By Loran, translated by FNIC (Sloth Publishing)
ISBN: 978-1-908830-00-5

The Continent has long been the home of superbly crafted, challenging comics fare – unbelievable amounts of it in all manner of styles and genres – and English readers have suffered for decades due to the paucity of decent translations to our churlish mother tongue.

That’s not to say that what we have seen (especially recently with the advent of the wonderful Cinebook line of European classics) hasn’t been wonderful; it’s simply that there’s so very much we still haven’t…

Thus I’m delighted to welcome a new company into the Anglo-arena with this gloriously anarchic offering from cartoon wild-man Laurent Crenn AKA Loran and his horrifically hilarious Bouyoul, who’s jumped the Pond and had his passport stamped – in blood – as the cute and cuddly catastrophe-in-action Booyah!

Loran’s work was first seen in Anus Horibilis, working with co-founders Fred and Jean-Louis Marco, producing the shocking shenanigans of not only this effervescent, well-meaning pariah but also Captain Caca, Gringo Malo and Les Rangers de l’Espace and latterly at Atelier du Préau and Le Cycliste.

The little devil’s – Bouyoul, not Loran’s – second swing at fame is covered in this delicious initial translated collection and commence with ‘Happy Birthday’ as the well-intentioned green gargoyle hosts a celebration for the local kids, before his customary lack of fine coordination and impulse control, combined with sheer bad luck, turn the joyous anniversary into a bloodbath that is many attendees’ last…

A little old lady, her cat ‘Domino’ and Booyah’s determination to prove he’s not a monster all conspire to ruin the emerald atrocity’s day before ‘Mr. Sandman, Bring Me a Scream’ reveals a disastrous, savage and surreal encounter with the master of dreams which clearly shows why neither of them should be trusted as babysitters, whilst the short, sharp ‘Interlude’ features a silent exploit that proves the amiable horror is no fisherman’s friend…

The rest of this supremely engaging, perilously poor taste comedy of terrors features the epic extravaganza ‘Night of the Living Dead Scout Zombies from Hell’ as a troupe of pious lads and their redoubtable guardian Father Barnaby come upon Booyah asleep in the woods. After an initial misunderstanding where the aged cleric tries to exorcise “the demon” and dies of a heart attack, the affable abnormality takes charge of the cub pack and tries to lead them out of the wilderness. Tragically the earth where they first bury poor old Barnaby is a secret testing ground for a new genetically modified crop – one the scurrilous Monsanlys© Corporation are only just discovering has some rather terrifying side-effects…

By the time Booyah gets the scouts to the edge of the forest he’s lost two more kids to tragic, explosively explicit accidents. They too have rejoined the bosom of the earth and the kingdom of heaven. As darkness falls the soil is ruptured by ghastly vegetable zombies sporting the standard super-infectious bite and soon the green goon and his last two charges (no longer good clean-living Christian boys, alas) are fighting for all they’re worth to suppress the horticultural horrors who have decimated the National Scout Jamboree…

Outrageously off-kilter, starkly sardonic and brutally hysterical, Booyah is the absolute antidote to anodyne touchy-feely cartoon capers, and if you love your comedy dark and your fantasy unexpurgated and splashed with spurting gut-bustingly jovial gore, this manically inventive immature-readers-only hoot (think of The SimpsonsItchy and Scratchy with the kid gloves off) is definitely worth a few moments of your time.
© 2011 La Martiniere. English translation © 2011 Sloth Publishing, Ltd.

Hellraisers – a Graphic Biography

By Robert Sellers & JAKe (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-906838-36-2

I’m a sucker for comics biographies, and when I saw this superbly engaging and imaginative one on the shelves of my local library I just couldn’t resist a peek…

Robert Sellers is a former stand-up comedian and current film journalist with prose biographies of Sting, Tom Cruise, Sean Connery and the Monty Python phenomenon to his name, as well a regular contributor to periodicals and magazines such as The Independent, Empire, Total Film, SFX and Cinema Retro. He has also been seen on TV.

In 2009 he published a magnificent history of brilliance and excess in his “Life and Inebriated Times of Burton, Harris, O’Toole and Reed” in 2011 in collaboration with prestigious illustrator, designer and animator JAKe (How to Speak Wookiee, cartoon series Geekboy, Mighty Book of Boosh, The Prodigy’s Fat of the Land and so much more, both singly and with the studio Detonator which he co-founded). The artist keeps himself to himself and lets his superb artistry do all the talking.

Self-adapted from his prose history of the iconic barnstorming British film and theatre legends Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole, Sellers here transformed Hellraisers into a pictorial feast, featuring the unique lives of a quartet of new wave, working class thespian heroes – more famed for boozing and brawling than acting – into a masterful parable and celebration of the vital, vibrant creative force of rebellion, interpreted with savage, witty style in ferociously addictive and expressive monochrome cartoon and caricature by the enigmatic artist.

Working on the principle that a Hellraiser is “a person who causes trouble by violent, drunken or outrageous behaviour” and cloaked in the guise of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the salutary fable opens as another drunken reprobate is thrown out of another pub. It’s Christmas Eve at the Rose & Crown of Broken Dreams and Martin should be home with his wife and son.

After again disgracing himself the pathetic drunk staggers back, shaking with DT’s and unexpunged rage to his loving but scared family, only to pass out. He is awoken by his hellraising father who drank and smoked himself to death seven years ago…

Told that he has one last chance to save himself, Martin is warned that he will be visited by four spirits (no, not that sort) who will regale him with the stories of their lives and fates and failures and triumphs …

What follows is a beguiling journey of bitter self-discovery as Burton, Harris, Reed and O’Toole (still alive but part of the visitation of “spooky buggers” since it’s just a matter of time, my dear boy) recount their own sodden histories, experiences and considerations in an attempt to turn the neophyte around.

They’re certainly not that repentant, however, and even proud of the excesses and sheer exuberant manly mythology they’ve made of their lives…

Managing the masterful magic trick of perfectly capturing the sheer charismatic force and personality of these giants of their craft and willing accomplices in their own downfalls, this superb saga even ends on an upbeat note, but only after cataloguing the incredible achievements, starry careers, broken relationships, impossibly impressive and frequently hilarious exploits of debauchery, intoxication and affray perpetrated singly and in unison by the departed, unquiet soused souls…

Filled with the legendary exploits and barroom legends of four astoundingly gifted men who couldn’t stop breaking rules and hearts (especially their own), blessed or cursed with infinitely unquenchable thirsts for the hard stuff and appetites for self-destruction, this intoxicating and so very tasty tome venerates the myths these unforgettable icons promulgated and built around themselves, but never descends into pious recrimination or laudatory gratification.

It’s just how they were…

Sellers has the gift of forensic language and perfectly reproduces the voices and idiom of each star even as JAKe perfectly blends shocking historical reportage with evocative surreal metafiction in this wonderful example of the power of sequential narrative.

Clever, witty and unmissable.
© 2010 Robert Sellers and JAKe. All rights reserved.

Marvel Romance Redux

By various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2090-2

Trust me: when you get to my age, Love is Funny.

For years romance comics were a solid staple of Marvel and most other publishing houses. It’s also a truism that girls are pickier than boys – just look at your own track record with the opposite sex or gender of your predisposition (and yes, I know that’s a cheap shot, but it’s also hard to contest!) – so most of those titles, whilst extremely limited in the stories they offered, were generally graced with some of the best artwork the industry could offer.

Those love-starved chicks might be happy to absorb the same old perpetually regurgitated characters and plot pablum but they definitely, defiantly wanted it all to look the best it possibly could…

Having accepted that the art for comics aimed at females has always been of a higher standard and observed that many of Marvel’s greatest illustrators have secretly toiled in the tear-sodden Hearts and Flowers mines, in recent years wisely cynical Editorial heads at The House of Ideas realised that even though the tales might be dull, dated, sexist and largely objectionable to Modern Misses, with a hefty dose of irreverence, a touch of tongue-in-cheek and a heaping helping of digital Tippex, much of that fallow material could be profitably retuned and recycled for today’s shallow crowd of callow youths.

Moreover, if you tap some of the funniest and most imaginatively warped scribes currently working in the industry you might even make that mushy stuff accessible to the jaded, worldly-wise, nihilistic, existentialist, and oh-so-lonely post-Generation X voidoids who think love is for cissies…

Thus in 2006 Marvel Romance Redux was to blame for five issues of raucous and occasionally ribald mockery that took the hallowed love comicbook to new depths, resulting in this deliciously offbeat confection a year later. Behind new covers by Keith Giffen, Pond Scum & Christina Strain, Amanda Conner & Jimmy Palmiotti, Greg Land, Kyle Baker and Frank Cho, 21st century sentiment met timeless 1950s, 1960s and 1970s artwork in a bizarre but highly successful marriage…

The fist issue was subtitled But I Thought He Loved Me and opened with ‘President Stripper’ (rescripted by Jeff Parker from ‘I Do My Thing… No Matter Whom it Hurts’) by John Buscema & Romita Sr., revealing how a daring Go-Go dancer heartbreakingly failed to find happiness using her daring moves and raunchy routines to run America.

