Jay Lynch was there at the beginning. As the head of Bijou Funnies, he published some of the most significant underground pioneers of the late-60s, including folks like Robert Crumb, Skip Williamson, Art Spiegelman, and Justin Green, while gaining notoriety in his own right as an artist in his own right, thanks to titles like Nard ‘n’ Pat.
With that in mind, the context for our conversation feels a touch strange. When I call him at his home in upstate New York, the artist is eager to speak about his latest work, Mo and Jo Fighting Together Forever, a collaboration with Act-I-Vate artist, Dean Haspiel. It’s Lynch’s second book for young children under the Toon Books umbrella.
The connection between Lynch’s early career and his current children’s work is rather rather easily unpacked, however. Toon Books head (and New Yorker art director) Francoise Mouly approached Lynch to join the fold of her soon-to-be launched publishing house three years ago. The collaboration eventually resulted in Otto’s Orange Day, release by the company, earlier this year.
But Otto was hardly Lynch’s first work for children, the artist having spent a significant portion of his career working on contract for Topps—works like Wacky Packs and The Garbage Pail Kids—alongside fellow underground legend (and Mouly’s husband), Art Spiegelman.
We spoke to Lynch about Spiegelman, superheroes, and his days spent slaving away at in the My Little Pony mines.
Did Francoise approach you to do something for Toon Books?
Yeah, pretty early on. It was like three-and-a-half years ago. She called me up with the idea. And I wrote the Otto book, and it was supervised all through its writing by these people from school boards. I’m not sure exactly which ones, but I think it was Maryland and maybe Pennsylvania. So the book has things that they learn about in phonics classes. It has their vocabulary words and stuff like that, but it’s cleverly disguised.
Was that something they were attempting to do with all of the books, early on, or was it more to help you along with your first time writing for that age group?
Well, for many years, I worked for a company called Diamond Publishing (they don’t actually have anything to do with Diamond Distribution). This is a company that makes sticker albums. So I wrote a lot of licensed character sticker albums for kids about My Little Pony and Transformers and The Simpsons and Archie—anything that was a hot license. So I did do a lot of writing for kids, but not of my own characters. So she showed me Frank [Cammuso]’s book. Frank I knew of from Max Hamm. So, all the time I was writing the book, I thought that Frank would be drawing it. Frank gave his input and stuff, and I don’t know, it’s cute…
Do you think that Francoise approached you, based on this prior experience that you had had, working with kids’ books?
Um, I guess, yeah. Well, she approached Geoffrey Hayes at the same time, because he had kids books out.
So in a way, it was something that you sort of happily fell into.
It wasn’t my idea. It was fun to do, though.
But it’s not something you’re interested in centering a career around, at this point?
Well, I just wrote a song for a kids record. But I’m too old—I already had a career. Shel Silverstein wrote kids books.
Did you do any artwork for these books?
I actually drew the musical notes in the beginning of the book, when Otto sings. And I did the lettering on the note that Aunt Sally wrote him, but that’s only because Frank was out of town, and they couldn’t reach him [laughs]. I did roughs of the whole book. That’s how I submitted the book. But I don’t draw as cute as Frank, so my cats come out looking more like Fritz. So I just did that for facial expressions and positions and stuff. That was just the first draft. Frank added a more dynamic movement to it.
Are you drawing still?
Oh yeah. I draw constantly. We did the Wacky Packs and the Garabage Pail Kids for Topps, and then I revived them, a few years ago, so I’m constantly drawing pictures of Wacky Packs for fans who pay more than Topps does for the real ones. I do stuff for Mineshaft Magazine, as well.
At what point did you join Topps?
And Art was already there, at that point?
Yeah. They hired Art when he graduated—he actually worked there when he was still in high school, and then they hired him the summer that he graduated high school.
How much freedom did Topps give you?
Well, when making a new series, we had pretty much complete freedom. When it became successful, then they’d start to go over it and change things.
In terms of Diamond, working with licenses like My Little Pony and The Simpsons—
Well, with Diamond it was all licensed stuff, so it had to be approved by the license holders. The Archie comics looks exactly like an Archie comic.
Is it tough to work within such strict parameters?
Well, I don’t do it anymore, except once in a while I do it for Topps. But no, it wasn’t they paid me. It was like a 9 to 5 job. I was the editor of their sticker albums for six years.
Since they revived Garbage Pail Kids a few years back, is that still a significant chunk of your income?
Wacky Packs is. That’s doing really well, and there’s a Wacky Packs book that reprints the ones from the 70s, where Art wrote the forward, and I wrote the afterword. That sold out of the first printing. That came out in May and the Otto book came out in April.
And the book you did with Dean just came out.
You can buy it on Amazon for the last month or so, but it was just officially released over the last weekend. With Dean I didn’t do roughs. I just wrote it and he drew it. He was more familiar with the genre than I.
The superhero genre.
There’s a somewhat artifical divide that we draw between indie comics and superhero books. Was it a genre that interested you, as far as writing?
Well, when I was a kid, I like The Spirit and Plastic Man, because they were self-contained. And also, the way that [Jack] Cole and [Will] Eisner drew had kind of a sense of humor to them. I was never really into Superman, though. It was Francoise’s idea to do a superhero book. When I go to the library where I live, in upstate New York, they tell me that kids gravitate toward manga and superheroes, so this may be a way to reach those who would only look at a superhero book.
[Continued in Part Two.]