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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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“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

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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.

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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.)

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“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.’ ”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Jazz Jams With Harvey Pekar

For most of his adult life, Harvey Pekar held a day job filing medical records at Cleveland Veterans Administration Hospital. Perhaps the attention to detail in that endeavor helped him with his more famous vocation, as the creator and writer of American Splendor comic books. When he was sixteen, Pekar began collecting jazz records, saying, “I loved jazz and listened to it closely and analytically.” When he started writing his comics, he had such graphic masters as Robert Crumb, Spain Rodriguez, and Alison Bechdel illustrate his workaday tales of life in Cleveland. In 1995, he teamed with Joe Sacco, an artist known for his comics journalism (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde), to collaborate on an illustrated reminiscence with the jazz guitarist Bill DeArango, who, like Pekar, was a Cleveland native.

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Spinning Wire and Spanning Worlds: Building the Brooklyn Bridge

Sometimes great achievements arise from petty annoyances. Writer Peter J. Tomasi and artist Sara DuVall begin their fast-paced and deeply moving graphic novel, The Bridge (Abrams ComicArts), in 1852, on a ferryboat in the partially frozen East River. One of the passengers, John A. Roebling, is irritated because the vessel hasn’t moved in exactly “three hours, twenty-eight minutes, and sixteen seconds,” as he puts it in a note to the vessel’s captain, who has been using the immobility to catch a very long nap. When Roebling, a civil engineer, receives the captain’s reply — “Stick a piece of river ice in your ear and cool off” — he and his young son, Washington, cobble together some scrap metal in the ferry’s hold to fashion a crude icebreaker. As the passengers cheer, Washington comments that all of the other ferries are still stranded. His father, a German immigrant and a ramrod of rectitude, gazes into the chill distance and says, “It will no longer suit the spirit of the present age to pronounce an undertaking impracticable, Washington. Remember that.”

They had been stranded on the ferry because there was as yet no other way to get across the East River — the vast reach seeming, more than a century and a half ago, literally unbridgeable. Author Tomasi grew up in Washington Heights, near enough to the George Washington Bridge that its revolving beacon cast “a soothing nightlight that put me to sleep each and every evening.” This proximity fostered a fascination with the bridges that connected Manhattan with the rest of the world; as a teenager, Tomasi walked across them all, and researched “who, what, where, when, and why these beautiful works came into being.” He and DuVall convey the “how” as well, employing lively dialogue and dynamic illustrations to engagingly explain the basics of industrial processes, including spinning wire from iron plates (use a very hot furnace), the proper way to sink a massive caisson — a hollow box made of wood and iron — into the riverbed (build granite towers atop it), and even how the sewage created by workers pulling long shifts in a caisson is removed (use compressed air to shoot it up a pipe and into the river).

Washington Roebling learns his trade.

The “who” in this true story of the conception, design, and construction of the Brooklyn Bridge includes the senior Roebling, an expert in manufacturing wire rope that he used to build early, relatively short suspension bridges; young Washington and his wife, Emily; and a supporting cast of historical figures — Civil War generals, mayors of Brooklyn and New York, governors, presidents, and, ultimately, the Italian stonecutters, Irish sandhogs, and other workers killed during the fourteen-year project, too many of whose names have been lost to history.

The story follows the teenage Washington, known to the family as Wash, as he is one night unceremoniously rousted from sleep by his father, who loads him into a carriage. As the horses clip-clop away from their comfortable family home in Trenton, New Jersey, the elder Roebling explains to his puzzled son, “Unfortunately, none of us can foresee what will bring us to our knees. Your contentment must be shattered if you are to flourish in good times and bad, boy.” He drops Wash off at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in upstate New York, where the bewildered youth spends the next four years studying geometry, mineralogy, civil mechanics, structural engineering, and other grueling courses.

Washington Roebling keeps an eye on his dream.

When he returns home, Wash takes his place as an assistant manager at the family firm, the John A. Roebling’s Sons Company. But he soon tires of his father’s humorless diligence and bolts, joining the Union forces in the Civil War. After serving with distinction and bravery — he spotted Rebels advancing on Gettysburg from an observation balloon, and later built rope bridges under heavy fire — Washington returns to civilian life, goes back to working at the mill, and marries the charming and steadfast Emily, sister of one of his fellow officers. During this time the elder Roebling makes a proposal to the cities of Brooklyn and New York to design and build an East River Bridge, while Wash is more than a little dissatisfied that his father has not promoted him to full manager. DuVall’s artwork is as precise and forceful as the characters she portrays: The young veteran’s barely contained anger is conveyed by two spare lines at the brow and a couple of squiggles to indicate a throbbing vein at the temple.

In 1869, Roebling senior dies after a freak accident (ironically, when a Brooklyn ferry hit the dock he was standing on and crushed his foot; he died several weeks later of tetanus). Prepared by his father’s stern protocols as well as by his own service in the war, Washington takes on the unprecedented engineering project. The bridge’s financial trustees are wary of hiring someone in his early thirties to oversee a gargantuan enterprise that includes two 90,000-ton towers and 14,000 miles of steel wire in the suspension system, but Washington persuades them by pointing to the plans that he and his father had drawn up, stating, “The only person who knows this bridge better than I do is dead.” He gets the job, but the next fourteen years take a heavy toll on him, his wife, his crew of assistants, and the small army of workers who toil in otherworldly conditions far beneath the surface of the East River.

Red lead and granite: Building the towers.

In a recurring gag, Tomasi captures the fatalistic humor of men in dangerous jobs (with a nod to the movie Airplane). As they climb into one of the sunken, pressurized caissons, an assistant named Farrington remarks, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m claustrophobic.” On the next page, as the lights go temporarily dim, Farrington adds, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of the dark.” Then, as they hear the water rushing past on the other side of the caisson walls, he informs the assembled crew, “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I can’t swim.” Some eighty pages later, when he is selected to be the first to traverse the bridge’s preliminary wire span, he stays true to character: “Guess this is a bad time to let you know I’m afraid of heights.”

