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MASTERFUL MARKS: SIXTEEN GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHIES

Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World—Sixteen Graphic Biographies
Edited by Monte Beauchamp
Abetted by Sixteen Cartoonists/Artists and Two Writers
128 8.5x11-inch pages, color
2014 Simon & Shuster
hardcover
$24.99

Masterful Marks coverThis book started with a provocative idea and an admirable modus operandi. Who, Beauchamp asked himself, “were the original comic artists that left an indelible mark upon the world, paving the way for those who followed?” To discover the answer, Beauchamp then divided the cartooning word up into its various genres — comic books, syndicated comic strips, animated cartoons, anime, manga, graphic novels, caricature, gag cartoons, and children’s picture books — and identified “the creators who most influenced or revolutionized each category.”

In the order of the foregoing list of genre, he picked Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, and Robert Crumb, Rodolphe Topffer, Charles Schulz and Winsor McCay (in animation as well as comic strips), Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka (both anime and manga), Lynd Ward, Edward Gorey, and Herge, Al Hirschfeld, and Dr. Seuss. And he mixed in Charles Addams (for the Addams family, I assume, because Beauchamp doesn’t mention single-panel cartoons) and Hugh Hefner (for Playboy, which fostered single-panel cartooning). Having highlighted two people associated with single-panel cartooning, how come Beauchamp doesn’t mention the genre, what I call the haiku of cartooning?

The list runs heavily to comic books with a quarter of the names (counting Shuster and Siegel as one creator) and skimps shamefully in syndicated comic strips—all the more so because comic books grew out of comic strips. Missing are those comic strip cartoonists whose work most shaped the funnybook medium in its infancy — Roy Crane, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond and Hal Foster. And there are numerous other quibbles that I could offer. But that is always true of any reader confronting someone else’s “list” of the best of anything.

After concocting a list, Beauchamp did something that makes his list different from all other such rosters: he decided to produce a book about his champions by commissioning short biographies in comics form. Just as the creators on his list exulted comics, so would his book of comics biographies proclaim the value of the form they took.

To this purpose, he recruited a stellar list of cartoonist-biographers: Ryan Heshka/Shuster and Siegel; Mark Alan Stamaty/Kirby; Marc Rosenthal/Addams; Nicolas Debon/McCay; Sergio Ruzzler/Schulz; Nora Krug/Herge; *Peter Kuper/Kurtzman; *Drew Friedman/Crumb; *Arnold Roth/Hirschfeld; Larry Day/Disney; Owen Smith/Ward; *Frank Stack/Topffer; Greg Clark/Gorey; *Gary Dumm/Hefner; Dan Zettwoch/Tezuka; and *Denis Kitchen/Seuss.

Friedman and Crumb pageI say these are stellar artists, but I’m familiar with only those whose names are asterisked (*). Still, judging from the art in the book, they are all, without exception, excellent artists; their work herein is superb. Not much of it, however, is cartooning, which, by my definition, requires that the pictures contribute to a narrative as much as the words do. In more than half of these biographies, verbal captions carry the narrative almost entirely; the pictures are merely decorations, illustrating the words but adding little or no narrative substance.

Despite these considerable flaws, the book has a good share of highlights. Rosenthal adopts Addams’ drawing style to tell his life story, and the pictures often comment (sometimes ironically) on the narrative in the captions. Krug’s drawings for Herge, grotesque in their simplicity, are hard for me to look at, but she sometimes manages visual interpretation of the droning captions rather than simply illustrating them. Stack does the same with much more appealing drawings for Topffer (somewhat in the manner of Topffer’s art), and Roth’s Hirschfeld is an outright comical interpretation of the caricaturist’s astonishingly successful career—with liberal doses of Rothian humor in visual asides.

Friedman does Crumb by recalling all of his, Friedman’s, connections with the underground cartoonist, illuminating the proceedings with a stunning array of portraits of Crumb. And of Friedman.

