Born Too Late: Fantagraphics’s Dave Sheridan

Dave Sheridan: Life with Dealer McDope the Leather Nun and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers

The other day I saw a news article about a young couple, looked to be in their twenties, that were planning their upcoming nuptials. The bride-to-be stated, happily, “its going to be 70’s themed wedding. My fiancé is all about the 70’s, and we just love that period.” So I thought for a second, in some disbelief, what is it about the seventies that would make someone that didn’t even exist then want to plan their wedding styled after this decade? After all, I grew up in the seventies. As best as I can remember, the biggest identifiers of the 70’s were self awareness, polyester, and disco. Not exactly what I would call factors that would make me theme what was to that point the most important day of my life around.

As best as I can recall, me and my fellow seventies raised brethren wanted one thing when wistfully wishing what we wanted the most: to be of age in the sixties. Now of course, nostalgic trends revolve around the sixties, but we actually lived during the sixties. I was born in the solemn year of 1961. When the sixties were over, I was barely into double digits, but even at that young age, certain aspects of 60’s characteristics stuck with me enough to carry them into my teenage years.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #4.

Mostly I have my mother to thank for this. She gave birth to me later in life, in her late thirties, and loved the atmosphere of the sixties, their youth, and the types of counterculture that displayed itself at every opportunity. She loved going into hippie run businesses, particularly those along book store lines, as she loved to read, as well as the scented oils, incense, macrame, and all the trappings that younger people wore and espoused. For me, being a young lad, drug into these dens of escapist freakdom, my recollections consisted of just a couple of strong attractions. One, the young ladies that worked and shopped in those stores, wearing their loose interpretations of what passed for clothing (or lack of thereof), two, the magnificent smell of patchouli oil, and three, the inevitable rack of underground comics I was placed at when she knew would be the best space to allow me to actually enjoy these excursions.

Meef Comix #1.

Leaving a kid next to a rack of underground comics, you ask? Well, let’s just say my parents were pretty liberal types that figured they raised me well enough to know the difference about what to take seriously and what not to. I suppose at the age of nine or ten, I wholeheartedly agreed with this philosophy. Underground comics, were an independent source of the art form, uninhibited by censorship and the more plebeian concerns of middle class decency. And that brings us to the subject of this diatribe, a biography of one of the second generation underground cartoonists, Dave Sheridan. Now Dave, while born in 1948, really matured as an artist in the seventies, although his life and experiences actually were grounded in the sixties. Artists take time to mature and finely hone their skills, and by the time Sheridan hit his stride, the seventies were in full force, the underground comix scene he grew his talents in, was for all intents and purposes, gone.

Dave Sheridan: Life with Dealer McDope, the Leather Nun, and the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, a hardcover edited by Mark Burnstein, published by Fantagraphics, 260 plus pages, $35 retail, is a great and wonderful tome that covers his childhood, education, travels, artistic collaborations, and much more in the all too short volume. Too short, you question? Well, sadly, Dave contracted cancer and his life ended at a mere 37 years on this earth. But what years those were. This book delineates, through first hand accounts from those that grew up with and existed with him, the contributions that his talents gave to those of us lucky enough to have experienced them.

Dave Sheridan.

Born in Cleveland, these memories relate his life as a parochial student in through high school, his difficult attempt at normal art type education, and his eventual pilgrimage to the west coast, home of much of the United States countercultural base. From his teaming up with fellow artist and partner in crime Fred Schrier, his first encounter with eventual wife Dava (who was Stanley Mouse’s 19 year old live-in girlfriend (ah, the sixties)), to his life long journeys in artistic heaven, most notably well known as co-author of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers for a time with Gilbert Shelton. His run-ins with famous figures such as Father Guido Sarduci and Hugh Hefner, and his design work that gave Rip Off Press its visual identity. The first sixty pages of this book are jam packed with just about everyone he came into contact with and worked with, and all flow seamlessly somehow into a proper narrative and appreciation of his accomplishments.

