Waller, Vance & Kitchen Explore the History of "Omaha the Cat Dancer"

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview contains images that are intended for MATURE READERS.]

2013 saw the long-awaited release of "Omaha the Cat Dancer: Volume 8" from NBM, concluding the long-running series that had been on hiatus for many years. Creator and artist Reed Waller returned to draw the series' finale written by James Vance, who worked from the notes of his wife, the late Kate Worley. "Omaha" has always been a difficult comic to categorize or explain. After all, the book features anthropomorphic animals, and yet it's a very realistic story. It has a melodramatic plot, and yet, much of the book and its most memorable scenes are the quiet moments between characters or the events that take place off-panel informing the action. It contains sex and nudity, but is adult in the best sense of the word -- it's a story about grownups that address love and sex, emotion and politics in a straight-forward manner.

Of course, not everyone read the comic that way. In 1986, Michael Correa, the manager of Friendly Frank's comic store in Lansing, Illinois, was charged with the possession and sale of obscene material. Among the comics seized were "Omaha the Cat Dancer." Correa was convicted, though his conviction was later overturned on appeal. The event directly led to the creation of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

To mark the publication of the new volume, CBR News sat down with Reed Waller, James Vance and Denis Kitchen, who published the book for many years through Kitchen Sink Press, to talk about the series and its legacy. The trio discussed the lasting influence of Kate Worley's work on "Omaha," while Waller expounded on the origin of the comic, why he quit drawing and returning to his creation after so many years. Waller also explained why his recent work looks very different, how one of the big influences on the book is "Archie" and explains that "Omaha" is, above all, "about what it was like to be a young adult in the '70s and '80s."

The Beginning

CBR News: I know this is going back a ways, but where did the idea for "Omaha" start?

Reed Waller: It started as some short pieces in "Vootie" back in 1978. They were just short stories, but I did have a big story that was brewing. I started doing that story in installments and running them in the pages of "Vootie" six to eight pages at a time. That went on until about 1979. We went off to San Francisco for a while -- my then-wife Susan Ryan and I -- and came back in 1980. Ultimately I called up Denis Kitchen who was receiving "Vootie" and I told him I had something on my hands and he said, I've been waiting to hear from you. [Laughs] It was his idea to make the story -- which had expanded into a novel -- rather than put it out initially under its own title he said let's make it an entire issue of "Bizarre Sex." That was one of our big selling anthology numbers and has a guaranteed circulation and that will get it out there. That saved the story from instant obscurity.

What did you enjoy about "Omaha" and what did you see in those first stories that made you interested in publishing it?

Denis Kitchen: I first discovered "Omaha" in an obscure Minneapolis fan zine called "Vootie," which was focused on anthropomorphic cartoons. I even drew a couple of guest covers myself. I approached Reed -- this was quite a while before he teamed up with Kate Worley -- about expanding the very short mimeo adventures into a longer piece. I don't either of us at the time had a clue it would turn into an epic. I liked what he did enough to turn over an entire 40-page issue of "Bizarre Sex," normally an anthology, to his story. It ended up getting rave reviews and attention, and we know now how it went on from there.

When you started the longer story did you know where you were going with it or were you making it up as you go along?

Waller: It was halfway in between. It was something that just started to materialize by itself. It started out as a joke. I had the character and I had a challenge from some of the other cartoonists in our group to that there wasn't enough sex in funny animal cartoons. We all liked funny animal cartoons, but somebody wanted to see something more daring and something adult. I wanted to do something really adult and at the time I was playing with bands in the Twin Cities and there was a lot of moral backlash going on about strip clubs in the Twin Cities. There were blue laws passed requiring that strippers had to perform behind glass walls and all kinds of restrictive legislation. You couldn't have strippers and liquor served in the same room. There was pressure from local politicians and about the same time as this, there was the Donaldson Fire. There was a fire in downtown Minneapolis that took down two historic buildings, the Donaldson Department store and the Northwest Bank Building. They were both historic landmarks and there was a lot of talk about whether or not it was really an accident. A great deal of people talk a lot about the later part of "Omaha" and how it started out as apparently a goofy porn parody but right at the beginning an awful lot of the material that went into the story was stuff I picked up from real life and has some basis in local history.

