« It took me some years to clear my head of what Paris wanted me to admire about it, and to notice what I preferred instead. Not power-ridden monuments, but individual buildings which tell a quieter story: the artist’s studio, or the Belle Époque house built by a forgotten financier for a just-remembered courtesan. » — Julian Barnes
Depending on where and when you are, this post will take you far away and to long ago.
For instance, during the storied humour magazine Le Rire’s prime years (roughly the first quarter of the 20th century), Gerbault was featured in most issues, often on the front or back cover, and generally in sumptuous colour. Well, you’ll see what I mean. Clearly not one to rest on his laurels, he somehow found time to lend his sundry gifts to the theatrical, advertising, etching, and fine art fields.
Greetings, tentacle aficionados! Phew, this post started out as just a couple of images and spun somewhat out of control. My thanks to co-admin RG for cleaning up, re-arranging and even colourizing the following scans and photographs. Today we gaze at cephalopod apparitions in newspapers strips from the 40s and 50s. There are actually few things I like better: there is something comforting about the smell of an old newspaper (even if we have to imagine it!), the aesthetic appeal of yellowed paper, the concerns of imaginary characters who lived so long ago and yet who seem so close to us. Irrelevant to the modern age? Not at all. Look past the technological trimmings and you’ll find people who have lived and loved and struggled much like we do today. On a lighter note, the techniques of fighting off tentacles haven’t changed much, either!
Flash Gordon, created in 1934 by Alex Raymond for King Features Syndicate to compete with the Buck Rogers newspaper strip, was immensely popular, witnessed by both its longevity – the strip continued all the way into 2003 – and multiple licensed products on offer for starry-eyed kids who wanted a spaceship or ray gun to call their own. Raymond left in 1944 to join the US Marines, and Austin Briggs, who up to that point was drawing the Flash Gordon dailies (introduced in 1941 to capitalize on the popularity of Raymond’s Sunday strips), switched to drawing Sundays, the dailies now cancelled. The following is from August 18th, 1946, art by Austin Briggs.
In 1951, King Features reinstated the Flash Gordon dailies and put Dan Barry in charge, famously assisted by Harvey Kurtzman and Harry Harrison on scripts, and a bevy of ghost-drawing writers.
The following are two Flash Gordon dailies from 1954. These reprints hail from Flash Gordon: Dan Barry Vol. 2: The Lost Continent, which collects dailies from October 26th 1953 to October 29th 1955.
Frank Robbins created Johnny Hazard for King Features Syndicate in 1944. What I find impressive is that the strip continued, with no other writers or artists involved, all the way until 1977 – contrast that with other newspaper adventure strips from around that time. Robbins must have been a powerhouse. To quote from the no-longer-updated (its creator, Donald Markstein, died in 2012), but still kindly maintained by relatives Toonopedia, « … Unlike many fictional two-fisted adventurers, [Johnny Hazard] matured — not as quickly as real people, but after a third of a century or so, he was quite gray at the temples. And a third of a century was as long as the strip ran. It was popular enough at first, and ran far longer than most post-war adventure strips, but the times were against it. Newspaper editors were more interested in daily gags than continuous stories, and Johnny Hazard succumbed to the trend in 1977. Robbins went to work for DC Comics, where he drew Batman, and Marvel, where he drew The Invaders, and never again created his own feature. » Eventually, Robbins is said to have retired, moved to Mexico, and devoted himself to painting – where he remained his death in 1994. This daily is from July 1951.
Prince Valiant is one of those newspaper strips institutions that most readers will have heard of, though some, kind of like me, may be uncertain about about the who, the when, and the hows of it. It was created by Canadian Hal Foster (1892-1982) – who, while illustrating the Tarzan newspaper strip (more about this a little further down!), developed a craving to work on his own oeuvre. He pitched his medieval adventure idea to William Randolph Hearst, who was so impressed that he even gave Foster ownership of the strip. It’s still ongoing (after a little more than 4000 Sundays!) This magnum opus has been credited with plenty, as the « greatest contribution to English literature in the past hundred years », « the pinnacle of comic strip adventure storytelling », and so on. I feel a little bad for being bored to tears by it, but as the Russians say, ‘и на старуху бывает проруха‘, more-or-less directly translated ‘even a crone can blunder’, or in other words, even Homer nods. The following Sundays are from April-May 1941 – spending two nights in a well, instead of trying to fight off the octopus, is an interesting approach, and I’m sure both man and animal were immensely frustrated.
