With the Magic Words, ‘Hey Look!’

« Hey, Look! is essential reading for any cartoonist. » — the late and much-missed Patrick Dean, who truly knew what he was talking about.

Sometimes I think of a post topic and dismiss it with a ‘nah, too obvious’… but on some of my brighter days, I run the idea past my wife, who provides a welcome reality check: ‘Obvious to whom?‘, she asks. Well, there’s been a collected edition… which has been out of print for most of the nearly thirty years since it hit the stands. Fair enough.

As I’ve been lately foraging through the crumbling back pages of Golden Age humour comics (see my previous post), it would be negligently immoral for me to pass over one of the crown jewels of the genre, the era and the medium.

One* of the redeeming features of Marvel’s overwhelmingly crass Dynamite (magazine) rip-off, Pizzazz, was its reprinting of a handful of Harvey Kurtzman‘s majestic Hey Look! strips. Of course, it made perfect economic sense: grab some already (and barely)-paid-for, all-but-forgotten ‘filler’ from the 1940s, slap some new colour on ‘em, and wham! One less egg to fry.

Here’s the collection in question. Published in 1992 by the venerable Kitchen Sink Press, it has yet to be improved upon. In addition to all the Hey Look! strips, it includes an unsurprisingly excellent introduction by the erudite John Benson, and further sweetens the pot with Kurtzman’s other Timely features of the era, namely Genius, Egghead Doodle and Potshot Pete. The latter is particularly worth a look-see.
The earliest Hey Look! strips are cute and of some historical significance, but rather scattershot and tentative. Here’s roughly where Kurtzman starts to really, and consistently, cook. Originally published in Gay Comics no. 33 (Aug. 1948, Timely).
« Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. » — Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, circa 1848. Clearly, listening to the news has never brought much comfort to one’s mind and soul. Originally published in Gay Comics no. 34 (Oct. 1948, Timely).
Mr. Kurtzman was ahead of the game, anticipating the superhero genre’s dark turn of the mid-80s and beyond, and pointing out its inherent fascism. Already a bit too close too home at the time of its creation, this piece languished in limbo until its publication in 1966 in a limited-edition portfolio.
Originally published in Nellie the Nurse no. 16 (Dec. 1948, Timely).
Originally published in Hedy Divine no. 30 (Dec. 1948, Timely).
Originally published in Joker no. 35 (Jan. 1949, Timely).
Originally published in Millie no. 16 (Feb. 1949, Timely). Always experimenting: dig here Kurtzman’s elegant use of the scratchboard technique.
Originally published in Nellie the Nurse no. 19 (Apr. 1949, Timely). With the miniaturisation of electronics, and cameras in particular, there’s (of course) been an opposing movement toward huge telephoto lenses. Read into it what you will.
I was, and remain, especially fond of this one, originally published in Gay Comics no. 37 (Apr., 1949) and reprinted in Pizzazz 15 (Dec. 1978)… the one with the Battlestar Galactica cover. ‘Cabazziz’ is made up, but Podunk has roots.
Originally published in Patsy Walker no. 22 (May 1949, Timely). Incidentally, generic ‘teen’ humour character Patsy Walker has since (circa 1976) been refashioned and recycled, in the tried-and-true ‘waste not, want not’ Marvel manner, into a superheroine, Hellcat. Sheesh.

-RG

*one other was Jon Buller‘s riotously surreal Bob the Blob in The Great American Comic Strip Catastrophe.

Edgar Allan Poe: Immortality Is but Ubiquity in Time*

« Be silent in that solitude
    which is not loneliness — for then
the spirits of the dead who stood
    in life before thee are again
in death around thee — and their will
shall then overshadow thee: be still. »
— Edgar Allan Poe (1829)

It was on this day, two hundred and ten years ago, that the great writer, poet and posthumous master of all media Edgar Poe (Jan. 19, 1809 – Oct. 7, 1849) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. I’ll spare you the usual biographical details, widely available elsewhere, and we’ll concentrate on his unflagging ubiquity in the medium of comics.

Poe’s literary reputation was in tatters in America, thanks to a rash of hatchet jobs and dismissals, some of the most vicious from the pen of one Rufus Griswold, the very worm he’d named his literary executor (!), as well as such notables as Ralph Waldo Emerson and T.S. Eliot… while his renown was undimmed in Europe, particularly in France (in no small part owing to Charles Beaudelaire’s legendary translations), rehabilitation at home slowly came as the 20th century crept along, but it was likely the publication of Arthur Hobson Quinn’s definitive Poe biography, in 1941, that sealed the deal and opened the floodgates.

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Top two tiers from page 2 of The Spirit‘s August 22, 1948 episode. Layout by Will Eisner, pencils and inks by Jerry Grandenetti. As Dave Schreiner puts it: « Grandenetti captures the asthenic look of Roderick Usher that Poe described. The man is a decadent waif; insular, fragile, high-strung, possibly in-bred. »

Classics Illustrated publisher Gilberton was first out of the gate with Poe adaptations, at first tentatively with a pair of poems (Annabel Lee, then The Bells)**, then more substantially with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in Classic Comics no. 21 3 Famous Mysteries (July, 1944), sharing the stage with Arthur Conan Doyle and Guy de Maupassant. Read it here. Pictured below is Classics Illustrated no. 84 (June 1951, Gilberton), cover by Alex A. Blum. Read the issue here.

