Why don’t we hear more of the marvelously talented, witty, prolific American cartoonist Gladys Parker (1908-1966)? She was the mother of the long running strip and comic book character Mopsy. More than that, Parker was among the better-known cartoonists of the day, in part because she was also a fashion designer to both the general public as well as Hollywood stars. Meanwhile, Parker was a frequent item in the celebrity gossip columns of the 1940s as she dated a noted boxer and character actor.
Why don’t we know more about Gladys Parker? Well, obviously for the same reasons we don’t know more about Nell Brinkley or Ethel Hays or Jackie Ormes, despite the high quality of their work and substantial public profile in their own day? Not only has the comics field itself been overwhelmingly male dominated, but its history has been written almost entirely by men. And yet, as I myself encounter these overlooked artists as I make my way through comics history, I am struck by their singular visions, how different their aesthetic and social perspective were from their male brethren. To miss these women in our history of the medium is to narrow our understanding of the rich creative range the comic strip reached in the last century. Brinkley used color, facial and emotional expression, line, the contours of the Sunday comics page in ways no other artist did in the 1910s and 1920s. Ormes’ racial satire was sharp and blunt at a time when American needed it desperately. And Parker brought the feminine wit of Hollywood romantic comedy into the comics page and merged the aesthetics of fashion with those of the comic strip into a drawing style that was unlike any other on the comics page.
Trina Robbins is an under appreciated national treasure, alas, for some of the same reasons the cartoonists she presents here have been overlooked by too many comics histories. For the most part, cartooning was a man’s game in the 20th Century, and so has been the writing of its history. Except for Trina. Robbins was among the only female artists in an underground comics movement famous for its misogynist art. Her Pretty in Ink history of women in the field remains the major work, because she has waged a lonely battle for including this talented minority of comic artists.
But Pretty in Ink had to cover so much ground, we didn’t get to dwell deeply into any artist or group. With The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists in the Jazz Age, however, she gets the chance to reprint satisfying helpings of Nell Brinkley (fully 50 pages!), Eleanor Schorer, Edith Stevens, Ethel Hays, Fay King and Virginia Huget. Since this is more a history in reprints than a history with reprints, Robbins shows more than tells. But she shows so much about how these women helped define the post-WWI era, or at least mass media’s aspirational version of it. Their focus on social interactions and fashion come through as expressions of feminine power and personality.
With a third of the book devoted to Brinkley, we get to see the most famous of female cartoonists evolve beyond the Gibson style into an Art Nouveaux and then Deco fine line work and precision. Robbins bookends the book with Brinkley’s changing views of American women, the artist’s criticisms of the very flighty flapper she celebrated in the 20s, and the active, engaged professional women she depicted in the 1930s.
But along the way, Robbins gives us revealing samples across the careers of many women who continue to be overlooked by conventional comics histories. Edith Stevens’ Us Girls series blended fashion, biting wit and social observation in a series that was pithier and more insightful than many of the observational strips we continue to reprint elsewhere.
Robbins also focuses in on Ethel Hays, who channeled both Brinkley and John Held to chronicle the 20s and 30s in striking full page, richly colored Sundays that overwhelm the eye with color, a great sense of body angles and attitude. Like many of women in this book, she found creative ways to weave fashion styles, romantic advice, social commentary and a bit of cheesecake.
Hays’s “We Moderns” piece at the top of this entry is a great example of the creative richness and thoughtfulness we miss when, like their editors at the time, we consign women cartoonists of the day to the “fashion” artists bucket. Indeed, Hays, Brinkley and Huget not only paid attention to clothing, hair and even body styles, but they wove these concerns in with larger social, personal and aesthetic ideas. In “We Moderns” Hays actually brings these threads together in a startling visual think piece. She links the “angles” of modern fashion with architecture, clothing, dance, personal politics and even her own Deco-infused art style. Nell Brinkley was adept at using her characters’ clothing as instruments of drama, personality, reaction. They exploded from the page as effectively as her signature facial expressions – signals of inner-feeling. These artists didn’t just depict the visual styles and fashions of the inter-war years. They showed a rare understanding of why they mattered.
Fay King was perhaps the most socially engaged of the group, and her strips highlighted trends like women becoming more involved newspaper readers. Meanwhile Virginia Huget bridged the 20s and 30s with aspirational tableaux that romanticized college life and affluence. I also appreciated the inclusion of the wonderful Annabelle strips by Dorothy Urfer. This is a visually rich and wry look at sexual politics. It left me wanting mor.
And the reproduction/resotration work in Flapper Queens is superb, bringing forward the rich color and detail that made these images so absorbing in their time. Comics historians love to gush over the ways in which McCay, Feininger, King and the usual suspects among the kings of comics made innovative use of the full Sunday page, especially in the first decade of comic strip history. But the oversized, beautifully colored reproductions in this book show how artists like Brinkley, Hays and Huget especially burst from the Sundays of the 20s and 30s with dazzling uses of layout, splash images and narrative progression that rival and exceed many of their male peers.
