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solid writing
skilled art
historical bonus 3
total score 7
Strawberry Funnies 1 _ Strawberry Funnies 2 1st
Strawberry Funnies #1
Strawberry Funnies #2
Strawberry Funnies

1972-1980 / Wild Roach Productions - Rebel Comics
As a teenager in the 1960s, Memphis native and aspiring cartoonist Tom Foster drove from his family home in West Memphis to see rock shows at the Overton Park Shell (a music venue). Foster was a gregarious type and while kicking around town he developed lifelong friendships with Barbarian Records founder Jim Blake, musician/producer Jim Dickinson, and wrestler/cartoonist Jerry Lawler. These friendships led Foster to become the art editor and main illustrator for the underground tabloids they founded, Atlantis and Tennessee Roc, and later launch his own underground newspaper called Strawberry Fields. This was a tight group of friends that collaborated on almost everything any one of them did and were leading voices of the Memphis counterculture and local music scene throughout the late '60s and '70s.

Not long after launching Strawberry Fields, Foster produced a comic book called Strawberry Funnies. Like the amateur comic books he used to make in high school, Strawberry Funnies #1 was a hand-bound digest-size book, collecting what appeared to be odds and ends from Foster's personal artwork and cartoons. With a small print run of about 500 copies, Strawberry Funnies was popular locally and a few copies filtered out across the nation.

A few years later Thomas published Strawberries from Mars, a brief tabloid that mixed cartoons with photos and collages. Strawberries from Mars was a successor to Foster's Strawberry Fields tabloid, but I'm not sure if it was intended to be a one-shot or Foster hoped it would have a longer life. I have the Mars tabloid and will add it to this review when I have time to scan it.

Foster majored in painting at Washington University in St. Louis but got his degree from the prestigious Memphis Art Academy (now Memphis College of Art) in 1981. While in college he produced two bound portfolios that collected a decade of his own artwork, Tom Foster Portfolio 1968-1978, printing 100 signed-and-numbered copies of each set that were sold by his local comic book shop. In 1980 Foster self-published Strawberry Funnies #2 with a signed-and-numbered print run of 500 copies. The book was mostly written by Jim Blake, the Barbarian Records guru who was also a comic-book junkie. After college Foster began working in commercial art and freelance media all over Memphis, with jobs ranging from ad agency director to courtroom sketch artist.

In 1984 he produced a second printing of Strawberry Funnies #2, this time printing 1,000 copies. Over the next 20 years, Foster continued working as a courtroom sketch artist while also producing a ton of album cover art, concert posters, art for movie and theater sets, and fine art drawings and paintings. From the time Foster moved back to Memphis in the late '60s, he was a relentless and prolific creator who had a hand in countless local media projects.

In 2005, Foster did the album cover art for the North Mississippi Allstars record Electric Blue Watermelon, and then illustrated the lyrics of all their songs in his comic book Strawberry Funnies Special #1. Two years later, Foster became the only courtroom artist to ever produce a comic book based on an actual criminal case when he self-published Strawberry Funnies Special #2, which contained the courtroom documentary "The Waltzing Senator." Foster's epic story covers the trial of the scandal-ridden Tennessee state senator John Ford, which was a huge regional news event when it happened in 2007.

His comic book gained a lot of local media attention and had to be reprinted to satisfy popular demand. Since then, Foster has enjoyed elevated notoriety in Memphis, which led to several more locally published books and gallery shows of his art. One of his recent exhibits was "47 Years of Memphis Underground Art," a show that underscores Foster's perseverance as much as his talent.

So what about Strawberry Funnies #1 and #2?
Well, the first issue is a messy little gem of a book, spotlighting Foster's Vaughn Bodésque stylings, fine-art inclinations and predilection for lots of narrative. As a comic book, it kind of sucks because it has virtually no linear progression from beginning to end, but the individual pages are often quite impressive. It's also packaged in such an oddball charming way that it feels more like an art book than a comic book.

The second issue has no such illusions, as it's a straightforward comic book almost entirely devoted to funny animal adventures. It's not particularly underground in nature and would have a tough time being naughty enough to warrant a PG-13 rating. Jim Blake's surreal-leaning scripts incorporate his dry wit, but not often enough to make up for Foster's by-the-book cartooning and rudimentary layouts.

Both books are plagued by poor print production, which leaves some pages so washed out they're barely readable. This almost works to #1's artsy advantage, but it's flat out annoying with #2. Strawberry Funnies #1 is a tough book to come by, especially in decent condition, but its cool factor is practically off the charts. Strawberry #2 is not nearly as cool, but both books get kudos for demonstrating how a local artist builds a lifelong body of work that finally pays dividends in his community. As a Memphian myself for the past 20 years, it's nice to know that someone with as much history and integrity as Tom Foster is one of my neighbors.

The Strawberry Funnies series could be viewed by an outsider as yet another example of some obscure artist's brief dalliance with comic-book publishing. But in fact it is merely the tip of a giant iceberg of creative work by an artist with much more to offer. Tom Foster is ingrained with the history of the Memphis creative scene and his contributions should be celebrated by every local musician, film maker, artist and writer.