SINCE SPIDER-MAN will be the biggest thing at the multiplex this summer, we decided to capitulate to the season and embrace animation in print. But not the pulpy, stapled, ink-on-your-fingers kind of print. Look beyond the manga and the comix and the 'zines, and you'll find an abundance of worthwhile cartoon books from sources as highbrow as The New Yorker and as lowbrow as Mad and Playboy. No surprise that sex and scantily clad babes abound here, but office politics and simple child's play are equally important. Using few words and careful pen strokes, these artists and illustrators prove that ponderous prose can be the last thing we want to read this summer. The pleasures of one good panel, however, are like a popsicle—they don't require such close attention, and you immediately want another one after finishing.
The Glamour Girls of Bill Ward
Edited by Alex Chun (Fantagraphics, $22.95)
Tijuana Bibles: Art and Wit in America's Forbidden Funnies, 1930s–1950s
Edited by Bob Adelman (Simon & Schuster, $15)
Bill Ward used to say he always knew art was his destiny—his surname was "draw" backward. Starting out as a layout man laboring on the two-fisted adventures of Doc Savage and the Shadow, he spent World War II penciling Captain Marvel comics while he was supposed to be on lookout at an airfield tower. When the violent old comic-book world was demolished by Senate hearings in 1954, Ward switched his focus to cheesecake pinup pictures for Romp, Stare, and other cheapo girlie books.
The Ward girl was an awkward crayon apparition conjured with incredible income-boosting swiftness and an obsessive attention to fetishistic detail. Her boobs were the biggest in the business, bulging so perilously as to threaten to poke out the also bulging eyeballs of ogling males. Her negligees were intricately lacy; her stiletto heels could put out any eyes not punctured by her nipples; and her thigh-high stockings, opera-length gloves, and serpentine locks were as theatrical as her bust.
Glamour Girls sumptuously reproduces over a hundred of Ward's 1956–1963 pinups, plus a few of his "peek-a-beauts" covers for Gee-Whiz and romance comics. His late-career harder-core porn is largely ignored, but that's OK: Ward's art (and heart) were essentially innocent.
Looking back to a lewder, less innocent era in Tijuana Bibles, Art Spiegelman points out in his characteristically brilliant introduction that the first true comic books had nothing to do with the mainstream funny pages in the newspaper. These "Tijuana Bibles" were neither biblical nor Mexican, but all-American original underground comics. The artists of these "eight-pagers" started churning them out during the Depression, featuring movie stars and famous funny-page characters in flagrante delicto and emitting colorfully ridiculous smutty dialogue. Minnie Mouse soothes Donald Duck's "hard feelings" by letting him "put a duck egg in." Claudette Colbert does obscenely wide-mouthed Joe E. Brown. And don't even ask about the infamous orgy Popeye, Moon Mullins, Maggie, Jiggs, and Major Hoople staged.
The comics, at first look, are bizarrely interesting, then quickly grow stupid and repetitive; one wishes the commentary part of the book were longer. Spiegelman says he boned up on Tijuana Bibles by reading "a swell master's thesis for the University of Washington written by Robert Gluckson in 1992," but doesn't quote it. This nicely done paperback needs more pages of Gluckson-esque scholarship, even if it meant we had to do without a few pages of the Marx Brothers gang-banging a showgirl. TIM APPELO
The Complete Peanuts (1950–1952)
By Charles M. Schulz (Fantagraphics, $28.95)
Even from the get-go, Charlie Brown was an unpopular boy. As evident in Charles M. Schulz's first Peanuts strip—initially titled Li'l Folks in 1948—our beloved hero smiles while walking past his friends Peppermint Patty and Sherman; though once he is out of earshot, Sherman says, "How I hate him!" Good ol' Charlie Brown—always the butt of jokes, a perpetually depressed little boy, forever tortured by the little red-haired girl. Well, he's about to have his revenge, as local publisher Fantagraphics Books begins to chronologically reissue all of Charlie Brown's exploits in 25 volumes over the next dozen years.
