The Elsewhere: Part-time zinester Charles Mingus will toilet train your cat

The entirety of Reddit’s NottheOnion cannot hold a candle to this gem of an unbelievable news story: Charles Mingus wrote a mail-order zine in 1954 on toilet-training cats. You read that correctly: Charles Mingus, arguably the greatest bassist and composer and bandleader and overall musician in all of jazz history trained his cat to poop in a human toilet. He called it “The Charles Mingus CAT-alog for Toilet Training Your Cat,” naturally.

Print copies of this ridiculous zine (again, authored by one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time) must be mighty hard to come by, so Studio360 did us all a favor and got the Reg E. Cathy to orate a brief audiobook. It’s no secret Mingus loved him some cats—if you squint, you can see a couple on the cover art of Mingus Ah Um, and the same album pays its dues to pussy cats with “Pussy Cat Dues”—but this fantastic piece of history really is something else.

I… I just don’t know what else to say. Cat got my tongue.

Waseca AfterDark #18: Ghost Town Literature, Part 2

Previously on AMC’s Your Horrible Family

“Put it down, Danny!”

“Is that right?”

“YOU’RE NOT MY REAL DAD”

“Oh boy!”

“I promised Maggie I wouldn’t go there…”

Ponderous stare.

“Heh. Heh heh.”

And now: our thrilling conclusion

Every zine has a history. Perzines, often and to their credit, will slam this history in your face, every minute personal detail relished for all of its honest glory. Zines like Waseca AfterDark capture history in a dissimilar way, casting a wider net to pinpoint a specific moment of space as well as time. But you should know this already if you read Part One.

So every zine has a history, that much is established. But no one tells zines that history exists on a spectrum. Issue #2 of your zine, such a fantastic achievement at the time, can be grist for the Mortified mill by the time you hit #17. Stories I wrote in high school represent a person I disagree with, resent to a degree, yet am obliged to identify with. It is a reflection of my “was,” the token of my past that I have preserved through immutable words. The world changes, but the word does not.

Waseca AfterDark is the “was” that precedes an iceberg, a mammoth story lurking beneath a seemingly barren surface. My research into the zine’s origins began with a frightful discovery. I sought out founder, editor, and ersatz Waseca historian Michael W. Flynn to inquire about purchasing back issues, but learned via online obituary that he had passed away in February 2014—only two weeks prior to the day I purchased the zine. Commence chills.

In AfterDark’s “Techno Spotlight,” a column about technology trends, Flynn writes with idiosyncratic nonchalance: “Man creates technology to help him alter and control his surroundings. But technology is a double edged sword. It alters and controls its creator.” Though primitive in its technological import, the zine in my possession had become altered by the state of its author. The zine was already a compelling artifact, the product of one man’s attempt to “control” his small and vivid Wasecan life by committing it to pen and paper, but news of his death lent it an intangible weight. I felt like I had stumbled upon a post-mortem Facebook of an acquaintance. My heart nearly broke.

It was 3:00 AM CST, the rest of my Albany Park apartment soundly asleep, and I needed some catharsis. Was there anyone else to talk to about the joy of Flynn’s celebration of southern Minnesota’s music scene? Or the weirdness of his concluding essay “America!”, a digressive treatise on patriotism that touches upon everything from the Bill of Rights to Pee Wee Herman? Waseca AfterDark felt like such a bizarre, personal touchstone that I could not handle it alone.

With only the physical address of the AfterDark office circa 1998 to go off of, my hopes for learning more about this mysterious zine were rapidly fading. Then, I realized the solution. He had been staring me in the face all along.

The man known as Hawk—whose actual name I am withholding out of tact—the subject of AfterDark’s cover story, whose goateed Mona Lisa smile beckoned to me from the Quimby’s shelf, was the answer. He was a family man, a tattoo artist, and a KISS superfan (dude draws a mean Gene Simmons portrait). At the end of Hawk’s brief AfterDark biography, Flynn remarks that he planned on starting his own tattoo parlor called Hawkster Ink. Lo and behold, some quick googling showed that Hawkster Ink still stood, Simmons and all. Sixteen years after-AfterDark, everything seemed to be coming up Hawkster.

But I noticed something a little off.

The Hawkster Ink of today was not located in Waseca, nor was it a tattoo parlor.

I reached out to Hawk via the site’s contact form. Our brief email correspondence pulverized the AfterDark rabbit hole, leaving a city-sized crater.

