Guide to Comics (Musea Vaults)

MUSEA LOOKS AT COMICS
(Guide to My Favorites)

This issue of Musea looks at the wide world of comics. It’s an opinionated guide that doesn’t even try to cover the entire field – a field that is too vast and spans too many decades. But it does try to give you an intro to some of the most notable mainstream and underground comics I’ve found. – Enjoy.

Two main publishers now dominate comics. They are Marvel and DC. They are the Coke and Pepsi of comics. These two have some interesting titles that we are going to talk about, but there is a vast world outside of them too. It’s the comics outside the two giants that are more often my favorites. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the wide world of comics.

OLDIES:
YELLOW KID. This comic is notable for being the first. It featured a bald kid named Mickey Dugan who spoke through messages on his yellow nightshirt. We get the term yellow journalism from it. It was drawn by Richard F. Outcault, and started in 1894. LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. This newspaper comic by Winsor McCay was a full pager in color – and all this from 1905 – 1913. In each installment, Nemo had a surreal dream that ended in the final panel where he woke up. It is notable for its extraordinary art work. Hardly anyone before or since has matched it.

KINDER KIDS / WEE WILLIE WINKIE’S WORLD.
These two short lived comics were drawn by the noted modern artist Lyonel Feininger. And in my opinion, they alone matched the artwork of Little Nemo. The first decade of the 20th century was a heady time for good comics! KINDER KIDS. Three brothers, their dog, and a mechanical boy sail off to adventures in a bathtub.

WEE WILLIE WINKIE’S WORLD. Willie discovers a surreal world all around him.

ARCHIE’S WORLD
Archie started as a character in Pep Comics in 1941 and he and his Riverdale pals have been going strong ever since. There are the two beauties, the rich brunette Veronica, a Bettie Page look-a-like, and the goodhearted blonde Betty. There’s Jughead, Reggie, and the rest of the gang. Through the decades the fashions have changed, the situations have been updated, and the artists drawing the strip have switched, but the basic characters have stayed true to form. That consistency is probably a major reason why the comic has stayed so popular over so many years.

PRINCE VALIANT. This middle ages adventure comic was started by Hal Foster in 1933. It’s most notable to me for its realistic art work. One of my favorite postcard books is a book filled with scenes taken from Prince Valiant. Watch for detailed panorama scenes in bold brilliant colors, or action packed battle scenes with knights jousting, ships in sea battles, or Prince Valiant facing down monsters with the greatest of courage.

THE CODE of 1953 (Before and After). The comics code was the comic industry’s reaction to – the government’s reaction to – the parents reaction to – too much sex and violence in their kid’s comics. After 1954 good comics had the Code Stamp, and bad ones … didn’t sell. Wholesomeness trumped, but a lot of artistic work suffered for it. .ACTION COMICS / SUPERMAN. Action Comics #1 started the Super powered crime fighter genre in comics when it introduced the character Superman, created by Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster. And though there have been legions of knockoffs, such as Batman, Spiderman, The Flash, and Aquaman; none have knocked off Superman.
(Note: Stan Lee is the real super hero among these Supermen, as he created many of the best of these super-characters). Yes it’s Superman the original that stands out for me, not only for being the most ‘super’ powerful of the bunch, but because he had all the great extras: alter ego Clark Kent (and that phonebooth dressing room), love interest Lois Lane, his Achilles heel Kryptonite, a big “S” on his caped suit, and lots of nasty villains like Mr. Mxyztplk.

MADLY MEDLEY: MAD, CRACKED, and SICK.
Mad’s mascot , Alfred El. Neuman, the big-eared, freckled face kid says, “What me Worry?” And why should he. Mad is the longest running comic that’s not a super hero. Issues are a medley of stories making fun of movies, politics, trends, and everyday life. Also look for some mainstay features such as “Spy Versus Spy, “Don Martin Steps Out” and those tiny cartoons tuck into the margins by Sergio Aragone. P.S. The knockoffs are pretty good too: SICK (1960-1980), and CRACKED (1958- on).