Roger Langridge then twisted the words of ‘I Mustn’t Love You, My Darling!’ illustrated by  Dick Giordano & Vince Colletta to the tragic cautionary tale of a tattooed temptress who had to cover up the fact that ‘I Was Inked by Sparky Hackworth!’

‘The Summer Must End’ by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby & Colletta became under John Lustig, the sordid saga of a savage sexy relationship-wrecker in ‘I Was a Beach Blanket Barbarian!’ whilst Jimmy Palmiotti retained the title of Kirby’s ‘If Your Heart I Break…!’ but shifted the cause for the end of the affair to the unpalatable fact that hunky beddable Matt was a hopeless comicbook geek…

The first issue then closed with ‘Hit or Miss’ as Giffen transformed Lee, Gene Colan & Jim Mooney’s bittersweet ‘The Boy Who Got Away’ fable into a war of words and weapons between rival hot assassins…

Guys & Dolls opened with ‘The Dinner Demon’ as Parker rewrote diner love story ‘One Day a Week’ by Jim Starlin & Jack Abel into a creepy tales of greed and Satanism, whilst Lustig took the already outrageous ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be a… Spinster!’ by Don Heck & Colletta, and concocted a modern parable of a girl who knew that money made the world go around in ‘Love Ain’t Cheap…Especially at these Prices!’

Sixties college affair ‘Formula for Love!’ by Jean Thomas, Colan & Bill Everett was seamlessly evolved into a yarn of faux feminism and dangerous psychobabble under Zeb Wells, whilst Palmiotti also kept the original title of Lee, Buscema & Romita Sr.’s ‘I Love Him… But He’s Hers!’ but happily messed with our heads in an account of petty jealousy and government conspiracies…

‘Love Isn’t in the Cards for Me’ from Lee, Buscema & Frank Giacoia became, under Frank Tieri ‘A (Former Child) Star is Born!’ and showed just what a poor ambitious girl would endure to secure a man with money…

Love is a Four-Letter Word started with the magically surreal ‘Hot Alien Love’ (Jeff Parker making over Lee & Buscema & Colletta’s ‘Another Kind of Love’) as Gail – a dedicated agent of Homeworld Security – falls for the kinky tricks of an extraterrestrial Casanova, before Michael Lieb & Giffen introduced ‘Buffy Willow, Agent of A.D.D.’ (formerly ‘He Never Said a Word’ by Colan) as possibly Freedom and Democracy’s most inept honey-trap, and Joe R. Lansdale refitted Kirby & Colletta’s ‘By Love Betrayed’ into ‘Mice and Money’ wherein a hunky guy finally broke up gal-pals with the strangest tastes imaginable…

‘Love Me, Love my Clones!’ was originally ‘Jilted!’ by Jean Thomas, Heck & Romita) until Paul Di Fillipo added his own ideas on buying the ideal bespoke companion, whilst Peter David converted ‘Someday He’ll Come Along’ by Heck & Colletta into the death-affirming ‘They Said I was… Insane!’

…And “They” were right.

Robert Loren Fleming opened Restraining Orders are for Other Girls with the utterly hilarious ‘Too Smart to Date!’ (originally ‘The Dream World of Doris Wilson’ by Kirby & Al Hartley), after which ‘Callie Crandall: Co-Ed Campus Undercover Cutie’ laid out her Federally-mandated lures for radicals and subversives as Lieb overhauled Dick Giordano & Colletta’s ‘50’s filler ‘No Dates for the Dance’.

The art team was one of the most prolific of the period and Fred Van Lente turned their ‘The Only Man for Me’ into ‘Psycho for You’ which showed the upside of stalking and celebrity religious cults, whilst Kyle Baker performed similar duties on their ‘A Teenager Can also Love’, turning simple romance into psychedelic horror in ‘My Magical Centaur!’

Kirsten Sinclair then wrapped it all up by upgrading Kirby & Colletta’s ‘Give Me Back My Heart!’ into a fable of crime and obsession in ‘Give Me Back My Heart! (Dame Mi Carozan)’

I Should Have Been a Blonde devoted much of its content to adapting a full length tale of Marvel’s secret star Patsy Walker (of Patsy & Hedy and a number of spin-off titles most Marvel Zombies refuse to acknowledge the existence of). Under the sinister influence of Peter David, ‘Patsy’s Secret Boyfriend’ by Lee & Sol Brodsky became the uproariously self-censorious and rudely self-referential ‘Patsy Loves Satan’, sublimely supplemented by ‘Hedy’s Uncomfortable Fanmail’ and ‘Patsy Walker’s Battlesuits!’

Also included to balance the passionate madness was ‘The Language of Love’, wherein Matthew K. Manning converted Giordano & Colletta’s ‘The Last Good-By’ into a good old-fashioned laugh at immigrants’ expense, before Lustig wrapped it all up by turning Gary Friedrich, Colan & Giordano’s ‘As Time Goes By’ into a bizarro tale of superstar possession as a pretty film fan became ‘The Girl With Bogart’s Brain!’

Yes, it’s pretty much a one-trick pony but it is an endlessly amusing one and the tendency towards wry comics-insider gags is far outweighed by the plethora of absurd, surreal, sly outlandish and wickedly risqué spoofs and devastating one-liners.

Moreover, the art is still stunning…

Daft, pretty and compellingly witty, this is a lovely antidote to the wave of mawkish sentiment doled out in motion picture RomComs and a welcome rare chance to see some of the industry’s greatest graphic talents’ most sidelined artistic triumphs.
© 2006, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Showcase Presents Secrets of Sinister House

By Jack Oleck, Frank Robbins, Sheldon Mayer, Robert Kanigher, Tony DeZuniga, Alex Toth, Mike Sekowsky, Alex Niño, Sergio Aragonés & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-2626-8

American comicbooks just idled along rather slowly until the invention of Superman provided a flamboyant new genre of heroes and subsequently unleashed a torrent of creative imitation and imaginative generation for a suddenly thriving and voracious new entertainment model.

Implacably vested in World War II, these Overmen swept all before them until the troops came home. As the decade closed, however, more traditional themes and heroes resurfaced and eventually supplanted the Fights ‘n’ Tights crowd.

Whilst a new generation of kids began buying and collecting, many of the first fans also retained their four-colour habit but increasingly sought more mature themes in their reading matter. The war years had irrevocably altered the psychological landscape of the readership and as a more world-weary, cynical young public came to see that all the fighting and dying hadn’t really changed anything, their chosen forms of entertainment (film, theatre and prose as well as comics) increasingly reflected this.

As well as Western, War and Crime comics, celebrity tie-ins, madcap escapist comedy and anthropomorphic funny animal features were immediately resurgent, but gradually another of the cyclical revivals of spiritualism and a public fascination with the arcane led to a wave of impressive, evocative and shockingly addictive horror comics.

There had been grisly, gory and supernatural stars before, including a pantheon of ghosts, monsters and wizards draped in mystery-man garb and trappings (the Spectre, Mr. Justice, Sgt. Spook, Frankenstein, The Heap, Sargon the Sorcerer, Zatara, Zambini the Miracle Man, Kardak the Mystic, Dr. Fate and dozens of others), but these had been victims of circumstance: The Unknown as a power source for super-heroics. Now the focus shifted to ordinary mortals thrown into a world beyond their ken with the intention of unsettling, not vicariously empowering, the reader.

Almost every publisher jumped on the increasingly popular bandwagon, with B & I (which became the magical one-man-band Richard E. Hughes’ American Comics Group) launching the first regularly published horror comic in the Autumn of 1948, although their Adventures Into the Unknown was technically pipped by Avon.

The book and comics publisher had released an impressive single issue entitled Eerie in January 1947 but didn’t follow-up with a regular series until 1951. Classics Illustrated had already secured the literary end of the medium with child-friendly comics adaptations of the Headless Horseman, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (both 1943), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1944) and Frankenstein (1945) among others.

If we’re keeping score this was also the period in which Joe Simon & Jack Kirby identified another “mature market” gap and invented Romance comics (Young Romance #1, September 1947) but they too saw the sales potential for spooky material, resulting in the seminal Black Magic (launched in 1950) and boldly obscure psychological drama anthology Strange World of Your Dreams (1952).

The company that would become DC Comics bowed to the inevitable and launched a comparatively straight-laced anthology that nevertheless became one of their longest-running and most influential titles with the December 1951/January 1952 launch of The House of Mystery.

After the hysterical censorship debate which led to witch-hunting Senate hearings in the early 1950s was curtailed by the industry adopting a castrating straitjacket of self-regulation, titles produced under the aegis of the Comics Code Authority were sanitised and anodyne affairs in terms of Shock and Gore, but the audience’s appetite for suspense was still high and in 1956 National introduced sister titles Tales of the Unexpected and House of Secrets.

Stories were soon dialled back from uncanny spooky phenomenon yarns to always marvellously illustrated, rationalistic fantasy-adventure vehicles and eventually straight monster-busting Sci Fi tales which dominated the market until the 1960s.

