Tag Archives: Humor

Review: ‘Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel’ by Christopher Sperandio

Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel

Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel. Christopher Sperandio. Argle Bargle Books. 2020. 96pp. $21.99

Artist Christopher Sperandio is onto something. As he related to us in a recent interview, it dawned on him what he could do with public domain comics and it just killed him that he hadn’t thought of it sooner. As reviewed here at Comics Grinder, the latest book in this series is Greenie Josephinie. We are going to go back just a bit and focus on the title that kicked it all off last year, Pinko Joe.

Enter a man in a bright pink suit.

Due to the pandemic, I think this series, like so many titles, is still getting on reader’s radars. But this is not a problem in the long run. There’s an eerie timeless quality to this multi-layered work that defies easy categorization. The source material is from the past (shifted and unmoored) in the service of subverting various issues from the present and let loose upon an uncertain and distant future. We see testament to the beauty of this process  from the very opening page, filled with disparate images (featuring a guy in a bright pink suit that David Bowie would have been pleased to wear) from some long forgotten past, images that are being propelled into a loopy present and future. Enter a man in a bright pink suit, nicknamed, “Pinko Joe,” by the merciless right-wing media.

“Capitalism is always evaluated against dreams! Utopia is a dream! It doesn’t exist!”

My theory is that every comics genre gives off a certain vibe, even if the excerpt you are viewing is totally out of context and you can barely figure out what is going on. That is part of the beauty behind what Sperandio is up to since his source material runs the gamut of genres: crime, romance, science fiction and horror. Then you lay on top of that the subversive adventures of Pinko Joe, a down-on-his-luck wage slave/activist from another planet! It becomes a battle royale between the socialists led by Pinko Joe and the uber-capitalist gangsters in an alternate reality where Eisenhower is at the helm of a third term and the rise of the very military-industrial complex he warned about–and which he can dismantle with a little help from his friends!

The wild and droll world of Pinko Joe!

The narrative to this graphic novel is broken up into episodic chunks just as you find in a comic book. While this is definitely a very different kind of graphic novel, and will definitely appeal to a certain discerning reader, the droll political humor is really funny and has broad appeal. Think of the audience for The Daily Show or for Real Time with Bill Maher. Let’s break down a random full page. Based upon the list of sources at the back of the book, this is probably originally a page from a comic book, Crime Must Pay the Penalty, published by Ace Magazines, October 1950. On the page, a dapper young man appears to defend a wealthy family from thugs. In the Sperandio treatment, it is Pinko Joe who is defending a father and daughter business from capitalist gangsters. The dialogue is fun and irreverent. Panel 2 makes a nice stand-alone as Pinko Joe knocks out one of the “fascists.”

“Knuckles for you, fascist!”

There’s a pure vision to what Sperandio is doing and I’m sure it will guide him onwards. Many an artist has come before with a tribute or a revisiting of past art. This tribute and revisiting by Sperandio, a manipulation of comics, and a comic all its own, is something Andy Warhol would have applauded. Maybe Warhol would never have ventured in such a direction himself or maybe he might have hired Sperandio to join him. My guess is that Sperandio would say thanks, but no thanks.

Find PINKO JOE and  GREENIE JOSEPHENIE, along with other fine books, at Argle Bargle Books!

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Review: ‘It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940–1980’

IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall

It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940–1980. edited by Dan Nadel, essays by Charles Johnson and Ronald Wimberly New York Review Comics. 2021. 200pp. $24.95

A woke joke from 1944.

Here’s a scene that looks like it could be a satire on woke sensibility: a white man is besides himself trying to convince a black woman that he’s not inherently racist. In fact, this is not recent at all but part of a comic strip from the 1940s. This is just one of the gems that you will find in a fascinating collection of comics by Black cartoonists. It’s Life As I See It is published in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, on the occasion of Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, running from June 19 – October 3, 2021, and curated by Dan Nadel.

A sly riff on Edgar Rice Burroughs.

