"Almost Retarded": (Funny Books)

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  • Kirghiz Steppes        M. Kasper        Books        $15.00
  • What Pornography Does to Women & to Men        Eliot Widaen        Books / Artists' Books        $3.00
  • Naked Ladies        Lynda Barry        Books        $9.00
  • Raw One-Shot        Charles Burns        Books        $15.00
  • All Cotton Briefs, Expanded Edition        M. Kasper                $7.00
  • Errata        Tom Grothus        Books / Small Books        $3.00
  • Your Co-Worker Could Be a Space Alien        Tatana Kellner and Ann E. Kalmbach        Books        $8.00
  • La Frontera : Mondurn Mezod ov Iunvers ol Ingles        Ed Friedman and Kim MacConnel        Books / Small Books        $6.00

From the Printed Matter 1986/87 Catalog

One of the things some of us imagined a lot about when we were in grade school (besides being able to turn invisible and play tricks on people) was what it would be like to change brains with someone for awhile. What would it be like to be in someone else’’s body, see what they saw, and think what they thought? If they were fat, would we always be hungry? If they were bad, would we get in trouble? If they were chicken, would we be scared? If their dad was one drunk S.O.B., could we run fast enough?

One of the few things the “new artist/cartoonists” (what else to call them?) have in common is that they give you the opportunity to sort of change brains with them. All of the work has this precise personal world view; it’’s not necessarily autobiographical, but it is entirely specific to the way they think and see (versus what they think some editor somewhere would ever pay them for). In fact, these authors have had great difficulty or no luck at all getting printed in the mainstream. They draw and write in a way that no simple careerist could dare. They are the bold and funny co-workers you know will be fired in a week. That’’s what makes the work some of the most authentic and unadulterated stuff you can get your hands on – that is, if you can find it. It is usually self-published, distributed on a wing and a prayer, costs more and is much less popular than a Garfield book, and rarely makes a dime into the black. In other words, it is just shy of a miracle that this kind of thing exists at all.

From here the work high tails in a million directions. Some of it goes straight to hell and comes back up through the basement with a black light on it, all crusty and terrifying. Take Invasion of the Elvis Zombies for example. Gary Panter’s drawings seem to come alive like things come alive in the movies after their heads get cut off. His writing ranges from what seems at first like the most self-conscious poemish beat thing, which reads like a speech therapist’’s test in its concentration on the sounds of words (“The swampedelic side-burned hip slinging natureboy drags another crispy bicuspid girl through a quick boggy acre and into his smelly fortress of solitude”); to some of the most unselfconscious, almost retarded ways of putting things — the way you would put things if you were writing an adventure story in the sixth grade and never once thought about trying to impress anyone with your great brains and then it turns out good anyway. (“Whatin the hell is that noise? EEEEEEEEEEEEEK CRASH Ellen! Ellen! Ellen! CRASH! SMASH! EEEEEEEEE.”)

His drawing spans a similar range, from exquisite, educated, art school use of line, space, and contrast; to that kind of big-titty-girlies and drooling-monsters-with-fangs-and-eyeballs-coming-out type pictures that everybody loved before they knew better. Put it together in a terrifically designed book, and all of a sudden you have a hard time telling stupid from smart and good from bad. That’’s exactly what makes the whole thing come alive — it’’s everyday and extraordinary at the same time. It’’s brilliant work that never tries to shove its brilliance in your face.

How about Big Baby/Curse of the Molemen by Charles Burns? The most striking thing about this book is the drawing. You can’t believe a person could do it with regular human hands. It’’s the kind of drawing that would have scared the pants off you in grade school, not only because the images are so eerie but because they are too perfectly done, and not good or evil enough for you to tell what you are supposed to think about them. The text is a normal sort of monster story involving a little boy, his parents, awful neighbors, and molemen, only even when it ends just the way you’’d expect it to, something’’s still not exactly right. His book conjures up all of the uncomfortableness of nonspecific dread, in the face of everything being too perfectly in place, a little too right. In every part of the book you get the feeling that what you’’re looking at is only a sliver of a decoy for a something that is so terrifying it defies comprehension. There is a half cracked code for true horror in this work, and it is genuine.

