A decade ago, in a smallish Swiss comics shop, I could identify only two American artists, or (memory doubtful here) perhaps three. Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Joe Sacco’s Palestine. And on a back shelf, evidently dating from years earlier, Gilbert Shelton’s Fat Freddy’s Cat. Robert Crumb had slipped from a high perch, and Shelton, an entertainer always more popular among Young Europeans, was rapidly receding into the past. During the last decade, several of the dozens of US titles translated into French would probably have found their way into this little shop, it if survives. But we can be sure that the first famed Sacco volumes would have stood alongside others of the same artist. He has the pen that seems almost mightier than the swords, planes, bombs, devastated populations and the rest of the war horrors that have made up his journalistic work.
To call Sacco “American” is a bit of a jump. Maltese by origin, we learn in the erudite Disaster Drawn: Virtual Witness, Comics and Documentary Form (2016) by Hillary L. Shute (co-editor of Mega-Maus) that Sacco grew up with family stories of bombings and death during the Second World War, missing relatives and all the rest. War has never, Shute says, not been part of his life. Did Sacco escape the endless warscape by replanting himself in the US northwest? Not hardly. As a visual journalist of war’s horrors, he has placed himself in harm’s way in the Balkans and Gaza, among other places. This time around he finds another war, but it is the war of centuries and the fighting is what the Pentagon has come to call Low Intensity: the War against Canada’a native populations.
“This is going to end the world.”
Paying the Land is a stunning work, both alike and strikingly different from his earlier journeys into suffering and survival. It is substantially an oral history, and as a trip-weary oral historian, I can appreciate the contrasting points of “orality” (memory expressed by an interviewee) and “history” (a different kind of record). Sacco is trying to do both, no easy thing, and at the same time, to present them visually. With himself as part of the book’s story.
He meets a large handful of tale-tellers who are central, but he determinedly makes the trip himself into Canada’s distant North, in a used pickup-truck, over roads that turn into non-roads, ever further to the land of the Dene, the grouping of related tribes. There, the subsistence economy thousands of years old has been replaced, but only with deep contradictions, by the oil economy.
A couple of generations ago, good jobs appeared for men able to open the land up to drilling, mainly by cutting trees. For a while now, they have demanded controls including their own observation of the drilling process, down to the toxic chemicals pumped into the ground. They can watch the despoliation of the landscape, the lakes and streams, and the inevitable decline across the scope of the animal population. But what choice do they have?
“I remember our lives being led by the environment.”
Sacco takes an invaluable step backward in time, through oral histories, to the forced assimilation ongoing since the nineteenth century but intensified after the Second World War. The many cruelties of Catholic education have only begun to be redressed in Canada: virtual seizure of children from villages into towns, violent punishment for speaking aloud in native languages, widespread sexual abuse, a violence that turned inward, leading to alcoholism, abuse of children by other children and teens, and a loss of anything like self-identity, including the loss of the older skills and their meanings.
What should the deserted family do? Often, it meant abandoning “life in the bush” to find their children, give them a kind of life, often in a grandparents’ setting, while the parents tried to scratch out a living. Here and there a good priest or nun, with education as something better than cultural extermination.
Neither the families nor Sacco is looking to some recaptured utopia. Life in the backwoods was harsh and in some ways, it was easier to live in even the most modest house equipped with heat, a modern stove, refrigerator and so on. Besides, and this is one of Sacco’s clearest discoveries, there was no going back in any case.
Toward the end of the book, some of the strongest personalities emerge and flower, and most of them are women. They create new cultural institutions to carry on traditions for the next generations, and they help to make life more possible—free of the accursed alcoholism above all—in the present.
Mineral extraction companies are ruthless and the politicians who make their work possible are just as ruthless, even with the added political rhetoric to make things sound better. Against these pressures, tribal leaders try to balance the shifting economy with ecology. Young folks, raised with no language retention, begin to rebuild cultures as much as possible, networking from sub-group to sub-group.
The book closes with a memorable festival of Dene young people and perhaps that is the most hopeful thing imaginable, Not to await some outside force to heal them or to accept that their inferiority, as a culture, means that they need assimilation for healing.
This is quite a message, delivered in stirring Sacco style, with perhaps less of a Sacco-presence or irony than is usual with him. It’s quite a book.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
American Daredevil: Comics, Communism and the Battles of Lev Gleason. By Brett Dakin. Toronto: Chapterhouse, 2020. 242pp, $24.99.
Lev Gleason is a storied figure, a part of the history of comics production and comic art that had yet, until this fascinating volume, to be told in any detail. A personal saga, a business history, and a detective story by a great-nephew pursuing a disappearing world: we have here a tasty package. For those interested in the popular culture angles of the American left, this makes an especially intriguing addition. A minor baron of the pulp world, Gleason supported left causes of all kinds by determined fundraising, meanwhile publishing a left-of-center imitation of the Readers Digest and even consulting the Daily Worker on how to win more readers.
During Gleason’s prime years of comics, the end of the 1930s through the middle 1950s, comics themselves were outselling any other periodical except the newspaper, and doing so with a market mostly (if by no means entirely) under 20 years of age. Gleason helped create this market through keen salesmanship and an eye to design. His very own comics, for reasons other than politics, would lead in part to the….suppression of comics, a genre denounced and hated by the elite. His best-selling Crime Does Not Pay series (1942-55) could not be described as the most garish or violent of comics, but the outright sadism of the criminals, the “headlights” looks of the dames, this and more was unmistakably—popular! If never as popular as war and its perpetual American glorification in and out of comics.
