Templeton, Lay, and Tyler

 

It’s possible to actually make some kind of living as a movie director or musician; even, they tell me, as a writer. (A bunch of us used to hang out beside the moat surrounding John Grisham’s place, waiting to see if he’d have a half-finished cigar to toss us when his limousine went past.) But cartooning is a hobby, something you do for your own amusement in the stolen hours when you’re not working for the Man. That seems to be the way it works for some of the most entertaining talents in the field, anyway.

Consider the case of Ty Templeton. Templeton has had a long career toiling at DC and Marvel comics, and, though hardly a major fan favorite, has built up a modest and friendly reputation. For a long time, his specialty was “TV-associated” comics — “Ren & Stimpy,” “The Simpsons,” and especially the often charming “Batman Adventures,” the pulp-paper spin-off of the great “Batman” animated series. He has worked long and hard, not without recognition — why, he wrote and illustrated the “Ren & Stimpy Powdered Toast Man Special” and the Booker Prize non-finalists How to Draw Batman and How to Draw Superman. He has kept his family fed.

What he doesn’t seem to have done is make a mint off the movie rights to “Stig’s Inferno” and the resulting line of Burger King collectible toys and Slurpee cups. “Stig’s Inferno” was once Templeton’s pride and joy, the solo comic book with which he crashed the great black & white independent comics glut of the late ’80s. Originally published by the now-defunct Canadian company Vortex (which also broke Chester Brown into print), “Stig’s Inferno” was a raucous surreal comedy about the adventures of Stig, a goateed slacker who died in a grand piano mishap and found himself on the wrong side of the afterlife divide. “Stig” is loose and antic, the work of an expansive young talent finding out what he can do. It seemed to be on the verge of gelling when Templeton moved it to the better-distributed Eclipse Comics with the sixth issue. But the last issues began to feel aimless and distracted.

It may not be irrelevant that the move to Eclipse turned out to coincide with the death, of heart failure at the freaking age of 23, of Templeton’s friend and sometime collaborator Klaus Schonefeld, just the sort of incident that can make a young talent wonder if death is really the best subject for light comedy. Meanwhile, sales were not improving, Templeton’s stomach was growling, and Ren & Stimpy were calling. “Stig’s Inferno” shut up shop with its eighth issue. (The contents of the first six issues are posted on-line at Templeton’s home page: http://www.templetons.com/ty/stig/ )

In 2002, some fifteen years after Templeton abandoned independent comics for work-for-hire, he produced his most distinctive and mature work, Bigg Time, a graphic novel published by DC Comics, which they promoted at least as vigorously as they would have a press release announcing the company president’s conviction on charges of child prostitution. Given the nature of the work, this is not inappropriate. Bigg Time is an incongruously jolly black farce about a homeless panhandler, Lester Bigg, whose life has been destroyed by bitterness and envy over the success of his baseball hero brother.

The other major character is Lester’s (literal) guardian angel, an affable sadist who’s been amusing himself by secretly raining torment on his charge his whole life. The story begins with Lester discovering his angel’s existence and demanding that he bestow upon him fame and fortune sufficient to make his brother sick with envy, lest he reveal to the angel’s superiors his unusual work ethic. I don’t want to give away any surprises as to how this turns out, but let’s just say that Templeton has no trouble arranging for the still-dead Stig to put in a cameo appearance. The years have only honed Templeton’s ability to make the most godawful events seem funny, though the book does have a certain poignancy that derives from the reader’s wondering if it’ll be another fifteen years before he’s able to do something like this again.

Carol Lay is another brilliant cartoonist who’s taken the opposite career path from Templeton, though like him she knows the special experience of having her work published by companies that have gone out of business. Since the early ’90s, Lay has been best known for her syndicated strip “Story Minute,” which appears on-line at Salon. Three collections — Now Endsville, Joy Ride, and Strip Joint — have been published by the late, lamented Kitchen Sink Press; her one book currently in print is Mythos, a novel about Wonder Woman that Lay has described as “pure pulp.” That assignment represents a throwback to Lay’s earlier years; in the ’80s, she got by doing advertising work and mainstream comics art — and only in the comics world can merging cartoon animals in superhero drag with imitations of John Tenniel illustrations for a project called “Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew in the Oz-Wonderland Wars” be considered “mainstream.” In those days, Lay’s artwork was naturalistic, polished, and conventionally eye-pleasing, but lavishing it on material that seemed precisely calculated to cause her to lose her mind must have been a great incentive for her to get in touch with her inner freak. Still, it took her a long time to arrive at the clean lines and stylized look of “Story Minute.” One of her first personal comics, the autobiographical “Midwestern Wedding,” about the nightmare betrothals of Lay’s brother, appeared in the comics anthology “Weirdo” under the pseudonym “Cora Lloyd.” One wonders whether this was to protect Lay from her family or from the readers of “Weirdo.” It’s a great piece, but its conventional (and perfectly fine) artwork make it stand out in a periodical dedicated to serving as a forum for what founder/onetime editor Robert Crumb himself called “ugly art.” I remember reading it for the first time, loving it, but worrying that when I closed the cover of the magazine, the other, punkier-looking comics would drag it into the bathroom and steal its lunch money.

