Steve Lafler’s themes and art work take us back, at least, to the Alt-comics of the 1980s-90s but in form and content, back further still. He’s an original, by any standard, whose inspiratino hails to the glory era of the Underground Comix and the downslide that followed and followed and followed. Not entirely unlike Peter Kuper, Lafler got himself and family to Oaxaca, Mexico, for years at a time, using local influences and themes for his volume Lucha Bruja.
He has offered us helpful information about an earlier influence, explaining not only 1956 but an earlier, out of print whopper Bughouse (issued also as a set of three volumes) on the lives of jazz musicians, depicted most curiously as insects of various kinds. Lafler’s father, a garment center buyer of the 1940s-50s, swam metaphorically in a world of hard-selling and mostly Jewish middle-men, hustling between manufacturers and buyers. Noir screenwiter Abraham Lincoln Polonsky captured them perfectly in the film I Can Get It For YouWholesale (1951), more recently revisited as the husband of the lead character of streamed television’s “The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.”
Never mind. In Lafler’s reconstructed world, a prime interest, bording upon obsession, is the jazz of Manhattan’s 52nd St, then at its apex, and the hipsters who hung out there, interacting with the salesman. Dizzy Gilespie, Thelonious Monk and so many other marvelous musicians could be heard on any given night, and among them, players who would jam for hours after closing at practially any location. The multiracial hangers-on, Latina or Black, work the angles, mainly providing a portion of the sex trade while taking in the music. In this case, the Ramona in question is also Ramon. They get into trouble and get out again, as much as possible in this 54pp, with more to come in later installments.
Does it have the feeling of the real thing? Yes, at least metaphorically so, within the natural limits. The businessmen seem less cut-throat and lacking the New York, Yiddish-heavy accents of the more colorful part of the trade, but so what? It’s Lafler’s version. His hipsters are likewise his own creation, but not far from what we can learn from scholarship of the time and place.
The typical mindless office meeting.
I am more drawn to 40 Hour Man, for which he supplied only the illustrations. The writer notes his debt to Harvey Pekar, a debt both fascinating and curious. A collaborator of mine during the final decade of his life, Harvey had a unique approach to almost everything. He made daily existence in a heavily ethnic, most declining blue collar city seem entirely real, from job to home life. But it should be noted that Harvey’s 35 years as a file clerk at the VA hospital gave him a centering, stabilizing place in life. He was a good file clerk and proud of it. Our protagonist in 40 Hour Man is the opposite.
Here we have a steady romp from one bad job to another, always at about the minimum wage, in the neoliberal American economy of the 1980s-90s. Alienation is the name of the game, and if 1950s writers introduced the idea to the public (Karl Marx had written about it in his youthful 1944 manuscripts), our protagonist is living it day by day and hour by hour. He is no struggling proletarian with a vision of workers’ triumph over capitalism. He just wants to get along while doing as little as possible, and the jobs encourage, even demand, such a response. He also wants to drink and get high, something easier to achieve by moving from job to job, sometimes leaving, jsut as often getting fired.
His adventures fascinate, but what fascinates more is the bullshit character of the jobs and the management that appears almost as lost as the protagonist. Like the sometime higher-level employees of the popular British comedy “The IT Crowd,” they sit at their desks, sometimes give or accept “directives,” and also try to get through the day, nevertheless setting themselves off notably from the proles who have no desks and mainly move product from shipping floor to transport.
Sometimes the protagonist has rather more stimulating work, like clerking at a record store or even playing intern in a local radio station. No job looks like it will last, and none do. Our hero has no real aspiration beyond getting through the day or week, and this goes on until he meets the fictive and real woman of his life. By the end of the book, he seems to have removed himself from the Karmic Work Cycle, and we don’t need to know how.
