I’ve just heard of the recent, untimely passing of cartoonist Michael Dougan (1958-2023). Well, perhaps former cartoonist would be more accurate, but if so — he said his piece, made his mark, and moved on — and that’s cool. But can cartooning truly ever be left behind?
And here are a few excerpts from its pages:
In 2017, some twenty years after his last cartoon (that I’m aware of… Double Booked?, in Fantagraphics’ Zero Zero no.17, June, 1997) Michael and his wife moved to Japan and opened a café-restaurant. Read Michael’s own account of the saga.
Creative types often get restless, and Michael found himself a little niche answering people’s mostly, and sometimes incredibly, inane questions on Quora, with a potent mixture of withering sarcasm with a side of snide, all the while providing helpful information — whenever possible. Check out his feed, but let me caution you: it’s a bit of a frazzling rabbit hole (or warren, more accurately).
I’m hoping that, once news of Michael’s passing trickles over to his native land, that The Comics Journal will provide a detailed obituary of this notable artist. Farewell, Mr. Dougan.
« There is love in me the likes of which you’ve never seen. There is rage in me the likes of which should never escape. If I am not satisfied in the one, I will indulge the other. » ― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
Today’s entry is a most idiosyncratic interpretation of the Modern Prometheus myth. Its essence was collected by that multitalented gentleman, David Greenberger, and saw print in the pages of his eclectic anthology Duplex Planet Illustrated. I asked David to tell us a bit more about the narrator, and he kindly obliged:
« I always had a wonderful time talking with Abe Surgecoff, who was incredibly good natured and would talk about anything, much of it not technically accurate in the real world, but was vivid to him even if it was being created as he spoke it.
He was a resident at the Duplex Nursing Home in Boston and I met him in 1979 when I took a job there as activities director (something I did until 1983 – a job I didn’t continue with – this was mostly a portal for me to have access to and friendships with people who were a couple generations older than me, and an area I became interested in exploring as an artist – hence taking that job.) »
My thanks to Mr. Greenberger for digging back into the memory banks for this one!
« Contained in these works were not only all the important philosophical developments of modern society… there were even answers to as yet unposed questions. » — Cypher has an epiphany
This week’s topic reminded me of the crucial role an enlightened comic shop owner, especially pre-internet, could play in one’s edification in the medium. Case in point: while I can’t consider him a mentor, my old comic shop guy, being adventurous and open-minded, made a lot of obscure titles available, without necessarily pushing them on his customers. And in a world of ‘super-heroes or bust’, such availability is crucial.
Which brings us to Mr. Brad Teare (b. 1956, Moscow, Idaho). I’ve always had special fondness for comics that bloomed outside the usual channels, like hardy plant life rising up in cracks and miraculously subsisting on nearly nothing.
From what I can tell, Teare’s first professional comics work appeared in a non-consecutive pair of issues of Heavy Metal magazine, during that blessed but oh-so-brief ‘Tundra‘ period when surprisingly enlightened Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman published, at considerable loss (between 9 and 14 million simoleons), some of the finest comics of the 1990s.
Eastman had purchased Heavy Metal in January, 1992. In the March issue, Brad Teare’s Cypher made its first of two appearances in HM, in marked contrast to the magazine’s prevalent ‘dystopias with titties for arrested adolescents’ aesthetic.
The following year, Teare self-published (under the Crypto Graphica banner, out of Providence, Utah, pop. 7,000 or so) Cypher no. 1, with a cover clamouring that it contained the ‘Complete Cypher Trilogy!’. Teare intended to produce further issues, but the market evidently wasn’t built for it. The book is so obscure that even the Grand Comics Database (GDC) has never heard of it. But my comic shop guy did place an order, and found at least one receptive reader eager to snap up a copy. I waited and waited for a second issue, but in vain.
Then, four years down the road, Gibbs-Smith, “a proud independent publisher and distributor“, founded in 1969, also Utah-based… and still around, assembled and issued a compact (22,5 x 16 cm) hardcover Cypher collection, gathering material that Teare must have intended for at least a couple more issues of his series. Aside from an oddly ‘meh’ cover, overworked and underwhelming, it’s a gorgeous package. It also has managed to fly below the GCD’s radar all these years.
In the meantime, Teare kept his hand in, providing a pair of highlights to DC/Paradox Press’ well-written but frustratingly visually scattershot The Big Book Of series (1994-2000), also finding success as a freelance illustrator (Random House, The New York Times, Sony, Turner Interactive, Flying Buffalo) in all manners of media.
