In this second part of our interview with the Jack Survives artist, we discuss the influence of EC Comics, Jerry Moriarty’s fascination with “cool,” and the role that Alvin Buenaventura plays as, “the adult” in his life.
Who were your comics heroes?
The EC people. EC was just starting when I was going through puberty.
Jack Davis, yeah—at first. I never picked up on Kurtzman. I thought, ‘these covers are lame.’ I was looking for more realism. And then, finally, well into my 30s, I understood that his covers were brilliant. He’s a brilliant artist, but…
It’s easy to say now.
Yeah, right. And Jack Davis was like, ‘whoa.’ It had all of that skill and it had these poignant stories, which, of course, were Kurtzman’s. It’s kind of the next step up, and it completely broke the back of superheroes for me—not that I was following them deeply. In the late 40s, superheroes were kind of dying out, anyway. But it gave comics another dimension. Then I go to art school in the 50s—Pratt. And we’re sitting around, getting hammered in a bar, and the conversation drifts into truth. We’re not talking about de Kooning anymore. We’re talking about, ‘who’s your influence?’ Jack Davis. Next thing you know, the truth is know.
It was a source of embarrassment at this point?
At this point, I totally embraced the whole thing. When I was doing the Jack stuff, I was compelled to do that. I got over it. I was the oldest Raw guy. Ten years older than Art. I don’t think there’s anyone older than me. I think Kim Deitch is close—five or so years younger than me.
But being at Pratt in the 50s, it was embarrassing to admit that comics were an influence.
Oh yeah, yeah. Because cool ruled. It was the James Dean generation. Beatniks were very dark. This was pre-hippies. It wasn’t like people wanted to get together with 9,000 others. It was dark coffee house, listening to cool jazz. They wanted to listen to obscure poetry, which I never got—maybe everybody else did. I accepted that, not giving a shit. Abstract impressionism, I was totally into that. Everything was fine, because I wasn’t going to be uncool. I appreciate that. I’m glad they felt that way, because it worked.
When you starting doing comics for Raw, did you have a sense of approaching pulp art from a fine art standpoint?
Was it the other way around?
You can almost reverse everything. The world has shifted around. To be a painter is almost laughable now. But to be a cartoonist isn’t so laughable. I teach at SVA and the illustration department used to be the big one, and the cartooning department was just these other people. And of course I would get all of these people coming into my class. I would teach a class about drawing from the head without references. That keys in on, without intending it to be on comic people. They’re not looking at references for each panel.
There’s certainly some of that, right?
Well, the earliest version of that would have been Neal Adams. As a commercial artist, he was pathetic, but as a cartoonist, he was very good. He was the only reference guy as far as I knew. He would do heavy referencing for images. Maybe mainstream comics used it. There were so many people involved in those comics, I can’t help but dismiss them as a factory product, whereas what Raw and Crumb brought into was on person writes it, one person pencils it, one person inks it. Ditko would probably be the earliest example.
He bridges that gap between superhero and that latter weird stuff.
I do love Dr. Strange and the early Spider-man stuff that he did. I once tried to talk him in to coming into my class. I didn’t know him personally. He has this working class ethic, where you call him up and he answers the phone. He spent an hour telling me all of the reasons he couldn’t come into my class—an hour that would have been beautiful in front of my class!
I heard he’s not the most approachable person.
Did you read that book, The Strange World of… I read that, and it’s like, ‘please leave the room.’
Would you put Kirby in a similar space?
Kirby is…There are really brilliant artists, where my taste doesn’t really go. Picasso, for example—I’d probably go to Picasso over Matisse, because he’s more emotional and Matisse is more aesthetic, but I’m not going to hang out with either one of them. But Munch, I would. There’s no good reason for me deny Kirby his greatness, just because I don’t go into that groove. But I do see Ditko as kind of a William Blake of comics—kind of linear, very ethereal. It’s like the opposite of Kirby. He’s kind of the anti-Kirby. The non-Kirby. Yet there they are simultaneously co-existing—even though Kirby goes back much earlier. They were powerhouses at the same time.
Do you ever go back and revisit the old EC stuff?
I got that coffin pack from the library. It’s just so great to look at. I’m a little scared to look at it, now that I’m back in.
But that influence is already baked-in, right?
Yeah. Well, I completely reject Jack Davis to the point of the exaggerated hands and things like that. And I’ve completely embraced Kurtzman. So there has been a growth of some sort—a change. It’s not necessarily a growth, because someone may be going the other way around, which is just as legitimate. I’m not going to diss either one of them. But Kurtzman, I completely missed Kurtzman’s power and amazing points of view.
A large part of the reason these have become subsequently respected are the aspects in them that you just can’t appreciate as a youth.
Looney Tunes—let’s start with that. The adults are in there, living their secret lives in plain view, so to speak.
A lot cartoons in the past 20 years have been largely targeted toward grownups. Do you think that Chuck Jones, for example, was also making working targeted toward adults that also appealed to kids?
I think there’s that amalgam of—I don’t ever want to be responsible. I’m 71 and I’m looking at Alvin [Buenaventura] as the adult around me, as his is to my life. There are very responsible people out there, and thank god for that, otherwise all us kids would be messing everything up. I think that Chuck Jones had kind of a father figure over at Warner Bros., who allowed him to play in the sandbox. And he did, with great joy. Those are the ones who did have fun. And who’s the other guy?
So, what’s Alvin’s role as an adult in your life?
Well, Alvin’s playful. I’m not saying he’s like a businessman, in the serious sense of the word. But I like the fact that I’m 40 years older than him, and I’m listening to him. Not that that would ever matter, because, like I said, I don’t believe that age and wisdom necessarily go together. I’m a little wiser about my condition than I was when I was 26, but that doesn’t mean that I’m wiser, all of the sudden.
He just has this energy to follow those little bits up that would be easily dismissed. He will go Singapore and Malaysia and watch stuff and the presses and find the right paper—the off-white paper slip where the blue acrylic shows up. He’ll follow it to the max. I would quit on that, and he won’t. That’s not common, in my experience. I might be more common than it used to be, but it’s not common in my experience. I just feel that there’s a person there who has feelings about the people’s he’s working with. You know, right off the bat.
I don’t think that was so clear to me with Raw. I felt more like I was part of an art gallery. I was part of an art scene. It was the first scene that I was ever part of, but it really was an art scene.
So, in that respect, what was Art’s role at Raw?
Well, first he was busy on Maus. His role there was that he was the aesthetic brains, and Francoise was the office manager.
The aesthetics as far as the layout and artist choice?
Yeah, when I called him up on the phone, I didn’t know this guy. I just wanted to see what he thought about my work, knowing that he would know who I was.
You guys were both working at SVA.
Yeah, that was my intro. We had students in common. He was apparently looking for people. He had so many Europeans and was having trouble finding Americans. It was depressing him. So he came over and Francoise and Ben Katchor—who was a student of mine—was there.
[Continued in Part Three]