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Barron Storey's Life is an Open Comic Book 

The demons -- personal andfantastical and pop cultural -- that have shaped the art of a San Francisco illustrator

Wednesday, Jan 17 1996
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Barron Storey is searching for an illustration, determined to find a specif-ic piece of his work among the many stashed away in a hall closet. He bends down, flipping back one piece after another -- beautiful and abstract paintings that make up his as-yet-unfinished "Dream Series," portrait illustrations he did for Time magazine in the '70s, among so many other works grand and small -- desperately hunting for the one piece he says will explain it all.

When he finds the illustration he's looking for, a charcoal sketch contained within a cheap silver frame, he holds it aloft, more careful with it than he is with the others.

"This is my mom on her death bed in Parkland Hospital," he begins.
Standing in his cluttered North Beach apartment now, Storey holds a sketch of a person lying on a bed, a tracheotomy tube protruding from the neck. But it is difficult to tell from the gray-and-white drawing whether it's a man or woman, only that the figure is, most likely, dead.

The skin is taut, contracted tight to mold around bone and teeth. The mouth is a gaping black maw, no lips. The hair is thin, the eyes closed.

Storey explains that he drew the portrait as a 23-year-old in December 1963 while sitting next to his mother, who was being kept alive on a respirator at Dallas' Parkland Hospital. Storey had received a phone call from his father, who told his oldest son that his mother was sick, and that perhaps she'd feel better if Barron came home from New York City. Only a couple of weeks before, John Kennedy had been declared dead at Parkland.

Of Juanita and Lewis Storey's four children, Barron was the closest to his mother. She had nurtured him, taught him, prodded him to become a great thinker. When the other children were playing ball in their middle-class Dallas neighborhood, he would be reading Shakespeare; when the other kids from Thomas J. Rusk Junior High were listening to rock 'n' roll, Barron would be listening to Beethoven. It was Juanita who encouraged Barron to use his childCR>hood skills as an artist so he might someday become famous.

Juanita Williamson Storey loved her son, wanted him to be all the things she couldn't. But that was before. Before she went crazy, before she swallowed all that rat poison. "Enough to kill an army," the doctor told Barron.

He had been in New York working in advertising at the J. Walter Thompson agency. His mother thought ad work was beneath Barron's prodigious talents. But he had also been studying art on the side, learning under his mentor, Robert Weaver ("a man I admired like a god"), at the prestigious School of Visual Arts. Weaver had challenged his students to tackle serious subjects, so Barron decided to draw the dead. With the help of a friend at Bellevue Hospital, Barron would slip into the morgue with his sketchpad.

"It was vivid," he recalls. "It was totally antiseptic. All the corpses were on steel drawers you'd pull out like a filing cabinet. All the walls were polished stainless steel; the floors were tile. There was no voodoo. They had a room called 'The Floater Room' where they kept the corpses that were fished up out of the river, and I can remember drawing the image of a doctor talking to a student, leaning on the rib cage of this grotesquely mutilated corpse like it was an armrest. They were that casual about death.

"And then, a twist of fate. I was off to Texas not knowing why I was going, and there was another corpse. I had been drawing all these things in the city morgue, and my reaction was to draw it. It was my mom, but it was a corpse. The minute someone's dead, it's just meat."

That was 32 years ago, and Barron Storey has not stopped drawing his mother to this day.

Despite his success as an illustrator, his work in Time and National Geographic, the paintings he has hanging in Smithsonian museums, and the comic art he helped reinvent, suicidal Juanita Storey still inhabits his drawings, journals, plays, and songs.

"Sidney Deepscorn?"
"Yes."
"Occupation?"
"Unemployed."
"Skills?"
"Creator."
"Of?"
"Images."
"Artist?"
"Yes."
"Successful?"
"Sometimes. No money right now."
"Why not?"
"Lies."
-- from "The Adjustment of Sidney Deepscorn," Barron Storey, 1992

Storey lives at the end of a dead-end alley in North Beach. He lives here in anonymity, tucked away from the outside world. Wearing his usual outfit of gray pants, gray socks, and black shoes -- "I used to wear all black," he says, "during the Reagan-Bush years" -- he ventures out a few days a week to teach at the nearby California College of Arts and Crafts or another art school in San Jose. But most of his time he spends in this modest-size flat draped over his easel in his front room, on frenzied deadline with an illustration for the likes of Boys' Life, Reader's Digest, National Geographic -- his mainstream stuff.

