INTERVIEW: Harlan Ellison, part 2
In the first portion of our interview (click here), Harlan told Martha Thomases all about the nature of humanity and probably became the first person to use the names Klimt, Frank Buck, Eddie Condon, and Sanjaya Malakar in a single sentence. We pick up our story right after some stuff about Gary Groth…
Well, that’s that. Anyway. The Dream Corridor. After ten years, the book is out.
CoMx: It’s just gorgeous.
HE: Isn’t it? You know what’s interesting? It’s gotten great reviews in Publishers Weekly, in Newsweek. It’s gotten great reviews in the mainstream. And nowhere in the comic world are they reviewing it.
CoMx: What’s made it in bookstores is not what the comic press writes about.
HE: Yeah, it would seem you’re right, Martha; and it breaks my heart. I love comics so, and want acknowledgement for them, beyond Crumb and Spiegelman and MIller. But the comics press for the most part only plays the flak-agents for DC and Marvel. They write about the superheroes. Here’s this book, this absolute gem, on which dozens and dozens of people broke their ass, Dream Corridor, and it contains the absolute last time that Curt Swan put a pencil to paper. We had the smarts to publish Colan as Colan, and then colored it, too. One would think: here is a book that really matters, what people say comics are supposed to be! And we can’t get a mention amidst all the talk about who’s going to be writing Birds of Prey.
CoMx: But you’re going to be reaching more people than Birds of Prey.
HE: Yes, I suppose.The book is selling out, but it’s cold comfort, kiddo.
CoMx: I don’t know your numbers, but I know that Birds of Prey is selling less than, say, 300 is selling.
HE: Mmmm. But is that really the point? Whatever the distribution may be is sort of commercialspeak. I guess I’m talking art for the people, not just feeding the adolescent fix. Here are critics of the field looking at a genre, an art-form, and they have the choice of doing the current Spider-Man of the 500 Spider-Man books that are put out every month, or one issue of this magazine over here that is striving for something clearly different. And they choose to do the Spider-Man over and over again. When you call them on it, you get no response. It’s as if: why is this person talking to us about that which does not have a cape and a cowl?
CoMx: Because they are confusing the medium with the genre. They think “superheroes” is the same as comics. They think superheroes are the important stuff.
HE: You mean all the good, smart shit that Maggie Thompson or Peter David or Gary Groth has been nagging about all these years, none of it has stuck?
CoMx: Where it’s stuck, those people have not gone on to write for the comics press.
HE: That’s pretty depressing: after all these years and all this serious discussion of what comics should be doing by all of the serious critics in the field … that nobody gets it. And they all still think that Superman is the beginning and the ending of this Great American Original Art-form? Kill me now. There’s something awry in the world of graphics. It’s very distressing to me, especially because the new Dream Corridor is out, and it’s probably the last of that kind of thing I’ll ever do.
CoMx: Does that mean you’re done with creating comics?
HE: Oh, hell no. I just means, I guess, that a miracle like Dream Corridor, well, its kin will never be seen again. But comics, I love ‘em, always have. I’ll never be done with comics. I have a mini-series that I’m doing with DC, Paul Chadwick and I are doing it, but that’s much more mainstream identifiable. It’s not superheroes, but it’s nothing like Dream Corridor. Dream Corridor was something that I poured my absolute heart into. Diana Schutz, as editor, has just slaved over it. And before her, Anina Bennett, and before her, Bob Schreck. They worked on this project as if it were the grail. It’s selling out now, which is terrific. But the fact that it hasn’t gotten good sales numbers all the way through its life … that would allow it to have a little more influence on the field, well… it just saddens me.
CoMx: There aren’t a lot of anthology serials that do well.
HE: Yeah. (sighs) It’s like sitcoms. People love to see the same characters week after week, until they get very snotty and tired of it and then they say, “God, it’s the same old thing week after week.” Well, yeah! That’s what you asked for. You try to be sanguine about these things. And I suppose there just ain’t no Utopia. Frank Miller and I used to have wearying discussions that always ended with our realization: there just ain’t no Utopia. A world with nothing but Proust and Socratic dialogues would be as dull as a world with nothing but Britney Spears and Kevin Federline in it, I suppose. (sighs again)
CoMx: I think what’s happened in comics is that the people doing them today grew up reading them, and not necessarily much of anything else. They do things that are very self-referential to them, and to the group of people who are like them.
