Visit Katropolis With Kim Deitch!

Underground comix artist Kim Deitch probably doesn’t need much of an introduction, other than perhaps to mention that he’s the son of amazing illustrator/animator Gene Deitch, about whom we have talked before (see Back When ‘Hipster’ Wasn’t a Dirty Word: Gene Deitch’s The Cat). For the most part, I respect more than enjoy K. Deitch’s work, appreciating his style and attention to detail, but unable to maintain more than a passing interest in the dream logic of his tales. The story we are sharing today charmed me, as it combines his typical soaring and detail-driven landscapes with a really fun ‘what if?’ plot and a clear appreciation for cats, always an advantage for an artist, in my book.

These Cats Today! comes from the pages of Big Fat Little Lit (2006, Puffin), which collects most material from the three volumes of Little Lit, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s anthology that featured comics created for children by a varied roster of artists (a lot of whom have collaborated with Spiegelman on RAW), as well as some Golden Age additions by the likes of by Walt Kelly, Crockett Johnson, and Basil Wolverton. School Library Journal described it as ‘a sensational introduction to traditional literature for a visually sophisticated generation‘. If by ‘traditional literature’ they mean ‘traditional folk tales’ (before they got bowdlerized*), then sure. The stories of Big Fat Little Lit are cynical and pleasantly warped; people get beheaded, eaten, and transformed, and often find that what they thought would bring them happiness just engenders its own problems.

Actually, it was quite difficult to select which story to run, as this anthology is packed with wicked goodies, but this whimsical tale won out (my other favourites are by Kaz, Maurice Sendak, Richard Sala and Joost Swarte, and may yet pop up in another post). Note that if you look beyond the surface of These Cats Today!, you’ll find plenty of cruelty in this fun narrative – dogs enslaved to power up the majestic and glittering Katropolis, force-fed stuffed mice**, these details are briefly mentioned, yet in plain view for those perceptive enough to notice. Truly, for its seeming gentleness, this story belongs into the Little Lit line-up.

~ ds

* See Grimmifaction as a reverse process.

** Not sure about Deitch himself, but his wife Pam Butler appears to be a vegetarian.

Adopting the Gauld Standard

« Quake in the presence of the stack of bedside books as it grows taller! Gnash your teeth at the ever-moving deadline that the writer never meets! Quail before the critic’s incisive dissection of the manuscript! And most important, seethe with envy at the paragon of creative productivity! »

I hesitated a bit about writing this post, as it seems to me that everybody already knows (and likes) Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld and therefore it’s a bit like launching into a review of a Beatles album (vaguely embarrassing, and completely unnecessary). I have also previously talked about him in Tentacle Tuesday Masters: Tom Gauld (and you can head over that way, if you want some biographical details of his life). That being said, his art is not nearly as ubiquitous as it deserves to be.

I happily received his latest book, Revenge of the Librarians* (2022, Drawn & Quarterly**), as a Christmas present, and I remain impressed by the scope of Gauld’s wit and his instantly recognisable style. He also has an impeccable sense of composition; each drawing is perfectly framed, often sneakily implying something happening almost out of sight, hinted at by a chunk of wall just at the edge of the panel, a partially seen open door, an alluring bit of tentacle. He’s funny but poignant. I can only imagine how many of his cartoons are pasted over the doors of professors in all fields and walks of research (it’s something people still do, right?) I can consume Gauld’s perfect little microcosms like semechki, but try to read only a few every day to prolong the enjoyment.

It was really difficult narrowing down today’s selection to ‘just’ 12 strips (I didn’t want to annoy my master-scanner co-admin RG too much). The following have been scanned from the aforementioned Revenge of the Librarians, as well as You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack (2013) and Department of Mind-Blowing Theories  (2020). Enjoy this sampling, whether you are already a Gauld convert or have never heard of him!

Po-tay, po-tah-toh…
One of my very favourite Gauld strips, though I couldn’t explain why.
A very typical Gauld strip, complete with many options of something that starts out grounded in real life and shoots off into funny social commentary.
There was no way I could skip over this one, given my mushroom leanings… Have I mentioned Gauld’s expert use of colour to highlight important details in an otherwise subdued palette?
In case someone is unfamiliar with The Owl and the Pussy-Cat.
The first Gauld strip I became consciously aware of, after somebody shared it on Facebook.
Given the war in Ukraine, this one hits especially hard…

Want more? Head over to The Guardian.

