« RAREBIT n. A Welsh rabbit, in the speech of the humorless, who point out that it is not a rabbit. To whom it may be solemnly explained that the comestible known as toad-in-a-hole is really not a toad, and that ris-de-veau à la financière is not the smile of a calf prepared after the recipe of a she banker. » — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
It’s dicey to make a broad generalization about what people have heard of and what they haven’t, so I’ll just say that, for a comic strip more than a century old, likely Canadian Winsor McCay‘s Little Nemo in Slumberland is rather well remembered (and represented) in the greater culture.
The strip has inspired numberless adaptations and the cultural landscape is quite peppered with Nemo references, both overt and veiled.
In the early 1980s, Italian cartoonist Vittorio Giardino (1946–) created a series of short pieces (first published in issues of Comic Art and Glamour International), intended as an erotic pastiche of McCay’s brainchild.
Here are the Little Ego pieces I value most.
I must admit I only enjoy the earlier, less grandiose ones, in no small part because they’re scarcely Nemo-like. Instead, they’re patterned after an earlier McCay creations, and my personal favourite, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-25), which I’ve long treasured in its beloved and exemplary Dover collection.
« There are strips that are classics that I respond to on many levels without loving them (Little Nemo is one). I can enjoy such strips without really learning too much from them. »
I share Mr. Thompson’s ambivalent sentiment about Nemo. It’s an indisputable masterwork, mind-bogglingly accomplished, and best enjoyed in its original size.
But its epic scale and themes fail to move me. I far prefer the quotidian-turning-absurd magic of the Rarebit Fiend.
At length, feeling perhaps constrained by the two-page format, Giardino moved on to a longer, sustained narrative full of aerial derring-do, treacherous desert vistas, opulent palaces, and lots and lots of rapes (a fumetti standard).Not my thing, thanks all the same.
I drew from the French edition of the strip since it’s the one I own, but also for its superior reproduction and as the English translation is rather flat and witless in comparison. [ see for yourself! ]
Here’s a tasty pair of sample Rarebit Fiend strips.
… and we return to Richard Thompson, who introduced his own ‘strip within a strip’ parody with Little Neuro within his Cul de sac (2004-2012).
So we’ve got another dour, dark, mumbly, violent, grim ‘n’ gritty Batman movie making the rounds. I’ll pass — I’m afraid that’s not my Batman of choice. But I’m certainly game to provide an alternative view.
*the second-funniest Bat-related thing I encountered online this week is this attribution of a Batman (created in 1939) quote to Marx (1818-1883).
The funniest was the following deeply ironic quote from pathological liar and glory hog Bob Kane: « How can an article about me or the Batman be the true story when I am not consulted or interviewed? »
« Ward’s beautiful buxotics operate in a strange separate universe, in which all women are gorgeous voluptoids, all men oafish, saucer-eyed drooling dupes. » — Chris ‘Coop‘ Cooper
Well, I certainly wasn’t planning to hog all the blogging this week, but there were birthdays and other hopefully mitigating factors. While today is the great Will Eisner‘s birthday, it’s likely to overshadow that of a fellow Golden Age toiler, one with an equally intriguing career, but with a trajectory quite divergent from Eisner’s own.
Bill Ward (1919 – 1998) was also born on this day, one hundred and three years ago. Ward started out in comics with the Jack Binder shop, turning out material for Fawcett’s line of characters (Captain Marvel and his family, Bulletman…); he soon found himself working for Quality Comics, most notably on Blackhawk (an Eisner co-creation, it should be noted). He inched closer to his true passion when assigned to Quality’s romance line.
In the mid-50’s, when came the brutal, censorship-induced compression of the comic book industry, Ward smoothly shifted to producing girlie cartoons for Abe Goodman’s Humorama line, becoming its star and most prolific performer, thanks to his popularity and prodigious speed. He was aided in this by his choice of tool and technique: the conté crayon on newsprint. While everyone else was working on 8″ x 12″ illustration board, Ward was using a soft, beige paper of a size (18″ x 24′) and texture familiar to any art student who’s taken a life drawing class. With this type of stock, he could produce texture rubbings and achieve smooth, sensual sheens ideal for rendering highlights of hair and stockings. Said Ward: « It didn’t take me long to figure out that the quicker you could do the work… the more money you could make. » Over the course of a quarter-century, he wound up producing around 9,000 drawings for the Humorama line.
As Ward recalled of his early training in Binder’s studio, « [Binder] trained me to do layout, which is the most difficult part of art. » To wit, layout never counted among Ward’s strengths. A lot of his pinup work is undermined by poor staging, often grotesque proportions, and absolutely minimal attention to non-erotic detail.
