Desmond Reed is a very talented cartoonist with a unique voice. If you enjoy quirky and weird comics, this is for you. I would describe the work as highly inventive and ambitious. Welcome to the world of the most unlikely band, The Cola Pop Creemees! These characters are young, energetic, and sometimes sad: think of it as a mashup of The Monkees and Bojack Horseman. It all began as fun posts on Instagram to cope with the pandemic and now Desmond Reed has a book on the way with a publisher and a 28-page comic book, Apples, thanks to a 2021 MICE Mini-Grant. You can purchase Apples through Radiator Comics (as well as other venues) as of November 1, 2021.
Wallace T.J. was born to party!
Laugh and cry as you experience the adventures of everyone’s least favorite band, The Cola Pop Creemees! These are the misadventures of a group of friends who form a band: Ralph Jonathan, Wallace T.J., Mona Gertrude, Gil Christopher, and Henrietta Susan. The names of an uncanny ring to them and are perfect for the mix of zany and bittersweet stories that follow.
Apples represents the best of the daily one-page comics posted on Desmond Reed’s Instagram from 2020 to 2021.
Apples is a recipient of a 2021 MICE Mini-Grant, and will be available for purchase through Radiator Comics (as well as other venues) on November 1, 2021.
Desmond Reed is definitely a talent to keep your eyes on. I hope you enjoy this interview where we discuss the artistic process and discuss comics and the comics scene. I’ve set this interview to premiere on my YouTube channel for this Wednesday, October 27th at 9am PST – 12noon EST. Your Likes, Comments and Subscribing are always welcome.
Desmond Reed has gone deep into cartoonland and delivered one very groovy book of comics goodness. Reed’s loopy characters literally dance upon the page. It’s a combination of whipsmart humor and design that will charm readers of all ages. There’s always room for another work in comics about a group of young people in a band, everything from Beatles comics to Josie and the Pussycats. But leave it to an ambitious indie cartoonist like Desmond Reed to take this genre into left field and high gear. The band of merry makers put the pow, buzz and boom into their music.
Just a kid with big dreams!
The artwork explodes upon the page in an amazingly smooth and natural way that you’d think Desmond Reed always drew this way. His previous book is something completely different, a shaggy dog homage to underground comix with heavy crosshatching and gross out humor. In comparison, his latest book is clean and crisp in execution and utterly charming in its sophisticated whimsy. It makes me think that it requires a good deal of planning ahead in order to get this precise look. It is after the artist has been toiling away, maybe not having the most fun, that the end result provides such a joyful reading experience.
Life in the big city.
The stories in this book revolve around a group of bohemian friends who have formed a band, the Cola Pop Creemees: Ralph Jonathan, Wallace T.J., Henrietta Susan, Gil Christopher and Mona Gertrude! The reader gets to see them struggle under authority figures and find their unique voices. Then the fun continues with various separate stories on each character. Maybe you’ve caught their misadventures on Instagram (@desmondtreed) and you’ve wondered if there might be a book collection. Well, there is and the first batch is sold out with plans for more in the near future. These comics are just too good to not give a proper shout out right now. Stay tuned for further developments by following Desmond Reed on Instagram (@desmondtreed)!
Glenn Head is part of that select group of auteur cartoonists who has steadily been building up a body of work, with its surrealist bent and underground comix influence, that reaches the level of art. Much of his work, as creator and/or editor, has appeared in various comix anthologies: Bad News, Snake Eyes, Hotwire, and R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine. And so it makes sense that Head has steadily been climbing the Mt. Everest of comix, the grand ole graphic novel.
Chicago: Searching and learning.
Most aspiring cartoonists will never follow through on creating their very own full-length, full-bodied (sorry, no stick figures) autobiographical graphic novel, the pinnacle of auteur cartoonist ambition. However, where there is a will, there is a way. Glenn Head has done this particular feat twice. The most diligent of cartoonists would do well to follow closely what Head’s been up to with his last two books, observe how they oddly mirror each other, one a variation on the other. What I’m talking about is Head’s 2015 graphic novel, Chicago: A Comix Memoir, which was regarded as Head’s coming-of-age magnum opus. Well, he’s followed that up with his latest work, Chartwell Manor, which is another coming-of-age magnum opus: same protagonist and life struggles but, nearly twice as long, more refined, and pivoting off a different focal point.
