30 September 2021

The Mishkin Saga by Kim Deitch & Simon Deitch (No. 28)

The Mishkin Saga (1992-1994)
by Kim Deitch & Simon Deitch

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
With The Mishkin Saga, Kim and Simon Deitch manage the near impossible: an affecting story about the creative process that neither drowns in nostalgia nor avoids showing how its characters participate in their own personal tragedies. The heart of the story is animator Ted Mishkin, his family and loved ones, and their interaction with Waldo, a cartoon cat who is both a character in their successful animated series and an actual spiritual presence in the lives of Ted and his nephew Nathan. Through an impressive shorthand, The Mishkin Saga spans the history of American animation, from Winsor McCay to modern Disney, making the Deitch brothers story in many ways a cutting commentary about the nature of creative enterprise in 20th Century America.

The emotional core of The Mishkin Saga is so realistically depicted it seems almost brutal, but is the rock-solid basis from which the rest of the story emanates. Central figure Ted Mishkin is a completely stunted character - a horrific alcoholic with a naive artistic soul, who faces debilitating frustrations in both his professional and personal lives. There is no hope for redemption - Mishkin's worst and best qualities flow from the same well - and little hope for solace, but when those moments do occur, in flashes of uncompromised artistic vision, they are among the most beautiful in comics history.

Ted Mishkin's tragic personality is mirrored in the surrounding characters: his eventual wife Lilian Greer, his brother Al, even relatively minor characters like studio head Fred Fontaine and psychiatrist Dr. Milton Reinman. Similarly, each independent series in the saga covers some of the same ground, but add weight and detail to the events. When the searing insight of such writing is added to the delightful two-dimensional quality of the art, amazingly successful in depicting the relationship between the artistic enterprise and madness, what one experiences is a rare combination of great truth and great beauty.

(from the backcover blurb to The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, 2002)
At last the general public will be allowed to discover Kim Deitch, one of the best-kept secrets in comics for over thirty-five years. He's an American Original, as spinner of yarns, whose beautifully structured pages and intricate plots conjure up a haunting and haunted American past.

29 September 2021

The Death of Speedy Ortiz by Jaime Hernandez (No. 22)

The Death of Speedy Ortiz (1987)
by Jaime Hernandez

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
The Death of Speedy Ortiz is a great self-contained story. It's also the beginning of a long story cycle that ends with Chester Square. And ultimately, it marked a huge qualitative leap for Jaime Hernandez. Prior to this story, Jaime was perceived as the more frivolous of the Hernandez brothers. Gilbert Hernandez did the moving and meaningful stories, Jaime Hernandez did the light, entertaining, beautifully drawn stories. The Death of Speedy Ortiz changed that equation and forced a reevaluation of the artistic achievement of Jaime Hernandez.

The Death of Speedy Ortiz is in a sense the second chapter of a long narrative which begins with The Return of Ray D. This story introduces the soon-to-be major character Ray, as well as elevating a walk-on character, Danita, to major character status. This is also the point when Hopey, Maggie's girlfriend, leaves on an extended tour with her band - perhaps the critical event in the entire story cycle. These two events set up The Death of Speedy. Speedy is the younger brother of Izzy Ortiz. He begins an affair with Maggie's younger sister, Esther. Esther, however, is also romantically entangled with Rojo, leader of the Dairytown gang. Dairytown and Hoppers (where Speedy, Maggie and the rest live) are two barrios that have a long-running violent feud. There is, at this point, a certain West Side Story inevitability to The Death of Speedy Ortiz. But Hernandez undercuts this in his storytelling technique. Hernandez almost never shows us a major plot point as it occurs - even the actual death of Speedy takes place off-panel. This subtle approach keeps the reader interested in what is an admittedly a hoary plot. It also illuminates corners of the lives of characters who are not central to the narrative at hand, but who are important in the larger cycle that The Death of Speedy Ortiz is part of. Primarily this means Maggie, but also Izzy and Ray.

This is also Hernandez's first story that doesn't take place in the milieus he had mapped out for himself - weird science fiction foreign countries (as in Mechanics and Las Mujeres Perdidas) and the punk rock world. Hernandez introduces a new setting - the barrio - with its own rules and unforgettable characters. ('Litos, for example, is never more than a minor character, but is nonetheless completely compelling as an ageing street punk who can't escape his violent life.) Family issues become more important, as the relationship between Maggie, Esther and their Aunt Vicki is explored, as well as, to a lesser extent, the relationship between Speedy and Izzy Ortiz. (It's a family party in The Return of Ray D. that introduces Esther to Speedy.) In almost every way, this is a deeper and more complex work than anything Hernandez has done before. The Death of Speedy greatly rewards rereading.

It almost goes without saying that Hernandez's artwork in The Death of Speedy Ortiz is superb. But it is worth pointing out that the story marked another step along the road that was leading Hernandez away from the flashy, details "mainstream" artwork early in the series towards the more minimal approach he now favours. To draw so cleanly requires a great deal more confidence and virtuosity than drawing with lots of feathering and pointless details. The figures, their gestures and expressions, the panels and the storytelling - all these factors must stand on their own when not given the gloss of flashy detail. Again, the more one rereads The Death of Speedy Ortiz the more obvious this becomes.


28 September 2021

Ernie Pook's Comeek by Lynda Barry (No. 74)

Ernie Pook's Comeek (1979 to 2008)
by Lynda Barry

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Lynda Barry belongs to the tradition of James Thurber and Jules Feiffer: talented humorists for whom comics is one of several media suited to their talents. Barry, along with close friend Matt Groening, stood at the forefront of the least talked-about aspect of the 1980s comics renaissance, the rise of the alternative newspaper strip. Appearing in a number of free weeklies across the United States, particularly the Readers in Los Angeles and Chicago, Barry in some ways has achieved the alternative comics dream. Her work reached adults who might not read any other comics, adults who because of work like Barry's don't question the fact that the art form can produce sophisticated reading matter.