~ ds

* French edition La revanche des bibliothécaires (from Editions Alto and Editions 2024) has been chosen for the 2023 Selection officielle of the Angoulême comics festival.

** That makes it two worthwhile things that Drawn & Quarterly has published… or is the process of publishing, the other being Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories.

Let’s All Go Down to the Catfights — Again!

One of this blog’s unexpected hits (pow!) has been Let’s All Go Down to the Catfights!. Though published in 2018, this post still generates a lot of interest on a practically daily basis – I knew people liked to spectate women fighting, of course, but I didn’t realize just to which extent. I mean, we have a whole THE TWILIGHT WORLD OF GIRLIE CARTOONS category, it’s not like that post was the only instance of us featuring half-or-entirely-naked women.

I’ve been meaning to do a part 2 for a long time now, gradually accumulating choice material, to finally spring it on you when you least suspect it (yes, that’s me cackling in the corner). When dealing with a potpourri of styles and decades, I usually try to go in chronological order. If this cavalcade through the years demonstrates something, it’s that our tastes haven’t evolved much. Plus ça change

Page from The Last Curtain, illustrated by Sheldon Moldoff and published in Sensation Comics no. 22 (Oct. 1943, All-American/DC).
Page from Condemned Venus!, scripted by ‘Gregory Page’ (who’s probably Ruth Roche), and tastily illustrated by Matt Baker. This story was published in Phantom Lady no. 14, 1947.
Jumbo Comics no. 105 (November 1947), with a cover by Joe Doolin.
Adelita y las Guerrillas no. 73 (1953, Ediciones José G. Cruz). This is a Mexican Western comic series created cartoonist José G. Cruz in 1936, initially published in Paquito magazine. I’m not sure whether here Adelita is fighting her nemesis, Tigresa del Bajio, or just punching around some other woman.

Crimes by women, on women? Read an entertaining overview of this dime comic book published by Fox Features Syndicate on Criminal Element.

Crimes by Women no. 6 (April 1949). Is a cheap frill the same thing as a cheap floozy?
Crimes by Women no. 16 (December 1949). ‘Crime never pays’, they always remind the reader, who’s probably too interested in the catfight to believe it.

For more Golden Age goodies, don’t forget about Here Comes Sally the Sleuth… and There Goes Her Dress! (which I am not including here, as I devoted a whole post to Sally).

We have a heavy Italian contingent today! Co-admin RG recently wrote a post about Averardo Ciriello, Sitting Pretty: Averardo Ciriello’s Maghella. As he pointed out, Ciriello lent his art to many an erotic series — here’s his cover depicting Lucifera fighting a woman with three breasts (?) I mean, nobody can say you don’t get your money’s worth from this blog… 😉

Lucifera no. 165, 1980.

And here is the original painting, for comparison purposes:

Ciriello wasn’t the only one working in that vein.

Historia d’Ahi!, a one-shot published by Edifumetto, presumably in the 1970s. Episodio Completo Inedito Fumetto… cashing in on Histoire d’O.
Storie Blu Special no. 12 — L’astronave dei mille tormenti (1983, Ediperiodici).

How about some dubious plot involving a fight between an impeccably fair-skinned maiden and an exotic black woman clad in some sort of tribal garb? Uh, sure.

A page from Royal Hunt, scripted (cringingly overwritten, frankly) by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Bolton. Marada the She-wolf finds herself a ‘worthy’ adversary in Epic Illustrated no. 12 (June 1982, Marvel).
Page from The Devil-Tree of Gamburu, scripted by Roy Thomas, pencilled by John Buscema and inked by Tony DeZuniga, published in The Savage Sword of Conan no. 42 (July 1979). Conan fans, I am sending you over to Tentacle Tuesday: Conan-o-rama and Tentacle Tuesday: the Savagery of Conan’s Savage Sword.

For a slight change of pace and style, I offer you some horror from Tentacle Tuesday Master Richard Sala, two pages from Peculia and the Groon Grove Vampires, published in Evil Eye no. 13 (August 2005, Fantagraphics):

~ ds

P.S. Here’s a Tik Tok video of a female martial artist who has a rather interesting way of showing different self-defense techniques. It seemed relevant!