But let’s start at the beginning. The author, a contributor to distinguished journals like Foreign Affairs and The Guardian, had to learn about his great-uncle second hand. Lev died before Dakin was born. He learned only by his own research that Lev was the grandson of a prominent supporter of abolitionism in the border states of Kentucky and Ohio—not a small or even very safe thing to be. In family lore, Lev himself was the left-leaning financial dynamo who made a fortune and lost it. Also not a small thing.
A Bostonian mustered out of the Army in 1919, Lev wanted to make money (he had at least one ex-wife to support) and went into the magazine business as an advertising manager for a kids’ publication. He took his experience to New York in 1932, and became an advertising manager at Eastern Color Printing, an auspicious spot. Eastern actually did the printing of most of the Funny Pages of the big East Coast papers. Gleason has at least a solid claim, if not the only existing claim, to have invented the comic book format: 64 page booklets full of comics.
Far from over-the-counter, these were first sold to corporations as give-aways. But Lev and his friends convinced Eastern to let them try selling the pamphlets at newspaper outlets, starting in 1934. The dime comic was born or rather pre-born, because only a year later did a comic appear with all original material rather than reprints from the newspaper comic pages.
As the earliest editor of Tip Top Comics, Gleason made his first and most spectacular blunder: passing on the strip by a couple of young Jewish guys from Cleveland, called Super-Man. You could say this error cost him millions. In charge of Superman, he might have avoided the dreadful cheating of the artist and scriptwriter by the comics corporations.
Gleason pressed onward and Silver Streak Comics appeared just in time for the comics’ Golden Age, helping to make it possible. The soon-to-be-famous artist Jack Cole came up with a dreaded character, The Claw, and action scenes hinted at one of Gleason’s favorite motifs in the years to come: the scantily clad maiden, obviously in trouble but also somehow tempting (psychoanalytic critics would describe comic books as faintly masturbatory).
Daredevil, Comic House, August 1941
Daredevil, of this book’s title, was for years Gleason’s meal ticket. A handsome agent of derring do, he could punch Hitler in the face (even if no one was doing so in real life) without raising a sweat. But to make the comic work big, Gleason had to buy a “few million pages of pulp” on a promise of turning the comic around in a couple weeks in 1941. With several more of the artists and letterers destined to become famous in the business, especially Charles Biro, they did it. Daredevil was a smash hit.
But this was only one side of Gleason’s inclinations. The Popular Front oriented Theater Arts Committee (TAC) had made a name during the 1930s, bringing elements of progressive theater to ordinary audiences, but it re-blossomed along with other such entities in the antifascist war years. Gleason raised thousands of dollars for the TAC as he did for the Joint Anti-Fascist Rescue Committee, and a large handful of others, most of them destined to be placed upon the Attorney General’s list of “subversives,” despite most having actually ceased operation or even existence during the years shortly after the War.
Gleason had also published Friday, a popular magazine that set out in 1940 to gain part of the booming magazine audience, but did not have the advertisers to survive a single year. More important, he published Reader’s Scope (1945-49), a lively, pocket-sized, leftish version and would-be rival to the ubiquitous Readers’ Digest, with condensed versions of articles from the liberal press. Salute (1946-48) aimed at the returning GI, was no success. There were still other unsuccessful magazines, proving that he had ideas, probably not quite the right time for them or the financial backing, but he pushed the antifascist, reform and anti-racist message forward.
Amidst all this, Gleason lived rather palatially in suburban Chappaqua, New York, until the middle 1950s. Publishing a liberal daily (New Castle News) to combat the local conservatives, entertaining guests of all kinds, he traveled regularly to the city with or without his family for what one could properly call anti-fascist popular culture. He was a personality of his place and time, as anyone could see. And then it fell apart.
Pursued by the FBI, Gleason also bravely fought the threatened repression of comics that was coming in the wake of the Red Scare. Indeed, the charges made against the Reds and comics were surprisingly similar, out of the mouths of rightwingers: Jews were corrupting Christian youths. You could say that William Gaines, publisher of EC Comics, faced the same enemies, but of course, Bill Gaines was an honest (Jewish) liberal without the dangerous political connections. Gaines turned the generalized collapse of the comic industry into the vast triumph of Mad Magazine. Gleason had no such backstop, at least not in publishing.
A real estate salesman in Upstate New York, living with his family in a small house, he was cut off from a sparkling social life. These had been shut down by McCarthyism anyway. Gleason survived for a while. He died in 1971. A year earlier, in a message to fellow Harvard graduates, he embraced the civil rights and antiwar movements that respectables shunned, evidently celebrating the renewal of the American Left.
Author Brett Dakin purses this part of his great-uncle’s life by driving around, talking to old people, and by checking FBI documents. It’s a change of pace for the book, but welcome in its highly personal tone. Dakin is a family member looking for roots, like so many others. He found the most interesting great uncle that almost anyone could find. I wish I had someone like that in the family tree.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, to be published in October, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
Impact Comics, which lasted only 5 issues, would be memorable if for only one story. As Greg Sadowski, the forgotten fan-biographer of artist Bernard Krigstein suggests,”Master Race,” a mere eight pages and scripted by Al Feldstein (Mar., 1955), is the masterpiece of anti-fascism but also of comic art design and execution. It enters the mind of the Holocaust survivor as he discovers, tracks down and wreaks revenge upon a human monster within the bowels of Manhattan’s subway system.
How could this humble popular art carry the weight of serious modern art, so serious that it escapes the then-current cult of abstract expressionism? This is the story worth telling.
