Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 8, 2010
We all have our seminal texts. These are the books that made us who we are, that are hard-wired to our psyches, whose very pages float like paper sailboats in the salty brine of our DNA. At the far end of my life, I’d rate Don Whitehead’s THE FBI STORY (a sanitized “adapted for young readers” spin on the Bureau’s history minus J. Edgar Hoover’s endless fascination with other people’s sex lives ), Jules Feiffer’s THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES (my THE HERO HAS A THOUSAND FACES) and Carlos Clarens’ AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF THE HORROR FILM as the most influential in sculpting the bona fide weirdo that is me. Somewhere in the middle, encompassing my college and bohemian years in New Haven and New York, I’d have to say Bram Stoker’s DRACULA and Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD are (you should pardon the expression) neck and neck for the most character-building and aesthetic shaping… although both might be overshadowed by WARTS AND ALL.
Published by Penguin Books in 1990, the year I turned 29, WARTS is a collection of graphic panels (I’d hesitate to call them comics but many have) drawn by (then) New York artist Drew Friedman and scripted with his brother, Josh Alan Friedman (whose professional career began with a reporter’s gig at Al Goldstein’s Screw). Most of the stuff collected within its slim but oh-so-rich page count was published previously in such far flung publications as Heavy Metal, National Lampoon, The Village Voice, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s RAW and R. Crumb’s Weirdo. I may have seen a few panels here and there over the years and I was probably familiar with Drew Friedman’s distinctive, photorealist style, but the aptly named WARTS AND ALL brought it all together. The book knocked me down, helped me back to my feet, and pushed me down a flight of stairs. But it’s not just that these guys were merciless bushwackers… they knew where I lived! Panel after brutally funny panel, the Friedmans seemed to cull for their dramatis personae all the people I had rattling around in my brain – Bela Lugosi, Tor Johnson, Rondo Hatton, Ed Wood Jr., The Three Stooges, Franklin Pangborn, Ernest Borgnine, game show host Bill Cullen, Sandler & Young – for God’s sake, I couldn’t believe someone else actually remembered Sandler & Young, those perpetually tuxedoed songsters and occasional General Motors pitchmen who sang dulcet duets on ED SULLIVAN and other prime time entertainment revues. The Friedmans gave Tony and Ralph a good shellacking on page 1 of WARTS AND ALL. But brother, that was just the beginning.
WARTS AND ALL had great appeal to my singular circle of friends. All college-educated and possessing fine sensibilities otherwise, we were to a man (and woman) all too vulnerable to broad bathroom humor and crude sexual innuendos. It is for this reason that Bill Cullen on the Wild Side, a four-panel piece of speculative fiction about the game show host’s early days prowling “the dirty side of the curb” on Chicago’s South Side, takes me off at the ankles. Cullen’s come-on to a disinterested dance hall floozy became something of a mantra for me in the early 90s but I can’t repeat it here. (Uncomfortable negotiations with prostitutes are something of a leitmotif in the Friedman canon – when a hooker asks Tor Johnson what his preference is, Tor answers “Lemon sherbet.”) That’s one of the things that WARTS does best – the precise, almost surgical use of profanity, which blindsides you every time – a lost art in these days of unexpurgated entertainment pitched to the urinals. My friends and I would (and still do) quote one-liners from the book as if they were SEINFELD dialogue, sometimes cold calling one another late at night just to say:
“Life sure is sweet.”
“The fewd is tender.”
“At least I’m still performink!”
“I wanna get me some o’that Mag-nol-eum for mah baffroom.”
Reading WARTS AND ALL then and now it’s hard to tell where the Friedmans’ sympathies lie. Do they hate these personalities of the past as much as they seem to? (See Joey Heatherton get put through the ringer in the scalding 9-page I, Joey Heatherton for a taste of someone else’s Hell.) The temptation is to view this work through a scrim of post-HOLLYWOOD BABYLON revisionist history, part of the punter’s thrill at taking potshots at the rich and famous and (in most cases) conveniently deceased. (Still-living talk show host and old time movie buff Joe Franklin instigated a 1984 lawsuit against Friedman and Friedman for their comic strip parody The Incredible Shrinking Joe Franklin, but the case was dismissed and any ill feelings between plaintiff and defendants have dissipated.) As sensitive as I am to that kind of celebrity necrophilia, I never took offense at WARTS AND ALL or the many satirical comics Drew Friedman has since drawn, without or without Josh. For one thing, the work of actually drawing these panels is so painstaking, involving thousands of stippled dots laid over an already realistic caricature to give it a photorealist effect, that only the worst kind of anthracite son-of-a-bitch would put in that amount of blood, sweat and tears. The Joey Heatherton script alone took Josh a full year to research, with trips to the library to go through dusty files and yellowed press clippings for info, while it generally took Drew a full eight hour day to produce a single panel. Clearly, cheap laughs were not the Friedman’s raison d’être. Given that many of their comics could be more than a little nasty (not for nothing were the Friedmans known as “the most feared cartoon duo of the late 70s and 80s”), I’d wager that the love/hate ratio splits right down the middle.