Ernie Pook's Comeek is most remarkable because of its voice: lonely, unremarkable children struggling with everything that is awful and over-whelming about the world. In Ernie Pook's best years, in the late '80s, Barry's strip reads like actual diaries of children. While the writing has become less convincing as the characters have aged, they are such great characters that the reader is willing to forgive the occasional off-kilter week. In an act of developmental shorthand, Barry has created characters that have earned affection it takes most cartoonists decades to build.

The second great strength of Ernie Pook lies in the veracity of Barry's observations. In a time when recognition "humour" has spread across mainstream newspaper strips like a virus, Barry manages to convey common experiences of adolescent existence without ever once crossing over into generalities and cliche. She does this by being very, very specific - even if it's not your experience, it feel authentic - and by doggedly staying in character. Several elements may draw one into a comic strip, but one takes away the characters; there are none better than those in Ernie Pook's Comeek.


27 September 2021

The Cartoons of James Thurber (No. 48)

The Cartoons of James Thurber (1927-1961)

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
James Thurber is a towering figure in American comedy, responsible for moving comic writing into common, everyday speech from the baroque rhythms and dialect humour that dominated the previous century. His comic persona of the put-upon everyman struggling to deal with a strange and often harsh world - perhaps best used in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - has become a cornerstone of American comedy both written and spoken. On top of that, Thurber's influence came via wonderfully skilful writing, practically inventing the casual first-person essay as an avenue for sublime artistic expression. It is almost impossible to overestimate Thurber's importance.

Thurber was also a terrific, natural cartoonist, despite a frustrating eye affliction (resulting from a boyhood accident). Cartoon art could be found in nearly all of his works, and sometimes, in the case of the great comics short story The Last Flower, take it over entirely. Thurber once said of his own cartooning, "My drawings have been described as pre-intentionalist, meaning that they were finished before the ideas for them had occurred to me. I shall not argue the point."

Thurber's cartoons are particularly valuable for two reasons. The first is that they explicate his views in a different way than any of his work in other media. Seeing the "Thurber Man" is quite a different thing than reading about him; and the dynamic interaction between such a static figure says volumes about criticism Thurber has received about the way women are treated in his essays. In one great single-panel cartoon, a shocked visitor is introduced to a family that includes a deranged person on top of a bookcase with the words, "That's my first wife up there, and this is the present Mrs Harris." The cartoon is funny; even in the hands of a skilled prose stylist like Thurber, that could come across as incredibly cruel in print. 

Thurber was also one of the first great casual minimalists in comics, who understand how to simplify figures for the sake of characterisation. If style is the cartoonists voice, it could be said that Thurber helped change that into the vernacular as well.


24 September 2021

Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau (No. 37)

Doonesbury (1970-1983, 1984 to present)
by Garry Trudeau

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century!, in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Not because it's been famously dropped by the papers that carry it time and time agin. Not because it's pushed more hot button issues than any daily strip before or since. Not because it's drawn the ire of so many of its targets, from presidents to captains of industry to entertainment figures and the news media. Not because it was the most topical comic strip of its day in the 1970s and remains so in the 1990s. But because it is still the most fully actualised collection of characters to hit the comics page in half a century, at least.

And still it manages to scandalous and subversive, agenda-setting and rhetoric-destroying, and above all else, laugh-out-load funny. 

It's a testimony to Garry Trudeau's vision that no matter what happens he seems to have a character ready to step into the situation. Want to take on Microsoft and the '90s go-go software culture? Not a problem: Trudeau already has an ad man and a science nerd in the cast. Want to talk about Nike abusing its overseas labourers? No problem: Trudeau already has not one but two recurring Vietnamese characters.

It's flexibility like that which has given Doonesbury the ability to remain constantly on the cutting edge of social change. Sure, sometimes hindsight shows us that he was a little too close for parodic comfort (a Reagan meets Max Headroom shtick? The '80s really were an inexplicable time), but for the most part the strip succeeds in finding the right mix of character driven comedy and sharp-witted mockery of the rich, powerful and out of control.

This past holiday season saw the release of the most essential Doonesbury collection yet: Bundled Doonesbury came complete with a CD-ROM collection of more than 9,000 of the daily strips, excerpts from the animated television special and other assorted new-gaws for the technologically inclined. If only it had included the Duke action figure we could have counted it the best strip collection of all time. Instead, we may have to settle with calling Doonesbury the best daily strip of the past quarter century.


23 September 2021

Terry & The Pirates by Milton Caniff (No. 23)

Terry & The Pirates (1934-1946)
by Milton Caniff

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
With the comic strip Terry & The Pirates, Milton Caniff (1907-1988) virtually redefined the adventure strip so thoroughly did he improve upon the genre's basic ingredients. Starting October 22, 1934, the strip focused on the China wanderings of a youth and his adult mentor, a vagabond journalist named Pat Ryan. 

In less than a year, Caniff, inspired by the work of his studio-mate, Noel Sickles, developed the most imitated of his refinements, an impressionistic style of drawing that suggested reality with shadow rather than with linear particulars. He added realism of detail, striving for absolute authenticity in depicting every aspect of the strip's locale, whether Oriental or, later, military. 

But Caniff's signal achievement was to enrich the simple adventure story formula by making character development integral to the action of his stories: readers wanted to know not just what would happen but how the characters would fare. To weave into his stories such an intriguing character as an alluring but ruthless pirate queen called the Dragon Lady (doubtless the most famous of Caniff's creations) was to add to the strip's exotic locale a powerful enhancement: her characterisation complemented the mysteriousness of the Orient with the inscrutability of her personality, which nonetheless seemed so true-to-life that it lent the authority of its authenticity to the strip's stories, making the most improbable adventures seem real.

Within a few years of its debut, Terry was setting the pace for cartoonists who did adventure strips. During World War II, Caniff sent his strip to war, infusing the action with a trenchant patriotism that inspired both soldiers at the front and their families at home and brought Caniff unprecedented fame. After the war, he gave up Terry and on January 13, 1947, started Steve Canyon in order to own and control his creation. Terry was continued by George Wunder, who did his best to follow in the master's footsteps until the strip ceased in 1973.


