Cockadoodle: The Erogenous Art Of Maurice Vellekoop
Following along the trail blazed by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel in Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, Toronto native Maurice Vellekoop is gestating a combined coming-out and coming-of-age graphic memoir of his own for Pantheon entitled I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together. Among Vellekoop’s literary touchstones for his first long-form comic are Paul Monette, Edmund White, Ned Rorem, Oscar Wilde and Jeanette Winterson - “I recently read her Why Be Happy When you Could Be Normal, and was alternately laughing hysterically or in floods of tears.”
Understandably, his fraught relationship with his staunchly Calvinist Dutch immigrant parents underpins both his life and his autobiographical comic. Born in 1964, Vellekoop had a strongly religious upbringing. “Ours was a very devout denomination: church twice on Sundays, Christian school, weekly catechism evening class, the horribly named Daily Vacation Bible School, even a version of Boy Scouts called the Calvinist Cadet Corps (Calvinettes for the girls).” [Above is the first page of ‘Dear Maurice in Grade 9’, a two-page letter in the anthology The Letter Q: Queer Writers’ Notes to Their Younger Selves]
A late bloomer, Vellekoop faced the additional challenges in the early Eighties, when “AIDS was just starting to devastate the community in Toronto. I had many older friends who lost dozens of friends and lovers. Miraculously, I never lost anyone close. I was filled with unresolved guilt and shame at that time, and the addition of fear to that heady mix left me pretty much non-functional in the love/sex department.”
His new Strip for ArtReview, ‘Rescue’ (below), recalls his final break from the Christian Reformed Church he grew up in, after Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley come to him in a dream and explain life. Not long after graduating from Ontario College of Art, Vellekoop’s career took off as a widely commissioned illustrator, including his comics compendia Vellevision, A Nut at The Opera and The World of Gloria Badcock and his Tom of Finland-inspired homoerotic picture books Pin-Ups and ABC Book (cover detail below) and two ‘Men’s Room Readers’ entitled Artist and Models and Big Business.
This year, after a showing last summer at Twenty Twenty Two in Manchester (photo below by Simon Liddiard), Vellekoop’s first solo European exhibition, Cockadoodle: The Erogenous Art of Maurice Vellekoop, comes to Space Station Sixty-Five in London from February 27th to May 2nd 2015. “The show is mostly my queer erotica, including Transworld, an unpublished sequential series about a trans Korean stewardess. There’s also a brief excerpt of sketched pages from my memoir, showing an awkward sexual encounter.”
For several years, Vellekoop has been making his private fantasies and private life public, and yet he still harbours some concerns about how his mother will react to his graphic novel. “She is now a very sheltered, elderly Christian lady, who would be shocked and repelled by the level of candour that most people take for granted today. While I have managed to publish erotica she’s never seen, my fear is my graphic novel will be successful and people start contacting her for her thoughts!”
Web Exclusive Interview:
Maurice Vellekoop generously answered my questions as part of the above profile for - here’s the full email interview:
What are the themes, inspirations and ambitions behind your ambitious autobiographical graphic novel, your work in progress supported by a grant from The Creative Writing programme of the Canada Council?
I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together is a comic and compassionate late-bloomer’s coming-of-age story that deals with my fraught relationship with my staunchly Calvinist Dutch immigrant parents. Like the three fairies in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, a recurring motif, both of these diminutive but powerful figures bestow a love of books, movies, art and music on the young me, which sustains me through a somewhat dreary, very strict suburban upbringing. Over the course of the book, an evolving critique of my relationship to that culture helps me reconcile complex feelings about my parents, overcome depression, and begin a long-delayed search for self-acceptance and love.
My inspirations come from and pay homage to a wide range of references high and low - Richard Wagner, The Carol Burnett Show, French Formula Hairspray, John Waters, Kenneth Anger, Oscar Wilde, etc… My ambitions? Hmm, primarily, I think I wish to tell an entertaining, eccentric story, with a few laughs and tears. Beyond that, as possibly the first ever gay man’s graphic memoir, I hope the book will shed light on a certain era of sensitive Morrissey-esque queer experience - intense homophobia in suburban N. American high school, coming out in the early ‘80s, just as AIDS appears, discomfort with mainstream gay life (moustaches and polo shirts)...
How difficult has it been for you to make your life public in your autobiographical graphic novel?