Similarly, Heshka manages to elevate Beauchamp’s text-heavy life of Siegel and Shuster through the sheer shimmering suface of his brilliant illustrations—which add to the narrative by depicting the comic book characters and other personages and incidents mentioned in the prose. Clarke’s elegant drawings capture some of Gorey’s weirdness, but otherwise do little but accompany the captions.

Kuper and Kitchen are the best in the book, and they are very good. Kuper draws in the manner of his subject, Kurtzman, and laces the narrative with sight gags worthy of Kurtzman’s life-long collaborator, Will Elder. And Kitchen does somewhat the same in his tour de force treatment of Seuss, shifting from his own style for biographical matter to Seuss’s style to depict the good Dr.’s creations.

Marks1

 

Marks2

 

Beauchamp’s is an admirable attempt, and even in falling short, it is often engaging and informative.

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2014

The Best American Comics 2014
Edited by Scott McCloud with Bill Kartalopoulos
400 7x9-inch pages
b/w and color
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
hardcover
$25

Best American Comics 2014This year's omnibus outing includes comics published September 1, 2012 through August 31, 2013 and differs from its predecessors in a couple of ways. First, guest editor McCloud divided the contents into ten thematic sections and wrote short introductions for each; second, webcomics are represented this year — six of the forty cartoonists do their work in the digital world. The selection ritual begins with Kartalopoulos: he piles up candidates. Then the guest editor makes the final selection.

Said Kartalopoulos:“Scott and I are both extremely satisfied with the final product of our process. We both agreed that it would be good for this year’s volume to provide a broad overview of the comics field in 2014. Scott’s decision to break the book up into contextualized sections was brilliant, and allows Best American Comics 2014 to function for many readers as a general anthology of contemporary comics, even beyond its status as one volume in an annual series. Each selection in the book, in addition to being an outstanding work from the past year, also serves as an exemplar of some currently vital area of the comics field. That’s a lot of heavy lifting, but Scott makes it all seem effortless.

Paul Morton at themillions.com observed that this effusion of The Best American Comics “reads as a sequel to McCloud’s theoretical studies. Previous guest editors instructed readers to thumb through the anthologies and choose work that interests them most just as they would browse the shelves in a comics shop. McCloud asks that you read his anthology in order, cover-to-cover, and that you treat it as a critical narrative. He divides his book into discrete sections, presenting a taxonomy of genres. The book is an argument on the state of comics in the second decade of the 21th century.”

The cartoonists whose works McCloud selected are: *Sam Alden, Isabelle Arsenault, Andrew Aydin, Fanny Britt, *Allie Brosh, Nina Bunjevac, Charles Burns, Victor Cayro, R. Crumb, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, *Erin Curry, Michael DeForge, *G.W. Duncanson, Theo Ellsworth, *C.F., Brandon Graham, Tom Hart, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Gerald Jablonski, Ben Katchor, Miriam Katin, Aidan Koch, David Lasky, Congressman John Lewis, Ted May, Onsmith, *Ed Piskor, Nate Powell, Ron Rege Jr., Sam Sharpe, Mark Siegel, Fiona Staples, Raina Telgemeier, Richard Thompson, Adrian Tomine, Brian K. Vaughan, Chris Ware, Lale Westvind and Frank M. Young.

The asterisked names are webcartoonists. While several of this roster are familiar names to me, most are not. And as far as I know, only Richard Thompson has done any extensive work in newspaper comic strips. I’d have included Brooke McEldowney and his 9 Chickweed Lane strip in any list of the year’s best: it is adventurous in both content and manner, more than almost any other strip in newspapers — or, even, on the Web.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

BOB POWELL'S TERROR

Bob Powell's Terror
Edited, designed and introduced by Craig Yoe
produced by Clizia Gussoni
146 8.5x11-inch pages, color
2011
Yoe Books/IDW Publishing
hardcover
$24.99

Bob Powell's Terror cover, correctThis volume is the second in the Yoe Books Chilling Archives of Horror Comics; the first being Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein. Reprinting 17 Powell classics from pre-code issues of Witches Tales, Chamber of Chills, This Magazine Is Haunted, and a couple others—two entire stories from original art—the book at hand is the third printing of the title, an indication of its popularity. What? Horror? Terror? Zombies? Popular? What age are we in?

