Taking a philosophical cue from Jerry Garcia, Steve Lafler’s guiding principle might be summed up with the question, “Is it fun?” The good news for his fans is that he finds making comics a huge amount of fun. Lafler has been creating a wide range of work for almost four decades. From his college creation BenB to a project he’s about to embark on with one of his own literary heroes, he has entertained, railed against the machine and managed to be both topical and evergreen at the same time.
In case you’ve missed his lengthy career here is a very short primer on Steve Lafler’s work.
BenB began as a strip comic while Lafler was attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The collected strips were published as BenB and Gerald in 1980. As the imprint Cat-Head Comics, Steve published Mean Cat, Guts (1-3), Femme Noir (2 issues) and 7 issues of his self-described “spontaneous combustion, comics off the cuff” Dog Boy. Fantagraphics published the next ten issues of Dog Boy.
Stephen Beaupre joined Cat-Head Comics in 1987. Together he and Lafler wrote and published Duck and Cover, and 40 Hour Man. They also produced the anthology Buzzard, which featured a veritable who’s who of 1990s alternative comics greats, including Krystine Kryttre, Lloyd Dangle, Julie Doucet, Mary Fleener, Phoebe Gloeckner, Adrian Tomine, Tom Tomorrow, J.R. Williams, James Kochalka, Dave Gill, Steve Weissman, and Aleksander Zograf as well as Lafler and Beaupre themselves.
Buzzard is also where the first stories of the brilliant BugHouse saw print. A trilogy of tales about jazz and addiction set in an alternate 1950s Manhattan peopled by insects, BugHouse was collected and published by Top Shelf Productions. Baja: A BugHouse Book and Scalawag: BugHouse Volume 3 round out the stories. The original BugHouse is currently available from Amazon or from Lafler’s website and the others will be in print again soon.
Lafler’s glamorous alter ego, Fiona Mallrat, published Tranny (Manx Media, 2008), which features a few stories about not-so-secret alternate identities.
While living in Mexico, Lafler produced El Vocho as well as the slightly surreal and very lyrical Death Plays a Mean Harmonica.
His latest series 1956 is set in the real Manhattan. It follows the adventures of a buyer for an upstate department store chain (loosely based on Lafler’s father), and a wonderful cross section of denizens of the jazz clubs of the era. 1956 Book One: Sweet, Sweet Little Ramona is out now. 1956 Book Two: Movie Star launched a Kickstarter campaign on October 11 (Indigenous People’s Day), finishing up on Halloween.
Please enjoy our conversations about comics, politics, music, psychedelics, publishing, and child rearing, among other things. - Tasha Lowe-Newsome
Tasha Lowe-Newsome: You are known as a cartoonist, but while you were living in Mexico you were in a band, Radio Insecto. Tell me a little about that.
Steve Lafler: Shortly after we got to Oaxaca the real estate agent, Tony Raab insisted that I come out and play with the weekly jam of the Bodega Boys at his ranch. One of the guys who came out was a British bass and mandolin player, Bill Stair. This guy was former professional musician, really, really good player, smart guy. He also worked in the recording industry. Ultimately Bill and I started Radio Insecto.
Sadly, Bill and three other members of the Bodega Boys jam band passed in 2015 in an auto accident on the cuota (toll highway) from Oaxaca to Mexico City. Bill previously had a musical career both in his native England and in NYC. (Read Bill Stair’s credits here.)
Radio Insecto had Mexicans in the band; we had English guys in the band, and other ex-pats. That got going and then Bill and one of the other guys, Cass from Mexico City, they decided they wanted to be an all Beatles cover band. And they invited me to NOT be in that band. I’m like “OK.” I can’t argue with them, I’m being kicked out.” Then the other guys, the Mexico City punk rockers, Fernando (Lopez Velarde/ sax and Theremin) and Nacho (Desorden/bass) came over and they’re like “When is Radio Insecto going to play again?”
And I’m like “I got kicked out. They’re a Beatles cover band now. Which I wouldn’t want to be in anyway, even though I love the Beatles.”
They were like “Good. You’re going to play with us now.” I’m like “OK. What are we gonna call the band?” They’re like “Radio Insecto.” So me and those guys and Tony Jarquin on drums made up Radio Insecto II. (You can check out some free downloads from them here.)
But I’m an amateur musician. I’m a cave man rhythm guitar player, but I have to say I’ve always been a little bit of a musician. But to really dig in, like starting at the age of 50 or 51, I fell down the rabbit hole with it. I mean I’m a cartoonist because it’s a huge amount of fun. That’s kind of my guiding principle – is it fun? But to stand up with a bunch of people and to play some rock n’ roll, punk rock, country rock, blue grass, you name it. It’s an insane amount of fun. That’s why people do it. It’s just an insane amount of fun, if you get it right.
I know live music is great. Back in the day I covered the local music scene for several papers. I specialized in ska and reggae, but covered all the local bands, no matter what genre.
Man I keep meaning to catch The Specials. They come around like every year to two. I’m just too lazy to get out.
They’re releasing a new album of protest songs, starting from the 1920s to some stuff they’ve written currently.
Cool. It’s a good time to protest, I tell ya.
I haven’t played music in many a year. I dabbled (poorly) as a kid. I own a guitar but I haven’t touched it in a minimum of fifteen years.
I was kind of like that. I was a child musician – in junior high, and elementary school. That was trumpet. But after that there was always a guitar around somewhere, but I mostly would ignore it. Right now I’m still playing just for fun. I’m a cartoonist. You’ve got to kind of hunker down and do what you’re good at.
Music has been pretty integral to many of your comics. In the 90’s it was really common for cartoonists to talk about the “soundtrack” of a comic – what they had listened to while working on it. Evan Dorkin and Sarah Dyer used to put a “play list” in their books. Can you listen to music while you work?
First of all I don’t know about a play list, but I’m a musical omnivore, so I like a lot of stuff. But I can have music going while I’m writing and drawing. I write a script, but I also improvise while I’m drawing. But I’m not really paying attention to any music, or anything so much. Sometimes I’ll get inspired because of what I’m listening to. Sometimes I work in silence too.
But when I’m inking, which is pretty time consuming, I’ll play all kinds of stuff. I’ll listen to what ever, podcasts and stuff like that too. I’m inking right now, this next iteration of 1956 and I like to listen to [the] Broken Record podcast by the great producer, Rick Rubin. He’s a really interesting guy. He’s really relaxed and at ease with anyone in the world of music. He’s incredibly gracious. He’s smart. And I just love listening to him. There was a really good one with Don Was, recently. Don Was, here’s this guy whose first big thing was late ‘80s producing that huge Bonnie Raitt record (Nick of Time) but then he’s produced like seven Rolling Stones records and now he’s playing bass in Bobby Weir’s side band (Dead and Company). He’s such an interesting guy. Yesterday I was inking and I found a recent Rick Rubin Broken Record podcast with Moby. I’ve never been that interested in Moby. I mean he’s kind of an interesting guy, but I don’t know that much about him. I listened to the interview and it was a great interview. Moby turns out to be this incredibly interesting guy. I just think of him as this dance music guy, but he’s comes out [of] punk rock, and he was friends with David Bowie. I mean, who knew that? And he knew Rick Rubin when they were both practically children, back in 1983, ’84.
