Dreams of the Rarebit Little Ego

« 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.

« I wonder what’s come over me to have such dreams… I’ll never be able to speak of them… even to my shrink!! »
Here’s the cover art of the original French collected edition (1989, Glénat).

To quote the late cartoonist and local favourite Richard Thompson:

« 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.

See what I mean? An original-size Little Nemo showcase cleverly included in Graphis Magazine‘s Comics: The Art of the Comic Strip (1972, The Graphis Press, Zurich).

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).

Cul de sac’s March 26, 2008 daily, wherein Little Neuro is first touched upon. « Little Neuro is a parody/homage to the great fantasy strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. I thought up Little Neuro in the early ’80s, but I had to invent Petey before I knew what to do with it. »
Cul de sac’s Sunday, September 6, 2009 strip. Thompson: « Obviously an excuse to draw a dragon. I don’t get many. »

-RG

Why the Long face? The Lighter Side of Batman

« The best thing for rich people to do is become Batman. » — Karl Heinrich Marx*

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.

This is World’s Finest no. 32 (Jan.-Feb. 1948, DC); cover art by Hamilton, Ontario’s Win Mortimer (1919-1998), just one in a long, memorable series of frequently goofy scenes featuring this heroic trio.
A cute one from John Gallagher (1926 – 2005), twice (1957, 1971) the winner of the National Cartoonists SocietyBest Gag Cartoonist‘ Award and elder brother of Heathcliff creator George Gately Gallagher. It was published in scouting monthly Boys’ Life‘s July, 1966 issue, smack dab in the heart of Batmania. We ran another bit of bat-drollery from John in an earlier post.
This is Mad Magazine no. 105 (Sept. 1966, EC); cover by Norman Mingo (1896-1980).
A pivotal page from ‘Alias the Bat-Hulk’ written by Bob Haney, pencilled by Mike Sekowsky and inked by Mike Esposito, from The Brave and the Bold no. 68 (Oct.-Nov. 1966, DC), edited by George Kashdan. We’re featured the issue’s fabulously batty cover in our earlier tribute to Mike Sekowsky. Bless you, gentlemen — you truly understood what fun meant and what comics should be.
Prolific Argentine cartoonist Vic Martin (in his homeland, he drew the strip “Salvador” for Medio Litro magazine) moved to the US in the early 1950s, crafting a respectable body of work in the comic book field, chiefly for Ziff-Davis, before migrating to men’s magazines and girlie digests. By the 1970, he’d found a home with Cracked Magazine (He handled the Hudd & Dini feature), while also freelancing for Sick and Crazy. Everything but Mad, really. This particular cartoon comes from the March, 1967 issue of Avant Publishing’s “Escapade”. As Pat Masulli is listed under “production” in the masthead, a Charlton connection is more than likely. And speaking of “Leapin’ lizards!“, Martin would later (1973-74) work on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip.
From Plop no. 9 (Jan.-Feb. 1975, DC); Writer unknown, art by Kurt Schaffenberger.
This one’s from Plop! no. 20 (Mar.-Apr. 1976), DC); idea by Don ‘Duck’ Edwing, art by Dave Manak.
Dan Piraro‘s May 21, 1995 Bizarro Sunday strip. Between Piraro and his canny accomplice, Wayno, there have been scores of excellent bat-japes over the years. I must confess that the term ‘bat-bat’ triggers other associations. « To the Man-Mobile! »
This is Pictures Within Pictures, a 1998 watercolour by Mitch O’Connell (not to be confused, of course, with this beloved, near-homonymous fella — yes, I can just hear Beavis and Butthead chortling). The piece is full of references to various Golden Age comics made infamous by Fredric Wertham‘s Seduction of the Innocent. For instance, er… Batman‘s speech balloon quotes from this particular comic book‘s opening splash. On a sobering note, let’s not forget that the 1950’s furore over comic books, as absurd as it may have seemed, still has relevance today.
In a more deadpan vein, here’s the opening splash of Chip Kidd and Tony Millionaire‘s madcap homage to the very earliest of Batman’s exploits, with nods a-plenty to the 1943 film serial. “The Bat-Man” originally appeared in Bizarro Comics (Aug. 2001, DC).
Another most decidedly dynamic duo, Eddie Campbell and Hunt Emerson, assembles to concoct an affectionate, thoughtful and yes, funny look at one of Batman’s most bizarre-yet-neglected members of the Bat’s rogues’ gallery, Lenny Fiasco, aka The Eraser, introduced in Batman no. 188 (Dec. 1966, DC) with The Eraser Who Tried to Rub Out Batman! This sequel, Who Erased the Eraser? also made its original appearance in Bizarro Comics (Aug. 2001, DC), edited by Joey Cavalieri.
Here’s one (June 12, 2014) from Pulitzer Prize-winning (1981) editorial cartoonist Mike Peters (b. 1943). It’s from his unevenly written but always gorgeous comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm (created in 1984 and still going strong in over 800 newspapers worldwide). Like his colleagues Piraro and Wayno, Mr. Peters can scarcely resist a good bat-gag, so this is just one in a crowd of many.
Everyone’s familiar with the famous playground song and staple of crooner Robert Goulet’s répertoire, right? The web is rife with visual adaptations, but this was my favourite, the work of Matthew S. Armstrong and available as a handsome t-shirt.

