It was some time in 1980, age 23, when I got a letter from this guy in San Francisco. He had just started this porn tabloid, the San Francisco PLEASURE GUIDE, and he was interested in running my “Sexley’s cartoon and my “SIN FRANCISCO” column every month in his paper. So we made arrangements to meet at his office in the Castro district of San Francisco to discuss business.
His “office” was actually the size of cubicle that he rented out in this bigger office. So we went downstairs to this coffee shop to talk. His business card said he was in the “real estate” business. But basically he was an older and more practical version of me. He was coming up with all these different business schemes, throwing them out there and seeing if any of them stuck. Besides the porn tabloid, he also published a tabloid that focused on the gay bar scene, and some other publication. But you could tell that publishing wasn’t his real love. He just used his publications as cash cows to generate income which he would invest in his other schemes. I can’t for the life of me remember what he looked like. He was probably in his early 30s. And he sort of dressed like a hip entrapenour, or one of those Marin County swingers that used to be all over the Bay Area back in the ’70s and ’80s.
Anyways, he came up with the basic format for the PLEASURE GUIDE from the first issue. And never deviated from it in the 15 years I worked on it. Semi-nude young woman on the cover. Two generic porn photo layouts (he bought all the photos cheap from some agency). A big centerspread. Personal ads in the back. And on the first page, always, was this sex advice column, “The Knight Lady” written by this hot chick. There was a photo of the Knight Lady that always ran on the top of her column; this sexy, young, dark-haired, dominatrix-looking sexpot wearing a tight, black halter that showed off her bosoms to good effect.
It was a completely generic porn paper, the PLEASURE GUIDE. It was sort of the “cookie-cutter” approach, designed to put out a commercial publication with the least amount of money or effort. My column and cartoon would be the only real wild-card of creativity and imagination in the whole paper (uh-hum).
Since he was publishing a heterosexual porn paper, it never occurred to me at the time that the guy was almost surely gay, having his office in the Castro and hanging out with all the clones, etc. But for a guy that was working in the porn business, I was surprisingly naïve and innocent about sex back then . . . Still am.
My “Sexley’s BELIEVE IT OR NUTS!!” strip started out as a basic parody of “Ripley’s BELIEVE OR NOT!!” But over the years I expanded the format so it encompassed just about anything that combined sex and comics. I’d do strips about the sex lives of historical figures like J. Edgar Hoover and Ted Kennedy. Or I’d do stuff about the sex lives of celebrities like Madonna or Donald Trump or Lucille Ball or god-knows-who. I was constantly going to the library and checking out dozens of books in my endless research for new material. And sometimes I’d do autobiographical comics about my own sexual experiences, and the sexual issues I was grappling with. Sometimes I’d delve into serious issues; like examining the psychology of sexual psychopaths like Ted Bundy, the famous serious killer.
Occasionally I’d delve into controversial, and even taboo, subjects. I did a strip on Prof. Peter Duesberg, the Berkeley micro-biologist, and his controversial theory on HIV/AIDS. That one turned out to be too “radical” for the PLEASURE GUIDE. They refused to run it, printing one of my old-reruns in it’s place.
And after Jim Mitchell shot and murdered his brother Artie Mitchell, I did a harshly critical and even scathing strip about the Mitchell Brothers in particular, and the exploitive and de-humanizing nature of the porn business in general (just like me to bite the hand that feeds me). The PLEASURE GUIDE refused to run that one too, I guess out of fear of ruffling feathers in the porn biz. But, fortunately for me, a competing porn tabloid was eager to run that one. Evidently the managing editor had an axe to grind with the Mitchell Brothers — I think Artie Mitchell stole one of his girlfriends or something — so he was happy to get in some digs at them. (I had come a long ways from the light-hearted “Bitchell Brothers” type comics I had started out doing back in 1979.)
Whenever I started getting too serious, or started getting writer’s block, I would always remind myself of some great advice I once got from the great “Peanuts” cartoonist, Charles Schulz: “Draw funny pictures.” You’d be surprised at how many of the cartoonists on our daily comic strip page have completely forgotten this immortal piece of cartooning wisdom. I’d always eventually revert back to the classic slapslick burlesque comedy approach that has always been the bedrock of the comic strip medium.
