« Dreams surround our desires with ugliness and dread. » — Mason Cooley
As everyone knows, the early fifties were a more innocent and wholesome era, when the average bobbysoxer would swoon away the nights with fantasies of dishy teen idol Rondo Hatton. I mean, just look at her blissful expression!
Surprisingly, the cover scene does, for once, occur within!
In 1973, he gave us Birds of Israel (included at the end of this post); farther along, he (with his frequent collaborator, Montréal-born writer Sean Kelly) gave us a look at The Birds of Summer, (2007, The New York Times). And in 2016, these ardent but irreverent crypto-ornithologists were at it again with Odd Birds, which added in excess of one hundred and fifty fascinating new species to the tally. However, Meyerowitz only illustrated a handful (but such a handful!), which I present to you here. Still, how I would love to behold his depictions of, for instance: The Three-Day Lark; the Venomous Spite; the Oblivious Walking Jay; the Perpetual Jackhammer; the Yellow-Bellied Stool Pigeon; the Groveling Wince; the Hoodwinked Bagholder; the Celibate Tot-Fondler; Zimmerman’s Cryptic Drone; the Barecheeked Thongbird; the Bald-Faced Lyre; the Fact-Spinning Mockingbird; the Screaming Scarlet Manager; the Gulf Coast Petrel Dumper; Oscar’s Pink-Bottomed Boychick; the Crapulous Binge; the Free-Screech Owl… or the Swaggering Gut-Sucker! Man, this project needs to go the full book route.
« Night after night, Shepherd forged the inchoate thoughts and feelings of a whole generation of fans into an axiom that went something like: ‘The language of our culture no longer describes real life and, pretty soon, something’s gonna blow.‘. » — Donald Fagen
Today’s a very august occasion, for it marks the birth centennial of that sublime storyteller, Jean Shepherd (July 26, 1921 – October 16, 1999), so we’ll celebrate it… in comics!
Let’s close in highfalutin fashion with a most pertinent bit of Longfellow (1807–1882):
The shades of night were falling fast, As through an Alpine village passed A youth, who bore, ‘mid snow and ice, A banner with the strange device, Excelsior!
His brow was sad; his eye beneath, Flashed like a falchion from its sheath, And like a silver clarion rung The accents of that unknown tongue, Excelsior!
In happy homes he saw the light Of household fires gleam warm and bright; Above, the spectral glaciers shone, And from his lips escaped a groan, Excelsior!
“Try not the Pass!” the old man said; “Dark lowers the tempest overhead, The roaring torrent is deep and wide!” And loud that clarion voice replied, Excelsior!
“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest Thy weary head upon this breast! “ A tear stood in his bright blue eye, But still he answered, with a sigh, Excelsior!
“Beware the pine-tree’s withered branch! Beware the awful avalanche!” This was the peasant’s last Good-night, A voice replied, far up the height, Excelsior!
At break of day, as heavenward The pious monks of Saint Bernard Uttered the oft-repeated prayer, A voice cried through the startled air, Excelsior!
A traveller, by the faithful hound, Half-buried in the snow was found, Still grasping in his hand of ice That banner with the strange device, Excelsior!
There in the twilight cold and gray, Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay, And from the sky, serene and far, A voice fell like a falling star, Excelsior!
« That’s the conditions that prevail! » — Jimmy Durante
Today, we salute noted vaudevillian, piano player, comedian, singer, film and radio star, raconteur and unlikely comics legend James Francis “Jimmy” Durante, born on this day, February 10, in 1893 (as it was a Friday, the family presumably fasted or had fish for dinner). He truly was a master of all media, as you’ll witness.
« There’s something about guitars, they’re just so big, you know what I mean? You’re just like, ‘Ugh!’ It just seems so overwhelming. And the ukulele is, like, the opposite of overwhelming. » — Zooey Deschanel
While the inside artwork also had its charms, the weak link in the chain was the writing. Pedestrian and formulaic, most of its anonymous load was borne by Paul S. Newman, one of the comics industry’s great cranker-outers. And so things ran their humdrum course, even with the arrival of talented DC expatriate Arnold Drake in the early 1970s. I strongly suspect rampant conservatism on the part of the editors, as even normally-compelling authors produced the same generic plots, ground out like under-seasoned sausage.
