Greg Irons: In the Fire

Posted by on September 27th, 2010 at 1:06 AM

As the ’70s dulled the rage of the ’60s, the UG market declined — outlets vanished, publishers gone. Irons withdrew into album covers, restaurant flyers, even illustrated children’s books. Dinosaurs and pirates, Viking ships and sea mammals. The research stimulated; his drafting chops improved; but he hated the push to prettify, the tug to tame his vision; and before decade’s end, he had returned to comix. One group of stories — echoing Frank Norris and Louis-Ferdinand Celline — tracing Howard Pyle and Ghastly Ingels, Will Elder and Utagawa Kunioshi — stomped, hob-nail booted, upon corporate serial killers who’d poisoned Japanese fisherman, slaughtered Brazilian Indians, riddled with cancer American Working Joes. A second, even edgier series introduced Gregor the Purpleass Baboon.

Gregor craves “more pussy, more drugs, more everything.” An artist, he can not create unless “crazed”; yet his craziness is killing him. He lives in a Tenderloin flophouse. His world is topless clubs and X-rated theaters, hookers and cafes and bars. He has ulcers, piles, VD. He coughs phlegm and blood. He exists on double espressos, jelly doughnuts, Camels. He, Irons writes, “loathes his desires… [but] pursues them with demented fervor. … The burst of love and fury that [had been] every day” has been replaced by “the smell of ozone and burnt rubber.” He founders “in a stinking, slimy hole,” facing off against “the bomb, cancer, World War III, Ronald Reagan, pollution, radioactivity, oil spills and the ozone layer,” his existence reduced to “the dance of a cigarette package blowing in the gutter.”

We have heard this before — the dismal poverty, the suicidal urges, the thwarted art — from Knut Hamsun through Charles Bukowski. But Irons’s images re-brand us deeply and anew: Gegor’s bestial snout, savage incisors, pin-wheeled eyes. The shrouded, skull-headed Grim Reaper slinging a consoling arm around his shoulder. The torn-out heart, amputated ear, kitchen sink of splattered brain his creative efforts metaphorically demand.

Irons told interviewers that “Gregor” derived from “Gregor Samsa,” whom Kafka’d metamorphed into a cockroach, and his animal choice from a William Burroughs story. But “Gregor” can be read “Greg or ..,” a declaration that the baboon’s fate is one its creator risks. He can be “Greg.” Or he can become the (self)-murderous maniac he always feared. (Irons said he created the character after hearing someone declare himself “a dirty little monkey… totally out of control,” but Rosenkranz quotes a friend that Irons’ ex-wife had hurled that description at him.) In any event, he tucked the assessment to his chest and ran. The stories do not pivot toward uplift. They do not self-congratulate with redemption. The solo hint at hope has Gregor, at its final panel, mutilated, debauched, cynically resigned from any form of grace.

The irony is that while engaging Gregor, Irons had swerved his life toward artistic fulfillment and financial reward. In 1979, he had begun tattooing, just as that practice was breaking out of its bikers-felons ghetto into mainstream America. His hand and eye had customers queued to have him lay needles upon them and professionals primed to purchase his flash — dragons and demons, pin up girls and galleons — to ponder his technique. Ed Hardy hoped to partner with him.

But the cosmos had one throw left of its dice. In 1984, Irons journeyed to Japan to learn from its tattoo masters — and detoured to Thailand to dally with its whores. In Bangkok, on Nov. 13, forgetting that curbside busses ran opposite to street traffic, he stepped forward. He had never shied from any ledge that beckoned. He had regularly entered the smelter of his fears and emerged molding his unique art. You Call This… combines biography, critical assessment and an astounding assemblage of jolting graphics. This stocking is full.

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2 Responses to “Greg Irons: In the Fire”

  1. Jeff Albertson says:

    Bob, thank you very much for this.

    I remember how “The Legion of Charlies” bloody well peeled my eyeballs when I was 16.

    Irons; he died too young– and comics are that much poorer for it.
    I know that at the time of his death, he’d been commissioned (along with Veitch) to do a new full-color story for Marvel’s ‘Epic Illustrated’ by Archie Goodwin. So his return to comics was assured.

    Irons was also a committed ecologist.

  2. Bob Levin says:

    Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I didn’t get to Irons until recently — and “Charlies” still has the capacity to peel eyeballs.