HERBIE POPNECKER

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Most of these entries are about a single cartoonist; some are about formats or publishers. This is the only one that’s about a character. That’s because he’s the greatest character of the comic book genre, Herbie Popnecker.

He’s a “little fat nothing” who attracts lovers without even trying; however, his only care is lollipops. His speech pattern inspired Watchmen‘s Rorschach, and he spends time hanging out with Dracula and Fidel Castro. And his short comic existence owes itself to two people, Richard Hughes and Ogden Whitney. Hughes supplied the scripts—terse, non-sequiteur, madcap—while Whitney played the “straight man,” rendering everything in a plain, almost bland style. Did they work together on the plots? Or was this just another job for Whitney? Whatever the case, it’s the perfect comic for today’s meme culture.

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William Messner-Loebs

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

For many cartoonists, self-published or small press work is a stepping stone. For whatever reason (financial security, fame, love), they have their eyes on bigger things. In the last decade or two, “bigger things” has included movie deals and publishers like Scholastic, but in the ’80s and ’90s, the goal many cartoonists worked toward was publication by Marvel and DC. (This is a very collapsed view of things, so please forgive the cutting of corners.)

Messner-Loebs was a writer-artist who made a strange historical fiction comic called Journey: The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistair. His drawings are energetic and bulbous, and Journey is evocatively lonely at times. But when Messner-Loebs went to DC to work on Flash and Wonder Woman, it was merely fine; just journeyman superhero work.

Luckily, Messner-Loebs went back to doing his own thing, often with Sam Kieth. They worked together on Epicurus the Sage, a hedonistic treatise on myths and philosophy, and The Maxx, perhaps most well-remembered from MTV’s Liquid Television.

I don’t mean to moralize here, especially when it comes to strangers’ life choices, and I don’t want to wax romantic about work made by struggling artists. I just want to take a moment to admire the strange works that crop up in the corners of comics history.

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Tiny Comics

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

I already wrote about big comics, but I’m in no way size-ist. Where oversize comics can zoom out or shatter time, minicomics provide a sense of intimacy and allow images to own the confines of a page. Their minimal length often forces a cartoonist to leave out any chaff or bloat, focusing on the moments most important to the limited size of the narrative.

Also, they’re really easy to make! Here’s a video, and here’s a longer explanation by cartoonist & educator Jessica Abel. If someone’s interested in starting to make comics but can’t figure out where to start, making a couple minicomics is always a great catalyst.

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Jeremy Sorese

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

Sorese’s Curveball is a neon sherbet future where people love as they please. It’s one of the frankest looks at nonbinary and genderqueer relationships I’ve seen in a comic. That same measured eye is brought to technology; Curveball is a story about how tech brings us together, makes us lonely, and everything in between.

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Also, Sorese writes Steven Universe comics! Which is a perfect fit since it’s a show about queer romance and friendship and vulnerability.

In the library:
Curveball
Steven Universe

Larry Marder

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

I saw ads for Marder’s Beanworld long before I ever read it. It was one of those amazing, meditative obsession I think most kids have; it sparked dozens of what-ifs and hows as I tried to fill in the blanks and figure out what this comic could be about.

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And in Beanworld‘s case, it’s one of the few things that lived up to (or even surpassed) what I imagined it would be. Although it starts as a hazy allegory opposed to big business, it quickly abandons any connection to the real world. The majority of Beanworld is a closed and fantastical ecology and a meditation on art, responsibility, and community. It’s strange and conceptual and loving.

Carla Speed McNeil

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

McNeil’s career is almost entirely defined by a single work: Finder. Since 1996, Finder has been self-published, become a webcomic, and been printed in great, thick library editions by Dark Horse. It’s excellent science fiction, picking at ideas of gender and class that big-budget sci-fi has always been afraid of. And despite its density of world-building, it’s a rollicking tale with action, romance, and humor. But what I really love is McNeil’s lettering.

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From Finder: Talisman

From placement to texture to size and shape, McNeil is constantly flexing muscles that other cartoonists are willing to let lay unexercised.

Walt Simonson

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

For all my indie comic navel-gazing, I still love a well-told superhero story: if someone (and it’s usually just a single someone, not a team) can take their time to tell me about hope, power, responsibility, and morality writ large without resorting to a physical fight or a fist-clenching theater of self-destruction, I’m there. And hey, that’s Walt Simonson.

