« I’m not saying I’m cool. That’s your job. » — Happy Bunny
When it comes to Jim Benton‘s work, it seems I got in on the ground floor, thanks to a friend’s shrewdly chosen gift of the man’s first cartoon collection, ‘Dealing With the Idiots in Your Life‘, twenty-nine years ago this Christmas. Yikes!
In a way, Benton’s nearly too obvious a subject for a post: his work is everywhere you turn, but such a large audience seems to have been reached at the cost of relative anonymity. In other words, people know his work, but they may not know his name. I’m sure his name does, however, enjoy some currency with a couple of generations of younger readers familiar with his Dear Dumb Diary (nearly 10 million sold!) and Franny K. Stein (over five million sold) series.
Given his intimidatingly formidable output, I’ll stick to material from his first collection, which I like best anyhow… which is not to say, echoing what all and sundry tell Sandy Bates in Stardust Memories, that I strictly prefer “the early, funny ones“. Mr. Benton is possibly even funnier — or at least more sophisticated — today than he was at the dawn of his career, but these early cartoons are less ubiquitous than this century’s crop.
In closing, a bonus one from quite recent days. While I’m less fond of the digital tablet aesthetic of his latest work, his writing has acquired some even sharper edges. Sadly, this strip will likely be relevant only to medieval citizens of the German town of Hamelin, right?
« Crosses and gallows – that deadly historic juxtaposition. » — Howard Zinn
Bonsoir, mesdames et messieurs…
All right, time for me to tackle (though a bit sideways, I’ll explain) another of my daunting heroes. This time out, it’s Frédéric Othon Théodore Aristidès (1931-2013), better — and more simply — known as ‘Fred’.
A compulsive and constant scribbler, he attended no institute of artistic learning but his own (and didn’t bother to complete his secondary education), and made inroads into the field by the dawn of the 1950s, landing in Ici Paris, France-Dimanche, Le Rire, Paris-Presse, France-Soir, Punch, and even as a gagman (uncredited!) for The New Yorker (others, among them Otto Soglow, would illustrate the gags for publication).
Mid-decade, he began his long and fruitful association with Pilote, launching, with the magazine’s 300th issue (July 22, 1965, Dargaud) his undeniable masterpiece, Philémon. And this is where my ‘sideways’ loophole comes in: I’m truly not ready to tackle the overflowing poetic cornucopia that is Philémon. By way of introduction, I’ll stick to the margins and showcase instead some of Fred’s ‘brutish and nasty’ (a rough translation of Hara-Kiri’s motto) panel cartoons and short pieces. There’s a lot to this guy.
Which reminds me of a time, a couple of decades ago, when Montreal’s FIFA (Festival international des films sur l’art/International Festival of Films on Art) presented a series of TV shows showcasing individual cartoonists, among them Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman… and Fred. I recall that Messrs Ware and Spiegelman were just as miserable and neurotic as expected, there was also this Manga master that felt trapped as a cog in an assembly line. Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to the existential angst, Fred was brimming with evident delight and joie de vivre at his good fortune to be a working cartoonist*, grinning and scribbling in his sun-dappled studio, leisurely strolling through his village, charming the ladies, enjoying a glass of wine and a wedge of fine aged cheese… I concluded that here was an eloquent encapsulation of the respective cartooning cultures of a few nations. Regrettably, I haven’t been able to track down this documentary series, not even in the FIFA archives. Nevertheless, here’s a short visit with the dear man, by then living in Paris.
*this is serious, though: when Fred stopped drawing comics in the late 1980s, he fell into a deep depression and wound up in a psychiatric hospital. The cure? A return to creating comics. Surely there’s a lesson in this.
« 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):
« Gamma rays are the sort of radiation you should avoid. Want proof? Just remember how the comic strip character “The Hulk” became big, green, and ugly. » — Neil deGrasse Tyson
It may seem a counterintuitive notion, but some artistic virtuosi, while draftsmen supreme, may be sorely lacking in pure design chops, while some otherwise unremarkable craftsmen design splendidly. The same general principle applies to a colour sense, or handwriting. As the cliché goes, the most skilled brain surgeon’s penmanship may just yield sloppy gibberish, what’s wittily described as chicken scratch writing.
