Creative Freelance Illustartors, Designers, Artists, Writers

by Borin Van Loon

"As they walked out the door, Gertrude handed Picasso ... the comics section from one of the American Sunday papers: the painter was an avid follower of the Katzenjammer Kids and of Little Jimmy. Picasso beamed and thanked her."

In this country we have tended to think of the comic as something you take from an errant child in order to steer them towards more improving reading. But comics have so much more to offer...

An extraordinary, turn-of-the-century favourite of mine is Gustave Verbeek's 'The Upside Downs Of Little Lady Lovekins And Old Man Muffaroo', surely the longest strip title in history and in subject, scripting and design, unique. Appearing for only a year and a half, it seems to hinge on the artist's feeling that the six frames allocated to him were not enough; he needed twelve. So after the first six, he turned the page upside down and used the same frames in the opposite direction to finish his tale. So, as he worked on the first frame 'the right way up' he had in his mind the correct combinations of characters and settings to finish the adventure when turned upside down. Similarly, as he approached the fulcrum of the piece: the sixth frame, it had to read correctly in one direction, only to be turned upside down with the same configuration of shapes progressing the story towards its conclusion. You have to see the work to grasp the Einsteinian scale of such a venture: not only had his characters to be invertible, but his settings and props, too (1).

Mention of the horror comics in the first part of this article, reminds me that they have left us a great legacy of talent. Some of the finest comics artists, such as Wallace Wood, seem to have worked on EC horror comics and were to transfer to MAD Magazine and create some of the funniest self referential comic pastiches in the fifties and sixties (2). On the subject of 'forbidden' comics, the little oddities known as Tijuana Bibles (because they were said to have been printed in Mexico and smuggled over the border inside bibles!) were genuine underground pornographic 8-pagers from the Depression of the 30s onwards. Several of them are witty, scurrilous pastiches of mainstream strips of the period such as a dirty version of Blondie and Dagwood (3). As a struggling young artist, Will Eisner himself was approached to draw some of these by mobster types for good money and had to wrestle with his conscience before refusing.

Comics for grown-ups are not, of course, limited to those with sexually explicit or violent content; I mean by the phrase that such a combination of scripting and visuals can operate at several levels at once and explore sophisticated themes. 'Adult comics' seems not to have been a contradiction in terms on the continent. French titles such as 'A Suivre' and 'Metal Hurlant' (which became the U.S. published 'Heavy Metal') were vehicles for great artists such as Moebius and Guido Crepax.

The same is true of the Manga genre of comics in Japan, aimed squarely at teenagers and adults with their mixture of action, sexuality and violence (particularly towards women). Interestingly the 'censored' areas of the graphics seem to emphasise the very pornographic elements which they are designed to cover up. When visiting Tokyo in 1987, I bought a clutch of these from a grocery shop and confess to being quite shocked at the sado-masochistic content. Also of stylistic note is the essential facial characteristic of all Manga characters: huge eyes. Just one of the many cultural contradictions of the notably-not-huge-eyed Japanese. Manga as a ubiquitous style of publishing and merchandising has now invaded children's reading and viewing, often linked to campaigns such as 'Pokemon'.

The 'head' comics which poured out of San Francisco in the sixties represent the great burgeoning of the genre. Whole books have been devoted to this huge subject. Suffice to say that one of the most infamous comics creators from this period (infamous particularly amongst feminists), Robert Crumb, is still in financial exile in France and has since produced a fine documentary comic book about Franz Kafka (4). Modesty forbids me from saying too much about this particular sub-genre, as I've produced eleven such titles over the years, but the 'Introducing' series is a remarkably rich, diverse way of exploring abstruse, difficult topics; invented by the Mexican artist, Rius, and developed to its current eclectic incarnation by series editor, Richard Appignanesi.

The influence of the U.S. underground in this country was initially seen in the reprinting of American sex-drugs-and-violence strips by Gilbert Shelton, Greg Irons and Robert Crumb in COZmic Comics, published by H. Bunch Associates (named after Crumb's heroine character, Honeybunch Kaminski) from 1972. Soon it encouraged British comix artists to take up the pen and through the seventies and eighties all sorts of imports and home produced comix such as those produced by Hunt Emerson's 'Street Comix' from the Arts Lab Press in Birmingham were available in headshops and alternative outlets. Thus was my own apprenticeship served.

Gilbert Shelton has himself become one of the enduring phenomena of modern comics. The orange covered 'The Further Adventures of Those Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers' for which I paid through the nose when I bought it as an import from Compendium Books near Camden Lock in 1972, was merely part 2 of what became a multi-part opus which was being sold at The Last Barsham Fayre in 1976 and is still on sale in its Home Grown Comix UK guise at The Last Chance Saloon in Lower Marsh, Waterloo in 2000. (Although the UK version leaves out the little 'adverts and throw away jokes in the margins.)

