Ron Turner may be the last (gasp) of the original underground comics publishers still going strong. His Last Gasp imprint, established in San Francisco in 1970, has published a Who’s Who of 1960s’ pioneers (R. Crumb, Trina Robbins, Spain Rodriguez, Bill Griffith, Greg Irons, Justin Green) and introduced many others over the years since. Initially inspired by Beat culture, Turner, now 80, was in the forefront of the free speech, farm worker, antiwar, women’s rights and environmental movements (not to mention, the Peace Corps) before ever publishing a comic book. PKM’s Benito Vila spoke at length with Ron about his weird & wonderful journey.
Blasphemous. Vulgar. Rude. Ugly. Polite society goes name-calling when it doesn’t understand what it was seeing. That’s the way it is with early comix––the keep-‘em-away-from-the kiddies undergrounds like Help!, The Adventures of Jesus, Zap Comix, Young Lust, Bizarre Sex, Bijou Funnies and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers––that in the late 1960s and early 1970s popularized the work of R. Crumb, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, Gilbert Shelton, Trina Robbins, Justin Green, Spain Rodriguez, Greg Irons, Skip Williamson, S. Clay Wilson and others.
Publishers came and went out of that scene, but Ron Turner and his company, Last Gasp, have carried on since 1970, still working from San Francisco’s Mission District and still releasing 10 to 20 titles a year––graphic novels and collections of what Turner describes as “weird ‘n’ wonderful subversive literature”.
My first call to Turner led us to be on the phone for almost two hours, and we could have kept going. He was that easy to talk to. My second call found him hanging out with artist John Law, co-founder of Burning Man, the Suicide Club and the San Francisco Cacophony Society, writer/director Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez, creator of a set of oracle cards based on the city of San Francisco, and a nameless friend, who was cutting up a half-pound of weed. Another afternoon in the life of an 80-year old prankster. In some back and forth by email, Turner summed up his motivation in developing his first title, Slow Death Funnies: “We thought underground comics were the best way to slip ecology messages into the minds of youth, who needed answers to questions about health, humanity and cultural well-being. Our motto was ‘Mind Candy for the Masses.’”
PKM: What pissed you off as a kid?
Ron Turner: Oddly, not much. I was very easygoing, I think. We had our neighborhood battles and I always thought that maybe my dad would break up the fight, or something like that, but he never would, so I had to figure out how to get out of my own way.
PKM: Where’d you grow up?
Ron Turner: A little tiny bit in Potosi, Wisconsin. I was born in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. We lived for a little bit in Indianapolis during World War II, and then we moved out to Fresno in ‘44/’45, and waited for the war to get over. My dad came out to join us, and we stayed in Fresno through sixth grade. We started having little theaters here and there, so we went to Carruthers, and then Riverdale, then Firebaugh and then back to Fresno for three years of high school, and we had summers in Coalinga and Five Points and Huron. All over Central California.
PKM: What do you mean by “little theater”?
Ron Turner: My dad started a little theater business. He did that in Fresno, from the Fresno Camera Exchange. It was a place to take your exposed film to get it developed and buy cameras. It was run by the Laval family, whose grandfather, Pop, took great pictures of the Sierras, pre-Ansel Adams. My dad got a stall inside their store and rented out 8- and 16-millimeter projectors, and little 8-millimeter film, 50-foot reels and 100-foot reels, and so that you could take them home and throw the movies on your wall inside your house. That’s what my dad did on our garage door on weekend nights. The neighbors would bring chairs from their houses, sit them down on the road, and look at movies and cartoons on our garage door. It was pre-TV. TV didn’t come to Fresno until about ‘53…That was the announcement of our demise.
PKM: What kind of films was he selling?
Ron Turner: Back then you had Abbott and Costello and Mickey Mouse cartoons, Steamboat Willie, a George Raft or something noir. There weren’t many Technicolor films out in 16-millimeter for rental yet; they were just happening. He had a side business, showing porn. He didn’t sell them, but he would take them out, like when the sheriff’s department had a smoker. They’d get hold of my dad to bring movies that showed some titties, and everybody would go home laughing, drunk. Then they’d arrested people for doing the same thing the next day.