-RG

*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? »

Odd Pairings: Bill Ward & Bill Everett

« 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.

Ward’s cover for Love Diary no. 1 (Sept. 1949, Quality). Artistically speaking, this is what a fully committed Ward can produce.

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.

A typical example of a Ward girlie cartoon produced using the conté crayon. This one first turned up in Comedy no. 51 (Jan. 1960, Marvel); in a typical work-for-hire arrangement, for a flat fee (in Ward’s case, 7 dollars a cartoon, topping out at the princely sum of $30 near the end of his 25-year run), Goodman retained all reprint rights (and reprint he did, liberally) and kept the original art, which he sold to collectors for several times its original cost, naturally. Nowadays, these pieces exchange hands for several thousand dollars.

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.

This is The Adventures of Pussycat no. 1 (Oct. 1968, Marvel). Cover by Bill Everett. Highly sought after today, this scarce, magazine-size one-shot is merely a reprint collection of some of Pussycat’s ‘adventures’ from various Goodman Playboy knockoffs, and one of a gazillion contrived acroynym-based attempts to cash in on the ubiquitous 007 craze of the 60’s. It does contain the first Pussycat tale, illustrated by Wally Wood, who would soon go on to his own entry in the super-spy stakes, Tower’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.
Concentrate on the artwork. The less said about the writing (was it Stan the Man or Larry the Lieber? We’ll likely never know), the better. As usual, any American attempt at French is mangled, even at a mere two words and two syllables (for the record, it should read either “C’est fini!” or “C’est la fin!“). Pensively squinting while adjusting his pince-nez, a ‘curator’ at Heritage Auctions made this uproarious whopper of a claim: « The figures of Pussycat look to be by Bill Everett and everything else is Bill Ward. » So you think Bill Ward drew everything… except the one thing he was interested in drawing? These folks don’t seem to know how comics are produced.
The Bombshell and the Bank!“, never reprinted, saw print in Male Annual no. 6 (1968).
This is The Mighty Thor no. 171 (Dec. 1969, Marvel). Jack Kirby pencils, Bill Everett inks. Coming late in Kirby’s run, what a vigorous breath of fresh air after years of lazy erasures!

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.

This is Side Street (1966, After Hours). I’ve noticed over the years that certain artists of a more single-minded frame of mind can’t be bothered to devote much attention to anything but the object of their obsession. Such was the case with Bill Ward, and with the passing years, ever increasingly so. Exhibit A: has Ward ever seen an actual dog?
Which reminded me of this classic, by another ‘can’t be bothered’ master of ‘Good Girl’ art, Alberto Joaquin Vargas Chavez (1896-1982). Another howler from the comedians at Heritage: « This early masterpiece, one of the greatest pin-ups the artist ever painted, was reproduced as a full-color double-page spread in Vargas, Taschen, 1990. Alberto Vargas thought so highly of this lot and the following two stunning paintings that he retained them in his personal collection. » I wouldn’t presume to criticise Vargas’ depiction of the female form, but on the other hand, this is Exhibit B: has Vargas ever seen an actual cat? Don’t worry, Alberto, you’re not alone in this affliction: neither has Neal Adams.

