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Interviews and Articles | CHAOTIC ORDER / OCTOBER 2001 - questions by Bob Smith

Could you tell us something about your background ...

I was born in Queens NYC, the oldest of four kids, and was raised on Massachusetts' North Shore in a very small house. My parents were Roman Catholics, very religious, but open-minded in their own way. They always had a lot of books around - history, art, mythology, fantasy - and they always encouraged my siblings and I to read and to make art. Everybody in our family played a musical instrument or two or three. It was a simutaneously inspiring and repressive atmosphere to grow up in.

We didn't have a television until the first moon landing and that was a black and white set. Luckily, the first Japanese animated shows like Astro Boy, Gigantor, and Kimba were beginning to air here in the US, as well as Ultra Man and the Godzilla films. Those had a big influence on my pre-teen mind. Amusingly enough, it was years before I realized that some of those shows were in color. The black and white medium, exerting it's influence early on ...

I started drawing as soon as I was old enough to hold a pencil. I loved comic books and was doing my own strips pretty early on - mainly imitations of Jack Kirby and Barry Windsor Smith. I began drawing erotic images as soon as I was old enough to get a hard-on, but didn't show them to anyone. I had been taught that sex was for making babies and that masturbation was a sin. When my parents did find my erotic drawings, they would destroy them and I would get hauled off to the church confessional. I never stopped drawing them, though.

I hated school and hated art classes even more. Somehow, they managed to make something I loved as boring as everything else they were attempting to teach me. In high school, I decided that I wanted to be an animator and make films because everyone was telling me that you couldn't make a living working as a freelance illustrator/writer (how right they were ...). From there, I went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, spent four years honing my artistic skills and discovering sex, drugs, and alternative music - the best thing that could possibly have happened to me.

I understand that you started self-publishing in the mid-80's with that old reliable weapon, the xerox machine.

Photocopier technology was what enabled me to make the leap from writing and drawing to publishing. The first full-length erotic comix stories I published were drawn in a book - one of those black, hard-bound sketchbooks - and then run off on a friend's copier. I made ten copies, hand-bound them, and traded them with friends for their artwork. That was around 1985-1986. When I look at the one copy I have left now, it looks awfully crude. At the time, though, it was a real triumph.

Later on, I was working as an illustrator/designer/storyboard artist at an animation studio. As soon as we got a photocopier, I asked to be put in charge of it. I got everybody in the studio involved in writing and drawing strips, which I ran off on the copier and published in an anthology magazine called Zero (or Xero - depending on what mood I was in). We did six issues from 1987 through 1991. I would sell copies locally through book and music stores and by mail order through fanzine directories - always putting the profit from the previous issue back into the next one. It was a good way to start out.

Most of the work I was doing for Z/Xero was science fiction and music themed with an erotic subtext. After a while, I wanted to publish work that was more erotically focussed, so I started doing Ukiyo X, a minicomic that lasted three issues. The money from that went into my first professionally printed projects, the Shunga and Frozen Motion portfolios, then Spiral magazine.

At that point, I had gotten kind of burnt out on the copier format. As I'm sure you know, the machines, as convenient as they are, are very tempermental and expensive to maintain - especially if you're renting them and paying for the toner and paper, as I eventually was. My ideas for strips had gotten more complicated graphically as well and I figured it was time to take the plunge and try to get a professional publisher. That took several more years.

Do you have an obsessive nature?

No. I feel motivated - driven, at times - but not obsessive.

You have stated that you consider yourself to be a pornographer ...

The first time I said that in an interview, it was in reaction to this attitude I saw cropping up where people were trying to make a distinction between erotica and pornography. It's an old debate and is always worth examining, but I felt that it had taken a very elitist/ apologetic direction. A lot of people seemed to have this notion that it was okay to like sexually explicit work - "erotica" - just so long as it was created by someone who was well-known and accepted in the mainstream and whose outlook wasn't too radical. If you crossed the line and people didn't understand what you were doing, then it was "pornography".

I also felt that there was (and still is) a trend where mediocre artists would attempt to dignify their work by drawing the same distinctions; as if their art had some kind of intellectual subtext that made it more than just something to masturbate to. It all seemed kind of ridiculous. The term "erotic artist" seemed rather awkward to me, as well - most erotic artists I've met are anything but "erotic" - so, if people asked me what I was, I was a pornographer. I wanted to create work that would turn people on, with no apologies, and I didn't want anyone to have any illusions about what I was doing or why.

