Not long ago, I chanced upon this passage from an interview with the lovely Ramona Fradon, wherein she touches upon her mid-70s work for Joe Orlando‘s ‘mystery’ comics at DC.
« Those were all Joe’s productions, and there was nothing he liked better than to get around the Comics Code. The fact that my drawing was comic helped him get away with more than he could with other artists. He was always pushing the envelope. »
« So when we decided to start running a weekly illustrated personal ad — ‘Lustlab Ad of the Week’ — we knew right away what we didn’t want. We didn’t want to sensationalize what was already pretty sensational, thanks. And we didn’t want to hyper-sexualize what was already plenty sexual. We wanted an artist who could take short, pithy personal ads — short, pithy, filthy personal ads — and infuse them with the kind of playfulness that true kinksters bring to their sex lives. We wanted someone that could make someone into whips and chains and hoods look like someone you could take home to meet your parents.
We wanted Ellen Forney. »
Just like Ramona Fradon, Ms. Forney wields a friendly, extremely engaging and accessible style (as you’ll witness). Here, then, is a modest sampling from the four-year frolic of the ‘Lustlab Ad of the Week’, circa 2004-2007. Feel free to browse.
The feature’s highlights have been collected, in fine fashion, in a snazzy little hardcover entitled ‘Lust‘. (Feb. 2008, Fantagraphics). While it’s out of print by now, affordable copies appear to still be available. If it floats your boat at all, don’t hesitate!
Having long followed the man’s career, briefly met him and heard him speak, I’m convinced that he deserves every accolade he receives, and I know all this attention won’t even go to his head for, in addition to his staggering talent, the man just radiates patience and kindness.
In 2006, he was concluding a talk in Montréal by taking some questions from the audience, and an old lady asked an incredibly basic one… that most would have dismissed or shrugged off with a « how can you not know that already? ». But no, he gently responsed to her query in the most illuminating way, elevating the moment to the delight of everyone in the audience, including, of course, the lady with the question.
« We all have a thirst for wonder. It’s a deeply human quality. Science and religion are both bound up with it. What I’m saying is, you don’t have to make stories up, you don’t have to exaggerate. There’s wonder and awe enough in the real world. Nature’s a lot better at inventing wonders than we are. » ― Carl Sagan, Contact
Time to keep a promise — a promise to myself, but just as worthy of being kept. A couple of years ago, I posted the first half of a favourite comics feature of mine, ‘The Hoaxmaster’, which ran in most issues of Gold Key’s UFO Flying Saucers in the 1970s. At the time, I declared that I might get around to posting the second half of the set some World Contact Day, which is today.
The bracing brand of skepticism demonstrated here by the Hoaxmaster, much needed as it was then — smack in the middle of the UFO-Spiritualism-Occultism mania of its era — is yet more urgently needed these days, as the merry-go-round of surreal disinformation spins faster and faster, further out of control with each passing day, it would seem. You may have noticed.
I’ve just heard of the recent, untimely passing of cartoonist Michael Dougan (1958-2023). Well, perhaps former cartoonist would be more accurate, but if so — he said his piece, made his mark, and moved on — and that’s cool. But can cartooning truly ever be left behind?
And here are a few excerpts from its pages:
In 2017, some twenty years after his last cartoon (that I’m aware of… Double Booked?, in Fantagraphics’ Zero Zero no.17, June, 1997) Michael and his wife moved to Japan and opened a café-restaurant. Read Michael’s own account of the saga.
Creative types often get restless, and Michael found himself a little niche answering people’s mostly, and sometimes incredibly, inane questions on Quora, with a potent mixture of withering sarcasm with a side of snide, all the while providing helpful information — whenever possible. Check out his feed, but let me caution you: it’s a bit of a frazzling rabbit hole (or warren, more accurately).
I’m hoping that, once news of Michael’s passing trickles over to his native land, that The Comics Journal will provide a detailed obituary of this notable artist. Farewell, Mr. Dougan.
