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

Posted by on September 21st, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: Part One.

Character Design Lightning Round

RC: Your character design is perhaps your greatest strength as an artist. I have a few random questions about your characters and character designs, starting with:

Mean Cat. Was her design an ode to R.Crumb?

SL: No, the look was flat-out random, off the top of my head, but the persona was inspired by my cat McDoogle, a skinny beloved hilarious tuxedo cat with murderous claws and the personality of an assassin.

RC: Knoot. This is a 40-something guy; who’s his look based upon?

SL: Knoot was sort of based on my friend and fellow runner Mark Healy, who I knew at UMass. He was supposed to be in his 20s at first, but I guess Healy looked older than his age.

RC: Dog Boy as Doog Boog—was this a sort of proto-Jimmy Watts attempt to create a musician character?

SL: My room mate Rick turned me onto the great saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Maybe it was based on Dexter Gordon, maybe it was offa the top of my head, the jazz archetype.

RC: Were female characters like Dog Girl and Maria based on real people or other aspects of your own personality?

SL: Dog Girl, a pretty one-dimensional character, affable and forgiving. Part me, part Becca (my girlfriend Rebecca—and she really hated it when people called her Dog Girl!) Maria was a tip of the hat to a gal I dated in the late ’80s, Shirin, a determined femme fatale in some respects. Maria was not a well-realized character.

RC: You’ve mentioned that you thought some of your early female characters were underdeveloped or one-dimensional. Why do you feel like you had trouble writing female characters?

SL: During the Dog Boy years, I was so caught up in my own drama via Dog Boy, I could not focus on creating complete female characters. I do think the female characters are better rounded now, but I still have a way to go.

RC: The Bughouse characters were executed with so much panache that it felt like you had been drawing them for a million years when you introduced them.

SL: I designed them in the winter of ’93. No Internet yet, at least not in my world. I went to the Berkeley library and dug up books on insects. I made sketches on the spot looking at the books, designed the characters then and there, and made notes on their personalities and foibles. I still have the ratty sketches somewhere. Insects are so beautiful and completely “other” close up, it was a delight to design characters looking at bugs, and indeed it felt too easy, a bit like cheating.

Buzzard & Catching the Wave of ’90s Alt-Comics

After Dog Boy was canceled, Lafler and longtime friend/collaborator Steve Beaupre teamed up to create Buzzard, a magazine-sized anthology that not only continued to provide a voice for Lafler and his peers, but also sought out younger cartoonists. In a decade where quality anthologies were few and far between (with Zero Zero and Drawn & Quarterly being the most notable), Buzzard’s anarchic qualities made every page an adventure. Julie Doucet was an early contributor at the height of her self-publishing career, but the anthology also featured early work from Adrian Tomine, James Kochalka, Alexander Zograf and Steve “Ribs” Weissman. Beaupre served as editor and Lafler credits him for having “good taste and a great eye” in finding emerging talent. Buzzard was unusual in that it also printed topical political work by Tom Tomorrow and Lloyd Dangle, as well as Beaupre’s poetry. The quality of the work was highly uneven in the anthology, but Lafler and Beaupre took a lot of creative risks in publishing what was very much an underground anthology series. It ran for 20 issues, ceasing publication in 1998 after an eight-year run.

RC: Steve Beaupre was the editor of Buzzard. What was your role? Were you a co-editor? Did you recruit/select talent? Did you do the design/art direction for the series?

SL: What art direction?! Yup, that’s me, the art director. Beaupre joined me in Cat-Head Comics in ’89 as we did two issues of Duck & Cover, and two of Femme Noire. We fell in together to publish comics as a natural outgrowth of our friendship and shared point of view. We made money that first year on three books and broke even on the fourth, so we were encouraged. We decided to do Buzzard, so we could put out one really bad-ass mag on a regular basis. We both recruited the talent, but Beaupre was the editor. He did a damn good job, he has an eye for detail and is very meticulous. An organized man. I handled more of the publishing work, the billing and promoting. Beaupre put up most of the money, although I’d contribute when I could.

RC: You’ve said that when Dog Boy was canceled, you felt that it had run its natural course anyway. How did Buzzard help revitalize your way of thinking?