But Farrington and the other men involved in the construction show Roebling the loyalty soldiers give to respected officers, calling him “Colonel” in reference to his Civil War rank. Roebling in turn offers good wages and — when men start suffering from nose bleeds, vomiting, fever, and fainting — orders that a doctor be present on site every day. The sickness turns out to be a form of the bends brought on by the high atmospheric pressures inside the sunken caissons. The doctor, struggling to make the caisson crews understand the grave importance of depressurizing in an airlock when they finish their shifts, tires of flip remarks from the skeptical laborers and shakes a soda bottle hard, saying, “The seltzer in this bottle is your blood. If you do not stay in the airlock a few minutes after leaving the caisson, then — ” He lets the fizzy seltzer spray over the audience. “Class dismissed.”

A new age dawns: Surprised by a woman in the workplace.

In one scene, the caisson crew discovers the bones of Redcoats while digging toward bedrock. “The British are coming! The British are coming!” one jokes. Another answers, “Not anymore, they ain’t,” while a third grumbles, “Feed their stinky Limey bones to the dogs, who cares?” The workers’ reactions make real the idea that the history of the Revolutionary War was still raw, as of course are their memories of the just-ended Civil War. A couple of the workers who served on different sides nearly come to blows.

When a caisson that is not yet fully weighted lifts with the tide, the pressurized air holding the water at bay, DuVall depicts the startled workers pointing at fish on the other side as if they had suddenly found themselves at an aquarium. After the wooden box slams back down, some of the workers decide that their nerves can no longer handle the hazardous labor. As they leave, Washington assures them, “Keep your heads up. There’s no shame here.”

Emily Roebling, hands-on manager.

But eventually Washington himself begins to show the effects of working literally under high pressure. When he is no longer able to tolerate loud noises or perform extended physical labor, he resorts to surveying the project’s progress through a telescope from his Brooklyn Heights residence, relaying instructions to the work crews in notes delivered by Emily. Although not formally trained as an engineer, she is nearly as steeped in the family business as her husband, and becomes the de-facto on-site manager.

As the years pass, the towers rise and the caissons sink, and Washington’s company bids on the next phase of the project, stringing the massive steel cables. But they are undercut by another wire manufacturer, one with financial ties to a bridge trustee. Corners are purposely cut to skim more profit, and when the subpar materials are discovered it’s too late to remove the faulty steel from the suspension system. The bridge, however, was designed to be six times stronger than its maximum load, and the inferior materials (which remain part of the structure to this day) still left a safety factor of five. When Washington exposes the crooked trustee, the man huffs out of the meeting, sneering, “You will be hearing from my attorney.” The experienced engineer replies, “I doubt it.”

In scene after scene, Tomasi and DuVall limn human intimacies, giving the familiar history of their tale a lively and surprisingly touching resonance that goes beyond the sweeping visual appeal of the neo-gothic support towers and elegant webwork of the cables. The Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883, after fourteen years of construction and at a cost of $15 million (approximately $350 million today). Both figures were roughly twice their original estimates, and between twenty and thirty men died working on the bridge. (By contrast, the new Kosciuszko Bridge, between Brooklyn and Queens, which is a bit longer, cost $555 million and no workers died during construction.) In 1884, some people still doubted whether the one-mile-long Brooklyn Bridge — which includes a main suspension span of 1,595 feet, the world-record holder for twenty years — could truly be safe. Ever on the lookout for a galvanizing publicity stunt, P.T. Barnum marched twenty-one elephants from Manhattan to circus grounds in Brooklyn, thus putting New Yorkers at ease.

Such is the Brooklyn Bridge’s romantic gravitational pull that when future East Village counterculture icon Tuli Kupferberg attempted suicide from the Manhattan Bridge, in 1945, he found himself reimagined ten years later in Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as the man “who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways & fire trucks, not even one free beer.…”

The 1883 celebration for the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. So many fireworks were used that the glow could be seen as far away as inland New Jersey.

Author Tomasi ends the book’s preface with a quote from Montgomery Schuyler, an essayist and architecture critic, who showed astonishing prescience in a May 1883 issue of Harper’s Weekly when he wrote, “It so happens that the work which is likely to be our most durable monument, and to convey some knowledge of us to the most remote posterity, is a work of bare utility; not a shrine, not a fortress, not a palace, but a bridge.”

It seems, 135 years later, that Schuyler was on the money — after all, nothing’s been sold more times than the Brooklyn Bridge. But it’s still here, free as the breeze.

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Spiderman [sic] in Forest Hills

In April of 1965, writer Sally Kempton delved into the Spider-Man phenomenon through a local lens, pointing out, “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.” She initially comes down hard on the burgeoning comic fandom movement: “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.” But she is impressed with Marvel’s then-new brand of comics, because they 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.”

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One reason, Kempton notes, is because Marvel superheroes are often New Yorkers themselves and have “discernible personalities and relatively complex emotions.” She goes on to add that a “New York cop, exercising his stop-and-frisk prerogative, never knows when he may accidentally rip the dark glasses 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.”

If journalism is the first draft of history, Kempton’s reporting, along with ads for art world “Happenings” and an “Emergency Meeting on Vietnam,” opens a window on the early days of one of pop culture’s hugest success stories. (And finally, it should be noted that the Voice copy desk in 1965 was having no truck with hyphens in a comic-book character’s name.)

