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August 24, 2008


CR Sunday Interview: Danny Hellman

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You'll get a pretty thorough biography of the illustrator and cartoonist Danny Hellman in the body of the following interview. I've known of Danny for about 15 years now, and his consistently funny work on the cover of SCREW was one of the more distinctive discoveries I made sorting books in the Comics Journal library for a half-hour every day my first year in the Fantagraphics office. He's done a number of comics but is perhaps best known for being the subject of a lawsuit tossed his way by the cartoonist Ted Rall based on an Internet prank. That lawsuit resulted in two charity anthologies designed to raise funds; what was to be a third issue became the summer anthology TYPHON. In a way, TYPHON is to a certain kind of black and white 1980s and 1990s comic book what MOME has become to the black and white alt-comic: a shelf-ready collection of a certain creative impulse recognized and appreciated by the publisher -- in this case, Hellman. I was surprised by how much I liked it, particularly some of the work from cartoonists with whom I was completely unfamiliar. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Danny, I was checking your biography and it says you graduated from high school in 1982 and started on your illustration career in 1988. What took up your time right out of high school? How did your career then start?

DANNY HELLMAN: I graduated from Manhattan's High School of Art & Design in June of 1982. Around that time, an upstairs neighbor of mine introduced me to his friend, Marvel writer Bill Mantlo. Mantlo was writing various licensed books, (Micronauts, Rom, etc), and after checking out my drawings, he thought I might be a good choice to work with him on test pages for Robotron 3000, an arcade game-based book he was planning to pitch to Marvel. We worked on those test pages for weeks, but when we finally presented them to editor Tom DeFalco, he dismissed them as "fan art." I'd dreamed of drawing for Marvel since childhood, and this rejection bummed me out bigtime.

At about this same time, I started at the School of Visual Arts. I found my first few weeks at SVA to be a nearly identical rerun of my time at Art & Design, with many of the same classmates, and the same sort of rotational courses that are designed to introduce students to all aspects of art-making, from photography to sculpture. I'd done all of this before, but now my Dad was insisting that I get a job to pay my tuition. It was at this point that I entered my "fuck the world" phase. I dropped out of SVA, sold much of my comic collection, got a job as a bike messenger, and started smoking pot with a vengeance.

I spent the next five or six years daydreaming, getting high, and taking life drawing classes at the Art Students' League in Manhattan. I worked on various comic strips during these years, but I was struggling with an insane, crippling perfectionism, and little publishable work resulted. I managed to complete a handful of strips, and sent them to Aline Crumb at Weirdo, who politely rejected them.

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By the late 80's, recreational drugs and the bike messenger grind were turning me into a basket case. I was determined to clean up my act; to quit the stoner lifestyle, stop eating dead animals, and to somehow make money from my drawings. In the Summer of 1989, I was living in my grandparents' filthy attic in Queens, and I was broke. Friends of mine were selling drawings to Kevin Hein, art director of NYC's infamous weekly porn tabloid SCREW. Any distaste for pornography that had been drilled into me by my feminist Mom went out the window. I visited Kevin Hein at SCREW's legendary 14th Street offices, and showed him some gig posters I'd drawn for the band Floor Kiss. Hein thought one of the posters could easily be tweaked into a SCREW cover, and I was happy to comply. I was soon working regularly for SCREW, and continued to do so until the paper folded in 2006. I believe I hold the honor of having drawn more SCREW covers than any other human being.

Working for SCREW and meeting tight deadlines helped me work through my problems with perfectionism. From SCREW, I went to the New York Press, where former Hustler art director Michael Gentile was running the art department. I quickly became one of the paper's hardest-working illustrators. New York Press had a big readership in those days, and with the visibility I got from that paper, I was able to branch out in all directions. In a period of about six years, 1990 to 1995, I went from being a clueless stoner to a fairly widely-published illustrator.

imageSPURGEON: I think most people think of you as an illustrator first, but I've seen enough of your pages to wonder just exactly how many comics you've done at this point. Is there a book's worth of stuff at this point? I think of your work in terms of some anthologies that may not be around any longer. Can you track in brief, summary fashion the comics portion of your career?

