REVIEWS

Induction of the Sycophant

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With its rags-to-riches sagas, occasional creative triumphs and dark episodes of mental and artistic deterioration, the story of the American comic book industry is rife with potential for novelists.

Few have tapped this rich source. Fewer have stepped outside the worship of comics to depict the cut-throat, hard-scrabble world of the comics biz. Tiger Moody’s 2015 novel Induction of the Sycophant does that well, and is a valuable addition to the small body of comics literature. 

Moody's book is in good company with Mell Lazarus’ 1965 black-comedy gem, The Boss is Crazy, Too, and Tom De Haven's Funny Papers (1985) and Derby Dugan's Depression Funnies (1996). The pious formality of Michael Chabon’s acclaimed book-group staple, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2000), is nowhere in Moody's agenda.

Like De Haven's novels, Moody's explores the flaws in the comics business model, and how its creators' inspirations can ripple throughout the industry, even if the artist or writer suffers or is left behind. Like Lazarus, Moody offers a wry insider's sense of this vivid, limited world. Moody’s is not a humorous novel. There are amusing moments, but the book’s overall tone is New York neo-noir. Moody captures the sense of chilly late-afternoon desperation found in the works of authors John Rechy and Hubert Selby, Jr. and in Robert Wise’s 1959 film Odds Against Tomorrow. The big city, with its bustle and promise, ought to be wonderful… except that it isn’t.

Moody captures the sense of the city as a living entity—pockmarked with abuse and indifference, specked with human blood, semen, mucus and feces. In the novel’s world, these human secretions are mixed with the four-color ink that collides with cheap newsprint to produce out-of-register, out-of-whack comic books in the pre-Comics Code 1950s.

The author’s stated intentions with IotS were to evoke the spirit of Nathaniel West’s A Cool Million (1931), which trashes the Horatio Alger work-and-win ethos, and to ponder the mysteries in the still-vague suicide death of Jack Cole—a topic explored by art spiegelman in his thoughtful 2001 book Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits.

Had Jack Cole been famous we would know more than we care to know about his final days—the issues and incidents that led to his heartbreaking decision to end his life. Despite his then-recent success as a syndicated cartoonist and Playboy artist, a soul like Cole’s was far too low on America’s radar to merit investigation. In the brief window of time when it might have been possible to answer the five Ws of Cole’s suicide, no one noticed or cared.

Moody doesn’t attempt to give answers. He explores the human drama of the situation—based on what little we know—and strives to make Jack Cole a real person. He mixes real-life events with carefully considered fiction, and uses a device, straight from period comic books, of closely naming his book’s figures (e.g., Perry Como as “Percy Como” in a ‘50s Atlas comic book story). IotS’ figures include Jack Coal, Millard Gaines, Wallace Good, Zach Kirby, Joe Hyman, et al. Blended with these near-matches are real-life figures such as Frederic Wertham and senator Estes Kefauver.

Though this decision is accurate to the spirit of ‘50s comics, it doesn’t translate easily to the prose page, and gives the novel an awkward start. The novel’s intentions—and its attention to detail—quickly transcend this device.

Coal/Cole is the book’s central figure. We see him at the end of his rope. His marriage is a brittle routine of irrelevance and ritual; his magnum opus for comic books, Elastic Man, is being cancelled due to declining sales. His boss, William Meiser, creator of The Apparition, and boss of a comic book shop in Manhattan, has given Coal’s strip the sack—a decision which clearly pains him, but, according to the ways of the business world, has to be done.

To attempt a last-minute save of The Apparition, once considered a masterpiece but now in its death throes, Meiser has converted the strip to an outer-space format, and hired young comics whiz Wallace Good to do the artwork. Coal eyes Good with generation-gap contempt—little realizing that this hard-drinking, guitar-toting non-conformist will be a major agent in the undoing of his fragile world.

Coal is devastated by the Elastic Man cancellation, but hesitates to tell his wife Dot about it. He knows she will hector him, and use this incident against him as yet another sign of his impotence—both emotional and sexual. The pot-bellied, good-natured Coal, given to well-worn jokes and wacky gags, tries to soothe his angst with automat food, but he knows his best days are over, and that the walls are closing in on him. He has one last ace up his sleeve—one final triumph of his imagination—and it almost saves his life. Almost.

Moody brings Coal/Cole to tragicomic life in IotS. A bit of a fuddy-duddy, with corny jokes up his sleeve (including the real-life incident of his attaching an advertising streamer to a horse-fly) and a huge appetite, Coal is still very much a small-town man. We get the sense that he has never felt at home in the big city. He migrated towards work opportunities, but does not like his surroundings. He is a gifted artist and storyteller, but best expresses himself in his work. In real life, he is awkward, hesitant and a worry-wart. With his work life and home life in shambles, he is rudderless.

