A Sweet, Refreshing Slice of Watermelon

« 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:

Bargain Dave tells it like it is! The Son of Hercules first appeared in Blab! no. 12 (Autumn 2001, Fantagraphics), but the ideal place to find it is in Cruisin’ With the Hound: the Life and Times of Fred Tooté (2012, Fantagraphics), which collects the whole (motor)cycle. I’ve previously featured another tale of Spain’s youthful exploits, Treasured Stories: «Tex’s Bad Dream or ‘The Egg Lady’s Revenge’» (1988).

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:

« It seems almost silly to say that watermelons have been racialized, but that is exactly what happened in this culture. » Here’s the full article, a fascinating summary of the issue from Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, written in response to the rather hostile comment of “Judging from the pictures on your website, you seem to be saying to me that black people don’t like watermelons? Sometimes you liberals make me shake my head.
« Boys Stealing Watermelons Bank. Made by Kyser & Rex of Philadelphia, PA. circa 1894. When a lever is pressed and the coin deposited, a dog runs out to keep the boys from their prize. »
A piece in graphite on manila by James Ellsworth “Worth” Brehm (b. 1883 – d. 1928) illustrating one of Booth Tarkington‘s ‘Penrod’ novels, circa the 1910s. Seems like any and all scamps — of all races — would raid the watermelon patch, given half a chance.
An ice cream advertising sign, circa 1922. If you’ll bear with me, here’s a longish, must-read quote from the indispensable Wicked Words by Hugh Rawson (1989, Crown Publishers, New York):

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].”

One Sheet poster from Donald’s Garden (RKO, 1942), written by Ralph Wright and directed by Dick Lundy. « During WWII, Americans were expected to help their country in the war effort by participating in “Victory Gardens.” This was a measure to conserve produce domestically so food could be shipped to the troops overseas. » Watch it here!
This is Krazy Krow no. 2 (Fall 1945, Timely). Racist stereotype or not? It’s not always the case, as R.C. Harvey soberly argues in an excellent article on Walt Kelly‘s Pogo, Sometimes a Watermelon Is Just a Watermelon. Here’s a sample: Harvey — « This is ultimately a failure to understand what the watermelon stereotype actually entails. Surely you realize that there’s nothing intrinsically degrading in liking to eat watermelon. Watermelon was one of the props in a general stereotype of the African American as filled with infantile enthusiasm, easily distracted and reduced to paroxysms of delight at the rattling of dice, the smell of fried chicken, or the sight of a watermelon. This is not what’s happening in Kelly’s story at all. But then, Andrae hardly seems to have an idea of his own on this subject at all. Rather, he has a grab bag of received notions, incompletely understood and haphazardly applied. Watermelon equals racism, that is all you know and all you need to know. »
A slice of Mal Eaton’s delightful Rocky Stoneaxe ( Peter Piltdown); undated, but since it bears the Stoneaxe name, it’s post-1953 and saw print in the pages of Boy’s Life Magazine. Eaton’s a local favourite, and my co-admin ds has twice written about his signature creation. First came Mal Eaton’s Peter Piltdown, then Tentacle Tuesday Masters: Mal Eaton — Peter Piltdown Goes Fishing!
And now for something more progressive: called ‘the most successful Jewish ad campaign of all time’ (*explicitly* Jewish would be my caveat), the truly classic Levy’s rye bread campaign was launched in 1961 and lasted into the 1970s, spawning along the way countless imitations, parodies and ripostes, including, circa 1967, the You Don’t Have to be Negro to Love Watermelon seen here front and centre. Keen readers surely will have spotted the unmistakable deadpan mug of the rightly legendary Buster Keaton, bottom left.
According to a New York Times article, « Malcolm X liked the poster featuring the black child so much that he had himself photographed alongside it. »
Given the right writer, I’ve always enjoyed the Dilton-Moose pairing more than the Moose-Midge combo. The boy genius and the dunce are genuine friends, while Midge only serves as a vehicle for Moose’s jealousy and as a way to land Reggie in traction. This one appeared in Archie’s Joke Book Magazine no. 46 (May 1960, Archie). Writer unknown, art by Joe Edwards (1921-2207).
A page from Little Audrey and Melvin no. 4 (November 1962, Harvey); kudos to Melvin — I can’t even get a proper boomerang to return to me, let alone a piece of rind used in its stead.
I suppose your stomach acids would have done the trick just as well, Lotta. A page from Little Lotta no. 65 (May 1966, Harvey).
A special watermelon sequence by the Lieber Bros, Stan & Larry, with inks by Mike Esposito (moonlighting as Mikey DeMeo); this is from The Parents of Peter Parker!, published in The Amazing Spider-Man Special no. 5 (Nov. 1968, Marvel).
And finally, a collaboration between prankster and cultural scholar Sam Henderson and late-in-life eccentric poet Ernest Noyes Brookings; it appeared in Duplex Planet Illustrated no. 7 (March 1994, Fantagraphics), edited by David Greenberger. And if you’ve enjoyed the visual version, try the 1991 musical adaptation by Maestro Subgum & The Whole!

