Last month, Oni Press published FRUMPY THE CLOWN: FREAKING OUT THE NEIGHBORHOOD. For $16, it collects 134 pages' worth of Judd Winick's "Frumpy the Clown" comic strip. It's the kind of book you'd expect to find on a shelf in the bookstore alongside the ubiquitous "Calvin and Hobbes" and "Fox Trot" tomes. This is labeled as volume one. The second volume is due out in May, during an off month for BARRY WEEN.
In his forward, Winick tries to diminish the efforts in the book. The comic strip format seemed creatively frustrating to him, and the content seemed "thin." While many are quite happy to have BARRY WEEN in its wake, I have to admit that I really enjoyed "Frumpy" and am sorry it didn't last longer. I don't begrudge Winick his muse or his artistic frustrations. Any artist should be able to do what he wants, since that's when you get their best work. (Heck, that works for any person, as well, although it's not often financially feasible. I'd love to sit home all day and write this column five days a week, but that won't pay the student loans, the car payments, or the DVD habit, let alone the comics.)
So you end up looking at "Frumpy" as the genesis of Winick's career. This is the starting bloc, from which we got "Road Trip" (recently republished by Oni a few months ago), "Barry Ween," and "Pedro and Me." You can see bits and pieces of the humor of the Ween book all throughout the "Frumpy" book. The kids have a habit of getting into trouble. The clown ends up showing them more of the world than their otherwise immature minds would give them access to. Absurd home situations abound.
The situation is this: Siblings Brad and Kim are walking home from school one day. They appear to be about ten years old. They pick up a clown on the way home, the way other kids would bring home a salamander or a frog. "Can we keep him, Mom?" Next thing you know, Frumpy has moved in, and hilarity ensues. Frumpy is a clown. That's not his job. He works as a teacher in a school, a move that preceded the antics of BOSTON PUBLIC by a clear four years. ;-) The clown makeup never comes off, but he doesn't always act like a simpleton clown, with gag horn, seltzer bottle and balloon animals. (This ain't Krusty.) He's just a slightly bitter and cynical man with a desire to make a little mischief. He does have a soft spot underneath all of that for the innocence of the children. The adults he seems to have less regard for.
At the heart of it, though, the book is damned funny and visually impressive for a comic strip. The trend in strips is simplification. Strips are shrunken so far down these days that any attempt to impart detail in the small space often results in confusing backgrounds, muddled lines, and an unreadable comic strip. Bill Amend has talked about how this has worked against him in "Fox Trot." He doesn't know how to draw his characters from an aerial perspective, only from straight on or 3/4s. So he's working on new and different ways to tilt perspectives, mostly in the larger Sunday strips.
"Frumpy the Clown" is well detailed. It's three-dimensional. It contains backgrounds and establishing shots and jams a whole bunch of things into each panel. On the white paper that this volume reprints the strips on, it looks fabulous. Shrunken down any smaller than the strips are in this book (where each appears about 2.25 by 7.5 inches) and printed on the sloppy newsprint paper, I can imagine that it looked crappy.
Winick also knew how to draw his characters from any angle and any perspective. Characters don't just face each other left and right. They walk towards the reader and away from the reader. The backgrounds occur at angles as well as parallels and perpendiculars.
This tends to disappear the further along the book goes. It's almost like Winick could see his strip being shrunken down and realized the need to simplify it a little. It's a shame the strip lost that, but understandable in light of production issues.
The humor stays within the boundaries of the family newspaper's comics page, but that doesn't mean it's vanilla. Over the course of the book, Winick peppers in a variety of pop culture icons and references, and anti-establishment hilarity. Frumpy takes on teaching, Santa Claus, and phone solicitors. All the while, Frumpy's generally cynical and acerbic manner comes out in dealing with everyday situations, particularly when it comes to corrupting young kids' minds, or in assisting them in their various rebellions. Really, Frumpy's the third kid of the house. He just has more life experience and intelligence in pulling it all off. It's not all cruel and nasty, though. There are plenty of moments in the strips when Frumpy appears to be amused by the kids' antics, and not in the cynical way you'd imagine.
The oddest feeling about this book is how old it made me feel. I'll be hitting the quarter-century mark in a couple of weeks. (Yeah, I know, big whoop. It really doesn't bother me. Check in again when I hit 30 and we'll talk.) The kids in this strip were probably born at about the time I was in fifth grade or so, judging by my math and the time the strip ran. They make fun of their parents for references to the BRADY BUNCH, for example. Is the BRADY BUNCH an outdated reference these days? Heck, in a day and age when cable television keeps every series ever made on television alive, I suppose it wouldn't be odd for a show like THE BRADY BUNCH, which once ran twice a day on two different stations when I was growing up, to be hidden at the end of the cable spectrum.
And then I think - the kids in fifth grade today were born in 1990. Not just one decade after me, but a second decade away from my birth. Yeesh.
