"Six and Two is Eight." Robert Johnson
I created HELVIS on June 1st, 1988. My sketchbook tells me so. 8+8=16. Elvis dies 8/16/77. I was living at home in Mississippi with my World War 2 parents, with a brand new Bachelors Degree, about to be hired by Mark Wheatley at Apple Comics to do seven issues of BLOOD OF DRACULA, engaged to be married to Kim Ashcraft, and looking forward to a move back to Memphis.
I know there have been attempts by others to spin the easy word play of adding an "H" to Elvis. But I would like to think I was first. It was original to my thought process brought about from the publication of the first CADAVERA story in MR. MONSTER #4 in 1988. And after all, I was from Tupelo, Mississippi. I had a right to be first. "Helvis" was first name dropped in CADAVERA's special appearance in BIG BAD BLOOD OF DRACULA" (Apple Comics), published in 1991, but drawn in 1989. By this time I had already drawn CADAVERA and HELVIS together, having a hootenanny picnic, on the cover of a CADAVERA comic. CADAVERA was made from the pieces of dead movie stars and HELVIS was made from the pieces of his former selves: REBELVIS, PSYCHEDELVIS, and ELVICIOUS.
I began drawing the HELVIS comic book in 1991-92 at 113 North Greer, Memphis, Tennessee. It remains my most intense illustrated tale invoking my worship of EC comics (his bible), Captain Marvel (his lightning bolt), Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (his "look"), Big Daddy Roth (his western eye), and Memphis (holy ground). I included Memphis's very own 1922 wooden roller coaster The ZIPPIN PIPPIN with no worry or concern that the city would ever abandon it in 2005 or replace it for a historic marker in 2010.
During this time, my suspicion (that American Pop Culture was a corpse overdue for reanimation) was validated by the art history book SEXUAL PERSONAE by Camille Paglia; a solid yankee 'take' on southern iconography in the way that she compared Elvis to Lord Byron in appearance and dress and beyond. Here in the pop culture ground zero of Memphis, years before Guralnick's romantic LAST TRAIN TO MEMPHIS or decadent CARELESS LOVE, twelve years before I worked at Sun Studio, I wanted to take it further, as if Jung wore a leather jacket and Freud owned a switchblade. I wanted to observe that Elvis is the king of pop culture, not just rock and roll.
"Presley's sneer was so emblematic that he joked about it..." Camille Paglia
HELVIS was a jukebox JEKYLL & HYDE, half Apollo, half Dionysis. This lead to other heady LSD era thought patterns rooted in Paglia's explanations of daemonism (though western cartoon art tends to dictate 'demonism'). The idea that held me (and still does) is the death-mask of Elvis Aron Presley in 1977 vs. the still-born death-mask of Jesse Garon Presley in 1935.
This is the true cult-psychosis of HELVIS; The materialistic, opulent, beautiful boy Elvis vs. the decomposing pinebox nature of a poverty grave that contained Jesse and has since passed into the earth in Tupelo. Jesse is the death mask of Elvis at birth. Elvis is the deathmask of Elvis at death. A 'two-face' of two worlds within the linear stretch of 100 miles and 42 years. Tupelo to Memphis. These dual halves are the face of HELVIS.
It was then that the spiritual aspects (and blood ties) of the life and death of Elvis Aron and his twin brother Jesse Garon began to take shape; stylistically, regionally, and even geneologically. No one would else would have these epiphanies but me. No one else could draw these conclusions, both literally and intellectually.
This Elvis ephemera, embedded with numerology and regionalism (that I have since dubbed THE GOSPELVIS) would eventually find it's way into my other films TEENAGE TUPELO and THE SORE LOSERS, all shot, so to speak, in Elvis's backyard.
"Life is a manifestation of rapture. Man is a manifestation of myth. So is each man a metaphor for history." J. Campbell.
These principles made grad school seem like kindergarten. Tune On, Turn Off, Drop In. My experience of discovering Elvis as a medium (and metaphor) made mere fan interest to be trite. It was akin to George Harrison's statement about his LSD experiment, "It was as if I had never seen, heard, or spoke before.". So I dropped out of grad school and soon dropped out of comix. I left the drawing table to be involved in low budget psychodramatic cinema, pursuing an interest in Super 8 film. With TEENAGE TUPELO, I proclaimed ELVIS to be my father.
In 1992 I purchased a TOMB OF HELVIS brick at the base of the Memphis Pyramid. The fifty dollar fee went to a local charity called MIFA and the brick became a location in the movie. When visiting the downtown Pyramid, you can still find it on Front street at Block #58. One cold morning, Eric Page photographed POLI SCI CLONE, GREG OBLIVIAN, BUSHRUDE GUTTERMAN (who, as a boy, visited the memorial services at GRACELAND in 1977 and walked by Elvis laying in his coffin) and myself as holy emissaries with guitars and flowers, wrapped in hari krishna sheets, and meditating around the TOMB OF HELVIS brick, heralding in the Millenial Comeback of HELVIS.