TWO EUROPEAN CLASSICS
TINTIN. This French comic, by Herge has been going strong for 70 years. It tells the story of the somewhat bland Tintin who has extraordinary adventures in exotic locals. Look for any of the English translations.

ASTERIX. This French comic, started in 1959, features the main character Asterix who lives in Gaul in 50 BC. He is the brains, and his sidekick, the not so bright Obelix is all muscle. Together they get into and out of all kinds of adventures. Note the wonderfully rich and detailed drawings that illustrate the Roman world. It matches the art work of Prince Valiant but with a much lighter madcap tone.

CLASSIC CLASSICS. Classics Illustrated (1941-1963) were comic book versions of literary classic books. At the time they were often thought of as nothing more than cheat sheets for students. They could scan the comic and avoid reading the original. But now they are not only fondly remembered, but highly collectable. All total there were 197 different classics transformed to comics.

SCI-FI GUYS
FLASH GORDON. This personal favorite comic ran from 1966-67 with 11 issues. It featured the young heroic Flash Gordon, the gorgeous girlfriend Dale Arden, the super scientist Dr. Zarkov, and of course that meanest of villains, Ming the Merciless. Also check out the 3 film serials of Flash from the late 30’s.

JUDGE DREDD. (1982- on). Judge Dredd, is both a motorcycle cop and an on-the-spot judge and jury ‘peace’ officer. He is tough, robotic, and fearless. His beat is Mega-City, an endless metropolis in the future that is dark, over-populated, and filled with a bizarre underbelly of scummy, weird, and violent villains. Eruptions of citizens cause Dredd and the other judges to take out the trash. Its violent, and gory, but also filled with smart creative stories that are well drawn – especially those by John Wagner and Alan Grant. Note: One title that can’t be reprinted due to a fear of lawsuits, is the one featuring the war between McDonalds and Burger King.

SCARY GHOULS (For the Teenage Boy in Me)
VAMPIRELLA. (1969-1983). 112 issues. Created by Forrest J. Ackerman. It isn’t the stories so much as the paintings on the cover and the poster pages inside that make this comic classic fun. Vampirella, from planet Drakulon, is really a good girl, she just has this one problem. She needs to drink blood to live. Otherwise she fights evil in a revealing black bikini bodysuit. It’s all great gothic eye candy!

ELVIRA, MISTRESS OF THE DARK. (1993- on) Also note the campy adventures of Elvira the mistress of the dark, and the hostess of those b-level horror films. (Personal Note, Elvira and I were born days apart in 1949)

HORROR-ABLE
THE VAULT OF HORROR (1950-55) This anthology comic, filled with gore and horror, may have been the final straw that outraged parents enough to force a comics code on the comic industry. Of the many imitators, my favorite was … THE TWILIGHT ZONE. (1962-1979) Each of the almost 100 issues told 3 or 4 weird stories in the Twilight Zone style. Maybe my attraction comes from watching the TV show as a kid. I remember I couldn’t sleep the night I heard “To Serve Man” – It’s a cookbook!”.

TWO GREATS (That others recommend)
WILL EISNER. He is best known for the comic “SPIRIT”, a 40’S film noir type crime fighter comic – good stories well made. He also wrote what many consider the first graphic novel, “A Contract With God (1978). Also note his definition of cartoons, “Sequential Art.”.

JACK COLE.. His most notable comic creation was Plastic Man, another 40’s crime fighter. Plastic man could stretch his body to any shape. Along with him was his rotund sidekick, Woozy Winks. Nicely drawn fun.

JACK CHICK TRACTS. Jack Chick , whereabouts unknown, is famous for his extreme fundamentalist Christian cartoon booklets. I learned about his work through street preachers who used to hand out the tracts to passersby.

ROMANTICAL. One very popular genre of comics was the romance comic geared toward young female readers. Perhaps the most notable was YOUNG ROMANCE (1947-1975) started by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. It was so popular that there were at least 50 imitators! Note: one of their most risqué stories was titled, “I Won’t Kiss that Evil Way!”

