Sayonara, Buzz-a-Rama!

« Auto racing began five minutes after the second car was built. » — Henry Ford

This post comes to you nearly seven days late, as I was sidelined rather abruptly by a nasty inner ear infection for the better part of last week.

I was inspired to write it by a mournful headline about the passing of an institution, Brooklyn, NY’s slot-racing emporium Buzz-a-Rama, founded in 1965… and now, with the death last year of its owner, Frank “Buzz” Perri, presumably closed for good. Here’s the story. And there’s even a documentary!

My own experience with slot-car racing was limited to miniature sets in boardwalk amusement parks, often powered by water pistols. Even then, it was clear that particular cars were better performers, and that there were preferable lanes. These were always occupied, seemingly on a permanent basis.

Slot-car racing knew its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, and I suppose its slow twilight somewhat mirrored that of such classic, once-ubiquitous pastimes as model railroading and model building, though surely the latter’s glamorous sideline, airplane glue huffing, will always be popular with the kids.

And what about comics? We’ve got that covered, so bear with me. Today, we wave the checkered flag in salute to Jack Keller (June 16, 1922 – January 2, 2003), who enjoyed a long career in comics beginning in 1941 with Dell, followed by a stint assisting Lou Fine on The Spirit while Will Eisner was serving in the war, then some work with Fiction House. A pretty spiffy résumé already!

As a staff artist for Atlas, Keller added to his body of work and his versatility. In 1953, he took over Kid Colt, Outlaw, one of his longest stints — 1953-67! By the late 1950s, he was also freelancing for Charlton Comics.

Eventually, Charlton managing editor Dick Giordano offered Keller an exclusive contract, and so he had to pick between Marvel and Charlton… while the Derby, CN publisher offered a lower page rate than Marvel’s, it offered steadier, more plentiful work, as well as near-complete autonomy. No arbitrary, unpaid re-dos and revisions, and full credit for all of his work*. Quite significantly, Keller would be free to devote himself to his favourite genre, racetrack opera. Easy choice!

Here’s a perfectly à propos story starring Scot Jackson and the Rod Masters*, Keller creations introduced in Teenage Hotrodders no. 1 (April 1963, Charlton).

Now, now, Flip. There’s simply no call for such callous racial epithets, even if there’s a war on. Especially if there’s a war on, one might argue.
While they play but a small role in this particular tale, Motors McHorn and his cousin Wellington McHorn were worthy assets to any ensemble. The big lug was amusingly introduced in Hot Rod Racers no. 6 (Nov. 1965, Charlton) “I’m 6 feet 8 and weight 665 pounds — and my ma says I’m still growin’…
Over the years, Keller’s characters grew older and evolved. While it was a good thing for most of them, the superbly-named Shifty Gears became so bitter over years of (often self-inflicted) humiliation and defeat at the hands of Scot and the Rod Masters that he escalated from childish hi-jinks to near-homicidal sabotage. And in the series finale, The Passenger (Drag n’ Wheels no. 59, May 1973), Scot suffers a dreadful accident that lands his broken body (and spirit!) in the hospital for several weeks, and he struggles with severe depression and loss of confidence.

From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, Keller handled the bulk of the main stories in Charlton’s stable of hot rod titles: Hot Rods and Racing Cars, Teenage Hotrodders, Drag-Strip Hotrodders, Hot Rod Racers, Top Eliminator, Drag ’n’ Wheels, Grand Prix, World of Wheels, Surf ’n’ Wheels… crafting gripping and meticulously-researched gear-head sagas injected with just the right dose of hi-test humour for the win. Speed demons Clint Curtis, Rick Roberts, Scot Jackson, Ken King and The White Angels got the real deal when Keller chronicled their full-throttle antics. Curtis and Jackson even faced off in Match Race! (Hot Rod Racers no. 10, Sept. 1966, Charlton).

