Jerome Charyn’s latest novel encompasses the decline of the Third Reich as seen through the eyes of a special set of characters. It’s about a country that has lost its soul and about a young man who hungers to feed his soul. Charyn conjures up a narrative punctuated with powerful imagery such as when he steadily rolls out thoughts of Georges Rouault, artist of sad kings, clowns, and Christ. Most prominent of Charyn’s recurring themes comes from the silent film classic about the diabolical Dr. Caligari and Cesare, his somnambulist slave. What better metaphor for someone claiming that they were trapped into following orders. That is the life of the “Cesare” in this novel, one Erik Holderman, a small but vital cog in search of redemption.
Still from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1920
The ways of the world are writ large here. This is the story about a Caligari and a Cesare as well as a whole people who became, as an incisive bestseller so phrased it, “Hitler’s willing executioners.” Yet even in this dark world there is room for light. Erik is not merely a zombie slave. Nor is Canaris merely his Dr. Caligari. Between the two of them, they mean to undermine the Nazis as much as they can and save Jewish lives, one life at at time. This is mostly a dark world and yet one that somehow allows for the existence of Emil, a mystical dwarf who could have walked right out of a Georges Rouault painting.
The Little Dwarf by George Rouault, 1938
Erik, the obedient assassin, finds his fate inextricably linked to Lisalein, a most beguiling woman who equally courts sympathy and danger. All comes to a head when Lisa’s life is in peril once she ventures too close to the false paradise of Theresienstadt. She can’t help but follow her father who is convinced that the little cultural hamlet will prove to be his haven. The narrative definitely has much of the energy of a thriller as Erik must run to keep up with events. But there is so much more here. This is a very dark world, after all, and that requires the fine scalpel of a master storyteller to reveal truth. Much in the same spirit as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, with its underscoring the tragedy of the Allied bombings of Dresden, Jerome Charyn underscores the tragedy of Theresienstadt, an all too real place that trapped and killed–and haunts to this very day.
Saturn Devouring His Son by Francisco Goya, 1819–1823
Jerome Charyn has a highly distinctive voice in the same company with other literary greats like Saul Bellow or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Part of Charyn’s magic is his use of sustained imagery and metaphor. He has his favorite motifs which include wolves, werewolves, magicians, criminals, and tattoos, all sorts of things that either evoke something disturbing, supernatural, or otherworldly. In this new novel, for instance, he describes Hitler as a magician with his henchmen wolves. And it makes sense that Charyn would gravitate to the Nazi way station of Theresienstadt. It hadn’t been enough for the Nazis to deceive and/or kidnap Jews into this glorified holding pen. The Nazis forced Jews to oversee each other and even determine who would be next to go on to Auschwitz. That brings us to one last Charyn motif in this novel, one of the most sobering depictions of unbridled inhumanity, Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. In a novel full of its share of the grotesque, it takes an artist with a precise touch such as Charyn to achieve such artful results.
Blowout: Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, by Rachel Maddow, published by Crown, 432 pages, $30.00.
Blowout, a comics digest, by Henry Chamberlain
If you want to understand something about how the world works, then a must-read is Blowout, by Rachel Maddow. It doesn’t matter what your politics are for this book to make an impact. Maddow drags out some major skeletons in the closet into the light of day on a global scale. In this case, we’re talking about our relationship with fossil fuels, which isn’t much better than our relationship with nuclear energy. Maddow guides the reader up and down this perilous rollercoaster journey. Anyone familiar with The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC knows that Maddow favors an in-depth approach that connects all the dots. For me, someone who often finds it helpful to “doodle” and combine concise words and images, Blowout proves to be an excellent subject to dissect.
Close-up of comics. First panel.
It is through the process of creating comics, storyboarding, and visual storytelling, activities that I’m very familiar with, that incredibly powerful facts can bubble up to the surface. I’ll jump ahead right now and tell you, with all the relevant news going on as I write this, that facts are facts and it’s important to pin them down. I point your direction to the comic that is presented here that I created focusing on Rex Tillerson, a prime example of how those in power, left unchecked, demand and grab even more power, as much power as possible. I also created an info-mural that gives an overview of the whole Blowout book. That said, this comic adds some finer precision to make a point. It’s as one digs deeper, connects those dots, that those facts bubble up that need to be pinned down and examined. At a time when we’ve heard so much about finding the ultimate “smoking gun,” when one news cycle is drowned out by another, I point you to the fact that, once in office, the Trump administration hurriedly did whatever it could to remove sanctions on Russia. But Congress acted in a bipartisan manner and shutdown any attempt to remove these sanctions. However, Congress looked the other way on another related matter, getting rid of Section 1504 of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010.
