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Visionary Artist/Creator Paul Kirchner Celebrates The Weird and Psychedelic In His Work

To first make a mark professionally within the world of graphic novels and comic book art, I landed an editorial gig at Heavy Metal — the fantastic magazine built around a vast library of French and European graphic art stories. But it broadened itself beyond the foreign stuff by also drawing on art out of the National Lampoon camp and other hipster publications. One of those artists I got introduced to was Paul Kirchner who had created the Dope Rider for High Times and the strip “The Bus” for Heavy Metal. He penciled stories for DC's horror line and wrote and illustrated occasional short features for Marvel's Epic Illustrated. He illustrated the graphic novel “Murder By Remote Control.”

Starting out in comics during the 1970s as an assistant to the late, legendary innovator Wally Wood, the young Kirchner could not have had a better mentor. Wood was noted for his seminal work in EC Comics and then at Marvel. Though he developed his own unique body of work, eventually, the Connecticut native left comics to work in editorial illustration, advertising, and toy design, But, in recent years, he resumed his Dope Rider strip, a collection of which has been published as "A Fistful of Delirium.” He also has created a second volume of “The Bus” and a new series, 'Hieronymus & Bosch,' which has appeared at the Adult Swim website and in book form.

Born January 29, 1952, Kirchner has worked in everything from comic strips and toy design to advertising and editorial art. Growing up in New Haven, Connecticut., he attended Cooper Union School of Art but left in his third year, when, with the help of Larry Hama and Neal Adams, he began getting work in the comic book industry. At one point, he had left comics behind but, in 2002, Kirchner returned to freelance illustration, working primarily in advertising. Kirchner still lives in Connecticut with his wife, Sandy Rabinowitz, an illustrator specializing in equine art. Plus, they have three adult children.

On December 16th, Kirchner is a featured artist spotlighted at The Big Apple Comic Con’s Christmas Con at the New Yorker Hotel. For info go

Q: When and how did you decide the life of an artist was the right thing for you-- talk about any or all moments of revelation?

PK: The decision to pursue a career as an artist was gradual, solidifying after a series of validations made me feel that I might have what it takes. As a child I was praised for my artistic ability and since I loved praise—and still do—I stuck with it. In high school I was the class artist and did posters for dances and cartoons for the school newspaper. I was also a comic fan, a card-carrying member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society, and hoped to work in comics some day. The parents of my girlfriend (now wife) Sandy Rabinowitz were artists and her mother was a graduate of the Cooper Union School of Art. In those days Cooper Union was tuition-free and acceptance was highly competitive. She encouraged me to apply there and when I got in it gave me additional confidence. While in art school I worked on my comics, and when I finished one that I thought was good enough to use as a sample I showed it to Neal Adams, who called Joe Orlando at DC and recommended it to me. Orlando gave me a script to pencil and that was when I decided, “I can do this.”

Q: Psychedelia has a big part to play in your work -- can you describe when this style came to when, how and why?

PK: I’ve never been able to get excited about the kind of art that sells in galleries—what people term “fine art.” I may admire the technique, but generally it doesn’t move me. I’ve always been more attracted to “people’s art,” the art you see on record album covers, concert posters, pinball machines, tattoos, graffiti, pulp book covers, and of course, comic books—art that packs a punch. I am particularly attracted to surrealistic art, which juxtaposes the images of dreams, visions, and hallucinations with the world of concrete reality. It adds a layer of meaning and visual interest to a scene that might otherwise be mundane. This is what I like to do in my Dope Rider comics and what I did in my graphic novel, Murder by Remote Control

Q: Your drawing style is clearly influenced by artists who had their roots in EC comics such as the late Wally Wood…

PK: I was certainly inspired by the work of EC artists like Jack Davis, Frank Frazetta, and Al Williamson, but the one who had the most influence on me would be Wally Wood, since I assisted him for several years. It was not only his approach to penciling and inking that I picked up, but his whole way of breaking down a story and laying out pages. For a time my work looked like an imitation of Wood’s, so much so that Fantagraphics, in its anthology of his erotic art, attributed to him some illustrations I had done for National Screw. Fortunately, I got them to correct that before publication. Outside of Wood, I took some storytelling influence from Steranko, particularly from his “At the Stroke of Midnight” story from Tower of Shadows #1. I was more attracted to European and underground comics than to the superhero fare of Marvel and DC, so other influences included Philippe Druillet and Rick Griffin.

Q: What comes first script then drawing or the opposite?