But say you’re out of the mood for monsters. Say you’re in the mood for something amusing instead.

There are a lot of jokes that mostly aren’t funny to us because we have heard them in one form or another about a million times; what makes us really laugh is usually when we get a kind of joke we have never gotten before. Getting a joke means putting a few things together that you expect to equal something you know, but instead they come together in a way that you never would have expected in a million years. The book La Frontera, Modurn Mezod on Iniversol Ingles is something like a parody of a phrase book. Friedman and MacConnel mix unassuming but mildly hysterical illustrations with a phrase written in quasi-phonetic English, and then in English proper. At a glance it looks fine (like you know what it says even without reading it), but when you do read it, it turns out to be laughably far from what you would even have expected. Like the English menu at a foreign restaurant that looks right but is completely wrong. You don’’t feel superior because you found the mistake, you just have never quite thought of things this way before.

The Dork Brothers Take Five by John Ellsberry and Michael Gentile is full of the best-worst drawing and writing, the smartest-stupidest jokes, and the greatest-most horrible punchlines I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. The thing about the book is it is so for real. It’s like your sixteen year old brother and his buddy making a comic book that you laugh at in spite of your expensive education. Ellsberry and Gentile are just about my favorite cartoonists in the history of the world.

Except for this one other guy by the name of Matt Groening (pronounced Groanin’).

Matt Groening leads the world around by the nose and is also fast enough to race around, bite it right on the butt, and then stand there looking innocent. Love is Hell (out of print) is a collection of strips that let you know that if you have ever been a fool for love, you have plenty of company – including the author. Some of the titles of this masterwork include: “What Is Love (and what makes you think you deserve some)?”, “The 57 Varieties of Love,” “The 9 Types of Relationships,” “The 22 Stages of Heartbreak,” “1001 Faces of Your Lover,” “Homo vs. Hetero: Which is Better?” and “Your Guide to the Modern Creative Artistic Types.”

Tana Keller and Ann E. Kalmbach have put together a great little xerox book called Your Co-Worker Could Be a Space Alien, a mix of hysterical photography and National Enquirer type discoveries. Judy Malloy’s 500 3X5 Cards and Other Stories and Wendy Sue Gaffinovitch’’s Wendy Sue Gaffinovitch Becomes a Nun combine a good sense of humor with a little bit of old-fashioned vengeance against one’’s upbringing. And then there are the wonderful flipbooks by Ruth Hayes that you can’’t stop flipping till they’’re worn out.

Two talents in a category by themselves are Jerry Moriarty and Roz Chast.

In Jack Survives, Jerry Moriarty’s vision of life is so exquisitely realized that it is difficult to describe. There is a sense of isolation and loneliness, like a living Hopper or a visual Faulkner. It’’s funny but painful – when it hits you it makes you forget the desolation for a moment, and then it all comes back stronger than before.

Roz Chast has made a beautiful book called Poems and Songs. She has one of the most compassionate, funny, and patient ways of looking at meek people in average surroundings. There’s an odd loneliness in her work too, the same combination of expansive feelings and unbearably long days you find in the works of Carson McCullers and Eudora Welty. Roz Chast’s work is funny, but it’s the kind of humor one develops by having been alone a lot and not necessarily by choice.

There are plenty of books I haven’t even mentioned. Some are more visual and some are more literary; some I don’t get at all and some are nothing to shout about, but the one thing that can be said about them all is that they bear a strong stamp of originality.

Humorous Titles: A Selection

Lynda Barry – Naked Ladies Coloring Book
Charles Burns – Big Baby
Roz Chast – Poems and Songs
Friedman and MacConnel – La Frontera
Gentile and Ellsberry – The Dork Brothers Take Five
Tom Grothus – Errata
Michael Kasper – All Cotton Briefs
Kellner and Kalmbach – Your Co-Worker Could Be a Space Alien
Judy Malloy – 500 3×5 Cards
Clifton Meador – Great Men of the Modern Age
Jim Moisan – Bill Dupp # 5: The Dress My Father Died In
Jerry Moriarty – Jack Survives
Gary Panter – Invasion of the Elvis Zombies
Richard Sala – Night Drive
Eliot Widaen – What Porn Does to Men and Women

Last updated 11/7/2016
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