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Nothing funny this week

Cartoonist Mark Newgarden finds ''laffs" amid the tears

Mark Newgarden comic
A new collection of Mark Newgarden's work brings together his often dark comics (which he occasionally signed with other people's names).

IN A CHEERY, converted funeral parlor in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn lives Mark Newgarden, a cartoonist who once devoted the entire panel of his weekly comic strip to a stark, all-caps presentation of the words ''Nothing funny this week."

''Comics get to the essence of something quickly and efficiently," Newgarden said recently in his studio at the former funeral home. ''They distill and refine, they don't necessarily tell stories or have a message." This philosophy is evident in Newgarden's work, where anonymous men exude despair and where Newgarden uses his gag lines as commentaries instead of one-liners.

Grim meta-gags-in mostly one-panel comics with titles like ''Broken Lives Gagorama" and ''I Don't Get It!"-are all in a day's work for Newgarden, who has mined the comic-strip and cartooning ephemera of the last hundred years for the exact combination of outward yock and inner pain that produces what Newgarden has identified as ''laffs," the joyless mirth that's all too aware of the suffering at comedy's roots.

More than 20 years of Newgarden's work is newly collected in a book from Fantagraphics titled ''We All Die Alone." The book itself is an art object of sorts, with its gold-embossed faux-flocked black velvet cover. But in typical fashion, Newgarden undercuts the arty pretensions the book's design exploits. He is making a ''personal book groomer" available so readers can keep the cover lint-free.

Newgarden published his first deconstructed comics in the seminal art-comics magazine RAW, where he worked as an assistant editor in the 1980s. One of them, ''Love's Savage Fury," tells a poignant, complex story of Bazooka Joe and Nancy, characters from different comics who almost meet on the subway. It's an affecting story that utilizes the blank looks of its two iconic characters in a formally sophisticated way.

Work like that helped get Newgarden gallery and museum shows, and early on other cartoonists recognized how Newgarden's approach expanded comics' boundaries. Chris Ware, the creator of ''The Acme Novelty Library," has said that Newgarden ''managed to retool the basic external elements of cartooning into a sophisticated inner language of uncomfortably familiar self-mocking existential despair."

Newgarden, however, isn't merely a master of the comics in-joke who appeals only to his fellow cartoonists. ''We All Die Alone" also features Newgarden's prototypes for the Garbage Pail Kids, the sticker series he hatched in 1984 while working as an idea man at Topps, the bubble gum and baseball card company. A kind of hideous-but-cute answer to Cabbage Patch Kids, the Garbage Pail gang became a Reagan-era fad and roused the ire of Jerry Falwell, who attacked them in his Liberty Report newspaper.

While the Garbage Pail Kids were twisting children's minds and annoying their parents, Newgarden began drawing and writing a one-panel comic strip he syndicated in the New York Press and other alternative weeklies. The self-titled ''Mark Newgarden" was to comics what Andy Kaufman was to comedy: a puzzling affront. It was impossible to tell whether the strip was supposed to be funny or serious, mean or nice, art, trash, or something else.

The form Newgarden created for his strip evolved into a kind of hard-boiled prose-poem with a funny picture on top. It tackled big ideas with the smallest, most trivial of tools. Frequently it dealt in the nature of humor itself. A recurring gag features a pair of humor theorists who go around analyzing one-panel cartoons, correcting them to make them more depressing.

Unfortunately for Newgarden his comics confused people, and he began to get mail of the ''you're not funny" variety-which he'd then run in his strip. His publisher pulled the plug in 1991, though not before Newgarden ran a series of strips called ''Industrial Toilet Paper Wrappers of NYC," which collected toilet paper wrappers and ran them six to a panel over 12 weeks.

Newgarden's relation to the funnies remains wary. ''We All Die Alone" includes an appendix where his conflicted ideas about cartooning and cartoon characters are given free reign. ''We are all potential victims of comedy," he writes. Ours is ''a culture always on the lookout for a new cartoon character to hide behind," where ''ever cheerful icons, robbed of all context, have become soulless American Frankensteins, wandering...with nothing left to sell but their terrible perpetual smiles."

''I love them all," he adds. ''Probably more than my next of kin."

A.S. Hamrah is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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