SL: The idea with Buzzard was that we could put out four magazines a year, we maybe had delusions of empire. Well, we put out 20 issues in eight years, not too shabby. Steve and I figured that with regular publication and really good work, we could build a large audience. Ha ha, it did not exactly work out that way, although we did attract a loyal core audience, and we certainly did have an audience of artists who wanted to be in Buzzard!

I still wanted to work with the Dog Boy character, but I did not want to be limited to it, so having the open-ended assignment of always producing material for an anthology was enticing. I was in transition as an artist, searching for my next major inspiration. Buzzard provided me with an ideal platform to test ideas and material in.

RC: Buzzard seemed to be a chance for you to experiment a bit. Your stories (even the Dog Boy stories) felt more personal and you seemed to try a number of different styles on for size. Bughouse obviously emerged out of this period, but how would you describe your approach to comics during the Buzzard years?

SL: To be perfectly honest, I was struggling a bit with where to go as an artist. As I was process-oriented, I knew that if I kept working I’d be OK, I had great faith in process, I knew I could access the muse if I kept my rhythm. Thus, having the ongoing project of Buzzard pushed me forward.

The problem was drinking. As I moved into my mid-30s, I found myself single after two long liasions. I’d always liked my beer but I was hitting it harder than before; for example, I’d always kept Saturday as a drawing day, come hell or high water. But as Buzzard started, I lived in a party house just a few blocks from the Starry Plough pub on the Berkeley/Oakland line. I fell in with a Friday Happy Hour crowd, we’d get wrecked there come Fridays, and I just stopped drawing on Saturdays. It sucked, but I was trapped in this pattern for a few years.

Cover to Buzzard #17; ©Mats!?

RC: Buzzard bridged the anthology gap between Raw/Weirdo and the spate of anthologies that emerged later in the decade, especially for your generation of cartoonists. Was part of the purpose of this book simply to have a place for your like-minded friends to get an outlet?

SL: Steve and I had a clear sense that we were picking up a time-honored baton and running with it. Not in the sense that we were going to publish artists who were in Raw and Weirdo, although there was a bit of overlap, but in the sense that there needed to be an anthology that was truly out there, underground, bad ass, ready to carry the torch of free expression in comics. Mr. Beaupre and I are very proud that we did this, when no one else was. Sure, D&Q [Drawn and Quarterly] and Zero Zero were fine books, but they either published really stylish work or established artists.

RC: Who were the main perpetrators behind the extended Comics Journal parody in Buzzard #6? What led to writing it?

SL: The parody was my idea. I was a big fan of The Comics Journal, while also being aware of conflict of interest inherent in both publishing and criticizing comics. I admired Gary’s stance, his piss ‘n vinegar style, that ol’ fuck you attitude was pretty entertaining.

I had a part-time job then at Tower Design in Oakland, graphic design had not quite gone digital yet, it was still all photo-mechanically based, X-Acto knives were involved. So I was able to analyze the design of The Comics Journal and come up with a reasonable facsimile of it for our parody.

Beaupre contributed the brilliant, hilarious interview with fictional golden age great Ed Flenky. Dangle had come up the name Ed Flenky, and Beaupre, a little challenged with the idea of copyright, appropriated it for the piece. Rebecka Wright wrote a piece lampooning Dan Clowes and his latest comics promo tour, she came up with some fake name but it was clearly aimed at Dan.

We broadsided Fantagraphics with this, just sent them some comp copies at the office. Someone told me that Kim was pissed and had said it wasn’t very well done. Shit, it was fun to do, they deserved it, I’ll tell you, but honestly it was pretty much a big goddamn love note to those guys. I would not have done it if I didn’t like The Comics Journal. And it was very well done! Later on the Journal had some dildo (Greg Cwiklik or something like that?) do a review of Buzzard where he basically said there was no reason for it to exist. I did not read the review until many years later, I’d been tipped that it was bullshit. Funny thing, I finally read it years later and it really pissed me off. Who knew I would be so thin-skinned?!

RC: Given your reaction to that critique, what’s been your relationship with criticism in general over the years: something useful, something to tolerate, something to engage or something to be avoided altogether?

SL: I’m usually not thin-skinned about it! After all, I went to art school where your peers and teachers tear you a new one three times a week. I court criticism, from peers and professionals, and have learned a lot from it that has improved my work. There is a time to ignore it, for example when I’m in the hurly burly of working hard on something new, I do not look at it, rather I’d maybe show it to someone I trust.

