Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist


Edited by Gary Groth, with an introduction by Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-319-4

It’s a big planet and there are many places to hide an artistic prodigy. That’s never been more capably proved than in the case of Norman Pettingill, a lost hero of the workaday craft aesthetic who lived and died in Wisconsin, revelling in a backwoods life living off the land and supporting his family with personalised cartoons, jobbing art such as postcards and commercial signage, commissioned illustrations and simply stunning personal works: mostly natural scenes and reportage of the hunting and fishing community he lived in.

He worked in seclusion until his incredibly intense, ribald and frenetic postcard art was discovered by Robert Crumb who immediately reprinted them in his Underground Commix magazine Weirdo. These over-sized scenes were multi-layered, packed with hundreds of characters acting in micro-scenes and grotesquely raw and vulgar: like Hieronymus Bosch, Basil Wolverton and Leo Baxendale working all on the same page.

This superb book, rough and rustic with a wooden front cover, tells the life-story of this truly driven artist – who could no more stop drawing than breathe underwater. Self-taught and clearly besotted with the creative process, Pettingill was clearly not a man afraid to fill a page with extras, and the work gathered here, collected by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (a major conserver of folk art of the American mid-west) shows a true original equally at home drawing pictures to pay bills and making masterpieces because he couldn’t stop himself.

Gathered here are many of his astoundingly frantic, charmingly gruesome postcard tableaux, featuring hunters, boozers and what we’d call hillbillies but what Pettingill probably called the neighbours, as well as more intimate personal creations; family collages, gloriously entrancing pen and ink studies of the beasts and birds he lived amongst – and hunted – and even the doodles he adorned the envelopes of letters with.

His surreal, bawdy, raw concoctions mirrored and presaged the graphic license and social freedoms of the 1960s counterculture (although he really started his artistic journey twenty years  earlier) but even though his fans today include such iconoclastic cartoonists as Crumb and Johnny Ryan, Pettingill’s appeal is far wider than just grist for us pen-and-ink pushers.

With his fondly cynical, wry observation and piercingly incisive eye Norman Pettingill became a societal camera onto a time and place in rural and even wild America that we seldom see nowadays: a warmly honest raconteur, part of a tradition that includes and spans the fierce and gentle ranges from Garrison Keillor’s elegiac (and positively local) Lake Wobegon tales to the razor-edged self-examination of the Southern kinfolk typified by the gagsters of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour: a purely American humour by and for the ordinary guy.

This first retrospective of Pettingill’s art is stuffed with more than a hundred of his most telling monochrome pieces and will appeal to cartoon-lovers and people watchers equally.

© 2010 Fantagraphics Books. Individual contributions © 2010 their authors. Unless otherwise noted all photography and art © 2010 John Michael Kohler Arts Center. Art from the collections of Glenn Bray, R. Crumb and Jim Pink © 2010 the estate of Norman Pettingill.

Judge Dredd: The Apocalypse War


By John Wagner, Alan Grant, Carlos Ezquerra & various (Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-84023-634-7

Britain’s last great comic megastar might be described as a combination of the other two, combining the fantastic science and adventure of Dan Dare with the unrelentingly seditious anarchy and absurdity of Dennis the Menace. He’s also well on the way to becoming the longest-lasting adventure character in our admittedly meagre home-grown comics stable, having been continually published every week since February 1977 when he first appeared in the second issue of science-fiction anthology 2000AD.

However with at least 52 2000AD strips a year, annuals, specials, a newspaper strip (in the Daily Star and later The Metro), the Judge Dredd Megazine, numerous reprinted classic comics collections and even two rather appalling DC Comics spin-off titles, that adds up to a phenomenal amount of material, most of which is still happily in print from Rebellion.

One of the most attractive packages and certainly one of the most compelling is this sharply stylish black and white deluxe hardcover collection featuring one of the greatest storylines in the entire canon.

Judicial Briefing: Dredd and his dystopian ultra-metropolis of Mega-City One were created by a very talented committee including Pat Mills, Kelvin Gosnell, Carlos Ezquerra, Mike McMahon and others but with the major contribution coming from legendary writer John Wagner, who has written the largest portion of the canon under his own and several pseudonymous names.