My sexual fantasies are ‘laid’ out there in public in my ABC and Pin-Ups books, and, the last few years, I’ve been contributing short autobiographical works to various anthologies, so making my story public has not been difficult at all, really. Of course, that’s easy to say before the thing has been published. We’ll see how differently I feel when the criticism starts coming in…
How honest are you going to be? How explicit? How much are you self-censoring - or self-deprecating?
The book is very honest - that was something I felt strongly about from the first - that it wouldn’t work unless I was brutally honest. I’ve tried to show myself in as many lights as possible - from total blundering idiot to compassionate and strong adult, blessed with a hard-won insight or two.
Have you considered, or worried about, what the responses might be to it from real people you portray or from your family?
Yes, I am worried, mostly about my mother, who is of course a central figure. She is a very sheltered, elderly Christian lady, who, though she’s always been a devoted reader, has not actually read a contemporary novel or memoir since around 1962. She would be shocked and repelled by the level of candour that most people take for granted. While I have managed to publish several works of erotica she’s never seen, my fear is the book will be successful and people start contacting her for her thoughts!
What examples, in comics and in other media, of queer lives and coming-out stories have inspired you and why?
In comics, Alison Bechdel has inspired me the most. Her writing is so literary and smart. She blazed a trail for quality of comics writing that few people, queer or not, have been able to match. Otherwise, many queer writers and memoirists have inspired me, perhaps more indirectly: Paul Monette, Edmund White, Ned Rorem, Oscar Wilde. And Jeanette Winterson - I recently read Why Be Happy When you Could Be Normal, and was alternately laughing hysterically or in floods of tears. More broadly, my old friend Seth’s early ‘90s book It’s A Good Life If You Don’t Weaken has been a sort of model, in terms of layout and pacing. He shows himself in some very unflattering scenarios, yet manages to come across as a searching yearning romantic.
I’ve just read the moving Second Avenue Caper by Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli - have you read this? How much were you and your friends affected by AIDS and how will you reflect this in your book?
I have not read that book, I will check it out! AIDS definitely looms over my book for sure. When I first came out in the early ‘80s, its presence was just starting to devastate the community in Toronto. I had a lot of older friends who lost dozens of friends and lovers. However, it still seemed a little removed from me: miraculously, I never lost anyone close. Also, I was filled with unresolved guilt and shame at that time, and the addition of fear to that heady mix left me pretty much non-functional in the love/sex department.
How did your exhibition Cockadoodle come about and what work has been chosen for it?
Cockadoodle came about by a sheer fluke. Friends were visiting Toronto Island where I live, with a guest from the UK. We went for a beer at the cafe and that seemed to be that. A few months later, I received an email from Bren O’Callaghan, the visitor, who turned out to be this fabulous, multi-disciplinary curator from Manchester. He’d become interested in my work and asked if I wanted to have a show in the UK. He applied for and got an Arts Council England grant and we were off! The show is mostly queer erotica, including a sequential series about a trans Korean stewardess, along with some of my favourite commercial art commissions. There’s a brief excerpt of sketched pages from my memoir, showing an awkward sexual encounter.
Can you tell me a bit more about that stewardess series?
That piece, consisting of about 17 pages and called Transworld (detail above), was for an abandoned (never published) book project, entitled A Men’s Room Reader, a collection of full-page, wordless, sequential narrative stories, à la those Tom of Finland Kake books. The one in the show is the only one of about 5 or 6 planned tales I completed. The story, timely again in light of recent terrorist killings of Charlie Hebdo staff in Paris, takes place on a jet in the ‘70s. The stewardess accidentally spills coffee on an Iranian passenger’s shirt. She offers to remove it in order to clean him up, when she discovers he is hard. They make out and begin to undress. The stewardess is worried about the passenger’s reaction as he undoes her Diane Von Furstenburg wrap-dress uniform. When her dick flops out he is at first surprised, then happily starts sucking away, he then gives her a good fucking on the food trolley! I say this is timely because, at the time of its creation, George Bush had given his famous “Axis of Evil” speech, identifying Iran and North Korea as the biggest threats to American safety in the world.
I wanted to say something subversive, or at least topsy-turvy, on the theme of “Make love, not war” as a reaction against the hated “W” and the hysterical atmosphere and rhetoric that prevailed in the early 2000s. I kind of lost my mind trying to complete the book, which I owed the publisher, Green Candy Press, having missed a couple of deadlines, and spent the (small) advance. I fell into a black hole of perfectionism, redoing pieces dozens of times, never happy with the results. Eventually, worn out, I proposed the idea of a book of single-page illustrations and we did the Pin-ups book instead.