That’s when super-heroes – which had begun to revive after Julius Schwartz began the Silver Age of comics by reintroducing the Flash in Showcase #4 – finally overtook them.

Green Lantern, Hawkman, the Atom and a growing coterie of costumed cavorters generated a gaudy global bubble of masked mavens which forced even dedicated anthology suspense titles to transform into super-character books. Even ACG slipped tights and masks onto its spooky stars.

When the caped crusader craziness peaked and popped, superheroes began dropping like Kryptonite-gassed flies. However nothing combats censorship better than falling profits and, at the end of the 1960s with the cape-and-cowl boom over and some of the industry’s most prestigious series circling the drain, the surviving publishers of the field agreed on revising the Comics Code, loosening their self-imposed restraints against crime and horror comics.

Nobody much cared about gangster titles but, as the liberalisation coincided with yet another bump in public interest in supernatural themes, the resurrection of scary stories was a foregone conclusion and obvious “no-brainer.” Even ultra-wholesome Archie Comics re-entered the field with their rather tasty line of Red Circle Chillers…

Thus, with absolutely no fanfare at all spooky comics came back to quickly dominate the American funnybook market for more than half a decade. DC led the pack by converting The House of Mystery and Tales of the Unexpected into mystery-suspense anthologies in 1968 and resurrected House of Secrets a year earlier.

However horror wasn’t the only classic genre to experience renewed interest. Westerns, war, adventure and love-story comicbooks also reappeared and, probably influenced by the overwhelming success of the supernatural TV soap Dark Shadows, the industry mixed a few classic idioms and invented gothic horror/romances. The mini-boom generated Haunted Love from Charlton, Gothic Romances from Atlas/Seaboard and from undisputed industry leader National/DC Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love and Sinister House of Secret Love.

The 52-page Sinister House of Secret Love launched with an October/November 1971 cover-date, offering book-length graphic epics in the manner of gothic romances such as Jane Eyre, before transforming into a more traditional anthology package as Secrets of Sinister House with #5 (June/July 1972) and reducing to the traditional 36-page format with the next issue. The format remained until its cancellation with #18 in June/July 1974.

In keeping with the novel enterprise, the dark, doomed love stories were extra-long affairs such as the 25-page Victorian period chiller ‘The Curse of the MacIntyres’ (by Mary Skrenes & Don Heck) which opened issue #1 and recounted how recently-bereaved Rachel lost her scientist father and fell under the guardianship of her cousin Blair. Moving into his remote Scottish castle she readily befriended Blair’s son Jamie but could not warm to the dwarfish cousin Alfie.

As the days and weeks passed however she became increasingly disturbed by the odd household and the family’s obsessive interest in “mutations”…

There was even room for a short back-up and the Jane Eyre pastiche was nicely balanced by a contemporary yarn of hippies in love. Undying passion and ghostly reincarnation in ‘A Night to Remember – A Day to Forget!’ by an unknown author, effectively illustrated by John Calnan & Vince Colletta.

Editor Joe Orlando and scripter Len Wein closely collaborated on the Tony DeZuniga limned ‘To Wed the Devil’ in the next issue, wherein beautiful, innocent Sarah returns to her father’s estate and discovers the place to be a hotbed of Satanism where all the old servants indulge in black magic rituals.

Moreover her father is forcing her to abandon true love Justin and wed the appalling and terrifying Baron Luther Dumont of Bohemia to settle an outstanding debt. This grim bodice-ripper tale saw the return of Victorian devil-busting duo Father John Christian and Rabbi Samuel Shulman who appeared far too infrequently in succeeding years (see also Showcase Presents the House of Secrets volume 1 and Showcase Presents the Phantom Stranger volume 2) whose last-minute ministrations saved the day, quelled an unchecked evil and of course provided the obligatory Happy Ever After…

Sinister House of Secret Love #3 was the most impressive of these early issues and ‘Bride of the Falcon’ was a visual feast from Alex Toth, Frank Giacoia & Doug Wildey, as author Frank Robbins detailed a thoroughly modern-day mystery. American proof-reader Kathy Harwood answers one of the Lonely Hearts ads in her own magazine and finds herself in Venice, Italy, trapped on the isolated Isola Tranquillo with the tragic, scarred and lovelorn heartsick Count Lorenzo Di Falco and his paralysed mother.

Something isn’t right, though, and as the wedding day approaches, a series of inexplicable deaths occurs. Soon, the romance-obsessed dreamer realises she is in deadly danger. Luckily, poor but handsome gondolier Roberto has constantly refused her demands that he stop bothering her…

The gripping psychological thriller is supplanted by prose ghostly romance ‘Will I Ever See You Again’ illustrated by Jack Sparling…

‘Kiss of the Serpent’ by Mary DeZuniga, Michael Fleisher & Tony DeZuniga in #4 takes us to Bombay (you can call it Mumbai if you’re feeling modern and PC) where freshly orphaned teacher Michelle Harlinson has taken a job arranged by her uncle Paul.

Dazed by loss and the sheer exoticism of India, she is soon drawn into a terrible vendetta between her gorgeous wealthy employer Rabin Singh and his jealous brother Jawah. But as the American finds herself falling under the seductive sway of Rabin, she uncovers a history of murder and macabre snake-worship that can only end in more death and heartbreak…

With the next extra-sized issue the title became Secrets of Sinister House (June/July 1972), and Lynn Marron, Fleisher, Mike Sekowsky & Dick Giordano produced the eerie ‘Death at Castle Dunbar’ where modern American Miss Mike Hollis is invited to the desolate Scottish manse to complete a history of Clan Dunbar. However most of the family and staff are inexplicably hostile, even though they are unaware of the writer’s true agenda…

Mike’s sister Valerie was married to the Laird Sir Alec and apparently drowned in an accident. The author is even more convinced when, whilst snooping in the darkened midnight halls, she meet’s Val’s ghost…

Certain of murder, Mike probes deeper uncovering a deeply-concealed scandal and mystery, becoming a target herself. However when there are so many suspects and no one to trust, how long could it be before she joins her sibling in the spirit world?

In #6 the transition to a standard horror-anthology was completed with the introduction of a schlocky comedic host/raconteur along the lines of Cain, Abel and the Mad Mod Witch.

Charity offered her laconic first ‘Welcome to Sinister House’ (presumably scripted by Editor Orlando and illustrated by the astonishingly gifted Michael Wm. Kaluta), before pioneering industry legend Sheldon Mayer – who would briefly act as lead writer for the title – replaced romance with mordant terror and gallows humour by asking ‘When is Tomorrow Yesterday?’ (art by Alfredo Alcala) for a genre-warping tale of time-travelling magic and medicine.

‘Brief Reunion!’ by John Albano, Ed Ramos & Mar Amongo showed a hitman the inescapable consequences of his life, and veterans Robert Kanigher & Bill Draut showed a murdering wife that Karma was a vengeful bitch in ‘The Man Hater’.

Issue #7 began with ‘Panic!’ by Mayer and the sublimely talented Nestor Redondo, who together taught a mobster’s chiselling bookkeeper a salient lesson about messing with girls who know magic, Sergio Aragonés opened an occasional gag feature of ‘Witch’s Tails’ and Mayer & June Lofamia futilely warned a student taking ship for America ‘As Long as you Live… Stay Away from Water!’

Sam Glanzman then illustrated Mayer’s twice-told tale of ghostly millennial vengeance in ‘The Hag’s Curse and the Hamptons’ Revenge!’ before cartoonist Lore Shoberg took a turn at the ‘Witch’s Tails’ to end the issue.

‘The Young Man Who Cried Werewolf Once Too Often’ illustrated by Draut in #8 found a most modern manner of dealing with lycanthropes, after which Maxene Fabe & Ruben Yandoc’s ‘Playing with Fire’ saw a bullied boy find a saurian pal to fix all his problems and E. Nelson Bridwell & Alex Niño again featured a wolf-man – but one who mistakenly believed lunar travel would solve his dilemma during a ‘Moonlight Bay’

Secrets of Sinister House #9 showed what could happen if impatient obnoxious neighbours were crazy enough to ‘Rub a Witch the Wrong Way!’ (Mayer & Abe Ocampo), and Kanigher & Rico Rival revealed ‘The Dance of the Damned’, wherein an ambitious ballerina learned to regret stealing the shoes and glory of her dead idol, before Jack Oleck & Rival depicted obsessive crypto-zoologists learning a hard lesson and little else whilst hunting ‘The Abominable Snowman’…

In #10 Steve Skeates & Alcala’s ‘Castle Curse’ saw a family torn apart by vulpine heredity, whilst Gerry Taloac’s ‘The Cards Never Lie!’ saw a gang turf war end badly because nobody would listen to a fortune teller, and a greedy hunchback went too far and learned too much in his drive to surpass his magician master in ‘Losing his Head!’ by Larry Hama, Neal Adams & Rich Buckler.

