Saturday, January 29, 2011

left to right: Johhny Ryan, Jaime Hernandez, Ron Regé Jr, Jordan Crane, Sammy Harkham, Frank Santoro

Back in August of last year, my friend Sebastian Demain sent me an email that said he was opening a gallery in Los Angeles. He and his business partner Ethan had rented a multi-use space where they could have art shows, performances, happenings, whatever. It’s a long corridor of a space in a basement – perfect for a gallery.

So I was lucky enough to be invited to have a show there. Sebastian asked if I had any paintings that looked like my comic Chimera. He said he liked my “classical” style. The inaugural show of the gallery was a Lee “Scratch” Perry painting exhibition in November and then there was a Nazi Knife group show in December. I was to be the third show. Felt like good company.

Dem Passwords, the name of the gallery is derived from a Lee Perry prose poem (a 3000 page Word document) where Lee writes about “dem passwords” one needs to know to get into places of power – of Black power. It’s pretty heavy and reflects the gallery’s many faces. CF played a show there. Coppertone. Pink Dollaz. It’s already become quite a scene. I mean Jerry Heller was at my opening so that should give you an idea of how strikingly L.A. this spot is. But more on that later. Lemme get back to my story.

Anyways, back in August I realized that it would be super expensive to send my largish oil paintings on canvas to L.A. From Pittsburgh, PA where they’re stashed. Plus I knew I was moving to New Mexico with the girl in October – I figured I’d need to make work that was portable. So I decided to start making large drawings that were mostly just exercises in geometry – in composition. Just trying to scale up and find a comfort zone working my arm in large gestures again. Very different than the comics I’d been making earlier in the summer. I leaned a big board up against the mantle and drew vertically on large sheets of paper – never resting my hand like I do when making comics – resting on the desk. A very different line is formed. Long continuous arcs are easier to make this way. Plus you can step back and see it. Room size.

Soon I was coloring some of these large drawings with an airbrush. And then I was just “drawing” with the airbrush with no sketch underneath. It’s really freeing to have one tool that can make fine lines and large flat areas of color. It felt very direct. And the colors were vibrant – not muddy like oil paint can be. Or plastic-y like acrylic paint on canvas can be. And since I was working on paper they were less precious than paintings but more “worked up” than most of my drawings. I was enjoying the process, the discovery.

I made over 100 of them over a few months and in early January I FedEx’d them all to the gallery. (Even though I’d only end up showing 19 of them, I was happy with the process. A lesson in editing on site, on deadline) I flew to L.A. a week before the show. Rented a car. Saw the sights. I came to L.A. early so I could see my friends who I never get to see: Sammy Harkham, Ron Regé Jr, Jordan Crane and a gang of others. The idea was to round everyone up for dinner one night. Sammy and Regé both had said that they never see the other cartoonists in town unless someone they all knew was visiting. “Good, I’ll be that someone”, I said, ” Do you think Jaime will come out to dinner with us if we ask him?”

Sammy had a plan. I dunno what strings he pulled but soon it was a Monday night and there was a dinner with Jaime, Sammy, Regé, Johnny Ryan, Jordan, and myself. This never happens they all said. We ate pizza & pasta. Drank a bit. Talked about where the freeways meet.

Had I ever seen Jaime this relaxed and talkative? At shows he’s usually got his Sue Storm invisible bubble head shield on. He’s totally listening but he’s on guard for crazy comics fans – people who, like, come up to him & just talk at him, rant at him about comics – people like… me.

But I can’t help it! It’s Jaime! When I’m around him I just have to excitedly ask dumb questions – I tried the silent, “oh shit, its Jaime, act cool, don’t say anything” approach but that doesn’t work too well for me. I just try & make him laugh & do my best Jerry Lewis routine. Sammy will be like talking shop with him & and I’m like “Hey! Have you seen that Jim Starlin comic…?!” – and then I’ll describe panels that I think Gilbert swiped from Starlin. I know it Beto! I got the proof! And Jaime just laughs. He won’t rat out his brother.

Oh, but does he ever remember who’s talked shit on him. That was some refreshing non- con talk. Like who said something somewhere years ago – like someone saying “Love and Rockets is this or that”. He remembers. Like elephant size memory. I think he has a book. A little black book. In his brain. A bucket list for the future. It made me think of Kirby. This nice, soft spoken guy who will fucking destroy you with his pen.

Sitting at a round table eating dinner I remember thinking “I’m the least talented cartoonist here, haha”. This was the major leagues and I’m just a sandlot player. A schmuck with a blog. A “painter/cartoonist” – which sounds like “singer/songwriter” – which as Reid Paley used to say sounds like “pisser/shitter”. I’m in that familiar territory of overlap. The doomed hell of Gary Panter. A circle of Dante.

So if I dare to mention myself in the company of Hernandez, Harkham, Regé, Ryan, and Crane – it’s knowing that I’m less like them and more just trying to do my own thing. Whatever that is. I mean, all of them have just put out new books and all of them are cranking on new work. They are professionals of the highest order. Honest to God heroes of mine. Friends. It was inspiring to be around them – and to realize that making comics wasn’t such a lonely pursuit after all. Meaning that there actually are people in the world who really do know what it means to be a comics artist. Not everyone is so understanding. So that familiarity with the craft &with each other’s work goes a long way.

