And the little children shall lead us

Waiting for the visitor: Don’t Hug Me, I’m Scared

When it comes to popular entertainment — movies, television, music — parents soon find that it’s their children who make the final decisions of what films to see, what shows to watch, what musicians to listen to. My kids are both in their early teens now, and although I’ve done my best to inculcate them with an appreciation of the great artworks of the past, they’ve done theirs to inculcate me with an appreciation of the great artworks of the present.

Which leads me to the pleasures of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared, an animated series created by Becky Sloan and Joe Pelling for YouTube in 2011; last month, the BBC’s Channel 4 premiered six new episodes commissioned and produced by the channel, in the wake of the extraordinary cult following the YouTube videos engendered. On its surface, DHMIS (as it’s known to its fans) is a parody of children’s programming like Sesame Street: Two Muppet-like characters (Duck and Yellow Guy) and one costumed human character (Red Guy) share a house into which various strangers enter, representing things like “Creativity” (a talking sketchbook) and “Jobs” (a talking briefcase — and after fifteen years at my job right now, this episode is more of a bone-chilling documentary than a children’s show to me). So they’re off on an adventure, which usually begins with a catchy song but over the length of the program becomes darker and more surreal.

DHMIS exploits a variety of animation techniques from claymation, puppetry, CGI, and traditional 2D drawing, but it exploits a variety of narrative techniques as well, all serving the cause of black humor and satire: Parody, monologue, and surrealism all contribute to the haunting effect that an episode leaves behind after its usually sudden and ambivalent ending. Although there’s plenty of music and dialogue, these are often punctuated by long, uncomfortable silences during which the characters stare wanly into the camera, awaiting whatever comes next.

Above: The first DHMIS from 2011, “Creativity” —
a not infrequent subject of children’s television shows

The Channel 4 series that premiered last month was not the first effort to retool the series for a wider television audience. As the creators told the Guardian last month, a 2016 run-in with an American company provided a cautionary tale as to whether America, at least, was prepared for it:

An unexpected detour helped them clarify what they wanted the TV series to be. Back in 2016, they made a pilot with a US company. It had a town and neighbours and was “a bit South Park”, says Sloan. “We also made an attempt, and I’m going to whisper this, because it almost sounds like a dirty phrase, to get an element of current affairs into it,” says Terry.

But the timelessness and claustrophobia of the originals was missing. Writing the new version during the pandemic, often over Zoom, may have helped recapture that oppressive vibe. “It was very strange writing a show about characters stuck inside during a time when we were all stuck inside,” says Pelling. “So maybe there are points where we did actually go insane.”

Indeed, American animation already had its current affairs satires like South Park and The Simpsons; one more would probably not have contributed much. But teenagers readily grasp timelessness and claustrophobia when they play off the animated pablum they experience as younger children, more than they grasp current affairs, perhaps.

Which isn’t to say there haven’t been American equivalents to DHMIS over the past few years. My kid Charlie recently turned me on to Moral Orel, a similarly dark claymation satire that ran on Adult Swim from 2005 to 2008, the creation of Dino Stamatopoulos. Although it wasn’t originally intended as a parody of the old Davey and Goliath series, there were obvious parallels. Moral Orel centered on a young boy who lived in the middle American town of Moralton. Orel tried very hard to be a good little boy, and in each of the early episodes he tried to follow precisely one moral precept or another, and inevitably it ended in comic chaos and despair. But like DHMIS, the show evolved over the three seasons of its existence into a much darker satire of the human cost of adherence to an unbending fundamentalist code of moral strictures: a satire as timeless, perhaps, as DHMIS‘ depiction of ennui and nihilism. (Moral Orel had a particularly hard time navigating network policies and practices towards the end of its run; see its Wikipedia page for more details.)

Where my children came across these shows, God only knows — my guess is YouTube, but obviously they were pointed in their direction by their friends and their social media accounts. While I despaired on the past iteration of this blog about the lack of any magazines like Mad for their generation, I realize now that I needn’t have despaired: Shows like DHMIS and Moral Orel have picked up this slack, and in remarkably effective ways. Like DHMIS and Moral Orel, Mad magazine was not originally targeted at children or teenagers: Its artists and writers created work that aimed to amuse themselves, and although there was a great deal of silliness there were also darker considerations. (Indeed, one of the early classic Mad features was Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman’s parody of the children’s show Howdy Doody — still a landmark of surrealist satire of children’s literature, television, and the commercialization of childhood itself.)

A page from Mad magazine’s Howdy Doody parody.

DHMIS and its ilk, like Mad magazine, National Lampoon, and underground comics were for me, are continuing to provide to my children just the right comic and acidulous antidote to the depredations of conformity and blinkered moralism that adulthood will no doubt try to force upon them. I think the kids’ll be all right after all.

(A tip of my hat to Jason Zinoman, whose appreciation of Mike Judge’s Beavis and Butt-head ran in the New York Times today and inspired my own remarks here. I should add that I tried to introduce my kids to both Beavis and Butt-head and King of the Hill — to no avail, alas.)

As long as we’re on the subject of parody and satire, a note about the dark times: Anthony Novak, an Ohio man, was jailed for four days in 2016 after posting a parody Facebook page about his local police department. He recently tried to sue the department for civil damages, but federal judges found that the department had “qualified immunity” and so dismissed his case. Scary stuff.

Novak hopes to have the issue finally settled in the U.S. Supreme Court. The satire web site The Onion has filed an amicus brief on behalf of Novak, writing:

This Court has traditionally been hesitant to chill speech, and the prospect of chilling parody by imprisoning its practitioners provides equal cause for caution.

The Onion intends to continue its socially valuable role bringing the disinfectant of sunlight into the halls of power. And it would vastly prefer that sunlight not to be measured out to its writers in 15-minute increments in an exercise yard.

The brief — one of the funniest and most frightening things I’ve read in years — can be found in full here.

Maverix and lunatix, coming next month

Drew Friedman’s new collection of portraits, Maverix and Lunatix: Icons of Underground Comix, will be issued by Fantagraphics on October 18. Drew himself has been one of those maverix, and this volume makes an excellent companion to his earlier portfolios of portraits depicting early legends of comics and comic books; they are highly textured expressions of his own high regard for these artists (just as the portraits in his last collection, All the Presidents, slyly comment on their subjects). On November 17 Drew will be in New York at the Society of Illustrators for a book launch event — he’ll be grilled by Owen Kline, the writer and director of the recent film Funny Pages. Reservations and details here.

There has been a small flurry of major new histories about comics, both commercial and underground (or alternative, if you prefer). Perhaps the most appropriate collateral reading here is Brian Doherty’s Dirty Pictures:
How an Underground Network of Nerds, Feminists, Misfits, Geniuses, Bikers, Potheads, Printers, Intellectuals, and Art School Rebels Revolutionized Art and Invented Comix
, published in June by Abrams Books. Doherty’s breezy but comprehensive history (featuring surprising cameo appearances by people such as avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) leans heavily on the years 1960-1980, perhaps the most riotous and certainly most obscene decades of underground comics, though Doherty also covers the half-hearted Raw/Weirdo feud of the 1980s and points the way to a few current publications which are following in those footsteps, as well as the changing cultural and social perspectives of comix artists. Doherty’s book comes in the wake of Jeremy Dauber’s American Comics: A History, published last November by W.W. Norton, which covers mainstream comics through the 20th century and beyond; and Hillary Chute’s Why Comics? From Underground to Everywhere, a more critical study of the past 50 years of alternative comics, published by Harper Perennial in 2019. Even the staid Penguin Classics folks have gotten into the act, issuing a new series of classic Marvel comics bearing the iconic black-spine-and-white-print identity.

Each of these books deserves a short essay of its own, and the reasons for this new attention to a revolutionary generation of comics artists are many. More thoughts on this (fragmentary though they may be; I write these things in minutes stolen from a rather hectic daily life) anon.

A short note on a banned book

I wanted to somehow commemorate this year’s Banned Book Week (which ends tomorrow), and I thought perhaps the best way to do so would be to purchase — at its full cover price — and read Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, at the top of the list maintained by the American Library Association and others that details the Top 10 Challenged Books of 2021.

I confess that I’m certainly not the target demographic for this book, a memoir of Kobabe’s evolving gender identity through eir first 25 years. As a 60-year-old cisgender married man with two kids, I’m nearly three decades older than Kobabe, and I very much doubt that e had me in mind. In 2020, Gender Queer was one of ten books to receive an Alex Award from the American Library Association, for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults ages 12 through 18” — I qualify for that adult audience I suppose, but my experience is vastly different not only from Kobabe’s but from those of “young adults ages 12 through 18” as well.

