Cliff interviewed by Adelaide Comics and Books -- Jan. 2006
Q&A from Daniele Best for http://www.adelaidecomicsandbooks.com/
Daniel Best: The Clifford Meth story - how did it start, where did it start and where did it lead to as a youth?
Clifford: If you were interviewing me for a martial arts magazine, I'd start with the time when I was in fourth grade, first day of school, Stony Brook Elementary in Rockaway, NJ. I was standing at the top of the steps when a much larger, older kid said to me, "You Jews wouldn't know your savior if he came up and slapped you in the face." Then the lights went out. He'd punched so hard, he actually knocked me out. Hit me square in the nose and the mouth and opened my lip. Big hands, I guess. That sort of incident continues to inform the rest of your life. At least it does if you have any sense.
As for comics, I started reading them in first grade. I bought Avengers #34 by Stan Lee and Don Heck on the newsstand at Bob's Kit'n'Kaboodle, also in Rockaway. The place was owned by a big goon with a gray-blue crew cut named Bob who used to flirt with my mother while I was picking out comics. Some years later, they found him dead in the bathroom with blood coming out of his ear. Anyway, I never missed an issue of The Avengers after that--not for two decades, anyway. My dad complained to my first grade teacher that all I wanted to read was comics, but this teacher was clever enough to respond, "He's five and he's always reading! Throw a party!"
Question: What were your main inspirations?
Clifford: Awareness that the Holocaust had ended 15 years before I was born. I had friends whose parents had numbers tattooed on their forearms. That left an indelible impression, no pun intended.
Inspirations? There was an old guy living in my town who had a rep as a crazy super-ninja gun-toting bad-ass mother and all of the neighborhood parents were afraid of him and warned us kids to steer clear. So I was naturally impressed by this cat and wanted nothing more than to hang around him. Turned out he was a world-class martial artist and he let me train in his basement. To this day, I've never stopped being inspired by Sensei Richard Lenchus—-in fact, I did a story about him called "Giving the Finger" [Perverts, Pedophiles & Other Theologians, Aardwolf Publishing] and recently profiled him for Action World of Martial Arts.
Writing inspiration? Harlan Ellison stands alone. Discovering his body of work changed my life. I was already a great fan of comics and science fiction, of the Beat poets and writers; of John Lennon, Pete Townsend, Jim Morrison and Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull -- but it was Harlan who made me want to write. That tremendous power he had in his voice. That brilliant anguish.
Question: Why write?
Clifford Meth: Beyond what I just said, I could tell you something trite like, "I don't have a choice--I write from a need to write; a need as powerful as caffeine or alcohol dependency. Writers want to change the world, re-cast it in their image, or punish people who've hurt them." Or I could make up something else. If you asked a ghetto kid, "Why play basketball?" he'd respond, "What else is there?"
There's a cute story my old pals tell. My three closest chums pulled up in front of my house on my 17th birthday, blowing the horn and yelling for me to come outside. So I ran down the steps, leaped into the backseat of this Rambler and off we sped. "It's your night, bro," said my brother Dave. "Name anything you want to do." "Let's get into a fight," I said without hesitating. "You've got it," said Dave, and he put the pedal to the floor.
My other pal Fergy turned to me. "Cliff, you'd really rather rumble than get laid?" I nodded. "I'm never nauseous after a fight," I said.
I understand that attitude was somewhat anti-social, but I hung out with a tough crowd, so it didn't matter much. I didn't like people very much. I'm still anti-social, to a large extent, but I've learned to take it to the page.
Question: You've admitted that Harlan Ellison is a huge influence. How did it feel meeting the man for the first time, and how does it feel to associated and on speaking terms with Ellison?
Cliff: I called Harlan yesterday to tell him a joke about an Indian brave looking for wife. The punch line was, “The squaw of the hippopotamus hide is equal to the sum of the squaw of the other two hides.” Okay—so they can’t all be gems... Harlan and I are friends, Daniel. That's all. When he comes to New York, we grab a bite. When I go to LA, I stay in his home or stop by for breakfast. The one person I wanted to be friends with as a kid was Harlan Ellison. I identified with the character I met in his books.
Question: You've worked in a variety of diverse fields - how did you become entangled with the comic book industry?
Cliff: You never forget your first love. I fell in love with reading, with heroes, and with adventure stories all in the same moment -- it was Avengers #34. I guess. There was Captain America, Hawkeye and Goliath vs. the Sons of the Serpent. I looked at the art by Don Heck and the word balloons by Stan Lee and a whole new world unraveled. Soon enough, I was onto Robin Hood and Norse sagas, but the most exciting thing I'd seen before that comic book was the movie "Mary Poppins," so imagine what would have befallen me if I hadn't ventured into a corner candy store that day with me mum.