Counterpoint to Coal’s glum life is Millard Gaines, publisher of the Exciting Comics line, overseen by ambitious writer-artist-editor Al Feldman. As with their real-life counterparts, Gaines and Feldman have high hopes for their comics, and strive for the same strained seriousness, mingled with what Gaines famously called “the O. Henry ending” and copious amounts of graphic violence.

Popping Dexedrine, seldom sleeping, always on the edge of his nerves, Millard Gaines is offered up to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in its mission to castrate the American comic book.  Fueled by Wertham’s misguided but sincere findings, HUAC crucified a strung-out, sleep-deprived, insecure Gaines. Their verdict was a collective “uh-huh; told you so” that sealed the deal for the doom of uncensored comics in our country.

Moody quotes from reams of real-life documents—long verbatim passages from Wertham’s reports and analysis, and from the real-life Gaines’ painful, faltering testimony. This gives IotS verisimilitude, but never constrains Moody’s work as an author of compelling fiction.

Wertham and Coal are IotS’ dual antiheroes. Both are well-intentioned and sincere; both are dogged by a flawed world-view. They are likable souls who firmly believe they are doing something of value for America’s children. Coal’s friend and employer Meiser tells him so, even as he chooses to cancel Elastic Man:

You’re doing something unique here. Something unprecedented. Something… maybe historic… Jack, when you hand me a pile of fresh pages…they strike me as the work of someone who packs a HELL of a lot of energy, imagination and love into their work…who cares very deeply about their craft…

You’re as important to society as a fireman, a policeman, a doctor or a lawyer. Maybe more so. You make a million kids happy every month. Think about that…it’s ART, Jack, despite what a million squares will try to tell you… someday people will realize this.

Meiser’s words of praise mirror Wertham’s “children are like flowers” passage from his infamous comics exposé Seduction of the Innocent (1954). Though Wertham exaggerated the contents of his juvenile case histories—which are as lurid and shocking as the comic-book stories he sought to reform—he acted out of a skewed idealism.

The irony of the parallel vision of Coal and Wertham is self-evident, and Moody never overstates it. The drama of life, like that famous road to hell, is lined with good intentions that never see fruition. The sad, shuffling figures in IotS live to cope with that grim reality.

Moody includes a sub-story about the typical reader of pre-Code comics. Lester, a reluctant young black transplant from the South, lives with his older brother Cornell, a college graduate unable to become a teacher due to the color of his skin. Cornell has become a hustler who manages to earn a living in this oldest profession.

Lester loathes Cornell’s gayness. To be fair, he loathes everything and everyone, save Bob Fujitami, an adolescent chum who gets a boner over Wonder Woman but shares his occult taste in comic books.

Lester brings Cornell together with his nameless benefactor, a wealthy gay man who chastely funds his comic-book binges and, without knowing, pushes the boy closer to his point of oblivion.

Lester’s world-view is heavily colored by the violence and non-reality of these slapdash pulp pamphlets. We witness him buying a pile of comics, then poring over their lurid titles and cover illustrations with the focused solitude of a porn enthusiast.

As with character names, Moody mingles real comics titles with imagined ones. One wishes Secrets of the Demented, Cavern of Cadavers, This Magazine is Condemned and Asphyxiation existed, among others found in IotS. Moody’s faux titles are true to the spirit of sensationalism and immediacy in pre-Code horror comics—these crude beacons of popcult refuse that once beckoned from America’s newsstands.

Moody touches on the miserable story of Bob Wood, co-creator of the game-changing Crime Does Not Pay, whose life and career ended when he beat a woman to death after an 11-day alcoholic bender. Dick Steele (renamed, perhaps, to avoid confusion with the Wally Wood character) doesn’t figure prominently in IotS, but one senses the author’s need to include this saddest tale of all in his informed shuffle of comics fact and fiction.

Readers may be tempted to scan past long passages from Wertham’s case histories, and from the HUAC testimonies, but they’re wisely used. Their mix of sincerity and incognizance gives IotS a strong container for its narrative strands.

Each chapter of IotS is introduced by a panel from a an actual period comic book. These isolated frames comment obliquely on the narrative and, via their lurid irreverence, raise more questions than they answer.

Horse-flies buzz through Moody’s narrative as a poignant metaphor for one of the core truths about comics—they are a fragile medium, and even their best achievements don’t last forever. Adult horse-flies live just a few days, then become sun-faded corpses on a windowsill, to be swept away with disgust. The work of comics creators outlives them. The best of that work assumes a life of its own and remains relevant to new generations of readers.

Written with love for the medium and respect for its flawed figures, the lean, thoughtful prose of Induction of the Sycophant is informed and attentive to detail and emotion. Comics and their creators have seldom been accorded such caritas and gravity.

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