And now for a creepy tidbit with a sensibility at once contemporary and rooted in the somewhat faraway past — namely the 1930’s. From 1997, Amnesia drips from the mind and pen of the… unpredictableAl Columbia.
Young Mr. Columbia then resurfaced with a new style more his own, and created The Biologic Show (2 issues, 1994-95, Fantagraphics). He also contributed a handful of striking short pieces to the publisher’s Zero Zero anthology, and this is one.
To my eye’s delight, the chief outside influence at work here is early cartoon talkies, in particular those produced by the Fleisher Brothers (Betty Boop, Koko the Clown, Popeye, Superman). In fact, I can easily envision Koko himself starring in this macabre vignette, though I sure would not wish it on the poor lad.
You won’t often hear me recommend video games, but there’s one that appears to draw from the same bottomless, poisoned inkwell as Columbia: Limbo (2012), brought to you by independent Danish game developer Playdead.
Today’s Tentacle Tuesday is a really fun one, given that its focus is the snazzy art of Richard Sala (1954-2020), deceased, alas, far too soon at 65, when he was about to launch a new webcomic.
Granted, perhaps the plots of his stories often don’t make that much sense. But! they’re awash in half-naked damsels, sad-eyed defeateds, vampires and ghouls of all kinds, a mad scientist or two, dark alleys and schoolgirl academies and strangely ominous museums and… all of this drawn in Sala’s easily recognizable, deliciously scary style. Peculia is definitely involved in this post (see co-admin RG’s Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 17), but so is Judy Drood, girl detective, plucky heroine and first-rate fighter… and a host of other characters! So follow me as I kick things off with some beautifully painted Evil Eye covers (and backs!) – Sala had an impeccable sense of colour.
I complimented Sala’s beautiful colour work earlier (and hopefully demonstrated this point!), but Sala’s black-and-white work is equally satisfying. Shall we have a look-see?
Some plant tentacles make an appearance in Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires (2013, Fantagraphics):
The Grave Robber’s Daughter (2007, Fantagraphics) spins the yarn of what happens when Judy Dredd is stranded in a strangely empty town… empty until the clowns come out, that is. I really enjoyed this 96-page tale (read it here), with its quick-paced, cohesive plot, top-notch art and of course a good dose of Coulrophobia. I don’t like clowns, either. Here are two pages highlighting Freddie, ‘the Crawling Thing’, and his manifold tentacles:
Finally, as a little bonus, I am including a pin-up that doesn’t have any tentacles to recommend it, but is otherwise perfectly appropriate to this not-quite-end-of-September. Co-admin RG has plenty up his sleeve with his upcoming Hallowe’en count-down, but I am allowing myself just one furtive foray into vampire territory…
Sala explains: « According to the editor, I was one of only a few of the cartoonists asked to submit ideas whose submissions were ‘sex positive’. That is, according to him, most of the submissions by younger cartoonists were more in line with the kind of scatological, angry, ‘gross-out’, excretion-happy humor more typical of today, or focused on the adversarial relationship between men and women. My somewhat sweet oral sex joke seems pretty quaint in comparison, I guess. »
Since the previous instalments of Tentacle Tuesday had specific, unified themes, the time has come for another anything-goes grab bag of goodies. That being said, I am in the mood for bright colours, as the lawns and plants around these parts have acquired that drab, dusty shade of brownish green that’s characteristic of August and its dry spells…
This epic Cthulhu-vs-Godzilla scene was drawn by Chaz Folgar for a 2010 online illustration competition – the exact wording of the challenge was “Cthulhu and Godzilla with the fate of Japan in the balance“. I’m definitely betting on Cthulhu (see Tentacle Tuesday: Ho ho ho, Mr. Lovecraft if you need a refresher!), ancient and powerful and eternal being that he is. Godzilla, in the meantime? Just a prehistoric, overgrown lizard (with apologies to all Kaiju film buffs).
