Temperance


By Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-323-1

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: a charismatic leader drags an entire nation into a phony war, manipulating facts, twisting good people’s lives, destroying their innocence and fomenting an atmosphere of sustained paranoia and unthinking patriotism – if not literal jingoistic madness.

Then he shuffles out of the picture and lets his – generally incompetent – successors deal with the mess he’s created: those remnants divided equally into well-meaning but clueless ditherers and now-fanatical disciples who think only they can run the show…

The land is in turmoil. Pa is raising a ruckus trying to get his monstrous ark built before the ruthless invaders begin the final attack. Eldest girl Peggy and little Minerva follow as he carves a wake of destructive energy through the landscape. Pa has galvanised the local villagers and they await his command to enter the fortress-city within the monolithic edifice, dubbed “Blessedbowl.”

When Pa begins once more to assault his oldest lass, only hapless Minerva and the trees are witness to the unleashed savagery. Suddenly, a young man rushes to Peg’s rescue, captivating forever the cowering Min. His name is Lester, but despite a terrific struggle the rescuer is no match for Pa’s maniacal vigour. The young man is left brain-damaged and maimed.

Pa bids Min see to Lester. The Doomsayer is lost in his preparations again. The Crisis has arrived…

Three decades pass. Min has married Lester and a thriving community exists within Blessedbowl, a permanent subsistence/siege economy built on paranoia: isolated and united by a common foe that has never been seen and is therefore utterly terrifying.

Moses-like, Pa remained behind when the ark was sealed, to fight a rearguard action. Min is now his regent, efficiently running the closed ecology and economy, bolstered by the devoted attention of Lester, the amnesiac war-hero who lost so much when the invisible enemy launched their final assault…

Min controls the community through reports from the distant front and Lester guards the city within Blessedbowl’s hull. But now his befuddled memory is clearing, and Min, hopelessly in love with him, faces the threat that all that has been so slowly built may come crashing swiftly down…

And this is just the tip of the iceberg in a vast story that – despite being almost a decade old – could well be the best thing you’ll read this year. Created during America’s longest-running war (9 years and by some assessments still running but with another name…) this multi-layered, incisive parable examines how families and countries can be twisted by love, fear and the craziest lies leaders can concoct and yet still seemingly prosper.

As much mystical generational fantasy as veiled allegory, Temperance will open your eyes on so many levels. As events spiral beyond all control the astounding outcome, whilst utterly inevitable will also be a complete surprise… and just wait until you discover the identity of the eponymous narrator…

Mythical, mystical, metaphorical, lyrical, even poetic, here is a modern, timeless tuned-in epic blending Shakespearean passions with soft Orwellian terrors. King Lear and 1984 are grandparents to this subtly striking tale of freedom and honour – personal and communal – foolishly but willingly surrendered to a comfortable, expedient slavery.

Combining trenchant social commentary with spiritually uplifting observation, illustrated in the softest pencil tones – reminiscent of English World War II cartoons (particularly Pont and Bateman, but also the animations of Halas and Batchelor) – this is joy to read, a delight to view and a privilege to own.

We must all do so …
© 2010 Cathy Malkasian. All right reserved. This edition © 2010 Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Satania


By Vehlmann & Kerascoët, translated by Joe Johnson (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-68112-143-7

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Daring Dip into the Dark Underside of Life… 9/10

Vehlmann was only born in 1972 yet his prodigious canon of work (from 1998 to the present) has earned him the soubriquet of “the Goscinny of the 21st Century”. As Fabien Vehlmann, he entered the world in Mont-de-Marsan and grew up in Savoie, growing up to study business management before taking a job with a theatre group.

In 1996, after entering a writing contest in Spirou, he caught the comics bug and two years later published – with illustrative collaborator Denis Bodart – a mordantly quirky and sophisticated portmanteau period crime comedy entitled Green Manor. From there on his triumphs grew to include amongst others Célestin Speculoos for Circus, Nicotine Goudron for l’Écho des Savanes and major league property Spirou and Fantasio.

Since then his star has grown brighter and brighter, especially on his collaborations with husband-&-wife team Kerascoët: Marie Pommepuy and Sébastien Cosset, who work in advertising, animation and fashion when not rendering such glorious comics treats as Beauty, Beautiful Darkness, Miss Don’t Touch Me and the epically expansive Dungeons franchise of inter-linked albums.

