McManus’s One Joke, Deftly Told

Comic disharmony between Jiggs and Maggie over their social climb was the central joke of George McManus’s Bringing Up Father for over four decades. For all of McManus’s fine sense of humor, he banged that one note across four panels six days a week and a full page every Sunday. To be sure, he layered in nuances of class and generational conflict. Jiggs was a hod carrier who struck it rich, never adjusted to his own ascent, and clashed with wife Maggie and daughter’s ambitions to join the social elite. The dynamic was rich with potential and embodied the experience of millions of American emigrees moving into the modern middle class. But many of the daily strips tediously replayed Jiggs’s sneaking out to his former watering hole Dinty Moore’s, embarrassing his family with etiquette transgressions or ducking Maggie’s thrown dishes. These were conventions that American newspaper readers enjoyed hearing for a handful of panels and 30 seconds a day over its 87-year run. McManus, however, was especially adept at maintaining reader interest in the familiar with his mastery of visual style, panel sequencing and timing.

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Napoleon: The Gentle Art of Everyday-ness

Clifford McBride’s portrait of the affable, accident-prone and corpulent Uncle Elby and his puckish oversized dog Napoleon is one of those great American comic strips that are about nothing. There is no adventure or much of an ongoing storyline to the Napoleon and Uncle Elby strip. Nor are there gags, verbal or physical, really. It is more a strip about everyday mishaps. Uncle Elby is proud of his new white suit, which an affectionate Napoleon meets at the the front door with muddy paws. Constructing a simple tent results in a tangled mess. Napoleon chases a fleeing rabbit, chicken,  cat or whatnot (it’s a frequent theme), only to be chased by his prey in the end. Elby mows over one of his dog’s hidden bones, which conks him on the bean. Elby gets out of his car to open the garage door only to have it slam shut before he can drive through.

No, really, the action in the Napoleon strip is that banal and trifling…relentlessly…and apparently by design.

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Gray Goes Dark: Survival of the Fightingest

By 1937, Harold Gray seemed to have fallen into an especially foul mood. It was several years into his nemesis F.D.R.’s “New Deal,” which Gray felt represented everything he and his “Little Orphan Annie” disdained: social uplift, misguided do-gooders, institutional authority. From the start, Gray was never shy about voicing his populist perspectives and what he saw as core agrarian values of self-reliance, individualism, and deep suspicion of government bureaucracy of all sorts. His chief scholar, Jeet Heer, has done a much better job than I can here outlining Gray’s vein of Populism and how it ran much deeper than knee-jerk reactionary conservatism. And I have argued in these posts how Gray’s cultural politics were grounded in familiar mid-western traditions and a tension between 19th Century values of “character” and 20th Century notions of “personality. But it is clear that in response to FDR and the popularity of the New Deal Gray got more radical and vocal about his views. And perhaps not coincidentally, the strip grew even darker in the later 1930s.

As Here argues in the introduction of the 7th volume of the Library of American Comics reprint series, Annie was always a gritty, street-smart tale, but Gray usually kept physical violence off-panel. Yet, as the strip approached its creative height in 1936-38, that violence started moving into frame. Heer argues that Gray likely was responding to world conflicts, a greater personal sense of mortality as well as competition from more action-oriented strips that dominated the 1930s. I think Gray may also just have been growing angrier and more resentful towards a culture from which he felt ever more alienated. Gray’s moral vision was always as as simple and plainspoken as his drawing style – venal villainy countered by saccharine sentimentality. But it is clear, Gray was getting darker and seeing the world in starker ways by 1936. In fact the lead-up to one of the most jarring bits of in-panel violence in Little Orphan Annie begins with a remarkable Sunday strip on Oct. 8, 1936 that maps the modern world as a perennial “jungle” of predators and good-hearted strivers. As Annie’s newfound friend and flower-seller Ginger, reflects, “But the rules are still jungle – the survival of the fightingest.”

