Treasured Stories: “Life’s Illusion” (1988)

« Reality is a powerful solvent. » — Tony Judt

I was all set to write about a certain topic… but one hurdle stopped me cold: having recently moved, we are (mostly me, I confess) still somewhat living in boxes. So… where’s that other book? In any one of a hundred or more boxes. Fortunately, I try to always have a backup plan.

This isn’t the first time I draw attention to an offering from DC’s ambitious but ill-fated Wasteland (1987-88) under the Treasured Stories rubric. See also Foo Goo and American Squalor for more details and to (beware!) suffer a case of thematic whiplash. Whatever warts and blemishes Del Close and John Ostrander‘s Wasteland creations may have borne, they weren’t interchangeable.

Today’s yarn is a spot-on homage to author Philip K. Dick (1928-82), down to the name and occupation. The ‘real’ PKD may have been fond of meat loaf as well, for all I know.

Possibly a reference to PKD’s 1966 novel The Crack in Space?
Another cute detail: « From 1948 to 1952, he worked at Art Music Company, a record store on Telegraph Avenue » (in Oakland, CA). Oh, and Robin Williams was a Del Close fan… and vice versa.
Life’s Illusion appeared in the final semi-decent issue of Wasteland, no. 10 (Sept. 1988, DC)… beyond that point, it was a painful slide into the abyss. Anyway, I love how this story is able to deftly juggle its elements of comedy, tragedy and Dickian metaphysics without dropping the ball. Poor Mary.

PKD had been on my mind lately. Last fall, while rambling around town, I came upon a Little Library housing one of his books, a French-language edition of 1964’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. I’d read the original paperback edition in 1992, but wasn’t sure I quite grasped its dénouement, and had no-one to compare notes with.

Somewhere, eons ago, I’d read that Dick’s manuscripts for his 1960s paperback originals were abridged (i.e. gutted) to fit the publishers’ format and predetermined page count. But this might be apocryphal. As it stands, I can find no trace of such a claim. The story went on to say that publishers in Belgium and France, where the author was more of a draw than in North America, based their renditions upon Dick’s unexpurgated manuscripts, leading to, unusually for translations, results hewing closer to the writer’s intent. It helps that Dick, not given to extravagant stylistic flourishes, is relatively easy to translate.

« This is an illusion ». Here’s the tome in question, published in 1977 by Belgium’s Éditions Marabout, using Guy Abadia’s 1969 translation. Despite the fact that the book’s been retranslated since, I’ve no quibble with this version, save for the lack of credit for the cover illustrator.

I’m currently halfway through, and so far all is clear; I may have to confer with my younger self to explain the plot to him, poor thing.

-RG

Of Ducks, Russian Folklore, and the Mysterious Gamayun

Today’s post started out as an introduction to Moscow-born Russian cartoonist and illustrator Alexander Utkin, whose family name translates to something duck-related (‘utka’ means ‘duck’)… a few other topics may have crept in on soft paws, but sticking to one thing was never my forte.

I came across Utkin’s work in a comic book store. The volume attracted me with its stylish cover and vivid colours, standing out among its shelf companions despite the fact that they were also quite vibrant, this being the children’s corner (thankfully a reliable refuge for colour that’s often shunned in modern comics – if you haven’t noticed the absence of colour in the modern aesthetic, see this documentary about Chromophobia, or Colors: Where did they go? An investigation for a discussion).

The book that introduced me to Utkin, although what I had first seen was the French edition (Le roi des oiseaux, 2020); this edition is from 2018 and published by Nobrow.

I like cases where one doesn’t have to choose between art and storytelling, when the former is lovely and the latter, substandard (or vice versa). Utkin’s illustrations are beautiful, and he coherently and engagingly tackles a topic that’s dear to my heart – namely Russian fairy tales. Remember I mentioned Baba Yaga (see Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 28) a few weeks ago? We will meet her again today (hide your children). We also encounter the legendary Gamayun, a prophet-bird (strangely, as a child I learned its name from the song Sirin, Alkonost, Gamayun* and not from reading folk tales) with no legs or wings, who propelled itself with its tail, and whose interrupted flight signalled death or misery. In a more modern interpretation, she morphed into a sort of bird of paradise with a woman’s face. Read about her and her ‘sisters’ Sirin and Alkonost here.

Published by Nobrow in 2020. Here’s a review of this collection.

Utkin’s Gamayun is a strange, vaguely female creature with huge eyes who narrates the stories (thus ‘Gamayun Tales’). There seems to be a resurgence of interest in all things folky** in many parts of the world, perhaps a desire to preserve some cultural heritage when faced with globalisation – in that sense, one can say that this series is part of that pattern. These revivals don’t often reach a Western audience, however, so it’s especially cool that Utkin’s forays into Slavic myths have been well received and enthusiastically lauded by French and English speakers as well.

