Lou Brooks’ Banana Bob, “Boy Inventor of Harding High”

« Pretty soon, they had me working at the stat machine and the PhotoTypositor, or touching up stripper photos for the Trocadero Burlesk ads. Mostly putting some underwear on them. I may as well have been Vincent Van Gogh, for all I knew. I was in heaven. » — Brooks recalls his formative years

At first blush, I’ve immensely admired cartoonist-illustrator-historian (and so on) Lou Brooks (1944-2021) and his assured line. An ever-eager autodidact, Brooks handily achieved a feat that sets the mind a-reeling: soaking up ‘low’ illustration styles and the essence of faceless pictorial ephemera (think comic book ads, matchbooks, bar coaster and napkin art…), Brooks miraculously derived, from this primeval soup, his unique style, paradoxically bland (by design!) yet instantly recognizable.

One of Brooks’ earliest jobs in the badlands of professional cartooning was a strip he produced for Scholastic‘s Bananas (1975-84), a skewing-slightly-older companion to the publisher’s big hit Dynamite (1974-92). Banana Bob, “Boy Inventor of Harding High” exploited the time-honoured gizmo formula hatched in 1912 by Rube Goldberg with the twist that here, the doodads were contrived by readers and given visual interpretation by Brooks. Banana Bob ran for the mag’s first twenty-nine issues.

With the early strips, Brooks was still fine-tuning the works. With a dozen or so under his belt, he hit his stride. This one’s from Bananas no. 12.
From Bananas no. 13. Foo! There’s our pal, Bill Holman’s Spooky the cat (though he’s lost his bandage)!
From Bananas no. 16.
From Bananas no. 18.
From Bananas no. 19. And add a dash or two of Bill Holman… Brooks knew his stuff, all right.
From Bananas no. 20.
From Bananas no. 21. I see shades of a Jay Lynch influence!
From Bananas no. 24.
From Bananas no. 25.

From Bananas no. 26.
From Bananas no. 27.
From Bananas no. 28.
… and the series’ full-page finale, from Bananas no. 29, aka the 1979 Bananas Yearbook.

Though Brooks had already developed his trademark style — as evidenced for other illustrations he did for Bananas — he didn’t fully employ it on the Banana Bob strip. If memory serves, here’s where I first encountered a full-fledged Lou Brooks wallop, and I suspect I’m not alone in this (our younger readers are likelier to have first come across his exemplary revamp of the old Monopoly game):

For the feature’s duration — a decade or so — Brooks logos ushered readers into Playboy’s comic strip section (created in 1976 by hip new hire Skip Williamson) that featured over the years such heavyweights as Harvey Kurtzman, Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch, Bobby London, Frank Thorne, Chris Browne

Here’s another, er, pair:

… and speaking of Mr. Spiegelman, here’s a collaboration between titans. It appeared in the January, 1980 issue of Playboy.

Of course, there’s so much more to Lou Brooks than one could conceivably cover within a mere blog post. To that end, we have a handy little biopic entitled A Guy Named Lou — filmed entirely in Illustr-O-Vision!

Brooks was an assiduous chronicler of the history of reprographics — don’t miss his jaw-dropping Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies. While he did a bit of everything to keep himself amused and occupied, he never lost sight of his vocation, of his one true love — I mean, he was in a band (with Bill Plympton!), but it was called Ben Day and the Zipatones!

-RG

Nothing Much Happens to Mr. Mamoulian

« Somebody said that drawing a page of comics ought to be as easy as writing a letter to a friend. So I did just that. I took a bit of paper and drew in ink whatever came into my head. I tried to surprise myself. If I made a mistake it would just have to stay there. » — Brian Bolland

Brian Bolland‘s habitual style is easy to recognize, and co-admin RG and I are both fond of it. But there was a time when the normally meticulous Bolland decided to do something different, something much more sketchy and spontaneous. The result was the vaguely Armenian-sounding Mr. Mamoulian, who doesn’t look much like one of Brian Bolland’s ankle-biters (unless one is the proud owner of a perceptive eye)… until he encounters some pretty women, which are a dead giveaway.

