Skip Williamson came of age alongside contemporaries such as Robert Crumb and Art Spiegelman, growing into of the most influential artist of underground comics’ most influential decade. Between the launch of Bijou Funnies, in 1968 with fellow luminaries Crumb and Jay Lynch, to a stint at Playboy, to the more politically-minded aspects of career, including doing illustrations for friend and co-conspirator, Abbie Hoffman’s masterpiece, Steal This Book, Williamson left his mark on the scene, before ultimately shying away, fed up and disillusioned.
Williamson has since returned to the scene, and is currently working on pieces for the renowned Fantagraphics series, Blab, and for the site, ComicMix, run by old friend, Mike Gold. We caught up with Williamson, and discussed Yippies, Rudolph Valentino, and leaving floaters in the Playboy pool.
Do you follow the comics scene anymore?
I really don’t. I was in a comic store today, probably for the first time in years. I kind of know what’s going on, but I don’t really follow it that much.
What possessed you to get up and go to a comic shop today?
I know the owner and haven’t seen him in a while, so I just wanted to get together and have a cup of coffee. It wasn’t about comics. For the last ten years, I’ve been concentrating on painting. I haven’t done a lot of comics, but some reason, for the past six months or so, I started doing comics again. Right now, on my board, I have four pages that I’m doing for the next issue of Blab. And I have ten pages that I’m working on for ComicMix, which is new. It was put together by Mike Gold. I’ve known Mike for a million years. He used to be one of the editors of the old Chicago Seed underground newspaper. He was also one of the founders of the original Chicago Comic Con, then went on to DC, Image, and a bunch of other places.
So what drove you away from comics?
Wow. Now that’s interesting. I got into self-publishing around 1994, and each time I published a book, fewer people bought it. The last thing I published was a collection of ‘Snappy’ Sammy Smoot strips, and I only got 1,500 orders, so I said, “fuck it. If nobody cares, I’m going to do something else.” I wasn’t being that vitriolic about it—I’d always liked the medium of painting, and the whole lowbrow thing was beginning to move on, so I figured I’d do that. Now I’m totally fed up with the gallery scene, so I’m back to comic again.
You managed to sustain yourself with your painting, though?
Uh…yeah. It’s been pretty good. And the collectors pay me too, mainly for the comic book work, but I do have a couple of hard-edged collectors who are interested in the paintings too, and they pay big bucks for them, so I’m lucky to have these guys to go back to.
So you stopped following the scene around the same time that you stopped drawing comics?
The last time that I was really into comics was during the underground comix era. I had every single underground comic there was, for years. After that, I kind of lost interest. I got to know some of the younger guys—they’re not younger anymore—like Dan Clowes and Chris Ware, and some of the guys from Chicago. I followed their work, but I didn’t pay attention to what was really going on in the alternative comic book scene, because a lot of it, I thought was without energy. It didn’t have the fire the original stuff had. The kids, these days are always drawing books about drinking coffee. We did heavier drugs than coffee [laughs].
Your stuff is also infamous for its politics.
Yeah. Political or anti-political—which I suppose is the same thing. The last comic art that I really worked on, before I got disillusioned by the thing, dealt with social politics. The dynamics between males and females, and how human beings interact politically, rather than the overt politics of the people we elect. I don’t know if I lost interest in it—it just became kind of a bore.
You did Abbie Hoffman’s [Steal This Book].
Oh yeah, I knew Abbie pretty well. That stuff I loved. What I liked about Abbie was, during those days, on the left of the spectrum, political groups tended to be pretty somber. The Maoists or the Trotskites. Now all of the Trotskites have become the neocons. The Yippies were into revolution for the fun of it. They had a sense humor. Abbie and Paul Krassner, who was one of the founders of the party, had a sense of humor. I got into the Conspiracy Trial, which was the first big media trial. Now we have them like every other week. There were so many people that the only way you could get in was to be a relative of one of the defendants, and Abbie looked at the bailiff and said, “this guy is my sista.” So they let me in as Abbie Hoffman’s sister. So I got to draw and hang in the court room as Abbie’s sister. I mean, Tom Hayden would never do that [laughs]!
Humor of that scale definitely seems to be missing from contemporary politics, despite the fact that we’re in an age when we can almost certainly use it.
People never remember the lessons of history. Didn’t we fight this battle before? I mean I told you guys to smash the state—why didn’t you listen to me? What’s wrong with you people out there? I had fun with it. I still do some politically-themed projects, and am affectionate to the rabble rousers and anarchists. Not necessarily leftists, but people that are into upsetting the social order, in order to make other people think.
[Continued in Part Two.]