Treasured Stories: “The Monster Maker of Madison Avenue!” (1967)

« I’ve learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one. » — Leo Burnett

Given that they’re often referred to as comics, or funnybooks, mainstream American comic books haven’t been nearly as funny as one might reasonably expect… particularly the ones that set out to be humorous.

In the scope of the Ages of Gold and Silver, the selfsame Pantheon of Exceptional Providers of Hilarity pops up as if on cue: Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge), John Stanley (Little Lulu, Melvin Monster, Dunc and Loo), Basil Wolverton (Powerhouse Pepper), Jack Cole (Plastic Man), Harvey Kurtzman (Mad). Pray note that these are all writer-artists*, hardly a negligible factor.

Humour being subjective, of course everyone will have their own favourite to contribute. The gist of my argument, however, is that comics books fail to raise guffaws to a level that, say, newspapers strips, animated cartoons and Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées routinely** do.

Meanwhile, DC Comics arguably boasted their singular genius humorist in Sheldon Mayer (Sugar and Spike). DC’s editors loved to divide and conquer, rarely allowing solo creators to take root, let alone flourish, in their tidy corporate garden patch. Given Mayer’s crucial early importance to the publisher’s rise, he was granted free(er) rein. Which leads one to ponder whether the assembly-line method, then, might not be utterly detrimental to quality humour.

So it was to my elated surprise that I came upon an authentically amusing (imho) tale betwixt the misaligned staples of a 1967 issue of Strange Adventures… what is more, uncredited. A mystery.

Which brings us ’round to another exceptional talent, a writer this time: long-time American Comics Group (ACG) editor Richard E. Hughes, who scripted most of the company’s mid-to-late output under an impressive array of aliases*** with a dry, deadpan, absurdist wit, most memorably deployed through the adventures of Herbie Popnecker, ably illustrated by Ogden Whitney.

In 1967, Hughes found himself at leisure with ACG’s demise (the final issues of its remaining titles, Adventures Into the Unknown and Unknown Worlds, were cover-dated August ’67). He passed through DC, scripting a smattering of stories for Superman czar Mort Weisinger (one might surmise that Kurt Schaffenberger, who worked for both editors, acted as the go-between), for Hawkman editor George Kashdan and Ghosts editor Murray Boltinoff before exiting the field. According to Wikipedia, « His final job appears to have been for Gimbel’s department store, composing response letters to customer complaints. » At least he’s received some posthumous recognition, as he was a 2015 recipient of the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.

I do believe I can detect the Hughes cadence in The Monster Maker of Madison Avenue! According to GCD, the uncredited story is scripted by one Dennis Marks, an animation writer working for Filmation’s The Batman/Superman Hour at the time… but I just don’t know. It would be Marks’ sole comic book credit, and a speculative one at that. Besides, GCD attributes the artwork to Joe Orlando, which is flat-out, laughably wrong. A frequent problem of self-styled art experts is that they wear genre blinders. Most would never be caught dead reading, say, a romance comic, so they wouldn’t recognize (though they should!) the distinctive stylings of Jay Scott Pike (1924-2015).

On with our tale, which originally saw print in Strange Adventures no. 202 (July 1967, DC).

As for the ads parodied therein, I’m no expert, but I can hazard a few guesses: The Fiend in Your Fuel Tank refers to Esso’s famous Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign; the housewive bluntly bestowing cleaning tips to her neighbour brings to mind Bold Detergent; The Green Knight surely lampoons Ajax’s White Knight; as for Popso Kooler’s Mister Power, it’s anybody’s guess. Pepsi commercials of the period looked great, but nary featured an animated lightning man. Anyone?

-RG

*Yes, Kurtzman (and Stanley) often worked with others to increase their output (and for the love of collaboration), but they fully controlled the mise-en-scène.

** They make it look easy… but it’s quite a feat.

***His imaginary roster comprised Pierre Alonzo, Ace Aquila, Brad Everson, Lafcadio Lee, Kermit Lundgren, Shane O’Shea, Greg Olivetti, Kurato Osaki, Pierce Rand, Bob Standish, Zev Zimmer… Fittingly, even Richard E. Hughes was a pseudonym: he was born Leo Rosenbaum.

The Mad Peck Strikes!

« Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea. » — Guy Debord

Well, after our brush with Surrealism, let’s hazard a brief detour amidst the Letterists. As we all surely know, The Letterist International was « a Paris-based collective of radical artists and cultural theorists between 1952 and 1957. » I’ll spare you a dry discourse about schools of thought, art and politics and their numerous and acrimonious (perhaps not so dry after all!) schisms.

