Sunday, October 19, 2014

Return to Funnytown: Recalling In Pictopia for a Reprint That Never Happened

UPDATE November 10, 2014: Here is the inked final for a new piece of art based on the 1986 story by Alan Moore, commissioned by a Brazilian collector and scholar.


UPDATE November 6, 2014: Here is the rough for a commission I am creating for connoisseur Flavio Pessanha who wanted to see a "cover" for the story. I will post the ink version here shortly.

The Judge Dredd and Vantage/Punisher simulacra threaten Dog Man, Red, and Flexible Flynn from the story, with Sammy Sleepyhead rendered for the first time up in the corner. "In Pictopia" is ™ and © Alan Moore and Donald Simpson 1986, 2014, all rights reserved.


Note: In 2010, the thirteen original art pages of my 1986 story, "In Pictopia," from a script by Alan Moore, was the subject of an exhibition at the Toonseum in Pittsburgh PA. In conjunction with the exhibit, a black-and-white reprint of the story, with a new cover, was planned, but expected funding for the publication never materialized, despite obtaining Alan's blessing through Chris Staros for the enterprise. The exhibit went on and was a delight, but the reprint did not happen. 
I had asked several participants involved in the creation of the comic in 1986 to write down their recollections for the reprint, which was edited by then-Toonseum curator John Mattie. The text that was prepared for the publication appears for the first time below.
--Donald E. Simpson, PhD
Pittsburgh, 2014

Return to Funnytown, or: How We Made Everyone’s Favorite Rarely-Seen but Critically Acclaimed Graphics Novella Without Really Trying
Most of the principal participants in the creation and publishing of  In Pictopia (except for Alan Moore, who is too busy visualizing new Funnytowns and Cartoonopolises) here provide an 'oral history' – or their best recollections after nearly a quarter of a century – of the curious confluence of circumstances surrounding the strip’s creation in the spring of 1986.
Gary Groth is the founder of Fantagraphics Books and publisher of The Comics Journal. Under Groth's editorial supervision, The Comics Journal began to distance itself from popular superhero comics and instead favored a more intellectual approach to the artform, championing independent artists and publishers like Art Spiegelman and R. Crumb. Groth regularly conducted the artist interviews himself, which despite being very scholarly, were often freewheeling, informal conversations.
Michael Fleischer, the  writer of DC Comics’ Jonah Hex, sued Groth, The Comics Journal, and Harlan Ellison for libel and defamation of character in 1980. Fleischer felt maligned in a published interview  between Groth and the admittedly cantankerous Ellison.
Groth coordinated and published Anything Goes #2 as a benefit comic in which In Pictopia was the centerpiece.
Don Simpson is the creator of Megaton Man, Border Worlds, and the 1990's adaptation of King Kong. He also gained attention for his illustrations in Al Franken's bestseller Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. Megaton Man prefigured Alan Moore's Watchmen but with a more biting comedic edge, aggressively parodying the conventions of superhero comics and popular culture. Ben Edlund has acknowledged the huge influence of Megaton Man on his own series The Tick.
Denis Kitchen was a prominent figure in the early underground comics movement, founding Kitchen Sink Press in 1970 and publishing works by Art Spiegelman, Will Eisner, and Harvey Kurtzman. Kitchen went on to establish the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in 1986. Kitchen Sink published Megaton Man throughout its initial run.
Pete Poplaski was an art director at Krupp Comics/Kitchen Sink as well as the editor of Steve Canyon Magazine and has enjoyed a long career in comics, establishing close relationships with icons like Will Eisner and R. Crumb. Pete has drawn everyone from The Spirit to Spider-Man and has since worked with Moore in the Tom Strong series. He went on to edit The R.Crumb Handbook and The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book.
Mike Kazaleh got his start at Kitchen Sink, creating The Adventures of Captain Jack and working on titles such as Usagi Yojimbo and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures for Fantagraphics. He has also worked for several animation studios, including Filmation, Warner Brothers, and Bakshi Animation.
Eric Vincent is the creator of Kitchen Sink's Alien Fire and has worked as illustrator and colorist on many projects for Dark Horse and Image Comics.
