Welcome to the Pit: Matt Groening’s Life in Hell

« All my life I’ve been torn between frivolity and despair, between the desire to amuse and the desire to annoy, between dread-filled insomnia and a sense of my own goofiness. Just like you, I worry about love and sex and work and suffering and injustice and death, but I also dig drawing bulgy-eyed rabbits with tragic overbites. »Matt Groening

Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t grow up absorbing The Simpsons, probably because I only watched cartoons on videocassettes instead of actual TV. I also somehow managed to skip Futurama (catching up with it years and years later, with great enjoyment). So the work of Matt Groening* (who probably needs no introduction, but you can get one here) was not really familiar to me at all when co-admin RG introduced me to The Big Book of Hell, though of course I was aware of the Simpsons aesthetic, as one would truly have to live under a rock not to be acquainted with it to at least some degree.

*Here’s how to pronounce ‘Grœning’ correctly and impress all your friends.

Life in Hell crept into the world in 1977 as a self-published book that Groening, freshly moved to Los Angeles from Portland to pursue his ambition of becoming a writer, would give out to friends. He also sold it for two bucks a pop in Licorice Pizza, one of a chain of record stores operated by James Greenwood. As is often the case, Groening’s cartoonist/writer/producer/animator career kicked off by way of serendipity: in 1978, an editor from the charming WET: The Magazine of Gourmet Bathing liked Life in Hell enough to print a few of its strips. From then on, the strip’s popularity snowballed slowly but steadily (from its first regular weekly appearance in the Los Angeles Reader in 1980, to the huge success of a compilation of LIH’s love-centric cartoons, titled Love Is Hell, in 1984, to the strip’s presence in over 250 newspapers by 1986), which eventually led to The Simpsons. Speaking of the latter, I am now shamelessly going to plug a previous post, namely Tentacle Tuesday: Treehouse of Tentacular Horror.

Here’s a selection from several out-of-print anthologies co-admin RG had handy, namely from Love Is Hell (1984), Work Is Hell (1986), School Is Hell (1987), Childhood Is Hell (1988), and How to Get to Hell (1991).

Personal favourites Akbar and Jeff were apparently introduced so that Groening could incorporate real-life conflicts he had with his girlfriend into the strip without it being too obvious about who was who. When we noticed a couple living across the street (two men always dressed in matching, brightly coloured sportswear) we instantly nicknamed them Akbar and Jeff.

~ ds

Trust the Man From Cancer!

« I’ve always wanted to be a giant space crab. » — Gabe Newell

We have quite a treat for you this week. One of our very favourite creators, Mr. Glenn Dakin, has genially agreed to shed light on the inception of one of his lesser-known (but nonetheless striking) creations, Mr. Crusht Acean, aka ‘The Man From Cancer’. Take it away, Mr. Dakin!

Glenn Dakin: The phrase The Man From Cancer came to me when I was writing a song, referring to myself as a typical Cancerian.

It gave me the idea for a detective organisation where all its members were Cancerian. Of course it had that Man From U.N.C.L.E. association. As I was discussing this idea with my brother down the pub, I said – as a joke – that in order to get a magazine interested in the idea the character would have to actually BE a crab. As soon as I said this, I knew it could work…

Phil was the obvious choice to draw it, as the superb consistency of his style and great visual imagination would make readers accept the bizarre idea as a reality. Also we worked a lot together.

When I told Phil about it, he said ‘how did you know I was Cancer?‘ (much to my surprise). So it was clearly in the stars!

Marvel UK were just launching STRIP, in which creators could keep the rights to their work, so it was a natural place to send. Dan Abnett was the editor and he really got what we were trying to do with the absurd humour. After the first two-parter, he offered us a regular one-page slot.

This is Strip no. 11 (July 7, 1990, Marvel UK). Cover by Phil Elliott.

Who’s Out There?: Judging from the supplementary materials (Strip no. 11), you seem to have quite fully worked out Mr. Crush Tacean’s universe. Did you have lofty plans for the series?

GD: Not so much lofty plans, but whenever Dan Abnett gave us a chance to expand it, we enjoyed enlarging the madness of the world. These supplementary materials were created for STRIP to remind readers of the story half way through, and get new readers on board, after we had been dropped for a couple of issues.

I remember that as my confidence on it grew, and we had the story where we took the force of gravity to court, I started to think of it as a kind of visual Goon Show, following its own absurd logic.

WOT?: Could you shed some light on the series’ publication history? Were the instalments that didn’t appear in ‘Strip’ published elsewhere before they were collected in ‘The Rockpool Files’? (by Slave Labor in Sept. 2009)

GD: You will have to ask Phil that, they might have appeared somewhere, but I don’t think so. We did have a two-pager in a Channel Tunnel magazine!

WOT?: What brought about the change of title? I was quite fond of ‘The Man From Cancer’, I must say.

GD: We were asked to change the name as ‘Cancer’ – we were told – was not exactly a fun buzzword.

« Sez who? »

I think that was the suggestion of Slave Labor, the publisher. The Rockpool Files was the first thing that came into my head, and Phil liked it. The Rockford Files had just been on TV, of course!

