Gary Cifra

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This conversation, conducted in parts over the course of many months was generously recorded and transcribed by Jason Savvy.

BEGINNINGS

When I was young I came from a working class family and we had three books. One was an art book, it had like Blue Boy and went up to Picasso, and it didn’t really interest me a great deal. Another was Beowulf, a 15th century German gothic tragedy, and it had these really great etchings that were disturbing looking and kind of scary. But MAD magazine and comics, I loved those images – they hit me on a level that taught me story telling. You could see characters learn and grow and you could laugh. They just had great images. When I graduated high school, I discovered underground comix. 1968 was the first time I ever saw an underground comic book, at the Free Press book store in Pasadena. The earliest one I remember was Hydrogen Bomb Funnies. It had Robert Williams and Robert Crumb doing these wonderful stories. It was one of the classic great comics, and I started going back there to see if they had more, and I started reading Zap and Bijou.

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I remember later when I was married, my wife’s friends would come over for dinner, and we’d hang out and listen to music. Invariably, if I brought my comic books out, within 15 minutes everybody was quiet and sitting there reading comic books. I loved that. That’s what started all of this – I had this great attachment to underground comix. I think it is one of the great moments in American literature and art – Sequential Art, a sadly unexplored medium. That’s one of the things I want to do – to get people to appreciate stuff, whether it is Hong Kong action or silent movies – I always try to share it with people. I try to seek out and find things. Like comic books, that’s what my website is about – a Sequential Art Appreciation Society. If you really want to get down to it, it’s me trying to get people to get off their butts and appreciate this stuff – “Pay attention! Look at this, you’re missing it!” That’s what Lines On Paper is. It’s me trying to harass people into exploring their culture.

Lines On Paper was actually founded in the 1940s by this group of literary professionals. They were studying stories from the 19th century with pictures and text and so on, usually political type stuff, as well as hieroglyphics. These professors thought this was a great way to tell stories in a sequential order. They were so offended when Superman happened. They thought “Now look at this, we’re trying to bring up this art form of sequential art, trying to wake people up to it, and now we’ve got Superman and Donald Duck to deal with.” They were outraged, so they started this Sequential Art Appreciation Society to promote the high-brow appreciation of sequential art. Then they got old and died off. One of the heirs to this place – which wasn’t much, just a little office building in New York somewhere – went in and said “Hey, let’s start this up again!” They just crossed off the “Sequential Art” and wrote “Comic Book” above it and now that’s the Lines On Paper you see today.

Actually, my friend Jocelyn and I, and about four others who just liked comic books and read comic books decided to have a meeting once a month at the library. We would share and talk about comics. We decided to start doing this as a regular thing and I came up with the name “Lines On Paper.” Robert Crumb was harassed and harangued in the 60s and 70s through censorship. In fact, some of his books were seized at the Canadian border, and in response he said “It can’t hurt you folks, it’s just lines on paper.”

So it became Lines On Paper: Sequential Art Appreciation Society. Now you see that the “Sequential Art” is crossed off and it says “Comic Book Appreciation Society.”

COMIX, CULTURE, AND COMMENTARY

Jason: How do you feel comics, underground comix, and sequential art contribute to American culture or subculture? You mentioned earlier their being this great reflection of a moment in American literature and art. What do you think they reflect?

Gary: Slow Death Funnies, which came out in 1970, was about the slow death and corporate destruction of the planet. In fact, the first cover had an industrial looking venomous creature ravaging the globe. Where else did you see information like that? It wasn’t on TV. They didn’t talk about how corporate America was ravaging the planet. There were stories about global warming. In 1976 there was Corporate Crime Comics. People didn’t even talk about corporate crime in the 70s. I don’t know where else you would have heard about that except in a comic book! There was a 1951 comic book Frontline Combat by EC Comics and Harvey Kurtzman, who is one of the big influences in my life. The Frontline Combat cover showed a battle scene of American troops marching in the background, and in the foreground in the bombed-out rubble of his home is a little infant Korean kid and he’s crying. One of the soldiers says, “Do you hear something?” and the other says, “Nope. Did you?” If you read the story, the kid is sitting there holding on to his dead Korean mother calling out for his dead Korean father in the next room. This is when we were at war with Korea. If that were done today, that would be an Iraqi child sitting there holding on to his dead Iraqi mother. Can you imagine what that would cause? This was a comic book sold for 10 cents in drug stores. This was a media that was showing something that no one else was showing, except maybe if you read the leftist literature of the time.

Jason: It was like an alternative voice that used a popular medium.