PKM: Divine justice.
Ron Turner: It certainly is. I remember him running in our back door, through these French doors, the only thing nice in the house. He suddenly said, “Grab that bag”, and I grabbed his bag and followed him out. He found a shovel, dug a big hole between some peach trees and he threw the bag in there, covered it up and ran back inside sweating like a pig. Two FBI agents were at the front door. [Laughs] “Hey, do you mind we look around?” “Oh, no, go right ahead.”
PKM: Titties and cartoons?
Ron Turner: The titties. That was secretive. I would look through the louvers on the central heater in our house when my dad was showing those to somebody in the middle of the night. Nobody in the neighborhood saw that. I grew up learning how to run projectors, and while I was in high school I was managing a drive-in theater outside town. I had to wait until my sports practices were over, and I’d quickly get out there and make sure that the thing was running okay, close it down and drive back at night for school in the morning.
PKM: Did you read as a kid?
Ron Turner: Not really, but I used to go down to the library after school when I was in elementary school. My mom was working at a hardware store in downtown Fresno and there was a library around the corner from the store. I really got into Thomas Nast cartoons in the library. It’s sort of hilarious to think about, this kid looking at all these old cartoons. I didn’t quite understand them, but I loved the way Nast drew cartoons. They had these gigantic bound books of newspapers. Then we went to this little town of Riverdale, less than 600 people, but it had a library. I went in there and read almost every book I could. My family was not educated. We were in the entertainment business. There was no time to read. We had maybe one or two magazines that came in, a Collier’s or Look, and Box Office. When we moved to Firebaugh, they didn’t have a library so I quit reading pretty much. I hardly read anything until I got out of high school and was flunking out of junior college. I went over to a girlfriend’s house and she brought me a stack of books and said, “Ron, can you go please read these and then come back and we’ll have something to talk about?”
PKM: What was in that stack?
Ron Turner: Atlas Shrugged and Battle Cry. I was very insulated growing up. I had no idea who the Jewish people were. There were hardly any Jewish kids in Fresno. They were there but they were hidden.
PKM: How did you get into comics?
Ron Turner: Comics were my savior. I did read comics and I had quite a collection. I got into reading comics on a troop train; it must have been ‘44. We visited my dad in Camp Lejeune and then we came back to Wisconsin and hopped on a train from Chicago to Fresno. There were about six or seven moms and their kids in one car. The rest of the train was four or five cars full of GIs, getting shipped over to the war in the Pacific. We had no money, but when we got off the train in Fresno, I had a big stack of comic books. It took me a long time to figure out how I got those comics. The story I came up with, that I think is true, is that these guys would come back and see the women. They’re all horny dogs. They’d have a comic book with them. They threw the comic book to the kid and say, “Hey, kid, read this. Get lost.” And go chat up the moms. We couldn’t afford them. One dime for 64 pages, all-color comics.
PKM: Do you remember any of those titles?
Ron Turner: Barely. Those came and went. But I got into EC Comics [Entertaining Comics, specializing in horror, gory crime stories, first published in 1944 by Max Gaines, William “MAD” Gaines’ father]. Boy, did I love those.
PKM: What was the attraction for you?
Ron Turner: They were real. They had real horror. They gave me my bearings, I think, as far as my adult moral compass. I remember one Al Feldstein wrote about a rocket ship blasting off to some planet that has been populated by robots and left to its own thing. The astronaut gets there and sees the orange robots are in charge and the blue robots don’t have much at all. The blue robots have substandard housing, in sheds, and ride in the back of the buses. In the last scene, the astronaut is going off with disgust about how this horrible society has developed, the blue robots being persecuted by the orange robots. He’s sitting there in this great last panel, the cold light of space comes through the window and shines on his dark skin. You see he’s an African American. [EC Comics: Weird Fantasy #18, “Judgment Day”] It was like a bingo shock to put that together as a kid––“but wait, that’s how we do it here.”