This is the book you have to get. While it’s rather… compact (14 x 21,5 cm), in glorious black and white, and out of print, it’s very nearly comprehensive… and most of all, it exists!

WOT?: What’s the story behind these huge gaps between appearances (issues 2 to 9, then 11 to 16)?

GD: As far as I remember, the second half of the Diukalakadu story appeared the next issue in STRIP [no.2 — RG]. Then Dan asked Phil and I to keep it going as a regular feature. We agreed, but as they were working many issues ahead, it took us a little while to launch the new stories.

The only problem was, as it was an anthology comic with multiple contributors, the page count was hard to level out every issue. As the only one-pager, Man From Cancer was the easiest to drop. I think getting asked to create the supplementary materials mentioned above, was a bit of an apology for us being so bumped around. Also the text story ‘Wallow’ in the Rockpool Files book, was originally created in 24 hours by special request of Dan, to solve a pagination crisis when a strip didn’t turn up in time. But then STRIP was canned before it could appear.

WOT?: You’ve collaborated quite a bit with other cartoonists. I presume that the division of labour varies from project to project. In this case, was there a clear line between the job titles? Did you serve strictly as the writer, or did you provide storyboards, layouts or conceptual sketches? And vice versa on Phil’s part?

GD: I never typed up a script for Phil, I just drew a rough of the strip. In this I visualised a lot of the characters, but it was up to Phil if he followed my suggestions. Sometimes he would create an amazing surprise like a giant octopus answering the phones at Cancer HQ. Phil didn’t write anything but he did loads of visual world-creation as we went along.

This tale, the second Man From Cancer investigation, appeared in Strip nos. 9-11, 16-19 (1990, Marvel UK). The lovely colours are by Steve White.

And since I hinted at the existence of ‘supplementary materials’, it would be callous of me to leave them unseen.

A bit of context from Mr. Dakin: « How nice to see this after all these years!
I read it with great trepidation, wondering what on earth I had said… The upbeat piece on the left ‘
I’m an optimum overview kind of guy…‘ was supposed to be by Mr C Urchin (Crusht’s cheerfully inept assistant), which is why it reads a bit odd, with Crusht at the top. I think the original plan got lost when it was given to the designer at Marvel UK. »

I hope you enjoyed our chat with Mr. Dakin, whom I cannot thank enough for his generosity and charming manner. In the event that your interest has been piqued, take a gander at our earlier post entitled Glenn Dakin’s Alter Ego, Abraham Rat.

-RG

Meet Peyo’s Perspicacious Poussy

Mention Belgian artist Peyo (real name Pierre Culliford, 1928 -1992) and the first thing that comes to mind is his hugely popular Les Schtroumpfs, introduced within the pages of his strip Johan et Pirlouit. Les Schtroumpfs, of course, are Smurfs, those blue humanoid creatures living in mushroom-houses in the forest. When I was just starting tentative forays into comics during my shy youth, it’s the local library’s Smurf albums that first attracted my attention, alongside Uderzo and Goscinny’s Astérix le Gaulois and Roba and Rosy’s Boule et Bill.

Another strip I really liked, unaware that it was created by the artist responsible for the Smurfs, is Poussy. Despite competing with all the other cat adventures one can think of (although there are far more today than there were twenty years ago), it was its old-fashioned charm that drew me in. This was a world where rambunctious (but always well-meaning) boys roasted chestnuts in a fire, mothers in high heels burned their Sunday roast, and families always went to the beach for their vacation. I wasn’t interested in these (human) characters, but they made a perfect backdrop to cat antics, comforting like watching cartoons on a rainy day.

The first Poussy album I found at the local library (1977, Dupuis).

21-year old Peyo drew 26 black-and-white gags of Poussy for the humble youth section of Belgian daily newspaper Le Soir between 1949 and 1951. Here’s an example of one of these early manifestations of Poussy, a playful black-and-white cat, up to very normal cat mischief:

‘Poussy is ambitious’, printed in Le Soir no. 175 (July 1949).

When Le Soir decided to revamp its youth section into a more ambitious version titled Le Soir Jeunesse, Peyo, who had been concentrating on his Johan series (later to become Johan et Pirlouit, or Johan and Peewit in English) for Journal de Spirou, revived Poussy, and this frisky kitten frolicked once again between Le Soir‘s pages from 1955 to 1960. Set aside again to make room for more ambitious endeavours (namely, Peyo’s Benoît Brisefer series) at the behest of publisher Charles Dupuis, for whom Peyo was working concurrently, Poussy tiptoed back into life in 1965, this time in Journal de Spirou, in colourised re-runs of previous Le Soir material, published quite out of any chronological order.

Here are a few favourites from these re-runs — I mostly chose mute strips, both because Poussy’s expressive meowing needs no translation, and because I by far prefer jokes centered on his behaviour without too much human interference.