Chicago: Father and daughter moment.
As I leaf through this graphic novel, I am struck by all the intricate line work, all the meticulous detail, and all the frenetic energy. There’s a marvelous dance with death (and life!) going on, almost spinning out of control, and yet very well balanced. The artist is in the lead. Death will have to wait its turn. If we try to compare both books, Chartwell Manor is perhaps more focused and detailed, not to take anything away from Chicago. While the Glen character in the first book is going through a series of dark episodes, including an interlude with a troubled woman, it is the second book that confronts what is the root cause of Glen’s instability and struggle. The significance of this root cause is underscored by the fact it is not mentioned at all in the first book. The harrowing events of being molested at a boarding school, by the headmaster no less, are not afforded even one panel in the first book. But, by astonishing contrast, the boarding school IS the second book, covering most pages.
Glen with a gun. You keep feeding the underground comix beast.
Sordid content, twisted and unabashed, all that very messy human stuff, is only hinted at in most mainstream graphic novels. Whatever the case, great work will emerge, sometimes from a big traditional publisher. But, aside from self-published work, the really gritty stuff comes from the smaller niche publishers. Among that set, Fantagraphics is a leader in the United States. In fact, it has cultivated a particular vibe that, along with a high standard of excellence, places it in a unique position. Much angst going back to underground comix of the sixties finds a home there. This particular point of view, this grungy campy swagger, has had plenty of time to ferment into a brand. Those who are part of it find themselves deeply enmeshed in a scene: part way of life; part putting on an act. But what is an act and what is real? That’s part of the mystique. What matters in the end is the end result, a work that aspires to something bigger, a work of art.
Demons to be exorcised.
Dancing with death can tire you out so it’s good to pace yourself. The reader will see the satisfaction that comes from someone working on their craft. On one level, it’s the very act of working on a big project, whatever the content, that sustains an ambitious cartoonist. This is a graphic novel focusing on Head experiencing abuse at Chartwell Manor, a boarding school, and the years of living with that, a lifetime of living with that. This book provides a latter day underground cartoonist like Head another chance to push his style further, to level up his connection to the past, compared to all the great soul-baring cartoonists who have come before: Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, Jack Jackson, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and so on. It’s feeding, what I call, a “persistence of style.” Like he does in Chicago, Head can evoke an extended passage about him as a young and troubled youth, walking around naked in his family home with a loaded gun, aiming it at his head and pulling the trigger, and the act of creating that into comix is not necessarily a cathartic act, as much as it’s an artistic act. That’s not to belittle at all what happened to Head at Chartwell Manor. There are definitely demons to be exorcised. That’s just to point out that Head would be a lesser artist if his main aim was to have his graphic novel simply be a therapeutic act. It’s a complicated and thoroughly fascinating journey to explore the past while navigating your way to creating art.
Chartwell Manor: A rare moment of quiet joy.
There are key moments in the book, during and after Head’s time at Chartwell Manor where he talks to his parents and tries to let them know about the horror. In an early scene, while Head is still a student there, it seems like the parents are right on the verge of knowing but don’t want to know. It’s one of those instances when you wonder if something was said between the panels. Other moments, depicted from years later, also leave the reader wondering what the parents are aware of and what they are in denial about. It’s an ambiguous thread running throughout–and done to great effect.
Where there is a will,…
All those dirty little secrets that seem to have no way of getting out! And then they do. Ways are found to vent out frustration. It’s no exaggeration to say that underground comix have a lot to do with venting out frustration! The whole autobio comics genre has weathered various cycles of backlash, unfairly labeled as heavy-handed and a way for cartoonists to use it as therapy to work out personal problems. But, at the end of the day, most readers are fine to take the risk that some work will fall short while some will rise to the highest level. Honestly, any artist worth their salt, is going to tackle some form of autobiography. And, hey, all comics of this sort, in one form or another, is a story reflecting back to its creator.
…there is a way.
It’s important to note that each book has its lighter moments. In Chartwell Manor, those moments are mostly concerned with the process of creating comics. Chicago has a more experimental vibe, even whimsical at times, as when Head stumbles upon a visit to Chicago by Muhammad Ali and nearly gets his block knocked off. The point is that Head is in a wonderful place. Like any artist at this stage of their career, Head has a treasure trove to work from, plenty to return to for future books. With Chicago and Chartwell Manor, readers can see for themselves two distinct ways of presenting similar facts and the promise of what lies ahead.
