America’s ‘Most Visible Cartoonist’, Jim Benton

« 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.

At this stage, Benton’s style — both in concept and execution — still wore some heavy influences, namely that of Bernard Kliban.
It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if this cartoon had near-universal appeal, given the fearful hold of cognitive dissonance: after all, most of us think others have a tenuous grasp on reality.
Cute Citizen Kane reference.
A timeless and oddly poignant state of affairs.
Some of you will likely have occasion to muse over this very question during the Holidays.
This one’s *very* Kliban-esque.
In this one, I see a bit of his fellow Scholastic alum Tom Eaton‘s touches. All for the good.
More Kliban (surely intentional!) but with sprinklings of Nicole Hollander and perhaps Scott Adams.
Taking Will Rogers’ famous bon mot to its, er… logical conclusion.
Here’s a jolly one for the season.

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?

For more Benton, right from the source, note the address: https://www.instagram.com/jimbentonshots/

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 29

« I’m alone with the ghost of the swamp, somewhere near the weeping willows. » — Steven Herrick

Today, we pull on our wellies and boldly venture into the depths of the mysterious swamp, but not entirely unprepared: on this occasion, I turn the microphone over to an acknowledged expert en la matière visqueuse, Mr. Stephen R. Bissette. I queried Steve about his early work for Scholastic and he most munificently lifted the veil on those wild days of youth:

« Well before my stint on Swamp Thing, I drew two swamp monster stories (one of which I’d also scripted) for Weird Worlds for Scholastic Magazines back in the day. The magazine’s editors were Bob and Jane Stine (Bob aka R.L. Stine), who wrote the first of the two stories; the magazine art director was Bob Feldgus, who was always a joy to work with, and trained me well.

The story titles are counter-intuitively reversed, in a way. “The Return of the Swamp Beast” was originally published in Weird Worlds no.3 (October 1979) in black-and-white, colored for its reprint in Yearbook no.1 (and only, 1986). Enjoy! »

The Return of the Swamp Beast was coloured by Brendan McDonough.

« These were among my favorite early freelance gigs, and remain my favorite magazine account and people I was fortunate enough to work with and for. The Stines and Bob Feldgus extended the best, most gracious, most responsive relations with this freelancer of any I had in those formative early years; it also was the best-paying of all the early freelance gigs, extending the greatest freedom for me to do the work itself, and they boasted the best production and printing of any publisher I worked for then (even better than Heavy Metal).

My entry into the Scholastic freelance pool was via a one-shot horror story for Scholastic’s then-new zine Weird Worlds. Joe Kubert brought me into his studio/office in the Baker Mansion (which has long since been the dorm for the Kubert School rather than its headquarters and main building, as it was during its first few years) and asked if I’d be willing to draw a short (three pages, if memory serves) horror story for a magazine intended for schools; I would be doing the whole art job working from a silly but fun script by Bob and Jane Stine, co-editors of the zine, and my name would not go on the job, it would be credited to The Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, Inc. Fair enough! I was still a student after all, and this was my shot at doing something different.

I was overjoyed to have the shot, and did my best on it. Part of the appeal, mind you, was drawing a horror comic for schools. During my early ’60s childhood, any comics brought to school were verboten and usually confiscated, horror comics above (or beneath, in the minds of my teachers) all. So, drawing a horror story that was intended for distribution to junior high students—sanctioned horror comics for school!—was a hoot and a bit of karmic comeuppance I was happy to be part of.

Joe was delighted with what I did with the script, as was Scholastic. I wanted to do more. One of (many) great acts of generosity Joe extended my way was gifting me with the account with Scholastic when I graduated in the spring of 1978 from the Kubert School, and thus began my happy few years of working with Scholastic—an account that often paid the rent and kept me working when work in comics was hard to come by.

