Opus 272 (January 18, 2011). This installment of Rancid Raves is open, all the way through, to non-$ubscribers in celebration of the beginning of the Year of the Rabbit. It’s also by way of an apology for being a month late with the last of our Christmas Wish List of books your spouse could’ve bought you for Christmas had we been more timely. But all is not lost: now, you can use the list as a personal guide to how to spend the stocking-stuffed money your Great Aunt Mildred gifted you with. The Second Part of Part Two of the Christmas Wish List begins almost at once. But before we get to that, don’t lose this Year of the Rabbit opportunity to become a $ubscriber/Associate with all the perks and privileges that entails. Now, we plunge ahead: here’s what’s here, in order, by department.
NOUS R US
New Ed-in-Chief at Marvel
Stan Lee on Hollywood Boulevard
The Further Adventures of Beetle Bailey, Fashion Plate
Spidey on the Cover of The New Yorker and Elsewhere
A New Skippy Expose
Real Life Punishers Caught
Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Comics
Luann 25 Years
Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro
Graphic Classics: H.P. Lovecraft (and others)
George Herriman’s Krazy & Ignatz in Tiger Tea
Shazam: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal
The Classic Era of American Comics
75 YEARS OF DC COMICS: The Art of Modern Mythmaking
DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle
Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein
Chic Young’s Blondie: The Complete Daily Comic Strips from 1930-33
LONG FORM PAGINATED CARTOON STRIPS (The Graphic Novel)
Motel Art Improvement Service
And our customary reminder: don’t forget 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. Without further adieu, then, here we go—
NOUS R US
Some of All the News That Gives Us Fits
They’re moving the chairs around in the executive suite at Marvel Comics. Erstwhile editor-in-chief Joe Quesada will hold onto his seat as chief creative officer, but his editor-in-chief job has been assigned to 15-year comics veteran Axel Alonso. Heidi MacDonald at publishersweekly.com tells us that Alonso joined Marvel in 2000 after a stint at DC's Vertigo imprint, where he developed “the acclaimed series 100 Bullets.” At Marvel, he ran both the Spider-Man and X-men franchises, as well as newsmaking titles like X-Statix and The Rawhide Kid, which introduced a gay gunslinger to the Marvel Universe.
Kate Fitzsimmons at publishersweekly.com reports that DC Comics will be returning the letters page the back of most DC comics. “Largely unknown in this internet era, letters pages in comics are a tradition dating back to the beginning of comic books and helped create comics fandom as we know it.” ... Fantagraphics has arranged to reprint all of Carl Barks’ Disney work “in full, in chronological order. “The first volume, coming out later this year, will include the fan-favorite story ‘Lost in the Andes.’ The books will be hardcover editions priced at $25 each and the series will include never-before-collected Barks stories.” ... The Complete Johnny Comet, due from Vanguard in March, will collect all of Frank Frazetta’s famed newspaper comic strip, including never-before-reprinted Sundays in full color. Vanguard is using Frazetta’s personal proofs, and essays by William Stout and J. David Spurlock will put the strip in its context.
When Stan Lee’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was unveiled at 11:30 a.m. on January 4, 2011, the legendary Marvel editor/writer/guru/mogul/publicity tout pronounced himself thrilled.
"Would you believe I'm on the same block as Paul Newman and Sophia Loren?” he asked reporters. “I really still can't believe it. I think they have me confused with someone else, but I'm not gonna tell them!"
Lee, who has enjoyed numerous cameo roles in his characters’ superhero films, also joked that he hopes his Hollywood star will lead to more acting slots, he told contactmusic.com: “One good thing about it: maybe now I’ll be able to get cameos of more than 30 seconds in length. With my new elevation to legendhood, maybe I’ll rate a full minute from now on!”
The Stan Lee star is located at 7072 Hollywood Boulevard. It is the 2,428th on the fabled walk.
Lee told Alan Duke at CNN that he spends time these days also working on the Stan Lee Foundation, a nonprofit group that concentrates on educating children. “To me, education is one of the most important things in the world," Lee said. "Somebody who isn't educated, it's like running in a race with one leg tied behind them."
He's also still writing new stories for his POW! Entertainment company. “The most important thing in the world is to keep busy, and I'm happy to say I'm lucky enough to still be busy," he said.
THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF BEETLE BAILEY
The New York Daily News dropped Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey from its comic strip line-up on Sunday, January 2. The venerable masterpiece of the cartoonist’s art was replaced on the daily page the next day with Brian Basset’s Red and Rover about the bond between a kid and his dog. One of the finer ironies in comics history ensued almost immediately. On Monday, the 10-year-old Red and his canine companion commenced a week-long series in which Red is sculpting comic strip figures in snow. The first was Hagar. Tuesday, it was Snoopy. Then on Wednesday, January 5, the snow sculptures are of Beetle Bailey and Sarge! The Daily News editors must’ve felt they couldn’t escape Beetle: even after cancelling the strip, Beetle (and Sarge) come back to haunt the comics page. They are so much a part of Americana that other comic strips can use them and know that they’ll be recognized.
Well, the Daily News honchos didn’t want to remind their readers that Beetle had slipped away in the night, so they didn’t run Red and Rover for January 5; instead, they used a Red and Rover strip from December 30 about a snowman and a fire hydrant. Fiendish, those editors.
And not very funny either, usually. But this time, they’re hilarious.
AS IF TO UNDERSCORE Beetle’s ubiquitous popularity, the strip’s syndicate, King Features, announced a day or so later that Walker’s “cartoon designs” of military apparel have inspired a new line of men’s clothing. The press release read: “The fashion industry is rolling out the red carpet for its next superstar—Beetle Bailey. The funny pages icon, who has entertained millions of readers for 60 years, is now serving as the inspiration for an all-new high fashion menswear collection. In conjunction with King Features Syndicate, fashion trendsetters Darren Romanelli, founder of prominent streetwear brand Dr. Romanelli (DRx), and Hitoshi Tsujimoto, head of the hugely successful Japanese-based apparel company, The Real McCoys, have teamed up to develop an Americana military-infused Beetle Bailey apparel and accessories collection, featuring jackets, sweaters, pants, t-shirts, bags, hats and shoes.”
Said Romanelli, who previously collaborated with Tsujimoto on a design project based around the hit television series “Lost”: “When King Features reached out to me a little over a year ago to see if I was interested in working with Beetle, I was intrigued. I flew to Connecticut to meet Mort and the rest is history. It’s such an honor to be working with him! I grew up with Beetle Bailey and can remember seeing the strip when I was as young as 7 years old. It’s very exciting that, with the support of Mort Walker, Tsujimoto and I are now taking Beetle Bailey in new directions, using the comic as inspiration for a new kind of resurrection and repurposing. We are creating a whimsical approach to Americana, and, simultaneously, showcasing tastemaker culture in a very unique format.”
The limited- edition line was unveiled at PROJECT New York, the leading advanced contemporary fashion event, January 16-18. In addition to unveiling the Beetle Bailey concept merchandise as well as exclusive pieces from Romanelli’s design archives collection at PROJECT, the fashion industry saluted Beetle Bailey with a comic strip retrospective exhibit which showcased some of the most popular comic strips from the past 60 years along with a special appearance by Walker.
BEETLE BAILEY was dropped at the other end of the Chicago-New York newspaper axis a couple years ago when the Chicago Tribune stopped running the strip. It appears that the financially ailing Tribune is trying to restore its bottom line by dropping comic strips. Brenda Starr ended a 70-year run earlier this month. (We’ll post its history in a few weeks; until then, if you’re in a hurry, visit tcj.com, The Comics Journal site, click on my name in the column at the left, and then scroll down until you see Brenda). And last February, the Trib dropped several strips, including Nicole Hollander’s venerable tart-tongued Sylvia, prompting Steven Heller to talk to Hollander at his imprint.printmag.com blog, The Daily Heller.
He began by saying that “the Tribune, like newspapers everywhere, had taken to publishing its comics in sizes so small they were nearly impossible to read.” Then, after noting that Hollander just finished assembling a round-up of Sylvia’s stoic romp through the American dream, titled The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama, Heller asked the cartoonist if it was time for Sylvia to retire. Definitely not, it seems.
Said Hollander: “She wasn’t ready to retire. She kicked and screamed and carried on in an unseemly way. I am still syndicated; I’m just not in the Chicago Tribune. I do the same amount of work for half my previous income—a heart-breakingly familiar story.”
But Hollander is scarcely all that down-hearted. “I’ve been thinking about taking Sylvia online for a few years. It took me two years to ask the right questions and find the person to put up the blog and work with me. As it evolved, it turned into a conversation between Sylvia and Nicole, with Sylvia taking her natural role as an undercutting ironic voice. The blog is called Badgirlchats and it has been more fun than I ever imagined. I can write the way I always longed to. Before I started writing the blog, I had no idea that I wanted to write this way, so it has been a revelation.
“We have a time machine section,” she continued, “and I draw from my 35 years of cartoons to illustrate the blog. I am doing new drawings as well. When I responded to Diane Von Fustenberg’s design for hospital gowns, I drew my own.”
There are no sinecures for comic strip cartoonists any more, said Hollander. “For each of us finding that out it is a very unpleasant jolt, but positive, unless it isn’t,” she added, cryptically.
Hollander’s next gig, she told Heller, is teaching a course in the graphic novel in the fall to students in a masters of fine arts writing program. Hollander professes amusement at the opportunity: “A course in the graphic novel for writers, who don’t draw. A neat trick if it works, right? I hope I do Badgirlchats for a long time—as long as I did the Sylvia strip. That would make me a one hundred and ten years old, give or take a few years.”
SPIDEY SENSE A-TINGLE
No more reports lately of spiders falling from the ceiling at the Broadway theater where “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” is still in its “preview” run, testing safety harnesses and scaffolding. And apart from Natalie Mendoza, who suffered a concussion the first night of previews and subsequently left the production because she can’t, for the time being, do upside-down flying stunts, everyone else who has fallen so far has been able to return to near normal, so the January 17 issue seemed a good time for The New Yorker to publish a humorous cover about the friendly neighborhood web-slinger before anything else happens. The assignment fell to Barry Blitt, who fomented vituperation in 2008 with his "The Politics of Fear" cover depicting Barack and Michelle Obama fist-bumping to celebrate their presumed "radicalism.” This time, he’s less likely to upset anyone—except, maybe, marching Marvel minions who claim, rightly, that he can barely draw.
Entitled “Spiderward,” the concept began, Blitt told Michael Cavna at Washington Post Comic Riffs, when he asked himself: What if Spidey were the Last Traction Hero? "The first thing that came to me was bits of the bright-red uniform peaking out from holes in the body casts of a ward full of Spider-Men in traction," Blitt said. Cavna opined that the “sick-bay scene of laid-up and lame Peter Parkers strikes just the right comic note.”
