At the height of his fame as America’s “happy hippy cartoonist,” Robert Crumb turned down an offer to do an album cover for the Rolling Stones. Though his artwork graced the sleeve of Big Brother & the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills, Crumb had no interest in the Summer of Love, and especially not in its music. Janis Joplin was a personal friend and a comics fan, and anyway he needed the $600. But he considered the Stones insufferable posers—like Blueshammer in Ghost World—and found it lamentable that women preferred Mick Jagger to, say, your average underground cartoonist. A few years later he even formed his own band to play more authentic roots blues and country. Not that it slowed the Stones down any.
Crumb might’ve been the first cartoonist to wear his anachronism on his sleeve, but he won’t be the last: that gamut runs from Kim Deitch to Drew Friedman to Chris Ware to Jason. Two members in good standing of this society, Seth and Adrian Tomine appear this week at Quimby’s to discuss their most recent projects, all of which are backward-looking in one way or another.
The two have six “new” products between them. Seth’s plugging an expanded version of his serial for the New York Times, George Sprott (1894-1975), as well as the first volumes of The Collected Doug Wright, which he conceived, edited, and designed, and The John Stanley Library, which he designed. Tomine’s got reissues of his own Shortcomings and 32 Stories and a new autobiographical work from Japan’s Yoshihiro Tatsumi, A Drifting Life, that he edited, designed, and lettered.
Seth’s George Sprott is the “biography” of a fictional Canadian TV personality. “Arctic explorer, television host, raconteur, beloved uncle or opportunist, philanderer, deadbeat father, self-centered bore?” asks the jacket copy; it’s no spoiler to say the title character is all of the above. Sprott, inspired by an actual Detroit talk show host who had a habit of falling asleep as his guests droned on, dreams of his past as he dozes. The defining episode is an affair he had with an Inuit woman during his travels; though he fathers a child with her, he never sees her again. Framing his own memories is a Citizen Kane-style reconstruction of his life as retold by friends, family, and coworkers.
For the book version, Seth grew the story by half and even included photographs of Dominion, a fictional midcentury Canadian city he’s been building out of cardboard for the past decade that serves as the setting for Sprott’s life. He has a real gift for creating comforting locales and exteriors populated by emotionally collapsed (if well-attired) figures.
Tomine may not have built himself a 1950s city out of cardboard, but he’s immersed himself in the mid-20th century as seen through the eyes of pioneering Japanese cartoonist Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Readers know Tomine best from his New Yorker fiction-issue covers and his autobiographical Optic Nerve, which he began in high school as a series of minicomics xeroxed at a Kinko’s in Sacramento and from which both 32 Stories and Shortcomings were culled, but he’s also been editing and designing Tatsumi’s North American releases since 2005.
On the surface, there probably couldn’t be bigger gap between Tomine’s coming of age in sleepy Sacto and Tatsumi’s during the American occupation of Japan. Then again, the struggle to put out independent, literary comics in the North American market of the late 80s and early 90s—dominated as it was by direct sales superhero shops—has its parallels in Tatsumi’s story. Tatsumi more or less invented literary comics in Japan, a style he called gekiga (which translates as “dramatic pictures”) and in A Drifting Life sets his own struggle to break free of the boys’ world of manga comics against Japan’s struggle to redefine its identity after the war. He opens the story on the day of the emperor’s surrender in 1945, with his countrymen literally on their knees, and ends it in 1960, during the riots over the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which trigger in the cartoonist an epiphany about the nature of his own work.
To begin one’s career in literary comics when Seth and Tomine did also meant breaking your own ground. A young Jonathan Lethem or Rick Moody could read any number of new novels by his peers. But for an aspiring graphic novelist, there was Art Spiegelman, Will Eisner, the Hernandez brothers, Harvey Pekar . . . after that, the list got thin. If you wanted more, pre-eBay, you started scouring used bookstores and the dime bin at the comics shop. And once you’d done all that legwork, of course, you wanted to share.
Seth, for instance, ran across John Stanley’s mid-1960s work in the dime bins. Best known for scripting Little Lulu (currently in reprints from Dark Horse), Stanley quit comics, reportedly with some animosity, in the early 70s. But before he did he created several titles of his own, including Melvin Monster, Kookie, and Thirteen Going on Eighteen. Seth would eventually write a piece on this later work for the Comics Journal, under editor Tom Devlin. It was Devlin, now at Drawn & Quarterly, who contacted Seth about designing the new Stanley series.
An idiosyncratic humorist, Stanley often opened with a simple premise that he’d extend far beyond a one-dimensional joke. With Melvin Monster, publisher Dell surely hoped to cash in on the mid-1960s craze for sitcoms like The Munsters and The Addams Family: Melvin, the good little monster, is a huge disappointment to his evil parents, Mummy and Baddy. But Stanley pushes beyond the obvious gags, and Melvin becomes a somewhat disturbing mix of child abuse and slapstick, set in monster suburbia—a Monsters, Inc. without the Pixar sugar. In one story Baddy sends sissy Melvin to their horrific basement to make a real monster out of him, forgetting about the caged-up beasts that will surely devour his son—not that he tries to save him once he remembers. Melvin survives, then tricks his dad into going down into the basement himself.
Seth also designed The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist, Volume 1. Wright (1917-1983) drew the perennially popular Doug Wright’s Family, aka Nipper— the name of the monkey wrench of a toddler thrown into the family’s postwar largesse.
Nipper’s sole focus appears to be destroying family property—toys, cars, clothes, food—at maximum inconvenience to his father. Wright drew the strips vertically, to be read from top to bottom, and without dialogue, and made trademark use of a single spot color, bright red, to compose panels, emphasize emotion, or simply identify the main character to the reader. One strip might have a red coat or hat, another red shadows, another a single red z over a snoozing baby.
Wright’s appeal to Seth is obvious—there’s his perfectly executed, light design and line, and then there’s the simple central conflict of a family just trying to do anything peaceably—picnic, shop, fish, eat dinner. The anachronists only wish life could be so simple. That’s the difference between them and the nostalgists, who believe it was.
In the introductions to both the 1995 and the new edition of 32 Stories, Tomine admits that many of his early minicomics still send a chill of embarrassment up his spine. For the ’95 edition, they were edited into a single slender volume, with “patterned endpapers, metallic Pantone ink, and what’s referred to in the book business as ‘French flaps,'” as if to give them more collective weight—which he now thinks just made things worse. When he reluctantly agreed to a reprint, Tomine made a compromise with his publisher, who wanted the book expanded: he would include everything, but in the original format—a box set of xeroxed pamphlets and minicomics. Nostalgic on the face of it—but from Tomine’s point of view, more honest. One thing it undeniably shows—this generation of literary cartoonists finally has a past of its own.