Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"The Someday Funnies" in Mother Jones

Michel Choquette at the "Someday Funnies" book launch at the McGill Faculty Club last Thursday.
An interview with editor Michel Choquette and selections from "Someday Funnies" in Mother Jones.

Michel Choquette's 1960s Time Capsule

Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott image
The curator of a new collection of long-shelved comic art on wooing Salvador Dalí, hiring a Hitler impersonator, and going bust for his dream.
Click here for a slideshow of selections from The Someday Funnies.
Listen to an audio version of this interview:

The cultural gems unearthed for The Someday Funnies: A Comic History of the 1960s, out this week from Abrams ComicArts, were first commissioned by Rolling Stone back in the early '70s but are only now making it into print. Which is kind of amazing, given the iconic artists and writers involved: Federico FelliniTom WolfeWilliam S. BurroughsPete TownshendFrank ZappaStan MackWill Eisner, and Jack Kirby, to name just a few. The book never would have been published at all had it not been for the heroic efforts of its original editor and mastermind Michel Choquette. On the eve of publication, I caught up with Choquette to talk about his days at National Lampoon, Salvador Dalí's penis-shaped pool, and going belly-up in pursuit of his dream.
Mother Jones: Virginia Woolf's husband, Leonard, once said that a man should change his career every seven years. Your life seems to be an effort to exceed that level of mutability. By your mid-20s you'd been a moviemaker, a student of Mesopotamian languages, a professional photographer, a musician, and a protégé of the musical satirist Tom Lehrer. How did you do it all?
Michel Choquette: I never thought about it. Whatever happened happened; that kind of thing. And it wasn't quite as sequential as you make it sound. They often overlapped.
MJ: Sometime after that you toured the country as part of the Time Square Two, a comedy act that exposed you to a national audience on, among other things, The Merv Griffin Show. What are you fondest memories of that time?
MC: I think it was creating the material. And performing it too, of course; but we were mainly a television act because we were very visual. Sort of re-creating in a surrealized way the days of vaudeville. But I think performing in clubs where you had a very direct relationship with the audience and where you could start ad-libbing material that you would later incorporate into the act, I think those were probably my favorite moments.
MJ: Sometime after that you got a job as an editor at the National Lampoon. They ran a photo story called "Stranger in Paradise," which you created by shooting a 70-year-old Hitler impersonator for two weeks in Martinique, including a shot of him nude sunbathing. How did you pull that off?
MC: Well. I'd heard about this guy through a filmmaker friend of mine. He was an ex-acrobat who had been part of a Swiss acrobat family team. He had discovered at one point that he had a bone structure that with a little mustache could turn him into Hitler. He'd had a few minor little roles and then a fairly good part in René Clément's film Is Paris BurningThat was his claim to fame, and he'd sent press clippings to absolutely everyone, including my friend. And when I saw that photograph, it occurred to me that something that would contrast his crisp German uniform with something like a soft background of palm trees and lapping waves would probably be the best. It's featured quite well in another book that Abrams just put out by Rick Meyerowitz, called Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, about the years that all of us were doing the Lampoon. The nude shot is about 16 inches wide, a full spread in that book.
MJ: National Lampoon is a cultural icon now. What was it like then?
MC: We were having a lot of fun. We knew we were breaking new ground in the sense that we weren't just scraping money together to put out little magazines of our own on small presses like the underground guys were doing. We had Madison Avenue behind us. Of course we had to be a little more careful; a little more self-censored perhaps. But still, we were doing things that had not been possible before.
MJ: You edited a comic piece there called "College Concert Cut-Ups."
MC: Jann Wenner, the publisher of Rolling Stone, had seen "College Concert Cut-Ups." We also did a parody of Rolling Stone called "Rolling Stein" set in 1791, that I did with Anne Beatts. I think those were the pieces that Wenner saw.
Detail from "Clever Ruse Comix": Writer: Chris Miller; Art: Gray MorrowDetail from "Clever Ruse Comix;" writer: Chris Miller; art: Gray MorrowMJ: So he asked you to put together a collection of comics in the form of a history of the '60s.
MC: At the time it wasn't envisaged as a book. Jann wanted me to put a 20-page supplement together for Rolling Stone—a loose history of a few thoughts about the '60s, about the music scene and the politics. And as I started to go and round up artists, I started realizing that there was a possibility of a book here. Jann did get interested in that for his book publishing company Straight Arrow, but eventually, he decided to back out of both the supplement and the book. I was left holding the bag with a lot of promises to a lot of artists, and that's when I decided to carry on no matter what and find a publisher somehow.
MJ: Do you think you and Wenner were envisioning the same project?
MC: Yeah, I think so, at the beginning. Certainly I started to be more interested in European things, so we probably had a slightly different vision of it. I don't think it was by any means one that we couldn't have come to terms with in the selection process. I never quite knew why he backed out: financial concerns, who knows? We parted amicably and he relinquished all the rights and I just carried on by myself.
MJ: Talk to us about how the project developed, and please don't skimp on the celebrity name-dropping: I mean, Jean-Paul Sartre, Joni Mitchell, Abbie Hoffman, Charlie Watts, Norman Mailer…
MC: Only like 15 percent or 20 percent of all those people I went to see delivered in the end. But I did go and see a lot of people—all the people who were doing North American traditional comics and all the underground people and then many people who don't normally do comics, like Joni Mitchell and Frank Zappa. Or people who'd done them at one point in their lives, like Federico Fellini. Some of them said yes and didn't deliver, and some of them said yes and did. Most of them said, "Well let me think about it." In the book's preface I run a little timeline which mentions all the people that I did write to or actually get to see, with the ones who were actually in the book in boldface.
MJ: Who's the person you most regret not being able to get?
MC: I don't have one person, but it would've been kind of nice to get Dalí to do something. I even proposed to him that he do a blank page. And then he said, "Yeah, that's a good idea," and then a few minutes later, he told his wife that we'd had this idea, and later he told this other guy who was with us in Spain that it was his idea. But that didn't bother me. If he'd done that and signed it, I suppose I would've run it. Then he wanted to do a poster for the book. He asked me if I was rich because he told me he wasn't very interested in the poor, and I said, no I wasn't rich. And he asked me if my publishers were, and I said, well, they might be able to do something like a poster if you wanted. I always hoped, and perhaps this is why I wish I had Dalí in the book, I always hoped I could've come back to Dalí and—let's say Dalí wanted $25,000 to do the poster—I could've said, "Well, here's 12,500 bucks. Do half a poster." But I never had that opportunity! I enjoyed very much meeting him, and I definitely had fun sitting with him around his penis-shaped pool.
