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Photo: Courtesy of Maurice Vellekoop

> First Person

Maurice Vellekoop Sketches Out His Eccentric Life in a Raw Memoir

In 'I'm So Glad We Had This Time Together,' the Canadian cartoonist relates the fear and shame of growing up gay and how therapy saved him / BY Nathalie Atkinson / February 23rd, 2024


The Canadian artist, fashion illustrator and cartoonist Maurice Vellekoop is known for his exuberant and colourful work for clients like GQ, Abercrombie & Fitch, Wallpaper* and Rolling Stone, as well his own comics and playful queer erotica. Now his inimitable style serves in his own coming-of-age and coming-out story, I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together (out Feb. 27). It’s an intimate graphic memoir, about seeking meaning in life and of a life making and experiencing art, that was more than a decade in the drawing.

Vellekoop, 59, conceived of the project in 2012 when commercial illustration work was slow, he tells me from his longtime home on Toronto Island. At the time he found himself “in full midlife crisis mode,” figuring out what to do next. “I’ve drawn comics off and on all my life, but I was never really obsessed with them the way a lot of comic book people are,” he explains. “I looked around and saw that memoir was doing well and started to think about my life and my family and that it was an eccentric story – a very odd little world that I grew up in.” 

 

Maurice Vellekoop

 

Vellekoop, who grew up in the Toronto suburb of Rexdale, is the youngest child of Dutch immigrants who were devout members of the Christian Reformed Church, a strict Calvinist sect. His religious upbringing instilled profound guilt and shame about homosexuality that was compounded by navigating dating and sex in the 1980s, as the AIDS crisis appeared.  The memoir operates on two levels, exploring the ongoing conflict with his parents – a father given to unpredictable temper and a proper, elegant mother – while seeking meaning and love. It adds up to a painfully honest account that CNN anchor Anderson Cooper called “incredibly moving, funny, and ultimately triumphant.”

The memoir, spanning about 40 years, chronicles how Vellekoop overcame a legacy of fear and shame in his personal life, a topic recently tackled in a Maclean’s essay about growing up gay in a conservative home and the repercussions of the rise of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in Canada. In his book, he juxtaposes the welcoming community he found in art school (and with mentor Paul Baker) with a succession of awkward sexual encounters and failed relationships.

Vellekoop became part of the post-punk art and comics generation, rising in the Toronto alternative comics scene alongside cartoonists Seth, Fiona Smyth and Chester Brown. There are many pithy ways to attempt to describe Vellekoop’s sensibility: Bruegel meets Tom of Finland. Oscar Wilde by way of Alison Bechdel. What matters is that his distinctive expressive, dynamic style and riotous use of colour have made him a prolific commercial illustrator (through his longtime agency Reactor Art + Design) since the 1980s. If, in the 1990s, you read Vogue or owned supermodel Cindy Crawford’s Basic Face makeup bible, or casually flipped through the racy Abercrombie & Fitch Quarterly in the aughts, you’re already familiar with his work.

 

Maurice Vellekoop
Comic for American Vogue, 1994. Photo: Courtesy of Maurice Vellekoop

 

The title I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together is a reference to The Carol Burnett Show and her signature song, a nod to being a child of the TV age: Vellekoop and his three siblings were raised on a diet of Mad magazine, I Dream of Jeannie, Monty Python and Bewitched. Opera, Disney animation, fairy tales and ballet (like the National Ballet’s production of Sleeping Beauty) also populated his imagination from a young age. One of my favourite panels distills the watershed moment when he sees Fantasia for the first time at the age of five. Afterward, the world around young Vellekoop is forever changed and we see the world through his eyes – his rapt upturned face is illuminated by the imaginary replay he now sees in the sky. “Fantasia was new, yet strangely familiar,” he writes, “as if some divinity had foreseen all the things I loved, would love, and assembled them into a single, potent experience.” It’s then that he begins to draw in earnest, “in ecstatic overdrive” to fix the experience in his mind.

While making a name for himself as an illustrator, Vellekoop became known for his definitely not-safe-for-work erotic and adult material and short comics –like one about the sexual adventures of fashion editor Gloria Badcock, a Samantha Jones-like libertine character from his 1997 strip collection Vellevision. In his nearly four-decade career, the artist’s output has taken on a wide variety of forms and subjects, but never a long-form work of this magnitude. The structure is broken down into episodic chapters that, he says, could almost “stand on their own as a short story and anthology. That was a huge help in trying to grasp what I was attempting.” 