HE: For me, there’s only one downside to all of this, to any culture. Any group is entitled to have its own culture, whether that group is Indonesians or teenagers or dentists or nuns rock aficionados or cannibals. They’re entitled to have their own culture, their own code-language, like pharmacists and CB-truck drivers, as long as there is an over-arching ethos to which everyone has access. With the Internet, everybody has been cut off from all that, and all that gets the play for “Young Moderns” is that which they get through the mass media. So they get it from gossip magazines and Entertainment Tonight and television and the Internet and websites. It’s as if they only speak to echoes from their own armpits. And all the rest of history and received univerrse to which they should be privy … is denied them, it isn’t “cool,” so they don’t pay any attention to it.
A kid who likes whatever fizz rock group is hot this week, should also be able to listen to Stevie Ray Vaughn, should be able to listen to Glenn Miller, should be able to listen to E. Power Biggs on the great organs of Europe doing Bach’s Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor. But they can’t, and they won’t. They’re blind and deaf. It’s white noise. All they’ll listen to is what they are fed on Top 40.
CoMx: Didn’t they say that about us? I’m 54, and they said that about my generation in the 1960s and 1970s. I bet they said it about your generation.
HE: They didn’t, no, as a matter of fact. And why they didn’t bears a very simple explanation. There was not the size of mass communications that there is now. There is an appreciable difference between popular culture today and popular culture even as little as 30 years ago or 40 years ago when you were a kid. There was not so much to know. It was possible to have cultural retention, not cultural amnesia. That’s become a concomitant of the universal curriculum of TV-cum-Internet.
CoMx: They said that about the Beatles and those of us who watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan when we were 10 years old.
HE: But that was for one fuckin’ year that some few idiot people said that about the Beatles, and then all of sudden the Beatles were the hottest thing in the country, and everybody listened. It took one year. It wasn’t as if the Beatles were sent to Outer Mongolia, to a gulag, and then no one listened to them. Everybody listened and everybody heard very quickly. But todaya, with everything leavened to the lowest common denominator of pseudo "equality," a no-talent like Paris Hilton on YouTube has the same value as fellini or Kurosawa. Back in "The Day " (oh, that smug-ass odious phrases), everybody listened to rock and roll, and Roy Orbison. It came to mean something! Now, it’s not just a kind of music, it’s the nature of the culture. “Thass how I roll, dude.”
I was denigrating people who have to have their music with their iPod as they walk down the street, 24/7. Rock music, the 90210 sensibility, the fascination with infamous nobodys like William Hung and gantsta no-talents, teen culture and cars, it’s what fuels the economy now! Buy an SUV or the terrorists win! Before cars were the only means of locomotion, here in Los Angeles, we had wonderful transportation. Trolleys, the big red cars, no pollution. But cars took over. Cars and bad music 24/7 are the culture. If you don’t buy cars, or ugly gangsta clothes from Old Navy, the Dow goes down. We go into a recession. We go into a recession, people are on the breadline. But they still won’t buy smaller cars and they still want these huge SUVs that eat gas and they spin this bullshit that it’s a necessity because they have to take the fuckin’ soccer team to their matches. Am I getting aangry uh-huh, I’m an elitest drowning in an oceana of ignorant, selfish, rude, hateful, spineless Cro-Magnoid Brad Pitt-and-Lindsay Lohan-wannabees!
It’s a culture with a disastrously limited memory, and even more atrophied kindness and courtesy. It’s a less kind world than the one I was brought up in, or even the one you were brought up in, dear Martha. Whatever the comparisons may be between my era, your era and the current era of people saying, “This is crap, this isn’t crap,” at least we had the access to that which wasn’t crap. So don’t try to rationalize here, what you decry to your husband in private. It don’t scan!
(Long pause for both.)
CoMx: You’re from Painesville, Ohio?
HE: I was born in Cleveland but I grew up in Painesville until I was 13.
CoMx: I grew up in Youngstown.
