Tagged: Art Spiegelman

Mike Gold: Snappy Skippy Williamson

Skip Williamson (L), Jay Lynch

In this space two weeks ago, I wrote about the death of cartoonist and comix legend Jay Lynch. I noted his half-century friendship with Skip Williamson; despite their physical distance, I don’t think two people could have been closer.

As fate would have it, Skip died eleven days after Jay. Each was 72 years old. For long-time friends of the pair, for long-time fans of the pair – and I count myself among both groups – the timing was crippling. Skip long had heart problems so even though it was shocking, it wasn’t totally unexpected. However, there’s a kind of appropriateness about that timing that makes complete sense.

I won’t repeat their mutual history other than to mention the first comic book they pioneered was Bijou Funnies. Both had contributed to Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! Magazine and, later, to Playboy. Skip’s most revered character was Snappy Sammy Smoot, a hippie take on Ernie Kovacs’ popular character Percy Dovetonsils, only – and incredibly – even more surreal. His Neon Vincent’s Massage Parlor might have been better known as it was published monthly in Playboy, but it was Snappy Sammy Smoot who endured.

In fact, one of Smoot’s final appearances was right here at ComicMix. When we brought back John Ostrander’s fabled Munden’s Bar feature, I asked Skip if he would do our first new story. It has been reprinted in trade paperback and continues to be available here online in our comics section. Skip and I also worked together on many other projects for the Conspiracy Trial (the underground comic Conspiracy Capers was the first comic book with which I was involved; that was in late 1969 and was financed by a one thousand dollar bill I talked Abbie Hoffman into giving me), on the Chicago Seed, for the National Runaway Switchboard, and on various music and radio projects.

Skip’s contributions to Playboy paid off well: he became art director and frequent cover artist at Playboy Press, publisher of many books and paperbacks. It was through this connection that Skip introduced me to Harvey Kurtzman… at the original Chicago Playboy mansion, no less.

Skip maintained the radical political point of view that was typical of the late 60s and early 70s – and he kept it all his life. Physically, as you can see from the photo, Skip actually looked like he drew himself. Not in comics; in real life. Such as it is.

For a while, Skip lived in a nice apartment in Evanston Illinois, just north of the Chicago city limits. From there he would occasionally take LSD and gawk at the folks who lived in next-door Skokie, a town that was known, somewhat undeservedly, for its middle-class lameness. Amazingly, when I moved back to Illinois after my first stint at DC Comics in the late 1970s, I rented Skip’s old apartment. But I wasn’t the one who actually found the apartment, my first wife Ann scouted the place out before I got there. I walked through the flat when it was empty and got a funny vibe, as though I had been there before. I finally realized that I had, and I stayed there nearly nine years until I went back to DC Comics here in the Atlantic Northeast.

A man with a great sense of humor and a truly unique worldview, Skip was a proud father and a wonderful husband. And a swell friend.

In the realm of cartoonists, in addition to the underground crowd populated by such friends as Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton, Kim Deitch, Ralph Reese and Denis Kitchen, Skippy shared the same slice of the comics pie as masters like Jack Cole, Basil Wolverton and Dick Briefer – but, somehow, moreso. Like Ernie Kovacs, Skip believed in the concept of nothing in moderation; at least in cultural terms.

It’s hard to believe Skip and Jay are no longer here. In recent years I’d see them together at various conventions; that’s how us old-timers stay in touch with the rest of the donut shop. But now we’re two stools light.

 •     •     •     •     •

O.K. I’m ending with a personal note. I might sound like I’m whining, but I’m just overwhelmed. We’ve lost a lot of great people in the past two weeks or so. Some, like Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson and Bernie Wrightson, were friends of many decades standing. Others like Dave Hunt were co-workers who I knew and liked, and still others – the unbelievably gifted Jimmy Breslin and the George Washington of American music, Chuck Berry – are people I’ve interviewed and worked with. So it’s been a bit tough here in La Casa del Oro. Michael Davis gave us his Bernie Wrightson story in this space yesterday. We’ve got to stop losing all these great talents, now when we need them the most.

Mike Gold: Jay Lynch – Um Tut Sut!

Every town must have a place / Where phony hippies meet / Psychedelic dungeons / Popping up on every street • Frank Zappa, “Who Needs The Peace Corps?”

The late Sixties really did live up to its reputation. In my home town of Chicago hippie central was the Lincoln Park neighborhood around the iconic Biograph Theater, where, 34 years earlier, the FBI allegedly shot John Dillinger to death. Today, hippies can’t even afford to drive down Lincoln Avenue.

