Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Deep undergound - The Patrick Rosenkranz Interview

Following Kevin's recent review of Patrick Rosenkranz’s “Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution”, Patrick got in touch with Exquisite Things to talk about his personal choices in writing the book, and to expand on why he opted to focus on certain key creators within the underground comix scene.

A few emails later, and after a little healthy debate around Vaughn Bode's legacy, it quickly became apparent that Kevin and Patrick shared the same unfettered passion for US underground Comix; so it seemed only natural when Kevin suggested a full interview with Patrick to gain a deeper insight into his research and writings on underground comix.

Kevin seized the opportunity to talk to one of the leading authorities currently working in the field of undergound comix; expounding on its brightest stars and their enduring legacies.

Exquisite Things: What first prompted you to write about the history of the US comix underground?

Patrick Rosenkranz: In 1971 I was a young writer looking for a worthy topic for my first book. The underground comix, with their revolutionary approach to my favorite medium called out to me. I read them, enjoyed them, and even sold them out of my head shop in Portland, Oregon.

I admired what these cartoonists were doing and wanted to know more about them. In 1969 I wrote two articles on Kim Deitch and Skip Williamson for the local underground paper 'The Fountain'. The next year I wrote a longer survey of the comix scene for Bullfrog Information Service. Jay Lynch contacted me and put me in touch with other cartoonists and eventually I met and interviewed most of the major figures in the movement.

Exquisite Things: What was your initial brief for the book, and how did long did it take to complete?

In late 1972 I signed a contract with Crown Publishers to write a book about underground comix and I delivered the manuscript a few months later, as well as a beautiful cover drawn by Dutchman Evert Geradts. Unfortunately, that was the same year that the Supreme Court decided on using community standards to determine pornography, and my publisher got nervous and axed the project.

They had just published The Joy of Sex, so I don’t know what the problem was. I was discouraged, but I was determined to get my work into print. I got a call from a Dutch publisher, Paranoia, Inc. who asked if they could produce the book in English in The Netherlands. It came out in 1974 as Artsy Fartsy Funnies. It wasn’t what I hoped it would be, but it was something.

Then, in 1998 I got a call from Robert Boyd at Kitchen Sink Press, who said “I have a copy of Artsy Fartsy Funnies in my hand and we want you to write something bigger and better.” I agreed to do it and began revisiting all my research materials and contacting the underground cartoonists who were still alive. I spent about three years doing interviews, writing the manuscript, and selecting illustrations. Meanwhile Kitchen Sink went out of business in 1999 and I signed a new contract with Fantagraphics, and it came out in hardcover just before Christmas in 2002. A revised paperback edition was issued in 2008.

Exquisite Things: How did your opinion alter or change regarding the leading figures in underground comix while working on the book?

Patrick Rosenkranz: It was often intimidating for me to approach these well-known artists whose work I admired, but for the most part, I found them to be very enthusiastic about having their lives and work chronicled. I liked the art they were creating and there was a lot of excitement around them. I occasionally met hostility, but remained patient and persistent and things usually worked out well.

It was the lives of the people who made the comix that held the most interest to me. Meeting them added a personality to their creations and allowed me to understand their work better. I also studied the nuts and bolts of their operations. There were some flakes and phonies riding the coattails of the movement, but I concentrated on the best artists and publishers. Rebel Visions includes the names of 175 cartoonists but concentrates on 50 of the most influential.

I still count a number of them among my cultural heroes.

Exquisite Things: In my review I assert that your book emphasizes the role of Rick Griffin as a catalytic force in the comix underground. Would you agree with that particular statement?

Patrick Rosenkranz: Yes, definitely. While he was still a teenager his Murphy cartoons in Surfer Magazine were a popular focal point in the surf subculture of southern California. After high school he went to an art school in LA that promoted abstract painting and criticized his “figurative art” so he left and joined the emerging psychedelic poster phenomenon in San Francisco, where he became a tour de force.

His bold, colorful, organic designs for the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms are now among the most collected posters around the world. They also served as recruiting posters for the hordes of hippies who descended on San Francisco in 1967 and 1968.

Robert Crumb saw Griffin’s 'Sunday Funnies' poster in a store window in 1968 and looked him up to invite him to join the Zap Comix lineup. Griffin and Victor Moscoso, another prominent poster artist were preparing to make their own comic book when Zap appeared out of the blue and they jumped on board.