The joy of this book is more visual than literary, although both are appealing. Lafler seems to me at his peak in adapting his comic drawing to the text. The antic ambles could be traced back to Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, and for that matter Charlie Chaplin, to name only a few movie heroes. Everything that can happen more or less does happen, although the update has more drugs and alcohol than hardly ever allowed in film until the age of the screw-up The Cable Guy.
Impact Comics, which lasted only 5 issues, would be memorable if for only one story. As Greg Sadowski, the forgotten fan-biographer of artist Bernard Krigstein suggests,”Master Race,” a mere eight pages and scripted by Al Feldstein (Mar., 1955), is the masterpiece of anti-fascism but also of comic art design and execution. It enters the mind of the Holocaust survivor as he discovers, tracks down and wreaks revenge upon a human monster within the bowels of Manhattan’s subway system.
How could this humble popular art carry the weight of serious modern art, so serious that it escapes the then-current cult of abstract expressionism? This is the story worth telling.
Impact Comics (1955) may be viewed simply as a technical triumph of popular might. The story lines are taut, the art is crisp, and if we were to choose a single outstanding feature, it might actually be the coloring work of Marie Severin, master craftsperson of the field. We might also view Impact within a broader context.
MASTER RACE, original first page, March, 1955.
Comic art, comic book art and narrative, must be amongst the most improbable subjects in all of art history. Or perhaps this was true until the recent rise of comic art studies in college courses, online journals, and Comi-Con panels bringing together living artists with aficionados. But never, since the rise of the fan world and press, has the comics field been without its own small legion of self-taught scholars and devotees, going way back to the early 1950s. In this small world grown surprisingly larger, EC publications have had a special place of honor. EC war, science fiction and above all humor publications brought traditional comic book art to its apex and….edge of demise. Impact, with only a handful of others, remains or rather retains in its best stories, a treasured sample of what might have been.
The longer backstory will be familiar to most readers, and can be noted briefly here. Comics publisher Max Gaines’s sudden death in 1949 threw his mini-empire into the hands of his widow and son. The younger Gaines, to his own surprise a shrewd and driving businessman, hired some of the great talents of the field, including of course Harvey Kurtzman, destined to transform the field of printed humor with Mad Comics and, more famously, Mad Magazine.
By the early 1950s, time was truly running out for EC comics as constituted. Congressional investigations and the imposition of the Comics Code would drive the most lucrative EC genre, i.e., horror, to the wall, and with it the whole venture of EC comics. Perhaps television would have swallowed up the field soon enough anyway? We do not know. But millions of readers, not all of them under the age of 20, were reading and buying comics of a wide variety so long as they were available, with print runs often in the hundreds of thousands.
EC became known, through nearly all its lines of merchandise, for “snap” endings, the surprise on the last page or even in the final panel, carrying the message of the story at large. Strikingly unlike its competitors, EC also had an unusual propensity for what might be called social themes. Its Sci Fi line featured the world of post Atomic war destruction, or space travel revealing some weakness—less often, strength—in human nature. (Some of the best story lines were adapted, or swiped, from Ray Bradbury.) Military history offered something almost unknown in other companies’ war comics: the tragedy faced by civilians in both sides, and the horror that might be found in the eyes even of the victorious American patriots.
Artist Bernie Krigstein taps into the zeitgeist of an anxious era.
In the “Age of Anxiety,” when psychoanalysis was said to have replaced Marxism or any other social reform theory as a favorite pastime of intellectuals, EC actually had its own short-lived Psychoanalysis Comics. But seen carefully, psychological issues penetrated all of EC’s lines, as soldiers, space travelers and even perpetrators of murder seemed terribly troubled, driven by urges that they finally could not control.
Bill Gaines evidently viewed the creation of Impact as a kind of bracing mechanism against the end of his little empire. Al Feldstein, the all-purpose editor also taking over Mad Magazine from Kurtzman, who resigned in 1956, was the hard-driving editor seemingly willing to take on anything, and make Impact as nearly perfect as he could. The determination by writer (often enough, Feldstein himself) and artist, shine through in one way or another on nearly every page and every panel.