Question: You appear to rub people up the wrong way, yet you inspire a great loyalty amongst others -- any explaination for that?
Cliff: I didn't know I rubbed anyone the wrong way. I better have that checked... I think that people react to other people based on very primal things, primative reactions such as fear and tribal position and eugenics. I can't tell you exactly why someone wouldn't like me because if I were me, I'd like me, but I am conscious of the traits I find odious in others, and my pronounced disliking of them is usually mirrored, opposites not necessarily attracting and all that.
For the most part, I have a great antipathy for bullies. I just sort of hate them. The Big Hate. And sometimes I make examples out of them even if it ends up costing me time and money. I mean, what else is time and money for? I suspect I also have a natural dislike for anyone from the tribe of Amalek, but let's not go into that.
As for maintaining loyalty from others, I'm hopeful that it's earned. Friendship is just about as high as you can get on the scale of things I care about. I can even forgive a guy being a sloppy writer if he's a pal.
Question: What compels you to step in and go all out to assist artists and writers in need?
Cliff: I don't think I've done anything that anyone in my position wouldn't do. I have certain talents--I can write and I can fight and I can be a pain in the ass. Why not use those abilities to rid the world of evil? And when you can't find evil, bring someone's kitty down from a tree.
Question: Now this I gotta ask -- and you can answer with anything you want as I don't have any restrictions on what's said here -- Groth. What's the story there?
Cliff:This is conjecture, but if I had to venture a guess I'd say Gary Groth was an obnoxious, unpopular kid who wanted to grow up and make comics but he couldn't because either he lacked talent or perseverance or, most likely, both. In my opinion, Groth is an embittered soul. He looks in the mirror and sees something he dislikes -- someone with all the talent of a manure technician -- and it bothers him. So what does he do? He becomes a sniper; he becomes somebody who tries to hurt people he admires but can't imitate. He seeks attention by pissing on his betters. In the comics industry, he's the journalistic equivalent of Mark David Chapman.
Have you ever suffered through his editorials? Instead of creating things, which he's spiritually incapable of, he goes after the sweetest guys in the industry -- guys like Don Heck or John Romita or Stan Lee. He hounds talented men like Peter David because Peter is beloved and it kills Groth to witness that.
Cockrum treated Groth kindly when he was a kid, and then he turned on Cockrum. But to attack a project like the Cockrum benefit? A charity project? His only motivation was to get my attention. He wanted a piece of it and because he wasn't part of it, he pissed on it. Just my opinion, of course.
People ask me why I raised money for Gene Colan's eye surgery or Dave Cockrum's medical expenses. Pal, you do it because you're in a position to do it. And it's not that big a deal! If you're the best guy for the job or the problem falls into your lap, you rise to the occasion. The unspeakable audacity of a low-life like Groth to attack a project like that!
For the record, the Cockrums offered me a piece of their settlement, which was a huge payday from Marvel -- I'm talking life-changing money. They insisted that, as their attorney of record, I was entitled to something. But I didn't take a dime. Not because I'm a great guy. I'm not a great guy! I just did the right thing. Involvement with charity projects or helping fallen creators get back on their feet makes the world a better place. So you can say I'm selfishly motivated because I live on this planet, too.
Groth makes the world a worse place. He's just a mean little man. After saying his name, I want to rinse my mouth out.
Question: Do you think that some of the negative publicity that surrounds some projects you've done - in particular the Dave Cockrum book with Byrne and Windsor-Smith - has only aided the end result?
Cliff: The only negative publicity was created by and manipulated by Groth and his paid toadees. So I join the ranks of creators he's bad-mouthed for doing something positive with their lives. I can live with that.
Of course, there was also negative publicity around hospitals and orphanages and Nobel Prize winners and Martin Luther King Jr. and Ghandi and Christ and Mister Rogers. I think Mother Theresa was the only one spared. Did the "publicity" help goose our sales? I'm sure it didn't hurt.
For the record, though, I had nothing to do with Byrne's exiting the project. That was Paty Cockrum's call. Personally, I like the guy's art -- he drew an Iron Fist for me in 1976 that's framed and hanging in my collection. Damn good artist. Who cares if he's an asshole? I've had no personal encounters with him. I was sorry that episode occurred. But Byrne never bashed the project -- he submitted art and it was turned down by Paty, who had every right to do so. She said that Byrne was very ugly to Dave and I don't doubt it. He's ugly to lots of folks.
