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|Interview with Bobby London|
COMIC-ART.COM:. Bobbie, please tell me in your own words, what happened with the Popeye brouhaha with King Features.
BOBBIE: Well, on October twenty-fifth, I did a gag where the Sea Hag uttered the words: `Drat! There goes Roe v. Wade.' and didn't hear a peep out of the syndicate and since I always heard from them whenever they objected to any kinds of punchlines or other nonsense that I might have injected in the strip, which was seldom, but it did happen occasionally. I automatically assumed that Roe v. Wade was considered fair game by them and I proceeded to prepare a full-length story about the subject.
COMIC-ART.COM: That's the storyline that they recently found objectionable with Olive Oyl wanting to send back the baby she'd gotten?
BOBBIE: She didn't get a baby, she got a baby robot that she did not remember ordering from the Home Shopping Network...It was an allegory designed specifically to keep Olive Oyl's innocence intact, and it was designed primarily to lampoon all the misguided good intentions of all the characters concerned.
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, so was it specifically, in your mind, a veiled reference to the whole abortion issue?
BOBBIE: Well, of course, but I knew that, I respect Olive too much to sully her reputation or her good nature, or anything else about her and I would never directly, I would never be that blatant where she's concerned. I've known her for many years and she's a fine woman, and a good Joe.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, you're a long-time Popeye fan, aren't you?
BOBBIE: A long-time Popeye fan, from way back when I was a kid.
COMIC-ART.COM: Would you consider Segar one of your seminal influences?
BOBBIE: Segar was, as far as my career, as far as making a decision to be a professional cartoonist, Segar was the seminal influence in my career. I've been drawing cartoons since I was four years old. I grew up as fascinated with the Max Fleischer Popeye because I used to get beat up by big, fat kids all the time, so naturally I sort of gravitated to Popeye because he kind of took care of all the fictitious bullies in my head. But as I got a little older, as I reached junior high school age, I stumbled upon the legendary E.C. Segar version, which I had heard about from my dad, when he would talk to me about it, and, uh, he regaled great stories of Olive Oyl's mysterious little brother, Castor Oyl, and...the Sea Hag and a lot of other characters, so when I actually saw these old strips, I was mesmerized, and it joined the ranks of some of my other favorite old-time strips that I admired at the time, like Mutt and Jeff, and Barney Google, but I would chance to say that it really took front and center in my imagination.
COMIC-ART.COM: So, your attitude toward Segar's work is extremely respectful.
COMIC-ART.COM: And how long have you been drawing the Popeye strip?
BOBBIE: Since 1986.
COMIC-ART.COM: Okay, so why don't you run down, as briefly as you want, exactly how did the syndicate notify you that your work was unacceptable and that you were being terminated?
BOBBIE: Well, in, you know, uh, they, I can, I can just tell you very briefly because it happened very briefly and very abruptly. They just, the editor, Jay Kennedy, just called me up and told me that they were unhappy with the storyline and I was fired. It was simple as that.
COMIC-ART.COM: And was Kennedy a friend of yours, in addition to being a colleague?
BOBBIE: Kennedy was, Kennedy was an acquaintance from his tenure at Esquire, and when I was still drawing for slick New York magazines in the late Seventies, and he came to my attention when he published an underground comic buyer's guide article, that, an underground comic buyer's guidebook that contained an article with some derogatory references to me by George Shenkman(sp?), a fellow underground cartoonist from my early days.
COMIC-ART.COM: Had you had any inkling that Kennedy might not be kindly inclined towards you? I mean, did you have a cordial relationship?
BOBBIE: Well, we ironed out that difference. It was mainly a matter of when I told him that I was sort of offended by the things that Shenkman wrote, he said, `Well, you believe in freedom of speech, don't you, Bobbie?' You know, that made me laugh, but it was also kind of a poke in my eye at the time. But I forgot about it. I let it ride. I'm not the kind of person who holds grudges, you know? Not really, and um, I tend to let things go, and I certainly did let this go. We became friends. Previous to his appointment as Cartoon Editor at King Features, the editor who originally offered me the tryout job, or asked me to try out, was Bill Yates, who is a cartoonist himself, from the old Mort Walker school of cartooning, and actually, it turned out, studied correspondence art with E.C. Segar as a teacher. So, he never, he didn't tell me about this. I had to read about it in an interview just recently, so it was a big surprise to me.
COMIC-ART.COM: And how long had Kennedy been your editor?
BOBBIE: Uh, I can't be specific about that. I think it was about a year and a half to two years. It's all a blur.
COMIC-ART.COM: So, how many strips do you still owe them?
BOBBIE: I owe them three weeks, which I'm working on as we speak. Ha! Ha! Excuse me.
COMIC-ART.COM: Now the strips in question, with this storyline, the syndicate just notified you that this stuff was unacceptable. Had they had any complaints from their client papers?
