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

Posted by on September 22nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One, Part Two


Lafler announced to the world in comics form that he was transgendered with 2002’s The $99 Drag Makeover, a story that was later collected in 2008’s Tranny. These stories go into some detail as to his long-standing interest in cross-dressing and then cheekily provides a shopping guide for the frugal transgendered person. Tranny also includes “Cat Suit”, a story about a guy who goes clubbing dressed up in a cat suit and calling himself the Manx.

Lafler as Fiona Mallratte. Photo by Lafler.

RC: Even in the first issue of Dog Boy, when he admires a sash on a model and the issue as a whole was devoted to shoe fetishism, you’ve always had an element of gender-bending in your comics. Was this something you understood at a conscious level at that time, or did it take a few more years until you realized your true nature?

SL: I was aware of being somewhere on the transgender scale from my very young childhood, so it never seemed strange or unusual to me. Probably by the age of four or five, I expressed interest in dressing in girls’ clothes, and was told in no uncertain terms that I could not. I knew I had a pecker, but so what? It’s just clothes, is what I thought at the time. So I learned to not bring it up!

I’d see girls and women at church very dressed up and I was fascinated by it. I loved how they looked, and even by four or five, I knew I wanted to possess them. Of course, I didn’t know how to have sex because I had not reached puberty, but I was so attracted to them I could barely stand it!

At the same time, I was aware that I wanted to be them, I wanted to engage in this process of getting all dolled up and going out. There is the mystery as to where these urges come from, but it’s very natural, not at all contrived or born out of some family dynamic or tortured relationship.

In my case, I was born like this, I came pre-installed with the T-girl software. If I had to guess, I’d say that I chose it as part of the mix before I was born. Why? For fun, for chrissakes! With me, being transgendered ebbs and flows of its own accord, sometimes it’s stronger, sometimes it’s barely there. It was frustrating to a degree growing up, to have these urges to dress as a female, yet to know there was a strong taboo against it. Like any other tranny, I’d dress in secret from time to time.

RC: You’ve noted that you were raised a Catholic and your mind was still lashed to that particular paradigm until a psilocybin trip in college. What effect did being raised Catholic have on you later in life? To what extent did being Catholic later inform your sexuality and fetishes? In particular, I’m thinking about one story where your stand-in talks about looking forward to being paddled.

SL: By the time I was approaching puberty, I was having a hard time believing the chapter and verse of what I was being told to believe as a Catholic. I made an honest effort to believe, but I saw a level of nonsense, and of course hypocrisy, and I just did couldn’t swallow it.

I really like the example of Jesus, the ideals of love, healing and compassion have a great appeal to me. The idea that you should love and respect everyone equally, especially the poor, sick and the outcasts, it still knocks me out. Let’s all try it!

But the rules, the crazy shit, the guilt, the power-tripping, the fear and real estate, the inquisition, the ridiculous ideas about the place of women, the attempt to make you feel like shit unless you give it up to Rome, these are the things that drove me away from Catholicism. But I probably would have left anyway; I have a profound anti-authoritarian streak.

They got me in first and second grade—by third grade I was in public school. But in a way it was too late. I was indoctrinated into the club, and they scared the living shit out of me when I was a little shaver. I remember seeing film strips of sinners crying in pain, bathing in the lake of fire because they died with a few too many sins on their docket.

In terms of it informing my sexuality, they probably succeeded in making me feel guilty about bumping nubile Catholic girls in high school just a little wee but, but not too darn much! The thing with paddling, well I went to All Saints School in Cincinnati for first grade, and most of the teachers were nuns. Lucky for me I got this gorgeous babe for a teacher in first grade, Miss Deters, one of the few non-nuns. I remember being a bad-ass at recess one day, and she threatened to paddle me. I’m like, fuck yeah, Miss Deters, give it to me baby! As an adult, this paddling business is not on my list of interests, but when I was 6, I actually fantasized about Miss Deters and her wooden paddle.

RC: Tranny pretty clearly connects taboos and identity shifts of all kinds. In particular, you tie together superhero fetishes as a sort of transsexual fetish (in “Cat Suit”). Was this the case for you as a youngster, as you look back on it? Did the idea of costumes, of trying on a different identity (the ultimate secret identity being that of a woman) inform the charge you got from such comics?

SL: Nah, I simply wanted to be Spider-Man! When I was 10 years old, Spider-Man was the coolest fucking thing in the universe. It was about power, and the specific appeal of a really great character, the freedom, the fact that he was pretty much just a big kid. Loving Spider-Man and Marvel comics as a boy, it was all pretty straightforward stuff in my young life.

