Sunday, July 08, 2007

Remembering Clay Geerdes

Ten years ago today Clay Geerdes died as a result of liver cancer. He was 63-years-old.

Clay was someone I met because of his work with young cartoonists. He published a series of mini-comix and a newsletter called Comix World (later Comix Wave), which covered the vibrant scene of underground comic books.Geerdes' newsletter was a hodge podge of styles, type and illustrations. Different cartoonists did his logos, and sometimes used him as the subject. Click on the pictures for full-size images.

Clay was right there from the beginning of that movement in the late 1960s, as a freelance journalist, writing about the hippie culture from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wasn't from California, but was a transplanted Midwesterner. He left his home in Nebraska when he was of age and went into the Navy for four years. When he came out he stayed in California where he completed his education, becoming for a time in the 1960s a college English professor. The worlds of academe and Clay Geerdes just didn't get along. He left education, became a freelance journalist, writing whole underground newspapers, including the satirical San Francisco Ball. If there was a mover-and-shaker in the world of the underground press at the time Clay probably knew him. He took pictures of many of the counterculture celebrities of the day, and many of those photos* are still around, being used in movies and books about the era.

In the early 1970s Geerdes began to focus solely on the underground comix, because of the talent level coming out of those books. R. Crumb. Spain. Clay Wilson. The list goes on and on. A blog devoted to his photos of cartoonists is available here. Clay found out early that underground publishing, like mainstream publishing, was closed to outsiders. Anyone, even someone with talent who wasn't part of the inner circle, could expect their submitted artwork to become a coaster for coffee cups, mislaid or lost. Geerdes felt that encouraging and publishing young cartoonists was a way for them to grow and develop.

I contacted him in 1979 and sent him some of my drawings. By return mail I got a clipped funny news article and a demand to "do a cartoon of this." I went ahead and did it, and looking back on it now I can see it wasn't very good. But I got better. He made cartoonists get better over time because he was demanding and wanted them to draw constantly. He wasn't a harsh taskmaster, but he knew potential and asked something of his contributors.
The mini-comix were a mixed bag of good and sometimes very bad cartoons. The best of the artists did their job to make them hilarious.

Besides a love of cartooning, Clay and I had something else in common: heads made of solid granite. When we made up our minds it was difficult to get us to see the other person's point of view. I hope I've mellowed, but Clay never did. One time we had a screaming fight that chilled our friendship for a few years, and even when our relationship was renewed there was a remote side, an iciness to Geerdes I hadn't seen before. I had betrayed him, and could never be wholly trusted again. OK, I accepted that. But when he was close to death, he wrote and requested a present. He wanted a copy of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "Shenandoah." I was floored. The great counterculture chronicler wanted the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? What it showed was Geerdes' soft side. He had one. Like a lot of guys of his generation he just didn't like to show it.

The picture at the head of this article, taken in 1982 when Clay was 47, was by his friend Clara Felix. Clara is now also deceased. She was also a presence, one of the few people who really understood that under Clay's irascibility and curmudgeonly exterior there beat a soft heart.

For some reason Clay Geerdes is being forgotten for the work he did in his chosen field. Others who have written about the artists and early years of the underground comix have written Geerdes out, all the while using his information and sometimes his photos (illegally). Geerdes longed for recognition and for his contributions to be recognized. He was deeply hurt when it wasn't forthcoming or when he felt dismissed. Underground comix history isn't a big field, and the names of the experts can be ticked off on the fingers of one hand. Unfortunately, Clay's might be the middle finger that got cut off because it was sticking up at his enemies.
A page of one of Geerdes' newsletters that shows him in happier days, circa 1976. He's the one with the mariner's beard, sitting next to animator Bob Clampett. The bearded man on the bottom, George DiCaprio, was an underground cartoonist and father of movie star, Leonardo.

Of all of the people I've known, Clay was really the only one who did things his way, Frank Sinatra notwithstanding. Geerdes was not cut out for a 9-to-5 job, so contented himself in later years with a doorman job in a folk music nightclub near his home in Berkeley, California. It was enough to keep body and soul together. He never cared about the American dream of having a driveway full of cars and a boat, or a house full of expensive things he didn't really need. As long as his needs were met he seemed to be all right. I believe Clay knew he could not answer to anyone, no matter what it cost him. It was because of that independence that he had no medical insurance. It killed him. He ignored symptoms and by the time he saw a doctor it was too late.

Clay Geerdes was a lot of things, but the main thing he was to me is unforgettable. That is why I remember him on this day, 10 years to the day since he died.

*Geerdes' photos are still under copyright, administered by his former neighbor and best friend, David Miller. Use of Clay's photos can be arranged by contacting Dave at

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