Their most recent joint escapade is Satanie, translated into English as the equally disquieting Satania. A seemingly bright and shiny bauble, the tale offers a dark glimpse into inner worlds both physical and psychical as troubled Charlie convinces a disparate band of potholers to help her find her missing brother Christopher.

Rendered in a captivating primitivist style that conceals a potent emotional punch, the unfolding saga finds young Charlotte, elderly priest Father Monsore, Mr Lavergne, Legoff and a handful of other intrepid souls delving deep beneath a mountain in search of the young scientist.

Scientist Christopher held radical evolutionary theories positing that Hell is real and exists far beneath the earth, populated by corporeal beings adapted over eons of natural selection to their harsh subterranean existence. The devils and demons of history and superstition are simply fellow creatures awaiting our discovery and classification and extended arms of friendship and welcome…

However, when a flash flood fills the caverns and forces the explorers deep into uncharted regions, an incredible series of tribulations and revelations begin. A fantastic underground odyssey with lost human civilisations, incredible monsters and unimaginable macro-organisms is boldly undertaken, but as ill-fortune and death constantly dog the party, the survivors quickly realise that although the fantastic creatures they encounter may not be supernally evil, the god-fearing humans have brought their own demons with them into a fresh kind of hell …

An astounding voyage of discovery with breathtaking vistas and inventions, Satania explores the human condition in ways both uncomfortable and wondrous.
© Editions Soleil/Vehlmann/Kerascoët 2016. © 2017 NBM for the English Translation.

For more information and other great reads see http://www.nbmpub.com/

The Complete Peanuts volume 2: 1953-1954


By Charles Schulz (Canongate Books/Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84767-032-8 (Canongate):        978-1-56097-614-1 (Fantagraphics)

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: The ultimate Family Treat… 9/10

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most deeply personal.

Cartoonist Charles M Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for half a century. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000, dying from the complications of cancer the day before his last strip was published…

At its height, the strip ran in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, translated into 21 languages. Many of those venues are still running perpetual reprints, as they have ever since his departure. Book collections, a merchandising mountain and television spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire.

None of that is really the point. Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived, and showed that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punch lines.

Following a moving reminiscence from legendary newsman Walter Cronkite, this second gargantuan (218 x 33x 172 mm) landscape hardback compendium (also available in digital formats) offers in potent monochrome the third and fourth years in the life of Charlie Brown and Co: an ever-evolving procession of insight and hilarity in still-fresh episodes seldom seen or reprinted once the strip had achieved its global domination.

Here a still rather outgoing and jolly Charlie Brown and high-maintenance – but essentially dog-like – mutt Snoopy interacted with bombastic Shermy and mercurial Patty all out doing kid things. Now, however, the supporting cast had expanded to include Violet, Beethoven-obsessed musical prodigy Schroeder, obnoxious “fussbudget” Lucy, and infant addition Linus – an actual architectural idiot savant.

They are memorably joined in this volume by human dust storm Pig-pen as well as the invention of a certain mystic tranquiliser dubbed the Security Blanket…

By the end of 1952 the daily diet of rapid-fire gags had evolved from raucous slapstick to surreal, edgy, psychologically barbed introspection, crushing peer-judgements and deep rumination in a world where kids – and certain animals – were the only actors, and even inanimate objects occasionally got into the action with malice aforethought

The relationships, however, were increasingly evolving: deep, complex and absorbing even though “Sparky” Schulz never deviated from his core message to entertain…

The first Sunday page had debuted on January 6th 1952: a standard half-page slot offering more measured fare than the daily. Both thwarted ambition and explosive frustration became part of the strip’s signature denouements and continued to develop. There are some pure gem examples of running gag mastery in here too, such as Snoopy’s extended cold war with baby Linus over treats, or Lucy’s hidden talents for golf and skipping…

Perennial touchstones on display herein include playing, playing pranks, playing sports, playing in mud, playing in snow, playing musical instruments, learning to read, the new domestic sensation of television, coping with kites, teasing each other, making baffled observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups.

