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Mary Fleener lives art on the edge

It takes a person less than the time it would take to toast a slice of bread to realize Mary Fleener is anything but bland.

Talented. Political. Fiery. These are the words people used to describe her.

Fleener attributes her independent streak to role models she had early in life.

“My mom worked for Disney,” Fleener said. “Back then, (the artists) were rebels.”

Illustrators, painters and cartoonists weren’t the only artists she grew up with. Nor were they her only role models.

“As a kid I remember opening up the Sunday pages in the Examiner,” she recalled. “Back then there were pages and pages of comics. Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner, those were my heroes.”

Later, she would also become familiar with Steve Ditko — who drew, wrote and co-created with Stan Lee the Marvel Comics superheroes Spider-Man and Doctor Strange — when she stumbled onto the punk rock music scene. It was through music that she discovered her interest in comic books, Mad Magazine, and eventually underground “comix.”

Although she attended Cal State Long Beach and majored in printmaking, she considers her years spent drawing nude figures to be “what’s expected from all art students. Oooh. There’s not much stretching going on.”

Much of what she learned, Fleener said, is self-taught — and she quickly put her talents to work while she was a student, designing and selling T-shirts on campus.

Cotton-blend fabrics might have been her first moneymaking canvas, but she reinvested those earnings into more art supplies: pencils, pens and inks.

In 1984, she began drawing mini-comics and four years later published her first work, “Hoodoo,” with Zora Neale Hurston, folklorist and author during the Harlem Renaissance, as the central figure in the storyline.

Fleener followed that title with her semi-autobiographical works, “Life of the Party” and “Slutburger,” the latter of which she said got plenty of raised eyebrows.

“I got grief for it at Comic-Con,” Fleener said. “One year a parent came up to me and said what kind of comic book is that. Comics are for kids.”

But not all comics are meant to be kid-friendly, she said. There’s something for everybody, from the lighter fare to the gritty graphic novels that bookstores and comic book retailers stock.

 Underground outpost

Unless you’re a rock star in the comic book world, very few people can readily name underground comic artists like Fleener. Oh, you’ll be able to find them. They’re in the back, far from the action, under a cobweb jungle that requires a fully charged GPS device to locate. And if you wanted to meet her, it’d be easy.

“There are never any lines where we are,” she said.

Over the course of her career, Fleener has contributed illustrations to Drawn and Quarterly, Buzzard, and Twisted Sisters, and has been featured between the spines of the OC Weekly, Guitar Player, the San Diego Reader and Hustler, and the Weird Tales of the Ramones CD boxed set.

“It’s funny. She’s more known internationally. But in San Diego no one really knows her,” said Dody Crawford, executive director of the Downtown Encinitas Mainstreet Association.

Crawford’s son, who at the time was attending high school, first introduced her to Fleener’s comix when he brought home a copy of “Life of the Party.”

“I was laughing so hard,” Crawford said. “I was surprised she was willing to put that all out there.”

Jerry Waddle, owner of Ducky Waddles Emporium, has known Fleener for 15 years. He has shown her work at his gallery and curated the 2009 exhibit, “Low-brow Art: Nine San Diego Pop Surrealists,” at the Oceanside Museum of Art, which featured her work.

“She’s one of San Diego’s most important artists,” Waddle said. “Some people would disagree with me, but she is.”

Danielle Susalla Deery, director of exhibits and communication at OMA, said Fleener’s work is dynamic.

“She energized the exhibit,” Deery said.

That energy has continued to catch the eye of comic industry professionals over the years. Fleener was recently approached to produce a comic book cover for the iconic character Popeye, brought back to life after a 30-year hiatus by King Syndicates under IDW Publishing.

Craig Yoe contacted her to create a cover. They worked together on a previous project, “The Art of Mickey Mouse,” published in 1993.

“The first one I sent them they thought was a letdown,” Fleener said. “They were expecting something edgier. Okay, I told them, I can do it like it was on PCP.”

Still, her comic book career has been an uphill battle, she said. She doesn’t produce mainstream or easily recognizable comic titles for a living.


After 20 years of fighting retailers, Fleener said, she’s decided to shift gears.