The latter 200 pages of the book are an excellently reproduced, chronological reprinting of his comix work, his commercial work, including posters, record labels, graphic design packages, and album covers, with my fave being the complete reprint of The Whiteline Cannonball Express Freak Brothers story he did with Shelton that appeared originally in an issue of “High Times” magazine from 1977. It finishes with a lovely selection from his sketchbooks, to give you an idea of how his complicated ideas would start and bear fruit.

The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #11.

While it could be said that Dave’s strong suit wasn’t his writing, you’d be missing the point. The underground comix movement wasn’t about the perfected series of words and pictures, as much as it was the experience of being into and relating the environment he was living, much the same of most comix artists. Dave’s strengths were in his meticulous illustrative technique, patiently using his design sensibility and luscious ink line work to create a visual world few could compete with. Sheridan constantly set up challenges within his visuals not just to bust his own chops depicting them, but to bring the reader into the world he was existing in, whether it be a drug influenced visual masterpiece, or a sexually influenced dream sequence that would captivate the hormones within my tender loins. His sense of humor put him at the top of the class as well, making you laugh, but also marveling at the wit and verve he conveyed it with.

Dealer McDope. 1984 Volksverlag collection.

Dave’s most well known character, Dealer McDope, is well presented, as are many others, in such greatly titled comix as Meef, Mother’s Oats, and my fave, Tales From the Leather Nun, no doubt inspired by his duration in Catholic schools. This tome presents them all in a loving, mannerly fashion that oozes with creativity as well as ultimate respect for the creator.

While I came to this earth a little too late to grow up in the sixties, their impression on me as a young comix reader cannot be underestimated. My mother, one day, finishing her shopping spree, casually asked me if I found a comic to add to her pile of purchases.

“Yeah, this one”, I said, pushing up a copy of Mean Bitch Thrills by Spain Rodriguez.

“50 cents? Kind of an expensive comic”, she asked. Most mainstream comics at this time retailed for 15 cents.

“It’s a special one”, I replied, giving Mom the look all kids give when they really want something.

from The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers #5.

No questions asked, she put it in the pile, and bought it that day. I suppose I was grateful she didn’t look at its contents, or even her liberal attitudes might have been tested. But to this day, I still have that comic, and the impression it left upon me that gave me a whole new way to look at comic books and what they could achieve, in a way, that the mere Batman and Robin couldn’t.

Thank you Mom, and thank you, Dave Sheridan, for the wonderful memories.

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Bullwhip 1 (April 2017)

Bullwhip #1

Is Josh Bayer the right person to write Bullwhip? It’s about a seventies female superhero who fights bad guys named “The Misogynist” and time traveling space vampires who are also misogynists. There are enough misogyny “jokes,” one might even think Frank Miller wrote this thing. So, no, he’s not the right person. He goes overboard with the joke and lacks any humanism in his portrayal of Bullwhip. She’s the butt of various jokes and action setpieces, but she’s hardly the lead in the comic. It also has time traveling vampires, which is fine, though it’s all ripped off from popular media (save the vampire aspect). At least Ben Marra and Al Milgrom’s art is all right.

CREDITS

Web of Oblivion!; writers, Benjamin Marra Josh Bayer; penciller, Marra; inker, Al Milgrom; colorist, Matt Rota; letterer, Rick Parker; publisher, Fantagraphics Books.

Crime Destroyer 1 (March 2017)

All Time Comics: Crime Destroyer #1

There’s nothing wrong with Crime Destroyer exactly. It’s set in the seventies, about a black Vietnam vet (and POW) turned crime fighter. He’s lost his family and he kills people and he’s a vet, so Punisher. He also swings around and has gadgets, so Batman. He bickers and fights with a Superman stand-in called Atlas before they team up and fight the real bad guys. It’s pretty fun to read, given the Herb Trimpe pencils, but Josh Bayer’s script sometimes gets in the way. It’s a thoughtful enough script, it’s just not significant. Crime Destroyer amuses thanks to Trimpe, nothing else. Except maybe Benjamin Marra’s inks. On Trimpe.

CREDITS

Human Sacrifice; writer and editor, Josh Bayer; penciller, Herb Trimpe; inker, Benjamin Marra; colorist, Alessandro Echevarria; letterer, Rick Parker; publisher, Fantagraphics Books.