HE: Also not a great center of art and truth.
CoMx: Excellent art museum, actually. The Butler. It’s small, but it’s good. No bookstores. Really an anti-intellectual culture, as I recall.
HE: America has always been a fiercely anti-intellectual nation. We tend to dismiss art and culture and taste and ratiocination for the much vaunted bullshit, “Everyone’s entitled to his opinion.” The deification of “Well, I don’t got no book learnin’, but I’m rillll street smart.”
CoMx: We don’t want these intellectual elites telling us what to do.
HE: George M-for-Monkeyshit Bush: You’re the Congress and you can’t micro-manage the war. I’m just a moron and I can micro-manage the war.
CoMx: Given the state of the mass audience today …
HE: Wait, my wife just came in. My wife is talking to me. Yes, dear? Why don’t you interview my wife? Come and talk to Martha and let her interview you. Hmmm. Sorry, Martha, she ran the other way.
CoMx: My first question would be, Why?
HE: Why what? Why is she my wife? How the hell should I know. She’s been hangin’ around for 21 years, but that I cannot answer for you. I’ll have to ask her some day. Oh. Oh. Wait a minute … You know who Theodore was, don’t you?
CoMx: Brother Theodore?
HE: Yeah. Right. So, I knew Teddy. I had always wanted to meet him. Teddy was one of my idols. I saw him perform in clubs years and years and years ago, probably before you were born, and finally, about 25 or so years ago, a mutual friend arranged for me to meet him. This is maybe ten years before he died. We met in New York in the drawing room of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, upstairs there’s a Sherlock Holmes drawing room where I used to stay when I came to New York. Teddy came up and we met and we were supposed to go to dinner. We sat across from each other in these big easy chairs and we just bonded instantly. Four, five hours we talked; we never did get out to dinner. So, hours later, after we’d told each other the long stories of our lives, in minute detail, Teddy looks at me intensely, and he says (goes into Theodore imitation), “You know, Harlan, you and I are very much alike.” And I say, “How is that, Teddy?” And he says, “When women first meet us, they are mesmerized. They see in us the magician, the dark, stormy petrel of life. And they love it, they want it, and they say, ‘Yes, this is passion! This is destiny! This is the cosmos! I wish to be with him.’ They cling to us. They cliiiiiing to us for a week, and a month, and a year they cleave to us, and then they say, ‘When will he shut up? When will he stop talking?’ And they run shrieking into the street.”
I fell off the chair. That’s exactly what it is. So, you ask me, how is it that she is my wife? This is my answer: I had four bad marriages; I loved many many women; I was quite a rake in my day. A stud. A swordsman of amour! In fact, I was a well-known slut. I love the company of women. I was always a good boyfriend. I never cheated. If I’m living with someone, that’s where I am. If I’m married, that’s where I am. I never ever played around. Also, I don’t drink. I don’t use drugs. I don’t hit. I’m pretty funny and I provide well. When I broke up with women, we would still be friends. I’ve got lady friends I’ve known for 40 years and they still call and they come over. So Susan knew all of this when she married me.
But I found that I’m a tough 10-day old donut, I am. You’ve got to really have your strength about you and your wits and your personal outlook on life to be able to be around me. I wish I were otherwise. I wish I were gentler. I look at gentle people and I think, “Gee, they seem to be a lot happier and they aren’t nearly as angry as I am all the time. Let me try that.” And I try it for a day or two, and I wind up kicking in the side of some schmuck’s car who’s going through a red light while he’s on his telephone.
CoMx: Maybe you should be in a smaller town.
HE: I’ve lived in smaller town. I live in a small town. I live up here on the top of a mountain in this wonderful house filled with art and books and music and my wife; and my assistant comes in every day, Monday through Friday, and it’s a great house. In fact, it’s the house that everybody, when they come to town, they want to come to, because there’s no other house like it. It’s got gargoyles on it, the front wall is a 30-foot long sculpture of The Lost Aztec Temple of Mars. The house is filled with comic books and real reading-type books and non-fiction and records and CDs and paintings and hidden rooms and toys and underground grottos. It’s the playhouse you wanted when you were a kid. I got it. Why should I go somewhere else?
