Born in California, USA in 1951 Mary grew up during the 1960s and 70s. Spending her teens and 20s playing music, enjoying life and making art. Then,during the early 1980s’, after being a fan of the medium for many years, Mary began experimenting with comics – Quickly finding herself immersed in the global underground comic scene, due to her style, talent and hard work.
These days Mary continues to spend her time creating music, comics and art to global acclaim – Whilst also working independently as a designer and artist for hire, for publications such as Hustler. With all of Mary’s work being imbued with her love of a good time, vivacious personality and unique sense of line.
Having recently released a limited edition print via Stone Church Press and with a new comic currently brewing, we thought now was the perfect opportunity to get to know her better.
So we sent Mary some questions to answer over email.
Take a dive into her world, below…
Name + D.O.B?
Sept. 14th 1951
City, State and Country you currently call home?
Encinitas, California, USA
City, State and Country you’re from?
Hollywood, California, USA
Please describe some memories – such as art, music, comics, friendships, adventures, study, romance, politics, work, crime, religion… anything really – from the stages of your life noted below:
* Your childhood:
I’m pretty sure I was on the autistic spectrum as a child but grew out of it.
I didn’t do well at school because I was easily distracted and spaced out. All the time.
I wondered what was wrong with me.
At school, I would look at words and they would be backwards so I didn’t read until I was 8. I fooled everyone into thinking I could!
Our family moved to Vancouver, Canada, when I was 9 and the positive trauma made me adapt and all of a sudden I didn’t have that weird feeling in my brain anymore.
We moved from a suburban neighbourhood in Southern California that was very hot, polluted, smoggy and I hated it. The colder weather and beauty of Canada was wonderful but we moved back to The States 6 years later, when I was 15.
I had a brother, 7 years older, and if I did things with him it was allowed by the parents, so I was lucky enough to see The Beach Boys before Brian Wilson went nuts, (age 13), and I got to see The Rolling Stones twice when they had Brian Jones (age 13, and 14).
* Your teenage years:
When we moved back to California, I was 15 and puberty hit me like a ton of bricks, and I was on my way to Big Trouble.
While my parents looked for a house, I had to spend a year at a Catholic girl’s school called St. Mary’s. That’s where I belonged. I soon found out the nuns that ran the school were uber liberals and loved everything about the hippies! Their order of nuns were the first to stop wearing those burkas, (called habits) and they were very intellectual. It was very racially mixed- Black, Jewish, Hispanic, and I loved being around the different races.
I know people don’t quite believe me, but I had a blast going there. My art teacher encouraged me and she was a doll. Sister Mary Basil was an angel. I spent my last two high school years at a school with boys and it was a bunch of rich kids, conservative and I hated it.
It was a very turbulent time in US history what with the Vietnam War and The Draft, which was disgusting. My brother stayed in Canada when we moved so he wouldn’t have to join the military. I was proud of him for doing that.
* Your 20s:
Oh, I did what was expected. Go to college, get a job, go to concerts, get little sleep, do as many drugs as possible, and pretend I was a hippie.
I was unfulfilled, so after 7 years of that art major nonsense, I dropped out of college at age 24 and got a real job at a music store and started playing music. My new book “The Happy Hour” goes into detail about that period of my life. From 1975-77 I played every weekend at a dyke bar, every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I got $45 a night and that was good money. The bar wasn’t all female, either. The bar owner was smart and all were welcome. It was a crowd of all shapes and sizes, and all genders. I got along with the drag queens the best.
* Your 30s:
I inherited my Grandmother’s house in Los Angeles, so I had my chance to get out of that area, which I loathed, and so did my husband so that’s why we moved 100 miles away to a beach town called Encinitas. We both surfed, so it was perfect.
Got our house in 1981 and have been here ever since.
My husband plays a lot of instruments so we always had a band and played with a lot of people. I play bass, dulcimer, and some guitar. I am currently learning to play drums. I write my own songs and I love blues and jazz. Hate modern corporate rock music like the BS people sing on those singing talent shows.
In 1984, when I was 33, I decided to get down and teach myself how to do comics. I started making my own mini comics, and met tons of people through the mail and that got me started in the comic business. Comic people are delightful, and much better company than fine artists who are so serious and boring.
