Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Gregor's Biography/Retrospective Rules!

Just moments ago finished reading Patrick Rosenkranz's top-notch You Call This Art? A Greg Irons Retrospective (Fantagraphics Books, 2006), which places into perspective the life and work of the man whose work had a profound influence on yours truly. Irons was one of the unsung geniuses of the comix art movement (which I maintain framed the 20th Century art scene, with the Surrealists and Dadaists in Europe in the first half of the century, and the comix explosion marking a similarly potent eruption in the latter part) -- unsung in part because Irons embraced genre as a vehicle (particularly in his collaborations with Tom Veitch), a stigma in the eyes of many critics & participants of the scene from Bill Griffith to Gary Groth (I'm citing Gary's dismissal of genre, particularly horror, over the years, noting of course he's now elevating Irons as co-publisher of this very book). Greg's early and late comix work was sui generis -- the seminal transformative Light (1971), which so influenced my own collaboration with Alan Moore and John Totleben on The Saga of the Swamp Thing #34's "Rites of Spring"; Greg's post-'77 Slow Death sociological & historical screeds and sardonic autobiographical Gregor the PurpleAss Baboon stories, reprinted in this book in their entirity -- but he was most identified with his taboo-busting G.I./T.V. collaborations, which indeed marked many of us for life and still impact the international pop culture to this day. As Rosenkranz makes clear, Greg was the fire behind both Skull and Slow Death, the two comix titles that dragged the genres of horror and sf kicking and writhing into the '70s in their medium as surely as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Michael Reeves's The Witchfinder General/The Conqueror Worm did the same for cinematic horror; I'd long suspected Greg had spearheaded those efforts, and its gratifying to know those instincts (as a reader) were correct.

Still, that genre association quickly became a pejorative, a stigma, which Irons never escaped. Though Bill Griffith's scathing attack upon such incarnations of the comix scene isn't cited here, one sees it again and again pop up throughout the biography, particularly in Bellerophon Books publisher Herb Knill's assessment of Greg's work, despite the fact that Irons remains the best artist to have graced that line of coloring books. Knill's abhorrence of Irons's "black-goo-gore-&-dung art" speaks volumes, as does his final reference to Greg never becoming "a very good top of the line illustrator" because he couldn't leave "the adolescent art behind" (forgive my identifying with these passages on a personal level, as I still hear the same about my own work, in different arenas; Knill's letters to Irons -- see pp. 169-177, pg. 281 -- echo almost verbatim letters I've received from peers and pros in the field, from cat yronwode to those who should know better). Like well-intentioned editors and publishers I've worked with, the belief that severing Greg from the gut-level impulses that so relentlessly fueled his art by polishing and sterilizing the finished product only hastened the termination of that phase of Greg's career. As Rosenkranz properly emphasizes/contextualizes this friction, one sees in Greg's richer pirate portraits for Slow Death #7 all that Knill actively suppressed/refuted in (I'm sure his word would be "refined" from) Irons art, a patriarchal and generational mentorship (Knill was clearly a father figure, in Irons's own words "an ex-Marine captain who is also an ex-history professor") doomed to failure. As Greg's eventual return to the waning comix venues left in '77-'80 and his subsequent tattoo career demonstrated, Irons art was 150% high-octane injected by his demons, and any attempt to cut the artist off from his demons would inevitably drain the vein and send the man in search of fresh venues.

As one who celebrates and has himself embraced genre as a viable path, it's worth mentioning again that it was the profound primal impact of Tom & Greg's Skull #6 "A Gothic Tale: Part One" (beautifully reprinted in Rosenkranz's book, sans Veitch & Corben's second chapter, for obvious reasons) that propelled my own lasting decision to work in comics, specifically my desire to build upon all that Greg and Tom had accomplished as a team. It's too bad Rosenkranz himself so little understands or cares about the broader tapestry of the genre itself (a characteristic of Fantagraphics as a whole, reflecting the prejudices and blinders of its founding and sustaining publishers Groth and Kim Thompson): though I've no idea what played a part in the decision to feature nary a mention or panel from G.I./T.V.'s seminal gross-out epic "Clean-Up Crew", the fact that this still-bracing horror comix classic inspired another subsequent underground (the 8mm cinematic breed) via Jörg Buttgereit's utterly perverse masterpiece Nekromantik (1987) -- essentially, an adaptation of the G.I./T.V. tale with a few extrapolations and different culmination/climax, sans the supernatural component -- is a connection long overdue, and Rosenkranz's book was the place to state it for the record. Alas, the connection isn't made, the impact of Irons legacy inadvertantly diminished.

In comics alone, I have to cite Greg's impact upon Alan, John, Rick & my own Swamp Thing efforts, still in print around the world and directly mainlining Irons quite overtly, from the previously-mentioned "Rites of Spring" to our own modest memorial to Greg's tragic death in November of 1984: one of my final ST efforts, SOTST #39's "Fish Story" (published the summer of '85) concludes with a dedication from Alan, John & I to Greg's memory, tagged with the most Irons-like skull (which I myself inked, with John and editor Karen Berger's blessing) I could muster, tellingly lying at the foot of a bus stop sign in the muddy wasteland remnants of Rosewood. Mark Bode is the most prominent contemporary cartoonist to consciously emulate Greg's career arc from comix to tattooing: Mark began his exploration of that path shortly before his move to Northampton, MA (or while in Northampton -- Mark, care to comment?) in 1990 or '91, and has matured into a top-notch tattoo artist, recently returning to his roots in the Bay area to continue and expand operations.

