After the Best of ’94 extravaganza from last issue, this column from Wizard #42, the February issue, can be considered the first “Palmer’s Picks” of 1995, even though it was published in the last week of December ’94. Confusing? Well, it’s even more perplexing when you consider that I wrote this column in October 1994.
Once you get past the mysteries of magazine cover dates, it’s interesting to note that I spent the first half of ’95 profiling six different self-publishers, starting with this issue’s profile of Very Vicky. (If you want a preview of the rest, here it goes: David Mazzucchelli‘s Rubber Blanket, Scud: The Disposable Assassin by Rob Schrab, Don Simpson‘s Bizarre Heroes, Adrian Tomine and Optic Nerve, and Bacchus by Eddie Campbell.) The streak of self-publishers runs even longer if you consider that I profiled Steve Bissette, Terry Moore, and Paul Pope in the three columns before Wizard‘s year-end issue.
So what made self-publishing so popular in the 1990s? Well, the direct sales market at the time was really chugging along, so a creator who wanted to control all aspects of their comic was able to take advantage of a market that could still support a decent number of comic book shops and had a robust distribution system. This all changed when Marvel bought the third largest distributor in the tail-end of 1994 and set off a chain of events that destabilized the market and left Diamond as the only distributor by the middle of ’96.
Self-publishers took a big hit when the market collapsed, but before that point it was a great option for artists who had a comic that might not neatly fit into a popular genre or could get lost at a larger company. Which brings us to Very Vicky. After publishing an issue of their comic at Caliber Press, husband and wife team John Mitchell and Jana Christy decided to start their own company to continue their quirky comic that took inspiration from the Rat Pack films of the ’50s and ’60s.
As you can probably surmise, a comic like Very Vicky was probably the furthest thing from what the typical Wizard reader was interested in. Regardless, I think this column wasn’t half bad. My profile of Paul Pope from issue 40 was the first to feature a traditional interview (like, with quotes and stuff), so I was still getting the hang of the new format. Of course, I decided to complicate things for my second attempt by picking a comic where I would have to speak with two creators and weave their quotes together in one write-up.
Very Vicky didn’t stick around much longer after this “Palmer’s Picks.” The initial series wrapped up with issue 8 in the summer of 1995 (six issues had been published when this issue of Wizard hit the stands), and was followed by two issues of a new series (Very Vicky: Calling All Hillbillies) and the Very Vicky Junior Hepcat Funbook, a collection of odds-and-ends and pin-ups from guest artists like Dave Sim, Steve Bissette, and Brian Michael Bendis.
Mitchell and Christy have since moved on to bigger things, including a career in children’s books. They’ve produced a few together, including Frankie Liked To Sing, a biography of Frank Sinatra, which should appeal to any fans of their comic work together. Christy has also illustrated several books with other authors, including Disney’s Never Girls series, while Mitchell (who now goes by the name John Seven) has penned a few books on his own and enjoys a career as a journalist.
A Comic Book Cocktail
By Tom Palmer Jr.
It’s safe to say that Very Vicky is unlike anything being done in comics today. While the typical comic book is described by the other comics it resembles, Very Vicky can best be explained as equal parts ’50s screwball comedy movie, scathing satire of trendy teens, and celebration of the wonders of “responsible” drinking, with a small homage to the eternal coolness of Frank Sinatra thrown in for good measure.
Vicky Ocean, the sixteen-year-old star of Very Vicky, is a hip New York girl who goes to live with her aunt and uncle in Sandy Shores, Georgia, a small beach town that claims to be “The ‘Buckle’ in the ‘Sun Belt.'” She’s a bit out of place with the other beer-drinking, uncultured teens, but she manages to bring her own sensibilities to the rest of the small beach community in a unique fashion. In the short span of a handful of comic books, she’s thrown the beach party to end all beach parties, with a guest list including Babblin’ Louie Hubbard, God, and the Devil; been in the middle of a feud between the Shriner Lodge and the Jellyfish Lodge; and gone on a madcap chase for a pot of gold a la the classic movie It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
The bizarre situations in Very Vicky spring from the imaginations of writer John Mitchell and artist Jana Christy, a husband and wife self-publishing team. They split the creative chores on the book equally, but their collaboration tends to be a little closer than normal. As John explains, “I basically write a movie script. I’m the script writer and Jana’s the director.” He feels that working on Very Vicky with Jana is easy because “we tend to be the type of people who finish each other’s sentences. It’s easy because I don’t have to tell her things she already knows.”
Jana reinforces John’s enthusiasm for the comic and their method. “I can’t imagine working with anyone else. It’s so hard for an artist to understand what the writer is trying to do, but with John it’s much easier because it’s such a group project. We talk about Vicky all the time, so we’re really in on all the ideas together, and that really helps.”
The title character was a direct output of this close collaboration, as John explains. “She sprang out of our minds. I came up with the name first before anything else, and the first time Jana drew her, she looked pretty much like she does now, except she wore boots.” Boots or no boots, Vicky is definitely a recognizable character, with her distinctive, (mostly) black wardrobe and wry smile.
