« 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.
« Bonnie and Pepsi are obsessed with sex, but they’re not there for the male gaze. Their desire is frank and straightforward and more than a little demented, and it’s depicted with a bracing honesty that feels less like a political statement and more like Flenniken is reporting from the front lines with no filter, no safety net, and no intention of telling anything but the truth.»*
I first came across a Shary Flenniken‘s Trots and Bonnie strip in some random issue of National Lampoon. I can’t even really narrow down the decade**, as it ran within its pages from 1972 all the way to 1990. I was intrigued, but not enough to pursue it.
When New York Review Comics published a Trots and Bonnie collection in 2021, gathering 160 strips in a handsome hardcover volume, I was happy to finally be able to partake of T&B in a more organized fashion. One perplexing thing about this collection is that some strips were omitted due to concerns of misinterpretation***. It was apparently feared that some topics would be too controversial, or that the modern reader has lost the ability to interpret things in context. I would have liked the possibility of deciding what has or hasn’t aged well for myself. As it stands, this collection features strips offering a most varied list of topics to horrify the easily triggered (rape, racial epithets, kids getting shot, electrocuted and castrated – albeit by other kids – and pedophilia), so I am truly curious what the censored strips were about. I guess I am now doomed to collect National Lampoon issues (to be fair, the latter was home to many a great cartoonist – Rick Geary, M.K. Brown, Stan Mack, etc.)
Trots and Bonnie is a hilarious strip, and it’s also quite unsettling in the best of ways. While both cartoonists would surely be offended by this comparison, it makes me think of some of Charles Rodrigues’ work (see Charles Rodrigues’ Pantheon of Scabrous Humour) – the same electrifying unwillingness to shy away from difficult topics, although Flenniken was doing it to make a point, and Rodrigues would do it for sheer perversity. More than once while reading T&B I would start wondering how far a certain storyline would go – and it went all the way to its logical (call it immoral, call it stomach-churning…) conclusion. Just take the Dr. Pepsi’s Vasectomy Clinic from 1974, a panel from which made it as the cover of the collection –
«Two youngish girls, dressed as medical professionals, appear to be playing doctor with a young boy, who lies under a sheet, grinning blankly at the viewer while one of the girls, brandishing a pair of scissors, cheerfully communicates something to the other one. A sweet-looking dog with fancy eyelashes lies at their feet. It’s only once you know the particular strip it comes from, in which Pepsi (the shorter firecracker) and Bonnie (the taller girl) attempt to give neighbor kid Elrod a vasectomy and wind up referring to themselves as a sex-change clinic, that you blanch a bit at the art choice. There you go. That’s “Trots and Bonnie” in a nutshell. » [source]
It’s also a charming strip, with a heroïne who is refreshingly in no hurry to grow up (despite being prodded into it by her early bloomer friend Pepsi, ‘dressed in incongruously childlike pinafore paired with fishnets, a perfect metaphor for the terrifying underage sex fiend she is’). Bonnie dresses like a tomboy, hates going out with her parents, and collects sex magazines and prophylactics like other kids collect marbles. In a world of sleazy men with a creepy predilection for pre-adolescent flesh, she somehow manages to remain an innocent, and shrug off any unpleasantness in favour of a wide-eyed curiosity about everything, be it boys’ cock sizes or sci-fi movies.
In case that isn’t clear, I heartily recommend purchasing the Trots & Bonnie collection.
* This strip is hard to write about and do justice to, and I could not do any better than Emily Flake’s truly excellent introduction to the T&B collection.
** I found it – it was Women’s Erotic Art Gallery, published in 1975.
*** Flenniken explains, ‘the things that I did that we omitted here in this book, I think we looked at those and went, “oh, that might hurt somebody’s feelings or something.” That was me being naïve when I wrote those. A lot of times I was just exploring a subject rather than having a definitive stance. People are pretty darn outrageous today, more so than me. What has changed is what people think is offensive.‘
Ah, the nineteen seventies… and their Satanic panic, in which we can recognize so closely the roots (or at least relatives) of today’s disinformation maelstrom, before the politicisation and weaponisation of septic paranoia and lies had become honed to such an anti-science. In a lot of sordid ways, Lawrence Pazder was an Andrew Wakefield of his day.
Here’s a story that I first encountered around the time of its release, remembered, but didn’t revisit until a couple of weeks ago, when a good friend (merci, Keith!) helpfully snapped up a copy for me. This deceptively dark tale was created by writer Arnold Drake (I surmise), penciller John Celardo and mysterious inker Wanda Ippolito, who may have a been a spouse or relative of Celardo’s. It’s odd to find someone else inking Celardo, as this was his chief, most enduring and distinctive strength. For comparison’s sake — and presumably, reading enjoyment — here’s another Drake-Celardo outing, The Anti-13!