Blitt said he didn’t think there’d be any comedy without several Spideys taking up hospital space—one with his head in a traction halo, another supine in bed slinging webbing to adjust the tv, a third leaning on a walker and wearing a paisley hospital gown, and a fourth in a body cast with those bits of red costume visible.
Blitt had to work fast to get the drawing done in time. "My rough sketch got approved quickly, but at the last minute," Blitt told Cavna, "and I only had a few hours to do the art." He had sent a couple of versions of the final art to New Yorker art director Francoise Mouly.
And he had to research his subject, too, because he’s no longer an avid follower of Spider-Man. "I was a big fan of Marvel comics when I was a kid,” he said, “but I don't even have any nostalgia for that now. I do know of a couple of middle-aged men who are Spider-Man freaks. They wear clothing with his picture on it, their e-mail addresses reference Spidey, and so on. One of them was a recent piano teacher of mine. Aside from that, he was perfectly normal."
The illustrator said his favorite aspect of the cover is that he got it done and it ran. Said he: “When something has to be done in a matter of hours, I almost always start panicking: 'What if I get food poisoning and can't finish in time' —or, 'What if the electric grid for the entire East Coast goes down and I can’t see to draw.' "
In one of the magazine’s rare happenstances, an article inside is also about Spider-Man casualties. In his Talk of the Town piece, Michael Schulman, after summarizing the accidents that have infested the production, observes that ticket sales have soared “through it all,” which prompts him to ask an unseemly question: “Are people paying to see calamity?” He decides they are.
He interviewed several show-goers, and they all admitted to hoping someone would fall during the production they witness. “I hope someone falls but they’re okay,” said a fourteen-year-old girl. A man who came to the show with his girlfriend said bluntly: “She wants to see blood.” She didn’t deny it but embellished her fixation by saying: “We like to go to Rockefeller Center to watch the ice-skaters fall.”
And Schulman talked to John Mudner Ross, a psychologist and author of The Sadomasochism of Every Day Life, who said “that we all have an unconscious desire to experience pain vicariously and that theatregoing can ritualize these tendencies. ‘If it’s collective, it attenuates the individual guilt,’ he said.”
All the folderol about the show is, however, excessive. Injuries in Broadway shows are not uncommon. Dancers, particularly, frequently suffer sprained ankles, broken legs, stubbed toes and other bent or bruised body parts. It’s all show biz.
NO LESS AN EXPERT ON SHOW BIZ than conservative blatherer Glenn Beck recently gave the Spider Show a rave review, reported Patrick Healy at the New York Times. “This is better than ‘Wicked'!" Beck is quoted as saying, referring to the long-running hit musical on Broadway about the witches of Oz. Beck also claimed “Spider-Man” was the 21st century equivalent of “The Phantom of the Opera,” a decades-long hit on Broadway, as he continued:
"After you couldn't get a ticket to ‘Spider-Man' and you've offered a kidney for it, go see ‘Wicked.' I mean, you've got two kidneys. Don't give both kidneys up— go see ‘Wicked' before you give both kidneys. But give a kidney to go see ‘Spider-Man.' I'm telling you, mark my words, it's being panned right now, nobody's saying good stuff about it. I'm telling you, you go buy your ticket—you buy your ticket now, if you're thinking about coming to New York because when this thing opens and it's starting to run, you will not be able to get tickets to this for a year. This is one of those shows, this is the ‘Phantom' of the 21st century. This is history of Broadway being made. I sat next to the casting director, by chance, and I said, ‘You, sir, are part of history.'"
Healy also quoted Beck on his theory of why some theater critics have written negative reviews of the show: "One reason ‘Spider-Man' is being panned," he began, assuming a French accent, “‘Well, it's not, well this isn't theater! It's music by Bono! Who is Bono? Of course he does a lot of charity which I like, I think he was down in Haiti, but he's still rock!'"
Returning to his normal voice, Beck added, "And then you have—it's a comic book character, and too much action and flying around and they're trying to cheapen the theater by spending 50 million dollars. So you have all the snotty stuff that regular Americans won't understand."
I’m sold: whatever you say, Glenn. I just never knew you were the world’s foremost theater critic. Gee—comedian, tv personality, right wing-nut guru, savior of all mankind, and now, drama critic.
A NEW SKIPPY BOOK
A news release from Rosebud Archives, whose stated goal is to breathe new life into the rich history of comics and graphic arts, announces a forthcoming expose, Skippy vs. the Mob: The Fight for Vesey Street and the American Soul. Authorized by the Percy Crosby Estate and Skippy, Inc., the book reprints a three-month 1930 sequence in Crosby’s strip in which he, through his juvenile hero Skippy, took on organized crime. Unhappily, according to Crosby’s daughter Joan Crosby Tibbetts, the episode proved the beginning of the end for the cartoonist.
Crosby was about to be embroiled in what has become a debilitating fight with the Skippy peanutbutter people to be compensated for their unauthorized use of his character’s name. (The whole sordid mess is detailed at some length in Harv’s Hindsights for April 2004.) Tibbetts has been carrying on the fight for the last 40 years.
Unbeknownst to her father in 1930, organized crime had corporate ties, as Tibbetts maintains in an introductory essay for the book, apparently with the people who stole Skippy’s name. Her contention, from what I’ve been able to deduce, is that the sequence in the comic strip resulted in the “vendetta that destroyed her father’s career and liberty,” a combined effort by the mob and the Skippy thieves. Crosby would die in an asylum where he had been committed for some behavioral problems that, today, would hardly dictate confinement.
COPS & ROBBERS GET PUNISHED
From ICv2, verbatim: A group of Milwaukee police officers with vigilante leanings wore black gloves and knit caps with logos of the Marvel character Punisher on patrol, according to documents cited in an investigative report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Some of the members of the group also “had Punisher skull stickers on their cars, lockers, and memo books.” One of the officers had a Punisher skull with the number “7” on his truck (most of the members of the group worked the late shift in District 7). Another, who had a Punisher tattoo, tried to buy an assault-style rifle similar to one used by the Punisher.
Some of the officers, called a “gang” in one internal Milwaukee Police Department report obtained by the newspaper, were involved in the brutal beating of Frank Jude, Jr., a bi-racial man accused of stealing a cop’s wallet and badge at an off-duty police party in October 2004. Jude accused the police who beat him of using racial epithets during the beating. No badge or wallet was ever found. Seven police officers were eventually convicted of civil rights violations in federal court in connection with the case, and nine officers were fired by the Milwaukee Police Department. The officer who attempted to buy an assault weapon was also convicted on another federal charge after trying to buy the gun while out on bail.
The documents exposing the secret group of “Punishers” were obtained by the Journal Sentinel in connection with a civil case filed by Jude against the city of Milwaukee and former Milwaukee police officers. The group reportedly continued to exist after the purge of the Department, including a police recruit with a Punisher tattoo who continues to serve on the force, despite a recommendation by an internal investigator that he be terminated.
One internal investigation from 2007 said of the group, “This is a group of rogue officers within our agency who I would characterize as brutal and abusive.”
Fascinating Footnit. Much of the news retailed in the foregoing segment is culled from articles eventually indexed at rpi.edu/~bulloj/comxbib.html, the Comics Research Bibliography, maintained by Michael Rhode and John Bullough, which covers comic books, comic strips, animation, caricature, cartoons, bandes dessinees and related topics. It also provides links to numerous other sites that delve deeply into cartooning topics. Three other sites laden with cartooning news and lore are Mark Evanier’s povonline.com, Alan Gardner’s DailyCartoonist.com, and Tom Spurgeon’s comicsreporter.com. And then there’s Mike Rhode’s ComicsDC blog, comicsdc.blogspot.com and Michael Cavna at voices.washingtonpost.com./comic-riffs . For delving into the history of our beloved medium, you can’t go wrong by visiting Allan Holtz’s strippersguide.blogspot.com, where Allan regularly posts rare findings from his forays into the vast reaches of newspaper microfilm files hither and yon.
The ensuing anecdote is one of a batch sent to me and millions of others via e-mail, the ubiquitous web of comedy, all under the heading above. Enjoy.
I was at the airport, checking in at the gate when an airport employee asked, "Has anyone put anything in your baggage without your knowledge?" To which I replied, "If it was without my knowledge, how would I know?" He smiled knowingly and nodded, "That's why we ask." —Happened in Birmingham, Ala
Previews and Proclamations of Coming Attractions
This department works like a visit to the bookstore. When you browse in a bookstore, you don’t critique books. You don’t even read books: you pick up one, riffle its pages, and stop here and there to look at whatever has momentarily attracted your eye. You may read the first page or glance through the table of contents. All of that is what we do here, starting with—:
The Golden Collection of Klassic Krazy Kool Kids Comics
Edited, Designed and Introduced by Craig Yoe
304 8.5x11-inch pages, color; Yoe Books at IDW, hardback, $34.99
Yoe aims with this collection at the original audience for the comics he collects here—kids. And his introduction, which traces the history of comics created specifically with young readers in mind, is addressed to that audience, although he occasionally slips in a big word (like “menagerie”). The “earliest known U.S. comic book” for kids is The Adventures of Mr. Tom Plump, an 8-page romp of sequential pictures with narrative text beneath—and no speech balloons—produced in the early 1850s. Yoe’s book reprints the anonymously concocted Mr. Tom Plump in its entirety.
But most of the book’s content is of more recent vintage, the 1940s (lots from 1946), and includes work by legendary cartoonists—Walt Kelly (the charming “Goblin Glen” from 1946), Ken Hultgren, George Carlson (one from Puzzle Fun, No. 1, 1946—not Jingle Jangle, Carlson’s usual abode; but there’s one from JJ, too), John Stanley (“Peterkind Pottle” from Raggedy Ann, No. 35, 1949, and a stylized dog feature, Jigger), Otto Messmer (Felix, of course), Carl Barks (Barney Bear and Benny Burro from Our Gang Comics, No.24, 1946), Andre LeBlanc (Intellectual Amos), Jack Bradbury, Milt Stein (Super Rabbit), and Dan Gordon (Super Katt) to name most of them; and also some unlikely authors of comics for kids—Dave Berg, H.G. Peter, Mel Casson (if, as it sez here, he drew a comic strip named Tumbleweeds it was of an earlier vintage than T.K. Ryan’s inimitable send-up of the Western by the same name, but I can find no other reference to such a beastie), Syd Hoff (his somewhat street smarter version of Little Lulu, Tuffy), Jules Feiffer, Harvey Kurtzman (“Pigtales” from 1946; delightful art not at all in his usual manner), Jack Kirby (two funny animal creations), Frank Frazetta, Jack Cole, Mort Walker, Wally Wood (post-EC’s “Goody Bumpkin” from Wham-O Giant Comics, No. 1, 1967). Also within is some strange and wonderful work by John Liney, Dr. Seuss (his newspaper strip, Hejji; a story unfinished in its original appearance but finished for this book by Glizia Gussoni, who wrote the ending, and Luke McDonnell who drew it), Basil Wolverton, and the mysteriously illusive Louis Ferstadt, who was among the first to employ Kurtzman and other greats in the years before they were great. I’ve never seen anything by Ferstadt reproduced anywhere else; he’s surprisingly good, both as a drawer and as a writer.
