Mad Man

There’s much to quibble over in Abram’s big, beautiful The Art of Harvey Kurtzman (the “man” in Kurtzman isn’t spelled out but drawn as  simplistic balloon-stick figure). Why include the complete “Superduperman” from Mad no. 4 (1953) instead of  samples from “Dragged Net!,” the parody of television’s cigarette-selling, L.A Cop promoting Dragnet or “Bat Boy and Rubin” that parodied the legal power of comic book publishers and the homoerotic relationship between the protagonists or show more of the incredible post-horrors-of-war Two-Fisted Tales or, or…

That’s the problem with writer, illustrator, editor and Mad magazine founder Kurtzman. His career was so long, varied and important; so influential to American humor at large, that it would be impossible to do it justice in any single volume. His early strip work for Timely Comics and Stan Lee, his sci-fi and war stories for Will Gaines’ EC, the founding of Mad and its turn from comic to magazine, the follow-up publications  Trump, Humbug and Help, the bread-and-butter work of “Little Annie Fanny” for Playboy, his late work for the French alternative market; any overview can only touch work that all deserves long and serious consideration.

This over-sized book, selected and annotated by Denis Kitchen and Paul Buhle, does an impressive job to highlight the obvious as well as illuminate less well-known aspects of the Kurtzman legacy.  Including everything from high-school woodcuts to his 1988 cover-design for the graphic novel Kings In Design this big volume would embarrass any coffee table with its crazed and crazy riches.

Not only did Kurtzman direct the course and tenor of  social satire, he employed and/or influenced many of its greatest artists and writers. Terry Gilliam came up at Kurtzman’s side where he was first introduced to John Cleese. Both Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb credit their success to Kurtzman. Even Gloria Steinem came up through Kurtzman’s rank ranks. Successful humor enterprises from National Lampoon to The Onion all wear their Harvey Kurtzman influences proudly. Kitchen and Buhle effectively quote a host of big names to find Kurtzman’s esteemed place in culture. On their own, they seem to have some trouble defining his importance. His work, they write,  not only gave us “critical insights that shaped our view of vernacular art and its uses, but it also helped shape the world as it came our of the war in the 1940s by giving us a very different future.”  A discussion of how Kurtzman shaped the future outside of the world of graphic arts and satire is lacking.

Kurtzman’s biography isn’t full of success. He was constantly  looking for ways to make money and remain true to his individual and artistic beliefs. It’s not surprising that anyone who challenges the status quo to the extremes that he did would find tough sailing in America. Kurtzman’s death in 1993 was given short shrift by the mainstream press and might have been entirely lost on the public if not for efforts by Spiegelman and Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker. His reputation was always secure among those he influenced and those who enjoyed bits of his work, even if it was consumed under bed covers by flashlight. This book goes a long way to lift the entire body of his work.–Cabbage Rabbit

Crumb’s Creation

In the beginning, Robert Crumb’s work was all parody and cartoonish variation. Over the decades, he has breathed form into his illustration, bringing detail and something, at times, approaching realism while maintaining his characteristic style prickly-male legs and ponderous female thighs. The Book of Genesis Illustrated is his longest, most ambitious creation and, despite the subject matter, his most real, though realism is relative to his style (see “A Short History of America“). As the cover declares, it contains “ALL 50 CHAPTERS” and “NOTHING LEFT OUT!” Indeed, not only does Crumb include, as he declares in his introduction “every word of the original text” (derived from “several sources”, mostly Robert Alter’s 2004 translation The Five Books of Moses and the King James Version) but something of his own interpretation, no matter how innocent, via his drawing.

Something of Crumb’s approach to the project can be found in Todd Hignite’s interview from his 2006 publication In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists. At the time of the interview, Crumb had finished all of  four pages but much of his thinking on how he would approach it was complete. Commenting on an old 1946 EC comic Picture Stories From the Bible, with its blond Eve and red-headed Adam, he complains about its sloppy drawing and the fact that, “they just make shit up to gloss over and fill in whole passages. They have Eve  saying, ‘Mmm, this apple tastes really good.’ If I’m going to be doing this and don’t want some fucking Christian fanatics to kill me, I’ve got to say, ‘Look, it’s all there, I didn’t change a single word, I just illustrated it as it’s told.'”