Gary: It was the same company that did Tales From the Crypt. Harvey Kurtzman, who did the EC war comics, did war stories in a very realistic way. They showed stories with real people. In fact, that story of the little kid, the first couple pages are about the family, just showing the family as real people. We don’t even do that now with Iraqis. Who sees Iraqi people as real families? We think they are “weird.” We don’t think of them as having fun, or as a family, because we certainly don’t want to look at them that way.

Jason: That comics have been under the radar may have been a saving grace in some ways. It has given them the opportunity to be a lot more outspoken about views that may not be so popular in mainstream society.

Gary: Yeah, they would have been noticed and squashed, but they snuck through in comic books. Actually, the reason why the underground was happening in San Francisco was because Gary Arlington had a store and a huge collection of EC Comics and he would loan them to S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and R. Crumb. If you look through underground comix from the 1960s, they did tons of take-offs on Weird Science and Tales from the Crypt. It was sort of the touchstone or hallmark – underground comix kind of sprang from EC Comics. EC Comics were not specifically written for children; if you read them today, they would be an efficient and enjoyable way to learn things. They had really interesting and historically accurate examinations from a less biased perspective. EC Comics also did animal rights stuff in the 1950s. They closed in 1956. They were run out of business; you can see on my website that it was the first episode of mass book burning in the United States, and it was unquestioned. All across the country they organized and advertised. You can look through Life magazine and see reports of it. Sure they were burning “only” comic books, but those were books. So I guess it was “okay” because they were just comic books….Nobody paid that much attention. Great lesson for the kids, right?

Comics were an emergence. The media is not always looking for truth. For animal rights, there was one story in Weird Science or Weird Fantasy. It’s set in the future and these astronauts are going to this planet and harvesting these furs from these creatures. They go to this planet and they get captured by these creatures and then next thing you see are these creatures with human pelts hanging from them – humans are the victims now. People think furs are so beautiful, but this involves subjugation and slaughter. If you look at it from a different perspective another culture could say “These humans would make swell pelts.” Anybody who read that story would probably think a little bit differently next time they saw fur – for a moment, anyway.

ART COLLECTING

Jason: It’s interesting that so much of what is called the low-brow art scene has its roots in comix and Robert Williams, for example, has paintings now selling for tens of thousands of dollars. Tell me about how you went from having comic books to your first art piece that you purchased and how that developed into collecting art full time.

Gary: I became a man in the Summer of Love, 1967. They did these posters for the SF music scene, these wonderful posters by Rick Griffin and Stanley Mouse. I had a few posters and I really liked them, but it never occurred to me to do anything with art. I used to go to head shops to buy the newest Zap Comix and the guy there said “Hey are you going to the Robert Williams show?” Robert Williams had been one of my favorite cartoonists from Zap, Coochy Cooty, and Men’s Comix and I wanted to check it out. My wife at the time and I drove to this art show in downtown Los Angeles at the Zomo Art Space. It was run by Ray Zone. That was the first time I ever went to an actual art show. It was Robert Williams’ first one-man show. It was terrific – I’d never seen anything like that. The paintings were all $1000 and they were all sold, but they did have these small ones, like 2 or 4 inches square in gray, black, and white. They were cool little images of fish and a bottle with a knife through it and they were $50. At the time I said “How am I gonna come up with $50?” – it was a lot of money at the time, though I wonder what they’re worth now. It was great. We left and we were driving home and we started talking about it and I said “God, I wish we would have stayed, there was a party after. We should have stayed.” And good old Stephanie of course just said “Let’s go.” We turned around and went back to the show and I got to meet Robert Williams and talk to people about art. It was just a grand old party. I just liked the idea of having a painting and I thought it would be so nice if I were ever rich and were able to spend $1000 on a painting. More importantly, I picked out one that I wanted – if I did have the money and it were available, I’d have picked this one. That was my first feeling of the process of when you go to an art show, you go there either not wanting to buy something or you go there wanting to buy something.

