Opus 68:

Opus 68: Good Ol’ Mary, News & Notes, and Pithy Pronouncements (August 29, 2001). Martha Orr died at the age of 92 on July 27 and thereby unintentionally created a minor controversy in the backwater of comics scholarship. Orr, a niece of Chicago Tribune editorial cartoonist Carey Orr, started the comic strip that has always been dubbed the first soap opera strip. But she didn’t start it as a soaper; and it isn’t the first anyhow. Orr’s strip, Apple Mary, was launched in October 1934 and owed its being, doubtless, to a 1933 Frank Capra movie, Lady for a Day, which also starred a little old gray-haired lady who eeked out a living during the Depression by selling apples from a cart she wheeled down the streets, broad and narrow. In her spare time, she helped everyone who stumbled into her path.

In 1939, Orr decided to give up the strip to devote her energies full-time to raising her family, and the drawing chores were assumed by her assistant, Dale Conner. The new writer on the strip was Allen Saunders, and he turned the strip into Mary Worth. That’s the way the history books have it, but in preparing Orr’s obituary, the Chicago Tribune reporter who wrote it had the presence of mind to phone King Features, the syndicate currently distributing the strip, where he talked to an unnamed official who denied, oddly, that the two strips were at all related. This bland denial immediately got comics scholars’ wattles into an uproar: Apple Mary not Mary Worth? Who sez?

Well, we don’t know who said, but according to Saunders, the two Marys are the same person. His autobiography was published serially in Nemo magazine several years ago, and in No. 9 of that publication, Saunders rehearses the details his inheriting of Apple Mary. When the syndicate (then Publishers) asked Saunders, who was then writing Steve Roper for the same syndicate, to take on the writing task, he was nonplussed. "I can't even read it," Saunders responded, "let alone write it." But since the Toledo News-Bee had recently expired, Saunders had no regular newspaper column anymore, so he agreed to take on the scripting.

"Laboring over the continuity," he wrote, "I chanced upon a happy idea one day. Instead of treacly melodrama, why not do stories of the sort that were used in popular magazines for women? No current story strip dealt with romance and psychological drama instead of action.... To test the idea of a story with which women readers could better identify, I wrote a sequence in which a passenger plane made a forced landing in a meadow. Conveniently, [Apple] Mary Worth lived nearby. One of the passengers to whom kindly Mary gave shelter was Leona Stockpool, the daughter, naturally, of a Wall Street stockbroker." Her father hires Mary to help him cope with the headstrong Leona.

After some weeks of this, the syndicate urged Saunders to keep on with this sort of thing, and Leona marries a candidate for governor, which permitted Saunders to dabble in politics. The rest, as they say, is history (whether the unnamed King official likes it or not). But here's the crucial passage from Saunders’ autobiography: "Soon after our team took over, we changed the name of the strip to Mary Worth's Family. Later, it took on its present title, Mary Worth. In her new role, the old street merchant [Apple Mary] obviously was not usable. So Ken Ernst [the artist who followed Conner on the feature] gave her a beauty treatment, some weight loss and a more appropriate wardrobe.... We put her applecart in storage, where it will remain, even in the event of another economic slump. Our Mary has more timely things to do than peddle pippins."

You don't get any closer to the horse's mouth than this. Apple Mary is Mary Worth. And when I phoned Jay Kennedy, King’s editor-in-chief, he was as dumbfounded as I and all the rest of us dusty-shouldered scholars had been. Every history he’s ever read, he said, has Mary Worth morphing out of Apple Mary. So somebody in the King shop just goofed. It happens. And now that everything is sorted out satisfactorily, all is forgiven.

Oh—when I said Mary Worth wasn’t, actually, the first soap opera, I was thinking of an earlier strip that oozed heartthrob and psychic agony: Sidney Smith’s The Gumps, which began its sudsy strain in the early 1920s. The strip started February 12, 1917, but it didn’t get genuinely soapy until four years later when Andy Gump’s rich Uncle Bim almost falls into the matrimonial clutches of the avaricious Widow Zander. But that’s another story (and it, and dozens like it, are told in a book of mine, The Art of the Funnies; click here if you want to know more about it).

