“I Like to Sock Myself in the Face”: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism” (Part Three)

Chicken Fat

If Avery used the opera singer and the magician as comic stand-ins for the text’s struggle between norms and their disruptions, the aesthetics of early Mad Magazine can be read through a more literal conflict, or at least competition, between writer Harvery Kurtzman and artist Will Elder for the attention of the reader. Elder liked to cram his panels with what he called “chicken fat,” extraneous gags and signs which pulled our attention from story actions in the foreground to seemingly irrelevant background details. As Elder explained, “chicken fat is the part of the soup that is bad for you, yet gives the soup its delicious pleasure.” For the most part, these background gags were Elder’s own additions, not dictated by Kurtzman’s script, though some have suggested Kurtzman increasingly created opportunities for such elements. At other times, the writer expressed frustration when these gags overwhelmed the basic building blocks of his narrative or upstaged his verbal humor. Readers would linger on a single panel, scanning for more comic elements, rather than following the forward momentum of the plot.

One frequent form of “chicken fat” were advertising signs or graphiiti, texts which often annotated the action or offered conflicting ideological perspectives on the events. Throughout Elder’s “Startchy,” (Mad, 12) background details hint at a much harsher social milieu than depicted in the Archie Andrews comic books. Yet, Elder can not resist putting a Burma Shave rhyme on the butts of a series of background figures in one panel. A scene from “Shadow!” (Mad, 4), showing a young woman falling down a flight of stairs, places a different advertising slogan on each step, while the natives in “Ping Pong” (Mad, 6) defend themselves with the Blue Shield and Knights of Pythias icons, playing cards, board games, roulette wheel, and surf boards . Such images need not be consistent from frame to frame, as in “Sooperdooperman” (Mad, 4) where a different icon appears on the chest of battling caped crusaders, in each panel, further undermining any conception of a coherent or consistent fictional world.

Elder’s contemporary, Basil Wolverton, is similarly known for his use of background details and signs which distract us from the main action. Consider the range of different signs depicted on the cover of a single issue of Powerhouse Pepper: “Fighters: Don’t Mope on the Rope,” “Seconds don’t count. The Referee does!,” “Don’t Pile in this aisle!,” “Tonight: Powerhouse Pepper vs. Doug Slugmug,” “Next Week: Rush Crushmush vs. Bopper Sloppermopper,” “If you must smoke, light up with genuine boxing matches.” A heckler from the crowd asks via a word balloon, “How’s to sell you life insurance?” while the protagonist is distracted from punching down his over-sized opponent by a shapely woman walking down the aisle. A semiotician would have a blast interpreting the various functions of such signs (promotional, regulatory, informative) within the fictional world as well as the ways that their language, especially the rhyming slang which was Wolverton’s trademark, become a source of pleasure well beyond any meaningful function they might serve within the depicted space.

Wolverton similarly deploys sound effects graphics as a source of pleasure in and of themselves, often using them to distract from rather than reinforce the main action. One illustrated essay. “Acoustics in the Comics,” captures the cartoonist’s fascinations with sound effects. Wolverton begins the essay describing his uncertainty as he tries to figure out the best way to graphically convey the sound of a horse stepping on someone’s head. Responding to critics of his often wild and crazy images, Wolverton embodies such criticisms through the figure of an editor who insists on “realistic” sound effects. Across a series of misadventures, he depicts the cartoonist as trying to identify the precise sounds required to represent a range of unlikely experiences, so that flup represents the sound of “dropping your uppers on a gob of putty,” Jworch as the sound of a safe falling on a man, Koyp as the noise a skin pore makes with it snaps shut upon contact with cold air, and soop as the sound of “a octopus tentacle slapping a bald bean” assuming the head is round (though it makes a “spoip” sound If the head is flat. These acoustic gags play upon the ways that Wolverton’s art refused to abide by realist or classical expectations, preferring to draw his readers in more zany and improbable directions.

Wolverton was interested in how wacky or improbably sounds might disrupt the norms of a classically constructed text; many of his best graphics engulf his frazzled protagonists with textual representations of their disruptive and distracting sonic surroundings. One representation of artists at work included the sounds of pens scratching on the sketchpad, of someone pulling on his hair, and the astonished response of critics and readers asked to make sense of what the artist is depicting. Another shows an anxious man trying to watch a movie surrounded by other patrons chomping popcorn, popping gum, and rocking in their chairs.

Corny Gag, Isn’t It?

Tex Avery’s cartoons similarly exploit our fascination with background details, though the linear nature of cinema makes it much harder for us to linger and savor such elements. (One probably has to watch Screwball Squirrel multiple times before you spot the painting of a fire hydrant hanging on the wall of the dog’s quarters.) Rather, they unfold in front of the camera, one gag at a time. Consider, a few examples, from his first MGM film, Blitz Wolf (1942).

A Good Humor truck appears alongside a tank brigade. A sign pops out of the top of a flame thrower promising “I don’t want to set the world on fire.” The Hitler-like Big Bad Wolf steps out of a truck which bears the label, “Der Fewer (Der Better),” and holds up a sign to the camera, “Go on and Hiss! Who cares!” (which gets pelted with tomatos by the picture house audience.) When the Wolf’s Der Mechanized Huffer Und Puffer blow the little pigs’s house down, it reveals a sign reading “Gone with the Wind” before the camera pans to show a second sign, “Corny Gag, isn’t it?” An endless pan up the barrel of an alied weapon pauses long enough to let us read the words on yet another sign, “Long darn thing, isn’t it?” and when the weapon fires, it whips out a graphic representing Japan and yet another sign drops down from off-screen space informing us that “Doolittle Dood it!” Again and again, such signs destabilize our relations to the represented actions, sometimes suggesting that the characters are themselves aware that they are appearing within a cartoon which we are currently watching (as in the wolf’s direct address to the audience) and to which we may respond (as in hurled fruit) and other times speaking on behalf of an unseen narrator, who feels compelled to comment on the depicted actions (including labeling gags as “corny”).

