America’s ‘Most Visible Cartoonist’, Jim Benton

« I’m not saying I’m cool. That’s your job. » — Happy Bunny

When it comes to Jim Benton‘s work, it seems I got in on the ground floor, thanks to a friend’s shrewdly chosen gift of the man’s first cartoon collection, ‘Dealing With the Idiots in Your Life‘, twenty-nine years ago this Christmas. Yikes!

In a way, Benton’s nearly too obvious a subject for a post: his work is everywhere you turn, but such a large audience seems to have been reached at the cost of relative anonymity. In other words, people know his work, but they may not know his name. I’m sure his name does, however, enjoy some currency with a couple of generations of younger readers familiar with his Dear Dumb Diary (nearly 10 million sold!) and Franny K. Stein (over five million sold) series.

Given his intimidatingly formidable output, I’ll stick to material from his first collection, which I like best anyhow… which is not to say, echoing what all and sundry tell Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories, that I strictly prefer “the early, funny ones“. Mr. Benton is possibly even funnier — or at least more sophisticated — today than he was at the dawn of his career, but these early cartoons are less ubiquitous than this century’s crop.

At this stage, Benton’s style — both in concept and execution — still wore some heavy influences, namely that of Bernard Kliban.
It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if this cartoon had near-universal appeal, given the fearful hold of cognitive dissonance: after all, most of us think others have a tenuous grasp on reality.
Cute Citizen Kane reference.
A timeless and oddly poignant state of affairs.
Some of you will likely have occasion to muse over this very question during the Holidays.
This one’s *very* Kliban-esque.
In this one, I see a bit of his fellow Scholastic alum Tom Eaton‘s touches. All for the good.
More Kliban (surely intentional!) but with sprinklings of Nicole Hollander and perhaps Scott Adams.
Taking Will Rogers’ famous bon mot to its, er… logical conclusion.
Here’s a jolly one for the season.

In closing, a bonus one from quite recent days. While I’m less fond of the digital tablet aesthetic of his latest work, his writing has acquired some even sharper edges. Sadly, this strip will likely be relevant only to medieval citizens of the German town of Hamelin, right?

For more Benton, right from the source, note the address: https://www.instagram.com/jimbentonshots/

-RG

Fred: Bold Lines and Moustache Twirling

« Crosses and gallows – that deadly historic juxtaposition. » — Howard Zinn

Bonsoir, mesdames et messieurs…

All right, time for me to tackle (though a bit sideways, I’ll explain) another of my daunting heroes. This time out, it’s Frédéric Othon Théodore Aristidès (1931-2013), better — and more simply — known as ‘Fred’.

A compulsive and constant scribbler, he attended no institute of artistic learning but his own (and didn’t bother to complete his secondary education), and made inroads into the field by the dawn of the 1950s, landing in Ici Paris, France-Dimanche, Le Rire, Paris-Presse, France-Soir, Punch, and even as a gagman (uncredited!) for The New Yorker (others, among them Otto Soglow, would illustrate the gags for publication).

In 1960, he was, with Georges Bernier — aka Le professeur Choron — and François Cavanna, of the founding trio behind corrosive (and at times banned by the French government) satirical magazine Hara-Kiri, drawing its first sixty covers… and a lot of (self) righteous ire. Any press is good press, or so they say…

Mid-decade, he began his long and fruitful association with Pilote, launching, with the magazine’s 300th issue (July 22, 1965, Dargaud) his undeniable masterpiece, Philémon. And this is where my ‘sideways’ loophole comes in: I’m truly not ready to tackle the overflowing poetic cornucopia that is Philémon. By way of introduction, I’ll stick to the margins and showcase instead some of Fred’s ‘brutish and nasty’ (a rough translation of Hara-Kiri’s motto) panel cartoons and short pieces. There’s a lot to this guy.

