Gary Sullivan: Tell me about starting up Your Head On A Platter. Were you working at Small Press Distribution then? What inspired you to start a zine (instead of, for instance, a "literary" journal)?
Rebecca Levi: I started my zine Your Head On A Platter while I was working as the Business Manager of Small Press Distribution. It was in 1994, and there we were in the middle of a "zine revolution." SPD, however, didn't carry zines or "micropresses", and I found myself tracking them down in places like the Epicenter and A Different Light in San Francisco and in the magazine Factsheet 5, which is the bible of zine listings.
I had been reading zines since I was a student at McGill University in Montreal, when "queercore" Canadian zines like Bruce La Bruce and GB Jones' JD's were getting a lot of attention. I got my hands on some SF based zines like the lesbian SM zine Brat Attack. Months later I moved to SF and found myself meeting a lot of the cartoonists, writers, and editors that I had discovered in Montreal.
I had always aspired to be a short story writer but had slipped into doing performance art when my friend Sandy Fernandez was curating a show for International Women's Day in Montreal. At the time I was taking a playwriting class, which was the only creative writing class I took at McGill, since all of the other 3 were taught by a teacher with a wretched reputation. I decided to "borrow" three monologues I had written for my play's characters, and do them myself as performance pieces. Though I continued to do performance art afterwards, that was the first and last time I committed to creating 3 new pieces for a show!
The first two isssues of Your Head On A Platter are 100% dream-inspired. Actually, that's a lie there was one piece in the first one that was true, but stranger than fiction, so I included it. I had a very long commute from San Francisco to SPD in Berkeley about an hour and fifteen minutes. So I would be half asleep on BART, and would religiously record my dreams from that morning. I found that writing them down brought out the most interesting aspects of them, that I couldn't really convey in conversation. I edited the zine and did mock layouts on BART as well. I worked 40 hours a week and commuted another 12+, and I liked the idea that I could create in these stolen slivers of time while I was unconscious, or travelling.
I tend to get one obsession a year, and Factsheet 5 was whetting my obsession for zines. So there was the form. I had all of these dreams written down, that weren't really performance material or short story material, but there was a good stylistic consistency between them, so there was the content. And the name I think I saw Richard Strauss' Salome at the San Francisco Opera House around that time, so it's partially a reference to the beheading of Saint John the Baptist (and the first issue has a picture of Oscar Wilde in drag as Salome holding his head on a platter) and partially a reference to dreaming, and the offering of intimate thoughts to strangers. But I think the "Your" in "Your Head On A Platter" could also be considered a challenge or a threat to the reader.
San Francisco was a great place to publish zines; there are a lot of independent copy stores with clerks and managers who are zine publishers themselves. The place where I had my copies done the manager was actually an SPD publisher, and they gave discounts to artists and non-profits, and were pretty accomodating about figuring out how to shave off the extra expenses (like using their saddle stitch stapler for free) which for a zine publisher is the difference between losing money or breaking even. Or maybe just losing less money. There were also bookstores willing to carry zines and keep the books on the tiny splits and profits.
Through SPD and my own zine publishing efforts I have learned the ugly truth about distribution, which is that you are very lucky to break even in publishing. There was a great hope about zines at the time, which to a certain extent crashed, at least in terms of zines as "product," when Fine Print Distributors in Austin, Texas declared Chapter 11 and took thousands of dollars of micropress money down with it. My philosophy ever since then is don't put up money that you aren't willing to lose 100% of, with a smile. That is to say, keep down your costs as much as possible, and I think to a certain extent, this has had an impact on which artistic mediums I have pursued.
I didn't even bother collecting my 40% ($0.80 per zine) share of the zines I sold in local stores it wasn't worth the bus fare and the bookkeeping efforts. I enjoyed the creative process, I didn't enjoy the distribution distribution is what I did for my living, after all, it was no fun to do it after hours too so I gave away all future copies of my zine. I will be putting the back issues online eventually, and I do own the domain www.yourheadonaplatter.com (which currently points to the same site as www.queerbedrooms.com, so use whichever one you fancy).
The name "Your Head On A Platter" has served me well and I am still happy about it. My obsession last year was for drawing dentistry inspired artwork, so when I put that up on the website, I think that will fit in very well with the title!
In answer to your last question why a zine and not a journal I think the form suited the content (short surreal dream-inspired pieces), and I wanted to participate in that particular DIY world. Hell, I just wanted to be in Factsheet 5! It also suited me at the time in terms of my available time and my financial situation.
GS: "Queer Bedrooms," which you're doing right now as a cartoon series, originally began as a film project. Are you still going ahead with the film? What was behind the impulse to do that?
