Fred Harper, the artist behind AHOY Comics’ upcoming masterpiece, SNELSON: COMEDY IS DYING, has been drawing, painting and creating mayhem since the 11th grade, back in Erie, Pa. For more than 20 years, his cultural satire regularly has graced covers of THE WEEK magazine. He spoke with AHOY publisher Hart Seely.
SNELSON #1, by Paul Constant and Fred Harper, ships from AHOY Comics on August 4, 2021.
“Fred Harper.” Do you realize you have the perfect name for a sitcom next door neighbor?
Yeah. And I can look over a fence really creepily. In fact, I have neighbors downstairs - because of the pandemic, I got to meet them – and when they bake cookies, they send them up in the elevator, so I don’t creep on them as much.
Tell me about Erie, Pennsylvania.
Well, it’s sort of a glorified truck stop along Route 90 between Buffalo and Cleveland. It’s on Lake Erie.
Is it more Buffalo or Cleveland? Or even Pittsburgh?
I leaned toward Pittsburgh, because my grandmother was a big Pirates fan. I rooted for Pittsburgh because of her. They had Willie Stargell, it was crazy, I was five.
Ever see a Pirate game?
I went there around 1992. Three Rivers Stadium, before they got rid of it. I haven’t been to the new park.
People say it’s beautiful.
Yeah. I’m also curious about (Baltimore’s) Camden Yards. I’ve heard raves about it. I almost went there in ’98 with my roommates. Fortunately, I didn’t, because there were fights, and I had a roommate who would wear his Yankee cap to a game in Boston.
I’m like, “What were you thinking?” He says, “They were a little rude.”
So, you didn’t stay in Erie?
I’ve been in New York (City) for about 30 years. I went to college in Ohio for four years, and then, as soon as I could get to New York, that’s where I went.
Did you ever see the Netflix documentary “Evil Genius?” It takes place in Erie.
I’ve heard of it. There’s a serial killer or something, right?
This evil woman straps a bomb to a mentally challenged pizza delivery guy…
That’s redundant, isn’t it? (Laughs) Sorry.
… And she forces him to rob a bank, the police cordon him off, and he blows up. It’s wild.
Well, to live in Erie, you have to be creative. You have to come up with your own entertainment. A psycho-killer, I guess, would be one avenue. A crazy psycho-killer. That would be the way to go. You could – well - you know, this subject isn’t very good for a comic book, is it? Sorry about that. In interviews, I end up going down dark avenues. You have to stop me.
Ever get back to Erie?
Once a year, I visit my folks. They used to own a bar there. Years ago, they sold it. Even now, when I go into the bar, I get free drinks.
Your parents owned a bar? That must have been fun.
It was a study in human nature. I thought I’d grow up to be a psychologist, because it was so fascinating. I mean, why does one drunk person do this, while another drunk person does that? Same circumstances, different outcomes. Always interesting.
Did you drink in the bar?
I didn’t drink until I was in my late twenties. Basically, I hated drunk people. I was always getting screwed by drunk people. They’d say, “I’ll pay you $50 for a drawing.” I’m in high school, age 16, and $50 is practically a year’s income. So, I’d bring in the drawing, and they’d say, “Hey, thanks!” and walk away. While I’m trying to get my money, my dad would come by and say, “My customers are supposed to spend money at the bar, not on you.”
When did you realize you have a talent for drawing?
In second grade, I knew this was all I could do, that I would never learn anything beyond that. So, I have a first-grade education and a college degree in art. But the first time I realized the power of art came in 11th grade, in my homeroom class. There was this popular girl – she hated my guts, because I was the weird, art geeky kid – who fell asleep at her desk, drooling onto her books. I drew the meanest caricature ever. I showed it to an older buddy, and he asked to borrow it. I had no idea what he was planning. I’m, like, “An older kid likes this. I can fit in with the cool crowd.” He posted the drawing in a school bathroom and wrote below it, “Whore.” By lunch, everybody in the school had seen it.
