Of Confectionery and Clowns

« This world is run by clowns who can’t wait for it to end. » — Too Much Joy, ‘Clowns

Well, the topic of this post kind of snuck up on me. I’ll explain: last Saturday, as we were out of Russian marinated mushrooms (a simply unacceptable state of affairs in this household), we ventured into a European deli in quest of something to tide us over until we could properly restock. They had some button mushrooms in oil, fair enough. As we reached the counter to tally up our purchases, something caught my eye: a display for a French confection called Carambar, which I’d known about for most of my life, but never encountered in the wild.

After a moment’s hesitation (which baffled my partner), we picked up a sample and added it to our bounty.

It happens that Caram’ Bar (as it was called until 1977, when the apostrophe was dropped) ties into a minor childhood incident whose recollection elicits, in equal parts, snickers of amusement and pangs of guilt. It was in, oh, the second or third grade. We were standing in rows, about to return to class after recess. I turned to my neighbouring classmate, and asked him whether he knew… oh, never mind — it went exactly like this:

Mister Pipo! I will pose you a riddle!” “Do you know what the difference is between a Caram’ Bar…” (I love riddles!) “… and a Super Caram’ Bar?” (They’re the same!) “But of course not, Mister Pipo!” “The Caram’ Bar was this long…
The Super Caram’ Bar is THIS LONG!” The full-length Super Caram’ Bar fumetti, as it appeared in the pages of Pif Gadget no. 171 (May 1972, Vaillant).

Regrettably, the back of my hand connected with my classmate’s nose, not his cheek, and he came away with a nosebleed. Désolé, Germain!

The acquired item.
…. unwrapped. CaramBar wrappers have, since the 60s, famously featured corny gags, which once were selected from entries provided by consumers. A kid whose joke got the nod could win his weight in candy. Here’s one of the pair I got here (the other doesn’t work in English)… Q: Why are elephants grey? A: Because if they were pink, they’d get confused with strawberries. It may come as no surprise that in France, a ‘blague Carambar’ has become shorthand for a lame joke.

The preceding Super Caram’ Bar ad was quite unusual in that it was a full-colour three-pager, which must have cost the candy maker a bundle. Indeed, it only ran au complet once or twice; thereafter, only its concluding page appeared.

Looking back at this campaign, I wondered whether these clowns were merely company mascots, or something more. As it turns out, Sergio (né Serge Drouard in 1950, so 21 years old at the time) was in the early stages of a remarkable career in the circus, first as Clown blanc Sergio (here are a brief video profile from 1970 and a lovely 1975 performance at Paris’ legendary Cirque d’hiver) and then as ringmaster M. Fidèle. Now seventy, he more-or-less retired after the 2010-2011 season. As for poor Pipo, I’m afraid I don’t know. He’s similar to the famous Dutch clown Pipo de Clown, but they’re merely homonyms.

Clowns are a curious proposition. Kids used to (presumably) find them amusing and endearing, but several generations of thin, gruelling antics and downgrading of the brand and métier, not to mention the sinister hijinks of the infamous Pogo the clown, have flipped the cultural perception of these once-beloved entertainers. At this point, Coulrophobia is impressively widespread, and not just among the wee ones.

For my part, I’m not so eager to condemn en bloc. Your run-of-the-mill, unqualified local kids’ show, mall-opening Bozo is but a faint, hopelessly distorted echo of the great clowns of history. They were the fruits of a complex, nuanced and codified tradition with its thick, gnarled roots in early 16th century Italy’s Commedia dell’ Arte.

But I don’t need to reach quite that far: I grew up on Radio-Canada’s absurd, minimalist masterpiece Sol et Gobelet (1968-71). Sol (Marc Favreau) was a naïve tramp clown who creatively mangled language and logic and Gobelet (Luc Durand) was the poetic, reasonable, refined Pierrot type. Here’s a classic episode. Such is the duo’s cultural significance that a public library (Favreau) and a nearby public park (Durand) have been christened in their posthumous honour.

And since we’re on comics and clowns, here’s a bonus short tale.

« Sergio has also learned that one must never try to catch a falling performer. One should only push them to redirect their path and cushion their fall. One day at the Paradis latin, he had no choice but to tackle in flight a trapeze artist who was about to land on a table. The outcome : a few collapsed vertebrae. » Also, « When a lion attacks, it always goes for the testicles. » Keep these sage verities in mind, next time you’re under the big top!
Laugh Clown — Die, Clown appeared in It’s Midnight… The Witching Hour no. 21 (June-July 1972, DC). It was written by editor Murray Boltinoff under his Bill Dehenny nom de plume and illustrated by Jerry Grandenetti.

While LCDC is the flimsiest of stories, just a troupe of stock characters going through their hoary paces, Grandenetti’s artwork elevates the affair. It’s as if, having precious little to work with, the artist opted to push against the material, moulding it oddly, imbuing the proceedings with unstated implications. Consider, for instance, how sinister is the depiction of the ringmaster. Nothing in the dialogue or plot indicates that the man is up to anything untoward or malicious, quite the contrary. The second panel of page four is quintessential Grandenetti.