Cartoonists are also mad about music so that’s another common bond a lot of us share.
In 1988 I did my first solo comic, HOODOO and 2 years later an autobiographical title called SLUTBURGER. There were only 5 issues, so most were collected in a book called LIFE OF THE PARTY (1995).
* Your 40s:
Just comics, comics, and more comics. I started getting back into fine art, making paintings that LOOKED like my comic work. The famous Burne Hogarth suggested I do that when I met him on a panel and he took a shine to me. It was a very constructive suggestion! I really got into that “cubismo” style of mine and only wish I’d had this vision when I was a printmaking major in college. I was a late bloomer, as they say, so I made up for a lot of wasted years.
I also started getting a lot of work in mainstream magazines like Entertainment Weekly, Guitar Player, Musician, Spin, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, and even Hustler, which paid very well. There’s some law in America that if you have a wank magazine, you have to have 2 articles in there, so my assignments for Hustler were pretty serious and thought provoking.
One was the warning by doctors of the new “designer drugs” being made by people in their bathroom sinks. I drew a catwalk with models parading their designer drugs: one was holding a bottle of pills, another a gas canister of N20. One model was injecting a needle in her arm, and you know what? Hustle wouldn’t let me draw that because it “showed insertion”!!! So, I got ‘”censored” by Hustler! Isn’t that hysterical?
* Your 50s:
Around 2001 I went into a slump. A lot of my friends stopped doing comics, stopped attending Comic Con, and I was lacking in inspiration, so I got back into music, and concentrated on being in a band, and we played constantly, and made enough money playing gigs, to pay for a cd, and it was fun.
Almost every week, but staying up from 9-2am, was harder than it’d been when I was only 25!!
A lot of people thought I was done with comics, but I know when to take a break. I also started doing black velvet paintings at this time. Black velvet was a very popular thing in Mexico and everyone in Southern California has one as a tourist souvenir. Encinitas is only a 30 minute drive to the Mexican border, so we are very close.
I sold a lot of black velvets and the reason they was popular again is because of the mid century modern trend, and the resurgence of the Tiki Bar fad of the 60s’. There’s all these events now, much like comic cons, where people dress in Hawaiian clothes, and dress up like it’s 1963! That smoggy neighborhood where I grew up was full of tiki décor all over the neighborhood, and I saw it firsthand so it’s kinda old hat to me, but I love Mid Century modern design and I do love old brown furniture from another era.
I hate new stuff that is made nowadays. It’s such crap!
* Your 60s:
Well, somehow my Muse returned, and I started contributing to MINESHAFT magazine, and other anthologies.
However, in 2016, I got a big fat hole in my retina and had to get laser surgery. That lit a fire under me and I decided it was time to do that Graphic Novel, so one day I was thinking about honey. How is it made….really, I wondered. I started to research it and was floored by the bee biology I discovered, and I realized I was sitting on a pot o’ gold.
The title is BILLIE THE BEE. It took 20 months to write and draw it and it was done by 2018.
In 2019, Gary Groth from Fantagraphics, (they published LIFE OF THE PARTY and BILLIE THE BEE), asked me to do another autobiographical book and I agreed so I started THE HAPPY HOUR in late 2019 and it’s going slow, but I am putting extra effort in it and since it’s a memoire, trying to recapture memories from the past hasn’t been difficult, but it’s hard to decided just which one you want to use to keep the story flowing in an entertaining way.
I’m not big on arty, abstract, what-does-it-mean comics. I prefer a beginning, middle and end. Traditional, I know, but that’s what I like. My favorite comic artists are Robert Crumb, Robert Armstrong, Charles Burns, Dori Seda, and Jamie and Gilbert Hernandez.
* Your 70s so far:
No news is good news! Things are going well. My husband is retired and happy, we have a fabulous garden, which I call “my gym”, and we grow all our veggies. I have a green thumb, I must brag!!
We are healthy and take no medication.
I have a book I’m working on, and I have 2 lovely cats and a loyal dog. We live by the beach and our house is paid off, so we have zero debt.
“To do a common job uncommonly well….brings success!”
