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Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms

The Most Interesting Comics of the Week

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Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms

Every Wednesday, I write about the most interesting new comics hitting comic shops, bookstores, digital, Kickstarter, and the web. Feel free to comment below if there's a comic you've read recently that you want to talk about or an upcoming comic that you'd like me to consider highlighting.


1. The Short Con

by Aleks Sennwald and Pete Toms
Study Group Comics

True Detective meets Encyclopedia Brown but set in a girls' orphanage

Popowski (Pops) is a brilliant but hot-headed detective who has been assigned a new partner, Branwell, a brooding loner who just joined the department after suffering a terrible, existential tragedy. Pops and Branwell are also kids who live and work out of an all-girl orphanage, solving crimes involving vampires, mummies and, now, the murder of Branwell’s parents.

The Short Con, serialized on the excellent Study Group Comics website, is a fun comic that seems made for the reader who loves both True Detective and Encyclopedia Brown. Aleks Sennwald's charming drawing style is effortlessly funny as she and writer Pete Toms tackle classic detective tropes with little girls in place of weary old men. There's been less than 20 pages posted so far, but it’s already full of so many brilliant little ideas. One of my favorites is that the “police chief" is the nun who runs the orphanage and makes Pops drop five cents into a jar every time the precocious detective breaks the rules.

Sennwald and Toms have been updating The Short Con with new pages every Friday since April. It’s a standout among many great comics in the constantly revolving Study Group collection. It’s easy to catch up here.

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2. Angie Bongiolatti

By Mike Dawson
Secret Acres

Sex and socialism in post-9/11 New York

Last week, Mike Dawson published a very personal essay on Tumblr titled, "Advice to the mid-career cartoonist who has failed to build an audience.” In it, he lament the poor sales of his newest book Angie Bongiolatti and ponders the value of working on long form graphic novels versus shorter, web-friendly comics. It ended up setting off a firestorm within the indie-comics blogosphere with some people empathizing and appreciating the honesty and others sharply criticizing Dawson and his publisher’s marketing of and expectations for the book. Ironically, I had already planned to include Angie Bongiolatti in this week’s list even though I missed the actual release date (the fact that I missed it, despite keeping pretty up on these types of things, may be part of the problem) but the controversy may make this the most apt time to highlight it anyway.

The title character of Angie Bongiolatti is at the center of an ensemble of 20-somethings living in post-9/11 New York. Angie is a politically conscious activist working as an animator for a small e-learning company and is involved in planning a protest of the World Economic Forum. Her personality has a certain gravitational pull on her male acquaintances whose intentions are probably driven more by sexual desire than political altruism. Dawson examines the good and bad of socialism and capitalism through the viewpoints of various characters while also interjecting illustrated essays by the likes of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler.

A politically heavy book about socialism—even one with a good amount of sexual content and humor—is not going to connect with mainstream audiences despite how skilled and insightful Dawson is as a writer. He approaches his graphic novels more like a literary novelist than most cartoonists. You could imagine Angie Bongiolatti working very well as a contemporary novel, raising the question of whether it could even find its perfect audience as a comic book. As in his last book, the Ignatz Award-winning Troop 142, Dawson tells difficult stories about real and complicated people which he doesn’t present through fantasy devices like magical realism that would make them more allegorical or just plain comic reader-friendly.

Angie Bongiolatti is an interesting, if idiosyncratic, work from a talented cartoonist. It was released earlier in the summer and if your local comic shop or bookstore doesn’t have it you can order it from the publisher here.

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3. Palm Ash

By Julia Gfrörer
Self published

A tragic drama set during the Diocletianic Persecution

Julia Gfrörer’s debut graphic novel Black is the Color was released by Fantagraphics last year to much acclaim, making many critics' Best Of lists. She creates somber, shocking, and darkly funny comics that approach magical and spiritual subject matter as well as real, honest emotions with a wry sense of humor. Her thin-lined drawings have an honesty and spontaneity while very clearly conveying the exact emotion and action she aims for.

