This is my newest cartoon for a book I’m adding content to on grammar by Mark Pennington. I am especially proud of my astrolabe and sextant, although I don’t think the intended audience will get the joke.
My grandfather has a cabin in the Adirondack Mountains where my family would go once a summer. One of the treasures there was a stash of comic books from the fifties owned by my mother and uncle. Of course I gravitated towards the titles my uncle bought, titles like Batman and Superman and a lot of Carl Barks stuff. I consider these comic to be the formative years of my development and love of comics. Maybe more on that in another post.
My sister, on the other hand, loved the Archie comics that were the favorite of my mother. I never really got into them at first, assuming them to be girl stuff and not for me. I’m still not entirely sure that they weren’t, but one day I remember picking one up and finding it to be surprisingly entertaining and witty. Eventually I made my way through them all, and still have fond memories of a lot of the stories in there. For me Archie represented an idealized version of high school, a time where you could goof off and nothing too serious would happen, and your life was so terrifically entertaining that drugs and drinking never crossed your mind as extracurricular activities. Sanitized as it was, the world of Riverdale High made high school seem like a whole lot more fun than high school actually was: who wouldn’t want to hang out at a place called the Chocklit Shop? And who wouldn’t want to hang out with Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and the rest of the gang?
Nothing approached the sheer fun of those fifties cartoons. The later Archie comics, it seemed around the time Sabrina emerged, were not as good. The digests that my sister bought had a bunch of more recent stories, but there were always a few vintage ones in there; those were the ones to seek out.
Unfortunately, a lot of those Archie comics are not collected and seem to be difficult to find. I remember seeing a series the collected a decade’s worth of stories in each book, but as I recall, they weren’t all that comprehensive.
So this new book, which is the first in a series that collects the newspaper Archie strips, is a real delight. Bob Montana was the one who originally designed the characters, and the daily strips eventually have all the terrific storylines and gags from the comics I loved.
I say eventually because it takes a while for the strip to really take off. For the first year the central conflicts and characters are firmly in place, but some of the jokes don’t work and some of the storylines are pretty bad. The summer months seem to be particularly bad for Archie and the gang as they are forced to take hokey fabricated vacations on a dude ranch, a bicycling trip, and a summer camp with a youthful exuberance that seems completely unrealistic. I mean, would any high school kid jump at the opportunity to go to a dude ranch? Is there even such a thing?
Here’s an example of a plot line from the first year that maybe seemed funny back then, but today is a little creepy:
In this plotline, Archie actually ends up taking Ms. Grundy to the dance. Seriously, couldn’t Archie have figured a way out of that one?
By the second year, Archie is pretty reliably funny. There’s a couple really funny bits that I’ll spotlight in a later post.
I want to like Milt Gross. I really do. I want to think he’s a cartooning genius, the kind of guy that makes you shake your head and break all your pencils because you’ll never be as good as he is. The kind of cartoonist whose work inspires you to pore over every detail. Most of all, someone who makes you laugh and think, sometimes all at once.
Knowing that I was supposed to like him, I picked up a copy of the Complete Milt Gross Comics and Life Story at Half Price Books. I had seen some of his work on John K’s website and thought it was ok. Lots of people were talking about his genius. I picked up the book, thinking finally I would figure out what it was all about. Kind of like the time I picked up Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” hoping to understand everyone’s love for Bob Dylan.
So I liked Gross’s stuff fine, but I still am not enthralled with it. I’ve come to realize it’s just a matter of taste, I suppose. I like the concepts behind the stories: a dog who gets into all kinds a trouble, a lazy dad who somehow works his way into gainful employment, and a nutball who escapes from the looney bin only to return when he finds out that the real world makes even less sense than the sanitorium.
But I’m just not a big fan of the artwork. I’m surprised that John K likes him as much as he does, given that he’s such a big fan of the Preston Blair school of construction. Gross’s illustrations to me look kind of like doodles, very rushed and “good enough.” It’s obvious, though from the book looking at his earlier illustrations that Gross was a capable draftsman who chose to draw that way.
Ultimately the frenetic illustration style gives me ADD. It hurries me across the page, not lingering over anything in particular. I don’t find myself pausing to look at anything, perhaps because it doesn’t seem all that labored over. I know that cartooning is difficult from experience, but Gross’s style just looks ugly to me. I know he probably spent a lot of time working on this stuff but it just doesn’t seem like it. It always seemed to me like Walt Kelly could have spent hours working on a single panel. It was evident that the hard work was there. This image just gives me a headache.
It’s obvious that Gross knows the rules of perspective and is choosing to ignore them. Or is it? I’m reminded of free jazz players like Ornette Coleman who knew the rules and chose to ignore them. Some players thought that they didn’t know the rules and could play whatever they wanted to and make music. This wasn’t the case, but to an awful lot of people it all sounded like noise no matter if you knew what you were doing or not.
So I still don’t get “Blonde on Blonde” and I still don’t get Gross either, although I do appreciate his peculiar brand of zany fun more than I did. I have found out that I seem to appreciate the more conventional styles of guys like Kelly and Barks and others more than this schizophrenic style.
Today is the homecoming parade at the Ohio State University. What does that have to do with Jeff Smith, you might ask? Well, the obvious reason is that the Festival of Cartoon Art was just here this weekend, and Jeff was lurking about there (more on that later).
The real reason that this is significant for me is that when I was younger I attended an OSU Homecoming Parade. It must have been in the early to mid eighties. I remember walking through the Drake Union and somewhere on campus we picked up dinner. I’m pretty sure we parked at the Kappa Sig house where my dad belonged.
However, I have etched in my memory of that day picking up a copy of the Lantern (the OSU student newspaper) and being drawn to a strip there entitled “Thorn,” drawn by Jeff Smith. I was struck by the cartooniness and fun that the strip promised just from a few panels. It was clear that this guy could draw and it seemed as if he drew his inspiration from the same comics that I liked: Carl Barks and MAD (correct, I was later to find out, and also some Pogo influences thrown in.) And the guy could obviously draw better then the other hacks on the comics page.
The drawback of all this was that I had no easy access to the Lantern like I did the Dispatch. Not having any internet at the time, Jeff’s comic existed in the realm of what might have been for me. I’m confident, however, that at some point the seed was planted in my mind that one day I would like to draw cartoons for my school newspaper, which ended up being the Lantern as well. Two and a half years of “Box of Trees” (don’t ask) and I had quite a legacy to be proud of.
I am amazed at what Jeff has accomplished since. He basically took a big gamble and spent years of his life publishing Bone with the hope that it would take off. Of course it did, so much so that even the kids in my sister’s fourth grade class were infatuated with the Bone books and were excited to know that I had met him when his show was at the Wexner center.
I was able to see Jeff again this past weekend at the Festival during the Speigelman lecture. I’m not sure he wanted to be approached, but I wanted to tell him that I appreciated the picture that accompanied an article about him being a food and wine lover (he was holding a bottle of Mad Dog). He serves as an inspiration to a lot of cartoonists and I’m in awe of all his work.
Here’s a cool little biography I found online: