This is the fourth in a continuing series of discussions. In August, 2012, I asked Robert for his comments on another list of celebrities and artists. If you'd like to hear his opinion on someone we haven't covered in this or the previous interviews, please e-mail your suggestions to [email protected]. We can't promise that we will get to all of them, but we will add them to the list for future interviews. -- Alex Wood, Wildwood Serigraphs
Robert: One of my favorite movies of his was Crimes and Misdemeanors. It was a great movie. In that movie, there was an esteemed ophthalmologist, very respected in his profession. He has this mistress, this neurotic woman and she's threatening to expose him and the secret affair he's having. She threatens to come over to his house and make a big scene and ruin his life. He also has a brother who's involved in the crime syndicate. So he goes to the brother and the brother has her killed by a professional. It's a great movie. All the main male characters in the movie, I've come to suspect that they're all parts of Woody Allen's personality — they're all parts of him. The respected ophthalmologist is part of him; this nerdy, idealistic documentary film-maker — that's part of him. And there's this really arrogant comedy writer/director played by Alan Alda who plays such a jerk, and that's part of Woody Allen also; very interesting. And I suspect that movie is kind of — and I don't even know how aware of it he was — a confession. It was right around the time that whole scandal with Mia Farrow's daughter happened — maybe right before — because Mia Farrow was in it. But, the ophthalmologist gets away with it. Yeah, the respected ophthalmologist, whose brother has the girlfriend murdered, is never detected, and he gets away with it. It's a really excellent movie, very Jewish. It's got Jewish philosophizing in it. Actually there's a scene in it with the family at the dinner table philosophizing about God and justice and what it all means (laughs). It's a very serious movie, and yet it has its comic relief.
THE MARX BROTHERS
Robert: I was deeply inspired by the Marx Brothers when I was young. My brothers and I were all very inspired by them, and went around imitating and acting like them when we were teenagers (laughs). They had a big effect on us. Unfortunately, you don't see the Marx Brothers at their best in any of their movies. I've read that they were really great on stage because live performance allowed to be spontaneous. In the films, they were restricted to following the script. But on stage they could improvise and were really crazy. This was all in the '20s, before they made any movies. So it's too bad we never get to see the Marx Brothers at their very best. But even so, their early movies are really great. As with a lot of hollywood movies, as the '30s ground on, the studios became more and more corporatized, so the comedy really declined badly. There's much more interference in their creative process as the '30s went on. So with the Marx Brothers, and all of them, the movies become less and less interesting and you can see the corporate sensibility creep in.
Robert: Funny guy. Funny writer. When he was doing that comic strip Life In Hell I thought that was funny. That was good. And then The Simpsons; in its best years it was really good, it was excellent. Met the guy, hung out with him a little bit. I liked him, I liked his personality. You know, the drawing, the artwork is nothing to write home about, but the comedy and social satire is excellent. Or was. I don't even know if it's still going. Is it still going? I haven't seen it for years and years.
Robert: I really like his artwork. I'm not crazy about his stories, but I really like the art. I always wish he would do just a straight, realistic story about teen life as he remembered it. I would find that more interesting than having these weird, fantastic things always happening. But I like his artwork, and I like him personally. Nice guy.
PHILIP K. DICK
Robert: I've actually never read any of his books. All I ever read was interviews with him and that account he gave of his religious experience — his mystical experience.
Alex: It's interesting that you never read any books by him, but you were so moved by his mystical experience that you would do a strip about it.
Robert: Yeah, (laughs) the way he wrote about the mystical experience, to me was very interesting. The whole experience… the way he described it, it was great. I should read his books but I never got around to it. I was never big on science fiction, but he was always more interesting and imaginative than a lot of science fiction writers. I used to know people who were nuts about science fiction. But I could never get interested in it. I always thought it was never quite imaginative enough. It's always about the future, you know? Whether it's dystopian or whatever, but whenever I tried to read it I lost interest in it very quickly. But Philip K. Dick, I never tried him. People say he is one of the more imaginative science fiction writers. I used to like to read the science fiction comic books, like EC Comics (laughs). But I read those partly because of the artwork.
Robert: I liked Grapes of Wrath, thought it was really good. Then I tried to read Travels with Charlie that he wrote, I think in the '60s, and found it rather dull and uninteresting. I thought his life had become so comfortable and middle class that he lost touch with whatever was his original force of inspiration back in the '30s. He must have really hung out with those people. I also read that book he wrote about the west coast, I think it's called Cannery Row. It was good; not as good as Grapes of Wrath,but it was good. And I've also read interviews with him later when he was old and retired and he didn't have much of interest to say, I don't know. Lost it. It can happen when you experience success. It happened to me (laughs).
