Explaining Reality To Myself: The Steve Lafler Interview (Part One of Three)

Posted by on September 20th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Cartoonist Steve Lafler spent his earliest years in upstate New York; his grandfather was mayor of Batavia and owned a sawmill there.  He was born in Batavia in 1957 and moved to Boston when he was 7.  For the duration of his 34-year career as a cartoonist, he’s always been something of a fringe figure: respected by those in the know, but never quite famous.  He understood from an early age how to earn a living by screen-printing T-shirts, a profession that has capitalized his self-described “Bohemian” lifestyle all along.  As a result, he’s always been able to have the time and energy to draw, publish and promote his work.

If there was an experience to be had as a cartoonist during this period, Lafler’s had it.  He had a huge audience as a daily cartoonist for his college paper.  He was part of the Newave comics movement of the early ’80s.  He was an early self-publisher, navigating the Direct Market when many others were just starting to make the plunge.  He had his Dog Boy series published by Fantagraphics, with the likes of Joe Sacco and Robert Fiore doing copy-editing and corrections.  He and long-time friend Steve Beaupre created Buzzard, one of the more memorable anthologies of the 1990s.  He became one of the early publishing finds for Top Shelf, who collected and released his bugs ‘n bebop opus Bughouse.  Since 2005, he’s experimented with Web-comics and self-published two more books: Tranny, which provides different perspectives on his status as a transgendered person; and the newly released El Vocho, a throwback caper book dealing with clean-energy cars and romance.

Lafler’s seen and done it all, from the wild party scene at the San Diego Comic-Con in the ’80s to the robust Portland cartooning scene from this past decade.  He moved his family to Oaxaca in Mexico a few years ago (crossing paths with Peter Kuper and his family) and has lived there ever since.  Lafler is a true free spirit, something that translates onto the comics page as his own personal quest to understand reality as he sees it while having the best possible time he can.  Lafler was a lively, honest subject who was happy to open up about some intimate details regarding his life, and I thank him for both his time and his willingness to answer the most intrusive of questions.

Formative Years

Rob Clough: What was your childhood like from a comics standpoint?

Steve Lafler: As a little kid, and we are talking ’60 – ’63, when I am 3 to 6 years old, my siblings and I watched a lot of cartoons on TV. I loved the Flintstones, the Jetsons, Top Cat, Wally Gator, Bugs Bunny, The Mickey Mouse Club (crushing on Annette), Rocky & Bullwinkle… but the stuff that just floored me were the reruns of the older stuff. For example, the Disney and Max Fleischer cartoon shorts of the ’30s. Here I am, watching these choreographed numbers with bugs bopping to a swing soundtrack, and the dialog, they’re simply rapping over the music. Up until I was 4 or 5, I was literally in their world with them, on the other side of the screen. Then the consensus reality programming begins to settle in, and that type of psychological leap gets a bit harder to make. I can’t identify particular cartoons, but I do have riveting memories of boppin’, rappin’ bugs in medieval situations, and of course in hell!

RC: How old were you when you started drawing? Were you encouraged in this pursuit by your parents? Did you have friends or siblings that drew with you, or was it strictly a solitary pursuit?

SL: I’m one of five kids, so mom figured out early on that she could get a lot of mileage out of the big box of Crayolas and a pad of drawing paper—maybe because her side of the family had a lot of art talent running through it. Mary, my oldest sister, would have been off at first or second grade, but John, myself and Nancy would have been 5, 4 and 3, Judy was a baby. Mom would sit down from her very busy day with a cup of tea and we would draw. The paper came from multicolored tablets of pastel-colored paper. John had a spatial sense and could draw buildings and cars well from early on. Nancy drew a killer pirate. Me, it was dump trucks and cement mixers. Mom would hang them on the wall in our eating nook, up to 30-40 drawings on the wall.

All those drawings on the different colors of paper, it was beautiful. I was proud of our family gallery from the start! So we were all encouraged. Ironically, later on, my parents were fairly horrified and disdainful of my career choice. Lot’s of clucking and hand-wringing, and eye-rolling.

RC: What comics have impacted you the most at these times of your life: early childhood, young teen years, late teen years, young adulthood (college)?

SL: My brother John and I started reading comics together, I think, about ’63 or ’64. He was a year older than I, lot of people thought we were twins, two tall skinny redheads. Dad got a job in Cincinnati and we would drive the 500 miles from Rochester to Cincinnati several times a year to see family. So we got piles of comics to read for the drives. Harvey, Archie, Gold Key and Dell. At first, my faves were the Harveys, especially Sad Sack, but the Uncle Scrooge/Duck comics had the best stories, goofy ongoing adventures. Why did everyone have dog noses?! Can I have a dog nose too?

