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Tucson Weekly A Random Decade

Somehow, We Can Still Hear Rand Carlson Screaming

By A. Bradley Dongass III

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  AS A WOMAN TRAPPED INSIDE A MAN'S BODY, cartoonist Rand Carlson has learned it's virtually impossible to find a decent set of earrings in most large department stores.

And while we're just kidding about that woman-in-a-man's-body thing (well, who knows, it could be true, but we've never actually asked him), we're outright lying about the earrings.

Because, you see, Carlson, 47, is not a shopper. This part is absolutely true: The guy makes a list of the stuff he needs and then goes out and buys it--no looking around, no spritzing up the Mrs.'s culottes with the Channel No. 5 samplers, even in jest. And he always smells, well, impeccably artistic.

In fact, Carlson, who is easily one of the greatest political and social satirical cartoonists alive today (and in the future, when hallucinogenic drugs are legalized, history will validate that statement, mark our words), has nothing but contempt for the "sport" of shopping. He maintains the Gucci ethic has become all too prevalent in Tucson during these final grim years of the 20th century.

"Boy, people like to breed!" he observes. "And they just keep making more shoppers. Whenever I see a new mall go up, I have to ask myself--how much stuff do we need?"

It's obvious, isn't it, that he's earned an actual degree in philosophy from the University of Arizona?

Yes, even Rand Carlson, the famous philosopher/cartoonist, has felt the pain we all share here in the Naked Pueblo. He, too, has watched helplessly as our once lean and attractive community, wracked by the infection of uncontrolled growth, has swelled and bloated to elephantine proportions, like some badly botched penile implant job.

And so, last year, he fobbed his house off on a couple of unsuspecting hippies, and split.

IF YOU HAVEN'T already put down this article, or rolled up the entire paper to kill this summer's bumper crop of cockroaches, federal regulations require us to inform you of the point of this exercise--namely that Rand Carlson officially has been cartooning in the Tucson Weekly for a solid decade.

Even though his body is now elsewhere--in that great ethereal realm the mystics call Sedona, and which the tourists know simply as "that reddish burg with no restrooms"--Rand Carlson has not departed from our midsts. His eternal--and, we hasten to add, infernal--intelligence, his wit and humor still speak to us from cyberspace, and occasionally--like when he's really desperate for an idea for his strip--over the phone.

Of course the studio in his posh new home has a sauna and a great view of the Sedona scenery, which is a lot like Mars, but with shrubs. And when he's not out painting landscapes--his chief artistic passion these days--he's still plying his trade over the Web as an art director and consultant for various disreputable publications.

In other words, this dude's got it made.

But life wasn't always Perrier and New Age posh for Carlson. No siree Bobbit. A product of what he vaguely and somewhat nervously describes as "the 'Frisco Bay area," Carlson, if indeed that is his real name, first surfaced with a few cartoons in "underground" papers such as the San Jose Redeye and the New York Guardian in the late '60s.

Those were heady times for our nation's youth, full of important, mind-altering substances, quality TV shows like The Monkees, and, of course, plenty of wholesome free love.

Apparently Carlson was getting none of the latter, however, because in 1971 he moved to Tucson. He became the Arizona Daily Wildcat's political cartoonist in 1972, the same year Phoenix New Times approached him to do a cover.

For the math impaired, that would have been a full quarter century ago, or, in dog years, nearly two centuries!

Growing bored with school, or perhaps merely fleeing the law, he left Tucson for Colorado, where he worked briefly for the Straight Creek Journal, an alternative paper out of Denver. Then, in an utterly baffling move, he split for Phoenix, at the time easily the most colossally unstimulating town in America.

DESPITE HIS OCCASIONAL work for New Times, the mid '70s were a major bummer for the young--but certainly not idealistic--Carlson, who had gotten into some really bad acid or something. There's simply no other rational explanation for what he wound up doing for his day job in that twisted era:

"I was drawing interiors for Ramada Inns," he recalls. "I was based in the executive offices and I was going around rendering lobbies and nightclubs for the Ramada. I swear to God, two and a half years of that. It was corporate. I wanted to have a corporate experience, and it was ridiculous. How many interiors can you do?"

Sure he can chuckle about it now, but the deep emotional scars remain, although they were assuaged somewhat by the big bucks and the Porsche he could afford to drive in those days.

"But I really had the wanderlust," he recalls, to this day apparently not connecting that long-ago emotion to the fact that he was LIVING IN PHOENIX IN THE 1970s, FOR CHRISSAKES!! "So I took a vacation with a friend one summer and went up to Aspen. It was great--people living on the edge, skiing every day, partying. It was beautiful to look at, and I said what the fuck. I sold everything and lived there in 1975-'76. I waited tables and did freelance art projects."

When he awoke, he found himself in San Francisco--as the art director of a ballet magazine. For extra money he helped prepare classified ads for another powerful alternative newspaper, the Bay Guardian, although he confesses, "I don't remember much about that time...I tried to get into Mother Jones [the magazine, not a real person, although Carlson is vague on this point] and couldn't. I was kind of fumbling around. I was the art director for a vanity press for a while...."

Skulking back to the UA in 1977, Carlson landed a job redesigning the Wildcat and doing cartoons. "It was almost enough to live on," he recalls.

He finally nailed down that all-important philosophy degree. "And I was actually freelancing for the Star," a place he probably wouldn't deign to work today, even if you threatened him with a personal chat with the executive editor.

