The Someday Funnies

The Someday Funnies

In a particularly bad mood it would be easy to dismiss The Someday Funnies as better in list-form than book-form. It is, on the surface, an appallingly botched publishing project. Not of the “Gee, I wish it had been on uncoated paper” kind but rather of the “Gee, this is just a garbage heap” kind. But it needs further examination.

The Someday Funnies, as you may already know, is a collection of 129 comic strips commissioned in the 1970s, on the topic of the 1960s, created by over 150 international creators. Long thought lost, these strips have now been published in a full color hardcover, with introductions and annotations.

Conceptually the book is an extraordinary snapshot of visual culture in the early 1970s, and a brief flip-through makes it seem, for a moment, extraordinary in execution. Choquette’s taste was wide-ranging and, in some cases, brilliant; contributors here include the painter Red Grooms in his prime with a full page strip; the still-under-appreciated Cal Schenkel (illustrator/designer of the best Zappa album covers); British pop subversive Allen Jones; cartoonists like Jack Kirby, Guido Crepax, Harvey Kurtzman, Vaughn Bode, Art Spiegelman, Jean-Claude Forest, Jean Giraud, right on down to Willy Mendes in the underground and back out to the writer and sometime-caricaturist Tom Wolfe and filmmaker Federico Fellini. There is some joy to be had just from the summary idea presented by that list, and the frisson created by all those talents in one sequence; and there’s further pleasure to be found in names I’ve either rarely seen mentioned or never heard of – psychedelic artists long since buried between the covers of underground newspapers – Yossarian, Nick Stern, George Snow, Baby Jerry, et al.

And beyond the omnivorous reach there's much to be admired in Choquette’s prescient global vision for comics. There was awareness of European comics in the early 1970s, most notably in Graphic Story World, and then throughout National Lampoon’s run (and in its still-unsurpassed 1977 anthology French Comics (The Kind Men Like) and the Lampoon’s sister magazine, Heavy Metal, rooted in Metal Hurlant; but no one thought to mix it all up quite like Choquette did, and no one did again until RAW.

So it sounds ideal, right? And as a visual Tumblr page I suppose it is. If you could graze the book, or scroll through it quickly to catch the nuances of the different styles, then you’d have a somewhat satisfying experience. And since the Tumblr mentality (i.e. the endless, context-less graze) is taking hold, you might buy this and have a ton of fun. I wasn't so lucky. The book itself fails on almost all accounts, and the seeds of its failure were planted at its inception.

The story goes that in 1970, performer, writer and art director Michel Choquette, already working for The National Lampoon, began a nine-year trip to produce a book of comics about the 1960s. Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner first commissioned it, then withdrew, but other publishers came through (until they didn’t). The Lampoon was excited. Cartoonists were amenable -- this was good company to be in. It was a time when all these visual cultures bled together; when it made sense for everyone to jump into one big bed. Hippies ruled. Underground culture was hip and mainstream. Uncola was ascendant. Album covers were stoned. Art directors made money. Etc. And y’know, it’s not like Choquette was going after Donald Judd or William Gaddis. He kept his reach broad but populist, and didn’t go into areas where he might not find traction. So he gathered quite a lot of work. But nine years later, broke and without a publisher, Choquette consigned the project to a storage locker and moved on with his life.

Cut to 2009 and Bob Levin’s publication of his catalytic examination of the project and its history in The Comics Journal #299. Cut to publishers getting excited (see above lists, do the math). Cut to 2011 and the book is out, on the heels of Rick Meyerowitz’s (highly recommended for making none of the production/ego mistakes of the present volume) history of the Lampoon, Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, which itself served to remind us of some of the great cartooning talent of the 1970s, like Ed Subitzky, Charles Rodrigues, Shary Flenniken, and others.

So what went wrong? Why is this book, as a book, so very bad? The answer lies with the man himself: Choquette. What becomes apparent reading Levin’s profile and then Choquette’s own account of the project is that rather than regarding the book as a book, Choquette regarded it as a personal quest. He meets with greats. He flies all over the place. He collects advances and solicits yet more content. What he neglects to do (and I can certainly sympathize — I think any editor, publisher, or writer can) is take care of the actual project (and its contributors).

Someday Funnies in its current form is no longer a comic strip look at the Sixties. It’s a celebration of Choquette himself, who appears, in cartoon form, on the front cover and the back cover, on both dust jacket flaps, and in nearly every comic strip. Yes, you read that correctly, the editor, in youthful form and newly drawn by Michael Fog in a limpid and colorblind style, appears in almost all of the strips. See, most artists were asked to leave panels empty for a meta-narrative threading together the book (to be drawn by R. Crumb, who of course wasn’t asked until later and then wasn’t interested), on nearly every page of the book. Oh, there’s that fairly great Tom Wolfe black and white spread! Ah, there’s a full color drawing of our editor stuck in the middle. That unpublished Will Eisner black and white Spirit strip? There’s full-color Michel, dropped right into place. Excited by that unseen Guido Crepax piece rendered in black, yellow, and red? Don’t worry, it’s fucked, too. In other words, there are very few pieces of art here that are presented as art. Instead they’re all extensions of Choquette.