ShockSuspense (1954), the earliest entry in the then-new Impact series, was closer to horror comics with violent and sometimes supernatural stories. It was also more politically dramatic, now and then. A KKK-style lynching story of Southern life substituted a bosomy white dame for a black man, but dealt heavy blows to violent prejudice. Another story showed a redneck crowd beating to death an actual veteran who did not take off his hat to salute the flag because…he was blind.
Most of the Impact under review stayed closer to the hard-hitting, small films and often live television drama of the time, where a rising business executive realizes the more rottenness of the world he has entered, or the frantic striving for domestic happiness in the suburb leads to bitter alienation and heavy drinking. The protagonists here are cheating themselves and others of happiness, cutting corners in business and life, or even by accident of some childhood trauma cutting themselves off from adult fulfillment. What remains the most vivid, in the “snap” ending, is that uncertainty of life itself in the supposed paradise of modern consumerism at its apex. And the possibility, if not perhaps likelihood, that wrong-doers will get their punishment in one way or another.
Steven Ringgenberg’s Foreword offers us a general picture of the publication within EC’s frantic efforts for life, Grant Geissman’s Introduction expertly guides us through the intentions of Gaines and Feldman as they marched through the bi-monthly schedule toward something that, as it turned out, was only a prelude to the fabulous success of Mad Magazine.
Excerpt from MASTER RACE, known as “The Citizen Kane of Comics.”
It would be almost inside baseball to note that Jack Davis, among the most brilliant of all Mad Comics artists, did all the front covers of the series, or that he was joined in the stories themselves by a distinguished crew of George Evans, Jack Kamen, Graham Ingels, Joe Orlando, Reed Crandall and of course, Bernard Krigstein. And of course Marie Severin, who was also the last of the EC bunch to live well into the 21st century.
Only those who went on to Mad Magazine, foremost Orlando, were to gain much recognition. Krigstein, who led the failed effort to unionize the field of comic book artists (publishers bought off the best talent and threatened to fire everyone else) during the early 1950s, became an art teacher and painted for his own pleasure, mostly landscapes.
Thus did a genre and its makers disappear. But not without leaving behind a legacy of sorts, and a print item to be repurposed for the next generations. Impact was first reprinted by Gemstone Publishing in 1999 and here, by Dark Horse, presented again in fine form with fresh introductory and explanatory material.
This season has seen the appearance of a prestigious anthology, DrawingPower: Women’s Stories of Sexual Violence, Harassment and Survival, edited by the veteran artist Diane Nooman (Abrams). It has also seen, more recently, a scrappier creation from the “World War 3 Illustrated” crowd: Shameless Feminists. Although this also marks WW3 #50, it is best seen as a thing-in-itself, a 192pp anthology edited by a special crew, Isabella Bannerman, Sandy Jimenez, Sabrina Jones and Rebecca Migdal. Unique among them is the Bronx-born cartoonist and erstwhile schoolteacher Jimenez, unique by his gender.
At any rate, it’s a whopper, and not only by virtue of something beyond the dreadful experiences described in the other anthology, but also by a certain sense of history and a very particular experience. One of the editors (spoiler alert, it is Sabrina Jones) was “invited to create her first comics for issue #3,” that is, about 1980 in WW3. The collaboration is, properly seen, historic and marked by three earlier feminist anthologies as WW3 issues, in 1992, 1999 and 2000 (it’s been a long pause this time).
It’s global, it’s interracial, it’s sometimes pretty dreadful—rapes and near-rapes, humiliation and frustration. But it’s got a pretty persistent note of…persistence. And the occasional victory, not something very likely to be noticed beyond a circle or friends or even perhaps among them, but a personal triumph and sometimes a collective one.