By third grade, we became Archie collectors. Stacks and stacks of the things. I remember liking the graphic sense of how the covers were done, the colors and typography. We actually buried a few hundred in the woods and gave my little sister a treasure map to find them. She dug them up and was astonished! We tried to take them back, and she was swinging the shovel at us.

At age 10, my older cousin Tom turned me onto Marvel comics. The summer of ’67. He had everything going back to about ’62. He actually gave me his copy of Fantastic Four #2.  I just flipped for Jack Kirby. The dynamics, the drama, the Stan Lee pathos, I thought of them as sophisticated, grown-up comics. I totally bought into the ethos espoused in “Stan’s Soap Box”. Instant Marvel Geek!

It was summer, like 100 degrees, all my siblings and cousins went swimming all week, I stayed at their house reading this backlog of Marvels until my head literally hurt. Tom had stack’s of DC’s too, but the Marvels had this magic glow lacking in the DCs. OK, so I liked the Bizarros, and really wondered what the deal was with all the Gorillas and stuff, but bottom line, Kirby at his peak is heady stuff for a 10-year-old kid. It was my good fortune to meet the King at a Fantagraphics party in the ’80s so I could tell him this. He’d heard it all before, but it did get him grinning ear to ear to hear it again.

When I was 14, my pal Andy handed me a copy of Crumb’s UNEEDA comix, with a Honeybunch/Projunior story that has an extended sex scene. I certainly knew the facts of life by then, but this filled in every detail! The book disappeared and I could not return the book to Andy, I think my dad grabbed it and tossed it.  Crumb hit me like a ton of bricks, around ’71. Cutesy, [Elzie] Segar like-’30s style with an edge, plus drugs and sex. OK! We’d travel from suburban Longmeadow, MA (this is where I really grew up, from age 9 to 16) to the small city of Springfield on the bus, visit the head shop, and buy up every UG we could get our hands on. We weren’t even smoking herb yet, but Crumb was more than enough, along with the music we were listening to.

My comics education was filled in when Warren started publishing Spirit reprints. I knew about Eisner from reading volume 2 of Steranko’s history of comics, so when I saw the Spirit on the stands I was elated. The noir style, the great visual storytelling and the lush yet precise inking style knocked me out, and I instantly went into a pseudo-Eisner imitation phase.

RC: Do you feel like the Archie style would later be an influence for your own figure work?  What about those figures is particularly appealing?

SL: There is a certain brush style at work in the Archie of yore that I dig a lot. It looks breezy, but it’s just dead-on gorgeous. Look, there were just so many great purveyors of brush and ink in mid-century America. Bring it on, I’m always a sucker for it. Part of my job is to play it forward. Milton Caniff, Will Eisner, and on and on. I love it.

RC:  What other culture had a specific impact on your point of view as a child/teen, and what has carried over to your adult years?

SL: I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan just shy of my 7th birthday, and it was riveting, exciting beyond belief, just a total watershed in my life, and in the culture. I’d been off to first grade with the nuns, and it sucked. It was a very gray, pre-programmed dismal job preparation program, I really felt the cold hand of oppressive rote learning and Catholic hierarchy closing in. Then Kennedy was shot, the young well-liked president. We had moved from Rochester, where my kindergarten teacher was my beloved neighbor Mrs. Baxter, and now I’m in with a bunch of dour women in penguin suits and kids I don’t know. I had to wear gray slacks and a tie and I’m goddamn 6 years old, I hated it. I felt like I had a job, I was going to work in my gray slacks.

Then suddenly, my older sister Mary and her friends had these amazing records. Beatles records! Every song was fantastic. The drums, the guitars, just delicious. The beat. Wow! That Mersey beat. Then these guys are on Ed Sullivan. And look, they are adults! Well, sort of, but I got a clear and signal message from these irresistible young men: HAVE FUN! DO WHAT YOU WANT! ROCK IT, BABY!

When the Beatles played “I Saw Her Standing There” on Ed Sullivan, I felt like I’d come home. It’s a perfect rock song. Listen to Paul’s ingenious bass line, it’s the blues, but it’s also hard-rocking, funky pop, melodic and syncopated. His vocal, forget it, he shreds, he’s gonna get that girl. Listen to John and George’s guitar interplay, picking tight and right. That vintage tone! It’s rockabilly, it’s bad ass, it’s the Beatles! George does a little a jig and sports a cocky little smile during his guitar solo! I love him for this. And Ringo, the Mersey beat, perfect.

