Your Usual Corner Table at Mule’s Diner

« There’s a safety in thinking in a diner. You can have your coffee or your milkshake, and you can go off into strange dark areas, and always come back to the safety of the diner. » — David Lynch

My relationship with the National Lampoon has always held a strong element of contention: in my view, for every brilliant strip or feature, there’s some deplorably juvenile shock-for-shock’s-sake fratboy dross. But the good stuff, even if it doesn’t always outweigh the bad, is still worth tracking down… and sharing!

While Stan Mack is most celebrated for his impressive comics reportage (an area explored in this previous post), I’m just as taken with his earlier endeavour, the surreal Mule’s Diner, sporadically published in the Lampoon during the magazine’s heyday (the first half of the 1970s).

In his history of the magazine, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead (2010, Abrams — now also a film!), Mack’s cartooning colleague, Rick Meyerowitz, wrote of him admiringly:

« In Mule’s Diner, surrealism was dished up with the coffee, or maybe it was the coffee. Stan invited the Lampoon’s readers to sit and have a cup and listen to a story. Dine at Mule’s and you’ll find yourself ruminating on some fantastic little morsel for days afterward. The stories, like the ink, are indelible. Read a few now and see if there is another artist who has cross-hatched his way this deep inside parts of your head you didn’t even know you had.

Stan misses nothing. It’s only after looking at the picture he drew of you that you notice you’ve been missing a button on your coat. I saw him interview a politician in a crowded convention hall. He looked the man right in the eye while he wrote down verbatim what the guy said, and drew his portrait without even once looking at the 2×3 inch pad he held in his right hand. The portrait looked like the guy, too. That’s talent! »

Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 24 (March 1972).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 27 (June 1972).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 34 (Jan. 1973).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 39 (June 1973).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 46 (Jan. 1974).
Originally published in National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 53 (Aug. 1974).
And the most famous of the lot — the tragic saga of Murray’s fart, from National Lampoon vol. 1 no. 68 (Nov. 1975);
The handsome auteur, sans moustache, displays his best side. Photo by Sylvia Plachy.


Stan Mack and the Delicate Art of Eavesdropping

« There’s nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head. » — Thornton Wilder

I’ve always been drawn to the more observational areas of cartooning, and Stan Mack (b. May 13, 1936) surely counts among the preeminent practitioners of the form, thanks to his long-running strip (in the pages of The Village Voice for a couple of decades!), Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies.

Therein was to be found the cartoonist’s bold pledge: « Guarantee: All Dialogue Reported Verbatim ». Oh, it might seem easy, but I’m quite convinced it was anything but.

In point of fact, here’s some insight on Mr. Mack’s modus operandi, from the horse’s mouth:

« Carry a little pad and pencil. Dress to blend in quietly. Get to the destination with enough time to case the joint. It helps to be not too tall, not too short, not too dark, not too handsome, not too ugly, not too old and not too young.

When I arrive, if I find that everybody knows each other, I make a quick exit and forget it. Otherwise, the system continues: smile and keep your ears open. Find the men’s room (always good for a line), find coffee and food, which is very helpful unless you are trying to take notes. Look for a few convenient corners in which to hide. Learn to walk backwards in order to get closer to groups. Learn to stand in the middle of a mob and like it. And, finally, learn to change direction suddenly in order to follow a good line floating by.

Appear preoccupied. If you are engaged in conversation, pay no attention to what you are saying. Say anything. Fake it. You can’t listen and think at the same time. Float through the event. Each has its own particular current. Professional wrestlers and East Side gallery-hoppers move at different speeds.

When I start to draw a strip, I sit with my deadline approaching and a pad full of quotes and doodles. I try to draw the kind of people who actually said the lines.

I don’t know why some comments seem important and others dull, but I know that it isn’t until I begin to edit that material that the story emerges. It’s often a surprise.

It’s the unexpected that makes it work. Therefore it helps to approach everything with an open mind and no preconceptions, whether it involves policemen or transsexuals or frisbee addicts. »

« I hear words I couldn’t make up. I think, ”that’s something I would never have thought of. I’ll just write it down.” I work out of other people’s heads. »

Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, The Divorce (March, 1977, The Village Voice).

Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, An Art Sale in Suburbia (April, 1977, The Village Voice).

Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies, Sex Accessories (October, 1977, The Village Voice).

Stan Mack’s Outtakes, The Sting (Adweek, 1983)

Stan Mack’s Outtakes, What a Bummer (Adweek, 1983)

« So, what’s he done lately? », you may ask. Well, you will nowadays find him in the pages of The American Bystander, where the cream of America’s extant cartooning geniuses gather to keep warm. Rick Geary, R.O. Blechman, Sam Gross, Drew Friedman, P.S. Mueller, Tom Hachtman, M.K. Brown… and these are just some of *my* favourites. Do them (and yourself) a favour, check it out!

Stan Mack’s Chronicles, Up His Alley (The American Bystander no. 7, Winter 2017).

Astute Mack-o-philes (and I’ve every reason to believe that they are astute) might point out that I neglected to bring up the artist’s splendidly surreal early ’70s National Lampoon feature, Mule’s Diner; fear not, its time in the limelight will soon(ish) be at hand, so stay tuned.