In a somewhat different vein, here is a postcard/cartoon/illustration by British artist Ann Edwards (visit her website!) She has a bouncy, colourful style that’s really fun… especially if there are tentacles involved.
In a similar format, and perhaps even more colourful, is this cartoon that I found in an article about My Octopus Teacher, a movie about the filmmaker Craig Foster and the octopus he makes friends with. Amazingly (and not in a good way), the article did not specifically credit this image to anybody in particular. Did Foster document his octopus shenanigans with cartoons? Is this the work of some completely unrelated artist that was included because it was on topic?
Peter Bagge’s Other Stuff (Fantagraphics, May 2013) is a collection of Bagge’s shorter stories from the 90s and 2000s. I’m not really a Bagge fan (his sense of humour is too based on making audiences cringe), but I enjoyed reading this one, though my inclination to revisit it is very low.
Today’s Tentacle Tuesday doesn’t have an over-arching theme, other than featuring some bits and bobs I’ve accumulated – from something drawn in 1942 to a cartoon created by computer in 2020. In a sense, this way of proceeding is much closer to the way my brain works, jumping from theme to theme and adding brackets within brackets. This is somewhat off topic, but incidentally, if that’s the way your brain works, too, I highly recommend David Foster Wallace‘s non-fiction material (read 27 of his articles and essays here!) and The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War by Jaroslav Hašek for a deliciously rambling approach to story telling and arguments.
If you’re not already following WOT’s favourite cartoonist Roger Langridge on Instagram, I highly recommend doing so: his daily slice-of-life strips provide an interesting glimpse into the author’s family life, inner dialogue, and artistic endeavours. You can also support him on Patreon (he has a measly 54 supporters right now – compare that to the thousands of subscribers boasted by some considerably less talented comics artists, who shall remain nameless). The following daily from December, 2020 features the aforementioned introspection, a glimpse at the artistic process, Garfield and tentacles.
Texan cartoonist Sam Hurt is the creator of Eyebeam, and I say that with a similar reverence that one would employ in talking about some deity that has concocted a self-governing universe. It is a strange, a bitter-sweet, topsy-turvy place with its own impeccable logic, to which our world remains criminally indifferent. Tackling the problem of talking about Eyebeam, which is both the name of the protagonist and the title of the comic strip, is something we haven’t yet had the courage of doing on this blog. Still, co-admin RG bravely dipped his toe in these waters and talked about a connected comic series – read his All Hail Peaches, Queen of the Universe! and admire his courage. I will also add that Sam Hurt is a great painter, and that I am lucky to have one of this paintings hanging on my office wall (best Christmas gift, ever).
From its humble beginnings around 1978, Eyebeam has grown and survived (with some interruptions) to this day! Strips from 1996 until now are available on GoComics. Someday, fortified with some Dutch courage, we will do a proper post about it, we promise.
I’ve never actually read Usagi Yojimbo, the eminently popular rōnin comic book epic by Stan Sakai. Rolling Stones’ slapdash list of best graphic novels, insultingly titled The 50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels (which immediately makes one feel that they consider non-superhero comics somehow inferior), places it at 43. I will doubtlessly get around to at least reading one volume or two at some point – Sakai is definitely a talented artist, and I have nothing against anthropomorphic animals when they’re well-drawn. However, a dedication to reading the whole series is not for the faint-hearted: there are 35 books in total, which have been collected into nine omnibus volumes in more recent years, a considerable time commitment.
‘Usagi Yojimbo’ literally means something like ‘rabbit bodyguard’, which is what the main character, Miyamoto Usagi, is. Here he is fighting an octopus or two!
Theodor Seuss Geisel, far better known under the pen name of Dr. Seuss, was not only the author of famous books for children, but also a perceptive political cartoonist. Between 1941 and 1943, he was working for PM, a New York daily newspaper, and this is when he produced a series of satirical cartoons about the Policy of Appeasement, the British policy makers’ attempt at avoiding a war with Germany by conceding to some of Hitler’s demands.
