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Bruce N. Duncan, 1943-2009
posted June 30, 2009


By Tom Spurgeon

B.N. Duncan, a cartoonist, editor, publisher and distinctive personality who for years was a fixture of the Berkeley street scene, passed away on Saturday according to this post at the Comics Journal message board by former collaborator Ace Backwords. Duncan would have been 66 on July 9.

"Duncan was a ubiquitous figure in Berkeley -- and certainly one of the strangest-looking apparitions to grace its streets," the writer Bob Levin told CR. "I hadn't seen him in recent months and, knowing he'd been in poor health, I'd feared the worst. Coincidentally, his passing comes only a couple weeks after that of his good friend Claire Burch, the film maker (and author) whom I mention in my original piece."

Duncan was born in 1943 in Rochester, New York. His parents broke up before he was a year old. Duncan and his mother relocated to Berkeley, California, where he spent the majority of his childhood. It was during this period he developed an appreciation for cultural material of a kind that attracted disaffected youths, including comics efforts such as MAD and Li'l Abner. Duncan's family moved downstate to Pasadena when he was in high school. After graduation, he attended Pasadena Community College. While a student, he suffered the first of several mental breakdowns. He spent the next several years bouncing from educational institutions to mental institutions. He moved back to Berkeley in 1966, unsure as to his future.

Duncan was married for two years before separating from his wife and moving to Telegraph Avenue. With the encouragement of an art teacher he began to pursue cartooning for publication. The results was a strip called Hank and Hanna, which ran in both porn newspapers and newave 'zines. He also did the strip Beserkeley Blues for the Daily Gazette. It was through the local strip that he met future collaborator Wild Billy Wolf. BN Duncan provided art for the first cover of The Tele Times in 1978, and did much of the grunt editorial work. When Wolf left the publication, the Tele Times grew in page count and price and as a general vehicle for all things B.N. Duncan, including his appreciation for true outsider art and writing almost no one else appreciated in quite the same way. The publication ceased operations at the end of 1982.

Duncan received his biggest comics fame as a contributor to the anthology Weirdo during the 1980s. In many ways, Weirdo and Raw served as the twin poles around which various ideas about art comics would coalesce in that decade. Certainly Duncan's work fit in with the Robert Crumb-instigate west coast effort more than it ever would in Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly's magazine. Peter Bagge was one of Duncan's editors at Weirdo, and note that overtly sexual nature of Duncan's work could be alarming in any context.

"His work was all about his obsessions," Bagge wrote CR, "specifically sado-masochistic sex, but he also was a compulsive philosophizer and art critic. He would babble on forever (both in person but especially in letters or in print) about what struck his fancy and why. This was especially true of comic art, though hardly limited to it. Many found his SM-inspired work distasteful (people were generally very uptight about such things back in the '80s -- especially women, who found such images much more threatening than they do these days, where the trappings of bondage and discipline have become common fashion accessories), and his crude drawing style didn't help to endear his work to many folks either. Still, I think his drawings had an odd charm to them, and I also thought he was a pretty good gag writer, even if his 'jokes' were almost always mere projections of his own quirks and obsessions."

Unlike many of his fellow Weirdo contributors, Duncan wasn't able to use his appearances there as a springboard to a higher-profile venue. In the 1990s he found a small group of clients such as Bitches With Whips willing to buy his cartoons, tried a community-based magazine about comics called Point Drawn, organized art shows featuring artists that were usually cut out of such opportunities, and worked with cartoonist Ace Backwords on a series of Telegraph Avenue Street Calendars, spotlighting local street denizens and out-sized characters.

He also continued to correspond with cartoonists and comics people when he had the opportunity. Says Bagge: "Bruce used to share his thoughts with me on every issue of HATE as soon as one came out, and he would always try to limit his thoughts on one postcard to save on precious funds, but usually would continue his train of thought on another postcard, then another... I think his 'record' was seven postcards, at which point I'm sure he wished he just wrote all his thoughts down in letter form and shoved it in a single envelope! His critiques of my work were chock full of projections, where he would often assume that my own personal obsessions and motivations were the same as his. Still, even when he was way off I was always flattered by his comments, simply because my comics seemed to inspire such a strong reaction out of him." He was profiled by the Comics Journal's Bob Levin in 1996 and contributed an interview with Sophie Crumb to the magazine in 2006.

In 1995 Duncan published a collection of SM cartoons through Greenery Press called "Mercy??" "No!!". Bob Levin described Duncan's humane approach to the situations presented in his 1997 review of that book for The Comics Journal. "His drawings are gentle, muted, sweet. They are neither graphically precise nor grotesquely exaggerated. Unanchored by any details linking them to any terrain beyond their own actions, his figures float angelically upon the page."

In more recent years, Duncan joined a number of underground-era cartoonists and personal favorites in becoming a contributor to Mineshaft. "I don't know if any artist in the United States, in my mind, embodies the true spirit of the underground like B.N. Duncan," Mineshaft Co-Publisher Everett Rand told CR. His magazine Tele Times made a big impact on R. Crumb & Weirdo, I think, and it has served as an inspiration to Mineshaft as well. Duncan was very politically incorrect, but he was harder on himself than he was on any other people and he had a true love of "truth" and nature and was interested in sex, especially S & M, not as it's portrayed in the media, but as it really is, though with humor & satire...

"After R. Crumb, B. N. Duncan was the first comics artist to begin contributing to Mineshaft regularly -- four SM drawings in Mineshaft #9 -- and he continued contributing art, writing, and letters to Mineshaft until he died... he was always offering words of encouragement to Mineshaft which meant a lot to us. To Duncan life was meaningless without art and the spirit of creativity. Duncan was a pioneer oe little magazine and he promoted art and artists that otherwise would have never been heard. I'm only happy that he was able to continue being creative until the end. But he will be dearly missed." Rand mentioned that at least one future issue of Mineshaft would contain Duncan art.

Bob Levin's profile of Duncan contains within it a quote from Duncan about childhood favorite Al Capp. Like many such quotes, and especially from someone like Duncan, it could be about the work of the artist speaking as much as the one being described. "Al Capp did something very special. He presented people you laugh at because they're foolish or stupid or preposterous; at the same time your heart goes out to them for their pain and innocence and difficulties. Life is taken seriously for the suffering, but there's always something ridiculous and laughable... The writing, the dialogue, is on a lower, look-down-on-them, burlesque level; but the drawing is done with depth and dignity and humanity. There are real human beings to care about."

Levin remembers the late artist and editor as much for his efforts with others as for his own cartooning. "Duncan labored seriously and with much effort to produce work of good quality himself, and he made an extraordinary effort to promote the work of others. He fervently believed that even the most apparently off-center among us were of value, had much to contribute, and should not be cast aside. He tried, through The Tele Times, reviews he wrote, books he published, recordings he produced, and the calendar he and Ace Backwards turned out annually to call attention to the inner essences of these people and to honor their output."

"He was the giant of guy you could point to with pride and say, 'Yeah, that's Berkeley! That's why I live here.'"

A memorial service will be held on Sunday on Haste & Telegraph in Berkeley.

this article owes a crucial, overwhelming and obvious debt to Bob Levin's excellent 1996 essay on Duncan, "Outsider Cartoons: BN Duncan Goes To The Museum," The Comics Journal #185. That essay is available in the collection, Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates