PX88: Childhood is Hell

Childhood is Hell by Matt Groening (228x228mm)

I’m slightly fascinated by the relentless drive towards mainstream (i.e., bookstore) respectability for basically all the books I’m covering in this blog series. In the pre-mainstream era, there was a certain freedom with formats — mostly stapled things, and often oddball (too large/too small) formats.

This is a fun hybrid along the way: The three previous Life in Hell collections had been saddle-stitched, and this one is, too: Notice the staples. But it also has a spine, so that it’s easier to shelve. Is it the next volume that switches to a straight-up normal squarebound format? Watch this blog channel for updates! Subscribe and share and like!

Anyway, the previous volume was School in Hell, and Groening obviously had a lot to say about being a child, so we get this, which is, like, more. Having these two come after each other is a slightly odd choice — was I the only one that thought he had this volume already for years because he’d gotten it confused with School is Hell? He was? I mean, I was?

Darn!

TV is the best.

As usual when reading one of these books, I’m really into it, but I’m not exactly laughing out loud. And pages like this… I don’t know: I’m glad pages like this exist, but I’m not actually reading it, either.

Heh. A shout-out to Lynda Barry.

Oh, and Bart and Gary Panter’s Jimbo? Had The Simpsons started by now? Yes, indeed:

The shorts became a part of The Tracey Ullman Show on April 19, 1987.

This slightly earlier strip was the only one that had me laughing out loud.

Oh, that’s Gary Panter’s Rozz-Tox guy. So many references…

Me, too — there’s four variations on this strip in this book. The previous books only had a single one…

Adam-Troy Castro writes in Amazing Heroes #160, page 86:

One of Pat Benatar’s best songs is a
powerful rocker called “Hell Is For
Children.” Its resemblance to this
latest. collection by cartoonist Matt
Groening is not limited to title alone.
Both song and book deal with cruelty
to children. Both are the product of
artists ‘Åorking at the top of their form.
And both recognize that one of the
most tragic things about childhood
trauma is any child’s inability to fully
understand it.
But there the similarity ends, for
Groening goes farther than Benatar.
He reminds us, with acidically funny
writing and deliberately crude
artwork, that childhood is a painful
and bewildering time by definition,
and not just for those of us who grow
up in abusive homes.
Groening’s main character in this
collection is a one-eared, and there-
fore ridiculous-looking, anthropomor-
phic rabbit called Bongo. Bongo’s our
host for a series of strips on How To
Act Like A Child, with different
instructions for every age from one to
12. He shows us the silly things we
considered great humor at every stop
along the way. He shows us 16 kinds
of Moms, and also 16 kinds of Dads,
Brothers, and Sisters. He includes a
strip on “Your Pal The TV set.” All
of which are laugh-out loud funny.
There are also a number of single gag
strips, which are not nearly as funny.
The scenes of Bongo getting into
trouble at school or causing a mess
in the Kitchen read like second-rate
“Dennis The Menace” or 10th-rate
“Calvin and Hobbes.”
They don’t hold a candle to high
points like Groening’s exhaustive
Childhood Trauma Checklist, which
contains over 100 items ranging from
minutiae (cleaning your room, scrat-
chy new sweater, meeting another
child with your name), to unthinking
cruelty (being told “you’re just not
trying,” being called “lazy,” forced to
perform in front of parents’ friends)
to the dmvnright horrifying (locked in
closet, tortured, sexually molested).
The cumulative effect is very funny,
but it’s an uneasy kind of funny that
conjures up our own childhoods in
more detail than we may want to
remember them, and that’s more to
the point.
And then there’s “How To Deal
With Problem Parents,” which is not
funny at all, and is not meant to be.
It should be required reading for
everybody who’s thinking of having
children. And for everybody who’s
still dealing with emotional scars
inflicted during childhood. And—
most importantly—for kids. I myself
would have found it a great boost
when I was 10, and my parents were
only imperfect human beings who
made mistakes now and then. For
children living through genuine night-
mares, this little one-page comic strip
could be, quite literally, a lifesaver.
If you know any, please, please buy
them a copy of this book yesterday.
GRADE: MINT

This blog post is part of the Punk Comix series.

