Opus 169 (September 18, 2005). This time, we have what might laughingly be called an abbreviated Rancid Raves -that is, shorter. But we're posting at this very same instant a long biography and appreciation of V.T. Hamlin at Harv's Hindsights, so you'll have reading matter this fortnight of the usual dimension. In addition to the Hamlin piece, here we have a review of Peter Maresca's spectacular new book of Little Nemo strips, a report on Blondie's 75th anniversary (and a list of the cartoonists who've drawn the strip over the years), and a smattering of news about the National Cartoon Museum, Bloom County, a re-vamped website of editoonery, and the advent of comics (sort of) to the New York Times. And when you get to the Member/Subscriber Section, you may wish to activate the "Bathroom Button" by clicking on the "print friendly version" so you can print off a copy of just this installment for reading later, at your leisure while enthroned.
And don't forget: we've revised our list of Bargain Books for sale, adding to the left-overs from April's sale some recent acquisitions. To get to the list, click here. Without further adieu-
NOUS R US
Bloom County's run at MyComicsPage.com is over. For the past couple of years, Berke Breathed's strip has been re-run at this website at the rate of a week's strips every day, and now the whole decade's worth has appeared, and August 6, 1989, has disappeared over the horizon once more as Opus shuffles sadly off the fading Sunday page grid. ... On September 5, Calvin and Hobbes started a four-month re-run in many newspapers. I've been following the adventures of the hyper-imaginative kid and his stuffed toy on MyComicsPage for years, but the present print reprise is intended to remind readers of Bill Watterson's cartooning genius by way of promoting sales of the 3-volume, slip-cased Complete Calvin and Hobbes, which goes on sale October 4. The hardcover collection will include every one of the 3,160 strips that appeared in newspapers during the strip's original run, November 18, 1985, to January 1, 1996. The 1,400-plus-page collection weighs 23 pounds and has a suggested retail price of $150. ... Mort Walker's National Cartoon Museum at the Empire State Building in New York will have a storefront, street-level section that will doubtless catch the window-shopping eyes of casual passersby, a feature none of the previous venues for the Museum had: all were pretty far off well-trodden pedestrian paths. The heightened visibility bodes well for attendance at the new locale. The Museum will also have space two levels below the ground floor and offices on the 24th, plus a facility in Stamford, Connecticut, for research, classes, and storage. The new operation needs $7 million for re-opening, and $1 million has already been pledged by the Hearst Foundation, parent of King Features, which distributes Walker's Beetle Bailey. ... The Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC) has launched a new website, www.editorialcartoonists.com, which offers daily cartoons from around the nation, weekly news up-dates, hundreds of cartoonist profiles, links to order books, lists of cartoonists available for speaking engagements, ordering instructions to obtain prints of cartoons, and more. ... The Gray Lady, as the New York Times is sometimes called (because it used to be all columns of type, just solid "gray" with no graphics), is finally going to publish a regular comics section. Although the paper runs no daily editorial cartoon, it routinely publishes a weekly "round-up" of editoons. But now it's going to add what it calls its "take on the traditional Sunday paper funny pages," says Gerald Marzorati, editor of the Sunday Times Magazine. Starting September 18, ten pages of the Magazine will be devoted to The Funny Pages, which, in the usual perverse manner of the Times, doesn't mean comic strips: instead, it means prose fiction and opinion pieces-oh, and a single full-page color comic strip, "The Strip," which will retail a graphic novel in installments. The first of these will be by Chris Ware, who will tell "the story of a young girl and her adventures in her apartment house." The first 14-week serialized prose fiction will be by Elmore Leonard.
