An interview with Obscuro Comix provocateur Edward Bolman

The inter­view took place on Decem­ber 23, 2009 in the back room of the Lark Tav­ern in Albany, New York, seat­ed at a table inlaid with col­or­ful mosa­ic tiles. Among the swirling pat­terns were five small tiles, pos­si­bly from a game of Bog­gle, which spelled out: W O R D S. Two hours lat­er, after lunch, beer, and a dis­cus­sion that ranged from Bolman’s years pro­duc­ing the Obscuro art zine The White Buf­fa­lo Gazette to his recent appear­ance on the TV show Wife Swap, we left the tav­ern to the sounds of Eric Bur­den and War singing “Spill The Wine, Dig That Girl.”


THE REVELATOR: In one of your bio­graph­i­cal state­ments you describe your­self, say­ing “I’m not real­ly an artist; I’m a writer who needs dia­grams.” What do you mean by that?

ED BOLMAN: I basi­cal­ly have lit­er­ary ideas that make no sense on their own. The big influ­ence there — big, big influ­ence — would be Edward Lear, who wrote lim­er­icks, and I don’t think they make sense sep­a­rat­ed from the draw­ings, which would enhance them, con­tra­dict them, deep­en them, etc etc. With the draw­ings they are about as pro­found as you can get. So again I think I am com­ing up with tiny strange ideas but they are not going to make any sense with­out some sort of illustration.

TR: Have you read any of the biogra­phies of Lear?

EB: I’ve read a cou­ple of biogra­phies. I’ve got Col­lect­ed Let­ters, I’ve got a big edi­tion of his Birds. Love­ly birds, bet­ter than Audubon. He was nice to the birds, like Audubon would nail them to posts to draw them. But Lear was a lot more com­pas­sion­ate and sym­pa­thet­ic to his sub­jects. I think they have more per­son­al­i­ty, which may be a bit of a pathet­ic fal­la­cy. What do you know? One of my anthropomorphisms.

TR: Lear also had incred­i­ble range.

EB: Lear did water­col­ors and he con­sid­ered him­self an oil painter although his big oil paint­ings are kind of stiff. But the water­col­ors he did to pre­pare for them are love­ly. Off the cuff he was real­ly good, but when he tried to do more for­mal paint­ings some of the life drained out of them. The car­toons and the water­col­ors are spectacular.

TR: Any­one else besides Edward Lear who you would say was par­tic­u­lar­ly influential?

EB: I’ve been Keelerif­ic in the last cou­ple of years. I’ve got my Keel­er Twit­ter. I don’t know how I was aware of Keel­er. I was just vague­ly aware that there was such a writer and that peo­ple who had heard of him con­sid­ered him to be absolute­ly ter­ri­ble and that he was the author of books with very strange names. I final­ly found some books of his some­where, not easy to find. (pulls a stack of Keel­er hard­cov­ers out of his day­pack) Like you see this title and I won­der how a main­stream pub­lish­er would even pub­lish books with titles like this. I mean what’s going on with this guy?

Here is a para­graph from Har­ry Stephen Keeler’s most infa­mous nov­el, The Rid­dle of the Trav­el­ing Skull (first pub­lished in 1934, recent­ly reprint­ed by McSweeny’s):

{Lis­ten to Bol­man read Keel­er. Please note that the back­ground nois­es on the mp3 record­ing were not added by The Revelator’s team of audio tech­ni­cians for verisimil­i­tude, but are the authen­tic sounds of a pub’s lun­cheon crowd}

TR: In Futu­ra­ma, the car­toon, there was a ref­er­ence to the Keel­er Moun­tains just the oth­er day.

EB: That’s because the exec­u­tive pro­duc­er and head writer of Futu­ra­ma is Ken Keel­er who is a devout Keelerite. And he has adapt­ed Keel­er sto­ries to Futu­ra­ma. And he is no rela­tion at all to Har­ry Stephen Keel­er. That’s one of the dis­tin­guished peo­ple influ­enced by Keel­er. There’re about 75 peo­ple in the world who even know who he is, but they are inter­est­ing peo­ple. Philip José Farmer used to be in the soci­ety. Neil Gaiman, William Pound­stone, Fran­cis Nevins. Richard Polt is an author­i­ty on Hei­deg­ger and type­writ­ers. And I con­vert­ed Roger Ebert.

TR: What was the rea­son for start­ing a Keel­er Twitter?

