Monday, July 3, 2017

Michael Dougan

Michael Dougan (born 1958?) has always been one of my favorite alternative cartoonists and yet he's one I hardly ever hear anybody talking about.  He was very prolific in both the 1980's and 1990's contributing to the seminal anthologies of the time such as Weirdo, Drawn & Quarterly and later Zero Zero (Fantagraphics).  I always found his short stories to be the best thing about these publications.  His storytelling is sometimes autobiographical and sometimes straight-up fiction - but it is always concerned with people - and usually down on their luck people at that.  There are two collections of Dougan's work that were published.  One is called East Texas from 1988.  The other is the absolutely essential I Can't Tell You Anything, published by Penguin books in 1993 (maybe Penguin's first serious foray into the Graphic Novel realm).  This book collects some of Dougan's very best short stories and really shows his range.  

Dougan is a cartoonist who could've broken into the alternative mainstream, if there is such a thing, and if the world was at all fair (think Peter Bagge, Lynda Barry or Matt Groening).  Dougan was a regular contributor to Seattle's The Stranger during the "grunge" era and he also was a regular contributor to the late SPY magazine.  He also had some spots in Entertainment Weekly and Esquire!  A pilot for an animated series, created by Dougan, was produced by MTV studios and shown late night on Liguid Television.  It was called The Dagwoods and can be viewed on YouTube here.

Unfortunately, any sort of fame seemed to have eluded Dougan and this puzzles me to no end.  I encourage you to seek out his books and find out what you have been missing.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Strum and Drang by Joel Orff

Joel Orff did various mini-comics including two issues of Cole Slaw and contributed to some small press publications in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s such as Marvelous Martha's Comics and Stories.  He also created the comic strip Great Moments in Rock 'n' Roll and published two absolutely amazing stand alone graphic novel from Alternative Comics.  His short pieces have a real off-the-cuff style that perfectly illustrates the anecdotal stories he tells.  It's a very personal cartooning style, the panels are without sharp borders and the text is never strictly ruled and the characters never drawn repetitively.  For me, this is part of what make's Joel Orff's comics special.  They feel as though they were produced by a real individual which creates an intimate reading experience - as if you were being told these stories in a whisper from a dear friend and hanging on to every word.  Joel is also a master of atmosphere.  His stories often take place at night and his environments, while always set in the real world, take on a dreamy, labyrinth like appearance that begs the reader to further explore Joel's world.

Strum and Drang, #1 from 1993 is Joel's earliest comic that is still available.  I've seen some earlier comics by Joel that are wordless and take you through remembered landscapes - and he would continue those journeys in his later graphic novels, combining it with his ability to tell memorable narratives.  The first issue of Strum and Drang is a collection of short stories written by Joel and Mike Haeg (creator of Rump magazine - an early collection of Rump was published by John Porcellino via Spit and a Half in the late 1990s).  The story by Mike Haeg is probably the most memorable in this collection.  It's the true story of when Mike is working a humiliating job at a shopping mall and becomes infatuated when he sees a two-headed girl.  Other stories are more atmospheric, especially the one detailing a remembered trip to San Francisco.  There is some rich variety here though: the tale of a cab driver, a nursing home, and a criminal clown scare.

The second (not numbered) issue of Strum and Drang is a collection of Orff's excellent "Great Moments in Rock 'N" Roll comic strips and this was published ten years later by Alternative Comics in 2003.

If you like human, down to earth stories about real people and are fond of folksy art styles that don't seem to rely on any of the traditional highly stylized tropes, I highly recommend all of Joel's work.  There is something timeless about his books, because I'm at a loss when trying to compare him to other artists, and I keep on revisiting them.
You can find his website here and most of his comics can still be purchased from Alternative Comics.

Joel is not a cartoonist who you here about often, but he really deserves to be talked about more because his books are really that great.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Jazzbo #2 by Eric Searleman, 1995.  Published by Slave Labor Graphics.

Eric had comics in several small press anthologies in the early 1990s including contributions to Destroy All Comics,  Murder Can Be Fun and Sputnik, amongst others.  Slave Labor Graphics published two issues of his series that he both wrote and illustrated.  The first issue was a collection of Searleman's short comics.  The second issue is a longer more fully realized 24 page story.   This was the last of Searleman's comics though as he moved on to other things.  I was a fan of Eric's comics when I read them around this time.  I wrote him in 1998 and he even contributed to a mini-comic I was making.  He sent me two of his original pages for a new story which unfortunately I lost and never returned to him (sorry, Eric!).  Perhaps it was bad experiences like this that dissuaded him from continuing to draw comics, which is certainly understandable.  Or maybe Eric continues to draw comics in private.  I don't know.  But what I do know is that Eric was a unique voice and talent in comics that I miss.

