Though Robert Triptow’s name is well recognized within the gay cartooning community, you have to pause for a moment to remember that this year—2015—brings about his first solo book. Since leaving his childhood home in Salt Lake City in the ‘70s, the frequent Gay Comix (later, Comics) contributor and editor has had an on-and-off relationship with the medium. Before diving into comics, Triptow worked at The Advocate, where he experienced Harvey Milk’s San Francisco first-hand; met Howard Cruse, who’d immerse him into Gay Comics; and rubbed elbows with the city’s blossoming artistic community (during our phone interview, Triptow briefly recalls telling Hellen Keller jokes to Jerry Garcia). After his time with Gay Comics, Triptow retired to a mostly private life, spending more than a decade repairing his home with his husband.
Triptow’s first solo book was inspired by a photo deeply rooted in that past. With his uncle, Triptow discovered the image under a pile of trash during a pivotal year—the same one that took him away from Salt Lake City and toward a life in underground cartooning and humor. At first glance, the photo doesn’t look too unusual, considering its time period. This found piece of art shows a New York-based graduating class in 1937, and though P.S. 49’s soon-to-be-alumni might be unified in attire—the boys donning black suits, the girls in matching dresses—the faces are treasure troves of material for a humorist like Triptow to riff on, which he did for decades after finding the photo.
“I’d look at the people in that photograph and go, ‘oh God, he’s a psychopath,’ or, ‘what happened to her? She’s the ugliest girl in the class!’” he says. “Or the one about the homophobe standing next to the guy who is clearly gay. There’s a story right there.”
But Class Photo was effectively born in 2009 out of a cancer diagnosis. “I knew it wasn’t going to kill me, but I was very sick for a couple of years,” Triptow says. “When I came out of it, I thought, I’m not going to live forever. I wondered, what was the story that only I could do? I looked at this Class Photo series, of which I’d maybe drawn nine pages. I figured I should finish this one first. I did most of the work over the last three years.”
The physical result, published by Fantagraphics, is a deeply entertaining exercise in imagination. With completely fabricated names and stories applied to the photo’s cast of characters, Triptow’s Class Photo is a collection of ridiculous fun and smart satire, all wrapped up in a quick read. In the forward, Triptow suggests it for bathroom reading “as each page is about the right reading length per sitting and handy if you run out of tissue,” but we think it’s pretty good for your favorite reading chair, or desk, or bed, too.
Paste: What are you up to today?
Triptow: I’m preparing a slideshow for a reading that I’m doing on Monday in Salt Lake City for [Class Photo]. It’s kind of an event for me, because I’ve been cartooning for decades but never before has any of my work been for sale in my hometown. Mostly because I was the editor for Gay Comics, and even the hippie bookstore in Salt Lake wouldn’t carry it when it was being published, but they’ve all evolved quite a lot. I’m doing a reading at the Pride Center there on Monday. It’s kind of a mindfuck. Apparently a lot of people are going to show up, including all of these people I went to high school with.
I went to a high school reunion last fall, and that’s where I announced the book, which is an appropriate place to announce a book called Class Photo. That’s when most of the people I grew up with found out I did cartooning—never mind that there’s a Wikipedia page about me. They were never that inquisitive. Something interesting: I’ve been going back to my class reunion every 10 years. At the first one, people were surprised that I was a hippie instead of an ax murderer. The second one was where people first realized that I was gay. Some people were kind, some weren’t. The third one, the Internet was up and running and I almost got beat up in the parking lot [laughs]. But I went to the next one very reluctantly. I was surprised how friendly people have become…the world has changed, but that’s enough about all of that.
Paste: Is there anything you’re really hoping to bring to this presentation, now that you have a chance to actually show off your work?
Triptow: Mostly I’m there to promote the book. I want all of my things to sell, but this is my first solo book. I like humor and I like social commentary, and I’d like for this to get around and be sold. But at one point, my mother wouldn’t let my cartooning in the house or look at it. She assumed it was pornography because it was Gay Comics, so now if it gets around that I actually write humor and that it’s for everybody, that’d be great. We all live to prove our families wrong [laughs].
Paste: This must feel great, then.
Triptow: It’s interesting. I’ve found people I thought I was enemies with in junior high school, but they’re suddenly on my side. I like that aspect of society. Kids are so snotty to each other, but now that we’re grown up, they’re like, ‘oh, that person’s more interesting than I thought.’ Just recently, this one guy who was my worst enemy growing up, now it turns out we have so much in common that it’s like we’re the same person. Maybe that’s why we didn’t get along as kids. Some day I’ll do a comic about Utah hippies and freaks of Salt Lake City, because there was actually a pretty intense scene. The Mormons controlled everything, but the counter culture was pretty intense. There was a movie from that era called SLC Punk! that sums it up pretty well.
