FOREWORD by PES
Wartella’s STRIP SHOW: 25 Years of Comix, Controversy and Copyright Infringement by Michael M. Wartella Copyright © 2014 Dream Factory Animation, a division of Gateway Pictures. All Rights Reserved. Foreword © 2013 by PES Afterword © 2013 by Bobby Harlow Photo Contributions: Magic Bus photo © 2012 by Curtis Wayne Millard King Tuff photo © 2012 by Nicholas Gazin Original newspaper scans provided by Thelma Blitz from Tuli Kupferberg estate. Design by Chris Rubino This monograph may not be reproduced in whole or in part, or stored in a retrieval system and/or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic media or mechanical, (including illustrations, photocopy, film, video recording, internet posting or any other information storage system), without prior written permission from the author and/or publisher.
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FOREWORD by PES PES is an Academy Award-nominated director whose stopmotion films transform familiar objects in unexpected ways.
ack in the mid-90s Wartella and I were students in the art department at the University of Virginia. U.Va has never been known for its fine art program—at the time it was more like a cage for animals who threw paint around. Wartella was one of those animals. So was I.
When teachers assigned paintings, Wartella submitted offensive cartoons. He studied vintage Johnson Smith catalogs and MAD magazines. His senior project was a wearable three-piece suit made entirely of candy. I once caught him sleeping in the studio using a whoopee cushion for a pillow. I liked the dude instantly. His unpronounceable comic strip, Ackxhpaez, appeared in local newspapers and was essentially an excuse to fuck with people. He printed a giant penis in connect-the-dots format, and published fake coupons sending gullible students in droves for free pizzas that didn’t exist. He was a punk cartoonist. After graduating, Wartella and I lost touch. But it wasn’t long before I heard of his success: His comics were syndicated nationally, and soon his animated cartoons were on prime time TV. When we finally reconnected in 2012, the dude hadn’t aged one bit. I wondered if he really was the devil: equal parts anarchist and Mad Hatter, guzzling coffee like he’d been awake for days. He still couldn’t speak quickly enough to keep up with his feverish brain, and I was reminded why I loved the guy in the first place. The force of Wartella’s personality infuses every square inch of his work. He’s crazy, wicked talented and boiling over with ideas. There are a million cartoonists, but only one Wartella. Buy a copy of this book and you’ll see what I mean. PES Santa Monica, 2013
INTRODUCTION: 25 YEARS LATER Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be a cartoonist. In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to draw comics. Now, over twenty-five years since I published my first weekly newspaper cartoon at age ten, I can definitely say it hasn’t been all fun and games. It ain’t easy making a living drawing “funny pitchers,” but you know what? I’m living proof that anything’s possible—if you can manage to keep the dream alive. If I could go back in time and meet that little boy who wanted nothing more than to be a “real artist,” I would tell him to keep drawing, keep dreaming and definitely keep going. I doubt I’d mention the numerous rejections, disappointments and hardships, because ultimately the thrills have easily been worth every painful moment. I don’t know if I’ve changed the world with my cartoons, but I’ve sure had a blast along the way. And isn’t that what life is all about? I hope you’ll enjoy this STRIP SHOW. I sure did.
CAPPY DICK’D In a small-town Pennsylvania newspaper, nestled between an article extolling Hitler’s “positive side” and an ad for a local trash-hauling service, was a story about the winner of the Cappy Dick drawing contest: an eight-year-old kid with a cheap set of felt-tip pens and an impossibly big dream. Who was Cappy Dick exactly? A salty old seaman with a penchant for young boys? Perhaps. But he was also the host of an “activity page” that ran in Sunday comics sections across the country, offering exotic prizes to children with creative flair. For this competition, I submitted a drawing of a radioactive dinosaur and won a 99-piece magic kit, which I still use for ritual ceremonies and curing boudoir boredom today. Winning that national competition was my first real recognition and put stars indelibly in my eyes. Just try telling a third-grader whose headshot appeared in the local paper that he hadn’t made it to the big time. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there…
DRAWN INTO THE DREAM By the time I was ten years old, I had already convinced myself that I was a “famous cartoonist.” Every week I poured over the Sunday Funnies, reading the typical trash like Family Circus, Beetle Bailey and Garfield. I was burning to draw a comic strip of my own, and with profound naivety was determined to get my strip into the Sunday papers alongside my heroes. Why wait till I grow up? I reasoned. That summer, while the other kids were riding dirt bikes and playing G.I. Joe, I was “developing” my first cartoon pitch, The Clubhouse Kids, inspired by a tree fort my father had built for me and my brother in our backyard. I knew I needed a cast of characters, and some sample strips. So I started at one side of a blank piece of typing paper, drawing whatever oddball kooks came to mind until I had filled the whole page. In the extra space across the top, I crafted a large, stylized logo above the characters’ heads. Ah, just like the real thing! I thought. Taking a second piece of paper I divided it into three horizontal columns. With a handful of gags inspired by (or perhaps directly lifted from) Bazooka Joe bubblegum wrappers, I drew out three sequential strips in fresh black ink. I carefully hand-lettered the dialogue, then added some brightness using colored pencils. Wow, I thought, these look good enough to go straight into the funny papers! Now all I needed to do was convince my local newspaper to run a comic by an unknown fifthgrader. How hard could that be?
