Sunday, June 20, 2010

Rod Filbrandt and Wombat: Straight from the Brain

I had a delightful surprise reading Rod Filbrandt’s new Wombat anthology last week (available at Chapters, online, and elsewhere). I’ve always enjoyed Filbrandt’s work - he's one of about a dozen things that I always read in the Straight - but I had a particular fondness for the character of Wombat, since I was exposed to him in my formative years, back when Wombat was a punk with a funny haircut, and I was too. Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders has said that he always wanted to be a cartoon character; with Wombat, various Vancouver freaks got to experience themselves as one - or at least feel themselves represented a little, through the distorting lens of Filbrandt’s eccentric imagination. I was shocked to find that I had vivid memories of many of the strips, dating back to the years (the mid-1980’s) when I would cart stacks of Discorders and other zines via bus from Vancouver to Maple Ridge, to their pore over the mysteries of the initiated with teenaged friends. The resonances were such that I had to get in touch...

See you at the booklauch, Thursday at the Railway! (And visit Filbrandt’s blog!)

Allan: Is the book the "complete" Wombat or the "selected" Wombat?

Rod: Very selected. It was a bit of a chore weeding out the bummers, but I also put a few in there that I myself find a bit wince-worthy. I wanted to have some warts in there for the sake of posterity.

Allan: You change and the strip grows more complex over the course of the book, but the earlier "Wombat the punk" Discorder stuff - which is where I first became aware of you - seems as fully realized as your "Wombat noir" years... What was the prehistory of Wombat?

Rod: The character just sort of sprouted up fully formed, I think. I'm not sure how or why that happens, but once in a while it does and I try not to argue with it. It was just loose and stupid and spontaneous - straight from the brain. I'd of course been very influenced by punk and new wave and the attitude. It seems like I was probably going for anti-humour shtick, but now it sort of seems like anti-anti-humour in that there's still some semblance of a punch-line in there, but I was playing with the medium - not really by design, but by ignoring the rules. Who made the rules anyway? I still fucking hate the way people over-think comics and cartoons and analyze everything until all of the fun and spontaneity is sucked right out of it. It's death.

Allan: What bands were playing when you got on the scene when you entered it? Wombat’s blender playing makes me think of bands like Tunnel Canary, or the Haters, but were you aware of them? Did you ever make it to the Buddha?

Rod: I was a late bloomer and too young to have gotten in on that action. I remember being 17 or 18 and we'd go stand outside the Commodore in the back alley just to hear bands like X playing. It killed us that we missed so much. Seeing the Clash at War Memorial was huge for me and I eventually saw a lot of great Commodore shows, and some crazy fly-by-night bands at the Pit, but punk was pretty much over. I saw Art Bergmann a few times - that's practically punk, right?
Anyway, I was a few years too young to get in on the first wave of 70's punk, but there was a strong dividing line drawn, even while playing catch-up, between my cartooning before and after. I think as for many people of a certain vintage - it changed everything. Plus I was also only about 21 when the strip started appearing in Discorder, so some artistic improvement was a foregone conclusion. Influences pile up or come and go or mutate into something else, but I was always just making it up as I was going along.

Allan: I’ve always wondered - do you and Wombat bear a physical resemblance to each other? Is he an alter-ego?

Rod: He was definitely an alter-ego all along, a surrogate that could act out things I never could - or would. I'm pretty introverted and not prone to being particularly wacky in real life. Even when things got darker for Wombat it's still an outsized version of me, I guess, but as time went along he definitely had his own life that hardly resembled my own. There's a whiff of bad teenage poetry to some of it, but in a way I thought that was also funny. I often wonder how many people got that.

Allan: Did you look like a punk yourself, when starting Wombat?

Rod: No, not really, but I kind of gave it a shot. If anything, I looked like I was dressed for a Joy Division cover band or something. I could never get my hair to stand up, so I was into the severe Factory/Manchester hairdos. I also had my own version of Mod going on for awhile, decidedly un-punk rock in cardigans, button-down collars, and desert boots. I also liked the Undertones' red socks with Oxfords look. I'm sure I looked like a proper dork. Well, I guess I still do, but at least the outfits are gone.

