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

Forms Stretched to Their Limits

In this intensified comic atmosphere, it should be no surprise that bodies – whether that of live comic performers or cartoon characters – were reduced to, in a phrase associated with Jack Coles, “forms stretched to their limits.” Vaudeville’s performer centered mode of production and its emphasis on constant novelty and heterogeniety pushed its stars to develop a range of performance skills and to exploit as many of them in any given performance as possible. This push towards intensification resulting in such specialties as the protean or quick change artist who might transform his identity dozens of times in the course of a performance, trying to play all of the parts in the enactment of a Shakespearean drama or an adaptation of War and Peace. It also resulted in the tradition of the eccentric dancer, whose performance would include back-flipping acrobatics and rubber legged dance moves, which often defy our normal assumptions about human anatomy. One can see remarkable examples of this tradition in the preserved segments from Spike Jone’s TV work.

In “I Like to Sock Myself in the Face,” Peter James, a regular member of Jone’s stock company, sings a rapid patter song which proclaims the masochistic pleasures of self-directed violence. The clown, dressed in an over-sized checkered suit which defies every advice ever given about what to wear on early black and white television, races onto the stage, hurls himself up the curtains, bobs up and down in rhythm to the music, before proceeding to slap and kick himself in the face, run circles around the bandleader, winding up his legs and kicking in all directions, and turning back flips. He flings himself on all fours, bouncing up and down on the floor. All of the above is performed live by the breathlessly enthusiastic entertainer and unveiled for us in a series of long takes which make it clear that there is no trickery involved.

Such a performance might well be called “cartoonish” and that’s precisely the point – it offers us the illusion that a live performer’s body may be as elastic and protean as that of a cartoon or comic book character. There is little separating Peter James’s proclaimed joy in socking himself in the face and the prolonged sequences of Wolfie’s equally intense gyrations and contortions in response to Red Hot Riding Hood in Avery’s cartoons. Wolfy gets shown going stiff as a board, stretching his arm across the auditorium to pull his beloved off the stage, banging himself in the face with hammers, whistling and pounding on the table, popping his eyes out of his head, and shooting himself in his desperate and uncontrollable expressions of erotic desire. These hyberbolic reactions became the primary source of comedy for extended sequences in the film and such displays are often what people remember most vividly about Avery’s cartoons.

Art Spiegelman finds a similar fascination with hyperbolic extensions of the human body in Jack Cole and his most famous creation, Plastic Man:

“Plastic Man had all the crackling intensity of the life force transferred to paper….Plas literally embodied the comic book form: its exuberant energy, its flexibility, its boyishness, and its only partially sublimated sexuality.”

The pleasure of reading a Cole comic was watching his protagonist stretch and pull in all directions, changing shape and identity at will, often anchored only by our recognition of the red, black, and yellow coloring of his costume. In yet another analogy to modernist art, Spiegelman argues that the character “personified George Bataille’s notion of the body on the brink of dissolving its borders,” suggesting a sexual charge to images of Plas’s bulbous head at the end of his extending, flaccid or erect neck, or at the suggestion that any body part might take any shape at a moment’s notice.

The same might be said of the characters depicted by Basil Wolverton, whom art critic Doug Harvey has linked to a much larger tradition of grotesque caricature, again drawing on references to surrealism, expressionism, and dada:

“Wolverton’s obsessively detailed images of impossibly distended organs, alarming proliferations of extra limbs, seething oceans of twisted, sagging,and diseased integument, and traumatic and impractical fusions of man and machine in which man inevitably got the painful end of the stick…. His work has a singularity of focus and vertiginous sense of exhilaration that verges on nausea, and it has continued to be vital and grown increasingly relevant, from the days of vaudeville through to the post-McLuhan mediascape. And if it makes your sister puke, it’s done its job.”

Spigelman has emphasized the kinetic qualities of Cole’s artwork, tracing the ways that Plas moves from left to right, top to bottom, from panel to panel, forcing the reader to scan his eyes rapidly from place to place within the frame: “

Plastic Man’s S-curved body …loops around one pedestrian in the distance and extends between two lovers about to kiss – lipstick traces are on his elongated neck as he passes them – to swoop up between an old man’s legs like an enormous penis wearing sunglasses and stare into his startled face.”

Wolverton achieves a similarly kinetic quality within single images as mouths, eyelids, hair, wrinkles, all seem on the verge of drooping and sagging, like so much meat ready to fall off the bone or where a man might tied his neck into a knot to avoid the temptations of drink or another might attach a fan to his nose to disperse the stinch of his buddy’s garlicky breath. One character may be all mouth, another all nose, another might have four or five chins, each so butt ugly that we stare at the page like rubber neckers at a car accident, unable to take our eyes away even as we feel mounting disgust.