Gag no. 11, published in Spirou no. 1552 (January 1968).
Gag no. 24, published in Spirou no. 1514 (April, 1967).
Gag no. 85, published in Spirou no. 1523 (June 1967). One can argue about the originality (or lack thereof) of Peyo’s style ’til one is blue in the face, but Poussy’s spot-on expression and body language in the last panel are unarguably perfectly executed.
Gag no. 105, published in Spirou no. 1528 (July 1967). This must have been a rare ‘be kind to mice’ day.
Gag no. 124, published in Spirou no. 1450 (January 1966). ‘I’m done, and it smells wonderful! What hard work! But it doesn’t matter, I am thrilled with the results! You see that one can easily create an expensive perfume at home!
Gag no. 138, published in Spirou no. 1636 (August 1969). The final panel advertises milk-based soap.

It was only in 1969 that Peyo resumed the production of new strips, starting with gag no. 222… and by no. 233, he had a collaborator, Lucien De Gieter, who soon took over entirely as Peyo had far too many other series on his hands to be able to continue Poussy. De Gieter continued the strip until 1974.

There have been three albums collecting Poussy material, published in 1976 and 1977 – and last year, Dupuis published a very handsome and very complete collection of all Poussy strips (a painstaking and impeccable chronological presentation, accompanied by exhaustive publishing information) which I purchased at the excellent comic-and-book store Débédé in Montréal, Québec. One doesn’t always feel like revisiting books from one’s childhood (for instance, I have little desire to ever reread Boule et Bill), but in this case I spent a few warm moments smiling at the strips I remembered surprisingly well.

~ ds

Customer Service Wolf: How May I Assist You?

« Thank you for calling customer service. If you’re calm and rational, press 1. If you’re a whiner, press 2. If you’re a hot head, press 3. » — Randy Glasbergen

Comedy oriented towards employees who work in retail is its own breed of humour. I remember my ex-boss warning me early on that ‘the public is stupid’ – and that’s certainly the impression one gets, being confronted (day in, day out) by customers unable to read signs (no matter how big and prominent one makes them), pulling on doors that are meant to be pushed, and asking questions so inane that it feels slightly surreal.

There are myriad comics poking fun at the daily frustrations of retail… most of them making observations of a rather obvious nature, though frustrated employees will still chuckle at them (it feels nice to be ‘seen’!) I have mixed feelings about all the people leaping from ‘look, I doodle in my spare time’ to ‘I am an Artist who has a Webcomic!’, but that’s a topic for another day. Occasionally one stumbles onto a gem amidst all the ugly pebbles.

There are several things going for Customer Service Wolf, drawn by Australian illustrator Anne Barnetson. Its immediate appeal is that it’s beautifully drawn, of course. I am impressed at the variety of animals, convincingly depicted. It’s also very self-aware and funny, appending the usual ‘customers are destructive/insane’ stories with an unexpected recurring punchline (hint: it involves a wolf’s sharp jaws). A bookstore is a backdrop for a very special kind of lunacy, and Barnetson has clearly has had her share of it.

The following have been scanned from the collection (2019), but you can view all of them at the Customer Service Wolf tumblr.

One of this strip’s strengths is periodically pointing out that we the employees are not so different from the customers we mock.

And I kept a really sweet one for the end:

~ ds

Quelle jungle? Quelle folie!

“Oh, another cutesy animal comic”, you may sigh upon glimpsing the preview for this post. Indeed, today’s exhibit A abounds in puns and features a cast of almost every kind of animal one could think of. However, under its cute façade lurks surprising savagery and a kind of philosophical resignation to life’s little foibles.

We’re talked about a number of comics published within the pages of Pif Gadget, here’s another one to join the gang: La jungle en folie, written by Christian Godard and illustrated by Mic Delinx. The title of the series was selected as a nod to Walt Disney’s 1967 animated film The Jungle Book, then at the height of its popularity in France. The pivotal events of 1968, known as May 68, a period of civil unrest in France that paralyzed its economy and marked the minds of the authors and their fellow citizens, surely had something to do with the cynicism of this strip:

« André Glucksmann recalled May 1968 as “a moment, either sublime or detested, that we want to commemorate or bury…. a ‘cadaver,’ from which everyone wants to rob a piece.” His comments sum up the general cynicism and ambivalence of many on the French left when it comes to May ’68: “The hope was to change the world,” he says, “but it was inevitably incomplete, and the institutions of the state are untouched.” Both student and labour groups still managed to push through several significant reforms and win many government concessions before police and De Gaulle supporters rose up in the thousands and quelled the uprising (further evidence, Anne-Elisabeth Moutet argued this month, that “authoritarianism is the norm in France”). »

Just like fairy-tales, animal fables are often quite brutal (whether Aesop’s or La Fontaine’s, to name two widely-known sources), but it’s not easy to get this of mixture to rise just right: too much brutality, you sink into a quagmire of sadism; too much fluff, and it’s just a filler in a magazine. I would argue that La Jungle en folie hits the right balance: the right amount of wit with plenty of nastiness snuck in. Escapism this isn’t, not quite. The doctor is talented but has no issue with sending patients to their death. The inspector is obsessed with finding the guilty party even if it means putting innocents behind bars. Taxmen snatch their (literal) chunk of fur from the backs of unionized workers. Office workers search for the meaning of life (and fail to find it). Wives throw stuff at their husbands’ heads, talentless troubadours are all in love with the same frigid coquette. This world is a very recognizable one, even if it’s a tiger conversing with a worm (or a rhinoceros with a trout).

