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Last Gasp’s Ron Turner Publishes “Mind Candy for the Masses”

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Last Gasp has been bending minds since 1970, and is known to be one of the world’s oldest and largest publishers of underground books and comics. The publisher’s motto is “Mind Candy for the Masses,” so consider it your counterculture dealer. Last Gasp is saluted for its ‘lowbrow’ comics and ‘pop surrealist’ art, offering social commentary tangled up in art and filth. A slew of legendary underground artists have been published by Last Gasp, including R. Crumb, Robert Williams, Trina Robbins, Frank Kozik, Todd Schorr, Winston Smith, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and Justin Green. 

Ron Turner is the founder of Last Gasp, and currently shares the reins with his son, Colin Turner. Although Last Gasp’s distribution operation was shut down in 2016, it remains a publisher of original, subversive content. I spoke to Turner about the evolution of Last Gasp, and its place within the “petri dish in an alien laboratory” that is San Francisco. 

TALES OF THE SAN FRANCISCO CACOPHONY SOCIETY. Courtesy of Colin Turner.

In an interview with Please Kill Me, you said that underground comics were influential because “people needed truth.” There were “inquiring minds.” If you were to unload a dose of truth on inquiring minds of the contemporary moment, what would that look like?

RT: I’m not sure that at this stage it is possible to unload “truth” or much else to a non-sentient being without using a 12 volt battery and jumper cables. The 8 billion of us have lost our way, eaten our seed corn and plundered the stocks of our neighbors who don’t even have seed corn. It is a mess. A mess the sci fi writers have been warning us about for a few hundred years. The best we can do is educate the youth and curb population growth drastically, for starters. 

What was the relationship between the early Last Gasp imprints and the Berkeley Ecology Center? 

RT: A friend, Rod Freeland, worked at the print shop at the Berkeley Ecology Center. I met him through the United Farm Workers. He had run the printing presses in Delano. He would work in a regular job and save up a ton of money, then work for free at places that were out to make a better world. Some Gentlemen drug dealers had given money to the bookstore in the Ecology Center. I met them and asked for a loan, they agreed, and I had enough to pay the artists and printers and binders for Slow Death Funnies #1. It was supposed to be a benefit book for the Ecology Center. Eventually there were 400 centers around the USA, but this was the first. Their library was a great source for information, as we all loved to use the word “ecology” but had little information about it.

When the book was done, an entire staff change had occurred, and they only wanted 10 copies for the bookstore. Ron Shoop ran the bookstore and was behind it, but the newbies didn’t understand, so I took 19900 copies back to my garage and tried to figure out how to sell them and repay the Gentlemen drug dealers.

What do you look for when selecting titles to publish? 

RT: I look for a strong unique approach to whatever topic the writer or artist is covering.  Over the five decades, Last Gasp has gone from Underground Comix with a social consciousness, to liberating sexuality, to exploration of the inner consciousness as well as historically important reviews, to exploration of what was called lowbrow art and is now called pop surrealism, however both terms are inadequate. We fortified our meager offerings with the cherry picked works from 600 other publishers and suppliers that would bolster our sales and allow a one stop shopping for bookstores and individuals who shared our thirst for this beverage of forbidden information.

Which titles are you especially proud to have published?

RT: It’s so hard to choose a favorite. I give away a lot of books.  I try to match them up with people who would really find them mentally nurturing. The list goes on as the months and years go by: 

Slow Death Funnies. There were 11 of them, an anthology (Slow Death Zero), and then a book last year. 

Weirdo from the mind of Robert Crumb went 28 issues and had 135 cartoonist/writers and became a giant volume of Crumb work (The Book of Weirdo), and a separate ten year-researched volume.  

It Ain’t Me Babe put together by Trina Robbins was the first all women comic book, followed by Wimmin’s Comix, and later Joyce Farmer and Lyn Chevli’s Tits & Clits.  

Justin Green’s torturous exploration of childhood neurosis and spiritual guilt entitled Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary remains the book that R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman both say challenged them to turn inward and reveal the true personal superego to the world.   

Amputee Love sought to take the stigma of severe body damage from the shadows, and was written by an amputee couple (Rich & Rene Jensen) who condensed their sexual life of twenty years into a tale of crosscountry trysts and happiness.  

How have you witnessed San Francisco and its inhabitants change over time? How has Last Gasp evolved over time? 

RT: San Francisco is a petri dish in an alien laboratory. As a kid, I got to come here with my parents on vacations and business trips. Staying at CAL for the high school state wrestling tournament and later working on the railroad in Oakland and Richmond, I was able to pick up on the folk music and beat scene. Moving to SF for grad school at SF State in 1967 was a bay window into the rising counterculture and anti war struggle that consumed us around the time that Last Gasp was started. Since then, the geopolitics have been played out over the decades, and as new generations arise, we try to see what needs they have and provide nourishing fodder for them. Our motto is “Mind Candy for the Masses.” Changing with the times is important. It is sad to watch people stop changing and embracing the “new.” Nostalgia is great, but it is not a vehicle that goes forward. 

The City has a way of extracting more than it’s share and passing the deficit on to the next generation to deal with. Hence, today we have the great homeless problem, concerning immigration and housing. Many well-meaning folks are stabbing their pen knives into this monster of a problem. The conservatives and the progressives are who we see the most of, but they, too, fail to realize how clique-like they become.  

Contemporary concerns about political correctness would have likely stymied Last Gasp in its early days. What are your thoughts on this cultural evolution, and its influence on the publishing industry? 

RT: The current cancel culture is not new, and it is the same kind of pressure on publishers to not make waves and be politically correct. Language changes and targets have new labels. The politically correct movement definitely has made publishing decisions difficult at times. Fortunately, tar and feathers are not sold at Home Depot yet.   

What do you see for the future of Last Gasp? 

RT: What is the future? That falls into the capable hands of Colin Turner, who has a number of new titles about to come out. I will offer the occasional idea, but he is more in touch with the direction of the culture. He has books with Robert Williams and Ron English and Laurie Lipton and some Japanese translations that should satisfy our customer base, and interest a few more.   

Keiichi Koike’s HEAVEN’S DOOR. Courtesy of Colin Turner.

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Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky covers culture and curiosities for Bay City News and Broke-Ass Stuart. She publishes artist interviews and experimental writing at thought-rot.net. You can find her on Instagram at @rot_thought.

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