Today brings us the return of Jeet Heer to this site. We have missed you, Jeet. Here he interviews Walter Biggins, who is leaving University Press of Mississippi after 14 years, where he published some of most significant prose books on comics. Some of my favorites are: Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby, The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking, Drawn and Dangerous: Italian Comics of the 1970s and 1980s, and Howard Chaykin: Conversations.
Here's a beautiful Connor Willumsen comic originally worked on for our own Frank Santoro's correspondence course.
We started our week with a question from Ryan Holmberg, and we end it with a full-blown column. This time in What Was Alternative Manga?, Holmberg looks at a Japanese-language comic from the Philippines, involving mad scientists and cloned women, and wonders about its origins:
Hypothesis: it was designed for sale to Japanese male businessmen and sex tourists, who were sometimes one and the same. This makes sense not only time-wise, but also content-wise.
Tourism exploded amongst the Japanese in the 1970s. Thanks to increasing affluence and a strong yen, more Japanese had the ability to travel both domestically and overseas. In Japanese studies, one often reads about the “Discover Japan” campaigns initiated in 1970, targeted primarily at young women, urging them to find themselves through trips to exotic corners of their country. This is also the period that young artists and middle-class Japanese began flying to the centers of European civilization, or hopping across America from San Francisco to the Grand Canyon and over to the Big Apple. In the pages of Tezuka Osamu’s COM circa 1970, there are a couple of articles about its artists visiting the States, Nagashima Shinji in New York, Fujiko Fujio meeting Roy Thomas. Meanwhile in Garo, Tsuge Yoshiharu was becoming famous with literary versions of his solitary sojourns to fishing holes and hot springs in the Japanese countryside – not organized tourism, obviously, but a sign that the romance of travel was beginning to grow in various corners of Japanese culture.
Today on the site R.C. Harvey reviews Michael Schumacher and Denis Kitchen's Al Capp: A Life to the Contrary. The Harv has written not only a thorough examination of the book, but also added some of his own memories of the man. So check it out.
The chief occurrences of Capp’s life are treated in great detail: the loss of his left leg at the age of nine and the probable psychological consequences; his education at a succession of art schools he was too poor to pay tuition to; his apprenticeship to Ham Fisher and the dispute about who created the hillbilly Big Leviticus in Joe Palooka; the resulting feud, its nastiness, and Fisher’s attempt to smear Capp’s reputation; Capp’s emergence as a pop culture celebrity; his shrill attacks on the New Student Left on college campuses; his notorious visit to John Lennon and Yoko Ono; the subliminal eroticism in Li’l Abner; Capp’s extracurricular sex life, preying upon show girls and college co-eds, and his fall from grace as a result. In every instance, the book offers insights into these events that are new to me (and I’ve researched Capp’s life for my book, at least as much as publicly available documents permit).
Today, Rob Clough reviews the Runner Runner anthology. Here's some of what he had to say:
Greg Means is well known for his "Clutch McBastard" zine alter ego as well as for editing the exquisitely designed Papercutter anthology. Runner Runner was his contribution to Free Comic Book Day 2012 as well as a staple at his convention tables. Far from a throwaway freebie, this lean minicomic has a killer lineup of excellent work. It seems like Means will be concentrating on Runner Runner as far as his anthologies go, as he's discontinued Papercutter and Nate Powell has announced he is doing a comic with Al Burian for this year's Runner Runner. The anthology is mostly comprised of West Coast cartoonists, including a number from Means' home base of Portland, Oregon. As such, it's an excellent sampler of the most experienced cartoonists from that scene (as well as a smattering of other good cartoonists) who are mostly known for their minicomics.
—Avi Steinberg has a great short review of Maurice Sendak's last book on The New Yorker website, linking it to Sendak's first unpublished book, which he created as a child.
—New progress seems to have been made in the age-old quest to find the secret origins of MAD magazine's Alfred E. Neuman. (John Adcock has more.)
—Via Twitter, Erik Larsen argues, "If you need to include an arrow to tell readers which panel to read next your page is a failure. It should be obvious." Which seems more or less like a comics equivalent to "invisible style." And like invisible style in film, its use-value depends on what kind of comic you are making.
It's pix from the Society of Illustrator's Harvey Kurtzman opening.
I've lately been amazed at how corporate hacks and apologists have reinvented themselves as "historians" but that's showbiz, folks. In any case, I'll let you guess which of the panelists at this talk have anything relevant to say about the topic.
GROTH: I don’t read mainstream comics much but we get piles of them in the office and I look at them once in a while. And because I read them as a kid and I can go back to that Kirby and Ditko and Stan Lee stuff and so on, I have this morbid curiosity about why they look like such unadulterated shit these days. I read interviews with contemporary creators who write and draw them and they seem to be very excited about what they’re doing. And I wonder about why the stuff is so wretched. I wonder if it’s just the Zeitgeist or if it’s just the creators themselves or if it’s me.
WINDSOR-SMITH: I know exactly what you’re saying. I have the very same wonders myself. You and I can just sit around and scratch our heads over the phone, because I don’t have any answer either. Yeah: is it the Zeitgeist? Are we missing something? Is it the same now as it was then but we just didn’t know because we were in a different position then? This sort of questioning comes to us all. It has been the standard cliché for decades now, from the ’60s with rock ’n’ roll, or at least the British invasion style rock ’n’ roll, where people would say, ‘They can’t play, they’re only playing banjo chords. Whatever happened to Ella Fitzgerald and Satchmo and hey, Frank Sinatra — now there’s a voice!” And all this sort of shit that I went through when I was a teenager, absolutely adoring everything I was hearing, from the Beatles to the Stones... Well, actually I was extremely judgmental even then: I fuckin’ hated the Dave Clark Five because I could see them for the no-talent copyists that they were! But I loved anything that I thought was quality, and I certainly thought Lennon and McCartney were.
I actually have this strong memory of an uncle of mine whom I greatly admired. He was a musician, played jazz. I was over at his house one day, I was only about 15 or 16, the Beatles had been around for about a year or so — at least in Britain; they hadn’t hit America yet — and he was sitting there just trashing them. Saying, “They can’t play any notes. You call that singing?” And I really disliked my uncle from that moment onward. I’ve never liked him since. Because he seemed to totally sell out himself as a musician. In other words, he wasn’t broad-minded enough to see that there is always new music. And he insulted one of my favorite things. So I’m dreadfully afraid that I’m doing exactly the same thing now!
GROTH: [Laughs.] You’re turning into your uncle.
WINDSOR-SMITH: Yeah, I’m turning into an old complaining fart. There are so many people, I hear it all the time: “Oh my God, I’m beginning to sound like my dad!” It’s a standard routine for stand-up comedians nowadays.
GROTH: But seriously, there is a maturing process, and some people go through it and some people don’t. And I think in some ways you do start sounding if not like your dad, at least like people you remember as having antiquated attitudes.
WINDSOR-SMITH: Somebody you don’t like. I can remember a long time ago, you did a major interview with Jim Steranko.
GROTH: Whew—you’re talking 25 years ago.
WINDSOR-SMITH: Yeah. And you seemed absolutely in awe of Jim at the time.
GROTH: I was.
WINDSOR-SMITH: And you were young. And Jim was lapping it up because we know what an egoist he is. But in recent times, or at least within the last eight or five years, I can remember when you totally trashed him in print for some reason. It wasn’t out of hand, there was some purpose behind it; I forget what it was. I was thinking, “Gee, what happened to Gary in the meantime?” Yeah, we’ve all changed our taste — I guess. And now, Steranko was pretty damn good at what he did. We know it was derivative to a degree, but some of it wasn’t. So for the people who were working at that time in that heyday of Marvel comics, Steranko certainly gave far more energy to his books than your average guy. Certainly he was no genius on the level of Jack Kirby, but who the hell was? So Jim’s material was innovative to a degree, exciting to a degree, good for what it was. So why do you not see Jim’s work in that perspective? Or do you?
GROTH: Looking at his Marvel work, I can’t help but see it as thin and anemic. Whereas Kirby was genuinely original, and Ditko was too, Steranko was a compendium of graphic tricks and gimmicks picked up from various sources inside and outside of comics. So I don’t think he’s... If you look at it closely it tends to fall apart. It doesn’t hold up to very close scrutiny.
WINDSOR-SMITH: I agree with you. I was thinking that way back when.
GROTH: Yeah. Well you were probably ahead of me because as you say, I was in —
WINDSOR-SMITH: I was right in the thick of it and I was functioning in the same capacity as a storyteller. So I could certainly see through Steranko.
Ron Goulart returns to the site today with a remembrance of Fred Ray.
Although Fred Ray is best remembered for the two decades he devoted to drawing DC’s Tomahawk, he had already been in comics for several years before he took over the buckskin-clad hero and, in the early ‘40s, he did some of the best straight adventure stuff in the comic books of the time, as well of some memorable Golden Age covers.