There are very real consequences to letting Big Oil bullies, like ExxonMobil do at they please. Section 1504, the much despised safety valve to help curb corruption, that the Trump administration successfully pushed Congress to make disappear was there to try to turn back the Resource Curse. When countries find themselves with vast amounts of valuable resources, like oil and gas, it is the corrupt power players who win and the citizens who lose. There’s no trickle down effect! Nope, it’s just a dictator and his family with cash to burn. As is pointed out in Blowout, the 1504 measure was only trying to fix a very messed up system:
It’s worth repeating what the late Republican senator Richard Lugar wrote when he sponsored the measure: “When oil revenue in a producing country can be easily tracked, that nation’s elite are more likely to use revenues for the vital needs of their citizens and less likely to squander newfound wealth for self-aggrandizing projects.” Lugar has also been clear-eyed about the cost to the United States of allowing corrupt government actors in those countries to consistently fail their own citizens. The Resource Curse, Lugar wrote, “exacerbates global poverty which can be a seedbed for terrorism, it dulls the effect of our foreign assistance, it empowers autocrats and dictators, and it can crimp the world petroleum supplies by breeding instability.”
Somehow, that wasn’t a compelling enough argument for Rex Tillerson or Donald Trump.
Maddow begins connecting the dots with John D. Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Company and we end up with Rex Tillerson and ExxonMobil. The first oil strike, the big bang that set it all into motion, was on August 28, 1859, long before there were any cars but not before a profit motive had been established. Fast forward to our own times, ExxonMobil, a descendant of Standard Oil, reigns supreme as the most profitable business in the world. Going back to John D Rockefeller, big oil has always felt entitled to do as it pleases, by whatever means. With Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil had the perfect CEO, both savvy and ruthless. As Maddow points out with great detail, Tillerson had no qualms about who he built a relationship with, including a very cozy one with Vladimir Putin, even if it put lives in danger. As Tillerson explains, if he could get away with something that favored ExxonMobil, then he was going to do it:
“Was there any country in the world whose record of civil rights was so horrible, or whose conduct was so directly a threat to global security or U.S. national security interests, that Exxon wouldn’t do business with it?” Rex was asked during an official U.S. Senate investigation. “The standard that is applied is, first, ‘Is it legal?'” he replied. “Does it violate any of the laws of the United States to conduct business with that particular country? Then, beyond that, it goes to the question of the country itself. Do they honor contract sanctity?” Contract sanctity, that’s the top. Below that, it’s all negotiable.
And it is Rex Tillerson who ends up becoming Secretary of State, at least for a while.
Once the genie was let out of the bottle, humans developed a rather disordered relationship with oil…and its close cousin, natural gas. When oil reserves became less of an easy grab, it was natural gas that seemed to be the energy alternative we’d all been looking for. Except natural gas was never really such an easy grab. Accessing it involves a process popularly known as “fracking,” which is highly disruptive and has resulted in a record number of earthquakes in Oklahoma, a darling of the fracking industry, and a region where earthquakes were nearly nonexistent. This is a thread in our story that travels the globe as more and more regions experience fracking–and subsequent environmental damage. From that already toxic mix, you can add rampant corruption inextricably linked to the search for oil and gas. But don’t let it overwhelm you. Maddow maintains a steady narrative pace, all the better to make sense of it all. For instance, let’s not overlook for a minute the significance of Ukraine which figures prominently in Putin’s designs for dominance. The plan had been to keep Ukraine dependent upon Russian natural gas–but then Ukraine discovered gas of its own. No matter, Ukraine had to bend its knee or it would be broken. The truth was that, ever since the break up of the Soviet Union, the people of Ukraine wished to be free. Instead, Putin inserted his gangsters, like Dmitry Firtash, to maintain control:
There was a pile of money to be made in natural gas in Ukraine, so there were plenty of very interested parties. Firtash had to be able to deal with bankers, pols, and, most important, organized crime bosses. All of them well armed. All of them locked in a dangerous and uneasy partnership that sometimes proved fatal for the unluckiest. Firtash knew certain dinner invitations could come with a side order of assassination. Even into the early years of the twenty-first century, the natural gas business was still operating by “the law of the streets,” Firtash explained to the U.S. ambassador of Ukraine. “It was impossible to approach a government official for any reason without also meeting with an organized crime member,” Firtash said. He did what he had to do.
