Is this second part of our interview with Doug Allen, we discuss the beginnings of Rubber Rodeo, Steven’s punk rock origins, and the possibility of a complete collection of the cartoonist’s best-known strip.
Did you meet [Gary Leib] through music or comics?
We were in art school in Providence together—the Rhode Island School of Design. I guess we started a band together first.
Everyone who goes there starts a band, right?
Yeah, the Talking Heads… They’re not all good. It was like a performance thing, like Dolly Parton meets Devo. I got kicked out of the band, at some point, but when we were in a recording session or on the road, the was a lot waiting around. So at points Gary’s style and my style were pretty much the same, because we drew so much together. We did a lot of jam stuff, like those old Zap jam pieces.
You could always tell who drew which sections of those.
Yeah, you could tell which one of Crumb, based on his crosshatching.
Was comics ever a full-time job for you?
I was always doing house painting to support myself through college. I got really fast at that. But I could never make an official business out of that. But they paid workman’s comp and insurance and things like that. When the band was touring, it gave me the flexibility to do that. I was working as a contractor.
You were doing a weekly strip at some point.
It took two hours a week to do [laughs]. Everything I do takes two hours, pretty much, I’m very quick. I always thought, ‘ for the money they’re paying fo this strip, I should spent more than two hours.’
But I just did it until I was done with it. Which is much different from the way that someone like Chris Ware or Charles Burns works. Mine was always a direct thing—start, even if you didn’t have a story idea, work until you get to the sixth panel, and it’s like, “it’s over now. Ran out of room.”
I discovered Steven when it was collected in floppies. Did it ever exist as a longform work? Or was he entirely strip-based?
The were a couple of longer strips in Blab and places like that, but mostly those collections are mostly of weekly strips, which mutated later into a continuous story, if you read all of the weeklies together, it continued for a few years. I had to keep all of that in my mind. The stories would just go on forever.
But they’ve also got to stand alone as those weekly strips for people who have never seen the week before or won’t see the week after. You have to be able to read them out of order. There has to be a gag in there—of course there wasn’t always.
When you were starting out, were you interested in being a “real” daily newspaper strip artist?
I was never a comic collector or really an aficionado on the history of anything. I loved the stuff that Kaz was doing at the time, which was also in The New York Press. And Crumb, of course, was also a big influence. I was just trying to do underground—Steven was really born out of that whole punk energy of the time. “He kills everyone, and he hates everything, and he drinks beer and swears all of the time.” That’s pretty much all you need.
Were you attempting to make something iconic for the time, or was that a happy byproduct?
Well, luckily I designed a comic character that was really easy to draw, week after week. There were very few lines. It probably took my less time to draw the Steven character than to sign my name. That probably gave it a little longer lifespan, because it was just so simple. I just took it down to the lowest common denominator.
Were you feeling angry at the time? We you feeling that “punk rage?”
Well, yeah, yeah. I always thought it was a good outlet for that, because I’ve always been such a mild guy. I thought it was a great outlet—it kept me from going to a psychiatrist or something. It’s an alter-ego. It’s what I’d like to be, maybe. I’d like to say “fuck you” to everyone else, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it.
You seem like a pretty personable guy.
Yeah, I don’t like to have any conflict. My father was the same way. “Avoid any kind of conflict, whatsoever.”
Are people surprised when they meet you and you’re not that character?
Yeah, they think I’m going to be some kind of raging punk, or something. But I do drink a lot of beer, so that’s something.
So you and Gary [Leib] are still working on some stuff, occasionally?
Just when we gear up for a show like this. We put together some mini-comics. We put together some cutout foam-core paintings. He and I used to do a lot gallery installations, too, for a while. He and I would go to a gallery and they’d let us just paint the walls gray and do an Idiotland jam. We couldn’t figure out how to make any money doing that, unless people cut out little pieces.
Yeah, it’s done, as soon as there’s a new installation.
Yeah, you’d have to sell it by the foot or by the inch. I’ve got a few of those rolled up.
Is it rewarding doing something ethereal like that, that no one will ever see, after it comes down?
Kind of. Because it plays on the whole jam thing. Just the fact of making the jam and cracking up the other artist, you’ve done your done your job. It doesn’t have to have a life after that. although we got tired of the physical part of it.
We did one at CBGC’s 313 Gallery. It was the whole length of the space, from the front window to the back—100 feet, or whatever it was. That was a lot of work.
Did the bands from that scene know your work? Did you ever produce record covers?
I did two CD covers and t-shirts for various bands. I sort of want to have a show of those various t-shirts. For some reason I’ve got one copy of every t-shirt. I could fill a who gallery space with copies of t-shirts from restaurants and bands. T-shirts used to be big—extra, extra large.
Do people at shows like [the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Fest] recognize your work?
Not too many today. It’s funny, another whole generation comes along every 10 years or so. Probably the older ones are the ones who recognize the work. I have some oldsters recognize the stuff. “Oh, did that run in The Village Voice?” “No, it was The New York Press.”
Are there any collections of Steven in print?
There aren’t now. I’ve been talking to Fantagraphics—well, not that I talk to them weekly or anything—about putting out the complete Steven. I’d like to put it out in chronological order. Before I die, that should be done [laughs].
The comic collections are all out of chronological order. I would just put out the best of what I had, and I would just throw in some older stuff, when I needed filler—the “older” stuff.
So there’s a possibility.
It would be hard to put together. You might have to scan it from the old newspapers. I’m not sure I could fill in all of the gags. I’ve sold a lot of the originals.
Is there any interest on the publishing side of things?
No, because it would have to be a 400 page book, and nobody wants to do that…until I die…