The area sported many blues and folk bars, giving such local talent as Steve Goodman, John Prine, Hound Dog Taylor and Harvey Mandel a place to strut their stuff. It was Mecca to the storefront theater movement, creating world-renown companies such as the Steppenwolf and the Organic Theater a home for newcomer writers and actors like David Mamet, Joe Mantegna, Laurie Metcalf, John Malkovich, and John Ostrander. A mile down the street was The Second City, then-home to John Belushi, Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and dozens of other people who would draw a multicolored mustache on the face of comedy.

A mile further south found you at the office of the underground newspaper the Chicago Seed, a paper so underground it sported a circulation as high as 48,000 copies. I was fortunate to be part of that outfit, initially working under the brilliant editor Abe Peck, who taught me more than any credentialed teacher ever could. Wonderfully, The Seed was across the street from the gargantuan Moody Bible Institute, although I spent more time at the Saucy Weenie scarfing down some great Italian beef and hot dogs.

Creativity flowed down Lincoln Avenue and if you weren’t swimming with that flow you were bathed in amazement. This, in January 1969, is where I first met a one-time Second City employee named Jay Lynch.

Most certainly, cartoonists benefited from the freedom and opportunity that brazenly replaced oxygen. The Chicago Mirror, a black-and-white “counter-culture” magazine that debuted in 1967 and was mostly sold at “head shops” (Google it) such as the Mole Hole. Less than a year later, editor/publisher Lynch turned it into an all-comix publication called Bijou Funnies. It featured the work of Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gilbert Shelton, Jay Kinney, Justin Green, Kim Deitch, Ralph Reese, Denis Kitchen and his forever pal, Skip Williamson… it, like Zap Comix that premiered shortly before Bijou, was a who’s who of the comix movement.

As the hippie crusade started to age out, Jay – often known as Jayzey – expanded his horizons. He did color separations and 3-D adaptations for Fred Eychaner, then a printer, a major hippie employer and a contributor to The Seed. Jay was among the many underground artists recruited to write and draw for Topps Inc., contributing to the iconic Bazooka Joe and engaging in a life-long relationship with Wacky Packs and Garbage Pail Kids. In 1976 he created Phoebe and the Pigeon People with Gary Whitney for the Chicago Reader and syndicated to alt-weeklies all over. Several reprint books were published by Kitchen Sink Press; the feature ran for the better part of two decades.

I worked with Jayzey and his BFF Skip Williamson off and on for years, and we saw each other at comics conventions, stockholders’ meetings (that one’s a long and litigious story), and, well, memorials to fallen friends. When FM rock radio and poetry slam pioneer Bob Rudnick died in 1995, a wake was held at Mike James’ famed Heartland Café. It was a wonderful reunion of long-haired gray hairs, and, sadly, was the last time I saw such wonderful people as Marshall Rosenthal and Eliot Wald. Jay was still living in Chicago but I had moved to the New York area nearly ten years previous; we talked for more than an hour catching up and pontificating on the status of the comic art medium and what we should be doing about it. We continued that conversation for 20 years, mostly in bits and pieces at conventions but also through the modern miracle of the Internet.

Jay Lynch died of cancer last Sunday at the age of 72. These days, that’s young enough to be thought of as dying too young. Of course, for vital creators such as Jayzey no age could be too old. Unlike many of us hippies Jayzey eschewed drugs – Denis Kitchen pointed out that was true only if you didn’t count nicotine – but he got chopped down early nonetheless.

Jay Lynch was a quite pioneer. His work speaks for itself; his work screams for itself. A much-loved man, he leaves friends stunned and saddened all over the world.

Eras end all the time. Jay Lynch’s work will endure.

John Ostrander: Think Of The Children!

Peter-Capaldi

Doctor Who, the long-running BBC TV series about a humanoid alien transversing through time and space with his companions, has wound up its current season, its tenth since it’s return following a long hiatus. The current actor playing the part, Peter Capaldi, is the fourth actor (or the fifth depending how you number it) since the show returned or the twelfth or thirteenth since the show’s inception. The numbering differential is a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey thing.

The show has sparked a discussion among the fans lately because, well, that’s what fans do, especially of a cult science-fiction show such as this one. There’s great passion and great heat as usual with these things along with the absolute conviction of one side that they are right and that those on the other side are wrong. It doesn’t matter which side of a debate you’re on, the other guy is wrong. There’s a lot of passion and maybe some thought and that’s what happens with a fan disagreement.