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.
The Complete Hate Box Set. by Peter Bagge. Fantagraphics, Seattle. 938 pp, $119.99.
A great way to savor or discover the work of cartoonist Peter Bagge is the new collection, The Complete Hate Box Set, published by Fantagraphics Books. Peter Bagge is indeed a significant cartoonist, and one of the bright lights that led me to Seattle back in the early ’90s. Like so many, for me, a copy of Hate comics was a perfect companion while sipping a latte at Caffe Vita, downing a beer at the Comet Tavern, or anticipating a show at the Re-bar. It was a time to see and be seen and, no doubt, to mock your fellow hipster. And few, if any, did it quite as well as Peter Bagge in his ultra-satirical comic book series featuring the ultimate malcontent, Buddy Bradley.
HateBall tour poster by Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowes, 1993.
With hindsight, Hate seems like the perfect comic to encompass this whole grungy era. The title alone sounds like a timeless tribute to callow youth. But as Bagge explains in the introduction to this collection, nothing was so smoothly planned in advance, including the title, which only came about sort of by accident. It wasn’t as if Bagge had set out, without a care in the world, to be a successful satirist. First, Bagge slowly but surely developed Neat Stuff, a comic based upon his own family growing up. His main character, Buddy Bradley, was loosely based upon himself. And, as luck would have it, a somewhat older Buddy was right in step with a whole new zietgeist and would go on to take a prominent spot in the new wave of alternative comics of the 1990s.
HATE #1, 1990.
Hate has its own loopy specificity, a zany quality built from Archie Comics, MAD Magazine, and all manner of underground comix. It was to be Bagge’s answer to the hegemony of the ’60s counterculture. And it was to be more than just a comic from the halcyon days of Generation X. It has moved past that and entered a new phase where it can take a rightful place among the best in comics. It does this by simply being something exceptional in terms of style, consistency, and inventiveness.
The unreal meets the real in a run-down Seattle apartment.
You can say that Hate is a prime example of an excellent comic willed into existence by a very determined cartoonist. And the best test of that is how it grabs the reader. As I progress from one panel to the next, I am struck by the energy and vision on display. These are very loopy characters, out of reality in an uncanny way and yet what they say rings true and sounds like the sort of kooky youthful insights and outbursts going on in very real taverns, night clubs, and shanty apartments. In other words, Hate shares all the characteristics of some of the very best that comics have to offer. Hate lampooned Seattle hipsterdom while also being a part of it. Not an easy thing to do unless you’re focused and persistent. And, perhaps most important of all, don’t take any of it too seriously to begin with.
The Complete Hate Box Set is available as of December 1, 2020. For more details, visit Fantagraphics Books right here.
Gipi is one of the great cartoonists. His approach is to treat the page in a heroic fashion, as both canvas and stage, employing a variety of techniques and styles. In one work, he will typically shift from loose sketchbook line drawings to haunting panoramic watercolor panels. We see this kind of work in the States but we see even more of this in Europe. Gipi is part of that Italian breed of cartoonist who sings for his supper through fierce and daring visual storytelling. I was rifling through a stack of books and papers just the other day and Gipi’s The Innocents nearly hit me on the head. I took that as a sign. It is a story about lost youth and their comeuppance. That title was part of an amazing Ignatz collection published by Fantagraphics. A title that is currently on my radar is One Story, also published by Fantagraphics and one of the most ambitious works by Gipi that I’ve come across.
Gipi commands the page like a canvas or a stage.
Any artist, or magician worth his salt, is a master of illusion. Any given number of strokes of ink or paint on the page may seem marginal or of undetermined worth–and sometimes they don’t seem to quite add up! There are times when no one notices any of these potentially perceived mistakes or accidents that require further reflection. Or the culmination of all these marks does add up without much doubt but it still doesn’t seem to meet some fickle taste. Only a determined, persistent and consistent effort will ultimately win the day and that is what Gipi does. He’s the one who is constantly drawing. He is a cartoonist who unmistakably acts like any other artist, whatever the medium. And, in the process of all that problem-solving, a universe emerges. In the end, he can make it look easy. Ideally, and in general, you want all the elements on the page, even the splotches and rough gestures, to simply read as part of the narrative. Each mark belongs on the page. Gipi has the temperament and the confidence to pull that off.