Florent Chavouet, From Hideaway to Vista

I’ve recently given in to a long-time interest (a fool’s dream is realized‘) and purchased one of those pretty miniature book nook kits. In case you are not familiar with them, they’re usually the size of a big hardcover book once assembled, and are meant to be inserted on a bookshelf and provide a bibliophile with an intriguing glance into an urban landscape, a Victorian street, a bookshop, a train station, or whatever it is bookworms tend to go for. One painstakingly (and crookedly, at least in my case) glues together furniture and houses, cuts out tiny pieces of paper or slices of fruit, and connects wires to provide background illumination. The one I’m currently working on is a peaceful Japanese street with a sushi shop, a tea store, and lots of cherry blossoms.

I’m clearly not alone in my love for house miniatures or drawn isometric projections of a room. One can do without too much unnecessary psychoanalysis (perhaps it allows us to feel organised and in control when real lives and houses are quite messy), but most of us find such things soothing. Placing a tiny plate on a tiny table is profoundly satisfying; the 2021 game Unpacking makes good use of this, consisting of pulling various objects from a box and placing them where you want through different rooms of the house.

The art of French artist Florent Chavouet (see my earlier post Spotlight on Florent Chavouet) hits a similar note for me. His love of isometric projection and his elaborate sketches of storefronts and people’s rooms immediately attracted me, though at the time I didn’t think to verbalise the reason for it. I concentrated on his excellent graphic novel Petites coupures à Shioguni last time, so here are more glimpses of his other books.

Tokyo Sanpo : Promenades à Tokyo (2009, Philippe Picquier)
Manabé Shima (2010, Philippe Picquier)
L’île Louvre (2015, Futuropolis)
Touiller le miso (2020, Philippe Picquier), his latest book (which I haven’t bought yet, shame on me!)
A poster created for Zoom Japon magazine, 2021.

On a more seasonal note, two of his window panoramas drawn for the famous Galeries Lafayette in 2022:

Another thing I really love is imaginary food (which is why the duo of comic artists James Stokoe and Brandon Graham is going to be a post topic sometime in the future), and Chavouet did a beautiful job with his Gloutisphère, a map of the best food in the world… completely made up. Enjoy it on his blog!

~ ds

Fungus Friday: Amanita New Year (To Get Over This One)

It’s nearly New Year’s eve, and a Friday, which seems like some sort of omen for a gallery of vintage winter postcards featuring toadstools, seeing as Fungus Friday is every bit as tangible as Tentacle Tuesday (go here if you’re late to the tentacle train). The connection between hibernal celebrations and mushrooms might not be an immediately obvious one, but one has to keep in mind that the way we celebrate Christmas is distinctly pagan.

More in reference to mushrooms, it has been argued that Santa Claus actually started out his folkloric life as a shaman who gets high on Amanita* (either by direct consumption, or by drinking the urine of reindeer who have consumed them). When one looks for coincidences, one finds them, but nevertheless it’s worthwhile pointing out that the pine trees we adorn our households with for Christmas form a symbiotic relationship with Amanita muscaria (yes, that iconic red toadstool with white warts that so often stands in for a generic mushroom in many stories), and that Santa Claus’ red-and-white costume follows its colours. For more in-depth analysis, I highly recommend Santa Claus Was a Psychedelic Mushroom (written by Derek Beres, who also coined the great alliteration ‘psychedelic piss’ when discussing reindeer-processed Amanitas).

This claim has been disputed by people (some of whom were foaming at the mouth, and not necessarily from mushroom consumption) who point out that this is rather a case of retro-fitting facts into the storyline. You may accuse me of intellectual laziness, but I actually don’t give a fig about where Santa Claus came from. Of more relevance to me (and this post) is this bit: ‘Fly agaric does not appear in authentic Germanic Christmas cards, they’re New Years cards which use fly agaric as a good luck symbol, alongside horse shoes and four-leaf clovers.’ The Fliegenpilz is indeed a good luck charm in Germany, so that’s quite possible. New Year’s card are certainly germane to this time of year, now that the ecstatic joys of Christmas (ahem) are a week behind us.

Either way, enjoy the array of vintage postcards from the late 1930s-1940s, most of them German. Whatever they’re supposed to symbolize (the ones with writing do mention New Year, not Christmas), to a modern reader’s eyes they’re delightfully weird, and I won’t blame anyone for thinking that some drugs were involved.

