MICHAEL H. PRICE: Moe Lester and the Persistenence of Absurditude
Only on occasion nowadays do I revisit at any length the bizarre Southwestern region whose Dominant Culture gave rise to the chronic-to-acute exploits of Konstable Moe Lester. I use the word character facetiously, for in all his years of published misadventures (whether small-press or nearer some nebulous mainstream) and privately circulated gag strips, Moe has never been anything more than a facile caricature, a “type” embodying and exaggerating traits, mannerisms, and attitudes that prevail amongst the denizens of West Texas’ so-called Panhandle region.
Now, I feel a profound and abiding nostalgia for that territory, having grown up there and having spent the first decade-and-a-half of my career touring those Panhandle backroads as both a rock-band musician and a reporter for a centrally located daily newspaper. But nostalgia must be acknowledged as an ailment before it can be dealt with on any practical level: When its pangs of homesickness intrude upon my mostly idyllic self-exile to a more nearly metropolitan base of operations, Moe Lester simply rears his ugly proboscis as a reminder of why I had put that sprawling Panhandle country behind me, in the first place.
Once a lusty land, the Texas Panhandle slouches into the 21st century as a scattering of dying hamlets – Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, writ large. The long-gone corporate land-grab barons, whose minions (bureaucratic, military, religious) subdued the native tribal culture, left behind an empire of once-vast ranches, once-thriving railroads, and once-monumental oil-and-gas production outfits that in scarcely the span of five generations have given way to an economy driven by speed traps, Dairy Queen cuisine, prison-system boondoggles and bureaucracies-within-bureaucracies, and the occasional Wal-Mart – bane of the independent small merchant. New methods of petroleum reclamation (drilling at a slant to tap the resources beyond the reach of old-school vertical methods) yield wealth and environmental hazards galore; the citified corporate interests get the wealth, and the countryside gets the hazards. You get the picture.
This is Moe Lester Country, and welcome to it. “The land of the living dead,” as Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard characterized the region in an all-but-epic narrative poem of 1986 called “Brownsville Girl.” Where the more progressive restaurants divide themselves into two sections: one for smoking, one for chain-smoking. Where reciprocal bigotries endure despite superficial desegregation of the ethnicities, and where law enforcement practices a policy of intimidation as a stop-gap against (if not a prelude to) harsher measures. Moe Lester is the emblematic intolerant rustic-with-a-badge.
But of course the Texas backwaters are scarcely the sole domain of rampant Yahooism, and I don’t mean the Other Google. I’ve heard readers and colleagues from Maine to Alabama to Orange County (thank you, Barry Goldberg) remark that they’ve met a Moe Lester or two in their own localized ramblings. And yes, Moe’s patently shallow characterization manages to ignore the benevolence and common decency that remain to be found in such provinces. If one looks hard enough, anyhow.
Because benevolence and common decency aren’t particularly funny. And self-important ignorance is the very stuff of lowbrow, big-nose/big-foot humor. Besides, we all talk funny down yonder in the boondocks.
Yes, well, and many’s the time I’ve dismissed the Moe Lester comics as “those stupid ‘cop’ cartoons,” but all the same they have been a constant in a career whose more artistically earnest endeavors have proved fleeting or erratic. I’ve been putting this character – I mean, facile caricature – through his paces for long enough to know that there must be some reason greater than the mere urge or economic need to see one’s words and pictures in cold print.
Moe didn’t even see generalized publication until my senior year in college – 1969-70 – when as new editor of the campus newspaper at West Texas State University I drafted him into the service of lampooning an oppressive administration and its bullying uniformed security force.
What with the paper’s being an “official” publication, I took discretionary pains to couch Moe’s adventures in a context of ridiculosity. For this quality, I found it practical to draw upon such Real World absurdities as rampant “surveillance” tactics and the Kampus Kops’ entrenched redneck intolerance.
Bill Lee, a good and decent man who was in charge of our Journalism Department, Got the Joke right away when I pitched the first few weeks’ worth of comic strips. “You do know,” Bill cautioned, “that we’ll have to run this feature by Administration.”
Which we did, expecting some outcry. Which we received, from no less a personage than Dr. James P. Cornette, the college’s Figurehead President. (The rancher-turned-historian and divide-and-conquer gadfly J. Evetts Haley, author of a caustic and befuddling tract called A Texan Looks at Lyndon, was the school’s truer chief though not actually on staff, with Dr. Cornette as a loyal cat’s-paw.)