Jazzbo #2 is my favorite of Eric's comics.    It's similar to issue #1, but it's like Eric this time tried to take these random everyday anecdotes he wrote in the premiere issue and string them together into a longer story.  It works!  His work had a very light, freewheeling touch to it. For example, in this comic he was constantly drawing himself in different ways but he did this in a way that was not confusing.  The character is always recognizable but the reimagining of the character from panel to panel gives the flow of the story some unpredictability and good-natured spontaneity.  The same is true for the story, set in Phoenix, Arizona (Is this the only comic set in Phoenix - it's certainly the only one I know of).

Eric did live in Phoenix at the time where he worked as a news assistant for The Arizona Republic.
These autobiographical elements are in the comic although this is not your standard autobiographical material that was popular in alternative comics (such as those published by Drawn & Quarterly) around this time.  Eric lets you know this right off the back in setting up his story which is titled "The Year of the Egg".  The first page does not even feature a drawing of Eric.  Instead, he establishes the whimsical setting by having a mysterious egg rising from the center of the earth and appearing towering over skyscrapers in downtown Phoenix.  Instead of launching into further sci-fi elements though, Eric writes:

 "Like most people, I figured it was a mystery of nature, the kind that only happens once in a billion years.  No doubt about it, the appearance of the egg was a big deal, but it didn't directly affect me.  After all, I still had to drive to the laundromat each week."

After this statement, Eric moves on to tell a story that mostly features somewhat random events from his day to day life.  Although this sounds as though it would be meandering, it is far from irreverent because Eric is just a great storyteller whose writing style perfectly matches his art.  It's light, but Eric is aware that this is a  breezy story and he treats it this way which makes for a really enjoyable read.

A lot happens in just 24 pages.  The story is divided into two parts.  In the first half, Eric introduces us to a wide range of characters who he interacts with around town over a weekend while doing chores.  These include a KISS fan who works at the laundromat, his Japanese girlfriend,  a Roto Rooter plumber (portrayed as a Rooter Rooster.  HA!) and two male friends.  Eric drives about town, goes to the hardware store, shops for Japanese groceries and hangs out with his pal at the ASU Tempe campus.

Like the title JAZZBO implies, the material feels improvisational and like the best Jazz music, this improvisation is what keeps this comic fresh.  The style is great, it keeps you moving along as a reader, and Eric constantly surprises you as to what happens next - in a very unpredictable manner even though the events seem as though they might be mundane when I am describing them.
It's kind of the perfect use of the comic book medium, because I'm not sure this story could work as just prose alone.  It's rare to find a comic that is so random and yet still works so well.

Part two of the story continues in an equally odd manner.  The splash panel for Chapter Two features a nude man with large breasts and horns floating in space and some more info about The Egg.    But then Eric wakes up from sleep and thinks, while still groggy:

"Huh?...That's crazy!!! What Am I Thinking?  It's just a big fucking rock, that's all."

The story continues with another assortment of random events culled from Eric's real life.  He leaves a movie (Clerks) with his girlfriend and finds that his car has been blocked in from someone double-parked.  He manages to get out of the spot.  Then the next day, he returns to the laundromat, hangs out with his girlfriend again, goes to a concert and cooks dinner.  It's all pretty random, but it's Eric's humorous anecdotes of these everyday events that make them so memorable.  So much so, that I remember this comic 20 years after reading it - and I really can't say that for most other comics.  One particular scene that stands out for me, is the one where Eric is at the concert.  He has a flashback to when he was a teenager at a KISS concert and becomes somewhat disillusioned because the guitarist is wearing a wristwatch.  He draws the musician thinking:

 "Wow!! Will you look at the time!  My mom's gonna have dinner on the table in forty minutes."

Ha!  So funny.

The story ends as randomly as it began, with the egg exploding and Eric riding a hoverboard over Phoenix.  To add to the quirkiness, the last page of the comic features an advertisement for "the first ever comic related sex toy: The Jazzbo cock ring."  This especially feels strange, because the comic itself has zero sexual content.  Also, the characters on the front cover of the comic never make an appearance in the comic itself.  Does this sound weird to you?  Well, it is...but it's also really great and bold.  I'm not sure anyone has made a comic quite like this since.

