Friday, December 28, 2018

Short comics from the 1990s with a long impact

I was born in 1979, so I was a teenager throughout most of the 1990s.  Ever since I was a little kid I loved comic books.   By my early teens I grew tired of superheroes and was looking for something else.  I never really loved graphic novels though (still don't).  I suppose the comics that appealed to me the most were short stories that ranged from 8 to 50 pages.  The following are comics that have stayed with me for many years. The 1990s were a great time for comics although you may have overlooked some of my favorites.  Here they are as listed below:

Sputnik was a short lived glossy black and white magazine from Canada published in 1993 (Black Eye).  Only two issues exist.  Michel Vrana is an excellent designer and he brought to his sophisticated taste and a mature visual sensibility to all the titles he published.  This anthology title felt different from other comics in that it really focused on short stories.  There were also "about the author" or "author profile" sections that proceeded the stories.  The presentation looked very high-end and professional.  It felt very different than an underground comic or an art magazine like Raw.  I don't think there has been anything like it, before or after.  The first issue features such artists as Jay Stephens, Dylan Horrocks and Carol Swain.  

The real standout here though were the comics by Adrian Tomine that were reprinted from his mini-comics.  I've always loved the looseness of Tomine's brushwork in these comics.  I guess his work matured and became tighter and more mature eventually but this early work really spoke to me.  I was also familiar with Tomine's work because he had a strip that was in Tower Record's free Pulse magazine.  I used to pick those up just for his strip which I'd cut out.  As a teenager, I redrew these comics wall size and had them hanging in my bedroom.  I always wanted to find Tomine's mini-comics but they were difficult to locate.  Eventually they were reprinted several times by Drawn and Quarterly.

Issue 2 of Sputnik has a very lighthearted short story by Eric Searleman.  It is about Superboy hitchhiking a ride with a stranger.  I love the whimsical nature of Searleman's comics and previously sang the praises of his short lived Jazzbo comic in a previous post.

Belmont Harbor was the first story by John Porcellino that I ever read.  It felt as direct as a personal letter, written for me about the alienation I felt as a 15-16 year old.  The deceptive simplicity of the drawings also inspired me to start drawing comics of my own.  This particular issue is one of the few standard comic book sized issues by Porcellino.  It was a flip issue with Joe Chiapetta's Silly Daddy #8.  That is one of the few issues from Joe's oeuvre that has never been reprinted due to more adult content which involves hanging out with friends at a bowling alley bar and flirting with the bartender.  Also a great example of autobiography in comics.

Another collaborative issue of King-Cat that I loved was # 45 from 1994.  This issue is about a trip John takes with several of his cartoonists friends including Joe Chiapetta, Jerome Gaynor and Jason Heller.  Each artist draws their own version of the story.

The previous comic also introduced me to Jerome Gaynor's Funkapotamus/ Punk Anonymous zine (1994-95) which was available through John's Spit and a Half Catalog. The last two issues of Jerome's zine featured 2 short stories entitled Microwave Brick (parts 1 and 2) that were drawn simply, like Porcellino, but had a really different approach with stories that were far more fictional and almost bordering on fantasy. There was more Microwave Brick in Jerome's self-published anthologies Flying Sauce Attack and Bogus Dead.  Jerome also did a cover and several back covers to the music fanzine Roctober.  

Fawn Gehweiler makes a guest appearance (in name only) in the last issue of Funkapotamus because she was also doing mini-comics at the time. 1998 saw the release of her xeric award funded Bomb Pop comics and stories which reprints several of Fawn's minis as well as an adaptation of S.E. Hinton's Rumble Fish.  Unfortunately this would be the first and the last comic book that Fawn would publish.

