Posts Tagged ‘Jules Feiffer’



Tuesday, June 29, 2010

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Stern Writing Workshop Handouts

Stewart Stern, Rebel Without a Cause and The Ugly American screenwriter, now 88, uses “splat” (inspired by this Feiffer strip) regularly to describe any obstacle in life. Stern: “Our lives are made of Splats, and our personalities are shaped by the way we go through Splat.” 

A documentary on his life is even titled Going Through Splat.  

Stern does a writing workshop where he gives you a starting line and you continue it, writing whatever pops into your head. Starting lines include: “The secret about me/myself that might come out if I confront Splat are…” or (my favorite) “Now, as I plunge into the vortex of Splat, the burning core of all of my hopes and dreams, I see, hear, taste and feel…”

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Kwik Kwotes #2


Thursday, June 17, 2010

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I thought [the visuals] were stylistically subordinate; words and pictures are what a comic strip is all about, so you can’t say what’s more important or less. They work together. I wanted the focus on the language, and on where I was taking the reader in six or eight panels through this deceptive, inverse logic that I was using. The drawing had to be minimalist. If I used angle shots and complicated artwork, it would deflect the reader. I didn’t want the drawings to be noticed at all. I worked hard making sure that they wouldn’t be noticed.

—Jules Feiffer, in the introduction to Explainers. [Italics mine.]

Huh. It’s almost like Feiffer deliberately intended his art to be … what’s the phrase I’m looking for? “Not much to look at?” Yes, that’s it! God forbid anybody should agree with him.

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Wilson’s Comedy of Horror


Monday, January 25, 2010

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Review of Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons (Fantagraphics Books)

Gahan Wilson was born dead but he quickly got better. That sounds like the morbid joke, exactly the sort of queasy punchline that graces many a Wilson cartoon, but it happens to be completely factual: when Wilson entered our world in 1930 the doctor pronounced the baby a still birth, but after being soaked in ice-water the infant proved to be loudly and healthily alive. What better beginning could there be for a cartoonist who would do hundreds of comics about vampires, zombies, flesh-eating plants and many other monsters who carry death within themselves?

Both his parents had artistic aspirations but settled for a more conventional existence: Miriam Wilson as a housewife, her husband Allen as a steel-industry executive. Perhaps due to their thwarted artistic career, augmented by the stress of being a young couple during the Great Depression, both parents were also alcoholics. As Gary Groth notes in a shrewd essay near the end of this exemplary republishing of Wilson’s Playboy cartoons, the lumpy people that populate Gahan’s cartoons, with their ghastly half-melting faces, could easily be a child’s view of sodden, Depression-haunted adults.

As a cartoonist, Gahan Wilson had two fathers: Charles Addams and James Thurber. Wilson’s use of gothic motifs as comedy obviously owes much to Addams (Hugh Hefner admits that he hired Wilson to be Playboy’s Addams). But the lumpiness of Wilson’s characters, the heavy gravitational pull that seems to drag their bodies and faces earthward, is the patrimony of Thurber.

Someday somebody will have to write a history of gothic humour, the re-purposing of ghouls and monsters for laughs. Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is clearly an ancestor but the genre seems to have taken off in the early 20th century, with Addams as the premier example but with many other examples ranging from Abbott and Costello to John Stanley.

Generationally, Wilson belong to a small cohort of cartoonists that includes Jules Feiffer (born 1929), Edward Sorel (1929), and R.O. Blechman (1930). All these men were metropolitan cartoonists, at home in the cosmopolitan and worldly pages of the Shawn’s New Yorker and Hefner’s Playboy. As such they were the heirs to the first generation of New Yorker cartoonists, but their work had a critical edge that the more mainstream New Yorker crowd lacked. Politically, these four cartoonists managed the difficult task of remaining radicals in the most conservative era in modern American history, the 1950s. While they lacked the iconoclastic urge and plebeian griminess of the subsequent underground generation, their work reflected the “Silent Generations” disgruntlement at existing norms.

There has been a renewed interest in “black humour” in comics (thanks I would guess to Ivan Brunetti’s superb work in the genre), as witness the current show in Detroit. Feiffer and Wilson didn’t practise “black humor” but rather its immediate ancestor, “sick humor.” To put it another way, sick humor is the middle generation in the family tree that runs from Addams to Wilson to Brunetti.

One of the many nice features of the new Fantagraphics book is that it is chronological and dated, so we can see Wilson responding to the changing social and political landscapes. It’s very evident in this book that the year 1968, when Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were killed and Nixon took the White House, hit Wilson very hard. The cartoons for the next few years are much grimmer than before, with the formerly gleeful ghastliness now transformed into genuine dread. One 1969 cartoon shows a gun-and-knife totting madman, his eyes bugged-out with joy as he surveys a post-apocalyptic landscape where everyone else has been killed, issuing a victory cry: “I think I won!”

