The Ultimate Kiss-Off

Once upon a time, there was a comics publisher called Charlton. When they closed down, in the 1980s, they sold off as many of the rights to their properties as could find a buyer. Most comics fans know the story of how Dick Giordano, who had worked for Charlton as an artist but was now an editor at DC, asked Alan Moore for ideas on how to use Charlton's superhero characters: the result was Watchmen. But comics in Charlton's heyday were not restricted to superheros alone: they also published war stories, horror, westerns - and romance. It's commonplace nowadays to call for more comics aimed at a female readership, and First Kiss was certainly that: but it was not a great comic. The stories were repetitive, and the artwork - although some of it was by respected artists like Dick Giordano - had been done too cheaply to have much time expended on it. Nonetheless, it was for sale - and John Lustig snapped up the rights to all 40 issues worth for $400. It took him a while to work out how to use them...

Jokes for comics fans - and collectors

But eventually he had the idea of writing in his own humorous captions on the existing artwork: at first using just the covers to construct single-panel gags which were published in the Comics Buyer's Guide, then graduating to whole strips, and eventually to a whole magazine of complete stories.

Given the Guide's audience, the strip inevitably began by exploring the potential for humour in the incongruity between the romantic cliché of the raw material and the self-deprecating persona of the hardcore comics fan. In a typical three-panel gag from Last Kiss #2, as the couple scandalise bystanders by falling into a passionate clinch, the man is thinking:

Leapin' lizards! I know it's only our first date ... but I can't help myself! I have to ask her!
And ask her he does:
Would ya like to see my comics? I've got 30,000 in my basement!
She, being the woman of every reader's dreams, replies:
Is that all? Gee! I've got more than that just in my bedroom!
Never has a girl's bedroom seemed such a desirable place to be... This is fun, but it is a single joke: will it last through a whole comic?

Ann knows Zan will never cheat on her with another womanFortunately, it doesn't have to. John Lustig clearly relishes the absurdity of the romance strips themselves, and some of his funniest stories have no comics element at all. In even the least satisfying of these, the dialogue he puts in the mouths of the talking heads can raise a laugh; but the best of them provoke in equal measure amusement at the complete comic - words and pictures - before the reader, and amazement at the original comic hiding behind it. What plot could possibly account for this series of images? Who is the uniformed stranger who intervenes in the Ann's desert romance with Zan? Enjoy John Lustig's suggestions, or invent your own: in addition to the "completed" stories, Last Kiss includes competitions which allow the reader to join in the fun.

Miss Muffet prepares to become a merry widowIssue #2 not only contains a truly bizarre original strip and a number of hybrids, it also offers something unique: a Last Kiss romance drawn to John Lustig's script by one of Charlton's artists, Dick Giordano. This is a moral tale of a young woman, whose ambition is to become a rich widow, but who - well, that would be telling. It burlesques the convention of the romance story that every little girl wants only to marry, but within the attitudes of the 1950s: Miss Muffet may meet her prospective husbands through the online personal ads, but her regret when the first of them dies is that "he didn't even get a chance to buy me any jewelry!". The story would not be out of place in a vintage-period issue of Mad magazine - and there's nothing wrong with that! It also serves to illustrate a fascinating interview with Dick Giordano which appears partly in the magazine, and partly on the Last Kiss website.

The Situationists added their own political analysis to existing imagesThe idea of using existing comic strip visuals as a vehicle for your own text has a respectable intellectual background. The Situationist International, a politico-philosophical group active in France during the 1960s, elaborated a theory of détournement (a term meaning literally "diversion", but which English-language commentators tend not to translate, perhaps because its dictionary definition also covers the pejorative senses "hijacking" and "embezzlement") to cover the adaptation of pre-existing artistic and other material to convey their analysis of society, and so to change it. There is certainly scope for subjecting First Kiss to this treatment, and overlaying the sexual politics of the modern era onto tales from the Dark Ages of the late 50s and early 60s; but this is not what John Lustig is doing. He is closer in spirit to the blend of surrealism and satire of Chris Garratt and Mick Kidd's Biff (now available online, as well as in Britain's Guardian newspaper), which mingles apparently original drawings with material which gives the impression of being drawn from other sources even when this is not the case, realistic dialogue and scraps of quotations, to create an impression of hip but unfocussed social commentary.

Last Kiss is not, however, about social commentary at any level: it is about having fun.

Ha! Ha! I can hardly keep from laughing!
And by presenting a judicious mix of brilliant, single-frame gags, warped narrative, reader interaction and sheer love of the whole misbegotten medium, it succeeds in sustaining that fun throughout a whole comic.

Last Kiss #2 on sale - I hope! - at a comics shop near you!
Further information from the Last Kiss website, or write to John Lustig.

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