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A Journey with Jayson - Part 2

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Jeff Krell, creator of the underground humor strip Jayson, met up with Broken Frontier’s Neil Figuracion at the San Diego Comic Con to discuss the history of his point of view on the politics and controversy on the inside of the gay comics community.

Part 1 – Coming Up and Coming Out

Part 2 – Underground and Over the Top

BROKEN FRONTIER: Were there not really any gay comics when you were starting Jayson?

JEFF KRELL: I don’t think there were. I had never seen one. I think there were some single panel things that had been published.

BF: This was before Leonard and Larry?

JK: Long before all of that.

And I thought Shoot for the stars! Go with something national. And The Advocate existed. I think they had the Donelan cartoons. If not quite then it was shortly thereafter. Before Donelan they had something in the back, except it was all single panel stuff, and I really found myself wanting to tell stories. In fact I took these twelve panel strips to Mark Siegel, who was the publisher of Philadelphia Gay News and he said “can you give me six?” So I took the twelve panels and just hacked them in half, said To Be Continued.

He published it for about a year, but not weekly, just once in a while. Which meant I never really built a following, but I built up enough material. Something else that started happening a couple of years before was this thing called Gay Comix.

BF: An underground comic?

JK: A comic published initially by Kitchen Sink. Howard Cruse was editing at the time.

BF: The creator of Wendel, Barefootz [and later Stuck Rubber Baby].

JK: Yes. Around the time that I sent my stuff in, just sort of anonymously to the publication address… It was published by B.A.R.The Bay Area Reporter. Howard had left… um… (remembers) Oh! That’s how it was. Kitchen Sink didn’t want to publish [Gay Comix] anymore or something. I don’t know the whole story. Kitchen Sink had lost interest or they weren’t making money, and Howard Cruse left all at the same time. There was this big changing of the guard and the B.A.R. picked it up and they chose Robert Triptow - which turned out to be very good for me because he really liked my stuff. He looked at my panels and said “you should be doing stories. I like the characters. I like where you’re going with this. Try your hand at a story.”

Andrea Jartman and I had just gone to our fifth High School reunion. That became the inspiration for the first Jayson story. I wrote it up and sent it to Robert and he helped me with the editing of it. He showed me how to structure a page. He basically took what I sent him in sketch form and he cut it and re-pasted it together so that it moved faster. 

Click to enlarge

BF: The perception of gays in the media has changed incredibly over the last couple decades. For our readers who weren’t there, what kind of climate were the Jayson strips coming into?

JK: Let me first of all say that I was really blessed, because by the early to mid eighties, when I started doing Jayson, I had a real support system of friends who were straight. When I came out, Penn was really at the forefront of the gay rights movement. I remember I was conducting some interviews about that – people who were really pushing the gay agenda on campus.

BF: In terms of activism?

JK: In terms of activism, in terms of equal rights, in non-discrimination in housing. The faculty, they wanted to create an open and inclusive environment. I kind of naively said “Uh, what are we preparing people for if they go out into the real world and find out they can’t behave this way?”

BF: [Laughter]

JK: And that wasn’t a very well-received question. I think it was important question to ask, because college campuses were at the forefront of the gay rights movement; still much further than the rest of the country. The downside of that was the introduction of speech codes and political correctness to the point where it amounted to censorship from the left. I always chafed at that.

Other than my friends who were very supportive of what I was trying to do with Jayson not a lot of straight people read what I did. At least I don’t think they did. There weren’t then because it was being published in something called Gay Comix. How many straight people pick that up or even know to pick it up? At the time I was creating Jayson or starting to get it published, I had a roommate who was a big fan of Aline Kominsky-Crumb, her Bunch series. That plus Gay Comix sort of made me aware of the whole underground comix experience. I didn’t really know they existed. I was reading the kid stuff and going to mainstream comics shops, and even if that stuff was in the back room, I didn’t really look for it because I didn’t know it existed.

My own personal climate in creating the strip was a very positive one, except that there was a gay agenda that was far more rigid and left-wing than it is now. I think we’ve embraced a little more diversity within the gay community. I got a fair amount of criticism for my strip because [some critics] didn’t like the way I portrayed gay people.

BF: In terms of their flamboyance?

JK: In terms of Robyn Ricketts’ flamboyance for one; in terms of Jayson being so “wimpy.” – not my word. I always tried to create real characters with real relationships who were really flawed.

The evolution of the strip over time – I got twenty years older and the characters got maybe two years older, and they had different experiences and different journeys in each story. They learn something and that opens up a new possibility. There’s a branch and bound that goes on any kind of serialized adventure like that, where the characters start to be very different from the inspirations for them. I moved to Atlanta, I started graduate school and fell out of touch with Andrea, and the person who was the inspiration for Robyn Ricketts.

In the beginning especially, I kept a file on all the nasty things people said about Jayson – in the gay press, gay reviewers.

BF: What are some of the bad things? Or if you could pick one worst thing?

JK: I’ll give you one example. This was never written down except by me. I was on a gay comics creators panel in New York, 1992 or something. They were [hosting] a gay comics collection there in New York at the Gay and Lesbian Center. They had a gala opening and they had a panel of invited guests. Howard Cruse was there, I was there, and Jennifer Camper was there. I had already gotten my MBA then and I was all about “let’s market this stuff!”

Someone asked of the whole panel “what do you think of each others’ work?” and I really expected polite answers. Howard Cruse did the whole politically correct thing about how “it doesn’t really matter what I think. It’s important that everyone gets to express their personal viewpoint in this medium, and if they find an audience for it, it’s worthwhile.”

BF: That’s very diplomatic.

JK: He was very diplomatic and she (Jennifer Camper) wheels around in her chair and the only thing I can remember her saying is “Frankly Jeff, everything you do offends me!”

BF: Wow! Did she ever back that up?

JK: She said “Oh, your female character is fat and she’s Jewish and she’s pathetic. And your LESBIANS! I don’t know anyone like your lesbian character. I don’t live in the world that you put on paper!” and I politely said “Well, I guess we live in different worlds.” That was where I left it. I took the high road.

In the concluding section of Broken Frontier’s conversation with Jeff Krell, released tomorrow, we discuss the Jayson musical, the world after Will & Grace, and Jayson’s return to comics.

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