Allan: When I was first reading Wombat, I was a punk kid in Maple Ridge, where I was laughed at, pointed at, and occasionally attacked for lookin' funny. Friends of mine had the same experience - it was the way it was. The moment that stands out was walking past a park where the school stoners were smoking up. I had a funny haircut - a fin on top and maybe bleached on the sides, I’m not sure what it was like then exactly - and was listening to The Exploited on my tinny Realistic tape recorder. Suddenly I felt something hit my leg. I turned around, and saw, to my shock, that the kids in the park had lined up and were THROWING ROCKS at me. Kinda small rocks, kinda lamely - most of them missed, but it was startling and memorable (and I usually construe it as having been "stoned by stoners," tho' it wasn't particularly funny at the time). So the Wombat strip when he devours the dude's head for laughing at him - which I saw around the same time in my life - was a huge comfort and delight to me and my friends; we fucking loved it. It spoke to me and the punks I knew VERY directly and positively, in a way comic strips don't usually do...
Rod: Yeah, that was definitely a big "fuck you" to all of the lingering 70's stoner/rocker bullshit that permeated my youth. I grew up in Richmond, which already felt about five years behind everything by the time I finally latched onto the Sex Pistols and the Clash. It still felt like the C-Fox "classic rock" types were calling all the shots and I think of it now as being very opportune, because, Christ, I needed something to rebel against at that age. And unfortunately, my parents were cool, so I had to really go out of my way to find music and attitude that would outrage them. I remember being so happy when my dad finally yelled at me to turn down Elvis Costello's This Year's Model, because he said, "That's not singing!" He would get on me about how so much of my music was "too fast!" But a few short years later they were tagging along to a Lene Lovich concert. It was horrible.
Allan: And in high school?
Rod: I was pretty incognito in high school and was only getting into this stuff towards the end. It wasn't until about 1981 that you could even find a pair of skinny black pants in Richmond, but even that would get some of the jocks and rockers all riled up. I was so fucking elated to escape all of that and find out that there were far more interesting things going on, far more interesting people, and I happily shelved it all into the history file and got on with it. I was even in a band for awhile and that was fun; it went nowhere, but the experience gave me a small sense of "cred" - really small.
When I was doing the strip initially, my friends were pretty much my only sounding board - some of it private joke stuff - and one friend in particular almost deserves co-writing credit. He was much more extroverted than me and dressed the part much more flagrantly. We shared a sense of humour. There's a little bit of him in Wombat.
Allan: Does the shift from "Wombat punk" to "Wombat noir" mirror the shift from Discorder to the Straight? How important was it to you, getting into the Straight?
Rod: The Straight lured me away with the promise of actual money, I think it was 1988. I was already doing a cartoon for them, but they preferred Wombat and stole it. The change of venue didn't affect it in the least.

Allan: As I recall, once Wombat's look started varying from strip to strip, the "punk Wombat" first incarnation completely disappeared. Is that accurate? Is there any one "later incarnation Wombat" look that you think of as being definitive? Where did that decision come from - were you influenced by editors, friends, the changing scene, or just wanting to broaden your palette?

Rod: His look started varying mostly in his hair, I had to cut it down - the only reason for this was because his hair was too tall to comfortably fit word balloons in the panels. I needed the space, particularly since the drawing was getting a little bit more refined. From my perspective now I almost see them as two different characters - the book seems kind of oddly schizophrenic, seeing the strips collected.
Allan: Why did Wombat go noir, anyhow?
Rod: Two things happened: I seriously went mental for writers like Jim Thompson and Raymond Chandler and cartoonists like Dan Clowes and Charles Burns and just found myself going in a new direction, although I still saw humour in it. It seemed like a crazy mix at the time, this playing dark pulp melodrama for laughs. Well, mostly laughs. Then I took a year and a half off and started traveling. That's a whole 'nother story, but when Wombat came back he was a different character in many ways. He was older. He had a past. I could say that I was "exploring" my darker side too and going through the usual youthful romantic entanglements and various states of disillusionment, but the strip was still an exaggeration.

Allan: As a punk I remember at the time feeling kind of disappointed in the shift in the strip - the humour got more oblique, the punk connection got effaced, and at the time, I didn't really get the noir references or the stylistic experiments - it stopped being a "cartoon for punks" and became something else, which I appreciate now a great deal, but didn't then. Is that a reaction you got from others?
Rod: Sorry about that. Not that I ever got a lot of fan mail, but surprisingly the feedback was all positive. I didn't get a single beef. I was expecting a few "you suck" letters.