Which brings me to the historical importance of Robbins’s Flapper Queens. Reviving these artists truly expands our understanding of comics history and especially the ways in which these very talented artists and social observers related to the surrounding culture between the World Wars. To overlook them is to miss some of the most striking art the comics were producing during this era. More to the point, these artists had a wry, sly and nuanced take on the politics of domestic relations. This book shouldn’t just “fill a gap” in comics history. It should make us broaden and reconsider the cultural work the comics were doing in American minds in the last century.
This is hands down my pick as the one indispensable addition to comic strip history in the last year.
One of the wildest comic strip excavations of the last few years is Frank M. Young’s project to resurface Cecil Jensen’s wildly imaginative, dark satire of the late 1940s, Elmo. Jensen was principally B-list editorial cartoonist for the Chicago Daily News during much of the 1930s through 1960s. But his truly bizarre Elmo, launched after WWII, crafted a hapless Li’l Abner-like rube facing the crazy excesses of modern culture of corporatism, advertising and consumerism. The strip proved too strange for many readers and newspapers, as Young chronicled in his excellent 2019 volume Elmo: An American Experiment, which we cited as a notable book that year.
The Elmo saga gets only stranger in Young’s follow up book, Little Debbie and the Second Coming of Elmo: Daily Comic Strips, August 1960-September 1961. It turns out that by 1949 Elmo had been fully kidnapped by the diminutive, precocious Little Debbie Jensen had introduced as an ancillary character a couple of years before. Readers and editors preferred Debbie’s more conventional kid antics, even if laced occasionally with Jensen’s arch humor and surreal situations. For a decade, Elmo disappeared from the strip and the renamed Little Debbie stripped chugged along unevenly and with an unremarkable following. But as Jensen started thinking about retirement, and the strip’s syndication flagged, he took an unprecedented move – reintroducing a forgotten character, Elmo, for a final madcap flurry.
Things get marvelously bonkers in the strip’s last gasp. Elmo engages with corporate inanities, survives an assassination attempt as well as a suicide attempt (jumping from a first floor window). We get an authoritarian snowman, a talking robot, and final extended parody of Schulz’s Peanuts. Jensen’s sense of humor is not uproarious, pointed, screwball or even deeply satiric. It is just relentlessly offbeat and odd.
In reprinting and chronicling these bizarre episodes of Elmo in Debbie-land, Young is a critic not a cheerleader. In a deft and insightful long intro, he recognizes the unevenness of Jensen’s work and the true inscrutability of his imagination. But as he notes throughout this project, Cecil Jensens left us with one of those rare instances where the otherwise buttoned-down mass medium of 50s comic strips produced a true rara avis.
Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of the Comic Book
This well produced overview of over a dozen pioneering Black comics artists surfaces a hidden history that is eye-opening on so many levels. Many of these artists were well-known within their own communities and Black newspapers in many of the major cities across the US but “invisible” to the larger world of comics readers. Mainstream comics history often highlights Matt Baker who developed sexy heroines like Phantom Lady and Flamingo and is well represented here. But author Ken Quattro does an excellent job taking a biographical approach that digs into Adolph Barreaux (Sally the Sleuth), Elmer Stoner ( Phantasmo), John Paul Jackson (Tisha Minga and Bungleton Green), the collaborations of Elton Flay Fax and George Dewey Lipscomb, Alvin Hollingsworth’s horror comics, and a dozen more that differentiates the styles, personalities and career paths of an incredibly diverse group of artists.
Invisible Men tends to focus on these artists’ eventual contributions to the mainstream comic book field, and so each biographical section usually ends with a full story, full color reprint. Ironically, this work often represents the least expressive and talented examples of what many of these artists had to offer. Their careers generally were more interesting outside of a comic book industry that paid poorly and demanded little. In fact, as Quattro himself recognizes, unlike most early comic book artists, almost all of the Black artists he explores were formally trained fine artists who took on this work just for the money.
In each of these biographies I found their supporting and prior careers much more interesting, as does the author. Quattro cautions that he is not a formal historian, but he ably sketches in a blind spot for comic strip history – the Black newspaper, as well as the vagaries of freelancing for early comic book and pulp magazine companies and how it allowed many of these “invisible men” sustained careers. In taking a biographical approach to this cast, Quattro defies generalization about these artists’ perspectives and backgrounds. We enter a range of highly individual contexts, especially Black middle-class enclaves in cities like Oberlin, Charleston, Baltimore and more. We get glimpses of how Black newspapers, communities, artist groups lent support and connections for many of these men as they cobbled together artistic careers that moved across Black newspaper comics and editorial, community pamphlets, posters and fine art exhibits in addition to the burgeoning comic book industry.
Valuable as Invisible Men may be, it begs for more…more history of Black artist communities, of the Black newspapers that nurtured so much talent, of artists that fall outside of Quattro’s comic book lens. We need at long last a modern report in of strips like Bungleton Green, the syndicates that distributed Black comics artists, an entire history of editorial cartoons that took a decidedly different take on current events.
