Q&A with Patrick Rosenkranz, one of the leading scholars of the underground comix movement of the 60s/70s

"The main reason is that all the best stuff happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was stimulating to live through it and see everything unfold. It’s another thing altogether to read them for the first time now and try to appreciate that excitement."

Patrick Rosenkranz: A Wonderful World

Patrick Rosenkranz is an author, photo-journalist, educator, and filmmaker. He is widely recognized as one of the leading scholars of the underground comix movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Patrick Rosenkranz one of the premier scholars of the underground comix movement of the 1960s and 1970s, has been writing about comix since 1969. He wrote his first history of underground comix, Artsy Fartsy Funnies in 1974, and co-produced Underground Comix Radiozine in the 1980s for KBOO-FM. He has written numerous articles and essays about comix for a variety of publications. In 2002, Fantagraphics Books published Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975, which chronicles the inception and development of the artistic revolution that changed comics forever.

In 2006, Fantagraphics published You Call This Art?! A Greg Irons Retrospective. His third book, The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective will be released in 2010. Patrick has been an independent producer for more than 25 years, working on a variety of commercial, educational and personal films. He taught production skills to thousands of students in educational settings in the Pacific Northwest, including Jefferson High School Performing Arts Center and the Northwest Film Center. He is the author of The Classroom Video Producer’s Guidebook, published in 1995 by J. Weston Walch. Patrick Rosenkranz began writing articles for the underground press in 1969, sometimes under pseudonyms for the sake of the innocent and guilty alike. In 1972 he became a Correspondent to The Oregonian and covered features and hard news for the next decade, as well as freelance work for various publications. His specialty was finding people with unusual skills or interesting collections and hobbies. Below are some samples from the 1970s and 1980s.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the underground culture and what does counterculture mean to you?

I enrolled at Columbia University in September 1966. The older students and faculty wore coats and ties but the emerging counterculture became evident that year among my peers, who soon came to resemble members of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Left wing politics demanded Power to the People. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called a campus strike during my second semester and we all rushed out of the classrooms and ran around the quad like crazy people. Underground newspapers like the East Village Other espoused a new way of living that sounded like a lot of fun to me. Where do I get me some of that free love, I wondered? I learned I was ripe for revolution.

Was there something specific you experienced that made you first begin thinking about counterculture?

Moving away from rural upstate to attend college in New York City was the biggest influence. The big city brought a tidal wave of new experiences that expanded my expectations and changed my worldview, but I blame drugs and bad companions for my descent into the underground. When a former occupant of our apartment showed up one day with a duffle bag full of kilos I saw there was adventure to be had out there. The revolution was going on. Why the hell should I stay in school? I dropped out in 1967 and headed for the Coast.

What experiences in life have triggered your ideas most frequently? What characterizes your artistic philosophy?

I like to think of myself as a careful observer, a fly on the wall. I take note of what the people say and do. I keep notes. I maintain archives.

I think when we’re young we act out of impulse or instinct; our motivations are subconscious rather than carefully thought out. I trusted my instincts from an early age so I let them guide me in making personal or artistic decisions. When I began as a photographer for instance, I learned by studying my pictures to see what I’d done poorly or well. I felt my way towards greater skills and results and learned to recognize good composition rather than design it. I could describe the elements of a good photograph after it was made – the focus, the depth of field, the characters, the juxtaposition of objects and backgrounds, expressions, postures, and tonal qualities, but my appreciation was more instinctive – I felt the power of the photograph when I got things right.

I was often surprised to find I was good at something I hadn’t suspected because I’d never tried it before. An underground newspaper I worked at conducted an interview with a Black Panther and someone had to transcribe the tape. Several people tried but got frustrated. I found that I enjoyed the process and was able to type it up quickly. Since then, I have always transcribed my own interviews instead of letting someone else do it. I hear so much more the second time through the conversation, especially how a thing is said, and how subconscious noises and reactions reveal so much more about the subject. The first time I did a long interview with S. Clay Wilson, who talks faster and at greater length than mortal men, I worked for almost a week with his voice in my head, replaying portions to make sure I understood exactly what he said. I realized that a sobbing noise he made out of nowhere was about his relationship with his mother. I could hear him bristle when I brought up something he didn’t want to talk about. It was an intimate and transformative experience.

The underground cartoonists were among my earliest cultural heroes, not rock musicians or political activists. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin didn’t impress me much. Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg were egotistic scene stealers. It was easy to get up in public and be a spectacle. It was harder to sit at a drawing board for days, weeks, or months to create a work of sequential art. Talk is cheap.

I had read comics my whole life, beginning at five when I found a paperback book of Pogo the Possum in my father’s bookshelves. Years later, as a young writer looking for a worthy subject I decided on underground comix, because they were the most exciting thing I was seeing around me. I published Artsy Fartsy Funnies in 1974. It went nowhere, slow, but it got out there, and twenty-five years later, Kitchen Sink Press called me up to talk about doing an updated version.

At my present age I still believe my instincts but I’m able to bring experience to bear more often when making artistic decisions. I write more thoughtfully than I ever have. I’m able to use subtlety more effectively and I finally figured out how to write captions.

What has been the relationship between music & literature in your life and art? How does affect your inspiration?

