Remembering Clay Geerdes
Championing Comix and Rational Thought
HISTORY, THOMAS CARLYLE SAID, is the essence of innumerable biographies. It is the lives of individual people, which, summed up, make history. A commonplace, surely. Even Carlyle, that crusty old roaring hairy bear in his high, stiff nineteenth century collar and cravat, would doubtless agree about his aphorism being a commonplace. Certainly, the history of cartooning provides a telling example of the truth of Carlyle's adage: the history of the medium is the sum of the accomplishments of its thousands of practitioners. One of those was the late Clay Geerdes. But he did a little more towards advancing the cause of cartoonists everywhere than simply doodle a few cartoons. And that's why I'd like to take a few scrolling inches here to consider the man and his works.
Clay Geerdes, one-time college English teacher and sometime cartoonist, spent the last quarter of the 20th century around San Francisco Bay as a freelance street reporter and photo-journalist, covering the hip scene. But it was as champion of creative self-expression and passionate promoter of cartooning that he made his mark in the history of comics.
I'd known Clay for over fifteen years before we met, face-to-face. We started corresponding in September 1980. We argued, fought and made up. Mostly, though, we exchanged views on the nature of the so-called American civilization and the state of the art in cartooning. Usually, we agreed. So in the ways that count, we were old friends by the time I found myself in San Francisco in the fall of 1995 and rang him up and arranged to meet for lunch.
"You know the Warner Brothers Store on Market?" Clay asked. "I'll meet you there."
So I walked over to the Warner Brothers Store at the appointed hour, and there he was, wearing trade-mark black and a grin to go with the twinkle in his eye.
"These are my pals," he said, gesturing around him at Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Sylvester the Cat, Tweetie Bird, Daffy Duck, and Yosemite Sam. "I grew up with these guys."
And then, as we walked out of the store past an alcove of animation cels for sale, came the ever-present Geerdes Reality Check: "These are phonies," he said. "They make these cels to peddle to fans, but the real cels—the ones they use to make the films—those are never for sale."
That was Clay in a nutshell. Part romantic, part cynical realist. And all maverick, a maverick with a mission.
Clayton Edward Geerdes, Jr. was born in 1934 in Sioux City, Iowa, but grew to maturity in Lincoln, Nebraska, where his family moved when he was about five. He dropped out of school when his father died in 1949. “I was out of control,” he wrote me once. “I just worked here and there, washing dishes, making sodas and sundaes, loading trucks; I never stayed anywhere long.” Eventually, he went to work for Western Electric, “wiring selectors and connectors,” he said. He also went to classes at night and earned his high school diploma. He joined the Navy in November 1954 in order to “escape Nebraska.”
“Facing another miserable Nebraska winter, I was passing the recruiting office one day, and I just went in and signed up. It was, I thought, now or never. Best decision I ever made. While I was aboard ship, I read most of the books in the small ship’s library, and by the time I was mustered out in 1958 I was ready to take on college life.”
For part of his tour in the Navy, he aboard the USS Chemung, a tanker that cruised the South Pacific, including ports of call in the Phillippines, Taiwan, and Australia. When his enlistment ran out in 1958, he was stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, so he entered San Francisco State College, where he finished work on his Master's degree in 1963. While a student, he married for the second time—to Shirley, in 1961 (they divorced in 1970); his first wife, presumably a Nebraskan, was named Judy. I never found out any more about either. Clay had a daughter with Judy, and she, going through a pair of husbands, had a daughter.
Clay began work on a Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, and although he finished his dissertation, he did not complete the course work before the need to earn a living loomed larger than academic objectives. He started teaching English at Fresno State College (1965-68) and continued at Sonoma State College (1968-70).
Caught up in the Free Speech Movement of October 1964, Clay soon lost interest in doctoral programs because they no longer seemed relevant. In 1965, he was living in San Francisco a couple blocks up Ashbury Street from its famed intersection with Haight Street. He and Shirley were “into monogamy” and neither drank or smoked or used dope, so they participated the fabled life of Haight-Ashbury as observers. And Clay was an enthusiastic observer. During the next two years, he witnessed first-hand the street theater that flourished in the neighborhood, making The Haight a Mecca for flower children, particularly in that storied summer of 1967.
The Human Be-In staged in nearby Golden Gate Park on January 14 that year was, Clay said, "an important event in my life. For the first time I realized how many people were involved in what everyone felt was a movement toward a new life style."
At FSC, he brought the street into his classroom to stimulate student discussions. They talked about hippies, psychedelic drugs, pop art, beat poetry and rock music. Clay resisted the collegiate compulsion to segregate knowledge by departments. "I was interested in all kinds of things that overlapped the disciplines," he wrote, "—art, music, poetry, happenings, drama, literature, history. I wanted to desegregate, to link up."
At rural Sonoma, Clay's free-wheeling style was even more in tune with the student body. "My Fresno acidheads saved up their acid and grass for weekend parties," he noted, "but the heads in my Sonoma classes were stoned all the time."
