“Whatever Came to Mind”: An Interview with Katherine Collins (Part One)

Earlier this year Conundrum Press published The Collected Neil the Horse, which collects not just all fifteen issues of Katherine Collins's 1980s comic book, but the weekly comic strips from the 1970s, sheet music, and various other extras. In the afterword, Collins talks about why she left comics – or rather, how comics left her, a topic she talks about at length in our conversation.

The comic book ran for fifteen issues between 1983 and 1988, and before that was a weekly comic strip that ran for many years and appeared in other comic books before Neil got his own series. Katherine Collins was born Arn Saba and worked for many years at the CBC. It was there that she wrote and produced a five-part Neil the Horse radio serial. She also produced a radio documentary about comics for the CBC in 1979, The Continuous Art, for which she interviewed many of the greats.

The motto of Neil the Horse was “Making the World Safe for Musical Comedy,” which is a crazy and hilarious thing for a comic book to say, but it manages to convey Collins's sensibility perfectly. The Collected Neil the Horse is as formally inventive and personal a comic as any published this year, and it stands the test of time. Mostly because today it is a project as strange and unique and beautiful and funny and weird – in all the best ways – as it was when it was first published. In the interview that follows, Collins and I speak about Neil, radio, and being part of a matrilineal line of Canadian cartoonists.

Aex Dueben: When you were growing up, what comics were you reading?

Katherine Collins: I was introduced to comics very early in my life because my mom was a cartoonist and a comics collector. That famous universal incident, where you’re away one day and your mother throws away all your comics, never happened to me. [laughs] She had been collecting Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates from the 1930s when she was a teenager, cutting it out and pasting it into an album. I still have these three great big fat scrapbooks of the very very best era of Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates. I read that pretty early in my life. Also Carl Barks was a big one, again thanks to my Mom. This was the early 1950s when Carl Barks was just reaching his peak. Those were my two big favorite comics.

Barks was reaching his peak but people didn’t know who he was. He was "the good duck artist."

That’s right. I never learned his name until 1969. That era of comics, the '50s into the '60s, was a high water mark for the ten-cent comic book and so I read almost anything I could get my hands on. I never ever took to the superheroes. I’ve only read a handful of superhero comics in my whole life and the last time was in the late '50s. [laughs] I borrowed a big stack of DC Comics from a friend of mine ‘cause I hadn’t read them and I wanted to see what they were all about. I was not impressed so I gave them right back. [laughs] I loved the newspaper comics of that time. The great big pages you could get on the weekend.

Having read Neil the Horse I would have guessed that you love those old Sunday pages.

Precisely. As years have gone on I’ve appreciated the old comics even more. You probably know about the great big volumes put out by Sunday Press, which are printed in the original size of the old comics from way back. I’ve just become more and more a fan of those old comics. I’ve tried to buy every reprint that comes out, which is hard these days. I’m still trying to catch up. I still read lots of new stuff, but yeah, my influence – if you want to put it that way – is definitely old comics and big huge pages.

I read in an interview that you dropped out of college with a life plan “to take LSD and draw comics.”

I love that quotation because I don’t try to take it back. That was my plan! It worked out great. [laughs] When I had that plan it was 1968, which was right in the thick of the hippie days, and I was definitely a card-carrying, full-fledged hippie. That was my plan. And I’ve never looked back.

You may be one of the few to say that, but I feel like you’re not the only person who planned to do that.

[laughs] Right, I articulated it. I went on taking LSD and mushrooms for years and years. I’d be happy to do it again. I’ve never renounced my wicked ways.

You first did Neil the Horse as a weekly comic strip.

The very first time I did Neil the Horse was in 1968. It was one page. I was trying to think of a name for a horse character. I was trying to break the mold of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, all of that alliteration. I was trying to think of an animal name that sounded the least likely I could think of and I came up with Neil. I did one page. I was living in Montreal and I submitted it to the brand new Montreal underground newspaper. And they lost it! [laughs] So that never got printed. A few years later, in 1974 or '75, I thought, okay, it’s time to get serious. I wanted to get into the comics business for real. I didn’t want to just be sitting around showing drawings to my friends. I decided foolishly to try to do newspaper strips because I was still hooked on newspaper comics. Although in 1975 as anybody could see, newspaper comics – as an art form and a business – were kind of heading for the ditch. Self-syndicating in Canadian newspapers was an attempt to find a way around the ever-narrowing opportunities in the comics business. And so I started to do a weekly strip and I kept going for four years doing that.

