Plastic Dog in a Plastic Age*

Given that I grew up in the days when PC games were just starting to be a thing (what a pleasure it is to reminisce about Secret Agent, Crystal Caves, or Jill of the Jungle…), anything pixelated immediately gives me a warm rush and a sense of pleasant nostalgia, be it the quiet appeal of Toyoi Yuuta‘s art or modern ‘pixel art’ games that go for that retro feel (the dark glory of Blasphemous, the cozy feel of Stardew Valley!). As for comics, I suspect most are drawn on a computer these days, but few of them use pixel art per se. One look at Plastic Dog, and it was puppy love, especially given its acerbic sense of humour.

Henning Wagenbreth, born in 1962 in East Germany (which is perhaps what partially gave him a lifelong anti-totalitarian stance), is an illustrator/graphic designer who actually excels in a number of techniques. Lambiek Comiclopedia touts him as ‘German pioneer in comics created with the computer‘; I don’t know enough about the development of electronically-drawn comics specifically in that part of the world to state that with certainty, although this is as good a time as any to mention that Peter B. Gillis and Mike Saenz‘ wonderful Shatter (1985-1988) is usually credited as the first significant comic book created on computer. Topic for another day, no doubt.

Be as it may, Wagenbroth did something interesting: he designed the strip Plastic Dog in 2000 specifically for perusal on early pocket computers (such as Pocket PC or Palm OS), which had a black and white screen of 160×160 pixels. In 2004, colourized versions migrated to weekly newspaper Die Zeit, printed within its pages, but also available as downloads on their website.

The French publisher L’Association released a 26-page collection of Plastic Dog strips, translated into French from German by Eugénie Pascal. As far as I know, no official English translation exists, aside from maybe one or two random strips (probably translated by Wagenbreth himself). The following pages are scans from this French edition.

Dead Wood. Plastic Dog calls the police to report a stolen wooden cabinet, to find that it’s been removed by the Tree Liberation Army, who bury their ‘felled, deported, dismembered and abused’ friend in the tree cemetery.
The Killer Cars. Plastic Dog goes out to search for his missing child, to find the latter in pieces after being attacked by driverless cars gone rogue. In the final panel, PD says ‘tomorrow, we’ll buy you a nice new body’.
Nothing Ever Happens. ‘A grey day, pure boredom’, bemoans Plastic Dog, ‘I am always in the wrong place at the wrong time, and everything is so predictable…’
In his never-ending search for new experiences, Plastic Dog stumbles upon a device that proffers guidelines to achieve maximum happiness. Its instructions are not devoid of poetry: ‘give all your money to be eaten by zoo animals’, ‘do 15 squats on top of a chemical factory’, ‘make three loafs of bread laugh in the middle of the night’, ‘plant wind instruments in the garden’. The final piece of advice (‘withdraw into solitude and practice patience’) is what seems to defeat PD’s enthusiasm (seems like in his world, getting lost in the desert is the only way to solitude…)

The following is the last PD strip, and readers are thanked at the bottom for their many emails and downloads. There’s also something about a free TV as a reward, but I wouldn’t bank on it 😉

A family visit to the zoo! Touted as the last surviving specimens by the guide, these animals may not quite be what they seem. The flamingo complains, ’12 hours standing on the same leg!’, but Plastic Dog argues that having to constantly hang upside down is much worse.

Wagenbreth recently had an exhibition at Montréal’s UQAM university, which to my regret I completely missed… due to finding out about it far too late (i.e. now). Here is the poster for it:

~ ds

* « Every day my metal friend
Shakes my bed at 6am
Then the shiny serving clones
Run in with my telephones »

Desclozeaux, Vintner of Dreams

« Juggler of eccentric ideas, more poetic than truly macabre, Desclozeaux is served by an admirable technique that aligns him with the clan of Folon and Flora, which is to say designers for whom white space holds as much– if not more — importance than the line, the arabesque or the scroll. » — Jacques Sternberg and Michel Caen (1968)

Since the world seems to be crashing down around our ears, I figure it would be reasonable to focus on an artist who’s well-adjusted, happy, prolific, casually brilliant and, to top it off, still alive at a ripe old age. Meet, then, if haven’t already, French national treasure Jean-Pierre Desclozeaux, who will, if I’m not jinxing it for him, turn 84 this coming 5th of June.

Jean-Pierre began his career as a watercolourist and poster designer, studying under the legendary Paul Colin.

A sample of his early poster work. In this case, the client was an antique dealers’ fair.

In 1965, he branched out into press illustration and cartoons. Here are a few early samples of this endeavour:

If Wikipedia will forgive me, I’ve cribbed and translated this bit for our English-only readers: « In 1968, he began his collaboration with Le Nouvel Observateur, where he published at least one drawing each week. From that point on, Desclozeaux devoted himself almost exclusively to the press and publishing areas : satirical drawings, book and magazine illustration, posters for exhibitions and shows, postcards, book jackets. »

This one, from 1982, is entitled Songe d’une nuit d’été, which happens to be the standard translation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”… but with more bikes.
A pair of watercolours from his book Entre chiens et chats (1983).
He also created scores of theatre posters, such as this one for Paris’ Le Caveau de la République, circa 1986. The play’s title, which translates to “Hands off my vote”, was a riff on French anti-racism organisation SOS Racisme‘s slogan, namely Touche pas à mon pote (Hands off my pal).
This caricature festival’s most appropriate host city has been renowned for its images d’Épinal (“Epinal Prints“) since the late 18th century.
A piece entitled À la pointe du rat, a homophonic calembour on Pointe du raz, a spectacular promontory in France. “Raz” translates as “strait”.
This piece appeared on the cover of Télérama (France’s TV Guide equivalent, but inevitably a bit smarter) for its Jan. 30, 1991 issue. The headline asks “Has Television Changed Our Unconscious?
And here’s our cheeky bon vivant. Desclozeaux, whose beard was described by his friend Ronald Searle as “an enchanted space and a hideout for secrets and legends“.
A 2006 wine ad… as you can plainly see. This sort of irreverence seems largely lacking in North American advertising.

This post’s title hails from the term of endearment and respect bestowed upon Desclozeaux by no less a personage than his affichiste confrere, Raymond Savignac (1907-2002). This reference to wine-making presumably alludes to his long-standing graphic contributions to sundry gastronomic columns. In 2002, Albin Michel even issued a heady cuvée of his wine-imbibed cartoons, Cul-Sec!*

-RG

*approximately meaning ‘bottoms up!‘ or ‘down the hatch!’ — here are some hilarious mispronunciations of ‘faire cul sec’.

Brian Bolland’s Indomitable Animal Animus

« Even as a youngster reading 2000 AD from its first issue in 1977, it was clear that Brian’s artwork was special. It was the perfect mixture of American-inspired dynamism, a British sense of the absurd, and avant-garde European SF imagery, rendered in meticulous, almost inhumanly perfect linework. It was a deeply seductive style… » — David Roach

As far as I can tell, everyone loves Brian Bolland‘s (b. 1951) work. It’s sophisticated in design yet direct, highly detailed yet clean as a whistle *and* neat as a pin, technically adept, varied but unfailingly his. As a sequential cartoonist, he can be a bit stiff, but as a cover artist, he’s pretty untouchable. For about a second and a half, I was tempted to spotlight his work in our Hot Streak! category, but that would have been absurd, such is Bolland’s high level of consistency and volume of work. So I’ll “merely” feature an even dozen of his Animal Man covers (out of a total of 64, 1988-1993).

After Alan Moore made an unexpected splash with his work on Swamp Thing, the folks at DC scrambled, in ‘have you got a sister?‘ fashion, to strip-mine the UK’s writerly talent pool. In came Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Pete Milligan, Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, and so on…

For the cockiest of these writers, the typical bravura move was to prove their commercial acumen by revamping the most obscure existing character they could think of* (typically, characters DC’s then-editors had never heard of); in Gaiman’s case, it was Sheldon Mayer’s Black Orchid**, and in Morrison’s, Animal Man. As minor characters (a lesson learned from Alan Moore’s Watchmen), these heroes could be subjected to numberless and unceasing torments and humiliations at the writer’s whim.

Created by writer Dave Wood and illustrator Carmine Infantino, Animal Man was introduced, sans costume at first, presumably as he was intended as a one-off, in DC’s long-running SF anthology Strange Adventures no. 180 (Sept. 1965). First known as A-Man, he gained his superhero togs in his third appearance, Strange Adventures no. 190 (July 1966). After a mere five appearances in SA, he virtually vanished… until the second ‘British Invasion‘.

This is Animal Man no. 5 (Winter 1988, DC); logo by Todd Klein. In this celebrated issue, Grant Morrison mashes up the Bernie Krigstein segments of Harvey Kurtzman‘s Bringing Back Father! (Mad no. 17, Nov. 1954, EC) and Alan Moore and Don Simpson‘s In Pictopia! (Anything Goes! no. 6, Dec. 1986, Fantagraphics) then anoints the ointment onto a Wile E. Coyote/Jesus avatar.
This is Animal Man no. 7 (Jan. 1989, DC). Bolland’s tonal versatility is a tremendous boon, his superpower, if you will. He brings to this cover a deft comic touch intended, but sadly lacking from the inside story.
This is Animal Man no. 18 (Dec. 1989, DC), a clever reverse-emphasis homage to one of the great covers of the 1960s, Carmine Infantino (designer) and Neal Adams (penciller-inker)’s Strange Adventures no. 207 (Dec. 1967, DC), winner of the 1967 Alley Award for best cover of the year.
This is Animal Man no. 24 (June 1990, DC). Bolland has a ball redrawing classic Silver Age covers… including issues of Brother Power the Geek, The Inferior Five and Swing With Scooter! The central figure is an old Justice Society foe, the Psycho-Pirate (Mark II in this case), created in 1965 by Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson. The GCD notes: « Cover prominently features several of the key comics that established the concept of the multiverse (The Flash no. 123, Green Lantern no. 40, Justice League of America no. 21). » Oh, you thought *Marvel* had come up with the ‘Multiverse‘? It’s high time you met Hugh Everett. And while we’re on the subject, here’s a touching song his son wrote about him.
This is Animal Man no. 25 (July 1990, DC), a sharp illustration of that old favourite, the Infinite monkey theorem.
First writer switch! Morrison out, Milligan in. This is Animal Man no. 28 (Oct. 1990, DC). Back to front: the Notional Man (with the forceps), the Front Page, Animal Man, and Nowhere Man (as in…)
A bold change of pace, this is Animal Man no. 36 (June 1991, DC). Milligan out, Veitch in.
This is Animal Man no. 41 (Nov. 1991, DC).
This is Animal Man no. 48 (June 1992, DC). At the centre of the gloopy pink monster hovers snappy dresser and fellow animal-powered justicer B’wana Beast.
This is Animal Man no. 49 (July 1992, DC).
Veitch out, Delano in, and a layout change to boot. This is Animal Man no. 51 (Sept. 1992, DC). By now, it’s pretty much a straight horror title.
This is Animal Man no. 54 (Dec. 1992, DC), a striking homage to Henry Fuseli‘s immortal painting, The Nightmare.

-RG

*To be fair, their first eighty-five choices likely had proved unavailable.

**Mayer had asked that his 1970s creation, The Black Orchid, never be given an origin or have her mystery dispelled. Gaiman just aped what Mr. Moore had done (but brilliantly) with Swamp Thing… and made her a literal plant. Bah.

Meet Peyo’s Perspicacious Poussy

Mention Belgian artist Peyo (real name Pierre Culliford, 1928 -1992) and the first thing that comes to mind is his hugely popular Les Schtroumpfs, introduced within the pages of his strip Johan et Pirlouit. Les Schtroumpfs, of course, are Smurfs, those blue humanoid creatures living in mushroom-houses in the forest. When I was just starting tentative forays into comics during my shy youth, it’s the local library’s Smurf albums that first attracted my attention, alongside Uderzo and Goscinny’s Astérix le Gaulois and Roba and Rosy’s Boule et Bill.

Another strip I really liked, unaware that it was created by the artist responsible for the Smurfs, is Poussy. Despite competing with all the other cat adventures one can think of (although there are far more today than there were twenty years ago), it was its old-fashioned charm that drew me in. This was a world where rambunctious (but always well-meaning) boys roasted chestnuts in a fire, mothers in high heels burned their Sunday roast, and families always went to the beach for their vacation. I wasn’t interested in these (human) characters, but they made a perfect backdrop to cat antics, comforting like watching cartoons on a rainy day.

The first Poussy album I found at the local library (1977, Dupuis).

21-year old Peyo drew 26 black-and-white gags of Poussy for the humble youth section of Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir between 1949 and 1951. Here’s an example of one of these early manifestations of Poussy, a playful black-and-white cat, up to very normal cat mischief:

‘Poussy is ambitious’, printed in Le Soir no. 175 (July 1949).

When Le Soir decided to revamp its youth section into a more ambitious version titled Le Soir Jeunesse, Peyo, who had been concentrating on his Johan series (later to become Johan et Pirlouit, or Johan and Peewit in English) for Journal de Spirou, revived Poussy, and this frisky kitten frolicked once again between Le Soir‘s pages from 1955 to 1960. Set aside again to make room for more ambitious endeavours (namely, Peyo’s Benoît Brisefer series) at the behest of publisher Charles Dupuis, for whom Peyo was working concurrently, Poussy tiptoed back into life in 1965, this time in Journal de Spirou, in colourised re-runs of previous Le Soir material, published quite out of any chronological order.

Here are a few favourites from these re-runs — I mostly chose mute strips, both because Poussy’s expressive meowing needs no translation, and because I by far prefer jokes centered on his behaviour without too much human interference.