Ours.

And Powell is as at home in our age as he was in his. Starting in 1938 with Will Eisner and Jerry Iger, Powell became one of the most prolific of the Golden Age comic book artists, operating his own shop with half-a-dozen assistants. According to Yoe’s introduction, Powell wrote and penciled stories and sometimes inked—everything from westerns to war stories, jungles to juveniles, romance to horror.

I remember him chiefly from the stories of the Lemonade Kid that ran in Bobby Benson’s B-Bar-B Riders comic books that were spun off a popular radio show for kids in the late 1940s. But in his horror stories, Powell abandoned cowboy wholesomeness for monsters both gigantic and gooey, rotting faces, treacherous women, and a catalog of terrifying spookinesses — all of which are plentifully represented in this anthology.

Bob Powell page

 

As the stories here amply reveal, he was a master of pictorial storytelling. His breakdowns were deft and his panel compositions dramatic and varied. His style was realistic and subtly distinctive, particularly the way he rendered faces; once you’ve read three Powell stories, you will ever after be able to pick a Powell drawing out of any array of artists of his vintage.

 The color reproduction in this volume is especially noteworthy: not shiny and garish as is so often the case in ambitious reprint projects, the color here is true but subdued, reproducing exactly the hues of a comic book’s newsprint palette.

As usual with Yoe Book texts, Yoe’s introduction is a capable summary of Powell’s life and career, brief but thorough, and is copiously accompanied by illustrative material. The most unusual aspect of the inaugural pages is the reproduction of a letter Powell typed to Jerry Bails, rehearsing his career; each page of the letter is faced by a page of pictures keyed precisely to names mentioned in the letter. The book also has an index, something of a novelty in tomes of this sort.

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

I ONLY READ IT FOR THE CARTOONS

I Only Read It for the Cartoons: The New Yorker’s Most Brilliantly Twisted Artists
By Richard Gehr
240 6x9-inch pages
b/w illustrations adequate but not numerous
2014 New Harvest
hardcover
$25

I ONLY book coverIn this tidy tome Gehr, who has written for Rolling Stone and The Comics Journal, collects the results of interviewing an even dozen of The New Yorkers’ cartoonists: Lee Lorenz, Sam Gross, Roz Chast, George Booth, Edward Koren, Charles Barsotti, Arnie Levin, Victoria Roberts, Gahan Wilson, Jack Ziegler, Zachary Kanin, and Bob Mankoff (the magazine’s current cartoon editor). Except for Kanin, these cartoonists are what I’d call the “second generation” of New Yorker cartoonists — those who came under contract after the death of the magazine’s founder, Harold Ross.

Each chapter begins with a description of the cartoonist’s characteristic cartoons followed by a rambling biography and concluding with a few pages about the subject’s methods and working style. Each essay is accompanied by a photograph of the cartoonist (taken by Gehr) and 3-4 cartoons, all, alas, reproduced at sinfully tiny dimensions. Enough to remind us of what the guy’s work looks like but not enough to fully represent the oeuvre.

An informative and enjoyable read — except for the title of the book, which is an affront to anyone who loves the language. The title would never have made it past The New Yorker’s resident grammarians. The magazine famous for its exhaustive fact-checking (even of cartoons) would have shuddered (and doubtless did, after the fact) at the misplaced “only” in the title. “I only read...”

What else might you do with the magazine? Cut it up in little pieces and sprinkle them all over the backyard as compost? Tear the pages out and use them as toilet tissue?

Levin toonThe orthodox (not to say officious) form of this sentence is: “I read it only for the cartoons.” Grammatical purists, into which category I sometimes fall, willy nilly, demand that the oft-hovering “only” be forced to land nearest the thing it modifies.

On the other hand, Fowler, whose Modern English Usage is a more sensible guide than the fevered mutterings of sometime grammarians like moi, says: Don’t be so fussy!  “I only read” is colloquial usage, and we ought to support it unless meaning is utterly distorted.

