Comics / Essays / Notes & Observations

Essay: A la recherche du comics perdu

How is it the older one gets the more guilty pleasures one accrues?  Lachlan Myers’ piece here on comics on the web unleashed a flood of memories about reading comic books when I was a kid.  I will refrain from invoking a certain asthmatic, but it must be said that recalling reading Phantom comics at the barber’s hit me harder than a soggy madeleine.

Visits to the barber in the 1960s were frequent enough to keep up with the Phantom’s adventures and now, thank you Lachlan, I can revisit the barber’s: the little wooden bench placed on the red and chrome chair to raise me up, the unearthly blue liquid which I supposed sterilised the combs, the shroud up to my neck that reduced me to a head to be tilted and combed, the inevitable nick from the hand clippers, the smell of California Poppy.  And the Phantom, so perfectly outlined and so papally purple (although I hadn’t quite arrived at that understanding).  I always wanted a crew cut like Chip or Sonny or Jeff in American TV shows, but no, I always ended up looking like Beaver.

Pinback, circa 1960

Leave it to him…(Wikipedia)

Cartoon drawing is mesmerising; we quickly learn to read life into the merest of outlines and sketches.  It’s quite amazing how the young mind understands the crudest of representations to mean a world of possibilities.  We forget that children invest big time in fantasy and I wonder, do we ever permit that investment to pay off for us later in life?  Our tastes ‘mature’ while our childhood pleasures mildew with disuse.

Graduating to Tin Tin ups the ante on the art of line drawing and colour, naturally preparing us for the adult pleasures of Hokusai, Hiroshige and the floating world that is Japanese woodblock printing.  Hokusai’s waves are everywhere—T-shirts, panel vans, beach safety signs, toilet cleansers—but I revert back to Tin Tin and Hergé’s predecessors, because revisiting childhood pleasures is so intensely about oneself, which is why we feel guilty about them I guess.

While there is much that is odious about Disney fantasies, the adventures of Mickey Mouse in comic book form I remember as quite innocent and naïve, or was that because I was?  What extraordinary joy I got from looking at a frame of Mickey bouncing along in his car, the yellow road winding away over the hills behind him, or seeing Grandma Duck in her electric car; a simple tall black box on four wheels yet so possible!

Contrast these still windows into harmless fantasy with Disney’s animated film Bambi, a gratuitous piece of animal cruelty unmatched until Ang Lee’s Life of Pi came along to remind us that no amount of cinematic magic can erase the memory of a stupid book.  I could never again watch Bambi, but I doubt it has more look-away moments than Life of Pi has.

And while on the subject of post-Disney traumatic disorder, I am still considering a class action for subjecting kids like me to the scene of a mother mountain lion getting her back broken in an avalanche in a Sunday night Disney documentary.

Little Dot

An influence on Damien Hirst? (Wikipedia)

At the risk of causing the reader further distress, I also bring up the issue of a Little Lotta and her friends from Harvey Comics.  Just revisiting her on Wikipedia brings back worse flashbacks than Robert Crumb could ever engender.  Perhaps it’s because I’m Australian (cue I love a sunburnt country) that I have recurring flashes of a Little Dot cartoon in which she dreams she has a flower in a garden that is wilting from thirst.  She runs up to it with a glass of water, trips and spills it all. Little Dot wakes up from her dream—I’ll settle for costs for a lifetime’s therapy please.

What have comics done to us? I don’t understand people who don’t read them or can’t enjoy them.  I suspect we all have an identity that is sourced from the comics we have grown up with; or has the Simpsons and similar prime time animated adventures replaced the intensely private experience of pressing your nose into a comic book?  The Simpsons are a fair trade off for the comic book and I’m not sure where I’d go as an adult to read a comic book.

Tin Tin...?

Tin Tin (strawberryface)

Art Siegelman’s Maus is a landmark in adult comics, oops, graphic novels.  I remember it in colour, but I flick it open now and it is all black and white.  Memory colours.  Being something of an adult, I still find Tin Tin a timeless and guiltless read, although Hergé’s questionable past as a boy scout Nazi sympathiser (I’m sure that’s not quite right on a number of levels) does give a frisson of dubiety to rereading him.  An annual guilty pleasure of mine is to watch the French film productions of Tin Tin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece and Tin Tin and the Blue Oranges.  Made in the early 1960s they are perfectly cast—Jean-Pierre Talbot is an ideal Tin Tin (and strangely hot) —there is not one sense of the originals being monkeyed with; even Snowy seems to have stepped off the page.  However, neither film started out as a Tin Tin book—bashi bazouks!!

So thanks Lachlan for setting me adrift into comics land.  I checked out some of web comics you linked to and I do think that OMG is a perfectly appropriate response at this juncture.

Nicholas M Tolhurst


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