Quick Take:

Longtime Santa Cruz cartoonist and creator of “Subconscious Comics” Tim Eagan turns a terrifying fall in his youth into a humorous and wise meditation on fate and mortality.

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One night, almost 50 years ago, Tim Eagan fell off a building.


It was three-and-a-half stories, about 35 feet, straight down, near Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. He suffered a kidney contusion, a couple of cracked ribs, and he soon lost his spleen. He knows that the fall could have easily killed him. Many have died falling from lower heights.

“I didn’t jump,” he said, “though I’ve been accused of that. I accused my brother of pushing me. He was right there next to me.”

Alcohol was a big factor in the incident. Eagan and his brother had been drinking. “I was standing on a balcony, pulling some balancing stunt. Anyway, my brother says he turned around just in time to see my heels disappear down the side of the building.”

Eagan is well known in Santa Cruz for his work as a cartoonist, most notably as the creative mind behind “Subconscious Comics,” a wry, psychologically insightful and, at times, esoteric newspaper cartoon that has been a staple of Santa Cruz’s alternative press. Now, at 78, he’s aiming to publish his first graphic novel in the style of “Subconscious Comics,” and he’s drawing from that experience in San Francisco that almost killed him.

The conceit behind “Head First,” a finished book that Eagan is planning to publish in the summer, has to do with the strange psychological elongation of time that often happens in times of trauma. The book begins with a man falling from a building, which happens somewhere around Page 8. The next 90 or so pages chronicle what happens in the few seconds it takes him to hit the ground. But it happens in subconscious time, which means there are plenty of opportunities for him to assess what is happening to him, reflect on his life, and grapple with what he is certain is his imminent death.

A panel from a Tim Eagan comic
Images from Tim Eagan’s “Head First,” due out this summer. Credit: Via Tim Eagan

Central to the story is Eagan’s signature character, a hairless but simian-looking creature known for his “tighty-whitey” underwear named “The Boss,” a representation of the subconscious mind inspired by the landmark 1967 book of evolutionary psychology “The Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris. Within the falling victim’s mind, The Boss takes control while he and other characters deal with the crisis of the quickly approaching concrete below.

“All the characters inside (of the mind of the man who is falling) are all very conscious that the clock is ticking,” Eagan said of his book’s narrative arc. “It’s similar to (J.R.R. Tolkien’s) ‘The Hobbit,’ in that they’re on the way to Mount Doom. They go through all these things that relate to some degree to what is happening. But there is never any doubt to where they are and where they are going. They’re on their way quite possibly to die. They’re just looking for a way out. Is there some way they can bargain with Death who, of course, lives in the lowest of low places.”

Santa Cruz illustrator Tim Eagan at work
Tim Eagan at work. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

At time of his nearly catastrophic fall, Eagan was an attorney, and an unhappy one. It would make for a neat narrative to say his near-death experience changed the course of his life. But, he said, he was intent on bailing on a legal career before the fall. At the time, he was interested in a life as a writer or artist of some kind. He moved to Boulder Creek in the Santa Cruz Mountains and was already in the process of making that change when the accident occurred. He called the fall “a major turning point in my life,” but does not think of it as a signal from the universe for his life.

“Yeah, I’m not really a signal-from-the-universe kind of guy,” he said. “I don’t think the universe cares one way or another.”

Over the years, Eagan’s work — roughly divided in half between “Subconscious Comics” and more traditional politically oriented editorial cartoons — has appeared in several newspapers, many of which were part of the Santa Cruz alternative press, including the Santa Cruz Express, the Sun, the Independent, Good Times, and the Santa Cruz Comic News. His work was also published in the Stanford Daily, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian.

Yeah, I’m not really a signal-from-the-universe kind of guy. I don’t think the universe cares one way or another. — Tim Eagan

The idea that became “Head First” is not a new one. He’s been entertaining the concept since at least the 1990s. As to why he’s publishing only now, Eagan said simply, “Laziness I think is pretty much the answer.”

Years ago, he did pursue an opportunity to make an animated film based on “Subconscious Comics” and its trademark locales such as the Cranium Club, the Dream Theater, the Gene Pool, and the Senses Bureau. He went to Hollywood and met with various producers. “They kept saying yes, until they finally said no,” he said. “I gave it my best shot.”

A panel of a Tim Eagan comic
Images from “Head First.” Credit: Via Tim Eagan

A few years ago, he gave up doing his political cartoons. “I got tired of doing it,” he said. “I think I lost faith in my fellow man. You get in your 70s, and you start reassessing your whole philosophy.”

It was then he decided to create a graphic novel and publish it on his own terms: “It’s the biggest single project I’ve ever undertaken as a cartoonist.”

“Head First” is now finished, but on Wednesday, Eagan will launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise about $5,000 for a first publishing run. The plan is for the book to be released in mid-July.

Publication of the book is not only about putting a punctuation on his legacy as a cartoonist, but it’s also an opportunity to reengage with a long-ago brush with death, and to face the demons that still plague him.

“It was (a crisis) of faith in people,” he said. “I don’t want to oversell that. But I used to think that about a third of the people in the world are meatheads. Now, it’s closer to 50%, at least in my view. And that seemed harsh to me. I was disappointed in myself for having this dark view of people, especially since I am one. So the natural thing for me to do was to go back to ‘Subconscious Comics,’ which is all fantasy.”

Santa Cruz illustrator Tim Eagan at work
Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Wallace reports and writes not only across his familiar areas of deep interest — including arts, entertainment and culture — but also is chronicling for Lookout the challenges the people of Santa Cruz...