These days, I think that people are starting to understand that the two terms - erotica and pornography - are basically different names for the same thing. You don't have to pick a political party and turn your nose up at every other viewpoint. You can explore - choose what you like - create your own if you can't find what you want.

Do you see the themes/subject matter of your work to be of greater importance than the style?

For me personally, the two aspects go hand-in-hand. They have to balance each other out. Otherwise you have either a great concept that is unbearable to look at or some beautifully-rendered masterpiece that is completely shallow and meaningless. I think this would account for 90% of the work out there ...

How do you perceive the current state of mainstream pornography in US society?

At it's worst, it's a gigantic dumping ground for all the dumbest cliches in our collective consciousness - all of our racial and cultural bigotry and misogyny - designed to appeal to that lowest common denominator, the lazy white male slob with his cock in one hand and his wallet in the other.

That said, I grew up checking out the odd copy Playboy or Penthouse, usually found in the woods by a group of kids or pilfered by a friend from their dad's collection and passed around. Very main-stream stuff, but fodder for much more complicated fantasies of my own. I don't regret having seen stuff like that when I did because that was what was available and you have to start somewhere.

By way of comparision, I grew up listening to the music my parents had around - jazz, folk, classical, and AM pop radio - nothing particularly radical or unusual . Later, FM radio entered the picture. In public school and art school, I was listening to my friends' music - discovering new styles and developing new tastes. To this day, I have a constantly evolving relationship with music and most of what I like is not in the mainstream.There's always something new to heard if you're feeling curious.

Ideally, I feel that mainstream pornography, like mainstream music, can be a jumping off point - something to cut your teeth on until you can actually experience sex yourself and establish your own parameters for what turns you on. Unfortunately, most people's sexual identity never grows past a certain adolescent stage and they carry the cliches and misconceptions of what is basically a profit-driven medium into their adult lives.

Does the hypocrisy with which some people view pornography affect your own work?

Ultimately, I try not to let it affect me but sometimes it's hard to avoid.

It's been my experience that there are a lot of publishers, gallery owners, and art collectors out there that think that because you're an artist producing work that isn't in the mainstream, you should have no sense of self-esteem, should be willing to work for crap wages, and ultimately just be grateful that your dirty artwork is getting exposure. Meanwhile, they're reselling your and other artist's work and living comfortably while you're trying to scrape together money for food and to pay your electric bill.

There's also the complication of other artists producing erotic work who do not give a shit. They crank out a bunch of sub-standard product just to get paid and a certain amount of people will lap it up because it embraces the familiar comfortable clich�s of mainstream porn. It lowers the bar for everybody.

What troubles (if any) have you had with censorship?

Not that many, surprisingly enough. There have been occasions where my work has been seized in book form while being shipped into Canada and the UK, but no mass book-burnings or political or religious censure. Not any that I've been aware of, in any event. To be honest, I think that my work still relatively obscure as far as the mainstream media and powers-that-be are concerned. I think they need bigger sexier targets to keep their audience entertained.

None of your work is legally available in the UK. How do you feel about this?

It's definitely of concern to me, seeing as I have a lot of British fans. The Skin Two folks have been very supportive of my work even though they haven't been able to publish much of it and could potentially have been punished for what they did publish. Obviously, I would like to see things change. People in the UK still seem to be able to get ahold of my work, though, if they really want to. What has your experience been like?

Would you ever make concessions to afford yourself a wider world audience?

I suppose if I toned down the sex and genderfuck elements and did pin-up/tease-type work, I could probably get a lot more exposure - I have been offered this type of work in the past - but my heart just isn't really in it. There are other things I want to explore. I feel I have a very limited amount of time to express what I want to say and the attention I could gain from compromising my work seems rather empty.

Your artwork is very fetishistic and omnisexual. Where do you believe this viewpoint is derived from?

It's a natural evoution, derived from a combination of personal experience and over-active imagination. I always try to keep myself open to new ideas and viewpoints. This is not to say I'm some kind of boundaryless �ber-pervert who's into everything. There are plenty of sexual fetishes and practices that I find digusting or boring. I just think that there's a lot to choose from out there and that the potential audience for my work consists of many different types of people so why limit myself.

