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FOG! Talks ‘The Book of Weirdo’ With Editor Jon B. Cooke!

Jon B. Cooke / Illustration by Drew Friedman

I first became aware of Jon B. Cooke through his work in early issues of TwoMorrow’s The Jack Kirby Collector and Jon’s magazine, Comic Book Artist.  What has impressed me most about Jon and his work is both his exhaustive love and knowledge of comic’s history.  As a medium, the published comic book is less than a century old, but Jon never limits himself to a particular area; his breadth of expertise is vast.

And his talents don’t end there.  A multiple Eisner-award winner, Jon’s a professional graphic designer, editor and podcaster.  His latest book, The Book of Weirdo, focuses on the inimitable humor comics anthology from the 1980s, R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine.

Jon took some time from his busy schedule to discuss the book, it’s importance to the underground comix movement and his upcoming projects.

*  *  *  * *

FOG!: For those unfamiliar, what was Weirdo Magazine?

JBC: Weirdo was a creation of R. Crumb, widely heralded as the greatest cartoonist alive, if not of all time, the guy who created ZAP Comix (and the whole underground comix genre along with it) and a whole slew of famous “hippie” era characters, Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural among them. He also famously popularized a catch phrase of that era, “Keep on Truckin’.”

The magazine, published between 1981 and 1990 (with one final fare-thee-well issue in ’93), last for 28 issues under three editors, Crumb, Peter Bagge, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, all superb cartoonists in their own right.

It was a black-&-white humor comics anthology published on a roughly quarterly basis and it served as a counterpoint, of sorts, to Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s RAW comics anthology, which had artistic, high-brow aspirations. Weirdo, on the other hand, was low-brow (in the spirit of Juxtapoz magazine, if you will) and a haven for “outsider” artists, whether from the punk scene of the day, streets of Berkeley, or survivors of the lamented underground comix world, which pretty much went belly-up in 1975 or so.

But the mag, published by one of the last underground comix publishers standing, Last Gasp, did not only feature Crumb’s fellow ZAP Comix cohorts, but also an entirely new generation of rebel artists, any number culled from the revolutionary world of mini-comics. It also included the work of certifiable crazy people, prison convicts, backwoods nutbags, and frazzled storytellers with a modicum of drawing ability.

Importantly, Weirdo was also haven to two generations of women cartoonists, a segment who helped to give the anthology a decidedly literary bent.

When did you discover the magazine and what was the genesis of this project?

I think I finally picked up an issue in the later 1980s. I had seen it earlier but, much as I stood mesmerized by Crumb’s superlative covers, I was put off by much of the poorly-drawn work within.

I think it was #13 which I picked up first, years after it was first published. Crumb’s documentary style of artistry just knocked me out…

Honestly, the reason I decided to do a retrospective was because:

A.) There was virtually nothing written about the mag, besides an issue of The Comics Journal devoted to a joint Crumb/Bagge interview and subsequent Weirdo retrospective written by genius cartoonist Jim Woodring in a later TCJ. (I did later discover a great Bagge interview by John McCoy specifically about Peter’s tenure as editor, but that was years later.)

B.) It was a convenient segment to include as a complementary feature to my epic Peter Bagge interview, which was planned for the sixth issue of my now defunct magazine, Comic Book Artist, the Top Shelf edition. I thought, interview Crumb and his wife, Aline, and cull the Weirdo comments from my interview with Pete and — bingo — nice mini-retrospective akin to my Arcade section in CBA V2 #1, with its Spiegelman and Bill Griffith interviews. But then I decided to ask a few contributors to share a testimonial or two, and then it grew to gargantuan proportions and it was beyond my control…

For personal reasons, I left the comics field for a spell in the later 2000s, but by that time had accumulated quite a number of testimonials and remembrances. Somewhere along the way, I made a thorough index of Weirdo #1–28, and that gave me a list of names to use to find other contributors. After shelving it in early 2008, I decided to revive CBA in 2011, and I was able to gather another batch of testimonials, bringing it one step closer. But family pulled me away until two years later and I took another whack at it, gathering even more. (Truth to tell, somewhere in there, Bagge pretty much demanded to know what the heck was going on with the material — his CBA interview most specifically, and that lit a fire under me.)

