by Robert Boyd
On November 20, I gave a lecture on Scott Gilbert with PowerPoint slides at Zinefest. I'm curating an exhibit of art by Scott Gilbert at the Galveston Artist Residency, which opens November 26. Below are the slides and the text of my talk.
True Artist Tales was a comic strip that was drawn by Houston artist Scott Gilbert between 1988 and 2000.
Scott Gilbert was born in 1961. He grew up in Tampa, Florida, where he was into comics, science fiction fandom, and heavy metal music. Gilbert and his friends published a science fiction fanzine in high school.
He told me, “Art, fine art or anything hadn’t really entered the picture. I had all these pretensions, though. The 'truth' was out there beyond. There was always something beyond what was really apparent to me. What was right in front of me, like the comics were right in front of me. Heavy metal music was right in front of me. And TV and movies. “
Gilbert moved to San Antonio, studied art there in college at UTSA for a couple of years but moved back to Tampa after his parents split up. He finished his undergrad art education at University of South Florida
In college his tastes expanded to include fine art and punk rock. He still had the idea of being a mainstream comics penciler then—working for Marvel or DC. But then he saw RAW magazine and the explosion of independent comics in the early 80s. They showed him that there were other possibilities for comics as art.
He heard about Lawndale (where the UH art department was at the time, in an old warehouse on Lawndale St. ). His father was living in Houston then, so he applied to UH for his MFA. He didn’t get in at first—they made him take a year of classes for a baccalaureate. It was a way for UH to feel him out as a potential MFA student. But ultimately he made it into the program.
True Artist Tales started as an independent project Scott did for his MFA. His professor was Derek Boshier, the well-known British pop artist (he was David Hockney’s roommate in art school).
“You could take two independent study courses. You get a faculty member who agrees to guide you through a particular course of study. For a lot of students, it would just be a group of paintings or a major project. So my faculty member was Derek Boshier. Derek is a very special person. Great artist and a tremendous mind.
“He knew from talking to me that I liked comics. For this independent study, the thing was that I would create a comic strip—and it had to be of quality—and also it was required that I get it published somewhere."
(Ironically, Gilbert never got his MFA from UH. “All of a sudden I get a call from this guy. He’d taken over the graduate student advisor position from Ed Hill. This guy tells me you’re not going to graduate because you didn’t fulfill the course work. You need to take a few more courses. I was like, what the fuck?! Because I’m not an idiot, you know. I read all the course catalogs and saw everything I was supposed to take and I sure as hell did the work. And I was just like, fuck you! Fuck it! I don’t need this degree. I’m going to work. And that was that. And all that was left was my debt.” Maybe UH will correct its error and grant him a belated degree.)
Gilbert knew an editor at Public News and showed her his sample strips. She liked them a lot and started publishing them.
In 1988, Gilbert wasn’t producing comics every week. It took a while for him to get up to that frequency. But by about 1990, True Artist Tales was a regular weekly feature.
How also did covers for Public News, usually the first week after New Years
The first strip shows Ron Hoover, a Houston painter who died in 2008.
“In about 1987, I moved in with a fellow student Linn Schwartz and it was in this house in the First Ward on Summer Street. It was that complex that was owned by Earl Staley. He was my landlord. That was an amusing situation. He had me and Linn and Ron Hoover lived right next to us in another bungalow. And James Bettison lived in a garage apartment behind Earl’s place. And then Derek Boshier’s studio was right next door to us. So it was this nice little cluster. I was there about a year. “
Noah Edmondson was an undergrad art student when Gilbert was at Lawndale. He is now the director of the Art Car Museum.
This story was based on a real incident. The inspiration was an early iteration of Lawndale’s "Big Show," a large, annual open-call juried art show, in which Walter Hopps, the director of the Menil Collection, was the guest juror. He gave the grand prize to Dave Kidd (who became Dave Childe in the strip). Afterwards, Kidd's painting was stolen from the show. It kept reappearing for months at parties. The strip takes off from that event.
After the story in Public News was complete, Gilbert published a minicomic version. What you see in the center is the cover of the comic book he made. The wanted poster was part of a prank by some artists associated with Commerce Street Warehouse.
The strips are from the top:
A strip about the media’s obsession with drugs
Reagan and Bush
Clayton Williams, the 1990 Republican gubernatorial candidate who lost to Ann Richards. The comic refers to Clayton Williams’ publicly made joke likening the crime of rape to bad weather, having stated: "If it's inevitable, just relax and enjoy it”. Hard to imagine today that that was enough to cost him the election.
On the bottom left is a comic about one of the last unabashed liberals on the Supreme Court resigning
Ida Delaney was killed by intoxicated, off-duty policeman Alex Hernandez (who was wearing civilian clothing) after he chased her 13 miles down the freeway. There were two other police with Hernandez. They chased her because she cut them off in traffic. They chased her on 59, tailgating her and flashing their lights. She pulled over at the Newcastle Exit. Hernandez confronted her, hitting her in the face. At that point, she pulled out her gun and shot Hernandez. Hernandez pulled his gun and fired every bullet he had. He hit her four times.
Hernandez was fired and indicted for the crime. A jury in Dallas found him guilty and sentenced him to 7 years. But that sentence was overturned on appeal. He ended up serving 11 days in jail, with a sentence of 2 years probation.