Impact Comics (1955) may be viewed simply as a technical triumph of popular might. The story lines are taut, the art is crisp, and if we were to choose a single outstanding feature, it might actually be the coloring work of Marie Severin, master craftsperson of the field. We might also view Impact within a broader context.
MASTER RACE, original first page, March, 1955.
Comic art, comic book art and narrative, must be amongst the most improbable subjects in all of art history. Or perhaps this was true until the recent rise of comic art studies in college courses, online journals, and Comi-Con panels bringing together living artists with aficionados. But never, since the rise of the fan world and press, has the comics field been without its own small legion of self-taught scholars and devotees, going way back to the early 1950s. In this small world grown surprisingly larger, EC publications have had a special place of honor. EC war, science fiction and above all humor publications brought traditional comic book art to its apex and….edge of demise. Impact, with only a handful of others, remains or rather retains in its best stories, a treasured sample of what might have been.
The longer backstory will be familiar to most readers, and can be noted briefly here. Comics publisher Max Gaines’s sudden death in 1949 threw his mini-empire into the hands of his widow and son. The younger Gaines, to his own surprise a shrewd and driving businessman, hired some of the great talents of the field, including of course Harvey Kurtzman, destined to transform the field of printed humor with Mad Comics and, more famously, Mad Magazine.
By the early 1950s, time was truly running out for EC comics as constituted. Congressional investigations and the imposition of the Comics Code would drive the most lucrative EC genre, i.e., horror, to the wall, and with it the whole venture of EC comics. Perhaps television would have swallowed up the field soon enough anyway? We do not know. But millions of readers, not all of them under the age of 20, were reading and buying comics of a wide variety so long as they were available, with print runs often in the hundreds of thousands.
EC became known, through nearly all its lines of merchandise, for “snap” endings, the surprise on the last page or even in the final panel, carrying the message of the story at large. Strikingly unlike its competitors, EC also had an unusual propensity for what might be called social themes. Its Sci Fi line featured the world of post Atomic war destruction, or space travel revealing some weakness—less often, strength—in human nature. (Some of the best story lines were adapted, or swiped, from Ray Bradbury.) Military history offered something almost unknown in other companies’ war comics: the tragedy faced by civilians in both sides, and the horror that might be found in the eyes even of the victorious American patriots.
Artist Bernie Krigstein taps into the zeitgeist of an anxious era.
In the “Age of Anxiety,” when psychoanalysis was said to have replaced Marxism or any other social reform theory as a favorite pastime of intellectuals, EC actually had its own short-lived Psychoanalysis Comics. But seen carefully, psychological issues penetrated all of EC’s lines, as soldiers, space travelers and even perpetrators of murder seemed terribly troubled, driven by urges that they finally could not control.
Bill Gaines evidently viewed the creation of Impact as a kind of bracing mechanism against the end of his little empire. Al Feldstein, the all-purpose editor also taking over Mad Magazine from Kurtzman, who resigned in 1956, was the hard-driving editor seemingly willing to take on anything, and make Impact as nearly perfect as he could. The determination by writer (often enough, Feldstein himself) and artist, shine through in one way or another on nearly every page and every panel.
ShockSuspense (1954), the earliest entry in the then-new Impact series, was closer to horror comics with violent and sometimes supernatural stories. It was also more politically dramatic, now and then. A KKK-style lynching story of Southern life substituted a bosomy white dame for a black man, but dealt heavy blows to violent prejudice. Another story showed a redneck crowd beating to death an actual veteran who did not take off his hat to salute the flag because…he was blind.
Most of the Impact under review stayed closer to the hard-hitting, small films and often live television drama of the time, where a rising business executive realizes the more rottenness of the world he has entered, or the frantic striving for domestic happiness in the suburb leads to bitter alienation and heavy drinking. The protagonists here are cheating themselves and others of happiness, cutting corners in business and life, or even by accident of some childhood trauma cutting themselves off from adult fulfillment. What remains the most vivid, in the “snap” ending, is that uncertainty of life itself in the supposed paradise of modern consumerism at its apex. And the possibility, if not perhaps likelihood, that wrong-doers will get their punishment in one way or another.
Steven Ringgenberg’s Foreword offers us a general picture of the publication within EC’s frantic efforts for life, Grant Geissman’s Introduction expertly guides us through the intentions of Gaines and Feldman as they marched through the bi-monthly schedule toward something that, as it turned out, was only a prelude to the fabulous success of Mad Magazine.
Excerpt from MASTER RACE, known as “The Citizen Kane of Comics.”
It would be almost inside baseball to note that Jack Davis, among the most brilliant of all Mad Comics artists, did all the front covers of the series, or that he was joined in the stories themselves by a distinguished crew of George Evans, Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall and of course, Bernard Krigstein. And of course Marie Severin, who was also the last of the EC bunch to live well into the 21st century.
Only those who went on to Mad Magazine, foremost Orlando, were to gain much recognition. Krigstein, who led the failed effort to unionize the field of comic book artists (publishers bought off the best talent and threatened to fire everyone else) during the early 1950s, became an art teacher and painted for his own pleasure, mostly landscapes.
Thus did a genre and its makers disappear. But not without leaving behind a legacy of sorts, and a print item to be repurposed for the next generations. Impact was first reprinted by Gemstone Publishing in 1999 and here, by Dark Horse, presented again in fine form with fresh introductory and explanatory material.
