New Interview with the Comics Alternative

I mentioned in my post from earlier this week that I’d be talking with Derek Parker Royal, Andy Kunka, and Gene Kannenberg, Jr., on their long-running podcast the Comics Alternative. The show is already online right here.

While you’re visiting their website, take a listen to some of the other shows they’ve done. From artist interviews to reviews and discussions with other writers and scholars, the Comics Alternative offers up an eclectic mix of conversation about all kinds of graphic narratives. In this episode, we talk in more detail about the research, writing, and editing process, and Gene points out the tribute to the Dr. Manhattan chapter of Watchmen that appears at the end of the book (Watchmen? Really?! Yep. It’s there.) This one was just as much fun to record as the talk with Emmet O’Cuana for Deconstructing Comics a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile, frequent Comics Alternative contributor Sean Kleefeld writes about Steamboat and his response to the character on his website. He raises some good points about issues of representation in comics of the 1940s and 1950s and urges readers and scholars to study these images and their consequences more fully.

I hope you enjoy the interviews. In discussing the book, I’ve started thinking about how long it took me to write it. I usually say five years, which is about right, from my first outlines for it to the final, proofread version that UP of Mississippi sent to the printer last fall. But on a recent trip to visit my family, I found this Little Golden Book written by Bob Ottum and drawn by Fawcett veteran Kurt Schaffenberger:

When I opened the front cover, I discovered this. That’s my mom’s handwriting:

So does this mean I got started on May 4, 1978 with this 47 cent book from Bradlees?! No wonder it took me so long. I couldn’t even read in 1978!

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“I Belong Here”: In Tribute to Bernie Wrightson, 1948–2017

In a segment from Ken Viola’s 1987 documentary The Masters of Comic Book Art, artist Bernie Wrightson sits in his studio. There’s an easel to his left and a picture window behind him. It must be late autumn. The trees outside the window are bare except for a solitary one in the foreground that still has its leaves. Beneath the white birch trees the earth looks brown and barren. In fact, it looks like a landscape from one of Wrightson’s drawings or paintings, filled with intricate details that announce their presence slowly and only to those who look carefully. At the end of the interview, Wrightson, the much beloved comics artist who passed away this weekend at the age of 68, describes an image of true and complete terror.

By the time of this interview, Wrightson had co-created Swamp Thing with writer Len Wein, collaborated on projects with Stephen King, and illustrated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this conversation with Viola, he offered this explanation of his grotesque but always illuminating work:

Horror is different things to different people, I think. To me–in spite of my drawings of monsters and the creeping dead crawling out of their graves and vampires and Frankenstein’s monster and whatnot–horror to me is an image of a well-dressed man standing on a corner waiting for a bus. And everything about him is absolutely perfect except there’s a spot of blood on his shoe.

Here, Wrightson speaks with the same meticulousness you’ll find in his drawings. Every line is just right, filled not simply with horror or dread but also with humor and with the honesty his friend and colleague Bruce Jones describes in the introduction to the first issue of Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre, published by Pacific Comics in June 1983 (early on, Wrightson signed his name Berni, without the e at the end): “. . . in the best of Berni’s work, there is something hideously missing in the art of most others: sincerity.”

The first story that appears in the issue is “The Muck Monster,” first published in Eerie #68 in September 1975 and recently reprinted as an Artist’s Edition by IDW Publishing. In the story, a mad doctor tries to create a Frankenstein-like being, but the monster resists. Although he is now awake, the creature, in a caption on the story’s second page, explains, “I resented his presumption upon a higher power. I resisted his attempts on my being!” In fact, he continues, he “did not want life!” Only at the end of the story, after a confrontation with his creator, does Wrightson’s monster embrace what he is. But what is he, anyway? That’s what he’s been trying to figure out since the first page of the story.

At times, the Muck Monster (you’ll have the read the story yourself to find out why Wrightson calls him by that name) distantly echoes the voice of poet John Clare, or of just about any kid, I think, first coming to terms with the world’s cruelty and indifference: “I am!” he insists in the first line of the story. After a journey that takes him from the doctor’s lab to a graveyard and then back to his birthplace, the monster assures the reader, “No. I was not . . . am not mad!” What is he then? The answer he provides isn’t much comfort. For now, like some high school kid hearing Black Sabbath for the first time, all the creature can say is, “I just . . . am . . . !” He has fewer words at his disposal than Clare, a nineteenth-century British poet who, in “Sonnet: ‘I Am,’” defines himself as

. . . a being created in the race

Of men disdaining bounds of place and time–

A spirit that could travel o’er the space

Of earth and heaven like a thought sublime [ . . . ] (Clare 114)

But Clare’s speaker–no doubt Clare himself–concludes his poem certain only of his existence, of his body and its small place in the universe: “But now I only know I am–that’s all.”

