Opus 92:

Opus 92: FORTHCOMING (June 19).  NBM's fall catalogue arrived, and the future is littered with books that, if we are to judge from previous volumes in the same series, will be worth snapping up. The second volume of Gipsy by Thierry Smolderen and Enrico Martini, for instance, due in July. The first volume was a crisply rendered adventure at breakneck speed. And in September, a telling of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale by Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky looks promising. The same month, Volume 2 of Vittorio Giardino's No Pasaran, Max Friedman's brush with the Spanish Civil War. And in November, Will Eisner's retelling of a tale from the land of Mali, Sundiata. Also en route, Ted Rall's collection of cartoons by "the new subversive political cartoonists," Attitude.

MORE LIBERTY. Last week, Frank Cho's Liberty Meadows won Europe's prestigious Max and Moritz Award. This accolade is for the comic strip not the comic book reprint of the strips, which won the comic book category award from the National Cartoonists Society last month at the NCS Reubens Weekend in Cancun, Mexico. The Max and Moritz Award, named for the Wilhelm Busch characters (that inspired the Katzenjammer Kids on this side of the Atlantic), was established twenty years ago at Erlangen, Germany, by Manfred Fischer (or in his name, I'm not sure which, exactly).

            Liberty Meadows, contrary to what I've mistakenly implied here occasionally, is still running in newspapers overseas. "It's stronger than ever," said Richard Newcombe, President and CEO of Creators Syndicate, which distributes the strip. According to the plan adopted by Cho and his syndicate, Liberty Meadows will continue to be syndicated to newspapers and magazines outside the U.S. and on the Internet.

            "Frank loves drawing and writing the comic strip," Newcombe told me, "and I predict he will continue to do so for many years."

            What Cho didn't like, Newcombe said, is the merciless deadline schedule of a daily comic strip and "having to cope with the criticism of a handful of editors who insisted that he 'tone down' the strip."

            The new Liberty Meadows plan enables Cho to avoid both of the things he grew to dislike. "Frank is working at his own pace, creating new Liberty Meadows," Newcombe said, "which are being published as comic books, and it is those strips that we are syndicating abroad and on the Internet.

            "It is entirely possible," he continued, "that three or four years from now we will offer those strips to American newspapers once more. That way, Frank will not have to meet new deadlines, and the editors who run Liberty Meadows will be able to see in advance what the strips look like. This is only speculation on my part. What is known for certain, however, is that Liberty Meadows is continuing in syndication and is a whopping success story in newspapers and magazines overseas and on the Internet-not to mention in its comic book format."

            Overseas editors apparently have no problems, Cho told me, with the occasional sexual innuendoes and other minor-key outrageousnesses of his strip, so Cho is free to follow his manic muse wherever it leads him. And a good thing, too.

DREW'S GUIDE TO LIFE. Millie Wirt Benson died with her boots on. Almost. That is, at her typewriter, which is pretty much the same as "boots" for a writer. She was working at her desk in the newsroom one day the last week in May when she became ill. She was taken to the hospital where, late that evening, she died. She was 96.

            Benson had been a newspaper reporter for 58 years, the last 35 at the Toledo Blade, and she was still coming in to the office every day at the age of 95. One day, when she was merely 91, she was having coffee with a fellow reporter (a considerably younger one) and commented:

            "It's awful when you can't think of anything to write."

            "Does that happen much?" her cohort wanted to know.

            "Twice," she said. "It's happened twice in the last five years."

            And then, she got up, took her coffee cup to her desk, sat down at her typewriter, and wrote a story.

            Finally, at the end of last year, she went into semi-retirement and came in only half as often to work on a weekly column about everyday life and senior citizens. By then, she'd taken only 4-5 sick days in her half-century journalism career.

            Hers was a work ethic that an employer these days finds too seldom, but it was typical, even characteristic, of Nancy Drew, the multi-talented and persistent teenage sleuth in a series of books by Carolyn Keene. And Benson was Carolyn Keene.

            Benson wrote 23 of the first 30 Nancy Drew books, starting in 1930. The series is still in print and has sold over 200 million books in 17 languages. Between 1930 and 1953, Benson wrote a great number of other books for young readers, too-altogether, 130 titles, including Penny Parker mystery novels as well as Nancy Drew books.

            "I wrote steadily all my life," she told a reporter in January, "from the time I was fourteen years of age. I wrote books from the time I was in early college."

            She wrote children's stories when she was in grade school and sold her first to a religious magazine for $2.50. She was the first person to receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of Iowa.

            Nancy Drew was the heroine of only one series of books for teenagers that were produced by the so-called "Stratemeyer Syndicate." The Syndicate, the invention of Edward Stratemeyer, produced hordes of books by applying factory assembly-line techniques to the writing of fiction. Stratemeyer wrote two-page plot outlines that were distributed to freelance writers who, following the outlines diligently, produced the narratives. This method generated, in addition to the Nancy Drew mysteries, the books featuring the Hardy Boys, the Rover Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Happy Hollisters, Ruth Fielding, Dave Dashaway, the Motor Boys, the Motor Girls, Bomba the Jungle Boy, and the X Bar X Boys, to name a few of the better known (or the more picturesquely named).

