Ken Gale — 04-Dec-10
Welcome back to our regular ‘print radio’ feature, the ‘Nuff Said! interview.
For nine years Ken Gale, in conjunction with Ed Menje and Mercy Van Vlack, hosted and produced about 400 episodes of this comic-book themed series for New York’s WBAI radio station, live-streamed over the Internet for the past several years of its run. Ken’s show covered all styles and all eras of comics, pointing out the diversity and richness of the art form to an audience who were often unaware of the versatility of sequential art.
‘Nuff Said! ended as a regular show in 2002, but Ken has done a number of specials and guest spots on other WBAI broadcasts, continuing to show how well our art form fits in with many different, seemingly disparate topics.
The ‘Nuff Said! archive, used with Ken’s full permission and cooperation, is a ‘snapshot album’ of the careers, influences, and often surprising opinions of a wide range of comics creators, several of whom, sadly, are no longer with us, and many of whom are seldom if ever interviewed by comics journalists.
On 28th May, 2002, Ken Gale, Mercy Van Vlack, and guest-interviewer Seth Tobocman talked to Eric Drooker, political cartoonist, painter and illustrator for such diverse publications as World War III Illustrated and The New Yorker, about his early influences and his graphic novel Flood, which won the American Book Award.
Ken: Today in the studio we have Eric Drooker and Seth Tobocman; Seth is going to be co-interviewing Eric with Mercy and I. You’ll have seen Eric’s art on the cover of the New Yorker, and he won the American Book Award for his graphic novel Flood. He’s also been in World War III Illustrated for years. So, Seth, you published Eric way, way back; do you remember meeting him?
Seth: I think one of the first times I met Eric he handed me a little red Xeroxed booklet that he and Paula Hewitt had produced, called USA At War; At Home And Abroad. It was tiny, folded…
Ken: They’re called mini-comics now.
Seth: This was back in the Reagan Years, and on either page it would show chemical warfare and El Salvador, and on the next page would be drug warfare in New York City.
Eric: Military violence overseas, and then at home, the local manifestation, Police Brutality. Seth and I had a very black & white view of the world back then. We’ve both gotten a little more nuanced…
Ken: That would’ve been influenced by being on the Lower East Side, as much as anything, wouldn’t it?
Seth: What struck me about that booklet when Eric showed it to me was, “Here’s a guy who bothered to put his stuff out; Gee, I should work with him, he’s already getting it out there…” That’s generally how I recognise people I should be working with.
Eric: It was kind of a mutual thing, because I was self-publishing for a while there..
Ken: Where were people seeing this stuff?
Eric: The first places I put them in were stores, like the East Side Bookshop, and comic book stores, and I would just leave them around in telephone booths, subways, kind of like those little Chick Christian tracts! I was communicating with a cross-section of the American public this way. I’d sneak into a store, and when no one was watching, I’d put a few books on the shelf, sneak out, hope I didn’t get caught!
Ken: So you weren’t making any money out of it at first?
Eric: Oh, no. It was just exposure and expression. It was communicating with people, because to me, anyway, art is primarily about communication. Expression is part of it, but someone has to be there at the other end.
Ken: So it’s ironic that now political-minded people are using your art for their posters?
Eric: Yeah, it’s funny, people feel free to bootleg my work, I see pirated editions of it all over the US…
Ken: How do you feel about that?
Eric: I’m very pleased. Pleased that’s it’s being used that effectively. I travel through Europe, I’ll be in Germany, Italy, and local activists will approach me – guiltily – and say, “We didn’t know how to contact you! We hope that you don’t mind that we used your image!” I don’t worry about it. Artists, we – it’s a big ego-trip anyway, so we like to see our work used, it’s flattering, and I’m certainly not hung up about the copyright. I would only be hung up if my work was picked up and bootlegged in Rolling Stone or something like that, where I knew people were making money off it. Otherwise, I encourage people to bootleg my stuff. In my book, Street Posters and Ballads, if you take a look on the copyright page, I spell it right out, I say, non-profit, progressive activist groups may freely lift, reproduce and disseminate the contents as they see fit. But then it says, all rights reserved, status quo opportunists who reproduce contents without permission will get their asses sued off!