Have you made any special gallery pieces for the show? What has been the response to Cockadoodle?
I made two new Pin-ups for the Manchester show, inspired by particularly Mancunian types: a tattooed bearded hipster (‘Craft Beer Brewer’, detail below) and a ‘90s raver. The response was great, healthy attendance, and a profile in the Manchester Evening News.
What was the process like for your first extended narrative? When I visited you a few years ago, I remember seeing how you were initially planning out your graphic novel with Post-it notes if I recall.
I concentrated on writing a text-only draft on Post-it notes representing the panels. I proudly presented the first draft, which ended with a 15-page essayistic discussion of Wagner’s Tannhauser, to my partner who is a very savvy, experienced editor. A heavy sigh concluded his reading, and he pointed out the simple fact that I had not begun with a strong, clear outline. Concurrently, my agent recommended I pick up Robert McKee’s book Story, a guide to writing for screenwriters that proved invaluable. I then spent another year or so creating a really detailed scene by scene plan, explaining to myself what I hoped to say and how I would advance the story in each one. I’ve only got back to sketching pages and drawing the panels in the last year.
What did you learn in doing this - any practical advice or tips for other cartoonists embarking on a big leap like this?
Read and absorb the age-old, time-tested lessons of “Story”!!!
What is your process composing the script, compositions and drawings for a page and doing the colouring and lettering (are these done on computer)?
I do sketches on a translucent layout paper in pencil and ink. I trace these on a light box on good quality watercolour paper, using a combination of pencil, ink, watercolour and gouache. The text will likely be done on computer using a font based on my hand-lettering.
Can you tell me a bit more about your new Strip for ArtReview magazine, ‘Rescue’ - do you deal with this epiphany in your book as well?
‘Rescue’ is adapted from a passage from I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together. It has significance in the book, as it marks my final break from the Christian Reformed Church I grew up in. Ours was a very devout denomination: church twice on Sundays, Christian school, catechism class one evening a week, the horribly named Daily Vacation Bible School, even a version of Boy Scouts called the Calvinist Cadet Corps (Calvinettes for the girls!).
What book were you reading on the bus in panel one?
I am reading a Penguin Classic in that panel: Middlemarch or Bleak House or some such - my art school education was decidedly un-academic and I am trying to improve my mind, educate myself…
And what message was on that red badge on your badge?
That badge would be a New Wave, punk band: The Clash? The Rezillos? (We called them buttons in N.A.).
Who are your heroes in porn/erotic comics and illustration?
My hero, cliche as it may be, is absolutely Tom of Finland. His work is so raunchy and sexy, tempered and softened by so much sunny, cheerful, good humour. Other than him, there are very few artists who can produce that special feeling down there. Etienne, Rip Colt and Harry Bush are definitely contenders.
What do you think of the work of British gay comics artis and illustrator Oliver Frey?
Frey’s work definitely turns me on!
Would you consider creating a purely pornographic gay graphic novel and if so, what setting or theme would you like to try?
I have a few ancient sketches somewhere for such a thing, in which a closeted protagonist is thrust into a Richard Corben/Conan-esque world in order to face up to the truth of his sexuality but I don’t know… Are any gay men still buying books? I kind of feel like I have left erotic art behind for the time being, in search of more mainstream potential success.
If you had to choose just one, would you pick Tom of Finland or Quaintance?
Much as I love Quaintance, I’d say Tom. There are so few Quaintances, I can close my eyes and picture them clearly in my memory, while the legacy of Tom seems to just go on and on….
Cockadoodle: The Erogenous Art of Maurice Vellekoop is a flamboyant new exhibition curated by Bren O’Callaghan (see his introductory video below), that uncorks the Canadian artist’s contribution to illustration, underground comics and contemporary erotica. It is Vellekoop’s first London solo exhibition with a wide selection of his erotic output on show alongside other work.
All are welcome to the Opening Night on Thursday 26th February, 18.30-20.30, when acclaimed British comics artist and author Woodrow Phoenix will guide the audience around the exhibition, in conversation with the artist, Maurice Vellekoop. The exhibition runs from February 27th to May 2nd 2015 at Space Station Sixty-Five, Building One, 373 Kennington Road, London SE11 4PS. Free admission. Wheelchair access. Some material in the exhibition contains nudity and explicit sexual scenes.
The opening article first appeared in ArtReview Magazine.