J.R. Williams: The Comics Decoder Interview / R. W. Watkins

J.R. Williams:

The Comics Decoder Interview

R. W. Watkins corresponds with the Northwest legend of the Alternative Era

31 October 2014 (9:14pm)

It’s the 31st of October, and the girlfriend and I just finished dragging her mollycoddled, unappreciative youngest son door to door trick-or-treating. He refused to dress up, didn’t like having to walk, and kept whining to go home — and he’s nearly 12! At that age, our parents would have to rally us into the house with a stick — on any night! Given our mutual horror interests and (obvious) love for the holiday, this sounds like an excellent place to start an interview. Any thoughts, J.R., on the state of Hallowe’en and the lack of interest and initiative on the part of the young people it was traditionally aimed at here in North America?

Has Halloween really changed that much? You’d never know it, in my neighborhood. I look after my niece (age 7) a lot, and she is TOTALLY into the Halloween thing. Every year she looks forward to getting her new costume together, and she usually wants to dress up like some kind of monster or movie character...she gets together with a bunch of the other local kids (plus parents, uncles, etc.) & they all practically DASH from house to house. Last year she had plans to be ‘Mavis’ from Hotel Transylvania... but then, I got her watching old Addams Family T.V. episodes, so at the last minute she decided to go as Wednesday. She was Mavis (or, at least, some kind of vampire) this year. Naturally, I’m pleased that she’s into some cool/weird fantasy stuff and isn’t just a girly-girl who wants to dress up like a princess, or whatever. I have a lot of fun following the kids around while they’re trick-or-treating... I’ve got a bluetooth speaker I strap to my backpack & play Halloween-themed tunes while we’re out terrorizing the neighborhood. Sorry your kid is such a wet blanket!

A wet blanket indeed, poor boy! I’m glad to hear there’s still some Hallowe’en spirit in your neck of the woods! There are probably regional variations — country to country, state to province, town to town — thankfully. Whatever the case, there seems to be a growing trend towards overprotection, laziness and greed: Don’t bother dressing up, grab your iphone, climb aboard the car at 4PM with your lazy, grouchy parents, be chauffeured about to the nearest houses in the ‘best’ neighbourhoods, glean as much junk as possible (and complain because the sweets are the wrong brand or flavour), and then be home by 7PM to pig out while dictating your Christmas ‘wish list’ to your parents as they catch up with the Kardashians and Honey Boo-Boo. No Hallowe’en spirit or desire for ‘atmosphere’ whatsoever. As for the ‘trickster’ element, we’re now far removed from the days of boys frightening the wits out of the local grouch (like in that E. R. Cruz House of Mystery tale I provided a link to on Facebook). Times have certainly changed.

Anyway, onward to the comics...

Tell me, J.R., how old were you when you got bitten by the comics/cartoons bug? What inspired you to pick up a pen or pencil to try your hand at your own sketches? I’m sure everyone would like to know a bit about what you were reading/watching in those days and how it influenced you.

I was probably about five years old when I first got motivated to draw. On the Oregon coast, about an hour-and-a-half away from where my family lived, there was a wacky restaurant called the Pixie Kitchen. The food was fine, but the real attraction for me was that the place was set up to be a total tourist trap! The menus and place mats were decorated with lots of cartoony drawings of “pixies” who were doing all kinds of crazy stuff…a pixie riding a unicycle, carrying a large fish on a platter…a pixie using an electric eel to power a little cook stove…a pixie riding an egg beater, which was acting as an outboard boat motor…and etc. The restaurant had a collection of old fun house mirrors, a gift shop that sold gags and novelties (the kinds one often saw advertised in comic books), and other fun stuff. It really was some brilliant marketing…kids from all over probably begged their parents to take them to the Pixie Kitchen, and I was no different. Google “Pixie Kitchen” and maybe you’ll see what I mean. There were billboards for the place every few miles along the way, featuring similar brightly-colored pixie cartoons. I couldn’t help being curious about these characters…who were these guys, anyway? Where did they come from? What were their personalities like? There weren’t any answers to these questions, of course…the pixies were just advertising characters. There weren’t any “stories” about them… no comic books, or animated ads. Some of my earliest drawings were inspired by these characters. Since I really didn’t know anything about them, I simply started making up stories, situations, and personalities for them. Later, I did something similar with the characters from the Weird-Ohs model kits. It’s obvious to me that my interests in drawing, writing, and characterization all evolved simultaneously. I’ve never been much of a “plotter”… I guess my best work has typically been character-driven, with stories that are brief and very situational.