As many of my readers have come to appreciate, I aspire to the high standards of the auteur cartoonist, the artist-writer who processes compelling information into concise words and images. It is something I’ve done on some level as far back as I can remember. Sometimes, I can’t help myself and will take a riveting read and write a full-on prose review. And then there are times when some sort of “comics digest” is in order. So, I’ve taken some key moments in Blowout and turned them into what amounts to an info-mural. You can see the whole layout to my info-mural by viewing the video below.
Maybe I got something out of my system for now. I provide this without a focus either to the right or to the left. I sincerely believe that we only need to look back to the dark days of Watergate to see how a crisis, mired in polarizng politics, can inevitably lead to a consensus that something is wrong and it needs to be fixed, for the sake of not only one country but for the world at large. Looking beyond fossil fuels, we need to embrace renewable energy sources now more than ever. It wasn’t that long ago that an electric car seemed to only be a futuristic dream. Now, it’s common. We can do it.
The Best American Comics 2019, series editor Bill Kartalopoulos, editor Jillian Tamaki, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 400 pages, $25.00.
All in all, the goal of the annual Best American Comics is to represent the overriding impact of significant and notable comics during the last year and say something about comics that is fresh and new. Well, among the most fresh and new, is the work of 81-year-old Jerry Moriarty. In this new edition, you’ll find this example, an excerpt from Whatsa Paintoonist? published by Fantagraphics Books. We see the artist chatting as he goes about his day in his studio. The featured pages depict a wonderfully eccentric and talkative artist with his creations having come to life.
WHATSA PAINTOONIST? (excerpt)
Painting with acrylic and drawing with a Papermate pen, Moriarty epitomizes what is takes to cut through barriers and pretense and get on with creating art. You take a look at his paintings about sexual awakening and you see direct and incisive work. After graduating from Pratt, he went on to teach at the School of Visual Arts for fifty years. In 1984, his first comic, Jack Survives, was published by RAW. Put it all together and Moriarty’s artistic activity is genuine and authentic. Moriarty definitely fits into my criteria for what belongs in a collection of the best comics: work of quality; work that advances the comics medium; and work that speaks to the current state of comics. I have always maintained that the ideal cartoonist is the auteur cartoonist, a sole creator who treats comics as the art medium that it is. If such a person is so fortunate as to be able to build a career solely upon their comics and graphic novels, that’s great. But, all too often, you just do what you need to do because you’re compelled to create the work, in the same way that a genuine poet creates poetry. That is what Jerry Moriarty has done.
WHATSA PAINTOONIST? (excerpt)
The goal of Best American Comics is to feature the wide spectrum of the best work of the previous year. And while seeking out the best can become quite subjective, the goal is to overcome that. Honestly, if it’s not overcome, then you end up with more of a promotional book of commercial artists or an overly self-indulgent exploration of experimental work. Neither extreme is welcome to carry a whole book. There are other venues for that. Of course, one needs to try to cover as much as possible. Best American Comics has a pretty good system in place where the series editor gathers up work throughout the year and hands it off to that year’s guest editor. In the end, you get a collection that includes industry leaders and quite a few intriguing discoveries. I think it’s fair to say that this is an imperfect process but one can keep striving to do better. The good news is that each year brings a collection with wonderful new work to discover or rediscover like the work of Jerry Moriarty, who has been in the business for well over fifty years. Nice to see that he made it into Best American Comics this year!
What has a superhero ever really done for you? That’s a tricky question. It depends upon who you ask. First, superheroes aren’t real and are owned by corporations, at least all of the household names. It’s a cold-blooded business when you look at it from the perspective of co-creators who were not given credit or a fair share of the profits, like Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko or Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster. Comic books are a mass entertainment focused on profit, right? And then there’s the perspective of thoughtful and dedicated fans, the ones who take it to heart, who even write and draw in tribute to beloved characters. Bill Schelly is among that group of fans who know, despite any ugly realities, how to harness the super powers of the likes of Superman and Spider-Man. If you believe enough, especially in yourself, all sorts of dreams can come true. Bill Schelly set out to be an author, a “writer of books,” and buoyed up by the power of fandom, achieved his wildest dreams, including a respectable fanzine while still a youth, A Sense of Wonder, all the way to a memoir of the same name that has recently been expanded, A Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom – The Whole Story, published by North Atlantic Books. It is like the most compelling of pop culture scrapbooks come to life.