RC: Two artists in particular stood out for me during Buzzard‘s run. The first is Phoebe Gloeckner. How did she come to contribute to Buzzard? What I thought was interesting was that in issue #10, you went out of your way to stump for female cartoonists to contribute, which I can’t remember any other anthology caring enough to do. By the end of Buzzard‘s run, you had a number of women contributing. What did you think of Gloeckner’s work in Buzzard?

SL: I think Beaupre invited Phoebe, or maybe she just dug Buzzard and wanted in. I can’t remember, but I was a big fan of Phoebe and was delighted she wanted to do something with us. That girl can draw, and her stuff is unique—it can be really warm and funny, or incisive and melancholy, she has range and draws like an angel. Her Buzzard stuff was unique for her, she got a chance to do some short pieces she may not have done otherwise, like the piece making fun of the life styles of middle-class Bay Area types.

The last issue, Buzzard 20, she did the cover of the young guy kissing the older woman, poking fun at Hollywood convention. And she contributed a brilliant piece inside that was both sweet and really filthy! This girl in the story just can’t help but boff these two guys, maybe three guys, it was presented as almost prosaic the way it played out. I loved it. Lee of Lee’s comics, he took me aside at San Diego and gave me a really hard time about not putting an adult content warning on the cover. He was right!

It had begun to bother me that Buzzard was pretty much a boys’ club. Fleener, Julie Doucet and Krystine Kryttre had all contributed, but still there was not much stuff coming in from women. I’d been aware of indy/UG comics being mostly a boys club from way back, and I worried that there was nothing about Dog Boy that the ladies would dig. So I brought it up that we might encourage women to contribute.

RC: The second artist who blew me away at the time I read Buzzard is Gerald Jablonski. How did he come to contribute to Buzzard? Were you aware of his comics at that point? What did you make of his violent/disturbing silent comics and his hilarious, convoluted debates about the teacher who was an ant?

SL: In all honesty, it took me time to appreciate Jablonski’s work. I tried to talk Steve out of using it at first! I’d have to go back and look again to make an intelligent comment about it. But here’s to Beaupre for sticking with it, I came to really like it, but from this distance I remember the art more than the story.

Lafler, J.R. Williams and Steve Beaupre at the San Diego Comicon in 2006, promoting Forty-Hour Man. Photo by Mary Fleener

RC: What was the nature of your working relationship with Beaupre? Were there ever any conflicts in editing Buzzard?

Beaupre and I are from a similar moment of 20th-century culture, we share a lot. We met as teenage dishwashers/bus boys at Rustler Steak House, and instantly bonded over our mutual love of Frank Zappa, and of course of throwing potatoes in the rafters of Rustler.

We were so in accord with Buzzard, it was near uncanny. We’d get on the phone and smoothly run through our business, moving in the same direction. Buzzard was great for Steve, he is a singular writer so it gave him not only a chance to edit and publish, but provided him with a vehicle to stick his own work in. The only disagreement with a contributor was over a piece submitted by Chuck Sperry. I loved it, but Steve rejected it. Not sure why. He had final say. He was the editor. I’d told Chuck it was in, so there was some pain there for me. But by and large, Buzzard was a collaboration that worked really well.

RC: During this period, you published a comic called Prometheus’ Gift. Of all your comics, this one was the most wildly experimental in terms of your art and storytelling techniques, and perhaps the most radical in terms of its improvisation. What did you learn from this experience? Did it work as a palate cleanser of sorts from your Dog Boy years?

SL: That is exactly what is was, taking the idea of an improvised comic to its logical conclusion. I just cleared out a room, hung about 20 blank pages on the wall, burned a fatty and dug in. I ran around the room for a couple days drawing and drawing. I did have two starting points—deal with the awakening I’d had with mushrooms on 4/10/76, give an honest literal shot at making sense of it, and do some real cool homage to Jack Kirby, which I did on the cover and in a dynamic two-page spread on pages two and three.

During this process, I sat and typed a multi-page document trying to describe my awakening/initiation experience. It came out pretty cool but still didn’t quite capture it, so I made a big collage out of the typed pages, drew a comic mandala in the middle and stuck them in the book. I was really happy with that—it wasn’t exactly comics, but if you sit down with Prometheus’ Gift and give it your attention for a little while, I think it delivers pretty good.