Jeff Levine was another prolific autobiographical cartoonist who made minis and had a series published by Slave Labor called No Hope.  Later the series would be retitled Lust For Life.  His comics are very honest but also often dark and depressing.  My favorite example of Jeff's work is from the final issue of Lust For Life.  In this issue is Jeff's longest fictional story entitled "The Cat Got My Tongue".  The story is about a 20 something woman who gets high and goes to a club with some friends.  She eventually becomes disgusted with them and bursts out in a fit of violence.  The story is told entirely through the dialogue of these characters.  It feels powerful in its realism.

Levine also published the best fanzine about independent comics appropriately titled Destroy All Comics.  It was through this fanzine that I'd discover the work of many other cartoonists.  The issue below, for example, had a review of a Jeff Zenick comic/zine.  Zenick's approach to cartooning and life in general was inspirational to me.

Seth's Palookaville #2 and #3 from 1993 has never been republished.  It's my favorite of all of his comics.  The two part story is a coming of age tale that details the summer a young Seth worked at a restaurant and lost his virginity.  I feel that this comic was more emotional and heartfelt than his later work and probably the same could be said about Chester Brown.  Brown's I Never Liked You (originally serialized in Yummy Fur as "Fuck") is one of the most moving comics I have ever read and so different than the emotionally distanced work that would define the rest of his career.

Two more very underrated comics from 1997 were Matt Madden's Black Candy (Black Eye) and Ariel Bordeaux's No Love Lost (Drawn and Quarterly).  At about 52 pages each these are perfect short stories in a comics format and definitely my favorite works by these creators.  The same would be true for Tom Hart's original Hutch Owen comic - a short story that feels very strong in terms of content.

Lastly is Peter Kuper's Stripped (Fantagraphics, 1995) which collects several of his comic book short stories dealing with the subject of sex - mostly from Wild Life #1 and #2.  This is very funny and honest cartooning that sort of reminded me of the HBO sitcom Dream On that I was watching at the time. Kuper has done many amazing comics since then that are more elaborate and sophisticated but these are the ones I find the most relatable.  In fact the stories in this book were later repackaged with additional material in order to create a more marketable graphic novel.  But I prefer this earlier version.  While I realize that the short story in comics is not a profitable format, it is still the one I gravitate towards (however unmarketable).

Thank you to all these creators for making personal work that was both meaningful and memorable to me.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Roy Crane's Sultry - 1940's comic strip Buz Sawyer

In the late 1980s Pioneer Comics did several reprints of Roy Crane's classic 1940s comic strip, Buz Sawyer. I came across these at the comic shop when I was a kid.  The strips were reformatted to fit a comic book in a weird way, some panels were printed much larger than others.  This gave the black and white artwork with enlarged benday dots a very pop art feel.  The art of these comics is really top notch cartooning and Crane had a very original style that would go on to influence people like Alex Toth.  His characters have a very minimal rending - cartoony, while still capturing a lot of subtle emotions - but his backgrounds appear very realistic and three-dimensional.  A lot of this series was more recently published in a more lavish format from Fantagraphics.  Read today, these adventure strips come off as being somewhat racist and sexist and I am not the first one to make this observation.  I see these comics as more as a product of their time and these drawbacks do not really detract too much from all the interesting visuals and storytelling chops it has to offer. The comic is also notorious for lots of panels where Buz is spanking a girl's behind over his lap.  But I digress...

The strip I am looking at is from the last issue of the Pioneer series, #5, from 1988.  What stands out to me is the witty banter between the characters of Sawyer and Maharani/Cobra..who is later nicknamed Sultry.  It's a unique scene full of sexual innuendo and suggestive violence.  At one point, Buz ties Sultry up in a carpet rug.  Later, the calm and intelligent Sultry outwits the happy-go-lucky Sawyer.   She begs Sawyer two see her not as a woman, but as an equal.   Sawyer's response?  "You're much too alluring to want a man not to notice."  The content is very adult and it surprises me a bit, in retrospect, that this was so popular and published in newspapers. Still, you've got to love Roy Crane for his serious approach to storytelling.  You might not agree with all of his choices, but he was really ahead of his time in terms of making adventure stories with "real" characters, likable or not.

See below.

And finally, here is a Buz Sawyer print by Crane, published shortly after his death, again showing the sexual suggestiveness of this comic.

(the print was signed by "Mrs. Roy Crane" - his wife)
(Spanking, a common cartoon trope of the 1940s and 50s.  From another Buz Sawyer strip I found online but originally published in 1941)

RIP Roy Crane 1901-1977

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

James Bond comic by Russ Heath and Doug Moench, 1994

This was a one shot James Bond comic published in Dark Horse Comics #25 in 1994.  Too bad it didn't continue because this creative team is an excellent pairing.  Moench is really writing towards Russ Heath's strengths here.  Heath, whose comics career dates back to the 1950's was particularly skilled at drawing airplane and fighter jet scenes.  So much so, that Roy Lichtenstein copied Heath's drawings in some of his paintings which later sold for millions of dollars.  Of course the humble Health never received royalties in any way.  So sad.  I wish Heath did more of these stories aimed at an adult audience.  He later teamed up on a four issue series written by Howard Chaykin called Gladiator for DC/ Wildstorm which was also quite excellent in that it featured Heath's renditions of beautiful women - which he is excels at.  Unfortunately, earlier in his career he did not get to draw so many women when he was basically illustrating war stories that featured men.  Later in his career it is clear that Heath enjoyed drawing sexy women in his work for Warren, The National Lampoon and a wild Iron Fist story that needs to be seen to be believed.

Anyway, back to this particular issue.  Moench's James Bond: Minute to Midnight starts out with an interesting splash page by Heath of a homeless drunk with a wine bottle on a desolate urban street.  A couple of pages later, we find out that this was Bond in disguise.  When he removes his disguise he immediately begins flirting with a female secretary who he later sleeps with.  While he is asleep, it turns out that she too is a spy who double crosses him!

Later when Bond boards a plan, a man gasses him and plans to kill him.  But Bond knocks the man out of the plane, steals his parachute in mid-air and then lands back inside the plane before it crashes.  Within the context of the comic book these unbelievable circumstances do actually seem quite believable due to Heath's parred down but impeccable rendering of this sequence of events.  It is one of the most marvelously constructed action scenes I have ever seen in comics and a testament to Heath's experience and talents.

The episodic story presented in this issue ends on a cliffhanger and really leaves me wanting more of the same.  Unfortunately it wasn't meant to be.

All above artwork is by the great late Russ Heath (1926-2018) RIP.

The Spectre # 9, DC Comics, 1987 by Moench & Morrow

This is an exceptional comic, aimed at adults and published by DC comics in 1987.  Nowhere on the cover does it announce "mature readers" or "adults only".  The Comics Code stamp is gone. Perhaps in dealing with a direct market, this comic never saw newsstand distribution and DC was able to eschew these conventions.  However, considering how much nudity and suggestiveness there is in this comic, it remains somewhat of an anomaly. After all, the ads in this issue are still for Saturday morning cartoons and Oxy 10 zit cream.  Were the publishers/editors even reading this stuff?

Gray Morrow was not the regular artist for Doug Moench's The Spectre although he did several other issues after this one.  His figures are very well proportioned and not nearly as exaggerated as some of the other mainstream artists from this time and those who would come after.  Another very distinguished aspect of Morrow's art is his unparalleled creative use of zip atone, shading film and ink mixed with conte crayon.   His layouts are untraditional and as experimental as say, Neal Adams, even though his figures are more conservative and composed. At this point, Morrow had been drawing comics for around 30 years and has really developed a very distinct style.  He was also an illustrator for science fiction magazines, paperback covers, a Buck Rogers newspaper strip and even a slew of posters for B motion pictures.  He almost always inked his own work and often colored it as well.  I loved his work for the short lived Sorcery and Madhouse published by Red Circle/ Archie in the early 1970s.  Likewise, his stint on the magazine sized Space 1999 comics, published by Charlton, was equally impressive.

The amount of comics Morrow worked on is amazing, but he was not always paired with the best writers.  This particular pairing with Moench though, works extremely well.  Moench's story in this issue stays far away from the usual superhero tropes.  What we have instead is a sort of philosophical musing on crime and self-sacrifice with a bit of the supernatural thrown in. Add to that a good dose of sex and even some romance and what you have here is a dense, complex and visually exciting story.  

The Spectre in this story is different than in the older versions scripted by Fleischer and drawn by Aparo (those are also great and worth seeking out).  In this version James Corrigan is a private investigator, aided by Kimmie Lang, his sometimes girlfriend.  Corrigan is dependent on the Spectre, who uses his body as a charging station.  Once the Spectre remains with Corrigan long enough, he can go out on his own to seek vengeance upon criminals.  If the Spectre is gone for too long, Corrigan will become ill and eventually die if the two are not reunited.  The Spectre is also able to gain strength independently from a psychic, Madame Xanadu, who in this issue, receives sexual pleasure through the Spectre's exploration of his destructive qualities.  The Spectre believes he can stop crimes before they happen.  Corrigan sees The Spectre's acts of violence as an antithesis  to his own morals.  He decides that the only way he can stop the Spectre is to finally separate and kill himself.  Kimmie, however, loves Corrigan and will not allow this to happen.  Eventually she reunites the two.  At the end of the comic, Corrigan is still emotionally distraught, but he is healthy enough to indulge in his attraction towards Kimmie with a very suggestive embrace.

The images in this book bleed off the page.  The page layouts are experimental and never once repeat themselves throughout the 24 pages.  The colors by Adrienne Roy are also quite good and look great on the paper DC used here which is an upgrade from the usual newsprint stock.  The color becomes part of the storytelling when the Spectre becomes a ghostlike figure or a foggy presence that overlays scenes of foreboding, menace, or in this case - both violence and sexuality.  I only wish Gray Morrow did the cover as well (it was drawn by Mike Mignola). Morrow never did get around to drawing a Spectre cover.  Perhaps they gave other artists this assignment because Morrow's art looked too sophisticated for the projected market? On that note, I am including a cover for another DC title from 1985 by Gray Morrow that also got away with nudity in a mainstream publication.  

Hey, I'm sure you've heard this one too many times before with statements like..."comics aren't just for kids!".  Sure, okay, well here's some proof below:

All artwork by the great late Gray Morrow.  RIP.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Walter Olkewicz in "Working At It"

Walter Olkewicz is a great character actor who made appearances on a ton of tv shows throughout the 1980s such a s Married With Children, Who's the Boss, Mr. Belvedere, Designing Women, The Love Boat, Night Court and Family Ties.  The list goes on...

His first appearance on Family Ties (1984) is one of my favorites.  This episode from Season 2 entitled "Working At It" is unusual because it focuses on the mother character of Elyse as opposed to the star character Alex (played by Michael J. Fox).  It is always a treat on sitcoms like these when large parts of the episode take place on a new set outside of the usual staged home environment.  In this case it is a modern art department of an architecture office where Elyse is trying to get a new job.  Olkewicz plays a supportive co-worker with an offbeat sense of humor.  It was this very unusual, but funny, acting job that makes me want to seek out more roles this actor has played.  He is a unique talent.

Another thing I love about this episode is the set. The office has a very typical 1980's feel to it and one of the dilemmas in this story is that Elyse doesn't know how to use the brand new computer equipment to construct her schematic drawings.  When she tries, she get tangled up in the printer's paper and panics!  The computer itself looks very strange in retrospect, like something seen in Epcot's World of Tomorrow. Olkewicz's casual costume with his Hawaiian shirt and sneakers in contract to Elyse's business attire suit just adds to the fun.

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 worked as a graphic designer).