Following another Kaluta ‘Welcome to Sinister House’, Fabe & Yandoc crafted a period tale of greedy adventure and just deserts in ‘The Monster of Death Island’, after which all modern man’s resources were unable to halt the shocking rampage of ‘The Enemy’ (by persons unknown). More Aragonés ‘Witch’s Tails’ then preceded an horrific history lesson of the 18th century asylum dubbed ‘Bedlam’ by John Jacobson, Kanigher & Niño and generations of benighted, deluded exploited souls…

Sekowsky & Wayne Howard led off in #12 with the salutary tale of a greedy, ruthless furrier who became to his horror ‘A Very Cold Guy’, after which Oleck & Niño explored ‘The Ultimate Horror’ of a hopeless paranoid whilst, following more Aragonés ‘Witch’s Tails’, Bridwell & Alcala adapted W. F. Harvey’s classic chiller of ravening insanity ‘August Heat’.

Shock and awe was the order of the day in #13 when giant animals attack a horrified family in the decidedly deceptive ‘Deadly Muffins’ by Albano & Alcala, whereas Oleck & Niño wryly combined nuclear Armageddon and vampires in ‘The Taste of Blood’, before Albano & Jess Jodloman wrapped everything up with a nasty parable about great wealth and prognostication in ‘The Greed Inside’.

‘The Man and the Snake’ was another Bridwell & Alcala adaptation, this time depicting Ambrose Bierce’s mesmerising tale of mystery and imagination, but the original thrillers in #14 were just as good. In ‘The Roommate’ by Fred Wolfe, Sekowsky & Draut, a college romance is destroyed by a girl with an incredible secret whilst ‘The Glass Nightmare’ by Fleisher & Alcala taught an opportunistic thief and killer the reason why you shouldn’t take what isn’t yours…

Issue #15 began with ‘The Claws of the Harpy’ (Fleisher & Sparling), wherein a very human murdering monster reaped a whirlwind of retribution, followed up with Oleck & Romy Gamboa’s proof that there are more cunning hunters than vampires in ‘Hunger’ and culminating with a surprisingly heart-warming and sentimental fable in Albano & Jodloman’s ‘Mr. Reilly the Derelict!’

Despite the tone of the times, Secrets of Sinister House was not thriving. The odd mix of quirky tales and artistic experimentation couldn’t secure a regular audience, and a sporadic release schedule exacerbated the problems. Sadly the last few issues, despite holding some of the best original material and a few fabulous reprints, were seen by hardly any readers and the series vanished with #18.

Still, they’re here in all their wonderful glory and well worth the price of admission on their own.

An uncredited page of supernatural facts opens #16, after which George Kashdan & Don Perlin proffered a tale of feckless human intolerance and animal fidelity in ‘Hound You to Your Grave’, whilst the superb Vicente Alcazar traced the career of the infamous 18th century sorcerer the Count of St. Germain who proudly boasted ‘No Coffin Can Hold Me’ (possibly scripted by Leo Dorfman?), before Kashdan returned with newcomer Ernie Chan to recount the sinister saga of the world’s most inhospitable caravan in ‘The Haunted House-Mobile’.

Perhaps ironic in choice as lead #17’s ‘Death’s Last Rattle’ (Kashdan & the uniquely marvellous Ramona Fradon) combined terror with sardonic laughs as a corpse went on trial for his afterlife, even as an innocent living man was facing a jury for the dead man’s murder, whilst ‘Strange Neighbor’ by Howard Chaykin and ‘Corpse Comes on Time’ from Win Mortimer told classic quickie terror tales in a single page each.

To close the issue, the editor raided the vaults for one of the company’s oldest scary sagas.

‘Johnny Peril: Death Has Five Guesses’ by Kanigher, Giacoia & Sy Barry was first seen in Sensation Mystery #112 (November/December 1952) and pitted the perennial two-fisted trouble-shooter against a mystery maniac in a chamber of horrors. But was Karl Kandor just a deranged actor or something else entirely?

The curtain fell with #18, combining Kashdan & Calnan’s all-new ‘The Strange Shop on Demon Street’ – featuring a puppet-maker, marauding thugs and arcane cosmic justice – with a selection of reprints. From 1969 ‘Mad to Order’ by Murphy Anderson was another one page punch-liner and Dave Wood – as D.W. Holtz – & Angel B. Luna offered New Year’s Eve enchantment in ‘The Baby Who Had But One Year to Die’, whilst ‘The House that Death Built’, by Dorfman & Jerry Grandenetti, saw plundering wreckers rap the watery doom for their perfidy.

Once again the best was left till last as ‘The Half-Lucky Charm!’ by an unknown writer and artists Gil Kane & Bernard Sachs from Sensation Mystery #115 (May 1953) followed a poor schmuck who could only afford to buy 50% of Cagliostro’s good luck talisman and found his fortune and life were being reshaped accordingly…

With superbly experimental and evocative covers by Victor Kalin, Jerome Podwell, DeZuniga, Nick Cardy, Kaluta, Sparling and Luis Dominguez, this long-overlooked and welcomingly eclectic title is well overdue for a critical reappraisal, and fans of brilliant comics art and wry, laconic, cleverly humour-laced mild horror masterpieces should seek out this monochrome monolith of mirth and mystery.

Trust me: you’ll love it…
© 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2010 DC Comics, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Tales Designed to Thrizzle volume two

By Michael Kupperman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-615-7

Sometimes words mean nothing, pictures tell every story and stuff is funny just because it is. That pretty much sums up the work of absurdist Pop Culture Pirate comedy legend Michael Kupperman, whose graphic samplings of old comics, strips and magazines fill the pages of the too-infrequent comicbook Tales Designed to Thrizzle.

Kupperman is a cartoonist who clearly loves to draw and has no difficulty isolating the innate insanity of modern living as well as the way we regard our own past – especially the not-so-important bits – which he delivers in a surreal graphic deadpan style that would turn Buster Keaton grey with envy.

He created the strips Found in the Street and Up all Night, has worked for The New Yorker, Heavy Metal, The Wall Street Journal, The Independent on Sunday, LA Weekly, The New York Times, Libération, Fortune, Screw, Saturday Night Live and many similar reputable venues as well as in such comics as Hodags and Hodaddies, Hotwire, Snake Eyes, Zero Zero, Blood Orange and Legal Action Comics.

Kupperman’s first book Snake ‘n’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret (2000) led to his breaking into the heady world of adult animation and he has been a much in-demand illustrator for other people’s book.

In 2011 he released the astoundingly madcap Mark Twain’s Autobiography: 1910-2010, but Tales Designed to Thrizzle has always been his most personal vehicle of expression, allowing him to play his abstractedly stylish mind-games against a dizzying cultural backdrop of Men’s “sweat mags”, True Confessions pulps, cheesy old comics, B-movies, cheap advertising, and a million other bastions of low-class Americana, all given a unique twist and spin by a man whose skull is clearly too small for his brain…

After far too long an interval, this second classy hardcover collects issues #5-8 in scintillating high-energy colour and opens with ‘Mandate the Magician’ learning a lesson in karmic humility, after which the hilarious cautionary tale of ‘Fart Boobs’ teaches us all why it’s unwise to mock an alien’s name, and a swift succession of short pithy strips introduce ‘Journey into Adventure’, ‘The Librarian in the Tuna Casserole’, ‘The Hoardy Boys’ and superstar team-in-waiting Twain & Einstein who realise ‘Good Grief! Still More Wuthering Heights’

Many of the pages here are gloriously outré and absurdist graphic sight-gags: sham small ads and faux covers for comics and magazine which really shouldn’t be allowed: utterly daft delights such as ‘Remember the Past?’, ‘Ever-Approaching Grandpa’, ‘Sherlock Holmes versus Jungle Boy’, ‘Tales of the Intestinal Submarine’, ‘Johnny Exposition’ and ‘Show Me Your Weiner!’ but Kupperman is also a dab hand with words and typography as seen in his hilarious biography feature ‘Remember Them?’, the anti-melodic ‘Hum Along With your Grandkids’ and the Twain & Einstein prose vignettes ‘Albert Einstein’s Flashback Scheme’ and ‘Chasin’ the Dream’

The pairing of the separated twins – at least as he draws them – clearly inspired Kupperman. After a succession of covers for Twain & Einstein comicbooks, the tale of ‘Mark Twain, Hollywood Detective’ pits the venerable satirist author and his pal the Father of Modern Physics against the seamy underworld of Tinseltown as both gumshoes and superheroes in a manic melange of genres and loving pastiche of the long-forgotten 1960s Archie superhero revival of Jerry Siegel & Paul Reinman…

Following an inappropriate letters page and ‘The Twain Files: 1975’, ‘Buzz Aldrin’s Strange Missions’ leads inevitably into ‘Real Old-Timey Horror’, with ‘Birth of the Monkees’ and EC homage ‘Legs to Die For!’ before exposing ‘Ben Franklin: Inventor of the Bar Code’.