News & Notes. The Bush administration has produced a 30-page comic book guide to the Army’s "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy on homosexuality. Entitled Dignity & Respect, the booklet includes dramatized examples of situations involving gay rights issues. Steve Ralls, spokesperson for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, welcomed the guide: "It is about eight years too late, but late is better than never." Some commentators have criticized the publication’s tone, saying that the examples are not realistic enough and that the format is patronizing. John Allen Williams, a military sociologist at Loyola University Chicago said that the army has used comics for training purposes before. Said he: "This is in no way a sign of trivializing content. Comic books are not new to the military. They have frequently been used to teach relatively unsophisticated people how to handle and maintain very complicated machinery and equipment."

Chris Ware's critically acclaimed Jimmy Corrigan is the first graphic novel to be longlisted in Britain for this year’s Guardian First Book Award, a 10,000 prize that aims to recognize and reward new writing across fiction and non-fiction. "It's an outstanding work and seems to broaden the scope of graphic novels, taking them outside that ghetto," said Claire Armitstead, literary editor of the Guardian, who is chairing the judging. "It's a beautiful book but also touches on something absolutely basic and profound; the need and yearning a child feels for parenting." Ware has won rave reviews for his subtle, innovative book with its dark portrayal of alienated wage slaves and dysfunctional family relationships. The title character is an introverted office dogsbody whose awkward reunion with his long-lost father brings him further confusion and pain. The novel is semi-autobiographical, and Ware has observed that it can be read in almost exactly the amount of time he ever spent with his late father: four hours.

Image announced at Chicago’s WizardWorld comiconvention that it will be publishing a prestige format one-shot called PRO early next year. The Adults Only title will be written by Garth Ennis, penciled by Amanda Conner, and inked by Jimmy Palmiotti. It is the first Adults Only title for the company since publisher Jim Valentino's own Vignettes: The Autobiographical Comix of Valentino.

When Michael Patterson weds Deanna Sobinski in Lynn Johnston’s For Better or For Worse on September 15, the bride will be wearing a gown designed by a real bridal gown designer, Romona Keveza. Probably neither the Pattersons nor the Sobinskis could afford Keveza in real life: she designs for celebrities like Penelope Miller and R&B sensation Deborah Cox.

In case you haven’t noticed, Erik Larsen is starting to tell a story again in Savage Dragon. For awhile there, you may remember, the mag was a Marvel-style series of fisticuffery encounters and other brands of physical abuse as Dragon blundered around is some sort of post-apocalyptic world, threatened on every hand by forces he could scarcely understand. And Larsen was pretty mute on the subject. But by No. 88, Little Orphan Annie has appeared on the scene, blank eyeballs and all (the "all" being considerable embonpoint), and things are now lookin’ up. But the big news is: (1) for the Image reunion book celebrating the "company’s" 10th anniversary, Larsen will reveal FOR THE FIRST AND ONLY TIME SO FAR the origin of ol’ Finhead. Look for it in February 2002, he sez. And the 100th issue of Savage Dragon promises even more excitement—100 pages of "all new" material (some inked by Larsen’s buddies, not him). Due out about a year from now.

The long agony is about over. According to an AP story, the International Museum of Cartoon Art will leave South Florida because of increasing debts, a looming mortgage payment, and a shortage of paying visitors. The $3.8 million building at the south end of Mizner Park will be put up for sale to pay off the museum's $2 million debt and preserve its collection of more than 200,000 pieces of comic strips, editorial cartoons, and other works, its officers said. The museum, aided by money from the Hearst Foundation, will stay in Mizner Park until the building is sold, founder Mort Walker told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale. It's looking at several locations for a new home, including New York or Connecticut, said Walker, creator of Beetle Bailey. He said the museum had expected to attract about 250,000 visitors annually, but the most it drew in one year was 70,000. Walker founded the museum in Connecticut in 1972. It was moved to Boca Raton in 1990 from Rye Brook, N.Y., and opened in 1996. "It breaks my heart to sell this beautiful building," Walker said in a statement. "However, in the real world, cold financial facts take precedence over a cartoonist's cherished dream."

Its financial troubles began when two companies who agreed to donate $3 million went bankrupt, Walker has said. Then a proposed partnership with Florida Atlantic University, in which the university would have paid off the museum's debts, fell through. SunTrust Bank tried unsuccessfully to seize original 1928 Mickey Mouse sketches to collect on unpaid mortgage payments. Then the drawings, estimated to be worth more than $3 million, failed to sell at auction, leaving the museum still in debt.