PX81: Boys & Girls Grow Up #2-4

Boys & Girls Grow Up #2-4 edited by Tom Campagnoli and Amy Crehore (216x280mm)

I’m not quite sure where I happened onto these comics… I feel… I found them in a TAKE THEM AWAY WE HAVE TO GET RID OF THEM box at a comic book store. But those may be false memories.

These are somewhat adjacent to the subject matter of this blog series, but they were published in the early 80s, and my guess is that there’s some kind of connection to an art school? But I know absolutely nothing about these books except that they were published in Richmond, Virginia — I can’t recall seeing anybody ever mention these books.

So I thought it might be interesting to natter on about them a bit here, anyway.

The first issue I have here (i.e., #2) is chock full of shorter pieces… and somewhat uniquely, I’ve never heard of any of these people. I guess what happened in Richmond mostly stayed in Richmond?

We start off with a snide thing about New York, and namecheck all the hipsters (Debbie Harry, David Byrne, etc). City rivalry? (Les Smith.)

I guess I can see some influence from undergrounds, but this could basically also have been a thing from Drawn & Quarterly in the 90s. I mean, the artwork, not the writing. (Leslie Carlton.)

But it’s things like this that makes me guess that there’s an art school in Richmond and that most of the people here attend that school. I mean… Charlie Brown in a Can? That’s fun. (Kenny Spreeman and Ted Salins.)

And… I kinda like this spread. It’s so out there. (Anne Peet.)

And, of course, you have the more conceptual stuff. (“Ben Dover”. That’s mature.)

So… it’s a pretty enjoyable issue? It’s got all these things by people who seem very young, but possibly talented?

The second issue (i.e., #3) is equally full of short stuff, and this issue has a theme: “In the Atomic Age”.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it seems more assured — there’s things in here that kinda work quite well (Phil Trumbo.)

This rendering style, for instance, is oddly appealing. It’s impossible to know where to look because everything has the same weight, but for once, that makes it mysterious and inviting instead of off-putting. (The dialogue seems to go for being all transgressive and stuff. Kids these days! I mean those days! In the retro-future!) (Jo Hoots.)

And this has to be scratchboard, I guess? Very nice indeed. (Lori Edmiston.)

The third issue (i.e., #4) is slightly shorter (28 pages; the other two were 32 pages), and seems to veer off into two different directions. One half leans more into comics formalism… (Roger Carrington and Michael Clautice.)

… and the other is almost normal alt-comics. (Hunter Jackson.)

Scott McCloud writes in Amazing Heroes #93, page 66:

BOYS AND GIRLS GROW UP #5 by various.

Boys and Girls Grow’ Up is an anthol-
ogy comic featuring stories by about
a dozen artists. The strips are drawn
in a bewildering variety of styles and
don’t have much in common, but the
artists themselves do. All of them
either live or have liwd in Rich-
mond, Virginia. This “regional”
theme isn’t in Boys and
Girls, but it does signal an increas-
ing trend, especially for small press
where there are no national centers
of production, just several hundred
individual artists scattered across the
country. By making this aspect of
their contributors’ backgrounds a
relevant issue, editors Crehore and
Campagnoli are helping to re-estab-
1ish the seldom-discussed link be-
tween Wihat an artist draws and what
the artist is in “real life,” As for the
stories themselves, most fall some-
where between folk-art and New
Wave styles. A few are incredibly
messy and hard to read, but at least •
worth trying, especially Roger Car-
rington’s wildly demented “Slow-
junior’. ‘ Boys and Girls isn’t a great
technical achievement, but there’s
plenty of honest and thoughtful work
in it.

Apparently I made a good deal when I picked these up for almost no money? I’m such a canny investor.

Heh.

Aaah!

The first four issues of this underground comic created and edited by Amy Crehore and Tom Campagnoli. Inspired by Art Spiegelman’s *RAW* and *Arcade*, the pair set about recruiting fellow artist from the local Richmond, Virginia area along with technical assistance from Trent Nicholas, who has Inscribed the first issue. Contributors include Phil Trumbo, award-winning illustrator and animator who directed the opening of *Pee-Wee’s Playhouse*, and Hunter Jackson a.k.a. Techno Destructo a founding member of the performance rock band GWAR. The first issue was limited to 500 copies with subsequent issues limited to 1000-1500 copies each. Unfortunately just as the comic began to gain traction with nationwide distribution and positive reviews it ended when Crehore relocated to the West Coast.

