Saturday, October 31, 2009

Non-Being and Somethingness

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Non-Being and Somethingness: Selections from the Comic Strip "Inside Woody Allen" (Random House, 1978).

I had a short little recurring gag over at my Reprint This! blog earlier in the year. I heard that Abrams was releasing a collection of the 1970s Inside Woody Allen comic strip by Stuart Hample and pretended not to believe such a thing existed, because, well, who would believe that there was ever a Woody Allen comic strip? It wasn't a very good gag, and I only used it twice, but you must admit the idea's a little wacky, especially when the book was supposed to carry an introduction by Buckminster Fuller. He's been dead for over twenty years!

Well, there really was a Woody Allen comic strip, and Abrams' book, Dread and Superficiality, really does exist, and it really does have an introduction by Buckminster Fuller. It will be released next week, and money's been tight enough to suggest that I probably won't be getting a copy, but what I did find was Non-Being and Somethingness, the first collection of Woody Allen comics, released back in 1978 and drawing from the strip's first eighteen months. Fuller, then in his 80s, contributed the deeply strange introduction, a ten-page comic in which a small group of polygons and geodesic shapes, drawn in scratchy ballpoint around typewritten captions and balloons, debate philosophy.

I think Allen's self-imposed exile from the mainstream has gone on so long that we've forgotten how popular he once was, and how riotous his standup act had been. That's the Woody Allen of this comic, a funny, bespectacled, neurotic guy hopping from therapist to therapist, unable to grasp that maybe football players aren't the best people to give advice on the question of free will. The comic, full of playful, rhetorical questions about faith, dating and celebrity, was written and drawn by Stuart Hample, and an excerpt from his own introduction to the new book appeared in the Guardian earlier this month.

Well, I say Allen was popular, but I'm pretty sure my parents always despised him and I'm certain that Inside Woody Allen never appeared in any of the Atlanta papers. The references to sex and religion would have certainly made this a no-go in the area back then. It's certainly an odd strip, rarely if ever laugh-out-loud funny, but certainly unique and occasionally quite clever. Eventually, though, I came to appreciate the collection more for bringing me a slice of cultural history that I'd completely missed the first time around than for its actual comedy content.

Spoiled by modern strip collections, I found Non-Being and Somethingness's presentation really aggravating. The designer, who, as the text-filled cover might indicate, appears to have been something of an idiot, seems to have thrown panels onto the pages at random, and there's an awful lot of wasted space. A 96 page book should have had room for at least a couple of hundred strips, but several pages here include just three panels in a diagonal tier. I really wouldn't mind popping back in time thirty years and smacking the designer in the head with a copy of a Fantagraphics Complete Peanuts book.

I am betting that Abrams' new collection looks a lot better, and is much more comprehensive than this version, and if you click the image of the old edition above, it will take you to an Amazon page where you can order the new one. While I wouldn't rank Inside Woody Allen anywhere near the top of American comic strips, it's certainly a neat curiosity and fans of the form might enjoy looking through it. Next, be on the lookout for Hipster Dad Books' first release, in the summer of 2010: a collection of the Buddy Hackett comic strip. With an introduction by Dwight Eisenhower.

1 comment:

C.K. Dexter Haven said...

I'm currently obsessing over the Dread & Superficiality comic strip book. It's part nostalgia in that I vividly recall reading it in my local newspaper circa 1979-81 as a then-nine year old. I remember mentioning to my grandfather that "it wasn't so good", and he concurred, probably for my benefit, as he was a Woody fan. I thought it was too highbrow and intellectual, though I didn't use those terms, of course, being nine years old at the time.

Reading it now, it's comforting, charming, and very much in the Woody mold, albeit with a comic strip gloss that keeps it from achieving "total heaviosity"...I'm particularly amused by the emphasis on psychoanalysis (so very '70s), his striking out with women, and the philosophical and artistic references.

I'm still surprised that Inside Woody Allen lasted until 1984. I'm pretty sure it left the Fort Lauderdale News/Sun Sentinel by then; certainly by 1981. It's a plus that the publication dates of each strip is included.