Just a few weeks back, Gfrörer released her most recent book for sale on her Etsy shop. Palm Ash is a 20-page black-and-white xeroxed mini comic about early Christians and their Roman tormentors during the Diocletianic Persecution. Within a handful of short scenes, she tells the story of three primary characters: Simeon, a Christian who, every time he is sent to the lions, causes them somehow to miraculously fall asleep; Dia, a servant and—secretly—a fellow Christian who tends to Simeon; and Drusus, one of the Roman soldiers who all seem to carry on illicit relationships with their servants.

This is a very dense mini comic that you’ll want to read a couple of times through to catch the subtle interactions. Gfrörer is deliberate in how she frames her characters from panel to panel almost giving you the feeling that you're viewing actors in a stage play. Each page is drawn in a consistent 9-panel grid that conveys a calm, distant view of the action even when some pretty horrifying stuff happens.

You can order a hand-stapled, xeroxed copy of Palm Ash from Gfrörer’s Etsy store for just $5.

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4. Moonhead and the Music Machine

By Andrew Rae
Nobrow

A boy with a moon for a head helps his fellow classmates embrace their weirdness

In Andrew Rae’s graphic novel, Moonhead and the Music Machine, a socially awkward high school student named Joey Moonhead spends his days disconnected from the reality of school and home life while the giant moon he has for a head drifts off to explore the far reaches of his imagination. After discovering his parents' old rock albums (in a wonderful sequence of visual homages to the classic vinyl covers of '60s and '70s era concept rock albums), Joey meets Ghost Boy (who is covered by a sheet) and the two wow their classmates with the joy of rock and roll and their individual weirdness.

Moonhead is a visually imaginative book with some truly great sequences, particularly when Joey is rocking out or when his head is going off on his journeys. Rae, a prolific illustrator and member of the UK-based Peepshow art collective, has a clear, colorful style that mixes together children’s book and underground comix aesthetics (I should note that this is probably more for teens rather than all-ages fare).

Here is the usual photo set from Nobrow Press that emphasizes the quality of the book’s production.

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5. Animals #2: Pigs

By Eric Grissom and Claire Connelly
Frankenstein’s Daughter

A working-class pig has a run-in with humans that have escaped from a slaughterhouse

Pigs , the second installment of Eric Grissom and Claire Connelly’s Animals trilogy, hit Comixology through their Submit program for self-publishers last week. In this series, the roles of animals and humans have been reversed so that humans are slaughtered and sold as food in restaurants and grocery stores while animals choose whether or not to show them empathy.

Pigs focuses on an employee at one of the human slaughterhouses, a quiet pig, living a simple life of going to work every day and coming home to watch reality TV with his wife. When some humans escape the slaughterhouse and end up in his backyard, the pig has to make that choice about how to treat them.

Grissom and Connelly’s trilogy consists of short single issue comics that are thoughtful character studies set against a theme of vegetarianism and animal cruelty.

View a preview and buy Pigs on Comixology here.

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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
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History
How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
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Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

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Courtesy of Highlights for Children
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7 Engaging Facts About Goofus and Gallant
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Courtesy of Highlights for Children

For well over 60 years, the preadolescent readers of Highlights for Children magazine have gotten regular lessons in morality from Goofus and Gallant, a pair of kids of indeterminate age and relation who offer sharp contrasts in behavior. Gallant is prone to exhibiting perfect manners; Goofus is selfish, thoughtless, and has even been seen torturing small animals. (Honest: He has stoned birds and once subjected a frog to some disturbing cruelty.)

The two-panel strip has become so ubiquitous that warring ideologies are often described as “Goofus and Gallant” types. If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s more to Gallant than being a goody two-shoes or whether Goofus is flirting with juvenile delinquency, check out our round-up of the pair’s storied history.

1. THEY USED TO BE ELVES.

Goofus and Gallant

Goofus and Gallant were the creation of Garry Cleveland Myers, a child psychologist and popular syndicated parental advice columnist. Myers debuted the strip, then known as the The G-Twins, in Children’s Activities magazine in 1938. While the twosome were already displaying their radically different approaches to life, Myers depicted them as fanciful creatures with pointed ears and curly-toed shoes. No one is quite sure why Myers opted for the fairy tale aesthetic, although one theory is that he wanted to depict bad behavior rather than bad children.