I highly recommend Jazzbo #2 which can still be found by some online comics retailers for the cover price of $2.95 or less.   It's a comic that has really stuck with me.  Ironically, when I read this initially (at age 16) I never imagined that I'd also be living in the Phoenix area, 20 years later,  and also dating a Japanese woman.
So to Eric, wherever you are out there - thank you.  It's COSMIC!

(panel above from Jazzbo #2 - scene where Eric visits the ASU Tempe campus - where I currently work as a graphic designer).

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Lester and Tina Pine

Born in 1917, Lester Pine got his start in Hollywood as a comedian before switching to screenwriting in the early 1950's. Tina,who was born Tina Rome in New York City, began her career as an actress, appearing in bit roles in 1950's Lilith, and 1952's Park Row before switching to screenwriting with future husband Les in the mid 1960's.  The two wrote for various tv shows including All in the Family.

Later in life, they penned three excellent films, all set in or around New York City that dealt humorously with poor, minority families.  I know very little else about this husband and wife writing team but am curious to learn more.  All three films feature amazing scenes between parents and children. The three films that I've seen by them are excellent.

These include:
Popi (1969)

Claudine (1974)

On The Right Track (1981)

Dean Duffy by Randy Powell

For me, Dean Duffy is the quintessential young adult novel from the 1990s.  Published in 1995, it followed another tone perfect book by the same author, Is Kissing A Girl Who Smoes Like Licking an Ashtray? from 1992.  Both books are set in and around Seattle and feature an 18 year old male character in limbo.  Post high school.  Before college.  Trying to make decisions about their lives, about their future, their purpose in life, their self worth.  Driving around, sometimes aimlessly, Powell’s stories are set on these quiet moments when his characters are at a crossroads.  He is not afraid to introduce characters who are broken or jaded by life.  His characters waver on the edge - will they become great or disappointments to themselves?

Dean Duffy, as the title (the character’s name) implies is a character study.  Dean is an athlete and the story is focused on his decision whether or not to continue with a career in baseball.  Randy Powell writes eloquently and his books, like previous sports writers for Young Adults like John R. Tunis, his books are easy to read and immediately inviting.  What makes Powell’s book different is there is little play by play action.  Actually, not a single game takes place in Dean Duffy even though this could be considered a baseball themed book.  I’m not so much interested in baseball, in general, so it takes the skill of a great writer to immediately get me hooked on a character who finds baseball to be an obsession.  Randy Powell is such a writer.  He writes without irony and every character he writes is one that he seems to have some sincere affection for.

How to describe the events of this book?  Dean meets an old friend, who has become a stoner.  Dean falls in love with a barista who turns out to be a high school dropout and a single mother.  Dean tries to recover from a two year baseball slump and tries to decide if he has what it takes.  Any brief description certainly seems too simple for what Powell had in mind.

The book provides more questions than it does answers and in doing so, it is one of the most honest examples of YA fiction that I have ever read.  I love this book.  Read it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Carol's Carnival - Growing Pains episode from Season 6, 1991.

Growing Pains is a show that I grew up with and cherished as a kid.  I always related to the show because the characters were just a little bit older than me and the setting of the sitcom was Syosset, close to where I lived on Long Island.  The show had a lot of wacky humor, but it also dealt with some more serious issues from time to time.  Mike Seaver, played by Kirk Cameron, was usually the central character.  Because the show lasted 7 seasons, later episodes focused more on his siblings.  My favorite character on the show was the nerdy, uptight, sometimes snobby and insecure Carol Seaver played by Tracey Gold.  She was the first TV girl that I ever had a crush on because her character was both pretty, smart and extremely vulnerable at times.

Revisiting the show, 25 years later, the episode that really stands out to me is "Carol's Carnival" which originally aired near the end of Season 6 in 1991.  It's a somewhat unusual episode because the focus here in on Carol and the bulk of the episode takes place at a carnival, rather than at the Seaver home.  Kirk Cameron and the Seaver family only appear in the framing opening and ending sequences.  Without those sequences, this episode could stand on it's own as a short film.

When brother Ben lures nineteen year old Carol into driving him and his date to a carnival, she quickly gets dumped by her surprise date, a Sophomore at Yale.  Feeling rejected and out of place, Carol sulks while her younger brother has fun.   While sitting on a bench near the ferris wheel, the ride operator, a 36 year old man named Jake, takes notice of her.

"Hey Beautiful," Jake shouts over to Carol.    He leaps over the bench and sits beside her.  She takes note of him.  He is dressed in denim.  She is not impressed.  "You can't just abandon the ride".