The main point of interest, in this case, is the Letterists’ pioneering of the rousingly subversive artistic technique of détournement, which involves “taking preexisting images and mixing them together to highlight the underlying ideology of the original image.

This brings us to the storied career of Providence, Rhode Island’s finest son, John Peck (b. 1942), alias The Mad Peck.

Les Daniels and The Mad Peck Studios’ 1971 Comix was a pretty fair early crack at recounting the history of the comic book up to the peak of the Undergrounds.
A-ha! On the back cover, The Mad Peck indulged his penchant for détournement, repurposing an early 1950’s ad for hair loss reversal scammers Ward Laboratories in a fashion that is in no way relevant to our current, media-savvy, ethically-enlightened world.

In his 1987 retrospective, Peck recalls « Yeah, Comix was good. Maybe a little too good. It’s been stolen from every public library I’ve ever been in. »

By then, he was working steadily for Boston-based music magazine Fusion (1967-74), “doing short reviews of the records nobody else wanted to do.” This one liberally swipes from DC’s long-running Fox and the Crow series (which of course borrows its premise from dear old Aesop’s immortal fable), with a smidgen of Fritz the Cat for the frisky finale.

Fast-forward to 1978, and Peck’s much-improved comix-style capsule reviews are appearing regularly in Creem and The Village Voice.

Ah, but she wasn’t a comic book semistar of the *late* 40s… she arrived on the scene in 1941, four months before Wonder Woman, even! Who dat? Why, The Masked Marvel is none other than Golden Age heroine The Black Cat, whose repurposing surely constitutes The Mad Peck’s most brazen act of détournement!
This is Black Cat Comics no. 3 (Dec. 45 – Jan. 46, Harvey); cover art by the lady’s creator, Al Gabriele. ‘Action that’ll make you pop your monocle!
The Mad Peck really stood out in the landscape of rock criticism in that he wasn’t a rockist snob (“It’s not rock, therefore it’s crap!“), and that his taste was wide-ranging and often surprising, evidence of a true music lover well-versed in all its strata and permutations.
And still, these Jefferson Airplane alumni had yet to hit bottom (knee-deep in the hoopla, so to speak)!
The Slickee BoysManganese Android Puppies; MadnessThe Prince; Prince BusterMadness.
The EaglesHeartache Tonight; The Sugarhill GangRapper’s Delight; The EaglesThe Disco Strangler.
HansiAutomobile; The Flying LizardsMoney; Sid Vicious(I’m not Your) Stepping Stone.
Joe “King” CarrascoParty Weekend; QueenCrazy Little Thing Called Love; ChicGood Times.

Then ahead to the mid-80s and Bob Guccione Jr.’s Spin (est. 1985), and a short run with a new title, Tales From the Bogusphere. Meanwhile, The Masked Marvel had been sidelined by legal hassles. As the heroine recalls:

I took an extended vacation in 1980 when Marvel Comics threatened to sue Peck after reading ‘Ms. Marvel’ in the Eagles cartoon that led off Creem’s review section in February. I hightailed it before the corporation had me roped into a team-up book with She-Hulk, but Peck had to stick it out while they tried to stick it to him. What really teed me off was that Ms. Marvel, who had oozed out of Marvel’s bullpen in the early ’70s, was such a dynamic concept that her book died almost instantly.

Words to live and listen by: « Forget all that image stuff and check what’s in the grooves » WhamWake Me Up Before You Go-Go; New EditionCool It Now; Hank Williams Jr.All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.

Peck’s experience as a critic left him with an encyclopedic knowledge of doo-wop and early R&B. When financing from rock publications got thin, Peck practiced the art of rock ‘n’ roll arbitrage: buying records at flea markets and “backwater Woolworths” and trading them at statewide record collectors’ conventions that he organized himself.

Peck spun his best finds on his popular WBRU radio show, “Dr. Oldie’s University of Musical Perversity.” Wary of semi-fame, Peck still makes an occasional public appearances in disguise as Dr. Oldie, complete with lab coat and head mirror. [ source ]

As a bonus, here’s The Mad Peck’s greatest commercial success, a piece first commissioned by Providence’s The Humbox Press for the inaugural issue of its poetry journal Loose Art. A fluke hit, it spawned postcards and posters “and is still keeping the Mad Peck in Camels.”