I listen to a lot of different stuff. I listen to jazz. I listen to a lot of Miles (Davis). I listen to the standards at this point. Miles and Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, I love Thelonious Monk. In a sense there is nothing exciting about it because that music has been around forever, but there is a lot of it. There is enough of it that I can still find really surprising things. You get a guy like Monk and you never know what he’s going to do. You can listen to some it and it’s like “Wow, this wasn’t Monk’s best night.” You listen to something else and he’s on fire.
I recently had a big thing with Mark E. Smith. The Fall. Who were one of the early punk or adjacent to punk bands in the late 70s. But I mean that guy was in and out of doing great music for decades. And he had a real renaissance in the aughts and the teens. I guess he died about four or five years ago. But, The Fall, it’s not even music. It’s like his personality with a sort of atonal rhythm based punk trance music. He’s a really smart guy and he’s really a funny guy. I’m also fascinated by the videos of him, you look at him when he’s in his early 50s and you’re like “How is this man even alive?” Just look at his face. He’s got this great song, his band is just banging away, like atonal, very pleasing punk because the bassline is carrying some sort of melodic momentum, but he just keeps yelling out “I’m a fifty year old man!” It’s hilarious. So The Fall, that’s one.
I never know what’s going to strike me. I’m always a Deadhead, as you know. I miss old Jerry. So I’ll pull on some of that here and there. Actually I find that I listen to his side band, The Jerry Garcia Band. Half the band was black, which kind of helps. They’d play Motown covers. There’s a lot, from the mid-80s until the early 90s that band was – Garcia himself called it the “jewel box phase.” They played some brilliant shows. I used to go down to the Warfield in San Francisco and yes I would probably eat some blotter acid for some of those shows and I’d stand like ten feet from Jerry and just go “This is cool!”
I don’t know. I’ll listen to anything at least once.
Absolutely. It kind of makes sense for you to be listening to the jazz standards these days. That stuff was new in the period your current books, 1956, are set in.
Yeah. The thing is there is so much great music. If you think of the start of bebop – you’ve got Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach and then Miles (Davis) comes into that as a teenager. Then you’re up to the early ‘50s. You look at jazz – to me from the early ‘50s to mid to late ‘60s, when Ornette Coleman comes in, and of course Sonny Rollins! My God! He’s a great bebop and blues player, but he’s got this calypso island thing that’s the subtext to his saxophone. I have never been able to do a deep dive into that sort of fifteen-year span of really great jazz because there’s just so many great musicians, so many great combos of people playing. And Mingus is in there. I’m not the hugest Mingus fan but I still love him. There is just so much there. It never ends.
There’re other types of music. There is music for dancing. There’s rock n’ roll, there’s punk rock. I love it all, but sometimes for drawing comics it’s hard to beat really good jazz music.
The Dead can slot into that too. On a bad night they were a snooze. On a great night they were just insanely, ecstatically wonderful. There’s a talent there.
I saw them a few times, both kind of nights. The drummer, Mickey Hart did a thing in the 90s that was mostly percussion, Planet Drum. He’d done a book and CD – but that was a phenomenal show. Even without the use of psychedelics.
You don’t need that. I mean I’m very pro psychedelics, if used properly. LSD is worthwhile and interesting, but to me it’s kind of like a space station you go to a few times. Then it’s like “ok, I’ve been there. I’m glad I know that, did that, but I don’t really need to go back.” The psilocybins are different. I probably shouldn’t start talking about that. I could go on for hours. But basically when you go there you want to be prepared, you want to realize that it might scare the shit out of you or you just might laugh your ass off in an ecstatic fit for a few hours. But one way or another you’re going to deal with – if you get the right bump – you are going to deal with the underpinnings of your entire life and the nature of reality itself. It ain’t for the faint hearted, but it’s an incredibly valuable thing for any human being to do. Anyway – that’s the short version.
I agree, whole-heartedly. You have teen and close to adult kids now. For some people having kids brings a change of heart about stuff like that. Has that changed your views at all?
Well sure. But what I think is that anything that changes your perception you have to approach with caution. And the best way to approach any of these things is to have a lot of information. For example, there are a lot of addictive drugs that are just traps, cocaine, speed, heroin, and alcohol, maybe even caffeine. So I try to let my kids know what the traps are. I don’t want to go too heavy handed because I don’t want to be this preachy - well I’ll be preachy to a point - but in terms of psychedelics or marijuana, they’re out there. So my son, who’s older, I just want him to have good information. He knows that I’m pro psychedelics. But I have outlined the pitfalls for him, as I understand them. The most cautionary thing I’ve talked to him about is alcohol. I’ve had a certain level of struggle with it in my past. I wanted him to know that. Because it ain’t fun, and if you get into trouble with it and you want to dig your way out of it, it’s a lot of work. (Laughs). So I think that my wife Serena and I, we don’t try to hide things from our kids.
I don’t know. My comics aren’t as out there in terms of say, sexuality, as Crumb or many others cartoonists. But I kind of didn’t want my son to see all my comics until he was of a certain age. There’s no point in that. Because he was telling me a couple weeks ago how like when he was nine or ten and my wife and I would go out he knew where my box of Dog Boy and Buzzards was and he’d take them out and read them real fast. It’s ok. Kids can know about sex. It’s the same as drugs; you want them to have information. You want them to know about consent. You want them to have respect for themselves and everyone else. So I think information is the answer, not like trying to hide anything with regard to kids.
There are different degrees of getting stuff. There is stuff you are prepared for and stuff you see and don’t necessarily understand and then you just catalog it. Then it comes up later, and it suddenly makes sense.
Kids file it away for later. With my son something like that is I think operational, which I think is kind of good, is that when I first started playing music in Oaxaca, I guess I was about 51, he would have been about seven or eight. It was this thing on Thursday nights called The Bodega Boys. It was ex-pats and Mexicanos too. Any number of people would get together. It was not a band it was a jam. We’d play four hours on average almost every Thursday night. And it was an insane amount of fun.
The host was this guy, Tony Raab, he’s got this place, Casa Raab, which is a guest house on his ranch in San Pablo Ella about ten miles out of Oaxaca. We’d play by his bodega, thus The Bodega Boys. We had a roving group and guests would drop in. I mean we had like Grammy winners drop in on us, like flamenco masters, but we were a bunch of expats who liked to play, but we’re not professionals.
So, Tony, our host makes mezcal. Agave booze. Tequila is a mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. So it is the beverage, the spirit of Oaxaca, literally and figuratively. A good mezcal is really great; of course it’s still just booze. So he has a mezcal still like 50 yards from the Bodega where we play. So we would be sipping mezcal while we played – with predictable results.
A decade before I had stopped drinking, because I needed to. I kind of eased back in. I would have one mezcal. If I had more than one I remembered why I’d only have one. I wasn’t drinking much. But a lot of the guys were. A lot of white middle-aged guys go to Oaxaca and become aficionados of mezcal. Well, it’s really just an excuse to drink a whole lot. And Max saw my music cohort just knocking down a ton of mezcal and getting drunk and being idiots when he was a kid, because he’d come out with me a lot. We’d have a lot of fun. He learned to play washtub bass, for example.