22 September 2021

The New Yorker Cartoons of Peter Arno (No. 21)

The New Yorker Cartoons of Peter Arno (1925-1968)

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
New Yorker cartoonist Peter Arno may not have invented the single-speaker captioned cartoon, but he surely perfected it. A prototype of the Jazz Age's young man about town, Arno was rich, debonair, tall, urbane, impeccably dressed and multi-talented, and he had the jutting-jaw good looks of a model in the popular Arrow shirt ads of the day. 

He was about to abandon his ambition to be an artist for a musical career when he received a check for a drawing that he had submitted to a new humour magazine that had debuted February 21, 1925. With the publication of this spot illustration in the June 20, 1925 issue of The New Yorker, Arno began a 43-year association with Harold Ross' weekly. 

Arno's single-panel cartoons helped significantly to shape the magazine's sophisticated but irreverent personality with a Manhattan menagerie that included: the aristocratically moustached old gent in white tie and tails, whose eyes, as Somerset Maugham observed, "gleamed with concupiscence when they fell upon the grapefruit breasts of the blonde and blue-eyed cuties" whom he avidly pursued; a thin, bald, albeit youngish man with a wispy walrus moustache, a razor sharp nose, and an ethereally placid expression who was often seen simply lying in bed beside an empty-headed ingenue with an overflowing nightgown; and a ponderous dowager, stern of visage and impressive of chest, whose imposing presence proclaimed her right to rule. This trio was joined by an assortment of rich predatory satyrs in top hats, crones, precocious moppets, tycoons, curmudgeonly clubmen, ruddy-duddies and bar-flies of all description - in short, the probable population of all of New York's cafe society which Arno subjected to merciless scrutiny from his favoured position well within the pale, and he found something ridiculous and therefore valuable in everyone from roue to cab driver.

Arno's cartoons juxtaposed the seeming urbanity of his cast against their underlying earthiness, thereby stripping all pretension away. He proved again and again that humankind is just a little larcenous and lecherous and trivial in its passions and pursuits, social decorum to the contrary notwithstanding.

An admirer of Georges Rouault, Arno employed a broad brush stroke to delineate his subject with the fewest lines possible, holding the compositions together with a wash of varying gray tones. Arno denied that he had invented the single-speaker, or one-line, caption cartoon that by the end of the 1920s had replaced its historic predecessor, the illustrated comic dialogue. In truth, the one-line caption had been used occasionally for years, but Arno deployed it more consistently than others (thereby doing much to establish the form) because he valued the astonishing and therefore risible economy of its interdependent elements: neither words nor picture made any sense alone, but together they blended unexpectedly to create comedy.

One of his classic efforts shows a mousy little man emerging from a knot of military experts who have just witnessed an airplane crash, the flames visible on the horizon in the distance. The picture makes no sense until we read below it what the mousy little man is saying: "Well, back to the drawing board." And his utterance makes no comedic sense without the picture. But when we read the caption after viewing the picture, the comedy surfaces suddenly as a kind of "surprise": the picture explains the words and vice versa, and we are startled, joyously, by the discovery that it all makes sense. Presto: in this perfect blending of word and picture, in this "surprise explanation" the modern magazine cartoon is born.

21 September 2021

It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken by Seth (No. 52)

It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken (1993-1996)
by Seth (aka Gregory Gallant)

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
But why Details?

It's true that Seth pulled the wool over the eyes of an inordinate number of readers with his "autobiographical" novel It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken when it was originally serialised in Palooka-Ville. By keeping secret the fact that Kalo, the cartoonist for whom Seth searches throughout the novel, was a literal device, he probably sent hundreds of readers to pouring through old copies of 1950s gag anthologies all in a quest to find some evidence of the ever-elusive Kalo.

Admit it though, it's a pretty pleasant image: the cartoonist, whose enthusiasm for old-style gag cartooning is so great that it literally oozes from every line he puts on the page, writes a book that compels an audience largely indifferent to that aspect of comics' history to spend hours of their time in a fruitless search to learn more about a fictional character by examining the real history of the medium. It's not just clever, it's brilliant and it's what makes the book such a stunning accomplishment. 

Well, that and the fact that it's so elegantly drawn and supremely paced. It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken is a book with such an arc of quietude that you feel as if you can almost believe that the seasons are changing as you sit and read the story. Just as you believe that Kalo really did make it big for that one shining moment in The New Yorker.

Still, I don't know why he had to break the spell on the greatest comic ever written about comics in a men's magazine like Details that wouldn't recognise a talent like Kalo's to save their lives. Ideally, Seth might have said nothing for the rest of his life and we all could have looked for Kalo together, forever.


20 September 2021

The Humour Comics of Basil Wolverton (No. 94)

The Humour Comics of Basil Wolverton (1942-1973)

Basil Wolverton is one of the few comic book artists who could be considered for a list of this type on the basis of a single drawing. The amazingly grotesque, lurid, and goofily funny single-panel drawings in the Wolverton style - most famously seen in the 1946 "Lena the Hyena" contest winner for Al Capp's Li'l Abner strip - have an almost tactile quality to them. No one working in such a cartoony style ever achieved that same sense of real life possibility - that one of Wolverton's deformed to abstraction critters could be in the same room sweating, grinning innocently, and looking up at you. 

All of Wolverton's work is worth seeking out - from the rip-roaring adventure comic Space Hawk (which appeared in the early '40s and was the subject of a well conceived reprinting by Dark House Comics) to his late-period Bible work - but it is in a run of humour comics that Wolverton is best represented. The vast majority of Wolverton's humour work appeared in the 1940s. The best-remembered and most accomplished is Powerhouse Pepper, a spin on the decent-hearted-dimwit-as-hero shtick distinguished by Wolverton's energetic art, grotesque character drawings, and the fact that the dialogue was done in chaotic rhyme. But even the minor strips and occasional appearances in Mad or the covers for DC's Plop! are a gas.

Basil Wolverton's art and approach to comics remains influential today. Just as offbeat children's television hosts of the 1950s had a dramatic effect on satirical television programs of the 1970s and 1980s, Wolverton's comics were a launching pad for many of the wilder forays of the underground generation's work, and all comics still holding to that tradition.