Finally, when Charlton dropped its last two hot rod titles in 1973 (HR&RC and Drag ’n’ Wheels), Keller called it a career, left comics and went off… to sell cars.

« The Street Racers », written, penciled, inked and lettered by Keller, originally appeared in Teenage Hotrodders no. 20 (Oct. 1966, Charlton); edited by Dick Giordano.

– RG

*if you think that sounds like a porn name, what about early Hot Rods and Racing Cars protagonist “Buster Camshaft, Screwball of the Hot Rods”?

**Here’s the sort of Mighty Marvel experience that befell none other than Wallace Wood (and as we know, he wasn’t alone in this: « I enjoyed working with Stan [Lee] on Daredevil but for one thing. I had to make up the whole story. He was being paid for writing, and I was being paid for drawing, but he didn’t have any ideas. I’d go in for a plotting session, and we’d just stare at each other until I came up with a storyline. I felt like I was writing the book but not being paid for writing. » [ source ]

Who Wants Yesterday’s Cornpone? Cathy Hill’s Mad Raccoons

What are you doing givin’ a raccoon a sugar cube? / What are you doing? What are you doing? How rude. / Cuz you can’t tell me you don’t know what he does with his food. ~ The Sugar Cube Blues

I learned a long time ago that there is little connection between the popularity of something and its quality. An author well remembered is not necessarily more talented than one whose work has been buried under the monolith of time (squish!), and what manages to claw its way into the public consciousness, much like a raccoon out of a trash can, is often more of a question of luck than some sort of intrinsic worthiness.

Mad Racoons no. 1 (July 1991, MU Press)

Occasionally, I feel like casting a spotlight on comics long forgotten… assuming that there was some memory to be forgotten in the first place, which is often not even the case. American comics artist and illustrator Cathy Hill set loose seven issues of her charming series Mad Raccoons between 1991 and 1997, but how many have made friends with these raccoons? Her absence on Wikipedia (surely today’s litmus test for fame?) underlines the obscurity of her work. I located a link to a Cathy Hill art exhibition… which seemed promising, as I know that Hill was predominantly a painter who has also drawn covers for SF novels as well as posters for a wide variety of events. Well, it was the wrong Cathy Hill – this one was British. So the cookie crumbles.

Mad Raccoons has a cast of highly entertaining characters. Virgil, for example, is a rambunctious racoon, liable to burst into poetic soliloquies as befits his name. He’s also subject to random temper tantrums (especially when somebody mentions cousin Oddfuzz, with whom he is perpetually at war), that typically end in a total melt-down accompanied by his trademark EEAAIIIEE!! scream.

Mad Raccoons no. 2 (September 1992, Mu Press).

Speaking of tantrums – here are the concluding three pages of Virgil’s Visitor, in which Virgil is visited by the dire-raccoon of comeuppance (published in Mad Raccoons no. 2):

And he does indeed have to endure the cruel games of the dire-dragon of delinquency, three issues later:

Mad Raccoons no. 6 (July 1996Mu Press).

As entertaining as Virgil’s outbursts can be, I prefer to bask in glimpses of the world he inhabits, peopled (raccooned?) by characters young and old. The Natural Raccoon (published in no. 1), featuring Grandpa Prickle (which I tend to call Grandpa Pickle) and nursery of youngsters, makes for a choice example.

As someone who has very much a chicken scrawl of a handwriting, I reserve special admiration for folks with a steady hand and patience enough for calligraphy. Hill’s lettering is an important part of the dynamic art of her stories, and the following pages from Raccoons and Music (published in no. 2) allow one to really admire a fancier version of it:

A keen eye may note that 1988 appears at the bottom of the last page, whereas no. 2 was published in 1992. Indeed, Hill’s original idea was for a series of humorously informative stories about raccoons (such as Raccoons in Music, Raccoons in Art, Raccoons in Literature…), all of which were to be published in The Raccoon Booke. That never came to pass, but at least all (as far as I know) of these stories landed between the pages of Mad Raccoons. This earlier material has a different (although still recognizably Hill’s) art style; I would be hard-pressed indeed to decide which I like better.

