Coming soon: “Trots and Bonnie”

Shary Flenniken‘s “Trots and Bonnie” ran from 1972 to 1990 in the late National Lampoon (Flenniken also served as an editor of that magazine from 1979 to 1981). “Trots” contributed a radical feminist and sexualized perspective to the comics styles of the 1930s and 1940s, right down to what Walt Kelly would call the “blunked-out” eyes of its main human character, Bonnie (itself a tribute to Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie). Well, you can now sell those old copies of the Lampoon on Ebay; NYR Comics will publish Trots and Bonnie: A Selection on September 15. Sez the publisher:

Bonnie stumbles through the mysteries of adulthood, as Flenniken — one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon — dissects the harsh realities of American life. Dating, marriage, sex, and violence are all confronted with fearlessness and outrageous humor, rendered in Flenniken’s timeless, gorgeous artwork. After all these years, they have lost none of their power to shock and amuse.

More information from NYR Comics here.

Although it’s true that Flenniken was “one of the few female contributors to National Lampoon,” it should be said that the female contributors to Lampoon, among them Anne Beatts and Emily Prager, were some of the most accomplished writers and artists in that magazine and take the edge off the justifiable accusation of sexism that is often hurled at the Lampoon. In addition, the Lampoon in 1978 published one of the few English-language collections of the work of Claire Bretécher, the fine French feminist cartoonist who recently shuffled off our mortal coil. So, as they say, there’s that.

Below, a few additional notes on the magazine, first published here in 2017.


Earlier this week Marilyn and I turned to Netflix to watch Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, Douglas Tirola’s 2015 documentary about the late National Lampoon magazine, which flourished in the 1970s before declining to a state at which, currently, it’s the clearing house for a brand name that can be rented then attached to pretty much anything or anyone that has the money to purchase it. During its glory years — 1970 to 1975, more or less — it was one of the best-selling magazines in the nation. Deliberately positioned as a humor magazine to bridge the MAD Magazine-New Yorker age gap, it was always a commercial endeavor, but the stars so aligned that it also proved an outlet for some of the best, most outrageous literary parodists and satirists of post-Kennedy America. Its quick demise begs the question: What happened in the first place?

Some satire, like Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, lasts, and some doesn’t. “Satire is what closes on Saturday night,” as the decidedly non-satiric American comic playwright George S. Kaufman once put it. Well, the bad sort closes, but obviously there are exceptions, and that’s because although most satire is directed at corrupt contemporary targets that are rapidly lost in the midst of time, those targets stand in as metonyms for the deeper corruptions of the human heart. The British/French military and political conflict that Swift parodies in the first book of Gulliver stands in for the arrogance and foolishness of nation-states; the attack on Leibniz’s philosophy which sparked Candide is also an attack on sentimental optimism itself; and Twain’s satire of race relations and clannish feuding in the pre-Civil War America of Huckleberry Finn is now read as a satiric exploration of the American ideals of democracy and community themselves. Eighteenth-century European politics, a philosophical dispute from the same century, and the socioeconomic situation of the American South in the 1830s have all become somewhat academic, but not the observations about the human condition that these satirists drew from these local circumstances.

The triumvirate of satirists who steered National Lampoon through its first five years — Douglas Kenney, Henry Beard, and Michael O’Donoghue — were, first and foremost, literary satirists. Kenney’s influences included Evelyn Waugh, James Thurber, and Ronald Firbank (the last also a major influence on British playwright Joe Orton); Beard decided to devote his career to literary humor after his exposure to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, perhaps the greatest of post-war American Menippean satires; O’Donoghue’s background was extraordinarily wide-ranging as a habitue of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, though he seems to have been most inspired by the novels of Terry Southern and William S. Burroughs. The best of the short prose essays and other material that appeared in National Lampoon from those years, and the level of baroque style and parody, easily rank with and outshine those of Thurber, Robert Benchley, and S.J. Perelman in their heyday, and unlike the pieces by Woody Allen and others in the New Yorker (however accomplished and of permanent value as some of these are), their work was tinged with the fire of outrage and a keen anarchic sense of the fraudulence of the time and the heart. Even more than Twain, their immediate satiric ancestor was Nathanael West, whose apocalyptic vision of an urbanized, trivia-besodden America in the 1930s, especially in the revelatory riot that closes The Day of the Locust, offered no hope or respite from the corruptions of the spirit.

The Lampoon‘s best work exemplifies all this. Kenney’s spot-on parody of Che Guevara’s diaries reveals the blind, insipid, delusional idealism at the heart of political revolution (especially in an age of celebrity); O’Donoghue’s “Vietnamese Baby Book” is a masterful deconstruction of the savagery and sentimentality that exist simultaneously at the heart of American culture; and Henry Beard’s “Law of the Jungle” is a genuinely astonishing satire not only of the law but also of the human race’s relationship to the natural world. Later, the best movies under the Lampoon banner also transcended their initial subjects. Animal House (co-written by Kenney) explored the disasters that occur when naivete meets reality, Vacation laid bare the anxieties that the commodification of leisure time produces. (I apologize for all this, and thoroughly deserve some lampooning of my own for these interpretations for what are, after all, just barely grown-up versions of the funny pages.)

