Bugged by Jaffee


This one is for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s. Last week, after reading about the late Al Jaffee, I went looking for the panel you see above, a minor item in a much longer Jaffee feature for an issue of Mad magazine from the 1960s. The flatbugs have been one of my favourite Jaffee jokes for many years, but never having kept a note of which issue they appeared in I’ve always had a problem finding them when I’ve wanted to tell someone about them or see them again. On this occasion searches for various combinations of “mad”, “magazine”, “jaffee”, “bugs”, “flatbugs”, “flat bugs” yielded nothing other than a brief mention on a Reddit thread, along with too many articles about insect infestation. Google Books is sometimes useful for search leads but not this time. Twitter still has its uses, however; someone there had mentioned the flatbugs a couple of years ago, as well as the issue they appeared in, Mad no. 107 for December 1966, so here they are at last.


The thing that made the flatbugs so memorable (if not locatable) was that this is a rare Mad joke that’s allowed to extend throughout the rest of the issue. Jaffee’s bug panels occupied two corners of a three-page collection of puzzles and visual gags which is why they’ve always been difficult to track down, you won’t see any mention of them in an index or table of contents. Despite this, issue 107 really ought to be called the flatbug issue. Once you’ve read about the breeding habits of the creatures you start seeing more of them on the pages that follow, even those by artists other than Jaffee; the last of the bugs appears on Jaffee’s fold-in page. This has some precedent in the tiny Sergio Aragones cartoons that appeared in the page margins but I’ve not seen any other one-off gags used like this. Jaffee is lauded for his fold-ins but this shows him playing with the form of the magazine in a different way, suggesting that these were real creatures, albeit motionless and almost two-dimensional.


I only got to see issue 107 a few years ago when scanned copies of the magazine began to turn up online. Prior to this I knew the flatbugs from one of the reprint books which were all you got to see of older copies of Mad magazine outside the US. I might never have seen these either if it wasn’t for a friend at school who collected humour paperbacks. He had a huge stock of the things, not only the Mad books but many of their spin-offs by Al Jaffee, Don Martin and co. The book with the flatbugs, Rip Off Mad, dates from 1973 but most of the material inside is from the previous decade. I’ve not seen a copy of this since the 1970s but I know that the bugs spread throughout the book just as they did in the magazine, even though the contents were different to issue 107.


In 2003 the flatbugs came to mind when I was writing my entry for the Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. My disease, “Printer’s Evil”, is a fungal growth that infects paper, and thereby passes to anyone who touches an affected page. The entry itself was, of course, contaminated in this way. Ideally one of the pages for this section would have had a frayed edge but there wasn’t the budget for such indulgence. If you do have the budget then the possibilities expand for humorous invention. The first Monty Python book, Monty Python’s Big Red Book, features a die-cut page (below), while Eric Idle’s Rutland Dirty Weekend Book has a parody of Rolling Stone magazine (Rutland Stone) printed on smaller-sized newsprint pages bound into the centre of the book. The Python books were developing a convention established by Mad (and continued in National Lampoon) of parodying print media in exacting detail, matching fonts, layouts, graphics and so on. (See this article.)


From the Python books. Left: Monty Python’s Big Red Book (1971); right: The Brand New Monty Python Bok (1973).

The pinnacle in this sphere is The Brand New Monty Python Bok, with its smudged fingerprints printed on a white dust-jacket (which prompted complaints from booksellers), beneath which you find a cover for a very different book, Tits ’n Bums: A Weekly Look at Church Architecture, a cover that must cause problems for resale if the dust-jacket is missing. Inside the book there’s a tipped-in library card showing the names and signatures of previous owners, while two differently-sized supplemental sections are bound into the pages. In the early 1960s Terry Gilliam had worked for Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! magazine so there’s a direct line from Python back to Mad, especially when other artists on the Help! staff included Mad regulars Al Jaffee, Jack Davis and Will Elder; Kurtzman and Gilliam subsequently collaborated on a puzzle book where the graphics and the humour sit mid-way between Mad and Monty Python. The Mad-like quality of The Brand New Monty Python Bok is reinforced by a pair of Gilliam comic strips. Jaffee’s flatbugs would be (immovably) at home there.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities
Gilliam’s shaver and Bovril by electrocution
Portuguese Diseases
Pasticheur’s Addiction


BEHOLD! Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders


Behold: another book cover. This is a design I was working on in October, the contents of which haven’t been disclosed yet but the cover has been made public so I can post it here. BEHOLD! Oddities, Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders is an anthology of short fiction with a Wunderkammer brief similar to that of The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, the collection that I illustrated in 2011 for Ann & Jeff VanderMeer. There’s an antique slant to both the books so I’ve reflected this in the graphics which are mostly from 19th-century sources. I was supposed to do the cover for the VanderMeers’ collection but HarperCollins went with their own designer; this was disappointing for the editors as well as myself so the latest cover makes up for that. Doug Murano is editing the new volume for Crystal Lake Publishing, one of five companies listed recently at Dirge Magazine as notable publishers of transgressive horror (and another of Doug Murano’s collections is their “must read”). BEHOLD! is slated for publication in early 2017 so watch this space.

Previously on { feuilleton }
A Cabinet of Curiosities
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities
The specimens of Alex CF
Walmor Corrêa’s Memento Mori
The art of Ron Pippin
Custom creatures
Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films
The Bowes Swan
The Museum of Fantastic Specimens

A Cabinet of Curiosities


When I still had a television I used to enjoy Lucinda Lambton’s films for the BBC, and this one—a short history of the British Wunderkammer—was a particular favourite. Lambton’s films cover similar ground to those of Jonathan Meades but with a lighter touch, and free of Meades’ often relentless pontification. This episode of 40 Minutes, first broadcast in 1987, includes some unusual architecture—a Lambton speciality—but concentrates for the most part on seeking out a few surviving examples of the ad hoc museums hidden away in country houses. Among the more notable features there’s Walter Potter’s taxidermy diorama, The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, and the full 40-minute programme showed the incredible Bowes Swan automaton in action. The copy of the film at YouTube is missing the last 10 minutes so the swan is absent although it’s easily seen elsewhere.


Previously on { feuilleton }
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities
The specimens of Alex CF
Walmor Corrêa’s Memento Mori
The art of Ron Pippin
Custom creatures
Jan Svankmajer: The Complete Short Films
The Bowes Swan
The Museum of Fantastic Specimens

Words and pictures


This one has been a long while gestating. Evan J. Peterson asked me late last year to contribute a cover to a new edition of Seattle’s Gay City anthology which he was editing with Vincent Kovar. In May this year the anthology successfully covered some of its production costs with a Kickstarter fund, and the anthology will have its official launch next month (although the book is on sale now). Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam combines a loose take on steampunk themes with spectral or horror material, and adds a queer twist. The contents are as follows:

Cover art by John Coulthart
Illustrations by M S Corley and Levi Hastings
Graphic story: Paper Lantern by Jon Macy

from Preternatural Conversations and Oblivious Imperialism is the Worst Kind by CAConrad
Dear Dr. Frankenstein by Jericho Brown
Anaphora as Coping Mechanism and American Dreams by Ocean Vuong
Orpheus on the 74 and The Resurrection Spell by Oscar McNary
Zombie Autopsy by Janie Miller
Moon Goddess by Imani Sims

Hybrid/Flash Fiction/Prose Poetry:
Psychopomp by Lydia Swartz
Thangs by Imani Sims
The Door, Casualties of War, and The Worst is that You Can’t Even Ask Him to Use Protection by Jeremy Halinen

Short Stories:
Demon Lover by Dorothy Allison
Monster Movie by Rebecca Brown
B.E.M.s by Gregory L. Norris
Feeding Desire by Steve Berman
Medium Méchanique by Catherine Lundoff
Study in Blue, Green, and Gold by John Coulthart
A Captive Audience by Ryan Keawekane
Splinter by Ryan Crawford
The Difference Men by Kat Smalley
Alexander’s Wrath by J L Smither
Quota by Amy Shepherd
Heart of the Labyrinth by Tony Rella

This isn’t the first occasion when I’ve produced the cover for an anthology and also contributed some fiction inside—The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases included a short fiction piece—but the Gay City anthology marks the first appearance in print of anything from my ongoing Axiom project. This is a long-term endeavour which I began in March 2001 but haven’t referred to much in public, mainly because the bulk of the project to date has been written fiction. There are few words more dismaying to hear than the dread phrase “I’m writing a novel”, especially today when the activity of fiction writing seems to have undergone an exponential increase. I tend to believe that unless you’re an established author there’s little to be gained by discussing your own literary labours in public until you have some results to offer. Well, now I have.