Frederic E.Ray, who usually signed himself Fray, was born in Pennsylvania in 1922. He always had an interest in history as well as in comics, and his major influences growing up were illustrators Howard Pyle, N.C. Wyeth andFrederic Remington, as well as cartoonists Hal Foster and, most important, Noel Sickles. He was impressed, too, by a nonfiction newspaper strip called Highlights of History by an artist named J. Carroll Mansfield.
A Kickstarter campaign for the book Sullivan's Sluggers gets ugly and then gets uglier.
Before getting to the regular body of this blog post, please allow me to reproduce the following statement from Kim Thompson (introduced by Gary Groth) in full:
Kim Thompson has been my partner at Fantagraphics Books for 35 years. He's contributed vastly and selflessly to this company and to the comics medium and worked closely with countless fine artists over that time. This is a tough announcement to make, but everyone who knows Kim knows he's a fighter and we remain optimistic that he'll get through this and report back to report to work, where he belongs, doing what he loves.
– Gary Groth
I'm sure that by now a number of people in the comics field who deal with me on a regular or semi-regular basis have noticed that I've been responding more spottily. This is because of ongoing health issues for the past month, which earlier this week resolved themselves in a diagnosis of lung cancer.
This is still very early in the diagnosis, so I have no way of knowing the severity of my condition. I'm relatively young and (otherwise) in good health, and my hospital is top-flight, so I'm hopeful and confident that we will soon have the specifics narrowed down, set me up with a course of treatment, proceed, and lick this thing.
It is quite possible that as treatment gets underway I'll be able to come back in and pick up some aspects of my job, maybe even quite soon. However, in the interests of keeping things rolling as smoothly as I can, I've transferred all my ongoing projects onto other members of the Fantagraphics team. So if you're expecting something from me, contact Gary Groth, Eric Reyolds, or Jason Miles and they can hook you up with whoever you need. If there are things that only I know and can deal with, lay it out for them and they'll contact me.
On behalf of Kim, we would like to encourage anyone who would like to reach out to him to feel free to send mail to him c/o Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115, or email.
As an editor, publisher, translator, and writer, Kim's importance to North American comics (not to mention this magazine) would be difficult to overstate. He is not just a personally inspiring figure, but is also an extremely friendly, helpful, & enormously fun person to work with. We wish him a full and speedy recovery, and can't wait for him to be back.
On the main body of this site, we have another installment of Richard Gehr's excellent and too-infrequent "Know Your New Yorker Cartoonists" column. Today his subject is Charles Barsotti. Here's a brief excerpt:
GEHR: How did you end up at Hallmark in Kansas City?
BARSOTTI: I answered this ad in Advertising Age and got a call from this guy in Chicago. Hallmark then sent me a psychological test but I just set it aside. Then they shot Kennedy, and the atmosphere I ran into the next day in San Marcos was a little too much. I figured, "It’s time to buckle down, take the psychological test, and get serious about this." Anyway, Holly [William Hollingworth] Whyte wrote a book called The Organization Man, and he had things to keep in mind when you’re taking a psychological test for a big organization. I remembered to say things like, "I love my father and my mother both, but I love my father a little bit more." That kind of thing.
GEHR: Was Hallmark your first real art job?
BARSOTTI: It was really writing, at first. I was in the editorial department and then switched to contemporary cards.
GEHR: Was that where you began cartooning seriously?
BARSOTTI: Rapidographs had just come out and I splurged and bought myself a set. I was doing some sketches, and a friend of mine in a different department of Hallmark asked me if I would use that style to illustrate a little pamphlet of Ogden Nash poems. So I did it on my own time, and it got me in trouble in my department. That’s the way Hallmark's bureaucracy worked. That sort of set me off, and I sent some drawings to Mike Mooney at The Saturday Evening Post — and didn’t hear anything. The next weekend, I sat down and did another big batch of these things. I sent it in and thought, "Oh, this is it. This isn’t working." But! I got a call from Mooney at work. I thought it was a joke, but he said he had turned the big hallway at The Saturday Evening Post into a gallery. "I’ve got your cartoons up and down it," he said. He was a very ebullient fellow. Then I went there and met the editor, Bill Emerson.
—Steven Heller writes about an interesting Thomas Nast project I don't recall ever hearing about before: a traveling series of murals used in performances to tell the story of the American Civil War.