HELLMAN: In the early to mid 1990s, I self-published a handful of mini comics, which included Coffee Drinkin' Man, (written by my late friend Geoff Gilmore), the original version of Legal Action Comics, (which reprinted strips of mine from SCREW parodying Superman, The Simpsons, and The Cosby Show), and Peaceful Atom and the Mystery Mice.

In the mid-1990s, Andy Helfer at DC's Paradox Press spotted my illustrations in New York Press, and hired me to do strips for their Big Books series. I appeared in the following Big Book titles: Conspiracies, Urban Legends, Weirdos, Scandals, Bad, Vice, Death and The Seventies.

Also in the mid-1990s, Noah Mass asked me to contribute to the anthology series he edited, Last Gasp Comix & Stories. I appeared in four or five issues of that title.

SCREW and Fantagraphics briefly joined forces in the mid-1990s for SCREW Comics, to which I contributed a cover and a strip. I also contributed short strips to the following Fantagraphics titles: 2 Live Crew, Real Schmuck, Spice Capades, a Hate Annual, and more recently, Glenn Head's Hotwire books.

In 2003, Joey Cavalieri asked me to contribute to DC's Bizarro World. I drew an 11-page strip about Aquaman, from a wonderful script written by Soul Coughing front man Mike Doughty.

In 2001 and 2003, I published the anthologies Legal Action Comics volumes one and two, both of which featured strips of mine. 2008's TYPHON Vol. 1 also features a new five-pager by me.

Much of the material I've just listed was work for hire, and as such, can't be easily reprinted. If the strips for which I hold the copyright were collected, they might amount to a 50- or 60-page book.

imageSPURGEON: Typhon grew out of Legal Action Comics, which was your fundraising mechanism to allay some of the costs of defending yourself against a $1.5 million lawsuit brought against you by Ted Rall. I'll ask you about the other circumstances that changed the project in a bit, but am I to understand that the status of that case is in limbo because Rall's lawyer passed away? Can you explain what happened?

HELLMAN: Rall's lawyer died of brain cancer a few years ago, and that brought Rall's lawsuit to a halt. Rall had a contingency agreement with that lawyer. In order to move forward with his lawsuit today, Rall would first need to hire a new lawyer, and I suspect he would have a very hard time finding another lawyer willing to take his case on contingency. Without a contingency agreement, Rall would need to pay a new lawyer boatloads of cash, and I doubt that he's willing to do that.

SPURGEON: How do you expect things to progress from here, or do you?

HELLMAN: I believe that Rall v. Hellman is over. Rall would never have had an easy time proving to a jury that my Rall's Balls email prank harmed his livelihood, but as the months and years pass, it becomes increasingly hard. My feeling about Rall v. Hellman is that Rall and his lawyer never intended to take the case to trial; rather, they were hoping for a quick cash settlement from me. Once it became clear that I wasn't going to hand them a check right away, I think that Rall and his lawyer soldiered on for another five or six years in the hope that I would eventually break down and settle.

In my opinion, the lawsuit was never an especially bright idea, but to resume it at this late date would be completely nuts.

SPURGEON: You've mentioned in a couple of interviews that the birth of your daughter was a contributing factor to your doing the anthology. How so? Was it just the delay that getting through that first year caused?

HELLMAN: I think I started collecting work for a third volume of Legal Action Comics late in 2004. At that point, I was mulling over the idea of doing some color pages in that book, but in emails to my contributors, I only hinted at that possibility. Our daughter Alice was born in May of 2006, and my wife Linda and I moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn in November of 2006. Between the baby and the move, our lives became extremely busy. I did my best to stay on top of my illustration assignments, but I couldn't even think about the book project for that first year.