Detail from "The Commune," Text & Art by Randall EnosDetail from "The Commune," text & art by Randall EnosMJ: After Wenner dropped out, how did you go about this?
MC: I went to see a lot of publishers in New York. Harper and Row is the one who bit, in the fall of 1972. I think I was actually only two months without a publisher. And Cass Canfield Jr., who was running the editorial department at Harper and Row, was very keen on the book and that gave it a new impetus and enough of an advance so I could go back to Europe and collect the work from the people who'd promised it to me, find new people, and also travel around the States. I produced a dummy of the book, and Cass was very happy with the dummy, but his marketing people in the end backed out. They just couldn't quite understand what to do with book and how to market it. There was such an eclectic combination. It wasn't really like Marvel Comics people, it wasn't really like all underground—it was a mixture. So I was left with no publisher. After that I tried to raise private money to put out the book myself, and I came very close. But in the end, it didn't happen. That took up another three or four years, making a total of about seven years I'd been working on the book. At which point I just had to move on and just put everything away safely and hope that something would happen someday.
MJ: You sort of disappeared from view and then reappeared decades later in a 2009 profile inComics Journal. What were some of your high points during that hibernation?
"A few artists were concerned that, 'My stuff doesn't look like that anymore.'…We had people who literally even swore: 'I never did such a piece.'"
MC: Well, one of the low points was that I declared bankruptcy because I had spent so much money on the book. The advances were just a drop in the bucket compared to what I spent, borrowed, and earned wherever I could to put into the book. So I just lay very low for awhile and I became not even a barman, but a barboy in a bar in Montreal. I pulled out of that and started making films at the National Film Board. I directed and wrote films—animation and live action. I ended up being asked by McGill University in Montreal to teach screenwriting, and then by Concordia University in Montreal, and I've been teaching screenwriting and creative writing for years now. I've been doing the odd project, one little film here and there, reviving some of my old songs and recordings. I got involved for a while in the shmatte business, because my girlfriend is a fashion designer. After Bob Levin's article on me appeared in the Comics Journal, Charlie Kochman at Abrams decided he wanted to publish the book. There was a lot of work left to do, even though I had the actual original art: all the strips had to be colored and all that kind of stuff, contacting everybody to renew my old agreement with them, or their heirs. I had to employ a crew of nine people to get the book done.
MJ: What was the reaction of the artists when you contacted them after all this time? Did anyone want to pull out of the project?
MC: No. I had a couple who gave me a hard time, but everybody else, it's, "You hung on for so long. Congratulations! What perseverance!" I'm getting that from everywhere. I was afraid there was gonna be a whole Pandora's box of angry contributors, and I was ready to face it. But I can't tell you the cooperation and enthusiasm I've gotten. A few of the artists were concerned that, "My stuff doesn't look like that anymore. I've improved so much. I'm a little worried. Let me see a scan of the artwork." And I had to persuade a few of them, "No, no. This is a time capsule. You can't change what it was." They all came around in the end, thank God.
MJ: I spoke with Randall Enos, one of the contributors, who's been a contributor to Mother Jones, and he was thrilled by the whole thing. But he said, "I honestly could not remember doing the strip and until they showed it to me; I couldn't remember what it was like."
MC: And then he said, "Hey, not bad!" I remember that, actually. We had quite a bit of that: People who literally even swore, "I never did such a piece." On the other hand, I called Russ Heath, and he's getting on a bit, and I gave him my usual pitch, "Well, you may not remember this but years ago, you did a strip for me." And he cut me off right away. He said, "Yeah, I think I spelled something wrong on that guy's helmet." [Laughs.] He was right."
Detail from an untitled comic, text & art by Louise SimonsonDetail from an untitled comic, text & art by Louise SimonsonMJ: One thing that's interesting to me is the women cartoonists and writers in your collection. You've got some stellar people, including Trina Robbins, who's done influential work and founded the Wimmen's Comix series. To my eye, there's a distinct difference between what the women and the guys in The Someday Funnies are seeing as liberation at this time in history. Any thoughts?
MC: I never really thought about it, but I guess you're right. In fact I know that Louise Simonson said about her contribution, "Oh, I wonder whether I was saying the right thing," until she saw the strip. And then she said, "Oh, it's alright. I didn't draw too well then. But, you know, I like the strip." So, there you are.
MJ: So what's your next career change going to be?
MC: [Laughs.] Well, I'm booked for teaching next year, starting right after Labor Day, so I'm not sure. I think I will probably do a documentary film on my father, who was a very well-known writer and poet in Canada. But mostly he is the one who started dramatic radio in the 1930s and he wrote, believe it or not, 6,500 scripts for radio and produced them himself—plus about 300 for television—so his life is a kind of a look back at what the beginnings of media were here in French Canada, in Quebec.
MJ: I did notice in Levin's piece that both of your parents set fairly high standards for you in terms of their accomplishments.
MC: They let me do what I wanted to do. They encouraged me. Put it that way.
Here are selections from The Someday Funnies:
Detail from "A Day at the Psychedelic Circuits," by Art Spiegelman. The artist, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his graphic novel Maus," has created a formalist comic experiment in which readers are encouraged to create multiple narratives by changing the order in which they read the individual panels. Or it's a story about an acid trip that eats its own tail.
Detail from "It Was All a Clever Ruse Comix"; text by Chris Miller, art by Gray Morrow. Miller, a screenwriter on Animal House, and Morrow, who had just finished a stint as the art director for the Spiderman comics, imagine a world of what-ifs, where, among other things, Lee Harvey Oswald sleeps in on November 13, 1963; John and Jackie Kennedy retire to the South of France; and Aristotle Onassis meets and falls in love with Janis Joplin.