And how was my first Carambar, you may ask. We both tried it, and… were singularly underwhelmed. Perhaps it was a question of freshness, but it was disappointingly brittle in the beginning, almost chalky, hardly what you’d expect from a caramel product. Then it just fell apart and faded, like third-rate taffy.

« I found something in one of my pockets. It was about as big as your shoe, but it was shaped like a rocket! » — a not-at-all ambiguous statement from litigious chuckler Bozo the Clown

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: Perdonate il mio tentacolo!

I’d like to thank my Italian collega for making sure this title was in impeccable Italian, and for not backing away slowly when I asked her, completely out of the blue and without context, how to say “pardon my tentacle”. Most people would have run.

Welcome to our Latin Tentacle Tuesday! Poor Italy is the brunt of quite a few jokes, and even most positive articles about it are nothing but shallow fluff designed to sell airplane tickets and inspirational posters about food and love. All I can say is that Italians love their tentacles as much as any other hot-blooded nation. 😉

Più was a comics magazine licensed from Pif Gadget in 1982. Just like its fountainhead, Più offered a gadget with every issue, which, as I understand from nostalgic posts about it on various blogs, was a prime selling point among its young and enthusiastic clientele. As for comics, reprints of some French comics straight from Pif’s pages were rounded out with fresh Italian material. Given that Pif was publishing quite a few Italian artists at that time, this only seems fair! And on the subject of the latter, co-admin RG, whom I may call a Pif historian with no fear of controversy, has written a number of posts about the writers and artists featured within Pif Gadget’s pages during its heyday… a good place to start digging in is my favourite of these posts, Jean Cézard and Arthur le fantôme.

Moving on: the following Masters of the Universe pages are from Negli Oceani di Eternia, published in Più no. 76 (March 1984, Editoriale Domus).

Created by writer Alfredo Castelli and artist Giancarlo Alessandrini, Martin Mystère is an exceedingly popular comic book series (as a matter of fact, the best selling comic book in Italy – in case you’re wondering what that means, around 20 thousand copies a month). Its title comes from the eponymous main character, Martin Jacques Mystère, the usual walking collection of tropes: good looking art historian, archaeologist-anthropologist à la Indiana Jones, collector of rare objects, and so on. No self-respecting adventurer goes around without a sidekick, and Mystère’s assistant is Java, an amazingly strong, quite mute Neanderthal man (speaking of tropes, that one is a doozy). One might also say that he’s quite international: an Italian-created American character with a French name who lives in New York City and frequently helps its finest to elucidate crimes…

Martin Mystère no. 103 (October 1990). Cover by Giancarlo Alessandrini.
Martin Mystère no. 328 (August 2013). Cover by Giancarlo Allesandrini.

This series started in 1982, and is still around, so you can just imagine how many tentacles Martin has tangled with in some 378-odd issues. Yet high-res images are scarce online, so I asked co-admin RG to whip up this nifty collage of some of his tentacular exploits:

Issues no. 163, no. 181, no. 237 and no. 297, with covers by Giancarlo Allesandrini.

Our next (and last stop) is another very popular series, Zagor. Its beginnings go all the way to 1962 (ancient, no doubt), when editor/writer Sergio Bonelli and artist Gallieno Ferri banded together to concoct a comic book series.

Its protagonist Zagor, or Patrick Wilding, is another American. If Martin Mystère represented the suave, erudite adventurer-about-town, Zagor is a kind of avenger-slash-protector, of the “be peaceful or I’ll beat the crap out of you” school. His origin story makes for rather uncomfortable reading: after tracking down massacring a whole family branch of Abenaki Indians to avenge his parents’ death and realizing that he made a boo-boo (by finding evidence that his father was a murdering, power-abusing sadist who was killed purely in retribution for his criminal acts… which is another can of worms), he decides to redeem his sins by ensuring peace between different Indian tribes and trappers by whatever means necessary.

Zagor no. 42 (December 1968), illustrated by Gallieno Ferri and written by Guido Nolitta (Sergio Bonelli’s nom de plume).
Inside art from Zagor no. 42, illustrated by Gallieno Ferri and written by Guido Nolitta.

His sidekick? Chico, a walking stereotype down to his full name (Chico Felipe Cayetano Lopez Martinez y Gonzales) whose presence is played for some mean laughs. «He is short, fat, extremely clumsy and voracious, corrupt, boastful, but also likeable.» Um, yeah, that sounds likeable, all right. If you’re thinking that Chico is also obsessed by food (he’s Mexican and fat, right?) and that it gets him into all sorts of stupid peril, you are perfectly correct. Gordo, this is not.

Interestingly, Zagor is most popular outside of his native Italy. Specifically, he retains popularity in the former Yugoslavian republics (Bosnia, Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia…) and Turkey. Stories continue to be published in Italian up until this day, but from what I’ve been able to gather, the books sell at a much brisker pace once they’re translated to languages spoken by inhabitants of the aforementioned countries.

