It may have been our dinner with all the fan artists at L.A.Con last year that provided the spark for this next article. The concept was so blindingly simple that we're surprised that nobody has done it before. In January, we wrote to several fan artists, asking them to 'collaborate' with William Rotsler bycompleting five 'set-ups' that we included with the letter. (The same five Rotsler cartoons were provided to each artist.) We also asked them to write something interesting about Rotsler we could publish with their art. Here's the results...
'Rotsler Traces', words and pictures by Sheryl Birkhead, 
  Kurt Erichsen, Brad Foster, Alexis Gilliland, Ian Gunn, Teddy Harvia, Joe Mayhew, 
  and Steve Stiles; illo by Sheryl Birkhead and William Rotsler
by Alexis Gilliland

 The first time I encountered Rotsler was when I was cutting artwork on stencils for the WSFA Journal, back in the late '60s. Bob Pavlat gave me a folder with several pages of drawings by Rotsler, Atom, and miscellaneous. The first time I encountered him in person was at St. Louiscon, in 1969. He was a Hugo nominee in the fan artist category -- and a BNF, and I felt very much the neo. At that time I hadn't started putting captions on my drawings, and I was having a run with a head opening the cranium hatch to show the joke in the conning tower, as it were. I drew one for Bill, and he said: "Why do you always draw those heads?" A very reasonable question which I took as criticism, and sort of wandered off, feeling that I was maybe intruding on his good time.

illo by Alexis Gilliland and William Rotsler  Time passed, and while I knew him, he got to the point where he knew my work in fanzines (he may have been aware of my work in '69, how else would he have known I was 'always' drawing those heads?), and then, after we were both Hugo nominees together, he began to know my face. Seacon '79, over at Brighton, he beat me out to win his second Hugo, and at some point we were in a hallway together, autographing program books. I was standing downstream from him, and when he began doing little pictures alongside his signature, I began doing little pictures alongside his little pictures. That is the first time I can remember us doing any sort of collaboration. In the natural course of events, some of the books made their way back to Bill to show him what I was doing to his work. He loved it, and after he got home, he sent me the first of many packages of set-ups, for me to find and develop the jokes concealed within.

 Since then, we have encountered each other at Worldcons, and now and then a Corflu or some such. Each time, we get together and draw silly pictures, sometimes on panels. Clearly if it wasn't fun for both of us we wouldn't be doing it. There is also an element of psychic jump-start involved. Collaborating with Bill for a few hours over the weekend is not only one of the highlights of the weekend, it also sets the creative juices flowing better than anything I have ever encountered on a regular basis. (There was the time... but that was a long time ago, in another country, and besides the wench is dead.) What else is there? Apart from the drawing, Bill is excellent company, and tells the most marvelous anecdotes. Some day I shall use one of his throwaway lines to start a novel: "After the war we all went to art school."

# # # #

illo by Steve Stiles and William Rotsler The Last Time I Saw Rotsler
by Steve Stiles

The last time I saw Bill Rotsler was on a Monday morning, the last day of L.A.Con III. It was around 10:30 and I snarled at him -- and all he had said was something innocuous like "Good morning," or "Hi, Steve." I grumped something incoherent and kept on stumping down the hallway until, about a dozen steps later, I came to my senses and did an about face and attempted to undo the rudeness. I'm still not sure why I snarled at Bill Rotsler, although it might have had something to do with that nutter-crushing hangover, or the ear-popping cold I was due to come down with by noon; I try to avoid doing stuff like that to Ordinary Persons (if such exist), and here I had reflexively dumped on WR!

 Maybe it was envy prying loose in a weak moment -- I hate to suspect that, but there is the fact that Rotsler is on a mental list of people I admire, right up there with Alexander King and Henry Miller. I mean, think of it; William Rotsler -- artist, cartoonist, wit, writer, photographer, film maker, sculptor, man about town. Most people know about all that, but I wonder how many people remember that Bill was once deputized as a member of a posse (in 1957), and helped apprehend a dangerous criminal? I could never do that, I'm the nervous type. Besides, some days I can't even find the car keys.

# # # #

My Dinner with Rotsler
by Teddy Harvia

 My memories of the convention panels I have been on with Bill Rotsler are a blur, the blur of cartoons flying from his pen. The guy never seems at a loss for ideas. It's as if his many characters are alive, all coming from inside one man's head.