Joe Dredd is a fanatically dedicated Judge in the super-city, where hundreds of millions of citizens idle away their days in a world where robots are cheaper and more efficient than humans and jobs are both beloved pastimes and treasured commodities. Boredom and madness has reached epidemic proportions and almost everybody is just one askance glance away from mental meltdown. Judges are last-ditch peacekeepers who maintain order at all costs: investigating, taking action and instantly trying all crimes and disturbances to the hard-won equilibrium of the constantly boiling melting pot. Justice is always immediate and final…

They are necessary fascists in a world permanently on the edge of catastrophe, and sadly, what far too many readers never realise is that the strip is a gigantic satirical black comedy leavened with oodles of outrageous, vicarious cathartic action.

Dredd’s world is a polluted and precarious Future Tense with all the key analogues for successful science fiction (as ever a social looking-glass for the times it’s created in) situated and sharply attuned to a Cold War Consumer Civilisation. The planet is divided into political camps with Post-nuclear holocaust America locked in a slow death-struggle with the Sov Judges of the old Eastern Communist blocs: militaristic, oppressive and totalitarian – and that’s by the US Judges’ standards, so just imagine what they’re like…

In 1981 Progs (that’s issue numbers to you) #236-244 featured a nine-part story ‘Block Mania’ which detailed an all-out war between two colossal habitation blocks in Mega-City One. With weekly instalments illustrated by Mike McMahon, Ron Smith, Steve Dillon and Brian Bolland (who also supplied some incredible covers) the all-out confrontation between Enid Blyton and Dan Tanna Blocks rapidly proliferated, engulfing surrounding Hab-units, spreading like a plague – or a chemical weapon.

Against a backdrop of utter berserker carnage Dredd discovers a plot by Sov agents to destabilise Mega-City One…

For once the Judge is too late and as his city burns the Dictatorat of East-Meg One launch a nuclear strike, following up with a ground-forces invasion. The Judges hit back with their own nukes and terrified of global Armageddon Mega-City Two and Texas City declare themselves neutral. Mega-City One will stand or fall alone…

Over forty years after the Battle of Britain ‘The Apocalypse War’ stunned and delighted readers. This epic tale of dogged resistance and bloody pyrrhic victory is a masterpiece of drama and tragedy, with Carlos Ezquerra drawing all 26 weekly chapters (even some covers!), and three decades later it still ranks as one of the greatest Dredd tales ever published.

Spectacular, violent, epic and leading to almost incomprehensible actions from someone most readers still considered a “hero” and “good guy” this is as powerful an anti-war story as Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s Charley’s War and deserves as much acclaim and respect.

This volume collects the entire saga and its prequel Block War into one mesmerising and compelling work of glittering triumph and dark tragedy, and should grace the shelves of every serious fan of the medium – and the message.
® & © 2003 Rebellion. All rights reserved.

Artichoke Tales


By Megan Kelso (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-344-6

Megan Kelso has been producing unique, idiosyncratic, thought-provoking comics stories for more than twenty years; the very best of which can be seen in her award-winning collections Queen of the Black Black and The Squirrel Mother. She works far too slowly for my greedy nature to be completely happy with, but as the results are always superb I’m just going to have to “Man Up” and count myself lucky whenever something new hits the bookshelves…

Artichoke Tales is a generational saga which recounts, like film run backwards, the aftermath, events of and build-up to a tragic and devastating civil war on a serene, stable agrarian culture: a land of farmers, foragers and fisher-folk who all look like they’re sporting vegetable hair-dos. Don’t be fooled though – despite the stalks sprouting from their skulls these are not Arcadian vegetable characters dreamily dwelling in their own sylvan Pogle’s Wood: these are people, gullible, fallible and intensely complex.

Kelso first created her artichoke people for a short tale in the anthology comic Girlhero, and began working on this longer story in 1999, citing such thematic influences as the Little House on the Prairie books, Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and Anthony Minghella’s movie Cold Mountain for this gently compelling, beguiling story of the Quicksand family, apothecaries to the village of Ladle and how an insane and unwelcome split between North and South sorely wounded not only the nation but three generations of women caught up in it…

Young Brigitte was gathering herbs for her grandmother when she once more met the charming soldier Adam. Military types weren’t particularly welcome and Northerners even less so, despite all the years that had passed since the War, but young hormones and the promise of something fresh and exotic have always won out over common sense…

Torn between newborn passion, a sudden hatred for her boring old life and fear of the unknown Brigitte forces Grandma Charlotte to tell the previously unspoken history of the conflict and how it shaped the Quicksand family: a tale of pride, high-handedness and avoidable mistakes that led to those bitter prejudices which still scarred people on every side.