18 September 2021

Howard Cruse: An Appreciation by Alison Bechdel

Stuck Rubber Baby (1995)
by Howard Cruse

(from the introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Stuck Rubber Baby)
A few days after turning in my text for this introduction to Stuck Rubber Baby - a slight updating of the one I’d written for the 2010 edition - I learned that Howard Cruse had died. I’d known he was sick, but things took a turn, and at 75, he was suddenly gone. I felt hollowed out with a particular kind of grief I hadn’t felt before. Losing a mentor has some similarities to losing a parent. Howard had in many ways made my life as a cartoonist possible, thanks to his trailblazing career. And I was lucky enough to have a warm personal relationship with him over the years. But I didn’t spend much time in Howard’s actual presence. What I’d spent time with was his work. And now there would be no more of it.

In light of this, I’ve revised the introduction once more, to encompass not just Howard’s masterwork, but his legacy. A key part of that legacy is something that may not withstand the test of time as well as the work itself, so I want to mention it first: Howard’s personal kindness. His compassion, generosity, and lack of ego permeate his work, too. But I have run across very few artists or writers who in person are anywhere near as nice as this guy was.

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Howard was born a preacher’s kid, which perhaps explains some of his gentle amiability. (His first cartoons were published in the Baptist Student!) He grew up in the South in the 1950s, dreaming of being a syndicated cartoonist and struggling to quash his desire for other boys. The tensions of growing up gay in that time and place are illustrated succinctly in a later cartoon in which an anxious, brush-cut teenager flips through A Pocket Guide to Loathsome Diseases at a newsstand, next to a rack of books from “Devotional Fatuousity Press” that includes Jesus’s Favorite Recipes.

It took Howard a while to come to terms with his sexuality - on the way, he tried going straight, which resulted in an accidental pregnancy. (He and his girlfriend put the baby up for adoption. Later in life, their daughter would track Howard down and they’d enjoy a warm connection.) By the 1970s, the humor comics Howard had grown up emulating were beginning to disappear, and the underground scene was taking off. He began drawing his philosophical and psychedelically infused strip Barefootz, which would eventually include a gay character.

In 1979, the comics publisher Denis Kitchen invited Howard to edit a new comic book of work by gay cartoonists. Howard had to weigh what this might mean for his career - would coming out consign him permanently to the margins? Fortunately for all of us, he accepted the challenge - and then some. Howard was adamant that the contributions of men and women to Gay Comix be 50-50, even though at that time lesbian cartoonists were much fewer and further between than gay ones.

Gay Comix #1
Cover art by Rand Holmes

I happened to stumble onto Gay Comix No. 1 in a gay bookstore in the Village practically the moment I moved to New York City after college. This would prove to be a conjunction as fruitful for me (I like to think) as was Howard’s own happenstance encounter with the Stonewall riots one night a decade earlier when he was tripping on LSD. Here were comics by gay men and lesbians about their regular, everyday lives, including Howard’s moving, hilarious, and magnificently drawn Billy Goes Out. I was inspired by this to start drawing my own cartoons, and I was not the only one. As Justin Hall, editor of No Straight Lines: Four Decades of Queer Comics, puts it, Howard is “the godfather of queer comics.”

The founding premise of Gay Comix - that gay people are “regular human beings” - was carried over by Howard into his next project. Wendel, the serialized strip he wrote throughout the 1980s for the Advocate, was not just a witty and densely detailed tale of gay life, but a record of the Reagan administration’s virulent homophobia as the nation was grappling with AIDS. Our collective memory is already beginning to forget this recent past, so Wendel is now an important chronicle of the lived experience of those years.

by Howard Cruse

Howard’s next act would be his most ambitious yet: to write a graphic novel based loosely on his own coming of age in the Jim Crow South. It would take on racism and homophobia, with the idea of truth telling at its core. A country that wouldn’t admit, let alone confront, its own racism was telling a lie. The secretive life that many pre-Stonewall LGBT people were forced to live constituted a different kind of lie, but one equally destructive of integrity and connection.

I had the honor of receiving a visit from Howard during the time he was drawing Stuck Rubber Baby. He and his partner, Eddie, were in Vermont for a little vacation, though of course it was a working vacation for Howard, and he’d brought pages along to ink. After we’d visited a bit, he went out to the car to get some of them to show me.

This was over 25 years ago, but my memory of the scene is very clear. As Howard came back inside with a large, flat box, time seemed to slow down. I won’t claim that I could see his aura, or that the artwork vibrated in my hands as I examined it. But there was an energy emanating from these sheets of Bristol board that could not be accounted for merely by the exquisitely designed, lettered, and inked details that met my eyes.

I expect that I was experiencing a reverberation of the intense effort - mental, emotional, and physical - that Howard had invested, and would continue to invest for some time, in this drawn world.

The formal virtuosity of Stuck Rubber Baby, its ambitious historic sweep, its rich characters, its unflinching look at sex, race, violence, hate, and love, make it an immersive, truly novelistic reading experience in a way that’s still uncommon for graphic narrative to achieve.

I identify uncomfortably with the young Toland Polk, the archetypal nice person. A white Southerner who grew up steeped in the casual as well as institutional racism of Jim Crow, he wouldn’t intentionally hurt anyone - but then again, he doesn’t intentionally do much of anything at all. He’s drifting along, equally disengaged from himself and from the world. But inevitably, he’s caught up in the forces of change sweeping past him, and as his engagement builds, so does ours.

This is not a revisionist fantasy in which the white hero flings himself wholeheartedly into the civil rights movement. Toland’s transformation is tentative, conflicted, alternately self-flagellating and self-serving - it’s a scathingly honest portrayal.

He’s surrounded by more active participants in the struggle, as finely drawn as Toland is. The patient, simmering Reverend Pepper. His wife, Anna Dellyne, the ex–jazz singer who now only sings hymns and freedom songs. Their gay son, Les, who turns from party boy to preacher’s kid “at the flick of a switch.” The flamboyant, wounded Sammy. And the brave but exacting Ginger Raines, the woman Toland convinces himself he’s in love with. Ginger is a curious pivot for Toland, leading him toward the truth of civil rights activism, but also affording him the false front of heterosexuality.