Peter Bagge and Jon B. Cooke / Image courtesy Jon B. Cooke

In that year, 2013, I also started a new magazine, Comic Book Creator and was able to find a home for that comprehensive Bagge Q+A, and soon enough I decided to make a book out of the ever-accumulating Weirdo material. In 2015, I wrote up a book prospectus, with a list of the folks participating (some who had passed away in the interim), and decided to shop it around at San Diego during Comic-Con. Out of respect of the fact they were the mag’s publisher, I approached Last Gasp first and I needn’t go any further as Ron Turner looked over the names and his eyes glazed over and he just nodded yes. By fall we had a contract and I was given a span of time to finish the book…

You interview virtually everyone involved with the magazine’s run. How hard was it to track down the contributors and who surprised you most with their participation?

Some were very easy to find, some took dogged, tenacious detective work, mostly by doing deep dives into Google or mailing out postcard requests to folks with the same names as my quarry. I’m particularly happy to have found the famed and notorious Elinore Norflus, a primitive comix artist who had vanished from the field for decades. I found her because of the rather rare last name and courtesy of an obituary of a family member. I was able to find out she has lived in Southern India for the last 30–40 years and she turned out to be a delightful person quite eager to relive those days of Weirdo.

That same level of enthusiasm was true of so many contributors and I found that simply amazing and a testament to the magazine’s impact on their lives. That was really the fuel that kept me on track to finish the book, along with the fact that some had passed away without ever having seen their contributions in print. I was starting to see Weirdo through their eyes, starting to understand the mag’s generous spirit, and how representative it was for the entire alternative comix scene during that Reagan era.

Oh, and there were a few other wonderful discoveries. One was to finally find out who the elusive artist, Ellé, was and to become a friend of that alter ego — Tasmanian cartoonist Lindsay Arnold — who is still going strong creating comix at 80 and continues to teach me about the world of Australian comics. And another was to finally, after years and years of searching, to track down Seattle cartoonist Michael Dougan, who is today living in a small village in Japan and has recently opened his “Michael’s American Cafe,” for those who crave U.S.-style coffee! Michael and I have had a long correspondence that has increased my understanding of the “grunge comix” world exponentially. These are only two of many, many people of I have pursued over the years and have become pals with. It’s been wonderful!

R. Crumb created the magazine. Did you have to get his support before starting the project? What were his thoughts about this book?

I remember that Eric Reynolds, co-publisher of Fantagraphics, longtime pal, and the person who got me in contact with Crumb, back in 2007, confided that Robert had actually turned down an interview request from Vanity Fair but agreed to talk to me in the same couple of days. Boy, that was ego-boosting, but I would soon discover it was Crumb’s love of Weirdo and, I suspect, a disappointment that the greater comix world had virtually ignore it since #28 came off the presses.

Anyway I had a half-hour chat with Robert (with us spending a bit of time talking about Harvey Kurtzman) and then he gave the phone to Aline, and I talked with her for maybe 15 minutes about her time as Weirdo editor. So that, with the Bagge conversation, was a solid foundation for a retrospective. Within a month or two, Robert answered some questions via snail mail, sent me some artifacts, and, a year or so later, answered some more questions.

The last correspondence we had before the book was published, he answered a litany of obscure and decidedly insignificant — but unanswered! — questions, and he ended the multiple-page email by exclaiming that it took two days to write the answers and thus, if I didn’t finish the book, he would be (his all-caps) “PISSED!” And so I carried on…!

I went crazy with my research on the book. I read the issues of Weirdo with such laser-like attention that all sorts of questions who arise and leads revealed themselves to follow. Plus the mag didn’t happen in a vacuum so I’d suddenly be engrossed in ancillary subjects and write detailed sidebars on such subjects as the Jonestown Massacre trading card set (which used a number of Weirdo creators), Crumb and Aline’s history with environmental causes (as work on Winds of Change, an organic farming tabloid, preceded Weirdo), the Seattle comix scene (as Bagge, during his Weirdo tenure, became front and center to that community), and especially the Crumbs place in their community, a group of people who participated in Robert’s often scandalous “photo-funnies” photo shoots, of which any number of Davis/Winters, California, residents very fondly recall. So it was layer after layer after layer. And I LOVED it.

It’s not an overstatement to say, after he received a galley, Robert loves the book, enough so to write a very glowing commentary on his appreciation and even have me as a lunch guest when he was in New York this past winter. He calls it a “great book” and “the definitive work on the subject.” That commentary serves as the book’s back cover copy.

R. Crumb and Cooke / photo courtesy of Jon B. Cooke

Weirdo was a who’s who of the alternative cartoonists of the time. In working on the book, did anyone decline participating and for what reason?