 

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Steve Ditko: Beyond Spider-Man

1962 was a good year for pop culture. The Beatles released “Love Me Do”; Andy Warhol discovered Campbell’s soup; John Glenn went into orbit; Bob Dylan played Carnegie Hall; and Steve Ditko, a 34-year-old journeyman comics artist, co-created Spider-Man. Ditko died in his West 51st Street apartment on June 29, at age 90, prompting a surge of wistful recollections from commentators and fans recalling their youthful identification with the teenage superhero who, co-creator Stan Lee once said, “gets sinus attacks, he gets acne and allergy attacks while he’s fighting.” The gangly Spider-Man launched one of the most successful movie franchises in history, but Ditko had already pushed well beyond the “cinematic” — an adjective often applied to his page layouts — to formal, narrative, and aesthetic frontiers unique to the comics medium. This would become most apparent in the mid 1960s, when Ditko and a stable of topflight freelancers were taking turns dazzling readers on the pages of Jim Warren’s concisely titled black-and-white horror magazines Creepy and Eerie.

Ditko began his career after serving in the Army in postwar Europe, moving to New York to study comic-book illustration at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (later, the School of Visual Arts) under Jerry Robinson, an artist who worked on Batman comics and created the Joker character.

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In 1954, Ditko began illustrating (and sometimes writing) horror and suspense stories for Charlton Comics, a publisher that paid low rates but allowed artists wide creative latitude. The limbs of Ditko’s figures were often stretched to extremes, hands thrusting toward readers, fingers writhing; close-ups of eyes would fill panels, adding tension between characters seen at varying distances. Such visual strategies were enhanced by abstract webs — sometimes colorful, often pure white — which might represent fog or smoke or just mysterious ectoplasm, all the better to conjure run-ins with criminals, encounters with ghosts, and journeys into ultra-dimensional time and space warps. Ditko, like all great comic artists, understood that unlike in a movie, where even the most powerful images must follow one after the other, he was presenting readers (who are also viewers) with a full page, which would not only tell a story but also work as a collage of light and shadow, shape and perspective, volume and line.

Comics were cheaply produced — Charlton’s magazines in particular were notable for pages by turns flooded with ink or barely legible from worn-out printing blankets. So comics artists employed heavy outlines, because detailed draftsmanship was often muddied by slapdash color registration. Ditko’s bold compositions withstood these degradations better than most. In addition to Spider-Man, Ditko created the Doctor Strange character for Marvel, and his swirling compositions were a perfect fit for the master of mystic arts’ astral journeys into psychedelic realms. (In The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe describes LSD advocate Ken Kesey sitting “for hours on end reading comic books, absorbed in the plunging purple Steve Ditko shadows of Dr. Strange.”)

The sheer artistry of Ditko’s dynamic mix of abstract composition and elastic figuration received showcase treatment in Warren’s black-and-white horror publications. A typical Warren mag from the mid to late 1960s was a highlight reel of some of the best draftsmen this country ever produced — in each issue’s half-dozen or so stories, readers might get Reed Crandall’s woodcut-like drawings adapting Edgar Allan Poe’s “Hop-Frog,” Angelo Torres’s mix of film stills and noir lighting in a twist on The Phantom of the Opera, moody graveyard scenes in misty grays by Gene Colan, or the hyper-real figures and passionate layouts of a Neal Adams vampire tale.

Between 1966 and ’68, Ditko drew sixteen stories for Warren, all but one of them scripted by the incredibly versatile Archie Goodwin. Two examples, done in polar-opposite styles, show Ditko at the top of his game. In “Collector’s Edition!,” from Creepy #10 (1966), Ditko used concise crosshatching to achieve expressive tonalities emphasizing the tension that arises when a slovenly dealer of occult books taunts a fanatical collector with the possibility of obtaining a rare masterpiece detailing the darkest of the diabolical arts. The close-ups of eyes Ditko deployed for compositional variety a decade earlier are here arrayed in a narrative sequence that punctuates the antagonism between buyer and seller, which shortly escalates to murder. Goodwin — as sharp a yarn-spinner as ever came down America’s pop-cult pike — was no doubt having fun with the collecting manias that were driving the burgeoning comic-fandom phenomenon. The blasphemous tome featured in the story, Dark Visions, written by “the Marquis Lemode,” contains both stygian realms of evil and predictions of the future, giving the collector a preview of his own onrushing demise. Ditko’s precise line work propels Goodwin’s entwined narrative to its sardonically surprising conclusion.

But it’s in Creepy #13’s “Second Chance!” (1967) that Ditko displays ink-wash chops that, in their verve and subtlety, were unlike anything he achieved in mainstream comics, the delicate gradations of gray overlaid with white filigrees impossible to reproduce in color comics. Ditko’s crepuscular ambience enhances Goodwin’s plot, which begins and ends amid graveyard dirt and in between takes a trippy plunge into a hell filled with undulating demons, flailing victims, and diaphanous mists. The broad range of shadows and patinas of light give Ditko’s figures a supple grace he rarely equaled in his superhero comics.

Notoriously reclusive, Ditko spent his last decades more and more consumed by a rigid — not to say black-and-white — view of the world, inspired in no small part by the stark divisions between good and evil as espoused by writer-philosopher Ayn Rand. Although he did create more characters in those passing years (most notably Mr. A., a humorless vigilante who wore metal gloves, all the better for pummeling moral trespassers), Ditko never surpassed the sheer graphic elation of his Warren work. All the gray areas were gone.

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Pow! The Red Hook Takes New Brooklyn

Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s an allegory of gentrification! It’s the Red Hook! Comics creator Dean Haspiel — known for his collaborations with Jonathan Ames on the graphic novel The Alcoholic and on Ames’s HBO series Bored to Death, among myriad graphic endeavors with Marvel, Harvey Pekar, and more — has recently turned his eyes and pen toward the late capitalism trials and tribulations of the city he’s lived in all his life. The 51-year-old Manhattan native moved to Brooklyn 21 years ago, when rising rents made his home unaffordable, and now that those rents are pricing artists out of Brooklyn, Haspiel is dreaming of a way to save it. How? With a superhero, the Red Hook, named not coincidentally after the neighborhood where Haspiel had his studio for years.

