked out and started their own paper and that folded EVO. There were always shit heads running EVO. It was always mishandled.”

However, the sexually oriented tabloids that debuted about the same time survived and even thrived through the next decades, and Yossarian found work as an art director at Screw magazine. That’s where he met his long time friend Maryann, who got a job at Screw as a receptionist when she was a 19-year-old punk rocker.

He remained a well-known character in the Lower East Side, said Maryann, and he easily crossed the generation line. “He stayed in contact with a lot of old friends and made many new friends with the younger people who moved in.” He managed to accumulate vast collections of pop culture items over the years, including signed baseballs and icons from the 1940s. “He was a wonderful man who was a good friend to me. He will sorely be missed. He was probably the most decent person I have ever met.”

The characters he developed in his strips included The Funny Nazis, Nancy Kotex, and Miracle Milton, among others. His subject matter was rude and crude, and often done in deploringly bad taste, which made it a perfect fit for the taboo-busting underground press. Yossarian had a fetish for bald women and self published several issues of The Razor’s Edge, which featured women shaving their heads. He was seldom satisfied with the quality of his work, and he didn’t draw much after the underground went under.

Simon Deitch wearing Yossarian designed t-shirt for Cartoon Workers of America at Berkeley Con 1973. Photograph by Patrick Rosenkranz.

He was visiting his friend Spain Rodriguez in California when the Cartoon Workers of America was formed and he drew a logo for the group showing America being stabbed in the heartland. He said he enjoyed the camaraderie of the comix boom in San Francisco, but preferred New York, where he lived in the same rent controlled apartment in the Lower East Side until his death.

Vinal Solution: Jam with Spain and Kim Deitch.

His friends described his lifestyle as a “flaneur” or a “downtown habitué.” “He did what all New Yorkers do,” said Maryann. “He complained about everything. He sat around drinking coffee at cafes. He talked to everyone. He was totally righteous and he never sold out.”

His old friend Rex Weiner, who co-founded the New York Ace with “Honest Bob” Singer, relates an anecdote about his old friend in an obituary in The Paris Review. He describes how the East Village Other was on its last legs in 1972 and the Ace was the new kid in town. Yossarian drew a cover for the new paper showing a meat cleaver chopping an eyeball in half.

“With this cover he’d created especially for us, Yossarian was declaring his allegiance to the ACE, betraying EVO, to which he’d contributed many cover illustrations, and its paternal leader,” said Weiner in the obit. “EVO’s logo was the all-seeing eye, and for our cover Yossarian had placed an eyeball on a chopping block split by a butcher knife, as if to say, “EVO … You’re DEAD!”

Yossarian was sweet and shy, said Weiner and as a good Jewish boy, he was conflicted about his art. “He had a fetish for bald women you know, but he was out front about it. There was a nice militancy about his cartoon work. He believed that cartoonists should be organized and independent and he was proud of being part of that underground movement.”

Weiner last saw his old friend in spring 2012 when The New York Times and NYU hosted an event at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, called “Blowing Minds: The East Village Other, the Rise of Underground Comix and the Alternative Press, 1965-1972.” For several weeks, a series of articles by former staffers chronicled the deep background of the infamous underground newspaper. It had been years since he had seen many of his former comrades from that tumultuous time, and it was great to see them all again, he said, including Yo.

I met Yossarian in December 1972 when we arranged to do an interview at his downtown apartment. He used the pen name Yossarian for several reasons, he told me. “Basically my parents didn’t want me to use the family name. Plus if you choose a name, you have a lot more leeway. People start to accept you the way you want to be, rather than some name that your parents chose twenty years earlier and forced on you. Plus it’s nice to be semi-anonymous. I can go into a certain situation as Shenker and get better feedback on my work, because they don’t know I was the one who had done the work.

He gave me all nine issues of the New York Ace as well as a file folder full of clippings that Tuli Kupferberg, one of the founders of folk/rock/satire band The Fugs had left behind and didn’t want anymore. There were tear sheets from many underground papers outside of New York as well, including obscure ones like The Great Speckled Bird from Atlanta, the Austin Rag, Detroit’s Fifth Estate, and the New Left News. I still have them.

