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Graphic Novels & Art-Comics—April 2012

Sheer circumstance has led French-Canadian cartoonist Guy Delisle to spend extended periods of time in China, North Korea, Burma, and Jerusalem (the first two to supervise animation studios, the latter two to accompany his girlfriend on Doctors Without Borders missions) but say this for Delisle: He’s certainly made the most of those trips. Jerusalem: Chronicles From The Holy City (D&Q) is the fourth comics travelogue that Delisle has written and drawn after returning home, and though the tensions and divisions of the Middle East’s most contentious hot-spot have been well-covered by such cartoonists as Joe Sacco, Rutu Modan, and Sarah Glidden, Delisle brings his own wry point-of-view to bear here, commenting on both the huge injustices and the tiny inconveniences of life in a divided Israel.

Using his typical diary style—rendered with small, cartoony figures set against fairly realistic landscapes—Delisle describes the compromises that even progressive Jews have to make in a city where some people are being isolated into ever-smaller, walled-off neighborhoods. Delisle covers the checkpoints, the bombings, and the differences between the Jewish parts of the city and the Palestinian parts that Jews are afraid to visit. But Delisle also plays tourist, visiting the historical sites that are sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike; and he plays parent, grumbling about how hard it is to find convenient, useful schools for his two kids, or even to find a good playground.

As always, Delisle shows an equal knack for pantomime comedy and for more involved personal observations, and while his artwork seems simple on the surface, Delisle and his colorist Lucie Firoud use their reduced palette brilliantly, creating a sense of drabness that doesn’t overwhelm Delisle’s characters but that does make the few shocks of bright color stand out. It all fits into the way Delisle depicts Jerusalem: as a city constantly on edge, where it’s common to see armed citizens walking the street, or to get yelled at by orthodox religious types in some neighborhoods. Yet longtime residents—and even visitors like Delisle—find a way to cope with the strife, and to get on with the business of raising families and making a living. Some may find Jerusalem’s emphasis on the hassles of traffic and shopping and the like to be trivial giving where these anecdotes are taking place, but whenever Delisle finds a peaceful spot to have a coffee or to stare at the ocean, the sense of freedom he feels makes the persistent inhumanity elsewhere in the city seem all the more shameful.

As formidable as Guy Delisle’s skills as at humorous comics pantomime may be—and they are impressive, make no mistake—he can only approach the greatness of the pantomime master, Otto Soglow. Originally a political cartoonist who favored rough crayon lines and working-class anger, Soglow cleaned up his art and softened his humor during a stint at The New Yorker that began in the late ’20s. Then in 1931, Soglow created The Little King: a short, rotund, bearded ruler who silently pines for the fun that his subjects seem to be having, and who sometimes takes revenge on citizens when they razz him. Soglow eventually turned The Little King into a newspaper strip, which ran until 1975 and spawned merchandise, commercial endorsements, and even a series of animated cartoons (the latter of which tended to emphasize the cruder slapstick elements of The Little King over Soglow’s dryer wit).

Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow & The Little King (IDW/The Library Of American Comics) selects some of the best strips from Soglow’s run, along with samples of Soglow’s magazine cartoons, book illustrations, and The Ambassador, the strip that Soglow drew for King Features Syndicate while waiting for The New Yorker to give him back control of The Little King. The “greatest hits” approach runs counter to what most publishers are doing these days with classic newspaper strips, but at more than 400 pages, IDW’s collection is more than generous, and well-packaged as always. Besides, Soglow wasn’t spinning a long-form narrative with The Little King; he was working endless clever variations on the same basic joke, showing his king meeting with dignitaries and mingling with commoners while taking simple pleasure in the customs and pastimes of both. There’s almost no dialogue, but with just a few lines indicating motion or surprise, Soglow could guide readers around the page and draw them into this cockeyed realm, at once grand and banal. And whenever The Little King gets excited and takes off running? Never not funny.

Next to Pogo, the newspaper comics collection that fans have been most anticipating would be Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy, which over the past few decades has garnered a reputation as the purest distillation of the gag cartoon, a triumph of minimalism to rival Otto Soglow (only purer, since Bushmiller was aiming straight for the heartland, not the New Yorker sophisticates). Nancy Is Happy: Dailies 1943-1945 (Fantagraphics) joins Bushmiller’s magnum opus in full swing, skipping past the years when it was called Fritzi Ritz—and when it focused on a promiscuous single gal, years before her niece came to live with her—and past the formative years of the Nancy-focused strip. By 1943, Bushmiller had his shtick down: The bristle-headed Nancy and her impoverished pal Sluggo inadvertently irritate the grown-ups in their lives, which Bushmiller illustrates with absurd visual jokes, making good use of props and signs.

There are some differences between the ’40s Nancys and what would come later: There are some jokes in Nancy Is Happy rooted in the rationing of WWII, and some longer stories as well (including a cycle where Nancy and Fritzi visit a crowded Florida, and one where Nancy takes care of a pig). These Nancys also feature frequent appearances by Nancy’s grumpy neighbor Mr. Sputter, and one unfortunate appearance by Nancy’s stereotyped Chinese friend Floy Floy. But for the most part, a reader of Nancy in 1973, ’63, or ’53 would recognize the simple design and punchy sight-gags of the 1943 Nancy. That was Bushmiller’s genius, to make everything in his strip so basic that anyone, anywhere, at any time, could get the joke.


After EC Comics debuted Mad in 1952, other publishers rushed to cash in on the sudden mania for satire and slapstick, introducing new humor titles that mostly flamed out after just a couple of issues. For every Cracked and Crazy, ’50s publishers also turned out the likes of Whack, Eh, Riot, Get Lost, and From Here To Insanity. The John Benson-edited anthology The Sincerest Form Of Parody: The Best 1950s Mad Inspired Satirical Comics (Fantagraphics) assembles largely forgotten work by the likes of Jack Davis, Will Elder, Ross Andru, and Jack Kirby, parodying everything from Mickey Spillane novels to Rex Morgan, M.D. Some of these pieces can stand up to the best of Mad (or at least match the magazine’s average), but even the stories that are clunky and unfunny are fascinating for the way they rip off Mad shamelessly, including all the asides and mini-gags that Will Elder once labeled Mad’s “chicken fat.” It’s a testament to how quickly the innovative and subversive can become mainstream. …

One of the signature achievements of ’80s alt-comics, Drew and Josh Alan Freidman’s Any Similarity To Persons Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental: An Anthology Of Comic Art, 1979-1985 (Fantagraphics) is now back in print in a spiffy new edition that doesn’t really add anything to the original, but is still a necessary addition to any library that doesn’t already have a copy. Originally published in the few underground-friendly anthologies around at the time—mainly RAW, Heavy Metal, National Lampoon, and High Times—the stories in Any Similarity take the weird and/or forgotten characters of old showbiz and imagine their at once quotidian and seedy everyday lives. Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy cleans his ears, shakes down some petty criminals, and plays jazz bass; Andy and Barney of Mayberry lead a lynching party for a black visitor; Ed Wood regular Tor Johnson walks forlornly around Hollywood; and so on. Drew Friedman’s stipple-heavy photo-realism and his brother Josh’s gleefully cruel humor combine to craft an alternate history of American entertainment that’s preposterous and yet feels true. Even now, decades after other cartoonists and comedians have tapped this well, the Friedmans’ pioneering work in the field of “brattily dicking around with icons” remains unparalleled. …

Folly (Fantagraphics) collects comics from Hans Rickheit’s series Chrome Fetus, and while the pieces in Folly don’t have the strong, dark pull of Rickheit’s profoundly disturbing graphic novel The Squirrel Machine, the book does serve as a good introduction to Rickheit’s beautifully ugly visions, of a world where cute girls and humanoid stuffed animals commit atrocities against oozing flesh. With a drawing style that resembles Jason Lutes and Charles Burns, and a storytelling style similar to Jim Woodring and Al Columbia, Rickheit excels in making nightmares lucid. Some characters recur from story to story in Folly, but really this book is just page after page of beautiful images juxtaposed with wounds and excreta. The single-mindedness of Rickheit’s approach—and the level of detail he applies to it—is impressively horrifying. …

In 2005, writer Sharon Lintz published the 32-page comic Pornhounds in collaboration with multiple cartoonists, relating funny and strange anecdotes about the people she met while working for an X-rated weekly newspaper. Soon after finishing Pornhounds, Lintz began work on a sequel, but the process was slow, and while she was in the middle of the book, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. So the 64-page Pornhounds 2 (available at pornhounds.net) starts out as another offbeat working-class lament, and then evolves into a book about surgery and chemotherapy, and how Lintz left porn behind to begin new life as a teacher. The quality of the art in Pornhounds 2 varies—though none of it is bad—and the different stories don’t add up to one cohesive narrative. Still, Lintz’s perspective on sex and disease is distinctive: less about titillation or melancholy than about Cronenberg-ian body-horror. Lintz has led an eventful life so far, and has a take on it that’s funny and wondrous. …

Designed to get kids excited about geology, Jon Chad’s Leo Geo And His Miraculous Journey Through The Center Of The Earth (Roaring Brook) is also a wonderful piece of cartooning and design. As the generic-looking Leo Geo descends underground, Chad asks the reader to turn the book on its side and descend with him—until Leo Geo reaches the Earth’s core, at which point the reader is asked to flip the book and start reading from bottom to top. (At times reading Leo Geo feels like scrolling up and down on a computer screen.) Along the way, the hero encounters monsters, aliens, and ancient temples, all while he explains facts about minerals and plate tectonics. Leo Geo is both informative and creative, and a fine example of how comics can make seemingly dry material into playful, ingenious art.