Through the years of agonizing about the Museum’s fate, plenty of us have second-guessed Walker’s decision to move the installation from New York to Florida. Boca Raton is not a high tourist-traffic area, some of us said. And that’s all true, of course. But Walker elected to make the move because of various inducements the city fathers offered him and the rosy pictures they painted of what Mizner Park was supposed to be when it was finished. The Museum, they assured him, would be part of all that—a cultural oasis and a tourist mecca in South Florida. Well, lots of that never materialized. Walker kept his end of the bargain, though—sadly, to his cost. He mortgaged his house to make the latest payment on the bank loan in July, and he’s put up other monies before. Here’s hoping the sale of the building will enable him to recoup the monetary portions of his investment in this dream. And I hope, too, that the dream will find a happy ending in some other venue in the future.

Pithy Pronouncements. Stan Lee’s second "Just Imagine" book is out: Just Imagine Stan Lee with Jim Lee Creating Wonder Woman. I’m beginning to get the drift now. Just as William Moulton Marston’s original Wonder Woman is rooted in classical mythology, Lee’s new take on the same character (or, a similar character) is founded on this hemisphere’s mythology: Lee’s Diana Prince is Maria Mendoza, and she inherits powers from some legendary Peruvian godling. So far, then, Lee has a new Batman who retains the essential motivation of the original (revenge for the murder of his parent) but who is firmly planted in the social issues of contemporary American society (namely, he’s African-American with all the baggage that entails); and his Wonder Woman has legendary origins (like the Marston creation) but embodies a contemporary attitude about the value of American (south as well as north) culture. We can almost detect a formula here, and it’s one that Stan would scarcely have implemented thirty years ago when he was helping create the Marvel Universe. But maybe he would have: the whole enterprise back then was an attempt to make his comic books more relevant. Fascinating. But Stan—where’s the celebrated bondage motif in your version of the Amazon goddess?

AC’s Men of Mystery Comics No. 31 prints a story with the last appearance of the Gleason Daredevil (taken from No. 80 of Daredevil Comics). "DD," as he was dubbed, surrendered his starring role in his own book to a clutch of juveniles known as the Little Wise Guys, who had virtually taken over the title a few issues after their introduction in No. 13; by No. 70, DD no longer even showed up. But he returned a couple times, briefly, and his appearance in No. 80 was his last. But Daredevil Comics went on without him for another 54 issues! The black-and-white art for this story (and for another reprint herein, a Crimebuster story from Boy Illustories No. 79) is crisp and clean, showcasing the talents, respectively, of Hy Mankin and Norman Mauer —so clean, in fact, I’m tempted to think it was reproduced from stats rather than Theakstonized. The Black Terror story (from No. 26 of that title), on the other hand, clearly offers reconstructed art, but the talents of Jerry Robinson and Mort Meskin shine through brilliantly—fine lines in stunning contrast to drenching black shadows.

If you’ve ever wanted to know how Sam Catchem entered the Dick Tracy saga, you can find out now. ACG has bundled four issues of its Dick Tracy reprint title into one square-backed booklet, which is entitled Dick Tracy’s Sam Ketcham. That’s right: Ketcham. A stunning misspelling, considering that the correct spelling of the character’s name appears on the first interior page. But perhaps we should expect nothing less than unadulterated sloppiness here: the reproduction of the strips inside is as hit-and-miss as all the ACG stuff—sometimes pretty fair, other times lousy. When I first encountered Catchem (that is, when these strips first appeared in 1948-49), I wasn’t quite sure but that Catchem might be a cop "on the pad" (as they say of crooked cops). He blunders badly and falls into the coils of his quarry, a beautiful woman whom he been flirting with since meeting her. Sleet (that’s her) is a femme fatale worthy of Will Eisner (and, of course, worthy of her creator, Chester Gould). Despite the uneven reproduction (and the wildly eccentric page layouts), this book is worth having for its historic nature. Catchem was introduced, by the way, because Tracy’s erstwhile partner, Pat Patton, had been promoted to Police Chief, leaving the hatchet-jawed sleuth without a henchman. (Why the bumbling but ever-faithful Patton would be promoted over the much more effective Tracy is beyond me, but that’s what happened when Chief Brandon retired.) In visualizing this new character, Gould turned to a visage that he frequently beheld—that of Al Lowenthal, a salesman and agent who handled the licensing of comic strip characters for the Chicago Tribune-New York Daily News Syndicate. Lowenthal and Gould had become good friends, and one day Lowenthal said, "You ought to have a Jewish detective in there" (being himself Jewish). Gould took him up on it, and, for good measure, he made Catchem look like Lowenthal. (This story—and many others, including a pristine reproduction of the story recording Catchem’s debut in the strip—can be found in Bill Crouch’s Dick Tracy: America’s Most Famous Detective, Citadel Press, 1987; ISBN 0-8065-1059-5; and if you want more of my version of Gould’s Tracy invention, see my book, The Art of the Funnies, which you can read more about by clicking here.)

