Two-Handed Man Interviews David Collier

    David Collier is a gifted artist whose most recent book is Hamilton Sketchbook. It tells the story, in words and pictures, of his move from the Canadian prairies to the Happiest Place On Earth, Hamilton, Ontario. Click here to read a page from it entitled 'Hamilton Saturday Night .'
    Collier's previous book was Portraits From Life. It compiled some of his best works of comix-journalism on a wide variety of subjects, such as David Milgaard, who spent decades in prison convicted of a murder/rape he had nothing to do with; and Dr. Humphrey Osmond, who coined the term 'psychedelic' while working at a remote Saskatchewan hospital. Another piece in that book is 'Getting Dead,' a lovingly-detailed biography of Mr. Collier's grandfather. This work was sort of an outgrowth of a three-page strip called 'Grandad,' drawn in 1992 for a magazine that never appeared. It's remained unpublished since then, so I'm happy to give it a home. Click here to read it. All of Mr. Collier's books can be purchased on his publisher's website,
www.drawnandquarterly.com. You can also read his comic strip, '24 Simcoe Street,' in the National Post every Saturday. It's on the same page as the crossword puzzle.
    I interviewed him at his home on December 5, 2002. When we were finished, he gave me a homemade Christmas card.

Two-Handed Man: How does Hamilton differ from the other places you've lived?

David Collier: There's more going on here than in Saskatoon. For instance, when it was time to move your car to the other side of the street so the sweepers could come down and clean the side of the street the cars had been parked on, it was a big deal. The neighbours would talk about it for days before the actual event. In Hamilton, this kind of thing happens and no one pays any attention to it. Also, you find that in a remote place-I've heard this said about Yellowknife as well-you have to make your own culture, and people get more involved in making art because they have to make their own fun, whereas in Hamilton people kind of travel to the fun, instead of making it for themselves. They'll go to Toronto or Buffalo or wherever, but in Saskatoon or Yellowknife you don't have that option. I guess Saskatoon is more like the place you'd want to live if you were practicing for the end of civilization, or living on a desert island. In Saskatoon, every day I'd read one panel or strip from one of the many reprint anthologies that are on the market, one strip from Flash Gordon, or Toonerville Trolley by Fontaine Fox, and mark them with a little post-it note and do the same thing the next day and so on. Saskatoon is a great place for obsessive little habits. A friend of mine there is a Chinese fast food delivery driver. He's been a Chinese fast food driver since 1980, and he's taught himself how to read Chinese, write Chinese, and speak Chinese. People are big on self-improvement in Saskatoon. I started corresponding with Robert Crumb in 1982 when I lived in Toronto. He was the only one of my friends to write me when I was in the Army, but it wasn't until I lived in Saskatoon that I really started pestering him, and he really gave me a lot of advice that I treated like a correspondence course. He'd say things like, "Study anatomy like I did in 1975, study Bridgeman and Burne Hogarth. Draw in your sketchbook every day as much as you can. Treat it as a discipline." And I treated his advice as a course of study. So I think that the ten years I spent in Saskatoon was a kind of learning period, without the distractions of family, or even friends, really. It enabled me to get to a place in my head where I feel confident about what I'm doing.

Two-Handed Man: How does Hamilton strike you visually?

David Collier: It looks pretty cool. Right here on the wall of my studio I have a copy of Arcade #2. The cover, drawn by Crumb, is a beatnik looking at a leaf, with a decaying city as a backdrop, and he's saying, "This is to me sheer poetry." From a visual perspective Hamilton has everything you'd want. I just hope I don't overdose on it. I was looking out the window this morning, watching a woman going to the store, buying cigarettes, tearing off the plastic and dropping it onto the ground, and I had that feeling that I had when I first moved here, about how wasteful and careless Hamilton people are. I couldn't believe how rich the kids are here, even in my neighbourhood, which has a housing project in it. All the kids have tons of toys, the latest gadgets, consumer products that you couldn't imagine in Saskatoon. In Saskatoon the weekend comic strips in the newspaper are printed in black and white, mostly. My grandfather would send me the comics section from the Detroit Free Press, and it was a big deal for the neighbourhood kids to see the colour comic strips. Kids here just seem to have it all, it's unbelievable. Architecturally, we kind of missed the glass box phase of the 1960's and 1970's. You know, like the Toronto-Dominion Centre in Toronto. Glass, instead of bricks and mortar. A lot of cities completely tore down their downtowns, but here in Hamilton, you can still find residential neighbourhoods a block or two away from downtown. Maybe being able to live in the inner city is kind of a Canadian thing. When I was in the Army, based near Quebec City, my parents visited me and we went to the lower town in Quebec City, which is kind of similar to Hamilton. My stepfather remarked that, if this was in the United States, Philadelphia for example, that area would be an all-black neighbourhood. So, I don't know, I guess Hamilton's like a city where there's still an urban centre that hasn't been affected by racial tensions. In fact, it's probably the most diverse city of its size on the planet. You go to the U.S. and the racial thing is such a big factor, and people can't seem to live together. So maybe that's a unique thing about Canadian cities.

