Q&A with alternative comics artist/musician Mary Fleener - derives from the cubist aesthetic and other artistic traditions

"Music and art is freedom of the mind."

Mary Fleener: AMERICAN Music

Mary Fleener is an American alternative comics artist, writer and musician from Los Angeles. Fleener's drawing style, which she calls cubismo, derives from the cubist aesthetic and other artistic traditions. Her first publication was a work about Zora Neale Hurston, called Hoodoo (1988), followed by the semi-autobiographical comics series Slutburger, and the anthology Life of the Party (1996). She is a member of the rock band called The Wigbillies. Among Fleener's influences are ancient Egyptian art and the works of Chester Gould (Dick Tracy), Otto Soglow (The Little King) and Al Capp (Li'l Abner). Robert Crumb and Robert Armstrong (creator of Mickey Rat) encouraged her to create her own comics. Her works have been exhibited at La Luz de Jesus Gallery, Track 16, David Zapt Gallery, Laguna Beach Art Museum Annex, LACE, COCA, Southwestern College, Patricia Correia Gallery, Sushi Gallery and Ducky Waddle's Emporium. She lives and works in California.

When she was a child her mother worked for Disney. Fleener briefly attended Cal State Long Beach where she focused on printmaking. Fleener disliked the art program’s focus on abstract works and dropped out in 1984. She read an article "new comix," by Matt Groening that inspired her to create her first comic works, she developed her aesthetic on her own, and considers herself self-taught. She started drawing minicomics in 1984 and published her first full work, Hoodoo, four years later. Her semi-autobiographical Slutburger Stories were first published by Rip Off Press. Many of Fleener's short stories appeared in anthologies like Weirdo and Twisted Sisters and the all-women Wimmen's Comix; and her illustrations appeared in Entertainment Weekly. Fleener went on to create more semi-autobiographical strips that were released in 1996 in the anthology Life of the Party, published by Fantagraphics. These comix depicted the artist and a colorful cast of characters playing in rock bands, surfing, going to college, and gleefully partaking of drugs and casual sex, among other things. Fleener's art style complements her stories, which are narrated in matter-of-fact but bemused first-person dialogue.

Interview by Michael Limnios          Artwork  © by Mary Fleener

What do you learn about yourself from the Rock n’ Blues culture? How does music affect your inspiration?

Rock and roll and blues music made me realize it’s essential to be original and rebellion and humor can change a lot of situations for the better. What you are inside is more important that what you look like on the outside. Attitude is everything, and that’s how that music genre affects my art and my comic work. I’m a rocker, thru and thru.

What were the reasons that you started the comic art researches? What characterize your artwork philosophy?

I became fixated on comics when I was a little kid reading them in the newspaper. Mind you, the comic section of the paper in the 60s was huge and impressive and comics would take up a whole page, not like today. I always considered comics high art, and was amazed at how these artists could draw. Even superhero stuff, which didn’t grab me, had a certain skill level that cannot be ignored. I was further influenced by the single panel cartoons in PLAYBOY, as well as ZAP and MAD. My artwork philosophy is taken from a silkscreen by Sister Corita Kent: “To do a common thing uncommonly well, brings success!” I’ve had a copy of that phrase hanging above my drawing board for 30 years!

How has the underground comics influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Those comics confirmed my core belief that life should be traveled with a big dose of healthy skepticism, and never trust authority completely.

"Rock and roll and blues music made me realize it’s essential to be original and rebellion and humor can change a lot of situations for the better." (Artwork  © by Mary Fleener, Jazz Cats)

How do you describe Wigbillies sound? Are there any studio, gigs, jam memories which you’d like to share with us?

The Wigbilllies started of as The Wig Titans, which was a loud rock band. I wrote stuff that sounded a lot like Dr. Feelgood and Rockpile, and the other songwriter had more of a Big Star/Raspberries thing going on, but like most bands, it ran its course. My husband, (who was the other guitarist,) and I wanted to go in a more acoustic direction and we were tired of playing in bars. We love Dave Alvin and the Knitters, and since I also play dulcimer, it was a good direction to go. These days we play every week with friends, and do a party or two, but having a band seems silly when you have so many pals who play and you can do it whenever you want. Also recording equipment is so easy now, who needs to go to a studio to cut a CD? The Wigbillies is now me, Paul, my husband, a drummer and a banjo player. I write a lot of originals and we like down home blues and corny hillbilly stuff like chicken songs!

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

Mainstream radio is a joke, and it died a long time ago, but if you know where to look, there are lots of bands playing great stuff. Thanks to UNCUT magazine, from England, I keep up that way, and I am hooked up to TuneIn Radio and you can access hundreds of stations all over the world. I do miss FM radio from the 70s. You would hear any kind of genre played, and you never knew what would come on next. It could be Edith Piaf played right after Sun Ra. KMET, KPPC were awesome in the Los Angeles area in those days. Everyone makes fun of Glam rock or cock rock, as it’s been called, but I would love to see another Iggy Pop, or Freddie Mercury rise out of the ashes. I long for another Janis Joplin. All the women singers today look alike, sound alike and dress like hookers. I blame Madonna for that. She’s a careerist and strictly show biz. I almost puked when she was inducted into the Schlock and Roll Hall of Fame.

