Toth’s Phallic-Sensitive Staging & Other Notes


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Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Excerpt from Toth's Man Of My Heart

Toth’s phallic-sensitive staging. A 1950s romance comic, one that features a stereotypically weepy woman crying over her love life, is normally not where you would expect to see a commentary on erectile dysfunction. Yet take a look at “Man of My Heart,” (New Romance #16, June 1953 and illustrated by Alex Toth, author unknown). The story is about Pris, a young woman torn between two lovers: Jim Foster who is a long time friend her own age and the much older Dan London, a distinguished gent and friend of her deceased father. Like the knights of old, Dan and Jim compete for Pris’s love by trying to best each other in an athletic competition. Take a look at the key climatic tier on the final page where Dan gallantly explains why he’s bowing out of the competition. “”There’s no compensation for real youth … or the complete sharing of the things you two alone can have!” Dan says in the last panel of the tier. Toth has carefully cropped the panel so that we don’t see Dan’s face, only his torso. He’s wearing a bathrobe with the cords dangling down. Off in the bottom right-hand corner of the panel we see the outline of Pris’s face with an eye lash, an eye brow and part of her hair and an earring. But we can’t see her eyes and have no sense of what she is thinking. Dan’s incompletely viewed body is contrasted with Pris’s incompletely viewed face. The discordance between body and face underscores the theme of sexual incompatibility. Is there any doubt that Toth is underscoring the point that as an older man Dan won’t be able to sexually satisfy Pris? Aside from this, the story is overloaded with phallic symbols: a cane, swords, tennis rackets, a long cigarette holder. The story is both post-Freud and pre-Viagra. Derik Badman offers another reading of the story and more excerpts here. The whole story was also reprinted in Alex Toth: Edge of Genius Vol. 2.

The Eisners and the Shop System. Will Eisner helped create the shop system whereby the making of comics was broken down into industrial parts – writing, drawing, inking, coloring, et cetera. So it is appropriate that the award named after Eisner should be predicated on the logic of the shop system. By giving awards to each component part of the creative process (best writer, best artist, etc.) the Eisners assume that the division of labour is an inextricable part of comics. The Eisners honour the creator of the Spirit in more ways than one.

Post underground, pre-alternative. Gary Panter and Mark Beyer were both born in 1950, Charles Burns in 1955, Lynda Barry in 1956, Matt Groening in 1959. Is it possible to see these five as a coherent generation, a cohort with shared artistic concerns that distinguish them (however slightly) from the older underground generation of the late 1960s and the alternative comics generation of the 1980s. The connections are manifold: Barry and Burns went to high school together and later at college met Groening. Aside from Burns’ ultra-polished style, the other four often draw with a scratchy, ratty line. All of them (even Burns in an odd sort of way) have explored the two-dimensionality of comics images, and designed panels and pages with an eye for decorative effect.  All five are interested in making things as well as making comics: dolls, toys, knick-knacks. Monsters and ghouls are a common theme in their work, and they cherish the pop culture debris of the monster craze of the 1960s. Lacking a foothold in either head-shops or comic books shops, they’ve all had to find outlets apart from the regular comics world, often in weekly alternative newspapers. If they are a generation we need a name for them.

What are you working on? I’m sometimes asked what I’m up to. So here is a quick reference for the curious. In the coming year I’ll have long, substantive essays in the following books: 1. “Walt and Skeezix,” in Best American Comics Criticism of the 21st Century (Ben Schwartz editor, Fantagraphics) – this is an expanded version of the introduction to the first Walt and Skeezix volume. 2. “Inventing Cartooning Ancestors: Ware and the Comics Canon” in The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking (Martha B. Kuhlman and David M. Ball, editors, University Press of Mississippi).  3. Introduction to Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, volume 1 (Rick Norwood editor, Fantagraphics). 4. Introduction to Frank King’s Walt and Skeezix, volume 4 (Chris Ware, Jeet Heer, and Chris Oliveros editors, Drawn and Quarterly) 5. Introduction to Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie, volume 5 (Dean Mullaney editor, IDW). 6. Introduction to Roy Crane’s Buz Sawyer, volume 1 (Rick Norwood editor, Fantagraphics). If the gods are favourable, there might be one or two other books in the coming year.

The Graveyard of mediocre anthologies. During the 1980s and 1990s, Fantagraphics published lots of good comics but also more than a few undistinguished, run-of-the-mill anthologies. I have a box full of them: Prime Cuts, Graphic Story Monthly, Centrifugal Bumblepuppy, Honk, Itchy Planet, Street Music, Real Girl, Pictopia. I call this box the graveyard of mediocre anthologies. The problem with these books wasn’t that they were bad, but that they were half-good. They’d have one or two good stories but they would be diluted by filler material: the good stories were “grapes in a barrel of sawdust” to use Ezra Pound’s words. In the era of Raw and Weirdo, both edited with strong (indeed overpowering) agendas, the Fantagraphics anthologies were curiously tepid and aimless. It took Fantagraphics a fair bit of time to figure out that anthology-making requires editorial vision. Snake Eyes, assembled by Glenn Head and Kaz, was the first Fantagraphics collection where all the stories jelled to so that the total package was more than the sum of the parts. Blab is also part of this story but it always only had one foot in the comics world. Since then, there has been a steady improvement with Zero Zero, Dirty Stories, Beasts, and Mome, which are almost all grapes with only a sprinkling of sawdust. And of course I’ve already praised Hotwire, which is a continuation in some ways of Snake Eyes.  Any complete history of Fantagraphics will have to tell the story of how they slowly learned to put together interesting anthologies. 