During this life stage, he also hooked up with a promising alternative paper, Tucson Weekly News (no relation to the sleek, well-written tabloidal publication you now hold in your hands). While initially delivering some hard-hitting reporting, the Weekly News quickly degenerated into little more than a smarmily liberal Sam Hughes Neighborhood newsletter as the good staffers--Paul Rubin, Ray Ring and John Bancroft--drifted away.

Meanwhile, his lobbying efforts to become the Star's political cartoonist fell on deaf ears, and so he did the most logical thing he could--in 1980 he moved to El Paso. But wait, it's not as pathetic as it sounds: Once there, Carlson was able to transform himself into a national rebel political cartoonist for the El Paso Herald.

"I went to the national political cartoonists' conventions," he recalls fondly, his eyes misting over in a sort of alcoholic daze. "The regular press is just a bunch of party animals. They like to laugh and were very politically connected in terms of knowledge. We all loved ugly, bad presidents."

But not, he swears, in a carnal sense.

It was a happy time, but that old Carlson restlessness soon set in again.

"El Paso was a terrible place to live," he says. "The Franklin Mountains have about one tree on them. I was looking at that, and the stacks of the big power plant there, and the air-quality wasn't that great."

HE HEARD THROUGH the grapevine the New Times was having "art problems," and since the statute of limitations had about expired on his previous Phoenix escapades..."I drove over and was shocked to see New Times was into big, big success."

Michael Lacey, the paper's brilliant and colorful editor, and the closest thing in American alternative journalism to God the Father Almighty, offered Carlson the art director's job.

Lacey's an interesting man. Although never actually convicted of first-degree murder, the number of two-bit political whores he's gutted during his career has kept his delighted readers munching on kidney pie for years. And while Lacey's blood-thirsty pen is razor sharp, his tongue is like a big, hairy German shepherd--more or less friendly, right up to the moment it smells fear. Then it's suddenly ripping your face off; if a tongue can be said to do that, metaphorically speaking, of course.

Perhaps there's no greater tribute to Rand Carlson's superhuman ability to ingest massive quantities of Valium and Prozac than the fact that he claims to "get along good, for the most part," with Lacey.

"Oh, sure he's a volatile character," Carlson chuckles bravely. "I can recall the atmosphere at editorial meetings. You're going through your recitation of your duties, and he's so sharp. He'd ask me the most probing questions, almost reducing me to tears."

Many a time, Carlson recalls, this dangerously whirling Cuisinart blade of an editor would make him redo New Times cover art even though Carlson--did we mention he's a much-decorated professional artist?--thought they were OK. (Carlson still has both hands, so obviously he never made any sudden moves around Lacey; and he'd probably like us to make it perfectly clear that he never actually used the words "dangerously whirling Cuisinart blade" in describing His Most Merciful Eminence.) "But he was very complimentary, uh, when he thought I deserved it," Carlson adds. "I do respect him. It was fine. He was a strong boss."

STRANGELY, EVEN THE great honor of working for a living legend couldn't quell that famous Carlson urge to somehow further screw with his career path. After the magical two and a half years were up at New Times, Carlson was seized with the urge to art direct a slick, full-color magazine.

The job at Hustler was taken, so he jumped to Arizona Trend, a relatively short-lived business publication edited by a guy named Jim Kiser. Perhaps you've seen Kiser's work lately--the creatively hip and with-it Arizona Daily Star editorial pages. Now there's a man who truly understands eye-popping graphic design, almost as well as he understands local politics, judging by the Star's recent political endorsements.

After a year and a half, Trend honchos were criticizing Carlson's style as "a little out there." This from middle-aged white guys in ties who probably ran more photos of middle-aged white guys in ties than any publication in Arizona before or since.

"They were starting to put some heat on me," Carlson recalls. As usual, he had some vague notion of a painful, career-wrenching plan: "It just occurred to me in this flash--I told the Trend folks, 'Let's cooperate. How 'bout if I find you a replacement, and I start my own business, and everybody will be happy?'"

Happy indeed. This was 1987, just as the smoothly humming economy suddenly veered from the road of assured profitability and plunged into the muck of minor recession. Ignoring his palpitations and cold sweats, Carlson bought a home in Tucson and began freelancing with a vengeance, landing regular gigs with the legendary local City Magazine and the not-so-legendary national magazine V.

It was also at this point that the universally loved and acclaimed Doug Biggers, publisher of the well-respected Tucson Weekly (Motto: "It's Thursday--so where are the damn papers?") offered Carlson alternative journalism's first $1-million-a-year contract for social and political cartooning, a move which caused Carlson's longtime friend and fellow cartoonist, The Arizona Daily Star's Dave Fitzsimmons, to blow chunks.

"He's been worth every penny," Biggers maintains from a cell phone on a yacht somewhere near Guyamas, Sonora, Mexico. "If we had more, believe me, I'd give it to him. But, unfortunately, I've squandered all of last year's profits on the Web."

SO THERE you have it--Rand Carlson's uniquely American success story, embellished by the very techniques of understatement, accuracy and spareness of verbiage he himself employees to delight, if not mystify, Tucson Weekly readers around the globe.

These days, besides devoting several minutes a week to his strip, Carlson is art director of a large and prestigious publication, which prefers to remain anonymous so it can still date chicks. He's also illustrating for New Times, Inc.'s string of monstrously successful alternative papers in major American cities.

And, he adds, somewhat gleefully, "I do meetings and conceptualizations. That's where the cool money is."

As well it should be. Rand Carlson is, after all, the coolest guy we know.


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