In the coming weeks, Gray uses Ginger as his populist mouthpiece. Annie had always been a chatty strip to begin with, but in these months the moral bromides, punditry and snide asides crowded most panels. Gray clearly had a lot to get off of his chest…about the corruption of politicians and lawyers and their collusion with thugs…about the mixed motives of “uplifters”…about the productivity and generosity of earned wealth…the moral hazard of handouts and unearned wealth. Gray was not a simplistic or sentimental reactionary. He had relatively progressive racial views. And as he outlined through Ginger in these months, his sense of individualism was a principled rejection of the sociological generalizations he saw driving a lot of reformist uplift and welfare. His populist sociology rejects environment as determinative of behavior.

No one ever accused Harold Gray of subtlety. Annie was as much folk punditry as it was an adventure. But he was artful, albeit dogged, in creating opportunities for his avatars to voice another homily. A street fight triggers bromides on rising out of the “hard kindergarten” of the streets. Passersby making an offhanded comment on these city kids not getting a chance in life set up Ginger’s counter-argument about the dangers of unearned advantage. Meeting an old friend lets her reflect on the morality and generosity of earned wealth. And all of this in just three strips.

Gray’s wordiness can divert us from his considerable and evocative graphic skills. He visualizes his principles and arguments that are as clear and un-subtle as his ideology. The street scenes in the Oct. 26 strip above illustrate the teeming diversity, the danger, raw violence of the city as well as the individuality of the humanity he sees there. That third panel depicting the “rushing tide of life” expresses at once a suffocating crowdedness and individuation.

Gray’s visual voice was singular and somehow it succeeded in establishing his mixed view of humanity, society and the cosmos. His laudable human figures were usually solid, husky and well-planted. Annie herself has tree trunk legs that look and feel organically rooted in much the way his friend Chester Gould like to plant Dick Tracy in the frame. It is the visual embodiment of self-reliance and resilience. The infamous hollow eyes of Gray’s cast underscore how little he and many other daily cartoonists relied less on facial expression and more on words, composition and action in a frame to express feeling. Much like Frank King and Gasoline Alley, Annie visualized the plain spoken style of its creator.

While they were very different artists, to be sure, Gould, King and Gray had visual voices that helped define the worlds we were in for those three or four daily frames. That to me is one of the comic strips’ singular aesthetic qualities, to establish diverse and distinct fictional worlds through these signature styles. For Gray it took the shape of bulky, pillowy figures that lived in a 2D world of little forced perspective or even movement. Gray’s characteristic hatch work helped communicate a grimness to his worldview – the persistence of shadows. Arguably, he did not have the stylistic talent or range of many peers. King had a great sense of panel pacing and rhythm, a feel for place and landscapes, he used relentlessly. Gould leaned heavily on his penchant for muscular action, grotesque violence, forced perspective and those vast planes of inky blacks.

Gray flexed his style sparingly. But he was capable of great visual power. In the run up to the tragic violent death of flower lade Ginger, we get this gorgeous showcase of crosshatched planes, light-source, and cross-cut pace that feels like German Expressionist film.

The local gang of hoods target Ginger because she refuses to pay into their protection racket. Her graphic murder that comes days after the foreboding strip above is a rare instance of a Gray panel exploding in explicit violence.

It is probably best that Gray depicted violence so sparingly. He wasn’t very good at it. But this moment is of a piece with the months of the strip’s immersion in the modern city and its many musings on the modern “jungle.” And it embodied the emotional energy, perhaps even the anger and pessimism that seemed to drive what many comics historians regard as his creative peak in the storylines and characters in the last half of the 1930s.

Premiere Panel: Who’s That Stowaway?

October 2, 1955 saw the first Sunday entry for a strip that had been running all week from the Chicago Tribune syndicate. Written by Gus Edson, who also had taken over legendary strip The Gumps, and drawn by former comic book cover artist Irwin Haden, Dondi follows the adventures of of a refugee orphaned by WWII.

Notable Books on Comics, 2021…ish (Part 2)

What made me think harder or differently about the comics medium in the last year or so? That is my main criterion for these occasional roundups of books mainly on comic strips but also about early comics. Some of the titles here are filling in holes in our understanding about the history of the comics forms. Others are calling attention to artists or patterns in comics history that I think bear more thought. And many were just plain fun. Feel free to comment on the books you found most enlightening or entertaining about the comics history.

The Metaphysics (Huh?) of Alex Raymond’s Death

Dave Sim’s (with an assist by Carson Grubaugh) The Strange Death of Alex Raymond (Living the Line) is crazy like a fox. Sim’s ostensible exploration of the tragic death of the highly influential artist behind Flash Gordon and Rip Kirby uses a batshit conceit that some “metaphysics of comics” somehow connects everything from Margaret “Gone With the Wind” Mitchell, Milt Caniff’s quiet envy of Raymond, the wives and lovers of multiple comics artists of the 50s, a few B-movies, and whatever the hell else you can imagine to car crash that killed Raymond in 1956. It is also batshit brilliant. It gives Sim the frame in which to recall (and even redraw) a vast swathe of American pop culture and artists that drove the changing styles of 1950s comic strips. At its most lucid, the book delineates the different realisms of Hal Foster, Caniff and Raymond, the development of the photorealistic style, even the nuts ad bolts of brush and pen work. Along the way, forced me to contextualize and appreciate strips like Big Ben Bolt, Twin Earths, and the post-Raymond Kirby years. He brilliantly injects a whining Charlie Brown into the history as Schulz’s aesthetic counterforce to the short-lived photo-realist era of American comics. An he forces us to think harder about the rise and fall of different comics styles. As others like Jerry Robinson and Scott McCloud before Sim have shown, there is nothing like a fellow craftsman dissecting his colleague’s work to deepen a viewer’s appreciation of the artistry and decisions that go into those four panels on any given day. Whether you can track Sim’s idea of metaphysics connecting all of these shards and rabbit holes is beside the point. It sets him up for some deft and truly illuminating rumination on the aesthetics of comics in their historic context.

EC At Scale

I am almost embarrassed to admit how many of IDW’s massive and pricey Artist’s Editions I own. How does one justify parting with $150 for each, even though they reprint in full detail and at original scale the actual final art from some of the great craftsmen in the field? And yet I never regretted investing in Artist’s Editions of early MAD issues, Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and the EC stories of Graham Ingels. This way-oversized scale and hi-def color images of black and white line art and marginal proofing notes seem to put you on the other end of the artists’ pens and brushes. This is even more true of the EC Covers Artists Editiion (IDW), which organizes the cover art of the famed EC comics stable by artist: Johnny Craig, Graham Ingels, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis and more. The covers of course were meant to be expansive, immersive teases of issue content, and so we get a single image splashed across the 15X22 page. Every bit of detail feels more like a deliberate, conscious decision, forcing us to think harder about the artist’s process. This is not just another trophy for collectors (or hoarders). It is a valuable experience for anyone who wants to deepen their understanding of the art.

The Golden Age of Wolverton

Fans of the grotesque pointillism of Basil Wolverton have been treated in recent years by Greg Sadowski’s exhaustive two-volume biography and reprinting in Creeping Death from Neptune and Brain Bats of Venus (both Fantagraphics). While those two volumes focused more on Wolverton’s horror and sci-fi work, this year’s Scoop Scuttle and His Pals: The Crackpot Comics of Basil Wolverton (Fantagraphics) is a retrospective of the artist at his madcap best. Ironically, many of these screwball and slapstick series were the fruits of failure. Wolverton conceived of Scoop Scuttle, Bingeing Buster and Jumpin’ Jupiter as daily comics and repurposed them for the skyrocketing (and imaginatively less constrained) comic book industry of the late 1940s and early 50s. In each case, however, Wolverton was satirizing many of the serious genres that dominated pulp magazines, B-movies, radio and comic books themselves. Wolverton clearly is channeling the screwball tradition of Milt Gross, Rube Goldberg and Bill Holman. The zany physical antics propel the action, the wisecracking asides and slang fill most panels and the cultural stereotypes rain in hot and heavy. The foreshadowing of MAD magazine’s satirical approach is unmistakeable. This volume also has excellent annotations adding context to each reprint as well as an outrageous article by Wolverton himself on sound effects in the comics. This one is a treat.