Submerged for most of his adult life in a drug-using milieu, Clay himself wasn’t a regular user. He occasionally smoked a joint, but he was, he said, "not interested in experimenting with my consciousness. I was happy with my thought processes the way they were. I could not understand why people would deliberately fog themselves up, go out of their way to get into states I considered negative or silly."
By 1969, the student revolt against the materialism of mainstream culture and the war in Vietnam was in full swing. Clay was confronted in the classroom by students who were mostly terribly uninterested in getting an education in a world where that education seemed absurdly divorced from reality. Clay himself felt alienated from professorial life. Instead of writing articles for academic journals, he had started in 1968 reporting on the student revolution for the Los Angeles Free Press (FREEP) and various underground newspapers.
He had found his niche. "I was born to be a daily reporter," he once wrote. "I wasn't destined to survive in organized education. I was a de-conditioner, not a conditioner. I wanted my students to think things out for themselves, not to follow."
Henceforth, Clay would make his way in the world on the street with a notebook and a camera.
Much of his reporting for undergrounds was done for little or no remuneration. "At the time, I felt I was contributing to a mass movement for social change," Clay said, "to the fall of a corrupt system and its replacement by a more egalitarian and just one."
At the same time, he could see a fallacy in radical revolution: "I used to laugh at the SDS revolutionaries and their pipe dreams. My question was always, Then what? So the government is overthrown and capitalism goes into the trash can. Then what? How do people live in a smashed state? If you take over, you have to be ready to run things. Someone has to know how to operate the complex traffic system at the airport."
He worked both sides of the Bay, roaming the neighborhoods in Berkeley and in North Beach, prowling boutiques and novelty shops, delis and coffeehouses, searching out news of the counterculture demi-monde and of other havens of night music. He secured a monthly column in Coast magazine and contributed regularly to the Berkeley Barb, the San Francisco Phoenix, and the magazines Adam, Knight, Oui, Hustler, and other hip publications.
“I made the best money writing about the sex scene,” he said. The real sex scene, that is. Said he: “I was lousy at writing sex fiction, and I tried writing pornography but couldn’t get past a couple of chapters. Porn is about people who are nothing but their sexual activities. I’d write a few descriptive scenes then realize I still had a hundred and fifty pages to go. I can’t even watch an entire sex film. Everybody fucks until they’re blue in the face and then the doorbell rings and two more couples come in and everything starts all over— Oy, gimme a break.”
Prowling North Beach, Clay worked up photo stories on nightclub personalities like Carol Doda, the woman who introduced topless dancing to North Beach in 1964, cavorting at the Condor. Doda also made silicone implants fashionable (and, in her case, spectacular, as you can tell from Clay’s photo of her nearby).
Clay knew Doda quite well. “She had trouble with her tits,” he told me: “She could never lay on her side because the weight would fall and make her sore. I think she regretted those boobs, but she never came right out and said so. Nice person. Gay. She was having an affair with some married woman all the years she was dancing onstage. Didn’t drink or smoke. She was into health foods. We used to talk about macrobiotic diets and stuff like that. I still like a steak and fries once in a while. ... Carol and my wife (Clay’s third, Clara Felix) would get on. My Clara is a nutritionist by trade. Writes about it. Counsels. A biochemist.” She produced a newsletter on healthy eating, and Clay drew cartoon decorations for it.
"So many scenes going on at once," he wrote about his life in those halcyon days of yore. "I ran myself ragged. I took several rolls of film a day and when I got back to the room late at night, I souped the negs and hung them up, wrote my copy on the old portable Underwood that had gotten me through college, then picked out the shots I liked and printed them. I always had everything stamped and ready to mail the next morning."
CLAY'S STREET ROVING acquired a different focus in late 1970 when he met underground cartoonists Roger Brand, Justin Green, and Joel Beck. He started writing about underground comix.
His interest in cartooning was lifelong, albeit muted for a decade. As a kid, he had copied Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Donald Duck and other funny animal characters from comic books. "I got a great deal of satisfaction from cartooning, but I seldom drew the realistic characters that required a study of anatomy," he said.
As a youth, Clay had achieved a dubious national distribution with his cartoons. For a time during his stint at Western Electric, his job was nailing the tops on packing cases that contained selectors and connectors for telephone systems. "The work was slow, and I got into the habit of drawing cartoons on the cases to make the guys I worked with laugh," he said. "I got a kick out of the fact that Western Electric was distributing my gags all over the country without knowing it."
The emerging underground comix scene in San Francisco rekindled Clay's interest in cartooning, and he began promoting comix in articles for FREEP and other publications. When Ye Berkeley Comic Art Shoppe opened on Telegraph Avenue in the fall of 1972, Clay quickly made friends of the owners, John Barrett, Bud Plant, and Bob Beerbohm, and began clerking part time at the store. And when they engineered the "world's first underground comix convention" April 22-24, 1973 at U.C. in Berkeley, Clay worked in various minor roles and helped with promotion, placing articles about the con in local periodicals and, the week before the con, on the front page of San Francisco Chronicle-Examiner’s Sunday Pink Section.