Volume 1 is a sturdy hardcover tome of nearly 350 pages. Although Schulz's Sunday strips are sadly reproduced in black-and-white, not color, this first volume will be particularly fascinating to Peanuts aficionados. Here we can see how Schulz ironed out the kinks of his new strip and developed his characters. In its embryonic stages, Linus was an infant, Schroeder a preverbal though piano-playing toddler, and Snoopy just a happy-go-lucky dog without his charming thought bubbles.
Schulz (1922–2000) introduced a new paradigm for cartooning: a world where children were contemplative instead of slapstickish; they functioned without the presence of adults. Umberto Eco says, "The world of Peanuts is a microcosm, a little human comedy for the innocent reader and for the sophisticated." The quote comes from a biographical essay included on Schulz by David Michaelis, who's at work on the first comprehensive Schulz biography. Also contained here are a short introduction by Garrison Keillor and an interview with Schulz conducted in 1987, when he was still hard at work on his strip. He retired in December 1999, then died three months later. Thanks to Fantagraphics, however, good ol' Charlie Brown lives again. SAMANTHA STOREY
Maniac Killer Strikes Again!
By Richard Sala (Fantagraphics, $16.95)
In the tongue-in-cheek introduction to this story collection, one Dr. X, Ph.D, essentially sums the book up when he says, "This is called—well, let's face it, it's called 'crazy.'" Characters include a "savage primordial sea beast" with pointy fins and puffy lips that murders sexy go-go dancers; an asthmatic apelike creature called "the Weezer" who terrorizes the city with his deadly corkscrew; "the Twinge," who resembles a Sasquatch on steroids; and "Judy Drood, Girl Detective," Nancy Drew's mentally handicapped cousin. Crazy? Sure, but also crazily entertaining.
Richard Sala's black-and-white art is suitably outlandish yet intricately detailed; your eyes will scour every page for new details. His cityscapes are composed of slanted, ominous buildings set at dizzying angles with dreary backgrounds; he reduces each panel to the creepy, dark essentials of a film-noir freeze frame. And like a good noir, he leaves the gore mostly to the reader's imagination. When a Jessica Rabbit–esque investigative reporter, Eve E. Vee from The Chronicle, is eaten alive by a demented breed of flora, Sala's hand- lettered "Chomp, chomp, chomp" gets the point across perfectly.
Sala's first story, "Thirteen O'Clock," is by far the best of the 10 stories, as it bursts with precise drawings and an amusing plotline. Its five chapters are packed with backstabbing and intrigue, plus a variety of imaginative ways to commit murder. In all of Sala's stories, however, he takes familiar scenarios out of Little Shop of Horrors or Night of the Living Dead and twists them to new effect—morbid, droll, and funny as hell. Heather Logue
R. Crumb: The Comics Journal Library, Vol. 3
Edited by Milo George (Fantagraphics, $18.95)
As a rule, cranks make great interviews, and underground comix legend Robert Crumb might as well have been born with a revolving handle. There's little the notoriously unself-censored cartoonist is shy about—his sexual peccadilloes, his family problems, his rage at women and pretty much the whole of the modern world. In short, you wouldn't want to live with him. But Crumb is a forthright and extremely engaging talker, and as this book—which follows volumes on superhero titan Jack Kirby and Batman/Sin City iconoclast Frank Miller—makes plain, he's got plenty of perspective about himself.
Gary Groth, The Comics Journal's longtime editor and publisher, conducted all five Q and A's here—the semi-exception is a transcript from a 1993 panel refereed by Groth—and his deep familiarity with Crumb and his work opens the already talkative Crumb up even more. Fans of Terry Zwigoff's 1994 documentary, Crumb, will be familiar with the basic arc of the cartoonist's childhood, life, and reception by critics. But here we learn much more about his early comics work, his experiments with LSD, and his troubles with the IRS.