Which reminds me of a time, a couple of decades ago, when Montreal’s FIFA (Festival international des films sur l’art/International Festival of Films on Art) presented a series of TV shows showcasing individual cartoonists, among them Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman… and Fred. I recall that Messrs Ware and Spiegelman were just as miserable and neurotic as expected, there was also this Manga master that felt trapped as a cog in an assembly line. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to the existential angst, Fred was brimming with evident delight and joie de vivre at his good fortune to be a working cartoonist*, grinning and scribbling in his sun-dappled studio, leisurely strolling through his village, charming the ladies, enjoying a glass of wine and a wedge of fine aged cheese… I concluded that here was an eloquent encapsulation of the respective cartooning cultures of a few nations. Regrettably, I haven’t been able to track down this documentary series, not even in the FIFA archives. Nevertheless, here’s a short visit with the dear man, by then living in Paris.

As life tends to imitate art, so has this more or less come to pass.
Obviously, you can’t nag anyone into quitting. This ingenious collage strip appeared in Pilote no. 670 (Sept. 1972, Dargaud).
An example — quite literally — of gallows humour.
Too much of a good thing can kill you — or ‘You may come to rue your mockery’.
If one looks for common ground between the more… mordant of French cartoonists, you’ll find their shared, blistering contempt for their nation’s Military brass.
The title is a French idiom which roughly translates to “There’s a nip in the air”. This collection of short pieces Fred wrote and drew for Pilote was published in early 1973 by Dargaud.
At one end, “Live Human Shooting”; at the other, “Free Admission”.
You want it darker? Oh, and also seasonal? Well, your wish is my command.

-RG

*this is serious, though: when Fred stopped drawing comics in the late 1980s, he fell into a deep depression and wound up in a psychiatric hospital. The cure? A return to creating comics. Surely there’s a lesson in this.

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 24

« I love the scents of winter! For me, it’s all about the feeling you get when you smell pumpkin spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, gingerbread and spruce. » — Taylor Swift

It occurred to me, just the other day that I’d failed to feature, over the course of five and three-quarters countdowns, anything by Gene Colan. And this despite the fact that I’ve always enjoyed his work and his undeniable adroitness within the horror genre.

Still, I decided to sidestep the obvious touchstone, his monumental run on The Tomb of Dracula, and opted instead for another of his big series at Marvel: Howard the Duck.

I was a fervent fan of the series as a kid, but I honestly haven’t returned to it in decades. Which is not to say that I’ve forgotten it. There’s no doubt that I should give it a fresh look — I’d probably get more of Steve Gerber‘s jokes than I did as a twelve-year-old — but in the interim, let’s focus on a couple of pertinent issues.

This is Howard the Duck no. 6 (Nov. 1976, Marvel); cover pencils by Gene Colan, inks by the recently departed Tom Palmer (1941-2022).
Colan’s style meshes surprisingly well with Mr. Gerber‘s madcap comedy… he plays it straight, and that’s why it clicks. Savvy move.
I wasn’t sure about Steve Leialoha‘s appropriateness as a Colan inker at the time, but I really don’t see what I could have objected to.
Let’s see, what have we here? The Addams Family, Shelley’s Frankenstein, gothic romances, Nathaniel Hawthorne, religious sects… in this case the reverend Sun Myung Moon‘s Unification Church, better known as The Moonies

I won’t leave you in suspense! On to the following issue…

This is Howard the Duck no. 7 (Dec. 1976, Marvel); pencils by Colan, inks by Palmer.

And that’s it! Steve Gerber had a refreshing knack for subverting and upending the Marvel formula: instead of some drawn-out, epic standoff, Howard disposes of the threat — a threat worth two cover features! — in a couple of panels, then the story moves on… to another range of targets.

– RG

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 15

« Brevity is the soul of lingerie. » — Dorothy Parker

Hey, it’s Saturday night, we let our hair down, and we’ve all — presumably — better things to do than to linger and moulder at the computer. Here, then are some lovely (under) things by Tentacle Tuesday Master Rich Larson, none of them featuring grasping octopodian appendages. I became aware of Mr. Larson‘s work through some fine covers and stories he illustrated for Charlton’s line of ghost comics in its 1970s heyday. After Charlton more or less gave up the ghost in 1976, he smartly forged his own singular path, generally in collaboration with the equally talented Steve Fastner.