This gagging sensation is suggested by the moment at the end of the above quote where Harvey breaks from the sanctifying language of the art critic to acknowledge a much more adolescent and masculine pleasure in watching his sister’s retching. For the most part, the ‘vulgar modernists’ were misbehaving schoolboys, running amuck, seeking to shock their teachers, mothers, and sisters with their willingness to transgress norms of taste and decorum.

There was an inherent tension between all of this frantic activity and any sense of spatial orientation. Jack Cole’s Plas zigzags across the page. Wolverton’s Powerhouse Pepper makes expressive use of speed lines which seem to swoop upon us from all sides. Peter James races, leaps and tumbles around every corner of the stage. Olsen and Johnson walk through a series of movie sets with each match on action revealing them wearing a different period costume. A chase scene in Tex Avery’s Who Killed Who shows multiple versions of the same characters racing around different parts of the space at the same instant. Another gag shows the detective falling down a trap door in the bottom of the frame and then falling into the same shot from above. Don’t expect spatial relations to make sense, don’t expect the world to cohere, just sit back and watch as they rip the screen apart and put it back together again.

We can celebrate their formal inventiveness , the giddy excitement created by such unfettered movements, their expressive graphics, yet we also have to acknowledge how much of this humor was directed at women — literally in the case of Avery’s representations of the wolf’s pyrotechnic desire or figuratively, in the ways that the works associate all of that ballet, opera, and classical piano music we’ve described with a feminized realm of high culture. In a world where men display phallic energy through their ability to extend their bodies in all directions, women are often depicted as fixed and static – witness the use of rotoscoping to give Red a much more realistic appearance than Wolfy in the Avery cartoons. There are exceptions, such as Martha Raye’s character in Hellzapoppin who shows an ability to freeze frame and reverse the action at one in one particular musical number. Yet, for the most part, male characters enjoy much greater freedom of movement and fluidity of identity. One could argue that such male-centered pleasures are consistent with the analogies to modernism, given how often, say, critics have pointed to the masculine assumptions which shaped artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollack.

Indeed, high and popular artists may be complicit in reinforcing this particular set of gendered relations. Consider the case of Lena the Heyena, Wolverton’s most famous work. The drawing was produced in response to a contest hosted by Al Capp’s Little Abner and judged by a panel that included Frank Sinatra, Boris Karloff, and Salvador Dali. The image won out over those produced by such comic book rivals as Jack Cole and Carl Banks, first appearing in Abner and later recycled for a famous early cover for Mad Magazine. Here, high meets low on equal terms, with Dali recognizing and rewarding the “surrealistic” elements in Wolverton’s decisively more lowbrow work.

From Mad to ‘Sick’

We should not be surprised, then, that alongside Dali or Hoberman, the most famous patron of the “vulgar modernists” was Hugh Heffner who sought to recruit many of those discussed here, including Jack Cole, Harvey Kurtzman, and Will Elder, to work for Playboy. While the temptation is to talk about the “no holds barred” nature of their postwar work, we can see the kinds on invisible constraints that shaped their work if we look at the much more sexually explicit but formally similar work Elder and Kurtzman did on “Little Annie Fannie” for Playboy a decade or so later. Biographers describe the cartoonists’ discomfort with the more explicit imagery and subject matter Hef expected them to produce for his men’s magazine, even as he provided them more creative freedom to fill panels with “chicken fat” gags, to introduce intertextual elements, or to shatter the frame borders. (The recent reprinting of Little Annie Fannie includes an extensive set of annotations in the back trying to explain the numerous topical references that ran through the series. ) In the end, we don’t know whether the sexuality was sublimated in their postwar works or whether the sexual explicitness of their later work was forced in their efforts to remain relevant to the sensibilities of a different generation.

Basil Wolverton’s grotesques informed later underground comicbook artists like R. Crumb. A famous portrait of Crumb, his legs twisted and tangled, bears unmistakable similarities to a Wolverton drawing showing a similar contorted male figure. Crumb would give the grotesque elements of Wolverton’s work a political charge: Crumb used images of contorted human figures to push back against what he and others in the counterculture saw as the state’s repressive control over their bodies, offering up much more aggressive representations of racial difference as a challenge to a sexist and racist society (in effect, taking the ‘innocent’ ethnic types found in the earlier work and shoving it back into the shocked faces of a generation which had been too complacent about racial inequalities). Reading the “vulgar modernists” alongside Crumb, one seems just how good natured and complacent they were, how much they observed limits and respected norms, even as they sought to enact their disruption and transgression.

While the comedy rests on our acceptance that they hold nothing sacred, there is, in fact, much that remains sacred and protected within the humor of the 1940s and 1950s. While Kurtzman and Gaines faced rebuke before the Kefauver committee for their role in creating E.C. horror comics, Mad was seen as a safer alternative to which they retreated in the aftermath. If it was not exactly exhaulted, it never faced government scrutiny. None of these clowns or comic artists were blacklisted during the McCarthy era; their formal transgressiveness and sublimated eroticism would have felt much more comfortable in the context of their times while overt ideological critique would have been much less acceptable.

