By Andy Mansell | Contributor Published: 04/21/2014 9:00 am EST
Let’s take a look at four new books—one is indispensable, two are really, really good, and one is surprisingly good—all humor comics collections for you to consider adding to your Summer Reading List!
In chronological order:
Perfect Nonsense: The Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson, edited by Daniel Yerbick, published by Fantagraphics, featuring strips circa 1935-47. “Chicken fat” provided years before Will Elder coined the term for EC’s detail laden MAD magazine panels—which were like Bill Holman panels with an unlimited ink budget. The art is reminiscent of the early Dr. Seuss work in his short-lived (but delightful) syndicated strip Hejji.
Editor Daniel Yerbick does a marvelous job of covering the many different factions of Carlson’s long and prolific life as an artist. The book is separated into fourteen sections, starting appropriately enough with Carlson’s early illustration work and culminating with 75 pages of the great Carlson comics published in the bi-monthly comic book aimed at a younger audience, Jingle Jangle Tales, between 1942 and 1949.
I believe it was Harlan Ellison in his essay about Carlson—from the seminal All in Color for a Dime—who described the pure joy of the Jingle Jangle adventures as existing under the aegis of a child’s storytelling logic. For any of you that have kids or have babysat post-toddlers, you know how well and often these little people weave their tales of impossible imagination. Unlike an adult, if a child verbally paints his plot into a corner, a door appears if the story requires a hasty retreat. What kind of door? Why a magic door, Mr. Silly.
Somehow Carlson captures this feel of joy, this creative abandon, and unleashes it on the page. I found myself reading the comics slower than usual because I didn’t want to leave the world on the page. Sure there are dangers—all kids stories have some danger (I’m looking at you, Mr. Walt, along with the dwei Herr’s Grimm!)—but it’s nothing life-threatening. (Oh yeah? Tell that to Bambi’s mom!) As long as the Carlson heroes stay on their toes, the Pie-Face Prince of Pretzelburg as well as all the other Jingle Jangle characters will make it out of their sticky situations by the last panel no matter what kind of fantastical turn the story needs to take. Reading these comics is exhilarating.
Almost as delightful are the puzzles and games offered in the Games and Songs chapter. These were originally published in the Peter Puzzlemaker magazine and they make the Highlights era puzzles of my youth look positively anemic.
If you buy this book—and you really, really should—I suggest you read the concise, well-written, and informative introductory essays and then leap—I said LEAP!—to the comic section. Once you’ve delighted in these wonderful classics, go back through the rest of the book. Each of the sections will delight you. You’ll feel like a kid again, at least a bit. The feel of nostalgia is almost overwhelming.
Nostalgia seems to be a key element that filters through all four of these books, and the next one is:
Archie Archives Volume 9, written by uncredited and drawn by Al Fagaly and Irv Novick(!) amongst a few others, published by Dark Horse, featuring comic books from 1947-48.
Once again, we’re overwhelmed with the feeling of nostalgia. But back when these stories were originally on the newsstand, how did contemporary readers of Archie respond to this squeaky clean post-war nirvana, with no hint of the real world and filled to the brim with enough afterlife-quality virgins to satiate any Jihad martyr? Even the great Donald Duck stories by Barks from the same years suggested the challenges of the post-war world, as returning vets took advantage of the GI Bill and grew uncomfortable in their suburban safe havens. According to my father, who was not exactly a comic book connoisseur but was certainly a Veteran, these comics seemed old fashioned back then as well as today.
But the Archie comics found in this volume are surprisingly clever, funny, and very well-drawn. I guess it shouldn’t be that surprising; Archie was a bestseller, with over half a dozen titles, a successful newspaper strip, and eventually a decade-long place on the CBS Saturday Morning lineup and, of course, one of the biggest selling hit singles in pop music history, “Sugar, Sugar.” All that popularity had to emerge from a consistent quality product, and the feeling of nostalgia for an idealized time that never truly existed. A fairy tale for haggard parents of real teenagers in the real world, perhaps?