Wrightson’s Muck Monster, of course, is the hero of a comic book story, so he gets a second chance. Remove the creature itself from each scene and this final page could be an illustration for one of Emerson’s essays or, for that matter, a book of Clare’s nature poems. In the first panel, a sunrise, then mountains, trees, a river, a rocky ledge. It’s an image of transcendence, of wholeness, as each line works in tandem with the one next to it in order to create a unified image. Unable to find any completeness in himself, or in the arms of his creator, the monster finds peace in nature which, like him, just is. Look carefully, in fact, and you’ll have a difficult time telling the difference between the Muck Monster and the tree to his right in the first panel: “My thoughts are lost in the vastness that surrounds me . . . .” he explains (you can click on the page below to enlarge it):

Three images later, in another rectangular panel that echoes the first one, he understands: “I belong here . . . I am accepted!” Time passes. Leaves fall, then snow. Has one day passed? Two? A decade or more? I lose myself in these last four panels, as day turns to night and stars fill a black sky. In a career filled with terrifying and sublime images, this one, I think, is Wrightson’s most beautiful, as lyrical and strange as that “image” of the “well-dressed” man with the “spot of blood on his shoe.”

I suggested earlier that Wrightson is a master of the grotesque, but the monsters in his world are descendants not just of Poe and of the stories in EC Comics but also of Sherwood Anderson’s characters in his 1919 collection Winesburg, Ohio. You won’t find Anderson’s short stories–which had a tremendous impact on a young Ernest Hemingway–in the reading list for a course on horror fiction. Nonetheless, Anderson opens his collection with a framing device in which an elderly writer offers a definition of the grotesque that might apply to Wrightson’s work. At the dawn of myth and history, the writer suggests, “were the truths and they were all beautiful.” But humanity didn’t quite know what to do with all of that beauty. The old man, after years of carefully observing his friends and neighbors, developed a “notion that the moment one of the people took one of these truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (Anderson 23-24). Wrightson’s vision of the world is closer to Anderson’s or to Mary Shelley’s than, say, to Stephen King’s. Only in surrender is it possible to find that original truth and the beauty that defined it. Wrightson understood that a grotesque must always remind us of the wonder of just living in the world, of asking questions, of being. “Does that which is go on forever?” asks the Muck Monster before he surrenders to time and nature. Maybe. Or, as he asserts, “Perhaps!” I’d like to think that it does. And, when I revisit Wrightson’s comics, and read them with the same delight I did the first time, I get a sense that the “celebration” the monster longs for is never too far away.

For more about Bernie Wrightson’s work, and his passing, visit his website at http://berniewrightson.com/

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. Print.

Clare, John. John Clare: Poems Selected by Paul Farley. London: Faber & Faber, 2007. Print.

Viola, Ken. The Masters of Comic Book Art. Ken Viola Productions, 1987. Video.

Wrightson, Bernie. Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre no. 1 (June 1983). San Diego, CA: Pacific Comics. Print.

Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia…on the radio, online, and on (a very small but meaningful cross-country) tour!

If you’ve read Captain Marvel’s adventures from the 1940s, you might remember the many stories in which he visited cities across the country. While I won’t be traveling as much as Billy and his alter ego did 70 years ago, I do have a couple of lectures coming up at the end of March.

And although Captain Marvel never visited Waterbury, Connecticut, he did spend some time in my home state in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 67, published in November 1946. Here’s the first page of “Captain Marvel and the Key of Crime,” which the Grand Comics Database attributes to Otto Binder and to C. C. Beck, though it looks to me like Beck was working with Costanza and a few other assistants on this one. You can read the whole thing for yourself at the Digital Comic Museum, where I found this scan:

I’ve been joking that the week of March 27th will be my book tour–two dates only, so be there! I’ll start on my home campus of Harper College where I’ll be doing a lecture in our Drama Lab (Building L, Room 219), right down the hall from our Picasso sculpture. I’ve told you we have a Picasso on campus, right? If you haven’t seen it, you can visit it after we do a raffle for a copy of my book and for a couple of issues of DC’s Shazam! from the 1970s. Since at least two classes of English 102 students will attend, I’ll focus on my research process and on the writing and editing of the book. This event is free and open to the public, so tell your friends. You can also read this recent article about the book at Harper’s Academy for Teaching Excellence website.

