Friday, June 22, 2018

FFB: ESQUIRE'S WORLD OF HUMOR edited by Lewis W. Gillenson (Esquire/Harper & Row, 1964); TRUMP: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION (ESSENTIAL KURTZMAN, V. 2) edited by Denis Kitchen (Dark Horse, 2016); THE BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2015 edited by Jonathan Lethem and Bill Kartalopoulos (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)

Anthologies of humor remain a tricky thing. In 1964, Lewis W. Gillenson, former editor of Coronet and about to begin his career, in 1966 as VP and Editor-in-Chief at Grosset and Dunlap, as boss editor at a number of different publishing houses before his death in 1992, was allowed to survey the backfiles of Esquire, a magazine which had, like The New Yorker before it, established itself with the aim of at least secondarily being a home for humor and wit, while in its case being a handsome, sophisticated magazine for men. Esquire staffer David Newman was tasked with writing the chapter introductions and running commentary through the book, so that Gillenson was not required (or perhaps was not trusted) to explain why his selections were so much more redolent of Coronet than what we might've expected from a selection from Esquire...
You might think, given that Harold Hayes's editorship had already made its mark with the magazine by 1965, revivifying it from the relatively anodyne magazine it had managed to become in the mid '50s, as former staffer and Esquire fanboy Hugh Hefner pushed the Esquire model further into a would-be hip but earnest salaciousness with his new magazine, that a coffee-table book devoted to Esquire's thirty years of often very impressive publication might dig heavily into the contributions of the likes of Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, and all the old crowd that might've had stronger ties to other magazines, such as James Thurber and H. L. Mencken, as well as the new lions such as Dan Greenburg and at least some of the New Journalism finding a supportive nursery in the magazine...but, instead, you get a Whole Lot of David Newman. Most of it not bad, but also not all that compelling. Even given he was about to co-script Bonnie and Clyde with fellow Esquire staffer Robert Benton.

And when you don't get David Newman, who with Benton also manage to cough up a rather remarkably fogeyish parody of Mad magazine as it was ca. 1964 , less than ingeniously titled Bad, much of the point of which being how nihilistic as well as gauche the rather restrained and bland Mad of that era was. There are single pieces each from Parker and Lardner and Thurber and Jules Feiffer and Ed Fisher and Jessica Mitford and Philip Roth and Harvey Kurtzman and David Levine and Mencken (and George Jean Nathan profiling Mencken) and  Terry Southern's minor classic "Twirling at Ole Miss" ...the major intrusion of what Esquire was becoming famous for in the pages...even Newman, as original writer of the Hayes-commissioned (and apparently a Harvard Lampoon concept in the Hayes years there) "Dubious Achievement Awards" beginning in 1962, is not represented by any of those then-available pieces...and not by any means because excessively topical pieces have been eschewed. And the selection of single-panel cartoons at the back of the book is somewhat surprisingly Off, as well, most of them feeling like New Yorker rejects of the time, though Gahan Wilson's sole representative work is unsurprisingly a highlight. Gloria Steinem, from about the period she was assistant editor of Kurtzman's Help! magazine (where she was succeeded by Terry Gilliam, before it folded and he draft-dodged to England) does contribute some wit to the "service" article for university freshmen, "The Student Prince", in collaboration with Benton, who is also overrepresented.

I hope to provide an index to this one soon, as no one else online seems to have done so.
But before Kurtzman was to begin editing Help! at the penny-pinching Warren Publications, or going broke after self-funding Humbug with his fellow staffers, but not long after leaving Mad when William Gaines wouldn't allow him partial ownership of the newly reformatted magazine, he was able to produce two 1957 issues (and get started on a never-released third) of Trump, a magazine which had no relation to our current lampoon of a U.S. president. Lavishly funded by Kurtzman fan and not-quite-pro-level cartoonist Hugh Hefner (someone's joke was that Trump had an unlimited budget, but still managed to exceed it), Trump strove to be adult in ways that Mad had never quite allowed itself to be, and was the first project where Kurtzman was able to work extensively with such similar spirits as Arnold Roth (one of the partners in the immediate successor Humbug)...published on slick paper in full color, and costing a somewhat prohibitive 50c a copy, the simple freedom to do what they wanted often seemed to work against the perfectionist Kurtzman...the two issues were published several months apart, in what was meant to be a bimonthly to start. Not having the impetus to produce more work more regularly also perhaps resulted in the feeling most readers get that the magazine didn't get to shake itself down, to find a firm footing in what it was hoping to achieve, compared to the other Kurtzman magazines...but this lavishly produced facsimile volume, featuring the two issues, some of the roughs and first drafts of material from them and the prospective third issue, and commentary by project editor Dennis Kitchen and others is a handsome and valuable book...but not one, as one moves from piece to piece in the archive here, very often compellingly funny, even when achingly well-done.  A brief piece from Playboy hyping the new magazine is excerpted rather than run in full, which seems odd, given the Playboy branding (perhaps meant to diffuse the damage to the Trump title by 2016); Hefner's publishing company was running into some financial pushback by the time of Trump's second issue, and perhaps Hefner was also not too pleased by sales reports, but, as everyone notes, he did donate what had been Trump's rented office space in New York to  Kurtzman and company for use till the lease ran out as homebase for the slightly more durable Humbug...

