Until yesterday you could have asked Dennis Eichhorn if the stories he told in his autobiographical comics were true, but you would have regretted it. He would have given you a laconic stare that so perfectly reflected the tone of his work—informed by Raymond Carver and Harvey Pekar, Ken Kesey and Justin Green—that it was clear even if the facts had been fudged or conflated, he was the real, authentic, crazy American deal.
Although bound by medium (pre-indie-boom/digitally circulated comics), region (provincial pre-grunge Seattle) and poor judgment (he sabotaged his relationship with then-publisher Fantagraphics in the mid-'90s over a petty and ultimately meaningless editorial decision, losing many old and dear friends in the process), Eichhorn’s particular depiction of mid-20th century white manness, distinctly Northwest in its flavor (despite a few lively years spent tending a biker bar in Santa Cruz) was as mordant and true as any one of his inspirations.
His particular inflection, stylized and perfectly punctuated, unjudgmental and yet primarily sensational, was informed by a deep sense of low origins; Eichhorn was born in the Idaho State prison to a mother he never met, and there adopted there by decent rednecks. He grew up in rural Idaho and went to Whitman College on a football scholarship—the Fightin’ Missionaries—where he was a lineman with a natural aptitude for level-headed violence and casually inflicted pain. In the early 60’s, when Eichhorn was a student there, Walla Walla had a nurse living in town who practiced outside her field. The first time I ever met him, Denny told me how the entire football team got gonorrhea from this woman, who had a baby at home she called Shithead who she fed Coca-Cola through his baby bottle; I couldn’t believe my ears and insisted he write it down; he'd already done so. The second story I illustrated for Denny’s Real Smut told the sad and grubby story of Rosie Wertz. The first had been about a group of his friends who had plunged forked into their arms on a drunken bet.
In the mid-‘60s, Denny found a new, somewhat less tawdry light with the discovery of LSD and thereafter used his considerable brawn for the (generally, questionably) forces of good, although Idaho authorities were not always sanguine to this point of view, confining him for several years to State Penitentary for selling weed and acid; his piece Dennis the Sullen Menace from Weirdo number 19 is one of his great achievements. He used these early works as a springboard to explore his casual greatness as a storyteller, one who had no qualms about revisiting (and, truthfully, casting an often liberal interpretation) on the fights, fucking, and foolishness of his youth.
Seattle used to be so goddamn small: I was introduced to Dennis by our mutual friend Michael Dougan, a fabulously gifted (and hatefully forgotten—do yourself a favor and find a copy of Tales from East Texas, as well as the early pieces Mike did with Denny for Weirdo magazine, then newly edited by a young Pete Bagge; you’ll be so happy) cartoonist who I’d been introduced to by Art Chantry, legendary designer and then-art director of the seminal publication the Rocket. Dougan was moving from his loft at Jackson and Occidental; he paid $350.00 a month and needed a cheaper space, so he moved up by the Space Needle. After he’d introduced us, and when Denny was in the hallway out of earshot, Mike told me, “Eichhorn is a great guy, but I’ll tell you two things: Don’t ask him if his stories are true, and don’t smoke his weed; he grows it himself and it will fuck you up.” Mike was so right.
I just got my contributors copies for Denny’s newest collection, Extra Good Stuff, which Dennis had published by Last Gasp—a proud moment for him, even though he’d been published by Fantagraphics and had once been the editorial director for Loompanics. I remembered then that I hadn’t actually seen him since last year; he looked good, sounded good, but he’d had some issues with his health and his an injury to his head which he said had messed with his memory, and when I saw him a few months later at Short Run he thought I was someone else before I good-naturedly corrected him, I thought, “One day I’m going to hear my friend is gone.”
Thoughts and prayers to Denny’s wife Jane and daughter Sarah; he’ll be missed by anyone who ever knew him.
Sean Michael Hurley is a Seattle artist and longtime friend of the Stranger.