Soon after doing Prometheus’ Gift, I started collecting the ideas and intent that would become Bughouse. With all of this, I was also thinking: I’m going to change my life and stop being a beer lizard. How do I do this? I had an inkling that it was possible to draw my way out of this predicament. And guess what, I was pretty much right. By the time I was done with Bughouse, I had stopped drinking beer.

OK, so I’ll have a glass of wine or a margarita here and there, but I’m no longer getting half in the bag four days a week, with the requisite 12-beer binge a couple times a month. That life is behind me, I’m really happy to report.

RC: “Forty-Hour Man” was one of the most memorable features of Buzzard, combining Beaupre’s straight-ahead but witty text and your single-panel comics interpretations of same. How did that particular collaboration come about?

SL: Steve and I had worked together on a few comic stories already, with varying degrees of success. We trust each other in collaboration. Beaupre had enjoyed my solo book Prometheus’ Gift, where I described the events of April 10, 1976, my spontaneous shamanic initiation event, among other things. He thought he’d do a story about it from his point of view, since he was there. He proposed the text with illustration format and I loved the idea. That story was called “Almost Chinese” and it appeared in Buzzard #7.

Then Steve came up with the idea of doing a series about all the shit jobs he’d had. It was a well-conceived idea, the perfect vehicle for his humor. His way of doing Harvey Pekar. He’d write those blocks of text, and he’d also write a description of the illustration he wanted. From the get go, I’d do two things. I’d add sight gags to the ones he’d already put in there. I wanted a Will Elder type of over-the-top humor. Steve loved what I added. We were in accord. The second thing, I’d often draw Steve looking really ludicrous—stoned, drunk, lustful, devious, you name it. I’d come up with a relatively flattering way to draw him, but from that starting point, I worked to make him funny.

It was a joy to have Beaupre as a subject, because I’d been tight with this guy for half my life. I knew his moods, how he moved, how he charmed people, his wit, how he got pissed off, the whole deal. So I got to work with this great character that I knew so well, just an ideal gig.

Bughouse and Working With Top Shelf

Bughouse is probably Lafler’s best-known (and best) work. It was first printed in the pages of Buzzard but quickly moved on to its own series. Lafler collected it under his own Cat-Head Press imprint before Top Shelf picked it up for an expanded, revised edtion. Two more volumes have since appeared in the series: Baja and Scalawag. Bughouse is the story of bebop sax prodigy Jimmy Watts and his rise to fame with his band Bughouse, which included piano player Slim, drummer Ralph and bass player Bones. Lafler explores the joys of musical camaraderie, the enticements and perils of addiction, life on the road and much more in a series of rambling stories that are short on plot but long on appealing character interactions. The characters are anthropomorphic insects, a strategy that helps keep things loose (including reality) and allows Lafler to go off in some strange directions. These comics are the perfect compromise between conventional narratives and Lafler’s more typical free-flowing weirdness.

RC: In what ways are creating comics and creating music similar?

SL: In both cases, you are opening up your heart and head to inspiration and aspiring to express truth, passion, emotion, humor, the whole range of expression. Maybe you’re looking to get laid, too. Maybe the best thing, when it’s happening, [is] it’s insane fun and you are completely alive.

Lafler playing guitar with Kim Burly, of Canadian band The Stampeders, on bongos. “When Kim is there, the level of the evening goes up several notches”, said Lafler. Photo by Jeff Charles.

RC: How much did your own experience as a musician influence the depiction of music in Bughouse?

SL: Very little. I’d played trumpet and sang in the chorus as a kid, and monkeyed around with guitar a bit, but could not claim to be a musician at the time. I was much more influenced by being a consumer of live music. I was really into it—punk rock, bar bands, jazz, blues, blue grass and of course, the Grateful Dead. As a student of the creative process and improvisation, I felt comfortable writing about jazz music.

RC: In talking about improvisation, do you find yourself being able to improvise musically as much as you can on the comics page? How do the structures of each aid or inhibit your ability to improvise?

SL: I can improvise comics anywhere anytime, and some of that I owe to [Lafler’s partner] Serena. I used to need a very formal set-up to draw. She’d make me go draw in cafes, anywhere, and I was surprised that I could do it. With music, I need the structure of a song or chord progression to work within. I’m not a good enough musician yet to improvise freely. I’m working on it, though! I can improvise a bit within, say, the 12 bar blues in the key of G, but since I’m so unschooled in it, I’m likely to come up with a 14-bar structure that will piss off or confuse the guys I’m playing with.