Though he’s nowadays a celebrated and prolific painter of the Utah landscape, he hasn’t altogether turned his back on comics, bless his soul. The final chapter of Cypher (to date?), ‘Sub-Wayward’, introduced, in the story-within-a-story tradition, scientist turned reluctant underground hero The Subterranean. And so, long story short, we find ourselves with a Teare book that’s readily available (for the time being)!
« This comic details the thrilling origin of The Subterranean from his humble beginnings at HyperLabs in New York City to his role as sole defense against a terrible evil perpetrated by the Thanatos twins, former colleagues at HyperLabs. This character of The Subterranean is a spin-off from the critically acclaimed graphic novel Cypher. »
« Women: what do they want? They might want to float into the sky while hosting a brunch party. They might want a couple of handsome cops to come over and get rid of a snake problem. They might seek a doctor’s treatment for ‘wise-ass disease‘ or fantasize about revenge and forgiveness at the dentist’s office. And what about men? Mr. Science just wants to carry out his pointless experiments. Earl D. Porker, Social Worker, converses with household items and forgets the cat food. One fellow’s head is a basket of laundry. »
Not much is known about the personal life of the mysterious M. K. Brown*. From her official website, we know that she grew up in Connecticut and New Brunswick, but that’s pretty much it. On the other hand, details from her long and prolific career abound**: she was a mainstay at the National Lampoon Magazine between 1972 and 1981 (including the regular series Aunt Mary’s Kitchen); a frequent contributor to various magazines, most notably Playboy, The New Yorker, and Mother Jones; creator of the animated series Dr. N!Godatu, which ran in the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 for a mere 6 episodes (two more remain unaired) until it was supplanted by the Simpsons; illustrator of children’s books… and so it goes.
In more recent years, Brown has been hanging out at The American Bystander, which I discovered by accident when co-admin RG (whose intuition for quality is fairly unfailing) picked up an issue of this magazine. A delightful surprise.
Despite the scope of her oeuvre and her very recognizable style, she’s not nearly as well known as she deserves to be. Fantagraphics, coming, as usual, to the rescue, published a sort of best-of in 2014, titled Stranger Than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970-2013. Interestingly, this collection did little to dispel the clearly purposefully cultivated mystique. Whereas usually one expects an introduction with the author’s birth date and a quick summary of their childhood and proclivities, in this case M.K. Brown remained firmly ensconced within her initials*** and shrouded in pleasant mystery.
* I will mention straight away that she was married to equally eccentric cartoonist B. Kliban (another WOT favourite), not because a woman’s worth is in being a wife to her husband, but because ‘M.K. Brown married to B. Kliban’ has a harmonious ring to it.
** From the category of things not entirely related to her career, she is also an enthusiastic horse owner and rider [source].
*** Her name is Mary Kathleen, which I first found on the Wiki page for B. Kliban, later confirmed through a podcast she was featured on (more about this later).
Brown is clearly a female cartoonist, in the sense of never eschewing topics that a doltish reader would expect a woman to talk about just because it’s a ‘female’ leitmotif. She can start with something mundane like a hostess organizing a party, put a surreal spin on it, pepper it with playful language, and end up with a concoction that’s devilishly acerbic, quite strange, and very funny. Bill Griffith put it well – she ‘makes the personal universal, makes the universal personal‘. The result seems quite polarising; it’s the sort of thing you instantly click with, or something so foreign that it’s unappealing. Is any of it dated, as I’ve seen some people suggest? Not in the slightest. Human relationships haven’t changed much over the years, though we like to pat ourselves on the back for being so much more evolved. Focusing on the fact that someone is wearing a suit with shoulder pads (which are, by the way, coming back into fashion) to decide it’s no longer relevant to modern life is daft.
Here are some examples scanned from Stranger than Life of different vintages, lightly colourized by co-admin RG.
Here are three pages from more recent years, which also showcase Brown’s watercolours:
The American Bystander conducted a fun, hour-long podcast with Brown in 2016. I am a visually oriented person, and have immense trouble sitting through a podcast, so I had to tell myself I had to listen for the sake of this blog post – I hope you appreciate this sacrifice. It was a pleasure to listen to Brown, who sounds exactly like I pictured it, though I was somewhat underwhelmed by some of the softball questions she was asked – questions interviewer (in this case, Gil Roth) usually asks of a cartoonist, ‘what were your art influences?’, ‘what explains your sense of humour?’ I believe this has more to do with me than with the actual interview – I by far prefer to glean some understanding of a person through their work, as opposed to discussions about their work (which is a slightly strange stance for a blog writer). There is, however, a fun anecdote about how she used to put up her paintings on the walls to work on them, and had to cover her sleeping nocturnal husband and the bed he was on with plastic not to splatter him with paint. Brown also mentions that she has a stash of drawings which she could never get published because they’re too risqué – oh, how we would all love to see those! Click here if you’d care to listen to it!