BOBBIE: Not that I know of, no. I never got anything but positive fan mail.
COMIC-ART.COM: So this was just the execs at King Features deciding they didn't like it?
BOBBIE: Well, yes. There was a rumor that I heard from somebody there that they'd been considering dismissing me for quite some time because they other plans for Popeye, but I just sort of, I just kind of ignored that. I was continually ignoring rumors like that because they're just rumors, and to concentrate on my work, and see that it improved. I just, uh, I think the only serious argument I had up there with somebody was one particular individual who no longer works there, who was the former head of the licencing department, who refused, despite the fact that St. Martin's Press, the publisher of my paperback, Mondo Popeye, had specifically him that they wanted the Popeye book because I was doing it. They wanted a `so-called mainstream' Bobby London book' and they weren't pursuing it because it was Popeye, he still refused to give me any kind of gratuity or royalty.
COMIC-ART.COM: So they printed your work without a royalty?
BOBBIE: Yes, they did. Contractually, I suppose they had that right, but when it became clear to me that the book was bought because of the reputation that I had worked so hard for twenty years to establish I felt that I was due something. And this fellow begrudgingly gave it to me but made me feel very bad about it and it caused...It kind of threw a lot of cold water on the whole situation. However, I learned later through the grape vine, there was this rumor that he was also the guy who blew off Steven Spielberg and priced Popeye out of Roger Rabbit, so I didn't feel too bad because I was in good company.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, prior to this whole thing with the Olive Oyl storyline was Popeye doing all right in syndication? Had your work attracted more papers?
BOBBIE: It was, I'll tell you the truth, it was beginning to attract new clients when this dismissal happened. However, it was due more to word-of-mouth than any effort that the syndicate would make to promote it, and it had been...It's a strip that's slowly been papers since the creator died. That's pretty much the natural chain of events. You can look at Pogo or any other old strip where the creator passes away and that's bound to happen. And even when Bud Sagendorf left the daily because he had been with it so many years, people were used to seeing him. So there was a, naturally I expected, I expected some amount of readership loss, but I also expected new readers to be gained if enough people heard that I was doing it. And I think that that was beginning to happen. I think that I didn't underestimate my draw, my drawing power. No pun intended. There've been very, in fact, a number of the papers, a number of existing client papers have already dropped it because I've left, so...
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, that's good. About how many papers is it running in, you think?
BOBBIE: They never told me and I can only guess that it's about twenty-four, which is what they're telling the press, but I don't really know. This whole thing started when a client newspaper in Chicago insisted on running the cartoons in question, and a reporter called me and asked me what the story was and I had just been freshly fired at the time, so I just told him, and then all off a sudden I found, I found seven networks at my doorstep.
COMIC-ART.COM: So, what day did you actually find out you were fired?
BOBBIE: Friday the seventeenth.
COMIC-ART.COM: Okay, so it's about two weeks ago.
BOBBIE: Yeah, it all happened very fast.
COMIC-ART.COM: What's your opinion of King Features right now?
BOBBIE: No comment. (Laughter)
BOBBIE: You can just say, I'll be eating neither spinach nor fried chicken for some time to come, you know.
COMIC-ART.COM: Has all the media attention brought you any offers of new work?
BOBBIE: Well, I've been getting illustration offers. I'm not especially worried about what I'm going to do next. In fact, I probably need a vacation. I've been working for six years on this strip without a vacation, without any time off, pardon me, I don't want to be redundant, and my two years at Disney before that, all add up to a whopping eight years without a rest, so I want to take a breather and get all my ducks in a row as it were, and see where to go from there.
BOBBIE: I have to clean my room, too.
COMIC-ART.COM: That's always necessary. Well, were you pleased with the way you were treated by the media, by how they handled the story?
BOBBIE: Yes, yes, yeah, they were all great. Oh, yeah, that was amazing. I had dozens of television reporters in here and nobody stole anything from my studio. It was really terrific.
COMIC-ART.COM: That's good. And what about Playboy? Are they planning on running anything on you, because I know you're a long-time contributor with Dirty Duck.
BOBBIE: I haven't heard from them. I haven't heard from Playboy in a long time, I might add. (Laughter) But there's always that outside chance, you know. I haven't heard, you know, there are girlfriends who've been calling me that I haven't heard from in years, so I assume I might hear from Michele Eury eventually...
COMIC-ART.COM: Bobbie, Barry wanted me to ask you, would it be possible to get tearsheets of some of the controversial strips from you. Do you have xeroxes?
BOBBIE: Not from me, but if you get in touch with The Southtown Economist at 312-586-8800, a reporter named Ted Cox. C-o-x.
COMIC-ART.COM: Ted Cox.
BOBBIE: Yeah, he will, they'll give them to you, because they're the ones who broke the story.