Paste: It covers that scene pretty accurately?
Triptow: It caught the zeitgeist, I thought. Especially the whole business of all the freaks of Salt Lake getting together for parties while it’s frigid and snowing outside, and being surrounded by straight, wacko culture. I don’t mean to put the Mormons down, but I can’t help but poke fun at them. To me, it’s ridiculous as anything, but that’s their beliefs. I want personal respect from them, so I’ll have to work on that [laughs]. But the people who are hardcore Mormons who have seen my book loved my page I did that made fun of the church, but it was kind of gentle.
Paste: Coming from that environment, you knew the right and wrong way to make fun of Mormons.
Triptow: Oh, I could have been really, really nasty. Being a non-Mormon in Utah was a really strange thing. It wasn’t until I got away that I realized how influencing it was on my entire outlook. I have to say, as a writer, one of my greatest strengths is that I have a very strong sense of irony and the ridiculous. Roseanne Barr, she was a Jewish woman who grew up in Salt Lake City, but I understand what makes her tick—even her anger. When you grow up there you have no power, and when you get away from there you realize how ludicrous it all is. I’ve lived in New York and San Francisco and Portland and L.A. I was in San Francisco in the ‘80s. Nothing I saw in these cities was as perverted as what I saw in Salt Lake City.
Paste: What sticks out in your memory?
Triptow: Oh, fuck. I went disco dancing at the gay club in Salt Lake City and saw straight couples literally fucking on the dance floor. There are a lot of crazy people there. I once went to a bachelor party…I can’t tell you the story without going on and on, but we were all hippies there. I graduated from high school in the ‘70s, so I’m not exactly a spring chicken, but there were so many drugs in Salt Lake. We’d do things like take acid and go to the March of Dimes telethons at night. That’s one of my memories—it was three in the morning, and we were the only people there. So [the news anchors] were like, ‘what brings you out?’ And we were like, ‘we’re here to see the band, maan.’ [Laughs].
Paste: That’s amazing.
Triptow: It goes on and on. I once thought about doing a comic called Proof of Utah. There was a band that had that name, and I wanted to steal it for a book but I got side tracked. I’m thinking of my next project, and that’s one of the things I’m considering. I’m almost at retirement age, so I’m facing a future where I don’t have to work for a living. That’s kind of embarrassing for me, because my brain doesn’t seem to have matured at all. I don’t plan to actually retire, just to write and draw until I drop. When I was 18-years-old and I moved away, I decided how my life would go: I decided I would be a snotty teenager until I was 25, and then something developed after that and I’d get serious. But I figured I’d be able to be productive in my later years, and that’s basically what happened… I retired from comics and didn’t draw comics for 10 years, and now I’ve finally finished my book and I’m up to my neck in it.
Paste: Out of all of those eras of your life, what’s been your favorite?
Triptow: Actually, the one I’m going through right now. This has been a miracle for me. So many good things have happened this year. I moved to Portland from San Francisco, but I was very lonely. [My husband and I] recently put our house on the market planning to retire in Hawaii, which we could just barely afford, and the next day my husband got a job offer in San Francisco. The next day after that, our friends told us their parents’ house was for rent in San Francisco. But if I have to choose another year of my life to live over, it’d be 1971. That was the year I was liberated from my family, allowed to kick up my heels and be wild and take all those fun drugs and have sex and do all of those things I wanted to do in my teen years. Those were the years I discovered comics, and that was the year I discovered the photo that started Class Photo.
Paste: What was it that drew you back into cartooning after quitting for 10 years?
Triptow: The cartooning I’d done before had been for gay-related publications. I was on so many classic undergrounds like Bizarre Sex and Young Lust, as well as some great anthologies that came after. I liked being included, because I felt nervous about being the sole cartoonist. But in 2009, the year I moved to Portland, I was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. I knew it wasn’t going to kill me, but I was very sick for a couple of years. When I came out of it, I thought, I’m not going to live forever. I wondered, what was the story that only I could do? I looked at this Class Photo series, of which I’d maybe drawn nine pages. I figured I should finish this one first. I did most of the work over the last three years.
Paste: Some of the work exists online as far back as 1996. Why did you stop the project at first?
