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A Review By: Thierry Groensteen

This review by Thierry Groensteen appeared on his blog, Neuf et demi in April 2010.

Comics of the Strange

Paul Gravett has one fault, he lives in London. Meeting him is always a pleasure, but the opportunities are rare: a festival here, a conference there. Fortunately, this charming man, one of the few scholars with a really open curiosity about all the forms of the Ninth Art, regularly gives us his news in the form of art books created with the designer Peter Stanbury. One of these books was even the subject of a French edition: Manga, 60 ans de BD japonaise, from Editions du Rocher (2005).

His latest work is entitled The Leather Nun And Other Incredibly Strange Comics (Aurum Press). The Leather Nun was a character by the underground cartoonist Dave Sheridan. Introduced in 1973, she was extremely sexy and the least of her perversions was to get laid with a crucifix. She serves here as an emblem of a guide to the most bizarre, improbable, outsider comic books which have ever been devised. There is a jumble of licentious works, parodies, comic propaganda, the story of the little Aryan gir Hansi who loved the swastika (Al Hartley, 1976), Mr A by Steve Ditko, inspired by the philosophy of “objectivism” of Ayn Rand (who in turn served as a model for Rorschach in Watchmen), Super Shamou, the first Inuit superhero (1987) or Longshot Comics from Canada’s Shane Simmons (1993), to date the longest and most fascinating attempts at a comic without drawing. Each work is granted a double page, with a text presentation illustrated with a thumbnail and, opposite, the reproduction of the cover image.

Gravett and Stanbury do not confine themselves to delving into the rich history of American comics, they also cover works published in England, Italy, Australia, Mexico, Malaysia and Russia (with Octobriana the “Soviet Barbarella”). But curiously, France and Japan have been ignored - Buddha knows that there’s no shortage of superlatively delirious and disturbing manga! And this is where the book inevitably leaves many regrets. A net launched only into ocean of the U.S. comic book could bring a lot more interesting fish, from the primitive works of Fletcher Hanks to many other titles from the underground movement. As for comics whose format is different from the comic book, they are countless candidates for the rank of masterpieces of the bizarre, from Voyage d’un ane dans la planete mars (“The journey of a donkey on the planet Mars) by Liquier Gabriel (1867) to The Angriest Dog in the World by David Lynch, via (I cite a few titles among many others that come to mind) The Upside-Downs by Verbeck, Emile et le phylactere apprivoise (“Emile and the tame phylactery”) by Verli, A biography by Chum Chumez, John and Betty by Eberoni, the Poema a fumetti by Dino Buzzati or Six-hundred and seventy-six apparitions of Killoffer.

I have no doubt that Gravett knows all these very well and I suppose that only editorial constraints have restrained his ambition. That’s a pity. As fun as this is, his “book of curiosities” is only a sketch, that can be usefully supplemented by reading the anthology conceived by Dan Nadel, Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900 -1969 (Abrams), which brings together nearly thirty mostly forgotten American cartoonists (Herbert Crowley, Raymond Crawford Ewer, Howard Nostrand, Ogden Whitney, Dick Briefer…), amongst whom there are several who are not without their bizarre sides.


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My Books

Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

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

All contents © Paul Gravett, except where noted.
All artwork © the respective copyright holders.