This season has seen the appearance of a prestigious anthology, DrawingPower: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment and Survival, edited by the veteran artist Diane Nooman (Abrams). It has also seen, more recently, a scrappier creation from the “World War 3 Illustrated” crowd: Shameless Feminists. Although this also marks WW3 #50, it is best seen as a thing-in-itself, a 192pp anthology edited by a special crew, Isabella Bannerman, Sandy Jimenez, Sabrina Jones and Rebecca Migdal. Unique among them is the Bronx-born cartoonist and erstwhile schoolteacher Jimenez, unique by his gender.
At any rate, it’s a whopper, and not only by virtue of something beyond the dreadful experiences described in the other anthology, but also by a certain sense of history and a very particular experience. One of the editors (spoiler alert, it is Sabrina Jones) was “invited to create her first comics for issue #3,” that is, about 1980 in WW3. The collaboration is, properly seen, historic and marked by three earlier feminist anthologies as WW3 issues, in 1992, 1999 and 2000 (it’s been a long pause this time).
It’s global, it’s interracial, it’s sometimes pretty dreadful—rapes and near-rapes, humiliation and frustration. But it’s got a pretty persistent note of…persistence. And the occasional victory, not something very likely to be noticed beyond a circle or friends or even perhaps among them, but a personal triumph and sometimes a collective one.
Sabrina Jones offers several high notes along these lines, as well as the main figure of a dreamy, collective front cover. In one of her two strips she reveals her self-daring, a teenager wandering into dangerous places, a young woman choosing to live in sketchy neighborhoods, engaging in multiple affairs for the sheer joy of it, later on pressing herself to stay limber. Later on in the anthology, she makes up her mind to ride a mountain bike over part of the Pyrenees mountains from France to Spain, inevitably meeting dangerous men, and by this time, in her fifties. All of this adds up to the life story: I will not be intimidated. Indeed.
She stands for others in that sense. Lou Allen and Teresa Cherubini separately relate how their “body image” was just never good enough for herself or her boyfriends until…each one broke from the socially-created trance. Jennifer Camper offers a menstruation metaphor through her protagonist’s life. Artist Regina Silvers is the solid leftwing grandmother who joins an antiwar Granny Brigade. And so on.
There is no summarizing the artistic approaches except to say that they are starkly different and also remarkable. This is a book that draws upon great creativity and honesty, and should inspire the same.
Paul Buhle‘s next comic, drawn by Sharon Rudahl, is a life of Paul Robeson (Rutgers University Press, October, 2020.
Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Adapted by Peter Kuper. Foreword by Maya Jasanoff. New York. W.W. Norton, 2019, $21.95.
It is difficult to bring to mind a classic novel more overinterpreted than Heart of Darkness, and the reason has far less mystery than the novel itself. Joseph Conrad projected himself, his Victorian Britain, upon the African (more specifically, Congo) landscape, and intellectuals but also readers ever since have projected themselves upon his distinct literary creation.
Teachers have been assigning Heart of Darkness for well over a century, reinterpreting Conrad again and again, at least as frequently as literary theories shifted. Anti-colonialism and Negritude offered the sharpest criticism, amounting sometimes to rejection of the idea of writing the novel at all. Neo-colonialism, the reigning reality of our time, has renewed the ambiguity. The jungle and all its flora and fauna are under extreme assault. That the US/CIA chose to have a foremost African champion, Patrice Lumumba, assassinated just three generations ago pointed up the living contradictions that Conrad glimpsed or perhaps did not glimpse.
Peter Kuper is an artist for contradictions and for graphic novel adaptations. An adopted son of Manhattan, he has depicted the city with as much dread as any painter, filmmaker or musician could manage. His adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle outdoes his adaptations of Kafka, in my view, because the horrors of that urban giant, Chicago, are themselves monumental. Did Kuper suspect he would go from jungle to jungle? We wonder.
At any rate, Kuper makes every effort to be as faithful to the sprit of Conrad as he can. He wants to make an immanent critique of colonialism as seen by the soldiers and statesmen of colonialism. They are coldly calculating in their pursuit of riches and fame, including the extermination of all the dark-skinned humans in sight, by outright murder or working them to death. And yet they are also mentally twisted adventurers, for who else would participate in such an ugly and dangerous mission?
Marlowe, as demonstrated in the novel, can understand horror when he sees it, and as a commercial agent is very much part of the machinery of it. The vanishing of the mysterious Mr. Kurtz, the need for the trek into the jungle, is the test of Marlow and arguably, the test of artist Kuper, who has traveled widely, lived for extended periods in Mexico, not to mention being part of a peacenik, anti-imperialist political magazine collective for forty years and still going.
Kuper offers us several remarkable pages of explanation, in his introduction, of how he approached what he calls “the fraught history of cartoon stereotypes.” (p.xx). He explains technique as well as purpose of subverting Conrad’s text while still being faithful to the literary quality—no mean trick.
Whether this is successful, we can best judge as the pages pass and we find ourselves deeper in the jungle, deeper in the horrors of managing the ghastly enterprise. Actually, of course, Marlow is mostly halfway on the outside, a fellow white man, looking in. And becoming more savage than any black man or woman of the jungle.
Kuper manages to explain, with the brevity of a single panel, the deepest desire of the one intellectual, Kurtz, through his protege: that booty would remain but every black skinned human would be exterminated, an insane and impossible task.
Kuper saves his darkest dark for the final pages, Marlow’s return home to London, where he meets but cannot truly confront the belief in Kurtz’s eminence. These last pages drip with blacks and grays, driving home the point.
Alay-Oop by William Gropper, introduction by James Sturm, published by New York Review Books, 209 pages, $24.95.