On Elvis Deathweek, August 1993, I shot DAMSELVIS, DAUGHTER OF HELVIS, my over-reaching first attempt at making comic art as comic-art film which encompassed the Memphis pyramid and statue of Egyptian god-king RAMSES into the millenial plot. Archetypically speaking, it was so easy to do. George Cole, the writer of Kid Anarchy comics (and head-Rockroach), played HELVIS. Bob Gann (R.I.P.) did the face-casting and foam appliance design.
During the shoot and the celebration of the 16th anniversary Deathweek celebration, HELVIS (as George), backed up THE OBLIVIANS performed 4 songs (like "Burning Love") at the ANTENNA CLUB. DAMSELVIS (Sherry Lynn Garris) was the hostess. This is the night I met Suzi Hendrix for the first time. She was playing sax and singing as "Elvili Parsley", the female Indian Elvis impersonator(!). Neither HELVIS or THE OBLIVIANS were paid for the show or even mentioned on the poster. I realized from there on to cover those bases myself. Without a trust fund or a non-profit, my legacy became self-preservation and DIY. I've searched my whole life for a Sam Phillips. Look about you and see the void. As goes the middle-class, goes rock and roll.
DAMSELVIS, DAUGHTER OF HELVIS premiered on Elvis Birthweek, January 1994, as the kick-off to my film company Guerrilla Monster (then called Big Broad Films).
Radio DJ Wally Ford invited us on WEVL, the local volunteer radio station, where we got to boast about the new movie premiering at a new hole in the wall called BARRISTERS (cause they had a big screen TV). I cracked a whip and Kim giggled. I can't believe this cassette tape still exists, or that it exited at all.
My last Fantagraphics comic book was the DAMSELVIS issue, which featured stills of HELVIS from the movie. The centerfold in particular is wild, because you see George's head complete with HELVIS make-up ...placed on top of my body (wrapped in eight-track tape as you see him in the comic.) Apparently our schedules didn't jive. But how metaphorically appropriate, nonetheless. (Photographs by Jim Cole).
As I began work on the HELVIS comic, the character was given an official AURORA model hobby kit catalog number from the sixties. HELVIS became #439 as was CADAVERA (#437) and DAMSELVIS (#438). In the spirit of the James Bama AURORA Glow in the Dark kit paintings, I pencilled artwork for a painting that Holland Company's Gary Makatura was to paint for the back cover of the HELVIS comic (as he had done masterfully with Cadavera #2). The painting was never completed and the comic was never published but it was Gary who handed out these official numbers, and I am forever grateful. I would love to hear from Gary Makatura.
"When I was a child, I read comic books." Elvis Presley
The original HELVIS comic was to encompass the full cycle of HELVIS archetypes in fumetti form as well as line art: REBELVIS ('50's), PSYCHEDELVIS ('60'), and ELVICIOUS ('70') were HELVIS' spiritual muses. Here was the cartoon distortion of Elvis Presley's impact and how it defined the Golden Age of American Pop Culture. This trinity of Rock and Roll ghosts provoke Helvis as Macbethian witches in the HELVIS comic riding the rails of the ZIPPIN PIPPIN roller coaster at LIBERTYLAND, the same one that Elvis rode died days before he died.
PSYCHEDELVIS became a pitch to the Cartoon Network (they said it was "too smart for television"). ELVICIOUS was based too much on one person, and never fully realized. But SID VICIOUS performed "My Way" and had played Memphis in 1978, shortly after ELVIS' death. REBELVIS held the most promise. The notion of a "Hill-Billy Batson", if you will, raised by an old black man named CAPT. WHIZ (Whiz comics published Captain Marvel in 1940) who still worshipped "ELVOODOOVIS", an ancient African god who haunted CAPT. WHIZ'S outhouse.
I placed an old black man (Capt. Whiz) and young white boy (young Rebelvis) in a scenario from REBELVIS. I later went back to the old shack (dubbed the House of Rebelvis) and shot scenes there for DAMSELVIS. This trilogy idea exists as scattered notes over a decade of sketchbooks. But if Brian Wilson can finish SMILE, then maybe I can finish my little "Southadelic Mythos".
Every bit of this was derived from the fact that ELVIS' favorite comic book character was CAPTAIN MARVEL, JR.. ELVIS' iconic suit, cape, and lightning bolt were patterned after this super hero. (So rather than it being aligned as the "Vegas" look, it should be called the "Marvel" look). I chose HELVIS to wear TURA SATANA'S clothes because they were black, v-neck, and spoke to the androgyny inherent in ELVIS' use of pre-lightning bolt mascara all the way down to BOWIE'S use of lightning bolt kabuki - which returns to the Japanese roots of TURA SATANA (who made love to ELVIS). From "spitfire" to "shitfire".