The Awwwww element: Williams in the late 1950s / early 1960s

I loved Dr. Seuss books. I read some Harvey comics, like “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” but — probably no surprise — was much more attracted to their “bad boy” characters (like “Spooky, the Tough Little Ghost” and “Hot Stuff, the Little Devil”). I watched a lot of cartoons on TV, of course… Fleischer’s Popeye and Betty Boop, and Warner Brothers cartoons were favorites. Rocky and Bullwinkle, Beany and Cecil, Tom Terrific. TV shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters. I discovered Don Martin’s cartoons before I was really old enough to understand or appreciate Mad magazine (I had a worn copy of Martin’s first paperback). I’m sure I must have enjoyed some syndicated newspaper comics, also. I loved Jerry Lewis and monster movies.

Did you study visual art at any point later? And where and when did you first publish your work? Did you get a start in school newspapers, underground newspapers, zines or anything like that? I seem to remember reading something about you doing a piece for Rip Off Press in the late ’70s. Is that correct, or was that another J.R. Williams? (Yeah, I’m building up to those Bad Boys of yours....)

I never had any formal education in comics or graphic art. I did always draw and/or write for school newspapers, from junior high through college. Eventually I heard about the self-publishing boom of the 1980s via Jay Kennedy’s Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, and I began submitting work to Clay Geerdes’ Comix World. Before long I was selling work to various magazines and tabloids that few folks are likely to remember now… but, no, I didn’t place anything with Rip Off Press in the ’70s (though I did later). I didn’t feel as though things were taking off until I sold my first piece to Weirdo magazine, around 1984 or ’85. Pete Bagge had recently taken over as Weirdo’s editor… I’d sent my submission to Robert Crumb, and Pete had accepted it.

Yeah, I checked with the Grand Comics Database. You never contributed anything to Rip Off Press until 1990, I believe — a piece called ‘Vampire Cowboys’ for Rip Off Comix. Sounds intriguing!

21 December 2014

Well, it sounds like the Pixie Kitchen evolved into something like a miniature Disneyland for the Pacific Northwest! I can see how that would have stimulated a child’s creative sense. I must confess that I thought the world of Schulz’s Peanuts to have been a fascinating place to inhabit when I was a child in the ’70s. I can remember jumping on my mother’s new barbecue in imitation of Snoopy and shouting “Surf’s Up!”, and breaking one of the aluminum legs off of it!

I did enjoy Schulz’s Peanuts, but there were other daily strips I liked more. I was a big fan of Johnny Hart’s B.C., Parker & Hart’s The Wizard of Id, and Tom K. Ryan’s Tumbleweeds. I owned lots of paperback reprints of all of these…they appealed more to my particular sense of humor. Peanuts seemed rather tame to me in comparison.

Now, decades before you came along, there was the fairly famous Canadian-born cartoonist J. R. Williams, who did the single-panel Out Our Way and various strips. Have people been prone to point that out to you over the years? Ever received any flack for it? (I’m thinking Thomas Wolfe vs. Tom Wolfe.)

I guess I became aware of the “other” J.R. Williams when I was in my 20s. Although our work has very little in common, I appreciated his. I think of him as a sort of more authentic Norman Rockwell… “Americana,” but without all of the warts removed. People have sometimes asked if we are somehow related (we aren’t, as far as I know). By curious coincidence, however, our names are exactly the same (“James Robert”), and (cue the Twilight Zone music)… he died the year I was born….

You mentioned Warner Brothers cartoons.... I have to ask you, has there been any temptation over the years to do a spoof strip in which Sylvester finally gets to eat Tweety-Pie or Wile E. gets to snuff the roadrunner — in gory detail?

I was never inspired to lampoon the Warner Brothers cartoons, but I think I learned a lot from them. Even as a kid I always paid attention to the cartoon credits and recognized the names of favorite directors. Chuck Jones was tops in my book, and I got a lot of ideas about characterization, expression, and timing from his work. I finally got to meet him once. He was in Portland to attend a gallery show of his work and stopped in at Will Vinton Studios, where I was working at the time, to give us all a lunchtime talk. I also got to meet Bob Clampett at the San Diego Con, shortly before he passed away. Both men seemed very genuine to me… friendly, down-to-earth, generous guys.

