Interview with RON TURNER, founder and publisher of LAST GASP BOOKS by Alan Kaufman

Art by Danny Hellman

ALAN KAUFMAN: You belong to a small, elect coterie of legendary free speech publishers that includes Barney Rosset of Grove Press fame and Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights Books.  What brought you to adopt that stance, as opposed to going the way of most publishers who do everything in their power to steer clear of possible trouble with the powers-that-be? 

RON TURNER: I hate censorship of all kinds.  I found a book called Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers when I was 13, in a Rexall drug store in Firebaugh, California, pop. 3000.  It was in a rack of paperbacks. I was new in town and bought this book.  What a great way to meet new friends, have all the answers to hidden knowledge.  I loved innuendo and it got me kicked out of school for putting on performances.  When I started college, I did some acting and the gay director cast me as a Hollywood homosexual.  It was a play staged in the round and I had to kiss Sammy Ganimian on the mouth.  It blew people’s mind, as I was a jock.  I played football and wrestled.  I had a rep for taking on bullies.  I was told by the athletic director Ken Starr to stop giving African American teammates rides home from practices.  Not knowing any other way to deal with authority, a group of mixed students, three black women and four white men went together to the Christmas Dance, which had a color bar, and just came in.  We were told we couldn’t do that and we just started dancing.  This was Fresno in 1959/60.  Beatniks were amongst us, coffee houses beckoned and I found a happy place. Began working as a brakeman for the railroad and was aboard when each division had to hire a black or brown person.  Horrible racist griping by the train crews. Neo Nazi’s where you wouldn’t think they were and murderous immigration “officials”.  It was obvious the truth had to be shown.  

AK: How did where you grew up and your upbringing extend into what you do?

RT: Still growing up.  I am a perpetual teenager.  My first job was at a day care center in Fresno when I was 7.  I made 5 or 10 cents a day wiping other kids snotty noses.  I had colds all the time.  I have never not worked.  My dad, after he got out of the Marines, had a business renting projectors and films to people who would take them home to show movies.  This was before Television. He then got a very humble tent theater in Caruthers, a poor hamlet  south of Fresno.  Then we got successive theaters in Riverdale, Firebaugh, Huron, Coalinga, Five Points, North Fork and we moved and lived in all those towns.  I was running the 35mm carbon arc projectors by the time I was in the 5th grade.  Even in High School in Fresno, after practice, I was running a drive in theater 40 miles out of Fresno. Television was killing that trade like the internet is choking independent publishing and distribution these days.

AK: When you launched Last Gasp you were a grad student at San Francisco State University.  What was your major and why did you choose to become a publisher of underground comix?

RT: At Fresno State U. I had already gotten into Grad School in Psychology, started with others an underground newspaper called Flagrante Delicto.  It was MIMEOGRAPHED.  I was involved with a lot of protest on campus.  I had worked training a Peace Corps India 16 project and uncovered vast corruption with the faculty of the farm school.  Also, rankled the Psychology dept staff, by accepting the Deparment Chairman’s appointment to teach three classes of psychology even though I was an undergrad myself.  Go figure.  A friend, Mike Sullivan, had gotten into the LAMA program and I needed to get out of Fresno again.  (I had left in 62′ to 64′ for Peace Corp Sri Lanka.)  1200 applicants and 12 picks, it was a miracle and I got in. Moved up here in the Fall of 67. I was still working for the railroad and had to commute from SF to Fresno from Thursday nights to Monday mornings.  But, since I was the first in our families to go to college I really wanted the MA degree.  Also, none of the former students in that program had not gotten their PhD’s.  Until our class.  In the continuing battle against racism,  eventually we went on strike and while on strike I was living in Berkeley and got the idea to do a comic book on ecology, but do it for smart adults and inquisitive kids.  Thus Slow Death Funnies was born.

AK: What was the underground comix scene like at the time that you entered the field?

RT: During the SF State strike  (longest in US history for a college) I would bring copies for people to read after a long day of battle with the police on campus.  What I liked was that the non whites would love the comix, because they could understand the satire and snark of the characters.  The comic scene was beginning.  Gary Arlington’s store was the first comic book store in the country and was a hub for all the people who were fans or who drew comix.  Every month another one or two cartoonist would arrive.  The summer of love had coincided with Don Donahue and Charles Plymell’s publishing and printing of Zap number one by R. Crumb.  Psychedelic poster artists were also drawing comix, like Greg Irons, Victor Moscoso, Rick Griffin,   There was Rip Off Press,  Company and Sons, The All Mighty Publishing Co., Apex Novelty, ourselves and others with fledgling publishing companies.  Artists like Dave Geiser, John Thompson and others were finding a new direction for their art.  And it was pandemic in that it was sprouting everywhere at once.

AK: What is the worst trouble you ever got into as a publisher of underground comix?