RL: When I moved back to New York in 1996 I got a job at a documentary based video production company. I wanted to do a project on my own or with collaborators that would enable me to learn about the process of documentary filmmaking that would be of a manageable size and topic for my first time out. My friend Peter Bird, who is one of the subjects of Queer Bedrooms, had done a photography project in SF called something like "Gay Boys and their Bedrooms." Each subject was represented by 3 photos: one of the gay boy (or boys, if they were a couple living together), one of the bedroom as seen from the door, one of the bedroom as seen from the bed.
I loved the repetition and the restraints of the project; the idea of representing someone through such a limited but telling lens. It seemed like a good idea for a video project. I'm also a little embarrassed to say that I thought it would be attractive to film festivals, such as the queer Mix Festival in New York, and the potential saleability was a factor as well (it didn't take too long back in New York to think like a marketer, I guess).
I set up some similar rules, but they aren't necessarily reflected in the final edited piece. Some of the rules are: take an hour of footage, cut it to five minutes, take shots from the door, from the bed, out the window if there is one, and in the closet. However, sometimes these are the most boring shots possible and I am not forcing myself to use them. Also, I limit the shoot to the bedroom. I have actually shot outside of the bedroom because sometimes people have neat stuff outside of the room! Peter has 100 white plastic toy gun molds in his hallway 50 facing towards the front door, 50 facing away from it. Sam has a eggshell blue bathroom with gold leaf writing etched in nonsequitors on each wall. All the people I've interviewed so far have roommates, and some of them live very much in their bedrooms. In the final product you see only the bedroom. Maybe I can mine the other stuff for a collage of some sort.
GS: What made you decide to begin doing the piece as a cartoon as well as a documentary film?
RL: When I moved back to New York in 1996, I was hit by the mother of all writer's block. I had always been tormented by writer's block, but this was something of another nature altogether. Writing was an impossibility. After several months of depression, I started drawing. For many year I had owned a strange book called Living Dentures, which was a book that dentists were meant to give to their patients to help take the taboo out of denture wear, and to argue that the best dentures were ones that were natural, that is, imperfect. The book has big glossy plasticized pages with enormous looming smiling people with mediocre teeth. And gorgeous early 1960s ad copy. I bought it in a junk shop in SF for $15 and all I can say is that it has ultimately changed my life!
This book had been on my shelf for many years, and I had always wanted to "engage" with it in some way. But what could I do with it? Performance art wasn't the right medium, I wasn't writing at the time so short stories were out, I still liked doing zines in theory, but clip art had never been my style. So I decided to draw pictures based on the photos in the book.
I was relatively satisfied with these sketches, and made them the basis of Your Head On A Platter #3, also titled "Better Living Through Dentistry." The writing in there includes about 1/2 dreams and 1/2 fiction, including a fictionalized biography of Mickey of Life cereal. It has absolutely no writing about dentistry, but I liked the juxtaposition.
The drawing continued with other dentistry related art: I got a 1930s dental supply catalogue which gave me a lot of material to work with. I really can't get enough of the subject, and it elicits a strong reaction in people. But the source material is hard to come by. There are a lot of textbooks with x-rays of rotted teeth and other oral disfunctions, but that really isn't my interest. I like the dentist, dental assistant, the patient, and the equipment, as well as the physical interaction between.If anyone has any material like this, I will gladly take it off of their hands.
I had started the Queer Bedrooms video project a little earlier, filming my former SPD co-worker Sam Phillips, who is a great collector and budding (non-virtual) auction enthusiast. One of his most outstanding and obvious collections are photographs of people he doesn't know. I had always shied away from owning photographs of strangers because it seemed creepy that there would be no one in a family line to care or claim these parts of themselves.
Now my feeling is that you are giving a new home to something that has been orphaned. Sam really helped me see the beauty in these, especially in the mundanity of some of them.
After "engaging" with the dentistry book, I soon felt an urge to "engage" with other visual material that interested me, and took to buying old photos at street fairs, as well as drawing from some of my own family photographs.
Around this time I met you, Gary. We were sitting in my living room one day, comparing interests and influences, and in particular, sharing our enthusiasm for underground comics. I said I wish I could draw comic strips because I think it is a wonderfully exciting form that, like performance art, can combine many different media visual art, writing, and, I think, the influence of film. And you challenged me to produce one! I remember we both had deadlines I was supposed to do maybe eight pages in 4 months, and you were supposed to do about 2 or 3 times as much during the same time.
I started with a story about me and a woman I used to be involved with and our last date, at Coney Island. It was based on a series of photographs, and when I ran out of photographs, I felt stuck. Also, I was having a tough time with the dialogue. I was sort of the unlikable character in the strip, and I wasn't enjoying creating that particular portrait of myself.