As a physical object Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons cannot be praised highly enough. Designer Jacob Covey pulled out all stops: three handsome hard-cover volumes, complete with a die cut cover in the form of a bottle of poison, printed on plush Playboy paper, all encased in a slipcase embossed on one side with a plexiglass window on the other side that allows you peek into the front cover (an appropriately macabre photo of the cartoonist pressing his fact against a glass). All of this supplemented by smart introductory material by Hefner and Neil Gaiman, a substantial essay by Gary Groth, who also conducts a long interview with Wilson, topped off by a topical index.

At this point, some readers might ask whether Wilson deserves this royal treatment. Normally this sort of over-the-top lavishness is reserved only for an Everest-level master. I myself initially had doubts, since I wasn’t too familiar with Wilson’s work and gag cartooning in not a genre I’m naturally inclined to love. Yet looking at Wilson’s work at length, eating it up with my eyes, I came to love his work. He is, in fact, a master. He clearly belongs to the rank of Feiffer, Blechman and Sorel, not only in terms of chronology but also in his stature as an artist.

The new books also made me reconsider Hugh Hefner, a figure that I have mixed feelings about. Perhaps ungenerously, I’ve been inclined to think of Heffner as the man who ruined Harvey Kurtzman’s life and career. It’s hard to forgive the middlebrow doltishness of the decision to make our greatest cartoonist spend decades working on Little Annie Fanny. But there was another side to Hefner. Free of snobbery, he knew that there were many great artists working for publications that were widely considered to be trashy, whether it was comic books (Jack Cole and Harvey Kurtzman), or pulp magazines (Theodore Sturgeon and Gahan Wilson) or third rung gag magazines (many of the cartoonists who were recruited for Playboy). These were artists and writers of real talent who were despised by the official culture of the 1950s. Hefner gave them a handsome venue for their work and paid them well. As in the realm of sex, he wanted to show that pleasures that were considered dirty and bad were actually good clean fun, and should be enjoyed as such. Hefner was as much revolutionary in the field of popular culture as he was in his more famous sex advocacy. Whatever one might want to say about the Kurtzman-Hefner relationship, the Playboy publisher deserves our eternal thanks for nurturing Wilson’s poisoned plants, giving them a hothouse where they could flourish for five decades.

Wilson’s long term marriage to Playboy might seem odd (Gary Groth for one has questions about it). After all, isn’t Playboy all about sex while Wilson’s work is all about death? A more synoptic view would be that sex and death are two sides of the same coin: that the reality of death makes life’s pleasures, chief among them sex, all the more important. Or to put it another way, for all their morbidity and ghoulishness, Wilson’s cartoons affirm the value of cherishing life. As inhuman as his characters often are, Wilson is a deeply humane cartoonist.

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

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Feiffer on the left, Mayer on the right…

A couple recent items have sparked my comics fancy. First, The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly. This 350-page, full color book is a brilliant anthology by two masters of the form. I haven’t seen much about it in the comics press, so I thought it would be worth mentioning here. The book collects a few dozen stores from the 40s and 50s by well known cartoonists like Barks and Stanley as well as lesser known figures like Milt Stein and Jim Davis, not to mention complete unknowns like Frank Thomas and Andre LeBlanc. The promotional aspects of the book are pitched at children, as it should be (after all, the work is exactly what I wish I had as a kid), but the beauty of the organizing conceit is that many of the best cartoonists in the world were making “children’s” comics, so what the book really is is an anthology of masteful drawing and storytelling — the kind that informed cartoonists as diverse as the Hernandez Bros (Bob Bolling, Al Wiseman), R. Crumb (Barks and Kelly) and Seth (Stanley). And Spiegelman and Mouly don’t stint on the background material — the biographies of the artists are snappy and well-researched and the historical introduction nicely contextualizes the stories that follow.

Even for an obsessive (and fellow anthologist) like me there were stories that were near revelatory, like Walt Kelly’s “Never Give a Diving Board an Even Break” (composed entirely around a see-saw) and the aforementioned Frank Thomas’s “Billy and Bonny Bee”. Part of it is getting to read a single story at a time by someone like Barks, Stanley or Bolling. Making it bite-sized, without the weight of 10 other stories in an anthology or 3 others in a comic book, allowed me to just focus intently on what Barks was doing, as opposed to what, say, Milt Stein was doing. It’s good to see the “giants” amongst the unknowns — it feels like an accurate context.

