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The Wizard of Ass Has Spoken! 

Hal Robins - erudite comic of the absurd, underground cartoonist of note,co-host of the world's strangest radio program, early member of the Church of the SubGenius - has a new hit with the "Ask Dr. Hal Show." But he really could use a paying gig. Really

Wednesday, Jul 30 2003

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Robins' involvement began in 1980, when Stang and Drummond sent their first tract to the San Francisco-based Rip Off Comics, where Robins was working in the production department. Stang and Drummond hoped to entice Rip Off to publish SubGenius-themed books and other fake-cult reading material. The boss threw the tract in the trash, but Robins' co-worker, fellow cartoonist, and roommate, Paul Mavrides, rescued it, and declared it the funniest thing he'd ever seen. Robins agreed. They became members, and struck up a friendship with the Texas founders.

Robins, aka Dr. Howland Owll, quickly assumed a major role in the Church. His psychedelic drawings and satiric writing appeared in the SubGenius books that were eventually published. In one poster, Robins depicted the SubGenius version of the seven levels of hell, with MTV personalities, music industry executives, and health nuts being roasted in eternal flame. (Fornicators and liars looked down on them from a heavenly perch.)

For a while, first in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the Church of the SubGenius achieved anti-authoritarian hipster status along the lines of Shepard Fairey's "Obey Andre the Giant" postering campaign or the Napster music file-sharing system. Although it's not currently the cool thing on college campuses, SubGenius continues to percolate underground, attracting people of all ages, genders, and professions who share a disdain for mainstream popular culture and a love of the ridiculous. Each July, hundreds of SubGenii gather for what's known as "X Day," in Brushwood, New York, to observe what has been famously prophesied each year by the fictional Bob Dobbs as the apocalypse. In September, Robins is being flown out by a local SubGenius group to preach at a "Devival" in Indiana. And in San Francisco, occasional SubGenius events persist.

Robins lives in the Mission District with his caustic roommate and fellow underground comic book artist Paul Mavrides. On the walls of their two-bedroom apartment, reaching up to the high ceilings, is the collected ephemera of a 20-year friendship. (They are, as Mavrides jokes, "trapped together by rent control," paying a total of less than $1,000 a month.) Framed comic book art, colorful plastic squirt guns, and a dusty altar crammed with little robots and monsters and dinosaur casts and fossils all function as bachelor pad décor.

The hallways are gloomy; both men keep nocturnal hours. Robins' small bedroom is a worm's maze of book piles. Many volumes are old and gilt-trimmed. The piles move and grow, at times blocking access to his bed. He researches arcane topics and draws with his fountain pen until he goes to sleep at dawn.

Since R. Crumb first published one of Robins' cartoons, he's been a respected, if not widely known, figure in the underground comic world. His drawings are dark and dense, simultaneously Gothic and futuristic. The backgrounds are black, and the foregrounds pop with tangles of tentacled monsters, ominous hanging moss, mad scientists, giant ray guns, and scaly aliens. Robins sometimes collaborates with writers, but prefers to write his own cartoons.

In a recent strip for a collection called Legal Action Comics II, Robins drew one of his favorite characters, Professor Brainard -- a mad scientist with a giant brain who is, admittedly, an alter ego of Robins himself. Brainard bursts in on a clandestine, pre-9/11 meeting between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, held inside a James Bond-like island cave hideout. When Bush and bin Laden attack the professor with the "gas of credulity" (designed to render victims susceptible to the leaders' propaganda), Brainard strikes back with a trademark-infringement-lawsuit-proof "Twvinkie" gun. The malevolent duo are sealed inside the cave by the snack cakes' creamy filling.

"He's definitely one of the best underground cartoonists around," says cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, with whom Robins collaborated in 2001 on a comic book called Alien Apocalypse 2006. Still, Robins suffers from underexposure, in part related to his pace of production. He works very slowly, entirely by hand, poring over every last detail, even if it's just for a flier somebody asked him to design for free for a nightclub act.

"It takes Hal so long to do his jewellike artwork, and nowadays, you can only sell comics as 100-page books. I can't imagine how long it would take to put something like that together," says Mavrides.

Robins makes just enough to get by on illustration gigs that are thrown his way. (He's currently illustrating a book for North Atlantic Books on a topic the publisher chose for him: "lost and mismatched socks.") He is unenthusiastic about bringing his work to a wider audience -- he doesn't have a Web site -- and usually just waits for his friends to call him with projects. Those projects, like a parody comic strip he recently finished for a volume on Christian fundamentalist comic book tycoon Jack Chick, are generally obscure.

"He will not deviate for the sake of just getting fame or money, seemingly," says his longtime pal, the syndicated crossword puzzle writer Merl Reagle. "It seems that he's not really happy unless he's appealing to just a small number of people. If he's appealing to the masses, those are the people who elected George Bush."

Robins had a literary upbringing: His father was a professor specializing in Milton at the University of Arizona, his mother a high school English and drama teacher. Graduating from a Tucson high school in 1968 at the height of, as Robins remembers, "fake surfing culture," the young artist cut an odd figure with his ruffled shirts and watch chains. But he soon found his niche at the University of Arizona, where he wrote and staged grand musicals and operettas as part of an ambitious drama group called the Invisible Theater.

When Robins and his drama pal Reagle moved to San Francisco in 1976, the underground comix scene was in full swing. R. Crumb and Bill Griffith (creator of Zippy the Pinhead) had established themselves, and Rip Off Comics was publishing Gilbert Shelton and other anti-authoritarian graphic artists. Robins made friends with local cartoonists and began publishing his own work. For two decades, he supported himself mostly via drawing and illustration, and, though he performed occasionally in the 1980s, was known primarily as a cartoonist.

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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