The meaning of “He only died a week ago” is not likely to be made more exact by the grammatically correct “He died only a week ago” (although the “incorrect” syntax is unintentionally risible in a sentence seemingly expressing sorrow or alarm or surprise — but not humor). But in written as opposed to spoken— colloquial — usage, the correct, or officious, choice is preferred.

In colloquial usage the accepted place of “only,” which is an adverb, is before the verb. Hence, “I only read” and “he only died.” The more exacting among us, however — like Jacques Barzun — say “Only God knows” and achieve the wholly practical communication of ordinary life.

Enough. Onward.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

ALICE IN COMICLAND

Alice in Comicland
By Various
Edited by Craig Yoe
Introduction by Mark Burstein
176 8.5x11-inch pages
color
2014 Yoe Books/IDW Publishing
hardcover
$29.99

The craft of making books has lately undergone a sea change, inspired, as far as I can tell, by Chip Kidd. Since what used to be “books” are now so widely available digitally in non-book form, the book publishing industry has become increasingly desperate to find ways to sell books. And, presto, Kidd and his entourage came up with a way: turn the book itself into an objet d’art, something conversation-inspiring to sit on your coffee table when having visitors. Used to be, a book was important for its content; now, it’s important for its package, which is an artifact to be admired and fawned over. When Kidd first started producing books with fancy cover-designs, I carped about it, saying the package was detracting from the content. More the fool me. I was harboring a decidedly old fashioned notion about what a book was. Nowadays, the idea is to make books to sell, and if the package will do it, lead on McDuff.

The volume at hand, like several recent Yoe Books, has a clever cut-out cover in the Kidd manner: on display is that classic picture by John Tenniel of Lewis Carroll’s celebrated Alice parting a curtain to get into Wonderland, but through the parted curtain we see a cartoony Alice, not, as in the Carroll book, the door to Wonderland that Alice holds the key for.

AliceCover

 

Inside the book, Yoe has assembled a sprawling selection of the variety of Alice’s appearances in comic books. We see cartoon interpretations of Carroll’s work by George Carlson, Chad Grothkoph, Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis. Alice is given up-to-date adventures by Dan DeCarlo, illustrator George Muhlfield (“Alice on Monkey Island,” the longest story in the book), Dave Berg, and Alex Toth (for a little taste of terror). A contemporary Alice meets Superman, drawn by Sam Citron and Stan Kaye, and Little Max from Joe Palooka, drawn by Warren Kremer. In a couple Peanuts strips, Charles Schulz has Snoopy doing his Cheshire Cat’s grin trick. And Walt Kelly is represented by Albert giving a hysterically physical interpretation of “Jabberwocky” and by a five-page poem enacted by Humpty Dumpty, reproduced here for the first time from original art in Mark Burstein’s collection. And there’s a section reproducing the covers from many Alice comic books. The content is not encyclopedic: it’s a selection, judicious and appealing.

Alice page

Burstein, President of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, supplies a learned introductory essay that connects Carroll’s Alice to the history of comics, starting with England’s William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson and passing through Switzerland’s Rodolphe Topffer and Britain’s Ally Sloper and Germany’s Wilhelm Busch with stops at Richard Outcault’s Hogan’s Alley (although he perpetuates the myth that the Yellow Kid acquired his name through an accidental application of yellow ink in printing one of his weekly adventures early on). “Carroll,” Burstein contends, “was very much alive during the time of the development of proto-comics and can himself be considered a progenitor.”

Yoe observes the most direct connection between Carroll and comics by quoting Alice’s comment in the first paragraph of Alice in Wonderland: “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?” Saith Yoe: “Absolutely nothing.”

The volume is sprinkled throughout with rare and wondrous pictorial fragments of Alice’s experiences in comics — altogether, an impressive volume for comics fans but especially for Alice enthusiasts, of which, no doubt, there are legions.