All the different sensibilities here, most fully developed and deployed, are staggering in their diversity. And the other part of this book is simply the pleasure of looking: The production quality is ideal: the original comic book colors are intact and printed on uncoated stock against an off-white tone. Ahhh, perfection.

Anyhow, as a collection of near-flawless cartooning, this book can’t be beat. Go get it and learn from it.

The other item is less an item and more a stray idea: No one has really mentioned that Robert Williams has been chosen to participate in the 2010 Whitney Biennial (warning: obnoxious web site) It’s not the first time someone “outside” the mainstream art world has been exhibited — Chris Ware and Forcefield both exhibited in 2002 — but it nonetheless marks an important moment: Williams’ penetration into the curatorial world that Juxtapoz so despises. It may or may not have any real ramifications, but it would be nice if it meant there was some real curatorial interest in someone like Williams (and extending beyond him, in collecting and preserving other non-mainstream artists). I loved walking between his show and Mike Kelley’s a month or so ago and I think the work will kinda throw everything else into stark relief. In a good way. Context, baby. It’s all about context.

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Dave Sim Versus Jack Kirby


Thursday, November 12, 2009

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Anyone interested in Dave Sim should try and get a hold of copies of Comic Art News and Reviews, a fanzine he frequently wrote for in the early 1970s.

As a teenage fan, Sim interviewed and analyzed many major creators who shaped his art, including Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, and Jules Feiffer. In retrospect, the Feiffer essays Sim wrote are particularly piquant because the young fan praised the alternative cartoonist for his insights into gender relations. Who knew back then that Sim would grow up to be a character out of Carnal Knowledge?

Equally ironic is an outburst against Jack Kirby that Sim penned in the very first issue of Comic Art News and Review. Sim was upset that Kirby had been given too much artistic freedom by his editors at DC:

I maintain, as I have for some time, that Kirby has little or no talent. His writing disgusts me even more than the early work of Gerry Conway. His creations seem to be of less than human quality. […]

Now for some conclusions on this topic. Why do these characters exist? They are Kirby creations and it is a well-known fact that the only way to maintain Jack Kirby as a staff artist is to cater to his wants. One of these wants is total freedom to change, distort or completely destroy anything in the panel art at DC. He changed Superman into something less than he should be, totally demolished anything it took DC thirty years to build Jimmy Olson into….and left both characters when he was through with them. This is somewhat reminiscent of ushering a spoiled child into a room full of antique toys, permitting him to smash them at will and guiding him to yet another room.

Now, the almighty King demands that he be granted a team of artists at his California headquarters that he might continue his Fourth World Farce. Whom would he take? Neal Adams? Jim Aparo? Joe Kubert? Certainly sacrificing these gentlemen to the pseudo science fiction slop of the Fourth World means nothing…if the King is satiated by it.

At least on the issue of creator rights, Sim became wiser as he grew older. The entire magazine Comic Art News and Reviews testifies to the vital fan culture that existed in Southern Ontario in the early 1970s. A run of the journal can be found in Robarts Library at the University of Toronto. If anyone has access to the library, they should definitely check it out: it’s a goldmine waiting to be opened up.

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Variety Pack


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

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1. This old interview with Matt Groening popped up in my RSS reader about a week back, devoid of any context or explanation. I’ve decided to take it as a sign that now is the time for me to declare that — strange as it sounds to say about one of the wealthiest and most-celebrated cartoonists alive — I think Groening’s comics work is highly underrated.

Most episodes still have a few funny moments in them, but The Simpsons lost me as a big fan at least a decade ago. And while I was initially excited by the concept of Futurama, it never hit that sweet spot for me that the first two or three seasons of The Simpsons and many of Groening’s early Life in Hell strips reached on a regular basis. The strips collected in books like Work is Hell, Love is Hell, and School is Hell are not just incredibly funny and insightful, they also display a barely concealed sense of real dread over the human condition. That underlying pain raises the humor above the amusing into something that I find genuinely moving, and even strangely comforting — yeah, sure, life is pointless, but at least I’m not the only one who feels that way. To me, early Groening at his best belongs to the same great tradition as Kafka and Ecclesiastes. (Or at least it’s a small, awkwardly beautiful fish swimming in the same big river.)

2. Incidentally, it occurs to me that with all the endlessly recurring talk about “literary” comics versus “art” comics, if you go by the only definition of literary comics that makes much sense to me (the relative importance and prominence of the words), then Groening and Lynda Barry are two of the most literary cartoonists around. It’s strange that their names never come up in those discussions.