I won’t make any claims that this is great art: by this time, Gold Key’s printing was shoddy, they barely bothered with the colouring (straight Magenta and Cyan and Yellow everywhere — how lazy can you get?)… but I treasure this one because of the story. Given its moral — what moral? — it’s hard to imagine The Comics Code Authority giving this one a pass, as it merrily violates several of its key precepts. I’ve got another such blasphemous entry in the pipeline… this one duly Code-Approved! Just you wait…
On the other hand, the accompanying cover is spectacular.
And as (nearly) always, a bonus for context: Celardo had a long and fruitful career, and I’m sure one of its highlights was to number among Fiction House’s elite cadre of cover artists. I’ve said it before, but despite their mind-numbing repetitiveness, FH covers were tops in the Golden Age in terms of draftsmanship and production values.
Today, let’s bask in some purely visual glory. Let’s take a gander at a small corner of the mind-boggling œuvre of Averardo Ciriello (1918 – 2016). As you can see from these dates, he was a long-lived fellow, and I’m delighted to report that he was healthy, hearty and active well into his nineties.
He was one of those illustrators who truly delighted in their craft, and so produced an enormous body of work that bore every sign of inspiration and enthusiasm. Since my plan is to focus on a specific period of his career, I’ll skip most of his early work — though it’s well worth returning to — and give you a couple of famous pieces to give you as sense of his success and importance in his field.
Now for the heart of it: I frankly marvel at Ciriello’s willingness to provide hundreds of cover paintings for cheap, mass market erotica fumetti. The way I see it, it’s evidence that he greatly enjoyed the assignment, and that the money was but a secondary concern at best. We’ve briefly touched upon the Maghella series (in our all-time most popular post, as it happens), but here’s some more.
« 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):
« Now these men have no need for words… they know! » — Anonymous
Now I won’t claim that Dick Ayers (1924-2014) was all that great an artist. In the early Sixties at Marvel, as an inker of Jack Kirby’s pencils, he was at best neutral, more likely than not to defuse much of the explosive excitement of the King’s pencils*.
However, Ayers’ chief strengths lay elsewhere: it was demonstrated time and time again that he could quickly put together dynamic and easy to parse — don’t laugh, it’s no cakewalk — layouts, and if you paired him with a dominant inker (such as John Severin (on Sgt. Fury) Alfredo Alcala (on Kamandi), Jack Abel (on Freedom Fighters) or Gerry Talaoc (on The Unknown Soldier), you’d get some quite presentable results — and quickly at that. Guys like Ayers should be saluted instead of dismissed, because they were the glue that held the funnybook business together and operating more or less smoothly.
I won’t claim either that Eerie Pubs’ product was anything but shoddy, shlocky goods, but I won’t deny that it can be fascinating… in small doses. While still working for Marvel, Ayers produced a memorable bunch of stories for a pair of former Timely/Atlas colleagues, publisher Myron Fass and editor Carl Burgos (creator of the Golden Age Human Torch). This is Ayers’ first published effort for those rascals. It appeared in Horror Tales v.2 no. 1 (Jan. 1970, Eerie Pubs). Brace yourselves!
«… Dick Ayers understood what ‘Carl and Myron’ were asking for and gave it to them in spades. They wanted gore? They got it! Ripped-off limbs, lolling tongues, gouts of blood and oh my… those popping eyes! Ayers’ trademark was the eye-poppin’. Socket just couldn’t contain ’em! » — from Mike Howlett‘s definitive study The Weird World of Eerie Publications (2010, Feral House).
« House of Monsters » is a Grand Guignol remake of « The Castle of Fear », from Weird Mysteries no. 3 (Feb. 1953, Stanley Morse). Read it here! Myron Fass held the rights to a lot of old inventory, so he had the old stories touched up or redrawn, some of them multiple times. Grotesqueness aside, I do prefer the original version. It had a better monster and a stronger ending… but you be the judge!
I came across this saucy bit of Ayers carnage in 1976, in one of the first Eerie Pubs mags to surface following a hiatus imposed by a severe contraction of the black and white horror mag market (thanks, Marvel). At the time, it just seemed like the oddest item: at once something of another, earlier time (it was an all-reprint affair), but also extremely garish in its goriness, even by slack contemporary standards.
*But then, with the splendid exception of Steve Ditko (and that was a waste of precious resources), I’d argue that virtually all of the inkers he was saddled… er, paired with before Joe Sinnott were rather underwhelming.
Since I’d hate to just leave you with such a tease, here it is, so you can be your own judge of the yarn’s merits (or its failings, however the chips may fall).
That poor, fragile, lonely woman! It’s not enough to be trapped in a loveless marriage with the world’s coldest fish, but any sympathy and hope she seems to receive from anyone is mere pretence in the process of gaslighting her. Of course, the plot is redolent of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and other, and much needed, contemporary critiques of the obligations and ambivalences of motherhood — unthinkable in earlier days — but it has its own points to make.
