Sharon Rudahl was at the forefront of underground comix as a founder of Wimmen’s Comix, the first on-going comic drawn exclusively by women, beginning in the 1970s. Since then, she has created a range of fascinating underground comix including Crystal Night, which was reprinted in full in Dan Nadel’s Art In Time collection. Rudahl has created two graphic novels, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman and A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American. Read my review here. It is a pleasure to get a chance to share this conversation with you.
Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson
I began our talk by mentioning that Sharon marched with Martin Luther King Jr. as a teenager. I said that it appears that she has always been an activist. To that Sharon said that she’s found herself speaking out as often as possible. In fact, Sharon began her career as a cartoonist with anti-Vietnam War underground newspapers. She’s been active ever since and has participated in numerous publications and exhibitions in dozens of countries over the last 50 years. Always a fighter, she proved to be just the right person to take on a graphic biography of another social justice warrior, Emma Goldman.
A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman
A free-spirited comix artist tells it like it is.
While Rudahl has enjoyed the freedom of working at the craft she loves, she does point out that she would never have thought to get into graphic biographies if it hadn’t been for the opportunities that came her way. We discuss a bit the long-standing professional relationships that are made in the comics industry. Sharon Rudahl has done a lot of work with historian and scholar Paul Buhle. It was one project that led to another like Lincoln for Beginners from 2015, published by For Beginners. This is an eloquent and highly informative work that will appeal to any age.
Lincoln for Beginners
What strikes me about Rudahl’s work is how passionate it is, whether it is a biography or a more personal project. As Rudahl makes clear, left to her own devices, she’d be pursuing a graphic novel about the making of modern day China or maybe a new work of science fiction.
Adventures of Crystal Night
All the gang gather around at Wimmen’s Comix.
At first, Sharon was a little hesitant about whether or not Paul Robeson would have approved of a Jewish lady creating his graphic biography. But, on second thought, she shrugged it off and realized that Paul Robeson would most certainly have approved. We cover quite a bit in this video interview: creative process issues; underground comix; and the evolution of the protest movement. One thing that Sharon wanted to make clear is that the present day activists need to have leaders and organization. “What do you have once you leave the streets? You need leaders and organization to fall back on.”
The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy. Written by Sean Michael Wilson and drawn by Akiko Shimojima. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2121. 205pp, $14.95.
The Many Not the Few. Written by Sean Michsel Wilson and drawn by Robert Brown. Oxford and Lancashire: Workable Press, 2019. 200pp, $18.95.
Sean Michael Wilson: Left Comics Sui Generis
A marvelously talented Scottish script writer, Sean Michael Wilson, is notable in the fast-emerging world of the nonfiction graphic novel, with a handful of awards and some twenty graphic novels to his credit. Like the most talented of left-wing film screenwriters from Hollywood to London to Tokyo and far beyond—suffering blacklisting and severe persecution in the Cold War era and not getting many good jobs right up to the present day—Wilson knows how to prepare his work for the next step in production. The writer works behind the scenes, so to speak, and becomes in a sense invisible, all the more so because the artist “adapts” any script, by necessity, to the demands of art and audience.
The Minamata Story. Art by Akiko Shimojima.
The first remarkable thing, from a comic art point of view, is that Wilson is clearly as much at home with Manga styles as with mainstream visual narratives. The Minimata story is fairly minimalist when it comes to dialogue, at least until the grim lessons must be drawn. The Foreword by environmental journalist Brian Small reminds us that the telling began long ago, in one of the early sagas of environmental contamination. A Japanese factory in the postwar years released large doses of mercury into a river near a fishing village, with ever more devastating effects. Documentary photographer Eugene Smith “iconized” the suffering of one family, and famed essayist/art critic John Berger devoted his talents to describing the photos.