Today, let’s dip a toe (at the risk of losing it) into the midnight domain of Swedish cartoonist and filmmaker Max Andersson (b. 1962). It’s a relentlessly-perilous scene, but like Kaz’s Underworld comic strip or Arnt Jensen‘s Limbo video game, I find it unexpectedly comforting in spite of (and thanks to) all the darkness, both thematic and in density of ink. In Andersson’s case, might it be owing to the author’s kindness to his protagonists? That’s a factor with odds I rather favour.
I don’t doubt that certain readers of a more sensitive cast will differ, but I posit that the cheerful lack of clemency the artist affords the callous, the cruel and the pernicious makes Andersson’s universe a profoundly moral one. Contrary to, say, your average American action blockbuster, such a purge of the villainous doesn’t restore the status quo… because here, malevolence is the status quo. Andersson’s put-upon little people are true outsiders, and his stories feel like Kafka, but blessed with dénouements far merrier yet merited.
See? A happy ending and all, and even a rare glimpse of daylight.
Soon after he began to publish his work, Gary Groth spoke with Andersson (The Comics Journal no. 174 (Feb. 1995, Fantagraphics):
Groth: What would you point to as your defining influences? How did you develop this approach, style and point of view?
Andersson: What I always have in my backbone is the style of classic comics, the stuff I read when I was a kid.
G: I don’t see much Tintin.
A: No, but it’s there if you look closely. The basic technique of how to tell a story well. I try to do that because I want the storytelling to work, to be easy to read.
G: Were you influenced by sources outside of comics — film, literature?
And don’t leave out old cartoons! Andersson’s thoroughly animist way dovetails neatly with early animation’s unhinged, anything-can-happen mode. By which I mean that anything and everything possessed motion and sentience, be they boulders or pebbles, thunderclouds, petals or creepers, sparks or flames, pantaloons or braces, blunderbusses or bassoons…
About Pixy, fellow dweller-in-darkness Charles Burns exulted: « So you think it’s a cold, creepy, world out there, huh? Hah! Just wait’ll you get a load of Max Andersson’s Pixy… safe sex suits, buildings that eat people, drunken fœtuses with bazookas, money that shits on you, recyclable bodies… hey, wait a minute, that’s not creepy, that’s fun. MY kind of fun. »
For more dope on this important creator’s endeavours, do sidle over to his official website!
« I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion. » — Henry David Thoreau
Have you picked out that special pumpkin for your fast incoming (dark, presumably) celebrations? If not, better get on it — someone (or something) else may be casting covetous glances and about to call dibs.
The lovely barefoot damsel is Richard Sala’s plucky heroïne (well, one of them!) Peculia. She was the star of Sala’s showcase title Evil Eye (1998-2004, Fantagraphics), as well as the graphic novel Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires (2005). Fret not, she can fend for herself.
As you may or may not have heard, Mr. Sala was one of the many notables we lost over the course of this nearly unparalleled Annus horribilis. Let’s remember him through this heartfelt eulogy penned by his closest friend and esteemed colleague, Mr. Daniel Clowes.
Wasting the wide range of my xeno-tech training on a home office job was like putting a carpenter in charge of the psycho-ward. Like any fish out of water, I didn’t fit in. Bureaucracy said I didn’t belong.
So they finally shipped me out.
‘Murder on the O’Brien Express‘, published in Keif Llama – Xeno-Tech no. 4
« The ability to think like another species is a rare and galactically valuable gift. Those who are capable of it are called xenotechs. »
Technically, Kēif Llama (pronounced keef yamma) is a government official specializing in communication with alien species. Off record, she tends to poke her nose into beehives, and wards off attempts to deter her from doing so until she gets to the bottom of whatever’s happening, often pursuing the investigation far beyond formal confed business. When the government wants her to provide an quick’n’easy solution, or to hush things up, she kicks up a well-justified fuss. For this reason, despite being a top-notch xeno-tech, the planets to which she gets sent are further and further away from civilized life, the missions assigned to her increasingly inconsequential. Inconsequential to the government, that is – following the thread of a seemingly random event, Llama often stumbles upon some serious plot, often than not concocted by some evil corporation (and occasionally supported by the government itself).