I tied superhero fetishes to tranny stuff in the Tranny book because if an adult really did go out into the city at night in a skin-tight suit, well shit maybe there is some level of transgender stuff goin’ on there. Look at all the metal band guys, glam rockers etc., there is an element of cross-dressing there. Taken to its logical conclusion, you get Lux Interior, the great lead singer for the Cramps, who clearly was a transvestite. And the true king of rock & roll, I might add!

I also tied cross-dressing and transvestism to superheroes in the hopes that I would piss off some small minded superhero fans. That’s the “mean cat” in me, the trickster. It is worth noting, there can be an erotic charge associated with cross-dressing and the attendant violation of taboos—the idea of violating taboos is certainly tied in to Catholic guilt.

RC: Was writing and publishing Tranny (and the earlier $99 Drag Makover) a liberating experience for you? In your work, you’ve always seemed so comfortable with sex, sexuality and your own sexual identity that it’s hard to tell if this experience was simply the culmination of thoughts and feelings that you’d had for years but hadn’t quite put together, or if it was something more painful and/or explosive.

SL: It was not painful or explosive, but I had been leading up to it. I’d taken to dressing for Halloween, the Cramps would always come play San Francisco and starting in ’99 I’d go to the show in drag. I’d actually done drag on Halloween for the first time in 1990, but I hadn’t really figured out how to do a decent job of transformation yet. By the late ’90s I’d do a little drag shopping here and there. By ’99 I’d gotten it to the point where I could pull it off.

I never had any illusion that I was passing as a woman, part of my comfort level and confidence with going out in public was that I didn’t care if people knew I was a dude in a dress. I felt good and held my head high. I’d go shopping in drag, I’d go to art openings, and of course I’d go to clubs to see drag shows, stuff like that. People are pretty much incredibly nice to queens. Well, you get a few jerks, but I’ve been pretty lucky and haven’t run into it too much.

As a natural outgrowth of my cross-dressing, I wanted to do some comics about it. The bottom line, if I was having fun and was comfortable with it, great. If not, I’d back off. Interestingly, it was easy to enjoy a certain level of cross-dressing in my life living in the Bay Area, then Portland, but in Oaxaca, it’s scaled waaaaaaaaay back, it’s sort of a socially conservative place.

Lafler bends Reed Richards’ gender in this 2003 painting.

RC: What was the reaction from friends/cartooning colleagues when you came out as transgendered?

SL: One of my best friends, Mike Perkin, a painter and business associate, was delighted with it. Mike is a true artist and is driven by a zeal to learn, a curiosity about damn near everything. Mike just thinks it’s hilarious. Beaupre is nonchalant about it. Some friends, like Molly Kiely, just say that it makes perfect sense, no surprise. [Mary] Fleener says she’d love to get husband Paul to dress up sometime for laughs, fat chance! J.R.[Williams], well he told me he did drag himself one year for Halloween, was it ’91?

Some friends, it messes up their idea about what I’m up to and who I am. It’s pretty easy to read when someone thinks you are just completely fucked up. Look, transgenderism is more in the public eye than it used to be, but it’s still not well understood. People have pretty old-fashioned ideas about it that are pretty limited. And, of course, there are dozens of ways to be transgendered. Lots of different types of people and experiences under the umbrella of the term.

RC: What, if any, has been the reaction from the trans community or trans readers after the publication of Tranny? Did you pick up any new readers as a result?

SL: Well, the book sold into the trans community a little but not in huge numbers. I did not figure out how to promote it properly. I did some of these YouTube videos as Fiona Mallratte, my drag self, to promote it. The videos got huge numbers, like more than a quarter million views, but I think it may have literally been a buncha wankers. What a compliment! A few TG folks have told me they liked the book a lot.

El Vocho, the Move to Mexico and Making a Living

Lafler and his family (including his two children) picked up stakes and moved from Portland to Oaxaca, Mexico a few years ago. He put together Tranny there and recently finished El Vocho, a caper romance evoking Chester Gould, utopian technology and Lafler’s usual interest in the elastic nature of time.

Lafler in Guanajuato, Mexico during his six-month stay in 1997. Photo by Serena Makofsky.

RC: Before you wound up moving to Mexico full-time, you spent six months there on an extended vacation (which inspired your book Baja). What was it about Mexico (and Oaxaca in particular) that drew you back there as a place to live with your partner and children?

SL: Serena and I could be characterized as Bohemian types. We’re not materialistic in any traditional sense; if we are consumers, it’s as consumers of culture and experience. After we hooked up, we discovered we both had dreams of traveling extensively and perhaps living in Mexico. I’ve always been fascinated with the culture and history of Mexico and Latin America. We did lots of research and saved money, then lived here for the second half of ’97. It just was a blast, and indeed it was a bummer to have to return to the States and start working again!

