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Foolbert Funnies: Histories and Other Fictions by Frank Stack Review

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<i>Foolbert Funnies: Histories and Other Fictions</i> by Frank Stack Review

Writer & Artist: Frank Stack
Publisher: Fantagraphics
Release Date: January 7, 2015

Spanning 1970 to 2007, Foolbert Funnies: Histories and Other Fictions presents a grab-bag of work from Frank Stack when he worked under the pseudonym Foolbert Sturgeon. Often referred to as the author behind the first underground comic (The Adventures of Jesus from 1962), Stack is otherwise known for illustrating Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner’s seminal memoir, Our Cancer Year. True to the underground comics scene, the short works reprinted here range dramatically in quality, both verbally and visually.

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The early work has aged the least well. In particular, an over-long piece called “The Chancellor,” originally printed by Rip Off Press (as were many of these), shows the artist still finding his feet within the narrative of a disciplinary school official and a very angry student. Many of these shorter comics seem rushed, completed in Stack’s spare time — and indeed they were. The man had a day job teaching art at the University of Missouri for decades.

By far the strongest section in Foolbert Funnies supplies the subtitle of this volume: “Histories and Other Fictions.” This division includes three long speculative/biographical pieces of historical fiction, one on van Gogh, one on Shakespeare and one on Caravaggio. Carefully drawn, with a line that still maintains some looseness (and at times resembles Daniel Pinkwater’s squiggly scribble), these vignettes also feature many a panel referencing prints from the eras they depict. The writing is strong and intelligent, with entertaining anachronisms peppered throughout the dialogue in a way that serves the story. (Amazons refer to the Greeks as “dumb grunt dog face asshole jock straps.”) These, more than any other part of the book, make one wish Stack had pursued this thematic line.

The action segments aren’t bad, either, although they can be repetitive and the artwork can look unrefined and sketchy. A series of stories focusing on the aforementioned Amazons sports a rough and rude charm. Ditto for the adventures of the Phanty, a classic superhero undermined by the modern era. Other elements have aged far less well, like Dr. Feelgood, a crude African American cut-rate psychiatrist, as well as some extended paranoid fantasies.

The book isn’t aimed at the casual comics fan. An enthusiastic essay by Bob Levin and an autobiographical introduction from Stack help generate some passion and base context, but don’t quite explain why this stuff is important. Well, it’s not tremendously so, but it has more value than simply functioning as a time capsule of the underground scene. Stack’s composition retains a singular energy — especially his wrestling sequences, and his voice sounds surprisingly fresh, considering the times when these comics were originally published. Foolbert Funnies is a refreshing composition to flip through, if only to see an artist discovering many different styles, and ultimately succeeding at many of them.

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