Have You Seen My Flare Gun? Buddy Hickerson’s The Quigmans

« And what can you say about Buddy Hickerson that hasn’t already been confessed in court? » — a 1992 blurb

While the 1980s mega-popularity of Gary Larson’s The Far Side (1979-1995) led to a plague of mostly feeble imitations, it more significantly contributed to the acceptance of a greater range of humour (and drawing styles*) in a staid syndicated strip industry sorely in need of a vigorous shakeup. While Dan Piraro‘s Bizarro (1985–) is the clear winner among those that followed Larson’s path — no small thanks to an original vision and drawing chops to kill for — I’ve always had a soft spot for one of the also-rans, Buddy Hickerson’s The Quigmans.

While Hickerson wasn’t a consistent gagman to rank with the cartoon gods, he scores points aplenty for trying and the intermittent spark of genius. And I dug his ‘melted in the sun’ aesthetic, echoes of which seeped into the mainstream. I mean, consider the likes of Beavis and Butthead (1993) and Duckman (1995), merely to skim the greasy surface.

Anyhow, here’s a sampler of my favourite Quigman misadventures.

This reminds me, though less fatally, of a particular scene from John WatersSerial Mom.
Careful, child: that’s just Ethan Hawke wants you to do!
It is indeed! Deliriously tawdry stuff.
My first car was a baby blue Ford Pinto — though not haunted, to my regret!
This one’s for you, Barney. For those of you who need context: Jeff Rebozo; Henry Kissinger… and, dammit, Watergate!

Four Quigmans collections have, to my knowledge, been issued:

The Quigmans (1992, Tor Books)
The Quigmans (1990, Harmony Books)
Love Connection! (1992, Harmony Books)
and Tunnel of Just Friends (1996, Four Walls Eight Windows).

I’m happy to say he’s still active and has remained true to his vision; check him out at (of course) his official website.


*though we can’t not mention such trailblazers as Lynda Barry, Matt Groening, Gary Panter and even David Lynch in such a context. The 1980s weren’t altogether a cultural wasteland, after all.

Arnold Roth: Cartooning *Is* Fun!

« The kind of guy you’d love to have at your next cocktail party, he’s got a million hilarious anecdotes and he’s more than happy to tell them. »

In the early days of this blog, we talked about American cartoonist Arnold Roth (see « All cartoonists are geniuses, but Arnold Roth is especially so. »). But this was some 6 years ago, and back then I wasn’t too generous with images. Roth has now made it to the venerable age of 94, and hopefully with us for many years to come! Even without dipping into his contributions to Harvey Kurtzmans Humbug and (unfortunate name association aside) Trump magazines, there is plenty of material to showcase and giggle at.

Did you know Roth not only illustrated many jazz LP covers, but was also a sax man himself? Check out this awesome gallery of some of these covers on Drew Friedman‘s blog!

A collage of pages from 1970-1971 issues of National Lampoon published in Rick Meyerowitz‘s Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (2010), a massive hardcover gathering highlights from The National Lampoon and interspersed with interviews and biographies of its stable of cartoonists and writers. The bottom right, from a series of cartoons titled ‘Nostalgia is Goodstalgia‘ from NL’s November 1970 issue, feels uncomfortably on the ball for the current political climate (ouch).

Here are a few pages from Arnold Roth’s Crazy Book of Science (1971), which offers a few suitably madcap pages:

Meteorologists have been the butt of jokes for at least over a hundred years (at least Jerome K. Jerome‘s Three Men in a Boat from 1889 pokes fun at them), but whether the recent weather forecasts have been worse than usual is up for debate.

Then there’s my beloved Comick Book Of Pets (1976) – ‘found, raised, washed, curried, combed, fed and cared for in every way‘.

Co-admin RG was swearing a bit while scanning this for me, so please make sure his sacrifice was not in vain by looking at the details.

Read his fascinating interview with Gary Groth here.

~ ds

Brilliance by the (Sam) Gross

« … while there are lines of taste that many cartoonists will not cross, Mr. Gross leaped over them, doused them with gasoline and lit them on fire, cackling as he did. » — Daniel E. Slotnik, from Gross’s NYT obit.

A couple of weeks ago, we lost yet another of our remaining cartooning titans, hardly a surprising turn of events given the march of time… but this growing void diminishes and impoverishes both the field and the world.

Gross has been eulogised all over the place, notably in obituaries in the New York Times and The New Yorker, his Lambiek entry is lovingly detailed, so there are precious few blanks left to fill in.

All this adulation and appreciation… and yet, all of his books are out of print, so far as I can ascertain. While this does not bode well, I like to think that some savvy publisher will soon make use of Gross’ fastidiously organised files, reportedly comprising over thirty thousand individual cartoons.

