Batter Up, Charlie Brown!


By Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-725-3 (HB)

Peanuts is unequivocally the most important comics strip in the history of graphic narrative. It is also the most broadly accepted, since – after the characters made the jump to television – the little nippers become an integral part of the American mass cultural experience.

Cartoonist Charles M. Schulz crafted his moodily hilarious, hysterically introspective, shockingly philosophical epic for fifty years. He published 17,897 strips from October 2nd 1950 to February 13th 2000 and died 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. Attendant book collections, a merchandising mountain and TV spin-offs made the publicity-shy artist a billionaire. That profitable sideline – one Schulz devoted barely any time to over the decades – is where this little gem originates from…

Peanuts – a title Schulz loathed, but one the syndicate forced upon him – changed the way comics strips were received and perceived by showing that cartoon comedy could have edges and nuance as well as pratfalls and punchlines.

The usual focus of the feature (we just can’t call him “star” or “hero”) is everyman loser Charlie Brown who, with high-maintenance, fanciful mutt Snoopy, endures a bombastic and mercurial supporting cast who hang out doing kid things in a most introspective, self-absorbed manner.

The daily gags centred on playing (pranks, sports, musical instruments), teasing each other, making ill-informed observations and occasionally acting a bit too much like grown-ups. The consistently expanding cast also includes mean girl Violet, infant prodigy Schroeder, “world’s greatest fussbudget” Lucy Van Pelt, her other-worldly baby brother Linusand dirt-magnet “Pig-Pen”: each with a signature twist to the overall mirth quotient and sufficiently fleshed out and personified to generate jokes and sequences around their own foibles. As a whole, the kids tackled every aspect of human existence in a charming and witty manner, acting as cartoon therapists and graphic philosophical guides to the world that watched them.

Charlie Brown is settled into his existential angst and resigned to his role as eternal loser as if singled out by a gleeful Fate. It’s a set-up that remains timelessly funny and infinitely enduring…

Available in a child-friendly hardback and the usual digital formats, Batter Up, Charlie Brown! offers a trio of extended vintage sequences dedicated to the kids’ attempts to distinguish themselves as sporting superstars in the heady arena of America’s favourite summer pastime. As a metaphor for living life to the full, sports has never been more accurate in its foreshadowings…

The tales are told in a series of monochrome panels (generally four to a page) and begin with ‘Team Manager’ as the perpetually anxious and responsibility-burdened Charlie anticipates the start of a new season. His worries are only further exacerbated by his devoted team who are all eager to act as back seat strategists…

Eponymous delight ‘Batter up!’ sees our gallant but overwhelmed commander stretched beyond his own herculean capacities as the squad call on him to lead from the front as usual but Charlie is weighed down with new familial stress as he’s ordered to push his new sister Sally in her stroller all day long. Can he cope with the stress of twin challenges and still save the game in the final inning?

Wrapping up the field fiascos, ‘Slide!’ sees the plucky player/manager (groundsman, talent scout, coach, organiser, tailor…) called upon to end the team’s permanent losing streak through innovative new tactics and heroic last-minute athleticism…

Timeless and evergreen – although that might just be grass stains – Charlie Brown’s existentialist travail have been delighting readers seemingly forever and clearly will not be stopping or superseded anytime soon. If you haven’t joined this club yet, why not sign up now?
Batter Up, Charlie Brown! © 2014 Peanuts Worldwide, LLC. All rights reserved.

I Love You, Broom-Hilda


By Russell Myers (Tempo Books/Grossett & Dunlap)
ISBN: 978-0-44805-593-0 (mass market PB)

Broom-Hilda launched on April 19th 1970, the conception of newspaper comics veteran big wheel Elliot Caplin (1913-2000) He was the brother of Al (Li’l Abner) Capp and writer and/or creator of The Heart of Juliet Jones, Little Orphan Annie, Big Ben Bolt, Long Sam, Abbie and Slats and a host of other classic strips). He passed the concept on to then 32-year old Russell Myers to write and draw, choosing to remain in the background as agent and business manager. The strip is still in syndication today, but the 25 collections (of which I Love You, Broom-Hilda was the second) are all inexplicably out of print and you’ll need your trusty search engine of choice to enjoy the zinger-bestrewn mystic marvel in action…

Myers, who’d previously worked as a Hallmark Card artist whilst trying to break in to the strip biz, hit the ground running and the zany antics of the old girl soon garnered lots of fans through the Chicago Tribune Syndicate’s numerous client papers.

Like all popular strips, Broom-Hilda dances on that line dividing homogeneity and uniqueness. Back then – and even now – a successful strip concept has to appeal to a relatively vast audience (not all of them rocket scientists) but be strong enough to provide lots of gags and still be perceived as a stand-out property.

The brief, terse and decidedly surreal adventures of a homely, sharp-tongued witch and her peculiar supporting cast (which in this book from the third year of publication includes Irwin the Troll, Gaylord Buzzard, and the enigmatic and professionally abusive Grelber) proved exactly what the 1970s public wanted.