As for nastiness, one story immediately comes to mind – when Eustache the elephant gets a proboscis-otomy to shorten his trunk (he dreams of having a ‘Greek profile’), the cut-off part ends up at the butcher’s, as the latter buys chopped-off body parts from the doctor to resell as meat. The trunk is sold to Gros Rino as sausages, and by the time Eustache realizes he was better off with his old appendage and looks for it, it is too late, alas – the ‘sausages’ are being grilled over an open fire, and Gros Rino refuses to part with his breakfast, anyway…

Pif Gadget no. 159 (March 1972). Vegetarian tiger Joé (he only eats apples) and food-fixated Gros Rino are best pals.

The first, one-page strip was published in Pif no. 34 (October 13th, 1969). The strip was a quick success, even making it to some covers starting with issue no. 56 (March 1970). After a hiatus in 1974, during which La jungle en folie continued to be published in ‘albums’ by Belgian publishing house Rossel, the strip returned to Pif in 1977 and stayed until 1986, while albums continued to be regularly published until 1988, for 20 published albums overall. They have now been collected in six volumes of Intégrale; the pages below are all taken from Intégrale 1, which includes Les aventures de Joé le tigre, Salut la compagnie! and La conquête de l’espace.

Cage et masti-cage. ‘Cage‘ is self-explanatory, and ‘masticage‘ is the act of chewing (think ‘mastication’). In this story, Auguste the crocodile decides to free Joé’s winged pet, explaining that no bird is made to be imprisoned. ‘You see, Auguste,’ pensively says Joé, ‘I’ve never exactly figured out whether it’s a cage to imprison, or a cage for protection…’ The naive bird gets eaten by a wolf (who lures it into his gaping maw by lying under a ‘the tunnel of horror’ sign). In the final panel, a discussion takes place: what’s the most beautiful word? Liberty, equality or fraternity? Take your pick…
Médor debout (Médor is a typical French name for a dog, the French ‘Fido’). The two pooches take turns walking each other, with the moral (delivered by the noisy magpies – les pies – who always get the last word at the end of the story) of ‘you can make anybody walk on all fours for a few compliments’.
Klaxonneries (klaxonner means to honk one’s horn). Anatole the octopus is a very dutiful agent de circulation (traffic officer)… but the clarity of his gestures leaves something to be desired. I like the variety of animals and means of transport.
Horreurscope (horroscope), probably my favourite strip. After asking Gertrude the trout for her astrological sign (she’s Pisces, of course), Joé reads her horoscope: it speaks of the possibility of dangerous accidents, especially asphyxiation. Skeptical Gertrude thinks it’s ridiculous that a fish should worry about asphyxiation… but in the end, can one escape destiny? Joé decides not to intervene – and suggests Gros Rino should cook her ‘à l’étouffée‘.

I associate La jungle en folie with one-page strips, but it’s worth taking a little detour into longer stories. The next two pages are Coup de tabac, in which the doctor and Joé try to convince vulture Adhémar to quit smoking. Adhémar is adamant, however: for him, smoking is a question of survival. We learn why in the next page…

‘Here’s today’s advertising message, try to not make spelling mistakes’, says his boss, and Adhémar flies into the skies to write a message in cigar-smoke – “tobacco is poison”.

‘Not great… this guy lost faith in what he’s doing. He’s getting old. I’ll have to look into it…’ says the wolf-boss, as Mortimer the snake remarks ‘a young man’s enthusiasm, it’s all that’s real and true!’

The next two pages are Bouche-dégout, a pun on ‘bouche d’égout‘, drain (dégoût means disgust). Potame le toubib, the doctor, won’t listen to Joé’s explanation of what ails his friend the dragon, jumping to medical conclusions and insisting that Timoléon should speak for himself – with blazing results.

‘Speak more softly, he’s not deaf.’

~ ds

Oh, the Places He’s Been: Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

« Theodor Geisel spent his workdays ensconced in his private studio, the walls lined with sketches and drawings, in a bell-tower outside his La Jolla, California, house. Geisel was a much more quiet man than his jocular rhymes suggest. He rarely ventured out in public to meet his young readership, fretting that kids would expect a merry, outspoken, Cat in the Hat-like figure, and would be disappointed with his reserved personality. » — Susan Cain

Today, we honour Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), born one hundred and eighteen years ago and better known under his nom de plume of Dr. Seuss (one of several, such as Dr. Theophrastus Seuss, Dr. Theodophilus Seuss, Theo LeSieg, L. Pasteur, D.G. Rossetti, and Rosetta Stone. The man loved a good pseudonym.) And no, he wasn’t actually a doctor, though he contributed to more people’s well-being than most physicians could dream of. His alma mater, Dartmouth College, did bestow upon him an honorary doctorate, in 1956. Furthermore, it renamed, in 2012, its medical school (fourth oldest in the United States, founded in 1797) Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in recognition of the good man’s financial contributions over the years. Cool, uh?