Sourced with titles of the comic book in which they originally appeared, dates, author, and a short half-sentence explication (“Kelly dew wonderful fairy tales like this one, but he’s most famous for creating a character named Pogo Possum.”). Pages are reproduced directly from the comic books wherein they wee initially published, cleaned up digitally but not loused up with retouching or garish re-coloring, and the whole production is topped off with a sewn-in ribbon book mark. But the book scarcely needs that touch of class: through and through, it is a classy collection of genuinely funny stuff as done by some of the medium’s top talents when at the top of their games. Yoe may have had children in mind as readers of this book, but comics enthusiasts of all ages will love it.
Luann 25 Years
By Greg Evans
276 8.5x11-inch pages, b/w mostly, some color; sold only at TheCartoonistStudio.com/Greg, $39.95
This is another of those rare reprise tomes in which the reprinted strips are accompanied by the cartoonist’s commentary. A selection of highlights from Luann’s quarter century appears at the rate of three strips to a page, a design that permits ample display of the artifacts with room left over for Evans’ insights whenever he is disposed to offer them, which is often. And every strip is dated, a boon to historians and other compulsives. Reuben winner Evans showcases fragments of narrative sequences, milestones in his heroine’s young life, some of which are legendary: Luann getting her period, for instance. Evans does not shy away from potentially controversial subjects as he explores the lives of his characters, and as a result, the strip resonates authenticity. And humor. For a conspicuous instance of comedy and reality, there’s the time a condom drops out of Luann’s brother Brad’s wallet when he is buying tickets for himself and his date to go to a movie. And she sees it!
For most of the strip’s run, if we are to judge from the examples herein—and as a regular reader of the strip, I can vouch for their being faithfully representative—Evans reveals the sure touch of a master storyteller: he can couple comedy to genuine emotion with great skill, producing both chuckles and empathy in his readers. While there are ample instances of his talent at this kind of thing throughout this collection, my favorites are those sequences depicting the increasingly serious romance between the now-mature but still nerdy Brad and beauteous Toni Daytona.
In the book’s introductory section (printing the only color in the book), Evans waxes autobiographical and includes numerous photographs (among them, one of Maxwell the Robot, an R2D2-clone that Evans inhabited at one stage in his pre-cartoonist career) and samples of his earlier attempts at comic strips as well as accounts of his meeting such eminences as Milton Caniff and Charles Schulz and of his eventual creation of Luann. He’s also included a tantalizingly brief sample of his superior ability at watercolor painting—exquisite. I wish I had one.
Among other things we learn in the book’s prefatory pages is Luann’s origin: she came along after several failed attempts at creating a comic strip. “One day in 1984,” Evans writes, “I saw our daughter Karen parade by all ‘dressed up.’ She was five and liked to don [my wife] Betty’s high heels, jewelry and lipstick and strut around like hot stuff. A cartoon light bulb flashed over my head. A strip about a saucy little girl! I began writing and sketching—and it worked.” He discovered that the strip worked even better if Luann was a little older than his daughter, and he settled on thirteen, where Luann remained for her first fourteen-and-a-half years. Then, overnight, on October 12, 1999, Luann jumped ahead three years and became, ipso facto, sixteen, sweet and saucy still.
Thumbing the pages, you can watch as Evans’ drawing style evolves. I wouldn’t say that he draws better now than he did 25 years ago, but his current style—spare, clean, deftly spotted blacks and gray tones—is more pleasing to mine eye than his earliest more cartoony manner (think Terrytoon animation). In the strip’s early years, Evans could pull of some extreme visual comedy, sight gags of the Tex Avery breed, and he says he misses that opportunity these days. But what he’s lost in slapstick he’s gained in verisimilitude, an ingredient vital to the strip’s evolved ambiance. At the end of this review are some examples from years at both ends of the spectrum so you can judge for yourself. If nothing else, Evans has proved beyond dispute that a relatively uncomplicated drawing style can, against all expectation, transform comely women into hot babes.
For fans of Luann, this is a must-have book, but anyone who enjoys cartooning should add this volume to his/her library: with Evans’ running commentary paralleling his expert performance as a cartoonist, this book is without quibble one of the best books about syndicated comic stripping around. And in a time when the brittle comedy of Pearls Before Swine and Dilbert seem to reign supreme in the funnies, it’s profoundly gratifying to encounter a strip that humane and caring as well as unfailingly funny.
Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro
By Dan Piraro
200 9x10.5-inch pages, b/w and color; Abrams paperback, $24.95
Piraro’s panel cartoon is also 25 years old this year (2010), and although this excellent book was published in 2009, it is an entirely suitable anniversary celebration. In addition to a generous selection of daily and Sunday panels, the book also offers a sampling of Piraro’s sketches and paintings and hunks of prose tracing his personal and professional biography, including his Catholic upbringing in Tulsa, his first marriage and agonizing divorce and his subsequent marriage to Ashley Lou Smith, the love of his life (and daughter of cartoonist Ralph Smith). He also discusses the various causes to which he has given allegiance both in person and in his cartoon—the environment and animal welfare, to name two of the more conspicuous.
Until 2000, Piraro says he didn’t pay too much attention to the purely political content of the American so-called civilization. “Like most Americans, I followed world events via tv headlines, which don’t tell you enough to make an informed decision about anything,” he writes. “Like the vast majority of voters, I voted for president based on which candidate gave me the best ‘vibes.’ (For the record, I voted for Al Gore in 2000, even though the vibes he gave me were questionable—but Bush actually sucked the vibes right out of me, leaving me with nothing but the willies.) But when I realized that America was rather clearly on the way up Shit Creek and Bush had given all our paddles away to his rich friends, I started following the news more carefully.”
And his political views—“Bush’s presidency has been among the most incompetent and irresponsible in history ... verging on the criminal”—found their way into Bizarro. But, in an attempt to be prudent, Piraro limited the frequency of his politically tinged cartoons—until the week before the 2004 election, when he ran eight political jokes in a row, after which “I endured a storm of complaints,” he said. In one cartoon slated for publication the previous summer, he showed presidential spokesman at a press conference being asked: “Is that the truth, or the ‘Manure du Jour’?” Said Piraro: “It was decided that this cartoon would be tantamount to saying te president was full of shit and would lead to cancellations, so it was never published.”
Piraro can be particularly virulent on the subject of homosexuality. “The idea that sexual orientation is a choice is so funny I can hardly stand it,” he writes. “Does this mean that Dubya and Jerry Falwell and Rick Santorum chose to be heterosexual but could just as easily have been gay? That would explain why this issue gets them so riled up.” In an accompanying cartoon, Piraro depicts two couples, the husband in one saying: “How do you think we feel? Allowing gays to marry makes a mockery of all seven of our marriages.”
On this subject, Piraro is relentless: “Conservative Bible Belt states have a higher rate of divorce than the rest of the country, but they are the ones who scream the loudest about protecting ‘traditional marriage.’ Cartoons about gay rights get me almost as much hate mail as ones about gun control. Probably from the same readers.”
Throughout the book, in picture and prose, narrative text and captions, we have a splendid array of Piraro’s uncannily off-beat humor and his attractive and boldly hachured drawing style. He won the National Cartoonists Society’s Reuben last spring as “cartoonist of the year.” He wasn’t there to receive the award, for which he had been nominated several times in the past, but he was gracious in reaction to it: “It’s a great honor, and I’m very happy to see my name on that list [of Reuben winners]. To be honest, I didn’t think that a relatively ‘outsider’ panel like Bizarro would ever be considered for a hall-of-fame-type award, so I’m surprised as well as flattered”—as reported in Editor & Publisher by Rob Tornoe, also a cartoonist. I’m still reading and enjoying this book, as I am the Luann tome; and I recommend both highly.
By Maggie Thompson, Brent Frankenhoff, and Peter Brickford at the Comics Buyer’s Guide
890 6x9-inch pages, paperback; Krause Publications, $24.99
Some years ago, the gurus at the Comics Buyer’s Guide decided that their true audience was the narrowest possible slice of the comics-reading public—namely, speculators and investors, people who buy comics not to read them but to stow them away and await their increase in value, whereupon they can be sold to other collectors and speculators who squirrel the treasures away until their value increases again, enough to warrant selling them off. This editorial decision obliterated CBG’s function as a “news” publication: the only news the ostensible readership of the newspaper cum magazine was interested in is the news that their hoard has increased in value again.
So CBG no longer covers the news in cartooning and comics very much. Most of its editorial content is feature material that fuels the speculator obsessions. We can scarcely quarrel with CBG’s focus: its name, after all, announces its purpose. But its purpose, now refined to a science, is too narrow for most comics readers. Comic book stores don’t usually carry CBG. And when, years ago—even before the new editorial direction had taken effect—I’d ask at various comic book stores I chanced upon whilst traversing the countryside if they carried CBG, the response was almost universal: “No, that’s just for speculators and collectors.”
Which came first, the chicken or the nog, I can’t say. Did a faltering circulation among general readership suggest that the narrower, true audience for the magazine is investors? Or did the focus on speculation and collecting winnow away all readers except those who are collectors and speculators? No matter. CBG is now, and has been for over a couple decades, a investors’ guide.
And the latest publication produced under the aegis of CBG, Comics Shop, is a perfect reflection of the magazine’s refinement: it is little more than a list of comic book titles and their market values by issue number. The issue numbers are not accompanied by publication dates, year or month; so the lists are of little value to the historian or researcher. They are of value only to people who want to know how much No. 15 of Boy Comics is worth.
In a letter accompanying the review copy sent my way, CBG/Comics Shop editor Frankenhoff says, cheerfully: “Yes, we know there are lots of comic-book price guides out there, but this is the first one in full color, and we think that makes it more fun to look at—as well as more informative.” “Full color” means that many of the lists are topped with reproductions of comic book covers—in color. Reproduction is of the highest caliber: even though the images tend to measure only a minuscule 1x2 inches, details are so refined that you can often read the issue number on the covers. And sometimes the month of publication (which is the only place that you can find that information). All of this is printed on high gloss paper. A truly quality publication, a handsome artifact. But its usefulness is marginal.