"Let them spin darling," smiles Jake.  "I see a woman in distress".
"Don't call me darling"
"Alright I won't...sweetheart".

Jake is on the make.  He puts Carol on the ferris wheel and then fakes a stunt to have the ride get stuck, while he repairs it and then injures himself.  Feeling bad for him, Carol helps to carry him back to his trailer.  It is there that he recites Shakespeare and impresses Carol with his intellectual side.

"Have you tried the whip?" he asks.
Innocent Carol looks puzzled.
"I mean the ride..." he continues.

After the carnival ends, Carol forgets about her brother and begins to explore the fair more thoroughly with Jake.  "I've never had my own carnival before," she says with starry eyes, "This isn't anything like I thought it would be."

Jake wants to bring Carol back to his trailer but she is oblivious.  They stop by a costume display.  "I want to stop here", Carol says.  "To try on a costume.  To be someone else."

"Who do you want to be?"

"Someone who is loved for who she is."

"And if there is no costume here for that?"

Queue the music for Carol Seaver's "coming out" party.  The montage shows Carol dressing as first, a stripper, then Marilyn Monroe and finally as a gypsy (a costume which she wears for the remainder of the episode).

"What do you want to do next?" she asks Jake.

He smiles.  "What do you think?"

They go to the funhouse and he holds her in front of the funny mirror.  "I look beautiful in this mirror, but that's only because it's distorted."

"No, look at me Carol. You ARE beautiful".

They kiss.

"I was afraid of letting a stranger get close to me.  I'm not afraid anymore.  You make me feel so beautiful."

He takes her back to the trailer.  She is ready.  Ready to give herself to him completely.

"I need you to know me," she confesses, "I need you to know everything about me.  I trust you completely."

But Jake doesn't trust himself.  This is more than Jake bargained for when he decided to hit on this younger girl.  He didn't expect her to fall in love with him.  And it scares him.

"Shut up," he says.  And he kicks her out of the trailer.

Carol is crying.  It's the last night of the carnival.  She wonders if she could do anything right.

She wanders around, taking in the moment for what it's worth.

Jake finds her, kisses her on the forehead, reassures her that she is special and beautiful.

She doesn't lose her virginity, but she leaves the carnival a more confident and mature woman.

The episode was written by Rich Reinhart, who was also a producer for the show and wrote around 8 other episodes.  The part of Jake was played by Jake Acovone.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Can't I just be myself here? - T.R. Baskin (1971)

T.R. Baskin (1971) is one of those films that critics seems to hate and that no one really knows about.  My opinion is of the contrary.  I think it’s a very entertaining movie worth seeing!  The character in this film is unlike any I’ve ever seen before.  She is a confident woman with a sense of absurdist humor who also exists as an outsider.  On the surface, this is a film about the difficulties of a single person moving to a big city.  Instead of finding glamour and success, she finds the opposite.  What makes this story different though is that we never feel sorry for this character - the intention seems for the viewer to identify with her.

T.R. Baskin is played by a young Candice Bergen (most well known for starring in the sitcom Murphy Brown).  Watching this in retrospect of seeing Murphy Brown, you might go into this thinking that this is an early 70s women’s liberation thing.  About a woman coming to the city, starting off small, and then taking over the company.   The character of T.R. Baskin, as played by Bergen, certainly seems capable of that.  But that’s really not what we have here.  The film is puzzling because this looks like it might be the setup, but then the movie starts with T.R. being propositioned.  It is presented very of matter of fact though, without any sort of scandal.  T.R.'s attitude always seems to be - "I'll give it a shot, okay, what the hell".

She is a woman in her mid-twenties with a very honest perspective on life.  She refuses to play games and seems to see through people and the sometimes ridiculous ideals and standards they place on themselves.  She is a bit of a contradiction though - as T.R.’s outlook seems to get in the way of her having any sort of happiness or success.  She is a complex character because of her simplicity.  She is an outsider not because she tries to be bizarre, but because she seems weird to others.  Why?  Only for the fact that she does not try to be anyone but herself. 

The story is about when T.R. moves  to Chicago.  We know little of T.R.’s background.  She has left a home with her caring parents and set out on her own.   She has no great pretensions.  She gets an apartment, a job an office.  Only: Her apartment is a dump.  Her job is boring.  The guys she dates are jerks.  It's as if being propositioned were no different from other small sacrifices that one needs to make just to get by in the big city.
Told in a flashback style, the film starts near the end of the sequence of events.  T.R. meets up with Jack Mitchell (Peter Boyle).  He is a married man from Utica who is in Chicago for the weekend looking to meet a woman.  An old college friend named Larry (James Caan) gives Jack T.R.’s number.