« In 1978, Peck designed the famous Providence Poster, a composite of witty one-liners that he and Daniels had uttered over the years about their beloved city. » I must confess I could not resist the urge to recolour it.

Channeling a credo he gleaned from a chance encounter with comic book artist Wally Wood — “Don’t draw what you can trace, and don’t trace what you can paste” — Peck made his name as a comic book artist despite an inability to draw anything more complex than psychedelic hand lettering. Most of his characters are swiped from the works of an obscure Golden Age comic artist, Matt Baker.

I can buy that most of his characters were swiped from Baker (hello there, Canteen Kate!), but he also begs, steals and borrows from, namely… Al Feldstein, George Carlson, Phil Davis, Jim Davis (no relation to Phil, and not the Garfield guy either), Bob Oksner, Don Flowers, and a gazillion anonymous advertising and animation toilers. And it works!

As a trailblazer of this particular approach, you might say he was Yesterday’s Tom Tomorrow.

-RG

Just Visiting: Daniel Pinkwater & Tony Auth’s ‘Norb’

« You know, I once took a ride in a Volkswagen convertible driven by Harvey Kurtzman, with fellow passengers Terry Gilliam and Robert Crumb. Had we been smacked by a garbage truck the history of humor and popular culture would have been slightly changed. Interestingly not one of us had the slightest interest in any of the other three. Except, I am pretty sure we all hated Kurtzman, but who didn’t? » — Daniel Pinkwater

This post was originally going to be an interview. Having belatedly discovered Norb (1989-1990), I got in touch with Daniel Pinkwater (who better to ask?), intending to pepper him with questions, but he was so very helpful, providing me with all the background material I could have desired, that his prediction that « … since I have nothing to add, you may not need to formulate any questions for me » … came to pass. And so I gladly yield the floor to the sterling Mr. Pinkwater.

Tony Auth was a brilliant artist. He had an important day job as editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I think it was his first job, which he held for decades, and he was a Pulitzer Prize winner. We talked about doing ‘something’ together for a couple of years. Tony wanted to do a daily/Sunday newspaper strip, so we did that. Every day we’d remind one another, ‘keep it stupid.’ The fact was, we had no idea how stupid a commercial strip needed to be.

Stroke of luck, Denny Allen, who was temporarily in a position of influence at King Features had approached me years before about doing a strip. We met the power elite at King Features. I won’t characterize them except to say that the concept of stupid did not elude them, nor would it have been likely to. We negotiated for, and received a substantial advance from King, covering two years. I understand this was unheard of in the highly competitive rat race with a great many submissions coming in every day from marginally talented cartoonists.

So we went to work. My part was utterly easy. I would write the dailies and the separately plotted Sunday strip every Saturday while watching Dr. Who. Tony was putting in long hours in addition to his job at the newspaper. The strip launched in something like 70 papers, and I was told this was a big launch and unusual for the times.

We started in the vacancy created when Bloom County ceased production. The response from readers consisted entirely of actual hate-mail, letters saying it was hoped we would die, crude drawings of tombstones and daggers dripping blood. The only piece of positive fan mail I remember came from Jules Feiffer. A few papers dropped the strip, some in response to outrage from readers for whom the comics page was their literature. The typical letter read, ‘I hate NORB, it makes me feel stupid.’ Fair enough, I thought.

I understood that as few as 10 negative letters were enough to spook a paper into dropping a feature. My wife did a bit of research and discovered that all new strips have it rough initially, but if one survives two years it becomes un-droppable, and it is the editorial staff who get the threatening letters. Interestingly, Tony, who was a fair-minded political cartoonist, and got abuse all the time, (he’d had his office trashed by the right and the left at different times over the same issue, for example), and didn’t mind it, regarded the comic strip as the product of his heart, and was hurt by the unfair criticism.

So, at the end of the first year, Tony, exhausted by working two full-time jobs, depressed by the evidence that nobody seemed to like the strip, unwilling, as I was, to follow the advice from the comics/humor expert at King Features, let me know that he was not having any fun. ‘So, shall we quit?’ I asked. Since he was carrying 90% of the weight, I didn’t feel it should be my call. King was delighted to kill the strip because that meant they wouldn’t have to pay us the second year’s advance, and apparently they thought that saving money was the same as making money.

Exactly a year after the strip stopped appearing the fan mail started to come in, ‘Where’s NORB?’ ‘NORB was my favorite comic.’

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A pair of dailies from the first week, whereupon we meet our protagonists and our protagonists meet.