I promised to say more about Tarzan – ah, the very, very long-running Tarzan strip. Started in 1929 with an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Tarzan of the Apes illustrated by the aforementioned Hal Foster, syndicated by the United Feature Syndicate, it went on (and on…) all the way until 1995, with quite the cast of different artists over the years. The following Sunday is from the Burne Hogarth years, and is part of a story cycle called Tarzan and N’ani, which was published between December 14th 1947 and May 9, 1948. As for Hogarth, he seemed to hold the distinction of being the only artist with two runs on Tarzan: he drew the strip from 1937 to 1945, and again from 1947 to 1950.
The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack, distributed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, ran from 1933 to 1973. I know that doesn’t sound as impressive because all strips discussed so far had crazily long runs, and yet: Smilin’ Jack, as it came to be called a little later on, lasted a good fifty years, which is partially explained by this strip’s motley cast of endearing supporting characters, but also by the realism with which Jack’s flying adventures were depicted – Zack Mosley, the creator, was an aviation enthusiast and licensed pilot with a true love of everything aeroplane. The following three dailies are from November 1956. You’ll be happy to learn that Mosley, upon retiring at 67, spent the rest of his days flying his own plane.
Created by George Shedd, a former Al Capp assistant, for the Post-Hall Syndicate, Marlin Keel ran between 1953 and 1954. Very little information about it survives – from what I understood, Shedd first wrote and drew this newspaper strip by himself, and later relinquished the illustration to assistants. Most notable (and what seems to be motivating rare collectors) is the involvement of Alvin Carl Hollingsworth (1928-2000), one of the few African-Americans working in the field at the time, who started by helping out (not sure to what degree) and became the official illustrator of Markin Keel towards the end of its run. Hollingsworth, who’s often mentioned as Joe Kubert‘s classmate at NYC’s High School of Music & Art – a fact that, albeit cool, underplays Hollingsworth’s talent and career – seems to have always maintained an interest in painting. Later in life, in the 1970s, he abandoned the comics field in favour of becoming a (fine) painter – you can see some of his paintings here. This is the original art for a 1954 Sunday strip.
The octopus may be off-camera, but my appreciation of Bob Montana made me include this strip in today’s roster. That’s right, it’s not my fault! This is an Archie daily from July 24th, 1953.
I hope you enjoyed this walk down history’s lanes and byways!
« The world dies over and over again, but the skeleton always gets up and walks. » — Henry Miller
A few months back, while assembling a post about polymorphic French surrealist Maurice Henry (1907-1984), I marvelled and chuckled at his multitude of skeleton-themed cartoons. I made a mental note to devote a Hallowe’en post to them… and that memo only floated to the top of my consciousness a couple of days ago. Just in time!
Trust me, I’m only scratching the surface of this man’s genius. If you’ll bear with me, we’re not done with him.
« I have stuck to my simple art style while the smart illustrative men were snapping in their shadows all around me, because I believe that my story is more clearly told with a minimum of picture distraction. » — the wise, but absurdly humble Frank King (1959)
Gasoline Alley (1918-) is the second longest-running comic strip of them all. The Katzenjammer Kids (1897-2006) still tenuously clings to first place, but Gasoline Alley, boasting the advantage of still being around, should overtake it by 2027. Of course, that’s all academic and fairly irrelevant to us, because the strip’s originator, Frank Oscar King (1883-1969), is no longer guiding its destiny.
The collective memory being woefully short, if Gasoline Alley is likely to be remembered, it will be for its central innovation: characters age in real time, growing up and old and passing away, its cast and its world ever changing and evolving, in a small-town America sort of fashion. However, the strip’s original star, Walt Wallet, is still around, well into his second century.
Today, we’re digging deep, returning to those long-ago dinosaur days when newspapers were gigantic and so were the comic strips they featured, particularly on Sundays. And the Sunday Gasoline Alley was indeed something special.
I couldn’t possibly put it better than Chris Ware did in 2000, in tribute to King:
Reserving his five daily strips for more complicated storylines, King’s full-color Sunday pages often presented Walt and Skeezix simply wandering the countryside of America, idly remarking about natural landmarks, the quality of the sky, or the colors of the seasons.
Frequently, these pages were richly-textured experiments in form and style, often having no joke or ‘punchline’ at all, only a quiet, sustained tone of serenity and gentleness.
