Over the years, fans of the old Dope Rider comic strip from High Times have occasionally contacted me asking for copies of some of the images, which they intend to have tattooed on their backs, painted on their drum sets, or airbrushed onto the gas tanks of their Harleys. To make it easier for these folks, and to create an archive for anyone interested, I have set up this site to post the complete Dope Rider oeuvre. Note: all images are copyrighted by Paul Kirchner.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
It contains some in-jokes: in the western town on page five, one store says "Ed Summer" on the sign, while another says "Calkins." Ed Summer is a well-known comic fan (and much more) who owned the Supersnipe Comic Art Emporium on New York's Upper East Side. Chuck Calkins ran a comic book store in the East Village where I worked part time. The name "Last Chance Saloon" is taken from the cowboy wallpaper I had in my room as a kid.
Some years later I inked a version of this story, wrote some copy, and sold it to Charlton Comics, where it appeared in Scary Tales no. 2, October 1975. As with everything Charlton printed, it looked like crap, so I prefer the original.
In my junior year at Cooper Union I was introduced to Larry Hama, who was then working as an assistant to Wally Wood. Larry took me to meet Neal Adams at Continuity Associates, the studio he and Dick Giordano kept at 9 East 48th Street. Neal must have liked my work, as he called Joe Orlando, then an editor at DC Comics, and got me some work. I penciled some horror stories for Tex Blaisdell to ink and assisted him on the "Little Orphan Annie" newspaper strip, which he had taken over after the death of Harold Gray. I also assisted Ralph Reese, who eventually got me a job assisting Wally Wood.
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
A major inspiration for Dope Rider was my friend Tom Conroy, whom I had met shortly after I moved to New York in 1970. Tom Conroy is an artist who runs a photo archive. He lived on my block, East Sixth Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. Entering his apartment, you had to snake your way between file cabinets of movie stills, stacks of milk crates full of comic books, and fascinating odds and ends he picked out of trash cans. (He gave me many of his finds, including a human skull that had been made into a candle holder.)
A speed freak, Tom lived nocturnally. He had no electricity and lit his apartment with a large flame burning from a hose connected to the gas line; he covered his windows so neighbors wouldn't call the fire department. I used to visit him late at night and commune with the various bikers, hippies, and street people who filed in and out, sitting around the flickering campfire and listening to Tom dispense his insights on flying saucers, the hollow earth theory, the wisdom of Gurdjieff, and the general absurdity of the human condition. Tom constantly hawked and spat on the floor, and was convinced that the armies of cockroaches that scuttled everywhere were evolving a higher intelligence as they imbibed his amphetamine-laden spittle. He wouldn't let anyone swat them--not for sentimental reasons, but because, as he explained, "Kill a cockroach and 17 come to its funeral."
After the first appearance of Dope Rider, I was eager to do a second, but Dennis wasn't sure there was interest in it. "If only we'd get some reader mail," he mused. Reader mail, eh? I called my sister, then living in Pittsburgh, and had her send in an effusive fan letter under a nom de plume. Dennis was persuaded and Dope Rider rode again, making his second appearance in the March 1975 issue of Apple Pie, as Harpoon was renamed after lawyers for National Lampoon started clearing their throats.
It was pretty nervy of me to use Lee Van Cleef as a character, but I was a huge fan. I'm glad he didn't sue me. Or shoot me.
It was in the third episode, published in May 1975, that I feel Dope Rider hit his stride. I was working as an assistant to Wally Wood at this point and the inking shows more confidence. I began to incorporate elements from famous works of surrealist and visionary art, such as the homage to Piranesi's prison series on page two. Note the nude: I was also selling cover art to Screw magazine.
That was probably good marketing advice, but I never liked to present myself as something I'm not. I never had much trouble tapping into the part of my brain that comes up with weird ideas and images, and for that reason had always been nervous about dickering with the clockwork.
I recall Neal Adams looking over a Dope Rider story and saying, "How can someone who looks so straight draw so weird?" Neal had me pegged as a closet nut case, due partly to my habit of breaking the silence in the studio by laughing out loud at amusing thoughts that passed through my mind as we sat and worked. He found this jarring and got his revenge by using me as the model for the rooftop sniper in "Thrill Kill," published in Creepy #75, November 1975.
I drew the story assuming it would be three pages and black and white--that's why it has the Zip-a-tone dots on it. Forçade told me he wanted four pages and full color, so I had to add a page and learn to color using Pantone film on an acetate overlay. The process was tedious, something like making a stained-glass window, with each individual color cut out of adhesive-backed translucent film and stuck to an acetate overlay. However, I got comfortable with this technique and used it until the early 1990s.
The story appeared in the August/September 1975 issue. (Click on image for larger version.)
The train coming out of the fireplace is from Magritte.
The line "Pyramid: to look within, to peer amid," is a Tom Conroy-ism.
I had Dope Rider riding a Honda 750, because I had good "swipe" on one, but that was a faux pas about which some readers complained--"No rice-burner for the Lone Stoner!" Obviously, he would ride a Harley.
