Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

March 16, 2012

Group Think: Who In Comics Is Underappreciated?

imageThe recent passings of longtime Fantagraphics art director Dale Yarger, on-line comics site pioneer Don Markstein, the Harvey artist Sid Couchey and yet another one of those French-language comics fans and organizers that helped establish that part of the world's vibrant comics culture has me thinking about all the ways in which comics is built by people that are never fully recognized for their contributions: people that are underappreciated. I've been thinking about this more generally since Bill Blackbeard's death and the late archivist's appearance on the last two Eisner Awards Hall Of Fame ballots. The image to which I frequently return is the number of books in a great comics shop in which Blackbeard played some sort of role. It's staggering to me, and I'm not sure that as much lip service as we pay to someone's contributions in that way that we ever rightly come to terms with what they've done, internalize it, and move on. One of the wonderful things about being a comics fan in this day and age is that you can meet those who had a hand in the near-entirety of what we know as the commercial flowering of the medium.

So I was curious: who do you think, living or dead, is underappreciated in terms of their contributions to the entirety of what we know of as comics? I understand that's a difficult question and one can lead to a lot of self-indulgent writing. I'm certainly of the mind that everyone in comics is underappreciated, and I'm not immune to feeling the desire that my choice for someone I'd name in this fashion reflect well on me, or even flatter a person from whom I can benefit. So I hope that any of you that might write in will avoid the "You know who's still underappreciated? Charles Schulz!" entry or the "My editor is an awesome lady" paragraph. I'm hoping to tap some sober appraisals, divorced from your personal relationships, perhaps just one or two sentences on someone you suspect has never quite received their due -- even if it's someone about whom you don't know a lot but wish to because you feel like you may be missing out. Another thing that's nice about comics is the most modest fulcra can sometimes make for the lifting of huge parcels down the line, so maybe a mention here could put a name into some future writer's head about a possible subject about which to write, or a different way to look at things.

My own wish list is extensive, but let me share three. I have a general desire to know more about comics circulation people and the decisions they were making in the '50s, '60s and '70s. So maybe Martin Goodman's Circulation Manager Johnny Hayes could be put down as someone about whom I'd like to know more. I always feel like Mark Alan Stamaty was a significant figure for a lot of cartoonists now in the prime of their careers, and certainly a productive artist, widely-published, with a great deal of displayed skill inherent in his work. I have almost no grasp of his work, though. And let me name one contemporary, another person about whom I know next to nothing. One of the interesting things about attending BCGF in December 2011 was that it really underlined for me how relatively little I know about the emerging generation of alt-cartoonists. I was at several points literally having to be led around and introduced to people like some sort of clueless dad at a cotillion. Two different people in two different conversations named one person in particular as important to some members that scene in terms of being a taste-maker, context-provider and generally being a way into understanding what's going on there. I have no idea if they're right or not, but I have it on my list of things to do to find out more about Ryan Sands.


Michael Grabowski: I have to imagine that there are a number of key early retailers now nearing retirement age if not already there (Bud Plant) who fit in this category. I just don't have any names for you. But who were these guys (I assume -- there may be women involved in the early direct/resale market who were active for reasons besides being the spouse of one, and if so they certainly fit the underappreciated tag) who each made the decisions to gamble whatever capital they had on a storefront to maintain a stock of used comics and purchase nonreturnable new ones? I don't think comics retailing has ever been an easy field to enter, let alone stay healthy in, but that first generation of people who raised up the hobby from the fan paper ads into a business that has come to be the sole support of the periodical side of publishing -- those folks deserve some name-recognition and decent history-writing.

OK, in addition to Bud Plant, Phil Seuling is a name that comes to mind. Bob Beerbohm? And many more, I'm sure. Harry Kremer as well?


imageJim Kingman: Steve Skeates. He wrote several tremendously entertaining short stories for editor Joe Orlando's mystery comics ("The Gourmet" from PLOP! #1 immediately springs to mind). Plus, his slightly-ahead-of-its-time work on Aquaman, along with artist Jim Aparo, in the late, late 1960s and early, early 1970s has been, in my humble opinion, noticeably underappreciated.