The success of the con inspired Clay to other efforts in the realm of cartooning. He sold a three-day seminar on the Contemporary American Comic Book, which he taught at the U.C. extension in San Francisco in July 1974. The following January, he staged "Comics in America Day" at U.C. in Berkeley; and he organized and financed "Underground ’76" there, April 30-May 2, 1976.
"What happened behind the scenes?" Clay asked, rhetorically. "Many underground artists who had never met one another got together for the first time. Books came together. Friendships. Paul Mavrides met Gilbert Shelton as a result of one of my cons, and some years later, he was drawing the Freak Brothers. Rand Holmes met the Bay Area artists and publishers for the first time. The women cartoonists got together for the first time at the 1973 con. The idea for a women's panel was mine, not a woman's. I suggested it to Trina Robbins and got Shelby Sampson, Roberta Gregory, Joyce Farmer, and Lyn Chevli—all of whom were on my mailing list and learned about the con from me—to sit on the panel."
Another of Clay's efforts inspired by the success of the 1973 Con was his newsletter, Comix World. It is Comix World and the "Newave" of minicomics that Clay fostered with the newsletter that earns him a place in the history books.
The newsletter grew out of a series of articles Clay did for FREEP; in October 1973, he launched the first issue. And he kept it going for 22 years—sometimes weekly, occasionally monthly, most often every other week—a running commentary on comics as they happened, history on the fly. Subscriptions were $10 for 48 issues. He mailed the issues out once a month, two to an envelope. By 1980, it was being mailed to every state in the Union and fourteen countries, including Australia.
Ostensibly about underground comix, the newsletter was actually about a good deal more than that. It was Clay's forum. And it was an open forum—any subject that caught his eye or raised his ire might be discussed in its pages. Even regular newsstand comic books and comic strips. And movies. One issue was devoted entirely to coverage of the Hooker's Ball. In short, the whole world of cartooning and popular culture as viewed through the sometimes jaundiced vision of Clay Geerdes.
Each issue was a single 8.5x11-inch sheet, printed on both sides. The page layout was strictly utilitarian: typewritten text meandered in a continuous, unindented stream through islands of illustrations—panels clipped from comix, covers of minis, and an occasional photograph. Every issue was larded with plugs for comix—prices, titles, mailing addresses, short (occasionally longer) reviews. Clay recruited friends and aspiring young cartooners to supply the title logos for each issue, paying them with a specified number of free successive editions. I contributed a few, always one of my favorite barenekkidwimmin—as you can see from the ensuing gallery of Comix World souvenirs. Clay liked naked ladies, too, and while sex per se was not the governing topic at Comix World, the undraped feminine epidermis was often on display. (I’m posting a sampling here to display generally the appearance of the publication, but at the size these pages appear, the text is probably too small to read; to make the pages readable, click on Page at the top of your screen, then Zoom, then pick an enlargement size—say, 150%.)
Clay saw the newsletter as a catalyst—"bringing cartoonists together, keeping publishers and cartoonists abreast of what was happening in the underground comix, hyping the comix and spreading them around in the other scenes of which I was a part." Like Johnny Appleseed, Clay dropped copies of comix here and there as he roamed his beats around the Bay, and he introduced cartoonists to each other and told them of publishing opportunities he'd heard about.
In his commentaries, Clay was opinionated and (like all of us) sometimes wrong, but he was never vague, never wishy washy. And he was always energizing.
"My seminal writing experience occurred during the zenith of Haight-Ashbury in the mid-sixties," he wrote once in explanation of his approach. "The new writing style of the time was subjective, not objective. A writer wrote about the world as it moved him. He didn't stand in a corner paring his fingernails like Joyce's ideal writer; rather, he went and sat on the floor in the back room of the Psychedelic Shop and rapped with the people who were flowing into The Haight every day in search of free acid and a liberated social and sexual lifestyle. He stood as I often did on the corner of Haight and Masonic and enjoyed the various conversational styles of people like Pigpen (electric pianist and organist for the Grateful Dead —he died with he was 27), Chocolate George (Hell's Angel, also dead), and Janis (also dead). It was my style in those days to put it all in, all the images and the conversational fragments, the contrasts between the cowboys and the flower children and the hippies and the radicals."
His writing reminded me of Henry Miller's straight-ahead style; and I liked them both.
"There are a lot of opinionated people in this world, and I am one of them," he wrote. "I pay for the privilege. It's my newsletter and my money. Comix World exists because I got very little satisfaction out of writing for other people's magazines and papers." He enjoyed getting feedback, and he didn't get any of it from other publications he contributed to. Not enough anyway. But he did with his newsletter.