In grad school, I could learn about ROY LICHTENSTEIN copping a feel from comic books to make fine art - but there was no academia concerning the comics themselves, nor the "feel" they copped. Back in the day, the cool things weren't taught, especially if they were of Southern origin. This is one reason I hold onto SEXUAL PERSONAE. And while folk art can be mere appropriation, sometimes it's found innocence borders on the psychedelic: I could see how ELVIS went straight to the source of his childhood memories and began visually adorning himself capes and regrowing his sideburns which were also Captain Marvel, Jr.. Mac Raboy could have used ELVIS as a model. ELVIS would never have admitted to being the latest messiah, but he wore the clothes of Superheroes and read VON DANIKEN on the side. Near the end of his life, Elvis had begun to recycle his childhood influences in much the same way John Lennon and Paul McCartney did on SGT. PEPPER. In my world, it was SGT. PRESLEY.
When Billy Batson travelled under the city to find the Wizard who told him to say the word "Shazam" in order to become Captain Marvel, he walked by an impressive array of large statues: The Seven Deadly Sins. One should avoid these, no doubt. On page one, panel one of the HELVIS comic, I took the Seven Deadly Sins and turned them into the Seven Deadly Blues Men. All from Mississippi. All to be avoided, no doubt. But in this homage, Mississippi becomes a "Mythissippi". From Oppression comes Art. Billy says Shazam and is turned into Captain Marvel by a bolt of lightning. When Helvis merely says his name he is cursing. In disciplinary fashion this carries a punishment and he is struck by a bolt of lightning. (though this is not the case on page one!) Let's face it, what is "Shazam!" but another way of saying "Goddamn!" Nothing beats a bolt of lightning. Just ask Zeus, Robert Johnson, or any of their derivatives.
My sixteen comic book pages of HELVIS constitute a story never properly finished nor published entirely. Jack Oblivian published three or four pages in the back of a garage rock fanzine called "Memphis Only Rock and Roll Magazine" circa 1995. Four years later, eight pages were printed in the Portugese pop culture magazine CRU ("Especial Fim de Milenio") in an overall 14 page article on SUPERSTARLET A.D. by Amilcar Macieira. A full-page panel blow-up of HELVIS (screaming "Shitfire!") was published in the glorious comic issue of SALAO LISBOA, following my Sitges, Spain film retrospective in 2001.
I had big plans for the HELVIS comic to be a tabloid-sized wonder, printed on cheap pulp with old four-color press imperfections, complete with a flexi-disc of music in the centerfold. In the movie, there is a moment where DAMSELVIS (played by Sherry Lynn Garris) finds a stash of HELVIS singles in the trunk of an old car. Although this record never existed in reality, Lemon Peel Records put out the COMPULSIVE GAMBLERS official DAMSELVIS soundtrack 45 (designed by JACK OBLIVIAN). In 1998, a theme song for HELVIS, written and performed by none other than Country Punk Revivalist MSR. JEFFREY EVANS was submitted to MTV for some sort of contest. I guess we lost. Silly us, Memphis started pop culture, but no one has called since.
So Helvis really served as a bridge between the world of comics, cinema, and music. A harbinger of Fun and Doom. The icon kicked off Guerrilla Monster Films as the Memphis flavored (pre-1968) Warholesque multi-media engine that I wanted it to be. For such a imperfect movie as DAMSELVIS, DAUGHTER OF HELVIS, I couldn't have asked for more beautiful product and talented collaborations with my friends here in Memphis and Seattle.
In 1993, when future starlet D'LANA TUNNELL called me from a pay phone at Sun Studio and told me she would do nude scenes, I knew that I had shoot film while the times were hot. Time and health willing, I could always return to my first passion. So far, my reinvented have been kind.
I plan to return to the HELVIS comic book and finish it out to 24 pages as "end-times" allow. Everything will remain the same: He wears Tura Satana's clothing taken from her dying body, exchanged for a kiss, in the last few moments of Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
And when HELVIS curses a blue streak, he is still struck by lightning.
"Rock and Roll means the world to some people. Well, to me, it means the end of the world." Helvis
From Memphis, Mike McCarthy, August 28, 2011
HELVIS, REBELVIS, PSYCHEDELVIS, ELVICIOUS, SOUTHADELIC MYTHOS, copyright 1988, 2012 by Mike McCarthy
Page design Ronnie Harris, Special thanks to Pam and Rick O'Brien, Laura Hocking and Chris McCoy