The Last Underground Cartoonist?: A Q&A with Robert Triptow

Many comics readers and creators carry around mental lists of underrated cartoonists whom they champion (along with, of course, lists of folks who are uncharitably deemed overrated). Among the names on my own (rather extensive) List of the Underrated is Robert Triptow. Stories like "I Know You Are But What Am I", "Bi… Bi… Love", and "Fruitboy" – all from the important '80s underground anthology Gay Comix (which he edited for several years) – made a big impact on me, while his 1989 Lambda Award-winning collection Gay Comics neatly summed up the first wave of gay cartooning, laying the groundwork for Justin Hall's No Straight Lines nearly a quarter of a century later. His work has also appeared in well-known underground titles like Bizarre Sex and Young Lust, and in more recent queer comics anthologies like Jen Camper's Juicy Mother and (full disclosure time) my second Boy Trouble anthology from 2008. Triptow has been a part of the scene for a long time, but only sporadically over the past several years–up until now.

In November, Fantagraphics published his first-ever solo book, Class Photo, a cleverly-conceived burlesque springing forth from Triptow’s discovery of a discarded real-life photo of an anonymous 1937 high school graduating class. Triptow imagines each student's subsequent life story in one-page installments that perfectly showcase his warped, occasionally elbow-in-the-ribs brand of humor, elegantly rendered in his appealing, underground-y style. I emailed Triptow in late November/early December to inquire about his cartoonist origins, and his current creative renaissance.


Rob Kirby: Who was it who called you the last underground cartoonist? Do you think this is accurate?

Robert Triptow: That was Lee Marrs, contributor to Wimmen's Comix and, as author of the Pudge, Girl Blimp series and The Compleat Fart, one of the first females to put out solo undergrounds. We were on the floor at Wonder-Con when I was asked if Gay Comix had been an "underground" or an "alternative" comic, and Lee chimed in, "You lived in the Haight/Ashbury, didn't you? Did you starve?" I replied that there'd been times when I didn't know where my next meal was coming from. She pronounced, "You're the last of the underground cartoonists." I think we were being videotaped; the next thing I knew, it was all over the internet. Perhaps it's true -- the other best candidate for such a title is Steve Lafler...

I don't know if any other comix veterans agree with her or even care who the last underground cartoonist might be, but I think Lee maybe was right. Gay Comix certainly straddled the undergrounds that were sold in head shops and alternatives that enjoyed direct-sales outlets -- but also more so in gay-lesbian bookstores, so it was perhaps its own genre. Such distinctions get silly because all these comics were uncensored and self-motivated artifacts of freedom of the press, and sold however they could.

I may be the last underground cartoonist, however, because I was inspired by the underground. Hippie cartooning was what prompted me to pick up my pen and draw, when before I'd been a writer who'd given up art to express myself. After I discovered comix at age 18 -- while tripping on acid for the first time -- I dreamed of living in the Haight and being a hippie cartoonist. I was "Mr. Underground Comix" of Salt Lake, but I gave it up as a fantasy. I was serious as a journalist, and that led me to San Francisco. Then, through the serendipity of life, I inherited an apartment in the Haight, and a writing project led me back into cartooning, so fantasy became fate. I remember walking through the neighborhood and seeing in a shop window a cartoon I'd drawn in Utah, which was rather dream-like, even at the time. It was fated to happen. Maybe. Then my first story, which I'd intended for Bizarre Sex but which was orphaned because that series had ended, was picked up for a reprint of Bizarre Sex #4. It was either fate or it was folly.

Triptow and Trina Robbins dressed up in their old hippie clothes for the 1987 Haight Street Fair.

How do you respond to being called a gay or queer cartoonist? Do you feel that it is limiting in any way? I personally go back and forth with it.

"I don't want to be a gay cartoonist." That's what I said clear back in 1978 or thereabouts, when I was encouraged to draw cartoons for The Advocate. I was being shown the first Donelan cartoons and asked why I didn't do something like that. "I don't want to be a gay cartoonist, I want to be a cartoonist." Did I want to do comics on just that one slice of life, or did I want to draw comics about whatever I felt like? I didn't even want to be a big successful newspaper cartoonist like Charles Schulz and be stuck with drawing the same characters forever. I was attracted to the spontaneity and freedom and, yes, the outrageousness of underground comix.

I was something of a misfit within the gay community. I was a very late bloomer; I was almost 25 before I could admit that I was in love with another guy in Utah. Six months later I was the assistant to the publisher of The Advocate and in the middle of gay politics and getting in trouble for not going along with the party line. The period was the Castro clone wars, a lookalike and thinkalike era that annoyed the hell out of me. Being a non-Mormon from Utah, I was immune to all of that. I'd been behind the closed doors and seen the infighting and cat fighting within gay politics -- [David] Goodstein hated [Harvey] Milk, that sort of thing -- and I'd certainly seen how a lot of gay men treated each other worse than straight men treated women. I worked for several gay businesses that routinely mistreated their employees or were outright crooks. When everyone was running around saying, "Gay is good," I said, "Gay is gay, and good is good. They're not necessarily the same."