cifra-jarboeThe first piece of original art I bought was in 1976 at the underground comic convention in San Francisco. It was put on by Clay Geerdes, he was just sort of an entrepreneur who loved comics. They were having a benefit for the Air Pirates. The Air Pirates in the 1960s and early 70s did these really nice comic books on Disney characters. In fact they did one image of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a sex orgy, drawn the way it would have been drawn by Disney – beautifully drawn! Of course Disney didn’t like this (for some reason) and they filed a suit. I believe this was when the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was formed. [The Air Pirates] eventually lost, but they were trying to raise money at the convention so if you gave them like $20 they’d draw a picture for you. I was there with my wife and our dog. Shary Flenniken drew a picture of the dog. I still have it in a box somewhere. I recently had a gallery touch up and clean it and I had it re-framed. That was my first piece of art that I owned, but I didn’t display it until I had been a collector for ten years. The first piece of art that I ever bought from an art gallery was the Robert Williams painting from the La Luz de Jesus Gallery when it was upstairs on Melrose in 1987. The paintings were $2600. I talked my friend Ken into coming to the show with me and I said, “Why don’t we split it?” and so he said, “Sure.” and we did. So I had a painting hanging on my wall and it was really cool. It was titled “Li’l Lambie Pie and the Philistine Brothel Monger.” I started going to the gallery because it was so much fun. They had shows every month and I started noticing artists I liked. At the next show a year and a half later, there was another painting and of course Ken liked having his every six months. I said to him, “You can pick.” cifra_robt_wms_brainHe picked one of the best ones ever – “The Brain That Thinks Holes Through Boilerplate.” It’s one of the A-List Robert Williams paintings that everybody loves. By that time, I had been to different shows and I talked to tons of people and I got to know them, and the people in this movement were really nice. They were not snooty at all, they’re just really friendly. And for some reason, they seem to have an inordinate amount of beautiful women, so I couldn’t stay away. It was a cool thing that I got to be in that scene, and I noticed that I was making money because after a few years, these things start to appreciate in value. So I got a little cocky, I started noticing other artists would come up and I’d try to catch them early. If you could catch them early, you could make money off them. I remember the first time I saw a Mark Ryden painting at a group show at Tamara Bane Gallery. I’d never heard of him before but I was like “God! Wow! What a great painting!” but it was $3500. I just paid $6000 for the Robert Williams, and I thought “I can’t pay another $3500.” I went home but I kept thinking about it and the next day I went back just wanting to look at it. This was a time when I was starting to get a little bolder and maybe I would have figured out some way to do it. Anyway, I went back and it was gone, somebody bought it. Now it would probably be worth $60,000. Once I started going to galleries it became a game – it was just a fun, exciting, and wonderful experience.

Jason: It sounds like you approach buying art on a couple levels – one the appreciation of it visually the other the investment end of it.

Gary: I had a deep rich library of images from reading underground comix. They were so powerful, and individual artists like S. Clay Wilson and Robert Williams created a world where amazing things would happen and I’d be drawn into it. Of course all of this was helped along quite a bit by marijuana. It worked so well. Marijuana opens up your mind. Reading MAD magazine and comic books was an education as far as developing an eye for art. MAD magazine said to me “Hey, you can look at things differently, you don’t have to have respect for everything.” I took it seriously. When I bought my first two Robert Williams paintings, in ‘88 and ‘90, the shows didn’t sell out completely – they’d sell out in a couple of weeks or a month. I just bought the painting, I could tell this has to be successful because it’s so amazing. After that, his shows were sold out weeks before; there was a list you had to be on. Ray Zone said “Robert Williams confronts the darkest corners of the American psyche armed with the rubber sword of humor.” They’re like nothing anyone has ever seen before. It’s irresistible.

Jason: Did you find a resonance in how Williams saw the world?

Gary: Absolutely. It was the world that I saw in his comic books; but it was, very uniquely, HIS world. His paintings are basically like some of his stories. I’ve written a couple of stories about his paintings. The painting with the nurse who’s screaming and there’s a man with 8 arms in a bed and a giant head, and a melting door is called “The Brain That Thinks Holes Though Boilerplate.” *IMAGE ATTACHED AS robt_wms_brain.jpg* I wrote a little script about this nurse walking down the hall looking though the windows and sees the one door at the end. You could make up stories around them. Certainly if you smoke marijuana it’s absolutely irresistible.

Jason: What about pot enhances the experience of this art for you?

Gary: That would have to go back to my earlier experiences with sequential art and marijuana. If you’ve ever read comics, they take you on a little journey. Like Little Lulu and Tubby and you see their adventures, follow them, and it’s a fun experience, like watching a movie. When you smoke marijuana and read a Robert Williams story like the Mentor in the Mason Jar it’s almost more than watching a movie. Marijuana makes it a very sensory experience. It’s like it takes you. You feel it. You’re in there. He takes you to places you’ve never been before. You don’t know what to think, it’s ridiculous, but it’s fun to follow.