Johnny Ryan was pretty laid back – but outside after dinner when I tried to explain my theory of Jaime’s influence upon Sammy and Jordan’s recent work – in front of everyone – Johnny goes “Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiip!” and laughs.

I asked Jaime if he was working on the new issue and he said yah. He said it was good to come out to this dinner because he was at home holding up four different pages trying to figure out a specific sequence. He said something about cramming an extra panel into a sequence – but that it fucks up the rhythm, the “space” on the page – the balance – so how do you do that? It’s intuitive – it’s not so scripted out that you could plan to avoid this moment where you need an extra panel. And it doesn’t fit somehow on the page.

Jaime Hernandez and some guy with a blog

Then Jaime turned to me and asked me what I thought was going to happen between Maggie and Reno. He nodded his head when I told him what I thought. But I know that those characters have a life of their own, lives of their own. Even to Jaime. He said so. He said he wished he could put them all on a train and have all these things happen at once, have all these things resolved in one story – but that’s not how it is with these characters. And then he laughed and said “Plus, I’d have to draw all those people on a train – that would take way too long!”

I thought Regé was going to show Jaime his tattoo but Ron said later he was too embarrassed for some reason. You know that little tattoo that Jaime has on his hand between thumb and forefinger? Well, Regé has the same tattoo – he’s had it since he was a teenager.

I dunno how to describe just standing around on the corner after dinner commiserating. I didn’t want to leave, so I kept bumming cigs off of Sammy to kill time. Jordan gave out copies of Uptight to those of us who didn’t have it yet. I insisted we get someone to take a picture of all of us together to prove that it actually happened. I promised Jaime I wouldn’t put it on the blog. He was like “No, it’s cool, put it online. This was fun.”

L.A. is such a nice city to drive a car in – mainly because everyone’s a good driver. So that made it easier to tool around looking for hardware stores & paint stores & art stores. Getting the gallery polished up and finding all the lumber and materials I needed for my show was tough. I’m used to East Coast shopping. Things are more neighborhoody. More chances for one stop shopping.

It took days to find sheets of Masonite. Days to find a halfway decent art store. So I was glad I did come a week early. Me and Sebastian de-installed the Nazi Knife show (guys – don’t use such heavy duty double stick tape to hang your drawings!) and then painted & patched the walls. Sebastian painted the floor while I cut Masonite sheets down to size. It was fun. And a lot of work – but mostly fun. I like working in galleries, working for galleries. Real deadline pressure. The show must go on!

And when the show finally did go on, when it finally opened, I was exhausted. I promised myself that I would stay fairly sober through it all – and did, thankfully. But somehow I can’t remember it all super clearly. One of those time compression/expansion things. Luckily Matt Seneca came to the show and was able to make a record of it. Check it out here. And Sebastian took some photos. Check them out here. Thank you, thank you. Like I said, I was exhausted and am glad you guys were able to capture a little bit of the spirit of the thing.

Forgive me, dear reader, for being proud. But I am. And forgive me if I’m boring you – but I’m not done. I gotta write about hanging out with Regé, Jordan, and Sammy. I felt so inspired after hanging with these guys that I gotta just put some of it down for posterity.

Ron Regé Jr is working on a massive new book. I saw him do five pages in the week I was there. He’s got this giant binder with reduced xeroxes of finished pages and tons of notes, sketches, and ideas written out for the pages he hasn’t done yet. But it’s all in order, so I could sort of read it – feel it – as a book. It’s in the style of his recent Cartoon Utopia minis – but for those he is usually cutting up a single page & placing one panel on each page – like 2 pages with 8 panels each becomes a 16 page mini-comic. So seeing the pages not cut up and sequenced together is quite an experience. His design sense is impeccable and the images are… Perfect. There’s never any white-out. “Yah, I don’t like using white-out”, sayeth Ron.

And for me, personally, the content that Ron is engaging in is, um, engaging to me. Call it new-agey, call it alchemic, call it whatever you want – but it is perfect for California. It felt very West Coast. Not marginal at all but broad in it’s appeal. It’s a natural extension of his earlier work, of Skibber Bee Bye, of figures wandering through a landscape. Now the landscape is more internal. And as if to just show me that he can do whatever he wants he pulls out a half finished story that is a breathtaking narrative – the kind of thing that I’m sure his fans want him to do. Ron’s range is truly incredible.

Regé can also intuit shapes & proportions without using a compass or really measuring. He makes “head arrangements” and just sees it all naturally. When I show him with some string the harmonic points he’s hitting on the page – we talk in musical terms. He talks about being an intuitive drummer and how he doesn’t read music but can figure it all out in his head quickly. I talk about how I don’t really hear music or understand music but how I understand harmony in color sequencing & proportion. “Yes! That’s how I feel with this”, and he points to a complex web of lines that creates a figure on his page. “I don’t want to measure it all out like I’m writing music. This is improvising. I’m improvising.”