Then occurred a curious bump in the road: the unheralded, near-anonymous arrival of future Clown College alumnus*Connor Freff Cochran (1954-), who scripted (as Freff, when credited — a rarity at GK) a number of short tales for Gold Key’s anthology titles for a few years (1974-1977). Of those I’ve read, most docilely follow the publisher’s tame editorial formula. But there are exceptions, and they really do stand out. Here’s such a pair, which I’m boldly attributing to Mr. Cochran.
Ahem — sloppy research on Freff’s part:
The ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience during the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, held from spring to autumn of 1915 in San Francisco.
It is therefore highly unlikely that anyone on the American continent would have been plucking a uke, let alone that two random Missouri farmboys would spot a specimen from a distance. Not to mention the fact that the uncredited and unknown artist (no, it’s notBill Molno, dear ignoramuses at the GCD) drew… a plain old guitar. Let’s face it, a banjo or even a mandolin would have made more sense.
In his defense, Freff recalled:
« I absolutely did write “Don’t Play That Ukulele!” But I don’t deserve the ding for the misspelling — that was the letterer’s error, which no one fixed. I will cop to not knowing (in 1975) that the ukulele wasn’t introduced stateside until 1915…but even there the story is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface. When I pitched the idea it was a guitar that brought doom down on our unfortunate swain, same as it wound up being drawn. But editor Paul Kuhn thought a ukulele was intrinsically funnier than a guitar, and he’s absolutely right about that. I remember us both giggling over the title when we came up with it. »
At fourteen, he and his family moved to Placentia, California, east of Los Angeles, where he graduated from El Dorado High School a year ahead of the normal schedule. One of his fellow students had combined the words “friend” and “Jeff ” to coin the name “Freff ”— and while at ﬁrst this remained only a nickname, by 1970 he had started signing his artwork that way, as well. Like many artists, Cochran entered the science ﬁction ﬁeld doing “freebie” drawings for fanzines. His ﬁrst paid job were pen and ink drawings for Andrew Porter’s semi-prozine Algol, done in 1972. In the same year he dropped out of Fullerton Junior College after two months of art classes to live on his own. He worked in various ﬁelds to make a living and “The rest was all just self-directed study and experimentation,” he says, adding “as a young pro, just starting out, I was lucky enough to be mentored ever-so-slightly by two of my early faves in the ﬁeld: Kelly Freas and Jack Gaughan. At Kelly Freas’s suggestion Cochran moved to New York in September 1973 and started looking for work as an illustrator.
When that was not forthcoming, Cochran attended the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College — class of 1974.
In that year he got his ﬁrst big break from Jim Baen, the new editor of Galaxy and If. Baen needed people who would work fast and cheap and put up with being paid late — in other words, the perfect opportunity for beginning artists like Cochran. By this time he was aware that other professional artists and cartoonists were named “Cochran”— and feeling that using his initials “JC” would be presumptuous — the artist in 1976 went to court and legally adopted “Freff ” as his professional nom de brush, and kept it during his years of magazine illustrating. Baen was so taken with the name that he put it on the cover of Cochran’s ﬁrst cover for IF, as if Cochran was an author with a story in the magazine. After that “Freff ” did a lot of work for Baen, primarily interiors in black-and-white. He also did drawings for Cosmos, Isaac Asimov’s SF, and did cover work for publishers such as Dell, Berkley, and Doubleday. Cochran was selected to be one the artists in the special 1975 NASA/Smithsonian Artists Tour. After early success illustrating Zelazny’s “Amber” novels for Galaxy, followed by cover art and interior illustrations for a set of hardcover novels by Zelazny for Gregg Press in the early 1980s, Cochran became disgruntled over nonpayment for the use of his art in foreign editions of John Varley’s novel Titan, for which he had done a frontispiece and 16 illustrations—and the argument led to the end of Cochran’s illustrating in the ﬁeld.