 The cartoonist panel at Noreascon 3, the Worldcon in Boston in 1989, was scheduled for midnight. While I sat with pen posed over blank paper, my eyelids drooping from a day of conventioneering, Bill and Alexis Gilliland dueled on an overhead projector, their work appearing larger than life on the wall behind us. The laughs from the audience kept me turning my head. The only laugh I got came when I copied the work of a belligerent comics artist beside me and showed my version to the audience only seconds after he showed his.

illi by Teddy Harvia and William Rotsler In San Francisco in 1993, at ConFrancisco, the cartoonist panel was at a more decent hour and the convention provided large pads of paper on easels. The audience laughed and applauded as Bill, Alexis, Phil Foglio, and I alternated altering what the previous cartoonists had sketched. Having been challenged to my limit to keep up with the others, I commented afterwards how well I thought the panel had gone. Bill expressed disappointment, thinking we could have done more. Any more would have killed me.

 The late Dolly Gilliland once told me that she thought Bill and her Alexis were as much performing artists as artistic ones. I agreed. Give Bill an audience and he draws, feeding off the situation and individuals around him.

 At the WorldCon in LA last year, I went to dinner with Bill in a party of ten, five of us cartoonists, the other three being Marc Schirmeister, Craig Hilton, and Alexis. (I could have sworn Brad Foster went with us, but he swears he was elsewhere that evening.) After the meal, Bill pulled out a pad and started drawing setups, sketches of characters begging for cartoon responses. I have to be hungry to draw, but Bill seems to let loose best when full. One after another he finished and passed them around the table. We other cartoonists could not resist and added characters and captions to Bill's work. Bill amused us and we amused each other for almost an hour. At the end of the line, Rich Lynch stuffed the collaborations in his shirt pocket for future publication.

 On the way back to the convention center in the car, Bill told anecdotes. He told us of the time he meet Marilyn Monroe. A friend of his was a real estate agent in Hollywood and asked him one day if he like to accompany him when he took a movie star out to show a house. Bill sat in the back seat of the Cadillac. When the friend stopped to pick up the client, Marilyn stepped into the car. She turned to Bill and greeted him with all her charms. He was overwhelmed. The act didn't last, however. The instant she realized that Bill was not "somebody", she turned it off. Bill said he quietly stayed in the background the rest of the trip. I wanted to lean over to him and tell him that I thought he was "some body" even if Marilyn hadn't. But I didn't have the body for it. I just nodded my sympathies.

 Bill is somebody. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Seeing him carrying his two massive Hugos around at the nominees party later at the convention confirmed it.

# # # #

illo by Sheryl Birkhead and William Rotsler Vintage Rotsler
by Sheryl Birkhead

 "Some wines are ageless!"

 "And some just turn to vinegar.", I consider Rotsler to be one of fandom's priceless assets. When I first got into fandom, way back in the Dark Ages, it took a while to figure out the fannish patois. A Neofan's Guide helped with the written word, but there was never any doubt about the content of the simplistic Rotsler cartoons. Don't ever confuse simple with simplistic. The man is about as chary as they come with lines, but packs a deceiving wallop in content.

 Alas, I cannot do much more than appreciate the man and, sadly, I don't have any juicy anecdotes to relate. I have never even been privy to one of his legendary dish renditions, when he mystifies all, waiters and mundanes alike, by turning innocent and unsuspecting dishes into fannish mementos. However, I have seen the man at various conventions and watched in awe as he participated in fanartist duels. He wields his felt tip as he would a sword, and has an economy of motion that is a beauty to behold. Few can keep up with him in sheer volume, and none can match his contributions to fan publications over (literally) decades.

 I have never seen a biography of this phenomenon, but in bits from various articles have gleaned a bit of understanding of just how versatile and diverse an individual Rotsler is. But he's more than just that. Bill Rotsler has been a delight to fandom for over a half illo by Brad Foster and William Rotsler century that he's been in fandom. And there's only one word that adequately describes such a person of lasting, superior quality...


# # # #

{{ Some of the fan artists who responded provided only the cartoon collaborations, apologizing that they didn't know Rotsler well enough to write an accompanying article. Brad Foster was one of them. He wrote that "... I've only met the man twice or so at cons, due to my basic hide-in-my-room nature, so I don't really have anecdotes to pass along. I am looking forward with immense curiosity to seeing the variety of takes on these same basic starts!" Of the collaborations he sent, this is one of our favorites.}}

# # # #

illo by Kurt Erichsen and William Rotsler {{ Another fan artist who turned out to be frugal with his words was Kurt Erichsen, who provided us with the following insight... }}

 Bill Rotsler is just this guy with a beard. He's not even an artist, just a seismograph. You just put a pen in Bill's hand, put it down on a piece of paper, and wait for the next earthquake. It's not a widely-known fact, but Bill supplied the artwork that was etched on a gold plate and sent off to the stars on a space probe. The man is saying, "You mean that, Laddie?" and any aliens who find the probe will write a word balloon for the woman and send it back. The final cartoon will be published in a distant future issue of Mimosa.

illo by Joe Mayhew and William Rotsler
# # # #

{{In spite of some lengthy campaigning, we didn't get contributions back from every artist that we sent the Rotsler cartoons to 'finish'. And then there was Joe Mayhew; he did provide finished cartoons, but we weren't able to coax him into writing us any accompanying text, for more-or-less the same reason stated by Brad Foster. (Here is one of Joe's contributions.)