Music also seems to be a big part of your world. Were there any acts that you were listening to from a young age that might say something about J.R. Williams the cartoonist and visual artist?

Man, don’t get me started on music and records! I listen to such a broad range of stuff, it’s a whole ’nother interview. But I did develop a taste for oddball recordings when I was very young. I grew up in the 1960s, when comedy and novelty records were often played on Top 40 radio. I have two older sisters — they were both pretty much in their teens by the time I came along — and they often listened to the radio. I can remember them calling me to listen whenever certain funny novelty songs came on. Naturally enough, I enjoyed listening to just about anything that made me laugh. Later on, after I was old enough to operate the family record player, I found a few wacky 45 singles lying around the house that I’d play over and over. For example… one of these was titled “Blue Wiggle,” which was recorded by Jack Paar (who hosted The Tonight Show after Steve Allen). You should be able to hear this on YouTube… it’s sort of a slow rock & roll tune, with weird, nonsensical spoken-word vocals. I guess Paar was trying to poke fun at the stream-of-consciousness “beatnik”-type poetry that was in vogue at the time. There’s also some jazzy whistling on the record that’s really strange. After hearing stuff like this I was always on the lookout for funny or unusual recordings. Another memorable 45 single I got ahold of as a kid was “Suffocate” by Ralph Smedley and the Breathers. This was sort of like a “do the twist” record, but instead of encouraging you to try out a new dance step, the lyrics suggested that you try to stop breathing: “You’ll feel great when you suffocate!” You can probably hear this one on YouTube, also. So, yeah… records certainly had some direct influence on my sense of humor, along with Mad magazine and the other comics I read, as well as movies, TV and etc.

One of the free MP3 mix CDs included with purchases of original Williams art

You mentioned Harvey Comics. Some of the earliest comics I remember reading in the early to mid ’70s were Sad Sack titles. (Not sure what became of Sad Sack....) I was wondering, did you read the other ‘mainstream’ companies — Marvel, DC, Charlton, Gold Key — when you were growing up?

Sure, I read all kinds of comics. I did read plenty of superhero stuff, but preferred the writing and characterizations in Marvel comics over most of the other publishers’ books. I had a fondness for oddball comics, too… Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, and Herbie (all of which could be insanely surreal, at times). Monster and horror comics. Movie adaptation comics, and even a few Classics Illustrated. Gilbert Shelton’s Wonder Warthog made some early appearances in Drag Cartoons (comics about hot rods, not drag queens)… Gilbert’s work had a huge influence on me. His stuff was typically laugh-out-loud funny, and nothing has pleased me more than when people occasionally tell me that my work has had the same effect on them. I was a big fan of Don Martin’s work in Mad, and especially enjoyed his paperback collections.

Speaking of mainstream comics, the other day I was having a bit of a row with a bunch of fellows from one of the Facebook groups regarding Ditko’s and Kirby’s departures from Marvel in 1966 and ’70. Anyway, I suggested that after thirty years in the business, Kirby may have been expecting some of the respect like that which was being paid to comic-strip artists like Schulz, Caniff, Kelly, etc. by that time. However, owing to his superhero comics for the big companies, he would have still been seen as a promoter of illiteracy and a perverter of children in 1970. This got me thinking about the larger picture, and how difficult it can be to think of ‘mainstream’ artists, ‘alternative’ and ‘underground’ artists, comic-strip artists, and political caricaturists as all members of the same field. You people seem worlds apart, yet you’re usually all lumped under the ‘cartoonist’ moniker. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on this...