Gag no. 11, published in Spirou no. 1552 (January 1968).
Gag no. 24, published in Spirou no. 1514 (April, 1967).
Gag no. 85, published in Spirou no. 1523 (June 1967). One can argue about the originality (or lack thereof) of Peyo’s style ’til one is blue in the face, but Poussy’s spot-on expression and body language in the last panel are unarguably perfectly executed.
Gag no. 105, published in Spirou no. 1528 (July 1967). This must have been a rare ‘be kind to mice’ day.
Gag no. 124, published in Spirou no. 1450 (January 1966). ‘I’m done, and it smells wonderful! What hard work! But it doesn’t matter, I am thrilled with the results! You see that one can easily create an expensive perfume at home!
Gag no. 138, published in Spirou no. 1636 (August 1969). The final panel advertises milk-based soap.

It was only in 1969 that Peyo resumed the production of new strips, starting with gag no. 222… and by no. 233, he had a collaborator, Lucien De Gieter, who soon took over entirely as Peyo had far too many other series on his hands to be able to continue Poussy. De Gieter continued the strip until 1974.

There have been three albums collecting Poussy material, published in 1976 and 1977 – and last year, Dupuis published a very handsome and very complete collection of all Poussy strips (a painstaking and impeccable chronological presentation, accompanied by exhaustive publishing information) which I purchased at the excellent comic-and-book store Débédé in Montréal, Québec. One doesn’t always feel like revisiting books from one’s childhood (for instance, I have little desire to ever reread Boule et Bill), but in this case I spent a few warm moments smiling at the strips I remembered surprisingly well.

~ ds

Dreams of the Rarebit Little Ego

« RAREBIT n. A Welsh rabbit, in the speech of the humorless, who point out that it is not a rabbit. To whom it may be solemnly explained that the comestible known as toad-in-a-hole is really not a toad, and that ris-de-veau à la financière is not the smile of a calf prepared after the recipe of a she banker. » — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

It’s dicey to make a broad generalization about what people have heard of and what they haven’t, so I’ll just say that, for a comic strip more than a century old, likely Canadian Winsor McCay‘s Little Nemo in Slumberland is rather well remembered (and represented) in the greater culture.

The strip has inspired numberless adaptations and the cultural landscape is quite peppered with Nemo references, both overt and veiled.

In the early 1980s, Italian cartoonist Vittorio Giardino (1946–) created a series of short pieces (first published in issues of Comic Art and Glamour International), intended as an erotic pastiche of McCay’s brainchild.

Here are the Little Ego pieces I value most.

I must admit I only enjoy the earlier, less grandiose ones, in no small part because they’re scarcely Nemo-like. Instead, they’re patterned after an earlier McCay creations, and my personal favourite, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-25), which I’ve long treasured in its beloved and exemplary Dover collection.

« I wonder what’s come over me to have such dreams… I’ll never be able to speak of them… even to my shrink!! »
Here’s the cover art of the original French collected edition (1989, Glénat).

To quote the late cartoonist and local favourite Richard Thompson:

« There are strips that are classics that I respond to on many levels without loving them (Little Nemo is one). I can enjoy such strips without really learning too much from them. »

I share Mr. Thompson’s ambivalent sentiment about Nemo. It’s an indisputable masterwork, mind-bogglingly accomplished, and best enjoyed in its original size.

See what I mean? An original-size Little Nemo showcase cleverly included in Graphis Magazine‘s Comics: The Art of the Comic Strip (1972, The Graphis Press, Zurich).

But its epic scale and themes fail to move me. I far prefer the quotidian-turning-absurd magic of the Rarebit Fiend.

At length, feeling perhaps constrained by the two-page format, Giardino moved on to a longer, sustained narrative full of aerial derring-do, treacherous desert vistas, opulent palaces, and lots and lots of rapes (a fumetti standard). Not my thing, thanks all the same.

I drew from the French edition of the strip since it’s the one I own, but also for its superior reproduction and as the English translation is rather flat and witless in comparison. [ see for yourself! ]

Here’s a tasty pair of sample Rarebit Fiend strips.

… and we return to Richard Thompson, who introduced his own ‘strip within a strip’ parody with Little Neuro within his Cul de sac (2004-2012).

Cul de sac’s March 26, 2008 daily, wherein Little Neuro is first touched upon. « Little Neuro is a parody/homage to the great fantasy strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. I thought up Little Neuro in the early ’80s, but I had to invent Petey before I knew what to do with it. »
Cul de sac’s Sunday, September 6, 2009 strip. Thompson: « Obviously an excuse to draw a dragon. I don’t get many. »

-RG

H. M. Bateman’s Absurdist Pieces of Astonishing Design

Henry Mayo Bateman (1887-1970) was a British cartoonist now frequently described as ‘the most innovative cartoonist of his generation’. His main claim to fame is the ‘The Man Who…‘ cartoons; as it often happens with when the popularity of a creation goes far beyond what the artist originally had in mind, Bateman himself was ambivalent about it, and felt constrained by its acclaim. Be as it may, a lot of his cartoon collections (most of them hopelessly out of print) are named according to this template: Man Who Drew 20th Century (1969), The Man Who Was H. M. Bateman (1982), H. M. Bateman: The Man Who Went Mad on Paper (2012)… The one I have in my collection broke away from this mold –it’s a French collection titled Mimodrames, with all text inside, including the titles of cartoons, in both French and English. Strangely, the French cartoon captions seem more à propos than the English ones.