HEAVY METALED. Do you want your sci-fi as cartoons but a notch more sophisticated than comic books? Do you want them populated with half naked women? Well that’s the appeal of HEAVY METAL (1977- on). Look for more sex and violence than regular comics, and sometimes some real comic gems for adults. Marvel comics wanted a contender like Heavy Metal and started EPIC ILLUSTRATED (1980-1986). Like Heavy Metal its stories hit and missed and missed and missed. But worth a look for the hits.

UNDERGROUND. Robert Crumb started peddling his comics from a baby carriage on the streets of San Francisco. Soon the counter culture of the 60’s had its own comic genre. They had been Zapped! And comics had been alt-ered forever. ZAP! ‘The’ underground comic was Zap (1967 – on) with its assortment of cartoonists and styles. The first copy ‘s cover is now an icon. It shows a naked ‘zapped’ boy shaking in mid air with a wire plugged into his navel! Zap introduced adult themes, sex, drugs and drug induced surrealism, into comics.

ROBERT CRUMB. There is a whole world of comics from Robert Crumb. He is a universe unto himself. His nervous drawing style is somehow both cartoony and classic art at the same time. He runs the gamut from ‘Mr. Natural’ in his robe and white beard saying his motto, “Keep on Truckin'”, and his big butted Amazon women – a fetish with him; to, serious portraits and book illustrations. Everything ‘Crumb’ is recommended. And see his bio movie, “Crumb” too.

DEEPER UNDERGROUND
FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS. 1967. This Gilbert Sheldon comic tells about 3 roommates, Fat Freddy, Phineas, and Free Wheelin’ Franklin. When I was going to NTSU (North Texas State University, now University of North Texas) I remember a little one story white house / store , barely off campus, that was our headshop. I can still see inside it. Incense was burning. On the walls were black lit psychedelic concert posters (now priceless). On the shelves were lava lamps and twisting plastic shade lamps that showered moving star shapes or multiple colors across the walls and ceiling. And on the back wall was a rack of underground comics. For me Zap and many of the others were almost too much – too bizarre , too explicit, too rough. And seeing them today you still might wince or groan. But one that was just fun was the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. And to this day I still remember their saying (though the wording may not be exact): “It’s better to have dope in times of no money, than money in times of no dope”. A great fun comic.

AMERICAN SPLENDOR
BINKY BROWN MEETS THE HOLY VIRGIN MARY (1972) by Justin Green, was the first autobiographical comic and a classic. But it’s HARVEY PEKAR, a file clerk and jazz aficionado from Cleveland that took the form to consistent and notable heights with his comic AMERICAN SPLENDOR (1976 – on). He writes the text and sketches out his ideas for the comic. Then he turns it over to a gifted cartoonist (Robert Crumb was one). His comics are honest to the max. They are virtually serialized stream of consciousness comic novels. Perhaps his masterpiece – though all are worthy – is the graphic novel “Our Cancer Year” about his bout with cancer. Also note the fine film biography of Pekar, American Splendor.

MAUS (vol. 1 – 1986 / vol. 2 – 1991). Art Spiegelman. This two part cartoon novel may be the most notable single achievement in comics. It rightly won a Pulitzer prize! It’s the autobio story of Art and his father Vladik who survived the holocaust. Art has a strained relationship with his father that he thinks in part is related to his father’s experiences in WW2. In flashbacks Vladik tells his story of the war years that ends with Vladik being shipped to a concentration camp, his surviving the camp, and what happened after liberation. Throughout the work Jews are portrayed as mice and Nazis as Cats – though none of the horror is played down by the caricatures. Hardly anything I’ve seen tells and shows the harrowing aspects of the holocaust and how it affects it’s victims afterwards, better than Maus. A true comic classic.

FANTAGRAPHICS. This is not a comic but a comic publisher. Look for the logo for some of the best in 1. Classic compilations of comics like Felix the Cat. 2. Underground comics like “THE COMPLETE ROBERT CRUMB”. And 3. New, usually adult, titles like “SAFE AREA GORAZDE about the War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, or PALESTINE about the conflict in the Middle East – both by Joe Sacco.