It’s certainly true that the comics industry is multi-faceted. But although the applications of the craft can differ quite a bit, the basic disciplines are fairly similar, from a creative standpoint. In a professional sense we all have a great deal in common, regardless of the type of work we’re producing. This might not be immediately apparent to the average Joe. Then again, when it comes down to the actual business of producing different kinds of comics work, things can get pretty diverse. For instance, of course, in mainstream comics it’s common to have one person writing, another doing the pencils, another inking, etc. Independent/alternative artists like myself were typically handling all of these different chores single-handedly. Naturally enough I’ve tended to gravitate towards others who work in ways similar to my own. I haven’t developed many long-lasting associations with folks who work in the mainstream comics business. Back in the ’80s, when I began regularly attending the San Diego Con, it was relatively easy to rub shoulders with professionals who worked in all different aspects of the comics industry. Somehow I’d find myself attending a birthday party for Jack Kirby, or participating in a workshop with Harvey Kurtzman. But the San Diego event has grown and changed so much over the years… the “big shots” aren’t as easily accessible now, and I doubt I’d find it so simple to crash any more Marvel parties, especially not if there’s a hosted bar! The rifts between different types of comics creation do seem to have grown broader in more recent years — but then, it’s also not so unusual for alternative-type artists to do some occasional “professional” comics work, or vice-versa. The big differences are in the business of comics, and not so much the comics form.

15 February 2015

I think it’s safe to say that Peanuts was at its outright funniest in the late ’50s through early ’60s. What I always thought kind of strange was the fact that, as early as the late 1960s, Schulz was criticising so many of the newer strips for being purposefully ‘offbeat’ and deviating too far from ‘old-fashioned family fun’ (or whatever). But this was coming from a man who had a van Gogh-collecting beagle pretending to be a World War I fighter pilot, and within a few years would have a five-year-old girl carrying on regular conversations with school buildings — including at least one ‘suicidal’ one! Most people have this view today of Peanuts as having been ‘safe’ and ‘conservative’, but I always thought it could actually be sometimes a little too avant-garde for its own good — certainly by the ’70s. I think people are already forgetting a lot of the reality surrounding Peanuts and many of those other most classic strips. Any thoughts?

Peanuts was certainly a classic among comic strips. Obviously it has become a part of our collective consciousness. I just seldom found it to be a “laugh-out-loud” sort of strip… more of a wry, head-nodding kind of funny. I think a lot of the humor that came out of that ’50s / ’60s era was a bit sharper and less lowest-common-denominator. “Sick” humor was in, as were jokes about things like psychoanalysis and politics. A bit of occasional intellectualism wasn’t forbidden. As the years have gone by, things seem to have gotten more conservative, at least as far as newspaper comic strips go. There’s so much more sensitivity now about being potentially offensive, and possibly alienating subscribers or advertisers. You can certainly be more topical or opinionated in a strip like, say, Doonesbury or Bloom County.

You mentioned rubbing shoulders with some of the greats when crashing Marvel parties and attending the San Diego Con decades ago, and how it would probably be difficult to do so today. Do you ever get the impression that people in the mainstream comics industry are placed on a higher and more isolated pedestal than ever, yet the work being produced is of a lower and lower quality and digested by fewer and fewer readers? I certainly do! I mean, critics from publications like The Comics Journal have spent the last 25 years or so asking, does anyone under 30 actually READ comics any longer? Well, such a semi-rhetorical question seems more relevant than ever in recent years. Will any of the stuff being produced today by the Marvels and DCs be held in high esteem a few decades down the road, you think?

I don’t have much of an opinion about mainstream comics today because I just don’t read them, and haven’t for many years. I do think it’s interesting how huge the whole superhero thing has become in recent years, what with all of the big-budget movies and etc. It’s fun to see all of those characters I grew up with on the big screen, being played by some of the biggest Hollywood stars. Back in the day, the popular superheroes usually got the TV bargain-basement treatment… like the cheap Spider-Man cartoons, or the Incredible Hulk series. I guess Lou Ferrigno is probably still making convention appearances, but I doubt that he draws fans like he used to! I enjoy watching the new superhero movies as entertainment, but to be honest, they’re generally pretty forgettable.

Now let’s talk about those Bad Boys of yours. Now, if I understand correctly, you created those sadistic brats in the mid ’80s, and the earliest strips were drawn on the mostly blank pages of a sort of ‘record of deaths’ book for some Christian denomination or another. How ironic on one hand and how appropriate on the other! Can you tell us a little about that book, how it came into your possession, and why you chose to use it as a sketchbook?