This, er… pussycat brings to mind botched attempts at taxidermy and/or artwork restoration.

-RG

Salami Western: Benito Jacovitti’s Cocco Bill

« I’m a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but salami is salami. You can’t sell it as caviar. » — Stephen King

Farcical ‘Wild West’ comic strips may be a dime a dozen, but despite the undeniable hoariness of the premise, a number of them are inevitably outstanding. To name but a few, there’s been Maurice ‘Morris’ De Bevere‘s Lucky Luke (1946); Basil Wolverton‘s Bingbang Buster (1949); Harvey Kurtzman‘s Pot-Shot Pete (Sheriff of Yucca-Pucca Gulch) (1950); Jean-Claude Poirier‘s Horace, cheval de l’Ouest (1970); Jean ‘Cézard’ César‘s Billy Bonbon (1973); and today’s cowboy in the spotlight, Benito Jacovitti‘s Cocco Bill (1957).

Cocco Bill was introduced in the pages of Il Giorno dei Ragazzi (1957-68), “originally intended as the Italian version of the British children’s periodical Eagle“. After Il Giorno’s demise, Cocco Bill shifted his sagebrush shenanigans to the venerable Corriere dei Piccoli (1908-95).

This is 7 fois mouche (1975, JC Lattès, France), originally serialised in Corriere dei Piccoli as “Cocco Bill fa sette più”, 1968-69. In Italy, it was actually number twenty in the series.

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.

The sign says: “Do not trample the cacti“.
The surviving bushwacker is put out of his misery by the gang’s second-in-command, the Chaplinesque Kruel; you know he’s a villain of substance because he rides a double horse. Pray note the lovely SALOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON sign with its behatted snake carvings.
Meet hired guns the Kuknass Brothers: Brown, White, Green, Black, Yellow, Blue and Red, of course. Like the idea, Quentin? Note the extra digits (the better to count with, panel five). It’s easy to imagine Jacovitti having some influence on Mad’s Don Martin
In the manner of many a pure-hearted cowboy, Cocco Bill’s brew of choice is alcohol-free; his poison is chamomile tea, a drink with numerous health benefits! With sugar and lemon, but hold the paprika, thank you! Note: Don’t Shoot the Piano Player!
This is Sur les rails (1975, JC Lattès, France), originally serialised in Corriere dei Piccoli as “Cocco Bill sulle rotaie”, 1969. In Italy, it was number twenty-one in the series.
The train meets the stagecoach, and how! A page from Sur les rails.

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.

-RG

Topper the World, Ma: Bill Holman’s Spooky the Cat

« 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. »

An ad from the syndicate promoting Smokey Stover (and its topper); it saw print in trade magazine Editor & Publisher’s August 21, 1937 issue.
From Sunday, June 27, 1937.
From Sunday, January 24, 1943.
From Sunday, Fooly, er, July 20, 1941.
From Sunday, July 4th (of course!), 1948.
From Sunday, September 12, 1948.
From Sunday, February 19, 1950. Ah, one of the classic cartooning archetypes: the hobo, complete with trusty polka-dot bindle and stick (which technically makes him a ‘bindlestiff’).
From Sunday, July 6, 1952. I could swear Holman meant to call the man Prof. Larynx, but then he wasn’t what you’d call a spelling whiz.
From Sunday, July 20, 1952. Incidentally, Spooky’s fez-sporting owner is Fenwick Flooky. There — now you’ve been introduced.
From Sunday, July 27, 1969. Gotta love a guy who’s kind to his animal companion, not to mention resourceful in doing so.
Sorry, date unknown! However, its original art was thus dedicated to a peer by the artist: “To my genius friend Alpo Q. Jaffee, fire-ever – Bill Holman ’76“.

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. »

A clear Spooky prototype, down to the tail bandage, from Judge‘s January, 1935 issue.

-RG

*I may be too old-fashioned to quite take into account print-on-demand reprint collections, but let’s face it, sometimes that’s all you get.

