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Graphic Novels & Art-Comics - December 2011

In 1970, Jann Wenner contacted National Lampoon contributing editor Michel Choquette about assembling a supplemental comics section for a special issue of Rolling Stone. Choquette was asked to use his connections in the comics, music, and literary worlds to put together 16 to 24 full-page strips about the state of the ’60s mindset at the dawn of the next decade. Only the more potential contributors that Choquette contacted, the more he found who were interested in participating, until he and Wenner began talking about ditching the magazine supplement and putting out a full-sized book, unlike any comic book that had existed before. But then Wenner bailed on the project, and though Choquette spent much of the next decade looking for another publisher and soliciting more strips, he eventually had to give up too. The book existed only as rumor—and as a stack of boxes in Choquette’s storage space in Montreal—until Bob Levin wrote a lengthy article about it in a 2009 issue of The Comics Journal and revived the dream.

Now there’s a happy ending to Levin’s story, because The Someday Funnies (Abrams ComicArts) finally exists: more than 150 tabloid-sized pages, written and drawn by the likes of Will Eisner, Tom Wolfe, Frank Zappa, Sergio Aragonés, Vaughn Bodé, Harvey Kurtzman, Federico Fellini, Jack Kirby, Gahan Wilson, William S. Burroughs, and more. Following the parameters of Wenner’s original assignment, Choquette’s contributors grappled with the meaning of the ’60s via strips about sexual liberation, drugs, violence in the streets, the new freedoms in culture and art, and the widening generation gap. Because Choquette recruited globally, The Someday Funnies avoids the usual American baby-boomer mythology, in which the ’60s were born in Greenwich Village, nurtured at Berkeley, and killed at Altamont. Instead, the book reports just as much on the youth revolution in Europe, from the perspective of people who’d just lived through it. And because the strips have been mostly unseen up to now, they don’t suffer from over-familiarity, as so much ’60s and ’70s pop art does.

The supplemental material in The Someday Funnies ponders what might’ve happened had the book come out in the early ’70s, as originally planned. Would it have changed the perception of comics at the time as frivolous juvenilia? Probably not—at least not any more than American underground comics and European albums already were. Besides, Choquette didn’t exert strong editorial standards. He was mainly gathering whatever he could get, from people he couldn’t afford to pay, which means that the quality of the work in The Someday Funnies varies wildly, with stunningly inventive pieces sitting side-by-side with crudely drawn, very-of-its-time political commentary. But the occasional datedness of the book is part of its charm. Choquette was putting this beast together at the same time that Art Spiegelman (one of the book’s contributors) was working on his seminal art-comics anthologies Arcade and Raw. But Choquette was more egalitarian in his approach, reaching out beyond the insular underground comics circles, and filling in a bigger picture of where the world’s collective head was at as the temper of the times changed.

Speaking of projects that have taken a long time to come to fruition, Fantagraphics has been promising to give Walt Kelly’s classic funny-animal strip Pogo the complete-series treatment practically from the moment the publisher’s successful launch of The Complete Peanuts helped kick off the newspaper comics archiving boom. Pogo: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips: Volume 1—Through The Wild Blue Wonder (Fantagraphics) proves to be worth the wait. In addition to collecting the first year and a half of Pogo’s syndicated daily run, the book contains its first year of Sunday comics, the few 1948 months in which Pogo ran exclusively in The New York Star, and contextual material about Kelly’s career and the cultural references in these strips. Overall, the package serves Pogo well.

The early Pogos aren’t as topical as what Kelly would do later—when he’d become a hero to the counterculture for taking on McCarthyism and promoting ecology—though there is 1950 storyline about the race to build an “Adam bomb,” and a fairly pointed satire of the legal system later that same year. Mostly, these strips establish the world of the Okefenokee Swamp and the animals who dwell there, some of whom were first introduced in comic books in the early ’40s. Kelly’s characters had the rounded cuteness of Disney animation (Kelly’s former employer), the flavorful language of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, and the distinctive personalities of A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh books, with Pogo the possum standing as the calm center of a cast that includes the dim Albert Alligator, the not-as-bright-as-he-thinks Howland Owl, and the misanthropic, hilariously humorless Porky Pine. Kelly’s characters were (mostly) sweet at heart, but he imbued them with human traits and wasn’t afraid to let them follow those traits to the brink of idiocy, either for comic effect or to make a larger point.