The soft-soap ostracization of Charlie Brown begins and his feelings of alienation are well explored but in truth Lucy is the star here, with episodes seeing her expelled from Kindergarten as her insufferable know-it-allness grows. There’s also repeated evidence of what passes for her softer side too, as her fascination with Schroeder develops into a true crush, but, oh!, what she does to her little brother when nobody’s watching…

The first hints of Snoopy’s incredible inner mindscape can be seen here and, as previously mentioned, the uncleanable kid Pig-pen arrives and shakes up everybody’s world…

And best of all, auteur Schulz is in brilliant imaginative form crafting a myriad of purely graphic visual gags any surrealist would give their nose-teeth to have come up with…

By the end of this book Charlie Brown – although still a benign dreamer with his eyes affably affixed on the stars – is solidly locked on the path to his eternal loser, singled-out-by-fate persona and the sheer diabolical wilfulness of Lucy starts sharpening itself on everyone around her…

Adding to the enjoyment and elucidation, a copious ‘Index’ offers instant access to favourite scenes you’d like to see again, after which Gary Groth reviews the life of ‘Charles M. Schulz: 1922-2000’ rounding out our glimpse of the dolorous graphic genius with intimate revelations and reminiscences…

Still readily available, this volume offers the perfect example of a masterpiece in motion: comedy gold and social glue gradually metamorphosing in an epic of spellbinding graphic mastery which became part of the fabric of billions of lives, and which continues to do so long after its maker’s passing.

How can you possibly resist?
The Complete Peanuts: 1953-1954 (Volume Two) © 2004 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. Foreword © 2004 Walter Cronkite. “Charles M. Schulz: 1922 to 2000” © 2004 Gary Groth. All rights reserved.

Rick O’Shay and Hipshot: The Great Sunday Pages


By Stan Lynde (Tempo Books)
ISBN: 0-448-12522-6

Once upon a time, Westerns were the most popular genre in American mass entertainment, with novels, magazines, films, radio shows, TV series, comicbooks and of course newspaper strips all devoted to “Men Doin’ What They Gotta Do”: Riding Ranges, Rounding up stuff, Gun-fighting and all the other timeless iconic cultural activities we all think we know…

Over the decades hundreds of Western strips have graced the pages and increased the circulation of newspapers; from singing cowboy film-star Roy Rogers to Red Ryder, Casey Ruggles, the Lone Ranger, Lance and so many more. Even staid Britain got into the act with such lost masterpieces as Buffalo Bill, Matt Marriot, Gun Law and Wes Slade ranking highest amongst fans around the world…

With such a plethora of material concentrated in one genre it’s no surprise that different takes would inevitably develop. Thus, alongside The Big Country, High Noon, Soldier Blue or Unforgiven there blossomed less traditional fare such as Destry Rides Again, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Blazing Saddles.

Falling straight into the same comedy Western territory as The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw and Support Your Local Sheriff – whilst predating both – came one of the earliest and most successful modern gag-a-day continuity strips, blending iconic scenarios with memorable characters, playing out their daily antics against a spectacular backdrop of lavishly illustrated natural beauty.

Stan Lynde was born in Billings, Montana on 23rd September 1931, the son of a sheep farmer who grew up with a passion for comic strips. His first efforts appeared in the High School paper and after studying journalism at Montana State he served in the Navy from 1951-1955. During that tour of duty he created the strip Ty Foon for a Services magazine.

After the Navy, Lynde tried a succession of jobs and ended up in New York working for the Wall Street Journal. Whilst there he created Rick O’Shay which eventually found a home with the mighty Chicago Tribune Syndicate (home of Gasoline Alley, Terry and the Pirates and many others). The feature premiered as a Sunday page on April 27th 1958, adding a daily black-&-white strip from 19th May that year.

Lynde produced the strip until 1977 when he left the Syndicate to produce another wonderful Western Latigo (1979-1983). Tribune-News Syndicate owned Rick O’Shay outright and continued the feature with substitutes Marian Dern, Alfredo Alcala and Mel Keefer, but it just wasn’t the same and the strip was allowed to die in 1981.

Rick O’Shay took Western conventions to sly and winningly whimsical extremes as it followed the life of Rick, Deputy Marshal of the little town of Conniption. The series was set in the rugged Montana countryside where Lynde grew up and to which he returned as soon as the strip proved successful enough to support him.

Conniption was too small for a full Marshal and whatever order needed keeping was easily handled by the easy-going Deputy Rick and his friend; grizzled veteran gunslinger Hipshot Percussion. Apart from drinking, fighting and gambling, the township’s most serious problem was criminally bad puns, personified in the likes of saloon owner Gaye Abandon, newspaper editor Clarion McCall, hotelier Auntie Climax, town drunk Mooch McHooch, gunsmith Cap’n Ball, banker Mort Gage, gambler Deuces Wilde and a rather feisty young ‘un dubbed Quyat Burp.

