The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective by Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics Books, 2010)
Given that Lucky’s Comics recently hosted an exhibition of Holmes’ work as part of a book launch for The Artist HImself, and that the artist spent much of his life in familiar territory, I was curious. Before listening to the Inkstuds interview with Patrick Rosenkranz (Holmes’ authorized biographer), I knew nothing about Rand Holmes’ life or his comics. I thought I was going to read the biography of an underground cartoonist. Instead, I read an epic exploration of a complex human being, who just happened to be an underground cartoonist.
Top Quality Shit
When I walk into Legends Comics and Books in Victoria, co-owner Gareth Gaudin (with Lloyd Chesley) is reading Paul Gravett’s 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die: The Ultimate Guide to Comics, Graphic Novels and Manga (Universe, 2011) at the cash.
“Is it good?”
“It’s pretty good…there’s only one comic so far that I think should have been included in here that isn’t.”
“Harold Hedd #2.” It’s hard to find nowadays, but all of the Harold Hedd comics have been reprinted in here.” Gareth hands me a copy of The Artist Himself: A Rand Holmes Retrospective by Patrick Rosenkranz (Fantagraphics, 2010). “Look at this…” He flips to page 115. “Look at this! Where else will you find an authentic drawing of a BC transit bus in Vancouver, circa the 1970s?”
“Oh! Remember The Buzzer?”
Early on in Rand Holmes’ life, he was driven to draw every available moment he had. Early inspiration while in high school included Mad magazine, and the hot rod car culture that Holmes admired from afar—until he acquired a 1937 Ford with his brother Rett and friend Gordon Campbell.
Holmes copied Wally Wood and Jack Davis drawings, revering Wood’s artistry even later on in life. He drew posters and billboards for various school functions, and drew constantly in sketchbooks instead of taking notes in class. He defied attempts by teachers and administrators to break his will and artistic drive. Holmes self-identified as a radical, dressing in the Beatnik fashion with sandals, army jackets and a black beret.
At around seventeen years of age, Holmes noticed an ad in Help! magazine, soliciting cartoons from new artists for pay. He sent one off and received a cheque, his first paid assignment and published cartoon.
Holmes’ family life was dismal. During his junior year of high school, he moved in with his friend Barry McColl’s family after his father kicked him out of the house. His school experiences were also difficult at times; Holmes was a target, since he wasn’t active in the school sports culture and dressed differently. He was beat up on one occasion, and from that point on, McColl suggests, Holmes may have resolved that he would no longer take abuse from anyone. After hopping a fence to see a football game, another student provoked him and was stabbed by Holmes. He managed to avoid going to prison with the help of a lawyer hired by his father, but was suspended from school. To his teachers and school principal, Holmes was an enigma, McColl relates, since he had one of the highest IQs in all of Edmonton.
Holmes moved out of McColl’s house the next year and lived in a garage; his ’37 Ford was parked in it, and he slept in a loft above the Ford. He met Bob Cantin, the son of a dive shop owner, and asked Holmes to do some diving drawings for their store. He then designed a car show poster for Cantin, the first of its kind to be seen in Alberta. So began Holmes’ early cartoon career. He drew people’s cars on t-shirts using coloured felt pens, and then started a comic strip called “Out to Lunch” in a hod rod magazine called The Benchracer.
Holmes’ next residence was a basement suite that was built into the side of a hill with a dry rot floor, and then he moved into another apartment with his friend Dan Matheson. For five years, he worked at a sign shop. In July 1964, Holmes married Beverly Maga. Holmes’ father offered a house for the newlyweds to live in, they had a daughter, and spent several happy years living in domestic bliss. In a move reminiscent of R. Crumb’s abandonment of his first wife Dana to go to San Francisco, Holmes read a copy of Zap Comix #2 and was driven to find his way to the west coast. He divorced Beverly and moved into an apartment of his own. Beverly was pregnant at the time, and Holmes stayed in Edmonton until she delivered their son Ronald, leaving not long afterwards. In his own words,
In 1968 my brother turned me on to psychedelics. I woke up, left my wife and job and split for the West Coast, grew my hair down to my ass, moved into a communal house and vowed to never again do anything I didn’t want to do, especially for money. After I made that simple decision I was suddenly free. (28)
The Georgia Straight
Passing through Vancouver this week, I picked up a copy of the Georgia Strait. Back in the mid-1970s when Rand Holmes was a regularly contributing artist for the free weekly paper, it contained some brazen material that editorial gatekeepers in today’s cultural climate would most likely never consider appropriate—especially for a print product that has become mainstream for an alternative press weekly, with a circulation of 140 000 copies throughout the Lower Mainland.
In the late 1970s Dan McLeod, the publisher of the Georgia Strait, chose to remove sex ads from the paper due to pressure from women’s groups involved in the burgeoning feminist movement. What had begun as a means to promote sexual liberation and free love was increasingly perceived as degrading and derogatory towards women. The ads were also the most lucrative for the paper, so instead of getting rid of them completely, they were moved to a new paper, The Vancouver Star.
