Frantic Moments: Cartoon Flophouse

Posted by on March 31st, 2010 at 10:39 AM

Rob reviews Michael Aushenker’s CARTOON FLOPHOUSE #2 and FLOOP!

You can draw a straight line between the goofy absurdity of Milt Gross and the frantic gag work of Michael Aushenker.  Like Gross, Aushenker has created a huge roster of larger-than-life characters capable of being on the giving or receiving end of a nasty gag.  Aushenker’s characters have a sort of rubbery quality to them, with classic comic-strip features like big black dots for eyes, banana noses and exaggerated action.  There’s also an obvious underground sensibility to Aushenker’s work, with his earlier FLOOP! being in the same continuum that Johnny Ryan would later take.

FLOOP! is a perfect blend of Gross and underground comics not just in terms of absurdity, but also in terms of the way it uses a particular kind of ethnic humor and the sort of thick line and blunt character design that Ryan was just starting to use at this time (1998).  The star of the book is Harry Lummel, a schlub trying to be a screenwriter who is a constant source of embarrassment to his father Lawrence, who heads a “major humanitarian Jewish outreach organization”.

Aushenker mines a lot of humor out of his character design, like the corpulent agent, the bespectacled Lawrence, and the sheer delight that is his block-headed and abusive Betty (Harry’s eventual love interest).  The format is a four-panel grid per page in magazine format, giving each gag unit a chance to breathe with enough room to showcase his characters.  Aushenker always puts a funny drawing in every panel here, throwing in references to Judaism here and there (jokes about rabbis and Jewish socials among them).  This comic felt like a throwback to a kind of humor that isn’t seen all that often anymore, and Aushenker manages to make it funny because he’s an insider who happily exposes the absurdities of his own culture.

What’s odd is that I find Aushenker’s more recent material far less appealing.  With his bald, musclebound bellhop character Greenblatt the Great and wacky supporting cast, it seems like Aushenker is trying for a Marx Brothers feel but winds up going more the route of the Three Stooges.  Part of the problem is that it feels like Aushenker’s drawings seem to be bursting out of each panel, with many strips featuring up to 12 panels.  The panels in those strips don’t seem to be all that well designed, especially those where the word balloons threaten to squash the actual drawings.  Aushenker is at his best when he works big, given his thick line and lettering style.  When he overstuffs his pages, the effect is that of being suffocated as a reader.

I found myself wishing for a bit more restraint in Aushenker’s Greenblatt strips.  The absurd set-ups Aushenker creates didn’t need the stuffed pages or over-the-top character design to be funny and were at times a distraction.  Comparatively speaking, his story “The Secret Double Life of Michael Aushenker” was far more restrained, with pages that had a chance to breathe and give the reader a chance to breathe as well.  The story is predictable (the cartoonist is secretly a super-spy living a James Bond life as well as cranking out pages) but fun, as Aushenker’s blocky style is a nice fit for this sort of story.  Aushenker is certainly a better artist now than he was a dozen years ago, but I wish he’d go back and continue to retrace what made him successful as an cartoonist when he was more limited as a draftsman.

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