April Fools at the Last Gasp

Ron Turner lumbered past shelves of books – climbing on all sides to the ceiling. Looking something like a hippy version of Santa, he paused to check the day’s orders before plopping down in a desk cluttered with a strange cacophony of books and artifacts.

The founder of one of the world’s largest, and last alternative art publishing houses rattled off a few phone calls then checked his Facebook account. Everywhere, the walls of his legendary Last Gasp publishing house were emblazoned with the vintage sideshow posters he came to appreciate as a child.

“I remember when the circus would come to town in Fresno where I grew up,” Turner said. “The best place for me was the sideshow with the freaks.”

It’s only natural Turner would spin a career from his affinity for outsiders and freaks. Last Gasp’s artist roster is a who’s who of underground artists like R. Crumb, Justin Green and Robert Williams. Turner’s love of the subversive is as enormous as his passion for the beautiful, the freaky –  the stick-it-to-the-man kind of art.

“There’s still boxes of cornflakes out there running everything,”said Turner, simultaneously describing the political and corporate worlds. “So I don’t mind thumbing my nose at them.”

This artful nose thumbing got its start back in the sixties, when Turner was a Bay Area college student studying ecology. The ecology program was struggling for funds, and Turner and a few friends figured they could raise money by creating and selling an underground comic book.

“We thought underground comics were the strongest visual, vehicle for ideas at the time,” Turner said.

Turner’s first foray into the art world was a comic called Slow Death Funnies, featuring works by a number of burgeoning artists like R. Crumb. Turner and his friends came up with a batch of names for their new comic. Last Gasp was leftover, so he commandeered it as the name of his new company.

“The big themes of course were sex drugs and rock and roll,” said Turner. ”We provided some more educational material and propaganda.”

For forty years, Last Gasp has etched a deep history publishing art imbrued with the dissonance and elegance of a counter cultural art world.  It’s also slipped the occasional educational title into the mix, with lessons on how to treat herpes, or confronting racism.

Turner has never outgrown the hippy ideals of his youth when he would protest the war-du-jour or the treatment of farm workers. Each Christmas he throws a party in Last Gasp’s offices, with the proceeds going to charity.

"Somehow he’s kept these things together through the decades,” said San Francisco underground cartoonist, Spain Rodriguez. ”Crazy guy that he is.”

Rodriguez said Turner and Last Gasp have not only boosted the popularity of underground comics and art, they’ve also created a venue for underground artists to make a living.

”It’s been key to the production of underground comics and just providing some forum way that comics can get out there,” Rodriguez said.

Turner doesn’t just publish the unusual art he loves, he also surrounds himself with it. He unbolted a padlocked iron door in the rear of Last Gasp’s headquarters in San Francisco’s South of Market.. The door came from Alcatraz, he explains. Every inch of the room is covered with stuff – R. Crumb’s original comics for the Slow Death Funnies, a life size Bruce Lee statue in full karate pose, two vintage pinball machines -- a stuffed two-headed calf’s head.

The collection speaks to Turner’s love of outsiders. He rifles through a collection of clown paintings made by in prison by mass murderer John Wayne Gacy.  But for all his love of the strange, the unusual, the misfit castoffs --- Turner’s philosophies sound strikingly new-agey.

“Some of us have more extraordinary things to deal with than others,” he said. “Some of us have more talent than others and if we would all appreciate it --  the world would be a better place”

Note: Last Gasp will hold its 40th anniversary party at 111 Minna in San Francisco on April 1st at 6 p.m.

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