-RG

*He’s not even slightly exaggerating: the heinous stereotype just won’t die.

Master of Wit, Wisdom, and Weirdness: Howard Cruse

« The autobiographical narrations by Cruse examining everything from Acid and UFOs, to TV punditry and death itself are priceless! So read on, and enjoy the work of a true master of wit, wisdom, and weirdess! And tell you friends to buy this book! It’s just a matter of time before all copies are seized and burned! For soon a cleansing will surely be upon us! » —Jay Lynch*

Alabama cartoonist Howard Cruse (1944-2019) is usually recognized as the author of Stuck Rubber Baby (1995), a serious graphic novel about a young gay man whose life gets swept up in the American Civil Rights Movement. It was lauded by many, some praising it for its ability to demonstrate that comics can appeal to adults (Harvey Pekar), some for its place in the comic book canon as the ‘Great American Graphic Novel’ (Justin Hall). I am not denying its historical importance, of course, but I am slightly allergic to this idea of the Important Work of Art™.

Once upon a time, my favourite Cruse material was Barefootz (more about further down), but that has changed over the years. My current treasured possession (gift of co-admin RG!) is Dancin’ Nekkid With the Angels (1987, Kitchen Sink Press), which collects some previously unpublished material as well as stories that appeared in various underground publications (Snarf, Bizarre Sex, Gay Comix, of which Cruse was a founding editor**, Dope Comix…) as well as in Village Voice, Heavy Metal, etc. The book was published in a print run limited to 1,082 copies, and strangely enough, some are still available for purchase here, a sad testament to Cruse’s relative lack of renown.

This anthology includes its share of my favourite Cruse pieces (to name a few, Unfinished Pictures, about an artist overstimulated by his own art; the absolutely brutal Creepy Snuff Porn, a satirical piece about the Meese commission of pornography; Dirty Old Lovers, featuring two older gays, Clark Stobber and Luke Tewba, prowling the streets in search of goofy, sexy fun), but the one that lingers most in memory, having sub-rented a permanent room in my brain, is the pitch-perfect, heart-breaking Billy Goes Out (1980), interestingly not even included in the best-of collection The Best Sides of Howard Cruise (2012, Boom Town). Here it is.

Since I mentioned it earlier, I’d also like to include two pages from Barefootz, a pleasantly surreal, somewhat drug-fueled strip. Its sense of humour is a gentle one, though it demands an ability to enjoy free-form association and controversial topics (death, abortion, cannibalism…), although the latter are inserted with such childlike enjoyment that I am hard-pressed to imagine somebody taking offense. The strip debuted in a university newspaper in 1971, migrating a year later to a few Denis Kitchen publications (Snarf, Commies from Mars, Marvel-packaged Comix Book), and then to its very own home, Barefootz Funnies.