Dean Haspiel

Published earlier this month in print by Image Comics (after running as an online serial at Line Webtoon two years ago), The Red Hook is an ode to Brooklyn wrapped in a Dear John letter (wrapped in an “I love you anyway” letter), and inked in more bright and muddy hues than the water of the Gowanus Canal. Peopled with colorful characters such as the Possum, the mob boss Benson Hurst, and the Red Hook’s vigilante justice-seeking mama, the Coney, Haspiel describes the story as one of “a super-thief…who is transformed into a hero against his will, a year after a sentient Brooklyn’s heart is broken, and physically secedes from America.”

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It’s not the first time Haspiel has turned his pen and ink toward Brooklyn. Haspiel was the loose inspiration for Zach Galifianakis’s comics artist character on Ames’s Brooklyn-centered Bored to Death, and won an Emmy in 2010 for the character drawings he did for the title sequence. But this project, written as well as drawn by Haspiel himself, is much more a reflection of Haspiel’s own hopes for the borough’s future. Not all heroes have capes, but this one probably has a MetroCard. Haspiel spoke to the Voice in the midst of a book tour heavy on Brooklyn stops.

So tell me about The Red Hook.

Well, it’s about a super-thief who is bequeathed the Omni-Fist of Altruism [a character called the Green Point is involved in this] against his will, and he’s forced to become a superhero, or he will die. And it’s during a time when Brooklyn reveals herself to be sentient, and she is heartbroken by the apathy and indifference of the world, and decides to physically secede from New York City, ergo the world, to start her own republic. And here, artists can trade and barter their art for food and services.

That last part sounds like a Utopia.

Listen, where does this stuff come from, right? I grew up reading Marvel and DC comics and then later on specifically a lot of Jack Kirbyinspired comics and/or written and drawn by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, later on Frank Miller, Jim Starlin…and what I discovered is that a lot of those comics that were made back then were very prescient. And you could say the same thing about Star Trek or any kind of science-fiction or fantasy material, where if you put ideas out there, they start to materialize. Like our phones. We went from dial phones to, like, a flip phone from Star Trek. Anyway, all of these comics would impart these future ideas, which, little by small, start to come true.

So why create a world of heroes and villains called New Brooklyn?

So, [years ago] I’m sitting in a studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn, sharing a space with six other artists because we can’t afford individual studios anymore, and then those studios start to become too expensive. And buildings are getting bought and sold to the highest bidder, who then sit on a space and do nothing with it, because they’re waiting for the developers to turn the neighborhoods into Gardens of Earthly Delight — I mean, the Gowanus Canal in my lifetime is never going to be a place to swim in. Why would you want to do that? — but that’s the kind of thing they’re trying to do. The building the studio was in two years ago, which then got bought and sold, is still sitting there, they tore down all the walls, and I saw some plans, where underneath the Smith and 9th Street station they were trying to show a huge patio garden where they’re serving food and beer while the F and G trains run over you. On the one hand, it’s a fun idea, but realistically, it doesn’t work. They [builders] buy these 99-year leases, and sit on them for 10 years, and kick out all the artists. It’s too expensive. New York City is no longer underwriting the avant-garde, or interested in performance spaces. They’d rather build another bank or another pharmaceutical grocery store.

And how did that translate into the story you’re telling with The Red Hook?

It was inspired by something that happened in 2014. I’d already invented the Red Hook in 2012 but I didn’t have a story for him, but what I discovered [narratively] happened the day the American flags got replaced by white flags on the Brooklyn Bridge. And that really happened. And it took about a week to discover that some German artists had done some art prank or stunt. But what it made me think about: Whenever I see a white flag, I think about somebody giving up. And I thought, “Oh my God, Brooklyn gave up. It finally gave up.” And that’s why I anthropomorphized Brooklyn and the Brooklyn Bridge. What if it was sentient? What if it was alive? And what if she decided, “You know what? I’m done with all of y’all. I’m out of this.”

You have some striking images of the Brooklyn Bridge having ripped itself away from Manhattan.

I didn’t worry too much about the nuts and bolts of what would happen, except, when you pull the bridge apart, it snaps in half, a bunch of subway systems will flood…but what kind of beauty will rise from it? And you know, I love superhero comics, so I thought, there’ll be superheroes and supervillains, I’ll get to have fun with those tropes. But at the same time, I myself want to be able to trade or sell or barter my artwork that I do as actual commerce. I remember going to the dentist, and I couldn’t afford the root canal. And I discovered that the dentist was a comic book fan, and I basically got commissioned to draw him as a superhero in trade for a root canal.

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Is that a real story? That’s amazing.

That happened to me. So with that in mind, I put that in my comic. And I know other people have traded art for services. It happens. So I put that all into the backstory of The Red Hook Volume One: New Brooklyn.

You have all these wonderful characters in the comic, named after Brooklyn neighborhoods. Benson Hurst, the Green Point, the Coney. In what sequel can I finally see a heroine named Carol Gardens?

I do want to bring out a Carol Garden at some point! That might be something I do in the third story, but I’m not sure yet. [The second volume of the Red Hook saga, War Cry, is currently online at Line Webtoon, and the third volume, Starcross, debuts in early 2019.] That’s definitely on my to-do list. There have been a couple of other ones that people have thrown at me. [The Red Hook Volume One also includes the Flat Bush, and a radioactive fish creature named the Sheep’s Head.] It’s a lot of fun. Part of what’s great about serialized comics and serialized television is that what was really cool about waiting seven days for the next episode is that it activated the writer in me. “What’s gonna happen next?” And you start to create this writers’ room with your friends. And it’s a real creative process. It was so much fun to engage that way, and I don’t know if people engage like that anymore. As a creator that [anticipation] was so important to me.

So where can we find you on this very Brooklyn-heavy tour you’re on? I see that you have art from The Red Hook at the New York Transit Museum right now.

