« Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track, and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey, and you go to jail. » — Junior Johnson
Lee Marrs (b. 1945) is not your typical « underground » cartoonist, though to be fair — what would a typical undergrounder be? The movement’s whole raison d’être was ‘vive la différence‘, wouldn’t you say?
Hers is not a prolific career, perhaps, but look at the gloriously idiosyncratic path she followed: newspaper comic strip assistant (Hi & Lois, Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie…), underground (Wimmen’s Comix, Pudge, Girl Blimp, The Compleat Fart and Other Body Emissions), and mainstream cartoonist — well, even better: she was a regular contributor to DC’s justly-fabled (but yet to be reprinted, ahem) Plop!; she appeared in Marvel’s Mad knock-off Crazy; she even scripted, in the early 90s, a Viking Prince (yes, Kanigher and Kubert’s 1955 creation) epic, illustrated by Bo Hampton, and even a bit of Batman (‘Stalking‘, with Eddy Newell, in 1998). But that’s merely scratching the surface: here’s a more comprehensive rundown of her captivating journey.
And I’m delighted to report that the scintillating Ms. Marrs is still active today, her verve and talent undimmed and undiluted. By all means, check out her website for the undeniable evidence!
Greetings to saddle sniffers, subterranean dwellers and lovers of nasty fun! Today we take a little trip into the underground, where tentacles squirm in anticipation! Through some quirk, all of today’s covers involve aliens and spaceships – underground artists clearly also liked to speculate about the possibilities of inter-planetary travel.
Tentacle Tuesday opens up with a Nicola Cuti cover, whose cutesy style, albeit not particularly original, is pretty recognizable (for example, take a look at his Weirdlings, which has really grown on me over the years). His big-breasted, doe-eyed « intergalaxtic nymph » was not devoid of charm, although she only appeared in three issues (and issue no. 3 had a print run of a hundred copies, so I don’t think many people have seen it…) For more details about Moonchild Comics, consult the ever-useful Comixjoint.
The next cover is on a similar theme: mostly naked female, tentacled alien, the shaboodle, with an interesting choice of perspective to boot. And by “to boot” I mostly mean that it looks like somebody gave her a good kick on the shapely derrière.
Staying with the same publishing house (The Print Mint was a major publisher/distributor of underground comix in their heyday in the San Francisco Bay Area!) and the same theme, another damsel in the clutches of a (pretty cute, actually) alien. She’s wearing red, which of course is the traditional colour for cephalopod attacks.
« That’s the conditions that prevail! » — Jimmy Durante
Today, we salute noted vaudevillian, piano player, comedian, singer, film and radio star, raconteur and unlikely comics legend James Francis “Jimmy” Durante, born on this day, February 10, in 1893 (as it was a Friday, the family presumably fasted or had fish for dinner). He truly was a master of all media, as you’ll witness.
How do you cool down in a heatwave? In this household, when the temperature soars and drags the humidity along, we reach for a soothing surfing movie, preferably one by peerless surf auteurBruce Brown* (1937-2017). Last week, it was his 1959 opus, Surf Crazy, in which a group of SoCal surfers venture down to unsurfed Mexico, which in turn called to mind “Mexico“, an early ’70s underground two-pager recounting a similar sojourn.
Which, this nominally being a comics blog, leads us to the one and only artiste embodying and straddling both the underground cartoonist’s and surfer’s ethos, Rick Griffin!
*I’ll go even further: for me, it pretty much has to be Bruce Brown. His easy charm and wit, not to mention his untrained-yet-superb set of filmmaking skills leave other surfing cinéastes floundering in his wake. From what I’ve seen over the years, their work either seems too dry (ha!) or overdone and overeager. I’m still keeping an eye on the horizon, nevertheless. The relative unavailability of quality prints for most of these films is a hefty obstacle, while their soundtracks are far, far easier to find (e.g. Gone With the Wave, The Fantastic Plastic Machine…)
**“At this stage , Griffin’s lettering almost ceased to be functional as legible typography. In fact, in even earlier work, he jokingly incorporated meaningless calligraphy into his posters. Rick pioneered and carried to an extreme in the 1960’s this disregard for the legibility of lettering, creating totally abstract forms the resemble letters. His particular style influenced and encouraged artists locally and throughout the world to reconsider all previous limitations that they were placing on stylized lettering and the ways that it could be used with other graphic forms.” From Gordon McLelland‘s monograph, Rick Griffin (1980, Perigee).
Today, we’ll shine a light upon his epochal comic strip Phoebe and the Pigeon People. Here’s how it was hatched:
« In April 1978, Lynch teamed up with cartoonist Gary Whitney to produce weekly Phoebe and the Pigeon People strips. Lynch wrote them and Whitney drew them. “It was very easy and it got us invited to cocktail parties”, said Lynch. “We wanted to do a strip that would appeal to secretaries, rather than a strip that would appeal to the comic fan type person.”
« Lynch and Whitney launched a stage show based on the characters, called When Cultures Collide, with an improvisational theater troupe, The Practical Theater. The performance included a battle of the bands between rock and new wave musicians. » (quoted from Ink & Anguish, a Jay Lynch Anthology, 2018, Fantagraphics)
P&TPP was another one of those captivatingly freewheeling features that popped up during the heady heyday of alternative weeklies. A while back, we devoted a post to Tom Hachtman‘s Gertrude’s Follies, which bloomed in a similarly unlikely fertile milieu. In Phoebe’s case, The Chicago Reader was the publication it called home during its impressive 1978-1996 run.