"Omaha" is adult and when you say that in comics, people think about it in terms of sex, but the comic is about much more than just that.

Waller: It's been said that -- I don't know who started it but it's a truism now -- that just because something is unfit for children, doesn't necessarily mean that it's adult. And yes, what I really wanted to do was genuinely grownup. I wanted to enjoy in the comic books the same kind of freedom that a novelist enjoys in writing for grownups. It may seem bizarre that funny animals seemed like the way to do it, but it came about because I've always loved drawing funny animals. The other reason is that I've never been satisfied with soap opera comic books or "realistic" graphic novels. They just look artificial. People are very critical about how people are drawn. I discovered that if I used funny animal cartoons judiciously they would inhabit the comic book page better than bad drawings of humans. And it was easier to get good acting out of them.

The politics are definitely there from the beginning. It's about sex and sexuality, but it's also about gentrification and development, how people chose to live.

Waller: More than anything else, it was about what it was like to be a young adult in the '70s and '80s. There was a great deal of change in the air. People were living a different way than they had in the past. I was part of a generation that grew up in the '70s and the choices that we were making were choices that didn't exist decades before: alternative forms of marriage and the gay lifestyle and drugs and liberal politics. Young adults at that time were pretty much cut loose and they looked at the world around them and the establishment and didn't feel like they were really part of that, but still realized that they were powerful. That's the times of "Omaha."

Even when you were making the later chapters in the '90s or recently, were you still thinking of it as set in that period of the late '70s-early '80s?

Waller: As much as possible. As we went along it became more and more difficult. We tried to fudge it as much as possible. We were in the same position as when they were making the old Sherlock Holmes movies -- where they had to have one foot in the 1880s and one foot in the 1940s. That couldn't be helped. So throughout the continuity of the story the fashions can get a little fuzzy and sometimes people have computers and sometimes they don't. [Laughs] We tried to give the impression that it was somewhere around 1980.

Reading it, I wouldn't always think of it as such, but every now and again there would be something that dated the book and tied it to that time.

Waller: It was always very consciously a period piece. We did our best to keep it that way.

At the same time, so much of it remains current and relevant. I've been dealing with issues of developers, gentrification and many of these issues in the past year.

Waller: Yes very much. The biggest part of the politics of "Omaha" -- and the reason why I did turn it over to Kate -- was that the real heart of the story that I wanted to see was about women and feminism. I felt the tug of this story that needed to be told with this unusual woman character, but I wasn't the one to do that. When Kate took it over she knew exactly what to do with it and she just picked it up where I left it and ran with it. We never discussed where the story was going to go or anything like that. I just handed it over to Kate and she knew exactly what I wanted and she knew what she wanted and it took off. We never had any disagreements or even much discussion except, "How do you want this character to look?" We each did our share and it just sort of happened and it came to us from whatever was around us.

In that sense she was your best and closest reader if she could read the early issues and write something that was true to everything you did and yet more.

Waller: I knew where I wanted it to go and she was the person to do it. I knew her as a radio writer. She had a lot of experience writing radio comedy and radio drama. She was also very literate and a big fan of Colette. I think Colette probably had a lot of influence on the way "Omaha" came out.

She came out of Shockwave Radio Theater, as you mentioned, as did a number of others. How did the two of you first meet?

Waller: Minneapolis had a science fiction fan group -- one of the older ones -- and we both belonged to that. We were both married to two people that had been married to each other previously. [Laughs] My wife and her husband had been married. At some point or another our relationships kind of fell apart and we wound up spending a couple of evenings together -- the four of us. A very interesting time. Then I wound up doing some acting for Shockwave and that's how we got close. Also we were both musicians and we started playing together.

What do you play?

Waller: I played guitar professionally for about four years. I played rock and roll and got bored with that after a while and started performing as a folk performer. That was when I started in the science fiction fan group. After a while I gave up performing professionally and just played at parties and at hootenannys and at science fiction conventions.