Here, as we read the story, a Japanese boy grows up to college age, and looking for a topic, learns that the story has been a sort of local secret. Although strange symptoms appeared in the poplation, the fishermen could not or would not acknowledge the full effects of the discharge. The factory had brought a new vitality to the impoverished area. Our protagonist, with the help of his grandmother, learns that as death spread from the ocean to the people, panic ensued. Decades later, it remained difficult for survivors to prove their illnesses had come form the most obvious source, and the companies used the legal system to pay little or no compensation. Toward the end, the story turns didactic, inevitably. Those who protested or supported the protests during the late 1950s and remain in the field, despite aging, are heroic for the campaigners to follow.
The Many Not The Few. Art by Robert Brown.
The Many Not The Few is the finest graphic novel history of a nation’s working class ever published, or at least I have not seen any better. It was the first book ever introduced at a session of the British Parliament, and carries the stamp of the wider work of the national union federation, a partner, so to speak, with Labour’s day schools, theater and song workshops in various parts of the UK. It begins with a quotation from my very favorite character (along with the mythical Robin Hood) in English history: John Ball, the street preacher with the message that becomes the Radical Reformation idea across Europe, centuries later. “Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs nor gentlemen, and we shall be equal.” I could only complain, mildly, that I do not find here the famous bit of contemporary folk wisdom that became a favorite iconography of the socialist movement, thanks to an illustration by Williams Morris’s friend Walter Crane: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” That is; there were no capitalists or royals in Paradise. Never mind. The thought is felt throughout these pages.
Robert Brown, a veteran commercial illustrator with his own comics series (Killjoy, from 2011 onward) is more than equal to the task of moving from century to century, milieux to mileux. His adaptation has an old working class socialist sense to it and includes a character important to the narrative who is a multi-racial granddaughter of Indian descent, who looks maybe 12 or 13. The fellow has been researching for years, on his own, and she is ready to hear what he has to say. She asks good, intelligent questions. Thus Wat Tyler of the 1381 Rebellion bearing the leader’s name and the message of John Ball, leads a seemingly successful rebellion against the Crown. Tyler was murdered through conspiracy and massive suppression swiftly followed. History moves on. By page 30, we see famed historian E.P. Thompson and Karl Marx himself (no stranger to the British libraries) explaining the next step in oppression and fight back. “Enclosure,” the theft of the heretofore common lands to support and royalty and the expansive States brings misery beyond measure and deep resentments. Now we are in the sixteenth century with armed uprisings more intermittent but no less intense, leading to the famed Levellers and the Diggers of the English Civil War actually overthrowing the monarchy without themselves gaining power.
By the time we get to Pilgrim’s Progress, the granddaughter is the one who can do some of the teaching. More centuries pass and we arrive at something they both can chew on: William Blake, whose illustrations for the literary classic might be described as a proto-anarchist graphic novel. The old man is in his own with the rise of the Chartists, following the Tolpuddle arrests of peaceful marchers, a rare victory when 80,000 signatures proved too much for the authorities. Asking only the simplest of democratic reforms, Chartists gathered three million signatures in vain. and then marched, in vast numbers. The ruling classes were put on the defensive through peaceful action, a major step.
Contradictions are not avoided in these pages. Craft workers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries too often shunned cooperation with the unskilled, through the rise and fall of unions and the often fractured organizations of the Left. Wilson plays to his own strong Scottish collective memory for a moment with the glories of the Clydeside shipbuilders of Glasgow and their 60,000 militants of 1919. Their struggle and the consolidation of the miners’ unions during the First World War set the background for the General Strike of 1926. No doubt, these events, however effectively suppressed in their own time, made possible the victory of Labour in 1946 and the creation of a modern welfare state, later diminished but never destroyed.
The coal miners’ defeat by the Thatcher government, the crushing conservatiism consolidated by the neoliberalism of Tony Blair’s Labour government, brings our story close to the present. Chapters earlier, granddaughter Arushi asks about the failures of the Left and “Granda” answers squarely: these are part of the old and long process toward liberation. Unions seem now, to many young people distant from them, no longer the building block of a better society. But as she says, “We should run our own lives, workplaces, communities. Have some real democracy.” It’s a good parting note before the pair head off for some fish and chips.