No doubt, some fanatical Christians will want to kill him anyway simply because he does illustrate what’s told. We’re shown Onan spilling his seed on the ground when “he would come to bed with his brother’s wife” as well as the cruel consequence of the act. We see a drunken Lot having sex with his daughters, the older in missionary position, the younger girl-on-top. Crumb does not shy away from the murder, incest, adultery, lies and God-driven war that make the Old Testament the more human of the two scriptures. Nor does he exaggerate or parody the acts as he might have in the days of Zap. That’s Genesis‘ greatest accomplishment: bringing humanity and reality to the cruelties and taboos that are so often glossed over.

This may also be the text’s one weakness (though we Crumb fans will see it as a plus). In humanizing the events, Crumb draws in his own interpretation of his subjects’ reactions and feelings. Did Issac actually sit by dejectedly when Esau took Hittite wives? We can imagine that Noah’s reaction to hearing of the Lord’s plan to kill every living thing on earth is as bug-eyed as portrayed but would his eyes bulge again when there’s a hint of the end? There’s a touch of homo-eroticism when Jacob wrestles “until the break of dawn” with a nameless divine being. Would the handmaid look so sleepily satisfied after sex with the elderly Abram? Occasionally, character expression adds comedic touches as when Abraham takes all the males among his household to be circumcised. The looks on their faces shows they know what awaits!

Most interpretively expressive is God himself. The look of  satisfaction when He smells the aroma of Noah’s burnt offering of cattle and fowl after the flood is divinely human. But mostly He’s shown in various stages of anger (Crumb modeled the Lord after his father), allowing only his messengers to appear relaxed and serene.  Crumb’s is an angry God indeed.

One of the greatest achievements here are the dozens of thumb-sized portraits of all the begotten and begatters, the minor sons and daughters, all meticulously drawn. No Aryan looking Middle-Eastern ancients for Crumb! We can  see the different tribal characteristics as the sons of Abraham spread out to fill the known corners of the world. Where Crumb found all these faces can only be guessed. Scholars may take exception with Crumb’s models for the architecture and costumes of the time, many derived from Hollywood. But there’s no arguing against the fact that Crumb has made one of the world’s greatest archetypal and symbolic sagas, from Adam to Joseph, enjoyable in its humanly purest form.–Cabbage Rabbit

Best Comics of …

The best thing about The Best American Series’ The Best American Comics is that it reminds us of comics we enjoyed a couple years ago. Anyone who stays half-way current  with alternative comics and graphic novels will have seen a good portion of what’s in each edition of this four-year old series. Still, there’s always something missed as well as something new to discover.

The latest volume, edited by Big Baby and Black Hole artist Charles Burns, fits the bill. There’s well-known stuff from the Crumbs, Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Jason Lutes, Tim Hensley and Art Spiegelman, stuff we enjoyed back in the day, as well as a less easily obtained piece from Chris Ware. The Rabbit had overlooked Kevin Huizenga‘s popular Ganges series. He found Huizenga’s “Pulverize”– an ironic story of the cruelties of  dot-com life and video games–to be the collection’s previously-unseen highlight. Then there’s always new material he absolutely missed (blame rabbit hole isolation) such as David Sandlin‘s demented, magenta dream-work “Slumburbia” pulled from the pages of Hot Wire.

Another service The Best American Comics series provides is to remind us of what’s become tiresome. This year, it’s parodies of classic comics, complete with comic-like advertising, no matter how crude or absurd. Tim Hensley’s brightly-colored, Archie-inspired teen serial “Gropius” (three installments spread through this volume) didn’t strike us as funny this time around. Michael Kupperman’s “Indian Spirit Twain & Einstein” is a clever-enough comic-tv series spoof, drawn in classic golden age style, that plays too far past its initial couple of pages. This stuff’s been done before and better by Ware, Spiegelman and others all the way back to Harvey Kurtzman.

