I got to know Rick Parker in October of last year. Eight hours cooped up in a car can do that. Parker drove us from New York to Ohio to attend an art opening for Harvey Pekar in Cleveland Heights. A former New York City taxi driver, Parker is downright fearless behind the wheel–he’s also, thankfully, a good conversationalist.
Things have seemingly calmed down for Parker since those bygone days navigating the mean streets of the Big Apple. The artist lives in a far more subdued town in New Jersey with his family, drawing comics and teaching sequential art to children and adults.
I saw first-hand how patient and encouraging Parker is in such a context–on the drive back to the east coast, he even managed to convince me to pick up a pen and start drawing, something I hadn’t done in a number of years. The result found its way into the “Harvey Heads” collection, celebrating Pekar’s 70th birthday–an event that was part of the impetus for our sojourn to Cleveland.
Of course, Parker’s involvement with the online Pekar Project is just the latest in a long cartooning career that has spanned “bathroom stalls to the walls of the best New York galleries,” in the words of Parker’s site–somewhere between the two is the artist’s long run on Marvel’s Beavis and Butthead books. More recently, he has delved into longer form kids books–spoofs with titles like The Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid and Harry Potty.
A number of months after that Cleveland trip, we finally managed to set up an interview. I gave Parker a call at his New Jersey home and was a bit startled when he picked up on the first ring. “I’m sitting in the car,” he begins. “It’s safe out here…”
…It’s like a telephone booth. If I’m in the house, the kids can ask me to make them a sandwich, or something horrible. That’s what happens when you work at home. There have been good things about working at home—I think I’ve probably got to spent more time with my children. I’ve gotten to watch them grow up. There was one instance when someone said, “what does your dad do?” And they said, “he doesn’t do anything. He stays at home all the time.” But I wasn’t doing all that much anyway, so it’s fine.
You work from home most of the time, but you also do a fair amount of teaching, as well.
I do. It’s become an important part of my life as I’ve gotten older. I had an opportunity to teach sequential art at Pratt Institute in the mid-80s—it was just starting to catch on, and I didn’t want to do it, for some dumb reason. I was busy working all of time, and I needed to make more money. I thought that by teaching I’d have to lose money. But teaching has actually been a great thing for me. I’ve learned more from having to explain what I do to other people than I think I learned at school, to be quite frank.
I assume the work at Pratt would have been largely targeted toward college age students. But now you’re doing a lot of work with younger children.
Yeah. I taught a class last year for adults, and it was nice, because I didn’t have to keep asking them to sit back down in their seats. Children can be a disciplinary problem. There are some children that are well behaved. They’re great students, and almost like geniuses. I’ve had some wonderful children. I had two or three children that I would say are extremely talented and amazing. But I started off teaching in the public school system. There are plenty of bright kids there, but there are some that are not particularly interested in being there and learning.
But I’ve gotten more out of it than anybody, I think. It’s been such a good thing. I’ve learned so much about the art of cartooning that I never really thought about. If you’re a person with a certain amount of talent, and you have opportunities to work, you often do your work and don’t really think about all of the theories and things behind it. You just do it. But if you have to explain what you do to somebody else, it causes you to think about it in a way that you’ve never really thought about it before.
I understand what I’m doing now more than I ever did before—if I ever did before. Maybe I didn’t really understand it.
Did you have any manner of formal training? Did you go to art school or anything like that?
Yeah. I always—from the time I was seven years old, I wanted to be an artist. It was pretty clear even at that early age that I had more than average ability in that area. One of the teachers, when I was in the second grade, singled me out and took a drawing of a sinking ship in a storm that was sending out S.O.S. signals and put the drawing on the board and called everybody’s attention to it. It was such a great feeling, and I thought, ‘wow, I need this to happen to me again.’
I wasn’t great in sports. I was a skinny little kids, and sports were very important. if you’re good at sports, you’re very popular with the other kids. If you’re not good at sports, you’re the last one picked. It’s not good. So I found something that I was actually good at. I drew a lot.
I got drafted into the army and did drawings for people there. The commanding officer would have you paint signs that they put on the back of the jeep, and guys would ask you to paint pictures of their sweethearts and all that kind of crap.
When I got out, I went to the University of Georgia to study art. I got my bachelor’s degree in drawing and painting. I thought you could just become an artist. I was so naïve. They said, “you probably have to get some kind of teaching job, and for that you’ll probably have to get a master’s degree.”
So I thought it would be nice to go to New York, because I had heard that Pratt was a good school in the early 60s. By the early 70s, all you needed to get into Pratt was enough money to pay the tuition and they would take you—I swear. But after I graduated from college, I worked for a few months and then I started Pratt graduate school in January of ’73.
Did you study fine art or graphic design?
Fine art. I actually thought I was going to be painting pictures. But I always liked to draw. I was drawing from an early age. My parents were very supportive. They had lots of pens and paper around. I didn’t have a lot of responsibilities as a kid, which was good, too. I guess a lot of kids don’t get to have as much leisure time as I did.
And I drew in school as a kid, because they’d pay attention to me. I did goofy drawings and passed them around and people thought I was cool. I created my own sort of identity that way.
But I got my master’s degree in fine art, and I worked for a little while as a lithographer in a printmaking workshop on 23rd st. It was called The Bob Blackburn Workshop. But I really wasn’t all that interested in making editions of other people’s work. I thought somehow that I should be making editions of my own work.
But lithography is a very labor-intensive thing, where you’re on your feet from morning to night, with no break, because you’ve got to keep slugging away because of the nature of the medium. Water is evaporating and ink is drying and the press has got to be continually moving back and forth. It’s just crazy.
[Continued in Part Two]