You had been reading the underground comics?

When I first started to see the underground comics in the late '60s, it hit me like a ton of bricks. You didn’t have to be nice and polite like in the daily newspapers, you could be wild and weird, which was very encouraging.

What did you really like?

Of course Crumb. Crumb is just overwhelming. There was a newspaper in New York at that time called The East Village Other. Somehow I learned about it when I was living in Vancouver and I subscribed to it and every week it was brimming full of all the great underground comic artists of the first wave. Crumb, of course, Kim Deitch, whose work I really like, Skip Williamson, Jay Lynch, Trina Robbins. I don’t remember who else there was. Someone I didn’t particularly enjoy, though I did respect him, was Spain Rodriguez. That crop. I just kept searching diligently for everything and anything of that ilk that I could find. Then comic books started coming out. I don’t know where I got the address, but I sent some money to Crumb himself to buy some early copies of Zap! and I got them back in an envelope that I still have where he did a great big very Crumb-like bit of calligraphy for my name and address. Needless to say, that’s tucked away safely.

I can see Kim Deitch would interest you. He loves a lot of early 20th Century pop culture.

I want to say, when I started to get reviews of Neil, especially when the comic books came out, I was really surprised when people said it was a comic based in nostalgia. Although I can see why people thought that, because it looks like some of the older strips, and Hollywood musicals were on their last days back then. I never thought of it as nostalgia at all. My particular frame of mind was that’s what I thought the world was really like. I thought people were still singing and dancing and falling in love in the mooniest possible ways. [laughs] It never occurred to me that it was looking backward at all. I thought it was an alternative approach to real life.

You were doing Neil as a weekly comic and then a radio piece.

Simultaneously. It wasn’t a show that came on regularly. It was a five-part radio musical comedy that played over five days one week. At that time I was also madly producing the very beginnings of the comic book.

As you were working on the comic you had this career working in radio.

Around the same time I started to do Neil I did radio shows for the local Vancouver CBC radio. CBC in Canada is like the BBC in Britain, it’s a radio network that is owned and financed by the federal government but the government has no control over it whatsoever – and they dearly wish they did. [laughs] I did an interview about Neil on the local CBC afternoon show. The afternoon shows are a big deal here. Every city has their own independent one. They liked the way I talked and they liked my sense of humor and so I started to get paid to come on and review things and talk about subjects I was interested in. After a couple of years of that I moved to Toronto, which is the big media center in Canada. I moved there because I realized I was not going to get any further in Vancouver. I was given the name of a woman who was working at the CBC Radio National network in Toronto. I went in to talk to her and they immediately put me on the air on the national morning show. Here’s the funny part of it. She told me later that she had belatedly realized that she had misunderstood something that I said and she thought that I was very highly experienced and that’s why they put me on so readily. Of course I was just a rank beginner, but everybody on the show liked me for some reason. That was 1977 and that touched off six years in which I was on the morning show and a number of other shows as well. I practically lived at the network office. I became a producer and writer.

My favorite gig was on the five-days-a-week early morning show, three hours a day, called Morningside. The host of that was Don Harron, who I found out later had been a cartoonist in his younger days. He was a famous comedian and writer. Don and I really hit it off and I started doing these features where I would choose a comic strip to feature on a show – usually an older comic, but not always – and I would do taped telephone interviews with anyone I could find who had anything to do with it; most of the people were still alive. I got lots of wonderful interviews from really great cartoonists. I would fashion the program with clips from these interviews and then I would write an adaptation of the comic for a radio comedy skit. I have a huge collection of old newspaper strips and by that point I had hundreds of old Sunday pages I could go through. So let’s say for example we were doing Bringing Up Father. I would read a huge pile of Sunday pages and find ones that would adapt well for radio. This was a little bit difficult because radio doesn’t have pictures. [laughs] I had to find strips that didn’t depend entirely on the visual gag. We had a wonderful sound effects department in those days, and we would get into the studio with a little group of actors. I’m a terrible actor but I would be one of them because I didn’t cost any extra money. [laughs] Don would play one of the parts and we’d get some good actors and the sound effects guy would sit there surrounded by all sorts of weird devices and he would make the sounds live as we were acting.