Ever outspoken and never pulling his punches, Clay could be devastatingly brief in rendering a verdict. About a clutch of 1982 movies, Clay offered the following: "Someone asked me if I saw Blade Runner. Unfortunately. A sordid piece of decadence filled with second-hand ideas and depressing images. Brutal and misogynistic. A celebration of ultra-violence which ends with the State's butcher riding off into the sunset with an android. A footnote to Clockwork Orange and Escape from New York. Why doesn't someone tell the assholes that make garbage like this that we don't want to see a hero who is really a villain and we don't want to see women brutally killed and we don't want to watch Harrison Ford get his fingers broken. Blade Runner is for you people who have the no-future-I-ain't-gonna-make-it-to-thirty-so-why-not-just-fuck-kill-and-die-early syndrome. The Road Warrior is in the same bag. A sleazy rip-off of Spain's ideas in Subvert 3. If you judge the value of a movie by the number of decapitations, then Conan is right up your grommet. Racist sleaze and gore. The only film from this summer crop that retains any human values is Star Trek II. It's hippies and straights in space, the villain is too weak and Kirk too smart, but it has its moments."
Acerbic albeit witty scorn oozed from his opinionated prose: “Berkeley is turning into a mall,” he wrote in 1992. “The yuppies have won. Some morning, I will wake up and find out they have built a Toys R Us around me. I’ll have to dig my way out of a pile of naked Barbie dolls and GI Joes before I can have my morning tea.”
He reported occasionally on conversations he'd had with such stellar figures as Harvey Kurtzman (a notorious hold-out who Clay had successfully seduced into appearing at "Underground ’76" and who had supplied a logo for Comix World —which image was later emblazoned on T-shirts that Clay wore): "Remember those turgid subliminal erotic dramas in Fox and Fiction House mags? Sheena and Bob? Or GI Jane? Best of all, Skygirl. I always loved the way Skygirl (who was a waitress in a cafe at an airfield) managed to get her clothes nearly blown off on every accidental flight she took. She was great. Kurtzman and I were talking about those formulas a couple years ago, and he admitted swiping a lot from Sally the Sleuth and from Skygirl when he and Elder got into Annie Fanny in 1962."
About sexy female models at comicons: "Sybil Danning, a model who appeared on the cover of last December's Oui, was signing copies of the mag and posters at a table. For $2, people could pose with her and get the polaroid shot signed. Now, are the folks back home going to believe that you could score someone like Sybil at a comic con? Sure, why not? Blondes in half-unzipped black leather jumpsuits fall all over me everywhere I go. California is like that."
About Disney's famed Snow White: "Am I the only person who sees that Snow White betrayed the guys who loved her and took care of her by running off with a rich flake on a white horse? That she was saved by a group of working men only to run off with an imperialist?"
Clay sometimes went to extremes when debunking what he believed were popular misconceptions. “I always liked the story Walt Disney’s daughter Diane told about her dad creating Mickey Mouse in his garage when a mouse jumped up on his drawing board one day. Sounds good, but how could this be when Mickey was a 1928 modification of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit by Ub Iwerks? [Oswald had been appropriated by Disney’s distributor; Mickey was created to replace the stolen character.] Do you know that Johnny Gruelle used ‘Mickey’ and ‘Minnie Mouse’ in a short story in Good Housekeeping in 1919? Yep, even the names belonged to someone else. As for the idea of a mouse couple, check out the enclosed stat from Cartoons magazine in 1920. Walt and Ub were both aware of this mag I am sure, and they borrowed a lot from it.”
All of which could very well be true. But in 1919, Disney was 18 years old, just returned from driving an ambulance in France during World War I, and trying to get started as a cartoonist in Kansas City. I doubt he spent much time reading Good Housekeeping. And Lang Campbell, whose mouse couple Clay hauls up to bear witness, wasn’t the only cartoonist anthropomorphizing mice and other animals for his cartoons in those days, so the cartoon on display here is scarcely conclusive evidence that Disney and Irwerks borrowed husband and wife mice from others. In the Disney legend about the creation of Mickey, Disney initially named the rodent Mortimer, but his wife persuaded him that Mickey was a better name. And once you’ve created a male mouse as a leading character, the next logical step is to give the mouse a mate, or at least a paramour. Naming her “Minnie” perpetuates the euphony in m-words.
In short, the origins of Mickey and Minnie can be explained without resorting to insinuations about theft and other high-handed chicaneries. But Clay enjoyed exploding whatever he regarded as misapprehended mythologies. And he was often right. Here, however, I think he’d wandered off the lot a little. Disney and Irwerks both read Cartoons magazine in 1920 while working together in Kansas City and kept the idea of a mouse couple in the backs of their minds for more than eight years so they could conjure up a girlfriend for Mickey? That’s a more remarkable feat of creation than simply inventing the mouse couple out of whole cloth. Minnie appeared with Mickey in the first of his animated cartoons in 1928, but she apparently wasn’t named until the next year in “Mickey’s Follies” (June 1929). (Cartoons, incidentally, ceased publication with its December 1921 issue.)
It was exactly this sort of discussion that animated the correspondence between me and Clay for nearly 20 years.
THROUGH IT ALL, CLAY'S HIGH OPINION of cartooning shone like a beacon, particularly underground cartoonists: "All of the underground comix made it a point to attack the hypocrisy and moral prudery of the Establishment," he wrote, "to gross out the straights, the business cult, the nine-to-fivers, the hapless adults who had to work to make the money to pay for the excesses of their runaway kids who were hanging out smoking pot in Haight Ashbury or Tompkins Park."
Another time: "The comic artist of our time is still the ultimate social rebel, the one who debunks and defuses the ad-hype and brainwash and outrages the uptight by drawing what ‘shouldn't be drawn.' He not only thinks what is taboo; he draws it. So does she."
Clay could work up a fine rage about the way cartoonists were treated in the so-called "art world": "I started commercial art in college and got turned off totally by the assholes teaching in the department—you know, those prissy dabblers who always have something negative to say if you draw a cartoon. A lot of my friends have made the rounds of the galleries and gotten shit on by those fine-art assholes. It's a totally corrupt scene out here from Sutter Street to Laguna Beach (where the big art show is every summer). If you do comics, they look at you like a pigeon just shat on their ascot. Most cartoonists I know can draw so much better than those scenery people it isn't funny."
In the late 1970s, Clay began promoting minicomics. This was the "Newave," Clay's "Comix Wave.” These were mostly self-published 8-page booklets. You published yourself a minicomic by photocopying your comics on both sides of an 8.5x11-inch sheet, then folding it twice and trimming off the top to create 8 separate pages, each measuring roughly 4x5 inches. In the emerging age of photocopying, everyone could be a publisher at ten cents a copy or less.
Clay's contribution to the movement was to act as cheerleader nonpareil and publisher for new cartoonists who may not have access to the technology. He urged neophyte cartoonists to send him cartoons—individual gag panels or multipanel comic strips, drawn 5x7 inches, which he then cobbled together under anthology titles like Babyfat, Fried Brains, Bad Girl Art and so on, laying out the individual 5x7-inch contributions on his 8-page format and reducing them in the photocopier as he punched out a press run. He sold them for 50 cents and a first-class stamp. And he gave a lot of them away, too; good publicity for the cartoonists.
Clay explained the origin of the title of one of his anthology booklets: “The idea for Babyfat came to me one night when David Nadel and I were sitting at the counter at Denny’s in Emerykville, California. We used to go there to eat after David’s dance club, Ashkenaz, closed. [Clay worked regularly at “the Naz.”] As we discussed the events of the evening, I doodled cartoons on napkins and one of those little sketches became Babyfat. To me, the title referred to all the humorous residue of our sessions. Babyfat was to the social order what it was to the body—the excess. ... Because I doodled a fat girl in a T-shirt for the first cover, many cartoonists that followed got the idea that shew as Babyfat, that the chubby girl was the symbol, which is why there are so many chubby girl covers.” Not mine, by the way—as you doubtless perceived when perusing the Comix World gallery a few winds of the scroll ago.
Cartoonists who contributed mincomics received publicity in Comix World (which Clay formally re-titled Comix Wave after a while) and copies of the minicomic. Clay also advertised the minicomics produced by others in the newsletter.
No one got rich by any means. Clay hoped only to sell enough of one title to pay for the printing of the next one. "Perpetual art," he called it.
Like any experienced cartoonist, Clay knew that the best way for his minicomic cartoonists to learn their craft was by seeing their work in print; and they learned something about the commercial side of publishing comics by dealing with him.
"I operated the miniseries the same way I had run my college classes," he wrote. "No one was rejected. Ideas were accepted and put out there for others to deal with. The kid who did a minicomic just for the hell of it would drop out of the game in his own time. Why should I discourage him?"
He was the ideal missionary editor-publisher. As comics critic Dale Luciano once wrote, "Geerdes extends to the young cartoonists who appear in his publications an attitude of unconditional positive regard."
Clay published virtually everything he was sent. (But not pornography; sexual stuff, yes—but only if it was funny.)
"The whole idea," he told Luciano," is to publish someone who has decided he does something that is ready to publish. That is not for me to decide, but for the artist or cartoonist. If it's total crapola, others will tell him, and he will learn from the experience. If I just send it back with a nasty note, he learns nothing, and his cartooning impulse is repressed. I want to help people who contact me to gain confidence in themselves and their ability to venture out into the public world."
In minicomics, Clay the maverick idealist found another of his niches. Minicomics represented the ultimate in freedom of expression, in unfettered creative enterprise.
"Complete freedom of expression is costly," Clay wrote, "because the mainstream rejects it and holds out for a sanitized product. Depending upon the reader, the newaves are sexist, racist, heterosexist, homophobic, leftist, right wing fascist, agist, and too many other ists, isms, and ologies to list here. I still feel that art should be free from any restraint. I may cringe at some of the fantasies I see on MTV or in the pages of contemporary comic books, but I would rather see it all out there than live in a society where it is repressed as in Bradbury's Farenheit 415."
In pursuit of this passion, Clay published over 40 digest-sized magazines, a Newave Guide, and 300-400 minis. Said Luciano: "Geerdes clearly deserves credit for playing the most instrumental role in launching and ballyhooing the wave of self-published comix which began in the 1970s."
AS HE LURKED THE SHADOWY NIGHTOWL STREETS of North Beach and Berkeley, Clay developed a keen sense of history. Among other things, his appreciation for history led him to donate a complete collection of Comix World/Wave to the University of Iowa and to ask Gary Usher to index the collection. The run of the newsletter provides a week-by-week history of the most prolific period in publishing underground comix.
At the time he started the newsletter, Clay also began a journal in which he kept track of new comix. He regularly visited the Print Mint warehouse in Berkeley and Last Gasp in San Francisco, jotting down the titles of comix as they surfaced. And he talked regularly (and sometimes at length) with underground cartoonists and publishers, who filled him in on the earlier developments in the medium. As a result of the knowledge he accumulated, Clay could wax eloquently sarcastic about so-called histories of comics and comix.
"Comic book scholarship is in its infancy and I can safely say that most of the books extant are seriously inaccurate, many distorting history, others ignoring it, most unaware of it. While anyone would accept the absurdity of a monograph about William Faulkner with references only to secondary sources, it is the rule rather than the exception to see articles about comic books which contain no primary references at all! The damage already done is serious and will not be corrected easily—if ever."
His favorite example of misapprehended history concerned the dating of Zap Comix No.1. Don Donahue, the publisher of record, asserted in the Introduction to The Apex Treasury of Underground Comics that Zap Comics No.1 was published in 1967. But that, Clay demonstrated, was clearly wrong. "The cover and guts for the comic were printed by Charles Plymell, a poet and publisher of Last Times, on February 24, 1968, and the books were folded and stapled on the floor of Crumb's apartment in Haight-Ashbury. . . . The first Zap comic book appeared in the Haight-Ashbury on the street on February 25, 1968."
Donahue simply forgot, Clay said. And he and others have been mislead by the date on the artwork. Crumb drew the material that appeared in the first issue of Zap in the fall of 1967. And he wrote "1967" on some of the art, thereby leading Donahue (who should have had a better memory of the occasion because he helped Crumb and some friends fold and staple that first issue) and everyone else astray. But real historians, Clay maintained, would have got the facts right. They would have consulted records rather than relying on tricky memories alone.
But history deserved scrutiny and interpretation. Clay reviewed my first book, The Art of the Funnies (1994) in Comix Wave No.153, and recommended it “without reservation,” adding to its lore the following:
“Harvey says Bud Fisher’s Mutt was short for Muttonhead, and perhaps that is true, but I suggest an alternative. Fisher and his peers had to take Latin to graduate from high school, and I suspect he recalled a bit of Latin when he named his character. Mutt comes from the Latin mutus, which means dumb, but it could also come from mutonis, the word for penis, hence Mutt is a dumb dick! Turn Mutt’s head upside down, and his nose becomes an erect penis; his moustache, pubic hair. Sidney Smith picked this up for his chinless Andy Gump, and it was later copied by Jay Lynch for his character, Nard. This shift from bulbnosed characters to phallic noses was not accidental.
“Augustus Mutt has an elevated classical first name, yet he is a lowlife character whose entire life is dedicated to playing the horses. Augustus was Caesar’s title and meant consecrated, sacred, or majestic. To pin this on Mutt was an in-joke. A man like Fisher with aspirations to higher education (he started college) would have enjoyed juxtaposing the highest and the lowest, knowing that his readers would get the joke unconsciously whether they could understand it intellectually or not. One of the reasons Robert Crumb’s art made people laugh so hysterically in the late sixties was his technique of making overt what had always been covert in comic strips. Mutt and Gump and, yes, even Popeye, were all dicknoses, but Crumb drew a strip about a character who had a real dick for a nose. Such flagrant phallicism was an outrage to repressed
or ‘normal’ people, hence very popular with a younger generation in rebellion against parental values.”
It might be a stretch to accept all of Clay’s elaboration on the alternative meaning of “mutt,” but his contention that Mutt’s nose is an erect penis and his moustache, public hair is impossible to ignore.
Clay's historian’s antenna were always up—and not always just about comics. Once I wrote him about a book I'd read by the ghost writer who did the earliest Hardy Boys books. Clay came back with fire in his prose: "Don't know what book you read, but the guy is a liar if he said he wrote the first ten Hardy Boys books. Edward Stratemeyer always wrote the first three himself; all of his series. Every one."
Maybe not. I didn’t question Clay’s assertion at the time (although it is the sort of Geerdeschism that I sometimes did question, precipitating a politely argumentative exchange of letters) because I didn’t know much about Stratemeyer then. Later, however, I learned that this founder of the “fiction factory” of juvenile literature wrote many of his books (beginning with the Rover Boys through Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins and ending with Nancy Drew), but because he didn’t have time to write them all, he devised an unusual assembly-line method of producing books: his customary procedure was to supply a stable of writers with plot outlines, then he edited the text a writer generated from outline.