Sweatshop (2003)

Sweatshop

Sweatshop is a workplace situation comedy. While there are only six issues, creator, writer, oftentimes artist Peter Bagge gets in ten stories. The first four issues each have a couple stories. Bagge’s methodical about how he introduces the characters. They’re all comically unlikable, each with a certain charm. If not in the character, then just in how they influence the comic. It’s a great cast.

The comic is about newspaper comic strip cartoonist Mel Bowing and “Sweatshop minions.” Nick, Carrie, Alfred, Millie, and Elliot. Elliot gets hired in the first issue’s second story, everyone else gets their own story somewhere in the first three issues. The fourth issue has an Alfred and Nick team up, before giving Mel his own story. But the fourth issue is also where Bagge, as a writer, is getting comfortable with plotting all these characters together. Before, he utilizes the supporting players for some great jokes, but not really as active participants. The fifth is a single story for the whole cast. The sixth and final issue has a couple stories for Mel.

Bill Wray illustrates Carrie’s “Carrie’s Diary” strip.

Along the way, Bagge and his artists (the series has a number of them) also contribute “samples” from the cast. Carrie’s project, a zine called Carrie’s Diary is the most popular. Alfred dreams of doing superhero comics. Elliot wants to do The Boondocks only desperately obvious and unfunny. Nick wants to make fun of Carrie and Elliot being empathetic and serious. At some point in the series, there’s a sample of everyone’s work, usually Nick’s because Nick is a dick and Bagge gets a lot of mileage out of him. But the Boondocks knock-offs are practically a lecture on how to make a good, politically conscious comic strip and how not to ape one.

Initially, Bagge tries not to embrace the comics culture aspect of Sweatshop too much. The fifth’s issue single story is a trip to a comic con, complete with Bagge being downright tender with some of his observations. The first story is Mel being nominated for a comic strip award, but Bagge doesn’t get too geeky with it. Alfred’s half-issue story is about him trying to be an indie superhero guy and there’s some comic con stuff, but just for background humor. And it’s worth the wait, the comic con story is either the funniest Sweatshop or second funniest. There are even cameos–Ivan Brunetti and Neil Gaiman. It’s awesome.

Mel's become a harmless, hilarious jackass by the fourth issue. Art by Stephanie Gladden and Jim Blanchard.
Mel’s become a harmless, hilarious jackass by the fourth issue. Art by Stephanie Gladden and Jim Blanchard.

The other funniest story contender is the Mel one from the fourth issue. Not because of Mel, but because Bagge’s got this hilarious E plot with Carrie’s friend thinking Mel is hilarious. It forces the reader to take another look at the characters and their behaviors. From the first issue, Sweatshop uses its form and style to occupy a certain space in the reader’s imagination. Bagge and the artists set up the gags on the page and let them play out in the reader’s head. Bagge might not have gone for comic references right off, but from the start the comic has been incorporating tricks from comic strips. It’s about a comic strip, after all, one with zero importance on the plots, which is kind of funny in itself.

Another thing Bagge does is try to bleed readers. The first issue thrusts Alfred and Elliot into an uncomfortable situation with old white guy racist Mel. It’s immediately following Elliot getting out of an uncomfortable situation with Nick. The casual sexism against Carrie, intense from Mel, passive (aggressive) from Nick, makes the workplace seem a little more violative than it turns out to be. It’s not Bagge finding the tone, it’s Bagge understanding how to prune an audience.

Bagge's busy, frantic style has more action than most DC superhero comics.
Bagge’s busy, frantic style has more action than most DC superhero comics.

As I understand it, Sweatshop was supposed to be an ongoing series and it got cancelled after two, with DC finishing out the material. It’s interesting to know, to look at how the comic’s structured. Gradual introduction of the cast, then mixing it up once they’re familiar enough. Bagge does go for some belly laughs starting around issue four it doesn’t seem like he’d have tried in the first issue for sure and maybe even the second. There’s less trepidation.

Besides Bagge on the art, it’s usually Stephan DeStefano or Stephanie Gladden, plus Johnny Ryan a couple times. Bill Wray and Jim Blanchard unevenly splitting inks. No one really breaks too much from what Bagge has established as the series style. I suppose the Johnny Ryan is the most different in terms of cartooning but it’s still paced the same way in panel layout so it’s not too different.