My point in this case is that, while Herb Trimpe (1939-2015) has never ranked among the comics industry’s glory boys, I consider him one of its finest cover artists. It’s a special skill and quite a scarce one…
And that’s where this streak ends, as far as I see it: the following few issues feature decent covers, but nothing outstanding. But there were scores of excellent Trimpe Hulk covers to come. The blocky dynamism of his visuals, so easy to underrate, made his covers a reliable breath of fresh air in the mire of formulaic and overwritten Marvel 1970s covers (et tu, Gil Kane?)
See the janny? See ma granny? Ma granny hit um wi a sanny then she timmed the bucket owerum an he tummelt doon the sterr an he landed in the dunny wi the baikie in his herr.*
The home of Scottish strip Oor Wullie is The Sunday Post, distributed by D.C Thomson (publishers of, notably, The Beano and The Dandy). You may note that I used the present tense – this strip was brought into the world in 1936, but astonishingly it’s still going strong (it celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2016, to give a quick idea to those who prefer not to launch into mathematical cogitations). It has, through the years, gone through a number of different hands, but it was originally created by comics writer and editor Robert Duncan Low and drawn by cartoonist Dudley Dexter Watkins, who died very much in the cartooning saddle in 1969. His work was reprinted for a bit, until new blood could be found to take over, first in the shape of Tom Lavery (who was told to imitate Watkins’ style), then followed by a bevy of other cartoonists since then.
The Low & Watkins duo also came up with The Broons, which started the same year and ran in The Sunday Post as well, to the point where the strips were often collectively referred to as Broons & Oor Wullie. There’s a lovely documentary about The Broonshere.
Reading Oor Wullie is loads of fun, and a big part of that is its use of Scottish slang – not so much of it that action is obscured, but enough for plenty of colour and also the opportunity to pick up some new vocabulary. Did you know that ‘oxter‘ means ‘armpit‘, for example?
« […] the use of the dialect reflected the publisher D. C. Thomson’s ‘realist’ editorial policy and focus on authenticity. It was intended to attract a large Scottish urban audience and in this was really successful. Both strips were massive hits and at their peak had an estimated readership of three million (79% of the adult population of Scotland!)
One of the most interesting aspects of Oor Wullie and The Broons is that for most Scots they were/are the only mainstream, regularly available written representation of their spoken language. In being this they have an increased relevance within the current Scottish language revival. The National Library of Scotland is even using Oor Wullie as a means to introduce and engage children in the richness of the lexicon. It has a website that’s ‘a guid fun wey tae lairn oor language‘. »
Wullie (or William) is a pretty standard boy prototype: prone to mischief and frequently embroiled in neighbourhood fights, embarrassed when his mam dresses him in nice clothing, but basically an honest lad with his heart in the right place. In that sense, he reminds me of Sluggo. You may note that every page starts and ends with Wullie sitting on his favourite bucket – every boy needs a good friend!
The following strips have been scanned from a 1976 collection, ‘selected from the Sunday Post and earlier Oor Wullie books‘. The artist is the aforementioned Dudley Watkins (which I can confidently claim, as each page is signed – I also compared the art to some original Dudley art being sold online, and this conclusion seems legit).
To celebrate Our Wullie‘s 80th birthday in 2016, 86 statues of Wullie in different costumes were placed around Dundee for the Bucket Trail event (including Oor Bowie, a David Jones tribute). This was a great hit, and Wullie’s BIG Bucket Trail was launched in 2019, with around 200 statues installed all around Scotland. View them here, they’re really fun.
When one thinks that a Moscow-born Russian (that would be me) would be greatly enjoying a classic Scottish comic some decades later… the world works out in funny ways.