There was another one Al Feldstein wrote that Wally Wood drew about a GI forced to stand on deck and witness the hydrogen bomb blast at Eniwetok. He comes home and he and his wife have a baby. The baby is born deformed. It’s so horrible they didn’t even draw a picture of it in the panel. Instead, you’re shown the doctors taking the GI aside and saying something like, “Don’t worry. This is not uncommon. You’ll be fine. We’re just going to tell her that the baby died at birth.” But the baby didn’t die. It’s put in an institution. In the institution, it’s treated terribly by these QAnon-like people, with little brains, who see her going out and putting something in a tree at night. They get convinced that the baby, a girl, is communicating with aliens. They wait for her one night, surprise her and run after her. She jumps up on a wall with her gangly tiny arms and big head, slips, falls, lands on the spikes keeping anyone from getting out, and dies. When they get the note out of the tree, it reads, “If anyone finds this, please tell them I love you”. [EC Comics: Weird Science #18, “The Loathesome!”] It’s what I knew, dealing with bullying and stuff like that. I was a big kid. I stopped growing when I was 14. By then, I was six feet and 220 or 240. I had to learn how to fight and I took it upon myself to defend anybody who was being bullied.
PKM: Were you bullied as a kid?
Ron Turner: I don’t think I was too bullied. I was molested once or twice. That didn’t anger me, really. It was, kinda like, a stupid experience. I was very lucky to have that attitude. I was good in sports. Thank god for sports.
PKM: You needed relief, a place to go.
Ron Turner: Yes. I won a lot of trophies and awards in sports. I got hired by my high school, which had a hard time with me. They would always be turning me out for different things, but they hired me to protect the referees at halftime during the basketball season.
PKM: What were you getting in trouble for?
Ron Turner: I got into doing theater things and I’d do something inappropriate onstage or say something I wasn’t supposed to. I got elected the treasurer of the Boy’s Federation, which was some silly thing for all the boys in the high school. It was a 3,000-kid high school, a three-year school. The Boy’s Federation was a way for the administration to do “the boy talk”, like they did “the girl talk”. I was elected treasurer and, after I came back from the summer, they asked me to read the treasurer’s report. I said, “I can’t. I lost the books.” Of course, we’d taken the money out of the account and bought beer with it all summer.
PKM: I’m sure they knew what you had done.
Ron Turner: They did. It was absolutely perfect. I loved to do practical jokes and pull pranks on the administration. I wanted to run for senior class yell-leader, even though I was one of the football stars, and they refused to let me do that.
PKM: That sounds like they were afraid of what you might say.
Ron Turner: They were, because I’d already said it on other occasions.
PKM: Did you start publishing things in high school or when did that come along for you?
Ron Turner: I started publishing things in college, at Fresno State, when a bunch of us got together and decided we needed to do an underground newspaper. That was after I’d already had a life elsewhere, about five years as railroad brakeman and two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka.
PKM: After high school, you went into the Peace Corps?
Ron Turner: No. The Peace Corps didn’t get started until Kennedy got elected. I was among the first thousand who went. Other than joining the military, the Peace Corps was the only way to get out of Fresno if you weren’t on a college track.
PKM: You got into railroad work out of high school?
Ron Turner: A year out of high school, while I went to junior college, where I played football. We were a great team, with a couple of All-Americans on the team. We were ranked number 17. I thought I should be an engineer, so I was studying engineering. But after Sputnik went up, they really cracked down on grading and got into seeing what we’re doing. I went from an A student in all my math classes to an F student. I averaged out a D. We had no money so I had to work three jobs, plus trying to do sports plus study. It just wasn’t working because I’d never learned how to study in high school. I relied on my dim wits to get through. I finally got out of the junior college after about three years and the railroad was the perfect job for me. I’d work all summer and into the fall before they let me off because you had to have a lot of seniority to work year-round. I went out for Peace Corps in ‘62, and I came back in ‘64 when things really started to rumble and crumble socially.