Claiming to be 1500 years old and Attilla the Hun’s ex-wife, Broom-Hilda’s cleaned up a little over the years. She is no longer a booze-swilling, stogie-smoking harridan, and she’s a little lonely. She’s still looking for a second husband…

Broom-Hilda has had a few brushes with fame. In 1971 she had her own segment on the Filmation animated series Archie’s TV Funnies and in 1978 she was part of the line-up for The Fabulous Funnies – another Filmation vehicle which ranked her alongside strip royalty Alley Oop, Tumbleweeds, and Nancy. There was even serious talk of a stage musical in 2004…

Myers was awarded the Best Humour strip Award in 1975 by the American National Cartoonist Society and the strip is still going strong today. If you do track down any of the collections from the 1970s and early 1980s, the stylish, loose yet meticulous line-work of Myers lends an abstract weight and intensity to the panels that got gradually left behind as papers forced strips into smaller and smaller boxes, although the pointed and deprecating humour remains a constant for this splendid feature.

Happy 50th, Broom-Hilda and many more.
© 1973 The Chicago Tribune. All Rights Reserved.

Goliath


By Tom Gauld (Drawn & Quarterly)
ISBN: 978-1-77046-065-2(HB) 978-1-77046-299-1(TPB)

Everybody knows the story of David and Goliath. Big, mean evil guy at the head of an oppressive army terrorising the Israelites until a little boy chosen by God kills him with a stone from his slingshot.

But surely there’s more to it than that…?

In this supremely understated and gentle retelling we get to see what the petrifying Philistine was actually like and, to be quite frank, history and religion have been more than a little unkind…

Like most really big guys, Goliath of Gath is a shy, diffident, self-effacing chap. The hulking man-mountain is an adequate administrator but fifth worst swordsman in the entire army which has been camped in opposition to the Hebrew forces for months. Moreover, the dutiful, contemplative colossus doesn’t even have that much in common with the rough-and-ready attitudes of his own friends…

When an ambitious captain gets a grand idea, he has his titanic towering clerk outfitted in terrifying brass armour and orders him to issue a personal challenge to the Israelites every day.

“Choose a man, let him come to me that we may fight.
If he be able to kill me then we shall be your servants.
But if I kill him then you shall be our servants.”

The plan is to demoralise the foe with psychological warfare: grind them down until they surrender. There’s no reason to believe Goliath will ever have to actually fight anybody. It’s a bit like government policy, where announcing that something is being discussed to be actioned to be carried out is exactly the same as having done the task and moved on to the next crucial problem that needed fixing immediately, if not four years ago…

Elegiac and deftly lyrical, this clever reinterpretation has literary echoes and overtones as broadly disparate as Raymond Briggs and Oscar Wilde and, as it gently moves to its grimly inescapable conclusion, the deliciously poignant, simplified line and sepia-toned sturdiness of this lovely hardback or comforting paperback (unfortunately no digital edition yet!) add a subtle solidity to the sad story of a monstrous villain who wasn’t at all what he seemed…

Tom Gauld is a Scottish cartoonist whose works have appeared in Time Out and the Guardian. He has illustrated such children’s classics as Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man and his own books include Guardians of the Kingdom, 3 Very Small Comics, Robots, Monsters etc., Hunter and Painter and The Gigantic Robot. I particularly recommend his cartoon collections You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, Department of Mind-Blowing Theories and Baking with Kafka
© 2012, 2017 Tom Gauld. All rights reserved.

Bigby Bear: For All Seasons


By Philippe Coudray, translated by Miceal Beausang-O’Griafa (BiG/Humanoids)
ISBN: 978-1-64337-990-6(HB)

Born in Bordeaux in March 1960, writer, photographer and illustrator Philippe Coudray specialises in cartoons and books for children. Working with brother Jean-Luc, they co-crafted the Drôles sequence of books and comics series Théocrite. However, Philippe conceived and executed his signature creation L’Ours Barnabé – the philosophically absurdist ruminations of an artistically-inclined bear and his woodland companions – all on his own…

When not crafting kids’ comics or surreal otherworldly gags (such as Loin de Tout) Philippe writes articles and such like for magazines such as Capsule Cosmique, Psikopat, Perlin and Fripounet as well as books such as Guide to Hidden Animals: Treatise on Cryptozoology. His works have been used by the French government to combat illiteracy and translated into many languages; none more so than L’Ours Barnabé which has appeared in Japan, China, Germany Sweden, and a couple of times in America. The first time was as Benjamin Bear (twice nominated for Eisner Awards and winning China’s 2012-2013 Panda Prize) and latterly here as the beguiling and frequently beguiled Bigby

Often employing puzzles and riddles and as much children’s storybook of episodic vignettes as graphic novel, these particular collected strips offer charming, visually challenging riffs on the impact of the year’s divisions, as seen through the eyes of an affably gentle bruin living wild and honing his artistic skills.

Bigby and his animal entourage reside in a bucolic forest, coastal and mountain idyll, where they observe tentatively interact with the wider world, pondering big questions in a surreal and often absurdist daze.

Visual tricks and double-takes abound as Bigby and his rabbit chum play with universal constants, carve, sculpt, paint, compose, garden and wander for the sheer joy of creativity. Almost in passing the gags subtly pose questions to make youngsters think – about art, science, psychology, mathematics, ecology and much more – but Coudray never misses an opportunity to share a solid laugh with his readers and reinforce his message that life is great if we all just mellow out and cooperate with each other.