RC: El Vocho, your newest book, has elements of the sort of psychedelic caper stories one saw in Dog Boy with the narrative structure of Bughouse. What inspired this particular book, especially with an artist character who resembled you in a number of ways?

SL: I wanted to draw humans, I wanted to do a love story, and I really wanted to do a Utopian fantasy about clean energy. The funny thing, we’d been in Mexico for half a year and I was boppin’ from project to project, trying stuff but nothing was sticking. Then my pal Mats Stromberg and his partner Peri came for a visit, and seeing Mats just got me fired up. Go figure. They took a side trip to the coast of Oaxaca for a week, and when they returned, I had the whole script for El Vocho written! Writing El Vocho was another case of the muse taking over, once I started writing, it flowed like honey and I was delighted.

RC: You ran a T-shirt screen-printing company for a long time as a way to make money. Is this business still in existence? What motivated you to codify your beliefs and methods in this regard in your Self Employment For Bohemians book?

SL: I started freelancing with wholesale T-Shirts as an undergraduate, and damn if I’m not still doing it. Easy money, sort of, but I take it very seriously. I run the biz via the Web, and my old friend David Perkin, Mike’s younger brother, handles the printing in Portland, Oregon. I like teaching people about screen-printing and self-employment, I figure there are enough people like me around who don’t want to have a regular job, maybe I can set a fire under their butts and give them some good ideas. It’s do-able, and I want young people to know this.

RC: That similar sense of evangelism pervades other aspects of your art: doing an issue of Dog Boy about how to get into the Direct Market, the clean energy aspects of El Vocho, etc. What drives you to share these experiences? Have you ever considered teaching?

SL: Teaching is fun, but really hard work. I’m more of a blowhard who wants to tell people what to do. I’ve taught cartooning to kids, and at the Community College level. But I have not pursued a career there.

RC: Do you see yourself going back to the U.S. on a permanent basis?

SL: I have no idea! Right now, we are really happy in Oaxaca. The recent election, the PRI party was voted out after 80 years, it’s pretty cool. We’ll see what happens. It’s a wonderful place, dripping with culture and history, good food and great people. After three years in Oaxaca, I’d say that I could live there the rest of my life and still learn something new every day about Oaxacan, and Mexican, culture. It’s different to say the least, informed by several thousand years of culture. I like it a lot, but it can be confusing, let alone surreal.

RC: What are some day-to-day things that are different? Is it food, culture, shopping, art, architecture, or something else? How is Oaxaca different from other regions in Mexico?

SL: Day to day, I am very focused on being a dad. My work week is about 25 – 30 hours, Serena and I are into hanging with our kids while they are young. It’s actually very intense, and certainly very rewarding. My life is also different now because I’ve been bitten by this music bug. I could really fall into the country blues/cowpunk rabbit hole and never come out, and I’d be happy. Oaxaca is geographically remote from other parts of Mexico. It’s only six hours to Mexico City, but it’s on a true mountain highway. It’s some work to get there. Culturally, it’s second only to Mexico City as an art center in Mexico, and the food is the best in Mexico, good fresh food and lots of subtle flavors. Cheese is a garnish, unlike with Mexican food in the U.S., where everything is drenched in it. People have lived in cities of some size around Oaxaca for more than 3000 years. They’ve had a lot of time to build up their spirit there, and it’s nothing short of amazing. I could write a book. I probably will, but for now a good starting place would be Peter Kuper’s Oaxaca Journal. Oh, I should not forget Mezcal, the smooth, smokey distilled agave spirit. Don’t confuse it with tequila. Tequila is actually mezcal made from blue agave, which is found to the north in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal in Oaxaca comes from a wide variety of agave, and it’s amazing stuff, made in hundreds of country stills. It really captures the soul of Oaxaca. I have developed a taste for it. In fact, I’ve just decided I better lay off the stuff for now, but I’m still an enthusiast.

RC: What’s next for you in terms of comics projects?

SL: Dog Book. I’ll do a new Dog Boy story and collect Dog Boy, finally! I’m gonna call it DOG BOOK. Joe Sacco wrote me an intro for this project years ago—I gotta ask him if he minds if I dig it out and use it!

After that, I’ll do a new edition of Bughouse. Not sure who will publish, Manx [Media, Lafler’s current self-publishing imprint] could do it. I’ll check in with my boys at Top Shelf, we’re out of contract on it. Before a new edition of Bughouse comes out, I need to rescan the art, as the Top Shelf edition was done from high-end Xerox copies. That was passable in ’99, but it doesn’t cut it now.

RC: Do you enjoy touring and conventions? What did the early years of shows like SPX mean to you as an artist and as someone who is part of a community?