Ken: It’s interesting that you just took all the things that people were using anyway, and just made them easier to find, gathered in one place…
Eric: Yeah, that was the purpose of that book, it was almost like a clip-art book for radicals; we’re always making flyers and leaflets and posters and building websites…I have a website – I’m still computer-illiterate, but some friends made it for me – at Drooker.com, where there are dozens of graphics scanned in high-resolution, print-quality, that you can download and use as you see fit!
Ken: But there’s so much more to the book than that. You’ve got posters, certainly, but you’ve got songs, illustrations, text, sequential art with text, without words, there’s a lot more than posters!
Eric: Well, it was kind of a portfolio of work that had accumulated over the last ten or fifteen years – kind of unwittingly, I realized I had enough to put out the next book already! Various posters and ditties I had written, things I had done for the pirate radio station…
Ken: I think the Pirate Radio Station was the one I saw the most…
Eric: “Steal This Radio”
Ken: “Steal This Radio” – it was all over W-BAI as well, people were publicising it here, but I saw it all over the city, especially on the Lower East Side.
Eric: They had a good run until the FCC finally shut them down – pretty much shut down all the pirate stations around the country, except for Berkeley Liberation Radio, it’s still going strong…
Ken: Of course, they’re still doing Internet Radio, so they can’t stop it all… So, what was it like working with Seth?
Eric: Well, it seemed like the obvious thing to do, since we were both doing something that was kind of unusual, sequential art that had a lot of locally-based content and which was largely autobiographical. It was about things that we had experienced firsthand, or seen in the neighbourhood; drugs, police brutality, landlord terrorism… local manifestations of war on the poor, the “Economic cleansing” of the Lower East Side. We were working parallel, dealing with some of the same subject matter. The first time I remember meeting Seth was at a Community Centre, at 9th St and Avenue B. Both of us were teaching an art class for little kids, in this courtyard in front of the school back in the early-mid 80’s, it was the week that Michael Stewart had been killed by the police supposedly for drawing graffiti on the front of the L Train, they strangled him to death, there were about five cops on one person, kind of a Rodney King type situation.
Mercy: They just kind of swarmed him…
Eric: And he was strangled to death. The Police never provided any evidence; they said, “Well, he was writing graffiti.” Well, where’s the Magic Marker? Because, after all, if there’d been a marker, it would have been understandable that they strangled the guy… “He jumped the subway turnstile!”
Mercy: The fare was what, a dollar at the time? I guess you can kill people for that…
Eric: It was a political awakening for many of us at the time, because he was a local character, he worked on Avenue A at the Pyramid Club, and he was just going home to Brooklyn, hopped on the L Train, he had long dreadlocks, and was with his European-American girlfriend, and my hypothesis is that that’s what triggered the police. But we’ll never know. Except that he’s dead, and the Police walked…
Ken: His case didn’t get anything like the amount of publicity…
Eric: It was kind of a cause celebre at the time. The following year, there was Eleanor Bumpurs, it was that era, there were several martyrs during that period, there have been countless others, most of whom remain nameless. But what Seth and I were doing, we would get very emotional, very upset, like anyone would who heard the facts, and the way we expressed ourselves, our anger and our emotions, was to do artwork about it. I did posters, “Remember Michael Stewart”, and we pasted them on the corner of 14th Street and First Avenue, right by the L Train, just to keep the issue alive, because there was a subsequent cover-up.
Seth: Eric, myself, Paula Hewitt, Josh Whalen, we used to go around putting up posters together.
Eric: That was kind of our initial bonding; “I’ll hold the bucket, you use the brush, Josh, you can be the lookout!” Of course, with each subsequent crackdown, this just gave ammunition to our artwork. World War III started back in, what, Reagan’s first term?