Do people still even keep scrapbooks? Thankfully, some do. Yes, even digital files count. There will always be those who are compelled to document, dig deeper, and pay it forward. In the case of Bill Schelly, it all began with a fateful train ride. The Schelly family was on a trip to visit relatives back in 1960. To help keep nine-year-old Bill preoccupied on the long ride ahead, his father bought him a comic book. But it wasn’t just any comic book. His two brothers chose regular issues of ten cents each. Bill was excited about a special issue, Giant Superman Annual #1 with its enticing cover promising numerous thrills. It cost a whole quarter. At first, his father balked but ultimately relented. Schelly’s recollection of this scene is quite moving. He goes on to describe a boy besotted by all the larger-than-life stories found in the brightly colored pages. This is the pivotal moment that set young Bill on a lifelong journey. He already knew that he wanted to be a “writer of books” and, only a few years later, he would discover his ability to draw. What really set Schelly apart was a specific interest to better understand the underpinnings of comics. As much as Schelly wanted to become just like the comic book creators he so admired, he was driven by an intellectual need to know and a compelling desire to share his findings with other enthusiasts. This led to a number of boyhood fanzines, home-made magazines with a focus on a fan’s passion. And the best iteration of this process was a fanzine he called, Sense of Wonder. He became a teenage editor and publisher with subscribers all across the country. Young Bill confidently knew that he had set the stage for big things ahead but had no clue as to what exactly he would achieve or how he would get there.
Giant Superman Annual #1
Over the years, Schelly pushed himself to evolve as a writer and, in turn, as a person. As he had done with his boyhood fanzines, he learned from his mistakes and was driven to improve. While he honored the egalitarian spirit of fandom where every fan was an equal, he also wanted to lead the way and make his distinctive mark. As he had discovered early on in life, fandom is a close-knit network of like-minded souls and, in general, fans support fans. You never knew which friend you made today might lend a hand in some unexpected way in the future. It was through the world of fandom that Schelly found his way. And it is around the age of 21 that the first version of Schelly’s book, A Sense of Wonder, ends. This new version picks up from there and unveils what lay ahead. For one thing, the reader learns how the Sense of Wonder book evolved and how it was a building block towards other books. It’s surprising, with hindsight, to discover that Schelly did not reveal being gay in the first version of his coming-of-age book. In fact, he had given Howard Cruse, one of the most notable gay cartoonists, an advance copy in hopes of getting a back cover blurb. Cruse expressed regret that Schelly wasn’t ready to come out but was more than happy to provide a blurb. It was in a later version of Sense of Wonder, when Schelly was ready, that he added some of his best writing on growing up gay. And it is this latest version that beautifully brings it all together: Schelly’s dreams, his passions, the arc of a life. In the book, the reader follows Schelly as he relentlessly strives to create his magnum opus. As a young man, he hitches his wagon to the star of silent movie comedian Harry Langdon and creates his first attempt at a biography. Later on, he tackles the life of legendary cartoonist Joe Kubert. Finally, he achieves mainstream success with quite a substantial biography of another pop culture legend, Harvey Kurtzman. But, when it is all said and done and there’s finally time to take a breath and look back, Bill Schelly’s memoir is what rises to the top, a book that shares the trials and tribulations of a man who just wanted to dream and be a “writer of books.”
Bill Schelly (1951-2019)
Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom – The Whole Story is a 392-page trade paperback published by North Atlantic Books.
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.
Ben Katchor: Conversations. Edited by Ian Gordon. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2019. 220pp, $25 paperback.
The scholarship of comic art is booming, so far as “booming” means well-attended university classes on comics and the identification of icons among the artists, a la literary theory and teaching. This is not an altogether agreeable development for understanding the history of comic art, first of all because the iconic identification tends to push at least 95% of the artists into the background, also because the background itself, the historical context, can slip dangerously away. Never mind: we take what we can get, often tasty and nourishing tid-bits of a larger, still mostly hidden history.