The Bad Boys did start out in a sort of blank book that belonged to a good friend of mine. We found the book at a Salvation Army-type resale shop. The book was supposed to be a record of deceased members of some church congregation in California, but most of the pages were blank. We were teenagers at the time, and loved sick humor about serious subjects like death and religion. So we started filling up the book with our random writings and doodlings, trying to crack each other up. Later my friend went off to Florida to college, and eventually settled in Texas… but we mailed the book back and forth a few times, adding to it all the while. The first Bad Boys story was added sometime in the early or mid ’80s, I guess.

How much of your own childhood went into those Bad Boys characters and strips? Did many young boys and girls go up in flames or suffocate in abandoned fridges in your neighbourhood?

My mother was (and still is) a great Mom… but she has always been awfully cautious, nervous, and even squeamish. I was a typical young boy in the sense that I liked a lot of things that got on my poor mother’s nerves… After raising two girls I suppose she wasn’t really prepared to deal with a kid who liked all kinds of potentially dangerous activities like climbing very tall trees, jumping over things on bikes, blowing stuff up with explosive fireworks, and so on. We used to get this monthly magazine called Family Safety… I think it was something sent out for free; probably had to do with my dad’s work or labor union. These magazines were always full of stories about kids getting locked into abandoned refrigerators and dying, or falling into wells or mine shafts, or other horrifying stuff. We also had this digest-sized booklet around the house that we simply referred to as “The Accident Book” because the cover was missing and we didn’t know what the actual title was. This book dealt with the same kind of unfortunate horrors as Family Safety, except it was drawn in a sort of cartoony or comic-book style. It depicted things like untended babies floating face down in bathtubs or swimming pools, absent-minded housewives getting their hands caught in old wringer-style washing machines, people falling asleep with lit cigarettes… You get the picture. I would crack jokes about these drawings sometimes, probably just to see if I could get some kind of reaction out of my mother. In any case, I’m sure that “The Accident Book” contributed quite a lot to my warped sense of humor. I still have the book!

Something else I’ve often wondered is how come the strips collected in Completely Bad Boys were not presented in chronological order of writing and original publication. Why did you choose to jumble them for the most part? And for that matter, were there (m)any strips that didn’t make the cut?

It never entered my mind to present the Bad Boys material chronologically. I just put the stories and strips together in a sequence that seemed good to me at the time. When the Bad Boys book was published it was pretty much all of the material that existed up to that point (hence the title, Completely Bad Boys). A lot of later material has been created since then.

I think the only one of your ‘solo’ comics that I don’t own a copy of is Fun House. Can you tell me a little about that book and how it came into being?

Fun House was just a collection of random stuff… mini comics that had never been reprinted, stories that hadn’t yet been included in other collections of work, etc. Michael Dowers at Star Head Comix suggested the book.

What was it like dealing with Fantagraphics in the 1980s and ’90s? Now, no doubt like a lot of other people, I have this highly romanticised view of Fantagraphics during that period of grunge rock and cutting-edge television that I’ve been calling the ‘Pearl Age’ (roughly late ’80s to mid ’90s) as being on par with EC in the ’50s or Marvel in the ’60s or something. What was the reality of the company in those years? It obviously wasn’t a 1930s-style setup of cubicles, cigars and bourbon bottles under the desks, but was it the sort of place you could walk into? Did it have a physical presence, for lack of a better term? How did you get along with Gary Groth, Kim Thompson, etc? Did you develop any sort of noteworthy relationship with those fellows?

I always had a perfectly satisfactory relationship with Fantagraphics. Kim Thompson was a big supporter of my work, and he was the editor I always worked with. I don’t really know Gary Groth well, but we got along just fine… maybe because Gary likes firearms and fireworks even more than I do! Kim was great about paying me immediately whenever I handed in some new work. The Fantagraphics “office” in Seattle was just an old house that had once had a fortune teller doing business there (I remember they’d kept some of the former tenant’s beaded curtains hanging in the doorways). Pretty informal atmosphere… sure, you could just stop in any old time. There was always someone interesting to talk to. Kim and Gary had rooms that served as offices; the larger rooms had lots of different people’s work spaces all crammed in together. Eventually they rented the 2nd floor of the house as an apartment space… Julie Doucet lived there for a while. Gary lived north of Seattle… He used to have parties for visiting artists (or whatever occasion) at his place, but people got tired of having to drive all the way there and back (especially under the influence). From late ’92 to ’95 I was living in the Ballard neighborhood (near Pete Bagge and his wife) with folks like Pat Moriarity, Bob Crabb, Helena Harvilicz (former Comics Journal editor)… so our place eventually became the official Fantagraphics “party house.” We often had artists from out-of-town (or from other countries) as house guests. So, yeah… those were some great, very memorable years for me.