Bob Dylan used to make me feel uncomfortable. I loved his music but his songs made me feel inadequate. He was doing so much and I was doing so little. I resolved to do more significant things with my life. I was writing poetry at the time, for all that good that does, and decided to write non-fiction instead so I could better define my personal environment … see what it’s made of, record and remember what people did around me, get a few facts straight. Soon I didn’t feel so bad when Bobby sang “I got a headful of ideas that are driving me insane.” I listened to contemporary popular music when I was young and even worked as a disco DJ briefly, but now I only listen to jazz. It’s cerebral music and encourages me to think. I read one or two books a week on average, more fiction than non-fiction, and also read all the graphic novels I can get my hands on. I would like to be a novelist, but I don’t seem to have the ability to create stories and characters. I’m better at ferretting out the truth, not making stuff up.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

When I worked as an Oregonian correspondent in the 1970s, I learned the knack of talking to strangers. I once interviewed on the same day, Bob Straub, Governor of Oregon and Johnny Reb, the leader of a redneck shit kickin’ band. It made me realize I could talk to just about anyone. That was a comforting revelation to me. I met lots of interesting people doing that job. I usually came up with my own leads instead of waiting for an assignment editor to give me one. I would study the yellow pages and call anyone who sounded interesting, and say, “This is Patrick Rosenkranz from the Oregonian. I want to ask you a lot of nosy questions and snoop around your place. How about this afternoon?” And they usually got excited and invited me right over. I talked with archeologists at their excavation sites.  I went deep into the woods with loggers. I was always on the lookout for an interesting collector. I met Yousuf Karsch when he did a lighting demonstration at a photo convention. That was very exciting.

During an assignment in arctic Alaska I was part of a team that included a video newsman and discovered I like the moving image more than the still and switched my medium. I spent the next fifteen years as a filmmaker and educator.

I came back to journalism in the 1990s when I decided to write Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution (1963-1975) and re-interviewed all the comix artists who were still active. Many of them were now more open to questions about the underlying themes in their work than when they were younger. I especially enjoyed talking to the painter and cartoonist Robert Williams who has such unique opinions on many esoteric subjects and expresses them so colloquially.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from my father when I was a teenager. He told me a story about a stubborn dog that laid down on trolley car tracks and first got his tail cut off and then his head. The moral of the story was, “Don’t lose your head over a piece of tail.”

Meeting my future wife in a Portland Laundromat in 1969 was another pivotal crossroad.

"The underground cartoonists were among my earliest cultural heroes, not rock musicians or political activists. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin didn’t impress me much. Timothy Leary and Allen Ginsberg were egotistic scene stealers." (Patrick & S. Clay Wilson, Photo by Susan Stern)

What were the reasons that made the 60s to be the center of underground comix researches and experiments?

The main reason is that all the best stuff happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was stimulating to live through it and see everything unfold. It’s another thing altogether to read them for the first time now and try to appreciate that excitement. I try to recapture that outrage, paranoia, and camaraderie for younger comix fans by writing my books on this subject. There was a lot going on during the “dawning of the Age of Aquarius” but underground comix have proved to be one of the most lasting movements of that rebellious period.

What are your hopes and fears for the future of art? What do you miss most nowadays from the comix of past?

It’s sad to me that the pendulum of society has swung back to the conservative side of things. We have less freedom today to speak our minds and do our own things than we did in the 1970s. There are twice as many people on the earth today and the cage is getting crowded. People are too easily offended or annoyed or quick to lash out at perceived enemies rather than consider the welfare of everyone. Much contemporary art is based on ego display or insipid nonsense instead of skill or technique or revelation. Comics, on the other hand are better than ever. I love so much of the contemporary stuff. I read comics every day, old and new. Lots of work throughout the history of the medium remains fascinating and inspirational, from Herriman’s Krazy Kat to Segars Popeye, to Los Bros Hernandez Love and Rockets, to Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Comics are an ever-changing artform.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of counterculture comix of 60s with the new generation of artists?          (Photo: Patrick Rosenkranz,  Chicago 1972)

Underground comix changed the medium forever last century. It can never be stuffed back into the “comics are for kids” ghetto that it was in the 1960s. Today’s cartoonists can do whatever they want and they take it for granted that it’s their right to do so. Maybe they’re tired of hearing baby boomers claim they invented everything that’s cool and maybe they think nobody cares about the hippies anymore, but when they self-publish their work, and exhibit in museums, and are reviewed in the New York Times, they should tip their hat to Zap Comix and the rest of their canon.

Where would you really want to go via a time machine and what memorabilia (books, records) would you put in?

I would love to take my time machine back to February 28, 1968, and bump into Robert Crumb and his baby buggy full of Zap Comix #1 on Haight Street. I was actually in San Francisco at that time, but Haight Street was a daily circus filled with all kinds of distractions, so I missed that meeting when it might have happened. Maybe I’d see myself there too. I would buy fifty copies of Zap and stash them away someplace safe. Do you know how much they sell for today? Can you imagine how much they’ll be valued after he’s gone? I’d bring my camera and take lots of photos too. I’d also like to visit the Rip Off Press and Apex Novelties at Mowry’s Opera House before it burned down, and go over to Berkeley to buy a bunch of comic and rock posters for a buck apiece at Print Mint.

Really, it’s just an empty fantasy. If I had an actual time machine, I could think of many more interesting places to visit … at Chauvet Cave with the cave painters, the library at Alexandria, the impressionist moment in Paris, hang out with Galileo or Michelangelo, or rescue Jimi Hendrix from choking on his own vomit.

How you would spend a day with Freak Brothers? What would you say to Rand Holmes? What would you like to ask Mr. Natural?

I’d do what the Freak Brothers do best – get high and throw a party. If I had more than a day, I’d go on one of their adventures with them. And try to avoid Norbert the Notorious Nark, but marijuana is legal in Oregon now, so the hell with him.

Rand Holmes was very shy, and didn’t talk much. In the 1970s he lived on the third floor above the Georgia Straight offices in downtown Vancouver, BC. I’d like to watch the police riot of 1971 from his window as he drew it and maybe later we’d go to the Anchor pub and play pool.

I would admit to Mr. Natural that I don’t know what diddy wah diddy means and ask him to explain it.

Patrick Rosenkranz - Official website

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