Alex: What happened to you?
Robert: You get successful, you give a lot of interviews, you're constantly dealing with business and money and all that stuff I talked with you about when we were in Chicago. You just slowly lose touch with your original source of inspiration. It has something to do with being involved with real, common life; that's what makes any kind of story writing interesting to me. And then you get successful and you get separated from real life. It just happens. When I say real life, I'm talking about the common, everyday life of most people. Then you start getting treated like royalty — like you're something special — and it's not the same. And you're no longer the observer, you are the observed. That puts you in a whole different position in society; a whole different perspective. Now you're hunted, you're looked at, you're watched, you're admired, you're vilified, whatever. But you can't just go out and be part of the world as an observer anymore. It's hard. It's hard for me anyway. So for someone like Steinbeck, when he wrote Grapes of Wrath, he obviously had some involvement in that world, with common people, their struggle, the terribleness of their situation. He understood it. He must have lived in it somehow or other. And then he got so successful, so recognized that by the time he wrote Travels With Charlie he was like this self-conscious, successful person that travels across America with his dog. And it's just not very interesting. He just travels the highway with this dog and he's not involved in real life or the lives of real people. The book starkly reveals this.
Robert: Interesting guy, Ward Kimball. I first met his daughter, Chloe, when I worked at American Greeting Cards. She was a friend of somebody who worked there and she started coming around during her travels. She was one of the first real hippie girls I ever met, Chloe Kimball. And then when I lived in San Francisco, Ward Kimball came to visit me, in the fall of 1968. I have these photos someone took of me and Ward Kimball in the little improvised studio space I had in my house in San Francisco at the time. I had Jessie, who was like six months old, on my lap. And Kimball came to see me because he liked my work, he liked what I was doing. He liked Zap Comics,which is amazing because here's a guy who started working at Disney Studios in the 1920s! He was of a much older generation, I think in his 60s at the time. But probably younger than I am now (laughs). But a hip, sophisticated older guy, which was rare. I rarely ever met sophisticated older people. So it was very interesting to meet a guy much older than me who had been through some intellectual and artistic development. But Kimball was a company man. He was really a Disney man. He was like one of the "nine old men" of Disney Studios at that time. He had become somewhat — how would you say it? — corporate in his thinking. Where he really devoted himself and indulged in were his hobbies, because he made a lot of money. When you went to visit him, he was very eager to show you his toy train and other collections. He had the most magnificent toy collection I had ever seen. I went to visit him in L.A. and he had this big house. Actually my friend Robert Armstrong had known him before I did. He had some kind of connection with him in Pasadena — I can't exactly remember what their connection was — but a lot of people I know went through Kimball's place. These guys I knew from American Greetings who were writers were also involved with Kimball through their mutual interest in dixieland jazz. He had a band called The Firehouse Five Plus Two. They made records in the early '50s. Somebody recently just sent me a whole bunch of letters that went back and forth between Ward Kimball and this guy I used to know at American Greetings in the '60s, John Gibbons, and it's kind of funny because they talk about me in these letters. So Kimball knew about me for years before he actually met me.
Alex: So when he met you in San Francisco, did he talk about your artwork?
Robert: Yeah, we talked about my artwork and Kimball said it harkened back to what he called the ‘balloon tire style’ of cartooning that was popular in the 1920s. The balloon tire style! (laughs).
Alex: What did Ward Kimball specialize in at Disney Studios?
Robert: I think he started out as a script writer and then kind of moved up to a director of the cartoons. He had a big influence on the scripts during the '40s. He was an idea man — you know, sit around the conference room and hash this stuff out. He had some interesting stories about Disney and Kelly. He said if you wanted to make Disney laugh, you had to make scatological jokes. He said if you look at Pinocchio, there's a butt joke every two minutes in that film. And if you watch Pinocchio, wow — it's true — there's a butt joke every two minutes.