«“Good grief!” yelled the ones that had stars at the first. “We’re still the best Sneetches and they are the worst. But, now, how in the world will we know,” they all frowned, “if which kind is what, or the other way round?” » — Dr. Seuss‘ The Sneetches (1961)
A few days ago, this news item piqued my interest: « The assistant director of communications for Olentangy Local School District abruptly stopped the reading of the Dr. Seuss book “The Sneetches” to a third-grade classroom during an NPR podcast after students asked about race. »
This mention of Dr. Seuss’ timeless classic The Sneetches made me think of another slightly earlier parable of systemic racism, Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando‘s Judgment Day (1953), and the similarly telling reaction would-be guardians of bluenose morality had to it.
Initially, I thought posting such an already eminent story as ‘Judgment Day’ was a trifle too obvious. But then again, how famous can a standalone comic book story published seventy years ago be, in the true scale of things? Really, it can never be famous enough.
In the course of an excellent article, CBR.com’s Brian Cronin summed up the skirmish (spoiler alert! you may want to read the story first if you haven’t already):
« The last traditional comic book produced by EC Comics was 1955’s Incredible Science Fiction (a series that had just begun a few months earlier, taking over the numbering from Weird-Science Fantasy) #33.
The last story in the issue, “Eye for an Eye,” had to be pulled at the last minute due to objections by the Comics Code Authority.
So Gaines and editor Al Feldstein decided to reprint “Judgment Day” in its place.
However, Gaines and Feldstein were then told that this replacement story ALSO violated the Comics Code.
Judge Charles Murphy (administrator of the Code) said that they would have to change the astronaut from black to white if they wanted it to be included. This was not part of the Code at the time. Feldstein and Gaines felt that Murphy was just deliberately messing with them.
After being told that, clearly, the color of the astronaut’s skin was practically the whole point of the story, Murphy backed down a bit, but said that they would at least have to get rid of the perspiration on his skin. It could possibly be that Murphy felt that it was exploitative. I do not know, and neither did Feldstein nor Gaines, who only had their suspicions that they were being screwed with.
Feldstein and Gaines both refused to comply (I believe the terms they used included at least one use of the word “fuck“), and Gaines threatened a lawsuit and/or a press conference to shine a light on why exactly the story was objected to.
The story ran as is. »
And so here it is (boasting superior reproduction, thank you, technology):
As is generally the case with such anecdotes, there are other accounts and explanations:
« At least three versions of the story about Gaines’ dispute with the CMAA exist. In an interview, Gaines said a story showing a black astronaut with sweat on his face was rejected because the code forbid ridicule of any religion or race. When he threatened to sue, the code administrator backed down. A second version of the story suggests that Gaines was not able to get approval for the comic, but printed it with the seal anyway. A third account, told by Gaines’ business manager, said the EC story was rejected because it featured robots, which challenged Code Administrator Charles Murphy’s religious beliefs that only man was granted the ability to think. »
I like that, no matter which angle or reality we consider, Judge Murphy never fails to, er… rise to the occasion.
In closing, here’s a scrumptious cartoon anecdote about Messrs. Orlando and Gaines.
I’ve recently given in to a long-time interest (‘a fool’s dream is realized‘) and purchased one of those pretty miniature book nook kits. In case you are not familiar with them, they’re usually the size of a big hardcover book once assembled, and are meant to be inserted on a bookshelf and provide a bibliophile with an intriguing glance into an urban landscape, a Victorian street, a bookshop, a train station, or whatever it is bookworms tend to go for. One painstakingly (and crookedly, at least in my case) glues together furniture and houses, cuts out tiny pieces of paper or slices of fruit, and connects wires to provide background illumination. The one I’m currently working on is a peaceful Japanese street with a sushi shop, a tea store, and lots of cherry blossoms.
I’m clearly not alone in my love for house miniatures or drawn isometric projections of a room. One can do without too much unnecessary psychoanalysis (perhaps it allows us to feel organised and in control when real lives and houses are quite messy), but most of us find such things soothing. Placing a tiny plate on a tiny table is profoundly satisfying; the 2021 game Unpacking makes good use of this, consisting of pulling various objects from a box and placing them where you want through different rooms of the house.
