Leave it to me to make talking about humor comic books completely unfunny.
This third installment of “Palmer’s Picks” from the April 1992 issue of Wizard: The Guide To Comics was a bit of a departure. While the first two columns dealt with individual creators and their comics (Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman and Dave Sim‘s Cerebus), this time I decided to tackle a general topic and cover a sampling of different comic books. While I don’t remember exactly what was going through my mind at the time—it’s been over 25 years—I’m pretty sure it was another case of trying to be a counterpoint to what was going on in the rest of the magazine. What could be the complete opposite of the grim-and-gritty anti-heroes that were so popular at the time? Comics that make you laugh, of course!
In retrospect, this might not have been the best idea. While it was admirable to give some exposure to obscure names like Doug Allen and Mark Martin, I really didn’t have the writing chops to properly convey the appeal of their work. This column reads more like a half-assed book report that I stayed up late to finish the night before it was due. It starts with a very brief history of humor comic books before giving quick bios of a number of creators who made me laugh. A better way to approach it would have been to give a brief description of some of the funniest gags from each artist. Do we really need a rundown of all of the magazines that have published Drew Friedman or would it have been better to mention that one of his early strips re-imagined the cast of The Andy Griffith Show as secret Klansmen? On second thought, maybe my original approach wasn’t all that bad…
Another lesson learned: black-and-white comic books don’t make for visually interesting art choices in a full-color, glossy magazine. My memory is fuzzy—it’s still been over 25 years since I wrote the original column—but I vaguely remember picking out the individual strips that ran alongside the text and flagging them with Post-It Notes. Since the comics I was covering in “Palmer’s Picks” were getting more and more obscure, I began sending sample comics when I turned in my work each month. I learned early on that it was very important to attach my name and address to each comic. A few books were lost along the way, but Wizard’s research department was always good about buying replacements. (They even lost my copy of the 3-D version of Destroy! when I covered Scott McCloud and replaced it with a copy of the more expensive original, tabloid size edition. Score!)
While the art choices this issue weren’t the most colorful, they did help a bit to sell why I thought these cartoonists were funny. It’s much better to actually see Doug Gray‘s perfect comedic timing in the sample from Eye Of Mongombo or experience the absurdity of Steven by reading a full-length comic strip instead of trying to explain why you should be laughing. I doubt I would have been able to get away with a purely visual edition of “Palmer’s Picks” at this early stage, but maybe a column that was nothing more than nice, large reprints of funny comic strips with very brief captions would have been yet another way to get readers interested in these cartoonists.
One last thing to note about this installment: good luck finding “Palmer’s Picks” in the table of contents for this issue. The TOC pages in these early issues of Wizard are usually a mess (typos, wrong page numbers, bad design) but this issue is especially bad. None of the articles or columns are listed in numerical order. They’re not even in alphabetical order! Wizard was still a small operation at this point, so a lot of mistakes were made and my little column was usually one of the things to fall through the cracks.
After this stellar introduction, I’m not sure many of you will want to keep reading. If you have the heart, keep scrolling to check out one of my least favorite “Palmer’s Picks.”
By Tom Palmer Jr.
Let’s face it. We all like to laugh. Despite this, the small group of quality humor comics is ignored by the general comic fan. Many of the early comic strips, like Krazy Kat, and the early comic books, such as Mad, fall into the humor genre. These books greatly influenced the humor comics today, which are mostly black-and-white comics published by small, independent companies.
Harvey Kurtzman was the first editor of Mad Magazine back in the early ’50s when it was published as a four-color comic in the EC line. It survived the congressional hearings and the implementation of the Comics Code Authority in 1954 to become the full-sized black-and-white magazine that it is today. The trademark style of satire and parody that Mad is known for originated with Kurtzman’s editorship. He began by poking fun at certain genres of popular culture like westerns or science-fiction stories, but soon sharpened his focus to specific movies, T.V. shows, and comic books such as King Kong, Dragnet, and Superman. Kurtzman stayed on for five issues when Mad became a magazine, and left to start other humor magazines such as Trump, Humbug,and Help!