Next thing you know, half the football team tackles me in the hall. They grab me, and they’re talking about throwing me out a window. I weigh 120 pounds, and it’s all I can do to hold on to the stairwell railing, as these big guys try to drag me down the stairs. Fortunately, a teacher comes by, and they let me fall down the steps. They say, “We weren’t really going to hurt him.” The teacher sends everybody back to class. The teacher didn’t like me, either.
It was scary. But that’s when I first realized the power of art. To draw the caricature, I expended no energy, and yet I motivated all these people to be either super-angry or to pat me on the back. I realized that, as an image-maker, I had a certain power. It was a turning point in my life. It was traumatic, but it made me realize I wanted to be an artist. I mean, look at all the attention I’d get!
That meant putting all your eggs into one basket, right?
Well, my options in Erie weren’t all that great. I didn’t have the grades to get a scholarship, and I couldn’t afford to pay my way through school. If I were lucky, I’d go to a community college. My dad said, “Either you get a wrestling scholarship, or you’ll have to be an artist.” So that was my plan. I didn’t like the idea of wrestling for the next four years, and getting my ass handed to me.
Now, you were a high school wrestling champ, right?
I took second in the states.
Wow. So, it would take some big guys to throw you out the window.
I had a good grip on that railing.
You came in second in the state. What happened in the finals?
The winner lucked out. He got ahead by one point and stalled the rest of the match. I took him down, but I couldn’t turn him over. He was built like a tank, suction-cupped to the mat. By the end of the match, I hated his guts. I was digging my elbow into his ribs, trying to get him to move, whispering, “I’m gonna kill you.” Today, I’d get kicked out of school. But this was the 1980s, and I was a shit-talker.
So, you drew a lot in high school?
For the senior yearbook, they wanted spot illustrations. I didn’t know what I was doing, and neither did my art teacher. I loved her, but she was not practical in applying things to an actual job. She just enjoyed being subversive and would encourage any kid who seemed crazy to draw crazy. I got called into the psychologist’s office several times, because of my drawings. I was into comics. I liked Conan (the Barbarian), because I could do violent drawings and paintings. In fact, I learned basic anatomy through comics, because when Conan cut somebody open, I’d need to have the proper organs fly out. “If I cut him right here, that’s his liver.” And I always had the excuse, “It’s just Conan!”
These days, what do you more enjoy drawing, the villains or the heroes?
I like drawing character. I like finding the character in any villain or hero. You look for what makes them unique, what gives them personality, what makes them different from all others. Villains or heroes, it doesn’t matter. I like the challenges of story-telling: How do you find the subtleties, say, of a guy being sarcastic? What gesture makes the face portray what you want?
In Snelson, you have an incredible lead character.
That’s why I love Snelson. He’s all expressions. The way Paul Constant wrote him, I had an immediate idea of who this character is, and I combined it with all the times I’ve gone to comedy clubs over the last 30 years. You know, I saw John Stewart at Caroline’s in 1991. That was before he became John Stewart. He made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe. With Snelson, Paul wanted dark glasses and kind of a cross between Mark Maron and David Cross. And I got it.
I was also thinking of (Bob) Fingerman, the writer and comic book artist. I know him through friends, really nice guy. But the actual character is based on my downstairs neighbor, who bakes the cookies. He’s one of the funniest, nicest guys you’ll meet. I told him, “This character is kind of a shit-head, not a nice person.” He’s just, “Oh, you’re using my face for an asshole? Bring it on!”
The comic, Patton Oswalt, blurbed this book. Do you know him?
A little bit. A few years ago, Gallery 1988 in LA did a group show on comedians. They told us to draw any comedian we wanted, so I did Patton Oswalt. I did a joke of his, about the Oswalt family’s coat of arms. It includes a bag of Cheetos and the word FUCK – he tells the joke in much funnier terms than I can. So, I did his caricature with him eating Cheetos in a t-shirt that says FUCK in gold leaf. He went to the show, posed next to it and posted the picture on Twitter. We became Twitter buddies, and then my girlfriend stole him from me.