MORE UNDIES or two more notables from Fantagraphics.
HATE. (1990-1998) This Peter Bagge comic tells the adventures of Buddy Bradley. Buddy is not a nice kid. He’s a real anti hero and he doesn’t get along with anyone including his friends and his girlfriend. For some that’s the appeal. And though I’m no great fan of Buddy, the character; I have to admit the comics are first rate.

EIGHTBALL / GHOSTWORLD. Daniel Clowes did a realistic stark and dark comic called Eightball that covered all kinds of everyday experiences. (1989 – on). The art style looks simplistic but it’s effective. As one critic said, “He finds the unnerving in the ordinary.” More my style is his graphic novel, GHOSTWORLD. It’s a comic featuring 2 teens, Enid and Rebecca, girls filled with angst and growing insight. Also see the movie ‘Ghostworld’.

TWO FROM BILL GRIFFITH. Here are two comics from cartoonist Bill Griffith.
GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY. Here Griffith looks at all the weirdness of the world all around him, with some very perceptive rants and observations.

ZIPPY THE PINHEAD. Zippy, modeled after one of the freaks in the film classic, “Freaks”, is a big goofy looking guy that is mostly bald but with a red ribbon around a mini Mohawk growing out of the center of his head. He wears a yellow muumuu with big red polka dots. And HE’s the character that says rational things! It’s all more of Griffith’s observing but with a lighter touch. Note Zippy’s catch phrase, “Are we having fun yet?”

TWO WOMEN
JULIE DOUCET. Doucet is a Canadian artist with a small comic output that has had a big influence. Her autobiographical comics are distinctive in their heavy use of black ink, excess detail, and honest, heart-on-the-sleeve stories. She is best known for her series DIRTY PLOTTE.

DIANE DIMASSA. The title of her comic series says it all, ‘HOTHEAD PIASAN, HOMICIDAL LESBIAN TERRORIST. When Hothead looses her temper – watch out! Also watch out for her sidekick cat called Chicken. See hotheadpaisan.com.

MANGA. Manga is the term for Japanese comics. I’m not a big manga fan, but for those who are I suggest you look up the comic that started the craze for manga in the west, AKIRA (1988-1995), by Katsuhino Otomo. Akira, about a psychic in the harsh, post World War 3 Tokyo, was first a smash hit comic in Japan, then a worldwide hit movie titled ‘Akira’ that started the craze in the west for all things manga. Check it out.

BEST CHARACTER NAME
“Julien Freyes”, one of the characters from ROSWELL, the comic about a little green man and his earthling friends.

BEST TITLE – A MULTIPLE CHOICE
ELVIS SHRUGGED, a take off on Ayn Rand’s, ‘Atlas Shrugged’. ROUTE 666, a horror comic about psychic Cassandra Starkweather.

PLANET SIMPSONS. There are so many great characters that have evolved from the TV cartoon show the Simpsons, that a comic book series, could hardly go wrong. And it doesn’t. In SIMPSON’S comics (1994 – on) there’s Homer, a ‘doh’ shaped father, Bart, kid dynamite, Krusty, decidedly not a PC clown, and all the rest. Also recommended are the other comics by Simpson’s Creator Matt Groening such as LIFE IN HELL, the comic strip published in many alternative weeklies starring the one eared rabbit Binky.

ZINE COMIC S
MURDER CAN BE FUN. 12 issues 1996-1999. This comic is based on the true gross out stories of mayhem, disasters, and murder, from the zine of the same name by John Marrs. Note MCBF is also an inductee into the Musea Zine Hall of Fame.

DREAM GUY JESSE RENCLAW. This zinester, cartoonist is known for illustrating other people’s dreams. See a sample of the 4 panel dream cartoon at slowwave.com. Also note his series

CONCAVE UP and DREAMTOONS. Renclaw is another inductee into the Musea Zine Hall of Fame.

TWISTED IMAGE. This is the zine comic series by Ace Backwards, a hard-to-find recluse that may live near San Francisco. The series poked fun at just about anything in that 80’s era. I gladly featured it for years in each issue of Musea, and of course Ace is another inductee of the Musea Zine Hall of Fame.

