Greg Stacy’s FAT LOT OF GOOD

November 23, 2006

Hooray for Hellmouths

Filed under: Humor,LA Weekly,News and politics,TV,Weird — gregstacy @ 9:34 am

(Originally printed in LA WEEKLY, July 31, 2003)

In the final episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, several characters, suffering from insomnia as they prepare for an apocalyptic battle, huddle around a table late one night to blow off steam with a Dungeons and Dragons–style role-playing game. Giles, the group’s 40-something father figure, can’t help but feel ambivalent: “I used to be a respected Watcher,” he grumbles, referring to his glory days as mentor to the series’ titular super-heroine. “Now I’m a wounded dwarf with the mystical strength of a doily.”

I understand how he felt. While I dabbled with D&D as a kid, I long ago put away such childish things and evolved into a grown-up with an actual life. Or so I thought until a few months back, when I discovered the Sunnydale Sock Puppet Theater (www.hellmouth.us), an online community of people who keep daily journals as characters from Buffy, Buffy’s spinoff series Angel and (to a lesser extent) the unrelated Aaron Spelling series Charmed. There are journals for every Buffy character ever, the heroes and villains, the living, dead and undead. There are even journals for inanimate objects, so you can check in with Buffy’s surprisingly talkative stuffed pig or hear how Spike’s jacket resents being stashed in a closet.

Of course, my first instinct was to run screaming. But as Buffy’s lackluster concluding TV season dragged on, I found myself increasingly drawn to the Socks, who sometimes sounded more like the Buffy characters I’d grown to love than their TV equivalents did. The Socks devised interesting storylines that took place between each week’s TV episodes, and during rerun weeks they cut loose and sent their characters on all-new adventures. When Buffy ended as a series, it stung a lot less than it could have because I knew I could go online the next morning and read what Buffy’s gang was planning for the rest of the week. (As it turned out, they celebrated their victory over the First Evil with a trip to Disneyland.) The people behind the Socks were clearly having a ball, and despite my being a grown-up with an actual life, I wanted in.

Getting in proved surprisingly difficult, as almost every Buffy character was already taken, but eventually I was allowed to take on Buffy’s rarely seen deadbeat dad, Hank Summers. It was a surreal experience, stepping into the mind of an embittered 50-year-old divorcé; it gave me disturbing insight into the reality of having pissed-off teenagers and reaffirmed my intention to never, ever breed. In Sockdom it’s not unusual for one person to play several characters (Buffy herself is handled by the same Ohio girl who writes Spike), but just fitting Hank in my head was more than enough for me.

Although a largely female, Caucasian phenomenon, the Socks range from late teens to their 40s, with Christians, Wiccans and atheists somehow all getting along just fine. There is some occasional infighting, and recently a few disruptive Socks were exiled to their own group, the Sunnydale Mittens, but overall the Socks are sweet, helpful people who don’t take their peculiar hobby too seriously. What strife there is comes mostly from without, from people who just don’t get it. It’s all too common for Socks to get hassled by lunatic fans who think Buffy’s a real person, and one of the Charmed girls was approached online by a kid seeking protection from the demons he sincerely believed were after him. There are rabid Spike fangirls who insist Spike’s diary is being written by James Marsters, who plays him on TV, no matter how much they are told otherwise. Even Hank’s had his kooks, one of whom furiously accused me of conning her when she finally figured out that Hank’s diary — about a guy with a vampire-slaying daughter named Buffy was actually based on a TV show. If I’ve ever felt crazy for Socking, a few of my readers have put my craziness comfortably into perspective.

Some might say the Socks simply have too much time on their hands, but tell that to Tracy, a Wisconsinite who handles two Buffy characters while going to school full-time (premed) and working part-time. Socking is a waste of time, but no more so than sports or collecting stamps or anything else people do to amuse themselves on this fast march to the grave. Strong friendships form as Socks meet online to hatch storylines, gossip or offer cheer on dark days, coming together to blow off steam as we prepare for our own battles in the real world.

 

Addendum, 2006: Sadly, the Sunnydale Socks fell apart not long after this article was published, amidst much internal strife. It just proves something R. Crumb once said: “The next step after shared ideas is warring factions.”

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November 21, 2006

Discovering the Jolly Nightmare: The lost world of Charles Altamont Doyle

Filed under: Art,LA Weekly,Weird — gregstacy @ 1:46 am

(Originally printed in LA WEEKLY, November 27, 2003)

 When I was a kid in the late ’70s, Linnea, a dear friend of the family, loaned me a peculiar book entitled The Doyle Diary. It reprinted the 1889 sketchbook-journal that Charles Altamont Doyle (father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes) kept during his lengthy stay in a Scottish lunatic asylum. If Linnea ever hopes to get the book back, she’ll have to kill me first.

Individual pages of The Doyle Diary can be dazzling, but you have to spend some time with the book to realize what a masterpiece it truly is. The Doyle Diary grants you free access inside Charles Doyle’s busy brain. There are cheeky fairy women and giant polecats, humorously unflattering self-portraits, meticulous studies of the local flora and fauna, political rants and melancholy familial reminiscences, affectionate doodles of the asylum’s cleaning staff and lots of agonizing puns. Overall, one gets the impression of a gentle, highly imaginative Victorian gentleman who somehow ended up in a madhouse but was too polite to inconvenience anybody by making a big fuss about it.

