Tom Conroy #2: Portfolio
A selection of artwork by Tom Conroy, who recalls,"I turned 18 in 1960, so most of this stuff is when I was around 20 to 23, a lot of it when I was staying in Berkeley with Roger and Joel. I lost a lot of my old art work over the years."
In 1946, newspaper editors received this limited edition book as a promotional gift from King Features Syndicate. With a Hal Foster cover, the slipcased hardcover presented Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in 160 pages with a gathering of King Features characters in the end papers.
The cartoonist Joel Beck (1943-1999) was one of the founders of underground comics, having created Lenny of Laredo in 1965, followed by Marching Marvin and The Profit. In 1962, he was in New York, staying in Larry Ivie’s apartment, but Larry was out of town one week. In the Lower East Side, the Charles Theater on Avenue B was a neighborhood movie theater dating back to 1926. It became a focal point for underground films in the early 1960s because it ran Filmmaker’s Night once a week. I had been contacting filmmakers such as Ed Emshwiller and suggesting they bring in their 16mm films. I knew that Larry Ivie had been running around Central Park in a Superman costume for a short movie starring himself as Superman.
I spoke to Joel on the phone and told him to bring Larry’s film to the Charles. Joel was very reluctant to do this and said, “The splices are all Scotch tape.” Finally I talked him into it, and he turned up that evening with the film. When Walter Langsford, who owned the Charles, saw the Scotch tape splices, he was fearful of running it through the projector and did not put it on the program. However, later that night, after the audience had left, Langsford took the film up to the projection booth. I sat with Joel, Tom and a few others as we watched Larry’s film on the giant theater screen. The special effects involved a plastic Superman toy sliding down a wire attached to a tree. I can’t remember if Joel ever told Larry about the clandestine screening, but I somehow doubt it.
Tom Conroy picks up the story:
by Tom Conroy
I was the one who bought that plastic airplane in a toy store and rigged it all up with the pulleys so it would fly. I hooked it up with a string and it flew over one of the small coves of the Central Park Lake with rocks in the background while Larry filmed it. It was a seaplane with pontoons, and it had a cardboard cut out of Superman taped on one of the wings. It worked great and we only did one shot. I think it looked as good as anything Sam Katzman did. I remember jumping around on the rocks to set it all up, and Larry asked me if I would dress up in tights so I could star in his John Carter of Mars film. Bhob, Joel and I stood out there on Avenue B and laughed about it for at least an hour.
A little bit about Joel Beck when he came to NYC in 1962. This was my first year of doing my “beatnik thing”, so we would hang out all night long in Greenwich Village. Joel really liked the beat scene. and we both did a lot of artwork for some of the coffee houses. I still have a menu that he drew for the Cafe Wha on MacDougal Street. So one day I’m at Larry Ivie’s pad, and Joel was getting dressed so he could take his art portfolio around to the magazines hoping to get work. He had a suit jacket, vest, white shirt and a necktie, and he had them all pinned together with safety pins. These four items were now one solid piece all pinned together. He laid them on the bed with the necktie facing down, and then he crawled into them like a snake slithering into a rabbit hole. His arms went into the sleeves first, and then his head popped out at the top. He flipped over and sat up, buttoned the collar and tucked in the shirt tails, and he was now dressed. It was an amazing thing to see. “Well… I’m ready to go into the big city”. Joel considered Madison Avenue the “big city”. God made only one Joel Beck, and after that he threw away the mold.
Joel got kicked out of school when he was about 10 or 11 years old. Being a artist he was using the walls of the boys’ bathroom as his canvas. He was doing drawings of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Daisy fucking. They let him back into school when he promised to not do any more artwork on school property.
When Roger Brand (1943-1985) and Joel were in high school they were “teenage drunks”. Joel had a car, and they did a lot of driving and drinking. I can’t even remember some of the stories he told me. Where did they get the booze? Was it from their dad? It seems even as a kid the booze was always a part of his life.