A few days later, I’ll be presenting another lecture called “Comic Books, Captain Marvel, and the Art of Nostalgia” in my hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut at the UConn-Waterbury campus, where I worked in the late ’90s and early 2000s as an Admissions Counselor and Writing Center coordinator/tutor. The campus’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is sponsoring the event.

I got my start writing for online venues at UConn-Waterbury thanks to my friend Stu Brown, the campus’s Director of Student Services. I was a columnist for his website for five years or so, around the same time I was finishing my dissertation and writing articles for John Lent’s International Journal of Comic Art and The Jack Kirby Collector in the early 2000s. I’m looking forward to going home and talking about my work, which has its starting point in my visits to Jim’s Comic Book Shop on East Main Street in the 1980s. Jim’s is long gone, but the building that housed Eastern Color Printing, where the comic book as we know it got its start in the 1930s, still stands in Waterbury near the corner of West Main and Thomaston Avenue. Here’s a picture of the building from last summer. It’s less than a mile from the UConn campus:

I should mention that technically I grew up in Oakville, CT, but we were pretty close to the border with Waterbury. And I was born at Waterbury Hospital and graduated from Sacred Heart High School. And, since the city appears in Death of a Salesman and in “The Secret Life of Water Mitty,” there’s a better chance you’ve heard of Waterbury and might even know where it is. Email the OLLI office at UConn or contact me directly if you need more information on the lecture.

Meanwhile, I’ve recorded a couple of interviews about the book. I spoke with Larry Corley at WQNA radio early in January. I don’t think his shows are archived, but here’s a link to the station’s Facebook page if you want to take a look. WQNA is based in Springfield, Illinois.

Two weeks ago I spoke with Emmet O’Cuana for the Deconstructing Comics Podcast. As he mentions in the description for the show, just posted this morning, we had a great conversation on everything from Beck and Binder’s aesthetics to Svetlana Boym’s theories of nostalgia and our mutual admiration for W. G. Sebald and his writing. I also admitted my affection for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and my hope that, one day, he and I will meet so I can give him a copy of the book. And, for the record, I want him to play Black Adam and Captain Marvel!

Tonight I’ll be speaking with Andy Kunka, Derek Royal, and Gene Kannenberg, Jr., for the Comics Alternative podcast. I’m sure we’ll all have plenty to say about Beck and Binder, but I hope Gene and I also get to talk about our time as graduate students at UConn in the 1990s and early 2000s. As I’ve mentioned many times, I don’t know if I would have started writing about comics if I hadn’t met Gene and Charles Hatfield in the second year of my graduate program. Though I’d written letters to the Comics Buyer’s Guide in the 1980s, and turned in a couple of papers on comics in high school and again in college, their friendship and support made Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia possible.

Here we are just a few nights ago at dinner with Trina Robbins, the heroine of my book and another early inspiration of mine when I was searching for comics with my dad at Jim’s on East Main Street. Trina was in town last week to give lectures at the School of the Art Institute and at UIC. Allison and I are to Trina’s right while Gene and Sean Kleefeld are to her left. Dinner conversation ranged from Wonder Woman and Robert Kanigher to Beck and Binder. But, mostly, we talked about Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the magic of cat yronwode, and our cats:

More updates to come, but for now I’ve got to get back to work on these lectures!

Now!

It’s here!

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As you can see from this image, our cat Rosie carefully inspected the author copies of Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia that arrived from the University Press of Mississippi last week. After she determined that each copy was ready for the public, I began mailing them out on Christmas Eve. Once I get over the holiday bug that struck me down over the weekend, I’ll begin adding regular updates and new material to this site about the book.

In the meantime, here are a few quick updates:

My fellow Irishman Emmet O’Cuana has the book’s first review up at the site Hopscotch Friday.

I wrote an article for the new issue of Alter Ego/Fawcett Collectors of America about Steamboat. The article is based on Chapter 4 of the book. You can read a short preview here or order a copy from the TwoMorrows website.