From Chaos comes Vandala II, No. 1 (of 1—a very short mini-series, I assume) by Peter David, pencilled by Ed Benes and inked by Rob Lean and Benes. This book is about naked pin-ups. That’s about it. Of the story’s 76 panels, nearly half (32) depict the "Valkyrie born" Vandala, whose costume gives "skimpy" new meaning, or the equally unclad demoness twins, Diabolica and Demonica (calling themselves—snicker, snicker, snort, cough, gawfaw—"Hell’s Belles," which, as it turns out, is the only flash of David’s usual wit in the book). The action is somewhat sparse: the story is mostly speeches of the most inflated, pretentious rhetoric—"Yes, my faithful Ravenheart ... the moment is finally come! Behold, as I marshal the forces of light that are mine to govern, merge them with the Odin-force which courses through my body and fulfill the duty that is mine by birthright." Stan Lee set the tone and diction for the grandiose gab of the gods, and no one is about to ring any new chimes in this vicinity. The philosophical point of the book is that light is defined by dark and vice versa, so Vandala needs evil in order to be good. Or something along those lines. Not that it matters: whatever plot there may be here, it is but the hook upon which to hang the pin-ups, page after page of T&A galore. Lovely anatomical work, not too exaggerated or extreme, but it serves no story purpose because there is little story to serve. Continuing the Lady Death / Little Orphan Annie visual motif, none of the characters have eyeballs, and the backgrounds are similarly blank: doubtless seeking to focus our attention on the book’s actual subject, there are no distracting visual details by way of establishing locale or setting. Just rocks and flames.

I’m still a little squeamish about Dollz. No. 2 is out, and there are just too many pictures of cute child-like girls with bountiful bosoms and short skirts being fondled by old men. If this isn’t nuzzling up to child porn, I dunno what might be. Still, being an old geezer m’self, I suppose I’m highly suspect as a judge of such unsavory material. I like the rabbit, Bunz, though (despite the double entendre of his name).

The simple visual style inaugurated by the animated Batman series some years ago continues to flourish. A welcome break from the overwrought pin-ups of what we might call the Image School of Decorative Embellishment. Among these achievements in simplicity is Genndy Tartakovsky’s Dexter’s Lab. No. 25 is pencilled by the creator himself and inked by Bill Wray. The story, in which Action Hank regains his strength that was drained away when a Delilah-like bimbo shaves him and steals his beard for herself, is sufficiently nutty to give the cartoonists all the excuse they need to turn in a distinctive blend of UPA and Harvey Kurtzman and Wray’s manic manner, producing pictures that are a delight, a symphony of line and color and design and antic action. Action Hank and Dexter remind me of Marc Hempel’s Tug and Buster, but the latter was much more over the top, a genuine leap of comedic creation. Still, Dexter is a treat.

And so is Tartakovsky’s latest animated venture, Samurai Jack. It debuted on the Cartoon Network August 10, and it’s a tour de force of sound, color, and action. Color is a major factor because none of the drawing is outlined: everything is a solid color, so if Jack is wearing a white gown, it appears as a white silhouette with no linear definition or "color holds." Shape and color define and delineate the subjects on view. Every color must be different so it shows up against the others. Although the stories rock with action, there’s very little movement of the traditional animated sort: a sense of movement is created by a variety of labor-saving means, including moving the camera across a scene or zooming in or out. Sometimes the screen blinks into two scenes. And sometimes several pictures flash successively onto the screen until it looks like a comic book page of panels, but each new arrival adds a sense of motion as it is slapped onto the screen, altogether creating another dramatic dimension to the on-going action. Quick-cutting provides additional sense of movement. Not that there is no animation at all; there is. But it’s judiciously chosen for moments of maximum dramatic impact. Backgrounds and figures are highly stylized, geometric shapes serving the visual narrative purpose. The over-all impression is of a patterned design, stunning in its contrasting shapes and colors, exciting in the rapidity and grace of its movement.