‘The Odd Couple of Draculas’ holds some ‘Astonishing Heroes’, the saga of ‘Gladiator & Snivolus’ and ads for ‘Weird Sandwich Magazine’ whilst the astonishing extended epic of ‘Jungle Princess’ reveals how one could balance being a White Goddess with editing a high class fashion mag, and ‘Willie Wealth – the Rich Little Rich Boy’ learns to his cost that money isn’t everything – like proteinaceous for example – before ‘All About Drainage’ takes the lid off the ultra-sexy and glamorous sewage biz…

After discovering ‘Books are Stupid’ and that ‘Women Love Men in an Apiary Hat’ the Twain & Einstein movie ‘So Boldly We Dare’ is adapted into wholesome picture form, after which ‘Cowboy Oscar Wilde’ and some important supernatural commercial messages lead to the public service announcement ‘Old People! You need Insurance!’

Cute ‘Mr. Flopears’ and his little hostage situation segues seamlessly into ‘The Ghost’ and ‘Wonder Book Junior’s “Ride of a Lifetime”’, before ‘Scary Bathtub Stories’ discloses the horrific tale of the ‘Bath of Death’ and the wondrous wares of ‘Hubert’s Shower World’, but the real thrills only arrive with the “Bell Comics” reprint of ‘Quincy, M.E.’ – including the martial arts secrets of ‘Catare’ – which crosses over (literally) into two-fisted ‘Saint Peter Comics’

Kupperman even dabbles in fumetti strips such as his photo ad for ‘Quincy’s Box of Things You Can Shout’, nicely breaking up the surrealist flow before the coroner and the first Pope slip into movie madness with ‘Quinception’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs 2 – featuring Snake ‘n’ Bacon’ and another fumetti interlude ‘A Voyage to Narnia’

‘The Hamanimal’ almost brought low a prominent citizen even as crime dog ‘McArf’ stood resolute against all scum and Twain & Einstein faced shocking revelations in ‘Family Affairs’ before more Quincy, old Saint Peter, Air War Stories and Hunchback & the Hydrant covers give way to ‘Gordon Ramsay’s Fairy Tale Toilet Kitchen Nightmares’, even more outrageous covers and the tales of ‘Buddy Baker in the 25th Century’, ‘Billy & the Giant Gangster’ and ‘McGritte, the Surrealist Crime Dog’.

Just for fun you can enjoy a capacious section of ‘Red Warren’s Train & Bus Coloring Book’ (not recommended for the faint-hearted, weak-stomached or rationality-challenged) whilst ‘Murder, She Goat’ deals with the quite understandable concerns of stock characters when crime novelist Jessica Fetcher comes to town, after which a concerned stylist asks ‘Do You Have Thin, Wispy Pubic Hair?’ and we learn all about ‘Great Men of History: Bertrand Copillon, AKA “The Scythe”’.

As our inevitable climax nears, we learn more secret history in ‘Moon 69: The True Story of the 1969 Moon Launch’ – with crucial testimony from President Nixon, Aldrin & Armstrong, reporters Woodward & Bernstein, Quincy and Lieutenant Columbo – before more unseemly ads and one final appearance of Twain & Einstein in ‘Homework? No Work’ brings everything to an irresponsible close.

Also containing loads more stuff I’m too nice to spoil for you and too nervous to mention in even digital print, this implausible challenging and deliciously demented box of screwy surprises is an absolute panacea for all real life’s sundry woes and downers: brash, challenging, brilliantly imaginative and always funny.

This is a book for every grown-up, occasionally immature, couch-based life-form in need of a hearty guffaw every now and then – but much more now than then…
All characters, stories and artwork © 2012 Michael Kupperman. All rights reserved.

American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar – New Revised Review

By Harvey Pekar, R. Crumb, Gregory Budgett, Gary Dumm, Gerry Shamray,
Kevin Brown, Susan Cavey & Val Mayerik
(Ballantine Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-787-0

Before finding relative fame in the 21st century, Harvey Pekar occupied that ghastly niche so good at trapping the truly creative individual: Lots and lots of critical acclaim, and an occasional heart-breakingly close brush with super-stardom, without ever actually getting enough ahead to feel secure or appreciated.

One of those aforementioned brushes came in 1980s with the release of a couple of compilations of selected strips by mainstream publisher Doubleday that even to this day are some of his most powerful, honest and rewarding “literary comics” ever seen. By mercilessly haranguing, begging and even paying (out of his meagre civil service wages and occasional wheeler-deal) any artists who met his exacting intellectual standards, Pekar all but created the comics genre of autobiographical, existentially questing, slice-of-life graphic narratives whilst eking out a mostly lonely, hand-to-mouth existence in Cleveland, Ohio.

How the irascible, opinionated, objectionable, self-educated music-mad working stiff came to use the admittedly (then) impoverished comicbook medium to make a fiercely vital social commentary on American life of the ordinary Joe is a magical journey in the plebeian far better read than read about, but I’m going to have a crack at convincing any holdouts anyway.

Moreover, by the time you’ve seen this I’m already on to my next crusade…

This compendium combines and re-releases those seminal tomes in one big, bold edition and was released to tie-in with the award-winning 2003 indie film biography American Splendor, and opens with the superb contents of the 1985 release American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, beginning by reproducing the introduction by early collaborator and modern Media Darling Robert Crumb before proceeding with a seductive welter of elegiac, confrontational, compulsive, challenging, painfully frank and distressingly honest observations that collectively changed the way English language comics were perceived, received and even created.

Rendered by Crumb, the excoriating graphic self-analysis begins with ‘The Harvey Pekar Name Story’ as the obsessive yet passive hunt for other people with the same name briefly gripped the self-confessed compulsive personality, whilst ‘The Young Crumb Story’ gave us Pekar’s take on the cartooning career of his collaborator, after which ‘A Fantasy’ again revisited the artist’s relationship with the writer: Pekar uncomfortably bragging over how he had browbeaten and gulled Crumb into drawing his scripts – and still was…

Gary Dumm illustrated the bizarre ‘Ozzie Nelson’s Open Letter to Crumb’ (written in 1972) describing the faded TV celebrity’s snotty pep talk to the cartooning degenerate, after which Crumb returned to deliver self-abusive insight as Pekar revealed ‘How I Quit Collecting Records – and Put Out a Comic Book with the Money I Saved’.

Greg Budgett & Dumm handled many of the most searingly honest introspectives such as ‘The Day Before the Be In’, the equally forthright and painful personal history sequels ‘Awakening to the Terror of the New Day’ and ‘Awakening to the Terror of the Same Old Day’ or the nigh-spiritual rationalisations of ‘Short Weekend – a Short Story About the Cosmic and the Ordinary’

One of the most impressive facets of Pekar’s tales is the uncompromising depiction of the people he encountered in work or socially (if such a term can apply to such a self-admitted “judgemental jerk”) and the frankly brutal way he attempts to keep narrative polish out of his graphic reportage.

Incidents such as ‘A Compliment’ or ‘Jivin’ With Jack the Bellboy as he Goes About… Hustlin’ Sides’ and ‘Jack the Bellboy and Mr. Boats’ – all illustrated by Crumb – recount episodes with co-workers undistinguished, unremarkable and free of all dramatic embellishment or grace-saving charisma… but they are intoxicatingly real and appealing.

‘Read This’ (Budgett & Dumm) tells how even cynics can be surprised by people, whilst the Crumb-illustrated ‘Standing Behind Old Jewish Ladies in Supermarket Lines’ is as gently hilarious as their ‘Ridin’ the Dog’ vignette of cross-country bus travel is contemplatively reassuring.

Innovative Gerry Shamray tackled the wordy self-examination of life’s pointless frustrations in ‘An Argument at Work’ and the cathartic ‘Working Man’s Nightmare’ with aplomb and smart sensitivity, before Crumb resurfaced to draw an incredible familiar and unwelcome situation as the obnoxious ‘Freddy Visits for the Week End’. Regrettably we all have friends like him…

Pekar’s disastrous history with women was a frequent theme and ‘Ripoff Chick’ (by Budgett & Dumm again) showed why and how. The only difference between the author and most men was that he admitted up front that he wanted sex without complications or commitment…

‘One Good Turn Deserves Another’ (Shamray) invites us to share a typically penny-pinching secret, before Dumm tackled a quirky friendship and the perils of well-intentioned matchmaking in ‘Leonard & Marie’, and ordinary folk got tied up discussing theology and politics in Shamray’s wryly related ‘Noah’s Ark’. The artist then effectively encapsulated ‘Class Antagonism’ before Jewish intellectual Pekar again examined his ethnic and cultural roots by revisiting his relationship with Old World Hebrew ‘Emil’ (Dumm & Budgett) and the danger of first-hand accounts in the Crumb-illustrated ‘The Maggies (Oral History)’ and Shamray’s death-camp memoir ‘Kaparra’

Crumb then turned in his most claustrophobic and impassioned drawing for the vibrant manifesto ‘American Splendor Assaults the Media’ after which the immensely stylish Kevin Brown limned a tale of frustrated selling out as Harvey attempted to schmooze up-and-coming movie star Wallace Shawn ‘Grubstreet, USA’, after which the first volume ended on a high of sorts with Pekar via Crumb temporarily resolving a ‘Hypothetical Quandary’.