CoMx: You said this is probably your last comic work. If there was one person you could work with – personalities aside, just in terms of the quality of the work, who would it be?
HE: I’d love to do something with Warren Ellis. I think Warren Ellis is just clever as hell. Living or dead?
CoMx: It doesn’t matter.
HE: If it were anybody, I’d want to work with Milton Caniff or Mac Raboy, Jack Cole. I worked with Will Eisner to some extent. I did a Spirit adaptation for a movie that was never made. That broke my heart. I guess I’d like to work with an artist like Mac Raboy who used to do Captain Marvel, Jr.
Today? I’ve worked with the best. The Dillons, Frank Miller, Steranko, Arthur Suydam, hundreds of others. Mobius, Vaughn Bodé, Ken Steacy, Giger. In Dream Corridor, we’ve got Gene Ha, Jay Lynch, we’ve got Rags Morales, Gene Colan Curt Swan. You don’t get much better than that. I’ve worked with some of the best. Neal Adams, Hannes Bok, Steve Hickman, Richard Corben, Al Williamson, John K. Snyder III, Patrick Arrasmith … Geez, Martha, I’ve worked with fuckin’ legends!
Someone I haven’t worked with that I’d like to work with? I guess Art Spiegelman. I think Art Spiegelman is a terrific person and a force for good in our time. I admire him exceedingly. I think he’s done what very few people working in this field can do, and that is alert and awaken and embolden the rest of the world with his work. I think Spiegelman is one of those rara avis, as we say in Latin, whose passing does only good. His existence does only good.
CoMx: Your movie opens Thursday?
HE: Yeah, damn skippy! They’re doing a special premiere evening April 19th at the Writers Guild in Beverly Hills. People can go to my website and the information is there, or they can go to the Writers Guild Foundation website.
CoMx: Is there a distributor yet, for wide release?
HE: They’ve got a distributor, as I understand it at the moment. The film was made by Creative Differences, directed by Erik Nelson; and you can go to their website to see the trailer. They’re the people who made the Academy Award-winning Grizzly Man. In fact, Werner Herzog will be there on April 19. I’m of mixed feelings about the movie. It’s not one of those things you see on The Discovery Channel or PBS. It’s an actual full-length Robert Crumb/Hunter Thompson kind of movie. It’s a real authentic documentary. It’s filled with all kinds of people.
It’s kind of like being in that scene in Tom Sawyer, where the townssfolk think Tom and Huck have drowned, and they come back, and they’re up in the nave of the church listening to everybody bemoaning them and eulogizing them and talking about what good kids they were. It’s an out-of-body experience to float above the coffin and see people watching a movie about you and you’re still alive. I said to the producer, “You know, all of these people saying nice things about me is very cool. I would rather people say nice things rather than bad things, given my choice. But …
I think you would probably get much more interesting sound-bites if you talked to my enemies. Go and talk to that goofy British writer, Christopher Priest. Not the comic book Christopher Priest, the Brit -SF writer Christopher Priest. Go and talk to Gary Groth and his Charlie McCarthy, Kim Thompson. Go see if you can find the semi-sentient Internet trolls who’ve never met me, buut they know they don’t like me ’cause …D’uh … they’re entitled to their pip-squawk opinions, and let them tell you what a monster I am. He smiled at me and he said, “We thought about that and we discarded the idea.” I asked him why, and he smiled evilly and said, “You’re your own worst enemy.” So, it’s one of those films you can go see, and then you can make your own decision. We’ll be taking a national poll, and if "Bad Dude" wins out over "Cool Dude," I will off myself in Gary Groth’s front yard.
You’ll say, “I’ve experienced a nice slice of life about this guy, Ellison. Let’s see if he’s okay … or a complete jerkazoid.” If it’s the latter, it’s splatter brains time at the O.K. Groth Corral.
The 105-minute theatrical documentary about Harlan Ellison, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, will have its premiere at the Writers Guild in Beverly Hills on Thursday, April 19. For information about all of this, and to get tickets for the Guild Event, go to www.harlanellison.com.
Copyright 2007 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All rights reserved. Harlan Ellison is a registered trademark of The Kilimanjaro Corporation.