Categories
ART 2021 COMICS ARCHIVES Culture 2021 CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Freddie Mercury Gets the Superhero Treatment – REDIRECT 2

TEST The universe of comic books and graphic novels expands far past the superhero genre, but the world-changing, life-givingly radiant genius of Freddie Mercury still qualifies. His voice, passion and charisma definitely count as superpowers – and Z2 Comics is about to give Mercury the royal fanfare he deserves, with Freddie Mercury: Lover of Life, Singer of Songs.

From his youth in Zanzibar and India, through his early life in England and his ascension to the rock pantheon, to the demons he faced down toward the end of his life, the book follows the classic hero’s journey narrative arc evocative of mythological origin stories. Its writer, Tres Dean, is careful to present the stories through Mercury’s words and perspective, recently thoroughly explored in both film and nonfiction anthology. With a personality as large as his and an intoxicating flair for fearless poetry and radical living out loud, Mercury’s own words are as rich a primary source as a storyteller could wish for, and the energy he brought to living comes through in an epic way.

Richly and lovingly illustrated by Kyla Smith, Robin Richardson, Safiya Zerrougui, Tammy Wang, and Amy Liu, with a majestic cover painting by David Mack, and a further limited-edition print by Sarah Jones, the artistry takes its flights of fancy seriously. The visuals are grounded in the expressive rendering of salient actions and events but also exuberant in the freedom of interpretation and expression afforded the artists to bring their own visions to inform the fullness of the book’s vision. This is, in its own way, a heartfelt tribute to Mercury, who himself studied visual art and illustration in London before the gods of music found him in 1971 – 50 years ago this year.

Freddie Mercury by Sarah Jones

The book not only paints moving biographical details with honesty and emotion and an eye for effective detail, but is in its own form also flush with Mercury’s own love of all creative expressions, from visual arts to opera, ballet, theater, cinema and fashion. Z2 Comics itself has pioneered the genre of graphic novels enshrining the lives of music legends from Elvis to Beethoven, the Doors to the Dead. Their softcover and hardcover editions are gorgeous and affordable; their deluxe editions include fine art prints and, in this case, a limited vinyl – touching on all the things that gave Mercury, Queen, and their legions of adoring fans such joy in their work.   ❖

Pre-order for November 2021 release at z2comics.com.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Still Krazy After All These Years

Of all classic comic strips, George Her­riman’s Krazy Kat was the most bril­liantly formulaic. For over 30 years, the daily installment climaxed more often than not wi1h the strip’s eponymous star taking a well aimed brick on the head. You might call it a “riff” if you were inclined to be musical.

Krazy Kat — which ended as a strip during World War II and has now been anthologized for the first time in decades by the team of Patrick McDonnell, Karen O’Connell, and Georgia Riley de Have­non — is based on an eternal triangle, a setup that confounds conventional animal (if not necessarily human) behavior. Kat loves mouse and is, in turn, adored by dog — thus establishing an equilibrium based on longstanding obsession and mu­tual misunderstanding.

The strip is a rondo of unrequited love. Ignatz, a spindly splenetic mouse, despises Krazy; his greatest pleasure is beaning the hapless Kat with a brick. For Krazy, however, the brick is proof that Ignatz cares: “L’il ainjil, he has rewarded my watchful waiting,” Krazy beams after being conked. The doggedly faithful Of­fissa Pupp, hopelessly in love with the oblivious Kat, jails Ignatz after each assault. Thus, in a sense, every cliché comes true and all the characters get what they want. Krazy Kat, many commentators feel obliged to observe (as they don’t, for example, of War and Peace), is a fantasy.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717856″ /]

No less than Charlie Chaplin, its only pop rival for the affection of Jazz Age aesthetes, Krazy Kat synthesized a particular mixture of sweetness and slapstick, playful fantasy and emotional brutality. The strip acknowledges life’s school of hard knocks and then negates it. Herriman’s quintessential image is Ignatz crowning Krazy with a brick — the trajectory marked “zip,” then “pow” (or sometimes “bop”) as the missile bounces upwards off the back of Krazy’s head. The image is as visceral as a drawing can get — the monomaniacal mouse is into his Walter Johnson-like follow-through, while Krazy is knocked forward at a 45-degree angle by the force of the blow. A bump is never raised, yet as Krazy pitch­es stiffly toward the earth, a dotted line culminating in a little heart issues from the Kat’s forehead. Usually, the fantastic vista of Coconino County, Herriman’s version of Monument Valley, can be glimpsed in the background.

If Krazy Kat was one strip that never ducked the violence inherent in the term “punch line,” it owed considerable charm to its subject’s personality — the Kat’s ro­mantic optimism, philosophical ram­blings, amiable propensity for ukulele-­accompanied song (“There is a heppy lend, fur, fur a-wa-a-ay”). The strip has no mystery greater than that of Krazy’s sex. Most observers assume it is female. In one 1920 Sunday page, the Kat even carries a banner for women’s suffrage (Ig­natz is thinking he’ll support the movement until he discovers who holds the placard aloft: “I’m for no ‘party’ that has that ‘Krazy Kat’ in it”).

Unlike Krazy, Herriman refused to commit himself. “I don’t know. I fooled around with it once; began to think the Kat is a girl — even drew up some strips with her being pregnant,” he wrote. “It wasn’t the Kat any longer; too much con­cerned with her own problems — like a soap opera. Know what I mean? Then I realized Krazy was something like a sprite, an elf. They have no sex. So that Kat can’t be a he or a she. The Kat’s a spirit — a pixie — free to butt into anything. Don’t you think so?” His certainty is less than overwhelming.

[related_posts post_id_1=”564702″ /]

Herriman’s mystical sense of his cre­ation is epitomized by a 1917 Sunday page in which the Kat asks a Ouija board who his enemy is, receives the answer I-G-N-A-T-Z, and refuses to believe it, stomping the Ouija board (which, of course, turns out to belong to Ignatz) into a crumpled accordion. In an often reprinted box at the bottom of the page, Herriman apologizes to the spirits on Krazy’s behalf: “You have written truth, you friends of the shadows. Yet, be not harsh with Krazy. He [sic] is but a shad­ow himself, caught in the web of this mortal skein. We call him ‘cat,’ we call him ‘crazy’ yet he is neither.” Herriman goes on to conclude that even after Krazy passes into the shadows, “you will under­stand him no better than we who linger on this side of the pale.” Is Krazy then a sphinx without a secret?

This spirit of Krazy-ness governs every aspect of Coconino County. In marked counterpoint to the strip’s rigorous for­mula is its delirious, insistent flux. Herri­man’s attitude toward his graphic details was one of jazzy insouciance. Not only was the Krazy Kat logo a mutable, unsta­ble design but, in blatant contradiction of the continuous action, panels typically alternate between day and night (the lat­ter often signified by a crescent moon resembling a decrepit mobile fashioned from a warped Frisbee).

Albeit taken literally from Monument Valley (where Herriman spent much time after the mid-’20s), the landscape of Co­conino County was wildly fluid, shimmer­ing more drastically than the most extravagant mirage: One typical strip opens with Krazy and Ignatz talking on a hill­side, the second panel places them in a suburban yard, the third further up the hill, the fourth on a drawing tacked to a wall, and the fifth against some nonde­script horizon. The sixth and final panel finds the pair back in the yard, standing by a wall from which Ignatz meaningfully extracts a brick.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724039″ /]

At once crude and delicate, Herriman’s line seems almost free-associational in its spontaneity. Actually, his drawings are masterpieces of dramatic economy, achieving miracles of individuation and expression through body language and suggestive absences. Less is usually more: Because Ignatz has no mouth, for exam­ple, his eyes become beacons of preter­natural alertness on an otherwise blank face. Like Paul Klee’s, this work often looks like inspired doodling, but don’t be fooled; as much as it celebrates Herri­man’s quasi-automatic drawing, the Abrams anthology emphasizes his canny vulgar modernism. From the late ’30s on, the dailies are full of referential gags — ­characters address their creator, make their own drawings, or use erasers to alter reality. In one 1940 strip, Krazy heaves a brick against the side of the frame — it ricochets like a banked billiard ball up and off the top of the frame to slam her on the head. In another, Ignatz makes strategic use of a black brick, having suc­cessfully predicted the placement of the strip’s all black frame.

In the mid-’20s, Herriman’s fanciful Sunday layouts were standardized to give newspapers greater flexibility in running them. As Herriman chafed under this new formal, the authority figure of Of­fissa Pupp came to the fore; even so, the layouts of the late Sunday pages have the sort of impacted, tightly integrated cur­vaciousness — not to mention burnt, sandy colors — of classic SoCal bunga­lows. Although some of the more extrava­gant Sunday pages are wordless (one 1918 example is an extended, chilling riff on trench warfare), Krazy Kat is as dis­tinctive for its use of language as it is for its other particulars. Krazy speaks with a kind of stage Yiddish accent, tempered with miscellaneous Sam Wellerisms: ‘”Oh what a unheppy ket I am these brickliss days-oy-yoi-yoi!” Offissa Pupp special­izeh in ineptly highfalutin (often self-­pitying) speeches: “Krazy burns a late candle tonight — I trust it attracts neither moth nor mouse.” Only Ignatz, as the reality principle (he’s also a householder with a large family), speaks relatively plain English.

Krazy Kat counted Willem DeKoon­ing and Jack Kerouac among its fans; the strip was always a cult writ large. When Herriman died in 1944, it was only being syndicated in 35 newspapers, as com­pared to the more than 1000 that carried Blondie. Indeed, William Randolph Hearst was Herriman’s incongruous patron; he liked the strip and he kept it going. (According to McDonnell, O’Con­nell, and De Havenon, he even forced Herriman, humble to a fault, to accept a raise.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”592553″ /]

As Herriman ‘s creation is widely held to have been the greatest of comic strips, theories of Krazy Kat abound. Gilbert Seldes’s pioneering 1922 appreciation (reprinted in the Abrams book, it first appeared in Vanity Fair) compared Her­riman to the Douanier Rousseau. For Seldes, Krazy was a combination of Don Quixote and Parsifal (with Ignatz his ma­lign Sancho Panza, if not Kundry). Twenty-four years later, when the strip was posthumously anthologized, e.e. cummings furnished a suitably high-­toned introduction. In his view, the “humbly poetic, gently clown-like, su­premely innocent, illimitably affection­ate” Krazy was nothing less than the spirit of democracy itself struggling against the excesses of individualism (Ig­natz) and the stupidity of society (Offisa Pupp).

More recently, Arthur Asa Berger has seen the strip as an existential parable; by Franklin Rosemont’s anarcho-surreal­ist lights, Krazy Kat is “utopian in the best sense, signifying the imaginative cri­tique of existing values and institutions, and the presentation of imaginary alter­native societies.” There is also a belliger­ent view that Krazy Kat has no meaning. In reviewing the 1946 anthology for Partisan Review, Robert Warshaw saw the strip as inspired nonsense, comparable to Lewis Carroll: “We do best to leave Krazy Kat alone. Good fantasy never has an easy and explicit relation to the real world.” (Although Warshaw admired the strip’s “fresh quality of pure play,” he expressed a decidedly Partisan anxiety over its “complete disregard of the stan­dards of respectable art.”)

The Abrams book provides material for some new theories. Herriman was a notoriously private person and particu­larly vague about his background. (On his death certificate, his daughter main­tained that his parents had been born in France; colleagues used to refer to him as “the Greek.”) With some difficulty, McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Havenon have researched Herriman’s background and confirmed the long-standing rumor that he was of African descent: Born in New Orleans in 1880, Herriman was clas­sified as “colored” on his birth certifi­cate, and his parents were listed as mu­lattos in that year’s census.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719253″ /]

Catholic and French-speaking, the so-called “colored Creoles” of New Orleans were a tight-knit, sophisticated elite, de­scended from “free persons of color” who emigrated from the West Indies. Al­though the 10,000 or so who lived in New Orleans in the late 19th century were mainly professionals and shopkeepers, their position rapidly eroded with the in­stitutionalized segregation that followed the end of Reconstruction. Indeed, it was just at this time — around 1886 — that Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles, where his father found work as a barber and a baker. In 1900, George rode the rails to New York City. By 1903, he was on staff at the New York World.

McDonnell, O’Connell, and De Have­non suggest Krazy Kat’s distinctive patois might be a memory from the Creole quarter of New Orleans. That’s scarcely the only aspect of Coconino County the revelation of Herriman’s background throws into new light. One wonders about the folk stories Herriman might have heard as a child, and Krazy’s vaunted Egyptian heritage now seems like some­thing more than a casual conceit. “Re­member Krazy, my child, you are a Kat — a Kat of Egypt,” she’s told by Kleopatra Kat in one 1919 Sunday page, which also gives the origin of the mouse’s custom “to crease his lady’s bean with a brick laden with tender sentiment.”

In view of Herriman’s origins, the per­sistent comparison of Krazy Kat to the rhythm and spontaneity of jazz takes on an added resonance. The comics and jazz appeared on the American scene at roughly the same time. But how many comics shared Krazy’s distinctive formal mixture of sweetness and rough-and­-tumble, consistency and improvisation. Jazz, as Franklin Rosemont points out, was full of “crazy cats.” Jelly Roll Morton, another Creole given to fantasy and hyperbole, was only five years younger than Herriman. It was he who saw the riff as both jazz’s background and foundation.

[related_posts post_id_1=”416839″ /]

“Krazy Kat was not conceived, not born, it jes’ grew,” Herriman is quoted as saying. His admission is startling both for its equation of Krazy with Harri­et Beecher Stowe’s Topsy and for its echo of James Weldon Johnson’s state­ment about the ori­gin of “the earliest ragtime songs.” Johnson, another Herriman contem­porary, published his novel The Auto­biography of an Ex­-Colored Man two years after Krazy’s spontaneous debut. In fact, Krazy Kat did jes’ grow out of the cracks of anoth­er Herriman strip, The Dingbat Family (a/k/a The Family Upstairs, for the Dingbats’ unseen nemesis). The strip published on July 26, 1910, contains an incidental gag: the Dingbats’ cat had his bean honked by a brick-wielding mouse. Eureka!

The relationship between this cat and that mouse soon became a sort of sub­strip beneath the main action; in late 1913, they were spun off into a comic strip of their own. Thus, the Kat was an eruption from below — not just from the underworld of The Dingbat Family and the lower depths of American popular culture but also from Herriman’s uncon­scious. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo — ­which is dedicated to, among others, “George Herriman, Afro-American” — ­uses that concept of Jes Grew as a meta­phor for jazz (and popular culture in general).

From the first, Herriman’s comic strips revolved around compulsive eccentrics — ­one wonders if he wasn’t the most com­plex of them all. His love for Monument Valley, his identification with indigenous Indian culture, his fondness for western Stetsons — not to mention Krazy’s sexual ambiguity and unrequited passion — take on a certain poignancy in view of what must have been an ontological insecurity regarding his own identity. Herriman’s most African feature was evidentally his tightly curled hair — it’s striking that, in virtually every photograph, he’s wearing a hat.

Does Krazy Kat then exorcise the sort of gut-twisting anxiety and guilt engen­dered by passing for white in a segregat­ed culture? Are these brickbats signs of love? Is Coconino County an American utopia? Denial, raised to the sublime, is what Krazy Kat is all about.❖

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

1986 Village Voice article by Hoberman on Krazy Kat

Categories
ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives

Denny O’Neil: Writing Seminal Comics in the East Village

EDITOR’S NOTE
Much has gone missing in 2020: facts, civility, partying, and, here in the Apple, the annual New York Comic Con. The convention was supposed to take place within the glass and cement confines of the Javits Center from today until Sunday, but has moved, thanks to Covid-19, to a pixilated screen near you.

Another blow: the larger comics realm lost one of its heroes in June, writer Dennis O’Neil. In a short autobiography that appeared in DC Comics’ Showcase #83 (June 1969, featuring his new sword and sorcery character, Nightmaster), O’Neil wrote, “Born May 3, 1939, St. Louis, MO. Parents weren’t aware that my first name is derived from that of a Greek god, Dionysius — god of revels, fantasy, and making-a-fool-of-oneself. Parents weren’t aware, but oh me, oh my, they were prophetic.” He also notes that he had a “usual midwestern childhood, which included large doses of make-believe, fueled by movies and — yep! — comic magazines.” In college, O’Neil studied English Lit, creative writing, and philosophy, then spent time in the Navy, making “the world safe for democracy by deluging the enemy in mounds of press releases.” After discharge he spent time hitchhiking around the country, and ultimately returned to the “Show Me” State to work as a reporter.

But in the mid-1960s, O’Neil’s interest in comics was rekindled when a friend, comics editor Roy Thomas, suggested he take the Marvel Comics writer’s test, which consisted of filling in blank dialogue balloons from a few Fantastic Four pages. O’Neil was soon writing scripts for Millie the Model. But, as the pseudonym he began using — Sergius O’Shaughnessy, cribbed from the name of the fighter-pilot protagonist in Norman Mailer’s The Deer Park — portended, O’Neil was seeking higher planes of storytelling. Around this time he moved to NYC’s East Village, where he began writing the stories that would place him in the pop-cult pantheon.

Anyone who has seen Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy on the big screen has witnessed the villainous exploits of two O’Neil creations: Ra’s and Talia al Ghul. Both came out of O’Neil’s and artist Neal Adams’s reboot of the Batman franchise in the early 1970s, which replaced the campy glow of the 1960s TV show with noir grit.