Gipi, cartoonist as visionary artist.
Going hand in hand with a heroic attitude to mark-making is the actual script to which Gipi runs with as if his very life depends upon it. These sort of stories are the ones that need plenty of room to run, as they are larger-than-life stories about life! The reader can ease up on applying cold logic and allow the tale to cast its spell. For most readers, this will not be a problem at all. We begin in the present. Gipi charms the reader with his overwhelming sense of weltschmerz. Gipi shows us that the older you are, the less you can acknowledge your age when facing the mirror. An aging beauty can only see through a vintage lens. Cut to our main character, a former fiery rebel who is not aging into the perfect Lothario he intended to be.
Just drive off in a Maserati.
Next, our aging rebel finds a kindred spirit and they drive off in a Masareti. Remember, the plot is going to keep shifting. So, our main character is one Silvano Landi. It turns out that Mr. Landi is under heavy medication in a psych ward. He is drifting in and out of recollections, all very lucid and vibrant as hell. What Silvano sees, we see. A team of professionals are determined to keep Landi nicely sedated with increasing amounts of Bituprozan, in keeping with their standards, in order to address his “Schizophrenia with Monomaniacal Obsessive-Compulsive Behaviors.”
“A bare tree. Why?”
The team is both impressed and bewildered by a series of drawings Landi has done of a service station and a tree. They admit the work is dazzling but it is also so clearly out of the norm, and most disturbing. God help any artist at the mercy of psych bureaucrats! As for Landi’s request to go outside, well, the team won’t tolerate that at all. Silvano Landi is a famous writer, after all. He must get the most careful and strict of treatment.
Navigating a psych ward.
The story now takes a determined turn. We move over to Landi’s great-grandfather, Mauro, and the trenches of World War I. From here on out, we alternate between Landi, Mauro and all points beyond. As you’ve come to appreciate from this writing, this is all pure Gipi! Ah, and this is where the plot thickens as we venture off into geopolitics and so much more. It is absolutely not my intention to go over every plot point but, instead, to give you a good generous taste.
A tree grows at the end of the world.
My goal in a post like this, as always, is to provide you with a guided tour, part of my exploration of the most provocative and challenging works in comics. I happen to relish expressing myself in well-chosen words and this exceptional work inspires that effort. Keep in mind, Gipi is not exactly alone but he’s also definitely among the very best auteur cartoonists. If you had only one cartoonist to read, Gipi will win you over on many levels. None the least is, again, that deliciously melancholic sense of raw and jaded sophistication–and exhausted experience.
An eyeball plops onto the floor, is picked up, and then turns into a doorknob. That is the best moment in comics for this year. 2020 has been a very spooky and sad year and so this little graphic novel is all the more made for this moment.
There’s a lot of comics theory out there being tossed around. It’s very easy to start one of those erudite conversations about comics and ponder about what lies between the panels. Well, it’s a vast nothingness. It’s the gutter space. And, while you’re advised upon how you can manipulate the gutter space, slice it and dice it, the fact is that, in general, you don’t really want to call attention to it. No, it’s mostly the panels where the action is and that is what cartoonist Katie Skelly mindfully builds. Her gutter space is neutral. That’s where time passes. In fact, the panels could all be nothing more than a grid and we, as readers, would be satisfied. But a good variation in panels can do a lot of the heavy lifting in order to enhance the reading experience. Maids is Skelly’s latest graphic novel and it is quite an experience.
Beautiful narrative flow.
If you aware of this book, then you already know this is a stylish take on a true crime story, set in 1930s France, with the simple enough plot of two maids who murder the mansion’s inhabitants. For a story such as this, it is all in the telling–or showing. Skelly takes delight in presenting us the two culprits, two young women, Christine and Lea. These are two down-and-out girls who stumble upon working together for a rich family. By and by, we get to know the two girls, just barely out of their teens. What’s interesting is that they are far from likable. In fact, they are more likely to steal and loaf around than much of anything else. In turn, the rich family is not particularly villainous. They are more or less right to find the two girls to be repulsive. So, plenty of gray area to consider. No clear hero or villain. And yet, some may read a story here of a worker’s revolt. What is happening here is more open-ended than that. This is less a call for class warfare and more of a macabre journey we might enjoy on a cold winter’s night and, for that, Skelly has masterfully delivered.