Ron knows his proportions though – his “ear” for cadence and melody, if you will, are remarkable. Advanced. Ron just draws. He sits down and it just appears. He pencils some, but it’s the pen that’s doing all the work. It’s pretty “first take” – and it’s always a sure hand. Detailed AND consistent. No short cuts.

Being in his apartment I was struck by how prolific he has been. Regé doesn’t have many possessions. A lot of library books. A decent zine collection. Art supplies. But mostly it’s just a library of his own work. That’s all he has room for! It’s a reference library of various editions of his books. The French Skibber, the Spanish Skibber. Bottles of beer that are an issue of Yeast Hoist. (I actually got to meet Sam and Tim, the couple who make those beers) there are stacks and stacks of original art, sketchbooks, posters, prints. There’s a giant sharpie drawing that I was convinced was a small drawing blown up to poster size. But it was an original – an amazingly detailed drawing – a flyer for a music festival actually. Everywhere in the place are books he designed, did illos for, had comics in, whatever. It was such a strong voice. A real presence.

And Ron is just so amped up all the time that he made me feel like a lightweight. Like he’d go out to see bands three nights in a row, stay out all night AND draw a page a day! He doesn’t get rip-roaring drunk or anything at night – he just goes out and has social beers or whatever – but then he’s totally able to just draw all day when he wakes up. I felt bad for bummin’ around the house somedays with nowhere to go – but Ron was like “No, it’s cool, since you’ve been here it’s been good. Weird, but good, like I’m going out more and drawing more too.” he also said his landlord was gonna tear out the kitchen soon & he was trying to get the the most out of his time at his own desk. “Maybe I’ll go to Joshua Tree. I can get a lot of work done there”. Then he told me about drawing Skibber on an almond farm.

I’ve known Jordan Crane for years but this was the most I’d ever hung out with him. He lives close to Ron and came over a couple different nights to hang out. He smokes an electric cigarette. A custom made electric cigarette. Inside. Me and Ron would have to go out outside on the porch to smoke our real cigarettes. Not Jordan.

He gave me the new issue of Uptight – #4 – the one with the yellow orange cover. So nice. I liked reading the next chapters like it was a serial – which I guess it is. I felt like I vaguely knew what was going to happen. A character reveal. Very Jaime. And I mean that in the most sincere way. I like it. A lot. I remember thinking that with the last issue of Uptight. Very Jaime. Very Californian. It’s the pace of life out there. I can feel it. Californian authors pace things differently than Midwest or East Coast authors. I think so anyways. Think about it – comics were mostly an East Coast thing in the early days – a hyped up super fast slapstick action pace. West Coast artists like Jaime slow down the pace. I dunno. That’s what I think. It’s the way life unfolds in Los Angeles. A slow steady pace. Rolling. And I think that’s rubbed off a bit on folks like Jordan and Sammy. I feel it in their stories. It’s powerful. Or maybe it’s just in the water or it’s just California because I feel it in Regé and Johnny Ryan too. I dunno. Forgive me. I like keeping score. You don’t have to. Sorry.

Anyways, Jordan is a great talker & he explained how he customized his electric cigarette. And about color and printing ink and printers. The usual sports talk for comics folks. (Sasha said she went out to dinner with a bunch of cartoonists recently and it was just like listening to jocks talk about sports! Haha!)

Jordan is psyching himself up to draw a short story in a month so he was talking strategy. Maybe he could teach his kids how to color on Photoshop & they could help him with his deadline. Something like that. Child Labor. I think he was serious!

I hung out with Sammy the first day I arrived from New Mexico. We went to breakfast at like a movie star type French bistro. That was fun. I told him how much I liked his new comic – Crickets #3. He showed me his sketchbook and how he was composing scenes. They weren’t fixed – just sequences across the page in a loose web. He said something about if a scene needs breathing room don’t limit it’s page count. Time expansion. Less about fixed rhythms & more about playing by ear. Sort of like an additive process – playing off emotional changes – cramming moments together and then letting them breathe and spread out.

See, that’s what Jaime said. He said that whole thing about cramming an extra panel in when you need it and how you can’t plan for that. If the scene needs it, it needs it. I’m not saying that is a specific Californian problem or style – but it is a way of phrasing that seems more relaxed to allow for divergences within the narrative because of the pacing and because of the unity of the design. The unity of design of the characters I mean – and of the setting – and so the narrative just unfolds. Character driven.

Me and Sammy went up to Griffith Park, up to the Rebel Without a Cause Observatory to look out over the city and smoke cigarettes. L.A. is kind of magical. It’s like Heaven. Or Hell. Your choice. I had been so lonely out in the desert of New Mexico that I tagged along with Sammy while he went on his errands. We went to one of those movie poster stores on Hollywood Blvd. He bought a couple film stills for references. Then we went to the Family Store. Then I sat in the barber shop while he got a trim. Then to the butcher shop. I was stalling him as long as I could. Then his wife called and he had to go home for dinner. So I drove back to Echo Park. Me and Ron hit the taco truck. Heaven.

next week: walking around Santa Monica pier with John Pham and Jon Vermilyea!

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