A story Roger told me about him and Joel when they were still in high school: Joel is going to pick up his girlfriend Carol Verlinden for a date. It is night time, and Roger hides in the back seat of the car. He lies down on the floor so that he can’t be seen. Joel picks up Carol, and they are cruising along, and Joel reaches his right arm around and puts it on Carol’s right shoulder. He squeezes her shoulder for a little bit and then drops his hand behind the seat and taps Roger. Roger then lifts his hand up and puts it on Carol’s shoulder. Joel then brings his hand back around and puts it on the steering wheel. He is now driving with both hands on the wheel, and Roger is squeezing Carol’s shoulder. After a block or two, it dawns on Carol that Joel now has three hands, and she flips out. This is why I liked these two guys. Their brains operated at a different frequency than most people.
This is another story Roger told me. It is the early 1960s, and he and Joel are at a beer bash in Berkeley. It gets loud so someone calls the cops. The police give Roger and Joel a quick pat down and put them in the back of a police car. At this time Joel had this huge Jerry Lee Lewis pompadour hairdo. They had some Dexadrine pills on them and didn’t know what to do with them. Joel takes the pills and starts sticking them in his hair. When the cops get them and the other partygoers to the police station they strip search everybody and throw them all into this big jail cell. Joel sits down and starts shaking out his hair. The pills all land on the floor. They pass out the pills to their friends, and everyone sits there all night stoned on speed. The cops let them go the next day.
This is the early years… 1963-64. Through some strange chain of events, Roger and Joel ended up living in a garage. You know, like where you keep your car in the suburbs. Of course, there was no toilet. They had this huge vase that they used as a urinal. It was about four or five feet tall. Thin at the top and round at the bottom like a turnip. When they needed to take a leak they would climb up on a footstool and pee into the vase.
Knowing how much drinking they were doing, they probably were doing a lot of pissing. Somebody ratted them out, so after a while the city served them with an eviction notice. Be out by so and so day. So they call some friends to help them move. On moving day, a cop car is there, and their friends show up with a pick-up truck and another car. The street is lined with all the neighbors watching the event. You know, these are all straight clean-cut citizen types. One of their buddies who is this big strong joke football-type guy picks up the piss vase and carries it out to the street. Roger and Joel start saying to the guy “Easy. Easy. Careful. Watch out. Take it easy”. The guy sets it down on the street. and the bottom breaks out. Now this is on an incline, and the piss starts flowing down the street. All the citizens start gagging and wretching… end of story.
In 1983, I was 40 years old. Carole came to NY to run the photo agency. I hitched out to New Mexico to team up with my friend Milt, who I knew from my old beatnik days. Milt was the guy that Janis Joplin shared an apartment with the first month she was in San Francisco. They were not lovers. Milt and I jumped a freight train that took us into Barstow, California. From there we hitched up to see Roger and also an old friend of Milt’s.
Joel, Tom and Roger
A friend of Carole’s loaned us a car, and we headed over to Point Richmond to find Roger. We went from bar to bar until we found Joel. He made a couple of phone calls, and about ten minutes later Roger showed up. He looked a little worse for wear, but it was really good to see him.
When Joel saw that we had some wheels it was decided that we all would go on a mission. That mission was a trip to Rip Off Press so Joel could deliver some pages of artwork. At this time, Milt and I both had cameras, so I took some photos.
I remember so well the drive across the Bay Bridge and us just doing nothing but laughing and laughing. Roger was funny, but Joel was even funnier. It was a great trip. When Joel was outside of Point Richmond he was like a fish out of water, so we headed back. We dropped him off and came back into town with Roger and stayed at Carole’s pad with her brother. The next day we’re driving around, and a cop pulled Milt over for an “illegal lane change”. He searches the car and checks our ID and finds out that Roger has an arrest warrant for “failure to appear”. It was for some two-bit thing like jaywalking, open container or farting in an elevator. Roger gets handcuffed and hauled off to jail.