Each comic book title is introduced by a couple paragraphs summarizing the publication history of the title and a few shards of the title’s storyline. But again, no dates. The only date is the year that appears under the heading that is the comic book title. Under Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, it says: Dell, 1940. The dearth of information about dates sometimes yields confusion. Under Flash Comics, it says: DC, 1940. But the first sentence of the text tells us that the title began in 1939. Then there are two titles that are identical, Flash. One, starting, we assume, in 1959 by continuing the number of Flash Comics; the other, starting in 1987 with No. 1. Both from DC. But the 1987 vintage title has no introductory paragraphs, so we must guess at its history.
Frankenhoff claims the book’s “summaries” entertain, inform and fill in facts. “Our goal,” he says, “is to make this the first price guide you’ll read.” But the reader is likely to emerge from the experience as confused as the editors are. Flaxen, a single-issue title from Dark Horse—no year given here at all, either under the title or in the text—receives as long a write-up as First Love Illustrated from Harvey in 1949, which ran 89 issues.
The book’s first 50 pages are devoted to several essays about comic book collecting (including a helpfully illustrated explanation of grading) and the history of the genre. Maggie Thompson has made a virtual career out of writing essays explaining things to people who might be new to such esoteric ventures as comics collecting, and she excels, again, here, reducing concerns of almost no interest to their most elementary: “What is a comic book cover and what does it do?” she asks at the beginning of her essay introducing a delightful sampling of some splendid comic book covers. There are also several pages reproducing interior pages in color, again high quality printing.
In short, a handsome, well-designed tome, fun to look at, fun to browse through. But of extremely limited utility. The editors may intend no more that a massive list of comic book prices useful only to collectors and investors.
But even that usefulness is questionable. The prices cited are determined by “monitoring online sales, shop sales, and auction sales and are for comics in Near Mint condition.” If the book is to be of any value to collectors and investors, the prices must be kept very current, requiring constant monitoring. And repeated editions of Comics Shop, issued as often as possible. Every other week, say. But book publication is not likely to achieve this desired objective even in these days of digital instantaneousness. So the only usefulness that I can imagine for this tome is not only marginal but nearly non-existent. A book without a purpose. But fun to look at because of the color illustrations of comic book coves.
I’ll keep my copy, but I doubt I’ll refer to it much.
Graphic Classics: H.P. Lovecraft
By H.P. Lovecraft as illustrated/adapted by numerous cartoonists
144 7x10-inch pages, b/w; Eureka Productions, $11.95
I’m not a big fan of supernatural horror, which seems to be Lovecraft’s forte, but I decided I needed to know just little more about his work than its category, so I picked up this book, produced by my favorite nearly unknown and hardly ever properly extolled graphic novel publisher. And I discovered that Lovecraft’s preoccupation is to create spooky stories in which the protagonists are taken over and possessed by fiendish entities. After a couple of these, I’d had enough. But I took real pleasure in witnessing the artwork of Shane Gane, who illustrated Alex Burrows’ adaptation of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Gane’s quirky constructions, oddly detailed and copiously nicked with patches of shadow, are a delight to behold. Other artists in this book are Pedro Lopez, Kevin Atkinson, Richard Corben, Rick Geary, J.B. Bonivert, Mark A. Nelson, Lisa K. Weber, Onsmith Jeremi, Matt Howarth, and, even, a drawing by R. Crumb’s eccentric brother, Maxon.
Eureka has published an impressive library of such books as this, each devoted to a single author—Robert Louis Stevenson, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, and more. This volume of Lovecraft is a second edition, and whenever a book goes to a second edition—which, apparently, happens often—Eureka adds new stories and artists to the first edition. All of the Eureka graphic novels are described (and sold) at graphicclassics.com. I’ve just received Christmas Classics, the 19th of Eureka’s graphic novel series; it offers work by several of my favorites, Geary and Gane—first time I’ve seen the work of either of them in color; the whole book is in color while most Eureka books are black-and-white masterpieces—and Hunt Emerson (who renders Sherlock Holmes in his best manic manner) and Evert Geradts.
It’s a classy production, opening with Mark Twain’s letter to his daughter, written as if he, Twain, were Santa Claus. And since I ordered in December, the book was accompanied by a brief assortment of Christmas cards, including one with the poem “Christmas” by Lovecraft:
The cottage heart beams warm and bright,
The candles gaily glow:
The stars emit a kinder light
Above the drifted show.
Down from the sky a magic steals
To glad the passing year,
And belfries shake with joyous peals
For Christmastide is here!
Surprisingly cheery from Lovecraft, I think; although I don’t “know” for sure because, as I said, I’m not an experienced Lovecrafter.
Coming in March, Western Classics, the twentieth Graphic Classics volume, which includes a tale illustrated by Dan Spiegle, the grandest of those who drew Hopalong Cassidy. (Spiegle did it in the newspaper strip, deploying Craftint Doubletone impressively.) The Eureka books are obviously assembled and edited with great care and insight. Don’t miss out.
George Herriman’s Krazy & Ignatz in Tiger Tea
Edited, Designed and Prefaced by Craig Yoe, with Introduction by Paul Krassner
122 8x8-inch pages, b/w with occasional flashes of magenta and gold; Yoe Books at IDW, hardback, $12.99
Another in the handsome series of books produced by Yoe and his wife and partner, Clizia Gussoni, this tidy tome arrives in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Krazy’s konception by reprinting a thoughtful selection of what is undoubtedly the most famous sequence in Herriman’s katalogue and the longest serialized storyline, the legendary “tiger tea” strips. Very little of this notorious continuity has been published since it ran in newspapers for nearly a year, May 15, 1936 until March 17, 1937, and herein, we find 91 of the 230-plus strips of the series, printed one to a page on flecked paper that imparts an appropriate aura of antiquity.
The story is sheer simplicity: Krazy learns that the “kollepse” of Katnip Konsolidated has left its owner, Mr. Meeyowl, impoverished, and so the fond feline tries to help by finding a way to restore the magnet’s fortune, which, with typical Krazy logic, he decides can best be achieved with a fresh supply of catnip. The catnip he finds and delivers is the famed Tiger Tea, which, imbibed, turns our erstwhile tame tabby into a tiger, a pup dog into a wolf and a worm into a cobra, revives a dying tiger lily, and heartens the downhearted Mr. Meeyowl. The denizens of Coconino County try to learn the secret of Tiger Tea, but Krazy guards his stash ferociously, keeping it in a mysterious cave behind a rock that blocks the entrance and changes identity from day to day. More antics ensue, but for learning about them, I’ll not deny you the pleasure of reading the book yourself.
The simplicity of Herriman’s story has become complicated and encrusted with mysterious meanings. Nevin Martell at washingtoncitypaper.com last fall cites what he calls “a rogue theory” that “tiger tea” is actually a code word for weed. “These strips are surreal, hallucinogenic snapshots that wander through worlds and realities without much regard for the reader's sanity. ... Nothing is out of bounds or seemingly beyond Herriman's imagination, which can be as confusing as it is delightful.” Well, yes. But critics and fans of Krazy Kat have usually employed terms like these to describe Herriman’s strip throughout its run, not just when indulging Tiger Tea.
Steve Bunche at publishersweekly.com provides a typical example: calling Herriman’s creation “one of the first examples of graphic storytelling that frequently crossed the line from ‘mere’ funny pages fodder into the realms of heady art,” Bunche continues: “This collection showcases the author's flair for rampaging narrative absurdity: lysergic visuals that seem to depict an alternate dimension's stark desert landscape and its deceptively complex inhabitants, most notably the indelible (and ahead-of-its-time sexually ambiguous) Krazy Kat and the sadistic, brick-throwing mouse, Ignatz. There's quite a lot going on in Herriman's oddly skewed scribblings.”
Yoe, during an interview by Bunche, displays a somewhat larger grasp of the Herriman, er, reality: “By combining comics, fine art, and poetry George Herriman's Krazy Kat transcends all three. The writing is enigmatic. It has depth that invites and rewards continuous rereading. Each perusal is a terrific experience and new nuggets of desert gold are found. The art is breathtaking. Herriman is like a Zen master. I imagine the process was like automatic writing—or drawing in this case—when Herriman put pen to paper. He must have been channeling a benevolent cartooning god. ... You see the art and you experience a soul, Herriman's, and realize he was a gentle, whimsical, romantic, yet complicated person that you would enjoy conversing with, learning from, getting to know. The strip is, of course, ultimately about love, not in a sappy greeting card way, but love with its highs and lows.”
And Yoe, too, sees in the Tiger Tea episodes a meaning somewhat below the surface of the narrative: “The Tiger Tea series of strips is a rare instance where Herriman did explore a topical theme along with his other usual discourses. Prohibition was happening. Anti-marijuana legislation was being enacted. These Krazy Kat episodes are famous—or infamous. Krazy and the other citizens of Coconino County imbibe an illegal mysterious substance called Tiger Tea and have psychedelic experiences and extreme personality changes. This is also the longest period where Herriman explored one theme, possibly inspired by the success of adventure strips like Terry and the Pirates and Flash Gordon. But the Tiger Tea strips aren't exactly a straight narrative plot, but dreamy little sequences.”
Yoe includes in the book a photograph of Herriman wearing a Mexican sombrero and smoking “a funny-looking cigarette,” but, he says, “I make no claims that Herriman himself was a toker, but he certainly seemed to have a good time exploring a getting high experience in his High Art comic in Tiger Tea."
I make no case for Herriman as a hay burner either. But I still remember in the immediate haze of my first few tokes, I was convinced that every writer I’d ever read and admired had been a cannabis consumer—William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, of course, but even Bernard Shaw, Shakespeare, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, you name whoever—airheads all, who had achieved their insights on flights of the sweet Lucy.
As much fun as we can have with such interpretations, I suspect it is all much simpler than that in Herriman’s strip. Other aspects of the strip have similarly ordinary origins despite the metaphysical inferences later drawn from them. Ignatz’s famed brick to Krazy’s bean is a remnant of vaudeville: the stupid half of a comedy team gets hit with a slapstick (a noisy paddle) or some other missile. Jeff suffered the same treatment at the hands of his tall sidekick, Mutt, who brained him regularly long before Krazy and Ignatz came along.
And love entered the equation because Herriman, who was probably most preoccupied with ways to rearrange the format of his Sunday strip, landed on love as a narrative he could re-enact endlessly while playing with layout and design. Similarly, Herriman probably took up catnip because kats love catnip.
