Comics with Problems features ‘A Comic To Cure EVERY Problem’. From 1940s messages on Communism to other present-day hysteria, Ethan Persoff collects and shares great adventures in vintage comic book wonderment. Think of a moral panic and it’s a safe bet Ethan has a comic all about it. We caught up with him as part of our Collectors series.
Paul Sorene: Have you thought about republishing the booklets and comics?
Ethan Persoff: YES – Funny you ask that – That was a goal when I started things, to have short print runs of the rarest comics on the site. It never materialized, and I changed focus to enjoying complete uploads of documents; that’s one thing the site does well, is show the whole booklet, and I try to keep commentary from me at a minimum.
As far as printed collections, there’s some decent comic book collections that do exist on similar subjects – Richard Graham has a collection of his UNL archive (a great book called GOVERNMENT ISSUE) which features his own research work. I have a Comics with Problems book planned, but it hasn’t happened yet. I’d like to have about a hundred issues posted first.
I will say one end goal with my site is a sturdy coffee table book of all the odd ephemera collected from decades within it. Comics, pranks, downloadable masks, all kinds of things. Would be cool to also have recordings included (maybe as flexi-discs) as there’s a lot of rare audio on the site, too.
One book that is happening right now involves the REALIST ARCHIVE which is a complete archive on the site of the entire run of the famous political satire publication. The archive was recently used for a book collection from Fantagraphics titled THE REALIST CARTOONS, which I co-edited with Paul Krassner, and should be in stores in December 2016. I’m extremely proud of that book, its structure and selections, and I suppose it’s the first tangible large print item to come from the website, since beginning this scanning endeavor fifteen years ago, or so.
There’s another thing that’s in print that definitely came from my site: Top Shelf recently reprinted the Martin Luther King comic MONTGOMERY STORY as a complete facsimile of the original comic. They didn’t contact me about it, but I’m certain that wouldn’t have happened on their end without my posting my copy of the comic about ten years ago. The MLK comic is definitely one of the better stories to come from scanning items for the site, too.
I’ve also made print pieces. The Tijuana Bible that I did with Scott Marshall on George Bush and John McCain was printed in a small batch and distributed in the 2008 Democratic National Convention. And for comic series on the site, RADIO WIRE and JOHN WILCOCK there are now printed books for sale.
PS: What was the first book you saw that made you seek more comics with problems?
EP: Oh man, well I grew up in the 1980s and I think the whole site is sort of a REACTION to the messaging of that time period. This was a hysterical time for kids programming, and the television, comic books, and cartoons were all warning you about drugs and urging abstinence in a psychotic urgent way. The use of “special” was very weird then. I remember very clearly being transfixed by “after school specials” which were these compact tragedy films they’d show on TV at 4pm, followed by “special episodes” of a few sitcoms. One where Gary Coleman nearly gets abducted by a child predator on Diffrent Strokes and there was some episode of Family Ties that was super heavy about drugs.
I can’t explain why but these sorts of things really shocked me when I was young because the message was so amplified. The strict messaging forced it to have a really surreal falseness, but also kind of an exciting energy, like the KGB or CIA had written it, or something. I secretly really liked them. I got the DARE program buttons handed out in school and I started collecting them. It’s just a way things were back then; height of the Cold War, and America under Reagan was its own kind of communist mind-controlled country. There’s of course the classic comic from that era, the Teen Titans drug abuse comics with Nancy Reagan’s introduction. But the Spiderman one from that period really burned weird into my head – Where the entire origin of Spiderman was rewritten (and authorized by Marvel) to include a molestation component. I guess all of this explains what I grew up around and how I developed a love for this weird subversive material.
I later worked as an underground cartoonist for a number of years and remember returning to government comics in the 1990s after a small break when I hadn’t been reading or collecting them. All of sudden I saw that the same stories that were in underground comics were in the government comics – drug addiction, suicide, depression, sex, etc! It was all there, just hilariously moralized, and (to me) somewhat more interesting. So I started the site to post things. The first issue of Comics with Problems, “Rex Morgan Talks About Your Unborn Child” is still a favorite, and probably a motivating issue that inspired me to seek out more comics like it. The comic warns of alcohol during pregnancy with a large prominent image of a pregnant woman smoking a cigarette, but as a PREFERRED RECOMMENDATION for dealing with stress. It’s those sorts of things I live for when I’m posting these comics. The messages always become really distorted and bent.
PS: Is there a favourite comic?
EP: I get asked this, and my answer changes often. The Comics with Problems main image of a pair of teenagers in a clubhouse doing drugs while the rest of the world is happy outside living comes from a hidden comic on the site, TEENAGE BOOBY TRAP. – That one ranks pretty high with me, for art quality and heavy duty fear messaging. There’s also the Alcoholics Anonymous comic strips, which are strangely drawn to resemble Archie comics characters – or the biggest bummer on the site might be NEW USES FOR GOOD EARTH which advocated for surface mining and the destruction of miles of mountain landscapes. – By Comics with Problems standards, that’s a great comic because it chirpily advocates for the destruction of the planet and uses word balloons to manipulate your reaction to things. Another hidden comic on the site is Johnny Surge, the story of a happy cow milker. It’s a borderline obscene story of “cow-teat comfort” that helped sell a farm milking tool. But you should just look at those happy cows getting milked! That one’s probably a dearly loved comic of mine. It really is highly sexualized and tawdry for farm equipment.
PS: Did these comic books ever go away – are these type of books still being published?