The current issue under debate is that Doctor Who began as a children’s show back in 1963 and it should always be a children’s show. The position of some is that the current monsters are often too scary for children, the continuity has become too complex for children, the relationships are inappropriate for children.

There’s some truth to all this, and there’s a lot of bullshit as well. The current show-runner, Stephen Moffat, also writes a number of the episodes and his fingerprints are usually all over the ones he doesn’t write. I started out as a big fan of Moffat, especially in the seasons before he became the show’s producer. At his best, Moffat writes very clever episodes with great heart. At his worst, Moffat is just being clever. I’m less impressed with those episodes than he seems to be.

Are the Doctor Who monsters too scary for children? The show has always scared children. Part of its initial burst of popularity, indeed its initial survival, rested on the Daleks, a group of alien cyborgs. They’ve been described as deranged pepper shakers, bent on conquest and the death of any species inferior to themselves which they consider all other races to be. They’re catch phrase is “Exterminate!” They scared the bejabbers out of British tykes since their first appearance. I’ve read reminiscences of Brits saying they watched the show from behind the couch or through their fingers. The world can be a scary place and all children know this. Being afraid and then seeing the monsters defeated is, I think, very healthy. Many of the classic fairy tales do this. Scaring the little bastards is a good idea. It’s part of growing up.

Should Doctor Who have remained a children’s show? I’ve worked for a long time in a medium (comics) that was considered the bastard child of children’s lit. It was off in a ghetto of its own despite the fact that elsewhere in the world, the comics medium wasn’t considered to be only for children. I’ve never considered my work to be primarily for children and, in fact, have several times steered a parent away from my work. We’ve since broken out of that artistic straightjacket with works of art such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus showing what the medium is capable of being.

That said – there haven’t been enough comics for children any more. The medium has catered to the fan and the cult without paying attention to where the next generation of readers are going to come from. That’s short-sighted. Given the multiple versions of the characters that exist, the two major publishers – DC and Marvel – should publish versions of their main characters to attract the young reader. As the kids grow into adults, you could introduce them to the more grown-up editions of the characters. That’s investing in their own characters and the future of the medium.

The question for the comics – and Doctor Who – is not just what they are but what they can be.

Mike Gold: The Genuine American Hero

March

Yesterday I had the privilege of joining fellow ComicMixers Martha Thomases and Adriane Nash and a standing-room-only crowd at Columbia University to hear Congressman John R. Lewis talk about graphic novels.

Congressman John LewisMake no mistake about it: Congressman Lewis is a genuine hero. I realize that’s a word we toss around rather lightly these days, but believe me, he is the real thing.  A recipient of the American Medal of Freedom, the highest honor we bestow upon civilians, Congressman Lewis was one of the original leaders of the 1960s civil rights movement. As such, he organized (with others, of course) the Freedom Riders, the civil rights march on Washington, the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, and a great many other actions that helped make real the concept of America to all Americans. A student and cohort of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, he has been beaten, fire bombed, left for dead, and arrested over 40 times. He has talked the talk and walked the walk, and ours is a better nation for it. Far, far better.

Congressman John R. Lewis is also a graphic novelist.

Along with co-writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell, Congressman Lewis has produced the three volume graphic novel March. Please note the third volume, which is the longest of the trio, will be released this coming summer. We have reviewed March here at ComicMix. In fact, twice.

Montgomery MarchCongressman Lewis’s speech, joined by co-writer Aydin and hosted by comics legend Paul Levitz, was certainly about his life and his work. But it was equally about graphic novels and how ours is an important medium for the sharing of ideas – just ask Art Spiegelman. He also disclosed how he was inspired by a 1956 comic book that was edited by Dr. King, The Montgomery Story. You might want to check it out for yourself.

After the event, Adriane said we should have more non-fiction graphic novels. That’s a passion of mine as well, and I thank Congressman Lewis for making such future efforts significantly more feasible.

Of course, that’s towards the bottom of the list of things for which I thank this true hero. March is the story of America, and it is the story of a man who put his life on the line repeatedly to make America … America.

Of course we need more such heroes. But, basking in the inspiration from this great man, I am truly grateful we have Congressman John R. Lewis.

Emily S. Whitten: Labyrinth of Lies Confronts Harsh Truths

maus

Last week I went with my friend to a screening of Germany’s entry for the foreign-language film Oscar, Labyrinth of Lies, hosted by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and featuring a Q & A with director and co-writer Giulio Ricciarelli. The film and Q & A were excellent.

