B.N. Duncan, Cartoonist, Journalist


B.N. Duncan, Cartoonist, Journalist

Berkeley Inn (demolished): 2501 Haste Street (corner Telegraph Ave.)

Until it was damaged and closed by fire in the late 80s, the Berkeley Inn housed many of the city’s most noble eccentrics. They included a poet who brightened the street by blowing soap bubbles as she peddled her work, a fellow who hauled a 700-pound engine into his third-floor room because he liked to fix things, and B.N. Duncan, cartoonist, journalist, and cultural anthropologist… perhaps the noblest of them all.

He was born in Rochester, New York. When he was an infant, his mother left her husband and moved to Berkeley and later, when Duncan was 14, to Pasadena. In 1966, he returned to Berkeley, a college drop-out and diagnosed schizophrenic. Until his death, Duncan was a striking presence on Berkeley streets: tall and gaunt, with a fiery orange and streaming wildly above a ravaged corduroy jacket. His work graced publications that ranged from Berkeley’s staid Daily Gazette to Bitches With Whips, Street Spirit, Real Smut, Worker-Poet, and Weirdo.

Duncan’s most significant achievements were The Tele Times (April 1978–December 1982) and The Telegraph Avenue Street Calendar (1990–2004). For the Times, Duncan drew cartoons and covers, conducted interviews, wrote articles, and typed up others’ submissions. Believing that “even people on a society’s margin have something to contribute to its sensibility and spirituality,” he published “Ask Lucrezia” (advice for the S&M community), “Messages from the Street,” (scribblings from the homeless “M” on place mats at the House of Pancakes), and art by the self-tattooed, tooth-challenged, often shirtless Cliff Mason (in whose jagged lines Duncan divined “purity and grace”). The Calendar, which Duncan produced annually with the equally underground writer/cartoonist Ace Backwards, featured photographs of street icons like Hate Man and Joe the Schmoe and so impressed Dan Rather that he featured it on the CBS Evening News.

Fueled by coffee, cigarettes, and malt liquor, Duncan created ceaselessly until his end. His last words, according to Mr. Backwards, were “Every day is a triumph.”

Contributed by Bob Levin, 2014

  • Berkeley Inn (1980), BAHA Archives

  • B.N. Duncan, Visit to the Lowe Museum, Sparrky and Duncan Tell it Comics (1986), courtesy Bob Levin collection

  • B.N. Duncan 8 from Nature and Spirit (1989), courtesy Bob Levin collection

  • B.N. Duncan 4 from Nature and Spirit (1989), courtesy Bob Levin collection

  • B.N. Duncan 2 from Nature and Spirit (1989), courtesy Bob Levin collection

More information:
Comics Reporter

Photo credit abbreviations:
BAHA: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Assn.
BHS: Berkeley Historical Society