And you know, since these are so gorgeous and just as seasonal, let’s be indulgent, broaden our scope the tiniest bit and take in some of King’s paeans to sweetest Autumn.
Incidentally, a lovely collection (designed by Mr. Ware!) of King’s finest Gasoline Alley Sundays from the strip’s first fifteen years was published a couple of decades ago: Sundays with Walt and Skeezix (2000, Sunday Press)… and, wonder of wonders, it’s still available from the publisher.
«I think it’s safe to surmise that Mr. Church viewed his comics as his own private passion, and wanted to share them with no one. Is it any wonder that his heirs didn’t show any fondness for them? » — Charles ‘Chuck’ Rozanski
Let’s give a little love and a spooky cheer to the greatest comics collector of them all, Coloradoan Edgar Church (1888 – 1978), who also happened to be a pretty terrific illustrator. When he passed away, it turned out that his collection comprised a whopping 18 to 22 thousand comics books, mostly in the high grades. Ouch.
Henry was a French painter, poet, filmmaker, as well as a cartoonist. Between 1930 until his death, he published over 25,000 cartoons in 150 newspapers and a dozen books. His cartoons were generally surrealistic and satirical.
In 1926, he co-founded the magazine Le Grand Jeu with René Daumal, Roger Gilbert-Lecomte and Roger Vaillard, with whom he formed the “Phrères simplistes” collective. Henry provided poems, texts and drawings, while also making his debut as a journalist in Le Petit Journal.
He left Le Grand Jeu in 1933 to join André Breton’s group of Surrealists and their magazine Surréalisme au service de la Révolution. He also worked with the artist and photographer Artür Harfaux on the screenplay of twenty films, including ones starring the comic characters ‘Les Pieds Nickelés’ and ‘Bibi Fricotin’. Maurice Henry spent the final years of his life making paintings, sculptures and collages. He passed away in Milan, Lombardy, in 1984.
The answer? My default solution, which is to focus on some small parcel of the much greater whole. A number of Henry’s works bear revisiting (for instance, Les métamorphoses du vide , a truly groundbreaking picture book about the world of dreams; À bout portant , a collection of literary portraits; or Les 32 positions de l’androgyne [1961, also issued in the US in 1963], a chapbook of… gender recombinations) and deserve a turn in the spotlight.
To quote co-anthologists Jacques Sternberg and/or Michael Caen in their indispensable Les chefs-d’oeuvre du dessin d’humour (1968, Éditions Planète, Louis Pauwels, director):
Surrealism — he was part of the group before 1930 — left its mark on him and it’s because he was already well-cultured as he launched his career that he was among the first, in the desert that was the publishing world of the 1930s, to attempt unusual drawings calling upon often startling ingredients, such as poetry, black humour, the fantastic and the absurd. He caused no less of a surprise by doing away with captions, at a time when bawdy jabbering was the fashion all over. In short, Maurice Henry was indisputably a pioneer of that grey and stinging brand of humour that would explode like an H-bomb some fifteen years later.
«... it was invariably his work that was given pride of place. His was emulated and imitated. By the end of the 1930s, he was the most respected and sought-after artist working for comics…»
And now guess who these lines were written about. My title was a dead giveaway, I admit! But if you’ve heard of Roy Wilson, you are, as it turns out, distinctly in the minority. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page (surely that is a sign of success and fame in the modern world) in English, and a quick search for his name yields a lot of unrelated nonsense. But just add the word “comics” to your Google quest, and we’re in business!
Royston Warner Wilson was born in Northamptonshire, England just at the turn of the century, in 1900. He died young, at 65, but those years were enough for him to leave more than a lifetime’s worth of cartoons, humorous drawings and comic strips. For someone who has been widely credited as the most influential artist of British humour comics in what roughly corresponds to the Golden Age, which is to say the 1930s to the 1950s, his relative obscurity is downright criminal. While not particularly well-remembered by the world at large (even by the British public, it seems), at least he is beloved by legions of fans who were children during these decades and were irrevocably, and delightfully, marked by the antics of his characters.
In the 1930s, he was the leading artist for Amalgamated Press, which unleashed a variety of humour/comic titles, mostly weeklies, upon a delighted audience of pre- and post- pubescent children. Oh, a lot of these publications were around before he stepped in – but he revitalized them. As for the publisher, it had a long history with comics: as a matter of fact, it entered that particular market in 1890 with something called Illustrated Chips.