Or he is illustrating leather-bound classics for the Franklin Library, books like War and Peace and The Good Earth and the collected works of Theodore Dreiser -- "which my mom made me read when I was a kid." Among his most-seen works is the cover for the 1980 reissue of Lord of the Flies, which for years was the best-selling paperback book in the country, in part because of its provocative cover painting of a young boy who looks half frightened, half fearless.

Or Storey is creating murals for the American Museum of Natural History: His giant painting of the South American rain forest hangs in the Washington, D.C., gallery, a rich and elegant and finely detailed piece of work. Another of his celebrated pieces -- a 1979 rendering of the space shuttle commissioned by NASA, the first official painting ever done of the flying machine -- hangs in the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. His covers for Time, portraits of Howard Hughes and Yitzhak Rabin and many others, hang in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

Acknowledged as a master of commercial art, Storey has in recent years ventured into comic books - a field for which he holds contempt.

"A friend of mine, a former student, just sent me a comic that he did for Marvel, which I think is beautifully done," Storey says, presenting a copy of the brand-new Tales to Astonish featuring the Incredible Hulk.

"He called one day, and I told him, 'It's gorgeous. I'm so proud of you.' Then he asked what I thought of the story, and I told him I hadn't read it. It's stupid. I told him I could read any line from it at random and make the point."

Storey flips open the glossy book and reads the first line he sees: " 'You have enraged my father beyond all imagining, creature, and you'll most surely die.' Or, 'Believe it or not, honey, when the dust settles you'll thank me for this.' That is crap, and I told my friend so."

Storey's foray into comics follows that of several of his students -- who, over the past decade, have become some of the field's most respected and intelligent craftsmen. They include Dave McKean and Neil Gaiman (both of whom are responsible for DC Comic's Sandman series, as well as the recently published graphic novel Mr. Punch), Bill Sienkiewicz (best known for his grotesque renderings of Batman in the mid-'80s and his work with Dark Knight creator Frank Miller on the celebrated Elektra series for Marvel in 1986-87), and George Pratt (who has done dozens of covers for both DC and Marvel comics).

Gaiman calls Storey a "genius, a true visionary," and cites Storey's intensely personal style -- with its nods to high art amid references to ex-wives and dead mothers -- as an influence on his own work. When Storey ventured into comics a couple of years ago, Comics Journal (considered the industry's bible) referred to the move as "one of the most significant events to hit the industry in a quarter-century."

When Storey made his comics debut in 1993 with the publication of The Marat/Sade Journals, and then with the release of the completely autobiographical "The Adjustment of Sidney Deepscorn" in the first issue of the Dallas-produCR>ced comic anthology Tales From the Edge, Storey thought he would revolutionize comic art. His style -- a blend of painting, drawing, and photography, so much text and narration flowing in and out of the dark and twisted images -- looked like nothing in modern comics or the so-called graphic novels that emerged in the mid-'80s. Storey was convinced it would cause a furor within the industry.

But nothing happened. And when he followed it up with his epic "Slidehouse" series over the next year in Tales From the Edge, he imagined movies and dolls of the story's main character, Assassinada. He would make big money. But again, nothing, just the occasional "fanboy" who would show up at a comic book convention and tell him the art was "cool." Storey, who's already self-deprecating when he speaks about his art, was crushed.

"I see everybody around me who is confident at being some sort of bullshit artist," he says. "I think a lot, but I don't have a very well-organized brain. So it comes out like a lot of voices that are arguing with each other, and one voice is saying, 'You're nothing, you're a zero. You don't matter, go away.' And the other voice is saying, 'I'm it. I'm the greatest, look at me.' So I give all those things voices in my art."

