After about 25 minutes spent talking comics cross-legged on the floor of a Brooklyn church basement, Doug Allen and I make our way back to the show floor, trading business cards on the way up the stairs. Taking his, I hope for a second to see Steven, that foul mouthed, alcoholic little boy with a violent temper and a 10 gallon hat.
He’s nowhere to be seen, of course. Instead, the card feature a far more subdued painting of a sailboat. An accurate representation, perhaps, of where Allen is now, having largely left the world of mini-comics behind to raise a family outside of the city.
Allen does these nautical paintings and other contract work for a living, playing bluegrass with a number of jam bands in his spare time. All of this goes a way towards explaining why I’ve never run into him before a comics festival.
And it’s not from lack of looking. I have fond memories of Steven, having discovered the floppy collections of the strip while in school. Due to the character’s existence in a largely pre-Internet world and the fact that Allen himself has largely retired from the scene, the strip had all but fallen off my radar.
Spotting Allen alongside long-time collaborator Gary Leib standing behind Idiotland cutouts on a table at this weekend’s Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, the appreciation came rushing back, and I walked over immediately to ask if Allen would please do an interview. He happily obliged.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen you at a show before.
I used to go, years ago, when I had a weekly strip running in papers and had new products to sell. I had some published by Kitchen Sink and Fantagraphics. There was new stuff out. There’s not as much incentive now. My friend Gary Leib—who does Idiotland with me—is really still involved with the scene down here. He always drags me to these things.
Plus it’s a social thing. You see all of the crusty old cartoonists.
As we were walking to go do the interview, you were saying “hi” to everyone we passed.
Yeah, there are a lot of people I’ve met over the years, people like Mark Newgarden and Gary Panter and people like that. I get to see them, like once a year. It has been wild, I think years ago Gary [Leib] and I went out to San Diego.
We broke even and sold some stuff—original artwork and stuff. But I haven’t had any new stuff out for, like, ten years or something. I’ve had a couple of minis and something in this Smoke Signals paper, a jam thing. Gary and I would spend some time—I’d go up to his house upstate when he was house sitting, and we’d spend hours and hours doing these Idiotland pages, big originals with zipatone. It was really old school stuff.
It’s harder to get together now. We both have kids and don’t have time. To churn out one page is a major thing. And I live up 35 minutes north of here in Rockland County. So I’m kind of out of the comic thing now. When people ask me to do strips, I still do them. But I’m not really doing any illustration now. I’m playing music all of the time. That’s kind of taking up most of my time.
Is that what brings money in?
No. I do contract stuff and painting and building stuff. I’m building musical instruments. I was doing marine art for a while. For 10 years, I was doing ship paintings. So, a lot of different things. But mostly I’m living and breathing bluegrass music, these days. I’m playing standup bass and guitar and learning to play mandolin.
There seems to be a connection between comics and bluegrass music.
Yeah, someone was telling me that today. I’ve never really noticed. I’ve been in my little bubble up there, but they said, “yeah, a lot of cartoonists are really into old time music.”
Obviously Crumb springs to mind.
Crumb is, yeah. And there’s a whole bluegrass scene here now, down in Red Hook [Brooklyn], and there are a couple of clubs. I used to live down here on 10th and C [Manhattan]. It was hard to see any of that music. There was a club on 14th st., way west.
So now I kind of wish I was down here, to see all of these bluegrass bands. I’m playing in like four different jam bands. Nothing commercial—just having some fun butchering the classics.
So, why are you out of comics now?
Well, the Steven strip kind of ran its course, and I did it for 23 years. It was in a bunch of papers, and as that kind of ran its course, the papers were dropping it. I had kind of a last push where I went to Hollywood to pitch the property as a show. Like a Simpsons-style series.
What year was this?
This was when Kitchen Sink press was about to go out of business, and the guy out there was trying to get a lot of their properties signed. The Crow movies had come out, and they were trying to make the big bucks with their intellectual properties. This was before the Internet bubble.
So early 90s.
Yeah, around then. So I went around and pitched the thing as a show and actually got an option deal with the UPN network for a couple of years, but they just sat on it, and nothing was ever done with it.
That seems like a weird fit—a Steven show.
Yeah, it’s America. To try to get a show on television about a young child who drinks beer—I realized later that it was not going to happen, unless I sort of watered the whole thing down and really changed the whole thing down and made it a kids show.
We did a test animation thing in Flash animation. We got voice talent to do it, but it never really felt right.
Were you genuinely excited at the prospect of exploring the character in this new medium?
Well, it seemed like a natural fit at the time. People like Matt Groening could do it, take this strip that he had making for no money for all these years. Why not try to parlay it into a show? This was before South Park and all of those shows pushed the edge a little more. It probably was a little premature and wrong for the mainstream.
Are you over the idea now?
I’m over it. I’m so over it. I’m glad to be playing bluegrass music. I mean, I would do it again, if the opportunity arose. Some guy keeps calling me, saying, “is Steven still available? Mind if I pitch it to some people?” I’m like, “sure. Feel free! Knock yourself out.” Nobody’s signed it yet.
Do you miss it at all?
Yeah, I do. I miss doing the strip. And it’s good to get together with Gary Leib and churning some stuff out. I keep threatening to get back into doing it. But I’ve got a couple of young mouths to feed. My kids are 12 and 10. So, I’m trying to make some money with private contractor work and still playing music and still illustrating and trying to do comics when I can.
Now that the economy’s so bad, I should just go back to not making any money doing that.
The economy’s bad, but the comic scene seems to be doing pretty well. People are probably generally more excited about them now than when you were doing Steven.
Yeah, judging by the turnout of this show, there’s a bigger pool of people who are perceptive to it than when I was doing Steven. I had a good outlet for it, because it was in free weekly papers throughout the country. I could sit down and do the strip every week. It was kind of like performing music. You get the same charge out of it. you do the strip and a few days later it’s out in print. You can get it from the boxes.
And collecting them into comics books is kind of fun.
There also seems to be a bit of nostalgia. There was that [Newave] book that Fantagraphics put out. You had some work in there, right?
Yeah, there was some fanzine stuff. It was mini-comics and that sort of thing. Gary and I took one of those little jam things we did and contributed that. It was fun. That whole phase was fun, Gary introduced me to a lot of people—Chris Ware and Dan Clowes. We went to a coffee shop with them.
What year was that, roughly?
That would have been late 80s, early 90s.
They were fairly young at that point.
They were young unknowns, willing to put pen to paper for no money. They had a deal with this place—they would get free coffee.
I was in Chicago recently, and we stopped in there. They’ve actually started using their old artwork on the menus again.
Yeah? That was a great time, meeting those people. We used to do that a lot, jamming. Gary, Charles Burns, and I were jamming last night on comics like that, which I don’t think Charles does a lot.
He’s very meticulous, generally.
Yeah, he’s very studied about it. Gary and I, when we were in a new wave band together, we killed a lot of time on the road just jamming in sketch books. We’d draw and then switch. It was just to amuse each other, like what kind of dirty drawing can you do to take the other person by surprise. Like, “draw a head on this person that I drew. Surprise me.”
That’s was good for many laughs. Because comics can be kind of a solitary thing. That’s why [conventions] are good. People come out of their caves.