And once you’ve taken that detour, where do you go with it? Why do cats love catnip? What does it do for them? Ah—perhaps it emboldens them, turns them into tiny tigers.
Having once started down that road, it was logical for the cartoonist to assume that critters other than kats would be affected by Tiger Tea in somewhat the same way as Krazy was. It was no doubt fun to play with the implications of the notion, but Herriman soon saw that the personality changes wrought by ingesting Tiger Tea changed the core of the strip’s ambiance. And so he headed off in a different direction.
As the sequence arrives at its concluding episodes, Krazy finds that he cannot market Tiger Tea. All his friends and cohorts have come to their senses and no longer lust after Tiger Tea: the mind altering substance they each prefer is the one appropriate to their species. Offissa Pupp wants wolf wine, not Tiger Tea. Mrs. Kwekk Wekk, like all birds, wants to “emulate the eagle, the hawk, the falcon”—not the tiger. In short, the moral of Herriman’s year-long parable is: to thine own self be true.
So Krazy abandons his plan to become a Tiger Tea tycoon. And Tiger Tea disappears from the strip. And so do weed and booze, both mind altering substances, both rejected by Krazy and his kreator. If, indeed, Herriman had them in mind at all.
In the last analysis, I find myself agreeing with Martell: “The thing is though, these outlandish slices of absurdity are just plain funny. Not necessarily laugh out loud funny, but the kind of funny that tickles your brain and sticks with you over time. Who cares what was in Herriman's cigarettes? He was a brilliant soul no matter how he achieved it.” Hear, hear.
Shazam: The Golden Age of the World’s Mightiest Mortal
By Chip Kidd and Geoff Spear
200-300 9x12-inch pages, color; Abrams hardcover, $35, $23 from Amazon
The pages aren’t numbered because this commemorative tome is another of Chip Kidd’s scrapbooky executions that actively, deliberately, desecrate historic visual artifacts for the sake of flash and filagree, by now the boring consequence of a benighted sense of design and the designer’s overweening ego. Like most of Kidd’s work, the design draws attention to itself rather than providing an unobtrusive platform for displaying the content, a spectacular miscarriage of a book designer’s function. I don’t know why anyone would want this book: the quality of the visuals has been degraded to fit the designer’s concept and much of the material is presented without accompanying text to explain what we’re looking at. In short, the book satisfies neither the art connoisseur’s passion for contemplating pictures or the historian’s quest for information.
The book’s cover is a cute construction, typical of the kind of Kidding we get in his work. (See illustrations at the end of this review.) A cut-out shaped like the bolt of lightning that transforms young Billy Batson into superhero Captain Marvel obliterates most of the drawing of Captain Marvel to let us see inside the book—to the first page within, whereupon Billy’s magic word, Shazam, appears, each letter accompanied by the name of the god it invokes, a reprint of the litany frequently published in the comic book; through the bolt of lightning shape, we see only those initial letters, S-H-A-Z-A-M, spelling out both the magic word and the name of this book. Cute, as I said.
The content, organized by hodge-podge, consists largely of blow-ups of published comic book covers and interior-page house ads, often distorted by the enlargement (skin-tone dots magnified, f’instance) and replete with whatever blemishes have accrued to them through the years of being stored in someone’s attic (folds in the middle, tattered edges), pages of promotional material for the Republic Pictures Captain Marvel serial (featuring Tom Tyler’s Jimmy Smits smile), and a few pages of original art, plus great quantities of advertising for Captain Marvel merchandise—buttons, figurines (several “rare” sirocco wood-composition figures), iron-on transfers, fan club literature, coloring books, whistles, rings, watches, pennants, key chains, caps, stationery, pins, paper dolls, and on and on. The quantity of gewgaw stuff is impressive on its own, I suppose, and maybe that’s the reason this book was published; that, in fact, is most of the “information” to be derived from perusing this volume.
Among the only coherent pieces in the book is the first Captain Marvel story from Captain Marvel Adventures No. 1 (Spring 1941), the entire issue produced in two weeks or less by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, their only foray into Fawcett territory. The issue is noted in the history of the Fawcett’s superhero for its violation of the usual Captain Marvel tongue-in-cheek ambiance in favor of the usual Simon and Kirby pulsating action and for its complete and ghastly reinterpretation of the style of rendering nurtured by Captain Marvel’s visual stylist, C.C. Beck. The story is also reproduced herein directly from a badly out-of-register printing of the comic book; that’s Kidd’s way of doing things, but it inflicts serious damage on this book as a showcase of art.
Other members of the Marvel Family are present—Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., Spy Smasher, and (wonderful) Hoppy the Marvel Bunny. Drawn, at first and for much of its run, by the incomparable Chad Grothkopf (who, we learn—one of the few fragments of actual information imparted in this book—wrote the synopses of his stories), Hoppy debuted in Funny Animals No. 1 (December 1942), “predating Superman’s Krypto the Superdog by more than thirteen years.” Since the two characters are not at all alike, why is this comparison appropriate?
The compilers of the book make a big deal of Mac Raboy’s polished rendering of Captain Marvel Jr. but make no mention of Bud Thompson, whose line was more fluid and less finicky, even though they publish a Thompson Captain Marvel Jr. cover. An error of commission rather than omission occurs when Spear parenthetically makes Quality Comics the entity that morphs into Marvel Comics; not so, but there appear few other errors of this sort, probably because there are few assertions of fact throughout.
Among the few tidbits worth having at hand is a portion of an interview with C.C. Beck in a 1970s issue of Fawcett Collectors of America, wherein Beck says: “The Marvel Family characters were originally designed to be as different as possible from all of the comic books’ other tights-wearing strongmen characters, who were also often hooded or masked. The Marvel Family were supposed to look more like high school or college athletes.” Apart from this tantalizing fragment, there’s very little “history” of Fawcett’s comic book venture. For that, you may want to consult Harv’s Hindsights for September 2006, wherein a short history of the company and its creations is rehearsed.
One of the dishearteningly few highpoints for me in this book are two pages that reprint a World War II contest staged in late 1942 (near the end of our first year in the fray): called “Paste the Axis,” readers were invited to supply the verbiage for the speech balloons of caricatures in miniature of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo, the dictators of the Axis nations, Germany, Italy, and Japan. The caricatures are appealingly cute and amply disrespectful in a highly laughable mode (as you’ll see anon); a treat for the eye and a balm for the heart.
An anomaly that is always present in the Golden Age Captain Marvel is his backside. Because he wore a thoroughly skin-tight costume, his buttocks could not be ignored. And whenever Captain Marvel is depicted from the rear, his buns are right there, clearly and lovingly outlined (as you’ll see in a trice). Simon and Kirby, as the accompanying illo affirms, managed to avoid the kind of clarity that Beck and his minions regularly indulged. Walt Disney liked butts, too; he thought they were funny, and so his comedy was often achieved from the rear, so to speak. But Captain Marvel’s buns? Dunno. Did Wertham have anything to say about them?
Now, here’s a peek at those caricatures and other visual facts, including Captain Marvel’s buns.
The Classic Era of American Comics
By Nicky Wright
242 9x12-inch pages, color and text; Prion hardcover, $6.95 from E.R. Hamilton Bookseller
This tome, first published in 2000 and reprinted in 2008, is another of those books about comics that you can easily do without. Wright, who died unexpectedly in 2000 in England, where he was born, was known as a photographer of books about cars, and he probably should have stuck to that arena of endeavor. But, it sez here, he loved comic books and collected them and no doubt could not restrain himself as he saw book after book coming out on this subject. So he wrote this one. But it is, at best, but a superficial re-hash of the conventional high points of American comic book history, infused, occasionally, with some highly speculative assertions. Was Bill Everett “a rebellious 21-year old”? Did comic book heroes begin fighting the German menace in Europe early because so many creators and publishers of comic books were Jewish?
Every two-page spread offers two facing half-page of illustrations—usually comic book covers, almost always in color (albeit somewhat faded sometimes)—and two half-pages of text. Mostly, the pictures are okay but often only faintly related to the text. A caption talking about the “very first comic books” being “reprints of ‘the funnies’” is accompanied by a picture of the cover of a 1941 edition of The Funnies, which title was indeed one of the very first comic books, but it was actually launched in early 1929, not in 1941. Covers of More Fun are used to illustrate text passages about New Fun. When the birth of Batman is being discussed, the illustration is of Detective Comics No. 45, not No. 27 where the Cowled Crusader debuted.
Often, Wright is simply off-base or wrong. Describing Captain America’s patriotic costume, he says a white star is in the middle of the cowl; no, that’s a big letter A. And he has the history of Archie in the chapter about funny animal comics.
Perhaps the best example of the sort of thing Wright commits in these pages is in his concluding remarks about how Lois Lane fell in love with Superman but disdained Clark Kent. “And you know the rest,” Wright finishes. If we do, why do we need this book?
75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking
By Paul Levitz
720 11x15.5 inch pages, color throughout; Taschen hardcover, $200; $126 from Amazon
This book weights 15 pounds, heavy enough that it comes with a cardboard carrying case that looks like a small piece of luggage. The thing will give you a hernia but not from lifting it—from just balancing it in your lap to read it. Moreover, as you can see from the accompanying visual aid, it is half as tall as my three-year-old grandson. But size, they keep telling us, doesn’t matter. Or at least, it isn’t as important as the male adolescent thinks it is. What counts is content. And this book bulks with lots of content. It fails, however, at the thing it aims at—to be a first class artbook.
The volume is chiefly a collection of visuals, over 2,000 of them, that the publisher culled from the DC archives and from a few great private funnybook collections—visuals and explanatory captions written by Paul Levitz, who has been on the DC staff for at least 38 years, half of the span covered by the book, which means he’s writing from personal experience some of the time, maybe half of it. The volume is divided into seven sections, or chapters, one for each of the “ages” DC has been publishing comics—from the “prehistory” of the Stone Age (before 1938) to the Golden Age (1938-1956) to the Silver Age (1956-1970), Bronze Age (1970-1984), Dark Age (1984-1998)—that time during which superheroes, inspired, no doubt, by Frank Miller’s take on Batman in The Dark Knight, acquired dark psychotic behaviors—and, finally, the Modern Age (1998-2010), finishing with the Digital Age as an Afterword.
Each of the seven chapters is introduced by a Levitz essay that sketches the broad outlines of Age, its principal features, what happened generally in American culture and specifically in funnybooks. Essays and captions come to about 32,000 words, Levitz said when interviewed by Jamal Powell in last August’s Previews.
The book has a bound-in ribbon bookmark, lately the symbol of quality, and is published by a recognized artbook publisher, whose founder is a comics fan who started his business with comics-related books, all coming out of his comics shop in Germany. Quality in reproduction values may be safely assumed (and verified except for the anomaly I’ll mention in a trice).