He’s also more than happy to pepper the strips with the occasional telling moment of social commentary if the chance arises…

In this second translated volume exploring the wonders of the annual cycle, ‘Fall’ opens the fun with a wealth of cartoon ruminations on harvest, climate, travel and occupying spare time before ‘Winter’ centres on snow, chills and Christmas with the big guy eschewing hibernation for the joys of playing with his cub and chums.

A time of renewal and abundance is enjoyed in ‘Spring’ as the bear hunts early fruit and honey – as well as cold, hard cash – and languishes in paradisiacal field and stream before ambling into ‘Summer’ where fishing, swimming, visiting, hobbies and games fill every endless day

Genteel fun, bemusing whimsy and enchanting illustration cloaking a supremely inclusive philosophy of curiosity, enquiry and cohabitation, Bigby Bear is an excellent, irrepressible example of how to enjoy life and crucial reading for young and old alike. Get the digital edition immediately before backing it up with the wonderfully tactile, sturdy hardback your kids will want to paw and peer at over and over again…
Bigby Bear: For All Seasons © 2012-2018 La Boîte à Bulles and Philippe Coudray. All rights reserved.

Attack of the Stuff – “The Life and Times of Bill Waddler”


By Jim Benton (Papercutz)
ISBN: 978-1-54580-498-8(HB) 978-1-54580-499-5(PB)

Jim Benton began his illustration work making up crazy characters in a T-Shirt shop and designing greetings cards. Born in 1960, he’d grown up in Birmingham, Michigan before studying Fine Arts at Western Michigan University.

Tirelessly earning a living exercising his creativity, he started self-promoting those weird funny things he’d dreamed up and soon was raking in the dosh from properties such as Dear Dumb Diary, Dog of Glee, Franny K. Stein, Just Jimmy, Just Plain Mean, Sweetypuss, The Misters, Meany Doodles, Vampy Doodles, Kissy Doodles, jOkObo and It’s Happy Bunny via a variety of magazines and other venues…

His gags, jests and japes can most accessibly be enjoyed on Reddit and are delivered in a huge variety of styles and manners: each perfectly in accord with whatever sick, sweet, clever, sentimental, whimsical or just plain strange content each idea demanded, and his SpyDogs effortlessly made the jump to kids animated TV success.

He seamlessly segued into best-selling cartoon books (those are the best kind) such as Man, I Hate Cursive, Clyde, Catwad and Dog Butts and Love. And Stuff Like That. And Cats) and now joins the glorious pantheon of authors and artists championed by Papercutz with his latest creation…

Based in New York, Papercutz are committed to publishing comics material for younger readers, combining licensed properties such as The Smurfs and Nancy Drew with intriguing and compelling new concepts such as The Wendy Project and this supremely surreal and outrageous outing…

In a primary-coloured anthropomorphic world, Bill Waddler is a distressed duck with a lot on his mind. His nights are plagued with nightmares about farting snakes inundating him whilst his days make him feel out of touch with hectic modern ways. Is it so hard to just sell his hay the way he always has?

Since Bill has a rather unique talent, his waking life is a bit of a misery too. Whether he wants to or not – and he doesn’t – Bill can communicate with stuff. Appliances, electronics and household objects of every sort all talk to him. Or more accurately they all whine and carp and moan at him. No one wants the toilet expressing her dreams and aspirations during those sacrosanct private moments, or to be mocked by the cruet set or told to stop snoring by the alarm clock…

Moreover, nothing he owns or people he knows care about Bill’s lifelong frustrations at never becoming a musician…

Stuck in this depressing rut, Bill’s life changes the day a curmudgeonly bear has a rant and sets the duck thinking about abandoning civilisation to become a hermit in the wilds of nature…

However, as he vanishes into the wilds to commune with snakes, a global crisis kicks off. The Internet gets into a tizzy and completely shuts down. As the entire planet descends into a chaos of non-communication and everything stops working, someone suggests the baffled experts track down that weird guy who could talk to stuff and see if he can help…

Bizarre, tetchy and hilariously off-kilter, Benton’s daft duck deliverer fends off a very modern apocalypse with astoundingly infectious grumpiness in this fabulously inventive fable that combines gently-barbed social commentary (such as when a cop stands on Bill’s neck and is shamed by his own taser!) and delicious swipes at sexism and gender stereotyping with wild laughs and devious subversion in an ultimately upbeat tale about doing the right thing…

Attack of the Stuff is sheer irresistible fun and on-target educational messaging no one should miss.
© 2020 Jim Benton. All rights reserved.

Popeye Classics volume 5

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By Bud Sagendorf, edited and designed by Craig Yoe (Yoe Books/IDW)
ISBN: 978-1-63140-175-6(HB) eISBN: 978-1-62302-720-9

How many cartoon classics can you think of still going after a century? Here’s one…

There are a few fictional personages to enter communal world consciousness – and fewer still from comics – but a grizzled, bluff, uneducated, visually impaired old sailor with a speech impediment is possibly the most well-known of that select bunch.