This was one of the few times I was on the road and had a lot of money on me. This was the weekend, and it took a day or two of running around to get Roger bailed out. The fine was $100, which we paid, and they cut him loose. I have never seen Roger more happy than that day when he came walking out of the slammer. We hung out in Point Richmond for a few more days, then headed up to the Russian River to see Milt’s friend. We hung there for awhile and then came back to Point Richmond. Milt really liked being with Roger and Joel. Milt was also a drinker.
Roger knew this old couple that we visited with. They were old beatniks from the 1950s and had great stories to tell about Frisco in the days before me and Milt made the scene. They had a Robert Crumb drawing that was framed and hanging on the wall. They liked underground comics, and Roger was like a guest of honor whenever he stopped in. One of the local bars still had an old faded poster of the nude Daisy Duck painting that Joel had done. He pointed at it and said, “Do you remember that one?” Then he chuckled, “The money I made off that paid my rent for three years”.
About a year earlier, Joel had gotten mugged one night and had his head split open with a lead pipe. He stumbled around town for a few hours before somebody took him to a hospital. Because of the injury, a lot of his memories were a little scrambled. He would talk about stuff we had done when he came to New York in 1962, and he had a lot of stuff mixed up. Also his memories of the time in LA with him and Roger were jumbled. I know it was head injury, not the booze.
I’m not sure who Roger was staying with, but he was homeless. Some chick said she would rent him a room at her place for $40.00 a month, so before we left I gave her the bucks for two months. I sent her money for a couple months after I got back to New York, but I think it was Joel or Paul that called and said she threw him out, so I stopped sending money. Even the sad shape Roger was in, he had not changed. His essence, his inner being was still the same as when he was young. Any time I spent with Roger was a good time, and Joel being there made it even better. Those guys were two of the best people I have ever known. I did the “Live fast and die young” thing for 20 years. I failed at it. Roger succeeded.
Above is a page from the Phil Howe/Joel Beck children's book Spouts, created 20 years ago but finally published last year. For much more about Joel and his artwork, go here. The San Francisco Chronicle ran this Kevin Fagan article about the search for Joel Beck's daughter.
Tom Conroy at a Mojave Desert freight train crossing in 1983.
Ahmad Jamal's autobiography is forthcoming. Jamal had a huge hit with "Poinciana" in 1958, and it became his signature song. In 1998 he performed "Poinciana" at the Poland Jazz Fair with Othello Molineaux on the steel drum. Since this video has very good resolution, it's best at full volume and full screen. Stanley Crouch explains how Jamal could "turn an individual piece into an idiomatic symphonette" and notes his influence on pianists.
With restored audio, here's Jamal doing "Darn That Dream" in 1959.
One day Art told me he had been reading vintage comic strips at the New York Public Library. The memory of that returned some years later when a research project had me studying turn-of-the-century Hearst newspaper comic strips on microfilm. I was surprised to see so many strips that went unmentioned in books about comics. Unlike modern comics, they mostly had a flat look with panel layouts often characterized by full figures in large panels not unlike a stage proscenium.
Looking through Gothic Blimp Works #2 (1969) recently, I reread Art's "Grain of Sand Comix" and realized he had drawn it in the style of those early strips. I asked him to write a few paragraphs about the creation of "Grain of Sand", and he responded with the article below. Tiny images and words are embedded in the background patterns, and these are not readable here even when the page is enlarged. Apparently Blogger has a size limit, so I've added a detail at the end of the article to show the miniature messages. For Publishers Weekly's recent (10/11) Art Spiegelman interview, go here.
"Grain of Sand" was part of my apprenticeship as an underground cartoonist, a way to combine my love for old newspaper comics with a stab at making it all contempo by grafting some taboo subject matter onto the old form. A full broadsheet page in the centerfold of the Gothic Blimp Works was a strong lure, and I gave the page everything I had (which at that time was not much more than giving it hours of fine-line Rapidograph patterning). I wish I'd had the stamina and focus to explore “Festoria” further, instead of just making a one-shot teaser, but there were drugs to take and communes to join. Hey, it was the late 1960s, and I was 21.
