The Unbearable Greatness of Comic King Mark Alan Stamaty - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Pilar Newton-Katz with Mark Alan Stamaty
SourcePilar Newton-Katz

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because not all comic characters wear tights.

By Pilar Newton-Katz

I first discovered Brooklyn-born Mark Alan Stamaty’s work as a kid and aspiring artist. Copies of the now-defunct Village Voice, which published his adult comics, were always lying around the house; his large poster of Greenwich Village graced our dining room wall; and a dog-eared copy of his MacDoodle St. book was among my favorites. I also spent a lot of time on the very streets Stamaty depicted in his work.

So that I got to speak with Stamaty himself, the son of cartoonist parents, at Caffe Reggio on MacDougal Street, a setting he scribbled any number of times, and right around the time I started scripting my first cartoon book was heavenly.

“I like the idea of an absurd deity,” said Stamaty, 73, about having MacDoodle St. character Malcolm Frazzle encountering a deity while elbow-deep in dirty dishes. “And dishwashing figures prominently in MacDoodle St. because I like the mix of the mystical and the mundane.”

In writing or in art the notion is a kind of continual overcoming. It’s all there already and you can reach enlightenment. But there’s always more, so you keep pursuing … it’s about the seeking.

Mark Alan Stamaty

It was this juxtaposition that fueled Stamaty’s process, specifically his interest in becoming a commercial artist while a student at the tony Cooper Union, where fine art was king.

That was right around the time Stamaty began what would become a lifelong habit of wandering the streets of New York and putting what he saw in his sketchbooks. Those long, magical nighttime walks became the basis of his creative life and process. They also gave birth to his first hit: While living in a rooming house on Park Avenue near Gramercy Park in the early ’70s, Stamaty often wandered over to Bickford’s coffee shop.

Stamaty started to sketch the flow of customers in and out of Bickford’s. One day, a man came in and ordered coffee. The cashier asked if he would like a doughnut with his coffee; the man declined. A woman, who up until that point had sat motionless at the counter, suddenly looked up and said, “Who needs doughnuts, when you’ve got love!”

Stamaty promptly recorded this line of wisdom in his sketchpad and then went on to write and illustrate the picture book Who Needs Donuts? which became a cult favorite. Densely illustrated with black-and-white ink drawings, Who Needs Donuts? starts off when a boy named Sam leaves his suburban home and pedals into the big city on his tricycle in pursuit of lots and lots of doughnuts.

The city is crammed with miniature subways that are also clotheslines, winged elephants with bird bodies and a slew of other feathered and scaly creatures. Sam meets Mr. Bikferd — recognize the name? — a collector of doughnuts who asks the boy for help because he can’t possibly collect all the doughnuts by himself. By the end of their adventure, Sam has realized through the aid of a sad old woman that he doesn’t need doughnuts after all because he has love, and returns home.

“In writing or in art the notion is a kind of continual overcoming,” explained Stamaty. “It’s all there already and you can reach enlightenment. But there’s always more, so you keep pursuing and that’s the creative process and that’s what my work is about: It’s about the seeking.”

Mentored by the great comic and illustrator Jules Feiffer, who eventually became a colleague, Stamaty hit again, this time with his MacDoodle St. comic series that started running in the Voice in 1978. It was later printed in comic-strip novel form, and put Stamaty on the map.

The strip follows protagonist Malcolm Frazzle in a giant, frenetic story arc from 1978 to 1979 as he battles various villains, afflictions and substances while working as a dishwasher at Cafe Fizz and looking for a peaceful place to write some poetry. To explain it all, Stamaty reached for a quote from Matisse: “If I could explain it I wouldn’t have painted it.”

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Mark Alan Stamaty advancing the art of the autograph.

Last year saw Stamaty hit yet again with the reissued MacDoodle St., with a new addendum. And as our meeting came to a close, he drew a beautifully detailed winged elephant surrounded by other characters and details on the inside front cover of my copy of Who Needs Donuts?

“What do all the elephants and elephant trunks in your work mean?” I asked him.

Stamaty thought for a second, started explaining and then paused.

“If I could explain it,” he said with a smile, “I wouldn’t have painted it.”

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