Mad Raccoons no. 5 (August 1995, Mu Press). Virgil lives in perpetual fear of being mocked (or at least not taken seriously). He’s clearly one of Hill’s favourite characters, and so frequently rates the cover feature.

There’s also my favourite, Uncle Erf, who’s also his own wife Pansy and his son Furley, depending on which personality has control at any given moment – and things can shift pretty damn fast. This poor tormented beast is more than just the butt of jokes – Erf/Pansy/Furley is a walking repository of all human foibles, but with something really vulnerable and innocent peeking through the endless ‘family’ conflicts. In Woover’s Day Out (published in no. 5), a new member of the family, a dog named Woover, joins the team. Poor raccoon!

Thanks to the intercession of a friend, aside from having the individual seven issues, I am the proud guardian of The Mad Racoons Collection (signed, yet!), which gathers issues 1 to 4, the preface to which is probably the only place one can glean some information about the series and its author. I’d like to think that Cathy Hill is still out there somewhere, with friendly raccoons continuing their adventures inside her mind.

~ ds

(Fondly) Remembering Tony Tallarico

« Someone at Dell Comics decided it’d be swell to turn famous monsters into superheroes — an idea whose time never came. And just to make sure there were bad, they hired Tony Tallarico to draw them. » — — James Schumeister, with the sort of brickbat typically lobbed at Mr. Tallarico.

Last week, we lost, at the venerable age of eighty-eight, the controversial, much-maligned Tony Tallarico (Sept. 20, 1933 – Jan. 7, 2022). The case of Mr. Tallarico’s reputation is typical of mainstream US cartoonists who generally eschewed the superhero genre. His mistake, I suppose, is that he drew a handful of them, and in his own distinctive fashion to boot, thus sealing his doom in Fanboy court.

Yet there’s far more depth and variety to Tallarico’s career, and that’s should be remembered. Besides, those superhero comics were just light-hearted, unpretentious fun. Obviously not what the continuity-addicted True Believers craved.

Let’s take a tour of some of the highlights!

A page from Crazy Quilt, one of three stories Tallarico illustrated for my personal candidate for greatest horror comic book of all time, the unlikely one-shot Tales From the Tomb (Oct. 1962, Dell). Script and storyboard by John Stanley. Read the rest (complete with, fittingly, its analysis) of Crazy Quilt here.
Arguably, if Tallarico’s going to be remembered in comics and general history, it may be for this once-obscure but significant mid-60s creation. This is Lobo no. 1 (Dec. 1965, Dell Comics). Tallarico and writer D.J. Arneson hold different views as to the character’s genesis, as Canadian researcher Jamie Coville discovered in 2016. To his credit, Coville simply let the former collaborators present their respective side of the story. Read the resulting interviews here! And do check out the début issue itself, along with Tom Brevoort’s analysis… right here.

As reported in Alter Ego no. 106 (Dec. 2011, TwoMorrows): « On May 20, 2005, Tony Tallarico received the Pioneer Award, given for his co-creation of the first African-American comic book hero, Lobo, a post-Civil War cowboy who appeared in two issues of his own Dell/Western title. The honor was given at a ceremony held at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. »