« Compared to fellow underground comic creators, Cruse’s Barefootz character was easy to label “too cute” to be underground, and legend has it that Barefootz Funnies was widely despised by many artists from the era. Barefootz Funnies took an interesting journey from 1975 to 1979. When Barefootz debuted as a comic character in 1971, Cruse was still in the closet about being gay. Cruse later admitted the character was not the most representative of his own personality, since Barefootz wasn’t gay. But in Barefootz no. 2, Cruse revealed that Barefootz’s artist buddy Headrack was gay. This type of revelation ran counter to Barefootz’s reputation as being too cutesy to be part of the underground comic revolution. Cruse’s publicly emerging sexual orientation in real life was leading him to become more bold in his comics, which created ambivalence about the cartoony style and nature of the Barefootz character. Cruse finished the series with one final issue, which featured the cathartic “Barefootz Variations,” a story that summed up his mixed feelings about Barefootz and about cartooning itself. » [source at ComixJoint]

Barefootz himself is a man with inexplicably large and always bare feet, who lives with hundreds of cockroach roommates and a petulant under-the-bed monster called Gloria who coughs up frogs when she’s displeased.

This is Barefootz Funnies no. 2 (Apr. 1976, Kitchen Sink).

~ ds

* I don’t think I’m imagining the note of bitterness in Jay Lynch‘s voice when he says that ‘cleansing will surely be upon us‘; a cartoonist who has lived through the purges of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling on obscenity, followed by the aforementioned Meese Commission on pornography in 1986, which severely limited the retail outlets carrying underground comics and empowered humourless censors, surely has cause to be embittered.

** In 1979, Denis Kitchen asked Cruse to be an editor of an anthology featuring the work of gay comic artists. Although he hadn’t officially come out as gay at that point, Cruse decided that to refuse would be cowardly, and the first issue of Gay Comix was published in 1980.

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.

A Fabulous, Furry Fungus Friday!

« No wonder psychedelics are threatening to an authoritarian religious hierarchy. You don’t need faith to benefit from a psychedelic experience, let alone a priest or even a shaman to interpret it. What you need is courage to drink the brew, eat the mushroom, or whatever it is, and then to pay attention, and make of it what you will. Suddenly, the tools for direct contact with the transcendent other (whether you call it God or something else) is taken from the hands of an anointed elite and given to the individual seeker. » — Dennis McKenna

Sensing that I’ve been neglecting Underground Comix in our coverage, I thought I’d close out the year with a thematic pairing of a favourite comestible with a beloved cartoonist (and his collaborators).

That’s a pretty fanciful mushroom patch there, boys. I doubt that mushrooms would grow much, if at all, in the blazing prairie sun… let alone that neatly. Artistic licence, then! This is The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers no. 5 (May 1977, Rip Off Press). Cover by Gilbert Shelton and Dave Sheridan.
An old girlfriend of mine once echoed Fat Freddy’s bonehead sentiment: “Ew… mushrooms grow in shit!“, presumably unaware of the role manure has always played in agriculture. She went on to marry a succession of Frenchmen, and given their nation’s appreciation of fungi, I hope she was smart enough to not express out loud that bit of… wisdom.

By the way, Phineas is right, as usual. Here’s more info on the relationship between mushrooms and cow flop, and an ‘easy guide to picking‘…

One Pizza With Mushrooms to Go! first saw print in The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers no. 4 (November 1975, Rip Off Press). This is Shelton and Sheridan’s original cover art, which fetched a handsome 43,000 dollars and change when it was auctioned off in 2016.
Ah, roommates. One again, Fat Freddy undoes Phineas’ careful efforts. This reminder of the importance of sterilisation in mushroom cultivation comes courtesy of Messrs. Shelton and Paul Mavrides. It appeared in The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers no. 12 (1992, Rip Off Press).
Talk about a roomful of cartooning genius. Meet Mavrides and Shelton and feel your senses reel!

Honestly, it’s been, for many of us, the kind of year when mutant psychedelic fungus overrunning one’s city would come as a pretty good bit of news. Let’s hope for something even better for 2022!

For more Gilbert Shelton on WOT?, just follow this link!

-RG

Felines and Moonshine: Two by Lee Marrs

« Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track, and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey, and you go to jail. » — Junior Johnson

Lee Marrs (b. 1945) is not your typical « underground » cartoonist, though to be fair — what would a typical undergrounder be? The movement’s whole raison d’être was ‘vive la différence‘, wouldn’t you say?