Avery also often based gags on the disjunction between sound and images. Consider three examples from Screwball Squirrel. In the first, Screwball closes the door to a phone booth before letting loose with a prolonged raspberry, a sequence designed to call attention to the act of censorship which represses some of his more bodily humor. (This particular rude noise is specifically prohibited in the Production Code). In the second, the camera pulls back from the canine antagonist rolling down the hill in a barrel to show what we might have first read as non-diegetic musical accompaniment as having a source in the fiction: Screwball is making appropriate sounds using drums, timpani, and bird whistles. At another point, as the dog relentlessly chases the squirrel, we begin to hear repeated noises on the soundtrack and the image gets caught into a loop, which suggests the recycling of stills that go on routinely in animated shorts. The image freezes, the Squirrel steps away, hits the needle of a phonograph, gets the music on track, and then, steps back into his place in the chase. In all three cases, Avery refuses to allow us to take the relations between sound and images for granted. Like Jones and Wolverton, Avery sees noise as the source of comic disruptions of the well constructed texts, finding pleasure in the breakdown of normal codes and conventions.

Jokes On Jokes On Jokes

Terry Gilliam has described what he values most about Will Elder’s work: “the way he filled every inch of the thing with, just stuff….jokes on jokes on jokes.” Such visual clutter and comic density is especially visible in the expanded panels which open many of Elder’s Mad parodies. One such panel for “Is This Your Life?” (Mad, 24) tries to engulf all of 1950s American culture, into a single crammed and cramped image, including fictional characters (the Lone Ranger, Donald Duck), news casters (Edward R. Murrow) and political personalities (Nikita Khrushev, Richard Nixon), television and film stars (Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe), and brand icons (Aunt Jemima, The Smith Brothers, the Quaker Oats man, Snap, Crackle, and Pop), on and on. The opening of “Starchie,” shows Blondie and Little Orphan Annie as another two students attending Riverdale High, while Annie carries a textbook, “Freud is a Fraud by Freed” which pulls us into another discursive field altogether.

Such plays with intertextual references are also common to the work of Tex Avery (see Who Killed Who, 1943, where Santa Clause pops out of a closet and pulverizes the protagonist for failing to respect a sign warning him not to open the door before Xmas) or in Hellzapoppin (where Johnson bumps into a sled marked Rosebud and mumbles that he thought they had burned that thing or where the Frankenstein monster pops out of the audience and hurls Martha Raye back on stage during the disrupted ballet sequence described earlier.) All of this suggests that what Hoberman described as the “encyclopedic” nature of Frank Tashlin’s comedy, “an elaborately cross-referenced Bartlett’s of mass media quotations”[p.34] or the “collage-like” qualities of Will Elder’s comics [p.37] might be extended to describe the tradition as a whole. These artists borrowed freely across media, genres, modalities, and cultural hierarchies.

Moreover, these artists saw visual density as a source of pleasure in and of itself. Often, the specific details are less funny than the sense of their accumulation, of so many unlikely things occurring in the same space at the same time. Consider Hoberman’s description of the opening image of “Ping Pong,”(Mad, 6) Elder’s parody of King Kong:

“a giant slobbering ape towering above the mass of screaming humanity that flees before it on vehicles ranging from flying carpets to pogo sticks. Although the overall effect is monumentally static, the image yields a dozen miniature emblems of exaggerated panic: one man is running with a bathtub clutched around his middle, another’s eyes have just popped from his sockets, someone else appears to have plunged his hand through the back of the head in front of him so that it emerges, flailing, through its mouth. Meanwhile, Ping – brushing off the scaffolding that has suspended itself from his underarm in an attempt to plaster a ‘Post No Bills’ sign across his torso – is being attacked by a cannon firing puffed rice, a parachutist with a peashooter, a machine-gunner suspended in a diaper that is carried by a stork, and an army helicopter whose rear propeller has unobtrusively pulverized a portion of the frame line.”

(p.37) This dense image seems appropriate for a post-war era where critics were commenting on the struggle of Madison Avenue executives to grab our attention in an increasing noisy and distracting visual landscape. We can’t take it all in. No two readers see the same thing. And indeed part of the pleasure is the promise of comic effects beyond comprehension.

The Hell sequence at the start of Hellzapoppin is as visually dense as anything Elder ever created with acrobats leaping and flying in every direction, with people walking in between jugglers hurling flying sticks back and forth, with elements thrust into the frame from every possible off-screen space, and with gag elements appearing and then vanishing again with no real explanation. The introduction of Olsen and Johnson gets heralded by a menagerie of chickens, ducks, sheep, goats, and dogs, in a scene which includes everything but the kitchen sink (which, have no fear, gets brought in for comic effect in one of the film’s later scenes.) At the risk of a bad pun, this “devil may care” attitude reflects a sense of old vaudeville, burlesque, and joke book gags, being pulled out of moth balls, for one last play, with everyone involved recognizing how tired or hokey these devices may be individually but hoping that if they throw enough things at the screen at once something will produce a laugh or a sense of wonderment. And when the word play gets too bad, one can just step outside of the joke altogether: “corny, isn’t it?” These comic artists flag their jokes the way Babe Ruth point out his homeruns: we know where they are going to go but it’s still amazing to watch them get there.