Monday, November 21, 2005

Omaha the Cat Dancer

Omaha the Cat Dancer was and is a very controversial comic book about an exotic dancer and her circle of friends and acquaintences. Omaha, as if the title left some doubt, is also a cat. In the best Carl Barks tradition, the people who inhabit our heroine's world are all animals. Like Spiegelman's MAUS, however, this is NOT a comic book about animals but about real people who fight and love and get scared and hold each other and just try to get through life. The masks aren't as obvious here but they're there.

I wrote yesterday of Gilbert Shelton's bridging the gap between underground and overground. With the creation of Omaha, Reed Waller blurred that gap considerably. Originally appearing in the eighties in Denis Kitchen's BIZARRE SEX underground at a time when "funny animals" were all the rage in the more mainstream, independent black and whites, Omaha got rave reviews in the fanzines and soon was given her own comic. Waller's partner Kate Worley soon joined as co-writer and the pair took us on a journey where no comics had gone before. OMAHA was, in fact, a hardcore soap opera...with a feminist slant after Worley's inclusion! There were gangsters, rich people, handicapped people, gay people and page after page of discussions and arguments among the characters...all of which were rendered in a readable, watchable manner by Reed's clean art and storytelling style.

The series founded a cottage industry with Omaha and friends turning up in trading cards, a record album picture disc, tribute comics and other merchandise. All was not well, however, as the strip's realistic depiction of sex continued to cause issues. From Wikipedia: The series drew considerable controversy with numerous obscenity charges for its sexual content. The Toronto Police department, in one raid of a comic book store, charged that it depicted bestiality, an accusation fans dismissed as ludicrous. By contrast, the New Zealand government committee charged with examining books for their suitability for admission into the country ruled that the series was suitable for all ages because of its mature depiction of relationships and sexuality.

I introduced my future wife, Rene, to the series in 1989 and we headed off to Chicago Con where we met Reed and Kate. While they weren't the couple my wife was most interested in meeting, we strangely hit it off with them --particularly Kate--and spent several hours over the course of the convention hanging out with them. Finally, Kate asked if she would see us later at the (DC?) party and we replied that we hadn't been invited. She said they'd get us in but we felt a bit out of our league and begged off. (ah, regrets...)

Not long after that, Kate was injured, then Reed got very ill. Omaha switched publishers, slowed and eventually stopped. Then came news that Reed and Kate had broken up. There were nasty rumorsabout what had happened, some of which turned out to be at least partially true. It looked like OMAHA was never going to reach a conclusion.
Cut to 2004 when Reed and Kate (now married to comics creator James Vance) had finally mended their fences and were working eagerly on OMAHA again. As if in the soap opera storyline, itself, Kate then became ill and unexpectedly died. When I heard about this, I remembered how nice they had both been to us in Chicago and went searching for a website for Reed. I found his blog RWaller's Hermit City Blog and left a message of thanks and condolences. The blog hasn't been updated since July but there's probably a good reason for that.

You see, now comes the long awaited news that NBM is reprinting the classic Waller/Worley tales in a series of new graphic novels that will end with the planned conclusion, by Waller and James Vance (from his wife's notes). The only thing that I think might truly compare to OMAHA today is Terry Moore's brilliant and only slightly less explicit, STRANGERS IN PARADISE (More on that in a later post!) If you are an open-minded adult, this stuff is gold. Some of the best comics done over the past twenty years. Make sure your local comic shop gets the new OMAHA books!

Aside: In fact, looking around Reed Waller's blog that day is what gave me the idea to attempt my own. By the next day I had created the late, unlamented BARNABY POP, sort of a trial run fot the Library here. Thanks again, Reed!

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