This last-named emporium is surely the successor to the alternative headshops of the seventies (those that haven't become wholefood or crystal/mysticism centres). There's something altogether more fun and hard-edged about The Last Chance Saloon with its expensive agitprop tee-shirts and outré fashions, Fantagraphics imports from the US, community press publications and odd little art shows. It's next door to the rubber/domination boutique and opposite the pet shop, not far from The Old Vic. It was at this shop that I bought an interesting piece of revolutionary plagiarism called 'The adventures of TinTin: breaking free', where Hergˇ's characters are commandeered, swear horribly and are transplanted to a housing estate in South London in the eighties (5).

Shelton's Fat Freddy (one of the Freak Brothers) has a Cat who went on to star in his own comic books, but it's not that particular anthropomorphic animal which is my own Shelton favourite, it's Wonder Wart-Hog: the Hog of Steel. To the world he is mild mannered, pince-nez wearing Philbert Desanex, but his secret identity is ("rip-rip-rip-rip: CHANGE!") Wonder Wart-Hog who defeats The International Order Of Bomb-Flinging Fiends and sets up a concession stand (among other adventures). Phew.

Such was the outpouring of these underground comics, so classic the series such as 'Zap', and so burgeoning and various the talent, that it encouraged many others around the world to publish their own comix. Of course, it wasn't all brilliant. But comics fanzines such as "Workin' Class Superhero" with its wicked pastiches of famous strip artists like Moebius had a great deal of zip.

After a definite lull, the success of 'Viz' magazine in the late eighties encouraged a number of adult comics to fill the racks of newsagents and I joined the regulars at 'Brain Damage' Š later 'The Damage' Š then 'Talking Turkey' and in the nineties 'Sun Zoom Spark' (a music and culture fanzine). Just time to mention two fantastic examples of the comic strip form for children and adults: Shirley Hughes' dazzling draughtsmanship in the text-free fantasy 'Up and up' and Raymond Briggs' apocalyptic classic, the darkly funny 'When the wind blows'.

'Biff' drawn by Chris Garratt (another 'Introducing' books illustrator) and written by Mick Kidd started in the re-revived 'International Times / Maya News' in the late seventies, produced small comic books and graduated towards a regular spot in the Saturday 'Guardian' which still continues. Relying on a lumpy forties/fifties 'pop' style with content including jargonistic Sociology-speak, bathos and punctured pomposity, the early work in particular served as an inspiration to me.

'Martin Minton' and 'The Relationship' by cartoonist Ken Pyne were two ground breaking novels published with considerable vision by Sphere. Composed wholly of a succession of single frame cartoon panels which also had to operate singly, they are a magnificent achievement (6).

Comics have appeared in Situationist publications, the community press, political tracts, fanzines, football magazines and mainstream publishing. They can subvert, titillate, disturb, amuse and move you. Drawing on inspirations as various as the exploits of Tom Merry and Co. of St Jim's, Max Wall, the surrealist collage novels of Max Ernst (7), the worldview of Captain Beefheart and the explorations of René Magritte, I continue to try to push these boundaries.

If you want to deconstruct comics and get to know what really makes them tick - from semiotics to the concepts of time and existence - you can do just that with Scott McCloud's 'Understanding Comics' and it's recent follow up 'Reinventing Comics' which awaits U.K. distribution (8). An excellent history of comics has recently been published by Roger Sabin (9), while veteran feminist comix artist, Trina Robbins fills in the gaps regarding U.S. comics for women (10).

(1) 'The incredible upside-downs of Gustave Verbeek' Nostalgia Press 1976 (obscure, but a web search yields some good examples)
(2) I recommend compilations: 'The bedside MAD' and 'The MAD reader'
(3) 'Tijuana bibles' (introduction by Art Speigleman) Simon and Schuster 1997
(4) Mairowitz, David Zane & Robert Crumb 'Introducing Kafka' Icon Books 2000
(5) Daniels, J. 'The adventures of Tintin: breaking free' Attack International 1999
(6) Pyne, Ken 'The relationship' 1981; 'Martin Minton' 1982, both Sphere Books
(7) Ernst, Max 'Une semaine de bonté' Dover 1976
(8) McCloud 'Understanding Comics' Kitchen Sink Press 1993
(9) Sabin, Roger 'Comics, comix and graphic novels: a history of comic art' Phaidon 1996
(10) Robbins, Trina 'From Girls to Grrrlz: a history of female comics from teens to zines' Chronicle Books 1999

(These articles are based on a recent talk given to Freelance members: a strictly personal overview of comics by Borin Van Loon.)

Go to Part 1.

At September's meeting Borin Van Loon (below), freelance Illustrator, Writer, Painter, and our Chairman, talked about comics and brought along some of his vast collection.

Borin Van Loon

Useful Links:

The Upside-Downs

Wally Wood

Robert Crumb

Gilbert Shelton