3. Since I’ve written some harsh things about the critic Noah Berlatsky in the past, it seems only right to point out his recent post on Alan Moore, which I think is quite good. I don’t necessarily agree with him in all the particulars, but it’s a really strong, fair, smart piece. For some reason, writing about Moore tends to bring out the best in him.

4. Finally, I don’t think I’ve linked to Charles Hatfield & Craig Fischer’s relatively new comics site yet, but it’s been worth regular stops for a while now. (I probably never would have bought the fascinating Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure comic if I hadn’t read their write-up, so I owe them for that alone.)

Anyway, while I regularly disagree with many of their individual judgments, their writing is unfailingly thoughtful and fair. This week, they took on Frank’s Storeyville. Again, I don’t concur with everything they say about it, but it’s nice to see the book finally getting some real (and overdue) critical attention. (If I didn’t feel constrained by ethics, I’d write more about it myself.) I hope this helps get a good conversation going.

[UPDATE:] 5. & 6.: A Gary Panter interview and Gary Groth on Jules Feiffer.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

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Has this already been on all the blogs? I don’t know, but I thought I’d post it all the same: the animated version of Jules Feiffer‘s Munro, directed by the great Gene Deitch.

I can’t seem to figure out how to post videos on Blogger anymore, so here’s the link: Munro.

(via ScreenGrab)

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Someday I’ll Write the Post


Friday, December 15, 2006

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There is increasing interaction between images and language. One might say that living in society today is almost like living in a vast comic strip.

Jean-Luc Godard, in Two or Three Things I Know About Her . . .

Having seen only a few of his early films, I don’t quite know what to make of Godard, and I can’t always tell if his statements are profound, pretentious, hollow, or all of the above. This quote, however, struck me as kind of insightful, highlighting the way advertising and other public signage has allowed language to invade the landscape, and how those juxtapostions somewhat resemble the mechanics of comics. Or something like that.

If I was feeling up to it, I’d try to explore the idea further, but last night was the office holiday party, and my brain hurts. It probably works best as just an aphorism (and in its original context) anyway.

BONUS GODARD/COMICS CONNECTION: If his Wikipedia profile can be believed, Godard once told Elliott Gould that his two favorite American writers were Jules Feiffer and Charles Schulz.

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Junk Rules


Tuesday, July 11, 2006

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As promised, here I’ll delve into some American and Japanese manga. But first, an aside. Does it seem odd that Tim and I are digging into mostly mainstream titles? It is, a little. For my part, in some ways the obscure stuff seems easy, and I’m more interested at the moment in trying to understand the popular stuff. I really like good genre stories the way I like, say, that new Nelly Furtado song. They do something that nothing else does—it’s very pure entertainment, not to heavy, not too light. Just fun for me. And I’ve had way more fun with this stuff than with my periodic dips into the superhero mainstream. In fact, I’m kind of hooked in the same way I get hooked on shows like “24”. These comics are unvarnished, unpretentious works—they’re very well crafted and, operating on their own scale, very successful. Ultimately that’s the present appeal for me. Underground-or-whatever-we’re-calling-them comics are so often interior affairs (except our beloved Hernandez Bros. and Bagge) all too infrequent (except for Kevin Huizenga’s Or Else series, which thankfully just keeps popping up) and mainstream comics are by and large burdened by untenable ambitions, so Manga is a good middle ground. Also, unhampered by genre constraints, most manga is concerned primarily with telling plot-based stories, which is, believe it or not, rare in this narrative medium.

First up is the first three volumes of the 10-volume Dragon Head by Minetaro Mochizuki. It’s a pitch black apocalyptic story that begins with a massive underground train disaster which is survived by just three teenagers: Teru, Ako and Nobou. The first two books form a scarily meditative narrative of life underground, as psychological phantoms and physical depravation take hold of the kids. The third finds them wandering out into a blurry, decimated Japanese landscape. Despite it’s disaster-movie trappings, Dragon Head is very much about the interaction between the survivors. It’s essentially a plot-driven character study. And while I sometimes cringe at the cartoon acting here, as well as the overdone anime-style storytelling, what occurs within the story is compelling. Mochzuki manages to make convey the shattering conditions without dipping into gratuity or melodrama. The tone is just right, and it’s quite scary.

Monster by Naoki Urasawa is a wonderfully histrionic murder mystery/soap opera. Pitched somewhere between Days of Our Lifes and Alfred Hitchcock, it follows an ambitious young doctor through his up and down career, which includes sinuous ties to a string of murders and the killer himself. It’s all rather complicated, but, as with Dragon Head, addictive. I’ve only read the first volume but certainly want to continue, if only to find out what happens. Is it great comics? Not really, but it’s extremely proficient. Monster does exactly what it needs to, and the spiraling melodrama (sex, death, doctors, etc etc) is fun. It lifts you up and takes you with it. That may be the secret of this kind of storytelling: it’s insistent and immersive, demanding that you both continue reading and actively empathize with the characters.