PK: I start out with just an outline of a story in my mind. The first thing I do is break down the story, laying it out into rough frames on a standard-sized sheet of paper (or papers if it’s going to run more than one page). During this process I get an idea of what can be communicated visually and where I will need captions or dialogue. By the time I am penciling the frames I have a rough idea of the dialogue and leave space for it. I only write the script when the art is completely done, as I keep rewriting it in my mind as I work. In indie comics it’s expected that artists hand-letter their pages, as it’s integral to the art, but I do the text and balloons on a separate layer in Photoshop because I continue to rewrite and edit until the moment I have to turn in the work. I understand that this is considered less authentic, but so be it.

Q: How do you split your creative efforts now between your various series and developing new series?

I have two ongoing projects, Dope Rider and “the bus.” I spend most of my time on Dope Rider, because it appears every month in High Times magazine and I have to meet a deadline. Also, they pay me for it, and the two most motivating things for a cartoonist are a deadline and a paycheck, and for an alternative cartoonist to actually get paid nowadays is almost unheard of. Dope Rider is only one page a month, which doesn’t seem like much, but I try to do something different and interesting each time and though I don’t always meet my highest expectations I put a lot of thought into it. The process of laying out the page, penciling the frames, inking them, then scanning them to add color and lettering in Photoshop takes a whole week. I don’t mean a week of 12-hour days like some cartoonists put in, but a week of normal work days. As far as "the bus," I have trouble buckling down to work on it due to the absence of 1) a deadline, and 2) a paycheck. That is, I won't see any money from new strips of “the bus”  after I have completed enough strips for a book and that book is published. Also, with Dope Rider, I have free rein to draw almost anything I want. With “the bus,” I have a constrained format and a lot of repetitive elements, so it feels more like work and less like fun. I have 40 pages of new bus strips and have inked only 14 so far. I need to complete at least 48 for a book. Another challenge is that I have to keep up the quality. I would rather just end the strip than do a book that I felt was not quite as good as the first two.

Q: Do you dream of seeing your concepts and creations become films or animation?

PK: Yes I do, whether or not it will ever actually happen. If you are a creative person, your creativity does not only apply to the work, it imagines ideas of how much success and reward the work might bring you. For example, if for some reason I was asked to be a guest on Joe Rogan’s show, he might ask, “Did you ever imagine this could happen?” To be honest, I would have to answer, “Yes, I’ve imagined it many times—what you ask me about, how I would answer, whether you would want me to smoke weed on the show with you, etc.” I dream of many fanciful things that are unlikely to happen, but I can’t help daydreaming. On the plus side, the dream helps motivate me to produce. BTW, I have been approached by guys in Hollywood to partner up with them to develop a Dope Rider movie. Then I check them out on IMDb and see they have no credits besides assistant producer on a short-running cable show or something like that. In other words, they are people who don’t have much of a foothold in the industry and are hoping to attach themselves to some intellectual property that they might sell, but they have nothing to contribute to it. These are not people whose phone calls are returned. That sounds arrogant of me, I know, but I have to be careful. My characters, my intellectual property, are all I have and I must try to avoid being exploited.

Q: How autobiographical is your work?

PK: I’m in the world of indie comics, where creators are often their own main characters, but I’ve avoided the autobiographical  approach. The characters I’m known for are Dope Rider and a commuter who rides the bus, but I’m not a chronic weed smoker and I rarely have occasion to use mass transit. Rather than focus on myself and my own opinions, experiences, and relationships, I do comics as a way to get out of myself, to escape from my day-to-day life and let my imagination roam. Of course, my work reflects some aspects of myself such my absurdist sense of humor and my interest in mysticism and alternate realities.

Q: What did your parents think of your work -- talk about their reaction or reactions?

PK: I had a good relationship with my parents but it had to be managed. They were fine people but rather straitlaced and judgmental and it was best not to tell them things about which you knew they would disapprove. In my 20s, I was mostly working for High Times, Screw, and Heavy Metal and I didn’t want to tell my parents that, mentioning only my work as an assistant to other artists like Ralph Reese and Wally Wood. Naturally, this caused them concern, as they wondered if I was doing much of anything at all. One time my father, who was a doctor, asked me how much this Wally Wood fellow made in a year. I guessed about $18,000. “My god, the orderlies at the hospital make that much!” responded my father. Okay, but it was not my ambition to be a hospital orderly. After the art director at Screw moved on to the New York Times, he gave me regular illustration assignments for that prestigious publication, which made my parents happy. In the 1980s I began applying my comics to more commercial work, such as doing comics for various toy lines, so I became completely respectable. Sandy’s parents, who were rather bohemian in their outlook, were enthusiastic about my comics all along, so my relationship with them was always closer and more open than my relationship with my own parents.

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