Meanwhile, you can order the book from Barnes and Noble or directly from the UPM website. Amazon should have it in stock by the first week of January. Please also support your local bookstore! Here in Chicago, places like Unabridged Books and the Seminary Co-Op, two of my favorite shops, would be happy to order a copy for you. Or why not try Quimby’s or Chicago Comics or Third Coast Comics? Diamond should have it in the next couple of weeks two–despite the fact that there’s an error on their site listing it for June 28, 2017! (I am a perfectionist, believe me, but I have my limits). And, of course, if you’re here in Chicago, I will be happy to sign your copy. I might even draw something in it.

Like Alan Moore, I believe very strongly that, as he puts is, writing “is literally magic.” One of my goals, especially in the second half of the book, is to conjure the Utopian spaces that filmmaker Jack Smith imagined in his work. Those radical, welcoming, open, and loving spaces, like the ones Smith imagined at the center of his ideal city, might, especially now, seem as distant and strange as Billy’s subway tunnel or the legends that Bill Parker and C. C. Beck had in mind when they came up with the idea for Captain Thunder in 1939. But I believe that the kind of world Smith describes here is necessary, possible, and inevitable:

” . . . I can think of other types of societies . . . Like in the middle of the city should be a repository of objects that people don’t want anymore, which they would take to this giant junkyard. That would form an organization, a way that the city would be organized . . . the city organized around that. I think this center of unused objects and unwanted objects would become a center of intellectual activity. Things would grow up around it.” –from Jack Smith, Meet Me at the Bottom of the Pool (Eds. J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell, New York: High Risk Books, 1997)

Thanks for reading. More updates to come.

Soon!

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So, it’s almost here! I started working on what would become Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia, from the University Press of Mississippi, in the spring of 2011. I wanted to write a book modeled after Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, one of my favorites. I thought I’d select four or five artists (or writer/artist teams) and study the spiritual dimension of their work. In that original outline, I included chapters devoted to John Porcellino, Carrie McNinch, James Sturm, Edie Fake, and C. C. Beck and Otto Binder’s Captain Marvel. Then I wondered, will anyone but me want to read this?!

I ended up writing the essays on King-Cat, The Revival, and Gaylord Phoenix, three of my all-time favorite comics. Then, as I started my research on Beck, I thought, should I write a whole book on Fawcett’s Captain Marvel? I wasn’t much of a fan as a kid. I knew the character mostly from the Saturday morning live action TV show, which I always dreaded, because, on our local CBS affiliate in Connecticut, it followed the cartoons, which meant that Saturday morning was coming to a close. The only upside? My dad would probably make a grilled cheese sandwich for me.

But sometime in the late 1990s I found a stack of DC’s Shazam! revival from the 1970s at one of Hal Kinney’s comic book shows at the Elks Hall in East Hartford, Connecticut. I started to pay attention: I adored Beck’s clean, simple drawing style, and the reprints of Fawcett’s Golden Age stories introduced me to Otto Binder’s witty, strange, and charming scripts. Soon, I began to notice affinities between that research and other work I’d been doing on my maternal grandfather, Nunzio Stango. Born in 1913, he was a World War II vet who joined the Army around the same time that Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter ego, signed up in the summer of 1942. My grandfather and his Army War Show buddies show up in Chapter 3.

While working on the Epilogue, I realized that I wasn’t writing about Captain Marvel so much as I was writing about one of his biggest fans, essayist and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who graciously consented to an interview in the winter of 2014. He then edited and expanded on that interview for a recent issue of Alter Ego. Recently, I told my students that I learned to write from a series of amazing teachers (more on them in another post) but also from two books: John E. Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition (the Franklin Edition from the 1980s) and Ellison’s short story collection Shatterday, first published in 1980. I hadn’t read Ellison’s book in years, but perhaps I should not have been surprised when I opened it this summer and noticed this passage from the introduction to “Jeffty Is Five,” a short story about a little boy who finds himself locked in the past:

This is not one of those embalmed adorations of nostalgic sentimentality. It merely suggests for your consideration that there are treasures of the Past that we seem too quickly [and] brutally ready to dump down the incinerator of Progress. At what cost, it suggests, do we pursue the goal of being au courant? (Ellison 10)

In writing my first book, I’d found my way back to the very first collection of stories I’d fallen in love with as a young reader. But that’s how nostalgia works, right? That process, as a friend recently reminded me, is what Mircea Eliade called the “eternal return,” a series of rituals that (if we’re lucky) lead us back to Saturday morning, to the Zenith TV, to the ghosts in the hydrangea tree, to the plastic toy soldiers buried in the garden, to the Andrews Sisters and the clock radio, to the toy box filled with comic books.