A Tallarico ad from Eerie no. 20 (March 1969, Warren); given Tony’s propensity to keep it in the family, ten-to-one that “Danny Smith” is actually Anthony Tallarico, Jr.
Cryptozoologists take note! Creepy no. 26 (April 1969, Warren); script by editor Bill Parente. I just adore Uncle Creepy’s pose (great use of props!), not to mention the question mark mullet. Should be the hit of the next tonsorial season!
Joe Gill and Tallarico took over the handlebars of one of Charlton’s established hot-rodders, Ken King. Following the direction blazed by their predecessor, Jack Keller, King had become “the Most Hated Man on Wheels!” (in Drag-Strip Hotrodders no. 13, Jan. 1967, Charlton) after being unjustly accused of wrecking his best friend, Jerry Gerard, aka “The Nicest Guy in Racing” during a meet. The series’ unremittingly bleak portrayal of the racing scene is fascinating, and Gill and Tallarico wisely kept the pace. This is World of Wheels no. 26 (June 1969, Charlton); cover by Tallarico.
An in-house ad from Eerie no. 23 (September 1969, Warren), technically Vampirella’s first published appearance. Art by “Tony Williamsune”, the collective nom de plume adopted by frequent collaborators Tallarico and William ‘Bill’ Fraccio. According to Tallarico, their collaboration was quite fluid: both contributed to layout, pencils and inks, but Tony was the extroverted go-getter, while Bill was the quiet one.
A “Williamsune” splash from Creepy no. 31 (February 1970, Warren). Tallarico on his association with Fraccio: « I would pencil some, he would ink some, visa versa y’know one of those things. I was really the guy that went out and got the work. Bill never liked to do that. It would depend. If he was working on something else I would start a project too and do pencils. It was a fun time. » [ source ]
This is Abbott & Costello no. 14 (April 1970, Charlton), featuring the beloved veteran comedians’ crossover with the aforementioned Ken King. The look of the series is based upon Hanna-Barbera‘s 1967-68 The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show rather than on the duo’s classic movies and routines. Besides, Lou Costello having passed away in 1959, his part was voiced by Stan Irwin (with Bud Abbott as… Abbott).
Preceding the advent of Jonah Hex by some months* in the Weird Western stakes, Geronimo Jones was a truly oddball oater series, in the best sense of the term. Created by Tallarico (script and inks) and José Delbo (pencils), Geronimo’s adventures ran for 9 issues (plus one that remains unpublished), from September, 1971 to January, 1973. Geronimo himself was essentially a young pacifist seeking his quiet place in the Old West, in the finest tradition. However, strange encounters and occurrences keep thwarting his noble goal. And none is more outlandish and shocking than what he comes up against in this issue, cover warning and all. This is Geronimo Jones no. 6 (June 1972, Charlton). The GCD credits the cover to Delbo alone, but the use of collage and halftone wash are telltale Tallarico trademarks… not to mention his distinctive lettering. My guess therefore is: pencils by Delbo, layout, inks and collage by Tallarico.
Tallarico and Fraccio did only a handful of stories in this wild, swirly style, including four for Charlton: The Curse of the Vampire in The Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves no. 44 (Jan. 1974, Charlton);
this one, Come See Our Ghost… in Haunted no. 16 (June 1974, Charlton); The Reuger Formula in Haunted no. 24 (Nov. 1975) and A Solemn Oath! in Ghostly Tales no. 118 (Nov. 1975). Let me assure you that the sort of bold inking on display here, while deceptively simple in appearance, takes unerring confidence and skill to achieve. Bravissimo!

By the mid-70s, with his main comics accounts defunct or dormant (Dell, Treasure Chest, Charlton), Tallarico, ever the astute and tireless businessman (another rare trait among cartoonists) simply stepped up and diversified his efforts, branching out and creating a market for himself. « In the 70s the whole business went kaput. Luckily I was able to transfer over into doing children’s books. I’ve been doing children’s books ever since. My wife went though a count several months ago. It was over a thousand titles. That’s a lot of children’s books. »

Here’s a lovely one: Things You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Monsters (1977, Grosset & Dunlap). From the author’s introduction: « My sincere thanks to the many motion picture studios who produced these great monster films. They have kept many a generation of fans ‘monsterized‘. My thanks to my parents, who did not forbid me to see these films when I was a boy. Instead, they brought out in me many of the questions that appear in this volume. They always stressed that monsters are another form of fictional entertainment. My thanks to my wife Elvira, and my daughter Nina**, who stood by while my son and I made a mess of the living room as we selected the many pictures that appear here. »

I should point out that I haven’t forgotten one of my favourite Tallarico projects, namely his charming work on the Bobby ShermanGetting Together” comic book (7 issues, Feb.-Oct. 1972, Charlton)… it’s just that I’ve already addressed the topic: check out Let’s Hear It for Bobby Sherman!