In another variety of the simplicity mode, Angel and the Ape returns in a DC Vertigo title written by Howard Chaykin and David Tischman and drawn by Philip Bond. Sam Simeon, you’ll recall, is a gorilla cartoonist who teams occasionally with Angel O’Day on detective work. Herein, with No. 1 of the reprised title, they go looking for a missing model called Bambi Dextrous (lovely name). Bond’s artwork is more elaborate than the animated Batman style but is thoroughly pleasing stuff—bold, unvarying outlines tempered with fine-line detailing yield stiff but decorate renderings. And his Angel is cute and sexy; Sam, sufficiently silent and brooding. (Why is he a cartoonist?) The dialogue, sadly, is littered with obscenities—for what purpose, it would be hard to say. The situation (an ape and a cutie-pie team) is scarcely a grab at gritty realism, so why foul the air with profanity? Clearly, Chaykin and Tischman have been infected with the Sopranos disease in which vulgarity in speech is mistaken for realism, characterization, and substance. Sam seems a nice enough fella, but Angel is too trivial by far: when they search Bambi’s apartment for clues, she fancies a dress in the closet and steals it, her lapse in morality justified by no greater purpose than to enable Bond to show her changing clothes and baring a cute derriere.

Hunter: The Age of Magic No. 1 is another in DC’s Vertigo imprint and is rendered in another somewhat more detailed variation of the simple style by Richard Case from Dylan Horrocks’ script. I find most stories of mythic magic tedious, I’m afraid: since the writer can make up anything, take the plot in any direction, without regard to the usual rules of physical reality, there are few challenges. And this tale—fraught with runes and cryptic references—is no great exception. We have what appears to be an Indian maiden thrown into a Medieval setting where a lad in modern dress directs the magic. Despite this frail framework, Horrocks and Case display superior storytelling sense, resorting repeatedly to pictures to tell the story unencumbered by verbiage. Nicely done. Mood nicely sustained throughout.

In a somewhat more elaborate visual mode, we have the first comic book from the rising publishing house of TwoMorrows: Prime8: Creation No. 1. Chris Knowles’ pencils inked by George Freeman, Bob Wiacek and Allen Milgrom suggest Wally Wood and Joe Stanton, and together they take on a huge assignment: an origin tale that’s a whopping 60 black-and-white pages in length. Working from a concept by editor Jon B. Cooke, Jon’s screenwriter brother Andrew has turned out a galloping, breakneck action yarn that pauses almost not at all to explain the plot—a convincing impersonation of the big screen action pic, in fact. "Prime8" is what Jon Cooke made of a word he heard shouted across a room years ago—"Primate." And the story this fragment engendered involves several species of primate (gorilla, chimp, baboon and others) who are endowed with human intelligence and emotions and then concoct a way of disguising their simian selves in human form to roam the planet in search of wrongs to right and savage howler monkeys to exterminate. By the end of this inaugural issue, they’ve discovered that the most unobtrusive way to roam around is to become a wrestling team, a maneuver that permits (nay—demands) them to don fancy costumes, thus assuming the customary guise of the longjohn legions that they will, presumably, inhabit in future issues. The original crop of funnybook superheroes in the 1930s wore the costumes of circus performers; so in wrestling garb, we have a wholly acceptable contemporary revision of the tradition. Headlong action throughout, as I said. And perhaps the seeming coincidental appearance of the freshly re-minted movie Planet of the Apes will give this title a boost. The first issue is studded with cameo appearances by guest star artists from Neal Adams art on the cover to pin-up pages inside by Bruce Timm, Walter Simonson, Barry Windsor-Smith and—what a hoot!— Sergio Aragones.

Finally, here’s Oni Press Color Special 2001 in which a distinguished ensemble celebrates the medium by poking fun at it. A collection of unrelated episodes, it begins with a cameo appearance of Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers cast and includes a short story about J. Torres and J. Bone’s Allison Dare (aka Miss Adventure) with other work by Stan Sakai (not rabbits or animals this time, tovarich—surprise!), Mike Allred, Tom Fowler, Chynna Clugston-Major, and others. In the lead-off piece, Powers tries to solve Madman’s murder but he and everyone else just bicker about comics, merchandising, visual gimmicks, and the like. One of my favorites is Fowler’s "Adventure #206" in which no words are spoken but the speech balloons appear as different colored, er, balloons, issuing from characters’ mouths. Fowler makes liberal use of an assortment of comics conventions to hilarious effect. A genuine gas. Just the thing you need to stay ‘tooned.

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