Hers is not a prolific career, perhaps, but look at the gloriously idiosyncratic path she followed: newspaper comic strip assistant (Hi & Lois, Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie…), underground (Wimmen’s Comix, Pudge, Girl Blimp, The Compleat Fart and Other Body Emissions), and mainstream cartoonist — well, even better: she was a regular contributor to DC’s justly-fabled (but yet to be reprinted, ahem) Plop!; she appeared in Marvel’s Mad knock-off Crazy; she even scripted, in the early 90s, a Viking Prince (yes, Kanigher and Kubert’s 1955 creation) epic, illustrated by Bo Hampton, and even a bit of Batman (‘Stalking‘, with Eddy Newell, in 1998). But that’s merely scratching the surface: here’s a more comprehensive rundown of her captivating journey.

Ah, don’t you love a happy ending? Originally published in Weird Mystery Tales no. 18 (May 1975, DC), edited by Tex Blaisdell.
This is The Compleat Fart and Other Body Emissions (Jan. 1977, Kitchen Sink); colours by Pete Poplaski. Featured front-and-centre, doing his thing, is Joseph Pujol, France’s fabulous Pétomane!
Originally published in Wimmen’s Comix no. 7 (Dec. 1976, Last Gasp). This is underground storytelling at its finest: uncompromising, political, passionate, personal, at once witty, moving and instructive. And that whole gamut gets run through in a mere four beautifully-drawn, expertly-paced pages.

And I’m delighted to report that the scintillating Ms. Marrs is still active today, her verve and talent undimmed and undiluted. By all means, check out her website for the undeniable evidence!

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: Into the Cephalopodic Underground

 « Slursh squirch! »

Greetings to saddle sniffers, subterranean dwellers and lovers of nasty fun! Today we take a little trip into the underground, where tentacles squirm in anticipation! Through some quirk, all of today’s covers involve aliens and spaceships – underground artists clearly also liked to speculate about the possibilities of inter-planetary travel.

If you’re a fan of those wild years of cartooning, visit out MEANWHILE, IN THE UNDERGROUND category!

Tentacle Tuesday opens up with a Nicola Cuti cover, whose cutesy style, albeit not particularly original, is pretty recognizable (for example, take a look at his Weirdlings, which has really grown on me over the years). His big-breasted, doe-eyed « intergalaxtic nymph » was not devoid of charm, although she only appeared in three issues (and issue no. 3 had a print run of a hundred copies, so I don’t think many people have seen it…) For more details about Moonchild Comics, consult the ever-useful Comixjoint.

Moonchild Comics no. 1 (1968, Moonchild Productions). Cover by Nicola Cuti.

Next up this lively cover by Spain Rodriguez, a WOT favourite. We haven’t posted that much about him, but co-admin RG did a lovely post about a surprisingly touching story from SR’s youth in Treasured Stories: «Tex’s Bad Dream or ‘The Egg Lady’s Revenge’» (1988).

Gothic Blimp Works no. 4 (Spring 1969, East Village Other). Cover by Spain Rodriguez.

The next cover is on a similar theme: mostly naked female, tentacled alien, the shaboodle, with an interesting choice of perspective to boot. And by “to boot” I mostly mean that it looks like somebody gave her a good kick on the shapely derrière.

Real Pulp Comics no. 1 (January 1971, The Print Mint). Cover by Roger Brand, who tragically died at 42 – read a heartfelt panegyric from Kim Deitch in A Lousy Week for Woods (Remembering Roger Brand).

Staying with the same publishing house (The Print Mint was a major publisher/distributor of underground comix in their heyday in the San Francisco Bay Area!) and the same theme, another damsel in the clutches of a (pretty cute, actually) alien. She’s wearing red, which of course is the traditional colour for cephalopod attacks.

Yellow Dog no. 20 (July 1971, The Print Mint). Cover by Trina Robbins, who designed the original Vampirella costume.

~ ds

Behold… the Great Shnozzola!

« That’s the conditions that prevail! » — Jimmy Durante

Today, we salute noted vaudevillian, piano player, comedian, singer, film and radio star, raconteur and unlikely comics legend James Francis “Jimmy” Durante, born on this day, February 10, in 1893 (as it was a Friday, the family presumably fasted or had fish for dinner). He truly was a master of all media, as you’ll witness.