Triptow: There were two reasons: First, I had become very discouraged about cartooning. When I was doing gay comics, I never got any fan letters. All the fan mail went to Howard Cruse and Tim Barela, they were the stars of the series. Also, I had a very nasty experience with the publisher that I don’t really want to go into, but it was a bad relationship. When I came out, it was a bad time in my life. I had altruistic reasons for editing in the first place: all the people around me were dying of AIDs, and what could I do? [My ‘80s] were all about funerals and funnies, funerals and funnies. At the beginning of the ‘80s, I had a couple hundred gay friends. At the end, I had maybe one friend left in San Francisco, because all of the other friends had died. It took the wind out of me, and I had to digest that. Plus, I’d never made any money from cartooning.
We bought a house that needed to be fixed up, and I had skills for that, so I spent 10 years fixing up our house. That creative energy went into repair projects—and now I have a new one to fix up, but I’m hiring people to do that [laughs]. I will say something about Class Photo: I didn’t know what to do with it when I started it. The photo had hung on my wall for 20 years, and I had stories for all the people—one liners about what happened to them. People would come over, and we would laugh at [the scenarios]. I started drawing them into cartoons because I didn’t have anything going on, and I wanted to keep my hand moving. I had been working against deadline for so long, it took the pleasure out of cartooning for me. Then the pleasure of creating stuff came back in a big way. I look back at the first nine pages and I think, boy, the art is rough. So much time would go between each page, and the later ones. Later I’d just whip it all out. It was fluid. Now I feel really motivated to do more.
Paste: You’re back in the full-swing of cartooning again.
Triptow: I’ve got two projects to edit. I actually got the rights to Gay Comics from the original publisher, Dennis Kitchen, who was the original publisher in the ‘80s. We’re going to try to turn that into a new anthology. I’ll edit the first issue, but I’ll turn that over to someone younger who can handle the responsibilities. I can see that being an annual trade paperback that goes on forever. I don’t even want any money for it, I just want a platform for all the queer cartoonists. In May I was asked to go to New York for this queer cartooning conference, and that was an eye opener. I’d never gotten much fanmail ever, which isn’t what we live for, but I just never knew I connected with people. But all of these people were treating me like I was some sort of media star, and I was like, oh really? [laughs]. It was fun, maybe too much fun, I’m afraid. Howard’s saying that there’s such things as cartoon groupies, and I’m like, ‘but I’m married.’
Paste: That’s not really fair. Have you had a chance to connect with these newfound fans online?
Triptow: I had a website that I never looked at—it only had my old stuff on it. I didn’t want to divert any of my creative energy into HTML. But [Howard Cruse] said I should get on Facebook. It’s a really good way to promote your work. I got on there totally cynically, but I have just found a wealth of connections. Everybody’s there, so I’m having a lot of fun on Facebook, and it turns out my smartass attitude translates well there.
Triptow’s original photo pictured with Class Photo
Paste: The thing I think I noticed most about the portrait that inspired Class Photo is how blank this particular canvas is. The men are wearing similar suits, and the women are wearing similar dresses. Was there more or less pressure in creating something, where the inspiration is fairly wide-open to interpret?
Triptow: I’m not sure what you mean by wide-open.
Paste: I would think if you took a photo like this currently, there’d be a lot more distinguishing qualities to draw from—the way people were dressed, or tattoos, or different hairstyles.
Triptow: I see, like a modern-day photo where people show more individuality. I think that’s something I might have focused on, but it wouldn’t have given me the leeway to create entirely new lives for them. When I saw the original photo, the girls all made their own dresses from a pattern that was given to them by the school. They seemed alike, and the guys all had lookalike suits except for the guy with a bowtie, which I had to riff on.
I found the photo with my uncle, we were cleaning out a garage. He’s only two years older than I, so he’s more like my brother than my uncle. We went to my apartment that night and sat around and got stoned. We have a comedic synergy, and we sat around one night and made up what happened to most of them. What we really responded to were the faces—if you look at that photograph, some of the faces are pretty peculiar. I’d look at the people in that photograph and go, ‘oh God, he’s a psychopath.’ Or, ‘what happened to her? She’s the ugliest girl in the class!’ Or the one about the homophobe standing next to the guy who is clearly gay. There’s a story right there. My uncle and I, we’d go through my parents’ yearbooks and laugh our heads off at the photos. We used to go to the airport, before the days of security, and make up stories about the people going by. It’s something I’ve always done. I have a very hyperactive imagination. But we looked at the photograph, and it was like we knew who they are immediately. This morning, David was saying, ‘We should find out who lived in that house where we found that photograph and track them down.’ I kind of don’t want to. I’d just be disappointed.