Hoberman was drawn to these artist at a time when politically engaged filmmakers and cultural critics saw reflexivity as a way out of the illusionism of classical Hollywood cinema, seeing shattering textual codes and conventions as the beginning of a different kind of relationship to spectators. When they looked at the films of Tex Avery, say, they could find many examples of this kind of formal transgression. Avery’s films sent characters flying outside the frame or showed them straddling a line separating black and white and technocolor. One character in Batty Baseball (1944) stops the picture and demands that they go back and show the lion roar and provide opening credits, while the dog begs for the picture to end after being beaten mercilessly by Screwball Squirrel.

The character at the start of Who Killed Who is reading a book “based on the cartoon of the same title,” turns to the audience, and explains that if the cartoon is anything like the book, he’s about to be murdered. Screwball Squirrel lifts up the bottom of the frame and takes a peak into the next scene to see what he’s supposed to do next. And we could go on and on.

As Dana Polan notes in an essay principally focused on another “vulgar modernist” text, Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953), there is a difference between reflexivity as a formal practice designed to defamiliarize various textual codes and conventions and reflexivity as a political practice designed to critique real world institutions and practices. One takes pleasure in pulling the rug out from Hollywood conventions, while the other teaches us a new way to see the world or offers us new perspectives on the realm beyond the movie house.

Reading Mad magazine taught the coming generation to be skeptical of political authorities or the influence of Madison Avenue, but they would have to push its humor up several notches before they could find a mode of comedy well suited to the politics of the counterculture. These artists paved the way for everything that came yet they might have been the last generation of American humorists who could transgress wildly and yet still hold a place within the consensus culture. They were, in short, marginal but not outside the frame of mainstream culture.

From a critical perspective, then, the question is whether we should allow ideological criteria to always trump aesthetic ones. Modernism, in the high art sense, was certainly divided between artists, or even works within the body of the same artist’s careers, which were more focused on formal innovation and ideological critique, and we have found a way to accommodate both strands in the cannon of western art. Cannons often get defined in terms of the lasting impressions and continued influence of an artist’s body of work and by that criteria, these artists continue to exert a strong influence on our culture down to the present day. As Doug Harvey writes in regard to Wolverton,

“generations of comic creators, from Will Elder, Gahan Wilson, R. Crumb and Gary Panter to Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, and Charles Burns, have been influences by his meticulous technique and pictorial audacity. Artists from the world of ‘fine’ or ‘high’ art, such as Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Kenny Scharf, Peter Saul, Jim Nutt, and many others turned Wolverton’s pop-culture monstrosities into museum-worthy artifacts.”

Similarly, Tex Avery’s influence is explicitly acknowledge through Jim Carrey’s performance in The Mask, through the opening sequences of Who Frame Roger Rabbit?, or throughout Tiny Tunes, Ren and Stimpy, and Animaniacs while it is hard to conceive of the world depicted in The Simpsons or South Park in the absence of Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman. Hoberman’s essay ends with the suggestion that “what was once oppositional in vulgar modernism has largely been co-opted by the culture industry” (pointing to the then contemporary examples of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman or Saturday Night Live.) I have argued the opposite here– that their containment within commercial culture worked to mute any overt political statements they might have made and that subsequent generations, following their example, have often pushed their transgressiveness much further. Perhaps these later works are consistent with Hoberman’s closing call for a “vulgar postmodernism” though I will leave to someone else the always thankless task of policing the borders between modernism and postmodernism. That these works are a living presence in our culture makes the project of revisiting Hoberman’s essay and reassessing this body of work that much more urgent.

We have been able to only start the project of a comparative or cross-media analysis of “vulgar modernism” and its place in American culture. Hoberman’s intuitive grouping of these artists proves rewarding whether we address the question in terms of biographical details or close textual analysis. These artists were fellow travelers in an artistic project none of them sought to articulate but all of them sought to demonstrate. It was a project whose roots could be traced back to vaudeville but which has been read in relation to a range of modern art movements, caught eternally in a struggle between competing claims of low-brow audacity and high art respectability. Calling them vulgar may oversell their transgressiveness, calling them modernist may overstate their avant garde impulses, yet the reality lies somewhere in the tension between the two. Whatever we want to say about them, they were artists who experimented with the basic building blocks of their respective media and taught a generation a new way to look at the world around them. When Powerhouse Pepper nonchalantly tells us in the final panel of a rather freakish comic story that certain specified pages were a dream sequence, when Startchie explains to a friend that the hearts flying around his paramour’s head might mean simply platonic friendship in “cartoon language,” they depict a world whose characters (and through extension, their readers) understand themselves as being constructed through recognized artistic conventions. When, in Symphony in Slang, Avery constructs a whole film around literalized metaphors, then we can see him inviting us to reflect on the role of language in shaping how we see the world.

And, yes, they could make your sister puke, your mother blush, and your teacher sputter. Not bad for a day’s work.