What complicates and expands this story like a fifth dimension is Toland’s growing acceptance of his desire for other men. I suspect this also complicated the reception of Stuck Rubber Baby when it was first published in 1995. The parallels Cruse establishes between racism and homophobia were perhaps just a little too ahead of their time to allow the broad mainstream embrace the book should have received.

The “fag bar,” the Rhombus, is Toland’s first encounter with a roomful of gay men and lesbians, but it’s also the first racially integrated space he’s been in. The black drag queen Esmereldus does Doris Day, singing, “When I was just a little girl, I asked my mother, ‘What will I be?’ ” In simple scenes like this, without ever resorting to rhetoric, Cruse deftly deconstructs race and gender more effectively than a shelf full of theory. In a way, Stuck Rubber Baby is an equal and opposite reaction to the vicious bombing at the center of its narrative. Cruse lays bare the mechanics of oppression like an explosives expert taking apart and defusing a ticking lethal device.

Clayfield is a thinly disguised version of racially riven Birmingham in the early 1960s. The pivotal episodes of violence and protest in the book are based on real events. And although the characters and story are made up, Cruse doesn’t shy away from the fact that he has drawn readily from his personal experience, notably his “encounter with unintended fatherhood.” This blend of documentary and fiction yields the best of both worlds - the suspense of a carefully crafted plot and the vivid immediacy of an eyewitness account.

Although the story is told by a middle-aged Toland looking back on his life, and is thus, strictly speaking, a first-person narrative, his take on the events is panoramic and omniscient. It was risky for a white author to write about African American characters, particularly ones who are actively engaged in the civil rights movement, but Howard nimbly clears the bar. He’s done his homework, yes, but like any good writer he pushes himself to explore his various characters’ subjectivities as far as it’s possible to go.

The image of Reverend Pepper’s wife, Anna Dellyne, standing at the edge of the crowd at the jazz club Alleysax is one of my favorite moments in the book. She’s aloof, regal, and wistful, half in the light, half in dense black shadow, a distillation of all the opposing tensions that push and pull this book along.

This brings me at last to the drawing. I know it took Howard years to draw this book, but even so, I don’t see how one human being could possibly lay down this much ink in that span of time, even if they never stopped to eat or sleep. Many of the pages are so finely crosshatched that they appear to have a nap - as if they’d feel like velvet if you ran your hand over them.

One stunning thing this technique affords is a very rich palette of skin tones. White and Black characters alike are shaded with loving nuance. Indeed, everything in the book is drawn with manifest love and a profound generosity. Howard re-creates the visual details of life in the South during “Kennedytime” with a staggering archival fidelity. In less skilled hands, this could be obtrusive. But the painstakingly rendered parking meters, textile patterns, vintage appliances, and record sleeves are woven into a meticulous backdrop that allows us to believe in and surrender to the story completely.

I should point out that this feat was accomplished long before there was such a thing as Google Image Search. Howard gathered references not with a few mouse clicks, but by digging around in library picture files, hitting the street with a camera and sketchbook, and by engaging in God knows what other time-consuming analog practices.

It’s always tempting to cheat when drawing, to gloss things over. Like a crowd scene, for example. But look at the people gathered outside the funeral at the opening of Chapter 14. The back of each infinitesimal head is never a mere oval, but always a particular person’s head. Howard’s benevolent Rapidograph achieves transcendence here.

Despite the sometimes microscopic level of detail, this book is always eloquently legible. Howard is fluent with so many comics conventions that these too could threaten to intrude on the story. But his innovative page layouts and panel shapes, the bleeds and fades, the fragmented breakdown of crucial scenes - all these things combine to transmit a multilayered story with seamless coherence.

Stuck Rubber Baby is a story, but it’s also a history - or perhaps more accurately a story about how history happens, one person at a time. What does it take to transcend our isolation and our particular internalized oppressions to touch - and change - the outside world? As Toland Polk begins to engage truthfully with his inner self, his outer self is able to connect with others more authentically and powerfully. Actually, it’s just as accurate to put this the other way around, because those two actions are inextricable from one another.

Toland lives in a place and time where not just Black people but “white n—–s” are routinely terrorized, and where being a “n—–r loving queer” has dire consequences. In a 2009 version of this introduction, I waxed eloquent about how dramatically things had changed - we had an African American president, and support was rapidly building for marriage equality, things I’d never imagined seeing in my lifetime.

In 2019, things have changed dramatically again. White supremacists, neo-Nazis, and anti-Semites have scuttled out from under their rocks and into the public square. The Trump administration is trying its hardest to roll back LGBTQ rights under the claim of “religious freedom.” Immigrants, Muslims, and women are under attack. The arc of the moral universe apparently bends like a corkscrew.

I’ve thought a lot over the years about how the progressive gay culture of Weimar Berlin was wiped out by the Nazis. Could the remarkable advances made by the civil rights and LGBTQ movements be likewise reversible? For a long time I assured myself that no, they couldn’t. The roots of social justice have gone too deep.

1. The Magic School Bus Made the World Safe for Weird Teachers 2. Charlie Kaufman’s Debut Novel Reveals His Genius Has Its Limits 3. What a History of Smells Can Teach Us About Medicine, Misogyny, and Farts of the Past 4. “If All Black Books Were About Racism, Where Would We Go to Escape It?”

Lately, on bad days, I feel less certain of this. But on good days I remind myself of the astonishing achievements of movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo. The everyday activism of principled people is an ongoing redemptive force in this country.

In an interview in the mid-1990s, after the first edition of Stuck Rubber Baby came out, Howard said, “This is a book people can live with and revisit and find new subtleties in, find issues that are contemporary even though the story happened 30 years ago. It’s about issues I care a lot about: Is this country going to be a generous country or a mean-spirited country? This is very much on my mind these days.” Now, almost another three decades out, that question could not be more stark or more consequential.