Now his attitude about alcohol is informed by seeing this. And he knows. I know he’s only 20. I know that he’ll have beer or whatever here or there – that’s pretty obvious – but I don’t think – I’m hoping at least – I don’t think he’s going to fall into the kind of problem I developed probably in my mid-thirties. ‘Cause he’s seen, up front, the kind of buffoonery you can get into. It’s a good lesson for him to file deep down inside. I hope.
I think there’s a lot of stuff like that. There is a weird combination of kids being very resilient and kids also being damaged in ways we don’t understand. I think a lot of that is what informs us and why we then make comics or other art.
I can’t help but wonder what are my kids’ “odd things” from having me as a parent going to be? I don’t know. My son told me I’m a pretty good dad at one point. I’m like “All right! I’ll take it.”
That’s good. I think the most important thing, and I don’t have kids so huge grain of salt…
I think everyone has a valid take on it. We’re all human beings. We’ve all been kids. You know.
I think as long as kids know that you love and care about them it goes a long way. Particularly if you are honest with them, and I think kids know when you’re not.
Yeah. They really do. As a parent, one thing that I wonder about is – as an artist I’m probably not as bad as some, but every artist has a certain level of narcissism in them. It’s almost like required, maybe. I don’t know about that, but I wonder if my dedication to like sitting down and drawing and drawing and drawing does that affect my ability to be a parent? Probably not too bad. Part of the math of living in Oaxaca was: let’s freelance while the kids are in school, then when they get out of school we’ll hang out with them.
Actually I think it also demonstrates a level of dedication to something, which is really good for them to see. And it is great that you were able to be present and were often doing the work in front of them, as opposed to dad catching the train to work at six in the morning before the kids are up and coming home at bed time.
It’s interesting. I felt very loved by my parents, but my Dad would get home and he would pour himself a scotch and water. That was the first thing he’d do. They were excellent parents. I give ‘em high marks, but he had to come home and detox from work, and he did it with scotch.
So how much of your dad is in Jack, in the 1956 books?
Yeah, that’s a good question. So I’d say a decent amount because there’s definitely the love of going out to the clubs and seeing jazz. That’s something my dad and his cohort did. They’d take the train down to Manhattan. They were buying for this store, McCurdy’s. I used the real name of the store. They’d take the train down and go to the market each morning at 7:00. They’d stay for two or three days. They’d probably go down every couple of months. But he told me they’d close down the bars, at three, four o’clock in the morning. They see someone play somewhere, then when they were done with their show they’d go and have a jam session somewhere with other musicians at another club. My dad and his friends would find out what the next bar people were going to and they’d probably go there and watch some other guys play there too. So a lot of it was in midtown Manhattan. I guess 52nd, 53rd, 54th Street. In the mid 50s there were a whole bunch of jazz clubs and they’d have a range. It wasn’t all just the most cutting edge modern jazz, though that was there. There’d also be a lot of classic jazz, there would be Dixieland, there’d be more ballad-oriented stuff there. Like I put in one of my dad’s favorite guys, piano player George Shearing, a British artist. I included him as a cameo character in the first 1956 book.
In terms of personality, my dad always had an optimism, the gift of gab, so I tried to put that in there. It’s an homage to my dad. But I’m not doing biography here. I am not one of the artists dedicated to autobio, as many of my contemporaries, and so many great cartoonists are. It’s a great, I wouldn’t call it a genre, it’s a way of working. I like including things that are kind of autobio or based on truth, but I want to be able to fabricate from whole cloth at any moment. That’s very important. I’d get bored if I was just trying to straight autobio.
A lot of people are great at it. They can make the prosaic details of life interesting in a way that I’m not so sure I could.
It also gives you the freedom to go places where maybe your dad didn’t go.
I can almost say with conviction that my dad wasn’t hanging out with trans hookers. But he had so many great stories. I did a couple of recordings with him around 2013, and he told me like him and his buddies were hanging out in this jazz club and who comes in but this beautiful woman with all of these huge body guards and it turns out it was the Shah of Iran’s wife, making the scene. He got a kick out that. He had a lot of stories like that. And because he was a real raconteur he had a lot of stories. I think he made up a fair amount of them too.
In which case I think he would enjoy this fictional take on him.
Yeah, yeah. I wanted to give myself carte blanche to weave a story so there are drug dealers and pimps and prostitutes and LGBTQ people. All of those people would have been in that world, and I’m trying to imagine the milieu of the mid ‘50s and how it might have been. I’m doing my version of it, obviously.
You know when I did BugHouse I was obsessed with the autobiography of Miles Davis. Such a great book. It’s his autobio but he had the writer Quincy Troupe working with him. He described these worlds that he inhabited. And it really informed BugHouse. So in a way this returns to that milieu, and that kind of element of late night, really after hours Manhattan in the mid ‘50s. For whatever reason, you know I’m a history buff and a jazz buff, so I’m just fascinated with this, with these worlds. Miles Davis’s book informed BugHouse. Also Naked Lunch, the movie that David Cronenberg made of William Burroughs’ crazy book.
So for this I’m doing a lot more research. I’m digging up old photographs of what the clubs looked like, inside and out. I’m pulling up old cars to trying to get them right. There’s a scene set in the West Village so I’m trying to create the look of that with some semblance of accuracy. I’m not one of these guys like Harvey Kurtzman, or Will Eisner or Milton Caniff who’s going to just nail, nail their settings down to the folds of the fabric of the clothes or drapes or whatever, but I do want to have some of that truth. I want it to be research based, the truth of the setting of this book. It’s kind of a fun thing that I’ve never taken to this degree before.
It shows. I like the feel of it. It is a lot more grounded than some of your other work. Even the Oaxaca books, that really bring that setting to life, the 1956 book does it even more.
In the Oaxaca book (Death Plays a Mean Harmonica) I did try to incorporate the look and feel of Oaxaca, and I did use some literal, life drawings I’d made of certain things. I literally stuck them right in the book. That type of research, kind of visual reportage, there is a much stronger element of it in 1956. I’m almost of little surprised at how much I went for it. It is a lot of work. As I was finishing drawing the second part of the book I was thinking, “Damn! I’ve got to do something a little more breezy next time. This is a lot of work getting all these details in here.”
I love to draw and I love to get it right, but there’s a part of me that just wants to buzz pages out really fast. Back in the ‘80s with Dog Boy, I was just buzzing that stuff out as fast as I could because I was so excited and had so much energy and it was so much fun. But, after a while you want to get serious and try a different visual approach, mix it up, put in some different elements.
Our view of the ‘50s is so much of what the ‘50s made about itself. And there is so much stuff that was swept under the rug, stuff that they pretended wasn’t happening.
The fact is, all of that stuff existed, gender fluidity has always existed. As long as you have some kind of “gender norm” you will have someone bending it. Giving people a really good foundation in how the world looked, what cars were like, what people were wearing says to the reader, “These other things are real here too.”
Well said. One of the main conceits of the whole 1956, these two short little graphic novellas, so far, that I’ll kind of blend into one at some point. One of the big conceits is what I did with the character Jack. I made him worldly. He is not at all thrown by talking to a trans person. He understands it. For years, he’s been going to midtown bars in the middle of the night to see jazz.