The last issue is the heaviest, with Bagge bringing in Mel’s estranged son and wife. The son is homeless, but sells all his celebrity garbage on eBay. The wife is just awful. It’s a lot more of the belly laughs and a lot less of them hitting as hard as in the fifth issue. By the end of the series, Mel has gone from being possibly dangerous to being a harmless blowhard. Bagge plays him for laughs. After the first issue, really–and a Nick comic strip from the last issue–Bagge declaws a lot of Sweatshop throughout. It doesn’t make it more accessible, which is probably the fate of this book no matter what, but it does make it a lot funnier.

Even Mel's miserable minions get to have some joy. Art by Peter Bagge.
Even Mel’s miserable minions understand how important the comic con is! Art by Peter Bagge.

Sweatshop is a funny, sometimes hilarious, always exquisite comic book. Bagge’s transition of comic strip humor to a comic book form is masterful. When Sweatshop gets really, really funny, there’s always this beautiful flow to how Bagge gets the joke done. He’s never showy about it, he always gives it good foundation, but he also knows when he’s got a situation he can exploit for some excellent laughs. And it’s not just when Bagge does the art; Gladden does the art on that Mel story from the fourth issue. The whole crew’s great on this book. It’s smart and expert.

Just imagine if DC had been able to sell it. Hopefully Fantagraphics, who has since collected the series in a trade paperback, has some more luck.

Fantagraphics: Comics For People Who Don't Need to Go to a Convention to Get Laid. (Art by P. Bagge)
Fantagraphics: For People Who Don’t Need to Go to a Convention to Get Laid. (Art by P. Bagge)

CREDITS

Writer, Peter Bagge; pencillers, Peter Bagge, Stephen DeStefano, Bill Wray, Stephanie Gladden, and Johnny Ryan; inkers, Peter Bagge, DeStefano, Wray, Jim Blanchard, and Ryan; colorist, Joanne Bagge; letterers, Peter Bagge, DeStefano, Wray, and Ryan; editor, Joey Cavalieri; publisher, DC Comics.

Ganges 5 (February 2016)

Ganges #5

Huizenga. Ganges. It’s been ages. I don’t even think I’ve read the previous issue.

An issue of Ganges operates on many levels. There’s what Huizenga is doing as a cartoonist, what he’s doing with the art. But then there’s why he’s doing it. This issue has a history lesson and a science lesson. Huizenga should probably just do a bunch of science books. They would catch on. He’s great at presenting these complex ideas in welcoming, understanding artwork.

Still, it’s not just information for the reader, it’s information for the protagonist, Glenn (Ganges). Glenn is reading some of this history book to his girlfriend, he’s also just reading some of it to himself. Huizenga takes those distinctions seriously. The story whirls the reader around, even during the longer sequences. Glenn has a busy mind (the premise is he can’t sleep because he can’t stop thinking) so the comic itself has to be busy. It also has to be methodical and reasonable because Glenn’s mind is reasonable to itself. Presumably.

It’s a wonderful comic. Huizenga always delivers. Whether it’s the history lesson, the science lesson, the physics lesson, Glenn and his girlfriend almost fighting, a funeral, whatever–Huizenga delivers magnificent scenes and sequences. Ganges. Huizenga. Phenomenal.

CREDITS

Writer and artist, Kevin Huizenga; publisher, Fantagraphics.

Patience (March 2016)

patienceThe past is far behind us / the future doesn’t exist sing the puppets of Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. But eventually everyone runs out of time. Never truer than in Patience, which longtime Daniel Clowes fans may not find to be his best work, but is nonetheless unlike anything he’s ever done before – and first time readers will find it an excellent introduction to his talents. Clowes has never created a book of this length or focused upon a protagonist so intense as Jack Barlow, a haunted man whose surname references the vampire of Stephen King’s novel Salem’s Lot. Like an ageless ghoul, Jack lurks outside of time, referring to himself at one point as a ghost. The story begins with the murder of his pregnant wife, the eponymous Patience, so he’s already dead inside – at least until the discovery of time travel gives him the opportunity to somehow prevent that murder.