"Almost all of my life, I've created drawings and paintings. Most of my life, I've done illustrations. The illustrations have paid the bills. After all these years, I still can't: 1. Earn a living with the paintings and drawings. 2. Believe in them."

-- from The Marat/Sade Journals, Barron Storey, 1989

Storey has lived in this flat for more than 11 years, and every so often -- when the work is slow, when he's so engrossed in his own private comics work that the checks are barely trickling in -- he becomes afraid he will lose this place. If that happens, he says, it will be the end of him.

"I would die," he declares, sounding not so melodramatic.
Inside Storey's flat, every inch is crammed with the things that define the artistCR>. They are the manic and uncensored outpourings of a man whose head is so filled with thought he must continually purge the information just to keep sane.

There are closets filled with paintings, drawers overflowing with outtakes from the "Slidehouse" project, shelves crammed with art history books and nearly 100 of his own journals, speakers and recording gadgets and sculptures. Storey is also a musician who dabbles in electronic, experimental sounds that are as disturbing as his visual work. Among the song titles: "Somebody Help Me," "Shoot It Full of Holes," "Bastards," "Asshole," "Fuck You."

Old posters and fliers hang on the wall announcing shows by his performance-art group called Elbows Akimbo; one, titled "The Assassination and Discreditation of John Fitzgerald Kennedy as Performed by the Members of the Millionaires Club at Bohemian Grove under the Direction of Joseph Campbell," actually caused a minor stir in the Bay Area arts scene, but the critics panned it anyway.

On top of most every shelf sit dozens of sculpted heads -- some of which were created for Elbows Akimbo's stage productions, many of which are just extensions of his comics work. He will often take photos of the heads and then drop them into his stories.

But the journals, which he began keeping in 1976, are the focal point of the room, and of Storey's life. They fill a bookshelf in the front room -- outrageous, brilliant, beautiful collections of paintings, scribblings, manifestoes, and ramblings that chronicle Storey's life. Some overflow with brutal drawings of the Gulf War rendered from television; even more contain pictures of Juanita. When Storey pulls them out to show his visitor, the pages tumble from the leather covers.

"When I began drawing in the journals, I was so liberated by this that it just started being a daily activity," he says. "I drew everything and everybody. That was a realm. I could relive my life from that point on through these journals. But back then, my life was really interesting, and at a certain point it stopped being interesting."

His first foray into the comics world came when Tundra Publishing (which was then owned by Kevin Eastman, creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and a very wealthy man looking to get into "serious" comics) published The Marat/Sade Journals, one of the more than 80 journals that sit on his shelves. Written in 1989 and actually culled from several of Storey's journals, it "samples" (with credit) dialogue from several disparate sources: Equus, Hamlet, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Marat/Sade, The Shining, Network, No Exit, and Bob Dylan songs, among other not-so-random borrowings.

Based loosely on Peter Weiss' 1964 play Marat/Sade, which used the assassination of the leader of the French Revolution to parallel John Kennedy's murder, Storey's version is actually a metaphor for the death of a relationship with an ex-lover named Kelly. Actually, it's a metaphor for all the failed relationships in Storey's life.

Married three times (first when he was 19, to his high school sweetheart) with three sons -- one of whom he never sees, one of whom despises Storey, the oldest being the only one who has any regular contact with his father -- the artist uses every failure as inspiration.

Storey does not know where two of his ex-wives live, and he does not have any contact with much of his family -- including his father. He is friends with one former wife, Petra, who often calls Storey to check up on him and has the occasional meal with him. But if all his years of therapy had worked, Barron Storey likely would have nothing left to draw.

"I've spent a huge chunk of years trying to find a partner for my life," Storey says. "I thought that was in place until my second marriage flopped, and my family was over. I was married since I was a teen-ager. I didn't know what to be except be married.

"So I went desperately out looking for another partner, and spent years doing that. And I finally found the person that I thought was going to be it and did this frustrating dance for years around that, and it couldn't be consummated. And when I finally got it that nothing was going to happen, I put all that energy into the journals.