It’s expensive because a guy from Gwar is in it! And it’s fun to see that there’s a connection to Gary Panter here, although slightly tenuous (via Pee-Wee Herman).

This blog post is part of the Punk Comix series.

PX88: Hard-Boiled Defective Stories

Hard-Boiled Defective Stories by Charles Burns (229x305mm)

Pantheon had released only a handful of comics by this time: The Life in Hell collections, Maus I and the Read Yourself Raw collection. That is, their taste level was impeccable. Still, I remember happening upon this in a bookstore in 1988, and I was kinda… surprised? It’s a squarebound European “album” type of book, and it seemed to come out of nowhere: Burns is so meticulous, and then suddenly we get 90 pages of Burns!? WHAT?!

And that’s because it had been serialised over the previous five years as El Borbah in the Spanish comics magazine El Víbora. (Or was it in Heavy Metal? Or perhaps both? The interwebs don’t stretch all the way back to the 80s.)

This book is stylishly designed by Mouly and Spiegelman. Love the end-papers.

These stories were created between 1982 and 86, but it remarkable how little Burns’ style changes over those years. It’s a bit more busy at the start, though, but still very, very sharp. And is that bug on that guy’s stomach a call-back to the story he did in Raw #3?

The first two stories are both less than ten pages, and then we get a twenty page story, and the a forty page story, and then another ten-pager. It’s weird how that arrangement affects how I read the book just now: It just feels off-kilter. The two first stories lulled me into a certain rhythm, and then the stories grow longer, and… I just got kinda impatient with the longer stories? I’m not sure that would have happened if not for the shorter pieces at the start, because these are pretty breezy stories.

The two longer stories were apparently serialised in five-page chapters originally, so there’s still some rhythm from that, but the book just feels kinda wonky. Perhaps that explains why this is the first time I’ve re-read the book since I bought it in 88.

Or perhaps that because I’d just moved to a new city and things ended up in storage and here and there…

Reading this now, I’m surprised at how straightforward these stories are. Burns seems to be having great fun doing absurd 50s noir riffs, but what you see is all you get: His other stuff (like the Big Baby work, for instance) overflows with subtext and creepy implications, but there’s none of that here: It’s just goofy, bizarre fun.

Which makes me think that the title of this book is a mistake: “Hard-Boiled Defective Stories” makes you think that this is some kind of post-modern literary take on noir (a la Spiegelman’s Ace Hole or even Paul Auster’s New York Stories (which was published around this time)), but instead it’s just… this. When Fantagraphics reprinted it in 2006, they went back to the original title: El Borbah, which sounds like a good idea.

(I’m guessing the title here was invented by Spiegelman or Mouly.)

I don’t mean to say that these aren’t good comics or anything: They’re great fun, and Burns seems to have had fun when doing them, too.

But these stories feel so tossed-off and silly… This is not a major work in Burns’ oeuvre.

Only the final (short) story seems to strive for an emotional impact. (And it works.)

Leon Hunt writes in The Comics Journal #125, page 52:

[…]

At first glance, Burns’ most recent
book Hard-Boiled Defective Stories
lacks the subversive thrust of this
family nightmare. The artist’s dis-
arming weirdness seems to be
operating in a vacuum, having
reference only to generic formulas
which are gleefully pushed to out-
landish extremes. If ‘ ‘Curse of the
Moleman’ ‘ blurs the line between the
familiar and the unknown, here Burns
refuses to define the parameters of the
world he draws us into. This pre-
sumed “future” of cryogenics, SIRrm
bank corporations (“Sperm ‘n’
Stuff”), and junk food containing
addictive additives constantly remains
just beyond our grasp. There may be
a perfectly clear reason why old men
with babies’ bodies kidnap each other
at gunpoint and saw off heads with
chain-saws, but it is scarcely one to
make us feel at home. It is the
accumulation of uncanny detail which
gives Burns’ work its spexial distinc-
tion, while his comic dexterity does
much to confound and distort all
expectations.
The title is appropriate—a group of
warped detective stories. There are
five in all, each prefaced by a suitably
garish comic-book cover and title—
Mammoth Defective, Thrilling Defec-
five, Smashing Defective, Crack
Defective and Spicy Defective. The
front cover shows Bums’ fondness for
eccentric pairings, doubles, reversals,
and oppositions. An Amazonian, two-
headed woman, fetishistically clad
(handcuffs dangle from a studded
leather belt) holds a smoking
revolver. The victim of this
presumably scorned woman is tied to
a pillar, the second of two heads shat-
tered and smoking, revealing a set of
wires, wheels and springs. To the left
is a photograph of the same man dur-
ing better days—that is, when he still
needed two hats. Each Of the two left-
handed heads are in tears, the two
right ones displaying vengeful
satisfaction and wistful oblivion,
respectively.

