By Baylis Greene
Long before David Geiser made a name for himself as a painter, he
introduced himself to fans of underground comics in a 1974 issue of
one of his titles, DTs: "The Author (terminalus Derangus), a once
proud human specimen of human temperance, laid bare by the swamp of reality."
He does so, in part, because he's one of the characters in the
story, "Fishcake, a Night on the Beach," which involves barroom
drinking, a stroll through the streets of a San Francisco teeming
with depravities worthy of 18th-century London in a William Hogarth
engraving, travels in a VW van, more drinking. Or, in the words of
the omniscient narrator, "The die is cast . . . there are strange
things done, in the North Beach scum, by the men who delve for . . . drink!"
A "liquid yawn" by our man in long hair "CHUKE" goes the sound
effect frees him up for further adventures. ("I'm not always an
azzhole," he had informed the reader earlier, "sometimes I'm
asleep!") So, back into the van for some shaky driving to . . .
where? "Uuh," the slob called Fishcake asks, "what a we gonna do now?
Hee hee." The answer comes not from one of his compatriots but is
rendered in bold letters by the artist himself in a godlike
intervention: "Drink more! What else?"
The story is more than something from a time capsule, more than
an example of the rough beauty of pen-and-ink crosshatching, and is
more of a story than it might seem. The comic-book medium, with its
unique interplay of words and illustrations, is perhaps the best at
conveying tales in which not much happens with good drawing, what
could be boring or banal, isn't. (Harvey Pekar, the man behind
American Splendor, once wrote memorably, believe it or not, of
nothing more than moving a sofa into an upstairs apartment.)
"A Night on the Beach" also illustrates a point Mr. Geiser, who
lives in Springs, is getting across in his classes on underground
comics and graphic novels at the Ross School and Guild Hall in East
Hampton the importance of notebooks.
"I'd take notebooks to bars, travel, draw, and talk to people, get
their stories," he said the other day of his time writing and
illustrating comics in San Francisco from the end of the 1960s
through most of the '70s. The result was "a series of notebooks to
glean info out of. It can help to place a story line in an
environment. They're sort of life observations," not unlike those of
his contemporary Robert Crumb, he said. Mr. Geiser called him a
genius whose work is like a history of those days. (And whose own
notebooks were valuable in another way: He traded a stack of them for
a house in France.)
"It's useful to see and kind of draw a quick essence of a
person; it's a way to take notes visually. And it's a good way to
develop ideas. . . . I learned to draw by going to cafes and bars and
sitting and drawing people."
Mr. Geiser wants to show his students "the way of following a
story" and how to keep "a visual diary of experience." It's
important, he said, to avoid "constricting or restraining the form.
If they think or are told there's a right way to do it, it inhibits
them. . . . They can do collages if they're not too fluid at
drawing." Or students can produce an illustrated chapbook rather than
a traditional comic book.
He looked over some of his own original panels from the '70s.
"Half the fun was making them as complicated as possible." The form
is part of the pleasure: "You can blow up the page, go outside the
boundaries, and play it like a jazz instrument."
"I'd always been interested in the Beats of North Beach," he
said, and after he graduated from the University of Vermont, he found
his way to the Bay Area. He was an abstract painter, then as now. "I
saw what was happening with the underground there and comics and
became interested." He was going to go to graduate school, but soon
"the whole idea of coming back to New England and the dusty art world
. . ." His voice trailed off at the thought of what he would have missed.
Charles Bukowski and Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson "I would bump
into them," he said. That same issue of DTs features on its inside
cover perhaps Mr. Geiser's most famous strip as a comics artist,
"Poets' Last Supper," which later appeared in the book "Bukowski in
Pictures" and elsewhere. It shows a long table of '60s luminaries
killing time before a reading, Allen Ginsberg with his mind on
publicity, Bukowski with his mind on his next drink. . . .
"I'd go up to Kesey's poetry readings in Eugene. I remember
Gregory Corso walking and singing poetry from 'Gasoline.' I was
sleeping on wrestling mats with Corso stepping on and over me."
Mr. Geiser lived in the Mission District, around the corner from
the San Francisco Comic Book Company, a shop run by an enthusiast
named Gary Arlington. "He was a junkie; he OD'd. He was fat. It was
this Dickensian world with books up the wall. Crumb, S. Clay Wilson,
Spain Rodriguez, we would meet there and check on the latest comics."
Through his Yahoo Productions, Mr. Geiser turned out an
assortment of titles full of social, political, and sexual
commentary: Saloon, for instance ("Realer Than You'll Ever Be!"),
Demented Pervert, Uncle Sham ("distributed intergalactically"), Pain,
one issue of which from 1977 reveals a phantasmagoria of copulation,
intravenous drug use, and occasional, lighthearted mutilation.
The good times began to wind down when, he said, "the tentacles
of distribution started drying up." He got out of the comics business in 1978.
"San Francisco is a small town, and I left for a bigger world of
painting in New York." As a painter, he's a "pyramid builder," he
said, referring to his use of layer upon layer of paint. He has a
solo show scheduled for Portland, Ore., in June, and in August he'll
have work at Sylvester and Company in Amagansett, but he seemed
spooked by the current climate. "The art world is really dead, a
scary place. Corporations just can't buy a lobby-size painting."
Collectors are in some ways the bridge between his two lives.
"Collectors of my paintings have gone and sought out comics to make
part of their portfolio. It's like buying a print."
In other ways, his sensibility is a constant, and it's something
he wants to impart to students a sense of freedom, a lack of
self-consciousness. "Picasso spent his whole life trying to get back
to exploring a more primitive way of expressing himself I mean a
more direct way."
"I collect tribal art for the rawness, that directness of
expression. It always thrills me. I know the most facile draftsmen
who never put down a line that's interesting to me."
He said he's drawn to the art of the insane and the
incarcerated. "I like to see the demons."