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From week two. It’s lovely that Mr. Pinkwater opted to bring along a character from his Snarkout Boys novels (The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror), Bentley Saunders Harrison Matthews, aka Rat Face aka Rat. She fits right in. That kind of freedom is among the foremost perks of owning your work.

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A four-day sequence, to give you a better sense of the strip’s flow. I love how the alien armada is basically pixelated. Spoiler: They won’t get very far with their plan of conquest.

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Front cover of Mu Press‘ collection of the Nord dailies, published in 1992. To quote the late SF luminary Vonda McIntyre in her INTROdadaDUCTION: « When [Mu Press] decided to reprint NORB, I jumped at the chance to write this essay. Only then did I discover that writing it didn’t mean I got to reacquaint myself with the Sunday strips… it meant I got to see the daily strips, which I didn’t even know about, for the first time. »

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Now and then, Pinkwater would drop out of the narrative, go into meta-textual mode and engage the critics in an entertainingly passive-aggressive fashion. I do prefer the plot-driven strips, however… as does Rat. « Problem, Norb-Baby. Humorous adventure with a touch of satire is out this year. I don’t know where to put you. » (07/13/1990)

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« You’ll pay for treating my employer like a baked ham, you evil person! ». Don’t worry, Norb’ll be okay: « Explain. Were you sliced like a radish or not? » « Oh, I was! But it was in the future. »

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Anything goes, in the most winning sense. The noble Norse warriors were soon to realize that at Trump’s, you simply can’t out-chump the boss.

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Norb is an exemplar of the narrative strip that doesn’t take itself seriously: while the story proper is intriguing, any individual fragment is quite entertaining on its own.

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Never having been reprinted, the Sunday strips are rare as hen’s teeth, and those who possess them presumably clipped them out of their local paper back in the day. Foresight! As is often the case with King Features continuity strips, Sundays and dailies feature separate storylines.

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Several years ago, Norb was featured as the Obscurity of the Day on the excellent Stripper’s Guide blog. There you’ll find a handful more of these gorgeously-coloured (aside from all their other evident virtues) Sundays, and more dirt about Norb.

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Et pour conclure, Auth’s back cover illustration from the Norb collection.

« It’s pretty clear that you take the whole subject of comics and cartooning a lot more seriously than I do. » Guilty as charged. Thanks for your most kind coöperation, Mr. Pinkwater!

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Tony Auth (1942 – 2014).

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday Masters: The Far Side of Gary Larson, Pt. 2

« Octopuses have a lot in common with other species that are known to thrive in cities—not only can they use human-made structures for shelter, but they’re highly adaptable and good at problem solving. So maybe we’re justified in adding to our list of neighbours, next to the raccoon at the sliding glass patio door and the coyote in the halo of the street lamp, the octopus casting its appraising eye from under the sunken hull of a rowboat. » |source|

Octopuses in a mundane, urban setting? Address yourself to Gary Larson!

As promised a couple of weeks ago, we’re back with another Larson-copia of tentacles! Pt. 1 can be found here. Again, thanks to co-admin RG for all the scanning and colouring work.

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If you think we’re somewhat stretching the definition of “tentacle”, I think the husband’s, err, feet definitely qualify.

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Incidentally, one the world’s largest sea creatures is the lion’s mane jellyfish, whose tentacles are the longest of them all (they can attain lengths up to 37 metres or 120 feet).

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Letting us know what we’re in for straight away, even the cover of the fourth Far Side collection features a tentacle.

∼ ds

Tentacle Tuesday Masters: The Far Side of Gary Larson

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When I was in college, most of my professors could easily be divided into two categories: those who had good taste in comics, and those who did not. I don’t know who launched this tradition (is this something that’s universal to all post-highschool educators?), but somehow the majority of teachers were fond of clipping particularly pleasing items from newspapers and (usually messily) scotch-taping them to their office door. This usually included some brief newspaper articles, and definitely a cartoon or two.

I have to admit that I had a soft spot for panels that clearly had spent the last decade (or three) in that spot, and were little more than yellowed, warped, sometimes downright indecipherable relics of yesteryear. However, of greater interest were office doors tended as carefully as an prize-winning garden, proudly displaying a frequently renewed wall of cartoons, meticulously positioned and impeccably pasted onto the door’s surface. 