While Doyle’s flights of fancy are entrancing in their own right, one of my favorite drawings in the book features a seemingly unremarkable scene the artist witnessed between two crows. One crow stands with a worm in its mouth, offering it to the other. The caption: “I have just seen this out of the window. Could unselfishness go further?”

In Doyle’s eyes, a simple transaction between two cawing, homely scavengers has been transformed into a touchingly noble act. How could anyone not love this man?

Charles Doyle was born into a family of successful artists. His father, John Doyle, was an acclaimed caricaturist of the Regency period, while his brothers all went on to fame, and his older brother, Richard “Dickie” Doyle, was one of the better-known illustrators of the Victorian age. But while Charles Altamont Doyle showed early promise as an artist, at 17 he was sent off to Edinburgh for a job as a surveyor in the Scottish Office of Works. It was mostly a routine clerk’s position, although he did some impressive architectural design, including a mighty fountain in the courtyard of Holyrood Palace, the queen’s Scottish residence.

At 22, he wed his landlady’s daughter; they had 10 kids, seven of whom lived. For years Doyle struggled to make it as an artist (he illustrated 17 published books we know of) while continuing at his day job, but the pressures of supporting a large family gradually wore him down, and he took to the bottle. Another man might have been proud to have designed Scottish monuments while illustrating books in his spare time, but Doyle knew that by the lofty standards set by his brothers, he was just an anonymous civil servant and Sunday painter with a house full of kids he could scarcely afford to feed.

In 1876, after decades of toiling without promotion for the Office of Works, Doyle was dismissed and put on a pension. Later that year he was sent to Fordoun House, a nursing home for alcoholics. His stay at Fordoun lasted years, and it was apparently during this time that he developed epilepsy, a condition poorly understood then. Perhaps addled by his illness or perhaps desperate after years of confinement, Doyle made a violent attempt to escape Fordoun in 1885. He failed, and was sent to the Montrose Royal Lunatic Asylum, where he spent the next seven years and illustrated The Doyle Diary. Following a final relocation, Doyle died a lonesome death at the Crighton Royal Institution in 1893. He had spent 17 years in confinement. By any measure, Doyle lived a tragic life, but nobody who has experienced the wonders of The Doyle Diary would say it was a wasted one.

Unfortunately, Doyle’s rotten luck hasn’t improved much in the decades since his death. While his work inspired a passionate cult following and he’s been cited as a kindred spirit by such modern cartooning geniuses as Dame Darcy (Fantagraphics Books’ Meat Cake) and L.A. Weekly’s own Tony Millionaire, Doyle’s not nearly as well-known as he deserves to be. The Doyle Diary is long out of print (private dealers often sell used copies on Amazon for under 10 bucks) and his surviving art is scattered in collections around the world and rarely seen by the public.

Although I’ve probably read The Doyle Diary a hundred times, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I discovered a note at the book’s end stating that one of the largest American collections of Doyle’s work was at the Huntington Library in San Marino. I called the Huntington and was told that while they did indeed possess a collection of Doyle’s work, it was in fragile condition and only scholars were permitted to view it. They bent the rules and agreed to let me into their archives so I could write this article, although frankly they didn’t sound too thrilled about it. Had they denied me access, I think I would have executed a daring midnight raid, breaking into the Huntington under cover of darkness to explore the archives with a flashlight. Fellow Doyle fans would understand.

My excitement was tinged with melancholy as I sat in the Huntington’s Scott Curatorial Office’s Art Division Print and Drawing Study Room and perused a crumbling album of Charles Doyle’s drawings — an album that once belonged to Doyle’s son, Sir Arthur himself. There was easily enough material here for a whole new book, but this was literally a once-in-a-lifetime thrill; I had exactly three hours to take it all in, and then I’d probably never see this work again.

While his usual playfulness was on ample display, overall the Huntington collection showed a darker side of Doyle than I was used to. There was a sometimes unsettling battle-of-the-sexes theme on display, although you couldn’t always tell which side Doyle was on. One drawing depicting a woman riding sidesaddle on a man’s back was captioned, “To be useful as well as ornamental”; in another, the smartly dressed “Mister Present Times” offered a girl for sale: “Who wants a Bride — now is your chance — going — cheap — but nice!” Elsewhere, Cupid held a hoop through which a man and woman jumped onto the backs of running horses in the eternal circus of love. There were many hapless males trying to catch the attention of unimpressed dames, a dynamic that repeated across the human, animal and fairy kingdoms. Given how so much of Doyle’s life played out in confinement, I suppose a little sexual frustration is understandable.

One simple drawing in the Huntington archives stopped me cold: Beneath a full moon, a fat, leering drunk tipped his glass to the viewer as he tottered atop a horse with a frenzied, mirthless grin. The caption was, “Hurrah! For the jolly night mare!” It was a phrase that aptly described Doyle’s work, perhaps his entire life: the jolly nightmare.

While the public isn’t permitted to see Doyle’s work at the Huntington, representatives from both the library and Doyle’s family have told me that they’d be amenable if a publisher approached them about printing Doyle’s work, although so far there haven’t been any offers. Until that blessed day comes, I plead with you to do whatever you must to experience Doyle’s jolly nightmare for yourself, whether that means scouring Amazon for a used copy of The Doyle Diary or just stealing one from a dear friend of the family. Doyle’s work can be achingly lovely, achingly funny or achingly sad, and sometimes it is all of these things at once.

The art of Charles Altamont Doyle hurts, but it’s a hurt you’ll never get enough of.

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