Mr. Mamoulian, a pervy sort of ‘older’ (40-ish?) guy prone to bouts of nihilism and crippled by self-doubt, engages in the sort of things listless people do, when they are not quite sure how to occupy their time*: sit on park benches while others are at work, shuffle stuff around their apartment from point A to point B (and back again), enjoy a cuppa, and stare at the ceiling after waking up in the middle of the night. He is obsessed with feminine beauty, but uneasy with the ramifications of being obsessed with it. Rattled by the passage of time, irked by life’s idiosyncrasies, trapped in and by his body, he’s nevertheless a silly and rather comforting presence as we follow him on one of his aimless traipses around the rainy countryside, witness one of his exchanges with his imaginary naked lady friend (Bubbles Bourbasch), or coo at his surprisingly congenial friendship with punkette Evelin Shit-Face.

* These days, of course, one just stares into a cellphone/binge-watches a show on whatever streaming service, which is prompted by the same impulse, but it somewhat less romantic.

The proverbial beautiful English weather.
The early days of the fragile friendship between Mamoulian and Evie (who, for all her punky pretensions, is a rather well-mannered, thoughtful young woman).
Mamoulian is silent – does he condone Mr. Carstairs’ patter? Disapprove of it? Probably a bit of both. In the end, it’s his behaviour that matters – Evie is a person to him. As for Mr. Carstairs, he’s a spot-on portrayal of a first-class hypocrite.
Here Mamoulian’s reflections are reminiscent of the philosophical musings of Marc Hempel’s Genital Ben.

Mr. Mamoulian is arguably a peephole right into Bolland’s id, but it’s not at all an uncomfortable experience (unlike, say, peeking into the mind of Chester Brown, who creeps me out in a big way), even when the strip goes creepily dreamlike, or addresses uncomfortable topics (for some, the couple of bondage-related pages – not included here to avoid ruffling feathers – would be it; apparently ‘Bolland is noted by some for his use of bondage imagery‘, though I honestly think that’s a bit of an overstatement). In the end, Mamoulian’s character is casually tapping into many sources of frustration and confusion that rattle around most human heads. He is relatable.

Bolland calls Mr. Mamoulian ‘not very good’, but I obviously disagree with this assessment, as you’ve probably noticed by now. I love the sketchiness of the art, its surreal energy. The strip is, by turns, hilarious, depressing and always very, very British (and not just because of the continuous tea-drinking). I believe we can all relate to Mamoulian’s struggles with being alive, and the notions of freedom and art. We also get tantalizing glimpses of punk and metal scene through Evie and Steve’s interludes.

Mr. Mamoulian’s first encounter with Bubbles (off screen), who is later to visit him at night as her imaginary nude self. Interestingly, it seems to be her name, not her looks, that stuns his imagination.
One of American Suzy’s many conceptual experiments.

In terms of style, both in terms of art and storytelling, I suppose this strip fits comfortably into a set of British semi-autobiographical strips from the mid to late 80s – Eddie Cambpell’s Alec and Glenn Dakin’s Abraham Rat, for example, both of them also gloriously funny and contemplative and excellent. As a matter of fact, Mr. Mamoulian was first published in Paul Gravett‘s Escape Magazine* (read a lovely article about it here**), home of Cambell and Dakin’s strips as well…

* Mr. Mamoulian first appeared in Escape no. 11 (1987).

** To quote from the aforementioned article, Glenn Dakin in The Comics Journal no. 238, October 2001, explained that Escape “provided a focal point for people. People would meet up and discuss their dreams and ideas and get together as friends or have arguments and fall out and sometimes even if somebody annoys you or if somebody didn’t seem to have respect for your work, that would be enough to fill you with enough anger to go out there and try to prove them wrong.” Recently, John Bagnall told me, “To some readers at the time, Escape Artists were sometimes generalized as the school of strips “where nothing happened”, but their approaches were actually much more disparate. As for the social scene, there was a loose sense of unity when we would meet up in London, though naturally not everyone got on well or were even huge fans of certain people’s work.

~ ds

Treasured Stories: “What’s Yores?” (1982)

« The people who are always hankering loudest for some golden yesteryear usually drive new cars. » — Russell Baker

We’re having a bit of a scorcher over here, so I’m doing my bit to compensate with a piece set in wintertime.

