Monday, December 21, 2009

20 Questions with Danny Hellman

Danny Hellman (better know in some circles as “Dirty Danny”) is a helluva illustrator (pun intended). I love his slick line, use of color and the humor he brings to his work.

Danny is also behind the fine comics anthology TYPHON. And I just found out he’s a fellow MAD MEN fan, so I like him even more now.

Keep up with the latest (and greatest) from Danny at his blog.

1. When you were a kid, did you want to be an artist? Did you draw?

Most kids enjoy drawing. The real question is: Why do most kids stop drawing? Up until about Age 10, I drew with the same amount of interest as my playmates. After Age 10, it seemed as if the other kids were losing interest in drawing, while I was spending all my spare time filling one hardbound sketchbook after another with drawings and cartoon stories. I'm sure it had a lot to do with my Mom's encouragement. By Age 12, I knew that I wanted to draw for a living, although I had no idea what that meant.

2. What was your first paying cartoon or art job?

In the Summer of 1988, I collected a pile of music posters I'd drawn for the band Floor Kiss, and showed them to SCREW's Art Director Kevin Hein. I had no idea what to expect, but Kevin couldn't have been more approachable and easy-going, (as a multitude of NYC cartoonists will attest). We quickly established a close working relationship that lasted until SCREW's demise in 2006.

At SCREW, I learned how to meet deadlines, how to cut zip-a-tone, and how to do color separations. From there, I went to the Village Voice, the New York Press, Guitar World, Entertainment Weekly, and nearly every other publication you can name.

3. What's SCREW magazine's Al Goldstein really like?

The number of times I actually crossed paths with Goldstein can be counted on one hand. For most of it's existence, SCREW occupied two floors of a cruddy building on 14th Street, just West of Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Goldstein's office, the paper's business office, and the Midnight Blue studio were on a lower floor, while the art, editorial, and production departments were on a higher floor. Apart from the weekly editorial meeting, Goldstein rarely visited the upper floor, and the only time I visited the lower floor was when there was a hang-up about a check, which was pretty rare.

For a few months in the mid-90s, I had a weekly gig watching the press runs for SCREW. The paper had switched printers, and someone was needed to monitor the press runs to make sure the new printers didn't fuck things up too terribly. I was an awful choice for this job, because the press runs happened in the early morning, just a couple of hours after I typically went to sleep. The gig didn't last long, but somewhere in the midst of it, I was introduced to Goldstein for the first time. It was at a SCREW Christmas party at Pete's Tavern in Manhattan, when Managing Editor Manny Neuhaus presented me to the boss as "Danny, the guy who's watching the press for us," to which Goldstein replied, "so, he's semi-useful." And that's really the extent of my interaction with Goldstein.

There was another time I saw Goldstein. This was towards the end of SCREW, around 2005 or so. The paper had moved into much smaller digs, and Goldstein, who had recently lost his Sutton Place townhouse, was now co-habitating with his incredible shrinking SCREW staff. The paper was losing money, and Goldstein was fighting the employee harassment case that would eventually seal his doom. I stopped by the office one day to visit Kevin, and witnessed the sight of Goldstein, clad only in red shorts, stomping around in a large room strewn with cardboard boxes packed with his belongings, hollering, "I want to go home" like a three-year-old in mid-tantrum. The lesson I came away with? Live within your means, because the Golden Goose comes stamped with an expiration date.

4. Tell us a little about TYPHON.

TYPHON Vol. 1 is a full color, 192 page comics anthology featuring work by 42 of my favorite cartoonists from across the US, Canada, Japan, Europe & South America. The book's contents are eclectic; there's scary stuff, sexy stuff, funny stuff and artsy stuff. I think most alt comics readers will enjoy TYPHON, and I invite everyone to come check out a PDF preview here:

5. How important is it for an illustrator to have a website?

It's vital to have a website. When I started as an illustrator in the late 80s, we all had these unwieldy leather-bound portfolios, which we'd drop off endlessly magazines' reception desks all over Manhattan. Now, everything travels digitally, and an illustrator's website serves the same function that the portfolio once did. It's a place for art directors to see your work, and see where you've been published.

6. Name five of your favorite cartoonists.

Narrowing it down to five is tricky. My answers might be different if you asked me tomorrow, but for today, I'll say my top five are: Wally Wood, Jim Steranko, Will Eisner, Robert Crumb & Moebius.

7. How did you get the nickname "Dirty Danny"?

In the mid-90s, I drew illos for a wide variety of porn mags, from HUSTLER to LATIN INCHES. At that time, Sam Henderson decided to create a cartoon character based on me, which he named "Dirty Danny." Initially I wasn't overjoyed to see this character, but as the years have gone by, I've had no recourse but to embrace Dirty Danny. In the fullness of time, God will punish Sam Henderson in Hell for what he has done to me, and I will laugh, because God's Justice Is Always Funny.

8. Are you at liberty to discuss the story behind LEGAL ACTION COMICS?

Certainly. Legal Action Comics Volumes One & Two are B&W comics anthologies I published in 2000 and 2004 to help raise awareness about Rall v. Hellman, a nuisance lawsuit I struggled to fend off from 1999 to 2004, (or so).