Which is, I think, partly the point. Books, whether fiction or like Kobabe’s non-fiction, open us to different worlds and perceptions that may be light years away from our own. In this case, the discovery and negotiation of a young person’s gender-non-binary, asexual self-definition is new to me: In my adolescence, these issues were scarcely recognized as valid, let alone a part of the popular culture of the time, and a lot of damage was done as a result of this inability to identify them. But somehow James Joyce’s Ulysses found its way into my high school library, which was where I first read it, and Leopold Bloom’s Dublin (and similar difficulties with self-identity and self-definition) was about as far from 1970s Luzerne County Pennsylvania as Kobabe’s adolescence was from mine.

Like Ulysses, Gender Queer has had its censorship issues too, and it’s not hard to see why. Part of it has to do with its form: The graphic novel has been critically recognized as a literary and pictorial genre all its own over only the past twenty years or so, and its antecedents — the comic book, newspaper comics, the underground press — are still among some people considered somehow second- if not third-tier vehicles of artistic expression. But more, there’s nothing in Gender Queer‘s form, approach, or content that will be unfamiliar to readers of books by, say, Raina Telgemeier: An appealing visual style (we’re on the other side of the planet from artists like Julie Doucet), a pastel color palette (Gender Queer was colored by Kobabe’s sibling Phoebe), and a serious approach to gender, identity, and social issues faced by the contemporary teenager. Those who wish to ban Gender Queer from classrooms and libraries and bookstores may accept Telgemeier’s less explicit narratives, just.

But Gender Queer, to them, will cross too many lines. None of the pictures in Gender Queer depict anything that isn’t depicted just as specifically as in Ulysses (and there are far fewer of these depictions); but it’s this depiction in graphic rather than linguistic form that apparently rankles those who wish to take issue with Gender Queer. They have a powerful effect, and it’s testimony to the power of the comic form itself, as is the presence of so many graphic novels on the ALA’s list, including Telgemeier’s.

My horizons were widened by Maia Kobabe’s book, though very few of eir specific experiences were mine, of course. I was particularly taken with eir description of gender not as a spectrum, which always seemed two-dimensional to me, but as a landscape. Like a landscape, gender is a protean, living, organic thing; a landscape changes through the years, even over the course of hours, and it’s always affected by our own specific perspectives. “Some people are born in the mountains, while others are born by the sea,” e writes. “Some people are happy to live in the place they were born, while others must make a journey to reach the climate in which they can flourish and grow.”

In attempting to censor or ban this book, those who would do so would impose a torturous conformity on those who differ from them, a cruel denial of the integrity of the individual human being to grow, to develop, to suffer, and to retain not only integrity but also self-respect. That gender identity is a protean landscape is not an opinion, but a fact. Even a 60-year-old married white man can appreciate that.

“Only lines on paper”

An unusual portrait of R. Crumb in a pensive mood. Photo: Thibault Montamat for the New York Times.

M.H. Miller of the New York Times travels to France to interview R. Crumb in this weekend’s issue of the Times‘ style magazine.

One of the more interesting dimensions of Crumb’s work over the past decade or so is a new emphasis on domesticity — how the outside world impinges on Crumb and his growing family (he’s a grandfather now), and their often comic and anxious responses to that outside world, regardless of the distance they try to maintain from it. It seems more contemplative, though still comically incisive and just as acid-tinged.

A few highlights from the interview:

“The average people out there, what they know of my work … either they love it because they are degenerates themselves or they hate it because they stand with the forces of political correctness.” …

“The whole identity politics and L.G.B.T.Q. stuff, I agree with it. These people need an equal share. I can’t argue with that. But then people get kind of intolerant about anything that could be seen as triggering.” …

The critic Robert Hughes has compared him to Bruegel, with his images of hedonism and suffering, but Crumb also evokes a painting tradition in Weimar-era Germany called lustmord, literally “sex murder,” in which artists like Otto Dix and George Grosz painted scenes of rape and mutilated female bodies that captured the nihilism in Europe between the world wars. Yet Crumb is perhaps most directly indebted to the 19th-century political cartoonist Thomas Nast, who helped bring down Tammany Hall and New York’s Boss Tweed political machine. A framed Nast hangs in the Crumbs’ hallway: an 1871 drawing of a tiger (a representation of Tammany politics) mauling a woman, who stands for justice, before an enormous audience in a coliseum. “What are you going to do about it?” reads the caption.

Crumb’s most recent work, Sauve qui peut! (Run for Your Life!), a collaboration with Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Sophie Crumb, is available from David Zwirner Books here. He also contributes regularly to Mineshaft magazine, America’s favorite reading material.