Rise and shine!
For more details, visit Fantagraphics Books right here.
Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.
Excerpt from Lynda Barry
The comics discussion continues. This time around I interview Denis Kitchen and James P. Danky, co-curators of the comics art show, Wisconsin Funnies: 50 Years of Comics, at the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA), on view through January 10, 2021. Of course, comics is an art form but we’re arguably still moving beyond old prejudice and misunderstanding. A show like Wisconsin Funnies helps to provide context and history in the study of comics. For example, while an underground comics are often associated with San Francisco, popularized by such leading figures as R. Crumb, a rich history of independent comics activity can be found in the midwest, specifically Wisconsin. Today, that hub of comics energy continues to percolate, led by such notable figures as Lynda Barry, winner of the the prestigious MacArthur Genius Foundation fellowship and an an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity in the art department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kings in Disguise, a graphic novel published by Kitchen Sink Press, by Dan Burr and James Vance.
During the course of our conversation, we touched on the unique difficulties that may arise in mounting a comics art show in a museum. I specifically suggested that Wisconsin Funnies could become a traveling show. That is actually an idea that has a history behind it. Both Danky and Kitchen, while certainly happy to indulge such an idea for this show, tend to think the focus is too regional. What would stop a curator in another state from favoring their own state over a showcase of Wisconsin comics? That said, Wisconsin natives Danky and Kitchen have led the way in putting together a most compelling show and set the bar high. You also have to factor in that a lot of the power and strength about this show is due to the fact it is made possible in large part by Denis Kitchen, a huge figure in comics. I factor in all the contributions that Denis Kitchen has made: his own comics, writing, journalism, publishing and promotion, his founding Kitchen Sink Press, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; and his work with so many leading figures in the business, including Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Scott McCloud, Stan Lee, and Alan Moore. It all adds up. Right alongside Kitchen is James P. Danky, a respected historian and authority on the alternative press. It was a pleasure to talk with both of these men. I also want to add to the credits for this show: associate curator J. Tyler Friedman and guest curator Paul Buhle.
Group Self-Portrait of the core group of midwestern cartoonists, circa 1971: Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, Skip Williamson.
Any worthwhile endeavor like a major art show is made up of many unique individuals. The story of this art show is the story of numerous high-spirited and hard-working artists. One of the highlights to this interview was getting a chance to explore the inner lives of these cartoonists by using a group self-portrait as a starting point. I am referring to the above work. Here you find the core group of cartoonists who Denis worked with: Don Glassford, Jay Lynch, Jim Mitchell, Wendel Pugh, Bruce Walthers, Skip Williamson. Some went on to professional careers while others moved in other directions. But, in that special moment in time, they were all making a little bit of history. Maybe they were too busy to ever acknowledge it at the time. That’s okay. The art is now on the walls and can speak for itself.
MOWA can be proud to have a show that celebrates Wisconsin’s rich and varied comics tradition. You will find a broad spectrum of content here, including underground comics, editorial cartoons, graphic novels, and even the state’s own superhero comic, Badger, by Jeff Butler!
Denis Kitchen, Henry Chamberlain, James P. Danky in conversation.
Get your own copy of the Wisconsin Funnies: Fifty Years of Comics exhibition catalogue. This fully illustrated 244-page catalogue features more than 150 comic illustrations by thirty-one renowned comic artists. Available at the MOWA Shop in West Bend, MOWA | DTN inside Saint Kate—The Arts Hotel or online right here.
The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski. By Noah Van Sciver. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2020. 452 pp. $39.99.
Noah Van Sciver is an interesting cartoonist. He’s long graduated from being one of “those to watch” to an artist with a substanital track record. As a cartoonist myself, I admire and appreciate what he’s doing. He is best known for his lovable loudmouth character, Fante Bukowski, a confused mashup of Charles Bukowski and John Fante. The ongoing joke here is that Fante Bukowski is a perpetually aspiring writer, both artless and clueless. If you haven’t jumped on the Fante Bukowski bandwagon yet, now is the time with the release of The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, which collects every mishap and stumble all the way on a crazed quest for fame and fortune.
Fante dreams big.
