Pocket Reviews

Cole, Jean Lee.  How the Other Half Laughs:  the Comic Sensibility in American    Literature, 1895-1920.  Jackson:  University of Mississippi Press.  2020.  200 pages.  ISBN:  978-1-4968-2653-4.  Softcover.  $28.49.

Review by Kalman Goldstein

         In a concisely argued, well written, and engaging study, Professor Cole (English, Loyola University of Maryland) re-examines a neglected aspect of early 20th century humor:  whimsically depicting ethnic newcomers struggling with urban life.  Early comic strips, and illustrated stories in popular magazines (Cosmopolitan, McClure’s, Colliers, Saturday Evening Post), developed a nuanced “comic sensibility” reflecting treatment of and reaction to their travails.  Unlike demeaning stereotypes in minstrelsy, vaudeville, and burlesque, these new caricatures of ethnic and racial minorities were designed to be laughed “with” as well as “at” by readers who recognized their own difficulties both succeeding at life and being accepted by majority culture.  This “comic sensibility” also differed from the condescension of earnest Progressive reformers like Mark Twain or Jacob Riis.  Vulgar, raucous, speaking in malaprop dialect, ethnic city dwellers resisted being “reformed”; cartoonists, editors, and illustrators cooperated to accord this resistance, or only partial ability to conform, some recognition. Cole explores how they created the newspaper comic strip and mass-circulation journals, and recovers the careers of such nearly forgotten figures as Rudolph Block, Edward Lipsett, George McManus, Frederick Burr Opper, and Jimmy Swinnerton, as well as more familiar artists:  George Luks, William Glackens, and George Herriman, who helped shape these new media.

Lipsett personified this emerging “comic sensibility” within a multi-ethnic milieu.  An Irish-Jewish immigrant, in an age when ‘Abie’s Irish Rose’ sentimentalized Melting Pot outreach, he wrote “Dennie the Jew” stories, in part autobiographical, about the humorous realities of trying to balance “incompatible” identities.  Rudolph Block bridged genres.  Hearst’s editor of comic strips, he standardized the form.  As “Bruno Lessing”, he also wrote ethnic fiction, largely about urban Jewish life; many of his stories were enriched by the engravings of Glackens or Luks.  For decades, McManus produced “Bringing Up Father”, about an Irish-American family’s ambivalence about ‘blending in.’  Before creating “Krazy Kat”, Herriman (a Creole who “passed”) did a sports-pages strip commenting on the humor in African American boxing champions (Jack Johnson, Sam Langford) challenging majority culture self-regard.

All of the artists and writers Cole cited humorously portrayed their characters’ struggles with ‘proper’ speech as well as comportment.  The generous, often full-page illustrations buttress her arguments and underline the inherently  “comic sensibility” of situation, 

gesture, and fractured language in both art and anecdote.  But the most startling example 

of a nuanced representation in the period’s humor was “Sam and His Laugh”, by Swinnerton.  Sam, an endlessly put-upon African American, was given a punchline guffaw that reflected not the minstrelsy caricature of ignorance, but rather a knowing reflection about how similar his contretemps were to those of the strip’s white men, but how different the results.

Cooke, Jon B.  The Book of Weirdo.  San Francisco:  Last Gasp.  2019.  288 pages.  ISBN 13:     978-0-86719-875-1.  Hardcover.  $39.95.

Review by Kalman Goldstein

            From 1980 through 1993, Robert Crumb, Peter Bagge, and Aline Kominsky-Crumb published Weirdo, which according to comics historian Cooke, “helped save the Underground” comix artists.  Sales had been drying up during the prior decade, due to market glut, closure of “head shops”, catalog mail orders, and obscenity laws.  Holdover comix magazines like  Spiegelman’s Arcade, and Pekar’s American Splendor languished.  Crumb himself, doyen of the comix artists, complained about accusations of misogyny and racism, and that he had lacked creative inspiration. Then he developed Weirdo, designed to create an outlet for young artists.  Art Spiegelman’s Raw would be packaged as an art magazine and feature European illustrators, and Crumb’s earlier Zap was periodically still showcasing a few select, aging cartoonists.  Instead, Weirdo encouraged those he called  outsiders, “misfits”, to experiment with what he termed “lowbrow” creativity.  It inclusively kept the bar low for acceptances.  Besides cartoons and comix, Weirdo contained burlesques of fotonovellas, fumetti, and 50s girlie magazines.  It paid homage both to MAD cover designs and “oddball” comics of earlier years like Help and Humbug.  Crumb even inserted an Indonesian mascot figure, BUTA TERONG (“eggplant nose demon”).  He did all the covers, edited the first nine issues, then turned the magazine over to fellow cartoonist wife Aline, and “second generation” “alt-comics” artist Bagge.

The Book of Weirdo is encyclopedic.  126 pages of memoirs include contributions by every living artist or staff member; some of their recollections (Michael Dougan, Bill Griffith, Kim Deitch, Art Spiegelman) are quite extensive.  There are cameos of every one on the book’s inner covers, as well as examples of their work throughout the book.  For Bagge, there are covers of his other titles as well.  Crumb’s other comics and newsletters during the decade are also featured, including Dirty Laundry, done with Kominsky-Crumb, and the environmentalist Winds of Change, while the couple still lived in California before decamping for France.  Each issue’s covers are illustrated, with detailed explanations of their cover stories.  Each issue is fully indexed, by title and contributors, with explanatory notes.  There is even a lengthy sidebar commemorating Ron Turner, of  Last Gasp, literally the last survivor of the first generation’s comix publishers.  Since Cooke also included extensive interviews with all three editors as well as his very detailed history of the magazine, the totality, while exhaustive, is in places repetitive. 

To Cooke, Crumb’s efforts to give exposure to younger artists and inspire them to their own “alt-comics” work, were quite fruitful.  He describes some of the more successful comics artists, and publishing houses like Fantagraphic in Seattle (though not Montreal’s Drawn& Quarterly).  At least for another two decades, there would be enough productivity among these and smaller new magazines, for serious analyses and intramural critiques within The Comics Journal, Gary Groth’s magisterial periodical of the medium.  

 

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