EP: OH YEAH, we’re back in a new period of weird educational comics. There’s a series of garish bike safety comics on the site from just a few years ago that are absolutely brutal and horrid, with pictures of broken bones and exposed brain. I think the Internet has brought comics back as a prominent medium. Other recent items in the archive include Sam the Disaster Horse on Terrorism Awareness, safe sex comics from Durex Condoms, all kinds of things. Comics are still some of the strongest ways to communicate a strong moral message, and word balloons really do get in your head when you read them, so I expect they’ll be around for many hundreds of years doing this same weird thing.
PS: Do readers send you books they’ve found? A friend has a vast collection of magazines at The Hyman Archive. He went on the national radios as a collector and – kapow! – listeners sent in thousands of mags.
EP: Ha, Yes – They DO, and I’m always a bummer in terms of my response. I suppose I want to find my own comics. Half of the endeavor here is me finding and researching the title and that’s largely the thrill. I’m developing an emotional bond with the find itself. It’s very similar to crate digging for record collectors. If they walked in a store and there was a box labeled “These are from someone else” compared to a whole room of disorganized uninvestigated stacks, they’d want to go through the stacks. So I get lots of messages asking if I’d like to see something, or something will randomly show up in my postbox. I’m gracious about it but don’t think I’ve ever used any of them. And if it’s a link to something online it’s sort of immediately vetoed by me, too, as I only try to post things that haven’t been online before. I did one issue of Comics with Problems where the scans for the first black comics hero, LOBO, were provided, but that’s the only instance.
One hilarious thing that happens is I’ll get two kinds of messages regarding money: A person will see something on the website and ask me how much it’s worth, because they might have a copy. Sometimes you can tell they don’t actually have the item and are just nosey about value, too. Or, someone will write because they want to sell me something they see on the site. When I was working on the REALIST archive I had tons of people trying to sell me their copies, or buy ones I’d already posted. I try to never respond to these messages. I’ve helped a small number of readers find a copy of something if it’s sentimentally valuable – some military comics that their father might have recalled, for example. I like those experiences.
I do like that sometimes I’ll get a fan letter about my own comics or music, and an educational comic will be included with it. That’s a really cool gesture.
PS: Have you researched the publishers, artists or writers of these gems? It would be interesting to know if the writer behind HOOKED was a reefer fiend.
EP: Yes! I’ve happily spent thousands of hours researching things for the site. I go through books, databases, auctions, craigslist, estate sales, anything. Occasionally you’ll find an amazing publisher – Al Capp Studios or Information Materials Press – that you can then seek out titles with some confidence that the booklet is going to be good. Information Materials Press did HOOKED, which led to me finding their other comic book – JOHNNY GETS THE WORD. Both of those are easily the best comics made in their genres, HOOKED for heroin abuse and JOHNNY for syphilis.
The best comics are often hidden inside other things, too. For example, Milton Caniff’s truly terrible war propaganda HOW TO SPOT A JAP was hidden inside a U.S. Army guide book. I found that through a keyword of “army comic book” and just bought the guide sight unseen. My face hit the pavement when I opened the mail. Then I found out they used the same comic in kid’s textbooks. War is really ugly.
I’d like to mention the work of Tom Christopher. Tom is the best comics researcher on the web, yet he has posted very few articles online. His pieces on the MLK comic book and Malcolm Ater’s books are incredibly important. Similar to Richard Graham, I consider Tom a total colleague in this stuff, and his writing really should be wider known.
I had been researching civil rights comics for a while and actively looking for a copy of the Martin Luther King comic. At the time there were only 5-10 original copies known to exist, and I found my copy from a book dealer in Uruguay via Alibris. As an aside he mentioned he had three copies of a spanish version, which I grabbed quickly. This was an early time in the site’s history when I was treating the endeavor with the enthusiasm you might have for making a film, debt be damned, and I spent a lot of money to get these items before anyone else. The spanish copy arrived pristine, and when i posted both of them I found Tom’s article on the MLK comic, which filled in all the gaps I didn’t know, including its origins with Al Capp Studios and the Fellowship of Reconciliation.
I was happy to post the MLK comic, because I think I’d already posted the George Wallace comic on segregation (full bummer found here) and posting the Spanish version of the MLK comic proved to be a good example of the comic’s endurance as multi-language tool. Later, I found scans from the site had been used by HAMSA in the middle east to make numerous language editions of the comic (its value is it teaches civil disobedience as a nonviolent approach to protest) In 2008, I first saw scans of the Arabic versions, using my scans and then in 2011 things got crazy with protests in Egypt, where John Lewis announced that thousands of copies of the comic had been distributed amongst the protesters. Lewis later worked on his own MARCH comic, which I’m sure was first conceived when he was reminded of the original 1950s MLK book on my site (MARCH is great, incidentally) – But that whole moment was a crazy experience of researching something, posting it, letting it develop an audience over 5-10 years and seeing where it appeared. The Spanish-language copy was later acquired by the Smithsonian, which was a very proud moment for me that validated my work.
As for the lifestyles of comic creators, that’s a funny question. I don’t know if the creators of HOOKED were into anything elicit, but after I posted that book I -did- receive an excited email from a follower of the Principia Discordia, who noticed one of the panels from HOOKED to be included in the original text of the PD. Discordianism is an amazing philosophy that can help you reevaluate authority structures. The HOOKED connection is documented here.
PS: For what it’s worth, I’d love to see these as a collection. If you ever want to collaborate, then I am all ears. The books are fabulous.
Thank you! I’d certainly enjoy the idea of specialized collections of some of these books. With a little humor, it’d be great to see themes with single word topics on the spine: ALCOHOLISM, CORPORATIONS, GAGS, PROPAGANDA, MEDICINE, SATIRES, etc. Ha. Thanks for the good questions, EP