A growing interest in the origins of comic art—a subject that could direct the reader toward cave paintings but more logically offers twentieth century precursors—has prompted the return of long-forgotten names like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, and just as naturally, reprints of their work. These notables and others peaking before the Second World War favored wood-cuts over drawing on paper, and also favored an art form now known familiarly as the “wordless novel.” It’s a fascinating memory corner, full of biting social criticism, but so different from the famed agitational cartoons, or for that matter, mural art of the New Deal period, that any common ground is little understood. Reader, meet William Gropper.
We can say many useful things about Gropper the artist, but for our purposes, there is every reason to start with Alay-Oop. It is a simple tale of a trapeze artist so muscular that she may not be beautiful in any classic sense, but she is admirably limber, a skilled and daring performer. She is wooed by an older and rich, plump opera singer, with throngs of fans of his own. He takes her out (with her own acrobat-partner in tow), romances her and persuades her to marry. A few pages of her dreaming, heavily erotic in symbolism, shows us that she is willing, and her swain promises her the skies. Her rather handsome fellow acrobat is, then, left out in the cold. Soon, she has beloved children but a troubled marriage. She finds her way, she reaches her way through her acrobatic skills, to her own version of a happy ending. This is a memorable Strong Woman Story, and may (as the introduction suggests) reflect the strength of Gropper’s own real life mother character, when his father, an autodidact intellectual, let the family down.
A May-December romance. Will it last?
Now, back to the Gropper famous in his own milieu. Communists and Popular Front sympathizers, together numbering into the high hundreds of thousands from the mid-depression to the beginning of the Cold War, would recognize Gropper’s work in a minute. His famed and ferocious “Bank Night” drawing, with the fat capitalist landlord reaching into the slums for grotesque profits, alone memorably identifies both the artist’s skills and his temperament. Personal testimony: Recovering from a day at a pre-induction Army physical in 1966, I was driven by famed Yale University peacenik Staughton Lynd out to stay the night with a Jewish chicken farmer. There, on the kitchen wall, was a famed Gropper print, with ugly Senators, most likely Dixiecrats, at a US Congress hearing, yawning with unembarrassed tedium at the social crisis of the Depression. That was the first Gropper that I ever saw.
Alay-Oop evidently comes from a different place if definitely not a different artist. Gropper himself had actually attended a radical art school, with giants like Masses magazine artists like Stuart Davis and Dada /Surrealist avant-gardist Man Ray. Instructor Robert Henri personally escorted young Gropper to the 1913 Armory Show that introduced modernism to the backward US intelligentsia. The young man had the talent and connections to make it as an illustrator in a grand era for newspaper illustrators—but was bounced from a commercial staff job as too radical.
You could say that he found a place for himself, an eager audience intense if not commercially helpful, at the Liberator and New Masses, two beautiful magazines that attached themselves to “the New Russia” without quite being overwhelmed by politics. By the early years of the Depression, Gropper’s work was overwhelmingly agitational, with the Daily Worker its largest outlet. Alay-Oop may be the first suggestion that his heart belonged elsewhere, at least in part.
What inspired him to comic art? Belgian Frans Masereel was so famous in Europe that leading novelists wrote introductions to his classic woodcut works. Back in the US, Lynd Ward’s mordant God’s Man sold wildly, far beyond the art crowd that seemed the intended audience. Hugely popular funny pages artist Milt Gross published what some regard as the actual earliest comics novel, He Done Her Wrong (1930), a satire on the soap opera-like American adventure novel. Alay-Oop appeared in that same year, but can only be described as a genre of its own. If it has successors, they come generations later.
James Sturm, who wrote the Introduction to the volume under review but co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, suggests we are not likely to find out. In his style, Gropper was not austere like Masereel or Ward, nor satirical like Gross. He was aiming for something else, and that may be a reason why the book got lost so quickly and easily. Gropper himself moved toward a very different and unique high point of his artistic career: the opportunities opened by the New Deal. Muralist for the Works Progress Administration, popular book illustrator, artist of a folk-lore map of the USA (with little figures representing various traditions), Gropper the erstwhile revolutionary was “discovering America” in his own terms, and good at it. He had also become, for the moment, also a considerable painter, mostly of the social themes around him, and remembered from his impoverished youth.
Much of the remainder of Gropper’s life seems to have devoted rather less to leftwing causes, and rather more to painting, but also to making a living as an architectural artist, where he achieved a certain distinction. After the Second World War, with its artistic high points of sympathy for the Russians and anti-fascism generally, his opportunities but perhaps his political eagerness as well, were seriously restrained. His grandson is quoted in the introduction as saying that grandpa was not all that political—which is about what an old man would tell a kid in the 1950s. All this nevertheless suggests that Alay-Oop reaches out toward something elusive, but that is hardly a criticism of any artistic creation.
The book is certainly successful in itself, with a line of drawing, as Sturm suggests, so fresh and fluid that it looks like “the ink is still wet” (p.10). We also hear from his grandson that Gropper, drawn to vaudeville and the circus, admired performers as more honest and more fully human than politicians. Perhaps we need no further guide. Anyone can search through Google Images and admire the breadth of Gropper’s work. It would be good to have an anthology that gives us a sense of them.
Paul Buhle, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left, has produced a dozen comics.
There are many things strange, altogether strange, about this oversized volume. But they are things that Crumb-watchers and devotees of the short but tangled history of the Underground Comix will appreciate and even revere, if “revere”is an accurate and acceptable word. The Book of Weirdo, published by Last Gasp Books, opens a door wide for rethinking comics and comix history.