Is everyone ready, then, for a visit to… the Haunted House of Lingerie?

Volume one’s recto.

And its verso.
Then came a sequel — thank goodness! Front…
… and back.
To give you a sense of the breakdown in tasks, here’s a sample of Mr. Larson’s pencils.

Your mileage may of course vary, but what I find most remarkable about Larson’s work is how its wit and joie de vivre, its good-natured enthusiasm, keep the results from ever seeming crass or tawdry, whatever the topic. Hats off, gentlemen.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 10

« Cry, you little monsters! » — Otto Preminger

I’ve always had a soft spot for Gold Key’s The Little Monsters, who dwell within a cleverly designed and unaccountably comforting, topsy-turvy world; we’ve featured them back in the third edition of this countdown. This entry, however, isn’t strictly a return visit: I’ll be focussing on the back pages of ‘Orrible Orvie and Awful Annie’s antics. Last year, I picked up an issue I’d been missing, and was delighted with a surprise section, which I’ll happily share with our readers.

This is The Little Monsters no. 5 (July, 1966, Gold Key). Cover artist unknown, sigh.

What do you say we take a peek at that Extra Bonus Book of Monster Jokes?

Another uncredited, unacknowledged and unknown artist. Why, thank you, Gold Key!

… and there you have it, and you didn’t even have to destroy a comic book (preferably someone else’s) to assemble it. The jokes are corny — what did you expect? — but I can’t help but find the whole thing quite adorable. Sometimes that’s precisely what one needs.

As a bonus, here I am holding the piece of Little Monsters original art (Page 2 from issue no. 12’s ‘Stormy Weather‘) I was fortunate enough to get my mitts on. Back in the day, comic book artists worked *large*!

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 8

« To me, freedom entitles you to do something, not to not do something. » — Shel Silverstein

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’re likely to be aware of the warm place in our flinty hearts that we reserve for the wonderfully subversive and multi-talented Shel Silverstein! If not, check out Shel Silverstein: Without Borders or Take Ten With Shel Silverstein and you’ll get our drift.

This time, we turn our attention to Shel’s wildly successful illustrated poetry for kids (of all ages). Our first three selections hail from 1974’s Where the Sidewalk Ends.

ENTER THIS DESERTED HOUSE
But please walk softly as you do
Frogs dwell here and crickets too.

Ain’t no ceiling, only blue
Jays dwell here and sunbeams too.

Floors are flowers — take a few.
Ferns grow here and daisies too.

Whoosh, swoosh — too-whit, too-woo,
Bats dwell here and hoot owls too.

Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee, hoo-hoooo,
Gnomes dwell here and goblins too.

And my child, I thought you knew
I dwell here… and so do you.
THE WORST
When singing songs of scariness,
Of bloodiness and hairyness,
I feel obligated at this moment to remind you
Of the most ferocious beast of all:
Three thousand pounds and nine feet tall —
The Glurpy Slurpy Skagagrall —
Who’s standing right behind you.

The following trio come from 1981’s A Light in the Attic. A bit of controversy eventually ensued:
« Attempts have been made to ban the book from some libraries in the United States, parents claiming that the poem “How Not to Have to Dry the Dishes” encourages messiness and disobedience. The poem “Little Abigail and the Beautiful Pony” resulted in criticism for describing the death of a little girl whose parents refuse to buy her a pony. This resulted in the book being banned by the Fruitland Park Elementary School in Lake County, Florida. The decision, however, was later reversed by an advisory committee of parents and teachers. » Ah, good old reliable Florida. [ source ]

Don’t miss the author’s performance of this piece!
It’s too early, and too sad, to think of November the 1st.

Here’s a couple from 1996’s Falling Up:

ROTTEN CONVENTION
They had a Rotten Convention
And everyone was there:
Hamburger Face and Gruesome Grace
And the Skull with the slimy hair.

There was Mr. Mud and the Creepin’ Crud
And the Drooler and Belchin’ Bob,
There was Three-Headed Ann — she was holdin’ hands
With the Whimperin’ Simperin’ Slob.