A Hundred Cheers for Little Nemo's Anniversary: A Big New Book
I want to say a few ecstatic words about one of the most spectacular publishing projects to come to fruition in recent years, namely Peter Maresca's stunning new hardcover book, Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland: Splendid Sundays, 1905-1910. The first of the book's numerous virtues is its size: measuring 16x21 inches, it reprints Little Nemo at a size that approaches if it does not, in fact, duplicate exactly the size McCay's legendary strip originally appeared at. The second stunner is that the strips are reproduced in the manner that I have always favored: the book's pages were shot from the newspaper pages that printed the strip. While there was some minor tinkering with certain kinds of flaws to remove them (tears in the original newsprint paper, for example), for the most part, what we see here is what we would see if we were reading Little Nemo in our Sunday paper in 1905-1910. This is how vintage comics should be reprinted. Not re-jiggered and touched up and imposed upon a slippery white paper. Not reconstructed. Reconstructed artwork invariably is muddied and botched, no matter how very careful and expert the re-toucher may be. Reconstructed artwork is different artwork. Better to use what the cartoonist left us-the strip as published during his lifetime. And the artwork should be reproduced on paper that approaches the pulpy state of the newsprint the pages were first printed on. Even the most exacting reproduction that can be achieved in re-coloring the original and publishing it on slick paper is but a poor glimpse of the glory that once was. Maresca, in short, has done everything right here.
The book is huge: 110 of those giant pages, and the pages themselves are heavy-duty paper. This is a limited first edition of 5,000 copies (it sez here), and it includes not all of McCay's Nemo but all of Maresca's favorites, which are, for the most part, the favorites of most of McCay's most passionate fans. In leaving out some strips (in order to include more favorite pages than would otherwise be possible), Maresca was careful not to discard pages that carried essential story elements. The Little Nemo story is entact. There are five sections of in the book: the first, the longest, offers 34 of the original 41 strips published between October 1905 and July 1906, including one of the two January 7, 1906, strips-the one least familiar to most readers and fans. The second section prints 13 pages originally published between July and November 1906; the third section, 25 pages from August 1907 to March 1908 (including the famed Befuddle Hall sequence, phantasmagorical draftsmanship); the fourth section, 15 pages from March 1908 to March 1909; and the last section, 22 pages from January 1910 to August 1910. Each section begins with a text page of introduction by Maresca, plus excerpts from the works and utterances of others who've extolled Little Nemo from time to time. (Including a few paragraphs by yrs trly.)
The color's not perfect: it is a little dimmed occasionally by being reproduced from actual pages that have themselves grown a little dull with time. And although some visual flaws have been removed, some remain. But most of the criticism (if any) about this production will arise from Maresca's refusal to use slick paper. And he provides a handy basis for comparison: at www.sundaypressbooks.com, you can order, in addition to the book, a 15-month calendar of Nemo Sundays, October 2005 - December 2006 ($22.95). Three of the pages are unique to the calendar, but the rest repeat pages in the book. And the calendar is on glossy 13x20-inch paper, virtually the same size as the book. So you can, if you are perverted enough, compare, page for page, to see whether the slick paper gives you better pictures. The pictures seem sharper on the glossy paper of the calendar, but that is an illusion: the lines are no clearer, and the color appears brighter only because the dull newsprinty paper of the book mutes the effect. But the sheen of the glossy paper reflects ambient light on its surface, and that often obscures portions of the pictures. You wind up squinting and turning the book this way and that (no easy task at its dimensions). The old vintage newsprinty sort of paper is far better. But if you can't stand that sort of thing, buy the calendar, which, despite the slick paper, is pretty nifty in itself.
The project began, I gather, when Pete discovered in 1970 a bunch of Sunday funnies that included pages of Little Nemo. He realized at once that "the majesty of McCay's work is only hinted at through reduced reproductions," which were, then, the only kind of Little Nemo you could find. His own experience, reading the strip in the Sunday pages as it originally appeared, "was the ideal introduction to this historic masterpiece," he decided, "-the way its creator intended." And he began to dream of this book, which initially, in his mind's eye, had only 100 pages, a page for every year since the debut of Little Nemo. Said Pete: "The need to see the artwork in this form is perhaps more essential with Little Nemo than any other comic strip." Other comic strips of the time appeared in the full broadsheet format, but "only Nemo took full advantage of it, evoking a feeling of grandeur through size and McCay's attention to minute detail."
Whatever the imperfections and arguments, they all fall away in the face of the sheer size of these pages with McCay's magnificent coloring. Unless you've seen Nemo at this dimension-at just about the size the pages originally ran-you have not experienced McCay's graphic genius. The best way to do that is the old way, the way we did it when we were kids: put the book on the floor and get down on your knees or stretch out on your stomach, as you did once-upon-a-time, and then, engulfed-swallowed up-in McCay's riot of color and visual detail, you'll see and understand why Little Nemo had to be reprinted in just the way it is here. Merely $120.