I was lucky enough to know one professor who was passionate about Bizarro, and another one who harboured a similar fire for Gary Larson‘s The Far Side. At the time, I didn’t know that Larson had retired in 1995, and that new work of his was no longer published in newspapers. I was in college in 2004. Did the professor in question hoard large archives of cut-out The Far Side strips (these weren’t photocopies), and just cycle through them? Was there, in her office, some portal to an alternate reality? That mystery shall only deepen over time. I can only state that I would make sure to swing by first thing in the morning to enjoy that day’s offering.

Today we present you with a fairly complete collection* of Gary Larson tentacles. I give my gratitude to co-admin RG for his “eagle eye” – he spent an hour or two going through his paperback collections of the strip (and giggling maniacally) to spot anything cephalopodian. He then scanned ’em (and added colour frames, because that’s the kind of man he is), so this post has honestly been more work for him than for me.

*It turns out there’s quite a lot of them, so this shall be a two-part post.

Larson has been notoriously opposed to having his strips posted online by fans, but in December 2019, he has decided to start a The Far Side website, featuring a random selection of cartoons, some weekly selections organized by theme, and the occasional doodle or sketch. I have absolutely no wish to disrespect the opinion of the author, but I hope that now it’s okay to share our excitement about so much tentacle goodness with our readers. Besides, tentacles or not, most of these are hilarious and surreal, a combination that’s dear to my heart.

Without further ado…

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FarSideCalamariBlancA

FarSideJerryWon'tA

FarSideHorribleThingA

« Controversy never seemed too far away from me, especially during my first year of syndication. I truly thought my career may have ended a number of times. I remember one I did of a couple dogs that were playing this game, where they were smacking around a cat hanging from a long rope attached to a pole. I called it “Tethercat.” To me, and I assume my editor, it didn’t cross any line because this was just a game dogs might play. But that one got people stirred up. Especially cat people. I’ll forever be grateful to fans, who in those early days often rescued “The Far Side” from cancellation, or campaigned to get it reinstated. » 〈source

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« Among the massive fan base that The Far Side would eventually develop, interestingly scientists and academics were among the first to take to the comic, despite Larson’s frequent jabs at this very same group. The strip also had a tangible impact on the world of paleontology. In an 1982 comic, a group of cavemen are in lecture hall being shown a slide of a dinosaur. The caveman instructor is pointing to the spiky tail of a Stegosaurus while saying, “Now this end is called the thagomizer…after the late Thag Simmons.” As it turned out, in real life, no one had actually given that part of the Stegosaurus’ tail a name. Despite Larson’s fudging of the facts (in actuality, dinosaurs and humans missed each other by more than 140 million years), paleontologists adopted “thagomizer” as the official name of the spikes on a Stegosaurus. » 〈source

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And, in glorious colour…

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While there are cheap and abundant paperback collections of The Far Side in every self-respecting bookstore, in 2014, Andrews McMeel Publishing released a beautifully designed 3-volume The Complete Far Side. Oh, and it weights 20 pounds. For bonus value, some letters written to the newspapers by befuddled or angry readers are included. Few of us may feel the need to possess such a grand coffee table book (I’ve been pondering that myself ever since it got published), but its very existence is a lovely testament to the enduring nature of Gary Larson’s world.

±≠ ds

P.S. Those teachers with bad taste in comics I mentioned? They had Garfield and Cathy on their doors…

Phew, That Was Close!

« Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back. » — Marcus Aurelius

The other day, I chanced upon a Rick Geary piece about tangos with the Angel of death, which returned my mind to a time, when I was but six years of age, and that my parents had gone holidaying, leaving me in the care of some old friends. At their home, I recall perusing some back issues of that evergreen Reader’s Digest (the French-Canadian edition, called Sélection du Reader’s Digest), wherein I encountered some memorable articles, including one about the miraculous survival of people who tumbled from great heights*, unencumbered with parachutes, and another that grimly recounted the calamitous landslide that one night engulfed a village, Saint-Jean-Vianney, just a few kilometres from my hometown.

Ah, but human memory is notoriously fallible and self-deceiving. So I deemed it prudent to inquire whether the events were truly as recollected. A quick call to my folks confirmed that yes, they did toddle off to Europe for three weeks in November of that year (I think my parents are delighted when I quiz them about such matters). The landslide took place in May, so that fits too.

As the close shave lends itself well to comics, I’ve gathered a potpourri of short pieces on the topic. Tighten your seatbelts, we’re in for a rough ride!

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A presumably factual two-pager from New Heroic Comics no. 70 (Jan. 1952, Famous Funnies), featuring artwork by no less an eminence than the great Harry Peter (according to Ger Apeldoorn, which is good enough for me). The whole ‘salt of the earth’ thing rings pretty hokey, but one has to appreciate that this account of selfless heroism wasn’t whitewashed.