Told in a stunning minimalist manner which demands the reader’s closest scrutiny and collaboration, the refined and simplified drawings unfold story within story, like the skin of an onion, as the truths peels away to reveal some depressingly universal truths about families, society and the use of power. Despite the engagingly simple art and storytelling style this is not a book for younger readers, so parents read this beautiful parable before you let your kids at it…

Those of you without impressionable progeny can just go right ahead and dig in: Artichoke Tales is truly magical and is waiting for your avid, appreciative attention and consumption…

© 2010 Megan Kelso. All Rights Reserved.

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 jingoistic madness. Then he shuffles out of the picture and lets his 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 might just be the best thing I’ve read this year. Created during America’s longest-running war (9 years and counting…) this multilayered, incisive parable examines how families and countries can be twisted by love, fear and leaders’ lies yet still seemingly prosper. As much mystical generational fantasy as veiled allegory this enchanting story 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 “Temperance”…

Mythical, mystical, metaphorical, lyrical, even poetic, here is a literal epic which blends Shakespearean passions with soft Orwellian terrors. King Lear and 1984 are grandparents to this subtly striking tale of freedoms and honour – personal and communal – 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.

Wally Gropius


By Tim Hensley (Fantagraphics Books)

ISBN: 978-1-60699-355-2
Comics are the most subversive means of communication yet devised. If you’re a creator at the top of your game with no editorial restrictions you can depict and say one thing, in a manner that even the primmest censor would approve of and adore, whilst surreptitiously advocating the most unsavoury, improper and civilisation-threatening dogma. In comics there are no “tells” to give the game away and the manner in which an author writes and draws can actually enhance the propaganda or outright lies…

Have you met young Tim Hensley?

A musician, cartoonist and second-generation comics fan, Hensley’s graphic work has popped up all over the alternative scene in such magazines as Kramer’s Ergot and Fantagraphics’ sublime anthology Mome, from where the intensely sly, brash, revolutionary and mind-bendingly beguiling Wally Gropius has emerged to challenge our every precept of Capitalist culture. This book collects those Mome moments and also includes – at no extra charge – new and revised material.

This colossal 64 page hardback – 10″x 12.5″; marvellously reminiscent of the earliest English-language Tintin albums – is illustrated in a starkly jolly, primary-coloured pastiche of Baby-Boomer kids comics – and not just the obvious and overt  Richie Rich and Archie Andrews trappings, but with a tip of the pen to lost classics of a once ubiquitous, now nearly-forgotten 1960s graphic style that ranged from Mort (Spider, Beetle Bailey) Walker and John Stanley, to the animated creations of Jay Ward and those unnamed geniuses who drew such Dell/Gold Key classics as The Little Monsters and Thirteen Going on Eighteen.

Wally Gropius is barbed and edgy teen satire: the wealthiest teenager on Earth, scion of a petrochemical dynasty, he can have anything he wants. He sings in his band The Dropouts and doesn’t have a care in the world – until his father orders him to marry “the saddest girl on Earth.” With every girl in range tearfully throwing herself at him, Wally suddenly notices the stand-offish and highly hard-to-get Jillian Banks…

Wally Gropius is a devastating, vicious and subversive satirical assault on the modern bastions of Commercialism, Celebrity, and Casual Power. Wally tries everything money can buy to win Jillian, but there’s something he’s blithely unaware of…

Wally Gropius is madcap, screwball and incredibly surreal comedy, with many hidden and time-delayed laugh-traps cunningly concealed for later effect by a keen observer with a disturbingly-honed intellect and a laudable absence of taste. Take note: Money isn’t Everything and Subtext über Alles

Wally Gropius is Even Cleverer Than It Thinks It Is. Invest in it now and enjoy a thoroughly mature modern masterclass in mercantile mockery and morbidly Infantile Analysis.

© 2010 Tim Hensley. All rights reserved.

Vatican Hustle


By Greg Houston (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-571-9

The zeitgeist of the moment seems to be nostalgia, and especially a post-modern re-examination of some of our most unfortunate cultural milestones, but at least the graphic novels that are coming out of these historic plunderings are varied and readable if not universally palatable…

Another sparkling example of the phenomenon is the potentially controversial little gem under review here from cartoonist, caricaturist, designer, educator, actor and big fan of old movies Greg Houston.