COMIC-ART.COM: Okay, that's the Southtown Recorder?
COMIC-ART.COM: Economist. Okay. And how much do you think we could run without getting into trouble with King Features, as far as fair use?
BOBBIE: I'm told that it's a news story and it's all available for fair use. This is what I'm told, okay? You'll have to talk to, you know, your lawyers or whatever. I can't really advise you on that. I'm not really in any position to tell you.
COMIC-ART.COM: Right, okay.
BOBBIE: But, I've been referring everybody to the paper in Chicago about that because it's out of my hands now.
COMIC-ART.COM: Are you planning any legal action against King Features, or are you just going to drop it?
BOBBIE: Not at this time. So far there's been no reason for me to. You know, my reputation doesn't seem to have been hurt terribly, and so far I don't think my reputation has been hurt at other major newspaper syndicates, but time will tell.
COMIC-ART.COM: Would you ever consider doing a syndicated strip again?
BOBBIE: Yes, I would consider it. It would depend on the syndicate. It would depend on the editor. A whole lot of things would be, would have to be considered before I would do that. I've certainly learned a lot.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, getting away from Popeye for a minute, Barry also wanted me to ask you a little bit about what went down with the Air Pirates back in the old days.
BOBBIE: Yeah, well that was a long time ago.
COMIC-ART.COM: That was what, '71?
BOBBIE: I wasn't even twenty-one when it happened.
COMIC-ART.COM: The strips that Disney found most offensive, they were done by Dan O'Neill, though, right? Not you. Or was it your work also?
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh yeah, Mickey Mouse was pretty much Dan O'Neill's baby. The only things I was really interested in at that time was Dirty Duck and Shary Flenniken. And those were the two main reasons I stuck around the group called the Air Pirates. And everything else has always been credited to O'Neill. It was his brainchild and he took credit for it publicly at the time, and so, it should be known as his thing, you know? Popeye was always my thing, Mickey Mouse was always Dan's thing.
COMIC-ART.COM: I see. So, you weren't threatened in the Disney suit at all?
BOBBIE: No, I was involved, certainly, because I was involved in the publication of it, and I was certainly part of, my name was right there and I was part of it. However, there was a rumor, an erroneous rumor, that Dirty Duck was part of that lawsuit and that wasn't true. Dirty Duck was never touched by that lawsuit.
COMIC-ART.COM: I've never seen the actual Air Pirates comics, so what were you strips in the books? Were they Dirty Ducks?
COMIC-ART.COM: Did you ever run into any censorship problems with Dirty Duck?
BOBBIE: No. What kind of censorship problems? Did anyone ever try and tell Dirty Duck what to do and stuff you mean?
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, or was a headshop busted because they were selling Dirty Duck comics or something like that?
BOBBIE: Never. Ne-ver! Dirty Duck wasn't a porno strip, If it were made into a movie, it would come in under an "R" rating at the very...
COMIC-ART.COM: Were any of your Dirty Duck strips for Lampoon ever shot down because of the content?
BOBBIE: No. No. Never. Hugh Hefner insisted that Dirty Duck have a sex life at one point, and there was a bone of contention about that, and because he was the boss at the time, I gave in and Dirty Duck came off looking like a rapist and I never forgave myself, so I had to take a year off from Playboy to get everything straightened out, but Hefner figured it all out and I was allowed back into Playboy for a little while.
COMIC-ART.COM: From what I remember from the old strips, it was Mr. Weevil who was the serious pervert.
BOBBIE: Yeah, well Weevil was more of a, Weevil was essentially an autoerotic, I guess, you know. He would get women because women liked him. (Laughter) He would occasionally get lucky, you know, but he was ineffectual. They were both ineffectual, they might have, they were very ineffectual at whatever they did, and it was always written like a Grimm brothers fairy tale, where they if tried to do anything bad, destiny or fate would slap them down firmly. Or they would always get their comeuppance in the end. I always thought that the female characters always came off looking much better than the guys, or at least the two main guys, anyway. But they're supposed to be loveable rogues. They're supposed to be in a long comic tradition of loveable rogues and, certainly it's true that women have always seemed to like the Weevil and Dirty Duck was always supposed to be sort of the Baron Munchausen of sex, so he is what he is.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, what was your model for Dirty Duck if you have one? If you have a mental image.
BOBBIE: Well, it was essentially, there were a lot of, it was essentially inspired by this wino that used to sell pencils on Thirty-Second Street back in my early days as an underground cartoonist.
COMIC-ART.COM: Really? He was based on a real person then, not another cartoon?