But Is It Art?: Comic Art in Museums

How “seriously” should thoughtful critics and audiences take the comic arts? That question seems to have dogged the cartoon arts since its earliest decades when pioneering pop culturists like Gilbert Seldes wrote extravagant defenses of the new medium. I confess that at this point in my five-decade run writing about mass media of all sorts, I find the relentless defensive justifications of pop culture criticism tiresome. And yet, that story of begrudging acceptance of the popular arts as “art” is its own important subject. One entryway to comic strip history is how the form has been regarded critically over the generations. Kim A. Munson’s Comic Art in Museums (University Press of Mississippi) is not as narrowly focused as its title suggests. While Muson provides a chronological framework and extensive introductory and connective matter, the book is really an anthology of writings by everyone from M.C. Gaines in 1942 to Denis Kitchen, Brian Walker, as well as multiple academics reflecting on the evolving reputation of the medium. I am still making my way through the densely packed book, but can already recommend it as a trove of insight and historical anecdote.

Johnny Hazard Sundays: Caniff Lite

All due respect to Johnny Hazard fans, it is hard to recommend Frank Robbins’ 33-year run as more than competent, middle-list comic strip fare. All of the luminaries also working at its height, Raymond, Caniff, Drake are considerably more interesting in their basic artistry, composition, storytelling. That said, this first oversized volume of Johnny Hazard Sundays does make the case for Robbins’s talents, even though his more mature work of the 1950s was obviously better. He had a strong sense of characterization, especially through facial expression. The moody use of coloring comes through even though some of the copies restored here were mediocre newsprint. And honestly I would have liked more background on Robbins and the thinking behind the strip rather than the intro pieces on his later DC Comics art. Still, Johnny Hazard Sundays Archive 1944-1946 (Hermes Press) gives us a 12X17 supersized reproduction of the Sunday adventure comics experience that is always welcome.

Kurtzman’s Wry Eye

Fantagraphics’ EC Library comes at the often-reprinted EC Comics of the early 1950s in black and white volumes organized by artist. Al the previous volumes have applied a lens onto the evolution of Wally Wood, John Severin, Johnny Craig, Al Feldstein, et. al. But this Man and Superman and Other Stories featuring Harvey Kurtzman before he took over the war titles and pioneered MAD really stands out for increasing our appreciation of this seminal comics artist. Kurtzman is among a handful of comics artists who were not just seminal within the medium but also to the general culture. The pop culture satire he codified in MAD magazine in the early 1950s applied a lens to post-WWII American mass culture that shaped generations of artists and even activists. This volume includes his earliest work for EC’s sci-fi, crime and horror stories. And they all show Kurtzman’s parodic attitude towards each of those genres. Tales like “Man and Superman,” “The Time Machine and the Schmoe!” and “Television Terror” took a light-hearted, even satirical take on the sci-fi and horror staples that drove the rest of the pages of these books. Most of these stories are written by the artist and so less wordy than over scripted tales the Feldstein foisted on most of the EC stable. These embody Kurtzman’s growing understanding of the relationship between word and text in the medium. He loves for high-minded science to go comically awry, along with the petty ambitions of everyman. The wry view of human foibles and hubris, which would inform the morality of his war stories and the satire of MAD, are all being rehearsed in these stories. Already sharp is Kurtzman’s mastery of of the comic form. He thought in panel progressions and the arc of a full page in ways far ahead of most artists. His compositions, use of foreground and background, the sense of motion as the eye moves across the panels, all are as fresh today as they were more than a half century ago.