The art of French artist Florent Chavouet (see my earlier post Spotlight on Florent Chavouet) hits a similar note for me. His love of isometric projection and his elaborate sketches of storefronts and people’s rooms immediately attracted me, though at the time I didn’t think to verbalise the reason for it. I concentrated on his excellent graphic novel Petites coupures à Shioguni last time, so here are more glimpses of his other books.
On a more seasonal note, two of his window panoramas drawn for the famous Galeries Lafayette in 2022:
Another thing I really love is imaginary food (which is why the duo of comic artists James Stokoe and Brandon Graham is going to be a post topic sometime in the future), and Chavouet did a beautiful job with his Gloutisphère, a map of the best food in the world… completely made up. Enjoy it on his blog!
« I was already doing a lot of splendid research reading all the books about ghosts I could get hold of, and particularly true ghost stories – so much so that it became necessary for me to read a chapter of Little Women every night before I turned out the light – and at the same time I was collecting pictures of houses, particularly odd houses, to see what I could find to make into a suitable haunted house. » — Shirley Jackson
This one’s from the department of historiated text. What text? “those fiction pieces that nobody read” in comic books, prose pages mandated by the United States Postal Service. The USPS insisted that comic books «… have at least two pages of text to be considered a magazine and qualify for the cheaper magazine postage rates. »
By the Sixties, most of these pages consisted of letters to the editor, but not every company followed this practice. After EC pioneered the letters page idea in the early 1950s, ACG, DC, Archie and Marvel followed suit. But not Dell/Gold Key, Harvey and Charlton.
For its mystery titles, Gold Key naturally opted for a ‘unusual history’ format, enlisting, to provide spot illustrations, veteran cartoonist Joe Certa, best-known for his co-creation of and long run (1955-1968!) on J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter and his stylish run on Gold Key’s Dark Shadows comic book series (1969-76). While Certa started out with a pretty mainstream approach, as the Sixties wore on, his style got increasingly angular, spare and expressive. Personally, I love it… but I know it’s not for all palates.
One more? Here’s a favourite from The Twilight Zone no. 42 (Mar. 1972, Western):
« To prevent enabling oppression, we demand that black people be twice as good. To prevent verifying stereotypes, we pledge to never eat a slice a watermelon in front of white people.* » — Ta-Nehisi Coates
On a scorching day last week, we were at home digging into a particularly tasty watermelon.
As neither of us grew up in the U.S. of A., the simple act of eating juicy pastèque has not been tainted, as it has for many, by racism and stereotypes. We’ve been allowed to appreciate the watermelon for itself, as a healthy, refreshing, tasty treat. A lightbulb came on as I recalled a relevant sequence in one of Spain Rodriguez‘s ‘Fred Toote’ stories, set in the 1950’s Buffalo of his youth — and so here it is:
And that’s not all: a few days later, a friend’s news feed presented me with a most insightful, eye-opening *and* heartbreaking tweet:
Pickaninny. A black child. Thus, from a book that was being sold in 1987 in order to raise money for the state of California’s observance of the bicentennial of the United States Constitution. ” If the pickaninnies ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates” (Fred Albert Shannon, essay on slavery, 1934, in The Making of America, W. Clean Skousen, ed., 1985).
Pickaninny arose among slaves in the West Indies, where it was recorded as early as 1653. The original users based the term either on the Portuguese pequenino, little child, or its Spanish equivalent. They employed the term affectionately, of course, and, on the evidence of Captain Frederick Marryat, who was a sensitive recorder of language, applied it to little children generally, regardless of color, e.g. “And den, Mass Easy, you marry wife – hab pickaninny — lib like gentleman” (Mr. Midshipman Easy, 1836).
But no white person can get away with this today. The essential informality of the word makes it seem too condescending, too offensive, to most modern sensibilities. The California Bicentennial Commission, in fact, halted the sale of The Making of America, and issued a formal apology for having authorized it in the first place, after this use of pickaninny was called to their attention (along with other matters, the text also concluding that “slave owners were the worst victims of the system [of slavery].”