And if you want a more detailed guide to Winsor McCay-to his political cartooning career as well as to Nemo-let me plug, forthwith, my own, much smaller, book, The Genius of Winsor McCay, which doesn't have nearly the number of pictures that Maresca's book does. But it's a good price, kimo sabe; for more about it, click here.
COMIC STRIP WATCH
One of cartooning's historic moments has come and gone. On Sunday, September 4, almost four dozen characters from as many different comic strips convened in Blondie for an anniversary party celebrating Blondie's 75th year in the funnies. Long-time Blondie limner Dennis Lebrun did all the art, a mob scene that includes, in addition to the visitors from other strips, the Bumstead family and six or seven other cast members, boosting the teeming throng scene to about fifty characters. Lebrun's mastery of mimicry runs a gamut from the simplicity of Ziggy and Dilbert to the more elaborately rendered Herman and, even, Flash Gordon. A stunning performance, and Lebrun's last on Blondie. But no signatures appear on this installment- probably because there are so many cartoonists represented by the picture. A grace note.
There are three gags in the celebration-one about comic strip aging, one about Beetle's dress uniform, and, a delicious sight gag, the anniversary "cake" is actually a Dagwood Sandwich with candles on it. Nice touch.
It's undeniably an epochal occasion: I can't think of any other time in comics history when so many comic strip characters from different strips appeared together in a single release. In the early 1900s, Happy Hooligan sometimes wandered into other strips and vice versa. Nothing on the scale we have here. But was it, as everyone supposes, a wedding anniversary? Blondie herself has been pretty coy about it: on July 10, when the storyline began, she says to Dagwood: "I can't believe you still haven't figured out which anniversary we have coming up!" Dagwood is stumped, but Blondie finally tells him, "It was when we began our lives together!"
Blondie's right, of course. But she's being deliberately ambiguous. She's alluding not to their wedding day, which was February 17, 1933, but to the fabled first day of the strip, when Dagwood introduces her to his father-officially September 8, 1930 (but possibly September 15; see Opus 166). That's when their "lives together" began, after all. Dagwood, however, thinks she's talking about their wedding anniversary. So when I first heard of this stunt, I suspected that the punchline of the story would hit Dagwood on September 4 when he'd find out it's not their wedding anniversary that he's been planning a party for all summer. To turn that circumstance into a joke would require "breaking the fourth wall," of course, but that happened in various installments during the last two weeks prior to the party so it wouldn't do unprecedented violence to the fiction of the strip.
Dean Young, who produces the strip that his father, Chic, invented 75 years ago, is perfectly aware that the entire storyline conflates the wedding anniversary and the strip's debut, but he chose not to acknowledge in the strip the dual nature of the celebration. And then the guest appearance notion probably took over and swept all other nuances aside. Said Young: "It started when I was trying to decide what exactly I wanted to do for Blondie and Dagwood's anniversary party. Then the idea came to me that I wanted them to celebrate with the rest of their friends from the comics pages. When I realized that all these comic characters would be with the Bumsteads at their big anniversary party, the idea occurred to me that it would be a lot of fun if those characters showed up unexpectedly at the Bumsteads' house two weeks early. ... And then it got more legs right away when I started speaking to my fellow cartoonists, and all of a sudden we're into my colleagues in the industry doing references to the Bumsteads' big party in their strips."
Unusual-even unprecedented-as the event is, it didn't feel all that odd to Young. "It doesn't feel strange at all," he said during an online chat with fans. "They're all neighbors of the Bumsteads, a couple inches to the left or right, or a little up or down, so it's like the whole wacky, zany community that they live in. That's their world, so it actually feels real." Some of the other cartoonists let Young in on what they were doing in their strips-and when they did, Young got his drawing partners to "tweak our characters, being the sticklers we are"-but Young was just as often kept in the dark and happily surprised by what he saw in other strips.
Besides the anniversary party, Young achieved a couple other historic moments in the strip. When Mother Goose's Grimm shows up on August 25, he invades the bathroom to drink from his usual appliance: we've seen the Bumstead bathroom thousands of times-Dagwood soaking in the tub or shaving at the sink-but this is the first time the toilet has been depicted.
And on Sunday, August 28, GeeDubya and Laura make an appearance. The caricatures of these two notables seem to me deftly done, better, in fact, that we have a right to expect in the usual non-political milieu of a syndicated comic strip. In this case, however, the cartoonist has had practice on political personages: Jeff Parker, who, until the end of July, was one of the cartoonists producing Blondie, is also the editorial cartoonist on Florida Today. Parker also drew Grimmy with great elan, I thought. No surprise: his other moonlighting gig is on Mother Goose and Grimm. Parker is obviously expert at aping the graphic mannerisms of others: he also drew all the characters from other strips who collected on the Bumstead lawn on August 21.
I exchanged a few e-mails with him, and he mentioned other visual oddities in the strip. "There's an eye issue," he said: "Dag's two big elipses are like no other character's eyes in the strip (apart from his clone, Alexander). Did they just morph out of the small ovals that he originally had? They always look very out of place to me since no one else in the strip sports big ovals for eyes."
My guess is that Dagwood's eyes just morphed-like his hair and that big button on his shirt front (see Opus 168). Parker also noted the strange whimsy that the Bumsteads' neighbor, Herb Woodley, and the mailman, Mr. Beasley, look alike, "the only distinctions being that Herb has a cleft chin and Beasley has a solid round chin-also, harder to notice since the mailman is always wearing a hat, but Beasley has less hair than Herb."
Chic Young undoubtedly created one of the medium's masterpieces. But he had expert help for most of Blondie's run. Ray McGill and Jim Raymond were assisting him in the 1940s. Raymond's stint on the strip began in tragedy. Young's first-born son, Wayne, died of jaundice in 1937 in the midst of the popularity of Blondie and Dagwood's first-born, Alexander, known, then, as "Baby Dumpling." Unable to face doing gags about a toddler, Young and his wife took a sabbatical to Europe, leaving the strip in Raymond's care. And Raymond was the chief artisan on the feature until he died in 1981. Alexander, incidentally, was named for Raymond's brother, who had assisted on Blondie for a time in 1933 (he drew much of the wedding scene, for instance) but gained considerable more fame as the creator of Flash Gordon, Secret Agent X-9, Jungle Jim, and Rip Kirby.
Jim Raymond's assistant, Mike Gersher, took over after Raymond's death, and when Gersher left the strip, he was followed by Stan Drake, who was assisted by Lebrun, who, in his turn, took over when Drake died and has been assisted by Parker for the last nine years. Parker left when Lebrun did, and the strip is now being drawn by John Marshall, who inked many of the sequences in the anniversary summer storyline. Parker's last strips ran September 5-10; Lebrun's last strip was the anniversary blast, as I said. Marshall did all of the week just before the party, August 29-September 3, and everything after September 10.
Lebrun's departure from the strip is signaled by the disappearance of his signature, which, until September 5, was joined to Young's. Starting on Monday, September 5 (beginning Parker's last week), the signature reads simply "Dean Young." Parker never did get his signature on the strips he drew, but he was merely assisting the signatory artist. Presumably, Marshall's signature will appear beginning September 11 or 12; it didn't appear when he was officially but an "assistant."
When being interviewed, Dean Young, who ostensibly writes the strip and oversees every detail of its production, permits those who are talking with him to assume that he draws the strip, too. Asked during the online chat why Daisy's five pups never show up anymore, Young said, "I imagine they are somewhere in the neighborhood, but, in my tenure, I found that drawing five little puppies in each panel was more than I can bear."
He doesn't say, precisely, that he's drawing the strip-that is, "drawing" in this context could be taken to mean "pictures of five little puppies in each panel was more than I can bear." Usually, however, he refers to the art chores as something that "we" perform, nicely ambiguous.
We can scarcely fault Young for this coyness: comic strip cartoonists are notorious for keeping the names of their assistants under wraps (and, in many cases, even pretending that they have no assistants). Young mentioned none of his drawing partners in the online chat I've quoted from, but he revealed that he has been assisted by his daughter Dana for the last 16 years. Said Young: "She's been working in a creative capacity, and I hope she'll be able to take it for the next 75 years." Reading the transcript of the chat, we would suppose that the "we" Young occasionally invokes is only he and his daughter. But we know better here, eh?