Seth: World War III started in 1979…that’s World War III Illustrated, the political comic book that Peter Kuper and I started two, maybe three years before I met Eric. I think the first issue he worked on was #4. We started it in ’79, at the point when Reagan was running for office, and it came out simultaneously with his inauguration.
Ken: Now, with all the political and sociological issues to choose from, how do you decide which ones to write and draw about?
Eric: Well, it’s not like there’s any shortage! Looking back over the last twenty years, we’ve often chosen the very issues that are suppressed; the very subjects that you won’t hear covered on the mainstream media, they’re the ones that jump out at us, they become obvious by their very omission. This is our job, it has always been our job, to write our own history. We certainly can’t expect CBS or Murdoch or AOL/Time-Warner to tell us our history.
Seth: Usually there has to be something in your own environment that connects you to the issue. It’s not like you just look through the newspaper and – occasionally, something will jump out, or something on radio or TV, but usually, there has to be some connection to your own life experience.
I think that one thing Eric and I have in common is that a lot of our work has revolved around the Lower East Side, around people we knew in that environment, and trying to connect neighbourhood issues to global issues, and I think that’s a big part of it; you have to have some entryway into it. It can’t be totally alien to your life for it to be good work.
Eric: I think that’s always been a criterion of ours, that it has to be from our experience. If you look back, I don’t think we did much that was directly about Nicaragua or the Sandanistas, we made reference to them, but we were more likely to cover something that was local.
Ken: So what was going on in the Lower East Side affected the content of your art; did it also affect the style of your art?
Eric: Just about everything would affect the style, from the graffiti that was on every surface, the looseness, the freshness of the graffiti, the fact that some of the great cartoonists we were influenced by came out of that neighbourhood, like Jacob Kurtzburg – Jack Kirby – and a lot of these dudes, like Harvey Kurtzman went to Cooper Union, I was very aware that I was in a lineage, and that much of the art that spoke to me came out of that neighbourhood, which was so culturally rich, so overflowing, that there was no shortage of stimulus.
Ken: Will Eisner mentioned that artists who come from a city tend to draw with very well-defined shadows, very hard edges to the light and darkness, because that’s how light is in the city, whereas light out in the country is a little more diffuse. And certainly both of you draw with those hard edges to your shadows…
Eric: It’s been said to both of us before that we have a really jagged, hard-edged style, and I’ve said, it’s probably something to do with the fact that I was born on Manhattan Island, a big grid, where everything is at right angles. It’s a very jagged place to grow up. And it’s very harsh; there are social contradictions at every corner. You’ll see a stretch Cadillac pull up next to people living on the street right out of a shopping bag. Very harsh contrasts.
Ken: It’s going to fuel you, both in terms of words and images. Do you put images to words first, or words to images?
Eric: Hm. A good question. I’ve worked both ways over the years, sometimes the concept will come to me in a flash, I’ll be on the subway, and I’ll be afraid that I’ll forget about it, almost like a waking dream, so I might draw a few sketches, but I’m more likely to write it down in shorthand, in a few sentences. Later, when I get home, I’ll do the graphic breakdown of what will often be a strip without words, a silent narrative, which has become a speciality of mine, to see how much can be communicated without words. But the initial form is usually notes to myself.
Seth: What’s the role in your work of history, both political and social history and our history, artists of previous generations, how does that affect your work?
