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