This scene is from the comic strip, Bungleton Green and The Mystic Commandos, from 1944, by Jay Jackson. As is the case with all the comics in this collection, Jackson’s comic is part subversive satire and part giving back to the Black community. And, like all the work found here, this is a comic strip that ran in a Black publication. All this work was mostly intended for a Black audience since it was shut out of any white publications at the time. So, at the very least, this is an example of necessity being the mother of invention. You go where you’re wanted. Getting back to this satirical Sci-Fi comic strip, the idea here is that Jackson took what he knew about science fiction and turned it on its head, particularly the John Carter from Mars pulp fiction saga going back to 1912, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In that story, a confederate soldier must confront red and green people from Mars. In Jackson’s twist, white people are at the bottom of the totem pole and must navigate life subjegated by the green Martians. It doesn’t seem right, does it? Like it’s out of some Sci-Fi nightmare!

From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson

Well, there’s more of that fine satire to be found here. I was especially struck by the gag cartoons by Charles Johnson. Again, we happen upon a piece that could just as easily be tweaking the woke generation but is, in fact, from another era. Would today’s youth be able to handle such a joke? In the gag, you have a Black couple sitting on a stoop, apparently making plans for the evening. One character asks, “Do you have a date for tomorrow’s riot?” It is droll humor indeed. It’s a joke, a jest, a way to relieve pressure.

You either cry–or you find a way to laugh.

Finally, one last example of the wicked humor that you find here. This one is by Tom Floyd. And I believe we have got us here a trifecta since, yet again, this cartoon is just as relevant today as it was in 1969. This gag cartoon depicts a Black man navigating his way through the white-collar workforce and the clumsy reaction from white co-workers. Yes, we’ve made progress–but we still have many more hills to climb. It is important to note that Floyd’s gag cartoons were collected into the book, Integration Is a Bitch!, published in 1969. And that title goes hand in hand with the collection of gag cartoons by Charles Johnson, Black Humor, published in 1970. Both these books were beloved by fans and provided inspiration for so many, including a whole new generation of Black cartoonists.
And there’s much more. The book features the work of Tom Floyd, Grass Green, Seitu Hayden, Jay Jackson, Charles Johnson, Yaoundé  Olu, Turtel Onli, Jackie Ormes, and Morrie Turner. It is a wonderful comprehensive collection. Dig deep and you’ll be absorbed by such work as Morrie Turner’s radical mixed-race strip Dinky Fellas or the Afrofuturist comics of Yaoundé Olu and Turtel Onli. I was very moved by the creative journey of Charles Johnson who, always drawing comics, went on to become a successful novelist, winning the National Book Award, and a professor at the University of Washington. If you are new to Johnson, I highly recommend reading Oxherding Tale. Growing up with dreams of becoming a professional cartoonist, Johnson convinced his father to let him take a two-year cartooning correspondence course taught by novelist and longtime Best Cartoons of the Year editor Lawrence Lariar. While fully aware it would be an uphill climb, Johnson had to overcome plenty of reasons to be discouraged such as The New Yorker being a virtually all-white publication with no intention, at the time, of bringing in Black cartoonists. You either cry–or you find a way to laugh. Johnson was compelled to keep on creating work. He chose to laugh. He succeeded many time over those who would do him harm. I’m fascinated by the fact that, in 1970, then only 22 years-old, Johnson hosted Charlie’s Pad, a how-to-draw show on PBS. It was based on the cartooning course he took from Lawrence Lariar, and inspired by Lariar’s own TV spots in the ’50s and ’60s where he would create a cartoon at the end of a news program. The seeds were sown. Johnson would indeed have the last laugh.

 

IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT is published by New York Review Comics, in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, on the occasion of Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, June 19–October 3, 2021. Curated by Dan Nadel.