Katchor is definitely sui genesis, a considerable thinker, In a field where better- and lesser-known artists are inclined to explain themselves through their drawing, and when pushed, to talk about their lives or their own work rather than the comic art of the age, let alone comic history, he is rare. Is it perhaps his being personally soaked in the history of diasporic Jewry, of which his Yiddish-speaking father, survivor of the Holocaust, was a prime example? Or just as likely the boyhood in Brooklyn that he talks about, the now-vanished world of mulit-purpose candy and cigar shops with racks of dime comics?
Whatever the case, Katchor has often said that he identifies not at all with the mainstream Superhero genres and lost interest in them fairly early. He explains that he owes more to his experience in the small-scale, typesetting experience in New York of the 1970s, in another world that has faded so completely that it seems archaic as the once-booming garment trade in downtown Manhattan. This experience offered him, we can guess, a way to orient himself toward the physical presence of older buildings, neighborhood vernaculars of older people in particular, things to keep in memory and rework in his art. His maiden voyage into the book world. Julius Knipl—begun as a newspaper strip in 1988—is a tour through an imagined but not wholly imagined city, reality stretched out and reworked in art and dialogue.
The source of this volume is another key because Katchor was serializing, in at least a few of the alternative weeklies and then more and more. He sometimes shared a page with Lynda Barry (recent MacArthur winner) or the later best-selling Alison Bechdel. He had the steadiness of a schedule to meet, ideas to cook up with art.
Toward the end of the old century, he had a regular gig at a prestige architectural magazine, Metropolis, and he began his long stint of teaching. Within the classroom, he made yet more important observations. His students, uninterested in the Art Speculation market of gallery painting, were more interested in “comics” but not necessarily like any comic art yet in existence. They were entering a phase of publishing and self-publishing, with scant chance of making real money or even having much distribution, but ample opportunity to find themselves within their work.
His own work is so unique, in a way cut off from the history of comics, newspaper comic strips as well as comic books, and yet it is impossible to look at any of his books—Hand-Drying in America, and other Stories is his most recent, until The Dairy Restaurant appears next Spring—and not see the kernel of comic art in what he prefers to call “picture stories.” The German word Bildergeschichte, “combining pictures and stories” (p.77) is certainly workable, but to that general definition Katchor adds the unique notion “autographic writing,” a literary-visual tradition with the very handwriting of the artist inscribed in the work. Lynda Barry has often made a similar point about young fingers getting ready to draw anything: drawing is an extension of drawing around the fingers.
There is another angle of Katchor that I wish to pursue. Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004) edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, offered a history of sorts, of criticism if not scholarship of comics. Its publisher, the University Press of Mississippi thereby made itself an early claim on scholarship in the field at large, and has continued to be one of the leading scholarly publishers on comic art. As in the title of the Heer-Worcester anthology, comics were for past generations seen as a form of literature. To my mind, Katchor seems to defy rather than accept a “literary” slot for the drawing of a certain kind of comic, but then again, perhaps not.
It is memorable that Gilbert Seldes, whose Seven Lively Arts (1924) offered the first major defense of the popular culture distrusted when not ignored in the genteel culture of the day, was also the first to point out that comics were actually destined to be “despised” in extremis. Their very popularity among the unwashed and barely literate classes of Americans naturally placed comics at the bottom of the bin, most obviously with the most vulgar of pulp productions, i.e., pornography. They were wicked, corrupting literature.
(Not that this association was entirely mistaken. The comic book industry giants arising in the ‘thirties had indeed dabbled in pornography, and the “Tijuana Bibles” had a long and fruitful run until the breakdown of censorship rendered irrelevant.)
The quiet move from genteel rejection to ambivalence and a sort of acceptance tracks with the Depression years to the War years, most notably the Cold War to follow, and the post-Vietnam rethink of American culture at large. As Heer and Worcester note in their introduction to their volume, the largely aesthete Partisan Review, refining its cultural views while moving politically from an anti-capitalist perspective to a ferocious Cold War liberalism, already precipitated by the later 1950s a degree of discomfort. What was wrong here? The complaints against “conformity,” directed against popular culture as much as the manners and morals of suburbia, seemed to apply also to intellectuals steadily making their way upward in the expanding college scene.
Or perhaps it was a professorial search for newer subjects, newer angles of vision likely to be interesting to undergraduates and the publishers of high quality paperbacks. More interesting critics and mostly younger critics, in any case, began to look in new directions. They were for the moment swimming against the tide washing over the New York Times as well as the literary magazines.