And what of his 1965 collaboration with The Shadow’s Walter Gibson, Monsters? Got you covered on that one as well!

I don’t know whether I’ll change anyone’s mind about Mr. Tallarico’s work, but I believe I can rest assured I gave it my best shot.

-RG

*Hex was introduced in All-Star Western no. 10 (Feb.-Mar. 1972, DC).

**My closest brush with the Tallaricos came in 2015 when I helped his daughter Nina identify and source some artwork she was selling on eBay for her dad. In my experience, a very nice lady. My sincere condolences to the bereaved family.

Charles Rodrigues’ Pantheon of Scabrous Humour

« He works at night, which is fitting, since some of his best cartoons deal with the dark side of the psyche. A classic black humorist, he rummages around in violence, insanity, perversion, bigotry and scatology, looking for what he needs to create the typical Rodrigues effect: wild laughter with a cringe of repulsion. » [source]

Charles Rodrigues (1926-2014) is an American cartoonist of Portuguese descent. Fantagraphics published two collections of this work, and their blurb describes him as « the sick mind behind some of the most outrageous, inventive, and offensive cartoons ever to appear in mass circulation magazines, including Stereo Review, Playboy and (from its very first issue) the National Lampoon. » One of these books collects his one-panel cartoons, and is titled Gag On This: The Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues. Scrofulous, in case you didn’t know, means something like ‘morally contaminated’.

So it will come as no surprise that this post might provoke a few pouts of distaste. On the other hand, I am hoping that it will also elicit some chuckles.

I remember my reaction at first reading Chuck Palahniuk’s 2005 short story ‘Guts‘ (if unfamiliar but curious, read it here, at your own peril) and feeling a sort of amazed astonishment about how far the author was willing to go. ‘He’s not really going to go there, is he? Oh wow, he actually went that far.’

Well, reading Charles Rodrigues can be compared to that – at least in the slightly surreal surprise one feels when the gag winks at the reader, and trots happily across the invisible line nobody talks much about (but that we all know is there). If there’s a joke to be made, it doesn’t matter that it lies in the territory of the distinctly distasteful, Rodrigues will go for it with all arms blazing and nail it. Reading Guts is arguably an uncomfortable experience; reading a Rodrigues comic is wickedly entertaining… or incredibly offensive, depending on what floats (or sinks) your boat. He stuns the reader with a hilarious and crass barrage of absurdities reliant on scatology, taboos, and general indecency and sleaze. No one is safe – not the handicapped, nor the elderly; he flings dirt with equal aplomb at the women’s liberation front, gays and blacks, the terminally ill, rock stars, lepers, single mothers and ugly children, conjoined twins and cannibals — and this parade is only starting, chum.

Now I didn’t head into this with a desire to showcase the most stomach-churning of Rodrigues cartoons. This selection is based on a simple premise: some of my favourite instances of his sacrilegious* sense of humour. Gross-out gags and crudeness are actually really easy to come by, and often incredibly stupid — I worry about people who think a guy getting hit in the balls is hilarious. But I hope that this post demonstrates that in this case, there is a keen intelligence and a writer’s talent at work.

The following single-panel cartoons have been collected in Gag On This: The Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues.

« Cartoonists can look upon his work with a kind of awe. His staggering is perfection, his actors expressive, his architecture and perspective masterful. But I’ve heard more than one layperson comment that his work looked rough and unpolished. I beg to differ. His line was thick, lumpy and bled right into the very fiber of the paper, but it is controlled and deliberate. This was a craftsman in charge of his medium. » Bob Fingerman, from the introduction to Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend and Other Classic Comics.