Here are a few pages from Roi des oiseaux or The King of Birds, which are, respectively, the French and English versions of the same story… except that the French edition also contains La dispute (The Quarrel), which in English was plunked into Gamayun Tales I. It’s a bit confusing.

In case you were wondering, Utkin’s Gamayun series is technically intended for children. I’m in the habit of regularly raiding the children’s section for interesting stuff, but I can call it mother’s interest (never-you-mind that I am the mother of cats and plants, not little humans). Here are several pages from Gamayun Tales II – this story is called The Quarrel (and, as mentioned earlier, was part of the French edition of The King of Birds):

The following page are from Vasilisa and the Doll, which in English was published in Gamayun Tales II, and in French, as part of the La princesse guerrière (‘the warrior princess’) collection:

I promised you Baba Yaga, didn’t I? The way Utkin draws her predatory teeth reminded me of Canadian artist Emily Carroll, whose creepy stories often mention teeth (one might say it’s a leitmoteeth of hers – sorry for the terrible pun). Her work deserves a post of its own, but for now I restrain myself to mentioning that Carroll, clearly also a fan of traditional folklore, illustrated a graphic novel (written by Marika McCoola) about you-know-who, Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015, Candlewick). Here is a tooth and style demonstration:

A few stylized pages tell the traditional story of Baba Yaga and the girl with the kind heart – you can read the tale (in English) here.
And here is what the slightly re-upholstered, modernized tale looks like.
Classic chicken legs!

To get back to our main topic, I’ll leave you with this glorious poster Utkin illustrated for a French bédé (comics) festival in 2020:

Visit Utkin’s IG account.

~ ds

*I highly recommend the whole album for those who like folk rock – it’s by the Russian band Akvarium.

**This includes the bevy of young woman trios and quartets (from Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, Finland, Germany…) popping up seemingly all over the place, singing traditional folk songs whilst walking around. Here is a charming example from Russia.

Here Come the Flakes!

« It’s quiet snow that I remember best… snowfall and Brahms on November nights. » — Rod Mckuen, Midnight Walk

While Autumn is easily my favourite season, much of its magic and colours are gone by the purgatory that is the month of November, and I find myself longing for snow to brighten the relentlessly longer and gloomier evenings.

And then, yesterday, as I was still mulling over this post, I woke up to this view from my front door.

Well, then! This post consists of a(nother) gallery of Warren Kremer‘s delightful Harvey covers, this time with a snowy theme. Never truly ‘ha ha’ funny, they get along on charm and crafty, limpid conception and execution.

This is Little Dot no. 15 (Jan. 1956, Harvey). While most of Harvey’s efforts were channeled into their ‘Big Two’, Casper and Richie Rich, I always found these too bland (in the former’s case) or kind of deplorable (in the latter’s). I was more attuned to the line’s (slightly) bad boys, Spooky and Hot Stuff (Donald Ducks to Casper and Richie’s Mickey Mice), but really, the genuine interest resided in art director Kremer’s nimble design gymnastics and thematic acumen on Little Dot covers. By this time, these have improbably (but happily) inspired designers all over the globe. Nevertheless, a big juicy pox on the article’s author for failing to acknowledge Warren Kremer even once.
This is Spooky no. 73 (Apr. 1963, Harvey). Those 1960s Harveys were so beautifully uncluttered in their design, with the bonus of Kremer’s marked and ongoing contempt for the Comics Code Authority stamp. Oh, and here’s our earlier selection of Spooky covers.
This is Wendy, the Good Little Witch no. 22 (Feb. 1964, Harvey).
Richie Rich no. 23 (May 1964, Harvey). What have you been eating, Richie?
This is Little Audrey and Melvin no. 23 (Mar. 1966, Harvey). As you can see, Audrey’s sidekick Melvin shares a former fedora with our dear friend Forsythe Pendleton ‘Jughead’ Jones. That particular chapeau is called a Whoopee Cap.
This is Richie Rich no. 55 (Mar. 1967, Harvey).
This is Casper, the Friendly Ghost no. 116 (Apr. 1968, Harvey). Variations on skiing through solid objects is quite the cartooning wellspring.
This is Little Audrey and Melvin no. 39 (Apr. 1969, Harvey).
This is Hot Stuff, the Little Devil no. 93 (Oct. 1969, Harvey). For more Hot Stuff covers, check out Who Will Change the Devil’s Nappy?
This is Little Lotta no. 89 (Apr. 1970, Harvey). And they didn’t find the local children’s mangled bodies until the following spring thaw.

-RG

Boop-Oop-a-Doop Like It’s the Thirties!

« Her surname, a familiar catchphrase of the time, was inspired by the inter-lyric expostulations of a nationally famous Paramount Pictures songbird, Helen Kane. ‘Boop Boo a Doop!’ was the chant she sang in her sweet, high-pitched voice, a flippant raspberry to the jazz age. Somehow these nonsense syllables seemed to embody the spirit of the waning days of the twenties… »

I think everybody knows Betty Boop, though probably not that many have seen the original cartoons from the 1930s. She was ‘created’ by Max Fleischer orchestrating a team of animators – as with any gestalt creation, one can argue about who was responsible for what until one is blue in the face, but it has been convincingly argued (by Bill Blackbeard, for example) that Grim Natwick was the actual creator, probably with a stable of other animators.