[related_posts post_id_1=”598218″ /]

O’Neil’s East 2nd Street digs influenced his characters’ looks and attitudes, most prominently in his run on the Green Lantern / Green Arrow title. Beginning in April 1970 (#76), O’Neil brought the cosmos-roaming Green Lantern down to earth, where the Robin Hood–esque Green Arrow schooled him in the ways of crooked landlords. The masterful Adams enhanced O’Neil’s street-level script with dead-on depictions of dilapidated tenement buildings and boarded-up businesses. In one of the most famous panel sequences in comic book history, a black Everyman confronts the lofty Green Lantern, matter-of-factly noting, “I been readin’ about you. How you work for the blue skins, and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins. And you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with — the black skins! I want to know how come? Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!” Living in the East Village, O’Neil had seen plenty to convince him that intergalactic crime fighters were not the answer to America’s ever-pressing social problems. And so his superhero answered, “I . . . can’t.”

But ever the optimist, the writer soon sent the superhero duo to battle greedy mine owners, crooked judges, racist cult leaders, and other villains of the Nixon era. O’Neil always hung his heart on the sleeves of his characters, one reason his earnest scripts have transcended their time. (The GL / GA run is perennially reprinted.) And certainly, the evil the heroes confronted back then has never gone out of fashion. O’Neil’s own struggles with alcoholism probably colored his ground-breaking plotlines dealing with drug addiction, which won many industry accolades and a proclamation from the office of then mayor John Lindsay. In a later tale, Green Lantern is almost blown to bits when a Weather Underground–style group destroys a townhouse; Adams’s imagery is very similar to newspaper reports (including those here in the Voice) of an actual event that took place on West 11th Street.

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

In addition to photos of the blasted dwelling, that March 12, 1970, issue of the Voice also included the headline “Armies of the Night: Drilling for 1972,” for an article about protests against the Vietnam War and concerns over a possible second term for Nixon. In a 2018 interview, O’Neil noted that early in his career, the Village Voice was “sort of my community paper,” and one could wonder if the writer was recalling that Voice front page when he quoted Mailer’s Armies of the Night in GL / GA #79: “Deliver us from our curse. For we must end on the road to that mystery where courage, death, and the dream of love give promise of sleep.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”419722″ /]

No doubt the Village itself and the Voice (of which Mailer was a founder) influenced O’Neil’s worldview. While Marvel unabashedly set tales of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, and other super beings in New York City (even the outer boroughs), DC was more reticent, with Superman flying around “Metropolis” and Batman prowling “Gotham.” There was precedent for this: Perhaps the most noir of New York settings are found in Will Eisner’s Spirit masterpieces, which the Brooklyn-born writer and artist set in “Central City.” Still, when Eisner introduced his raw-fisted, wise-cracking crime fighter’s arch-nemesis, The Octopus, in 1946, the tale closed with the evil mastermind lighting a cigarette on the corner of 43rd and Times Square. O’Neil similarly elided settings, evoking the ramshackle neighborhood he called home in a scene where a wounded Green Arrow cannot find a working payphone. In his own creations, free of any DC backstories, O’Neil favored reality, landing a character such as Nightmaster on the bandstand of “The Electric Band Aid in the East Village.”

Knowing what a fan the comics virtuoso was of his home turf and its “community paper,” we thought we’d see if the Voice card catalog scored any “O’Neil, Dennis,” hits.

Alas, only one, and it’s a pan. As everyone knows, always more fun to read. —R.C. Baker

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

Look! Up in the Sky! It’s Indigo?!?

By Dennis O’Neil

March 21, 1977

SUPER-FOLKS. By Robert Mayer. Dial. $8.95, $3.95 paper.

Someday soon somebody will produce the Great American Comic Book. Surely, there is an ambitious, post-McLuhan kid somewhere who recognizes the essence of the superhero form, the instant mythologizing of contemporary events through the telling of extravagant lies, and is ready to perfect it as cartoon narrative or music or film or even as prose. According to the promotional material accompanying Robert Mayer’s novel SuperFolks, the people at Dial believe Mayer is that kid. They’re wrong.

Not that Mayer is hopelessly inept. With seasoning, he could be pretty good; there’s no reason why he couldn’t write a decent Batman or Spider-Man script, for instance — and, in fact, while a reporter for Newsday, he did write 1/25th of the 1969 spoof, Naked Came the Stranger. But in Super-Folks he has virtually ignored that potential and has opted to be simultaneously cute and relevant. What he’s attempted to do is use superhero conventions in a double-thrusted satire of society and of the comics themselves. Unfortunately, his insight into his first subject is banal, and he has only a dilettante’s knowledge of his second. The result is the kind of smarmy hipness that characterized the godawful Batman television show of the mid-1960s.

Like the writers of the television show, he begins with a fairly standard plot, a variation on the “lost powers” theme. Superman — called, for some forlorn reason, “Indigo” — has hung up his cape and is living the life of a bedroom-community patriarch under the alias David Brinkley. (Everyone in Super-Folks is famously named, not the happiest of comedic inspirations. Brinkley works for a metropolitan daily headed by Punch Rosenthal; he has encounters with a beggar, Nelson Rockefeller, and a  detective, Kojak; his nemesis is the deadly chemical Cronkite, from the planet where he was born to Edith and Archie, before being adopted on Earth by Franklin and Eleanor. And so on.) Gradually Brinkley realizes that he has not lost his superhumanity, as he had thought, and finds himself drawn into a confrontation with the arch enemy every superhero must have.

Not bad, taken simply as the sort of tall tale all superhero stories basically are, and Mayer should have concentrated on realizing it. But he isn’t content to be a storyteller; he has larger, or at least different, ambitions. His opening sentences announce his intentions: “There were no more heroes. Kennedy was dead, shot by an assassin in Dallas. Batman and Robin were dead, killed when the Batcar [sic] slammed into a bus carrying black children to school in the suburbs.” This is the ploy he uses throughout the book, juxtaposing the real and imaginary, and letting the consequent absurdities make his satirical points.

The idea might seem original to those who believe culture is the stuff taught in college literature courses. But those whose taste is more eclectic, who can cherish William Gaddis and Garry Trudeau equally, will find it awfully familiar —after the comic strips of Trudeau and Jules Feiffer, the science fiction of Samuel R. Delany and Phillip Jose Farmer, Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and, of course, Lenny Bruce’s nightclub routines. In short, it’s been done — originally and arguably best by Bruce — and Mayer has nothing new to contribute.

Mayer’s choice of satirical targets js as unoriginal as his literary device: suburbia, the mob, Abzug liberals, Buckley conservatives, conspiracy theorists, adolescent sex — it is as though Mayer were assembling Johnny Carson one-liners for a Modern Language Association stag party.

Despite Mayer’s failure as a social commentator, he still might have produced a funny book if he’d been able to be amusing on comics. But he seems unfamiliar with the subject, as if he hadn’t read a comic in the last 10 years. For the costumed world-saver set is no longer defined merely by extrahuman abilities and Boy Scout ethics. Mayer’s version of Superman hang-ups and hassles would lampoon the Superman concept only if the original hadn’t long since done the same. Benton and Newman could get laughs by portraying the Man of Steel as a nebbish because when their musical Superman was on Broadway comics were relatively unsophisticated. Now, however, superhero scenarists routinely give their characters a full catalogue of interpersonal and existential anxieties; their readers have come to expect them. Again, Mayer’s gimmicks are too familiar to be entertaining. If Super-Folks fails as satire and as humor, what’s left is for it to succeed as a thriller. Here, Mayer is almost a winner. He does write a hell of a climactic fight — grand, cosmic violence with a splendid twist ending. But this doesn’t begin until the last fifth of the novel and that’s way too late. Preliminary skirmishes, to delight us with the hero’s feats and to establish the possibility of the villain’s eventual triumph, are lacking, and since much of the art of the grandiose lie is in the building of anticipation through tantalizing hints at the punch line, this is fatal. Mayer shows us a lot of David Brinkley (Clark Kent) and not enough Indigo (Superman): he emphasizes the cocoon at the expense of the butterfly. Consequently, his climax is too isolated to be satisfying. So, in the end, it is as flat and disappointing as, well, a comic book without cartoons.

Book review by Dennis O'Neil published in 1977 in the Village Voice

Categories
ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Man Behind the Monsters

The Man Behind the Monsters

I first looked at Famous Mon­sters of Filmland back in the sixth grade. Remember: the dark night of our prepubescent souls really arrived at 11 p.m. Friday nights, when Roderick came on and hosted Shock Theater with his assistant, Igor, the personification of what would happen to us if we didn’t sit up straight in class. Our monster club had its weekly meeting on Friday nights, and at one meeting vice-president Brent Griffiths held aloft a pulpy, picture-strewn maga­zine pinched firmly between the thumb and forefinger of his warted chartreuse monster gloves, and said, ”Gentlemen, note this.” We gathered around. As we read the synopsis of The Crawling Eye, a film we’d seen together a few weeks before, and looked over the many stills from Them and It Came From Be­neath the Sea, we knew as inexor­ably as Carl Denham’s hunch about King Kong that here was something significant, something larger than life. 

Today, Famous Monsters of Filmland is the oldest, best monster magazine in the world. It and three other horror comics — Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella — stir deep, deep in the dark, still heart of every complete newsstand and sell for a buck apiece. Nearly three million people read them every year: they are translated into Ger­man, French, and Spanish and are the living embodiment of the most ghoulish publishing empire in the world: Warren Magazines. 

Despite all this big news, I have been waiting to talk to founder and publisher James Warren for 15 years. I walked into the lower east side building along with two delivery boys who were both eating sandwiches. Checking the directory, I found out that, yes, Captain Company, Warren’s mail-order Disneyland of Monsterdom, was also on floor seven. With two boys in the elevator, everything smelling of hamburgers, I thought, “Mundane, mundane, won’t you fellows cease? I’m on my way to meet, in one form or another, the Maker. This is not your ordinary day.” I’d skipped lunch myself, anticipation overwhelming flesh. Face it, I’m going to the source.

[related_posts post_id_1=”564702″ /]

He’d already put me off twice. The first time he was seeing his distributor in St. Louis; the second time I’d called he’d said, “The hell you are! Why, yes, of course. No. not now, we’ve got a deadline. Eerie people are sleeping on the couches. I slept here last night myself and I’m leaving for France at four. Come Wednesday. I’ve got some stuff will knock your eyes out…”

I closed my eyes when the elevator stopped, took what breath I could, and stepped off into Warren’s realm. The lobby is small and tastefully strange. Several poster-size covers from Creepy and Eerie are framed on the wall. There is a red vinyl sheet with “Red Carpet” printed on it, and on the little black marquee behind the receptionist it says: “Welcome today to” and then my name. They’re ready for me.

When I say my name the girl jumps up and opens a door. “This way. Would you like some coffee?”

“Yes.”

We walk past another secretary and into the inner sanctum: Warren’s office. He comes around his large, strangely cleared, L-shaped desk in a thin tie and light blue denim-like sportcoat. He looks like Mort Sahl cleaned up.

“I’m…”

“Who cares, Ron?” He pumps my hand and starts asking me questions. He talks very fast, asking me about myself and my old monster club. “There are hundreds now — yours must have been one of the first.” He nods when I tell him my favorite horror films: still The Crawling Eye (“wasn’t that a great ESP sequence?” he adds), The Body Snatcher before I saw it again. And Dracula’s Daughter, especially the opening and the bridge scene. There is something about Warren’s enthusiasm in interviewing me and talking about these films that puts me on his side before I really want to be. It reminds me of the personal newsletter quality of Famous Monsters, the letter section of which is jammed with notes and photos from readers dressed as their favorite monsters. “Wanted: More readers like Eddie Carbunkle.” And then the photo of Eddie dressed up to look like a 14-year-old weeping lesion.

Finally Warren settles down a little and says, “Okay, shoot, what do you want to know?” I want to know why a grown man would start a monster magazine. And I’m going to be, I remember, hard nosed about it.

Directly behind him on the wall hangs a handsomely-framed six-foot poster of the daughter of his imagination: Vampirella. Actually a combination of Vampira and Barbarella, Vampirella struts about, star of her own continuing series magazine, bat on finger, in high-heel boots and thigh straining, nipple-contoured costume. Originally from the planet Drakulon, where everybody drinks blood as part of the normal diet, she now wanders through picaresque adventures on earth, taking blood substitute to prevent her blood-lust from taking over. When it does, however, she metamorphoses into her bat-persona and latches onto the nearest evil-doer’s jugular. Her life size poster is available from Captain Company for $2.98.

Warren’s entire office seems caught in the schizoid split between New York executive and Captain Company kitsch. One wall is almost covered with his magazine covers: it is a monster fan’s dream (nightmare?) newsstand. The covers — bright, multi-colored, usually air brushed renderings of a charging crowd of neanderthals, or a girl in the worst part of a tattered bikini being carried away by the real creature of one of the lagoons, or a Frank Frazetta Vampirella, her arms skyward, breasts jutting, pelvis thrust and shadowed — are a great part of Warren Magazines’ appeal. It is the covers of the three Warren horror-comics that have given them such prominence in the art-comic world.

The office bookshelves are full of his magazines, deluxe zombie masks that go for 40 bucks from Captain Company, many glossy, coffee-table books about comics, pulp and comic art, and monster films. A three-foot-tall inflated blue hand clenches by itself in the corner. One wall is smattered with photos and awards that he has received over the years; at 43 he is already considered, even as an independent (“Warren Publishing is not one of the big syndicates, one of the ‘big-money boys’ ”), the number-two man in the entire comic industry, right behind Carmine Infantino, head of National Periodical Publications (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel). There is a photo of Warren looking serious in an aviator’s cap, standing on a tank in Israel, where he went last fall to see how it was going. There is a photo of Warren looking amused, standing next to the “Ackermonster,” Forrest J. Ackerman, the editor of Famous Monsters. There is a photo of bachelor Warren looking sunburned, standing next to an unidentified woman beside the red-striped Warren helicopter somewhere in Greece.

Born in South Philadelphia, the same area that gave us Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Eddie Fisher, James Warren was the only child of immigrants who both worked at the clothing store his father managed. Warren developed an overactive imagination as a child because his parents left him alone all day, and at night he’d listen to the radio and draw pictures of the heroes he fantasized. “I’d stay up until 10 or 11 with my parents’ blessing, as long as I got up to go to school: I became a night person. When I wrote stories, drew monsters or supermen, my parents encouraged.”

Warren spent his 25-cent-a-week allowance on comic books until he got a job at a newsstand where he worked until midnight and consumed every comic that came his way. That was World War II. What did he read? “The new comics: Superman and Batman, the great literature of the times. And I read The Spirit, by Will Eisner, which formulated a lot of my present thinking.” Warren is bringing back The Spirit as a Warren magazine this year.

World War II printed itself indelibly on his mind as he listened to the radio and longed desperately to fly a P-38, a huge model of which he now has in his apartment. “When Korea broke out,” says Warren. “I broke my mother’s heart and enlisted. Tanks. By God, I was gonna get some war stories of my own.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”564826″ /]

HIs war experience, like all things imagined too heavily ahead of time, was disappointing. He returned aimless and restless, lived at home and read Variety, compulsively, “to fantasize that I had something to do with show business.” For three years he worked as assistant advertising manager for Caloric Range Company in Philadelphia, and when Playboy appeared in 1953, Warren watched Hefner’s success and in pipe-dream envy formulated a plan.

After all, he was a businessman, wasn’t he? Wily, profit-oriented, raised on the newsstands? So he quit Caloric and started a magazine called After Hours. “It was a poor imitation of Playboy, one of the first… it showed… girls with naked breasts.” He was promptly arrested, fingerprinted, and booked by the candidate for district attorney. SMUT PEDDLER APPREHENDED! Warren lowers his voice just a little now and leans across the desk as if still embarrassed by the incident. “The headlines were the largest in Philadelphia since Japan surrendered. I was also indicted in Elizabeth, New Jersey, because, as I found out later, the guy was running for office there, too. That was the only issue of After Hours. The case was eventually thrown out. “But that was the low point of my life,” War­ren recalls. 

Already an avid student of culture (he had been right all along with After Hours), Warren was amazed when horror films stopped scaring kids in the mid 1950s. Television had already made some seriously in­tended monster flicks miss and fall into the ever-widening margin of campness. Shock Theater had added, right in the familiarity of our own homes, a spoofiness to horror films — even Frankenstein — that they would never again completely shake. Warren found kids laughing in monster matinees where 10 years before they had only drawn sketchy breath between clenched teeth. It is time, he thought, for a magazine on the monsters from films. 

When he tried to get the money for the first issue of a magazine with the longest title in the country, Famous Monsters of Filmland, Warren was repeatedly told three things (Warren tells this part of the story with the relish all men who have succeeded use when they speak of early oppres­sors, and he gestures, counting the items on his fingers): 1.) It will never sell; there’s no market; 2.) The title is too long; and 3.) You’re nuts. But he scrounged up the funds, and in the winter of 1958, a one-shot magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by Forrest J. Ackerman, appeared on the stands. I was 11 at the time, and my close associate Brent Griffiths (wherever he may be) was part of the reason that FM’s first printing sold out.

[related_posts post_id_1=”590941″ /]

From the beginning, Famous Monsters has been a fanzine, con­cerned with its many readers, pub­lishing their names and addresses for pen pals, their photos, their photos dressed as Dracula (or his victim), sponsoring monster quizzes; and Ackerman, known as the Ackermonster, Count Ackula, Forry, and 4-E to his many fans, gets thousands of letters daily. The magazine still consists, as it did when I first read about The Crawling Eye, of horror flick synopses and stills from the films. There are also features on how make-up men create apes, wolves, and victims of radia­tion out of ordinary, you know, peo­ple. Tributes to newly dead horror stars appear with stills and lists of their films. 