Zagor no. 626 (September 2017). Cover by Alessandro Piccinelli. Okay, so those are not tentacles per se, but it says TENTACOLI! right on the cover, so I’m not arguing.
Zagor no. 662 (September 2020). Cover by Alessandro Piccinelli.

~ ds

Guy Davis: Quietude and Cataclysm

« It’s a lot easier to draw rubble when deadlines hit. » — Guy Davis

Today, on his birthday, we seize the occasion to salute prodigious autodidact Guy Davis and to look upon his works, no despair necessary.

Born in Michigan on November 20, 1966, Guy Davis started out in comics in 1981 with a SF strip, Quonto of the Star Corps, published (he suspects his dad had something to do with it) in local newspaper The Clarkston News.

From there, he delved into sword and sorcery with The Realm (1986-1988, Arrow), then made significant strides toward his mature style with punk saga Baker Street (1989-1991, Caliber).

He then hit the majors, devoting most of the 90s to pencilling and inking the bulk of Sandman Mystery Theatre‘s quite respectable run (70 issues + 1 annual, 1993-1999, DC/Vertigo), Matt Wagner‘s darkly revisionist chronicles of Wesley Dodds, the Golden Age Sandman… pre-yellow-and-purple togs.

I must confess that I wasn’t, at this point, particularly fond of Davis’ style. His endearingly schlubby, potato-schnozzed characters had yet to work their charm upon me. But the writing was compelling, Davis’ storytelling was strong and clear, so I stuck around.

However, I’m not ambivalent at all when it comes to his subsequent work, wherein he ditched his often awkward cross-hatching, his inking improved by leaps and bounds in expressiveness, and he was at long last paired with a colourist that fully grasped his singular style.

This is The Nevermen no. 4 (Aug. 2000, Dark Horse). Cover by Guy Davis.
Page 22 of Nevermen no. 1 (May 2000, Dark Horse). Written by Phil Amara, pencils and inks by Davis, colours by Dave Stewart.
Page 8 of The Nevermen no. 4 (Aug. 2000, Dark Horse). Same personnel…
Page 15 of B.P.R.D. Plague of Frogs no. 1 (Mar. 2004, Dark Horse). Story by Mike Mignola, pencils and inks by Davis, colours by Dave Stewart.
Page 22 of B.P.R.D. The Dead no. 3 (Jan. 2005, Dark Horse). Story by Mignola and John Arcudi, pencils and inks by Davis, colours by Dave Stewart. Shot from the original art, courtesy of, er… the author’s collection.
And in case you’ve ever wondered just what a good colourist can contribute to the finished product, let alone the finest colourist in the business. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Dave Stewart!

Guy Davis on his collaboration with Dave Stewart:

I was never never happy with my work in color — I hated the idea of it — until [ Dave Stewart ] started coloring me in B.P.R.D. He had this textured brush look that was just perfect for my linework. My linework is not clean, and before Dave, everybody who’d color me would do a standard house style. They wouldn’t adapt for each artist, and that’s what makes Dave so amazing is that he adapts his style for the art as opposed to trying to shoehorn one style of coloring — which a lot of colorists do — into every artist’s style.

(from an interview conducted by Eric Nolen-Weathington and published in Modern Masters Volume 24: Guy Davis, 2010, TwoMorrows)

Page 22 of B.P.R.D. The Dead no. 3 (Jan. 2005, Dark Horse), by the aforementioned.
This is B.P.R.D. The Dead no. 4 (Feb. 2005, Dark Horse). Cover by Davis and Stewart.
Page 11 of B.P.R.D. The Dead no. 4 (Feb. 2005, Dark Horse). Note that Stewart doesn’t fall back on one go-to, characteristic colour palette; he has range. Muted, saturated, bright or dark… he uses what the situation calls for. That’s what a true artist does.
Page 18 of B.P.R.D. The Dead no. 5 (Mar. 2005, Dark Horse). Now *that* is a library.
With his love and mastery of period detail and the human proboscis, wouldn’t you say that Davis would have been the ideal candidate to depict legendary pulp hero The Shadow? A 2005 drawing excerpted from Guy Davis Sketch Macabre Volume 2 (Oct. 2006).

Frankly, I don’t think Mr. Davis ever received his due in comics; he remained an artist’s artist, reliable and productive, but relatively unsung. On B.P.R.D., he allowed Mr. Mignola to envision events and visions on a far, far grander scale than Hellboy’s creator could have realised by himself. After Davis resigned from the title and exited the comics field for challenges and well-earned success, artistic and financial, in the realms of film and video games, there simply wasn’t anyone able to fill the void he’d left.

Just check out that résumé

Happy birthday, thanks for everything and all the best to you, Mr. Davis!