Once our lives became more manageable, I revisited the book project. With a fresh perspective, I realized two things: that I wanted to do a full-color book, and that I was completely disinterested in Rall v. Hellman. One more factor that contributed to the book's evolution; during that year's hiatus, I met a lot of talented folks on the Internet, many of whom ended up in the pages of TYPHON.

SPURGEON: Even untethered from the need to raise money for the case, I'm still a bit unclear as to how you look at the Legal Action work and thinks, "Okay, I think instead I'm going to do an oversized full-color book anthology?" What was your thinking behind the shape and form of the final project?

HELLMAN: When I announced in 2000 that I was doing a "benefit anthology book," several smart people pointed out right away that this kind of book was unlikely to raise much money. This was something that I already suspected, and it didn't change my mind about the book project. Rather than providing my lawyers with one more revenue stream, the intention of the Legal Action books was to get the word out about Rall v. Hellman. Beyond that, the books were really just a good excuse for me to edit anthology comics, which is something I'd been wanting to do for years.

Truth be told, one of the things that motivated me to do LAC #1 was the thought that I'd be placing a portion of my savings beyond my lawyers' reach. In 1999/2000, my lawyers were quickly burning through my savings, and I was determined that before they completely cleaned me out, I would carve out a chunk of my savings and spend it on something good.

All you really need to understand about the shift from LAC to TYPHON is that lawsuit or no lawsuit, I enjoy making a book now and then. I think it's a natural tendency that we set out to do something better and more ambitious than what we did before. The Legal Action concept had run out of gas, but my urge to make books was alive and well, and the result is TYPHON.

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SPURGEON: Was it difficult finding people to want to do the anthology? Did you get everyone you wanted? Since there are so many avenues open to people these days, what do you think attracted these artists to your project?

HELLMAN: I think there are many more talented people in the world than there are outlets for their work. When it came time to solicit contributions, I cast my net widely, and while I didn't get everyone I wanted, I'm very happy with everything I got.

SPURGEON: A lot of the comics in TYPHON seem connected by a few factors, but one of them is definitely that nearly everyone you use has chops. Your comics are well-regarded for their craft qualities; was that an important factor in assembling this work? Do you feel that being able to draw well sometimes doesn't get enough play in terms what's being published?

HELLMAN: I think we're in a time right now when a lot of people who don't have drawing chops are feeling empowered to do comics, and I think that's great for readers who don't place a high value on drawing chops. However, I'm someone who has spent my entire life learning how to draw, and I would much rather look at good drawing than shitty drawing.

That said, it can be tough to pin down precisely what "good drawing" is. Ultimately, beautiful art is a matter of taste. Drawing chops, anatomical knowledge, the ability to recreate the natural world in two dimensions and have it be both accurate and pleasing to the eye; these are important. But what's really vital is that we connect with the art on an emotional, perhaps spiritual level.

Simply put, the art that's in TYPHON is art that I enjoy looking at.

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SPURGEON: There are a number of very good cartoonists in your book, but I was wondering if you could talk about what you like about a few of them that maybe haven't yet become as well-known as the others, even where you found them. Maybe we could start with a strip called "Summer of 7-11" by someone named Hawk Krall?

HELLMAN: I'm not sure where I first came across Hawk Krall's work. I don't think we've met in person yet, but I've been seeing Hawk's stuff for a few years, and I've always enjoyed it.

SPURGEON: I'm not familiar with Hugo, who did "Virgil at the Video Store." Is Virgil a recurring character?

HELLMAN: "Hugo" is the pen name of a cartoonist I've known for nearly a decade. I think we met years ago when we were both contributing drawings to Dominic Salemi's long-running 'zine Brutarian. "Hugo" had strips in both Legal Action books, but they appeared under his real name. For whatever reason, "Hugo's" chosen to go the pseudonymous route, and I'm not about to argue with him about it, as long as I get to keep publishing his work. I think "Hugo" is one of those rare cartoonists whose writing is every bit as enjoyable as his drawing.