Because Roy Wilson was so talented and prolific and his artwork so lively, his style quickly became the house style and remained so for decades, which is why Wilson can be easily credited with having created what we can roughly call the “British humour style”, easily recognizable to this day.
He not only created and drew (and, often, redrew: like some super prolific artists who seem to have too many ideas to put down on paper, he was a perfectionist) the stories, he also lettered them himself. He had a great eye for colour, too! Which leads me to my next point – I’ve often seen him referred to as the « British Walt Kelly », but I’m not entirely on board with that comparison. Oh, there’s similarities – for instance, their common love of playful language and the ease with which both depict frisky, charismatic animals – but I think this monicker does both of them a grave disservice. Let’s appreciate artists on their own merit, shall we?
Only one Wilson monograph appears to have seen print: The Comic Art of Roy Wilson (1983), and it’s quite scarce nowadays. I recently purchased a copy. All images in this post have been scanned from it, courtesy of co-admin RG.
The reason for the re-occurring octopus, as you may be wondering – other than it being clearly fun to draw – is that he was a character in the stories of Pitch and Toss, published in Funny Wonder. To wit, Pitch and Toss Put On a Good Show and Show How to Make Good Money!:
The above was the first appearance of Occy the Octopussie, who became a mainstay of the strip. Here are two (rejected) panels from another chapter in the saga of Pitch and Toss, this time for Pitch and Toss and Their Pets Get a Sub and Spend a Happy Whitsun, from March 30th, 1942.
« Roy Wilson’s art is still very much alive and, even in the comics of today, his influence can be seen. Britain’s foremost comic artist created a host of cheery and boundlessly zestful characters who still exist in the minds of the millions they entertained His art will not be forgotten. » (quote by Alan Clark and David Ashford from The Comic Art of Roy Wilson)
« Local people told me that at minus 60 and below, a dense fog settles in the streets, and pedestrians leave recognizable outlines bored into the mist behind them. A drunkard’s tunnel will meander and then end abruptly over a prone body. At minus 72, the vapor in your breath freezes instantly and makes a tinkling sound called ‘the whisper of angels.’ »
Then I thought: « all very nice, but that makes for a rather meagre post »… so I decided to toss in a few bonus images featuring that venerable recurring motif… and got carried away.
Oh, and since I wouldn’t want any of you superhero aficionados to think I’m freezing you out, here’s another demonstration of Mr. Infantino‘s “encased in ice” idée fixe.
… and I can just about hear the « but what about Cap? » troops tromping down the hall, so…
My co-admin ds was just telling me yesterday about a client who, upon remarking to a succession of winter-kvetchers that actually, we’d had a pretty mild January, was invariably met with goggling bafflement, as if he’d just then grown a second head. In related news, it was just announced that said month of January was, indeed, the planet’s warmest on record. There is, naturally, an xkcd strip about this sort of circular denialism.
« And they sure seem to understand each other! Listen to them jabber away! » « Oh, come on — you know that’s only baby-talk! It doesn’t mean anything! »
If you were to ask me (make that *us*; we’re unanimous on that point) what was the most consistently excellent American comics series of the Silver Age, the response would be Sheldon Mayer’s Sugar and Spike. « Say what? », I expect most of you will say. Look at it this way: S&S ran for 98 issues from 1956 to 1971, the entire series crafted by a single creator-writer-artist, whose commitment and level of quality never flagged. Unlike, say, Fantastic Four (the most likely pick, I expect), it didn’t take several issues to find its legs, it didn’t suffer from mediocre to dreadful inkers for half of its run, nor, well, the glory-hogging participation of Stan Lee. At Marvel, I’d be more inclined to propose Steve Ditko‘s (and dialoguists Stan Lee, Don Rico, Roy Thomas and Dennis O’Neil’s) run on Doctor Strange (1963-66)… but we again run into the snag of the directionless twaddle that followed Ditko’s departure. In terms of superheroes, my vote would go to Arnold Drake, Bob Haney and Bruno Premiani‘s Doom Patrol (1963-68). Yet my overall number two would have to be Carl Barks‘ Uncle Scrooge* (1952-66). There as well, lesser hands took over once Barks stepped away. It’s an industry, after all.