Of all the restless ruminations occupying the mind and the tools of the alternative comics artist, none has so strayed so far from the funny-pages mainstream as the memoir. If commerial artists showed themselves at all, it might have been a fleeting glance at a generic father and son in a landscape (famous Frank O, King Sunday page drawings) or a banalization of social relations (Dennis the Menace, Family Circle and about a million others), Justin Green’s “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” with the artist’s own mental breakdowns on view, opened up a dramatically different way forward. As taken most famously by Art Spiegelman in Maus, but also by Alison Bechdel in the slightly fictionalized Fun Home, by Lynda Barry in her recollections of severely troubled childhood, Aline Kominsky’s bodily self-contempt, Joe Sacco’s personal travels thorugh war zones, or by Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis, to name only some of the best known—these are rightly among the most celebrated comics of recent decades.
Page excerpt from Chartwell Manor
To this list, add another: Chartwell Manor. As in the other memoir-comics, the artist recalls and recoils simultaneously. The story is told because the story must be told, a burden presumably lifted when it is completed and, at last, in print. We see on the cover that Robert Crumb has called it a masterpiece. Crumb himself, as is well known, suffered the beatings and humiation of his father, the military lifer. Drawing was an escape in search of survival (with a lot of help from Harvey Pekar, as it turned out). Head’s story is also a survivor’s story, typically American in some crucial ways: no war zones, no desperate poverty but deeply screwed up social relations and self-destructive habits.
Head is the kid in the 1960s with real artistic talent but no aptitude for school otherwise. His parents struggle, his mother with great sympathy for his plight, then decide to send him to a prep school/boarding school in his native New Jersey. There, to be brief, the schoolmaster turns out to be a pedophile as well as a self-righteous religiious hypocrite.The trauma suffered here connects with Hedd’s life in all the predictable ways including self-hatred, heavy drinking, strictly transactional womanizing, and decades of depression. The comaraderie of his fellow students at Chartwell didn’t help much at all and neither does his return to public school. It’s an unhappy and sometimes violent story, with a degree of bitterness in particular toward his father, the businessman, who considers manhood to be the art of taking blows without complaint, or (later on) without joining the alleged character weakness of joining AA.
He wants badly to explain to us, in a Foreword, that human behavior but epsecially sexual behavior and its consequences interests (better day, “obsesses”) him as an artist, and that he found himself attracted to the world of underground comics beause they gloriously exposed “what society insisted remain hidden.” His experiences, eating away at him for a large portion of his life, are a wound reopened.
Veteran readers of Head may properly regard this as the summa of his decades of creative work and of the tortured life of a rebellious artist in the post-1970 era when threats to the system seemed minor compared to self-harming impulses of the young and not-so-young.
They could also regard this as the summa of what can be called Punk Comics. Head described it perfecting in a YouTube interview with Noah van Sciver, but to summarize a bit: the dozen comic projects in Greater New York of the 1980s-90s, pulled together conceptually, so to speak, in Crumb’s own Weirdo magazine, published in distant California. Historians of comic art usually place Weirdo against RAW, because the first had no editorial policy whatsoever on skill, and the second was a high-concept Euro-American creation successful, as Ben Katchor has said, by proposing a new art form as a relative of French literature.
RAW set a new standard for comic art, while Weirdo is remembered mainly by specialists and Crumb devotees. But to put it that way obscures the path through DIY culture taken by a field of artists discovering themselves and their skills by plunging in, almost indifferent to the consequences. The excellent and revealing Book of Weirdo lays this out beautifully and should be basic reading in the history of the field.
But not to confine Head to the undertalented. Not at all. Born in 1958, raised in Brooklyn, Head became a student of Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Arts in the early 1980s. Shifting with the times from Underground Comix to Alternative Comics, he published his own H in 1988, later expanded into a Fantagraphics book, contributed to a variety of anthologies and found a home-away-from-home amongst the crew at Robert Crumb’s and Aline Kominsky’s Weirdo magazine. His solo Chicago (2015) is a grim saga of a would-be comic artist facing a variety of despairing moods and self-destructive tendencies unavoided.