"The action in Marat/Sade is a woman killing a man, and that's what I thought was happening to me. I was a victim. Students of mine have said about these pieces, 'They're all victims, Barron.' And to be fair, I recognize that. And I'm sorry."

Marat/Sade was met with an enthusiastic shrug from the comics world, and then Eastman sold Tundra to another publishing house, Kitchen Sink Press. That publisher told Storey they would not publish the proposed sequel to Marat/Sade because it was "too out there."

In June 1993, Dallas illustrator David Spurlock launched Vanguard Comics and debuted his new comics anthology, Tales From the Edge, which has recently released its seventh issue. Featuring the likes of Marshall Arisman (whose work is also on display in the Smithsonian, and who is a regular contributor to Rolling Stone and Esquire, among many other magazines), George Pratt, Quigmans creator Buddy Hickerson, Sandman contributors Paul Lee and Bonnie To, and Spurlock himself, the books are a provocative peek into the world of the modern-day comic -- where drawings give way to paintings, and the tales read like short stories.

But the highlights of each issue are Storey's contributions -- the short "Refried Eyes" pages taken from the journals and the "Slidehouse" series, which Storey could not get published anywhere else. Spurlock has also taken to reissuing the best of Storey's revered Watch magazine, a self-published arts magazine assembled by Storey and his art students.

Storey made his debut in Tales From the Edge No. 1 with "The Adjustment of Sidney Deepscorn," a sort of precursor to the "Slidehouse" series that would conclude in the newly released Tales From the Edge No. 7. In "Deepscorn," Storey is the central character; hence, the subtitle of "A Paranoid Delusion in the Form of a Graphic Short Story."

Sidney Deepscorn is a poor disguise, hiding nothing -- his anger with a comic book industry interested only in two-dimensional superheroes; repressed memories of a childhood spent running with "gun-toting idiots" who liked to shoot at the "niggers" in South Dallas; his conflicting feelings about his mother. Reading "Sidney Deepscorn," or most any of Storey's works, is voyeurism.

Storey fills the final page of "Sidney Deepscorn" with thousands of nearly unreadable words that actually divulge much about his past. He recounts the guilt he experienced when one of his friends bragged about shooting a black man in Dallas and Storey did nothing about it. He recounts his three bad marriages, how he talked the true love of his life out of getting an abortion, how the love of his life walked out on him.

In "Slidehouse," Storey would become even more revelatory, using the anti-superhero character called Assassinada -- an amalgam of his mother, his old lover Kelly, and the artist himself -- through which to tell his life's story. The "Slidehouse" itself is something of a pornographic fun house that provides the greatest pain and pleasures, if only the patron is willing to be subjected to traumatic memories and ultimate death.

As Spurlock says of the man he regards as mentor and friend: "Barron's stuff is all extremely personal, revealing. I mean, he says things publicly about himself that most people would be scared to think in their own mind."

"Mother, you believed in me ... You wanted me to be heroic -- to 'seek the truth' ... THEN ONE DAY YOU KILLED YOURSELF."

-- from the third installment of "Slidehouse"

"My friend Ronny knew an older guy who liked to show off his gun. The guy had a custom '49 Mercury with a pistol holster built into it. He said he didn't really 'shoot niggers.' He just liked to drive to the 'colored section' and 'put a bullet into a house or two.' Ronny dared me to go with them, but I wouldn't do it."

-- from "The Adjustment of Sidney Deepscorn"
>
"Barron speaks to Assassinada: 'You want out of my paintings and drawings. Out of my stories and comic strips and you want out of my mind.' She answers: 'Yes.' He responds: 'No fucking way.' 'BASTARD!' "

-- from "Refried Eyes," Journal 42, 1992

"I am a FAILURE."
-- from The Marat/Sade Journals, quoting e.e. cummings

Storey's life is an open comic book, there to be examined and dissected by anyone who cares to read the small print.