The Unpronounceable Name, he came,
And so did Saw-Nose Dan
And Poopin’ Pete and Smelly Feet
And the Half-Invisible Man.

There was Sudden Death and Sweat-Sock Breath,
Big Barf and the Deadly Bore,
And Killin’ Dillon and other villains
We’d never seen before.

And we all sat around and told bad tales
Of the rottenest people we knew,
And everybody there kept askin’…
Where were you?


HAUNTED
I dare you all to go into
The Haunted House on Howlin’ Hill
Where squiggly things with yellow eyes
Peek past the wormy window sill.
We’ll creep into the moonlit yard,
Where weeds reach out like fingers,
And through the rotted old front door
A-squeakin’ on its hinges,
Down the dark and whisperin’ hall,
Past the musty study,
Up the windin’ staircase —
Don’t step on the step that’s bloody —
Through the secret panel
To the bedroom where we’ll slide in
To the ragged cobweb dusty bed
Ten people must have died in.
And the bats will screech,
And the spirits will scream,
And the thunder will crash
Like a horrible dream,
And we’ll sing with the zombies
And dance with the dead,
And howl at the ghost
With the axe in his head,
And — come to think of it what do you say
We go get some ice cream instead?

And finally, this one’s from the posthumously published Every Thing On It (2011).

Thanks for everything, dear Mr. Silverstein! You’re an unceasing source of inspiration and wonder.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 6

« There is never enough horsepower… just not enough traction. » — Carroll Shelby

While my co-admin ds has already touched upon the circumstances of Topps’ Weird Wheels in her Purple Tentacle Tuesday post, she was of course thematically constrained there… while I’m free to drill down deeper into the set’s considerable riches. I won’t recount the set’s history, as that haunted ground has long ago been exhaustively explored and trod upon by the mighty Kurt Kuersteiner, monster gum card historian and also owner, operator and distinguished curator of the Jack T. Chick Museum of Fine Art. Peruse at your peril his fine account of what went down when Weird Wheels came down.

No one can claim this didn’t constitute an attractive package!

And now, on to the cards… my favourites, anyway. From what’s known, the art duties were shared by Norman Saunders and Gary Hallgren.

Card no. 1. Note the belfry engine.
Card no. 4.
Card no. 9.

Card no. 17.
Card no. 18. Held together, of course, by surgical stitching.

Card no. 22.

Card no. 23. This one, without question, was painted by Gary Hallgren… note the licence plate.
Card no. 26.
Card no. 27.

Card no. 45. Here’s the ideal soundtrack for this scene.
Card no. 54. I love that this heap isn’t going anywhere: it’s on bricks.

-RG

Paul Reubens at 70: ‘Fun’ Is Still the Secret Word

« I know you are, but what am I? » — Pee Wee Herman

And they said it couldn’t happen!

Today, Paul Reubens (born Paul Rubenfeld on Aug. 27, 1952) celebrates (in the coolest style, to be sure) his seventieth birthday. What’s he got to do with comics? Well, he obviously reads them, and his alter-ego, Pee-wee Herman, once met legendary small-scale comics hero Bazooka Joe.

This momentous occasion took place on the back of card no. 18 (of 33) from Topps’ delirious Pee-wee’s Playhouse set (1988). Introductions were arranged by that dapper bon vivant, Mark Newgarden.

This is happily one of those rare occasions when the word ‘Fun’ is accurately evoked. While Mr. Reubens wasn’t directly involved with the conception and concoction of this splendid ‘Pak’, he signed off on every aspect of it — no generic licenced product, this.
While the front of the cards bore the standard, time-tested ‘photographs with captions’ images, the backs is where the anarchic action was. Here are a few samples. Note the unbleached cardboard, which adds a certain primitive je ne sais quoi.
“Remember — you are an ARTIST!”
The Puppetland Band, those adorable beatniks, were always favourites.
Cartoonists Mark Newgarden and Kazimieras ‘Kaz‘ Prapuolenis write in!
Sexual innuendo and hidden messages on a kids’ show? You don’t say!
Funny, I would have expected Françoise Mouly‘s french to be better than this. Perhaps that’s why she moved to NYC.
A sheet of stickers… featuring, front and centre, Roger from Monsterland (‘Look’ was the secret word that week).
Temporary (sorry) tattoos. It was just to difficult to pick just one sheet, so here are two.
The “Pee-wee Copter”, front and back.
If you think you recognized the distinctive stylings of messrs. Charles Burns on the front and those of J.D. King* on the back… kudos on your discerning eye, keen one.