The Ackermonster has a lust for puns that has made the magazine the most pun-ridden in the world. Headlines, captions, stories, even elegies of actors writhe in the agony of watery double-entendre. “Mirdraculous Discovery!” “He nibbled on things a man was not meant to gnaw.” Grave robbers really dig people. Yechcetera! Yechcetera!

Warren estimates his average audience to be 11 ½ years old, but the fan mail spans four generations. In a recent contest for the youngest and oldest readers, the winners were four days and 93 years old respectively. 

“A large group of our most devoted fans seem to be about,” and he looks at me the way one looks at something one has created, “your age.” Many of the people now in their late 20s who were early FM fans have gone on to work on horror films, and Warren has an impressive list of sound technicians, make-up men, and even producers who thank the magazine for some part of their success. Bill Mohalley has been reading it since he was 13, and wanted to work for Warren after reading the first issue. He’s now art director of FM.

Famous Monsters has had as many imitators as Playboy over the years, but the stability of format and layout, and Ackerman’s ungodly collection of over 35,000 stills, have defeated attacks by the erratic and cluttered fly-by-night competitors. The most serious threat now is a tabloid called The Monster Times, started by two people who used to work for Warren. It covers the same route Famous Monsters does, with added features on comic book heroes and monsters. Castle of Frankenstein is by far the most scholarly and analytical of the monster film rags, but it comes out so erratically as to be negligible.

Warren’s other three magazines, Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella, are the ones under competitive assault. Both small entrepreneurs and large outfits like Cadence Industries (Marvel) are fighting for the weird comic audience: Vampire Tales, Dracula Lives, Tales of the Zombie, Crypt Terror, Weird Fantasy, Shock, Crypt of Terror, Scream, Nightmare, Psycho, Tales From the Tomb, and many others all bite, claw, and scratch for newsstand space. But so far none has really been able to match the superlative cover art and the consistently high level and daring of the Warren magazine graphics. “Art is first with me,” he says, “and then graphics.” Warren is regarded as a maverick, and his habit of recruiting the best artists from all over the world and then giving them total freedom has paid off.

“Here, come here, look at this.” Warren motions for me to come around the desk. He points to a photo taped to the desk drawer. “You know who that is? That’s Stan Lee of ‘the big money boys’ (he means Marvel), and every time I start to get lazy I look at him. Hell, no, I don’t consider any of these imitations compliments! There is only so much horror room on the shelf and they cut into it.” Warren has already defeated Lee’s The Haunt of Horror and Monster Madness, and Warren and Lee came to the edge of a lawsuit a year ago when both of their magazines came out the same month “coincidentally” featuring a female vampire named “Satana.”

Then James Warren makes the golden announcement: “Now, want to see Captain Company?” Out two doors and down a short hall we enter this warehouse of ghoulish delights. All four of Warren’s magazines have only one advertiser: Captain Company, and the last 12 or so pages of each issue teem with ads from this largest monster-oriented mail order house in the country. At one time or another I have wanted everything they offer, and the stuff ranges from the edifying to the very limits of bad taste, “Make-up accessories! Fangy evil teeth! (Outsized incisors to tear people’s hearts out.) Scar Stuff! Vampire Blood! Ugly Kit!”; “Mystery package — do you dare buy it?”; “Hong Kong Gorilla” — seven feet tall, vinyl; monster posters; t-shirts (“Folks will lose their lunch when they see you in this shirt!”); monster books and monster films. As we stroll through the aisles it’s like being backstage for a simultaneous production of every horror film ever made. We pass bins of masks, hands, and feet. Warren stops from time to time. He picks up a “Glow Werewolf” kit and points to the well-known brand name. “See, we send out quality stuff. When some kid saves his money to buy the werewolf, we at Warren think he should get his money’s worth.” I am giddy from being surrounded by such great junk; I covet all of it. Warren rolls up a poster and hands it to me; my eyes must have done something, because he says, “As a momento.”

On one side several aisles of Captain Company resemble a library, and Warren points out stacks and stacks of the back issues of his magazines. Current and back issues of his live and dead magazines (he’s had several cease publication) are offered for sale, and sometimes the prices show that even magazines published in the ’60s are now collec­tors’ items. Famous Monsters of Filmland takes up most of the space. There are now over 105 issues, many completely unavailable. Issue number one has sold for $100. Next we come to Spacemen (1960), 10 issues, “Ahead of its time, it dealt with spacemen of the past and pre­sent”; Wildest Westerns (1961–63), a kind of famous cowboys of film­land; Help (1960–65) a personality lampoon, “a magazine for tired minds,” which Warren worked on with Mad’s Harvey Kurtzman; then three one-issue photo balloon maga­zines based on horror films: Curse of Frankenstein, The Mole People, and Horror of Party Beach, all 1964; and then Creepy (1964–present); Eerie (1965–present); and Vampirella (1967–present). In the mid-’60s Warren put out the most unlikely of his menagerie of maga­zines: Blazing Combat, a black and white war-art comic featuring the master artists of his other magazines, but in a new format. “Bold realism of battle fury! Illustrated front line action!” It lasted only a few issues. Leafing through a copy it seems no more gory than the axe­-ident prone pages of Creepy: “But,” Warren says, “it shows the real, the gory side of war. The whole country was thinking about Viet Nam and… well,” he smiles, “a little ahead of its time.” Back issues of Blazing Combat are rare and go for more than triple the original price.

Warren confesses that without a family he does tend to treat his staff as one. He knows all the wives’ and kids’ names and birthdays; every employee gets his own birthday off. In fact, everybody works his own hours. (Talking to his secretary alone, she told me Warren himself works 15–18 hours a day. He is the first one in and the last one home, spending many nights at the office.) Warren Publishing is his fantasy made fact, his life. “I want people who like what they’re doing, and letting them work when they want insures that. If they don’t feel like coming in, they shouldn’t.”

On my way out we pass the coffers of monster pins adjacent to Captain Company and in a seizure of boldness I say, “Could I…”

“Of course,” he says, and he’s quickly dipping into the piles of Frankenstein, Wolfman, Dracula, and Vampirella pins.

“Thanks.”

“Good luck.”

Descending to the street I madly latch all seven pins to my coat and rattle out, berserk, to grab a taxi.

That night at a cocktail party, miles away, when I pinned Frankenstein to the coat of a friend of mine who teaches English at a private school, his eyes flew into that particular conflagration I shared, that torchfire, that sympathy for the monster we all know as youth.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Uncategorized

The Spirit Strikes Back

The Spirit Strikes Back

There was only one great comic book in the ’40s and ’50s, the days when comic books were in their first muscular prime. It was set in a place called Central City, which was obviously New York, and it was filled with darkness. Great dark Gregg Toland shadows, men standing in Fritz Lang pools of light, women with dark hair and inviting bodies. “My name is P’gell,” she said, staring with brutal directness from the splash panel, “and this is not a story for little boys…” The comic book was called The Spirit, and in the last year, as always, The Spirit has risen from the grave.

The old Will Eisner classic is back in a series of handsome buck-a-copy reprints published by Warren Publishing Co. The covers are new, beautifully drawn and colored, and, thankfully, the stories are old. The hard coloring of the ’40s comic supplements and comic books has given way to handsome gray Bendays, which emphasize the lush blacks of the drawings and give the stories a feeling of some old Warner Brothers film, caught forever in the ambiguous light of late afternoon. The stories are brilliant — Jules Feiffer was one of Eisner’s writers — and the artwork is the most expressive ever practiced in comic books — among Eisner’s assistants were Wally Wood, who found his own style in the early Mad, and Alex Kotsky, who now draws the newspaper strip, Apartment 3-G. But more than anything else, The Spirit contained great characters, starting with the lead character himself.

[related_posts post_id_1=”564702″ /]

In the first episode of The Spirit, published as a newspaper supplement on June 2, 1940, a young private detective named Denny Colt challenges the police commissioner, a knuckle-faced character named Dolan to find one of those arch-fiends of the day, a mad scientist named Dr. Cobra (the comics, even before the atom bomb, napalm, herbicides, and the founding of the military-industrial complex saw that warped science might be our greatest danger). Pursuing the mad doctor, Colt gets in a fight, has a vat of chemicals spilled on him, and seems to die of heart failure. Dr. Cobra gets away, and Colt is buried in Wildwood Cemetery. But Colt is not dead. He rises from the grave, visits Dolan, announces that he will stay legally dead because “there are criminals and crimes beyond the reach of the police, but The Spirit can reach them!”

It was a hoary beginning — even down to the stiff, crude artwork — for something that would later become a glory of the cultural backwater known as comics. Now, 23 years after the last Spirit comic, the masked man is back.

I went to see Eisner recently and talked to him about the comeback.

“I kept hammering him back into the box,” said Eisner, a neat 58-year-old New Yorker with precise features, a trim mustache, and a businessman’s style. “He kept coming out. I was the head of a firm that marketed educational materials, social studies enrichment material, and I was heavily involved in that until suddenly… well, not so suddenly, something started to happen. Over the years, there had been European reprints of The Spirit, and gradually I began to get a lot of mail. Guys wrote in asking for originals, which I never sent, and then they asked for old proofs, and then there were requests for interviews. Suddenly I became aware that there must be something going on out there. Then, two, three years ago, somebody out of a clear blue sky asked me to attend a comics convention, to give me an award. Hell, even from the plumber’s convention an award is good.”

Eisner laughed, doodled with a pencil.

“So I went down there. Burne Hogarth (the best artist Tarzan ever had) was down there and I gave a talk, and I suddenly became aware of the enormous underground market. You must understand that the underground concept is very close to me. I started as an underground sort of artist, although it wasn’t called underground in those days. My whole origin came from breaking into established markets from the outside. Original comic books were practically non-existent when I started. It’s hard to claim that you’re the first of anything, because you never know what the guy across the street is doing, but certainly I was among the first guys to make original comic books, with original art, rather than reprints of newspaper stuff.

“It was, let’s see, ’37. 1937. My first work was sold to something called Wow Magazine, which was an attempt at a broad juvenile magazine, and it very promptly went broke… But it made me aware that there was a potential there. So I formed a partnership with a fellow named Jerry Iger. I was like 19 years old, but very entrepreneurial.

“At the time, something else was happening: the pulp publishers were going broke. Popular Publications, Street & Smith, Muncie were all dying. They started looking for new things to publish and some of them were even putting comic strips inside the pulps. So we hit on a publisher and convinced him that he ought to publish comics. He said yes, but that he had no way to get comics. At that time, the comic books — like Famous Funnies — were just daily strips pasted into a sequence. So I said, ‘We’ll do original work.’ He said okay, but he would only pay the rate he would pay for proofs from newspaper syndicates, $5 a page. So we told him we had five artists as Eisner and Iger, which wasn’t true. And I turned out five different scripts in five different styles.” Eisner laughed: “There’s a lot of stuff around with names like Willis Rensie, which is my name spelled backwards, and Spencer Steel. Spencer Steel: I always like to be called Spencer Steel. Especially where I come from. It had a nice Anglo-Saxon ring to it.” (He came from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.)

[related_posts post_id_1=”592553″ /]

“I soon had a staff of 15 guys working an operation that looked like a galley ship. I sat in the center and along the oars were the pencilers and paste-up people and inkers and so forth. I was writing the stories, and passing them down, and drawing the heads or something. At $5 a page, we made about a buck and a half net profit, which added up, strangely enough. Later on, as the publishers got smarter, they insisted on owning the properties, so that features we owned, like Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, ended up with a separate life.”

By late 1939, after Superman and Batman had taken off, some newspapers started inquiring about having ready-made comic books of their own. Eisner teamed up with a man named “Busy” Arnold, a former newspaper press salesman, and Henry Martin of the Register and Tribune Syndicate.

“You know, we were just emerging form the depression,” Eisner recalled, “and there were a lot of new ideas generating, and newspapers were beginning to smell death at the time. Technology was improving, offset was coming in, and all of these things were having an impact on the publishing industry. Anyway, after some discussion, we formed a partnership. Newspaper delivery systems, as you know, are very inflexible, with six-weeks lead time, and you need someone producing the material who is dependable. I had that reputation. We had a big package deal, that included Police Comics and Uncle Sam comics, and Busy Arnold and I became partners. His real name was actually Everett, and I don’t know why he was called ‘Busy,’ because he wasn’t always that busy. Anyway, the whole thing was pretty much in my hands, including the editorial judgement, which was a tremendous break, especially when you’re 21 years old and full of beans. I had no idea what I’d do, except that you always have something on the back burner that you want to do if you’re let loose. For me, that was The Spirit.”

Eisner knew from the beginning that the key to its success would be its stories. Most comics at the time were simple-minded versions of movie serials. Eisner’s work had to be self-contained, and so he focused on the short story as his model.

“I was an avid short story fan, but more importantly, I suppose, I was a frustrated serious painter and a frustrated serious writer. I could do both reasonably well, but not well enough to make a name for myself in either media by itself. But with the euphoria you bring to something when you know it’s the big time, I attacked it as if I were a young Dostoevski. I also equated myself with Ben Hecht and some of the pulp writers, who were my heroes at the time. Short stories are sort of dead now, but they were very big in the ’30s.

“The title — The Spirit — was the result of about 15 names I’d listed, and I really had no intention of making him a ghost. I didn’t want him to be a super-hero, because I had been grinding out super-heroes, and knew what super-heroes were all about. But at the same time, I knew that I had to have an identification; there were certain perimeters you stayed within, or accepted formulas that would augur success. The syndicate sales­men were selling a product, and they wanted it to look like a product they could sell. I promised them a detective. That was fine: a detective could sell. And I promised them a complete story every week, and that was novel, because most people had to wait six weeks to finish a story in a newspaper strip. So we tried to get as much plot into a single episode as the dailies got in six or eight weeks.”

The first 16-page weekly comic book featured The Spirit and two other features. Eisner decided that the load was too much and sold his interest in Eisner and Iger (which was still free-lancing comic art to other publications) so he could concentrate solely on The Spirit.

“When I think back about it now, it was an enormous decision,” Eisner said. “But when you’re that young, you know, you feel impervious. It’s like young pilots in Vietnam, saying: ‘What do you mean I’m going to get killed? No one can kill me: I’m 21 years old.’ I remember Iger trying to dissuade me, saying that The Spirit might not sell in the newspaper business, it could be dead in a year. I said, “I’m immortal. I’m Superman. I’m going to do it.’ ”

[related_posts post_id_1=”417133” /]

The high quality of The Spirit was probably traceable to the oddity of its being a newspaper supplement, rather than a newsstand comic book. Eisner said that in those days the average comic book was written for an eight- or 10-year-old mind.

“But I had a totally different audience. When you’re writing, you’re writing for someone: you, or a little old lady in Brooklyn, or whomever. I was writing to adults. I was writing to college students. I was writing to kids. We started with three papers and grew to 19 or 20, and I also knew that I had a Bible Belt out there to worry about. If you spent a dime on Superman it was because you wanted Superman. But here was a comic that came into the house on Sunday because Pop went out and bought it for the news.

Eisner quickly discovered an enormous freedom and range in possible stories.

“I could pull out the stocking and I could make mistakes,” he said. “If I did a lousy story this week, it was only that week, and I could do a good story next week. And I did have ups and downs, because there are weeks when you go dry. In the beginning I had more good ideas than I could produce, but as time went on, of course, I used them up. Then I started generating new stories out of the newspapers themselves. That went on for a year and a half, and in 1942, I was invited to join the armed forces.”

In the army Eisner was an aide on the staff of the Chief of Ordnance, and later started doing cartoon instruction strips for a magazine called Army Motors; he still maintains an interest in the use of comics as an instructional device. The Spirit continued, with Lou Fine drawing it for a while, along with the great Jack Cole (famous in his own right as the artist of Plastic Man and then as a Playboy cartoonist in the magazine’s early days).

In early 1946, Eisner came back to New York and The Spirit and, from 1946 to 1950, had what he calls “four glorious golden years.” It was at this time that Jules Feiffer went to work for Eisner. “We’ve had a remarkably good relationship over the years,” Eisner said of Feiffer. “There’s a tremendous empathy between us. Psycholo­gically we’re very much alike, philosophically we’re much alike… Those were the vintage years for me… A lot of collectors are into the early, pre-war Spirit, but as I look back now the drawing is very, very crude. I think what attracts the collectors or so-called historians is the obvious fact that I was experimenting so vividly, so aggres­sively. There just was nothing like The Spirit in existence. King Features came out with an imitation called ‘Red Barry’ or something, but it died in a couple of months. It just didn’t haveI guess the word is elan.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”413765″ /]

The post-war Spirit was the world of lush blacks, unusual angles, great humor, all of which had been present in a cruder form in the earlier version. The difference, Eisner said, was that the war had matured him — ­and his work: “The early Spirits were done by a young kid barely out of high school, who lived a very cloistered life, when you con­sider that most cartoonists live a cloistered life. I mean, 90 per cent of a cartoonist’s time is spent at a drawing board in a fantasy world. Occasionally you get up and tell the plumber, ‘Yeah, the pipe is over there,’ or whatever it is, and you do go out and buy lunch. But one of the great occupational hazards of this life is that an artist spends an enormous amount of his life in the nice soft womb of a studio. Now with the rates higher, it might be possible to spend six months on one book, as if you were writing a novel. In those days, I was functioning the way, say, a TV series writer works, and you don’t expect great masterworks under the circumstances. Of course, I was functioning as the writer and the director. I teach at the School of Visual Arts, and I keep telling the students that you’re the actor, you’re the author, you’re the screenwriter, you’re the cameraman, you’re the director, and you’re the cutting editor. I hold to the idea that the comic strip author should be writer and artist.