"I consider my whole life a source," Storey says. "I designed a rocket ship when I was 10 years old, and later I did the space shuttle, you know. I had a conscious awareness on my part that I could do that because I had this deep investment going back to childhood. I did sci-fi because I got off on the Flash Gordon series. Everything that ever impressed me, I consciously try to use as a writer."

That his years in Dallas, beyond the assassination and his mother's suicide, influence his work is evident in an "autobiography" he dashes off on his computer:

"Dallas. Dallas was the Maple Theater where I saw Flash Gordon serials and bought wax pan pipe candies that made music. The Emperor Ming and Stratosleds -- I like sci-fi. Dallas was the 'riverbottoms' where we cranked our motorcycles and flew across the bumps hitting only the tops of 'em -- I like fast. It was all things home. Family stuff, with aunts and uncles and grandparent feasts on holidays with a zillion kids running around. So happy to see you."

Storey was born on April 6, 1940, in Dallas. His father, Lewis Barron Storey, was an architect who often sketched in his own notebooks, and Barron's earliest recollections are of imitating his old man by picking up his pens and drawing. Barron's mother was an elegant woman who wanted her son to be the smartest child on the block.

"She not only culturized me," Barron says of Juanita, "she made up for the one big deficiency about my dad, which was he would never tell me anything about human feeling. It was just the facts, ma'am. 'How do you feel about that, Dad?' No answer.

"My mom went over the top in the other direction. She had emotional reactions to everything, and they weren't just gushing. They were informed, meaningful, passionate feelings. She read voraciously. She was cultural, and she had strong opinions about everything in the world.

"I thought I was the luckiest kid on the planet because of it. Until things went ugly."

A good son of good middle-class parents, Barron made A's in elementary school but he preferred the company of the "tough kids who knew more about sex," he says. The late '40s and early '50s were days of motorcycles and James Dean and black music on Dallas radio, and Barron wanted to run with the rebels. With his tough pals he met in junior high, he was discovering booze and girls and R&B. When his parents moved the family -- which then included two more sons, Robert and Steve -- to the more upscale White Rock Lake area when he was 13, it was partially to get him away from the bad element.

Barron felt ever more the loner in high school, withdrawing further into a world of motorcycles, hot rods, and jazz. He was too naive to know he was surrounded by violence and too afraid to take part in the violence when he discovered its existence.

He writes in his "autobiography":
"But now that I was getting 'arty,' the buzz was about other places. Woodrow Wilson [High] Wildcats? Forget it. Gerry Mulligan on the West Coast. Jackson Pollack in New York. Stockhausen in Europe. Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan. Leonard Bernstein and Phineas Newborn. 'On the Waterfront,' 'Omnibus,' Edward R. Murrow, Sartre -- what did Texas have to do with them?"

At home, things were starting to get weird. In the late '50s, as Barron was finishing high school and his brothers were getting a little older, Juanita ("supermom," as Barron calls her) wanted to become an "independent person." She began taking trips to New Mexico to visit Native American artists and writers she had long admired, driving out in a brand-new '55 Chevy convertible her husband bought her. She would often take Barron with her, leaving the rest of the family behind. "It was really clear she was defiantly independent for some reason that I couldn't quite understand," Storey says.

"And then she got pregnant. It was way late in life, and she blamed my dad for it," he remembers. "It was horrific. She now had no chance to be an independent person. She had to go back and be mother [to my brother Scott], and she was furious. She hated the world, and then she went into menopause.

"She just started going nuts, and she drank. She got excessive, became a mental case, and basically went off the deep end. And my dad denied it all: 'Oh, Nita, she'll be all right.' She tried to commit suicide several times. Mom had gone insane."

Juanita then began obsessing over Barron. He was now going to be her "heir to the crown," as he calls it, a surrogate who would now do all the things she wanted to do but could not because of Scott's birth. Drinking all the time, she demanded that her oldest boy sit at her bed while she lectured him about the Mau Maus in Africa and politics and the agrarian roots of Texas. She would often break down Barron's locked bedroom door when she felt he wasn't paying her enough attention.

