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A Short Interview With Bob Levin (2008)
posted July 1, 2008
 

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imageBob Levin was one of the writers with whom I enjoyed working most back when I edited The Comics Journal, and I had the honor of working on his first two books with the publisher: The Pirates and the Mouse and Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates. He is the best writer about comics working today and it's a shame he's not better known and more widely read. His latest, Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester is an elegant book about the roughest of subjects. In the approximately 200-page volume, to be released this week by Fantagraphics, Levin examines the life and times of the successful Hustler cartoonist, focusing on the legal battle he faced after his daughter accused him of sexual abuse. Applying his astute take on the effects of 1960s culture, his study of mainstream America's reaction to same, an oft-displayed special sympathy for artists working outside of the mainstream of American life and a hard-won perspective on the legal system fostered by years of serving within it as a worker's comp lawyer, Levin has written what may be the first completely unforgettable book about a modern cartoonist. At the very least, I can't get it out of my head. Levin lives in the Bay Area with his wife, Adele. He was nice enough to take my questions.

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TOM SPURGEON: Bob, your first major essays about comics touched on your experience as a kid reading EC Comics. How do you think being part of that generation that experienced those comics as they came out has an effect on how you look at comics? Do you think you look at comics differently than readers who grew up in the flush of undergrounds or with the indy comics movements of the 1980s?

BOB LEVIN: Being an EC fan, knowing they were valuable, and seeing them killed by small-minded, evil adults, made me a premature anti-censorshipist. But we kids of the 1950s -- at least the ones I knew -- bought the line that comic books were something you outgrew. By the time I was in high school, I didn't know anyone -- jock to beatnik -- who read comics. When I was in college -- 1960-64 -- I saw a couple Fantastic Fours and thought they weren't bad, but, again, no one I knew dared read one in public. We were into literature, and, with the exception of some American Splendors, I didn't read a comic again for another 20 years. So when I started writing about them in the late '80s, there were some holes in my resume, some of which I've never bothered to fill. But applying this literary-centric, hole-ridden point-of-view has given me an interesting point-of-view.

SPURGEON: Do you have a favorite, perhaps less well-known, essay? I'm a great fan of your piece on Jack Katz, for instance.

LEVIN: I won't be the first writer to say, "That's like being asked to pick a favorite child." I take all my writings seriously, and anything that made it into Outlaws, Rebels... I still like a lot. And the Vaughn Bode piece I did subsequently was gratifying, because I wanted to tell the truth about him, without betraying the trust of people who were close to -- and protective of -- him, and who had confided in me. To have them praise the article was special.

imageSPURGEON: To open Most Outrageous, you tell the story of how the subject matter was suggested to you by Eric Reynolds and your initial pursuit of the story. At what point did you decide it would become a book, and at what point do you think it became roughly the book you ended up doing?

LEVIN: I probably started thinking of it as a book once I saw the material Dwaine's widow had for me. The narrative line was pretty straightforward -- birth to death -- arrest through trial -- with some organic development en route. Since I like writing more than researching -- and revising more than first drafts -- I start writing as soon as I can. Then -- thank God for word processors -- I layer stuff in as I collect it. And, as the book makes clear, I couldn't've ended the book as I did without my final interview, and it caused me to go back and tweak some of what had gone before.

SPURGEON: Can you give me an idea as to the general parameters of your research? How much first-person testimony did you seek out, and in addition to Tinsley's papers, were there other documents you tracked down?

LEVIN: I think my Acknowledgment thanks everyone I spoke to. I searched microfilm spools of Ventura and L.A. newspapers for coverage of the case. One thing I didn't look at was actual issues of Hustler. LFP ignored my request to see its archives. I couldn't find a library that stocked them, and they were too expensive to buy on-line. Anyway, I take an idiosyncratic, sort-of "ain't-randomness-grand" view of research, and I thought, "This'll be cool. Let's see if I can write this without reading one Hustler and if anyone'll catch me."