The town’s spiritual needs were catered to by Reverend Jubal Lee and the local Indian tribe was led by Chief Horse’s Neck

As years passed the dailies began spoofing contemporary events such as the James Bond craze, pop music and TV shows but the Sunday episodes (such as the grand selection from 1972-1976 reprinted in this paperback sized, but regrettably monochrome collection) retained their integrity and continued to spoof the traditions and shibboleths of the mythical Old West.

Bright and breezy slapstick rib-ticklers and laconic, tongue-in-cheek jokes involving drunks, card-games, guys joshing with each other, the malicious recalcitrance of horses and other inanimate objects resonated beside perennial duels and showdowns. Hipshot facing down a succession of goofy young wannabes regularly called the old gun-hawk out to steal his rep played and replayed continuously; all set against the breathtaking geography of Montana’s “Big Sky Country”…

Lynde moved to Ecuador and continued working in the Western genre, producing the strip Grass Roots, new material for Swedish magazine Fantomen, assorted graphic novels and – after regaining the rights to Rick O’Shay for his own Cottonwood Publishing company – new works and chronological collections of this classic strip until his untimely death in August 2013.

This nifty and delightful book from 1976 actually belonged to my wife until I took greedy full-possession of it: part of that glorious 1970s era of easily concealable paperback collections featuring classic strips like Peanuts and The Perishers and so many other magical ways to lose yourself whilst teachers droned on around you in interminable obliviousness.

Most of the books were even returned at the end of term, although some unscrupulous educators operated a “confiscation is forever” policy…

Fun and fulsome entertainment, this little gem won’t be easy to track down, but if giggles, guffaws and gunfights are your thing you’ll definitely want to round up those later Rick O’Shay Cottonwood releases and hopefully his family will be able to convince some major publisher – digital or otherwise – to get these magical strips and yarns into comprehensive mainstream collections for comics posterity…
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976 The Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

Pyongyang – A Journey in North Korea


By Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly Books/Jonathan Cape)
ISBN: 978-0-22407-990-7

The world is always on the brink of extinction. That’s just the way it is. However, it’s perhaps comforting to be reminded that even the most demonised of boogeymen are fundamentally human too. So let’s take a peek at some graphic reportage from a temporary insider once au fait with and allowed access to a nation currently running equal first in the highly-competitive “Earth’s craziest ruler” stakes…

The only things I knew about North Korea I picked up from too many comics (mostly American) and television, so this engaging book was a rather surprising delight. As much lyrical travelogue as pithy autobiography, it relates the bemused culture shock of inveterate traveller and Canadian animator Guy Delisle, who, whilst possessing a French work-permit, was invited behind what was once dubbed “the Bamboo Curtain” to train and supervise Korean artists as a film production supervisor.

Cheap animators, as you are probably well-aware, are one of the few resources that North Korea can use as a means of securing capital from the decadent West – well, at least at the time this anxious odyssey was recorded…

What Delisle discovered and illustrates here both reinforces and explodes much of the modern mythology surrounding the world’s only communist dynasty.

Using a simplified, utilitarian style he depicts and deconstructs an utterly alien environment that is nevertheless populated with people who are so very similar to ourselves, even though the citizens do their utmost not to let it show. Pyongyang is stuffed with nuggets of revelation, dryly observed by the innocuous author.

Gently-paced and often dream-like in quality, the humorous tone and genteel accessibility of the illustration accentuates an oddly-strictured, constantly buttoned-down sense of foreboding.

Allowed only one book (in his case, perhaps unwisely, Orwell’s 1984) which must be donated to the State on leaving the country, and a CD Walkman (as personal radios are banned) Delisle’s airport interrogation is sheer mental torture.

Only once we’ve been thoroughly immersed in the culture and experienced the personal foibles of the limited number people he is allowed to meet does the placidly compliant Delisle surprise us by revealing that he risked everything by rashly smuggling in a tiny radio so he could get more than state-controlled information – and entertainment!

Subtly playing with the ominous reputation of part of “The Axis of Evil”, Delisle has produced a readable, gentle, non-discriminating reverie that informs and charms with surprising effect.

In this period of heightened thermonuclear tensions, this is a tale more timely than ever.
© 2003, 2005 Guy Delisle and L’Association. All Rights Reserved.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons


By many & various, edited by Craig Yoe (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-150-3

After watching far too much news, I dug this book off my shelves. It seemed somehow appropriate…

You’ll hear a lot about the pen being mightier than the sword regarding The Great Anti-War Cartoons, but sadly it’s just not true.