The Amanitas-as-good-luck-charm theory seems to be borne out in the following, given the presence of clover, horse hooves, etc.:

I wonder if the kid in white represents the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa and similar) – its name gives more than a hint about its toxicity. Perhaps ‘Mushroom Grandpa’ should stay away. Pigs are also a good luck charm, so they make more than one appearance in these postcards (though much like the rabbit’s foot, they’re distinctly unlucky for the actual animal, since they get gobbled up…)
Boldog Új Évet is actually in Hungarian, not German, and means Happy New Year
… and Daudz laimes jauna gada is in Latvian.

Who knew so much revelry was taking place around a couple of mushrooms?

The closest I was able to find is Head uut aastat, which is Happy New Year in Estonian. This post is proving to be quite a language lesson.
Another Latvian postcard. The one on the left is totally sloshed.
Gelukkig Nieuwjaar is in Dutch.

The rest of these are in German:

There is something disquieting about a pink-cheeked child surrounded by dancing mushrooms.
‘Wow, this thing is big and it’s all for me!’
An Amanita drawn by somebody who wasn’t sure what they looked like (hint: it’s not a raspberry).
Weihnacht is sort of like Christmas eve in German-speaking countries. Note that this postcard differs from others in two ways – it features a bolete, not an Amanita, and wishes the viewer Merry Christmas, not Happy New Year (with a bag full of money, apparently).

Happy New Year to all our dear readers, and may your paths be littered with tasty mushrooms in the coming year!**

*Amanita muscaria is considered poisonous, as far as foraging mushrooms go, though it has a long history of being used as a psychedelic/intoxicant by many tribes (namely, by the indigenous people of Siberia). A strong dose causes delirium and a host of other side-effects, which fade after a few days. I might add that some Russians (and god knows Russians will eat whatever mushroom is even remotely edible – I say that with nothing but admiration) consider it a good edible, provided you boil it in water three times or so. I might try that one of these days! I have no interest in psychedelic properties, but plenty of interest in culinary ones.

**Assuming you like them, of course.

~ ds

Pudge, Girl Blimp, Goes Cavorting

« While so many other women underground cartoonists were reclaiming the right to their own bodies in the wake of Roe v. Wade with comics like Abortion Eve and Tits n’ Clits, Marrs was reclaiming hers by reveling in its grotesqueries—namely, burps, pimples, compleat dandruff, BO, flatulence, ‘and other bodily emissions’. »

My first exposure to underrated cartoonist Lee Marrs was the story A Feline Feast, which you can conveniently read in co-admin RG’s post Felines and Moonshine: Two by Lee Marrs. I liked the expressive sketchiness of her line straight away, but only got around to what’s arguably her magnum opus, The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp, much later.

In a fairer world, Marrs would be a much better known name. Was is because her output was so wide-ranging, or because she was writing frankly about women as actual human beings, not some glorified version thereof? I think fame is largely down to luck, and I guess luck was not exactly au rendez-vous. Still, fame or no fame, it’s undeniable that her career has been long, varied, and, I imagine, satisfying. It has been summarized by Monica Johnson writing for The Rumpus, so if you want the nitty-gritty of it, head over here; I’ll just mention that she was one of the first female underground comics artists, as well as one of the ‘founding mommies’ of Wimmen’s Comix.

Wimmen’s Comix no. 3 (October 1973, Last Gasp). The ranks of Marrs’ fellow Wimmen’s Comix founders have been cruelly decimated of late: our respectful farewells to Diane Noomin (who died last Sept. 1st) and Aline Kominsky-Crumb (who died November 29th).

Comixjoint explains,

« Our squat, face-stuffing heroine Pudge is introduced with her hitchhiked arrival in San Francisco from Normal, Illinois as a fat 17-year-old runaway. She’s also a virgin and she really wants to get laid, but that won’t happen in the first issue (or the second). Pudge’s backstory is further complicated by the fact that she is, in reality, a Martian, and the government of Mars has sent two guardian Martians to Earth in order to keep an eye on her… »

The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp no. 1 was published by Last Gasp in 1973 and then reprinted, with a new cover, by Star*Reach, which also released issues no. 2 and 3. This is no. 3 from October, 1977.

I wasn’t setting out to write yet another post about an ‘historically important’ series; these things are accidental. The following scans are from a 2016 collection, The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp, which almost looks like a print-on-demand affair, the art reproduced a tad shoddily and fuzzily. Where is the lavish hard-cover edition with bonus material, I would like to know? Well, we’ll settle for this in the meantime.

