Comic Arf, edited by Craig Yoe, Fantagraphics Books, $19.99.
This is the fourth volume in editor and cartoonist Craig Yoe’s ongoing series of anthologies devoted to lost/obscure cartoons and comics, with a decided emphasis on the sketchy line between high and low art. I’ve been an unabashed admirer of these books since the first volume came out, but I think Comic Arf may be the best one in the series yet.
The highlight of the volume is unquestionably the opening section, a lengthy series of unfinished strips by the great Milt Gross. Done in the late 1920s as a newspaper contest, Gross set up a variety of oddball, slapstick scenarios, leaving the fourth panel blank for readers to send finish and mail in the punchline. The best gag won $25.
Yoe sent a series of these strips out to just about every major cartoonist of note today, from Mort Walker to Mike Mignola to Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb, not to mention Johnny Ryan, Sergio Aragones, Jules Feiffer, Sam Henderson, Bil Keane and many more. It’s a godhonest cavalcade of stars that makes me long for the chance to flip through Yoe’s address book.
There are some nice surprises of course. Ivan Brunetti’s entry turns out to be rather sweet, Spiegelman’s is rather violent and Keane’s is charmingly funny. But the real joy is in seeing how noted cartoonsists rub up against Gross’ decidedly silly aesthetic, often inserting their own noteworthy traits and characters rather than attempting to fit Gross’ style. Mignola ends with a mountainous monster while Emerson provides one of his traditional Citymouth characters. The best one’s I think, attempt to follow Gross’ traditional gag style while taking the joke in some bizarre directions. Mark Newgarden’s contribution is a perfect example and my favorite of the bunch. Considering it was the final gag of the section, it seemed like a fitting note to close on.
The best part, however, are the little biographies at the bottom of the strip where participants are asked to provide their name and brief biographical information. The contributors use the opportunity to provide some really hilarious answers, none more so than Johnny Ryan, who, well, why spoil the gag. It’s better if you discover it yourself.
Yoe follows up that section with a healthy dose of Gross strips, providing a nice sample of the artist’s delightfully ramshackle work. I’m always a bit surprised when people say that Gross is an underrated or obscure artist — I’ve been aware of him since I was a kid and first perused that big Smithsonian collection of comic strips. It’s true though that the man has never had his work collected in any comprehensive fashion whatsoever. If this book inspires some publisher to take up that banner, that would justify this book’s existence alone.
But of course there’s lots more good stuff to be found here. Yoe’s Arf books operate on two levels. First there’s the rarely seen work by well known cartoonists. A bizarre Walt Kelly story involving a little girl who visits a nightmarish slumberland fills that bill nicely, as does a horror tale by Bob Powell (an artist who seems to be going through a renaissance right now — at least online), which falls under the series’ “Cartoonists go to Hell” section.
The second “goal” is to bring to light the work of heretofore obscure or long-forgotten artists. So, as a result, we have: a collection of large, one-panel strips by Dudley Fisher, crammed to the brim with townsfolk gabbing about the latest art exhibit or sledding spot; gag cartoons of Gardner Rea whose thin line provides an almost radical rethinking of how to use white space; the good girl artwork of Guillermo Divito (Yoe seems to have a real affinity for this particular subgenre); and Arch Dale’s cute gnome-like series of small folk comics entitled Doo Dads.
With the exception of Rea, I had never been introduced to any of these artists before, and turning the pages I was in awe of the richness and variety of material placed before me. In his Arf books, Yoe shows us time and again just how much greatness lies buried beneath the surface of what we consider to be the Official History of Comics in the 20th Century. I’m very grateful that he’s unearthing work like this for our modern eyes and hope he keeps doing so for some time to come.