KOAN COMICS . This is my own 3-panel cartoon. In the first panel we see a door, in the second the doorbell rings, and in the third we see an open door with something out of the ordinary on the other side – a koan. See Musea issue #152, Nov. ’06 for all 18 Koan comics.

KID FUN FOR THE WHOLE-SOME FAMILY.
WALT DISNEY COMICS AND STORIES. (1940 – on). In the kid friendly department Walt Disney led the way. And rightly so due to their fine storytelling ability and consistently good artwork. And what popularity they had. For example in 1952 Walt Disney Comics and Stories sold over 4 million copies a month!

When it comes to Disney comics the name to know is CARL BARKS, ‘the duck artist’. He did the best Walt Disney’s DONALD DUCK COMICS (1952 – on). Then in 1947 he introduced the super wealthy miser, Uncle Scrooge and soon Scrooge had a comic series of his own, Walt Disney’s UNCLE SCROOGE (1952 – on). Mickey, Goofy, and all the rest were fun, but for me Uncle Scrooge was my favorite. I can still picture him diving into his money bin and swimming through the gold coins. Or, when not wallowing in his gold, he was on some adventure , often with Donald and Donald’s nephews, Huey, Dewey , and Louie, to find yet more loot. And somehow he usually would!

FELIX THE CAT.(1943-1961). Felix the Cat, created in the 20’s by Otto Mesmer was first a silent screen star, then a newspaper strip comic, and from 1943 on a comic book sensation. I loved Felix and specially liked his magic bag of tricks, the cartoon equivalent of a deus ex machina! But also there was Felix’s cat coolness. If Mickey Mouse was a conservative, Felix was the liberal. And finally do you remember his theme song? Sing with me, “Felix the cat / the wonderful wonderful cat / whenever he gets into a fix / he reaches into his bag of tricks / …

GOLD KEY / WHITMAN. When scouring the racks of old comics, look in the upper left hand for the black logo with the words Gold Key and a picture of a gold key, or a black logo showing a boy wearing a ‘W’ hat, the Whitman Crown. Gold Key covers a medley of comics from the 60’s and 70’s with Whitman covering the 80’s. Everyone is featured in these including: Mickey, Uncle Scrooge, Popeye, Little Lulu, Sylvester and Tweety, Tom and Jerry, The Pink Panther, Bugs Bunny, and many adventure, western, and sci-fi titles. All good fun, easy to find, and available for a few dollars each.

WORLDS WORST AWARDS
When funny books aren’t so, there’s the 2 series comic, World’s Worst Comics Awards” ( Kitchen Sink 1990). Here is their list of the worst comics of all time. It includes categories such as worst name and worst series. Good for the curmudgeon in all of us.

COMICS I’M ON THE LOOKOUT FOR
MARRIED WITH CHILDREN. (1990 – 1994). My favorite sitcom family, The Bundy’s, with their own comics? I gotta see this!

PINKY AND THE BRAIN. (1996 – 1998). Pinky and The Brain were first seen in the TV show the Animaniacs. The Brain is a super brained lab rat that talks like Orson Welles, and his sidekick Pinky is a lab rat that has far from any brain at all. I loved the cartoon. Now let’s see the comic version.

RING OF NIBELUNG. (2000 – 2001). This comic by P. Craig Russell adapts Wagner Opera to comics, and according to others who HAVE seen it, does it wonderfully. I tend to think melodramatic opera might fit comics quite well!

MELVIN MONSTER. (1965 – 1967). Melvin, a monster in Monsterville, is not the monster his parents want him to be. Sounds like a premise for some offbeat fun and supposedly those that have seen it recommend it!

TECH SUPPORT
Much of the tech info for this article is culled from the most excellent, THE SLINGS AND ARROWS COMIC GUIDE, A Critical Assessment”, 2nd ed. Editor Frank Plowright. And what wasn’t, was either from Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, or my memories, or my present day stash of comics.

I hope this helps you get more enjoyment out of the wide world of comics. As kids we thought of them as just great fun – while our parents thought of them as misused storage space! (Oh to have preserved my stack of Tarzan comics!!!) Now we both can see that many of these comics were – as a sideline to all the reading joy – great art too!

MUSEA is Tom Hendricks

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