I interviewed underground comix pioneer and painter Barbara "Willy" Mendes for over five hours in her gallery space, known as the Ivan Gallery, and her apartment above it a few blocks south of the Pico-Robertson section of Los Angeles in January 2020 as research for my new book, Dirty Pictures: How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix (Abrams Press, 2022). The building stands on a corner that has been officially dubbed by the City of Los Angeles as “Barbara Mendes Memorial Square” (although she is still with us), with a plaque that reads: “BARBARA MENDES MEMORIAL SQUARE Dedicated to a creator whose artistic integrity magnifies the excellence of the south Robertson community.”
Mendes was open about enjoying the chance to talk about herself and her work, and the attention. “Men come into [my] gallery and expect me to listen to their spiel? That’s not why I busted my ass to make this art. If you come here this is about me! I enjoy the attention. People love to talk about themselves. You’re not even charging me by the hour.”
She has an acute sense of her self and her work’s worth, and an acute sense that the world hasn’t recognized it as much as it ought to have. “I really think I'm like kind of a genius, I do, because I have the power to do things that nobody could do. So would the world please notice that?” She has felt at times excluded from scenes where she felt she’d earned her place, including the Los Angeles downtown gallery scene in the early '90s, where she was a pioneer who, she feels, was seen as a willful nuisance by others: too mouthy, perhaps too Jewish, and—something she is keenly aware of—too female. She ran two galleries there in the 1990s, the Barbara Mendes Gallery (slogan: “the antithesis of minimalism”) and Fine Art at Factory Place. And the world of comics, in her perspective, has seen a similar freezeout that she is happy to say is thawing lately with the 2020 publication of her Queen of Cosmos Comix, and the forthcoming publication of its sequel, both from Red 5 Comics.
Conversation with Mendes is a dizzying, entertaining flood. You will see that actual questions from me were few and far between; still, she ended up presenting herself and her work with wild and far-ranging clarity and insight.
What follows is a small portion of that interview, which covered a great deal of artistic, personal, and religious material, including long stretches of Mendes explaining her work as she showed it to me, from paintings to published comics to portions of her 65 volumes of unpublished and fabulous comics diaries dating back to 1969. This transcript has been edited for space and clarity, with portions re-arranged in some cases so the topic of the conversation flows together more coherently.
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(The interview begins with Mendes showing/explaining to me one of her paintings representing a book of the Bible, in this case Leviticus - the "Vayikra Mural". Shortly before, I'd been a quiet witness to Mendes in long-winded transaction with a passing gallery visitor, selling the visitor a small carved and painted angelic bird figurine. “See what I go through to make $40?” Mendes said to me sotto voce as the transaction ended. She proceeded to introduce me to the nature of some of her recent painting.)
BARBARA MENDES: I became religious very late in life. I did a giant painting of the first book in the Bible. I sold it in Florida. So I [painted] the second book [in a work titled "The Shemot", representing the book of Exodus]. And I sold it for almost a quarter of a million, the second one. This is the one that ended up permanently in Jerusalem.
So it was like I had a salary for six years and I negotiated it so it was like $3,000 a month, so I could live, and I created [The Shemot]. [The Vayikra Mural] is every single verse in the book of Leviticus. But Leviticus is not stories. It’s laws. How would you know which one I was talking about? They're very similar. So therefore I numbered every single one. Now every single person who comes into the gallery at this point in my life, I say, you know, I'm a comics artist, see? And so I used comics techniques, which is word balloons. So God speaks to Moses in the tabernacle between the wings of the angels on the Ark, you know? The first thing God always says to Moses… you see God's word balloon has dots. That’s God special speech, right? It's a giant word balloon with dots. A lot of word balloons have dots. Those are all God speaking with the first thing that He says every time is “Tell the children of Israel…”
So now it's Moses speaking in a mortal person's word balloon without the dots. So really everything we're learning in the Torah is two word balloons. God is telling Moses to tell us the following: these are the laws of all the sacrifices. It's a lot of laws and also all eventualities of who might sin and what the sacrifice would be.
And these are the sections of that the Jewish people read every week. You know that the Torah is divided to 54 sections. We read the five books of Moses in the synagogue. Right? And in the synagogue, we are reading the same section every week. And when a child was born in that section, 13 years later, bar mitzvah, and he reads the part of the Torah, and he reads this part that was [being read in synagogues] when he was born…. So we all know [the verses], but really no one else knows them inside out like me. ‘Cause I carried them seven times seven [in all the different steps of drawing and painting them]. So [these are the] moral laws.
And then we go over here. I don't know if you ever heard about the death of Aaron’s sons? It's really cool if the sacrifices are accepted, but then also we jump in here to chapter 11. God tells Moses and Aaron, right? They're in the Tabernacle with the word of God speaking through the wings of the angels and the Ark behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies: “Tell the children of Israel for every animal in the world,” right? See? The World? For every animal, you can only eat the ones that have cloven hooves and chew the cud. So I made a system of checks, or xs. They might have one of them, but they don’t have the other one…. I won’t take you through every one [a brief discussion of fish, birds, and bugs and man’s relation to them in the Torah follows], but just the highlights that everyone who comes through here hears…
See, my iconography is a lightning bolt means ‘don’t!” And crosshatching means bad. Don't stand idly by while someone else is being hurt. Don’t say you love your brother but you hate him in your heart. This is, don't stand idly by while somebody is in danger…. And then of course if a man goes after his maidservant, oh my God, she gets 40 lashes. She goes into quarantine, she can’t see her parents, she’s totally screwed. And he just brings a ram for sacrifice.
(Mendes walks me through her representations of the various rules for who a High Priest can marry, and every Jewish holiday, and many other aspects of Leviticus.)
And this one is really scary, about the blessings and curses. So it was like, if we do everything in the Torah. Oh my God. We'll have victory. We'll have fertility. We'll have plenty and we'll be blessed, God will bless us and we’ll bless God. But if we scoff at it at all and we don't do it, then we'll be cursed, and if we continue to scoff the curses get seven times worse… 'till we’re eating our own babies and wild beasts invade and the land is desolate and abandoned…
(Mendes begins guiding me through another painting.)
Here's the miracle of this one. I did this from memory. I went to Israel the first time in 2000 and I came back and made this painting from memory…. There’s this big oblong building and I don’t know why I remembered it…. In real life you walk to the Wailing Wall… of course in the painting I put a Third Temple, so you see how it’s different? I had to walk away from it for six months, it was so complex. Finally finished it in 2002.
In 2006, that’s where my mural is, the one I showed you, in that building [the Sephardic Educational Center, shown in the painting]. The one I got a quarter of a million for-- almost! $225,000—goes to that building that I put in the picture. So that's one very graphic little miracle.
(After more of her walking me patiently through her iconography in her Bible paintings, we go upstairs from her gallery to her apartment and begin discussing some of the ways she has felt re-integrated into the world of comics after decades away from it, beginning with her appearance in a prominent anthology.)
