Today on the site, Frank Young reviews Sunday Press’s new Rube Goldberg collection, Foolish Questions & Other Odd Observations: Early Comics 1909-1919.
American wit has the furrowed brow and cautious stance of a boxer. Its affect may be dry, ironic or absurd, but its goal is to lay us among the posies—to cause that ker-plop moment as we absorb its blunt impact.
This hasn’t changed much in the last century. The assault has become harder, fiercer. TV sitcoms, stand-up and mainstream movies pelt us with brute force as they bruise the boundaries of what’s shocking, startling and amusing. Alas, the American comic strip, which has been on life-support for decades, barely manages a feeble swat anymore.
As shown by this, the latest in Sunday Press Books’ vintage American comics reprints, we’re not far removed from the earthy thump of Rube Goldberg. Goldberg is forever linked to his invention cartoons, which still inspire young creators to design what Wikipedia dryly calls “…deliberately complex contraption[s] in which a series of devices that perform simple tasks are linked together to produce a domino effect.” They’re one facet of a long and ambitious comics career that spanned slapstick and melodrama, social commentary and a big Bronx cheer.
The set-up of Foolish Questions, Goldberg’s first successful comic strip series, is familiar to anyone who’s read Al Jaffee’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions,” a longtime feature of Mad magazine. Formula: well-meaning person asks painfully obvious question; gets smart-ass reply by deadpan recipient.
—News. The Eisner Awards were announced, with some solid winners and plenty of head-scratchers. Most gratifying, possibly, is the induction of both Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez into the Hall of Fame.
Flo Steinberg, Stan Lee’s secretary and a key presence at Marvel during its most culturally vibrant period, died yesterday morning at the age of 78. Her replacement at Marvel, Robin Green, wrote a story about her in a story about Marvel for Rolling Stone in 1971.
Hundreds of letters came in every week from fans, and Flo was the one who opened them. One time there was a letter addressed to Sergeant Fury from a man in Texas, a real rightwinger, who said, “I notice in Sergeant Fury that you’re anti-Nazi. Well, if you’re anti-Nazi, that must mean you’re pro-Commie, and you’re all a bunch of no-good dirty kikey commie pinko people, and I have a gun and I’m going to come to New York and shoot you.” It was addressed to Stan Lee and the Marvel Comic Group.
Flo passed the letter around the office, and everyone got hysterical because this guy was going to come and machine-gun everybody. Flo didn’t know what they were hysterical about because she was the one who went out to meet the people. Flo was loyal, but for a hundred bucks a week you don’t get shot. So they called the FBI and a man came down. He said, “Wilkins, FBI,” and Flo said, “Steinberg, Marvel.”
—Reviews & Commentary. Hillary Brown writes about Andrea Pazienza’s Zanardi.
Zanardi is a book that inspires surprisingly complicated feelings. Usually, when I don’t like a comic, I put it in a pile of things destined to leave my house, and I don’t look back. Zanardi has been sitting in a box for weeks, mostly because I hated it, and yet it’s still here. These comics, focused on the titular character, appeared in Italy between 1981 and 1988, after creator Andrea Pazienza died of a heroin overdose. They are foul and rude and nihilistic, full of drug use, misogyny, casual violence, crime, manipulation and general rotten behavior. Zanardi screws over his friends because it amuses him. The attitudes demonstrated throughout are decidedly retrograde. The stories also don’t hang together particularly well; instead, they have a vaguely pornographic feel, with panels strung on the most basic whiffs of narrative—but each plot thread leads to a simple obsession with debauchery.
Megan Liberty writes about the “Something Unusual is Happening” exhibition at Printed Matter.
Other comics in the show contain more traditional plot elements, including text bubbles and characters. Lale Westvind’s Joan the Drone Pilot & Mary the Drone (2017), printed with blue ink on pink pages (except the cover which is red ink on cream), is the story of a world that exists in several dimensions, with those in charge controlling those trapped in the lesser plane for profit, until Mary arrives and attempts to escape. A heavy-handed metaphor for our use of technology, or technology’s use of us when in the hands of advertisers, it has a more traditional structure, with spreads divided into panels and text in word bubbles and boxes. But its dense imagery, heavy lines, and block shading, reminiscent of ‘70s and ‘80s pulp comics, make it at times visually dizzying and challenging.
An anonymous writer has begun a site called Reading Doonesbury, going back through the strip’s whole history and connecting it to current events.
What set Doonesbury apart from virtually every other mass-market comic strip in 1970 was that it roots were firmly planted in the youth and campus culture of the time. Like Walt Kelly’s Pogo before it, Doonesbury brought pointed political and cultural satire to the funny pages. What was different about Doonesbury, however, was that its style, as much as its content, reflected contemporary values of youth rebellion. Trudeau jokingly referred to the “urgent scrawl” that defined his early strips as evidence that he was producing “cartoon vérité.”  Trudeau sees his early work as not merely a commentary on its times, but a product of them: “If Doonesbury looked like it had been created in a stoned frenzy,” he maintains, “then that was evidence of its authenticity. The strips were dispatches from the front.”
HiLobrow has been running a series of short posts by Jacob Covey, who has designed many of the best-looking comics of recent years, as he discusses book design.
Barcodes exist in service to commerce and if not in opposition to art then certainly with disregard of it. 99% of publishing’s barcodes are unnecessarily large, positioned in the lower right corner, and printed on a white field to maximize efficiency for human checkers. Distributors say they must be on white to read correctly but the red light scanners of barcodes read white the same as red.
—Interviews & Profiles. Dana Jenning at The New York Times profiles Gary Panter.
Mr. Panter, 66, is creatively footloose and has never been content to just draw comics and paint. (He’s represented by the Chelsea gallery Fredericks & Freiser, and his art has been shown worldwide.) He’s done light shows, puppetry, design, printmaking, sculpture, and plays rock music. He honed his early hack-slash style of punk pen-and-ink on posters and album covers for bands like the Screamers, the Germs and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Oh, and there were three Emmys in the late 1980s for his set design on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” (“I’ll talk about anything — except Pee-wee,” he said, laughing.)
Explaining his jack-of-all-trades attitude, Mr. Panter, who grew up mostly in rural Sulphur Springs, Tex., wrote in an email: “I am wired to make stuff. Life is short and these various mediums have different things to offer, so I am seeing what I can do.”