This early bit of biography appeared in Juke Box Comics no. 4 (Sept. 1948, Eastern Color); it was illustrated by Ed Moore. Hear Cantor and Durante reminisce about their early days on this 1947 episode of The Jimmy Durante Show.
A passing mention of old Jimmy, from Nyoka the Jungle Girl no. 24 (Oct. 1948, Fawcett). Writer and artist unknown.
An early cover by Dick Ayers (1924-2014), this is Jimmy Durante Comics no. 1 (Oct. 1948, Magazine Enterprises).
The second and final issue of Jimmy Durante Comics (Winter 1948-49, Magazine Enterprises).
Mr. Durante rates a smashing musical appearance in this Rube Goldberg Device daily strip (Apr. 14, 1951, King Features Syndicate)… by Rube Goldberg, naturally.
And here’s the Shnozzola in the midst of a carnal melée of his fellow Old Hollywood legends (can you name them all, cinephiles?) This is Bill Griffith‘s cover for The Tiajuana Bible Revival Volume Two: Under the Stars in Hollywood (1977, Hooker, California: Paramounds Prod.). This was « An anthology reprinting 1930’s Tijuana Bibles, some of which were obscene parodies of popular newspaper comic strips of the day. Others made use of characters based on popular movie stars and sports stars of the day, such as Mae West and Joe Louis, sometimes with names thinly changed. Before the war, almost all the stories were humorous and frequently were cartoon versions of well-known dirty jokes that had been making the rounds for decades. » [ source ]
Pointillist-satirist Drew Friedman‘s immortal Jimmy Durante Boffs Young Starlets first saw print in National Lampoon vol. 2 no. 78 (Jan. 1985).
Durante briefly pops up (with the Checkered Demon!) in the second half of a truly all-star underground comix jam involving R. Crumb, Steve Clay Wilson (1941-2021… he left us just three days ago, aged 79… RIP), Victor Moscoso, Spain Rodriguez, Rick Griffin, Robert Williams and Gilbert Shelton. It appeared in Zap Comix no. 12 (1989, Last Gasp). Cartoonists are generally fond of the Schnozzola, but Underground cartoonists are just mad about him.
And finally, on a gentler note… here’s a clearly affectionate caricature (a preliminary sketch) of the esteemed Signor Durante (aw, he’s blushing!) by the amazing Sam Berman (crayon on onionskin paper, 1947). Berman (1907-1995) was, deservedly, quite a big deal in his day; as the erudite Drew Friedman told Print Magazine in his quality of co-curator of the 12 Legendary Caricaturists You’ve (probably) Never Heard Of exhibition at NYC’s Society of Illustrators, Berman « was indeed famous and celebrated in his day. Beginning his career in the late 1930s, he created iconic sculpted caricature covers for Esquire featuring their new mascot “Esky” (created by Berman) for an entire year. He created the sculpted caricatures of the leading actors (Fredric March, Carole Lombard, etc.) for the opening titles of the 1937 classic screwball comedy Nothing Sacred, did huge amounts of work for all the top magazines and newspapers of the day, including for Mark Hellinger’s popular column, created close to 60 amazing full-color portraits for the 1947 booklet The NBC Parade of Stars, drew children’s books, and arguably his most famous creation, the opening caricature of Jackie Gleason rising over Brooklyn for “The Honeymooners,” although he was never credited on the show for drawing that image, nor in any books. He then inexplicably went into map-making and faded quietly into obscurity. »

To wrap things up, here’s Jimmy D. and Frankie S. duetting in Russian. And why not? Happy birthday, Jimmy, wherever you are (and do say hello to Mrs. Calabash!)

-RG

Deep in the Soup With Rick Griffin

« If you’re having a bad day, catch a wave. » — Frosty Hesson

How do you cool down in a heatwave? In this household, when the temperature soars and drags the humidity along, we reach for a soothing surfing movie, preferably one by peerless surf auteur Bruce Brown* (1937-2017). Last week, it was his 1959 opus, Surf Crazy, in which a group of SoCal surfers venture down to unsurfed Mexico, which in turn called to mind “Mexico“, an early ’70s underground two-pager recounting a similar sojourn.