You know what? Music does the work better then words, sometimes. I wish I’d found a footnote for Return to Forever’s great tune “Captain Marvel.” But since I didn’t have space for it, you can listen to it right here as you take a look at Keiler Roberts’ drawing for the book’s cover.

Meanwhile, over the next several months, I’ll post regular updates about the book, including more material and ideas that didn’t make the final cut. I hope you’ll find something you like.

Or, you know, if you need a soundtrack that matches the title for this post, here’s “Soon” by My Bloody Valentine.

ICAF 2016!

In a few hours, I’ll be headed to Columbia, South Carolina for the 2016 International Comic Arts Forum at the University of South Carolina. On Saturday I’ll be presenting a paper on a panel called “Comics Readers” with three amazing friends and scholars: Qiana Whitted, Carol Tilley and Chris Pizzino! Can’t be there? Here’s a little preview of my paper, which is based on some material from my upcoming book from the UP of Mississippi, Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia. I’ll also be moderating a panel on Thursday and giving out official Comics Studies Society buttons and bookmarks at the ICAF info table over the next couple of days (haven’t joined the CSS yet? You should before the founding membership drive closes tomorrow, April 14th!). Come by and say hello!

My paper features a big cast of supporting characters: Billy Batson, Captain Marvel, Mr. Tawny, Harlan Ellison, Roy Thomas (who’ll be at ICAF on Saturday, I hope with one of his capybaras), Isaac Asimov, C. C. Beck & Pete Costanza, Henry Kuttner, and Hoagy Carmichael (to name just a few). Email if you’d like to read the rest of it (or for the Works Cited).

Now I better go feed the cats and finish packing.

from “‘Tiny Flashes of Light’: Otto Binder and Nostalgia in the Comic Book Fanzines of the 1960s”

Even a talking tiger gets writer’s block sometimes. For Billy Batson’s best friend Mr. Tawny, it happened often, first in “Captain Marvel Battles the Plot Against the Universe” from September, 1949. Hard at work on his memoirs, Tawny realized that his story would not be complete without the facts on Captain Marvel. Billy, acting as a kind of magical research assistant, offered a first-person account of the stranger, the subway tunnel, and the mysterious train ride.

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Then, a few years later, Mr. Tawny undertook a new project, a book called Homing Habits of Hibernating Animals. In this three-panel sequence from Captain Marvel Adventures 126 (November 1951), written by Otto Binder and drawn by C. C. Beck (most likely in collaboration with Pete Costanza), Tawny, a pencil clasped in his right paw, struggles to finish his masterpiece. Most of all, he is afraid of being alone: “Night after night I scribble away in my study, writing this dry old book!” he admits. “ I live in obscurity! Nobody ever hears of me!”

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In the yellow light cast by his desk lamp, we see his manuscript, almost complete, along with two more sheets of paper and a couple of extra pencils. His shelves are lined with books, and he wears a green and purple dressing gown. In the next panel, after lamenting the fact that he’ll never “make the headlines,” “win an Oscar,” or find himself in a “a hall of fame,” he looks up from his work, his reading glasses perched on the bridge of his furry nose, and exclaims, “I’m getting nowhere in life! I’ve to make a change!” Billy arrives just in time to comfort his friend. “Holy moley!” he exclaims. “What’s wrong, Mr. Tawny?”

In an essay about the real-life counterparts of Captain Marvel’s cast of characters, Beck, Binder’s friend and long-time collaborator, revealed that “Mr. Tawny, the talking tiger, was actually . . . who else? Otto Binder!” (“The Human Quality” 29). The writer, he added, “had a lot of fun laughing at himself in the Mr. Tawny stories” (29). Binder filled Tawny’s adventures with autobiographical traces that offer insights into the complex relationship between comic books and nostalgia. Perhaps this was because the character, as Binder noted in a 1964 letter to Roy Thomas published in the fanzine Alter Ego, “lent himself more to orthodox concepts” (“Special!” 111). That is, Tawny struggled with an adversary Captain Marvel never had to face: time itself, and an inevitable descent into middle age.