SPURGEON: Oliver Schulze?

HELLMAN: I met Oliver Schulze via MySpace, most likely in the wee hours between diaper changes. I think he's in Koln, Germany, and he's a perfect example of my point that there's a seemingly bottomless ocean of talented folks out there whose work we haven't yet seen.

SPURGEON: Nicholas Gazin?

HELLMAN: I met Nicholas Gazin at one of the SPX shows where he was making the rounds dressed as Robin, The Boy Wonder, asking the exhibitors to draw him in his costume. I originally thought of Nick as that young fellow with the odd moustache, but when I saw his drawings, I started to think of him as tremendously talented.

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SPURGEON: You also work with a handful of emerging stars, people that are well-regarded if not quite widely known yet. What is it that you like about Hans Rickheit? Why do you think he remains kind of an elusive figure, even in the small world of alternative comics?

HELLMAN: I like Beckett. I like Balthus. I like Bellmer. I like Burroughs. I like Survival Research Laboratories. I like the Quay Brothers. I think Hans Rickheit is leading us on a tour of that same disturbing, fascinating terrain. I think his stuff is as good as it gets. I'm not sure why you describe him as "elusive." I've met him a bunch of times.

SPURGEON: Maybe I mean in terms of attention that seems to elude him. I don't know. So why did you have Tim Lane's piece colored, given how good he is as a black and white artist? What can you tell me about Lane, who just dropped his own book with Fantagraphics into the marketplace?

HELLMAN: Tim Lane's work is great in color as well as black and white. Once I'd decided that TYPHON would be a full color book, I resolved to keep the book's black and white contents to a minimum. Time constraints kept Tim from coloring his strip, but Gregory [Benton] volunteered to do the work, and Tim and I agree that Greg did a fantastic job with Tim's strip -- just as he did with his own strips in TYPHON.

Tim Lane started illustrating for the New York Press during the last couple of years before the paper went down the toilet. He provided surreal illos for Michelangelo Signorile's weekly column, and I thought they were beyond brilliant, like some dazzling combination of Goya and Bosch. I emailed Tim and asked if he drew comics strips, and I think his reply was that he did do "a sort of graphic narrative thing." He sent me a few strips, and I realized that not only did he do some sort of graphic narrative thing, but that he was one of the most talented cartoonists I'd ever seen. Tim Lane is the next big thing, for whatever that's worth in this cruelly unrewarding world of alt/indie/underground/whatever we're calling it today.

imageSPURGEON: Was there anything that you wanted from the stories that you solicited in terms of theme or meaning? Because the stories you ended up with seem to have a fascination with the darker sides of human nature -- there are more than a few actual devils or demons overtly portrayed. What is it about this project or your editorship that you think gave voice to this kind of story, mostly?

HELLMAN: Again, TYPHON's contents reflect my tastes. I don't do themed anthologies. I solicit contributions from artists whose work I admire, and I tend to enjoy comics that are funny, scary, sexy, offbeat, or some combination thereof.

SPURGEON: Between this book, and the second HOTWIRE, Lane's book and now TYPHON it seems to me like a mini-renaissance in a kind of underground-reminiscent cartooning that may have taken a backseat to more standard literary or formalist comics the last few years. Would you agree with that assessment -- I mean, are there are a lot of comics on the stands that you think make for sensible fellow travelers with TYPHON? Would you personally like to see more comics like this?

HELLMAN: I haven't seen Tim's book yet, but I'm sure it's amazing. I'm a big fan of HOTWIRE, and of Glenn's work overall.

I see two things going on in alt/indie/whatever comics right now. You've got this grasping for a literary dryness that screams "please take me seriously." Meanwhile there's an influx of all these fresh-faced art students who are doing comics that make the Zap guys seem conservative. These aren't necessarily bad things, but generally speaking, these movements aren't really giving me the kind of work that I enjoy. If I had to land on either side, I'd go with the art kids, because I do see visually exciting stuff coming from those folks. I really hate the literary thing, because it's so fucking boring, and ultimately it's just the latest manifestation of comics' eternal self-esteem problem.

