Backward, forward, up and down

Nathanael West.

Yesterday I mentioned Nathanael West with regard to literature and comic books, and I only wanted to add that the relationship was first introduced by West himself in an essay called “Some Notes on Miss L.,” a few marginal considerations of his short novel Miss Lonelyhearts. In describing his search for a  proper form for the novel, West weighs the value of structuring it as a comic strip or comic book before rejecting the idea, but before he rejects it he offers a good technique for introducing oneself to the form of graphic novels or comic strips or books — how to read them, how to approach the page itself, as well as the challenges of and opportunities in creating them. Said West in 1933:

I cannot do a review of Miss Lonelyhearts, but here, at random, are some things I thought when writing it:

As subtitle: “A novel in the form of a comic strip.” The chapters to be squares in which many things happen through one action. The speeches contained in the conventional balloons. I abandoned this idea, but retained some of the comic strip technique: Each chapter, instead of going forward in time, also goes backward, forward, up and down in space like a picture …

Forget the epic, the master work. In America fortunes do not accumulate, the soil does not grow, families have no history. Leave slow growth to the book reviewers, you only have time to explode.

Humor that severed the jugular vein

In the spring of 1981, the first issue of Weirdo rolled off the Last Gasp presses. The brainchild of R. Crumb, its editor for the first nine of its 27 quarterly issues, Weirdo was an attempt to revive the graphic/comic humor style of Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD magazine and similar publications of the 1950s and 1960s. Until 1990 (and a special, final issue in 1993), Weirdo published and distributed the later work of the groundbreaking underground cartoonists of the previous few decades and the early work of the newly burgeoning alternative comics movement. It was a long and successful run for a humor magazine in that period; National Lampoon‘s heyday ended about the time its founding editors departed in 1975, after only five years; Spy magazine similarly foundered after the first five years of its debut. Weirdo managed to struggle on through almost a decade, and it was fondly remembered after it closed up shop. Now Jon B. Cooke has collected those fond memories and others in The Book of Weirdo, a history of the magazine, published by Last Gasp. It’s not a cautionary tale, exactly, but it does define the history of a certain kind of American comics, humor, and satire of the late 20th century, and it’s one of the very few books that does so. Maybe there’s a lesson in it, but I doubt that.

By the time the early 1980s rolled around, the first wave of underground comics had crashed into the beach and its influence was slowly receding from view. Crumb’s decision to launch Weirdo was practical: He wanted a regular outlet for his work, but the work of his colleagues and friends needed a regular outlet too. It may also have been political, a response to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the increasing moral and ethical miasma into which America was sinking with the increasing influence of advertising, mass media, and corporate money in the American experience. (Harvey Kurtzman had launched MAD in 1952, when the American experience was facing a similar onslaught of garbage.) It was also personal, Crumb’s nostalgic look back at the magazines and comics that had inspired him in his youth, leading him to his first successes in the 1960s and 1970s with the animal-comic parody Fritz the Cat and his satire of Culture-of-Narcissism faux-mysticism in Mr. Natural. So Crumb published, alongside comics by himself and others, exhibitions of peculiar Americana and photo-funnies or “fumetti” that were popular in adult magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. (National Lampoon, too, occasionally ran a similar feature.) As Cooke reports, these photo-funnies were a target of considerable hostility, and they were found more and more rarely in Weirdo‘s pages as new cartoonists sought Crumb out and Crumb accepted their work for publication.

As the years went by, however, the magazine evolved, perhaps one of the secrets of whatever success it achieved, and its subsequent editors put their own stamp on the magazine. Crumb’s successor, Peter Bagge, assimilated a crew of younger, punk-influenced cartoonists into the Weirdo stable; in 1986, Aline Kominsky-Crumb took the reins, and her seemingly-crude-and-artless-but-not-really style, as well as her own generosity, encouraged and attracted a generation of brilliant female artists like Dori Seda and Mary Fleener, and the percentage of work by female artists in the magazine increased exponentially. While Crumb was contractually obligated to produce covers and stories for Weirdo, both Bagge and Kominsky-Crumb were responsible for taking the magazine to places Crumb hadn’t imagined when he established it.