Scott Tschirhart was a Houston police officer who shot three different African American suspects, culminating in Byron Gillum in November 1989. Tschirhart’s fellow officers said he was a steroid abuser. Scott Tschirhart was not indicted but was finally fired. He later got work as a sheriff’s deputy in San Antonio. He subsequently got a law degree and works as an attorney. According to his LinkedIn page, “I represent municipal and county governments and officials in diverse litigation including issues involving police, employment, land use and economic development. I also provide City Attorney services to the City of Rosenberg, Texas.”
Cartoonists like Harvey Pekar, Art Spiegelman, Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, Joe Matt and many others were mining their own lives for material in the 80s and 90s. This was endlessly mocked at the time as navel gazing and narcissistic, but those artists really opened up the comics medium to new ways of expression.
The strips here:
7 Day Story – an all-pencil strip about the various events of a particular week
Doctor Strangelove’s Bar—about finding a particularly strange bar in Austin
Maryland—a random hotel elevator encounter in a dive hotel in San Diego
In the Dark—Gilbert lived for a while at the Richmont apartments on Richmond. This was an incident of overhearing a woman crying in the dark from the second story balcony
Autobiography for Gilbert was often quite poetic.
Alternative newspaper strips tended to be funny (Life in Hell), political (This Modern World) or both. Only occasionally did they escape from those poles. I’d say Ernie Pook’s Comeek by Lynda Barry was an exception to the rule.
So was True Artist Tales. Gilbert could be unusually contemplative in his strips. They are unlike the work of nearly all of his weekly newspaper cartoonist peers.
“That comes from working at Fondren Library at Rice. I was always up in the stacks. They had seven floors of books. Of course, the joy of that job was to get caught onto something as you’re passing by. And they had books going back 400 years on the shelves. I wouldn’t just sit there and read a whole book, but I’d find these chunks of text. I’d get these bits and pieces. It worked a lot like the internet does now.
“This actually happened. My buddy, Randy Cole, had to come over and jump my car. And I mentioned this to him. It was something we discussed.”
Imagining what kind of film Degas might have made if he had been a filmmaker. Gilbert told me he imagined it as a Martin Scorcese film, but to me it feels more like Eric Rohmer.
What I liked about this one was the barrenness of the setting and the dream-like quality. It reminds me a little bit of Martin Vaughn-James classic surrealist comic The Cage. I especially liked the spilled ink at the end—it reminds you that you are looking at ink on paper.
Mysterioso was Gilbert’s third serialized story in True Artist Tales. It was published in 31 parts, and ran from June 1996 to January 1997.
Franco “the Animal” Guzman is a gangster holed up in a shack (based on the house Gilbert was then living in). It is a variation on the classic Faust story. It was originally intended to last 7 episodes, but it grew in the telling.
Despite the fact that Gilbert had Jesus appear as a stripper in Satan’s “gentleman’s club,” it never attracted controversy. I guess the readers of the Public News were just too blasé.
It shows Gilbert’s love of noir storytelling and chiaroscuro visual effects very well.
Public News was struggling by the end of the 90s. Its competitor, Houston Press, was stuffed with ads, Public News was skimpy in comparison. A free alternative newsweekly requires ads to continue publishing. So a huge ad campaign from Camel for its new “hipster” cigarette brand, Kamel, was a godsend for the Public News.
That’s not how Gilbert saw it. “My parody was Marlene Dietrich. An old nostalgia picture. The cigarette ad always pissed me off because it was so pretentious. It seemed to be exploiting Marlene Dietrich and the whole nostalgia trip for fucking cancer sticks. That was like the beginning of the hipster period when hipsterism got so commercial. It began to be exploitative.” He hated the clever design which was becoming popular then.
The middle image is the artwork Gilbert drew without any of the lettering he was also including. The finished strip was never published. Instead, there was a bizarre “apology” from Public News publisher Bert Woodall published in its place.
I know many artists who put up exhibitions that are attended only by their friends and family. It’s dispiriting. I think Gilbert was feeling that a little. At some point, you have to ask yourself what is the point?
“Amarillo” was an 11-page story published in Pictopia in 1992. (It got its start as a self-published zine in 1990.)
“The Worst Possible Job” was published in American Splendor: Comic Con Comics in 1996.
It’s All True was published in summer 1995 by Apeshot Studios Press (i.e., by Scott Gilbert himself).
The Xeric grant was founded by Peter Laird, who had hit the jackpot when he and collaborator Kevin Eastman self-published the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He wanted to encourage cartoonists to self-publish and the Xeric grant was how he did this. It was part of his non-profit foundation, the Xeric Foundation. It gave out grants from 1992 to 2012. Other recipients included Megan Kelso (1993), David Lasky (1993), Jason Lutes (1993), Adrian Tomine (1993), Tom Hart (1994), Jessica Abel (1995), James Sturm (1996), Ellen Forney (1997), Gene Yang (1997), Jason Little (1998), David Choe (1999), Jason Shiga (1999), Anders Nilsen (2000), Jordan Crane (2001), Brian Ralph (2001), Donna Barr (2002), Lauren Weinstein (2002) and Josh Neufeld (2004). If Xeric were a publishing house, it would have to be considered one of the best of its era.