"It was almost incestuous," he says, "without the sex."
Barron married his high school sweetheart, Mary, at 19 and fled to Los Angeles to attend art school. He returned a short time later, separated from his wife, moved into an apartment near Southern Methodist University, and began working for Texas Instruments, first as a draftsman and then as an illustrator. He and his wife, who had become pregnant with Barron's child, reconciled and decided to move to New York in 1961.

Two years later, Barron's idol, John Kennedy, was killed in his hometown. Hearing the news, Barron immediately walked out of the ad agency at which he was working, and vowed never to return to advertising. Days later, his father called with the news that Juanita was "sick."

After her death, Barron returned to New York, rarely to revisit Dallas. He now returns to give the occasional guest lecture at Brookhaven Community College at the behest of a cousin, or makes the rare appearance at local comic and sci-fi conventions.

He recalls one visit to Dallas shortly after his mother's death, visiting the family's White Rock house to find it abandoned but still filled with his mother's belongings -- books, records, clothes. Barron's dad had moved out and left the house as it was, completely unlocked. And so the rain had come in and flooded the entire place, and floors buckled from the standing water. The books Juanita loved were ruined.

"It was haunted, man," Barron recalls. "Haunted big time."

Shortly after his return to New York, Storey divorced Mary and began an affair with the woman who would become his second wife in 1967 -- and his second divorce in 1978. It was this woman, named Gralyn Holmstrom, who would encourage Storey to get out of his studio and use his talents to make a decent living.

In the late '60s, he was approached by a friend who was art director at Car and Driver to do paintings of motorcycles. Storey originally scoffed at the idea. "I said, 'Hey, I ride motorcycles, I don't paint them. I'm a serious artist -- didn't you notice? This is my series on man's inhumanity to man. I'm going to do motorcycle paintings? I don't think so.'

"He said, 'Get off it. You don't know anything about man's inhumanity to man. What you know about is motorcycles.'

"I did it, and I loved it. All of a sudden I didn't care if somebody painted better than me."

The cycle paintings were rejected by Car and Driver, but for the first time in his career, Storey didn't "walk away with my tail between my legs." He took his paintings to every magazine in New York. He finally sold them to a California-based magazine called Cycle World, which ran one painting on the cover and the rest inside along with his original letter explaining why they would be perfect for the magazine. The package ran underneath the headline "Barron's Story."

"And I loved it," he recalls. "I had never liked a single thing of mine I had seen in print, but this was the real stuff. From that point on, I knew the answer -- subject matter. I will illustrate it, paint it, write poems about it, write music about it, talk to my friends about it as long as it's content that I care about."

He began getting the plum gigs, including the king daddy of all illustration jobs in the '70s -- painting his first portraits for the cover of Time. His most famous piece is from 1976, a hastily drawn pencil sketch of Howard Hughes that Storey did overnight in the magazine's offices. He was on the end of a phone line, his pencil and pad in hand, madly drawing an image being described to him by a coroner in Brownsville, Texas.

But after guiding her husband into commercial success, Storey says Gralyn, also an artist, left him in disgust.

"She was a very excellent artist and considered herself much better than me. Her scenario had me going out there and using my rather mundane skills to be a hack. She always considered me a hack, and on one fine day she would get in the car and drive away and leave me having written the word 'HACK' across all my drawings and paintings." The incident is, like everything else in his life, recounted in the journals.

Storey would stay in New York until the early '80s, playing with a punk rock band, studying and teaching art, and acquiring a reputation as one of the graphic art world's best.

When he moved to San Francisco at the insistence of yet another woman, his third wife, she promptly left him. And then came the woman known as "Kelly," the central figure of The Marat/Sade Journals and one of the inspirations for Assassinada and "Slidehouse."

Storey traces his disastrous relationships back to his mother. "I've got this ghost that I live with: my mom. My younger brothers didn't know her in her prime. TheR>>y didn't know her as I did. She was the mad woman in their life, but I had this time with this brilliant, beautiful, passionate mom.