What do you mean?
She’s more twitter-savvied than I was. So, she contacts him, “Hi, Mr. Oswalt! Blah-blah-blah.” She’s the smarter of us, and she engages him and they have great discussions. So, she ends up illustrating his next album cover. Me? I’m just the one who made friends with him. Now, it’s, “Oh, Fred? Yeah, you’re with her.” (Laughs)
Patton Oswalt wrote the intro for our Second Coming compilation. He’s a great friend of AHOY. One of these days, I gotta send him an AHOY bathrobe, the highest honor we can bestow.
He likes smart, funny comics. I think AHOY is in his wheelhouse.
Now, you’ve done posters for OzzFest and various rock bands, right?
I did the poster for OzzFest 2005 with a demon on the front. I’d get written comments from Sharon Osbourne, which I thought was funny at the time, because I’d quit watching television and didn’t know how the Osbournes show had blown up.
Why did you quit TV?
I blame “Survivor.” I was doing an illustration job and decided to take a break. I watched “Survivor” for about ten minutes, eight of which were commercials. It just hit me: I don’t have time for this. So, I quit.
Are you a rock fan?
I grew up with rock n roll. One of my first concerts was Motley Crue, “Shout at the Devil.” But since I’ve gotten older, I’m more into jazz, Ornette Coleman, that kind of stuff. And one of my favorite comedians, Mitch Hedberg, will do sets with a guy playing the bass behind him. I think that’s great.
The pandemic has been tough for performance artists.
A buddy of mine is an opera singer. They get around the Covid restrictions by standing in the lobby of a building connected to a café, and singing through the doorway. These guys can really belt it out. They belong in the Met, that level. So, you’re in this little café bar, and they’re in the lobby, singing their heads off, and it’s amazing. You see people come out of the elevators, they’ve worked all day, the doors open, and it’s “WOOOOOOOOOOOOAHHHHHH!” I’d sit in a spot, where you can see them in the doorway, plus the lobby. It’s great fun.
So, personal question, are you vaxxed?
Yeah. I’ve had both my shots, I feel okay, but I try to be respectful of everybody else. I always have my mask ready. If I notice anybody getting nervous, I mask up. I don’t have a problem with that.
How has the pandemic changed you?
It’s made me realize there are a lot more shitty people in the world than I thought there were. That’s depressing. But I do have a new girlfriend - sort of. I mean, she’s the same girlfriend. But when we started prepping for the pandemic, I went out and bought spaghetti and sauce, mac and cheese – stuff I knew how to cook, because I know nothing about cooking. Neither did she. But she’s of the mind that she wants nicer food and drink – and spaghetti wasn’t going to cut it. So, she learned to cook - really well. So, I’ve got a new girlfriend. She’s amazing. She’s an artist/writer, and her specialty is the Middle East. Because she couldn’t travel last year, she took up cooking. I’ve been dating her for 17 years, and for 16 of them, she was holding out on me.
Do you do a lot of interviews?
I did one with a guy from THE WEEK. He called three times, because I just ramble. I just talk until they cut me off. He interviewed me for their anniversary edition. And I was interviewed for an article back in Erie, for Mother’s Day. I sent this lady a bunch of nude illustrations and scared the hell out of her. She did a google search and was, “Eh, I can’t post these.” So, I sent her some landscapes and still-lifes, and she’s like, “These are nice!” And that’s why I had to leave Erie.
It’s nice to get mentioned in your home town.
Yeah. I always tell people I’m from Erie. I wasn’t crazy about living there, because – for me, there were no prospects. But I like going back. I like going to small towns. There is in this country an unnecessary gap between the rural and the urban. I don’t think it’s healthy. See? There I am, rambling again. I go off on tangents. I need somebody to cut me off. Somebody should tackle me from the side. It should be, “Okay, yer done!”