Underground comix artist Kim Deitch probably doesn’t need much of an introduction, other than perhaps to mention that he’s the son of amazing illustrator/animator Gene Deitch, about whom we have talked before (see Back When ‘Hipster’ Wasn’t a Dirty Word: Gene Deitch’s The Cat). For the most part, I respect more than enjoy K. Deitch’s work, appreciating his style and attention to detail, but unable to maintain more than a passing interest in the dream logic of his tales. The story we are sharing today charmed me, as it combines his typical soaring and detail-driven landscapes with a really fun ‘what if?’ plot and a clear appreciation for cats, always an advantage for an artist, in my book.
These Cats Today! comes from the pages of Big Fat Little Lit (2006, Puffin), which collects most material from the three volumes of Little Lit, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s anthology that featured comics created for children by a varied roster of artists (a lot of whom have collaborated with Spiegelman on RAW), as well as some Golden Age additions by the likes of by Walt Kelly, Crockett Johnson, and Basil Wolverton. School Library Journal described it as ‘a sensational introduction to traditional literature for a visually sophisticated generation‘. If by ‘traditional literature’ they mean ‘traditional folk tales’ (before they got bowdlerized*), then sure. The stories of Big Fat Little Lit are cynical and pleasantly warped; people get beheaded, eaten, and transformed, and often find that what they thought would bring them happiness just engenders its own problems.
Actually, it was quite difficult to select which story to run, as this anthology is packed with wicked goodies, but this whimsical tale won out (my other favourites are by Kaz, Maurice Sendak, Richard Sala and Joost Swarte, and may yet pop up in another post). Note that if you look beyond the surface of These Cats Today!, you’ll find plenty of cruelty in this fun narrative – dogs enslaved to power up the majestic and glittering Katropolis, force-fed stuffed mice**, these details are briefly mentioned, yet in plain view for those perceptive enough to notice. Truly, for its seeming gentleness, this story belongs into the Little Lit line-up.
« While so many other women underground cartoonists were reclaiming the right to their own bodies in the wake of Roe v. Wade with comics like Abortion Eve and Tits n’ Clits, Marrs was reclaiming hers by reveling in its grotesqueries—namely, burps, pimples, compleat dandruff, BO, flatulence, ‘and other bodily emissions’. »
My first exposure to underrated cartoonist Lee Marrs was the story A Feline Feast, which you can conveniently read in co-admin RG’s post Felines and Moonshine: Two by Lee Marrs. I liked the expressive sketchiness of her line straight away, but only got around to what’s arguably her magnum opus, The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp, much later.
In a fairer world, Marrs would be a much better known name. Was is because her output was so wide-ranging, or because she was writing frankly about women as actual human beings, not some glorified version thereof? I think fame is largely down to luck, and I guess luck was not exactly au rendez-vous. Still, fame or no fame, it’s undeniable that her career has been long, varied, and, I imagine, satisfying. It has been summarized by Monica Johnson writing for The Rumpus, so if you want the nitty-gritty of it, head over here; I’ll just mention that she was one of the first female underground comics artists, as well as one of the ‘founding mommies’ of Wimmen’s Comix.
« Our squat, face-stuffing heroine Pudge is introduced with her hitchhiked arrival in San Francisco from Normal, Illinois as a fat 17-year-old runaway. She’s also a virgin and she really wants to get laid, but that won’t happen in the first issue (or the second). Pudge’s backstory is further complicated by the fact that she is, in reality, a Martian, and the government of Mars has sent two guardian Martians to Earth in order to keep an eye on her… »
I wasn’t setting out to write yet another post about an ‘historically important’ series; these things are accidental. The following scans are from a 2016 collection, The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp, which almost looks like a print-on-demand affair, the art reproduced a tad shoddily and fuzzily. Where is the lavish hard-cover edition with bonus material, I would like to know? Well, we’ll settle for this in the meantime.
Here is a four-page sequence that I chose not only because it involves a cat (though I admit that influenced me), but mostly because it shows the nice dynamics of the close-knit group of ‘perverted hippies’ Pudge lives with:
Finally, a look at one of Pudge’s many attempts to hold a job:
The lovely thing about this series is that it never comes off as cringy, despite all the plot traps this comic could have fallen into. Pudge is not some sort of idealized, sexy Voluptuous Woman, and neither is she a butt of fat jokes. Her girth is a facet of her, along with her personality, curls, and puppy enthusiasm for some things – some people love her, some people don’t, and that’s fine. When she loses weight, her beau bemoans ‘sigh… I’m gonna miss all those yards of bouncy flesh…’ but he is not fetishizing her. Besides adroitly handling what’s arguably a taboo topic (although a lot more today than it was in the 70s, I imagine), Marrs also lovingly depicts a totally believable camaraderie between a rather disparate group of people of all races and interests; addresses sex in a playful and positive yet realistic way; and even delivers a sort of a public service message, as we follow Pudge while she gets a crash course in contraception, is instructed on how to find her cervix, and compares breasts with friends. She may occasionally end up in jail or suffer disappointments as she discovers that life is more complicated than she thought… but in the end, this is a friendly and welcoming world to spend some time in.
I’ll leave you with this Moebius parody, published in Imagine no. 3 (August 1978, Star*Reach):
« 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].”
« 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.
* 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.
« 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.
« 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.
« 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 toRay 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.
I’ll wrap this with an unrelated one-pager which somehow seems appropriate in this pandemic new year –
*Interestingly, Rodrigues was actually a fairly religious, politically conservative man.
« 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).
« 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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
« 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.