Abstract Expressionism generally doesn’t have much narrative. A lot of that stuff you really don’t know if it’s a masterpiece of Abstract Expressionism or if some kids got in the paint or something – you can’t tell. That’s why I would never want to collect something like that. Then it’s like “Oh you don’t understand this painting? Well, that’s because you’re ignorant. You didn’t go to college, did you? You should go to college and take some classes and come back and check out my art.” I can’t do that! If I had something here that I paid $6000 for, and it’s a plain gray canvas, you’d be wondering “Why did you pay $6000 for a plain gray canvas?” So, how would we even communicate anymore? You’d be thinking I’m nuts and I’d be thinking “He’s ignorant – he doesn’t know any better.” I like to be able to appreciate it right away and see the craftsmanship. You can see the craftsmanship in Jackson Pollack, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. I would never want to be in a position of superiority like that.

Jason: Certainly within a lot of the paintings within your house there are references to so-called “high art.”

Gary: There’s nothing secretive, you still can appreciate it. I don’t like to have secret things in my art, although there are things in all of my paintings that I’ve never noticed. You can have these things for years and years and still notice something new. This art you don’t need an education to understand, appreciate, or respond to it. Art has been around forever and these are the newest slices of it. It’s really not embraced by the art world. In fact , Robert Williams’ business card says “Fouling the art world’s nest since 1957.” Most art people look down on this as “cartoony.” Basically I think it’s because you don’t need a college education to appreciate it, and you can’t write 30 page articles on why this gray square has some significance in the whole process of art. I suppose if you really read it and got into it, you could probably understand why there is some significance to this gray square, but I’m not sure how you could entice me to want to buy that. Do I get laid in the process? You have to weigh things out – is it worth it? I can’t see why it’s worth it but maybe I’m a fool.

Jason: What’s interesting is the idea that comic books, by virtue of their lack of popularity in mainstream media were able to make very strong statements about society and the world and have it pass under the radar. However, in so-called low-brow art the lack of popularity in terms of the mainstream art world doesn’t seem to affect the prices at which these pieces go out.

Gary: I think you’re right. It’s new and there’s also a collector’s appeal to it. Right now, this stuff is too “weird” for most people. Some of it is too “gross.” The next generation has grown up with movies about vomiting and coming all over people’s faces and the Garbage Pail Kids and who-knows-what on the internet. They’re going to look back at this stuff when they grow up and it’s not going to look scary or bizarre or weird at all, it’s going to look funny and interesting. It’s possible that in another 20 years, this could become hugely popular with the next generation.

ACTIVISM

Jason: So in 1987, buying the Robert Williams painting was a turning point.

Gary: I was hooked, I started going every month. I was also involved in a lot of other activities. I started working with activist stuff. I actually co-founded an organization called Alliance for Research Accountability. It was started with these two animal rights groups. I liked Last Chance for Animals because they were opposed to vivisection and experimenting on animals, not because of the cruelty, but because it doesn’t work. You can’t extrapolate data from rats to human beings; it’s stupid and foolish corporate science. When we were starting this they wanted one of our platforms to be that we were opposed to animal testing. I thought we can’t do that because then people will say “Oh God, the animal rights people again…” I was actually asked to step down twice from the board. This one other activist stood up for me and I won, which meant that I had to do all the work for the next five years. We started the Anti-Muscular Dystrophy Telethon featuring Jerry Lewis. It turned out to be a great choice because the media has to cover the Jerry Lewis Telethon, but it’s a boring kind of thing. Now they could say “Let’s go cover the demonstrators.” Every year from 1990 to 1995 I was on every television channel and some radio channels. All across the country, relatives sent me things they saw in the paper. We asked these questions: “Could it be true that after 46 years and hundreds of millions of dollars not one proven safe effective treatment has been developed for any of the 40 diseases under the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) banner? How can MDA executives pay themselves $300,000 salaries with $30,000 expense accounts and refuse to pay for electric wheelchairs for Jerry’s Kids? What ‘unpleasant side-reactions’ have children experienced over four decades of failed drug experiments? An MDA spokesperson said on network news that there is going to be a cure in the near future – what exactly did he mean by that?” We wanted to know what was going on here. My main thing was: MDA never cured anything. There’s a definition of insanity where you do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result. That’s what they are doing except the result is more and more money for more and more useless research.

I was an activist in high school. I was a member of the Young Socialist Alliance; a youth group of the Socialist Worker’s Party, which is an old organization which used to be the Communist Worker’s Party. In fact, that organization was in charge of protecting Trotsky when he was assassinated.