Lay’s real development ended up taking place in public, in the pages of “Good Girls,” which was originally supposed to come out on a semi-monthly basis from Fantagraphics, which probably thought that Lay’s professionalism and slick style would give them a shot at a steady performer that might actually sell a little. Instead, starting in 1986, Lay cranked out exactly six issues of “Good Girls” in six years, and by the time she had the last one (containing the conclusion of a long-running story) ready to go, she had to take it to Rip Off Press; Fantagraphics, a company used to giving artists all the rope they could handle, had presumably had enough.

Taken as a whole, “Good Girls” — none of which has been reprinted or collected — is a remarkable, inadvertent document of an artist finding her voice. The first issue spotlights a hip but insecure young woman with a New Wave ’do who takes a job as a hip advice columnist, and proceeds to get into wacky scrapes. So far, so sitcom. But that first issue is padded out with the story of Irene, a rich (white) American heiress who grew up in a tribal culture that practices ritual facial modification; she comes home to the States and enters the dating world with a string of knobs on her forehead and a distended lower lip that makes her look like one of Carl Barks’s ducks. Because she’s also fabulously wealthy, she also has several would-be suitors who are prepared to try to overlook it. But Irene, a tender-hearted romantic, falls hard for a blind dreamboat who doesn’t know about her money, only to lose him when he feels her face for the first time; just because he can’t see her doesn’t mean he wants to be seen WITH her.

In the context of the first issue of “Good Girls,” the Irene story seemed like a one-shot, bizarro parody of romance comics, something that crawled out of “Young Lust” and mutated. But it seemed that there was something about Irene and her predicament that nagged at Lay; unexpectedly, she brought her back to share space in the comic with the advice columnist, and by the time “Good Girls” was halfway through its run, it was the columnist who disappeared from the proceedings, never to be seen again. In the remaining issues, Lay devoted herself to a wild, continent-hopping account of Irene’s search for real love, with the blind cad who’d jilted her — and has since learned of her net worth — in hot pursuit. The last chapter of the story was among the last gasps of Lay’s naturalistic style, which may help account for why there’s no remaining trace of it even at her web site. But for all its awkward stops and starts, the Irene saga remains a remarkable fantasy about societal concepts of physical attractiveness and the battlefield of love, and Irene herself remains perhaps the strangest yet most tenderly realized creation of Lay’s career. She does not deserve to be abandoned by her creator, and the chapters of her story do not deserve to molder away in a few surviving but scattered comic books stuffed into the 25-cent box.

Maybe the greatest little-known cartoonist in this country, or the least well- known great cartoonist, or some damn thing, is Carol Tyler, wife to Binky Brown creator Justin Green, working mother, and, not coincidentally, someone whose appearances in print have been few and far between. For twelve years, Tyler’s only book has been The Job Thing, a comics memoir of horrible workplaces and failed get-solvent-quick schemes that makes Mike Judge’s Office Space look like a corporate recruiting video. A brilliant woman who leaves graduate school to find herself stranded in the job market devoid of marketable skills, Tyler ought to be the spokesperson for a whole vast group of intelligent people who got blindsided by the New Economy and don’t know what hit them; she probably sees her work as having special relevance for women — at one point she’s fired for complaining about having been sexually harassed — but there are plenty of men who’d want to march her down the street on their shoulders to the nearest watering hole, if only they knew she existed. Tyler’s artwork is itself a thrilling rebuke to graphic slickness. At first glance, it looks uninvitingly muddy and rushed, but Tyler’s understanding of comics is so masterly that your eye always goes where she wants it to, even on pages so cluttered they at first look like an obstacle course; in the end, the total effect is one of superbly controlled frenzy. The Job Thing is disappointingly slim — forty-eight pages compiling just eight stories, not that I don’t believe that Tyler doesn’t wish she had even fewer of these kinds of experiences to draw on — but every page is comic dynamite. The good news — news suitable for running down the street screaming at the top of your lungs while banging pots and pans — is that, as of this writing, a long-awaited career retrospective, Late Bloomer, is scheduled to finally come out this fall, and should be available by the time these words appear on-line. Anyone who’s been given fair warning who doesn’t rush out to buy himself a copy for Christmas deserves to boogie with Stig on the other side.