Maurice Vellekoop

Radio patter (or the lyrics of music playing in the background) wafts through the panels on ribbons of episodes rendered in shaded washes of a single colour that shifts, when appropriate, to the lush, full-colour palette for which Vellekoop is known. The sophisticated use of colour graceful curvaceous lines is a hallmark of his work – that, and the portraits of celebrity figures that have a touch of Al Hirschfeld caricature.

Beyond its elements as a pop-culture time capsule (there are fax machines!), a strong vein of local nostalgia runs through I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together. Vellekoop comes of age in the streetscapes of a bygone Toronto, where vintage cinemas, landmark gay bars and the old Eaton’s department store – as well as beloved booksellers like the Albert Britnell Book Shop – still exist.

One of the lighter episodes covers a memorable gig 30 years ago when Vellekoop was dispatched to the City of Light alongside fashion editors Kate Betts and the late André Leon Talley to sketch a Paris couture diary for Vogue (where he later illustrated Plum Sykes’ monthly Fashion Fiction column). Talley treasured Vellekoop’s watercolour of him; he kept it alongside original art by Yves Saint Laurent, and it recently sold for more than US$11,000 as part of Christie’s auction of Talley’s estate.

 

Maurice Vellekoop.
The Vellekoop watercolour of André Leon Talley that recently sold for more than $10,000 at an auction of the late Vogue editor’s estate. Photo: Courtesy of Maurice Vellekoop

 

Another episode supplies the background on his homoerotic primer Maurice Vellekoop’s ABC Book, a naughty collection of (tongue firmly in cheek) gay male archetypes that has garnered a cult following. The memoir details how he was consumed with the art, often re-drawing pages of the 1997 book over and over again. Did that happen here? It did, he admits, “but not in that particularly obsessive way that I used to work in those days.” Vellekoop learned a lot of things doing this memoir, he says, and one of them was when to walk away from a section, let it go and revisit it later. “I saved a lot of agonizing by doing that – as an illustrator, you never have that luxury!”

In many ways Vellekoop is more exposed by his memoir than the naked men who cavort in his sexually explicit erotica. He recounts the intimate details of dealing with depression and the sexual dysfunction of his romantic relationships, as well as being the victim of violent homophobic attacks and processing that trauma. “All through these years,” he says, “people have asked me, ‘Is making this book therapeutic to you?’ And I always said no – therapy was therapeutic for me.” He adds that one of the things he really wanted to do with this book, “which is maybe a little bit less urgent nowadays because so many people seem to be in therapy, was to demystify the process of it and show how it can actually work, if you find someone right for you.”

The contours of raw autobiography and what’s acceptable can be tricky. While his father Morris died in 2007, Vellekoop’s mother Ann passed away only recently, in 2021. By then Vellekoop had been working on the memoir for nearly a decade. Did they ever talk about the substance of its pages? “She was not thrilled about the book,” he admits with a rueful laugh, reiterating that she was a very, very private lady. “She read a lot, but did not read modern things, and she just would not understand the kind of candour that you have to have to write a memoir these days – all of that pain and suffering and the ugly side of yourself and others.”

Maurice Vellekoop
A panel about Vellekoop’s early, loving relationship with his late mother, who was ‘not thrilled’ about his memoir. Photo: Courtesy of Maurice Vellekoop

 

“At the same time,” he continues, “she was very generous with her thoughts and her memories. I asked her some pretty intimate things and she answered – she was always there ready to help me. But she did say, at one time, ‘I hope I’m dead by the time the book comes out.’” 

The epigraph of I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together is from “The Untold Want,” the two-line Walt Whitman poem about transformation. “When I read that poem, it just struck me as saying it all about my life – a kind of person who’s scared to venture out and then at long last does, and takes risks and exposes themselves to pain and glory and all of it.” 

What’s more, those Whitman words and spirit motivated the acclaimed Bette Davis weepie, Now, Voyager, and gave it its title: “I could not write a book about a gay life and not have Bette Davis.”

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