Review by Frank Plowright
The comics industry in the 21st century still falls well short of best practice in many areas, but there are now places where the creative can produce comics, and keep the rights to what they produce. In the 1960s only underground comics offered that freedom, and they had a select audience and spotty distribution. Creators whose speciality was science fiction, fantasy or other genre material had no such venue where they retained their strips until Wally Wood created witzend, always using full lower case for the title
Being such a respected figure he attracted some top talent. The sample art pairs Vaughn Bodé and Steve Ditko, but the contributors list is immense. Wood himself, obviously, but also Howard Chaykin, Frank Frazetta, Dick Giordano, Jeff Jones, Gray Morrow, Alex Toth, Al Williamson, Bernie Wrightson and Mike Zeck, the irregular publication schedule over a decade accounting for people who weren’t professionals in the mid-1960s. Add illustration pages from Reed Crandall, Leo and Diane Dillon, Morrow, P. Craig Russell, Walt Simonson, and Jim Steranko and the high production values, and it makes The Best of witzend a treasure trove of artists, especially as some material hasn’t been reprinted elsewhere. One imagines that might apply to several pages of whimsy from a young Art Spiegelman, possibly better forgotten.
What’s strange is how many artists remain true to type, producing exactly the type of story they might have supplied elsewhere, only with extra nudity, so credit to Toth (and writing partner Guyla Toth) for a clever period adventure strip that wouldn’t have fitted any contemporary publications. Neither would Ditko’s Mr. A, a more judgemental version of the Question, whose moral stance wouldn’t be accepted by mainstream publishers of superhero vigilantes. Ditko would take a lesson from witzend and publish ever more extreme continuations himself. Also of note are two single page gag strips from Ditko, not generally a genre associated with him. Archie Goodwin has a neat point to make about religious hypocrisy, and his art is all too rarely seen, and there’s a nice animal fantasy strip by Nic Cuti and Joe Staton.
Wood’s versatility is on display with the adventure/horror of ‘Animan’, the whimsical fantasy of ‘Pipsqueak’ and bizarre comedy super team ‘The Rejects’, and he’s represented with material he doesn’t draw. John Adkins Richardson attempts Wood’s style, but can’t pull it off, but Wood’s studio assistant Richard Bassford is notably influenced by him, yet also manages to bring his own style to a neat SF four pages.
witzend ran for a dozen issues, only the first four edited by Wood, and there’s plenty of good material not represented, creators or their heirs presumably unwilling to let work from Roger Brand, Roy Krenkel and Harvey Kurtzman, to name just three, see print. That apart, a complete reprinting would be for collectors only, because standards slipped as witzend continued, so this distillation is welcome. It’s rounded off by considerable background material supplied by Bill Mason, editor Bill Pearson, and publication curator Patrick Rosenkranz, all fascinating, and witty creator biographies, some including their own reminiscences.