While his panel cartoons hit hard and fast, when given the space to develop a longer story, Rodrigues takes the time to set up things up for maximum… nastiness, with every gag flowing the most naturally in the world into an even more over-the-top one. The following pages are excerpted from Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend and Other Classic Comics, which had been my first exposure to Rodrigues’ work, which « boggled the mind and challenged all sense of decency and propriety ». What can I say? I found it in a now-defunct comic bookstore, looked through a few pages and immediately purchased it.

Page from The Story of a Man and his Dead Friend, in which Ray’s friend Joe dies, and Ray decides to keep his corpse around because he’s lonely without him (Joe is embalmed to avoid unpleasant odours and whatnot, which leads to its own set of scatological issues).
Page from Sam DeGroot: The Free World’s Only Private Detective in an Iron Lung Machine. Sam is on skid row after a series of misfortunes, but is picked up by a kind-hearted civilian (who turns out to be fattening him up to be eaten later on).
Sam is being successfully fattened up (Everett the cannibal is a very talented cook!), although in this panel Everett rescinds his evil man-eating ways, set on the right path by one of those door-to-door priests seeking to convert more sheep for his flock.
From the iron lung and into the hospital bed! Sam starts a new phase in his life (and ends up being literally able to talk out of his ass through an enema tube, but that comes later).

I’ll wrap this with an unrelated one-pager which somehow seems appropriate in this pandemic new year –

~ ds

*Interestingly, Rodrigues was actually a fairly religious, politically conservative man.

Roland Topor’s Unvarnished Truth

« Topor is probably the greatest graphic mind of the twentieth century. » — Seymour Chwast

Well, that’s quite a lofty claim… but considering the source, one that must be seriously considered.

Are you familiar with Roland Topor‘s work? Perhaps you’ve seen Roman Polanski’s 1976 adaptation of Topor’s novel Le locataire chimérique (1964). Or seen the singular animated film La planète sauvage / The Fantastic Planet (1973). Maybe you’ve seen some of his arresting film poster art (The Tin Drum, Realm of the Senses… and more). Were you perhaps an early reader of France’s legendarily transgressive magazine, Hara-Kiri, journal bête et méchant? Or, at the other end of the scale, did you grow up with Groucha, Lola and the Gluons on his charmingly bizarre 1980’s kids’ show, Téléchat?

All the same, Topor (Jan. 7, 1938 – Apr. 16, 1997) — eighty-four years ago today — is one of those rare fellows (like, say, Shel Silverstein) who achieved great success at whatever they undertook… and without compromising their vision. Painter, actor, scenarist, playwright, director, affichiste, cartoonist, illustrator… he did it all, and he did it all well. I’m happy to say that his legacy seems safe, if his posthumous presence online and in galleries and minds is any indication. And I’ve rarely had so much trouble paring down my selections, so prolific and versatile and hard-hitting was he. Dig in!

