This “Palmer’s Picks” installment from Wizard #13 was the (almost) last of the “buffet-style” articles where I would give readers a sampling of alternative comics based around a theme. For this column, the topic was horror, probably because it was Wizard‘s thirteenth issue. I’m fairly certain that I came up with the idea to focus on horror or weird comics instead of being told by my editor to do so. Editorial direction at this early stage of the game was basically non-existent. Wizard was still finding its footing, so it was another year or so until the magazine was run a bit more professionally. While Wizard’s version of “professional” was still miles away from real-world publishing, there were some nice, little perks like comp copies sent to interview subjects and editors who would return your phone calls and let you know if there was a theme to the issue for your next column.
Another sign of Wizard’s growing pains was the occasional wonky design choice. Hence the weird new “Palmer’s Picks” logo for this issue, complete with telescoping letters and multiple radial gradiants. You’ll have to remember that desktop publishing was still a new thing in the early ’90s, so the urge to decorate a logo with a bunch of “fancy” bells and whistles was strong. Luckily, the new logo wouldn’t last too long before the column got a redesign that gave it a more polished look.
The big milestone for this “Palmer’s Picks” is that I got to mention the decidedly adults-only Yummy Fur. Sure, I had recommended other “mature” fare like Taboo before, but the fact that I wrote about the notorious “Ed the Happy Clown” story and didn’t shy away from explaining how Ed had the face of Ronald Reagan attached to the end of his dick is pretty amazing. I guess that’s one advantage of not having strong editorial guidance!
I mentioned earlier that this was the almost last themed “Picks” because there were a few more scattered through the life of the column, including a two-part focus on mini-comics in issues 26 and 27, as well as the occasional Christmas-themed or year-in-review column. But the general rule of thumb after this issue is that I would focus on a single creator and let the reader know why they deserved more recognition. The column would go through a few more significant changes as it went along, but that would be the general format after this issue.
As far as the writing goes this time, it’s not terrible. It’s not the best either; it’s just kinda there. I was quickly learning that it was important to pick a topic that you wanted to write about, and then say your piece and get out of there. There’s no need to overexplain things, you’ll just end up typing nonsense to fill up some arbitrary word count. The key thing that stands out to me about this column is that I think I picked four good examples. You can’t go wrong with such now-legendary artists like Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, Jim Woodring, and Charles Burns. When I wrote this, they were all established creators with their own unique styles, but they were still not as widely-known as they are today. Key works like Clowes’ Ghost World or Burns’ Black Hole hadn’t been published. I would later profile each of the four in their own full-length columns in later issues of Wizard, and I even had the chance to interview Charles Burns. It was a big missed opportunity that I didn’t interview the other three.
by Tom Palmer Jr.
There is an increasing trend in comics today toward horror stories, with Marvel launching a horror line to fit into the Marvel Universe, and a growing interest in the already established DC horror line. While most traditional horror comics use increased amounts of bloodshed and gore to disturb the reader, there are a small group of artists who draw unsettling artwork by relying on disturbing images that challenge the reader’s senses. Not necessarily horror artists, their work ranges from surreal, dream-like journeys to bizarre, grotesque deformities, as evident in Eightball by Dan Clowes, Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, Jim by Jim Woodring, and “Big Baby” by Charles Burns.
Dan Clowes has crafted an unusual story through his “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron” serialized in Eightball. The story follows Clay Loudermilk through a series of bizarre situations that begin to connect as the plot progresses. Seemingly insignificant details end up being part of a larger story, like a “Mr. Jones” icon (a small smiley face with a hat to one side) which shows up on a few signs in the background of one installment and turns out to be part of an alleged conspiracy in a later episode. Clowes has used Loudermilk’s wanderings to confront the reader with some peculiar images by taking ordinary occurrences and adding surreal, nightmarish details. For instance, Clay runs into an old friend who has an eye infection and must place sea crustaceans in his eye-sockets to eat out the bacteria. Also, some of the supporting characters in “Velvet Glove” include a dog with no orifices that must be fed by a syringe full of water, and a girl named Tina who is a repulsive half-human, half-fish mutation. Aside from the continuing chapters of “Velvet Glove”, Eightball includes some self-contained autobiographical stories where Clowes voices his opinion on such subjects as the comics industry and the latest trends in fashion and popular culture.