Crude, Rough, and Ready: Norman Pettingill

« 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.

~ ds

Charles Rodrigues’ Pantheon of Scabrous Humour

« 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.

The following single-panel cartoons have been collected in Gag On This: The Scrofulous Cartoons of Charles Rodrigues.

« 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 to Ray 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.

Page from The Story of a Man and his Dead Friend, in which Ray’s friend Joe dies, and Ray decides to keep his corpse around because he’s lonely without him (Joe is embalmed to avoid unpleasant odours and whatnot, which leads to its own set of scatological issues).
Page from Sam DeGroot: The Free World’s Only Private Detective in an Iron Lung Machine. Sam is on skid row after a series of misfortunes, but is picked up by a kind-hearted civilian (who turns out to be fattening him up to be eaten later on).
Sam is being successfully fattened up (Everett the cannibal is a very talented cook!), although in this panel Everett rescinds his evil man-eating ways, set on the right path by one of those door-to-door priests seeking to convert more sheep for his flock.
From the iron lung and into the hospital bed! Sam starts a new phase in his life (and ends up being literally able to talk out of his ass through an enema tube, but that comes later).

I’ll wrap this with an unrelated one-pager which somehow seems appropriate in this pandemic new year –

~ ds

*Interestingly, Rodrigues was actually a fairly religious, politically conservative man.

Your Usual Corner Table at Mule’s Diner

« 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 his history of the magazine, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (2010, Abrams — now also a film!), Mack’s cartooning colleague, Rick Meyerowitz, wrote of him admiringly:

« 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! »

Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 24 (March 1972).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 27 (June 1972).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 34 (Jan. 1973).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 39 (June 1973).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 46 (Jan. 1974).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 53 (Aug. 1974).
And the most famous of the lot — the tragic saga of Murray’s fart, from National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 68 (Nov. 1975);
The handsome auteur, sans moustache, displays his best side. Photo by Sylvia Plachy.

-RG

Some of Life’s Darkest Moments

« 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

I had originally set out to write (and I may yet) of pioneering newspaper cartoonist (and honorary Southpaw*) Harold Tucker “Webby” Webster‘s most famous feature, The Timid Soul (starring Caspar Milquetoast, his contribution to the English language), but I noticed that Atlas Obscura had beaten me to the punch, and quite honourably at that.

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.

A glimpse at the infancy of spam.
Up here in Canada, we recently had a bit of a furore over a sanctimonious (yet deceitful) fusspot spearheading the destruction of a bunch of graphic novels. Oh, and speaking of Robert Louis Stevenson, tomorrow’s his birthday, number one hundred and seventy one!
Then as now, one can generally rely on the news to be dire.
Another entry in our collection of Legendary Cartoonists With a Great Tousled Head o’ Hair.
And just so you don’t conclude that Webster’s work was all about, and just about ‘poking gentle fun at life’s little foibles‘, here’s what has to be the darkest, most brutally scathing political cartoon*** I’ve ever seen come out of the mainstream US press (circa 1946!). Incidentally, Webster was a Republican. The original art of this masterpiece resides in the permanent collection of The Library of Congress, right where it belongs.

-RG

*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).

**In 1948, The Unseen Audience won him a Peabody Award for distinguished service to radio!

***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.)

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 17

« 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!

This is Weird Thrillers no. 1 (Sept. 1951, Ziff-Davis). Disappointingly, given the cover’s promise, the issue comprises mostly science-fiction and crime stories.

Surprisingly, the cover scene does, for once, occur within!

The opening pages from our cover tale, The Monster and the Model, pencilled by future Rip Kirby artist John Prentice. The entire issue is available for your perusal, legally and gratis, right here!
“So, who is this Rondo guy?”, you may ask. Before Mr. Hatton became a household name, got an award named after him and was the subject of his own book-length biography (Beauty Within the Brute), cartoonist Drew Friedman, ahead of the curve as usual, was endeavouring to preserve from oblivion the unfortunate man’s memory… in his own sardonic way.

One more for the road?

Originally published in Raw no. 8 (Sept. 1986, Raw Books). You may have heard of some other folks tragically afflicted with acromegaly.

-RG