I asked Eisner how much he had been influenced by movies.

“My early life was spent in the Brooklyn movie houses, those marvelous temples of fantasy. That’s where my life experience came from, by and large, with the exception of a couple of street fights. As a kid, I used to go and look at Man Ray movies, all the experimental films that the New School used to run in the ’30s, and in high school I very seriously considered going into theatrical design. I was very theatre oriented. The answer is yes: I was always motion picture oriented. I thought of a comic strip as a movie on paper. Or put another way, movies are comic strips made to move.”

Eisner loved Fritz Lang’s movies: his cartoonist heroes were Milton Caniff, Al Capp, Popeye’s E.C. Segar, and George Herriman, whose Krazy Kat pages ended up in museums. But he said he didn’t con­sciously steal from anyone.

“There’s no such thing as stealing, really. There’s a difference between stealing and imitation or slavish emulation. If you’re emulating a guy, and you’ve got a strong personality of your own, you’ll always devel­op your own style anyway. Some artists serve as jumpoff points for other artists. For example, George Herriman showed me that you could develop odd and abstract back­grounds without any realistic relation to what was going on. It isn’t much of a jump to say, ‘Ah yes, he showed me the way and now I’m going to improve on the idea.’ Writers showed me. Conan Doyle, for example, helped me tremendously in writing balloons. Balloons are like writing telegrams. You’re constricted in space, you have to make every word count. You learn there’s a dynamics of words, that words have visual impact. The word ‘shit’ on paper doesn’t look as horrible as it sounds, so you have to find another word to make it sound as horrible. ‘Glak!’ sounds like a man choking or dying when you write in on a page, but it doesn’t sound the same when you say it. Conan Doyle’s style was largely dialogue, three or four pages of crisp back-and-forth dialogue where the reader knows exactly what is going on, and even knows how the man feels. So I learned from that. And combined with pictures, it becomes an art form in itself.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”419722″ /]

The Spirit revival started when Eisner granted a man named Dennis Kitchen the right to reprint some old Spirits in an underground comic, for which Eisner drew a new cover. It sold out. They did a second and that too sold out. Meanwhile, a magazine called Tin Tin in France was also publishing the old Spirit stories, with Eisner’s permission, and “soon I was back in the Spirit business.” Then several New York comic publishers offered to revive the strip. But Eisner started talking to Jim Warren, who wanted initially to do a Spirit poster, then to scatter Spirit stories through existing publications, and finally agreed to a full-scale revival in a magazine entirely devoted to The Spirit. “I know Warren,” Eisner explains, “and we have a philosophical compatibility. But if someone asked me why I gave it to Warren, I’d say, because he cares.”

Eisner had saved all the original artwork, which was in good shape “except for a coffee cup stain here or there.” Warren hired a fine underground artist named Rich Corben to color the first two issues: Eisner and an assistant did the coloring in the six that have followed, and he has also directed the appli­cation of the gray Bendays that have given the strips such a handsome texture. There are 240 old stories, and they will start to run out in 1976. So Eisner is preparing to write new ones. Where will the new material come from?

“The newspapers,” he said. “I did that from the beginning. I remember, back in 1941, they were building the Lincoln Tunnel and there were a lot of stories about sand­hogs dying and so forth, so I used that and built a story around it.” I mentioned a fine Spirit story of 1947, based on the great blizzard that year, in which The Spirit is trapped in a sewer because he can’t raise the snow-covered manhole covers. All of the stories seemed to draw on the life of cities.

“That’s what I mean,” he said. “Only a city dweller can be aware of the real signifi­cance of a snowstorm. A snowstorm in the country is really something to ride over, you know. It’s part of the landscape, no different than the rocks and the mud. But a snowstorm in the city is the equivalent of dropping the atom bomb. Think about it for a minute. If you and I were mad scientists here, and we were going to tie up the city of New York… Let’s say it’s a military exercise, so that the people of the city of New York couldn’t get out of the city of New York. You wanted to capture New Jersey, but you wanted the people of New York to be immobilized for 48 hours or more. Well, you could bomb all the bridges at the same time, but they would still get across the river. But settle 14 to 20 inches of snow on the city! It does things like immobilize manhole covers, it immobilizes traffic, it’s a real thing! Only a city kid, only a person who’s lived in the city and learned how to survive in the city and regards the city as his jungle, so to speak, can be aware of how enormous that would be.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”714657″ /]

Eisner’s work at its best contained a kind of urban poetry, and I asked him if the lyric strain had come from the same things that had produced similar qualities in such di­verse Brooklynites as Irwin Shaw, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer.

“We were doing different things, but sure! What we were doing, all of us, was weeping inside the ghetto walls. ‘Outside the ghetto walls was another world,’ we were told. But I mean ghetto, inside the walls of the city, a kind of medieval city in which you’ve grown up. Your plan is really to climb one of those walls. Some guys do it by marrying a nice blonde Gentile girl and living up in Westchester with her family. Some guys do it by becoming a basketball player, or a boxer: in those days everybody was going to be a boxer. Or the other guys say the hell with it, I’m going to join the mob and I’m going to make it. I wanted to be a comic strip artist. From the time I was eight years old! So guys go to movies, read books, they know there’s another world out there, and how things could be. You learned from everything. You lived in the tenements and looked at Mr. and Mrs. Cohen living to­gether. As a kid I could watch him banging her, or him beating the shit out of her. Now, television does that. It’s like a window into somebody else’s house, from which you glean what life is about. Even television. It shows you a world that doesn’t have a sense of realism, but from which you draw some of your life experience.”

Eisner is clearly enjoying the increasing interest in The Spirit and the realization that some of the strips approached art.

“Sure, most of it was crap,” he said. “But when I grew up, along with my peers — the Jack Kirbys, the Jack Coles, the Siegel and Shusters — we were learning the merchan­dise. We were cobblers, not shoe designers. When I was at the Art Students League, I was taught that art was synonymous with one or two mediums. An oil painting is art. An etching is art. A mural is art. But a comic strip is not art, or was not art. This seemed always to me a great injustice. But we were making art. I prefer to call it sequential art. Daumier, Goya, the people who made 13th-­century broadsheets: they were making se­quential art. I think we’re poised now to treat other kinds of subjects. More sophisticated subjects. Comics have dealt with only one theme for the last 30 years and that was Crime Does Not Pay. Yes, there were Jiggs and Maggie subjects, or A Monster Is Going to Take Over the Earth. But it’s still ‘crime does not pay.’ My one condescension to the medium — the way I had to pay my dues­ — was to make The Spirit a crime fighter. Your new people will be touching on subjects that are more sensitive, if not more serious. Me: I’d like to do a novel in this medium. I’m at a stage of affluence where I can afford to do it without worrying whether it will sell or not. The trouble is that it’s a two-year project, because the fastest anybody can move is about a page a day. At least that’s as fast as I could go. But even then it’s not so much the length and the physical limitation, it’s the story, the plot. It would have to be serious stuff. What I’m talking about is that instead of doing ‘Crime and Punishment,’ by a fellow named Dostoevski, I would have a story by Will Eisner.”

Eisner smiled, and doodled.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives Media NYC ARCHIVES

A Year in the Life of Robert Maxwell

A Year in the Life of Robert Maxwell: A Story of Labor, Lies, Losses, and Libel Suits 
December 31, 1991

  1. Publishing tycoon Robert Maxwell becomes an instant celebrity in the U.S. by agreeing, in early March, to take over the Dally News. The paper’s unions, weary after a 139-day strike, hail Maxwell as a friend of labor. No one listens as a British union leader warns that Maxwell’s habit is “to make the workforce pay for his greed and ambition, while presenting himself as a white knight.”

  1. In early April, The New Republic runs a negative profile of Maxwell; he sues in Britain, despite the fact that TNR has only 136 U.K. subscribers. Maxwell sets the News on the comeback trail through promotions such as “Lucky Bucks.” Playing the role of civic leader, Maxwell makes grandiose pledges to various local institutions. The formula seems to work, as the News makes rapid gains.

  1. Quietly, Maxwell sells Pergamon Press and takes 49 per cent of Mirror Group Newspapers public in a frantic attempt to raise cash. On July 16 and 17, the London Independent does a two-part series, reporting that Maxwell’s debt, at $2.14 billion, is 150 per cent of his assets. Furious at the disclosures, Maxwell sues the paper for libel — despite the fact that he is a part owner.

  1. In mid September, The Wall Street Journal reports on the dubious nature of Maxwell’s empire. He calls the reporter “a creep.” Days later, Maxwell pledges $10 million to Brooklyn’s Polytechnic University. On September 25, Maxwell sponsors a race-relations forum. The News runs five photos of its boss in one day. Pleased, Maxwell pledges $750,000 to promote racial peace.

  1. On October 20, Seymour Hersh’s The Samson Option is released, claiming that Maxwell and the Daily Mirror‘s foreign editor, Nicholas Davies, worked for the Mossad. Both men deny the charge and, on the 23rd, Maxwell flies yet another libel suit. Davies was later fired. In the early morning of November 5, Maxwell mysteriously disappears off his 180-foot yacht, the Lady Ghislaine.

  1. The British press goes ballistic over the Maxwell story, suggesting that the nude body found in the sea is not his. Later, Maxwell’s widow files a libel suit against The Guardian, for suggesting that she might have been part of a plot to fake Maxwell’s death. Sons Kevin and Ian seize the reins of the troubled empire, and are met warmly by News staffers — much as their father had been.

  1. After a month of media speculation about Maxwell’s disappearance, the Daily News files for bankruptcy on December 5. Its local deli refuses to accept News credit cards and creditors demand cash up front. Britain’s Serious Fraud office turns up massive improprieties, including the looting of pension funds and artificially propping up the price of Maxwell Communications stock.

  1. Kevin Maxwell is implicated in the pension fund scandal In Britain, and his passport and personal assets are seized by the British government. Kevin is put on a $2700-per ­week allowance, Ian puts his London house up for sale. Maxwell’s own papers call their former owner “a thief and liar.” As he walks through the newsroom with Sam Donaldson, Kevin Maxwell is pelted by a reporter.

  1. In mid December, authorities begin to investigate the pensions at the Daily News. Staffers bet on a horse named Pension Fraud. Press accounts claim Max asked a young female employee to call him “Mr. Maxwell” in bed and had a thing for midget Filipino prostitutes. Bankruptcy papers indicate that he did not make his charitable contributions, stiffing even Mother Teresa.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES BOOKS ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Spider-Man: Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Super-Anti-Hero In Forest Hills

Cult-spotting, a branch of the old science of trend-spotting, became a national sport in the days of the old American Mercury, when H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan first made fashionable the cultivation of trivia. Mencken and Nathan probably invented Pop as well, but since people had other things to think about in those days, no­body else bothered to record it. Today, the press having finally caught up with Mencken and Nathan, both trivia-cultivation and cult-spotting have risen again to public prominence. Their latest manifestation is pop cult spotting, which began in earnest in 1964 when Time mag­azine spotted the long-established Harvard Bogart Cult. Since then no trivia-cultist has been safe from the feature writer’s predatory eye.

Realizing that if Time was onto a trend the trend must be in its death-throes, other magazines rushed to spot newer pop-cults. The New Yorker came up with the Sunday-Afternoon-Reruns-of-the-Lone-Ranger-Cult. The Tribune noted that a small cordon of “stay-at-home intellectuals” was watching daytime television. The Times began doing textual analy­ses of homosexual publications. At this point the whole thing got out of hand and, in a desperate effort to stay a step ahead of the incognoscenti, the press turned to cult-creation. Defining pop as any object of which a normal aesthetic judgment would disap­prove, the press took to describ­ing the 18th-century painter Fragonard as the object of a pop-cult. And, “Everybody on the social scene is working on pop movies,” crowed Eugenia Shep­pard last October in the Tribune. By “everybody” she meant the girls in Andy Warhol’s “13 Most Beautiful Women” film.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720824″ /]

Master Stroke

But the Tribune made its master stroke of pop-cult crea­tion a few weeks later when it discovered the Golden Age of Comics and announced that “everybody” is buying old Bat­man and Superman magazines. Now the Paperbook Gallery has put a six-foot poster of the Phan­tom in its window, and the Old Comics Cult is, presumably, fact. Two college girls, passing the window last week, looked rever­ently at the poster. “That’s the ultimate in pop art,” one of them exclaimed, and with these words delivered fashion’s coup de grace upon the literature of her childhood.

Real pop or not, the Old Comic Books Cult has got to be a fake. Reading old comic books is hard work; it is possible to enjoy Bat­man only if you continually re­mind yourself that you liked him when you were 12. As for the new issues of Batman and Superman, they are thin even by comic book standards. Superman’s only concession to modernity has been his formation of a league of super-heroes, a dubious improvement at best, and he is still as addicted to time machines as he was in 1940. Batman has not even attempted to come up to date. He still travels by Batmobile and Batplane; where is his Batcopter? and why has no one thought to equip him with hali-toxic Batbreath? No, reading Batman, like listening to Lone Ranger re-runs, is merely a Proustian memory trick, a de­vice for creating a state of mind conducive to summoning up the childhood self. There is a real Comic Books Cult, but it has nothing to do with the old heroes, and it has claims on our attention other than those of nostalgia.

Three Rules

I realize that in making the above statement I risk casting my lot with Eugenia Sheppard and the Cult-Spotters Guild. Nonetheless it must be said, for the Marvel Comics Cult is, under the existing Rules of Pop-Cult Spotting, ripe for exposure. It conforms to the first rule of pop (see above) and also to rules two (“Your cult must replace a pre­vious, inferior cult”) and three (“No one else must have pub­licly spotted your cult”). Furthermore, it is a legitimate cult. College students interpret Marvel Comics. A Cornell physics pro­fessor has pointed them out to his classes. Beatniks read them. Schoolgirls and housewives dream about the Marvel heroes. I myself was deeply in love with a Marvel hero-villain for two whole weeks. The fact is that Marvel Comics are the first comic books in history in which a post-adolescent escapist can get personally involved. For Marvel Comics are the first comic books to evoke, even metaphorically, the Real World.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717856″ /]

Stories Signed

The Marvel Comics Group has been in existence less than five years, and during that time their circulation has risen to about six million a year. As befits pop literature in a pop-mad world, the Marvel books are highly self-­conscious. Their covers announce adventures dedicated to “The New Breed of Comic Reader,” and two pages on the inside of each magazine are given over to advertisements for the Marvel fan club, the Merry Marvel Marching Society. All the stories are signed (“Earth-shaking Script by Stan Lee, Breath-taking Illustrations by Jack Kirby, Epoch-making delineation by Chick Stone”), and the heroes who range in style from tradi­tional action types like Captain America to tragic, ambiguous figures like the Hulk, seem continually bemused by the way in which their apparently normal lives keep melting into fantasy. “This is so stupid it could only happen in a comic book,” says the wise-cracking monster The Thing as he and his friend the Human Torch flee across a col­lapsing dam with a deadly iron ball in hot pursuit.

Recognizing that life has begun to imitate fantasy to such a de­gree that the public is most comfortable with fantasy which imitates life, the creators of Marvel comics have invented superheroes with discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions. Further, they have given the heroes a recognizable geography.

Real Rules 

Thus, a Marvel Comics reader can get the impression that costumed superheroes form a sizable voting block in New York City. In fact, one suspects that they are the real rulers of Manhattan. And they have the citizens quite bewildered.

A New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidently rip the dark scales from the powerful eyes of Cyclops, a benign super-mutant whose refractive lenses hide an X-ray vision which will burn through the sidewalk if exposed. And, last year, New Yorkers awoke to find that their city had been taken over by the under­sea legions of Namor, the ruler of the sub-continent Atlantis. Washington was afraid to bomb the invaders lest the bombs in­jure innocent citizens. “Wait ’til the Fantastic Four get here!” murmured a bystander as the submariners marched through Central Park. He was right: the Fantastic Four ultimately drove the undersea legions back into the Hudson.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722213″ /]

Local Landmarks 

There are approximately 15 superheroes in the Marvel  Group, and nearly all of them live in the New York area. Midtown Manhattan is full of their landmarks. On Madison Avenue the Baxter Building (“New York’s most famous skyscraper”) houses the Fantastic Four and their various self-protective devices. Further down Madison Avenue is the flagpole from which Spiderman swung the day he lost his spider powers. Somewhere in the east 60s the townhouse of playboy industrialist  Tony Stark (alias Iron Man) is secret  headquarters for the Avengers, a group of traditional fighters for justice which includes the thundergod Thor. Thor in his human identity is the lame doctor Don Blake (whose cane turns into a magic hammer when he puts on his Thor costume) who works surgical miracles in an uptown hospital.

The newspaper run by J. Jonah Jamison, sworn enemy of costumed superheroes, is also in midtown. And, “on the outskirts of Greenwich Village” Dr. Strange, the most bizarre superhero of all, has his secret retreat. Strange is a master of oc­cult knowledge and often walks around in ectoplasmic form; his creators imply that he lives in the Village because no one there is likely to become alarmed at being jostled by a wraith.