Scholastic treated me like a prince. They paid well, paid promptly upon delivery of the finished pages, and were always a joy to work with. Like all good things, this passed: Weird Worlds was cancelled after a few issues, and after a couple of jobs for Bananas I moved on to other things, including pencilling Saga of the Swamp Thing beginning in 1983. But I always loved working with and for Bob and Bob, and I miss ’em both. I eventually collected some of my work for Scholastic for two comicbooks in the late ’80s, and did so with Scholastic’s permission. »

That source, Bissette & Veitch’s Fear Book (Apr. 1986, Eclipse) is the one we tapped for this post, and the most affordable solution should one crave more of these sharp little tales. Here’s another, this one a Bissette solo (including the colouring), originally from Weird Worlds no. 7 (Jan. 1981, Scholastic).

« Who remembers these magazines? Bananas and Weird Worlds seem to be lost in the limbo of all school zines; no comics sites acknowledge them or offer back issues for sale (none I can find, anyway), and general online searches turned up little. Back in 1995, The New York Times ran an interview/article on Bob Stine when his Goosebumps TV series was about to debut, making mention of Bananas magazine. There’s a number of online sites dedicated to Stine’s famous and beloved Goosebumps books series, but Bananas and Weird Worlds are less than footnotes in the long shadow of Goosebumps.

There’s a handful of affordable back issues of Weird Worlds available on various online venues and auction sites; I’m in almost every issue. One cautionary note: If you go looking on eBay, though, don’t confuse the Scholastic media zine Weird Worlds with the lurid, gore-splattered Eerie Publications 1970s newsstand horror comic magazine Weird Worlds. Those are fun in their way, too, but you won’t find me in there—just my eye-tracks from reading ’em three decades+ ago.

I’ve long wished to convince Scholastic to consider a collected edition of this body of work, but each & every attempt to engage has fallen on deaf ears. I’m still proud of this work, and as a precursor to the very successful R. L. Stine Goosebumps franchise & Scholastic graphic novels of today, can still hope that one day someone at Scholastic will have the “lightbulb” moment… »

I truly can’t thank Steve enough for this bounty of information — you just can’t beat going straight to the source, particularly with a source this friendly and eloquent!

-RG

Lou Brooks’ Banana Bob, “Boy Inventor of Harding High”

« 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.

With the early strips, Brooks was still fine-tuning the works. With a dozen or so under his belt, he hit his stride. This one’s from Bananas no. 12.
From Bananas no. 13. Foo! There’s our pal, Bill Holman’s Spooky the cat (though he’s lost his bandage)!
From Bananas no. 16.
From Bananas no. 18.
From Bananas no. 19. And add a dash or two of Bill Holman… Brooks knew his stuff, all right.
From Bananas no. 20.
From Bananas no. 21. I see shades of a Jay Lynch influence!
From Bananas no. 24.
From Bananas no. 25.

From Bananas no. 26.
From Bananas no. 27.
From Bananas no. 28.
… and the series’ full-page finale, from Bananas no. 29, aka the 1979 Bananas Yearbook.

Though Brooks had already developed his trademark style — as evidenced for 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):

For the feature’s duration — a decade or so — Brooks logos ushered readers into Playboy’s comic strip section (created in 1976 by hip new hire Skip Williamson) that featured over the years such heavyweights as Harvey Kurtzman, Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch, Bobby London, Frank Thorne, Chris Browne

Here’s another, er, pair:

… and speaking of Mr. Spiegelman, here’s a collaboration between titans. It appeared in the January, 1980 issue of Playboy.

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!

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: Spot the Octopus

An octopus has crept into the following pages. Can you spot it before the year ends?*

*I realize this is an extremely easy assignment, but given the state of things these days, one should seek out a minor sense of accomplishment wherever one may find it!

Page from Bananas no. 13 (1975, Scholastic), a kids’ magazine from the 70s. Somewhat similar to its older brother Dynamite, Bananas had (even) more of a focus on celebrities. Art by Bill Basso.
Pizzazz, published by Marvel Comics from 1977 to 1979, was pretty much a rip-off of Dynamite, and, as co-admin RG points out, rather tiresome to read with its constant insertions of Marvel plugs. From Pizzazz no. 11 (August, 1978, Marvel), this elaborate scene is by Graham Hunter – visit Hallowe’en Countdown, Day 27 for more from this great artist!
From the mag’s final issue, Pizzazz no. 16 (Jan. 1979, Marvel).