This is a typical, if striking example of the sort of work Topor was producing in the early 1960s (largely for Hara-Kiri — some three hundred drawings in a five-year span), and one wasn’t sure if his draughtsmanship could keep pace with his ideas.
I like to call this one ‘La ruelle armée’.
A bit of Photomatonfumetti from Mr. Topor, circa the 1960s. To the right: nothing. To the left: nothing. Behind me: nothing. Before me: a moron!
Topor recycled the punch-in-the-kisser motif several times; it was first used for a Hara-Kiri promo poster in 1961.
A pair of excerpts from 1974’s L’Épikon. I love the concept: Topor graphically (and fancifully) elaborated upon some antique pornographic photos. « In Warsaw, a housekeeper, by piety sucked the church candles. By dint of polishing the tallow, she skinned her lips and blushed like a virgin. »
« A Las Vegas whore, who resided in a palace, resorted to a trick to tame phalluses: she illuminated her snatch. » Here’s more from L’Épikon.
La roue (the Wheel) — 1973.
Another bit of recycling: first created (I think!) for Revue Mépris n° 1 (1973, Éditions Kesselring), Topor donated this powerful piece to Amnesty International for its worthy promotional work, such as this 1977 print ad. « Is Freedom of Speech Lethal? ».
This sardonic piece appeared in the collection L’amour à voix haute (“Love Out Loud”); the English version was entitled Je t’aime: A Pillow Talk, and used it as its cover.
Les nouvelles en trois lignes I (The News in Three Lines) – 1975. Comics!
Le saut périlleux (the somersault) – 1980.
« Pain, according to Topor. »
« Leaving pain behind, according to Topor. » (1982)
I’m happy to say that, with the years, his work just kept evolving and, in some ways, improving. This poster was created to promote the 1984 edition of a drawing festival held every other year.

Well, even if you weren’t familiar with Mr. Topor’s œuvre per se, you must have seen its echoes across all media in the work of (just off the top of my head!) Bill Plympton, Brad Holland, Peter Kuper, Bernard Kliban, Jean-Claude Suares… and countless others.

-RG

Massimo Mattioli Mania: M le magicien

Greetings to all! In this New Year, like an alcoholic in remission, I will abstain myself from tentacles (for at least a few months) while I catch up on other things I want to talk about. The first installment of this non-Tentacle Tuesday starts with an M, so it seemed appropriate to run it on Monday.

Massimo Mattioli (1943-2019) may be the second best-known Italian cartoonist abroad, at least according to Lambiek Comiclopedia (the first being Benito Jacovitti, another post in the making). However, an anglophone audience is likely to associate him with uncomfortable levels of violence, as only his 80s-and-onward strips have been translated to English. Case in point: his most notorious creation was Squeak the Mouse, serialized in underground Italian comics magazine Frigidaire in the early 80s. When this strip was imported into the United States, the customs agents seized the lot, as the work was deemed to be obscene and pornographic.

« Laying full-on slasher horror onto wacky cartoon violence, Mattioli’s characters embark on a sadistic bloodthirsty rampage, leaving a trail of mangled corpses and pools of blood in their wake. And the comic’s gratuitous bloodshed is not to be overshadowed by its crude humor and over-the-top sexcapades. In sum, a tour de force of unrelenting transgression, rendered in clean line art and dazzling pastel colors. » [source]

But this isn’t today’s topic. For this post I’d like to go back further in time, to a gentler and arguably more inventive Mattioli, since I don’t believe that over-the-top violence necessarily requires that much imagination. We go back to 1968 and the magical (and I try not to throw this word around lightly) M le magicien. Co-admin RG and I have our separate libraries, but since our tastes overlap by a large margin, we try to keep the number of duplicates to a minimum. Suffice it to say we both have a copy of the collected M le magicien strips (published by L’Association in 2003), and neither of us is parting with ours.

In 1968, 25-year-old Mattioli had moved from his native Rome to Paris, France, and there joined the illustrious ranks of artists revelling in absurdity and tongue-in-cheek humour (for example, Nikita Mandryka and his Le concombre masqué) working for communist magazine Vaillant, which was renamed Pif Gadget a year later. Mattioli’s first long-term project, M le magicien debuted in issue no. 1227 (December 1968), and continued its run until 1973.