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Interview: Brian Fies, A Fire Story, and the Art of Comics Storytelling

There is a true art to comics storytelling. Don’t let anyone tell you different. And, if you’ve joined me here, you most likely already know. Heck, you can tell when a story has got that crunchy goodness and when it falls short. Maybe you’ve had the pleasure of reading the comics of Brian Fies. He’s the guy who did that webcomic that went viral and ended up inspiring the creation of a Digital Comics category at the Eisner Awards. It was the webcomic, Mom’s Cancer, which won in that category that first year, back in 2005. Comics scholar Scott McCloud was there to hand Brian Fies his award. Recently, Brian’s book, A Fire Story, was released in an updated and expanded edition. Read my review here.

Mom’s Cancer

How do you end up creating a comic about your own mother’s cancer? Well, that’s where the power of storytelling comes in. You can tell any story, of course. And there’s something about the nature of comics, the medium’s built-in tendency to organize thought, that can lead both the creator and the reader down some very unexpected and rewarding paths. And, yes, you can even extract a touch of humor from the most challenging situations. Fies did it with his groundbreaking webcomic and he did it again with his more recent, A Fire Story, which has just been released in an updated and extended edition.

A Fire Story

I hope you enjoy this interview. It was a pleasure to do. I hardly had to refer to my notes as I had a million things I could talk to Brian about. He even knew, right away, about my favorite pop culture hero, George Clayton Johnson. I focused much of our talk on comparing Mom’s Cancer to A Fire Story. Maybe we’ll need to do another talk that compares his book, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? with his upcoming book, The Last Mechanical Monster, due to be released early next year.

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

The Last Mechanical Monster

It is safe to say, in my opinion, that all auteur cartoonists share the same trait of being compelled to also be journalists: to act as caretakers of a big story and be obligated to gather all the facts, process all the facts, and present the best, most detailed yet concise, version of these facts. Some do it better than others. There are numerous variations and ways of doing this. But, at the end of the day, a real cartoonist is every bit as capable and driven as a real reporter.

Panel excerpt from  A Fire Story

If you are new to Brian Fies and to A Fire Story, and if you’re looking for a perfect textbook example of how to tell a story through comics, then seek out this book! For more details, go to Abrams ComicArts.

BONUS: We avoided a detour during our conversation and had meant to return to it. So, for all you true believers, this is the bonus content. Brian wanted to share some hard-won process insights. Here is what he later related to me via e-mail:

“My Last Mechanical Monster anecdote is that I’d written the whole story and penciled more than 100 pages when I realized I wasn’t having any fun drawing the story. Every day at the board was a slog. I figured that if I didn’t enjoy writing it, nobody would probably enjoy reading it, either. So I paused, rethought the whole thing, turned those 100-plus pages of penciled drawings over, and started drawing a whole new story on their backs. I thought of it in the context of “wasted time”—in one sense, I wasted many months (maybe a year?) writing and drawing a story that I abandoned. But I had to work through that story to get to a better story I liked.

My lessons from that: you have to trust your process; you can’t be afraid to toss something that isn’t working; and sometimes you have to dig through crap to find gold (or at least less stinky crap.)”

Thank you, Brian! You are a modest and gracious person!

Excerpt from The Last Mechanical Monster webcomic

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Review: GREENIE JOSEPHENIE by Christopher Sperandio

Greenie Josephenie by Christopher Sperandio

Greenie Josephenie. Argle Bargle Books. 2021. 94pp, $21.95

Comics, just like any other media, are often recontextualized and there’s no stopping it, maybe especially for misbegotten comics, in the public domain, that have fallen into a vortex of utter obscurity. There are a lot of these misfits and misfires just gathering dust. But one’s man trash can be another man’s treasure, as the ole saying goes. And so it is in this case. Artist Christopher Sperandio saw an opportunity to create new and fun narratives from old washed-up comics trash–and the trashier, the better! Who knew what art might someday be created from such mediocre and exploitative work like women-in-prison comics! Inserting new text into old comics is not exactly new. You see it all the time on social media. But Sperandio is in it for an extended and robust thematic exploration. His latest book is out this month and it follows the adventures of a renegade activist-superhero, Greenie Josephinie, a continuation of the Pinko Joe saga. It also invites the reader to follow along upon a most offbeat path dotted with landmines of subversive humor.