But let's look past the panel holes and the obviously dated material. Are there some good comics in here? Well, as in most anthologies, some of the strips here are good (those by Kim Deitch, Morris, Kirby, Spiegelman, Giraud, a few others), but many, I'd say the majority, are simply not very good comics -- Fellini was a cool scribbler, but he didn't know how to make a comic. The same could be said about many of the non-cartoonists here. And there's plenty of DC/Marvel guys whose work doesn't fare any better here than it did in the Lampoon-- Herb Trimpe, Dick Giordano, Don Newton, and the rest just aren't interesting. And even if they were, the enormous art direction and production blunders would render them inert. But more on that in a minute. First the rest of the trappings of the book.

The ancillary material is serviceable. There is a warmed over “this is the Sixties”-style intro by Robert Greenfield (sample insight: “When both Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy were murdered within the space of two short months in 1968, it wreaked havoc on the mind.”); TCJ-contributor Jeet Heer writes about the dream of the book a la Borges, and then gets into the aesthetic context of the work but stops short of evaluating it, thus evading the sheer mediocrity of a lot of it; Bob Levin contributes a profile of Choquette; and the editor himself writes his own story. Also included: A hilariously convoluted and unhelpful timeline consisting of five layers of information; notes on each strip connecting them to the time period; haphazard biographies of the artists. I won’t get to far into the presentation of the book except to note that each strip is pushed into the gutter in order to make room for an enormous number on each page. But… oh… whatever, onto the worst part: The published art.

Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say you were given a pile of photostats, original art, and corresponding color guides or instructions from 30-40 years ago and told to make a book of them. One could do a few things: Print the thing in black and white; print the thing in color and show the drawings as live art; or have the whole thing colored, albeit with care and finesse, bearing in mind that the artists drew with 1970s (i.e. flat offset lithography) color in mind. In other words, you’d simply follow the extant color guides and, as the saying goes, “do no harm”. You'd look at recent books by IDW, Dark Horse, DC, and Fantagraphics and see some clear examples.

Well, there was none of that. All those chronologies and pictures of famous people, all those anecdotes and those enormous page numbers. All that comes through fine. But not the art. As Choquette boasts in Someday Funnies, he brought in a team (each team member gets a photo and a bio, which is actually better treatment than the artists themselves receive) to digitally unify the strips, with the net effect of rendering the work impotent and ugly, made to serve the brightly colored avatar prancing through the panels. Looking at, say, Red Grooms’s exquisite squiggle marred by bizarre Photoshop fills and muddy choices is heartbreaking. On the other hand, it’s useful to know that things I thought were impossible, such as fucking up the coloring of a 25” x 15.5” Gahan Wilson image, are in fact physically possible, like sword swallowing or lighting your farts on fire. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the bizarre digital gradients plopped right on top of the crosshatching (y’know, crosshatching is often used for tone) in Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith’s three-page strip. Looking for a good example of Bobby London’s impeccable line-work and subtle sense of color? Nope, not here. His compositions are disrupted by the clashing hues and his lines are buried under layers of color that are either too dark, or perhaps more than anything else, incorrectly printed. And here is where I veer into speculation. The art in this book is so badly printed, and the linework often so difficult to read, that I wonder if, rather than printing the color plates and then black line on top, somehow the black line was printed first and then the color printed on top. Now, if that’s the case it should’ve been caught in proofs, since nearly every page is muddy. Some, like Russ Heath’s, are illegible.

But really, who knows? If I asked I wouldn’t get an answer. But what, you might ask, about the work itself? Can you see through the problems and say the strips are worthwhile? The answer is mostly no. I can’t see through the problems, often because I literally can't make out what's happening in the drawing, or, as with the foreign material, can't read it with any sort of flow. But the real attention stealer is the contrast between the care with which Choquette burnishes his own image versus the way he treats the art and its creators. Tellingly, the endpapers of Someday Funnies are a collage of correspondence from artists — their queries, demands for payment, and ideas a cute afterthought.

You know, the interesting thing about the Sixties is the hippie mix of selfishness (fuck it, imbibe it, listen to it) and idealism (love it, give it, produce it). When it worked it meant the mass dissemination of some deeply weird cultural material. But when it didn’t, it tended to veer into, well, what Rolling Stone eventually became: A curdled, ugly vision of its younger self, obsessed with itself and its authority, sure of its righteousness, and unerringly wrong in all aesthetic matters. The Someday Funnies is much the same. Its editor somehow forgot that he was not the main attraction, that it was about the art and the ideas, not the glory. What was once a whispered-about mythical book is now a grotesque zombie, resuscitated and scrubbed clean of any difference. But Choquette got his book and, that, we're told, again and again, is the whole point. Fittingly, Choquette ends up like an R. Crumb caricature of the worst of the Sixties: A cynically cheerful old hippie sneering out at the world: “I got mine, so fuck you.”