In 1974, the Village Voice hired Stan Mack to write "Real Life Funnies," a brilliant, observational comic strip that eavesdropped on the city, collecting the voices of the streets, the jazz joints and cafes, the consciousness-raising groups and cocktail parties. The strip ran until 1995, and Stan moved on to other projects.
"Real Life Funnies" remains as an invaluable time capsule of two decades when New York City was still a wild, weird, creative place filled with people who, at the very least, had something interesting to say.
Recently, I got the chance to talk to Stan about his work.
from "An Evening with a Male Liberationist"
Q: Your work beautifully captures the culture of the city in the 70s and 80s. The language people used, and the way they spoke, the topics they spoke about, are familiar from the films of Woody Allen--neurosis and art and sex. It's a different city now. What do you find yourself overhearing these days?
A: Mostly what I hear is cell phone talk: "I’m on Bleecker and 10th, where are you?" Less often words I once would have written down, but, as you suggest, the time of the wonderful self-revealing comments, situations, and events (at least the kind I could get at) is past.
Q: What do you think is the difference between the "voice" of the city then and now?
A: It was late ’74 when I started my documentary comic strip about New York City in the Village Voice, which was a kind of town square of the counterculture. It was a period when many of the ‘60s political and social activists were turning inward, searching for the meaning of life—spiritual, sexual, self-actualizing.
That period was followed, in the ‘80s, by the New York invasion of yuppies with Rolexes. During those two decades I wandered the city hearing wonderfully pithy and revealing epiphanies: in bars and restaurants, rap sessions, self-help seminars (offering every sort of revelation), elevators, movie lines.
Today I hear one-sided cell phone prattle on street corners, read what Facebook friends like, what links Twitter people recommend. Recently I heard a woman say her department is full of freaks, they don’t like her, and she doesn’t have a life, but that sounded more like a whine than an epiphany. I’m no sociologist so I don’t know if this era is less interesting. You’d think people would be as tormented by sex, self-fulfillment, and relationships (and babies) as ever, but I’m not hearing it on any movie lines I’ve been on lately. Maybe I should ask the NSA.
from "Oh Men, Oh Women"
Q: In your wanderings to overhear, did you go out in search of interesting conversations or did they just happen wherever you were? Reading through your Real Life Funnies, I kept wondering what you were doing in all those singles groups and psychics meetings.
A: There were a number of ways I got my words and stories. Wonderful lines did drop into my lap when going for milk. Still, my weekly deadline was always rushing towards me, so I regularly left home to troll for lines in bars, parks and museums, at gatherings of psychics, UFO abductees, and pigeon fanciers, by following political protests, by hanging out with a dominatrix...intrepid boy reporter/voyeur.
In order to hear people speaking naturally, I sometimes needed to be accepted as just another participant--a sincere searcher for my soul mate at the Universalist Church on the Upper West Side, or whomever. And that required a little method acting, including being a very boring searcher for my soul mate. I was there to listen to, and secretly write down, the words of other searchers, not have them be interested in mine.
As time went on, I found I liked cutting an individual from the herd and having a conversation where I didn’t have to write in tiny, crabbed shorthand on the corner of a napkin while pretending I wasn’t. One subject was an enforcer (knee breaker), a very effective bad debt collector, who was also an elegant calligrapher and guest lecturer on calligraphy at the New School.
There was another way I picked up dialogue, and I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else. I did a weekly documentary comic strip for Adweek magazine. It was called Out-Takes and was an inside look at the secretive and mad New York advertising scene. I hung out with art directors, copywriters, and photographers, and their creative angst also made its way into my Voice strip.
I came to trust that it took a New Yorker to express feelings that the rest of the country had but usually couldn’t articulate.
from "Cocktails at the Ramrod"
Q: Now you're doing comics on American history. How did that switch happen--from contemporary New York to the country's deep past?
My Real Life Funnies comic strip started as collections of snippets of real-life dialogue, which I usually gathered by overhearing self-involved boomers at work and play. Gradually, I began to organize the many voices into stories with beginnings, middles, and endings.
Looking back, I can see that I kept trying to dig deeper into people's lives. My stories were finally growing too long and complex for the size of the comic strip. I wonder if I was somehow anticipating today’s graphic novel boom and the willingness of readers to tackle serious comics.
Among my lengthier strips were those covering the protests in the East Village. Those stories would lead to my first book. An editor who lived on St. Mark’s asked if I’d be interested in doing a book related to the Tompkins Square Park riots. Out of that conversation came my comics history of the American Revolution--using a sort of Real Life Funnies "street" approach. Great fun giving George Washington a New York attitude.
When the Village Voice (facing their own shrinking future) dumped a lot of features in 1995, including my comic strip, I began a second book (the Story of the Jews) with the same idea of covering history Real Life Funnies-style. I looked forward to giving God a New York City street voice.
And then, sadly, I got a chance to dig as deeply as I wanted into the lives of two Greenwich Village writers/artists. My partner, Janet, a great character and wise-ass (who’d appeared many times in my strip), was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer. I became her caregiver. The voices of the street became muted, the voices of the two trapped people were magnified. We coped with the indignities of every day New York City life when one is ill. (Like the ambulette driver on speed who took us on a circuitous ride through pothole-filled streets to get to Beth Israel with the wheelchair-bound patient painfully bouncing around in back.) After Janet died, I wrote a memoir about it all, with lots of my drawings. That book was Janet & Me. One more New York City story.
From "Janet and Me"
Q: Did you find yourself missing those voices of the street during that time of struggle and loss? And do you think you'll go back to hearing them again, to putting the city's voice onto paper, or is that chapter over?
A: Over the past few days I’ve gone on long walks through the East Village and the Upper West Side and Central Park. For me, every few blocks of the city or areas of the parks are filled with voices from my strips. (Covering the city for 20 years will do that.)
I think of a strip I did at the Village Vanguard in 1995, which was the 50th anniversary of that famous space. I sat in the empty room with Lorraine Gordon, the owner and guiding force, as she reminisced about all the brilliant musicians who’d played there. For her and for the many Vanguard fans, those long-ago sounds are still present. But so are the artists of today. The Vanguard is as alive as ever.
And of course, New York is as well. Today when I walk the city, I’m surrounded by all those funny, poignant, pithy words from my old strips. Maybe because I’ve moved on to other kinds of projects, today's voices seem duller or more faint by comparison (not to mention how many of them are in languages I don’t understand). But maybe they really aren’t. Maybe they’re just as lively, but different. I know there are plenty of young, talented artists around, I’ll leave it to them do the collecting.
from "The Village Vanguard"
Visit Stan Mack's website to read and buy Real Life Funnies and more