The trajectory of the rise—but even more, the fall—of the wildly experimental genre continues to rouse debate, not to mention a lot of quiet grousing among former participants, artists, editors and publishers alike. By 1973, when Underground Comix, had barely begun, a widespread legal assault on Head Shops threatened to eliminate the customer base. Censorship somehow avoided, comix moved on to the next obstacles that may best be seen as inscribed in the historical moment.
The great social changes hoped for by the young generation did not take place and were not going to take place in the short run, at least. The comic artists, very much part of their time, joints to long hair, inevitably felt the effects. Working for practically nothing, although owning their own art, many began to wonder whether comix were a career or a dead end. Could the comix movement transform itself into a viable living?
Denis Kitchen had one idea, taking the commercial route with Marvel as publisher of Comix Book, which both paid artists better but also owned what they drew for that issue of the magazine. A sell out or a practical step toward stability? The question went unanswered because the project folded after 5 issues, unable to achieve stability in the mainstream newsstand market. Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman had a different and more traditionally aesthetic notion, a quarterly Arcade magazine published by Print Mint. A truly beautiful magazine, perhaps the best that the genre ever produced, it also failed, in a counter-culture market where readers were not accustomed to comix appearing on a punctual quarterly schedule rather than the more customary sporadic, lackadaisical pace.
What dramatic step might be next? That was the burning question for many artists and would-be editors, as the movement began to lose its momentum. But it was not the only thought, especially for many who simply continued under deteriorating circumstances. The otherwise persuasive argument offered by Patrick Rosenkranz that Underground Comix was doomed as a genre by 1975, may be true, but it also minimizes the reality that much high quality work appeared during the later half of the 1970s and well into the 1980s.
The series of Anarchy Comix, also Wimmen’s Comix and some dozens new entries of various kinds, lay ahead. Kitchen actually expanded his line of comics with Kitchen Sink, relocated to Princeton, Wisconsin, and among his titles, Gay Comix is a particular stand-out in anyone’s memory of the field changing and growing in content even as it shrunk in size. It was, indeed, shifting toward the more uncertain market of the ill-defined “Alternative Comics.” Also consider that the “classic” strips of the 1920s and 1930s, reprinted in Arcade foreshadowed Kitchen’s own reprinting of past masterworks by Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and others. Not to mention The Comics Journal, soon emerging as something like the trade publication of the field.
RAW and Weirdo would serve as markers in any narrative of an evolving comic art in the US, en route to the recognition of comics as art, the museum exhibits, award ceremonies, and even the Superhero-swollen ComiCons to follow.
It would be a mistake to avoid entirely what the historians used to call “geographical determinism.” Comics, comic books, had always been centered in Greater New York, never mind some printing locations as far as Racine, Wisconsin. Underground Comix emanated from the Bay Area and had the region’s sensibility stamped upon them, never mind some smaller regional operations. Giving up on Arcade, Art Spiegelman moved Back East. RAW not only emanated from New York but pointed back to New York, in the old literary adage that, culturally speaking, North America is half in the sunshine and half in the shade….that is, everywhere west of the Hudson River.
Much to the credit of co-editor Francois Mouly, RAW encompassed global comic trends, but not only that. Ben Katchor, one of the freshest of the new artists to appear in these pages—himself from a Left Yiddish family background—was to comment later that RAW had shrewdly marketed itself as a lost branch of European art and literature. This would prove decisive in uplifting the genre toward acceptance as an art form, in New York above all.
By vivid contrast. Weirdo was very, very California, published by the Crumbs in Winters, an extended outpost of the Bay Area. The idea of the “outsider,” if already well established in the art world, here unapologetically reached an extreme.
The Book of Weirdo testifies to the vanishing California sensibility as it pays homage to that unique publication in a nonacademic and unpretentious manner that often eludes the burgeoning field of comic art studies at large. Jon B. Cooke is at once a comic fan, editor of an ongoing comics “pro” fanzine (Comic Book Creator), and a gifted writer and designer. He follows, in this work, the tradition of a couple dozen authors, also non-academics in background, who have done admirable work on such subjects as EC Comics and their great artists or writer-artists as Wally Wood,Will Elder and Bernard Krigstein.
That said, The Book of Weirdo is a most unusual work of devotion. Rather than a straightforward narration, it offers extended commentaries by dozens of Weirdo contributors, and several essays—the longest of them unsigned but evidently the work of the editor himself. This is, by intent, a collective project, with Cooke seeking to impose a light hand even if the creation owes to his extraordinarily careful attention to all aspects of the subject.
How much was Weirdo a response to the publication (and phenomenon) of RAW, moving comic art “uptown” toward new and for many, uncomfortable realms of sophistication? This is a question unsettled, destined to be unsettled, among comics historians, not to mention the editors and artists themselves.
What else was weird about Weirdo? As Crumb himself wrote in the first issue, the new effort marked “another new magazine, another MAD imitation, another small time commercial feature with high hopes, obviously doomed to fail.” This is a reference to the number of MAD knock-offs that appeared during the 1950s and 1960s, in some cases lasting decades after Mad Comics turned into MadMagazine in 1955. Several of them even boasted former Mad artists. They were generally, if not without exceptions, dreadful by any reasonable standard, or perhaps just by the high standard of Mad.
From another angle, Weirdo was arguably closer to Humbug, Kurtzman’s third effort after Mad and the slick but doomed Trump, or his last magazine effort, HELP! Humbug and HELP! sought to combine comic pages with fiction, new art by youngsters—including, in HELP!, some of the soon outstanding u.g. comix artists. In the same magazine, “fumetti” or photo-caption combinations appeared, although in Weirdo’s fumettis, Crumb casted himself in the remake of the girlie magazines of the 1930s-40s with humorous shenanigans of dames and the men chasing them. What did this add up to?