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This post’s springboard, originally published in Dark Horse Presents no. 82 (Feb. 1994, Dark Horse). From Heavy Metal to National Lampoon, with High Times and The American Bystander in between,  I’ve yet to encounter a publication wherein Mr. Geary’s work failed to rise to the very top with its patented palette of fanciful perspective, sunny understatement and psychological verisimilitude. 

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An airborne entry from Gordon Johnston‘s Ripley’s Believe It or Not-style syndicated strip ‘It Happened in Canada‘ (1967-81). However, the Wikipedia listing of historical tornadoes in Canada fails to turn up one such whirlwind in 1823. Perhaps it happened in Kansas instead.

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Pesty baby brother saves the day! Another entry from New Heroic Comics no. 70 (Jan. 1952, Famous Funnies), artist unknown. Astoundingly, a little research (I wouldn’t want to pry further) indicates that a Donald P. Kiselyk, now 73, still resides in New Jersey. Doing the math, he would have been born in 1947, which fits perfectly). I wonder whether he recollects his hour of four-colour glory…

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Another It Happened in Canada entry. Looks legit, too, though it seems Johnston didn’t nail the spelling: the resilient gent’s moniker is Myllyla. According to Wikipedia, « At 9:57 in the morning, an avalanche of snow buried the Leduc Camp in British Columbia, killing 27 copper miners working for the Newmont Mining Corporation workers and destroying several buildings. Another 42 of the 68 people buried were rescued on the same day, while a carpenter, Einar Myllyla, was saved three days later from the ruins of a collapsed building. “To their everlasting credit”, author Jay Robert Nash would write later, “rescuers refused to abandon their search until every man in the camp had been accounted for. »

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Obviously, I couldn’t leave out this Gary Larson classic.

Keep your arms and legs in the vehicle, don’t tease the wild animals, wear your life jacket, look to both sides before crossing the road, and don’t forget to floss. Oh, and call your mother more often; she misses you.

-RG

*the fellow whose tale stayed with me was most likely Lt. I.M. Chisov, « … a Russian airman whose Ilyushin IL-4 bomber was attacked by German fighters in January of 1942. Falling nearly 22,000 feet, he hit the edge of a snow-covered ravine and rolled to the bottom. He was badly hurt but survived. »

Chew on This: Howard Cruse’s Bazooka Joe

« So to this my life has come: there’s meaning in a piece of gum » — Parthenon Huxley, Bazooka Joe

We recently lost another fine cartoonist in Howard Cruse (May 2, 1944 – Nov. 26, 2019), and while he’s most frequently celebrated for his pioneering work in Queer comix and his graphic novel Stuck Rubber Baby, I’m much fonder of his comparatively ‘lightweight’ humorous work. In other words, I’ll take the wacky short stories over the Ponderous Magnum Opus, thank you.

And things don’t get any lighter than Bazooka Joe, now do they?

In 1983, Howard Cruse was engaged by Topps to redesign Bazooka Joe and illustrate a new set of strips, the series’ first true update since co-creator* Wesley Morse‘s passing in 1963. Topps, figuring on more-or-less total turnover of its kiddie audience, had been rotating batches of strips every seven years, drawing on the vast hoard of unpublished strips left by Morse, and now and then hiring freelancers to pad out the lot.

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An unpublished Howard Cruse instructional comic, mid-1980s. Cruse recalled: « I always liked  this strip because it’s practically the only time I was invited to draw the character at a size large enough to allow some stylistic personality. » I added the colouring, just because.

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Howard Cruse Bazooka Joe model sheet, prepared for 1983 revamp.

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Cruse’s model sheet for the rest of the 1983-vintage cast.

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Chameleonic cartoonist R. Sikoryak, who contributed gags to the second Cruise series, posits that « One of the pleasures of the traditional comic strip is the conciseness of words and pictures, and the Bazooka format takes this compression about as far as humanly possible. As with haiku, there is a great power in the constraints that must be respected in obeying a format. »

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Samples of the 1983-84 vintage.

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Jay Lynch explains: « Despite the brand managers and marketing companies responsible for the various revamps of Bazooka Joe over the years, and their valiant attempts to make the characters and the gags more ‘hip‘, I’ve always thought that the primary appeal of these tiny comics was their overall lameness. Back when I wrote Bazooka Joe, I’d usually start by going through turn-of-the-century joke books and rewriting the ancient quips to turn the 1908 ragtime aficionados into 1990’s heavy-metal enthusiasts… »

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Some thoughtful suggestions from Cruse for the 1988 crop.