Coming out of a studio that he shared with Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller, Simonson seems somehow free of the bombast that accompanies the other two. He seems to revel in a tale well-told; he pulls the trigger on plots instead of holding mysteries and plot twists over readers’ heads.

Compared to most mainstream American superhero books, Simonson’s work is almost strangely seamless. He doesn’t seem like an artist who’s trying to write or a writer who’s learning to draw; he’s a storyteller, and the pacing of the art, placement of the dialogue (often with cohort John Workman), and structure of the plot are all inextricable from each other. For an example of this, see Orion‘s 5 x 5 mythic structure (somewhat hindered by the way it’s printed in the omnibus) and Thor‘s self-contained meandering as a hero learns of himself.

And I’ll forever be impressed by his bold (in superhero comics) adoption of shapes and vectors, realism be damned. If the Image Comics founders had stolen Simonson’s storytelling chops along with his “lots of lines” approach, the ’90s would’ve been a lot different.* His work stealthily prepared my brain for more abstract work, such as Margot Ferrick’s Sec (see below).

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Walt Simonson, from Orion #8.

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From Margot Ferrick’s Sec.

* No offense meant to the Image founders. Thanks to Sarah Horrocks, I’m a fervent Rob Liefeld apologist.

Seth Fisher

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

I think I first found Fischer’s work in an issue of Doom Patrol (2001 series) that I bought for $0.50 from a bin in Shinders. I was instantly entranced. I spotted the maybe-influences of Mike Allred, Moebius, and Katsuhiro Otomo, but there was a gonzo sensibility that made it stand out all on its own.

I found some older works of his, standalone graphic novels or the “Prestige” formats from DC that represented a sort of ghetto for artists who were too slow for monthly work or otherwise occupied.

Then it seemed like Fisher’s star was rising. There was a five-part Batman story with the famed JH Williams III. He got a Spider-Man short and a Fantastic Four/Iron Man series. I had stars in my eyes as I imagined him using these mainstream works as a basis for taking off on his own, publishing a creator-owned series or art book or video game.

But it never happened. Fisher died suddenly in 2006, leaving behind a small collection of bright, intricate, and strange comics.

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In heaven, you get to see all of Fisher’s work without the lettering pasted over it.

Jillian Tamaki

[Originally collected as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

I don’t know that I can say anything about Tamaki that hasn’t said better by others. Her rhythm is perfect, her characters are emotive, her approach is flexible, and, well, she’s really really good. Read all about it:

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George Herriman

[Originally written as part of a comic library blog/fundraiser.]

It seems like there’s recently been a large and important uptick in comics that intentionally and forcefully reject the idea of narrative. See, for instance, Kim Jooha’s blog or the “surreal” section of CBLOM (a section heading that I’m not entirely happy with). Non-narrative comics—comics as abstraction, as poetry, as mix tape, and more—make great strides in breaking down the ghetto of comics as a home for genre fiction and memoir.

George Herriman was an early pioneer in tossing narrative verisimilitude out the window. Krazy and Ignatz literally grew out of a previous strip, moving from the basement of a sitcom house into a strip of their own. Editors initially deemed it as unfit for comics sections, so editor William Randolph Hearst put it in his Art & Drama section, giving Herriman a lifetime contract.

It’s a tale as old as time: nonbinary Krazy, a cat, is in love with Ignatz, a mouse. Ignatz seeks to bean Krazy with a brick, which Krazy reads as a “missile of affection.” Ofissa Bull Pupp, a police dog, wants to keep Krazy safe, perhaps out of duty or perhaps out of love.

Across almost 30 years of shifting formats and shapes, the strip iterated around these three like a jazz ballet, developing the mythological symbolism of Coconino County and its dozens of inhabitants. From panel to panel, backgrounds shifted and switched: night became day, urbanity turns to desert, and sun shifts to moon shaped like a dollop of ice cream. Nonsequiter panels sat obstinately in the center of Sunday spreads, and characters spoke in thick regionalisms (maybe descended from Herriman’s Creole heritage); it’s almost as though Krazy Kat defied readability, aiming instead for a state of graceful rhythm.

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