Johnny Lytle: The Creator of Leeder O. Men

Johnny Lytle
Johnny Lytle

The concept of Leeder O. Men was born in 1985 while I was a teacher’s assistant at a so-called “adaptive” weight training class at Santa Barbara City College. When I started to lift grown men with their wheelchairs buckled to their bodies up to the chin-up bar for fifty pull-ups, I became irreversibly involved. My perception was simple… Leeder’s first stunt emerged in my sketchbook shortly thereafter.

Leeder’s early antics were published in my 80s skate zine called Naughty Nomads where Leeder acquired a small, yet cult following. The 80s underground skate zine phenomena was the perfect venue to explore Leeder’s mindset, and ultimately paved the way for his inevitable return when he reappeared in ’94 with stronger wheels and a website called dizABLED. I inked the strip regularly for many years with pen and paper.

In all truth though… I had been patiently waiting. For literally decades, I waited. I always felt that the time would come when someone would alternatively love their wheelchair and view the possibilities with a go for it attitude and skater/biker viewpoint. When I found WHEELZ on YouTube, I quickly contacted his folks and arranged a trip to Vegas to meet him and watch him compete in a Vegas Am Jam BMX contest. He did not know who I was when I introduced myself, but by the end of the day, I was at his home conducting an interview discussing mega-ramps with him and meeting his family. Another personal highlight after that was when we were called to be the keynote speakers at the 2008 CAPHERD Physical Education teachers convention at the Westin in San Diego where I was was invited to tell the story of Leeder O. Men and then introduce Aaron for his speech.

And that was it… my hopes had come true. Leeder had a pulse. One day Aaron called me and told me Travis had invited him to Temecula, so I raced down there to join him. When Aaron dropped down that Nitro Giganta ramp into a back-flip on his first try, it was one of the single most breath-taking events I have ever seen in my life. That day was a story in itself! It has been beyond amazing to watch WCMX grow and to clearly see the positive effects it is having on all its participants.

It is now 2020, and I want to express my deepest condolences to the Willig family in Montecito, CA for the loss of their only son and my beloved best friend, Ray “Bird” Willig in November 2019. RIP… This is for you Bird.

So, if you got this far, thanks for reading and I wish you many happy returns.

Johnny Lytle

P.S. If you like this site, I’m glad you made the visit. If not, compare notes with the Phobes.


Interview with Johnny Lytle

A discussion on Naughty Nomads with Rich Jacobs

What helped you in your decision to make a self-published skate zine initially? It was 1983 and my mother was terminal with cancer in Wisconsin where I grew up. I wanted her to see me working on my first skate zine at the table with her. It was a freestyle skate zine called No Lip. She would play solitaire and I would be cuttin’ and pastin’. I had spent lots of rad times with my guy “Steel Wheelz” Bob Staton in Santa Barbara before that summer in Wisconsin. Bob was the best. First guy to tell me I could do anything I wanted. He was a freestyler and introduced me to his Swedish pals Per and Per down in Hermosa Beach. The zine had a lot of stuff from my time skating with the two Pers and Bob. So sad that he has passed. RIP Steel Wheelz.

Not to be disrespectful at all, but why did you keep making it after issue one? What motivated you to continue? Haha… I wanted to do a better one.

How long would you guess you spent making each issue, if you can, in hours? How many did you make? Hours, hell… I don’t know. Months. It took months of pecking at it for each one. All in all, I made something like 20 zines of all sizes.

Were you “committed” to zines and really serious about it, or was it sorta something to pass time with, and just for fun? All of the above, except passing the time. I felt a commitment to the followers of Naughty Nomads. I knew Leeder O. Men had intrinsic value.

Why did you choose the name of your zine? What factors lead up to that choice, or is there a story behind the name? I have always been Nomadic, so the name came easy. I could not register the domain name for a long time. Apparently it was some Belly Dancing outfit in India, but they apparently stopped dancing and let the name expire. I got it for a regular domain price.

Did you make a lot of pen pals or friends doing zines? Did a lot of your friends make them too, and were you aware or apart of the inner circle? It seemed to me that what we were doing was special and it was driving each other to create and share our perspectives. It brought some of us together, but why It took over 20 years to personally meet Andy Jenkins is beyond me.

Did you trade zines a lot through the mail? They were never delivered in person. It didn’t work like that. USPS only.

Did you read a lot of other kinds of magazines and zines on other topics, like punk, etc, or art? Just skate mags and skate zines. And I read a lot of books before I got busier.

Whose zines did you find inspiring, really rad, consistently good, and/or what were your favorite ones back then? I related to all of them. Every one of us had what it took.

Who would you list as your biggest influences in terms of other zine-makers, if any and why? Did you ever steal ideas from them at all? Everyone that was productive with it was always influential. Gary was pumping them out consistently. I have a near-complete collection of Skate Fate and I even painted my own Skate Fate t-shirt. Mel Bend was integrating a certain polish to BEND that became trademark. I remember when Andy called me at Thrasher for cartooning advice… LOL, like he needed it. Can you say Wrench Pilot? Tod (Swank) had his unique style and calligraphy that a lot of people traced. Fred (Conrad) found his own unique style. There were so many other good ones and some that made me laugh. The British zines always had a humorous side. At the end of the day though, it feels like all roads lead to Neil Blender… the most authentic of the skater/artist breed.

What do you think the visual impact of zines has lead to today if anything? Zines are raw, unedited and non-censored. They are just turned loose.

How important, looking back on it, was making an underground zine from start to finish from scratch for you? Any lessons, skills, or things you learned that you still use today as a result of doing a zine? I guess it taught me the importance and satisfaction of finishing something and getting some feedback and a sense of accomplishment. I had sent all of my zines to Thrasher’s Zine Thing, and when I moved to SF, that was what helped me land my job there as a page designer, which I did for 3 years.

What is the significance of zines to you now, what are they worth to you? Or are you glad you took part in that part of skate history? I pull out my collection from time to time. The last time I saw Gary in San Diego, he asked me how I store my collection. Good thing I gave him the right answers, or he probably would have been mad at me. Fred just sold his collection to you. That was sort of a heart-breaking piece of news.

Do you feel blogs, websites, and digital media are an outlet for what zines used to do? I don’t relate the two. Separate lives altogether. Leeder O. Men took it online, but he had to in order to do the good he needed to do.

Sorry to be wordy, but what has been gained, and lost in the technological transformation of information and the need to communicate faster now? We are older now. The transformation to me just means lots of new eyeballs. What are they looking at is the question, and for how long? It’s so different, and it’s not that long ago!

How many hours did you spend reading other zines then? and now? Oh, Rich.

When was the last printed physical zine you made? And was there any skating reference in it? Probably 1991 or so, The Tears… a collaborative effort with Fred.

Do you make art now, or do other forms of visual art i.e. design, photography, work at a magazine, or do layouts, build stuff, curate, interview people, broadcast, transcribe things, etc? Leeder O. Men has a place on the web. (leederomen.com) My availability to it comes and goes, but I feel it is my contribution to the world that carries the most meaning. It’s the primary reason why Naughty Nomads was respected.

Do you still buy records, CDs or downloads? Music is not as important to me now. Everything I listen to is mostly ambient. The last time I wrote and recorded music was in 2010 – 2013. I put it all on Bandcamp. Writing music is good for the soul. I look forward to doing it again.

Any question you would like to ask any of the other zine-makers out there? No, I would just like to thank and honor them.

What would go into a zine now, if you made one? Images of WHEELZ with Leeder drawn in them. I’d still call it Naughty Nomads.