Dan Nadel put me in such a good place. Have you seen his book, Art in Time [Abrams, 2010]? God love him, because that whole story was chopped up in Illuminations [Print Mint, 1971; a comic book edited and mostly written & drawn by Mendes] and Dan Nadel put it all together. So he had a series of artists’ talks around where people lived. One I think in the Bay Area, but he had one here in L.A. in a theater on La Brea, and it was a bunch of panels featuring the artists.
So I was on the second panel. I was a little more religious in the old days. I wore a long skirt and a little religious hat and everything. I was on a panel so I try and look nice. So I get into the theater and I know I'm in time for the second panel, and the first panel is on and I just take a seat in the darkened theater. They had a big screen showing the image of a comic, like a big slide projector image.
And the image that we're looking at is this guy like chopping up this woman, you get more bloody, chopping, killing, really splattering this woman, and the audience is going crazy laughing. 'Cause I guess it was funny? And the audience is going ahahahahah, a great audience reaction, and then as the laughter dies down a voice hollers out, “Well, I don't think it's funny.” And that voice is me... the cranky lady in the hat.
And so then the guy answered me. It was the cartoonist and he says, well, you know, we don't make money at this…. And I go, that's right. You just take pleasure in making pictures of hurting women.
The next panel began right away and the heckler is here! Here I am on the panel and I walked right up and said to the audience... “Well, make your mind kosher. It's not cool to be getting your jollies with violence against women. It's not cool. Make your mind better.”
I made a nasty cartoon today, which I think I will not [publish] because why make enemies? It shows the Queen of Cosmos, admonishing like an annoyed mommy-- I didn't use the word Superman and Batman, Spider-Man. I made up names like Stupid Dude, Maggot Man, and Vulture Guy. She’s going, hey fighting is bad, you know? They say “We wanted to save the world.” And she's like, “Didn't I tell you fighting was bad? Fighting hurts people, what are you fighting for?” Then the second page is like, but what about Wowie Gal, right? Wonder Woman, right? Oh brother! In her underpants fighting. Right?
You’ve heard of [Honoré] Daumier in art history, right? He's one of these people that took some kind of cheapo art form like woodcuts and made it into an artistic format that to this day we [study]. But at the time it was just like cheap shit. And the same with [Henri de Toulouse-]Lautrec and the street posters, that's just like our freaking commercials. They had them, but then he took the street poster and made it so beautiful that now it's a whole art. Everybody collects them, “Hey it’s that famous guy Toulouse-Lautrec.”
Everybody worships fame. But they don’t realize what sheep they are, how foolish they are, they have no mind, they have no eye. It’s just like a fame machine. And the museums are there. The exclusion of the women is so subtle. It's not by out-and-out rejection. It's by like never calling. Do you know how many people I've helped in my role as-- sometimes I'm a curator. I always have these big shows once in a while. And I had my own galleries and… but I don't care ‘cause God made it to come around, just especially this year with the comics.
BRIAN DOHERTY: How did you get involved in comix?
You know how I got into comix, through Kim Deitch? My first husband, Rick [Kunstler, guitarist for the psychedelic band and "hippie tribe" the Group Image], we were young, in our 20s, shacked up in the East Village and Kim Deitch was his best friend, like from upstate Westchester-- just above New York [City] is Westchester County. And Rick knew Kim. They were both groovy guys in that area. And they knew each other and he even took me to meet Kim up there. Kim was working in like a mental hospital or something, we went there and I was introduced to Kim. So then later we all ended up in the East Village and Kim ends up in the East Village.
Kim's a really good friend. And he'd always come by to our little railroad flat on East 1st Street and he'd come by with "Sunshine Girl". He was making this new strip for the East Village Other first to see if they would take it, right-- here it is? Do you like it? And they took it, then that was a whole thing.
He'd always show us his comic on the way over there. And so just ‘cause I'm such an artist, right, I started making comix just for fun, like spoofs, I made like a Superman spoof. I guess I would show them to Kim and he saw my art. Then Kim became the editor of Gothic Blimp Works and he invited me to do the back covers.
So remember what I told you about Daumier? I always saw comix like that, as a chance to do fine art. And I was amazed in that era that you could make this mass produced four-color item. And that was always my thing. Kim taught me to do the color separations and that's how I got into comix. Then I moved to San Francisco. There was Kim and Trina [Robbins] apartment hunting at the same time. So then we shared a house with Kim and Trina. In a way we were in like the thick of [the early comix scene]. I think Crumb was around, everybody. Right? Then later we got our own place on 24th Street. And later we gave that to Trina, when they split up.
When you were a teenager with art on your mind, did comics mean anything to you?
Never would have heard of Marvel. You'll learn a lot from men. So Rick was into Marvel. So when I got with Rick, he turned me on to the Marvel comics, and I will say then once I got with Rick, I became a Marvel fan. So we'd read and we'd collect. I still have our Marvels, [Fantastic Four] #1. L’chaim!
Willy was a nickname that my husband gave me. From Willie Bobo, a Latin musician.
The salsa musician?
You’ve heard of him, you’re like the second person in the world that’s ever heard of him. The comic artist Mary Fleener? So she’s cool, we know each other from pretty far back but also we were having great fun at ComicFest. I sat next to her, they gave us a table, and we were talking and that came up, she said “Oh I saw Willie Bobo when he was out on the west coast” and I was like “Oh my god he gave me my nickname Willy.”
It just seemed like a thing to put on comix at the time, sign it Willy. People who knew me from that era do call me Willy, it wasn’t just a pen name then, it was a nickname. Rick and Willy, we were Rick and Willy. So that made sense after that, for painting, [for me to] be Barbara Mendes. And I always kept Mendes for my art, I never took my husband’s name for my art, ever. Mendes is a very famous Sephardic name. Doña Gracia Mendes helped the Jews escape from [the Spanish Inquisition]. My great grandfather was a rabbi for the oldest congregation in America for 50 years.
Why did you leave New York for San Francisco?
Everybody was moving west. Happened all the time. I wanted to get the hell out of ravishing Brooklyn Heights. Everyone was moving to the coast. So the [Grateful] Dead are in town, right? So we're going to go see them in the Chelsea Hotel. Me and Rick, and I painted Rick’s guitar, his Stratocaster, really beautiful paintings on it. So we figured we're going to show it to-- or maybe we were just going through the lobby with it, and so we go in and there's Jerry Garcia in the lobby. So we said, “Hey Jerry,” Rick said, “you should see my guitar.”
We're hoping maybe I'd get a job, painting a guitar for Jerry Garcia. And he said, he loved it. It was beautiful. But Jerry Garcia didn't like to be attached to guitars. He liked to just beat them to death and not be precious about them. So then we had a whole day and then that night, the Dead were playing at the Fillmore East with Sha Na Na opening and, newly-left the Jeff Beck [Group] for the first time on his solo debut, Rod Stewart, with all his mannerisms, like sweating down and everything, but for the first time. And Country Joe and the Fish.
So Rick had these beautiful songs, they were really beautiful. And Doug [Metzler] from the Group Image had gotten in with Country Joe and the Fish, the former bass player from Group Image. So I guess he told Country Joe [McDonald] to meet Rick. So then we go backstage. It was Fillmore East and we'd go up and we meet with Country Joe on the stairs outside, the back of this theater with a brick wall and everything. And Rick plays him this beautiful song and Country Joe says, “Oh, that's so beautiful. That makes me cry.” He says, “You come to San Francisco and I'll make a record of you.” So that was reason number one.