This baroque, grotesque and immensely appealing pastiche of Blaxploitation movies and the no-nonsense, in your face attitudes of the early 1970s introduces Baltimore’s coolest private eye Boss Karate Black Guy Jones, who is reluctantly commissioned by Lumpy Fargo, the city’s biggest crime boss, to rescue his wayward, dim daughter from the sticky clutches of Geech Bradford, the White Pimp…

The sordid trail leads inevitably to Rome, porn capital of the world, and, after a brief brush with the legitimate, inclusive end of skin-flicks, directly to the Vatican, long perceived among industry insiders as the source of all the really nasty freaky stuff…

Meanwhile the Pope is getting horny and anxious. Chickee Falzbar his official drug dealer and wingman is late, and the brutish, two-fisted, leather-jacketed Pontiff is looking to score some tail, kick some butt and raise a little Hell. There’s a ba-aad hassle coming and Jones is gonna need all his skills to rescue Brandi Fargo from the callous hands of God’s chosen representative on Earth…

Beneath the outrageous parody and shockingly impious (nigh slanderous) treatment of Catholic tenets and icons is a witty mystery and genuinely funny adult romp which pokes bad-tasting fun at everything from Lepers to Clowns to Hobos, college girls, the sex trade and even rock ‘n’ roll, all rendered in a busy, buzzy, black and white line that appeals and appals in equal amounts.

If you’re of a religious mien and likely to take offence at religion mocked don’t buy this book.

If you are a fan of frantic fisticuffs of fury and martial arts mayhem this ain’t the book for you neither as there practically isn’t none, but if you’re eligible to vote, open (and broad) minded, can whistle the theme to Shaft and love to laugh, this might just be your favourite book of the year…

© 2009 Greg Houston. All rights reserved.

Plunder Woman Must Go! Socialist Cartoons from Militant


By Alan Hardman with commentary by Lynn Walsh (Miltant/Mentorn)
No ISBN:

I thought I’d combine controversy and nostalgia by reviewing this now just in case the titular subject of the brilliantly bitter satire and vitriolic graphic commentary within finally pops her clogs and whatever meagre pretension to good taste I possess subsequently scuppers me from ever doing it.

Along with sex, religion and fighting, politics has always been the grist that feeds the cartoonist’s mill, and like many other creative people I often bemoan the fall of the Thatcher regime (it’s still hard to call it a government as those are systems of management purportedly run for people and society) because – and only because – it deprived us all of spectacularly worthy targets.

The best political cartooning comes from outrage and the Tory administrations of the 1980’s provided one bloated, bile-filled easy mark after another. Just look at TV’s Spitting Image which grew fat and healthy off that government’s peccadilloes, indignities and iniquities (as well as Reagan’s America and the Royal Family) in just the way that millions of unemployed and disenfranchised workers, students and pensioners didn’t.

From 1980 comes this starkly powerful collection of incisive images by justifiably vitriolic socialist cartoonist Alan Hardman (still fighting the good fight to this day) which originally appeared in Militant, the periodical of the Marxist-leaning portion of the Labour party, just before the internal crisis in the mid-80’s led to expulsions of the hard Left and the creation in 1997 of the Socialist Party. The infamous and demonized faction Militant tendency was named after the newspaper.

Militant began after the successful 1964 election of Labour as a four page monthly publication, growing into a 16 page weekly by the late 1970s, outlining policies of the Militant tendency and publicising its activities and campaigns.

Content in the newspaper usually carried a by-line stating, author, his or her Party branch, and/or the trade union branch. Militant never employed professional journalists. There was even a quarterly sister publication: the journal, Militant International Review, dedicated to more substantial analysis of global economic and political events. It became Socialism Today in 1995. Militant was renamed The Socialist when the Militant tendency changed its name.

None of which really matters now, but these cartoons have stood the test of time and surely deserve another look, not just because of their power and passion but also because a really great villain can always stand another good kicking.
© 1980 Alan Hardman.

Speechless – World History without Words


By Polyp (New Internationalist/Friends of the Earth International)
ISBN: 978-1-906523-19-0

No one can contest the sheer naked power and immediacy of pictures; a sequential narrative can have all the force of a Perfect Storm. Hopefully this startlingly bold pictorial treatise from the enigmatic Polyp (www.polyp.org.uk) will shake a few entrenched bastions and rattle some cages as it offers an alternative view of our progress as a species, using the monstrous tragedy of 9/11 as a starting point before scrolling back the very beginning to show how it all went so wrong.

