Craig Fischer here. I’m a long-time comics fan who occasionally writes about this hobby (obsession?) we all share. Even though I don’t work at Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find, I’ve been asked to contribute a monthly column to the Heroes blog about comics that I’ve found provocative, infuriating, etc. I’ll begin with a story.
Last Saturday, I was shopping in an indoor antique mall in West Jefferson, North Carolina when I stumbled across a box of reasonably priced, lightly worn copies of National Lampoon. I searched the box for Lampoon issues from the first five years—1970 through 1975, when Harvard Lampoon alumni Henry Beard and Doug Kinney, along with fearless and talented contributors, turned Nat Lamp into the greatest America humor magazine—but no luck. People who own 1970-75 Nat Lamps hold on to them. I did, however, find and buy a later issue, from October 1976, and it’s still sharp. Each issue of Nat Lamp had a theme (such as “Paranoia,” “Isolationism and Tooth Care” and “Sin”) and October ’76’s theme is “The Funny Pages,” the name of Nat Lamp’s regular comic section, which took over most of its pages for just this month. The cover itself is a goofy parody of a Golden Age Superman comic.
Inside, there’s plenty of good comics, including a four-page installment of Gahan Wilson’s Nuts serial; several examples of Dan O’Neill and Gary Hallgren’s trippy Odd Bodkins strip; a long story titled “Zoo Tramp Marie Got Put Away!” by minimalist Zen cartoonist Ed Subitzky; typically irreverent gags by Sam Gross; and M.K. Brown’s campy “Hillbilly Jubilee Song Roundup Time,” about a woman, a monkey, a crooner who sings a song called “Just a Cowboy’s Lips,” and the homoeroticism of Wild West fashion. The coolest surprise: a chapter of Two Year Affair with lovely, naturalistic art by Ralph Reese.
It worries me that there might be a generation of young comic readers that identify National Lampoon only as an adjectival phrase that comes before Vacation. Truth is, for much of its publishing life (which stretched from 1970 to a prolonged, humiliating collapse in the 1990s), Nat Lamp was a great venue for alternative, satirical comics.
I don’t have enough space and time to discuss Nat Lamp’s connection to comics in the detail it deserves, so let me recommend two comprehensive sources. Essential is Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead, a best-of coffee-table anthology assembled by Nat Lamp artist Rick Mayerowitz (Abrams, 2010). In addition to reprinting complete pieces by comic artists Subitzky, Brown, Wilson, Arnold Roth, Stan Mack, Shary Flenniken, Russ Heath and Frank Springer (in one of Springer’s immortal collaborations with the wacky Michael O’Donoghue, “Frontline Dentists”), Mayerowitz also gestures towards all the great stuff that didn’t make the anthology’s cut. A double-page spread in Drunk Stoned is a collage of the covers for the parody comics (First Lay, Commie Plot Comics, Sgt. Nick Penis and the Brassball Battalion, etc.) inside various monthly issues of Nat Lamp. The most popular of these parodies was Son-o’-God Comics. Written by Michel Choquette and Sean Kelly and lavishly drawn by Neal Adams, Son-o’-God is an outrageous send-up of religion featuring Jesus Christ as a superhero, complete with a gallery of super-villains like Satan and the Scourge of Islam. Here’s our Hero (note the capitalization) battling the Pope, from issue #33 (December 1972).
If you’d like to read more Son-o’-God Comics (and get a fuller sense of Nat Lamp’s comics aesthetic), go here, to Dial B for Blog’s discussion of all the Son-o’-God stories.
Another source I’d recommend is Comic Book Artist Volume 1, issue #24 (February 2003), entirely devoted to Lampoon artists and writers. The centerpiece of the issue is editor Jon Cooke’s comprehensive interview with art director Michael Gross, who made an inestimable contribution when he shifted the magazine’s style away from Crumb-like underground visuals and towards spot-on mimicry, as in the cover below (from #17, August 1971):
The humor here is the juxtaposition of a pitch-perfect Mad cover—actually painted by Frank Kelly Freas, one of Mad’s premiere cover artists of the ‘50s and ‘60s—with shocking subject matter. The cover is simultaneously funny and troubling because it seems to trivialize Second Lieutenant William Calley’s sanctioned massacre of unarmed civilians in the village of My Lai during the Vietnam War. It’s as if a joke about the Holocaust had appeared on the cover of Nickelodeon magazine. In our era of political correctness and evangelical tightassery, many of the Nat Lamp covers seem impossibly offensive—and liberatingly hilarious. Here’s another winner, from November 1973 (issue #44):
For more irreverent fun, check out the covers on Mark’s Very Large National Lampoon Site, here.
I agree with the general consensus that Nap Lamp dipped in quality after Beard and Kenney left the editorial board in 1975, though I think the success of the Kenney-co-written film Animal House (John Landis, 1978) was more catastrophic for the magazine, provoking the 1980s editors to go for crudity-for-crudity’s sake rather than for Beard and Kinney’s careful balance of smarts, satire and fart jokes. But even in those lesser ‘80s, a typical issue of Nat Lamp might include cartoons by Drew Friedman and Daniel Clowes, and the sublime Shary Flenniken stayed with Nat Lamp until 1990. So while I don’t need any competition in my crazed hunt through the nation’s antique malls, I’d recommend that you look carefully any copy of National Lampoon you see for sale, anytime, anywhere. You’ll probably end up buying it.
Besides Drunk Stoned, the Lampoon issue of Comic Book Artist, and the original issues piled up at forgotten flea markets and old barbershops, there are other Nat Lamp-related books available. Fantagraphics has collected Wilson’s Nuts strips into a single adorable hardcover, while in late 2011 Abrams published The Someday Funnies, a collection of lost 1970s comics edited by Lampoon mainstay Michel Choquette. Most of these books are for sale at Heroes, and maybe Shelton has some original Lampoon issues he’d be willing to part with too. Or maybe not. An old hippie like Shelton might understandably bogart his stash, especially a stash as potent as those first five years of National Lampoon.