Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Graphically Speaking: Woody Allen's Dread and Superficiality as a Comic Strip

Words: Seth Kushner

I’ve been a Woody Allen fan since childhood.  Growing up in Brooklyn, a Jewish kid with artistic and neurotic tendencies, I barely had a choice. The local TV stations would often play Woody’s early films like Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Sleeper on Saturday afternoons. As I’ve gotten older I’ve followed his films and have seen them all with the exception of the latest (it’s tough getting to the movies with a baby at home).  Given my history, you can imagine how excited I was when I first saw the solicits for Abrams ComicArts collection, Dread & Superficiality: Woody Allen as Comic Strip, especially since I never realized there ever even was a daily comic strip based on Woody Allen.

When I received the book, I skipped past the introduction and dove right into the strips.  From the first one on, it read as through it were written by Woody Allen, which confused me since the strips are all credited to cartoonist Stuart Hample alone. Reading the intro later, Hample explains that he approached Woody with the idea of doing the strip and Woody granted him access to tons of his jokes, and gave his consent to cull from any of his films, books, plays, stand-up, etc.  So, the words are often Woody’s, but adapted into strip form by Hample.  It’s an interesting process, and one that works.

Hample, a former assistant to Al Capp, casts Woody Allen as a version of himself, moving between the office of his bored, passive aggressive therapist, visits to his annoyed and disappointed parents, flash-backs to his angst-ridden youth, and situations with tall, beautiful women who often reject him.

The Woody Allen found in these page is certainly familiar to fans of his films.  Cartoon Woody is as insecure, pessimistic, self-deprecating, and flawed as Annie Hall’s Alvy Singer, or Isaac in Manhattan.

In a two-panel strip from 1979, Woody is seated across a table from a tall, leggy blonde. She’s looking at him and he rests his elbow on the table, with his hand supporting his head.  His face has a defeated expression.

In the first panel she asks – “Do you find anything as boring as I do?”

He answers – “ Oh, no, I never feel bored.”

In the second panel, he continues – “I’m too busy feeling hostile, dejected, irritated, frustrated, self-pittying…”

The strip ran from 1976 to 1984 and while the writing seems to be consistent, Hample’s art grows from the early strips, becoming more fluid and confident.  He uses his lines more sparingly and his characters seem to have more weight.  His pacing and design act as a good example of how strips work.  He doesn’t break ground like a Gary Larson or a Bill Watterson, but the strip doesn’t call for that type of innovation.  Instead, it’s the subject matter and dialogue that feel ahead of their time.

In one three-panel strip, Woody is looking at a photo of an old girlfriend.

The first word balloon reads – “An old girl of mine.”

The second – “I don’t know if it was my fault or hers, but we had a terribly false relationship.”

The third – “It finally dawned on me when I realized every time she had an orgasm, her nose grew longer.”

Did any other daily, syndicated strip ever mention orgasms in 1979?  I’m pretty sure the mom and the dad in The Family Circus never discussed such things.

The actual book is a beautifully designed package.  Charles Kochman and the good folks at Abrams ComicArts have succeeded again in showcasing comics work in a respectful, creative and intelligent manner.  They don’t simply recreate the art as the black and white line art as it originally appeared; instead it’s all been lovingly re-photographed, to show the artist’s handwritten notes, corrections, paste-ups and the ageing and wear of the pages.  What was once thought of as a disposable medium is now presented as fine art.

If you’re a fan of Woody Allen, or self-deprecating, intellectual humor in general, then Dread & Superficiality: Woody Allen as Comic Strip is for you.