PKM: What sort of scene where you into before you left?
Ron Turner: I became enthralled with folk music and the beatnik lifestyle back about ‘59 or so. There were actually a few beatniks in Fresno, beat people, people who dressed all in black and wore berets. It was cool. There was a woman, Carol Gostanian, who opened a place called The Orange Ogre. She was instrumental to the development of mental beings down in the Valley. Fresno has a history of many kinds of music, one of them being Armenian music, and Carol was Armenian. Her place had a lot of oud playing and dancing. The Turks massacred over a million and a half Armenians, back about 1915, and a great number fled to all parts of the world, some ended up in Fresno. A lot of them became grape growers. They had their own coffeehouses and whatnot in downtown Fresno, so it had a slightly Middle Eastern, Eastern European flavor to it all. It was the scene to be seen at The Orange Ogre, The Renaissance, The Blue Light. When I got off my job washing dishes at a steakhouse, I’d hop on my bike and ride over to The Renaissance and get free coffee for washing dishes in the back there. That became kind of a hangout for me, and later Carol started a jazz club called the Dingdong Diner and then she had another club, a gay bar downtown.
At some point, after many years of coming back to Fresno and getting back into college at Fresno State, a bunch of us put together an underground paper. It was really funky. It was mimeographed and we went around in a circle grabbing pages to collate, stapling it and selling it for 10 cents. We called it, Flagrante Delicto, meaning, caught in the act. Our problem was twofold. One was that Fresno was not ready for the cover we put on it––a Jesus Christ on a cross doing 69 with another Jesus Christ on a cross. That limited our ability to get out there and sell to the public. The other thing was that there was a district attorney who had run for office with big billboards of him and his wife and two kids––the wholesome American guy as District Attorney. Carol says, “Oh, that guy is a real roach.” People had been stealing jewelry from her home and then coming in wearing her stuff and laughing at her. She couldn’t get anybody to go out and investigate. One day she went in one day to the DA’s office to complain and realized that the DA was one of her gay customers, Bill Daley. I wrote a column called “Bill Knightly”, exposing him, that his kids were adopted and the wife was in a wheelchair and that he was involved in things where he could be blackmailed in office so he wasn’t fighting crime as he should. Right after that, my garbage started getting picked up by strangers in big tarps and hauled away. It was time to leave Fresno.
PKM: [Laughs] That’s a good way to get into publishing!
Ron Turner: Well, I still wasn’t into it, really. I had been hired to work on a Peace Corps planning project for India while I was at Fresno State. I managed to uncover all the corruption in the handling of that so I was getting nailed there, too. But then I got into a graduate program at San Francisco State to study Experimental Psychology.
PKM: How do you define Experimental Psychology?
Ron Turner: It’s how you put together an experiment to study something and see what the results are. Experimental design was my forté, and despite failing in my early attempts at academia and trying to figure out how to do it all, I got to be head of an honor society and I met a really cool guy, John Kovacs. He was a year ahead of me. John and I were both providing for our money needs by selling pot. The psych department of San Francisco State was like 50 professors and 5,000 students. John liked to sell mainly to the faculty so I said, “Okay, I’ll sell to the students,” and we became best buddies. The psychology group I was in was kind of a strange thing. There were only 12 students taken every year out of 1,200 applicants. When you got in, your class size was usually no more than between 6 and 12 and you got to write about half of your own studies, what going to do or pay attention to you were. I was still working for the railroad, and I was also working at San Francisco State doing Alpha wave research. At the time of the San Francisco State strike in 1968, I was at Kaiser Hospital doing studies in allergies and emotions. The strike was about the formation of a College of Ethnic Studies, something the psychology students wanted and something a large Latinx, Filipino and Asian student population also wanted. Governor [Ronald] Reagan’s administration was opposed to that and we threatened a strike if our demands were not met. They weren’t. The Black Students Union and the Third World Liberation Front led the strike. It became a daily pitched battle between 2,000 police and 5,000 students. Cal Berkeley and Columbia eventually joined, but after they had gone back to classes, we continued. It was the longest student strike in U.S. history and the Ethnic Studies department survives 50-plus years later. During the strike, I started reading Ramparts a magazine edited by Warren Hinckle, who I became good buddies with for about 30 years, until he died. He ran Ramparts and, later on, Scanlan’s. He was the guy who got Hunter Thompson the assignment to go to the Kentucky Derby with Ralph Steadman, where Gonzo journalism got created. Is the question on the board, how did I get into publishing?