There were actually two papers in my small town, and one just happened to be within walking distance from the store my parents ran downtown. One afternoon I went for a stroll with my “portfolio” of Clubhouse Kids comics under my arm. I made my way to the building that housed the evening newspaper’s offices, a rundown turn-of-the-century structure that looked like something out of Citizen Kane. I pulled open the heavy front door, stepped inside and was immediately immersed in the dizzying hum of the bullpen, the smell of cigarette smoke and musty newsprint. An old lady wearing cat-eye glasses peered at me through the receptionist’s window. “How may I help you, young man?” she asked. “I’m here to see the editor-in-chief, Mister Soand-so,” I said. I’d found his name in an old issue of the paper, and hoped using it would make my visit sound more official. She looked at me dismissively, but pointed toward a rickety stairwell. “He’s on the third floor.” By the time I’d climbed all three flights of stairs, the editor had already been notified of my presence. From behind a messy stack of newspapers, he motioned me into his office and pointed at a large wooden chair in front of his desk. He seemed pretty pissed that he had to stop looking over headline options for the next edition to talk with a ten-year-old boy. “What do you want?” he bellowed, leaning back in his chair and exhaling a large cloud of cigar smoke.
RUNNIN’ DOWN A DREAM In the summer of 1994 I was preparing to head back to college at the University of Virginia. The previous semester I’d already attempted to sell a comic strip feature to the big daily campus newspaper, but was unceremoniously rejected. Fortunately the university was very supportive of student-run print publications. There were more than a dozen different magazines, journals and tabloids financed by the school at that time, long before the internet changed everything. There was even a second daily newspaper! It was more of an underground, underdog publication, so I thought perhaps it would be a good home for my new “clip art” strip. When I showed the editors some samples, they said they loved it. More likely they just loved having a gullible young kid willing to fill column inches in their daily paper for free. Either way, Ackxhpaez was alive! Producing a daily cartoon is a ridiculous amount of work, but in a way it was a better education than any of the formal classes I was attending on campus. It didn’t take long for the strip to generate some buzz. I started getting emails from people who said they were cutting out and saving each installment. But one fan letter stood out: It was from the editor of the local Charlottesville alternative weekly saying that he wanted to publish Ackxhpaez. It was a milestone. Getting published in the real “townie” newspaper gave my work legitimacy, plus he was willing to pay! I sold him reprint rights for all the strips that had previously been published in the campus paper. I had enough cartoons for him to run for two years without ever having to pick up my pen, or in this case, my X-acto knife. Money for nothing and yer chicks for free. Yeah, that’s right! I was officially a cartoonist, baby!
A TASTE OF CONTROVERSY One of my first Ackxhpaez cartoons was “Grandma’s Flesh,” in which a clip-art 50s family tries cannibalism for Thanksgiving dinner. If I’m going to Hell, this strip is definitely one of the reasons. Especially since “Helen” is the name of my own beloved grandmother! Upon publication, the letters immediately started rolling in calling for cancellation of my strip. Undaunted, my editor at the C-Ville Weekly published the hate mail under the heading “Ackxhpaez Encourages Cannibalism.” The very next week, even more letters poured in—but they were all letters of support urging the paper NOT to cancel my comic strip. In the days before the internet, this was the equivalent of a “flame war” or “going viral.” My editor was thrilled; Ackxhpaez was a hit, and I’d found my “hook” doing shock-value cartoons. Of course, with a newfound confidence, I set out to offend as many delicate sensibilities as possible!
JONESIN’ “November Jones” was the pseudonym under which I published scores of Ackxhpaez comics during their initial altweekly run. Born by combining two seductive yet random words I heard while flipping through late-night television programs, November soon became more than just a nom de plume. One glue-on mustache, a pair of novelty cokebottle glasses, a tweed jacket and tasteful black cravat later, my alter ego was complete! Soon November Jones — “world-renowned artist” — was hitting the mean streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, making live appearances at coffee houses, public-access television shows and laundromats all across town. November often participated in impromptu autograph signings and offered fans speed street-portraits. He lived to snap people out of the trance-inducing daily routine of “life.” He certainly snapped me out of it; such is the power of reinventing yourself through “complete transformation.” Alas, despite his love affair with the public, the only artifact that remains of November Jones’s shooting-star existence is this rare Polaroid. Though every now and again I still receive mail in his name!