« All my life I’ve been torn between frivolity and despair, between the desire to amuse and the desire to annoy, between dread-filled insomnia and a sense of my own goofiness. Just like you, I worry about love and sex and work and suffering and injustice and death, but I also dig drawing bulgy-eyed rabbits with tragic overbites. » — Matt Groening
Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t grow up absorbing The Simpsons, probably because I only watched cartoons on videocassettes instead of actual TV. I also somehow managed to skip Futurama (catching up with it years and years later, with great enjoyment). So the work of Matt Groening* (who probably needs no introduction, but you can get one here) was not really familiar to me at all when co-admin RG introduced me to The Big Book of Hell, though of course I was aware of the Simpsons aesthetic, as one would truly have to live under a rock not to be acquainted with it to at least some degree.
*Here’s how to pronounce ‘Grœning’ correctly and impress all your friends.
Life in Hell crept into the world in 1977 as a self-published book that Groening, freshly moved to Los Angeles from Portland to pursue his ambition of becoming a writer, would give out to friends. He also sold it for two bucks a pop in Licorice Pizza, one of a chain of record stores operated by James Greenwood. As is often the case, Groening’s cartoonist/writer/producer/animator career kicked off by way of serendipity: in 1978, an editor from the charming WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing liked Life in Hell enough to print a few of its strips. From then on, the strip’s popularity snowballed slowly but steadily (from its first regular weekly appearance in the Los Angeles Reader in 1980, to the huge success of a compilation of LIH’s love-centric cartoons, titled Love Is Hell, in 1984, to the strip’s presence in over 250 newspapers by 1986), which eventually led to The Simpsons. Speaking of the latter, I am now shamelessly going to plug a previous post, namely Tentacle Tuesday: Treehouse of Tentacular Horror.
Here’s a selection from several out-of-print anthologies co-admin RG had handy, namely from Love Is Hell (1984), Work Is Hell (1986), School Is Hell (1987), Childhood Is Hell (1988), and How to Get to Hell (1991).
« To many people in the mid-19th century, Canuck was merely a casual synonym for French-Canadian — and like the nicknames for people of various other ethnicities or nationalities, it came with unpleasant overtones. The word is“used vulgarly and rather contemptuously” »
A friendly birthday how-do-you-do to mighty Manitoban George Freeman (born May 27, 1951 — that’s seventy-one years ago — in Selkirk, MB). Some of you will remember him for his Jack of Hearts mini-series at Marvel or his collaboration with Michael T. Gilbert on Elric for First; the more adventurous will recall his fine and, ahem, too-brief work on DC’s Wasteland.
To demonstrate, here’s the opening sequence from that issue. Freeman and St. Aubin were evidently pushing hard against the conventions and constraints of the era’s crappy printing standards.
Oddly enough, while Freeman was my favourite among the stable of artists chosen to illustrate John Ostrander and Del Close‘s scripts on Wasteland (Don Simpson and David Lloyd got the best), I feel he was assigned the least interesting ones to work on, with the exception of the excellent Del Close autobiographical two-parter, On the Road (issues 6 and 7). Beyond that, he drew one cover and split, unwittingly triggering the debacle that was the second half of the series’ run.
« In Hawaii they say, “aloha.” That’s a nice one, It means both “hello” and “good-bye”, which just goes to show, if you spend enough time in the sun you don’t know whether you’re coming or going. » — George Carlin
By and large, the notorious 1990s trend of autobiographical (at times navel-gazing) comics was undermined by its practitioners’ dearth of meaningful life experience and insight. Obviously, there’s been plenty of notable exceptions, before and since: on the insight front, for one, Canadian David Collier is an undervalued master of the documentary form.
As for life experience, puissant Dennis P. Eichhorn (1945-2015) put all the pasty, effete cartoonists to shame with his spectacularly turbulent, bold-type life. A gifted writer and storyteller, well-versed in the comics medium, he galvanised the creativity of his many collaborators, a broad yet aptly-selected crew of graphic practitioners, many of whom he’d met in the course of his lengthy writing and editorial stint with Seattle’s fabled The Rocket weekly.