Sabrina Jones offers several high notes along these lines, as well as the main figure of a dreamy, collective front cover. In one of her two strips she reveals her self-daring, a teenager wandering into dangerous places, a young woman choosing to live in sketchy neighborhoods, engaging in multiple affairs for the sheer joy of it, later on pressing herself to stay limber. Later on in the anthology, she makes up her mind to ride a mountain bike over part of the Pyrenees mountains from France to Spain, inevitably meeting dangerous men, and by this time, in her fifties. All of this adds up to the life story: I will not be intimidated. Indeed.
She stands for others in that sense. Lou Allen and Teresa Cherubini separately relate how their “body image” was just never good enough for herself or her boyfriends until…each one broke from the socially-created trance. Jennifer Camper offers a menstruation metaphor through her protagonist’s life. Artist Regina Silvers is the solid leftwing grandmother who joins an antiwar Granny Brigade. And so on.
There is no summarizing the artistic approaches except to say that they are starkly different and also remarkable. This is a book that draws upon great creativity and honesty, and should inspire the same.
Paul Buhle‘s next comic, drawn by Sharon Rudahl, is a life of Paul Robeson (Rutgers University Press, October, 2020.
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.
Alay-Oop by William Gropper, introduction by James Sturm, published by New York Review Books, 209 pages, $24.95.
A growing interest in the origins of comic art—a subject that could direct the reader toward cave paintings but more logically offers twentieth century precursors—has prompted the return of long-forgotten names like Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, and just as naturally, reprints of their work. These notables and others peaking before the Second World War favored wood-cuts over drawing on paper, and also favored an art form now known familiarly as the “wordless novel.” It’s a fascinating memory corner, full of biting social criticism, but so different from the famed agitational cartoons, or for that matter, mural art of the New Deal period, that any common ground is little understood. Reader, meet William Gropper.
We can say many useful things about Gropper the artist, but for our purposes, there is every reason to start with Alay-Oop. It is a simple tale of a trapeze artist so muscular that she may not be beautiful in any classic sense, but she is admirably limber, a skilled and daring performer. She is wooed by an older and rich, plump opera singer, with throngs of fans of his own. He takes her out (with her own acrobat-partner in tow), romances her and persuades her to marry. A few pages of her dreaming, heavily erotic in symbolism, shows us that she is willing, and her swain promises her the skies. Her rather handsome fellow acrobat is, then, left out in the cold. Soon, she has beloved children but a troubled marriage. She finds her way, she reaches her way through her acrobatic skills, to her own version of a happy ending. This is a memorable Strong Woman Story, and may (as the introduction suggests) reflect the strength of Gropper’s own real life mother character, when his father, an autodidact intellectual, let the family down.
A May-December romance. Will it last?
Now, back to the Gropper famous in his own milieu. Communists and Popular Front sympathizers, together numbering into the high hundreds of thousands from the mid-depression to the beginning of the Cold War, would recognize Gropper’s work in a minute. His famed and ferocious “Bank Night” drawing, with the fat capitalist landlord reaching into the slums for grotesque profits, alone memorably identifies both the artist’s skills and his temperament. Personal testimony: Recovering from a day at a pre-induction Army physical in 1966, I was driven by famed Yale University peacenik Staughton Lynd out to stay the night with a Jewish chicken farmer. There, on the kitchen wall, was a famed Gropper print, with ugly Senators, most likely Dixiecrats, at a US Congress hearing, yawning with unembarrassed tedium at the social crisis of the Depression. That was the first Gropper that I ever saw.
Alay-Oop evidently comes from a different place if definitely not a different artist. Gropper himself had actually attended a radical art school, with giants like Masses magazine artists like Stuart Davis and Dada /Surrealist avant-gardist Man Ray. Instructor Robert Henri personally escorted young Gropper to the 1913 Armory Show that introduced modernism to the backward US intelligentsia. The young man had the talent and connections to make it as an illustrator in a grand era for newspaper illustrators—but was bounced from a commercial staff job as too radical.