In 1930, Betty, then still nameless, made her first appearance in (the pleasantly weird) Dizzy Dishes as a supporting character, as a seductive canine anthropomorph with dog ears and human curves. She acquired more personality once she was matched up with Bimbo, another doggo, in Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) – which is an even stranger cartoon, a tale of hazing by a bunch of creatures with pulsating buttocks and candles on their heads pursuing Bimbo with chants of ‘wanna be a member? wanna be a member?’, to which Bimbo always responds ‘no!’ to get sent to yet another chamber of tortures. I would suggest not psychoanalysing that too closely. Watch for the grand WTF finale:

By 1932, Betty, who now had a stable position as Bimbo’s regular girlfriend and a name to call her own, had jettisoned her dog attributes, floppy dog ears quite seamlessly transformed into big hoop earrings. Though she was a’booping from the very beginning, she acquired her hallmark Boop surname with Betty Boop Limited (1932). The aforementioned Helen Kane* was not pleased, and there were, as Blackbeard explains in his introduction to Betty Boop’s Sunday Best: The Complete Color Comics, 1934-1936 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1995), ‘threats of lawsuits, various legal manœuvres, and demands for creator royalties, all without result‘.

In 1933, Hearst’ King Features Syndicate started negotiating terms for a Betty Boop comic strip, and in 1934 the strip, drawn by Bud Counihan, appeared. However, this was not exactly the same unhinged, hip-jiggling Betty of earlier years. King Features wanted to appeal to more conservative audiences, and Betty’s sexuality was toned down a notch. The animated Betty didn’t fare much better – as usual, guardians of Moral Purity™stuck their fingers in the pie, and from June 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code kicked into effect, forcing Betty to leave behind her carefree flapper days to become either a career girl, or some generic housewife.

Oh, but there was still plenty fun to be had. Besides, the comic strip Betty was not quite as smothered – while the latter was nursing babies and whatnot in a long dress, the former was still running around in her risqué red number, occasionally even kissing men and living the life of a spoiled movie star. Here are a few Sunday strips – thanks for co-admin RG for scanning these unscannables.

Sunday strip from March 1935. Counihan’s tigers are consistently adorable.
Sunday strip from 1935, and a few different perspectives on Betty’s legs and derrière.
Sunday strip from 1935. That’s a more fun version of a police line-up…
Sunday strip from 1935. Mentions of nudism come up more often than one would expect (and yet Betty is never particularly undressed, at least not by modern standards).
Sunday strip from 1936. In the later years, Betty’s indomitable aunt Tillie monopolized much of the action. She may have not had Betty’s sex appeal, but she was kind of fun to watch – a generous woman (also generous with her fists in cases of disagreement). Have I mentioned the tigers?

Blackthorne Publishing, known for their reprints of classic titles, issued three 72-page collections of Betty Boop reprints, comprising a mix of dailies and Sundays.

Blackthorne Comic-Strip Preserves nos. 1 and 2 (both published in January 1986). Covers by Bud Counihan.

There are a lot of modern conversations about the meaning of Betty Boop**. Was she but a sex symbol, bent to the lascivious male gaze that created her? Or perhaps an early example of a feminist icon, in control of her own sexuality? Her combination of innocence and feminine wiles actually reminds me of Sally the Sleuth (see Here Comes Sally the Sleuth… and There Goes Her Dress!), as Betty effortlessly runs around half naked, thwarting rape attempts without losing an ounce of her cheerfulness. These questions mostly address a pre-1934 Betty, as her identity in the public eye seems to have been formed in those few years of unhinged actions and symbolism… as well as BB merchandise in the 1980s, as she was rediscovered by makers of all manner of goods (note that it was still her sexier form that was used on cups, lamps, t-shirts, keychains, and whatever else you can think of).

From recent attempts to revive the character, Gisele Lagacé and Roger Langridge‘s comic series comes to mind – more as a traumatic experience rather than a pleasure, despite being hyped as ‘insanely entertaining‘. Langridge is a WOT favourite, but in this case even his script cannot save Lagacé’s insipid art (‘Lagace’s art is amazing. Her characters emote in ways I didn’t think two-dimensional cartoons could.’ says The Court of Nerds) or the flat colours by Maria Victoria Robado (who normally opts for colourful images, so I’m thinking that the drabness was imposed upon her by the artist). At least some of the covers of this 4-issue series were nice…

Betty Boop no. 4 (January 2017), cover by Roger Langridge.

*In recent years, it has come out that Kane was probably aping the act of black vaudeville performer Esther ‘Baby’ Jones.

**See, for example, The Forgotten Black Woman Behind Betty Boop.

~ ds