-RG

p.s. In selecting artwork for this essay, I forced myself to exclude any and all instances of tentacles, and trust me, there were plenty. We haven’t made it official yet, but if anyone ever deserved the title of Tentacle Master…

Tentacle Tuesday: Métamorphoses

« My imagination grew wilder, the most unexpected associations flared up in my mind, and as I kept trying, the reception room kept filling with strange objects. Many of them were born, apparently, out of the subconscious, the brooding jungles of hereditary memory, out of primeval fears long suppressed by the higher levels of education. They had extremities and kept moving about, they emitted disgusting sounds, they were indecent, they were aggressive and fought constantly. I was casting about like a trapped animal. All this vividly reminded me of the old cuts with scenes of St. Anthony’s temptations. » [source]

Today’s topic does not involve a man becoming a cockroach: that has been discussed often enough. My current area of interest concerns the many strange and striking ways in which a living form becomes a completely different form under the influence of a supernatural power or its natural inclination, of witchcraft or the whimsy of a writer whose imagination flares up much like it did for poor A. I. Privalov, depicted above trying to create a a sandwich and a cup of coffee and ending up with a roomful of horrors…

This strange creature surely illustrates the perils of getting stuck mid-metamorphosis!

The Doom Patrol no. 95 (May 1965). Cover by Bob Brown. While transforming into god-knows-what, Dr. Sven Larsen is careful to preserved his impeccably coiffed chevelure. Perhaps he inspired Ted Baxter.

In Return of the Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man, scripted by Arnold Drake and illustrated by Bruno Premiani, the Doom Patrol battle a scientist crazed with power-lust (while dealing with trouble of their own, like being unable to control their powers – it was apparently decided that a scientist who can become anything he likes is not interesting enough).

That this AVM (animal, vegetable, mineral) man decided to transform into an octopus will not surprise regular readers of Tentacle Tuesday: we know that the octopus is the most perfect form there is!

In the rest of the story, AVM also transforms himself into electric eels, tungsten birds, a building-tall neanderthal man, liquid mercury, a grizzly bear, etc., but it’s all a bit of a let-down after the giant octopus, if you ask me.

I’ll continue with this rather evocative cover by Bernie Wrightson, in which we get a preview peek at a gruesome scene just a few seconds before it actually happens.

House of Mystery no. 204 (July 1972). Cover by Bernie Wrightson.

It all starts with a nasty dream of cranberry jelly…

… and ends with an unwelcome transformation of future bride into hungry monster. In this case, a pretty girl is not so much like a melody, but yet another helping of aforementioned cranberry jelly… perhaps I should have kept this story until Christmas.

All in the Family was scripted by Mary Skrenes and Bernie Wrightson; illustrated by Bernie Wrightson.

If this story of transmogrification made your teeth itch, just have a gander at the following histoire d’amour

Captain Marvel no. 40 (September 1975). Cover pencilled by Al Milgrom and inked by Klaus Janson.

No, hold your horses, I’m not implying anything untoward about Captain Marvel. That thing he’s tangled up with is his lover (or should I say ex-lover) Una. Just a little case of demonic possession!

Um, those are not “eyes of wonder”, more like a demented gaze.

Will Captain Mar-vell be able to kill the woman he loves, even if she’s more of a shell inhabited by a tentacled psychic monstrosity, and despite having lost his manhood, whatever that was?

Stay put for the exciting finale of Rocky Mountain ‘Bye! was scripted by Steve Englehart and Al Milgrom, pencilled by Milgrom, and inked by Al McWilliams!

What do we have here? A harmless trick-or-treating kid transformed by Mr. Mxyzptlk into a malefic octopus? It’s business as usual for Superman in this goofy tale (who, incidentally, was the star of Tentacle Tuesday: It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! It’s a Tentacle!) I’m sure most children would relish the opportunity to become an actual ghost or werewolf…

But I am not convinced that anybody would want to be transformed into, err, “Globby”.

Nothing as stylish as an octopus with a digital watch.

These pages were from The Haunting Dooms of Halloween!, scripted by Dan Mishkin, pencilled by Curt Swan and inked by Tony de Zuñiga, published in DC Comics Presents no. 53 (January 1983).

~ ds

Treasured Stories: “Don’t Play That Ukelele!” (1975) and “Tender Feelings” (1974)

« There’s something about guitars, they’re just so big, you know what I mean? You’re just like, ‘Ugh!’ It just seems so overwhelming. And the ukulele is, like, the opposite of overwhelming. » — Zooey Deschanel

It’s no big secret: the chief asset of Gold Key’s line of mystery comics (The Twilight Zone, Thriller / Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Dark Shadows, Grimm’s Ghost Stories and The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor) was its (generally) painted covers, the bulk of the work handled by the prolific George Wilson, with occasional contributions by Luis Dominguez and Jesse Santos.

While the inside artwork also had its charms, the weak link in the chain was the writing. Pedestrian and formulaic, most of its anonymous load was borne by Paul S. Newman, one of the comics industry’s great cranker-outers. And so things ran their humdrum course, even with the arrival of talented DC expatriate Arnold Drake in the early 1970s. I strongly suspect rampant conservatism on the part of the editors, as even normally-compelling authors produced the same generic plots, ground out like under-seasoned sausage.