Case in point: this was called ‘Prisoner when arrested clung to the railings‘, which in French was translated to ‘Le protestataire qui se cramponna aux grilles à l’arrivée de la police‘, and yet protestataire is more like ‘protester’, not ‘prisoner’, which I think is more fitting.

Bateman seemed to be predestined for his career; having decided at the ripe old age of 13 to dedicate his life to becoming an artist, he spent all his free time drawing and sold his first cartoon at 14 (!) Though his father was adamant that his sole male offspring should follow his footsteps and become a respectable businessman, Bateman’s small yet steadily increasing income from his cartoons and the growing demand for them by halfpenny weekly comic papers finally forced his pa to grudgingly agree to his son pursuing a career in art. Bateman was 16 at the time.

‘The Man who filled his fountain pen with the hotel ink’

Bateman continued to sell cartoons throughout his studies; by 1906, his work was in demand by many publications much fancier than the inexpensive comic papers he started out in. Percy Venner Bradshaw, fellow artist and founder of the Press Art School, meeting him that year for the first time, found a ‘quiet, shy, delicate boy who was much more interested in colour than in line work, and who could only with difficulty be induced to talk about either‘. A fitting description of a man who appeared quiet and reserved, who felt things more keenly than his peers or his colleagues – a swift glance at his best work dispels an impression of similarity between him and the rowdier cartoonists. Not that Bateman couldn’t be funny – but something lurked behind the chuckle, some dark cloud lingering over his characters. As Anthony Anderson (not the American actor, nor the British murderer; all I was able to find out about him is that he’s listed as an editor of many books) notes in the introduction to Mimodrames:

 « The more one examines his drawings the more one feels that, despite his conservatism, Bateman’s sympathies lay not with the offended but with the offender, a sympathy for the underdog, the little man. Indeed, in many of his cartoons, especially during the war, the little man was often Bateman himself – a clear self-portrait. »

This sensitivity comes loud and clear through Bateman’s writing as well – to quote, for example, his description of a medical examination undergone in 1916, when conscription for WWI was in full swing:

 « In company with other doubtfuls, I was made to hop naked and submit to a bombardment of tests before a glaring army doctor sternly ordered me to ‘go away and get some clothes on’, as if I was responsible for appearing before him in that condition. And in return for my afternoon’s exhibition I was handed an unhealthy looking card bearing the magic symbol of C.3. I had done what I could to convert myself to cannon fodder. I just wasn’t fit for it. »

This description reminds me of Brel’s Au suivant (for those who don’t speak French, Scott Walker’s Next).

‘The Maid who was but human’, or ‘La bonne avait de l’humour’ (something like ‘the maid had a sense of humour).
‘The Man who broke the tube’

I would also be remiss in failing to mention his work for satirical magazines Punch and the Tatler (the famous ‘The man who…’ cartoons ran in the latter, often in glorious colour double-page spreads). According to Anderson, Bateman became the highest paid cartoonist in Britain around the 1920s and 1930s.

‘The editor of a yellow newspaper receiving news of a horrible murder committed in circumstances of the most revolting atrocity’

Bateman’s dearest ambition throughout his life seemed to have been to become a serious, dedicated painter. When he was 46, he set his lucrative career aside, and went to Spain and France to paint. Anderson ends the introduction with the nicest epitaph I’ve read in a while:

« He spent the next three decades gradually shedding more and more of his old life, retiring to a small house on the edge of Dartmoor, travelling extensively and on his own […], always with his sketch books, his paints and his fishing rod. He became peaceful, solitary, content. He died on the island of Gozo in 1970, still painting every day, living in a small hotel with very few possessions but in the room with the finest view. »

Another source mentions that Bateman fought long and hard with Inland Revenue, so perhaps his self-exile to Gozo, an island in Malta, was not as poetic as it sounds. I wasn’t able to find much information about that, other than his obvious dislike of taxmen (exemplified by cartoons such as The Income Tax Official in Hades) – but taking periodic stabs at the taxman is a traditional cartoonist sport, so it doesn’t really prove anything.

‘The Income-Tax Worm at Work’

These were some of my favourite Bateman pages, I hope you enjoyed them!

~ ds

Earth Day 2022: Woodman, Spare That Tree!

« Trees cause more pollution than automobiles. » — Ronald Reagan

After some of the time-consuming epics we’ve been running lately, I’d been looking for a short piece to help me catch my breath; as it happens, I’d been saving a special piece for this day and occasion.

I’ve always much admired any well-done bit of scientific popularization, and given people’s abysmal ignorance, and even worse, their utter lack of curiosity on the subject of trees (among others!), this one stands out as increasingly timely and poignant. Just yesterday, I stumbled upon an alarming article from Smithsonian Magazine pointing out that the hard lessons of the Dust Bowl were either not learned or simply forgotten. So it goes…

This strip originally saw print in Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact vol. 16 no. 5 (Nov. 10, 1960, George A. Pflaum), written and illustrated by TC mainstay Frank Tytus Huffman (1919-1986), who ably doles out both fun and facts.

The strip was reprinted in TCOFAF vol. 23 no. 6 (Nov. 16, 1967) with improved colouring, so it’s the version you see here.

The title of this post quotes (with a slight spelling change) a once-famous poem by George Pope Morris (1802-1864), which goes:

Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough!
In youth it sheltered me,
And I’ll protect it now.
‘twas my forefather’s hand
That placed it near his cot;
There, woodman, let it stand,
Thy axe shall harm it not!

That old familiar tree,
Whose glory and renown
Are spread o’er land and sea,
And wouldst thou hew it down?
Woodman, forbear thy stroke!
Cut not its earthbound ties;
0 spare that aged oak,
Now towering to the skies!

When but an idle boy
I sought its grateful shade;
In all their gushing joy
Here too my sisters played.
My mother kissed me here;
My father pressed my hand. . .
But let that old oak stand!

My heartstrings round thee cling
Close as thy bark, old friend;
Here shall the wild bird sing,
And still thy branches bend.
Old tree! the storm still brave;
And, woodman, leave the spot . . .
While I’ve a hand to save,
Thy axe shall harm it not.

« Now why should I spare that tree, Kotter? What’s in it for me? »

For further arboreal reading, check out our earlier post, Earth Day With Jim Woodring and Friends.

-RG

Noodling on Restaurant Napkins: Recipes and Comics

Given my appetite for recipes and the cookbooks they’re published in, it was just a matter of time before I stumbled across the hybrid genre of cooking memoir in comic book form. Needless to say, these two art forms have been friends for a long time: comics have been highlighting food in different ways for probably as long as comics have existed. As for cookbooks, it used to be common practice to include illustrations (maybe even cartoons in the margins!), not the lavishly printed photographs we are used to today, alongside the recipes. A treasured 1930s Soviet cookbook inherited from my grandparents, falling apart but no less charming for it, features little cartoons on every other page, similar to how the drawings of Robert Gring once adorned the pages of Assimil language guides (see co-admin RG’s Robert Gring’s Wits-Sharpening Fun).

But I believe that endeavours to specifically write a whole graphic novel/cooking memoir (replete with recipes!) is a fairly recent phenomenon. I’m not talking about stuff like Stan Lee Presents the Mighty Marvel Superheroes’ Cookbook (1977, complete with recipes for ‘He-Man Pancakes’ and ‘Thor’s Cabbage Rolls’), but a thoughtful examination of food functioning as connective tissue between generations and memories. It also helps when the recipes are actually appetizing.

Why is Captain America lasciviously fondling a meatball when absolutely no meatballs are involved in this recipe? Art by Joe Giella.

I’m actually not fond of cookbooks that delve into family anecdotes, as that type of narrative tends to get bogged down in saccharine sentiment that obscures the bigger picture, as the narrator collapses into dreamy sighs about how genuine cooking used to be (as compared to the sterile, hurried modern approach, presumably). The visually-oriented nature of comics seems much better suited to emphasise that telling-stories aspect, besides which drawing ingredients and techniques over and over again must get tiresome rather fast, which tilts the stories-to-recipes ratio firmly in favour of the former. Here are some excerpts from books in my library, each taking a slightly different focus on the subject.

An excellent example of memoir-cum-comic-cum-cookbook is Lucy Kingsley‘s joyous Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (2013), probably my favourite example of this subgenre. Its colourful, cartoony style is the perfect backdrop for Kingsley’s pilgrimage through memories – and as the daughter of a professional chef with a penchant towards nature and an aesthete dedicated to fancy gourmet food, she has a great variety of cuisine-related reminiscences to share.

Cook Korean! (2018) by Robin Ha draws strong connections between Ha’s Korean roots and her gradually evolving relationship with her mother. Mothers, as they tend to be the first source of a newborn’s food and the child’s main guide to new flavours, crop up a lot in these recollections, but here the emphasis is more on reconnecting with one’s ancestry through traditional food. I bought this book for the recipes, but I was touched by Ha’s obvious enthusiasm and desire to make this cookbook a fun, easy-going romp through not only a lot of Korean staples, but also people’s attitudes towards them.