Perhaps the shorthand way to think of this weighty tome is as a picture book with captions and some narrative text, but mostly pictures. Altogether, we have a sort of informal history that amuses and entertains rather than informs. The manner of the essays inaugurating each chapter is often elliptical rather than comprehensive: important historical facts are often supplied in captions instead of in the lengthier prose sections. These sections function as introductions rather than as summaries of events. Captions pile information on captions and on the introductory essay, so the history accumulates throughout a chapter. But because the book weighs so heavily in your lap, you’re probably better off reading a few pages at a sitting rather than attempting to read the whole thing at once. (And this is where I should have stopped if I were adhering to the announced function of this department to serve as a alternative to standing in a bookstore, picking up a book and thumbing through it to see what’s there and how; but I got interested in this tome and its achievements and shortcomings and slogged on, herewith:)
Key points in the history are often glided over if not omitted entirely. It’s a friendly book, written by an in-house fan (Levitz still does things for the fun of it, a fannish virtue). It includes some truths and some rare finds but no scandals. The formative years of the company are sketched from the conventional legend that clings to these matters—“anecdotal history,” as Levitz puts it in one place (that is, undocumented, word-of-mouth tales and therefore debatable). Had Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, the putative founder of the company, already agreed to publish Superman in the fall of 1937, regarding the Siegel-Shuster creation as the formative ingredient for his newest book, Action Comics, as his son has claimed? Or was Superman discovered by Shelly Mayer, the teenage editor working for Max Gaines? Or was it Vince Sullivan? Levitz isn’t going to be trapped into sorting this out. “History fails us here,” he says, offhandedly, “for success has so many fathers.”
Levitz mentions Fredric Wertham, but doesn’t go into detail. Nor does he explain any of the legal skeins that entangled DC and Fawcett in a lawsuit over the alleged plagiarism that produced Captain Marvel. (We get more of this, oddly enough, in Chip Kidd’s scrapbook, which includes copies of a few pages of the typewritten transcription of one of the trials; hard to read, entirely out-of-context, and without much explanatory text—but more than Levitz gives us.)
DC’s experiment with Milestone Comics is mentioned but not elaborated upon, the often inventive drawing styles in a couple titles ignored; innovative storylines, merely hinted at. And the collapse of the project is lamented but not explained in any detail, a regrettable lapse because Levitz undoubtedly knows much more than he is saying. What he says, loosely interpreted, is that the experiment failed because it was not commercial enough. I could have said that, and I haven’t anything like Levitz’s insight. The rift with Alan Moore is alluded to but never explained.
The picture sections of the book are loosely chronological, with detours at unpredictable moments to discuss the contributions of individual artists—Shelly Mayer, for instance, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, Julie Schwartz, Gil Kane, Curt Swan and others. But also Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman. even C.C. Beck. Inexplicable. Isn’t this a history of DC? What do the last three have to do with DC? Baffling until we realize that for Levitz, the subtitle of the book, The Art of Modern Mythmaking, is the meaningful title; DC Comics is part of the art of modern mythmaking, but Eisner, Kurtzman, and Beck also contributed to the mythmaking. So they belong here.
For all the pleasures this volume affords, it also falls considerably shy of being a genuine “artbook”—a book published chiefly to showcase works of art. Some of the pictures herein, reproduction of covers mostly, occupy an entire 11x15.5-inch page; others, only a quarter of a page. The choices were apparently not made by persons who understand that the more detailed the drawing, the more space it deserves; so we get a simple line-drawing cartoon by Vin Sullivan filling a whole huge page but illustrator Leo O’Mealia’s detailed, three-tiered, five-panel comic book page, “Bob Merritt and His Flying Pals,” gets less than a quarter of a page for display, making it completely unreadable. And occasionally a drawing deemed significant enough for gigantic reproduction gets a two-page spread, which means it straddles the gutter and leaves untold visual details tucked into the book’s binding instead of being visible. Not the way an “artbook” ought to treat the art it is presenting.
On page 337, we have another instance of the same kind of thoughtlessness: a tiny 4x6-inch photograph of a banquet attended by maybe 75-100 people the caption of which identifies four DC honchos “at the back of the room” (Harry Donnenfeld, Paul Sampliner, Jack Liebowitz and Harry’s son Irwin), all of whom are so small they can barely be seen let alone identified by some distinctive facial feature.
In the later chapters of the book as the artwork gets more and more elaborate, the full-page displays are justifiable, but there are still too many instances of beautiful drawings printed at shamefully small size—often surrounded by oceans of white space. As any book designer can tell you, white space has visual value in any display, but in this book, there’s far too much of it when we consider how many splendid drawings are reduced to preserve acres of white space.
Each chapter includes a timeline spread (usually a four-page fold-out) in which various comics occurrences (and a few others) are cited by year, but often the month and day are omitted. Levitz notes that the Yellow Kid’s appearance in 1895 depicts dialogue with balloons of text, “making it the world’s first comic strip”; but he fails to mention the exact date. Had he looked for documentation, he would have found that speech balloons did not float into Hogan’s Alley until October 25, 1896, at least a year later than the timeline indicates. And a few other outright errors creep in: he thinks the Raggedy Ann doll was based upon a newspaper comic strip version of Johnny Gruelle’s character, who first appeared in book form, which was so popular it, not a comic strip, inspired the doll; and he perpetuates the erroneous idea that Mad converted to black-and-white magazine format in order to bypass the Comic Code. (An accurate history of “How Mad Came To Be” can be found in Harv’s Hindsight for August 2002.)
But he has rounded up some interesting factoids, too: Baroness Orczy’s 1901 book The Scarlet Pimpernel is apparently the first fiction in which the protagonist has a “secret identity”; and Hugo Hercules, a 1902-03 comic strip in the Chicago Tribune, “is an early example of the super-human in fiction.” Jimmy Olson arrived first on the “Superman” radio program in 1940, not in the comic books; and kryptonite is also a radio script invention (in 1943). Superman “learns” to fly in the Fleischer animated series in 1941. Mayer’s Scribbly ends in All American Comics No. 59 “with an episode wherein the entire cast is depicted as funny animals.” In 1945, World’s Finest Comics No. 17 publishes a story about racial bigotry as faced by a returning Army veteran of World War II. And in Real Fact No. 5, we have a fictionalized account of how Bob Kane invented Batman (which makes me wonder if Kane’s version of this event in his autobiography is based entirely upon this four-color fiction, which he probably didn’t write; the autobiographical recounting certainly reads like a comic book).
In the timeline for 1943, Levitz notes that Wonder Woman’s friends Etta Candy and the Holiday Girls contribute to the war effort by going to work on an airplane assembly line, and he illustrates this entry with a reproduction of artist J. Howard Miller’s iconic “Rosie the Riveter.” Oddly, the very next day, I read the obit of Geraldine Hoff Doyle, who was the inadvertent model for Miller’s poster art. She was 86 at her death and hadn’t known she was “Rosie” until the mid-1980s. In 1942, just out of high school, she had taken a job in an Ann Arbor machine plant, where she operated a stamping machine. A United Press photographer touring the plant took a photo of the “tall, slender and glamorous brunette wearing a polka-dot bandana over her hair,” reported Dennis McLellan at the Los Angeles Times. His photo was seen by Miller, who was fulfilling a commission from the Westinghouse War Production Coordinating committee to create “morale-building posters for Westinghouse factory workers.” His painting of Hoff flexing her arm was headlined “We Can Do It!” strenuously suggesting that women could fill in for male factory workers who were off fighting the war. Doyle’s daughter, Stephanie Gregg, said her mother was “not as muscular as the woman depicted in the poster.” But the bandana on her head was hers.
Elsewhere throughout the book, we discover fascinating tidbits. Lloyd Jacquet, Wheeler-Nicholson’s first editor, left to start his own comic art shop, wherein he produced, among other comic book content, that of Marvel Comics No. 1, becoming, thereby, the founding editor of both DC and Marvel. A page of Kane’s “Rusty” shows that Kane is a better cartoonist than I’d thought from previous evidence, admittedly pretty skimpy. Creig Flessel, who drew many of the covers for Adventure Comics, was, at 27, perhaps the best artist working in the medium—in other words, he was very very good. And Alfred Bester wrote the Green Lantern’s rhyming oath
Among the rare things Levitz and Taschen expose to the light of day are concept sketches of Wonder Woman by H.G. Peters; Sergio Aragones’s “realistic” sketches of Bat Lash’s brother; Walt Kelly’s illustrated version of Gulliver’s Travels, published in January 1936, by which time, Kelly’d left for Disney; a photograph of Steve Ditko in which his features are clearly delineated. Taschen, Levitz told Powell, “found stuff under rocks and we didn’t even know where the rock was, much less what was under it.”
We also have a reprint of “How Superman Would End the War [in Europe]” from Look, February 27, 1940, almost two years before the U.S. was in the war. And after World War II was safely over, the Times Literary Supplement proclaimed: “Comics did more to unite and steel America for war than President Roosevelt’s speeches.”
I’ve thumbed the book from beginning to end, and even such a cursory look as this convinces me that The Art of Modern Mythmaking is worth owning despite its signal shortcoming as an artbook. And it’s fun to read for the simple pleasure of watching the pictures and getting submerged in the history of our favorite medium even though the history is sometimes a little spotty.
My initial experience of the book was rudely interrupted at page 64 when I noticed that pages 65-73 were missing. A whole 8-page “signature,” as book makers say. Fortunately, I had purchased the book through Amazon, which provides a handy and reasonably easy way to return a faulty item and get a replacement—all without additional charges. I had ordered and received the book weeks before, so I no longer had the box it came in, but Amazon’s mechanism supplied the deficiency: Amazon sent the replacement and gave me 30 days to return the flawed volume, and I used the replacement shipping box to return the bad copy. Quick. Easy. The missing 8-page signature, by the way, was one of the double-page fold-out timelines.
Also missing, as nearly as I could tell by glancing through the index, was Fred Ray and his distinctive rendering in Tomahawk for virtually all of the title’s run, beginning with the first issue dated September-October 1950 through No. 139, the penultimate issue dated April 1972. Before Tom Hawk (or Haukins) got his own title, Ray had limned the adventures of this buckskinned American Revolutionary character since his first appearance in Star Spangled Comics No. 69 (June 1947) through the next 61 issues and for 69 issues in the back pages of World’s Finest, starting with No. 33 in March 1948. Ray also drew the jungle feature, “Congo Bill,” for much of it’s run, starting in Action Comics No. 39 (August 1941), but the artist is most closely associated with Tomahawk. By the end of his comic book career in the early 1970s, Ray was recognized as an authority on the military uniforms of the American Revolutionary War, saith Wikipedia, and was a consultant to the Smithsonian Institution.
