Drawn from a golden age

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      Former Georgia Straight illustrator Rand Holmes is celebrated with a retrospective on his beloved Lasqueti Island.

      At 27 and 30, respectively, Sara Mameni and Jenni Pace are too young to have caught the golden age of underground comics. But that hasn't stopped the two UBC art-history grad students from embracing a project involving one of the form's pioneers.

      Five years after his death at 60 from Hodgkin's lymphoma, Rand Holmes is being celebrated in a two-day exhibit, March 17 and 18, on Lasqueti Island, where he made his home for the last 20 years of his life. For the first time, in a retrospective overseen by his widow, Martha, pages from his comics and sketchbooks will be gathered together with his political cartoons, studies, and finished oil paintings, along with items like his beloved banjo and a re-creation of his studio.

      “I just love the fact that there are so many people who want this to happen,” Pace says when she and Mameni meet with the Georgia Straight over coffee on Commercial Drive. The two are helping create an inventory of Holmes's art. “Martha has this core group of friends who have started thinking about cataloguing and who pushed her to have the show, and they've handled it all.”

      “Everyone's open to the craziest ideas,” Mameni explains. “They're putting on an unorthodox exhibition they couldn't get away with in a museum in Vancouver, like having the X-rated material on-stage.”

      By the time Holmes began publishing regularly in the Straight in 1971, an underground-comics scene was already flourishing in San Francisco. There, artists like Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, Kim Deitch, and Greg Irons created their own black-and-white funnybooks, complete with sex, drugs, and homages to freak culture. Holmes, originally from Nova Scotia, created an alter ego named Harold Hedd soon after arriving in Vancouver. In 1971, the Straight began publishing strips involving the adventures of the anarchist, banjo-playing hippie.

      Holmes once revealed to comics historian Patrick Rosenkranz that he learned to draw by copying Wallace Wood. An exceptional draftsman, Wood drew superhero comics and soft-core porn, and worked for the classic science-fiction- and horror-themed EC Comics in the '50s. Holmes developed a fluid line and inking style similar to Wood's, but he transposed it onto counterculture characters and political cartoons. Thoroughly antiauthoritarian, Holmes fearlessly attacked the burghers and political leaders of the time; one of his most infamous cartoons depicts Tom Campbell, Vancouver mayor at the time of the notorious Gastown Riots in 1971, with a police nightstick up his butt.

      After doing two issues of Harold Hedd, along with numerous political cartoons for the Vancouver Star, dozens of covers for the Georgia Straight, and stories for underground anthologies like Fog City Comics, White Lunch Comix, and Slow Death Funnies, Holmes fulfilled a lifelong dream. In 1982 he abandoned Vancouver for Lasqueti Island in the Strait of Georgia. There he built a house and set out to live off the land. With Harold Hedd relegated to the sidelines, he finished two issues of a comic called Hitler's Cocaine, among other works, before the double-duty grind of writing and drawing wore him down.

      “He became a little disillusioned with it,” Martha Holmes says on the phone from her Parksville home. “Not with the art itself but how little it paid and the enormous amount of work that went into it. He felt it was a young person's job. Working 12 to 14 hours a day at his age, in his 40s and 50s, he found it really daunting to keep up with that pace.”

      Holmes went on to illustrate stories for genre anthologies like Alien Worlds and Twisted Tales. He kept drawing but stopped doing comics entirely for a couple of years to work as a carpenter. He also devoted much time to oil painting. His canvases grew more and more surreal, filled with symbols and allusions to classical paintings. But his island retreat, though inspiring, wasn't ideal for exposing his talent.

      “He loved Lasqueti,” Martha says, “but he felt this huge gap. It's a difficult place to get to, and he was feeling like he needed to be really connected with what was happening in an arts scene in a larger place. And he didn't know how to market his art because he lived on an island and he wasn't very gregarious.”

      For those willing to make the trek to the Holmeses' remote former home, population 350, a private foot-passenger ferry leaves French Creek, north of Parksville on Vancouver Island, for Lasqueti Island's False Bay three times a day on Saturdays and twice on Sundays. (Be aware that accommodations on the island are limited to a small handful of bed-and-breakfast establishments, along with the homes of islanders who welcome guests. Write to randholmes@hotmail.com for more information.) On the night of March 17, food and live music at the Lasqueti Island Community Hall will be part of what Martha calls “a retro thing in the evening, in an old-fashioned hippie kind of a way, re-creating an era”. Visitors are advised to bring a flashlight (there are no streetlights on the island) and leave their dogs at home, because the feral sheep have just birthed this year's lambs.

      Martha says it's important the Lasqueti community get a chance to see the work before it moves off-island. She hopes to eventually get a version of the retrospective into galleries, and to that end, Mameni and Pace are helping to write proposals.

      “Canada didn't really have that many comic artists, and he did some very groundbreaking work,” Martha says. “I just think it needs to have a place of recognition, for people to remember, ”˜Wow, this person really did a lot of work'—to look at the scope and look at the doors he opened, be it sexually, politically, or morally. There aren't as many cartoonists taking those risks anymore.”

      The work at the community hall will be shown in unique ways: comics pages hung from a clothesline, with Holmes's X-rated material stashed behind a curtain, to be viewed by flashlight. And, this being Lasqueti, there will probably be a feral sheep or two roaming around the hall as well.