A little peek into the commune where Pudge lives, as well as a glimpse at one of the many parties (an occasion to find some guy to have sex with, hopefully).

Here is a four-page sequence that I chose not only because it involves a cat (though I admit that influenced me), but mostly because it shows the nice dynamics of the close-knit group of ‘perverted hippies’ Pudge lives with:

Finally, a look at one of Pudge’s many attempts to hold a job:

The lovely thing about this series is that it never comes off as cringy, despite all the plot traps this comic could have fallen into. Pudge is not some sort of idealized, sexy Voluptuous Woman, and neither is she a butt of fat jokes. Her girth is a facet of her, along with her personality, curls, and puppy enthusiasm for some things – some people love her, some people don’t, and that’s fine. When she loses weight, her beau bemoans ‘sigh… I’m gonna miss all those yards of bouncy flesh…’ but he is not fetishizing her. Besides adroitly handling what’s arguably a taboo topic (although a lot more today than it was in the 70s, I imagine), Marrs also lovingly depicts a totally believable camaraderie between a rather disparate group of people of all races and interests; addresses sex in a playful and positive yet realistic way; and even delivers a sort of a public service message, as we follow Pudge while she gets a crash course in contraception, is instructed on how to find her cervix, and compares breasts with friends. She may occasionally end up in jail or suffer disappointments as she discovers that life is more complicated than she thought… but in the end, this is a friendly and welcoming world to spend some time in.

I’ll leave you with this Moebius parody, published in Imagine no. 3 (August 1978, Star*Reach):

~ ds

Oor Wullie and His Trusty, Rusty Auld Bucket

See the janny? See ma granny?
Ma granny hit um wi a sanny
then she timmed the bucket owerum
an he tummelt doon the sterr
an he landed in the dunny
wi the baikie in his herr.
*

The home of Scottish strip Oor Wullie is The Sunday Post, distributed by D.C Thomson (publishers of, notably, The Beano and The Dandy). You may note that I used the present tense – this strip was brought into the world in 1936, but astonishingly it’s still going strong (it celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2016, to give a quick idea to those who prefer not to launch into mathematical cogitations). It has, through the years, gone through a number of different hands, but it was originally created by comics writer and editor Robert Duncan Low and drawn by cartoonist Dudley Dexter Watkins, who died very much in the cartooning saddle in 1969. His work was reprinted for a bit, until new blood could be found to take over, first in the shape of Tom Lavery (who was told to imitate Watkins’ style), then followed by a bevy of other cartoonists since then.

The Low & Watkins duo also came up with The Broons, which started the same year and ran in The Sunday Post as well, to the point where the strips were often collectively referred to as Broons & Oor Wullie. There’s a lovely documentary about The Broons here.

Reading Oor Wullie is loads of fun, and a big part of that is its use of Scottish slang – not so much of it that action is obscured, but enough for plenty of colour and also the opportunity to pick up some new vocabulary. Did you know that ‘oxter‘ means ‘armpit‘, for example?

To quote from perceptive article THE BROONS AND OOR WULLIE from Indira Neville‘s blog,

« […] the use of the dialect reflected the publisher D. C. Thomson’s ‘realist’ editorial policy and focus on authenticity. It was intended to attract a large Scottish urban audience and in this was really successful. Both strips were massive hits and at their peak had an estimated readership of three million (79% of the adult population of Scotland!) 

One of the most interesting aspects of Oor Wullie and The Broons is that for most Scots they were/are the only mainstream, regularly available written representation of their spoken language. In being this they have an increased relevance within the current Scottish language revival. The National Library of Scotland is even using Oor Wullie as a means to introduce and engage children in the richness of the lexicon. It has a website that’s ‘a guid fun wey tae lairn oor language‘. »

Wullie (or William) is a pretty standard boy prototype: prone to mischief and frequently embroiled in neighbourhood fights, embarrassed when his mam dresses him in nice clothing, but basically an honest lad with his heart in the right place. In that sense, he reminds me of Sluggo. You may note that every page starts and ends with Wullie sitting on his favourite bucket – every boy needs a good friend!