I was all set to write about a certain topic… but one hurdle stopped me cold: having recently moved, we are (mostly me, I confess) still somewhat living in boxes. So… where’s that other book? In any one of a hundred or more boxes. Fortunately, I try to always have a backup plan.
This isn’t the first time I draw attention to an offering from DC’s ambitious but ill-fated Wasteland (1987-88) under the Treasured Stories rubric. See also Foo Goo and American Squalor for more details and to (beware!) suffer a case of thematic whiplash. Whatever warts and blemishes Del Close and John Ostrander‘s Wasteland creations may have borne, they weren’t interchangeable.
Today’s yarn is a spot-on homage to author Philip K. Dick (1928-82), down to the name and occupation. The ‘real’ PKD may have been fond of meat loaf as well, for all I know.
PKD had been on my mind lately. Last fall, while rambling around town, I came upon a Little Library housing one of his books, a French-language edition of 1964’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. I’d read the original paperback edition in 1992, but wasn’t sure I quite grasped its dénouement, and had no-one to compare notes with.
Somewhere, eons ago, I’d read that Dick’s manuscripts for his 1960s paperback originals were abridged (i.e. gutted) to fit the publishers’ format and predetermined page count. But this might be apocryphal. As it stands, I can find no trace of such a claim. The story went on to say that publishers in Belgium and France, where the author was more of a draw than in North America, based their renditions upon Dick’s unexpurgated manuscripts, leading to, unusually for translations, results hewing closer to the writer’s intent. It helps that Dick, not given to extravagant stylistic flourishes, is relatively easy to translate.
I’m currently halfway through, and so far all is clear; I may have to confer with my younger self to explain the plot to him, poor thing.
Today’s post started out as an introduction to Moscow-born Russian cartoonist and illustrator Alexander Utkin, whose family name translates to something duck-related (‘utka’ means ‘duck’)… a few other topics may have crept in on soft paws, but sticking to one thing was never my forte.
I came across Utkin’s work in a comic book store. The volume attracted me with its stylish cover and vivid colours, standing out among its shelf companions despite the fact that they were also quite vibrant, this being the children’s corner (thankfully a reliable refuge for colour that’s often shunned in modern comics – if you haven’t noticed the absence of colour in the modern aesthetic, see this documentary about Chromophobia, or Colors: Where did they go? An investigation for a discussion).
I like cases where one doesn’t have to choose between art and storytelling, when the former is lovely and the latter, substandard (or vice versa). Utkin’s illustrations are beautiful, and he coherently and engagingly tackles a topic that’s dear to my heart – namely Russian fairy tales. Remember I mentioned Baba Yaga (see Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 28) a few weeks ago? We will meet her again today (hide your children). We also encounter the legendary Gamayun, a prophet-bird (strangely, as a child I learned its name from the song Sirin, Alkonost, Gamayun* and not from reading folk tales) with no legs or wings, who propelled itself with its tail, and whose interrupted flight signalled death or misery. In a more modern interpretation, she morphed into a sort of bird of paradise with a woman’s face. Read about her and her ‘sisters’ Sirin and Alkonost here.
Utkin’s Gamayun is a strange, vaguely female creature with huge eyes who narrates the stories (thus ‘Gamayun Tales’). There seems to be a resurgence of interest in all things folky** in many parts of the world, perhaps a desire to preserve some cultural heritage when faced with globalisation – in that sense, one can say that this series is part of that pattern. These revivals don’t often reach a Western audience, however, so it’s especially cool that Utkin’s forays into Slavic myths have been well received and enthusiastically lauded by French and English speakers as well.
Here are a few pages from Roi des oiseaux or The King of Birds, which are, respectively, the French and English versions of the same story… except that the French edition also contains La dispute (The Quarrel), which in English was plunked into Gamayun Tales I. It’s a bit confusing.
