I did not know Richard well — he was a friend of a friend and I met him only twice — but I remember everything about him. We were both in our mid to late 20s and our mutual friends were a circle of artistic types, dreamers, dropouts, and successful people who wished they were the first three things.
Richard was special. He was an effortlessly brilliant writer and illustrator, and he had a breadth and depth of knowledge out of proportion to his age. Talking to him was like a guided tour of a great library. He was usually doodling on something and the doodles turned out as perfect little cartoon stories sometimes. This was in the golden age of the “new comix” between Gary Panter in free weeklies and Art Spiegelman on coffee tables, when new styles of comic strip art were showing up everywhere.
Richard could have done well, made a living or better, made a name for himself. But he refused. He was not lazy, or disorganized, or dumb about money. He explicitly refused to show his work to a wider audience or to be paid for it. I remember someone joking that he was Kafka and some Max Brod was going to disobey him and publish everything, and he became very upset.
So Richard was poor. Very poor. He and his girlfriend basically cleaned toilets for a living. It wasn’t clear to me why he dived that deep into the working class, since he had no romantic delusions of proletarian slumming. I think he just hated office work and liked being left alone to do menial labor.
Richard drank and smoked, a lot. Really quite a lot. I knew some hard drinkers at the time, but Richard was a full-service beer drunk. He never seemed to lose an intellectual edge, but his eyes were heavy-lidded and he swayed a bit when he walked.
He was living in San Francisco in the late 1980s, doing but not selling a long graphic novel and working his down and out job, when he and some friends took a night off and hung out on the top of a tall building downtown. They watched the city, and drank, and smoked, and drank some more.
At some point Richard, who was having a great time, was dancing around on balancing on something and stepped where the building wasn’t, not seeing the gap between it and the next one. And that was that.
It still is not clear if there was explicit intention. Did he jump? Did he fall? Did he start to fall and then just decided to go with it? Did he even know what was going on? Was he in that situation half-hoping that something would kill him? No one knows.
He left behind a life incomplete in every way. Incomplete in years, incomplete in his art, just truncated. Everything about him was rolling along this curve towards something big — good or bad — and then stopped in mid journey.
Richard was a very sophisticated person, and the kind of artist who worked on multiple levels. Sometimes I wonder if his entire life, the shape of it and its end, could have been a work of art about truncation and incompleteness.
On the other hand, he was a drunk. And his father had committed suicide. So he might just have been a smart guy with some bad luck and some bad decisions. I don’t know.
There are so many fakes and ridiculous twits playing at “tortured artist” who say and do things that sound a lot like Richard, but he was all real. And I believe he got what he wanted as an artist. I’m still not convinced, though, that he wanted or needed to die on the concrete of a San Francisco sidewalk that night.