Jason: Why did you find an appeal in that when you were young?

Gary: First of all, because of the Vietnam War, they wanted me to go half way around the world and shoot people. I didn’t want to go, so I started going to anti-war demonstrations and started talking to people. Communists had been around for a long time and they knew how to organize and how to do things properly. In fact, I sort of carried that when I became an anti-vivisection activist; I used the tools that I learned being an anti-war demonstrator. People knew they could count on me.

The Alliance for Research Accountability (ARA) was becoming a lot of work. The last ARA demonstration was in 1995. After that, I helped found Alive and Well: AIDS Alternatives with my friend Christine Maggiore. Basically it has never been proven how HIV causes AIDS, and no retro-virus has ever been known to cause any sort of human health condition; it has less information than a virus. Alive and Well educates people about AIDS. Almost everything you hear or see on television is a lie, an obfuscation, or an exaggeration. All the numbers they use are not real numbers, they are estimates and projections. There was a time when Oprah said that by the year 2000, all of us will have had someone we know die of AIDS. Well, as many people die of second-hand smoke as die of AIDS. It didn’t become a huge epidemic. Today, at this point, most people diagnosed of AIDS have no symptoms. The result of a University of Pennsylvania study of 6000 HIV-positive people showed that the leading cause of death is liver failure, which has nothing to do with AIDS or HIV, it has to do with the medicine they are taking. Think of that. Most people diagnosed have no symptoms, and then they die of the medicine they are taking. Everybody just accepts this, but “Oh what about Africa?” In Africa, the term used now is the “medicalization of poverty.” I remember growing up and my parents saying finish your plate, people are starving to death in Africa. People have been dying in Africa forever, nobody cared. Now all of a sudden, “Oh what about the people in Africa?” But, it is also true that life expectancy in South Africa during the whole AIDS crisis has gone up 9 ½ years. Thabo Mbeki, the president of South Africa, refuses to let pregnant women take these highly toxic AIDS drugs. Besides, an AIDS test in Africa cost about a years’ salary. But, to be diagnosed with AIDS in Africa, you don’t need an AIDS test! Here in the U.S., to be diagnosed with AIDS, you have to have one of 39 different diseases, one non-disease, plus test positive for HIV. In other words, you could have pneumonia, but if you test positive for HIV – in this non-specific test – you’ve got AIDS. (And you need to grab this medicine, it’s really expensive). But in Africa, you only have to have one of 3 different diseases. Basically, all they have to say is, “Okay you people have AIDS.” They are dying, but they are dying as they have for decades because the sewage and the water they are drinking gets cross-connected, bad food handling, and starvation – that’s why they are dying.

Jason: You had dissolved the ARA in favor of devoting yourself full-time to Alive and Well. In concert with your involvement in Alive and Well you put together the No Red Ribbons Show. Tell me about putting together No Red Ribbons.

Gary: I came up with this idea to do an art auction because I knew some artists and galleries. I was publishing a catalogue called “No Red Ribbons: Art Challenges the AIDS Establishment.” It was a journey. I hired a Canadian woman and we started planning and contacting the artists. The artists started to respond and everybody loved it. We had 36 cartoonists who donated artwork because this was such a great event. In fact, Juxtapoz Magazine, which is the magazine of this movement, co-owned and founded by Robert Williams, stated, “almost every artist who has ever been in this magazine is a part of this worthy and courageously politically incorrect cause.” The members of Lines On Paper didn’t like it at all and they all quit, which by this time was only like three people. Also, all the while I was doing this, I had started a new job. I was also writing screenplays. It was kind of a lot – doing all of this stuff. The show was just glorious, it couldn’t have been more perfect. We sold $35,000 dollars worth of art. There were a lot of people, a lot of art sold, and the auction was spirited. The proceeds went to Alive and Well. At the time, there were 96,000 AIDS organizations and all of them collected money from the pharmaceutical industry. There was one organization for every three and a half people who ever had a diagnosis of AIDS, and they were all funded by the pharmaceutical industry except Alive and Well. You don’t have to automatically follow whatever the pharmaceutical industry says, especially when they sort of make up the rules as they go. Alive and Well doesn’t talk about theories that you can align to, they just have facts. The tests are not highly accurate to not accurate at all. We don’t think we should take drugs that are known to be deadly. There is a skull and crossbones on the label for AZT and no one has been known to last more than two and a half years on full dose AZT. However, I retired from Alive and Well in 1999 for health reasons.