Now, had I ever wondered what Ward’s pencils would look like, if inked by Bill Everett? I readily confess I hadn’t. But upon learning that such a momentous collision once occurred, my mind was set slightly reeling.
Another weathered fellow combatant in the trenches of the Golden Age, Everett (1917-73), unlike Ward, always gave his best, whatever the conditions. Right to the end, despite his rapidly declining health, Everett was, incredibly, producing top-flight work.
In the 60’s, Ward also provided covers for various soft-core novels, such as this one from Satellite Publications’ ‘After Hours’ imprint. He even wrote some of them, notably under the alias of ‘Bill Marshall’. His fellow Quality Comics alumnus Gil Fox also penned many of these potboilers under a staggering array of aliases.
With Wolverton, Jacovitti (1923 – 1997) shares an animist sort of predilection for cramming every square centimetre of the panel with absurdist details, facetious sound effects, recurring motifs and symbols and, naturally, gags. It’s a most noble cartooning tradition that runs the course of the medium’s history, from Bill Holman through Kurtzman and Will Elder (chicken fat!) and merrily endures to this day in Dan Piraro and Wayno‘s oft-sublime Bizarro.
Here’s a two-page ambush sequence that gives you a sense of how handy — and deadly — our protagonist is with a pair of irons.
Last month, my co-admin ds reported, in the course of her spotlight on Massimo Mattioli, that Jacovitti is said to be the Italian cartoonist best known internationally. I have no idea how such popularity is measured, but I do enjoy the idea of a palmarès headed by cartoonists I love, for once. I do, however, suspect that the global reach of animation frequently contributes more to a cartoonist’s name recognition than does his printed work (think Guillermo Mordillo). Case in point: while Cocco Bill strips have been translated and reprinted in several countries, these efforts have been, more often than not, patchy and sporadic. On the other hand, the Cocco Bill TV series (2000-04) ran a healthy 104 episodes. And it looks great, which didn’t hurt. Check out the pilot episode, ‘Cocco Augh‘. For a creator, it’s assuredly a classier calling card than a bunch of sordid sex ‘comedies’.
I’d like to dedicate this post to the fond memory of a departed cartooning colleague, Patrick ‘Henriette Valium’ Henley (1959-2021), since Cocco Bill was, I’ve heard tell, his favourite bédé.
« A black cat crossing in front of a person signifies that the animal is going somewhere. » — Jack Oakie
Oftentimes, tackling such a milestone as Bill Holman‘s Smokey Stover (1935-1972) comic strip is simply too daunting a task. Judging from the evidence (and evidence of absence), I’m not alone in being so cowed: despite the feature’s undeniable and pivotal importance, there hasn’t been a reprint collection solely devoted to it* since 1985, when San Diego Comic-Con founder Shel Dorf and Blackthorne Publishing issued a humble volume in their Comic-Strip Preserves series. Humble it was, but packed to the rafters with Holman’s delightfully surreal wit and screwball genius. A mere 72 pages in the comic book format, but hours of reading, thanks to the astounding density of their contents.
If one were to take Wikipedia at its word, one might loudly rejoice at Hermes Press’ 2012 release of Smokey Stover and Spooky the Cat: The Collected Sundays. But, as an Amazon reviewer archly quipped, circa 2017, « It’s difficult to write a review when the book has not been published. » The ensuing five years have not improved the panorama one bit.
Well, I’m not going to explore Smokey Stover on this occasion… but will instead sneak a squint at its equally delightful ‘topper‘, Spooky the Cat. Since you rightly might ask:
« A topper in comic strip parlance is a small secondary strip seen along with a larger Sunday strip. In the 1920s and 1930s, leading cartoonists were given full pages in the Sunday comics sections, allowing them to add smaller strips and single-panel cartoons to their page. »
The credibly devoted student of the comics would be ill-advised to underestimate the size of Holman’s footprint in the field: were they still around, it’s a cinch that Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, Boody Rogers and Harvey Kurtzman would be quick to confirm Holman’s influence on their work. And that’s just some of his more-or-less contemporary peers.
Well, Kurtzman did in fact explicitly go on the record on that point, in the course of his introduction to the Blackthorne collection:
« Those outrageously outrageous and the nonsense words that appeared in no particular place for no particular reason. ‘Foo!’ ‘Notary Sojac.‘ Could it be that that’s what inspired me to ‘Potzrebie‘ and ‘furshlugginer‘? Was it Holman’s technique, those ‘tchochkas‘ in all corners of the panels? Picture portraits, with the portraits come to life, jumping out of their frames? Could that have been what inspired us to fill our MAD Magazine panels with those nonsensical details? Could that have been it?
