A Most Instructive Visit to the Meyerowitz Aviary

« When birds burp, it must taste like bugs. » — Calvin

Like John James Audubon (and Roger Daltrey, in his own inimitable fashion), Rick Meyerowitz (b. 1943, The Bronx, NY) clearly loves to draw birds. Mayerowitz, among numerous other career highlights, was a prolific National Lampoon contributor (he even authored the mag’s definitive insider history, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, published in 2010). At the very least, you may be familiar with his Animal House poster [ have a gander at that portfolio! ]

In 1973, he gave us Birds of Israel (included at the end of this post); farther along, he (with his frequent collaborator, Montréal-born writer Sean Kelly) gave us a look at The Birds of Summer, (2007, The New York Times). And in 2016, these ardent but irreverent crypto-ornithologists were at it again with Odd Birds, which added in excess of one hundred and fifty fascinating new species to the tally. However, Meyerowitz only illustrated a handful (but such a handful!), which I present to you here. Still, how I would love to behold his depictions of, for instance: The Three-Day Lark; the Venomous Spite; the Oblivious Walking Jay; the Perpetual Jackhammer; the Yellow-Bellied Stool Pigeon; the Groveling Wince; the Hoodwinked Bagholder; the Celibate Tot-Fondler; Zimmerman’s Cryptic Drone; the Barecheeked Thongbird; the Bald-Faced Lyre; the Fact-Spinning Mockingbird; the Screaming Scarlet Manager; the Gulf Coast Petrel Dumper; Oscar’s Pink-Bottomed Boychick; the Crapulous Binge; the Free-Screech Owl… or the Swaggering Gut-Sucker! Man, this project needs to go the full book route.

THE RAVING HOMELAND JINGO: « This recently introduced European species is often mistaken (by itself) for native American. It proudly displays its red neck, white knuckles, and bluenosed morality, kept aloft by drafts of hot air. The Jingo emits gruesome shrieks in defense of its territory against the occasional Left-Winged News Hawk. The Jingo is anatomically anomalous, in that its testicles are located in its cranium, and its brains are safely secured behind and exceptionally tight sphincter. »
« The all-too-common Back Lot Goose, with its natural prey, the Wide-eyed Chippy. »
Meet HITCHCOCK’S MacGUFFIN — « An Old World species, introduced to California: a plump, lugubrious bird given to stealthy silences, sudden shrieks, and terrifying displays. Its diet consists of red herrings and snakes in the grass. Despite its reputation, has laid the occasional egg. Sometimes mistaken for Hammett’s Maltese Falcon; not to be confused with any of Spielberg’s Mawkish Cliff Hangers. »
THE CHRISTOPHER WREN: « Like the Francis Drake, the Dean Swift and the Florence Nightingale, this bird prefers a cold, damp, dreary environment such as the city of London, England, in which the Christopher Wren constructs nests of preposterous design, monumental size, and no apparent use. (This species is not related to the similarly named Christopher Robin, native to the Hundred Acre Wood in East Sussex.) »
« A Malibu Shack-Crasher. » Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word!
« A grizzled Hoary-Headed Junk Chucker faces down a Stat-Grubbing Peckerhead. »
These cartoons appeared within the pages of The American Bystander no. 2 (Spring 2016), bearing this soothing cover by the esteemed Charles Barsotti (1933-2014). Do check out and lend your support to the Bystander, which has most deservedly been deemed “The last great humor magazine“.
Where the good Mr. Meyerowitz seems to have first hatched his theme: Birds of Israel, from The National Lampoon Encyclopedia of Humor (1973, edited by Michael O’Donoghue).

-RG

Excelsior! A Century of Jean Shepherd

« Night after night, Shepherd forged the inchoate thoughts and feelings of a whole generation of fans into an axiom that went something like: ‘The language of our culture no longer describes real life and, pretty soon, something’s gonna blow.‘. » — Donald Fagen

Today’s a very august occasion, for it marks the birth centennial of that sublime storyteller, Jean Shepherd (July 26, 1921 – October 16, 1999), so we’ll celebrate it… in comics!