For this small homage, I’ve pulled some of my favourites from his most famous (the most infamous being We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons*), 1977’s I Am Blind and My Dog is Dead. Picking favourites is plenty laborious enough, I wasn’t going to slog through seven decades of material, indeed not.

Originally published in Saturday Review.
The only way this could have been funnier is if it had been published in the Audubon Society’s magazine… which did publish several of his cartoons — but not this one.
Originally published in Saturday Review.
One of the great perks of Gross’ range is that this cartoon can be viewed as totally cute and innocent or you’re-going-straight-to-hell filthy.
It’s a fairly safe bet that this particular beach is in Florida.
I was thinking that this one could have just as well been a Charles Addams cartoon… then recalled that Gross, early in his career, actually sold gag ideas to The New Yorker for Addams to illustrate. This one, interestingly, saw print in Ladies’ Home Journal.
Our most recent entry appeared in the pages of The American Bystander no. 3 (Fall, 2016), where he held his own reserved nook, ‘Sam’s Spot‘. Bless ’em.

In closing, this fabulous anecdote from his National Lampoon colleague Larry “Ratso” Sloman:

« After five years, I left the Lampoon and a new executive editor took over. He called Sam into his office. “From now on, I want pencil sketches from all the artists before they do anything,” he told Sam.

“Pencils! Cartoonists don’t do no stinkin’ pencils. Rodrigues will tell you to go fuck yourself rather than show you a pencil,” Sam said. “Oh, and by the way, you can go fuck yourself.” His tenure as cartoon editor was finished. But the funny thing is, Sam was still selling cartoons to the Lampoon long after that editor had been penciled out of his own job. »


*From Gross’ first-rate 2011 Comics Journal interview, conducted by Richard Gehr: « His doorbell sports an old family name because he doesn’t want to be hassled by anyone who might have been offended by his 2008 book We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons. »

Commence by Drawing the Ears: Louis Wain’s Cats

« He made the cat his own. He invented a cat style, a cat society, a whole cat world. British cats that do not look and live like Louis Wain cats are ashamed of themselves. » — H. G Wells

British artist Louis William Wain (1860-1939) had one of those lives that capture one’s imagination* – from a sensitive child born with a facial defect (a cleft lip) and prone to terrifying nightmares, to a youth that would wander around London instead of attending classes, to ultimately a man committed to the pauper ward of a mental asylum. Along the way, he married a lower-class woman ten years his senior despite the scandal this caused, lost her three years later to breast cancer, and produced thousands of cat drawings and paintings.

Wain started out as a illustrator of country scenes, houses and estates, livestock at shows, and so on, for publications like Illustrated Sporting, Dramatic News, and The Illustrated London News. His wife’s Emily’s health decline gave Wain the push into feline territory, as he consoled her with caricatures of their cat Peter during her illness. Emily pushed him to try and get this work published, so he showed some drawings to the editor of The Illustrated London News, for which he was freelancing. He was commissioned to paint A Kittens’ Christmas Party, which featured 150 frolicking kittens, took 11 days to finish, and was an instant hit. Emily died soon after in 1887.

Some sources say 200 kittens, I didn’t count them.

Source diverge – according to some, in his grief, Wain threw himself heart and soul into cats and animals in general – he was involved in animal charities and championed a better treatment for animals, including fighting against the routine muzzling of dogs. In another version, he Emily’s death was a ‘merciful release’ and threw himself into work, ended up being considered a ‘cat expert’ just because he drew so many of them (and had distinctly outlandish ideas of their physiology). This can be said of much of Wain’s life, actually – the basic facts are known, but interpretations of the whys and hows vary wildly.

His first cat Peter was black-and-white with a white forehead, and his prototype often appeared in illustrations.

It goes without saying that Wain doubtlessly influenced generations of future artists. These days art with anthropomorphized felines is quite a humdrum sighting, given how much our current culture is obsessed with cats. In this context, it may be hard to recall that several centuries ago people often thought of cats from a practical standpoint, as somewhat filthy-yet-useful vermin-destroyers. This began to change during the Victorian era, and surely Wain’s cats, omnipresent in newspapers and magazines, accelerated this shift in thinking.**

Wain was an immensely prolific artist, but sadly that did not guarantee him a peaceful and wealthy life. When he was 20, his father died, leaving Wain to financially support his mother and sisters, so he had a heavy burden to bear from a young age. By all accounts a modest man, he was quite naïve about financial matters, a walking demonstration of the financially inept artist stereotype***. He often gave his art away, or sold it without retaining copyright, which meant no royalties despite all sorts of merchandise with his cats – postcards, books, toys, biscuit tins, china, et j’en passe. His work was so ubiquitous at some point that publishers did not need to pay him for new material, they could just go on reprinting in perpetuity with nothing but financial gain to themselves while Wain got further into debt.