Beneath the sports bars, the taxidermy store, the spots for Domino’s Pizza, the portraits and photographs of local color, the vibrant music portraits, the blues harmonicas, the rambling essays, and the defunct telephone numbers—beneath it all lay a drug conspiracy, a renegade judge, and three tons of marijuana moving across state lines.

I am omitting a link to the court transcript (though publically available) that describes these goings-on of southern Minnesota’s seedy underbelly out of deference to Mr. Hawk, who I am sure values his privacy over a semi-stranger rehashing the crazy shit that went on in his past. Plus, he also told me that he would one day like to write a book about the whole shebang; by all rights, the bizarre drug conspiracy lurking under Waseca AfterDark’s surface is Hawk’s story to tell, not mine.

So what, then, is the story I am left with? For a chance pick off the bargain rack at a Chicago bookstore, this unassuming pamphlet packed in untold calories of food for thought. I have read comics that made me bowl off my bed with laughter, and I have parsed perzine scrawlings that burned my eyes with welling tears. Still, nothing approaches Waseca AfterDark’s strange bouquet. The product of a niche I can never possibly represent—a time far gone and a space far, far away—it has value as a piece of outlandish art* as well as a thoroughly unique cultural artifact, collecting the ultra-specific past while reflecting the melancholy present.

“The jam goes on,” Flynn writes, describing the weekly jam sessions at the Office, a defunct bar in Owatonna, “Bring your axe, sit a spell, play a while and just listen to what the area musicians are up to. It’ll surprise you.” Waseca AfterDark may not publish anymore, but it has not succumbed to history. Its jam goes on, and I have the musings and mullets to prove it.

 

*- I realize I spent very little time actually talking about Flynn’s essays, which have really remarkable cadences, or the non sequitur cartoon by Michael Miller. I plan on attaching most of the pages in the zine to this post once I get access to my scanner so y’all can see for yourselves.

Waseca AfterDark #18: Ghost Town Literature, Part 1

Every month in the Great City-State of Chicago, the Chicago Publishers Resource Center hosts a zine zine club (as opposed to a zine book club, which would just be daft) that, as you might guess, I am a pretty big fan of. This month’s meeting date was just confirmed via newsletter: October 9th, 7 – 9 PM. If you can make it out there, come say hello! The discussion is lively, the snacks are plentiful, and, for one month only, the zines will be spooky as hell.

Because, duh of course, it’s the witching month. Halloween is in a scant 30 days and October’s zine club tasks participants to bring a “dead” zine, one long out of print, lost to the world, or of a similarly ethereal nature. When John, ChiPRC honcho and zine zine club moderator (as much as a small circle of like-minded folks need a moderator), announced this theme at the end of last month’s meeting, I almost jumped out of my seat and saluted the heavens. I had the perfect zine for the occasion. So perfect, in fact, that I can barely wait another 8 days to talk about it.

Here’s the sneak peek: no, it isn’t a minicomic, nor is it a perzine or an issue zine. Waseca AfterDark #18 (No link, sorry, cannot find a trace of it on the internet) fits into no category but its own. This zine, this spooky-as-hell zine, is preoccupied with the state of a  small town of Waseca, Minnesota circa 1998. Standing 9,000 folks strong as of the latest census, Waseca is a city I have never visited, likely may not ever visit, and apparently had a zine documenting local culture through the ’90s. I don’t know when it started production, or when it ended, but issue #18 fell into my hands off the Quimby’s shelf for only two quarters. Within 30 seconds of spotting it, and the smiling, mullet’d man gracing its cover, I was mesmerized.

First, I wondered how Quimby’s, a mere 7 hour drive from Waseca, came into possession of this zine, and this issue in particular. After reading it cover-to-cover a couple times, my mind turned to research: forget how it got to Chicago, where did this come from at all? I’ve heard to zines documenting trends and culture in big cities like New York and Boston, but who could have expected a product of a culture so small and specific, 16 pages dominated by advertisements for local tattoo parlors and sports bars and laser toner cartridge stores, rounded out by a handful of essays written by one Michael Flynn? I did not, but I was amazed. Once again, zines proved to be extremely versatile editorial objects, capable of capturing even the smallest cultural ephemera.

I was ready to put Waseca AfterDark #18 back on the shelf. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. Something strange, implacable, still compelled me to it. Butterflies crowded my stomach.