In the past, the guest-editor’s introduction has often served up insight into craft and creation. Burns’ piece, disappointingly,  is standard bio fare. We learn that his father collected comics and that his parents succumbed when, as a child, he demanded all six volumes of the Tintin saga published in the U.S. by the Golden Press. We’d never realized that Olympia, Washington’s Evergreen State College was a comic breeding ground, but Burns, Matt Groening and previous series editor Lynda Barry were all there at the same time. The story of Burns’ association with Spiegelman shows that the mentor-student relationship is as rewarding to comic illustrators as it is to other artists.

We all knew that The Best American Comics, always published in time for the holiday gift  cycle, is best suited for the casual and non-comic reading public. But it serves a purpose–or two–for fans as well.–Cabbage Rabbit

We’ve Got THE BEATS

We’re preparing for first publication elsewhere (newsprint lives!) a review of the Harvey Pekar-Paul Buhle collaboration The Beats: A Graphic History (Hill and Wang, hardback, $22) . Our love for all things Beat made its arrival an event, especially after Pekar’s honest and enlightening history of the SDS . (Frankly, we found the last run of Pekar’s American Splendor series from Vertigo in 2008 something of a disappointment…it was as if Pekar had exhausted the ways to make his  stories relevant).  The Beats‘ first section was somewhat unsatisfying. Sure, we love Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. And the way Pekar has made no-man-is-an-island connections between them emphasizes the communal effort that made Beat literature a true movement. But in light of all the excellent (and not so) biographies of these three and books on the Beat generation in general, we were a bit disappointed in the simplistic, boilerplate hash of their lives. Buhle and Pekar acknowledge as much in the book’s intro:

“The book before you is a comic art production with no pretension to the depth of coverage and literary interpretation presented by hundreds of scholarly books in many languages, a literature also constantly growing. It has a different virtue, curiously in line, somehow, with the original vernacular popularization of the Beats.”

So we were ready to forgive the summary treatment, especially if the book introduces a new generation to an important artistic, political and social movement that could inspire them to resist the contemporary brand of square American conformity. As we read on, any reservations we might have had disappeared. The book’s second hundred pages entitled “The Beats: Perspectives” places a heavy emphasis on the era’s poets and the important role of women to both its creative achievement and social consciousness. Poets Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Gregory Corso, Charles Olson and others, not all of them necessarily pegged as Beats, are given brief, respectful treatment. Joyce Brabner’s “Beatnik Chicks” is an eyes-open view to the contributions and hardships, not to mention stereotyping, faced by women of the movement. Pekar and Mary Fleener’s chapter on poet Diane di Prima, first seen in Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri’s spring 2008 edition of Mineshaft (a great publication true to the underground comics and literary spirit…it regularly features R. Crumb, Bill Griffith, Kim Deitch and others…find it here). Fleener’s spiritualistic surrealism is worth the hardback’s $22 tariff by itself. In other words, we highly recommend The Beats for both old hands and initiates alike.—Cabbage Rabbit

Bygone Tomorrows

Listening through the two-CDs in Bill Frisell’s History, Mystery is much like going through the dozen panels of cartoon artist R Crumb’s “A Short History of America.” In a dozen wordless panels, Crumb takes us through an untouched pastoral setting which gives give way to a single rail line, then a road and a clapboard house. Soon there are multiplying phone and power wires, rising commerce and sinking signs of nature; bigger and sleeker vehicles and advertising. Frisell’s music, something of a suite, seems to chronicle the same sort of loss and progression, an audible symbol of America’s innocence still palpable even as it’s paved over. The nostalgic black-and-white cover photos add to the feel.

The comic comparison is not so far fetched. The music here grew from a collaboration between Frisell and cartoonist Jim Woodring who’s illustrated a number of Frisell’s previous album covers. Woodring contributes tongue-in-cheek notes for History, Mystery, describing how their friendship was formed during two days of “non-stop hatchet throwing” when they were both employees of the Iron Beaver Lumber Company.