Rall v. Hellman started in August of 1999, when the Village Voice published a feature story attacking MAUS author & RAW editor Art Spiegelman. The article was written by a political cartoonist named Ted Rall. In my opinion, Rall compensates for his meager cartooning skills with ceaseless efforts to stir up controversy, and I believe the Spiegelman attack piece was just one of those efforts. In his article, Rall jabbed at Spiegelman from every conceivable direction, but he primarily sought to paint Spiegelman, (one of the most respected figures in the field) as a petty tyrant who doled out plum assignments to his cronies, while blocking access to all other cartoonists who'd neglected to kiss the master's ring. To many cartoonists, myself included, the story rang false.

A few days after the Voice published the story, Rall and I exchanged a few snide emails, at which point I made the mistake of playing an email prank on him. I sent an email mimicking Rall's boastful writing style to approximately 35 cartoonist types, most of whom had seen, (or even engaged in) similar email pranks over the preceding months. I also sent the email, (titled "Ted Rall's Balls") to Rall, who apparently failed to see the humor in it. Within days, I was named the defendant in a $1.5 million dollar libel lawsuit, filed by Rall's attorney in NY State Supreme Court.

At first, I thought the lawsuit was some kind of prank itself, but it soon became clear that it was no joke. The lawsuit gave me a choice: hand Rall $10,000 to go away, or fight him in court. I chose to fight.

From 1999 to 2001, my defense personally cost me over ten thousand dollars, (plus thousands more raised at a benefit concert organized by NY Press editor John Strausbaugh, featuring the band Soul Coughing). When I ran out of money in the Summer of 2001, my first set of lawyers cut me loose. After a few months of floundering as a pro se defendant, a kindly lawyer named Erik Jacobs took pity on me and took up the case pro bono.

After many years of legal twists and turns, depositions, motions for summary judgment and appeals, the case finally halted in the mid-2000s when Rall's lawyer tragically died of brain cancer. Rall v. Hellman has never been officially dismissed, but I strongly doubt that Rall has the will or the cash to retain a new lawyer and resume a case that many saw to be a flimsy one.

9. What's the future of comics? Is it all going to go digital?

A lot of folks, (many of whom work in electronic media) seem to be excited about the so-called "death of print." I certainly won't argue that most of what gets printed amounts to an huge waste of trees. Having said that, I will now emphatically state that I love books. I love reading them, and I love making them. They are an important part of human culture. I have books on my shelf that are over a century old. Meanwhile, I have optical discs that have become unusable after just a few years of careful storage.

I have yet to see a Kindle, so I can't say whether or not the experience of reading text is diminished in any way by the digital format. Truth be told, I haven't physically read a book since my daughter was born in 2006. I get my news from NPR, and I do all of my long-form "reading" via audio books. I suspect that when the technology is perfected, reading digitally will be just as enjoyable as reading a book. However, I sneer at the idea of reading comics or looking at art on hand-held gizmos like the iPhone, (but maybe that's the sneer of an arthritic brontosaurus).

My gut tells me that as far as comics are concerned, most of the crap will quickly go digital, (superhero crap, amateur minicomics crap, and the crap that's already web-based). Meanwhile, the good stuff will remain in print, available to a small audience who are willing to pay for a quality format.

10. Do you have a favorite piece that you've drawn? A least favorite?

I've drawn a bunch of SCREW covers that I feel are holding up nicely as they age. I'm pretty happy with a 2 page spread drawing I did of our daughter Alice that's running in Glenn Head's upcoming anthology HOTWIRE #3. I'm also proud of a couple of illos I drew of Leslie Nielsen that will appear later this year in ROYAL FLUSH #6. I'm still satisfied with the drawings I did for DC's BIZARRO WORLD anthology in 2004.

On the flipside, I've done tons of drawings that make me cringe. Sometimes, short deadlines make it impossible to do good work, and at other times I'm just not feeling it.

11. Do you keep a sketchbook? If so, how often to you draw in it?

I have heaps of old sketchbooks that I filled in my twenties. Before I started drawing for a living, I thought of sketchbooks as precious accomplishments in themselves, but now I see sketches as utterly disposable steps in the process towards a finished drawing. These days, I do my rough sketches on loose sheets of paper, rather than in books. I used to toss them, but a couple of years ago, my friend Pshaw conned me into thinking that I might be able to sell them some day, so presently I'm letting them pile up in a big, flammable stack. Anyone who wants a rough sketch of co-op board members sitting around a conference table discussing building repairs can email their best offer to:

12. Who would win in a cage match, Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dali?

I think Picasso would pound Dali's ass in a fight. I'm not an expert on either Picasso or Dali, but Picasso strikes me as a tough guy when compared to Dali, who's just a simpering sissy with the world's stupidest moustache. I'm not a fight fan, but I'd gladly sit on a museum bench and stare at a painting by either of those guys.