SPURGEON: Why Most Outrageous for the title? Are there secondary meanings we can infer, perhaps a snap judgment on the criminal case involved?

LEVIN: Tinsley was billed as Hustler's "most outrageous" cartoonist. The prosecution viewed his conduct in those terms. And the defense regarded the prosecution's treatment of him similarly. So, yeah, there were secondary meanings.

SPURGEON: How familiar were you with the writing on art and the value of satire from which you quote extensively? Things like Tony Hendra's book, for instance -- is that part of your previous reading or was that directed study you did for this book? Other than the work on incest you talk about reading, how much of the book was new territory for you ? Is there any danger, do you think, in pushing a subject like Tinsley towards one's own interests?

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LEVIN: I have rarely read the work of cartoonists I write about before I write about them. That was true of Tinsley too. I had read Hendra's book in connection with another piece I had intended to write but hadn't gotten to. I knew the feminist/Moral Majority anti-pornography Axis of Evil from writing "'Yes,Yes,' She Panted" for the Journal's "Sex Issue," but I don't think I had read anything else in my bibliography, except for portions of McCormick on Evidence when I was in law school. Certainly, I came into this with views about artistic worth and appropriate sexual behavior, but so, I imagine, would anyone. I may be more blatantly a partisan writer than others, but I believe every writer, no matter how "objective" he presents, is pushing a program of some sort, and if you've got something to say, why not let it out there.

SPURGEON: "… welcome as a pack of syphilitic mandrills at the White House Easter Egg Roll" has to be the funniest turn of phrase I've read so far this year. How much tweaking do you do of your prose? Do you do multiple drafts, do you go back over certain sections?

LEVIN: I rewrite obsessively, sentence-by-sentence, word-by-word. As for that phrase... Well, I recall Dave Barry once expounding about the aesthetic difficulty of choosing between "pack of weasels" and "pack of badgers" or something as the operative metaphor in one of his columns, but I settled upon "mandrills" over "baboons" without much difficulty. "Syphilitic" came shortly thereafter and had no serious adjectival challengers. I did, however, fortuitously learn, some months later, that it was "Roll," not "Hunt," which is how I had it originally.

SPURGEON: In your section on the value of Tinsley's cartoons, one area that you don't touch on is whether or not the audience is reading them in the same way they're intended, in this culturally valuable or insightful way. In other words, while you and I might see the value in what Tinsley is doing as social satire, the audience for which they're largely intended enjoy the more direct crudeness and explicit sexual nature, and maybe don't absorb the satire at all. Does art like Tinsley's always deserve that more sympathetic reading?

LEVIN: Why not? Should art be judged by the opinions of the least informed among its audience? Tinsley viewed himself as a serious artist making serious statements. Let's honor that intent.

SPURGEON: Bob, maybe I missed this, but: in your section on evidence you talk about the prosecution's claim that Tinsley bombarded his daughter with his cartoons and Veronica's testimony to same. Was there any confirmation from Tinsley's side that she shared in the cartoons or testimony outside of what we read that this was true -- did any of the friends confirm receiving gift collections, for instance? It's hard for me to imagine a child, even an adoring one, being all that interested in her father's work, and it's hard for me to imagine anyone dispensing their dirty cartoon collections to their daughter's friends without getting in trouble.

LEVIN: There was no dispute that Veronica gave copies of her father's collections to her friends. There was no dispute that she had access to his study to see his cartoons whenever she wanted. I don't recall if he denied showing her each month's output, but given the closeness of their relationship when she first came to live with him, I don't find it surprising that he showed his work to her or that she was eager to share it with him.

SPURGEON: You write about a subject on which we've conversed in the past -- that you write about the cartoonists you do in part because you admire the unflinching nature of many artists in stark contrast to what you see as your own very normal, maybe even regulated life. When did you come to that realization, and do you think it has an effect not just on what you choose to write about, but how you choose to write about them? Is there any danger in that outlook?