I think so, Bill Holman. I think that you stamped my young, impressionable, brain with your indelible ink. So ‘Foo’ to you and many more ‘Notary Sojacs’, Bill Holman. You made me what I am today, I hope you’re satisfied. »
« You’ve got to go pretty far back in the woods for good backwoods humor. »
Contemplating Norman Pettingill‘s life brings to mind Henry David Thoreau in his secluded cabin – « I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings, where the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the grass, and the day is forever unproved, where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil about me. » Most of us living in high density urban centers have bittersweet moments of pining for the ‘natural’ lifestyle of the woods, perhaps fishing and hunting for modest yet satisfying sustenance, quietly sitting on the porch in the evenings and thinking philosophical thoughts with the backdrop of nocturnal animal sounds.
Judging from Pettingill’s cheeky illustrations of just such a natural life, quietude doesn’t actually come into much – instead, he presents us with a sort of vaudeville cast of bears bent on mayhem, drunk old-timers and pipe-smokin’ grannies, women emphatically pursued by wild fauna harbouring thoughts a holy man would blush at, crazy surgeons and gung-ho sturgeons (oh, there was no specific indication of the many fish nibbling on tender parts being sturgeons, but Wisconsin boasts two species).
Norman Pettingill (1896-1991) was born and raised in Wisconsin to be a hunter, fisher and trapper, just like all men around him, and although he took well to these activities (it seems he was a very good hunter/fisher/gatherer), his favoured interests lay elsewhere. I’m not sure how inviting this, err, virile environment would be to a boy who delights in drawing caricatures instead of chopping wood or shooting rabbits, but at any rate nobody seems to have dissuaded young Pettingill from his artistic pursuits.
His drawings with pen and ink can easily be divided into categories. The first consists of his quiet and beautifully detailed forest scenes, with varied animals poised as if about to dash away.
Then there are his bawdy, sometimes grotesque, and frequently unhinged caricatures of his fellow men (and women) and the stuff they get up to. To be fair, there is something sweet in his mockery – only an insider could observe the vernacular of language and behaviour with such bite and yet affection. I especially favour group scenes with more riotous action and ribald skirmishes than one could shake a hunter’s gun at.
Other times, group shots give way to a more focused approach, whether it’s a woman approached by a bear who seems to be bent on inter-species action, or an inept hunter running at full speed from what was supposed to be his prey.
These pictures have been taken from Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist (Fantagraphics, 2010). The images themselves were drawn between 1947 and 1959.
« He works at night, which is fitting, since some of his best cartoons deal with the dark side of the psyche. A classic black humorist, he rummages around in violence, insanity, perversion, bigotry and scatology, looking for what he needs to create the typical Rodrigues effect: wild laughter with a cringe of repulsion. » [source]
Charles Rodrigues (1926-2014) is an American cartoonist of Portuguese descent. Fantagraphics published two collections of this work, and their blurb describes him as « the sick mind behind some of the most outrageous, inventive, and offensive cartoons ever to appear in mass circulation magazines, including Stereo Review, Playboy and (from its very first issue) the National Lampoon. » One of these books collects his one-panel cartoons, and is titled Gag On This: The Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues. Scrofulous, in case you didn’t know, means something like ‘morally contaminated’.
So it will come as no surprise that this post might provoke a few pouts of distaste. On the other hand, I am hoping that it will also elicit some chuckles.
I remember my reaction at first reading Chuck Palahniuk’s 2005 short story ‘Guts‘ (if unfamiliar but curious, read it here, at your own peril) and feeling a sort of amazed astonishment about how far the author was willing to go. ‘He’s not really going to go there, is he? Oh wow, he actually went that far.’
Well, reading Charles Rodrigues can be compared to that – at least in the slightly surreal surprise one feels when the gag winks at the reader, and trots happily across the invisible line nobody talks much about (but that we all know is there). If there’s a joke to be made, it doesn’t matter that it lies in the territory of the distinctly distasteful, Rodrigues will go for it with all arms blazing and nail it. Reading Guts is arguably an uncomfortable experience; reading a Rodrigues comic is wickedly entertaining… or incredibly offensive, depending on what floats (or sinks) your boat. He stuns the reader with a hilarious and crass barrage of absurdities reliant on scatology, taboos, and general indecency and sleaze. No one is safe – not the handicapped, nor the elderly; he flings dirt with equal aplomb at the women’s liberation front, gays and blacks, the terminally ill, rock stars, lepers, single mothers and ugly children, conjoined twins and cannibals — and this parade is only starting, chum.