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894. His father was a general handyman, and the boy’s early life was filled with the kinds of solid, dependable blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. He worked as a decorator, house-painter and also played drums; accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre.

When the town got a movie-house, he played for the silent films, absorbing all the staging, timing and narrative tricks from keen observation of the screen. Those lessons would become his greatest assets as a cartoonist. It was while working as the film projectionist, at age 18, that he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others in those hard times, he studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio, before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – regarded by most in the know today as the inventor of modern newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and Buster Brown.

The celebrated pioneer introduced Segar around at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, the kid’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916.

In 1918, Segar married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop, but Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and packed the newlyweds off to New York, HQ of the mighty King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre, which launched December 19th 1919 in the New York Journal. It was a smart pastiche of cinema and knock-off of movie-inspired features like Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies, with a repertory of stock players to act out comedies, melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies for vast daily audiences. It didn’t stay that way for long…

The core cartoon cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl; their lanky, highly-strung daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and the homely ingenue’s plain and (very) simple occasional boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (latterly, just Ham Gravy).

Segar had been successfully, steadily producing Thimble Theatre for a decade when he introduced a brusque, vulgar “sailor man” into the everyday ongoing saga of hapless halfwits on January 29th 1929. Nobody suspected the giddy heights that stubborn cantankerous walk-on would reach…

In 1924 Segar created a second daily strip The 5:15: a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle. This one endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s career. The feature even survived his untimely death, eventually becoming the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great humour stylist: Bud Sagendorf.

After Segar’s far-too-premature death in 1938, Doc Winner, Tom Sims, Ralph Stein and Bela Zambouly all worked on the strip, even as the Fleischer Studio’s animated features brought Popeye to the entire world, albeit a slightly different vision of the old salt of the funny pages. Sadly, none of them had the eccentric flair and raw inventiveness that had put Thimble Theatre at the forefront of cartoon entertainments. But then, finally, Bud arrived…

Born in 1915, Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf was barely 17 when his sister – who worked in the Santa Monica art store where Segar bought his drawing supplies – introduced the kid to the master cartoonist who became his teacher and employer as well as a father-figure. In 1958, after years on the periphery, Sagendorf finally took over the strip and all the merchandise design, becoming Popeye’s prime originator…

When Sagendorf became the main man, his loose, rangy style and breezy scripts brought the strip itself back to the forefront of popularity and made reading it cool and fun all over again. Bud wrote and drew Popeye in every graphic arena for 24 years and when he died in 1994, he was succeeded by controversial “Underground” cartoonist Bobby London.

Young Bud had been Segar’s assistant and apprentice, and from 1948 onwards was exclusive writer and illustrator of Popeye’s comicbook adventures. These launched in February of that year in a regular monthly title published by America’s unassailable king of periodical licensing, Dell Comics.

When Popeye first appeared, he was a rude, crude brawler: a gambling, cheating, uncivilised ne’er-do-well. He was soon exposed as the ultimate working-class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate, unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not; a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and someone who took no guff from anyone…

Naturally, as his popularity grew, Popeye mellowed somewhat. He was still ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows, but the shocking sense of dangerous unpredictability and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed… but not in Sagendorf’s comicbook yarns…

Collected in their entirety in this beguiling full-colour hardback (also available in digital editions) are issues #20-24 of Popeye’s comic book series, produced by the irrepressible Sagendorf and collectively spanning April-June 1952 to April-June 1953.

The stunning, almost stream-of-consciousness slapstick stories are preceded as ever by an effusively appreciative Foreword‘Society of Sagendorks’– by inspired aficionado, historian and publisher Craig Yoe, offering a mirthful mission statement.

Every volume includes a collation or ephemera and merchandise courtesy of the ‘Bud Sagendorf Scrapbook’. Included here are newspaper clippings, ads and assorted trivia such as packaging for candy, toys, stationery, fridge magnets, plates, Dutch newspaper strips & comics covers plus a selection of images from a colouring book.

We rejoin the ceaseless parade of laughs, surreal imagination and thrills with #20 which opens and closes with a prose yarn adorning both inside front and back covers. ‘Big House Bill in “House for Rent”’ reveals how a churlish sea snail is inveigled to join the other molluscs’ games…

Sagendorf was a smart guy who kept abreast of trends and fashions as well as understanding how kids’ minds worked and these tales are timeless in approach and delivery. In the era of rapid television expansion, cowboys were King, with westerns dominating both large and small screens as well as plenty of comics. Thus, many sagas featured Popeye as a horse-riding sagebrush wanderer who ran a desert railroad when he wasn’t prospecting…

The comics kick off with ‘Here Comes the Bride!!’ detailing how the saddle-sore Sailor-Man upsets a lost tribe of Indians and can only end his sea of trouble by marrying the chief’s beautiful daughter. Of course, that assuming his ferociously possessive – and possibly psychic – sweetie-pie Olive doesn’t find him first…

‘Little Kids Should Have Ice Cream! or Swee’ Pea Gets It!’ then pictures the precocious kid pushing the limits of everyone’s patience to score a cold treat, after which back-up feature Sherman sees another bright spark youngster become an inadvertent counterfeiter – and getaway driver – in ‘Rolling Along!’ The issue concludes with a salutary back cover Popeye gag as Swee’ Pea digs a backyard well with catastrophic results…