Paste: This photo is online now, it’s been circulated across the Internet. Has anyone told you anything new about it?
Triptow: That could possibly happen. At one point, I thought I could be sued for using somebody’s likeness until it was pointed out that those people are in their mid-’90s now. If they’re still alive they look much different, so we’re pretty safe. When I did the first page in ‘94, I had a friend whose brother worked at the New York Department of Education. He said his brother checked it out, and he said that the school was set aside for refugee Jewish and Eastern European kids fleeing Nazi Germany. I had tried to get information about that and gotten nowhere. I contacted the only two schools in New York that were originally called P.S. 49. One is in Brooklyn, one is in The Bronx, one is in Queens. They’re all charter schools. I tried calling them, and boy they were annoyed to hear from me. ‘We’re educators here, we don’t know anything about the past.’ I stopped bothering them. At this point, it doesn’t matter to me anymore. Still, I’ve found there’s a generational lapse in how my humor goes across. I don’t think anyone in that generation would be too amused. The woman who was my next-door neighbor when I was a kid, she was only 10 years older than I, I sent her a copy. She said ‘don’t send me any more. This is not my kind of humor.’ Which is really kind of true…
Paste: In a nightmare scenario, if any of these characters are still alive, who is the last one you’d like to get a copy of this book?
Triptow: Dear lord. Probably the principal. I show him going around with a hard-on all the time. I don’t know. There are only a few where they would look at it and go, ‘that’s pretty cool. What a sweet story that is.’ [laughs]. The woman who is convinced that Barbra Streisand is her daughter—actually, the original story was that she was the real mother of Barbra Streisand, but I thought, there’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. But I thought it was more fun if she was just convinced that she was her mother. People’s delusions are more fun than reality, to me. That’s the major formula for the humor here. I would make it as ridiculous as I could, and the climax would be when the delusion is stripped away from them. Still, it was a huge challenge to condense somebody’s life story to one page or less. It took me as much time to do one page as it would to do a 10-page story. I threw away so many great jokes just to make things fit in.
Paste: These stories are almost expressed in the scenario you were talking about before—the sort of defining stories that you’d share at a class reunion.
Triptow: I have had that experience. There are people I went to school with that have pretty interesting lives. Our student body president is now a professional spiritual channeler. It seems a bit ludicrous, but when you talk to him, he’s completely serious about it. You have to respect it. This year I’ve had more contact with my classmates than ever. A lot of them are traditional, family people. They might seem boring from my point of view, but they’re really open-minded people and actually quite funny…In my case, the fact that I turned out to be a humorist, it turned out to be a salvation. When I joke about my parents raising me to be an ax murderer, it’s not too far from the truth [laughs]. I use humor in a healthy way, but if it’s gotten attention, that’s nice. But it’s not the point. Promoting myself with this book, I would’ve preferred to be as anonymous as possible and just put the work out. I’ve met a lot of celebrities and they’ve all gotten on my nerves after a while. I was very close friends with Charlene Tilton just before she was cast on Dallas, and years later when she was signing her name and dotting the I with a star instead of a dot it was just like…nothing more here people, move along.
Paste: Does taking the conversation out of the creative process, doing promotional-type things take the magic out of it for you?
Triptow: The whole thing has changed for me. When I was editing Gay Comics, the publisher didn’t do anything to promote it. I was always doing press releases and sending them out on my own. It was a burden. When I was doing [promotion for Class Photo], I had to write a bio, and I was like oh God…. Frankly I’ve been having so much fun talking to people, of sharing the humor, that gives me a lot of pleasure. Whatever appears in print—unless it’s a dirty rotten lie [laughs]—I’m glad to see my book made more visible.
Paste: After this was finished and collected, looking at the project completed, does it make you look at storytelling in a different light?
Triptow: No. I’m harsh about my cartooning, but I think I’m a pretty good writer. Unlike other parents, whose kids would put up their childhood scrawls, I was the only person in the family who could draw. It actually made my parents nervous because they didn’t know how to relate to it. So I took up journalism and became the editor of the paper, and cartooning was just my little hobby. As I’m sure you may know, there’s not much money in any creative endeavor in America. The part of cartooning that appeals to me is still the writing, and I have to sweat blood onto the paper, and then it passes as ink as it darkens—God, I think I’ve gone off on a tangent here.