Someone described Robert Warshow, a favorite writer of the PR and surrounding circles, as possessing a 1950s view of movies and comics much the same as the cop in his cruiser, assigned to policing the ghetto, “understands” the dangerous neighborhood. The “Free Enterprise art” (in Henry Luce’s memorable phrase) of the high culture alternative seemed to repudiate, in one fell swoop, the Popular Front art of the New Deal era, anti-fascist Hollywood, the WPA-funded post office murals and the 1930s-40s literature of social struggles. Not that all of the painter-abstractionists, by any means, agreed with existing Cold War politics. Some were committed anti-capitalists and a few, following Picasso, even remained Communists! But the trope held fast until—it broke.
After Vietnam, even during the later years of the invasion and mass bombing of Southeast Asia, the older assumptions of Cold War liberalism, artistic quite as much as political could not be sustained. Surely nothing repudiated these assumptions quite as drastically as the Underground Comix, arising out of the equally rebellious Underground Press. Ferociously antiwar (if also, at times, noxiously sexist) and even ecological, their very presence inspired youngish men and women to experiment with the familiar “vulgar,” genre, seeking to reinvent what a comic could be.
The underground generation and a somewhat younger cohort would create the feminist comic, rediscover the “wordless comic” (of the classic 1920s-30s woodcuts, along with older versions) and in Raw magazine, show proof that global art, global audiences had come to a new stage of defining comics, and just in time. Comics no longer occupied the center of attention in a newspaper trade that was dying, anyway. That painting genre that meanwhile survived and even flourished among the investors’ set actually disguised an important positive kernel: figurative art had made a comeback. Alice Neel an elderly leftwing counterpart, in her way, to the most artistic-minded of the younger comic artists, could stand for the ongoing artistic rebellion. Neel, too, Went Naked.
Here we may return comfortably to Ben Katchor, The lush color pages of Hand-Drying in America seemed to bring out something never hidden but never quite fully expressed in his previous work. He would say afterward that the imaginative depictions of an early Manhattan (and fictional offshoots, the re-imagined favorite vacation spots of lower middle class Jews generations ago), along with the inhabitants and their language, were in fact his own dreamscape. Hope is not quite lost, in the troubled real world around us, because anything is possible for the dreamer. “No one,” he commented to a critic after the volume was published, “has yet seen these strips as a dream critique of the waking world.” We could fairly call this observation “surrealist,” but in spite of a fondness for elements of the vernacular, surrealists were largely caught within a set of assumptions about what is revolutionary or not. Katchor evades the distinctions.
He does, however, share the harsh criticism of capitalism that marked the surrealists, now so many artistic generations ago. He is not and cannot be a literalist in his work, but he has become an insightful as well as a ferocious observer about the direction the system is taking us. Occupy Wall Street, centered in the very neighborhood where he practiced the small business of the typesetter, seems to have loosed something in his mind, awaiting a spark. And then there’s repression. “I feel like we’re replaying World War I, with the Espionage Act being revived and journalists being threatened for merely doing their jobs,” he tells an interviewer. “And on top of that, the ecosystem is collapsing. It’s a nightmare…”
He adds, in a note to the reviewer, that Julius Knipl was, after all, a critique of the world, “aligned with those people who were unhappy to see the gentrification” of yesterday’s New York, with the end of the street and cafe life that made it so interesting. If his fellow art school students of the 1970s saw making comics a form of professional suicide, Katchor saw this as a political act. He quotes the formidable art critic Meyer Schapiro, writing under a pseudonym in the New Masses of the early 1930s on an art exhibit of the John Reed Clubs, as insisting that a good revolutionary picture “is not necessarily a cartoon, but it should have the legibility and pointedness of a cartoon, and like the cartoon it should reach the great masses of workers at little expense.”
Too soon, the John Reed Clubs were folded into the American Writers Congress and once again, the famed novelists drawn to anti-fascist politics were exalted, with their prestige and style far from comics (that the last phase of the Writers Congress, in Hollywood, would highlight scriptwriting for Hollywood is another contradiction too distant for consideration here). The Daily Worker itself had a couple of excellent comic strips for some years. It cannot be said that they were taken seriously as an art form.
Now, perhaps, after all this time, including the rise and fall of the wildly explosive and critical EC comics, followed by the rise and fall of the underground comix genre, something is on the way again. If it happens, if it is actually happening, we can thank Ben Katchor for his insights as well as his own artistic contributions. He’s a deep thinker of a genre that has few, indeed.
