Critically Underrated (My Day Two Essay)
When creating the collage image for announcing The Underrated Blog-a-Thon, one of the pictures I used was of Milkman Dan, a recurring character in Max Cannon's alternative comic Red Meat. I didn't have a set intention to write about the images I used, but my goal was to have them be a sort of brainstorm for myself and potential contributors. However, after recently visiting the Red Meat website, I realized that it needs all the attention it can get.
The main webpage and subsequent archived comics have a very sobering plea from Cannon, not just for himself but for artists and cartoonists who support and supply independent and alternative newspapers with their creations. With the economy in such turmoil, alternative papers may very well cut comics, even ones with rabid fanbases. This is also not a case of "oh well, I can just read the comics online." Cartoonists, as Cannon mentions, rely on the newspaper revenues and advertising to help fund their sites. This should hit home for people who prefer strips like Red Meat and Get Your War On as opposed to Family Circus and Marmaduke. The major papers and syndicates do have the occasional great comic strip, but this is a plea for the hundreds of independent artists and their livelihoods.
I first discovered Red Meat in Chicago, when the highlight of my Thursdays was picking up the latest issue of The Onion. Quickly, my habit became reading Red Meat before any of the other articles and features in that paper. When I first visited the website, I was overjoyed to find that Cannon had the complete collection of his work available for free viewing. The comic follows the exploits and adventures of many varying characters, ones who even at their most grotesque, retain an innocent nostalgia, reminiscent of wholesome postcards and vintage advertisements. A recent popular phenomenon consists of calendars, books, and greeting cards with actual vintage images containing updated captions and modern, irreverent word bubbles. The beauty of Red Meat lies in its originality. Even with the hint of those vintage illustrations, the actions and dialogue are original, witty, and have a tendency to border on disturbing.
The face of the comic is Bug-Eyed Earl, a creepy old man with a penchant for regaling the readers with his tales of psychosis and debauchery. His stories are matter-of-fact, and while some of his actions are downright sickening, there's a strange innocence to his demeanor. As unsettling as he is, his recollections of dead relatives in the kitchen, public nudity, and anti-social behavior come across with an "aw, shucks" mentality.
My personal favorites are shown above: Ted Johnson and Milkman Dan. Johnson could easily be the father figure in any mainstream comic, with his outlandish ideas, disastrous family trips, and his parenting skills that combine old-fashioned values with off-kilter behavior. You will probably never see Dagwood locking Blondie in the attic, and having the punchline be as hilarious as Cannon usually makes them.
Milkman Dan is the epitome of psychotic, in addition to his unashamed substance abuses. His all-American job and visage conflict greatly with his sexual deviance and anti-social dealings with his bosses and neighborhood associates. His greatest nemesis is Karen, a little neighborhood girl with wits and depravity that mirror his own. The two characters stop at nothing to humiliate and psychologically scar each other, yet these actions are presented in such a fashion that they could easily be best friends as opposed to mortal enemies.
This is merely a sample. Cannon has blessed us with Wally, the Tobacconist (with hints of dementia and incontinence); The Old Cowboy (equal parts philosophical and mentally challenged); Johnny Lemonhead (probably the greatest victim in the history of American comics); and others who live in an absurd, dangerous world that does not seem too far-fetched at times.
I've shared this comic with quite a few people, and most of them do not share my enthusiasm, another reason I feel that Red Meat falls into the "underrated" category. However, even if it's not this particular one, everyone has a favorite underground/independent strip that could very well be on the verge of collapse. As Cannon quotes a friend, very simply (but also very urgently): "If your local paper stil runs the cartoons, please shoot them a quick e-mail and let them know how much you appreciate it."
NOTE: If any submissions come in today, I'll be updating this post later tonight. Thank you!