My partner on the Cockrum benefit projects and settlement was Neal Adams, the patron saint of comics. I also had the personal support and input from DC President Paul Levitz, from Will Eisner, Harlan Ellison, Joe Quesada, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee, John Romita, Chris Claremont, Peter David, Joe Kubert, Wizard magazine, CBG, ComicCon, dozens of journalist friends, and about 100 creators. Frankly, I think the Cockrum benefit projects -- the book, the auction, and the settlement with Marvel -- were among the industry events of 2004. It's hard to find any negatives.
Question: Don't get me wrong, I think it was a huge win for those who write and draw comics and one of, if not THE book of 2004. More companies should be shown for what they've done to creators since the beginning of the medium. Do you think that this might well change the landscape for creators for the future? People like Herb Trimpe who got shafted by Marvel and had to establish a new career might well have a claim, especially when it's glossed over that he was the first to draw an important character such as Wolverine. Ross Andru and Mike Esposito got their pay rates cut back each and every time they went off to pursue a dream. It's one thing that everyone is looked after now, but those who built the empires that Marvel & DC sit upon often are forgotten: Seigel & Schuster, Bill Finger... the list is endless.
Cliff: I think it's mistake to wag a finger and say, "Bad company!" Today's Marvel is a different group than a decade ago, and certainly different than the one where our beloved pioneers created the stable of characters we all know and love... I know Herb Trimpe well, and it's sad the way his comics career ended. But while he may have been the first to draw Wolverine, the character was designed by Johnny Romita. If your question is "did the Cockrum settlement change things?" I would have to say that only time will tell. Companies are in the business of making money.
Question: Is there a point where it becomes too hard or do you keep slugging away at it?
Cliff: When I called Harlan and told him I was taking the Cockrum battle to Marvel, he said, "Kiddo, you'll never win." "I don't care," I said. "I know you don't care," said Harlan. "That's why you're the right guy for the job."
It's about fighting the good fight, pal. A cliche born in truth. Of course, winning is nice, too.
Question: Where were you born? What was your childhood like and what were you like as a kid?
Cliff: Born in Queens, New York, but when I was two, my dad, was transferred from the Brooklyn Navy Yards to an army base in New Jersey. Dad was a civilian engineer who spent half-a-century working for the Department of Defense designing missiles and guidance systems--a quiet man who had me late in life, and I was his only child. So we settled in the small town of Rockaway, New Jersey, just 40 miles west of the city, and that’s where I grew up. Rockaway was a terrific little town, if you like little towns. Everyone sort of knew everyone else. It was all white bread and blue collar. If the doctor ever gives you six months to live, spend them in Rockaway because it will seem like a year.
I was a ridiculously small boy -- much smaller than the other kids -- so I didn’t play any sports growing up. I was just too little and my mother was very over-protective. Kind of made me an outcast. I finally started playing baseball when I was 11 or 12 and that became my sport until I discovered martial arts. But entering high school, I was 5’1” and weighed 97 lbs. I know this because I wrestled in the 101-lbs. bracket that year.
My childhood? My family was as dysfunctional as anyone else’s, I suppose. My dad, who I came to adore when I reached adulthood, was distant from me when I was young. He was 49 when I was born, 11 years older than my mother, and hardly prepared to raise a precocious, rebellious child. Do you know that scene with Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones”: “What are you rebelling against?” asks the cop, and Brando replies, “What have you got?” So dad and I were at odds all the time. And my mother was sort of caught in the middle, fully incapable of handling me. Consequently, I was off on my own by the time I hit 17. Bought a ‘72 Mercury Montego for $300, moved in with a pal, and played guitar in a local pub for $40 a night. When I wasn’t making music, I was drunk or fighting, or drunk and fighting. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Question: What difficulties do you face as a writer?
Cliff: Time. Lack of sleep. Motivation. The usual gang of suspects. I’d like to have enough money to be able to turn away all manner of work that I’m not interested in so I can sit down and write the Great American Jewish Novel. Or is it Jewish American Novel? I never can remember.
Question: What are your essential writing tools?
Cliff: Beer, adrenaline, bad memories and brunettes. I suppose I could cut down on the beer.
I write on napkins. I use a computer, mostly, or yellow legal pads. It all depends on the mood and where I am and what’s available. When discussing brushes, Jeff Jones noted that if you’re an artist, you can draw with a burnt stick on a paper bag.