BOBBIE: He was based on a real person, but, and also I was living, I was still going to college and living out in a little town called Roslyn, which has a great big duck pond there. And I used to wander around the duckpond, and sit around and just watch ducks and notice how funny they were, and how different they were from Disney ducks, and...I guess the seed was planted for that character there, but I didn't think up the name until I got to California. And there are characters from my childhood that would vaguely call up both of those characters, and all my memories of being a little boy and wandering around Brighton Beach bathhouse in Brooklyn, with all these naked old men walking around I think probably had something to do with it. (Laughter) Sorry, laughter. Denote laughter here.
COMIC-ART.COM: I usually put laughter in parentheses.
BOBBIE: And we had a friend in school who sniffed bicycle seats, so you know where that character came from.
COMIC-ART.COM: Right. So you knew somebody who actually did that. I always thought that's one of those things kids talk about but nobody ever does.
BOBBIE: Right. Well, yeah, I know that, you know, the grapevine has always said that those characters were just puppets, Groucho Marx and Peter Lorre puppets, but it's not true at all. They were definitely inspired by real people...Annie Rat was indeed the young lady who I went out with immediately before the character was born, so it's all bonafide and legit.
COMIC-ART.COM: So, Groucho really wasn't one of Dirty Duck's models? Because I always thought there was a little bit of Groucho in his personality.
BOBBIE: Well, Groucho was always one of my heroes, but so was W.C. Fields, and I had a long correspondence with Stan Laurel when I was just a boy, and so old vaudevillians, I've always had a fascination with old vaudevillians, but so has every other cartoonist. It's just that I happened to know a real one. And I think maybe you could easily say that that was he was a primary influence as well.
COMIC-ART.COM: Okay, well, Bobbie, I think this should just about cover everything I wanted to cover. What I'm probably going to, like I said, is do a Q & A with you on the King Features stuff, and then just a short feature talking about Dirty Duck and some of the other stuff.
COMIC-ART.COM: And I'm probably going to track Dan O'Neill down at the San Diego Con and get his take on it, you know, and get his take on it, some twenty years down the road.
BOBBIE: Oh, okay, you may hear a totally different story. I'm sure you will hear a totally different story, but...
COMIC-ART.COM: So, basically, from your viewpoint, though, it was Dan's strips that aroused everybody's wrath and you were just sort of pulled into the controversy?
BOBBIE: Yeah. Yeah. True. You know, I was asked to be Dan's kind of assistant on his daily strip and there was a lot of talk about putting together a cartoon studio, and the whole Disney thing sort of happened almost at the last minute. It was pretty much of a Dan O'Neill improvisation. And I was kept in the dark for quite a long time. People were laughing at me about it because I really didn't know what was happening, and it seems that now they're all trying to tell everybody that I knew what was happening all along.
COMIC-ART.COM: And you really didn't?
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, I remember the July Con in New York in 1975. You and Shary were doing sketches and I was under the impression that one of the reasons why you were sketching was to raise money for Dan's defense.
BOBBIE: July of what?
COMIC-ART.COM: July of '75.
BOBBIE: July, '75?
COMIC-ART.COM: Yeah, the big Phil Seuling con.
BOBBIE: Yeah, that's probably true, but we also felt that we were also there to see all our fans who read about us from The National Lampoon. I thought that was a pretty good draw.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, I remember that you did a little drawing of Mr. Weevil for me in my con book for me.
BOBBIE: That's right. That's right. I think we were sort of a couple of jewels in Dan's cap at that time. I think we were a definite draw on Dan's behalf. That's really very true. Vaughn Bode, also contributed some of his, some of the money that he made selling drawings to the Air Pirates defense fund. And like I said, I was part of the lawsuit.
COMIC-ART.COM: Oh, you were actually named in the lawsuit, then?
BOBBIE: Oh, yes. Yes, I don't deny that at all. I don't deny that at all. However, all of us have, all the ones, the ones who were involved in the lawsuit were Dan, Ted Richards, me, and Gary Halgren, and Shary Flenniken was a part of the group of artists, but somehow she got, she got scot-free from the lawsuit. She escaped scot-free from the lawsuit.
COMIC-ART.COM: Did Shary actually have any strips in any of those books?
BOBBIE: Not in the Air Pirates books. But there were books done by the Air Pirates group afterwards that Shary was involved in. In fact, she made her debut in my book, called Merton of the Movement.
COMIC-ART.COM: Right, right, I remember seeing that. Okay, I think that about covers everything, Bobbie. Thanks a lot for your time.
COMIC-ART.COM: And are you going to be in San Diego this year?
BOBBIE: I don't know. I don't know yet. Gilbert Shelton asked me if I wanted to go. I had dinner with him the other night and then if I hear from him. If he can kind of arrange some sort of thing, I might go. It depends, you know, because I've developed fear of flying over the years, so I don't know.
COMIC-ART.COM: Well, if you are, I'd love to have the chance to talk to you again, and maybe buy you a beer. I've loved your work for years.
BOBBIE: Okay, sure, great.
We thank interviewer Steve Ringenberg for this transcript