In 1975 or so, O’Donoghue left the National Lampoon for what he thought were the greener pastures of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which debuted in that year. Kenney and Beard were, in a way, luckier. Their friend Rob Hoffman in negotiating their contacts in 1970 schemed to include a clause in which publisher Matty Simmons could buy out their contacts based on a multiple of the percentage of the magazine’s value. Kenney and Beard opted to take the buyout, which made them multi-millionaires before they were 30. Kenney went Hollywood and, unable to negotiate the demands and successes of fame, died in a fall from a Hawaiian lookout (whether he jumped, slipped, or was pushed remains a matter of conjecture) in 1980; Beard retired into private life, still writing, and refused to discuss his career with the magazine until he resurfaced in Tirola’s documentary four decades later; the magazine itself had a few more good if not great years under the supervision of Tony Hendra, P.J. O’Rourke and others before its precipitous decline.

Ironically, the reasons for its decline are more numerous than the reasons for its success. By 1975 the political scene in America was becoming more fractured and polarized, and students were increasingly irritated to be told by a bunch of white, upper-middle-class Ivy League elitists that their ideals were illusory at best (while several women were regular contributors to the magazine, including Anne Beatts, Emily Prager, and Shary Flenniken, the skin color in staff photographs of the time is as white as the driven snow); the sophomoric-tastelessness-for-the-sake-of-sophomoric-tastelessness that was always a feature of the magazine began to overtake the more ambitious satires as publisher Simmons strove to drive profits higher and higher; magazine circulations themselves became locked in a struggle against the growth of electronic media. And perhaps the most influential of early Lampoon staffers, Michael O’Donoghue, found that he was unable to tailor his own dark apocalyptic vision to the requirements of the entertainment industry — and O’Donoghue desperately sought commercial success — before his own early death from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 54.

So what of literary satire in the Trump age, given the great achievements of American satire in the half-century before it? Are irony and satire dead — has the future become so dark that we can’t joke about it any more? The same things were said after the Nixon administration, after 9/11, and we’re no closer to a response now than we were then. I doubt there’s an answer in the small shelf of books (and a documentary) now devoted to the history of the Lampoon, its influence, and its offshoots. (These include Tony Hendra’s still-indispensable Going Too Far, Ellin Stein’s That’s Not Funny, That’s Sick, and Josh Karp’s biography of Kenney, A Futile and Stupid Gesture, which is now being adapted into a film for Netflix.) But inspiration can still be sought in the best of its achievements, even if where we go from here is still something of a mystery.

The Mighty Millborough

Christoph Mueller and “The Mighty Millborough.”

I’m in receipt of The Mighty Millborough, a fine self-published portfolio of work by Christoph Mueller, currently of Germany. I first came across his comics in Mineshaft and quickly sought out more.

Mueller’s elegant, carefully crafted comics seem simultaneously nostalgic and unsettling, an evocation of the mirrored images of the individual and the world. His Millborough comics are a study in isolation, solitude, and cynicism set in Sassafras County, an idealized small-town America of the 1930s. The main character’s name itself was inspired by the old-time-radio situation comedy The Great Gildersleeve, but Mueller’s absurdist, quotidian approach is even more reminiscent of Paul Rhymer’s great neglected Vic and Sade radio comedy of the same period.

The cartoonist’s craft is evident in every panel; a post-Crumbian attention to detail and careful, almost melancholy crosshatching lend contemplative depth to his backgrounds and, especially, his domestic interiors. Millington F. Millborough’s house, which boasts a warm if dark “Library of Drink,” is a textured expression of the character’s own interior life. But whereas Crumb’s characters explode with anxiety, Mueller’s bottle it up inside (an apt construction, that), and more frequently than not, that anxiety like Crumb’s is sexual.

It so happens that I share many affinities with Mueller and his work, not least an admiration of W.C. Fields and especially It’s a Gift. I’m only partway through the portfolio and may have more to say. In the meantime, I refer you to the below “cartoon,” Mueller’s semi-animated adaptation of one of his own Millborough stories. You can read more about his work at his web site.

No such thing

A 1995 US postage stamp adapted from artwork by Rube Goldberg in Collier’s, September 26, 1931. Abrams ComicArts/© 2020 Heirs of Rube Goldberg.

In “Foolish Questions,” his new essay for the New York Review of Books, Art Spiegelman eases from a review of a recent touring exhibition of Rube Goldberg (which closed at the Queens Museum earlier this month) to a consideration of screwball comics and their potential for upending conventional attitudes towards reality. Their potential for doing this, though, is ambivalent: “Cartoons are a visual language of simplification and exaggeration whose vocabulary was entirely premised on them,” Spiegelman writes. “It’s as if the N-word was the only word in the dictionary to describe people of color, and even the poetry that comics can offer had to be written in this debased language. We humans are hard-wired toward stereotyping, and, alas, comics echo the way we think.” One of the reasons, perhaps, that they were so frequently denigrated as trash in the more innocent past.

