Rick Altergott is a contemporary of Pete Bagge, Dan Clowes, and the Hernandez Brothers but he doesn't get mentioned in the New York Times or the New Yorker. It might be because he hasn't produced any super thick graphic novels and because his work celebrates the kind of people that make your vagina curdle. He draws in a style that some would call reminiscent of EC Comics and others would call an out-and-out Wally Wood knock off. His best-known recurring characters are Doofus, a fat little man who wears a straw boater, and his tall Don Knotts-looking friend, Henry Hotchkiss. Scary Manson-esque hippies, foxy cartoonish ladies, naked fishermen, and a secret masturbation society are all elements of Doofus's universe. Rick did us the honor of doing last Sunday's comic so we figured we'd ask him about his life.
What was your childhood like?
I had a pretty normal childhood, growing up in Wilmington, Delaware. My older sister and I attended a private school where my mother taught (and still teaches to this day). There was a great art program there, but no focus on cartoons, or comic books, really. No one in my family was ever interested in comic books either. I'm not sure what got me started with them, I was more into cartoons on TV, like Jonny Quest and Speed Racer and Scooby Doo.
Do you remember the first comic that made an impact on you?
I had an early issue of the DC comic Ghosts, and it came to me second-hand. My best friend had a tape recorder and we did voice accompaniment to the stupid purple prose in the issue. It was so funny, I can still remember it to this day. The specter in the clock, I think it was. We also did tape recordings of a Charlton Hot Rods and Racing Cars comic that was a riot too! I think I still have those two comics, but alas, the tape is long gone.
Your comics are dirty as hell. How’d you get so dirty?
I wish I knew. I seem to get ideas for sleazy content only, although I enjoy and appreciate all types of stories. I'm a pretty conservative person so it is weird that I have a reputation as a purveyor of gutter material. Maybe it's the easiest route for me to take; I am usually trying for some kind of humor. I wish I could do nicer stories.
You specialize in making comics about fascinating creeps and insanely hot bitches. Tell me about the development of your creep and hot bitch mastery.
Drawing creeps was an early focus and specialty among my cartooning peers, primarily Dan Clowes and Charles Schneider. It was easy shock value and laffs. The rules were also easy; a greasy pompadour and harelip combo equals instant creep. Dan struck upon his stupid-looking slanted eyed prototype which he uses to this day, I liked weak chins and cantilevered hairstacks for a reliable creep profile, and Charles had so many extreme effects that it was impossible to quantify them as such. He created several masterpieces, such as Uncle Pubis and Why You... You Must Die!!!
To create a fascinating creep, it has to extend beyond physical characteristics. I guess the most successful creeps I have created are Doofus, Henry Hotchkiss, and Stink Hair Stu. I don't really think of them as creeps per se, or that being their defining trait. To me they are characters first with the same motivations and complexities that any character that you want to work with would have. You can't force it, I've found.
As for hot women, I have a lot of inspirations. There are a lot of artists who draw great women whom I admire and emulate. Wood, Drucker, Hernandez Brothers, John Romita, and others I'm overlooking. One highly regarded girlie artist who has never done it for me is Frazetta. I was recently looking at the Little Annie Fannny episodes he worked on and his proportions aren’t just exaggerated; they're simply fucked up, even worse than mine, which is saying something. I'd rather look at a Gil Elvgren painting over one of his any day. I'm probably being unfair--those Annie appearances weren't the ones to judge him by. One of my main inspirations for girl drawing is my wife, Ariel.
Yes, your wife, Ariel Bordeaux. How’d you make her acquaintance?
We were set up by my old friend Dan Clowes. He had made Ariel's acquaintance through their mutual friend Adrian Tomine. One time when I was visiting Berkeley from LA, the guys set us up and we hit it off, so there were more visits and we started a long distance relationship. Eventually, we both moved to Seattle.
And now you two have a kid. You told me a little about that before but this is a new interview so feel free to tell me more about Eddie.
Since you asked me about my child, I will give out with some details, but remember-- you asked!! Having a two-year-old is an insane challenge, but also so great!
It also means that a portion of my art is done during "stolen moments," but that has always been the case with me anyways. It takes a lot of time and boundless energy to raise a toddler, especially one as inquisitive as Eddie. I love how children his age are so incorruptible; maybe it because they are acting in their own self interest so completely. They haven't had to water down their ideals yet or work out compromises. It's as refreshing to witness as it is unrealistic to the core, because as any parent knows, a lot of compromises need to be made every day. Ariel and I work like dogs to make it work and we still feel like we don't do enough. But we are loving every minute of it. We have a great kid and he is developing into a very cool person.
Are you able to support your family with comics?
For whatever reason, I've never been able to support myself working as an artist. Now that I have a family, it's ever tougher. Cartooning pays pretty bad, at my level anyway, so it isn't fair to my family to spend all my time working on my quirky alternative cartoon world and its characters for pin money. I do try and take freelance assignments as a way to supplement my income. I have had some great longterm jobs in the field of animation that put me close to my ideal of being able to support myself doing creative work, and I hope to get there again someday. The field of illustration has changed since I became active in it, and now it seems like the number of gigs has shrunk, although I am not actively looking for work in that market right now. My focus right now is Flash animation; if any of your readers know of any interesting job opportunities, please contact me!
You and Dan Clowes went to Pratt and published Psycho Comics together, containing your earliest published work. Dan's stuff in the first issue was terrible, although it had improved by the second. You could already draw pretty well. It feels like Dan's work has been constantly shifting and your stuff is working towards a specific visual ideal. I'm not sure if this is something you agree with. I am interested in the two different ways that your careers have evolved.
I've heard that criticism before and I don't really agree with it. From my vantage point, Dan has always been a more solid artist, and was during that early period. He was and still is much more knowledgeable about what makes a page of comics work and look good. Around that same time he did amazing storyboards for a super 8 film we made together. My storyboards looked horrible by comparison. He has always had a knack for making things look good, even if they are done on the fly. He is one of those guys like Crumb, whose finished drawings just flow from the pen. It comes from practice, just drawing constantly.
I've recently been interested in looking at the work of my favorite contemporary comic artists over the span of their careers. It's amazing how different some of the work looks now as opposed to the formative periods. It's not something you really notice in your own stuff but can see readily in others.
Dan's art has become more realistic in a way, to support the more complex narratives and characters he works with. A lot of the hatching he used to use is gone, and now he works in color, as do most of the other guys, which changes the rules considerably. The graphic punch is still there; I don't think there is anyone in comics who can design a better looking page than Dan, but the overall approach is a more understated one. Dare I call it "mature?” I am particularly fascinated by the evolution of his work since I have followed his career from the very beginning.
Jaime Hernandez has also developed a cleaner, more sophisticated style over the years, but it's hard to see unless you jump ahead a bit. He's so good it's scary, and, like Dan, an amazing designer. It's really beneficial to try and see where these guys choose to economize and what graphic decisions they make. Most of the best artists tend to take a trajectory like this as they get further into their careers.
As for me, I guess I have been looking to strive for a level of competence that has always eluded me. My ideal is some kind of hybrid that I have never drawn yet, or hasn't come together all on the same page or story, but shows up sometimes, happily. I have to be careful of being too happy with anything I draw and settling for that. I almost always end up hating it later and finding all the mistakes. It's torture, really. It has taken me a long time to realize that I do have my own style and way of approaching things, instead of just being a weird co-mingling of Wally Wood and Mort Drucker. It's important for a cartoonist to have his or her own style even if it derived from the influence of another creator. Once you get to that point, you can filter out the stuff that doesn't work and lock down the stuff that does.