My dad had been almost ready to turn the TV off just as the Beatles came on, he didn’t like this long-hair crap. But he did not turn it off, he was a big jazz fan, a swing man, and he recognized this was the real deal, he loved it.  I sort of put the Beatles together along with the boppin’, swinging bugs I’d seen in old ’30s animated cartoons, and I’d say I knew what I wanted for myself, then and there, and goddamn nothing was gonna stop me. The Beatles gave me permission to rock, to carve my own path—and I took it, with glee.

RC: What sort of training/schooling did you have for drawing and/or art?

SL: I cycled through a series of fascinations with specific objects or subjects to draw. When I was 4, my folks had an addition put on our house—suddenly dump trucks and cement mixers were dropping by, and I was in heaven! I drew hundreds of these things.  Next up was WWI biplanes, again here was a mini-obsession that carried me until I could draw them well on demand.

My brother and I were packed off to private art classes the summer I was 7.  An elderly matron was instructing us to draw the cone, the rod and the sphere, talking about some dude named Cezanne. What the fuck, we just want to draw cutaway views of giant ghost houses with boiling oil, guillotines, hangings, skeletons, monsters and the like. We developed a way to draw ghosts with three to five rows of teeth. The instructor forbade this, and we were out of there!

Around third grade, my mom started picking up all these illustrated history encyclopedias, you get a new volume each week at the supermarket. One series in particular was just rockin’, they had scores of original paintings by various hacks. There must have been four or five painters doing these illustrations, I could recognize each guy’s style, but who knows their names. Anyhow, I copied anything that interested me: ships, armor, cannons, guns, horses, soldiers, warplanes and more. My favorite things to copy were Spanish galleons and English caravels. I could draw the Golden Hind, Sir Francis Drake’s ship, down to the wood grain. Good way to wow the chicks in fourth grade.

High school art, I always signed up, but it made me sort of nervous. You got a real feel that was a secondary area of study, it existed in the margins of the upper middle class schools I attended.  Lots of earnest students and teachers sort of frumping through the ’70s, the vibe was downbeat.

I had set up a studio in my parents’ basement in seventh grade and commenced producing comics, and I was in dead earnest driving towards a career. I saw no evidence anywhere that such a thing was going on anywhere outside of New York City.  I was scared shitless of NYC.  I wondered what would become of me because I wanted only one job: comic-book artist.

Off to University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the fall of ’75, I found my place in college life in January of 1976, writing and drawing a daily comic strip for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian. I became an art major against my parents’ wishes, studying mostly with a swashbuckling parade of bitter, drunken Abstract Expressionists and lecherous egotists who hit on the cuter female students. I did a reasonable impersonation of an art student in order to continue my real job of drawing my daily comic strip for the University newspaper.

I did have a brilliant professor, one John Roy, who reveled in pulling practical jokes and pranks on students in order to keep them on their toes and make them think. He was trying to induce fits of critical thinking. Students would be pissed off because he would not teach technique (not that any UMass art professor did), but I delighted in his challenges and did my best to come up with some fresh stuff to throw back at him.

RC: Do you consider yourself to be a writer that draws, an artist that writes, or neither?

SL: Basically I’m a guy who loves to draw, but in truth I see it like this: I’m a conduit for a set of muses who use me as a tool to bring certain ideas and exuberant spirits into physical reality. I’ve always felt like a conscript in a cartoon army of one. A willing conscript, with a real sense of mission. Now, defining and articulating that mission is a whole other matter!

Aluminum Foil

RC: What drove you to do your college strip? How much encouragement did you receive from your editors? What kind of response did you get from your fellow students?

SL: A team of wild horses could not have stopped me from doing a strip, I wanted it that bad. I did it for four years, from the beginning of ’76 to the end of ’79. The editors were completely laissez-faire, affable and encouraging. If they had the space available on the comics page, and you walked in with a decent-looking week of strips, you’d get a shot. There was room when I walked in, so I got a shot.

I’d seen the strips they were running when I got there the previous fall, maybe one was nominally good, but really there was nothing that impressed me. I’d been doing comics for super cheesy fanzines throughout high school.  I had hundreds of pages under my belt, and I figured I had the chops to do better than what I saw.

