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.

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.