Like most of us, Drew Friedman’s not leaving the house too much these days. There’s the occasional run to the store for necessities, maybe a hike for exercise and fresh air, but there’s not a whole lot more going on. For Friedman, this is the perfect opportunity to work on his forthcoming book, an as-yet untitled collection of portraits of underground cartoonists. We spoke to Friedman on a recent Sunday afternoon, a conversation that began, as so many do these days, about pandemic life and how we’re living it; an exchange of pleasantries that led into talk of the work Friedman’s doing on his new project. - Robert Newsome
Drew Friedman: These are definitely interesting times. As far as what I’m working on, for selfish reasons, it’s good. It gives me more time to concentrate on this project. For that reason alone… I’m not enjoying this pandemic at all, but I’m getting a lot of work accomplished. I’m giving myself plenty of time for this one. It probably won’t be finished for another year, I guess. I’m halfway done. I just finished the 50th portrait. Each one takes up to a week. I’m doing four a month and I’m not taking on any other assignments, I’m just working on this exclusively. I’m doing 100 of them and fifty are done, fifty more to go. I’m just taking my time. The plan is that the book will come out later next year, but who knows what will happen?
Robert Newsome: Are these drawings of one hundred individual artists or are there multiple portraits of some subjects?
It’ll be 100 different artists. If you’ve seen Jay Kennedy’s book, The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, he estimated that there were around 3000 underground cartoonists; people who had done work for underground comics over the years. I’m only doing 100, so I’m concentrating on the cream of the crop...the best. Of course, along with that there are some quirky, interesting choices. But I’m mainly concentrating on the people who did the most work and the most recognizable people, along with some oddball choices thrown in. That’s gonna be the book; 100 different black and white portraits. The only person I’m probably going to double up on will be Robert Crumb. I’m probably going to put him on the cover and inside the book as well, but that’s still being decided. The book doesn’t even have a title yet. I’m planning on also doing a comic strip introduction to the book. I’ll get to that at some point. That will be about why I’ve always been drawn to underground comics since I was a little kid. I discovered them when I was 8 years old and I just loved them right off the bat.
Similar to the R. Crumb and Me comic you did in 2014 for Monte Beauchamp’s Masterful Marks?
A similar approach, yeah. I shouldn’t even have been looking at those comics. I was too young. I was able to get them when I was 8 years old because my dad bought them for me in a bookstore. He assumed they were just comic books. He wasn’t looking inside of what I was buying. They said clearly that you had to be 21 to buy them. It looked like a comic book, so that was good enough for him. They blew my mind. I was just a little kid who read superhero comics and Mad magazine and all of a sudden these things came along. They felt forbidden. I go through that a little bit in that comic strip, but focusing on R. Crumb. I’d like to expand on that and make it more about my love for the early underground comics. That’ll be an introduction that will segue into the book where there will also be short biographies of each of the artists.
Will you be researching and writing those biographies as well?
That hasn’t really been established yet. They’re going to go through me. I did two books called Heroes of the Comics centered on artists, editors, and writers who worked in mainstream comics and I wrote the biographies for the first book. For the second book I had a lot of help from Kevin Dougherty. Kevin’s making a documentary about me right now called Vermeer of the Borscht Belt. It’s a work in progress. Kevin helped me extensively with the biographies on that second book, which gave me a lot more time to concentrate on the art. Some of the underground cartoonists I’m working on are kind of obscure. Some of them dabbled in underground comics briefly and then went on to other things, and some of them have been written about extensively like Robert Crumb, Art Spiegleman, Bill Griffith, etc. It’s not really a history book, though, it’s just sort of my take on that ten-year world from 1967-1977. That’s what I’m concentrating on because after that it sort of fizzled out. They still came out, but so much of it transitioned to magazines like Arcade, Raw, and Weirdo. The individual comics were sort of over by that point.
For the more obscure artists, how difficult was it to find reference material to use in the creation of their portrait?
Most of the reference material, of course, is from the photographs of Clay Geerdes and Patrick Rosenkrantz. They were around and taking photos of all these people when nobody else was, mostly at comic conventions and things like that. But they would both go to the publishing houses and get to know the artists as well. Most of the photos are from them, but then there are some more obscure photos. I’m finding some of them online, but I have sources who are helping me out. Dennis Kitchen has a huge file of photographs from his days of publishing underground comics and working with these cartoonists. He has interesting stuff, things that haven’t been printed. The main thing for me is getting facial references for people. Robert Crumb, there are a lot of photos of him out here, so that’s not a problem.
Some of these people, I didn’t even know what they looked like. There’s an artist named Larry Fuller. There were just a few black artists who worked in underground comics. One was Larry Fuller and another was Richard “Grass” Green, but this guy Larry Fuller, there really wasn’t much information out there and I wanted to include him. I was able to find a photo—I think it was from Clay Geerdes—of him smiling at the camera, so I was able to use that facial reference and then just imagine a scene. I have him posed sitting in a restaurant, just relaxing.
For artists who had longer underground careers, was it difficult to choose the point in their career that you depict them?
I’m sticking with the 10 year period from Zap to the start of Arcade magazine. It’s “from Z to A,” from Zap to Arcade. I’ll probably use that line on the cover somewhere. I’m not locked into a particular time, though. When I drew S. Clay Wilson, the reference photo I used was from, I think, 1967 so I drew him really young. I don’t want to go beyond that period. When I drew Crumb for the cover of The Book of Weirdo, I drew him from the early 80s which was specifically when he would have been creating the cover for that first issue in 1981. I’ll break the rules a little bit. There’s one image in particular of Dennis Kitchen that I liked. He’s got sort of a cocky smile and he's looking into the camera. That image is from, I think, 1980, but I can fudge things a little bit. I can add a little hair… do some tricks to make someone look a little younger. But I’m sticking to that 10 year period.