13. What kind of art director or editor do you prefer, hands-on or laissez-faire?

I love an art director who says "great, it's perfect!" to every sketch I submit, but I also like an art director who comes to me with a fully-realized concept, thus allowing me to put my brain on auto-pilot and deliver exactly what they're looking for.

It's also great when I get an art director who sees my sketch and makes suggestions that actually improve the thing. Those are the really good ones, and they are rare indeed.

What I don't like is an art director who thinks they know what they want, only to change their mind once I sketch out their dumb, unworkable concept. Inevitably, these types put me through endless revisions until we arrive at something so lame that all concerned parties want to kill themselves.

14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films? (Yes, that counts as one question.)

I'm drooling in expectation of reading Blood's A Rover, the final chapter in James Ellroy's American Underworld trilogy. I'm listening to the audiobook of Rick Perlstein's Nixonland right now, and enjoying the Hell out of it. These days, I try to stick to nonfiction, history, & political stuff. I read a lot of science fiction in my teens and twenties; authors like Phillip K Dick, Cordwainer Smith, Larry Niven, and Roger Zelazny, and I still remember that stuff fondly.

Our daughter doesn't allow my wife and I to watch much grownup TV, but we did catch ABC's Earth 2100 a couple of weeks ago, and found it riveting. The show features great cartoon art wrapped around information that no one should miss. Most of my favorite TV shows are old ones, like the original Star Trek, The Prisoner, Columbo, The Avengers, stuff like that. I thoroughly enjoyed The Sopranos and Rome on HBO.

With a few exceptions, I've largely lost the thread of contemporary pop music. I'm still listening to all the New Wave and Classic Rock crap that I grew up with, and I've always been a fan of classical music. Beethoven, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Prokofiev, you can't go wrong with that.

I do watch a lot of movies, and it's as hard to list favorite movies as it is favorite cartoonists. Here's a few off the top of my head: Barry Lyndon, Zardoz, Strangers on a Train, Bedazzled (the original), The Bride of Frankenstein, The Asphalt Jungle, All About Eve, Blade Runner, Die Untergang, I could go on and on.

15. What are your tools of the trade?

I draw with non-repro blue pencil and Koh-I-Noor rapidographs on Denril vellum.

16. What's the best part about being a cartoonist?

The best things about being a cartoonist would be the generous financial compensation for all that effort, and the teeming multitude of sophisticated, appreciative readers who support my work. But seriously, the best part of being a cartoonist for me is having the freedom to draw whatever I want to draw.

17. Have you met any of your idols? Under what circumstances?

When I was doing the Legal Action books, I reached out to a lot of folks for contributions, and as a result, I got to meet a bunch of my underground idols. I spent an afternoon with Spain Rodriguez out in San Francisco, a guy whose work I've always loved, and who turned out to be just the sweetest guy with the best stories. I also spent an afternoon with Art Spiegelman, who also turned out to be a wonderful guy who helped me out in a huge way. I hadn't really seen much of his work besides MAUS at that point, but I've since made the effort to take a wider look at his work, and he's done some truly amazing stuff, (I just saw some ultra-cool Spiegelman sketchbooks on sale at the Strand, and I need to go back and buy those).

I briefly met Robert Williams, and he also struck me as a swell guy. Skip Williamson came and stayed with us for a couple of days at our old place in the West Village a few years back, and he was another incredibly sweet guy with the most amazing stories about working in Adult Publishing when it was fun.

18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?

I have three pieces of advice. First of all, learn to draw. Draw from nude models. Draw from photographs. Draw what's around you. I know there's a vogue right now for young hipster cartoonists who can't draw for shit. Personally, I'd rather be an dedicated craftsman with solid, respectable skills.

Advice for the short term: these are terrible times to be a commercial artist. Print media is writhing in what might be its death agony, and while there are a few exceptions, the internet doesn't use illustration. Don't enter the illustration field with the expectation that you'll make a living. The situation may improve when the economy gets back on its feet, but right now, things are brutal.

Advice for the long term: think very carefully about what you want to do. Do you want to create highly personal work, or do you want to be a commercial artist whose work gets widely seen? To put it another way, do you want to draw exactly what you want to draw after you clock out from your miserable day job, or do you want to suck at Corporate America's teat, and struggle to find some small satisfaction while grinding out some of the most insipid assignments imaginable? It can be tough to strike a balance between being an artist and making a living. I've had a lot of fun as an illustrator, but commercial art is, by its nature, disposable. I've watched my contemporaries crank out heaps of comic pages while I've only managed to eke out a few strips in-between illo gigs. While I enjoy illustration, I'd love to do more comics, but I don't know if I'll ever get the time. Think very carefully about what you want to do.

19. How important are awards?

I've never received an award, and as a result, I don't think awards are important.

20. What's something that nobody knows about you?

Tough question. While I'd like to confess that I'm a cross-dressing auto-erotic asphyxiator, I'm just not that interesting. How's this: only an ultra-exclusive, elite inner circle know that I'm not a bad cook.

1 comment:

Ejaymoney said...

Danny's a big sweetie.