He turned to other endeavors, but brieﬂy “dipped a toe back into the waters by collaborating on the ﬁrst (and only) issue of an SF comic book called D’Arc Tangent” in 1982–1983. He did inking and penciling for DC and Marvel comics: Star Trek** and Tomb of Dracula***.
And here’s the uncredited, utterly batty Tender Feelings, recognizably illustrated by another hardworking Argentine, José Delbo. It saw print in Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery no. 53 (Apr. 1974, Gold Key).
Part of my reasoning for attributing authorship of Tender Feelings to Freff is his penchant for light, deftly humorous tales that conclude with several characters meeting dismal ends. Churrr...
But… nope. The mystery of this mordant little tale remains whole. Freff helpfully eliminated himself as a suspect, and proposed some intriguing leads:
« I can’t take credit for “Tender Feelings.” I certainly wish I could, since it’s a delightful mashup/piss-take on DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man-Thing. But nope — not me.
The publication date I find online for that story is April 1974. But Gold Key titles usually hit the stands a month ahead of the printed date, and editors Wally Green and Paul Kuhn liked to have a solid backlog of finished stories on hand. That puts the likely writing window for “Tender Feelings” somewhere around August 1973, which means there’s a chance that “Tender Feelings” was written by Len Wein himself. Len did a lot of uncredited Gold Key stories, starting around 1969, but he stopped in late summer 1973. It would have been absolutely in keeping with his sense of humor to write something like “Tender Feelings” as a happy sendoff for himself.
My best second guess after that would be John David Warner…though if I really had to bet, I’d bet on Len. In any case, whoever did it was lightyears better than the usual Gold Key writer. Glad to see them get this recognition. »
*Class of ’74. As Freff himself stated: « The Really Famous Guy from our session was Bill Irwin, who went on to a great stage, TV, and film career, and was the first performer to win a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation.) I did originally intend to apply for the ’73 class, but I learned about it too late to make that year’s deadline. So I went to NYC instead to pursue art, while waiting for my next chance to roll around.. »
***a pair of frontispiece illustrations in Tomb of Dracula (the magazine, that is: six issues, published Oct. 1979 – Aug. 1980); he also conducted a fine interview with Stephen King, published in issues 4 and 5 of TOD. Freff provides some illumination: « plus the framing graphics for the magazine’s title/table of contents page, plus I got to ink a bunch of ads for the magazine. The one I know they used involved inking Gene Colan’s pencils, which was hella fun and a childhood dream come true. I grew up on Gene’s work in DAREDEVIL, DOCTOR STRANGE, IRON MAN, CAPTAIN MARVEL, etc, and he was easily as big an influence on my visual thinking as people like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, or Jim Steranko. (I got to achieve another childhood comics dream when I got to re-pencil, ink, and color a Curt Swan drawing for the October 1988 cover of KEYBOARD magazine.)
I did a lot more writing than artwork at Marvel, but most of it was nonfiction material in their b&w magazines — 100+ articles for PLANET OF THE APES, DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG-FU, CELEBRITY, NOSTALGIA ILLUSTRATED, THE TOMB OF DRACULA, etc. »
« Listen, Angel! If they’re out of bananas… I’ll meet you at the corner fruit stand! »
Today, let’s combine our general theme with a celebration of the birthday of one of comics’ great, yet perpetually underappreciated talents: Bob Oksner (October 14, 1916 – February 18, 2007), DC’s go-to humour and good girl art guy. Can you beat that? Didn’t think so.
Bob had a winning penchant for mixing monsters and babes, and for this, he’s earned our lifelong gratitude.
You might say Angel and the Ape exist in an awkward sort of limbo: popular enough for the back issues to be kind of pricey, but not popular enough to have been reprinted (eight issues, including their Showcase appearance, ideal for a trade paperback, hint, hint).
