Don Donahue 1942-2010: As Far as Hello

Posted by on November 2nd, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Report by Bob Levin


1990 photo of Donahue, taken by B.N. Duncan.


Fogle’s message said Donahue was in Alta Bates with prostate cancer. I run into Fogle maybe once a year. I run into Donahue less. But they belong to a community of underground cartoonists, publishers, dealers, fans which has enriched my life for two decades with its vision, wit and spirit. I hate hospitals. I fear them more each year. I feel they lie in wait with open jaws. I know they do miracles. But for everyone, just once, they do not happen. Still, it was 10 minutes from my office. I could say “Hello. Sorry, man. Hope you’re better soon.”

I got as far as “Hello.”

Donahue lay flat, a tube clamped onto his nose, another stabbed into his arm. When I spoke, his eyes snapped open; his head jerked up. That covered it for awareness and communication.

I stood beside the bed.

Machines beeped.

Lights flashed.

Donahue thrashed.

He re-closed his eyes and settled.



Fogle had not told me the cancer had taken kidneys, bladder, lungs and brain. He had said “Critical Ward,” but I had downplayed that. Donahue had been lucid two days before. He would not be lucid again.

“We’re waiting for someone with power of attorney,” a nurse said. He was in his 20s, his face unlined, his pony-tail blond. “Tough decisions have to be made.”

On the bedside table was Zap #1. In 1967, Don Donahue, a 25-year-old UC-Berkeley drop-out, lured by Oscar Lewis’s Bay Area Bohemia toward a life of art and sex, had met Robert Crumb, who sought a publisher for a comic of his creation. Donahue had swapped a tape recorder to the poet Charles Plymell for a Multilith printing press and issued the 20-page black-and-white that launched the underground comix movement. And there was The Apex Treasury, an anthology of other cartoonists whom, over the next six years, Donahue’s Apex Novelties (named for the company which supplied Wile E. Coyote obtained most of his unrewarding wares) had published: Kim Deitch, Shary Flenniken, Justin Green, Bill Griffiths, Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Art Spiegelman. And Dori Stories, which Donohue’d co-edited — a collection of the laugh-through-the-lacerations autobiographical tales of Dori Seda, with whom he’d lived until her death from respiratory failure in 1988 — and about whom he wrote 11 years later: “…I miss her constantly.” (Probably out of a deference to candy-striper sensibilities, there were no copies of Snatch or Jiz or other Triple-X-rated minis in which, through Donohue’s Multilith, Crumb and Rory Hayes and S. Clay Wilson had driven their most audacious assaults on morals and mores into America’s eyeballs.)

When the UG boom busted, Donohue had ridden forward lashed to the saddle of its legacy. When I met him, around 1990, he lived on the shared top floor of a South Berkeley warehouse, his portion stocked floor to ceiling with bankers’ boxes full of comix, zines, papers, posters and other ephemera of or related to that earlier, fabled age, in which he sold mail order. (His catalog of holdings, most likely the world’s largest, ran 15 triple-columned, single-spaced pages.) If I had a cartoonist to write about, he led me to the crucial books. If I needed a phone number, he supplied it. If a raunchy anecdote would spice my text, he had those too.

Beep beep…

Blink blink…



In a world rife with gripes and grudges I had never heard a negative word about Donahue. Death, I thought, sure had some nasty moves to throw.

I went to the Italian bakery. I sat in the sun. People went by north to south and south to north. People and people and people. The sidewalk flowed like history. Random and purposeful. Driven and mad.

I had the salami panini on olive baguette. I had an espresso and cannoli.

Sharp and strong, I wanted. Bitter and sweet.

They disconnected the feeding tube that night. They upped the morphine.

He passed peacefully at 3 AM Oct. 27.


Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , , ,

3 Responses to “Don Donahue 1942-2010: As Far as Hello”

  1. RL Crabb says:

    The last time I saw Don was some years back when he unexpectedly showed up on my doorstep in Nevada City. He said he had something for my wife, Mary Ann, and was anxious to give it to her. He produced a small box, which, when opened, revealed a tiny replica of a mummified head. We had forgotten, but a year or so earlier Mary Ann asked Don if he would make the item for her dollhouse.

    The significance of the head is well known to Don’s friends. A police officer who was chasing some crime suspect on the roof of Don’s Berkeley crib had spied a marijuana plant through a skylight. It wasn’t long before the cops raided his apartment, and while searching for drugs discovered a real human mummified head. When they asked him where he got it, Don claimed that he had gotten it in trade for a six-legged pig. As it turns out, the head was from some classroom where aspiring doctors were learning about anatomy, or something like that. At any rate, Don was able to skate on the charge of possessing a human head, even though the Berkeley papers were sure he was the incarnation of Hannibal Leckter.

    Mary Ann asked Don to make the miniature for her dollhouse, and we promptly forgot about it, but Don didn’t. When I heard that he had passed away, I went over and checked out the dollhouse. The little head is still there, in its box. It’s a small part of Don’s legacy, but we’ll treasure it forever.

    Goodbye, old friend.

  2. Bob Levin says:

    1.) Hi, Bob, nice to hear from you.
    2.) More information about that head can be gleaned from — if you can find it — “Cows Are Freaky When They Look At You” — the hilarious “Oral History of the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers.” Ohle, et al. eds. Watermark Press. 1991.
    3.) The estimable Milo George has pointed out, in private correspondence, that Mr. Coyote obtained his wares from Acme, not Apex. I can’t say if this mistake was Donohue’s or entirely my own.

  3. […] Levin on the digitally reincarnated TCJ got as far as hello on his last visit to Don in the hospital, it sounds like the end was rough. Robert Crumb himself […]