 The Transit Museum called me a year ago, and they were curating this show, showing comics from their origins, from the newspaper strips from 1907 through the modern day. There’s a lot of indie/alternative stuff, there’s a lot of stuff I’ve never seen in my life from back in the day. Marvel and DC is presented. The show is beautifully put together. And one level down is an actual train station with one car representing each era of the subway. They cover it all, from memoir to horror to superhero, all related to the subway system. Four pages of The Red Hook are there, which take place in the Smith and 9th Street subway station.

And these pages do not depict a bougie patio below the F and G trains.

And they never will.

 

Dean Haspiel will be appearing on July 5 at Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, in conversation with Josh Neufeld, and on July 25 at Bushwick Book Club at Barbés in Park Slope, in a musical performance inspired by The Red Hook

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ART ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Jules Feiffer in Context

Jules Feiffer was born in the Bronx in 1929, and recently told the Voice he had hated it. Rather than accept that he was a nebbishy kid from the outer boroughs, he preferred to believe he “had been kidnapped by these Jewish people who claimed I was one of them, when I knew that I was like Freddie Bartholomew [a London-born child actor who became famous for his role as Little Lord Fauntleroy in a 1936 movie]. I wanted to return to my real home in Sussex or Surrey, some country house outside of London.”

It’s a tale Feiffer has told many times, but it is also the sort of ur-story that helps explain the monologues he wrote for all the neurotic, self-absorbed, self-indulgent characters who populate his eight decades of comic strips, plays, and movies — people who are just not happy with their lot in life and don’t mind telling you so.

I sat down with the octogenarian artist and writer to discuss, among many other things, his screenplay for the new movie Bernard and Huey, directed by Dan Mirvish. Feiffer has been writing dialogue since the mid 1940s, cutting his storytelling teeth by ghosting scripts for the legendary comics creator Will Eisner (1917–2005). Fresh out of James Monroe High School, Feiffer looked Eisner up in the phone book and traveled from the Bronx to 37 Wall Street, in Lower Manhattan, where Eisner cranked out his seminal weekly newspaper-comics insert, featuring an ironfisted, lighthearted crime fighter called “the Spirit.” Although riding the subway filled him with “fear and anxiety” when he was a kid, Feiffer steeled himself for the trip downtown. “I walked in and there was an outer office, which was kind of dark, and an inner office, and the only person sitting in the outer office was Will Eisner, sitting at the drawing table in the corner, working on The Spirit. I walked in with my samples, and he welcomed me, and he couldn’t have been more pleasant, until he looked at my work and then he told me that the work was shit,” Feiffer told me, laughing.

Undaunted, the youngster switched tactics and told Eisner how much The Spirit and Eisner’s earlier strips, such as Muss ’Em Up Donovan, meant to him. As Feiffer put it, the comics maestro had no choice but to “hire me — if only as a groupie.”

Feiffer inaugural Village Voice strip, October 24, 1956

According to Feiffer, the other artists in the stable, who toiled in the inner office, were all “very competent draftsmen [but] none of them had Eisner’s genius or verve.” These were craftsmen working for hire, and they had little to say to their boss. But things were different between the teen comics aficionado and his idol. “With me he had a conversation, and from the time I walked into that office he and I talked comics, we talked everything, because he knew I was somebody who loved the form the way he did, and that I wanted to do something different with the form, the way he had done.”

Eisner gave Feiffer various jobs, including erasing pencil lines, filling in black ink areas, ruling panel borders, and even coloring the strip, and the teenager eventually got comfortable enough to tell his elder, sometime in the late Forties, that while the artwork on The Spirit was getting better and better, the scripts were in a rut. Instead of bawling him out, Feiffer told me, Eisner replied, “If you think you can do better, why don’t you write one?”

Feiffer did, submitting a taut tale about Freddy, a neighborhood nobody who finally snaps as he’s playing pinball in the corner candy store. The seven-page story, “Ten Minutes,” is formally inventive, featuring a ticking watch on each page counting off, basically in real time, the last ten minutes of Freddy’s life, as his impulse to leave the city for a new start ends with the murder of the store’s proprietor. Eisner’s dynamic layouts — the legs of pursuers are seen under swinging doors when the killer ducks into a crowded saloon — enhance Feiffer’s punchy dialogue, which concludes with the Spirit musing to Police Commissioner Dolan, as they trudge up the subway steps after Freddy’s demise on the tracks, “I wonder just when it was that Freddy started on his crime career. ”

Feiffer continued writing Spirit stories until he was drafted into the Army, in 1951, where he spent time in the Signal Corps in New Jersey. He returned to civilian life as the Eisenhower years were gaining steam, a time when stifling conformity was the price much of the middle class paid for postwar prosperity. Feiffer looked around again for artists who were breaking various molds, such as the crew at the United Productions of America animation studio. “I loved their stuff. I loved their politics,” Feiffer said of the funky UPA studio, which was staffed largely with artisans who had left Disney during the 1941 animators’ strike. Eschewing Uncle Walt’s realism for broadly buoyant characters arrayed against bold, jazzily modernistic backgrounds, the studio made shorts for President Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election campaign, in 1944, and a 1946 cartoon for the United Auto Workers, entitled Brotherhood of Man. UPA introduced one of its most popular characters, the nearsighted bumbler Mr. Magoo, in 1949, and won an Academy Award for Gerald McBoing Boing in 1951. UPA’s go-for-broke style would soon influence Feiffer’s breakthrough work.

By 1956, Feiffer was peddling his ideas for a regular comic strip all over Manhattan, and while publishers reacted favorably to his offbeat characters, they were unsure how readers would react to Feiffer’s motley collection of beatniks, uptight businessmen, insecure introverts, and other urban denizens. Feiffer said he was told again and again, “We don’t know how to publish this. If your name was [Saul] Steinberg or [James] Thurber we’d publish it.” “They were telling me that I had to get famous before I could get published,” he said. “But on all their desks was this newspaper, the Village Voice, which I had only seen a couple times — it had been around for not even a year by that time. So I picked up the Voice and started looking at it, with the idea that if I could get in this paper they’ll think I’m famous — because they all read it.”