LETTER OF THE LAW I was so thrilled my newspaper cartoons were finally catching people’s attention. Unfortunately the people whose attention they caught were often mega-bucks attorneys hired by big establishment corporations. Luckily, years of law school don’t necessarily buy common sense, as witnessed in this, my very first “Cease and Desist” letter. King Features Syndicate took offense at my playful appropriation of Fred Lasswell’s classic Snuffy Smith character. I’m not sure if it was the grim ultra-violence or the pro-feminist agenda of my “SNNFFY SMTH” parody that got “stuck in their craw,” but I feel sorry for the poor sap who penned this cry for help, warning me never to publish “SNFFY SMTH” again. That leaves a pretty big loophole there, Sherlock! As can be plainly seen, I never published ANY cartoon under the name “SNFFY SMTH” (with one “N”)! My cartoon is “SNNFFY SMTH” with TWO “N”s, proudly reprinted here. Case closed!
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL Easily my most notorious comic strip, SELL YOUR SOUL TO EVIL was banned by dozens of the alternative weekly newspapers that carried my work in the wake of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre. Apparently ironic social satire isn’t on the menu in a place where the local delicacy is “Rocky Mountain Oysters”—aka bull testicles—and nowhere was my cartoon met with more outrage than in Denver, Colorado, where the strip’s publication caused such a kerfuffle that the NBC Nightly News even picked up the story and turned it into an on-air hit piece. Of course they needed a scapegoat and my comic strip fit the bill, despite the absurdity that it could ever have been the actual impetus that drove children to kill since it was published after the event itself! Like most TV propaganda, it was “manufactured” hype, complete with reporters overtly feeding sound bytes to unwitting 12-year-olds who would never even know where to pick up an alt-weekly paper in the first place. Thankfully I had a steadfast editor at the paper who courageously supported my strip and even appeared on camera defending SELL YOUR SOUL TO EVIL. As with all hatchet jobs, the network never even bothered to contact me for comment, and refused to do a follow-up feature where I could have any sort of rebuttal. Still, this comic strip always lurks over my shoulder. Like every other thinking, feeling citizen, I was saddened by the Columbine tragedy and am deeply disturbed by the progressively violent American culture—but that was exactly the point of this cartoon! Perhaps the comic was, at the very least, poorly timed. Or maybe I’ve sold a little bit of my own soul along the way? Then again, what artist hasn’t?
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD As much fun as I had producing shock-value comix, I eventually found myself burned-out, unfulfilled and creatively stymied. For nearly a decade and a half, I had pigeonholed my art into the “retro” or “vintage” clip-art style, and suddenly it no longer felt relevant to my modern life. I still love the throwback stuff and always will, but alas, “it’s been done before.” I wanted to do something completely different, something new. I’d pounded way too many nails into the coffin of the Charles Atlas sand-in-the-weakling’s-face parody cartoon; the retro “collage” style that set me free all those years ago had now become too limiting. I found myself ALWAYS in search of some old piece of clip art to base my drawings upon. If I couldn’t find an appropriate old piece of art to riff off of, I was often unable to draw anything at all! One morning I woke up and thought, Instead of me trying to draw “like” someone else, like some old comic book or novelty ad, I need to re-learn how to DRAW LIKE ME. I wanted to draw again like I drew as a kid, letting my hand move freely across the page, but keeping all the influences and “tastes” I’d acquired through adulthood. I pulled out a few of those old Clubhouse Kids cartoons. My eyes got misty all over again as, for the first time in over twenty years, I doodled my childhood characters on a blank sheet of typing paper. It felt so natural. My true style was coming back to me; my drawings were flowing out naturally once again. In 2007, the very day after I’d made my decision to return to my natural drawing style, the art director at The Village VOICE emailed and asked me to create a full-color weekly editorial cartoon for their print edition. This is my chance. I’m a cartoonist! They described the feature they were looking for as “Talk of the Town for Sick Fucks.” I was ecstatic at the opportunity to work for the legendary alt-weekly, and I set about developing this new feature. I walked out onto Houston Street in downtown Manhattan and looked around. Wow! I was seeing my city for the very first time, with a fresh pair of eyes. How have I never noticed all this before? The city was so alive that day. People were wearing and doing some very weird things. I heard brand-new kinds of music in
the air. I DECIDED TO DRAW EXACTLY WHAT I SAW. I would draw the WEIRDEST outfits anybody was wearing, the WEIRDEST things anybody was doing or saying! I would draw my cartoon about New York — the REAL New York as I saw it. I settled on a single-panel format since it was different from the sequential-panel format most cartoonists were working within. But this wouldn’t be the typical single-panel dross found in most “political” newspaper cartoons. Mine would be as dense and chaotic as a real New York street scene! There would be no beginning or end. Readers would be thrown headlong into each installment and experience the action in the tangential way that life really unfolds. I drew my inspiration from classic editorial cartoons from over a century ago: the work of Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, where Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall were first exposed and ridiculed. I also looked to the brilliant engraved covers of Puck magazine, the New York publication that declared “what fools these mortals be!” But this was the 21st century. The digital age was in bloom, and the “fools” I’d be targeting were people like the Weinstein brothers, Lou Reed and Sumner Redstone. But I didn’t want this to be a cartoon merely about the rich and famous. I wanted to highlight the everyday New Yorkers who make this city so unique: that weird bike messenger with the hot-pink hair, that quiet older man who uses peanut butter and a piece of string to fish for coins in subway grates, the endless stream of Williamsburg hipsters. At the prompting of my editor, we lifted the title from an early VOICE feature, and RUNNIN’ SCARED was born. The result was instantaneous: Readers responded positively to my new cartoon from the beginning! And not just regular New Yorkers: Big Madison Avenue P.R. agents seemed thrilled when their ad campaigns were targeted as insidious, New York movie producer Scott Rudin was surprisingly excited when we ridiculed his massive traffic-obstructing film shoots, and dislocated surf punks from Coney Island were proud that someone was championing their cause (despite the fact that it wasn’t always clear whose side I was on).