Moreover, « Geisel’s birthday, March 2, has been adopted as the annual date for National Read Across America day, an initiative on reading created by the National Education Association. »

It certainly did in my case — when I wanted to learn English as a kid, his books were the ones I reached for. Results!
Geisel’s cover for Judge‘s March, 1933 issue.
A sample of his 1930’s magazine work. Dang — now I can’t get that song out of my head.
And another. Teetotallers may not know (or they may know too well, hence the abstinence) that DT stands for the latin delirium tremens, or alcohol withdrawal-induced delirium. As for these beasts, you’ll have cause to worry if you should See Them Everywhere, and not merely aboard Goah’s Ark.
« Long before his success as Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel (Dartmouth Class of 1925), designed advertisements for Flit, Standard Oil Company’s wildly popular spray-pump insecticide which later contained DDT. Over the course of 17 years, Geisel’s humorous advertisements helped make Flit a household name throughout the 1930s and 1940s. At the time, liberal spraying of pesticides around people, animals, and crops was highly encouraged with little regard to potential environmental impacts. » [ source ]. This particular ad hails from 1930.
Given the scope of Geisel’s genius and the length of the ad campaign, there are many, many highlights.
More like ‘Bug Game Hunter’!
Over the years, these ads came in every format.
A 1941 poster for Flit. The casual, harum-scarum use of dangerous chemicals may seem quaint to our jaded modern eye, but it goes on, all right. Personally, I cringe when I encounter ads for Procter and Gamble’s Febreze, for instance. Seems a tad irresponsible to me, given the risks.
This is the opening installment of Hejji, Geisel’s very short-lived (April 7 to June 23, 1935, twelve episodes in all — read them all here) Sunday comic strip, the man’s sole entry into the syndicated comic strip arena, preceding by a couple of years the publication of his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Hejji was oh-so-briefly published by William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate. Fickle, fickle!

« In these pages Dr. Seuss was already introducing us to his wonderful talent for creating unusual and delightful creatures. Hejji and his master “The Mighty One” would meet many an odd creature like Bearded Bees, Wombats, and the great Pitzu bird. All of these would be encountered in the attempt to impress the object of “Mighty One’s love, “The Fair One”. Unfortunately, as the legend goes, Seuss was let go during great depression job cuts by William Randolph Hearst. Of course Seuss would later go on to create his extraordinary children’s books including Cat in the Hat, and The Grinch that stole Christmas. Hejji pages are some of the rarest and most sought-after on the comic-strip market. Printed exclusively as Tabs and only carried in a few newspapers, their rarity is as great as the popularity of their creator. As a result, each and every page carries the highest premium. » [ source ]

In 1982, Darmouth College commissioned none other than Everett Raymond Kinstler to paint this portrait (oil on canvas) of his esteemed colleague.

-RG

Who Wants Yesterday’s Cornpone? Cathy Hill’s Mad Raccoons

What are you doing givin’ a raccoon a sugar cube? / What are you doing? What are you doing? How rude. / Cuz you can’t tell me you don’t know what he does with his food. ~ The Sugar Cube Blues

I learned a long time ago that there is little connection between the popularity of something and its quality. An author well remembered is not necessarily more talented than one whose work has been buried under the monolith of time (squish!), and what manages to claw its way into the public consciousness, much like a raccoon out of a trash can, is often more of a question of luck than some sort of intrinsic worthiness.

Mad Racoons no. 1 (July 1991, MU Press)

Occasionally, I feel like casting a spotlight on comics long forgotten… assuming that there was some memory to be forgotten in the first place, which is often not even the case. American comics artist and illustrator Cathy Hill set loose seven issues of her charming series Mad Raccoons between 1991 and 1997, but how many have made friends with these raccoons? Her absence on Wikipedia (surely today’s litmus test for fame?) underlines the obscurity of her work. I located a link to a Cathy Hill art exhibition… which seemed promising, as I know that Hill was predominantly a painter who has also drawn covers for SF novels as well as posters for a wide variety of events. Well, it was the wrong Cathy Hill – this one was British. So the cookie crumbles.

Mad Raccoons has a cast of highly entertaining characters. Virgil, for example, is a rambunctious racoon, liable to burst into poetic soliloquies as befits his name. He’s also subject to random temper tantrums (especially when somebody mentions cousin Oddfuzz, with whom he is perpetually at war), that typically end in a total melt-down accompanied by his trademark EEAAIIIEE!! scream.

Mad Raccoons no. 2 (September 1992, Mu Press).

Speaking of tantrums – here are the concluding three pages of Virgil’s Visitor, in which Virgil is visited by the dire-raccoon of comeuppance (published in Mad Raccoons no. 2):

And he does indeed have to endure the cruel games of the dire-dragon of delinquency, three issues later:

Mad Raccoons no. 6 (July 1996Mu Press).

As entertaining as Virgil’s outbursts can be, I prefer to bask in glimpses of the world he inhabits, peopled (raccooned?) by characters young and old. The Natural Raccoon (published in no. 1), featuring Grandpa Prickle (which I tend to call Grandpa Pickle) and nursery of youngsters, makes for a choice example.