60 years on—dialogue in print then, onscreen now.

The gambit paid off — at least in terms of recognition. Voice founders Dan Wolf and Ed Fancher, as well as theater editor Jerry Tallmer, all liked Feiffer’s portfolio, so much so that, Feiffer said, “They were so enthusiastic that I began to get suspicious. ‘What do they want from me? What are they after? What’s going on here?’ My own insecurity was coming to the fore, the more they praised me. They said, ‘You can do anything you want.’ [But] I — who didn’t want guidelines — was asking them for guidelines because they were so enthusiastic. I didn’t know how to behave.”

Feiffer’s inaugural Sick, Sick, Sick strip appeared in the Voice’s first anniversary issue, on October 24, 1956. While the heavy, UPA-influenced ink contours would gradually become more fluid (Feiffer’s signature dancers would soon be leaping from panel to panel), the humor — voiced by characters who mixed confessional angst with self-defeating self-absorption — was already established. Any New Yorker who’d spent time in a crowded café and overheard snippets of first-date awkwardness, infatuated spooning, lovers’ quarrels, or armchair analysis at the next table could relate to Feiffer’s nervous blind daters, hopeful dreamers, blasé cads, and neurotic intellectuals.

That Feiffer offered to work for free may have had something to do with the Voice pooh-bahs’ enthusiasm for his strip, but by 1958 the cartoonist was packaging Sick, Sick, Sick and other strips into multiple collections — including The Explainers, Passionella, and Nixon: The Cartoon Presidency — that have sold well over the decades. (Although there are conflicting timelines, Feiffer told me he was not paid for his first twenty years at the Voice: “And everybody else was getting paid. I went in to Dan [Wolf, the editor], and he said, ‘What do you mean you want to get paid? You’re a mandarin.’ ” He laughed. “That’s a direct quote. And I loved Dan, but I said, ‘Dan, mandarins have to eat.’ ”)

Some of Feiffer’s characters in the Voice, such as the womanizing lout Huey and his milquetoast friend Bernard, would branch out into other publications, including Playboy. This was also a time when theatrical producers began showing interest in transforming Feiffer’s comics into plays. Although the cartoonist was impressed with how the characters came to life, he wasn’t convinced they were better than on paper. But soon, major social and political traumas compelled Feiffer to try his hand at outright playwriting: “I wrote Little Murders after the JFK assassination,” he told me. Feiffer, like many Americans, had been shocked by the murder of the president, and then further jolted by the subsequent killing of his alleged assassin by a mobbed-up nightclub owner. “The America I’d grown up in no longer existed,” Feiffer said. “Had been snuffed out within a week. I needed to write something, which had to be more than six or eight panels, and I thought, couldn’t be a comic strip, and there were no such things as graphic novels then.… So my life as a playwright really came out of the JFK assassination.”

20 years after that first cartoon, Feiffer was finally getting paid

As it was chockablock with muggings, random shootings, garbage strikes, and electrical blackouts, it is perhaps no surprise that Little Murders, Feiffer’s first play, flopped on Broadway, in 1967. But it did have a successful run in London, and a 1969 Off-Broadway production won an Obie award.

In 1969, Feiffer wrote a play that director Mike Nichols advised would work better as a movie. Carnal Knowledge was released in 1971 and follows the sexual adventures of a callous lothario, played by Jack Nicholson, and his more sensitive college roommate, portrayed by Art Garfunkel. In the early Eighties, Feiffer revisited this theme in a script for the Showtime channel, which featured the Bernard and Huey characters from his earlier Village Voice and Playboy comics. The screenplay got lost amid corporate shuffles, but has found new life in Mirvish’s film.

Bernard and Huey takes place in the now but flashes back to the college roommates twenty-five years earlier, asking questions about what becomes of both a satyr and a nebbish gone to seed. Feiffer said that Mirvish captured “the arc of my career…and the sense of the reality of my obsession with men and women and how they do or don’t get along over the years, and what they do with and to each other, over the years. You know, I always objected to the Thurber phrase ‘battle of the sexes,’ because I didn’t think it was about a battle, it was always a struggle to find yourself in someone else. And mostly failing.”

Indeed, in the present, when heavyset, inebriated Huey (played by David Koechner) shows up at the West Village apartment of wiry Bernard (Jim Rash), it seems pretty clear that the onetime heartthrob has been outdistanced by the pensive, divorced book editor with a smart and lovely steady, Roz. Yet, as in Feiffer’s comics, human relations can be a French farce of fast opening and slamming doors, some of which expose Bernard bedding Huey’s graphic-novelist daughter, Zelda (Mae Whitman), others concealing, for a time, Huey’s conquest of Roz, Bernard’s main squeeze. Koechner’s Huey leads with his gut, and with his porkpie hat at a raffish angle he imparts the nihilistic elan of the Popeye Doyle character in William Friedkin’s The French Connection. When I mentioned that Friedkin had been influenced by Eisner’s comics, Feiffer laughed and told me the director had once approached Eisner about doing a Spirit movie. Eisner in turn had asked Feiffer to write a treatment for a possible film. But, Feiffer said, “I met with Friedkin, who I didn’t like at all, and who didn’t like anything I had done for the scenario. And then this awful Spirit movie [written and directed by Frank Miller, in 2008] came out. Just a disgrace.”

Ahhhh. Dashed hopes. All the better for Feiffer’s characters to wallow in.

From newsprint to the silver screen

Bernard and Huey features dialogue at times lifted from comics that appeared in the pages of the Voice sixty years ago. In flashbacks, young actors capture the fresh-faced lust of college days. In one scene we get Columbia student Huey spending the morning wearily shooing beautiful young Mona out of his messy bedroom, where, she peevishly laments, “entirely too much time was spent on fucking.”