Intellectual Elite

In other respects besides geography, the Marvel world  mirrors the real world. Occupationally, of course, it has a heavy concentration of scientists, but then, these characters are supposed to be members of an intellectual elite and one cannot blame comic book writers for idolizing physicists. Within this larger elite, however, there are subtle gradations. The aristocrats of the Marvel world are the Fantastic Four, four healthy, at­tractive, and socially prominent people headed by physicist Reed Richards (who is dull but very dependable and has interesting body-stretching powers) and his blonde debutante fiancee Sue Storm (invisibility powers). Sue’s outside interests are clothes, novel reading, and doing her nails. Her brother, Johnny Storm the Human Torch, races cars and seems to have a bit of a death wish, but otherwise we can take him for the Marvel prototype 0f a normal adolescent superhero. The Thing, otherwise Ben Grimm, is Reed’s old col­lege roommate. The cosmic rays which gave the F. F. their powers turned Ben into a monster, and he is a trifle bitter about the whole thing. Still, group loyalty usually prevails over his resentment, and on the whole the Fantastic Four are quite aggres­sively well-adjusted. Everybody looks up to them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”596542″ /]

Neurotic Superhero 

The most popular Marvel hero, however, is much lower on the social scale. He is the maladjusted adolescent Spiderman, the only overtly neurotic superhero I have ever come across. Spiderman has a terrible identity problem, a marked inferiority complex, and a fear of women. He is anti-social, castration­-ridden, racked with Oedipal guilt, and accident-prone.

Spiderman began life as Peter Parker, a brilliant science student at a Queens high school who lived with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben in a Forest Hills split-level. He had no friends and was plagued by a dominating mother figure. Then he got bitten by a radioactive spider and took on the spider’s climbing, jump­ing, and web-shooting powers. Being a child of the television age, he immediately went on the “Ed Sullivan Show” (for which he received a check which, having no Spiderman identification, he was unable to cash). On his way out of the studio he saw a burglar escaping but, having decided to use his power only for his own benefit, refused to capture him. When he went home, Spidey found his uncle murdered by the same burglar. So, in a fumbling attempt to expiate his guilt, Spiderman decided to devote his talents to public service.

Cocky Manner

Ill luck has pursued him ever since. His shyness led him to adopt a cocky manner which so alienated the other superheroes that none of them will have any­thing to do with him. He is always having trouble maintain­ing his secret identity. And his powers are so closely allied to his highly problematic virility that they often seem to be on the verge of deserting him. His castration complex is constantly tripping him up. Once, while on the trail of a gang, he was trapped by the sinister villainess Princess Python. “What am I going to do?” he murmured desperately as she caressed his neck. “I can’t hit a girl.” Her presence had evaporated his web­shooting apparatus.

Another time, while standing on a roof surrounded on all sides by phallic-looking skyscraper towers, he began thinking about his Uncle Ben and became so consumed with guilt that he lost his spider-powers entirely. As he crawled home, thinking that now he could devote himself entirely to his Aunt May (toward whom guilt has made him more sub­missive than ever), he received word that Aunt May had been kidnapped by the evil Doctor Octopus. Eventually the need to act brought back his powers, for Spiderman is nothing if not a functioning neurotic.

[related_posts post_id_1=”413765″ /]

Needed Care

Spiderman’s most significant adventure took place when J. Jonah Jamison began writing articles about the hero’s mental instability. A psychiatrist had told Jamison that Spidey needed immediate psychiatric care, and Spiderman became so worried by this that he went to the doctor for help. The psychiatrist was finally unmasked as the villain Mysterio, who had been trying to flip Spidey out by pasting his office furniture onto the ceiling and convincing the tormented superhero that he was hallucinating. So Spiderman escaped with his interior defenses intact (a psychiatrist can be the functioning neurotic’s greatest enemy after all) only to fall, in the next issue, into the arms of a robot controlled by J. Jonah.

Spiderman, unlike other superheroes, has never yet saved the human race from annihilation. His battles are unfailingly personal, hand-to-hand combats between a young man of precarious courage and the powerful social forces which threaten to destroy his hard-won security. He has no reassuring sense of fighting for a noble purpose, nor has he any outside support. Even the public which cries up his victories invariably deserts him in the clinches. Spiderman is, God save us, an absurd hero, fighting with purely defensive weapons against foes he cannot understand. And, in last month’s issue, he was finally sabotaged at home: Aunt May burned his Spiderman costume so that he is now unable to venture out of doors.

How can a character as hope­lessly healthy as Superman com­pete with this living symbol of the modern dilemma, this neu­rotic’s neurotic, Spiderman, the super-anti-hero of our time.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives

To Be Young, Superpowered & Black

At Lorestone Comics in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, an African American boy all of eight is shuffling through a stack of plastic-­wrapped comics, his expression drained to rapt blankness. The money in his pocket needs to be spent like, fast, and whole worlds are appearing and disappearing un­der his gaze in quick succession, dollar­-twenty-five universes glanced at and then banished on the merits of glossy foil covers.

Once upon a time, little man’s options ran a narrow gamut of types: Superman, Batman, Captain America, Thor — white-­bread superheroes for white-bread children. The X-Men were as funky as his purchases got, those freaky mutants being the closest mainstream comics come to reflecting the lives of potentially marginal kids. Lately, though, his range of purchases and images has gotten considerably wider and darker. Away from this black-owned storefront, in the corporate offices where decisions about comic books are made, the heroic black figure in tights is the latest rage: DC Comics starts its own black-run imprint, Milestone; Marvel Comics brings back ’70s icon Luke Cage, Hero for Hire; independents publish four-color Afrocentric books (including a caped Spike Lee joint, written by Spike’s brother, Cinque), while small presses like Posro Komics do their own quirky thing in black and white. Even Hollywood has got­ten in the act: Robert Townsend was The Meteor Man, Wesley Snipes wants to be the Black Panther, Carl Lumbly’s TV movie Mantis will return to Fox as a series next fall, and Damon Wayans is set to star as Blankman.

But back to little man at Lorestone. He tells me that he’s not supposed to give his name out to strangers. OK, but what do you read?

X-Men and Spiderman,” he says, shrug­ging. His older brother, 13 and no longer a comic-book fan (“That’s kid stuff”), nudges him and tells him that he reads X-Force too.

“Yeah. X-Force.” How come? He shrugs again. “I like the covers.” Do you watch the X-Men cartoon show? He visibly brightens, no doubt thinking of sugared cereals. “Yeah, every week.” Do you read any black comic books? He looks at me for a second. “Storm’s black,” he suggests finally, a cau­tious reference to the X-Men’s token negress.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720494″ /]

The two of them have been browsing with a girl of about 13, who pipes up that she reads Milestone’s Icon. “It’s got good art, and it’s about this girl who’s a team­mate with a black alien and she has this special belt that gives her powers.”

Storm’s a girl,” the eight-year-old whis­pers. After that, the two teenagers are too busy laughing at him to answer any more questions.

Across town at Manhattan’s Forbidden Planet, there are more black kids stocking up on books: They move around the store just like everyone else, the visual tag of race their only distinguishing characteristic. A mother comes in, holding the purse strings to a nine-year-old who wants to buy her out of house and home. He wants everything, none of it black-themed. “He likes the ones with superheroes,” she explains while he builds a stack as thick as her forearm.

I spy a boy, 14, come in and buy whole rows of Marvels including Cage, and Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “I like the Mile­stone one,” he tells me, “ ’cause they’ve got good art and it’s all about this gang that gets contaminated… Cage has a lot of fights with other superheroes like the Hulk. He’s a good guy, but he still gets into fights.” Do you like the comics with the black characters better? “Yeah, I guess so.”

How come? He looks at me for about a minute, suddenly afraid of saying something wrong. “ ’Cause they’re black?”

Sitting out in Milestone Media’s reception area, I decide that I can tell immediately who does what here from their clothes — ­that the guy in the suit must work in fi­nance, that the long loping figure in the jeans has to be a pencil jock. It turns out I’m only half right.

Launched last year, Milestone is top dog in the black comic biz, with six titles and more than 5 million books sold. Founded by a core group composed of Derek Dingle, Michael Davis, Denys Cowan, and Dwayne McDuffie — Dingle and Davis the money end, Cowan and McDuffie pictures and words — Milestone sits comfortably under the shade of a DC Comics distribution deal. They make the comics and DC distributes them, while DC’s parent conglomerate, Time Warner, watches from the penthouse. Everybody’s making money so far.

Cowan and McDuffie met at Marvel Com­ics while working on Deathlok, Cowan drawing, McDuffie writing. McDuffie, the suit I misidentified earlier, would cut a tall, solidly upwardly mobile figure behind his PowerBook if it weren’t for the trace of nerdy teenage energy that still hovers around his eyes. He’s outlining to me how he pretty much fell into comics by accident, but it’s the kid he used to be who’s really speaking, explaining how relieved he is to have lucked into such a cool job.

“I was at NYU for film school and ran out of money, so I took a job copy-editing tables: tables of numbers, many many tables of numbers. I was bitching about my job a whole bunch to a guy who was working at Marvel, and he said there’s an editing job opening here, you should apply for it. I got it and took a major pay cut, but it was definite­ly a lot better than the tables of numbers. I started writing comics to supplement my in­come and found I liked writing much better than editing. I was writing lots of kid stuff like Power Pack and Spiderman education­al books. I always wanted to do Spiderman, but the closest I got was Spiderman “You Can Be an Engineer” books, or “Spiderman Teaches Bicycle Safety,” things like that. Then I ended up doing Deathlok.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716694″ /]

For 25 issues that ran between 1991 and 1993, McDuffie spun the tale of a brother named Michael Collins, an idealistic com­puter expert who stumbles across the secret Deathlok cyber-warrior project and has his personality downloaded and imprinted on the killing machine cyborg. Deathlok had a short run in the late ’70s as a white guy, but McDuffie brought him back black, rewriting the character as one long castration-anxiety mindfuck.

McDuffie capped off his time at Marvel with a special series in which Deathlok teamed up with Marvel’s old-school super­hero, the Black Panther, to save the African nation of Wakanda from an African Ameri­can supervillain who wanted to move black people back to the Motherland. “I don’t think most of the editorial staff at Marvel really understood what I was doing with the character, but it gets back to your question of how I got into comics. When I was a kid I only had a mild interest in comics. I liked the goofy Supermans where people would turn into giant turtles and stuff. I saw Spi­derman and I liked that because he was this nerdy science student who was secretly cool and that sure sounded like me to me. I really identified. But it was still a sort of casual interest.

“Then I saw ‘Panther’s Rage’ [Don McGregor’s well-regarded mid-’70s Black Panther storyline] when I was 11 or 12, and it absolutely riveted me. I really didn’t know why at the time. Looking back on it, it’s easy to see that there was something really spe­cial, really validating, about seeing yourself reflected in the media with dignity, with intelligence. Black Panther was all the things that black characters in comics never were. I never went to the store specifically for books until ‘Panther’s Rage,’ but once I saw it, I was in, I couldn’t get away from it.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”577053″ /]

The Panther transmuted into four initial titles at Milestone: Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate, and Static. Until things settled down at the new company, McDuffie held sole writing credit on Icon and Hardware, plus assists on the rest, as well as the over-­arching title of editor in chief. It’s virtually unprecedented for any comic-book writer, black or white, to oversee the production of an entire world — something akin to the role the legendary Stan Lee had in shaping Marvel.

“What we tried to take from Marvel — ­from the early Marvel, that is — what we just ripped was the sense that, OK, we’re doing superheroes, but they’re going to live in a world that looks more like our world,” McDuffie says. The key to making Mile­stone’s world look more like McDuffie’s is the city of Dakota, where most of the Mile­stone books are set. The “realness” of this urban setting (a midsize, down-on-its-luck, multiracial community) is what guarantees the realness of the characters. As proof of the work they’ve put into their universe, McDuffie shows me the Milestone Bible, a phone-book-sized compilation of people, places, and things that are found in Dakota. McDuffie and Cowan figure that if they get their nabes right, making their characters residents instead of visitors, then their sto­ries won’t go stale or silly. That was the early Marvel philosophy, which in the ’60s meant having Peter Parker go to Empire State University, while Doctor Strange hung out in the Village.

Nineteen nineties black people, needless to say, occupy very different urban spaces. Blood Syndicate, which tells the adventures of a posse who develop superpowers thanks to a government antigang program gone awry, is set in Paris Island, Dakota’s seamy underbelly. Taking out crack houses and rival crews, the Syndicate struggles to sur­vive and uncover the conspiracy that creat­ed them. Static, the story of Virgil Hawkins, superpowered high schooler with an over­active wit and a prickly crush on a white girl, is set in Sadler, a brownstone-lined community distinctly reminiscent of Fort Greene. So far, Virgil has tangled with drug dealers and the mob, defeated superpow­ered schoolyard bullies, and headed off a Crown Heights–like race riot — this between working in a fast-food joint and keeping his grades up.

Icon is Milestone’s flagship title. Dako­ta’s Superman, Icon is an alien who crash­landed as a baby in the Deep South of 1839. Taking the Milestone ethos about site specificity to an extreme, Icon experiences blackness as just an arbitrary state of mind, his African Americanness locked in by the accident of his initial discovery by a slave. Had he been found by Ma and Pa Kent, he’d look and think like them. For now, his distinguishing characteristic is a tendency toward moral and ethical pronouncements that would be unremarkable coming from Supes’s mouth, but uttered by a brother take on a decidedly neocon slant.

[related_posts post_id_1=”722046″ /]

The other McDuffie book is Hardware, the Deathlok-like story of an engineering wiz named Curtis Metcalf and his amazing suit of armor. Sticking close to Dakota’s upscale and predominantly white high-tech enclaves, Hardware wreaks murder and mayhem on the forces of corporate evil in what can only be a riff on McDuffie and Co.’s own experiences in the comics biz. Curtis’s big problem so far has been that he enjoys the vengeful superhero trip a bit too much — and can’t decide if his battles have any relevance to black people who don’t work in office penthouses.

In the past few months, Milestone has started branching out, adding some more shades to the company’s already multicol­ored palette. First, there was the Shadow War, a crossover saga that involved almost all the Milestone heroes and introduced two new titles: Xombi, an Asian American su­perhero (“No, he’s not a martial artist,” says a Milestone staffer) and The Shadow Cabinet, a racially mixed superteam. This month the company is taking up the separatist versus integrationist dilemma that un­derlies its own corporate existence in another crossover miniseries, Worlds Collide. When an interdimensional rift threatens Dakota and Metropolis, Icon and the rest of Milestone’s heroes come face-to-face with Superman and some other (white) folks from DC’s regular stable.

As if juggling all of those stories and spaces wasn’t enough, Milestone’s also set itself the task of doing so without creating any new positive role models. Which is to say, Dwayne McDuffie, the kid who was first turned on to comics by the greatest black comic-book role model of all time, Black Panther, would rather not write any of his own, thank you. “Role models are a trap,” he says, suddenly gone deadly seri­ous. “Role models are another stereotype, Sidney Poitier in early-’60s movies. We are a people, not an image, and it doesn’t really solve anything to replace a negative stereo­type with a positive stereotype. No human being is going to live up to that. I just want books that break the monolithic idea of what black people are. Being a positive role model is too much weight for anybody.”

Blacker-than-thou arguments give my light-skinned self the hives, but you just can’t avoid them whenever you venture onto the subject of black comic books.

When corporate-minded Milestone broke out as the instant black comic heavyweight, the only other group publishing more than one black-oriented title was ANIA, a small consortium of independents based in Oak­land. Neither party wants to say exactly who started the feud (although the word in the black comic scene points toward ANIA) but it wasn’t long before the companies’ respective PR people were faxing broad­sides to the press about whose books were the more culturally aware. Trying to posi­tion itself to capture the newly discovered black market, each company boasted that it knew the best way to render black people heroically in the comics.

ANIA president Eric Griffin said in the press that Milestone wasn’t “black enough,” that its deal with DC Comics con­stituted a sellout. Milestone’s McDuffie countered with “We didn’t want to sell our books out of the back of a truck: It takes away time from the creative work.” It seems like Milestone won the corporate battle of wills: Without a heavyweight distributor and backer like DC Comics, ANIA recently suspended publication.

Nonetheless, Griffin’s dig seemed to sting the fellas at Milestone in a way that re­hearsed references to growing market share couldn’t soothe; they recognized the irony of doing black superheroes in a medium that has traditionally cast black images as less than heroic. The funny thing is that there have always been heroic black bodies in comic-book formats, from a gun-toting yet petite Harriet Tubman to the original X-Man Malcolm to that early hypothetical superteam, The Talented Tenth. At Fulton Mall just a few blocks up from the Lorestone comics shop, one can spy all of these people rendered in and re­duced to four-color comic tones, sold by street vendors along with illustrated Great Black Kings of Africa calendars sponsored by beer companies and black-owned funeral homes.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714657″ /]

Things get a little hairy, though, when you get to ink-and-paper super-Negroes like Black Panther or Luke Cage or the X-Men’s perennial team player, Storm (see sidebars below). These were black superheroes created by mainstream companies for black and white consumption, and in hindsight they seem the very definition of problematic. The Panther’s nobility (African prince named T’Challa turned crime fighter), Cage’s rap sheet (ex-con-cum-professional super­hero), and Storm’s exotica (jungle rain god­dess) are in many ways racist stereotypes, but that hasn’t stopped black comic writers and fans from invoking them over and over. After all, there’s been room for little else in the market, and then there’s always the off chance that in this month’s issue the char­acter might just up and transcend it all, redeeming the tainted history of black representation in the comics.

