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!