For the actual broadcast, I would come into the studio and talk about the strip and Don would ask some questions and then we would play the interviews. It was really, really fun and I just loved it. I started doing something similar for another show, a children’s radio show on Saturday mornings called Anybody Home? I did some serious work too. I did a documentary I’m still very proud of on propaganda. One of the tricks of propaganda is that it doesn’t always sound like Adolf Hitler shouting into the microphone, it sounds like whatever your culture is accustomed to hearing. It slips in under the radar. That led to the radio musical – ironically the musical was the last thing I did for CBC. Don retired from the show and the new guy came in – one of Canada’s most famous and beloved radio personalities, Peter Gzowski. I always liked him on the radio but he turned out to be a really nasty bastard off air. And he didn’t like me at all. So that was the end of my radio career. It was just when the comic book was about to start coming out so I became busy and I didn’t really care any more. But I have a large archive of all my old radio shows, the skits and interviews and so on.

I know you also did a radio documentary, The Continuous Art, about comics.

I went down to the States and interviewed Caniff and [Hal] Foster and Floyd Gottfredson and Russ Manning and John Dirks, who was the son of Rudolph Dirks who did The Katzenjammer Kids, which is my sentimental favorite strip. I interviewed an awful lot of people. Unfortunately I didn’t like the way the show turned out because the producer didn’t let me do it the way I wanted to do it. He insisted that I read from a script and I wanted to do what I’ve always done on radio, which is just improvise. To have a list of what I wanted to say in front of me, but say it naturally. So the series came out, in my view, almost unlistenable, because it was so stilted. One day, if I have the time, I’m going to re-do it the way I wanted to. I’m hoping to start a Neil the Horse website and I’m going to put all sorts of stuff on there for people to download, mostly for free. If I get to it, that will one of the items.

A 1901 installment of The Katzenjammer Kids

We do live in the golden age of podcasting, or so I’m told.

That is true. I should be doing it. The Continuous Art came about because at the time comics were looked down upon very openly. Superheroes’ dominance had poisoned comics’ cultural image. Some of the people at the CBC were very scornful of me. They would make fun of me to my face as being a lightweight, and trivial and stupid. Comics were just thought of as complete garbage. What is happening now is exactly what I was hoping for, that people would start to look at the medium, not a genre, and respect it as a medium where anything could be done – and many wonderful things had been done. I was proselytizing for that. The main way I approached it was, what did the greatest cartoonists think? What did they think about the fact that their work was looked upon as absolutely unquestionably trash?

It was very disappointing and weird. Not a single one of them would speak up for the art form. Caniff just kept saying, oh, I’m only in business to sell papers. He wouldn’t talk about it as art. He wouldn’t talk about his writing as excellent dramatic writing. What Caniff would often do was he would write a very dramatic and serious scene, and then he would suddenly leaven the whole thing with ridiculous slapstick and the characters would become unbelievable. But he wouldn’t talk about that. He accepted that it just the way it was. It was a very peculiar experience to have one’s heroes putting down their own work and scoffing at their own art form. I came away very disillusioned and discouraged. And then lo and behold here we are now. Margaret Atwood, one of Canada’s most famous writers, is writing comics now! Philip Pullman wrote a graphic novel. I would love to read a history of how did this happen. How did we change the minds of the entire culture? It’s just amazing.

One person I interviewed was Will Eisner. I happened to be at his home and studio the day that he received from the printer his very first copies of A Contract with God. He signed a copy and gave it to me. He said something to the effect of, I’m trying something new and I don’t know whether it’s going to go over or not. Well we know what happened. Eisner was probably more responsible than any other single person for raising the sights of what comics could do. He was always willing to try something even more serious and to talk about it in those terms. He was the exception in that respect.

How did the Neil comics compare to the radio show?

They’re very alike. I just took the characters and wrote them the same way and got good actors. I played Neil because I knew exactly what he was supposed to be like. The radio show could easily be drawn as a comic book.

