A Garrulous Dilettante and Her Pals: Tom Hachtman’s Gertrude’s Follies

« Everybody thinks that this civilization has lasted a very long time but it really does take very few grandfathers’ granddaughters to take us back to the dark ages. » — Gertrude Stein

Several years ago, while browsing in the comics section of a rather lousy bookstore (by which I mean a book shop in which none of the employees know a thing about books, let alone are actual readers… I suspect that this is becoming more common, with predictable results), I stumbled upon an oddball item, a faded-looking, obscure comic strip collection lost amidst the monotonous stacks of DC ‘n’ Marvel superhero fare and the perennial dusty Garfield and Doonesbury paperbacks.

This was Fun City (1985), the second recueil of Tom Hachtman‘s newspaper strip Gertrude’s Follies, which at the peak of its circulation appeared in… well, one paper, but a good one, at least. That was the SoHo Weekly News (1973-82). After the weekly’s demise, a handful of episodes appeared in the fast-fading National Lampoon. Much, much later (which is to say currently) the strip lives on within the pages of American Bystander, an astonishingly well-staffed humour magazine. I smell doom.

Anyway, here’s Hachtman’s recollection of the strip’s genesis, from a 1980 interview conducted by Maxine Fisher for Funnyworld no. 22 (”The world of Animated Films and Comic Art”):

MF: What was your inspiration for a strip about Gertrude Stein and her companion, Alice B. Toklas?

TH: I knew of them, but I didn’t know much about them. And then I saw a photograph of them [by none other than Man Ray] sitting in a room at the home on the rue de Fleurus in Paris. I looked at this famous lesbian couple sitting across from one another — so far apart– and I thought: ”Look at that! One of them is fat, and the other one’s skinny. That’s funny. They’re just like a comedy routine. I wonder if they had any fun.” It didn’t look like they were having any fun in that picture; they just looked like they were posing for a picture. But I thought: ”maybe they ran around and had lots of fun.” So I started drawing pictures of them, and drawing pictures of their friend Pabs, and looking at pictures of them, and looking at pictures of Picasso.

Anyway, I started drawing Gertrude and Alice and Pabs and Hemingway and putting them into situations in my sketchbook.

Basically, I was doing Abbott and Costello or I Love Lucy starring Gertrude, Alice, and their friends.

I knew if would make a nice comic strip in a newspaper. And that narrowed it down. Here was a comic strip about a lesbian couple and all their artist friends. There weren’t too many newspapers that were going to publish this. In fact, I thought, there’s only one. And I started to watch the SoHo News, wondering where it would fit. Where would they put this thing? Would they give me a whole page to do a comic strip?

More juicy details from another interview, this one conducted in 2018 by Martin Kozlowski:

MK: One of the unique features of the strip is the blending of Jazz Age Paris and Punk Rock New York. Was that a deliberate strategy or did it naturally evolve?

TH: I was living in NYC in the 1970s. I only know Paris from movies and books. That’s right; I have never been to Paris. So, when I draw a mailbox I am too lazy to research what a mailbox looks like in Jazz Age Paris. I just draw a mailbox as I know it. I have been told that my readers in Paris find this very amusing. So, the blending happens — naturally.



However, something that Stephen King does mind


Oh, I’ll bet dear old Dr. Pretorius would be right chuffed with this Alice Bride. « To a new world of gods and monsters! », as the good doc famously exclaimed.
Our heroines in a more (or less) realistic vein. In the usual order: Gertrude, Bucket, Alice.
Despite, or perhaps because of the liberties he takes with these semi-sacred historical figures, Hachtman’s Gertrude appears to be rather beloved of the keepers of Gert and Alice’s mad flame. For example: « I look at the cover of the soon-to-be-reborn Follies several times a day and have a laugh each time. Too funny, Hemingway’s teeth, silly Picasso avec crayon, Basket’s slobbering excitement and Alice’s cigarette charm!! And Gert, yes sir, she is fierce!!! Rose flying like arrow ready to hit Alice’s nose. This can’t get any better! I hear the brooch ringing… Bravo! » –– Stein scholar Renate Stendahl
The auteur, circa the late 70s. Say, what’s that he’s sporting?
Un mini-parasol, une ombrelle. For shade, not protection from the rain. Hachtman was fond of road-testing some of the props employed by his players. Gives the strip that je ne sais quoi of authenticity, don’t you know.

If  you like what you see, you may rejoice in the fact that Gertrude’s Follies has lately become more widely available (whilst retaining its elusive cachet) thanks to the efforts of Now What Media. Amble over to their website, where they provide a generous sampling of strips and biographical information, not to mention the possibility of acquiring the collections.

Oh, and do check out Alice’s unusual, lasting contribution to popular culture.

« I love you, Alice B. Toklas, and so does Gertrude Stein… »


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