But Ray was also the cover artist for both DC books staring the Man of Steel, starting with Superman No. 9 (April 1941) and Action No. 34 (March 1941) through the 1940s, and “his redesign of the ‘S’ on Superman’s costume became one of the defining features of the character’s look during the period that fans and historians call the Golden Age,” Wikipedia tells us. So why doesn’t Ray get a mention from Levitz? He seems important enough in the mythmaking tradition.
Upon a closer reading, this time of the Golden Age timeline, I found Ray, to whom Levitz gives his due (albeit briefly) as “a dedicated re-creator of historical accuracy ... all drawn with great precision.” Alas, no mention of Superman’s costume.
But the Taschen DC colossus, with a first print run of 250,000, seems destined more for the European market, and perhaps the Europeans aren’t as fanatical about history as I am.
THE ONLY RECENTLY PUBLISHED book about cartooning that compares to the foregoing extravaganza in weight is 40: A Doonesbury Retrospective, which clocks in at eleven pounds. Happily for weight-watchers, Retrospective was accompanied almost simultaneously by Brian Walker’s Doonesbury and the Art of G.B. Trudeau, weighing three pounds, so the two Doonesbooks together at 14 pounds almost match the Taschen monument. More about the Trudeau works next time.
DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle
By Alan Cowsill, Alex Irvine, Matthew K. Manning, Michael McAvennie, Daniel Wallace and Alastair Dougall
252 10x12-inch pages, color; DC Comics hardcover, $50
If you want DC Comics history of the authoritative rather than the anecdotal sort, this tome is the one you want. Modern Mythmaking is fine for entertainment and the occasional scrap of rare art or info, but Year by Year is actual hardnosed history—brief capsules of it but accurate as nearly as I can tell at a prolonged glance. The book is strictly chronological, a chapter for each decade, each chapter written by one of the aforementioned writers. After a short introductory essay highlighting the cultural and comics context for that decade, the rest of the chapter proceeds year by year with at least two pages per year and often, depending upon events, more. Illustration is informative but not artbook quality: the first issue of every title is displayed (typically at a diminutive 2x3-inch dimension) and receives a short write-up; ditto issues in which watershed events take place—the cover of Detective Comics No. 38 is shown because Robin debuted therein.
Page layouts couple covers and text in bordered blocks with occasional vignettes inserted to illustrate notable events—a picture of a bumbling Alfred the Batman butler enlivens the block describing his arrival in Batman No. 16, for instance. While it’s possible to read the date and issue number on the reproductions of the covers, the book’s design keeps dates uppermost, running year and month headings across the tops of pages. Across the bottom, brief, cryptic, notes about current events: in 1943, for example, we find: “December. The Great Depression officially ends in the United States and the Works Progress Administration is closed.” I didn’t know the Depression ended by formal fiat, but here it is.
The book’s design commits the same sin as Mythmaking’s—running big attractive drawings across two pages, tucking a portion of the art into the book’s binding, thereby hiding it forever; but Year by Year has no pretensions to being an artbook. (It has, however, other pretensions: no ribbon bookmark, but it comes in a slipcase.) Fredric Wertham is briefly explained, as is the end of Fawcett’s Captain Marvel, who took with him all the company’s other comic book titles in 1953. The book offers a few rarities—among them, two pages of Curt Swan’s drawings of Superman making faces (over the gutter, which chops off the tops of several Superman heads; the same model sheet appears in Mythmaking, undecapitated). A sleeve inside the cover includes a beautiful rendering of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, excised from the cover art by Ryan Sook, and a similar “art print” reproduction of Sook’s preparatory pencil sketch of Batman.
And Fred Ray gets mentioned in a footnote, which pairs him to long-time Tomahawk writer Ed Herron. But by way of adding insult to injury, artist Bruno Premiani is credited with drawing the first issue of Tomahawk (he had a story in it, but Ray was, by then, the premiere Tomahawk artist) and Bob Brown also gets art credit for the character in another entry.
Still, Year by Year is the best DC Comics history yet. It has encyclopedic virtues both by content and organization plus an index of massive proportions.
Dick Briefer’s Frankenstein
By Dick Briefer with an Introduction by Craig Yoe
148 8.5x11-inch pages, color; Yoe Books at IDW, hardcover, $21.99
Briefer became the official funnybook master of the menace of Frankenstein’s monster by doing two versions of the character—a serious evocation of Boris Karloff’s 1931 movie interpretation of Mary Shelley’s creation and a highly comical bigfoot re-interpretation. Yoe reprints the inaugural appearance of the first version from Prize Comics No. 7 (December 1940), “which began the very first continuing series of horror comics,” followed by the next two (Nos. 8 and 9) and then three stories from Frankenstein No. 1 (Summer 1945), wherein the character is “the merry monster” that Briefer had introduced in Prize Comics No. 53 (May 1953). Funny Frank flourished in his own title for 17 issues, and then he reverted to horrifying with No. 18 in March 1952 in order to join the trend of horror comics then slurrying across the land. But for Briefer, whom Yoe quotes, “the attitude was different, the fun was gone.” He did 16 terrifying issues for the paycheck, and when “the anti-horror groups” arrived, Briefer left comics after No. 33 (October 1954) of Frankenstein and went into advertising, and the comics medium lost one of its most distinctive practitioners.
Yoe’s Funny Frank revival includes two more stories, one from Frankenstein No. 8 (July-August 1947) by which time, Briefer’s drawings have shed fineline shading in favor of a bold, fluid brush stroke, and another from No. 15 (September-October 1948), in which “The Girl with the Bewitching Eyes” invokes Will Eisner’s take on Jane Russell and her famous bosom in Howard Hughes’ 1943 movie, “The Outlaw” (withheld from release for two years because of Russell’s anatomical prominence), from the September 1, 1946 Spirit story, “Olga Bustle: The Girl with the Big, Big Eyes”—clearly an in-group joke: Briefer’s comic book career had started in 1936 in the comic art shop run by Eisner and Jerry Iger.
In the last four stories in the Yoe Book, Frank reverts to his original terrifying self as revealed in Nos. 20 (August-September 1952), 24 (April-May 1953), 28 (January 1954), and 31 (June-July 1954). The last two showcase Briefer’s mature style, now deftly blending the bold outline of the comical version with fineline modeling and shading.
Briefer is remembered more for his comical Frankenstein than for any of the other excellent work he did in comics. I was always a little put off by his Funny Frank because Briefer located the monster’s nose above his eyebrows, too weird for me in my misguided youth. Now I see that facial tic is Briefer’s caricature of his version of the Frightening Frank, whose nose was missing except for two nostril holes between his eyes. Briefer, Yoe tells us in his Introduction, wrote all his own stories, and the comical ones in particular are a treat to behold. Briefer liked his funny stuff best, but it’s fascinating to watch him shift, seemingly without effort, from serious, realistic (or “little foot”) visuals to bigfoot cartooning, and back again.
In Funny Frank, Briefer’s treatment is light-hearted, his visuals energetically antic in their comedic exaggeration; in Frightening Frank, the stories are flamboyantly horrifying (in what might be described as the best EC manner), narrative captions pulsating purple, and the pictures grittily grim and menacing.
In one of his most light-hearted tales (from Frankenstein No. 8), Briefer commits a cheery send-up of Superman when Funny Frank becomes Blooperman, embodying the hopes of two comic book creators, Jerry Shoestring and Joe Seagull.
Yoe’s Introduction, as is common with Yoe Books, is a mine of visual extras—a couple of Briefer’s paintings of Frankenstein (in both guises), a page of his first comic book story (“The Hunchback of Notre Dame”), samples of the Funny Frank comic strip that no syndicate had the wisdom to buy, a few of Alex Toth’s shorthand version of Briefer’s Funny Frank, some original art, and more—as well as an informative albeit brief biography. (Briefer was blacklisted during the McCarthy Red Scare Years of the 1950s because he drew a comic strip for the Communist Party’s Daily Worker during World War II; Russia, at the time, was an ally of the U.S. and Britain. Guilt by association is retroactive.)
The cover of the book is an inventive design that, unlike Kidd’s Shazam cover, serves a purpose other than simply showing off the designer’s crazed inventiveness: it draws attention to the Briefer variants of Frankenstein. The face of Frightening Frank appears on the cover with holes where his eyes should be, but through the holes, we see the eyeballs of the picture behind the cover, Briefer’s Funny Frank. Their eyes link the two interpretations of the character. On the back cover, another full-face portrait, this time of Briefer.
Altogether, a nifty package and a delightful read.
MOTS & QUOTES
Craig Yoe, in the Introduction to Yoe Books’ Klassic Krazy Kool Kids’ Komics (reviewed hereabouts): “Recently, I pulled some vintage how-to-draw-cartoon books off my shelves, like Cartooning Self-Taught, How To Draw Funny Pictures, and First Step to A Cartoon Career. They listed a litany of potential markets for cartoonists—like comic strips, panel cartoons, editorial cartoons, sports cartoons, and animation. But not one of these books even mentioned comic books, not even as a place for beginners to get their pen wet with India ink. Comic books were [evidently] considered the lowest of the lows.”
Critiques & Crotchets of a Long and Ofttimes Tedious Kind
Chic Young’s Blondie: The Complete Daily Comic Strips from 1930-1933
By Chic Young; Introduction by Brian Walker
280 8.5x11-inch landscape pages, b/w but occasional color; IDW hardcover, $49.99
Blondie, ever since the marriage of the toothsome title character to the dingbat Dagwood, has been one of the world’s most popular comic strips. It has remained in the top five or so for over fifty years, more or less, a stupendous record. And in this volume, we see how it all began.
Walker’s Introduction, laced with promotional art for Young’s strips and copies of newspaper clippings and photographs, provides a brief biography of the cartoonist and ticks off the short-lived flapper girl comic strips he produced before, finally, conjuring Blondie: The Affairs of Jane (October 31, 1921-March 18, 1922), Beautiful Bab (for four months in 1922), and, the longest-running of the lot, Dumb Dora (1924 to 1930, when Young left to create Blondie for Hearst’s King Features; Dora was continued by Paul Fung and then Bill Dwyer until about 1934).
Before Blondie debuted on September 8, 1930, it enjoyed a legendary promotional campaign that began when newspaper editors around the country were sent an announcement of the engagement of Dagwood Bumstead to Blondie Boopadoop. This was followed by a letter from the Bumstead attorney, who alleged the engagement announcement was “a pure fabrication of fancy, if not a malicious attempt on the part of this Miss Blondie Boopadoop.” After which came a handwritten note from Blondie herself, protesting her innocence and saying she’d soon arrive to explain “in person.” She also said she was sending her luggage on ahead: “When you get it, hold it for me and don’t peek inside.”