How did you two end up working together on "Omaha?"

Waller: Well, we moved in together. "Bizarre Sex" #9 was out and I had another issue that I was trying to work on. I managed to get through that and I was working on the second issue and I ran into a problem. Kate said, you know this doesn't make any sense to me. She pointed to something and said why don't you just do it that way? That would be more logical. I said, "Do you want a job?" And that was it. It was just that obvious and that was it. She sat down and started writing it and that's the way it stayed.

Talk a little about the design of the issues. You open each issue with a full page image that doubles as the title page. You utilize a grid--

Waller: It's very conservative, yes.

Why is that? Is that how you had usually worked?

Waller: There wasn't any way I usually worked because I hadn't done that much work before I started "Omaha." I'd just been drawing cartoons. I hadn't been drawing comics for any period of time, although I'd always wanted to. I didn't want to call attention to myself as an artist. I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to have people enjoy the characters and so I kept it conservative. I always admired Dan DeCarlo. That's where I took my basic format from -- the nine-panel page -- Dan DeCarlo. "Archie" is also what taught me how to do compact but realistic dialogue. Kate was quick to pick that up and refine that as well.

I don't think most people would think of "Archie" as the major influence on "Omaha."

Waller: Probably my best compadre in the comics business is Larry Wells and that is certainly something that he and I agree on. Besides naked women we agree on Archie being the model for a lot of things.

How has your artwork changed?

Waller: It depends on which years. I started out as a rank amateur with not really any technique or any finished style. It took me several issues to really learn how to draw. After a few issues I moved into a studio with Billy Fugate, who just recently passed away. He was a really excellent comics artist. He encouraged me to pick up the brush. That's where things changed. I'd been drawing with pens and markers, but I knew where I wanted to go and the brush was it. All of the really classic stuff that I admired was brush art. Also because it was partly an erotic story, I wanted a nice liquid kinetic flowing line. I wanted it to be physically pleasant to look at. Billy told me that once you start using the brush, you can't go back to the pen. You're committed for life. I said, okay, I understand that. He helped me perfect my technique and that's what matured my drawing style.

I just simply continued to improve and as I improved I worked harder and harder to reach something in particular I was looking for, which was a combination of Curt Swan and Alphonse Mucha. I wanted it to have a pretty nice, cleanly drawn girls comics kind of look -- which Curt Swan was the best at -- but I also wanted it to have a little bit of an art nouveau look. I started meticulously drawing figures with slightly heavier outlines and making it a little bit more decorative.

You touched on this in one of the introductions, but could you talk a little about when you first read "Omaha" and meeting Reed and Kate?

James Vance: As best I remember after all this time, I met Kate and Reed at the Chicago Comic Con in 1988, before I ever read any of their books. They made such an impression on me that I started reading the book as soon as I got home -- and when they asked me to write the introduction to one of the volumes in the original Kitchen Sink collections a couple of years later, I went back and read the entire series up to that point.

What impressed me from the beginning was how fluid the whole thing was. As gorgeous as Reed's art was, with that flowing line and those attractive characters, it was always in service of the story; he never threw momentum under the bus to stick in some silly pyrotechnics. And the story itself, the writing, was just a marvel of accessibility. Even coming in cold, you could open any issue and quickly understand the characters' personalities and relationships, no matter how complex the situations became. The structure was a soap opera, but it wasn't the kind of stilted mannered crap that used to be on daytime TV. The scenes were filled with realistic overheard dialogue, the characters and situations were adult, and the story just carried you along without making you feel manipulated. It was a masterful job of storytelling from a pair of collaborators who seemed to be working in perfect harmony.

As the publisher of the series, what did you enjoy about "Omaha," especially as the series really hit its stride?

