Friday, September 30, 2005

In Praise of Never-Read Comics

"Choose what you are going to be addicted to, because you are going to be addicted to something." - HomeyM, Sept. 26, 2005

The problem with trying to wrestle any chronology of pop culture -- in this case, comics history -- into some semblence of coherence is that one can never really determine which missing links one may simply be unaware of or unexposed to. In the ever-elusive quest for "firsts," one can always be sure the popular wisdom as to what or who is "first" in something is usually proven wrong, and the equally crucial transitions between key forms of expressions, techniques, and/or genres (I am not using these terms interchangably) are mutable and even more difficult to define.

Take, for instance, the ongoing debate over graphic novels. What, precisely, are they? When, exactly, did the definable form emerge -- and from what? If those precursors can be agreed upon, why are they not, in and of themselves, examples of the form? If accepted works like Cerebus, Sandman, From Hell, Maus and Bone were completed as serialized periodicals designed to cohere into the massive cohesive 'novel' intended -- periodical as a function of economic necessity, both in terms of time and money (subsidizing the incremental production & publication while providing incremental income over the long stretch of time most "true" graphic novels require for execution) -- why is it that serialized periodical works that (however inadvertantly) cohere into and conclude as satisfyingly expansive, self-contained, novelistic works (e.g., Sam Glanzman's U.S.S. Stevens, Marv Wolfman/Gene Colan/Tom Palmer's Tomb of Dracula, etc.) remain exempt from most lists of "accepted" graphic novels? Is intent a requirement that precludes, preempts, or eclipses actual content? Are qualitative vs. quantitative judgements relevent to defining what a graphic novel is or isn't, has been or can be?

As my friend Eddie Campbell has pointed out to myself and others, the term itself is problematic; of course, to one who has dedicated a significant share of his finite time on Earth to the savoring, study, and creation of the oxymoronic "horror comic," such niceties of terminology amuse more than they will ever frustrate. But certain commonly-agreed-upon definable characteristics -- length, breadth, depth, self-contained and finite parameters of content, and the commitment of time, attention, and focus required of the creator to a given work -- have emerged, within which works as diverse as Cerebus, Maus, Cages, From Hell, Stuck Rubber Baby, etc. are justifiably prominent.

Arguments over whether the 19th Century predecessors to the form Will Eisner named aren't precursors but graphic novels in and of themselves are ongoing; for myself, Toffler and Busch (among others) were certainly practitioners of the GN (a form Toffler humbly dubbed "picture-stories"), with Busch mounting an ambitious trilogy that charted the life, fortunes, and misfortunes of a 'common man' wanderer (beginning with Adventures of a Bachelor. The early 20th Century 'silent picture novels' of Franz Mazareel, Milt Gross, Lynd Ward, and others (James Sturm turned up a tasty 1929 gem entitled Alley Oop, no relation to the beloved caveman comic strip) certainly rate, but those who bristle at the lack of text in these works as somehow relegating them to being something other than graphic novels have raised objections.

Well, that's all well and good, but what fascinates me this morning is relevent to the graphic novel debate, but more relevent to those 'missing links.' Such curios are of primary interest to me, not only in my ongoing research and writing ventures and current CCS teaching gig, but also -- well, just because: the 'links' have more often than not proven to be incredibly fascinating. When the hidden, private, and absolutely epic work of Henry Darger emerged in the early 1990s -- a classic example of a 'closet' and definately 'outsider' artist, who had completed a vast and ambitious series of paintings involving the fantastic adventures of hermaphroditic young girls (renditions, apparently, of Darger's sexual naivete rather than perversion) -- we had a glimpse of what hidden works might be relevent to comics history. It's the old "tree in the woods" metaphor: If an expansive work is completed but never seen, does it matter? If and when such work does emerge, does it belong in the context or chronology of published works -- and does it recontextualize those published works?

Which brings me to this morning's point: the recent excavation of one of those 'missing links,' kindly brought to my attention by Marlboro neighbor Barbara Parker. Barbara mentioned to me earlier this week that she had a magazine article on a 'lost cartoonist' she thought might interest me, and man oh man does it.

Dan Nadel's article "Frank Johnson: Comic Book Artist" in the Summer 2005 issue of Folk Art magazine is a charmer, succinctly unveiling the life and work of a Chicago shipping clerk named Frank Johnson.
While much of Johnson's life was dedicated to his love of music -- Johnson was an avid record collector, collector of traditional songs, and musician in his own right who apparently graced the airwaves of more than one regional radio station -- the constant that Nadel details is Johnson's expansive comics creations, lovingly written and drawn by Johnson in a procession of one-of-a-kind notebooks that span almost the entirity of Johnson's life.

