« And what can you say about Buddy Hickerson that hasn’t already been confessed in court? » — a 1992 blurb
While the 1980s mega-popularity of Gary Larson’s The Far Side (1979-1995) led to a plague of mostly feeble imitations, it more significantly contributed to the acceptance of a greater range of humour (and drawing styles*) in a staid syndicated strip industry sorely in need of a vigorous shakeup. While Dan Piraro‘s Bizarro (1985–) is the clear winner among those that followed Larson’s path — no small thanks to an original vision and drawing chops to kill for — I’ve always had a soft spot for one of the also-rans, Buddy Hickerson’s The Quigmans.
While Hickerson wasn’t a consistent gagman to rank with the cartoon gods, he scores points aplenty for trying and the intermittent spark of genius. And I dug his ‘melted in the sun’ aesthetic, echoes of which seeped into the mainstream. I mean, consider the likes of Beavis and Butthead (1993) and Duckman (1995), merely to skim the greasy surface.
Anyhow, here’s a sampler of my favourite Quigman misadventures.
Four Quigmans collections have, to my knowledge, been issued:
The Quigmans (1992, Tor Books) The Quigmans (1990, Harmony Books) Love Connection! (1992, Harmony Books) and Tunnel of Just Friends (1996, Four Walls Eight Windows).
I’m happy to say he’s still active and has remained true to his vision; check him out at (of course) his official website.
«The kind of guy you’d love to have at your next cocktail party, he’s got a million hilarious anecdotes and he’s more than happy to tell them. »
In the early days of this blog, we talked about American cartoonist Arnold Roth (see « All cartoonists are geniuses, but Arnold Roth is especially so. »). But this was some 6 years ago, and back then I wasn’t too generous with images. Roth has now made it to the venerable age of 94, and hopefully with us for many years to come! Even without dipping into his contributions to Harvey Kurtzman‘s Humbugand (unfortunate name association aside) Trump magazines, there is plenty of material to showcase and giggle at.
Did you know Roth not only illustrated many jazz LP covers, but was also a sax man himself? Check out this awesome gallery of some of these covers on Drew Friedman‘s blog!
Here are a few pages from Arnold Roth’s Crazy Book of Science (1971), which offers a few suitably madcap pages:
Then there’s my beloved Comick Book Of Pets (1976) – ‘found, raised, washed, curried, combed, fed and cared for in every way‘.
Read his fascinating interview with Gary Groth here.
« … while there are lines of taste that many cartoonists will not cross, Mr. Gross leaped over them, doused them with gasoline and lit them on fire, cackling as he did. » — Daniel E. Slotnik, from Gross’s NYT obit.
A couple of weeks ago, we lost yet another of our remaining cartooning titans, hardly a surprising turn of events given the march of time… but this growing void diminishes and impoverishes both the field and the world.
All this adulation and appreciation… and yet, all of his books are out of print, so far as I can ascertain. While this does not bode well, I like to think that some savvy publisher will soon make use of Gross’ fastidiously organised files, reportedly comprising over thirty thousand individual cartoons.
For this small homage, I’ve pulled some of my favourites from his most famous (the most infamous being We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons*), 1977’s I Am Blind and My Dog is Dead. Picking favourites is plenty laborious enough, I wasn’t going to slog through seven decades of material, indeed not.
« After five years, I left the Lampoon and a new executive editor took over. He called Sam into his office. “From now on, I want pencil sketches from all the artists before they do anything,” he told Sam.
“Pencils! Cartoonists don’t do no stinkin’ pencils. Rodrigues will tell you to go fuck yourself rather than show you a pencil,” Sam said. “Oh, and by the way, you can go fuck yourself.” His tenure as cartoon editor was finished. But the funny thing is, Sam was still selling cartoons to the Lampoon long after that editor had been penciled out of his own job. »
*From Gross’ first-rate 2011 Comics Journal interview, conducted by Richard Gehr: « His doorbell sports an old family name because he doesn’t want to be hassled by anyone who might have been offended by his 2008 book We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons. »
« He made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. British cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves.» — H. G Wells
British artist Louis William Wain (1860-1939) had one of those lives that capture one’s imagination* – from a sensitive child born with a facial defect (a cleft lip) and prone to terrifying nightmares, to a youth that would wander around London instead of attending classes, to ultimately a man committed to the pauper ward of a mental asylum. Along the way, he married a lower-class woman ten years his senior despite the scandal this caused, lost her three years later to breast cancer, and produced thousands of cat drawings and paintings.
