So Michel Choquette’s The Someday Funnies now joins Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America Part 2, Brian Wilson’s Smile, Harvey Kurtzman’s From Arrgh to Zap, and a complete version of Metropolis on the list of Things That Have Come Out Before The Last Dangerous Visions. There is more to this reference than an uncalled-for attempt to needle a person not present, as there are several interesting parallels between the first and last named ill-fated projects. To be sure, before Bob Levin started the Hell freezing over process Someday Funnies didn’t have nearly the same notoriety in its sphere, not least because its editor didn’t have the habit of periodically announcing its imminent release. Rather, Choquette treated it like Lyndon Johnson’s proverbial one-eyed aunt, who you don’t keep in the front parlor. I expect I was more aware of it than most, and my reaction was, “Oh, yeah, I heard of that once.” Like The Last Dangerous Visions, The Someday Funnies started with workable proportions. Just as Harlan Ellison got bitten by the bug of enlisting every significant voice in its genre that hadn’t been heard in the first two Dangerous Visions anthologies, Choquette was seized by the ambition to bring the entire world of comics (aside from that which appeared in American newspapers) to bear on his subject. As each editor’s eyes grew bigger than his stomach, the respective anthologies came to burst the bounds of feasibility. For Ellison, from what I gather, the main problem was in having committed himself to a constantly inflating body of uncompensated editorial work, as his format required that he not only write a personal introduction to each story, but obtain and assemble afterwords from each author. Choquette was like a comic book hero whose super power was opening doors, as the roster of talent enlisted attests. This quality carried with it a temptation to overreach, and he became instead like the hero of the movie The Longest Yard, who had his shit together but couldn’t lift it. As the prospects of keeping his promises grew dimmer he came to look at his contributors the way a bankrupt man looks at process servers. (A difference worth noting is that whereas Ellison had paid his contributors, Choquette couldn’t.)
Now Choquette finds himself a Quixote standing over a dead windmill. What he has discovered and what Ellison may have the opportunity to discover (he still has a chance of beating The Other Side of the Wind if he gets cracking) is that when you let these things lie long enough your project passes through a phase where it can be nothing but a disappointment into another where it loses the power to disappoint. The contributors Choquette was once afraid to look in the eye were so wonderstruck to see it finally come out that all anger had dissipated. The major problem arises from the subject matter. In Normandy Revisited A.J. Liebling, who as a war correspondent covered the D-Day invasion, tells a story about revisiting the beach at Normandy (for his book is indeed accurately named). He spies a family group examining an abandoned landing ship and begins ambling over with a mind towards favoring them with his reminiscences of the great day. As soon as they spy him they start ambling away, and being downwind he overhears the paterfamilias say, “It was a near thing. If I hadn’t spotted him we would have been for it. He would have said hello and then told us for the next half hour how he and his pals came ashore on this very spot.” This is essentially the attitude of most modern day people about the prospect of listening to members of the Love Generation reminiscing about The Sixties. It is a subject that activates an automatic eye-rolling reflex. They have heard all about it they care to for a long, long while.
Those who have retained their appetite for the subject will find a post mortem done while the body was still warm. Created too late to still feel the passions and too early to be nostalgic, the general tone is of rue, chagrin and regret. This sort of thing doesn’t have to be good to be interesting. Under the circumstances, this was just as well. At one to two pages apiece, the contributors who have something original to say get no more space than the ones that don’t, and encompassing such a wide range and variety of talent and styles, there was no possibility of coherence. The desire to conjure coherence led Choquette to his one huge and irredeemable mistake: Having each contributor leave a blank panel somewhere in each strip, which was to be filled by an ongoing strip that would create a narrative thread through the book. If you are going to have a bright idea like this you ought to have some idea what the narrative thread was going to be beyond trusting in fate. The solution concocted these many years later, having the blanks filled with cartoon anecdotes of Choquette’s adventures gathering the material, serves only to compound the problem by inserting the editor into every page. I came to think of this character as Douchey Tie-Dyed Guy, and he is a distraction throughout. The other major difficulty is that he didn’t have the resources to have the foreign language comics appropriately re-lettered in English. The solution employed was an appendix of translations next to thumbnail versions of the pages. What this ultimately meant for me was that I wound up reading all the foreign material from the thumbnails, occasionally peeking back when things became unclear.
Nevertheless, for my part the sheer mass and wonder of the thing carried it along. Even though the talent is not always at its best it is seldom objectively bad, and there’s so much of it that the cumulative effect serves to impress. My mind organized the contributors in categories, some of which overlapped, particularly when the writers and cartoonists were mixed.
Celebrities: Federico Fellini, Tom Wolfe, Frank Zappa, Pierre Berton (in a Canadian sort of way), Tuli Kupferberg, William S. Burroughs, the aforementioned Ellison — these are the kind of names that when you heard them connected with the project had you thinking, “that must be incredible,” and for the most part turn out to be the biggest disappointments. The biggest name, Fellini, turns out what might be the very worst, but if I was going to pick the best thing in the book it would be Wolfe’s “The Man Who Peaked Too Soon”, which makes the point that you could have looked a complete fool by being a couple of years ahead of the times. Burroughs turns in a characteristically acid anecdote — acid in the sense of corrosive.
Newspaper Comic Cartoonists: As far as I can tell, completely unrepresented. Other than that the ones that would have been most wanted, Walt Kelly and Al Capp, were already dead, I don’t know what accounts for this gap.
