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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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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.

About The Author

Robert Wilonsky

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