« 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turnover of its kiddie audience, had been rotating batches of strips every seven years, drawing on the vast hoard of unpublished strips left by Morse, and now and then hiring freelancers to pad out the lot.
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
*with Topps executive (and Golden Age comic book artist) Woody Gelman.
« 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…
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. »
This is our third look at Mr. Dean’s œuvre. If you’re left longing for more, read on:
« 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.
Like many a non-New-Yorker comics-loving goyim, my earliest encounters with Yiddish parlance came through Mad Magazine (furshlugginer, potzrebie, farshimmelt…), a practice initiated by its creator, Harvey Kurtzman, and carried on by his disciples and successors; unlike most of my ilk, however, my interest didn’t flag there, so I followed up Mad with Leo Rosten’s masterful The Joys of Yiddish.
As Art Spiegelman reminded us recently, in his controversial essay about the early American comic book industry, « the pioneers behind this embryonic medium based in New York were predominantly Jewish and from ethnic minority backgrounds. » Much like Mr. Spiegelman, I largely eschewed superheroes, unless nothing else was around. Of course, the trick to a varied diet is to stay alert to every possibility. Newspapers, naturally (it helps to live in or near a large metropolitan centre, though), random magazines, second-hand book stores, public and private libraries. Fluency in more than one language is a great asset, of course.
With the new possibilities opened up by the internet, I’ve grown quite fond of investigating obscure publications advertised or reviewed in old magazines. Case in point: a few years ago, I was flipping through The New Yorker‘s annual Cartoon Issue (another tip o’ the hat to Mr. Spieg) of 2001, and came upon this tiny, intriguing advertisement in its back pages.
Obviously, I looked up Hoppel Poppel Comix online, found a copy, ordered it, loved it… and here we are. My pick, The Medical Journal of B.M. Derschlog, turns out to have been the first story produced, and the impetus for the rest of the collection.
« Ken Eichenbaum’s comic book for adults began as cancer therapy. In 1999, Eichenbaum was diagnosed with colon cancer. While undergoing treatment, he began to come up with a 16-page thank-you card for those who had helped him through the ordeal. He was so encouraged by the response to that story, ‘The Medical Journal of B.M. Derschlog‘ — which lampoons his experience with the medical establishment — that he decided to write more illustrated tales. ‘I would lie in bed and there would be this shadow of illness. And I would come up with things that would make me chuckle to myself,’ says Eichenbaum, 70, who’s hesitant to talk about his cancer for fear of being seen as looking for sympathy. The result is a ‘graphic novel‘ — as these booklong comics are called — filled with sometimes funny, sometimes bawdy tales. Eichenbaum considers cartoonists Art Spiegelman and Ben Katchor to be two of his models, but ‘Hoppel Poppel‘ is less heart-wrenching than Spiegelman’s ‘Maus‘ and more slapstick than Katchor’s elliptical humor. » [source]
Mr. Eichenbaum was also clearly at ease with short-form gag strip (of these, the author coyly states: «… single-strip episodes, some of which may have previously appeared in Jewish community newspapers around the U.S. »). Some evidence:
Well, it looks like a lovely day out there, so I’m off to pick up some potato knishes (like Mr. Kotter, I simply can’t kick that particular addiction)!
« Until now Mr. Cookie Monster refused to talk about the matter because his mouth was full, and it’s not polite to talk with your mouth full. » — Guest Star Robert McNeil
With the venerable MAD Magazine (1952-2019) bowing out after sixty-seven years, and kid’s educational show Sesame Street (singalong time!) about to hit the half-century mark, it seems à propos to salute one of the geniuses their respective histories share, Jack Davis (1924 – 2016)… rather than mire ourselves in the inevitable stack of lachrymose paeans to Harvey Kurtzman’s long-lost progeny.
So, are you in need of a bit of cheering up after a down-in-the-dumps day? Take a stroll down friendly Sesame Street with sweet Mr. Davis! Now isn’t this a place where you’d care to linger a spell?