I initially assumed I’d run into trouble in settling on the one story to showcase, but nope… right away, I knew just the ticket… a ticket to the Big Island.
p.s. It would be easy to assume that āhole is just a fancy way of saying ‘asshole’, but it isn’t *necessarily* so; to wit:
āholen. An endemic fish (Kuhlia sandvicensis) found in both fresh and salt water. The mature stage is āhole, the young stage āholehole. Because of the meaning of hole, to strip away, this fish was used for magic, as to chase away evil spirits and for love magic. It was also called a “sea pig” (puaʻa kai) and used ceremonially as a substitute for pig. Foreigners were sometimes called āhole because of the light skin of the fish. He āhole ka iʻa, hole ke aloha, āhole is the fish, love is restless [of āhole fish used in love magic]. [ source ]
« In the summer of 1977, New York City was bankrupt. Times Square was run-down and dangerous at night, subways were decrepit, with floor-to-ceiling graffiti and no air-conditioned cars in the underground roast. A garbage strike left mountains of uncollected trash and evil-looking rats scurrying underfoot. A serial killer, Son of Sam, terrorized the city and when a blackout hit in July, looters tore up the town. I was in heaven. »
I first encountered American artist Peter Kuper (b. 1958) through Mad’s Spy vs. Spy feature, which he took over as scripter and illustrator with Mad Magazine no. 356 (April 1997). At that point, I had only seen creator Antonio Prohías‘ take on that strip, and I was impressed with Kuper’s style and energy.
But my favourite of his books is Drawn to New York: an Illustrated Chronicle of Three Decades in New York City (2013, PM Press), both for the wide variety of styles used in this loosely-themed collection of strips, doodles and sketches, and for its beating urban heart. It captures a part of New York City that I love – not its glamour nor its electricity-guzzling lights, and definitely not its famous fops and varnished coquettes, but its boisterous mix of cultures and the seedy, scaly alligator underbelly. It’s not the same city it was in the mid 70s and early 80s – the era of Kuper’s reminiscences on the subject – but you can still spot remnants of the past in older neighbourhoods.
As mentioned earlier, Kuper executes a number of styles with ease, but he is most easily recognized by that ‘spray-painted stencil thing’ he does so well, as well as his favourite palette of dark reds:
One of the more memorable stories of Drawn to New York is the following three pager, following the nocturnal adventures of Peter and his friend Adam as they scale a bridge and awkwardly navigate the social etiquette involved in engaging the services of a blowjob prostitute:
Here’s one of the many cynical pieces:
The following is a page from the mute Twenty-Four Hours, which chronicles the strikingly different lives of NYC denizens as they go about their day:
All the above images are excerpted from Drawn to New York, but I’d also like to include a bonus: a strip published in Bleeding Heart no. 5 (August 1993, Fantagraphics) which fits today’s theme rather well.
I admit it’s rare for me to discover a new present-day cartoonist I really like, so I was quite thrilled to stumble upon Ben Sears and the adventures of friendly robot Hank and goggles-sporting Plus Man. Sears’ style reminds me of claymation (one of my soft spots), and he is not afraid of bright colours or playfulness – such a contrast to the many ‘serious’, sepia-coloured comics that are just dull as dishwater (although apparently the latter is now an in-demand hair colour).
The four ‘A Double Adventure +’ comics Sears has given us so far (Night Air, 2016; Volcano Trash, 2017; The Ideal Copy, 2018; and House of the Black Spot, 2019), published by Koyama Press*, brim with interesting details – plants are everywhere, rooms are full of intriguing trinkets, and cats are perched on counters and rooftops. This is a world not devoid of danger (Hank and Plus Man keep getting pulled into murder mysteries, ominous conspiracies, hive-mind henchmen skirmishes, etc.), but there’s also an appealing domesticity about it, as we often get to visit their apartment or tag along as they hang out in a friends’ kitchen. The fight scenes are viscerally satisfying (who doesn’t want to see bad guys’ asses kicked in a most expedient manner?), but there is also clever team work, friendship, and occasionally a moral dilemma or two. My favourite of the four is House of the Black Spot, so things are clearly going in the right direction!
The Ideal Copy features a villainous gaggle of creepy white men, all eerily dressed in the same red sweater + beige pants-pulled-up-to-armpits** uniform:
Volcano Trash features some enjoyably fast-paced fight/daring escape scenes, but I think its heart lies in its quietly emotional sequences. Sears’ dialogue is perfectly functional, sometimes even fun, but he doesn’t over-clutter his pages with words, excelling at mute scenes in which body language says a’plenty. When looking through his website recently, I was happy to discover he has a few pantomine self-published comics (featuring a trash cleanup robot, a cat and a bird!) I’d never heard of. You can order them here.
Finally, here are some excerpts (or extracts, as the Brits would say) from House of the Black Spot, the lushest, latest installment of Hank & Plus Man’s adventures:
You can read an (otherwise unpublished, as far as I know) Double+ Adventurehere.
I keep reading reviews in which comparisons are made between Sears’ work and Hergé’s Tintin, which supposed resemblance I admit I don’t see at all. On the other hand, I’ve never read a full Tintin album, and to be perfectly honest have no intention of ever undertaking such a tedious task.
* Toronto-based Koyama Press shut down its operations in 2021, so Ben Sears’ new book, Young Shadow, was published by Fantagraphics. I haven’t read it yet, but am looking forward to it, once I get my hands on a copy! You can read a review of it over at The Comics Journal.
** The question of why older men tend to wear their pants somewhere below their armpits still baffles me. Hypotheses have been made to the effect of beer-bellied folks having to decide whether the pant waistline lies above a bulging stomach or under it, and opting for the former option, but I have seen plenty of instances of pants being pulled up when the wearer had a relatively flat stomach…
« Marc Hempel (born May 25, 1957) is an American cartoonist/comics artist best known for his work on The Sandman with Neil Gaiman. » And with this sentence starts my diatribe.
In an ideal universe, any blurb about Marc Hempel would open with a mention of his solo work (Gregory, Tug & Buster), or, if one must discuss joint efforts off the bat, his excellent work with Mark Wheatley on Breathtaker and Mars would also rate highly on the list of comics worth alluding to. This universe, as you have surely noticed, is sorely lacking in perfection. However, this is a microcosm of ne plus ultra our blog, so please bear with me while I gush about Hempel’s lovely ink lines and his talent for humorous repartee while throwing a snide sidelong look at Gaiman, a sort of a persona non grata here at WOT. Oh, don’t boil over, kind reader – the latter has an army of fanboys to rush to his defense.
Once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away (I kid, though 1995 simultaneously feels like ten years and half a century ago) there was a hilarious yet poignant series called TUG & buster, spanning seven issues published between 1995 and 1998.
TUG: a brain-dead hunk (Hempel himself used ‘mildly retarded’ as a descriptor), lethally attractive to full-bosomed babes, despite dubious personal hygiene and a highly-flammable pompadour.
buster: a shrimp of a kid with an abysmal case of hero worship and no chest hair whatsoever to speak of.
The capitalisation was presumably meant to emphasise Tug’s larger-than-life stature, while Buster’s lower case seems to poke fun at the kid’s weeness, both physical and emotional. Overcompensating for Tug’s laconic nature (he does not utter a single word), Buster prattles on like a broken record about manliness and nookie, simultaneously functioning as a sort of inner monologue narrator for Tug. That the latter most likely doesn’t have an inner monologue is irrelevant.
I dare you to read ‘my mizzen mast is hoisted’ without giving at least one snort:
If one were to disengage Buster from his general obsession with Tug – a truly painful process which would require more than one scalpel – and peek under the crackling veneer of his machismo, one would discover that he’s actually not nearly as dopey as he seems. He just has a very precise (and very wrong) idea of what constitutes a man.
Not untypically, my favourite characters are not the protagonists, but two weirdos who complete the main cast: the hilariously, uncomfortably inappropriate Genital Ben and lost soul, over-analytical Stinkfinger (real name John).
If I’ve managed to sufficiently intrigue you, I recommend purchasing the lovingly printed, hard-cover collection, The 4-Fisted Misadventures of Tug & Buster (1998, Graphitti Designs; Image Comics for the softcover edition). However, that has been out of print for a while, so an interested party on a tight budget might consider acquiring single issues of T&G which are, for the most part, two bucks a pop at mycomicshop.
Some never-seen-before Tug & Buster vignettes leaked over to humour anthology Naked Brain, advertised as ‘subversive satire!’ and ‘sublime silliness!’ (I hesitate to slap the label of ‘sublime’ on anything, but otherwise, it is as advertised). Hempel stuffed these three issues (ushered into the world in 2002) full of odds and ends, both inedited or previously published on Sunny Fundays. I think we’ve covered enough T&B ground for now, so here’s a peek at a different type of material: