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.