You could say that he found a place for himself, an eager audience intense if not commercially helpful, at the Liberator and New Masses, two beautiful magazines that attached themselves to “the New Russia” without quite being overwhelmed by politics. By the early years of the Depression, Gropper’s work was overwhelmingly agitational, with the Daily Worker its largest outlet. Alay-Oop may be the first suggestion that his heart belonged elsewhere, at least in part.
What inspired him to comic art? Belgian Frans Masereel was so famous in Europe that leading novelists wrote introductions to his classic woodcut works. Back in the US, Lynd Ward’s mordant God’s Man sold wildly, far beyond the art crowd that seemed the intended audience. Hugely popular funny pages artist Milt Gross published what some regard as the actual earliest comics novel, He Done Her Wrong (1930), a satire on the soap opera-like American adventure novel. Alay-Oop appeared in that same year, but can only be described as a genre of its own. If it has successors, they come generations later.
James Sturm, who wrote the Introduction to the volume under review but co-founded the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont, suggests we are not likely to find out. In his style, Gropper was not austere like Masereel or Ward, nor satirical like Gross. He was aiming for something else, and that may be a reason why the book got lost so quickly and easily. Gropper himself moved toward a very different and unique high point of his artistic career: the opportunities opened by the New Deal. Muralist for the Works Progress Administration, popular book illustrator, artist of a folk-lore map of the USA (with little figures representing various traditions), Gropper the erstwhile revolutionary was “discovering America” in his own terms, and good at it. He had also become, for the moment, also a considerable painter, mostly of the social themes around him, and remembered from his impoverished youth.
Much of the remainder of Gropper’s life seems to have devoted rather less to leftwing causes, and rather more to painting, but also to making a living as an architectural artist, where he achieved a certain distinction. After the Second World War, with its artistic high points of sympathy for the Russians and anti-fascism generally, his opportunities but perhaps his political eagerness as well, were seriously restrained. His grandson is quoted in the introduction as saying that grandpa was not all that political—which is about what an old man would tell a kid in the 1950s. All this nevertheless suggests that Alay-Oop reaches out toward something elusive, but that is hardly a criticism of any artistic creation.
The book is certainly successful in itself, with a line of drawing, as Sturm suggests, so fresh and fluid that it looks like “the ink is still wet” (p.10). We also hear from his grandson that Gropper, drawn to vaudeville and the circus, admired performers as more honest and more fully human than politicians. Perhaps we need no further guide. Anyone can search through Google Images and admire the breadth of Gropper’s work. It would be good to have an anthology that gives us a sense of them.
Paul Buhle, co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the American Left, has produced a dozen comics.
There are many things strange, altogether strange, about this oversized volume. But they are things that Crumb-watchers and devotees of the short but tangled history of the Underground Comix will appreciate and even revere, if “revere”is an accurate and acceptable word. The Book of Weirdo, published by Last Gasp Books, opens a door wide for rethinking comics and comix history.
The trajectory of the rise—but even more, the fall—of the wildly experimental genre continues to rouse debate, not to mention a lot of quiet grousing among former participants, artists, editors and publishers alike. By 1973, when Underground Comix, had barely begun, a widespread legal assault on Head Shops threatened to eliminate the customer base. Censorship somehow avoided, comix moved on to the next obstacles that may best be seen as inscribed in the historical moment.
The great social changes hoped for by the young generation did not take place and were not going to take place in the short run, at least. The comic artists, very much part of their time, joints to long hair, inevitably felt the effects. Working for practically nothing, although owning their own art, many began to wonder whether comix were a career or a dead end. Could the comix movement transform itself into a viable living?
Denis Kitchen had one idea, taking the commercial route with Marvel as publisher of Comix Book, which both paid artists better but also owned what they drew for that issue of the magazine. A sell out or a practical step toward stability? The question went unanswered because the project folded after 5 issues, unable to achieve stability in the mainstream newsstand market. Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman had a different and more traditionally aesthetic notion, a quarterly Arcade magazine published by Print Mint. A truly beautiful magazine, perhaps the best that the genre ever produced, it also failed, in a counter-culture market where readers were not accustomed to comix appearing on a punctual quarterly schedule rather than the more customary sporadic, lackadaisical pace.