The film focuses on the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, which took place in Germany almost twenty years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, from 1963-65. These trials followed the Nuremberg trials held by the Allied forces in Germany, and the resulting “first Auschwitz trial” in Poland. The first Auschwitz trial tried forty former staff of the Auschwitz concentration camps who were witnesses in the Nuremberg trials. The Frankfurt Auschwitz trials charged over twenty defendants under German criminal law for their roles as mid- and low-level officials at the Auschwitz concentration camps.

Labyrinth of Lies examines Germany during the run-up to and beginning of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, as seen through the eyes of young public prosecutor Johann Radmann (Alexander Fehling), who strives to bring the truth of what happened at the camps into the light, and secure justice against the perpetrators via the court system. It tracks his attempts to obtain support for his crusade against the backdrop of strong political and social opposition in West Germany, and in the face of ridicule and hostility from his fellow prosecutors. The film does an excellent job of evoking the atmosphere and culture of a post-war Germany with a flourishing economy and no desire to look back at harsh and horrific truths.

Radmann’s world, from his struggle to get any of his superiors to support his legal quest and any of the Holocaust survivors to trust and speak with him, through to his difficulties in facing the brutality of the Holocaust, its effects on him and his relationships personally, and the disillusionment with humanity that he must work through as a result, is a well-told and emotionally gripping story. It is also one we are drawn into as we share in his amazement and outrage at watching a Germany that is seemingly wrapped in collective amnesia regarding what its citizens chose to do less than twenty years before, and at former SS members who have, with apparently no difficulty, slipped back into civilian life exactly as they left off. (As one associate explains, “The public sector is full of Nazis. And none of them has anything to worry about.”)

The story of Simon Kirsch, a survivor of Auschwitz who at first refuses to discuss his experience at all, is also riveting and powerfully portrayed. Kirsch’s tale and his revelation of it is a pivotal point in the movie; for after Radmann and journalist Thomas Gnielka find evidence in Kirsch’s apartment that they can use to build a case against the eventual defendants, they are able to convince Kirsch as well as many other Holocaust survivors to give testimony about their experiences. However, they have great difficulty in getting to that point, since Kirsch is gripped in a maelstrom of emotions in the aftermath of his time in the camps, including tremendous anger, sadness, and guilt at surviving so many who lost their lives. Forcing him to face the awful memories he lives with seems cruel, yet Radmann and Gnielka rightly observe that these secrets must be brought into the light before anyone can begin to heal. Opening the floodgates, however, also results in Radmann and others being forced to face horrors worse than any of them realized as the parade of survivors tell their wrenching tales of the camps.

Having read a fair amount about the Holocaust over the years, I was familiar with the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. However, what I was completely unfamiliar with, and what Ricciarelli, his co-writer Elisabeth Bartel, and the cast of Labyrinth of Lies portray so well was the culture of Germany in the late fifties and early sixties when the trials took place. While these days familiarity with at the very least the Nuremberg trials of 1945-46 leads one to think that after the war, everyone was made aware of the horrific crimes against humanity perpetrated against the Jews and others sent to the concentration camps, the film shows that in fact, at the time of the Frankfurt trials, older Germans refused to speak of the atrocities of the war, practicing silence to willful ignorance when the subject arose; and younger Germans, raised in this atmosphere of grim and institutionalized silence, were either ignorant or unsure of the full truth of what had occurred.

The film is a fascinating examination of the principle that what we choose to remember shapes the world, and highlights that the German culture of denial at that time was poisonous to attempts to move forward, and also allowed criminals such as Josef Mengele to cavalierly elude capture, sometimes for decades.

Labyrith of Lies is an exceedingly well-researched and intelligent film; and one that manages to weave the elements of a courtroom drama, fresh revelations about a much-studied period in history, the emotional and personal journey of an admirable protagonist, and the inherent complexities and contradictions of humanity that are so ruthlessly highlighted by the events of the Holocaust into a cohesive and arresting story. In showing Radmann’s struggle to confront the absolute incomprehensible atrocity of the Holocaust, and his determination that in the face of so much wrong the only remedy is to do what’s right, the film conveys a vital message, and manages to do so in a way that is fascinating and uncontrived.

