Jerry Loves Jazz
Back in 1988 I had the good fortune of visiting the studio of Jerry Moriarty to interview him for the special New York issue of Escape Magazine, issue thirteen. Little did I realise then that this was one of the earliest interviews carried out with the remarkable creator of Jack Survives. He was very welcoming to this eager British comics aficionado, and refreshingly open and candid with me. Here’s a chance to experience this special encounter again.
West 28th Street. Tin Pan Alley. When the music publishers sold their songs here, house musicians or pluggers, like the young George Gershwin, used to play medleys that filled the street. Today the music’s faded here and the songbooks have moved further up the Great White Way, but strains of a jazz saxophone still drift from a high window. In this attic apartment, high above the exhaust fumes, lives Jerry Moriarty. Jerry moved here in ‘65 because the rents were cheap (‘but not any more’). He’s chosen an uncomplicated life. He has only two keys, one for the mailbox, one for the front door, and he doesn’t go out to see any movies. The loft is cluttered with pulps, comics, Nancy dolls and the past, plus two cats called Flesh and Flyface, offspring of a stray that fell in through the ceiling. Painter, illustrator, teacher and closet comic artist, Jerry secretly turned his memories of his father into subtle pictures of middle America, into Jack Survives. Jerry sits in his wicker wheelchair, eating peanut butter cookies.
I play the saxophone, badly but with fanaticism. I love being an amateur, that’s an English tradition I think. I was an amateur comic artist too, still am. For me jazz in its purest form is a synthesis of entertainment and art, just like comics. When jazz becomes art, it becomes unsatisfactory classical music, it loses its power. When it becomes entertainment too much, it becomes crossover or fusion, bland cocktail lounges. But when jazz lives in that very small space between art and entertainment, it’s sublime, it’s just itself. It’s the same with comics. I’m a free jazz freak, I like the idea of jazz not as a schematic thing to be read, but as improvisation, like Ornette Coleman. So when I’m making pictures, I try to let go. I don’t lose control, I just relinquish it so I’m off-balance. I try to improvise when I draw, using layer after layer of white acrylic paint to take out the black that doesn’t work. That comes from my background as a painter.
Did your father encourage you to paint?
Yes, Jack brought home pencils and paper for me from his office in the telephone company. For a canvas he’d take the cardboard from laundered shirts and cover them with white enamel. I used to paint in the basement of our home in working-class Binghamton, New York. He’d stand really quietly behind me when I was painting and matter-of-factly say, ‘What do you think, Jerry, a little red over there?’ And I’d say, ‘Oh yeah!’ I’d do anything to please him. He was my first art director. He’d be very supportive but he wouldn’t know what to say.
What was his background?
He was in an orphanage as a kid and was brought up by an aunt. He got the equivalent of an eighth grade education, which is not uncommon for that generation born 1900. But there was a sensitive side to him and in later years he’d sit around listening to light classical music. It was a big move for his background. He had that sensitive part of his nature but he was in man’s world. In my comics, he goes into a bar and some guys are talking about hunting. One of them asks him if he hunts, and Jack says ‘Sorta’! Because he wants to be there but he can’t kill animals. Jack takes both aspects on. I see that as an interesting conflict. I was fifteen when my father died in 1953, so I didn’t have a man’s experience with my father, I never had a beer in a bar with him. Times were changing for him. He was limited in his job, because he didn’t have a college education. He was realising all his limitations. He tried to join up in World War 2 but they said, ‘No Jack, you got four kids!’. He was forty one years old and he wanted to get away from home and have his last adventures. Here’s a guy who had certain values that had grown outdated. But he would never have been philosophical about it. Things might happen to him that were poignant or sad, but he wouldn’t reflect so he wouldn’t be hurt. He survives by not remembering.
When did you start ‘Jack Survives’?