In that remarkable Alter Ego letter, Binder provided comics historians with a portrait of his long career, including his memories of the popular Monster Society of Evil serial and his opinion on the outcome of the National v. Fawcett copyright infringement case. By 1953, when Fawcett settled with National and discontinued most of its comic book line, including all of its Marvel Family titles, Binder had written, by his own count, “a total of 529 stories about the Big Red Cheese alone, for earnings of $37, 358” (“Special!” 111). He was proud of his success and grateful for the stable, middle-class life it provided for him and his family: “My present-day home in Englewood, New Jersey,” he noted, “was dedicated at a Fawcett party as being ‘The House That Captain Marvel Built.’ Truer words were never spoken. He paid for it twice over” (112). At the close of this letter, however, Binder, always generous and kind to his readers, offers a gentle word of warning. Here, he actively resists what the late theorist Svetlana Boym has called that “romance with one’s own fantasy” that often characterizes nostalgic reflection (xiii). Binder, who’d spent so much of his career imagining the future, offers some advice to those who would study the past. “The above reminiscences,” he begins,

disjointed and seemingly narcissistic, are offered only with the thought of shedding some insight on those days of yore when comics were in flower. To attempt any sweeping, definitive picture is madness. Only in the tiny flashes of light given by individual anecdotes and recollections of those of us in the field as pros at the time can come any rational picture of what to me is still an incomprehensible rise-and-fall of a great empire—the world of picture-story heroes whose peers will never again be seen. (Binder, “Special!” 112)

Binder anticipates one of the challenges scholars continue to face: how does one tell this story? And what role has nostalgia played in shaping the history of comics? In Comics Versus Art, Bart Beaty reminds us that key members of what he calls “the second wave of organized comic book fandom” in the United States often “wrote nostalgically” and with great affection about comics from the 1940s and 1950s (154). These fans, many of whom admired and corresponded with Binder, also, as Beaty points out, were instrumental in the development of “comic book specialty stores, comic book conventions, fan magazines, comic book price guides, and even publishing houses” (154). At the close of the Binder biography Words of Wonder, Bill Schelly claims the writer as a father figure whose “nurturing and supportive actions” (234) inspired several important figures in this “second wave” including Richard and Pat Lupoff, Jerry Bails, Bill Spicer, and Roy Thomas. In the early 1970s, Binder and his wife Ione, still grieving the tragic loss of their daughter Mary, continued to welcome fans, including a young Frank Miller, to their home in upstate New York (Schelly 218-219).

When he died in 1974, Binder also left behind an archive of material—letters, scripts, unpublished essays—some of which are now housed at the Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A&M University. That wealth of material on comics history, however, is only part of Binder’s legacy. For Binder, those conversations with fans in the 1960s no doubt brought back fond memories of his old friends and colleagues at Fawcett. By sharing his memories with this new generation of amateur historians and aspiring writers and cartoonists, Binder introduced this “second wave” to a critical discourse on comics that had its roots in the close-knit community of editors, writers, and artists with whom he’d worked in the 1940s and early 1950s.

In an account included in Jim Steranko’s History of Comics, Binder enthusiastically recalled those spirited conversations: “All of us lived, ate, and dreamed comics in the Golden Era,” he said. “No sooner did two of us get together (or one, if he liked to talk to himself) than off we went on which characters were best—that crazy Jack Kirby’s layouts—Eisner, who can beat him—hey did [Jack Binder’s] shop do 2,000 or 3,000 pages last month—I think I’ll be glad when I’m drafted and get a ‘rest’” (Binder qtd. in Steranko 17). In a 1977 interview with Chris Padovano, Beck also remembered those years with great affection (and with his trademark sarcasm): “The parties we had during the forties are my fondest memories,” Beck told Padovano. “We had no pot or rock music, but plenty of booze and old-time [accordion] and guitar music” (Beck qtd. in Padovano; Binder played accordion and Beck sang and played guitar with his wife Hildur). Although Binder never wrote a sustained work of comics criticism, Beck wrote numerous articles on the theory and practice of making comics for The Comics Journal and for his Critical Circle, a small group of fans and comics professionals with whom he shared his unpublished work in the two years before his death in 1989. In addition to their work on some of the best-selling comics of the Golden Age, then, Binder and Beck were instrumental in shaping the discourse on comics that we, as scholars, have inherited from that “second wave” of fans in the 1960s and from the fanzines and books in which they documented the early years of what Binder called “a great empire.”

