Out into the world to see Who’s Who and What’s Not
In baseball parlance, a “screwball” is the opposite of a “straight pitch”, that is, a trick play, an unforeseen or erratic tactic. The screwy, at its most basic, is a form of energy, something simultaneously marvellous, explosive, and, as a consequence of its unexpected penchant for mess-making, ridiculously funny. “founded”, as comic historian Paul Tumey says, “on the joyful liberation of nonsense”. There’s been a strong affinity for the unhinged magic of screwball that goes back to the roots of the surrealist movement, particularly in relation to films (Marx Bros., Hellzapoppin’, W.C. Fields) and the more manic spectrum of animated cartoons. But it was Franklin Rosemont who in his many articles on comics and other “Popular Accomplices”, first made the explicit link between surrealism and the american cartoonists that comprise the screwball genre proper: Milt Gross, George Herriman, Winsor McCay, Rube Goldberg etc.,
Unfortunately, the vast majority of these comics were for many years mostly out of print, or only found in rare, large and disintegrated newspaper formats, liable to fall apart at the slightest guffaw. This fact, as well as the lack of information on this period of comic history in general, has meant that the surrealist appreciation of this era has only been by necessity a cursory one.
So it’s with great pleasure that we take note a new book, published in October 2019 by the comics historian Paul Tumey that focuses exclusively on screwball comics. In addition, his screwball comics blog is a goldmine of information, analysis, and salvaged strips.
SCREWBALL! The Cartoonists Who Made the Funnies Funny
Focusing on the early to mid 20th century newspaper “funnies”, Tumey’s research has unearthed quite a few once-famous, now forgotten gems in the screwballverse. In particular we note the “Squirrel Cage” comics of Gene Ahern, which in the 1940s take a genuinely surrealist turn with the introduction of the “Foozland” arc, a genuine surrealist geography, and its demented denizens, including the infamously strange gnome-like hitchhiker whose nonsensical catchphrase is “Nov schmoz ka pop?”
And there are other wonderful rehabilitations too, such as Fred Opper, Bill Holman, E.C. Segar, or Gus Mager, (whose Knocko the Monk comics helped give the Marx Bros. their stage names). It also includes a more in-depth look at the extended corpus of surrealist favourites like Milt Gross and Rube Goldberg (beyond the machines). It’s simple enough to see the connection between a Rube Goldberg machine and a machine portrait by Picabia. But there is also a less well-known current of his dark humor. For example, the early period of Boob McNutt comics, where due to an amorous longing he eponymous hero is constantly trying to kill himself using the same type of multistep screwball mechanics.
From the “Ark” offshoot of Boob McNutt, by Rube Goldberg
Over and above indiscriminate archival diving, Tumey is working on establishing a retroactive “canon” of screwballism, and even an accompanying theoretical language to describe its praxis. For example, his blog post on Energy Patterns Observed in a 1927 Screwball Salesman Sam Sunday by George Swan provides a very compelling directional theory for the phenomenon of the comic explosion so essential to screwball comedy. Maybe something almost approaching a surrealist physics or surrealist theory of motion. As Tumey says. “It’s all about conflict and comically explosive resolution.”
Some of the very interesting categories of screwballism that emerge in Tumey’s research include:
Escalation – “This refers… to the build-up of a seemingly trivial event, such as tying a necktie, or making a squeak toy squeak into a visual opera of human madness…As we are discovering, screwballism arises in large part as a reaction to the sudden acceleration of technological innovation that occurs in the early 20th century…Rube Goldberg, especially with his chain-reaction invention cartoons, is probably the prime exponent of this theme in America, in all mediums, not just comics.” – Paul Tumey
Oversaturation – The cramming full or overcomplication of a situation. Often including non-essential or extra gags. Especially in the case of Bill Holman (who called them “wallnuts”) and Will Elder (who called them “chicken fat”)
Banana Oil – the ludicrous joy of calling out bullshit in a way that explodes the pretensions of puffed up people.
And many other hilarious labels for this most singular form of erratic potential. The implications for surrealism, as it continues to manifest itself as opposed to the new flavours of banana oil in the 21st century, remains deliciously poignant. And reading Tumey, ones gets the sense that there is even more to be rediscovered, on the other side of the funny papers.
(Images borrowed from the above blogs)
A new book by Joël Gayraud is available here
L’Homme sans horizon
At the beginning of the millennium, after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, the horizon of humanity has been abruptly shuttered. On an overexploited and mutilated planet, where no one believes in progress, capitalism appears as an unsurpassable frontier. Dangled as a lure, democracy has been ruined by its very promoters. The story seems closed and yet the contradictions of the system have never been more obvious. Given these conditions, what to expect from the future if any revolt seems condemned in advance to the failure or the renewal of tyranny? The lack of a new horizon of hope is becoming more and more obvious.