What dramatic step might be next? That was the burning question for many artists and would-be editors, as the movement began to lose its momentum. But it was not the only thought, especially for many who simply continued under deteriorating circumstances. The otherwise persuasive argument offered by Patrick Rosenkranz that Underground Comix was doomed as a genre by 1975, may be true, but it also minimizes the reality that much high quality work appeared during the later half of the 1970s and well into the 1980s.
The series of Anarchy Comix, also Wimmen’s Comix and some dozens new entries of various kinds, lay ahead. Kitchen actually expanded his line of comics with Kitchen Sink, relocated to Princeton, Wisconsin, and among his titles, Gay Comix is a particular stand-out in anyone’s memory of the field changing and growing in content even as it shrunk in size. It was, indeed, shifting toward the more uncertain market of the ill-defined “Alternative Comics.” Also consider that the “classic” strips of the 1920s and 1930s, reprinted in Arcade foreshadowed Kitchen’s own reprinting of past masterworks by Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and others. Not to mention The Comics Journal, soon emerging as something like the trade publication of the field.
RAW and Weirdo would serve as markers in any narrative of an evolving comic art in the US, en route to the recognition of comics as art, the museum exhibits, award ceremonies, and even the Superhero-swollen ComiCons to follow.
It would be a mistake to avoid entirely what the historians used to call “geographical determinism.” Comics, comic books, had always been centered in Greater New York, never mind some printing locations as far as Racine, Wisconsin. Underground Comix emanated from the Bay Area and had the region’s sensibility stamped upon them, never mind some smaller regional operations. Giving up on Arcade, Art Spiegelman moved Back East. RAW not only emanated from New York but pointed back to New York, in the old literary adage that, culturally speaking, North America is half in the sunshine and half in the shade….that is, everywhere west of the Hudson River.
Much to the credit of co-editor Francois Mouly, RAW encompassed global comic trends, but not only that. Ben Katchor, one of the freshest of the new artists to appear in these pages—himself from a Left Yiddish family background—was to comment later that RAW had shrewdly marketed itself as a lost branch of European art and literature. This would prove decisive in uplifting the genre toward acceptance as an art form, in New York above all.
By vivid contrast. Weirdo was very, very California, published by the Crumbs in Winters, an extended outpost of the Bay Area. The idea of the “outsider,” if already well established in the art world, here unapologetically reached an extreme.
The Book of Weirdo testifies to the vanishing California sensibility as it pays homage to that unique publication in a nonacademic and unpretentious manner that often eludes the burgeoning field of comic art studies at large. Jon B. Cooke is at once a comic fan, editor of an ongoing comics “pro” fanzine (Comic Book Creator), and a gifted writer and designer. He follows, in this work, the tradition of a couple dozen authors, also non-academics in background, who have done admirable work on such subjects as EC Comics and their great artists or writer-artists as Wally Wood,Will Elder and Bernard Krigstein.
That said, The Book of Weirdo is a most unusual work of devotion. Rather than a straightforward narration, it offers extended commentaries by dozens of Weirdo contributors, and several essays—the longest of them unsigned but evidently the work of the editor himself. This is, by intent, a collective project, with Cooke seeking to impose a light hand even if the creation owes to his extraordinarily careful attention to all aspects of the subject.
How much was Weirdo a response to the publication (and phenomenon) of RAW, moving comic art “uptown” toward new and for many, uncomfortable realms of sophistication? This is a question unsettled, destined to be unsettled, among comics historians, not to mention the editors and artists themselves.