Dirt Candy (2012) by Amanda Cohen and Ryan Dunlavey chronicles the hard life of the chef/owner of a NYC restaurant. While I am not quite on board with Cohen’s claim that vegetables are boring unless they’re treated in very specific and fancy ways, her clear frustration at the reputation of vegetarian (I’m sorry, ‘vegetable‘) cuisine is educational and entertaining, as she spends a chunk of the cookbook discussing the evolution the Americans’ tortuous relationship with vegetables and ‘healthy’ food.

I’m still on the fence about whether I think it’s pretentious or not, but vegetarian cooking with ‘gloopy brown sauce’ is definitely a thing.

I have not tried any Dirt Candy recipes yet, as most of them require a multitude of bowls and techniques, not to mention the sort of time investment I currently reserve for other projects. The culmination of that approach is Cohen’s recipe for onion soup, which demands two days of preparation and would have also required the sacrifice of your first-born, if this hadn’t been a vegetarian (sorry, vegetable…) cookbook.

I applaud bold new ingredient combinations, but I think most of us are perfectly happy to keep our kumquats away from our onion soup.

Carol Lay‘s The Big Skinny: How I Changed My Fattitude (2013) recounts her tortured relationship with food and how she finally was able to come to grips with her weight. It’s not that easy to laugh at yourself, and Lay successfully pulls it off, which makes this memoir instantly endearing whether one swears by counting calories or is convinced that it’s the sort of madness psychiatrists make a living on.

~ ds

P.S. I couldn’t write a post about comics and food without mentioning Ben Katchor, a WOT favourite. He has many beautiful perambulations into the territory of food, but one might mention The Dairy Restaurant for starters.

Manny Stallman’s The Raven and Mayven (the Poet)

« There’s no need for some of the language that’s been thrown at some of the artists and writers. These men are highly skilled craftsmen and deserve a lot of respect. » — editorial comment in T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 14 (July, 1967, Tower)

This post has been inspired by sundry signs and omens I’ve encountered these past few days: first, a casual mention dropped by Bizarro ink stud Wayno on his blog; then a fond-but-hazy recollection by a graphic designer colleague… and so this week, the agents of T.H.U.N.D.E.R.* make the scene. Well, one of them does.

As with many other choice cultural items of the era, I was first tantalised by a little volume entitled Dynamo, Man of High Camp from the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, devoted to its in-house Captain Company catalogue: Warren magazine back issues, rubber masks and hands, posters, LPs, Super 8 reels, paperbacks, novelties… a veritable trove of wonders. And unlike many a mail-order house, these goodies were the real deal, solid classics avidly sought after and treasured to this day.

Since much has been written about the history of Tower Comics (1965-1969), I’ll skip that part. Here’s the gist of it.

Of course, I adore the Wally Wood material, all the more the unfailingly delicious Steve Ditko-Wood combo. A fine surprise was George Tuska‘s nimble comedic touch on the misadventures of ‘Weed’. But my very favourite flavour in the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. cocktail is ‘Raven’ as written and illustrated by Manny Stallman (1927-97), a quintessentially eccentric delight.

Introduced by Steve Skeates and George Tuska in Enter the Raven (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 8, Sept. 1966), the character’s sole point of interest was that he was a mercenary who, originally intending to betray T.H.U.N.D.E.R., had a change of heart.

Along came Manny. He took over the character, redesigned him from stem to stern, and gave him a memorable arch-nemesis in Mayven, the Poet. But enough of this prattle, let’s have a look!

This is page two of Raven Battles Mayven the Poet (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 9, Oct. 1966, edited by Samm Schwartz), spotlighting Mayven’s signature weapon: explosive tots.
Stallman had no trouble with action: another page from Raven Battles Mayven the Poet.
Mayven, captured in the previous episode, wastes no time in making good — and memorable — her escape from the clink; the opening pages from Mayven Returns (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 10, Nov. 1966).
Bold, dynamic, sloppy in all the right places and the right ways. And I *love* that Raven makes an ungodly racket when he flies, itself a great source of visual interest.
A three-page sequence from the following episode, The Case of Jacob Einhorn (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 11, Mar. 1967), wherein ice-cold Mayven takes on the assignment to eliminate Mr. Einhorn, a fictive stand-in for legendary ‘Nazi hunter’ Simon Wiesenthal (1908-2005). I wouldn’t want to give too much away… read the whole shebang here!

After a mere five Raven episodes, Stallman was gone. Judging from the letters columns, reader reaction had overwhelming been of this nature:

In issue #9 the art on the Raven was awful

You’re using a lot of grade D artists… as for whoever draws the Raven, his art is utterly atrocious.”

How about having Chic Stone draw Raven in addition to Lightning?

