Navigating the Chaos: A Conversation with Brian Allen McCall

Posted by on July 28th, 2010 at 12:02 AM

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are better ways to spend a rainy afternoon than flipping through a box of old Heavy Metal magazines, but that’s exactly what I was doing when I happened upon “Is There No Justice in the Universe?” a forgotten five-page story by Brian Allen McCall in the August 1983 issue. Buried near the middle of the magazine, between a middle chapter of Tamburini and Liberatore’s Ranxerox and a one-page strip by Peter Kuper, it’s not surprising that this story was condemned to obscurity.

But looking back, with the perspective of almost three decades of art comix, it’s easy to see that “Is There No Justice” was well ahead of its time. McCall’s story is a familiar parable of modern society, a commentary on media saturation and the warped contradictions of celebrity worship, yet its aesthetic is wholly original, even among the eclecticism of those early Heavy Metals. With its textured layers of colored pencil shading, the tactile, greasy quality of ink smudged across the hand-drawn letters of the title, its erratic, uneven stencil-lettering, its claustrophobic crowd scenes filled with grotesque distortions of familiar cartoon characters, and its overall chaotic, jittery linework, McCall’s story would have fit in better with the avant-garde of Raw Magazine than the soft-core fantasy of Heavy Metal.

McCall has not published any other comics (although he did have a spot illustration of Captain Beefheart in the same issue of Heavy Metal and another of Francis Ford Coppola in the following issue), and Lambiek doesn’t even have an entry for him; however, Google did reveal a surprising part of McCall’s past. He was, for a period of five years, a professional baseball player with the Chicago White Sox organization, including a brief stint in the majors in 1962 (he hit two home runs in a game against the New York Yankees!). But after an injury ended his sports career, McCall made the almost unbelievable transition to commercial artist, and never looked back.

Despite his absence from the comics industry, McCall has produced an impressive body of work as an illustrator, animator and sculptor. His Flickr website contains hundreds of images and photographs which chronicle his evolution as an artist since that Heavy Metal piece.

These days McCall, 67, lives in a converted church in Greensburg, PA, and balances his time between personal illustration work and commercial projects, which include building sculptures and 3-D signs for restaurants and storefronts.

McCall was kind enough to answer my questions during a phone call on June 2, 2010.

 

 

Marc Sobel: Tell me a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, what your background is and so forth.

Brian McCall: I grew up in California, went to high school in Long Beach, signed a professional baseball contract with the Chicago White Sox out of high school, played five years for the White Sox, and then went to art school after I was injured and just couldn’t throw anymore. I decided that was enough of that and got on with life and said, ‘what can I do?’ I always loved to draw and so I decided to go to art school in the mid-60s and that’s when it started.

Sobel: I was wondering if you were the same Brian McCall who played for the White Sox because when I Googled your name, I got all these baseball-related results. Can you tell me a little bit about your experiences playing baseball?

McCall: Well, let’s see. Yeah, I guess I can, though it was a few years ago.

Sobel: What years did you play?

McCall: From ’60 to ’65. I graduated in ’60 from Long Beach Poly and I went right to baseball.

Sobel: What was your position?

McCall: Center field. I was a speedy little guy. It was fun, and I enjoyed it… Actually I hated professional sports. I needed my mother to comfort me on bad days. So I hated it, but the best thing was that it paid for my brother’s going to Julliard. He’s a composer. So that was the real function of baseball in my life was to pay for Julliard.

Sobel: Do you still follow the sport at all?

McCall: Very little. No. I never really liked watching baseball. It’s too slow. As a modern man I can’t take it. But I always loved the challenge of a pitcher against a batter. I probably should have played tennis.

 

 

Sobel: So how do you go from baseball to art?

McCall: Well, you know, a lot of art is very physical actually. When I sit down to draw, it’s a physical effort. I mean, it’s mental also but the body has to be involved. It’s very body-oriented. Drawing, painting and sculpting, they’re very physical acts. It’s not like writing, which is much more intellectual. I try to stay away from being too intellectual with my stuff. You know, it’s like when you draw a story, and I love doing little stories, like “How the World Will End” or “Why Sex Is Important,” and just doing the storyboard, and then I would make little books out of them and sell those when I had a studio and all that. But… where am I going with this, let’s see…

Sobel: You were talking about the physical aspect of making art…

McCall: It’s sort of different. When you’re doing a story, you have to think ahead, at least somewhat. Now, I’m not one for thinking ahead too far. I’ll just dive in and see where it goes. And it often goes in the most fascinating places, you know? That’s how I approach everything but sculpture. The sculpture keeps me sort of grounded. Sculpture allows me to actually make a living. With drawing I satisfy parts inside me. They pull from different spots. I can do old model cars as sculpture, and get a kick out of it, and just have a great time doing these different cars, but if I’m drawing I have absolutely no interest in doing model cars. I want to pull from something dark and deep. With the sculpture I would love to be able to pull from something dark and deep but I’ve never really felt like it goes very far. It doesn’t quite get dark and deep enough.

Sobel: Why do you think that is?

McCall: Probably because the technique is so different. In the technique of drawing I’ll just start scribbling and tearing at the paper with the pencil and it’s just totally arbitrary where I’m going with it. And then I’ll take it off and erase and work back into it and take it off again and erase and go back again until I start to see something finally. Well, that’s pretty hard to do in sculpture because you can’t add back what you’ve taken off too easily. I guess I could, and if I was braver I probably would, but it’s nice just keeping them separate.

Sobel: I’m curious, was it hard making that transition from baseball, which is such a public, team-oriented lifestyle to art, which is very solitary?