U.S. Comic Book Old School: Surprisingly vital. This was not the first time Will Eisner had been asked to resurrect the Spirit, but it was before the full blown Eisner revival got underway. Nevertheless he was prepared to come through with an original explanation for some of the notable crimes of the decade. Jack Kirby is the real shocker, though, waxing both lyrical and comical. The point you might have made against Kirby was that he seemed to lack a sense of humor, but apparently he was holding out. Harvey Kurtzman laughs the premise off; Wally Wood applies his own sense of perversity to a rote recounting of the sexual revolution; and C.C. Beck (with Denny O’Neil) is given the final word (spoiler: “Shazam”), I suspect because theirs is the only contribution that ends on a hopeful note. Not, however, one that could have been terribly convincing at the time, or that panned out in the end.
U.S. Comic Book Then-Contemporary: What’s particularly striking about Someday, and what probably wouldn’t be repeated today, is the role mainstream creators play in it. Potentially you could get something very interesting from the Garth Ennis/Grant Morrison/Warren Ellis generation of big company talents working off the reservation, but I doubt it would have the same attraction. The major difference is the absence of the Comics Code. The 1960s/1970s people clearly envy the freedom the underground cartoonists have, and jump at the chance to exercise it. Their modern counterparts would be much likelier to feel they’ve been able to express everything they wish to express in their normal line of work, and to suggest to them that they could be working on a broader horizon would no doubt have them smelling condescension. I think there’s a harder schism between the commercial and art comics world these days, fed no little by the URL UR at right now. The contributions from the mainstream world are some of the most militant and radical in the book (other than from the foreigners, for whom Marx is definitely not Groucho), and they are better prepared to do work to order than the undergrounders.
Foreigners: If Choquette missed out on Zap, Pilote is pretty well represented, and curiously fixated on cowboys. Asterix and Obelix feel like visiting celebrities. Barbarella seems lost. If there’s one thing that Someday Funnies does to broaden our understanding of the era it’s to remind you that the 1960s were not something that happened just in America, England and Vietnam. You get to feeling like Ronald Reagan learning that Central America was all different countries. The English not named Ralph Steadman make a rather weak showing, and the Dutch, who were savvy enough to do their work in English, a particularly strong one.
The Underground: The Zap cohort are conspicuously absent, and not having Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton is like not having the Beatles and the Stones. What the hell, let’s go through the rest: Spain was the Who (though Pete Townshend himself is present, in a sense). Robert Williams was Frank Zappa (though Zappa himself is present). S. Clay Wilson was Captain Beefheart. Rick Griffin was Pink Floyd. Victor Moscoso was also Pink Floyd. There was no Bob Dylan of underground comics. These people were suspicious-cum-paranoid about anyone connected with mainstream publishing, which would include Rolling Stone and National Lampoon in their mind, and that they were going to be asked to do work to order was probably the nail in the coffin. One imagines the discussion with Crumb: “So, what’s the subject?” “The Sixties.” “What do you think I’ve been doing for the last five years?” This points out a problem that also extends to an overlapping cohort, the Lampoon Guys, who included a number of Air Pirates. For the mainstream comics people Someday Funnies was the chance of a lifetime. For the underground comics and Lampoon people it’s another day at the office. The Sixties were essentially what underground comics were about, and the collapse and betrayal of counterculture ideals was a running theme of National Lampoon. Which is not to say that a day at the office can’t be a good day. After a mind-numbing recitation of cliché in the text introduction by Robert Greenfield (exactly the sort of person who would be selected to write the Sixties miniseries for network television), Bill Griffith’s Zippy, then at the peak of freshness, turns cliché on its ear. Shary Flenniken gets under the surface of things as few contributors do. The Mad Peck, who really shouldn’t be forgotten to the extent he is, tackles the times though the lens of television like someone who lived inside a television set. While it is natural that the answer to the question “Where was Kim Deitch’s Waldo when Kennedy was shot?” would be “Tormenting and enabling some rummy,” you sort of wish it was “In the Book Depository with Oswald” or “On the grassy knoll.” Too soon then, perhaps. The late blooming Art Spiegelman had not at that point yet bloomed. Arnold Roth transcends time period. Chris Miller (with Gray Morrow) presents a wish-fulfillment Sixties that should have happened that could induce salivation.
Fancy Meeting You Here: Choquette has the good fortune here and there to come up with something truly surprising, such as a bit of Don Martin sickness that would definitely not have gotten into Mad, Sergio Aragones waxes unexpectedly serious on the Mexico City Olympics, and a flashback sequence in the Doug Kenney strip gets done in Archie style by genuine Archie guy Stan Goldberg.
Of the Great Lost Projects that have finally come to light I think the one Someday Funnies most resembles is Smile. Both are wonderful in part but ultimately are incapable of fulfilling the large promises they made. Based on the Smile session tapes I have heard and the version that was finally released, the conclusion I draw was that the album was in fact close to completion, and the reason Wilson couldn’t complete it was that it wasn’t going to match his ambition. There was simply no string he could pull that that would bring about the celestial musical experience he thought was in his reach, and I suspect this was a major reason for his breakdown. (I have a pet theory that Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On is a Smile that got released – three fully realized tracks and a lot of big ideas that never come to fruition.) On the other hand, like Smile, there are selections in Someday Funnies that do live up to the project’s ambitions. I’m thinking particularly of Griffith, Wolfe, Eisner, Don Martin, Kirby, Steve Skeates with Alan Weiss, Uderzo and Goscinny, and Flenniken. Most of the contributions are at least entertaining, and relatively few truly self-indulgent or dire. Going back to the example of the Dangerous Visions anthologies, what Choquette could have used as an editor is Harlan Ellison’s knack for getting his contributors to sign on to his agenda. For every contributor who comes up with something original to say there’s another who descends into mere journalism. One must at least give Someday Funnies credit for conveying the message the Sixties have for posterity: If you ever get another chance like this, don’t blow it.