Questioning the great critical theories (Marx, Ernst Bloch, Guy Debord), relying on anthropology, and with incursions on the side into philosophy (Aristotle, Agamben, Simondon), and also invoking the romantics and the surrealists with regards to the vital function of the creative imagination, L’homme sans horizon draws lines of flight that allow us to reopen a utopian horizon. Beyond the now-exhausted liberal utopia of the social utopia that has been disfigured by totalitarian regimes, the only possible solution is to take back and make triumph the ancestral dream of a society without class or state, consisting of equal individuals, freely associated, finally playing in their own story. Today, where the survival of the species is at stake, it is this hope that is to be realized under pain of seeing humanity collapse in barbarism. L’homme sans horizon proposes to show the urgency of what is now the only human utopia, and to provide him with the foundations of his historical legitimacy.
“Only by despairing, and then despairing of despair, can mankind begin truly to see and to act consciously in the service of the marvelous. This preliminary violation of the rules prepares the way for an entirely new game, our game, know as subversion, sublime love, the exaltation of freedom.”
– Lighthouse of the Future Manifesto, Chicago Surrealist Group, 1974
A well know fact today: Empire is burning. Empire is bleeding out. Is it the plastic chicken, or is it the stone hare? Do we skin it, or do we pluck?
Chile and Iraq. Lebanon and Catalonia. We watch, we feel ecstatic before this renewal. This fresh harvest of riot. She is joyful-despairing, she is uncalculated and unplanned. From every conceivable gap in the pavement, she escapes. Beneath the deepest cut of society’s knife, she overflows. She is sticky-sweet, uncompromising. The exact percentage of her parts, the exact mixture? Unknown. The future of her, the placesheisrunningtowards? Also unknown. So be it. The revolution will remain alchemical.
Observations. I drag my lazy work-sucked corpse to South Bend Commons. A very difficult thing to do in this day and age. In the age of the hikikomori scroll, in the time of the Netflix accumulators. South Bend Commons is an anarchist hub in Atlanta, and tonight there’s a pretty large crowd. Someone is giving a talk on Black Lives Matter. The powerpoint has some good points, and the riot porn is quite delicious. A woman with a large black dog suddenly walks in. So it’ll be a trickster spirit tonight then, eh? An emissary of Hecate? This is the second time that this has happened to me at one of these things. The other time, that was at a lecture up in Asheville. A dog had appeared as if from nowhere, and had waltzed right up to the speaker, breaking an old human taboo. Dog had disposed of the hierarchy inherent within all stages, a true revolutionist. He had also shifted the audience’s attention away from the merely-human, reframing the narrative with a fresh eye directed towards Kingdom Animalia. Dog had sniffed here and there on the stage, Dog had looked back at us all expectantly with two sadwonderful eyes. Maybe he’d given us a speech then, somekindof rousing call for liberation? It was hard to tell, none of us had spoken the dog-language at the time, or even owned a translator. In any case, we should all learn to listen more to the revolutionary wisdom of animals. Of that I am thoroughly convinced. But back to Atlanta. There is a call for a break. Friends gather, smokers smoke. A woman goes to the toilet. She finishes up, washes her hands. She attempts to open that old bathroom door. Fuckit. The bastard door is jammed. Won’t open. She’s stuck. Concerned anarchists gather round, forming plans for her jailbreak. They work collectively, attempting various actions. I remain a bemused spectator, however, patting away at the dark furry head of Hecate’s emissary. He whispers to me, he tells me a few little canine jokes while we wait. Tells me that he’s a reformed Trotskyist, that he’d only ever joined them cuz he’d like being called “Trot”. It just had made the most sense to him at the time, you know, it had sounded real nice and doggy. But now he was a tiqqunist, this sweet little pup, cuz he liked it intellectually rough, and had a thing for a certain french poodle down the street. Unfortunately my translation receiver is very subpar, however, yes indeed, and so this fun doggy monologue soon drifts back to the old Bark Bark. I don’t mind. It’s comforting. A few minutes pass, maybe ten. The anarchists continue their work on the old bastard door. Many failed attempts are made, but soon they realize something. A new plan, then. They have decided to drop bathroom-girl a screwdriver of her very own, they can drop it down from a gap in the ceiling. Yes, apparently this ceiling has many gaps and holes nested inside it. This building is a bit fucked, actually. Anyhow, it seems that now she can get herself out—from the inside! Brilliant. See, this would never had been possible in some fancy bougieland setting, because there never would have been any holes or any gaps with which to drop down the necessary tools of the escape. Her jailbreak would have then been forever-postponed. She would have led a very sad, a very miserable sort of life there in that bathroom. Day after depressingly empty day passing by inside of that tiny, stinking box, with only a few sleazy rats and the energetic SWOOSH of the flushed toilet to keep her company. It’s sad stuff, my friend, heady stuff. Like something out of an overblown Russian novel. But let’s move on from those unfortunate what-might-have-beens. Let’s breed our paragraph’s conclusion. What’s it all amount to, then? What is the meaning behind all these careless, squirming words?
Just this; it is always through a communion with the broken, with the totally useless that we have found a path to Marvelous Escape. In is only through the cracks in the walls that the revolution will appear.
Observations. Capitalism is a bloated red ballon. It is a life devouring ballon, it is a great phallus of stupidity. Along its tight, erect rubberskin there can be seen the faces of Great Fear. The thousands, the millions, of trademarked Disney characters. Digitally-printed, Walmart-sold. 2019; this is the Aeon of Mickey Mouse.