I don't remember what inspired me to start mining the Queer Bedrooms source tapes for material, but soon I was in front of my TV with the remote control and my paper and pen. Since I had already done some rough cut editing on Peter's segment, I had already transcribed and highlighted the most quotable segments. These sound bites became speech bubbles. I would press pause on my tape and eke out Peter's likeness from the fuzzy television image and draw it. That's how it came to be.
GS: Do you have plans to develop Queer Bedrooms into a full-length comic book?
RL: I'm such a medium hopper. As you know, the Queer Bedrooms went from a photograph project in Peter's hands, to being a video project, to a comic strip, and now a web site. I got off of the strict schedule we had set for ourselves in order to learn HTML, and now the comics are accessible at www.queerbedrooms.com. I am very attracted to web animation, and would like to learn Flash and see if there's a place for it in Queer Bedrooms.
I really prefer web distribution in theory, because I don't have to do order fulfillment or carry my zine around physically to different stores. But there are so many problems inherent in it. The two problems that concern me the most are 1. that it's a medium that you have to use a computer to access and 2. it's a medium that you have to have a good computer to enjoy. If you don't have a color monitor (which I didn't, for the first 5 months of doing the zine), and if you don't have decently fast connectivity, you may be frustrated with the amount of time it takes to download the comic strip panels.
I myself do most of my reading on the subway, and I lament that as long as the project exists solely on the web, that it can't rest on my friends' night tables.
On the other hand, friends I have in other countries have accessed my work without my prior knowledge, and have printed it out and put it on their walls! That is my idea of success. I live to have my work on the walls of people I love and respect.
But I didn't answer your question. The answer is I hope so, but I don't know so. I'd like people to have copies lying around their closets and 20 years from now when HTML doesn't exist anymore they can enjoy a memory of what domesticity was like in the late 90s.
GS: Your drawing style is so unique, I don't think I've seen anything quite like it. Can you tell me about some of your influences?
RL: I would say my major visual art influences are in order of my exposure to them, not necessarily in terms of their degree of influence, are Stan Mack, Ida Applebroog, Francis Bacon, Art Spiegelman, Aubrey Beardsley, Dan Clowes, and most obviously Ben Katchor. "Stan Mack's Real Life Funnies" used to appear in the Village Voice they used to be the first thing I'd read when I got the paper. It was my first introduction to the idea of a documentary comic strip.
The Voice fired Stan Mack and Jules Pfeiffer, both of whom defined the paper for many readers for many years. When Ted Rall wrote that Voice cover article recently attempting to skewer Art Spiegelman, he said that Jules Pfeiffer would not be singled out by museum curators for the definitive word on comics I wanted to yell: don't blame Art Spiegelman, blame the Voice for firing him and hiring you! I had a lot of problems with that article. One of Ted Rall's attacks on Spiegelman was based on the fact that Maus was not in his own words, but in the words of his father. Does this make it any less of an extraordinary accomplishment on behalf of the artist? It's very insulting towards documentarians.
I actively and purposefully trained my eye on Aubrey Beardsley. I don't think anyone does line drawings as beautifully as he did. I love the big swaths of black, generous white spaces, contrasted with meticulous detail, and of course, the magnificently perverted content! My ex-girlfriend illustrated my first issue of Your Head On A Platter which was incredibly romantic, having my lover illustrate my dreams. She really picked up that Beardsley-esque style, down to the minute point work. When we broke up I almost didn't put out the next copy of the zine, because I didn't have an illustrator. She contributed one, my friend Zachary Zimmerman contributed one, and I did the rest out of necessity I didn't consider myself to be a visual artist at all at that point.
Ben Katchor was the catalyst that helped me find my own look. The setting of Katchor's "Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer" is an unnamed city resembling old world New York, populated by men with plausible but ficticious professions a nostalgia for a past that never really existed. But almost, maybe, could have, were the laws of reality just slightly different. I actually just got back from seeing his comic-book opera Carbon Copy Building, which was an absolute dream come true for a Ben Katchor fan. His style is sort of a hurried looking line drawing with an ink wash a beautiful effect that deepens the nostalgic tone of the cartoon. The lighting in the strip is perfect not something I've learned to do yet. There are a lot of rough edges and loose ends in the lines. I don't mean to be insulting when I say his lines are not perfect I find them perfect in their imperfections as if the world constructed by these faulted beings and structures could rapidly unravel, or rearrange themselves in yet another slightly different architecture.
GS: You told me once it completely shocked me that you don't do any pencilling prior to inking. Aiii! I can't imagine!
RL: I don't draw a sketch or use any pencil when drawing. I keep my tools very simple: one pen, one kind of paper, one small brush. Water. Occasionally, I have a large section of black to fill in, and I will paint it with India ink. I draw with a Pilot precise rolling ball pen, black (or occasionally blue, for some dentistry themed work) extra fine. I use a heavy watercolor paper usually Strathmore 140 lbs. The surface is too challenging for those felt tip rapidograph pens. I like the feeling of permanence of the paper, and since it is a bit pricey I intentionally buy only one pad of 12 sheets at a time it psychologically contributes to my sense of commitment to finish what I have started on.
