A toast to … earworms

Cafe Katja.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve written a few sentences about The Book of Weirdo, a new history of the magazine by Jon B. Cooke; flogged an upcoming concert from my lovely wife Marilyn Nonken and an upcoming appearance at the Jalopy Tavern by the East River String Band; and enjoyed the first few pages of Gilbert Seldes’ The Stammering Century. I should probably also note that on Monday night Cooke’s history will be honored at a Columbia University discussion and reception. I’ll be there — the event is sold out, but I understand it’s being recorded and will be made available at a later date.

I’ve been listening to a few old 78rpm records these days and came across the below recordings of “Give Yourself a Pat on the Back,” performed by Jack Payne and his BBC Dance Orchestra on an old Columbia disk in 1929 or 1930. When I was ten years old I came across a stash of old records at my grandmother’s house — this was one of them, and swear to God I haven’t been able to get it out of my head since I first heard it. I imagine this is a fairly obscure recording, but oddly enough, I came across a second version as well — a cover version done up as a novelty comedy song. To be honest, I don’t know whether the non-comedy or the comedy version was the original. The first version below is the version I remember from my youth; you can hear the Spike-Jonesy version in the player below that one. I can’t vouch for the quality of either the song or the performance, but it sure has endured, at least in my memory. I’ll be toasting to the song this afternoon during my Friday sojourn to Cafe Katja. Give yourself a pat on the back, and have a good day today.

On the bedside table: “The Stammering Century”

I’m about a hundred pages into Gilbert Seldes’ 1928 study The Stammering Century and find it quite a hoot. Seldes’ quacks, mountebanks, and frauds are still swarming over the continent, as American as mom and apple pie. Highly recommended. Richard Hofstadter (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life) called it “one of the most perceptive and entertaining studies of the American spirit in the nineteenth century.” Good enough for me.

More about the book below, courtesy of its publisher, New York Review Books.


Gilbert Seldes, the author of The Stammering Century, writes:

This book is not a record of the major events in Ameri­can history during the nineteenth century. It is concerned with minor movements, with the cults and manias of that period. Its personages are fanatics, and radicals, and mountebanks. Its intention is to connect these secondary movements and figures with the primary forces of the century, and to supply a background in American history for the Prohibitionists and the Pente­costalists; the diet-faddists and the dealers in mail-order Personality; the play censors and the Fundamen­talists; the free-lovers and eugenists; the cranks and possibly the saints. Sects, cults, manias, movements, fads, religious excitements, and the relation of each of these to the others and to the orderly progress of America are the subject.

The subject is of course as timely at the beginning of the twenty-first century as when the book first appeared in 1928. Seldes’s fascinated and often sympathetic accounts of dreamers, rogues, frauds, sectarians, madmen, and geniuses from Jonathan Edwards to the messianic murderer Matthias have established The Stammering Century not only as a lasting contribution to American history but as a classic in its own right.

A good time will be had by all

I’ve sung the praises of (and been inspired to take up the guitar by) Eden & John’s East River String Band before. Unfortunately their local appearances are rare, but you’ll have a chance to see and hear Eden and John (as well as Ernesto Gomez) on Tuesday, November 5, at the Jalopy Tavern in Brooklyn. The trouble begins at 8:30, though if you miss it, you’ll have another chance to catch them on December 10. Join them for a casual evening of fine American music — stretch out your legs and stay awhile. To whet your appetite, listen to “He’s Funny That Way,” the 1929 standard by Neil Moret and Richard Whiting, from their most recent album Coney Island Baby below; that’s Eden Brower on vocals, John Heneghan on guitar, and special guest R. Crumb on ukelele. More information about the lovely evening can be found on Facebook.

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.