I think that it’s a little bold of me to portray a character like that, in the sense that in those days bias against gay people and trans people was pretty strong. You could get arrested for walking around in a dress if you’re a dude. I looked up the laws about it. There was no specific law against dressing in the clothes of the other sex. But the New York police did regularly round up trans people. Some may have been working in the sex trade. So what the law did say, back in those days, if you are using a disguise in the perpetration of a crime then that is a specific arrest charge. There’s a statute about that. So that’s what they would use against a transgender prostitute. They’d say “You are doing a crime and you are in a disguise, which is also a crime.” That’s how the cops could justify arresting trans people, probably any time they wanted to in those days. So, anyway, that’s a conceit of the book. I wanted to do this thing. I mean there’s some reaction from some of the characters to the Ramona character, that it’s actually a man in a dress. But other characters know the after hours milieu of New York and it’s just there. It’s just there.
That’s another thing about those clubs in midtown, is that you could go into those clubs and there would be a mixed race clientele. I’m sure it would vary from band to band, and how the band was. There would be mixed race bands and mixed race clientele. Of course there was intense structural racism then as there is now. But, I think if you were a worldly New Yorker, and you were a white or African American person, you could go into one of those bars and know that you were not going to be harassed – a) for being African American, specifically. You’re just going to be able to get a drink and watch the band. Or b) if you’re white you are not going to be victimized because every black man is not a mugger and a murderer. I think people could go and do that.
That being said, you know, Miles for example, he was out in front of one of the bars, in the late ‘50s. He was like having a smoke, he started talking to a white woman, probably one of the patrons of the bar who’d been watching him play. Some cop comes up and starts giving him shit. And arrests him. I forget the details of the incident, but it shows you that although there was an acceptance of a multi-racial world there to some degree the intense structural racism was never far away.
There is also sexism in that. The act implies ownership of white women being “protected” by white police, and the idea that women don’t have agency to engage with who ever they choose to engage with. It assumes that women are automatically victims in that situation.
The nexus of the patriarchy and structural racism. And we’re still sorting it all out, man. In fact we’re really sorting it out these days. Jesus Christ. Hatred is like Trump’s tool. Divide and conquer. He’s not even the problem. It’s like divide and conquer is always the strategy of the super rich, the rulers. So you’ve got to turn African Americans against Mexicans against working class whites because, God forbid, the super rich do not want us co-operating to make a better world because then they wouldn’t own everything.
And if you’re busy being suspicious of the guy on your left and your right, you’re not looking up at the one’s who’s really screwing you over.
Yeah. It’s just such a tragedy, the demagoguery of a guy like Trump telling people who to hate and who to blame. My short analysis of it is that since 1980 when Reagan came in, the rich have slowly but surely stealing every damn thing in existence. Now that like the super-rich kind of almost own everything your white working class men have been taught for four decades to hate “the other.” That could be anyone, could be Latinos, could be women even, it could be black folks. These people have been taught their entire lives to hate these others and it’s like the people they should hate are the people telling them to hate the other. Those are the people who are taking advantage of their silly asses. Anyway. I’ll get off my soapbox.
Actually I was going to push you back onto that soapbox. I watched your short video history of your comics on your website.
You stayed awake?
Actually they were very interesting. I enjoyed them. I recommended them to my communist agitator friend who I thought would enjoy them.
Oh good. I love me a communist agitator. My wife, Serena is kind of a red diaper baby. My father-in-law was sort of a Trotskyist. Serena’s grandfather was this great man, Abe (Abraham) Makofsky. He was sociology professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, after being a postal worker. In the ‘40s and ‘50s he was a WWII combat veteran, but he was also a communist. So there you go. Anyway. I cut you off.
I was thinking about Dog Boy 8 & 9 from Fantagraphics, where you took on Reagan. I was curious - did you work with a specific journalist? How did that come about?
Basically there’s a couple things for me right then with political consciousness. I lived in the East Bay, so I was listening to KPFA, Berkeley. And you know that’s a super left wing Pacifica station. I just eat it up. I try to bring critical thinking to it. Don’t believe everything that comes out of someone’s mouth just because they’re a lefty, but that’s a great resource, KPFA Berkeley, Pacifica radio. Also I’m kind of a closet journalist or historian because I’ve always been interested in the history of journalism. I read and re-read W. A. Swanberg, who was a journalist who wrote a great biography of Hearst, called Citizen Hearst. He wrote a great biography of Henry Luce, Luce and His Empire.
Hearst was a reactionary. He was almost a crusader as a young guy, but as a mature newspaper magnate he was just a reactionary right wing kind of turd. But Henry Luce was like a genius of journalism. I mean Time magazine, from its inception in 1925, throughout Luce’s life -- at least until the early ‘60s. Luce died in ’67 – But in the ‘40s and ‘50s the main anti-communist propagandist in the United States was Henry Luce’s Time magazine. As Swanberg, his biographer, put it, he drove endless truckloads of propaganda through the “gate” of newsworthiness. He presented his consistently, rabidly anti-communist propaganda as news. Maybe there was a chance that the United States and Russia would find some little cooperation after World War II, but people like Luce made sure that didn’t happen. Luce in the late ‘20s was calling Mussolini the greatest, most dynamic politician in the world. We should bring his way of doing things to the United States. He was that kind of guy. But anyway, I’m fascinated by guys like that.
The other great book I was reading and re-reading around then was The Powers That Be, by the late great journalist David Halberstam. He talks about, again Time (magazine), William Paley’s CBS, Newsweek and Katherine Graham, and Phil Graham, who was brilliant, but ended up a suicide. There was one other media empire he was covering. I was fascinated in that period with, first, the story of the mid-century media landscape of the United States and how propaganda was used to control people. Also, listening to KPFA, that gives you an alternative way of looking at things. I was a little radicalized.
Funny thing that you mention that Dog Boy number 8 & 9 where I put out some political ideas at the time. You know, Reagan was like arming the Contras and having his illegal war and it sucked. Reagan’s a villain. People try to pump him up and say he was great. He was a villain top to bottom. Him and William Casey, his CIA director. They called themselves a conscious counter-revolution to the ’60. So screw them.
At that time, I was being published by Fantagraphics when those came out. Thom Powers was this great kid. I was like an old man compared to him. I was an old man of 29 or 30. Thom, maybe he was 22 or 23, he was actually the editor of The Comics Journal. He was like “These are good issues Steve, but I find your politics rather naïve.”
I thought “I think you’re right, man. I think I’m not presenting a lot of analysis, I’m just blasting my opinions out and I could probably back it up better.” But, be that as it may, “I’m like, oh wow, Thom, take me down a peg.” (Laughs)
Still, they’re pretty good comic books. The second run of Dog Boy, the issues published by Fantagraphics, overall it’s fairly strong work. If there’s weaknesses to that series they start showing up in there. Because I had been using the same approach for five or six years. It worked very well for me, for a long time. I was just improvising comics, off the top of my head, just really working out my chops. Maybe I overused that technique a little bit. I mean some of them I actually wrote scripts for, but, that was also the period were I did kind of slide into drinking a whole lot. Maybe, maybe it had a bit of an effect on some of the work there, for a while. I’m not sure. I have to re-read them and I might make another judgment.
Sometimes I look at those Dog Boys and think, “How did I do this? This is beautiful.” Sometimes I look at them and I’m like “I want to get all of them and bury them somewhere.” I think that’s a pretty standard reaction for any cartoonist.
Noah Van Sciver, he’s a great artist and a great cartoonist, prolific. But he talks about looking at his earlier work and kind of cringing a little bit. I think that’s fairly universal, among cartoonists.