As someone who has very much a chicken scrawl of a handwriting, I reserve special admiration for folks with a steady hand and patience enough for calligraphy. Hill’s lettering is an important part of the dynamic art of her stories, and the following pages from Raccoons and Music (published in no. 2) allow one to really admire a fancier version of it:

A keen eye may note that 1988 appears at the bottom of the last page, whereas no. 2 was published in 1992. Indeed, Hill’s original idea was for a series of humorously informative stories about raccoons (such as Raccoons in Music, Raccoons in Art, Raccoons in Literature…), all of which were to be published in The Raccoon Booke. That never came to pass, but at least all (as far as I know) of these stories landed between the pages of Mad Raccoons. This earlier material has a different (although still recognizably Hill’s) art style; I would be hard-pressed indeed to decide which I like better.

Mad Raccoons no. 5 (August 1995, Mu Press). Virgil lives in perpetual fear of being mocked (or at least not taken seriously). He’s clearly one of Hill’s favourite characters, and so frequently rates the cover feature.

There’s also my favourite, Uncle Erf, who’s also his own wife Pansy and his son Furley, depending on which personality has control at any given moment – and things can shift pretty damn fast. This poor tormented beast is more than just the butt of jokes – Erf/Pansy/Furley is a walking repository of all human foibles, but with something really vulnerable and innocent peeking through the endless ‘family’ conflicts. In Woover’s Day Out (published in no. 5), a new member of the family, a dog named Woover, joins the team. Poor raccoon!

Thanks to the intercession of a friend, aside from having the individual seven issues, I am the proud guardian of The Mad Racoons Collection (signed, yet!), which gathers issues 1 to 4, the preface to which is probably the only place one can glean some information about the series and its author. I’d like to think that Cathy Hill is still out there somewhere, with friendly raccoons continuing their adventures inside her mind.

~ ds

Massimo Mattioli Mania: M le magicien

Greetings to all! In this New Year, like an alcoholic in remission, I will abstain myself from tentacles (for at least a few months) while I catch up on other things I want to talk about. The first installment of this non-Tentacle Tuesday starts with an M, so it seemed appropriate to run it on Monday.

Massimo Mattioli (1943-2019) may be the second best-known Italian cartoonist abroad, at least according to Lambiek Comiclopedia (the first being Benito Jacovitti, another post in the making). However, an anglophone audience is likely to associate him with uncomfortable levels of violence, as only his 80s-and-onward strips have been translated to English. Case in point: his most notorious creation was Squeak the Mouse, serialized in underground Italian comics magazine Frigidaire in the early 80s. When this strip was imported into the United States, the customs agents seized the lot, as the work was deemed to be obscene and pornographic.

« Laying full-on slasher horror onto wacky cartoon violence, Mattioli’s characters embark on a sadistic bloodthirsty rampage, leaving a trail of mangled corpses and pools of blood in their wake. And the comic’s gratuitous bloodshed is not to be overshadowed by its crude humor and over-the-top sexcapades. In sum, a tour de force of unrelenting transgression, rendered in clean line art and dazzling pastel colors. » [source]

But this isn’t today’s topic. For this post I’d like to go back further in time, to a gentler and arguably more inventive Mattioli, since I don’t believe that over-the-top violence necessarily requires that much imagination. We go back to 1968 and the magical (and I try not to throw this word around lightly) M le magicien. Co-admin RG and I have our separate libraries, but since our tastes overlap by a large margin, we try to keep the number of duplicates to a minimum. Suffice it to say we both have a copy of the collected M le magicien strips (published by L’Association in 2003), and neither of us is parting with ours.

In 1968, 25-year-old Mattioli had moved from his native Rome to Paris, France, and there joined the illustrious ranks of artists revelling in absurdity and tongue-in-cheek humour (for example, Nikita Mandryka and his Le concombre masqué) working for communist magazine Vaillant, which was renamed Pif Gadget a year later. Mattioli’s first long-term project, M le magicien debuted in issue no. 1227 (December 1968), and continued its run until 1973.

It’s not really clear why the series ended – the introduction to L’Association collection just mentions that Mattioli decided to return to Rome. However, it seems likely that the strip was ousted by pressure exerted by Claude Compeyron, président-directeur général (CEO) of Vaillant – obsessed by commercial success and marketing schemes, he saw no point in publishing ‘lesser’ strips that were more difficult to absorb (Hugo Pratt‘s Corto Maltese, Les pionniers de l’espérance) or not immediately appealing to children. Compeyron’s approach to selling magazines (‘a magazine is like any product you sell or buy, like a pair of shoes‘) led to rédacteur en chef (editor-in-chief) Richard Medioni resigning in 1973. Medioni’s departure marked the end of what was arguably Pif Gadget’s golden, ‘red’, period; from that point onward, the editors had to learn to kowtow to the marketing department, and commercialism reigned supreme.*

The cast of M le magicien is relatively succinct: the protagonist, your fairly standard magician, his talking magic wand, and a couple of chameleons (who periodically mlem the magician, mistaking him for an insect), two Martians bent on world destruction (or just magician’s castle destruction), a few insects of various shapes and genders, and some talking flowers and mushrooms. The characters are free to roam across pages, consume the backgrounds when they get hungry, and address the reader directly. Mattioli was not confident about his French, so he availed himself of visual humour with fairly simple (sometimes slightly unhinged) dialogues, which added to the charming atmosphere of absurdity.