"So now she's just a character in my books. Plays. Songs. Everything." He raises his arms, and yells: "WOULD YOU STOP WITH THE MOM PLEASE, BARRON!"

Storey is eager to show his visitor the important sites of North Beach, not just the hangout for the Beats, writers like Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, but today's sleaze.

He points out, with some pride the Condor -- "Where it all began," reads a plaque on the outside wall, announcing its status as the first topless and bottomless bar in America. Today, the Condor is a sports bar.

This building is what Storey calls "The Slidehouse Building," and it appears in many of his journals. He would spend hours across the street from it, sketching and painting every last detail. He points out the neighboring porn shop, where he used to stand in front sketching in his journal, obsessing over every last broken, minute piece of tile under foot. Storey says a guy who used to run a money-laundering operation across the street thought the artist was working for the cops because he was out there so much, scribbling in the journals.

But the place that has Storey's interest on this breezy, chilly midfall afternoon is the Lusty Lady, which advertises itself as San Francisco's "best 24-hour adult entertainment establishment." It's a peep show and the central location in the intensely personal and overtly autobiographical "Slidehouse" series. Storey is displeased with his work in the final installment of "Slidehouse," saying he chickened out and failed to tell the truth.

Though he has drawn and redrawn the Lusty Lady for the series, he has never entered its doors.

"I've never had the courage to go in alone," he says. Instead, he relied on descriptions from actresses he's known who have worked there. He wants to enter the place now, to visit "Slidehouse."

The Lusty Lady is brightly lit. Patrons walk into booths, feed quarters into a slot, and watch as a partition slides up to reveal a room filled with nude women grinding and gyrating to the piped-in dance music. Depending on the number of quarters someone feeds into the machine -- thus extending the peep time -- the women will often come right up to the glass separating them from the patrons, spreading their legs for a view a gynecologist could appreciate.

Behind the women is a wall covered in mirrors, which reflects the men in the other booths. Many of them are masturbating. Each booth has a box of Kleenex mounted on the wall.

Upon exiting the Lusty Lady after only a few minutes, Storey seems impressed with himself -- that he could so accurately draw a place he had never actually visited. "I wasn't prepared for one thing, though," he says, pulling his jacket tighter against the wind. "I didn't expect the women to be so good-looking."

Shortly before 8 a.m., students begin to file into Storey's Illustration 101 class at the California College of Arts and Graphics. They are young, in their early 20s, though they look not long out of high school. They are turning in their assignment homework this morning, an illustration of a passage from a piece of literature. However disappointed Storey is with some of the work -- some of it little better than the doodles of a kid killing time in high school -- he expresses pleasure at their sources of inspiration: Kafka's The Trial, Goethe's Faust, William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, and so forth.

Moments after Storey bounds into the classroom -- wearing the same black-gray turtleneck and gray pants he had worn the day before, a blue denim shirt draped over his frame -- he instructs his students to pin their art to the wall in front. He will pore over the pieces in front of the class, critiquing them with comments equally supportive as they are scathing.

"I'm very excited by that," he tells a young man named Kelly, one of the few gifted students in the class. Storey stalks Kelly's piece -- a dark rendering in which Dr. Faustus discovers hell, covered with images of fire and demons -- walking around it, observing and discussing and perhaps even admiring it a bit. In this class of would-bes and wannabes, young men and women who want to be artists and have come to study with a man they hadn't even heard of before enrolling, Kelly seems to be the only kid in tune with Storey's ideas about art.

"The piece is visually ... um ... stimulating," Storey says, "and even though it has some sort of cryptic stuff in there, there are enough points of reference for people to get into it. ... I'm a very strong admirer of this kind of classic piece. When I do a piece like this, I'm not very sure of myself. It's not an easy thing to get this into print. It's edgy. I congratulate you for being innovative. ... It's beautiful. It's just amazing."

Later, Storey will say he likes to encourage his beginning students, quick to praise where so many of his peers would condemn. Most of his contemporaries wouldn't even consider teaching such novices, considering it a waste of their time and talent, but Storey relishes the opportunity to encourage even if the student has no future working in the medium.