Writers often feel that way too.
If you’re going to look at your early work you have to give yourself a chance to look at it in more than one mood. There’s always going to something worthwhile there. It can be tricky.
You have talked about doing almost stream of consciousness, just drawing directly on the boards for most of Dog Boy and then moving on to doing more scripted. It sounds like your process has gotten more structured over time – more scripting, more research.
Yeah. I do write a script now. I always leave it open for improvising. I wouldn’t even call it improvising. I’d call it re-writing now. I write a script. I give it a second read through and edit it. Then a third read through and edit. Even then, when I sit down to draw it and I get an idea I’ll just run with it. Maybe I’ll write another piece of script.
The way I was writing the script for BugHouse, I started with the look of the characters. And I started with notes about their personas, because I wanted distinct personalities. So at first I just wrote dialog that would illuminate their persona, but it’s still a script. The fun of that book, for me, writing most of it was that writing the dialog really helped me nail my characters. That moves the story forward. They’ve gotta be doing something. I mean a lot of my comics and graphic novels I don’t necessarily have a plot arc that is tight, with distinct acts and kind of like BANG resolution. I’m more like the filmmaker, the great filmmaker, (Robert) Altman. I shouldn’t say I’m like the great filmmaker Altman. (Laughs). It’s his way of doing things. He’d have these narratives where he collected scenes. He’d have some of the people improvise. I don’t mind telling a story in a gradual sense. It’s going to follow from the premise, but it’s going to develop organically. I don’t have to be ticking off plot points.
Also, I get annoyed, when I’m watching a typical Hollywood movie, so often it’s distinct acts – that’s good, maybe I could pay more attention to distinct acts over the course of a graphic novel. But, in a movie if all of a sudden the girl who’s always wearing black shoes shows up with red shoes and someone goes “Why are you wearing red shoes today?” That happens halfway through the movie, you know that in the last scene she’ll be wearing red shoes because she’s the murderer. That heavy handed portent and foreshadowing is such [a] part of Hollywood storytelling. You see these devices used, something slightly out of the ordinary happens and it’s like “Ok, now they’re going to trot that out later on, and do something predicable with it. Even though you’re not supposed to really know that. So, I don’t want my books to be like that. I don’t want them to be one, two, three, bang, one, two, three, bang! I guess that’s why I like bebop jazz.
That’s actually one of the very fun things about BugHouse. You introduce possibilities. I’m thinking about when they were on the road touring and Ralph is carrying the bug juice for Slim. So there is the possibility of getting popped on the road. There’s a possibility of Ralph getting busted for it even though he’s just doing a guy a favor. There were all kinds of things that could happen and it was sort of a relief that you didn’t go there.
And it doesn’t have the morality play that you often get in films.
If you’re dealing with [a] certain subject matter then nine times out of ten there’s going to be this morality thing going on, that’s just the devices of Hollywood story telling. I mean I love a lot of Hollywood movies too, but I want surprises. I want twists. I want serendipitous, magical things to happen. I want, not exactly a rabbit coming out of a hat, but a moment where something wonderful or really weird just manifests, and maybe it’s going to drive the story for a bit.
I think life is like that. Stuff happens, good and bad, expectedly and unexpectedly.
That’s part of the beauty. Again, autobio comics are such a huge and wonderful bulk of what a lot of contemporary cartoonists are doing. One of the reasons it’s this great way of working is that things happen that you couldn’t make up. Life is weird and wild and you never know.
That’s one cool thing about when we lived in Oaxaca. Mexico is so different than the United States. We’re such a different world, such a different culture. We’re right next to Mexico, but you look at the political history of the United States and the political history of Mexico. The native people that lived in the United States and dealing with a bunch of Northern Europeans coming over and getting in their business. Here we are, we’re the United States. Then Mesoamerica with its incredibly complex, incredibly hierarchical societies, then you have the Spanish, a burgeoning empire which is also incredibly complex and wildly hierarchical. I mean that’s the greatest train wreck in history. To have Mesoamerican culture and Spanish culture in all their glory and all their horror, both of them smash into each other. It’s the most blended giant train wreck in history that I know of. I’m sure there’s others. I don’t know that much about that many cultures. In a way, maybe the grass is greener, I look at it and I look at the United States and I find Mexico kind of more interesting.
I mean the indigenous empires of Mesoamerica, they had stuff just so figured out, down to so many details. In Oaxaca the indigenous people, they know their land rights to the letter of the law. That’s what people fight about down there. It can get ugly, but the beauty of it is that people are up for protecting their rights. Anyway, that’s big digression.
You actually touch on that in Death Plays a Mean Harmonica. It’s a little sub-story that comes up.
That’s true. I think you’re referring to the Rex character reporting that the state tried to drive the libramento highway to make a mountain pass from one town to the other, but the local indigenous landowners said, “No. No, you can’t use this road, sorry. Nice that you built it. We’ll use it, but no one else can come up here.”
That felt like a real detail of the life there. I have to say, those books almost made me want to move to Oaxaca.
That is kind of what they are intended to do. Serena and I, we love the place so much. It’s so amazing and beautiful. There’s a lot of tragedy and pain, ‘cause here we are in the world, but that place, those people, that culture, endlessly fascinating. You know, around the corner, every day, you never know what’s going to happen. You’re going to run into a colenda, like a parade with music and all sorts of weird art. You just never know what’s going to happen. It’s almost always going to be surprising and many times really delightful. There’s endless surprises. There’s still the frustrations of life. There’s the normal stuff of life. You have to pay the bills and keep the lights on. But even that, sometimes figuring out how to do that. Instead of mailing a payment, you’ve got to go to some weird little office that you can’t find. When you do then someone’s out to lunch, so you go an have an adventure where you find some bizarre little café with sublime food, then you go back and there’s this 85-year old indigenous woman there who’s going to take your money. You never know. Something wildly interesting happens everyday.
I think for some people that would be a wonderful thing. I think for others it would be incredibly off-putting and really make them feel unbalanced.
Yeah. There’s a lot of cultural imperialism. I recognized that just by living there we were kind of cultural imperialist in a sense. But we wanted to be as gracious and respectful as we could. But a lot of expats from America, Europe, Canada, they go down there and they just want to lord it over everyone. Look, the simplest way I can put it is an hour worked in a western democracy is going to give you much more power than an hour worked in a place like Oaxaca for the average person. So you go down there with a power imbalance because of the income you can pull or have pulled. And some people are very ungracious with that power imbalance. Most people, most expats are very gracious and take pains to be gracious, but the ones that are not gracious, they stick out. They are really embarrassing and annoying.
I think that’s true in a lot of places. I took a brief trip to Sierra Leone to visit a friend in the Peace Corps, many years ago. Met a lot of Peace Corp people, VSO (British Voluntary Service Overseas, their version of Peace Corps), and expats. There was a really wide range of levels of graciousness.
I hear stories about people being arrogant everywhere.
I love that in Death Plays a Mean Harmonica, Gertie is a gringa luchadora. I was wondering if you are familiar with any of the lucha libra comics or magazines from the states? Do you know Rafael Navarro’s wonderful Sonombulo?
I’m familiar with the name, but I really should look it up.
You’re in luck, the 25th anniversary graphic novel of the original series will be out soon.