Mark Sharar: Dick Dillin, Pat Mills, Frank Robbins, J.M. DeMatteis, Jerry Grandenetti, Pat Boyette, Dan Spiegle, Jorge Zaffino, Esteban Moroto, Peter David, Frank Thorne, Tom Sutton, Sal Buscema, Erik Larsen, Robert Loren Fleming, Dave Sim.


Danny Ceballos: I'm still frustrated and confused by the lack of any re-print collection or critical attention paid to the late George Carlson (Jingle Jangle Comics). His jaw-dropping comics are every bit as beautiful and strange and poetic as the best of Fletcher Hanks or John Stanley, yet George Carlson's legacy remains an obscure footnote, fetish item and a rumor.


Rodrigo Baeza: Some ideas:

Translators: I believe not enough attention is given to translators, especially now that more European comics are being translated into English. We've been lucky to have good translators such as Helge Dascher and Kim Thompson, but I believe most of the time we take for granted a job that isn't easy and that if not done competently could possibly ruin a book.

Letterers: I'm thinking here of those craftsmen who specialized in lettering comics for mainstream publishers, and whose contributions (at least for me) were an important part of the reading experience. I would love for example to know more about Japanese-American letterer Ben Oda, the man responsible for the distinctive lettering of the Kurtzman-edited EC comics and many Simon-Kirby comics (to name merely two examples out of a decades-long career). Or about Howard Ferguson (another Simon-Kirby letterer), John Costanza, Artie Simek, and so on. Thanks to the efforts of Todd Klein we now more about many of these craftsmen and the logos they designed, but there are probably many interesting stories yet to be told about these people.

Newspaper strip cartoonists: We're lucky to have so many good and historically important strips available these days in deluxe reprint editions, but I believe many post-1950 cartoonists are currently being overlooked. These are cartoonists who are not in the same league as Herriman, Caniff, or Schulz, but who still have decades of fine work behind them that could find an audience today: Johnny Hart, Mell Lazarus, Russell Myers, Tom K. Ryan, and so on.


Chris Cummins: Thanks for letting me know about this. I recently saw Al Jaffee at an event here in Philly and it really got me to thinking about how unique he is. The old guard is slipping away. I have no doubt that Jaffee's legacy is ensured, but there are two specific comics icons whom I feel are largely overlooked. All that said, here's my entry:

imageFrank Doyle and Harry Lucey are the greatest comedy team you've never heard of. For decades the pair toiled away at Archie Comics, unknown by the mainstream and underappreciated by the young readers who devoured their stories then moved on to see what else Jughead and the gang were up to.

They were both utility players for Archie, working on whatever title necessary with Doyle handling story duties and Lucey bringing the Riverdale gang to life with his clean, timeless art. But when working in tandem, Doyle and Lucey could turn ordinary kids comics into something transcendent.

Growing up, Archie titles were my comics of choice. But when I entered puberty, they fell by the wayside as I became enthralled by the Marvel Universe. Recently though, I have rediscovered my old Archie digests and for the most part it is the Doyle and Lucey stuff that seems the most memorable to me. It's been said that Doyle and Lucey, along with the great -- and equally underrated -- Samm Schwartz form Archie's holy trinity of talent, and this is a point I completely agree with. The pair's stories are packed with whimsy and slapstick, but their work never condescends to the intended young readers. Like the humor of the Muppets, the Doyle/Lucey collaborations have much appeal for adults as well. Because really, it's never not funny to see Archie fall down on his ass or watch as Reggie gets pummeled by Big Moose.

Even though IDW has been printing volumes of rare Archie material, it still doesn't feel like enough to help shake the company's uncool stigma that causes the incredibly funny stories by Doyle and Lucey to be overlooked. Fortunately the tide is changing thanks to the contemporary work of Dan Parent, Paul Kupperberg and Alex Segura.

So maybe Lucey and Doyle (yep, Schwartz too) will eventually be held up in the same regard as EC Segar and Winsor McCay amongst comics historians. I hope so. They certainly deserve to be.


Nate Cook: Just off the top of my head...

We know all about Will Eisner, but what about his partner, Iger (did I spell that right?)? Was he also a cartoonist? What did he do? Why did Eisner see him as a good partner? What did he do after comics?