(Mendes then tells an anecdote about Matthew Kaufman of Beserkley Records becoming enamored of her art so much he impressed her by taking a taxi from Brooklyn Heights to Staten Island to hire her to paint the exterior of a Tower Records that she also associated with her move to California. However, Mendes then remembered that happening not before her first move to San Francisco, but later. “Matthew gave me 500 bucks. But I never painted Tower Records. And I’m still here.”)
So the first time we just wanted to move to California. Like everyone else. And because Country Joe was going to make a record with Rick.
Did that happen?
No, but we came out here and he played softball with them. That's when I made my feminist…. I have to say, Trina invented feminism. She invented consciousness raising. She didn't invent it, but she told me about it. And I started to hear about it, from Trina, about consciousness raising and that women are equal to men and they, you know, blah, blah, blah, the women's lib.
At the time, Rick was going every day to Marin County to play softball with the Grateful Dead guys and all these Country Joe guys. And I was staying home the whole time with the new baby. And I didn't like it. It was lonely and she was crying a lot. So I put an ultimatum to him one day that he could just help me with half of this childcare for the rest of our lives, or I didn't need him in my life. So it made me put that to him.
And he said, yes. And from then on I had a great marriage, so that he always helped with the kids half and half. So when I went on a business trip or art trip, they were with a dad that knew how to [care for children] just like a mom. He was a great dad. That was cool. So Trina raised my consciousness, really.
How big a part of your life, your social life, were the comix people in San Francisco in the early 1970s?
I never had a real sense of myself, but I was in a bunch of books then. It wasn’t a big thing of social life with me, because I'm a woman. I didn't go to a lot of the parties… when we had our house, we had some parties there. But see, it’s the men that are all involved in that whole thing. I mean, girls have jobs. So my social life was my stupid… I mean, my husband Rick, it was all related around his band. He was practicing with the Grateful Dead in their softball games in Marin County. Country Joe made us move to San Francisco. Rick was in the Group Image and they were like the sister group to the Grateful Dead, like Phil Lesh put the first acid on my tongue-- that was one of the first times I met them in 1967, they played Central Park together. So I was involved with the psychedelic music world from my husband, Rick. I don't know if you ever saw Michel Choquette’s The Someday Funnies? I have a strip in it that's of the era, with the Group Image of that era ["The Hippy Wedding"].
So Queen of Cosmos is an anthology of your work throughout your career?
A little bit. It ended up that way. Trina helped ‘cause she gave me the advice to make the samples bigger. She tried to help me because Trina got me to [San Diego] Comic-Con twice, for the first few times I was on panels, thanks to her. The Wimmen’s Comix thing, which we won the Eisner for anthologies? And who's the first story in there? Me, because Trina put It Aint Me Babe [a one-shot predecessor to the Wimmen's Comix series] before Wimmen’s Comix [in The Complete Wimmen’s Comix box set from Fantagraphics, released in 2016].
You know when I submitted my book to [Fantagraphics Vice-President and Associate Publisher] Eric Reynolds… it was on occasion of me being on the panel of the Eisner-winning anthology Wimmen’s Comix and I was sitting in Fantagraphics' booth signing books, and I give him a copy of my new comic to look it over and maybe they want to publish it? It took years to get back to me with a no. And [to be told] they don’t anyway look at art that’s “over the transom” [i.e. unsolicited]. Over the transom? I’m sitting at the booth with an Eisner-winning comics thing! I go to their booth later to buy Trina’s book [Last Girl Standing, 2017] and I look at the index and Willy Mendes is there like 15 times. And then they gave me a discount. I don't even want to tell you [about] Abrams, but the good news about all of this is they're all going to have to read my name in the program when Comic-Con comes around [Mendes was scheduled as a special guest there for 2020, delayed due to COVID until 2022]… because thanks to Trina, my ass was there.
So the first year [at SDCC] I didn't find a way to really connect [regarding selling Queen of Cosmos]. But the second year it was completely done and Trina had given me the advice to make the samples bigger. I [also] had Tales for the Modern Mystic [a standalone comic from the mid 1970s she never found a publisher for, summing up the reaction to it as “Nobody wants your cosmic crap.”]
So my daughter gave me good advice. She goes, mom, when you get to Comic-Con the second time-- I was invited for a panel on Trina’s [book A Bunch of Jews (and other stuff), based on her father’s writings; Bedside Press, 2017] because I did the cover. I'm great on panels. I'm a passionate speaker for women, you know, blah, blah. Everybody else is kind of sleepy. My daughter said, “Mom, look for people who are like you.”
(Mendes then tells of almost making a deal with Dan Fogel of Hippy Comix to publish Queen of Cosmos, but she felt he was too slow to get the money together to do it and eventually placed it with Red 5 Comics.)
I had both in the large format, Tales for the Modern Mystic, 36 pages from 1974, and Queen of Cosmos, brand-new, 36 pages. The plot of both of them really is save the world through Tibetan tantrism… [Red 5 Comics agreed to publish them together as one book.] And I go, great idea. But as long as you're going to do that, you have to put in "Realm of Karma Comix", 8 pages [first published in All Girl Thrills; Print Mint, 1971], which is the one they put in History of Illustration [Fairchild Books, 2018], on the same page with Crumb.
In December 2015 I got a phone call from Robert Lovejoy, a professor at American University and they're making a textbook called the History of Illustration and he wants to have my comics in it. So I'm like, yeah. And also we had this great validating talk like I'm talking to you. It's fun. And then I said, well, which one do you want? And he wanted the first page of "Realm of Karma Comix", which is one of the best pieces I ever did. I was 21, 22. I knew it was great. I did it. And thank God, 50 years later, somebody noticed that this was a great page.
So my claim to fame, to say to people like you, I get to say, look, here's Robert Crumb and here's me. Gilbert Shelton. I'm on a great page. Trina has two pictures, but she's later. I'm on the page with Crumb. And even here it says… "Willy Mendes’ comix explore the spiritual." See, I'm always noted for that… and I knew that some of that comic I did all those years ago was revered and remembered and kept.
And now it's going to be in the history book. My dad was a professor… if only he could have been alive one more month, he would have known his daughter was in a textbook. Maybe his angel made it happen. But the truth of the matter is what I found out from an article about this book, and this is true probably of my special guest status [at SDCC]…. Did you ever hear of a term affirmative action? Turns out they told him, these women, we want women… you gotta have a woman. That’s how I got into a lot of stuff, you need a woman. And who’s the loudest one around?
So people my age, of course, as you know, Crumb is worshiped, right? I got to tell you the truth: under 30, they never heard of him. Because a lot of people come in the gallery [and she'll talk about comix], that's my claim to fame-- so then they go, oh, sure. Robert Crumb. Then I go “Look at this history book, see here's Robert Crumb,” and they go, oh yeah, that's Crumb. Right? I go, “You see, that’s me over here.” But a lot of them never heard of Crumb, the younger ones.