These cats are obviously cute, but I think what makes them interesting is that Wain would satirize what he saw around him. He might have been an impractical dreamer, but he had a keen eye for human flaws.

He also produced a series of designs for ceramic cats (and some pigs and dogs as well). These sculptures were exhibited in 1914, but did not result in significant sales. A shipment of cats headed for the United States was taken down by a German U-boat torpedo, and that was it – Wain’s financial investment was lost.

« By the time the war broke in 1914, Wain found himself struggling to find a market amid the wartime paper shortage. By the 1920s, he was in poverty. His depression continued, and his mental health deteriorated. Often known to strike out in violent and erratic ways, he was eventually committed to the pauper ward of London’s Springfield Mental Hospital in 1924. »

A lot of articles about him focus on mental issues. Did his wife’s death push him into some form of dementia? Was it just hereditary (one of his sisters was committed when he was 30)? Was he autistic? Was he schizophrenic? The former is a more modern view, whereas the latter theory was proposed by psychiatrist Dr. Walter Maclay in 1939 and stuck when he made a whole case out of it.

« Maclay collected the work of artists suffering with mental illness and in 1939 he came across eight pictures by Louis Wain in a shop, which he arranged in an assumed chronological order to demonstrate the progression of the schizophrenic mind. His theory was that as the sequence of cat illustrations became more fragmented, so too had the artist’s mental state deteriorated. […] The series of drawings, now known as ‘Kaleidoscope Cats’, became a popular visual example of the schizophrenic mind. Long gone was the Edwardian interpretation of Wain’s work as ‘charming’ and ‘humorous’. Instead, his art was often presented as ‘psychotic’ or ‘disturbed’, both words used in a major exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1972. » [source]

I think it’s quite depressing to think of Louis Wain first and foremost as an interesting case of mental illness. While it’s an important topic to address, it’s hard not to interpret this emphasis as a side-effect of the human tendency to bask in someone else’s tragedy – we’re avid of gory details and stories that support the general consensus that artists are tortured souls fighting inner demons. Perhaps that’s what reassures ‘normal’ people – we may not be brilliant or creative, but at least we have a healthy psyche! Except that we don’t, but that’s a conversation for another day.

« It is also highly possible that his experimentation in style was inspired by the family’s background in textile design. […] Indeed, these later kaleidoscopic cat patterns were often constructed around a clear grid system, revealing them as careful compositions rather than the product of impulsiveness coming from someone who is gradually losing his perceptive skills. Additionally, some of Wain’s later work was figurative and proves that he continued to be an accomplished and coherent artist whilst in a mental health care setting. » [source]

In 1930, Wain was transferred to Napsbury, which had a colony of cats, and stayed there fairly peacefully until his death in 1939. I hope he’s surrounded by friendly cats, wherever he may be now.

~ ds

* As a matter of fact, a movie about his life, The Electrical Life of Louis, was released in 2021 .

** I am obviously not saying that Wain introduced anthropomorphism to art, as that has been around since the days of early human history, but he did make a large dent in the public’s perception of cats.

*** Such skills have to be taught, as artistic temperament need not necessarily go hand-in-hand the inability to handle everyday matters such as finance, but add that to the list of ‘things we should do as a society’.

Out of the Clutter: Silvestre’s ‘Simple’.

« Luckily, there are ideas. Ideas. When too many things go astray, stop or turn against you, the mind engenders favorable phantasms, worlds made to order, happy endings, golden images of yourself, utopias and holy readers (one is enough) capable of forgiving any affront and of remaining loyal beyond the limits of the reasonable. Ideas. Useful to keep going. » — Silvestre

Several years ago, during a visit to a favourite bédé store, I picked up, at random, an intriguing book, whose appeal largely lay in that it didn’t seem to be vying for my attention at all. If you’ve a certain bent of mind, the understated article will often exert a stronger pull than all the hard sell screamers in the world.

I read and enjoyed it, then the book faded deep into the collection, only to bob to the surface after our recent move.

See what I mean? Very low-key. This is the French edition of “Simple” by Silvestre (Jan. 2000, Éditions Amok), a translation of the Spanish original published in 1998 by Edicions de Ponent.

For a long time, I couldn’t find out more about it, and I still know precious little. It didn’t make much of a ripple in the pond, and its wake seems to have dimmed even further in the intervening years.

There’s little sense in my translating the dialogue (with one exception), but here’s the setup: our protagonist, Silvestre, sits in a corner and has exchanges with his demons and other monsters of the id. But they’re eloquent and visually arresting apparitions.

