Tuesday, December 27, 2011

"The Someday Funnies" reviewed in The Comics Journal

Bob Levin in The Comics Journal.

Time often gets a bad rap. It strips away. It erodes. It brings forth loss.  It guarantees the passage of all things. But sometimes time delivers a gift, like a sea washing up a pirate’s treasure on the shore.

In 2004, it was suggested I write about Michel Choquette and The Someday Funnies, a veritable Lost Dutchman’s lode of comic history.  
The story, as it had come down over three decades, was that Choquette had been commissioned in December 1970 to produce a 20-page cartoon history of the 1960s for the May issue of Rolling Stone, and that he had tuned that into a contemplated several hundred-page book on which he spent nine years, receiving in the process contributions from William Burroughs, Salvador Dali, Stanley Kubrick, Federico Fellini, John Lennon, Frank Zappa, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Tom Wolfe, while squandering so many advances from so many competing publishers that he had made publication impossible. 
Then, the story spreaders said, he and the art he had collected vanished.
That story was untrue. But the actual one was equally Le Carré-like in its twists and turns, pursuits and dead ends, peaks scaled and bruising slides suffered. 
Choquette had circled the globe and spent himself into bankruptcy, but half the above-named had gifted him with their work. As had, among others, C.C. Beck, Vaughn Bode, Guido Crepax, Will Eisner, René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo, Red Grooms, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Jean Giraud, Art Spiegelman, Ralph Steadman, Joost Swarte, Roland Topor and Gahan Wilson.
After my article, “How Michel Choquette (Almost) Assembled the Most Stupendous Comic Book in the World,” appeared (The Comics Journal No. 299) several publishers approached Choquette about his book. 
Now Abrams has issued it in a stunning 216 page, 12 ½” X 15 ½” edition, weighing in at a shade under five pounds; and I feel like a proud uncle (or, at least, a close family friend). [Author’s Disclosure: “The Maniac Responsible,” my profile of Choquette, occupies four of these pages.]
The volume overflows with enriching, supplemental material. 
Robert Greenfield, the biographer of Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, and Timothy Leary, accomplishes the near-impossible task of encapsulating the ’60s – facts and spirit – in two pages which frame all that follows. 
Jeet Heer, comicdom’s peerless critic/historian, supplies a foreword that contextualizes Funnies historically and culturally. 
The illustrator/designer, Michael Fog, contributes a running series of smile-triggering, wordless cartoons which highlight moments of Choquette’s journey. (Choquette had hoped originally to have R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural provide links between the strips, but Crumb proved indifferent to the entire project.)
But most of the enrichment comes from Choquette’s own archives. 
He has supplemented the text with photographs and copies of his notebook pages, phone message slips, letters, and telegrams, which document his efforts. He has cobbled together both a timeline showing where he was when and an enumeration of everyone from whom he sought a contribution who declined to make one, even distinguishing those with whom he met from those who refused or ignored him. 
And he has written his own account of his quest – witty, intelligent and stylistically sharp – complete with insights, judgements and anecdotes. 
(One quibble: He seems to have given me his best anecdotes for my original article – dinner with Ionesco, sipping champagne by Dalí’s phallus-shaped pool, romping with the cartoonist Willem and several Place Pigalle prostitutes and pimps – and either omitted or scaled-them down materially here, to his new public’s loss.) 
Nevertheless, even one who already knew the story (me) felt his mind boggle and his head shake at this dizzying retelling.
The heart of the book is, of course, its strips. 
There are 129, most (unofficially 106) in color and most (72) running a full page. (Twenty-three run two, and the Roy Thomas/Barry Windsor-Smith entry three.) There are 169 contributors, from 15 countries, writing in six languages.  
(The strips not in English appear as created, so their composition remains unaltered, and are then reproduced, wordless, two-to-a-page, in an appendix with a panel-by-panel translation beside them.)  