 We should also mention that we received many more collaborative cartoons than we can fit into this article! You can see more of them in our letters column in this issue, and probably the next three or four issues after this one. }}

# # # #

Along the Limpopo With Canoe and Felt-Tip
by Ian Gunn

Day 97: After months of traveling through inhospitable jungle, the expedition finally encountered our first piece of good news. At a native encampment hereabouts we heard tell of The Rotsler. Upstream, in the heart of the densest rainforest, there is, so 'tis said, a cave wherein a lone soul dwells -- a white man raised by the great apes. The N'Muntus call him Bil-Rott-z'lah, The Ghost Who Scribbles. So the legends were true. With Ranson interpreting, Dr. Birkhead negotiated an exchange: mirrors, blankets, knives and the last of our horses (scrawny, emaciated beasts though they be) for three large war canoes and a handful of native guides. We set off at dawn.

Day 99: The river is an endless series of rapids interspersed with mosquito-ridden quagmires infested with crocodile and hippo. Erichsen's fever grows worse, and progress is slow.

Day 101: Disaster! The second canoe overturned and all hands were lost. Allard, Stein, Williams and The Other Williams -- along with two plucky native guides -- perished amid a veritable swarm of crocodiles. Harvia was all for shooting the beasts but such a waste of our already depleted ammunition would have been futile. Gilliland conducted a brief memorial service and then, with grim determination, caused us to press on. Erichsen's fever grows worse.

Day 104: This morning Mayhew's tent was found empty. No sign of a struggle or foul play, but the natives claimed Bad Medicine was afoot. Unidentified tracks of some great beast -- somewhat larger than a lion -- were found near the shore. Erichsenis showing signs of delirium.

Day 106: Dr. Birkhead fears that little more can be done for Erichsen. We discussed the unthinkable: a swift merciful release. The poor wretch was babbling and screaming. The natives are restless. Foster gave them more trinkets and rum, yet they seemed not appeased. As we pitched camp we realised that Ranson was no longer with us.

Day 107: Erichsen at death's door. Jungle drums disturb our sleep. The natives fled in the night taking most of our supplies with them. Gilliland introduced a strict system of rationing.

illo by Ian Gunn and William Rotsler Day 109: Dr. Birkhead caught pilfering powdered eggs. Reluctantly, Gilliland had the Doctor shot as an example. Erichsen almost gone. Still no sign of The Rotsler.

Day 112: Erichsen still hanging on. Our supplies are almost spent. Harvia suggested we eat Erichsen. Foster said he could make a good chili. Gilliland would hear none of it and urged us onwards. I do believe our leader is showing signs of madness. The grizzled Texans muttered dire threats under their breath, and I fear mutiny is not far off.

Day 113: Erichsen has made a miraculous recovery. Quite chirpy and bright, he managed to sit up and drink some invalid tea, and even hobbled a short distance unaided. Gilliland found a scrap of paper with an alien head scrawled upon it. The spoor of The Rotsler! Morale is up. Harvia caught a small fruit bat for supper.

Day 114: We buried Erichsen. Tragic business. Cut himself shaving, fainted and was sucked dry by leeches. Hardly enough left for soup stock. In the evening we ate Foster. He put up a struggle, but he was right: he did make a good chili.

Day 127: And then there were two. Cold cuts of Gilliland for lunch. A pity, as he was the only one among us who had sighted The Rotsler in the wild. Harvia began to look at me strangely and mumble about gravy.

Day 132: I've often though that Harvia had dubious taste, and now I know for sure.

Day 142: At last! I've found it! The cave of The Rotsler! I staggered in, half crazed, my clothes in tatters, covered from head to toe in every kind of mud, blood and jungle filth imaginable -- and here was the cavern in all its glory! The legends fail to do it justice! The floor of the cave was littered with tiny scraps of paper each with a scrawled picture of figures standing in archways, alien heads and lumpy characters talking about LoC columns. On a rock in the centre was a hand-written note "Gone To Corflu. Back In Five Months."

You know, I never did get to meet him...
illo by Ian Gunn and William Rotsler

Title illustration by Sheryl Birkhead & William Rotsler
Other illustrations by Alexis Gilliland & William Rotsler, Steve Stiles & William Rotsler, Teddy Harvia & William Rotsler, Sheryl Birkhead & William Rotsler, Brad Foster & William Rotsler, Kurt Erichsen & William Rotsler, Joe Mayhew & William Rotsler, and Ian Gunn & William Rotsler

back to previous article forward to next article go to contents page