Recontextualizing like mad!

It’s the droll humor of Christopher Sperandio that seems to guide readers as they navigate through the murky world of the realpolitik. Sorry, sonny, this ain’t no place for children or cry babies! Morality has gone out the window and corporate profits are king! It’s a clever concept of injecting new and funny text into tired old comics and I give Sperandio a lot of credit for seeing it through. I think a process like this can be taken for granted after the reader becomes familiar with it. I think what keeps it interesting is all the neatly inserted provocation. You are almost dared to keep reading. You don’t read this like a typical comic book but more as you would view a series of work in a gallery. This is not a comic book. This is culture jamming. You see that the joke is only part of the work. The act itself, the successful reworking of the “found art,” taking it from its original genre and transforming it into protest art is the aim. If the jokes are really all that funny, that is beside the point–and yet, the humor remains part of the glue that holds it all together. Funny how art can get so complicated!

The droll humor of Christopher Sperandio

In a world where capitalism has run amok, what else can one do but turn to superhero types who are true blue real patriots? Yeah, and so a hyper-convoluted story ensues. It is far more cerebral while, at the same time, far more silly than many genre comics out there. Although, mainstream comics publishers today can often prove to be quite artful and do a good job of keeping at bay any easy satirizing of their product.

You can just run with it.

Sperandio goes to the trouble of attempting to show respect for the creators of the public domain comics he has used as found art fodder by including their names. That’s a totally reasonable and honorable gesture. Real human beings did create the artwork in these shaggy dog comics of yesteryear. But I wonder how many of these creators who are still around are losing any sleep over the fate of these particular creations. Honestly, this is C-level journeyman work, just work-for-hire grunt work, not any better nor worse than typical clip art. Honest work to be sure but no one is trying to win any prestigious award from it.

A learning opportunity.

Found pop art, and the noble work of recontextualizing it, brings to mind the Pop Art masters, specifically Roy Lichtenstein, who carved out a very significant place for himself with his use of comic book motifs. What Lichtenstein did was hardly new and dates as far back as the first artist who chose to incorporate other art into his own. One prominent figure, and my favorite, perhaps the first to really succeed with it was Edouard Manet. A more recent example is Shepard Fairey. Both Lichtenstein and Fairey have wrongheadedly been slammed by critics for appropriating the work of others. Manet not so much, or not at all, since Manet is no longer as commonly known; most people don’t care, nor would it make any sense for them to care. The bottom line is that reworking art into another work of art is sound and legitimate. It all comes down to what the results are and knowing how to avoid the trap of “garbage in; garbage out,” which is certainly not the case with Sperandio.

The little handy handbook to making comics.

I applaud Sperandio’s efforts and sincerely would love to chat art with him over a coffee or beer. Christopher Sperandio is doing essential work out on the front lines of higher education. Be sure to check out Comics Making, also published by Argle Bargle, a little book that covers quite a lot including a short history of comics and notes on production. Also in the book, Sperandio provides a guided tour to all the fascinating activity related to his CATS program at Rice University. I wish that had been around when I was working on my own college paper comic strip. The fact is that “comics making” is essentially a solitary process–but the right level of support can prove to be invaluable. Sperandio is a very interesting artist who has pushed himself throughout his career resulting in such creative achievements as Cargo Space, his artist residency project on a bus that he started in 2012. Other notable recent projects include working with fellow Rice professor Brian Huberman to see through the completion of a documentary on cartoonist Jaxon, which premiered at the 2020 Angoulême comics festival.

It’s all in how you handle your found art!

So, Speranio’s process is one worth perpetuating: mining for gold, or diamonds, for as long as it makes sense to do so. Depending upon the right chemistry between “found image” and wry joke, all sorts of magic is possible. Sometimes the results may fall flat. But, ah, sometimes you end up with a real gem. It’s all in how you handle your found art!