« Goodbye—if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia. » — Ambrose Bierce, writing to his niece in the fall of 1913.
There’s a profusion of biographical material out there on the topic of Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842- ??), but here’s a capsule version to get the preliminaries out of the way:
« Ambrose Bierce was an angry young man who got angrier as he grew older. His strong talent was directed always by bitterness and despair. His wonderful stories were weird, cynical, shocking. His life was restless, his temper outrageous, and his death violent. »
Bearce belongs to a select club of larger-than-life American literary figures (among which we might also encounter Messrs. Poe, Twain, Lovecraft, Hemingway, and perhaps Vonnegut), whose life and work inspired, and continues to inspire, countless adaptations in all media, imitations and parodies, appropriations. You know the drill: works by, works about, works starring the author as protagonist.
In addition to the expected adaptations of varying quality, Bierce’s own nebulous ending inspired both fiction (Gerald Kersh‘s 1957 short story ‘The Oxoxoco Bottle‘, in which the narrator discovers a manuscript, in Bierce’s hand, that recounts the extraordinary events that followed his disappearance) and speculative non-fiction, by which I mean Jake Silverstein‘s fascinating 2002 essay, The Devil and Ambrose Bierce: Well Met in Marfa, which you can read here).
Since there’s so much to take in, I’ll fall back on my usual coping strategy, keeping my focus narrow to avoid (further) losing it. We’re going to explore my two favourite editions of a defining Bierce work, The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book.
Then in 1979 came along a most handsome edition (Thomas Y. Crowell, Publishers) boasting a wealth of illustrations by Egyptian-born force of nature Jean-Claude Suarès (1942-2013).
For the sake of comparison, here’s Mr. Low’s rendition of same:
Happy 180th anniversary, Mr. Bierce, wherever you may roam!
« Bicycles are pieces of art. You get that combination of kinetic engineering, but then, besides the welds, the paint jobs, the kind of the sculpture of it all is quite beautiful. Bikes have such great lines, and all different styles. » — Robin Williams
I’ve been cycling a lot more of late. I’d been using my bike less frequently in recent years, unnerved by the increasingly frantic (and distracted, not a good combo) vehicular traffic of the city. But with my wife taking an interest in the activity, I found myself with a reason to get back in the saddle. This spring, we found a newly opened bike shop, earthy, grimy and unpretentious, where we got our bikes expertly tuned up.
I’ve always loathed those cliquish hipster joints that, in addition to selling overpriced junk, also seem responsible for the ubiquity of those middle-aged, over-equipped, spandex-clad Sunday cyclists, who feel it their sacred duty to pass you, whatever the pace, weather or road conditions, looking for all the world like overstuffed sausages in their lycra casings. The sporting analogue, if you will, of the rich kid who ‘needs’ the most expensive guitar in the shop… never mind that he can’t play a note.
You hopefully will indulge me in this little exercise in nostalgia. I miss the days when our bikes got us around, granted us greater autonomy and kept us in shape. This lifestyle took a backseat in the 1980s, when the BMX craze began to overstate the extreme and the competitive facets of the sport. Now, it’s all ultimate sport this and boot-camp fitness that. Ah, whatever happened to plain old utilitarian fun?
Through much of the 1960s, Bendix (the corporation, not Bill!) commissioned a long-running series of custom ads featuring the Riverdale Gang, illustrated by resident Archie artist Harry Lucey.
As the 1960s drew to a close, another series of custom comics ads appeared — just under the wire. They spotlight the creations of the famous ‘King of the Kustomizers’, George “Barris” Salapatas (1925-2015), very much in demand thanks to his recent triumph with the Batman tv show’s Batmobile.
I switched to my backup, a hybrid bike I bought in 1987. It’s still running beautifully. In terms of value for money, a well-maintained bicycle is pretty unbeatable.
I leave you with a song, whence comes the title of this article. It’s from a lesser-known but excellent Donovan album, Open Road, from 1970.