The Germs of a Collaboration
Simpson: I had met Alan Moore briefly at the San Diego Comicon in 1985. This was the first time he had visited the United States, I believe, to promote Miracleman #1 for Eclipse Comics. It was my rookie year in comics, but Alan was already famous for a raft of work in England as well as increasingly for U.S. publishers, and very approachable. In fact, due to his encyclopedic knowledge of everything going on in the artform, he happened to be familiar with my work. I showed him photocopies of my “Phloog Thing” sequence for the forthcoming Megaton Man #6, about the sawdust dummy that Megaton Man sat as his office desk while his secret identity was out on an adventure. In this issue, the dummy had been shot through with a nuclear missile, drenched with “super soldier syrup,” marinated in a bog, and miraculously brought to life—a clear nod to Steve Bissette and John Totleben’s work on Alan’s Swamp Thing. Alan cheerily approved, and praised my mimicry of his writing. “But it isn’t Trent Phloog. It never will be Trent Phloog. It never was Trent Phloog,” Alan read out loud. “Brilliant!!”
“I suppose I should tell you, I’m ripping off Megaton Man,” he later confessed to me at a casual dinner that DC or some other company was throwing in the evening. “Well, not really, but I’m doing this character Dr. Manhattan,who’s kind of a serious Megaton Man…” Sure enough, Dr. Manhattan and the Silk Spectre go 'on patrol' under a full moon in Watchmen #4, a full year after Megaton Man and the See-Thru Girl had done so in Megaton Man #4.
It was thrilling enough as a young, beginner comic book creator, just to be meeting Alan Moore in person. I never dreamt I would get the chance to actually work with him, nor could I have ever forseen the cataclysmic circumstances in which such a scenario could even be remotely possible…
Comics at a Crossroads
Groth: Fleischer sued Harlan Ellison and myself in 1980. He took offense at comments made about him by Ellison in an interview I conducted and published in the Journal. The lawsuit dragged on for seven years with literally thousands of pages of depositions, motions, counter motions, etc. generated during that time, as well as much behind the scenes drama and craziness.
The lawsuit itself had polarized the comics industry. There was a faction of comics professionals who were rooting for Fleischer to win and bankrupt us. On the other hand, many well-wishers felt strongly that The Comics Journal served an important function and that, moreover, there was an important 1st Amendment issue at stake. At one convention in New York City, Fleischer gathered a dozen professionals together to do sketches that were sold with all proceeds going to his lawyer so that he could continue to sue. When I discovered this, we quickly lashed together artists who would sit on the opposite side of the same small room doing sketches for “our” side, willing to subject themselves to one of the ugliest social circumstances I’ve ever witnessed. I will never forget the image of Maurice Horn (what was the historian Maurice Horn doing there?) standing between the two room-length strings of tables, screaming imprecations at us in French
Our business insurance paid a substantial portion of our legal bills, but the remaining 20-25% was an enormous burden and one that a shoe-string operation like ours couldn’t sustain. By 1984, after four years of intense litigation we were in dire need of help to pay our legal expenses. I decided our only option was to go into the fund-raising business, and came up with the idea of a benefit comic, all profit of which would be placed in a Defense Fund bank account to buffer court costs. I would basically beg artists and writers and letterers and colorists and other creative types to contribute to it free.
It is still humbling to realize how many artists came through with contributions drawn especially for the six issues of the comic I put together or let us use pre-existing but unpublished work. It’s a long list that  includes friends, acquaintances, strangers, and sparring partners like [cartoonists] Frank Miller, Dave Sim, Gil Kane, Jack Kirby, Dan Clowes, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, and many other kind souls.
One writer I’d asked to contribute was Alan Moore, who was then by far the best writer working for mainstream comics and, as I recall, somewhat bristling at the editorial restrictions imposed upon him by DC [for whom he wrote Swamp Thing]. This was an opportunity to do anything he wanted, without editorial interference, and he sent me the script “In Fictopia.”
Once Alan provided the script, I had to find someone to draw it, an editorial chore I was neither comfortable with nor particularly good at. All of our comics were written and drawn by the cartoonist; we didn’t split chores up among writers, pencilers, and inkers in the big-company assembly-line approach we abominated.
