The Education of Michael Dooley - Part 1

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Part 1 - East vs. West and early influences

Michael Dooley  is a creative director and longtime comics fan living in Southern California. He participated in events planning for the Masters of American Comics show currently on display at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood, CA and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Most recently he has edited a book called The Education of a Comics Artist from Allworth Press.

Broken Frontier: You moved from New York to Los Angeles a couple decades back. Do you consider yourself more of an Angeleno or a New Yorker?

Michael Dooley: (laughter) In spirit I feel a strong kinship to L.A. But I’ve got a commitment in my heart to New York. When I say “in spirit” I’m talking about how it’s just easier to feel more lighthearted here than it did when I lived back East. I appreciate that there’s more of a sense of freedom and flexibility than in New York’s more competitive, ambition driven environment. Yet there’s so much in my formative years back there that makes up most of who I am today.

BF: How would you distinguish between the sensibilities of comics artists working on the West Coast to comics artists working on the East Coast?

MD: It’s always dangerous to generalize, but for the sake of discussion, let’s focus on Art Spiegelman, a New Yorker, and, say, Chris Ware, who gravitated to the Chicago area. You look at their work and you see a certain formal rigidity in their approaches, very cerebral, very schematic.

BF: The way they use panels and design pages?

MD: Yes! Visually it’s very process oriented. They’re both concerned with telling a story in a tightly structured way. As an example:, Art incorporated maps and diagrams into his Maus narrative, and his panels are practically extensions of this charting technique. He’d go through layer upon layer, building the design of each page, obsessively belaboring these intricately crafted layouts like a “damned intellectual,” to use his phrase from Raw. Similarly with Chris, he has this entire mechanical, diagrammatic methodology that practically resembles an airline safety instruction guide.

When you line up these guys with Matt Groening, and the West Coast underground artists before him, you get to see more of a free form approach. Although Bob Crumb is out of Cleveland, when he became part of the whole late 1960s Bay Area scene his line and forms became more organic and fluid versions of his greeting card drawings. Of course, as he’s moved to more isolated areas his art has tightened up, sometimes to the point of severe constipation.

So let’s take the comix of Rick Griffin down here in Los Angeles and Victor Moscoso up in San Francisco, their narrative approaches emphasized the visual over the literary. Their presentation of information is loose and open, and even sensual. I don’t think you could naturally maintain that sort of aesthetic temperament as easily in, say, a darker, more demanding East Coast urban environment.

But the important point with all these artists is that ideally, their visual styles should be operating to serve and substantiate their subject matter.

BF: Who were your major influences?

MD: Specifically, the person that I’m really most personally proud of having included in The Education of a Comics Artist is Paul Krassner, because he was instrumental in helping me formulate my particular worldview, and much of my approach to writing, and even my design work on a good day.

In many ways Paul, who started a magazine called The Realist in 1958, was a major influence on many people of my generation. It was subtitled “Free-thought Criticism and Satire,” and it was really a proto-underground newspaper, where you could find everyone from Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut to Woody Allen and Dick Gregory to Ken Kesey and Tim Leary. I discovered it in 1965, when I was living in Brooklyn and had just begun studying design at Pratt Institute. The cover illustration looked like a Jules Feiffer cartoon, and since I was a big fan, I bought it. Turns out it was a parody written by Paul and drawn by EC fan-addict Bhob Stewart, that poked fun at Feiffer. Ha! I’d been tricked, but delightedly so.

I was hooked, big time. I immediately mailed away for all available back issues and signed up for classes that Paul was teaching at the Free School in downtown Manhattan. His guest speakers included people like Michael O’Donoghue, who wrote the Phoebe Zeit-Geist comic for Evergreen Review, Abbie Hoffman, Emmett Grogan of the Diggers, just an incredible assortment of countercultural icons. Dick Guindon, an extremely talented but sadly undervalued cartoonist, was also involved in this class.

Just having been exposed to that world was something that I greatly appreciated, so when the opportunity to do this book opened up, Paul was one of the first people I really wanted to include.

BF: How would you describe Krassner’s point of view?
MD: Basically, it was this whole idea that no thought, no matter how transgressive, should be unspoken, no bullsh*t should go unchallenged. Paul, along with other humorists such as Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, were making the world safe for non-conformity. They got their start in the late 1950s, and it was a very conservative time, the Eisenhower era, those ancient days when there was no Daily Show or Lewis Black. And their irreverence had a tremendous appeal for someone such as myself who was raised in an extremely repressive environment. It was very liberating.

BF: Had you never read anything that challenged the status quo?

MD: Actually, for me the subversive spirit of The Realist was a direct linear progression from Mad, the comic book. Harvey Kurtzman primed me for Paul Krassner who, not so coincidentally, wrote for Mad early in his career, shortly after it had become a magazine. Paul’s essay in The Education of a Comics Artist is a respectful look at disrespectful cartoons, mostly the ones he published himself. In the 1960s The Realist was running the likes of Spiegelman, Skip Williamson, Dan O’Neil, and so on. I mention in my foreword to the book that if Harvey was the father of underground comix, then Paul was definitely the midwife.

BF: What was your first memory of comics?

MD: My first vivid memory was the first issue of Mad I saw, back in 1955, the one with parodies of Popeye and comic book ads. I had been reading Little Lulu and Harvey Comics and such, but none of them had really engaged me to any significant extent.

To set the scene: I was seven years old, and I was at my local newsstand. I saw this cover that didn’t look like a cover. It actually resembled a page of black and white classified ads. I picked it up and studied it and saw the spot-color red Mad logo at the top and I thought that this isn’t like any comic book I’ve ever seen in my...

BF: In your seven years!

MD: (laughter) Yes, in my vast seven years of life on Earth. It was a revelation that comics didn’t have to look like comics. Here was a sensibility that was defying conventions, which I found to be absolutely thrilling. I would pinpoint my contact with that cover as the first time I had a sense of what design was, of the potential of graphic design to touch and transform people, even before I’d ever heard the term. And now, as they say, I are one.

So I started reading this teeny tiny type on the cover, this enormous amount of information, and realized that it was funny too. Live crocodiles for sale, toss ’em in your swimming pool! “Imagine the surprised expressions on the faces of your friends as they are suddenly pulled under the surface.”

I found myself poring over each page, over and over again. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing any of those amazing eyeball kicks Will Elder had crammed into each “Poopeye” panel. And I began to wonder, who’s responsible for this thing? Luckily, I began to find out with the next Mad, the “art” issue that was all about Willie. The whole experience was liberating. As liberating as you can get when you’re seven, I guess.

It hooked me on comics for life, that’s for sure. I went out and found other kids who had the earlier issues of Mad and Panic so I could trade with them. I also picked up the Ballantine paperback reprints.

And starting at that point, I found myself reading other comic books and newspaper comic strips with a more critical, analytical eye. Like countless others, my mind was permanently warped by Harvey Kurtzman, and for that I am eternally grateful. When I conducted my recent gallery tour of the Masters of American Comics show, my main emphasis was on good ol’ Harv.

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