The philosophising, reminiscing, ruminating, observing, eulogizing, questioning and fictively projecting promptly continues in From the Streets of Cleveland Comes… American Splendor: the Life and Times of Harvey Pekar, resuming the painfully honest – and to us here and now perhaps often unsettling and disquieting – accounts of normal lives with the Crumb-crafted classics ‘Pickled Okra (Okry)’, ‘Lunch with Carmella’, ‘Rollins on Time’ and ‘Visualize, Actualize, Realize’ – all containing commonplace friendly interactions with Pekar’s African-American co-workers that would make many genteel folk wince today…

A prospective hot date turned into a gruelling and pointless exercise in furniture moving in the Budgett & Dumm saga ‘Guerrilla Theatre: July ‘74 – on the Corner’ with a punch-line not apparent until their ‘On the Corner… a Sequel: June 1976’, after which inker turned illustrator to relate the nostalgic revelations of young lust in the 1950s on the ‘Roller Coaster to Nowhere’, but some measure of cosmic karma was achieved decades later when Pekar finally achieve his  childhood goal of owning ultra-hip and so, so cool ‘Stetson Shoes’

‘Mrs. Roosevelt and the Young Queen of Greece’ and ‘Busman’s Holiday’ by Dumm & Budgett celebrate the simple joy of guys simply sitting around shooting the breeze, whilst Crumb’s delicious treatment of Pekar’s love for old fashioned Jewish kvetching makes ‘Miracle Rabbis – a Dr. Gesundheit Story’ a minor masterpiece of comics.

‘An Everyday Horror Story’ (Shamray) then recaptures the tension and terror of Pekar’s first brush with serious illness – or so the author thought.

Always a healthy, vigorous but exceptionally excitable shouty man, Pekar got properly sick for the first time in his life and faced the very real prospect of never being able to speak again. This exceedingly gripping account perfectly presents all the fear, frustration, metaphysical pleading and moving emotional and practical support Harvey’s friends and then wife provided – and what happened next…

‘Alice Quinn’ drawn by S. (Susan) Cavey then detailed a portentous meeting with the girl who got away before Shamray’s powerfully captivating ‘I’ll be Forty Three on Friday (How I’m Living Now)’ offers a rare moment of optimistic clarity, and Cavey’s ‘Jury Duty’ shows how even the most earnest hopes and honest ambitions can worry the bejeezus out of “normal” folks…

For most of his life Pekar was that rarest of creatures – an un-typical American who chose not to drive (for good, sound and to my mind admirable reasons). Thus he often spent time cadging lifts and fretting about the etiquette of returning favours to his civilian chauffeurs. In ‘A Ride Home’ (Cavey) the impatience and anxiety grew momentarily too much, whilst in Dumm’s ‘Free Ride’ a long-standing arrangement with a previously admired old Jewish guy escalated into something ferociously passive-aggressive, quite strange and impossibly worrisome…

The same traumas afflicted Pekar when he foolishly bought his ex- wife’s automobile only to find it a cursed Jonah, which plagued him for many snowbound months in ‘Old Cars and Winter’ by Cavey. The superb and vastly underrated Val Mayerik joined the select band of artistic collaborators with the gloriously uplifting ‘A Marriage Album’, depicting life with beloved third wife with Joyce Brabner, and explored Pekar’s wild street-fighting juvenile days and later proclivities in ‘Violence’, whilst ‘History Repeats Itself’ offered a moment of resigned contemplation over teen spirits courtesy of Seán Carroll.

Mayerik contributed a final brace of gently contemplative pieces beginning with ‘A Matter of Life and…’ which saw an older, calmer author recap his life with a little more kindness than ever before, whilst an uneventful bus ride found Pekar gleaning a wealth of down-home ‘Common Sense’ from a voluble instructor driver before this masterful meander through a truly unique mind concludes with Crumb and the perfect solution to life’s ills with ‘Mr. Boats’ Miracle Cure’

With art by individualistic collaborators who were never content to stay in their Comfort Zones but always endeavoured to make their contributions unique unto the story, and selected from a most adventurous and historically creative decade, these tales of working life, self-esteem, achievement, failure, religion, the media, Nazi atrocity, guilt, acceptable bigotry, proudly defended ignorance, friendship, aloofness and the art of understanding women are timeless slices of life’s dreary brilliance.

As a man who constantly assessed and re-examined his own creative worth and self, Harvey Pekar opened up his life to the world and changed it by being ordinary and average.

…Except he never was, as this superb insight into the mind and heart of a truly original comics creator will attest. This splendid, engrossing book offers readers a chance to see the humour, confusion and frustration of being an American thinker in a world that simply doesn’t value brains and spirit anymore – and I fear that’s going to be one of humanity’s eternal verities…

© 1976-1986, 2004 Harvey Pekar, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Pogo: the Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 2: Bona Fide Balderdash

By Walt Kelly, edited by Carolyn Kelly (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-584-6

Tragically this review copy didn’t reach me in time for a Christmas recommendation, but that’s okay as books of this calibre are worth buying and reading at every moment of every day, and rather than waste your valuable time with my purely extraneous blather, you should just hit the shops or the online emporia of your choice and grab this terrific tome now…

If you still need more though, and aren’t put off by me yet, I’m happy to elucidate at some length…

Walter Crawford Kelly Jr. was born in 1913 and started his cartooning career whilst still in High School, as artist and reporter for the Bridgeport Post. In 1935, he moved to California and joined the Disney Studio, working on short cartoon films and such features as Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio until the infamous animator’s strike in 1941.

Refusing to take sides, Kelly moved back East and into comicbooks – primarily for Dell who held the Disney funnybook license amongst others at that time.

Despite his glorious work on such popular people-based classics as the Our Gang movie spin-off, Kelly preferred and particularly excelled with anthropomorphic animal and children’s fantasy material. For the December 1942-released Animal Comics #1 he created Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum, wisely retaining the copyrights in the ongoing saga of two affable Bayou critters and their young African-American pal Bumbazine. Although the black kid soon disappeared, the animal actors stayed on as stars until 1948 when Kelly moved into journalism, becoming art editor and cartoonist for hard hitting, left-leaning liberal newspaper The New York Star.

On October 4th 1948, Pogo, Albert and an ever-expanding cast of gloriously addictive characters began their funny pages careers, appearing in the paper six days a week until the periodical folded in January 1949.

Although ostensibly a gently humorous kids feature, by the end of its run (reprinted in full at the back of Pogo: the Complete Syndicated Comic Strips volume 1) the first glimmers of the increasingly barbed, boldly satirical masterpiece of velvet-pawed social commentary began to emerge…

When The Star closed Pogo was picked up for mass distribution by the Post-Hall Syndicate and launched on May 16th 1949 in selected outlets. A colour Sunday page debuted January 29th 1950 and both were produced simultaneously by Kelly until his death in 1973 (and even beyond, courtesy of his talented wife and family).

At its height the strip appeared in 500 papers throughout 14 countries and the book collections – which began in 1951 – eventually numbered nearly 50, collectively selling over 30 million copies, and all that before this Fantagraphics series began…

In this second of a proposed full dozen volumes reprinting the entire canon of the Okefenokee Swamp citizenry, possibly the main aspect of interest is the personable Possum’s first innocently adorable attempts to run for Public Office – a ritual which inevitably and coincidentally reoccurred every four years whenever the merely human inhabitants of America got together for raucous caucuses and exuberant electioneering – but it’s also remarkable to note that by the close of this two-year period Kelly had increased his count of uniquely Vaudevillian returning characters to over one hundred. The likes of Solid MacHogany, Tammanany Tiger, Willow McWisper, Goldie Lox, Sarcophagus MacAbre, the sloganeering P.T. Bridgeport, bull moose Uncle Antler and a trio of brilliantly scene-stealing bats named Bewitched, Bothered and Bemildred, amongst so many others would pop up with varying frequency and impact over the next twenty years…

This colossal and comfortingly sturdy landscape compilation (three-hundred-and fifty-six 184x267mm pages) includes the monochrome Dailies from January 1st 1951 to December 31st 1952, and the Sundays – in their own full-colour section – from January 7th 1951 to December 28th 1952 – all faithfully annotated and listed in a copious, expansive and informative Table of Contents. Supplemental features comprise a Foreword from pioneering comedy legend Stan Freberg, delightful unpublished illustrations and working drawings by Kelly, more invaluable context and historical notes in the amazing R.C. Harvey’s ‘Swamp Talk’ by and a biographical feature ‘About Walt Kelly’ by Mark Evanier.