Issue #21 of the quarterly delight covered July-September 1952 and again offered a Sagendorf illustrated prose yarn on the interior covers: this one detailing how ‘Harry the People Horse’ attempts to assimilate with humanity by wearing clothes…

The comics commence with ‘Interplanetary Battle’ which taps into the era’s other mass obsession: a growing fascination with UFOs. On Earth prize fighter Popeye cannot find an opponent brave enough to face him, so Wimpy innocently seeks to aid his old pal by broadcasting a message to the universe. Sadly, what answers the clarion call is a bizarre, shapeshifting swab with sneaky magic powers…

An engaging Micawber-like coward, cad and conman, the insatiably ravenous J. Wellington Wimpy debuted in the newspaper strip on May 3rd 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s pugilistic bouts. The scurrilous yet scrupulously polite oaf struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Always hungry, keen to solicit bribes and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases – such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and “Let’s you and him fight” – Wimpy is the perfect foil for a simple action hero who increasingly stole the entire show… and anything else unless it was extremely well nailed down…

After an unseemly moment of jealousy, Popeye is compelled to take over the redecoration of Olive’s house in ‘Paper and Paste’, but his lack of experience and Wimpy’s assistance soon combine to create the usual chaos after which the back-up feature – now redubbed Sherm – finds the kid in dire straits after leaving his wiener dog Winky alone in the ‘Dog House!’

Proceedings again conclude with a back-cover gag involving Swee’ Pea and eggs…

Another prose ‘Horse Tale’ brackets the interiors of #22 (October-December 1952), detailing a desert steed’s gold prospecting woes before the Old Salt suffers a tragic reversal of fortune during a shortage of his favourite vegetable. Sadly, starting a ‘Spinach Farm’ and making a go of it prove distressingly difficult once Wimpy starts helping…

‘Swee’ Pea’s Vacation!’ then sees the valiant nipper take an eventful voyage to Spinachovia, that shatters the island’s economy and devastates their armed forces, before Sherm takes ‘The Long Way Home!’ in a wry episode incorporating a host of puzzles and mazes to keep reader interest honed and the back cover Popeye gag sees Swee’ Pea become a dirt magnet…

Popeye #23 (January-March 1953) opens and closes with prose tale ‘The Rocket Horse’ detailing a non-consensual trip to Mars, whilst lead strip ‘Boom! Boom! or Pirates is Rodents!’ returns the Sailor-Man to his nautical roots to eradicate scurvy corsairs besmirching his beloved seven seas. His only miscalculation is bringing Olive and Wimpy with him…

His sweety takes centre stage in ‘Ship Shape!’ as she tries to make Popeye and his dad Poopdeck Pappy clean up their scruffy sea-going vessel, whist Sherm indulges in winter sports and a spot of detecting when Pa goes missing in ‘Snow-Father!’, and the issue closes with Popeye and Swee’ Pea disastrously disputing ownership of a dingy in the traditional back-cover vignette.

Closing this vivid and varied volume is #24 (April-June), which begins and ends with text triumph ‘Apple House’ – highlighting a housing crisis for cute maggot Vernon Greentop – before cartoon chaos ensues with ‘Popeye an’ Pappy in Golden Street!’ as the seasoned mariners become western prospectors and the incorrigible elderly reprobate finds gold in the most likely place imaginable, leaving Popeye to fix the mess as usual…

Fantasy reigns supreme in ‘Hole in the Mountain!’ as Popeye & Swee’ Pea discover a fantastic unknown kingdom on a desert island ruled by a perilously familiar tyrant before more puzzles and mazes bedevil automobile-mad Sherm and the readership in ‘The Race!’ The last word again goes to a short sharp back-page gag starring innocent demon Swee’ Pea to wrap up another treasure trove of timeless entertainment…

Outrageous and side-splitting, these all-ages yarns are evergreen examples of surreal narrative cartooning at its most inspirational. Over the last nine decades Thimble Theatre and its most successful son have unfailingly delighted readers and viewers around the world. This book – available in sturdy hardback or accessible eBook formats – is simply one of many but definitely top-tier entertainment for all those who love lunacy, laughter, frantic fantasy and rollicking adventure. If that’s you, add this compendium of wonder to your collection.
Popeye Classics volume 5 © 2014 Gussoni-Yoe Studio, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Popeye © 2014 King Features Syndicate. ™ Heart Holdings Inc.

Ray & Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend and Other Classic Comics


By Charles Rodrigues, Bob Fingerman & Gary Groth (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-668-3(HB)

Charles Rodrigues (1926-2004) is arguably one of the most influential – and certainly most darkly hilarious – American cartoonists of the last century.

His surreal, absurd, insane, anarchic, socially disruptive and utterly unforgettable bad-taste doodles were delivered with electric vitality and galvanising energetic ferocity in a number of magazines. He was most effective in Playboy, The National Lampoon (from its debut issue) and Stereo Review: the pinnacle of a cartooning career which began after WWII and spanned almost the entire latter half of the 20th century.