So what else has Mr. Oksner cooked up over the years? Keeping to our theme, here are a few highlights, but first, a handy bio:
« Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author’s phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea. » — Guy Debord
Well, after our brush with Surrealism, let’s hazard a brief detour amidst the Letterists. As we all surely know, The Letterist International was « a Paris-based collective of radical artists and cultural theorists between 1952 and 1957. » I’ll spare you a dry discourse about schools of thought, art and politics and their numerous and acrimonious (perhaps not so dry after all!) schisms.
The main point of interest, in this case, is the Letterists’ pioneering of the rousingly subversive artistic technique of détournement, which involves “taking preexisting images and mixing them together to highlight the underlying ideology of the original image.”
This brings us to the storied career of Providence, Rhode Island’s finest son, John Peck (b. 1942), alias The Mad Peck.
In his 1987 retrospective, Peck recalls « Yeah, Comix was good. Maybe a little too good. It’s been stolen from every public library I’ve ever been in. »
Fast-forward to 1978, and Peck’s much-improved comix-style capsule reviews are appearing regularly in Creem and The Village Voice.
Then ahead to the mid-80s and Bob Guccione Jr.’s Spin (est. 1985), and a short run with a new title, Tales From the Bogusphere. Meanwhile, The Masked Marvel had been sidelined by legal hassles. As the heroine recalls:
I took an extended vacation in 1980 when Marvel Comics threatened to sue Peck after reading ‘Ms. Marvel’ in the Eagles cartoon that led off Creem’s review section in February. I hightailed it before the corporation had me roped into a team-up book with She-Hulk, but Peck had to stick it out while they tried to stick it to him. What really teed me off was that Ms. Marvel, who had oozed out of Marvel’s bullpen in the early ’70s, was such a dynamic concept that her book died almost instantly.
Peck’s experience as a critic left him with an encyclopedic knowledge of doo-wop and early R&B. When financing from rock publications got thin, Peck practiced the art of rock ‘n’ roll arbitrage: buying records at flea markets and “backwater Woolworths” and trading them at statewide record collectors’ conventions that he organized himself.
Peck spun his best finds on his popular WBRU radio show, “Dr. Oldie’s University of Musical Perversity.” Wary of semi-fame, Peck still makes an occasional public appearances in disguise as Dr. Oldie, complete with lab coat and head mirror. [ source ]
As a bonus, here’s The Mad Peck’s greatest commercial success, a piece first commissioned by Providence’s The Humbox Press for the inaugural issue of its poetry journal Loose Art. A fluke hit, it spawned postcards and posters “and is still keeping the Mad Peck in Camels.”
Channeling a credo he gleaned from a chance encounter with comic book artist Wally Wood — “Don’t draw what you can trace, and don’t trace what you can paste” — Peck made his name as a comic book artist despite an inability to draw anything more complex than psychedelic hand lettering. Most of his characters are swiped from the works of an obscure Golden Age comic artist, Matt Baker.
« … there arose such a clatter, I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter. Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash. » ― Clement C. Moore, A Visit From St. Nicholas (1823)
Not too long ago, we glanced at the interesting case of Tower’s teen line, another instance of works insufficiently popular to be properly reprinted, yet still sought after by collectors and aficionados and consequently on the pricey side. And so it is within this limbo that Tippy Teen and Go-Go and Animal find themselves consigned, in the rather fine company of Sugar and Spike and Angel and the Ape. Let’s not strand them there for the duration, please.
So why do I consider Tippy Teen superior to Archie? For one thing, while there’s some underwhelming artwork to be found here and there (sorry, Doug Crane), there’s nothing dismal (no Al Hartley, no Dick Malmgren, no Gus Lemoine, no Stan Goldberg…), and the writing is generally superior, thanks to, among uncredited others, the great Jack Mendelsohn (recycling and updating his old scripts, but that’s not the end of the world).
Here’s a little seasonal piece I find quite witty and charming. The well-paced work of an anonymous scripter and my beloved Samm Schwartz, it appeared in Tippy Teen no. 18. The whole issue’s quite solid, and since it’s in the public domain, you can enjoy it right here.