In vivid primary colours the creator takes a jaundiced look at our 6 billion year relationship with the planet and the mistakes we keep on making, using wry, surreal wit, patient exasperation and not a little frantic desperation, as well as a bold cartoony style that blends a thousand childhood influences from Vaughn Bode to the Clangers, to whisper a warning and offer a few potentially last-minute suggestions.

As it says on the cover this book eschews words in favour of a broad humorous parade of “dumb-show” and mime: a brave and marvellously effective technique that really pays off. And besides, as a species we’ve been talking a good fight for ages and we’re now at a stage where words simply aren’t enough any more…

The old adage has it that history is written by the winners, but in this graphic exploration on how the world got into its current state we have a sharp, incisive and universal tome produced for those of us that have always demanded a recount. Buy this book. Give copies to your friends. But most of all read, inwardly digest and just do something…

© Paul Fitzgerald 2009. All rights reserved.
www.speechlessthebook.org.uk

Everybody is Stupid Except for Me and other Astute Observations


By Peter Bagge (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-158-9

You probably know Peter Bagge as the fiery, wise-mouthed, superbly acerbic cartoonist responsible for incredibly addictive strips about American life that featured in such wonderful magazines as Neat Stuff and Hate, the inimitable Buddy Bradley stories or even his foray into the more-or-less mainstream with DC’s Yeah!

But the graphic ridiculist has a politically active side as cartoonist and societal commentator for the Libertarian publication Reason, a task he has joyously undertaken for nearly a decade. Now a collection of his best strips (perhaps cartoon “op-ed” columns would be a better description) has been compiled by Fantagraphics and a more powerful argument for the concept of Free Speech you could not find anywhere.

In a mostly full-colour format the deliciously fluid drawings and razor-sharp polemical, questioning, highly rational and deeply intimate quandaries and observations of Bagge skewer, spotlight and generally expose the day-to-day aggravation and institutionalized insanity of modern urban life in 47 strips ranging from one to four pages in length.

Divided into War, Sex, Arts, Business, Boondoggles, Tragedy, Politics, and Our Stupid Country, Bagge uncovers and gives a damn good satirizing to such topics as Drugs policy and attitudes, organized religion, gun control, birth control and abortion, education, homelessness and even Libertarianism itself (and just in case you’re too busy to look it up, we’re talking about a philosophy not a political party – although sometimes it’s hard to tell: Libertarianism in its broadest form is simply the advocacy of Free Will and the belief in personal action and responsibility as opposed to the surrender of liberty and decision making to other – for which we usually mean Big Business and governments, not your mother…)

Challenging, iconoclastic and thought-provoking (or else what’s the point?) this is also a superbly engaging entertaining book, and Bagge is the perfect inquisitor; impassioned, deeply involved and not afraid to admit when he’s confused, angry or just plain wrong. This wonderful use of brains, heart and ink should be compulsory reading before anybody is allowed to vote or even voice an opinion (now there’s a topic for discussion…)

© 2009 Peter Bagge. This edition © 2009 Fantagraphics Books, Inc. All rights reserved.

The March to Death

The March to Death 

By John Olday (Freedom Press)
ISBN 0-900384-80-8

We tend to remember World War Two as a battle of opposites, of united fronts and ubiquitous evil, of Us and Them. It’s valuable to be reminded that even under the most calamitous conditions and clearest of threats, dissent is part of the human psyche and our most valuable birthright.

The March to Death is an unashamed political tract, a collection of anti-war cartoons and tellingly appropriate quotations first published in 1943 by Freedom Press, the Anarchist publishing organisation (from whom you can still obtain a copy should you wish – please contact the CCG for address details or do that Google thing).

Comics and cartoons are an astonishingly powerful tool for education as well as entertainment and the images rendered by German emigré John Olday (neé Arthur William Oldag) are blistering attacks on the World Order of all nations that had led humanity so inexorably to a second global conflagration in less than a generation. He drew most of the images whilst serving in the British Royal Pioneer Corps before deserting in 1943 for which he was imprisoned until 1946. The accompanying text was selected by his colleague and artistic collaborator Marie Louise Berneri, a French Anarchist thinker who moved to Britain in 1937.

The 1995 edition has a wonderfully informative foreword by Donald Rooum which paints the time and the tone for the young and less politically informed. This is a work that all serious advocates of the graphic image as more than a vehicle for bubble gum should know of and champion.

© 1943, 1995 Freedom Press.