Howard Cruse’s visceral account of America’s recent past contributes with grace and force to the vision of a just world. And it makes an equally vital contribution to the power of graphic narrative to reflect life back to us - in this case the conflict and exhilaration of social change - in all its glorious chaos.

The 25th anniversary edition of Stuck Rubber Baby was released in 2020 by First Second Books.

Alison Bechdel is the author of two internationally acclaimed graphic memoirs, the Eisner Award winning Fun Home and Are You My Mother?. For twenty-five years, she wrote and drew the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, a visual chronicle of modern life - queer and otherwise. 

17 September 2021

Thimble Theatre by E.C. Segar (No. 11)

Thimble Theatre (1925-1938)
by E.C. Segar

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Comic strips are at heart a narrative medium, and nobody told stories like E.C. Segar. With a fantastic ensemble cast of comic characters Segar fulfilled the self-imposed duel responsibility of delivering a daily laugh while furthering an on-going continuity that would run for months. He made it look effortless. Segar spun wonderful yarns while cracking his readers up every step of the way. The outwardly farcical gaggle of vaudevillianesque antiheroes, bumbling about on picaresque chases (usually for riches more than fame) was actually one of the most intrinsically sophisticated comic strips in history.

All of this takes away from the fact that Thimble Theatre, under Segar and starring Popeye (although Segar's pre-Popeye TT than its obscurity indicates), is really, really funny. Popeye is the ultimate scoundrel with a heart of gold, not to mention a tongue of silver: "My sweet patootie loves me because I yama high-voltage poppa, and she is my hotly-totsy momma!" Popeye's butchered English never becomes obtrusive - its rhythm and internal logic is poetic in its own vulgar way, a fact testified to by so many of Popeye's philosophical musings having entered the vernacular, including "I yam what I yam an' tha's all I am!" and "Well blow me down!" Popeye's oxymoronic moral code (I never hits a man as hard as I kin on account of it ain't right to kill peoples") is riotously compelling, even today. Okay, so he emotionally and physically abused Olive (she dished back in spades), often blew his money on craps games, and resorted to his fists almost always, but he also would do things like open up a bank that did nothing but give money out to the poor (wilfully ignoring the financial impracticality and earmarking patrons of the cute, young, female variety) and literally give the needy the clothes off his back, happy to go around in his scivvies if it helped a friend in need. He was a deserving role model for a roughneck scoundrel. The ultimate rugged individualist, Popeye is the perfect antidote for the endless altruism and comfortable gentility of Mickey Mouse and his brethren. Beside, was Mickey ever "dictapater" of his own country? I think not.

And Wimpy! In him and Popeye, Segar may have created the two greatest characters in comic history. Wimpy stands as one-of-a-kind some 67-years after his creation, the most lowdown and worthless creature to ever grace the comics. Venality was his essence. His worthlessness and selfishness was unparalleled. Still, Wimpy wasn't even a villain! How could you hate him? He couldn't help it. Wimpy'd steal a burger from a starving friend and remain wholly convinced of his own righteousness. He couldn't possibly notice how he was hurting others because he never took his mind off himself. Utterly disloyal but eternally blissful, Wimpy stole the show, committing travesty after travesty, repeating his mantra-like one-liners at every turn: "Come up to my house for a duck dinner; you bring the ducks," "Will you join me in a lunch on you?", "Let's you and him fight," "You are the Acme of femininity, my dear") etc... Wimpy's predictability is precisely what makes him so captivating; it is hard to believe anyone could be so thoroughly stubborn and spineless. Wimpy once said, "The inconsistency of some people is astonishing!" not realising for a moment that his consistency will always be endlessly more so.

Segar's greatness is testified to by the embarrassing limpness of Popeye's adventures in the hands of other cartoonists and in other media. Segar died when he was 38, quite possibly before hitting his prime. But no one has been able to mimic his talent, which is a shame, because it's largely these post-Segar productions (mostly the cartoons) that people think of when the one-eyed sailor comes to mind.

Segar's humour raised the spirits of a generation of depression survivors, but has obviously faded from the collective consciousness of today. It's a shame, because Segar stands among Crumb and Kurtzman as the best cartoonist of their generation and set the standard for greatness that led to the success of Al Capp (creator of another famously invulnerable hick with poor grammatical skills) and countless others. Some say he might have even been the first superhero, paving the way for the genre's creation with Superman's debut in 1939.

I think of Thimble Theatre as blue-collar Beckett.

The perfect comic strip.


16 September 2021

Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean (No. 90)

Mr. Punch (1994)
by Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
As an art object, Mr. Punch is a tightly focused, mad pageant of illustrative approaches and techniques. Its initial appeal is the cultural motifs which imply hidden, interior workings; composites of line, paint, photography and typography. Each page of this sensuous, beautiful book had to have been arrived at through different, partially experimental methods. Chromatic elements within each panel - paint and collage with a computer assist - play against a backdrop of black. 

A running symbol in the story is the spark which comes from a person physically manipulating an inanimate puppet or mask, creating a creature which is more than the sum of its parts; something potent with mystery. In the same way that the hand transforms the puppet, McKean's artwork is the life-spirit to Neil Gaiman's story.

It's the off-season in a neglected English seaside resort town, though it seems unlikely that the tide will ever come in again, figuratively. A boy, sent to board with his grandparents, tries to keep from being underfoot, amusing himself in exile. He watches and appraises the adult world; guessing at the substance of the tortured contracts among old men, and the rituals reserved for the diversion of children.

Grandfather is a would-be impresario, with an amusement arcade on its last legs - of less interest to the paying public than to his circle of misfits. The adults subtly correspond to the traditional cast members in the ubiquitous Punch and Judy shows which break the monotony, popping up like brightly coloured mushrooms against the gloom. The flamboyant, abusive spectre of Punch drives the action. Themes of abandonment, secrecy, peril and violence carry through, both in the recurrent puppet shows, and ultimately amongst the human players.