Mostly recorded in live performance with Frisell’s octet, History, Mystery stands as a complete statement, a well–woven series of pieces, many of them dance figures that both fit and transcend Frisell’s unique brand of psychedelic Americana. Here the emphasis is on the Americana, as acoustic pieces with a rural feel take center stage, the electricity coming in bursts of modernity that give contemporary relevance to a lesson in the timeless beauty of folk art. The old-new feel is apparent in almost every tune as fiddle melodies blend with wailing electric guitar and cricket-like percussive chirps share the air with digital beeps and buzzes. The handful of tunes not composed by Frisell—from Sam Cooke, Thelonious Monk and Lee Konitz—represent America’s soul and quirkiness. Even Boubacar Traore’s “Baba Drame” with its Afro-pop rhythms and celebratory chorus fits the mix with its soulful, imported blues feel.

Frisell uses the strings, cornet and sax instrumentation to underscore the rural-urban feel. Drummer Kenny Wollensen provides shuffles, waltz and funk beats, all with an inevitable propulsion, though he seems most comfortable driving the band with rock hard forwardness. Violinist Jenny Scheinman’s play has a tensile strength and a tendency to pair gritty single note lines with smooth harmonic blends. High excitement comes from Greg Tardy’s tenor sax on Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Waltz For Baltimore.” There’s a sultry, summer afternoon feel, sweet as lemonade, to Greg Tardy’s cornet solo on “Lazy Robinson Part 2.” Still, it’s Frisell’s amazingly diverse play—a blend of electric and acoustic sounds, of traditional and futuristic approaches—that gives this two-disc package it extreme color and emotion. Among a discography of distinguished concept recordings, History, Mystery is Frisell’s most realized, most American project.—Cabbage Rabbit

Kill All Comics!

Before slasher films, rap music and internet porn, even before rock ‘n’ roll, self-righteous America found cause for juvenile delinquency in comic books. Columbia journalism professor and former Entertainment Weekly editor David Hajdu unearths the largely forgotten 1950s campaign against illustrated pulp and discovers larger issues of censorship and Puritanical scape-goating that continue in one form or another to this day. Hajdu, whose previous book Positively 4th Street explored the dysfunctional side of modern folk music (after reading it, we ended up disliking Dylan even more), traces the rise of comics from its birth as a newspaper marketing tool used to build readership among lower and immigrant classes to its position as leading culture medium in the pre-television world. As cold war paranoia reached its zenith, alarmist forces armed with dubious studies accused often seamy crime and horror comics of putting the wrong ideas in young people’s heads. Boycotts, comic burnings, Senate hearings and a standards code followed. Hajdu’s meticulous research and engaging story-telling reflects on larger culture issues relevant to this day. He suggests that the work of the comic book creators—many were literally children when they started—whose genre was killed off by establishment of the Comics Code are the forefathers of post World War II pop culture. A must for cultural warriors and comic fans; the epilogue’s interview with Robert Crumb is worth the price of the book. Subtext: Hajdu explains how pulling up on the free reins of comic books led to one of America’s great cultural icons: Mad magazine.—Cabbage Rabbit

Comic Genius

You’ve heard it said, even sung: Every picture tells a story. No where is that statement more true than in comics. And no comic illustrator tells deeper, more meaningful, more entertaining, more eye-pleasing stories than Chris Ware. Ware’s comics are so innovative, so artistic, clever and literate that they bridge the gap between pop and fine culture, even as they never pretend to be anything other than cartoons.

Memory serves Ware, coloring his panels with a sort of cartoon nostalgia. His work is out of the great comics tradition: Krazy Kat, Gasoline Alley, Little Nemo, a host of troubled superheroes, the 1960s and ‘70s underground comics of R. Crumb, Kim Deitch and others, even Mad magazine parodies and Japanese comic knock-offs. Editions of his long-running Acme Novelty Library are introduced with arcane and satiric advertisements straight out of marketing’s quaint past. It’s easy to picture Ware at his drawing desk behind a swirling pair of X-Ray Specs, those that offered suckers the chance to see through the clothing and the world at large. But there’s one big difference: Ware’s actually work. How else to explain his insight?

Since the success of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid On Earth, Ware has been everywhere; in art galleries on the cover of The New Yorker and the pages of The New York Times, as editor in 2004 of the landmark, all-comics edition of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Number 13 and, more recently, The Best American Comics 2007.