For a few years now, they’ve (in this case, a shadowy outfit vaguely named “Alternative Comics“) been promising us a Phoebe collected edition. We’re still waiting. Hey, if the publisher needs more time to do the job right, so be it… but expectations are accordingly high.
Amazon’s blurb is an ominous portent: « The under-achieving Phoebe and friends hang out with beatnik people-headed jazz-loving beat-philosophy cooing pigeons in a park in Chicago. »
Uh, not even close. Here are a few highlight from the strip’s first four years, pulled from the pages of Kitchen Sink’s valiant three-issue run (1979-81); read these selections and you’ll know more about the strip than whoever wrote that blurb. You’re welcome!
I particularly love the strip’s anything-for-a-joke ethos: as was Lynch’s wont, he ran the gamut from lowbrow to highbrow, from squeaky-clean to salacious, from sunny side up to scrambled. Let’s face it, that bizarre premise would have challenged and defeated most would-be humourists within a few weeks, let alone a decade-and-a-half.
« 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.
« Here’s to the thugs and maniacs who fill each book with concepts so damnable, so putrescent, that they make the EC horror magazines of yore seem like mere cocktail napkin doggerel. I salute you. Now I’m going to take a bath in quicklime. » — Harlan Ellison toasts Death Rattle (1986)
In the 1980s, with the Comics Code Authority in its death throes, you’d think horror comics would have made a massive comeback. Well, they did… and they didn’t. Since there had been plenty of black and white magazines to operate outside of the Code’s restrictions, bringing bloodshed and mayhem to colour comics made the much-anticipated liberation a bit of a non-event. For my money, the truly interesting horror material opted for different approaches, now more experimental, then rather whimsical, at times clinical, sometimes abstract. Underground comix publisher Kitchen Sink, surviving thanks to its eclectic spirit, revived its early 70s horror anthology in 1985, an adventure that this go-round lasted eighteen issues and unleashed cutting-edge, nostalgic, shiver-inducing, thought-provoking and gut-busting efforts by such talents as Richard Corben, Rand Holmes, P.S. Mueller, Jack Jackson, Stephen Bissette, Mark Schultz (his Xenozoic Tales were introduced in Death Rattle 8, in 1986), and, on this unsettling cover, Charles Burns.
Before this cover, and speaking of clinical horror, Burns had earlier provided one of Death Rattle’s most harrowing gut-punches in issue one’s Ill Bred: a Horror Romance. I wouldn’t want to give away too much, but here are a few samples from this queasy masterpiece of gender fluidity, body horror and (justified) insect fear, seemingly inspired in equal parts by David Cronenberg films, Japanese art prints and Burns’ personal demons. Not for the queasy, but peruse it here if that ticks any of your happy boxes.
« You know, the dog food that Billy Jack loves! » — The Firesign Theatre
Ah, September the 18th. Today’s the birthday of the staggeringly accomplished William Stout (born in 1949), master of ancient reptiles, bootleg record covers, friend of The Firesign Theatre, former Russ Manning assistant (none but the best would do!), and I’ll spare you the illustrious details of his career in cinema. Still, let’s look around a bit, shall we?
Speaking of ’74, isn’t that rhino a dead ringer for Swan’s oleaginous right-hand man, Philbin, from Phantom of the Paradise?
And that’s Bill Stout for you: stunningly versatile, but always himself. Could any artist strive for more?
« 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.
I’ve always been fond of this oddball little ad, which appeared in mid-70s comic books (in this case, a late 1974 DC 100-pager). It certainly demonstrates the considerable influence that pioneers such as Thimble Theatre creator Elzie Segar had on many an underground cartoonist.
If the advertised products had been iron-ons (à laRoach Studios*) instead of finished t-shirts, they’d be easier to find today. The Mickey Rat shirt is still being produced these days, though likely a grey market item… same as it ever was. On the other hand, I can find neither hide nor hair of the Hebrew Shazam shirt. Anyone?
Here’s a bit of background on the Crazy World shirt, designed by (or swiped from) John Van Hamersveld, the genius behind the unforgettable The Endless Summermovie poster: « The face emblazoned across the chest of Mick Jagger in a 1972 New Musical Express feature on the Rolling Stones had a rich history according to its creator. The iconic image was the product of a mescaline and marijuana jag, after which Van Hamersveld was left with the enduring image of a man’s face with a big, toothy, wide smile. From a portrait of Jimi Hendrix he had made in 1968, Van Hamersveld came up with the Johnny Face logo the following year, which he used for promoting his own work. »
For me at least, it’s hard to look at Johnny Face without seeing in it echoes of The Face of Steeplechase, Coney Island’s widely-grinning mascot.
Trivia time: can you name the infamous individual behind the 1966 demolition of the beloved Steeplechase amusement park? Find the answer here.
As for the artist who crafted the Natural Trading Company ad, I was drawing a blank until a few years ago, when the wonderful Jay Lynch (1945-2017) kindly lifted the veil on that particular mystery: Jerry Kay was the stylish culprit. Much appreciated, Mr. Lynch!