Here I’ll quote editor-historian Tom Brevoort, from his own appreciation of Stallman’s Raven:

« Unsurprisingly, many of the fans of the era hated Stallman’s work and mocked it openly in their letters and in fanzines. Comic book fans have often had very narrow boundaries for what they consider an appropriate style for a super hero strip. And Stallman was coloring way outside of those lines with his work. »

After an issue’s hiatus, the Raven returned, once more reimagined (minus the imagination) this time by Gil Kane. Just another run-of-the-mill flying dude. I’ve always held that Kane should never be allowed to ink himself, but he also makes an excellent case, in his sole Raven outing (and Raven’s final flight), that he shouldn’t be allowed to write, either. Here’s a sample:

The ending (sorry!) from Darkly Sees the Prophet (T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents no. 14, July 1967), story and art by Gil Kane. To be fair to Kane, he and Manny were close friends. Here are some of Gil’s recollections, as shared by Mark Evanier.

Ahem. All these walking child-shaped time bombs reminded me of a rather fine comic book from a couple of decades later.

This is Daredevil no. 209 (Aug. 1984, Marvel), cover by David Mazzucchelli.
This issue is a thrillingly relentless continuation of a thrillingly relentless (but in a different way) Winchester-mystery-house-of-murder tale, The Deadliest Night of My Life!, co-scripted by Harlan Ellison and his pal Arthur Byron Cover. Here, Byron Cover carries the ball, and offers us this darkly delicious sequence. Pencils by Mazzucchelli, inks by Danny Bulanadi.

It could all be coincidence, but I like to imagine that the exploding kids idea is a sharp hybrid of notions from two Mario Bava flicks from 1966: the murderous little girl from Operazione paura aka Kill, Baby… Kill, and the booby-trap beauties from Le spie vengono dal semifreddo aka Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs.

In closing, I’m happy to report that Mr. Stallman landed on his feet after his fall from the Tower. Honestly, the comics industry, and its fans, didn’t deserve the likes of him. He would go on to recount the Adventures of the Big Boy (published by the Bob’s Big Boy chain of restaurants) for a whopping seventeen years, among other fine assignments. And if ever there was a mensch, he surely was the one. Here’s a telling passage from his obituary:

« When a 1991 stroke caused cartoonist Manny Stallman’s right hand to intermittently go numb, he didn’t let it stop him. He simply took it upon himself to learn to draw with his left hand.

After making that switch, he had trouble drawing the tightly controlled figures he had created for years as a leading artist in what has been called the Golden Age of Comics. So he took advantage of the larger figures he could draw, transposing them onto a blackboard to help teach English and citizenship classes to Russian immigrants at the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto.

Despite additional health problems that included diabetes and congestive heart failure, he also led classes for Chinese immigrants and taught computer-aided drawing to disabled children. “Manny decided to stop focusing on what he had been able to do before his strokes,” says his wife, Jane Stallman.

“He decided to start ‘where I am‘ and do whatever he could with whatever capacity he had. His life goal was to make someone smile each day.” »

[ source ]

Thanks for the example and the inspiration, Mr. Stallman!

-RG

*an acronym for The Higher United Nations Defense Enforcement Reserves

Customer Service Wolf: How May I Assist You?

« Thank you for calling customer service. If you’re calm and rational, press 1. If you’re a whiner, press 2. If you’re a hot head, press 3. » — Randy Glasbergen

Comedy oriented towards employees who work in retail is its own breed of humour. I remember my ex-boss warning me early on that ‘the public is stupid’ – and that’s certainly the impression one gets, being confronted (day in, day out) by customers unable to read signs (no matter how big and prominent one makes them), pulling on doors that are meant to be pushed, and asking questions so inane that it feels slightly surreal.

There are myriad comics poking fun at the daily frustrations of retail… most of them making observations of a rather obvious nature, though frustrated employees will still chuckle at them (it feels nice to be ‘seen’!) I have mixed feelings about all the people leaping from ‘look, I doodle in my spare time’ to ‘I am an Artist who has a Webcomic!’, but that’s a topic for another day. Occasionally one stumbles onto a gem amidst all the ugly pebbles.

There are several things going for Customer Service Wolf, drawn by Australian illustrator Anne Barnetson. Its immediate appeal is that it’s beautifully drawn, of course. I am impressed at the variety of animals, convincingly depicted. It’s also very self-aware and funny, appending the usual ‘customers are destructive/insane’ stories with an unexpected recurring punchline (hint: it involves a wolf’s sharp jaws). A bookstore is a backdrop for a very special kind of lunacy, and Barnetson has clearly has had her share of it.

The following have been scanned from the collection (2019), but you can view all of them at the Customer Service Wolf tumblr.

One of this strip’s strengths is periodically pointing out that we the employees are not so different from the customers we mock.

And I kept a really sweet one for the end:

~ ds