A RUNNIN’ SCARED Cartoon In-Progress
POD PEOPLE | Apple Store in SoHo
THE GREAT DIVIDE | Williamsburg’s Hipster Pool Parties
STREET JUSTICE | The Seedy Side of West 4th Street
The Making of a RUNNIN’ SCARED Cartoon
FREEDOM FLIES | TSA Checkpoints at LaGuardia Airport
AFTERWORD I first met Wartella in New York City back in the year 2000. Out in front of CBGB, he was bouncin’ through people’s legs after last call. My band had just wrapped up a tour and we were soaking in the thick city night. Stringy and wired, Wartella had on his novelty spy glasses, the ones with tiny mirrors on the lenses so you can see behind you. “Oh man, you gotta try these out!” he hissed. I put on the shades and he started cracking up: “That’s you, man! That’s you! Oh my god!” He ducked behind me. “Check it out!” Wartella on the left: “Can you see me?” Then he popped up on the right: “Looky here, man! Nobody’s gonna sneak up on ya with those things!” Our mob of kooks filtered out into the street as we rivered away, crackling, twenty large. “I know a shortcut,” says Wartella. Oh no, here it comes—through the park and straight toward an eight-foot chain-link fence, inebriated. “I’m gooooing over,” he shouts as he starts to climb. “Fuck it,” I say, on my way behind him. New York alley rats flooding over razor wire. Last one down was the drummer. His feet hit the pavement and then the blood came. Here we go...blood everywhere. The drummer’s hand was neatly filleted wide like a butterfly. Everybody freaked. Shouts from the crowd urged panic in the boy. Wartella, calmly, leaned in and offered, “Oh, that’s bad. It’s nothin’ though. We gotta pour some Krazy Glue on that.” The drummer’s hand was visible in reverse, outside-in muscles working Da Vinci style, a real fucking museum piece. Some motherly knob, offended by Wartella’s hyperactive intensity yelped, “Shut up, man! Who IS this guy?” I couldn’t help but burst into laughter as the bleeding hearts were horrified by Wartella’s rationale: “What? You think I’m crazy? That’s NASA, man. Top scientists invented Krazy Glue in case you get hurt in space. Think about it. No drip. None. You’re not gonna drip. How are you gonna work a needle and thread in space? You gotta glue that shit up, man. We gotta get some. Get the Krazy Glue out, I’ll fix him right now!” The drummer went off in a cab and spent the night in the emergency room. OUR night rolled on. THIS PAGE: Clockwise from top: Wartella’s “Reekola” Wacky Packages design (2006), Xeroxed “Famous Midgets” sticker (circa 1996), “Hypno-Bismol” pen & ink art (1992), Wartella’s debut New York Press cover featuring Jonathan Ames (1997), King Tuff performs in Wartella’s “Conspiracy of Owls” shirt design (2010), Wartella with star bag in New York City (2013). OPPOSITE PAGE: Counter-clockwise from top: Wartella’s “BOM Molotov Cocktail” Wacky Packages design (2006), Wartella’s cover art for THE UNDEAD’s “Slave to Fashion” EP (lifted from his 1992 fan letter art), Fantagraphics check for $666 (circa 2006), Wartella’s “Discredit Cards” pitch artwork for Topps (2005), Wartella’s album art for The GO’s “Howl On The Haunted Beat You Ride” LP (2007), Wartella’s Family Circus parody (1992).
Original Wacky Packages Concept Sketches, Circa 2005
AFTERWORD by BOBBY HARLOW