Now I didn’t head into this with a desire to showcase the most stomach-churning of Rodrigues cartoons. This selection is based on a simple premise: some of my favourite instances of his sacrilegious* sense of humour. Gross-out gags and crudeness are actually really easy to come by, and often incredibly stupid — I worry about people who think a guy getting hit in the balls is hilarious. But I hope that this post demonstrates that in this case, there is a keen intelligence and a writer’s talent at work.
« Cartoonists can look upon his work with a kind of awe. His staggering is perfection, his actors expressive, his architecture and perspective masterful. But I’ve heard more than one layperson comment that his work looked rough and unpolished. I beg to differ. His line was thick, lumpy and bled right into the very fiber of the paper, but it is controlled and deliberate. This was a craftsman in charge of his medium. » Bob Fingerman, from the introduction toRay and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend and Other Classic Comics.
While his panel cartoons hit hard and fast, when given the space to develop a longer story, Rodrigues takes the time to set up things up for maximum… nastiness, with every gag flowing the most naturally in the world into an even more over-the-top one. The following pages are excerpted from Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend and Other Classic Comics, which had been my first exposure to Rodrigues’ work, which « boggled the mind and challenged all sense of decency and propriety ». What can I say? I found it in a now-defunct comic bookstore, looked through a few pages and immediately purchased it.
I’ll wrap this with an unrelated one-pager which somehow seems appropriate in this pandemic new year –
*Interestingly, Rodrigues was actually a fairly religious, politically conservative man.
« There’s a safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milkshake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner. » — David Lynch
My relationship with the National Lampoon has always held a strong element of contention: in my view, for every brilliant strip or feature, there’s some deplorably juvenile shock-for-shock’s-sake fratboy dross. But the good stuff, even if it doesn’t always outweigh the bad, is still worth tracking down… and sharing!
While Stan Mack is most celebrated for his impressive comics reportage (an area explored in this previous post), I’m just as taken with his earlier endeavour, the surreal Mule’s Diner, sporadically published in the Lampoon during the magazine’s heyday (the first half of the 1970s).
« In Mule’s Diner, surrealism was dished up with the coffee, or maybe it was the coffee. Stan invited the Lampoon’s readers to sit and have a cup and listen to a story. Dine at Mule’s and you’ll find yourself ruminating on some fantastic little morsel for days afterward. The stories, like the ink, are indelible. Read a few now and see if there is another artist who has cross-hatched his way this deep inside parts of your head you didn’t even know you had.
Stan misses nothing. It’s only after looking at the picture he drew of you that you notice you’ve been missing a button on your coat. I saw him interview a politician in a crowded convention hall. He looked the man right in the eye while he wrote down verbatim what the guy said, and drew his portrait without even once looking at the 2×3 inch pad he held in his right hand. The portrait looked like the guy, too. That’s talent! »
« This kind of accuracy, continued long enough, can ruin a man who is constructed as I am. I want to be pretty. I want to eliminate facts and fill up the gap with charm. » — Samuel Clemens, writing to a friend of a pen sketch sent to him by young admirer H.T. Webster
Thankfully, it’s fair to say that Webster (1885-1952) had plenty more arrows in his quiver. According to a 1945 Time Magazine profile of the artist (who was even featured on the cover!):
« H. T. Webster has learned to slice and serve his generous chunks of U.S. life methodically. Caspar (The Timid Soul) appears Sundays and Mondays. The pitilessly fanatic and bad-mannered bridge players run Fridays. Boyhood’s lovingly elaborated triumphs (The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime) and defeats (Life’s Darkest Moment) appear on Saturdays and Tuesdays. Thursdays bring How to Torture Your Husband (or Wife). On Wednesdays, in The Unseen Audience**, he pokes a sharp-pointed stick at radio—which of all mixed blessings most needs satirizing, and gets it least. Webster, in fact, is possibly radio’s most effective critic. »
Honestly, they’d each be rewarding choices, but I’ve opted, on this occasion, to draw from the cool, sombre well of Life’s Darkest Moment.
*“For many years no one but his close friends knew of an acute arthritis which in 1927 cost him the use of his right hand. In three months he trained himself not only to write, but to draw, left-handed.” — Philo Calhoun in Biographical Sketch, The Best of H.T. Webster (1953, Simon and Schuster).
***He “… returned to Chicago, where he spent three years drawing front-page political cartoons for the Chicago Inter-Ocean, prompting one politician to introduce a bill in the state legislature forbidding unflattering cartoons.” (it didn’t pass.)
« 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!