I forget how I came to approach Don Simpson. My best guess is that I thought Don (who was finishing up Megaton Man) [had been underused and] certainly had the chops and the satirical instinct for the piece. At that point, Don was sullen, resentful, and smart—a lethal combination, and I say that with some fondness because I’m sure I embodied similar traits to some extent, which may be why we have gotten along or at least tolerated each other all these years. Don expanded the strip by four or five pages to accommodate Alan’s writing—which was fine by me because it meant four or five more free pages and a couple thousand more bucks to our lawyer.
Simpson: I had always admired Fantagraphics (particularly Jaime Hernandez’ enviable draughtsmanship on Love and Rockets) and The Comics Journal, thinking at the time that its approach to comics was “intellectual,” and therefore worthy of saving (although I’ve had my doubts since), and probably had a few sketches and maybe letters to the editor published in it as well as its sister publication, Amazing Heroes, by that time. I knew publisher Gary Groth at any rate, and had been to the Thousand Oaks offices (he would later be the only person in California to cash my Kitchen Sink checks for the few months I tried to live out there, for which I will be eternally grateful). I seem to recall that another artist initially had been in mind to illustrate Moore’s script, perhaps Gary Kwapisz, since I recall a “Gary” referred to in the script (Gary had been a frequent contributor of spot illos to TCJ, but hadn’t yet gone “pro” on Savage Sword of Conan).
Somehow the “art chores” fell to me, and I leapt at the opportunity, and probably devoted three weeks to drawing it (while Denis Kitchen anxiously watched his color line not only slip into oblivion, but its only consistent money-maker and deadline hawk fall way off schedule).
I drafted Kitchen Sink art director and Steve Canyon editor Pete Poplaski to pencil the barroom scene backgrounds and my junior high school bud Mike Kazaleh to pencil the scenes in “Funnytown.” At the time Mike was living in Van Nuys in the San Fernando Valley above Los Angeles and already working on Critters and Captain Jack for Fantagraphics.
Kitchen: When Don had the opportunity to illustrate Alan Moore's piece he was working out of the Kitchen Sink Press complex in rural Wisconsin. My first reaction was negative. I didn’t want him to fall behind on Megaton Man, an important title for KSP at the time. I was also not thrilled that my rival publisher Fantagraphics was getting a foot in the door with Don.
Simpson:  I was pretty much wrapping up Megaton Man #8 and #9 of the satirical color comic’s ten-issue run, and preparing to embark on the somber black-and-white series Border Worlds, which would form part of an ill-fated science fiction line along with Anthony F. Smith and Eric Vincent’s Alien Fire. (This was in the wake of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomenon, and few of us lasted very long in the subsequent black-and-white glut.)
Groth: My criteria for pulling everyone together was basically stylistic appropriateness, skill, and youth—we were all around the same age, early-to-mid-20s, didn’t have families and onerous financial responsibilities, and had the leisure time to work on a great project for free. Don recruited Pete and Mike and I asked Eric Vincent to color it.  Eric was part of what I referred to as the “Dallas Mafia,” a fine and cheerfully cantankerous bunch with whom I’d get together every year at the Dallas Fantasy Fair. Eric was a skilful painter who was coloring covers of our Love & Rockets collections.
Vincent: Don I met later at some Con after he had been knocking out Megaton Man books for some time, and I got to see jaw-dropping pages for his upcoming Border Worlds series. I could have wept for what I knew was going to be lost from those originals to the printed page. There were few comic artists for whom I felt pangs of jealousy, but Don’s draughtsmanship, fluid brushwork and anatomical knowledge were well worth envying.
The Script
Groth: When I asked Alan Moore to if he'd be willing to contribute to the book, he unhesitatingly committed himself to two four-page stories. That was a generous offer: two stories for the price of none. When I got the script, there was a note attached saying “I got carried away and just did one eight-page script instead.” The story was a solemn and soulful lament about the decline of comics and one of the most poetic and eloquent statements I've ever read.
Simpson: I have no idea what became of my copy of the script—it was a bad photocopy of a badly typed manuscript, probably marked up with my original thumbnails. I may have passed it along to Mike or Eric, although I would think I would have mailed copies of the copy, or I may have just foolishly discarded it after completing the job.
Poplaski: Don was working like an octopus in the next office trying to break “the Kirby Barrier” (drawing four finished comic pages a day) writing, penciling, inking, and coloring Megaton Man and  Border Worlds (the back-up feature for Megaton Man). On top of all that he had accepted the opportunity to work with Alan Moore on a short comic story as soon as he received the script. I heard a loud laugh from the next room. Don kicked in my studio office door brandishing his Alan Moore script around in the air and said I had to help him knock it out immediately. He yelled he had to do it and I had to help him do it. I read the script and thought, “oh yeah, crowd scenes …that will take some time to figure out…and you ain’t got much of that!” So I agreed to help out. It was a challenge. I dropped everything (except Kitchen Sink Press’s high standards of quality which was always my reason for missing practically every deadline I ever had), and Don hit the drawing board blocking out his rough ideas based on Alan Moore’s lengthy stage directions. He handed me a page to structure a crowd perspective of burned out comic characters.
Kazaleh : I remember reading the script as written by Mr. Moore. It was typewritten. He went into a lot of detail describing the scene in each panel. It wasn’t so much that there was to be a ton of detail in each illustration, but the long description did give you a good idea about the mood of the drawing.
Vincent: It’s a shame Don no longer has that script, because it should be displayed along with everything else. Its what I remember the most about the project. How could an artist not respond with his best to this kind of writing? It was embedded in a stream-of-consciousness flow of directions, ideas, images and reference that allowed you to see the inner workings of Alan’s mind. Who else but Alan would provide pages of text describing a single panel? As the artist, Don could wade into this rush of thought for whatever inspirations he needed, or to stimulate his own search for source material.
Simpson: The script spoiled me for all future collaborations. It was so dense in detail and background information, philosophical asides and irrelevant digressions, more than could ever be drawn— it was as if Alan were simply putting all of his thoughts directly into my head, and then it would be my problem to translate and communicate those ideas to the reader.
Alan didn’t seem to mind if I chose a close-up or a long shot in any particular spot, since he had said what he wanted to say in the script and was for all intents and purposes done with it. This was the first script I ever illustrated besides my own legal-pad notes for Megaton Man, which was generally improvised page by page. I didn’t realize at the time that it was natural to have sympathy for my own ideas, but not so easy to warm up to somebody else’s, with Alan Moore being a miraculous exception among comic book scribes. Unfortunately, all subsequent scripts I’ve illustrated in comics as a “freelancer” were of the “Page 1, panel 1, caption, dialogue” variety—more like an impersonal Ikea instruction sheet for assembling a Billy bookcase, while Alan’s script was like an inspired gourmet recipe (with personal asides from Julia Child).
The story was obviously a black comedy, satirizing the state of the American comic book industry in the mid-1980s, which then seemed like it was going to hell in a hand-basket (an apocalyptic prediction that from the point of view of independent cartooning turned out to be mild). In those Direct Sales, Baxter-paper days, everything had to fit into the “continuity,” everything had to be rationalized and explained for the sensibilities of literal-minded fans, everything had to be revamped and restarted, no matter how old or irrelevant the trademark, with shiny new costumes and new collector’s item first issues emblazoned on the cover (even Denis Kitchen insisted on a new #1 when I drew Return of Megaton Man in 1988). The story can also be read as the inexorable progress of late capitalist modernity, crushing all non-western contenders, and the inevitable extinction of individuality and originality in the contemporary world. In other words, it’s just as apropos today as it was in 1986. Heck, I don’t think you can even launch a humble comic book today unless the toy figure line, trading cards, computer games, big-budget movie, Happy Meals and paperback adaptation are already lined up for synchronous release. 
Living  “In Pictopia”
Simpson: I took a few liberties, young buck that I was at the time (all of 24 years old). First, the original title had been “In Fictopia,” which I promptly changed to In Pictopia—more visual, I thought (and if anyone objected, and nobody did, I could always change it back. We were doing this for free, after all). I also expanded the cramped 8 pages called for to a leisurely 13 pages, employing a Cinemascope “widescreen” panel to impose a steady rhythm.
