Photo: Greg Preston
Victor Moscoso has, as he says, always ridden two, if not three, horses at a time. As an art student, he made fine-art paintings and did “art jobs,” such as hand-painting grocery signs. Later, he made paintings and posters, and then paintings, posters, and comics. He was one of the “big five” of design in the sixties—with Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Wes Wilson, and Rick Griffin—and has been one of the Zap Seven since 1968. Yet Moscoso is every bit his own man.
Born in Galicia, Spain, in 1936, he emigrated with his family to Brooklyn when he was three. From there, he went on to study art at the Cooper Union, Yale University, and the San Francisco Art Institute. In San Francisco, he began making psychedelic posters for the burgeoning music scene—for groups such as the Who and Big Brother and the Holding Company and for venues such as the Shrine Auditorium, the Matrix, and the Fillmore. He borrowed from Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession, LSD trips, and contemporary commercial packaging and rendered his elaborate, frequently abstruse compositions in hot, vibrating colors. These designs helped define the psychedelic era.
In 1968, Moscoso, Griffin, and S. Clay Wilson joined Robert Crumb on the third issue of Zap Comix. When Crumb founded the magazine, there was nothing else like it, and its seven contributors produced stories so bawdy and rowdy and inventive that comics would never be the same. Moscoso’s work for Zap is formally innovative as well; many stories are told by way of nonlinear, surrealist dreamscapes in which the imagery morphs and folds back onto itself. Moscoso made three wraparound covers for the magazine, the most famous of which appeared issue no. 4: an eye-bending, joyously vulgar transformation of a dancing Mr. Peanut into a dancing phallus. It is a masterpiece of graphic art that, as Gary Panter has put it, “will represent the twentieth-century imagination for centuries.”
Last year, Fantagraphics gave Zap Comix the deluxe treatment, reissuing the magazine’s four-decade run in a six-volume box set. And this month, a show of Moscoso’s drawings from 1967 to 1982, including his preparatory work for Zap comics and covers, opened at Andrew Edlin Gallery, in New York. Moscoso spoke with me over the phone last month from his studio in Marin County, California, about learning to make art and then having to unlearn it all.
Are you on a cell?
They’re very convenient. Especially the ones with cameras on them, man. That is dynamite. I don’t have one, but my wife does. It’s a marvel. This may be before your time, but there was this comic strip called Dick Tracy, and he had this wrist radio with a little picture on it and a wire running up his arm.
Where did the wire go?
Underneath his garments, so that when he was getting dressed, he’d get the wire on. And he could talk to headquarters at any time.
I remember the wristwatch, but I didn’t know he had a wire running up his arm.
That was a detail kids like me were really interested in. And here we are. Jesus Christ, I’m living in a comic strip. Except everybody’s got ’em. Not just the cops. In fact, the cops gotta watch out.
Did you read Dick Tracy for the story or the art?
Mainly the art, because that was before I could read. Comics was one of the places where I learned to read, because the pictures interested me.
I remember at the age of three and half watching Hoppity Goes to Town, which I saw in Spain. I was blown away, as a little child, with the fact that drawings—I could tell the difference between drawings and live action—were moving. I saw that drawings were coming to life. I think that is when I decided, without realizing it, that that was what I wanted to do. Later on I saw comics, in particular Walt Disney comics. There is one artist in there whose name is Carl Barks—he was on design at Walt Disney, and he was an excellent storyteller. I used to wait every month for the new issue of that comic book to come out.
Eventually I went through all the comic books at the time, and I came upon the EC comics, and in particular, Mad. Read More