I know some people have been curious about the Axiom project so—keeping things brief—I can say it’s two novels, one finished, the second one nearly finished. Axiom was written from 2001 to 2007, and concerns a year in the life of an invented city. It’s fantasy of a sort but closer to the world of Reverbstorm than anything you’ll find on the swords-and-dragons shelves. The idea began in the late 1990s when I was working on Reverbstorm with David Britton and realised I could easily shift the city in that book a few degrees sideways to provide a setting for my own obsessions. I’d been writing a lot of fiction in the 1980s—short stories and two unfinished novels—and wanted to return to this seriously having tired of collaborations and illustrating the work of other people. Axiom marked out some territory I wanted to explore; the new novel, Vitriol, uses the territory to stage a “psychedelic apocalypse”. The project as a whole is loose enough to evolve into other media, and eventually there should be some Axiom-related art. I’ve been working on Vitriol since August 2006 (there was some overlap while finishing the first book); my contribution to the Gay City anthology, Study in Blue, Green, and Gold, is an extract from the work-in-progress which happened to function quite well as a self-contained piece. Despite the anthology theme it’s not quite a steampunk affair but there are some steam locomotives present so it has the required flavour.

Whilst working on the new book I’ve had an agent (Leslie Gardner at Artellus) trying to sell Axiom. This would have been in print by now if the London publisher who agreed to take it 18 months ago hadn’t gone bust after they’d sent us a contract. I’ve been considering putting out a limited hardback edition of the novel, although I’m busy enough as it is, and don’t relish having to self-distribute even a small number of books. For now it’s an option that remains open.

Gay City’s own site points to Amazon for sales of Ghosts in Gaslight, Monsters in Steam so on this occasion I’ll do that too. If you’re in the Seattle area there’s a launch party on September 27th. Details here.

Update: I’ve belatedly noticed that Evan is interviewed about the anthology here.

World Fantasy Awards


Presenting some of the cover art and interior illustration from 2011 which won me the World Fantasy Award for best artist in Toronto on Sunday. (The complete awards list is here.) It was a surprise to be nominated, and even more of a surprise to win since working in different areas—book, music, comics—is never a good way to get noticed for doing one particular thing. It’s also the case that sf/fantasy art awards tend to favour painters or virtuoso digital artists over people such as myself who I suppose are more illustrator-designers; that’s not a criticism, just an acknowledgement of the strength and popularity of highly-refined pictorial art in this area of the literary world. The recognition hazard works in the opposite direction: the design world often gives the most attention to graphic design alone, with the illustration quotient being regarded as secondary content.

I’m not exactly sure what the judges were looking at of my work so these examples have been chosen for being published during the year under examination. They’re also covers that people seemed to like a lot, especially KW Jeter‘s Morlock Night (even though I still prefer Infernal Devices!), and those for Mike Shevdon‘s books. The Jeter and Shevdon volumes are all published by Angry Robot who will also be publishing Lavie Tidhar‘s The Bookman Histories early next year sporting another of my covers. Lavie’s novel Osama won best novel in Toronto while Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (editors of the Lambshead book below) picked up a best anthology award for their monumental The Weird. And to add to the good company, my regular publishers Tachyon saw one of their authors, Tim Powers, gaining best story collection. Congratulations to everyone, and a big thanks to Ann for collecting my award.

I’m always using these posts to point to other artists so it’s only right that I encourage everyone to go and look at the work of the other nominees. Here they are (although Jon Foster’s site appears down at the moment):

Julie Dillon
Jon Foster
Kathleen Jennings
John Picacio

John Picacio has a rather gorgeous calendar due out soon, details here.



Title page for The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (Harper Voyager).


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