 

Alice in Superman

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

BOBBY LONDON'S POPEYE

Popeye: The Classic Newspaper Comics by Bobby London, Volume Two, 1989-1992
b
y Bobby London
340 8.5x7.5-inch pages
b/w
2014 IDW
hardcover
$39.99

Bobby Lond with two Popeye collectionsThis volume of the London Popeye, the second of two, includes the three-week sequence that got London abruptly fired in 1992. According to the IDW blurb about the book in Diamond’s Preview: “King Features pulled...three weeks of strips, and daily newspapers began running reprints. Now, 22 years later, thanks to the kind cooperation of the good folks at King Features, those three weeks — plus an additional six weeks of never-before-seen strips — are included in this volume.”

The three weeks at issue (July 6 through July 25, 1992) were what ended London’s Popeye gig. He was fired almost at once. In the sequence, Popeye suspects his forever paramour Olive Oyl of having an affair — and an illegitimate child — with Bluto. From there, it plunges on into a satire on abortion. And hence to religious questions, all of which were taboo enough for comic strips in family newspapers.

To clarify, Olive Oyl didn’t actually have a baby, as Bobby London said in an interview with Steve Ringgenberg a couple weeks after being fired.

London's Popeye Vol 2Said London: “She didn't get a baby, she got a baby robot that she did not remember ordering from the Home Shopping Network. ... It was an allegory designed specifically to keep Olive Oyl's innocence intact, and it was designed primarily to lampoon all the misguided good intentions of all the characters concerned. ... I respect Olive too much to sully her reputation or her good nature, or anything else about her and I would never directly, I would never be that blatant where she's concerned. I've known her for many years and she's a fine woman, and a good Joe.”

On the issue of abortion, the sequence seems to be in favor of it. Popeye, after all, recommends that Olive “get rid” of the baby she doesn’t want. On the religious matter, London is pretty clearly ridiculing organized religion. One of the clerics is named “Nosebest.” And he is depicted as motivated by issues other than moral ones: without Satan, he proclaims, “we’re out of a job.”

Which of these dubious matters got London fired? We’ve always assumed in was abortion. But the blasphemy is also pretty severe. And not even London knows whether the latter was any part of the thinking that got him canned.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

MARVEL'S DIVERSITY DODGE

Female ThorAs Marvel celebrates its 75th anniversary, it is working to take its growing catalog of characters into a future with a more diverse audience – and to use talent and staffing that better reflect the increasingly female and ethnically varied crowd at comic conventions, said Blake Hennon at herocomplex.latimes.com. Shorthand for that effort — a woman becomes Thor, and a black man becomes Captain America. Hennon continues:

“Such dramatic changes coming simultaneously to two of the publisher’s classic marquee brands – names that front blockbuster film franchises at its sister company Marvel Studios – were celebrated by many people as positive progress, but others decried the decisions: ‘This is political correctness run amok,’ ‘Affirmative Action Man’ and ‘PC Avengers, Assemble!’ read parts of some readers’ reactions posted on Hero Complex stories about the announcements.

“Whether they’re meeting fans or foes,” Hennon concludes, “the new Captain America and Thor represent two ongoing concerns for Marvel and the comics industry’s growth: minorities and women.”

Other recent inroads into the white male redoubt include Ms. Marvel, a young Muslim girl, and Captain Marvel, who is now female.

Not everyone is keen on these innovations.

Hennon quotes one skeptic — Christopher Priest, a former Marvel staffer who in the 1980s became the publisher’s first black editor (under his former name, Jim Owsley) and has written a Falcon miniseries and Captain America and the Falcon series in which the Falcon is Cap’s second banana.

Black Captain America“It feels like a stunt,” he told Hennon in an email interview. “It would have felt like a stunt had I done it.” As he understands the development, Sam Wilson, the black guy who is the Falcon and who dons Captain America’s costume, wouldn’t become Captain America permanently.

“Putting the black sidekick in the suit, when everyone knows sooner or later you’re going to switch things back to normal, comes off as patently offensive,” Priest said.

Adding that he’d be “delighted” to be wrong about the Cap change being a stunt, Priest laid out what his former employer is facing: “Marvel’s challenge is to deliver something so affirming and positive that the work overcomes that cynicism. I assure you, Black America will be watching: Does this have real depth, or is it just surfacey costume-switching?”

