Saturday, August 9, 2008

Friday Night in Williamsburg: A Rory Hayes Tribute, Book Release Party and Panel Discussion at Desert Island Comics

Around 7:45 p.m. last evening we walked over from Dumbo Books HQ to our favorite neighborhood comic book store, the wonderful Desert Island, for a celebration of what would have been the 59th birthday of the legendary artist Rory Hayes, who died of a drug overdose in 1983, and the publication of the first book of and about his work.

Now the name Rory Hayes was unfamiliar to us, but when we did a Google image search, we quickly recognized that we had seen his work back in the 1970s and even remembered specific comics, particularly "Bogeyman." This is from the press release:
The controversial cartoonist Rory Hayes was a self-taught dynamo of the underground comics revolution. Attracting equal parts derision and praise (the latter from the likes of R. Crumb and Bill Griffith), Hayes emerged as comics’ great primitive, drawing horror comics in a genuinely horrifying and hallucinatory manner (some have called him the Fletcher Hanks of the underground). He has influenced a generation of cartoonists, from RAW to Fort Thunder and back again.

So last night, Desert Island had this party and panel discussion on Rory Hayes now that Fantagraphics Books has published Where Demented Wented, the first-ever collection of Hayes’ legendary comics and art.

We'd never seen the store so crowded and since the door was closed and a white-bearded man in black was blocking the entrance, we assumed at first that it was filled to capacity and were about to go home when the man moved and we realized he was only inadvertently standing in our way. When we told him this, he was amused that we took him for a bouncer. Well, the store almost needed one. (According to Joe Walt at A Foolish Consistency, that guy we thought only looked like Paul Giamatti was actually the actor who played our old pal Harvey Pekar in American Splendor.)

We wedged ourselves into a small spot by the store's whimsical window display and a rack of little comics and found ourselves next to the barrel of cold cans of Budweiser. (Is that good beer? We are not just teetotalers; we are totally ignorant. We just know that hipsters like PBR, right? Huh?) A large, well-groomed black dog was standing on his hind legs nearby and shaking hands with people, and we wondered if he would be on the evening's panel. As it turned out, no.

Where Demented Wented's co-editor Dan Nadel (Gary Panter, The Wilco Book) sat at a makeshift table made up of low bookshelves with copies of the new publication and moderated a fascinating discussion of Hayes’ work and life with two men who knew him well: the also-legendary Bill Griffith (if you don't know he's the creator of our old friend Zippy the Pinhead, you don't know nothing) and Rory's slightly older brother Geoffrey Hayes, author of the recent Benny and Penny and many other popular kids' books.

Here we'll intersperse some book press release stuff:
WHERE DEMENTED WENTED: THE ART AND COMIX OF RORY HAYES is the first retrospective of Hayes’ career ever published, and features the best of his underground comics output alongside paintings, covers, and artifacts rarely seen by human eyes — as well as astounding, previously unprinted comics from his teenage years and movie posters for his numerous homemade films. [It] also serves as a biography and critique with a memoir of growing up with Rory by his brother, the illustrator Geoffrey Hayes, and a career-spanning essay by Edward Pouncey (a.k.a. Savage Pencil). Also included is a rare interview with Hayes himself.

The panel discussion - really, reminiscences of a brother and an old friend prompted by a moderator who knew when to probe and when to hold back - lasted maybe an hour, but we don't think anyone's attention flagged. We could go on and on, based on our notes, but probably the best introduction to Rory Hayes you can get is through the book, available at Desert Island.

The portrait they painted of Rory Hayes was of a compulsive artist, an outsider even in the outsider comix world of late 60s/early 70s San Francisco, where Rory hung out in the Mission District's SF Comic Book Company store, owned by the eccentric Gary Arlington, who eventually became Rory's publisher.

Bill Griffith said he, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman and others first became of aware of Rory there around 1972. Rory was behind the counter for many years, part of the scene but apart from it. Everyone smoked marijuana, of course, but Rory's speed habit clearly fueled his creativity, eventually choked it, and led to his early death. But he's achieved the kind of influence only true originals can manage: Rory's work has affected people who aren't even aware of who he was.