Chester Gould Takes a Bow

A number of ongoing reprint series had notable additions in the last year or so that call attention to the great work some publishers have been doing to keep the history of comic arts alive. In 2006 the Library of American Comics started an ambitious project to reprint Chester Gould’s full 1931-1977 run of Dick Tracy. With Volume 29 of The Complete Dick Tracy, LOAC finished one of the largest, complete comic strip reprint project, second only perhaps to Fantagraphics’ Peanuts project. I already reflected on Gould’s run and the way he ended the strip. The final volume speaks to what a canny master of comic strip art and business Gould really was. As newspapers shrank the canvas, he adjusted and rethought his signature style accordingly. And while the later years of the strip are remarkably different in look and feel than its first decade, the wild imagination, bizarre villainy, wonderfully improbable chases and escape remained central to a Dick Tracy story arc.

Favorite Books on Comics, 2021…ish (Part 1)

Many have said before me that we are enjoying the golden era of comics reprints.
Perhaps. My default position is from a broader historical perspective, and myself having gathered many volumes since the early 1970s. As I look over the shelves here at decades of accumulation in the Panels and Prose library, it seems to me we are in the latest surge of publishing activity that goes back at least five decades. I still have some of the early retrospectives of Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, EC Comics, Pogo, Bill Mauldin, Winsor McCay, Happy Hooligan, Flash Gordon and more going back many decades. In my recollection, the underground comic artists of the late 1960s helped spark more serious consideration of comic strip history, leading to many of the 70s and 80s reprints. And, of course, we can’t overstate the importance of Bill Blackbeard’s personal effort to rescue that history and kindle so much interest in his landmark 1977 Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Publishers like Hyperion, Bonanza, NBM, Nostalgia Press, Blackthorne, Pacific and others pioneered the extensive reprinting of comics greats.

But we are enjoying an embarrassment of riches from the likes of IDW/Library of American Comics, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Hermes and Titan, to name just some. It is hard to keep up, and I can’t pretend being able to track, let alone, afford all that is available in the market. The curation policy here at P&P Library is to collect more in breadth than depth. I try to collect enough samples across the many comics eras and genres so that as a cultural critic I can write responsibly about select artists and capture wider trends. But every year I try to highlight the books that I feel added most to my understanding of the comics field and industry. Here are my picks for the last year…or so.

Rebirth of The English Comic Strip

Arguably the most substantial historical contribution of the last year is David Kunzle’s majestic Rebirth of the English Comic Strip: A Kaleidoscope, 1847-1870 (University Press of Mississippi). He unearths some of the great and under appreciated cartoonists of the UK humor magazines during that genre’s heyday in the mid-Nineteenth Century. In some ways an historical follow-up to his book on the previous age’s great caricaturist Rodolphe Topffer, the University of California art history scholar argues that this mid-century period represented a rebirth and establishment of the modern cartoon arts in the pages of Punch and elsewhere. He gives us both the rich context of British humor magazines in the era and their emerging lower-middle-class readers. He then does closer readings of about a half dozen exemplars like George Cruikshank, John Tenniel, John Leech and Richard Doyle (above). Kunzle’s writing is uneven. His penchant for long sentences, commas, clauses and asides, can be trying. His knowledge of the field and this historical context of the rise of comic strips is boundless, however. But best of all, this exceptionally produced tome bulges with extensive reprints. The paper and print quality are up to the task of rendering the era’s finely engraved line work in sharp relief. Kunzel’s is the indispensible comic history book of the past year.

About Time: Rediscovering Black Cartoonists

An invaluable trio of books this year started to address a woeful blind spot in American comics history, the contributions of Black artists to the growth of the field. Ken Quattro’s Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books (Yoe Books), Dan Nadel’s It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980 (New York Review Comics) and Rebecca Wanzo’s The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (NYU Press) each fill in different aspects of this ignored history. I covered Quattro’s book in my previous roundup. He focuses on unrecognized comic book artists, but a number of his cast, like Jay (Bungleton Green) Jackson and Adolphe (Sally the Sleuth) Barreax had their roots in Black newspapers and the pulp magazines.

