Love incredibly detailed work? Then feast your eyes on Phantasmagoria 2!
Phantasmagoria 2: Spring 1972
Editor and publisher: Kenneth Smith
Phantasmagoria was one of those zines I was aware of when it was current, but missed out on for various reasons (probably mostly financial…back then, three bucks was a lot to spend on a zine). I do have very vivid memories of seeing the promotional materials though…the incredibly detailed and fantastic imagery, the beautifully detailed typography. The cover of the first issue is etched in my brain from ads and such. The only other artist that produced the level of detail and exhibited a comparable amount of skill back then was Richard Corben.
See what I mean? This level of skill was so far beyond the reach of most zine artists at the time. The vase in the lower left corner of the painting alone is a real object of beauty. The cover you see above also drops the zine into the trend at the time of artzines not even needing a title or logo. The art was so recognizable in style you knew who did it and most likely which zine you were looking at. Kenneth Smith took an incredible amount of time and invested his very impressive intelligence into the art (and stories) he produced. Whether in black and white with line work or stipple, or fully painted, he was able to invent new creatures and new worlds at will. He was also not averse to long passages of text in his stories or columns. A philosophy professor by trade, he nonetheless produced many paperback book covers, as well as covers for Warren magazines Creepy and Eerie (in addition to the fanzine work for other editors before he concentrated on Phantasmagoria alone).
Above you see two of several entries into two separate portfolios (these two from “Barbarians, Cavemen, and Amazons”). Smith was aware that he could not produce work of this level of detail for monthly comics (as he states in a very long editorial). In fact, he posits that the very medium of comics, with its emphasis on continuity and monthly publication (and the comparatively low pay for the work produced), works against a high quality of art. I suppose you could make an argument for this, seeing as how artists seen as producers of fine art (Wrightson, Frazetta, Jones et al…excepting Corben) do not seem to last long in comics or do very little regular work. Before concentrating on his own zine, Smith did work for Warren publications, as mentioned earlier. Within the pages of this second issue of Phantasmagoria are two stories, one of which may have either been printed in a Warren mag, or submitted to one. “Sinking Feeling” has a narrator that I suspect was originally Uncle Creepy or Cousin Eerie, but has been replaced by an image of Smith himself. You can see a page below (the cover is a painting of the protagonist of this story).
Smith was gracious enough to answer an email of mine with a long detailed explanation about…well, a lot of things! See below.
I have to say that my first exposure to fanzines was quite mixed: it was thrilling to see (and to be published in) professionally conceived and splendidly printed zines like Squa Tront, Spa Fon, Reality, Promethean Enterprises, etc., but most zines were of course fannish and derivative and less than discriminating–on the whole, not a strong showing of fresh energies from novice imaginations.As to your remarks on the bygone age of fanzines with all their exploratory and entrepreneurial spirit, yes, sadly but surely it is true that our mass-culture insidiously formats everybody into a sensibility of transience and fickleness, of the mindless flow of seeming novelties (“the more things change, the more they remain the same”)–a situation all too similar to the drifting and pathetic “consumers” in my Phantasmagoria 3 (“The Age of Fish”) who wind up themselves getting consumed by the inferno of all-consuming ravenousness which is Life. Among us, corporate “properties” more than ever choke the public spaces and media today, and recycle works that were rarely anything more than committee-collaborations to begin with, often enough a visual equivalent of musical earworms to which readers will (it is hoped) get habituated or addicted. Do forests deserve to perish for this dreck?Before I tried my hand at self-publishing, and before I got to know a number of particular comics artists, I made my earliest connections with EC talents I had admired for over a decade: I was shocked at the modest and even poverty-stricken conditions of artists I knew to be singular geniuses. Frazetta (at the time just beginning to gain recognition from his portrait of Ringo on the back of Mad) lived in a small, modest home in Sheepshead Bay, and Wood worked out of a shabby hotel suite in the Astoria area of NYC. I became close with Woody and later with Al Williamson and Burne Hogarth and others, but all were simpatico with me for quite different reasons, and I loved them all as much as I hated what comics had mostly done to them. All in all, I was and was determined to remain, an anomaly, someone who was “in” comics without ever being “of it,” just as I was “in” but not “of” academia.Every issue of my book/magazine and every portfolio I published were really Sisyphean labors, leaving me trying to pay my current printing bill just by the skin of my teeth. My pleas to my little circle of fans and friends alas always proved futile, there were always going to be too few of them. Phantasmagoria was an acquired taste, shamelessly subtle and exotic and certainly too idiosyncratic-seeming to be comprehensible to people raised on spider-men and ninja turtles.I continued to publish art prints and portfolios and even some philosophy books (Otherwise and Webs, in 1998 and 2000) after I stopped producing Phantasmagoria as a book/zine itself (issue 5 appeared in 1977, although Fantagraphics published issue II: 1, or # 6, for me in 1990). I quit teaching