Nothing seems able to stop determined governments, outraged religions and/or rich, greedy – and apparently duly elected, raving mad – bastards from sending the young and idealistic to their mass-produced deaths, especially those innocents still afflicted with the slightest modicum of patriotism or sense of adventure.

Our own currently escalating and deteriorating global situation (but isn’t it always?) proves that mankind is always far too ready to take up arms, and far too reluctant to give peace a chance, especially when a well-oiled publicity machine and vested media interests gang up on the men and women in the street going “yeah, but…”

We’re all susceptible to the power of a marching beat played on fife and drum…

At least here amongst these 220 plus cartoons and graphic statements we see that rationalism or conscientious objectivity or pacifism or even simple self-interested isolationism are as versed in the art of pictorial seduction as the power and passion of jingoism and war-fever.

All art – and most especially cartooning – has the primitive power to bore deep into the soul, just as James Montgomery Flagg’s iconic Uncle Sam poster “Your Country Needs You” so effectively did to millions of young Americans during the Great War.

How satisfying then to see his is the very first anti-war cartoon in this incredible compilation of images focusing on the impassioned pleas of visual communicators trying to avoid body-counts or at least reduce bloodshed.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons gathers a host of incredibly moving, thought-provoking, terrifying, but – I’m gutted to say, ultimately ineffective – warnings, scoldings and pleas which may have moved millions of people, but never stopped or even gave pause to one single conflict…

Editor Craig Yeo divides these potently unforgettable images into a broad variety of categories and I should make it clear that not all the reasons for their creation are necessarily pacifistic: some of the most evocative renderings here are from creators who didn’t think War was Bad per se, but rather felt that the specific clash in question was none of their homeland’s business.

However with such chapters as Planet War, Man’s Inhumanity to Man, The Gods of War, Profiteers, Recruitment and Conscription, The Brass, The Grunts, Weapons of War, The Battle Rages On, The Long March, Famine, The Anthems of War, The Horrors of War, The Suffering, The Families and Children of War, The Aftermath, Victory Celebration, Medals, Disarmament, Resistance and Peace we witness immensely talented people of varying beliefs responding on their own unique terms to organised slaughter, and for every tut-tut of the Stay-at-Homers there are a dozen from genuinely desperate and appalled artists who just wanted the horror to end.

With incisive examinations of shared symbology and recurring themes, these monochrome penmen have utilised their brains and talents in urgent strivings to win their point (there is also a fascinating section highlighting the impact and energy of the Colors of War) but the most intriguing aspect of this superb collection is the sheer renown and worth of the contributors.

Among the 119 artists include (120 if you count Syd Hoff and his nom-de-plume “Redfield” as two separate artists) are Sir John Tenniel, Caran d’Ache, Bruce Bairnsfather, Herbert Block, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Ron Cobb, “Ding” Darling, Billy DeBeck, Jerry Robinson, Albrecht Dürer, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Rube Goldberg, Honore Daumier, Goya, George Grosz, Bill Mauldin, Gerald Scarfe, Ralph Steadman, Thomas Nast and most especially the incredibly driven Winsor McCay.

I’ve scandalously assumed that many of the older European draughtsmen won’t be that well known, despite their works being some of the most harrowing, and their efforts – although perhaps wasted on people willing to listen to reason anyway – are cruel and beautiful enough to make old cynics like me believe that this time, this time, somebody in power will actually do something to stop the madness.

A harsh, evocative and painfully lovely book: seek it out in the hope that perhaps one day Peace will be the Final Solution.

The time has never been more right for cynics like me to be proved wrong…
The Great Anti-War Cartoons and the digitally remastered public domain material are © 2009 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All rights reserved.

Explainers


By Jules Feiffer (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN13: 978-1-56097-835-0

Jules Feiffer has always been much more than “just a comic-book guy” even though his credits in the field sound and are suitably impressive. As well as working with Will Eisner on The Spirit, he created his own Sunday strip ‘Clifford’ (1949-51) before eventually settling at the The Village Voice.

Novelist, playwright, animator, children’s book creator (why isn’t there a single-word term for those guys?) and screenwriter, he turned his back on cartooning in 2000, but the 42-year run of his satirical comic strip in The Village Voice ranks as some of the most telling, trenchant, plaintive and perspicacious narrative art in the history of the medium.

The strip, originally entitled Sick, Sick, Sick, and later Feiffer’s Fables, before simply settling on Feiffer was quickly picked up by the Hall Syndicate and garnered a devoted worldwide following.