After Myers and wife Caroline started Highlights for six- to 12-year-old readers in 1946, they were eventually able to acquire the rights to the strip. Goofus and Gallant debuted in their magazine in 1948; by 1952, they had morphed into two regular kids. Their parents lost the elf ears, too.

2. THEY MAY HAVE BEEN BASED ON REAL KIDS.

Highlights turned into a family enterprise, with the Myers’s children and grandchildren having a hand in its publication. In 1995, Kent Brown Jr., the Myers’s grandson, told the Los Angeles Times that he was the inspiration for Goofus and that his cousin, Garry Myers III, was the model for Gallant. Myers III denied the accusation. “Kent gets great glee out of claiming to be Goofus," he said. Brown later stated that all of Myers's 13 grandchildren helped inform the characters.

3. ONE ARTIST DREW THE STRIP FOR 32 YEARS.

Goofus and Gallant

Once Myers secured the rights to the two characters for Highlights, he enlisted illustrator Marion Hull Hammel to draw their adventures (and misadventures), taking them from the elfin creatures of the early days to the human boys of the 1950s and beyond. Hammel wound up drawing it for 32 years; Sidney Quinn took over when she retired and worked on it through 1995. Current artist Leslie Harrington has been on the strip since 2006. 

4. GALLANT GETS HATE MAIL.

While the recurring theme of Goofus and Gallant is to exercise the Golden Rule, not all juvenile readers are on board with Gallant’s impeccable manners. "I got a letter from an attorney who'd grown up with the feature," Rich Wallace, the magazine's then-coordinating editor, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “He had something he wanted to get off his chest: 'Gallant was a wussy.'" Other readers have expressed similar disdain for Gallant, observing that they identify more with Goofus.

5. GOOFUS IS NOT A SOCIOPATH.

Goofus and Gallant

In the absence of any in-panel clinical diagnosis of Goofus’s reckless behavior—including but not limited to playing with fire, being unkind to peers, and vandalizing school books—we’re left with the editorial directives of Highlights. In a 1993 interview with the Chicago Tribune, magazine publicist Tom White admitted that Goofus is a “surly, uncooperative, ill-mannered child” but that "he is not a sociopath.” Good to know!

6. THEY’VE BEEN FEATURED IN ROUGHLY A BILLION ISSUES.

Discounting the two years they were absent from Highlights from 1946 to 1948, the antics of Goofus and Gallant have appeared without fail in every subsequent issue. In 2006, the magazine celebrated its 60th anniversary by shipping its one billionth copy. The magazine went from selling 20,000 copies of its first issue to averaging 2.6 million readers a month in the 1990s.

7. ONE EDITOR’S THEORY WILL BLOW YOUR MIND.

Goofus and Gallant

When Goofus and Gallant began their broadly-drawn moral plays in the 1950s, they were depicted as identical twins. Later on, editors for Highlights indicated the two were brothers, but not twins. By 1995, they were simply two unrelated boys. But according to former coordinating editor Rich Wallace, the two might actually be part of a Fight Club-style twist. “I’ve theorized they’re two sides of the same kid,” he said.

We were so awed by this possibility that we asked Highlights editor Judy Burke if it held any water. "We show the boys with different parents in the panels and they look slightly different from each other," she says. More recently, the two have seemed to become aware of the other's existence. "In April 2016, we had them breaking through their respective art panels and pranking each other for April Fools’ Day, which they couldn’t have done if they were the same child."

That doesn't mean that readers can't have an existential crisis of their own. "Each time we run Goofus and Gallant, we include the line, 'There’s some of Goofus and Gallant in us all,'" Burke says. "When the Gallant shines through, we show our best self.  We also include a few 'Goofus and Gallant Moments' from kids, where they tell us about times when they felt like either Goofus or Gallant. These two aspects of the feature support the theory that both characters reside within the same individual, and it’s up to that person to choose how to behave."

All images courtesy of Highlights for Children and used with permission.

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