Even as he connects with the comics of our youth, Ware always brings something new to his panels: new illustration styles, new ways of arranging panels, new depth of thought, experience and emotion. His amazing Jimmy Corrigan transcends time and space in a depressingly lonely epic of fathers and sons. His series Rusty Brown is a delayed coming-of-age saga of a man-child in love with collectibles. Quimby the Mouse—he’s no Mickey– avoids a real life as he indulges in the worst pop culture has to offer.

The latest edition of his The Acme Novelty Library, Number 18, pulled from Ware’s Building Stories series, is an Eleanor Rigby tale of a young lady with only a leg-and-a-half, a girl “too eager to be loved” who suffers insomnia, the ignorance of an indifferent society and nagging self-doubt of the sort that seems to surface often in Ware’s writing and sketch books. The story’s emotional depth and subject matter, ranging from abortion to xenophobia, make it Ware’s most literate work to date. That release, and the publication of a second volume of his sketchbooks, The Acme Novelty Datebook Volume Two, made good reason for a talk with the artist himself.

Ware doesn’t do many interviews. Notable exceptions include his participation in Todd Hignite’s 2006 study In the Studio: Visits With Contemporary Cartoonists from Yale University Press and a 2001 interview with The New York Times in which he asked its author, “This interview isn’t going to be printed in “question  & answer” format, is it? … Because a lot of my thoughts tend to come out muddled and ungrammatical and, if nothing else, inarticulate.” One of the publicists told us Ware doesn’t like interviews and we guessed it’s because of his work ethic. “Cartooning takes a really, really long time and is hard, lonely work,” he writes in the introduction to The Best American Comics 2007. ”Pages upon hundreds of pages are drawn and thrown away before any writer or artist eventually finds him or her-self. The reader may even reliably calculate that the time it takes to read a comic strip story to the time it took to draw it is roughly 1: 1,000.” Or, as he states in one of the ads from Acme Novelty Library Number 16: “Ruin Your life: Draw Cartoons! And Doom Yourself to Decades of Grinding Isolation Solipsism and Utter Social Disregard.”

So, after frequent and pitiful pleading to Ware’s publishers and publicists, a reply came back saying Ware would agree to an interview–not by phone but by e-mail–limited to five questions. When the answers didn’t come back in the allotted two weeks we became dismal. But, like Rusty Brown in pursuit of a 1970s-era Pillsbury Funny Face Drink Mix figurine of Looney Lemon, we persisted. Unlike Rusty Brown, our patience was rewarded. “Here are my constipated and over-thought answers,“ he wrote. “My apologies for the delay in getting these back to you, but our household was struck by a rather unforgiving bout of bronchitis (due, I think, my daughter’s just starting to attend preschool) so I was “held back” a bit.”

We found the answers to our questions considered and anything but constipated. Self-doubt is an artistic affliction and a number of the entries in the new Datebook are self-critical. How difficult is it for him to maintain confidence in what he’s creating?

Well, all I’ve ever wanted to do with my “art” (whatever that is) is to see as clearly and truthfully as I possibly can — which is, of course an impossibility, — but at least it’s something of a modest goal. I know there are certain artists or writers who try to trick, fool or make fun of their readers or viewers, but that attitude, to me, is almost a sort of intellectual homicide. I also think it’s entirely up to the artist to be his or her own harshest critic; one shouldn’t expect the benefit of the doubt from generations of readers who haven’t been born yet (which I’ve also always thought should be an artist’s “target audience,” if I can employ a ridiculous contemporary cliché.) None of this changes the fact that I’m always dissatisfied with what I do; maybe it’s just a personality quirk, or something.

There’s a line in Ware’s latest Datebook that says, “I couldn’t shake the sensation that I am still a teenager watching it all happen before me—probably due to America’s perpetration of adolescence as ‘culture’…” Rusty Brown and Jimmy Corrigan seem to travel easily between their youth and adult years. We asked Ware to discuss this notion of the child/adult existing simultaneously and where it might have come from.