Meanwhile, the anniversary celebration in Blondie goes on apace with the Bumsteads on a "second honeymoon (?)" in Hawaii. Blondie in a bikini. Whoop! Here are a few more of the strips from the weeks immediately before the anniversary party (including Marshall's charming picture of Blondie in her bath) and the first "Dean Young" strip.
UNDER THE SPREADING PUNDITRY
The Republicans have long been champions of smaller government. The less government, the better, they say. And now we have an example of what that means in the wake of Katrina. If the aftermath of the hurricane is not a spectacular example of what happens when you have less government, then it is stunning demonstration of what you have when you have grossly inefficient government. Given the example of what happened in Iraq after the fall of Saddam's statue, I suppose the disaster on our own Gulf Coast is more a case of the latter than the former. And it is, regardless, a governmental disgrace of gigantic proportions.
New Orleans is a major American seaport. After 9/11, sites like this-particularly sites like this-are supposed to be ready for any sort of disaster. We've spent billions to make the country "safer." That means, making seaports safer. Part of insuring that safety is providing protection against infiltrating foes. But part of that insurance is, surely, creating the mechanisms that will guarantee survival after an attack (or a natural disaster, something of the same dimension and impact). Do you suppose that if terrorists had blown up the levees in New Orleans and flooded the city that the governmental agencies would have responded any better than they did for a hurricane? Not likely. The hurricane simply revealed how absolutely abject has been the failure of the federal government to use the millions of dollars appropriated for it to review and construct response mechanisms for disasters that may befall cities in our country, whether man-made or not. All those millions, the spending of which has supposedly made us all more secure in our homeland, have obviously been wasted. New Orleans is one of the nation's two or three MAJOR SEAPORTS-an obvious target for terrorists. But no governmental agency was apparently able to deal with a disaster there with anything approaching the alacrity required to save lives and maintain civilization. There are surely thousands of explanations for what happened-and what didn't happen; but the central fact remains: so far, the billions we've spent have, it appears, made us safer only from exploding shoes and nail clippers. That's it. If this is what smaller government means, then only God can save us all. If this weren't so tragic, it would be the biggest joke of all time.
Time magazine asserted, without equivocation, that Katrina "shattered a hope that four years after the greatest man-made disaster in our history, we had got smarter about catastrophe, more nimble and visionary in our ability to respond. Is it really possible, after so many commissions and commitments, bureaucracies scrambled and rewired, emergency supplies stockpiled and prepositioned, that when a disaster strikes, the whole newfangled system just seizes up and can't move?" The failure here is widespread, from city to state to nation-from a flakey mayor to a feeble governor to a fatally insouciant president, who, in believing his role is that of CEO, neglects the traditional function as inspirational leader. But GeeDubya must bear most of the blame. The tendency among his avid supporters to excuse him from responsibility in this blatant display of governmental incompetence simply ignores the relentless truth of Truman's famous "the buck stops here" statement. If FEMA and the rest of the Federal apparatus had responded with stunning efficiency, GeeDubya would be given credit for the achievement; it is only right, therefore, that when it blunders on such a massive scale that he take the blame. It happened on his watch; and that's how it works. This time, for once, the usual Bush League tactic, government by appearances-by public relations-fell short: the inefficiency, the hollow promise of competence, stands revealed before the entire world. There's no longer a hiding place in the White House.
Not that the p.r. machinery has been motionless; quite the reverse. The legendary Bush League spin cycle has already been set in motion. To every question about where the fault lies in this notorious bungle, the executive branch responds by saying that it's too early to "play the blame game." With the urgency of need along the Gulf Coast, they say (now they say it), we don't want to waste time and energy "finger-pointing." If those are the only alternatives-rescuing and rebuilding on the one hand and finger-pointing on the other-yes, it is inappropriate to misdirect our energies. But can't our colossal government do more than one thing at a time? The "spin" here, however, is in the terminology-"blame game," "finger-pointing." These expressions belittle the seriousness of the disaster and the urgency of the need to know what went wrong. How can we be secure in the homeland if we don't know how it all went so tragically awry along the Gulf Coast? And by saying such analysis is mere finger-pointing, it makes the proposed investigation seem trivial, childish, unimportant-when, in fact, such an inquiry is vital to protect and preserve the country.
Metaphors be with you.
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