It's not all talk, however. The volume is lavishly illustrated with examples of Crumb's work—the core of which is, more or less, straight autobiography. (Crumb remains the first, and arguably best, cartoonist to mine his life in this manner.) Even if he ends up here discussing how he once masturbated to a life-size wooden statue of his character Devil Girl, these interviews are revealing without sliding into mere narcissism—like the best of his comix. MICHAELANGELO MATOS
Will Elder: The Mad Playboy of Art
Edited by Gary Groth and Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics, $49.95)
Maus creator Art Spiegelman once said that his dirty little secret is that he can't draw. A droll little piece of self- deprecation from a man secure in a steady stream of acclaim and a steady job as a supplier of crappy New Yorker covers—but from the first moment this retro compilation falls open in your hands, you will see how true it is that most contemporary cartoonists cannot, in fact, draw for shit.
Will Elder got his start inking horror and war comics for EC (Entertaining Comics) in the '50s golden age of uncensored, pre–Comics Code Authority cartooning. With his high-school classmate Harvey Kurtzman, Elder fully emerged as a genius in the pages of Mad. His work was a burning bush to a budding young generation of troublemakers and visionaries like Terry Gilliam, Jerry Garcia, and Robert Crumb (now there's a guy who can draw). Elder quickly gained a reputation for his virtuosic abilities to mimic the visual styles of other comic-book artists and produce ad parodies with photographic precision.
Post-Mad, Elder drew for a series of magazines with one-word titles—Panic, Trump, Humbug, and Help!—that started and folded in almost as short a time as they took to read. Soon after began the long, sad postscript to Elder's career that was "Little Annie Fanny," a dreadful series he and Kurtzman did for Playboy from 1962 to 1987. (Sample gag: big-boobed Annie is groped in Central Park while her flat-chested friend is not.)
God knows I want to recommend this generously illustrated, hulking slab of a book, because if you love life and consider yourself to be a good American, you should know about Elder just like you should know about Louis Armstrong. But this anthology echoes Elder's own haphazard output—it's a redundant mess, with a cloying series of essays that seem to mention every anecdote twice without ever addressing more important questions about his career. To wit: Why was someone whose talent flowed out in such powerful torrents willing to submit for nearly three decades to Hugh Hefner, a control freak with bad taste? I guess the need for a steady paycheck can even subordinate a madman to a playboy. DAVID STOESZ
My New Filing Technique is Unstoppable
By David Rees (Riverhead, $10)
We know, we know: You're the only sane person in an office full of unstable, sniveling borderline sociopaths, but the Dilbert mug's getting a little crusty and your Office Space DVD is nicked up beyond repair. Keep your head out of the copier. David Rees, the profane brain behind uproariously vulgar indie comics Get Your War On and My New Fighting Technique Is Unstoppable has trained his surrealist sights on corporate cubicle inanity; and, thankfully, self-pity is never part of the equation. Rees famously constructs his 'toons entirely with austere yet generic public-domain clip art. You half expect his characters to calmly inform you how to use your seat as a flotation device in the event of a crash, but they prefer Scotch-taping computers together to create "super-databases" and dropping "syntax errors" into one another's paychecks. Rees' shit-talking back-and-forths were partially inspired by battle raps; he's more Tom Tomorrow than Marshall Mathers, though, fast developing into one of our most reliable, biting liberal satirists. ANDREW BONAZELLI
This Is a Bad Time
By Bruce Eric Kaplan (Simon & Schuster, $16)
The Cat That Changed My Life: 50 Cats Talk Candidly About How They Became Who They Are
By Bruce Eric Kaplan (Simon & Schuster, $9.95)
Enter a room. Stand in the middle. Assume a wide stance. Place hands on hips. Puff out your chest. Now complain. The essence of Bruce Eric Kaplan's drawings—the writer for Seinfeld and Six Feet Under also writes his own captions—lies in his characters' self-aware self-importance. They know they're making a scene. They know other people have their own problems. They understand the existential futility of whining. And yet they don't care; they kvetch and they carp all the same.