Yummy Fur has been around since the early 1980s when Chester Brown collected some of his short comic stories into some mini-comics. By 1986, his work began to be noticed and he was approached by Vortex Comics to repackage the minis and continue the series. Chester accepted and began to connect his short stories together into a larger story called “Ed the Happy Clown.” It followed Ed through a serious of pitiful, unfortunate mishaps. While walking down the street, Ed accidentally breaks his own leg. To further add to his misfortunes, Ed later gets thrown in jail for finding a detached hand under his pillow, gets shot at by vampire hunters, and is kidnapped by pygmies who live underground. But worst of all, in a bizarre accident, he gets the head of the president attached to a certain part of his anatomy that I cannot mention in this wholesome magazine. Needless to say, Yummy Fur contains some graphically surreal material that isn’t suited to everyone’s tastes. However, Brown wrapped-up the Ed saga in issue #18 of the series, so that he could produce more down-to-earth autobiographical stories. He still deals with some strong subjects, but his work now seems to be more firmly set in reality.
Another artist who deals with dream-like images and subjects is Jim Woodring. In his appropriately titled magazine, Jim, he oftentimes prints stories and text pieces. Also, the nightmares that produced these creations have been the subjects of some of the comics in Jim. These stories have been so off-beat and confusing that Woodring once offered a guide to help readers through an issue. Woodring’s most widely recognized creation, Frank, wanders through lush dreamscapes in various pantomime adventures in magazines other than Jim, like Buzz and Tantalizing Stories. In his wanderings, he usually encounters his arch-nemesis, Man-Hog, and eventually outwits him through a series of strange, meandering feats.
In addition to drawing from his nightmares, Charles Burns is inspired by the culture of his youth during the 1950s and the ’60s. His work is full of monsters, aliens, insects, mutants, robots, wrestlers, strange transformations, teen plaques, and mole men, all symbols from the movies, TV shows, and comics of the period Burns grew up in. He is able to combine all of these elements to create some disturbing images and ideas, such as faces with their skin partially seared away, one-eyed aliens who take over the bodies of teenagers, and a small rash that soon encompasses the entire body of its victims; all of which are enhanced by Bums’ clean, stark ink style. Bums’ stories have appeared in various anthologies throughout the ’80s, such as Raw, Heavy Metal, and Taboo, featuring such characters as El Borbah, Dog Boy, and Big Baby. Recently, Bums has taken a copy of the Marvel Try-Out Book (an unfinished comic printed on art paper designed to recruit new talent) and added his own deviant touch to Aunt May, Doc Ock, and Spider-Man. Burns currently works on a weekly Big Baby comic strip for alternative newspapers, and his work has even appeared on the album cover to Iggy Pop’s Brick by Brick, and the cover of Time magazine.
Although these comics all sound really out there, with their bacteria-eating crustaceans, talking body parts, and one-eyed mutants, they are still comprehensible. The artists use traditional themes and concepts, but use their own strange creative talents to breathe new life into old topics and take stale ideas in new directions. While all of their work might not be for you, there will be at least one drawing of theirs that’ll stick in your mind as being unusually disturbing.
Eightball is published three times a year by Fantagraphics Books. #[email protected]&!, a collection of earlier Clowes work from Loyd Llewellyn, and Lout Rampage!, a book of all of the non-“Velvet Glove” stories in Eightball are also available. All eight issues of Eightball and the two books can be bought from the Fantagraphics catalogue by writing to Fantagraphics Books, 7563 Lake City Way Northeast, Seattle WA 98115.
Yummy Fur is published quarterly by Drawn and Quarterly at Drawn and Quarterly Publications,
4550 Boyer Street, Montreal, Quebec H2J 3E4, Canada. The mini-comics are completely gone, but select copies of the first 24 issues as well as a collection of the “Ed the Happy Clown” story are available from Vortex Comics Inc., P. O. Box 471458, Charlotte, NC282247.
Jim was published by Fantagraphics. All four issues except for the second are available from the above address. “Frank” has appeared in Buzz from Kitchen Sink Press (see below for the address), Pictopia #2 from Frantagraphics (see above) and in Frank In the River from Tundra. Tantalizing Stories (featuring work by Mark Martin as well) will be available bi-monthly this fall from Tundra Publishing Ltd.,
320 Riverside Drive, Northampton, MA 01060.
Charles Burns’ work is published in a bunch of different places. Hard Boiled Defective Stories (containing El Borbah) and issues of Raw (with “Big Baby”) are published by Raw/Pantheon Books and can be obtained from Catalan Communications at
49 East 19th Street, NY 10003. A handful of back issues of Taboo are available from Tundra. Anything before the fourth volume can only be obtained on the secondary market. The original hardcover Curse of the Moleman (with “Big Baby”) is gone, but a color edition as well as copies of Buzz (with “Naked Snack”) can be purchased from the Kitchen Sink Catalogue from Kitchen Sink Press, 2 Swamp Road, Princeton, WI 54968.