Then occurred a curious bump in the road: the unheralded, near-anonymous arrival of recent Clown College graduate* Jeffrey Scott ‘Freff’ Cochran (1954-), who scripted (as Freff, when credited — a rarity at GK) a number of short tales for Gold Key’s anthology titles for a few years (1974-1977). Of those I’ve read, most docilely follow the publisher’s tame editorial formula. But there are exceptions, and they really do stand out. Here’s such a pair, which I’m boldly attributing to Mr. Cochran.

Interesting that writer Freff opted here for the obscure, alternate spelling of ukulele. Speaking of which, how do you think ‘ukelele‘ is pronounced? You might be surprised. Check here for the answer. And, er… 1907? “One of the earliest appearances of the word ukulele in print (in the sense of a stringed instrument) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Catalogue of the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments of All Nations published in 1907.” [ source ]
Man, that lake monster looks familiar. I smell a swipe.
And for the full multimedia experience, you can sing and strum along with George!

Ahem — sloppy research on Freff’s part:

The ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience during the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, held from spring to autumn of 1915 in San Francisco.

[ source ]

It is therefore highly unlikely that anyone on the American continent would have been plucking a uke, let alone that two random Missouri farmboys would spot a specimen from a distance. Not to mention the fact that the uncredited and unknown artist (no, it’s not Bill Molno, dear ignoramuses at the GCD) drew… a plain old guitar. Let’s face it, a banjo or even a mandolin would have made more sense.

So, who is this guy? Here’s a bit of self-provided biography:

At fourteen, he and his family moved to Placentia, California, east of Los Angeles, where he graduated from El Dorado High School a year ahead of the normal schedule. One of his fellow students had combined the words “friend” and “Jeff ” to coin the name “Freff ”— and while at first this remained only a nickname, by 1970 he had started signing his artwork that way, as well. Like many artists, Cochran entered the science fiction field doing “freebie” drawings for fanzines. His first paid job were pen and ink drawings for Andrew Porter’s semi-prozine Algol, done in 1972. In the same year he dropped out of Fullerton Junior College after two months of art classes to live on his own. He worked in various fields to make a living and “The rest was all just self-directed study and experimentation,” he says, adding “as a young pro, just starting out, I was lucky enough to be mentored ever-so-slightly by two of my early faves in the field: Kelly Freas and Jack Gaughan. At Kelly Freas’s suggestion Cochran moved to New York in September 1973 and started looking for work as an illustrator.

When that was not forthcoming, Cochran attended the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College — class of 1974.

In that year he got his first big break from Jim Baen, the new editor of Galaxy and If. Baen needed people who would work fast and cheap and put up with being paid late — in other words, the perfect opportunity for beginning artists like Cochran. By this time he was aware that other professional artists and cartoonists were named “Cochran”— and feeling that using his initials “JC” would be presumptuous — the artist in 1976 went to court and legally adopted “Freff ” as his professional nom de brush, and kept it during his years of magazine illustrating. Baen was so taken with the name that he put it on the cover of Cochran’s first cover for IF, as if Cochran was an author with a story in the magazine. After that “Freff ” did a lot of work for Baen, primarily interiors in black-and-white. He also did drawings for Cosmos, Isaac Asimov’s SF, and did cover work for publishers such as Dell, Berkley, and Doubleday. Cochran was selected to be one the artists in the special 1975 NASA/Smithsonian Artists Tour. After early success illustrating Zelazny’s “Amber” novels for Galaxy, followed by cover art and interior illustrations for a set of hardcover novels by Zelazny for Gregg Press in the early 1980s, Cochran became disgruntled over nonpayment for the use of his art in foreign editions of John Varley’s novel Titan, for which he had done a frontispiece and 16 illustrations—and the argument led to the end of Cochran’s illustrating in the field.

He turned to other endeavors, but briefly “dipped a toe back into the waters by collaborating on the first (and only) issue of an SF comic book called D’Arc Tangent” in 1982–1983. He did inking and penciling for DC and Marvel comics: Star Trek** and Tomb of Dracula***.

This is Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery no. 64 (Oct. 1975, Gold Key), featuring a painted cover by Argentine master Luis Dominguez. Don’t Play That Ukelele! isn’t even the cover story… there’s just a lot of aquatic peril in this particular issue.

And here’s the uncredited, utterly batty Tender Feelings, recognizably illustrated by another hardworking Argentine, José Delbo. It saw print in Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery no. 53 (Apr. 1974, Gold Key).

Part of my reasoning for attributing authorship of Tender Feelings to Freff is his penchant for light, deftly humorous tales that conclude with several characters meeting dismal ends. Churrr...

-RG

*Class of ’74, which also included future illusionist, skeptic and libertarian (I guess that’s where clown schooling comes in handy) Penn Jillette.

