My Younger Self (not drawn by Kate Beaton, sadly) had the first sin of reading lots of comics without reading the words. When you’re indiscriminate in the 80s with a forest out back, you cut to the chase. So I never suffered through John Byrne’s captions. My dutiful brother actually read all the words and some Hardy Boys to boot, so he could fill me in if the plot got confusing. I don’t remember if I made up the plots or inferred them, though I spent hours copying the drawings. I still have vivid memories of certain pages and panels, like silent cinema dreams.
I did, however, read both the words and pictures for a few choice comics. Most were newspaper strips, like Bloom County and those B.C. paperbacks. Others I got at the store, in particular a Canadian parody of network TV called To Be Announced. And the one I remember best: Ultra Klutz by Jeff Nicholson.
This comic, a black-and-white slapstick parody of Ultraman that quickly became a sprawling epic, is my second confession. I don’t know that I can recommend it. I do know that it is one of my favorite works from childhood. While other kids read Tintin and Raymond Briggs, I read Ultra Klutz over and over. I’m sure UK is no Tintin in Tibet, but for me it was a perfect substitute for the Godzilla movies our UHF antenna could only pick up on a clear day.
Even though I read all the words, I didn’t get the drunk jokes. It didn’t matter. The buoyant art transfixed me with clear, easy to copy forms. The story I liked as well: a fast food worker from planet Klutzoid ends up on earth, basically becomes Ultraman, and starts fighting the monsters popping up in Japan. He’s not very good at it. The monsters get odder, going from a Godzilla clone to a giant tin can and the Devious Yuffle Worm, looking smart with a handlebar moustache and Mickey Mouse gloves. The plot gets odder too, with parodies of whatever was current in the Comics Buyers’ Guide. There’s a continuity agent, some off-DC heroes, and plenty of metafiction. I think the plot’s tangle didn’t offend my younger self because the main characters were still pretty dumb. Nicholson has a gift for drawing boneheads, which I mean as a compliment and hope he would take as one.
I’m sure there are a dozen ways to criticize Ultra Klutz. Its art shows Nicholson learning when he switched from pen to brush. It might have had a Cerebus infection. And its ideas are so messy, so bursting and scattered, that it needs a lot of generosity from its readers. I can’t even call it representative of its time. I don’t care. If I pull it off the shelf I end up reading the whole thing. I don’t do that with any other comic from that time, and only a few from my first few years of getting back into the form.
I stopped reading comics for almost ten years when adolescence hit, trading CBG for CBGB’s. Coming back, I found Jeff Nicholson starting to come into his own. I enjoyed his psychological horror series Through the Habitrails, originally in the anthology Taboo. I also enjoyed his solo issue of The Dreaming, with the pumpkin-head guy. But tastes change. By the time he started Colonia, a pirate fantasy, he seemed to have found a stride that would finally bring him a wider audience. I had to labor to read fantasy at all, so I wished him well in my head and dug into something more convoluted which I’ve since forgotten.
Nicholson wasn’t working that whole time, though. He’d actually quit comics more than once because of how its market punishes artists who fall between its mainstream and counterculture. He’s been nominated for Eisner Awards and Colonia had positive reviews. Now a trip to his Colonia Press website finds nothing but that girl with a backpack and a clutch of ads. It’s done.
He’s moved on to a new site for a cartoon based on his Father & Son comic. However, on his “Chronology” page, you’ll find a page and some covers from Ultra Klutz, as well a very personal overview of his career. At the least, read the last section, “Leaving Comics,” which starts with:
Facing the fact that I had invested my entire life in a dying medium was a very painful thing to do…
He breaks down the numbers that show why he never finished Colonia. It seems like a good decision. He also explains how he realized he was done with the form, which feels like a confession itself. It’s strange to read with a child’s affection lingering in me. I’m not particularly nostalgic, so I think I’ll just stop.