I got to his place in the afternoon but it was dark by the time we finished talking. I was apprehensive about walking back to the subway station by myself with a bag full of camera gear so he generously offered to escort me. The streets looked scary to me but he was comfortable in his surroundings. We stopped by the Peace Eye Bookstore to take a few photographs. That was the last time I saw him.

On the Facebook page recently opened for Alan Shenker his sister Diane posted this suggestion:

“Those of you who need to do something in honor of his memory will probably come up with an appropriate idea on your own, but if you need one—think trees. He loved them and the creatures living in them. So plant a tree (he especially loved the underrated Rose of Sharon) or contact the Arbor Day people.”

Diane Shenker

Luddite sister

Ironically, his most recent published work, which he actually drew forty years ago, appeared in the resurrected anthology Someday Funnies, called “An Affair of the Heart.”

 

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20 Responses to “Totally Righteous” Lower East Side Cartoonist Dies

  1. Maryann says:

    thank you.

  2. scott joyner says:

    is any of his work collected anywhere. i would really like to see more. i’m a screenprinter by day and i was wondering if there would be any objections to my making one of those united cartoonists of america t-shirts for myself. that thing looks totally cool.

    • Patrick Rosenkranz says:

      There is no anthology of his work. Most of it appears on the cheapest sort of newsprint, which yellows and dries before our eyes. If you weren’t there chances are you won’t see much of it. Unless you want a shiv shoved into your heartland, you’ll check with the United Cartoon Workers of America before you clone that image. Trouble is they don’t exist and have no right to regulate trade in their trademarks. If you got the cojones, print a couple up and wear them in public. See what goes down. Power to the printing press.

      • Maryann says:

        Patrick – I am curious, is there artwork for the T-shirt? I would fund the reprinting. We could give the cash to charity or use it to preserve the art or give it to his sister or whatever. Message me.

        Thanks,
        M.

      • Patrick Rosenkranz says:

        Anyone out there know where this artwork went? I’d buy a t-shirt.

  3. patrick ford says:

    A valuable article. I never would have thought the underground era of comics would end up so ignored and unappreciated, things like this keep it from slipping away. Back in the ’70s when I began accumulating undergrounds I would think, “Just wait, these will define the decade in comics. In twenty years no one will care about that other stuff.” The ’70s were that way, it seemed like walls were falling down all over, and there was no going back. Then along came Reagan and it was “Morning in America.”

    • Allen Smith says:

      It wasn’t Reagan who kept comics in place. It was fanboy tastes that didn’t want to give up superheroes. Now, I was part of that fanboy attitude, but enjoyed every type of comic strip or book under the sun. That kept me from getting too bored with any one aspect of comics.

      • Daniel C. Parmenter says:

        Isn’t it the case though that the heating up of the “War on Drugs” under Reagan led to crackdowns on headshops, which were one of the main distribution channels for UG comics?

      • patrick ford says:

        The comment on Reagan was not specific to comic books. The ’60s (which extended into the early ’70s) genuinely concerned a lot of people. There was a huge backlash and Reagan and Thatcher were the primary figureheads of that movement. You still here people today complain that the ’60s and the “counterculture” are responsible for a whole host of social ills seen today; as if the damage is still lingering. Oddly these people pine for white picket fence era of Eisenhower when income tax rates on the wealthy were as high as 90% in the top brackets.

      • Allen Smith says:

        You may well be right about that, but I’ve yet to go into a head shop, although if I’d known that I could get a bunch of UGs there, I likely would have gone in.

      • Daniel C. Parmenter says:

        I haven’t seen a proper “head shop” in ages. Not sure if they even really serve any purpose any more. In NYC every single smoke shop has bongs, vaporizers etc. along with the usual cigars, cigarettes, lighters etc. and of course lots of magazines, (though not many comics!).

      • Daniel C. Parmenter says:

        I’m old enough to remember that UG comics were quite well-known outside of fanboy circles. One of my junior high math teachers had a copy of Crumb’s Yum-Yum Book in his desk. I also remember working in a comics shop in 1985 when a woman came in desperately trying to find some “head comics” and expressing her frustration/annoyance that we didn’t have any for sale. After a bit of discussion we realized that it was undergrounds she was looking for.