Chartwell Manor could rightly be called the details of predation, consequences and much-delayed redemption. The reader learns from page to page and panel to panel that if details have been invented to make the story work, the protagonist really is Head himself, and that the predatory, pedophile schoolmaster is as real as the bad vibes and drugs. Ever so slowly, as his own art pulls him out,
The art is very much Glenn Head art, straightforward but imaginative at the edges, figures exaggerated larger or thinner than in life, and particularly horrific characters, grotesquely semi-human. His use of the brush is decisive, as he explained in an interview on Noah van Sciver’s YouTube channel. Does he successfully capture himself, or the self of the comic? Perhaps this is a question better asked of the larger framework of the Punk comic genre. Self-abuse wears thin pretty fast, especially without a comic element, and at times, the pages seem to drag. But Head, the hard-working artist, has overcome Head, the punk. He has captured some version of himself convincingly.
Steve Lafler’s themes and art work take us back, at least, to the Alt-comics of the 1980s-90s but in form and content, back further still. He’s an original, by any standard, whose inspiratino hails to the glory era of the Underground Comix and the downslide that followed and followed and followed. Not entirely unlike Peter Kuper, Lafler got himself and family to Oaxaca, Mexico, for years at a time, using local influences and themes for his volume Lucha Bruja.
He has offered us helpful information about an earlier influence, explaining not only 1956 but an earlier, out of print whopper Bughouse (issued also as a set of three volumes) on the lives of jazz musicians, depicted most curiously as insects of various kinds. Lafler’s father, a garment center buyer of the 1940s-50s, swam metaphorically in a world of hard-selling and mostly Jewish middle-men, hustling between manufacturers and buyers. Noir screenwiter Abraham Lincoln Polonsky captured them perfectly in the film I Can Get It For YouWholesale (1951), more recently revisited as the husband of the lead character of streamed television’s “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.”
Never mind. In Lafler’s reconstructed world, a prime interest, bording upon obsession, is the jazz of Manhattan’s 52nd St, then at its apex, and the hipsters who hung out there, interacting with the salesman. Dizzy Gilespie, Thelonious Monk and so many other marvelous musicians could be heard on any given night, and among them, players who would jam for hours after closing at practially any location. The multiracial hangers-on, Latina or Black, work the angles, mainly providing a portion of the sex trade while taking in the music. In this case, the Ramona in question is also Ramon. They get into trouble and get out again, as much as possible in this 54pp, with more to come in later installments.
Does it have the feeling of the real thing? Yes, at least metaphorically so, within the natural limits. The businessmen seem less cut-throat and lacking the New York, Yiddish-heavy accents of the more colorful part of the trade, but so what? It’s Lafler’s version. His hipsters are likewise his own creation, but not far from what we can learn from scholarship of the time and place.
The typical mindless office meeting.
I am more drawn to 40 Hour Man, for which he supplied only the illustrations. The writer notes his debt to Harvey Pekar, a debt both fascinating and curious. A collaborator of mine during the final decade of his life, Harvey had a unique approach to almost everything. He made daily existence in a heavily ethnic, most declining blue collar city seem entirely real, from job to home life. But it should be noted that Harvey’s 35 years as a file clerk at the VA hospital gave him a centering, stabilizing place in life. He was a good file clerk and proud of it. Our protagonist in 40 Hour Man is the opposite.
Here we have a steady romp from one bad job to another, always at about the minimum wage, in the neoliberal American economy of the 1980s-90s. Alienation is the name of the game, and if 1950s writers introduced the idea to the public (Karl Marx had written about it in his youthful 1944 manuscripts), our protagonist is living it day by day and hour by hour. He is no struggling proletarian with a vision of workers’ triumph over capitalism. He just wants to get along while doing as little as possible, and the jobs encourage, even demand, such a response. He also wants to drink and get high, something easier to achieve by moving from job to job, sometimes leaving, jsut as often getting fired.
His adventures fascinate, but what fascinates more is the bullshit character of the jobs and the management that appears almost as lost as the protagonist. Like the sometime higher-level employees of the popular British comedy “The IT Crowd,” they sit at their desks, sometimes give or accept “directives,” and also try to get through the day, nevertheless setting themselves off notably from the proles who have no desks and mainly move product from shipping floor to transport.
