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.

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.