Krazy Kat began as its own comic strip on October 28, 1913. That was 106 years ago. Much has changed and much remains in transition. For instance, we continue to struggle with race. But let me loop back for a moment. Many of you might be familiar with Krazy Kat and many of you might not. It was nothing short of a national sensation in its heyday, read my people from all strata of society. During that era, the early 20th century, you can argue that the common knowledge base was bigger than it is today while the universal sensitivity towards others was smaller. Today, the level of common knowledge and sensitivity seems to have become inverted. We seem to care more while we know less. That said, Krazy Kat, the comic strip, (1913-1944) held a position in pop culture akin to what Saturday Night Live holds today. Everyone read it, from paperboys to presidents, and it got under people’s skin. And, speaking of skin, race is the tie that binds and is in the background and in the foreground to everything I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the first full length biography of cartoonist George Herriman and one of the best recent biographies in general: Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White, written by Michael Tisserand, published in December of 2016, by HarperCollins.
Krazy Kat and Ignatz in full swing.
Race, and identity, plays a predominant role in Krazy Kat as the main character is engaged in a never-ending journey of following an independent path while dealing with society. Krazy Kat is a cat with no particular gender and no particular purpose, really, other than attempting to find a little romance with Ignatz mouse. Today, you might think this gender-bending scenario would have been too sophisticated for the early 20th century but the comic strip steadily gained in popularity. People’s tastes were generally more raw and unfiltered and that sensibility carried over into the Krazy Kat comic strip. Over time, George Herriman was able to perfect a love triangle between cat, mouse, and dog. It was a wonderfully existential comic strip that especially appealed to intellectuals and inspired everyone from Picasso to Charles Schulz. Through it all, Krazy Kat was a black cat confused over whether it should be black or white.
A life in black and white.
Tisserand takes the reader along a bumpy, often violent and toxic, ride down the American experience byway of cartoonist George Herriman and his family. This is also a story of redemption and transcendence. The guiding refrain we hold onto dearly in America is a belief in resilience, not always quick but something we collectively want to keep alive. We can surprise ourselves, and emerge from tragedy. That said, Americans were living in highly dangerous times regarding race when budding cartoonist George Herriman, of mixed raced, came of age and was establishing himself. Herriman was born in 1880. Consider just one fact about the world that George was born into, as cited by Tisserand in his book: “Louisiana’s total of 313 blacks lynched between 1889 and 1918 was only surpassed by those in Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas.” That appalling and horrific fact alone undeniably makes clear why George and his family ultimately moved from New Orleans in 1889 to Los Angeles. The Herriman family from then on was to pass for white. That decision opened up a whole new world of freedom and opportunity.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White
Race back in George’s day, and today, is a complicated subject the deeper you dig. What may seem improbable and unlikely, might add up in proper context. So, I was in New Orleans recently and I got to chat with Michael Tisserand. I put to Michael a question about how Herriman had to tow the line and create comics that followed the racism of the era before he could eventually move on to create what is universally beloved transcendent art. There are no easy answers, he said, and he chose in his book to simply bring out the facts and not try to speculate. That is how he was able to reconcile, or move past, the fact that Herriman did his fair share of racist comics and even wore black face at an event put together by carousing co-workers. These were certainly not Herriman’s proudest moments. Perhaps they were simply moments to get through in order to survive. As they always say, it was another time. Remarkably, Herriman ended up redeeming himself many times over. That would seem to have been the plan all along.
Hiding his true identity was a choice that made sense for George Herriman. And his friends and co-workers were more than happy to follow a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding his heritage. George was simply known as “The Greek.” It wasn’t until decades later, in 1971, when a reporter discovered a birth certificate that labeled Herriman as “colored” that the news finally came out and, even then, it was dismissed and refuted for years. George’s big secret actually became a mixed blessing as it informed his life’s work. As Tisserand describes in vivid detail, Herriman developed what was to become a true work of art. Ahead of its time, and more married to art than commercial success, Krazy Kat became a vessel upon which to speak out about one’s own worth and identity. Krazy Kat was the gender-bending sprite that defied conventional wisdom. In the end, George may have been hiding but he was hiding in plain sight.