Geoffrey Hayes said his brother was always drawing, as he was, from boyhood in L.A. in a very close-knit family. At a very young age, they created wordless books and then films, featuring their stuffed animals and dolls, but not in a typical way: they were darker tales of horror, SF, detective stories. Rory produced a "Dolls Weekly" newspaper whose only copy Geoffrey pretended to buy, and even then Rory's work has an "underground" feel.

The two brothers would go on very different paths, Geoffrey as a more conventional if offbeat children's book author in New York, and Rory heading for San Francisco if not with flowers in his hair, then with interesting visions in his head. Bill Griffith said that Rory wasn't really aware that he was actually a folk artist; comparing Rory to Henri Rousseau, who believed he was painting in a classical tradition when in such work as "The Sleeping Gypsy" he was doing pioneering folk art, Griffith noted that Rory was never a "hippie" in the way he and the others were in their dress, hairstyles, and attitudes.

As if he was "possessed by a monster," Rory produced his work naturally, much of it utterly inaccessible in its time except for those fellow artists and a few others, like the eccentric wealthy comics collector who eventually paid Rory for original work. Bill Griffith told a story about Rory turning up bleeding and disheveled at his SF apartment while his girlfriend and Aileen Kominsky Crumb were present, and asking only for a glass of milk.

At a comics conference at the University of Florida (insert obligatory law school alum "Go Gators!" here), Griffith elaborated on how this incident with Rory inspired one of his own works (you can read it all here), but it also sheds light on Rory's art and mind:
He was clutching his notebook, which he carried with him all the time, and after he got his glass of milk, I asked him if I could look at his notebook. And in his notebook was a kind of a break down of a movie script — an idea for a movie that he was been trying to. Rory made 8MM movies occasionally, homemade horror films. Rory would show these movies —l ittle evening entertainments. And he would narrate them, but he would shift from third-person narrative to first-person whenever he got to the violent scenes. Like he would be saying things like, "The creature comes into the room, the woman is lying prone on her back. The creature gets closer, and then I stab her." Sometimes he either became his mother or the girl became his mother. It was pretty intense.

Bill Griffith said that few seemed to "get" Rory, but that he, Crumb, Spiegelman and others definitely did appreciate his "very disturbing work" that others dismissed as crude and naive.

Rory's brother Geoffrey said that no matter how possessed Rory was by drugs, the quality of his technique remained strong and his vision came from his gut. It seemed as if the amphetamines actually allowed him to do stuff like obsessively detailed stippling, for example. Rory's output declined as the 1970s wore on and the drugs took their toll; he moved more towards single images than multi-panel strips.

There were great questions by Desert Island proprietor Gabriel Fowler and some of the guests that produced fascinating answers from the panelists, and Dan Nadel put Rory Hayes' work in perspective in both its time and today; with the publication of Where Demented Wented, we expect Rory's influence will only grow.


CKaye said...

What a great web site, and I love that you love Rory Hayes. I always wanted to know more about this man, like I couldn't understand the dichotomy of his coming from a tight loving family (or so it is said in the press releases) and then his being such a major speed freak. Most speed freaks I used to know had troubled backgrounds. Anyway, I just wondered, and have always liked his artwork. Thanks.

Russell Maycumber said...

Speed and that bay are old friends. I saw his brother speak about Rory and they were very focused even as kids about drawing and sci-fi horror, and the 70's were just kind of off the hook about drugs, I remember kids in my middle class neighborhood being all into PCP and it was kind of normal...ish. Much more middle class than you would think. I mentor students in art now and a lot of them are very anti-drug.(where did demented went?) Times change I suppose. I love how this guy just doesn't fit any real genre. Its kind of outsider, but "in". I think you have to approach it from his motivation. I guess the word is idiosyncratic. Like a turrets more than a practice, I think thats a good place for art to begin from, meh who knows?