« Slap him up and down upon the floor Tickle his feet and hear him giggle Then unzip him down the middle Give that gibbon what he’s hollerin’ for! » — Stuff That Gibbon (words and music by Bill Oddie)
Back in the late 1970s, before I had even heard of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, nor even of Benny Hill, for that matter… I discovered The Goodies, thanks to the CBC’s belated programming of their exploits*. While The Goodies do share a *lot* of DNA with the Monty Python gang (they were school chums, close friends, collaborators and friendly competitors practically all along the way), this trio’s comedic format veers sharply away from the Pythons’ methods: Graeme, Bill and Tim play ‘amplified’ versions of themselves, and use the skit format sparingly, reserving it for mid-show intermission ‘blackouts‘.
While the trio was formed in 1970, it only made its comic strip début (and bow) in 1973**, where they held a weekly feature in the pages of Cor!!, also making an appearance in the magazine’s 1974 annual and The Goodies Annual, the whole lot hitting kiosks in ’73.
« Apparently licensed for just the one year, The Goodies were unique in the fact they were the only adapted characters featured with the comic’s pages with copyright credit being given to Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke Taylor (sans hyphen) and Graeme Garden. According to Robert Ross’ book The Complete Goodies, the strips were all authorised and approved by The Goodies prior to publication and Tim still displays an original Cor!! strip in his study. »
Scans (and detailed synopses!) of The Goodies’ Cor!! shenanigans are helpfully provided by their fan site, goodiesruleok.com.
And now, some introductions from the aforementioned The Goodies Annual 1974 (the only one of its kind, poor thing):
Take a little good advice, try a trip to paradise It’s not hard to find, you’ve got it on your mind Can’t pretend it wouldn’t be nice It’s whatever turns you on, Goodies
A circus or a seaside pier, a sausage or a can of beer A stripper or a clown, prices going down You can make it happen here Fun for all the family, Goodies
*« In Canada, the series was shown in on the CBC national broadcast network during the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the traditional “after school” time slot, later a Friday night 10 pm slot, and occasionally in a midnight slot. Several episodes were also shown on the CTV Television Network. In the mid-1970s it was shown on TVOntario on Saturday evenings, repeated on Thursday evenings, until being replaced by Doctor Who in 1976. » [ source ]
**I hear they’ve turned up in The Beano, circa 1994.
« I guess I look like a rock quarry that someone has dynamited. » — Charles Bronson
Welcome to our 400th post! I suppose a Steve Ditko birthday post would have been more momentous, but I did that already a couple of years ago, while he still drew breath.
Today, our man Charles Dennis Buchinsky, aka Charles Bronson (1921 – 2003… he would have turned 98 today — picture that!) squeezes in a rather routine bit part (merely credited as « The Pilot ») in Joe Molloy and Mike Zeck’s nonsensical hijacking melodrama Only a Toy. Heck, read it here if you don’t believe me.
Oddly enough, this expanded cameo came about just a year after Bronson’s megahit Death Wish, as Bronson reached the pinnacle of his earning power (in inverse proportion to the quality of his output, thanks to his long association with the shady Cannon Group). Presumably, he was just doing a favour for his old pal Zeck.
Ah, but this wasn’t the first time cartoonists had paid such tribute to Bronson: in 1971, writer Jean-Marie Brouyère and artist William Tai (aka Malik) created the South-America set Archie Cash series for Belgian bédé weekly Spirou. The series had a healthy run of 15 albums (what one would call a graphic novel over in North America) between 1973 and 1988.
Anyway, back to our birthday boy: if you want to see Bronson at his finest, I recommend his early, pre-moustache TV showcase Man With a Camera (1958)… the 29-episode boxed set’ll cost you peanuts and it’s great value. Then, from his European period, you can’t go wrong with 1968’s Adieu l’ami (Farewell, Friend), co-starring the aforementioned Mr. Delon; 1970’s gloriously weird Le passager de la pluie (Rider on the Rain), 1971 winner of the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film, and co-starring creepy Eva Green‘s mom (or should that be “mum”?) Marlène Jobert. And of course 1971’s Soleil rouge (Red Sun), co-starring, this time not only Delon, but none other than Toshirô Mifune!