Paging Humbert Humbert. Back in the Mort Weisinger era, Superman was bedeviled by the LL curse. He kept coming across people with the initials LL: Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor. In the same manner, the world of comics seems full of guys with the initials BB. A rundown: 1. Bob Bolling – Little Archie’s cartoonist. 2. Bart Beaty – European comics expert. 3. Bill Blackbeard – collector and editor extraordinaire. 4. Blake Bell – Ditko biographer. 5. The late Bob Bindig, comics collector and cartoonist. 6.  Brian Boyd, the great Nabokov biographer and explicator, who turns out to have an interest in comics as well. Boyd is especially appropriate because Nabokov loved alliteration (remember Humbert Humbert). Has any noticed how appropriately named two of the great Nabokov scholars are. In addition to Brian Boyd there is Alfred Appel, Jr.

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17 Responses to “Toth’s Phallic-Sensitive Staging & Other Notes”
  1. Matt Seneca says:

    Interesting point about Eisner — but to be fair that guy also had as much to do as anyone else with implanting the idea of the auteur into mainstream adventure comics. The Spirit was more or less a one-man show, despite the participation of quite a few Abe Kanegson-type “helpers”, and either way, its reputation as the work of a single creative genius has inspired a lot of subsequent shop-system workers to make comics that are more their own thing. Jim Steranko and Frank Miller come to mind. Eisner certainly deserves some of the (dis?) credit for mainstream comics’ divided-labor paradigm, but also consideration as one of the first writer/artists to really set an example of breaking out of that system to do work that was unmistakably his own.

    Loved the Toth…

  2. Layne says:

    Brian Bolland! Bob Burden! Bret Blevins!

  3. Jeet Heer says:

    @ Matt. Fair enough about Eisener as auteur, although I think the Spirit stories were much more collaborative than is commonly recognized. Eisner had a fairly large crew at the time. But his later, serious books are definately in the auteur mode.

  4. Paul Karasik says:

    Uh, Jeet? I know that you sort of imply this but let’s spell it out. What makes Toth’s framing of that single panel so poignant is not the discordance between the body fragments but the blatant symbol of erectile dysfunction that the woman is staring at dead-center of the panel: the limp, dangling bathrobe cords at crotch level.

    • Zack Soto says:

      Not to mention the shape of the flaccid cock n’ balls in panel one!
      Great post.
      And I’d say the one Fanta anthology that sort of worked from that early time- mainly because of the focus it had- was CRITTERS! It also had plenty of mediocre work and the focus was often less than literary, but I have a soft for that series.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    @Paul Karasik. You know, Paul, I was really trying to keep this blog family friendly but now you’ve spelled out everything I was hoping to merely imply! Thanks a lot, smut-monger!

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    @Zack Soto. CRITTERS was good! I think part of its strength was Kim Thompson’s passion for and knowledge of the funny animal genre. The BEST OF CRITTERS would be strong book.

  7. T. Hodler says:

    Re the Panter through Groening generation idea: Joshua Glenn would call Burns, Barry, and Groening OGXers (in fact, he listed all three in his entry), while Panter and Beyer are Boomers (also listed by name). This is obviously a different, more general kind of classification system than you are proposing, but it kind of makes a weird sense.

    Other comics-related OGXers according to Glenn: Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Drew Friedman, the Hernandez Bros., Glenn Danzig, Joe Sacco, Frank Miller, Kaz, Keith Haring, Mark Newgarden, Mike Judge, Neil Gaiman, Peter Bagge, and Seth.

    There are too many comics-related Boomers to list: George Lucas, Kim Deitch, Bill Griffith, Justin Green, Jim Davis, Milo Manara, David Lynch, Lynn Johnston, Stephen King, Art Spiegelman, Garry Trudeau, Terry Zwigoff, etc.

    (I know this isn’t really that relevant to what you’re talking about, but it’s still kind of fun…)

  8. Glenn Danzig! haha. To see his name sandwiched between Los Bros and Joe Sacco is hilarious! (for those that don’t know Danzig was the singer for the Misfits and Samhain and a big comic book fan)

  9. Jeet Heer says:

    @T. Hodler (first post). I take the point that the generational line can be drawn differently. And it is the case that Panter and Beyer have some overlap with the original undergrounds as well as with the early alternatives. To put it another way, either Panter and Beyer were late-born Boomers or early OGXers. They are at the very end of one generation and at the very beginning of another, which might explain their liminal art.

  10. Jeet Heer says:

    @Michael DeForge. Good to see you here. “Lose” was one of the very best comics I’ve read in the last year or so.

  11. Matt Seneca says:

    I didn’t mean to deny the collaborative nature of Eisner’s Spirit stuff — what I meant to say was that I think the IDEA of it as one man’s vision, both in drawing and writing, was very appealing to a lot of people who broke out of the mainstream shops to do work that was all their own. Especially in the wake of his graphic novels, I think Eisner was (and still is) SEEN by a lot of people as the auteur of the Spirit — regardless of how much basis in fact that view has — and inspired a lot of mainstream artists-turned-auteurs as such.

  12. Brian Nicholson says:

    The music blogger, Nitsuh Abebe, talked about Lynda Barry’s work as part of an aesthetic continuity that included Nirvana’s music videos, based on a certain kind of upbringing. Matt Groening comes up.

    http://agrammar.tumblr.com/post/269363241/lynda-barry-cruddy-and-the-weird-1970s-childhood

    http://agrammar.tumblr.com/post/242823686/weird-1970s-childhood

  13. Jeet Heer says:

    @matt Seneca. Point taken, Matt. I agree that the idea of Eisner as an auteur (and his genuine status as an auteur in his later books) had a huge impact. But oddly enough the more I look into the Spirit the more collaborative it seems. Most of my favorite stories were written by Jules Feiffer, who himself thought the best stories were by Eisner. So chalk one up for Eisner.