Wain started out as a illustrator of country scenes, houses and estates, livestock at shows, and so on, for publications like Illustrated Sporting, Dramatic News, and The Illustrated London News. His wife’s Emily’s health decline gave Wain the push into feline territory, as he consoled her with caricatures of their cat Peter during her illness. Emily pushed him to try and get this work published, so he showed some drawings to the editor of The Illustrated London News, for which he was freelancing. He was commissioned to paint A Kittens’ Christmas Party, which featured 150 frolicking kittens, took 11 days to finish, and was an instant hit. Emily died soon after in 1887.
Source diverge – according to some, in his grief, Wain threw himself heart and soul into cats and animals in general – he was involved in animal charities and championed a better treatment for animals, including fighting against the routine muzzling of dogs. In another version, he Emily’s death was a ‘merciful release’ and threw himself into work, ended up being considered a ‘cat expert’ just because he drew so many of them (and had distinctly outlandish ideas of their physiology). This can be said of much of Wain’s life, actually – the basic facts are known, but interpretations of the whys and hows vary wildly.
It goes without saying that Wain doubtlessly influenced generations of future artists. These days art with anthropomorphized felines is quite a humdrum sighting, given how much our current culture is obsessed with cats. In this context, it may be hard to recall that several centuries ago people often thought of cats from a practical standpoint, as somewhat filthy-yet-useful vermin-destroyers. This began to change during the Victorian era, and surely Wain’s cats, omnipresent in newspapers and magazines, accelerated this shift in thinking.**
Wain was an immensely prolific artist, but sadly that did not guarantee him a peaceful and wealthy life. When he was 20, his father died, leaving Wain to financially support his mother and sisters, so he had a heavy burden to bear from a young age. By all accounts a modest man, he was quite naïve about financial matters, a walking demonstration of the financially inept artist stereotype***. He often gave his art away, or sold it without retaining copyright, which meant no royalties despite all sorts of merchandise with his cats – postcards, books, toys, biscuit tins, china, et j’en passe. His work was so ubiquitous at some point that publishers did not need to pay him for new material, they could just go on reprinting in perpetuity with nothing but financial gain to themselves while Wain got further into debt.
He also produced a series of designs for ceramic cats (and some pigs and dogs as well). These sculptures were exhibited in 1914, but did not result in significant sales. A shipment of cats headed for the United States was taken down by a German U-boat torpedo, and that was it – Wain’s financial investment was lost.
« By the time the war broke in 1914, Wain found himself struggling to find a market amid the wartime paper shortage. By the 1920s, he was in poverty. His depression continued, and his mental health deteriorated. Often known to strike out in violent and erratic ways, he was eventually committed to the pauper ward of London’s Springfield Mental Hospital in 1924. »
A lot of articles about him focus on mental issues. Did his wife’s death push him into some form of dementia? Was it just hereditary (one of his sisters was committed when he was 30)? Was he autistic? Was he schizophrenic? The former is a more modern view, whereas the latter theory was proposed by psychiatrist Dr. Walter Maclay in 1939 and stuck when he made a whole case out of it.
«Maclay collected the work of artists suffering with mental illness and in 1939 he came across eight pictures by Louis Wain in a shop, which he arranged in an assumed chronological order to demonstrate the progression of the schizophrenic mind. His theory was that as the sequence of cat illustrations became more fragmented, so too had the artist’s mental state deteriorated. […] The series of drawings, now known as ‘Kaleidoscope Cats’, became a popular visual example of the schizophrenic mind. Long gone was the Edwardian interpretation of Wain’s work as ‘charming’ and ‘humorous’. Instead, his art was often presented as ‘psychotic’ or ‘disturbed’, both words used in a major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1972.» [source]
I think it’s quite depressing to think of Louis Wain first and foremost as an interesting case of mental illness. While it’s an important topic to address, it’s hard not to interpret this emphasis as a side-effect of the human tendency to bask in someone else’s tragedy – we’re avid of gory details and stories that support the general consensus that artists are tortured souls fighting inner demons. Perhaps that’s what reassures ‘normal’ people – we may not be brilliant or creative, but at least we have a healthy psyche! Except that we don’t, but that’s a conversation for another day.