Crumb rose… he rose but he fell, because I'm telling you people under 30 have not heard of that guy. It's only our generation. It's like, “Oh, Robert Crumb.” I'm the same way. He was very genius, but he's very misogynist. I have a theory. My daughter disagrees with my theory. That is that his stuff just isn’t going to go into the future because it's offensive.
I mean, where's Amos 'n' Andy now? It's just, yeah, that was great at the time. But you know what? It's just too fucking offensive... look at all the trouble people get in now from blackface. Some public figure has a photo surface where they were in blackface and then their career is all threatened by that.
It's just not acceptable anymore to put on blackface. Yeah, it used to be though. Well, I just think Crumb is going to be that way. I mean, come on, destroying these women up their asses all the time… I just don't think it's going to wash. Certainly my granddaughter. I'm not going to be so thrilled when she discovers him. But she never will. She won't care. She doesn’t like shit like that. I think he's dated for that reason.
My daughter disagrees because she says, mom, what's the most popular thing in the entire planet is porn. People love that shit. But he's not famous as a porn artist. He's famous as a fine artist. Let me give you a rap about Crumb right now. The worst thing that you can say to me in a gallery, in my gallery downstairs, and the thing that I had to coach myself to say... what I'm going to say is, excuse me, I have to go to the bathroom, and [I] leave right away, turn and walk away when this is asked…
And the question is, have you ever seen Crumb's [The Book of] Genesis? Of course I've seen Crumb's Genesis. Not only that, when I rented this apartment back 10 years ago and I met with [the owner] about it, he said "Oh, we went to the Hammer Museum, and we saw the original [art for] Crumb’s Genesis. You should go, you should go." So I was trying to brownnose, you know, like make good with my new landlord. So because of that, I went so then I could say I went. So my daughter and I went, and I did see the originals, but even the New York Times reviewer said about that book-- it was so earthy. It was so unspiritual. It's not like he believed, like Michelangelo and all those people did, in the glory of God. Like religious art. It was the glory of God. And everything that I did was for the glory of God… the color represents the light of God. That's even beyond the spiritual power of words.
In my art, I have to include the light of God. I'm totally down with the spiritual message. And that's why I did [the Torah paintings]. And that's why I learned Hebrew and study Judaism and the Queen of Cosmos. And it even says in the [illustration] history book that Willy Mendes does spiritual art. So he did Genesis, which he copied word for word, the King James version. Okay. First of all, I learned the Hebrew, which is the original of the Bible. The English is a translation from the Greek, from the Hebrew. You've heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It's all down there in Hebrew, right? The whole Bible. So the point is, it's Ginger Rogers backwards in high heels. Not only did I read the whole Bible in Hebrew, and I show a picture of every single thing, but I'm on the third book.
Yeah, I did Genesis. I did Exodus and I did Leviticus, every single verse, seven times over, because you saw-- I drew a black and white picture and then I made the painting and then I colored it in and now I tell everybody about it, but oh, it's like, oh, have you seen Crumb’s Genesis? Right?
Kim Deitch was influenced by my work. Nobody talks about that, but he admitted to me when he came to that art gallery [she ran in the early 1990s], that book that he debuted that day, was influenced by my art? Cause it was splash panels with borders, but more and more you look at Kim's art and he does admit it. But I freely admit Kim was a huge artistic influence on me… his style is really interesting with the dots. I got the dots from Kim. I really learned from him, but like, it was really a back and forth because if you look at his art and he's getting attention now, he was influenced by me. Could happen!
You felt women were not treated as equal in the comix scene in the 1970s?
That was why I was kind of isolated [in that scene]. It's only now [she’s starting to feel appreciated]. And it's stressful for me. Women were not in the social core of anything. We were on the outskirts of whichever core the men were in. And Trina, she… that's the difference, Trina was Kim's girlfriend and they had the baby and everything. I'm one of the few people that both knows Kim and Trina and Casey [their daughter], but I was never his girlfriend. And he thought my art was good. And I got in a lot of shit. Now later... I could see Trina, I really understand [how she felt neglected]. Supposing I was like living with Kim and then he's getting “Hey Kim come over here, hey Kim come over here [and get published]” right? And then she’d be like, “Hey what about me? I wanna be in it too.”
You never saw [the original 1971 Illuminations]... the comic was all splash panels by other people… and then I jump into these other people's panels and [Mendes thumbs through the book with me] Robert Williams is in here. Here's Rory Hayes, Bill Griffith. See, here's Kim Deitch.
Was that your idea, to intersperse the other artists through your story?
Yeah. It was my book! Here's Justin Green… Spain… here's Trina. See, I told everybody to just do splash panels. It was my idea. And then like a wise guy, I did a [whole] story. This is S. Clay Wilson. He did this just for me, just for my book. And this was Jim Osborne.
I put it together for Print Mint. And I was living in Oregon. So these originals were mailed to Willy Mendes, general delivery, Wilderville, Oregon [the nearest town with a post office to Wonder, Oregon, where Mendes lived]... Robert Williams had to send in his original [that way].
You had a good enough relationship with the scene you could ask them, and they'd do it? How did that work?
All there was in those days-- telephone or you wrote a letter. But yeah. I knew all the artists in there, from the milieu that I'm telling you about, I did know them all. The ones I didn't know I didn't get. But I knew Spain. I knew Wilson. I knew all those people.
I knew Spain. I got great stories. Okay. It goes like this. So here we are in-- remember we moved to an apartment in Noe Valley after the thick of living with Kim and Trina. Later, when they split up, we were ready to move to the woods of Oregon.
We picked Wonder on the map and we gave our apartment to Trina. So Trina and Casey lived in our apartment in the Noe Valley. So before that, though Arty [Schlackman] and Nancy [Lauten] show up from the Group Image, remember the hippie tribe in New York? Artie was the other guitar player. Nancy-- they had something like four kids already, like little babies.
And we had them in our apartment ‘cause Spain… we lived on Diamond and Douglas. He was over here on Diamond. He gave us a ‘57 Chevy station wagon. He didn't want it. He gave it to us, but it needed a valve job. So Artie says they'll stay with us and he'll do the valve job, big savings. Right? So like they stay with us a long time doing this valve job. And so then we had that station wagon and we immediately moved into it, picked Wonder on the map and did Oregon. So Spain was really the root of moving to Oregon because he gave us that ‘57 Chevy station wagon.
I didn't know him well and I don't have a lot of memories, but they must be good because… he gave us that car and he was a sweet guy. Even Wilson, I met him a few times. He was a nice guy. Yeah. I think Crumb was a nice guy. When I met him. Don Donahue… he had the Apex Novelties, he had a printing press, you know anything about printing... I made this poster back then, but it didn't… nothing happened with it. But so we go down to Apex Novelties and shit happened down there at Don Donahue’s. But, you know… there was a thing that happened in the world, which is that women got stuff from men and husbands and boyfriends. And I was married the whole time. So I never got any goodies. I never got a publisher or apartment or a story or anything because I fucked somebody. But other people did. Just saying. That road was closed to me.
Robert Williams, I got a great story about him. I really knew him from that era. Yeah. I knew everybody in San Francisco in 1970 and I knew him and I invited him to be in my book [Illuminations] and he is in it.
