This Thursday: 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 just published by Fantagraphics. You can 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 this 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.)

A portrait of the satirist as a child

First published here in April 2016.

At the Strand Book Store the other day, I came across Walt Kelly’s Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years with Pogo, a book that I cherished as a child. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Kelly’s comic strip was still running in the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, and it was among my favorites, along with Peanuts. After school, I used to lie on my belly on the blue-carpeted floor of the living room, the last orange rays of the afternoon sun dappling the carpet through the window, and open the Bulletin to its last pages, where I studied these, and others, and laughed myself silly (though I imagine most of the time, given the subtle comedy of these strips, I merely smiled in recognition). Other books (mostly pictures, but words too) that I cherished at the time were Gelett Burgess‘s The Purple Cow and Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby, both of these published by Dover in fairly sturdy paperback editions. Paging through the Kelly book this weekend, I won’t say that my childhood came rushing back to me in some Proustian tsunami of memory, but quite a bit of it did.

For those who may not remember it, Pogo was an animal strip. Its lead character was Pogo Possum, and the stories meandered through Okeefanokee Swamp, populated by a frog named Churchy LaFemme, a porcupine named Porky, and an alligator named Albert, among the hundreds of characters major and minor who wandered in and out of the strip over its quarter-century lifetime. More to the point, Kelly often used the strip as political satire; in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the period covered by Ten Ever-Lovin’ Years, its most significant target was Joseph McCarthy, and in later decades Kelly would target the FBI, the Ku Klux Klan, and a gentleman from Whittier, CA, named Richard Nixon. In this odd way, I was introduced as a child to recent American history and contemporary politics and racism. And that’s not all; Kelly was, above all, a liberal humanist, and the strip just as often provided a melancholy reflection on a lost, prelapsarian paradise. “Pogo combined both sophisticated wit and slapstick physical comedy in a heady mix of allegory, Irish poetry, literary whimsy, puns and wordplay, lushly detailed artwork and broad burlesque humor,” says an anonymous Wikipedia editor. “[His] characters are a sardonic reflection of human nature — venal, greedy, confrontational, selfish and stupid — but portrayed good-naturedly and rendered harmless by their own bumbling ineptitude and overall innocence.”

This book was soon joined on my shelf by issues of Mad magazine, then enjoying something of a hey-day with the satiric treasure-box of the early 1970s to work through and before it became a brand under the ownership of Warner Communications; it was inexpensive, advertising-free, and owned and published by the anarchic William M. Gaines; and shortly thereafter by the early issues of the National Lampoon, both of these, too, featuring sophisticated artwork and a profound skepticism, even cynicism, towards the American popular and personal experience of the 1970s.

I read these as a boy between the ages of 7 and 13 or so (though the nonsense rhymes of Burgess may have been introduced to me earlier). It was an odd time to be growing up, and I was in an odd situation. My younger brother and I were often plopped down in front of the TV for dinner time as my parents worked on destroying their marriage in the kitchen, and we ingested Walter Cronkite’s coverage of the Vietnam War as we ingested our chicken or hot dogs or what-have-you. A few years later, I learned about American history and the United States system of government in social studies class, but during summer break in 1973 I learned how this worked in practice during the Watergate hearings. On a more personal level, I watched The Brady Bunch and All in the Family as my own parents’ marriage deteriorated, eventually ending in separation in 1970 and final divorce about a decade later.

When I first came upon satiric novels in my mid-teens, I must have recognized myself in some of their main characters. Both Gulliver and Huck Finn, the protagonists of the novels that bear their names, end up solitary, distinctly apart from the cultures that the novels satirized, Gulliver ensconced in a stable and Huck Finn ready to take to the river again. This voluntary alienation may be less a misanthropic nihilism than a strategic retreat. Although Gulliver doesn’t stand for Parliament or Huck Finn become an abolitionist, nonetheless they have been exposed to kindness and compassion as well as corruption. This retreat may, instead, be an acknowledgement that as individuals they are too easily corrupted by ideals (both real and false), practices, experience, and religious or social dogma that, upon a few moments of reflection, reveal themselves as catastrophically corrupt; Joseph Heller’s Something Happened reveals their ultimate psychic toll. As Pogo himself once famously said, We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Indeed. Since then I’ve become corrupt too, and unless you head for the stable or the river there’s really no way to avoid it.

I also remember that it wasn’t all satire. I enjoyed other kinds of humor and comedy, not least the gentler proddings of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, S.J. Perelman, and W.C. Fields (though all four had their darker moments as well), who are also finding their way back to my library after a long absence. All of this eventually led me to William Gaddis, Heller, Terry Southern, and the others. What I find curious is that I never tried to write satire in any focused way myself, given my pleasure and admiration for these writers and artists. Maybe I should have, but I imagine that what stopped me from doing so was the knowledge that Kelly, Twain, and Swift said it all far more effectively than I could. As Tom Lehrer once admonished, I feel that if a person can’t communicate, the very least he can do is shut up.