In his time the satirical mastermind unleashed his bestial spokes-cast on such innocent, innocuous sweethearts as Senator Joe McCarthy, J.Edgar Hoover, the John Birch Society, Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Clan, as well as the likes of Hubert Humphrey, Lyndon B. Johnson and – with eerie perspicacity – George W. Romney, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Governor of Michigan and Pa of some guy named Mitt…

This particular monument to madcap mirth and sublime drollery of course includes the usual cast: gently bemused Pogo, boisterous, happily ignorant alligator Albert, dolorous Porkypine, obnoxious turtle Churchy La Femme, lugubrious hound Beauregard Bugleboy, carpet-bagging Seminole Sam Fox, pompous (doesn’t) know-it-all Howland Owl and all the rest, covering not only day to day topics and travails like love, marriage, weather, fishing, the problem with kids, the innocent joys of sport, making a living and why neighbours shouldn’t eat each other, but also includes epic sagas: the stress of Poetry Contests, hunting – from a variety of  points of view – Christmas and other Public Holidays, incipient invasion, war and even cross-dressing to name but a few…

As Kelly spent a good deal of 1952 spoofing the electoral race, this tome offers a magical, magnificent treatment of all the problems associated with grass (and moss) roots politics: dubious campaign tactics, loony lobbying, fun with photo ops, impractical tactical alliances, glad-handing, a proliferation of political promos and ephemera, how to build clockwork voters – and candidates – and of course, life after a failed run for the Presidency…

As the delicious Miz Ma’m’selle Hepzibah would no doubt say: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Kelly’s uncontested genius lay in his seemingly effortless ability to lyrically, vivaciously portray through anthropomorphic affectation comedic, tragic, pompous, infinitely sympathetic characters of any shape or breed, all whilst making them undeniably human, and he used that gift to blend hard-hitting observation of our crimes, foibles and peccadilloes with rampaging whimsy, poesy and sheer exuberant joie de vivre.

The hairy, scaly, feathered slimy folk of the surreal swamp lands are, of course, inescapably us, elevated by burlesque, slapstick, absurdism and all the glorious joys of wordplay from puns to malapropisms to raucous accent humour into a multi-layered hodgepodge of all-ages delight – and we’ve never looked or behaved better…

This stuff will certainly make you laugh; it will probably provoke a sentimental tear or ten and will certainly satisfy your every entertainment requirement. Timeless and magical, Pogo is a giant not simply of comics, but of world literature and this magnificent second edition should be the pride of every home’s bookshelf, right beside the first one.

…Or, in the popular campaign parlance of the critters involved: “I Go Pogo!” and so should you.

POGO Bona Fide Balderdash and all POGO images, including Walt Kelly’s signature © 2012 Okefenokee Glee & Perloo Inc. All other material © 2012 the respective creator and owner. All rights reserved.

Barack Hussein Obama

By Steven Weissman (Fantagraphics Books International)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-623-2

Steven Weissman was born in California in 1968 and grew up to be an exceptionally fine and imaginative cartoonist. He has worked for Alternative Comics, Last Gasp, Dark Horse, Marvel, DC, Vice and Nickelodeon Magazine among others, and his artistic sensibilities have been influenced and shaped by such disparate forces as Super-Deformed manga, “Our Gang” comedies, Abbott and Costello, Dan Clowes, Mike Allred and Peanuts – the strip, not the foodstuff.

Much of his groundbreaking, award-winning early work, dating from the mid-1990s, offered a post-modern, skewed and alternative view of friendship, childhood, world weirdness and people’s meanness and can all be enjoyed over and over again in such stunning compilations as Tykes, Yikes!, Lemon Kids, Don’t Call Me Stupid, Mean, Chewing Gum in Church, White Flower Day, Chocolate Cheeks and others. The French and Japanese – who really know quality comics – love him lots.

In 2012 Weissman literally went back to the drawing board, un-and-recreating himself and his aesthetic methodology for a weekly online strip entitled Barack Hussein Obama which has since been collected into a stunning and unbelievably enchanting hardcover cartoon book about the unsuspected nature of modern America.

Spiky, acerbic, tellingly mundane and captivatingly absurdist, it follows the day to day tribulations of this ordinary shmoe who just happens to be the President of the USA as he distractedly fails to deal with that persistently annoying old Joe Biden guy, the pushy, overly excitable Rodham Clinton dame and that obnoxious oaf Newt all whilst trying to placate his testily disappointed wife and their terminally trendy kids Malia and Sasha.

It’s a full, if confusing life, always filled with minor crises. When he’s not being accidentally racist at Press Conferences or making jokes journalists don’t get, Barack is happily sharing old family recipes or chatting with foreign dignitaries he can’t understand, even if Joe is always butting in, telling him off and acting hurt whilst the Secret Service guy is constantly hanging around looking mean…

…And then there’s that bad-tempered Clinton lady sneaking off to get cosy with sex-bomb Muammar el-Qaddafi, the recurring stiff-necked, stuck-up ghost of long-dead President James Garfield peddling advice, the ongoing hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the old lady who managed to steal Barack’s identity and bought all that pet food and piano lessons…

No wonder the President needs to occasionally slip away now and then to get totally baked…

All in all though Barack thought it was going pretty well until the bird started talking to him. It wasn’t long before Mr. President transformed into a gigantic parakeet on Air-force One and headed for the peacefully deep blue skies…

With guest appearances – sort of – by Truman Capote, Nicholas Sarközy, Alfred E. Neuman, The Punisher’s War Journal and more, this is a look inside the Oval Office like none you’ve ever seen, but no matter how much Tea Party Republicans would like it to be, it certainly isn’t another searing expose of dubious shenanigans from the pretender to a stolen throne.

It is, though, a generous, gentle and spectacularly surreal trip into the head of a very special and oddly observant US citizen who has creatively concocted a world that all rulers and/or prospective despots should visit at least once.

This isn’t the real Obama, but it might well be the one the average American deserves…

A lot of very smart people are saying a lot of very deep, very clever and appreciative things about this deliciously winning book, so I won’t waste my time competing with them. I will however tell you that Barack Hussein Obama is one of the most enticing, intriguing and sheerly delightful reads of the last year and anybody with half a brain – or even more: more is always better – would be crazy not to pick up a copy.

© 2012 Steven Weissman. All rights reserved.

There’s a HAIR in My Dirt! – A Worm’s Story

By Gary Larson, coloured by Nick Bell of Wildstorm Productions (Little, Brown and Co/HarperCollins)
ISBNs: 978-0-31664-519-5 (HC)       978-0060932749 (PB)

We may not be rocket scientists but all cartoonists tend to lurk at the sharp end of the IQ bell curve – and then there’s Gary Larson. He could be a rocket scientist if he wanted to. Happily though, his inclinations tend towards natural history and the Life Sciences.

And making people laugh in a truthful, thinking kind of way…

Larson was born in 1950 and raised in WashingtonState. After school and college (also WashingtonStatewhere he got a degree in communications) he bummed around and got a job in a music store – which he hated. During a self-imposed sabbatical he evolved into a cartoonist by submitting to Pacific Search (now Pacific Northwest Magazine) in Seattle who promptly astonished him by accepting and paying for his six drawings. Bemused and emboldened Larson kept on doodling and in 1979 The Seattle Times began publishing his strip Nature’s Way. When The San Francisco Chronicle picked up the gag feature they renamed it The Far Side

From 1980 on the Chronicle Syndicate peddled the strip with huge success. The Far Side became a global phenomenon and Larson’s bizarre, skewed and bitingly surreal strip starring nature Smug in Tooth and Claw almost took over the world. With 23 collections (over 45 million copies sold), two animated movies, calendars, greetings cards and assorted merchandise seemingly everywhere, the smartypants scribbler was at the top of his game when he retired the feature on January 1st 1995.

After fifteen years at the top, Larson wanted to quit while he was ahead. He still did the occasional promo piece or illustration but increasingly devoted his time to ecological causes and charities such as Conservation International. He still does.

Of course he couldn’t stop drawing or thinking or, indeed, teaching and in 1998 created the stunningly smart and cool children’s book for concerned and nervous adults under the microscope here.

There’s a HAIR in My Dirt! brilliantly, mordantly tells a parable within a fable and serves up a marvellously meaningful message for us to absorb and ingest whilst simultaneously making us laugh like loons and worry like warts.

One day underground a little worm having dinner with his folks finds something unnatural and icky in his meal and starts bemoaning the lowly status and general crappiness of his annelidic existence (look it up, I’m showing off and making a comedic point too…). To counter this outburst of whingeing Father Worm offers a salutary tale to put things into their proper perspective…

Thus begins the tragic tale of Harriet, a beautiful human maiden living – she believed – at one with world in the woods, enraptured with the bountiful Magic of Nature and of one particular frolicsome day encountering cute squirrels, lovely flowers, icky bugs, happy birds, playful deer, tortoises and every kind of creature… and completely missing the point about all of them…

Masquerading as an acerbic faux fairytale teller, Larson delivers an astoundingly astute and unforgettable ecology lesson equally effective in educating young and old alike about Nature’s true nature – and yet still miraculous wonders – all whilst maintaining a monolithic amount of outrageous comic hilarity.

This sublime illustrated yarn became a New York Times Best Seller on its release and still serves as a fabulous reminder of what really clever people can achieve even if they don’t do rocket science…

Seriously though: There’s a HAIR in My Dirt! is one of the smartest, funniest and most enticingly educational kid’s book ever created and should be on every school curriculum. Since it isn’t, perhaps it’s best if you picked one up for the house…?
© 1998 FarWorks, Inc. All rights reserved.