In case you were wondering, Utkin’s Gamayun series is technically intended for children. I’m in the habit of regularly raiding the children’s section for interesting stuff, but I can call it mother’s interest (never-you-mind that I am the mother of cats and plants, not little humans). Here are several pages from Gamayun Tales II – this story is called The Quarrel (and, as mentioned earlier, was part of the French edition of The King of Birds):
The following page are from Vasilisa and the Doll, which in English was published in Gamayun Tales II, and in French, as part of the La princesse guerrière (‘the warrior princess’) collection:
I promised you Baba Yaga, didn’t I? The way Utkin draws her predatory teeth reminded me of Canadian artist Emily Carroll, whose creepy stories often mention teeth (one might say it’s a leitmoteeth of hers – sorry for the terrible pun). Her work deserves a post of its own, but for now I restrain myself to mentioning that Carroll, clearly also a fan of traditional folklore, illustrated a graphic novel (written by Marika McCoola) about you-know-who, Baba Yaga’s Assistant (2015, Candlewick). Here is a tooth and style demonstration:
To get back to our main topic, I’ll leave you with this glorious poster Utkin illustrated for a French bédé (comics) festival in 2020:
**This includes the bevy of young woman trios and quartets (from Ukraine, Georgia, Poland, Finland, Germany…) popping up seemingly all over the place, singing traditional folk songs whilst walking around. Here is a charming example from Russia.
While Autumn is easily my favourite season, much of its magic and colours are gone by the purgatory that is the month of November, and I find myself longing for snow to brighten the relentlessly longer and gloomier evenings.
Well, then! This post consists of a(nother) gallery of Warren Kremer‘s delightful Harvey covers, this time with a snowy theme. Never truly ‘ha ha’ funny, they get along on charm and crafty, limpid conception and execution.
« Her surname, a familiar catchphrase of the time, was inspired by the inter-lyric expostulations of a nationally famous Paramount Pictures songbird, Helen Kane. ‘Boop Boo a Doop!’ was the chant she sang in her sweet, high-pitched voice, a flippant raspberry to the jazz age. Somehow these nonsense syllables seemed to embody the spirit of the waning days of the twenties… »
I think everybody knows Betty Boop, though probably not that many have seen the original cartoons from the 1930s. She was ‘created’ by Max Fleischer orchestrating a team of animators – as with any gestalt creation, one can argue about who was responsible for what until one is blue in the face, but it has been convincingly argued (by Bill Blackbeard, for example) that Grim Natwick was the actual creator, probably with a stable of other animators.
In 1930, Betty, then still nameless, made her first appearance in (the pleasantly weird) Dizzy Dishes as a supporting character, as a seductive canine anthropomorph with dog ears and human curves. She acquired more personality once she was matched up with Bimbo, another doggo, in Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) – which is an even stranger cartoon, a tale of hazing by a bunch of creatures with pulsating buttocks and candles on their heads pursuing Bimbo with chants of ‘wanna be a member? wanna be a member?’, to which Bimbo always responds ‘no!’ to get sent to yet another chamber of tortures. I would suggest not psychoanalysing that too closely. Watch for the grand WTF finale:
By 1932, Betty, who now had a stable position as Bimbo’s regular girlfriend and a name to call her own, had jettisoned her dog attributes, floppy dog ears quite seamlessly transformed into big hoop earrings. Though she was a’booping from the very beginning, she acquired her hallmark Boop surname with Betty Boop Limited (1932). The aforementioned Helen Kane* was not pleased, and there were, as Blackbeard explains in his introduction to Betty Boop’s Sunday Best: The Complete Color Comics, 1934-1936 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1995), ‘threats of lawsuits, various legal manœuvres, and demands for creator royalties, all without result‘.
In 1933, Hearst’ King Features Syndicate started negotiating terms for a Betty Boop comic strip, and in 1934 the strip, drawn by Bud Counihan, appeared. However, this was not exactly the same unhinged, hip-jiggling Betty of earlier years. King Features wanted to appeal to more conservative audiences, and Betty’s sexuality was toned down a notch. The animated Betty didn’t fare much better – as usual, guardians of Moral Purity™stuck their fingers in the pie, and from June 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code kicked into effect, forcing Betty to leave behind her carefree flapper days to become either a career girl, or some generic housewife.
