Peep shows and porn kings

Readers who never had the privilege of visiting New York City before the Giuliani era (hey, we dodged a presidential bullet with him, didn’t we?!) may find this tough to believe, but Times Square was once a nexus of depravity, frightening for children, and (trust me on this) deeply embarrassing for an adolescent kid to walk through with his mother.

It’s this crossroads, not the current DisneyMcTodayShowland, that’s chronicled in Tales of Times Square, a compendium of tall tales and character studies by Josh Alan Friedman. Not for the faint of heart, this sometimes pornographic collection bustles with brilliantly colorful accounts of peep shows and porn kings, one or two of which might actually make you sorry they all got the boot.

I bring up the book not only because it’s a helluva read, but because the filthy rag that originally printed many of these stories, Screw, was also the launching pad for the career of caricaturist nonpareil Drew Friedman (who drew the cover for a previous edition of his big brother’s book). After a few years out of the funnybook limelight (he’s kept busy working for newspapers and legit mags), Friedman has enjoyed a rennaissance lately with the hit book Old Jewish Comedians (which spawns a sequel, More Old Jewish Comedians, in April) and a great profile in Comic Art magazine. That profile reappears, along with an insightful tribute by Daniel Clowes, in The Fun Never Stops!, a retrospective that collects material from the last 15 years.

Much of the work here was done after Friedman abandoned his signature “stipple” style, a black-and-white Pointillist technique that looked impossibly labor-intensive, in favor of magazine-friendly color illustration, and while it’s a stylistic shift from the weird visions the comic world first saw in Raw magazine, the artist’s gift for finding the repulsiveness in beautiful people and the pathos in ugly folks remains undimmed.

Friedman’s also one of the zillion hep artists featured in The Best of LSD, which may be the first book from a serious publisher (Princeton Architectural Press) devoted solely to a zine put out by an alternative radio station. The station in question is NY-area aural utopia WFMU, home to some of the nation’s foremost crate-diggers and musical obsessives. Given cartoonists’ well-known affinity for oddball and obscure music, it’s no surprise to see Friedman and Clowes joined here by an array of cartoonists from James Kochalka and Joe Sacco to Charles Burns, along with non-comic figures like Daniel Johnston and Jim Jarmusch.

Also there — of course — is Chris Ware, who isn’t content to have self-published Acme Novelty Library Vol #18 and compiled another lovely Acme Novelty Datebook, but also undertook editing this year’s volume of Houghton Mifflin’s Best American Comics. “Best” or not, the hardback tome gathers very fine work by mainstream-friendly names along with avant-garde strips and great long pieces by emerging artists (for example, Alison Bechdel’s memoir of childhood obsession-compulsion, The Canary-Colored Caravan of Death.)

Lastly, just to balance out Josh Friedman’s smutfest, I tip my hat to the wonderfully wholesome Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, which happens to be the first non-Bone work by Bone creator Jeff Smith. Living up to the high standards of his kid-geared but adult-friendly creation, Smith reinvents the muscleman officially called Captain Marvel but more frequently known by that magic incarnation — Shazam! — that transforms the pipsqueak Billy Batson into a superhero. Welcome back, Jeff Smith, and keep ’em coming!