For whatever reason -- perhaps Rosenkranz decided to focus solely upon Greg's personal arena, and quote only those who directly knew him, which is laudable -- You Call This Art? choses not to trace Greg's wider legacy. Too bad. There are other lapses and/or editorial/authorial decisions I could bemoan -- though again, there may well be ample (legal) easons for the exclusion of key works in Greg's canon, including the two issues of Grunt by G.I./T.V., which remains some of their best, most exuberant and playful collaborative work -- but I'm too gorged with all that's right about Patrick's excellent book to split hairs.

This is a long overdue, expansive, honorable and altogether marvelous overview of Irons, the man and the artist, a rich 300 pages brimming with stellar repros of Greg's fantastic work. Kudos to Rosenkranz and to Fantagraphics for delivering this book, which is an essential addition to every comix-devotees library -- and must reading for anyone who is a fan of my own efforts in the medium. You want to know where I'm coming from, you've gotta tap into Greg's work, and pronto.

An aside I must touch upon, maybe Rick Veitch cares to elaborate: per the official record, Rosenkranz chalks up Greg's death to his being hit by a bus on a busy Bangkok, Thailand street on November 13, 1984 at 10:15 PM. That's the U.S. Department of State's report to Greg's family and loved ones, though none of them ever saw so much as a photo of Greg's remains. According to Greg's brother Mark, "...The cause of his death was blunt force trauma to the rear of the skull..." (see pp. 267-268); Greg was cremated in Thailand, his ashes shipped home. Still, I wonder -- the very week that Rick Veitch called me with the news of Greg's tragic death, both he and I heard on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" news program a report on gangland warfare on the streets of Bangkok, noting that caucasian and specifically American tourists were considered fair targets. The report eerily stated at one point (I am paraphrasing from memory), "...so if you hear of someone reportedly struck by a car, train or bus [emphasis mine], don't necessarily believe it..." Rick and I talked about this chilling coincidence that very day, and I must say elements of Rosenkranz's final chapters only increase my unease about this suspicion.

Rosenkranz and Greg's circle of friends, family and even his girlfriend Lynn Seriguchi are surprisingly candid about Greg's appetite for prostitutes and the more sordid aspects of the backstreets he worked on as a tattoist and wandered in his nightlife and travels. Ann Moen is quoted saying, "He was just happiest when he was in a horrible tattoo place in the middle of all these strip joints on Columbus Avenue..." (pg. 265). This aspect of Irons latter days is amply reflected in the Gregor strips, too (including a painfully funny account of the bike-and-car accident that scarred Greg in '81); brother Mark refers to "...'the cute girls' near the Fortuna hotel in Bangkok, where he was staying...", only after noting the Bangkok visit was a detour from the tattoo/art aspects of Greg's Asian trip: "...he made a stop in Thailand in pursuit of some famous Bangkok pussy..." (pp. 267-268). I state this here not to emphasize disproportionately this element of his life, but to assert the possibility of Greg's proximity to crime gangs while in Bangkok, and the weight this lends to that NPR news item and its disturbing assertion that the State Deparment reports of cause-of-death for American tourists might be less than reliable. The facts Rosenkranz presents -- Greg's reason for being in Thailand, the cause of death, the fact no photos survived (of Greg's body, or from his camera, which was found with his body), the fact that all the family received were his ashes -- certainly does nothing to put such suspicions to rest. Sounds very likely to me Greg could/would have run into the wrong people at the wrong time in the wrong part of the city. Pure speculation: did Greg inadvertantly make himself a target by snapping a photo of something gang members didn't want on film? Enough. I don't wish to fan flames of such speculation, just call into question, as Rick and I found ourselves doing in November 1984, what might have been the real cause of Greg's tragic death.

Again, my highest recommendation for
  • You Call This Art?, available at the click of a mouse via PaneltoPanel.net.
  • Don't hesitate!

    Tomorrow, I'll start my detailed posting on the delightful Saturday I had a little over a week ago at Home Movie Day in Hanover, NH and White River Jct., VT.

    Thanks to the amazing dedication, vision and efforts of Bruce Posner and John Tariot, ably assisted by Sukdith Punjasthitkul and others, this event provided an invaluable service to the folks who wandered in with ancient home movie footage, and it was a hoot to see how Bruce, John, Sukdith and their team dealt with the people and their films -- with warmth, genuine affection and enthusiasm, loving care, and unfailing professionalism and courtesy. The fruits of these exchanges were shared with all in attendance, as each home movie that passed the initial scrutiny at various editing stations was eventually threaded into one of the projectors on the front (and back) tables -- 16mm, 8mm, and Super 8, all in perfect working condition -- and projected for all to enjoy. Those participants who were willing allowed a microphone to be attached to their collars, allowing them to narrate the films -- about the when, where, and who onscreen -- which enriched the viewing experience considerably.

    Sounds tedious? Well, remember, I'm an "opportunivore" (to quote my stepson Mike's best friend Chad) about all things cinematic, and there's a world of experience to be savored and shared in these old home movies. Bruce and Sukdith sweetened the pot with some of their own 'home movies,' and -- well, more about this tomorrow. See ya here!