            Stratemeyer wrote the first three Nancy Drew books, then hired Benson to be Carolyn Keene, and died. Thereafter, the Syndicate outlines were written, mostly, by Stratemeyer's daughter, Harriet Stratemeyer Adams.

            Nancy Drew, in addition to being everlastingly relentless in pursuing whatever criminal quarry crossed her path, was adept at any activity she had to perform to bring the crooks to account. She could drive a car, pilot an airplane, and shoot expertly with anything that fired missiles, from rifles to long bows. She could swim, act, dance, and decipher codes, old manuscripts, and ancient inscriptions in virtually any language. She could tap dance the Morse code.

            The Stratemeyer outlines gave Nancy Drew's adventures their plots, but Carolyn Keene (that is, Millie Benson) gave the young woman her resourceful personality, her spirited I-can-do-anything attitude. It was a personality that served as a role model to hundreds of thousands of girls and young women worldwide: from Nancy Drew, they learned they could do anything. But it was Millie Benson who was their teacher.

            A month or so ago, as happenstance would have it, I picked up a tiny book (140 3x3" pages in hardcover) called Nancy Drew's Guide to Life. In it, Jennifer Worick collected from the Drew canon a host of advisory admonitions that the girl detective had offered throughout her career. These are presented-here as in Worick's book-as an affectionate tribute to the woman who created a female character so knowledgeable and confident that she could be a reliable mentor to an entire sex. There is charm as well as humor in this harvest of bon mots-and just a taste of the sort of independent, self-sufficient person Nancy Drew was. She was also a trifle paranoid, but, given her history of encountering crime at every corner, we should expect it.

            Here goes Nancy:

            "Lipstick is not just for looking glamorous; it can be used to signal for help on windows or other surfaces."

            "Never lose your girlish glee when your dad buys you a ticket to Hong Kong." [What's so special about Hong Kong?]

            "If you see a downed pigeon, check to see if it's ferrying any messages. It might be a carrier pigeon." [Then again, it might be dead.]

            "Strange mechanical noises can only mean one thing: a printing press is being used for nefarious purposes." [Not for printing, surely.]

            "When cornered in a hotel room or ship's berth, look for a bell cord to signal for help."

            "If tied up by a culprit, note whether they used any fancy nautical knots. It might be a valuable clue."

            "In a pinch, a vial of perfume can sterilize scissors."

            "Loophole in moral code: It's okay to steal a car if it belongs to your kidnappers."

            "Flowers sent by a secret admirer might be coated with poison."

            "Cover your face immediately when confronted with an explosion. Obviously, it is good to avoid explosions in general."

            "If you hear the telltale sounds of a helicopter, step away from a blaze in the fireplace. The copter might send a downdraft into the chimney and shower sparks all over your sleek coif."

            "If a guy takes you on a roller coaster repeatedly, it might be because he likes it when you cling to him."

            "A young lady with some judo skills can take care of unwanted advances in short order."

            "After receiving an electrical shock to the system, find as many men as possible to vigorously massage you." [Nancy was well ahead of the sexual mores of her time, you might say.]

            "To stop crooks from making a clean getaway, drain the gas out of the tank, let the air out of the tires, and take the key if it's in the ignition." [And if that doesn't work?]

            "Don't force your date to go to a ballet or another activity that may not be to his liking if he was knocked unconscious earlier in the day."

            "If you see something resembling a shark in a river, don't fret. It's more likely to be a small submarine operated by thieves." [Those thieves are everywhere.]

            "If you can at all prevent it, do not chase after thieves when you are clad only in a leotard. It's unseemly."

            "Don't let fear mean more to you than your friends."

            "Don't wear expensive jewelry to the circus. A clown might notice it and try to lift it."

            Millie Benson knew from the very beginning that she was onto something.

            "I always knew the series would be successful," she said. "I just never expected it to be the blockbuster that it has been."

            She was paid $125 for each of the books she wrote. No further payment. No royalties-on the books or on any of the merchandise associated with Nancy Drew. But she didn't mind, much, apparently.

            "I always wanted to be a writer," she said, "from the time I could walk. I had no other thought except that If wanted to write."

            As for the Nancy Drew books: "I'm glad that I had that much influence on people. It was my contribution to the children of America."

            Sounds like she took heed of more than one of Nancy's aphorisms.

            "Moxie and a good sense of balance are essential when crawling on a roof."

            "Male fireflies turn their lights on and off in unison while the females flicker whenever they please. Perhaps there's a correlation to be made?"

            Perhaps. Especially with Millie Benson.

            Stay 'tooned.

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