«The kind of guy you’d love to have at your next cocktail party, he’s got a million hilarious anecdotes and he’s more than happy to tell them. »
In the early days of this blog, we talked about American cartoonist Arnold Roth (see « All cartoonists are geniuses, but Arnold Roth is especially so. »). But this was some 6 years ago, and back then I wasn’t too generous with images. Roth has now made it to the venerable age of 94, and hopefully with us for many years to come! Even without dipping into his contributions to Harvey Kurtzman‘s Humbugand (unfortunate name association aside) Trump magazines, there is plenty of material to showcase and giggle at.
Did you know Roth not only illustrated many jazz LP covers, but was also a sax man himself? Check out this awesome gallery of some of these covers on Drew Friedman‘s blog!
Here are a few pages from Arnold Roth’s Crazy Book of Science (1971), which offers a few suitably madcap pages:
Then there’s my beloved Comick Book Of Pets (1976) – ‘found, raised, washed, curried, combed, fed and cared for in every way‘.
Read his fascinating interview with Gary Groth here.
« … while there are lines of taste that many cartoonists will not cross, Mr. Gross leaped over them, doused them with gasoline and lit them on fire, cackling as he did. » — Daniel E. Slotnik, from Gross’s NYT obit.
A couple of weeks ago, we lost yet another of our remaining cartooning titans, hardly a surprising turn of events given the march of time… but this growing void diminishes and impoverishes both the field and the world.
All this adulation and appreciation… and yet, all of his books are out of print, so far as I can ascertain. While this does not bode well, I like to think that some savvy publisher will soon make use of Gross’ fastidiously organised files, reportedly comprising over thirty thousand individual cartoons.
For this small homage, I’ve pulled some of my favourites from his most famous (the most infamous being We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons*), 1977’s I Am Blind and My Dog is Dead. Picking favourites is plenty laborious enough, I wasn’t going to slog through seven decades of material, indeed not.
« After five years, I left the Lampoon and a new executive editor took over. He called Sam into his office. “From now on, I want pencil sketches from all the artists before they do anything,” he told Sam.
“Pencils! Cartoonists don’t do no stinkin’ pencils. Rodrigues will tell you to go fuck yourself rather than show you a pencil,” Sam said. “Oh, and by the way, you can go fuck yourself.” His tenure as cartoon editor was finished. But the funny thing is, Sam was still selling cartoons to the Lampoon long after that editor had been penciled out of his own job. »
*From Gross’ first-rate 2011 Comics Journal interview, conducted by Richard Gehr: « His doorbell sports an old family name because he doesn’t want to be hassled by anyone who might have been offended by his 2008 book We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons. »
Long before Cracked* was ‘America’s Only Humor Site’ deluging its readers in hit-or-miss listicles (5 Stupid, Stupid Things Humanity Has Shot Into Space, 15 Bonkers Crossovers That Somehow Happened, and so on), it was a satirical mag consciously aping Mad Magazine‘s schtick. I don’t know if anybody is actually hanging on to fond memories of it – Fantagraphics’ Kim Thompson famously quipped ‘I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of CRACKED for most of its run as “a bunch of crap, and John Severin” – but it’s undeniable that quite a few great artists have contributed to it over the years (including the aforementioned Severin, who was a powerhouse** whatever you may think of his art).
Cracked was born in 1958 and shuddered its last in 2007 (more about said demise later). Here are a few Severin covers I like!
As a bonus, here is ‘Phooey’ Smythe as depicted by the amazing Jack Davis for the cover of Cracked no. 12 (January, 1960).
* When Cracked Magazine was sold to a group of investors in 2005, it was supposed to return in force with a new design à la ‘lad mags‘ like Maxim. Website Cracked.com launched several months later, outdid its parental unit, and when the magazine folded in 2007 (new design and all), the website stuck around, gaining popularity in exponential numbers. My only interest in it is the fact that Winston Rowntree occasionally contributes articles.