RC: As a reader, the transition between your Dog Boy work and Bughouse is pretty stunning. There were hints you were moving in this direction; the last few issues of Dog Boy had your first coherent, continued storyline, and you had started writing about musicians. Still, what led you to create these characters and have them pull you around and essentially demand that you tell their stories?

SL: Several things, I was compelled to write about the nature of creativity and its intersection with addiction. To me, it was fascinating how the addict can rationalize their continuing self-abuse, and play tricks on themselves and their friends and family with their behavior. I noted too that many great artists are hopeless addicts or drunks; what’s going on there, I wondered?

I’ve stated before that I was blown away by two things that lead up to creating Bughouse. First, I read the autobiography of Miles Davis (written with Quincy Troupe) at least twice before starting. Wow, what a yarn! Miles is a world-class raconteur, as well as a trumpet player. He lived the creation of Be Bop, playing with Bird [Charlie Parker] and Diz [Dizzy Gillespie]. He then went on to define jazz for two decades. He was addicted to junk for a few years, maybe to cocaine later. He was a volatile personality. I was really captivated by the narrative, it had great style telling an important story.

David Cronenberg’s film adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch came out just then also. This movie floored me. I liked some of Burrough’s more coherent books like Junky and Queer, but I found Naked Lunch unreadable. But this movie, Cronenberg made sense of Naked Lunch; it hit me where I lived at the perfect moment. Ornette Coleman did the soundtrack and it was all this slippery, boppin’ sax that just rolls you through the picture. Peter Weller is perfectly cast as the Burroughs’ stand in, I just cracked up every time he cryptically asks someone, “Got any bug powder?” Judy Davis plays a double role, and she is terrific too, sultry and a bit tongue in cheek, hitting just the right note.

I wanted in the worst way to create a piece that captured bits of Miles, Cronenberg and Burroughs, adding my own style to it, and I had the crazy hope that the process of creating this work would somehow sober me up. I wanted this book to save my life.

RC: Bughouse feels like your PhD project in comics after years of experimenting with Dog Boy and its related comics. You explore a lot of the same ideas and go off in some weird directions, yet each chapter in the Bughouse saga manages to cohere even as reality proves to be somewhat elastic. What was your thought process when these stories came flowing out? Did you see it as you moving in a more mature, focused direction, or was it simply different?

SL: In creating the characters, I wanted each to have a distinct personality. They would each fulfill a role and exhibit certain characteristics; for example, Jimmy was talented, charming and expansive, but also greedy and self-centered. Ralph was a penny-pinching, sardonic operator/player, but with a big altruistic streak. Like characters in a Shakespeare play, everything each player does is consistent with their role.

How can I illuminate these distinct personae, I wondered? I hit on the simple, best solution: I would write dialogue with the express purpose of illuminating character. Once I started doing this, I was amazed how the narrative grew out of the exercise of character development. The dialogue drove the narrative like a steam engine, and I was ecstatic about this. Often I felt like I was taking dictation as I wrote the dialogue, some invisible hand guided me.

The day before I drew the first picture of Jimmy Watts, I met Serena, now my partner of 18 years. She is a journalist, a real writer; when we hooked up, she was writing fiction. Serena belonged to a fiction group, a workshop to critique and hone each others’ work. She’d come home from a session and we’d talk about what had transpired. I felt like a ghost member of the group, and learned a lot about writing from Serena. She had me tossing out lots of adverbs and adjectives, to good effect.

We were also reading Dawn Powell, all her great novels set in Greenwich Village in the ’40s and ’50s about bohos, romantics, boozers, writers, conmen and artists. These are dark and funny books that fueled me while working on Bughouse. I was also reading the novels of Alice Adams—she was perhaps pigeonholed as a women’s writer, you know like beach novels—but man, she is a great writer of characters, a real observer of human nature and foibles. I was disappointed when I’d read her whole run of books; I wanted more. Reading this stuff, talking to Serena about writing, this also had a lot to do with my notion that Buzzard should publish some women!

RC: What precisely did you learn from Serena about writing? Did you feel your prose became leaner and less verbose? How did this relate to your being able to write for the voices of characters other than those based on yourself?