At one time, during Pee-wee’s heyday, I dated for a few months this girl from a, to put it mildly, conservative family. Her little brother was expressly forbidden from watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse, for fear that ‘it might turn him gay’. Live and learn… do check out this smart list of The Best 25 Pee-wee’s Playhouse Moments.

Happy birthday Paul, and a great weekend to you, Pee-wee!

Bonus time: in a case of ‘biting the hand that feeds’, Topps issued this snarky entry as part of its 1991 Wacky Packages series. Concept, writing and layout by Mark Newgarden, painted art by John Pound.

– RG

*a grateful tip of the hat to Mark Newgarden for the inside dope!

Wally Wood’s Incompleat Plopular Poetry

« Poetry: the best words in the best order. » — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Here’s a seldom-seen 1970’s Wally Wood treat: he concocted this irreverent alphabet for Plop! (1973-76), DC Comics’ surprisingly solid yet nearly forgotten gallows humour anthology — forgotten? oh, it’s the same old recipe: just let the material remain out of print for nearly half a century (and counting)*, fold in gradually the dust and grime of neglect, and let wither, uncovered, until utter oblivion is achieved.

While Plopular Poetry is minor ‘woodwork’, it represents some of the best produced by poor Woody at this late stage in his life.

Published in Plop! no. 18 (Nov.-Dec. 1975, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 19 (Jan.-Feb. 1976, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 20 (Mar.-Apr. 1976, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 21 (May-June 1976, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 22 (July-Aug. 1976, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 23 (Sept-Oct. 1976, DC). According to his protégé Ralph Reese, this is Woody doing his own lettering on the poems.
… and that was it. Plop! had run its course, cancelled with its 24th issue, five letters short of an alphabet. Published in Plop! no. 24 (Nov.-Dec. 1976, DC). Were the five final letters ever produced? I’ve been keeping my eyes open all these years… but I’m still waiting.

As a bonus…

Wood’s cover preliminary for Plop! no. 19’s cover boy, Smokin’ Sanford. Rendered in blue pencil on paper.
A more refined version of Sanford, rendered in graphite over blue pencil.
This is Plop! no. 19 (Jan.-Feb. 1976, DC), Wood’s fourth and final cover for the title, with sidebars and logo design by Sergio Aragonés; edited by his buddy from the EC days (and even earlier), Joe Orlando. Do I detect another, highly meticulous hand in the inking (Ralph Reese comes to mind, but he says he never worked on Plop!, and if one of us is wrong, odds are it’s me), or is Sanford’s wacky tobaccy messing with my mind?
And here’s a glimpse into the creative process! Note the disappearance, in the end, of Sanford’s threads and spectacles.

-RG

*aside from a pair of obscure digest reprints in the mid-eighties.

Several Shades of M. K. Brown

« 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.

A button featuring Aunt Mary, who probably would get on like a house on fire with Sylvia (see Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia: Wit, Wisdom and Cats).

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).

The first episode of Dr. N!Godatu. Janice’s voice (for those on a first-name basis!) is provided by Julie Payne.

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.

This one features Brown’s alter-ego, ‘White Girl’. « She can’t dance or sing the blues, but cluelessly does both anyway. It’s fun to speak through this character. I’m very fond of her. »

Here are three pages from more recent years, which also showcase Brown’s watercolours:

Published in The American Bystander no. 1 (Fall, 2015).
Published in The American Bystander no. 2 (Spring, 2016).
Published in The American Bystander no. 5 (Summer, 2017).

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!

~ ds