For all of you who don’t happen to be regular readers of Back Issue magazine, there is an interview with me in the current issue by Los Angeles comics writer Michael Aushenker. Thanks to the glacial pace of print the piece is a bit of a time capsule, a transcript of a wide-ranging and somewhat incoherent phone conversation we had two years ago, months before my new book, Extreme Perspective! was even proposed (and at one point I tell Michael that I don’t think I’ll be doing any large comics projects anytime soon. Ha!).
Most of Michael’s questions are about my first book David Chelsea In Love, but there is a sidebar dealing with my second book, Welcome to the Zone which was cut from the final article:
David Chelsea Discusses His Weirder, More Abstract Follow-Up Project, Kitchen Sink’s 1995 Ill-Fated Release Welcome to the Zone
By MICHAEL AUSHENKER
AUSHENKER: Can you give me a context for the bohemian milieu you’re skewering in Welcome to the Zone? There seems to be a lot of commentary on class difference (the homeless, Ronald Duck) and the artist characters’ warped values, toxic relationships, and desperation for success. Was there a hypocrisy or an agenda to that scene that you found oppressive? Are any of the characters, such as Tasha Tigerbaum, Invert and Meta, Mushroom, and Mugg based on specific people from your New York period?
CHELSEA: The bohemian milieu is based on a couple of overlapping scenes that I had been part of in the mid- to late-80s. There was a poetry and performance scene that centered on a Lower East Side club called ABC No Rio, and there was a loose group of singer-songwriters who called themselves the Anti-Folk movement. They considered themselves rebels against the old-fashioned folk-singing scene that centered on Folk City in the West Village, which itself was pretty marginal by the ‘80s. There was a lot of terribly radical politics and identification with the oppressed and the homeless in that scene, which struck me as hypocritical given that so many of those people were educated, white and middle-class, and that their presence in the neighborhood was helping to further the gentrification they railed against. A lot of the performance and folksinger characters are based on people I knew––the guy gluing up posters is John S. Hall, lead singer of King Missile. Tasha Tigerbaum is a poet named Eve Teitlebaum, Lunch is a folksinger named Lach, etc. The plot line about the guy who cooks his girlfriend was based on a case that actually happened, an East Village activist named Daniel Rakowitz who killed his dancer girlfriend, put her in the soup, and fed her to the homeless. I think the book would have been better if I’d stuck to what I knew, but I was aspiring to do a big multi-leveled portrayal of a whole society like Robert Altman’s “Nashville” or John Sayle’s “City Of Hope,” so I had to include elements l knew nothing about, like the cops and the developer based on Donald Trump. For those, I resorted to pretty stock caricature. The whole science fiction and fantasy element was my effort to entice the mainstream comics reader, and that sure didn’t work.
AUSHENKER: This book, more than David Chelsea In Love, seems to be equal part McCay fantasy, equal part Drew Freidman influence, with the pointilism and the parodies of Donald Trump and Jack Webb’s Joe Friday character. The cover has an almost Maurice Sendak feel to it. Were you consciously attempting to push the envelope on your style, pushing the surreal factor, and distance this project visually- and narrative-wise from David Chelsea In Love?
CHELSEA: Mostly, I wanted to explore the more tonal stipple style that I had started to experiment with in David Chelsea In Love. Of course, that turned out to be far more labor-intensive, and l was back to the clear line style with Perspective!
AUSHENKER: Was Zone more liberating to create than David Chelsea In Love? Did you feel with David Chelsea In Love kind of a slave to your personal history, whereas this is a madcap surreal romp?
CHELSEA: You know, if Zone had been a wild success, l might feel differently, but I regard this one as a misfire on just about every level, right down to my choice of a square format, which pretty much guaranteed low sales. What I remember is that l didn’t want to do a direct follow-up to David Chelsea In Love, but I didn’t have any other stories l felt as passionate about, so instead l tried to sell out and do something that might be commercial. l know, my idea of what was commercial was pretty warped, but my thought was: comics readers enjoy space aliens and skeletons and lots of mayhem, so I’ll throw all that stuff in!
AUSHENKER: You appear once again in the form of David Chutney….you appear in both David Chelsea In Love and in Perspective!, and Mugg returns for the latter. How important is it to your iconography as a cartoonist to repeat certain motifs and characters as a common thread in your work? Or did this occur unconsciously?
CHELSEA: Basically, I hate coming up with new characters, so if I find one I like drawing, I’ll stick with it if I can. Little by little, I’m starting to build a stock company.
AUSHENKER: On the back cover author’s photo, there seems to be a collection of statuettes based on the characters in Zone. What was that all about? Was there push to merchandise those characters?
CHELSEA: That was my favorite part of working on the book. I had made little plasticine heads of the major characters in David Chelsea In Love, not very elaborate, bald and earless busts, and I found them a great help in keeping the characters looking consistent throughout the book. For Zone, which has two dozen major characters, I got much more involved, constructing full-torso models with hair and teeth and eyes, in some cases from baked plastic clay, but mostly from plasticine. These I used as drawing reference, and they were a big help in giving the artwork a three-dimensional look and especially in setting up lighting effects. I believe Richard Corben does something similar. A bit more effort on the script would have been a good idea too, but I think I always knew the story was never going to mean as much to me as David Chelsea In Love, so it needed all the help from the artwork it could get.
AUSHENKER: I remember you mentioned that Eclipse was not interested in publishing Zone following David Chelsea In Love. What was it like to work on a project for Denis Kitchen and Kitchen Sink (right before it went under)? Was this a positive, supportive experience? Did they let you execute Zone the way you intended or did they give you any input that shaped the final product?
CHELSEA: Kitchen Sink had just absorbed Tundra and there was a lot of reckless expansion going on. Ultimately, it all proved too much to handle and the company went under shortly after Zone was published. My book was lost in the shuffle; I think higher-profile projects that originated at Tundra were sucking up all the oxygen. I had three editors over the course of the time I was working on Zone, and I don’t remember any editorial input at all, but l believe that’s the norm with the independent companies. I remember having lunch with some Kitchen Sink promo guys and Carol Lay about that time. The Kitchen Sink people were telling Carol about some publicity stuff they had planned for her book. I blurted out, ‘What do you have in mind for MY book?’ There was a moment’s silence and then everyone burst out laughing.
(One more unfortunate omission: the credit for a photograph of me by writer and exotic dancer Viva Las Vegas, which she took for her own interview with me in the Portland Mercury, was inadvertantly left off. Thanks, Viva.)
Back Issue magazine is available at all finer comics shops, or you can download the electronic version here.