EB: I had cer­tain­ly promised myself to nev­er have any­thing to do with Twit­ter, but then start­ed thinking…well maybe Keel­er. If he were around today he would be on there try­ing to find an audi­ence. He spent his last years doing this lit­tle mimeo­graphed zine that he would send to his acquain­tances with lit­tle items of inter­est. Then I thought he would just be Twit­ter­ing if he were around. Some­one has to do it for the poor guy. He spent so many years writ­ing for the void. I just look for Keel­eresque sen­tences of 140 char­ac­ters or less, or that can be edit­ed down to 140 char­ac­ters or less, and post them for a small audience.

TR: The Rev­e­la­tor first got to know of your work through The White Buf­fa­lo Gazette, both from the comics you pub­lished there and from your stint as edi­tor, dur­ing which you turned out month­ly issues from Novem­ber 1996 until Decem­ber 1998. What was that whole expe­ri­ence like?

EB: WBG is more or less a col­lage, you just paste up what­ev­er peo­ple have sent you and run it off. It had no for­mat. It had no struc­ture. We went on for two years and we tried to end it on an opti­mistic note because we pub­lished the penul­ti­mate issue and we pub­lished the last issue—The Last White Buf­fa­lo Gazette (which has hap­pened a cou­ple of times) — we pub­lished the last issue simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with the post-ulti­mate issue so that the last issue had an issue that came after it.

TR: Any­one could pub­lish an issue of WBG who want­ed to.

EB: I think Traf­fic (Max­i­mum Traf­fic, first edi­tor of WBG) and I talked about that and we threw it open. We said if you want to pub­lish one, pub­lish one. And lot of peo­ple just did. It’s a pret­ty per­plex­ing his­to­ry. Of course nobody ever num­bered them, which makes it more per­plex­ing. A delib­er­ate attempt to con­fuse schol­ars, so I don’t know if any­one will ever make sense of that. It was delib­er­ate­ly as obfus­cat­ed as possible.

TR: To main­tain that Obscuro ethos.

EB: Yes, it makes it more obscure, yes. What is the Obscuro move­ment? I can’t admit that there is one. If there is one, I might not admit it. If there is one, nobody would know about it any­way. What else is there to say?

TR: Who called them Obscuro comics to begin with?

EB: That’s Max Traf­fic. The Obscuro art move­ment — again, if there is such a thing, I might not admit it and nobody would know about it — it doesn’t real­ly mean any­thing except that group of peo­ple and nobody knew what they were doing. So Max called that the Obscuro art move­ment and that seemed good to me. Max made up the name prob­a­bly in the 90’s. I don’t know any­one except Max and me that use it, so it’s very obscure. The only thing the artists have in com­mon is that they were pub­lish­ing in WBG and they were obscure.

TR: Goril­la Cook­ies, want to say any­thing about that?

EB: That was like a col­lege-humor mag­a­zine that I did with Cat (wife Cather­ine Noel), just putting in any­thing we thought was amus­ing. Any­thing we did. It’s like WBG but focused more on us, just an anthol­o­gy of our wacky things. The fifth issue of Goril­la Cook­ies some­how earned a close­up in the motion pic­ture Ghost World. I don’t know why. If I ever meet Ter­ry Zwigoff I’ll ask him.

TR: You now seem to be get­ting back to the slight­ly sur­re­al sto­ry-telling that you did in the WBG days.

EB: My new ven­ture is Noble Head Fun­nies. I’m try­ing to get back to fun­ny ani­mals and fun­ny inan­i­mate objects in a decon­struc­tion of humor strips, twist­ed around into some sort of metafic­tion­al thing. I’ve been work­ing with my son who has been good about con­tribut­ing some writ­ing when I’m stuck on it and don’t know what to do. He’ll write down sto­ries and I’ll go here’s a fun­ny page, here’s some­thing I’ve writ­ten. Let’s mess them togeth­er and make some­thing that doesn’t make sense in a sen­si­ble manner.

TR: How did your char­ac­ter The Spit­toon of Hid­den Delights come about?

EB: I was writ­ing a let­ter to Max Traf­fic and just try­ing to think about some­thing to draw on it, and I thought, let’s see what would be the least com­mer­cial car­toon char­ac­ters that I could imag­ine. And what comes to mind are The Spit­toon of Hid­den Delights and Black-Rayed Sun. So I did a Sun and Spit­toon gag car­toon on a let­ter to Max, and they end­ed up being sup­port­ing char­ac­ters in Noble Head Fun­nies.

TR: Read­ers of The Rev­e­la­tor are a dis­tin­guished group, movers and shak­ers the world over, whether it be in art, sports, or pol­i­tics. So of course they are fas­ci­nat­ed by your sea­son-four appear­ance on the real­i­ty tele­vi­sion show Wife Swap.