15 September 2021

Captain Marvel by C.C. Beck & Otto Binder (No. 79)

Captain Marvel (1941-1953)
by C.C. Beck & Otto Binder 

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
Captain Marvel followed in the wake of Superman and for a time was the most popular costumed hero on the American newsstand. His real name was Billy Batson, a kid radio reporter who could instantly transform himself into a big-hearted, red-suited lug by blurting out "Shazam!" The career of Captain Marvel was cut short when the publisher succumbed to pressure from National Periodicals, the owners of Superman, over copyright infringement. The year was 1953. It was an unsavoury coda to the Golden Age.

It is ludicrous to suggest that C.C. Beck, Bill Finger, Otto Binder and the others who worked on the Marvel family of comics were merely aping the Superman formula. Batson/Marvel offered an inner big brother reassurance fantasy that was very different from what was going on with the Man of Steel. Captain Marvel lived in his own worm-ridden, frog-infested, heightening-filled funkadelic universe. And Beck's laconic, sometimes hypertoony pages spoke an easy vernacular that the early Superman teams never quite achieved. Between the stories, which ever more elaborate, and the artwork which assumed a pleasing unfurnished innocence, Captain Marvel implied a very different comic book future from one lead by the march of Superman.

Most comics historians revere Captain Marvel and foes like Dr. Vivana and Mr. Mind's Monster Society of Evil. But only a small fraction of the over 1000 "Marvel Family" comics have been reprinted. Jules Feiffer once described Superman as the "Lenin of super-heroes" and Captain Marvel as Trotsky. "Ideologically of the same bent, who could have predicted that within months the two would be at each other's throat?" But they weren't of the same ideological bent: Superman wasn't an endearing goofball. Given the gaps in our material history, the more apt formulation might be Captain Marvel as Trotsjy and Superman as Stalin.


14 September 2021

The Kin-der-Kids by Lyonel Feininger (No. 40)

The Kin-der-Kids (1906)
by Lyonel Feininger

As a painter, Lyonel Feininger would eventually garner the aesthetic acclaim that in a better world would already have been his as a cartoonist. In each area of his creative endeavours, Feininger was attuned to the preoccupations of the fine arts of his day, so much so that biographer and critic Hans Hess noted that a single comic strip sequence "contains the problems of modern art in pure form" as well as Feininger's own solutions to the same.

What will strike contemporary readers of 1906's The Kin-der-Kids is a stunning burst of pictorial imagination informed by cultivated taste and executed with distinct flair. Today we get caught up by the colours and their bold combinations, the clever construction of panel and page, the expressive line work, the stylised design, the purposeful exaggerations and distortions, and we need never be the wiser for the international artistic movements they reflected. Instead we are carried away by the glorious full-page Sunday funnies with Feininger's remarkable crew of kids adventures, dashing across the globe in a bathtub, chased by Auntie Jim-Jams and her dreaded bottle of medicinal fish oil.

Despite its madcap nature, the strip radiates a gentleness and takes time to revel in wonder (commissioned, as it was, to serve as a commercial foil for the furious rough-and-tumble of the Hurst funny pages). In that better world, it would have lasted more than 29 episodes.

The Kin-der-Kids was survived by an even more gentle and wonder-filled strip by Feininger, Wee Willie Winkie's World. With its lyric and pervasive anthropomorphism, sheltered-hamlet sensibilities, quieted graphic idiosyncrasies, and close knit of muted, sympathetic colours, it endures as another all too short-lived fantasy land of the beatific.


13 September 2021

The Autobiographical Stories in Yummy Fur by Chester Brown (No. 38)

The Autobiographical Stories in Yummy Fur (1988-1993)
by Chester Brown

(from The 100 Best Comics of the Century! in The Comics Journal #210, 1999)
For all their candour, Chester Brown's memoirs are remarkably discreet. These quiet, artfully-shaped stories, which recall both the urgency of Justin Green and the mundane particularity of Harvey Pekar, exhibit economy, grace and a suggestive - even provoking - reticence. Beneath their quiet surfaces lies a strange disquiet, a probing restlessness which belies their fragile, minimalist drawings. What is left unsaid often matters just as much as what gets put down on paper.

Since their original publication, these first-person stories stories have been shaped into three books: The Playboy, I Never Liked You and The Little Man (a miscellany of tales, some fictional). These three represent an extraordinary period of development, as Brown subdued the extravagance of his early fantasies in favour of an equally provocative sense of restraint. He is still capable of shocking disclosure, but, unlike the latter instalments of Brown's fantasy opus Ed The Happy Clown, never turns aside important questions for the sake of a rude surprise.

Brown's memoirs do more than bare private nastiness to the world: they treat the ordinary, everyday encounters as occasions for the deepest questioning. For Brown, even the confused silences of adolescence are charged with moral significance - as shown, for instance, in the unsparing treatment of his failed teenage relationships in I Never Liked You. That book, which turns on the question of speech but climaxes with an awful, emotionally wrenching silence, is Brown's most affecting work to date, the masterwork toward which the earlier memoirs aim. Yet the earlier tales too are splendid, especially The Playboy and Danny's Story.

The Playboy captures Chester's awkward formative experiences with middlebrow pornography: there is no genuine catharsis, only a closeted shame and, in time, a blank evacuation of feeling. Here Brown ingeniously divides himself into an adolescent character and a gadded adult narrator, the later imagined as a hover, bat-winged devil whose mocking commentary underscores the depth of Chester's shame. Danny's Story, a boarding house anecdote, turns on the unwelcome intrusion of a neighbour whose sense of racial, cultural and sexual identity is entirely at odds with Chester's; it's a small masterpiece  of minute observation, one which turns up some of Chester's least attractive qualities. (It ends with Chester biting his neighbour and slamming the door in his face.) These stories wring significance from the smallest details. Taken in sequence, each successive story finds Brown doing more with less. 

Brown is not one to shy away from unpleasant detail, but seems to have little interest in making a shtick out of his unflinching "honesty". Each of his memoirs poses its own questions; each has its own thematic agenda and its own symmetry. They are all strong narratives, putting the lie to the idea that autobiography is for those who cannot construct real "stories". Taken together, these stories reveal an abiding interest in the ways people are shaped by their environment. Brown's powers of observation and his ability to conjure an environment in all its specificity are constant and breathtaking.