RT: Probably publishing the Air Pirates one and two.  Disney had a shit fit and sued. The late Albert Morse and Micheal Stepanian became the lawyers for Dan O’Neill, Ted Richards, Bobby London and Gary Hallgren, the artists.  My agreement with them was I would pay them and they would never say who published the comix.  After we  lost in the Supreme Court, they blamed  me and I was then ordered to pay 3/4 of a million in 1974 dollars.  I settled in a secret agreement.  We each paid our own court costs and I agreed not to do anything anti-Disney for ten years. 

AK:   What was it like to work back then with artists like R.Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, S.Clay Wilson? 

RT: A true blessing.  Such different personalities.  Hundreds of artists and writers. Really enjoyed seeing the art first and being able to work with the photographers and printers and get things mostly correct.

AK: Your publishing house has been described as a purveyor of ”Low Brow Art and Culture”.  Yet, at the same time, heavy-weight art critics like Robert Hughes have no problem speaking of, say, R. Crumb in the same breath as Bruegel, Bosch, or Phillip Guston.  Is “Low Brow” something that Eastern art critics saddle West Coast art and culture with as a handy way to dismiss it?  What do you make of the term?   

RT: I saw it as an old cartoon illustration of a “high brow”  middle brow and “low brow” person.  Implying that a high brow was intellectual , and low brow was like a Neanderthal.  Since the low class was looked down upon for their tastes of lack of them, it seemed like class shaming.  Well, the art forms of the low class (and middle) went to car design, comic books, tattooing, primitive art, side show banners, sex drawings etc.  It was a helpful description, and we didn’t take it like a dig, but wore it proudly. 

Some , like Robert Williams dislike the term and also haven’t accepted the replacement term Pop Surrealism.  In the mid 70’s, to celebrate a large number of new UG comix, I put on a show at the old Good Times UG newspaper’s collective house in the Castro.  Cartoonists had an art show of their fine art.  Wine and hor d’oeuvres, press invited, a big big show with Sylvester performing in the evening.  It was packed. I had made sure the word ‘underground” was not used at all in any publicity or flyers about the show, wanting to get the downtown elites to come see.  They came, mostly for the free wine and cheese and entertainment.  Not a word was written.  The year or so before, Maureen Orth had got a cover story OK for Newsweek about underground comix, it got cancelled at the last minute.  Some of the art at that show can easily bring up to half a million bucks these days, but we were not dues paying protectors of the hierarchy.  

AK: At a certain point, you moved away from underground comix into the field of visual art books. Why this change?   

RT: One was practicality.  As I would go into stores like head shops to sell our comix, they would ask for books on MJ growing etc.  Record stores would want music books, etc.  The comic artists were doing fine art and the galleries began to take hold.  Doing catalogs as books at those shows turned out to be a good way to show off these fabulous artists.

AK: How would you describe your art book niche? How does it differ from, say, Abrams or Thames & Hudson? 

RT: We like to think we discover some artists.  They tend to cherry pick the orchard and use more “name”  artists. 

AK:  Why do you publish the visual artists that you do? What makes them important to you?

RT: It is the highest order of the brain to recognize what is in art.  The narrative form, not so much as the abstract.

AK:  Your books are among the most beautiful, the most carefully crafted, in the publishing world.  Each is singular, matchless, collectable.   How did you acquire that approach to book publishing? 

RT:We don’t believe in formula publishing.  Each book, as each author/artist deserves the best.  We use top designers.

AK: You love San Francisco. Why? What about it speaks to you?

RT: No matter what ethnicity, it seems to have drawn historically very liberal people who love the concept of risk and the pleasures of the vices.

AK:  Can you say something about  the possibilities for a revived countercultural? We seem so far from that right now. Or are we now closer to the beginning of a rebirth?

RT: Absolutely.  About every 40 to 50  years or so there is a big rediscovery by a new generation that busts out. We are due.  

AK; How do you think the Pandemic will change us? 

RT: We are going to be horny as hell to begin with and we will have to turn to trust issues with intimacy even more than with the AIDs confluence.  The materialism and greed we all have been treated to will have lasting effects, especially in how this plays out with our youth..

AK: Can you speak to the situation of comix art today? 

RT:Some feel that the giant corporate commercialization of Marvel has ruined comix forever. As the endless corporate greed gobbles up the bigger companies, they don’t know how to handle them.  Recently DC was purchased and the result was a lack of respect for the comic book dealers.  The dealers sell about 89% of the product.  The virus has put that sector on the survival edge.  And then, as their main Distributor Diamond has begun to come on line, DC made a cheap deal (more money for DC for the product) and is attempting to go around Diamond.  Wrong thinking leads to bad outcomes.  Things are always in flux and change is inevitable.  But, there will always be comics and comix.

AK: What are your plans for Last Gasp going forward?  

RT: We have a robust program going forward.  I am semi retired and Colin Turner is at the helm.  He is a skilled seer and marketer and has an eye for the unique art and stories that will be needed for the future.  He grew up in the business.  I learned everything by doing.  Which is good, but sometimes you want to get to your campsite before it is too dark and too late.

To learn more about Last Gasp Books go to http://www.lastgasp.com