And he expressed trepidation that he had to mail his original to general delivery, Wilderville, Oregon. But he did. And then Rick and I took a trip. I think it was on our ill-fated trip to Mexico, but it was good. Cause I sold to the Cherokee bookstore owner’s son, the two best original artworks from that "Realm of Karma Comix"… so those are in some collection somewhere. Because all my originals were lost when I moved from Rialto. So the suitcase with all my originals, everything got left behind, lost. So I have no originals from the early days…
Okay. Robert Williams. We arranged to go to his home in North Hollywood to return his original after the book was printed and we did. And so, I know him. See, then like 20 years later, a long, long time later, when Kim was around… they had that show up here, at temporary MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art]. They didn't build the new one yet, called Helter Skelter. And Robert Williams was in it and also a big sculpture of a guy fucking a tree...
So his big image at the time, his big painting, I'm sure you're familiar-- it's like a woman in a taco shell. A naked woman in a taco shell. So I had a loft with a round table like this in a gallery downtown, people were always coming through and we have impromptu-- just like this, sit around, talking, drinking, whatever.
Some guys I knew from the comix world came and we’re sitting around drinking like this. And we started talking about Robert Williams. So, you know, I'm a big feminist, right? So I go “Robert Williams-- you know, showing a woman naked. I'd like to see a picture of Robert Williams with his little dick out on the taco shell.” So that happened. And that night was the public reception for Helter Skelter. And I went, and there's Robert Williams so I went on to say hello to him. And he says, “Oh, Willy Mendes, I heard you said I had a little dick.”
Did you feel he was genuinely offended or was he teasing?
I think it was joking. He's a nice guy. I never had a problem with him, but he's so rich. I mean, he's so successful where I'm not, he gets like millions for every painting. He has a car collection. All I need is enough money for some black beans and rice, not to starve, but he has-- he collects cars.
Sounds like you are reintegrating yourself more into the comics world?
The whole time I'd been thinking, I always wanted to write another comic book, but there was a big problem. Maybe I could release someday after 30, 40 years, I could try to get published, or self-publish, Tales for the Modern Mystic. But there's a big problem here. In Orthodox Judaism... we were absolutely forbidden to do certain stuff, forbidden to make pictures of the Hindu gods or the Buddhist tantric people or any other strange religion, [to do that] is very bad. So that put Tales for the Modern Mystic beyond the pale of my ability to do anything with it.
But I had this idea. [I'd] been taking notes, literal notes and notes. In my mind, I wanted to do a comic where God was a woman. And I even had the premise in mind that God decided to create the world and made a mistake that the men-- she didn't mean for the men to become so powerful and take over and subjugate the women.
But it happens. That was an idea I had in my head, thanks to Robert Lovejoy, the editor who picked me [for the History of Illustration book], it just came together and I wrote the storyboards and I sat down over there and I got [Queen of Cosmos Comix] storyboarded.
And the rest, I kind of knew the story already. So I meticulously penciled in a whole…. It was all conceived, but… my work is meticulous. It takes a long time. So I made pencil versions of each page. Exactly the way they are in the book. But without the ink, but the story's there. So you can see where the story's going. 'Cause as I showed you, it has a whole…. And I began trying to hawk that book and that was, must have been the summer I went to Comic-Con the first time.
Now like I told you, when I go to a panel I’m a very dynamic speaker. I’m a public person. It’s only right now within these four blocks when I walk around this neighborhood—“that’s the artist, right?” But I feel myself rising now, having my own identity. People have been so kind. [I was invited] to San Diego Comic Fest to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gothic Blimp Works and I went and I had a ball, met a lot of people, Trina was there, it was fun. And you know what, I'm a little proud of myself, you know, about the special guest thing [planned originally for SDCC 2020, now for 2022]. [I’m not used to acknowledging] that I really am the person from that era because I have trouble seeing myself? All I see is like Rick and the Group Image, you know?
I wasn't going like, “Oh, I’m Willy Mendes.” You know? Like I never felt that way, but now I do. And I worked it, because every time I go to a comic convention, starting from that first year, I hand-paint a Queen of Cosmos Comix t-shirt and you can't buy them anywhere. And I can't make one for you. Only for me. I put my best painting on it. And it's like a killer. And I have six of them by now. When I go up, “Hey, I’m Willy Mendes” with a comic and I'm like wearing one each day, a different one for the festivals. I'm killing it. And that's how I met a lot of important people. Like Kim Munson [co-curator with Trina Robbins of an exhibition called Women in Comics: Looking Forward and Back in which Mendes’ work appeared, hosted at the Society of Illustrators in New York and online in 2020]. All through Trina and hanging out. And then my book was delayed.
See Fantagraphics and Abrams, they have their thing going, but Red 5 is new little scrappy, little comic company… I’m always pushing. I hope they like Queen of Cosmos. I think it’s an important book for the human race. I did have a vision. I was driving to the facility to see my daughter and had this astounding vision. I was driving right by the old Jewish graveyards... in East L.A. and had this blinding vision where I saw everything in the whole wide world interconnected by God, that there was a God running this whole world. It was so clear, so vivid, and the main feature of the vision was that to say there was no God is really stupid; it was nuts, ‘cause there really is—I saw it!
Two little events: there is a God interconnecting everything; and, second, to deny it is stupid. It’s like denying gravity. So that was my vision. I never forget and when I made the new book I put it in there.
You literally, visually saw this, or it was a thought that hit you?
A thought, but I’m a visual person so I did visualize it. All my paintings I totally see in a blinding flash totally before me in my head. Then it’s a long process to make that happen. But I do visualize them in my head and I visualized that and when called upon to draw it, drawing could not do justice to the beauty of the big vision, but I think it hints at it.
I think I have an important voice. And it's an important voice for anybody that ever had a daughter or granddaughter. What, do you want them to put on their underpants and fight in front of you? I mean, anyone who had a daughter or granddaughter, how can you not want them to not be that exploited vision of women? To be known for their fucking tits and ass? [When] they're your precious granddaughter that you trained to be president?
Like I thought I could be the next-- not me, but my daughter is somebody [who] could be the next president. It could be a woman, the laws allow it. So that's the way I always thought, like, and then to find out that the whole world, even to this day and age… particularly, what two fields have I picked? Orthodox Judaism and comics, very male-oriented. But maybe that's why God sent me those two fields, to go up against it.
I'm just saying I have high goals. I, to be the Messiah, to be Picasso. I really hate to be treated as an unimportant second-class person in the room and not worthy of respect, given my high opinion of my goals.
The Mendeses have a big ego. A very old family. If you do believe in God, one God, and it could be a woman, my premise: supposing God wanted to pick [a] big shot for the Jewish people from a great lineage. Pick a guy. Pick a guy, make him son of a rabbi with a lot of training and knows all the prayers and becomes a big rabbi himself. Lived a kosher life, never did anything on Shabbat, holy pure vessel—make him a guy.