Over the decades the strip has generated many strip collections – the first book was in 1958 – since premiering. The auteur’s incisive examination of American society and culture, as reflected by and expressed through politics, art, Television, Cinema, work, philosophy, advertising and most especially in the way men and women interact, informed and shaped opinions and challenged accepted thought for generations. They were mostly bloody funny and wistfully sad too – and remain so even today.

Fantagraphics Books began collecting the entire run in 2007 and this first volume of 568 pages covers the period from its start in October 1956 up to the end of 1966. As such, it covers a pivotal period of social, racial and sexual transformation in America and the world beyond its borders and much of that is also – sadly- still painfully germane to today’s readers…

Explainers is a “dipping book”. It’s not something to storm your way through but something to return to over and again. Feiffer’s thoughts and language, his observations and questions are fearsomely eternal – as I’ve already mentioned, it is utterly terrifying how many problems of the 1950s and 1960s still vex us today – and the Battle of the Sexes my generation honestly believed to be almost over still breaks out somewhere every night.

Best of all, Feiffer’s expressive drawing is a masterclass in style and economy all by itself.

If you occasionally resort to Thinking and sometimes wonder about Stuff, this book should be your guide and constant companion… and it will make you laugh.
© 2007 Jules Feiffer. All Rights Reserved.

Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman: The First Jewish Superhero


By Siegel & Joe Shuster with Thomas Andrae, Mel Gordon & Jerome (Feral House)
ISBN: 978-1-932595-78-9

The comics industry owes an irredeemable debt to two talented and ambitious Jewish kids from Cleveland in the right place at the right time who were able to translate their enthusiasm and heartfelt affection for beloved influences and delight in a new medium into a brand-new genre which took the world by storm.

Writer Jerome Siegel and artist Joe Shuster were a jobbing cartoonist team just breaking into the brand-new yet already-ailing comicbook business with strips such as ‘Henri Duval’, ‘Doctor Occult’ and ‘Slam Bradley’. When they rejigged a constantly rejected newspaper strip concept for a new title they manifested the greatest action sensation of the age – if not all time…

Superman captivated depression-era audiences and within a year had become the vanguard of a genre and an industry. In those early days, the feature was both whimsical and bombastic – as much gag strip as adventure serial – and it was clear the utterly inspired whiz kids were wedded to laughs just as much as any wish-fulfilling empowerment fantasies.

As even the most casual scholar knows, Siegel & Shuster were not well-served by their publishers and by 1946 no longer worked for National Periodicals (today’s DC Comics). In fact, they were in acrimonious litigation which led to the originators losing all rights to their creation and suffering years of ill-treatment until an artist-led campaign at the time of the 1978 Superman movie shamed the company into a belated reversal and financial package (consisting mostly of having their names returned to the character’s logo and company medical benefits).

Long before this however, the dynamic duo produced an abortive “Last Hurrah”: another unique character based on early influences, but one who sadly did not catch the public’s attention in those post war years when the first super-heroic age was ending.

Based broadly on Danny Kaye, Funnyman was a stand-up comedian who dressed as a clown and used comedy gimmicks to battle criminals, super-villains and aliens: first in six issues of his own comic-book and then as a Daily and Sunday newspaper strip.

A complete antithesis to the Man of Steel, Larry Davis was a total insider, no orphan or immigrant, but a wealthy, successful man, revered by society, yet one who chose to become a ridiculous outsider, fighting for not the common good but because it gave him a thrill nothing else could match.

The series was light, beautifully audacious, tremendous fun and sank like a concrete-filled whoopee cushion.

In this smart paperback compilation – also available as a digital or perhaps hee-heBook (sorry, simply couldn’t resist. Should have, but couldn’t…) – social historians Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon carefully re-examine the strip in the much broader context of Jewish Identity and racial character, with particular reference as it applies to Jewish-Americans, and make some fascinating observations and postulates.

Following an intriguing preface by author, writer, editor and comics historian Danny Fingeroth, this book assiduously dissects the history and psychology of the Judaic experience in a compelling series of astoundingly illustrated essays gathered under the umbrellas of Gordon’s ‘The Farblondjet Superhero and his Cultural Origins’ and Andrae’s ‘The Jewish Superhero’.

The former (and Farblondjet translates as “mixed up” or “lost”) probes ‘The Mystery of Jewish Humor’, ‘The Construct of Humor in Everyday Jewish Life’, ‘The Old Theories: ‘Laughter-Through-Tears’; ‘A Laughing People’; ‘Outside Observer’ and ‘The Badkhn Theory’ (Badkhn being performers hired to insult, offend and depress guests and celebrants at social gatherings such as weddings or funerals).