My daughters are now 6 and 7 and, most happily, one of the things their mother and I appear to have successfully handed down to them was this sense of humor, not least the first buds of skepticism and cynicism (this despite the fact that in high school the vice principal told me that I was too young to be so cynical, but I don’t think you can ever really be too young for that; it saves a great deal of time and sorrow). And what they like to do most, really, is laugh. One day not yet, but soon I’ll start slipping Pogo and Mad into their bookshelves, so that they can enjoy their first childhoods as I appear to be enjoying my second.

Paul Krassner on Charlie Hebdo

My photograph of the final resting place of Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Bernard Verlhac (Tignous) at the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. Thanks to Marilyn Nonken for tracking this down.

I never met the late Paul Krassner in the flesh, but back in 2015, following the Charlie Hebdo shooting, I had the opportunity to ask him via email about his reaction to that terrible event. His response can be found in the below item, originally posted here on January 8, 2015.

Long before there was a Daily Show there was The Realist. Paul Krassner, who founded the magazine in 1958, is one of America’s most notorious satirists and a pioneer in the great period of American humor that included Lenny Bruce and so many others. He’s still going strong; in 2004, he received the ACLU Uppie (Upton Sinclair) Award for dedication to freedom of expression, and in 2010, the writers’ organization PEN honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award. “I’m very happy to receive this award,” Paul said in accepting it, “and even happier that it wasn’t posthumous.”

As his biography indicates, he is no stranger to the kinds of controversies that Charlie Hebdo so regularly stirred up. I asked Paul this morning for a comment on Charlie Hebdo and the events of the last few days; this is what he told me:

This massacre is an awesome outrage, even to liberals and conservatives alike, although some dinosaur Republicans might try to blame Obama. It’s a horrendous violation of semantic principles, such as “The menu is not the meal” and “The map is not the territory.” As an atheist, I perceive the irony of those assassins shouting “God is great” to justify their insane act in the name of a deity that I believe doesn’t exist.

And what could happen in America? Security guards protecting the “Onion” offices? Treat “Funny or Die” as Islamic marching orders? Invade the cyberspace of NBC for broadcasting “Saturday Night Live” until it morphs into “Saturday Night Dead” if it’s not already deceased?

Religions continue to rationalize their dogma, from birth to death — and then comes the hereafter for these Muslim murderers where all those virgins supposedly waiting to greet the Muslim murderers in Nirvana are busy reading “Lysistrata.” OMG has declared war on LOL.

Paul Krassner

Paul Krassner (1932-2019).

UPDATE: In 2015, Paul responded to my request for a comment about the Charlie Hebdo massacre. You can find that response here.

Satirist Paul Krassner, the founder of the magazine The Realist, took The Final Step yesterday at his home in Desert Hot Springs, CA, at the age of 87. The New York Times obituary is here.

Coincidentally, I’ve just been re-reading his 1993 memoir Confessions of a Raving Unconfined Nut: Misadventures in the Counter-Culture, which Krassner himself updated seven years ago and offered for sale on his web site (though it’s unlikely now you’ll be able to get an autographed copy). The book charts Krassner’s career and personal life, from his debut on the Carnegie Hall stage at the age of six through the raising of his daughter; more, it charts in its own idiosyncratic way a part of American history we’re still learning to live with. The Realist was founded in 1958, four years after the fall of Joseph McCarthy and six years after the debut of Mad magazine, where Krassner was a freelance contributor; Mad‘s publisher William Gaines generously provided office space for Krassner’s own magazine. Over the next 43 years, Krassner and his contributors pursued a line of absurdist investigative satire that attracted writers such as Norman Mailer, Terry Southern, Joseph Heller, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce (Krassner also “edited” Bruce’s own autobiography, How to Talk Dirty and Influence People). The symbiotic relationship of Mad and The Realist — both as businesses (early on) and in their aesthetics — led to other satiric magazines such as the National Lampoon and Spy. Both of those magazines, of course, closed down long ago; Krassner closed down The Realist in the first year of this new century; and, as you likely have already heard, Mad magazine will cease regular publication later this year.

The argument’s been made that we have no more magazines of this kind because we no longer need them. They’ve so deeply influenced popular culture to a degree that they’ve rendered themselves irrelevant, the thinking goes. Who needs Mad when you’ve got Mad TV? National Lampoon when you’ve got Saturday Night Live? Spy when you’ve got Last Week with John Oliver and countless other comedy programs on video, from the major networks to YouTube?

Well, as it turns out, we may need them more than ever, and for a variety of reasons. Reading the pages of a magazine or a book is a more intimate variety of communication than watching a video; a reader is, at the best of times, actively interpreting the nuance of word and image, can go back over it, think about it at his or her own pace. The production of a print magazine, too, is more cost-efficient than garnering the resources of a television network for a weekly program (and this program at higher risk of cancellation than a magazine). Finally, both broadcast and paid mass media are more at the whim of self-appointed censors and Standards and Practices departments than magazines and books, as the National Lampoon writers who moved to Saturday Night Live discovered to their chagrin. Mad (in its first few decades) and The Realist ran little to no advertising and were beholden to no advertisers.