Which, this nominally being a comics blog, leads us to the one and only artiste embodying and straddling both the underground cartoonist’s and surfer’s ethos, Rick Griffin!

SurferToonsA
An early Griffin collection, Surfer Toons (1964, John Severson), featuring his early creation, Murphy, likely inspiration for notorious jewel thief Murph the Surf‘s sobriquet.

GriffinBioA
A bio of  the young surfer-cartoonist from The Surfer vol. 3 no.3 (Aug.-Sept. 1962). The photo confirms that his Murphy strip was autobiographical.

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« In 1964, a serious car accident left Rick unable to work for several months. Later that year, Surfer started a new series titled The Adventures of Griffin and Stoner. They were make-believe surf trips that Ron Stoner, a famous surf photographer, and Griffin were supposed to have taken around the world. » Stoner’s real-life adventures, however, were not so happy.

GriffinLaPlayaA
In this mid-to-late-60s illustration, we witness early signs of Griffin’s mature, more assured line. A simplified version of this piece would appear in The Surfer‘s March, 1972 issue.

MysticEyes01A

MysticEyes02A
Griffin’s tour-de-force adaptation of Them’s Mystic Eyes appeared in an issue of The Surfer in 1970. Witness how Griffin’s depiction of Murphy has evolved over the decade. The fancy helmet is a Hopi Indian ceremonial mask, a frequent artifact and motif in the artist’s subsequent œuvre. Weedy song, imho — and yet, meaning is where you find it.

PacificVibrationsA
Also from 1970: Griffin created this piece for his patron John Severson‘s surf documentary Pacific Vibrations, (in which he also appeared!) and it provides a fine example of Griffin’s matchless lettering**. And there’s that Hopi mask again. Though it was quite a popular poster in the 1970s, If you ask me, though, accomplished as it is, it utterly fails to evoke surfing.

TalesTubeWhiteBorderA
Tales From the Tube, as it originally appeared in 1972, inserted into an issue of Surfer Magazine (Vol. 12 no. 6); some copies exist separately, however. Also to be found within its pages: Roberts Crumb and Williams, Steve Clay Wilson, Bill Odgen, Glen Chase and Jim Evans.

GriffinTFTT_A
TFTT was later reissued (now with a price) in the regular comix format by The Print Mint. As you can see, Griffin reimagined and re-separated his colours. Which version do *you* prefer?

Mexico01A

Mexico02A
Visual splendour, not coherence, was always Griffin’s stock-in-trade. And why not? This travelogue premiered in Tales From the Tube.

5SummerStoriesA
More poster (and soundtrack) artwork for surfing documentaries, this time 1972’s Five Summer Stories and its 1976 sequel, Five Summer Stories Plus Four, directed by Greg MacGillivray, a prolific, award-winning director and cinematographer to this day.

TFTTPosterA
… another Tales From the Tube, another Surf doc affiche from ’76. « This film and the other surf films for which Griffin has done posters are not usually shown on the regular movie circuits. Their soundtracks are usually composed of rock music of various forms – soft to hard – with a few breaks for narration. The surfing scene throughout the world has grown large enough to support the production of many films each year. »

CowabungaStickerA
As you can see, Murphy abides. A 1993 sticker, with instructions.

-RG

*I’ll go even further: for me, it pretty much has to be Bruce Brown. His easy charm and wit, not to mention his untrained-yet-superb set of filmmaking skills leave other surfing cinéastes floundering in his wake. From what I’ve seen over the years, their work either seems too dry (ha!) or overdone and overeager. I’m still keeping an eye on the horizon, nevertheless. The relative unavailability of quality prints for most of these films is a hefty obstacle, while their soundtracks are far, far easier to find (e.g. Gone With the Wave, The Fantastic Plastic Machine…) 

**At this stage [1969], Griffin’s lettering almost ceased to be functional as legible typography. In fact, in even earlier work, he jokingly incorporated meaningless calligraphy into his posters. Rick pioneered and carried to an extreme in the 1960’s this disregard for the legibility of lettering, creating totally abstract forms the resemble letters. His particular style influenced and encouraged artists locally and throughout the world to reconsider all previous limitations that they were placing on stylized lettering and the ways that it could be used with other graphic forms.” From Gordon McLelland‘s monograph, Rick Griffin (1980, Perigee).