Two-Handed Man: Talk a bit more about how the attitudes and behaviours of Hamilton people differ from that of people in the other cities you've lived in.

David Collier: People sure let it all hang out, here in Hamilton. When I moved here I thought I was living inside a copy of MAD magazine. In places like Quebec or Saskatchewan people are a lot more taciturn. Here, it's almost embarrassing the way people let their lives hang out on the stoop. Coming home the other night, the woman who lives two doors down yelled at me, "Yahhh! Fuck me in the ass!" You really don't get that in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. And then there's the dog thing, too. In Saskatoon, guys would offer to buy our dog for $500, and people rarely had dogs on leashes. As a result, the dogs were socialized, they were used to hanging with other dogs and with people. In Hamilton, everybody has to keep their dogs on leashes at all times. The only place you can have your dogs off the leash in up on the Escarpment, next to the SPCA. They have the one leash-free area in the whole city. Consequently, everybody's tense about dogs, and the dogs are tense, because they're never allowed to run free. When I was in Switzerland, people were bringing their dogs with them into shopping malls. This is just something I noticed, I'm not sure where it's going. Hamilton is the first place you'd want to go if you wanted to learn about advances in traffic systems, like camera- monitoring at all the stoplights, telling the police if people are driving too fast through the intersections. But it's the last place you'd want to live if you were into notions of being close to the land or close to nature. Among the little circle of friends we've had here that our kid plays with, one couple has moved to a farm in the Niagara Peninsula, another couple is moving to Alaska...

Two-Handed Man: I love Hamilton. I've got no problem keeping myself entertained here.

David Collier: Maybe that's it. People are entertained here, but it's more satisfying to do the entertaining than to be entertained. There's been a study of people by that guy who wrote Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is very popular in Saskatoon. He's a researcher at the University Of Chicago, and he got people to carry around beepers all the time. Then he paged people at random times of the day and asked them to call and say exactly what they were doing, and how they felt. He found that people were happier the less BTU's (British Thermal Units) they were using. People were happier when they were just talking with friends or reading than they were when they were riding jet skis or watching TV. He found that the more energy-I'm talking about fuel, like gasoline-was involved in their activity, the less satisfaction they got out of it. In Hamilton, I've noticed that people use a lot of BTU's to try to keep themselves happy.

Two-Handed Man: Your comics essays cover a wide and eclectic range of subjects, from Ethel Catherwood, an Olympic high jumper from the 1920's; to your own grandfather. What makes you decide to do a story about something? What jumps out at you?

David Collier: As Kurt Vonnegut says, you just have to go on your hunches and hope that other people are interested in what you're interested in as well. When I did that story about Ethel Catherwood, my ex-wife thought I was crazy-who's going to want to read about some woman high jumper? But that was something I'd carried around my whole life. I was a high jumper in grade school and I read about her methods of winning at high jump, about the way she jumped wearing track suits, not stripping down to shorts until the competition was really ratcheted up. So that was what I did when I was eleven because I'd read about her doing that. By the time I was twenty-seven, it just seemed like it was time to do an Ethel Catherwood story. I have these stories bouncing around in my head for a long time and when they're finally down on paper, it's a relief, because then it's time for someone else to deal with them, and I can move on. My grandfather wrote to me weekly, sometimes more often than that, when I was in the Army, but the day I finished the comic about him I was able to put all his letters in a big box and put them away because I'd dealt with it. He'd been dead for two years at that point. I'd gone through all those old letters to make my story factual. If I wanted to know what his wife would say before bed, I could look it up. She'd say, "Thank God we have a roof over our head, pity the poor people who are out on the streets tonight." Last night I finished this comic about my friend Brat X, and today I can take all this stuff down, posters from when his band used to play on Queen Street, original art from the zines we used to do, and put it away. Now I'm just glad that I have some of it in my own comic book and other people can see it. I've incorporated it into my own comic, bits of letters, a letter from Crumb is in there-