Kitchen: I was initially drawn to Reed's style and the fact that he built a real personality into Chuck and Omaha the primary feline characters. When Kate came on board the cast and characterizations got even richer. I loved the fact that this was a literary soap opera with graphic erotic interludes, but the series as a whole did not appeal to prurient interests. Sometimes entire issues were essentially sexless, which is why I would get extremely annoyed when the book would get busted internationally, or by customs agents or domestically. Some idiots actually thought the book depicted bestiality when, of course, there are no humans anywhere in the series. The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund originated as a result of "Omaha the Cat Dancer" getting busted for merely being displayed in a Chicago-area comics shop in the late '80s. I was furious that the cops and a judge could find this series obscene, so I raised money to hire a First Amendment attorney to appeal the manager's conviction. The decision was overturned, "Omaha" and other busted comics were vindicated, and the CBLDF became a permanent watchdog organization, but the series continued being picked on.

How do you think that the book changed over the course of its run?

Kitchen: I think the series gradually became more progressive and humanistic -- if that is an appropriate word -- in its nature as the initial adventures slowed down and interrelationships became more important. It certainly became a more complex book as new characters kept being introduced. But Reed and Kate, and later Jim Vance, managed to weave it all together very adroitly.

Returning to Omaha

The artwork you've created for this new volume is very different from your older work. Could you talk a little about what you were thinking and how you worked?

Waller: Well, there was ten years where I didn't draw. I began by accepting commissions from fans and drawing some sketches and that was very difficult. Basically I had gone for ten years and put it behind me. I not only was away from "Omaha," but I was not drawing. I had dropped out of comics entirely. Learning how to draw my own characters all over again -- from scratch basically, without a clue -- was a laborious process that took me several years. The first twenty pages or so that I did in 2005 and 2006 were meticulously modeled on the computer first and then traced onto the page. It took me a couple of years to get to where I was confident enough to just draw it the way I used to. It's certainly not as polished and as tight as what I did back in the '90s. It's a lot looser. Part of that is simply because I'm an old timer and don't see that well anymore. But it's also looser and maybe a little bit more kinetic than the stuff I used to do. Maybe that's the tradeoff. I don't know. I can't say.

The recent ones do have a looser, more kinetic sense. Why did you work like that?

Waller: Part of it was just plain fear. I hadn't been doing it full-time for years and years -- I hadn't been doing it at all. I had to push myself pretty hard to get back to it. Just beside the obvious -- which I'm sure that Jim has also mentioned -- this took us a long time to do and there was a reason for that. One is that we both had to support ourselves while we're doing this but the other is of course that it's tough emotionally for both of us. We both had to bite the bullet pretty hard to sit down and do this. Even though we really enjoyed what we were doing and it felt good to be bringing this to a finish and so forth, Kate's not here. It was very bittersweet all the way through. I don't know how it was for Jim, I can't even imagine really, having to write this stuff and work from Kate's notes.

CBR TV: "Omaha" Creator Waller Talks Longevity & Returning to Cons

He would send me a script and I would sit at the drawing table and bang my head against it for about two weeks before I would start drawing. This was every chapter. Finally I would get going and I would have to push myself. These new pages -- I drew them very, very fast. If they're a little bit sloppy, that's why, but on the other hand, if they're more kinetic and more animated, that's why. They were drawn very quickly because I had to. I couldn't labor over the work because I didn't have the strength or the patience.

If it's not too personal a question, why did you stop drawing?

Waller: When Kate and I broke up, that was pretty much the end of my art career. I tried doing other stuff, but basically I felt I was a one trick pony. I put everything into doing "Omaha" and really, that was all I wanted to do. There really wasn't anything else in comics that I wanted to do. I took one job after "Omaha" was over and that was doing a "Wolf and Red" story with Scott Shaw for the short-lived Tex Avery's Comics and that was terrific fun, but that was a once in a lifetime kind of thing. It was a great deal of fun to do, but that's it. I just wasn't interested in just drawing comics and I didn't have anything else in me, so I just retired.

Do you still feel that way -- that you're less about comics than about "Omaha?"

Waller: Pretty much. Now that this is finished, I probably won't draw again. And that's all right. I also had a music career and I sang and played professionally and performed for decades and one day I picked up the guitar and went, "I'm done." It was like I had something that I wanted to achieve and I had things that I wanted to do with my music and I've done them all. I feel the same way with "Omaha." We've completed it and it's a great sense of closure.