SL: She did exactly that, encouraged me to prune away lots of qualifiers and repetitive phrases that watered down the punch of my prose. We talked a lot about process, not just in terms of time spent but in working smart with attention to honing your stuff, rewriting, editing. We’d read some of the same writers and talk about what worked; for example, we both loved the book Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. Serena underlined that specific details make a character, or dialog, more interesting. You don’t just say, “Fuzz Bucket was an art lover,” you say, “Fuzz Bucket liked the punk street art of Oaxaca.”

RC: How did your changed, stripped-down technique influence your storytelling in general ? There’s a rock-solid foundation to be found in your art, but did you feel that drawing anthropomorphic bugs gave you more freedom to push the limits of reality a bit? How do you feel the looseness of your line opened up your ability to relate gesture and body language?

SL: You can go iconic with bugs, and even with a lot of realistic stuff going down, I gave myself license to use ink like a cartoonist. If Jimmy’s arm needed to be an extra foot long when he was whacked on bug juice, greeting a club owner, it totally worked.

Jimmy has a certain relationship with Slim, co-dependent, and there is a visual dynamic that asserts itself in their scenes, this tense denial of addiction while they inevitably move toward scoring some stuff and getting whacked. There is a different relationship between Jimmy and Ralph—a solid friendship, but fraught with tension. The unspoken deal. Jimmy will take care of being a genius, if Ralph can handle the money and the club owners. It suggested an angular, jangly dynamic to me in their scenes, yet there is always some balance to all the energy as they understand their roles vis-a-vis each other. Again, I was working hard and very process-oriented with Bughouse, so at its best I was in the zone—the work flowed and I often felt as if I was just the vehicle, the conduit for a very specific story and visual dynanic.

RC: Bughouse seems to be your most succinct, coherent attempt to explain your own relationship to time and space, a relationship that was clarified for you in your aforementioned mushroom trip. In particular, you suggest that we actually experience every moment of our lives as a sort of simultaneous experience but generally only parse it out as a moment-by-moment experience, creating the “past” as a way to make sense of it all. Is this your perception of time now? In what ways has this perception been useful-liberating for you?

SL: It’s always the present.

When is it ever not the present? Wherever you are, whatever you do, you are always in the present, no matter what. When I was at any point in my life, I was in the present. When I was 9, I was in the present. I conclude that all of reality is contained in a singularity. It may be a bit more of a challenge to define the singularity. This idea opens up more questions than answers.

Physical reality is not the ultimate reality, but it is where some sort of “time” system exists. I think we come here to have fun and to see if we can stand to be human beings without being incredible assholes. It ain’t easy! Or, as I kept yelling at Beaupre on that long ago April night in 1976, “Here we are, fine with me!”

RC: Did you have any character archetypes in mind when you created Jimmy Watts, Slim Watkins, Bones, Ralph, Julie, etc? McKinley was obviously Muddy Waters. You were obviously inspired by bebop (with Buggy Eckstone as a sort of Duke Ellington figure), but did the characters come fully formed or were you guided by other sources?

SL: Jimmy. It’s me, and my music heroes who are (or were) addicted: Miles, Charlie Parker, Jerry Garcia, Iggy [Pop], Dee Dee Ramone, Keith Richards, the list goes on. These icons of music had charisma, talent, and a debilitating addiction.

Slim, he’s the guy with talent and heart with pretty much a fatal Achilles heel.

Bones, I was wanted a precocious, headstrong kid. Green but fearless. A little thin-skinned.

Ralph, as I described, is part conman, part big brother looking out for his idiot friends, and he has a way with the ladies. Can’t hang onto a buck for the life of him, yet he’s a good accountant, and fair.

Julie. Curves to die for, smart and tough. Does not suffer fools easily, except for Jimmy. Julie and Jimmy have chemistry like you read about.

RC: Scalawag was the oddest of the three books, with an extended sequence dealing with Slim’s death and after-death experience, and how Julie got mixed up in it. What was your thought process for this story, and did you feel it clashed with the tone of prior stories?

SL: That piece about Julie and the spirit of Slim first appeared in Bughouse #6. I’d published the Cat-Head Bughouse collection in the fall of ’96, and I knew I was headed to Mexico for the second half of ’97. I had just enough time to slip in an issue of Bughouse, so I sat down and wrote that story. I wanted to see if I could expand on the character of Julie, and I did go a bit improv on that story. It was sort of like eating a dessert after the huge meal of the Bughouse project.