In his new collection, This Is a Bad Time, culled mostly from The New Yorker, Kaplan places his complainers in fairly stark, black-and-white frames. There's not much background detail: a few overstuffed chairs, maybe a tree or a park bench, a generic-looking office. This is just the scene setting for overinflated drama— it's supposed to be rather flimsy, like Lear's cardboard crown. Everyone's an actor, and most of Kaplan's humor communicates Hollywood self-consciousness, since everybody knows their performance is, in some sense, a performance.
Mother and child on a beach, standing next to the boy's sand castle. Mother: "It's incredible!" Child (thought bubble): "Then why do I feel like such a hack?"
Teacher flunking a pupil's paper: "Look, I'm sorry— I just didn't respond to the material."
Two bunnies in a field: "I don't know why I know all this useless carrot trivia."
All these exchanges could be overheard at a Starbucks on Melrose Avenue, but they're much funnier and more refined. By virtue of his sitcom training, Kaplan—an occasional contributor to SW's sister publication LA Weekly—knows how to burrow inside the I'm-only- joking-about-my-massive-ego tone of such showbiz exchanges. The irony inoculates, but it also indicts, as with a panel of two women walking down an empty sidewalk, one pushing a pram: "He was conceived in a fit of irony." Exactly. And, Kaplan is saying, now look where it's gotten you.
New in paper, Kaplan's 2002 The Cat That Changed My Life draws from much of the same La-La Land therapy-speak, only the writing is longer—a paragraph instead of a caption—and the line work is sketchier, not so bold, as if to echo the frazzled feline testimonials of furtive backyard sex, territorial pissing, and epic hairballs. The running gag is how these biographical vignettes are so thinly anthropomorphized; each kitty is patently a person with all our human qualities of insecurity, vanity, self-loathing, and sloth.
You could imagine Cat played onstage as a series of monologues, so deftly focused are Kaplan's four-pawed portraits. Each zeroes in on a signature trait or personality type we all recognize (perhaps again from that Starbucks on Melrose). Says New York tabby François, trapped in an apartment with hated companion cat Dulcy: "She never just goes about her day. Instead, she informs me of what she is thinking about doing. For instance, instead of just jumping off a chair and going into the next room, she debates over whether she should or not. This is a very small apartment. I am never out of her sight. Every dreadful detail of Dulcy's life is tearing apart what little sanity I have left." You laugh, but you also know exactly what François means. BRIAN MILLER
Romance Without Tears: '50s Love Comics with a Twist
Edited by John Benson (Fantagraphics, $22.95)
Dana Dutch was a feminist way before being a feminist was cool—and way, way before being a male feminist was cool. In the romance stories he wrote for St. John Comics in the late '50s, the heroines weren't tear-streaked and left behind; they were confident, independent, and intelligent. While the prevailing attitude in comics—and the times—was that women should "subordinate their interests and desires and follow the man's lead" (as editor John Benson puts it in his highly informative and extensive introduction), Dutch's leading ladies did indeed lead, and their men followed.
Benson does an amazing job of introducing the romance-comic genre; even novices will be drawn in by his historical perspective and easy style. Some 20 complete comics—all in color—illustrate the points made in Benson's introduction. In "A Stranger Stole My Heart," Sally is sick and tired of her childhood sweetheart; on an impulse, she takes off on a sailboat ride with a male friend. Eventually she meets the boy of her dreams, but her path to him is anything but conventional—and it's completely against her mother's wishes.
Despite the admirable pro-female stance of Dutch's stories, he was no Camille Paglia. His mostly teenage heroines are often given condescending nicknames and are, in various ways, patted gently on the head by their boyfriends and parents. Dutch's stories are still very much products of their day, even as they resist the usual norms and stereotypes. These 20-odd tales of forbidden love and illicit triumphs make for fun, fascinating reading—maybe because they're so coded in a time, and a genre, long past. LAURA CASSIDY