Signet, Al Jaffee Hogs The Show, written and drawn by Al Jaffee, 1981
I love a good issue of MAD. If you’re a thrift store regular, antique adventurer or pawn shop peruser and you’re on the hunt for some good old fashion MAD you’ve probably come in contact with a book like this. Chances are it left you puzzled as well. Do you buy it, reap the hilarity it offers and throw it away? Do you proudly collect these pocket books, lining them up by author and soaking in their yellowed page glory? Perhaps they are destined for bathroom reading, if that’s your thing. Honestly, I still don’t know what to do with this neat little pocket book.
The one thing that’s certain though is Al Jaffee’s brilliance. He’s a MAD standard and one of the best to boot. His style is simple, round and cartoony. Going against Bill Elder and Sergio Aragones traditions, Jaffee never adds more detail than necessary. You’ll see it only if it serves the joke. His strips often forego background gags, complicated scenery and excess amounts of details (his MAD fold-ins aside, those are ripe with beautiful detail).
With Hogs The Show Jaffee gives us plenty of silent one page gags. Sure not every single one will make you laugh out loud, but the man has a great imagination. You won’t be rolling on the floor, clutching your sides and trying to catch your breath, but you’ll respect each and every idea here. The best bits are when Jaffee gets to write about the workings of comic strips. His take on onomatopoeias is great and explaining the usage of word balloons—if you’re a regular comic reader you’re going to chuckle. His “Sitting Exercises for Cartoonists” alone makes this book worth a getting.
Of course, these pocket books have their faults. Occasionally there’s a gag that takes numerous pages, sometimes with only one picture per page. Flipping through eight pages to get to the punch-line really kills the momentum of the joke. Such is the nature of cramming strips into a tiny book. They feel cheap as well—probably because they are. It’s nowhere near as nice as holding a full sized magazine, but the medium doesn’t ruin the message. Al Jaffee is funny any way you print him.
Marvel Age, Fantastic Four vol.1, written by Sean McKeever, drawn by Makoto Nakatsuka, Gurihiru, Joe Dodd with Derek Fridolfs, Alitha Martinez with David Newbold, 2004
I found this version of Fantastic Four in the kid’s book section at the thrift store, and for 25 cents I simply had a try it. After all, it’s a legitimate Marvel publication; written by an author I know and generally like aimed at an audience that deserves all the comic books they can get.
The Marvel Age imprint was well meaning. Give kids the superheroes they want in easily accessible stories without talking down to them and acting like they are a lesser demographic. Some great things came out of Marvel Age(which would later be called Marvel Adventures). Jeff Parker’s Marvel Adventures: Avengers, for example, is definitely worth checking out.
Unfortunately, this book is a flop. Sean McKeever can be a decent writer, but here he has nothing to say. This digest-sized collection reprints issues 1-4 of Marvel Age: Fantastic Four, which in itself were just modern retellings of the first four issues of Fantastic Four from the 60s. These are the classic stories of yesteryear retold for the modern youth audience. To be fair, the dialogue isn’t bad and the plots are true to the originals–it simply isn’t interesting.
The big strike against this book is the art. While Marvel had the right idea getting McKeever to write, I have no idea what they were thinking in terms of artists–and there are four different art teams at work here! Every issue of this book has different artists and none of them are very good. We start with Makoto Nakatsuka’s faux-manga , then move to Gurihiru’s brand of faux-manga. Issue 3 gives us Joe Dodd who draws a lovely Thing, but also make all the other characters hideous. Issue 4’s Alitha Martinez doesn’t help either as her style tries to get in between what we see in the previous issues. It has a manga influence but errs on the side of American style. Overly digital colours by SotoColor throughout destroy whatever potential the art had. Kids deserve better, even if they prefer manga-influenced styles.
There’s really nothing to recommend here. If you see this book in a thrift shop, buy it and give it to a deserving kid. If they like it, make sure you show them better Fantastic Four issues. Maybe this is a good gateway book? It certainly wasn’t meant for me.
HarperPerennial, Binky’s Guide to Love, written and drawn by Matt Groening, 1994
Let’s move from our pocket books and digests to this beast. Binky’s Guide to Love is a huge square, not too thick but nice and evenly large. It doesn’t fit very nicely with other graphic novels or comic strip collections, but is actually built like a large, hardcover children’s book. This is not, however, a children’s book. No siree.
I, like many of you I’m sure, am only familiar with Matt Groening based on his creation of The Simpsons and Futurama. The fact that he wrote comic strips before the show didn’t surprise me, but when I found out he continued to make them during his peak of popularity, I was surprised. I mean, if these strips came out during the reign of The Simpsons why am I only finding out about them now? Shouldn’t everything this man touched be gold?
Well, Binky’s Guide to Love isn’t gold, that’s for sure, but it is worth a look. Don’t go in expecting Simpsons style comedy either—this one if different.
Reprinting various Life in Hell strips from 1990-1994, Binky’s Guide goes in three different directions. First, there’s Binky (the bunny) and his guide to love. Strips involving Binky are usually lists in the form of a grid, examples being “6 Common Questions” or “What Does Love Feel Like?” They’re always very, very wordy with minimal drawings. When they miss, you often feel like there simply wasn’t a joke. Sometimes the gag runs too long and loses you halfway. When they hit, though, they can be downright hysterical. For every three failed jokes there’s at least one that will win you over. Sometimes even a single panel from a large, full page is all that works, but ultimately that one panel will have you laughing for a good while.
Another stream of gags revolves around Akbar and Jeff, two identical, homosexual, fez adorned… men? They’re catalysts more than anything, void of obvious character and put to use simply for the sake of the joke. Often they’ll be fighting, solving their ambiguous arguments in unexpected ways. Honestly, while I found a laugh or two in their pages, I felt these guys fell flat. When 15/16 panels on a single page are all exactly the same, with the final panel attempting some sort of punch-line, I have to sigh. It comes off as lazy, not funny. Akbar and Jeff strips a
lways seem to take too long to go nowhere, but surprising I think they’ve grown on me. Each strip, on its own merits, isn’t very good but when you put them all together there’s an overarching attitude that I grew to like. I still find the jokes to be rather weak, but also make me smile every now and again.
The third (and unfortunately small) stream of strips is based on Groening and his family. His simple “kids see it this way” or “being a new parent is funny because” perspective is great. Groening envisions his family as bunnies in the Binky mould and it works. These strips feel honest, heartfelt, relatable and never corny. I wish more of these strips were in this collection because what we get is gold.
All together there’s a lot to like about Binky’s Guide to Love. Often the picture:word ratio is way off, but if you read through an entire strip chances are you’ll laugh at least once. If it misses the mark, there’s probably a slightly better gag on the next page. It takes patience, but I think this collection is definitely worth grabbing for cheap.