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 Mineshaftand 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.
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.
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 Heraldreported 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.
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.
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.