His students are neophytes, more blank than the unused sheets in their journals; they're kids who want (so they claim) to be professional illustrators but who know nothing of the world. When Storey tosses out other artists as points of reference, they seldom know about whom he's speaking. It happens often this morning: Storey will toss out a name like Caravaggio, Rauschenberg, or even his friend Gary Panter (who designed sets for Pee-wee's Playhouse and draws the Jimbo comic), and then ask, "Do you know that name?"

When they respond with silent, embarrassed "no"s -- or, worse yet, when they stare blankly at their teacher like children caught doing something wrong -- he becomes almost enraged. His usually calm, almost jovial facade drops away to reveal a man with little patience for casual ignorance.

"Will you take a trip to the museum sometime, ladies and gentlemen," he says, half begging and half scolding. "You don't know anybody! You call yourselves illustration students? Babies."

Another of the students' work is a tiny drawing by a young Latin student named Lenin. It's a slight, garish piece -- a drawing of the inside of a house, captured on a piece of blinding fluorescent yellow-green piece of paper. When asked about his choice of canvases, Lenin explains he wanted it to capture the sun coming through the window, but Storey doesn't buy it. He is visibly appalled by the piece, but to mask his contempt for it he tells Lenin and the class that while most of his colleagues would dismiss it and move on, "I'm more congenial with art like this."

"You could take this to other illustrators I know, and they'd just say, 'This looks like you did this in grade school,' and it does," Storey says. "But I'll take this seriously. It's a tacky choice because only an idiot would choose it. So, obviously, you mean it. I don't think this is you." Lenin only feigns a smile and nods, embarrassed by the obvious harsh words.

Throughout the morning, Storey teaches, even going to the chalkboard to illustrate certain points about dimension and depth. He offers advice, throws out the occasional homily ("Perspective always alters the reality"), and he recounts his own experiences. He takes them on the surprise field trip to a local photocopying place to show them how to use the color copier to alter their work, how one push of the button can turn black into blue or white into green or the mediocre into the magnificent. Yet he also stresses that his students not get caught up in technique alone because "nobody gives a damn about technique."

He encourages them, though, always: "I made a lot of mistakes when I started out. Still do, all the time." The only difference is, he says, "After years went by, I saw other people were imitating my mistakes."

After class, a young black student tells Storey he is trying to decide whether he should study painting or illustration. Storey tells him to stick with illustration because the art world is corrupt, a place where people are more concerned with the price tag on a piece instead of its artistic value. He prefers illustration because it can easily, quickly, and cheaply communicate something to an audience, whether it's in a magazine or a book or on a billboard.

Besides, he tells the student, "You're not as good as you think you are."

At home, Storey keeps three Assassinada dolls standing on his shelves, two of which were Catwoman dolls in another life, the other a former G.I. Joe. Storey had once envisioned a whole line of "Slidehouse" products, spinoffs from the sales of his sure-to-be-successful comic book. But no offers were forthcoming.

Hollywood producer Stephen J. Cannell of The Rockford Files fame once expressed some interest in filming The Marat/Sade Journals; for a while, Storey was so sure it was going to happen that he began considering who might play him.

"It could only be Tommy Lee Jones," Storey says. "He'd have to be me. And I had all these fantasies about Tommy Lee playing me in The Marat/Sade Journals. And I thought, 'Who's going to be the Kelly character?' That is a big one. But stuff like that goes through my mind all the time. I'd go off the deep end. I will work on something until I'm completely broke, with no chance of income from it, and then I get very, very ugly.

"My friend Marshall Arisman says if I don't do pictures I get mean. And I like that. Lots of things Marshall says are great. But it's true. I get really mean and ugly and nasty when these things fail to take off. The only thing that keeps me going is to note that all the artists that I admire have these same neuroses and doubts. Almost everyone who's been honest has doubted the work. It's uncontrolled in time. You're out there in space, and you don't know if you're ever gonna get back. Or whether it even matters.

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky

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