Interestingly, the film also reminds me of the well-known graphic novel Maus (which ComicMix has featured before), another well-executed true story of the Holocaust, written and drawn by Art Spiegelman. The film’s Radmann and Kirsch in many ways mirror Maus’s Art and Vladek Spiegelman, with the younger protagonists struggling to comprehend and live with the true stories they are encountering, of a humanity so contradictory and an atrocity so monumental as to be unfathomable.

The struggle Art Spiegelman goes through is particularly evident at the beginning of Maus II, as he tries to determine how to approach Auschwitz in graphic novel form, and belittles himself for thinking he could distill the impact of his father’s stories into something that would fit in a mere novel. This struggle with the enormity of such a task is echoed in Labyrinth of Lies, when Radmann moves from trying to locate just a few former Auschwitz staff members to ordering every phone book in Germany because he has realized that these criminals could literally be anywhere, and is shown almost comically in the delivery of an entire truck of the books, which evoke the literal feeling of being overwhelmed with information and not knowing where to start or how to approach the problem.

Another shared thread is the struggle of the survivors to face their experiences, as shown in Simon Kirsch’s possession of a suitcase full of papers he grabbed on the way out of Auschwitz, which he has never examined. Similarly, Vladek Spiegelman, although he does retain a box of photographs of family members, is shown to have destroyed all of his deceased wife’s journals recounting her Auschwitz experience, seemingly without having read them.

Both Labyrinth of Lies and Maus are amazingly well-executed and moving tales, in turns engaging and horrifying, of the Holocaust and those attempting to deal with its aftermath. I highly recommend Labyrinth of Lies, and, if you haven’t yet read Maus, it as well.

And until next time, I hope you Servo Lectio.

John Ostrander: Realistic Fantasy

Ostrander Art 130922I’ve often maintained that the best fantasies are ones that have one foot firmly set in reality. We need something to which we can relate. We are asked to enter into a “willing suspension of disbelief,” as coined by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However impossible or implausible in reality an event in literature is, we accept it. Quite simply, we’re being told a story and we concede reality to get on with the story – up to a point.

When Superman first appeared in 1938 he was a fantastic character but, in those early stories, he fought real-life villains and situations – slums, gangsters, crooked politicians, corrupt cops and so on. The United States, like most of the world, was still deep in the Great Depression. World War II was looming. For so many people, the reality was that the banks had failed them, the courts had failed them, the police failed them, the system had failed them. With Superman, the Little Guy had a hero who worked outside that corrupt and broken system, working for them, working to achieve justice. Superman was originally very anti-establishment and that may have been his greatest power.

Then came the War and Superman was co-opted, along with the other heroes, to fight the Axis, to bring down the Nazis. Reasons had to be given why he didn’t just fly to Berlin and take down Hitler. That was the reality of the situation and the fantasy was having a harder time fitting in.

After the War, Superman became fully co-opted by the Establishment. His biggest concern was his girl friend, Lois Lane, learning his secret identity.

Marvel came along in the 60s and introduced a psychological realism – the heroes had neuroses, psychological problems, issues that they needed to work out. Spider-Man was the poster boy for the neurotic new hero and it resonated. After all, to put on a mask and go out to fight crime, you had to be a bit crazy. Peter Parker had money troubles, work troubles, girl troubles; he was bullied in high school and it was all compounded by his choice to be Spider-Man. However, he couldn’t stop. He was driven by the death of his Uncle Ben for which he held himself partially responsible. Great fantasy, solid reality.

The reality became more of a soap opera as time went on. What was once fresh became cliché. Like Mickey Mouse (oddly enough, since The Mouse now owns Marvel), Spider-Man went from being a character to being a franchise to being a product and a corporate symbol.

Marvel’s New Universe wandered in at some point and one of its claims was a new realism. One of the boasts was that, when their heroes or villains lifted up a building, you could see broken plumbing underneath. I ask for a little more reality than that and the line eventually folded.

Milestone Comics came in and it had a solid dose of reality, setting their heroes in the African-American community and reflecting that truth. One of my favorite books was the Blood Syndicate; one of the tags for it was “They’re not a team. . . they’re a gang.” That was different and reflected a new reality. Sadly, Milestone didn’t last long enough to get old.

DC has re-launched itself with the New 52 and Marvel has Marvel Now but both, to my taste, veer still more towards fantasy and soap opera. The storylines have gotten more convoluted and event driven.

And then there’s Art Spiegelman’s Maus – the classic hat adroitly combines both fantasy and reality. By using mice as Jews in Germany during World War II, Spiegelman heightened the reality and made what might have been unbearable to look at very readable and very compelling.