Sometimes the PLEASURE GUIDE publisher would come up with assignments for me. He offered me this gig writing this humorous version of a sex horoscope column. But after 3 or 4 months I had exhausted just about every one-line joke I could come up with about sex and astrology. I hacked it out for a couple more months until I had to tell the publisher that I couldn’t come up with any more material. So he handed the assignment to some other faceless freelancer who cranked out the column in like 5 minutes and then happily cashed his $50 check. The publisher didn’t care. All he wanted was copy to fill the space in between the ads.
So I kicked myself for blowing such an easy-paying gig. But that would be my problem all throughout my freelancing career. I actually had standards. Or, more to the point, I had standards that were usually very different from the standards of the editors and publishers who were paying me. In truth, I strived with every piece of art that I produced, to push the limits of my talents and my imagination. I don’t know why. But I wasn’t pissing around. I was doing it for real. In truth, I primarily saw creating art as a way of exploring this vast and glorious universe of ours. And hopefully expanding my knowledge of it. And if I occasionally got a cheap laugh out of my audience, well, that was icing on the cake.
At first I would go to San Francisco every month to hand-deliver my latest cartoons and writing, and pick up my monthly check. But after awhile I got preoccupied with self-syndicating my comics to dozens of other publications all across the country. So I just mailed it in.
Things were going great until around 1994. I began to get really sick of doing the “Sexley’s” comic. After 15 years I had pretty much exhausted everything I had to say on the subject of sex (you know you’re in trouble when even sex has become boring!). But the deadlines kept looming. And getting deadlier every month.. What had started out as a joy akin to winning the lottery (“I can’t believe I’m getting paid money to sit here and draw these goofy comics!”) had turned into a dreary chore (“I can’t believe what a crappy job this is, and a lousy-paying job at that!”).
I would put off doing the thing until the very last minute, the night before the latest issue went to the printer. And I’d pull an all-nighter, staying up all night drinking endless cups of coffee, trying to come up with any scrap of an idea that I could scrape into a minimum-standard piece of commercial art that people would actually pay money to look at. By the time the morning sun was coming up, I’d usually have a finished cartoon in my hand. It was too late to mail it in, so I’d have to take the first BART train to the Mission district in San Francisco where the PLEASURE GUIDE had their office, to hand-deliver the thing. They’d have the whole paper laid out and ready to go, except for the blank space where they could slot in my cartoon.
The “office” was actually the apartment of this middle-aged white woman who put the paper together. She was very nice and sweet and incredibly over-weight. She looked like some bland housewife who sat on the couch all day eating bon-bons and watching soap operas. So the first time I met her it was kind of a shock. She was hardly the type of person you’d envision running a porn paper. In fact, she was practically a one-man-band. She wrote most of the copy, picked all the photos, laid the whole thing out, and delivered it to the printer. And she, of course, was the Knight Lady. So it was sort of like “The Wizard of Oz,” seeing the little man behind the porn screen.
By this time, I really wanted to quit doing “Sexley’s.” But it was like a vampire that would not die. The legendary cartoonist and publisher, John Holmstrom, was the managing editor at High Times magazine at that time. And he put together a benefit comicbook for NORML — the “legalize marijuana” group — and used about 10 pages of “Sexley’s” in that thing. Another guy, a comicbook publisher in Chicago, wanted to put out an entire “Sexley’s” comicbook, and he had all the pages laid out and ready print.
And then one day I got an urgent phonecall from John Holmstrom. “Ace! Bad news! I just got a call from the lawyers at Ripley’s BELIEVE IT OR NOT!! Apparently some of the corporate big-wigs at Ripley’s got wind of our comicbook. And they were not pleased to see you using a parody of their logo. Now they’re threatening to sue us.”
“Fuck!” I said.
Holmstrom assured me that he had a crack team of lawyers at High Times, and that he was prepared to battle it out with the team of lawyers at Ripley’s. We’d take the case all the way to the Supreme Court if need be (slight exaggeration). Eventually, Holmstrom would agree to trash the entire press run (*sigh* That was a very cool comic book!).
A couple days later I got an angry and threatening letter from the lawyers at Ripley’s, demanding that I immediately cease and desist from infringing on their copyrighted, trademark, logo and/or patent-pending intellectual property, etc. etc. Ergo and forsooth. Esquire.
I immediately wrote back the lawyers and told them I would never again sully the righteous and noble name of “Ripley’s BELEIVE IT OR NOT!!” with my goddamn smut. And I quit drawing comics. And I quit working in the porn business. And that was pretty much the end of that particular period of my life.