Find GREENIE JOSEPHENIE and other fine books at Argle Bargle Books!

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Paul Buhle on Comics: Lafler at Large

Steve Lafler’s 1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona

Stephen Beaupre and Steve Lafler’s 40 Hour Man

1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona.  By Steve Lafler. Cat Head Comics, 2020. $9.95.

40 Hour Man. By Stephen Beaupre and Steve Lafler. Manx Media, 2006. $18.00

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

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 You Wholesale (1951), more recently revisited as the husband of the lead character of streamed television’s “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.”

Sweet Ramona!

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.

Paul Buhle

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Review: ‘The Secret to Superhuman Strength’ by Alison Bechdel

The Secret to Superhuman Strength

The Secret to Superhuman Strength. by Alison Bechdel. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. New York. 2021. 240pp. $24.oo

Alison Bechdel is on a mission, perhaps the greatest of all, in her latest book which explores the connection between mind and body. Ostensibly, this is a book focusing on fitness but Bechdel, in her distinctive way, has taken things much further. In earnest, but also with a touch of irony, Bechdel is in search of the big prize, a light out of the existential abyss. Well, perhaps Tennessee Williams had his finger right on it when he said, “We are all sentenced to solitary confinement inside our own skins, for life.” Ah, there’s the rub indeed and the perfect jumping off point for Bechdel’s collection of visual essays which unfold into a highly engaging narrative, a new dazzling exploration of an artist and a life.

It’s a mad, mad world–and this is only the gym!

When Alison Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out was launched in 1983, it was cutting-edge counter-culture in a bite-sized format. Today, gender issues are much better understood and accepted. What remains most provocative for some might be another aspect to Bechdel’s work, the fact it carries a brainy tone. Americans, in general, have not favored the intellectual. We’ve had smart American heroes but it’s never an easy and obvious thing. That said, the overall quality of a work tends to have the final say. We look forward to Bechdel in the same way we might look forward to any number of articulate writers–sometimes despite, or because, of the cerebral challenges they set up for themselves. Yes, Bechdel tends to overthink things–she’s defiant about it; she revels in it. And, nowadays, there’s no end of material to scrutinize. Bechdel gets it. She even wonders, at one point, just how privileged is it to bring into the world “another book about fitness by a white lady.” Just keep in mind this isn’t just a book about fitness.

A life of mind and body.

Bechdel’s mind likes to take the more esoteric route. When most people are asked to think about fitness, they might start thinking about their favorite workout. Bechdel sees her passion for fitness as inextricably linked to her compulsive need for self-improvement which she attaches to the progressive spirit going back to The Romantics and The Transcendentalists. I happen to enjoy the sort of Byzantine multi-layered narratives that Rachel Maddow is famous for. Well, you’re in luck because that’s what you’re getting here: a book that truly explores the interconnections between mind and body. To be honest, sometimes things are bereft of rigorous intellectual inquiry. When you gotta go, you gotta go. The body has a way of pulling rank, of having a mind of its own!

Can we get there from here? Let’s see!

As with all of Bechdel’s work, this book will charm the reader with its particular pace and rhythm. Bechdel is unapologetically nerdy. And, truth be told, she’s not exactly in the minority. I know I just said that we Americans collectively are anti-intellectual. But, again speaking in general, we are collectively more inclined to be couch potatoes than jocks. And maybe, among all those coach potatoes, there’s something akin to a more thoughtful sensibility. Maybe not totally bookish, but no doubt more nerd than not which is a good thing. It’s safe to say that we have a reliable mass of readers that keeps growing and evolving. With that in mind, I think this book definitely has a vibe with great mass appeal. For more dedicated readers, I’m also sure it is safe to say we can all agree that Bechdel’s book advances the comics medium. In this case, Bechdel provides beautiful passage after passage of extended thought. This speaks to the hard-won lessons learned from doing a comic strip for decades. You learn to pare down text to fit tight spaces. And, when you find you have more space, you come to it with a more nimble and elegant sense of organizing words and pictures. When Bechdel ruminates, she knows how to do it to fullest effect.