RC: From the samples I’ve read, Aluminum Foil is not unlike some of your future comics in that it seems to be largely improvised in terms of narrative, focused on bizarre, surreal and/or silly images and story ideas, and made a point of callbacks to past story events. How much of this strip was purely improvisational, and how much of it was calculated?

SL: I was in the habit of writing down funny ideas as they occurred to me. I gotta admit, the first 10 minutes after smoking a doobie would often find me scribbling down some hilarious nonsense.  Sure, there were some jokes with actual punch lines, but I was more interested in tossing out odd and non-sequitur ideas just to get a reaction. I had this idea it was time to think differently about things, fuck normal. I also loved stuff like Steve Canyon, not the politics but the ongoing adventure aspect, so I aspired to that too. I was able to create entertaining narrative but would often stall on sustaining and ending story arcs. Well, sometimes it would play through to my satisfaction, but could be hit or miss.

RC: Would you say that drawing this strip hooked you on doing comics forever? You’ve mentioned that it was a thrill to know that thousands of people were reading your strip every day; was it a goal of yours to try to continue to draw that many readers — but purely on your own terms?

SL: I’d been published in fanzines on a regular basis from the time I was 15, so I was solidly hooked by then, doing crappy imitation Barry Smith barbarian strips, superheroes, and I also drew close to 100 pages of my adaptation of the Greek myths. Honestly, I was hooked when my brother and I started drawing our own faux-Archie comics in grade school. By the time I was 10, I saw myself as a comic-book artist. I worried that I would not be granted permission to do this by some imagined adult authority, that it wasn’t acceptable as a career choice. I was right enough about that, but still I never saw myself doing anything else.

The experience at UMass exceeded my wildest expectations on the one hand, but on the other hand, it was no surprise to me. I was living out a dream. I wanted to continue in comics upon graduation, but had no idea how to pursue it. I did have a notion that I might publish on my own. I showed Aluminum Foil to two or three of the syndicates and received form rejections, no surprise there. I showed DC some samples and got more form rejections. I was spoiled in that I’d been very lightly edited and wanted to continue cartooning on my own terms. I knew that the undergrounds were pretty much gone. I had a half-baked notion that I could sell cartoons to magazines like National Lampoon, maybe High Times. I did sell one cartoon to Rolling Stone‘s first issue of “College Papers” in 1979, but it led to nothing.

RC: For a long time, you tended to bring back old characters and put them in new situations. The strange, giant doll figure of BenB is perhaps the most prominent in that regard. Where did the inspiration for this figure come from? Was he purely a creature of your imagination or a distorted reflection of someone you knew?

SL: Benb entered the scene as a graffiti on the wall of my dorm room in the spring of my freshman year at UMass. My best friend from high school, Tim Robinson, was visiting UMass and we were goofing around with markers, drawing on the wall. We were taking turns and Tim just walks over to the wall and BOOM! There is Benb. The smile, the holes in the head for eyes, the stitches, the tie, the big round belly. I was stunned. It was the manifestation of an archetype, and pure alchemy that Tim just nailed it in one take like that.

I took Benb and ran with him. He was the unofficial star of Aluminum Foil (Gerald the foil head was the main character). Benb is happy, clumsy, and never stops smiling. He never talks. He always does the wrong thing, but embodies a sort of well-meaning Buddha-hood so you can’t help but be on his side. Benb is the inept everyman in all of us, a real dope but sweet to a fault.

RC:  What inspired the Irving Forbush-esque look of the lead character Gerald, who wore a hood made out of foil?

SL: One snowy winter evening, just before my second semester of UMass, I was out with [Steve] Beaupre and Tim Robinson, maybe one other guy. We’re driving around burning doobies, playing tunes and downing beers. We [kept] driving into these huge snow banks, [we’d]  just get out, pick up Beaupre’s army green ’74 Ford Pinto, one guy on each corner of the car, and throw it back in the road. Dazed, yet somehow not confused, clear in our mission.

A roll of Aluminum Foil materialized. We donned foil hoods and went to eat (and drink more) in a local Polynesian restaurant that served fruity rum drinks in a faux volcano with a booze filled trench around it, Sterno fire blazing atop. Thus was born the idea of the foil-head party animal.

RC:  What lessons did you learn from this strip that were later important to you as an artist?

SL: Process trumps perfection, trust yourself.

