|Gilbert Shelton: The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
But let's start with the comic. The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers are hippies who share a crappy apartment in a crappy town, and their only aim in life is to stay high permanently, on as many substances as possible. Fat Freddy is dumb and always hungry; Phineas is mechanical-minded and idealistic; Freewheelin' Franklin is smart and jaded.
The Freaks generally start in their apartment, minding their own business, and then either something happens (the drugs run out and they need to get more, or they get evicted, or Fat Freddy falls in love), or they decide to try something for fun (go to Disneyland, wire up a full-size remote-controlled car, buy a waterbed, set up anti-narc traps). Hijinks ensue.
The one thing they can rely on is their motto: “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.”
Among the underground cartoonists, Robert Crumb is better known, but Shelton is far funnier— also far less uneven. Crumb is a satirist who wants to tell you something about his own dark id, and maybe yours. Though he's younger than Shelton, he comes off somehow as a square at heart. Shelton seems to plunge right into the lifestyle of the urban hippie and just wants to tell you funny stories. The Freak Brothers would nod at Fritz the Cat if they met him in the street, but they aren't bullshit artists like Fritz; they don't aspire to be anything other than what they are. (Curiously, both Shelton and Crumb are also musicians and both eventually moved to France.)
There are resonances with our own dystopian times— a ludicrous right-wing government, sexism and racism, an unending war, a resurgent left. But the differences are even more striking.
The Left is apt to think of the '60s, if it thinks of them at all, as some kind of renaissance of creativity and free-thinking, before the “neoliberals” took over. But the actual counterculture was a minority movement, widely despised, and full of things that proved to be embarrassing dead ends— the preoccupation with drugs, the sexism, the flirtation with “revolutionary” violence that only delegitimized radicalism.
Oops, I've probably made the Freak Brothers sound way heavier than they are. All this stuff is background, and Shelton is purposely exaggerating the irresponsiblity of his characters. He even has a story about how the Freaks are real people he's set up in a house so he can write stories about them, and it turns out they stripped the entire house down to the foundations to get money for drugs.
I feel I should add a warning, though. I think the Freak Brother are hilarious, but then I've been reading them for years, and though the Freaks would consider me a hopeless square, I get '60s humor— I'm a native of that country. (Ah, if only I had a record player, so I could play my Firesign Theater albums again.) I can't guarantee you'll enjoy it.
|Ryan North and Erica Henderson: The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl
I was surprised to learn that Squirrel Girl actually has a long history. Her first appearance, in 1991, is reprinted in the first TPB. It's a silly but pleasant story where SG (at fourteen) tries to become Iron Man's partner, and they end up defeating Dr. Doom together.
But her newfound glory comes from North & Henderson's comic. There's a trend today toward comics that combine a female hero with light comedy, and I am totally digging them. SG is most similar to Bandette, in that she is irrepressible, has a high self-regard, and yet seems only more adorable for it.
Squirrel Girl has, well, the power of squirrels. She's super-strong and agile— there is an explanation for how this relates to squirrels that I forget, but the takeaway is: super-strength. She has a big tail and wears a squirrel-themed outfit. She can talk to squirrels and use them as minions. Does that not sound super-useful? Because it's super-useful. If nothing else, supervillains designing their mega-scary outfits and lairs rarely count on being overwhelmed by hundreds of squirrels.
But she's as apt to use brains and charm to outwit her enemies as trying to beat them up. This could go all twee, but the danger is averted here: if she talks a villain down, she does have some convincing patter.
Ryan, like SG, is goofy, smart, relentlessly positive, and really hard to dislike. His Dinosaur Comics has been running since 2003, with the exact same art each day. He made a choose-your-own-adventure video game about Hamlet which is even more amusing.
Henderson's art is a perfect match: cartoony by Big Comics standards, but totally up for an urban vista or a view of Galactus if the plot requires it. Her depiction of Squirrel Girl herself is particularly smart. She's cute, but also a little goofy-looking, and a little on the pudgy side. As Henderson explains, “I like to draw heartier super ladies, if their powers are mostly physical, because I feel like I shouldn't be able to take down a superhero by sitting on her.”
SG is comedy, and not exactly deep. But sometimes you don't rebel by providing caustic satire, you rebel by providing an alternative, positive image. We don't need our comics to be grimdark— we can read the news for that.