«It is also highly possible that his experimentation in style was inspired by the family’s background in textile design. […] Indeed, these later kaleidoscopic cat patterns were often constructed around a clear grid system, revealing them as careful compositions rather than the product of impulsiveness coming from someone who is gradually losing his perceptive skills. Additionally, some of Wain’s later work was figurative and proves that he continued to be an accomplished and coherent artist whilst in a mental health care setting.» [source]
In 1930, Wain was transferred to Napsbury, which had a colony of cats, and stayed there fairly peacefully until his death in 1939. I hope he’s surrounded by friendly cats, wherever he may be now.
* As a matter of fact, a movie about his life, The Electrical Life of Louis, was released in 2021 .
** I am obviously not saying that Wain introduced anthropomorphism to art, as that has been around since the days of early human history, but he did make a large dent in the public’s perception of cats.
*** Such skills have to be taught, as artistic temperament need not necessarily go hand-in-hand the inability to handle everyday matters such as finance, but add that to the list of ‘things we should do as a society’.
« Luckily, there are ideas. Ideas. When too many things go astray, stop or turn against you, the mind engenders favorable phantasms, worlds made to order, happy endings, golden images of yourself, utopias and holy readers (one is enough) capable of forgiving any affront and of remaining loyal beyond the limits of the reasonable. Ideas. Useful to keep going. » — Silvestre
Several years ago, during a visit to a favourite bédé store, I picked up, at random, an intriguing book, whose appeal largely lay in that it didn’t seem to be vying for my attention at all. If you’ve a certain bent of mind, the understated article will often exert a stronger pull than all the hard sell screamers in the world.
I read and enjoyed it, then the book faded deep into the collection, only to bob to the surface after our recent move.
For a long time, I couldn’t find out more about it, and I still know precious little. It didn’t make much of a ripple in the pond, and its wake seems to have dimmed even further in the intervening years.
There’s little sense in my translating the dialogue (with one exception), but here’s the setup: our protagonist, Silvestre, sits in a corner and has exchanges with his demons and other monsters of the id. But they’re eloquent and visually arresting apparitions.
I love that, while seeming identical at a casual glance, each Silvestre figure is individual. The artist may have employed a stencil or a rubber stamp… at least that’s what I would have done.
Incidentally, Silvestre is a pseudonym of Spanish cartoonist-graphic designer-poet (et cetera) Federico Del Barrio (1957 –), which he reserved for his more explorative work.
Today I’d like to feature a few selections from the 2015 collection Through the Woods, which received a few awards and a lot of compliments. While the stories within are generally lauded by critics and readers, I have seen a few reviews complaining that they’re not scary. I suspect that kind of reviewer is the same type of person who starts grumbling that there’s not enough action in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment* (only one murder! gimme Midsomer Murders’ body count!)
Emily Carroll is excellent at conjuring the kind of slow dread that makes one skin’s crawl (which is not to say that she shies away from gore). This is not horror where a serial killer is chasing his victim around with a chainsaw – I think the latter is a lot easier to set up than conjuring a fragile, haunting atmosphere of menace and stalking shadows. Carroll’s work can be visually stunning, with bright colours and swanky layouts, but it can also be sepia-coloured, quiet, intimate and unsettling. She combines these two settings to great contrast and advantage, sometimes within the same story.
Nightmares about losing teeth are very common (apparently, they’re ‘one of the most universal dream themes‘), so perhaps that explains why The Nesting Place is especially unsettling. Here is a sample of a few pages:
Finally, two pages from In Conclusion, which wraps up this collection with a brightly coloured epitaph:
Don’t forget to visit her website, with plenty more comics to read. A lot of her work is accessible online only, and makes great use of this medium** – for example, in A Pretty Place, you can select the room you want to visit in a sort of Clue-ish set-up; in Margot’s Room, you can click on objects (a mirror, some dried flowers, the window…) to learn their story. Definitely read the sexy, creepy, gory Writhe*** – it’s available for free download. Read her smart interview with Sean T. Collins for The Comics Journalhere, or check out her latest book (not yet published), A Guest in the House, here.