Newave Years

Lafler was part of the generation of artists that followed the collapse of the underground distribution system, whose work was broadly sampled in the Fantagraphics anthology Newave! These were artists who didn’t have the range of publishers and extensive distribution system available to today’s cartoonists. They were simply inspired by the underground generation and established their own community out of sheer force of will. Early on, Lafler figured out how to work with the then-new Direct Market system, hustling and promoting his early series Dog Boy (not to be confused with the later Charles Burns creation of the same name). His first post-college release was Mean Cat, published in 1981.

Lafler promoting Mean Cat at Project Space Gallery in Eugene, OR in 1981. Photo by Rebecca Schwartz.

RC: How did you first become aware of minicomics and the underground publishing world in general?

SL: Once I put out Mean Cat in the spring of ’81, I set about promoting it vigorously. I tried to leave no stone unturned. There were a hell of a lot of interesting cartoonists hiding under some of those stones! Of course Clay Geerdes was there with Comix World and later Comix Wave.

RC: How did you get involved in the scene? Did you actively know folks like Clay Geerdes, Steve Willis, Brad Foster, Jim Ryan, etc, or did you only know them through the mail?

SL: I first knew people through the mail, trading comics with Ryan, Willis, the late great Jamie Alder, Par Holman (brush man supreme), and others. In the summer of ’83, I made my first pilgrimage to San Diego and had a wonderful time. I met J.R. [Williams], Clay [Geerdes], Bob Crabb, Jim Valentino, Par Holman and others. We partied down and jammed on comix in the bar of the legendary Hotel San Diego.

I also had my eye on the ball with regard to putting Dog Boy over the top on that trip, crashing the Pacific Comics party at their warehouse and having a ball. Some of the coolest guys were from the generation before me, [like] Ron Turner [and] Denis Kitchen, both of whom I hold in the highest regard. Also made the acquaintance of Gerry Giovinco and Bill Cucinotta from Comico, young guys with a great vibe.

RC: From what I can tell, you seemed to prefer making magazine-sized publications, as opposed to more traditional minicomics. Did you ever contribute much to other people’s minicomics?

SL: I wanted to publish in a format that could go through the distribution system and make me a living, it was that simple. Plus, I loved the B&W/color cover comic-book format. I contributed to some of Clay’s publications, and also to stuff that the critic Dale Luciano put out. But I was definitely a comic-book guy, as opposed to a mini comix guy, but I shared the publishing ethos with the mini comix movement. Clay Geerdes has an infectious enthusiasm and a strong point of view that really influenced me.

RC: How so?

SL: I guess you could distill it to publish or perish. Don’t wait for Jim Shooter or Dick Giordano or Steve Shanes or even Denis Kitchen to call you up (to name a few comics biz heavies of the day). Write it, draw it, publish it, and send it out the door. I should mention, Clay was a great guy, inspiring and mischievous, a ranconteur par excelence, but I was equally inspired by the maverick publishers of the day: Dave Sim, Gary Groth, guys like this who put fringe material out on a schedule and pushed it thorugh the distribution system. They printed the names and addresses of eight or nine distributors in every issue they put out, helping guys like me take up the challenge.

RC: What other artists of the Newave movement were particularly influential and/or inspiring to you?

SL: The guys I mentioned, Steve Willis, Jim Ryan, Bill Shut (Jamie Alder), Par Holman and J.R. Williams. David Miller was good too, and same with [Jim] Valentino. I traded from the get-go with Steve Willis, and he blew me away. Brilliant and prolific. I’m very proud that he used Benb as a grave digger in his Hamlet adaptation, “Morty, the prince of Denmark”. Par and J.R. did all these Mad/E.C. Spoofs that I could not get enough of. Each had a distinctive style that was at a professional level. There was…this guy Gato from Hawaii who was really out there. I had piles and piles of minis. I’d prune it down every year or so. Steve Willis and J.R. were the guys who had the best stuff. I admired Valentino for his chops, his work ethic, and his bravado, plus he was a fun guy to party down with. I would pick up the odd issue of Shadowhawk just to see what Valentino was up to, but I did not collect them. I always enjoy his autobio work, and of course I did collect normalman. His energy and drive, I admired. He honed in on exactly what he wanted, worked his ass off, and got it.

RC: For much of your career, you seemed to enjoy featuring the work of other artists. Was this a direct outcropping of your involvement with the Newave creators?

SL: That is an outgrowth of my personality: have a party, be inclusive. I’d get into trouble with that impulse, inviting lots of friends to get together who did not always mix well!