Speaking of lesser hands, « The Sugar and Spike tales flowed exclusively from Mayer, who had a contract stating no other artist or writer could produce stories featuring his toddler characters. That’s a rare sort of deal to cut (then or now) for a property that the publisher owns outright, but Sheldon Mayer had more than earned his place at DC as a prolific writer, artist and editor for many years. » Of course, that covenant was pointlessly broken by DC after Mayer’s passing. Shame on you, Keith Giffen. Mayer had also asked that his wonderful 1970s creation, The Black Orchid, never be given an origin or have her mystery dispelled. But of course, in 1988, that trust was pointlessly broken by DC. Shame on you, Neil Gaiman (« Well, Alan made the Swamp Thing a vegetable, I’ll make the Black Orchid a plant… he’ll be so proud of me! »)
It’s no exaggeration to claim that Sheldon Mayer (1917-1991) was one of the essential architects of the US comics industry. Without him, DC would have passed on Superman, and without the Man of Steel, it’s a cinch our culture would be in a vastly different state, pour le meilleur et pour le pire. But that’s just one of his many contributions, direct and indirect. Much praise has been heaped on Mr. Mayer, justifiably so. His work is inspired, lively, absolutely hilarious, and life-affirming. He truly was a versatile giant. Check out Ron Goulart’s recollections of his friendship with Mr. Mayer, for instance.
In what I imagine to be another benefit of Carmine Infantino‘s editorial ascent, Mayer’s work took a wild turn with issue 72 of S&S. A fine new character, Bernie the Brain, was introduced, Mayer’s layouts suddenly adopted extreme and distorted perspectives and his inking grew more florid and detailed. Honestly, Mayer’s work at that point was the closest DC ever came in style to that of Underground Comix. These changes gradually ebbed, and by issue 90, things were more-or-less back to the old standard. The cause? failing eyesight (cataracts, to be exact), which led to the book’s cancellation, rather than the more banal dropping sales. Don’t worry, Mayer underwent successful eye surgery and intermittently returned to the drawing board. But he mostly wrote… beautifully. We’ll return to that soon.
Here are a few examples (show, don’t tell!) of the wild ‘n’ wooly Sugar & Spike:
Unfortunately, Sugar and Spike falls in that select category of comics series that aren’t popular enough to be fully reprinted (DC issued one volume in its Archive Editions series, usefully reprinting S&S nos. 1 to 10) and too popular to be truly affordable (Angel and the Ape is another). In addition, since the series sold well, but to a broader audience than the traditional fanboy collector set, the books are mighty hard to come by in decent condition, not to mention *complete*. The reason? Paper dolls. They enjoyed, for quite some time, great popularity. Sugar and Spike’s regular Pint-Size Pin-Ups frequently ran on the back of story pages (often the conclusion!), so their absence is a real collector’s bugaboo. Besides, they were quite charming, so why do without them?
Newspaper strip Peter Piltdown was created by Mal Eaton (1902-1974) and debuted as a Sunday page on August 4th, 1935. Featuring a mischievous boy getting into trouble in some sort of prehistoric world (with a lot of indispensable modern conveniences – like earmuffs!), the strip seems to have lasted for quite a while, until the late 1960s. The reason I say “seems” is because not much is known about Eaton *or* the strip. With some difficulty I managed to find out that Malcolm Eaton was based in New York.
It doesn’t help that the strip changed titles several times. Starting out as Peter Piltdown, syndicated by Miller Services (a small Canadian newspaper syndicate that has since then been renamed into Canadian Artists Syndicate), it appeared as Pookie (Peter’s younger brother, whose antics had taken over the strip) in 1947 and 1948, and then migrated to the pages of Boys’ Life magazine as Rocky Stoneaxe.
Some comics are buried by the collective memory through sheer bad luck, some are rightly forgotten because they weren’t that good. It’s always exciting to unearth something obscure, but one has to ask if this excitement is justified, or whether whatever artifact of the past one has dug up is thrilling only because of a “I know what you don’t!” kind of show-off-manship. I do think Peter Piltdown is genuinely good. The art is manic – and dynamic – in a way that’s spontaneous and appealing. Eaton clearly liked to draw animals; they’re often a big part of the punch line, and they’re drawn lovingly, with great attention to detail and body language. Anyway, you be the judge!
From the small sample that’s findable online, I’d say that the period around the 1940s is the best; the art gets simpler later on. Here’s a selection of strips that I’ve succeeded in finding (and cleaned up somewhat) – they are in chronological order starting from 1943 and going up to 1959. Most of these are original art: three images are from the collection of gallery owner Rob Stolzer (the first two, as well as the Sunday strip in colour); the rest have been found on Heritage Auctions. The last three are scans from a newspaper.