When T.R. receives the call from Jack, she is reluctant.  She does not seem interested but possibly just agrees to meet him out of sheer curiosity.  After arriving at his apartment, the two discuss life.  Jack feels like she is making fun of him.  To reassure him that she is not, she takes off her clothes and waits in his bed.  Jack changes in the bathroom and gets into bed with her.  He kisses her, but she is disinterested and Jack realizes he is unable to perform.  T.R. finds the situation amusing and just laughs.  Probably the least sexy and unromantic bedroom scene ever filmed.

Instead of leaving, this becomes a sort of icebreaker.  While still in bed, the two discuss their dreams and aspirations and how, in their own way, they are both lonely.  We become sympathetic towards these characters, as they do to each other, even though it is far from any sort of romance.

In the flashback sequence it is revealed that T.R. met Larry (Caan’s character) one night while leaving a bad date.  T.R. notices Larry at a restaurant, stops in and sits with him.  Larry is a divorced children’s book editor and the two seem to hit it off and have a similar sense of humor.
They return to Larry’s apartment for more conversation.  There is a chemistry and the two make love.

The next morning, as she is leaving, T.R. assumes that Larry has mistaken her for a prostitute as she finds money he left her in her jacket pocket.

The viewer then has to take a bit of a leap.  Has T.R. actually decided to become a prostitute, instead of a typist, and this is why she is with Jack Mitchell?  Or is T.R. just herself, a typist, who is simply curious and bored when she receives a call from Jack?

The film is unusual because T.R. is always making the decisions in the film.  She is always what seems like one step ahead of all the characters in the movie, including the men.  At the end of the film, Jack asks her if she is happy.  She avoids answering the question.  “I don’t like to think about that.”

At the film’s conclusion, she returns home, calls her mom, and has a momentary breakdown.  Crying on the telephone, she assures her parents that everything is alright.

The movie is confusing because the viewer is waiting for something bigger to happen to T.R.  She does not fall in love with the city or find her place at the end of the film.  The point is that we are seeing the world from T.R.’s perspective.  In her eyes, the world is kind of crazy and she is just along for the ride.

If you’ve ever felt this way, then maybe T.R. is a heroine worth identifying with.  She’s crazy in a good way, almost like a character from a Cassavetes film, albeit a little less neurotic.

While the film has some funny moments, it’s more of a drama than a comedy.  Maybe it could be considered a comedy for existentialists?

 It’s all filmed on location in Chicago and the cinematography is great.  A real time capsule of Chicago in the 1970s and its mostly all filmed in real places such as the Carson Pirie Scott department store, the Sherman House Hotel, the First National Bank Building, and OConnells Coffee Shop on Rush Street. 

In a way, the urban setting, time and sense of absurdity reminds me a bit of one of Brain DePalma’s first films: Hi, Mom (1970) . That movie came out around the same time and it's about a  young man (played by Robert De Niro in an early role) who comes to New York City for the first time.  It’s also filmed on locations and also shows a character who never seems to fit in…so he eventually starts making “adult” movies. 

 (Still from DePalma's Hi Mom!, 1970)

T.R. Baskin was an early effort by director Herbert Ross.  He would go on to direct many other great films, my favorites being The Sunshine Boys (1975) and The Secret of My Success (1987).  In fact, The Secret of My Success has some similarities to T.R. as this is also, in essence, a movie about an outsider trying to make it for the first time in a big city.  Additionally, it features an 80s business woman/ Murphy Brown type character as the love interest!

The screenplay was written by Peter Hyam when he was still in his twenties.  It’s his first credit but he would go on to write and direct many other films including 2010, the sequel to 2001.

What attracted me to this film in the first place was the chance to see Peter Boyle in another movie.  I always felt like Boyle was a great actor after seeing him in the 1973 made-for-tv movie The Man Who Could Talk To Kids.  But of course I am most familiar with Boyle for his portrayal of Frank Barone on the sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond.  Boyle’s character in T.R. Baskin is far out shined by Bergen’s superb performance.  However, it was still cool to see him in an early role like this.

 Peter Boyle in The Man Who Could Talk to Kids (1973)

I don’t believe T.R. Baskin is currently available on DVD, but I was able to rent it from iTunes for a few bucks.  It’s an odd movie for sure, but in the best way.  Recommended.