Dog Boy & Self-Publishing, Working with Fantagraphics

After self-publishing six issues of Dog Boy, his series was picked up by Fantagraphics in the late 1980s and ran for 10 more issues before its numbers dipped too low to continue. Dog Boy was a bizarre mix of psychedelic adventures, physical comedy, philosophical musings, autobiography and kibitzing from friends. Much of it was improvised.

RC: You’ve mentioned before that you often drew comics in an altered state. What were the advantages and disadvantages to doing this, and what effect do you think it had on your art?

SL: Inking & drinking, not a good idea, but I did my share of it up until about ’93, when I started Bughouse. As for weed, it’s OK to take a lift and dive in. The muse can show right up, but you gotta get something down quick. You open up to the matrix of ideation very nicely, but short-term memory is weak.

In the early ’80s, with Dog Boy, I would sometimes eat a ¼ hit of blotter acid to finish up inking an issue on deadline. It was hella fun. You can’t do more than that, as you get too overwhelmed with the decision-making process to make art. Look at Dog Boy #2, the second story with the Poodle Blockheads. They drive a car through a liquor store. There are dozens of bottles on the wall, I was dosed when I inked all that detail in there and it was a blast.

These and other blue-pencil original pages are from Dog Boy #7.

RC: Like many other underground-influenced comics, your Dog Boy stories were saturated with sex and drugs. Unlike some of your peers and predecessors, you seem to have a more positive attitude toward the former and a more nonchalant attitude toward the latter. How much of this positive attitude toward sex was consciously brought to bear on your comics? Do you think this lack of sexual self-loathing so common among the underground artists had an impact on your work? (For example, there was a Dog Boy scene where he was rejected by a woman and he simply walked away and scolded the reader for even thinking he might rape her).

SL: Sex is fun, right? To say the least! Things were more lighthearted in the ’70s as I came of age. I mean, didn’t everyone skinny dip and streak for the whole decade? It got more serious when AIDS came in, of course.

Drugs. Hmmm. Is marijuana a drug? Are ‘shrooms drugs? Don’t politicians look like idiots when they declare plants illegal? I was lucky, in the sense that I never went for the white powders in a big way. There was plenty of speed and coke around in the ’80s, and I tried it, but it always repulsed me, I did not like what it did, so I was never in danger of falling down that rabbit hole.

Booze, I did have my beer years and it was tough on me. I never was the guy who got caught up in self-loathing over sex, but with drunkenness, yes, I experienced the depths of low self-esteem and it hurt like a motherfucker.

‘Shrooms; I went though what I can only figure as a sort of shamanic initiation experience as a freshman in college, on April 10, 1976. It was a real case of before and after for me, and has a lot to do with what I write comix about: My ideas about the nature of time, human beings, reincarnation and related matters.

Interestingly, my good friend Steve Beaupre was there when this happened. We ate mushrooms with another friend, and apparently I was selected for the upgrade to superfralifragilicious first class. I should note too, that the mushrooms thought it the height of hilarity to put me through this— let’s let Steve in on the cosmic joke, he’s a good sport, he can take it! They explained to me that they were ancients, charged with the task of spreading the word, as it were, that I’d been selected to take a peek backstage. I’ll just say that, among other things, it scared the living shit out of me. And, it gave me high hopes for us human beings, impossibly high hopes, and it keeps me there to this day. It was helpful to me later to read the book Black Elk Speaks, and to read Joseph Campbell, stuff about shamanic initiation phenomena, to get some context to put this watershed experience into.

RC: How did reading about shamanism help contextualize your one-of-a-kind mushroom trip? Your reports about a feeling of sentience behind the drugs is not uncommon for some, especially those who do DMT. Do you have any thoughts in retrospect as to why these patterns recur throughout history?

SL: Reading about shamanic initiation experiences helped me realize that I’d had one! For example, I read the work of Michael Harner. Human beings have a sensory apparatus designed to help them survive on a day-to-day basis. Under certain conditions, we can understand more about what we are and how we fit into the scheme of things. Science can explain a lot based on empirical evidence, which is quite handy, but it does not explain what we are, let alone where we come from, where we are going. Magic mushrooms have an idea about how things work, and are willing to share it with human beings. They know stuff about time and reincarnation that is helpful in this sense: If you know more about the structure of reality, you can act in it more effectively. We human beings can do a lot better, we are in fact at a critical juncture, we GOTTA do better! And we all know it. What mushrooms can show us is part of the equation, a clue to the solution. They are not THE solution, rather they are very mischievous helpers with a wicked sense of humor who enjoy bonking us upside the head with a bit more information than we can carry back from the encounter, yet many do manage to come back with little bits of the puzzle figured out. Some will think I sound like a nut. To be honest, I’m just attempting to convey, through art, the best ideas I can. I’m presumptous about this, but it’s a genuine act of love.

