When Alex Wald appeared on the Japanese game show Naruhodo, Za Warudo in 1993 he answered only one question: Ultraman’s father once appeared disguised as which character from European folklore? Wald slapped his buzzer and, for the first and only time during the taping, it worked. The answer: Santa Claus. The show, which was taped on the roof of a Holiday Inn in San Francisco’s Chinatown, pits the cultural literacy of its Japanese contestants against Americans who are Japanese culture aficionados. Wald says that he would have scored more points but for the malfunctioning equipment.
An illustrator of what he calls “confectionary smut” for record labels and magazines, Wald was selected for the show–whose title translates roughly as “Oh I See! The World!”–because he owns a huge collection of Japanese science-fiction and monster-movie toys, which he began accumulating as a student at the Art Institute in the 70s. “I realized that Japanese kids had access to lots of cool stuff that just wasn’t coming over here,” he says. “I was determined to get my hands on it.” Wald developed contacts with Japanese fans who were just as hungry for American SF paraphernalia, and today his collection of monsters, robots, and superhero figures numbers close to one thousand.
Not surprisingly, Wald’s illustrations focus largely on “creatures, robots, and babes,” he says. “For juvenile males, sexually mature women are as remote and alien as any monster. They are compelling on a very primal level that a young person cannot articulate. They represent some kind of fascinating unattainable. I found myself drawn to this stuff from a very early age. So I guess this either tells you I haven’t progressed very much or I’ve become like a specialist of some sort.”
Growing up in Lawndale at the dawn of the TV age, Wald would get up early and stare at test patterns before the stations began broadcasting. In those days, “There was a lot of time to fill, so they filled it up with cartoons,” he says. “I soaked up lots and lots of cartoons. Some of my earliest drawings are of Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Felix the Cat, and then dinosaur stuff, which I had seen at the Field Museum.”
But at the Art Institute, representational painting wasn’t encouraged. “If you were a real artist you did performance art, or landscape art, or minimal art, or electronic art. They had a painting department and you would do abstract art. I would go in and paint monsters and they would look at me like, ‘Shouldn’t he be in the special ed division?'” Wald graduated nonetheless, and in 1983 he got a job at First Comics, a local independent publishing company that put out superhero comic books. Wald says that while he didn’t much care for the material First was publishing, he rediscovered his childhood appreciation for the medium. “Comics went through a relevancy phase in the 70s where they were bringing in subjects like racism, drug abuse, and other social issues. There came a point at which they were burdening fantasy with issues that defeat the purpose of fantasy. I was more interested in seeing Superboy turn into a dog for an issue.”
When Wald was laid off in 1991 in the wake of First’s bankruptcy, he decided to try to make a living illustrating the things he was actually interested in. Two of his first clients were Estrus Records in Bellingham, Washington, and Hustler, to which he now regularly contributes. For the first time he was able to make money without compromising his style or interests.
Wald says he has a tendency to research his subjects heavily, even when he doesn’t need to. So a Hustler illustration for an article on tantric sex, featuring a blue, multiple-armed Hindu-type deity with a gargantuan penis, exaggerates the concept for those with only a passing familiarity. It also contains details that only a tantric devotee might catch, like a lotus flower, which sometimes symbolizes a manifestation of the universe as the female sex organs.
For a recently completed series of paintings on the folklore of UFO phenomena, a subject that has interested him since childhood, Wald dug up some obscure cases that underscore the rich variety of encounters reported over the centuries. He scorns the currently fashionable representation of all aliens as supracranial little gray men who come to abduct and probe. “At this point, everybody in America knows what an alien looks like as seen on The X-Files,” he says. “But there are some regional characteristics to some of these things. People in Latin America see hairy, belligerent dwarfs. People in England, Ireland, and Germany see more elfin beings. Americans and Russians see more robots. People experience performances that are often very showy things identical to scenes in the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, and Irish fairy tales. This is folklore in the making.”
Wald’s alien paintings will be on display in the group show “Spaced Out: A Voyage Into Sci-Fi Art.” It opens at 6:30 this Friday in the second-floor gallery of Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, and runs through January 24 in conjunction with the theater’s current offering, Space. Admission to the gallery is free; call 312-514-1802. –Mike Sula
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Mike Wald photo by Jim Alexander Newberry; “Super Giant” photographed by Jim Alexander Newberry copyright 1994 Kronos Productions.