You probably know artist Eric Drooker’s work even though you may not recognize his name. He’s produced artwork for over a dozen covers of The New Yorker, several depicting books stacked to resemble skyscrapers. Now his art has been adapted as animated sequences in Howl, the film about the landmark 1957 obscenity trial on the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl, starring James Franco. As Drooker explained, documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, known for their film The Celluloid Closet, were going to make a doc, but they ended up going in a completely different direction. “They are in San Francisco, and I’m in Berkeley these days. They visited and looked at some of my other work. That’s when lightbulbs went off over their heads, when they saw these illustrations I did with Allen’s poems.” Now the 90-minute film contains approximately 20 minutes of animation woven throughout. An illustrated book of the poem is also out now, containing Drooker’s artwork.
The 51-year-old artist was born on the Lower East Side, attended Cooper Union and lived for most of his life in the East Village, where he first met Ginsberg, who started collecting his agitprop posters around Tompkins Square Park. As he explains, the massive construction projects that he experienced during his youth that influenced him greatly show up in many scenes in Howl.
New York Press: I know that you had a working relationship with Ginsberg, but how did your involvement in the film get started?
Eric Drooker:When they began the project, the first thing they did was interview the oldest members of that scene: Ferlinghetti, Peter Orlovsky, Tuli Kupferberg, the founder of The Fugs. When they were interviewing [Tuli], they came across a copy of Illuminated Poems. Not sure if Tuli showed them the book or they saw it when they were there. Now that Tuli’s gone, we will never know. So they decided to contact me to use some imagery in their documentary.
How was that process for you? Did you create the art and then farm it out to other artists and animators?
That was very unusual to see the work translated by other artists. Usually, I write the thing, draw it and ink it all myself. So I was operating in the auteur approach of doing it all, doing the whole thing, so it would be the work of one artist’s hand. It’s so tedious and labor intensive; it would have taken 10 or 15 years to make a film like that. You need to have a team working with you. So, I designed the whole cast of characters: the skinny 29-year-old-withglasses Ginsberg character; a Kerouac character; Moloch, a Minotaur. I would draw the Minotaur, from the front, the side, from all different angles. I did the anonymous nude, copulating figures.
I was wondering about all the sexual imagery, the phallic images that keep recurring, the large penises on the male characters.
There was more sexual imagery. It got cut. They were showing it to different audiences and taking surveys. And people asked: “But Ginsberg was gay. How come there’s all this heterosexual imagery?” But
I think the poem is celebrating all kinds of sexual expressions, as long as it was taboo. It was a big part of Allen’s attraction; all his boyfriends were almost always straight men. He liked guys who like to fuck women. It was part of his recurring motif. And some of it made it in there There’s a lot of homosexual imagery.
The size of people’s genitals was toned down a bit. But it ended up I was exaggerating everything because I had a feeling that would happen. So I overcompensated.
Was there any pushback to your visual interpretation of the poem?
It conjures up images in the mind of the reader, of the listener. You don’t want someone interpreting it for you. That’s what is great about poetry: You hear words and come up with your own dream image.
On the other hand, there is a tradition of coming up with illustrated poems, books, rock videos. We attempted it, and I would have had even more outrageous, not just sexual but political. They were staying more personal to a young man coming out of the closet and coming to terms with his sexuality. I think it could have had a larger dose of political reality of the ’50s, the cold war, McCarthyism, the Howl obscenity trial, the Hollywood witch hunt, the execution of Rosenbergs. Younger viewers may not grasp some of those connections.
Were you basing your image of Ginsberg on James Franco?
When I was doing drawings of young Allen, I make him very tall and skinny.
He’s very elongated, almost like an El Greco. I wasn’t going for realistic proportions; he’s very stretched out and very graceful, so when they animated them they would look more abstract and graceful. This was before I knew about James Franco. I had been working on it for over a year before he landed the part of Allen, so I wasn’t thinking of Franco at all; I was looking at pictures of Allen when he was in his twenties. That’s most of the poem, when he was in his late teens and twenties. Allen was only 16, 17 when he met Kerouac at Columbia University.
You grew up in Manhattan and your images seem to continually show the city and skyscrapers as overpowering and intimidating. Why do you think you keep returning to that?
I thought the whole world was like that. I hadn’t been to too many other cities. I’d been to Boston, which seemed like a smaller version of New York. I was such a city boy; I hadn’t been to the country or the woods. When I got into my twenties, I felt a little bit of the oppressive nature of the architecture.
There was this architectural boom, especially in Lower Manhattan, with these buildings that weren’t even there when I was a kid. I had the Empire State Building, the Chrysler, these very beautiful skyscrapers, out my bedroom window. Then I watched the Twin Towers go up; these big shoeboxes, not pointy or with design or pattern. I remember going down there when it was open to the public; they would let you go on the roof. The scale was so preposterous, a monument to male ego. It had a Dr. Seuss quality. It looked like a disposable cigarette lighter. All the buildings built in my lifetime look like they have a disposable quality.
I would go to the rooftops where my parents lived and it’s what hit me at a certain point: These are the mountains, and people are consigned to live in the valleys. It’s not a human scale, not really built for people. This is for commerce, about making money, the circulation of money and traffic.
Moloch is still alive and well. I just heard last week that Obama’s military budget is larger than under Bush. My first time reading the poem, the part about Moloch is what got to me: “A thousand blind windows.” The whole first part was a surrealistic kaleidoscopic roller coaster ride.
With so much art and animation to get done, how long were you working on the project?
Almost four years. The last two years of the project were high-drive. At first, when they talked about animating, I thought it would be little vignettes. I thought a minute there or two minutes there, to break up the monotony.
When I realized what they were proposing, I thought they were crazy—way over-ambitious. Why don’t we animate Dante’s Inferno while we’re at it? Of course, it didn’t even hit me, The Inferno would have been ambitious, but not as dangerous or as ambitious as Howl.