Two-Handed Man: Just like your last comic book, 'Denis Cote Was Bad And Good.'

David Collier: Yeah, Oliveros (my publisher) is going to have to start paying Crumb royalties. This work relieves me from some of the guilt I feel from being alive, because my last comic and this one are both about friends of mind who died, trying to live as artists without compromise. At the time, in the 1980's, while they were living fast and burning out, I was the steady one. I always had the steady job. I knew their artistic strivings weren't going to pay their bills. So now here I am, living like they were, hoping that the telling of their lives will serve as some kind of talisman, and grant me an immunity from ending up the way they did. But who knows, we all have to die someday, right? The Department of National Defense is starting up their War Artists programme again, and I think I'm going to apply for it, so I can reconcile these two sides of me. I read some history and I kind of worry about the way the average person doesn't participate in that kind of thing anymore. What really seemed to bring about the fall of Rome was how Roman citizens refused to serve in the military, and all their soldiers weren't Roman citizens, they were from outside of their borders. When I joined the Army all my friends thought it was the craziest thing I could do, with the exception of Robert Crumb. He'd write me and say, "It sounds like they're making a man out of you, Collier, and it's about goddam time." On the other hand the officers had never seen anything like me, either. One of the first things I did with my first Army pay cheque was to buy a Boss bike, the kind I wished I had when I was a bike courier, and I remember an officer coming up to me and asking about the job I had before the Army. He was fascinated by such a weird profession. Not a lot of Army people come from unusual jobs that passionate creative people my age were doing. And now there's such a gap between people who are passionate and creative and people who have a duty to their country that I don't know if it can ever be bridged. I don't know if our society can keep going if people forget about their obligations. Most people didn't have a grandfather like mine, who hammered all this stuff into me. "England was in its knees, we almost became a German dictatorship. Only through sacrifice did we make it through." When Bush declared the war on terrorism I thought, Okay, here we go, another period of sacrifice, gas rationing, driving less, since it's obvious that the end result of the money we spend on gas goes to fuelling despotic dictatorships in the Middle East. So I was surprised when the public was told to be patriotic by shopping more and consuming more and buying more cars, with the implication that the military was going to secure unlimited oil supplies. It seems to me that the only solution to the mess that we're in is to have a war-time quest for innovation and alternative sources of fuel. We've got to get off this whole gas thing. The whole infrastructure for cars and trucks was probably put into place in less that twenty years, from nothing in, say, 1900, to being able to find gas stations wherever you wanted by 1920. We have to do that again, but with something else, hydrogen or whatever... When I left the Army and told them I wasn't going to renew my contract, the warrant officer in my squad couldn't find anything more positive to say about me than, "You're never late, Collier." All the comics I'd done for the Army papers weren't on my official file. So I'm telling my wife it's better to be a War Artist than to be called back into the military as a sapper.

Two-Handed Man: What's a sapper?


David Collier:
A combat engineer. Infantry guy, but he does explosives. If you want to keep some sort of individuality, you've got to really assert that individuality. And if I went back in as a regular sapper today all the art I've done in the last ten years wouldn't matter much. It's different than working in a Sobey's warehouse (like you do). It's harder to work on art when somebody's controlling your time twenty-four hours a day. So that's why I want to get into this War Artists programme, to pre-empt the possibility of ever going back into the Army as a regular.

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Click here to view 1979-2002, something Mr. Collier and me collaborated on upon the passing of my cousin this past summer.

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Send emails to darrellepp@hotmail.com. And now it's time for more photographs of Hamilton, because Norm Pinder asked for it.










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