I needed to know what happened to it, what happened to Waseca, the man on the cover (“Hawk,” who apparently was just starting a tattoo parlor at the time of #18‘s publishing), and Michael W. Flynn, the man behind it all. I needed to dig deep and open the time capsule.

And that’s when Waseca AfterDark started to get, uh, dark. Very dark.

(…TO BE CONTINUED?)

Futile Comix #2 by Mike Centeno: Let’s Talk About Sad, Baby

One look at the Futile Comics tumblr suggests that the author is more than just a run-of-the-mill sad sack cartoonist. “Visitors” is so bottled up with nebulous sorrow that it looks like it’s bleeding dirt, but strips like “Babel” play the prankster card when confronting life’s miseries. The more I read, the more I noticed strange details (like a hamburger with a hamburger face on its hamburger butt) dabbled between the parallel streaks of glee and gloom. All in all, it’s worth checking out, and the best of it reminds me of a more grounded KC Green.

Online offerings, as always, are kind of a mixed bag, so I oughta shift to the two short-form strips included in his new minicomic zine, Futile Comix No. 2, since that’s the issue that plunged me into this delightful ditch that I am calling the Centenosphere. Centeno sets the tone on the cover with a coiffed-up hamster doing his best Late 19th-Century Psychiatrist, with black holes for eyes. It’s cute, suggestive, and more than a little unnerving.

True to the Freudian getup, both of the stories contained in Futile Comix #2 contain oodles of psychological juice, working in ruminations on depression, anxiety, and gender identity—just to name what I got out of it. Centeno does a good job at keeping the subtext rich beneath each story’s narrations. In the first story, “Diamonds Are Forever,” he filters the beats of the story through the hamster Diamond’s mind. Poorly understood threats—from a mysterious malady to cloaked giants that sound oddly like human children—snowball into a single, suicidal ideation that proves, uh, futile to escape for poor Diamond.

If that plot summary sounds miserable, that’s because it is. But Centeno is smart to undercut the heaviness with stylized flairs of cuteness. Diamond, whether pensive, terrified, exhilarated, or wheezing out a chunk of petrified lung, is rendered grotesquely cute by his pitch-black gumdrop eyes. Every tiny, terrible emotion that he feels is really, really felt. The silhouette designs of his owner’s suffer by comparison; with so much of the story devoted to Diamond’s inner struggle, their plain, cartoony facial expressions came across as coy and distracting in visual and narrative terms.

All told, this gripe is a small water chestnut in the rich, tasty kung pao chicken plate called “Diamonds Are Forever.” But, as the saying goes, come for the hamsters and stay for the flaming island godheads, right? Because flaming godheads is literally what “The God That Wasn’t There,” perhaps among the Top 10 Most Depressing Genesis Myths I’ve ever read, has to offer.

Not-literally, it’s a divine fable that dishes up the human condition. But first: what if? What if, at the epicentre of reality, is a universe unmade by fear, anxiety, and squandered potential? What if gods got self-conscious? “The God That Wasn’t There” considers these tough questions vis a vis the eponymous god, a cross between a runic Easter Island skull and a Ghastly.

Compared to “Diamonds,” “God” is a much more straightforward allegory that benefits two tons from an unbound, aggressive visual palette. It’s an exaggerated style befitting of the creation of the world, full of fire without sacrificing clarity. Or irony! Of course, it would not be Futile Comix without irony, in this case of the self-reflexive kind. When the god is worried the most about its unfilled potential, it expresses creative impotence through luxurious exaggerations, exploding beyond traditional panel space, contorting the narration around its avatar. You are forced to feel the god’s massive stores of power upfront, culminating in an ending devastatingly anticlimactic.

For anyone who fancies themselves a creative, or has dealt with image issues in any form, or social anxiety, the list goes on, the tale is powerful, clear, and just a little too-close-to-home. No real laughs to be found there, that is just fine. The poetry of the art speaks for itself.

Maybe read it just before you go to bed and you need that little extra something to goose the restless spirits, or maybe read it when you’re in a bad-though-not-that­-bad mood and could use a sick laugh, but basically just read Futile Comix in general. Futile Comix at its best, by tapping into the terrors that grind gods, monsters, and hamsters alike into futile catatonia, manages to hit that blend of existential dread and ironic resignation that few practitioners of the black comedy arts ever manage to get right.

 

(Request the Futile Comix zine at your local bookstore, comic store, or zine library! Or why don’t you just ask Mikey C. himself, why not?)