Kazaleh: Don asked Pete Poplaski to pencil in some of the old timey comic strip characters and me to pencil in the funny animals. Don and I had gone to school together back in Michigan, but we were living in separate towns by this time. I penciled my bits onto Bristol board, then mailed the art to Don for finishing. The whole story was inked by Don.
Simpson : Pete populated the barroom with Joe Palooka, Kayo from Moon Mullins, and a variety of Dick Tracy-esque villains. Mike handled the scene where an aging Goofy-type dog gets the crap kicked out of him by a bullying mob of X-Men types. This was all before Who Killed Roger Rabbit—Alan Moore had a postmodern, hybrid pop-culture sensibility well before we even recognized what that was.
Poplaski: I remember it like it was 24 minutes ago. I was late as usual, about two months behind in my deadline for Steve Canyon #14 (we always backdated the publication date to the correct one in the front page indecia even though this February magazine actually came out in June), at least a week behind on coloring a Spirit cover for Uncle Will [Eisner], and all over my floor were scattered paste-up scraps for reconfiguring 1954 Milton Caniff strips into the Steve Canyon 3-D comic (I used the floor a lot).
Working on this In Pictopia project in the “Post-Silver” era of comics was very much akin to the legendary tales told about how many of the great old 52-page “Golden Age” comics from the 1940s were created spontaneously on the spot. So, just like Marvel Mystery #2 (I never had that ish) with the original Human Torch battling it out with the Sub-Mariner, fire versus water, there was Don Simpson playing Carl Burgos at the kitchen table drawing the Human Torch, and there was I, being Bill Everett, sitting in the bathtub drawing the Sub-Mariner pages! And so, with great determination, along with mass quantities of caffeine unstabling our molecules, we willfully approached the “Kirby Barrier.”
It was quite an ambitious thing to attempt because of the high standards set by the hilarious and miraculous performances of Wally Wood and Will Elder in the old Mad magazine, counterfeiting all the drawing styles of different cartoon characters, like for example, Wally Wood’s double-pager of famous comic strip characters in an old folks home. Great stuff!  Don and I stuck to our drawing boards day and night, bleary eyed and with a bad cigarette-like taste forming in our mouths even though neither of us smoked, into the endless early hours of the morn, grinding it out.
I don’t think you could say Don and I broke the “Kirby Barrier” with the In Pictopia pages, but we may have scratched it a little bit. He and I returned to our regular projects after the weekend without any noticeable dip in Kitchen Sink Press stock options occurring.
(Editor's note: Eric Vincent's incredible coloring techniques, unable to be preserved in the reprinting, lend significant moods and details to the original work. Though his work is unrepresented, Vincent's notes comment on many of the touches that made the original In Pictopia such an extraordinary piece.)
Vincent: I really enjoyed working out the color schemes for the various neighborhoods of  In Pictopia. For the “Mandrake the Magician” type character—Nocturno the Necromancer – I used purples and browns to suggest the decomposing stock of newsprint, the last holdout of the great comic characters of the past.
The Funny Animal neighborhood next to Nocturno’s district would be only a little better—Gladstone was still doing reprints of Disney comics at the time and there has always been a big interest in Donald Duck in Europe, not to mention the airing of old cartoons on TV—so I gave them a muted palette a little more attention/money could finance, though one still showing the ravages of sulfur on cheap pulp paper.
As a Golden Age superhero, Flexible Flynn is looking pretty rough, but he still has white in his word balloons—he’s still marginally “hip”—while Nocturno’s text shows his age. As the magician explains, it is the contemporary superhero that enjoys the high production values that their popularity can finance. Overdeveloped physically and hypersexual, these cruel, arrogant monsters have the garish, almost primary color palette that, color-wise, demonstrates their brutal, simple-minded attitude towards justice- something we see in action when Nocturno walks in on several superheroes terrorizing Red, a down-on-her-luck adventure comics character living in the same building.
Kazaleh: I recall seeing Eric Vincent’s blueline paintings over at Fantagraphics and being very impressed. [I loved] the way he was able to capture the feel of old, brittle newsprint. It was completely appropriate for the story.