That’s not what God does. So the messiah… God doesn't work that way. Why did God make me a girl with all this power and talent and interest in religion? Now, if I was a guy I would have disappeared into Israel so long ago, I’d be big rabbi. I love this shit. I’d run a big yeshiva and I would have disappeared into the halls of Judaism. But the fact that it's completely blocked from me made me a vessel of knowledge and I'm the bridge. So I ended up a bridge. That's what I think, the light of Torah… that I could tell people about it, who wouldn't even talk to these-- these rabbis who are too snobby.
What's your current relationship to your Judaism?
I’m still keeping kosher. I'm still a Jewish prophetess. I say the prayers. I say the blessings. I’m running my own private version, and even the rabbi respects me. I cannot control my big mouth. I will always speak up, be disruptive, have remorse. And they always serve fucking booze over there so now you see me angry, knowledgeable, with a big mouth and drunk… now you get the idea why I don’t go [to the local synagogue]?
I was in [my] first husband’s peanut gallery with bands all the time. I’ll teach Torah every day, I’m a woman. I got my own thing going here, I’m not going to be your peanut gallery [for the Jewish men in the community]. So that’s why I left. I’m sparing the Jewish people from my wrath. Somehow these miracles keep happening, you keep going, you keep going, and that’s the point. I’m a mystic, I believe in mystic forces guiding me. I have the lineage of the messiah. You know, it's 25 grand to hire a scribe, to make a Torah scroll. It’s a special religious rite to do it correctly. And there are scribes who do it and that's how they make their living. And like I said, it's 25 grand to order a whole Torah scroll. You do that to honor somebody and donate it.
But the point is, I'm trying to make it… I'm young enough... if I should make them, I could make all five books [as paintings] and then I would've made all five books of the Torah. Which is very rare… I think God appointed me to call attention to the fact that the patriarchy is bogus and that men are not destined by God to be the rulers of all everything, including women, that we are not put here to be your ribs, to be your helpmeets… the guys in the shul are fucking jerks and they're not as knowledgeable as I am. And I kept a child alive for 33 years and I visit the sick all the time and I cheer them up. 'Cause I can't get that high any other way but to visit old and sick people, because it gets you high to help people and to make their day.
All you people do is fill your fat fucking faces and say the prayers real fast and think you’re God’s gift to holiness and I don’t think you are… the synagogue setting is too non-spiritual, too bodied. You go to religion for God. But all they do is eat, they need to raise rent, they need a campaign, they need money, they need a school, they need this. They're so busy. God forbid they should be nice to a poor person or even have it there in the brain and [get] it through to them that I'm starving here. Why don't you come and buy a goddamn fucking bird? They don't get it.
You've created a more female-oriented space for Judaism for yourself?
Exactly. And people come in here all day long from all walks of life, Jewish or not… and you learned a little Bible over here… I’m a narrative painter. If you want to send a message, send a telegram. It’s a comic strip. I’m telling you of stories in the Torah.
Everybody knows these verses of Leviticus. Hundreds of people know them just ‘cause I told them here. It's fun. And I always tell them like you, you had no intention to walk in today to a church or a synagogue and say, “Father instruct me in the Bible,” or “Rabbi, so teach me Torah today,” but it happened because it’s in the framework of art.
I’m a mystic. But women aren’t supposed to study Talmud. But God sent me two different rabbis and I was able to learn Talmud with them. (She tells of helping Jewish men who buy her paintings learn Talmud to understand her paintings better.) I’m a Torah teacher. I’m a bridge to the world.
I don’t know why I did the first [Torah painting], but when I sold it, I did the second one. And when I sold it, I did the third, but there's five books of the Torah and I'm more than halfway through, three out of five. The first one I sold for $25,000.00. Okay. The second one, I got offered $200,000.00 and then I sold it for $225,000.00.
But it’s not the art world. It’s the religious world. I’m not in the art world. I don't go to shows. I don't go to openings, the galleries. I'm very rooted here. So the world comes to me in strange dollops. I don’t get out enough.
Did you have a day job in the '70s?
I am a mother. I had a day job until I became pregnant. Did you ever hear of welfare? Starts at four months.
I had a handicapped child who was supposed to die in a year. So we're hippies in the woods. Everything's beautiful. And then [their daughter had a] seizure, grand mal. But then we go to New York and it's like a big tumor [and she’s told her daughter is] going to die in a year. And that kid did not die for 33 more years. So I'm fighting the Angel of Death. So that's my claim, one of my claims, and all the miracles are in my book because how could you believe all this stuff?
That was a theme in your It Aint Me Babe story, "Oma", the idea of the child coming to this accidental or bad end that actually ended up being transcendent in a way. Did you know your daughter was ill when you wrote that?
Isn’t that weird? I’m very mystic! That's the sad thing, I painted a bad picture of a baby being harmed. It says in “Oma”, what they did to the baby is best not pictured. I can tell you right now, what they did to my baby is best not pictured.
Yeah, no, that's an eerie thing. I'm a big mystic. And that's one reason that my work is so positive. When people come into the gallery and they say, oh, you live in such a happy world or whatever, right? Not the case at all. But I think that you kind of make stuff happen in your art.
So here's a case in point. You know, I'm known as a prophetess for real. And the first ones to say that were rabbis who don't speak English because I did a job for a rabbi and I showed them this painting and it's like, this is dated 1977. And it's an allegorical story of my life up until that time.
Look at this, look here. It's the Twin Towers with the airplane going into both of them. But I did it in ‘77. You know, those towers-- I grew up here in the Heights. They weren't up that long. But so when those Israeli rabbis saw it, they go… “You’re a prophet, yes?”
So that's another one. But the “Oma” thing is very sad and very significant, very tragic. That I would have made that story with her name… but it says also, the angels point out, nobody learns Greek nowadays. Who named the kid “tumor”? Right? Sarcoma, carcinoma. What did you think “oma” means? In Greek?
Why did you think you named her Oma?
Why? That's a great story. Why? Because I wrote and designed… Trina invited me to be in It Aint Me Babe. So I made a new story and I see these things whole in my mind. And I need serene, monumental letters. The first panel of “Oma” is the title page. Like the movies with the monumental letters on the desert. So I needed three monumental letters for that story so I thought of, O M A, Oma. And I used them. I was pregnant and had the girl so I named her after the story.
That story was written before your daughter was born?
Yeah. I'm pregnant in the famous picture of in the back of it. That's the iconic picture with the big belly. I keep this candle burning for her. She died in 2006, but her soul is always around mommy's house. ‘Cause I keep a candle burning the entire time…. She was little, she never got big and she lost so many powers. She was paralyzed and lost her speech for the last 12 years but she was fully alert, she will turn her head and look right at you. [She suffered from] radiation poisoning. ‘Cause she had a fatal brain tumor. So we signed a paper for more radiation than is good for anybody… radiation poisoning made her age like an old person.
So she'd had a stroke…. She went into a steady decline all the way down, but she kept not dying. So every year it'd be like, it won't be long now, it won’t be long now…. So that's a big part of my personality because… I smoke Camels, go ahead and walk in my moccasins.... But I have a chip on my shoulder because I fought with the Angel of Death for 33 years. So what are you going to tell me about God? You know what I'm saying?