According to Nadel, 28 of Johnson's notebooks turned up after his death in 1979, discovered by his wife Kay -- who had no idea Johnson harbored such a body of work. Nadel writes, "...each contain[ed] between 60 and 120 pages of comics each... The earliest extant notebook, marked Book 90, is dated 1929, and the last, from 1978, is labeled Book 126." Johnson's work was composed primarily (not counting "loose drawings" found in a cigar box) of three ongoing 'titles': self-contained two-page, four-panel strips called The Juke Boys; the apparently semi-autobiographical alcohol-fueled, vomit-spattered degradations of four on-the-road hobos, The Bowser Boys; and most singular of all, the ongoing chronicle of Wally's Gang, which traces the life and foibles of a group of middle-class American men from youth to their autumn years.

As Nadel notes, The Juke Boys clearly adopts the format of Bill Holman's delightfully nonsensical Smokey Stover (1935-1973); what Nadel doesn't mention is how completely Johnson's Juke Boys antics anticipate Basil Wolverton's Powerhouse Pepper and the crammed-panel aesthetic of Bill Elder and Harvey Kurtzman's iconic Mad comics. Comic strips about hobos and tramps date back to the birth of the American comic strip in the 1890s, primary among those Opper's Happy Hooligan, but according to Nadel The Bowser Boys outstripped all precursors by wallowing in near-scatalogical extremes of impoverished alchoholic behavior: " amazingly graphic slapstick account of a group of drunks drinking, vomiting, and degrading themselves... a dour, though funny, look at the drinking life. Completed in 1948, its brutality is without precedent in the comics of the time, and it blindly foreshadows the down-and-dirty work of underground artists such as Robert Crumb." Nadel notes that Johnson's stepson Don Dougherty "speculated" a stretch of Johnson's life blighted by the closet-cartoonist's own alcoholic spiral "in the late 1940s and through the 1950s (coinciding with a gap in his comic work)," hence my statement above that The Bowser Boys is most likely semi-autobiographical in nature (that this also makes Johnson an ancestor of my fave drinking cartoonists, who shall remain here unnamed, Bacchus bless 'em).

But it's Wally's Gang that is compelling above all. While strips like Gasoline Alley stand as precedents (based on Nadel's description of Johnson's work, and the samples offered in the article), Johnson's compulsive ongoing life's work -- a private comic in every sense of the word, never intended for publication and expansive beyond the parameters of any published work of its time -- is indeed a monumental work. Is it a graphic novel? Hell, I don't know -- the article presents only a single 'splash panel' or cover and one sample narrative page -- but it's clearly a remarkable body of work, and places self-taught unpublished cartoonist Johnson in the pantheon.

Thankfully, Nadel has a book in the works -- The Underground That Wasn't: An Anthology of Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900-1979, due from Harry N. Abrams in 2006 -- which is now high on my must-have list for next year. I'm also tracking down Nadel's other works (including an ongoing anthology, The Ganzfield, in hopes of finding more revelations, or glimmers of that which I've never seen or heard of.

As I mentioned earlier this week, Marj and I loved the Sunday night performance of Bess O'Brien's VT teen musical extravaganza The Voices Project, which melded the writings of hundreds of participating VT teenagers from every corner of the state and every walk of life into a stirring live stage production, refined and performed by a cast of VT teenagers giving their all. The St. Johnsbury-based Kingdom County Productions, founded by Bess O'Brien and her husband and partner Jay Craven (who is currently in post-production editing on his new feature, Disappearances), has an extensive history of working with young writers, performers, and filmmakers, primary among those projects the annual summer Fledgling Films workshop (though I believe Bess and Jay were also integral to the founding of Circus Smirkus, too).

The Voices Project extends those efforts into a comprehensive and exhilerating work that transcends all previous efforts I've seen; I've followed Bess O/Brien's work since her documentary feature Where's Stephanie? brought her work to my attention, but this is without a doubt the liveliest of all Kingdom County theatrical productions to date (if you live in VT, I urge you to catch whatever of the ten live performances pops up closest to you).

It's happening tonight in Brattleboro on the Latchis Theater stage -- if you're in driving distance, don't miss it!