Rand Holmes, the Man


Friday, September 24, 2010

I’ve been lately stuck on writing briefly about books, which strikes me as a peculiar kind of rut — reviews are ubiquitous online, so why do it here? Well, much of my interest in comics lies in accounting for and understanding the history of comics, and so making sense of the overwhelming diversity of subject matter and approaches in all of these books rolling out month after month. Lately I’m most intrigued by books that either (a) explore a hitherto distant figure like Mort Meskin or (b) present a compellingly fresh (for comics anyway) approach to the history of the medium, which brings me to Holmes (more on Meskin soon).

Patrick Rosenkranz’s The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective is a companion of sorts to his previous book on Greg Irons and of course his Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975. What makes The Artist Himself unique is in the title itself — Rosenkranz has constructed a sprawling portrait of Rand Holmes as a man in conflict with the “the artist himself” — a man trying to carve out a way to live that allowed for art (never an easy feat) and an art that somehow made sense in his life.

Holmes (1942-2002) begins as a somewhat lost teenager from a difficult home finding his way in then-isolated and rugged Edmonton, Alberta. He learns self-sufficiency outdoors, falls into hot rod culture, and finds his voice in cartooning. In telling this story Rosenkranz opens up a world — we hear from Holmes’ childhood friends, learn about the ragged car culture of time (and here, again, Rosenkranz excels at describing hot rod life, and how it readily lent itself, to visual art and the nurturing of eccentric talent; see: Robert Williams, et al, for more), and slowly roll into the nascent counter culture, which Holmes finds in the pages of the Vancouver underground paper Georgia Straight. “What happened next”, Rosenkranz writes, “was what you might expect from a fish too big for its pond. In 1968 Holmes saw Zap #2 … Holmes summed up his exodus from Edmonton a few years later: ‘In 1968 my brother turned me onto pyschedelics. I woke up, left my wife and job and split for the West Coast, grew my hair down to my ass, moved into a communal house and vowed to never again do anything I didn’t want to do, especially for money. After I made that simple decision I was suddenly free.'” A “simple decision”, maybe, but as Rosenkranz deftly shows over the remaining three hundred pages of the book, a choice with extreme consequences for the artist’s life and the family he left behind. The author does not left Holmes off easily — he reckons with Holmes’ sometimes self-destructive willfulness, his tendency to wile away an afternoon playing the banjo in the sun, and the problems that come with attempted utopias.

In his work Holmes switched from hot rod cartoons (his funky one-pages for Pete Millar’s CarToons are reprinted here) to Wally Wood-inflected stories, finding the most success with his hippy manque Harold Hedd. We next learn a great deal about Georgia Straight and the hippy culture of Vancouver (all news to me, natch), which is all the more striking because Holmes was alone in his comics. I’d always thought of Holmes as a marginal figure in the underground, despite his exquisite draftsmanship, but I had no idea just how marginal. He didn’t visit San Francisco until 1972, long after the peak (and at the edge of the nadir) of the underground and he swiftly returned to Canada with a few contacts but little sign of the kind of the kind of camaraderie that otherwise is so much a part of the mainline underground story. Fortunately Holmes seems to have been an avid diarist and pretty consistent correspondent with his publishers and friends. So month-by-month and year-by-year we’re privy to his life as he constructs it, which, in published form becomes the most detailed account yet of the mechanics and finances of how a second tier underground artist published and (sort of) survived in a sinking medium. Instead of the usual tale of cartoonist-as-misfit to cartoonist-as-peer to cartoonist-as-success we get a story about one particular cartoonist living a highly individual life on the margins of one culture, but deeply embedded in a life of his own making in places and cultures that, while obviously rich with history and meaning, simply aren’t covered very much (or at all) in a comics context.

There is little inside-comics talk here because, frankly, Holmes wasn’t really so engaged with the medium beyond his own work. He did his thing, and that seems to have been that. He of course knew his EC and such but he was clearly somewhere else most of the time. The work itself, amply reprinted, is good, sometimes great 1970s and ’80s narrative-driven comics in the yarn-spinning Gilbert Shelton tradition. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. I am most fond of his single images, like his gag cartoons for the sex tabloid Vancouver Star, his elegant EC-inflected comic book covers, and his highly detailed tableaux for White Lunch Comix and Tales from the Berkeley-Con.

In 1982 Holmes and his second wife, Martha, moved to remote Lasqueti Island, BC to build his own home and make his own art on his terms. At the time the island economy still worked on a barter system, and Rosenkranz reproduces generous amounts of journal entries, plans, and photographs detailing a rugged, sometimes frightening life in the wilderness. But Lasqueti was where Holmes found a measure of peace — where he stayed and painted and drew some more comics, including the incredibly fun “Hitler’s Cocaine” epic and where he eventually passed away in 2002.

Holmes’ last two decades are unexpectedly affecting. As the narrative delves into Holmes’ homesteading and hunting for food, I began to realize the real meaning of the artist’s youthful vow and precariousness of trying to balance a particular kind of life with a particular kind of art. And aside from the obvious benefits of learning about Holmes, I found myself selfishly drawing tremendous inspiration from Rosenkranz as he demonstrated the richness possible in writing the history of comics. He draws the curtain back as if to say, “see, here’s someone you hardly think of, who lived an extraordinary life, and it’s a life that must be reckoned with in the history.” It radically broadens what we think of as a cartoonist’s life, and in that Rosenkranz has given us a great gift.

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15 Responses to “Rand Holmes, the Man”
  1. Uland says:

    Rosenkranz is the man!

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    A great review. You should definately keep doing these. Books like “Rand Holmes” do get reviewed elsewhere on the internet but rarely with the depth of background you provide.

    A few additional thoughts:

    1) I looked at Holmes work in some depth when the Doug Wright Award inducted him into the Giants of the North. One thing I was struck by was that he was among the earliest gay-friendly cartoonists in the underground generation. Some of the early underground comics were a little homo-phobic and I think Holmes was the first to break with that.

    2) Kent Worcester once noted that the story of underground comics tends to be told in San Francisco-centric terms. I.e. its the story of artists who emerged from other parts of America but all converged on San Francisco. Rosenkranz deserves chops for breaking with this standard narrative and looking at the underground scene in other places such as Holland and Canada.

    3) A lot of us think we know what the undergrounds were all about because we read a few issues of Zap. But there’s a lot of great work that’s been forgotten and needs to be recuperated. Art Out of Time and Art in Time have helped remedy the situation slightly, as have Rosenkranz’s various projects.

  3. Tucker Stone says:

    Yeah, if you can find the time, you should keep doing these. The increased publication of these books is pretty great in terms of sheer quantity, but there’s not a lot of people to turn to that can give them the kind of perspective you could.

  4. Jeet Heer says:

    Another thing: I’d like to see someone (maybe with the initials D.N.) write an essay on the impact of Wally Wood’s work on underground and alternative cartoonists. It’s always surprising to me what a touchstone Wood is to so many cartoonists, in part because I myself find most of Wood’s work so off-putting.

  5. patrick ford says:

    Jeet, The Wood connection is a simple (and I think fairly obvious one).
    Wood worked for E.C. being one of the primary contributors to not only Mad, but almost every comic book they published. The first wave of underground cartoonists were comic book readers who grew up reading comics in the 50’s.
    E.C. comics had the same small club atmosphere that was imitated by Marvel in the 60’s.
    The line was small enough that the reader could probably afford to by everything they put out. The line had a very consistent tone (with the exception of the Kurtzman books), and Bill Gaines promoted the staff artists as “stars.”

  6. Dan Nadel says:

    It’s actually not that simple at all. Yes, a fair amount of undergrounders loved EC and Wood, but more interestingly, UG artists like Roger Brand actually assisted Wood. And many of them spent time with him as well. Wood also published a very young Spiegelman in Witzend, and did his own UG stuff in Big Apple Comix (edited by Flo Steinberg!). Wood, I think, so a lot of his dreams and aspirations in the hippies, but also felt some disgust for them. So… there are layers upon layers there to tease out. But yeah, it would be fun to write on it some more some time. Time being the operative word.

  7. patrick ford says:

    Dan, It was the core of the attraction I was mentioning, and what I thought Jeet was trying to get a handle on.
    You’re of course correct in everything you said as far as what happened later. Even stuff like Cannon, Sally Forth, and Woods later “Porn” comics were in the spirit of the underground in the sense the underground was a loose confederation with the largest commonality being it wasn’t the mainstream.
    Slightly O.T. is a fascinating post at the Cloud 109 blog which describes how Frazetta’s “Queen Kong” cover came about. http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_XbLgpv9SBYY/TF0aKc2GYFI/AAAAAAAAFmc/aQ8AorEin9k/s1600/QueenKong.jpg
    It was based on a layout by Wood intended as the cover for an adult humor magazine Wood tried to sell.

  8. Jeet Heer says:

    @Pat Ford. I understand about the EC connection but the question remains why Wood was the most influential of the EC artists on the underground generation, with the possible exception of Kurtzman. I think I have a fairly good grasp of why Crumb and Spiegelman were so influenced by Kurtzman. But why did Holmes and others look to Wood for inspiration, as against Craig, Ingels, Davis, etc., etc. The particular appeal of Wood is a real mystery to me — aside from a few humour pieces his work looks so wooden (if you’ll pardon the expression) and overly rendered. Even the fabled use of light just looks wrong to my eyes. I just don’t get it….

  9. patrick ford says:

    Jeet, Once again making the assumption we’re looking at Wood as a seminal influence.
    First off Wood was probably the most prolific of all E.C. artists. He contributed to the shock, war, science fiction, and humor titles. Only Jack Davis (who also contributed to the horror comics) was as ubiquitous.
    Second (and this is no joke on my part) Wood drew the kind of woman teens like.
    Some people may find a Craig or a Severin woman more appealing, or even more erotic than a Wood woman, but trust me those people are in the minority, especially among comic book fans. Woods work has an overt pulp sexuality.
    Wood much like Steranko gives the impression through his work of fully conscious unabashed reveling in pulp.
    We know Wood wasn’t a stupid man, when he wasn’t drawing primal images, he was playing Woody Guthrie songs on his guitar.
    It’s an intellectual decision to tap into what Umberto Eco found in Flash Gordon “The Absolute Elsewhere.”

  10. patrick ford says:

    BTW. Check out Blab! #2 (Sept. 1987) for an interview with Gary Arlington specifically on the E.C. – Underground connections.

  11. inkstuds says:

    Hey Dan, I can’t wait to check out that book. nice review. We Vancouverites have a lot of love for Rand’s work.

  12. Matthew Davis says:

    Jeet Heer:

    The particularly gay friendly piece you’re thinking about may be this early strip from 1971:


    From a comment by Patrick Rosenkranz, the strip was composed at a time when Rand was struggling with his sexuality.

    Howard Cruse has noted several time that he was a big fan of this particular strip.

  13. patrick ford says:

    More on the E.C.-Underground connection in “Blab!” #1 (1986).
    The whole issue is devoted to underground artists commenting on E.C.
    Each of the artists writes any where from a page to 4 pages on the topic.
    Very selective snips.
    Kim Deitch. “The primary influence of E.C. on me was big in that it was early. I was about eight when I saw my first issues. (Kim doesn’t mention Wood, but cites Wolverton, Kurtzman, and early Feldstein art)
    Bill Griffith: “I was a big Wally Wood fan. There was so much going on T.V. paled by comparison.”
    Justin Green. Mentions Barks, and Stanley first. On Stanley: “Those panels were magic windows to a world as real as any the movies could offer. Little Lulu was a masterful balance between dialogue and action. It was about the war between the sexes, and the collision of values between adults, and children. (mentions Kurtzman, Elder, and Davis)
    Gilbert Shelton: Describes a special fondness for Jack Kamen’s humor work in the horror magazines. No mention of Wood.
    Robert Armstrong: “Elder, Wood, and Davis quickly made my all time favorite cartoonists list. Their panels, crammed with detail…I remember not being able to visually digest certain scenes in one sitting, because there was so much rich stuff going on (this echoes Griffith’s comment, “There was so much going on T.V. paled by comparison.”).
    Trina: “I’d been a fan of Wally Wood since before E.C. comics. I used to buy those comics he did for Avon. In fact Wally Wood was the first comic book artist I knew by name.”
    Spain: “As the years passed.I’ve tried not to look at E.C. too much, because I felt they had already had a significant impact on my style, and I wanted to find my own way. I must admit I like Wally Wood imitators better than many original styles.”
    S. Clay Wilson: “Wally Wood exploding from the lead story in Mad #4, Reed Crandall from Piracy #3…I would try to distort my faces to become one of Wally Wood’s characters from MAD.

  14. […] Item: Dan Nadel on BC undergrounder Rand Holmes. […]

  15. Eric Reynolds says:

    “But why did Holmes and others look to Wood for inspiration, as against Craig, Ingels, Davis, etc., etc.”

    Brush fetishism? Lusty babes?

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