Bay Area cartoonist Frank Bella moves to Chico, talks about surviving his art and why Sharon Stone can’t stand it
Artist Frank Bella has found a home. At least he hopes so.
Such is the nature of the beast when it comes to being a freelance cartoonist and illustrator. After a career spanning some 20 years, during which time he sold artwork ranging from San Jose State event handbills to Bill Graham Presents concert posters and an infamous cartoon strip in the San Francisco Independent ("Mr. Sharon Stone"), Bella still takes work when and where he can get it.
“I’ve pretty much had a comic strip every step of my life,” the 40-year old Bella explains from inside his new apartment off of East Lassen. “Ever since I was like 2, I’ve been drawing, for better or worse.”
Bella explains that as a child he saw a Tony the Tiger cereal commercial that mesmerized him, since it featured a cartoon moving in live action among people. The anxious young boy quickly turned to his father for explanation.
“He basically tried to explain to me the principles of the quickly flipping pages of separate drawings, but I misunderstood him,” Bella says with a laugh. “I thought he meant if I drew fast enough, the character would suddenly appear in the room with us. … That idea lasted for years when I was a kid.”
Ironically, Bella slowly developed a personal style that is not conducive to quickly drawn work. His line drawings are painstakingly crafted in the manner of some of the late-'60s poster artists whose hallucinatory, intricate explorations are now widely known. For most of his cartoon strip work, Bella does the panels by hand on paper, then scans them into a computer and colors the background in Photoshop.
After a recent divorce ("She was just tired of this” he says, referring to the hordes of freelance artwork piled in crates in his office), Bella left behind his wife, 15-year old daughter and high rent in Mountain View and began looking for freelance work in Vegas, Reno and Portola.
Bella knew some Bay Area friends who attended school in Chico and decided to give it a shot, especially after noticing the number of print shops in the area. He is currently looking for any work he can find, though he maintains jobs in the Bay Area, where some of his art just ended on display (Aug. 10) at the Mountain View Civic Center.
“I started off drawing in the eighth grade—1974,” Bella recalls. “A teacher paid me to do school events posters and things. They even gave me my own office. I had to do every poster by hand because Xerox machines were brand new then. So every poster I did, they paid me a dollar.”
Bella dropped out of high school and joined the Air Force, then was stationed on the Azores, remote islands off the coast of Portugal. He continued drawing, starting a military cartoon strip, Airman Rockrat, in the local Stars and Stripes newspaper.
“Those Air Force themes were like public-service messages. We weren’t allowed to hang out on cliffs or go to the running of the bulls. We were basically on a one-square-mile large island where you could see the ocean from every direction. That was weird for a city kid … but interesting.”
Bella cites early drawing influences such as Charles Schultz and Dr. Seuss (he has a tattoo of the Cat in the Hat on his forearm) but says that the reason he never took formal lessons, except for a children’s book series, was to maintain his own style and vision.
After leaving the Air Force, he and his wife moved to New Mexico, where a friend gave him some Rapidographs, or technical pens, and he focused on emphasizing more of his own style: fine line, impressively intricate black-and-white drawings. One of the goals was to make his black-and-white drawings feel like color, through shading and intricacy of line.
“When I was a kid, my dad told me that all he ever had to draw with was one black crayon,” Bella recalls. “That stuck with me and made me want to work in black and white.”
After several paying stints doing “alien” cartoon strips, his family loaded up the car and moved to the Bay Area in 1986.
“I lucked out because I discovered the Comic Collectors’ Shop,” he explains. “A pretty famous place owned by Bob Sidebottom. I walk in there on a Friday night, all these underground artists are in there, Ed Watson, cats like that published in the ‘70s. I just started hanging out with them. Over that period I met pretty much everybody, except for maybe Robert Crumb.
“I always wanted to break into rock art,” he continues. “I knew some guys who went to San Jose State, so as a favor I started doing handbills for events—speakers like Ginsberg, George Plimpton, Snyder, Kesey—and I got to go the shows, hang out backstage … but breaking into Bill Graham Presents is like breaking into a bank vault.”
After a chance meeting with onetime Family Dog promoter Chet Helms at a party in San Francisco, Bella began sending him paintings for the promotion of the 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love.
