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December 14, 2011

Someday Is Now: Michel Choquette Revisits the ’60s in Comics

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At the end of the 1960s, writer Michel Choquette was tasked with creating a special insert for Rolling Stone: a collection of comic strips by the era’s great minds and talents that would define the decade that had just ended. It took 40 years for the massive collection (which features works by such luminaries as C. C. Beck, René Goscinny, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Kirby, Moebius, Art Spiegelman, Gahan Wilson, and many others) to come to fruition, but it’s time is now, and here’s what Choquette has to say about it.

Congratulations on the book. Very fun and exciting to have it be published now, after all these years! What was the genesis of the project? Why did Rolling Stone originally want to encapsulate the ’60s in comics form?

I have no idea why Jann Wenner decided to actually do this. All I can say is basically it started with the fact that I was at National Lampoon. I was an editor. I did a lot of pieces for them. One of the things I did was write comics, sometimes alone, sometimes in combination with Sean Kelly, another co-editor at the time. There was one in paticular I think that Jann saw in the Lampoon that was called College Concert Cut-Ups. It was therapy for me. I was in entertainment before this and I had decided to recount all of the things that can go wrong when you mix concerts with disorganized committees, small American towns, and such. And I used Frank Zappa as the character in it. It was drawn by Joe Orlando and Henry Scarpelli, except I had the characters in the strip drawn by Peter Bramley, who was a good cartoonist who was one of the original art directors of the National Lampoon. I think Jann had seen that and since it was about music, and he had this idea to do something about the ’60s, it occurred to him to do it in comic strip form. I have no idea why, but all I know is I was convened in New York to see Jann, whom I had never met before. He knew my work, though, and he asked me if I’d be interested in getting a bunch of cartoonists and writers together to do about a 24-page supplement that would be full-tabloid size and would be inserted into Rolling Stone, which then was a tabloid size.
 
How did you two work together?
We tossed ideas around, about music, about Vietnam, fashion, politics, all that kind of stuff, and we talked about people who might do things for ti. We talked about the traditional guys and we also talked about cartoonists like Ralph Steadman and people who didn’t normally do comics but whom Jann liked. We thought it would be fun to get a writer like Burroughs and somebody else could illustrate it. We tossed a whole bunch of ideas around and that’s how it started. I knew a lot of cartoonists because of my Lampoon connections, and I had been in show business before, so I started to poke some of those people thinking some of them could do a strip and somebody else could illustrate it. It grew to the point where a lot of people were interested in it and I said to Jann, “Let’s do a book! It would be crazy to put this all into a supplement.” He got excited about that idea too. So that gave me a little more freedom to choose more people, because when you’re choosing 24 people or so for a supplement—you know, if you get four strips about the Kennedy assassination, what do you do? It’s harder to control people when they say they’re going to do one thing and then they get carried away, especially some of those underground guys. They could come in with something completely different. For those reasons, it grew into a book.
 
How did you approach people to join in?
I went back to Europe a couple times, went to California, went everywhere, getting some traditional cartoonists and others. People like Roy Thomas would write one, Barry Windsor-Smith would draw it, or I’d get Neil Adams. Through him I met a lot of the other big guys, like Herb Trimpe, and then I had my underground connections in California and I’d get a lot of those guys involved. I succeeded in some cases and didn’t in others. Eventually what happened is I had a lot of strips and Jann decided he didn’t want to go ahead with it. Maybe it was too expensive a project. I knew they were going through a bit of financial problems at the time. And also I guess maybe he kind of felt that it had become a bit too eclectic, too many Europeans, too much this or that. We had a very friendly parting of the ways and he said, “Feel free to do whatever you want with this.” He paid my expenses for my travels and he paid me a fee. There’s a rumor that I spent all this money running around and went over my budget, but that’s totally false. I did exactly what I had to do. In fact, I even supplemented some of the travel myself.
 
What did you do after the book was shelved at the time?
So what happened is I was stuck with all these strips and the obligation to do something with them. About a year and a half after I started working on it, toward the end of 1972, I got Harper and Row interested, but eventually they backed out too. The marketing people couldn’t figure out what to do with this book. Was it for kids? Was it for adults? Was it for intellectuals? Underground? They couldn’t really figure it out. By then I had met so many people I was trying to raise private money for it and do it myself. I wasn’t ready to give up. It almost worked. We had it all priced out, but eventually when it became clear it wasn’t working out, I thought, Look, I’ve got to get on with my life. So I put all the pages into a trunk hoping that something would happen with it, and nothing did for years, and it was kind of a sad memory. But I knew that somehow something had to happen someday. And I watched as the world of comics kept changing, with European comics becoming better known in the States, Japanese comics too, graphic novels, and I started thinking about five years ago, maybe it’s time to start something up again. But before I even thought of what I’d try, I got a call from Bob Levin, who’s a labor lawyer who practices in California and lives in Berkeley. His hobby is writing about comics. More than a hobby. He’s written terrific in-depth books and articles about comics. He told me that he wanted to write something about it. He interviewed me and I showed him some of the artwork and then he eventually went back and started writing about it. I thought that was it, but for about a year and a half we emailed with each other. And he produced a huge article in The Comics Journal in 2009, and it was illustrated with some of the artwork. That led to publisher interest.
 
I had promised each contributor a fee of $100, and although that’s a paltry sum, it adds up when you have 169 contributors. So I needed money for that and I wanted control of the book, of course. I wanted to be in charge of the editing and design. I didn’t want to just send the artwork out there and not know what would happen to this book, since I had been so involved with it all this time. One of the people who approached me was Charlie Kochman of Abrams ComicsArts. I’d seen some books they’d put out, and I thought they were terrific. In about 50 minutes after meeting, we knew we were kindred souls. He wanted to do the book exactly as I’d envisioned. He wasn’t demanding that it be a smaller size or that we eliminate some of the lesser-known people. He saw it as a time capsule and he wanted to keep it that way, which was terrific. It was terrific working with Charlie. We’re telling young people what the ’60s were all about.
 
How so?
They might know about Vietnam or the Kennedy assassination, but they might not know who the Chicago Seven were, or who Angela Davis was. We did a lot of research and I got people to help me do a lot of that work, and we wrote extensive notes about the strips explaining the events and of course a bio of the writers and artists who had created the strips. It’s a history lesson in print there at the back of the book. Any mention in the strips is covered, so if you don’t recognize a name or something, we tell them in the back.
 
Also, I should mention how we translated the foreign strips. I had German strips, French, Spanish, Danish, Swedish, and others, and instead of relettering them, which in some cases I thought was a bit of a sacrilege since some of the lettering from the artists was so nice, so what I did was I ran the strips in smaller size at the back, blanking out the speech balloons and putting numbers in there, and then I have the text translation, so you can see the real strip in the original language to preserve its flavor, but at the back you have the translation.
 
Where did the title come from?
If you look under the book’s dust jacket, you’ll see the original cover. It’s an American family watching television, where Jack Ruby is shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. And the father says, “Someday we’ll look back at all this and laugh.” So that’s how the title of the book came about. But now of course the fact that it took the book so long to come out, it kind of gives it a second meaning.