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Guest Review: ‘Alay-Oop’ by William Gropper

Alay-Oop by William Gropper

A Forgotten Comics Master: William Gropper

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

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.

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Guest Review: ‘The Book of Weirdo’

The Book of Weirdo. Edited by Jon B. Cooke. San Francisco: Last Gasp Books, 2019. 288pp, $39.95.

An Ultimate Crumb or was it Editor Crumb?

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

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 Mad Magazine 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 of Weirdo. 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.

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Filed under Comics, Denis Kitchen, Guest Column, Last Gasp, Last Gasp Books, Paul Buhle, Robert Crumb, Weirdo magazine