[…]

Burns has
previously suggested a suspicion Of
mass media, and his hero here is
entirely molded by it. The opening of
one story shows him laughing
uproariously at a newspaper story
about a dismembered body found in
a freezer; and his office is littered with
casual pornography hinting at a less
amusing side to his aggression (a
magazine entitled “Bongo Butt”
depicts a voluptuous woman tied up
in preparation for beating). The
infantile callousness of Big Baby (one
RAW story showed him dismember-
ing toy soldiers with cold precision)
has blossomed into a fully-formed
regressive individualism. But there is
no moralizing here; nor can the book
be reduced to a “warning” about the
future. The approach is decidedly
cold, constantly at a distance, and
refuses to adopt a comfortable or con-
sistent tone—it’s often comic when
one might expect it to be horrific , and
Vice versa.

[…]

Burns’
attention to detail
approaches someone like Will Elder,
but Elder was seldom quite this odd.
A nightclub singer croons, “When
you wish upon a bone… Just make
sure that bone’s your own”; the
nightclub scene in ‘ ‘Robot Inve”; the
flattened perspective which creates
the appearance, in “Dead Meat, ” of
gigantic falling leaves which seem set
to crush helpless pedestrians; in the
same story the office of Bovine
Burgers is adorned by a portrait of
hanging carcasses, while a “Thank
you for not smoking” sign is mocked
not only by Borbah lighting up but by
the belching industrial chimneys
visible through the window. It is often
the juxtaposition of formularized im-
ages with irregular twists; a true
Romance couple spied on by a
shrunken figure; a woman questioned
by Borbah, unexplainably accom-
panied by a sunken-eyed child wear-
ing some sort of oxygen mask.
Hard-Boiled Defective Stories is not
an easy book to describe or
categorize. It encompasses parody,
formalism, cynical speculation, and
violent, surreal black humor. One
thing is clear. No other comic-book
artist is producing work quite like
this.

R Fiore writes in The Comics Journal #123, page 39:

1. Why I Think This Sort of Pulp
Revivalism is Bullshit When Charles
Burns Does It But Not Bullshit When,
Say, Frank Miller Does It—

Well, I mean, it’s still bullshit on a
certain level when Miller does it, but
it’s bullshit that’s true to itself. The
hard-boiled detective genre is
dangerously close to self-parody at the
best of times. and the only way to get
something worthwhile out of it is to
convince the reader that these lives
and these events do mean something,
that they are serious matters. at least
to the author. There•s something
distastefully half-assed about these
smirky, condescending parodies of the
genre. The aim usually is to give the
readers the visceral thrill of trash
while reassuring them that they’re
really too good for this sort of thing.
The unasked question is, if you’re too
good for it, why even bother with a
parody? El Borbah is the kind of
reflexive antihero that is every bit as
shallow as any reflexive hero. There’s
this army of cementhead cynics out
there who cultivate an air of ironic dis-
dain and self-serving fatalism about
the horrors around them. This attitude
is almost always coupled with a
morbid fascination with depravity El
Borbah uould seem calculated to cater
to that attitude.