Michael provided me with an inspired guided tour of the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans and you can see it in the short film I created. Just click the link above. We went over all the old haunts and residences of the Herriman family and extended relations and friends. Michael was in fine form, engaged with the subject and bringing it to life. This is the same tour that he has provided to notable figures in comics such as Art Spiegelman, creator of the landmark work in comics, Maus; Patrick McDonnell, the creator of the popular comic strip, Mutts; and Paul Karasik, author of the best-selling, How to Read Nancy. Lucky me. I think you’ll enjoy the ride too.
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White is a 592-page book, available in print and various platforms, published by HarperCollins. Visit Michael Tisserand right here.
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.
The cartoonist Typex presents a comics biography of the artist Andy Warhol that is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. If you thought you knew Andy Warhol, then read Andy: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams. This is quite an ambitious and fascinating biography, a work of art in and of itself. Typex delivers such a detail-rich account in this 562-page book and leaves you wanting more! He does this by keeping to a crisp and finely-tuned and organized narrative. We go from one period of time to the next, evoking the quotidian while distilling the essential. In the process, the reader is treated to a behind-the-scenes look at Andy Warhol’s personal and professional life.
Andy Warhol meets Edie Sedgwick
An inquisitive cartoonist like Typex is not one to be easily satisfied with a standard comics biography, especially for such a towering figure in art and pop culture as Mr. Andy Warhol. Love him or hate him, Warhol has left a significant mark on the culture and, if not for never fully recovering from a murder attempt and a botched up gallbladder operation, he would have remained active that much longer. He would have found a way. That is what this book is all about: finding your way even when you might seem, like Andy Warhol, to be the most unlikely person to do so.
Typex is most interested in subverting any Warhol hagiography and bringing Warhol down to a human scale. Perhaps influenced by the books he chose for reference material, Typex often tamps down Warhol’s reputation in favor of depictions of him munching on Hershey chocolate bars and lusting over young men. No doubt, Warhol was a highly idiosyncratic individual but he was nobody’s fool and a workhorse. Scant mention is given in Typex’s book to Warhol’s contributions to art history. Typex acknowledges Warhol’s commentary of consumer culture but rather reluctantly. Very little is said about Warhol’s landmark use of serial imagery or his revolutionary use of silkscreens. Warhol made art history, after all. That is a major accomplishment and it sort of gets a bit lost in this otherwise marvelous book. You can say this book is not where you go for art history lessons, per se. This is a book decidedly about a scene or a set of scenes. Then again, it’s what’s happening in those scenes where you find the most interesting art.
Adding to the level of interest Typex has for his subject is how he’s presents his work. He has full page and two-page spreads to evoke the energy and mayhem of various moments. And, for much of the book, he keeps to a nicely packed grid format, nine panels per page. He goes that extra mile by anyone’s standards with including a program guide of notable players from each time period. In fact, Typex is just as concerned with the characters surrounding Warhol than simply Warhol himself. That could account for the somewhat slim analysis of Warhol’s actual career and work. You have to find a way to balance it all out and properly address Edie Sedgwick, The Velvet Underground, Valerie Solanas, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and the countless followers all in search of their own fifteen minutes of fame. It is Valerie Solana who ultimately stands out among the pack with her unhinged grasp for fame and attempt on Warhol’s life. And it is Basquiat who breathes new life into Warhol just as the two of them are nearing the end.
Warhol was driven and he also had a lot of help from his evolving network of colleagues, mentors, and a myriad of aspiring artists, dreamers, and party people. The Andy Warhol phenomenon did not happen overnight nor did it exist without various setbacks. Andy Warhol was neither god nor monster. It all comes back to the fact he was driven. He had the skill, the intellect, and the resources to actually make art history and, despite any naysayers, that’s exactly what he did. Typex explores this ambition as he sees fit while also demystifying the man and his times. Overall, this is quite a fascinating read to be added to other notable books on one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century. In the end, I believe Andy Warhol would have approved of this book.
Typex is a Dutch illustrator and graphic novelist. A graduate of the Amsterdam College for the Arts, his work appears in many nationwide newspapers and magazines. He has illustrated numerous children’s books and has published some of his own. His graphic novel biography, Andy: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, is published by SelfMadeHero, an imprint of Abrams. He lives in Amsterdam.
French Comics Association
You can see Typex this weekend if you’re in the D.C. area and this event happens to fit into what you’re doing. Typex will be there as part of the invited guests touring with the French Comics Association. The FCA will be taking part in this weekend’s American Library Association Conference. Okay, if that makes sense, then congratulations, you are a true Typex fan and well above average in every way.
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.