Detail from "The Man Who Peaked Too Soon," text and art by Tom Wolfe. Better known for his role in the development of the New Journalism in the early '60s and his many fiction and nonfiction books, Wolfe demonstrates here that he could also have had a career as a comics artist, while narrating the story of a man who garners nothing but abuse by anticipating some of the major trends of the '60s and '70s just a little too early.

Detail from "Kent State Karmics," text by Douglas C. Kenney, art by Stan Goldberg and Dick Giordano. This comic juxtaposes the pleasures of college life (and drinking!) in the 1960s with the killing of four Kent State students by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970. Goldberg worked at the time for Archie Comics, which the colored portions of this strip were satirizing; Giordano, who later became executive editorial director at DC Comics, drew the monochromatic panels. Kenney was a cofounder of National Lampoon.

Detail from "The '60s," by Ralph Steadman. A contributor to Mother Jones, Steadman releases his caustic wit and irrepressible lines on British society as it struggles to adapt to the '60s. He began his notorious collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson in 1970, well before the genesis of The Someday Funnies, for a story on the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan's.


Detail from "Smell of the Sixties," text by Ernie Eban, art by Jim Leon. I'd call this comic a mindbender: one where the artist tries to convey the twists, turns, and epiphanies of the psychedelic experience to a reader whose mind may or may not be similarly altered. This one combines a storyline about a dodo running a personals ad and getting her hair done, pop musicians like Janis JoplinJim Morrison, and Taj Mahal floating over giant noses in Dayglo skies, and a denouement involving a wiretapping operation. Eban was an Oscar-nominated British screenwriter, and Leon was a well-known surrealist painter during the '60s and '70s.


Detail from "Terry the Turgid Toad and His Sidekick Cosmic Dog in 'Weird Trip,'" by Denis Kitchen. Another mindbender; in this one, a dog and a toad read about Timothy Leary and decide to drop acid. Kitchen is a prolific comic artist, publisher, and author, who founded Kitchen Sink PressDenis Kitchen Publishing Co., and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.