Canadian journalist Leslie McFarlane, the Hardy Boys writer Clay assaults, went on to become a writer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and then a director on the National Film Board. Before writing the first ten Hardy Boys books, he had written Dave Fearless books for Stratemeyer, so he was not an unknown talent when Stratemeyer proposed that McFarlane launch the new boy detective series in 1927.
I consulted four books about the “Stratemeyer syndicate” (as its inventor called it), but none of them claimed Stratemeyer “always” wrote the first three volumes in any new series. He wrote the first three Nancy Drew books, but it’s not clear that he did the same for every series. The first three books in a new series were always published at the same time: they were called “breeders,” and their simultaneous publication was intended to establish interest in the series by giving readers an immediate opportunity to purchase more books in the same series. Perhaps this practice lodged “the first three” in Clay’s mind. Stratemeyer, although he loved to write, was a better businessman than author. He devised the “pearl necklace” maneuver as a way of
promoting book sales. All the books in a series were strung together like pearls on a necklace: on the second page in every book, the title of the book recording the character’s previous adventure was mentioned; on the last page, the title of the next book in the series.
But I didn’t know enough about Stratemeyer when Clay burst out about the author of the Hardy Boys: I couldn’t argue with him.
Clay was prickly and self-reliant. "You see," he told me once, "I can't get along with people. You have a way of fitting in. I have none of that mellowness in my make-up. If someone fucks with me, I never deal with them again. It's cost me, I know, because writing for other people is always compromise, but that's how I've lived my life. I never compromised with anyone when I was teaching either. I saw the brownosers hang in and get their tenure and spend their lives babysitting those teenaged assholes in the valley, and all I can say from here is that they got what they deserved and thank God I was refused tenure and had to do something more interesting with my life."
Clay folded Comix World/Wave in mid-1995. After 22 years putting it out, he found he'd lost interest. The new generation of comics didn't appeal to him, he said. Typically, he wouldn't compromise with his feelings, so he could no longer write about the medium.
There was more to it than that, I think. Bob Rita, a co-founder of the Print Mint, died of a heart attack in February 1995. It was as if an era had passed. And, of course, so it had.
When he wrote me, Clay sometimes mentioned his sense of malaise about comics. Somehow he related his feelings to the untimely deaths of so many of the underground cartoonists, people he'd known and whose work he'd admired. He catalogued the death knell: "Cheech Wizard Vaughn Bode died in 1975 of strangulation caused by an auto-erotic device he was using. Willy Murphy (Flammed-out Funnies) died of pneumonia, March 2, 1976. Dealer McDope David Sheridan died of cancer, March 28, 1982. He was a heavy smoker of nicotine and marijuana. Rory Bogeyman Hayes died of an overdose of pills in 1983, possibly suicide. Greg Irons went to Thailand to study tatoo art and was run down by a bus in 1984. Roger Brand died of kidney failure brought on by alcoholism, November 30, 1985. Dori Seda died of pneumonia shortly after a traffic accident, February 2, 1988."
But the feeling of malaise had other origins, I think. Clay wasn't feeling well himself. In the summer of 1995, he began to feel weak and tired much of the time. He thought it was simply a symptom of age. Unbeknownst to him, it was cancer.
By early 1996, he felt pain in the abdomen. That summer, he detected a lump. In October, he finally went in to get checked. It was colon cancer. The tumor and a foot of intestine were removed, and Clay went home to recover.class=WordSection2>
But the cancer had metastasized to his liver, and that condition required treatment. Clay, never conventional about anything I ever knew about, wasn't going to be conventional about his cancer treatment either.
Earlier in the year, he'd commented to me about Gil Kane's ordeal with cancer: "The bastards almost killed Kane," he wrote. "What the medico-cancer business does for people is to offer nothing but surgery and chemo which make the last few years of life painful and unbearable. I've known too many people to have been killed by this system. If I get the disease, I am going to use alternatives to fight it and die in my own way."
And that's what he did.
In November 1996, Clay checked in to a clinic in Mexico and submitted himself to an alternative treatment that involved ingesting quantities of vitamin supplements and having his teeth removed because of the metal fillings that promoted the growth of small tumors in his liver. He wrote about aspects of his experience later with his usual flair for both narrative detail and the human comedy:
"I had two [teeth extraction] sessions. Both scenes of high comedy. Peter Sellers would have loved it. I am flat on my back in the chair and the dentist is shooting me up with enough novocaine to stone an elephant; meanwhile, his gorgeous dark-haired nurse is watching the show while both listen to pop Mexican songs on the sound system. As my molars pop out and onto the tray, they are discussing the singers. It's all in Spanish, but I have spoken that language since I was a boy working at the Cornhusker Hotel in Lincoln, so I understand nearly everything they are saying and realize the absurdity of it all. I am losing my teeth while these folks are chatting about pop music and fashion. She's defending the pop music preferred by her generation while he, in his early forties, admits to liking some of it but finds too many of the song lyrics dirty. Through all of this, I am aware of a flirtatious undercurrent between them."