(from an interview in Destroy All Comics #2)
I really think Chester is a genius, and I don't know too many people I would class as a genius. He's a really individualistic thinker. I really feel his work comes out of the intellect... and things Chester has told me have certainly stuck in my mind and made me think about things I'm doing, especially from a technical stand point. I have so much respect for Chester that I will really take his opinion to heart.

(from an interview, The Comics Journal #192)
...I was gratified to see Chester Brown's My Mother Was A Schizophrenic. Here's a comic book writer taking issue with an entire field of experts' opinion on schizophrenia. And, of course, he's reaping the whirlwind with a massive letter from one of those experts, having to patiently dismantle the guy's letter paragraph by paragraph. Chester, making full use of the potential both of the medium and unedited creative freedom. We can use a lot more of that in my view.

Chester Brown at Patreon

12 September 2021

Covering the Modern Classics: Anders Nilsen

Anders Nilsen is the extraordinary author of Big Questions, a haunting postmodern fable which follows a group of birds in a vast open plain confronted with a fallen aircraft, its lost pilot and an inscrutable young boy encountering the world on his own for the first time.  The collected edition was the winner of an Ignatz Award for Outstanding Graphic Novel, the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize and listed among the New York Times 100 notable books in 2011. His current on-going comics work is the 10-issue, self-published series Tongues.

The Day of the Triffids
by John Wyndham
Cover art by Anders Nilsen

The Midwich 
by John Wyndham
Cover art by Anders Nilsen

The Kraken Wakes
by John Wyndham
Cover art by Anders Nilsen

Some covers I did recently for three of John Wyndham’s mid-century “cozy catastrophes”. Thanks to Modern Library Books imprint of Random House and AD Robbin Schiff.🙏🏻 Available for preorder, out on March 8, 2022. 


The New York Review of Books
(November 5, 2020)
Art by Anders Nilsen

Had a chance to do a rare full bleed cover for @nybooks election issue this week. Felt good to get to go full towering apocalyptic... but also get to honor the many real people who are struggling to pull this particular monument down and dump it in a swamp somewhere like it deserves... One version had the monument pullers as more or less actual people. We went more general, but the faces of @staceyabrams and my home town rep @repilhan are still hopefully recognizable. And I guess that second one is sort of still Bernie. Kind of. One thing I found out doing this is that trying to do an actual realistic portrait of the president is weirdly soul crushing. Like staring into the void. Doing him as a sort of inflatable cartoon baby is much more enjoyable. #votevotevote

11 September 2021

Julie Doucet: A Fan's Notes by Adrian Tomine

 Julie Doucet: A Fan's Notes
by Adrian Tomine

I first encountered Julie Doucet’s comics at a crucial time in my life, when the superhero comics I’d grown up with had finally, completely lost their appeal, but the far-fetched dream of becoming a cartoonist persisted. I know I was in high school at the time, so I’m guessing it was probably around 1989 or 1990. Based on Chester Brown’s glowing recommendation in his comic Yummy Fur, I sent some cash to Julie’s Montreal address, and a few weeks later I received a meticulously hand-crafted packet of her comics. I had seen a few minicomics at that point, but something about Julie’s in particular had a huge impact on how I thought about comics and, on a broader scale, what I wanted to do with my life.

Aside from being shocking, funny, and beautiful, those early Dirty Plotte minicomics were inspirational because they made cartooning seem both attainable and impossible. The fact that they were so clearly hand-made, by one artist with a one-of-a-kind vision of the world, gave the teenage version of me that wonderfully narcissistic feeling of “Hey, maybe I could do this, too!” That the stories themselves were deeply personal, quotidian, dream-based, and concise only added to that admittedly arrogant but exhilarating feeling. And the fact that the art, the language, the stories felt so new (and in some ways alien) to me made it clear that comics as a medium had infinite possibilities, and that as much as I tried, I could never even come close to what Julie was doing. That was exhilarating in its own way, especially for a kid who, only a few years prior, had no greater ambition than to “draw comics the Marvel way.” There was no going back to superheroes after that, and it wasn’t long before I was printing copies of my first minicomic at the local Kinko’s.

I followed Julie’s ensuing career closely, tracking down and collecting her work wherever it appeared. The evolution of her art and writing through the years that Drawn & Quarterly was publishing Dirty Plotte was staggering. The release of each issue felt like a new album from a favorite band. It was an event. Every development in her drawing style or her storytelling or her sense of design was thrilling, and impossibly, it all kept getting better.

Even fifteen years after she unofficially retired from comics, I still think of Julie as kind of the platonic ideal of a cartoonist. Visually, her work is complex, meticulous, wild, and thoroughly alive, simultaneously building upon and departing from comics orthodoxy. Her style is at once haunting and sweet, beautiful and grotesque, but also completely, indisputably original. Every line, every detail, every person, even every coffee pot is a part of Julie’s universe. The stories, while often dreamlike or even nightmarish, are brilliantly readable, depicting and evoking a wide range of moods and emotions. Even her most mundane story is revelatory by virtue of its specificity, its language, its eccentricity. Most importantly, her comics are self-expression in its purest form, and that, to me, is the greatest possible use of the medium. At this point in her incredible artistic evolution, I’m not sure that Julie would take this as a compliment, but I still think of her as that increasingly rare thing: a natural-born cartoonist, who, when she puts pen to paper, just somehow instinctively does everything right.

I first met Julie in person more than twenty years ago, and we’ve crossed paths a handful of times since then. But to be honest, I don’t feel like I know her that well. I’ve had the good fortune of becoming friends with many of my favorite cartoonists, and while I treasure those relationships, there’s something great about the fact that Julie Doucet is still this mythic force, somewhere far away, creating art that only she could make. Almost thirty years after receiving that packet of minicomics in the mail, I’m a fan, and I’m eternally grateful for that experience.

This essay is taken from Dan Nadel's "The Julies" article which appeared in Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet, published by Drawn & Quarterly in 2018. Read Dan's complete essay here...