And he had some other advice for Marvel: “Hire some actual black people.”

Tim Hanley, who wrote “Wonder Woman Unbound” and keeps statistics on female and minority workers at Marvel and DC in a column at Bleeding Cool, counts Marvel’s percentage of women working on its comics as varying between 8% and 15% in the three-plus years since he began keeping track, with ethnic minority numbers lower.

“I don’t think Marvel’s done well diversifying its creators yet,” he told Hennon in an email, “but there are people inside the company who are very committed to doing so. I’m optimistic about Marvel in 2015; I wouldn’t be surprised to see their numbers for women and people of color grow significantly.”

 

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

BILL WATTERSON AT ANGOULEME

The creator of the beloved Calvin and Hobbes comic strip stepped out of seclusion last winter—this time, to produce the poster for the 2015 Angoulême International Comic Art Festival held every winter in France.

WattersonAngouleme

In early 2014, the Festival named Watterson the recipient of its Grand Prix award for lifetime achievement — a prize that usually includes serving as event president the following year (in this case, starting January 29). Apparently, saith reporter Michael Cavna at ComicRiffs, “in a fashion that’s delightfully French, the festival bestows the typically obligation-laden honor without asking in advance whether the honoree’ll accept the concomitant duties, from jurying to appearances.”

Watterson Grand PrixSo it was all a surprise to Watterson, who didn’t even know the award existed.

“Nobody asked me anything,” he told Cavna, “I wasn’t even aware I’d been nominated. My syndicate sent me an email saying I’d won this award, and I literally had to Google it. People started talking about all the obligations that went with the prize, so I thought the whole thing was bananas, but Angoulême assured me there were no strings attached and they’d work with whatever I’d be willing to do. Drawing the poster sounded fun, so I agreed to do that.”

Watterson didn’t attend the event, but last year’s show of Calvin and Hobbes originals at Ohio State’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum traveled to Angoulême for the festival.

He talked about the poster with Cavna:

“This is a comic strip about newspaper comics, presented as if it were a newspaper comic strip. But in all that circularity, I hope the drawings convey the fun and pleasure of cartoons in the largest sense. I still read newspaper comics, but without much hope for their future. As a small joke on myself, I deliberately set the story in a non-digital world, where the guy gets his morning newspaper in the yard, and the lady next door uses a big phone with a cord. For me, the anachronism evokes the distant heyday of the medium, and razzes how long ago my career was.

“For this idea,” Watterson continued, “I wanted something simple, exaggerated, and silly — i.e., very cartoony. In that regard, I always think of Popeye and Barney Google as quintessential comic strips in that old rollicky, slapstick way we’ve sort of lost. So older comics were in the back of my mind, although I wasn’t trying to mimic anything specific. And to tap into one of comics’ great strengths, I chose to tell the story visually [without words], so that anyone of any age, from any country, could understand it. In this way, I was trying to connect the poster to my American newspaper comics background and acknowledge the international flavor of Angouleme’s festival.”

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

ZAPPED ON THE CUSP OF MODERN COMICS

Complete Zap coverInterviewed by Dan Nadel about the new Fantagraphics tome, The Complete Zap (920 pages in several volumes, slipcased; b/w and color), publisher Gary Groth said he saw Zap as a turning point in the history of comics: “It wasn’t just Zap as a model, but the entire underground comix publishing ethos, of which Zap was probably the most prominent example. For the first time in the history of comics, there was a community, a movement, a collective — however you want to characterize it — of artists who took it for granted that they would own their own work, function as autonomous creative artists, and wrote and drew comix as a form of personal expression. And there were publishers who sprung up who instinctively honored this principle (Last Gasp, Rip-Off, Print Mint).”