When Gay Comix came my way, I actually thought my best qualification to edit was that I was willing to make fun of the gay community itself. This was before AIDS changed everything. When I found myself with a platform to tell gay stories, I realized that almost anything I could say about human experience could be told within that platform, and my attitude changed. I'm happy to be known as a gay cartoonist -- but I feel that the label is limiting in the eyes of potential readers.


Gay Comix book signing at Comics & Comix in San Francisco, August 10, 1986. L to R: Jerry Mills, Bruce Billings (in back), Triptow, Vaughn Frick, Trina Robbins, Howard Cruse, and Michael J. Goldberg.

We did a reading from my book Class Photo in Salt Lake City recently. It was supposed to be at Kings' English Bookstore, but then they arranged for the reading to be at the Pride Center instead. A number of people then got the idea that it's strictly a gay book and didn't show up. Oh, well. They're boring straight people, so fuck 'em.

I still don't think of myself as a gay cartoonist.

Yeah, we non-hetero cartoonists have to deal with that all the time, skirting or embracing labels and such. It's weird. But I see a lot of younger cartoonists happily embracing them. Their Tumblr and Twitter accounts are straightforward about it: "I'm a queer/trans/non-gender binary cartoonist." Do you know much of the new generation? What would that new generation of cartoonists be now: fourth wave? (I think of you as a first-waver.}

If I have to be a waver, I'll be an infinity-waver.

I don't have a specific opinion of the "new generation" because it's all one big fluid generation to me.

Your question is really about the labels people place on themselves and on their generation, and that has always been going on. It's great fun for people to embrace identities and labels for themselves, even micro-infinitesimal labels like "I'm an alter-vegan object-gender-fluid sado-masocheteer with proud personality disorder" -- but I say, "Why limit yourself? Surely there's more to you than that!"

If there's a common theme to the stories I've published, it has to be about how people construct personalities for themselves. Everyone hides behind a facade, we're all wearing masks, and we're all self-deluded. Often in Class Photo and my other stories, the peak of the story is when the illusion is penetrated and we're caught with our pants down. I like catching people with their pants down.

Howard Cruse and Triptow. They met face-to-face for the first time on live radio.

That assessment of your characters rings true to me–literally for the protagonist in “Bi… Bi… Love” (from Gay Comix #7). Aside from gentler stories such as “Needs,” which you did for Strip AIDS USA , your writing is generally acerbic and satirical about human nature. You once wrote that you were influenced by R. Crumb initially, but later strove for the more “craftsmanlike humor writing” of Gilbert Shelton or Howard Cruse. Have your opinions about any of these role models or inspirations changed in the ensuing years?

That's not so easy to answer. I'll have to start by determining who exactly my role models and inspirations were when I was younger, a group that would have to include Charles Schulz, John Stanley, Jules Feiffer, R. Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Justin Green, Howard Cruse, Trina Robbins, Roberta Gregory and... Neil Passey (a Utah artist who was the best cartoonist I've ever known but who didn't pursue it). As time has passed and I've gotten older, the influence of some of these people has waned, while others have gained... The biggest change in my perceptions of role models has to be with Schulz and Crumb.

I learned how to read from Peanuts and loved Schulz when I was growing up -- just like everyone else in the '60s. I could copy his style perfectly and drew a million school campaign posters for my friends, all using Charlie Brown and Snoopy. I never fantasized about doing a newspaper strip, though. The rot set in for me with Peanuts right after the first TV special and all the merchandising began and the strip became so conscious of its success. I had no liking for Peanuts after the arrival of Peppermint Patty and Woodstock the bird and after Snoopy became wise instead of anarchic.

Crumb's "Hamburger Hijinx" was the first overtly underground comic I saw while tripping on acid that first time in spring 1971, and even on drugs I knew it was brilliant. It made me want to draw something just like it, and I emulated his style for maybe one year. Nothing I did in that style will ever be seen by the public because it was terrible, just like the work of all the copiers of Crumb at the time. Even Crumb was unable to keep it up. He did lots of worthy cartoons, and his artwork always improved and is fantastic, but his storytelling became more reactionary to his fame and lost its appeal for me. By the time of Genesis, it was just pretty drawings and no life to them, I thought, no character. That may just be my opinion.

The influences who have aged the best for me were primarily writers rather than illustrators -- John Stanley (writer of all those terrific Little Lulu stories in the 1950s) and Jules Feiffer. I also thought of Justin Green and Trina Robbins as cartoonists who could draw nicely but whose chief strength was in the writing -- their storytelling was always good. Howard Cruse and Roberta Gregory were equally talented at art and writing, I'd guess. (It's foolhardy to analyze cartooning elements, I should remind myself, because cartooning is such a stew.) All of them except for Stanley were generally nomads for substantial topics and never worked too long with famous characters. I share that trait in a big way. God forbid that I should ever have to cartoon the same people over and over again!