Kurtzman’s style had a direct influence on many cartoonists, most notably the underground artists of the ’60s and ’70s like Robert Crumb and Art Spiegleman. In turn, Crumb and the other underground cartoonists provided the basis for many of today’s humor artists such as Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, Mark Martin, Doug Gray, Sam Hurt, and Doug Allen.
Peter Bagge got his start in fanzines, like Comical Funnies and Wacky World, which he co-published with other cartoonists, and eventually became the editor of Weirdo during the mid-eighties. He then got his own comic, Neat Stuff, in which he developed his animated cartoon-like style. His characters frequently explode with anger and frustration into twisted forms of flesh. While his early strips were mostly nonsensical stories based around the characters he created, he soon began to develop his creations and place them in more familiar settings. His current comic, Hate, uses
one of his most popular characters, Buddy Bradley, to poke fun at life in America.
A student of Kurtzman’s at the School of Visual Arts in New York, Drew Friedman, like Peter Bagge, cites the underground cartoonists as influences on his work. His stippled renditions of popular celebrities in bizarre situations have appeared in such nationwide publications as National Lampoon and Spy Magazine and comic magazines like Raw and Weirdo. The targets for his comics are usually celebrities from the forties and fifties like the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and the Swedish wrestler/actor, Tor Johnson. His caricatures are so accurate, that Friedman was once sued for libel by late-nite talk show host Joe Franklin.
Mark Martin began in the mini-comics and eventually graduated to full size comics during the black and white explosion of the mid-eighties with Gnatrat, a parody of the Dark Knight. He has since gone on to create a bi-weekly comic strip for the Comics Buyer’s Guide which has become an outlet for his views on the comics industry and a place for him to introduce new characters and ideas.
Doug Gray, a relatively new cartoonist, is making his mark with his first series, The Eye of Mongombo. The book is basically a parody of the Indiana Jones movies, with the main character having been turned into a duck. Each page of the comic, including the page numbers, is loaded with sight gags and slapstick humor drawn in an uncluttered, but detailed style.
Aside from cartoonists specifically working in comic books, there are several artists working in newspapers who have had their work collected into comic books. Foremost among them are Sam Hurt and Dog Allen.
Hurt began his strip, Eyebeam, in the Daily Texan in 1978 and continued it until 1989. The comic was self-syndicated by Hurt in about twenty regional newspapers and was collected into a series of seven paperbacks. While the series covers a variety of topics, it is centered around the life of a law student in Texas.
Doug Allen created his character, Steven, in 1976 as a place to vent his anger, and has drawn him in weekly comic strips for alternative newspapers since then. Steven is an irritable boy surrounded by a group of supporting characters that frequently try to take over the strip from him. Allen has also drawn Steven for several comic magazines like National Lampoon and Blab!
Despite the fact that there are very few humor comics on the market, there are many different types ranging from finely-crafted social satire to crude physical humor. Only after trying a few will you be able to find the one that will suit your tastes in comedy.
Here is a brief sampling of the major works of the various artists mentioned in this article:
Harvey Kurtzman: The first six issues of Mad have been collected in one softcover volume from Russ Cochran. The book is also available as part of a hardcover set containing the remaining comic-book sized Mads.
Peter Bagge: Hate is published quarterly from Fantagraphics and Bagge’s comics from Neat Stuff have been collected into four books: The Bradleys. Studs Kirby, Junior and Other Losers, and Stupid Comics.
Drew Friedman: Two books have been published collecting Friedman’s cartoons from various magazines. These are: Any Similarity to Persons Living or Dead is Purely Coincidental from Fantagraphics, and Warts and All from Penguin Books.
Mark Martin: Two volumes of 20 Nude Dancers 20 have been published by Tundra collecting the first two years of the strip. A collection of the Gnatrat comics has also been published by Fantagraphics.
Doug Gray: The Eye of Mongombo is published very irregularly from Fantagraphics. Gray’s cartoons have also appeared in Critters and as back-up features in Usagi Yojimbo.
Sam Hurt: The paperback books collecting Eyebeam are mostly out of print. but comic book reprints of the strip are being published quarterly from Double Diamond Press. His Queen of the Universe strip is being syndicated by United Features Syndicate.
Doug Allen: Steven appears weekly in various alternative newspapers, and four comic books from Kitchen Sink Press have been published collecting the series.