Ron Turner: After the Peace Corps, I joined a group called the Committee of Returned Volunteers, who were mostly all lefties. We decided to be part of the anti-war movement, being early progressives or whatever, and provide the movement people with information about the world. You could only be a member if you spent two years on a voluntary basis in another country. There were a lot of American Friends Service Committee people and former Peace Corps volunteers. The Committee had about 3,000 people, spot on with what was going on around the world. Americans were completely out of their depth to understand what was going on, so we provided that help. My girlfriend at that time had been César Chavez’ secretary down in Delano and we were very much part of the farm workers strikes. We were always protesting, going out, and on some weekend night in Berkeley, we were smoking some dope, when a friend of mine went to run the presses of the Berkeley Ecology Center, which was just begun, the first Ecology Center in the country. We started talking about the underground comics that were coming out. We liked to smoke dope and read them. They were cool. We got to, “If we wanted to do something to support the Ecology Center, how would we do it?” I suggested, “Let’s make an underground comic.” I knew where some of the artists hung out because I would buy their work in San Francisco from Gary Arlington, who started the first comic book company store in America. He carried some of the early undergrounds, under the counter, the sexy ones. Gary and I got together and we figured out how to do this. I said, “I can’t take another part of another cooperative or gathering. Does anybody want to do this?” No takers. I said, “Okay, I’ll do it, but I can’t answer to a board or a group or anything like that. I got to do it myself and get it done.” I got a loan from some drug dealers from Berkeley, the only people that seemed to have a lot of money. Then, in about three or four months, we had a comic book. We got out in time for the first Earth Day [April 22, 1970] and sold it on about eight or nine college campuses. That’s Slow Death Funnies, Number One.
One of the guys that I met doing that was Don Donahue, who had published and printed R. Crumb’s first Zap Comix with Charley Plymell. He met Plymell at some beatnik poetry readings. Plymell got this printing press that Allen Ginsberg told me he got from a grant so Plymell could print up broadsides on it. Plymell and Donahue were both talking about how they liked this cartoonist R. Crumb. They thought Crumb was back in Philadelphia because his work began appearing in a Philadelphia underground paper called Yarrowstalks, but Donahue ran into him at a party in San Francisco when he and his wife Dana came out here. Plymell and Donahue printed up the first Zap under Donahue’s Apex Novelties name and the Crumbs sold that Zap out of their baby carriage on Haight Street. Donahue finally bought the press from Charley. That tied together the whole hippie underground printing scene with the beatnik printing scene, and it was a nice handoff. Of course, there was also the San Francisco poster scene, that was going on before that and alongside that––the Fillmore and Avalon Ballroom posters for Bill Graham and Chet Helms. At some point in ‘68 or ‘69, I moved in next door to a kid named Randy Tuten, who was a poster artist. We used to get stoned and play chess at night to relax. I got to meet a lot of those poster artists through him. I was very lucky, a lot of connections just kept happening all the time.
PKM: Did you set out to do something different than what was out there?
Ron Turner: I stumbled into it. Nixon cut off all the funds to the science facilities while I was working at Kaiser Hospital. That job got canceled. I was on unemployment and things were pretty bleak, but then the Slow Death Funnies thing took off. I had to figure it out. I thought, “Look, I managed to avoid the draft. I got a couple of years, so I think I’ll explore distribution. How does distribution work?” I published another comic book called It Ain’t Me, Babe, produced by Trina Robbins, which is the first all-women comic. One thing led to another and it just kept growing, and it’s still going on.