In the early '70s, when I got involved with Armstrong and The Cheap Suit Serenaders, we would go over to Kimball's and play music and sit around and talk. He was a very congenial host and he liked us. He was not just an old fogie. He had a lively mind and he was interested in what was going on in the world, with the hippies and all that. His daughter was a total hippie. He just died a few years ago, and they sold off his toy collection. I got this catalog of his toys they were selling, but they were too expensive for me; too pricey for me. Actually, the two that I coveted the most I ended up getting examples of elsewhere, one through trading for artwork. It was this tin toy of the Toonerville Trolley that was made in the '20s. It's a great toy, a wonderful toy. And the other was the Andy Gump cast iron car (laughs). Those were the two things that Kimball had that I coveted and I was able to, later, get examples of myself. But, he had the most magnificent toy train collection. He had these Lionel trains from the '20s. Those Lionel train cars from the '20s were much bigger than the later toy trains. Those early electric trains were really incredible. He had this whole big train layout in a huge room in the back of his house. That was his main love in life — his hobbies. He loved trains and the whole railroad thing. He would dress up as an old time railroad engineer, with the striped overalls and hat. He even had an old steam locomotive in his backyard, with a coal car and passenger car attached to it. He had this track that ran around his property and he would fire that thing up and take people for rides in it (laughs). I think he had a deep nostalgia for his early childhood, the early 1900s, and he thought it all went to hell after that. He influenced the Disney Studios in the 1940s into making a lot of cartoons about that period; the early 1900s. One of the best ones was called The Little House; great Disney cartoon. Another one was about this fedora hat that falls in love with a girl's hat. Another one was Casey at the Bat, I'm sure that's all Ward Kimball's influence.
Robert: I've read a lot about Lincoln actually, I have this friend, Ted Widmer, who's a Lincoln scholar. He wrote a book called Lincoln's Melancholy that's really excellent. It tells about Lincoln's psychological state and these horrible medical procedures that he was subjected to as a young man. He was depressed, and then he got sick, and they just put him through hell, these doctors. He was still just a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois. But a pretty interesting case, Lincoln. Just after he became president, the Civil War broke out. He couldn't stop the Civil War. In a way, I compare Obama to Lincoln, because he couldn't stop the events that were unfolding. And he was just stuck in the position of having to deal with it.
So the first several years of Lincoln's term in office, people were constantly pillorying him for his ineffectiveness and indecisiveness and blah blah blah. I don't know what they expected him to do, because of the conflicting expectations of the different quarters. But he was able to pull it together, and later he was revered for that, especially after he was assassinated. He was an interesting man because he had contradictory elements. People say he had a great sense of humor and at the same time he was kind of melancholy and depressed. And he also had an interest in mystical, paranormal things. He took part in seances and spiritualist meetings. Salmon P. Chase, who I think was the Secretary of the Treasury under Lincoln and an important banker at the time, later describes one of these seances where a piano was elevated off the ground by a young woman. He and Lincoln and some other men sat on the piano, trying to hold it down, but it still lifted off the floor. That part of Lincoln isn't widely known.
Alex: I don't know if he made the right decision marrying the woman he did.
Robert: Mary Todd, yeah. She was a very neurotic woman. I think he married her out of frustration. That book, Lincoln's Melancholy, describes how he was in love with another woman and something went wrong with that, she married someone else. So he married Mary Todd, who had a big crush on him, maybe on the rebound. And you know, he was an honorable man, so he stuck by her. Also, there's this new theory about Lincoln and his supposed Marfan's syndrome. He was very tall and had very elongated limbs and also possibly a heart condition caused by the Marfan's. Aline suspects that I have a touch of Marfan's syndrome (laughs).
Robert: I can tell you that he's still really pissed off at me for the many times I've said in print that I didn't think Fritz The Catwas a very good movie. I don't think Bakshi was a creative artist. I think he wanted to be the new king of feature length animated cartoons, like, of hip, adult animated cartoons of the 1970s. But I don't think his movies were terribly successful at what he tried to do. And his Fritz The Cat was just an embarrassment to me, and Bakshi is pissed off and angry at me because I've always said this. I've read some things later, where he's just sputtering with rage towards me. He was always an intense man. When he first approached me, he was so intense and hyper, so overpoweringly determined to do this thing that it was very hard for me to deal with him. I could barely cope with it. Finally, I just ran away and let Dana deal with it. It took until, what, 1972?, to finally get the contract signed. I just ran away, and Dana actually signed my name, which was good enough for them (laughs). Bakshi and Steven Krantz, who was the producer — especially Krantz — were media professionals — hustlers who knew how to roll over me. I was a kid, what did I know? Then I had my lawyers, Stepanian & Rohan, who were also eager to do the film, and they just kind of rolled over me too. They said, 'C'mon it will be great. It will give you exposure, everybody will see your work.' They were eager to do a big movie contract. I remember [Victor] Moscoso telling me,"'Robert, if you let this film be made you will regret it for the rest of your life." And he was totally, 100% correct (laughs).