Lynch and Whitney’s Phoebe and the Pigeon People

« How do I despise thee? Let me count the ways. Society, you corpulent swine! » – Bix

Today, January 7, marks the seventy-fifth birthday of storied undergrounder Jay Lynch (1945-2017), creator of Nard n’ Pat, Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids and MAD Magazine contributor… to name but a very few.

Today, we’ll shine a light upon his epochal comic strip Phoebe and the Pigeon People. Here’s how it was hatched:

« In April 1978, Lynch teamed up with cartoonist Gary Whitney to produce weekly Phoebe and the Pigeon People strips. Lynch wrote them and Whitney drew them. “It was very easy and it got us invited to cocktail parties”, said Lynch. “We wanted to do a strip that would appeal to secretaries, rather than a strip that would appeal to the comic fan type person.”

« Lynch and Whitney launched a stage show based on the characters, called When Cultures Collide, with an improvisational theater troupe, The Practical Theater. The performance included a battle of the bands between rock and new wave musicians. » (quoted from Ink & Anguish, a Jay Lynch Anthology, 2018, Fantagraphics)

P&TPP was another one of those captivatingly freewheeling features that popped up during the heady heyday of alternative weeklies. A while back, we devoted a post to Tom Hachtman‘s Gertrude’s Follies, which bloomed in a similarly unlikely fertile milieu. In Phoebe’s case, The Chicago Reader was the publication it called home during its impressive 1978-1996 run.

PhoebePosterA
A 1982 poster for the event in question. Art by Gary Whitney.

For a few years now, they’ve (in this case, a shadowy outfit vaguely named “Alternative Comics“) been promising us a Phoebe collected edition. We’re still waiting. Hey, if the publisher needs more time to do the job right, so be it… but expectations are accordingly high.

Amazon’s blurb is an ominous portent: « The under-achieving Phoebe and friends hang out with beatnik people-headed jazz-loving beat-philosophy cooing pigeons in a park in Chicago. »

Uh, not even close. Here are a few highlight from the strip’s first four years, pulled from the pages of Kitchen Sink’s valiant three-issue run (1979-81); read these selections and you’ll know more about the strip than whoever wrote that blurb. You’re welcome!

KSPhoebe02FrontA
Phoebe & The Pigeon People no. 2 (May 1980, Kitchen Sink).

PhoebeFrenchLessonsAPhoebeDebatingAPhoebeSignChangeA

PhoebeElderlyFeministA
Clearly, these strips are so rooted in their time period that they retain no relevance whatsoever to today’s world and its social and political mores.

PhoebeFlasherA

PhoebeGovernorA
Ah, politicians: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. I’d love to see some of our finer young minds take a crack at such an opportunity. One can still dream, right?

PhoebeNancyDickA
In Phoebe’s world, there was always plenty of room for the meta-contextual.

PhoebeRoachMotelA

PhoebeGreetingCardsA
Bix gets to trot out his pet poetic phrase. Catchy!

PhoebeToupeeStatusA

KSPhoebe03FrontA
This is the magazine-size Phoebe & The Pigeon People no. 3 (July 1981, Kitchen Sink). Until the omnibus arrives, this is your best bet. Read the run right here, friends!

KSPhoebe03BackA
Our loveable auteurs and some of their cast, enjoying the Chicago winter. That’s Mr. Lynch on the left, Whitney on the right.

I particularly love the strip’s anything-for-a-joke ethos: as was Lynch’s wont, he ran the gamut from lowbrow to highbrow, from squeaky-clean to salacious, from sunny side up to scrambled. Let’s face it, that bizarre premise would have challenged and defeated most would-be humourists within a few weeks, let alone a decade-and-a-half.

JayLynch2014A
Jay Lynch, dapper elder, as he appears in the short film There’s Something Weird About Jay Lynch (2014, filmed and edited by John Kinhart). Watch it here!

-RG