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From my personal collection, original artwork supposedly from the 1983-84 batch… but something doesn’t add up. Incidentally, actual size is 3 x 3 5/8 inches.

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The accompanying certificate of authenticity raises more questions than it answers. To wit, as Mr. Cruse elucidates: « When I was asked… to reconceive Bazooka Joe as a teenager and provide him with a new ‘gang‘, the only holdover from the earlier tykes… was Mort, the weird sidekick who wore a turtleneck pulled up to his eyes. Len [Brown] and Art Spiegelman… thought the ultra-lengthy turtleneck was a bit – in fact, was literally – over the top, though. So for my first series of strips the sweater’s collar was brought down below Mort’s chin… Apparently this change disturbed some nameless traditionalists at Topps, so when I was hired to draw a second batch of strips in 1988, the turtleneck was restored to its original position… » In that case, if my original is from the ’83-’84 series, why is Mort’s turtleneck in its traditional, and proper place?

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Another certificate, this one appearing on the back of Bazooka Jerk (Garbage Pail Kids Giant Series Stickers no. 1, from 1986). Illustrated by Howard Cruse.

Then, in 1990, when the time came for another series, Topps opted to subcontract the work to a marketing company that dismissed Cruise’s work as « too goofy », according to Jay Lynch. Then Lynch, Pete Poplaski and Grass Green took up the gauntlet, which is a fascinating tale in itself… but one for another day.

If such lowly cartoon ephemera hold even the slightest sway over you, you’ll likely be very interested in Topps’ Bazooka Joe and His Gang (2013, Abrams ComicArts, edited by Charles Kochman), which proved an invaluable resource in cobbling together this post.

« Bazooka Joe has become the personification of the lowest form of humor. And this is why he’s one of the most widely known comics characters on the planet. Sure, the jokes were cornball. But that’s their appeal. » — Jay Lynch

-RG

*with Topps executive (and Golden Age comic book artist) Woody Gelman.

Social Perils and Pitfalls: Abner Dean’s ‘Come As You Are’ (1952)

« What I don’t like about office Christmas parties is looking for a job the next day. » — Phyllis Diller

Between the poles of Abner Dean’s more normal magazine work and his often quite abstract, therapy-inspired books, lies his neglected Come As You Are, his most accessible single-theme work.

In few words but with devastating visual lucidity, Dean turns a probing spotlight on party dynamics, laying bare the casual cruelty, manipulations and seductions, feints and blindsides, alliances and betrayals, thrusts and parries. The results are often hilarious… but laden with uneasy recognition; despite the distance of nearly three-quarters of a century, little appears to have changed in the fundamentals… which really should come as no surprise to anyone.

Witness the following excerpts…

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The front cover. The book is tellingly dedicated « To all those wonderful people who I hope will still ask me back. »

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According to our resident mycologist, these are pretty much all toxic. The game is rigged!

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From the back end of the book: « This is Abner Dean’s fourth adventure with the cross-eyed muse in that area of unexpected turning and hilarious insights that is particularly his own.

The first, in 1945, was It’s a Long Way to Heaven. People began seeing themselves and their friends as Dean saw them. They were startled and fascinated by the view. With What Am I Doing Here? in 1947 they winced and laughed again. Psychiatrists started using certain of his drawings for discussion with their patients. People began playing games of identification with individual pictures.

In 1949 came And on the Eight Day to make more Dean converts. And now here’s a fourth book about people to smoke out any unbelievers who may be lurking in corners at parties.

For those who like their incidental intelligence in an unbalanced phrase — Abner Dean was born in 1910, attended the National Academy in 1927, was graduated from Dartmouth in 1931, and hasn’t been away from a drawing board for more than a few days since then. He is happily married and lives in New York. »

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This is our third look at Mr. Dean’s œuvre. If you’re left longing for more, read on:

Abner Dean’s Universe: Before… 
followed of course by Abner Dean’s Universe: … After.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown III, Day 30

« If it wasn’t for baseball, I’d be in either the penitentiary or the cemetery. » — Babe Ruth

Since the (so-called) World Series is still going on, this seems all the more appropriate.