philosophy in 1983 when we moved from Baton Rouge to Dallas in order for me to take up commercial illustration (newspaper ads, posters, calligraphy, text- and workbook illustration, etc.). It’s a pathetic reflection on the perverse/inverse “meritocracy” of our society that churning out crapwork-illustration was as a rule remunerated at 30-40 times the rate for the most sublime forms of art–but then again, most of the fine art I have ever done has cost me exorbitantly rather than earning anything to pay for its enormous consumption of time. Doing commercial illustration, I often made in one ten-hour day 1 1/2 times what teaching philosophy paid for a month’s labors, but the drawback of course was that my self-disposable time came in quite unforeseeable wedges. In 2009 my wife and I, supposedly “retired,” moved back to Austin, the city where we had met, had graduated from high school and college, and where most of our immediate family has lived.All during those commercial-art years I continued–injudiciously–taking on occasional “editorial” commissions i.e. book and album covers (I . . . Alien, The Rebus Bears, The Bat Family, Mystery of Atlantis, Bradbury’s Dinosaur Tales, various Caedmon spoken word LPs). I don’t consider very much of this work–although it’s definitely not all crap–as even remotely on a par with the splendid art I did for Phantasmagoria but hey, pearls before swine. Also during these years from 1977 to now, I continued doing “personal” or “private” art on my own, a few Southwestern scenes in oils as well as enormous numbers of fantasy drawings and paintings ad lib, seldom done with specific projects consciously in mind. My finest and most fantastic work was dreamed up and executed just for its own sake, and was so rarely feasible when I had all the woes of educational futilities on my shoulders.I recently began gathering these various pieces of freeform art, small and large, into different “genre” art books which I have been planning to organize and design for self-publication, beginning with the horror art of Necronoia. A new Warren-style horror comic, The Creeps (see here), is publishing one of my earliest horror oils (Bottle Imp) on their very next issue and I should have a full-page color ad in that issue as well, promoting some of my voluminous backstock and announcing that Necronoia is in process (first of the thematic collections that will include SF, fantasy, figures and faces, aliens, etc. and eventually the final issue of Phantasmagoria, # 7, with the ultimate fable (“The Age of Amphibians”).I have continued to enrich and hone my artistic sensibilities no less than my philosophical insights, and it’s been a chief delight over the decades to see my art-energies shaping themselves into something always superior. But to gain the free time to let my genius take its own paths, I had to set aside the follies of setting up public exhibits and trying to peddle books and prints. Looking back, I considered Phantasmagoria 4 and 5 to be the high points of the series, just as 7 will also be, once it appears a few years down the road. Issue 2 that you mention has a few superlative pages in it, I think, but it felt to me the most “fannish” of the issues: I matured to do aliens and humans and other works of deeper imagination that had far more resonant life in them, more sparkle and sinister intelligence. Today I continue all these genre-interests–aliens, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, anatomy–as spontaneous fine artwork, and as I say, I regard my current work as being at the peak of my form and my most nuanced sense of color, just as the philosophy-sessions that I do as Skype-seminars or lectures are immeasurably richer, freer and more comprehensive than any I was able to do formally on a campus.
Smith did have a sense of humor amidst all the seriousness, though. The cover of issue one features two cute little talking dinosaurs, and Smith printed many images like this throughout the run of this zine. You see a tiny bit of this excerpted and inserted into the banner at the top of the page, but if you download the pdf, you will see several others. Below, though, are a few pages from his second story, “Parasite.” This story is less of a fantasy (though it does take place in a possible future), and more of an examination of the nature of man’s inhumanity to man, as well as the corruption of power and the desire to control the masses. Again, see the entire story in the pdf.
There is a letters section near the end of the fanzine, which is made more interesting than normal by the inclusion of the actual handwritten letters of some of the participants, as well as the art from the readers that accompanied the letters. Those readers include fantasy icon, Kelly Freas, as well as underground artist/writer Greg Irons, Charlton staff member Nicola Cuti and fan favorite Jim Jones. Below, though, is another incredibly beautiful and detailed piece from one of the portfolios.
There are several places on the old interweb where you can see various Warren covers and other illustrations from Smith. One blog has a good selection here. There are many, many more wonderful works of art you can see in the pdf (it seems I cannot link to it any more, but you can get the link on my site, within the Ink Stains page), as well as the entirety of the stories, so I urge you to check it out. Thanks this time to Aaron Caplan, for loaning me this copy of issue two (as well as issue one, which I hope to profile later). And big huge thanks to Kenneth Smith for taking the time to talk to me and give me that huge quote! You can pick up copies on Ebay for relatively low cost…nothing like seeing the actual article in print! Please, leave comments and let your friends know about the column!
Also, though it is obvious, all imagery is copyright Kenneth Smith, and is presented here for reportage use only.
Ken Meyer Jr.