Remembering Clay Geerdes

Photographic Chronicler of Comix Underground


click to enlargeHistory, 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.  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 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 this time to consider the man and his works.

            Clay Geerdes, one-time college English teacher and sometime cartoonist, spent the last quarter 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'd corresponded and argued, fought and made up.  So in the ways the 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.

            Clay was born in Sioux City, Iowa, but grew to maturity in Lincoln, Nebraska, where his family moved when he was about five.  He joined the Navy in 1954, and after a few years cruising the Pacific with ports of call in the Orient and Australia, he was stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay.  When his enlistment ran out in 1958, he entered San Francisco State College, where he finished work on his Master's degree in 1963. 

            He 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, and during the next two years, he witnessed first-hand the street theater that flourished in the neighborhood, making Haight-Ashbury a Mecca for flower children, particularly in that storied summer of 1967.  

            The Human Be-In staged in Golden Gate Park near the Haight 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 didn't smoke or drink in those halcyon days of yore, and although he smoked a joint once in a while, 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 as a street reporter and photo-journalist.

            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 wrote, "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 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, Adam, Knight, Oui, Hustler, and other hip publications.  He contributed photo stories on nightclub personalities like Carol Doda, the woman who introduced silicone boobs and topless dancing to North Beach in 1964, and others.

            "So many scenes going on at once," he wrote.  "I ran myself ragged in those days.  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 couple decades.  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 wrote.

            As a teenager, Clay had achieved a dubious national distribution with his cartoons.  After graduating from high school in Lincoln, Nebraska, he had worked for a time for Western Electric, where 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 the Berkeley Comic Art Shop opened on Telegraph Avenue in the fall of 1972, Clay quickly made friends of the owners, John Barrett, Bud Plant, John Campbell, and Bob Beerbohm.  And when the quartet started talking about staging a comics convention in Berkeley, Clay persuaded them to make it an underground comix convention.  He handled all the publicity for the "world's first underground comix convention," recruited such guests as Michelle Urry from Playboy and Gilbert Shelton and other underground cartoonists, organized panel presentations, and arranged for a film screening. 

            The success of the Con, which was held April 22-24, 1973, at U.C. in Berkeley, inspired Clay to other efforts.  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.  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 1/2 x 11" 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.  He mailed the issues out once a month, two to an envelope.

            Clay saw the newsletter as a catalyst in those days--"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."

            He reported occasionally on conversations he'd had with such stellar figures as Harvey Kurtzman (who Clay had seduced into appearing at "Underground `76"):  "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?"

            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 printing your comics on both sides of an 8 1/2 x 11" sheet, then folding it twice and trimming off the top to create 8 separate pages, each measuring roughly 4x5".  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", which he then cobbled together under anthology titles like Babyfat, Fried Brains, Bad Girl Art and so on, laying out the individual 5x7" 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.

            Contributing artists received publicity in Comix World (which Clay re-titled Comix Wave after awhile) 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 his niche.  They 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 Comix 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 and Crumb and some friends folded and stapled the first issue themselves on the floor of Crumb's apartment) 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.

            Clay's historical 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."

            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 them.

            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.

            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 allegedly 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 January 21, 1997, Clay sent me a 180-page document entitled The Incredible Rabbit Reference Book. He affixed a note: “Hi, Bob— Here’s a copy of one of my long term projects. Hope you enjoy it. I’ve had a pretty good week. Holding up. Best, Clay.” Turns out we both had a thing for rabbits—my signature, his research passion. “Don’t ask me why,” he said in the Preface. He’d been working on the project for at least six years. He had developed a fascination for rabbits and hares. “Hares and rabbits are, of course, anatomically different, and they act in a very different manner,” he wrote. “The hare lives in a form above ground and does not burrow, while the rabbit burrows and lives in a warren beneath the earth. The hare is wild and nobody’s pet; the rabbit is as domesticated as a beagle.” Beyond the Preface came the list—in alphabetical order, of all the famous rabbits and bunnies of children’s literature, animated cartoons, and comic books.  The tome, Clay promised, was “for the lagomorphically inclined, a lepomorphic glossary for the curious, a compendium of who did what with the image of rabbit and hare and when the stories or art took place.” The significance of many of the items listed is amplified with paragraphs quoting the reference to the beastie or explaining the background. Here’s “Harvey,” for instance, which, after telling us that “Harvey is a 6 ½-foot invisible white rabbit [actually, a pukka], the companion of Elwood P. Dowd,”  refers the curious to “Chase, Mary,” where we encounter a summary of the plot of her play, accompanied by Clay’s speculations about her inspiration: “Chase got the idea of invisibility from the movie sequels to Henry George Wells’ ‘Invisible Man.’” Nothing alarming there. But at the entry for “Baker, Carroll,” we learn that the actress was terrified of the Easter Bunny. Or was it the character she was playing, Baby Doll, who was terrified? Hard to say. But more about rabbits than anyone could make reasonable use of in the normal course of a day.

            For awhile, 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 his long-time friend and companion, 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 which I have constructed this biographical account.  On the frontispiece 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. click to enlarge

            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 him talking about comix, 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."

            Clay wrote me a note next to his photograph: “May you live long and prosper.” And then: “Write me a nice obit, old buddy.”

            And so I did. Rest in peace, pal. I’ll miss you.

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