I think that Fante is a very successful character. Van Sciver has developed something that people can easily relate to. Despite the fact that Fante is associated with the literary crowd, there’s nothing highbrow about him. If nothing else, Fante is accessible. You can think of him as the Homer Simpson of lost souls. In a higher sense, Fante is a perfect vehicle for Van Sciver to skewer any lofty notions about art. But even suggesting this may only make Van Sciver laugh. For something really serious and dark, he’d direct you to his graphic novella, Saint Cole. There’s definitely loads of irony and irreverence attached to Fante. On a more basic level, you can replace any literary stuff in here (replace it with general office culture, academia or even indie comics culture) and enjoy this as a story about a guy who is not much more than a professional wedding crasher, a latter day Groucho Marx out to expose hypocrisy and pretentiousness in all its many forms even if he’s not aware of it. The character is funny, gets into silly situations, and will make you laugh. But there’s more.
Fante Bukowski demands to be taken seriously as a writer. Van Sciver presents us with the journey of a misguided young man who really has no great talent, skill or genuine passion. Fante simply feels entitled to be a success. Fante will make some effort, just the bare minimum, towards his dreams, and expect instant results. His bare minimum efforts are garbage but he refuses to take no for an answer. All in all, this is very funny stuff. Imagine Steve Martin, in his prime, in the role of Fante. Or Ricky Gervais. However, given all the work it took to set up the premise of Fante, it would have been interesting if the satirical aim was a bit more precise if that were possible. As it is, Fante does indeed have hilarious moments like when he’s courting favor with a “literary journal” he’d like to have his work in, the Firewarter Journal, with such a perfectly pompous name and a circulation of a dozen to match. These are the sort of pleasant jabs that you might expect from the comic strip, Doonesbury, but more generic. Ultimately, Van Sciver succeeds by keeping his humor broad.
A romantic but stupid idea of being a writer.
Van Sciver seems to root for irreverence more than anything as a way to move things along. He doesn’t want anything to be taken too seriously, including his own work. He’s not trying to be Dash Shaw. And he doesn’t seem to aspire to write a true comedy of manners like cartoonist Posy Simmonds although he does a fine job with the social commentary he does end up doing. More importantly, he has definitely invested quite a lot in the idea that Fante Bukowski is a clueless young loudmouth who is completely absorbed with entitlement. That alone is key. A lot of other tidbits up for satire can be lightly played with. The big takeaway is that Fante Bukowski is a young empty suit. He feels he is owed something with apparently nothing to show for his outrageous demands. If, in spite of this fact, Fante did find his fame and fortune, then the joke would truly be on us.
While much care has been taken, Van Sciver has also made sure to leave a certain amount of a raw quality to what he does–and there is a long-standing tradition for that in indie comics and in art in general. You want to avoid getting too polished, too slick. You want to look the opposite of “corporate.” So, you’ll see the artwork is only refined up to a certain point. Some cartoonists, for example, will deliberately misuse digital coloring to subvert the idea of making things look too pretty. Van Sciver, for example, could have easily chosen a way to seamlessly clean up any mistakes in his text but he wants you to be aware of them. He has pasted over by hand every correction to his text and made it so that you clearly notice it. Whatever the reason, it reads as a style choice.
Unlucky in love.
Following this subversive impulse, Van Sciver does the same for the actual story. Nothing is supposed to be taken too seriously–and that does make sense when you’re poking fun at all those “highbrows” who take themselves too seriously, right? That notion is where you might find some subtext. Van Sciver peppers his comics with all sorts of quotes from various famous writers and artists and, within this loopy context, even the best lines from Hemingway or Fitzgerald all sound like sayings from fortune cookies. For a book that seems to be in it just for laughs, taking a blowtorch to the old masters has some bite to it. But no one really wants to topple truly great writers, do they? Maybe so but going down that rabbit hole is a pretty tall order. In the end, it seems that we’re supposed to turn our gaze back to Fante Bukowski and maybe pity the poor fool.
Noah Van Sciver is an Ignatz award-winning cartoonist who first came to comic readers’ attention with his critically acclaimed comic book series Blammo. His work has appeared in the Best American Comics and the Fantagraphics anthology series NOW. Van Sciver is a regular contributor to Mad magazine and has created many graphic novels including The Hypo and Saint Cole. His latest, The Complete Works of Fante Bukowski, collects all three volumes of the Fante Bukowski series in an expanded hardcover edition with extra features and special material. His follow up, Please Don’t Step on My JNCO Jeans, will be published in December.