And Kelly wasn’t afraid to follow his own whims when it came to pacing a comic strip, either. The biggest revelation of reading the first two years of Pogo is how polished and funny the strip was right from the start, and also how nearly every Pogo panel is a delight unto itself. Kelly didn’t necessarily build to big punchlines; he’d slip funny sight gags and memorable lines everywhere there was room. Whether it’s Porky Pine explaining that his life story is “replete with rue” or the hound dog Beauregard telling Albert during a baseball game that “there’s a quiet ground swell of opinion that your pitchin’ could be dispensed with,” there’s a classic Pogo moment on just about every page of this book.

Also from the “about time” department, Donald Duck: Lost In The Andes (Fantagraphics) marks the first of what will be a series of volumes collecting Carl Barks’ Disney duck stories. Barks, like Walt Kelly, got his start in Walt Disney’s animation department, but migrated to comic books when he realized that he could tell stories with little editorial interference. Though Disney’s comics line had millions of faithful readers, the company didn’t hold the medium in as high regard as film, so before anyone really noticed, Barks began sticking Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie into elaborate globe-hopping adventures, usually at the behest of their rich-but-stingy Uncle Scrooge. Even now, Barks’ stories are clever and funny, as he leads the ducks into impossible situations and then gives them unexpected ways out. And they’re poignant in their own way, too. Taking some of the characters from the Disney shorts and adding his own, Barks fleshed out the community of Duckburg, developing a cast of largely dissatisfied waterfowl who bumped up against each other while trying to find some fleeting happiness. 

That may sound like too heavy a take on some brightly colored, zippily paced funny-animal comics, but that’s nothing compared to the many academic treatises that have been written about Barks and his ducks, scrutinizing the series in terms of everything from its hidden influence on Hollywood blockbusters (Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have confessed to being big Barks fans) to its Marxist undertones. What’s impressive about Fantagraphics’ Lost In The Andes is that it encourages both a fannish and an intellectual approach to the material. For those who want to skew highbrow, the book includes an appendix with scholarly analysis of each story. For those with a more archival bent, Lost In The Andes holds to a tight chronology—from December 1948 through August 1949—and divides Barks’ stories into sections, separating the 20-page epic adventures from the 10-page sitcoms and the one-page gag strips. And for those who just want to curl up with more than 200 pages of some of the best-written comics ever published, Lost In The Andes has all the square eggs, rubber bricks, golden Christmas trees, and races around the world that any kid or grown-up could ever want.


Lost In The Andes isn’t the only Carl Barks book on the shelves right now. The Carl Barks Big Book Of “Barney Bear” (Yoe Books!/IDW) collects stories Barks wrote and drew for Dell in the mid-’40s, using a couple of obscure MGM cartoon characters: the clumsy, not-so-bright Barney Bear and the helpful-to-a-fault Benny Burro. These comics aren’t like the heady adventures that Barks would later dream up for his ducks; they’re simpler slapstick, more like animated cartoons on paper. Also, the reproductions of the original pages don’t appear to have been cleaned up at all; they’re a little fuzzy and faded. But they’re still fun to read, and good to have as a record of what Barks was up to just before he became “Carl Barks.” … 

Barks frequently cited newspaper cartoonist Alex Raymond as one of his primary influences, even though Raymond’s sci-fi and fantasy characters were harder-edged than Barks’ loose-limbed critters. The Definitive Flash Gordon And Jungle Jim, Vol. 1 (The Library Of American Comics/IDW) collects the early years of the two strips that—along with Raymond’s shorter-lived run on Secret Agent X-9 and his tragically abbreviated Rip Kirby stint—established his reputation as a master of the form. Jungle Jim (about a hunter on the prowl in Asia) and Flash Gordon (about a playboy who gets dragged into an intergalactic squabble) ran concurrently on the same page, and the oversized IDW book reprints them in that format, which means readers can work their way through Jungle Jim’s pulse-pounding encounters with wild animals and cannibal cults, and then flip back to the front and follow Flash Gordon’s more complicated saga, involving diplomatic relations with warring alien cultures. It’s not just the action and the density of the storytelling that distinguishes Raymond’s work; within a year of launching these strips, Raymond was experimenting with panel sizes and layouts, filling a full tabloid sheet with dynamic brush-strokes and fantastical landscapes, drawn from his own head. In this format, both Raymond’s art and his imagination pop right off the page. … 