EB: I hope you didn’t see it.

TR: Sad­ly enough, no.

EB: That’s a relief. That was a well-pay­ing but hor­ri­ble week. We just did that because Cat was look­ing for some way to pro­mote her radio show. Wife Swap was sniff­ing around. If they think of a kind of mom they want, they look for them. They were think­ing: we want a shock-jock mom. Now I don’t think there is any such a thing as a shock jock and nobody has real­ly used that term in fif­teen years. But she was close enough. You get two-grand a day to be abused. I got a new wife from Texas who ran a pet cre­ma­to­ri­um. She was pret­ty night­mar­ish and I got a lot of abuse from her. I got a lot of abuse on the show and then of course it airs and it’s watched by inter­net trolls who abuse you on the internet.

TR: Real­i­ty is Hell.

Well, of course Wife Swap cre­ates a fic­tion­al ver­sion of you. They saw there were Hawai­ian shirts that I brought back from Hawaii and they said, “These will annoy her, wear Hawai­ian shirts every day.” So I wore Hawai­ian shirts every day and she hat­ed it. I’m not a pro­fes­sion­al wear­er of Hawai­ian shirts. They man­age the real­i­ty to make it more awful. For instance, they decid­ed to tell Sue Ann that my wife was an announc­er at strip clubs because they fig­ured that would offend her and they would send her to strip clubs to take the place of my wife. They said, “Oh the radio sta­tion sends her to strip clubs to pro­mote the radio show. Go ahead.” So I had to take her to a strip club and she was very offend­ed and screamed at me that I was a mon­ster for endors­ing this. This isn’t even true and I’m get­ting screamed at. They just make shit up to cause more trouble.

Let me now praise the gov­er­nor of New York, Eliot Spitzer. We were on Wife Swap and it was a ten-days won­der in Albany. Every­body was talk­ing about it. Then the week after Wife Swap aired Eliot Spitzer got caught with pros­ti­tutes and every­one for­got about us. Our fif­teen min­utes of fame was end­ed by Eliot Spitzer and he will always have my vote.

TR: Did you know that anoth­er Bol­man has appeared on Wife Swap? One of The Rev­e­la­tor interns dis­cov­ered this when doing back­ground research for the interview.

EB: Are you seri­ous? Anoth­er Bol­man? There are hard­ly any Bolmans.

TR: There are You Tube videos of his eco­log­i­cal con­struc­tion projects out in Oregon. 

EB: I’d be hap­py to build envi­ron­men­tal­ly friend­ly struc­tures in Ore­gon if any­body want­ed me to.

Wait­ress: Just check­ing on you guys. Do you need anything?

EB (to wait­ress): I don’t.

Wait­ress: Do you want me to bring the check?

TR (to wait­ress): You can bring the check.

EB (to wait­ress): Thank you so much.

TR: We bet­ter fin­ish up. What’s your favorite album or favorite thing you’ve lis­tened to recently?

EB: In the car I’ve got Bug Music by Don Byron, and that’s real­ly good. He’s a jazz clar­inetist. On Bug Music he cov­ers Duke Elling­ton and John Kir­by and Ray­mond Scott.

TR: That’s cool. We can rephrase the ques­tion in the inter­view and ask “What’s play­ing in your car?” Any­thing else you think peo­ple should know about that they don’t know about?

EB: Jim Copp and Ed Brown. Play­house Records. Two of the great out­sider artists of the twen­ti­eth century.

TR: What do they do?

EB: Jim Copp start­ed out as an eccen­tric night­club per­former. He used to open for Bil­lie Hol­i­day but do an insane­ly weird act, very strange songs. He lat­er start­ed doing children’s records in the fifties. Nobody would let him do children’s records on his own terms so he’d put them out him­self and mar­ket them him­self. He should be as well known as Dr. Seuss. I talked to him on the phone when he was alive. He died just before Shel Sil­ver­stein and Sil­ver­stein got all the press.

When I was a kid, some­one gave me a Jim Copp record: A Jour­ney to San Fran­cis­co with the Glups. That was the only one I had when I was a kid. In one scene, I think on side one, the Glups lose their cow –the Glups are a fam­i­ly from Maine — and they go to the slaugh­ter­house look­ing for their cow. And you hear cows and pigs get­ting their heads chopped off. It’s like “Oink, oink” and shh­hh­lich.! “Moo, moo” and shh­hh­lich! And their heads were chopped off! I mean who the Hell puts that on a children’s record?

Wait­ress: Here’s your check and then here’s some lit­tle treats for the holidays.

EB: Ooh, treats!