I’ve been carving a little niche of some kind for many years and sometimes wondering where it all will lead—but I do know. I just mean that, push comes to shove, I will occasionally feel obligated to account for my actions. From time to time, all of us indie creative types must ask, “Why are we all doing this?” Indeed. We do it because it’s rewarding in its own right. As we progress through life, I think a lot of us out there begin to think we’d better be a little more respectful of our own work/worth. Why not? It makes sense. That brings me to this post, a look at Morgan Vogel, a remarkable talent now gone all too soon.
Cover to The Necrophilic Landspace by Morgan (then Tracy Auch) published by 2dcloud, 2015
From time to time, I feel compelled to define/explain what I do and this blog is a very good place for that. What I want to share with you right now is a little moment in time, because that is mostly what this blog does, filter through, and grind out some truth. Today, I bring up to the surface a remembrance of a young artist who recently passed away. Morgan Vogel, a name many of you will not know. But she fits the bill for the type of curious creature I hold in high esteem. Morgan was a determined artist. To die at 34 is truly heartbreaking. She was only beginning. I want to direct your attention to a tribute posted by Austin English over at The Comics Journal. Austin English runs Domino Books, a fine online boutique of comics and zines and he’s quite an authority on the indie zine. Austin leads a moving tribute that gives me confidence that Morgan’s legacy is safe and won’t be forgotten. Here’s Austin’s introduction:
Morgan Vogel, a cartoonist known for her distinctively intelligent work, went missing on April 8th. She was found dead Sunday, May 24th, at age 34. While her body of published work was small, its effect on those who read it was immeasurable. Her comics in anthologies (she appeared in Weird Magazine, Smoke Signals, Suspect Device, Tusen Hjärtan Stark, But is it…Comic Aht? and more) were often the stand out piece of the volume in question. The Necrophilic Landscape, a solo masterpiece published by 2dcloud in 2015, is one of the most stunning works of comic art in the last decade. Her recent self published zines, Valle and Nightcore Energy, were beautifully drawn and upsetting to read, a divide that appears in so much of her art and became more pronounced over time.
Morgan was a favorite cartoonist of mine and many others. Her work was, at once, cruel, funny, forgiving, un-affectionate and, most of all, incredibly perceptive. She often zeroed in on personas that people (in much of her work, artists specifically) constructed for themselves. She would at first offer a satire of these poses, but within a few panels, a more moving–and therefore devastating–portrait of the subject would be revealed. The maturity of her expression, the avoidance of an extreme of anger or acceptance but instead a complicated and upsetting synthesis of the two, was achieved with a precision that I rarely see in comics. Many of my favorite artists make work that, on a superficial level, seems confrontational, but at heart is urgently humane—Morgan’s work, to me, got at this better than most. When I wanted to start a magazine about comics, including Morgan’s work in whatever way possible was one of the highest priorities, because of the nature of her views on art. She wasn’t interested in style or gestures of sophistication, but instead on the true implications embedded within peoples art. In one remembrance below, a quote by Morgan is repeated: “I cant think of any other way to love except through artwork or some other medium that is public, loving everybody is easy, when you have an actual commitment to a thing or to somebody then it gets more complicated than I can handle.” A belief in the power of art often gets a lot of lip service, but for many artists of consequence, it is a real and specific thing. Morgan, I believe, was one of those artists.
Morgan’s work was well known to her peers and to many readers, but because she worked under so many pseudonyms (I originally knew her as Caroline Bren, then as Tracy Auch, later as Hennessy, and finally as Morgan or Morgan Vogel), the entirety of her output remains a tangle. I think this is, in part, how she wanted it. But I also know that she was an avid reader of this website and focused much of her thinking on cartoonists and cartooning history. There are no doubt people reading this with feelings about the form that mirror Morgan’s. In spite of her resistance to clarifying her body of work, attention and discussion of it seem important to fulfilling the belief she had in the medium. I think Morgan’s high standards for cartooning were often met most precisely by her own art. It’s hard for me to imagine an artistic achievement equal to that.
Pages from The Necrophilic Landspace
The Necrophilic Landspace is 32 pages, 7.75 x 9.25 inches, 1 color risograph, $12, available at 2dcloud.