After 9/11, the comics industry spoke to the tragedy. More than one person wished that Superman had been real that day. Then maybe he could have prevented the planes from crashing into the World Trade Center. None of the books that came out of that horror, to their credit, tried to do that but, at the same time, they were one shots. There was no lasting effect in the books unlike New York City and our national psyche. Failing to do that made them all a little impotent. The Punisher continued to hunt and kill gangsters; wouldn’t it have been more realistic to have him go after terrorists at home and abroad?

Take a look at the real world around you. How much of it is reflected in your comics? What drove Superman in his earliest incarnations – a hero outside the system, working for justice that the Little Man can’t get – is as or more prevalent today as it was 75 years ago. Look at the news – is any of that reflected in the comics you read? How would a hero deal with terrorists? What if a superhero was a member of al-Quaeda? How can we pit our angels against our demons in such a way as would, as Shakespeare put it, “hold a mirror up to nature”.

I enjoy comics; I enjoy reading them and I enjoy writing them. I do. They can be good entertainment. They could also be more. They could stand, I think, a little more reality.

Or maybe that’s just me.

MONDAY MORNING: Mindy Newell

TUESDAY MORNING: Emily S. Whitten

 

Martha Thomases: Comics… and How Science Works

Thomases Art 130823There was a time when it was assumed that people who read comics were not very smart. They couldn’t understand a book without pictures, despite the opinion of Lewis Carroll, as expressed by Alice. This opinion began to lose ground in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, when Art Spiegelman published Maus, some people began to think that comics were for people who were too smart.

During my time at DC, I saw a parallel development among schoolteachers and librarians. When we first start displaying our wares at book shows, we initially faced skepticism. As comics stories like “The Death of Superman” made the news, and more serious work, like Sandman, got reviewed in mainstream media, these professionals began to understand how graphic story could get students and library patrons excited about reading.

For the most part, comics have played only minor roles in classrooms. The excellent For Beginners series has covered about a bazillion topics. This September, NBM gets into the act with an American edition of a Dutch book, Science: A Discovery in Comics by Margreet de Heer. It is available in paper and pixel.

I could use a book that would explain science for the not-so-smart types I described above in the first paragraph. I’m terrible at memorizing the periodic tables, and if I start to think about time and how to define it, I get dizzy. Alas, this book does not fix my head.

It does something better.

deHeer traces the history of science from the ancient Egyptians to Richard Dawkins and beyond. She covers all the sciences: biology, geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry and so on. She describes scientific inquiry from the time that science was as hunch-based as religion (when it was assumed there were four elements, and the earth was the center of the universe) until now. Not only does she cite the times when scientists proved each other right, but also the times when they proved each other wrong.

She does this with charming drawings, with two characters who walk through the millennia, and interact not just with historical science, but with the people affected by their discoveries. It deftly shows that there is more to history than a list of kings and battles.

A lot of fundamentalist types, especially creationists, like to point at the errors other scientists have found in the work of Darwin, and claim that since his original theory of evolution was flawed, that means God created the world in six days a few thousand years ago. That’s not how science works. Real scientists never take “Yes” for an answer. They always seek to disprove an old theory, or prove a new one. When science proves something is false, it is as much a vindication for the scientific method as proving something is true.

If you have a curious kid in your household, you could do worse than get her this book. Even if that kid is 60 years old.

SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman

SUNDAY: John Ostrander

 

Martha Thomases: Where Are Our New Nerds?

In last Monday’s New York Times Media Watch columns, they ran a list of the ten films released this year that had the highest box office ion their opening weekends. What’s amazing to me is that the top five (Marvel’s The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Hunger Games, Amazing Spider-Man and Twilight: Breaking Dawn: Part 2) can all be classified in the fantasy genre, or, as I like to call it, nerd stuff.

Of the next five (Skyfall, Brave, Ted, Madagascar 3 and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax), three are aimed primarily at children, and one is a James Bond film, which has its own separate but overlapping geek audience. Only Ted could be considered a movie aimed at what was once the wide, mainstream audience, and even then, because it is an R-rated comedy, that limits the wideness.

When did our beloved nerd culture become so dominant? I was certainly the only girl in my high school (which was all girls) who read superhero comics, and if anyone else read science fiction or fantasy, they were in the closet about it.

Even in the 1980s, when Frank Miller and Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman were publishing work that attracted mainstream media attention, there wasn’t much spillover to the medium of graphic storytelling.

When I first went to work for DC, the most common reaction I encountered when people learned what I did was, “Do they still publish those?”