Crumb had remarked (to me, in a 1977 interview in Cultural Correspondence) that “artists are always trying to equal the work that impressed them in their childhood and youth. I still feel extremely inadequate when I look at the old Mad comics….” Adding, “there’s a charm in the ‘looseness’ of the culture of our generation, the lackadaisical approach…besides, our parents threw all the old traditions in the garbage can without a second thought and left us to root around for the remnants in the back alleys of the culture….”
That nicely sums up the aim, several years in advance, of the new venture. Even when the artists in RAW seemed to be slumming, or portrayed subjects in assorted outrageous ways, they were still….sophisticated. RAW could not be as raw as Weirdo was, even if it tried.
And there’s more. Recently, one of the most outstanding and cerebral artists—she now teaches at the University of Michigan—observed that the Weirdo artists and editors “were my tribe.” Phoebe Gloekner’s comment makes sense in several different ways. Her work was exceptionally dark, with stories rooted in San Francisco’s post hippie cultural underground of drugs and male predation upon young girls, also of the rage felt by those who did not become part of the city’s notorious Good Life. Along with Dori Sedi, who died at an early age from a lung aliment while contributing steadily to Weirdo, Gloeckner may express best, in her comics there, the anxieties that suffused the magazine’s pages.
The stories of the artists, many of them hardly seen before or after Weirdo, are revealing, touching and plain strange, and in a way, the best argument for the originality of the Book ofWeirdo. Most were young or youngish, a large handful making their entry into the world of comics or moving further along the way. The list is an honor roll: Peter Bagge, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Robert Armstong, Terry Boyce, Daniel Clowes, Julie Docet, Drew Friedman, Carol Lay, Steve Lafler, Joe Matt, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco, Carol Tyler, Jim Woodring and Ivan Brunetti, and those are only the artists whose names I recognize!
But it is the occasional anecdote that stands out, for this reviewer. For instance: at one point, Harvey Pekar and Aline Kominsky-Crumb received a curious offer to take over a talk-show slot at Fox’s entertainment network! The whole thing was impossible: Pekar could no more quit his hospital job for a Manhattan gig that could be cancelled at any time than Aline could split her time between New York and Winters. Still, this small non-event points toward an outsiderness that might come inside. (Pekar himself was treated to the award-winning biopic, American Splendor, whose production in Cleveland really did force him to quit his job.) It came inside or rather, comics themselves came inside, with the Pulitzer Prize (and MOMA exhibit) for Art Spiegelman, with glowing if only occasional New York Times reviews for the likes of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and arguably with the success of superhero characters on the big screens. Comics had become a twenty-first century art form.
Readers of The Book of Weirdo will surely want to discover their own favorite anecdotes, make their own sense of the barrage of details included here. I’m guessing they will be happy to do so.
Paul Buhle has edited more than a dozen nonfiction historical comics. He struggles to understand the 36 year gap between his first effort (Radical America Komiks, 1969, reprinted in 2019) and next (WOBBLIES!, 2005).
Special thanks to Jay Kinney and Ben Katchor for comments on this review.
“American Born Chinese” is my favorite non-superhero graphic novel. I’m genuinely surprised that it hasn’t received a movie or TV adaptation yet. I first read it as part of a school assignment in my Freshman Reading class. After reading, we were supposed to make a cereal box based on the book. American Born Chinese is a 2006 graphic novel created by cartoonist Gene Luen Yang. Yang drew from his own past experiences as a Chinese boy living in America as well as Chinese fables he grew up with. In 2007, it won the Michael L. Printz Award. The book is separated into three seemingly unconnected tales.
The first story is about the fabled Monkey King. A character I would later find out is part of a well-known Chinese folklore tale called, “Journey to the West.” This story takes place in Heaven, where Gods, Goddesses, Demons, and Spirits reign supreme. The Monkey King is a powerful, if not stubborn ruler of the Flower Mountain who nobody in Heaven takes seriously, because of his lack of shoes. Despite his mastery of four major heavenly disciplines. In order to prove himself, he orders all his monkey subjects to wear shoes and he meditates. He also learns four major disciplines of invulnerability and bodily form. Of course all this power goes to his head and the creator of the universe has to teach him a valuable lesson. What I like most about this story is how cool it is. Chinese folklore is actually very fascinating. Seeing a monkey flying on a cloud is just as funny as it is awesome.
The second story is about the titular “American Born Chinese” boy, Jin Wang. A Chinese kid who loves Transformers. His experiences include moving to America with his family, trying to fit in, and befriending the only Asian kids in class. This story starts when Jin Wang is a child and ends when he’s a teenager. As any other teenager would, Jin falls for one of the girls in his class. An American girl that Jin becomes desperate to talk to. He even goes so far as to perm his hair to look more American. Eventually his friend convinces him to ask her out and he goes on a date with her. Even when everything seems to be going well, it doesn’t end up lasting very long. Unfortunately, underlying racism keeps Jin from continuing the relationship. What I like most about this story is how relatable it is for anybody who’s ever been a new kid or the only minority in your class. I’m also a big fan of teen drama, so I found Jin’s high school experience to be very interesting.
