As far as love letters go, they don’t come much more jam-packed and wondrously, joyously convoluted than Mark Alan Stamaty’s MacDoodle St. — a surreal, circuitous, legitimately dadaist ode to the trials and travails of the “artist’s life” in a New York City which, sadly, no longer exists. These strips originally ran in the pages of The Village Voice every week from 1978-1979. Dense in every sense of the word — visually, thematically, conceptually, narratively — it’s hard to argue that Stamaty leaves any stone unturned in his fine-toothed-comb comedic examination of a city and a “scene” that he knew on a molecular level. As is readily apparent now that the strip’s been collected in its entirety in a handsome hardcover by New York Review Comics, though, Stamatyt was playing at something even more complex than readers at the time were probably able to suss out: this is, you see, a meticulously-plotted, entirely self-contained graphic novel done at a time when few were familiar with that idea.
It’s possible that this completeness was entirely accidental — the vagaries of creating a weekly strip automatically lend themselves to at least a certain amount of muse-following — but, nevertheless, the end result is what it is. This is impressive enough on its own, but it’s the process of getting there that is, no exaggeration, a thing of absolute wonder — not least because the distinct possibility that everything could go completely off the rails at any given moment exists at all times.
Consider: our protagonist, a would-be poet named Malcolm Frazzle struggling with a case of writer’s block of the sort Stephen King would make a career out of basing novels around, is really more a point of entry than anything else, a gateway through which we are introduced to an array of utterly unhinged marvels including genetically engineered dishwashing monkeys, talking baseball cards, a street-corner battle between conservative businessmen and bearded long-hairs for ownership of a Greenwich Village coffee house, a violent mob of Wayne Newton fans, and a homeless clairvoyant guy who rides around on the bus all day. Throw in plenty of commentary on then-current local and national politics, as well as a healthy serving of meta-commentary on both the strip itself and the often-transitory nature of its author’s interests and obsessions, and what we should have, by all, rights, is a complete mess — and yet, MacDoodle St. is anything but.
Much of the credit for this needs to be laid squarely at the feet of Stamaty’s flabbergasting, insanely-detailed, thoroughly kinetic illustration: a tantalizing sensory overload of intuitive and clever page layouts that would make even the likes of Chris Ware envious, meticulously clean linework, superfluous-yet-tangentially-related page decoration, and smart subversion of just about every formal convention comics readers of the era were all too familiar with. The strip’s layouts were often more kaleidoscopic than anything else, and yet Stamaty’s visual literacy is so well-nigh-unmatched that from the get-go he’s easily able to establish such an internally logical flow to his storytelling that following along is never confusing — even when it appears almost supremely confused.
Mind you, I’m not certain that there are any cartoonists who should follow Stamaty’s methodology, but as an early example of a hermetically-sealed sequential storytelling “world,” it’s almost as breathtaking a thing to merely consider as it is to actually read. The fact that it’s funny, frequently to the point of being hysterical? Well, that’s a heck of a nice plus.
It’s also pretty easy to see how and why a work this labor-intensive — emphasis on the “intense” — would have a rather limited lifespan, and Stamaty addresses this issue in a new 20-page autobio strip that serves as a combination addendum/afterword, told in a style similar to the original work itself, albeit with a heavier dose of undisguised self-deprecation. Those who have followed his comics over the years, however, will see this not so much as a reversion to a former “style” as it is a natural continuation of his well-established modus operandi — and as far as postscripts go, they don’t come much more informative or entertaining. Throw in a generous (and deservedly so) introduction by the legendary Jules Feiffer and I have to say that New York Review Comics has put together a hell of a comprehensive package here — but then, we’ve come to expect nothing less from this uniformly-impressive publishing imprint. I despise the contemporary over-use of the term “curated” to a degree that’s probably at least illogical, at most downright unreasonable, but it applies in this case precisely, and there’s no doubt that this is work that has earned such careful treatment in terms of restoration, packaging, and presentation.
Entirely of its time, yet still several decades ahead of where most comics are even now in terms of form and execution, MacDoodle St. may not be found on any map — but it’s a place you’ll definitely want to visit, probably even repeatedly.
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