Comic Book Hero
One of the reasons I adore San Francisco so much is that it attracts so many interesting characters. Whether you're at an art opening or dining in a restaurant, you can easily run into a local icon of some sort, one with colorful ideas and interesting stories to tell. I love learning about the history of our fair town through their eyes.
Of all the brilliant and amazing people I have encountered here, none are as dear to me as Mr. Ron Turner of Last Gasp. He’s equal parts underground comic book publishing icon, art collector extraordinaire, genuine gentleman, and dirty old man. I always look forward to hearing Ron’s views on life, love, art, women, and, of course, San Francisco.
I met Ron about 10 years ago at a going-away party I threw for a mutual friend. I’d heard about him for a long time, and was intrigued to find out more about this man. Upon talking, we realized that I had actually designed a book that Last Gasp published called Sci-Fi Western. Ron has the calmest demeanor, but once he gets going, he is filled with animated tales about the rich, gritty culture in this city.
I recently visited Ron at the home he shares with his wife Carol Sue. They were married back in 2008 by Gavin Newsom after living in sin since 1978. Conventional they are not. When you visit the couple’s house, it seems like a lovely middle class home, but when you look a bit closer, there are aspects of Ron’s quirky sensibility throughout. Adjacent to framed needlepoint flowers you’ll find prized art pieces from the likes of R. Crumb, Jeff Soto, and Robin Williams. As you move deeper through the house, there are increasingly more treasures, each with their own fascinating backstories.
I took notice of a painting of a bunch of punk rockers by Guy Colwell. Ron explained that it was set outside The Deaf Club, a long-gone meeting place for deaf people in the Mission that in the late ’70s hosted all the great punk bands. Those with hearing impairments loved feeling the vibrations from the music, and the legendary space became a local hangout for John Waters and other creative types.
After allowing me to nose around his house for a while, Ron was excited to show me his garden. Last time I was over, it was still a work in progress. This time, he was very proud of his vegetables, which he and his wife had been cooking with all summer. I love the complexity of a man who tells stories about old punk rockers in one sentence and in the next, describes how to grow a perfect tomato. That pretty much sums up Mr. Turner.
After perusing Ron’s home, we were off to visit Last Gasp, his publishing and book distribution company. Ron started Last Gasp back in 1970. For over 40 years now, he has been one of the main supporters of underground comic and lowbrow art books. He’s put out works by R. Crumb, Mark Ryden, Todd Shorr, and so many others.
Last Gasp is almost like a museum. The warehouse stores row after row of books about art, music, fashion, sex, drugs, and everything in between. In the back parlor, Ron displays the overflow of his treasures. He has some impressive pieces, too, such as a signed William S. Burroughs photo and a taxidermied two-headed cow.
While inspecting some old photos, I came across a picture of dapper young men in a tropical setting. After inquiring about it, I came to learn that before moving to San Francisco in 1967 to obtain his master’s in experimental psychology, Ron was an active member of the Peace Corps. For two years he was stationed in Sri Lanka, where he taught scouting and science to the locals. He was so clean-cut in the photo, no one would guess that a few short years later he would morph into the mastermind behind one of the most cutting-edge publishing firms to date.
We finished up our tour of Last Gasp and sat down to chat a bit more. While we talked, I couldn’t help thinking that Ron, with his long white beard and rosy cheeks, is a man who has rubbed shoulders with Timothy Leary, received fan letters from Charles Manson, and discovered important artists like R. Crumb. Yet he still has the dignified character to make every person in the room feel just as interesting as the legends he shares his delightfully interesting past with.
Want to hang around Ron Turner? He is a fixture in the local art scene. Check out lowbrow art shows at 111 Minna Gallery or Guerrero Gallery and you’re likely to run into him.
If you’re looking to purchase something published or distributed by Last Gasp, its books can be found all over town at such fine establishments as Dog Eared Books, SFMOMA, and Mission: Comics and Art. (Of course, I also carry some at BellJar.) Or shop online . Last Gasp sometimes hosts open houses. Follow Ron on Facebook to get updates on events.