Did your work for Jon B. Cooke’s The Book of Weirdo have anything to do with inspiring this project?
There were a couple of things that inspired me. I did those two books on mainstream comic creators and I was thinking about maybe doing a third because I have a long list. I never considered drawing more contemporary mainstream artists from the 60s and 70s or beyond. That era doesn’t really interest me too much aside from Bernie Wrightson, a few of the Marvel comics I read in the 60s when I was a kid, and Ogden Whitney’s Herbie. For the most part, though, underground comics was the world that was more special to me when I was growing up rather than what the mainstream comics were offering. When I did the cover to The Book of Weirdo and the book came out, there was so much good feeling among the people who contributed to the book and the cartoonists themselves. We did this big talk at Columbia with Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Peter Bagge and there was so much camaraderie. It was such a good feeling that I just didn’t want it to end. Robert Crumb's attitude was that he thought people would forget about Weirdo. But the book sold really well, and people were suddenly discovering Weirdo and all the work in that magazine.
My reservation about this project was that I don’t love everybody’s work. There are a lot of artists—even some of the more popular ones—whose work I don’t really like. I’m not going to mention any names because I don’t want to hurt any feelings or hurt the feelings of anyone’s family members. But I was resistant to work on this project for that reason. I mentioned this to Robert Crumb, and he said “you don’t have to love everybody you draw.” That made it click for me. I didn’t necessarily love all of the mainstream artists I drew but it doesn’t mean that I have to present them in a negative light. If I don’t like a particular artist, you’ll never know from the way I’m drawing them.
So does this mean that you don’t love all of the presidents?
Well, I can think of one in particular that I’m not crazy about. You know, I actually saved Donald Trump for last when I was working on that book. I wasn’t sure how to approach him. I thought about giving him one of those crazy expressions, you know, with that mouth? But no, there’s plenty of presidents who I’m not crazy about but I didn’t want to editorialize. I tried to be as respectful as possible and let the viewer make up their own mind about it.
The backgrounds are a big part of these portraits as opposed to your previous book All the Presidents where the subjects are presented with no background at all. How did you settle on the backgrounds you used?
In the presidents book, there were no backgrounds. That was sort of an assignment I gave myself. I started with Lincoln and did another and another and finally decided “well, I’ve gotta do them all.” But it was just classical portraiture with no backgrounds. I didn’t want to repeat that process again. I enjoy drawing backgrounds as much as I enjoy drawing a person. In fact, in some cases I get more involved in what’s going on behind the person. Obviously I want to draw a viewer in with the person and their expression, but then show that there’s more to it. Let’s move to the background and present something interesting, something that perhaps ties into the subject but perhaps doesn’t. I did a portrait of Howard Cruse and he’s in front of this mesh fence. It’s kind of beaten down. I just thought that the image looked striking and strong, but there wasn’t a particular reason why he should be in front of this. It looks like a prison yard fence. A couple of people asked me what was the point of that and I said “maybe there’s a reason, maybe there isn’t.” I don’t like to over-explain anything. Either figure it out or don’t figure it out and just go with it. That’s my thinking with this stuff.
It’s tricky, because when you draw these people inside in their studios, most of them have bookshelves, so I’ve so far drawn maybe about 15 images with bookshelves behind the artist, but I want to cut back on that. I don’t want to draw too many spines of books. I enjoy drawing it, but I don’t want to repeat it too much. There’ll be 100 images, so I want to give sort of a fresh approach to each one if possible.
One of the drawings that you posted on your website, a drawing of Spain Rodriguez, really cements him in a particular time and place. There’s a very particular atmosphere to that street scene.
He was one of these guys who kind of moved around a bit. He was in San Francisco and he was in Los Angeles and he was in New York, which is where I’ve pictured him. I love drawing New York street scenes. This is New York in the early 70s. I really wanted to pick up on the attitude of that time and place. Someone I showed that drawing to said that the pose and the sneer and the attitude reminded them of Spain’s character Trashman, which I hadn’t even considered, but it makes sense. I love drawing New York. I didn’t want to overdo it. I have Spain outside on a New York Street and I actually drew Ralph Reese walking down a New York street, but that might be it. I don’t want to repeat things too much.
I have Spain with a cigarette in his mouth. I posted that drawing on Facebook and someone said “I knew Spain for 43 years and I never saw him smoke.” My friend John Wendler is a whiz at coming up with reference photos for me so I asked him to find me a photo of Spain smoking. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes he sent me a photo of a younger Spain smoking. When I met Spain at Art Spiegleman’s loft when we were working on the first issues of Raw, I distinctly remember him smoking. It’s not that I researched the fact that he was a smoker, I just thought it looked nice. He has a sneer on his face in the drawing so I thought “let me stick a cigarette in there.”
In your interview with Mark Newgarden last year you said you “miss drawing old Jews.” Did this project help with that at all?
Not really. There’s a few, but not many. I always return to the Jews. I can’t escape it. I’m like Al Pacino in Godfather 3. They keep pulling me back in. I’ve been drawing more obscure Jewish comedians as a hobby for the last few years. I considered doing a 4th book of Jewish comedians, but I put that aside. It’s my fate, basically. I’m becoming an old Jew myself, so it just makes sense.