For that matter, even today, the success of the movies listed above doesn’t do much for comics. There’s a history of tie-in films boosting the sale of books (for example, Gone With the Wind), but that doesn’t always overlap to your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, or comic book store.

Still, I don’t think fans like us can claim to be outsiders anymore. We might not be the cool kids, but we aren’t unwanted loners, either. What are today’s nerds about?

Is it Steampunk? Is it libertarian politics? Are there still obscure rock bands to follow, or has everything been American Idol’d to a bland pap. What distinguishes the kids getting beat up and/or ostracized today?

Besides being queer, I mean.

SATURDAY: Marc Alan Fishman and This Week’s New DC

 

Marc Alan Fishman: Comics Are Good For Learnin’

So it came to my attention by way of an amazingly nice lass that some forward thinking teacher-types are slowly coming around the bend. Yup, they are looking toward comic books, those evil things, as potential fodder for their classrooms. Gasp! And, as it would seem, this very nice girl asked me – little old me – to give my two cents on the matter. And because I love killing two birds with one stone, I figured this outta make a great li’l rant to share with you, my adoring public. Of course, I realize now I admitted to the glee I feel when I commit aviaricide. Well, there went my fan-base. Tally ho!

I know back in the olden days, comics were largely seen as kitchy wastes of ink and paper. Kids buried in them were potentially violent sociopaths just waiting to commit crimes of laziness. But by the time I was in school they were starting to be called graphic novels. Thanks in large part to the artsy works of Art Spiegelman, Joe Kuburt, and Will Eisner, the medium as a whole was slowly pulling itself out of the low-bro.

That being said, I was never assigned a graphic novel to read for a class. Nor was I able to select one for independent book reports or the like. Even within the realm of studio art classes I was nixed the ability to cite Alex Ross as a major influence without scoffs. But as Bob Dylan sings, “The times, they are a changin’.”

If I were to suggest opening up a classroom to comics, well, it’s a simple issue – do it. Comics are easily one of the best gateways to literacy I can think of. Truth be told, the first books our parents read us (and I’m reading to my own boy now) are gloriously illustrated. Dr. Seuss, a one-time newspaper comics guy, is just panel borders away from sharing shelf space with Daniel Clowes. In the earliest of classroom settings I’d start with the recognizable. Art Baltazar and Franco’s Tiny Titans is as accessible a comic as I know of. But more than just being kid friendly, the book is funny, bright, and charming. So much so that I was an avid reader of it long before I was even married, let alone a father. And because it uses semi-recognizable super hero sidekicks, it’s easy for kids to relate, and learn to read.

Tiny Titans aside, there’s always Jeff Smith’s tome of toonage, Bone. The long running series blends laughs, mysteries, and adventure. If kids can’t find something to love there? Well, then I’ll eat my hat. Come to think of it, I don’t own hats anymore. Note to self…

Beyond the early readers, the always-tough-to-please nine year olds (perhaps through 13 or 14?) are going to start dividing themselves. Girls have cooties. Boys are messy. The division of the sexes may make many a teacher feel like comic books will degrade into the capes and cowls for the boys and leave nothing for the girls. Nay, I say. Nay! Both the boys and girls can take heed that I myself grew to love comics at this tender age due to the long-running Archie series. And Archie, unlike his more heroic counterparts, seems to have found a way to stay with the times, without diverging into the too-real, too-gritty, or too-angsty. Consider also the Adventures of TinTin. Long before it was a computer-animated movie, it was a comic. A great comic. And don’t we all laugh a bit when we recount the Scrooge McDuck comics of yesteryear? That book was doing Inception long before Chris Nolan was firing up the vomit-comet to film anti-gravity fight scenes.

The real meat and potatoes for me though come right at adolescence. Here, our kids are primed to learn that comics are more than just good fun. The Pulitizer Prize-winning Maus (by the aforementioned Spiegelman), Jew Gangster (by the late and beyond-great Kubert), and A Contract With God (by Will Eisner) all help teach that the medium of comics transcends the super power set. And sure, they all hold quite a bit of Jewish lore to them… so allow me to expand beyond Judaica.

Mike Gold himself turned me on to Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Kings in Disguise by Dan E. Burr. They are both amazing reads. And please, don’t get me wrong – comics at this tender age need not be without a twinge of the supernatural. Watchmen might as well be a high school freshman class in and of itself. Frank Miller’s Sin City and or 300 are far better on page than on screen, and on screen they were both pretty amazing.

And let’s not leave Marvel out of this. Kurt Busiek’s Marvels singlehandedly brought me out of a four year freeze of comic book reading. It’s insightful, and a beautiful take on super heroes from the human perspective. And I’ve little column space left to suggest even more here… Empire by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson, Astro City, Batman: Year One, Runaways and Y: The Last Man all spring to mind. But I digress.

Suffice to say, introducing comics to a literature program shouldn’t be that hard to tackle. The fact is the medium itself makes open discussion far easier to instigate. More work to enjoy than watching a movie, without the scariness of endless pages without something beyond words to look at means less barrier to entry. For those learning to read (or who have trouble with it) comics are a gateway drug to amazing new worlds. For those already well versed in literature, comics offer an endless string of independent authors bringing original takes on the world that combine their plots with art that tends to force us to stop and appreciate. Akin to indie films, comics at any age offer more than the commercial world. Thanks to a bit of knowledge gained at this year’s Harvey Awards (thank you, Ross Ritchie), I leave on this thought:

 “The French codified it well: they call it “The Ninth Art.” The first is architecture, the second sculpture. The third painting, the fourth dance, then there’s music, poetry, cinema, and television. And ninth is comic books.”

Now, the question is: if it is indeed the ninth art of our world, comics should not be considered for the classroom. They should be compulsory.

SUNDAY: John Ostrander

 

Mike Gold: Bad Taste Tastes Good

I am of the opinion that “bad taste” is a good thing. It’s the most ridiculously subjective concept imaginable: what offends me (admittedly, very little) might be absolutely awesome to you, and we each have a right to our opinions.

I was fortunate enough to be the editor and, along with ComicMix co-conspirator John Ostrander, co-conceiver of a DC Comics series called Wasteland. It was the black hole of humor, a monthly love-letter to bad taste. The stories usually had a point with enough wiggle-room in each concept to cause the reader night sweats. John wrote the series, often in tandem with improv legend Del Close, and we had a rotating gaggle of extraordinarily gifted artists as our visual collaborators. We’d have four going at any one time: three doing interior stories and one doing the cover. The one who did the cover in month one would do an interior job in month two, and so on. The artists usually came up with the cover concepts.

I only rejected one Wasteland cover. Drawn by Bill Wray, it happens to be my favorite. Those of you who are familiar with the Wasteland run might wonder just what it would take to cross my line. What it took was my concern for the continued existence of the comic book shop retailer: if not for the fact that we had to sell the thing, I would have published the cover about a hobo fishing off of a bridge into a sea of floating dead babies in a heartbeat.

 (Just for shits and grins, I took it to editor-in-chief Dick Giordano anyway. He took one look at it, laughed, and said “You already rejected this!” I miss Giordano a lot.)

All of this is my way of reviewing a truly wonderful new book, [[[Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant To See]]] by Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker and publisher of TOON Books. Under her editorship, The New Yorker’s covers shifted rather rapidly from inoffensive fodder to litter doctors’ waiting rooms into a powerful agent provocateur lurking on the newsstands with the sole purpose of confronting our assumptions and values.

Well, not quite every week. Perhaps their most infamous of these covers rests atop this column; it is among the many that has acted as a pie tossed in the face of the pathetically uptight. Most of these covers are reprinted in Blown Covers…

… and so, as the title suggests, are many that didn’t make it. Most of those reprinted in this tome are certainly print-worthy, and to be fair, many didn’t make it because somebody else beat them to it, including Mad Magazine, which also employed the aforementioned Bill Wray. Some… simply… crossed the line. That inevitable, damned line.

Reading Blown Covers is great fun. Just looking at the pictures is great fun, but reading about the decision-making process should be de rigueur for anybody who thinks editing stuff might be a legitimate way to earn a living. Quotes from the artists abound.

My favorite of these rejects was one that wasn’t even offered for publication: it was done by Art Spiegelman, a frequent cover contributor and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus, to his wife, the aforementioned Ms. Mouly. It was a drawing of a cattle car overstuffed with Jews on its way to a Nazi concentration camp. One guy was on his cell phone… and his über-cramped neighbors in the cattle car were annoyed and pissed.

What? Too soon?

Like I said, Blown Covers is great fun. Give it out as Christmas gifts to all your relatives.

I will.

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant To See • Françoise Mouly • Abrams Books • $24.95 retail, also available in electronic editions.

THURSDAY: Dennis O’Neil and the Secret To Getting Hired In Comics!