The third story is about average all American teenager Danny. He’s embarrassed because his Chinese cousin Chin-Kee is coming over for one of his annual visits. Chin-Kee is the ultimate negative Chinese stereotypes. Literally every stereotype is represented here. He has a round face, a queue hairstyle, a servant outfit, literal yellow skin, buck teeth, squinty line eyes, he speaks in thick broken English, he’s academic, he makes funny’s, he eats cats, his travel bags are Chinese take-out boxes, he sings karaoke, he knows Kung Fu, the list goes on. His behavior is so embarrassing that Danny has to change schools every time he visits. What I like most about this story is how absurd it is. It’s done in a sitcom style with a laugh track and everything. The title of this story is actually “Everybody Ruvs Chin-Kee.” This is also the story where everything is revealed and the whole graphic novel is tied together.
Overall, “American Born Chinese” is a cool, relatable, and hilarious graphic novel. The art style is clean and simple in a Chinese art sort of way, with rounded curves and edges. Each story feels like a love letter to Chinese culture. A culture that I’ve come to love ever since I’ve read this story. If nobody adapts “American Born Chinese,” I would be shocked. I’m not Chinese, but I might even try to adapt it myself. The only question is, is whether it more suited for a movie or a TV show. Either way, “American Born Chinese” is a clever graphic novel that anyone will enjoy.
When it comes to fighting for the share of a film audience, the battleground is extremely tough. However, amidst the blockbusters, period pieces, and Oscar fodder, one genre has risen above all others and against all odds reigned supreme both in terms of commercial success and cultural reception. That’s right, superhero movies provide us with some of the most lucrative and successful films in recent years, and their star is only going to continue to rise. But what does the future hold for superhero films? And will the current trajectory ever slow down?
2017 was a good year for superhero flicks. According to Box Office Mojo Wonder Woman grossed $412,563,408, and was the 3rd highest grossing film of the year, while Thor: Ragnarok achieved $312,641,320 and 7th place, and Justice League closed out the Top 10. The success shows that superhero movies are still drawing in the public and achieving box office targets. As long as the targets are being met, the studios will still continue to produce films about superheroes. The first female-led superhero movie bolstered the position for DC, with Gal Gadot’s performance as Wonder Woman being highly praised – and with that success comes a possible new subgenre for countless other female superheroes who may have been overlooked over the years.
Hope for the Future
2018 looks to continue the rise of the superhero movie genre, with Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2, and Ant-Man and the Wasp providing sequels of previously successful films. Based on the eponymous villain, Venom will offer an alternate view of the Spider-Man series – which itself received a revamp in 2017, replacing Andrew Garfield with Tom Holland for the Spider-Man Homecoming origin story. Revamps are common in the genre and actually in fitting with the comic books they are based on, which regularly kill off characters, such as when Spider-Man was killed in 2012 only to be revived again. The trick the studios have to pull is to stick to the genre’s roots while finding new and exciting ways to explore superhero backstories and mythos.
But with the regurgitation of heroes in sequel after sequel (Iron Man and Captain America both have 3 films each, with appearances in crossovers and the everyone-involved Avengers films), and the retelling of the same story (Spider-Man has had 3 different actors; Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield, and Tom Holland in only 15 fifteen years), there leaves little space for new superheroes to change the genre up. However, one hero, whose exploits were documented in the 1986 movie Highlander, is in the pipeline for a remake. The remake will introduce newer fans to the character, who already has a fan base and in niche areas even appeared as a popular game on the homepage of Betway Casino, featured as an online slot game. The game features content from the classic franchise and can give you a sense of how popular the movie (directed by Chad Stahleski of John Wick fame) will be.
Superhero movie franchises abound.
Franchise and Fans
The superhero movie continues to see a positive return at the box office due to the franchise nature of the genre. The films are based on premises, not plots, which are conducive to expanded arcs, backstories, and fleshed out worlds of characters long forgotten in comic books. As many are based on comic books, which have established audiences, and come from a genre, which also has dedicated fans, studios are more likely to produce superhero movies due to the likelihood of a higher turnout. The established fan base could explain why so many superhero films are given the green light, but easy fans wouldn’t account for the genuine financial success the films achieve.
Marvel vs DC
The Marvel vs DC battle, which dominates the comic world, and has begun to dominate the world of cinema, is another factor that keeps superhero films alive. If only one franchise existed, filmmakers could grow complacent and produce subpar stories knowing people will watch them. The healthy competition and so-called battle the companies are involved in helps keep each franchise fresh in order to stay ahead of the competition. With DC’s release of the Wonder Woman film, Marvel are already considering further exploring Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in her own feature. The character starred in many of her own comics, which explored the backstory revealed in Age of Ultron. The opening of major action movies to female leads provides a wealth of avenues that the superhero films can go down – just don’t mention Halle Berry’s 2004 flop as Catwoman!
The Comic Book Industry
The superhero genre of films also helps keep the comic book industry alive. By introducing fans to a character, they can then delve into the entire back catalogue of that character, and everything they have done before. Given that many started in the 1950s, fans potentially have a large amount of material to sift through, helping to build the franchise effect that keeps audiences interested film after film.
The superhero genre, after years of hard work and failed attempts, has finally solidified itself as the head of the box office and a creator of sure-fire hits. The future of the genre looks bright, and filmmakers have to just decide which aspect to focus on. While flops can still occur, the unwavering success of the last spate of films shows just how successful the genre actually can be.
Star Power is a new futuristic sci-fi comic, the first issue of which came out in February 2013, by writer Michael Terracciano (Dominic Deegan: Oracle for Hire) and artist Garth Graham (Comedity and Finder’s Keepers). On the web, Star Power is a webcomic which updates every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. To date, issues one and two have been released in print at conventions and the webcomic is on chapter #3 as of October 3rd.