I had one person decline, and a solid number of cartoonists who either ignored my requests or just didn’t see them. Most of those were European artists. I had an overwhelmingly effusive and positive response from the participants. Over 130 contributors shared their memories. Some even created exclusive content for the book.

For a magazine that never sold more than 10,000 copies an issue, why do you think it’s both important and so fondly remembered?

(To be accurate, no single printing was above 10,000 copies. I believe #1 had three printings, so likely 30,000 copies. When #28 appeared, Last Gasp went back to press with out-of-print issues. The printing history is not easy to parse precisely, hence, without access to records, I didn’t delve into that arena.)

I head that Robert Williams, who was a Weirdo contributor, particularly enjoyed his contributor copy so, ever in search of a blurb, I called him up. The great “low-brow” surrealist painter (a member of the ZAP Comix collective, so he would know) said the tome was testament to Robert Crumb’s “generosity of spirit.”

That nails it for me. Crumb is such a supportive and nurturing cartoonist, is so lacking in obstructive ego games, and is a great judge of what is funny, poignant, and just plain oddball, and his gentle ability to suggest changes in work suggest a profound kindness. His neighbors, no judges of comix material, recall him — almost to a person — as a lovely human being, generous and giving.

The magazine exuded that, I think. Weirdo became more than a comics anthology of truly excellent (and sometime atrocious) work; it became a community, more so than sister (and far more famed) mag RAW. The essence of Weirdo is the celebration of the “outsider” in so many of us geeks and awkward types. A place for us losers. Plus the anthology featured much of Crumb’s finest work. And, for a man widely said to be the best, that is saying something.

I don’t know if Weirdo is important in the scheme of things. I think it is. I think my book is, too. And, speaking for The Book of Weirdo, I think that era of alternative comix was very important for the art form and Weirdo was epicenter, along with RAW. What’s (ahem) weird is that the greater comic book world has rarely put two words together to remember Weirdo (unless I missed it). It has been forgotten, ignored, and passed over.

Weirdo is rude, offensive, politically incorrect, sometime mean, always angry, and filled with such disparate material of varying talent it looks like a mess. But it is a gorgeous, beautiful mess that deserves recognition and deserves a big fat thank you. Crumb — Peter, Aline, too — did good and we will never see the like of it again.

Where are your upcoming projects?

A 50th anniversary book celebrating the last remaining underground comix publisher, Last Gasp. I would love to do a similar book on Harvey Pekar and American Splendor. I’d love to work with legendary graphic designer Art Chantry, as a dream is to follow up with a look at the Seattle cartoonist scene of the ’80s and ’90s. I’d like to work with John Holmstrom, cartoonist and co-founder of Punk magazine to do a book about that whole scene. I also need to work with my pal Drew Friedman again, after he’s done such a beautiful cover, written such a loving introduction, and become such an outstanding booster and promoter for this, the spring and summer of The Book of Weirdo.

Plus my usual wonderful projects with John Morrow and TwoMorrows, including The World of TwoMorrows, celebrating 25 years of his and Pam’s great company (to which I am supremely indebted for getting me into this crazy comic book realm), a biography of John Severin, and a couple more design jobs, including a Mac Raboy biographical opus. Oh, and a regular magazine called Comic Book Artist. Let’s not forget that, Jon. That and the fact my brother, Andrew, and I are producing a four-act play on the early days of American comic books, called “The Golden Age.”

What are you currently geeking out over?

Boy, the obligations to promote and travel on this The Book of Weirdo tour are all-consuming, almost 24/7, but all sorts of hitherto unknown things are popping up in my exploits. I just started getting into a great humor magazine, American Bystander, plus there’s the greatest ’zine ever published, Mineshaft, and David Tosh has me mesmerized with his Mumbo ’zine. Small press stuff continues to hold me rapt. Of course, I bawled like an idgit at Cap’s fate in Avengers: Endgame, so there’s still that geeky mainstream fan in me (I love Kirby; always have, always will). The Mad Peck just turned me onto an Eric Stanton bio I need to read, plus I have to finish Hilary Chute’s Why Comics? Music-wise, into a Harry Nilsson jag right now and I reckon I’d better start listening to some punk and grunge to get a sense of what the hell those two scene were all about before I dive in too deep.

The Book of Weirdo is available now from Last Gasp,
or at your favorite comic book store or bookseller

 

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