I’ll have to check it out. One of the great things about the Mexican culture in Oaxaca is the lucha libre scene is just wild. It’s unbelievably entertaining and so deeply rooted. Basically what they are is phenomenal athletes. I mean the things they do in the course of a match, the acrobatics, the illusions, they’re incredible. Sometimes they get really banged up too, which is kind of a bummer.
For the most part they seem to be able to avoid that. Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. And it’s so down to earth. It’s like in shopping malls and parking lots, real low rent, off-hand places. Everyone just loves it.
Were there any local comics about lucha libre, or anything else that caught your eye?
No. I would expect that there probably are lucha comics, but I haven’t seen them. There’s a good Mexican publisher that does some pretty cool comics. Sexto Piso, which means sixth floor. They publish a lot of good Mexican cartoonists. They’ve started publishing Peter Kuper’s books as they pertain to Oaxaca. Peter lived down there with his family, I think from 2006 to 2008, if I recall correctly. He’s done some really outstanding books that have to do with Oaxaca. One was The Oaxaca Sketchbook (Diario de Oaxaca) and the other was his graphic novel set in Oaxaca, called Ruins, Ruinas in Spanish.
You know I have read a number of books from them. But I was probably reading a bunch of their stuff, like ten years ago and it doesn’t pop into my mind right now. I was probably reading it, not only because the cartoons were great, but because it was going help my Spanish. Which, given the state of my Spanish, then and now even, it is not a wonder that I can’t recall that much of it. By the time we left Oaxaca I could speak Spanish decently, but that was five years ago. We were actually there a month ago and I was talking to my friends and I was thinking, “Shit man, I need a serious brush up.” Which is to say the best way to handle that would be to go spend more than like a week or two there.
You were back in the States before the pandemic.
Yeah. We came back in the fall of 2016. Oddly enough we came back to the states just as that dirtbag Trump was elected. Which was, you know, a horrifying thing. That’s when we got here. It was kind of a matter of honoring our children and kind of giving them the experience that they were consistently asking for. It was almost five years ago we came back.
It’s worked out in many ways. It’s been a time, especially the last couple of years where I’ve really kind of taken the deepest dive back into comics producing that I have in a number of years.
I worked on the Death in Oaxaca graphic novel from 2013 to 2017. So there you have about 140 pages of comics. It took me four years. I’m going at least twice that speed right now. Almost every day I’m banging out some comics now. It’s good. I’ve reconnected with Diamond (comics distributor), I’ve been pushing books through Diamond, I reissued BugHouse, I put out Death in Oaxaca, also 1956 Book One: Sweet, Sweet Little Ramona. All those went through Diamond in the past few months. And before that last fall I did a very successful Kickstarter for the first 1956 book. I’ll do another Kickstarter for the next 1956 book in October. Which will start on Indigenous People’s day and end on Halloween. Very excited for it because I feel like I’ve got a hell of an excellent piece of comics here that I’m going to have done pretty soon. It’s exciting.
Kickstarter is a great way to get a project going.
It’s kind of developed over time. When I first used it I guess it was 2010 with my El Vocho book, a short graphic novel, a little less than a hundred pages. Basically I wanted to pay the printing bill. Kickstarter was successful for that. But now over time, I see how different affinity groups of publishers and cartoonists use Kickstarter really as a distribution method at this point. It has grown into that. If you aspire to use it like that it is possible to do. It takes a big push. It takes an organized kind of promo thing to do. Which I haven’t mastered yet, but I’m kind of getting pretty good at it. I’ll have a certain amount of sales between mail order and Amazon any way. But between Kickstarter and Amazon that’s what has hauled in most of the cash flow to my little comics endeavor.
You have been your own publisher, off and on for many years.
For sure. Cat-Head Comics started in 1983. Even before that I put out a few small press books by myself. But my connection to the distribution system really started in ’82, ’83. Then Fantagraphics, end of ’86 to ‘88. We put out ten books together. You know, that worked out pretty good. Kudos to them. Because of the publishers I’ve worked with they were the most responsible about paying as per the terms of the contract. And that’s no little thing in comics publishing. I say to them, “Thank you for that.” And that’s a good example for other small press publishers.
I worked with my friend (Stephen) Beaupre from ’89 to ’98. We worked together on Cat-Head. We put out Buzzard, we put out the first issues of BugHouse. We also published two comics by J.R. Williams, Bummer and Bad, which were picked up by Fantagraphics. We did the first issue of Dangle by Lloyd Dangle, later picked up by Drawn & Quarterly. We did one issue of Crabbs by Bob (R. L.) Crabbe. And we did, probably best of all, not to belittle any of those other brilliant artists, we did Death Warmed Over by Krystine Kryttre. We did two editions of it because it sold all right. We pushed out about 4000 plus copies of that into the market. Krystine is like one of the most singular and brilliant comic artists I’ve ever known. Along with Dori (Seda), her good buddy. To publish all of those artists, especially Krystine, was an incredible honor, and an incredibly fun thing to do.
I’ve also worked with Top Shelf, Chris (Staros) and Brett (Warnock) who are great guys. That was a very positive experience. And Alternative and CO2 too. With CO2 we did mostly webcomics. But we did collections of Dog Boy, about 500 pages, and we did a 408-page collection of BugHouse. Those books, we kind of did those as print on demand and sold a few. They never put an ISBN number or got distribution for those. So those are sort of anomalies in my “career.” But the good thing about that, the Dog Boy book is available from me, now. I just do a print on demand version of the Dog Boy collection. If people root around in my website they can find a link for that somewhere. It’s a doorstop, a phone book, it’s a big ole book.
But BugHouse is available at Amazon. The first one is available on Diamond. But they only ordered like a 100 copies or something on that one. I’m going to put back into the print the three original volumes that Top Shelf had done. One of them is out so far. And people can get that at Amazon if they want to look into BugHouse.
It’s like, a guy like me, you want to be as organized as you can be, but I have a teenager with disabilities and my wife and I are their caregivers, so there’s a lot to do. It all goes pretty good, but the real thought of the last two years is get everything back in print and have everything available if people want it. I am in the process of doing that, as well as creating new material.
At this point in my life as an artist, with the 1956 book I’ve been enjoying switching up my working techniques quite a bit. Stylistically – I mean if someone knows my work it’ll be obvious that I drew it, but there’s a lot of different things I’m trying out right now. And I’m going to continue to do that in the next book too. Because it makes it fun and interesting to not always do things the same way.
BugHouse was kind of like that. So look at Jaime (Hernandez), he’s of the same generation. He’s like the best cartoonist in the world, in my opinion. And you know, everyone has their opinion. But Jaime draws beautifully. He can write. He is prolific. He has a good heart. There are many excellent cartoonists and graphic novelists. My favorite graphic novel this year is Dog Biscuits by Alex Graham - WOW! -- but Jaime is right there. I might be a wee bit biased towards my contemporaries. He’s got a clean approach. But then if you look at other people of my generation, you look at the mid ‘90s, one of my favorite comics was Hate by (Peter) Bagge. Pete’s like the funniest guy in the world. He admitted that in Hate, when it was still in black and white, that he was just crosshatching his ass off in every panel. He referred to it as “an outburst of crosshatching.” Then when (Jim) Blanchard started inking for him it was clean. There was almost no crosshatching, just this beautiful clean line work. God, no one has a steadier hand than Jim Blanchard. Beautiful stuff. So, like in BugHouse I was really into the crosshatching, and it looked great on BugHouse. But then the first book was done, almost 200 pages of BugHouse, heavy on crosshatching.