While Jonathan Lethem is a frequently brilliant writer, and a lifelong enthusiast of comics (he draws as well as writes his very funny comic strip of an introduction to this tenth annual volume, having just, as he notes, published his first scripts in professional comics), he (as he might insist, himself) was perhaps the least qualified guest editor the series had up to that point, and further admits that he's been particularly unengaged with "mainstream" or large-publisher, narrative-driven, mostly superhero-featuring they, and most of the kinds of comics those publishers will also offer, including crime-fiction and horror comics, are largely missing from this volume. And while that in itself isn't crippling...there's a lot of good work done in other modes in the comics field, and most of that in more need of exposure than the large publishers' work, for the most part...the heavy reliance in this volume on excerpts from graphic novels and other longer works, and almost no complete works as presented, makes for a less satisfying experience, if, again, a set of valuable pointers.  And leading off with Roz Chast and Jules Feiffer does tend to set the bar high, even for such fellow veterans as Peter Bagge. 

Unlike the first two volumes above, not everything here strives at all for humor, but much of it does, and much of that succeeds...rather better than the cover image, as cute a notion as it is (Raymond Pettibon's Ignatz Mouse drawing on the back cover is rather better)...

From WorldCat:

The Best American Comics 2015

Editor:Jonathan Lethem
Publisher:Boston : Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

Mom and dad. 

Can't we talk about something more pleasant? (excerpt) / Roz Chast ; 
Kill my mother (excerpt) / Jules Feiffer 

Superheroes détourned.
Theth (excerpt) / Josh Bayer ; 
Sadistic comics / R. Sikoryak ; Mathilde's story / Diane Obomsawin ; 
Blane throttle (excerpt) / Ben Duncan 

The wrenchies (excerpt) / Farel Dalrymple ; 
Prometheus / Anders Nilsen ; 
Palm ash / Julia Gfrörer ; 
The good witch, 1947 / Megan Kelso 

No tears, no sorrow / Eleanor Davis ; 
Pretty smart / Andy Burkholder ; 
The Colombia diaries, Sept 14-16 (excerpt) / Gabrielle Bell 

You might even hang them on your wall. 
No title (I was fumbling), no title (the credits rolled), and no title (as we can) / Raymond Pettibon ; 
Lâcher de chiens / Henriette Valium ; 
Pythagoras / Ron Regé, Jr. ; 
76 manifestations of American Destiny (exerpt) / David Sandlin ; 
Cretin keep on creep'n creek / Mat Brinkman ; 
briefly, before dawn / Rosaire Appel 

Biopics and historical fictions. 
selections from Hip hop family tree / Ed Piskor ; 
Woman rebel : the Margaret Sanger story (excerpt) / Peter Bagge ; 
The Great War (excerpt) / Joe Sacco 

Working the cute nerve. 
Fran (excerpt) / Jim Woodring ; 
Little Tommy lost : book one (excerpt) / Cole Closser ; 
Mimi and the wolves (excerpt) / Alabaster ; 
Pockets of temporal disruptions (excerpt) from Safari honeymoon / Jesse Jacobs ; 
Misliving amended / Adam Buttrick 

Raging her-moans. 
My year of unreasonable grief (part four) (excerpt) from Lena Finkle's magic barrel / Anya Ulinich ; 
Someone please have sex with me / Gina Wynbrandt ; 
After school (excerpt) from Unloveable, vol.3 / Esther Pearl Watson 

The way we live now. 
Informanics (exerpt) / Matthew Thurber ; 
Cross delivery, Screw style, How did you get in the hole?, The pen, and We can't sleep from The hole / Noel Freibert ; 
Comets comets / Blaise Larmee ; 
Crime chime noir / A. Degen

No class (excerpt) from School spirits / Anya Davidson ; 
Net gain, Swiping at branches, and The perfect match / Kevin Hooyman ; Behold the sexy man! from Well come / Erik Nebel.

***For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog...

Panel dedicated to Trump at the 2016 New York Comic Con. From left to right: John Lind, Denis Kitchen, Arnold Roth, Al Jaffee and moderator Bill Kartalopoulos.


George said...

You're right about humor collections being chancy enterprises. One person's side-splitter is another person's yawn. ESQUIRE published high-grade humor for years. I remember a Harlan Ellison cover story in ESQUIRE with the eye-catching cover of a woman in a garbage can. That wouldn't fly today!

Todd Mason said...

Illustration for the story, or cover image? Well, ESQUIRE in the '60s was Trying to Provoke...and sexism and other chauvinism did tweaking it...