Eric: In many different respects. ‘His Story’ is such a convoluted one, that it lends itself to being expressed in sequential art. I think that much of the history that I’ve learned as an adult is history that I’ve had to seek out. Certainly when I went to school, it was so boring that I didn’t retain any of it. On the contrary, I was actually turned off to history – “History is Boring! Don’t even look there!” As an adult, I’ve been fascinated and curious – I guess, one of the things that hooked me into learning more was Art History; it’s a great way of learning about history in general. Francesco Goya, for instance, he had a gig working for the King, so he had this steady client work painting royalty, and at a certain point, he lost the job, then lost his hearing, and that’s when he did his most interesting work. Picasso, Guernica, that was local for him, that was an historic incident, right there in Spain, so young Pablo took it quite personally, the same way Seth and I took the Tompkins Square riot personally, that was our neighbourhood, and we got all inflamed over the situation, and a whole body of artwork came out of the experience. Looking at it twelve or thirteen years later, we can see that was a historical period in our development. Over the years, just looking at the Lower East Side, there was an era in the Seventies when there were all these suspicious fires breaking out, the fire department was very, very slow in responding to them. This was in the early Seventies, when the Vietnam War was raging in the background. That’s when there was a flood of heroin into the neighbourhood, which just happened to be from South-East Asia, just as later there was a flood of cocaine from Central America, where the Contra Drug War was taking place. So, there’s a pattern with that…
Ken: So we’re talking about servicemen bringing back stuff when they came back from South-East Asia?
Eric: Well, that’s another show… What I saw with my own eyes was, in the Seventies the neighbourhood was very dead, the city lay fallow, no-one wanted to live there, it was a burnt-out ghetto like the South Bronx. Then by the end of the decade, late Seventies, early Eighties, you have these urban pioneers, who started moving in and buying up buildings for literally a dollar each, to fix them up. A lot of artists fixed them up – we’re good with our hands…
Ken: My uncle was an actor, living in the Lower East Side in the Sixties, because he could not afford to live anywhere else and still be an actor. And none of his relatives would go and visit him, because they were so scared of the Lower East Side! Now, tell us about your New Yorker gig, let’s switch gears a little bit.
Eric: Years later, I started working in colour with a full-colour palette, which was very expansive, because after limiting myself to the black & white aesthetic for so many years, it was like working with a full range of emotion. I felt like I had to master black & white to some degree, before moving on – colour’s very expensive, first of all, so I’d always limited myself to black & white. It was while doing a book with Allen Ginsberg, an illuminated poems collaboration, that I started doing full-colour. And I started hustling magazines, the glossies, that’s where the money is; Seth and I had done a number of gigs for the New York Times, the Village Voice, but they’re all black & white, and none of them paid very well. We’d been on the op-ed page of the New York Times, for Chrissakes, and it hardly even paid the rent for one month, but you do one little dopey spot illo in a magazine, and it pays five or ten times as much. So I started taking some of these paintings around, and of course the subject matter was similar, it was urban, autobiographical, it had all these tenement rooftops, water towers, TV antennas, homeless guys camped out under the Brooklyn Bridge, and I thought; “Hmm, the New Yorker, they’re probably not going to go for this….” But I ran it by them, and they thought that a picture of homeless people on the front cover would be a little too depressing (laughs), but then, to their credit, they ended up running it, one of my first New Yorker covers was three dudes I ran into a few blocks from here who were living in a little shanty shack under the Brooklyn Bridge. They’re not even there any more, Guiliani chased them away.
Mercy: There used to be a shanty town under there, near Chinatown.
Seth: They were all swept to the Outer Boroughs.. But how could you have a magazine called the New Yorker that never had a picture of homeless people? (laughs)
Eric: I think even they realised that; they hesitated, they thought it might be depressing, but you know, I saw them with my own eyes, they lived under the Brooklyn Bridge…
Mercy: They’re New Yorkers! (laughs)
Eric: I made sure it was artistically sound, the double gothic arches of the bridge is beautiful, the glow of the fire… Artistically it was strong, there was just the question of politically, was it going to be approved.
Ken: What year was that?
Eric: That was around 1995, it was the first of several New Yorker covers I’ve done, nine or ten over the years.
Ken: You were saying earlier that working in colour gave you… what was it again?