Then I sat down to do Baja, which was set in Mexico and there’s almost zero cross hatching in that book. That was an example of mixing it up. Let’s not crosshatch and see what happens. And it worked out really good and I like it a lot. Plus, the pages only took half as much time and the book got done. I don’t mean it was a lesser work because it didn’t have all of these noodly little lines.
It’s sort of like some times you want to hear a saxophonist who’s going to do a lot of little noodly shit and sometimes you sometimes you just hear someone honk out some chords. Like, actually Radio Insecto, the second version of it, we had Fernando (Lopez Velarde) the saxophone player, the tenor player, he just honked out these big old blues chords. I mean there’s not like a lot of detail in there but boy did it sound great. We’d be playin’ and I’d be standing on stage next to him and he’d be laying out these massive tenor sax chords, I’d be like “This is the most fun I’ve ever had. Listening to Fernando as we’re banging out this song.”
How much of a cartoonist’s life is taken up with crosshatching?
I would put it like this. With the first BugHouse book to draw, letter and ink a page, we’re talking a lot of crosshatching and textures, probably six to eight hours per page. Then once I worked on Baja, and I was not crosshatching, I think a page was probably three to four hours. So it literally knocked the per page time in half. That being said, it’s interesting. I think I was faster when I was younger. I mean part of it is you’re young and strong and you just sit down and you draw like a machine, day in and day out. I kind of do that now, but I kind of fiddle around a lot too. There’s a lot of snacks involved. I’ve never been a procrastinator but I find I procrastinate a little bit now. I don’t know.
I also think that as a young cartoonist you could sit down and just do the work, and that was what you had to do. Yes, you had the screen-printing business, but with a family and care taking responsibilities it changes the calculus, it changes how you are able to structure your time.
Now, you know we’re not rich or anything, but we’re in pretty good shape. My whole life, until I was probably 50 being self-employed, you’re sitting on a hot stove. You’ve got to stand up and make something happen if you’re going to pay for everything. So that’s what I did. I applied myself to being a successful self-employed entrepreneur. Now things are a little easier in terms of covering the basics. I have a huge amount of motivation to make art. But I’m not in any rush. I know it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen every day. But I’m not like sweating it. It’s gotta be fun. That’s what old Jerry Garcia said. The rudder that they tried to keep in the water with his band was, ”Are we having fun? ‘Cause if we’re not, we’ve got to change something up.”
I have an odd question that you may not have an answer for. On one of your videos you say you’re going to have some coffee and a diet pastry. What the hell is a diet pastry?
A diet pastry? That’s what we call an oxymoron, Tasha. That reminds me. One time Serena and I went to a Thai restaurant. I wanted the Thai iced tea, but looking at the menu they had hot tea and other stuff. So when they asked what I wanted to drink I was like “I’ll have a hot Thai iced tea.” They’re like “What?” Knowing me I was probably stoned.
I don’t know what I was thinking. I was probably just trying to get a laugh. You know that’s the thing. That’s why I’m a successful entrepreneur because I’m part used car salesman, part stand up comedian and that’s a winning combo for selling stuff to people. I think.
Some people love to pencil but hate to ink, others sketch as little as possible really feeling that they come alive in inking. Is there a part of the process that you like more or less than the rest of it?
I think I kind of love it all. I kind of love inking. It can be a little tedious, but I do love it. The brush is such a great tool. And it’s just fun. And black ink, the ink is magic and the brush is so much fun. But I will say that writing and drawing is more fun. As fun as inking is. Writing the script is a little agonizing, it’s like “OK, you’ve got to start pulling something out of you.” Starting the process can be a little tough. But once you’re inside your writing brain it’s great. Drawing is very similar to writing. You’re still just creating the story. When I am inside the process of writing and drawing I feel like I am fully engaged as a human being, this is what I came to the planet to do, to write and draw comics. I mean it’s that simple for me. That’s why I’m here. And I love it. So I don’t really have a part I don’t like. It’s funny I even like wrapping books up and shipping them. I’m like, “Look at this! Someone bought all these goddamned books.”
I got out of college and I didn’t have any money or a job. I had been freelancing a little bit, but was like “Jeeze, I can’t rely on that.” So I got a job working on a loading dock as a shipper-receiver, for minimum wage. It was so miserable that I quit at six weeks and just started freelancing again. But it was a great job to have because it taught me how to be a shipper/receiver. And that’s a skill that I’ve used with t-shirts and comic books forever.
What do I not like?
I like a lot of comics retailers. I’m friends with a lot of retailers, but comic shops are a little bit weird because it is the world of the superhero. So, I don’t know if that’s part of the business for me or not, to go to comic shops. I mean I like to go to them, and buy some comics. But I don’t know if I like to go to them and be an artist who’s doing a thing in a comic shop. That’s probably not that much fun for me. I’d rather go to a convention or a show or do that. That’s a weird thing to say. I don’t want to alienate any retailers because god knows I immensely appreciate the retailer’s efforts. Anyone who takes a risk putting my books on their stands because I know it is a risk. Even if they have someone who says they’ll come buy it, because that person might not come back and buy it.
One of things that I always loved when I was working retail was finding stuff I love and always ordering extras, knowing that I could get someone interested because I loved it so much.
That’s the cool thing about a retailer. I mean there’s retailers and then there’s retailers. Stores I like the best are where I go in and they know what I’ve bought from them before and they tell me what to buy because they know I’ll like it. Rory Root used to do that, over in Berkeley. He was a great guy.
You mentioned your shipping job, and that makes me think of your great collaboration with Steve Beaupre – 40 Hour Man. Which chronicles Steve Beaupre’s work history. What was your worst day job or was the shipping job it?
Worst day job? Oh my god. I got out of college and I ended up working for myself, like I said after six weeks. And I worked for myself the first several years out of college. At first I lived in Amherst, where I went to U-MASS. Then I moved to Eugene in Oregon and I set up my t-shirt shop there and I started publishing and it went pretty good. Then in the mid-‘80s I moved to San Francisco. I was a moth to the flame. I had to give it a shot. There was more comics action down here. But the bay area was pricier than Oregon.
And I got a job at a place called American Business Communications. It was a large printing and mailing operation. I was the staff graphic artist. The people who ran that company were the most miserable human beings you could possibly imagine. They were mean as snakes. They treated their employees like shit and they were horrible people. I worked there for the better part of a year. At the time they were paying me nine dollars an hour. In the mid ‘80s, so I could kind of barely survive on it. I went in and asked for a raise after almost a year. They’re like “You’re work’s not good enough!” I’m like “Ok, we’ll see you later.” They oppressed and insulted their employees, to a man and a woman.
My coworkers were quite a cast of swashbucklers. Let’s put it like this. I was the graphic artist. The cameraman, one Tuesday morning he’s like “Come in the camera room. I gotta show you something.” I go in the camera room. They had one those giant graphic arts cameras where the copy board is outside and the camera and darkroom is a whole other small room inside. So I go in there and there’s the contact frame where he can dupe negatives. It’s Tuesday morning, like ten a.m. The guy’s got a bunch of lines on the contact frame. He’s like, “Ya want a line?” You know the ‘80s, cocaine. I’m like “John, it’s Tuesday morning at ten o’clock. I think I’m gonna go have a donut and a cup of coffee. Why don’t you snort those yourself.” I mean that was the level of desperation of people at this job. John probably would have been doing that no matter where he was.