In case one of you experts is wondering, I did leave out, deliberately, Davis’ single meatiest contribution to the show’s canon: The 1972 Sesame Street Calendar (which I look forward to reusing in 2028), twenty-five pages of pure Davis, including thirteen particularly lush watercolours. In order to do it justice, it’ll require at least one post of its own.
« Everybody thinks that this civilization has lasted a very long time but it really does take very few grandfathers’ granddaughters to take us back to the dark ages. » — Gertrude Stein
Several years ago, while browsing in the comics section of a rather lousy bookstore (by which I mean a book shop in which none of the employees know a thing about books, let alone are actual readers… I suspect that this is becoming more common, with predictable results), I stumbled upon an oddball item, a faded-looking, obscure comic strip collection lost amidst the monotonous stacks of DC ‘n’ Marvel superhero fare and the perennial dusty Garfield and Doonesbury paperbacks.
This was Fun City (1985), the second recueilof Tom Hachtman‘s newspaper strip Gertrude’s Follies, which at the peak of its circulation appeared in… well, one paper, but a good one, at least. That was the SoHo Weekly News (1973-82). After the weekly’s demise, a handful of episodes appeared in the fast-fading National Lampoon. Much, much later (which is to say currently) the strip lives on within the pages of American Bystander, an astonishingly well-staffed humour magazine. I smell doom.
Anyway, here’s Hachtman’s recollection of the strip’s genesis, from a 1980 interview conducted by Maxine Fisher for Funnyworld no. 22 (”The world of Animated Films and Comic Art”):
TH: I knew of them, but I didn’t know much about them. And then I saw a photograph of them [by none other than Man Ray] sitting in a room at the home on the rue de Fleurus in Paris. I looked at this famous lesbian couple sitting across from one another — so far apart– and I thought: ”Look at that! One of them is fat, and the other one’s skinny. That’s funny. They’re just like a comedy routine. I wonder if they had any fun.” It didn’t look like they were having any fun in that picture; they just looked like they were posing for a picture. But I thought: ”maybe they ran around and had lots of fun.” So I started drawing pictures of them, and drawing pictures of their friend Pabs, and looking at pictures of them, and looking at pictures of Picasso.
Anyway, I started drawing Gertrude and Alice and Pabs and Hemingway and putting them into situations in my sketchbook.
I knew if would make a nice comic strip in a newspaper. And that narrowed it down. Here was a comic strip about a lesbian couple and all their artist friends. There weren’t too many newspapers that were going to publish this. In fact, I thought, there’s only one. And I started to watch the SoHo News, wondering where it would fit. Where would they put this thing? Would they give me a whole page to do a comic strip?
More juicy details from another interview, this one conducted in 2018 by Martin Kozlowski:
MK: One of the unique features of the strip is the blending of Jazz Age Paris and Punk Rock New York. Was that a deliberate strategy or did it naturally evolve?
TH: I was living in NYC in the 1970s. I only know Paris from movies and books. That’s right; I have never been to Paris. So, when I draw a mailbox I am too lazy to research what a mailbox looks like in Jazz Age Paris. I just draw a mailbox as I know it. I have been told that my readers in Paris find this very amusing. So, the blending happens — naturally.
If you like what you see, you may rejoice in the fact that Gertrude’s Follies has lately become more widely available (whilst retaining its elusive cachet) thanks to the efforts of Now What Media. Amble over to their website, where they provide a generous sampling of strips and biographical information, not to mention the possibility of acquiring the collections.
« We’re not very accepting of people who act strangely. » — Chester Brown
Scott Russo’s Jizz, published by Fantagraphics in 1991-93 (10 issues in all), was a fearless, often downright incendiary and frequently fascinating repository of vitriol from the heart and soul of Mr. Russo. As his own drawing style was pretty rudimentary (but clean and distinctive), the auteur drew upon collage, détournement and plain old text pieces for variety. Russo may have been embittered and misanthropic, but the entertainment he proffered was quite deliberate; a fine, dexterous trick to pull off.
Here, from Scott Russo’s Jizz no. 10 (March 1993, Fantagraphics), is his merciless but spot-on takedown of publisher Drawn & Quarterly‘s stable of neurotics: Julie Doucet, Joe Matt, Chester Brown and Seth, rendered in a breathtakingly accurate facsimile blend of their respective styles and schticks. Script by Russo, art by his trusted confederate ‘Master’ Jeff Wong. Not particularly ‘safe for work‘, I should say.