But she just kept living and living and living. So I had a few day jobs in my life, but if I had more, I would have social security right now, which I do not. And my first husband's account as a teacher, I don't get [social security payments from] it…. And also I'm starving to death every day. You saw how much attention I [gave] to getting that 40 bucks. That's very significant to me. I'm fucking starving to death. I haven't had a new article of clothing in 20 years. I haven't had any of that joy of consumerism, like, I want this because I want it. It's only... the bare amount of food I can afford to keep me alive. And I do get money, but it's the bills, the rent, it's like, a lady gave me a hundred bucks for Hanukkah to get something I want? Which was my gas bill on my table to go away!
Were you consulted beforehand about the collected volume of Wimmen's Comix?
Oh yeah. Whenever you're in a book, they contact you and there’s some sort of little contract. Sometimes you get like a $100 token fee. I don't remember with that one, but I don't think so. I think Michel Choquette was the only one who coughed up an actual money, like [the] $100 token fee. And Dan Nadel, look how much he put of me in that book. They didn’t give me professional courtesy at Abrams [Books]. I told you about "over the transom" [with Fantagraphics]. It was even worse with Abrams and their treatment of me as Willy Mendes-- you know, you can say “we read [Queen of Cosmos] and it’s not for us” but it wasn’t even as professional courtesy as that. So go figure. So guess what? They never knew that there would be such a thing as Red 5 Comics, and that I really am from the old days… I should be a special guest [at SDCC] and my publisher said “What for?” and I said “Because I’m Willy Mendes, then and now!”
My publisher [at Red 5] Joshua Starnes, they were also giving me the not-important treatment. It took four years to get that book out. The old Tales for the Modern Mystic I also had and he liked it, he said what about putting together [that with the newer Queen of Cosmos pages]. So I met… they were publishers, but its four guys running that company out of Houston and they all have day jobs. That's how they could afford to make comics. And I wanted them to put all their energy into promoting it, but it just wouldn't happen. And then finally it really happened. It's really getting printed now that I'm rising up I’m getting more quicker answers. The cover is beautiful!
You know how when you're little and you’re hurt, say, you're playing with your friends outside. You fall down and skin your knee, like “I'm okay, let's keep playing.” And then you go home and you tell what happened and you go, “Mommy, I cut my knee” [loud cries] because now that you're getting the sympathy, you start to feel the pain? That's what I'm going through now. And I'm seeing my strength about that because now that I'm getting recognized-- where were you guys for the last 50 years [fake wails]! It hurts! All these rejections all the years, they hurt. They hurt, and now that I'm being validated because I always believe I’m this great special artist…
And [my] last shrink, you know-- I have a new young shrink. 'Cause the last one had the unmitigated gall to inform me, like I didn't fucking know this every day in my life, that some artists don't become famous until after they're dead. Thanks a lot. Fucking bitch! I’ll go on the waiting list. I just, you know, come on!
Did you keep reading comics when you were no longer publishing them?
No, I was always poor. What am I going to do, go to a bookstore and buy Fantagraphics? With Kim [Deitch], when Kim came he’d send me his comics. If I knew someone I got them. I got Dori Stories [by Dori Seda], stuff by Trina. [In the San Francisco days] you see, Gary Arlington paid us in comics, so I had all the comics. I loved them all, those I knew, I loved them, in that era. Then we got moved back east with my daughters’ illness, then we moved back here to Southern California. [And I lost touch] except for my friendships with Kim and Trina. My father as a social worker growing up knew Victor Moscoso from our neighborhood [in New York]. But that never did me any good. Did he ever invite me to be in anything? No, nothing.
[Thumbing through some of her other comics pages] This got rejected from Wimmen’s Comix. ‘Cause I go up to Oregon, I'm making this whole mystical comic about hippies. That was devastating. I used to hate Sharon Rudahl. ‘Cause I thought she was the one that [rejected it], then I realized she's the one who put my [first] story in Wimmen’s Comix. And now we're like this.... I have a huge disagreement with Wimmen’s Comix and we get into it even on the panels. ‘Cause they're things [in Wimmen’s Comix] like “We’re raunchy like men.” And I'm like, women are not by nature raunchy. That's a masculine way to be. Men are stupid because they’re that way, like [makes gibbering noises], women are not naturally like that. “I have sex, I have sex, I like poop,” ‘cause that's how men are in their comix, right? But that's not how women are, is my take. And so women are like this, we have babies and we like pretty things…
Did you attend the Wimmen's Comix collective meetings?
I wasn’t in that at all. I had moved to Oregon when all that happened and I learned about it from the book and from Trina… Trina was at a lot of meetings. Trina carried the flame for me the whole 30 years I was out of it, but she always had to include me in all the books she wrote. And when she traveled in Europe with a traveling show of comics, that would have my comics in it. So she really kept my legend alive all those years. And she invited me to do the cover of [A Bunch of Jews] and she put It Aint Me Babe in the Wimmen’s Comix [box set] and invited me-- I got on the panel for Wimmen's Comix one year and I got on the panel for [A Bunch of Jews] the next year. And that enabled me to find my publisher by being at Comic-Con. And we stayed friends.
Your first Wimmen's Comix story, “Kewpie the Groupie”—was that autobiographical?
Sort of. I was a wife of a band player in those days… I was blessed with girlfriends in every port. So I'd always get invited on gigs that the [other] girls didn't go on because I had a girlfriend in Philly, a girlfriend in Sag Harbor. So I’d be along on these gigs. And all the husbands would pair up with the fucking groupies. The groupies were like a curse. They were everywhere waiting to get with the guys. So as a wife, I was really upset about that. I didn’t want them preying on our rock and roll husbands. And that was the whole Kewpie the Groupie thing in Wimmen’s Comix. The plot was that she likes this guy and she gets to sleep with him. And then he's like, oh, that's my wife, my daughter, and everything. So it wasn't that I was in that story Kewpie the Groupie: I'm the wife, I’m his chick. I stayed with Rick for 20 years.
Was your failure to find someone to publish Tales for the Modern Mystic book in the '70s-- did that lead you to just, "I don't want to draw comics anymore, I’m not gonna bother?"
What’s the point? In the meantime my painting career just happened. It’s like this, my kid was sick in New York and people wanted to help me, relatives commissioned paintings. So I grew up in New York and I used to get my art supplies at this place, the Panoras Gallery, so [I] now have painting commissions, I go to Panoras Gallery to buy paint and I started painting again. I was staying at my dad’s apartment at first while [my daughter] was getting her radiation therapy up at the hospital as the backdrop, so I start painting and kept painting and one day at that gallery they said do you want an art show? I never had an art show before. This was in ‘73. And I said, yeah.
So then I had my first art show at this Panoras Gallery and then I just transformed into a painter. And then I started making these really intricate paintings. And I won first prize in a Staten Island Museum spring show…
And there was an arts group there. And then my friend was really into Soho and she was in a collective called SOHO20 and I would be a gallery sitter for them. You know, when the cooperative woman didn't want to go, they hired me to go gallery sit. I totally got into the art world of Soho, and I had a comic, Soho Comics, but again, nobody would publish it, and now I can't even find it, but it was these comics about the Soho arts scene and spoofing on them.