After leaving the Navy and relinquishing the idea of writing for a living, Rodrigues used his slice of the G.I. Bill provision to attend New York’s Cartoonists and Illustrator’s School (now the School of Visual Arts). In 1950, he began schlepping gags around the low-rent but healthily ubiquitous “Men’s Magazine” circuit and found a natural home. He gradually graduated from those glorified girly-mags to more salubrious publications and in 1954 began a lengthy association with Hugh Hefner in a revolutionary new venture even while still contributing to what seemed like every publication in the nation buying panel gags, from Esquire to TV Guide, Genesis to The Critic.

Rodrigues even found time to create three strips for the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate: Eggs Benedict, Casey the Cop and Charlie.

Despite such legitimacies though, the quiet, genteel devout Catholic’s lasting monument is the wealth of truly gob-smacking, sick, subversive, offensive and mordantly, trenchantly wonderful strip-series he crafted for The National Lampoon. Editor Henry Beard sought him out in the earliest pre-launch days of 1969, and offered Rodrigues carte blanche, complete creative freedom and a regular full-page spot. He stayed with the prestigious mag from the 1970 debut until 1993, a mainstay of its legendary comics section…

In this superbly appalling hardback or digital tome – bracketed by informative text pieces ‘Introduction: An Appreciation of a Goddamn Great Cartoonist’ and ‘Biography: Charles Rodrigues’ by passionate devotee Bob Fingerman – the parade of diabolical disgust and fetid fun begins with the eponymous ‘Ray and Joe – the Story of a Man and his Dead Friend’ which follows the frankly disturbing buddy-movie path of Joe – whose death doesn’t upset his wife as much as you’d expect. In fact, when the cadaver’s former pal meekly inquires, she’s more than happy to let Ray keep the body. After all, it’s cheaper than a funeral…

There’s no agenda here: Ray just wants to keep his friend around, even going so far as to have him embalmed and put on roller skates. Of course, most people simply don’t understand…

Rodrigues regularly broke all the rules in these strips: taste, decency, even the contract between reader and creator. Often, he would drop a storyline and return to his notional continuities at a later date. Sometimes he would even stop mid-episode and insert a new strip or gag if it offered bigger chortles or shocks…

Next up is ‘Deirdre Callahan – a biography’: the gut-wrenching travails of a little girl so ugly she could cause people’s eyeballs to explode and make almost everyone she met kill themselves in disgust. Of course such a pitiful case – the little lass with a face “too hideous for publication” – did elicit the concern of many upstanding citizens: ambitious plastic surgeons, shyster lawyers, radical terrorists, enemy agents, bored, sadistic billionaires in need of a good laugh, the mother who threw her in a garbage can before fully examining the merchandising opportunities…

The artist’s most long-lived and inspired creation was ‘The Aesop Brothers – Siamese Twins’, which ran intermittently from the early 1970s to 1986 in an unceasing parade of grotesque situations where conjoined George and Alex endured the vicissitudes of a life forever together: the perennial problems of bathroom breaks, getting laid, enjoying a little “me time”…

In the course of their cartoon careers the boys ran away to the circus to be with a set of hot conjoined sisters, but that quickly went bits-up, after which sinister carnival owner Captain Menshevik had them exhibited as a brother/sister act with poor Alex kitted out in drag.

There’s a frantic escapade with a nymphomaniac octogenarian movie goddess, assorted asshole doctors, Howard Hughes’ darkest secret, a publicity-shy rogue cop, marriage (but only for one of them), their horrendous early lives uncovered, the allure of communism, multiple choice strips, experimental, existential and faux-foreign episodes, and even their outrageous times as Edwardian consulting detectives.

This is not your regular comedy fare and there’s certainly something here to make you blanch, no matter how jaded, strong-stomached or dissolute you think you are…

As always with Rodrigues, even though the world at large hilariously exploits and punishes his protagonists, it’s not all one-sided. Said stars are usually dim and venal and their own worst enemies too…

Hard on their four heels comes the saga of ‘Sam DeGroot – the Free World’s Only Private Detective in an Iron Lung Machine’: a plucky unfortunate determined to make an honest contribution, hampered more by society’s prejudices than his own condition and ineptitude…

After brushes with the mob and conniving billionaires’ wives, no wonder he took to demon drink. Happily, Sam was saved by kindly Good Samaritan Everett, but the gentle giant then force-fed him custard and other treats because he was a patient urban cannibal. Thankfully, that’s when Jesus enters the picture…

During the course of these instalments, the strip was frequently usurped by short guerrilla gag feature ‘True Tales of the Urinary Tract’ and only reached its noxious peak after Sam fell into a coma…

The artist was blessed – or, perhaps, cursed – with a perpetually percolating imagination which drove him to craft scandalously inaccurate Biographies. Included here are choice and outrageous insights into ‘Marilyn Monroe’, ‘Abbie Hoffman’, ‘Chester Bouvier’, ‘Eugene O’Neill’ and ‘Jerry Brown’ as well as ‘An American Story – a Saga of Ordinary People Just Like You’, ‘The Man Without a County’ and ‘Joe Marshall Recalls his Past’

The horrific and hilarious assault on common decency concludes with a selection of shorter series collected as The Son of a Bitch et al, beginning with an exposé of that self-same American institution.

