The Buildings Are Barking: Diane Noomin, in Memoriam. By Bill Griffith.
Seattle: F.U. Press, Fantagraphics, 2023. 23pp, $7.
Guest Review by Paul Buhle
We are nearly a year now since the passing of Diane Newman, who took on the comics moniker “Diane Noomin” as she began to publish her work in the Bay Area-centered world of Underground Comix in the 1970s. This is, then, a tribute booklet, but singular, in the way no one except her husband Bill Griffith could conceive and draw. As far as I can recall, no homage from a comics spouse has ever achieved this conceptual depth or intensity. It is a remarkable miniature, with a surprising depth that will please but fail to surprise the regular readers of Griffith, a master of the self-reflection that is also mass-culture-reflection.
The Buildings Are Barking might be compared, if comparisons are possible, to the many pages of Robert Crumb’s Biblical-adaptation Genesis in which Aline Kominsky Crumb’s physical self appears and reappears as the women of ancient Hebrew lore. Real-life Aline had a couple of decades ahead.
Within the last year or so, the artists of Underground Comix lore have been disappearing in haste: Justin Green, Jay Lynch, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, to name only the most widely known. Spain Rodriguez and Harvey Pekar (not artist but writer/editor and self-publisher) passed a decade earlier, signalling how easily even the memories of a unique and vital development in comic art might slip away.
Griffith has seized the moment, rather taken his time to seize the moment, perhaps as a yohrtseit (symbolic Jewish commemoration on an anniversary) to Diane and her ambiguously and also unambiguously Jewish identity. Urged on by Ko-Ko the Clown—Max Fleischer’s magical animated creation of the 1920s—Griffith gets around within a few pages to telling us about Diane Newman’s alter-ego, Didi Glitz, the soul of her comix or comics work. A teenage inhabitant of Canarsie of the 1950s, Didi had all the appealing/repellent qualities of adolescence seizing onto popular culture as a means of identity. Bouffant hairdos, garish clothes, garish crushes on boys (sometimes goys), clique-obsessions among girlfriends, above all a need for expression, no matter how embarrassing to the objective viewer.
Griffith (let’s call him Griffy here, as Diane did) enjoys his rumination on life in San Francisco of the 1970s-80s, perhaps not really the “idyllic city…before the Dotcom boom,” but idyllic for them and for many artists. Always badly overpriced, losing its architectural beauty decade by decade, their San Francisco was still arguably (with New Orleans) the most beautiful of American urbanscapes. Here, at any rate, Griffith and Newman moved past earlier long-term relationships to grasp each other, marrying in 1980. From there on, and no doubt connected to their mutual grasp of the varied icons of popular culture seen as “history” (her poodle pin collection, his vintage diner photos), they sunk or rose into each other.
Bill Griffith has famously been producing the near-daily strip Zippy the Pinhead since the middle of those San Francisco days, while Diane became part of a subset of women comics artists who ruthlessly delved into their lives and psyches. She aspired to draw a comic about her parents’ secret (and very Jewish) connections with the Communist Party in the McCarthy Era, but she didn’t live long enough. Griffith has found his own way to produce real history-based comic works as Zippy stumbles through time and space. In other words, and laughs aside, they were both serious artists.
The Buildings Are Barking is deeply personal in ways that this reviewer cannot describe adequately, and to which the reader is advised to proceed intuitively, that is, following Griffith’s own shifting moods of consciousness. At the end, we are with Ko-Ko the Clown again. Ko-Ko always expressed a grimness behind the jaunty exterior: there is a bit of a Grim Reaper about him.
What any serious artist (or writer) leaves behind is the effort at expression, brilliant or less than brilliant but a striving with purpose. Griffith has captured Diane Noomin aka Newman, and thereby captured himself as well.
Paul Buhle’s latest comic is an adaptation of W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic Souls of Black Folk, by artist Paul Peart Smith (Rutgers University Press).