Eric: Well, my little poetic metaphor was that it gave me a full palette of emotion to work with. It’s a little mysterious to me, am I working in full colour nowadays because I’m in a colourful state of mind, or is it the fact that I’m working in colour has made me more open emotionally, it’s kind of a chicken and the egg. It definitely feels like shifting gears, when I work in black & white, sequential art, that’s the political content, and a full-colour painting is a very different way of thinking. The paintings such as the ones in the New Yorker, they are images that stand alone. In sequential art, each little panel has to work in context, it has to make sense relative to what came before and after it, it also has to be able to stand on its own in that it has to have a good composition, but it has to work in the context of a long sequence, sometimes hundreds of panels long.
Ken: In some cases, 128 panels on two pages…
Eric: You actually counted them?
Ken: It was an eight by eight grid, so it’s 64 times two, that’s easy.
Mercy: In your book, Flood, there’s a point where the cartoonist starts to draw his strip and there’s just blue, suddenly, because they’re on the ice, and that just changes the whole feeling of the book. We’re watching this guy, going through things and now he’s drawing so we’re seeing his artwork, and it looks so different…
Eric: Yeah, that’s the story the character’s drawing, the story within a story, two-thirds of the way through another colour pops out. That was probably inspired by the Wizard of Oz, that begins in black & white in Kansas, and suddenly she opens the door in Oz, and – Technicolour! I couldn’t afford Technicolour, so you got – blue! I have done a full-colour book out, called Bloodsong, it’s sort of a companion to Flood, I wouldn’t call it a sequel, if anything it takes place before the flood occurred. But this one’s in full colour, I’m working with a big publisher, Harcourt-Brace, who’s able to afford the full-colour process.
Ken: There were almost no words in Flood, apart from one very short sequence. Not even an introduction or an afterword.
Eric: No, but a few words did insinuate themselves into Flood. Bloodsong is pure, though; zero words, three hundred pages.
Ken: But with an introduction.
Eric: Joe Sacco wrote a very nice introduction. But in the body of the work itself, there’s nary a word.
Ken: Is that what you prefer to do right now, the ‘silent’ stories? Or is it a challenge to yourself?
Eric: That’s the challenge that I’ve set to myself, and I’m curious – other people are trying it out, I’m very surprised that there are so few examples of wordless novels in history, particularly in America, which is a relatively illiterate country! (laughs)
Eric: Or at least word balloons…
Ken: But a lot of political art, sequential or otherwise, is very wordy, and you’re pretty much the opposite of what you often see with political stuff, which you sometimes just want to tell them to shut up!
Eric: I feel that if you’re trying to persuade or make a point with your work, which I often am, I’m not simply expressing myself or illustrating something, I’ve found that if I just let the pictures do the talking, if I let the reader come to their own conclusion, then it’s more persuasive. It’s more effective.
Ken: You won the American Book Award for Flood. Do you remember when you were first notified about that?
Eric: At some point my publisher called me and said, “Hey, congratulations, you won the American Book Award!” and I said, “I’ve never heard of that. I’ve heard of the National Book Award.”, but this is a multi-cultural alternative that was thought of some years ago by Ishmael Read, out of Berkeley, I believe. I think Will Eisner won it one year, Joe Sacco….They’re much more likely to award it to books that have alternative/leftie content. The National Book Award tends to be very mainstream.
Ken: Did it make any difference having won the award?
Eric: It sounds kind of snazzy – “Winner of the American Book Award!” “Hey, the kid won an Oscar!” (laughs) All these awards are marketing tools that the industry sets up for itself. They put a metallic sticker on the front cover of the book so people are more likely to look at it in the first place…
Ken: Now those two pages you did of sixty-four panels each, and then another two pages with even more panels; what advantage to the story did that give you to do that many panels on one page?