Simpson: I don’t recall whose idea it was to draft Eric Vincent for the coloring, but it turned out to be a brilliant stroke. His colors added so much to the story and brought it to life in my opinion (a more recent reprint essayed a Photoshop interpretation which, unfortunately, could never take the place of Eric’s work in my eyes).
The Pictopian Legacy
 Groth: I was knocked you by what Don delivered. I remember thinking at the time that it was too good for a benefit book! Don will hate me for saying this, but I think it’s one of the greatest—if not the best— thing he’s ever done in comics. I haven’t read it in years, but Alan’s script is skillfully controlled, human, warm, elegiac, intellectually engaged and conceptually resonant. Once the words and pictures all came together, the comic became a lovely, even exquisitely perfect and seamless piece of work. In Pictopia turned out to be one of those serendipitous creative confluences that occur too rarely in one’s life, and I’m pleased that my miserable and unfortunate circumstance could serve as a catalyst.
Kitchen: When I saw the finished results, I was truly impressed. In Pictopia is my favorite Simpson comic and a highlight of the medium for this era. It still resonates today. Alan had his finger not only on the pulse of the art from but also the state of the industry.
Vincent: This story would have made a great series, and you can see some of the ideas here that Alan went on to develop further in Watchmen. I enjoyed doing it, and am glad the money that was raised helped Fantagraphics with the Ellison/Fleischer mess.
Kazaleh: Overall, I thought the story came out quite good. It said what a lot of us were feeling at the time about how all the fun in comics was being replaced by something nastier. I hope the fun will come back someday.
Poplaski: In Pictopia was well received. Less than two decades later I was handed my own eighteen page Alan Moore script for the lucky thirteenth issue of Tom Strong, for which I was asked to illustrate the concluding six-page chapter in a sort of period C. C. Beck Captain Marvel -cartoon style. It was fun. But the kids these days, I’m tellin’ ya, these kids will never know the glory of them “Post-Silver Age” days in comics.
Pictopian Theory
I think that many of us [comic book creators] at that moment were heading in the same direction. We had imbibed the same pop cultural material, wildly diverse as it was, and were trying to make sense of it—to systematize it into a coherent body of knowledge, as Kant might put it. A less generous description would involve those derogatory terms, “pastiche” and “eclecticism.”
But the idea of taking improbably conflicting comic strips, such as Siegel and Schuster’s Superman, Bob Kane’s Batman, and William Moulton Marston’s Wonder Woman—each unique in atmosphere and idiom, despite a certain generic similarity—and effacing them into a single “house style”—was at the heart of the comic book industry’s founding. Not to mention the hybrid world improbably forged from the imaginations of Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby, for which Stan Lee served as Master of Ceremonies over at Marvel Comics Group many years later.
If you grew up wanting to draw comics in my day, it meant you wanted to embrace all of these influences and many others besides, and make them your own. Today they would call this kind of creative bastardization a “mash-up,” meaning that it’s not really a bastardization at all, but kind of cool. Still, it has disturbing connotations for those of us who recognize that independent artists are the most likely to produce the best material.
Alan Moore, Kurt Busiek, myself and many others made our own “artificial” company universes to escape the restraints of copyright and trademark law, and do what we always thought should have been possible in comics, which is to have fun making them. It was a kind of protest movement against the big companies and editorial control, and restrictive “continuities.” I tended to do it in a more satirical way, and I was certainly emboldened in my own work subsequent to “In Pictopia” and The Watchmen.
We are all heroes of our own comic strips, and yet all of our realities collide in a shared Pictopia. The problem is when one totalizing narrative is imposed on everybody, and then you have violence against individual identity. That is what the postcolonial and postmodern struggles are all about, which is why I think this work still speaks very powerfully to our contemporary condition.
___
Note: "In Pictopia" originally appeared in Anything Goes #2 (Fantagraphics, December 1986). It was subsequently reprinted in The Best Comics of the Decade 1980-1990 Volume 1 [of 2] (Fantagraphics, 1990), and in George Khoury, The Extraordinary Works of Alan Moore (Raleigh NC: TwoMorrows Publishing, 2003).

The entire story with original coloring by Eric Vincent can be read online here.
"In Pictopia" is ™ and © Alan Moore and Donald Simpson 1986, 2014, all rights reserved.

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