It’s not really clear why the series ended – the introduction to L’Association collection just mentions that Mattioli decided to return to Rome. However, it seems likely that the strip was ousted by pressure exerted by Claude Compeyron, président-directeur général (CEO) of Vaillant – obsessed by commercial success and marketing schemes, he saw no point in publishing ‘lesser’ strips that were more difficult to absorb (Hugo Pratt‘s Corto Maltese, Les pionniers de l’espérance) or not immediately appealing to children. Compeyron’s approach to selling magazines (‘a magazine is like any product you sell or buy, like a pair of shoes‘) led to rédacteur en chef (editor-in-chief) Richard Medioni resigning in 1973. Medioni’s departure marked the end of what was arguably Pif Gadget’s golden, ‘red’, period; from that point onward, the editors had to learn to kowtow to the marketing department, and commercialism reigned supreme.*

The cast of M le magicien is relatively succinct: the protagonist, your fairly standard magician, his talking magic wand, and a couple of chameleons (who periodically mlem the magician, mistaking him for an insect), two Martians bent on world destruction (or just magician’s castle destruction), a few insects of various shapes and genders, and some talking flowers and mushrooms. The characters are free to roam across pages, consume the backgrounds when they get hungry, and address the reader directly. Mattioli was not confident about his French, so he availed himself of visual humour with fairly simple (sometimes slightly unhinged) dialogues, which added to the charming atmosphere of absurdity.

While (as mentioned previously) we are the proud owners of two copies of the collected M le magicien, I had no wish to destroy either book by attempting to scan pages from it. Luckily, RG put quite a few Pif Gadget issues at my disposal, and I chose my favourites from this lot.

In the early days, Mattioli often stuck to one theme for his page, but tackled it from many angles in each self-contained strip of five panels. The following page vaguely concerns itself with the yellow chameleon’s insatiable appetite, a recurring joke:

From Pif Gadget no. 31 (September 1969). The first sequence of panels ends with ‘what a thirst!‘ In the second, the fish passes the ‘no hunting’ sign for a ‘no fishing‘ one, since the chameleon is fortunately illiterate. In the third, he’s dieting. Finally, in the fifth, the ant switching to English unexpectedly confuses the chameleon so that he forgets to eat it.
From Pif Gadget no. 53 (February 1970). The snow-averse flower wants somebody to lend it its fur, then complains to the heavens that nobody likes snow (to which the heavens answer, ‘but it’s free!’). Defeated by the snow, the flower concludes with ‘I surrender!’
From Pif Gadget no. 111 (April 1971). I love that the ants have an elaborate underground city – and use it to their advantage. Note that by now M le magicien has an official (and lovely) logo!
From Pif Gadget no. 144 (November 1971). A self-explanatory sequence of head swaps!
From Pif Gadget no. 182 (August 1972). The flower that hates water (and would rather eat steak) refuses to be watered until the magician mentions that it’s free to remain dirty and smelly if it wants to – then the flower opts for a bubble bath.

In later issues, Mattioli went for more ambitious, visually stunning but more spare one-page stories, often paying an obvious hommage to Krazy Kat.

From Pif Gadget no. 184 (September 1972).
From Pif Gadget no. 185 (September 1972). Starting with a ‘look out, car!‘ warning, this page uses headlights as camouflage for the chameleon, betrayed by the characteristic FLOP sound he makes when gobbling up the remaining bug in the final panel.
From Pif Gadget no. 189 (October 1972). Another Herriman-esque page… with a classic banana gag, to boot (or to slide).
From Pif Gadget no. 225 (June 1973). ‘Pervert!‘, exclaims the indignant ant – to which the chameleon responds with ‘… but I only wanted to eat her…

And there we have it, a quick gallop through but a few strips of this masterpiece of humour and poetry. I highly recommend seeking out the omnibus if you speak at least un petit peu français.

Looking up meta-humour while I was writing this post, I came across a few choice jokes that made me crack up. While they’re not wholly related to M le magicien, their lovely absurdity fits right in with its spirit.

A dyslexic man walks into a bra.

A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.

A guy walks into a bar and says “ouch!”

What do you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question?

A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.

~ ds

*Which is a (depressing) conversation for another day, but in the meantime, we highly recommend getting it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, by reading Mon Camarade, Vaillant, Pif Gadget: l’histoire complète 1901-1994 by Richard Medioni.