McCall: Well, it was a bit of a problem probably in my baseball. I might not have been quite the team player that I should have been. That’s why I said I probably should have played tennis. But baseball is a mix. You have this batting average that’s totally personal, it’s just you, and you get your raises and get ahead by how you do, not how the team does. Whether you win or lose, if you hit .360, you’re going up.

In art, I feel happier. I was quite happy when I chose this profession, because I knew myself enough to know that I probably wasn’t going to take instruction very well in a job, and that I would probably have an opinion on everything [laughter] and I better pick the right profession. I could look ahead and see myself sitting at a desk and I said ‘I won’t stay there.’ That’s just not who I wanted to be, selling insurance or some other life choice. I just couldn’t see it. I thought, ‘I like the idea of being an artist, I can do that,’ and I did. Of course, being an artist, you have to be a little insane, because it’s a choice of… when you think about the merits of this choice, you really can’t find too many good ones. You really have a tough time making a living. It’s like choosing to be a writer. Why would you choose that? You’ll just end up struggling like hell for all your life.

Sobel: I ask myself that all the time.

McCall: Yeah, and in a sense, most people that I went to school with, I don’t think they’re doing art still. Maybe they dabbled in it, then got married and most of the guys probably…I mean, I don’t even know, but I just wonder.

 

 

Sobel: So, just to be clear, you really didn’t get into art at all until after you retired from baseball?

McCall: Yeah, I was about 24.

Sobel: And you’d never done anything prior to that?

McCall: Very little. All I knew is that I enjoyed drawing and I could draw whatever I wanted to draw, and so I suddenly just threw myself into going to college, and it was a real wake up call. Most people were way ahead. They had painted; I’d never even done a painting. I didn’t even have a clue. But I did very well. I adjusted and figured it out and…

Sobel: Tell me again where you went to art school?

McCall: California College of Arts, it’s called now, in Oakland. At the time I went it was California College of Arts and Crafts, known as CCAC. Now it’s just California College of Arts.

Sobel: So, I wanted to ask you about that Heavy Metal story. I know it’s been almost 30 years, but can you tell me a little bit about the genesis of that piece and what inspired it?

McCall: Well, let’s see. Let’s see if I remember that one. That was Luttii, the god, right?

Sobel: Yes.

McCall: Well, a lot of my stuff was sort of a struggle to figure out where I fit in the universe, if at all. So I love the idea that God comes down and destroys everything and kills everybody, and it’s like how the world will end.

In another story, there’s a comet coming towards earth, and there’s great tension and everything is going to end on earth. So will earth be saved? Nope! [Laughter.] The gods all come to a meeting and there’s boss god and they say ‘why did you do this’ and he says ‘hey, I didn’t do anything. I have been hands off for eons, since time began. So they look at, what’s his name… Beelzebub, and he says ‘hey, I’d love to be able to take the credit for it, but, you know, I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me either. And then it’s just everyman. He’s whistling as he’s going along on his unicycle and he says, ‘I didn’t have anything better to do so I destroyed the earth. You know, why not?’

Sobel: That’s a very cynical view of the helplessness of man within the universe. Is that a fair interpretation?

McCall: Yeah, I would say the basic idea is very cynical. But it’s mired in humor, the whole concept is basically a humorous concept. You might say, ‘it’s the end of the world, how can that be humorous,’ but it is, at least from my perspective. All of it is the perils of life as a humorist. Humor is somewhere in almost everything that I do. Anyway, I think it’s humorous. I look at it and I say, ‘hey, that’s pretty funny. I like that.’

Sobel: In looking at “Is There No Justice in the Universe,” I also wondered if you were commenting on the media, and our celebrity worshipping culture…

McCall: Oh yeah. Sure, yeah. That’s probably the other side of it. Everybody goes to watch their own destruction. But I think that’s just us as the human animal that we are. We have this tendency… They say that violence is a very addictive thing, and you see how people get in a mob; they’re moved to do things that people would never do on their own. But in a mob, it’s a contagious something that takes over. I think that’s a fascinating thing, that man can be so brutal when we don’t have to take responsibility.

Sobel: There are very dark sides to our souls, to be sure. All we have to do is look back at the previous century.

McCall: See, I love what I think are the idiosyncrasies of civilization. Like our sex lives, for example. I mean, sex is in a lot of my art, maybe not the sketches but a lot of the other drawings and stuff and it’s just so fascinating to me why we are what we are. We wear clothes all during the day and we just wish we could peek under that dress on any number of people we meet, but we keep it to ourselves and we talk the normal talk and yet there’s this part of us in our psyche that’s, not dark, it’s just sort of animal. You know? We try to hide it so much, and yet we’re expected to let it out when you get into the right room or you’re with the right person, or whatever, and then you can let your animal out. And in a sense, violence is almost that same way. Given the right circumstances, the animals are let out and we maim and murder and kill and rape and pillage each other. It’s fascinating how we can have this mind that plays these roles so facilely. Do you know what I mean?

Sobel: I do. And it’s interesting the way certain crimes are viewed so horribly like, say, the crimes of the Nazis, while others are viewed as heroic if our country committed them in a triumphant military conflict.

McCall: Oh yeah. Jesus, did you ever see, in Iraq, the video of our helicopter, or might just be a drone, and you see the bad guy, you know, a terrorist supposedly, but he’s really just a guy walking across a path somewhere. But somebody’s determined that he’s a bad guy and they blow him to pieces, and we’re just supposed to go ‘wow, that’s great!’ You just tore five people to pieces, but because it’s our weapon, therefore it’s good. Yeah, it’s pretty amazing!

 

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