I love that, while seeming identical at a casual glance, each Silvestre figure is individual. The artist may have employed a stencil or a rubber stamp… at least that’s what I would have done.

Incidentally, Silvestre is a pseudonym of Spanish cartoonist-graphic designer-poet (et cetera) Federico Del Barrio (1957 –), which he reserved for his more explorative work.

In the words of Richard Dawkins, « in the beginning was simplicity. »
The visual fireworks soon arrive, scores of them artistic references. Am I imagining an allusion to Saul Bass‘ immortal Anatomy of a Murder poster?
« Jests help while away the time, sir. But if some of them fail to amuse you, I can teach you others. My repertoire is infinite. With me, you’ll never be bored. You’ll see, we’ll have a lot of fun. »
Silvestre’s tone toward his visitors is generally contemptuous and hostile, with one exception: he’s fully deferential when appears Her Majesty, the Great Muse of Comics.
A pair of his real-life collaborators turn up, and he’s not happy to see them. The chain smoker is writer Felipe Hernández Cava, and the lanky one Raúl Fernández Calleja, aka Raúl. Both look as if conjured by the magic pen of Marc Hempel!
Ah, and here (panel three) come Spanish icons Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, riffing on Pablo Picasso’s famous 1955 sketch.
Now we’re groping our way through a sticky, malignant fog of German expressionism and woodcut novels!
A page from the delicious and delirious final sequence… it was hard to choose just one. Such an expressive line!


Southern Ontario Gothic: Emily Carroll’s Forest

It came from the woods. Most strange things do.

I’ve mentioned Canadian artist Emily Carroll before in Of Ducks, Russian Folklore, and the Mysterious Gamayun. While her illustrations for children’s series are quite lovely, I think her strength (and obvious interest) really lies in horror.

Today I’d like to feature a few selections from the 2015 collection Through the Woods, which received a few awards and a lot of compliments. While the stories within are generally lauded by critics and readers, I have seen a few reviews complaining that they’re not scary. I suspect that kind of reviewer is the same type of person who starts grumbling that there’s not enough action in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment* (only one murder! gimme Midsomer Murders’ body count!)

Emily Carroll is excellent at conjuring the kind of slow dread that makes one skin’s crawl (which is not to say that she shies away from gore). This is not horror where a serial killer is chasing his victim around with a chainsaw – I think the latter is a lot easier to set up than conjuring a fragile, haunting atmosphere of menace and stalking shadows. Carroll’s work can be visually stunning, with bright colours and swanky layouts, but it can also be sepia-coloured, quiet, intimate and unsettling. She combines these two settings to great contrast and advantage, sometimes within the same story.

A page from His Face All Red, arguably Carroll’s breakout comic that she posted online in October 2010 and which went viral. Read it here. In now occurs to me that her art is sometimes a bit Richard Sala-esque.
Page from A Lady’s Hands Are Cold. Carroll’s hand lettering contributes to a lot of the atmosphere. In a world of typeset speech bubbles that spoil the mood, it’s really nice to come across comics where the text is part of the design.
A page from My Friend Jenna, a story of two friends who conduct fake séances…
… and get a little, shall we say, embroiled in the lives of the dead. It was difficult to decide which pages to include, as I don’t want end up spoiling the plot.

Nightmares about losing teeth are very common (apparently, they’re ‘one of the most universal dream themes‘), so perhaps that explains why The Nesting Place is especially unsettling. Here is a sample of a few pages:

Carroll’s tales often feature somebody who is not what they seem, the unusual or scary hiding behind the veneer of a normal human being. Those wiggling teeth are fucking creepy.
A definite plot spoiler, sorry.

Finally, two pages from In Conclusion, which wraps up this collection with a brightly coloured epitaph:

Don’t forget to visit her website, with plenty more comics to read. A lot of her work is accessible online only, and makes great use of this medium** – for example, in A Pretty Place, you can select the room you want to visit in a sort of Clue-ish set-up; in Margot’s Room, you can click on objects (a mirror, some dried flowers, the window…) to learn their story. Definitely read the sexy, creepy, gory Writhe*** – it’s available for free download. Read her smart interview with Sean T. Collins for The Comics Journal here, or check out her latest book (not yet published), A Guest in the House, here.


~ ds

* To be fair, I am no fan of Crime and Punishment, as I thought it was quite a slog to get through… but not because only one person gets killed. Have a gander at some entertaining reviews of it here.

** She talks at length about designing a comic to be read online in An interview with Emily Carroll: A Fairy-Tale Teller in the Digital Age.

*** When I Arrived at the Castle, published in 2019, strikes a similar vibe, featuring a blood-laden love/horror story between a sort of cat girl and a vampiric Countess, all of it wrapped up in the heavy, shifting logic of a dream you want to escape from but can’t.