This is, to my knowledge, one of the few horror stories in mainstream comics of that period to be both written and illustrated by women: Maxene Fabe and Ramona Fradon, respectively. While Fradon is justly celebrated for her defining work on Aquaman in the 1950s and on Metamorpho in the 1960s, Ms. Fabe’s is likely a less familiar name to most comics readers. In the 1970s, she wrote around twenty-five scripts for DC comics, almost exclusively short horror and humour pieces for editor Joe Orlando. Of these, four are Fabe and Fradon collaborations: the (almost) equally dark conte cruelLast Voyage of the Lady Luck in House of Secrets no. 136 (Oct. 1975, DC); the more conventional The Swinger in Secrets of Haunted House no. 3 (Aug.-Sept. 1975, DC), working from a plot by Mike Pellowski, and finally, the sardonically humorous Bride of the Pharaoh in House of Mystery no. 251 (Mar.-Apr. 1977, DC).
« I love the scents of winter! For me, it’s all about the feeling you get when you smell pumpkin spice, cinnamon, nutmeg, gingerbread and spruce. » — Taylor Swift
It occurred to me, just the other day that I’d failed to feature, over the course of five and three-quarters countdowns, anything by Gene Colan. And this despite the fact that I’ve always enjoyed his work and his undeniable adroitness within the horror genre.
Still, I decided to sidestep the obvious touchstone, his monumental run on The Tomb of Dracula, and opted instead for another of his big series at Marvel: Howard the Duck.
I was a fervent fan of the series as a kid, but I honestly haven’t returned to it in decades. Which is not to say that I’ve forgotten it. There’s no doubt that I should give it a fresh look — I’d probably get more of Steve Gerber‘s jokes than I did as a twelve-year-old — but in the interim, let’s focus on a couple of pertinent issues.
I won’t leave you in suspense! On to the following issue…
And that’s it! Steve Gerber had a refreshing knack for subverting and upending the Marvel formula: instead of some drawn-out, epic standoff, Howard disposes of the threat — a threat worth two cover features! — in a couple of panels, then the story moves on… to another range of targets.
While Gold Key’s Pink Panther and Inspector comics were fairly competently written and drawn (The Pink Panther didn’t last eighty-four issues for nothing) they could not hold a candle to Mirisch Films‘ mid-1960s Inspector shorts. In fact, this particular Inspector tale is a retelling/adaptation of one of these, 1968’s Transylvania Mania. Watch it for comparison (and enjoyment) — they’ll be six rather well-spent minutes of your time!
« Pretty soon, they had me working at the stat machine and the PhotoTypositor, or touching up stripper photos for the Trocadero Burlesk ads. Mostly putting some underwear on them. I may as well have been Vincent Van Gogh, for all I knew. I was in heaven. » — Brooks recalls his formative years
At first blush, I’ve immensely admired cartoonist-illustrator-historian (and so on) Lou Brooks (1944-2021) and his assured line. An ever-eager autodidact, Brooks handily achieved a feat that sets the mind a-reeling: soaking up ‘low’ illustration styles and the essence of faceless pictorial ephemera (think comic book ads, matchbooks, bar coaster and napkin art…), Brooks miraculously derived, from this primeval soup, his unique style, paradoxically bland (by design!) yet instantly recognizable.
One of Brooks’ earliest jobs in the badlands of professional cartooning was a strip he produced for Scholastic‘s Bananas (1975-84), a skewing-slightly-older companion to the publisher’s big hit Dynamite (1974-92). Banana Bob, “Boy Inventor of Harding High” exploited the time-honoured gizmo formula hatched in 1912 by Rube Goldberg with the twist that here, the doodads were contrived by readers and given visual interpretation by Brooks. Banana Bob ran for the mag’s first twenty-nine issues.
Though Brooks had already developed his trademark style — as evidenced by other illustrations he did for Bananas — he didn’t fully employ it on the Banana Bob strip. If memory serves, here’s where I first encountered a full-fledged Lou Brooks wallop, and I suspect I’m not alone in this (our younger readers are likelier to have first come across his exemplary revamp of the old Monopoly game):
Here’s another, er, pair:
Of course, there’s so much more to Lou Brooks than one could conceivably cover within a mere blog post. To that end, we have a handy little biopic entitled A Guy Named Lou — filmed entirely in Illustr-O-Vision!
Brooks was an assiduous chronicler of the history of reprographics — don’t miss his jaw-dropping Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies. While he did a bit of everything to keep himself amused and occupied, he never lost sight of his vocation, of his one true love — I mean, he was in a band (with Bill Plympton!), but it was called Ben Day and the Zipatones!