In the introduction to The Future of Nostalgia, Boym argues that “[t]he nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition” (xv). In his Alter Ego letter, Binder cautions against any idealization of the past. The “second wave,” however, set out to preserve and celebrate what it could of that “collective mythology,” to borrow Boym’s phrase. In the introduction to the first issue of The Golden Age of Comics from 1982, for example, Don Thompson and Maggie Thompson describe their vision for “an ideal world” where “nothing would ever go out of print. It should be possible for fans and casual readers alike to obtain the complete Action Comics, the complete works of Milton Caniff, and the entire run of any comic book, comic strip, or magazine at libraries” (4). What they call a “Utopian dream” is now coming true, not only because of websites like The Digital Comics Museum but also because of institutions such as the Billy Ireland at Ohio State and Randall Scott’s Comic Art Collection at Michigan State. Binder and his alter ego Mr. Tawny, however, pose a challenge to these “utopian” visions. If, as Alan Moore once said as he outlined his ideas for his version of Marvelman (Mick Anglo’s British variation on Captain Marvel), “the central appeal of nostalgia is that all this stuff in the past has gone” and is “finished” (Moore 24), then what pleasure is left to us once the past, and all its mysteries, have been revealed to us? Some ghosts are best left alone. Or, as Binder himself wrote in another letter to his old friend Julius Schwartz published in Shazam! No. 4 in 1973, a little over a year before his death, “The comics seem like some long-ago dream and I have no slightest hankering to go back to them, in case you’re wondering” (“Shazamail!”). That “long-ago dream” might provide just the illumination Binder believed necessary for any “rational picture” of comics and their history. It has all the elements of a lost Binder and Beck classic: time, memory, loss, redemption. A little humor. Just imagine: “Captain Marvel, Mr. Tawny, and the Long-Ago Dream.” I like it.

“Forever Sixteen”: Glenn Head’s Chicago: A Comix Memoir

It’s 1975. “This song is called ‘Ain’t It Fun You’re Gonna Die Young,’” the singer says. “It’s dedicated to Jane Scott, ‘cause she’ll stay forever young, forever sixteen. She won’t die young.” When Peter Laughner died in the summer of 1977 at 24, Scott, a writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, admitted that she didn’t know the young singer, songwriter, and guitar player very well (read the full article here). He’d been a fixture in the Cleveland music scene, a member of Rocket from the Tombs and Pere Ubu.

Laughner, Scott was certain, “had the talent and the vision to write and produce his own albums. He could have been a national artist.” Lester Bangs describes Laughner’s frightening addictions to drugs and alcohol in another obituary. Scott’s plain-spoken elegy for the Lycidas of the Cleveland punk scene, though not as poetic as Bangs’s essay, is no less true and poignant. Laughner, obsessed with Lou Reed, would no doubt have appreciated Scott’s precision and simplicity: “I didn’t know Peter as well as many of you did, but I, too, feel that I have lost a friend.” Laughner’s name has never disappeared entirely. Gene O’Connor, better known as Cheetah Chrome (and Laughner’s co-writer on “Ain’t It Fun”) took the song with him and recorded it with The Dead Boys in 1978. Guns N’ Roses covered it again in 1993, and, when David Thomas and Chrome reformed Rocket from the Tombs in 2003, the song lived again, this time with Television guitarist Richard Lloyd filling in for Laughner. But that 1975 demo—the muscular, Alice Cooper-like riff, the brittle guitar solo, the withdrawn and deadpan lyrics—is, for rock critic Clinton Heylin, “the definitive version,” complete with a dedication for someone who, Heylin writes, “as predicted, did not die young.” It’s a reply to The Who’s “My Generation,” a broken mirror of a song: “Ain’t it fun when you’re always on the run,” Laughner sings. “Ain’t it fun when your friends despise what you’ve become.”

Scan 5

I kept hearing that demo, Laughner’s Stratocaster and overdriven Twin Reverb, as I read Glenn Head’s Chicago: A Comix Memoir, just out from Fantagraphics. Like Derf Backderf’s My Friend Dahmer, it’s a story about teenage America in the 1970s. Aside from their stylistic similarities—the debt they own to Kurtzman and Crumb, for example—both artists explore the same dark, suburban corners that obsessed Laughner and his bandmates. This is cartooning as sharp and corrosive as anything you’ll hear on a Stooges or Patti Smith Group record. But even in black-and-white, it’s easy to imagine the mustard-yellow sedans, dark wood paneling, orange shag carpet, olive green bellbottoms and turtlenecks. Glen, the book’s protagonist, hides in his room, its walls covered in posters. Hendrix and Mr. Natural. Copies of Bijou Funnies, Arcade, and Zap Comix, and Naked Lunch (page 11).