You approached them the same way, and made sure they had the same tone, same feel.

The big thing was I got to have my songs produced. We got really good musicians and a great arranger and it was such a thrill. I had never before in my life had my songs sung by anybody but me, and one friend of mine, and here we had this jazz band playing music and these top singers from the Toronto area and oh my god I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Or died and gone to a recording studio. [laughs]

You were making comics but then you have stories like Old New France and Autumn Adventure which combine text stories with spot illustrations.

I just would always do whatever came to mind really. I just did whatever seemed right for that particular story. I never would plan in advance. I had an idea and I would do that. That’s why so many weird things came out.

You also had wordless comics with song lyrics in the background, sheet music, you really did just whatever came to mind.

Exactly! The comic books didn’t have just stories in them, they would have paper dolls and puzzles and features where readers could send in pictures they had done and songs with music that had nothing to do with any story. This was because I had grown up reading not only American comic books but British comics, as well. At the time I was growing up, Canada still thought of itself as essentially a British country. I would get Rupert the Bear, for example, and I would also see a lot of the British weekly comics. I loved Tiger Tim. They were a real potpourri of anything you could imagine that would entertain a child. That was my model. That it wasn’t just comics, it was anything and everything.

It has that feel and I think if most people were told that they would go, oh it’s a kids’ comic. But Neil isn’t a kids comic in that way.

Not entirely, although kids have always liked it. I’ve always been very fortunate that I’ve had lots of child readers who have loved it. I don’t write it with any limitations on it at all in terms of age — it is basically an “all-ages” comic. There’s nothing in there that you have to shield your children from. There’s stuff in there that children might not understand, but there’s nothing R-rated in there at all. Sometimes I say it’s a children’s comic for adults.

It’s like those old movies where they weren’t inappropriate for kids, but there was plenty that kids just wouldn’t understand.

Exactly. It’s a certain tone. You pitch it at a certain level and it’s for everybody that way. I should actually say that apart from musicals, I’m not a big movie fan at all. I’ve rarely seen any of the great old Hollywood classics. People often say, do you know this movie or that movie and I have to say, no, I don’t. A friend of mine was recently talking about Katharine Hepburn and I had to admit that I’ve never seen Katharine Hepburn in a movie. [laughs] I love Chaplin and Buster Keaton and the old silent comedies. I love those. I eat them up.

You like Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy, those people.

Yes, all of those. And Disney. I’m a huge Disney fan. It’s probably politically incorrect by some people’s lenses, but I don’t care. I have every Disney animated film that ever came out right up to present day. And Disney books and comics from all over the world.

I would have guessed you were a big fan of those screwball comedies – like the Katharine Hepburn movie, Bringing Up Baby.

Well, I’m not. I think the biggest reason probably is simply that I don’t like sitting watching things. Except live theater. I don’t have a television. I have not watched TV on a regular basis since 1965. I’ve never seen any of the popular television programs. I don’t go to movies very much. [laughs] I did get into one TV show. I love Xena: Warrior Princess.

Most people would probably say, so you were making a comic and you were making a musical. That doesn’t make sense.

Well, they’d be right. [laughs]

But it made sense to you.

I think it’s because unquestionably in my mind – then and now – comics were my main love. I’m completely surrounded by comics. I am up to my eyebrows in comics, both figuratively and literally. I’ve been that way since I can remember. There’s never been a time in my life when I didn’t absolutely love comics and want to do them. That was just in my blood. But I also liked writing words, so I was also writing stories and I worked as a magazine journalist for quite a while in Toronto. I liked doing all these different things. In my early teens I discovered that I could write songs. At that point I started including songs in anything that I would write. Well, not journalism. I would write a funny story or a fantasy story or a children’s story and it would always have a song in it. It just seemed obvious to me. Why wouldn’t there be a song? [laughs] When I was doing a newspaper strip in university I resisted putting songs in for a very long time, but for the very last story I did I couldn’t contain myself any more and put a song into the strip. It came from that direction, let’s do comics and, oh, let’s put some songs in. It wasn’t, I’m a songwriter and let’s also do comics. Comics came first and they still do.

[Continued in part two.]