The result is a kaleidoscopic evocation of the times, the shifting imagery – flashing dreams, hallucinations and hard data – triggering memories, unleashing desires, stirring regrets, arousing the twitch and tingle of curiosity.  Sometimes it seems a museum installation between covers. “A fractured chronicle,” the book declares itself. That works too.
Funnies never materialized as a history of the 1960s. Choquette’s expanding vision overflowed the banks of the narrow channel that narrative required. His hopes swamped the economic realities of the day and swept him and his cargo into the backwater of a Montreal storage locker. 
But this overreach and disappearance ironically contributed to Funnies‘s issuance now. It had acquired the luster of legend, the magnification of mystery. When Choquette’s locker opened, decades of interest had added value to his holdings. The wonder of his story had infused it with “Wow!!!”
Now readers could experience, not only the art, but the thrills of his book’s gestation. Enjoy the affirming resolution of his heroic, often mad-seeming quest. Feel and ponder how precarious and preposterous and precisely balanced the fortunes of creativity often are.
The strips’ quality astounds. Remember, Funnies is not an anthology whose editor had the luxury of picking from the previously polished and published. 
Choquette solicited original work, offering only the promised payment of $100 in the indefinite future. 
The insubstantiality of this reward measured against the solidity of what he received is a compliment to the character of his contributors. 
The vast majority responded out of a sense of artistic dedication or professional commitment, a strong feeling (pro or con) for the ’60s, or the simple desire to demonstrate a worth for inclusion in such a special grouping. 
(Harlan Ellison penned a noteworthy 700 words. Dean Latimer delivered 16 panels in rhymed (A-B-C-B) verse. The art of Frank Bruner, Jim Leon, Gir, Russ Heath, Sigraldi, and Herb Trimpe knocked this viewer’s eyes out. And Fellini, when his strip was lost in transit, though in the midst of making Roma, re-did it.)
But Michel Choquette deserves special credit. He oversaw his book’s design (ably assisted by the graphic designer/writer Gerry L’Orange), from dust jacket to content, from coloration to the sequence of its strips. 
He translated those written in French and Italian. The idea of the timeline was his, and he drew up the list of potential contributors he contacted. 
He selected illustrations and edited Greenfield’s introduction, Heer’s foreword, and my profile with – if my experience was any example – word-by-word attentiveness. 
He edited the endnotes, researched and written by the layout artist Richard Weston, which provide career-summarizing biographies of each contributor, while explaining each strips relationship to the ’60s. 
(These explanations are – as we used to say – a trip! They identify every person the strips mention, from Tucker Frederickson to Manuel Rodriguez Delgado, Harry von Zell to Giuseppe Pirrelli, while mingling among them factual curiosities and the occasional cutting remark. 
Did you know that the mini-skirt was designed to allow women running for a bus to still look fashionable? Or that a New York Times editor “codified” the spelling of the word “hippie” to distinguish it from the adjective meaning broad-hipped? 
Or that the derogatory term “gook” was, most likely, coined by United States Marines to describe Haitians in 1920 and then employed by the gyrenes to disparage Filipinos, Nicaraguans, Pacific Islanders, the Japanese, Koreans, “white New Zealanders,” and the Vietnamese. 
“Its survival seems assured,” the note concludes, “as long as the Marine Corps roams the earth.”) 
He contacted each artist and writer (or their heirs) to reaffirm their permission to use their work for the same, unadjusted-for-inflation $100. 
(Everyone agreeably re-upped, though one cartoonist initially requested another $40, one dollar’s interest for each year he’d awaited payment.) 
He has generously thanked everyone who assisted him, from 1970 until the present, from Jann Wenner to a deceased, hardly household-name typist. 
And he has provided photos of important members of his “team” in the 1970s, as well as those of today. Their hair lengths may differ, but their eyes share the same twinkle.
In a word, The Someday Funnies dazzles. At the café where I was studying it, two people nearby exclaimed, “Gorgeous!” “It even smells good,” one added. 
Take that, e-books!

For more on The Someday Funnies on this blog:

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