It seems everything we know about the 1960s is wrong. Facts about the both celebrated and maligned decade are one thing—hey, we’re up to our paisley headbands in the facts!—but the truth is far more elusive. Michel Choquette, a former contributor to the National Lampoon and longtime Montreal-based writer, has waited more than 40 years to lay some truth on us about the 1960s, via a massive, exhaustive and utterly idiosyncratic project called The Someday Funnies. Choquette began this project—an attempt to re-create the look, feel and truthiness of the 1960s through the talents of hundreds of the world’s hippest cartoonists, seers and writers—in 1971.
Originally the impulsive idea of Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who wanted to run some strips assembled by Choquette as a special supplement to his magazine, it grew into book length. And had Choquette’s prodigious energy not eventually petered out, it probably would have grown to encyclopedic length. Ultimately, Wenner backed out of both the supplement and the book, a pattern that was to repeat itself over the next decade which saw Choquette thwarted by false promises of publishers, artists who never delivered work, investors who backed out, and the sheer expense of publishing large format color illustrations. For some reason, Choquette hung on to the pipedream and even continued to solicit work far and wide, and The Someday Funnies entered into that mythical realm of things that could-have-been.
Indeed, as Jeet Heer notes in the introduction to the recently (and finally!) published edition of The Someday Funnies, the project was “more rumor than reality—an urban legend of sorts,” like a volume in the imaginary library conjured by Borges. It had always sounded, as Heer put it, “like something out of a fairy tale”, something too good to be true: a tabloid-sized collection of comics from all over the world, the sort of thing about which comic fan-boys and fan-girls would just shrug and say, “I’ll believe it when I hold a copy in my hands.”
Well, thanks to the good folks at Abrams ComicsArt, you can now hold a copy of The Someday Funnies in your hands. Well, actually, the thing is so large—nearly a foot and a half tall and a foot wide—you don’t just hold this volume in your hands, or even in your lap. You prop it up with your knees and lean it against the couch and lie down next to it in bed. The result is more stunning than even the myths and legends surrounding The Someday Funnies would have led people to believe. It is, bar none, the book of the year for cartooning.
The list of the 169 contributors to The Someday Funnies is a who’s-who not only of the 1960s but of the counterculture around the world—counterculture, as in something that runs counter to the conventional and acceptable mass culture. Take Don Martin, for example. The cartoonist was best known for his elongated figures doing daffy things in Mad magazine. Here, he creates “One Day in Saigon,” in which a Buddhist monk is unable to immolate himself because the matches got too wet when he doused himself with gasoline. This was far too edgy even for Mad; something pushed Martin out there and my guess is it was “the 1960s.”
Using his magazine contacts and deep connections in the entertainment world—Choquette seemed to know every hip person on the planet in the 1970s—he solicited work from all conceivable vehicles of satire: National Lampoon in the U.S.; Private Eye, Punch, OZ and International Times in the U.K.; Pilote and Charlie Menseul in France; Suck in Amsterdam; Pardon in Germany; and Linus in Italy. And, if that were not enough, he turned to literary agents and entertainment lawyers to track down even more contributors. Many of the people whom Choquette charmed into contributing were not, per se, cartoonists (Frank Zappa, William S. Burroughs, Federico Fellini, to name a few) and for some contributors these would be among the only strips they ever produced.
Thus, The Someday Funnies is not just about pop culture, the rock revolution and satire, and Choquette’s contributors are not just name brand cartoonists like Jack Kirby, Wallace Wood and Will Eisner—though that is cool enough—but figures across the cultural spectrum, like Fellini, Harlan Ellison, Red Grooms, Andrew Cockburn, Penelope Tree, Allen Jones, Peter Townshend, Tom Wolfe and even Beats like Burroughs and Tuli Kupferberg.
Some picture books reward a few days or weeks of browsing before being stowed away in a closet or left on a coffee table to gather dust and possibly impress visitors. The Someday Funnies will reward years of browsing because it does something few others can: It plops an entire decade, still dripping wet from being extracted from the cadaver, into your lap and then supplies a lifeline to hundreds of sometimes clashing voices and visions, allowing you to draw your own conclusions.