My interest in old newspaper comics took root with the few tantalizing glimpses of a mysterious past that I found in Stephen Becker's Comic Art in America (1959), given to me as a birthday gift when I turned 12. I wanted to see more than the handful of black-and-white samples in that book and started logging serious after-school time among the bound newspaper volumes still somewhat available in some libraries back then—first exploring the main branch of the Queens library that I could reach by bike and later in the Manhattan library's newspaper annex far west of those lions on Fifth Avenue. Mostly I looked at the papers from the 1920s through the 1940s.
It's amazing to think how haphazard all my old comics spelunking was back then—I had a vivid enough imagination but just couldn't imagine a world bursting with volumes that would reprint vast swaths of Krazy Kat, Captain Easy or Dick Tracy. And books like the sumptuous Forgotten Fantasies or the full-size color Nemo books that Peter Maresca's Sunday Press has published in the past few years were on the farthest side of unimaginable. On the other hand, wresting comics history out of odd crevices made it all seem hard-won and urgent in a way that can’t be replicated when all things seem a keyboard click away. I didn’t really discover much of the first decade or so of very old Sunday funnies until Woody Gelman at Topps Gum took me under his wing in 1967. He first met me as a 15-year-old looking to score some original Jack Davis cartoon art to study. I “traded” him a copy of my imitation Mad crudzine, Blasé... and he saved it, writing me three years later—right after I graduated high school—to offer me a job at Topps that I kept for about 20 years.
I think Woody and I bonded over our interest in old comics: he hadn’t met too many 15-year-olds who knew what Little Nemo was. Woody seemed to be the only person on the planet who deeply cared about those old strips and valued them enough to archive them in his suburban basement filled to bursting with old paper. Woody was a visionary and a central figure in my life. He introduced me (and eventually the rest of the world) to Little Nemo in a really big way when he'd let me fall asleep in his Long Island basement surrounded by old Sunday pages.
One of the singular aspects of those earliest newspaper pages—aside from their scale and the care given to the still-new technology of color separation—was the fact that the artists' "camera" viewpoint in those early pages wasn’t... cinematic. None of those Orson Welles angles or quick cuts that came with the comic books. Just full figures moving from panel to panel as if striding across a vaudeville stage. My "Grain of Sand" page echoed that structure as well as the approach to page structure that thought of each page as a coherent unit. Thanks to Woody’s collection I got to see the World (and the Journal and the Herald) in a grain of sand, and had the good fortune to hold small bits of infinity in the palm of my hand.
Bernard Krigstein's colorful book jacket painting for Richard Condon's The Manchurian Candidate first edition hardcover (McGraw-Hill, 1959) resurfaced in this advance cover comp for the forthcoming biography by Greg Sadowski. Note these are actually two different paintings, with alterations in color and placement of figures. Curiously, the painting not used for Condon's novel is obviously more vibrant.
The Sadowski book, due in 2013, is a continuation of his earlier B. Krigstein (Fantagraphics, 2002), which was followed by B. Krigstein: Comics (2004). Reviewing the latter, Publishers Weekly noted, "Famed as one of the great innovators in comics history, Krigstein was one of the first cartoonists to consciously experiment with pacing and layout for psychological effect."
Krigstein illustration for Boy's Life (October 1963)
Above is Pepper Young's Family, Krigstein's unsold 1950 comic strip adapted from Elaine Carrington's long-run radio soap opera. I first wrote an essay about Krigstein's work in 1954. Below are the front and back covers of an interview John Benson and I did with Krigstein 48 years ago. Krigstein lived in Jamiaca, Queens, and we recorded the interview there on August 16, 1962. It was mimeographed in 1963 with no interior illustrations. As far as I know, this 27-page interview was the first extended Q&A interview with a comic book artist ever published.