I read all of "Omaha," more than one thousand pages in the course of a few days, and it was a relief to get to the end and have a happy ending. It may not have been the ideal situation, but it ended pretty well for the characters.

Waller: We didn't want to tie everything up with a bow, even if we had the space for that -- and certainly that was not Kate's intention. Kate said, "We'll leave some stuff hanging because it'll be more fun that way." If it's just tidy enough so the main story arcs are settled into place but we've still got characters that are out there and have their own stories that's more fun for the readers because they can imagine the further adventures of Joanne and so on.

Had you and Kate talked before she died about finishing "Omaha?"

Waller: Not really. And like I said, we never did. I just left that up to her. She would just come to me and ask me to supply characters. We would discuss the issues that came up in the book and how we could deal with them or we would meet people and discuss whether we should work them into the story, but the specifics of plotting out the story, that was all Kate.

In that sense was working with James similar in that he wrote the scripts and just sent them to you?

Waller: That's right. He was the screenwriter and I was the director and all the actors. That's basically the way it worked. That's actually what he said after we completed about twenty pages. He said, "This is really fun, it's like working with a whole bunch of really good actors." That really pleased me because that's how I saw my job. I have an acting background and that's always what I was thinking about. Again, I didn't want to make "Omaha" a flashy showcase for my artwork. I wanted people to not even notice my artwork. I wanted them to get involved with the characters and the story and forget that anybody was doing this. That required some good acting and that's what I've always concentrated on was to try and get the best acting out of my characters that I could get.

I can't imagine the challenge of picking up and writing these recent chapters. What was the process of putting this together like? What did Kate have as far as notes and scripts? Did you talk about much before she passed and what was left to you?

Vance: We had a few conversations in passing -- how's it going, what did you work on today, that kind of thing -- but the truth is, I was too desperate to believe that she wasn't going to die for me to pump her on specifics. One night she asked me to carry on if she couldn't finish, and I was too wiped out by the prospect to pursue it. When I finally started pulling her notes together after she died, I found that she'd left a rough general outline and a lot of speculative notes and bits and pieces of script -- fragments and whole scenes that would be scattered in throughout the storyline. So in some cases I was just inserting completed pages she'd written, and completing other scenes that she'd started. In other places I was writing scenes from scratch, some based on the notes and outline she'd put together, some extrapolated from my best guess at what she would have done to get from A to B.

I spent a lot of time at the beginning going back to the original comics and studying the characters' speech patterns and how Kate worked transitions, trying to get a feel for that deceptive leisurely flow of incident. But ultimately, I had to just plunge in and do the best I could. And yes, it was nerve-wracking at times, the thought of living up to her standard especially when her pages and mine were literally back to back, and at times our stuff was at different points on the same page. What I kept shooting for was the goal that nobody would be sure which pages were mine, and which were Kate's. If I pulled that off, then I think I did her justice, because she was a wonderful writer with a unique talent.

What did you give to Reed and what was your interaction with him on the book like?

Vance: Everything was full script, but most of the visual side of it was my thoughts on the characters' motivations and what they were thinking, rather than specifics about the drawing itself. The actual visual descriptions were pretty bare-bones -- something like, "Two-shot: Rob's entering the bathroom and Geoff's in the tub" -- but rarely any elaborate camera angles unless it was something absolutely necessary to the scene. For a while, we experimented with me sketching some very rough thumbnails just to get the process jump-started, but I wasn't very comfortable with that, and it didn't last very long. I mostly gave the simplest physical descriptions I could and just sat back and let Reed do his magic. As far as I was concerned, you don't tell Reed Waller how to draw "Omaha."

James Vance is "On the Ropes"

As for our interaction, we discussed a couple of plot points that Kate hadn't made clear in her notes, and one time he told me that a particular layout I'd sent him wasn't the "Omaha" way, which is very straightforward, so we changed it. Other than that, I wrote pages and Reed drew them, just like a couple of grownups. Every so often, he'd respond to the script and tell me something like, "That's just the way Shelley would say that," and that kind of cheerleading was incredibly encouraging. From my point of view, you couldn't ask for a better collaborator. We were both working to do right by "Omaha," and to do right by Kate.