The Son of a Bitch’ leads into the incontinent lives of those winos outside ‘22 Houston Street’, the ongoing calamity of ‘Doctor Colon’s Monster’, the domestic trauma of ‘Mama’s Boy’ and the sad fate of ‘The “Cuckold”’

‘The Adventures of the United States Weather Bureau starring Walter T. Eccleston’ is followed by ‘Mafia Tales’ and ‘VD Clinic Vignettes’, after which ‘A Glass of Beer with Stanley Cyganiewicz of Scranton, PA’ goes down smoothly, thanks to the then-contentious Gay question addressed in ‘Lillehammer Follies’, before everything settles down after the recipe for ‘Everett’s Custard’

Fantagraphics Books yet again struck gold by reviving and celebrating a lost hero of graphic narrative arts in this superb commemoration of a mighty talent. This is an astoundingly funny collection, brilliantly rendered by a master craftsman and one no connoisseur of black comedy can afford to miss; especially in times when we all feel helpless and can only laugh in the face of incompetence, venality, stupidity and death…
All strips and comics by Rodrigues © Lorraine Rodrigues. Introduction & Biography © Bob Fingerman. All rights reserved. This edition © 2011 Fantagraphics Books.

Usagi Yojmbo: Yokai


By Stan Sakai (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-362-5 (HB)

One of the very best and most adaptable survivors of the 1980s black-&-white comic book explosion/implosion is a truly bizarre and wonderful synthesis of historical Japanese samurai fiction and anthropomorphic animal adventure, as well as a perfect example of the versatility and strengths of a creator-owned character.

Usagi Yojimbo (which translates as “rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in multi-talented Stan Sakai’s peripatetic anthropomorphic comedy feature The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, which launched in 1984’s furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics #1. The shaggy samurai subsequently appeared there on his own terms, as well as in Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up strips in Grimjack. The Lepine Legend also appeared in Albedo #2-4, The Doomsday Squad #3 and seven issues of Critters (#1, 3, 6-7, 10-11 and 14) before leaping into his own series…

Sakai is almost as widely-travelled and far-ranging as his signature creation. He was born in 1953 in Kyoto, Japan before the family emigrated to Hawaii in 1955. He attended University of Hawaii, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts, and pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design after moving to California.

His first comics work was as a letterer, most famously for the inimitable Groo the Wanderer, before his nimble pens and brushes – coupled with a love of Japanese history and legend and hearty interest in the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers – combined to turn a proposed story about a historical human hero into one of the most enticing and impressive – and astoundingly authentic – fantasy sagas of all time.

The deliciously rambling and expansive period fantasy series is nominally set in a world of sentient animals and specifically references the Edo Period of Feudal Japan (how did we cloth-eared Westerners ever get “Japan” from Nihon” anyway?) as well as classic cultural icons as varied as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and even Godzilla, by way of detailing the exploits of Ronin (masterless, wandering freelance Samurai) Miyamoto Usagi, whose fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit – a brave, sentimental, indomitable, gentle, long-suffering, honourable, conscientious and heroic bunny who cannot turn down any request for help…
The Sublime Swordsbun has changed publishers a few times but has been in continuous publication since 1987 – with dozens of graphic novel collections to date – and has guest-starred in numerous other series, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation. There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci fi comics serial and lots of toys, and he even almost made it into his own small-screen show, but there’s still time yet and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out…

Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public and in 2009 Dark Horse Comics commissioned an all-new, fully painted Silver Anniversary tale to celebrate 25 stunning years, which allowed the creator to hone his considerable skills with watercolours…

Yokai is a generic term that translates (as required) as ghosts, phantoms, spirits or even strange, otherworldly apparitions, all of whom hold a peculiarly eclectic place in Japanese folklore, being simultaneously mischievous and helpful, malevolent and miraculously beneficial. Generally, they have animal heads or are amalgams of diverse objects or body parts…

This scintillating scary story occurs over one night – an Oborozuki-Yo (“Night of the Hazy Moon”) – when Yokai are particularly restless, and this is a tale that grippingly explores the Japanese equivalent of our Halloween as the noble, gloom-shrouded Rabbit Ronin wanders lonely roads in search of a bite to eat and a place to sleep.

Seeing a light in the nearby woods, Miyamoto leaves the path, hoping to find a welcoming peasant hearth for the evening but is harassed by a taunting Kitsune (trickster-fox spirit) and becomes lost. Soon, however, he hears sobbing and is drawn to a weeping noblewoman…

The lovely distressed lady is Fujimoto Harumi whose pilgrimage to a temple was disrupted when a Kitsune stole her young daughter Hanako away. Pleading with the wisely reluctant Ronin, the lady convinces the wayfarer to plunge deeper into the wild woods to rescue the lost girl, leading to an epic series of contests against a horde of fantastic hostile creatures. The valiant warrior almost succumbs until he is unexpectedly saved by an old comrade, the mystic demon-queller Sasuke

It seems that this very evening is the dreaded Hyakki Yako, “Night Parade of a Hundred Demons”, when haunts and horrors of the netherworld form a procession into the world of people, seeking to subjugate all mortals. They simply need a living soul to lead them, a final sacrifice to light their way here…