« Since 2012, cartoonists Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall have been collaborating on an extensive interview project with John Wilcock, an underground publisher of the 1960s. The graphic novel biography… focuses a year-at-a-time on Wilcock’s interesting and largely undocumented life, from co-founding the Village Voice in 1955, to becoming a member of Andy Warhol’s Factory in the early Sixties, establishing the Underground Press Syndicate, and other interesting moments, until Wilcock left NYC in 1972. » This particular entry appeared in the pages of The American Bystander no. 2 (Spring, 2016). For more info on the project (including a generous helping of choice excerpts), now complete and available for purchase, direct your browser here.
The front and back covers of I, Libertine‘s paperback edition (1956, Ballantine). Here’s a full, fascinating account of how this literary hoax unfolded. Take note, fellow Theodore Sturgeon fans!
Shep’s second LP, Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles (1959, Elektra), was abundantly illustrated by his good friend, Renaissance Man (and local favourite) Shel Silverstein, who also authored the liner notes and played washboard and kazoo!
« In addition to the liner notes, Shel drew a veritable parade of characters marching across the front and back album cover of Foibles, incorporating the message, ‘Jean Shepherd is a dirty rotten, one-way sneaky son of a bitch‘, spelling it out backwards to escape the censors. » (from Lisa Rogak’s A Boy Named Shel (2007, St. Martin’s Press)
Another interesting comics connection: In Foibles‘ opening track, [ hear it here ] Shep recalls an old favourite: « How many of you remember ol’ Peter Pain? He used to work in the comic strips, you remember, in those little strips that appeared under Moon Mullins, under The Gumps? He was green, was shaped like a pickle, he had stubble all over, he wore a black derby. He was a tremendous figure… a great American! He was the first Beat Poet. » Here’s one of Peter’s misadventures, circa 1948, illustrated by Jack Betts. You’ll find many more of these entertaining ads on Ger Apeldoorn’s highly-recommended blog, The Fabulous Fifties.
Seldom seen since its publication, this was Shepherd’s collaboration with Wally Wood at the height of his powers. The Night People vs. “Creeping Meatballism appeared in Mad Magazine no. 32 (Apr. 1957, EC).
One gets a sense of Shepherd’s outsize and hopefully abiding significance from the quality of the minds he has helped warp. For example, here’s Underground Comix pioneer and Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith‘s fond tribute to Mr. Shepherd, published soon after Shep’s passing. A grateful tip of the hat to Mr. Griffith, who graciously provided me with a high-quality image of this, his Sunday, January 9, 2000 strip.

Let’s close in highfalutin fashion with a most pertinent bit of Longfellow (1807–1882):

The shades of night were falling fast,
As through an Alpine village passed
A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice,
A banner with the strange device,
      Excelsior!

His brow was sad; his eye beneath,
Flashed like a falchion from its sheath,
And like a silver clarion rung
The accents of that unknown tongue,
      Excelsior!

In happy homes he saw the light
Of household fires gleam warm and bright;
Above, the spectral glaciers shone,
And from his lips escaped a groan,
      Excelsior!

“Try not the Pass!” the old man said;
“Dark lowers the tempest overhead,
The roaring torrent is deep and wide!”
And loud that clarion voice replied,
      Excelsior!

“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest
Thy weary head upon this breast! “
A tear stood in his bright blue eye,
But still he answered, with a sigh,
      Excelsior!

“Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch!
Beware the awful avalanche!”
This was the peasant’s last Good-night,
A voice replied, far up the height,
      Excelsior!

At break of day, as heavenward
The pious monks of Saint Bernard
Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,
A voice cried through the startled air,
      Excelsior!

A traveller, by the faithful hound,
Half-buried in the snow was found,
Still grasping in his hand of ice
That banner with the strange device,
      Excelsior!

There in the twilight cold and gray,
Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,
And from the sky, serene and far,
A voice fell like a falling star,
      Excelsior!

-RG

Rick Geary and The American Bystander

« You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why —Santa Claus is coming to town. » — Haven Gillespie

Taking stock, I can’t help feeling that the singular Rick Geary (b. 1946) is a creative force that’s taken for granted. He’s been consistently chugging along at a dizzyingly high level of erudite inspiration and craft since the mid-70s. His work has been recompensed and saluted several times (an Inkpot from the San Diego Comic-Con in 1980; a Magazine and Book Illustration Award in 1994 and a Graphic Novel award in 2017, both from the prestigious National Cartoonists Society…) yet he’s remained kind of a well-kept secret, a cartoonist’s cartoonist. Even as he turned up in countless anthologies, in most cases, it felt as if he didn’t quite belong, didn’t exactly jibe with the respective audiences of, say, Dark Horse Presents or Pulse (on the other hand, High Times wasn’t a bad fit!).

Still, it’s fair to say that his following is one quite discrete from the comics mainstream. The Geary devotee must ever remain vigilant, for one never can anticipate his next move.

Which brings me to The American Bystander, which Newsweek deemed « The last great humor magazine », and to which Geary has been contributing since its second issue… and for once, it feels like home.