Miraculously, as soon as the last of the metal-filled teeth were removed, Clay reported that the pain in his liver subsided—disappeared—immediately. He returned to Berkeley on Thursday, December 19.
There, he encountered tragedy.
The night that he and Clara returned, David Nadel—Clay’s friend, kindred soul and part-time employer—was shot and killed by an Ashkenaz patron whom Nadel had ejected from the dance club for being drunk. At the hospital, Nadel was kept on life support until Saturday because he had donated his organs and they were being removed for transplant. His killer, later identified as Juan Rivera Perez, a Mexican national who was in the U.S. without papers, was never caught; presumably, he returned to Mexico to avoid capture.
Clay reacted in the way writers everywhere react to tragedies that touch them: he wrote a long essay about his friend. Nadel had started Ashkenaz as a “folk dance collective” in March 1973 “to establish a venue which would feature a different kind of folk or ethnic dancing each evening, culminating with an international night on Saturdays.”
“David loved to dance,” Clay continued. “He was probably happiest when he was out on the floor dancing with his friends, doing the complex figures of a Balkan or Macedonian dance.” But he was interested in all kinds of music, and cajun had become the staple at the Naz by the mid-1990s. Nadel spent the daylight hours of every week on the telephone, cajoling band leaders to bring their bands to his club and putting together his monthly calendar of events.
Clay and Nadel shared most political opinions, and Nadel expressed his in the editorials he wrote in the calendar. In his eulogy, Clay quoted from the last editorial Nadel wrote:
“Corporate capitalism many times has laid itself open for all the world to see its ugly basic tenets—the exploitation of people and the earth’s resources so as to squeeze every drop of profit out of life. ... A clean environment and capitalist exploitation of the earth is a contradiction! Let us outlaw greed, spread the wealth around, slow down ... for fear we irreparably foul our nest to where cockroaches inherit the earth.”
In the same defiant spirit, Nadel flew a banner atop his building, the last one proclaimed: “Tax the Rich ’til There Ain’t No More Rich.”
“The Ashkenaz as we all knew it ended on December 19, 1996,” Clay wrote. “The club may continue in some form, but it will never be what it was because there is no one who could replace its creator, David Terrence Nadel—friend, brother.”
For awhile after his return from the Mexican clinic, Clay reported gaining in strength and maintaining his weight, both encouraging signs. He felt good about what he'd done and had no regrets whatsoever. But he was scarcely back to normal, and in May, he wrote that he was sleeping most of the time. I didn't hear from him again. He died at 1:30 a.m. on July 8, 1997. It was a Tuesday. He was at home in Berkeley with Clara Felix. He died quietly: "He just stopped breathing," Clara told me. He wasn't afraid; he wasn't uneasy; he wasn't in pain particularly. He'd had his 63rd birthday in May, surrounded by friends and family.
He'd sent me a 270-page book of his essays and short stories, mostly autobiographical; from that and his letters and issues of Comix World/Wave, I constructed this biographical account. On the frontispiece of his book is a photograph of Clay, sitting at a piano and looking over his shoulder at me, a grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye.
In his last years, he'd returned to his piano with a genuine passion. "What I like is playing my piano," he wrote me. "I spend a couple of hours a day working out. Mostly ragtime music. I am a fan of Joplin and play all his stuff quite well these days. I'm still not letter perfect, but I struggle. I always regret not working on my scales more as a kid, but my dad couldn't handle it. He was bad enough when I just went over my lessons."
Looking at him there in that photograph, I can almost hear his voice—talking about comix, mostly, extolling them: "I have to laugh again as I remember seeing people standing in the comic store on Telegraph, laughing their asses off over Crumb's Big Ass Comics. I could hear them saying, 'This is really disgusting!' More laughter, then, 'This is really gross!' followed by more laughter. That's the pleasure and the paradox of comix."
Fitnoot. The foregoing is an expanded version of my article published after Clay’s death in the Comics Journal. While editing for this posting, I rummaged around for sample copies of Clay’s Comix World. I knew I’d saved some, but where? Found ’em in a box—with a bonus: a file folder of copies of the letters we’d exchanged. I thumbed through the heap, pausing to read one here and there. The temptation grew to read them all. I was impressed anew with Clay’s eclectic erudition, often across a wide range of obscure topics—like the Mutt paragraphs above—and his lively, energetic conversational prose. Action verbs, a generous seasoning of profanity, and strong opinions. And wonderful out-of-the-box insights. Every once in a while, reading in this cache something Clay had written, I’d say to myself, “Well, I wonder if he’s heard about —.” Some new wisp of related information. I’d think, for just a moment, that I should tell him about this new development to see what he thought about it. And then, I remembered. I couldn’t tell him: he wasn’t there anymore.