He continued: “It’s important to know that it’s quite probable that there wouldn’t be literary graphic novels today if it weren’t for the artistic terrain the Zap artists and the other underground cartoonists pioneered. This is the first time in the history of comic books that there was a critical mass of artists who insisted on their work being an expression of themselves — their sensibilities, values, and ideals. Every independent cartoonist today who’s doing work of great personal meaning owes a debt of gratitude to them for breaking this ground.

Zap 2 cover“God knows, there were vast numbers of awful underground comics written and drawn by kids who were inspired by Robert Crumb or S. Clay Wilson or Gilbert Shelton but who didn’t have the talent or commitment to pull it off, and published by publishers who were not discriminatory and were cashing in. But, the best work done between, say, ’67 and ’75, stands the test of time, and the artists in Zap were among the best cartoonists to come out of the underground scene. There were other important artists, of course (Bill Griffith, Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, Greg Irons, Vaughn Bode, et al.), but every artist in Zap was a devoted craftsman, stylistically unique, with a distinct point of view. Zap was a creature of its time, but the artists never flagged, and continued doing outstanding work throughout the run of the title — including in the last, 16th issue, that’s published in the Complete Zap.”

Complete Zap spinesHe went on: “Zap was obviously part of the sixties counter-cultural zeitgeist — it couldn’t have happened without the larger cultural shift that it epitomized — but I tend to think the whole underground comix revolution was too singular to compare tidily with the stylistic and attitudinal shifts in the other arts in the sixties (and seventies). ... [I]n terms of visual art, I don’t see much connection to other artists emerging in the sixties. Surely the Zap artists had little in common with (and I bet most were even fundamentally opposed to) Warhol (who showed his first comic strip painting in 1960) or Litchenstein (who did his first comic strip painting in 1961) or Claus Oldenberg or Gerhard Richter or Ed Ruscha, whose ascendancy parallels the underground artists. ...  And maybe Rock was as huge a break from previous pop music as Zap was from previous industrial comics production, but the explosion of Rock seems more like a continuation or culmination of musical trends, whereas underground comix was a decisive break from the past — a deliberate, incendiary reaction to the censored blandness of comics over the previous 15 years. So it seems to me that the Zap crew was somehow part of but apart from their countercultural brethren in the other arts.”

By the time of this interview — roughly last December — The Complete Zap was sold out, non-returnable, to retailers and there was no stock left in the usual Fantagraphics distribution channels. A few copies remain for sale to individuals at the Fantagraphics website.

 

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

HOWARD THE DUCK AND BABY HUEY

Howard the Duck zdarsky and quinonesThe revival of Steve Gerber’s Howard the Duck over at Marvel seemed doomed to me. The promotions featured a visual interpretation that made me think of Baby Huey, a conception that at odds with the satirical function Gerber made Howard serve. When No.1 arrived, the art was not as disappointing as I’d feared; and that’s good. What rescues the Howard visuals is the attention given by Joe Quinones to the character’s expressive eyes.

But I wish Quinones would modify the treatment of the duck’s bill, which he seems to have thought through but the result is not convincing. The thing doesn’t hinge on the bridge of the nose correctly. And when Howard opens his beak, everything disappears in a black maw.

Howard the Duck with duckGiven Disney’s ire over the original Howard rendering, it’s not surprising that Quinones’ version departs from cartoony ducks pretty decidedly. But Quinones’ Howard does not look like the character speaking the words Chip Zdarsky gives him to say. This Howard is as short-tempered and peevish as Gerber’s, but he doesn’t look the part.

Then there’s the issue of Howard’s over-all duckishness. Quinones’ Howard has a duck’s head and webbed feet, but otherwise, he’s a small boy or short man. Except for his tail. Which doesn’t appear often. And it’s a good thing it doesn’t. Whenever Quinones tries to convey the impression that there’s a fowl tail behind Howard, he just puts a suspicious bulge in the back of Howard’s trousers — making it look as if he has a hard-on coming out of his tailbone.