I start with the faces of the characters, and if I don't get the face right, I start again from scratch. The most important part is the eyes if they aren't interesting, I start over. If I don't start off with the face, I start with the hair. I think that the repetition of drawing the strands of hair soothes my brain and prepares me for the rest of the process.
I do abandon the piece if the face doesn't work, but most of the time it does. Then I'm committed to finishing it. So if I get a line wrong, I draw another line to make it right. I call this my "double line" technique. You'll see a lot of multiple chin lines in my work! Sometimes I shade them in to make one thick, stronger, more intentional looking line.
I have been listening to a lot of Elliot Smith while I draw lately, and I like to think there's a parallel: sometimes he lays down two tracks of himself singing the same lines in the same song not in harmony, but the same notes yet each track is just slightly different. It's like shadow singing, the different voices don't quite match, and there is something haunting and mysterious about the effect. I like how the shadow singing shows the fault lines, the places where the voice is slightly "off." It keeps it interesting.
I have the same emotional response to Ben Katchor's lines and shades for similar reasons, and I hope to evoke that kind of feeling in my work as well. But I must also admit that I get a great thrill when I draw a good clean line! Especially on something like a chin or a hand. It gives me an opportunity to contrast it with some detail work or a thick black space elsewhere in the picture. I think of the black spaces as the "anchors" of a picture, whether it's a background, somebody's pants, or an accessory.
Besides the double line thing, the other major element of my technique is that I use a brush to manipulate the ink that is already on the page from the water-soluble pilot precise roller ball pens that I use. The effect looks like a watercolor, and has a bleed. This isn't a Ben Katchor thing, and I'm not sure where I got it from: he puts a wash over a permanent ink, so his lines stay true. I think I was trying to figure out how he did that, and this is what I came up with instead.
I might pull the brush around the perimeter of a face, individual strands of hair, in between the lines of a plaid shirt, etc. Sometimes I use the shade to de-emphasize some corrective lines. This part of the process feels very automatic and fluid. I don't use this wash technique on the Queer Bedrooms project, because it looks terrible when reproduced on a regular Xerox machine, and the project is eventually destined to be printed. It's much better to stick to traditional cross-hatch or other shading technique if it's intended for Xerox. The shading looks beautiful, however, when reproduced on a color copier, which is able to capture the subtleties of the many shades of gray. It can look quite good on the web as well.
GS: I noticed you added an "interruption" to your website, concerning the recent spraying of NYC.
RL: I just started this "interruption" to my website, in response to the great New York encephalitis scare of 1999, which has now turned out to be not encephalitis at all, but the West Nile Virus. I am very disturbed by the whole thing I take both the virus and the Malathion pesticide spraying that is being conducted in response as serious threats. The city has done a terrible job informing people as to when the spraying is being done, so you just have no control of being exposed to it, whether you have a known immune deficiency or not.
I've just begun this section with three pages about the Malathion spraying, in which I posit that New Yorkers have become required to wear gas masks around their neighborhoods, and that they are for the most part approaching it with a business-as-usual, king-of-the-universe attitude that we are so well known for. I'm not sure they'll be able to keep their shit together, frankly. The illustrations are based on 1940s photos of gas masks from Popular Mechanics. I had done them about 9 months prior to the malathion spraying.
I hate any kind of human tragedy, and I don't want to make light of the reality of encephalitis. Simultaneously, I feel a pressing need to engage in some way with this topic because I am easily scared of all of these things; creating something humorous takes the sting out of it. There have been some animal and insect related phenomenon that have fascinated me lately especially the "sentinel chickens" placed on the New Jersey/New York border by the aggressive New Jersey anti-mosquito unit, the genetically manipulated super-smart mice whose synapses fire more rapidly than the average mouse. Don't you find it comforting that we are creating smarter vermin for the new millennium? There was also the man who broke into the killer whale pool at Sea World, and was found dead in his underwear. I can't help thinking it was some kind of sexual urge. His family is suing the park, because there was no indication that the "killer" whale was lethal.
I've been listening to the Talking Heads album Fear of Music," which is a great album of paranoia, from "Air" ("air it can happen to you") to the classic "Life During Wartime" to my current favorite "Animals" ("animals they're eating nuts and berries they're making a fool of us"). This is the soundtrack I have in my mind for this section of the site. Anyway, I don't know if I am going to take this theme further or not. If so, my intention is to steer away from human tragedy. We'll see if I succeed. There are enough too many zines that revel in death and I don't think it's very humane. The killer whale thing, though, that's still begging for attention
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