A few days later, a cardboard suitcase was delivered to editors’ offices, with a note from Blondie, admonishing: “Don’t peek into it.” It being a blatant promotion, everyone peeked. The suitcase contained women’s clothing—for a paper doll. Next, as promised, Blondie herself arrived—a cut-out paper doll in her lingerie. With a note: “Here I am, just like I told you I’d be. Only, please, Mr. Editor, put some clothes on me quick. I sent them on ahead, you remember my pink bag. I’m so embarrassed! Blondie.”
Those were the halcyon days of syndicate promotions.
Walker settles the question comics maven Jeff Lindenblatt raised several years ago when he reported that he couldn’t find Blondie in any newspaper dated September 8 but found it in Hearst’s flagship New York American on September 15. So did it begin on the 8th as everyone has always supposed, or the 15th? Said Walker: “In spite of King Features’ ambitious promotion, Blondie sold only moderately. It debuted on September 8, 1930, in a few small city newspapers and first appeared in Hearst’s New York American on September 15. New subscribers usually ran the first twelve episodes to fill their readers in on the background story and then picked up the continuity from there.”
Yes, continuity: the first years of Blondie were storytelling years, the story of a courtship. Dagwood introduces Blondie to his grumpy father, a railroad tycoon, in the very first strip, but the two lovers don’t marry until February 17, 1933, the penultimate strip reprinted in this volume. For the intervening two-and-a-half years, the couple struggles to get Dagwood’s parents to consent to his marrying a very pretty but not, seemingly, too smart young woman who might well be a gold-digger, out after the Bumstead billions. The impending nuptials are held in abeyance for years during which Blondie, displaying a scatterbrain practicality, flatters the parental Bumsteads to win their approval and almost wins them over when she inherits money until they find out the amount is $283. She even works for the Bumstead company for a time and becomes Mrs. Bumstead’s social secretary briefly. And occasionally, when off-duty, she entertains visits from young male admirers. All accomplished at the rate of three daily strips per page, a generous size, suitable for showing off Young’s ability to draw pretty girls and feminine embonpoint.
The flock of males that hovers around Blondie is not as numerous in these daily sequences as it is, I gather, in the Sunday strips, which are not part of the daily continuity (and not included in this volume but will be in the next). In the dailies, the dates of which are duly noted, Blondie displays more constancy. Although she enjoys the affections of an extraordinarily handsome neighbor, Gil McDonald, for a brief time (June through mid-October 1932), when her engagement to Dagwood has been called off—and is even engaged to Gil for a few weeks—Dagwood is never far away and is always, it seems, in her flighty young heart.
Then in 1933, Dagwood goes on the famous hunger strike to wear down his parents’ resistance to his marrying to Blondie. Starting on January 3, 1933, the strike lasted until January 30 (official time—28 days, 7 hours, 8 minutes and 22 seconds), with a count-down posted every day in the strip as Dagwood wastes away. (Later, when he finally arises from his bed, we see heaps of dishes under the covers. Perhaps he’s been eating all the time? Ah, love.)
This volume concludes with the wedding (a reproduction of the original art, which includes members of the wedding party drawn by Young’s assistant, Alex Raymond, is published in Walker’s Introduction). The next volume will regale us with the couple’s “madcap” honeymoon and their settling in to middle class married life (because Dagwood’s father, although consenting to the marriage, nonetheless disinherited his son). We will also discover one of the most revolutionary of Young’s plot devices: Blondie and Dagwood sleep in a double bed, not twin beds, which was the fashion in entertainments of the repressive 1930s. According to an article in The Saturday Evening Post (April 10, 1948), Young “steadfastly refused” to be “bullied” by “skittish readers” into getting the Bumsteads twin beds. “He holds, and the fan mail he gets from clergymen sustains him, that twin beds constitute a major threat to the solidity of marriage. He is very stubborn about this.”
Blondie was not much different from her predecessors, Jane, Bab and Dora—until she married. Like them, she was at first a dingy flapper, but as a wife, her nonsense was often common sense (albeit uncommonly phrased or applied), and Dagwood emerged as the family flake. And then the iconic American domestic comedy began, raising the strip to hitherto unequaled popularity and soaring circulation for most of its run. So far.
At the rate of three strips to a page, this first Blondie volume (complete with the obligatory bound-in ribbon bookmark of quality) provides clues about the reasons for other mysterious manifestations in the strip. Dagwood’s notorious antenna hair-do, for example. But just as peculiar is the single button in the middle of his shirt front, not to mention his eyes, huge ovals unlike the eyes of any other character in the strip. Oh—and the graphic signal of astonishment, a lone exclamation point without a period that suddenly appears over the head of the astonished personage.
To take these matters in reverse order: the single exclamatory mark of astonishment was once part of an array, a halo of similar lines, as you’ll see in the Exhibit Section of this review (below); Young slowly eliminated all but one of the dagger-like diagonals. Dagwood’s eyes were for most of the first years of the strip not unique to him; while most other characters had eyes with lids, a few, like Dagwood, had dots, and the dots, in all of them (including his mother), gradually elongated; eventually, perhaps by the end of the next Blondie volume, Dagwood’s were the only large oval eyes in the strip. The button in the middle of his shirt front was originally a stud in the center of a starched shirt of the sort men in the Bumstead circle wore to dinner in the evenings when they dressed formally. At first, it appeared only when Dagwood was wearing a tux; over time, Young just kept putting it on Dagwood’s shirt, apparently forgetting what it was originally.
As for Dagwood’s very odd hair-do, it simply evolved. I’ve arranged a sequence of Dag portraits from the first years near here. At first, his hair was parted in the middle and was thoroughly plastered to his skull in the fashion of the day; but when he was frustrated or frazzled, the hair came somewhat unplastered over his forehead, sprouting two untamed hanks of hair. By the end of this volume, Dagwood’s head has not yet sprouted antenna; but, forelocks askew, he’s on his way.
LONG FORM PAGINATED CARTOON STRIPS
Called Graphic Novels for the Sake of Status
Motel Art Improvement Service
By Jason Little
208 6.5x9-inch landscape pages, full color; Dark Horse hardback, $19.99
Jason Little’s screwball comedy regales us with how his heroine, Bee-Jin, an eighteen-year-old red-headed Chinese Jew with a big ass and a small bosom, loses her virginity. Like any story worthy of the genre, Motel Art starts out calmly enough and spirals hilariously out of control. Bee, heroine of Little’s previous Shutterbug Follies, happily sets out on her long-planned cross-country bicycle trip, but it ends, for the purpose of this tale, almost at once when her bike is wrecked. At the motel where she spends the night, she meets Cyrus, who works in the housekeeping department, making beds and cleaning rooms. Cyrus, however, is more than meets the eye: he is an accomplished painter.
Frustrated by the demands of the art world, Cryus disappeared himself into the hotel world and there he found his calling: he takes down the banal paintings he finds on the hotel room walls and enhances them with imaginative embellishments. He also inspects the belongings of the room’s occupants and helps himself to small portions of whatever drugs he finds. Bee discovers his artistic enterprise, and when he moves on to another motel, he invites her to come along, recommending that she apply for a job in the housekeeping department. To keep his living expenses low, Cyrus lives in unoccupied hotel rooms, and Bee moves in with him. Friendship blossoms into lust, and Bee enjoys her first (second, third, etc.) experience of carnal bliss. Bee phones her friend Lyla, a liberated sex maniac who has been urging Bee to get on with a sex life; Lyla shrieks joyfully, “Tell me everything! Does he have a big dick?” Lust evolves, eventually, to affection, but at about the same time, Bee and Cyrus become embroiled in a drug deal gone wrong.
Rick Johnson, a soldier on leave from Fort Dix, comes to the motel to buy some drugs for himself and his khaki cohorts. The dealers whom he has arranged to meet at the hotel are a college student and his girlfriend, “Genius,” who stay in the motel the night before their buyer arrives. Cyrus, on his usual errand making beds and looting rooms, finds the drugs and takes some for himself. When Johnson meets with his dealers, he gets high, authenticating the quality of the drugs by taking some, and when he comes down, he realizes that the quantity of drugs is somewhat less than he’d bargained for, and he goes on a drug-fueled rampage, looking for the college kids. They remember that the person who cleaned their room looked “suspicious,” so the enraged Johnson, leaping to a correct conclusion, goes after Cyrus. To see how that works out, you must read the book yourself.
Apart from the voyeuristic delights to be found in observing Bee’s being deflowered by Cyrus, the pleasure in reading Little’s book is afforded by the cartoonist’s treatment of the tale. He adroitly turns a gentle, caring coming-of-age story into headlong comedic action that soars to manic heights. Little’s ingenuity in sustaining two (and sometimes three) storylines simultaneously is impressive, but his deployment of the resources of the medium is beyond impressive to exemplary. With a simple clean bold-line style modeled with color not linear shading, Little exploits the capacities of the form as he ties two story strands together, using page layout to sustain both strands separately, pacing their action until they converge in a crescendo of comedy and crisis. Where necessary for dramatic impact, he resorts to cartoony exaggeration. And his simple style permits focusing on the kind of visual detail that abets narrative without words. A superb achievement.
Written by Daren White and drawn by Eddie Campbell
160 5x9-inch landscape pages, color; Top Shelf/Knockabout hardback, $14.95
Compared to Campbell’s usual many-layered graphic novel efforts, this is a slight undertaking—just one strip per page, for one thing, and the pictures stick pretty close to illustrating White’s story. The hero of the piece, the playwright, is the focus of this “dark comedy about the sex life of a celibate middle-aged man.” His sex life is mostly imaginary: he sees a comely lass while on a bus and imagines what sex with her might be like. And he writes plays, usually inspired by his daydreaming although not necessarily as sexual. He lives with a retarded brother, whom he cares for, hiring a nurse to assist him. Eventually, he and the nurse begin a relationship, which matures enough that “he never writes another word.” The engine of the playwright’s oeuvre is clearly his sexual fantasies; and when fantasy become fact, the engine idles and eventually ceases to function altogether.
After the first few pages, Campbell’s pictures sometimes veer slightly away from a literal interpretation of White’s story to contradict or comment ironically on the narrative prose running as captions across the tops of the pictures. The result is not quite as fanciful as Campbell gets in the works he writes as well as draws, but the maneuver nonetheless provides an amusing insight into the character of the protagonist. And that, after all, is the whole purpose of this book.
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