Yes, we’ll get there. Feel the burn!

I think Bechdel’s esoteric approach is simply divine. This is such an authentic voice. Basically, think of this book as an extension of Bechdel’s graphic novel format storytelling, with a interconnection to her previous books, Fun Home and Are You My Mother? If you enjoy a book that truly takes a deep dive into exploring human nature, this book will definitely satisfy you. The comics medium is a never-ending unlimited platform for any type of storytelling. You can slice it and dice it, constrict it or expand it. What you want to be careful about is knowing how to juggle those words and pictures so that your story shines and Bechdel is one of our great masters in comics without a doubt.

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MAD Magazine June 2021: Jim Woodring Cover Art

MAD #19 – MAD PREDICTS THE FUTURE

MAD Magazine, as we used to know it, is gone. However, what we still have is to be treasured. Due to a number of factors, it just became unsustainable to maintain the magazine. So, the idea now is to keep to a pared-down schedule that showcases various work from the past. It leaves room for some exceptions too like the amazing new cover art by visionary cartoonist Jim Woodring for the current issue. I just got my copy in the mail as part of my subscription. You can too by visiting MAD Magazine.

Alfred E. Neuman is the fictitious mascot and cover boy of MAD. Alfred’s first appearance was on a 1954 MAD paperback collection and on the actual magazine starting with Mad #21 (March 1955). Woodring pays homage to Alfred and all things MAD by having Alfred in the role of Zoltan the fortune teller. The fortune is a wry reference to MAD’s legendary fold-in back cover gags: “The Secret to Longevity is Not Folding In.” And, most fitting of all, is a 100th happy birthday wish to one of MAD’s greatest cartoonists: Al Jaffee, a regular contributor to the magazine for 65 years, the longest run ever, including his trademark feature, the Mad Fold-in.

Back in December of last year, Jim Woodring let his friends on social media know just what he thought about getting to do a MAD Magazine cover:

“If anyone in a position to know had told me when I was a boy that I would one day do a cover for MAD magazine I would have died of self-satisfaction right on the spot. Issue #19, due out March 2021 from DC comics.”

Each issue of MAD is thoughtfully curated following a theme. The theme for this current issue is The Future:

MAD #19 – MAD PREDICTS THE FUTURE

Gaze into the wonders of tomorrow, courtesy of yesterday’s MAD! It’s our far-flung future issue, in which we look back at the shape of things to come, including parodies of time traveling sci-fi flicks “Back to the Future” and “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.” Plus, MAD examines prognosticators like astrology, palm reading, and, just for good measure, a little MAD E.S.P with birthday boy Al Jaffee for his 100th year on this planet, and some new outta this world art by Tom Richmond! We predict there will be a new Fold-In by Johnny Sampson too! Materializing in stores APR. 13th!

Get your copy by visiting MAD Magazine right here.

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Review: PENNY: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR

PENNY!

Penny: A Graphic Memoir. by Karl Stevens. Chronicle Books. 2021, 152pp. $19.95

As a cartoonist myself, and a longtime observer of the comics scene, I am utterly delighted to read this new book by Karl Stevens. It strikes all the right notes. And it will definitely do the same for you as a fan or newcomer to his work. Some of us in comics may indulge in hand-wringing over where graphic novels stand today as compared with the great boom in alt-comics nearly twenty years ago. But I say that things are evolving nicely in many ways. This book is a perfectly fine example of that. In fact, the audience for a good indie-spiked words ‘n’ pictures book is always going to be around and ready for the next worthwhile book. I think, in regards to Karl, he’s one of these very special talents who has found, over time, just the right set of factors to get to where he is now as an artist. This particular collection spans a good chunk of time as it was one of the last great comic strips to enjoy being published within the grand ole alt-weekly format (The Village Voice, The Boston Phoenix) that simply doesn’t exist anymore. This book is, in a sense, a testament to some glory days for comics. It’s certainly not lost on me that it is dedicated to the memory of Tom Spurgeon, one of the great advocates for the comics medium. Here you will find a sort of cat version of Little Nemo: an in depth exploration of the philosophical observations of a former alley cat-turned-house pet. Penny is one part enigma; one part uncanny entity; and one part one of us!