Totally Mad – 60 Years of Humour, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity

By “The Usual Gang of Idiots” & edited by John Ficarra (Time Home Entertainment)
ISBN: 978-1-61893-030-9

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: a truly timeless tome bringing back a golden age of laughter – no matter how young you are… 10/10

EC Comics began in 1944 when comicbook pioneer Max Gaines sold the superhero properties of his All-American Comics company to half-sister National/DC, retaining only Picture Stories from the Bible. His plan was to produce a line of Educational Comics with schools and church groups as the major target market.

Gaines augmented this core title with Picture Stories from American History, Picture Stories from Science and Picture Stories from World History, but the so-worthy notion was already struggling when he died in a boating accident in 1947.

With disaster looming, his son William was dragged into the family business and with much support and encouragement from unsung hero Sol Cohen – who held the company together until the initially unwilling Bill Gaines abandoned his dreams of a career in chemistry – transformed the ailing enterprise into Entertaining Comics

After a few tentative false starts and abortive experiments, Gaines and his multi-talented associate Al Feldstein settled into a bold, fresh publishing strategy, utilising the most gifted illustrators in the field to tell a “New Trend” of stories aimed at an older and more discerning readership.

From 1950 to 1954 EC was the most innovative and influential publisher in America, dominating the genres of crime, horror, war and science fiction, spawning a host of cash-in imitations and, under the auspices of writer, artist and editor Harvey Kurtzman, the inventor of an entirely new beast: the satirical comicbook…

Mad also inspired dozens of knock-offs and even a controversial sister publication, Panic.

Kurtzman was a cartoon genius and probably the most important cartoonist of the last half of the 20th century. His early triumphs in the fledgling field of comicbooks (Mad, Two-Fisted Tales, Frontline Combat) would be enough for most creators to lean back on, but Kurtzman was a force in newspaper strips (See Flash Gordon Complete Daily Strips 1951-1953) and a restless innovator, a commentator and social explorer who kept on looking at folk and their doings: a man with exacting standards who just couldn’t stop creating.

He invented a whole new format and gave the USA Populist Satire when he transformed his highly successful full-colour comicbook baby Mad into a mainstream monochrome magazine, safely distancing the outrageously comedic publication from fall-out caused by the 1950s socio-political witch-hunt which eventually killed all EC’s other titles, and bringing the now more socially acceptable publication to a far wider, broader audience.

He pursued his unique brand of thoughtfully outré comedy and social satire with the magazines Trump, Humbug and Help!, all the while conceiving challenging and powerfully effective humour strips such as Little Annie Fannie (for Playboy), The Jungle Book, Nutz, Goodman Beaver, and Betsy and her Buddies. Seemingly tireless, he also inspired the next generation through his creations on Sesame Street and with his teaching of cartooning at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He died far too early in 1993.

…And he was just one of the astonishingly gifted creators who have turned Mad into a staggeringly influential cultural phenomenon and global brand in the intervening years…

Just in time to be an ideal gift, and celebrating the history and progress of an institution we all grew up with if not in, Totally Mad reviews the rise and rise of the magazine with tantalising snippets of gags and features accompanied by great big buckets of captivating excerpts and illustrations from the many brilliant creators who have contributed to its success.

Be Warned: this is not a “best of” collection – it would be impossible to choose, and besides there are hundreds of reprint book compilations and websites for that. This is a celebration of past and present glories and a compulsive taster for further exploration, but with very few complete stories…

At 256 pages this huge (312x235mm) and luxurious compendium includes historical articles, hundreds of pages of amazingly funny art and cleverly barbed observations, divided by decades and augmented by hundreds of full-colour, iconic cover reproductions, referencing favourite features such as Spy vs Spy (both by originator Antonio Prohias and successor Peter Kuper), Mad Fold-Ins, Al Jaffee’s ‘Scenes We’d Like to See’, Dave Berg’s ‘The Lighter Side of…’, ‘Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions’, ‘Mad Mini-Posters’, whilst Film and TV parodies include ‘Gunsmoked’, ‘My Fair Ad-Man’, ‘East Side Story’, ‘Flawrence of Arabia’, ‘Star Blecch’, ‘Jaw’d’, ‘Saturday Night Feeble’, ‘LA Lewd’, ‘Dorky Dancing’, and assorted mega-movie franchises ad infinitum…

Whatever your period, and whichever is your most dearly revered, it’s probably sampled here…

Following an eccentric and loving Introduction from Stephen Colbert and Eric Drysdale -illustrated by Sam Viviano – veteran contributor Frank Jacobs provides a photo-packed profile of the magazine’s unique father-figure by asking – and answering – ‘Who Was Bill Gaines?’ after which ‘Mad in the 1950s’ recalls the Kurtzman era with brightly hued extracts from giant ape spoof ‘Ping Pong!’, ‘Superduperman!’, ‘Lone Stranger Rides Again!’, ‘Sound Effects!’, ‘Melvin of the Apes!’, ‘Mad Reader!’, ‘Bringing Back Father!’ and ‘Starchie’, highlighting the talents of Will Elder, Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, John Severin, Basil Wolverton & Bernie Krigstein, before moving into the magazine phase by spoofing advertising and popular pastimes with ‘Readers Disgust’, ‘What Makes a Glass of Beer Taste so Good?’ and more.

Arch-caricaturist Mort Drucker began his stellar run at this time as did the mildly maniacal Don Martin, whilst proven comics masters Joe Orlando, Wood, Davis and George Woodbridge reached astonishing peaks of artistic excellence with a parade of stunning covers and end-pages by Kurtzman, Kelly Freas, Norman Mingo and others proving as effective now as in your granddad’s day…

In ‘Who is Alfred E. Neuman?’, Jacobs recounts the twisted and turbulent origins of the magazine’s iconic gap-toothed-idiot mascot after which ‘Mad in the 1960s’ highlights the rise of Television and the counter-culture whilst ‘Was Mad Ever Sued?’ finds Jacobs  testifying to some truly daft and troubling moments in the mag’s life…

Some of the very best bits of ‘Mad in the 1970s’ is followed by the conclusion of ‘Who Was Bill Gaines?’ after which Davis, Dick DeBartolo & Jacobs’ legendary ‘Raiders of the Lost Art’ skit opens ‘Mad in the 1980s’ as patriotism, movie blockbusters, Hip-hop and computer games seized the public’s collective imagination…

‘What Were the Mad Trips?’ explores a grand tradition of company holidays, after which the transitional years of ‘Mad in the 1990s’ covers Rap music, the rise of celeb culture and the magazine’s forays into a rapidly changing world. This is followed by ‘Mad After Gaines’ which details the internal adjustments that took place following the death of the hands-on, larger-than life publisher in 1992 whilst ‘Mad in the 2000s’ details the brand’s shift into the digital world, with exemplars from creators old and new spoofing medicines, newspaper strips, elections, dead phrases, celebrity causes, religion, cell-phones, man-boobs, war in Iraq, Obesity, satirical rival ‘The Bunion’, contemporary Racism and media sensations Donald  Trump, whilst parodies included ‘Bored of the Rings’, ‘Sluts in the City’, ‘Spider-Sham’, and so much more…

Current editor John Ficarra provides a suitable Afterword and this magnificent tome also includes a poster pack of a dozen of the very best covers from Mad’s epochal run.

Most of you can happily stop now, but if you’re into shopping lists here’s just a small portion of the other contributing “idiots” who have madr the magazine a national institution… like graft and pimples:

Sergio Aragonés is represented throughout with his Mad Marginals as well as many masterful cartoons and pastiches, and writers include Vic Cohen, Tom Koch, Larry Siegel, Nick Meglin, Earl Doud, Lou Silverstone, Jacobs, DeBartolo, Arnie Kogen, Chevy Chase, Marylyn Ippolito, Max Brandel, Stan Hart, Billy Doherty, Barry Liebman, Desmond Devlin, Russ Cooper, Joe Raiola, Charlie Kadau, Robert Bramble, Michael Gallagher, Butch D’Ambrosio amongst so many others.

All-rounders both scripting and scribbling include Dave Berg, Al Jaffee, Aragonés, Don Martin, John Caldwell, Paul Peter Porges, Don “Duck” Edwing, Tom Cheney, Drew Friedman, Peter Kuper, Christopher Baldwin, Feggo and star artists making a splash range from venerable veterans such as Frank Frazetta, John Cullen Murphy and Angelo Torres to Mark Frederickson, Bob Clarke, Gary Belkin, Paul Coker Jr., Mutz, Jack Rickard, Irving Schild, Gerry Gersten, Rick Tulka, Harry North, Richard Williams, Tom Bunk, Bill Wray, Steve Brodner, Mark Stutzman, Tom Richmond, Gary Hallgren… the list is nigh endless.

Wrist-wreckingly huge, eye-poppingly great and mind-bogglingly fun, this is one all the family will be happy to pore through… and probably fight over.
© 2012 E.C. Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.