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Cartoon Koans: Conrad brings enlightenment through animated tales.

Known, Not Known

San Jose artist Peter S. Conrad retells Zen koans in 'Attempted Not Known' zine

By Richard von Busack

WHEN I MET Peter S. Conrad, the man behind the self-published zine Attempted Not Known, I was especially curious to learn his interpretation of a Zen koan that he had made into a cartoon. These koans--elusive, contradictory, sometimes funny tales--suggest an explanation of Zen Buddhism.

In the "Gutei's Finger," in Attempted Not Known #3 ($1; PO Box 64522, Sunnyvale, CA 94088), Conrad illustrated a koan first collected by a Chinese scholar in the book The Gateless Gate in 1228. Essentially, a teacher named Gutei chops off a student's finger as punishment for mockery. The amputation brings instant enlightenment to the student.

The commentary to this troubling story weighs the benefits of the attack with its drawbacks. Gutei's assault on the student "cheapens the teachings," and yet if Gutei hadn't forced the joshing student to pay full attention, the boy's spirit--and not just his finger--would be annihilated.

So Conrad and I were sitting in front of the Orchard City Café in an industrial park on North First Street. My coffee came from a samovar bearing a sign that reads, "This coffee has a strength that even a business person can appreciate." A big pink Mt. Shasta-sized stratocumulus emerged and disappeared over the top of the dingy white business building across the street. At the Carl's Jr., an American flag was flying, dwarfed by the enormous Carl's Jr. Happy Star Ensign below it.

"The point of that story?" Conrad said. "The point is not the point. I have kind of a cynical view of Zen, anyway. If I had to pick a way of thought from that part of the planet, I'd be more of a Taoist."

I told Conrad that I'd never figured out the implication of the koan that says, "Zen is a red-hot ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out."

"Sounds like the nature of work in the Silicon Valley," he replied, without missing a beat.

"In the story of Gutei," he continued, "the lesson is that the boy suffers for imitating the teacher. Imitation keeps you from becoming the you-est you could be. It's not the finger that's important--the whole point is to stop trying so hard."

Big talk from Conrad, who in the hour I spent talking with him described himself as a "terrible writer" without much faith in his drawing abilities either. Looking over an issue of Attempted Not Known, he commented, "Here's a poorly drawn picture of a girl I knew in high school."

I protest. Conrad's drawing style may be sometimes stiff, but I'd rather read comics by a good writer who's obviously working hard on his craft than by a slick artist in love with his own ignorance--by which I mean far too many young cartoonists.

Attempted Not Known's main story is a continuing untitled (although Conrad refers to it as "Ancramdale" after the upstate New York town where he lived) tale of Conrad's ride with Jim, a country shade-tree auto mechanic who gets high with our hero.

What started as a lark is already beginning to show the edge of a threat. We see that threat in the apprehensiveness of Jim's wife as he leaves. (Conrad pointed out some stippling on her cheeks: "See, she's got some roseola going on there.") We can also see Jim's capacity for troublemaking in the insulting way he treats his chum Kenny. "Ancramdale" makes up the main part of Attempted Not Known, but Conrad also illustrates anecdotes, weird dreams and ephemera--and the occasional Zen koan.

CONRAD STARTED Attempted Not Known as an offshoot of an art project. He decided to solicit various celebrities in the hopes that they would all send him a cartoon. Naturally, they were all busy, although the offices of Lily Tomlin and Martin Scorsese sent him letters, and Jim Carrey responded with an autographed still with what Conrad describes as "an incredibly irritating caption."

The returned letters bore the usual post office disclaimer "Attempted Delivery; Addressee Not Known," and so Conrad decided to use that title for a self-published magazine of his cartoons.

"I thought I could make a living with my comics," Conrad said, "but I'm not stupid enough to think that I could make a living with Attempted Not Known." The comic book, which originated as a sort of calling card of his work, has been as successful as a zine can be in these times. It's on sale at Tower Records, and Conrad has received fan mail from overseas.

In between issues, Conrad has been working on other art. He did the photos for Alastair Dallas' architectural guide Los Gatos Observed ($24.95; Infospect Press, 17681 Foster Road, Los Gatos 95030-7154). Conrad did the cover, a full-color shot of the Los Gatos Theater in the rain with the Jenny Holzer-style motto "Life Is Beautiful" on the marquee. (The theater was advertising the Roberto Benigni film, not the quality of Los Gatos life.) In the meantime, this San Jose-based artist is selling T-shirts of his work--visible on his web-site; and he's also writing comic-book reviews and working with other writers. ("I learned a lot about collaboration, which is not to.")

Conrad is one of the most interesting cartoonists to come out of the Santa Clara Valley in the last few years. I admire the way "Gutei's Finger" visualizes the ancient story. The teacher Gutei, the pupil and his fellow monks are all dressed as a motorcycle gang--an imaginative way of depicting one of the most superficially ruthless of all religions. Seeing Conrad's cartoon, I understood that the power of comics is like Zen: both use a mixture of compassion and violence as contradictory approaches to short out the stubborn brain.

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From the October 7-13, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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

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