“I’m reinventing myself.,” Fleener said.

She wants to focus less on drawing comic books and focus more of her time on creating other forms of art she already enjoys: ceramics, acrylics, and oil-on-velvet paintings.

Any velvet canvas is fair game, even a friend’s black biker jacket.

The first time she experimented with the material, the result was a disaster. She used acrylic paint. That was 10 years ago.

“The acrylic seeped through to the bottom,” she recalled. “I painted over it and over it and ended up scraping the fuzzy stuff off. I redid (the paining) in oil.”

Over time, she gained mastery of the technique and demand for productions grew.

She has a large collection of oil-on-velvet paintings, some of which she displayed at an Encinitas coffee shop. “Elvis, Bob Marley smoking a joint,” she said. “Buyers wanted to buy Elvis 10 times over.”

Fleener said she also recently showed a few of the same paintings at ArtWalk. “Everybody wanted to buy these in black velvet.”

She describes the effect she achieves, “like being in a darkroom and somebody turned on a flashlight. It’s like you see all the highlights. It’s more dreamlike, surreal-like.”

One fan liked a painting so much that he had it tattooed to his back.

Fleener’s work has been described as engaging.

Collectors of Fleener’s artwork are no strangers to her “cubismo” technique. She wasn’t responsible for coining the phrase, however. That honor goes to another underground comic book artist.

Years ago, she wrote a fan letter to Robert Armstrong, creator of Mickey Rat. She never expected him to reply, let alone write, “I really dig your cubismo.”

Cubismo never looked back.

The origins of the “kinetic” style were heavily influenced by Ancient Egyptian art. “It’s weird. All profiles,” Fleener said. “I can’t decipher it. It’s so mysterious.”

So mysterious, scholars and tourists are still attracted to 5,000-year-old-sculptures. What is it about the ancient reliefs that are so enticing?

“Freud talked about the unexplained phenomenon. Take it as that and go with it,” Fleener said.

She said she was fortunate to have made a trip to Los Angeles nearly 10 years ago to experience the King Tut exhibit. “I was misty-eyed. I felt a connection to the art as if I was always a part of it.”

That’s not the only connection she’s felt.

Art and politics

Fleener has been part of local politics since 1988, and has spoken out against a variety of issues.

Fred Caldwell, owner of Caldwell’s Antiques on Coast Highway 101 and creator of the Kook Calendar, said Fleener asked him to sign a petition urging the Encinitas City Council to keep development reasonable.

A longtime friend of late city Councilwoman Maggie Houlihan, she wanted to memorialize Houlihan’s contributions to the city of Encinitas in a dramatic, public way. Fleener joined with Crawford to make the Maggie Banners that would hang above city streets for motorists and pedestrians to enjoy as part of the ArtsAlive exhibit.

City Council members did not approve of the memorial and “blocked out Houlihan’s face on the banners,” Crawford said. “So she drew a cartoon about it. That touched me.”

Fleener has been an outspoken opponent on a number of issues, local and national, and to that end directs some of her political voice through editorial cartoons featured in The Coast News.

“I’ve got 23 cartoons under my belt now,” she said at the time of the interview. “I spend all weekend thinking about it. And then it just pours out of me.”

Fleener said she doesn’t feel the same type of pressure she once felt trying to sustain underground comix. Sometimes, she said, she can push her Monday or Tuesday deadline to Wednesday, and not have to worry too much about it. She doesn’t have to worry about holding up a comic book publisher concerned about printing costs, shipping, and then selling the book to turn a profit. All she has to do is concern herself with the space that’s been reserved for her on page four. “It’s nice.”

And although she hasn’t received any letters from readers yet, “It’s still early. People are still getting used to me,” she said. “Just wait. I’ll irritate somebody.”

In October, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first Comic-Con in San Diego, organizers of San Diego Comic Fest have invited Fleener to participate in a panel to talk about her career as an underground comic artist.

“I remember when I got the call,” Fleener said. “I thought, oh God, I hope they don’t ask me to talk about women in comics.”

Ken Pagano is a San Diego freelance writer


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Mary Fleener lives art on the edge