Robert: I never really read Darwin or studied much about him. I have the most broad, general idea about his theories of natural selection and evolution. But I do know that when a lot of upper class English people started reading his books, and his theories began to be widely known in the 1870s, it created a huge change that hasn't been widely recognized by historians, to my knowledge. People's attitudes toward religion changed due to his book, particularly in the upper classes in England, they stopped considering it their absolute duty to go to church and be a good church-going person. A lot of the upper class dropped out, let their church membership lapse. Before that. they all went to church, for appearance sake if nothing else. But after Darwin, that all changed. Samuel Butler, who wrote The Way of All Flesh, is interesting to read on this subject. It's a great book, written in the 1870s as I recall.
Robert: He's kind of an enigmatic character. Some writers characterize him as a cynical, hustling, back-room manipulator/politician. And other writers paint him as a believer in the Great Society, a liberal in the civil rights movement. I guess he's sort of both of those things. In the 1960s, we all hated his guts, of course. He used to defend the Vietnam War. He would get on the TV and say,"'We're gonna continyah." (laughs). And we all hated McNamara, too. He was the Secretary of Defense. And now, it comes out that McNamara was partly responsible for saving civilization from nuclear holocaust. You know, that Cuban Missile Crisis stand-off, in which these fucking psychopathic generals like Curtis LaMay were all ready to go. They were like, "C'mon, even if we lose a third of our population, we can still beat the Russians." Yeah, (laughs) those guys were ready to go and McNamara was on the hot seat. He had to stand up to those guys and say, "No, we're not going to do this." And LaMay and these other generals thought that McNamara and the Kennedys — both of them — were "pussies." They actually called them that — pussies (laughs). But where did Johnson stand in all that? I'm not sure. He kind of hung in the background until Kennedy was shot. And of course there are people who implicate Johnson in the Kennedy assassination. But I kind of doubt that he had anything to do with it at all. I'm pretty much convinced that the assassination was maneuvered by elements of the CIA/military with help from the mob. But I don't think Johnson was involved in any way.
Robert: Hergé? I can't get into that guy's stuff. Tin Tin? Doesn't interest me that much. He's hugely revered here in Europe among cartoonists. And he's loved here, almost like Carl Barks in the U.S., but I don't think his stories are anywhere near as interesting as Barks'. Plus, in his early days he was like this vile racist.
Alex: But you've got to admit it's beautiful artwork.
Robert: It's nice artwork, but I'm not that impressed. It's alright. It's okay, but I much prefer Barks. To me, Barks has much more depth in his humor, and social commentary that's actually meaningful, and I think that Hergé is kind of straight-ahead adventure stuff.
Robert: Love him. Love those rags. He's a great American composer. He died of syphilis, supposedly. But Scott Joplin is just the tip of the iceberg in that ragtime era. He's one of the great writers of rags, but there were lots and lots of people writing rags back then, and most of their names are kind of forgotten.
Alex: Do you have a lot of 78s of rags?
Robert: No. I have some, but most of the real, pure ragtime stuff is on piano rolls.
Alex: When did 78s really become the main recording media as opposed to piano rolls?
Robert: Well, they were kind of neck and neck with piano rolls in the early 1900s. 78 r.p.m. records started in the early 1890s, I mean as a commercially viable thing. But they didn't become really widespread until the early 1900s. And piano rolls were equally as widespread until the 1920s, and then the phonograph started moving ahead. But radio in the United States quickly and rapidly went ahead of both phonographs and piano rolls. By the end of the 1920s, radio was king. Partly because of the Depression, records were a luxury. But once you bought the radio, whatever you wanted to listen to was free. So that kind of took over from the phonograph. And some people thought the phonograph would die completely, but then it made a comeback toward the end of the Depression. So it learned how to co-exist with radio. And the same thing happened with TV; people thought that would be the end of radio, but they learned how to co-exist too.
Robert: Great work, love his stuff. Ever seen his sketchbooks? His artwork is extremely tight and controlled, but his sketchbooks are a little less so. There are beautiful drawings in his sketchbooks that we never see in the comic strips, with lots of shading and drawn from life, and sometimes there's color on 'em. Those sketchbooks are great. I think there are two of them published. But he's a top-notch cartoonist, right up there. I always enjoyed reading his stuff. You know, you kind of need to get a magnifying lens to read some of it, but that's okay, it's worth it.
Robert: When I tell people I don't like modern music, a lot of them say, 'Well, gee, what about Tom Waits? You'd like him. He plays that funky old-time style.' But no, it's not the real thing at all. And I read something about him recently, an interview in some music magazine where he actually likes old 78s, he appreciates that old music. He's talking about these people that are very obscure that I also think are great. I don't know what he does now, but back when he used to be on Saturday Night Live I didn't like him that much. I thought he had a phony kind of rough voice that didn't add up to anything real to me. He's probably a nice guy, and he's an interesting guy in the interview, but that music of his — nah, not my cup of tea.