Once I got to Mexico, I did a 50-page story about Jimmy and Slim’s salad days, and published it as a 50-page novella called Jonk!. The stuff from Jonk was a prelude to the Bughouse saga, and it became the first 50 pages of the Top Shelf edition of Bughouse.

RC: Dennis wound up being the most impenetrable of all your characters—obviously, by design. What inspired his creation, and who was the model for the all-powerful cartoonist character Buk?

SL: Dennis appeared by necessity—Slim was dead! The band needed a piano player. It was fun to bring a new player into the band, and I wanted his musical style and personality to be counterpoint to Slim. Funny thing, I could always hear the band in my head, and even the style of each individual player. Jimmy plays like this guy who was the hot young tenor player in the ’90s—James Carter, and he also sounds a little like Sonny Rollins, who at his best is untouchable, bop with a calypso heart.

The inspiration for Buk, the look anyway, the persona, is Charles Bukowski. Why I made him an all-powerful cartoonist, I was just dreaming and fucking abound there.

RC: What is your view on the relationship between addiction and creativity? Why do you think so many creative types wind up as addicts, especially in the music world?

SL: Anyone can be an addict, of any drug, including alcohol. But often it’s to mask pain. Me, I liked being fucked up on beer when I was in my teens because I was pretty shy, and it seemed a magical social lubricant. I could be clever! I could talk to girls! On three beers, any hint of low self-esteem vanished.

Look at Jerry Garcia, talented, charismatic, by all accounts a charming guy one on one, a gifted ranconteur and curious about everything. Why all that dope? Well, his brother cut his finger off in an accident when he was 4, his dad drowned when he was 5, and he was largely raised by his grandmother because his mom couldn’t handle it all. That’s a lot of pain for one guy. Apply drugs! Same with John Lennon; dad gone, mom gone, raised by auntie. Let’s get drunk! Let’s take smack!

The blues, you have the predicament of the African-American people. Hundreds of years of slavery, pain and oppression, then ongoing structural racism, contributes to the creation of this unbelievable, profound tradition of music. Then it gets tricky—just facing the challenge and the pain of being African-American at any point in the past four centuries could give you a huge dose of pain, and it could translate into the music, and might contribute to an addiction. But dealing with addiction is itself the cause of some serious blues, and the pain can double up and fold back on itself. There’s the irony of addiction, people self-medicate to escape pain, but then that process itself creates more pain. Maybe creative people can channel and project great empathy, having gained that from the pain, but it leaves them open to addiction. Especially in a late-night biz like music.

RC: Despite some heavy themes and events in Bughouse, the stories maintain a remarkably light touch. Was it intentional to focus on the sheer joy of creating music and the camaraderie that forms among bandmates? You describe Jimmy and Slim’s relationship as an “ongoing musical conversation”. Do you have anyone in comics that you feel you’ve had a similar “conversation” with?

SL: I’d say I feel an artistic affinity with my close pals—Beaupre, Dangle, J.R., Mario Hernandez, [Mary] Fleener. Also with Roy Tompkins, he’s brilliant brilliant brilliant. As far as a conversation, creating Buzzard and 40 Hour Man with Beaupre was like that.

Mario Hernandez, J.R. Williams, Lafler and Rebecka Wright (Mario’s wife), circa 1989. Lafler notes: “I’d say we’re on our third or fourth beer, from the look of things.” Photographer unknown.

I’d also say that I feel an affinity with some of my contemporaries who are friendly acquaintances (as opposed to close friends). I’m thinking Pete Bagge, Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, these guys are all wonderful artists and I love their work, they just can’t draw fast enough as far as I’m concerned.

The light touch, I think I came to the planet pre-installed with a great capacity for goofiness and high-spirited exuberance. A regular clown and a real ham, that’s me.

The ongoing musical conversation—that’s Duke Ellington and his band, the same guys working together for decades. That’s Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, taking swing jazz by the short hairs and transforming it into be-bop. That’s Miles with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, Philly Joe Jones and Bill Evans in his band in the late ’50s, another huge leap forward for Jazz. That’s the Grateful Dead working together for 30 years, creating a remarkable body of American music. Always willing to go out on a limb, panning for gold. That’s why there were always a new batch of 14-year-olds at Dead shows.

I like what the music critic Richard Gehr said about the Dead; most shows bumped along with the amiable vibe of a baseball game, but every so often, something amazing, something completely “other” transpired, the curtains parted and everyone in the room—the band, the audience, the ushers, felt like the curtain parted and the Elysian mysteries were revealed.