**«After being one of the founding artists for Mad, he began working for the Mad imitation Cracked in the late ’50s and stayed there for nearly 40 years, because he was paid as well as the Mad contributors and was allowed to contribute several features in every issue. In addition to the mountain of work he produced for Cracked, he was simultaneously working for Marvel, Warren and DC. Severin was the consummate professional who editors and art directors knew could draw anything, from a Roman legionary to Cracked mascot Sylvester P. Smythe, and everything in between. Like fellow EC colleagues Jack Davis and Frank Frazetta, Severin could crank out great humor comics with the same facility he drew war, Western and historical tales.» [source]
« Bonnie and Pepsi are obsessed with sex, but they’re not there for the male gaze. Their desire is frank and straightforward and more than a little demented, and it’s depicted with a bracing honesty that feels less like a political statement and more like Flenniken is reporting from the front lines with no filter, no safety net, and no intention of telling anything but the truth.»*
I first came across a Shary Flenniken‘s Trots and Bonnie strip in some random issue of National Lampoon. I can’t even really narrow down the decade**, as it ran within its pages from 1972 all the way to 1990. I was intrigued, but not enough to pursue it.
When New York Review Comics published a Trots and Bonnie collection in 2021, gathering 160 strips in a handsome hardcover volume, I was happy to finally be able to partake of T&B in a more organized fashion. One perplexing thing about this collection is that some strips were omitted due to concerns of misinterpretation***. It was apparently feared that some topics would be too controversial, or that the modern reader has lost the ability to interpret things in context. I would have liked the possibility of deciding what has or hasn’t aged well for myself. As it stands, this collection features strips offering a most varied list of topics to horrify the easily triggered (rape, racial epithets, kids getting shot, electrocuted and castrated – albeit by other kids – and pedophilia), so I am truly curious what the censored strips were about. I guess I am now doomed to collect National Lampoon issues (to be fair, the latter was home to many a great cartoonist – Rick Geary, M.K. Brown, Stan Mack, etc.)
Trots and Bonnie is a hilarious strip, and it’s also quite unsettling in the best of ways. While both cartoonists would surely be offended by this comparison, it makes me think of some of Charles Rodrigues’ work (see Charles Rodrigues’ Pantheon of Scabrous Humour) – the same electrifying unwillingness to shy away from difficult topics, although Flenniken was doing it to make a point, and Rodrigues would do it for sheer perversity. More than once while reading T&B I would start wondering how far a certain storyline would go – and it went all the way to its logical (call it immoral, call it stomach-churning…) conclusion. Just take the Dr. Pepsi’s Vasectomy Clinic from 1974, a panel from which made it as the cover of the collection –
«Two youngish girls, dressed as medical professionals, appear to be playing doctor with a young boy, who lies under a sheet, grinning blankly at the viewer while one of the girls, brandishing a pair of scissors, cheerfully communicates something to the other one. A sweet-looking dog with fancy eyelashes lies at their feet. It’s only once you know the particular strip it comes from, in which Pepsi (the shorter firecracker) and Bonnie (the taller girl) attempt to give neighbor kid Elrod a vasectomy and wind up referring to themselves as a sex-change clinic, that you blanch a bit at the art choice. There you go. That’s “Trots and Bonnie” in a nutshell. » [source]
It’s also a charming strip, with a heroïne who is refreshingly in no hurry to grow up (despite being prodded into it by her early bloomer friend Pepsi, ‘dressed in incongruously childlike pinafore paired with fishnets, a perfect metaphor for the terrifying underage sex fiend she is’). Bonnie dresses like a tomboy, hates going out with her parents, and collects sex magazines and prophylactics like other kids collect marbles. In a world of sleazy men with a creepy predilection for pre-adolescent flesh, she somehow manages to remain an innocent, and shrug off any unpleasantness in favour of a wide-eyed curiosity about everything, be it boys’ cock sizes or sci-fi movies.
In case that isn’t clear, I heartily recommend purchasing the Trots & Bonnie collection.
* This strip is hard to write about and do justice to, and I could not do any better than Emily Flake’s truly excellent introduction to the T&B collection.
** I found it – it was Women’s Erotic Art Gallery, published in 1975.
*** Flenniken explains, ‘the things that I did that we omitted here in this book, I think we looked at those and went, “oh, that might hurt somebody’s feelings or something.” That was me being naïve when I wrote those. A lot of times I was just exploring a subject rather than having a definitive stance. People are pretty darn outrageous today, more so than me. What has changed is what people think is offensive.‘
« 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.
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?
« 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).
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.
*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.
« 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.
I won’t leave you in suspense! On to the following issue…
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.
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?
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.
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.
What do you say we take a peek at that Extra Bonus Book of Monster Jokes?
… 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.
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.
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 ]
Here’s a couple from 1996’s Falling Up:
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.