* To be fair, I am no fan of Crime and Punishment, as I thought it was quite a slog to get through… but not because only one person gets killed. Have a gander at some entertaining reviews of it here.
*** When I Arrived at the Castle, published in 2019, strikes a similar vibe, featuring a blood-laden love/horror story between a sort of cat girl and a vampiric Countess, all of it wrapped up in the heavy, shifting logic of a dream you want to escape from but can’t.
Not long ago, I chanced upon this passage from an interview with the lovely Ramona Fradon, wherein she touches upon her mid-70s work for Joe Orlando‘s ‘mystery’ comics at DC.
« Those were all Joe’s productions, and there was nothing he liked better than to get around the Comics Code. The fact that my drawing was comic helped him get away with more than he could with other artists. He was always pushing the envelope. »
« So when we decided to start running a weekly illustrated personal ad — ‘Lustlab Ad of the Week’ — we knew right away what we didn’t want. We didn’t want to sensationalize what was already pretty sensational, thanks. And we didn’t want to hyper-sexualize what was already plenty sexual. We wanted an artist who could take short, pithy personal ads — short, pithy, filthy personal ads — and infuse them with the kind of playfulness that true kinksters bring to their sex lives. We wanted someone that could make someone into whips and chains and hoods look like someone you could take home to meet your parents.
We wanted Ellen Forney. »
Just like Ramona Fradon, Ms. Forney wields a friendly, extremely engaging and accessible style (as you’ll witness). Here, then, is a modest sampling from the four-year frolic of the ‘Lustlab Ad of the Week’, circa 2004-2007. Feel free to browse.
The feature’s highlights have been collected, in fine fashion, in a snazzy little hardcover entitled ‘Lust‘. (Feb. 2008, Fantagraphics). While it’s out of print by now, affordable copies appear to still be available. If it floats your boat at all, don’t hesitate!
Long before Cracked* was ‘America’s Only Humor Site’ deluging its readers in hit-or-miss listicles (5 Stupid, Stupid Things Humanity Has Shot Into Space, 15 Bonkers Crossovers That Somehow Happened, and so on), it was a satirical mag consciously aping Mad Magazine‘s schtick. I don’t know if anybody is actually hanging on to fond memories of it – Fantagraphics’ Kim Thompson famously quipped ‘I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of CRACKED for most of its run as “a bunch of crap, and John Severin” – but it’s undeniable that quite a few great artists have contributed to it over the years (including the aforementioned Severin, who was a powerhouse** whatever you may think of his art).
Cracked was born in 1958 and shuddered its last in 2007 (more about said demise later). Here are a few Severin covers I like!
As a bonus, here is ‘Phooey’ Smythe as depicted by the amazing Jack Davis for the cover of Cracked no. 12 (January, 1960).
* When Cracked Magazine was sold to a group of investors in 2005, it was supposed to return in force with a new design à la ‘lad mags‘ like Maxim. Website Cracked.com launched several months later, outdid its parental unit, and when the magazine folded in 2007 (new design and all), the website stuck around, gaining popularity in exponential numbers. My only interest in it is the fact that Winston Rowntree occasionally contributes articles.
**«After being one of the founding artists for Mad, he began working for the Mad imitation Cracked in the late ’50s and stayed there for nearly 40 years, because he was paid as well as the Mad contributors and was allowed to contribute several features in every issue. In addition to the mountain of work he produced for Cracked, he was simultaneously working for Marvel, Warren and DC. Severin was the consummate professional who editors and art directors knew could draw anything, from a Roman legionary to Cracked mascot Sylvester P. Smythe, and everything in between. Like fellow EC colleagues Jack Davis and Frank Frazetta, Severin could crank out great humor comics with the same facility he drew war, Western and historical tales.» [source]
« Carefully, the old man utters a cacophonous incantation… then lets his mind go blank. » — Stephen Skeates
We recently (last March 30) lost a fine fellow and writer in Steve Skeates (1943-2023). I’ve long appreciated his work, as I felt he was among the very few ‘mainstream’ comic book writers who could actually be funny, not to mention gripping or thought-provoking*, whatever the situation demanded.
At its peak, his writing also stood out by virtue of its containing actual creative ideas rather than the usual mishmash of bromides and creativity-stifling continuity that the fanboys clamoured for.