Your work displays something of a preoccupation with the themes of body decoration and modification, both in your graphic works and in your collaborations with tattooist Patrick Conlon and with Mistress Midori. What signifigance do these practices hold for you?

On a basic level, they are aesthetically pleasing to me. I like clothing, I like hair-styles, I like piercings and tattoos. They're the details that give visual character, both fictionally and in real life. When I use them in my stories, they usually have a specific function.

Raika, one of the main characters in Tranceptor, is an ex-army officer who learned to tattoo while he was in the service and, naturally, has a lot of tattoos. He's one of the only members of that community who's seen a bit of the world. Patrick and I wanted his appearance to reflect that.

In the Spider Garden world, tattoos are used to indicate ethnic/tribal affiliations. Body modification is used to show status within the power structure of the Garden itself. For example, all of the Garden's concubines, both male and female, are corsetted and wear high heels and backless skirts to emphasize their submission to their Mastress who is multi-gendered.

I like to use piercings within a scene in different ways, depending on the type of characters involved and how they interact. For dominants, it can be a kind of badge or armor. For submissives, a subtle (or not so subtle) physical alteration/violation - metal penetrating the body and emphasizing it's vulnerability The jewelled stud in the nose of a dominatrix is going to take on a different signifigance than the rings piercing the nipples of a maid in latex.

Do you see these practices as links to an alternative culture or "scene"?

In contemporary society, their use as fashion accessories has become more prevelant. I think this is fine, but many people also use them as a visual substitute for creativity and life experience. Consequentially, they end up being empty symbols without any meaning.

My own tattoos and piercings have significance for me, but I don't I consider them to be a connection to some larger culture. I know people and have fans from many different scenes - S/M, fetish, gay, lesbian, goth, punk, and so on - but don't identify with any scene in particular. I'm not a joiner.

The settings in many of your stories, such as the enviroments of the Spider Garden and Hydrophidian or the mining community in Tranceptor, have a feeling of being very seperate from the outside world- spiritually and culturally as well as physically. Is this intentional on your part or do you think it could be an unconscious reaction to the isolation of alternative lifestyles in our modern society?

It's a conscious descision, more on an aesthetic level rather than a comment on marginalization. I feel that to make a story about sexual interaction believable, especially one that incorporates unusual practices such as bondage or S/M, you have to establish an atmosphere of intimacy. You can't really do that by dropping the reader into some kind huge panorama with dozens of characters orgying away. It's alienating. I think it's best to start out by showing one small section of a world and gradually reveal more as the action of the story dictates. That's the way that we as human beings normally experience things.

I also think it's important, especially in a total fantasy setting, to have a sense of internal logic. In The Spider Garden and Hydrophidian, I wanted to show that, even though these evironments are somewhat surreal and alien, they operate under their own distinct set of rules. Shaalis and the Serpentine Sisters have built their own private worlds which they have total control over - the ultimate SM/B+D scenario.

In Tranceptor, the Waystation was a bit of an obvious nod toward those backwater towns in Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood films - one of those situations where you have this isolated little comunity in the middle of nowhere and someone shows up and proceeds to turn it upside-down. I've always loved that.

Are there any current artists whom you admire?

Interviewers always ask me this question and I'm going to have to give you my standard response: there are too many for me to list ... and then, of course, I go on to list some. It's impossible not to.

Comix-wise, P. Craig Russel (Elric), the Bros. Hernandez (Love and Rockets), and Enki Bilal (The Nikopol Trilogy) have been favorites for many years. There are a number of manga artists whom I'm very fond of: Yukito Kishiro (Battle Angel Aelita), Hayao Miyazaki (Nausica�), Hiroaki Samura (Blade of the Immortal), and Hiroyuki Utatane (Seraphic Feather).

Musically, I've been listening to a lot Atom Heart ( aka. Atom�, Uwe Schmidt, Laussige Bendthaus, Se�or Coconut, Lisa Carbon, ad infinitum) I was lucky enough to see him perform here in San Francisco last year. He has an incredible body of work, both sonically and design-wise. Locally, I really like paranormal new-wave band, I Am Spoonbender, and psych/metal punkers, Totimoshi. Totimoshi's bass player, Meg, has modelled for me and is a pretty awesome dominatrix.