The story begins by establishing Jack’s total adoration for Patience and his hopes for their future family are a breathtaking refutation of the divorce-trauma cynicism about traditional family life which characterized Clowes’ generation. Strong stuff from an artist whose name was so synonymous with Gen-X in the 90s that Coca-Cola hired him to design packaging for ironically, intentionally mediocre soda pop. His Fantagraphics contemporary Peter Bagge eventually got married with children too, but even Buddy Bradley’s embrace of fatherhood over any hedonistic autumn years as an aging ink stud (or even Robert Crumb’s for that matter) was never celebrated so sincerely as in these first few opening pages before the bottom drops out. Clowes has also never written a protagonist so obsessively focused on one singular life-or-death matter as Jack’s quest to recover the new beginning his new family symbolized. Personally, Clowes’ The Death-Ray speaks to me more but maybe that’s because I’m not yet a husband or father. There’s palpable excitement for the reader upon realizing how ruthlessly driven Jack Barlow is about what may be an impossible effort, and knowing he has the rest of the heavy tome to see that one objective through.

Except for a few pointed scenes of internal narration by Patience herself, Barlow constantly narrates directly to the reader, alternately terse and conversational. Clowes has done similar character narration before, but never with the film-noirish tone of a furious and potentially doomed man as his star. His anger is far removed from the outbursts of frustrated, semi-passive loners to whom Clowes usually gives center stage. Barlow may be angst-ridden but he’s no nerd; he’ll cave your face in if you get in the way of his mission. He’s also scarily funny, when sometimes indulging the one typically Clowesian trait bestowed upon him; his lack of patience (ahem) for any oblivious idiots blocking his path. The absurdity of these remarks within an otherwise extremely grim story compounds the occasional comic relief into an unexpected shotgun blast; Enid Coleslaw with a laser rifle. Fuck you, asshole – I’m from the future! Even on top of the havoc played with the metaphysics of time-space, Barlow makes the book exciting and unpredictable by sheer force of his personality, and with a menace previously unexplored by the author.

A brief look into the future and some striking double-page spreads of Jack’s body traversing the fourth dimension are the only scenes in Patience as colorful as the front cover and endpapers. They seem like bait to lure in sci-fi fans, because the vast majority of the book’s settings are the fascinatingly banal suburban vistas which Clowes is now a practiced master at rendering. Every scene is deliberately staged for the simplest, most naturalistic compositions, so as not to distract from the long-form character drama. In terms of exploiting the comics medium’s unique qualities, his longest work is also his least ambitious. It’s a far cry from his previous book Wilson, which changed art styles drastically on every page. Patience probably would have worked better as a limited 5 or 6 issue mini-series but Clowes and Fantagraphics know that no one reads comics “issues” and you can’t count on super-creeps noticing your new, capeless title one rack over from the Harley Quinn jack-off material and Deadpool: Crisis On Infinite OMGWTFLOLs. The book’s length actually made it the first time I’ve had to read anything of his in two sittings, which is a new experience. Fortunately there are basically chapter demarcations every time Jack Barlow travels to a new year, so you often have good points to pause and digest at your own pace.

Until this book, I’d never noticed Clowes’ simultaneous disgust for both the upper and lower classes that reoccurs throughout all his work. The plot of Patience hinges on both the privileged amorality of rich overprivileged jerks and the alcoholic violence of underprivileged rednecks, with white trash as almost constant white noise in the background. The always impeccable character designs put as much vivid detail into the stony sidelong glance of an overpriced boutique baby clothes saleswoman, or the condescending smirks of fey urban hipsters, as the glazed bovine misery of midwestern housewives, or the rodent giddiness of their skanky daughters. One great scene finds Jack in a trendy city bar full of pretentious sophisticates who love how “futuristic” his clothes from the future look. Clowes grew up in Chicago and has previously expressed in Eightball his unease with that city’s overly self-conscious compromise between wealthy and working class cultures. He also knows well the spiritual wasteland of the small towns beyond; Jack stalks Patience’s past through her entirely hateful hometown which bears the generically Midwestern name of “White Oak.” The crux of his future wife’s life is escape from this dead-end place, but even as a married couple living together in the (generic, but probably Chicago) big city, they can’t help feeling cheated that there’s so much wealth all around them when all they want is enough to get by and raise their child.