Born into a world she did not create.

I am going to push a little further on the notion of there being any of us cartoonists, or aspiring cartoonists, who might feel entitled to having their graphic novel project eventually picked up by a publisher. It’s best not to worry about such hypotheticals and just keep on truckin’. It dedication to the art of creating good comics that will have to rule the day. I look at all these pages of our hero, Penny, pondering existence, and it’s breathtaking, joyful, and inspiring. It’s a very beautiful feeling to be able to see your work all together, creating a whole. You don’t get there by bitchin’ and moanin’ that you’re entitled to anything because you’re not. And, sure, I suppose even folks who have never drawn any comics at all might fancy they’ll someday create a graphic novel. Well, it takes a special skill and a special drive to create something truly compelling and of lasting value. That’s why this book is special.

What dwells inside a cat’s head?

You start down a road of creating comics about a philosophical cat and you must get into this zone. I think, at some point, you lock onto the next page of bristol board, get to penciling, and, as if in a fever dream, you end up knocking out another completed page. And then, as another deadline looms, you do it again. And then again. Maybe, only after a while, you’re a little startled to find your main character has, by all counts, come to life. Arguably, still a work of fiction, without a need for sleep or being fed, but still alive: full of quirks, impulses, and contradictions. How does one, upon reflection, explain how Penny can be so relaxed and friendly towards a mouse one day only to revel in a good and bloody mouse kill the next? How does Penny justify being so jaded about cat toys one day only to be utterly mesmerized by cat toys the next? And, perhaps most chilling of all, how does Penny know how much her cat food costs? Yes, you start down a road and you find yourself sometimes with far more questions than answers!

Forced into an uneasy bargain tolerating humans.

Karl’s intricate drawing style is a perfect breeding ground for his droll humor. Most of us cartoonists are attracted to the droll like a cat to catnip. Within those lean deadpan lines and low-key watercolor washes lurks a cartoonist with a hearty appetite for the macabre and the obscure. It is the sort of humor that co-workers at some day job never understand or, more likely, only pretend not to understand. I am drawn to it and take the bait. I wonder about Penny. How can such a troubled soul be so easily baffled by mere shadows and yet comprehend the deepest levels of existential angst? With a flourish, as if flicking a mouse from one paw to another, Penny grieves over while also mocks all human activity and ostentation. Ah, mere mortals. Is the universe playing out within the skull of a house pet? That–and even more. This isn’t just a bunch of pithy wry jokes. This cat gets shit done. Penny even escapes her tender trap for a while. And who knows exactly what transpires when she finally responds to that portal and does enter another dimension.

Hold the phone, here’s the real Penny!

Is it a good idea to take Penny too seriously? It’s not like we haven’t done this to ourselves before. Sometimes, you just can’t help but want to overanalyze and who can really say if some things are just too precious not to give that added level of neurosis? The Marx Brothers. Krazy Kat. Why not Penny? So, yes, to Penny and yes, to Karl Stevens. Few cartoonists are in the same league as he is.

Can’t get enough of Karl Stevens? Then check out his work at The New Yorker. Find him on Instagram. And get your copy of Penny, published by Chronicle Books, and available as of May 4, 2021.

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Filed under Cats, Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews

Alyson Chadwick | Comedy | Paul Rusesabagina | Activism

Paul Rusesabagina

Alyson Chadwick is a standup comic and an activist. That keeps her busy balancing the funny and the serious. In this talk, we cover it all, including Paul Ryan and even Matt Gaetz! On the serious side, be sure to look up Paul Rusesabagina and his being kidnapped by the Rawandan government. You may know Paul from his story turned into the film, HOTEL RAWANDA. Paul did his part in opposition to the genocide of the Tutsi by Rawanda in 1994. Last year, Paul was kidnapped by Rawanda’s Kagame regime and is awaiting trial on false charges.