“Seems awfully silly to me, lad,” the Great Administrator told me as he pored over a stack of Moe Lester pages. I was expecting to hear an objection over the christening. But no. Dr. Cornette went on: “I suppose these will pass muster – but one thing I really do find objectionable…”
Bracing for a confrontation, I leaned in closer for the Pronouncement.
“You seem to be doing this in each little cartoon,” said Dr. C. “You have this officer – what was his name, again?”
“Lester, sir. Moe Lester.”
“Yes, well. You seem to have this Officer Lester drinking beer at the end of each episode, as though that is to be his reward for a job well done. Now, I do not believe that this is the image we wish to be fostering for our campus policemen, now, do we, Mr. – uh…”
“Price, sir. Mike Price.”
“Yes, of course, Mr. Price. Now, do we, Mr. Price?” returned Dr. Cornette.
“Do we what, sir?” I asked.
“Do we want our security police portrayed as drunkards, Mr. Price?”
Knowing better than to overplay my hand, I allowed him the concession by retaining the bottle-of-beer drawings but removing the verbal references. (Moe’s “I need a beer!” references were a flat-out swiperoo from a character in Robert Crumb’s stable, the Old Pooperoo.) I neither knew nor gave much of a hang how applicable the image of a beer-swilling constable might be. If Moe’s greater irreverences had gone zinging over the head of Dr. J.P. Cornette, then let the old boy pride himself on a victorious act of Institutionalized Censorship.
“I shall look forward to reading your little cartoons in our newspaper, son,” said he, offering a congratulatory dead-fish handshake.
As it turned out, none of Moe’s more immediate life-models ever seemed to Get the Joke, although enough stoodents and faculty-types took the character sufficiently to heart that Moe’s escapades continued as a weekly feature for a year after I had wrested my diploma from the clammy grasp of Dr. James P. Cornette. The range of contributors to the gag-writing chores grew to include Bill Lee his ownself, along with fellow students-turned-colleagues Dennis Spies and Ken Brodnax and such senior-grade newspaper editors as Fred and Mary Kate Tripp and George E. Turner, later on my co-author on the original Forgotten Horrors movie-history book.
Most of those 1970-72 strips do not bear reprinting – being too topical and too provincially esoteric to stand without annotation, and appearing in general as scarcely a patch upon such finer influences as Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, Skip Williamson, Jack “Jaxon” Jackson, and Gilbert Shelton. Technically speaking, the early entries tend to prove indistinguishable from most of the later stuff, inasmuch as my big-nose/big-foot style has seen few refinements over the longer term. Hence the involvement on various Moe Lester stories since the 1990s of such more polished illustrators as the seminal underground artist Frank Stack (a crucial early influence, owing to my school-days discovery of his college-magazine and proto-underground material) and comparative newcomers Dale Taylor and Don Mangus.
One gag panel that appears somewhere amidst this chronicle (“Hey! Is th’ bartender here?”) appears through the courtesy of the scratchboard artist Mark David Dietz, who also is a savvy and otherwise tasteful collector of comics art. Mark shelled out cash-money at a 1994 Dallas Fantasy Fair charity auction in exchange for ownership of the original drawing. This moronic half-pager first saw publication in 1988, in a newsletter produced by 4Winds Studios, where I had begun working with such formidable players as Timothy Truman, John K. Snyder III, Chuck Dixon, and Graham Nolan.
It should go without saying that I wasn’t working on any Moe Lester foolishments at 4Winds. No, our bunch meant to ennoble the art-form, what with such titles as Scout, The Prowler, Airboy, and The Spider and, later, with provocative graphic novels from such masterful talents as Sam Glanzman and Quiqué Alcaténa. But this 4Winds newsletter cartoon proved transitionable in its half-baked way.
For once resurrected from the Wolvertonian Limbo to which I had banished him, Moe Lester proved unwilling to resume that suspension. Moe has since made his cloddish presence felt in a local-market newspaper gag-strip called What Next?!; in such magazines as Heavy Metal (via Mark Martin’s Strip Tease department within that title) and Crime & Passion and Krime Duzzin’t Pay!; and in earlier incarnations of the Southern-Fried Homicide series of postmodern undergrounders. The newer Moe stories-in-the-works with Frank Stack include a crossover of sorts with Frank’s long-running New Adventures of Jesus series and a bit of Satan-cult absurdity called “Hell Bent for Lester.” Moe about all this as things develop.
The Forgotten Horrors books of Prowler and Fishhead co-author Michael H. Price are available from Midnight Marquee Press at www.midmar.com. Price’s new-movie commentaries can be found at www.fortworthbusinesspress.com. Artwork Copyright © 2007 M.H. Price. World Rights, Wheelwrights and Hard Rights to the Jaw Reserved.