Her name is probably a sly wink to Keith Laumer, a sci-fi/fantasy writer whose Retief series is about a diplomat solving alien conflicts on various planets. Except that Retief always comes out with his nose clean and his credentials reinforced by his success. Llama, on the other hand, stumbles through the puzzling and melancholy worlds she’s banished to with an increasing sense of despondence and powerlessness. She often lacks information to make informed decisions, though not through lack of trying; and in this universe of shades of grey, it is often unclear which is right and which is wrong. Saving one alien life can lead to a whole planet perishing. Overlooking a minor detail means disaster, and when hindsight is 20/20, her burden of guilt is heavy to bear.
In FF1986: Keif Llama, Lars Ingebrigtsen, who likes this series with a few reservations, argues that “The stories are problematic. More than a few of them end with a sense of “Huh? That’s the end? Did I miss something?” And most of them feature a genocide of some sort or another. After a while, it starts grating on you.” I would respectfully disagree: these stories are a bit like a slice of life. Sometimes we start in the middle of something that’s already under way, and sometimes we get but a small glimpse of some larger, out-of-reach picture. Not everything gets explained, but that’s not because Howarth couldn’t tie the ends of this plot together: he’s our guide through strange worlds, but even a guide doesn’t know everything. This is *excellent* science-fiction, as far as I’m concerned, imaginative and wide of scope. And Llama does have her moments of triumph (made more precious by their rarity), when she manages to outwit the fools, the bureaucrats, the religious fanatics whose actions would lead to a destruction of a precarious ecological balance or a grave injustice. Howarth’s hallmark humorous winks are scattered throughout the stories, giving the readers a welcome respite from the frequently heavy subject matter.
But more importantly, it’s those ‘problematic’ – whether downright cryptic or just lacking closure – endings that make Kēif Llama into a truly striking body of work. Depressing, it can certainly be (thus the importance to not binge-read your way through these comics, assuming you get your hands on a bunch of them at the same time). Yet as we accompany Llama on her ‘journey of discovery’ that leads her (and us) through a maze of corrupt (or just so weary they can’t be bothered) officials, profit-hungry conglomerates, macho idiots who can’t bear to take orders from women, and alien locals who mostly want to be left alone or refuse to explain their culture to an ‘ugly and smelly’ human, the weight of the universe Howarth has created settles squarely on our shoulders, and keeps us pinned until some uncomfortable truths are faced, commonly held beliefs are unravelled, and a few tears are shed. Happy endings often come at a heavy sacrifice.
On a lighter note, fans of Matt Howarth will indubitably have noticed the abundant presence of tentacles in all of his series. Howarth is exceptionally good at drawing aliens: tangible, ‘believable’ aliens who come in a staggering variety of shapes and sizes, and rarely look like some Earth animal with extra appendages (something artists of more limited imagination resort to quite a lot).
A small-time sheriff, alien as he may be, summarizes the type of thanks Llama frequently gets in this tirade: « You’re an ambulatory disaster area, Llama. Smuggling fiascos, international incidents, they can’t even ship you to the frontier without trouble following you. You’re in transit to Edison-Blue, Llama. I don’t want you or your bad luck in my town any longer than is painfully necessary. »
« Down metal snake corridors Steely grey engines hum for nobody but me No sound comes from the sea above me No messages crackles through the radio leads They’ll never know, never no never How strange life in dark water can be… »*
Now that we’re finally enjoying proper autumnal weather – which is to say, grey, rainy and beautiful – my thoughts turn to the dark and the wet. Aquatic octopus scenes fit this mood beautifully: those mute scenes where characters are as if frozen in the clutches of a gargantuan octopus. In which overeager octopod grabbers get ferociously punished for their ill-advised enthusiasm, winding up, more often than not, on the wrong end of a sharp… implement.