PKM: What do you think made the underground comics scene of the ‘60s and ‘70s? What brought it to be and what made it so influential?
Ron Turner: People needed truth. Inquiring minds.
PKM: What of that work do you pick up today and still get a kick out of?
Ron Turner: Oh, just about anything. A lot of the cartoons would go through a period of rage against the forces they couldn’t quite identify. Then, of course, a big thing they could identify would be police brutality, if they’d ever gotten into a protest line or something like that, got whacked with a club or sprayed with nasty substances. A lot of them identified with being hippies. I’m not sure their political reason was to be a hippie. It was basically trying to not identify with the images that were given to you to identify with. Out went short hair and in came long hair. Out went chastity and in went free sex. Out went don’t drink ‘til you’re 21 to let’s get stoned. I’m not sure that’s much of a philosophy, but it’s definitely a rebellious spirit.
PKM: I have a few questions, about people and things, more like a word association: Will Eisner.
Ron Turner: Eisner was a great propagandist. He drew all these nice war comics for the military. The United States was about number four in the world for comic book reading back in the ‘40s and ‘50s. In the ‘60s, the Italians must have been first, the French were probably second, and the Indians maybe third. They had a thing called the Amar Chitra Katha, the immortal pictorial tales of India. The doors of Notre Dame were basically a cartoon strip. That’s an easy way to educate people. Same things with the Egyptians––using symbols, drawings of people doing things, adding a soundtrack, somebody lecturing you, taking you through it. People can follow that because the eye is a wonderful gatherer of information. You can figure it all out; see whatever is being taught. Eisner did great manuals for how to take apart a Jeep, repair a rifle. His Spirit comics in the ‘40s were lovely. Later on in the ‘80s, Denis Kitchen published him and Eisner was happy to be thought of again. Fortunately, for the comic book movement in America, it went from kids to adults, who still liked what they’d read, the superheroes and what not in their childhood. Comics gave them a little private time with their fantasies. I don’t know what to say about Eisner. He was a great cartoonist, and he had a second flying. The biggest award at Comic-Con is named after him. It’s like getting an Oscar, the Eisner Award.
PKM: The Seduction of the Innocent. Do you know that book?
Ron Turner: Oh, yes. It’s by a psychiatrist, named Fredric Wertham. As I mentioned, I was really into EC Comics. I loved them. They were so good and they came in the original Mad comic book size, not the larger magazine format. Kids are smart. When EC Comics came out, kids glommed on to that. That was talking straight to them. The kids understood it, the humor, the adventure, the horror and all that other stuff. Here was something that actually spoke their language. At that time, adults didn’t read much of what the kids were reading. They had their own gigantic horror stories, war stories, graveside humor. Adults were told comics were for kids and if their kids were reading a comic, that’s fine. Adults, mostly, could care less. Sales went through the roof for EC Comics. [Publisher] Will Gaines had taken over from his dad. EC Comics had been a religious-comic publisher along with some educational-comic things. Will Gaines hooked up with Harvey Kurtzman, Al Feldstein, Frank Frazetta, Will Elder and a few other guys and put together fantastic stories. Kids loved it. It wasn’t dumbed-down stuff, so kids read it and they didn’t read the other comics, like they used to. These other comics companies’ sales started to go down, down, down and EC started to go up, up, up.