Weirdo‘s wasn’t the only game in town; at about the same time Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly were publishing the large format RAW, an attempt to claim comics as a high art. They undoubtedly succeeded, and Spiegelman’s Maus, originally published in RAW as a serial, deservedly won a Pulitzer Prize. Cooke describes the occasional tensions between the magazines, not least because a number of artists (including Crumb and Spiegelman) appeared in both. Weirdo and RAW weren’t serious competitors. Instead, they complemented each other. RAW aimed high, for the citadels of modernism; Crumb and Weirdo aimed much lower — in a variety of senses — and Crumb never lost sight of the comic in “comics.”

I collected Weirdo magazines as they were published in the 1980s and was always astonished by the extraordinary variety of individual art and styles of the comics, the exquisite craftsmanship and daring graphic innovation that expanded the idea of what constituted true comic art. But what is easily lost in contemplating the art of Weirdo is the brilliance of the verbal humor and the writing that appeared in Weirdo. The magazine’s artists seemed to me most indebted to the great black humor writers of the 1960s and 1970s. Influenced primarily by the likes of Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Nathanael West, these writers parsed the difficulty of maintaining one’s sanity, individual integrity, and even security as one was buffeted by what seemed to be arbitrary, absurd, and malignant cultural and political powers, as well as their own very personal weaknesses, prejudices, and idiocy. The greatest of the black humorists of the 1960s, such as Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, Bruce Jay Friedman, and Paul Krassner, located their satiric vision in a revealing, subversive dissection of the individual under the pressure of the modern world; dismissing standard-issue American realism as inadequate to capture the anxiety of postwar America, these writers corralled both stylistic innovation and a brooding sense of the grotesque and the ridiculous in the service of their frequently nihilistic visions. Whether or not the Weirdo artists were knowingly influenced by these writers, they carried the black humorists’ spirit from the 1960s, when they flourished, to the 1990s, when they were all but forgotten. (It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Drew Friedman, a regular contributor to Weirdo, is the son of Bruce Jay Friedman; Drew also wrote the introduction and drew the cover for The Book of Weirdo.)

Jon Cooke’s history is excellent and often entertainingly informative when digging deep into the history of the magazine and the biographies of its editors and contributors (his interviews, as well as his extensive bibliographical work, will serve as indispensable sources for any future researchers), and it leaves one hungry for an anthology of Weirdo itself. My only quibble with the book is that too little of it is represented here. Crumb’s work for Weirdo — the best of his mid-career, as he became more autobiographical and, at the same time, extended his talent to new projects, including contemplations of Philip K. Dick, Sir James Boswell, and Psychopathia Sexualis — has already been collected in another volume. (Crumb has continued to develop and mature as an artist, his art becoming increasingly textured, subversively ironic, and interestingly hermetic in publications like Art & Beauty Magazine as well as the excellent and highly recommended Mineshaft.) Until that anthology appears, however, Jon Cooke’s The Book of Weirdo is a reminder that American humor and satire was a far more innovative and exciting art form than the endless news program and newspaper parodies that seem to make up that form today; as delightful as they occasionally are, they lack the sheer imagination and daring of the artists of Weirdo.

A toast to … Mineshaft

In many ways, I’m still an analog boy in a digital world, and when it comes to leisure material for reading, watching, and listening, I prefer the hand-made sort of entertainment, whether it’s mid-budget comedy movies from the 1930s or what’s generally become known as roots music. Books and magazines that suit my temperament are harder to come by these days, though.

Fortunately there’s still Mineshaft magazine, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Inspired by underground magazines and comics of the past, Mineshaft is a modest and resolutely hand-crafted periodical that’s issued about three times a year, published by Everett Rand and Gioia Palmieri in Durham, NC, far from the media meccas of New York and Los Angeles. Produced through the increasingly quaint offset printing method, the magazine’s prose, poems, and comics are resolutely free of cant and pretension. The Spring 2019 issue (No. 37) features recent work from veteran cartoonists and illustrators Drew Friedman (front cover), R. Crumb (back cover), Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, and Mary Fleener; poems and paintings by Billy Childish; and work by a number of artists who are unknown to me, such as Nicolas C. Grey, David Collier, and Noah Van Sciver. What they all share is a rootedness in the physical, not the digital, world; like the magazine, the work has a distinctively handmade quality, and the comics especially share a meditative and contemplative marriage of laconic prose and atmospheric inkwork pioneered by, among others, Harvey Pekar in the 1970s. There’s a melancholy that hangs over the whole, a feeling that the analog world it depicts is being lost, if it hasn’t been lost already. That the work has a particularly satiric quality, then, doesn’t come as much of a surprise, especially when it refers to the digital realm, and it’s not much of a shock to find, tipped in with this contemporary work, a reproduction of a detail from a painting by William Hogarth.