Detail from "The Commune," by Randall Enos. A vision of what happens when things like communes become popularized and the owners decide to "sell out." After 46 years in the business, Enos is still doing illustration for, among others, Mother Jones.

Detail from "Barbarella," by Jean-Claude Forest. American audiences are more familiar with the Roger Vadim film of the same name, starring Jane Fonda, but Forest began publishing the popular comic strip in France in 1962. In this one, Barbarella is chased by hostile mechanical birds on an alien planet, while the French Student Uprising of 1968 is played out "in a different form" all around her. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now copresident of the European Greens, makes a guest appearance in his 1968 identity as "Danny the Red."

Detail from "Memories of Marilyn," by Trina Robbins. A young woman hears about Marilyn Monroe's suicide on her wedding day, and spends the day in a funk while her groom and friends party and get stoned. Robbins was active in the early underground comics movement, creating the first all-women comic book, "It Ain't Me, Babe," and has written several books on the history of comics, including "The Great Women Super Heroes," and "From Girls to Grrrlz."

Detail from "Tolerance in the 1960s," by Arnold Roth. Yet another mindbender comic, made up of a series of enigmatic single panels that can perhaps best be explained by John Updike's comment that "the jazzman in [Roth] can be detected in the lyrical visual swoops and his preference for improvisation with the pen." Roth is a widely published and well-known cartoonist and illustrator; in 2009 he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators' Hall of Fame and he has appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and on The David Letterman Show.

Detail from an untitled comic by Louise Simonson. In this literal 'comic strip,' Simonson creates an Everywoman character who challenges the male gaze by discarding the identities it has attempted to impose on her. Simonson is a comics writer and editor who has worked on major titles for DC and Marvel Comics, and has written comics-related books including "DC Comics Covergirls."


Detail from an untitled comic by Guido Crepax, which departs from the erotic "Valentina" comics for which Crepax was best-known, to present a thumbnail version of the struggles between Italian fascists, anarchists, socialists, and striking workers in the 1960s. In 1969, a bomb went off in Milan, killing 16 people; the falling man in the middle panel is Giuseppe Pinelli, who died after he fell (or jumped, or was pushed) from the fourth-floor window of a police station, where he had been taken for interrogation.

Detail from "Nothing to Shout About," by Patrice Leconte, in which a character named Patrice Leconte asserts that nothing much happened in the 1960s. He compares the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest the mistreatment of Buddhists by South Vietnam's Roman Catholic administration with Joan of Arc, and finds the former to be "chickenshit." Mankind's first step on the moon is compared, also unfavorably, with Columbus' setting foot on American soil. Leconte is a writer, comic artist, screenwriter, and director; his film "Ridicule" was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1997.
Detail from "The Spirit: The Soaring Sixties," by Will Eisner. His character "The Spirit" was the focus of a superhero comic series with film noir overtones whose popularity had peaked by the early '50s. In the Foreword to The Someday Funnies, Jeet Heer notes that at the time Eisner drew this comic, his "feet are still planted in the pulp tradition but he is already contemplating the more mature graphic novels that he would develop in the late 1970s and afterward." Here, the Spirit's attempts to work with computerized crime statistics are co-opted by the criminal element.
Detail from "Charlie!" by Herb Trimpe. In this comic, an artist drew the Hulk for more than 15 years, and was the first to draw the character Wolverine for publication, presents a horrific Vietnam War scenario. The use of the term "gooks" by one of the characters has echoes in the following artwork…
Detail from "Warlizards," by Vaughn Bodé. The creator of the influential underground comic character "Cheech Wizard" contributes the adventures of two of his signature lizard characters at war in Vietnam. In this panel, we're reminded that the term "gook," like any name for The Other, can cut both ways.

Detail from "The Ballad of Beardsley Bullfeather or Tune In—Cop-Out and Drop-Up!" with text by Jack Kirby and art by Jack Kirby and Joe Sinnott. In a comic written in rhymed quadrameter, an admirer of Ayn Rand travels to the moon in a rocketship, where he "reads novels and sips cool martinis," and ultimately disappears before the Apollo astronauts arrive. At the time, Jack Kirby was a pioneer of modern comics; with Joe Simon he created the Captain America character, and he worked with Stan Lee to create some of Marvel Comics' signature superheroes. Joe Sinnott, one of marvel's most in-demand inkers, worked with Kirby on The Fantastic Four in the late '60s, and still inks the Sunday Spider-Man comic for King Features.


Detail from "A Dream I Had Ten Years Ago," by Federico Fellini. The dream involves Fellini being made chief of the airport, and getting involved in a standoff between "the big mama-whore" and a "mysterious oriental." It appears to be a metaphor for China's finally being admitted to the United Nations. Fellini's original artwork for this comic was lost in the mail; he obligingly redrew it.

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