B.N. Duncan, 1943-2009

By Ace Backwords
Thursday July 30, 2009 - 11:09:00 AM
B.N. Duncan.
B.N. Duncan.

Telegraph Avenue legend B.N. Duncan died in June at the age of 65. I first met B.N. Duncan in 1979 at Krishna Copy on the corner of Telegraph and Dwight. He was xeroxing copies of Tele Times, a little homemade magazine he published. And I was xeroxing copies of Ass Backwards Comix #1. So we were on the same page, literally, from the word go. Geez, I must have been 23, so Duncan was 36. He looked like a weird old man with his disheveled hair and thick horn-rimmed glasses and ratty old clothes. He looked like your weird uncle that you kept in the basement out of sight. He was the arachetypal weirdo artist. 

At the time he lived in a dusty little hotel room on the fourth floor of the Berkeley Inn. His room was just beginning to clutter up with his boxes of artwork. He had one or two friends who were just as weird and alienated as him. Aside from that, he had almost no social life. Duncan spent his whole life on the fringe of society, a lifelong SSI recipient. I figured we were both a couple of losers who would spend our lives xeroxing 20 copies of our latest cartoons and mailing them out to an indifferent world. “Outsider art” he called his work. In fact, he had a strong identification with Van Gogh, and figured his work would never be fully appreciated in his lifetime. 

In the late 1960s he had gone completely nuts. He was completely alienated and couldn’t find any place to fit into society He’d hear voices—six distinct characters who would carry on private conversations in his head. He ended up getting locked up in a mental institution. The head psychiatrists told him he was a hopeless case and would probably have to spend the rest of his life in the nut house. So that shows you how far he came to have the magnificent life he had. 

He published the first 20 issues of Tele Times—“Telegraph’s Tight Little Monthly”—in relative obscurity, with print runs of about 100 copies. In truth, Duncan probably lost money on every single publication he ever put out by himself. He was one of the first publishers to focus on homeless street people and so-called ordinary people, treating them the same way that most mainstream publishers treated celebrities. Then he began coreseponding with famed underground cartoonist R. Crumb. They immediately clicked. Crumb recognized a fellow traveler, calling Duncan “the quintesssential underground cartoonist.” And Crumb should know. Duncan published an interview with Crumb and his wife in Tele Times, and that opened up whole new worlds for Duncan. For Duncan was an artist’s artist. Though his work was vastly under-appreciated by the general public, he was revered by many of the greats in the cartooning field; people like Kim Dietch, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, and Harvey Pekar. Maybe with guys like Duncan, who are so weird and unique, it just takes time for the world at large to catch up with them. 

In 1989, on a whim, I got the crazy idea to publish a photo calendar of Berkeley street people. I wanted to take the raw and quirky work Duncan was producing with Tele Times and put a bit of a commerical sheen on it. It was an immediate local hit. And for the next 15 years, from 1990 to 2004, we would annually publish the Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar. We got written up in all the local newspapers and Dan Rather did a national feature on it. So Duncan began getting some long-overdue recognition. 

“When I was the manager of Comic Relief in Berkeley I used to see Duncan a lot,” said Kristine. “Frankly, initially he gave me the creeps. A half-dozen conversations later and I was looking forward to his next visit. He was the first person to show me Dick Briefer Frankenstein and that alone puts him in the pantheon. Later, when he asked to borrow some money, I thought, ‘Well, there’s $10 I’ll never see again,’ and mainly was concerned that he wouldn’t come by the store any more. He repaid me within a week. I regularly lent him money and always got it back, usually with a nice note on a xeroxed page of awesome cartoon art. What a sweetheart. He taught me not to judge people by their crusty tan corduroy jackets, and I’m grateful.” (But watch out for most of those guys in crusty corduroy jackets; Duncan was the one-in-a-thousand exception to the rule.) 

And in a way, I thought that was the secret of why Duncan struck a chord with so many people. Duncan was so obviously weird. The rest of us are probably just as weird, we just try to hide it. And by the end of his life, Duncan’s social circle included people from all walks of society, from successful lawyers and famed artists to bums on the street, and everyone in between. 

Our working relationship was akin to Laurel and Hardy. Duncan was the skinny guy and he’d always screw up (“Gee, Ollie...”). And I was the fat guy and I’d always rage and bluster at Duncan (“This is another fine mess you got us into, Stanley!”) and screw things up even worse. But we always forgave each other afterwards. I used to say about our friendship: “Duncan, you’re one of the few people strong enough to withstand me.” And after every joint success no matter how great or small—whether it was producing yet another artistic masterpiece or merely scrounging up enough dough to buy the next pack of cigarettes—we’d always high-five and say: “Yet another successful Backwords and Duncan collaboration!” 

His last few years were spent in failing health. Forty years of smoking and drinking had finally caught up with him (Basic 100s and Old English malt liquor, natch). In his last week they had him in the cancer ward at Alta Bates hospital. So I knew it was trouble. The last time I saw him, I knew it was just about over. I sat there in his hospital room and cried and cried. For 30 years Duncan had always been out there on Telegraph Avenue whenever I was there. But now it hit me for the first time that he would never be out there again. I went from giving him pep-talks about “Hang in there! Hang in there!” to “Let it go! Let it go!” You know? “God loves you, and you’re going to heaven,” and all that crap. But while I sobbed and weeped, Duncan laid there on his hospital bed and he was stoic the whole time. He always admired tough guys. And I always thought he was doing Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney in his head. (“I never met a dame who didn’t understand a good slap in the face!”) And in a way, that was the secret of our artistic chemistry. I supplied the emotional and Duncan supplied the intellectual. Though in truth, we both had plenty of both sides. Duncan was no cold-blooded intellectual, he had plenty of heart. And I could talk a line of intellectual BS with the best of them, in between my emotional tantrums. But we were both strong where the other was weak. Duncan was like an anthropologist of the gutter. And he studied the Berkeley street people, and all of life, like a scientist would study an exotic tribe in New Guinea. Duncan would place his latest artistic specimen under his microscope and study it, as if looking for clues. He’d hold the slide up to the light and say to himself: “Hmmm. Now what does this tell me about this cock-eyed human life of ours?” 

Duncan was one of the most relentlessly creative people I’ve ever met. For the 30 years that I knew him, he was constantly working on a new artistic project. And unlike so many artists, when he got an idea, he almost always saw it through from beginning to completion. Even on his death bed, when he could barely speak, gasping and hacking for air, Duncan talked excitedly about three different publications that would be publishing his work: “I’m gonna get a review in the next issue of Mineshaft. And Claire Burch is putting out a book of my writing from Street Spirit. And Terri Compost is going to publish some of my photos and drawings in a book about People’s Park!”  

And his last words to me before he drifted off into a fog of morphine were: “Every day is a triumph!”