Steve Willis at Oly Comics Fest 2008
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Chelsea Baker, the director of the Olympia Comics Festival spent an hour with Steve Willis on June 7, 2008 at the Fest. She chatted with him about Olympia, comix, and his work. Here's a summary of their interview with supplemental information that Steve was kind enough to provide.
When Steve was growing up in Olympia, Washington, there weren't any comic shops in town. In fact, there weren't any comic shops anywhere, at that time. The only place that sold comics in Olympia was a quick market. Steve enjoyed the early DC and Marvels, but what really caught his eye were the Underground Comix he discovered a few years later in a head shop on a trip to Aberdeen.
The undergrounds exploited the concept of artistic freedom in comics as never before. They demonstrated the notion that there were alternatives to superheros and inspired a new generation of cartoonists around the country to start making their own comics. At about the same time copier technology advanced from low-speed printing on special thermal papers with poor quality images, to faster copies with crisp images on plain sheets of paper. Together, these factors created an ideal environment for low volume, self-publishing to explode.
Steve created his first zine in 1973 using mimeograph, but his output really took off as plain paper copiers came onto the market. Soon he began working with other cartoonists around the country who became part of what was named the newave comix era. At his peak Steve could crank out an 24-page digest in two weeks time.
In the late 1960's Washington elected a libertarian Republican Governor named Dan Evans, who would serve the state in that capacity for three terms. Evans was a key supporter of the formation of the Evergreen College, a radical new experience in higher education. Steve was one of the school's early graduates taking writing and journalism classes. He also convinced one of his teachers to approve some of his comics work as a means of expression. While at Evergreen he also met fellow cartoonists and students Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, and Charles Burns.
Matt was editor of the college newspaper and wanted to start a comics page, so he invited Steve, Lynda, and Charles each to do comic strips for it. Initially, Lynda wasn't too interested in comics and only through persistence was Matt able to convince her to try her hand in the medium.
The underground press had really taken off in the early 70's. The main distribution channel was head shops that specialized in drug paraphenial. As the political climate in the country quickly changed and local communities were granted the right to determine their own standards for obscenity, many head shops stopped carrying comix for fear of being shut down. At the same time the laws regarding drug paraphernalia were also restricting their operation and most shops closed.
The relationship between drugs and comix is undeniable. In fact, several of the smaller publishers funded their comix production with money from drug operations. Before long, only the largest publishers like Rip Off Press and Last Gasp remained.
During the late 70s Jay Kennedy was compiling his landmark Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide in Wisconsin. The book was published in 1982. During its development, Jay met and saw the work of 100s of alternative cartoonists. So when he landed a job as Cartoon Editor at Esquire Magazine he was quick to leverage his connections. He wanted to start a comics page and invited cartoonists from all over the country to submit ideas. After reviewing the entries he and the other Editors narrowed the choices to 10, and then 3. They were: Steve Willis, Matt Groening, and Lynda Barry! Steve recalled the Editors saying something to the effect, "We like everything about your comic except the artwork and the stories." They wanted people in the comics, but Steve wanted to draw funny animals, so he never joined his fellow alumni in Esquire's pages.
In the early 80s Michael Dowers started the Starhead Comix imprint in Seattle and published new material by Steve as well as reprints of his older Morty the Dog comix. When Starhead closed up shop a few years later Steve fondly remembers the farewell event in Puget Sound attended by dozens of cartoonists from the Pacific Northwest. Today Dowers continues publishing indie comics through his Brownfield Press.
In 1991 Steve took over editing and publishing of the City Limits Gazette from founder Bruce Chrislip. Steve produced the bi-weekly newsletter for nearly three years. (Rick Bradford lists the contents of all of the Steve Willis issues on his Poopsheet Foundation website.)
Steve's latest comic is The Fetid Lake of Doom which ran online on his Blog and was published in a limited edition print version of 100 copies by Rick Bradford in 2007.
Steve has always had a fascination for patterns. One year he created an index of the Bizarro World appearances in DC Comics and couldn't help noticing that they stopped appearing during the Nixon administration. Coincidence or . . . ? Today he's tracks sightings of UML license plates on the road and plots them on a grid where they mysteriously arrange themselves in consistent and recurring patterns. (Check out his Blog for details.)
Meeting Steve was the highlight of the Festival for me. Special thanks to Chelsea for bringing Steve to the Fest and to Morty the Dog for reviewing this summary for accuracy and recurring patterns.
Original content Copyright © 2007-08 Richard Krauss.
All other copyrights belong to their respective owners.