OK, that's the end of feeling old for now. Back to Frumpy.
While the daily gags are mostly verbal, there are instances - particularly in the Sunday comics - of pantomime gags, where most of the humor is acted out, instead of spoken. That's nice to see, not because it makes the strip easier to read, but because it shows that the cartoonist has actual drawing skills. He's not relying on his writing to carry the day. There are too many ugly comic strips out there today that rely on their humor to get them by. The sad thing is that ugly art with funny punchlines isn't terribly funny. The comic strips are very different from comic books that way. I've always found it easier to read a badly drawn comic book than a comic strip, maybe because I'm so used to them. ;-)
If you like well-drawn comic strips with an acerbic bite to them, that feature characters that are likeable, I think you'd enjoy this book. If you want to sample some strips for yourself before hunting down the book, you can check out the official Frump the Clown web site.
ROBIN YEAR ONE #4 wraps up the excellent mini-series written by Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty. I was worried at first that Beatty's writing might somehow dilute Dixon's. There's always that worry when two writers team up. But that didn't happen here. Everything comes out seamless. Beatty wins the award for punchline of the year with the final panel of the penultimate page. (When asked about it on the Dixonverse message board, Dixon credited Beatty specifically with the line.) Gordon says, "Not on your life, Boy Wonder." Read the book to see what I mean. Everyone I've talked to about this book so far has mentioned the page.
Javier Pulido needed some help getting this issue done, so Marcos Martin pencils about a third of this issue. The good news is that while you can see where the artists change, their styles are similar enough that it's not jarring, and you might not even notice it if you weren't looking for it.
Lee Loughridge's colors are simply gorgeous. Loughridge is one of the most underrated colorists in the business today and doesn't get nearly enough credit.
Sean Konot's lettering is a little uneven in this issue. It seems that the size of his lettering changes depending on how much stuff he has to fit in a page. The lettering width is a little too variable for my tastes.
This four-issue mini-series works well as a stand-alone story. Even for those of us who aren't continuity buffs, it's a fun read. When it gets collected in trade paperback form, you could do worse than buying it.
THE MONARCHY #1 is the spin-off from THE AUTHORITY. It's written by Doselle Young and drawn by John McCrea, with Garry Leach on inks. It shows a lot of promise, but the first issue has its share of problems.
My biggest problem is that Young is trying to be Grant Morrison in this issue just a little too hard. There's a ton of "mad ideas" liberally sprinkled throughout the book. In fact, there are more concepts and phenomenon described than there really needs to be. It gets to be quite distracting, not to mention confusing. I didn't need it in MARVEL BOY and I sure don't need it here. Ellis was so effective in using those "mad ideas" because he parceled them out carefully, only using the ones he needed for the sake of the story, and not just to look clever. The ones he used as throwaway lines were usually ones done for gag purposes.
My second problem is with the art of John McCrea. I don't like it. It's awkward looking. The characters look stiff to me, and uncomfortable in their own skins. I can understand wanting to move away from the smoother lines of Hitch or Quitely, but this might be too far to the other side.
The second issue of Chris Eliopoulos' DESPERATE TIMES is now available from your finer local retailer. As a special "bonus," the paper quality of this issue is much higher than the previous issue. Instead of the nearly newsprint quality from last month, there's a stronger white paper used here.
The cover features a drunken Kennedy (is that redundant?) on a parody TIME "Man of the Year" cover. It's the only appearance of Kennedy in the comic, which is definitely the weak point of the book. I may just start picketing for a Kennedy back-up feature next.
The main story has Marty and Toad hitting the slopes with Marty's sister, Linda. Oh, and the potential for ski bunnies is tempting, too. Eliopoulos gets to show off a little more physical comedy than he usually does with this series, and pulls it off really well. The characters are much more animated this time around than they've ever been. I wonder if DESPERATE TIMES will go to all pantomime gags in December? ;-)
The first backup story is "Zap Peters Space Avenger," the story of a heroic space adventurer who ends up stuck on earth working in a burger joint. It's funny on its own, but I don't think it would hold up very well if forced to fill out a whole issue. (Don't worry - it's not slated to.)
The final story is the continuation of ALIENZ as seen in last month's issue.
Just forgive the typos on the little text blurb on the inside front cover and a couple of the gaffes in the lettering of the stories (ironically enough) and you'll have a good time. It's 24 pure pages of comic strip hijinks. No ads. All story, all the time.
This Friday's column will be a look at the Giffen-era Justice League. (Really, I swear it this time.) Take a look back on a time when humor ruled uber alles.
Close to 200 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML. Those columns are even migrating over here in drips and drabs. Eventually, they'll all be on CBR. I can't believe Pipeline is entering its fifth year in a few short months...
Finally, I write DVD movie reviews (occasionally) for the gang over at DVD Channel News. If you're into DVD, check out my stuff there.