Terrified for the stolen waif, Ronin and devil-slayer engage with an army of horrific, shape-shifting, fire-spitting, tentacle-wielding monstrosities to save an innocent and the entire world, but there are forces in play that the rapidly-tiring Miyamoto is painfully unaware of, and without the luck of the gods and the tragedy of an old friend, all will be inescapably lost…

Fast-paced yet lyrical, funny, thrilling and stuffed with spooky, all-ages action and excitement, Yokai is a magical tribute to and celebration of the long-lived Lepus’ nigh-universal irresistible appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories. This petite but power-packed chronicle – available in sturdy hardback and ethereal digital editions – also contains a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the artist created the stunning visuals in ‘The Real Magic Behind Yokai: an interview with Stan Sakai’ that will further beguile any prospective creators and cartooning hopefuls in the audience.

Sheer comicbook poetry, this is book to revisit time and time again…
Text and illustrations © 2009 Stan Sakai. All rights reserved.

Bigby Bear Book One


By Philippe Coudray, translated by Miceal Ogriefa (BiG/Humanoids)
ISBN: 978-1-59465-806-8(HB)

Bordeaux-born in March 1960, writer, photographer and illustrator Philippe Coudray specialises in cartoons and books for children. Working with his brother Jean-Luc, he co-crafted the Drôles sequence of books and comics series Théocrite.

Howevwr, Philippe conceived and executed his signature creation L’Ours Barnabé – the philosophically absurdist ruminations of an artistic bear and his woodland companions all on his own…

When not crafting kids’ comics or surreal otherworldly gags (such as Loin de Tout) Philippe writes articles and such like for magazines such as Capsule Cosmique, Psikopat, Perlin and Fripounet as well as books such as Guide to Hidden Animals: Treatise on Cryptozoology. His works have been used by the government to combat illiteracy in France and translated into many languages; none more so than L’Ours Barnabé which has appeared in Japan, China, Germany Sweden, and twice in America. The first time was as Benjamin Bear (twice nominated for Eisner Awards and winning China’s 2012-2013 Panda Prize) and latterly here as the beguiling and frequently beguiled Bigby

As much children’s storybook – although having no narrative structure and relying on episodic vignettes to deliver charming and visually challenging puzzles and riddles – as graphic novel, these collected strips feature an affably gentle bruin living wild and honing his artistic skills in a bucolic forest and mountain idyll, observing the world and pondering big questions in a surreal and often absurdist daze.

Visual tricks and double-takes abound as he and his rabbit chum encounter other animals and aliens, ignore the laws of the universe, carve, sculpt, paint, compose, garden and wander for the sheer joy of creativity. Subtly posing questions to make youngsters think – about art, science, psychology, mathematics, ecology and much more – Coudray never misses an opportunity to share a solid laugh with his readers and reinforce his message that life would be great if we all just mellowed out and got along with each other.

He’s also more than happy to pepper the strips with the occasional telling moment of social commentary if the chance arises…

Genteel fun, bemusing whimsy and enchanting illustration cloaking a supremely inclusive philosophy of curiosity, enquiry and cohabitation, Bigby Bear is a delightful example of how to enjoy life and crucial reading for young and old alike. Get the digital edition immediately before backing it up with the wonderfully tactile, sturdy hardback your kids will want to paw and peer at over and over again…
© 2012-2018 La Boîte à Bulles and Philippe Coudray. All rights reserved.

Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist


By Norman Pettingill, edited by Gary Groth, with an introduction by Robert Crumb (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-319-4 (HB)

Laugh and the world laughs with you. Sulk in your house and you’re on your own, mate. Here’s another comedy treat you can enjoy via assorted digital means, or if you prefer you can support the local economy by buying a hardback copy and waiting… and waiting… and waiting…

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 lived off the land. He supported his family with personalised cartoons, jobbing art such as postcards and commercial signage, commissioned illustrations and through simply stunning personal works: mostly natural scenes and reportage of the hunting and fishing community he lived in.
Pettingill worked in seclusion (and we all know what that’s like now, don’t we?) 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, Pieter Bruegel (the Elder), Basil Wolverton and Leo Baxendale working all on the same page.

This superb book, rough and rustic – with a wooden front cover for the hardback version – 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 not afraid to fill a page with copious extras, and the work gathered here, collected by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center (conservators 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.

On view are astoundingly frantic, charmingly gruesome postcard tableaux, featuring hunters, boozers and what we’d call hillbillies, but Pettingill knew them as the folk next door, as well as more intimate creations: family collages, entrancing pen-&-ink studies of beasts and birds he lived amongst – and hunted. There are even 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 own 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 simple grist for us doodle-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: an honest raconteur, part of a tradition that includes and spans the fierce and gentle ranges from Garrison Keillor’s elegiac (and positively provincial) Lake Wobegon tales to the razor-edged self-examination of Southern kinfolk and mid-west archetypes typified by the gagsters of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour: a purely American humour by and for the ordinary guy.

This retrospective of Pettingill’s art presents 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 & Jim Pink © 2010 the estate of Norman Pettingill.