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/01/hotel-rwanda-activist-paul-rusesabagina-kidnapped-from-dubai

You can do your part to help bring about his release. Visit Alyson’s website as well as the No Business with Genocide website:

http://www.alysonchadwick.com/

https://actionnetwork.org/groups/no-business-with-genocide

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Filed under Comedy, Interviews, Paul Rusesabagina, Rawanda

Review: ‘1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona’ by Steve Lafler

Steve Lafler’s 1956

1956: Sweet Sweet Little Ramona. by Steve Lafler. Cat-Head Comics. 2020, 56pp. $9.95

Adorable Ramona is sweet down to her toes. She also happens to be a guy. But, hey, no problem there say the fellas from the Garment District. Ramon, as Ramona, is just so delightful. So, no problem. Nobody’s perfect! That’s the punchline to 1959’s Some Like it Hot, by the way. The artist and writer Steve Lafler doesn’t actually use that line. In fact, his graphic novel is completely different from what goes on in the Billy Wilder classic. That said, there are definitely some similar elements at play. And perhaps the biggest theme is one recurring in just about every Lalfer book, that of music, specifically jazz, hot jazz! Since, after all, some do indeed like it hot!

Hot Jazz!

Now, Steve Lafler turns out to be a very cool cat–and we’re about to take a deep dive into all things Lafler. Well, as much as I see fit to shoe-horn into this review. We’ll save some more for an interview with Steve Lafler next week. That sounds good, no? Lafler’s latest book, 1956, features a whole tableaux of goodfella types, all of them working various middle management jobs in the Garment biz, an industry with just enough of a glimmer of glamour to be suitable for these big city gentlemen. Lafler mixes the whimsical with the gritty. His style is clean lines in the service of a loose and street smart sensibility that brings to mind such greats as the Hernandez brothers and Kim Deitch. It’s quirky, idiosyncratic, and very much alt-comics. But that only makes sense since alternative comics are very much a part of Lafler’s scene. 1956 proves to be an utter delight.

Sweet Ramona!

The one thing I have come to understand from reading Lafler comics is that this is one devil-may-care dude who knows how to dish it out a la bohemian. I envy the ease with which he seems to glide through life. Maybe it takes one to know one. I know it’s not all peaches and cream. That’s part of the point. It’s about making the most of what you’ve got, living by your wits, and not taking anything so seriously that it hurts– except for family. You look out for your loved ones, right? Why do I digress so? I think Lafler just puts me in a very irreverent mood.

BugHouse

Now, take some of his other work and you’ll start to see some patterns. You’ll see that jazz motif bebop around. You’ll see some hard luck hound dogs–or bugs. And you’ll definitely see a lot of that joie de vivre thing we all want some of. You find it all wrapped in a bow in Lafler’s BugHouse, albeit tinged with the harsh realities of life in the big city. Yes, these bugs play a lot of jazz but they’re also prone to drug addiction. Sad bittersweet bugs.

Death Plays a Mean Harmonica

A more recent Lafler work is Death Plays a Mean Harmonica. I find this to be quite a masterpiece incorporating a healthy dose of auto-bio mixed in with everything that Lafler has learned about the uncanny world of comics. Lafler takes his own family’s decade living abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico, and turns it into the misadventures of Rex and Gertie and their two young children. Lafler let’s the good times roll with plenty of magical realism which includes a skeleton who regulars meets with Lafler while he’s asleep. They philosophize and, of course, enjoy playing music together. This serves as background for the main event. It turns out that Gertie is a secret superhero by night! Lots of fun! Bravo!

For more information, including comics, illustrations, paintings, and various merchandise, be sure to visit Steve Lafler.

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Filed under Comics, Graphic Novel Reviews