Allan: Care to drop a few names of favourite hardboiled crime novels or films noir? If you were stuck on a desert island with three hardboiled crime novels and three noirs, what would your shortlist be? (By the way, I just encountered, for the first time, Charles Willeford's novel Pick Up - it's an absolute must-read, if you haven't read it).

Rod: Love Willeford.

The Killer Inside Me - Jim Thompson
The Big Sleep - Raymond Chandler
The Black Angel - Cornell Woolrich

Out of the Past - 1947
DOA - 1950
The Glass Key - 1942

And anything with Robert Mitchum, Lawrence Tierney, Veronica Lake, or William Bendix.

Allan: Montgomery Clift and Robert Mitchum make appearances in Wombat... Any other notable celebrity "cameos" in your work? What makes someone a good candidate for a cameo in a Filbrandt cartoon?

Rod: There's always an Ernest Borgnine nod in my work somewhere, maybe a Don Knotts or two, Roy Orbison. I don't know - I just like throwing in weird pop culture references. The more obscure, the better. I'm somewhat obsessed with the German folk singer Heino, although I think I'm in a pretty small minority there. He's fun to draw. So's Borgnine. They don't make kissers like that anymore.

Allan: I've heard - I think you say this in another interview - that some people didn't get Dry Shave so much, and that you got feedback about it being too dark and weird. Did that inform the decision to move on to Tar Paper Town? Do you feel like people are finally catching up?
Rod: I'll never understand how some people - mostly editors apparently - took Dry Shave at face value. But it ran its natural course. It was my American strip. I lived in Seattle for eight years then moved back here and the strip just fizzled out on its own. As for people getting it or liking it, and this goes for all three strips - I try not to care. First and foremost what I do is for me and if it finds any kind of audience, so much the better. It's all an outlet outside commercial work and I let my own stuff go where it wants to. I'm aware that my sense of humour and my references are not exactly Hi and Lois, and while I like acceptance as much as the next guy, I'm just trying to do my own thing and not fall into the artistic death-trap of second-guessing things. Besides, I'm usually wrong anyway.
Allan: I heard Wombat would make an appearance in Tar Paper Town to plug the launch - has that happened? (I might've missed it!). Did he ever surface in Dry Shave? Why did you retire Wombat in the first place...?

Rod: Wombat shows up in this week's strip - Thursday, June 24th - same day as the launch. He actually did appear in Dry Shave two or three times. There was this barely perceptible back story that one of the characters, Monkey Man, was looking for him. Monkey Man did eventually find him and Wombat smashed his face with a pint glass and then kissed the bloody mess. I probably should have put those in the Dry Shave book.

I retired Wombat when I moved to Seattle. It felt done. I think I went a couple of years without a strip, but Charles Campbell, the then editor at the Straight, wanted me to do something else. I always had the title - it was a reference to shaving in Thailand, often with no shaving cream or water. We would see each other with bloody toilet paper chunks on our faces in the morning and say, "Dry shave?" The title somehow did half the work.

It became an attempt to totally work the classic four panel gag cartoon set-up, with broader humour and physicality than I'd generally done before. I wanted to do gags. I made it a discipline. And again, it was the American influence - I had to live it a bit to really capture it, as stupid and cartoony as it was. Because, let's face it - America is kind of stupid and cartoony. And there are real people in Dry Shave, but I'll never blow their cover. Tar Paper Town is a real place too, but I'm sworn to secrecy. And Googling will get you nowhere.

Allan: By the way, is the Dry Shave book still available? Will it be sold at the launch? There will be merch?

Rod: There will indeed be some Dry Shave books as well. And t-shirts. While tiny supplies last. I'm also going to have 'zine/digest thing for sale at the launch. It's a compendium of bric-a-brac including some orphaned strips, some writing, and sundry one-offs that hopefully showcase that I do other things besides wacky cartoons.
Allan: By the way, why the name, "Wombat?"

Rod: You know, I have absolutely no recollection of where that came from.


Garry P said...

The only letter I ever wrote to Discorder was when Wombat disappeared from those pages. It was 2 words long: "Where's Wombat?"

Allan MacInnis said...

Now that's a children's book I would like to see...