** he inked two drawings in Who’s Who’s in Star Trek (1987). That is all.

***one frontispiece illustration in Tomb of Dracula no. 4 (the magazine, Apr. 1980); he also conducted a fine interview with Stephen King, published in issues 4 and 5 of TOD. Stretching the truth a tad, are we?

Tentacle Tuesday: dans la galère tentaculaire…

… in which we continue our exploration of tentacles slithering their way into Franco-Belgian comics!

In an orderly fashion, please.

The other day, a friend heartily recommended a certain movie to me, pointing out that it was ‘ancient’ and therefore probably available online for free. When I checked the year, it turned out to have been from 1995 which, excuse me, hardly qualifies as prehistoric. What can be considered ‘old’, then, people in their early thirties will ask? Why, this magazine cover, for instance.

Le Petit journal illustré (May 21st, 1922). The bottom says “a drama at the bottom of the sea”, with details of how a diver was attacked by an octopus and cannot get out his knife to fight against his repellent aggressor.

Skipping some thirty years ahead, I believe we’re still in “old” territory.

A page from « Zette reporter : Aventure en Pacifique », published in Lisette n° 38 (September 16th, 1956). Script by François Drall, illustration by Yvan Marié. The girls, after witnessing a fight between a giant shark and octopus, now seek to escape the clutches of the victor’s eight appendages.

Lisette was a comics magazine specifically aimed at female readership (to be more precise, it was marketed to girls between 7 and 15 years old). The interesting part is that it often featured articles about traditionally men-dominated careers, some of which had only been very recently accessible to women… for instance, an interview with Anne Chopinet (one of first women accepted in l’École polytechnique) and a reportage on women air pilots back when this was an almost exclusively man-only club.

Moving on to further, more energetic octopus-evading tactics… we have Bob Morane, originally a hero harking from adventure books written by prodigiously prolific Belgian novelist Henri Vernes, and published by Belgian éditeur Marabout. The number of adventures Morane has lived through is rather staggering: around 200 novels + about 80 comics albums. Now there’s a challenge for the serious collector!

Original art from Bob Morane et l’oiseau du feu (1960). Illustrated by Dino Attanasio.

Co-admin RG has already spoken about Toute la gomme, but he kindly held back this terrific tentacular page for my TT feature!

Scripted by Antoine Raymond (a.k.a. Vicq), illustrated by Will, 1962.

Co-admin RG called André Franquin‘s œuvre “an embarrassment of riches” in his Faites gaffe, monsieur Franquin! post. I thoroughly agree, and am very pleased to report (though this is in no way surprising) that tentacles are part of his vast répertoire.

Pages from what’s collectively known as Idées noires (Franquin’s Last Laugh in English). These dark strips and cartoons were Franquin’s « l’humour du désespoir », the humour of despair, and appeared in Le trombone illustré (Spirou’s magazine supplement) in 1977 and, with the discontinuation of the latter, moved to Fluide Glacial until 1983.

I’d better stop here. After all, I wouldn’t want to go as far as ‘modern’ times… say, from the 90s and onward, although it’s scary to think that was still 30 years ago!

~ ds

Lovely colours (by co-admin RG), aren’t they?

Jean Barbe, Architect of the Absurd*

« In my youth I thought of writing a satire on mankind! but now in my age I think I should write an apology for them. » — Horace

Cartoonist and illustrator André-François Barbe (1936-2014) was born in Nîmes, France.

After an abortive stint in the French air force, he spent a few years fiddling around in Air France’s employ. His earliest professional drawings saw print in the venerable Le Rire (1894-1971) in 1958. After a few years of tentative, but increasingly encouraging results, he finally made his decisive move in 1965, joining the shaky ranks of full-time cartoonists.

Fittingly, Barbe was an unabashedly chatty man in person… while his work scarcely required words.

While frequently satirical in subject, Barbe’s approach never stoops to easy mockery or gratuitous acerbity. Instead, one finds grace and lyrical elegance… now and then flavoured with a tangy venom chaser. In this finespun register, I’d place him in a class with the likes of Saul Steinberg, Jean-Jacques Sempé, Jean-Michel Folon, Jean-Claude Suares, Guillermo Mordillo, Shel Silverstein, Joaquín ‘Quino‘ Lavado and Maurice Henry.

A self-portrait of the bewhiskered (of course!) young artiste at his easel.
Remember how deep our television sets used to be?
This one anticipates a similar concept later mined by his Argentine contemporary, Guillermo Mordillo. To wit, check out co-admin ds’ Mordillo gallery… you’ll know just which cartoon I mean.
Like Gerard Hoffnung before him, Barbe was a connaisseur of classical music. He would frequently return to this theme.
M.C. Escher meets the bourgeois promeneurs!
He takes on the Army…
… and the Clergy…
… and the bourgeoisie.