The big bugaboo for parents in the ‘50s was juvenile delinquency. After World War II, you had to wonder about why would a kid want to go out and fight somebody. [Laughs] It’s not like a little training hadn’t been happening, in war propaganda, movies. Fredric Wertham’s book appears and implies that one of the evilest things around is the secret language cartoonists are sneaking into their publications to get children to think badly. In fact, one thing he blew up was a panel that I think Frazetta had drawn of Tarzan’s armpit. Wertham said, “You see, that’s really the pubic area of a woman. They’re sneaking these images into your kids’ minds and this, in turn, is causing juvenile delinquency.” There you have it––a book by a psychiatrist finding the cause of this stuff. They’re getting these images into our kids heads through comic books. Sound a little like QAnon to you? It was. It was a ‘50s QAnon thing and the smart guys backing this––the ones at the other comic companies, who weren’t having any fun because they had to look at their stockholders and tell them they’d lost money again this quarter––decided to form an adult authority that would review comics and approve them before they were allowed to be published. The Comics Code Authority. It had a seal, a stamp that was printed onto comic book covers. They sent out a letter to every PTA in the country, saying, something like, “Moms and dads, are you worried about what your kids are reading? Are you worried about juvenile delinquency? You may have heard about this awful stuff coming out of comic books. You can be sure if you buy our comics, your kids will not be growing up to be juvenile delinquents.” Gee, it worked. All of a sudden, EC sales fell off about 80% person. Parents didn’t have to read the comic. All they had to do was look for that Comics Code Authority seal of approval. Of course, the other companies didn’t let EC Comics join and it just about went out of business. Kids couldn’t take home the EC titles: Vault of Horror, Tales from the Crypt, Two-Fisted Tales, Shock SuspenStories or Mad Comics.
PKM: Another name, two, really: Gary Arlington and his San Francisco Comic Book Company.
Ron Turner: His father started a lumberyard over in Hayward, across the bay from San Francisco. He grew up there, collecting comics, then worked in the Army, served in Washington state, married, came back, divorced. He found a job selling Arab records on Mission Street in San Francisco for a while. You can imagine what kind of a dead-end job that was, even back in ‘67 or so. A place came up for rent around the corner from him in ‘68, on 23rd Street, and he opened up the San Francisco Comic Book Company in it, partially because his father had said, “You’re out on your own. Move all this shit out of my basement.” He had thousands of comics he’d collected and he stuffed them into the store. After he opened up the store doors, people began hitting him up and then Donahue came along saying, “Hey, could you sell this comic book for me?” That was Zap. Alice Schenker at Print Mint, over in Berkeley, was already selling underground comics to go along with her poster business. Those comics were being sold in head shops, because head shops were buying posters, and the underground comics got tucked along with the poster business. Within a few years, there were maybe like 20 or 30 comic book stores around the country. In terms of undergrounds, maybe 40 or 50 underground comics had been published by the time I brought out Slow Death, and then it boomed. I did four comics that first year. There’s been some talk that perhaps there were maybe 8,000 or 10,000 underground titles that actually were published as underground comic over the years. That boat has sailed, delightfully, although it’s come back to some extent of in trade paperbacks, like our Slow Death Zero. We did 11 issues of Slow Death way back when. We decided, because of the fiftieth anniversary, we should reclaim it and do it again. Slow Death Zero. It’s 144 pages of color, and some of the best art and stories you’ll see. Unfortunately, as we were having an art show for it, the [COVID-19] shutdown happened. Kinda fitting in a way.
PKM: Two more word-association names. One of them you’ve already mentioned: Harvey Kurtzman. What do you see his influence being?
Ron Turner: Through his comic books, are you kidding? He was amazing. Especially with Mad. After EC Comics, Harvey had this character called Goodman Beaver, who was like a parody on Archie comics. The Archie Comic Company sued Harvey and Help!, the magazine that published Goodman Beaver. Hugh Hefner came in and saved Harvey’s ass and gave him a job to do a comic strip for Playboy. Harvey did a sex change on Goodman and turned him into Little Annie Fanny. Will Elder helped Harvey with that. I got to meet Harvey a few times, drink beer with him. Sweet guy. He published Crumb, Gloria Steinem, Terry Gilliam and Gilbert Shelton at Help!. Almost all the comic book guys that I published, the underground people, were like a straight line from EC Comics. A personal favorite is Trina Robbins, who put together It Ain’t Me, Babe. One of the artists in there was Harvey’s daughter, Meredith. I felt really good about that. I wanted to publish Harvey but got to publish his daughter instead.