‘Characteristics of Modern Jewish Humor’ are subdivided and explored in ‘Aggression’, ‘The Yiddish Language’, ‘Self-Mockery’, ‘Inversion and Skepticism’, ‘Scatology’, ‘Gallows Humor’ and ‘Solipsism and Materialism’ before Gibson’s compelling, contextual potted-history concludes with ‘American-Jewish Comedy Before 1947’ (the year Funnyman debuted),‘Weber and Fields’, ‘On the Boards’, ‘The Borscht Belt’, ‘Cartoons and Jokebooks’ and ‘Hollywood Talkies and Syndicated Radio’.

Then, in ‘The Jewish Superhero’ Andrae examines Siegel & Shuster’s possible influences; everything from German expressionist cinema masterpiece ‘The Golem: How He Came into This World’ to real-life strongman Sigmund Breitbart, a Polish Jew who astounded the world with his feats in the early 1920s. On his American tour Sigmund appeared in Cleveland in October 1923. Siegel, a local resident, would have been nine years old which as everyone knows is the real “golden age of comics”…

‘Funnyman, Jewish Masculinity and the Decline of the Superhero’ explores the psychology and landscape of the medium through the careers and treatment of Siegel & Shuster in ‘The Birth of Funnyman’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘The Schlemiel and the Tough Jew’, ‘The Decline of the Superhero’ and ‘Comic Book Noir’ before going on to recount the story of the newspaper strips in ‘The Funnyman Comic Strip’ and ‘Reggie Van Twerp’ (a last ditch attempt by the creators to resurrect their comic fortunes) before the inevitable axe falls in ‘End Game’

Thus far the engaging tome acts as a compulsive and hugely informative academic work, but in ‘Funnyman Comic Book Stories’ the resplendent fan fun truly takes hold with a full colour section reproducing a selection of strips from the 6-issue run.

‘The Kute Knockout!’ (Funnyman #2, March 1948) pits the Hilarious Hero against a streetwalker robot built to seduce and rob Johns after which ‘The Medieval Mirthquake’ (Funnyman #4, May 1948) propels the Comedy Crusader back to the time of Camelot. From the same issue comes ‘Leapin’ Lena’ as Funnyman tackles a female bandit who can jump like a kangaroo and #5 (July 1948) has him chasing a worrying new crime gimmick in ‘The Peculiar Pacifier’.

Also included are the striking covers of all six issues, the origin of Funnyman from #1, lots of splash pages and a selection of Shuster’s Superman art, but the most welcome benefit for collectors and collectors is a detailed précis of the entire run’s 20 tales.

The same consideration is offered for the newspaper strips. As well as similar synopses for the Sundays (12 adventures spanning October 31st 1948 to the end of October 1949) and Dailies (another dozen larks spanning October 18th 1948 to September 17th 1949), there are11 pages of full-colour Sunday sections and the complete black and white ‘Adventure in Hollywood’ (December 20th to January 12th 1949) to adore and marvel over.

Like Funnyman himself, this book is an odd duck. Whereas I would have loved to see the entire output gathered into one volume, what there is here is completely engrossing: a wonderful appreciation and compelling contextualization of genuine world-altering pioneers. This is a fabulous package with an appeal that ranges far beyond its possibly limited comic-fan audience.
Siegel and Shuster’s Funnyman © 2010 Thomas Andrae and Mel Gordon. All rights reserved.

Wildcat: Health Service Wildcat


By Donald Rooum & “Victoria N. Furmurry” (Freedom Press)
ISBN: 0-900384-73-5

The truly amazing – and most disheartening – thing about Donald Rooum’s immaculate Anarchist cartoon strip is not the superb drawing talent displayed, nor even the staggeringly broad range of subjects that fall under the bellicose scrutiny of his coterie of lampooning and lambasting characters.

It is simply and sadly that the issues he and his occasional collaborators highlight and skewer just never, never go away. The names and faces of the political mountebanks and industrial scoundrels may change but the mistakes and problems they create just keep going.

Take this particular collection of strips, originally released in 1994 and dedicated to “the daft doctrine that people trained in making profits can provide a better Health Service than people trained in caring for the sick” as a particularly telling case in point.

…And now, a whole bunch of regime-changes later I’m telling you to buy the book again, because the “all-the-same-as-each-other sods” we let govern us are still at it…

Victoria N. Furmurry was a long serving Health Service worker. She spent decades doing her job and even managed to enjoy a rather successful sideline as a professional comic book writer.