Comrade, you may turn that card over now. Arcanum 20? It’s about damn time.
We insurrectionists, we are the giddy ones. We are the ones who wait. Our ears, our minds open. Listening attentively for that final deafening marvelous POP. And we don’t just wait—no, no—we do everything we can in order to help that rupture along. That happy rupture. The earlier the better, of course. Everyone here knows that our time is short. But inside of us a something has been growing. A vague, a strange little outline of the something other, the futurenow. And these outlines, they are being shaped on the anvil of our authentic friendships, our authentic bonds. They are being brought into supersharpfocus. Yes, we have already started despairing of despair. Because behind the shadow of the Spectacle, there remains the butcher shop of the Real. And in some places, our blood can still flow.
as for our surrealist revolution
it will most likely announce itself
with a colorful comic-book style
with thick lines tacky starbursts
with very silly fonts
it will be all
the revolution will be playful,
or it will not be at all.
– A Mormyrid
Recently we have seen a wave, an inflation of events and exhibitions called “surrealist.” One of its characteristics is the notable presence of sponsorship logos, most of them representing more or less official cultural institutions. We note the participation of more and less well-known, including some repulsive people from the academic world.
In other words: the limelight and that strange virtue of the commentary.
Regarding the participation of active surrealists in such “academic-cultural” events, I think, for example, of this one: https://www.insidethemagneticfields.net/ (look, with the Consul General of Mexico!).
For some of us, among others here in Spain, the participation of several friends at least in the first (The keys of desire) of the two exhibitions in Costa Rica surprised us a lot. Or did you not know the “details”? (The rather cultural and official nature of this exhibition, which was attended by shameless artists and other careerists who openly distanced themselves from surrealism, but admitted frankly that they could not refuse such publicity, an exhibition that counted the presence of 8 regional embassies on opening day) A simple glance is enough: countries with doubtful or worse regimes, if not overtly totalitarian. The second exhibition appears to be of the same vein, as probably one very soon in the Centro Cultiral Espacio Matta Santiago, Chile, which also looks more like an eclectic hodgepodge typical of our time, without even a bit of any lounge “spice or scandal”.
And how about Maison André Breton? I notice the barely hidden sarcasm of a note published by Miguel Corrales on his surrint blog about its “European Heritage Days” and some “surrealist culture” …
Are we blind enough not to see that the imaginative emptiness that results from the crisis and the decline of bourgeois-capitalist civilization inevitably implies the more or less systematic recovery, by its cultural institutions and other mercenaries, of certain dimensions of surrealism isolated of course from its basic principles and of its essential spirit? That would only leave us a de-fanged trinket “surrealism” turned into a simple cultural or aesthetic expression.
Are we so stupid, or innocent and, in the worst case, cynical, to believe that such cultural institutions are neutral and should not be seen as more or less integral parts of the spectacle and the system? What about the fundamental surrealist position against the dominant ideology?
Do we accept, through some anemic mental routine, to participate in the schizophrenia of the vile culture in which we are immersed, our left hand unable to feel what the right is doing? And let surrealism silently fall into atrophy in an abulic sum of small ivory towers afraid of missing the prestigious “opportunities” offered by such events?
Could one seriously tell us that this is only a tactical use of this petty world, of such opportunities and institutions, as if today’s surrealism had some kind of magical subversive power? (And quite occult, sometimes even for its own authors!). Would the surrealists feel superior, in fact, to this terrible world, a kind of elite?
This is not about a kind of fundamentalism in terms of exposing or participating in exhibitions or events about surrealism, and we still have some inevitable errors in our assessments; it is ultimately about the circumstances. But the cases mentioned above exceed, in my opinion, the limits of the morally acceptable.
Finally: The real against the possible? Away from any healthy and more than ever necessary absolute divergence, these manifestations are on the contrary empty of the slightest (not even symbolic) divergence, of the simplest and vague hint of a utopian (for not to say revolutionary) sense?
What a contrast, by the way, with the tangible and explosive sociopolitical divergences, undoubtedly loaded with beautiful glimpses of surrealist experience, in Hong Kong, in Ecuador or in Catalonia, to name only the most recent ones in this admirable category of human activity.
Jason Abdelhadi, Michele Bachelet, Maria Brothers, Steven Cline, Casi Cline, Peggy Cline, Paul Cowdell, William Davison, Rikki Ducornet, Merl Fluin, Mattias Forshage, Kathleen Fox, Sebastián Jiménez Galindo, Javier Galvez, Joël Gayraud, Guy Girard, Ottawa Surrealist Group, Sa’ad Hassan, Janice Hathaway, Sherri Higgins, Bruno Jacobs, Aaron Dylan Kearns, Renay Kerkman, Arianna Khmelniuk, Megan Leach, Vittoria Lion, Margie McDonald,Thomas Mordant, Steve Morrison, House of Mysticum, David Nadeau, Juan Carlos Otaño, Ody Saban, Ron Sakolsky, LaDonna Smith, Wedgwood Steventon, Joe Tsambiras, TH. D. Typaldos, Tim White, Craig Wilson, Sandra Martagex, Flusnoix