PKM: Which brings me to the last word-association: Wimmen’s Comix.
Ron Turner: If you see the first issue of Wimmen’s Comix, the editor is a woman named Pat Moodiant, who also drew the cover. She shows herself as a kind of an ugly-type girl, wondering why she can’t be the girl for the guy who’s the image of cartoon love. The best thing about It Ain’t Me, Babe and Wimmen’s Comix was that they brought together a whole bunch of women cartoonists. A lot of them were spouses of male cartoonists. It was a very male society and I didn’t particularly care for that. I wanted to support what the women were doing as much as possible. Still, women weren’t buying comics much and they certainly weren’t buying a lot of undergrounds, but they were starting. There were already underground women’s newspapers, including the one that we took our title from. It Ain’t Me, Babe was a feminist newspaper in Berkeley. Trina had done a script for them called Belinda Berkeley, a big back page story. I got to be friends with the women at the newspaper and one of them let me store my comics in her household for a while. Another woman ran off with a bunch and sold them. [Laughs] Every barrel has its bad apple. In those days, I was going across the country, giving away undergrounds to try to help start the ball rolling. I gave away more than 4,000 Slow Death Funnies and It Ain’t Me, Babe. Both went into second printings.
PKM: What was behind the name Last Gasp?
Ron Turner: Gary Arlington had a suggestion and I had a suggestion, and neither of us could remember who suggested what, or which one. I think I suggested Slow Death Funnies and he suggested Last Gasp Eco Comics, or something like that. Once we chose the title of the comic, we had to come up with the name for its publisher, so second place, Last Gasp, became the company’s name.
PKM: What did Last Gasp represent to you?
Ron Turner: When I went to my 55th high school reunion in Fresno, as I’m walking in, my friend Bob Parkman, who’s our class vice president, is at the speaker’s podium. He says, “Hey, here’s Turner. Turner, you still putting out them dirty comics?” Everybody laughed. You know, they’re not for everybody.
PKM: Hugh Hefner once described Playboy as being a reaction to his Protestant upbringing and the gray-flannel-suit conformity of the ‘50s. He wanted to create a break from all that. What do you see Last Gasp doing for its readers?
Ron Turner: We were a portal to a lot of people. At one of the Lollapaloozas, they let us bring a school bus full of books on the tour, and we set up a bookstore everywhere we went. I always had the distribution company, almost from the beginning. I didn’t mind selling other people’s books––like The Freak Brothers done by Rip Off Press or the Zap comics done by Print Mint––because I could sell those to get me into a store then put mine in along with them. Once I was there, I’d show people titles like Weirdo or Piercings, and I’d say, “Whatever you do, do not look at the page 27.” Of course, they’d open it to page 27 and some of them would almost faint because it was a picture of a guy who chopped his penis in two and had earrings in it. That always worked to sell a book. My dad’s motto in our theaters was, “Always a good show”.
At Lollapalooza, you’d see kids who got there with all the money they could possibly scrape together. They bought their ticket, they bought a t-shirt, they got a soda or something, and they were out of money. They’d come over and look at the damn books. They couldn’t buy them, but they could look. You could almost read them like a billboard that said, “I’m the geek in my crowd.” They’d pick up something, start to look at it and they’d get this strange perplexed look on their face, eventually it would go to a broad smile. They’d realize there was somebody else in the world who thought like them; that they were not alone. We had this gambit of incredible things that were hidden from most people most of the time, or things people had been denied, or been refused to be allowed, to read. We had it all.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to get a soda pop at liquor store near my house in Fresno. It was a hot summer night. I remember they had a little magazine rack there and I picked up this one thing, a story and photographs about a bunch of people, some New York artists, and they were hanging out, partying. They spent the whole night walking through the underground of New York in the wrong, dark places and ended up by one of the rivers. The dawn was coming up and one of the girls was riding on a guy’s shoulders. It was life lived in such an unconventional way. It was so appealing to me, to be seeking out some sort of new thing. At Last Gasp, I think we got there.