Both single issues of No. 37 and back issues are still available from the Mineshaft web site, and you can pony up for a subscription there as well. Obviously the magazine, itself a beautifully, lovingly produced object, will be an acquired taste for those who have drunk deep from the well of the internet culture; it’s not for everybody. But it is, in many ways, for me, so I’ll lift my glass to Mr. Rand, Ms. Palmieri, and their quixotic Mineshaft project when I drop in for my weekly session at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

Drew Friedman’s “All the Presidents” at the Strand

Drew Friedman‘s portraits and caricatures, enlivened by expert draftsmanship and a jaundiced eye toward American culture, have graced the pages of  magazines like Raw, Weirdo, SPY, National Lampoon, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal, among other more or less nefarious publications, for decades. His extraordinarily  textured technique reveals in each stroke of his pencil the various personal peccadilloes, ethical strengths, and moral weaknesses of his subjects. So perhaps it’s no surprise that Friedman has finally turned his pencil towards All the Presidents in an album to be published by Fantagraphics later this month. You can pre-order the book here.

I’ve been an enthusiast of both Drew and his father Bruce Jay Friedman (himself a piercing prose satirist whose anthology Black Humor was a treasured volume of my youth) since I was in short pants. He will be at the Strand Book Store on Thursday, October 3, for a conversation with the legendary comedian Robert Klein and a booksigning; you can sign up for this certain-to-be-delightful hour here. (Drew will also be at the Columbia University event celebrating a new history of Weirdo magazine — for which he drew the cover — later in October; more on that here.)

Remembering Weirdo

R. Crumb’s 1982 house ad for Weirdo magazine.

UPDATE (November 5, 2019): I reviewed The Book of Weirdo here.


So long as we’re on the subject of disillusionment and satire, I bring to your attention an upcoming event at Columbia University: a celebration of the great comic book Weirdo, published by Last Gasp Comics from 1981 to 1993 and created by Robert Crumb. Crumb and his co-editors Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Peter Bagge, along with long-time Weirdo contributor Drew Friedman (who drew the book’s cover art and wrote its foreword), will join Jon B. Cooke, the editor of The Book of Weirdo, at Columbia’s Butler Library on Monday, October 28, at 6:00 p.m. for a panel discussion and reception. You can register for the event here.

Along with Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s more high-toned and expensive Raw (in which early chapters of Spiegelman’s Maus first appeared), Weirdo constituted something of a high point in alternative comics. Unlike Raw, however, which in many ways considered the magazine itself an art object, Weirdo was unashamedly outsider — a rougher, more scurrilous, grown-up version of MAD magazine in more ways than one. Drawing its contributor base from both long-established and new underground comics artists, Weirdo resembled neither Raw nor Crumb’s earlier Zap Comix comics publication as much as it did the MAD of the Harvey Kurtzman era. Its glossy covers featured the only color in the otherwise black-and-white and grayscale production, and even its trim size resembled MAD‘s more than Raw or Zap (slightly larger than the DC and Marvel comic books, not nearly as large as the tabloid-sized Raw). Weirdo was the scabrous, downtown punk to Raw‘s cooler, uptown MoMA gentility; Crumb was also responsible for disseminating the revolutionary comics work of women like Kominsky-Crumb, Dori Seda, and Julie Doucet, themselves outsiders from the outsider-comix scene.

Mark Twain and other Southwestern humorists like Petroleum V. Nasby subverted the popular culture vehicles of the newspaper column and the novel to their own satiric ends; Weirdo and MAD did the same for the popular culture vehicles of the comic book and comic strip. Most of the Weirdo artists expressed a seething Swiftian anger and contempt towards the America of the Reagan era, as Twain did for the America of the post-Civil War era, and the best of this work shades into a comic (in both senses of the word) misanthropy, the deliberate artfulness (and, in some cases, artlessness) of the work paradoxically exhibiting the joy of unbridled, uncensored personal expression.

I understand that the Columbia University event is currently overbooked, but a waiting list has been started. With luck (your luck, not mine; I’ve already confirmed), I’ll see you there. In the meantime, The Book of Weirdo is now available from Last Gasp Comics. Crumb’s own contributions to the magazine have been collected in a separate volume, The Weirdo Years: 1981-’93.