While (as mentioned previously) we are the proud owners of two copies of the collected M le magicien, I had no wish to destroy either book by attempting to scan pages from it. Luckily, RG put quite a few Pif Gadget issues at my disposal, and I chose my favourites from this lot.

In the early days, Mattioli often stuck to one theme for his page, but tackled it from many angles in each self-contained strip of five panels. The following page vaguely concerns itself with the yellow chameleon’s insatiable appetite, a recurring joke:

From Pif Gadget no. 31 (September 1969). The first sequence of panels ends with ‘what a thirst!‘ In the second, the fish passes the ‘no hunting’ sign for a ‘no fishing‘ one, since the chameleon is fortunately illiterate. In the third, he’s dieting. Finally, in the fifth, the ant switching to English unexpectedly confuses the chameleon so that he forgets to eat it.
From Pif Gadget no. 53 (February 1970). The snow-averse flower wants somebody to lend it its fur, then complains to the heavens that nobody likes snow (to which the heavens answer, ‘but it’s free!’). Defeated by the snow, the flower concludes with ‘I surrender!’
From Pif Gadget no. 111 (April 1971). I love that the ants have an elaborate underground city – and use it to their advantage. Note that by now M le magicien has an official (and lovely) logo!
From Pif Gadget no. 144 (November 1971). A self-explanatory sequence of head swaps!
From Pif Gadget no. 182 (August 1972). The flower that hates water (and would rather eat steak) refuses to be watered until the magician mentions that it’s free to remain dirty and smelly if it wants to – then the flower opts for a bubble bath.

In later issues, Mattioli went for more ambitious, visually stunning but more spare one-page stories, often paying an obvious hommage to Krazy Kat.

From Pif Gadget no. 184 (September 1972).
From Pif Gadget no. 185 (September 1972). Starting with a ‘look out, car!‘ warning, this page uses headlights as camouflage for the chameleon, betrayed by the characteristic FLOP sound he makes when gobbling up the remaining bug in the final panel.
From Pif Gadget no. 189 (October 1972). Another Herriman-esque page… with a classic banana gag, to boot (or to slide).
From Pif Gadget no. 225 (June 1973). ‘Pervert!‘, exclaims the indignant ant – to which the chameleon responds with ‘… but I only wanted to eat her…

And there we have it, a quick gallop through but a few strips of this masterpiece of humour and poetry. I highly recommend seeking out the omnibus if you speak at least un petit peu français.

Looking up meta-humour while I was writing this post, I came across a few choice jokes that made me crack up. While they’re not wholly related to M le magicien, their lovely absurdity fits right in with its spirit.

A dyslexic man walks into a bra.

A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.

A guy walks into a bar and says “ouch!”

What do you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question?

A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.

~ ds

*Which is a (depressing) conversation for another day, but in the meantime, we highly recommend getting it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, by reading Mon Camarade, Vaillant, Pif Gadget: l’histoire complète 1901-1994 by Richard Medioni.

Just a Working Class Dog: Pif le chien

« The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing. » — Karl Marx

Pif le chien was introduced to the world on March 26, 1948, in the French Communist daily L’Humanité. His strip was intended to replace that of Felix the Cat, who was deemed too bourgeois, what with his magic bag and invisible means of financial support. On the other paw, Pif, early on, was even a stray, homeless and starving. In time, he was taken in by a humble working-class family (as late as 1957, it was the outhouse and public baths), and that’s when the elements clicked into place.

This is Les rois du rire no. 7 (Jan. 1969, Vaillant), a rotating anthology title gathering, in this case, two-pager Pif strips from the pages of Vaillant. Cover art by Pif’s creator, José Cabrero Arnal (1909-1982).

While I greatly admire and enjoy the work of Pif pater José Cabrero Arnal — and trust me, his is a story worth the telling: fought the Fascists in Spain, spent four years in a Nazi Stalag in Austria before being liberated by the Soviets, never quite recovered from the ordeal of his captivity, and remained fragile for the rest of his days. Consequently, in 1953, he handed Pif’s leash over to the truly indefatigable Roger Masmonteil (1924-2010).