The question of what will happen to our antihero if he’s successful in changing history is deftly sidestepped because Jack isn’t the type of guy to think that aspect through – explicitly, he twice shrugs off any such theorizing as “sci-fi bullshit.” Somewhat disingenuously with the book’s packaging, including the cheekily hyperbolic (but not inaccurate) back cover tagline “A cosmic timewarp deathtrip to the primordial infinite of everlasting love” – the story is at its core a murder mystery with time travel used as a sleuthing method rather than a “time travel” or “sci-fi” adventure. Clowes seems to have only slightly less disdain for genre trappings than Jack Barlow. Only a few pages are spent in a Sixties-ish retro-future for providing him a time travel device, and late in the story when another visitor from the future makes an appearance, he come clad in a ludicrously stupid looking costume. Towards the end I found myself guessing a predictable paradox and sure enough, Jack/Clowes mentions that possibility as an obvious pitfall he’ll have to avoid. Our protagonist’s contempt for “sci-fi bullshit” allows him to see a Twilight Zone twist ending coming just as well as the reader. The actual conclusion cleverly ties together every story thread in a logical way while cohering with the plot’s depiction of time travel; it’s emotionally and intellectually satisfying.

Recommended for everyone, but especially husbands and fathers.

CREDITS

Writer, artist & colorist, Daniel Clowes; production and technological assistance; Alvin Buenaventura; editor and associate publisher, Eric Reynolds; publisher, Gary Groth & Fantagraphics Books, Inc.

Pussey! (August 1989-October 1994)

bookcover_pussc.jpg

Pussey! is a collection of strips from Eightball, published over five years, concerning a comic book artist named Dan Pussey.

It’s pronounced poo-say, so just remember that distinction.

A lot of the strip is Clowes examining the comic book industry and its fans. I don’t think there’s a single sympathetic character in the entire collection. In fact, Clowes makes a point to make the protagonist unsympathetic as time progresses. Until the finale, when it’s a tragedy comics are forgotten.

Clowes gets in a sadly hilarious analog of Stan Lee and uses him as the face of exploitative publishers. Like much of Pussey!, it’s funny, but only if you have some reference. Clowes misses making the character, Dr. Infinity, likable. Stan Lee is great at selling himself too, whereas Clowes lets the reader know exactly how awful Dr. Infinity’s going to get.

While all of Stan Lee’s return to comics ventures failed, here it succeeds. It turns into something like Image, with Pussey becoming Rob Liefeld. I had to think back to the nineties and the crazy speculative market and so on to get it all.

But Clowes also has a lot to say about his fellow indie creators—and bully to Gary Groth for publishing a comic featuring him as a twerp who makes the Hernandez Brothers do chores for him.

It’s a comic with nothing nice to say about its own medium.

Pussey! has a limited audience but is more even relevant now than when Clowes made it.

CREDITS

Writer, artist, and letterer, Daniel Clowes; Al Williamson; publisher, Fantagraphics Books.

Acme Novelty Library 1 (Winter 1993)

68746

Wow, what an exceptionally depressing piece of work.

Ware has little Jimmy Corrigan stories and bigger ones. The bigger ones tend to be more affecting. There’s a Big Tex story in here too and it’s the closest thing to played for laughs Acme Novelty Library gets.

Having heard about it for years, but not read it, I did not know what to expect. I certainly wasn’t reading for this depressing story about a kid and his mother—abandoned by the father—who then grows up to be a recluse. What’s so affecting is the breaks Ware takes in Jimmy’s timeline.

At some point, he’s with a woman. We don’t get to see any of it. Then there’s the longer story where he grows up, losing his childhood and not even realizing it.

Ware’s artwork is precious, but he also retains a deep dreariness.

It’s great; it’s just a complete downer.

CREDITS

Writer, artist, colorist, letterer, Chris Ware; publisher, Fantagraphics Books.

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