ROCK CLIMBING AND MS

I’m always doing like 8 different things at once. In ’83 I got sick. They called it Multiple Sclerosis. I was in the hospital for five weeks. At first, I started to walk funny and people thought I had started drinking because I was not walking straight. My fingertips were a little numb and my lips too. I went to he doctor and finally they did a spinal tap, and the diagnosis was that I had “probable Multiple Sclerosis.” I started getting better and I actually left the hospital walking with braces; walking very slowly. I went straight from the hospital to the airport and flew up to my friend’s house in San Francisco. I spent three or four days up there and started smoking marijuana. I hadn’t smoked marijuana in three years. I kept getting better and better. Within a couple of weeks I was walking with one cane, and then no cane. When next I went to see my doctor he said “Gary, whatever you’re doing, keep it up.” I thought I had found a cure for Multiple Sclerosis. It wasn’t really, but I kept getting better and better and in 1988 I went back to work as a union iron worker. It’s one of the most physically demanding jobs there is, but it paid really well. I wasn’t fully 100%, but I was well enough to go back. I became a vegetarian in November of ‘84, smoked marijuana, was living well and just had a really good attitude. I never felt sorry for myself. It was really a wake-up. I was just sort of wasting my life, not doing anything – watching television and smoking cigarettes. I did that before when I was married – my “self” shuts down and I just go with the flow. I fell in love with my wife again because we’d been through a lot. I would consider us like Tristan and Isolde, or Heathcliff and Katherine because we went through such an ordeal of survival and we still loved each other.

In the first house I ever lived in, there were three of us in one room. My friend Phil was the guy who got me interested in film and that formed my first organization, Foothill Experimental Cinema. He took me to see foreign films and we talked about rock climbing. He took me climbing and when I did it I thought “This is it.” Here’s this climb that was probably a 200 feet straight climb. I looked at it and thought “My God, I’m going to climb that?” And I did it and I realized that 9 out of 10 people that I asked would not even consider it for a moment, and I did it. It made me feel good that I could do something like that. That’s part of what climbing is: it makes you feel good about yourself. You can talk about self-esteem – but you’re not born with self-esteem, you earn esteem.

I met my friend Bill in 1984. I had been a fan of punk rock since the late 70s. I met him at Toxic Shock Records and he was such a really nice guy. I eventually talked him into going climbing. He became one of my best climbing partners. There was a time when if I exerted myself at all my vision would become very faulty. We climbed on this thing called Big Rock, a smooth rock out by Lake Perris. Since I couldn’t see well, I would feel for the holds and remember the footholds when my foot got there. I was basically climbing blind. I didn’t lead, I was following. I did that for awhile, and after that my vision got better and stayed. To fall and die in rock climbing, it doesn’t have to be 300 feet. You can fall and die in 3 feet. I was climbing with Bill, and it was our first time climbing and I climbed up this crack and there was this flake that you had to stick your fingers under and move your feet across the bare face. It was cold and damp and the rock was a little bit moist. I was moving across it and what you have to do is stick a chock or nut under the flake so it gets jammed. This was a particularly hard thing to do since the crack was waist high, you couldn’t look under there. I stuck it under there and it kind of felt good. In the meantime, I had put a sling around a horn of rock and Bill said “Shouldn’t you put something on there?” and I said “No, it’s okay.” I went across it and I was trying to reach to look for another hold and I fell. The nut caught me but the sling I had on the horn popped off. Had that nut come out, then I would have fallen and hit the ground and landed right on top of him. I made a bad mistake not attaching the sling to the rock so that it would have stayed there. I was humbled.

1997 was my last climb. I was using a cane. Bill took me up to this place near Big Bear. It was about 70 to 100 feet and I did three climbs there. Bill led them. Next time we went, I couldn’t even lift my weight up to stand on the first hold. In 1998 I started using a wheelchair.

LINES ON PAPER

Between 1998 and 2002 nothing happened with Lines On Paper. Lines On Paper was dead. In 2002, I started noticing and seeing websites. We had a booklet of cards signed by artists, and they would also draw a little picture on it. The cards are so unique – I basically have original art from almost every major sequential art master. It’s just unique to have them and done specifically for this organization that was spreading the word of comics and trying to bring it to libraries. I refer to myself sometimes as an anarchist. I think the idea of anarchy is to just start doing things. If you want to spread the word about comic books, meet at the library, have people come over to talk about comics. I think that it is a great organization for somebody that loves the idea of sequential art; and I love it as a thing that is sort of underappreciated. It’s my nature to say “Hey Look at this! Come here! Check it out!” I like to discover things that nobody else knows about so they can look at it and go “Wow!” Like this art – this art isn’t for everybody, a lot of people don’t really like it; but I know people look at some of this stuff and they get drawn into it. I remember once at a Robert Williams art show at MOCA, there was this older woman; she looked like one of my schoolteachers in her 60s or 70s. She was looking at this Robert Williams painting and this sort of natural chuckle came over her. I think she was kind of embarrassed by it. And as she looked at it, her faced started to turn as she saw what was on there and then she said’ “Oh God” and walked away. The painting was of a roadside stand where you could buy fried infant meat snacks!