SPURGEON: TYPHON's been out for a while now, and I'm sure you've done some hand selling as well as moved some copies through retailers. How has the book been received as far as you can tell? Are stores carrying it?

HELLMAN: I got my TYPHON shipment from Regent in Hong Kong in mid-June. Last Gasp placed an order right away, while Diamond only just placed their order this week. [we're presently in mid August] Meanwhile, Tony Shenton has been plugging away for me with his set of retailers, and I've sold a few dozen TYPHONs via the web. I suppose TYPHON is beginning to show up in comic shops, but I think availability is still limited. I've sold approximately 450 books to date, and I'll need to sell twice that amount again to hit break-even.

Everyone who's seen TYPHON seems to like it. The only thing resembling a negative comment that I've heard is a couple of folks who've observed that TYPHON's cover looks a lot more impressive in person than it does on the web. I think R. Sikoryak's cover drawing for TYPHON is a real stunner; a spectacular drawing that only the web's crappy, low-res RGB presentation could diminish.

imageSPURGEON: How much did you like the editing and publishing process with this big of a project? Is this something you'd like to do in the future?

HELLMAN: At the risk of repeating myself, I'll repeat myself: I enjoy making books. I doubt that I'll ever be more than a very small publisher, one who does a book every couple of years, but who knows. I'd like to think that there'll be a second volume of TYPHON, and maybe some different books, but that's really up to the marketplace. Publishing these books is expensive, and contrary to popular rumor, I'm not the heir to a vast mayonnaise fortune.

SPURGEON: What does the future look like generally, Danny? Last time we exchanged e-mails about anything, I think it was about the shrinking illustration marketÅ  how do you see your professional future the next five years or ten?

HELLMAN: I'm not a big long-range planner, and I cringe at those "where do you see yourself in five years?" questions. I think we can get distracted by dwelling on the future, when what's most important is to do the right thing in the present moment. We can all agree that Hitler was largely an asshole, but he has that one good quote: "I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker." I'd like to think that in five or ten years, my family will be alive and healthy, that I'll be doing work that I enjoy and getting well-paid for it, and who knows, maybe I'll be done (or nearly done) with the graphic novel I've been daydreaming about for over a decade -- God knows how or if I'll find the time to get that project done)

My attitude about the illustration market is thermostatically controlled by the amount of work I'm getting at any given time. I've been oddly busy with illo assignments these past few weeks, so my outlook today is a little rosier than it was in Late Spring.

If you step back and look at the big picture from an illustrator's perspective, it's clear that in general, Bush has trashed the US economy, and in particular, the Internet is sucking up all the advertising money, leading to the widely-proclaimed "death of print" -- widely-proclaimed on the Internet, mostly. While it's undeniable that print is hurting, I tend to doubt that print will die any time soon. After all, plenty of "old" media have survived in spite of new distractions coming along. My main beef with the Internet is that it wants to swallow Publishing whole, yet it has made no place for illustration, which has always been part of print. I'm not sure why that is, but hopefully this will change as consumers of the web begin to demand greater visual sophistication.

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* TYPHON cover by R. Sikoryak
* commercial illustration by Danny Hellman
* SCREW birthday party illustration by Hellman
* Legal Action Comics #1 cover
* panel from Gregory Benton effort in TYPHON
* panel from Hawk Krall effort in TYPHON
* panel from Hans Rickheit effort in TYPHON
* panel from Rich Tommaso effort in TYPHON
* panel from Rupert Bottenberg effort in TYPHON
* page from Patrick Dean effort in TYPHON

*****

TYPHON, edited by Danny Hellman, Dirty Danny Press, softcover, 192 pages, 9780970936332, July 2008, $24.95

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