SL: I love the shows and the promo stuff, I love schmoozing and hanging out with my colleagues in the biz. SPX, hard to believe I’ve only been three times! Part because I became a dad, and it’s tougher to get around, part because I moved to Oaxaca. I was gonna go in 2001, but of course it was canceled that year.

San Diego, I started going in ’83, and for years and years it was a blast. Then Hollywood and big bucks ate it alive. But that show had soul for the longest time. Last great one was ’96, the party on the golf course, The Action Suits played with Pete Bagge on drums and Eric Reynolds singing.

It’s no secret that my pals and I used to party like wild baboons down in San Diego. Ha ha, I probably hurt my career more than helped it with some of the dumb shit I did there, but I have no regrets. A.P.E. has been great too, I showed up in drag with the first Drag comic in 2002, and caused a mild stir. Now Portland has a pretty cool show in Stumptown. I’d love to make the circuit this year with El Vocho, but I’ll have to be content with the promo events I’ve done. Gotta get back to Oaxaca soon, and it’s too expensive to keep boppin’ back and forth.

Lafler and Lloyd Dangle, circa 1995. Photo by Scott Hoover.

RC: Speaking of community, do you still keep tabs with Mary Fleener, JR Williams, Lloyd Dangle, Mario Hernandez and all the other folks from your generation of comics? I feel like your generation isn’t talked about as much as the artists who immediately preceded it (the undergrounds and immediate post-underground artists) or followed it (the Xeric generation). Do you feel kinship with artists of the younger generation?

SL: J.R. came to the El Vocho event at Reading Frenzy in Portland, where I was playing Oaxacabilly music, and he backed me up with his electric ukulele! That boy has chops. Sort of surf punk or something. Just saw Lloyd at the El Vocho event in San Francisco six days ago, great to see his famously handsome mug (the girls went nuts for Lloyd when he showed up in San Francisco in ’86, don’t tell him I said that).

I guess I feel kinship with just about anyone who uses comics as an art medium. The funny thing, now that I’m 53, younger artists to me may still be over 40! But I do love the work of Jesse Reklaw, Andrice Arp and Dylan Williams, to name a few. Dylan’s got the true blue comix heart, he’s a fine human being. And I really like the work of Austin English, he’s got his own thing and I dig it a lot. Since I was in Portland for a couple years just before heading to Mexico, I got to know a lot of the younger artists there a bit, and I liked the community a lot.

RC: What comics are you reading these days, if you have time to do so?

SL: My son Max just turned 9, and we read everything we can get our hands on, often in Spanish. We’ve been reading Tintin in Spanish. It’s hard, because the translations are in Castillian Spanish, not Latin American Spanish! There are tons of cool kids comics in Spanish, and we’ve been reading the Mexican edition of Mad too. Meanwhile, I’ve just started to seek out some cool graphic novels coming out of Mexico City. A new book store opened up in Oaxaca, sort of a lefty/artsy store. They are carrying cool graphic novels and small-press books out of Mexico City. One of the publishers is the same outfit that just put out Peter Kuper’s Oaxaca Journal. It looks like the store, La Jicara, has GNs from about three publishers from Mexico City that do some pretty cool-looking stuff. Stay tuned.

RC: Have any aspects of Mexican comics (like maybe historietas) informed any of your recent work?

SL: I always have a lag time between taking something in and drawing about it, a couple few years. It’s more like the Oaxacan culture itself is filling me up, and the experience of becoming a musician in Mexico has transformed my life. These things are bound get mixed up in my comics. So we’ll see.

RC: How do you evaluate your own works over the years? Are you able to periodically re-read and enjoy your old comics? Are there any of your own comics that you find unreadable?

SL: I can look at the same issue of Dog Boy at different times and find it either brilliant or just cosmically awful. Femme Noire, I really like the art, I’d been working hard for several years and it’s a good example of a certain level of polish that I’d reached. But the stories are really embarrassing, they just don’t cohere. Bughouse, I’m happy with but also I’m careful to not look at it tooooooooooooo much. That way, when I do look at it, it’s fresh to me and really works, I can really “see” it.

RC: What sort of advice have you received from your peers that you put into use?

SL: It could be little things, like Gerry Giovinco from Comico telling me to improve my lettering back in ’83. He was right, thanks Gerry! Or, when I was signing up with Fantagraphics to do a run of Dog Boy, I was a correspondent
with Pete Bagge. Pete advised me to ask for what I wanted in the contract in one of his notes, good advice. Another bit of advice came later from Fleener, she basically told me I’d hit my stride with Bughouse, so stop fucking around with Dog Boy, was the gist of it!

All art copyright 1976-2010 Steve Lafler, except as noted. All photos were provided by Lafler, with the exception of the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Further Reading:

Forty-Hour Man
El Vocho
Dog Boy

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