The Mad Peck Strikes!

« Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea. » — Guy Debord

Well, after our brush with Surrealism, let’s hazard a brief detour amidst the Letterists. As we all surely know, The Letterist International was « a Paris-based collective of radical artists and cultural theorists between 1952 and 1957. » I’ll spare you a dry discourse about schools of thought, art and politics and their numerous and acrimonious (perhaps not so dry after all!) schisms.

The main point of interest, in this case, is the Letterists’ pioneering of the rousingly subversive artistic technique of détournement, which involves “taking preexisting images and mixing them together to highlight the underlying ideology of the original image.

This brings us to the storied career of Providence, Rhode Island’s finest son, John Peck (b. 1942), alias The Mad Peck.

Les Daniels and The Mad Peck Studios’ 1971 Comix was a pretty fair early crack at recounting the history of the comic book up to the peak of the Undergrounds.
A-ha! On the back cover, The Mad Peck indulged his penchant for détournement, repurposing an early 1950’s ad for hair loss reversal scammers Ward Laboratories in a fashion that is in no way relevant to our current, media-savvy, ethically-enlightened world.

In his 1987 retrospective, Peck recalls « Yeah, Comix was good. Maybe a little too good. It’s been stolen from every public library I’ve ever been in. »

By then, he was working steadily for Boston-based music magazine Fusion (1967-74), “doing short reviews of the records nobody else wanted to do.” This one liberally swipes from DC’s long-running Fox and the Crow series (which of course borrows its premise from dear old Aesop’s immortal fable), with a smidgen of Fritz the Cat for the frisky finale.

Fast-forward to 1978, and Peck’s much-improved comix-style capsule reviews are appearing regularly in Creem and The Village Voice.

Ah, but she wasn’t a comic book semistar of the *late* 40s… she arrived on the scene in 1941, four months before Wonder Woman, even! Who dat? Why, The Masked Marvel is none other than Golden Age heroine The Black Cat, whose repurposing surely constitutes The Mad Peck’s most brazen act of détournement!
This is Black Cat Comics no. 3 (Dec. 45 – Jan. 46, Harvey); cover art by the lady’s creator, Al Gabriele. ‘Action that’ll make you pop your monocle!
The Mad Peck really stood out in the landscape of rock criticism in that he wasn’t a rockist snob (“It’s not rock, therefore it’s crap!“), and that his taste was wide-ranging and often surprising, evidence of a true music lover well-versed in all its strata and permutations.
And still, these Jefferson Airplane alumni had yet to hit bottom (knee-deep in the hoopla, so to speak)!
The Slickee BoysManganese Android Puppies; MadnessThe Prince; Prince BusterMadness.
The EaglesHeartache Tonight; The Sugarhill GangRapper’s Delight; The EaglesThe Disco Strangler.
HansiAutomobile; The Flying LizardsMoney; Sid Vicious(I’m not Your) Stepping Stone.
Joe “King” CarrascoParty Weekend; QueenCrazy Little Thing Called Love; ChicGood Times.

Then ahead to the mid-80s and Bob Guccione Jr.’s Spin (est. 1985), and a short run with a new title, Tales From the Bogusphere. Meanwhile, The Masked Marvel had been sidelined by legal hassles. As the heroine recalls:

I took an extended vacation in 1980 when Marvel Comics threatened to sue Peck after reading ‘Ms. Marvel’ in the Eagles cartoon that led off Creem’s review section in February. I hightailed it before the corporation had me roped into a team-up book with She-Hulk, but Peck had to stick it out while they tried to stick it to him. What really teed me off was that Ms. Marvel, who had oozed out of Marvel’s bullpen in the early ’70s, was such a dynamic concept that her book died almost instantly.

Words to live and listen by: « Forget all that image stuff and check what’s in the grooves » WhamWake Me Up Before You Go-Go; New EditionCool It Now; Hank Williams Jr.All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight.

Peck’s experience as a critic left him with an encyclopedic knowledge of doo-wop and early R&B. When financing from rock publications got thin, Peck practiced the art of rock ‘n’ roll arbitrage: buying records at flea markets and “backwater Woolworths” and trading them at statewide record collectors’ conventions that he organized himself.

Peck spun his best finds on his popular WBRU radio show, “Dr. Oldie’s University of Musical Perversity.” Wary of semi-fame, Peck still makes an occasional public appearances in disguise as Dr. Oldie, complete with lab coat and head mirror. [ source ]

As a bonus, here’s The Mad Peck’s greatest commercial success, a piece first commissioned by Providence’s The Humbox Press for the inaugural issue of its poetry journal Loose Art. A fluke hit, it spawned postcards and posters “and is still keeping the Mad Peck in Camels.”

« In 1978, Peck designed the famous Providence Poster, a composite of witty one-liners that he and Daniels had uttered over the years about their beloved city. » I must confess I could not resist the urge to recolour it.

Channeling a credo he gleaned from a chance encounter with comic book artist Wally Wood — “Don’t draw what you can trace, and don’t trace what you can paste” — Peck made his name as a comic book artist despite an inability to draw anything more complex than psychedelic hand lettering. Most of his characters are swiped from the works of an obscure Golden Age comic artist, Matt Baker.

I can buy that most of his characters were swiped from Baker (hello there, Canteen Kate!), but he also begs, steals and borrows from, namely… Al Feldstein, George Carlson, Phil Davis, Jim Davis (no relation to Phil, and not the Garfield guy either), Bob Oksner, Don Flowers, and a gazillion anonymous advertising and animation toilers. And it works!

As a trailblazer of this particular approach, you might say he was Yesterday’s Tom Tomorrow.

-RG

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