Original art by Mark Schultzintended for the Subhuman paperback collection (which, as far as I know, never saw print):
« Wherever despotism abounds, the sources of public information are the first to be brought under its control. Where ever the cause of liberty is making its way, one of its highest accomplishments is the guarantee of the freedom of the press. » — Calvin Coolidge
Ah, the pitfalls of anchoring yourself to the news cycle: given the shocking news, last week, of the impending, unjustified closure of one of the greatest American journalistic institutions, the independent military daily newspaper The Stars and Stripes (founded in 1861!). I was all set to cobble together a series of posts showcasing the work of S&S’s greatest cartoonists, but then the massively unpopular decision was just as abruptly reversed. For now.
With but a single exception, the following are samples from his essential Up Front collection (1945), which Mauldin humbly opens with: « My business is drawing, not writing, an this text is pretty much background for the drawings. »
But such a background! Mauldin is, naturally, funny and insightful, but there’s much to learn therein, not merely about men in war, but just about everything under the sun. While so many nowadays mix up freedom and privilege, it’s good to be gently reminded of the high price of both.
For a deeper dive into Mauldin’s war through the eyes of his ragged infantrymen, scrounge yourself a copy of Fantagraphics’ glorious Willie & Joe: The WWII Years (2008).
In closing, shall we hear from another president?
« I have great respect for the news and great respect for freedom of the press and all of that. » — Donald J. Trump
« It is the beginning of wisdom when you recognize that the best you can do is choose which rules you want to live by, and it’s persistent and aggravated imbecility to pretend you can live without any. » — Wallace Stegner
It’s funny how, closing in on 300 posts, I’m only getting around to discussing some of my very favourite series. As my co-conspirator ds points out, these are far harder to do justice to.
Many of these were abject commercial failures, but providential glimpses into fully-formed universes we must leave forever unexplored save in our dreams. In the eighties and nineties, Fantagraphics were particularly courageous in following up on their principles (explicitly elaborated upon in the pages of The Comics Journal) and publishing material for which there wasn’t much of an obvious market. For instance, the four issues of Jim Woodring‘s pre-Frank anthology, Jim. Still my favourite work of his… but a definite commercial non-starter.
He’s not really an anarchist, you know. This amusingly led an overly literal-minded, self-styled hardcore aficionado (from the nerve centre of American Punk, Monroe, LA) to testily complain to the authors: « Where do you get off calling your lame comic ‘Kid Anarchy’?!! Yup, I thought for sure this might have something to do with Anarchy, hardcore, social and political matters and so on, but what does it turn out to be? A deadbeat story about a bunch of rednecks sitting around a house. You guys suck! Why don’t you get your shit together and do something you understand, like a story about two posers wanking each other! Get a life! »
Ah, but Kid Anarchy could have been utter offal… had it conformed to that (mis)reader’s expectations. Anyway, see for yourself.
To me, the deeply poignant charm of KA rests in its character study of a band of outsiders, drawn together by virtue of greater difference from the rest of the populace than from one another. While each of them outwardly appears to represent a ‘type’, this facile pigeonholing is defeated and contradicted at every turn. Not one of them fits the tidy category that convention and circumstance seek to wedge them into. Also notable is the tonal choice undergirding the narrative: let’s face it, young Tommy is generally a sullen, immature prick, while the authorial voice of his older self is honestly rueful and brimming with hard-earned insight. I would have loved to see where the story was bound: would the gang dissolve? Would we follow Tommy with a new entourage? What’s the sinister secret behind Pop’s low prices?
As it was, the third issue, appearing over a year after the second, made it clear that it was an indulgent boon from the publisher.