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Drawn Out

How comic art immortalized the patriarch of the free press.

By Ivor Davis

Photo by Debra DiPaolo

 

o paraphrase a British saying, “Old journalists never die —they just fade away.”

But 80-something journalist and writer John Wilcock is an exception to that rule.

A pundit and happy pontificator, Wilcock has a wide-ranging, eclectic background that meanders more than six decades, from scribbling for the English tabloids to helping found New York’s first “underground” newspaper, The Village Voice. He was a travel writer and author, and, in 2001, finally settled in Ojai where he pens an international blog about matters that take his fancy. Now Wilcock, who’s originally from Sheffield, England, has finally received the credit he deserves.

No, not a knighthood from the Queen. Something even more prestigious. He has become a comic book character.

Nothing to rival Spiderman or Little Orphan Annie, but more centered on the peculiar Life and Times of the Wiley Wilcock. The comic book strip is based on the adventures outlined in his self-published Internet memoir, “Manhattan Memories,” and includes brushes with Marilyn Monroe and Andy Warhol—although not in the same room.

Like Wilcock, I too am an intrepid reporter, and one weekend this summer I ambushed him at the Coffee Connection in Meiners Oaks. A fierce and frank interrogation took place. I listened to his fascinating oratory, keeping in mind my old journalist credo: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Ivor Davis: What’s it like to become a comic book character?

John Wilcock: It’s a great way to end a long and interesting career. Americans revere comic strips and are intrigued by graphic novels. No one would buy or review my book—but then I realized I had written a script for a comic book. That was it.

ID: Who’s your favorite comic book character?

JW: I only read Blondie. Americans are reared on comic strips that keep them perennially juvenile.

ID: Other than you, rocker Joe Cocker, and steel cutlery, did anything else from Sheffield become famous?

JW: There’s the guy who painted swimming pools, David Hockney, he’s also a Yorkshireman.

ID: Malcolm McDowell is a Yorkshireman and lives in Ojai. Have you met him?

JW: No, but I was friendly with Larry Hagman.

ID: I don’t think he came from Yorkshire.

JW: Probably not.

ID: Does Sheffield have a good soccer team?

JW: When I was growing up it was a grubby tawdry place; we called it The Socialist Republic of Sheffield. Now it’s slick and attractive, with green belts.

ID: What did you think of Andy Warhol?

JW: I spent seven or eight years around that scene and he was a friend—as anyone was ever a friend of Andy’s. I never saw him angry or put anyone down. He was sweet, very inventive, and I liked him a lot. He taught me a tremendous amount about life. This may sound ridiculous, but he was very much like a Socrates to me.

ID: And what about meeting with Marilyn?

JW: I did the interview for the Toronto magazine Liberty. She was late but quite charming. It’s amazing how easy it was to get to see her. Today, PR people try to avoid you speaking to their clients. I didn’t know then what a huge star Marilyn would become. She was a B-star then, not in the Bette Davis, Joan Crawford Dietrich league.

ID: Who was your best ever interview?

JW: So many. But those who are basically human and don’t feel they’re above you. I always treated them as equals. Today, a star walks out if you ask questions that are not allowed.

ID: How were you able to move from print media into the digital age?

JW: When I moved to the West Coast I hired a woman to help me do my travel books. She introduced me to computers and fax machines. And I hired a great guy in Ojai to do my website. I’m totally incompetent on that front.

ID: Did not getting hired by The New Yorker upset you?

JW: They blew me off. My comic strip shows what their attitude was: aloof and kind of out of it, but producing a brilliant and fascinating magazine. I wouldn’t have suited them. I got my New York Times travel job instead.

ID: Why does Wikipedia describe you as, “one of the unsung heroes of the sixties?”

JW: When we started The Village Voice there were no alternate, anti-establishment papers. My column ran all over the world, from the LA Free Press to Oz in Australia. We were the first. Then there were 600 paper members of the underground press. We helped change newspapers forever, and I’m proud of how we did that.

ID: Who did you vote for in the last presidential election?

JW: I can’t vote. I am still a Brit with a green card. I’m just too lazy to become a citizen.

ID: Who did you vote for in the last Casitas Water District election?

JW: I voted for anyone who wants to put them out of business. I’m against the whole idea of private companies owning water companies to make a profit. It’s outrageous. Same goes for hospitals.

ID: How do you react when people ask, “Who’s John Wilcock”?

JW: It doesn’t bother me. I have had a lot of recognition in certain circles. A colleague used to say we were “famous unknowns.”

ID: What’s the next chapter in your life?

JW: I’m content doing my column and putting out a lot of books. I’ve done 37, mostly on the web…and three books about magic places to visit. My next big one to go up is about marijuana. I may have been the first person in the fifties to write about marijuana.

ID: Do you still use it?

JW: Not as much as I used to. Every underground newspaper I visited—Australia, Amsterdam, Rome—they wanted two things: to end the Vietnam War and legalize marijuana.

08-01-13

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