More visual artists I know personally: Patrick Conlon - one of the few people I would trust to ink my designs onto human skin and one of the only ones I would ever consider getting involved in a project as complicated as Tranceptor with. The work of my wife, photographer Lyn Gaza, has been a constant source of inspiration to me for many years. Eric Nocebo - a Tokyo-based photographer/butoh dancer/occult researcher (we're both huge H.P. Lovecraft fans). Monique Jenkinson and Jade Blue Eclipse - both incredible local dancers and performance artists. You'll be seeing a lot of pieces based on them in the near future.

There is a level of symbolism present within your work that I feel very much sums up the world we live in. Do you subscribe to an orthodox Symbolist aesthetic?

As a postscript to the previous question, I am an admirer of many artists whose work could be said to embody the principles of the Symbolist Movement - Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Alphonse Mucha, Aubrey Beardsley, the Pre-Raphaelite school ... I think I even had pretensions of becoming some kind of modern day Symbolist when I was still a student. Nowadays, I feel like my lifestyle and beliefs are potentially at odds with that particular type of aesthetic. I don't believe in the power of the divine or worship nature or feel that women were put here to tempt men into mortal sin. I do love symbols, though, both obvious and obscure, and, when it comes to my work, I try to use them effectively and with restraint.

In the past, you have produced work in the medium of drawn and stop-motion animation. Have you considered doing erotic work in other mediums such as sculpture, painting, etc.?

Painting has held more appeal for me lately and I've begun to do more work in color now I've found a brand of matte acrylic I like. It's similar in texture to guache. I can layer black ink over it and get a some nice effects. I was using it to do a color strip called "Arcana" for a Hustler publication, Leg World, a couple of years back - just trying to get the hang of it. Maybe I'll get around to finishing "Arcana" some day.

One of my major projects for 1998 was a painting - a privately commissioned triptych entitled Suspension. The characters were painted in glossy black and white and metallic copper on a matte oxblood background on one 4 foot high and two 6 foot high wooden panels. It's in this local guy's dungeon now.

I've been doing photography for quite some time now, mainly shoots with models to use as reference to draw from and shooting bands at local gigs. Some of it has been published in magazines and on other people's websites.

Molly Made, who does So Hip It Hurts fashions, and I have been talking about collaborating on some new latex clothing designs. I've worked with Molly in the past and built props and costumes for performances at local fetish events so it would be nice to expand on what we've already accomplished - do a whole clothing line together.

Other than the long-awaited Tranceptor sequel, what other work/titles do you have on the horizon and will they be available through the same channels, ie. NBM?

The French and German language editions of The Spider Garden were published by BD Erogen� last Spring. They're hardcovers, printed on glossy paper, and they look (and smell) really nice. A Japanese edition should be out within the year.

I've just kicked off a solo show, Devotion/Surrender, at the new Madame S space in San Francisco. At thirty-one pieces, it's my largest solo show to date. The work includes character studies from the Spider Garden series and a lot of equine- and oral-themed pieces.

Some of those pieces will be included in an upcoming book,Inamorata - a collection of erotic portraits. As I mentioned before, I've been working with models and have been doing series of drawings based on particular people/characters. There are a lot of dominatrixes with their pets - cat girls, dog boys, horses (human and otherwise) - latex maids - gender-bending - all my favorite themes. The pieces are all different sizes and proportions and the simplest way to display them up until this point has been to do shows and get them up on the wall. For the book, I want to do something like Lumenagerie, in that it won't be one long story or have any dialouge. The design will be more elaborate though. I want to do multi-panel foldouts - really give the work room to breathe. Inamorata will most likely be released through NBM.

My on-going project for the last couple of years has been In A Metal Web, the third book in the Spider Garden series. This will also be through NBM. They've been publishing sections of the story in their anthology magazine Sizzle, for the last year or so. In this volume, I'm revealling a bit more of the inner workings of the Garden and introducing some new characters. I'm also delving into Shaalis and Squamata's past relationship, something I touched on in the first book, but haven't really had time to explore until now. It's very romantic ... extremely perverse, of course, but very romantic.

I'm also working on my website - usually when I can spare time away from my book projects. I've only had a computer for a couple of years and I'm still not crazy about the Web. Personally, I think it's a really awkward way to view art. I'm still going to try to make a really nice site, though. I want it to be a unique experience, not just a retread of my published work.

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