Most important to me is that first quality: the intimacy of reading. As Victor Klemperer pointed out, language is one of the first victims of a totalitarian society. One of the reasons that magazines such as these had the corrupting effect on me that they did was because I could absorb not only the parody and satire of their contemporary targets, but also their worldviews: primarily, skepticism and a certain kind of cheerful nihilism. Ultimately, their message was that you can’t entirely trust anyone — that people in authority all have their reasons to lie to you, and they will if they must. This includes people in the White House, in Congress, in advertising agencies, in classrooms, in churches and synagogues. You are not, as Jonathan Swift, pointed out, a “thinking animal”; you are an “animal capable of thinking,” which is not at all the same thing. Your duty as a human being is to take advantage of that capability. And if you can make fun of those who are lying to you, all the better: it knocks them down several notches, and laughter is often preferable to tears.

This perspective isn’t something you’re going to get from an entertainment conglomerate, a government, or a church (and, it should be pointed out, you shouldn’t entirely trust Mad or The Realist either). But it is a perspective that we need if we’re “live in truth,” as Vaclav Havel put it. It’s no wonder that one of the greatest satiric novelists of the twentieth century, Vladimir Voinovich, lived under a totalitarian regime. Critical thinking, leavened by a sense of humor, may be the greatest threat to tyranny. And the more deeply we can ingrain that habit of critical thinking — through a critical attitude towards language, which we can gain only if we read — the more ready we are to fight against tyranny, whether governmental, physical, or metaphysical.

The entire print run of Paul Krassner’s magazine The Realist is available here, and a 2016 anthology of cartoons originally published in the magazine is available here. In September Fantagraphics Books will publish Zapped by the God of Absurdity: The Best of Paul Krassner, an anthology of his work. It’s available for pre-order here.

 

The good kind of corruption

The cover of a 1967 anthology I owned in my teen years.

While the roots of the literary genre of “black humor” lie in a variety of places (certainly many of Mark Twain’s novels, stories, and essays exhibit the dark, hallucinatory qualities associated with the genre; Jonathan Swift, Nathanael West, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline qualify for the label, and André Breton’s Anthology of Black Humor, gathering more than 40 mostly French specimens, was published in 1940), it wasn’t until 1945 and the post-WWII era that it truly blossomed in the United States. Perhaps it was the development of the atomic bomb that led to a deeper sense of nihilism and pessimism; perhaps it was the increasingly consumerist nature of American culture and entertainment; perhaps it was the yawning gap between American ideals and American reality, becoming ever more obvious after the war, that inspired the writers who placed the absurd lengths to which hypocrisy could extend under their microscopes. Instead of subjecting this hypocrisy to handwringing sorrow, though, the genre subjected it to ridicule. If WWII was supposed to be a war that made the world safe for peace, love, and understanding, it was also a war that generated the weaponry that could destroy the entire human race, and the world it infested, in the space of just a few hours; in the meantime, the corruptions of the culture wormed their way into the hypocritical corruptions of Americans themselves, generating an almost desperate denial of the condition into which the race had contorted itself. The black humorists decided the only sane response was to laugh, especially at themselves, as guilty as the rest of the species.

As I noted yesterday, I blame myself for the corruption of my daughters, budding black humorists themselves; I blame my parents for my own corruption. Among my earliest memories is the night that my parents, wanting to save a few dollars on a babysitter, put my brother and I in the back seat of the car, then drove to a local drive-in theater to see Dr. Strangelove, or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb. Of course, they wanted to see the movie themselves (Bambi was a more acceptable children’s film), and I can’t vouch for the validity of this, but something must have rubbed off, even at that young age. Within a few years I was subscribing to Mad magazine; by the time I was in my teens I’d moved on to National Lampoon, Paul Krassner’s briefly revived The Realist, and R. Crumb, but I was also turning to more literary exemplars of black humor: Joseph Heller (my father owned a well-thumbed paperback copy of Catch-22), Terry Southern, and William Gaddis, as well as their ancestors Swift, Twain, West, and Céline .

Lucky I was to live in that time, because the values which this work instilled in me have stood me in good stead: a rejection of blind, moralizing authority; a healthy disrespect for pretension and arrogance; a preference for difficult and ugly truths over comforting and self-satisfying lies; and the bravery and courage to confront hypocritical authority, pretension, arrogance, and lies with creative, subversive, comic ridicule, preferably accompanied by a good stiff drink. Good lessons, I think, for me to pass along to my daughters, and it’s a joy to revisit these works again in the company of my own children. As Twain himself — speaking through Satan — wrote at the end of his life:

Will a day come when the race will detect the funniness of these juvenilities and laugh at them — and by laughing at them destroy them? For your race, in its poverty, has unquestionably one really effective weapon — laughter. Power, Money, Persuasion, Supplication, Persecution — these can lift at a colossal humbug, — push it a little — crowd it a little — weaken it a little, century by century: but only Laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.

And, as God Himself recently said,