I did one very bad thing in this story--I depicted the logo of the nation's premier motorcycle club on the back of Dope Rider's vest. That motorcycle club, whose New York City clubhouse was a few blocks from the High Times editorial office, sent over a contingent of large, hairy negotiators to make it clear that they didn't care to be associated with High Times or the Dope Rider character. Forçade let me know he would just as soon not have that happen again. I've blurred the logo out here in case they're still checking up. (Love you guys!!)
After the first Dope Rider was published in High Times, I got a call from New York magazine, whose art director, superstar designer Milton Glaser, had seen my comic and wanted me to illustrate an article on the so-called "Saturday Night Massacre," when President Ford fired Kissinger and Schlesinger. Glaser told me to show Ford machine-gunning the two cabinet members.
"With, like, bullet holes and blood?" I asked.
"Sure, why not?" he answered.
I drew it up to the best of my ability and the end result was so tasteless that Glaser decided the magazine couldn't use it. I got a generous kill fee and I heard that Glaser told that story for years afterward as an example of miscommunication.
The next appearance of Dope Rider was in the October/November 1975 issue. I wasn't happy with the way it reproduced--a lot of the line work broke up and the color was slightly off register, which I've fixed up a bit.
On page two, I drew Dope Rider shooting up. Forçade asked me to cover that up with the dialog balloon, as he didn't want his magazine to glamorize needle drugs. Admittedly, I wasn't really thinking about the moral implications of what I was depicting, just in terms of images and their impact. Here is the original frame, which was shown in a French translation of the strip.
At this point my girlfriend (now wife) and I had moved out of New York and rented a small apartment on a large, wooded estate in Connecticut. Wally Wood also moved to the area, and I continued to work for him on and off. He inked some of the faces on the first page of "Geckos."
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Forçade had wanted me to sketch up some cover ideas for the Christmas issue, which ultimately were not used. As he studied the sketches I started to talk about them. He held up his hand to stop me and said, "You spent a lot of time drawing these; can you give me a few minutes of quiet to look at them?"
That was good advice and never again would I babble to an art director while he was looking at my work, which after all has to speak for itself.
Forçade asked me how much I was being paid. I told him I didn't know. He asked, "You did all this work and you didn't know how much you'd be paid?"
I said, "I assume it will be fair."
He said, "Suppose I told you you were getting $5,000 for these sketches? Maybe you should have put some more work in them. Suppose I told you you were getting $50? You would have put in way too much work already. Never do anything without knowing what you're getting paid."
More sage advice.
There was a hospital-sized tank of nitrous oxide next to the couch, from which two of the editors were filling balloons and taking hits. They started carrying on a quiet conversation.
"Could you guys stop talking?" said Forçade. " 'Cause I'm trying to talk to Paul here and I can't concentrate."
"Sure, Tom," said one, "sorry."
Forçade continued, with some intensity, "You know, when I'm trying to talk to a guy, and other people are talking, it's really disturbing. I mean I can't hear what Paul has to say, do you get that? Is that hard to understand?"
"That's cool, Tom, no problem," one said.
Even more intense: "Because I don't like talking when other people are talking, you know? I mean, when two people are talking at the same time, who am I supposed to listen to, right?"
"Yeah, Tom, fine."
A weird little scene. Forçade was extremely disturbed by ambient noise. According to an article, one day when he was working in the office he fired the entire editorial staff because they were too noisy.
I never had another meeting with him. Perhaps he was put off that I had turned down his offer to smoke some $200-an-ounce pot. (Note to hipsters: pot typically cost around $35 an ounce in those days.)
Dope Rider appeared in the December/January 1976 issue in a story titled "Beans For All," an actual slogan of the Mexican Revolution that I took to heart. (Click on images for a larger version.)
Dope Rider didn't make another appearance until the August 1976 High Times.
Around this time National Screw, a low-rent nudie magazine published by Al Goldstein, featured a take-off of High Times, to which I contributed a spoof of Dope Rider. It made no sense for me to spoof my own strip, but that in itself made it seem worth doing. Plus, you know, money.
The "Closers" page at the end of the issue had a short profile of me.
My wife and I still get a hoot out of the "ramshackle hog farm" reference. The part about me preparing for the collapse of civilization was true: we heated our apartment with a woodstove, I made bread with wheat I ground by hand, and the space under our loft bed was crammed with crates of freeze-dried survival food.
Dope Rider didn't appear again until January 1981. By that time Forçade was dead, having shot himself in November 1978 at age 33. I have met some sharply defined personalities in my life and he was definitely one of them. There is a fascinating profile of him by Albert Goldman in High Times Greatest Hits (1994) and plenty of information about him on the web, such as here and here.
Dope Rider's last appearance was in the May 1986 issue. I had been working on a story on and off for a few years between other jobs and I finally got around to finishing it. At this point, the magazine could no longer pay more than $50 per page and it had to print it in black and white. High Times had not turned out to be the next Playboy; it took a tremendous financial hit when laws were passed to ban the advertising of drug paraphernalia.
The last frame, where Dope Rider is on a billboard, is based on the famous billboard in Times Square that blew smoke rings.
I currently work mostly as an illustrator for advertising, doing storyboards and comps. I also take on illustration jobs and have written several books. I have three children.