The stories and shenanigans reminded me a lot of Stanley and Tripp’s classic Little Lulu. I had no idea Archie was such a “Jiminy Cricket pest bastard.” No wonder Mr. Lodge wanted to keep him away from his heir apparent. And you must take these Archie Comics as kids’ stories a la Lu and the Tubbster or else you begin to question Archie’s sexual proclivity; the way he fights off the drop dead gorgeous Betty leaves the reader baffled. What does Veronica have that Betty doesn’t—money, lots of money—but still, I want to reach into the strip and slap his teenage hormones out of dormancy. Still, fun, fun comics. You understand why Archie emerged from the pack and stayed in the lead for so long (assuming this volume is typical). I’d love to read more. I wish Dark Horse would offer these on Kindle, but that’s unlikely to occur since rabid Archie fans need to have EVERYTHING Archie. They make us superhero devotees look practically laissez-faire.
Onward to the seventies with…
Stranger Than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970-2013, by M.K. Brown, published by Fantagraphics.
Again M.K. Brown’s cartoons provide a feeling of nostalgia—but for what? Another world that never existed? A lot of Ms. Brown’s work reminds me of the cartoons of Roz Chast. Both comic masters offer a child’s vision of their parents’ world—perennially old fashioned if not exactly “old”—and everyone looks as though they are posing for a photograph. It is in these peculiar settings that Chast and Brown cut loose and let their macabre humor run roughshod over reality, but still keep a penny-loafered foot in the real world.
Ms. Brown is an exceptional cartoonist for a number of reasons besides being really, really funny. She works in a variety of styles—a watercolor paint style for her sequential pages and a tighter pen and ink for her single panel gags. I think I prefer her sequential comics to her single panel cartons. The three gems that would put Ms. Brown in any cartooning Hall of Fame are the oft-reprinted “Whistle-Stop” and the three “Mercury, Messenger of God” strips. I read all four of these comics at least thirty years ago and upon re-reading I instantly remembered them. And they are still funny.
The comics are strange. Many of the panel gags could be published in The New Yorker of today, but thirty years ago, I’m not so sure. Everything is odd—slightly subversive, but well hidden in plain sight. More than any other collection I’ve read in the past few years, the M.K. Brown collection improves with multiple readings. There’s always something there, your subconscious just has to let the conscious mind in on the joke.
Which brings us to the Direct Market era of Alan Moore…
The Bojeffries Saga, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Steve Parkhouse, published by Top Shelf, 1986-2013.
Stop reading this and buy this book right now. Calling it a tour de force is an understatement. When Bojeffries was first published in a much smaller form back in early ‘90s, I was disappointed because it wasn’t Watchmen or Swamp Thing. Silly me. This collection of comic adventures produced sporadically over four decades is a marvel of storytelling and great humorous timing.
This is a must for any fan of Monty Python, Charles Addams, Gahan Wilson, and (stay with me here…) Dave Sim. The rendering of the Bojeffries world reminds me so much of Sim’s work, back when he was just having fun and succumbing to his cartooning talent instead of his…oh, you know. Parkhouse, like Sim, is a master of facial expression and character reaction.
The world of Bojeffries feels quite alien to this colonist’s eyes. Many of England’s side streets always appear out of time—even when I watch Sherlock or House of Cards. So these stories could take place anytime in the past fifty years (except for the big finale written and drawn especially for this collection). All of the stories offer a feel of nostalgia for some Anglican era of the past where Hammer Films meets Hellblazer. It is creepier than Addams and Wilson (and that’s saying something) and it is extremely funny.
The humor comes from being a drawn comic. Two stories leap to mind—the office party where a co-worker turning into a werewolf is the second most frightening thing to happen and a dangerous one-night stand right out of Masters and Johnson and Lovecraft. They are outstanding comics. And the book is only $15.00!
Sure there are a lot of great humor books being published and a lot more on the horizon—Pogo Volume 3, the next Virgil Partch collection, and The Complete Cul de Sac just to name three off the top of my head—but you shouldn’t let these books pass by unnoticed before the convention premiere publishing blitzkrieg. I do not think that Archie—or at least this particular volume—belongs up there with the other three near-classics, but all in all it was a dandy surprise and I look forward to more comics by Al Fagaly. The Carlson, Brown, and Bojeffries are all must-haves.
Andy Mansell lived in Chicago for over 40 years until his doctors advised him that he would die soon unless he got as far away from the land of Italian combo sandwiches and soft serve frozen custard. He is currently growing rather old rather quickly in Charlotte, NC as a member of the Waistline Protection Program. He lives for four things: his family, baseball, opera, and of course great comics. He is also looking for a ride back to Chi-town for just one more breaded steak sammich. He will provide gas, guaranteed. Contact him at this address.