What else was weird about Weirdo? As Crumb himself wrote in the first issue, the new effort marked “another new magazine, another MAD imitation, another small time commercial feature with high hopes, obviously doomed to fail.” This is a reference to the number of MAD knock-offs that appeared during the 1950s and 1960s, in some cases lasting decades after Mad Comics turned into MadMagazine in 1955. Several of them even boasted former Mad artists. They were generally, if not without exceptions, dreadful by any reasonable standard, or perhaps just by the high standard of Mad.
From another angle, Weirdo was arguably closer to Humbug, Kurtzman’s third effort after Mad and the slick but doomed Trump, or his last magazine effort, HELP! Humbug and HELP! sought to combine comic pages with fiction, new art by youngsters—including, in HELP!, some of the soon outstanding u.g. comix artists. In the same magazine, “fumetti” or photo-caption combinations appeared, although in Weirdo’s fumettis, Crumb casted himself in the remake of the girlie magazines of the 1930s-40s with humorous shenanigans of dames and the men chasing them. What did this add up to?
Crumb had remarked (to me, in a 1977 interview in Cultural Correspondence) that “artists are always trying to equal the work that impressed them in their childhood and youth. I still feel extremely inadequate when I look at the old Mad comics….” Adding, “there’s a charm in the ‘looseness’ of the culture of our generation, the lackadaisical approach…besides, our parents threw all the old traditions in the garbage can without a second thought and left us to root around for the remnants in the back alleys of the culture….”
That nicely sums up the aim, several years in advance, of the new venture. Even when the artists in RAW seemed to be slumming, or portrayed subjects in assorted outrageous ways, they were still….sophisticated. RAW could not be as raw as Weirdo was, even if it tried.
And there’s more. Recently, one of the most outstanding and cerebral artists—she now teaches at the University of Michigan—observed that the Weirdo artists and editors “were my tribe.” Phoebe Gloekner’s comment makes sense in several different ways. Her work was exceptionally dark, with stories rooted in San Francisco’s post hippie cultural underground of drugs and male predation upon young girls, also of the rage felt by those who did not become part of the city’s notorious Good Life. Along with Dori Sedi, who died at an early age from a lung aliment while contributing steadily to Weirdo, Gloeckner may express best, in her comics there, the anxieties that suffused the magazine’s pages.
The stories of the artists, many of them hardly seen before or after Weirdo, are revealing, touching and plain strange, and in a way, the best argument for the originality of the Book ofWeirdo. Most were young or youngish, a large handful making their entry into the world of comics or moving further along the way. The list is an honor roll: Peter Bagge, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Robert Armstong, Terry Boyce, Daniel Clowes, Julie Docet, Drew Friedman, Carol Lay, Steve Lafler, Joe Matt, Gary Panter, Joe Sacco, Carol Tyler, Jim Woodring and Ivan Brunetti, and those are only the artists whose names I recognize!
But it is the occasional anecdote that stands out, for this reviewer. For instance: at one point, Harvey Pekar and Aline Kominsky-Crumb received a curious offer to take over a talk-show slot at Fox’s entertainment network! The whole thing was impossible: Pekar could no more quit his hospital job for a Manhattan gig that could be cancelled at any time than Aline could split her time between New York and Winters. Still, this small non-event points toward an outsiderness that might come inside. (Pekar himself was treated to the award-winning biopic, American Splendor, whose production in Cleveland really did force him to quit his job.) It came inside or rather, comics themselves came inside, with the Pulitzer Prize (and MOMA exhibit) for Art Spiegelman, with glowing if only occasional New York Times reviews for the likes of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and arguably with the success of superhero characters on the big screens. Comics had become a twenty-first century art form.
Readers of The Book of Weirdo will surely want to discover their own favorite anecdotes, make their own sense of the barrage of details included here. I’m guessing they will be happy to do so.
Paul Buhle has edited more than a dozen nonfiction historical comics. He struggles to understand the 36 year gap between his first effort (Radical America Komiks, 1969, reprinted in 2019) and next (WOBBLIES!, 2005).
Special thanks to Jay Kinney and Ben Katchor for comments on this review.