Today’s Georgia Straight has conducted a complete about-face, with four and a half pages of sex ads in the back of the paper. And though it is still a hub for arts and entertainment information in Vancouver, unsurprisingly, the radical and underground tone of the paper has diminished in scope, along with the culture at large. However, the Georgia Straight continues to advocate for local issues, and does so with journalistic integrity.
Arguably the most tendentious of Holmes’ Harold Hedd strips to appear in the Georgia Straight depicted Harold Hedd having gay oral sex. Gay activism was building momentum at the time of this cartoon’s publication. However, Rosenkranz suggests that Holmes’ strip reflected a personal exploration, and not a political one. This may be true, to the extent that Harold Hedd was in certain respects Holmes’ satirical alter ego—but in the language of postmodernism, we know that the personal is political.
A friend of Holmes at the time, Dan Matheson, explains in The Artist Himself that Holmes was unsure about his sexual orientation. From material included in The Artist Himself, it would appear that at least Harold was overtly bisexual, if not Holmes himself. For example, a facsimile of a Harold Hedd script included in The Artist Himself reads:
H: end of book
Nyahh…girls…boys…what’s the difference
…it’s the quality of the relationship that
turns me on
Feminine lead Harold how could you
make it with that…
H: I can’t help it I love
queers I think they’re
…love women too…think
Two telling images included in The Artist Himself are suggested by Rosenkranz to represent the male and female aspects of Rand Holmes’ psyche. The male persona’s face is contorted into a violent feral snarl, while the female persona is seductively posed for her audience.
Interestingly, in a half hour video entitled “Rand Holmes Retrospective Art Show, March 2007” (the link provided is to a small segment from the full film) produced and edited by Patrick Rosenkranz and initially intended for release with The Artist Himself, Martha Holmes, commenting on the two paintings below remarks,
““Maybe these are both how he saw himself. You know, the male and the female sides of him.”
In the latter pairing, the male persona is an anatomically well-built full nude, and image seems homoerotically charged. Whatever the outcome of Holmes’ exploration, and whichever pair of paintings more accurately depicts his internal demeanor, it’s obvious that the artist was reflecting deeply on his personality and his sexuality during this time.
This is also especially apparent in the journal entries written toward the end of Holmes’ life, in particular one dated February 10, 2002, in which he reminisces on his time coming out as a gay man in the seventies, then spending time in “the scene,” before realizing that on the whole, the culture did not fulfill his yearnings:
I soon found that the gay scene was not to my liking at all. I also found I felt no real attraction (sexual, I mean, except for fellatio, the penis being the focal point. The attached guy merely a hairy appendage) to other men at all, though some of the transvestites were kind of sweet. (but also very fucked up emotionally). In the few liaisons I formed I found no real sexual passion in myself and was usually unable to perform. I finally gave up on it and a few years later met my present wife.
Looking back I now see that all my most intensely real sexual attraction has been directed towards women. (199-200)
Rand Holmes met his second wife Martha and moved to Lasqueti Island in 1980. For all of the colourful episodes in Holmes’ past, in my opinion, the real adventure starts here. Letters to and from Martin Voksverlag, Holmes’ German publisher, make it abundantly clear just how much painstaking labour was required in order for Holmes to eke out a living on Lasqueti, working 10 to 12 hour days on constructing his house, then toiling over comics pages in whatever leftover time he could find. Eventually, Holmes burned out on comics, recognizing that for the amount of effort he was putting into his artwork, he could no longer justify continuing to do so when he was able to work as a carpenter for a healthy wage.
Even five years after initially moving to the island, Rand and his wife were still living in a 7 X 9 foot wall tent with a dirt floor, and that in the “coldest November in recorded history on the West Coast.” (175)
Holmes’ hunting journal brings some of his greatest eccentricities to the fore, with his committing to wearing 18th century clothing when embarking on hunting trips, and building and using only black powder rifles and intricately carved powder horns for the hunt.
Ample selections are also provided from journals detailing Holmes’ work on oil paintings, to which he committed his time during the later years of his life; descriptions of commercial artwork contributions that Holmes made to local businesses; and designing the Lasqueti Mint 2001 coin celebrating the legalization of medical marijuana.
During the time that Holmes was dying of Hodgkins lymphoma, in a journal entry dated March 5, 2002, Holmes mentions delving increasingly into prayer, seeking forgiveness for the harm he inflicted on others throughout his life. He describes a “great burst of love and compassion and peace” spreading over him, a reconnection with the universal godhead. He cites lyrics from Bruce Cockburn’s song, “Lord of the Starfields” and mentions how he has broken down, weeping, while transcribing them on the page.
Lord of the Starfields
Ancient of days
Here’s a song in your praise
This entry, the second-to-last in his journal, suggests that for all the toil and hardship in his lifetime up to his last days, this remarkable figure died in peace.
The Artist Himself
The reprint of Fog City Comics #3 is a playful romp into Rand Holmes’ subconscious, and is also the story from which the title of this volume takes its name. Though this depiction of Holmes may speak to some of his deepest frustrations, it does not tell the whole story. The Artist Himself by Patrick Rosenkranz comes closest to capturing the essence of Holmes’ complexity over time, and as such for anyone interested in the radical subculture of early underground comix, this is essential reading.