31 March 2015

Let me ask you about the other major work that you did for Fantagraphics and/or Cat-Head... I’ll start with the single-issue magazines... As opposed to Crap, which endured for seven issues, were titles like Bad Comics, Bummer and Damnation! intended as one-offs, or did matters of commerce and the powers-that-be deal them an early end?

Bad Comics, Bummer, and Damnation! were intended as one-shots. I had done a lot of short stories and/or strips that had been published elsewhere, so the one-shot titles were simply collections of work that had been previously published. There’s also some small-press strategy at work in the making of one-shot titles... Number-one issues of just about anything tend to sell better than subsequent issues, and consequently the distributors would typically order/sell more copies. Plus, the artist gets paid again for the reprinting of stories which have already been produced.

As I mentioned, Crap lasted for seven issues, so do you look upon that series today as your most significant work in the magazine medium? If not, what would it be?

I guess I felt some obligation to at least try to create a continuing series, which is how Crap came about. I don’t think it was an altogether successful endeavor. Kim Thompson, my editor at Fantagraphics, once made the observation that my particular creative strengths were better suited to doing “short stories” rather than longer pieces, and I had to agree. If I’d been a bit more savvy, perhaps I would have just continued to crank out the one-shots!

Just last night I was re-reading Bummer — the mag which reprinted the aforementioned ‘Vampire Cowboys’ I now realise! I always thought some of your more memorable images were in the opening story — the Frankenstein monster eating baby hearts and standing with wilted flowers as his girlfriend blows him off! Were stories like that one (‘They Made Me A Monster!’) and ‘The Night J.R. Spent in Jail’ really as autobiographical as suggested? Whatever the case, they certainly evoke memories of my own early years!

I remember someone writing a long article on autobiographical comics for The Comics Journal back when I was very active in the medium, and I recall feeling a bit miffed that my work wasn’t mentioned. I did a fair share of autobiographical material in those days, though I did tend to exaggerate — wildly, sometimes — in the interest of telling more interesting or entertaining stories (I think I was influenced a lot by authors like James Thurber in this regard). Perhaps I exaggerated things so much, the author of the article didn’t think my stories qualified as “autobiography”!

 ‘They Made Me a Monster’ (excerpt) from Bummer (Fantagraphics, 1995)

I can remember Fantagraphics promoting Crap as the series featuring characters based on the same people on which Peter Bagge based his Hate! (and Neat Stuff...?) characters. How accurate was that?

Pete Bagge and I met in 1985, and I ended up living with him and his wife for a short time. We did know a lot of the same people and we all socialized quite a bit in those days. When I moved to Seattle in ’92, I lived in the same neighborhood as Pete. I didn’t realize that Crap had been promoted in the way you’ve mentioned, but I suppose there’s some truth to that notion. We had a load of laughs, for sure!

Now, if I’m not mistaken, you worked for the company that did the California Raisins claymation adverts and specials (satirically documented as the ‘Florida Olives’ segment in Crap #2). Can you tell me a bit about that? It sounds like a fairly lucrative yet creatively dead-end job.

I did work for Will Vinton Studios — home of “Claymation” and the California Raisins — for some years, beginning in 1988. I was originally hired as an animator-in-training, but ended up doing a variety of different jobs over the years, including set and character design, storyboarding, and even a bit of writing. Being part of such an amazing community of remarkably talented and creative people was a tremendously rewarding experience. But, yeah... creatively-speaking the atmosphere could be somewhat stifling. After all, we were mostly producing advertising and programming for network television, so there were obvious limitations and censorship considerations. I certainly didn’t have the kind of freedom there I had doing alternative/underground comics. Eventually I began to question my own motivations for staying in the business... I wasn’t thrilled about continuing to channel my creative energies into (essentially) selling people junk they didn’t really need. I left the studio in 2001 and focused on freelance, self-representing-artist-type work.

31 July 2015

Getting back to the old comics of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, are there any books and strips from that period that you feel have been overlooked or forgotten over the years? What titles should be receiving more recognition?

