"Here, for example, is the bat's wing," he says. A beautiful page of black-and-white horror-themed artwork materializes from a file. He points to the detailed portion in question. "I'm providing an even tone of crosshatching, but what I do that not many people do -- Crumb does it very well -- is that chiaroscuro, the gradual transition from light through twilight to absolute darkness. And that is time-consuming and tedious. Not many people do it."
We examine the entire design, a visual assault bristling with fluid-drooling jaws, disgusting corpses, and rotting skulls.
"I can pull out this organ stop -- when the occasion requires." His voice rises to a complaining whine he's heard before: " 'Can't you draw pictures of nice things for a change? Why do you have to be so horrible and awful?' " Robins smiles. "I can get worse than this, believe me."
I'm here in this Mission District flat because of a recent strip Robins contributed to the Happy Mutant Handbook. Titled "How to be a Supreme Weirdo," the two pages outline how you, the reader, don't have to settle for being normal. You can easily become weird and hip, by following these simple suggestions. Each panel depicts different trends, which brilliantly encapsulate various aspects of San Francisco culture, from a lisping girl with lip piercings to a hippie-turned-computer-geek, an anti-computer Luddite who writes only with a goose quill dipped in blackberry juice, and a performance art event advertised by the sign "A Grotesque and Petulant Festival of Meaningless Destruction," featuring industrial machines that belch fire and fry two people.
Although it's not explicitly mentioned, Robins admits that the story is based on San Francisco personalities.
"I'm sure you recognize them, and to keep out of trouble, I should probably not overtly agree with you as to who they are."
Another very recognizable character in the strip is Robins himself, in the guise of an obsessive collector. Playing off his own interest in dinosaurs, he draws his own caricature explaining the detailed history of a plastic triceratops toy to a friend, who is unsuccessfully stifling a yawn. It's a hilarious observation -- if you've lived in San Francisco for any length of time, you've mostly likely been on one or both sides of this scenario: A high concentration of intellectual pack rats lives in the Bay Area.
"I've seen them, I've met them, lived with them at various times, so I know the mentality very well," says the 45-year-old Robins. "It's difficult to judge how interested anyone else might be in one's own obsession, and if they give you encouragement, which they may do for a misguided reason, you can overextend yourself very easily."
Originally from Tucson, Ariz., where he worked in local theater, Robins moved to the Bay Area in 1977. There was no money here in theater, so he landed a job at Rip Off Comics in nearby Auburn. He freely admits his first attempts at comics were "opaque and hard to understand."
"The head of one comic book company pounded his fist on the table and yelled that they weren't funny," he says.
Fortunately, Robert Crumb allowed Robins six pages in the second issue of Weirdo, and he was off. His specialties developed: dinosaurs, bugs, and insects, and horror images reminiscent of the old E.C. titles like Tales From the Crypt. His work is often seen in Young Lust, Weirdo, DC's Big Book of Conspiracies, and titles from Phantomb, among others, as well as in the Church of the SubGenius books.
Like many members of San Francisco's creative pool, Robins is a quiet Renaissance man of multiple outlets, his erudite gift of words well-suited to spoken-word events and narrating videos. For over 10 years, he has also warmed the chair as co-host of the SubGenius faux religious program on Berkeley's KPFA-FM. As to its current bleary-eyed time slot of Friday mornings from 3 to 6 a.m., Robins remains undaunted: "Our demographics have shown that this is when a true SubGenius is at the peak of his, her, or its activity cycle."
But he is also a collector, an archivist of almost all that is dinosaur- or bug-related. Our conversation, for some reason, steers into "Mars Attacks," an unholy 1960 series of Topps bubble gum cards that warped young minds, portraying "sadistic, fiendish Martians" who invaded Earth, eviscerating humans and killing pet animals, all the while drinking martinis. The cards perfectly captured the Cold War era: a fear of others not like yourself, a paranoid obsession with futuristic technology, and cocktails. After McCarthyism and the '50s comic censorship scrubbed the country clean, "Mars Attacks" cards were as good as it got for kids.
As a child, Robins remembers being approached by a friend, who surreptitiously allowed a glimpse of the horrific collectibles. His first thought was, "My God, are these illegal?" Now, years later, he owns the entire set of 55.
"The Martians are unbelievably repulsive-looking," says Robins, proudly presenting each card one by one to me. "They have skull-like faces with huge, moist brains towering up over them."
The cards have unabashedly violent names like "Army of Giant Insects" and "Charred by Martians." One renders in extraordinary detail the U.S. Capitol Building under siege by Martian saucers. "Destroying a Dog" shows a hapless canine getting zapped by a Martian ray gun, the beam brutally ripping through its body, as a nearby boy shrieks in terror.
Outside the flat, San Franciscans are strolling into restaurants and cafes, or driving home from work, but at this moment, the two of us are giggling at a piece of 35-year-old cardboard titled "Burning Cattle" -- a herd of cows runs in terror from an evil spaceship, their bodies and heads engulfed in hideous flames.
In 1989, a company briefly distributed a set of cards called "Dinosaurs Attack," an homage to the original "Mars Attacks" series as well as a gruesome antidote to Barney. The dinosaur series never caught on, but director Tim Burton is rumored to be working on a film version based on the "Mars Attacks" concept.
Our chat winds back to the "Supreme Weirdo" strip and the concept of cool. There was a time when retro cultural artifacts and trends actually had time to lie dormant before their second-coming resurrection of hip, like Ed Wood and cocktail lounge music. But today's marketing cosmology is frighteningly masterful at compressing time. Something need not even go out of style before experiencing a renaissance. Even as an idea is introduced into American society, teams of people study its hipness spin, and plan the second wave before the first has even crested. In short, being rebellious no longer means getting a uvula piercing, unless you're getting pierced simply to make ironic fun of all the other pierced people, in which case you're probably smarter than any of us.
The dilemma is that being cool or weird is always about playing against the grain, but when William Burroughs does Nike commercials, and kids have to go to the store and buy a book that tells them how to publish a zine, the point is long lost.
"Culture is overfarmed for entertainment," says Robins, tying a shoelace thoughtfully. "If everybody is hip, what's the fun in being a hipster?"
So where does Hal Robins fit into the larger picture?
He sighs. "Just another near-blind scribbler working in a filthy apartment to turn out semiadult semiliterature."
Address all correspondence to: Slap Shots, c/o SF Weekly, 425 Brannan, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: (415) 536-8152; e-mail: Slapshawts@aol.com.