Oh, but there was still plenty fun to be had. Besides, the comic strip Betty was not quite as smothered – while the latter was nursing babies and whatnot in a long dress, the former was still running around in her risqué red number, occasionally even kissing men and living the life of a spoiled movie star. Here are a few Sunday strips – thanks for co-admin RG for scanning these unscannables.
Blackthorne Publishing, known for their reprints of classic titles, issued three 72-page collections of Betty Boop reprints, comprising a mix of dailies and Sundays.
There are a lot of modern conversations about the meaning of Betty Boop**. Was she but a sex symbol, bent to the lascivious male gaze that created her? Or perhaps an early example of a feminist icon, in control of her own sexuality? Her combination of innocence and feminine wiles actually reminds me of Sally the Sleuth (see Here Comes Sally the Sleuth… and There Goes Her Dress!), as Betty effortlessly runs around half naked, thwarting rape attempts without losing an ounce of her cheerfulness. These questions mostly address a pre-1934 Betty, as her identity in the public eye seems to have been formed in those few years of unhinged actions and symbolism… as well as BB merchandise in the 1980s, as she was rediscovered by makers of all manner of goods (note that it was still her sexier form that was used on cups, lamps, t-shirts, keychains, and whatever else you can think of).
From recent attempts to revive the character, Gisele Lagacé and Roger Langridge‘s comic series comes to mind – more as a traumatic experience rather than a pleasure, despite being hyped as ‘insanely entertaining‘. Langridge is a WOT favourite, but in this case even his script cannot save Lagacé’s insipid art (‘Lagace’s art is amazing. Her characters emote in ways I didn’t think two-dimensional cartoons could.’ says The Court of Nerds) or the flat colours by Maria Victoria Robado (who normally opts for colourful images, so I’m thinking that the drabness was imposed upon her by the artist). At least some of the covers of this 4-issue series were nice…
« Clocks in disagreement are worse than no clock at all. » — David Mitchell
There’s simply nothing that gets me more into the proper Hallowe’en spirit than a spectral Joe Gill – Steve Ditko yarn.
Back in 1999, Mr. Ditko shared this intriguing insight about his most frequent — and preferred — collaborator:
« Joe Gill is one comic book story/script writer who understands a comic panel. Many other writers believe a single panel is a long, continuing strip of a movie film, containing numerous, changing, point-of-view frames. »
Here, then, is a moody tale that originally saw print in Haunted no. 7 (Aug. 1972, Charlton).
A few notes: The title design is among the best I’ve seen from Charlton; it wasn’t generally their forte.
I’m wondering whether I’m just imagining the Benny Goodman / Don Ellis jazz subtext. Joe Gill is just the type of guy to surreptitiously toss that into the mix. Goodman, the ‘King of Swing’ was an paradigm of the big band school of jazz, while Ellis, though he began his career with Glenn Miller’s band, soon fell in with the avant-garde side of things. I see a natural dichotomy at work here… though I’m a fan of both myself.
Also, this seems to me like another instance of the suave villain / obnoxious hero setup (think Night of the Demon)… I mean, who would you rather spend an evening with, dapper Howard R. Clark, or with those two boorish, meddlesome stuffed shirts? Oops, I think I’ve given my bias away.
For a bit of mood setting, listen to some of those fabulous Lights Out radio shows that Mr. Clark so rightly digs.
And here’s a swingin’ Miller performance, circa 1937, of the Louis Prima standard Sing, Sing, Sing. And to balance things out, here’s Don Ellis performing his Bulgarian Bulge in 1969. Now, now.. can’t we all just get along?
So we’re done, countdown-wise, for another year. If that’s not enough to satisfy your odious cravings, take a stroll through our voluminous-by-now archives, at this point one hundred and eighty-six posts strong (or at least long!):