I have plenty more tentacles saved up, but after four years of weekly cephalopods, I am growing rather weary of this topic. While I endeavour to rekindle this old love of mine, I will move on to other interesting things, so this is not only the last Tentacle Tuesday of the year, but the last TT for a bit. See you on newer, fresher pastures!

~ ds

Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 27

« No — I’m not alive! But we’ll have time to talk about that later! » — the accident-prone stranger

On the magazine front, Scholastic hit its peak in the mid-to-late 1970s with Dynamite (1974-92) Bananas (1975-84) and sundry periodicals aimed at various reading levels. Always comics-friendly, they struck a fruitful alliance with the fledgling Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art, thus granting precious early exposure to some of the institution’s promising early alumni, such as Stephen Bissette, Rick Veitch and John Totleben.

This is Weird Worlds no. 4 (1980, Scholastic). Cover by Joe Kubert. By ‘full-length’, they meant ‘four pages long’. Oh well.

Professorial Joe Kubert leads his students into a moody collaboration with the guiding lights of Dynamite, namely the husband-and-wife team of Jane Stine and ‘Jovial’ Bob Stine (of later R.L. Stine fame and fortune).

Could it be?

Well, Laurel could have fared far worse: her ‘Master’ is squarely in the then-fashionable Frank Langella / George Hamilton leading man mould. There was another alternative, of course:

You’ll enjoy Mr. Barlow. And he’ll enjoy you.

Weird Worlds didn’t set this world afire, enduring but eight issues. Still, Scholastic would return to mine the teenage affinity for all things spooky and on that occasion (and further ones) strike gold and raise goosebumps.

-RG

The Many Lives of Jerry Robinson

« When comics came along in the 1930s there was a talent pool waiting. And one reason is so many areas were closed to Jews. Colleges, advertising agencies, many of the corporations – the doors that were closed led to the one that was open. » — Jerry Robinson

It’s New Year’s Day, which means it’s also the titanic Sherrill David ‘Jerry’ Robinson‘s birthday. Born on the first of January in 1922, he left us not so long ago, on December 7, 2011. He played at the very least a strong rôle in the creation of Batman’s sidekick Robin, his foes the Joker and Two-Face, his butler Alfred Pennyworth… and much more. Naturally, since we’re entering the murky world of Bob Kane, the whole process is mired in controversy, conflicting accounts and perhaps a little fibbing from certain parties.

Robinson went on to, well, several brilliant careers. In the 1950s, he worked as an instructor at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, where he mentored and considerably influenced a young Steve Ditko (among many others); he had a hand in several successful newspapers strips; served as president of the National Cartoonists Society (1967-69) and of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (1973-75); he lobbied hard for cartoonists’ rights, helping Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster obtain long-denied compensation and credit; he wrote, in 1974, The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art. And this is but a sprinkling of highlights…

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We won’t limit ourselves to the obvious Bat-imagery, which was mostly studio work anyway. Here, for instance, is a more obscure but purer œuvre, both pencilled and inked by Robinson: the original art from « Behind the Mask », page 2, originally printed in Atlas’ Marvel Tales no. 103 (Oct. 1951). Writer unknown.

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My earliest encounters with Mr. Robinson’s work were through a pair of books for young readers he illustrated in the late 1950s, in a beautifully free and expressive styles. Here’s the cover and one interior vignette from The Phantom Brakeman (1959, Scholastic), written by Freeman Hubbard, then editor of Railroad Magazine.

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The following two pieces belong to Hurricane Luck (1959, Scholastic), written by Carl Carmer.

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Spoiler alert: Peter does, in the end, win the Tarpon fishing contest.

« What about Batman? », you might say. Okay, I admit I don’t have a prayer of getting away with a Jerry Robinson tribute devoid of the caped crusader and his trusty bird-themed sidekick, so here goes!