The following strips have been scanned from a 1976 collection, ‘selected from the Sunday Post and earlier Oor Wullie books‘. The artist is the aforementioned Dudley Watkins (which I can confidently claim, as each page is signed – I also compared the art to some original Dudley art being sold online, and this conclusion seems legit).

To celebrate Our Wullie‘s 80th birthday in 2016, 86 statues of Wullie in different costumes were placed around Dundee for the Bucket Trail event (including Oor Bowie, a David Jones tribute). This was a great hit, and Wullie’s BIG Bucket Trail was launched in 2019, with around 200 statues installed all around Scotland. View them here, they’re really fun.

When one thinks that a Moscow-born Russian (that would be me) would be greatly enjoying a classic Scottish comic some decades later… the world works out in funny ways.

~ ds

* From The Ballad of Janitor MacKay by Margaret Green

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.

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

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 28

Most readers will be familiar with the East European witch Baba Yaga, she of the giant mortar, pestle, and chicken-legged-house. The Slavic tradition is rich in heroes and villains, but Baba Yaga is my definite favourite. Perhaps it’s because of her dichotomous nature – undeniably evil, kidnapping children to eat them and such, she also lends a very helpful hand to those she likes… depending on the vintage of the tale and who’s the narrator, and sometimes within the same story. Potato, pota-toh, right? She’s the kind of hag that cool women aspire to become when they’re old: a cantankerous, wise beldam who does whatever she pleases, lives alone in the middle of a forest with her cat, and tells anybody she doesn’t like to fuck off (or transforms them into something nasty to teach them a lesson).

Introduction to Vasilissa the Beautiful, illustrated by Ivan Bilibin, 1931. That’s Baba Yaga flying on top.

Interpretations of what she actually stands for abound, but to be honest I am not interested in her narrative origins, just the storytelling. She is a character who lives and breathes; it rather seems impolite to ask too many questions, lest one ends up in her oven, on the way to becoming dinner.

Folklorist Vladimir Propp‘s theory is probably the best regarded, and argues that she’s the guardian of the kingdom of the dead, with her house representing a grave (people of yore were buried in special houses built on top of tree trunks, with roots resembling chicken legs). She might have once been a deity of hills and forests, kind protector of villagers; or perhaps a goddess of harvest, punished by other gods who removed her beauty and left her a crone. Viy (yes, that Viy) is her father, and Koschei the Immortal (sometimes pictured as riding naked on his favourite horse) is either her son or her nephew. The fence around her house is built from human bones. I think she deserves her place in this year’s Halloween pantheon.

Anyway, here are a few of my favourite visual renditions of her…

Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942), co-founder of the Union of Russian Artists, is mostly remembered for his illustrations to Russian folk tales. His was the first version of Baba Yaga I was introduced to a a small child (as a matter of fact, I still have a collection of tales illustrated by him lying around somewhere). His style is easy to recognize, and full of details – while tsars and beautiful maidens get clothed in robes painstakingly adorned with golden filigree, forest scenes are crowded with branches, leaves, and mushrooms, giving the slightly claustrophobic impression of the trees closing in on the viewer. This is no civilised forest. This is a wild, slightly malicious entity that does not take kindly to strangers.

Baba Yaga in her natural habitat, the flying pestle. Ivan Bilibin, 1900.

The following book from 1915 does not credit its illustrator, and I’m not knowledgeable enough to interpret their memorable signature (seen in the inside illustrations, bottom left).

Baba Yaga (this book was originally published in 1908, using the same painting, but with fewer background details; this edition is from 1915, illustrator still unknown).

Two illustrations from the inside, showing off Baba Yaga’s frequently present black cat, and her fence of human bones and skulls. Admire the decorative ‘devils dancing’ panel inside her hut. The cat can be easily bribed, and in one of the classic tales helps out the would-be victim get the best of Baba Yaga, after the young girl gives him some ham out of the kindness of her heart.

In the Western world, illustrator Nicolai Kochergin (1897-1974) is famous for his Soviet propaganda posters, but he is beloved by Russians who grew up around the so-called ‘golden age’ (1950s-1960s) of children’s book illustrations in the USSR. See a selection of the latter over at Tom Cochien’s Monster Brains Blog. WOT habitué Barney might be interested in his first-ever illustrated book, a Soviet translation of Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, published in instalments in a magazine in 1928.

Although I technically grew up much after these illustrations were published, I think I can count myself lucky that my parents mostly surrounded me with old books.

~ ds