Sometimes the protagonist has rather more stimulating work, like clerking at a record store or even playing intern in a local radio station. No job looks like it will last, and none do. Our hero has no real aspiration beyond getting through the day or week, and this goes on until he meets the fictive and real woman of his life. By the end of the book, he seems to have removed himself from the Karmic Work Cycle, and we don’t need to know how.
The joy of this book is more visual than literary, although both are appealing. Lafler seems to me at his peak in adapting his comic drawing to the text. The antic ambles could be traced back to Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, and for that matter Charlie Chaplin, to name only a few movie heroes. Everything that can happen more or less does happen, although the update has more drugs and alcohol than hardly ever allowed in film until the age of the screw-up The Cable Guy.
Suspension of Disbelief: Covid-19 Stories. By Julia Wald. Seattle. Available at Push/Pull. 77pp, $23.
Exercising a “suspension of disbelief.”
Oral history has itself a brief but interesting history in comics. As a former teacher and field worker in the field, as co-editor of an adaptation of Studs Terkel’s totemic Working, and as a collaborator of the late Harvey Pekar, himself a Studs Terkel type, I hope to claim a little authority on this matter.
But not too much. Oral history is born and reborn regularly, as the voices are heard and recorded, archived and used. Every interviewee and every interviewer has a unique experience. When the then-new field of oral history passed from the 1950s recording the lives of famous white men lacking memoirs to the civil rights and peace movements recorded by fellow participants, something changed in the nature of the field. Oral history eventually gained a shaky presence in academia. Its participants are, as they had already become a few generations ago, a peaceful army of under-appreciated activist-scholars, some in the classroom, more of them outside.
We can hope for a better future.
Comics, the adaptation of oral history as comics, has added a new dimension. Stan Mack, in the Village Voice of the 1960s-70s, captured the language and ideas of random people on the street, and opened up a path to a popular audience. One could call Art Spiegelman’s Maus, his father’s harrowing story, the comic that raised the level of respect and even made comics an accepted “art.” Individual artists have found human subjects and explored them through oral histories, disguised as fiction. Still, the straight story-telling mode, minus fiction, remains an art undeveloped.
Julia Wald, a young artist from Buffalo and a graduate of degrees in art and chemistry there, moved to Seattle to become an artist and….works a day job, as nearly all young artists do and must. She responded instinctively, then determinedly, to the coming of the Virus. The men and women her age, working in restaurants and such, were suddenly underemployed if not unemployed, she wanted to tell their stories.
Thus Suspension of Disbelief. It is well drawn and extremely charming. Her subjects are young and youngish people, a little more than half of them Latinx. They are working the kind of jobs, living the kind of lives that they would have chosen in the post-2000 world of the deteriorated middle class, except that the life they chose has become very difficult for rent, food and other necessities, not to mention the threat of Covid close at hand.
Grateful for the stability you have.
They are depressed but not totally depressed. “I hope that maybe this will change the way we look at capitalism and we will realize that certain social programs are important especially for fellow artists. As artists having the freedom to create work without the pressure of having to make a living from art could be a way of looking at the world.” That is, “it’s never going to be like it used to be—so letting go is important.” So says Marcy, a videographer with a lot of charm, and no matter that her restaurant job and video gigs are gone. “Now we are all in this together.,” Or drag queen Butylene O’Kipple, “Do I have enough? how much do I need? What even are my actual needs What have I been brainwashed into thinking I couldn’t live without? What can I let go of?”
And many more, waitresses to sex workers, filmmakers to bus drivers. Each has a unique story to tell, and each fits into the mosaic of today’s Seattle scene.
Julia Wald’s first comic outing is a small triumph. I hope it will be widely seen.
Paul Buhle is the rare leftwing scholar of comics. He is coeditor of the Paul Robeson comic, out this year, and drawn by Sharon Rudahl.
Editor’s Note: Be sure to visit Exterminator City (Dec 10-13) where you can purchase Suspension of Disbelief as well as other notable works. And you can always visit Pull/Pull anytime!
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.
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.