Episode 582 – Keith Mayerson

Virtual Memories Show 582:
Keith Mayerson

“I loved comics growing up; I was too young and stupid to appreciate fine art.”

How did an eBay search lead to the discovery of a lost classic of comics? How can art help us build a better America? Artist and teacher Keith Mayerson joins the show to talk about co-editing the amazing new book, Frank Johnson: Secret Pioneer of American Comics, Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics) and his multi-decade “wordless novel” in paintings, My American Dream (Karma). We get into how Frank Johnson made thousands of pages of comics in private, never published, and may have created the first American comic-book in history, whether he constitutes an Outsider Artist, how his creative legacy contrasts with Henry Darger‘s, and what it means to make a lifelong body of work with no sense or expectation of a readership. We also get into Keith’s My American Dream project, its roots in 9/11 & the GWBush era, how his paintings play off of each other like panels in a comic (and how the curation of art exhibitions is a form of comics), the mash-up of key cultural figures of modern America, his art-subject trinity of James Dean, Elvis, and Keanu Reeves (and his story of meeting Keanu), how My American Dream works to synthesize aspects of Warhol & Rembrandt (& Haring), and the vitality of his painting of Kermit the Frog on a bicycle and the significance of the Muppets in his vision of America. Plus we discuss Keith’s art & comics upbringing, the process of building comics programs at SVA and USC, his cult classic queer horror graphic novel with Dennis Cooper, the artistic act of suturing in to his subjects, why the job of art is keeping hope alive, how he felt when he found a parallel, secret history of comics taking place solely in one person’s mind, and a lot more. Give it a listen! And go read Frank Johnson: Secret Pioneer of American Comics, Vol. 1 and ogle My American Dream!

“If good comics take you on a journey, then Frank Johnson’s comics do it. They really send you into this other space where you really get to know the characters.”

“Comics really kept me from getting hit by lightning, because comics are for everybody. I’ve had a wonderful art career, where my paintings talk to each other, like panels.”

“With the big painting of the Muppets, I think of all of us in America, all put together on this continent, and the hope that we can all get along. And if we stay ever hopeful, and don’t give up, then maybe we can transcend this moment and reach a brighter future.”

“I was more interested in rendering ideas than making people laugh, so I thought maybe it’s just as easy to be a fine artist as to be a New Yorker cartoonist.”

Enjoy the conversation! Then check out the archives for more great episodes!

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About our Guest

Keith Mayerson has professionally exhibited his art in galleries and museums since 1993. His exhibitions are often installations of images that create larger narratives. His long-running, non-linear narrative “My American Dream” has been presented in separate exhibitions as “chapters” and the ongoing series continues through today and has recently been published as a 428-page “wordless novel” and monograph by Karma. His graphic novel Horror Hospital Unplugged, a collaboration with the writer Dennis Cooper, is well-known among graphic artists and the queer community. A graphic novel biography of James Dean is forthcoming, to be published by Fantagraphics.

Follow Keith on Instagram.

Credits: This episode’s music is Fella by Hal Mayforth, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Society of Illustrators on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 microphones feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4 digital recorder & interface. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Zoom PodTrak P4. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Keith Mayerson by me. It’s on my instagram.

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