The Bystander, according to Wikipedia…

… features contributions from many notable comedy writers, illustrators and cartoonists. The Bystander is designed to provide a classic print humor magazine experience similar to that delivered by National Lampoon, SPY, Harold Hayes-era Esquire and many others in the pre-internet era. Yet according to The New York Times, The American Bystander “does not just belong to the tradition of defunct magazines like The National Lampoon and Spy. Its nostalgic, lightly witty style evokes influences that have been dead even longer, like the raconteur Jean Shepherd and the sophisticated stylist Robert Benchley.”

Mr. Geary’s magnificent cover for The American Bystander no. 9 (Fall, 2018). « Have Gun, Will Travel — Wire Santa, North Pole »

The Bystander‘s editor-publisher, Michael Gerber, exults: « In addition to his civilian fans, Rick Geary is one of those illustrators that other illustrators love, and I am with them all 100%. This drawing, entitled ‘New Mexico Christmas’, appeared in my inbox mere moments after I’d given Rick the assignment — which is why editors love him, too! »

While this ever-industrious auteur has produced graphic novels galore in the glorious Geary fashion, I remain fondest of his short-form pieces. Here’s a choice handful plucked from Bystander issues.

From The American Bystander no. 7 (Winter 2017).
From The American Bystander no. 8 (Summer 2018).
From The American Bystander no. 9 (Fall 2018).
From The American Bystander no. 10 (March 2019).

And while ’tis the Season, I would be remiss in neglecting to mention that TAB’s latest issue no. 18, is hot off the presses. More details here. And should you crave to sample the goods… gratis — that option’s on the table as well!

This is The American Bystander no. 18, boasting this festive cover by Rick Meyerowitz.

That said, Happy Holidays, everyone. Be merry but above all be safe!

-RG

Stan Mack and the Delicate Art of Eavesdropping

« There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head. » — Thornton Wilder

I’ve always been drawn to the more observational areas of cartooning, and Stan Mack (b. May 13, 1936) surely counts among the preeminent practitioners of the form, thanks to his long-running strip (in the pages of The Village Voice for a couple of decades!), Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies.

Therein was to be found the cartoonist’s bold pledge: « Guarantee: All Dialogue Reported Verbatim ». Oh, it might seem easy, but I’m quite convinced it was anything but.

In point of fact, here’s some insight on Mr. Mack’s modus operandi, from the horse’s mouth:

« Carry a little pad and pencil. Dress to blend in quietly. Get to the destination with enough time to case the joint. It helps to be not too tall, not too short, not too dark, not too handsome, not too ugly, not too old and not too young.

When I arrive, if I find that everybody knows each other, I make a quick exit and forget it. Otherwise, the system continues: smile and keep your ears open. Find the men’s room (always good for a line), find coffee and food, which is very helpful unless you are trying to take notes. Look for a few convenient corners in which to hide. Learn to walk backwards in order to get closer to groups. Learn to stand in the middle of a mob and like it. And, finally, learn to change direction suddenly in order to follow a good line floating by.

Appear preoccupied. If you are engaged in conversation, pay no attention to what you are saying. Say anything. Fake it. You can’t listen and think at the same time. Float through the event. Each has its own particular current. Professional wrestlers and East Side gallery-hoppers move at different speeds.

When I start to draw a strip, I sit with my deadline approaching and a pad full of quotes and doodles. I try to draw the kind of people who actually said the lines.

I don’t know why some comments seem important and others dull, but I know that it isn’t until I begin to edit that material that the story emerges. It’s often a surprise.

It’s the unexpected that makes it work. Therefore it helps to approach everything with an open mind and no preconceptions, whether it involves policemen or transsexuals or frisbee addicts. »

« I hear words I couldn’t make up. I think, ”that’s something I would never have thought of. I’ll just write it down.” I work out of other people’s heads. »

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Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, The Divorce (March, 1977, The Village Voice).

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Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, An Art Sale in Suburbia (April, 1977, The Village Voice).

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Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, Sex Accessories (October, 1977, The Village Voice).

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Stan Mack’s Outtakes, The Sting (Adweek, 1983)

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Stan Mack’s Outtakes, What a Bummer (Adweek, 1983)

« So, what’s he done lately? », you may ask. Well, you will nowadays find him in the pages of The American Bystander, where the cream of America’s extant cartooning geniuses gather to keep warm. Rick Geary, R.O. Blechman, Sam Gross, Drew Friedman, P.S. Mueller, Tom Hachtman, M.K. Brown… and these are just some of *my* favourites. Do them (and yourself) a favour, check it out!

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Stan Mack’s Chronicles, Up His Alley (The American Bystander no. 7, Winter 2017).

Astute Mack-o-philes (and I’ve every reason to believe that they are astute) might point out that I neglected to bring up the artist’s splendidly surreal early ’70s National Lampoon feature, Mule’s Diner; fear not, its time in the limelight will soon(ish) be at hand, so stay tuned.

-RG