The new school of black comic makers wants that redemption now. Taking advan­tage of their own years as fans and assis­tants, as well as of a cultural moment when “black-controlled” is a sure sales pitch, the creative types at these companies want to rewrite all those early characters. To do that, though, they’ll have to come up with a new language, create a new set of origins. This could be a problem, considering that everyone involved has spent the last 20 years dreaming that he was either Luke Cage setting things straight Uptown or Prince T’Challa of Wakanda waiting for the right moment to spring from the humid shadows of giant African palms.

Roger Barnes, writer and penciller for Heru: Son of Ausar, is sounding a bit confessional over the phone. “What did I read?” he asks, echoing my question, trying to decide whether to answer it. “Well, I read PowerMan — Luke Cage: Hero for Hire.”

That Dwayne McDuffie cites the regal Panther while Roger Barnes claims free­-wheeling funketeer Cage says something about the difference between Milestone and its independent challengers. Even though McDuffie wants to move away from creat­ing Panther-esque good guys, his Milestone is definitely the “official” black comic com­pany of the moment, he and Denys Cowan as close as black people get to being comic­-book royalty. In comparison, stillborn ANIA (a Swahili word for “protect” or “de­fend”) wasn’t even a single company when it went under. The idea was to strike at the DC Comics juggernaut through a small, agile distribution combine composed of mem­bers with diverse styles and interests. Ini­tially four signed up: Africa Rising (home of Ebony Warrior), Afrocentric Comic Books (Heru), U.P. Comics (Purge) and Dark Zulu Lies, (Zwanna, Son of Zulu.) Cage seems the appropriate patron saint for this would-be outsider crew.

When we spoke, ANIA was still in busi­ness and Barnes full of infectious enthusi­asm. He and Afrocentric Comic Books got their start in 1991 with a comic book called Horus: Son of Osiris. “Prior to 1990, no one was doing black comics,” he explains. “Now everybody and their mother is doing it. At the time the only thing out there was a book called Brotherman, then all of a sudden we had a flood of black comics, pretty much all black-and-white. The novel­ty ran out though, and soon things weren’t selling as well.

“I had known Eric and Nabile [Eric Grif­fin of Ebony Warrior and Nabile Hage of Zwanna] and ANIA pretty much started off with me and Eric talking on the phone. We wanted to come out with full-color black books, and Ebony Warrior and Heru were the first we did.” As the anti-Milestone, ANIA planned to focus on an Afrocentric perspective, “something along the lines of what Professor Jeffries teaches, the stuff you learn when you a get a degree in Afri­can Studies. Whether you agree or disagree with Afrocentrism, it is an alternate per­spective, something people need to be ex­posed to.” Then comes the only Milestone jab of the conversation, directed at Blood Syndicate: “We think doing those kinds of things is more worthwhile then having characters take out crack houses.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”713843″ /]

If that’s the case, then what about Luke Cage? Busting crack houses is precisely the kind of thing you might find a Hero for Hire doing. “Well, he got a lot of criticism, but I still liked him. Spidey was more popular, but Cage was a black character. There weren’t very many, so I only read Luke Cage. Since he appeared in a lot of other comics, that meant collecting everything. If he was in The Fantastic Four, I bought that issue of The Fantastic Four; if he appeared somewhere else, I bought that. I still have every issue from the original series as well as all the other stuff. I even wrote them a letter, which was printed, about keeping him when Marvel was planning to get rid of the book. It was kind of a pep talk: Let’s get serious here, we can do this or that to keep the book going.” Since Marvel didn’t listen to him, Barnes doesn’t follow the new Cage series. “They should have kept him un­-brought back.”

Luke Cage lives though, and not just in his new book at Marvel. In Heru, Barnes applies the habit of meticulousness he learned as a Cage researcher to a new ob­ject: Egyptian mythology. Backed up by Barnes’s advanced degree in African history (the comic even received a favorable notice in Smithsonian magazine), Heru tells of the miraculous appearance of Heru in Kemet (that’s ancient Egypt to you and me, the black upper kingdom from which all Egyptian power and philosophy flowed down the Nile) during the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaton. The story finds a kindly Akhenaton sitting on his great throne as light-skinned Arab and Mediterranean barbarians from the north move into the lower kingdom in droves, warping and misunderstanding the values of his people. Heru arrives with amazing-magical powers just in the nick of time, at once affirming and confounding the beliefs of the Egyptians.

It’s hard not to take it as a comment on comic books in general when the royal advi­sor Hosef tells Akhenaton: “Our metaphor­ic mysteries are taken literally by these ig­norant outsiders. The uncivilized have not the brains to grasp our symbolism.” After all, comic fandom is a pretty arcane commu­nity — one whose obsessive attention to de­tail and continuity often makes it unintelli­gible to those who aren’t heavily into the books. Barnes’s pursuit of Cage across titles and years is the deep science of the comic-­book universe, a tendency toward alchemi­cal recombinations of story lines that links comic fans to JFK assassination buffs and UFO enthusiasts. This is why Barnes’s book can be so Afrocentric and deliriously pulp at the same time, its saturated browns, rusts, and golds borrowing from the funk of black-velvet painting as surely as its story relies on the voluminous research of Molefi Asante’s Kemet, Afrocentricity & Knowledge.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719763″ /]

Lacking a unifying theme, except for a marketing strategy and their appeal to a certain demographic, ANIA’s other books take place in Southern-seeming milieus, communities divided only by crime and racism into heroes, self-hating thugs, and plain folks. Eric Griffin’s Ebony Warrior tells the story of Komal Jackson, a black tech-wiz who, unlike Hardware, turns down the For­tune 500 companies to move back to his Southern hometown. By day Jackson teach­es, but by night he dons a high-tech suit of armor and takes out Yorktown’s pushers. Purge, written by Roosevelt Pitt and featur­ing art by Bill Hobbs that easily ranks with any of the majors’ books, reads like an Ebony Warrior that’s been boiled down to its purest essence. To date, its hero has no life or identity outside of beating dealers down. A black ronin, he just keeps doing his violent thing, zeroing in on his elusive quarry: the big-time (i.e., white) importers of drugs.

“The most important thing for us is that the company be black-controlled,” said Barnes before the day to day of running a business did ANIA in. “That’s what we are most concerned about.” Besides the nuts and bolts of putting out books, though, ANIA also had an image problem of its own to contend with. Zwanna, one of the origi­nal titles in the group, came under fire for racist depictions of whites. Barnes didn’t write or edit Zwanna, and the book was the first to drop out of ANIA’s fold, but he makes an able defense against the racism charge: “Zwanna: Son of Zulu was drawn by a white artist. A lot of people looking at that book might not think it. But if Zwanna has a white artist, how could we discrimi­nate against that segment of the population?”

Barnes is too nice a guy to undercut a friend, but the truth is that racism against whites is the least of Zwanna’s problems. Zwanna is a descendant of the great Chaka Zulu, living in the U.S. and enrolled at Black American State University. Whenever racism threatens, he “Zhaabs Out,” becom­ing a loin-clothed super-African. Lost on his way to an In Living Color sketch, Zwanna skewers racist skinheads on his spear be­tween one-liners. A mocking riff on the Panther, Zwanna regales his girlfriend with sweet nothings like “I got that jungle love for you, baby!”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717668″ /]

Then there’s the scene in which the lead­ers of the worldwide racist conspiracy have Zwanna chained spread-eagled while they croon, “Give us some bootie, cutie.” Por­trayed in the book as a lisping quartet of white male transvestites, they plan to break Africa’s will by raping Zwanna. Zwanna breaks free and dispatches them in turn, impaling them on his spear “missionary style.”

The book is rife with such patently offen­sive moments, moments a mainstream pub­lisher couldn’t get away with but that the book’s writer, Nabile Hage, boasts is proof of his independent comix credentials. Zwanna doesn’t reserve its hostility for skinheads and drag queens, though — it spits venom at black people too: foolish sellout Toms or the dippy African American women who want to bed Zwanna down in paroxysms of Mandingo stud fever. For a long stretch last summer and fall, Zwanna was the face of ANIA (in the press at least), and the ugliness of that image might have had something to do with the title’s mutually agreed upon departure from ANIA. Take it as an object lesson in marketing, then, that “black owned” and “black controlled” was enough of a pitch to give a loincloth-­wearing, spear-carrying Zulu named Zwanna his 15 minutes of authentic-black-superhero fame.

I ask Posro Komics’s head writer and artist (Roland Laird and Elihu Bey II) what their book would be if it were a record. It’s the only thing you can ask, really. Posro’s book, MC2, isn’t a superhero comic, it’s a hip-hop comic, the story of Earl Terrel, a regular-joe Harlem barber with a phat jeep and dreams of programming black-themed computer games. It doesn’t come with a soundtrack, but the suggestion of beats is everywhere in MC2, from the clubs that Earl frequents to the tapes he plays in his car.

“I used to think that if MC2 was a record it’d be Tribe Called Quest’s People’s In­stinctive Travels,” Laird says after a mo­ment’s thought as Bey nods. “That and the first De La Soul.”

“Yeah, definitely,” says Bey.

“There could be a little bit of PE in there too, but I keep coming back to Tribe and De La Soul ’cause they were just so differ­ent when they came out. Musically anyway.”

This makes a certain amount of sense. To ask the question, I’ve had to take a Tren­ton-bound train past Joi-zee highways, tree­-covered hills, burned-out factories, smoking refineries, and the back porches of rundown houses to Edison, the clean and suburban town where Laird lives and works. It’s the kind of ride you can make on the LIRR to De La Soul’s Long Island.

Laird used to live in Brooklyn, but he had to go to New Jersey to write his comic, had to “step outside to the quiet to get the work done,” as he tells me. After the heat and noise of the Milestone/ANIA wars, quiet seems like a fine place to be, and Laird and his comic have the turf well staked out. Milestone is part of the comics mainstream and ANIA, in its own Afrocentric way, wants to be, but Posro is a different kind of outsider company, doing comics in black and white, dreaming and working toward the big time but still finding satisfaction in the pleasures of smallness.

[related_posts post_id_1=”413765″ /]

Laird, of course, prefers the term specific to small. “It was important to do something that was relevant to hip-hop,” he says, “and portrayed hip-hop’s versatility as a medium, so MC2 isn’t a superhero comic. Comics fall under stereotypes just like black people do. You tell somebody you’re doing a comic book, and they’re expecting capes, cos­tumes, the whole nine. We wanted to do something that was totally different, in that MC2’s Earl is regular, it’s about a regular person.

“I’m down for positive images, but I like. showing a balanced view. MC2 isn’t a char­acter for people to hero worship, he’s more a character that you can kind of get behind. That’s his thing, his day in the sun, so to speak.”

And Earl’s day it is, all of it. In the first few issues, he cuts hair, kids around with his little sister, does some programming, goes to a club, hangs with his homeboy, and so on, the only “excitement” coming when somebody tries to steal his ride. The slow unfolding of time and scenes in the comic is unlike anything in “mainstream” black books, except perhaps Milestone’s Static, and even that book succumbs to the big company’s sharklike need to keep swim­ming in action-packed waters. Bey and Laird say they could do “mad action” if they wanted, but for now have other, more subtle fish to fry.

“When I was working on MC2 I was try­ing to show the beauty in things that are not that beautiful.” This is Bey speaking up, answering a question about what he wanted out of the comic. “I used to look at certain videos, like Pete Rock and CL Smooth videos, and it’d be set in an urban environment where in reality it was gray stone and cold, but in the video there would be all these earth tones in the surroundings, even in the buildings and everybody would be moving in slow motion. You actually saw the hidden beauty there, and I wanted to capture that in the book. I said to myself: I’m gonna make sure that I capture that.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703” /]

“Because when you live in the ghetto, when you live in a poor environment, every day is not bad. Every day is not bad. Some­times you wake up and it’s just like…” Bey searches for the words and then settles on a shrug.

The next few issues are going to touch on misogyny in hip-hop, Negro League base­ball, and a death in Earl’s family. The mix’ll be the thing in those books, as Earl drives his 4×4 down different streets and into new situations, which brings up the question of how Bey and Laird got to this point on their particular ride.

“I can’t remember when I wasn’t draw­ing,” says Bey, hands in his hair, shoulders shrugging. “Basically, I was caught up in Marvel like everybody else. Subconsciously, I wanted to see black images, so I would color Thor and different characters brown, draw them over, maybe give them a different costume, even though they’d still have long blond hair.”

Laird gives me the half shrug, too. “I’ve always been running around doing different things. I read comics but I’m not an artist. I’m really more of a cartoon person. I can probably name every cartoon, every episode. My favorite cartoon is the Flintstones. Believe it or not. I like Mighty Mouse too… and Heckle and Jeckle. I like their… vibrancy.”

All three of us laugh when he mentions Heckle and Jeckle. We all remember watch­ing those jet-black crows with a minor, un­explainable measure of guilt, laughing at them while unsure of just who the joke was on. Usually I’d think twice before admitting I had liked something like Heckle and Jeckle, but not today. Laird and Bey seem just too mellow to judge me for the detours I’ve taken on my way to hanging with them, here in the “quiet-outside” of Edison.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717919″ /]

Lorestone Comics’s Liz Black and David Santana are holding court in their Fort Greene shop, talking the history of black comics. Liz and David are business people but they’re also devoted fans. You have to listen very carefully to keep up with them. They speak in arrhythmic cadences, have little interest in backtracking, and they nev­er, ever, apologize for knowing more about comics than just about anyone they will ever meet in life. It’s not their fault you’re stupid.

Liz: “In the mid ’60s there was Black Panther appearing in The Avengers. Later in the ’60s you started getting a lot of other black characters like—”

“Luke Cage.” David calls out.

“Right.” says Liz. David’s off by a couple of years, but she lets it slide. “That was Marvel. And in DC you had—”

“Black Lightning.”

“Black Lightning. They were heavy into the word black.”

“Black Goliath?” David offers.

“Yeah. Black Goliath, Black Lightning, black this, black that…” From there, the two can and will go on for hours, assem­bling whole genealogies of the marginal one-issue guest stars and also-rans that comprise the bulk of the black superhero world — the Falcon, Moses Magnum, Broth­er Voodoo, the Teen Titans’ Cyborg — on and on through the still counting books and years.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720490″ /]

Lorestone is Liz and David’s home in many ways, a physical space whose door­ways open up onto thousands of fantasy rooms an issue at a time. And Liz and David are the surrogate parents of this home, leading their charges through the racks of books like they were some kind of wilderness. The kids know this, so as they grab at books, tossing them to and fro across the storefront, there inevitably comes a moment when the title gets held up to Liz and David for inspection and advice. “How’s this?” someone usually young and male will ask, and then David will smile or frown before ticking off the names of books he’s liked better. The attention makes the store a magnet for neighborhood kids who’ll roll through after school to browse and buy.

Liz and David like most of the new black comic books fine. A sure way for a comic to get on their bad side, though, is to duplicate or rip off characters and types they’ve seen before. That’s David’s problem with Mile­stone’s Blood Syndicate. “New Jack City with powers,” he calls it.

Liz has a more sociological gripe, saying she worries about the values that the books might be teaching to impressionable kids. “It’s not enough to just say you’re posi­tive,” she figures, noting that many “posi­tive” comics are often more hype than sub­stance. She also has mixed emotions about the kind of black pride that some of the by­-for-and-about companies like ANIA are selling. “Being black, understanding black, being proud of black, doesn’t mean ‘I’m black and I’m proud and everybody else is lower,’ ” she says. “It means I understand who I am, what I am, and I am happy about it. Some people at ANIA don’t seem to understand that, they think black pride means hating white. So David and I decid­ed we wouldn’t sell that book, that Zwanna: Son of Zulu. Especially not to kids. We preferred to eat the price on it than sell it to kids.”

But its not the “kids” who buy the black books in the first place. As an afternoon spent at Lorestone will reveal, the store does most of its business in black books with young men in their twenties, each one of them with very articulate and political reasons for why they buy what they buy. The audience still young enough to be af­fected by black comics, as opposed to mere­ly gratified by them, buys endless streams of X-Men and Batman comics, with bang­zoom Milestone entries like Blood Syndi­cate thrown in here and there.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716024″ /]

It takes a while for Liz to admit how she and David get around the notoriously poor taste of their younger customers. When she does tell me, it’s in tones shaded conspira­torial: “You know,” she says, her voice gone a little low, “sometimes we just give the books away, just give ’em away. Really.”

Even though Liz is talking about a few samples here and there, David, who’s spent his whole adult life working around comics, wants to make sure I understand what she means. At various times he’s made quick, vague remarks about Lorestone “restructuring,” about how hard this business is, about the possibility that he might have to go back to just doing tabletop sales at trade shows, or find a location with lower rent. And in fact, a few weeks later, the shop will close down, the crates of heroes black and white disappearing into David’s apartment until they can find a permanent place to live. Whether or not David knows all this is in store for Lorestone now, he isn’t saying. What he does want to say, in slow, measured words, is why he and Liz might choose to give some of the stock away for free.

“We give them away,” he says, “just to put the book in someone’s hand. If we read a book and we like it and think it has something to offer, we say: here, take a look at this. Not because we couldn’t sell them or because we wanted to get rid of them, but because we want people to read them.”

“Reading is what they’re there for,” adds Liz.

David then tells me that at first they gave a lot of their black comic books away: Then they started selling just about all of them, to customers like the 15-year-old who’s just walked in to buy a Hardware comic. Neither very young nor very old as far as comic fans go, he doesn’t look around, chat, or browse. He just gets his book and his mon­ey together, and heads to the register. When I ask him why he bought that particular title, he seems annoyed by the question.