Scan 6

After he graduates high school and leaves New Jersey to study at The Cleveland Institute of Art, Glen antagonizes his professors. “Fuck it, man . . . . There hasta be something else . . . . ” he insists to one of his classmates (33). If he could only decipher the patterns in those comix and in Burroughs’s novels, maybe he could, as he puts it, “start over . . . . ” (33). He gives it a shot in Chicago, where he survives thanks to the kindness of a stranger named Aaron. But the comix underground he’d dreamed about isn’t there, either. The maps were wrong. Or maybe he misread them. If there’s no way out, the only place to go is back home to New Jersey.

While still in Chicago, Glen manages to get some work thanks to Skip Williamson, even meets Robert Crumb at a party. The hangers-on, the sycophants are here, too, hovering over Williamson and Crumb. Dismayed, Glen realizes the comix scene—at least what little he’s seen of it—is “just like high school!” (82). Glen admits, “I had imagined things a little . . . . differently”: a paradise of freaks, grass and free love, a “Cartoon Commune” complete with Crumb and his banjo (see pages 81-83). Despite Williamson’s generosity and encouragement, Glen returns to Madison, where he eats ice cream, smokes, and plays with his dad’s .38. Like a polyester, proto-punk Roderick Usher, Glen, naked, wanders alone through the gloomy halls of his suburban home. He’s got nothing left but himself and the family photos that haunt him.

This is the page I keep coming back to, one that Phoebe Gloeckner alludes to in her Introduction (5):

Scan 7

For the last five pages, Glen has been firing bullets at the walls, the eaves. He notices a book of photos. “A coupla bullet holes here ‘n’ there,” he thinks, “. . . . but overall . . . . ” (119). Despite a fresh hole near his “dad’s forhead,” Glen notes, “Looks like they all got away clean . . . . ” He closes the book, tosses it. Head fills the page with a single, large, rectangular panel, then partially conceals it with seven smaller inset panels. I can’t think of another page in comics that treats the possibility of suicide quite like this—not as an act of violence but of erasure, a denial so complete and destructive that it moves backward and forward in time, taking with it ancestors and descendants simultaneously.

“Drawing in its deepest sense is handwriting,” Otto Benesch writes of Rembrandt, “an immediate emanation of personality, of its rhythm of life and its creative faculty” (Benesch 30). That “rhythm of life” pulses on this page as a dense tangle of lines and patterns take shape into a unity that Glen, for now, fails to see. If Glen is the resigned singer of “Ain’t It Fun,” the page itself is the graphic equivalent of Coltrane’s “sheets of sound,” a Madelon Vriesendorp cityscape, a still from Jacques Tati’s Playtime, a glittering Jack Smith sunset with fake fur and costume jewelry. This could be the end, an act of self-destruction, but these dense images, like a still, certain voice, seem to say, No. Too soon. Not yet. Fuck it.

Scan 8

Rembrandt, A Girl Sleeping; Study after Hendrickje. A plate from Rembrandt as a Draughtsman. 

Benesch argues that the “simplest” gestures, “which give direct expression of personality, are just the right ones” (31). That comes later, in the future, at the end of the book, as Glen—maybe no less troubled than he was as a kid, but alive and still making art—sits with his daughter. Read the book and you’ll see.

I don’t know if there’s any beauty in “Ain’t It Fun.” There’s plenty in Glenn Head’s Chicago, but the reader, like Glen himself, has to search for it. It’s there, hiding beneath those posters, under the carpet, on the streets of the Loop or the sidewalks of Madison, New Jersey. Laughner knew the answer to the question he asked again and again in that demo–“Ain’t it fun when you know that you’re gonna die young?”–but it’s here, too, in the pages of Head’s book. “Forever young”? That comix utopia? Of course they’re both illusions, but, then again, who cares? For Glen, kindness and friendship and family are still possible. Add a bottle of ink, a couple of pencils, a notebook, maybe a cat. Life? It’s sometimes hidden, but it’s enough.

Works Cited

Otto Benesch. Rembrandt as a Draughtsman. London: Phaidon, 1960.

Glenn Head. Chicago: A Comic Memoir. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2015. Print.

Clinton Heylin, “Searching for Peter Laughner” in Peter Laughner & Friends, Take the Guitar Player for a Ride. Portland: Tim Kerr Records, 1993. CD.