Ultimately, the only conclusion possible is that “the 1960s” were too damn complicated to be reduced to the clichés that now define them. Sure, the decade was a time of tie-dyed shirts, madras belts, long hair, sideburns, bell bottoms and patchouli, but the decade also served as the incubator for things we now take for granted: eco awareness, back-to-nature, health foods, antiwar movements, Eastern philosophies, yoga, women’s liberation, gay rights, black power, red power, solar power, the pill, etc. Of course, the decade had its dark side—exhaustively covered in The Someday Funnies, along with the sunny side—such as assassinations, race riots, Vietnam, napalm, oil spills, blackouts, cosmetic surgery, profligate drug experimentation, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, etc.
The Someday Funnies is a time capsule but also as an oracle of comics future. As Heer sagely notes, “It is a book that sees comics as part of the larger culture, firmly connected to art and literature.” In other words, had it been published at the time it was created, Choquette’s tome would have done for cartooning what punk did for pop music. Sadly, it wasn’t and fully one-third of the contributors did not live long enough to see this volume.
Elders like Tom Wolfe (“The Man Who Peaked Too Soon”), Wallace Wood, Mad’s Don Martin, Sergio Aragones and Harvey Kurtzman serve as sort of Ward Cleaver figures in The Someday Funnies, schooling young pups like Art Spiegelman, Bill Griffith, Kim Deitch, Jay Kinney, Justin Green, The Mad Peck, Jay Lynch, Denis Kitchen and Trina Robbins. Then there were those famous in their own rights: Rene “Asterix” Goscinny, Roland Topor, ffolkes, Barry Windsor-Smith, Ed Subitzky. Jean-Claude “Barbarella” Forest and many others. Finally, and the real lure of this book, are the now obscure figures whom Choquette enlisted.
If no two snowflakes are alike, then no two styles of cartoonists from that era were alike. It was as if, once the door was blown off the hinges—or, more pertinently, once the Pandora’s box was opened—by LSD and Robert Crumb, the possibilities were endless. Though Crumb is not a contributor (he turned down Choquette’s initial offer), he’s given his due by Heer and nearly all of the other artists who were undoubtedly aware of his work.
There are some real revelations in this volume, such as Brian McConnachie and Michael Gross’s “Your Ad Here”; Ralph Steadman’s pre-Hunter Thompson musings; Will Eisner letting his hair down, so to speak; Walter Simonson and Henry Beard’s brilliant two-page reconstruction of the New York City blackout that feels like what really happened; Yossarian’s “An Affair of the Heart,” which could be about Dick Cheney, but is instead that of Moloch Thompson, the richest man in the world who demands a heart transplant; Arnold Roth, who does a brilliant parody of everyone from George Herriman to himself. But then there are unexpected treasures, like “It Was All A Clever Ruse Comix” by Chris Miller and Gray Morrow; “The Sexual Revolution Caught Me with my Pants Up,” a painfully hilarious satire by Steve Skeates; “Tarzan’s Chicago Adventure” (yes, about Abbie Hoffman and the police riots of 1968) by Mike Olshan and Frank Brunner; “Decade Daze” by Barbara Schubeck (a take off on “Happy Days”); “Memories of Marilyn” by Trina Robbins; and “Portrait of the Auteur as a Young Trend” by Archie Goodwin and Sal Amendola.
Every turn of a page unveils visual and intellectual surprises—and isn’t it nice to be surprised by a decade about which we thought we already knew everything? Choquette provides a glossary of biographies at the back of the volume which also serve as mini-essays on the various issues raised by each person’s strip. He even provides translations of several foreign language strips, thankfully not tampering with the original lettering of the artists.
The one sour note in the volume is sounded by Robert Greenfield in his cliché-ridden introduction (“cute and cuddly lads from Liverpool,” “blowing minds while letting your freak flag fly”, etc.). It’s not really a flaw in the book, since you can easily skip over it, and I only mention it to make my final point about the 1960s. Greenfield’s introduction gets things off on the wrong foot by saluting that real-life cartoon Timothy Leary, a blarney-filled quasi-academic who steered impressionable young people down blind alleys then washed his hands of them. Though Greenfield insists that Leary’s reply—“everybody gets the Timothy Leary they deserve”—to someone’s question about how he wanted to be remembered was “deceptively brilliant,” it seems just plain deceptive to me. When Greenfield concludes his remarks by saying, “everybody gets the Sixties they deserve,” I found myself thinking, “What does this even mean?” It’s this sort of empty hepcat jive—something that sounds meaningful but is really gibberish—that has made maligning the 1960s all too easy for lazy minds.
Don’t make that mistake, kiddies. Get The Someday Funnies, carve out a week or so to give it the proper attention it deserves and take a time trip back to the still elusive “1960s.” It is not a bum trip.