In anticipation of his new graphic memoir, I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together, the prolific artist and illustrator sits down with IN Magazine…
By Paul Gallant
I first encountered Maurice Vellekoop in 1997 at the height of his fame as a comic artist and illustrator for prestigious magazines like The New Yorker, Time, Cosmopolitan, GQ, Vanity Fair and Vogue – titles that, if you’re over a certain age, will make you go “wow.”
That week I had just devoured the two books he published that year: Maurice Vellekoop’s ABC Book, which looked like a kid’s book but was most definitely for adult gay men, and Vellevision, a collection of comics and illustrations that were glamorous, erotic and sometimes angsty. The work was so celebratory and shameless about sexual pleasure – even leather and group sex and rough trade – that it rewired the way I thought about fornication. I was with a friend who had also read and loved the books when we spotted Vellekoop in a Vancouver gay bar. We ran up to him like fan boys. “How did you recognize me?” he asked. “You look just like your author photo,” I remember saying. “Oh!” said Vellekoop, and our conversation came very quickly to a close. He did not seem arrogant, but shy and a little lost for words in the face of our adulation.
While his work was larger than life, full of big personalities that seemed to be right in the pulsing heart of our culture, Vellekoop’s own life, even at that time, was more fraught. In his new graphic memoir, I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together, with its title lifted from the lyrics to the theme song of The Carol Burnett Show, he pulls back the curtain to reveal all the things he was running away from as he threw himself into his work. So I meet up again with him – for a more detailed chat this time – at Toronto’s Sweaty Betty’s bar, to talk more about his work and life.
His Dutch-Canadian parents – a volatile, opera-loving father and a fearful, religious mother – embedded themselves so deeply in his psyche that his coming out as gay, moving to New York and becoming magazine-world famous failed to create the distance between self and family that he needed to flourish. “The story is the struggle of someone who is ebullient and fun-loving, but the world won’t let him be that way,” Vellekoop tells me.
Ten years (and a lifetime) in the making, the idea for the memoir came to Vellekoop when the decline of print media resulted in a decline in his workload. He needed a big, juicy project to throw himself into. Though in person he can seem reticent, he had published several erotic works, which gave him the confidence that he could be vulnerable enough to tell his life story without pulling punches. “When you’re sharing your sexual fantasies with the world, it’s very intimate and, in a weird way, it prepared me to tell some of these awful stories,” he says. “I don’t see how you could write a memoir and not deal with pain.”
Over the course of the sumptuously illustrated book, each chapter has its colour palette – sometimes muted, sometimes sickly, sometimes angry, though some pages burst into full Technicolor, depending on the characters who appear in the chapters and the mood of the scenes. The narrative structure takes the form of a bildungsroman, but there are also romance and detective stories and other genres embedded within it. The detective part plays out when, later in life, Vellekoop went to therapy. He had reached a point in the late 1990s and early 2000s where he struggled with depression and was frustrated at every turn. “My life was a mystery to me. I was out. I went out a lot. I had gay friends. And I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get laid or find a boyfriend, which were the things that I wanted the most in life. For me therapy was like a mystery being solved,” he says.
While creating the book, Vellekoop worried about how the people who appear in its pages would react. He contacted many of them, showing them drafts and telling them he’d change their name if they wanted him to; only one person took him up on the offer. The biggest concern, though, was his mother, who died in 2021.
“She was really dreading the book. She told me she hoped it was published after she was gone,” he says. “I’m kind of happy for her that she didn’t have to face it and she didn’t have to face the people in her community saying, ‘I read your son’s book!’ My mother read a lot and she loved literature, but she wasn’t really a modern person and she wouldn’t have understood the candour that people expect from a biography now. And it exposes a lot of private things about her, too. She was a lovely person. It’s just this, this faith that she had was this block between us, this huge block. She couldn’t overcome it, this hang-up about me being queer.”
Amidst the scenes of personal torment, unrequited desire, homophobia and personal growth, I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together simultaneously celebrates a post-Stonewall, pre-Internet generation of gay men who embraced shared cultural references, often offbeat, to find and bond with each other. Queer-coded TV shows like Bewitched, The Addams Family and Batman, cult films by Kenneth Anger and John Waters, and divas like Maria Callas and Maria Félix were currency passed around like – or perhaps in lieu of – sexual transmitted infections. One of the longer sections of the book is devoted to a visit to Neuschwanstein Castle, the 19th century Bavarian monument to over-the-topness, built by the closeted gay King Ludwig II. A young-adult Maurice bursts into tears when he sneaks off from a boring tour of the castle to gaze upon a swan sculpture. He may be crying at its beauty, or at how sad it is that he needs the distraction of so much beauty to escape from the demons that haunt him, or because his obsessive quest for beauty paradoxically reminds him of those demons. It’s poignant stuff.
Neuschwanstein Castle was, of course, one of the inspirations for the look of Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle, which was built in Disney World, Florida, and which features in the opening branding of its films and TV shows. Yes, fairy tales, as much as any other art form, permeate the memoir. If in this piece I’ve been cagey about plot points, particularly what Vellekoop learns in therapy and what happens to him after going through it, it’s because there are certain twists that I don’t want to give away.
As much of an aesthete as Vellekoop is, and a clear-eyed observer of human foibles, it’s also obvious he’s a big, sloppy romantic. Though the book chronicles much anguish (and several people with anger-control issues), nothing that happens in it happens in vain. Life has a structure and meaning; we just have to find it. The book ends where it ends, about 20 years ago, for a reason that Vellekoop would not like me to mention. “Nothing has happened to me since then,” he laughs.
I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together will be published by Penguin Random House Canada on February 24, 2024.
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, published by Acorn Press, is out now.