What role did toys play in your childhood?
The toys I really wanted were toys for boys. I didn’t like dolls, and I wanted a chemistry set. I wanted a baseball bat, not a “Betsy Wetsy” doll. I loved my stuffed animals, but didn’t really “play” with them. I preferred to stay in my room and draw or make craft projects.
We didn’t have comic books in the house. My folks thought they were a waste of money, but we got a big newspaper, so I studied the comics in there.
I didn’t like other kids very much. I thought they were mean, nasty and cruel, so I was a loner. I had my older brother to hang out with and he really did hang out with me. Kinda amazing considering at that age, a 2 year difference can mean everything, and he 7 years my senior.
S’funny, I always liked to be around much older kids than myself, and now I’m at this age where everyone in comics I know is at least 14 years younger than I!!
Art, Music, Comics + Creativity Questions
When and why did you first become interested in art, music, comics and everything creative?
… and any pivotal creative moments / influences?
I inherited good art/music genes from my Mother who was talented in both. She was a child dancer, played piano and had a good singing voice. She let be use (and ruin) her art supplies and we had a piano, so I just took to playing it naturally.
Then came the lessons, which I hated so that went nowhere, but I took up guitar at age 13 and taught myself.
I started drawing right away and even drew on the walls of my bedroom which wasn’t appreciated! My Mom has lots of art books, so I learned a lot from those.
In high school, I started playing with a girl singer and that was great! I got hooked on the stage and loved every second of it. I guess I’m a born “ham”.
If you had to explain your creative endeavors to some recently crash-landed aliens…
What would you tell them?
That we humans love to tell stories, and art and music are the ways we do it.
Now get out of here before some idiot tries to kill you!! Planet Earth is a scary place!
Aaron and I did covers for the last Dennis Eichhorn book, REAL GOOD STUFF, before he passed away. Then 2 years later, I met him and his wife Valerie, in Durham, North Carolina where the Zine Machine event was held. Everett Rand from MINESHAFT was one of he organizers and arranged a free trip for me.
I like Aaron’s drawing style a lot and he’s like me, a no bullshitter who says exactly what he means.
We see eye to eye on several controversial topics, especially politics.
Who are some of your favourite comic makers, artists, writers and musicians?
…and what is it about their works that so inspire and move you?
I mentioned Robert Crumb, and he’s Numero Uno. He’s just really smart and his satire goes right over people’s heads.
Artists I admire: MC Escher, Wifredo Lam, Alex Grey, Pacific Northwest native art, and Ancient Egyptian design. I’m a sucker for color, and good design. Ancient Egyptian art is so unique, there’s never been anything like it before or since.
No fave writers. Not a fan of poetry at all. If I want poetry, I’ll play a good blues or rock song.
Musicians: Dave Alvin, Miles Davis, Old time hillbilly music and vintage rockabilly, The Cramps, X, Keith Richards, James Brown and JD McPherson. I like stuff with a backbeat and I love rock and roll!
If people wanted to check out your art, work with you or buy some of your wares – Where should they visit and how should they get in touch?
My website: www.maryfleener.com.
My contact info is on there.
Odds and Ends
In your 2017 interview with Gina Prescott you speak about buying a gun… but think you should have gotten a dog instead.
Have you used your gun yet at all?
… and if so – in what circumstances?
I didn’t grow up with guns, and always thought owning one would be too extreme. I have a friend who is a gun nut and he always wanted me to go to the shooting range, and I declined.
One early morning after my husband left for work, a man attempted to break into my bedroom by prying open the lock on the window. I did have a large dog and her barking and my yelling made him run away but I got a good look at him as he fled. My knee jerk reaction was yes, to buy a gun.
My gun freak friend took me to a store and I bought one. I’d never even held on in my hands before.
You have to take a safety test and wait 2 weeks before you can take your gun home but it’s easy. Too easy.
We went to the range and I was a natural and hit the target well each time, but my word, the noise, and the smell of the gun powder is nauseating. Oh, you wear ear muffs and protective glasses but it’s not enough. It’s like a bowling alley where everyone is shooting at an individual target but what if someone flips and starts shooting YOU??!!