LEVIN: I think Adele made this point clear to me when I was writing about the Air Pirates. She saw my treatment of them as my way of honoring certain friends of mine, who had been important to me when I was an adolescent and young adult, and who had been more daring or less inhibited or more nuts than me when making their life choices, and who hadn't come out of them so well. So, yeah, I may be more positive about the people about whom I write than others would, but I don't see this as a "danger."

SPURGEON: Is it fair to characterize a similarity of Most Outrageous and the Pirates and the Mouse as legal cases that deal with a public outcome of the 1960s? Do you see similarities between the two cases along those lines? How are they the most different?

LEVIN: Sometimes I tell people who ask what my new book is about, "It's another in my series, 'Cartoonists and the Law.'" The Air Pirates case was directly linked to the '60s. It wouldn't've happened without them. Dan O'Neill even referred to the comics at the center of it as the Pirates' "contribution to the revolution." The furor around Tinsley's cartoons connected to the '60s, in that it was enflamed by the still-continuing cultural war to roll back some of that age's advances; but, hell, on the facts, he would have been prosecuted if Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman had never been born.

SPURGEON: I get why the prosecution declined to call her because some of what she would say supported the defense, but why didn't the defense call the younger daughter Lori to the stand?

LEVIN: The defense may have felt she was too young to be an effective witness. It may have felt calling her would have allowed the prosecution to confront her with earlier, damaging contradictory statements it contended she had made. It may have felt the jury wouldn't've like them having put a child through this or that it would have concluded she had been coached by Dwaine and Debbie into saying what she did. It may have just felt it didn't need her. I never asked Eskin, Dwaine's lawyer, that question, so I'm speculating.

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SPURGEON: One of the odder pieces of testimony from a comics-centric point of view was Debbie's testimony about the nature of her husband's cartoons, where one might believe she was testifying in part as an editor of cartoons. She kept making a distinction between the cartoons that were funny and those that were satirical in nature or served as commentary. Do you really think she found those comics not funny, or was she just worried about the effect of being seen by the jury as a person who thinks such cartoons are funny?

LEVIN: The latter. I assume Eskin coached her into that position.

SPURGEON: Would it be fair to suggest that the defense's portrayal of Veronica as an out of control teen on drugs plugged into a societal narrative with nearly as much power as the prosecution's portrayal of her as an abused child?

LEVIN: I think the prosecution's portrayal of Veronica was much easier for the jurors to believe. The defense had to overcome the burden of convincing the jury that someone would make such a story up. In "he said/she said" cases, the prosecutrix is usually believed -- and usually that belief is appropriate.

SPURGEON: Speaking of stories, other than the one explicit suggestion near the book's end did you mean to draw a wider parallel between the story by which Dwaine Tinsley fashioned in his life, and the narrative by which it looks like his daughter has fashioned hers? Seeing as one of the characters in a Bob Levin book is Bob Levin, is there anything in this book that causes you to question your own narrative?

LEVIN: That's an interesting question, and I can't say that I had that consciously in mind. But, yeah, I do question my narrative. I said up front what I hoped to conclude and where my sympathies lay; and as I went through the story, I tried to balance each pull in one direction with any push that came in the opposite. I think I know how I would have voted if I had been on the jury, though I can't be sure how I would have behaved if I'd been locked away with 11 other people. I tried not to conceal any significant evidence from my readers; in fact, they have more information than the jury, so everyone can have a vote on Dwaine's guilt, which is as valid as mine.

SPURGEON: There are a lot of interesting choices you make in how you present the work, and I think the most interesting one is that the person with whom you kick off the book with a description of your visit, and the choice you make about the visit that dominates your epilogue. Can you talk a little bit about those choices, particularly the second one, and how you hoped they might shape your book?