As we surely all know, Archie stories (in the comics at least) are formulaic to a fault. This static state of affairs plays a considerable part in their comforting nature. Sure, all fashions and trends are embraced and discarded, but the characters don’t evolve in any significant, permanent way. No lesson ever sticks.

So on the rare occasion when a writer deviates from the formula, it really shows. This tale, I daresay, is such a specimen. Virtually plotless, it’s a precursor, by more than half a decade, of that rule-breaking « show about nothing »: Seinfeld (1989-1998).

While nothing much happens here in terms of plot, this is a difficult trick to pull, in any medium: as it mainly consists of yadda yadda yadda (but witty yadda yadda yadda… another daunting level of difficulty), it’s talking heads all the way, so you need some great performers who know how to keep an audience engrossed through the minimal means at their disposal.

In comics, this calls for a great illustrator, a master of body language and the art of the mise en scène, namely Samm Schwartz (1920-1997). I shudder — and not with delight — to envision this particular script landing in the hands of a lesser light, which is to say practically anyone in the Archie stable save Bob Montana (but he’d died in 1975) or Harry Lucey (retired and in poor health by then). While he was never credited for anything but his artwork, Schwartz enjoyed a free hand with his regular collaborators’ scenarios (George Gladir and especially Frank Doyle), with their blessing. And he was always enriching his backgrounds with delightful pantomime mayhem.

What’s Yores? originally appeared in Jughead no. 321 (Feb. 1982, Archie). Script by Frank Doyle, pencils, inks and letters by Mr. Schwartz.

Craving more Schwartz? Go on, help yourself to the full spread right here.

-RG

Still Henpecked After All These Years: Harry Hanan’s Louie

I’ve talked about Harry Hanan‘s Louie before (see Louie Reads Some Ghastly Comics), but as this post dates from the early-ish days of WOT, it included only one image. My opinion of it has also changed. I called it an ‘endearing’ strip, but I’ve come to feel that the overall effect of watching this schlemiel fail at absolutely everything, day after day, is rather bleak. On the other hand, this daily drudgery makes his rare moments of joy stand out in stark contrast.

‘Hen-pecked’ husbands are a favourite topic of all manner of comedians, so in that regard Louie is not an interesting character; as a matter of fact, his insignificance and inability to stand up for himself reek of desperation, and he evokes a mixture of condescension and pity from the attentive reader. I like him best when he’s out alone, observing something weird happening à la Mr. Mum, getting the short end of the stick from inanimate objects – anything is better than being scolded and shoved around by his wife, really.

The series ran from 1947 until 1976. At the very beginning, Louie was an unlucky criminal; when the strip garnered some popularity and English-born Hanan moved to the United States, his character became an honest man, though he seemed to hold a number of different jobs, from the classic door-to-door salesman to soda jerk. He was considerably sprightlier and full of mischief, and instead of his ever-present wife towering over him, he had a shifting cast of females staring with incomprehension at his antics.

Daily from August 2, 1952, seventy years ago and change!
Three daily strips from 1954.
Sunday strip from December 15, 1957.

By the 70s, Louie is more of a tired shambling shell, constantly getting yelled at by his wife, his boss, or just about anybody, really. Still, some fun moments occur —

Strip from January 1, 1970. This is the one that made me think of its contemporary (and infinitely superior, sorry) strip Mr. Mum.
Strip from May 3, 1972. Attempts to discipline others as payback for the moments when you are the one being ordered around always backfire…
Strip from January 10, 1972. Once Louie abandoned his omnium gatherum of jobs, he settled down as a typical office worker with an equally typical tyrannical boss.
Strip from 1972 (exact date unknown). The wife looks downright vindictive, which is interesting since quilters I know tend to have the facial expressions of any person engaged in a beloved craft – enthusiastic, peaceful, or concentrated…
Strip from November 14, 1972. An office worker, and one of British origin at that, surely would have an umbrella in his possession?
 Sunday strip from July 20, 1975, in which Louie gets (meekly) combative.

The line between domestic comedy and domestic tragedy is a thin one – one of my grandfathers, though not a loser, distinctly marched in the direction indicated by his wife (my grandmother), so I have developed an allergy to that kind of relationship early on. Your mileage with Louie may vary!

~ ds