I only went that one time. The vibe, the people, and the atmosphere was dark and creepy. I even did a story about this in Glenn Head’s HOTWIRE anthology. (Fantagraphics).
The reality is, guns have ONE PUROSE. To kill. Period.
I now realize I couldn’t shoot someone unless they attacked my dog or my husband but then you have to live with that for the rest of your life. It’s bad karma no matter how you slice it.
There’s also our criminal system that could easily put ME in prison instead of a predator because there are some messed up laws.
I plan to sell this weapon very soon.
I also have some guns that were my Dad’s that I took out of my Mom’s house, so they will be sold as well.
I will donate the money to a group that supports victims of school shootings. I am researching this right now.
And have you gotten yourself a dog yet?
… if so – Please tell us all about them!
… and if not – Why is that?
I’ve always had dogs and cats.
My first dog was an American Eskimo. The look like small Samoyeds.
Then I had a Schipperke. They look like Tasmanian Devils.
Then we had a Border Collie mix (she’s the one that scared off the intruder), and presently we have a Corgi/Shiba Inu mix. She’s white with brown spots and is long but has longer legs than a Corgi. She’s a great watch dog.
All were rescued from no kill shelters. Same with my cats. All adopted and all indoor cats too. We have coyotes in the area and my last cat escaped death twice. The vet bills for his bites were insane. We decided to keep them indoors after the second attack. Barn owls will also feast on small cats, so we have a structure outside, a cattery, where they can hang out until it gets dark. It is estimated a cat will live only 2 ½ years if kept outside and I agree with that.
If you could live in any place, during any historical era – Where and when would that be?
…and why would you choose that time and place?
If I could’ve been a Chumash Native living on the West Coast of Central California, that would be it. The 1700s.
We camp at a place that was an old Chumash village in Jalama, California, and it’s my Happy Place. It’s also above Point Conception, where the land sticks out the furthest on the coast and is considered a mystical portal between the worlds, according to Chumash lore. There was plenty to eat, plenty of hunting, and fishing, seafood such as mussels and abalone. Very mild climate.
These natives didn’t engage in War with other tribes.
There’s many wild plants that are edible. We’ve harvested wild celery and fennel from the grounds near the campground.
Does sex change everything?
Usually! Having grown up in the “Free Love” era, I’d say the same old problems, like getting pregnant, are something to still worry about. And now we have all these wackos who want to make women “pay” for their sex life, as if it were something evil.
Most of these anti-abortion fanatics are just women haters.
What are the top 3 items you own?
… and what is it about each of them that you so love?
My Rickenbacker bass guitar, and my Martin acoustic guitar.
My original comic art collection.
If Janis Joplin could wack Jim Morrison on the head with a bottle of Southern Comfort, then I’d say Iggy would have a tiger by the tail but I know those small scrappy guys are strong, so Iggy would win hands down, except when he went through his junkie phase, Janis would probably get a few good punches in.
I also think Iggy can be quite charming and I rather doubt they would fight. It would be more like foreplay. Those guys from Detroit are sexist and hustlers, but gallant at the same time. Like they hold doors open for you and light your cigarette. Corny old skool, y’know?
Please describe your last dream in detail…
I was going to a comic event and had all these boxes. I saw a lot of people I know. Lots of laughing and good times.
But then I must leave, and I can’t find my car out in the huge lot. It was a college campus and hundreds of cars were parked everywhere.
Then I remembered I forgot a box, so I had to walk back to the building, up stairs and try to find the room I was in, and I forget the room number! I passed by a class drawing a nude model, so I knew I was on the wrong floor. I then remember I have a locker but can’t remember the combination!
I start to panic, and …..then I woke up!!
I have these “lost parked car” dream quite often. It’s amusing because I am very well organized and never get lost or am late!
Of everything you have done, what would you most like to be remembered for?
Someone who original and didn’t have to copy anyone.
Someone who was encouraging to people who needed help to get their foot in the door.
Someone who was happy for other’s success.
I have no desire to be Number One or the Most Famous. I want to be remembered as part of a cartoon gang that did good work and expanded the interest in comics into something beyond children’s books, and super hero capes ‘n’ tights.
All images supplied by Mary Fleener and Stone Church Press.