Two other giants of American illustration get the handsome coffee-table-book treatment with Jack Davis: Drawing American Pop Culture (Fantagraphics) and The Art Of Joe Kubert (Fantagraphics), though neither book is ideal for anyone looking for either an in-depth biography of the artists or extended samples of their comics. The Kubert book—edited by Bill Schelly—is more text-heavy, covering Kubert’s early years as a journeyman penciler and inker on a slew of indistinct superhero and adventure comics, then exploring how Kubert developed the fine shading and gritty realism he’d become famed for starting in the late ’50s. The Davis book saves most of its biographical detail and critical analysis for the intro and appendix, filling the intervening 200 pages with full-sized examples of the half-cartoony/half-photographic approach that Davis brought to Mad magazine and countless movie posters. Both offer ample visual evidence of how two men found the “art” in commercial art, turning work-for-hire assignments into opportunities to express their particular visions of the world. … 

Milo Manara became one of the leading lights of Eurocomics almost from the moment he started his career in the early ’70s. The Manara Library: Volume One (Dark Horse) contains one of the artist’s best-known stories: “Indian Summer,” written by Hugo Pratt, which is set in an early America equally inspired by James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Italian erotica. Beginning with the rape of a Dutch colonist by two natives, followed immediately by the shooting of said natives by a young man from an exiled, scandalous family, “Indian Summer” proceeds to reveal the tangled history of that scandal, intercut with scenes of a bloody siege and far more masturbation gags and nude bathing interludes than most American literature classes allow. The other story in Volume One of the Manara Library is a lighter “wandering cowboy” adventure with a melancholy ending, but it sports the same phenomenal Manara linework, with every frayed stitch in the characters’ clothing and every blade of brownish-green grass rendered lovingly. If future volumes are this gorgeous, the Manara Library could stand as one of the prettiest archival projects of this decade. … 

Another Eurocomics hero, Tintin creator Georges Prosper Remi (a.k.a. Hergé) becomes the star of his own  highly Tintin-esque album, The Adventures Of Hergé (D&Q), co-written by Jose-Louis Bocquet and Jean-Luc Fromental, and drawn by Stanislas Barthélémy. Skimming through the high points of Remi’s life—including his tumultuous romantic affairs and his attempts to keep creating Tintin stories during the Nazi occupation of Belgium—The Adventures Of Hergé captures the flavor of mid-20th-century Europe as well as its subject’s own work does, and it tries to imbue Remi’s business deals and political squabbles with the same sense of danger as what Hergé’s iconic boy reporter faced. The book is a shade too breezy and sketchy, but it’s lovely to look at, and it does acknowledge the complications of an artist who didn’t always make the right choices, either publicly or privately. … 

It’s clear that writer Glenn Eichler and artist Joe Infurnari did their research before embarking on the graphic novel Mush! Sled Dogs With Issues (First Second). The book is full of information about how dog teams work together, both in cooperation and in competition. Eichler (creator of the MTV animated series Daria and current writer for The Colbert Report) extrapolates from animal psychology, creating characters with their own neuroses. Some of the dogs are jealous, some self-deprecating, some lustful. Then Eichler and Infurnari contrast the relationships of the pooches with that of their masters: a married couple who’ve begun to have some bitter disagreements about their decision to live out in the wild, far from society. Mush! feels like it ends too soon, but that’s mainly because the dogs and the humans alike are so well-defined that they could easily support a book twice as long. … 

Not only classic 20th-century comics are getting the repackaging they deserve these days; some of the modern greats by the likes of Joe Sacco and Dan Clowes have also reissued of late. Derek Kirk Kim’s 2003 debut graphic novel Same Difference (First Second) isn’t in the same class as Palestine or The Death Ray, but it did win a number of awards, and introduced a distinctive new voice, so it’s good to see it in a nice hardcover edition, complete with contextual illustrations and photographs. And Kim’s story holds up well, too, following two friends who go on a road trip and confront the dumb mistakes they made when they were younger. Simple, unforced, and extremely specific about its coastal California milieu, Same Difference doesn’t make a big play for attention by tackling big subjects; it’s more about two self-absorbed people learning to empathize, which makes this a story of small but necessary triumph. … 

Lastly, with all the (justified) fuss over vintage comic strips, it’s worth taking a moment to recall that the artform isn’t exactly dead, even if its modes of delivery are changing. Achewood, one of funniest and most fully realized of the online comics, is reportedly back to publishing regularly after creator Chris Onstad’s extended hiatus, which is welcome news for those who’ve missed the oft-absurd adventures of the cats, robots, and stuffed animals of 62 Achewood Court. And for those looking for an online comic more indebted to Roy Krane than Chris Ware, Rob Kelly and Dan O’Connor have just launched Ace Kilroy, a daily adventure strip that combines two-fisted action with shadings of horror, noir, romance, and whatever else its creators find cool about classic comics. Kudos to people like Kelly and O’Connor for keeping our pop-culture heritage alive.