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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Starveling: Being a cartoonist doesn't always have its rewards, according to Dori Seda.

The Pictures of Dori Seda

Her wild life took Dori Seda early, but her comics keep her vision of late-night excess alive

By Richard von Busack

I BOUGHT CARTOONIST Dori Seda a six-pack of Michelob once; in the long run, that gesture wasn't doing her any favors. But as John Maynard Keynes once said, "In the long run we are all dead." Seda herself was gone before 38, succumbing to a combination of silicosis (black lung, which she got from glazing ceramics without a breathing mask), emphysema from too many cigarettes, heavy partying, inefficient health care and a nasty strain of the flu that was lurking about in the winter of 1988.

I met Seda at a party on Montcalm Avenue in Bernal Heights in the mid-'80s, where she was instantly recognizable from her photo-funnies spreads in the adult-comic magazine Weirdo. As tall and skinny as a stork she was--and audible across the room thanks to her signature laugh, which is described by her friend, patron and lover Don Donahue in the new collection Dori Stories (Last Gasp Comics; $19.95): "It was a hayseed laugh, like the 'Hyuck! Hyuck! of the Disney character Goofy, but complex, very nervous and slightly strangled."

Annotated by personal recollections of the wild and outgoing Seda, this collections runs the risk that perhaps the legends of the dead lady might overshadow the living work--everybody loves the story of Camille. And Seda's escapades made up so much of her subject matter. Fortunately, her cartoons are as excruciatingly vivid now as when they were first published nearly 15 years ago.

Dori Stories reprints old and new work, including Seda's sensational one-shot comic Lonely Nights--Stories to Read When the Couple Next Door Is Fucking Too Loud. This book captures many details of very drunk and exceptionally disorderly San Francisco living.

My favorite, "Of Human Bondage and Discipline," tells the story of an all-night binge capped with the "Walk of Shame," that 6am trip to the liquor store. Nowhere in the literature of tosspots--Charles Bukowski, Fred Exley, Jean Rhys, Aaron Cometbus--will you find the scene depicted as well as Seda drew it. Inevitably on such cringing, painful journeys out for a much-needed morning beer, one encounters a bouncing jogger, radiant with health, surrounded by Disney-style twittering bluebirds, exactly as Seda drew the scene so many years ago.

"Crabs Eating Raoul" and "Abused!" are still-hilarious accounts of hopeless novices trying to explore the world of swingers and bondage and discipline. And "Laundry Day Delight" and "Ecstasy" (published for the first time here) are sarcastic and wistful visions of a solitary artist, of an intimacy with pets that's closer than with lovers.

A running joke throughout Seda's work is the implication that she was having an affair with her large, smelly and undisciplined Doberman, Tona. No real zoophile could have been as interested and as comically ardent in drawing the sex life of men and women. Yet Seda's comics always offer Nixon-like denials: "I do not fuck my dog."

YES, SEDA'S COMICS are full of offensive subject matter, in an adult-comic medium that grosses out most civilians. Yet her work can't be called pornography. There's rarely anything erotic about her comics. Her sex scenes are almost speculative, imaginary. She didn't really linger on the act itself the way a porn-maker has to.

Seda was much more interested in the comical manner in which strangers find themselves pulled together as if by crotch-level magnets. She was also fascinated with life on the far side of dissipation, observing the recovery time from all-nighters at the drawing board, from beer or speed hangovers.

Once again, I've gotten caught up in the personality instead of the art. This collection reprints Seda's cartoons chronologically. See how she was improving as an artist as the years went by. In the late-period "Office Tops and Bottoms," the beaming face of a mean, sweaty businessman, hog-tied and waiting for a discipline session, is so much better drawn than the nervous, scratchy Rapidograph drawings in her first cartoons.

All the solitary nights spent drawing were paying off. Her friends recall that it took Seda a painstaking six months to finish a page, and the reproductions of her paintings and ceramics also show her dedication. Seda's paintings exhibit the influence of Ivan Albright, a great artist of decay, obesity, tarnishing metal and stained satin. Seda was getting that Albright-style surface in her own paintings but adding to it a whimsy that the elder artist never had.

Albright is probably best known as the artist who painted The Picture of Dorian Gray for the 1945 movie. In that version of Oscar Wilde's story, George Sanders' Sir Henry quips, "If I could get back my youth, I'd do anything in the world--except get up early, take exercise or be respectable." A fine obit for Seda, who once drew a picture of her own tombstone with the epitaph "She was good at math, and her legs weren't too bad either."

What makes Seda's work live? Her candor most of all. And one rarely sees artists amused by their own self-destructive qualities, who refuse to turn their lives into tragic theater. Meeting Seda briefly, I could easily see in real life what was on her pages: that healthy pleasure that made up for terribly unhealthy habits.

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From the February 3-9, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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