2. Why, In This Case, It Doesn’t
Matter—

To begin with, Burns does have a
legitimate use for the detective
character: His ability to get into
bizarre situations. While El Borbah
has the potential of turning the stories
into empty exercises in cynicism, he’s
so out of context with the rest Of
Burns’s work—and, indeed, the
stories he’s telling here—that you have
to think he was only there to make the
stories more palatable to Heavy
Metal’s editors. Burns’s subject in
these stories is dehumanization, and
while El Borbah might say, “Fuck it,
give me the money and I’ll get some
Mexican take-out.” Burns certainly
doesn’t. If he doesn’t see any
immediate way out of it,
it’s not
fatalism but the realization that the
“victims” are wholehearted ac-
complices in their own dehumaniza-
tion. I think in this way Burns comes
much closer to capturing the spirit of
Chester Gould then Marti does
through appropriating Gould’s style
(not that that’s necessarily his inten-
lion). It’s understandable that Burns
doesn’t have any answers; he’s dealing
with one of the great dilemmas of
modern democracy He is at least try-
ing to shock his readers into
self-recognition.

An interview in The Comics Journal #234, page 71:

BURNS: In a funny way, it seems like there
are parameters that are really clearly defined
now. I remember When did a collection
called Hard-Boiled Defective Stories for
Pantheon Books back in 1988, I didn’t real-
ly know what the audience for that kind of
book would be. Maus had just come out
and there was all of this talk, all of these
magazine articles about comics not being
just for kids anymore. 1 had no idea how
my book would do. Maybe it was going to
be successful? It was being put out by a big
publisher and it was going to be sold in reg-
ular bookstores and we were all hoping for
the best. It did relatively 0K, but it didn’t
go into a second printing and just kind of
got lost. None of the “graphic novels” that
came out around that time lived up to the
expectations of the publishers and that first
wave Of interest in comics for adults or
whatever you -Vant to call them just kind of
fizzled out. At this point in my life I’m
aware that ther& an audience for my work,
but it’s not a huge audience; it’s not going
to double or triple. It’s not something that’s
snowballing. Despite that, I’m aware that
this is something that I’m going to stick
With and enjoy doing. I could be wrong.
Maybe Black Hole Will come out as a movie
and my comic sales will go through the
roof, but I’m not counting on it.
SETH: There was a real optimism in that
period — a genuine belief that comics were
heading somewhere. There was a feeling in
the air that some sort of evolutionary pro-
gression was taking place. The underground
comics had set the stage and now a brand
new breed of comics was going to open the
door to a wider audience; a serious adult
readership. It really seemed not only possi-
ble, but likely. don’t know what happened.
Here at the end Of the 20th century (or so)
I definitely do not feel that sort of opti-
mism about our future. That feeling evapo-
rated.

Yup; the first wave of Comics Aren’t For Kids Any More fizzled toot sweet when nothing sold but Maus… and it took publishers almost two decades to figure out that what people wanted was auto/biography, and that Maus wasn’t a singular one-off.

This blog post is part of the Punk Comix series.

PX84: Kromalaffing

Kromalaffing edited by Michael Merrill (179x267mm)

This is a catalogue:

From February 4 to 25 of that year, Michael Merrill curated a gallery show called “ChromaZone/Chromatique Presents Kromalaffing” at Toronto’s Grünwald Gallery. The exhibition presented experimental and humorous comic artwork from American, Canadian and European artists.

It was in 1984, and I think it had to be one of the earliest gallery shows to feature such a gamut of artists. It’s a slightly confusing selection of people: It’s basically “Raw people” and then “people from around the area” (i.e., Toronto).

The catalogue explains the show briefly…

… and then we get a page or two of pretty random comics from people (along with an introduction). Here’s Kaz, for instance.

Some people get no introduction, like M K Brown.

Gary Panter is represented by some Daltokyo strips…

… and Art Spiegelman by a truly random selection of randomness.

There’s a single European here — Joost Swarte.

It’s just a very oddly curated show. I mean, you can’t fault somebody for wanting to have all these different people in the show, but there doesn’t seem to be much of a through-line here.

Hm! Here’s somebody I’m not familiar with… Kat Cruickshank? With “No Name Comix”? Those pages look intriguing.

KG Cruickshank… Must be this twitter? I’m unable to find “No Name Comix” on the ebay, though. Too bad; I want to read those.

Anyway, there’s even Mark Beyer in here, and he says that he consciously chose not to go to art school.

This blog post is part of the Punk Comix series.