RC: I realize that you never force inspiration, but do you plan to write another chapter in the Bughouse saga at some point?

SL: No question about it. The muse will let me know. But right now, Dog Boy is first in line. I gots me a couple springboard ideas that crack me up just thinking about it.

RC: Have any jazz musicians given you feedback on Bughouse and if you’ve managed to capture the spirit of what they do?

SL: When the Top Shelf edition of Bughouse came out, the fine jazz site/magazine All About Jazz serialized Bughouse on their site for a few years, that was really nice. The editor was a onetime fledgling cartoonist who just loved Bughouse. One of the print jazz mags, I forget which one, gave Bughouse a bit of positive press. Mary Fleener, who is an accomplished musician, singer and songwriter, was a big supporter of Bughouse. That meant a lot to me. And of course, the late Lux Interior, singer for the Cramps, gave me a blurb for the back cover of the Cat-Head Bughouse GN. Lux was not a jazz musician, but I almost died when he wrote me and told me this: “I love Bughouse“. You coulda knocked me over with a feather.

RC: Were you frustrated by the way the books were produced and designed by Top Shelf? I thought the small size of the pages strangled a lot of detail—you can see how much better the pages breathe when you see them in in their original form in Buzzard.

SL: Have you seen the Cat-Head version of the Bughouse GN from ’96? It’s different as it’s only 128 pages, but the art looks a lot better in the bigger format. I’m not under contract any more with Top Shelf, so in due course I’ll get Bughouse back in print in a bigger format. Who knows, maybe Chris [Staros, Top Shelf’s co-publisher] will get religion with Bughouse and want to take a crack at it. I check in with him from time to time over this and that—for example, he bought 30 copies of El Vocho to take to shows with him this summer, which I greatly appreciate. So I agree, the smaller format cramped the art, but I still like the Top Shelf Bughouse very much. It’s a fine edition.

RC: Would it be a dream project to do so in color? While there’s a richness to the black-and-white line drawings, I’ve seen you use color for these characters in paintings and on the books’ covers—is that something you’ve thought about?

SL: The first Bughouse book will stay in B&W, too much crosshatching for color. Look at Baja, the second Bughouse book, I made an adjustment for the 6 x 9 page size. There is almost no crosshatching in Baja.

RC: What was it like working with an editor for the first time in your career on these books? Did you find it helpful, frustrating, or both?

SL: It was great. Staros edited it, and I’ll say he has a great feel for continuity. He asked for some stuff to enhance the continuity and I’d say 90 percent of it was right on. He understands how comics work. He’s not looking to put his stamp on the story, he just wants to make it work better on its own terms. Brett [Warnock, top-shelf co-publisher], he’s a fine book designer, and he is this magnificent engine of enthusiasm for comics. We’re tight, me ‘n Brett. He came down to Oaxaca with his family and we had an excellent time.

Tomorrow: Lafler concludes by talking about transgenderism, raising a family in Mexico, running a small business, promoting El Vocho and more.

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2 Responses to “Explaining Reality to Myself: The Steve Lafler Interview (Part Two of Three)”

  1. RL Crabb says:

    Steve was also the original inker on the first issue-and-a-half of Rockers, my rock’n’roll series from Rip Off Press. I realized Steve wanted to quit when I informed him I was driving 150 miles to his house to finish issue two. When I got there, Steve had left town with his girlfriend. That kind of gave me a clue. Anyway, no hard feelings, and we went on to work together on Buzzard and some other projects. Good to see you’re still in print, Dog Boy!

  2. stevelafler says:

    Yikes, R.L. Crabb has outed me as a flaky inker! Jesus Bob, now I’ll never get that gig as the inker on “HAT LADD”. My career is in a shambles.
    In 1993, Mr. Crabb and I worked together on a fantastic project, his compilation comic magazine CRABBS on the Cat-Head Comics imprint. It was one of my proudest moments as a publisher. The mag is chock full of well crafted stories, executed in the classic Crabb style. Find it if you can, I only have one copy left myself!

    Shifting gears, since I am putting my two cents in here, I’m compelled to mention the following: Diamond Comics informs me that my El Vocho GN will be on page 290 of the October Previews, item code OCT101061 EL VOCHO GN (MR).