Well, that’s it for now. I can’t quite tell how insightful I’m able to be about the stuff. It’s very pleasurable, which as Jules Feiffer made clear in his The Great Comic Book Heroes, is the appeal of so much junk. But it’s summer and junk rules. Next time I’ll try out Scott Pilgrim.

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Captain Strangelove


Thursday, June 22, 2006

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All messy, unsatisfying theory aside, sometimes a superhero comic really delivers the goods, even without providing ten pages of burly men wrestling and making wisecracks.

Like, for example, one of my favorite superhero stories ever, “Captain Marvel and the Atomic War!” It was originally published in Captain Marvel Adventures #66 in 1946, and recently reprinted in DC’s Greatest Imaginary Stories, an anthology that’s recommended for those who enjoy wondering how the world might be different if Bruce Wayne’s parents had never been murdered. (Not to give it away, but it turns out Bruce still would have dressed up as Batman and fought crime — so take that, defenders of psychological “realism” in superhero comics!)

Written by Otto Binder and drawn by C. C. Beck, it’s a simple, fable-like story, and also just about the grimmest depiction of atomic war I’ve ever seen in comics (certainly in those meant for children). It’s a lot more realistic about the consequences of such a war than 1983’s lauded television movie The Day After.

Beck and Binder’s Captain Marvel, for those who aren’t familiar with him, is actually a pleasant, wholesome young boy named Billy Batson who, by speaking aloud the magic word “Shazam!”, is transformed into a nearly omnipotent Superman-like hero who looks a lot like the actor Fred MacMurray. As Jules Feiffer memorably put it: “A friendly fullback of a fellow with apple cheeks and dimples, [Captain Marvel] could be imagined being a buddy rather than a hero, an overgrown boy who chased villains as if they were squirrels. A perfect fantasy figure for, say, Charlie Brown.”

The character’s usual white-bread innocuousness makes this particular story all the more effective and shocking. It begins when Billy Batson, working as a newsreader at local radio station WHIZ, is given a flash report that the city of Chicago has just been destroyed by an atomic bomb. Billy quickly says the magic word, and flies off to help. But it’s already too late.

In one burning home, he finds a woman and her child. Captain Marvel swoops in to the rescue, but radiation poisoning has already done them in. Shaken, Captain Marvel laments, “It’ll be the same all over! Not one soul is alive in Chicago! Four million people—wiped out like flies! It’s horrible–horrible—HORRIBLE!”

Not long after, a whole slew of atomic “rocket-bombs” are headed towards the U.S. Captain Marvel stops a few, but others get by, destroying Washington, D.C., Denver, San Francisco, and Detroit. The American military finally gets things together and starts shooting off atomic bombs of its own, at an unnamed “enemy” country. Captain Marvel escorts the rockets, and finds that the enemy country is sending out atomic bombs, willy-nilly, all around the world.

Pretty soon, with mass confuson reigning everywhere, each attacked country blindly sends out more atomic bombs, without knowing for sure who the enemy is, until every nation in the world finds itself under attack. Captain Marvel does what he can to help stop the damage, but it’s beyond even his powers.

It doesn’t take long for the war to end, and Captain Marvel realizes the awful truth: all of humanity has been destroyed, and he is “the only man left alive on earth!”

At a time when government officials were assuring Americans that bomb shelters would allow citizens to ride out a nuclear war in safety, and children were being given “duck-and-cover” drills, this story is remarkably honest about a pretty terrifying situation. And Beck’s simple drawings give the horrific imagery a startling power, somewhat similar to the effect Art Spiegelman achieved with his simple art in Maus. (And no, I’m not saying this story rises to the same level, so don’t get on my case, please.)

This is one way for a superhero story to deal with a political or social issue successfully, by straightforwardly and honestly depicting the effects, not souping it up with a lot of hystrionic theatrics and claiming to be “grown-up.” This story doesn’t even bother trying to justify itself, it simply depicts the problem dramatically. In the end, it may not be high art, but it doesn’t degrade itself and the reader by pandering, either.

So far on this blog, I’ve been writing a lot more about old, mainstream children’s comics than I would’ve expected, especially since that’s not my usual reading material. Not that it really matters much, I guess, but next week, I’ll try to write about something that came out less than thirty years ago.

Goodbye, now!

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