And then we came out here [to California] and again I was always driven. I went to Chicago to get galleries, go in New York to get galleries. And I've just been on a big stride, Phyllis Needlman Gallery, and R.H. Love Galleries in Chicago.
I went back to school as an adult. I started at Cal State, San Bernardino but then UC Riverside was like Shangri-La so I got my degree there. Then when I graduated, people give you a little money for gifts and I read to this blind student who used to take the bus to New York to Times Square on New Year's Eve-- so if Jerry could do that and he’s blind, I could do that. So that was my plan, and I had big paintings like 6 feet by 50 inches, and I rolled them up into a big thing, like an arrow thing, like a long tube. Rolled up with a shawl wrapped around them. So I took off for New York, on the Greyhound bus. And I pounded the pavements. I stayed with my mom and I got a gallery. And then I took off for Chicago on an airplane and I got a gallery. That was a whole miracle story. I did all the galleries and finally the sun went down and I see the lady in the last gallery. I wasn't going to go anyway. 'Cause it seemed like modern stuff, not my style.
And she's putting her closed sign on and this guy comes up to me like an angel from God and he says, "What? Who are you?" And I'm an artist from California and blah, blah, blah… and he goes, “Oh, you gotta see this lady here.” And then it just flows. So he goes up to the door and knock knock knock and she goes to the door and he goes “This lady is from California and you should really see her.” And she says, “Well, can you come at 10 in the morning?” So I was at a hotel around the corner…. So I went and they bought my art…. They kept all of those in the roll. And I had a dealer! Shit like that… that happened in 80something?
First of all, I was a child prodigy. I was always the best artist. I've been in art school since I was five and all through grade school [when] the teacher would say, "Okay, class, we're going to draw," and then she'd come over to my place. And she’d freak out. I won the junior high school art contest two years in a row in Brooklyn. So like, everything's great. And then you hit puberty. Oh my God, everything's different then when you become the boys and the girls, and I still had this belief-- my dad raised me to be the next Picasso, right? With all these art lessons and everything.
I just have a sense. I always knew I had to keep this career going and make my paintings and be a famous artist one way or the other. I was going to be the next Picasso, according to my dad, which my latest young therapist said, “Oh, I wish he picked somebody better.” But in the '50s he was like Shakespeare. I still like Picasso, but I was saturated with all his art books.
Look, I grew up in New York. So all the museums were like the back of my hand. I could close my eyes and describe the rooms of MoMA and the Met and how you turn left…. I'm in New York. I went to all the art schools. I went to all the museums. Like, I'm going to be the next great artist. [But then] everything in art is Minimalism. I was at Hunter College in a BFA program that year, the Minimalist show debut. That's what they want in art. Okay. Still an artist, still reading the art magazines, right. Maybe someday I'll get in the art magazine, that being my life's goal…. So then I see this article about the Tate gallery in London, and they have a show of toilet paper and I'm like, that’s it! I'm not studying. You people can go and have your art world. I'm not in it. I'm going to do what I like. And in this brownstone that we lived in, I had the room on the top with-- you know how brownstones have this little extra room attached… I tacked up a canvas on the wall, I always painted that way before. All the paintings you see were tacked up on the wall and later I’d have a carpenter build the stretcher bar.
(Mendes tells a long story about sitting through a panel run by her publisher about a comic whose relentless violence drove her nuts, and being looked at cross-eyed by a security guard outside at Comic-Con as she re-created the fight scenes verbally on the phone with Trina.)
You know, you can't tell me that there's no drama in our lives that we live in. Particularly women, I'm 72. And I went through this and that, but never in any of the stories of my life, and I told you a lot of them, does it go like this: “Oh my God, he's got a gun. Oh, he's got a knife. Like, oh, I have one too! Maybe I could kill you!” That didn't happen. It's like, that's the plot of every single piece of entertainment that they're making, that’s the plot.
Was the new Queen of Cosmos pages all old-style ink on paper?
No computer work, but what I'd like to do is-- my work is so intricate, but I noticed Red 5, even they do a lot of color comics. Maybe someday I'll do a color comic. It just strikes me as, oh my God. What? A lot of work. But that's in the future. I’m always going to be old-school. I make a thing and I make it with my hands.
Everyone who comes into the gallery, when I talk about my painting, the murals, I always have the line, you know, I'm a comic artist. That's why I use the word balloons. So I always bring it into the conversation that way.
And there were always signs that I was going to be remembered for that, because… you’d go to your bookstore and get the new Crumb… in our day, the new Shelton would come out, did you see the new Shelton yet? Do you think any single person ever threw one of those away? No one threw them away. They were really artistic. See, that's the thing we haven't talked about, but I have the following theory and observation, what made the underground period so great that you're sitting here talking to me about it 50 years later-- you know what it was, was that each artist had a 100% individual style.
And I could just show you that in Illuminations. And you could see Wilson, Spain, Deitch, Rory Hayes, Bill Griffith. We looked at the back of that Gothic Blimp Works, We go: Bill Griffith. That was what it was about underground comics. And I had to look like that. You just have to look for one second: Willy Mendes. And nobody threw them out. So I knew that they would always live on because nobody threw them out and I had a place in them.
I was just there. I was young. I was 20. It was happening. We were giving it our all and our artistic all. But… it's just that the men were so prominent in it and they were using it for this boy porno, boy brain stuff. And I still don't understand why the entire planet has to be held sway to the mindset of a pre-adolescent male. ‘Cause you can figure a little boy. Let's say it's not a man…. That would be a fantasy of a little boy, right? Like that you would be not little but big and strong. Even stronger than daddy, really strong. Like mommy would never yell at him… I don't understand why we all have to share that fantasy because it's-- I think people have a window now. We're going to find out what's in women's-- we had these brains the whole time, but we’ve been totally subjugated and nobody's given a shit, every fucking human endeavor has been defined by what the males have done.
Like literature, like philosophy, like exploration, like science, like you name it. And it's a record of what the men have done. Because the woman had been crushed.
Do you have more comics planned?
I thought you’d never ask.
(Mendes shows me a notebook.)
This is all filled with ideas for the next Queen of Cosmos. So I have like a million ideas and have one whole completed ink-ready brand new Queen of Cosmos story. Hopefully for the following issue… it's sort of a polemic, but-- and these are all just ideas that I could flip together into a-- my problem is time. And the gallery had to be down there and it's not private, a lot of art needs to be done in the zone all my life. I don’t have that down there. Learning to work down there anyway… I do Facebook pages of the daybook of Willy Mendes. And I need to write another comic. And I need to make a big painting so I can sell some and make some money. And I got to make religious paintings because they're the ones that sell, a couple of those. So much to do. But I get exhausted, because I’m hyper and I do a lot. I’m hit with such exhaustion. I seem to manage to do more, I think I’m a bad worker, I get waylaid, but when I do get down there I’ll do some really good work. I nailed the three figures I wanted to do [today]. Everybody says how prolific and hardworking I am.
So the selling of your paintings out of the gallery downstairs, that doesn't happen a lot?
Not enough. But when it does [it's] like a miracle. Usually like somebody's parents are visiting them. Then, thank God, they have a checkbook in the car. It's like a miracle.