By the early 1970s, Barbe was increasingly devoting his pen and his interest to erotic subjects, and that’s the work he’s most associated with. Though that material held greater commercial clout, the work remained flawlessly executed and formally explorative… at least at first. Then, I’d argue that it became a bit of a cul-de-sac. Personally, I’ve always found it a bit chilly in its execution, quite a liability for erotica. Your kilométrage may vary.

Speaking of distances, Barbe was always a bit of a routard, an adventurous traveller. Here’s one instance of particular interest:

In the 1980s, on the initiative of his brother Michel Barbe, a history and geography teacher in Marseille, he took part in a conference given by Haroun Tazieff on the subject of volcanism. Owing to the quality of his drawing skill, he was allowed to accompany, in 1982, an exploratory scientific journey to the volcanic region of the Djibouti Rift. This expedition, led by Lucy co-discoverer Maurice Taieb, enlisted 32 professors who explored the basalt flows in the Assal Lake depression.

-RG

*a handy description I’ve rifled from the ever-erudite Jacques Sternberg.

Tentacle Tuesday: Dark Horse, Pt. 2

Back in August, I promised to follow Tentacle Tuesday: Dark Horse, Pt. 1 with another instalment of cephalopod material issued by this publisher. The time, as they say, has come! While I’m not always on board with the comics they opt to publish (rarely, I might even say), I do like today’s selections.

Dark Horse obtained the licence to produce James Bond comics in 1992. The result is a number of series and stand-alone comics – Serpent’s Tooth was the first, a three-part miniseries. The following two pages are from Serpent’s Tooth Part III: Mass Extinction, scripted by Doug Moench and illustrated by Paul Gulacy, published in James Bond 007: Serpent’s Tooth no. 3 (February 1993).

You decide for yourself which James Bond this is .

In 2007, Dark Horse stepped into a partnership with New Comic Company, who had earlier acquired from Warren the rights to Creepy and Eerie. The result was the gradual publishing of ‘archival’ hardcover collections of all issues of Creepy and Eerie magazines. In 2009, DH launched the ‘new’ Creepy Magazine, which mostly featured new stories, sprinkled with the odd reprint. A revived Eerie soon joined it.

Dark Horse’s revival of the classic Warren magazine is a mixed bag – this issue for instance, features several new stories and a reprint from 1970 (Life Species by Bill DuBay). This is Eerie no. 1 (July 2012). Cover by Jim Pavelec.

Incidentally, if you’re a Warren fan, we’ve covered a lot of tentacled ground with Tentacle Tuesday: Warren and Its Many Tentacles, Part I and Tentacle Tuesday: Warren and Its Many Tentacles, Part II.

The next story is Tentacle Master Mike Mignola‘s ‘Champion of the Worms‘, which held my lazy interest for a few pages… until I found out that it’s actually quite good. What a pleasant surprise for one who had such low expectations! It also brims over with tentacles. The following three pages are from ZombieWorld: Champion of the Worms (October 1997), scripted by Mignola and illustrated by Pat McEown.

Not everybody can boast to such a classy octopus hat!

Last but not least… Scarlet Traces is a sort of sequel to Ian Edginton and D’Israeli‘s adaptation of H. G. WellsThe War of the Worlds, with heavy Dan Dare and Doctor Who references. This story wears its Englishness on its sleeve!

Scarlet Traces: the Great Game no. 4 (October 2006). Art by British artist D’Israeli, whose real name is actually Matt Brooker.

~ ds

Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 31

« I grew up in a farm town in the Midwest, where not much exciting happened. I liked the idea of lives lived at night and the shadowy characters who lived in that demi-monde.Michael Emerson

And our final slot goes to… the eminent Mr. Roger Langridge!

An average, ‘nuclear’ family moves to a small town in the Midwest, which turns out to be mind-numbingly strange… a fact entirely lost on the clueless parental units. Sound familiar?

It’s obvious, given the time frame (five years late), that Gross Point was, to be charitable, keenly influenced by the television show Eerie, Indiana (1991-92)… whose short run (just one season and a mere nineteen episodes… plus fifteen novels!) belies its lasting appeal and influence.

But, and there’s a sizeable ‘but’… both series provide considerable, often subversive entertainment, and come from a long line of high-concept, cœlacanth-out-of-aqua sagas. You might say that Gross Point stands as a darker, yet goofier Eerie, Indiana. Incredibly, it was still approved by the clearly-agonizing, utterly irrelevant Comics Code Authority!

This is Gross Point no. 5 (Dec. 1997, DC), the Halloween special… but then again, as they say, “Every day is Halloween in Gross Point“. Cover by Sean Taggart.

The facetious small print:

Gross Point is a fictitious town, not to be confused with that differently-spelled one in Michigan. The magazine Gross Point is a work of satire. The stories, characters and incidents mentioned in this magazine are entirely fictional. No resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or comatose, deformed, deranged, disfigured, dismembered, disembodied, discarnate, decaying, reincarnated, undead, immortal, reanimated, telepathic, pyritic, telekinetic, magical, transformed, trans-channelled, enchanted, cursed, possessed, monstrous, cannibalistic, demonic, vampiric, reptilian, lycanthropic, subterranean, mummified, extra-terrestrial, or interdimensionally-stranded, is intended or implied, or should be inferred. Any similarity to same without satiric purpose is coincidental.