      • Briany Najar says:

        The people I inherited my love of UG comix from had no interest in any other kind. It was the content they enjoyed, not the medium itself. They never went into comic-shops, their comix were shelved alongside incense, Henna and embroidered bags etc .
        Even today there are people who enjoy certain kinds of film, but not everything made in that medium; certain types of TV show but not all of them.

  4. No one is totally righteous.

  5. johnny_ola2000 says:

    It is briefly mentioned in the obituary, but Mr. Shenker was really a groundbreaking pioneer of “bald women appreciation” publishing his work under the pseudonym “Captain Stanley”.

    Before his efforts (along with Bob Fitzgerald) , there was practically nothing”out there” related to the fetish and “old timers ” can still recall the amazement of seing the first copies of The Razors’s Edge magazine.

    If you happen to have copies of “The Razors Edge” lying around, you might want to check this page out:

    http://www.haircut.net/auction/auc01.htm

  6. JimB says:

    I knew Alan as “Captain Stanley” during the few years of The Razor’s Edge Magazine, the short lived YANKEE CLIPPER, which he started in an attempt to revise The Razor’s Edge, and his short writer for SHAVED Magazine and the article about The Razor’s Edge.

    I never met him but corresponded with him and I really enjoyed hearing from him.

    I did not know of his background, as an artist, only as someone who, in background, was doing “his thing” in helping Bob Fitzgerald, the man behind The Razor’s Edge”, to bring something, call it a fetish or an interest, to those who shared a fetish/interest in women with extremely short hair, which included women who shaved their head.

    When The Razor’s Edge folded we lose contact for years, then, one day I was at a local bookstore and came across SHAVED Magazine with a lady with her head shaved, who I had seen years before in The Razor’s Edge, and reference to a article about The Razor’s Edge Magazine.

    When I got home I went right to the page and found the article was authored by, none other than, “Captain Stanley”, as he was know to those of us during the days of The Razor’s Edge Magazine. His writing brought back good memories and how much I missed The Razor’s Edge.

    I sat down, at the dinner table, and wrote him. Recalling the artwork, which he signed, for The Razor’s Edge. Asked if he knew about those, like Bob Fitzgerald and Italia, who worked on, wrote for, The Razor’s Edge.

    When the next issue of SHAVED Magazine came out there was my letter and a “Jim I do remember you and good to hear from you …..”. This lead to two (2) things, 1) the Captain (Alan) and picking up corresponding again; and 2) corresponding with a couple, M. & J. BALD (whom I lose contact with).

    But, after a few more issues his column disappeared.

    Then, we again made contact when I joined the growing computer and Internet crowd. Which lead to the YANKEE CLIPPER.

    A great man, a great artist, a great writer ….. Someone I will miss …..

    Bless you Alan ….. Captain Stanley ….. You, your work, will be sadly missed as will your friendship ….. Thank you.msn …..

    • I strongly regret not having been in direct communication with Alan during his final years.

      Alan was an extremely fun person to work with, with a wonderful sense of humor and a very gentle nature. I spent many hours with him at his densely packed (!) lower east side apartment. In fact one of the principal obstacles to getting Razors Edge issues out on time was our getting diverted in comical exchanges about news items of the day, both major and minor.

      My insight into Alan was deepened when I saw the wounded look in his eye when I reluctantly confessed to him that I had run out of funds and no longer knew how I would be able to keep The Razors Edge afloat. The magazine was very much his baby and our demise was a substantial disappointment.

  7. I first spoke to the Capt in 1994 where we talked about the best ways to form the soon to be called Progressive hair Club. We met later several times and I was blessed to speak with him quite often as he helped me promote PHC and I sent him pictures from our haircutting shoots for the yankee clipper. I’ll never forget the time he did an on stage haircut at the PHC Ms Bald USA pagent. I have it on video and he quite enjoyed himself. I will miss you a lot Capt and I’m sure that you are chasing the angles around with your clippers.

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