Inner weirdness, unleashed
Robert Armstrong, underground comic-book illustrator
Robert Armstrong, a painter, musician and underground comic-book illustrator, has lived in Dixon and Winters since the 1970s. Armstrong's career highlights include counterculture contributions, such as the Mickey Rat comic series, popularizing the phrase “couch potato,” and playing guitar in R. Crumb and His Cheap Suit Serenaders (yes, that R. Crumb). He's taught illustration classes to kids and adults at the Davis Art Center, the Crocker Art Museum and Sacramento State University, and his résumé also includes cover illustrations and editorial cartoons for this newspaper. Armstrong, who currently has paintings on display at Roseville's Blue Line Arts gallery as part of a joint exhibition with Monte Wolverton, recently chatted with SN&R about Mad magazine, road trips and illustrating Karl Rove.
How did you get into comic books?
Entertainment Comics did all the great horror comics [series], Vault of Horror, Crypt of Terror and the great crime stuff. I had friends who were [comic-book] collectors, and they shared with me. The whole superhero thing seemed so contrived and so formulaic, just such production-line stuff.
What influenced you to pursue art?
My father brought home a copy of Mad magazine, and I still have it. I remember studying stuff as a kid in those early Mad [issues] that was beautifully drawn, with all these cartoonists that became heroes of mine—Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Will Elder.
Are you self-taught?
Pretty much. I learned by doing it. I went to a year or two at Pasadena City College, which had a fairly good art department. Back then, everything was about abstract expressionism. My art teachers at the time tried to dissuade me from [comic-book art]. They thought it was lowbrow; a waste of time; just cheap, trashy stuff. Years later, I was vindicated.
Who did you study to learn illustrating?
I tried to be unique, but we're all influenced. Carl Barks, who did Donald Duck, is a huge influence. I found out [about] the East Village Other because my older brother was in the Army stationed in New Jersey, and he would go into New York on furloughs and hang around the East Village. He saw this underground paper that had cartoons, and he got me a subscription to it. That's where I first saw work by Kim Deitch, R. Crumb and Spain Rodriguez, all these guys that later on became good friends of mine. I thought, “Wow, look, hippie comics!”
How did you meet Robert Crumb?
In 1969, I was still in Pasadena, and I had an old buddy of mine who was living in Berkeley, and he met Crumb at the flea market. They were fighting over a box of 78 [RPM records] and started talking. We had some great adventures traveling across the country, a real Jack Kerouac time. We bought a '55 Cadillac convertible in Denver in the spring of 1972 and wound up driving it back to Chicago and New York City. It was high adventure for me, just playing music and drawing comics along the way.
You illustrated the 1987 book The Couch Potato Guide to Life. What’s your connection to that term?
My friend first said [“couch potato”] to joke about a mutual friend. I designed couch potato buttons and T-shirts, and all my friends wanted one. … We were having fun, and it really started out as this organization for us and our friends. [The Los Angeles Times] wound up doing a full page with color photos about us. After that, my mailbox was just jammed with shirt orders. All these other papers picked up [the story] all across the country. All of a sudden, I was this media darling. … I couldn't believe it, it was so absurd, so surreal. Then, I got a licensing deal. Coleco toys did a doll. There was a TV game show [in 1989]. All kinds of ancillary products; some of them were quite ugly.
Best editorial cartoon you did for SN&R?
One time, Karl Rove was coming to give a talk in Sacramento, so I [illustrated] Karl being chased by an angry mob with pitchforks. I drew him like a chubby, sweaty little pig with an attaché case with money falling out. That was fun.
Some of your recent paintings feel like a scene from The Jetsons. Explain.
I like the whole idea of cities of the future as they were imagined in the past. Yesterday's future. And I like the robot [motif]. I've liked robots since I was a kid. I made some robots from found objects. My backyard has a few life-size robots.
When do you decide what your painting means?
Coming up with a theme for a painting can be tough. You can overthink it, you can just stifle yourself in a weird way. So I just try to keep it loose, slightly distracted, let the other part of your brain take over and just go ahead and do it. Let other people sort it out. They can figure out what it means.