On Friday, Feb. 22, the San Francisco Chronicle was good enough to run a piece about LGBT cartooning in the Bay Area. It was great, and I was glad to answer questions for the writer. Unfortunately — as is often the case when a non-comics person writes about cartooning — there were a number a factual errors, especially where it suggests that I’ve credited Justin Green as pioneering autobiographical gay cartooning with Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. The only thing for me to do (besides writing a letter to the editor) is to reproduce the email interview here for all the world to see.
1. Can you talk a little bit about how much Harvey Pekar changed comics from a largely superhero-obsessed culture to slice-of-life?
The real transition was from superheroes and funny animal comics to adult-oriented cartooning about all sorts of topics (mostly sex and drugs, in the late ’60s and early ’70s), and autobiographical, “slice-of-life” cartooning was only a small part of that larger evolution.
Harvey Pekar has been given entirely too much credit for pioneering autobiographical comics during the “underground” era, in my opinion. Quite a few other cartoonists then were doing autobiographical stuff, among them Roberta Gregory and Mary Wings, lesbians who self-published the first nonpornographic “gay” comic books. The real pioneer of autobiographical cartooning was Justin Green, who wowed everybody with Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary. Binky Brown was a semi-fictional avatar of Green, so perhaps it wasn’t strictly autobiographical work, but Binky Brown was the “real life” comic we were all talking about at the time. It nakedly exposed Green’s conflicts and angst as a Catholic and was very, very personal, while Pekar’s stories were, way too often, mere transcriptions of inane conversations with no point to them.
Pekar’s reputation took a long time to grow and didn’t really take off until his appearances on the David Letterman show in the 1980s. Many of us dismissed his writing and felt he’d never have gotten into print if Robert Crumb hadn’t illustrated his first few books. I found much of American Splendor to be tedious, and Harvey didn’t really say anything important until Our Cancer Year in 1994, which was a great book that he did in collaboration with his wife, Joyce Brabner. Perhaps it was the writing collaboration, as well as the subject matter, that made that book into an achievement. (As anyone who saw Pekar on the Letterman show must know, Harvey could only benefit from having an editor.)
2. In your opinion, did Pekar’s slice-of-life in any way open the door for gay comics to tell more auto-biographical or true-to-life tales? Did this in anyway help popularize queer comics?
What’s with all the questions about Harvey Pekar? Pekar’s stories about his day-to-day life had very little or no influence on queer cartooning, as far as I can tell. Perhaps there was an indirect influence, in that “all about me” work like Joe Matt’s Peepshow (among others) was possibly trailblazed by American Splendor, and that very interesting work undoubtedly affected cartoonists in the ’90s.
It’s a mistake to give Pekar any kind of credit for making gay cartooning possible or popular. (Is LGBT cartooning now popular outside of a small population of readers?) The real pioneers were gay and lesbian cartoonists who were publishing undergrounds before Pekar ever got into print: Mary Wings, Roberta Gregory, and especially Howard Cruse.
Howard Cruse is the real hero of gay cartooning. He had a huge following for his “Barefootz” comics, and he risked losing it all when he edited the first Gay Comix in 1980.Howard is profoundly beloved by readers of gay and lesbian cartoons, and he’s one of the best cartoonists ever. (He won both the Eisner and Harvey awards for his amazing graphic novel of 1995, Stuck Rubber Baby.) His “cute” drawing style is amazingly tight and infinitely amusing, and his writing is insightful, sensitive, and extremely entertaining. His piece in the first issue of Gay Comix, “Billy Goes Out,” was a huge breakthrough in terms of cartoon narrative about the human condition, gay or straight, and really showed the rest of us how to tell our own stories.
3. How has the scene in the Bay Area changed? From the days of Robert Crumb peddling a baby buggy on Haight selling comics out of it, to the Gay Comix days, to today’s crop of artists? Any good stories from the old days?
The cartooning scene in the Bay Area has changed radically since the ’60s and ’70s in that it has disappeared. I only know of one or two other cartoonists who can afford to live in San Francisco these days. I’m still here only because I “married” well. Most cartoonists I know are in Seattle and Portland now.