Wanzo’s is an academic exploration of the uses of Black caricature going back to slave depictions through superheroes. She pulls apart in detail the ways in which visual tropes emerged for Black men, women, children and families that served to marginalize them politically and socially in both subtle and grotesquely obvious ways. She spends much of her time focusing on Black artists and the ways some appropriated and perpetuated these visual themes, while others took creative control of them. The book is especially effective at thinking differently about the topic of stereotype and seeing it as both a bludgeon and a tool.

For comic strip reprint fans, however, Nadel’s collection is the must-get in this welcome trio. He gives us some of the biggest tranches of work from the great Black newspapers and magazines ever reprinted. Jackson’s wildly provocative time travel episode of Bungleton Green is mind boggling. The Jackie Ormes episodes of Patt-Jo ‘n’ Ginger really underscore her wit. And the reprinted selections from Tom Floyd’s 1969 workplace send up of white notions of “integration” (“Integration Is a Bitch!” above) really drive home how much of American cultural history we missed by overlooking this history for so long. My hope is that this is just a start. Nancy Goldstein’s bio of Jackie Ormes is now out in paperback and has a generous selection from the First Lady of Black cartoonists. But I would love to see a retrospective of Bungleton Green sometime soon.

Trots and Bonnie/The Appletons

In my formative years of comics appreciation (early 1970s) National Lampoon’s comics section was nothing less than a revelation. Gahan Wilson’s Nuts, Vaughn Bode’s Cheech Wizard, Bobby London’s Dirty Duck, B. K. Taylor’s The Appletons, and anything by Rick Geary, Stan Mack and Charles Rodrigues truly blew this kid’s mind wide open to the possibilities of the form. But no one jangled my adolescent male sensibilities as much as Shary Flenniken’s truly pioneering Trots and Bonnie. The adolescent innocent Bonnie, her wry and ironic pup Trots and totally liberated friend Pepsi decimated my suburban 70s notion of feminine propriety, in the best ways. Flenniken’s candor about the female body, resentment of the patriarchy, and dark, dark sense of humor put nothing off limits. And her fine, controlled line work, thoughtful panel compositions only amplified the satire through contrast. A scathing humorous sensibility had the look and feel of children’s book illustrations and it is finally collected with the size and precision it deserves in New York Review Comics’ Trots and Bonnie. B.K. Taylor’s Appletons and Timberland Tales followed a similar rule of contrasts. He cloaked his descent into the perverse, murderous, incestuous vision of American family in cartoony stylings of apple-cheeked, smiley happy characters. Think Mark Trail meets… . Well, hell, I am not sure I can come up with an analogue for Taylor’s ink black perversity. Buckle up, because this year’s I Think He’s Crazy: The Comics of B.K. Taylor (Fantagraphics) is a twisted ride.

Popeye…Again

Like Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy and Li’l Abner, E.C. Segar’s Popeye/Thimble Theatre has long been recognized among the pantheon, and so it has been reprinted several times over the last decades. A decade ago, Fantagraphics finished a six volume compendium of all Popeye-era dailies and Sundays in oversized formats with generous supporting material. With Popeye Volume 1: Olive Oyl and Her Sweety (Fantagraphics) the publisher shrinks the format, scope and price into a manageable paperback of just the Sundays. It has an imaginative slipcase design with cutout. But most of all it makes those wonderful color weeklies more accessible. Segar maintained a separate storyline in the Sundays, which usually used larger panels and more action. In this first volume we get both the early romance between Popeye and Olive as well as an extended story about Popeye’s short boxing career. Whether with words, schemes or fists, Segar had a pugilistic vision of human relations that comes through no matter the scenario. For those who already have the last reprinting, this series is unnecessary. But it is well worth the affordable price to anyone else.