For early comics artists, what about Fred Guardineer (thanks for the creator/character posts... that's what made me think of him). Seems like he had an unusual style, not quite as out there as Fletcher Hanks, but weird and cool, yet I don't know much about him or what he did (Zatara aside ... there was that extremely weird "Moon Man" strip on Lambiek).

I find that there's not that much info out there on British comics ... not like with Japanese or French ones. Maybe Paul Gravett would be a good example of an underappreciated chronicler of such things?

Speaking of, I'd love to see some kind of in-depth article about Chris Reynolds (besides the great Seth piece... that was a while ago, and I'd like to see a process-type post on how he does that unusual art of his ... also, what is going on with his kindle-only comics now?) and also a process post on James Turner, who may be one of the only guys doing all-computer artwork (NiL, Rex Libris, etc.).

That's all I got right now!


Evan Dorkin: I've always been interested in who the really good and influential and maybe even inspirational editors are that have worked in comics. People who actually make the work better and put together projects and creators or creative teams. Editing is a misunderstood job and role in comics, it doesn't get much real attention other than when Big-2 editors are taken to task by fans or they hop on a message board to act poorly. Editors are rarely part of the equation when things get praised, at least as far as I see it. We blame editors when something goes wrong. I don't think the fans and readers and even some creators know what really goes on in the offices, and not just the mainstream offices. Artists discuss process and tools, writers put their scripts out there, colorists and letterers and graphic artists show off tutorials -- what do editors do? How do they do it? Who's good at actual editing and not just scheduling and pushing papers around? There aren't many editors who get talked about like creators, many of them who do get some attention are usually also artists or writers, Kurtzman, Feldstein, Goodwin, Kanigher and the like (or they're characters or bogeymen, like Weisinger or Kanigher). There are editors who really do exemplary work, protect their talent, nurture their books, go to bat for the medium and care about what they're doing to an extent where they are actively shaping the comics landscape. And there's also people putting together archival collections at D&Q, FBI, IDW and elsewhere, some of whom do get press and acknowledgement. Maybe this is another conversation, but editors and editing are a conversation we rarely seem to have, for obvious reasons, most folks don't talk about book or magazine editors save for a few names. But if the same names appear on a lot of the books you read, those editors might have more to do with what you're enjoying than just calling people up and saying "Where's the pages?". And I bet the same can be said for some publishers we don't talk about much other than being "the publisher."

I'm not naming names only because I don't want to just list people I've worked with and like, which seems like a suck-up, but that's the extent of my knowledge. I have had a fairly limited experience with editors, I tend to work with the same people a lot. So if you look at my books, especially from the past decade or so, you'll know who I mean.

Also: There are great con organizers and promoters out there. They're not all Gareb Shamus. The good cons are a sort of backbone to the industry, more so now that ever, perhaps. Sheldon Drum of Heroes Con runs a great show that feels like a community gathering every year. Chris Butcher and crew at TCAF, a blessing in the North America scene. I'm sure there are others but I've been doing very few shoes for some time now and have fallen off the circuit.

Although I don't work with SLG anymore, Dan Vado has brought a lot of talent into the business, put out a lot of fun books, pushed the areas and venues where comics were being sold and seen, and started doing dedicated small press shows with APE before SPX and others revved up, among other things. He took a lot of beatings trying to help the cause of comics and got taken for granted for it much of the time. I don't think people ever gave him enough credit for what he did and tried to do.

Also: the people who process the checks are often the most important people in this business.



John Platt You asked this right after Mark Evanier announced the death of Josie DeCarlo, wife of Dan and inspiration for the iconic leader of the Pussycats. As Mark put it, "Josie continued to promote [Dan's] name and work" after he died. Supportive spouses or partners like that can mean so much to either help creators create or to keep their memory alive after they have died. (I'm also thinking about Jeannie Schulz here.)

But what about relationships that bring more pain than pleasure or support? Look at Carl Barks' disastrous second marriage. I think it could be argued that we'd never have had the genius of Carl Barks if not for the escape his artwork and storytelling provided from his abusive alcoholic wife, Clara. Barks himself said he was divinely inspired during this period, and the stories he told then, born of this period of personal pain, remain classics.

I don't think Clara Barks or people like her should ever be "appreciated," but sometimes the negative forces in our lives need to be acknowledged.


imageRob Goodin: Harvey Eisenberg comes to mind when I think of underappreciated cartoonists. He was a flat out master draftsman and storyteller and it's difficult to find out anything about him or even which comics he drew.