“OK,” he tells her. “Put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

“Don’t bother. I’ve never met anyone so crude in my life.”

“Yeah, crude. Now put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

“You want everything your own way. OK? You’re spoiled.”

“Yeah. Spoiled. Now put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

“I mean, I have needs too, you know.”

“Yeah. You need to put on your shoes. I’ll walk you to the subway.”

A little later, she says, “We practically just met, OK? Women hate to be used. I hate to be used.”

When he replies, “I’m hip. Put on your shoes,” hip does double duty, capturing the sardonic affectation of the late Eighties even as it repeats the 1958 newsprint exchange. Eternally bored and getting worn down by this morning-after call-and-response, Huey switches tactics, cajoling the unhappy girl into buying him breakfast. When she asks him what kind of bagels he wants, he coos, eyes drooping, “Baby. I trust you.”

Times change, rogues remain the same. And what goes around comes around in Feiffer’s Manhattan. In the film, Mona — now a quarter-century older, like Bernard and Huey — works at the same publishing house as Bernard. She is appalled by a portfolio of comics that Bernard has brought in for her to review. “This is shit,” she says. “Why are you pushing this girl?” Mona (played by Nancy Travis) turns to a page on which a man is castrated by closing subway doors. “Your girlfriend’s got a problem with men,” she observes. But she is even more appalled when she discovers that the comics are by Zelda, the daughter of the man with whom she’d had that physically enthralling and emotionally antagonistic fling in college.

A twentieth anniversary tribute to Feiffer.

Mona is not so appalled, however, that she doesn’t end up in Huey’s bed again, where she relives their raw romance on her own older and wiser terms. High heels in hand, she bumps into Bernard, returning early one morning from an assignation with Zelda to the apartment he now shares with Huey, who entertains a revolving troupe of noisy lovers. The women here give as good as they get, and Bernard finds himself devastated when 25-year-old Zelda cuts him loose for a more age-appropriate if equally self-absorbed media entrepreneur. In a later scene, after yet another bout of profligate overindulgence with Mona, Huey is stretched out on the sofa when Bernard confronts him about the decibel level from the night before. Huey, flat as a heavyweight down for the count, implores, “Bernie, keep it down, man. I’m a bit fragile.”

Like those other outer-borough natives Woody Allen and Neil Simon, Feiffer has never tired of the endless drama that is New York. Beginning with his comics of the 1950s and right up to his movies of today, Feiffer has illustrated the truth that, just as you can’t choose your family, there are some friends — usually met in the crucible of youth — who prove every bit as sticky as parents or siblings. Add the close quarters of Manhattan living, where strangers’ intimacies crowd in on you on packed subways and in overbooked restaurants and, for some New Yorkers, the witty Bernard and Huey may prove a bit of a busman’s holiday.

At the close of our interview, I asked Feiffer if any one thing stood out from his successful decades-long career. “Yes,” replied the 89-year-old, apparently never as fragile as any of his characters: “What I’m doing next.”

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Bunch-Drunk Love: Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s Comic Relief

Don’t be that girl. Don’t be a groupie. Don’t be a yenta. Don’t be a “sex-crazed housewife.” Don’t get in a car with that boy. Be thin, but don’t obsess over exercise or calories. Have sex, but not the wrong kind of sex. Don’t think you’re somebody, but don’t bore other people with your self-doubt and self-loathing either.

In the new reissue of her 1990 collection, Love That Bunch, Aline Kominsky-Crumb confronts the crazy, ever-shifting expectations of how women are supposed to be — and blows them to smithereens. Her work invites us to ask what kind of life — what kind of freedom — is opened up by a refusal to be a good girl.

This autobiographical comic spans Kominsky-Crumb’s life, stretching from infancy to grandmotherhood. Two strips, published here in full for the first time, fill in the years between the book’s original publication and today. The reissue also includes a new afterword by renowned comics scholar Hillary Chute.

Chute claims Kominsky-Crumb — who calls herself “the grandmother of whiny tell-all comics” — was the first woman to pen autobiographical comics. Since her earliest strips in the 1970s, her work has been a rough, bracing mix of honest depictions of sexual and childhood trauma, self-deprecating humor, and examination of the body’s pleasures and degradations.

Kominsky-Crumb is the author of two books with her husband, iconic underground cartoonist Robert Crumb — The Complete Dirty Laundry Comics and Drawn Together — as well as a 2007 graphic memoir, Need More Love. Her forty-plus years of work have exerted a major influence on succeeding generations of artists, including Phoebe Gloeckner, author of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Alison Bechdel, MacArthur Fellow and author of Fun Home.

Aline Kominsky-Crumb

Born in a mainly Jewish section of Long Island, Kominsky-Crumb was precociously talented and precociously disgusted by what she saw as her family’s “crass” and “materialistic” lifestyle, as she described it in a 2012 interview in Critical Inquiry. Her father, Arnie, was a small-time schemer and the co-founder of BARG Industries (“grab” backward, as in “grab the money and run”); her mother was a housewife and ad salesperson for the Yellow Pages. It was a volatile, unhappy home, where Kominsky-Crumb appears to have been physically and sexually abused. 

She left home early, and after floundering through art school at Cooper Union and the University of Arizona, moved to San Francisco to join its burgeoning underground comics scene. She arrived just as the first issue of Wimmin’s Comix, an early all-female comic series, was being launched by Trina Robbins, Pat Moodian, and a collective of other women artists: Kominsky-Crumb’s first published work debuted in its first issue. It was 1972, and while the feminist movement was raising consciousness, female comics artists were still, as Kominsky-Crumb told the Huffington Post, “a novelty.”

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That first published strip, “Goldie: A Neurotic Woman,” still has the power to shock. Though there are mercifully more depictions of “difficult” women available today than in the early Seventies, it continues to be rare to see a woman deliberately depicting herself as fat and hideous, or indulging unusual sexual behaviors — in this case, masturbating with a carrot and squash. “I was always guilty and horny,” Goldie confesses in one panel.