“Because he’s black,” he says, looking at me like I’m stupid. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”720527″ /]

Roots, Part 1: The Black Panther

Initially introduced in the ’60s-era Fantastic Four as a hip reference to African liberation movements, Black Panther (ne T’Challa) was the noble prince of the fictional postcolonial nation Wakanda. After a few guest spots, the Panther found steady work with another superteam, the Avengers, where he fought smugglers, poachers, exploitative multinationals and the like — in between lending a brotherly hand to Afro-Americans. By the early ’70s, he had relocated to America, and gotten his own book. Helmed by a white writer, Don McGregor, Black Panther set the standard for a much emulated black comic type: the role-model superhero. A dream date for the big nation-building prom, T’Challa was noble, tortured by injustice, good-looking, selfless to a fault, in good health, community-minded, rich, unquestion­ably het, and not just African but royal. He was what you’d call a real positive brother — no wonder Wesley Snipes wants to play him.

Since fighting the minions of con­glomerates is what noble princes of Wakanda were thought to do as naturally as breathing, Black Panther’s cre­ators felt no need to gift him with any special powers. An expert in African fighting and mystical arts, he was who he was, a black panther — stealthy, fast, powerful and, uh, black. As far as spe­cial powers were concerned, why would the Panther need them? It wasn’t like he was fighting the planet-eating Galac­tus on a regular basis.

Roots, Part 2: Storm (Ororo)

Ororo lives in the shadow of both her Africanness and her status as a mem­ber of the X-Men. A shorthand psycho­logical type who rounds out the affir­mative-action figures at the world’s bestselling comic, Ororo puts in triple duty as the team’s plain talker, nurtur­er, and exotic. Drawn with t&a fore­most in mind, she’s forever flying off into the rain to clear her head or dress­ing one of the male X-Men down for not paying enough attention to someone’s — sniff — feelings.

Ororo’s own feelings are opaque by design, making her downright moody, liable to shift in the blink of an eye from wind-riding nature girl to diffi­cult-to-approach-ice-queen-with-a­-mysterious-past. A tragic mulatto from the heart of Africa, Ororo was the team’s nominal leader for a spell, but even in a leadership capacity she was melancholy and withdrawn as if by def­inition, immensely popular but never quite center stage. Until she gets her own book, her real glory seems des­tined to be the outside context of fandom, where among other things she lives on the Internet as a staple of X-Men/lesbian-themed porn.

Roots, Part 3: Luke Cage

A creature of the ’70s, Marvel’s Luke Cage isn’t the oldest of the major black heroes, but he had the longest run in his own title (though, in an effort to boost sagging sales, the title kept changing — from Luke Cage, Hero for Hire to PowerMan to PowerMan and Iron Fist). Given superhuman strength and steel-like skin by a jail­-house experiment, Cage was a walking cliché of black macho. When Marvel teamed him with mystic martial artist Iron Fist, a blaxploitation dream team was born. Heroes for hire, the pair mostly faced colorful hustler types, supergangsters, and drug dealers, as well as the occasional Roxxon or A.I.M. scientist seeking to reproduce the PowerMan Process.

Low on subtlety and heavy on ac­tion, the book’s mean-streets setting and mack-daddy bad guys hit high notes of unmitigated ’70s funk before getting canceled in 1986. Two years ago Marvel decided to revive the char­acter — in a book called, simply, Cage. So far, the new series is an ongoing oedipal drama, bringing Cage back to the site of his super origin. Writer Mar­cus McLaurin wants to dialogue with ’70s black macho — the historical space of Cage’s origin — hoping to critique the type while still relying on it to make the comic fun. It’s a neat enough trick when it works, but when it doesn’t, today’s Cage is a skipping record, hitting the same blustery note over and over.

Roots, Part 4: Brotherman

Produced by people who obviously grew up on Mad magazine, Brotherman, Dictator of Discipline was one of the first comics by, for, and about black folks. Done by three brothers (literally: Guy Sims writes, David Sims ­draws, and Jason Sims handles the business end) from Irving, Texas, Brotherman’s eponymous hero is hardly new take on the genre. Antonio Valor is just your average black district attorney who can’ts takes it no mo’ and turns crime fighter — blah, blah, blah. The real action in the book happens off to the side, where David Sims mixes looks borrowed from graffiti art and the smoothed-gray surfaces of Mort Drucker’s Mad movie parodies.

Similarly, writer Guy Sims’s fondness for crowd scenes in which each meticulously drawn bit player has a perfectly timed one-liner to offer sug­gests an infatuation with the work of early Mad creator Harvey Kurtzman. His auteur turn, though, has to be Brotherman’s elaboration of the love interest as comic book device. Not only does Antonio have a coworker and se­cret admirer named Melody, but entire issues are devoted to her pining for him — a narrative that’s all the more poignant for the fake Whitney-esque songs floating dirgelike through the di­alogue boxes above.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Howard Cruse: The Back Door of Consciousness

Last week we heard of the death of the pioneering underground cartoonist Howard Cruse. Initially known for his free-wheeling character Barefootz, who first appeared in the University of Alabama’s student newspaper in 1971, Cruse went on to found the publication Gay Comix in 1980. Over the years Cruse wrote and drew some exclusive comix for the Voice, featuring characters by turns ebullient, brainy, questing, and combative. In the story below, from June 26, 1984, specialized “gay laboratories” turn out “solar-powered oppression-sensitive subjective insight-exchange helmets.”

Cruse (born the son of a Baptist preacher in Springville, Alabama, in 1944) drew on his experiences in the South during the civil rights era for his 1995 graphic novel, Stuck Rubber Baby, perhaps his best-known work. A decade earlier, he zeroed in on the prejudices from on high for a Voice cover looking at the state of gay life in America.

A few years later the cartoonist sat down with editor Richard Goldstein to explain why he saw comics as the perfect medium to get past some of society’s worst blind spots: “Cartooning has the advantage of being mischievous and naughty. It’s like play.”

Howard Cruse Interviewed by Richard Goldstein: The Back Door of Consciousness
June 28, 1988

WHEN THE ADVOCATE decided to resume running Wen­del, Howard Cruse’s groundbreaking gay comic strip, many of us breathed a sigh of relief. We thought we’d have to settle for Cruse in books, Gay Comix (which he founded), and the posters and pamphlets he frequently renders for AIDS education and numerous gay organizations. Cruse is as protean as he is committed. But it’s his representation of gay people, in the full flush of an innocence we all feel within but are often denied from without, that makes his work so artful — and so useful.

GOLDSTEIN: In comics, it seems, the prohibitions against showing gay are much more severe than in other media.

CRUSE: Well, there’s still a lot of pressure to view comics strictly as a children’s medium. They were at­tacked during the ’50s as being hazardous to the mental health of children, which caused mainstream comics to rule out any challenge to the standard way of looking at life. And when the underground comics rebelled against all that, many of the artists — the male artists, particu­larly — were still prisoners of their own homophobia. I remember Robert Crumb, in a piece he called “Let’s Talk Sense About This Here Modern America,” had a list of people he hated, including fags and fag-hags. It was generally considered hip to dismiss gay people, as it is today.

GOLDSTEIN: What prevents people from seeing the full humanity of gay characters?

CRUSE: A straight friend who got my book, Dancin’ Nekkid With the Angels, told me his friends had asked: “Why should I buy a book to read about gay sex?” Now the book has some explicit sexual images, but it’s not about gay sex. But the assumption is that the lives of gay people are totally about sex.

GOLDSTEIN: You’ve done a lot of safe-sex literature, very successfully, it seems to me, because it’s cartoony; it has a certain innocence, even though it’s about death and sex. To impose innocence on those subjects seems radical.

CRUSE: I think the basic shorthand of cartoon illustra­tions can make a statement. Open-faced qualities in the characters. Eyes that don’t look shifty. Smiles that are not strained. These things say to the reader that, even if the experiences being described are sexual, these are not sleazy people. This is a radical message simply because the overlay of falsehood about gay people is so strong.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you regard your comic strips as a model for your own life?

CRUSE: Cartoons are fantasy, and fantasies are often rehearsals for life. A good cartoon is shorthand for a perspective on life. It can get at the truth of experience without having to depict it literally.

GOLDSTEIN: What’s the power of exaggeration as a weapon?

CRUSE: Really, I think the power of all art is its poten­tial to save mankind from being robotized by being fed a relentless drumbeat of assumptions about life. Cartoons are wild; they bypass the rational and go straight for feelings. A feeling doesn’t require an explanation, but it sometimes suggests an explanation after the fact that can make us question our assumptions. Cartooning has the advantage of being mischievous and naughty. It’s like play.

GOLDSTEIN: Why do you think the innocence your work projects seems so empowering?

CRUSE: It’s tremendously empowering when you’re gay to realize that you’ve been doing it right, and it’s the bigots who are stumbling about in a fog about this subject. Suddenly you realize that simply accepting your own place in the world permits you to just put away all this energy you’ve been using to deal with what the Bible says or what this or that politician says.

GOLDSTEIN: Can you do that without art supporting you, without imagery and representation?

CRUSE: It’s very hard to get through the relentless propaganda: You are wrong, you are bad, you shouldn’t think this thing, you shouldn’t be doing this thing. A childlike, irreverent art like cartooning allows you to get in touch with these parts of yourself from before all of this programming happened. It wakes you up.

GOLDSTEIN: So art is a model for the process of coming out.

CRUSE: I guess it’s analogous to coming out in that it is a route for people to break through the programming. Art can go in the back door of consciousness, just by making you feel directly.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you think it’s essentially the power to represent that has given the gay movement its dynamism in the last 20 years?

CRUSE: I think there is a great deal of power in being able to see yourself in art. If you pick up a book or a comic book, or see a play or a movie, suddenly you realize someone completely disassociated from you felt things you feel and made them into art. It’s very validating.

GOLDSTEIN: There’s a contradiction in the fact that you’re working in a popular form that doesn’t reach a mass audience. How do you deal with the possibility that your work might be unacknowledged, not because of its inherent limits, but because of a homophobic culture?

CRUSE: As an artist with the usual aspirations, I’ll be pissed off if that happens. I don’t want to think about being gay all the time. I want to have my life, my lover, my friends, and I don’t want to have to spend my time being scared and angry. My sexuality will always have a place in my work. It’s the energy that has to be mar­shalled to defend it that creates the distortion. I’m interested in the undercurrents of life, the ways that people relate to each other, whether they’re gay or straight; the way they love each other and betray each other. These are the things that make all narrative art resonate. I would like to create characters that will resonate a century from now, even to people who are not living in a gay subculture or under the gun of bigotry.

GOLDSTEIN: What would have to happen to make that so?

CRUSE: People would have to learn how to think for themselves.

Categories
ART ARCHIVES COMICS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

MAD Magazine: Eclipsed by Madness?

[ Editor’s note: Last year we told a coworker that the move to L.A. wouldn’t work — maybe the Dodgers and Giants could withstand relocation to that tainted lotus land that is California, but Mad magazine was just too much of a New Yorker to find harmony amid the perfected people. With the announcement that Mad will from now on feature mostly reprints, the postwar generations who had their bullshit detectors tripped for the first time by the magazine’s parodies of pop culture, politicians, priests, and other purveyors of dubious promises are left with only endless permutations of Alfred E. Neuman. The first painted portrait of the magazine’s gap-toothed mascot appeared on the cover of the December 1956 issue as a write-in candidate for president. Who knew that some six decades later we would need Alfred’s candidacy more than ever.

Here at the Voice archives we love old newsprint, and so have dug into our own yellowing volumes to seek a downtown take on that “usual gang of idiots” who once toiled away on MADison Avenue. In 1989, culture critic Geoffrey O’Brien reviewed a collection of the four-color Mad comic books, which were printed from 1952 until 1955. (Starting with issue #24, the publication was transformed into black-and-white magazine, a format change that proved wildly successful: By 1973 sales of individual issues had passed the 2,000,000-copy mark.)

The early Mad comic book was sui generis partly because, as O’Brien observes below, “In 1952 American culture was a parody waiting to happen.” That insight, from exactly three decades ago, sounds quaint in our own age, when the artists and writers of Mad can no longer compete with the madness of reality. —R.C. Baker, July 9, 2019]

Stark Raving ‘Mad’: Harvey Kurtzman’s Laugh Riot

By Geoffrey O’Brien
October 1, 1989

We live in strange days: within a floodlit mausoleum of show business, the hours are measured by the anniversaries of music fes­tivals and movie premieres, by the birth of Mickey Mouse and the death of Elvis. All that was once disposable is frozen into monumentality — and in the age of mechan­ical reproduction that makes for more mon­uments than even the previous century had to contend with. One might well wonder how we got here. A major piece of the story can be found in The Complete Mad: itself a monument but a welcome one, 12 pounds of budding media awareness, a guided tour of early ’50s image glut conducted in a mood far removed from today’s mournful nostalgia.

Who would have imagined, when Mad began publication in October 1952, that 37 years later we would have its first 23 issues preserved for us in this boxed, hardbound, full-color facsimile, annotated with Talmu­dic devotion? Certainly not Mad’s creator, Harvey Kurtzman, or the extraordinary artists who helped realize his vision of American pop culture; it would have been an altogether different magazine if they had. “We were working by the seat of our pants,” Kurtzman remarks in an interview in The Complete Mad. “I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. All I was doing was ‘funny.’ Funny. Gotta make it funny, gotta make me laugh, gotta tickle myself.” The out-of-control things that happened in the pages of the early Mad were of the sort that occur when people are not erecting monuments. “When you’re desperate to fill space, you think of outrageous things.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”716362″ /]

Mad was engaged in an elaborate practi­cal joke at the expense of the available cul­ture, covering billboards and movie posters and comic strip pages with graffiti that were more entertaining than what they de­faced. Today’s Mad — the black-and-white magazine which has carefully replicated the same formulas for the past 30 years — is so much a part of the landscape that it is hard to re-create the impact of Kurtzman’s origi­nal color comic-book version. Without ven­turing into obscenity, blasphemy, or revolu­tionary sloganeering, it managed to anticipate all the assaults on public taste that were to follow. (Kurtzman himself left Mad in 1956, following a dispute over finan­cial control, and was replaced by Al Feld­stein; the magazine was never quite the same, and Kurtzman’s own later ventures, though often brilliant, never achieved such popularity.)

In this boxed form Mad stands revealed as a perfect postmodern epic, decentered, multi-referential, inextricable from the par­ticulars of its place and time. To read it adequately we would in theory have to re­-create its original circumstances, watch the same television shows, listen to the same jukeboxes (for a hundredth chorus of “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window”), scan the same comic strips. Intertextuality can go no further. Mad’s guiding principle was spillover: the TV programs on neigh­boring channels blended, the separate com­ic strips on a page began communicating among themselves. Everything got thrown into the soup. No figure was allowed to dominate a space for long: the foreground action was forever being upstaged by clus­ters of microscopic idiots grimacing or wav­ing absurd placards, like bystanders grin­ning at the camera on TV news. It was an aesthetic of interruption and intrusion. Mad’s panels retained the classicism of tra­ditional comics only to subject it to re­morseless pummeling. The foursquare frame persisted, with Superduperman poised heroically in its center, but the walls and floors could be seen collapsing all around him.

[related_posts post_id_1=”43369″ /]

In 1952 American culture was a parody waiting to happen. It was an era of oddly unconscious abeyance and dereliction. Not long before, popular art had gone through a series of more or less concurrent Golden Ages: of the movies, of jazz and the big bands, of radio, of the pulps and the comics. But a slow unraveling had begun. The forms that had seen the country through depression and world war seemed to have lost the effortless confidence that had given them the air of a national religion, a precar­ious unity of spirit encompassing swing rec­ords, Jack Benny, and Terry and the Pirates.

The postwar period’s most brilliant man­ifestations — bebop, film noir — were already marginal. At center stage a warped stiffness seemed to have taken over. The Red Scare generated such movies as My Son John, I Was a Communist for the FBI, and Red Planet Mars, gibbering studies in deception and religiosity whose every frame seemed grotesquely off-key. The bestseller list al­ternated between billowing clouds of spiri­tual comfort (The Silver Chalice, The Gown of Glory, A Man Called Peter, The Power of Positive Thinking, This I Believe) and the sustained paranoid outbursts of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly. Television was exemplified by variety and quiz shows of trancelike somnolence (The Arthur Murray Show, Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, I’ve Got a Secret, You Asked for It) and trans­planted radio serials like Gangbusters and The Lone Ranger. As for Hollywood, it of­fered little beyond Martin and Lewis, Ab­bott and Costello, the desperate grandiosity of 3-D and Cinerama, and, for the Saturday afternoon crowd, cheapo adventure flicks like Son of Ali Baba and The Battle at Apache Pass. The comic strips, in the meantime, persisted without change, as Skeezix, Dick Tracy, and Orphan Annie lived on in a world where nobody ever got older.

In that strange era before the dawn of media self-consciousness, evidence of men­tal fatigue was everywhere. Humor consist­ed of Jack Benny and Bob Hope recycling their old routines or Donald O’Connor locked in conversation with a talking mule. The real humor, however, was in all the places it wasn’t supposed to be: in the lurid solemnity of movie posters, in the sancti­monious hucksterism of advertising, in the unquestioned formulas that governed com­ic-book plots. Plainly people had gotten so used to grinding the stuff out that it had been a while since anyone actually looked at it.