Gilbert Shelton was the one I really wanted to be like because his humor was always very reliable and tart, his drawing style was hilarious and never lagged, and it was never a chore to get through a single page of his work. He managed to use the same characters and put them through their personality paces without getting stale. Even when the Freak Brothers used up their initial situation and needed adventurous gimmicks to justify new stories, Shelton did it in an inventive way. His work was really much more commercial than most of the underground and easy for non-comix-readers to enjoy. I probably think more highly of him today than I did when I was 19.

Before we a little more about Class Photo, how about you tell us a little bit about why your cartooning career has been so off and on?

My so-called career has only seemed like it was "off and on." It was always on, but maybe it wasn't on enough. The fact that I started this paragraph with the words "my so-called career" says something.

My history is that I didn't get out there and force my work on people, I guess. I've never been good at writing book proposals and being a salesman. I've really had to do promo lately for Class Photo, but it's hard. I not-so-privately suffer from low self-esteem and generally can't stand the sight of my own work until years later. I've been poorly trained to be a published artiste by parents who trashed my childhood drawings because they couldn't relate to creativity. When I was growing up, a phrase I heard too many times was, "You're the best artist I've ever met, BUT..." and then it would be all my failings in life. It was an all-jock family. Drawing was not valued.

Certainly I've enjoyed positive feedback, but many bricks have been thrown my way. It's discouraging, to say the least, when you take a finished job in to your publisher and hear nothing but complaints about it -- that was my experience with Gay Comix. I was dissatisfied with the hurried nature of my work in that publication anyway, and I didn't feel like I connected with readers, I was too cynical and harsh. Also, there was never enough money paid to even feed me while I worked. On top of all were the people who regarded the work as pornography. It's not very encouraging to be told you've disgraced your relatives and actually been disowned for cartooning. It's already a challenge to sell a project to a cash-strapped publisher without all of that weighing one down.

Still, I've hardly ever turned down any opportunity to illustrate a story for publication. I've been a comix whore who would do it for anybody who asked. Even during my fallow period, I was doing backup pieces in Naughty Bits and contributing to anthologies like Real Girl and Juicy Mother, even a forgotten little throwaway (just kidding) like The Book of Boy Trouble. But like any aging comix whore, I got paid less and got asked less often as time went by. But... I invented the "Martian Tug o' War"! [See Class Photo to get that reference.]

From Class Photo.

So tell me about Class Photo and how it’s been going. I caught some fun photos online of the readings in San Francisco and Salt Lake City. It appears that you have guest readers helping you out.

Getting other people to do character voices at readings makes a huge difference and is much better than a solo reading. A solo reading is going to be monotonous by definition unless the reader is as animated as Robin Williams. Who could do that and survive? Especially when there are dozens of characters, as with Class Photo. My friends in Salt Lake (Greg Phelps and Joan Wilcox) and San Francisco (Burton Clarke and Madison Clell) made the readings much more alive.

Also -- singing. I included the page about the Mormon character, and there was no way I was going to do the Tabernacle Choir singing "There's a place in France where the ladies wear no pants" by myself. I had my two cohorts to help out, along with the audience. They all had to join in because everyone knows the song. That was fun.

The reception to Class Photo has been plenty wonderful -- it seems unreal. It just seems to be popular everywhere I look and getting great reviews. I'm reminded of when I was pushing Gay Comix, but it's very differentMainstream attention and the internet and a savvy publisher are novel experiences for me. The weirdest thing is to be autographing a book for people I've known since we were 8 years old. I love hearing from long-lost relatives and old friends who congratulate me on realizing my dream to be a cartoonist, allowing me to remind them that it's my third book. I've been doing this or decades -- remember those gay cartoons nobody would acknowledge?

That's just nit-picking, though. This entire year has been fantastic for me, and the book is only one part of it. Class Photo has been an eye-opener, it really makes me want to do more. Cartooning is a worthy and rewarding endeavor when you know people pay attention to it. But... now what...?

OMG, Triptow, I was just thinking that: what ARE you going to do now!?

(You can answer that as existentially or informationally as you wish.)

At the moment I'm taking a well-earned rest from all the activity of the year, but I have a couple of editorial projects and a cartooning commitment in the not-so-distant future -- the revival of Gay Comix and a Jerry Mills collection -- and then I have fiction/cartooning projects percolating. New ideas always come while you're working on the older ideas.

I'm looking forward to a productive future. Meanwhile, I love being back in San Francisco, the city finally forgave me for looking at Portland. But I'm a no-good bum and already have something going on with another place... going back to Hawaii in the spring... I'm not going to let any of that distract me AT ALL.