She was eventually compelled to combine her two jobs here in a desperate attempt to highlight the problems that beset the new management structure and system.

The obvious pseudonym was also necessary. Among the new crimes in the service were “bringing the service into disrepute” for which read ‘complaining or disagreeing’ and the truly Orwellian “causing the management to lose confidence in you as an employee”, both of which constituted “Gross Misconduct” and were grounds for instant dismissal. Understandably, she took the advice offered and kept her head down whilst delivering the fusillade of brickbats and jabs for the erudite and talented Mr. Rooum to render and compile in this slim monochrome tome.

Twenty-three years later and nothing has really changed and the care provision offered is actually under even greater threat and more insidious assault. When was the last you checked if your local hospital still has an A&E or Maternity unit?

Market principles still rule the Health Service, the wrong people still give impossible orders and profit handsomely from their ineptitude, the workers at the sharp end are still ignored and blamed, and ultimately it’s All Our Fault for letting ourselves be ill or injured, or old or incurably poor…

So why not pick up this slim book of scathing and deadly funny indictments and at least give an alternative treatment a shot. After all, isn’t laughter the best medicine?
© 1994, 2007 Donald Rooum and “Victoria N. Furmurry”. All Rights Reserved.

THRRP!


By Leo Baxendale (Knockabout Comics)
ISBN: 978-0-86166-051-3

Whilst tapping away at my keyboard, I’ve just heard on the radio (I’m real old school, me) that the irrepressible, irreplaceable Leo Baxendale passed away earlier this week. Thus, I’m postponing today’s posting to re-run this old saw. The book is still readily available and if you haven’t seen it you bloody well should.

Leo Baxendale was educated at Preston Catholic College, served in the RAF and was born on 27th October 1930, in Whittle-le-Woods, Lancashire – but not in that order. His first paid artistic efforts were drawing ads and cartoons for The Lancashire Evening Post but his life and the entire British comics scene changed in 1952 when he began freelancing for DC Thomson’s star weekly The Beano.

Leo took over moribund Lord Snooty and his Pals and created anarchically surreal strips Little Plum, Minnie the Minx, The Three Bears and When the Bell Rings – which metamorphosed into the legendary, lurgie-packed Bash Street Kids thereby altering the realities of millions of readers.

Baxendale also contributed heavily to the creation of The Beezer in 1956, after editorial and financial disputes, moved to the London-based Harmsworth conglomerate Odhams/Fleetway/IPC in 1962.

South of the border his humorous creations included Grimly Feendish, Sweeny Toddler, General Nitt and his Barmy Army, Bad Penny and a whole host of other sparkling oiks, yobs and weirdoes who made the “Power Comics” era such a joy to behold.

During the 1970s and 80s he foisted Willy the Kid on the world and created his own publishing imprint – Reaper Books. He also sued DCT for rights to his innovative inky inventions: a seven-year struggle that was eventually settled out of court.

Other notable graphic landmarks include his biography A Very Funny Business: 40 Years of Comics and I Love You, Baby Basil in The Guardian.

Leo was a one-of-a-kind, hugely influential and much-imitated master of pictorial comedy and noxious gross-out escapades whose work deeply affected (some would say warped) generations of British and Commonwealth kids. We’ll not see his like again.

I’ll return to him with a more considered appreciation later in the year, but for now why don’t you think about picking up THRRP!?

Released in 1987 this oversized (292 x 206 mm) softcover monochrome tome is something of a lost classic: a gloriously grotesque, pantomimic splurt-fest of broken winds, oozy organs, drippy bits and broad, basic belly-laughs which depends less on narrative convention than on warped-yet-timeless juvenile invention and forward progression to revel in the most lunatic slapstick ever to grace the music-hall or comic page.

Whilst not as groundbreaking as Plum, Minnie, or The Bash Street Kids nor as subversive as Wham, Smash and Pow creations such as Eagle Eye, Junior Spy, The Swots and the Blots or The Tiddlers, or indeed, as outlandish as George’s Germs or Sam’s Spook, nevertheless our premiering pulsating protagonist Spotty Dick and the stomach-churning, utterly repulsive inhabitants of Planet Urf unforgettably cavort through a cartoon-mire of silent adventures – like mimes made of mucus – in a manner no snotty, grotty school-kid of any age could resist.

An absolute treat from the absolute master of British tomfoolery. Let’s get this back in print now.
© 1987 Leo Baxendale. All rights reserved.