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PG Tips No. 8:

Paul Gravett's Recommended Reading

In a regular series of PG Tips articles, Paul Gravett reviews books of and about comics from his recommended reading list.

by Peter Kuper
Top Shelf
Peter Kuper has specialised in text-free, purely visual strips, ever since starting out in Heavy Metal and in World War 3 Illustrated, the activist comics zine he co-founded in 1979, and continuing to his Vertigo graphic novel The System and Eye Of The Beholder, the first regular strip in the traditionally comics-resistant New York Times. So Speechless is a very apt title for his first full-colour art-book (ISBN 1-891830-14-7). Kuper is an unusually versatile artist, able to perform in fields as various as Time and Newsweek front covers, witheringly honest autobiographical comics, adapting Franz Kafka and Upton Sinclair, sensitive global travel diaries, and the unending Cold War lunacy of Spy vs. Spy in Mad magazine. His broad success has no doubt been helped by his unique spraycan stencil style, which evokes modern political grafitti and youth protest, but in its blockish expressionism also harks back to such early 20th century woodcut graphic novelists as Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel. As well as his revealing comments on his motivations and working stages, he also writes here about his experience at the Mike Diana obscenity trial as an expert witness. To everything Kuper brings an intelligence and moral conscience. Speechless is a timely reminder of how effectively one concerned cartoonist, in a clown’s disguise, can enlighten and provoke in today’s media circus.

Rube Goldberg: Inventions
by Maynard Frank Wolfe
Simon & Schuster
While I’m on the subject of versatile cartoonists, you couldn’t get much more of an ‘all-rounder’ than the great Rube Goldberg (1883-1970), gag, strip and Pulitzer-prize winning political cartoonist, but it was one facet that put his name into the American dictionary. Like the slightly later Heath Robinson in Britain, Goldberg lampooned man’s obsession with newfangled gadgetry, in over 2,000 of his intricate cartoon machineries. These were studiously explained in diagrams labelled (A), (B), (C), etc., fully automatic but reliant on weights, buckets, balloons, bellows, scales, cigar butts, rockets, assorted wildlife and plenty of string to perform the simplest of tasks. One example in Rube Goldberg: Inventions by Maynard Frank Wolfe (ISBN 0-684-86724-9) goes all the way up to the letter ‘U’, that’s 21 steps, to kill a few moths. I just happened to find that even Stan Lee and Jack Kirby name-dropped him on the splash page of Fantastic Four #32, where the Thing, sitting inside Mr Fantastic’s latest apparatus to change him back to human form, asks "Who designed this wacky contraption for ya… Rube Goldberg?" With a perceptive 40-page biography and a sketchbook supplement, this collection showcases more than 200 of Goldberg’s variations, which, in our Internet age, still provide a welcome antidote to the headlong rush of technology.

Below Critical Radar
edited by Roger Sabin & Teal Triggs
One way of countering the mainstream media is to create media of your own, self-published and self-expressive; in comics that means underground, alternative and small press comics, or comix.  In Below Critical Radar (ISBN 1-899866-47-7), editors Roger Sabin and Teal Triggs offer an overview from 1976 to now in the US and UK, what they see as a key period that bridges Sixties counterculture and 21st century web-culture. In their intro they argue persuasively that comix and fanzines belong together, because their spirit, their uncompromising directness and sometimes extreme contents mean that they have more in common with each other than with their mass-market equivalents. This guidebook then presents five critics’ essays, sprinkled throughout with images, mainly covers, captioned in detail by Sabin and Triggs (but with no index). A handy US/UK timeline zips across the top of the page and the book concludes with five reflective questions to Bagge, Sacco and three zinesters. One recurring issue is what Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth in his essay calls ‘the encroaching threat of co-option’. A definition of alternative gets blurry when the mainstream can accommodate Private Eye, Viz, The Simpsons or Ghost World: The Movie, apparently without their having to compromise. But this is an age-old process, as Steven Heller, New York Times art director, observes, whereby ‘commercial culture depends on the theft of intellectual property for its livelihood’. And of course, struggling cartoonists depend on selling their work to someone, hopefully without ‘selling out’, for their livelihoods. The book also asks where the e-zine boom might take us - it seems paper is already making a comeback. This is a thought-provoking and practical taster, and sadly Slab’s last title, at least for now.

Stop Laughing: This Is Serious - The Life & Work Of Stan Cross
by Vane Lindesay
Melbourne University Press
To give you some idea of the standing of Stan Cross (1888-1977) in Australian cartooning, their equivalent of the Reuben, Eisner or Harvey Awards is the Stanley, named after him and given by the Australian Black and White Artists’ Club (a reference not to their integrated skin colours but to the media they use). The Stanley statuette recreates in 3D cast metal Cross’s most famous and reproduced cartoon showing two dangling skyscraper labourers, one hanging from a girder, while the other hangs on below him for dear life suspended by his mate’s lowered trousers and laughs hysterically. The caption reads: "For gorsake, stop laughing: this is serious!" What better antidote to desperate times than laughter? No wonder thousands of prints of this 1933 cartoon were sold through the Depression and after, in Australia and beyond. In the 108-page hardback Stop Laughing: This Is Serious (ISBN 052284980-6, distributed in the UK by Eurospan) Vane Lindesay narrates the colourful life and career of Stan Cross, born in Los Angeles, raised in Perth, trained in London and celebrated as the creator of this eponymous cartoon hailed as ‘the funniest Australian joke drawing of all time’.

Lindesay’s essay is interspersed with richly cross-hatched cartoons reminiscent of American Frost and Sullivant and the best of Punch, photos, sketches, ephemera and several sections devoted to Stan Cross’s newspaper strips, reproduced with mixed results from the papers themselves. These began with the first Australian newspaper strip You And Me in 1919 for Smith’s Weekly, which he evolved into the family comedy The Potts for nineteen years, and which is still thriving today, syndicated to 35 US papers. In 1939 Cross dreamt up his long-running success, Wally And The Major. What began as broad army barracks humour in the Melbourne Herald bloomed after the War, once his cast demobbed to the distinctly Australian locale of a Queensland sugar cane-cutting plantation. How many strips can you name with that setting? It might not have much obvious international appeal, but the strip was a huge homegrown hit, syndicated to most Australian states, collected in 18 annuals until 1959 and continued long after Cross’s retirement through failing eyesight by his assistant Carl Lyon and other successors.

Lindesay also records Stan Cross’s defense of the comic strip on a national radio debate in 1949, when he went to great pains to distinguish the type of newspaper strips "by clever and cultured men" that he produced from "those fearsome booklets dumped on our shores, illegally incidentally, to the end of absorbing needed dollars and demoralising our children." While defending his ‘corner’, his stance reflected the protectionist and anti-American sentiments stirred up by mounting post-War opposition to imported American comic books; Dr. Wertham would probably have approved. I could have done with more examples of his strips, a closer reading of their themes and how they reflected changes in society, and some colour pages too please, but all in all, Lindesay has compiled a breezy, accessible study of one of Australia’s cartoon treasures, who deserves to be much more widely known and admired.

Posted: January 14, 2007

The above reviews originally appeared in UK magazine Comics Forum.


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My Books

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

Featured Books

by Peter Kuper

Rube Goldberg: Inventions
Rube Goldberg:

by Maynard Frank Wolfe

Below Critical Radar
Below Critical Radar
edited by Roger Sabin
& Teal Triggs

Stop Laughing: This Is Serious
Stop Laughing:
This Is Serious
- The Life & Work Of
Stan Cross

by Vane Lindesay