Cliff Galbraith returns to talk about independent comics, debauchery, and cannabis decriminalization.
Cliff Galbraith is the legendary creator and artist best known for the sci-fi independent comic book Rat Bastard and Crucial Comics.
MJ: Did cannabis ever play a role in the creative process? Do you support the decriminalization of cannabis in New Jersey?
CG: I smoked a lot of weed in high school in the mid-70s. But in 77 and 78 I was more into punk, and pot was for hippies—we did everything to disassociate from that culture, so pot was supplanted by pills and booze and coke.
I was going to places like CBGBs, Max's Kansas City (in it's final year) and a bunch of shows in lofts in the city, and wherever the Ramones or Mink DeVille were playing in Jersey. And then there were the shows at the Palladium with Iggy Pop and Blondie, Television opening for Peter Gabriel, I think the Clash played there once—there was a lot of shows, but I don't recall the smell of pot like at the Zeppelin or Pink Floyd shows.
I don't remember much of the 80s. They were my lost years. I just printed T-shirts and got wasted on whatever was around a the time.
In the 90s pot started creeping back into my world. When I lived in L.A. from 2000 to 2004 I found a lot more people offering me a hit, even in business meetings. Back home in Jersey when was I was suffering from the Lyme, I found a little AK47 would ease the joint pain. But these days, while I'm not sworn off of anything, at 56, I've got a lot of my demons under control. Years ago it was like I was at war with my brain and tried to obliterate it at any chance I could. Today it's my greatest asset, and I'm using it a lot more than I did when I was younger. I'm also dyslexic, and it was rough when I was younger. Today, life isn't as confusing, I'm not escaping.
But to answer your question about it playing a role; I never created anything while I was high on anything. I never got an idea from any hallucinogens or mood altering substances. Creativity doesn't come from a pill or a puff. It comes from reading, exploring, experimenting, failure and then finally success. Drawing is hard enough, I'd never try to work on anything if I were impaired. I did like to party after I did my work. I still do.
As for decriminalization, I think it's long overdue. My conservative 84-year-old father agrees. The glacial pace that it's happening is still a surprise to me. I thought it would be like gay marriage; illegal everywhere one day, and then legal everywhere overnight. It never made sense to me. It's a gentle buzz. My wife likes to say about pot vs. booze, "Did you ever see two potheads get into a bar fight? Of course not. Nobody gets mean on weed."
MJ: At one time, you experimented with the idea of an animated series. What can you tell us about the pilot for a Rat Bastard animated series?
CG: That was a lot of fun. It was the excitement of Hollywood and all that entails. I'd had a show almost 10 years prior—I had created a very popular property in the 80s called Saurus, it was on T-shirts, towels, coffee mugs, etc. with the dinosaurs with definitions under them called Partyasaurus, Rockasaurus, Beachasaurus—they were everywhere. So I'd done the Hollywood shuffle when I was in my twenties. This time it was with Ron Howard's Imagine Television and Robocop creator Ed Neumeier was the writer/producer. But the show was to air on UPN, and when that station closed down, so did the Rat Bastard TV show. Howard Stern and Kevin Smith also were part of the line-up of animation. It would've been epic. Oh well, that's show business.
MJ: What's behind the meaning of the Huja Bros?
Well, I had used my real name on all the Saurus merch, and I saw all of it as a glorified Hallmark card. I wasn't ashamed of it, but I'd grown tired of it and wanted out of mainstream cartooning. I came up with Rat Bastard as a desire to make something I really cared about. When my friend Tim Bird joined me to write the Rat Bastard comic, we decided to be like the Ramones—we'd take fake names and we'd tell people we were brothers. We used to use the old term "hopped-up jackass' to describe someone's behavior. Eventually, we came up with H.U.J.A. which stood for hopped-up jackass. We became the Huja Bros, and we became these characters that showed up at comic conventions and said outlandish things about the comic industry and other sacred cows. People either loved us or hated us. In the mid 90s there weren't as many people as today who were running around with pink bubble gum colored hair or long purple locks. We were always lit up on something, and we gave the fans a show.
MJ: Who are your influences in the world of comics?
CG: Comics has some obvious heroes—Moebius, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Mort Drucker, Simon Bisley, Jim Steranko, Rick Griffin. But there's so many other places to look, like designers Syd Mead or H.R. Geiger. Painters like Peter Paul Rubens or Da Vinci for the human form. Warhol and Mark Rothko for color and boundaries to smash. And so many filmmakers, book cover illustrators, album cover designers and musicians. Comics is not the best place for inspiration, other than to see how puerile and devoid of craft 90% of it is. I once saw a comic by a hot artist for Marvel in the early 90s, and I thought, "I can suck just as much as this guy." It's what got me to make comics.
MJ: Has America become the dystopia you envisioned in Rat Bastard?
CG: It hasn't turned out to be that "bright, shining city on the hill" that Ronald Regan promised us, did it? I think I did predict the rise of the 1% with the Fortunate 500 living above everyone, but I thought it would take 150 years, not 15. Humans are both wretched and brilliant creatures. We can create wonderful things or come up with new ways to enslave or destroy each other. But now we're destroying ourselves, and we know it and we continue to do it. So, that's pretty dystopian. That's crazier than any sci-fi story I've ever heard of. Our capacity for cruelty, selfishness, and stupidity is now boundless.
I missed a few things, like climate change and the decline of cigarette smoking. I quit smoking cigarettes around 2003, and when I went back to working on Rat Bastard, I took away Roscoe's cigarettes. Not because I wanted to send a message about the ills of smoking, but because I felt it would be extinct in a few decades. And it looks like Uber will replace cabs, and machines will replace cab drivers. The loss of cigarettes and cab drivers takes a lot of character out of Rat Bastard comics. But I did create a world where a lot of people were running around in a major city with guns for personal defense. I'm no gun nut, but I think the gun nuts will eventually win out. Sadly, guns will be everywhere one day.
MJ: Cartoonists like those who were killed at Charlie Hebdo have been the target for terrorism. Can censorship work in our day and age?
CG: Fuck, I hope not. But during the Iraq War, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks was treated pretty poorly for speaking out. The press self-censored itself and went lockstep with the Bush/Chaney crowd and never questioned anything. There were no real protest songs like in the 60s. So not everyone needs to be censored, just afraid to lose their status or their fat paycheck. There were a lot of brave people in the 50s and 60s who stood up against war, racism, pollution, fascism, corporate greed, and many other issues and demons. I don't see that today. I thought the Occupy people were onto something, but they couldn't keep it together. I'm not planning on curtailing any of my drawings, and I'd like to address more of the issues of the day.
MJ: What led you to the idea of elevating Elvis to God-king in the world of Rat Bastard?
CG: It was in the zeitgeist. As Mojo Nixon once sang "Elvis is everywhere!" Elvis Presley was once the coolest guy on the planet. In death he became a punchline, a sad figure, but still an American icon. His music had fallen so out of favor that it seemed to have come back around as comedy. I picked up a cheap pair of Elvis sunglasses, I had a few Elvis movie posters in my house. Matt Pinfield from MTV used to live at my house. We'd watch old Elvis movies and sing "Clam Bake" at the top of our lungs. I had this artist friend in San Clemente, CA who got into Elvis as a joke at first. But as time went on, we really grew to appreciate the King. I saw how people around the country had these shrines of Elvis memorabilia in their homes. I could see the early stages of a religion forming.
Elvis didn't make it into the new Rat Bastard series. The latest iteration isn't as outrageous, it's not over the top like the original series. But I think the trade-off is I'm a better storyteller. The Elvis thing gave it more of a MAD Magazine, Mort Drucker feel.