The web was perfect. You click on the artist’s card and it blows it up and you can click and read a biography of the artist and see more examples of their work. Eventually you will be able to click on it and see an onscreen interview. I would like the site to grow as the technology grows. I was the first card because I was the first one who did it. The only qualification to be on this page is that you have to have published something. I published a copy of Big Wimp Funnies and I distributed them to my friends and I sold a couple in Toxic Shock Records on Melrose in ‘85 or ’86. Okay, so I’m a published cartoonist so I can be on the page. You don’t have to be a superstar, all you have to do is publish something. In other words, you have to have enough passion for the form. You actually went to the trouble of drawing something and printing it, whatever you have to do. People started coming back. After we got the first three, I would send a letter saying “We already got these three: Robert Williams, Bill Griffith, and Robert Armstrong.” Artists would see that and go “Aw shit I’ll be on there.” In fact, the Hammer Museum show called “Masters of Comic Art” had six of the first speakers who were Lines On Paper alumni like Gary Panter, Chris Ware, Dennis Kitchen, Art Spiegelman, and Robert Williams. There was a punk rock guy named John Holmstrom, the guy who started Punk Magazine, he was a cartoonist for Punk. In fact, he pops up on the homepage, we use his face. I saw that his card said “not to be copied without permission.” I realized “Oh my God we did!” so we sent him a letter that said “I’m really sorry we’ll take this off if you like; as soon as we figure out how to do it and find the money.” We still haven’t heard back from him.

Jason: In addition to bringing awareness of underground comix and art to the world at large through the Lines On Paper website, you also have merchandise?

Gary: You bet! I sell maybe one thing a month. T-shirts coffee mugs, plain paper notebooks, signed prints, signed books, things like that. In fact, I was contacted once by Crumb’s people and they said “We represent Robert Crumb and we saw that you are selling t-shirts and we want to advise that you can’t do that , but if you want to become a legitimate merchandiser…” and I said that I am legitimate. I explained that he did this for us to help for our website, and I said “Ask him” and they said “Okay” and I never heard anything again. Since then, I’ve talked to Crumb. He called my house once on an unrelated matter, and I know he didn’t care – he likes this sort of thing.

KIDS ON PAPER

Gary: A friend of mine is a middle school teacher and she knew I love comics. She loved comics too because we used to live together. I mailed her a Little Lulu comic to use in her class. It was fun to hear how the kids loved it. It sounded so cool. I know kids, and kids buy comics just because they’re comics. For Halloween, I always give out comic books, and they are always very happy. We have a Kids On Paper website that has artwork by kids, a page on careers, and artists who make a good living as cartoonists like Seonna Hong who won an Emmy for the work she does on My Life as a Teenage Robot. Kids can read that and go “Wow, she’s doing pretty well.” There’s also a picture of me ice-climbing Palisades Glacier and a picture of me as a kid. I want them to know that this is something not just for kids – you can carry this with you.

We’re a 501(c)(3) non-profit and we have to make a presentation and if the library likes you they’ll let you on. We always get good reviews. We generally get paid except the libraries don’t have a whole lot of money, plus we don’t have a whole lot of time to figure out how to do it – half of our staff is legally blind and the other half is busy all the time. It’s a constant struggle. Now we’ve got a hundred dollars in the bank and we have a credit card that we pay on a hundred dollars every month. It’s nothing but fun! We just want to do more and more events. I would like to have more people involved and mainly I would like to get some money flowing through here so Patty and I don’t have to constantly struggle and pay for things out of our own pockets. I’d like to get it working to pay for itself.