RC: From the beginning, you seemed to not only want to tell stories, but also muse on the nature of creativity and inspiration. Your stories are different from most underground or even mainstream artists in that while they are fantasies, they are not power or revenge fantasies. Would you characterize them as consciousness-expanding fantasies? How much did exploring these fantasies carry over into “real life”?

SL: As mentioned, I’m a cartoonist on a mission. I’m intensely curious, not only about what is the nature of creativity, but what is a human being? Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? [Paul] Gauguin asked these questions, and named his great large-scale painting that hangs in Boston after them. I’m lucky in that I’ve been in a position to carry out my art-making in pursuit of these themes.

RC: You seem uninterested in downplaying the importance of mind or body in terms of doing comics about self-actualization and awareness. Is this a conscious strategy? Would you say that part of your project is depicting the ways in which happiness can only be achieved by embracing both? (Even your trippiest comics always have a visceral element: sex, physical sensation, etc.)

SL: I don’t know that it’s a conscious strategy, I’m more like an idiot savant that just lays stuff out in the way that seems obvious to me. I see the world through the prism of my beliefs and experiences. I have a pretty strong point of view, and I’m compelled to express it. That’s what artists do. It takes a certain ego, a certain sense of mission to feel comfortable in doing this, but it’s a natural for me. I’m a big ham, a clown, and I love blowing my horn, so there it is.

I also take delight in messing things up in the way that, say, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters might have. Kesey was quoted as saying that, during the acid tests, the Pranksters were good at getting into a town, messing it up pretty good, and then, POOF! The next day they were gone, not a trace of them left behind, but the place would never be the same.

RC: Your political beliefs obviously charged your early comics, but only up to a point. Did you feel awkward in spewing polemics, and if so, did you undercut this by introducing silliness and/or trippiness to lighten the mood? Or is it the case that the lightness of your approach was always going to undercut any didactic qualities your comic might possess?

SL: Topical political stuff is important, but it does not retain the same potent charge over time. For example, Lloyd Dangle and Tom Tomorrow perform an invaluable public service with their weekly comics, but it’s stuff with a short shelf life. That is not to say that their collections are stale, just of their times, as they are both brilliant guys with unique approaches.

I’m always happy to express that I am anti-militaristic. I believe public monies should go to health care, housing, education, jobs and culture. I am anti-hierarchy, but there is the problem that a socialist structure is by definition hierarchical to some degree. Anyhow, I am cautious about being didactic, it tends to blow up in my face, so I try to avoid planting flags and claiming political turf.

RC: How has being didactic in talking about political content “blown up in your face”?

SL: I’ve been told more than once that my attemps at putting my politics in my comics fall flat. This guy Thom Powers was an editor at The Comics Journal in the ’80s, he opined as such. Actually back in the ’80s, I corresponded just a bit with Scott McCloud, as I was a fan of Zot!. Scott told me that Dog Boy worked pretty well, except when I put politics in. He referred to my comments on the presidential run of John Glenn in ’84, that I’d lampooned in Dog Boy #4, it just fell flat, and I have to agree with him!

RC: Getting back to drugs, you never did the Gilbert Shelton thing to simply make jokes about getting stoned. Instead, you seemed to be aware of (and even slightly ambivalent about) the power that drugs possess. You also were quite aware that alcohol and caffeine (through coffee) were powerful drugs on their own. Given that your stories were frequently improvised (and sometimes inspired by drug use), how did this awareness affect your storytelling? How did this awareness change over time? Did you ever feel you were “cheating” somehow when you smoked up before hitting the drawing board?

SL: I never felt like I was cheating, as I recognize the subjectivity of just about everything. For example, the scientific method is a very subjective way of quantifying and defining empirical evidence; it completely ignores the fact that physically manifest phenomena are relative, always affected by the situation, observers, etc. It is a great set of procedures for determining and proving certain types of ideas, but isn’t it very 19th  century in its limited scope, its insistence on its status as the ultimate arbiter of truth?

My relationship to alcohol changed over time; as I approached middle age I recognized I had developed a pattern of heavy beer intake, and took steps to change that behavior before it did me in. It was not easy to alter deeply ingrained patterns of swilling beer! I’d become my own worst enemy by my early 30s, and it took me until I was about 40 to successfully change that.