LEVIN: I'm fascinated by the process by which books get written. How a thought or fact or phrase grows into 200 pages. So that's definitely at work here. I was the beneficiary of two seminal interviews: one at the beginning of my writing of Outrageous, and one at the end. If I had waited until I had collected all my interviews and finished my research before I sat down to write, I, no doubt, would have organized things differently; but I hadn't, which effected what resulted. As I say in the book, this last interview was one I hadn't expected to occur -- and it was the one I felt the most trepidatious about and stalled the longest over trying to make happen. When it occurred, it's effect on me was so striking, it made for a fine ending. And my readers get to go on this trip with me.

SPURGEON: This is your third book with Fantagraphics. Can you talk a little bit about your experiences with that company, particularly as they've grown more comfortable with prose book publication in the last half-dozen years as their relationship with Norton has deepened? Is there a difference between the way this book is being handled and your first one? Do you feel your audience is growing?

LEVIN: Fantagraphics has been a great publisher! It lets me write what I want, the way I want to write it. And I can't say enough about its courage in allowing me to tackle the subjects I have and in how it has presented them. I don't see any difference yet in how this book's been "handled," but maybe it's too early.

As for my audience, well, as Gary [Groth] put it, "Your first book proved people will buy a book about Disney, and your second one proved they won't buy a book about weird cartoonists no one has ever heard of. Where this one'll fall, we don't know." Besides people interested in underground comics and Disney, Pirates had this unanticipated-by-me draw of folks into intellectual property law; but Outlaws barely got noticed outside of the comic- and hipster-centric press. The mainstream, national media pretty much ignores me. I kinda doubt Outrageous will change that, and, given the nature of its material and the benefits of walking down the street without people tossing stones at you or obtaining warrants to check the images you've been down-loading, maybe that's not a bad thing.

imageSPURGEON: One thing that's left a bit up in the air in your book, perhaps intentionally, is something that I thought going in would be an item of major concern and definitely slanted towards a specific reading: the way that people, including the jurors, processed Tinsley's cartoons. In comics' free expression circles, there's always the worry that people process cartoons that deal with strong subject matter in a negative way because they're cartoons, which they believe to be better suited to childish or even inconsequential concerns. Yet that line of reasoning wasn't in your book at all. How do you personally think that the way Tinsley's cartoons were processed had an effect on the trial, and is there anything we can draw from that case into how we look at similar cases concerning provocative or controversial cartoons.

LEVIN: That's an interesting idea that hadn't occurred to me either, I'm embarrassed to say. One differentiating wrinkle, though, is that Tinsley's cartoons didn't appear in the context of a corruptive, innocence-betraying, kiddie-friendly comic book, but in a magazine which had ADULTS ONLY clearly stamped all over it. So maybe the issue doesn't apply.

SPURGEON: If as you say in your introduction that a book on Dwaine Tinsley is a step up in degree and outrageousness from past subject profiles, where do you go from here? What's next, Bob?

LEVIN: Good question. I have conducted the "definitive" S. Clay Wilson interview, which the Journal is due to run in the fall, and the article for which I'd originally read Hendra's book is nearly finished; but everything I've written since the Air Pirates has come from someone else's suggestion, so I have no backlog of burning desires waiting to be fulfilled. I'm phasing out my law practice, and I don't play golf or tennis or travel, so I am a bit concerned. I'd even been sticking my toe into the tar pit of writing fiction again, but then I remember all those rejection slips and recoil. Just this week I received a call from the widow of a comic-related personage about whom I'd once thought of writing. She came across some correspondence between us and seemed more open to the idea than he had, so something may come of that. Otherwise, send in your suggestions and nominations, folks; and if anyone wants to buy a much-maligned black comedy about doctors, lawyers, patients and clients -- I've even made one a cartoonist -- let me know.

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* cover
* photo by Budd Shenkin; provided by Mr. Levin
* one of the photos from Tinsley that appears in Most Outrageous
* one of the Chester cartoons from Tinsley that appears in Most Outrageous
* two cartoons on other subjects by Tinsley

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* Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester, Bob Levin, Fantagraphics Books, softcover, 200 pages, 1560979194 (ISBN10), 9781560979197 (ISBN13), May 2008, $19.99

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