The best thing was, the owner of the company, she came in and she told me how to lay out a flyer for Royal Viking Cruise Lines. So I lay it out exactly how she says. Then she’s like “Can you do it?” I’m like, “Sure. No problem.” Then she comes back, and it’s done. She looks at it and she goes “What fool told you to how to do it like that?” I go, “You did Dee. You did.” I really impressed Sherry the typesetter. Dee stormed out of the room without a word. Sherry the typesetter looks at me and she goes, “You're gonna get fired!” Horrible.
I think we have all had them at some point.
That’s why 40 Hour Man really sums it up. Everyone has had those jobs and maybe they’re not so funny when you have them, but afterwards they can be funny.
You talk about the cameraman probably would have been doing coke no matter where he was.
There are studies that have been done with rats where the rats are in cages and they can access food or drugs, often cocaine. And they invariably will go for the drugs. Then they take another set of rats and put them in a “rat park” where they can socialize, they have open spaces, they have things to do and they are given access to food or drugs and very few of them go for the drugs.
There you go. Rats are pretty smart animals.
The “need” that being trapped in a cage ends up producing is the need to escape in some way. I think that’s an element of addition that we miss. I’m not saying that fulfilled people can’t get addicted, but it is the social aspects and arts and that sort of thing that can help bring people out of it.
I think it is also a real comment on the nature of work in an industrial society or even post-industrial, maybe we should say capitalist to some degree. Because the typical thing is you want to make profits if you are the owner. You get all of these people in there and you are going to exist off the “excess value” of their labor. In other words the typical business pays people as little as they possibly can, so they can make as much money as they can. But the funny thing is, the business actually tends to do better if you pay people right and retain valuable employees, and give them incentive to make the product better. Then you make more money. I found in my own business – I would hire screen printers to work in my shop and I’d try to pay them more than the going wage because I wanted them to feel like their work was valued and they do a good job, they get a reward for it. Get people, ya treat them badly and you pay them shit, yeah – lines on the contact frame on Tuesday morning is the result.
There is so much that business gets wrong. There was a great Forbes article about five or six years ago now about how companies with greater diversity on their boards had better bottom lines than places where the board was all white guys.
Surprise! I mean it is no surprise. It just makes sense. Also, the thing is, the parallel to that is that in developing countries they’ve figured out that if you give micro-loans to the women it’s going to be a successful program. You give the micro-loans to the men, they’re going to go and drink. If women were running the world, I have a feeling that would work a lot better.
That’s another thing, the Trump product was fear, hate and divisiveness because at its root it’s racist and xenophobic, but it’s for old white guys. The last hurrah of old white guys. We’ve got to get rid of racism. We’ve got to get rid of xenophobia and classism. But above all we’ve got get rid of misogyny, because it’s just so stupid and counter productive. If human beings could figure out how to cooperate for the good of all then we could do things like only use renewable fuels. The solutions to the problems we have are easy. But there’s greed and hate and misogyny and racism so many little things like that to program out of humanity.
Unfortunately those are all good devices to prop up power systems.
The thing that gets me, I mean I don’t want to get caught to much in thinking I’m right about everything, ‘cause I’m as big an idiot as anybody. But I am surprised that there’s such a lack of critical thinking. But the power elites really are good at distracting people from critical thinking when they tell them to hate. Sad but true.
I think we’re also taught that critical thinking isn’t fun.
It takes some work, but can be fun.
On a less political front I understand you have a kind of a big announcement too.
Yeah. I’ve made a deal with the great travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux. We actually signed a collaboration deal for me to do comics versions of some of his short stories that have appeared in the New Yorker and places like that. And so I’m going to finish up the 1956 book and then figure out what to do with the Paul Theroux material.
He’s like one of my favorite writers in the world. What an honor to work with the guy. I’ve done a lot of preliminary work on it. I’ve got like ten or eleven pages done, plus a cover. That’s the like, hairy wooly mammoth in the closet right now. So after I’m done with this next 1956 book, I gotta open that closet up and let that wooly mammoth in the room and try to wrestle him to the ground and try to make sense out of it.
How did that collaboration come about?
So he writes travel books, train travel books, but they’re not really travel books. He writes accounts of when he travels. They’re not like regular travel books. They’re like, here’s this very funny, but somewhat curmudgeonly person who travels the world and writes brilliantly and often in a snarky way about his experiences and encounters. You can tell he’s a sweet guy, but he’s nobodies fool. His prose is just so engaging and fun. I’m just talking about his travel books. His novels and short stories have a darker bent. Again he’s a master. He’s a master of the short story in particular. Just the way he unrolls it and surprises you and gets things done.
But he had written a book called On the Plain of Snakes. In about 2016 or 2017 he spent a year driving around Mexico, trying to make sense of it.
One of the ways that Trump got elected was he tried to demonize Mexico and Mexicans. So Theroux wanted to go make his own judgment. He’d been to Mexico before, but he wanted to do a book about it. He wrote a brilliant book, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey. I read it about a year and half ago. Especially what he says about Oaxaca and Chiapas, I mean he went and hung out with Subcomandante Marcos in Chiapas, and he hung out with all kinds of interesting people in Oaxaca.
He writes about people in a respectful way, but it’s not like he’s going out of his way to respect them because he’s in Oaxaca, it’s just where ever he is in the world, he’s being human. He’s connecting with them.
Anyway I loved the book and I wrote him a fan letter. And to my surprise he wrote me back. He was like “Thank you very much.” ‘Cause I mentioned in the letter that I lived in Oaxaca for ten years and I think that for an ex-pat who had lived there for ten years to say it had resonated meant something to him. I wrote him back and said, Hey would you like to have a look at my Mexico novel, so I sent him Death Plays a Mean Harmonica. He wrote back that he liked it very much. And we were writing back and forth. Then he wrote me and said, “Hey, how would you like to draw some of my short stories as comics?” I was like, “Are you kidding me? For real?” He was not kidding me. So now it looks like we are poised to do this project. So we’ll see how it goes.
I know what you’re going to ask, (Laughs) Do you have a publisher? Well, I don’t. I’ve put out a couple feelers and no one’s knocking down my door to sign up to do this book. I know I could do it myself. And I even have some ideas in mind. Because I am a publisher my mind runs with various approaches to how I would do it. But in truth I would prefer to have a different publisher than me do it. But you know the beast is still kind of like in the bodega waiting for his turn. When I trot the beast of this project out I’ll figure out how it’s going to get published.
We have three stories in mind that would comprise to a book of anywhere from 175 to 200 pages, something like that. And I’ve got ten pages of one of them done and a cover. I think I’m going to rework the cover. As it exists it’s pretty cool, but I have an idea on reworking kind of like the same composition in a really cool way. Then I want to start the other two stories.
I’m really looking forward to seeing this one. And you’re probably looking forward to getting off the phone. I really appreciate you taking the time.
We’ve gone far and wide here. Good luck distilling my giant bag of hot air down to something interesting.
It has been fascinating.
Thanks much. Until next time, I’ll be sitting here drawing.