Notable Books: Little Debbie and the Second Coming of Elmo

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.

Notable Books for Comics Fans: 2020-2021

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.

The Heart of the Heart of Juliet Jones

Taking a break from my stroll through earliest American comic strip history, I snatched up the first volume of Stan Drake’s soapy classic The Heart of Juliet Jones. It started its admirable run in 1953, under the artful pen of Stan Drake. The first week of the strip is added above, and it illustrates the melodrama of the this soapiest of soap operas.

The basic setup involves the Jones family – a widowed father “Pop Jones,” his 30-something unmarried daughter Juliet and teen wild-child other daughter Evie. Sibling rivalry and the tension between responsible Juliet and adventurous man-obsessed Evie form the basic dynamic. I am working from details in the excellent reprints of the early strips by Classic Comics Press (2008). The first volume has introductions by Leonard Starr (of Mary Perkins fame) and Armando Mendez.

A few things strike me about the strip. First, Drake was a well-regarded advertising cartoonist of the day before starting the strip, and he brings that precise idealized vision of 50s America to Juliet Jones. We are far removed from the moody brushwork of Caniff and lush outlines of Al Capp or Chester Gould here. This is very precise penwork that is aimed at a kind of idealized photo-realism. As Drake himself admitted about advertising art, the trick is to make the everyday and all people perfect and beautiful but to do so in a precise way. Fellow artists of the time like Starr and Alex Raymond (in Rip Kirby) had similar approaches. But Drake’s really looked like the advertiser’s vision of mid-century America come to life. And because of that, the mixed motives and emotional angst of the characters seemed to poke at, if not undermine, that idealized American self-image.

Drake also worked in a three-panel cadence, usually in medium close-up framing of two character dialog. There was a lot of space for reaction shots and close-up pay-off frames that highlighted Drake’s talent for facial expression. More than his peers of the 50s (Raymond in Rip Kirby, Caniff in Steve Canyon, or even Kelly in Pogo, Capp in Li’l Abner, or Johnson in Barnaby) Drake relied most on this demanding three-panel snippet of daily storytelling. It was demanding in that it forced Drake to move the story along and deliver some level of emotional impact and cliffhanger for the next day.

Drake did not credit himself with innovation or even tremendous talent. He was among the first owners of the instant Polaroid camera. He used photographs of friends and family and tracing tools to model and copy his characters. Still his gift was in the precision of his line, the way he staged each frame and the little inflections he gave each face to express inner attitudes.

Per Mssrs. Starr and Mendez in this intro I picked up a ton of great tidbits about Drake’s fascinating life and work.

  • His original ambition was to become an actor, with which he enjoyed some success. His father discouraged the insecurity of an actor’s life and had his good friend and actor Art Carney help talk young Stan out of an actor’s life. Yet, Drake seemed to bring to comics an actor’s appreciation for facial expressiveness.
  • The Heart of Juliet Jones storyline was loosely based on a soap opera proposal Drake’s editor had received int he 30s by Margaret “Gone with the Wind” Mitchell.” Indeed the contrast between sensible, responsible Juliet and adventurous, flirty Evie resembles GWTW’s Melanie and Scarlett.
  • While Drake handled the graphics end of the strip, it was scripted by Elliot Caplin, a prolific strip author (Abbie ‘n Slats, Big Ben Bolt) who was also brother to Al Capp.
  • Drake was involved in one of the great tragedies in comic strip history, the auto accident that killed friend and fellow artist Alex Raymond. Raymond was taking Drake’s new Corvette out with him for a test drive. Raymond accidentally drove at high speed into a tree. Raymond was killed instantly while Drake was thrown from the car.

The Heart of Juliet Jones is among a long but often overlooked history of strips (Mary Worth, Apartment 3-G, On Stage) that not only featured women but followed more the conventions of soap opera than adventure or cartoon comedy. Both Juliet Jones and Mary Perkins On Stage demonstrate how some of these strips really stand out and deserve attention. Some of these artists are exercising muscles of comic art that adventure and comedy just don’t touch. Gesture, emotion, social and class dynamics, tension among characters and even the ways they both idealize suburban, white, middle class mid-century America but in subtle ways poke at the fantasy.