I like to enlighten other people to stuff they may be missing. To show kids there are all kinds of comics, and this is something you can turn into a career. Not only that, but if you learn to draw, I can’t imagine a job where being able to draw something doesn’t help. Also, if you can draw, you can impress people. Even if you’re a nerd and nobody really likes you, if you draw something really cool and show other people they go “Hey wow, that’s really cool!” It’s a way for you to show who you are. Self-esteem is not something that you’re born with – you have to build it. If you can draw, there’s something you can have self esteem about: the way you draw. The group is actually for kids aged 11 to 17 because little kids are too hard – you have to deal with them running around. But, every time we’ve had talk there have always been kids who were 5 or 6 years old, and every time they just sit there and listen quietly. There’s never been any ruckus. It’s really fun to go and get kids to listen to you. It’s something that you can carry with you for a very long time.

I had good teachers, but I had more bad experiences with teachers than good ones. I wanted to be in movies when I was in high school. If I had someone who could say “If you want to be in pictures, you should take a drama class. Go to Hollywood and work in some of the studios and see if you can get a job.” Or, “Make sure you get good grades and maybe get a job working in the mailroom.” They didn’t tell me that, because I didn’t know. What they hell did I want good grades for? It meant nothing to me. But if I had somebody that could explain this to me I could have gotten really good grades and I could have applied to film school at UCLA. I would like to have events at libraries where we have somebody who is successful come in and talk about it and answer questions. I would just like to get kids to wake up and think “Wow! That looks like fun. That looks good, I’d like to do that.” I want to get them inspired. I always try to tell them having no or little education will make it harder, so get a good education – it’s FREE.

We have a Kids On Paper Valentine’s Day Sequential Art workshop. We are going to have a couple artists there to help the kids draw cards. When I was a kid, there was a Valentine’s Day thing at school and Marty Jackson – I always liked her even though I had never met her. I thought I would send her a card and I didn’t. I just chickened out because I was basically a chicken. I was so shy and I felt so stupid. But, shortly after that, I was at the library downtown and all of a sudden she came out the door as I was coming in and I said “Hi Marty.” She had this big smile and said “Hi!” and I kept walking into the library… that’s it! I didn’t look for her the next day – that’s it – it was over. So I thought it would be cool to have a card with me as an old man sitting there thinking “Oh, I wish I had said something to her.” Then you could have Marty as an old woman in some other state, thinking, “I should have said something” – it would be the same dream. That would be kind of a cool thing. Like, don’t express your undying love for eternity to somebody you don’t know, you know? Say “Hey do you want to eat lunch somewhere?”

Jason: What were the circumstances under which Patty came on?

Gary: I needed help and I did a search on Craigslist and described what I had and what I needed and she came on. She liked it and loved the art. She is a highly educated artist with a degree in illustration. And she liked me. I wasn’t really looking for a relationship because I don’t really have a whole lot to offer anybody. Now we’re even talking marriage – me for the third time, and her for the first.

Jason: How long did it take before you got together?

Gary: Oh God, it took me about a year! I don’t want to burden anybody. It’s not easy being in a relationship with somebody like me – it’s not easy being me. But we seem to be made for each other!

CONCLUSION

So I had too much art as usual. I love my house so much I just don’t like to have it clogged with art. Plus, all of a sudden, I had an $11,000 plumbing bill. The clay sewer pipe built in 1939 had to be replaced. I spent another 5 days in the hospital again. When I got out, it was right in the middle of a heat wave, my evaporator cooler wasn’t working and it was unbearable and very difficult. Heat is very hard on people with multiple sclerosis and so I had to get air conditioning put in for $7000. I didn’t have lots of money sitting around so I had to sell my art collection. The only way to sell it was to sell my eight most valuable paintings. I sold them all. I had a friend of mine, who is also an award-winning filmmaker, film a commentary from me before I sold them. It’s difficult. This is the first time in almost twenty years that I am without a Robert Williams painting. I still have lots of artwork left and I think my house just looks terrific all the time. Actually, the artwork I have now I would have been very proud of ten years ago, and I’m very proud of it right now. Part of the other money went to Kids On Paper, so I could use it as a bargaining tool. I sold the paintings for more than I paid for them, but less than they were worth. It was not enough money to keep Kids On Paper going, so we have to look into funding. But, I just love doing this. It feels like a lifelong pursuit and I’m very happy to be associated with comic books and sequential art. It’s not so much that I love it ten times more than any other art form – it’s because it’s under-appreciated. It’s fun to show people and watch their eyes light up, especially when they are kids. I like to be involved in the direction and purpose of this civilization – I like to be part of it. I’m not well enough to be part of it as an activist anymore so this is great, I get to do this instead. Kids look at me in the wheelchair and they have a certain amount of respect for that and they can look at it and I can say, “If you guys had any sort of problems – look at me, I’m okay. I used to be a mountain climber and now I do this.”