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It was with this piece that I first began to grasp just how gifted and versatile Filipino giant Alfredo P. Alcala (1925-2000) was. He’s inarguably a grandmaster of eerie moods, but hardly bereft of a fun side. This brief piece, a dream collaboration between Sheldon Mayer and Alcala, was published in Plop! no. 1 (Sept-Oct 1973, DC). And what an issue that was, gathering such talents as Basil Wolverton, Sergio Aragonés, Mayer and Alcala, Frank Robbins, George Evans, John Albano, Stephen Skeates and Berni Wrightson… yikes! (read it here!)

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As a bonus, here’s the *back* cover of Plop! no. 1, featuring Wolverton’s cover boy “Arms” Armstrong. Which provides me with the opportunity to inform you that this very week has seen the long-delayed publication of Greg Sadowsky’s Brain Bats of Venus: The Life and Comics of Basil Wolverton Vol. 2 (1942–1952), his definitive biography of that singular and fascinating man. Read all about it here!

– RG

Nikita Mandryka’s Ailleurs

« If you don’t want to be idolized by the masses, you don’t become an author, you become a plumber-welder! » — Entretien avec Mandryka, Les cahiers de la bande dessinées no. 28 (1975), conducted by Numa Sadoul

Nikita Mandryka was born October 1940 in Bizerte, Tunisia, to Russian émigré parents. His grandfather had fled the Russian Revolution in 1921 aboard a warship he was commanding. Nikita’s first professional strip appeared late in 1964 in Vaillant (Boff, in Vaillant no. 1024, Dec. 27, 1964), soon renamed Vaillant, le journal de Pif , then Pif Gadget in 1969. While he’s best known for his loquacious, dominoed cucurbit, Le Concombre Masqué, today we’re going to harvest the riches of his somewhat less familiar, but equally absurdist creation, the free-form strip Ailleurs (“Elsewhere”). The feature debuted with the inaugural issue of Pif Gadget and made its bow with issue 35, a few months down the line.

Mandryka left Pif Gadget on good terms (and returned over the years), and with a solid reason: while Pif’s editorial team rightly adored his work, its left-field humour left the majority of Pif’s young readership quite baffled, and sometimes infuriated. Mandryka’s place in the magazine may have been secure, but he yearned for an audience that actually understood him. This he would find at Pilote, with its teenage readership, and all the more so with L’Écho des Savanes (which he cofounded, in 1972, with Claire Bretécher and Marcel Gotlib).

Pif’s was an unusual case: its most singular, daring, arguably most valuable strips were those least appreciated by the kids. And that slice of the readership, you’ll have guessed it, tends to express its opinions more freely and vehemently than their elders, who did love (but more quietly) the somewhat abstract, second degré (offbeat, ironic) features, such as Marcel Gotlib and Henri Dufranne‘s Gai-Luron**, the recently-departed Massimo Mattioli‘s M. Le Magicien or Henri Crespi‘s Nestor. Still, the savvy editorial team, who after all had made the magazine a massive hit, keenly grasped the import of editorial balance and trusted its collective taste and instinct over the “wisdom” of the accountants and marketers… who, at the height of the magazine’s popularity, pulled a mutiny and… sank the ship. So, in hindsight, Mandryka was right to leave.

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Ailleursdébut, from the inaugural issue of Pif gadget / Vaillant no. 1239 (March 1st, 1969); If it goes “zgunk”, it’s not a zgonk, it’s a zgunk.

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As an english equivalent to « Sacré vingieu! », I propose « Dagnabit! »

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Ends with a sarcastic « Glory to the ten millionth discoverer of our planet! »

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« An original solution to the parking problem. »

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From Pif gadget no. 23 / Vaillant no. 1261 (July 1969); now you know what the legendarily stoic members of The Queen’s Guard do whilst at leisure.

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From Pif gadget no. 33 / Vaillant no. 1271 (Oct. 1969); idea provided by Tabary (Jean or his brother/ghost Jacques? We may never know).

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The final Ailleurs strip, from Pif gadget no. 35 / Vaillant no. 1273 (Oct. 1969). This would have made a great skit for Jacques Tati‘s peerless Mr. Hulot.

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Nikita’s just heard a really good one during this photoshoot for a L’Écho des Savanes advert.

To my knowledge, Ailleurs has never been collected or comprehensively reprinted, save for nine of the strips turning up in Claude Moliterni‘s** excellent scholarly Phenix, revue internationale de la bande dessinée (nos. 31-31-32) in 1973.

-RG

*I’d even argue that Dufranne does a better Gotlib than Gotlib ever did.

**Among many notable achievements, he was co-founder of the Festival international de la bande dessinée d’Angoulême (Angoulême International Comics Festival).