Towards the end of the essay, Spiegelman muses over the future of the screwball perspective, and it must be said that he is not sanguine about it.

Yet the legacy of Mad is still with us. Trump is often referred to in the press as a “screwball,” but “screwball” — an ironic term of endearment, a synonym for “lovable eccentric” — just won’t do for a pathological, lying narcissist with dangerous sociopathic tendencies.

The existential threat facing screwball humor today comes from a “screwball” president who has weaponized postmodernism. Mad taught me to be skeptical of all mass media and to question reality (including my beloved Mad), but the lesson requires a belief that there might actually be something like consensual reality. Nonsense assumes there’s such a thing as sense and puts it in relief by denying reality’s power even if just for a moment.

Spiegelman, I think, is right here: This is the legacy of the postmodern philosophy that gave us contemporary academic departments dismissive of the idea of consensual reality as well as children’s movies like The Matrix, which characterized consensual reality as fraudulent. Unfortunately, as we’re finding, it’s not.

Read all of “Foolish Questions” here.

A toast to … trash

Cafe Katja.

At the blog this week, I recommended an upcoming concert of American spectral music, relaxed with a bit of ragtime, and welcomed the new issue of Mineshaft magazine.

Poking around on the internet yesterday, I came across this interview with comics artist Chris Ware, who mused upon the reputation of the form to which he has devoted his career:

As an art of reproduction, comics always returns to its status as trash, which I think is key to its being seen clearly and read critically; it has none of the innate prestige of writing or painting and so has to earn its stature on its own terms, every time.

An interesting consideration, and one which intersects with two of my other preoccupations, ragtime music and Mark Twain. One of the reasons for comics’ status as “trash” is the original audience to which it was addressed: the broadest general audience, the audience for what we generally call popular culture. Comics, certainly, as entertainments for children published in disposable newspapers and comic books, were never considered lasting contributions to the expression of the human spirit by critics, teachers, or the elite. In 1901, the American Federation of Musicians dismissed ragtime as “‘unmusical rot.’ Members were encouraged to ‘make every effort to suppress and [to] discourage the playing and the publishing of such musical trash.'” The musical journal The Etude went further a year earlier, thundering that “the counters of the music stores are loaded with this virulent poison which in the form of a malarious epidemic, is finding its way into the homes and brains of the youth to such an extent as to arouse one’s suspicions of their sanity.” And in 1885, the year Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published, the New York Herald reported the deliberations of the Library Committee of the Concord, MA, Public Library:

Another committeeman perused the volume with great care and discovered that it was “couched in the language of a rough, ignorant dialect” and that “all through its pages there is a systematic use of bad grammar and an employment of inelegant expressions.” The third member voted the book “flippant” and “trash of the veriest sort.” They all united in the verdict that “it deals with a series of experiences that are certainly not elevating,” and voted that it could not be tolerated in the public library.

What made this American trash particularly trashy, in part, was its use of vernacular forms. All three — comics, Huckleberry Finn, and ragtime — were distinctly American creations, repudiating European expression and embracing American voices. But as Ware suggests, it also has to do with the mass reproduction of the work itself, lending it to easy disposal and dismissal; it is, by definition, ephemeral. The greatest artists in each of these forms — Joplin in music, from Mark Twain to Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor in language, and from George Herriman to Robert Crumb in visual art — shanghaied popular American slang culture to serve as a new vehicle for deeply personal individual expression, thereby becoming profoundly subversive of what for a better phrase we call “high art.” And its reputation as popular culture serves, as Ware also suggests, to keep these creators modest, if not necessarily honest.

So at Cafe Katja this afternoon, Gabe and I will raise our glasses to American trash. Long may it live.

News from North Carolina

Mineshaft #38, the most recent issue of the fine magazine from Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri of Durham, NC, arrived in my mailbox yesterday, and as usual it does not disappoint. It is the American magazine most suited to my own temperament these days, whatever that says about me; one of these days I must write about what that is. I’m about halfway through the issue now; it boasts work from a variety of fine artists: veterans like R. Crumb, Robert Armstrong, Drew Friedman, and Art Spiegelman, but also artists with whom I wasn’t previously familiar, especially Christoph Mueller and Noah Van Sciver. There’s much more, too, not least a chapter from Palmieri’s novel-in-progress and a selection by Aleksandar Zograf of old photos found at flea markets, accompanied by a few quite thoughtful meditations.

You can learn more about the magazine at its web site. I encourage you to subscribe today — three issues for $32.00, a savings of precisely zero off the cover price (I’ll give them the $2.00 for postage), but it’s worth more, oh so much more, as I wrote here.