Goldie was Kominsky-Crumb’s early alter ego, a diminutive of her maiden name, Goldsmith. After arriving in San Francisco, Kominsky-Crumb met the man who would become her husband, R. Crumb. Episodes from their marriage, the raising of their child, Sophie, and their move to France make up much of the second half of Love That Bunch. Soon, she had a new nickname: the Bunch, an ugly abbreviation of the name of one of R. Crumb’s characters, Honey Bunch Kaminski.

From “Love That Bunch”

Honey Bunch bore a striking resemblance to Aline Kominsky in name and body type. The two were often compared, which Kominsky-Crumb didn’t much enjoy. Overhearing one of Robert’s friends refer to her disparagingly as “the Bunch,” Kominsky-Crumb seized upon the name as a way to “defile that stoopid Honey-Bunch image.” 

We first meet the Bunch as an adolescent. In a painfully realistic way, she’s obsessed with, and made vulnerable by, sex and male attention. She’s eager to appear vixeny and tough, in short skirts and tons of white lipstick. But she’s nevertheless unprepared and frightened when her classmate Al starts feeling her up, a situation that quickly escalates into rape.

Sexual assault is so damaging, in part, because of its erasure of you as a person with your own subjectivity and desire. It’s powerful, therefore, to watch Kominsky-Crumb wrest control of the narrative of her violation, and make primary the Bunch’s version of the story. She exaggerates the size and details of Al’s penis — it’s as big as his meaty forearm, aggressively veined, with an ooze of pre-cum — making us feel the young Bunch’s terror in that moment. “It’s so ugly,” she thinks. “Looks like gizzards.”

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Crafting a personal history is a process of elimination. A writer might elide an element of her life that’s unflattering or seemingly anti-feminist; she might gloss over what seems unruly, inconsistent, or hard to contain in a single narrative framework.

Part of what makes Kominsky-Crumb’s work feel radically honest is that she lets in so many contradictory aspects of her life. On a certain level, she enjoys her body — it’s a “source of endless entertainment,” she says, moments after popping a zit on her boob. She likes sex, and “makes it with hundreds of guys.” She enjoys the power sexiness gives her over men. On the other hand, her body is a source of anguish: She struggles through pregnancy, and worries about wrinkles and weight gain. She’s a survivor of rape and sometimes intensely disgusted by male sexuality. She vacillates between feeling like a “sex Bunch” and a “slug.”

In other words, she’s a walking contradiction navigating a landscape of gendered double binds — and thus intensely relatable.  

Though Kominsky-Crumb’s work is almost always analyzed through a feminist lens, she’s a keen observer of the various hypocrisies and ironies that characterized postwar American life. In a few episodes, she takes aim at her bigoted father, whose moneymaking schemes involve exploiting black people’s desire for education and uplift. “Well don’t you think yur poor kids deserve a chance to elevate themselves too!” is the sales pitch he uses to peddle overpriced encyclopedias in black neighborhoods — while privately considering his clients “dumb n*****.”

In Critical Inquiry, Kominsky-Crumb described her style of drawing as “crude” and “grotesque.” Her pages and panels are busy, crammed with detail. In Chute’s words, her comics “refuse to be pretty.” The Bunch’s story is an ugly one, in many ways, and Kominsky-Crumb’s selective attention to detail; her expressionistic style, which warps form in the service of emotion; and her willingness to veer into the grotesque convey that ugliness as nothing else could.

This refusal to be pretty is especially provocative given Kominsky-Crumb’s focus on sexuality and her female body. We tend to expect women to be on display, perpetually aiming for approval. Kominsky-Crumb breaks those rules. Often, she draws the Bunch with an exaggerated lower body, a sausage-like nose, and cartoonish features. She doesn’t hesitate to give her fictional self “wolf eyes,” strip her head bald, or make her face animalistic in the midst of sex, either.

Her depictions of women’s bodies so disgusted some Christian printers that they refused to print her work. The in-your-face messiness of her work also received pushback from feminists in the underground comics community of the 1970s. In a 1975 interview with The Berkeley Barb, Trina Robbins, founder of Wimmin’s Comix, called Kominsky-Crumb’s work “obviously crude.” According to Kominksy-Crumb, Robbins asked her, “Who wants to read about whether you’re worrying about being fat and ugly?”

Kominksy-Crumb felt that Robbins and others in the community wanted her to turn out glamorous, heroic images of female life. This conflict reappears in fictionalized form in Love That Bunch, where she recounts with pointed irony the criticisms her work received from the feminist comics artists she met in San Francisco: “Why are you so down on yourself? You should have a more positive self-image,” one tells the Bunch. “An’ you shouldn’t show yur legs…They’re yuge!!”

“I don’t romanticize life,” Kominsky-Crumb told Critical Inquiry. “And I don’t think that romanticizing women makes other women feel better. It makes most people feel worse.” At least in the comics version of her story, Kominsky-Crumb seems determined to live beyond any set of rules or dogma — including the set of rules governing what makes a good feminist, which can sometimes seem as impossible to adhere to as traditional conceptions of femininity.

Perhaps most powerfully, she rejects the idea that for women, being beautiful and good is a prerequisite to finding — and perhaps even to deserving — love. Kominsky-Crumb not only dares to make herself ugly, she demands love anyway, and she gets it — from her husband and child, and maybe from the sympathetic reader. In one memorable panel, she pictures herself singing, “I’m the Bu-unch + I’ll never be any good/I’m the Bu-unch + I never ever do what I should/Just because I never do what anybody else does/That’s no reason why you can’t give me all your love!!!” She claps her hands, pointy, witchy nails prominent.

Love That Bunch
By Aline Kominsky-Crumb
Drawn & Quarterly
208 pp.

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Normel Person THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Empathy Suit