The Influence of "Omaha"

What do you think the influence and legacy of "Omaha" is?

Waller: When "Strangers in Paradise" came out, Terry [Moore] was very very vocal about having been influenced by us. He even wrote an introduction for one of the volumes. As far as anybody else goes, I don't see us as having really influenced anyone because the people who were most similar to us were already doing something similar. "Omaha" started at much the same time as "Love and Rockets." That was a case of parallel development. I think a lot of people had the same idea which was to use comics for realism. We always paid attention to Los Bros. Hernandez and Harvey Pekar. That's what it was about, realism. Even though "Omaha" is melodramatic in the plot, really, if you go through it page by page it's more like watching a movie by [Yasujiro] Ozu because so much of what happens is you're just watching everyday stuff and so much of the character development and story development is off screen or between the lines.

Kitchen: "Omaha the Cat Dancer" has already been an inspiration to a number of young cartoonists and there are many ways "Omaha" will be remembered. But I think the most obvious is that it demonstrates by example that an anthropomorphic and erotic comic book can also be highly literate and humanistic work. Too many people dismiss underground comix as X-rated for the sake of shock with nothing to go with the graphic content. "Omaha" shows sex as a naturalistic element within a complex drama, one that touches many chords. It's also a very rare example of an episodic story that can span many years, even with long interruptions in narrative, and keep readers riveted and loyal along the timeline. I'm thrilled that this work has reached a conclusion and can't wait to join the other fans in savoring the final chapter.

Vance: Of course, if "Omaha" hadn't been confiscated at Friendly Frank's back in '86, and we're talking specifically "Omaha" -- none of the other books seized at that time generated the same level of response -- then the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund never would've been formed. If that was the book's only legacy, it's more than most can say.

As for influence, I think we're looking at the long game. I've heard from women in comics who cite Kate's work as a major inspiration for their own careers. Terry Moore has gone on record about how "Omaha" was an early touchstone when he was starting "Strangers in Paradise." The fact that "Omaha" could succeed so well for so long is an example for other creators who want to look outside the standard violence-or-comedy options that restrict creativity in comics. The fact that there's interest in ending the story after so long says a lot about its enduring quality -- and the number of foreign-language editions that have been published in the last couple of years tells me that its impact isn't just local. I think we're going to continue to see that influence, that legacy, for years to come in work that hasn't even been started yet.


How do you feel about the ending of the series and how much of a challenge was it to get the right tone and the right moment to end on?

Vance: Honestly, I dreaded getting to that final page. Reed and I had discussed how we were going to wrap it up, and I completely misunderstood a comment he'd made and wrote a scene based on what I thought he was getting at. He wrote back to me and said, "No, this is the kind of thing I was thinking of..." -- and he included a completely new scene that he'd written. I read it a couple of times and thought, "Well, that's all we need, isn't it?" And I liked the symmetry of the man who created "Omaha" having the final say on how we wrapped up his baby. So the final page is all Reed's, and the story goes out the way the whole thing began, pure Reed Waller.

I know that so much of the ending is bittersweet, but now that it's finished, what do you think of the ending?

Waller: Well, I wrote the last page myself. Jim gave me that. We were wrestling over exactly how to end it and one night it just came to me: "This is the last page, this is what I want." He said, "This is good, let's go with that." It felt good to both of us. I'm sure we could have done a better job, but we're both satisfied that we did finish the story in a way that Kate would have been satisfied with. I feel we achieved the right tone. We kept the same tone as much as we could and kept the same feeling for the characters and I think it concludes fairly well. I'm happy with it and Jim's happy with it.

As I said, I read the entire "Omaha" over just a few days and I think the last page ended on a perfect note.

Waller: That's good. I'm glad to hear that.

"Omaha the Cat Dancer: Volume 8" is on sale now from NBM.

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