Not much from that period springs to mind immediately. When I think of comics work that’s potentially deserving of more recognition, I tend to think of things from the ’80s and after. But I was (and am) a big fan of Basil Wolverton’s visual style (not so much his storytelling), and I still think ACG’s Herbie comics were really unique and, in a way, brilliant!

Any particular thoughts on the recent shooting tragedy at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris?

I was genuinely disturbed by this. I do have strong feelings about freedom of self-expression, so anything which challenges that sort of creative freedom is something I perceive as extremely negative. In this particular case, the result was especially horrifying. It seems to me that traditional religious fundamentalism is one of the largest obstacles in the way of the evolution of collective human consciousness… That notion certainly didn’t originate with me; Joseph Campbell addressed this idea repeatedly in his writing. I’ve often been critical of fundamentalist Christian thinking in my own work. So, naturally enough, the Charlie Hebdo incident is something I felt in a very personal way. For a few weeks I ran one of the “Je Suis Charlie” illustrations as my Facebook profile photo.

Speaking of ideals and dogmas, where do you stand politically in recent years compared to someone like Peter Bagge? I notice Bagge has evolved into some sort of libertarian, writing for Reason Magazine even. I can relate, for it seems that every piece of legislation — whether coming from the partisan Left or the partisan Right — that’s been formulated over the past couple of decades has been restrictivist in nature. Given the steady move towards a nanny state in most Western countries, I’m surprised anyone can still walk outside the door without wearing a mandatory suit of armour.

I’m not a politically-minded person. Thinking about politics gives me a headache. As far as I’m concerned, politics today are all about corruption, making money, and exploiting the people and resources of this country and those of less affluent nations. I don’t believe that politics will solve the human race’s problems. I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious to more and more people that we can’t possibly continue to sustain our current levels of consumption of natural resources. We need to seriously examine our individual and collective values instead of mindlessly maintaining the status quo. Change has to happen on a more personal level, and I think that sort of change isn’t something that can be legislated.

You seem to have disappeared sometime there in the mid 1990s. For a long time you seemed to be yet another lost name from the hip American Northwest of the early ’90s — like Twin Peaks or Mother Love Bone or something! This begs the question: What have you been up to these past two decades, J.R.? Artistically, I mean?

In ’95, after 3 years of doing comics work in Seattle, I returned to Portland and got back into the animation business. This was around the same time that the bottom fell out of the distribution end of the comics biz, which to a large extent effectively ended the alternative comics boom of the late ’80s / early ’90s. I was offered comics work occasionally, but the page rates were typically lower than I was used to, so I frequently declined. I did do a few things for Heavy Metal magazine and Dark Horse comics, which actually paid pretty well. Business picked up at Will Vinton Studios, and I ended up working on a couple different TV programs that were produced there: one of these was The PJs, which featured Eddie Murphy’s voice talents. I left Vinton’s in 2001 and started painting… Since then I’ve focused mainly on selling original art and art prints: paintings, drawings, comic art. I’ve developed a distaste for the art gallery scene, but I’ve enjoyed doing small press or alternative comics-related events, like APE (aka the Alternative Press Expo, in San Francisco).

Carnival Time  (acrylic and ink on unstretched canvas), 2004. 
Available for sale at ComicArtCollective.com.

And what exactly are you up to these days, J.R.? Can you tell us a little about the visual art you’re producing and selling online? Can you see yourself doing comics again anytime in the future?

When I first started to paint I was working in a more abstract style. Eventually I got into doing work with more of a pop art slant. At the present time I’m going through another sort of transition, though it’s too soon for me to accurately predict where things are going! But I’ve been doing creative work of one kind or another for most of my life, so I feel confident in predicting that this is something that’ll continue. Collaborative comics work I did with friends like Dennis Eichhorn and Pat Moriarity still pops up occasionally on BoingBoing. I do promotional stuff for online entities like WFMU radio. I update my personal blog occasionally. I’ve taught myself to make animated GIFs from still images, though I haven’t yet figured out how to make any money at it. I’d enjoy doing some comics again, but I can’t afford to make them for free!

Cheers, JR! It’s been great chatting with you like this — dare I say it, enlightening! Thanks again! 

Strictly Commercial: J.R. on Facebook!
Totally Chenille: J.R.’s Fun House blog!