RC: Dog Boy feels like an extended conversation (and sometimes argument) between various aspects of your own identity. Would you agree that Knoot, Dog Boy and Benb were all either real-life or fantasy aspects of your own personality?

SL: It had that function, it was part of the deal with Dog Boy, although this extended conversation was not the totality of what Dog Boy was about. Knoot was a comment on the graying of the generation before me, the ’60s guys. Before the end of the ’70s, I’d noticed a lot of self-righteous older hippies were sanctimonious hypocrites, totally on the make for everything they could lay their hands on.

RC: How much of Dog Boy was a way of working out and coming to terms with the life you had chosen as a cartoonist? You noted that earlier in your life, you were on track to choosing a career as a scientist or professional. Would you say that Knoot represents this aspect of your life (he was a college distance runner, just like you)?

SL: The answer would be yes, I was working out my own goals and choices, but I was also very much on the track I described earlier; I was looking to suss out the nature of creativity, human beings, and physical reality. The improvisational technique, the attempt to divest myself of preconceived notions before sitting down to work, I was on the hunt for the other, the unknown. Maybe later in the Dog Boy, by the second half of the Fantagraphics 10 issue run of Dog Boy, there was more of an attempt at an actual storyline.

RC: Did the many stories about Knoot temporarily selling out to corporate America or the government (only to be “rescued”/harangued by Dog Boy) come about as a way of exploring an alternate life or time line? Was your urge to set Knoot straight a conscious decision or was it something improvised in the moment? Do you ever feel, consciously or unconsciously, that you made a mistake in becoming an artist?

SL: Hell no! I had a concurrent existence to cartoonist from my undergraduate days on. I was a self -employed screen printer, nominally a business owner. I ran up against a lot of business people in this capacity, and had a certain level of aspiration there myself (make enough money to pay the next printing invoice for Dog Boy, get to San Diego, do some promoting and the like). So Knoot is part me, part observation of the times. Especially after that fuckwad Reagan got in, and it was sort of OK, even hip, to be on the make again in an overt way for the first time since the early ’60s.

RC: Speaking of identity, you made it clear that Mean Cat (a female) and Dog Boy were two sides of the same coin. How conscious was this early exploration of gender-bending? Did it precede your more active embracing your identity as a transgendered person, or did all of this come about at the same time?

SL: This was indeed a conscious exploration of gender-bending, but also an investigation into the idea of reincarnation or simultaneous lives. I never thought of reincarnation as being a series of lives in linear time, and I was always surprised that various religions or spiritual systems embraced this idea. It was always clear to me that if we have more than one life, they exist simultaneously, separated by a matter of frequency or vibration, rather than in as a succession, one at a time, in linear time.

RC: Joe Sacco was the “coordinator” for Dog Boy for the first few issues in its Fantagraphics run. What did this involve, precisely? Did it surprise you to see him evolve into the sort of artist he is today?

SL: I’d send copies of the pages to Joe for copy-editing. He’d send back corrections. I’d then send in the finished pages and they’d get it off to the printer and publish it. Joe was fantastic, because he opined to me at the time that Dog Boy was great, cutting-edge stuff. I’d already known about Joe because he was a pal of J.R.’s [Williams] in Portland before he went to Southern California to work for Fantagraphics.

He edited a short-lived anthology with Fanta called Centrifugal Bumble Puppy that was really raucous, and I was delighted to be in a couple issues. I did a cover where Ron and Nancy Reagan were being carted off to the guillotine. Ron’s says “I’ll just say no” and Nancy’s comment is “Let them eat cake”.

Between ’87 and ’89, Sacco put his nose to the grindstone and emerged a great cartoonist. The issue of Yahoo from the summer of ’89 about his travels with a rock band in Europe, “In the Company of Long Hair”, was brilliant, it’s a classic. This was about the same time Clowes made his big leap forward. These guys worked hard and became really great, it was both daunting and inspiring.

Tomorrow: Character design, the ’90s Alternative wave, Buzzard, Bughouse, Top Shelf and much more.

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4 Responses to “Explaining Reality To Myself: The Steve Lafler Interview (Part One of Three)”

  1. LouW says:

    I went to UMass from 1976-1978; I fondly remember Aluminum Foil in the Collegian; somewhere I have copies of those strips cut out and saved. My favorite character was Benb, which Lafler used in a few other places. Always wished I met Lafler; would have loved to purchase an oriiginal sketch of Benb from him. I try to get anything Lafler does whenever I see it; he’s a genius.

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