« 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.
« People think the show gave Letterman an opportunity, but they don’t see the table with 10 guys in shorts wearing baseball caps pitching jokes for things for him to say. They don’t see the index cards that say: ‘Ask this first.’ It’s all spelled out for him, and everything is pre-interviews. He’s basically had to be this hand puppet, with everybody’s hands up his butt to tell him what to say and do. » — Joyce Brabner on David Letterman
We already snuck a peek at the darker side of DC Comics’ short-lived ’80 mirage Wasteland (18 issues, 1987-89), but the title’s modus operandi was variety… within a set format. Here’s another highlight from one of the earliest and strongest issues, before its co-authors TheSecond City comedy legend Del Close and Grimjack co-creator John Ostrander lost the plot, interest, or both. This is American Squalor (Wasteland no. 3, Feb. 1988, DC Comics). The underrated Don Simpson, the Wasteland bullpen’s utility player, its most versatile and loyal member, gets to strut his stuff, albeit in a lovely Crumb ersatz, down to the lettering.
What I find so impressive about this story is the scope of its ambition, fulfilled on several unlikely levels: it achieves success as a parody, a pastiche, a tribute, and as its own, standalone bit of workaday folk philosophy. Clearly, calling upon the trappings and rhythms of Crumb and Pekar’s American Splendor was just the starting point.
I’d love to track down (Close’s old Second City colleague) the Severn Darden monologue Close claims to have used as a springboard, but not everything was dutifully recorded for “posterity” in those days…
« I loved Harvey. He was a wonderful guest. The kind you don’t see anymore. The only real problem with Harvey was my immaturity. » — David Letterman
« Maybe we could find some way to send barges of trash to the sun and incinerate it all. Hey, it’s an idea. It’s an idea! » — Adam West
Lately, I’ve noticed that crusty ol’ Bob Crumb is being pilloried… well, more than he usually is. It appears that some members of the, er, younger cartooning generation are taking offense, in the most tone-deaf, irony-deprived and contextually-clueless way imaginable, to a half-a-century old, utterly static, wafer-thin and inaccurate idea of his work. « …old white cartoonists of the most explicitly homophobic, anti-feminist, racist, and controversial comics of 70s/80s ». Funny, I’d say that comment itself is more than slightly racist (not to mention ageist). Guess it’s open season on some targets.
I was going to feature what’s possibly my all-time favourite Crumb story, « The Religious Experience of Philip K. Dick » (Weirdo 17, Summer 1986), but lo and behold, it’s already available in full on the philipdick.com site… but as there’s no dearth of first-rate picks, here’s another comics essay from the pages of Weirdo (no. 6, Summer 1982). Please note how fair-minded and even-handed Crumb is here: I’m certainly guilty myself of a couple of the attitudes and behaviours depicted, but since the author’s challenge is so unflinchingly honest, his criticism becomes food for thought. He’s not interested in flattering the comfortable, including, most of the time, himself.
I’ll leave you with some sage words from Alan Moore, who describes the circumstances of his love affair with Angelfood McSpade: « Firstly, and more obviously in the case of this particular image, there was the open sexuality. Not having led a terribly sheltered life, I was familiar with the images of sex to be found in the neighbourhood magazine racks, ranging from Playboy to the Fry-the-Krauts-on-Passion-Bridge ‘Men’s Sweat’ periodicals of the day, to the soft-core titillation of homegrown products like Parade. Judging from the drawings and photographs that graced these magazines’ covers, sex was something that was deadly serious, not to say faintly miserable, smothered as it was in commercial gloss and the self-conscious poutings of the ex-stenographers staked out across the centre spread.
Angelfood was different. She was wearing, in addition to the grass skirt, a big, pleased-with-herself smile rather than the slightly-concussed ‘Just Raped’ look that her cover girl contemporaries were starting to adopt. It was my first taste of the sexual openness of the psychedelic movement, and though it bears little relevance to my overall impression of Crumb’s work, it requires mention in these terms for the personal impact that it had upon me. This is not to say that its effect in other areas was not equally as marked. Sexuality aside, this drawing was subversive.
For one thing, it was subversive in the way it commented upon race. Many cartoonists since Crumb have referred back, ironically, to the stereotyped image of black people that dominated the cartoons of the past, but this was the first time I’d seen it done: the first time I’d seen a cartoon depiction of a Negro so exaggerated that it called attention to the racialism inherent in all such depictions. » (excerpted from “Comments on Crumb”, Blab no. 3, Fall 1988, Kitchen Sink.)
p.s. This was our 200th post… thanks for your interest and support!
« What kind of people are these? Where do they come from, what do they do? What’s in a name? »
Coming out of nowhere (well, “From off the streets of Cleveland“, as it happens) in 1976, Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor was one of comics’ truest and most bracing alternatives. It wasn’t part of the Underground Comix movement, despite the participation of Pekar’s old friend and fellow record collector Robert Crumb, and it wasn’t like anything pushed out by the mainstream comics industry.
Crumb’s introduction to Doubleday/Dolphin’s 1986 anthology of early AS strips describes Pekar’s appeal better than anyone else is likely to:
« Yeah, Harvey is an ego-maniac; a classic case… a driven, compulsive, mad Jew… it’s something to see. But how else could he have gotten all those comics published, with almost no money; in total isolation from any comic-publishing ‘scene’ such as exists here in California, or in New York; constantly brow-beating artists to illustrate his stories; handling the distribution himself… only an ego-maniac would persist in the face of such odds. »
« The subject matter of these stories is so staggeringly mundane, it verges on the exotic! It is very disorienting at first, but after awhile you get with it. Myself, I love it… Pekar has proven once and for all that even the most seemingly dreary and monotonous of lives is filled with poignancy and heroic struggle. All it takes is someone with an eye to see, an ear to hear, and a demented, desperate Jewish mind to get it down on paper… there is drama in the most ordinary and routine of days, but it’s a subtle thing that gets lost in the shuffle… our personal struggles seem dull and drab compared with the thrilling, suspense-filled, action-packed lives of the characters who are pushed on us all the time in movies, tv shows, adventure novels and… those *other* comicbooks.
What Pekar does is certainly new to the comicbook medium. There’s never been anything even approaching this kind of stark realism. It’s hard enough to find it in literature, impossible in the movies and tv. It takes chutspah to tell it exactly the way it happened, with no adornment, no great wrap-up, no bizarre twist, nothing. Pekar’s genius is that he pulls this off, and does it with humor, pathos, all the drama you could ever want… and in a comic book yet! »
And here’s an atypical example of Mr. Pekar’s storytelling art, a rare but eloquent pantomime vignette. It originally saw print in DC Comics’ run of American Splendor comic books (no. 1, Nov. 2006, published under the Vertigo imprint and edited by Jonathan Vankin.) The symbiosis at play here between writer and artist makes ‘Delicacy’ my very favourite story by Hilary Barta, who somehow never gets matched with a script worthy of his tremendous talent, even when he’s working with Alan Moore (Moore can be very funny, but superhero parodies, even his, seldom are… and Splash Brannigan wasn’t exactly side-splitting). This is a wonderful oddity, one of two times that Barta and Pekar collaborated. Bon appétit!