One day over French toast in a Pasadena diner whose wide windows let in lots of lemony morning light, Souther Salazar opened his sketchbook. Its pages were thick with drawings of monsters and houses and birds, and he added a little figure, neither human nor animal: blobs linked by bars, with a knifeblade of a nose and the most engaging smile.
Salazar squinted at it. "It's funny -- that was one of those moments where I'm not trying to think of an idea, which is when I think they come out the easiest."
The little figure needed something, and Salazar realized what it was. Drawing vibration lines around the bulb jutting from its head, he added a word: HONK. Then a caption: "A honker hid in his hole and honked."
He drew a few more wacky figures with alliterative captions. Then he turned the page and forgot all about them for a year.
Flipping through the sketchbook later, he couldn't let the little figures go. He drew more -- A lovesick lizard limped; A millionaire made miniature metal monkeys out of melted money -- and photocopied them into the kind of matchbook-size DIY magazine he'd been making since high school. An Oakland publisher saw it, asked Salazar to expand it, and now it's a book. New from Buenaventura Press, which has also published cutting-edge cartoonists Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, and Gary Panter, Destined for Dizziness! evokes dreamy childhood classics such as The Story of Babar and Curious George. On its pages, minimalistic sharks shiver at sea, a clown despairs over gathering clouds, an astronaut performs acrobatics, kangaroos cover their corn dogs with ketchup, a dog drives over a cliff. Such a shining charade, muses one of the pensive sharks.
Add authorship to solo gallery shows (such as one this summer at San Francisco's Giant Robot), a Moviefone ad campaign, and a second book on the way. Not bad by the time you're 27. Offers pour in for further corporate work and mainstream-magazine illustration deals, but Salazar mainly steers clear: "It's a funny thing I inherited from growing up with zines and being a punk: If the person who approaches me seems sleazy, or ... if they're talking about money or exposure and if they use words like 'hot,' then I don't want to get mixed up in that." And he doesn't really have to, because his pieces are showing in more and more galleries these days and famous entertainment-industry figures collect them. Salazar won't say who. That would be too LA.
"I don't feel like I'm really here, you know?" he says with a soft laugh. Part of him still abides in the sleepy far fringe of the Gold Country -- his family moved from Hayward to tiny Knights Ferry, with its covered bridge and old mill, when he was a kid. "It's really beautiful and also really isolated. If you stood at the top of our hill you could see two houses way off in the distance." And that was about all. His antique-dealer parents drove around on trash days collecting wrack. "The other kids all thought that was weird. I didn't think it was weird."
He drew. His parents gave him books to read: Beverly Cleary, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Slaughterhouse-Five, Horatio Alger. He watched vultures soar and dive. Then one day his sister's friend brought something from the city that felt like an artifact from another planet: a zine by Albany wunderkind Aaron Cometbus. Everything clicked. Everything changed. "I read that thing, like, a million times."
Realizing that somewhere out there was a photocopier- and postage-stamp-fueled world of artists and writers who answered to no one and required neither diplomas nor agents to find an audience -- "to me they seemed really famous" -- Salazar leaped in. A growing circle of total strangers who are, at the same time, your new best friends and biggest fans "gives you an impetus to do things," he remembers, "and to actually finish things." With its anonymity and no-rules rule, the zine world "is a very free place to be, yet even so it encourages you to try harder and to make more."
And even so, he never thought of it as art. "I thought, 'Art is what you see in the museum.' The people who draw on skateboards and album covers and for zines -- I didn't really connect that with what you see in museums. I never thought, 'I'm gonna make a big painting for a museum someday. '"
Instead, he kept making zines and became first a dishwasher, then an ESL tutor; then he interned at an architectural firm: "They'd let me design things, but I'm so impractical that the nuts-and-bolts engineers would say it couldn't possibly be built. When I think of something or draw something I never think, 'How's it going to work?'"
So he went to art school: "It was the default option for me because I'm so horrible at everything else. I can't function -- I'm a bad driver. I can't pay bills on time." And the calls started coming in. His cartoons -- a forest filled with fireflies, a reckless rat speeding backward on a smiling bicycle -- have an ageless ethereality that remind him of how he used to feel, alone with a book, in the chaparral silence of Knights Ferry.
"I remember what it was like to think that I would never meet anybody, ever. I didn't dream of leaving. I thought I would always live on a hill."
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