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Detective Comics no. 70 (Dec. 1942). Pencils and inks by Robinson.

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Detective Comics no. 71 (Jan. 1943). Pencils and inks by Robinson.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown II, Day 22

« Grave grunge! You giggling squigglers wriggled around my fashion foul-up and found the store’s name! » – Count Morbida, vowing revenge

Jumping Jellyfish! Here’s the ghoulishly lovely and eerily colourful poster you got with your March 1976 issue of Dynamite magazine, numero 21, cover-featuring Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier and Jimmy Walker, stars of the recently-released sequel to Uptown Saturday Night, the honestly-titled Let’s Do It Again.

MorbidaPoster

Said poster features dapper Count Morbida (and friends, er, fiends), lovingly rendered by Arthur Friedman (hopefully no relation to evil crank Milton).

The cranky-but-adorable Count hosted his own Monthly Puzzle Pages in Dynamite, and even if the challenges were child’s play, they rarely failed to entertain on the verbal and visual level. Linda Williams Aber (aka Magic Wanda) ably juggled the bons mots.

MorbidaGames01AMorbidaGames02A

Despite his unrepentantly evil ways, the crafty nobleman accrued sufficient popularity to glom cover-feature honours a few times, as well as a spinoff book or two. Case in point: Dynamite 12 (June, 1975).

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-RG

“I’m sixty-three now, but that’s just 17 Celsius”*: Happy Birthday, Stephen Bissette!

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A panel from « Return of the Swamp Beast! », story by Jane and Bob (RL) Stine, art by Stephen R. Bissette, originally published in Weird Worlds no. 3 (Oct. 1979, Scholastic.) This is the colour version from the one-shot Bissette & Veitch’s Fear Book (April, 1986, Eclipse.) Colours by Brendan McDonough.

Ah, that old Earth’s taken another whirl, and so today, the wonderful Stephen Bissette, that most erudite master of terror *and* one of the truest, most steadfast gentlemen the medium has known, observes another birthday. He first breached this plane of existence in the wilds of Vermont some sixty-odd years ago today, on March 14, 1955. Let’s wish him all the best, shall we?

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The original art of this silk-spewing splash was reportedly acquired, by proxy, by erstwhile Calvin Klein Jeans model Brooke Shields. I like to envision it occupying a place of honour in the dining room of her favourite mansion. Or perhaps in the bedroom, right above the headboard?

This is from Saga of the Swamp Thing no. 19 (December, 1983, DC.) Quite respectably co-plotted and scripted by Martin Pasko (with Mr. Bissette), this predates epochal game-changer The Anatomy Lesson, but the Bissette/Totleben dream combo was already scorching eyeballs, en attendant Mr. Alan Moore’s accession.

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Newlyweds Rich and Jamie meet this dusty fellow, for the first and final time, in Egyptian Graffiti, story by Jane and Bob Stine, art by Stephen R. Bissette, originally published in Weird Worlds no. 2 (March 1979, Scholastic), also collected in Bissette & Veitch’s Fear Book , with colours by Michele Wrightson.

-RG

*George Carlin may have said that, or something to that effect. Who knows, these days?

Hallowe’en Countdown, Day 23

« Join the Group Gripe by sending in your own Bummer, and our Dynamite artist might pick your idea to illustrate. »

Bummers was a long-running feature (from the first to the final issue, in fact) in the pages of Scholastic’s Dynamite Magazine (165 issues, 1974-92), whose success was due, in no small part, to the winningly wobbly style of its illustrator, Jared Lee (b. 1943).

Here’s a selection of the finest Halloween-themed bummers from issues 4 (Oct. 1974) and 65 (Oct. 1979). Was any one of these yours?

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It was bound to happen: two kids groused about the very same thing, and someone lost track. Well, kids, just be thankful the apples weren’t spiked with needles or razor blades. Left: the 1974 version. Right: the 1979 reprise. Note that Mr. Lee wasn’t about to repeat himself visually.

BummersHalloween78ABummersHalloween90A– RG