Few noted personalities of the past have gotten a sweeter ride on the Friedman Express than cult film director Ed Wood, Jr. Wood is conspicuous in his absence from WARTS AND ALL (although his spirit is felt in the presence of Tor Johnson, Vampira and a drug-addled Bela Lugosi, all of whom had roles in Wood’s magnum opus PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE) but both brothers would honor Wood through the years. In 1992, Kitchen Sink Press put out a pack of collectible trading cars of The Ed Wood, Jr. Players, drawn with tender loving care by Drew, and Josh is the author/composer of THE WORST!, an Ed Wood musical whose song list includes an achingly acute paean to Bela Lugosi. I suspect the bottom line for a lot of the living and the dead depicted in this book is the fascination of imagining them in situations their movies or nightclub acts never dropped them into: Joan Crawford in bed with Rondo Hatton (Universal’s “Monster Without Makeup”), LOVE BUG star Buddy Hackett palling around with Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein (the true crime inspiration for PSYCHO‘s Norman Bates), or LIFEBOAT star Tallulah Bankhead locked in a sweaty Sapphic bear hug with GONE WITH THE WIND‘s Hattie McDaniel. At the bottom of all these scandalous panels there is a sense of child-like wonder. Drew’s stippled style gives these stories a tabloid graininess – a snowy, televised aspect – as if broadcast on a magical old Philco that can see past the privacy curtains of celebrity privilege to the often ugly truth. And in these imagined behind-closed-doors, there is surprising humanity and warmth, however callous it all may appear on first pass. It’s that weird hybrid of irreverence and respect that sold me on WARTS AND ALL. It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years since I first clapped eyes on this book but it’s taken me all of that time to really understand the mad genius of it and to wish that Drew and Josh had written THE FBI STORY.
After twelve years together, Team Friedman disbanded in 1990, which marks another 20th anniversary. Drew continues to create with unnerving (and often unflattering) pinpoint accuracy and his work has been featured in Time, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Observer, Esquire and other national publications, as well as on the covers of everything from Gregory William Mank’s recent HOLLYWOOD’S HELLFIRE CLUB: THE MISADVENTURES OF JOHN BARRYMORE, W.C. FIELDS, ERROL FLYNN AND “THE BUNDY DRIVE BOYS” to the The New Yorker. He has also published several more collections, including THE FUN NEVER STOPS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF COMIC ART 1991-2005 and the BLAB! storybooks OLD JEWISH COMEDIANS and MORE OLD JEWISH COMEDIANS. (Drew’s fourth wall shattering portrait of Marty Allen is quite possibly one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen – and I’ve been to the Capuchin Crypt in Rome, where the buttresses are decorated with baby skeletons.) Having long since traded the mean streets of Manhattan for family life in Dallas, Texas, Josh has continued as a musical act with the gigging, recording Josh Alan Band. Josh is also the author of the nonfiction books TALES OF TIMES SQUARE, WHEN SEX WAS DIRTY and TELL THE TRUTH UNTIL THEY BLEED as well as the autobiographical novel BLACK CRACKER, available from Amazon Kindle. I spoke with Josh this morning, at which time he marveled at the two decade distance between the present day and the publication of WARTS AND ALL. “I hear about it all the time, so I don’t think of it as having been twenty years,” he remarked with a nostalgic sigh. “Seems more like ten. Mantan Moreland and Shemp Howard and all the things that I used to care about I still care about, even though they’re from another century now. There’s no such thing, really, as the past. It’s all part of a continuum, it all keeps going. I see a very bright future for Tor Johnson.”
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