Perhaps a subcategory that may or may not count are Europeans that are almost unknown in America that shouldn't be: Martin Tom Dieck, Blutch, and Ludovic Debeurme. Ludovic finally had a book published by Top Shelf last year so maybe his fortunes are changing.


Roman Muradov: I'm not a proper funnybook person to have important opinions, but the subjects resonates with me deeply. These three I think are criminally underrated:

1. Vincent Giard
2. Richard Short
3. Tim Hensley (Wally Gropius)


Sean T. Collins: Ha, I was ready to click on over to Gmail and send you an email with the header "Ryan Sands" until I got to the very last line of your post. I can't think of anyone who's more convincingly demonstrated the commonalities between alternative manga of whatever stripe and the contemporary alt/art comics of North America; he is clearly a genius-level printer and zinemaker; he's been instrumental in the rise of many of my favorite young/new cartoonists; he loves Lady Gaga and smut and was tapped to guest-edit a women's comics anthology despite being a not-woman.

Tom Devlin's a giant figure, I think, and it's been fascinating to watch him fold his own fully formed aesthetic into that of another publisher with an aesthetic just as distinct without compromising either. Plus, I like to think of Peggy Burns scrambling to pry his hands off the briefly unguarded D&Q twitter account the way I have to run down the hall into the kitchen to keep my crawling baby from eating out of the cat food dish.

Dan Nadel, and the PictureBox/Comics Comics/nu-Journal braintrust in general, may actually get the amount of appreciation they deserve, but perhaps not the kind of appreciation they deserve? You look at what he/they said/published and look at what the people who rose up in their wake did, specifically regarding the reclamation of genre, and it's apparent they're a class by themselves.

I'm always going to say that Phoebe Gloeckner is one of the Great Cartoonists, even if at this point she's the Great Cartoonist that got away. I know her influence on people like Lisa Hanawalt is profound, and barely ever discussed; her willingness to go there, wedded to such rigorous and relentlessly emotional and traumatic memoir material, makes her work a powerful permission slip for cartoonists to go just as far, more so than anyone since Crumb. Meanwhile her mix of prose, illustration, and comics in The Diary of a Teenage Girl grows increasingly prescient.


Brian Brown: Tony Shenton!

This dude gets everyone's mini-comics into stores! No one else does what he does really.


imageMark Andrew Smith: I think that Sergio Aragones is under appreciated as well as Kazuo Umezu. Also Daniel Torres is one of my all-time favorites.


Jonathan La Mantia: This one is a tough question -- great and terrible. Without going into the laundry list of everyone I know, making it sound like a lot of sucking up -- I'd say I'm most interested in some of the founders of now defunct publishing houses, distributors, and the early fanzine publishers.

As far as naming them it's tough -- I came across Underwood-Miller when I finally got the Berni Wrightson book, A Look Back (Wrightson is someone I would be going on and on about right now -- had you not asked us not get into fan-boy mode) the book is just phenomenal and it looked like Underwood-Miller really had a great catalog of very well presented special editions- I'd love to know more about them. Denis Kitchen and Kitchen Sink Press is another one -- there's a lot of history and well known titles -- and now I'm looking it up, I really hate to say that I didn't know he was the founder of the CBLDF (if I did at one point completely forgot -- I'm going to go with that one). Phil Seuling and his East Coast Seagate Distribution, New Media/Irjax, and Pacific Comics -- names that now that I'm actually thinking about them and looking them up there seems to be a good amount of information available- I'd say if anyone reading is interested in learning about the formation of the direct market -- there are worse ways to spend an evening. Finally, Bhob Stewart is someone who seems to have a fair amount of credits to his name but I didn't know anything about him until I went looking for fanzine publishers.

As you said, the industry is fraught with hard working individuals who sometimes fall through the cracks in history, the ones who paved the way end up getting paved over. The good thing about our current technology is the one of the easiest ways to find out more about someone is look them up online. If you're lucky that person you think should be getting more credit is also using that social network you're always on, and you can tell them directly how happy you are for their contributions. I recommend doing it now -- before they're not around any more to take the compliment.


this group think is now closed

posted 2:20 pm PST | Permalink

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