“Over a period of three months I sent him 15 paintings,” he continues. “Finally, he calls me up and says he loved one of my designs. I was the first artist put on the poster, which was seen a lot of places.”
Knowing Helms led to getting a job doing a Warfield concert poster (Joe Satriani) for Bill Graham Presents. Aside from various freelance work for other small publications (Off the Wall, The Argonaut, Montserrat Quarterly Review), Bella also designed an album cover for former Doors guitarist Robbie Krieger that was eventually axed by record company executives, a problem Bella feels has killed a lot of rock art.
“These days, execs really just want to get the band photos on the album … or else the band themselves want to control all the artwork.”
During this time, he also won a contest drawing turtles for a book series wherein his penchant for cartoonish alien monsters went over big.
“They had promised me a book of my own, but then they suddenly got big [becoming the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles] featured on television and cereal boxes and stuff. They kind of left me behind in the dust.”
His large, one-bedroom apartment off of East Lassen is something of a Beat Generation museum. On the walls are his framed concert posters and award-winners (the “Film Roman Fine Art Competition” hosted by The Simpsons‘ creators), in addition to several beautiful mahogany woodcarvings—one of the hookah-smoking caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. There are numerous, small framed photos of a bearded, longhaired Bella beside such artists as Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Ken Kesey and Stanley Mouse. Bookshelves are filled with art books and rare memorabilia: a framed Woodstock concert ticket given him by Wavy Gravy; a signed Wild Turkey bottle he once split with actor Peter Fonda in the back of the Roxie Cinema; a collection of banned Victorian novels.
The strip for which Bella is best known ("Mr. Sharon Stone") ran throughout 1999 in the San Francisco Independent and still makes him a little uneasy.
The strip stemmed from a feud between bigwig Bay Area publishers and media personalities. Phil Bronstein, currently the executive editor of the SF Chronicle and the man Bella calls “famous for discovering Imelda Marcos’ shoes” (and later “stalking and marrying actress Sharon Stone") once worked with legendary old-school reporter Warren Hinckle at the Examiner. When the Hearst Corporation expressed interest in merging the Chronicle and Examiner, an anti-trust case followed that found that the Examiner should remain independent. By that time, Hinckle had left and joined the enterprises of Ted Fang, a rich local Chinese-American businessman who ran several ethnic newspapers and others like the Independent, where Hinckle and Bella established a working relationship through a cartoon designed to provoke the ire of Bronstein and his famous wife.
The intricately detailed strip is reminiscent of Robert Crumb’s work and follows the macho adventures of he-man Bronstein with good-natured digs at the celebrity couple.
“I was getting paid $400-$700 for that strip, which was great,” Bella says. “I lived off that for a year. But it was kinda negative, and it really wasn’t my baby. They just said do this … all because Hinckle hated Bronstein.”
“One day Hinckle calls me up and says, ‘Turn on the TV. Sharon Stone’s on and she’s pissed at us,'” Bella recalls, laughing. He then shows me a fuzzy video copy of the Entertainment Tonight segment in which Stone slams the paper for using her image to sell copies.
“After that Stone publicity, I started getting all kinds of phone calls for interviews and offers to run the strip. … The Globe did a big piece. I started a Web site on the side, Mrsharonstone.com.”
For the time being, Bella is trying to feel out Chico and his potential to survive here as an artist.
“I can’t even explain what keeps me going. Why don’t I just become the manager at Burger King?” he asks, before showing me to the door. “I’ve got a lot of creativity that I want to put out there, but right now I need to sort out some priorities.”
His recently constructed apartment workplace (he’s been in Chico only a month) features a large drawing table, where today he has spread out his colorful concert posters from Bay Area events, and a computer center complete with fax machine, scanner and various QuickTime film equipment, including a recent computer camera so that he can send video emails to his 15-year old daughter back in Mountain View.
Bella says he maintains contacts in the Bay Area, and there’s a possibility that one of his cartoon strips will be resurrected when the Examiner starts up another comic section within the next year; but that’s only a possibility, and Bella still has to make ends meet until then.
“I really don’t want to be flippin’ burgers if I can help it," he says, smiling.