The Pickett family’s colourful neighbourhood in Gross Point. Sublime pencils and inks by Roger Langridge. He truly brought a sense of place to his work on GP.
Tight as a duck’s arse!” This is the issue when we find out — at last! — the answer to the mystery of the duck-shaped house next door.
Groucho, who else? DC clearly panders to the late 90s teen set with a hybrid parody of its own late 60s mystery anthology title and a legendary Depression-era comic. Well, it works for me, but what do *I* know?
A sizeable part of why this is Gross Point’s finest hour: Langridge gets to trot out his rather credible EC-vintage Wally Wood/Will Elder ersatz.
… and then goes full-on Mad-style Will Elder! This bourgeois chiller scared the Dickens out of the local youths.

In Issue two, we are told that:

Gross Point differs from most new DC titles in recent memory in that it was internally created. The concept from the series was the brainchild of the internal development program of the Special Projects Group, headed by Group Editor Martin Pasko [ né Jean-Claude Rochefort, in Montréal, QC ], who is also this title’s editorial overseer.

In other words, Created by committee, which accounts for the utter lack of originality… which is yet no impediment to its ultimate worth.

However, and a big However it is, some savvy, enlightened creative moves were made, most of all by recruiting stupendous penciller/inker Langridge, as well as Sean ‘S.M’ Taggart (perhaps a bit of nepotism, what with him married to a DC editor, but never mind, he’s good) and writers Dan Slott and Matt Wayne, among others.

The series lasted a not-too-shabby fourteen issues, which you can still get your calloused mitts on dirt cheap online and in the quarter bins, as it’s never been collected. I daresay it might have been a smash hit… if, say, Scholastic had published it.

Well, that wraps up another year’s selection! If you’re craving more, then the 93 entries of the previous trio of Hallowe’en Countdowns are (un)naturally at your disposal.

First there was… Hallowe’en Countdown I

And it was followed by… Hallowe’en Countdown II!

then came… Hallowe’en Countdown III!

Have a good one, warts and all — just be cautious out there!

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 30

« The world will come to an end, but the monster models will still be around. » — James Bama, who went on to paint artwork for over twenty of Aurora’s kit boxes.

Well-executed comic book ads were often just as enticing (and sometimes more, depending on the title) as the contents proper. A prime example, this lovely Aurora Monster Kit campaign, announcing the epochal model maker’s forays out of the Universal ménagerie of misunderstood fiends with Toho’s Godzilla and RKO’s King Kong.

The first Aurora monster model advertisement, it appeared in various DC Comics titles dated November and December, 1963.
The ad ran on the back cover of various DC titles in late 1964. In this case, House of Secrets no. 69 (Dec. 1964). The artwork is almost certainly that of Mr. Murphy Anderson, who goes uncredited, but is betrayed by the characteristic finesse of his inking.

Incidentally, if you were wondering, indeed, the giant monsters cost more… 50 cents more. A bunch more empty bottles to collect, son.

In the late ’60s, a new twist was added: phosphorescence! A cool idea, it however made painting the models, a tricky task to begin with, even less rewarding, as opacity was a bitch to achieve. It worked okay if you had mostly light-coloured The Mummy, but otherwise… This advert appeared on the back cover of DC Comics dated October, 1969… and thereabouts.
The Spring, 1970 collection.
Here’s where Aurora’s close business relationship with Warren Magazines became most evident, with the appearance of a Vampirella model kit. Controversy ensued, once moms caught a glimpse of Junior’s new model kit, the heirloom of his bedroom. Speaking of controversy, Vampirella’s quip about New York was likely a barb about the infamous Kitty Genovese case. This pitch showed up in various DC titles, again, in and around June, 1971.

Warren sold a lot of Aurora kits via his mail order business, and a decision was made to include his character in the line rather than risk dissolving a partnership. Unpainted, she appeared to be virtually naked. Her counterpart, the Victim, sported hot pants and a halter top; a dress or flowing skirt was deemed impractical in order to have her fit on the torture rack. [ source ]

This beautifully-designed ad showed up in October, 1971 DC titles.
At this point, the diluted message is a hint that the bloom is off the rose. An ad from November, 1971.
As a bonus, here’s Big Frankie, the seldom-seen, long-unavailable Aurora grail (until its relatively recent reissue). As the largest Aurora model of all, BF fetched, at the time, an astronomical $4.98; now it goes for a hundred smackers, so don’t complain. Take a look at the big fella!

Though the original Aurora issues of these classic kits are mostly rare as hen’s teeth, enterprising contemporary kit companies have reissued these babies, and you now can actually afford to free the monsters from the confines of their box and assemble and paint ‘em. Mint in Box? Pfui!

– RG