Eric: At the end of the first chapter of Flood, a chapter called ‘Home’, it begins with each page is a full page, a double-page splash page, and then as the story goes on, and as time accelerates, the panels start to break up exponentially, two panels on a page, then four, eight panels on a page, then I take it to the absurdist extreme, which is 64 panels on a page! 128 panels on a page! Trying to express in a very visceral way that time is accelerating, spiralling out of control, and also just on a more organic level, the way it mirrors our own biological autobiographies, each one us begins as one egg, fertilized, zygote, then we’re two-celled organisms. A few seconds later we’re four-celled organisms for a couple of minutes, and so on, and then, hey, look at us now – I lost count years ago of how many cells are in my body! That was also an inspiration.
Ken: It’s also taking advantage of the comics medium, because we can play with time in a way no other medium can.
Eric: You can’t be informed quite the same way.
Seth: Speaking of that, I wanted to ask you about something you and I have in common, which is the experience of performing our comics, of doing live shows.
Eric: Well, I started doing it because years back, I got invited to the University of Wisconsin, to be the visiting Artist Lecturer, and then I started getting invited to these different schools, the School of Visual Arts, Cooper Union, and hey, you know it’s kind of boring for an artist to be just standing there, talking about this visual medium! So I started to develop a slide show, I photographed all of my work, started loading them into the carousel projector, talking through the work, giving a little show, and I realized, “Hey, there’s a lot of potential here! This is a whole different aspect of sequential art!” So I started experimenting, having a little soundtrack with it. Instead of having a player piano like the old silent movies did, I’d play harmonica, or sing along with it, or invite some musician friend to play, and it’s developed over the years where I have several hundred images that I’m projecting in rapid succession, and it’s kind of unique, it’s very cinematic.
Ken: Have you ever brought this to a comic book convention?
Eric: Oh, sure. Several of us have developed something similar, our own shows. Peter Kuper has one…
Ken: Seth brought his to a Big Apple con, and it went down really well.
Eric: It’s always a crowd pleaser, it’s a very different experience from seeing it on the page.
Seth: The first guy I know of who ever did that was Vaughn Bode, of course, in the Seventies, his ‘Cartoon Concerts’, at the comic conventions.
Ken: And they were among the most popular things at the cons, and that was in the days when almost everybody went to the panels.
Eric: I understand that Winsor McCay did a similar thing, back in the 1910s, where he was like an impresario, he’d stand there, project things large, and discuss his work.
Seth: So this is maybe a really basic concept of comics, because McCay in many ways defined the medium.
Eric: It’s the next logical step from printing them on a page, getting it transferred to celluloid, and project it huge on a big screen, to an auditorium.
Eric: Well, people know who Allen Ginsberg is; yeah, we collaborated on a book…
Ken: But you chose which of his poems to use, right?
Eric: That’s right. Allen and I became friends from the neighbourhood, and he gave me freedom to select whichever poems I thought would work best, visually, whichever were most evocative for me. My favourite one, ‘Howl’ is in there, and of course I leaned more towards the political poems such as ‘Pentagon Exorcism’, things like that…When that book came out, I did a book tour with Allen around the country, where he would read his poems and I’d project the imagery that went with them. Some of his poems I still read myself, I’ve memorized them by now.
Ken: And you got to hear him read them, so you know the right inflections!
Eric: That’s right, he was a big inspiration too. He was a real art lover, he loved Peter Breughel the Elder and William Blake –
Mercy: He did illuminated drawings, too…
Interviewed by Ken Gale, Seth Tobocman and Mercy van Vlack. Transcription and framing text by Will Morgan
Following this interview, Eric Drooker has remained active in the fields of illustration and animation design. His original artwork for Flood was accepted in its entirety by the Library of Congress for permanent archive in 2007. He designed the animation sequences for the 2010 film Howl, starring James Franco, based on the 1957 obscenity trial of the late Allen Ginsberg’s eponymous poem. A tie-in Graphic Novel, Howl, featuring Drooker’s work, was released simultaneously in the United States. More of his work may be viewed at his official website, http://www.drooker.com/.
See also a review of Drooker’s Flood and Blood Song.
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