We all used to flock to San Francisco, which was the capital of underground comix. There were several publishers at the time: Rip Off Press, the Print Mint, and Last Gasp, along with a smattering of smaller self-publishers, and it was fairly easy to get published if you were any good at all (sometimes even if you weren’t good). But opportunities to publish “hippie comix” disappeared with the hippie era, mostly because the distribution system — “head shops” across the country — also disappeared. And let’s face it, the subject matter of “undergrounds” got tired; you can specialize in breaking taboos for only so long… If R. Crumb were trying to break through today with the material he did in 1967, he’d probably have a hard time getting published.
The only hippie-era publisher still around is Last Gasp, which nowadays is mostly a book distributor. Ron Turner at Last Gasp told me a number of years ago, “The day of the staple-bound comic book is over,” and it’s true. These days, if you can’t get into an actual book, you can’t get published.
Gay Comix lasted for 25 issues in the 1980s and ’90s for a few disparate reasons.
In the 1980s there was a resurgence of self-published and “alternative” (a new label for what had been called “undergrounds”) work because shops that sold nothing but comic books popped up all across the country. Publishers and self-publishers went crazy for a while there, leading to an infamous “glut” of unsold material that coincided with rising costs that drove many shops and many publishers out of business.
Gay Comix also survived for quite a while because it found a new publisher in the late Bob Ross, who put out San Francisco’s Bay Area Reporter. There were lots of problems in working with Ross, but his two strengths were that he was financially solvent and very determined to keep the series going (he lost a bushel of cash anyway). Perhaps the main reason it took a long time for Gay Comix to go under was that the gay community refused to disappear, and there remained LGBT-oriented bookstores that were quite happy to sell comic books.
I’ve seen a big change in LGBT subject material in comics. When I first took over editing Gay Comix in 1984, I was swamped with coming-out stories, sex comics, and angry political diatribes, which got boring pretty fast. I sent out a form letter to all of the contributors: “No one has ever won an argument in the history of the human race, all you do is make the other person mad. Let’s seduce the readers by cloaking our messages with humor.” I think such a letter wouldn’t be at all necessary today, because the work I’ve seen lately is about the entire spectrum of life. I’m hoping that one reason for this is that it’s no longer quite so traumatic for younger LGBT people to come out of that proverbial closet. My family treats me like a pariah to this day — they’ve refused to look at any of my work and consider it to be pornography (I’ve never done a sex comic in my life) — and I find it reassuring to think that society has evolved to where gay and lesbian artists can publish cartoons about their lives without penalty.
Good stories from the old days?
[I went on way too long with reminiscences here, which I’m deleting to spare the world.]
4. How has your work changed from the early Gay Comics days to your work in Juicy Mother?
The quality of my work in Juicy Mother is a big improvement over my Gay Comix material mostly because I’m given the time I need to properly draw it. Bob Ross insisted on a quarterly schedule that was impossible to keep, so everything I published in Gay Comix was subpar by my standards because it was drawn in the middle of the night by an exhausted, overwhelmed, and often sickly guy (I had ulcers until they were cured in 1992) who’d already worked a shift at a full-time job and had to get up early. I still can’t look at most of that material without cringing. But on the other hand, cartooning was easier then because I did it all the time. These days I’ll go for months or even years between gigs, and going back to the drawing table is like having to learn to draw all over again. The other big difference — the huge difference — is that life is much easier for me these days. I’ve been in a wonderful relationship for 15 years, I don’t have to deal with an adversarial publisher, and I’m not going to funerals every other week. As a result, my creativity seems to go more often to fun and whimsy (but not always).
5. Comics seem to me to be a very intimate experience for both the reader and artist — no editors, cameramen, set people and actors like in films. What distinguishes the queer comics genre to you?
I don’t believe there’s any significant difference between queer and nonqueer cartooning at this point, other than the subject matter, in the alternative and self-published world. They’re all just stories about life. But there’s a huge chasm between alternative and “commercial” cartooning — by which I mean superhero nonsense in which problems are solved by violence inflicted by musclebound freaks wearing tights and capes. Those are all stories about power, not life, and are far more perverted and degenerate than anything about men in love with men or women in love with women.
Frankly, I’d love to work with editors, cameramen, set people, and actors. Film narrative is very like cartoon narrative. Also, I love collaboration, which is a lot more fun than slaving on a comic all alone, like a medieval monk going blind from illustrating a manuscript.
6. Anything you’d like to add?
The only thing I’d like to add is what I’d tell my family: Read the comics if you’re going to judge them. Willful ignorance is a sin.