One of the most interesting cartoonists of the underground era is Frank Stack, a.k.a Foolbert Sturgeon. You may know his work as illustrator of Harvey Pekar’s Our Cancer Year, or from his underground comics classic The New Adventures of Jesus, and if you’ve read either book you’ve seen Stack’s rather unique drawing style. Foolbert-slash-Frank draws like nobody else in comics, in blobby abstract shapes that imply humanity as much as directly show it. His people feel undefined even when they are tightly defined, implying a curious moral complexity (or maybe just the sort of lack of definition that some of us feel in our lives) that flows from their heads into their bodies.
It’s fascinating reading Foolbert Funnies because it alternates between the kind of pleasant vagueness that he conveys in a page such as the one above, and more intense or deeply detailed material that brings a scene wonderfully to life. His material swings back and forth between two poles, sometimes in the same stories, giving everything an intriguing sense of interior/exterior dichotomy.
One of the strongest pieces in this collection tells the story of the madness of Vincent Van Gogh – an appropriate topic for Stack to tackle because he was a longtime professor of art at the University of Missouri. In this longish tale, the difference between the subjective interior world of Van Gogh and the objective exterior world is essential to the narrative that Stack relates, and scenes like the one below do an outstanding job of conveying the manner in which Van Gogh wrestled with his demons.
The thick lines used above; eyebrows too thick, eyes bleeding with light, force lines extending from the figure, overlapping the panel borders, convey the overwhelming power of Van Gogh’s madness in a way that Stack’s more willowy lines do not. This is a sharp contrast with his “Amazons” strip (in which a group of Athenians confront some Amazon warriors on patrol for their rival Athens). In the “Amazons” tale I kept wanting the story to be more engaging, for more events to be right in the reader’s face and conveying intense action. Instead, even in this dramatic climax, when an Amazon warrior bites Achilles’s heel, the action feels muted.
This makes for an intriguing contrast to super-hero comics, where every event is magnified to an infinite degree and every moment makes for high energy and drama. There’s a sense in “Amazons” that Stack is deliberately downplaying the action in the scene. Why else would he shove an important moment such as the stabbing into the extreme foreground of a very open panel, with cross-cut lines appearing above the action as if to obscure it slightly?
Stack is clearly following his own vision for comic art as shown in Foolbert Funnies. A wonderful piece about William Shakespeare writing the King James Bible follows its own rather unique pace, breaking many of the rules of classical comics storytelling but doing so in logical ways, and thus forcing the reader to work to understand the meaning of an extreme close-up at a moment when we might expect a midrange shot, or to interpret pages like the one below, which mixes deep detail in the middle panel with far too much text on either side of it.
The overall effect here is a little bit like trying to read from right to left or to drive on the other side of the road: it takes some mental readjustment to really understand what Stack is doing, but he is making his decisions for his own idiosyncratic reasons. He understands the comics medium and how to tell a story. His style may be different from that of most artists but like many artists who have worked in the Academy, he takes his own very specific road to enlightenment.
But, you know, the more I try to make Stack sound high-minded, the more I think of ridiculously silly strips like his piss-take on the Phantom as a frustrated father of a slacker son who refuses to give a shit about carrying on his dad’s bloodline.
I love the son’s obnoxious insolence on the page above, his long birdlike nose in panel one that shows a patrician annoyance at being asked to work for a living, his face in panel three showing a lifetime of debauchery and douchebaggery that results in a giant middle finger for dad. Does Stack see himself as the father or the son in this story, or is he just making fun of everyone? Regardless of his attitude, this is a delightfully droll piece of work for a man who was pushing 70 at the time the strip was created. And for a change his characters seem sharply defined in space with each other – the Phantom and his son are clearly on the same plane as each other, pissing each other off.
One of my other favorite pieces in this book chronicles the life of the great Renaissance painter Caravaggio, who painted some of the most beautiful art of his era while living a life of complete depravity. He fought with police officers, associated with bums and prostitutes, cheated his friends and went in and out of jail. And yet he was a genius with the brush. As a nun says, “What was God’s purpose in bestowing so much talent on such an unworthy man?”
In this story, Stack’s loose style works well, implying a looseness and density to Caravaggio’s moral code while Stack also illustrates the world around the great artist in moody detail. It’s as if the landscape itself comments on the life of the great artist and finds him to be undefined.
Stack’s 1972 “A True Story or a Paranoid Fantasy” is one of the few purely autobiographical stories in the book, and also perhaps most tightly drawn, maybe because Stack himself is a lead character or because he was drawing his house and surroundings, or maybe because he simply felt that way at the time – who’s to say after some forty-plus years?
In its more conventional approach to the material, this suggests an alternate direction in which Stack’s comics career could have gone. He could have presented tighter stories that are less obliquely driven and more action-oriented, with a more autobiographical approach to the material and an approach that readers could more easily embrace at first glimpse.
That’s just daydreaming, and kind of a jerkwad daydream now that I think about it. Underground comics were always about doing your own thing, following your own vision and living your own life. Frank Stack’s comics career went in its own particular direction, and the diversity of comics art that his career represents shows the diversity of our beloved artform.
Foolbert Funnies is a definitive collection of comic art by one of the quirkiest and most intriguing artists to emerge from undergrounds. As a former college art professor, Frank Stack brought a unique approach to his art, blazing his own trail. And what could be more appropriate for an underground comics cartoonist than that?