Most of the situations Vicky finds herself in are inspired by some of John and Jana’s favorite things, including screwball comedies and Sinatra movies. In fact, the music industry’s Chairman of the Board was the inspiration for the name of their self-publishing company, Meet Danny Ocean. “It’s a double Sinatra reference. He made a movie, Meet Danny Wilson, and Danny Ocean was his character in the legendary film Ocean’s Eleven.”
John reveals that their appreciation of Sinatra goes even further. “In the comic book, Vicky is supposed to be Danny Ocean’s daughter.”
Very Vicky reads like a movie, if such a thing is possible, because John believes that “comics are mainly a visual medium. A lot of people don’t take advantage of it. I always get irritated when there’s a little too much narration where it isn’t needed. Sometimes it works, but you don’t need a narrator to tell you there’s a fight going on. I also don’t like a lot of thought balloons. I prefer Jana’s drawing to express what’s going on.”
Jana’s artwork does a perfect job of conveying the mad-cap goings-on in Very Vicky. At first glance, her drawings seem simple, but there’s more than just what lies on the surface. Upon subsequent readings, background jokes and details become apparent. Her artwork is so fresh because she cannot cite a comic book influence on her work.
“If I’d have to name any influences,” she says, “it would probably be children’s books illustrators, like Ludwig Bemelmans, who did Madeline, and Ernest Shepard, who did the Winnie the Pooh books.”
In fact, before they started working on Very Vicky, Jana and John tried, unsuccessfully, to break into children’s books. Obviously, that genre’s loss is comic books’ gain. Very Vicky is the talk of the industry, but John is a little wary of the attention that Very Vicky, and small press comics in general, have been getting recently.
“Look at punk rock,” he says. “It sort of lumbered around for God knows how long. Most people didn’t even know it still existed, but it took one small, marginally-talented band to be hyped, and suddenly it becomes pop music. But with comics, [the hype] will only get to a certain point. They still have a stigma they haven’t gotten rid of. I think comics are misconstrued as too lowbrow for people who just read books, and too esoteric for people who just like watching TV. It’s such an overlooked, in-between medium.”
Very Vicky has been so well-received due to the fact that John and Jana keep it simple. With nothing more than biting, sarcastic writing, and eye-pleasing artwork, Very Vicky goes down like a smooth martini. And the best thing about it is that you won’t get a hangover in the morning.
As always, please send any comments to me at Palmer’s Picks,
151 Wells Avenue, Congers, NY 10920-2064, and send any unusual cocktail recipes to John and Jana at the Meet Danny Ocean address below.
Pick Of The Month
Drawn & Quarterly—This high-class anthology is one of the few publications that actually cares about and respects comics as an art form. With its lavish production values and commitment to publishing the finest work from North American and European cartoonists, Drawn & Quarterly gives comics the attention they deserve. Pick up the second issue, which is out now, at your local comic store, or send $5.95 directly to Drawn & Quarterly Publications,
5550 Jeanne Mance, #16, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2V 4K6.
Tom Palmer Jr. is a freelance writer who is too young to order an Old Fashioned, and too old to order a Shirley Temple.
John and Jana’s Recommended Reading: The fine folks at Meet Danny Ocean recommend these comics for your reading pleasure. So, sit back with a cocktail and enjoy. Acme Novelty Library by Chris Ware from Fantagraphics Books; Wolff and Byrd by Batton Lash from Exhibit A Press; Rare Bit Fiends by Rick Veitch from King Hell Press; Tyrant by Steve Bissette from SpiderBaby Grafix & Publications; Milk and Cheese and Dick Wad by Evan Dorkin from Slave Labor Graphics; and Fatman the Human Flying Saucer by the late, legendary C.C. Beck. As for Fatman, John pleads, “Whoever owns the rights to this, please contact us!”
Tom’s Recommended Reading
Very Vicky: Very Vicky is a black-and-white comic published on a quarterly schedule, and the sixth issue is in stores now. The first issue, published by Iconografix, is sold out, but Meet Danny Ocean recently published a second printing. Every issue contains a main story by John and Jana, and a series of back-up features, including multimedia collage strips by Gregory Damien Grinnell. All six issues can be ordered for $2.50 each from Meet Danny Ocean,
PO Box 383286, Cambridge, MA 02238 (include $1 postage with your order). Make sure to check with your local comic shop before ordering.
The Very Vicky Happy Hour Collection: This is not a trade paperback, but a collection of the first five issues of Very Vicky, with a full-color, signed pin-up. If your local comic store is serviced by Diamond, Capital City, or Heroes World, then you can get your sweaty little hands on this collection.
Miscellaneous: Very Vicky has popped up in a few odd places recently. An original Very Vicky preview was published in Cerebus #187, and GASP (Giant Anthology of Self-Publishers) contains an all-new Very Vicky short story, as well as work from fifteen other self-publishers. All-new Very Vicky cartoon strips are also published in the quarterly Boston arts paper Etcetera.
The Very Vicky Junior Hepcat Squad: You can join the ranks of the Junior Hepcat Squad (along with well-known creators Steve Bissette and Dave Sim) for the small fee of $2.50 (sent to Meet Danny Ocean at the above address). When you join, you get o membership card, games, a newsletter, and drinking tips.