Brainiac On Banjo #022: Life, Hope, and Funny Books, by Mike Gold

Batton

I am reminded of a conversation I had with Batton Lash several years ago. We were at one of those massive comics conventions – after 51 years they now all blur together into one unending conflation of backpacks, unpassable aisles, and excessive body heat. As you may know, Batton died this weekend and our obituary speaks for itself.

That conversation probably started out with several insulting but vaguely clever comments and then went on to my trying to get him to do another Munden’s Bar story. That’s me as an editor on autopilot: I see great talent and I think of it as a piece of birthday cake. But there’s at least one difference between people and birthday cake – the former might engage me in conversation. And, of course, that’s one of the great pleasures of my job. I prefer the sugar buzz from conversation.

Harvey

Somehow our discussion evolved into my desire to do a contemporary funny book, by which I really mean “funny.” In a medium that calls itself “comic” but is largely full of violent conflict, I feel the need to be specific. Anyway, the challenge is to create a project worthy of the 21st century reader’s time but without any obvious nod to Harvey Kurtzman and Mad Comics. 

No slight to Harvey or to Mad. They were the absolute masters of the form. Mad directly led to the creation of the underground comics movement and its influence helped change the nature of comedy. Fed by Ernie Kovacs, Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce, Del Close and the Second City, it in turn fostered the backbone of comedy for the next two generations. Without Harvey there most likely would have been no Monty Python’s Flying Circus as we know it… but that’s a story for another time.

Mary

The problem is, it is the 21st century and the original Mad (and its many imitators) is “been there, done that.” But Mad was so damn phenomenal that our beloved entertainment medium has been in a state of arrested development ever since. Sure, there’s been some evolution but it’s rare to see a satirical comics story that does not owe its genesis to Kurtzman and Mad. You can add all the sex and drugs and rock and roll you like, but it’s almost impossible to move out of Alfred E. Neuman’s shadow.

So that became the challenge. We discussed how to approach such a trial, and we even discussed some talent who might be up to the task. I wish I had a transcript of that conversation, although it’s possible that such publication could result in defamation proceedings. I wonder if our mutual friend attorney Mitch Berger handles libel cases.

Annnnnnnd, of course, life and work interfered, and we never had the chance to follow up.

This is one of my greatest regrets. In his song “Beautiful Boy” John Lennon wrote “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” and that is one of the great truths.

Harvey’s Mad

(I must point out that Mr. Lennon did not first voice this sentiment; at the very least it goes back to a line from a 1957 Reader’s Digest article written by cartoonist Allen Saunders, creator of the newspaper comic strips Steve Roper, Mary Worth and Kerry Drake. Give credit where credit is due.)

Of course, John Lennon is long gone, and now, so is Batton Lash. Someday, somebody – more likely somebodies – will figure out another approach to graphic storytelling humor, although it seems less likely that I will be involved in that. Who knows?

We understand that life is chock full of unfulfilled opportunities, and occasionally there’s quite an emotional price to pay for not boldly going where you really wanted to go. Life is a bunch of Legos and all too often a few bricks get sucked up in its vacuum cleaner.

However, there’s a great lesson here. Life is synonymous with hope. We are destined to move forward.