Mad was like the lone giggle that subverts a hitherto respectful audience into uncon­trolled laughter. Well, not exactly lone. The Warner Brothers cartoonists had created a parodistic parallel world throughout the ’40s, and since 1950 Sid Caesar and Imo­gene Coca had been broadcasting Your Show of Shows, to be joined in 1952 by The Ernie Kovacs Show and Steve Allen on To­night. More remotely, there was the linger­ing influence of the Marx Brothers and of S.J. Perelman’s fantasias on the themes of pulp fiction and advertising. Before long Stan Freberg would bring another medium into the picture with recorded parodies like St. George and the Dragonet and an echo­-ridden Heartbreak Hotel. None of these could top Mad’s secret weapon: its explo­sive visual presence. You might not find it funny, but you couldn’t take your eyes off it; its graphics changed the tone of a room just by being there.

By adopting the form of a comic book, Mad had the advantage of surprise; like a sniper firing from an unsuspected position. Comic books until then had fed the same material over and over to an audience limit­ed in age and influence, rarely reaching anyone outside that audience except for crusading congressmen, psychologists, and clergymen. No comics were more targeted than those of Mad’s parent company, EC (Educational Comics), creator of the most morbidly explicit horror tales, the most in­ventively apocalyptic science fiction, and the most harrowing and socially conscious crime stories, all of them written and edited by the brilliant and astonishingly prolific Al Feldstein. When Harvey Kurtzman joined EC, he had the advantage of working with a staff that had already mastered the sharp and savage tactics of The Vault of Horror and Shock SuspenStories.

Kurtzman, a Brooklyn-born journeyman gag cartoonist in his late twenties, was re­markable for his combined mastery of writ­ing and drawing. A perfectionist in matters of detail, he habitually sketched out each story frame by frame, allowing artists small leeway in interpreting his layouts. Initially he edited a pair of war comics, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, notable for their sober restraint and morally serious tone in contrast to EC’s usual sardonic Grand Guignol. The Civil War issues (re­printed as part of Russ Cochran’s EC Clas­sics series) demonstrate an eye obsessed with fusing swarms of historical detail into impeccably harmonious sequences of frames; if Kurtzman had not been a great humorist he could clearly have been a great propagandist. The distinctive styles of his artists (Wallace Wood, Will Elder, Jack Da­vis, John Severin) are, although still appar­ent, carefully held in check. Kurtzman’s directorial control of his comics’ overall look was unchallenged although sometimes resented.

Mad started routinely enough, with farci­cal variations on standard comic-book plots, hit its stride with the “Superduper­man” and “Shadow” features in the fourth issue, and grew steadily more experimental as long as it was under Kurtzman’s editor­ship. In the meantime it became a success of cultlike intensity, trailed by a pack of imitations — including EC’s own Panic, which featured the same artists as Mad but under the guidance of Al Feldstein. Judging from the issues reprinted by Cochran, Pan­ic had a rougher edge than Mad; the vio­lence in its Mike Hammer and This Is Your Life takeoffs is almost on a par with one of Feldstein’s horror comics. There is not a trace, however, of Kurtzman’s flair for fan­tasy and pure nonsense, or of his capacity for bending the comic book form into unex­pected shapes.

Kurtzman didn’t have to invent his hu­mor, it was already there. “I was always surprised at how people living and working in different places around the city would be thinking the same thing. We were a product of our Jewish backgrounds in New York; we were in the same city living in different boroughs, yet we were having the same ex­periences. It was bizarre that at Music and Art in the lunch room we’d carry on and do our satire parodies… I remember specifi­cally sitting around in the lunch room doing the ‘operating scene,’ or better still, doing the ‘airplane scene,’ the German ace going down in the Fokker in flames… You’d see a movie, and you’d make fun of it, and 20 other guys who saw the same movie, and who had the same kind of Jewish direction of thinking would come up with the same scene.”

However familiar its tone was on the streets of Manhattan or Brooklyn, for most of its readers Mad was a new noise: noise about noise, about the noise that had been going on in every form of public entertain­ment and information but had never been labeled, an encyclopedia of what had been bombarding people’s eyes and ears. Reading Mad was like watching a documentary about how it felt to be on the receiving end of everything that had not yet been named the media. To children growing up in the ’50s, Mad provided the reassurance that someone else was watching, someone else had seen what it looked like. The specific content of its satire was not as important as the simple acknowledgement that we were all soaked in mass-produced words and images.

Whether parodying comic strips (Prince Violent, Manduck the Magician), movies (From Eternity Back to Here, Under the Waterfront), or TV shows (The Lone Stranger, Howdy Dooit), Kurtzman reiter­ated a single point: just because this stuff was everywhere didn’t mean it was real or normal. He got off on the sheer oddness of, for instance, comic strip conventions: that Mickey Mouse wore white gloves or that the characters in Gasoline Alley aged at drastically different rates. For a ’50s child, who unlike Kurtzman and company had not been reading the same comics since the ’30s, the most anachronistic aspect of Mad was its loving assault on the funny papers. By 1954 who knew or cared about Smilin’ Jack, Gasoline Alley, Mandrake the Magi­cian, or even Flash Gordon or Little Orphan Annie? For Mad’s makers, however, this was home base, the root of their aesthetic education.

Television was a more alien presence for them; it’s fascinating to see how they ren­der the actual retinal impact of the TV image, complete with wavering horizontal lines, reception problems, and the test pat­terns that persisted before and after the shows. Mad’s TV parodies almost invari­ably ran in black-and-white, because that denoted television: TV was still visible as something other, a rackety and unsightly intrusion.

[related_posts post_id_1=”564612″ /]

When all else failed, Mad relied on a rep­ertoire of instant laugh-getters. These in­cluded a select list of words (furshlugginer, potrzebie, halvah, blintzes); names (Melvin Coznowski, Alfred E. Neuman), expletives (of which “Hoo-hah!” and “Yech!” were early favorites), and a few standard syntac­tical ploys. Kurtzman relied heavily on the “but mainly” construction, as in: “We are giving special attention to T.V. because we believe it has become an integral part of living… a powerful influence in shaping the future… but mainly we are giving at­tention because we just got a new T.V. set,” or “Once more I go to fight for law and order… for justice… but mainly for add­ing the sadistic element that is such a vital part of comic books!” With slight variations the cadence was good for a thousand gags, as in Flesh Garden’s declaration: “That’s the trouble with us earthlings! We always assume that alien creatures are hostile! I refuse to kill said alien creature in the belief it is hostile! I will kill it just for fun!”

That this was Jewish humor was a well­-kept secret; to most of Mad’s readers, judg­ing from the letters pages, halvah and blin­tzes were nonsense words springing from nowhere. (The “bop talk” intervals and passing references to Charlie Parker must have been equally arcane to many.) As Kurtzman has noted, however, the in-jokes underwent a peculiar alchemy in their pas­sage to the outside world:· “Of course these names come out of the artist’s, the author’s experience. But when they turn into things like furshlugginer or potrzebie they take on an air of mystery… These were personal real things to us that we were talking about, and private in a sense, and so they imparted a sense of intrigue; the audience would be touched by this mysterious arrangement of sounds.” A new in-group was forged, with furshlugginer and potrzebie as its shibboleths.

Kurtzman’s Mad had one underlying joke: What if the hero turned out to be a jerk? All the heroes, whether Superduper­man or Flesh Garden or the Lone Stranger, were the same, lecherous, avaricious cow­ards, betraying every ideal to stay on top and most of the time losing. If they won, it was in demonic fashion: Bat Boy in Bat Boy and Rubin turned out to be a vampire bat, and Teddy of Teddy and the Pirates ended up operating an opium smuggling ring with his fellow pirates.

Although much has been made of Mad’s satirical bent, its jibes tended to be quite mild; Kurtzman’s takes on the hypocrisies of television, advertising, and the funny pa­pers would not have stirred controversy if couched as essays in The Saturday Review. His rare forays into politics — notably the routine in which Senator McCarthy became a panelist on What’s My Shine? — were sig­nificant not so much for what they said as for raising the subject at all. Kurtzman’s humor was less satire than formalist deliri­um; much of the funniest stuff, the send­ups of such items as picture puzzles or Rip­ley’s Believe It or Not, had no real point beyond a pleasure in their own gratuitous­ness. He loved particularly to parody print media; through his work small children un­consciously absorbed lessons in typography and layout, and beyond that the underlying lesson that format is content. The formats he played with included the Daily NewsThe Racing Form, movie ads, the posters for the Miss Rheingold contest, 3-D comics, fill-in-the dots and “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” puzzles, the ads in the back of comic books. The tiniest visual details were significant: changes in typeface, the spacing between letters, the relative size of different elements on the page.

Mad had an air of chaos just barely held at bay. Crazed as it might appear, there was always the implication that things might get much worse. In every frame the forces of coherence fought a losing battle against entropy. The jokes stepped on each other’s toes, one gag shoved another out of the way, voices drowned each other out in violently escalating shouting matches. In the final frames of the Julius Caesar lampoon — in­tended as a self-referential commentary on Mad’s own methods — Marlon Brando as Mark Antony and James Mason as Brutus metamorphose rapidly into Dick Tracy, Fearless Fosdick, and Rip Kirby, while Marilyn Monroe rips apart the frame to reveal Donald Duck and Goofy underneath (“Here everyone whips off rubber masks and you find out the hero really isn’t the hero… the villain really isn’t the villain… I’m not really your MAD writer… mat­ter of fact, this MAD comic book isn’t really a MAD comic book…”). In “3-Dimen­sions!,” a dazzling exploration of the double vision and general disorientation produced by 3-D comics leads into more basic questions of perspective and reality. Holes are ripped in the frame, one page collapses onto another, and the last page of all is an empty white space.

No two people will agree on just how funny Mad was, but it always hummed with energy and it always looked great. The Complete Mad presents the splendors of Elder, Wood, Davis, and company as they have never been seen before, to such effect that the humor is almost swamped by the magnificence of the drawing. (In particular, the love-it-or-hate-it all-out ugliness of Ba­sil Wolverton’s monstrous candidates for Miss Potgold take on terrifying propor­tions.) While Wallace Wood and Jack Davis executed Kurtzman’s ideas with wonderful fluency and humor, Will Elder was Mad’s other guiding genius. Eider’s eerie ability to appropriate the style of other cartoonists is amply displayed in his parodies of Gasoline Alley, Bringing Up Father, The Katzenjam­mer Kids, and Archie, but beyond mere mimicry there’s a blast of wildly destructive humor. If Kurtzman was the satirist, Elder was the anarchist: “I always wanted to shock people… I was the Manson of the zanies.” Elder’s vision of Archie and Jug­head as sullen juvenile delinquents becomes genuinely ominous, while his transforma­tion of Mickey Mouse into the vengeful, stubble-faced Mickey Rodent cut too close for the “Walt Dizzy” people, who threat­ened legal action.

The Kurtzman-Elder collaboration can be seen at its best in Howdy Dooit, with its commercials for Bupgoo (“Bupgoo makes a glass of milk look exactly like a glass of beer!”) and Skwushy’s Sliced White-Bread (“If it’s good bread — it’s a wonder!”) and its maniacal contingent of children in the “Peewee Gallery,” an underage mob ready to overwhelm the repellent “Buffalo Bill.” When Buffalo Bill asks one sinister-looking youngster what he wants to be when he grows up (“A police chief? A fireman? A Indian? Or, [hot-dog], maybe a jet-fighter pilot? Huh?”) the boy replies: “Please, Buf­falo Bill, don’t be juvenile!… If one had the choice, it would probably be soundest to get into a white-collar occupation such as an investment broker or some-such! Of course… advertising and entertainment are lucrative fields if one hits the top brack­ets… much like Howdy Dooit has! In other words… what I want to do when I grow up, is to be a hustler like Howdy Dooit!” To which Bill replies: “But child… Howdy Dooit is no hustler!… Howdy Dooit is a happy wooden marionette, manipulated by strings! Howdy Dooit, child, is no merce­nary, money grubbing hustler… I, Buffalo Bill, am the mercenary, money grubbing hustler!” Seizing a pair of scissors, the child cuts Buffalo Bill’s invisible strings. As Bill falls limp and vacant-eyed to the studio floor, a raging Howdy Dooit screams for the cameras to cut.

The humor to a large degree was about the uncanny skill of the artists. Their abili­ty to summon up the “real” figures of tele­vision, movies, and comic’ strips and force them to do outrageous things provoked a manic glee. It was the revenge of the car­toonists, and every reader got a jolt of sub­versive satisfaction from it. That Mickey Mouse and Archie were not really the targets even a child could begin to grasp. Mad made it clear that all the images and characters were made by people — and that what was made could also be unmade. They took them apart before our eyes, put mustaches on them, made them speak Yiddish or pig latin.

The world Mad caricatured no longer exists, but the Mad of the ’50s still seems remarkably current. After all, the Age of Parody that it helped kick off — the age that extended through Lenny Bruce, The Realist, Zap Comix, Blazing Saddles, and Saturday Night Live — ended only recently. It ended when the potential targets of parody, from Ronald Reagan and Joe Isuzu on down, finally worked out how to short-circuit the process by deliberately making themselves parodies in advance: pre-caricatured, as jeans are preshunk. Presumably some future Kurtzman is working on the problem right now.

The problem of distinguishing parodies from the real world had been broached from the beginning in the pages of Mad. It was another unusual, perhaps unintended dimension of that reading experience. For me, as for many of Mad’s youngest readers, the objects of parody were altogether unknown. Although I could follow them when it came to Captain Video, The Lone Ranger, and Howdy Doody, I was at sea on everything else and besides no one had explained what a parody was. Slowly, by a painstaking archaeological process, I divined that something else was being referred to, but it was no easy matter to reconstruct the unknown referent, to re-create, say, Little Orphan Annie from “Little Orphan Melvin” or the McCarthy hearings from Mad’s conversion of them into the quiz show What’s My Shine? It was a peculiar education, learning about the world from the image it cast in Mad’s deforming mirrors. It was also an education from which one never quite recovered, for by the time those original models were at last revealed, they had acquired in the uncovering a haunting and perpetual aura of incongruity.

[related_posts post_id_1=”91687″ /]

MAD MATTER

The Complete Mad. Notes and Com­ments Edited by John Benson and Written by John Benson, Bill Mason, and Bhob Stewart. Published by Russ Cochran (P.O. Box 469, West Plains, MO 65775), $30 each; $130 for boxed, four-volume set. Pre­vious generations had the Harvard Classics and the Encyclopaedia Britannica to adorn their sitting rooms; we have this luxurious full-color reproduction of the entire 23-is­sue run of Mad in its original comic-book format. Mad was America’s secret weapon against the stultifying cultural climate of the early ’50s, a high-intensity mix of warped takeoffs, eye-popping graphics, and just plain rowdiness. One can wander around for days in this fun house, happily mingling with Melvin of the Apes, Starchie, G.I. Shmoe, and a cast of thousands. Russ Cochran, who has previously issued black-­and-white reprints of the complete EC comics line, caps the series with this mag­nificent set, cheap at the price.

Two-Fisted Tales (EC Classics #3). Published by Russ Cochran, $4.95 paper. Kurtzman’s war comics, carefully re­searched and often somber, were designed to counteract the gung-ho unreality that prevailed (and prevails) in the genre. This reprint assembles the pieces of an uncom­pleted Civil War project which for commer­cial reasons stopped short at the fall of Fort Donelson. The vigorously orchestrated graphics by Jack Davis, Wallace Wood, and the rest of the future Mad crew inject life into the irreproachably “educational” material.

Panic (EC Classics # 10). Published by Russ Cochran, $4.95 paper. EC’s home­grown imitation Mad almost looks like the original — not surprisingly, since it used vir­tually the same artists. On closer examina­tion, however, the layouts are more predict­able and the humor more bludgeoning, with a predilection for editor Al Feldstein’s brand of horror. This edition reprints the first two issues complete, focusing on Mick­ey Spillane, This Is Your Life, The African Queen, and Broadway realism (a rather philistinish dig at Williams, Miller, and Inge); best of the bunch is Will Elder’s free-form rewrite of The Lady or the Tiger?

Flash Gordon: The Complete Daily Strips, 1951–1953. By Dan Barry and Harvey Kurtzman, with Frank Frazetta and Jack Davis. Kitchen Sink Press, $13.95. Kurtzman explores his comic strip roots in a revived Flash Gordon strip he wrote shortly before the inception of Mad. Includes an interview with Kurtzman and samples of his rough sketches.

Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book. By Harvey Kurtzman. Kitchen Sink Press, $29.95; $14.95 paper. This reprint of a scarce 1959 Ballantine paperback is highly recommended for a taste of Kurtzman on his own and at his sharpest. The standouts in this set of four extended fables are “The Organization Man in the Grey Flannel Ex­ecutive Suite” (a bitter firsthand report on lechery, penny-pinching, and general mean-­spiritedness in the lower reaches of the publishing world) and “Decadence Degen­erated” (a caricature of the Old South based on Kurtzman’s wartime experiences in Par­is, Texas).

Goodman Beaver. By Harvey Kurtz­man and Will Elder. Kitchen Sink Press, $9.95. The naive go-getter who made his first appearance in Jungle Book continues his pilgrim’s progress through contempo­rary chicanery. The strip ran regularly in Kurtzman’s magazine Help!, a failed ’60s bid to recreate the success of Mad. After that, Kurtzman and Elder went over to Playboy with the long-running but disap­pointingly low-energy “Little Orphan Fan­nie” feature.

My Life As a Cartoonist. By Harvey Kurtzman. Pocket Books, $2.50 paper. Don’t expect too much revelation from this slim paperback, aimed at younger readers; Kurtzman’s interviews in The Complete Mad are a lot more revealing about the magazine’s origins. The book does at least offer a short course in cartooning, including advice on brushes and inks. — G.O’B.