When I turned forty, the age of my father as I remember him, it turned out to be the right age to start the strips about him. The situations I chose - losing his wallet or getting tangled up in a dog’s leash - were based on my own life, as well as how I’d respond. But then, I talk and think like Jack. I am him. I feel like Jack in this time. Like Jack being caught in his old values, knowing they’re not right but he can’t abandon them because there too much a part of him. I’m the kid who went to the movie house in the Forties and saw all the serials, the cowboys films and got the message, but, even though I know the message is fucked up, I never left the movie house.
How do your family feel about the strips?
I got a good letter from my sister. She was so moved when she opened my Raw book to see the big picture of Jack, she started to cry. She wrote later that she knew I wasn’t using Dad; in a sense I was honouring him, he continues on through me.
You work a lot from memory?
Yes. As you see if you look around you, I don’t live in a modern home! What does a house look like? All I can do is think of houses I’ve been in, old family houses. I’m just recalling what I know. I need glasses to read but drawing is the one thing I won’t wear my glasses for, because I can keep my younger eyes and be more relaxed. I don’t dare go to art shows, because my brain is like a sneaky sponge. When I teach at the School of Visual Arts, I need a day’s brain erase before I can start working.
I know you’re a big fan of Ernie Bushmiller’s ‘Nancy’.
Especially the Forties and Fifties ones. I used to check the paper and say, ‘What dumb thing did she do now?’, really contemptuous. Later I looked at it again and started liking its simplicity. Lots of people used to hate Nancy. Wally Wood said that it was the kind of strip that, once you’d decided not to read it, you’d already read it! Those of us who like Nancy take those criticisms as acclamations. It says ‘We’re right!’. I met another secret Nancy fan and we’d talk about the true mysteries of Nancy: how Sluggo, a nine year old boy, lives alone in this old house and how Nancy doesn’t live with her mother, and who is this Fritzi Ritz anyway?! I talked to the great man himself, because I was asked to take over the strip. Ernie sounded like a hit-man. He had a voice like a trumpet player, like Miles Davies. I did some samples, a true old Forties style Nancy, but it didn’t work out, thank God! Can you imagine those deadlines every day? Nancy today looks like Mussolini!
How did you become a magazine illustrator?
In my teens I took the ‘Famous Artists’ correspondence course and then majored in Illustration at college. I had a ‘39 Chevy coupe and wore peg pants and a one-button roll-coat, with big shoulders and my DA hair. As a student I was exposed to abstract expressionism, art that was all form and no content. So I began as an illustrator in the Sixties for Girlie magazines like Swank, Caper, Nugget and Escapade, doing all this far-out looking stuff. Those of us doing the Girlie magazines used to look down at the ‘hacks’ doing the Men’s Adventure magazines. They’d have these surreal concepts like women in bras fighting Nazis, bizarre crazy stories. They were for the blue collar worker, so their content was very important. ‘Don’t give me this jive, give ‘em straight stuff.’ Those of us in the Girlie magazines Were the elite. I remember one Men’s Adventure illustrator was also a wrestler. The Wrestling Illustrator! It supported our notion that these were not aesthetic people here.
But now you’re collecting these illustrations and doing your own in ‘Picture Story Magazine’.
Yes, I’m more interested in Men’s Adventure stuff now because there’s no pretensions, it does exactly what it’s supposed to do and it’s so surreal. So I started writing my own stories and illustrating them, with the whole story in one double page spread. They’ve got titles like ‘The Insane Meter Man’ and ‘Killer Waitress’. Because these stories are meant to be the equivalent of the Men’s Adventure magazines, I don’t have to be a great writer. I also drew Jack in posters for the School of Visual Arts on the subway. And he turned up on a T-shirt I drew for WFMU, a college radio station in Upsala, New Jersey. I’ve also been reading my Men’s Adventure stories on that station. I call them ‘Whispers Heard Through A Prison Wall’.
What’s the appeal to you of doing comics?
They’re art for strangers, art that goes out to people. They’re an exhibition you visit by accident and we all own the pictures. You don’t see the original, you take a copy into your home and you have an intimate physical relationship with it. As I have had with everything that’s meant something to me. The value of my Jack Survives strip is that it completes that cycle of intimacy.
Posted: June 19, 2011
This interview first appeared in Escape Magazine #13 in 1988.