Today, I’ll showcase a bicephalous favourite, The Spectre in « The Parchment of Power Perilous » and Dr. Graves in « The Ultimate Evil », both springing from the same author… and the same plot.
How did this come to pass? Skeates told the story in an article entitled « Graves Acting Strangely: The Ultimate Evil Reconsidered », published in Charlton Spotlight no. 5 (Fall 2006, Argo Press, Michael Ambrose, editor).
« … at that particular point in time, I was totally unaware of the unique manner in which Julie [Schwartz ] approached his profession, typically in the dark when it came to the fact that this longtime comic book icon was far more actively involved in the plotting process than any other editor up at DC. […] I ambled into Julie’s well-kempt office armed with an intricate plot… something I had stayed up half the night before constructing, working, reworking, polishing and repolishing, only to have Julie read it over, extract a couple of ideas he liked, and unceremoniously toss the rest of it away. […] the two of us set about constructing what basically amounted to a brand-new plot based on those couple of ideas of mine that Julie liked, ideas that had somehow gotten his creative juices flowing. »
Unlike (with one notable exception, initials SD) his colleagues who scampered from Charlton to DC along with editor Dick Giordano (Denny O’Neil and Jim Aparo, for instance) in the late 1960s, Skeates maintained his Charlton work for a time. He explained: « I simply possessed too much affection for what I was producing for that Derby, Connecticut company to do anything along those lines. » Skeates enjoyed « … contributing to Charlton’s take on the “mystery” anthology, ghostly compilations somehow edgier, funkier, and far more fun than those produced by DC and Marvel. »
« Furthermore, unlike DC, Charlton didn’t require that I first submit a plot outline, get it approved, and then write my story. Instead, I could just suddenly turn in a finished product, on spec, a way of working I very much preferred — diving right in with the plot idea only sketchily there, not boxed in even by myself but allowing the story to work itself out, to go where it wanted to go. » Amen.
The one time we saw the Doctor M. T. Graves truly get his mystical groove on was in this tale of two Steves, Skeates and Ditko, a splendid bit of recycling-but-not-quite.
And he’s how the whole ball of wax coalesced: « I suddenly remembered that fairly intricate Spectre plot that Julie had long ago summarily tossed aside. Hey, y’know, I might just be able (especially if I placed most of my emphasis on those portions that Julie hadn’t extracted, working on the bulk of my original plot while rather downplaying those couple of ideas that Julie and I had built our new plot on) to transform that baby into a workable Dr. Graves adventure! »
« Boom! I was into it, writing this story nearly as fast as I could type. Of course, to in effect have Graves play the role of the Spectre, I could see no way around making certain alterations to my protagonist’s makeup, making him far more mystically powerful than he had ever before seemed, more like Marvel’s Doctor Strange than anyone else…
Yet I could see no real problem in any of that, unless of course someone up at Charlton wound up doing supremely silly like assigning the art for this story to none other than Ditko himself — which, as it turned out, is exactly what happened! »
Hail and farewell, Mr. Skeates. You will be missed.
Something about the current spring weather, with its contrast between the warm wind perfumed with chlorophyll and the trash liberated from its snowy prison and strewn about artistically, reminded me of 6-page story Song of the Terraces. Originally published in A1 no. 4 (1990, Atomeka Press), it is officially part of Alan Moore and Steve Parkhouse’s Bojeffries Saga, and as such was also collected in the The Complete Bojeffries Saga published in 1992 by Tundra Press (and reissued in a new collection in 2013 by Top Shelf Productions).
I don’t know if it’s a universal rule, but it seems that people either love to read plays, or hate the very idea. I belong to the former category, and have happily spent my young years on a steady diet of plays. Sometimes these included musical interludes, and I was not in the slightest bit perturbed by being given basically lyrics with some details about the mood of the singers, but no melody.
Perhaps that is part of why I am so fond of Song of the Terraces, or perhaps it’s the familiarity of this scene – its row of lovingly depicted council houses (Parkhouse has a really lovely, fluid style) and its hodgepodge of denizens in various states of spiritual and physical dishevelment are part and parcel of British shows I’ve watched and loved. Be as it may, I find the following tremendously endearing.
This interlude features two characters from the mighty Bojeffries family line – Raoul (the werewolf) and powerful but lonely Ginda – but otherwise is not particularly linked to any storyline.