Of Masmonteil (who signed R. Mas.), historian Hervé Cultru writes, in his Vaillant, 1942-1969 : La Véritable histoire d’un journal mythique (2006, Vaillant Collector):

« The problem is that, once he got his finger caught in the gears of the freelancing engine, he couldn’t just yank it out! Because giving life to the Césarin family is practically a vocation: one must provide the daily strip, six a week. Over thirty years, Masmonteil, aka Mas, crafted over eleven thousand of them. There are also the Sunday strips, the pages for Vaillant, solo Pifou stories, Léo, created for Pif Gadget. It never ceased. By his career’s end, he had racked up some 45,000 gags or so. »

« Unlucky me, I’ve smashed the vase! » « Out of sight, out of mind! » « Bleh! What a revolting aroma! » « I’m found out! »
« When the sea is too far, one makes do with a little corner of the Seine! » « I’m king of the plank! » “Sur mer” (“On-Sea” would be the English equivalent) is a popular suffix to denote a town or resort’s coastal location. The Seine’s toxicity borders on the legendary, but things have actually improved in recent decades.
I love a good pantomime gag. And every look is a sideway glance, which makes it even more special.
« It’s in these things that they buried their pharaohs! » « That’s solid stuff! » « COME IN ». What most impresses me here is the final panel, with its expert use of a tiny space to convey depth, distance and setting. That’s the cartoonist’s art!
« Quit your music! It bothers tonton! ».
« And a-one! » « Brr! Doesn’t it cause him pain when you remove the hook? » « Not at all… it’s designed not to hurt… » « Next! » « Quiet! It’s designed not to! » Up yours, René Descartes!
A slice (ouch!) of politico-historical guillotine humour.
A dollop of social criticism. The sign says, naturally, « No Littering ».
Pif’s archenemy, Hercule, at work. « Who’s going to get a good soaking? The Pif, that’s who! » « Failed! »

I’m inclined to admire Mas for the same reasons I hold Nancy’s Ernie Bushmiller in the highest regard: the uncanny ability to find humour in any and every place or situation, to distill and express it in a pared-down visual language made all the more potent by its universal simplicity. But it’s hard work, even if geniuses make it look easy. As Hervé Cultru explains, in Mas’ case:

« … Pif gets the last word in: at night, he haunts Mas’ dreams. The point at which he’s about to doze off is actually one of intense creativity. He constantly keeps a notepad and pencil at his bedside, to jot down ideas straight away, because if he neglects this precaution, all is forgotten by morning. »

An ad from L’Humanité, circa the late 1950s.
Our cast: Tante ‘Tata’ Agathe and Oncle César ‘Tonton’ Césarin, Doudou, Pif, Hercule, and Pif’s son, Pifou. This is my copy of Album Vaillant no. 8 — 4th series (comprising issues 952 to 960, August to October 1963), its rather fragile spine helpfully reinforced by a previous proprietor. I long wondered why on earth the French call wrestling ‘catch’. Turns out it’s their shorthand version of the forgotten 19th century appellation of the sport as ‘catch-as-catch-can‘.

In April 1967, Mas walks away from the Pif feature in Vaillant (four pages a week!), maintaining the daily in l’Humanité and Pifou’s solo strip. Pif returns briefly to Arnal, who still can’t handle the workload; Pif then passes into other, and decidedly far lesser hands.

Mr. Cultru, again:

« In 1968, the team takes umbrage with the repetitive and by far too ‘domestic’ character of the adventures. It feels that the working class household, typical of certain post-war values, that serves as a setting, has become obsolete, if not grotesque, and that it no longer fits the social context of the times. »

So they methodically excised everything that made Mas’ Pif special, and turned him into another Mickey Mouse, which is to say the familiar mascot or standard-bearer of a company, but one whose adventures nobody reads or truly gives a hoot about. Oh well — you still had a good run, Pif!

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: Squeaks and Quacks From the House of Mouse

Eventually I accumulate enough material that posts bleed into other posts, sort of like a melting blueberry puddle gradually makes it way into the nooks and crannies of every object in its path on the counter (that happened recently, thus the very specific analogy). In this case, the blueberry juice is Uncle Scrooge et al., who have already appeared in Tentacle Tuesday: Duck Feathers!. Today our emphasis is more on Mickey Mouse, but I can’t promise other Disney characters won’t wander in for a cup of tea (or a quick tussle with an octopus).

As a matter of fact, my usual habit of arranging images in chronological order starts this post on a distinctly un-Mickey-like note…

The following sequence is from Ghost of the Grotto (written and illustrated by Carl Barks), published in Four Color no. 159 – Donald Duck in The Ghost of the Grotto (August 1947, Dell). You can read the full issue here.

Okay, I promised Mickey Mouse, so I’d better get back on topic!

Page from The Phantom Ship, scripted by Carl Fallberg and illustrated by Paul Murry; it was published in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories vol. 25 no. 3 (December 1964, Gold Key).

Speaking of the aforementioned Paul Murry – I bet you have never seen an octopus adorned with quite so many bracelets.

Mickey Mouse no. 159 (October 1975, Gold Key). The cover is by Paul Murry.

Now we step into the dubious territory of European Disney comics – don’t forget to read about co-admin RG’s enjoyably scathing views on the subject here.

Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge Adventures no. 12 (April 1989, Gladstone). Does anybody recognize the cover artist?

The following story, credited as ‘story and art: the Egmont Group, script: John Cochran, colour: Scott Rockwell’, was published in Walt Disney’s Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse no. 4 (March 1996, Gladstone). You can read the full issue here.

I’ll wrap up by going back to the top, which is to say finishing on as high a note as this post started on. Carl Barks, ladies and gentlemen!

Wishing you happy undersea adventures… until next Tuesday rolls around!

~ ds