The first issue successfully conveys Howard’s irritable personality, and we meet the Beverley substitute, a tattoo artist named Tara Tam. But the satire, if any, is a little tepid. Gerber began by bringing in other Marvel characters. And Zdarsky does the same: Spider-Man shows up, ditto the Black Cat and a character that might be Doctor Doom or another of Jack Kirby’s intergalactic creations. (Sorry: I’m not up on my Kirby.) And is the green woman She Hulk? Probably. Spider-Man whines a little about his Uncle Ben, but none of the other importations seem to function satirically. And at the end of this issue, we’re promised that Rocket Raccoon will show up in the next issue.

I’m not convinced.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

KING CROWN COMIC BOOKS

Over at Dynamite Entertainment, the 100th anniversary this year of King Features, the nation’s oldest newspaper syndicate, is being celebrated with a special comic book “event”: under the King Crown logo, five mini-series, each one starring one of the venerable syndicate’s biggest players — Prince Valiant, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Jungle Jim, and Flash Gordon. The series ended in May with a “grand crossover.” The launch issues featured covers by Darwyn Cooke, but the interiors are by five other guys. I’ve seen only three of the titles (Val, Phantom, Flash), but what I’ve seen is satisfying.

Not content with simply reviving the King stalwarts, DE has given each of them a new twist. Prince Valiant, for example, seems caught in an intergalactic flash-back-and-forth: we see him as a too exuberant teenager in King Arthur’s court thanks to a disembodied space voice who’s telling the tale. At the end of the first issue, we see an aged Val, who has presumably survived centuries of adventures.

The Phantom legacy is being carried on by Lothar, Mandrake’s African cohort, who puts on the purple only temporarily until he can find the rightful heir to the Skull Cave and its contents. He gets going by tackling a mysterious jungle mafia called the Vultures. We see the Vultures in their cruel lair as they question a female freelance reporter, who is investigating their nefariousness.

The Flash Gordon mythos of Alex Raymond seems entirely untampered with. Flash and Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov are still battling Ming the Merciless (who, in this incarnation, has the inkling of a diabolical sense of humor).

I haven’t yet seen samples of Mandrake and Jungle Jim.

The stories are reasonable elaborations within the ambiance of the original creations, but it is the art that most interests me. Ron Salas who draws Nate Cosby’s story in Prince Valiant has the good sense to know he cannot compete with Hal Foster, the feature’s pacesetting creator; so he simplifies. He repeats Foster’s famous scene of Val battling a horde on a bridge armed with his famed Singing Sword, but Salas changes the camera angle, depicting the action from one end of the bridge rather than from the side.

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In The Phantom, Brent Schoonover also simplifies the visuals in rendering Brian Clevinger’s tale, but the original Phantom illustrators, Ray Moore and Wilson McCoy, also drew simply, albeit almost entirely in outline.

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And again in Flash Gordon, Lee Ferguson produces comparatively simple renderings of the story by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. (Acker and Blacker. Sorry: couldn’t resist.) Alex Raymond he isn’t, but he turns out a deliciously creditable job. It is, however, somewhat more embellished with modulating lines than the visuals of Evan Shaner, who is illustrating another DE Flash Gordon: written by Jeff Parker, this title (also Flash Gordon but not bearing the “King” mini-series crown logo on the cover) again seems well within the traditions of the character.

Ferguson’s Flash looks a little young for his role; he reminds me of Milton Caniff’s Terry in the years before Terry joined the Air Corps in World War II. Shaner and Parker give their Flash a personality akin to Errol Flynn’s in the olde swashbuckling films of a couple generations ago—a nice touch, delicately administered.

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Roger Langridge, who is writing the Mandrake tale for Jeremy Treece to draw, promises to give Mandrake’s stage career a place in the story. And Paul Tobin and artist Sandy Jarrell will put Jungle Jim on another planet, presumably with a more primitive culture, where he will function, Tobin says, “as a force of nature like the forest around him.”

            Altogether, the revivals brim with promise.

            Meanwhile at Hermes Press, another revival of the Phantom is taking place. Written by Peter David and drawn by Sal Velluto, it’s better than the DE version. The story is more straightforward, the dialogue wittier, and the drawing more assured even though it embodies the usual superheroic fashion of flaying flesh to reveal musculature.

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For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com