If you could change one thing in the musical and comic world and it would become a reality, what would that be?          (Photo: Mary Fleener)

That artists OWN what they create and no one else “gets a taste”. Too many people will do anything for fame and the suits know this. People will give away the rights to their art, their music and sell their souls, and they never get back anything NEAR to what they gave up for “fame”, that shiny object that is really a deal with the devil. I love reading rock and roll biographies, and I yet to find ONE example where the artist wasn’t ripped off, exploited and stolen from. All this could be avoided if artists believed in themselves and didn’t buy into this “Baby, trust me, I’ll make you a STAR!” bullshit. Yes, I have done work-for-hire- stuff myself, but maybe only 3 or 4 times. I’d rather work in relative obscurity than sign away the rights to my work. I was working with property that was already established, so it was OK: The Grateful Dead Comix, (I illustrated “St. Stephen”), The Art of Mickey Mouse, (I painted Mickey and Minnie dancing), Popeye (a variant cover for IDW comics), and The Beats, (story by Harvey Pekar about Diane DiPrima). However, I was paid a one time flat fee, and no more. The Dead could make stuff form my images and sell thousands of dollars worth and I won’t see a penny, but I went into this full well knowing what the score was.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of underground comics with Rock, Jazz and Blues music and culture?

All that stuff was, at one time or another, considered outsider, obscene, and immoral, which is exactly why people were drawn to it, so the jump to UG comix isn’t that surprising. Rock, Blues and Jazz is now mainstream and completely accepted, but some UG comix are still considered obscene and distasteful, and I hope it stays that way.

What touched (emotionally) you from R. Crumb and MAD? Which is the moment that you change your life most?

It blew my mind that you could draw ANYTING you wanted. Anything that lingered in your tortured soul. The honesty of Crumb is what got to me. Nothing was held back, and I still don’t get how people label his stuff as woman hating….it’s not that at all, in fact, he hates humanity in general. Who doesn’t?. Mankind is a violent, selfish mess and we’re slowly destroying our planet! He’s making FUN of horny guys like himself, and it’s satire, it’s parody. He’s making fun of himself! MAD magazine had the same message: everything is up for satire, and there are no sacred cows. Show me a person who cannot laugh at themselves and I’ll show you an inmate at the local loony bin.

What is the impact of comic art and Rock n’ Roll culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?         (Artwork  © by Mary Fleener, Jazz Cat)

People need to deal with suffering, stress and sorrow in this life and art and music offers relief, and not only that, but it brings people together, no matter what race or color. That’s why rock and roll was seen as such a threat to Authorities, because they WANT us to be afraid, and not trust each other, so they can have more control, more laws, and more rules. Music and art is freedom of the mind. Look at the Fundamentalist Christians that only listen to Christian rock. Look at what Hitler did to all the modern art that was hanging in museums-it was labeled subversive. Look how many UG comics are banned and seized at borders. Look what happened to Mike Diana. His stuff is gross and ugly, (uh, that’s the point), but he is the only cartoonist in the US to be convicted of being “obscene” and his trial was a joke and a disgrace.

How you would spend a day with Janis? What would you say to Joni Mitchell? What would you like to ask Picasso?

Oh man, I would love to spend a day playing music with Janis. I loved her spirit of letting go of inhibitions and her joy was simply infectious. She did not receive the respect I thought she should have back then, and reviews of her shows focused on her clothes, and her body and that really used to piss me off. She had three cuts on the first Big Brother LP. Are you kidding me? I always felt like she was the big sister I never had, We kind of look alike, too. Picasso doesn’t interest me at all. In fact, he sounds like he was a prick. Sorry. I would rather talk to Wifredo Lam, one of the guys Picasso ripped off. I am not much of a fan of modern art, but I love the Italian Futurists. They would be interesting to chat with. I would’ve really liked to talk to MC Escher and his stuff fascinates me. I would love, love, love to spend a day with Joni Mitchell and teach her how to paint on black velvet!

Where would you really want to go with a time machine? What memorabilia (records, comix) would you put in?

I suppose I would enjoy going to ancient Egypt and watch the slaves paint all those murals and observe the procedure of making a mummy. But only for a few hours. I would like to see how the statues on Easter Island were made and how they moved them. If I took anything, I would take the complete collection of MAD magazine, EC Comics, and music by Etta James, Jeff Buckley, Mose Allison and Dave Alvin. I’d also bring my guitar and dulcimer so I could sing a few tunes, too!

Mary Fleener - Home

(Artwork  © by Mary Fleener, Ella & Monk / Joni Mitchell)

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