Rick Griffin’s art continues to influence young people today. His solo book, 'Man From Utopia' was one of the most beautiful comics produced in those days. He only got better with age, until he was killed in a collision between his motorcycle and a van in 1991

Exquisite Things
: In re-reading many of the classic underground titles, which stood out to you as the very best – and very worst – examples of underground comix?

Patrick Rosenkranz: 'Zap Comix' definitely set the bar from the beginning. Experimentation, innovation, iconoclasm, and draftsmanship were the criteria by which all the other titles were judged. some of my personal favorites were 'The Furry Freak Brothers', 'Big Ass Comics', 'Bijou Funnies', 'Young Lust', 'Binky Brown', 'Slow Death Funnies', 'Harold Hedd', 'Insect Fear'… the list goes on and on.

There were also some real dogs, including 'Suds', 'Demented Pervert', 'Googiewaumer', 'Baloney Moccasins' and lots more. By 1973 there were more than 200 underground comic titles from San Francisco, New York and Wisconsin, as well as dozens of obscure self-published work from the hinterlands. Eventually a glut of inferior comic books poured into the market and readers rejected them. Of course, due to the fact that they didn’t sell well at the time, they have subsequently become more rare and valuable to comic collectors today.

Exquisite Things: For many years, the only book on underground comix available to UK readers was Dez Skinn’s 'Comix: The Underground Revolution', a book that proved to be highly contentious to say the least. Can you tell me more about your own personal objections to it?

Patrick Rosenkranz: My book, Rebel Visions was subtitled The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975 and came out in 2002. Dez Skinn’s book was published in 2004 with the title Comix: The Underground Revolution. A coincidence? I think not. It started there. He also swiped quotes and photos and illustrations from my book. I called him on it and made him pay. The details are probably already known to your readers. I don’t know how well his book sold in the UK.

Exquisite Things: You’ve also penned biographies of notable underground creators Rand Holmes and Greg Irons. What was it that interested you about their lives, and what drove you to write about them?

Patrick Rosenkranz: Greg Irons died way too early, at age 37, struck by a bus in Bangkok. I worked with his younger brother Mark to compile his life’s work and write his biography 'You Call This Art?! A Greg Irons Retrospective'.

He was one of the most revolutionary cartoonists in the underground and I didn’t want him to be forgotten. His work is just as potent and meaningful today as it was forty years ago. His anti-war, anti-corporate, pro-environmental stories still ring true and point out that not much has improved since he drew them. He was emerging as an innovative tattoo virtuoso in the early 1980s when his new career was cut short by fate.

Rand Holmes was equally revolutionary in his attitude toward art and society, but he was also an introvert who guarded his privacy. Discovering the details of his life was a great challenge and it took me a long time to chase down his ex-wife, old buddies, school chums, and colleagues to ask them a lot of nosy questions.

For the most part they were eager to tell his story, because they recognized him as a great artist and wanted the rest of the world to know it as well. His widow Martha gave me access to his art collection, diaries and sketchbooks and I was able to gradually paint a sprawling portrait of the man and his life, titled 'The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective'. There are some cartoonists who do great work but aren’t very interesting people. Rand Holmes was both – a fascinating individual who taught himself to draw, tame birds, play the banjo, and build his own log home.

He was also a serious and talented artist.

Exquisite Things: I understand that you also teach a course in comics history, could you tell me more about what the course entails?

Patrick Rosenkranz: I’ve been an educator on and off my whole life, teaching for public and private schools and arts organizations in a variety of settings. I recently received a request from the Pacific Northwest College of Art to teach a history of comics and I gladly accepted.

I’m taking a thematic rather than historic approach to the subject, and my lectures include sex in comics, Superheroes from Popeye to Hellboy, American family life, American and Dutch underground comix, bubble gum cards, and proto-comics from cave paintings to European caricaturists. My intent is for my students to better understand and appreciate this visual, verbal, spatial, pictographic language that is the comic medium.

Exquisite Things: To wrap up, what would you cite as the lasting legacies of the US underground comix scene?

Patrick Rosenkranz: To copy David Letterman, the Top Ten Legacies of Underground Comix are... Drum roll please!

1. Creators own the copyrights to their work
2. Artists retain ownership of their original art
3. Cartoonists are paid royalties based on sales
4. The freedom to make unconventional story and character choices
5. Artistic control of the work from beginning to end
6. Autobiographical comics
7. The rise of small press publishers
8. The creation of alternative distribution systems and specialty comic shops
9 Freedom from censorship and editorial interference
10 A broadened horizon for the comics medium

Interview by Kevin McCaighy.