Gross Exaggerations: The Meshuga Comic Strips of Milt Gross
I would consider this oversized collection of the zany scribbles of Milt Gross a companion volume to my favorite book of 2019, Paul Tumey’s Screwball. It further revives our appreciation of artists like Rube “Boob McNutt” Goldberg, Bill “Smokey Stover” Holman and Gus “Sherlocko” Mager whose fame has faded as their madcap gag humor fell out of style. With The Sunday Press’ Gross Exaggerations: The Meshuga Comic Strips of Milt Gross we get a sustained immersion in a single artist who was the face of madcappism through the 20s and 30s in strips like Nize Baby and Count Screwloose. As the full title suggests, the book underscores Milt Gross’s cultural contribution of bringing Yiddish language, dialect and humor styles into mass media, perhaps in ways that no other more “serious” medium could. Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press continues to impress with its use of multiple critics to surround each of its reprint volumes with several contextual lenses through which to appreciate the art.
Milt Gross was widely known to 20s and 30s Americans, and frequently reprinted. But you haven’t seen him like this, arguably at his “Grossest.” The 13×17 scale gives us full Sunday pages as they were experienced. I found myself appreciating Gross’s use of implied action between panels to drive the humor and heightened sense of pace. For this alone I am grateful, and it helps make the case for this class of reprint. As well, the reproductions are as impeccable as they are instructive. They reveal the deliberate and functional quality of Gross’s seemingly frantic line work.
But this immersion in his work also surfaces Gross’s satirical eye. While many of the domestic family strips of the 1920s gently poked at the gender, sexual and generational politics of post-war life, Gross blows up the family unit altogether and pits all members in perennial warfare, with the inept, resentful pop in the lead. Gross brings into the 1920s the tropes of the first decade of bad boys in comics. Most strips end with a spanking or the threat of violence, and mama advising her husband, “not the head, Morris.” Moreover, Gross kept his strip and its comedy steeped in the frantic energy of the city when his peer comic artists were moving to the growing American suburbs. And Count Screwloose flees the asylum weekly but only to witness the inanities of everyday “sane” America. This is enough to send him back to his more lreliably delusional pals in the hospital by nightfall.
Gross Exaggerations is a welcome invitation to revisit a master of purposeful screwballism and consider its artistry.
It is way past time to review and highlight some of the noteworthy books for comic strip mavens in the last year. For nearly a decade, as an editor at media trades Media Industry Newsletter and then Folio magazine, I did annual roundups of books of special interest to print media professionals. Historically significant comics reprints always played in my mix. Following the diminishing fortunes of the magazine industry in recent years, MIN merged with Folio, which itself folded into oblivion in late 2019. And so I moved the 2019 roundup here to Panels & Prose. I never got around to doing a 2020 edition, because, well, 2020. So over the next week or so I will be calling out my faves from last year and so far this year that I think furthered our understanding of comics history. Today we start with the one title in the bunch that nudges beyond the usual focus of this site on newspaper and magazine comics. But the magnificent legacy of EC is too important a milestone in the American comic arts to exclude.
The History of EC Comics
The annual cinder block from Taschen for comics fans is Grant Geissman’s The History of EC Comics, a massive reflection on and reprinting of the greatest collection of comics artists in history. William Gaines’ EC horror, war and crime comics was the home of Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science and Frontline Combat. Like all Taschen books the sheer scale allows Geissman to pour in full story reprints, some in original art, memos, office photos, even contracts that help bring to life the familiar history of this incredible stable of talent. It is hard to go wrong with a book brimming with Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, Will Elder, just to name-drop a few. Falling into these artists at 14×18 scale is a revelation, even to lifelong fans like me. The book also has an end section reproducing every EC cover where many of these artists hit their peak. Kudos to Geissman’s curatorial skill.
The text history is not as compelling. I think Geissman’s rendering of Bill Gaines’s father, comic book pioneer Max Gaines, is quite good. It has telling detail and foreshadows the psychic burden Bill carried. Otherwise, however, Geissman defers to others for the scant aesthetic evaluations of all this great artistry he has assembled here. Nor is there much about the tropes, themes, attitudes and visual conceits that a more curious and creative interpreter might tie to the zeitgeist. Tashen’s other recent XXL titles on Krazy Kat and Little Nemo, both benefitted greatly by Alexander Braun’s critical acumen. Appreciating and distinguishing among comics styles was central to EC’s success, because publisher Gaines and editor/writer Feldstein meted out the freelance work according to whose style fit the story. This layer of interpretation is missing here. Instead, the history and ancillary images are guided by a collector’s penchant for later market value and rarity rather than aesthetic or cultural significance.
Nit Picky? Not for a tome that is priced and positioned as definitive. Sure, one wishes that such a visually generous and lush, let alone expensive, book on EC was a full-throated celebration and genuine interpretation of its artistry. We’ll settle for this.