« Knock it off, squiddo! You couldn’t make a class-B horror picture on earth — you’re not even good for a milk shudder! Better skeddadle, or I’ll tie your tentacles into a bow! »
Tentacles are no cause for levity, you say? Ha! Their place in all manner of spoofs and parodies (and other silliness) is ensured. Peppered with a barrage of puns (never undersell puns, please!), whimsical tentacular entanglements abound in literature… err, comic literature, at any rate, and that’s good enough for me.
Even some 100 years ago (well, a little less), some unfortunate octopus could easily become a Figure of Fun if he wasn’t careful.
I can’t mention équivoques and wordplay without mentioning Pogo, Walt Kelly‘s keenly intelligent comic strip. Sadly, this was the only appearance of Octopots, as far as I know (and I long to be corrected).
In the competitive world of jokes in bad taste, the man from SRAM probably takes the cake. It’s lucky that he has no qualms about hitting females, or the world would be doomed… although his mirthless monologue would probably kill the creature with sheer ennui.
On the other hand, Superman‘s creative insults can easily shame a thin-skinned Tentacled Terror (was his spaghetti-and-meatball crack some sort of early Flying Spaghetti Monster reference, even though the latter was only officially created in 2005?)
This year, spring officially begins on March 20th, so it’s still a few days away… but the vernal bevy of birthdays has already started. Al Jaffee is still our first Spring Birthday Boy – he was always precocious, you know! Born in 1921 on March 13th, he turns 98 today, and that’s a truly impressive age, even for the oldest working cartoonist. Break out the bubbly!
Take my hand as we gallop through Jaffee’s career at a fast clip. In chronological order, then…
The New York Herald Tribune Syndicate published Tall Tales from 1957 to 1963. Al Jaffee came up with the idea of this strip’s format (one vertical panel for dailies, and a series of vertical panels for Sundays) when he was in financial straits – its unorthodox configuration ensured that newspaper editors would be able to squeeze it in *somehow*.
Visit The Fabulous Fifties blog for more – the amazing Ger Apeldoorn has scanned tons of Tall Tales from old newspapers, a monumental (and much appreciated) endeavour.
« The world is full of bloviators. And this kind of stuff, when there’s someone on the public scene who’s really going beyond his duties as a politician or a religious leader or a sportsman, he’s fair game. The main thing is to keep your eyes and ears open and when you hear something that’s clearly baloney, such as “eight out of 10 doctors smoke Chesterfield cigarettes” – these are ads that actually ran! One of the tobacco companies had the nerve to claim that doctors prefer their cigarettes. So it’s easy to shoot down that kind of bull. But you do it with a gentle hand, you don’t preach and say “tobacco kills! How can these doctors do that?!” No, you just go them one step further and say, “In addition to eight out of 10 doctors smoking this brand of cigarette, in their time off, they each drink a gallon of bourbon, which also has health benefits.” » |source|
« I’m not an educator or a preacher. I think the important thing, in my line of work anyway, is that you’re helping the reader to think for himself. It’s not just about getting a chuckle from them. When you expose hypocrisy or nonsense or plain ol’ stupidity, you want to do it in a way that makes the reader connect the dots. Don’t tell the joke, just hint at the joke. If you over-explain it, it’s no good. » /source/
You might be wondering if Mr. Jaffee’s art and wit were any good much later in his career, say in the 90s. Stupid question, bub. Of course they were!
Have you ever wondered what Al Jaffee is like in person? Here’s your chance to find out:
“But you haven’t even mentioned MAD fold-ins!”, you might exclaim in dismay. Hey, I’m not gonna repeat myself… visit A MAD Dash… Inside for that and more Jaffee silliness.
Oh, fine, you guys. Just one, though, ’cause otherwise we’ll be here for another couple of hours, and frankly I’ve got hungry cats to feed.
You say you’re having trouble folding your screen? Geez, do we have to do *all* the work around here?