I guess some of this originates with listening to my grandmother tell me stories about her own childhood and early life; she was such a wonderfully gifted storyteller that the real world would seem to disappear when she was talking and the images she’d create would take over, so vividly in some cases that I remember them now almost as if they happened to me. She inspired me to try and get this same evocative sense into my own stuff, and in doing so I realized that everyone stores away and keeps similar memories and details alive within them, whether they’re readily accessible or not. Our consciousnesses are as fluid as water in a bathtub; we can go anywhere, anytime we want in our minds, and do, all the time.

Also, I guess I’ve realized as I’ve become older that our perceptions aren’t always the most reliable reporters of reality. This fact was really highlighted for me at the last high school reunion I attended: my forty-year old friends and I were sitting looking at an old yearbook from our fifth grade year and we all agreed that not only did the pictures of the eighth graders still look imposing and frightening to us, but that when we looked at each other, we couldn’t even see our forty year old faces, only those of the children we once were. I realized that something very strange was happening there — as adults, I’m convinced that not only our memories but also our mental generalizations of experience (i.e. words and concepts) affect and even distort our perceptions. Comics are a sort of in-between tightrope walk of all of these things.

Architecture, often of the unique or classic sort, serves an important role in Ware’s work. The narrative from the new book opens “Once upon a time, there was a building…” and closes with the same building. Why has Ware made architecture such an integral part of his work?

Again, it probably comes back to memories of the house I grew up in and memories of my grandmother’s house; I navigate those places almost daily in my mind, and the three-dimensional “maps” I’ve internalized are all also filled with stories, so for better or for worse I frequently try to work that way when I’m writing and drawing fiction. In the case of the New York Times strip, it was very specifically designed to be about one day in the life of a building itself, and so began and ended with images of it (as well as changed orientation in relation to the sun as it passed overheard, as pretentious as that is to admit.)

One of Ware’s most attractive features is the design of his pages: various sized panels, small panels clustered in larger panels as if to point out detail, full pages with arrows leading from scene/text to the next scene. Where did these design elements come from?

Well, again, not to flog this notion to death, but it really all comes from trying to work in a way that most closely resembles the way I seem to remember things and relate them to each other, as well as to reflect the texture of the world as I’ve come to know it; I want there to be a certain sense of detail and intricate level of resolution of information that’s analogous to my experience of the natural world. I think this idea of “the natural world influencing art” esthetic was sort of wiped out in the 20th century by modernism (or “art influencing the natural world”) and I guess I just feel more of a sympathy with the former, that’s all. I am not, however, trying to confuse anyone, but simply to recreate the same sense of contradictory certainty and uncertainty I have in my own experiences. Since I’m working visually, sometimes that looks unnecessarily complicated, though I’d hope by the content and presentation that it’s at least somewhat obvious that I’m not making fun of the reader. I work entirely by feeling, however, and so I trust what feels right as I’m working.

Ware says he’s looking ahead to Acme Novelty Library Number 19 and will continue work on both the Building Stories and Rusty Brown series. His response to a question on his editing comics anthologies reflects his view on the current state of the art.

I don’t think I’ll be editing any more anthologies again very soon after the last Best American Comics; I was afraid after the McSweeney’s issue I’d edited that my foisting my taste and love of all of those artists’ recent work twice in such a relatively short time would be something of an overload. It seems that my interest in experimental cartoonists who write about more or less real-life experiences isn’t necessarily reflective of the general comics readership, which is of course fine; I just genuinely believe I presented some of the best work published in 2006, and I was actually surprised by the varied quality of most of it once it was all gathered together. John Updike very eloquently articulated the difference between genre writing versus non-genre writing in a recent New Yorker book review, which bears repeating: “Thrillers, as we shall call them, offer the reader a firm contract: there will be violent events, we will go places our parents didn’t take us, the protagonist will conquer and survive, and social order will, however temporarily, be restored. The reader’s essential safety … will not be breached. The world around him and the world he reads about remain distinct; the partition between them is not undermined by any connection to depths within himself.” It’s curious to me that the traditional genre content of the comic books which I grew up loving has now become an established part of mainstream culture, though I don’t think cartoonists trying to write human-scale stories in any way threatens that extremely widely-read establishment. I’m simply pleased that comics have started to show that they can plumb those sorts of depths, too.