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A relevant passage from Simon Singh‘s fascinating (if you’re into that sort of thing… and I hope you are) The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes and Code-Breaking (1999): « On the other side of the Atlantic, Edgar Allan Poe was also developing an interest in cryptanalysis. Writing for Philadelphia’s Alexander Weekly Messenger, he issued a challenge to readers, claiming that he could decipher any monoalphabetic substitution cipher. Hundreds of readers sent in their ciphertexts, and he successfully deciphered them all. Although this required nothing more than frequency analysis, Poe’s readers were astonished by his achievements. One adoring fan proclaimed him ‘the most profound and skilful cryptographer who ever lived’. In 1843, keen to exploit the interest he had generated, Poe wrote a short story about ciphers, which is widely acknowledged by professional cryptographers to be the finest piece of fictional literature on the subject. The Gold Bug tells the story of William Legrand, who discovers an unusual beetle, the gold bug, and collects it using a scrap of paper lying nearby. That evening he sketches the gold bug upon the same piece of paper, and then holds his drawing up to the light of the fire to check its accuracy. However, his sketch is obliterated by an invisible ink, which has been developed by the heat of the flames. Legrand examines the characters that have emerged and becomes convinced that he has in his hands the encrypted directions for finding Captain Kidd’s treasure. »

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A page from EC Comics great Reed Crandall‘s exemplary adaptation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, from Creepy no. 3 (June, 1965). While Crandall’s work is outstanding, scripter-editor Archie Goodwin tried to ‘improve’ upon Poe by tacking on a tacky ending, a nasty habit he would indulge in again on subsequent adaptations, notably issue 6’s The Cask of Amontillado!. Read The Tell-Tale Heart. And don’t miss The Cask…, if only for the artwork.

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In the mid-70s, Warren would devote two full issues of Creepy to Poe adaptations; issue 69 (Feb. 1975), featured The Pit and the Pendulum, The Fall of the House of Usher, The Premature BurialThe Oval Portrait, MS Found in a Bottle!, Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar; issue 70 (Apr. 1975) comprised The Murders in the Rue Morgue, Man of the Crowd, The Cask of Amontillado!, Shadow, A Descent into the Maelstrom! and Berenice
All stories were adapted, with far greater respect than Mr. Goodwin seemed capable of, by Rich Margopoulos, and illustrated by a host of artists. The project was edited by Bill DuBay, and the cover painting is by Ken Kelly.

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Isidre Monés‘ fabulous opening splash from Creepy no. 70‘s Berenice. Read the story in full here.

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« The rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf; but still I could make out nothing distinctly, on account of a thick mist in which everything there was enveloped, and over which there hung a magnificent rainbow, like that narrow and tottering bridge which Musselmen say is the only pathway between Time and Eternity. » In 1976, a peak-form Berni Wrightson got out his brushes and paint tubes for a heartfelt portfolio of Poe-inspired oils. A sensitive and subtle sense of colour was among Wrightson’s chief assets; it’s a shame we didn’t see more of it. I opted to feature my favourite piece from the lot, A Descent Into the Maelström, but by all means feast your eyes on the whole shebang.

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In 1976, Marvel Comics set out to make their mark on the classics… with dubious, but predictable results. It wasn’t what their zombie readership had clamoured for. Here’s the best page (art by Rudy Mesina) from Marvel Classics Comics no. 28, The Pit and the Pendulum (1977), featuring three tales adapted by scripter Don McGregor, and including future superstar Michael Golden‘s abysmal professional début on yet another helping from The Cask of Amontillado, where he demonstrates how he believes wine is to be drunk just like Pepsi. See what I’m griping about here.

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Think Poe’s all about the horror? Think again! You don’t become a household name by putting all your eggs in the same basket. Meet Edgar ‘Eddie’ Allan Poe, romantic leading man. “Based on actual records…” and sanitized beyond recognition. Given that Virginia and Edgar were first cousins and that they married when she was thirteen, you can see how absurd this strip is. Read the full tale of romance and pathos right here. The Beautiful Annabel Lee appeared in Enchanting Love no. 2 (Nov. 1949, Kirby Publishing). Writer unknown, art by Bill Draut and Bruno Premiani.

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Kubert School alum Skot Olsen‘s cover illustration for the revised and expanded second edition (July, 2004) of Graphic Classics‘ Poe compendium.

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As with, say, Elvis or H.P. Lovecraft, when both legend and œuvre reach a certain tipping point of iconic fame, one can bend and twist the concepts any which way and they’ll still be recognizable. Here’s a panel from Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder‘s faithful-in-its-fashion take on The Raven, from Mad no. 9 (Feb.-Mar. 1954, EC).

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Michael Kupperman strikes again. From Snake ‘n Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret ( 2000, HarperCollins)

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Hot off the presses! It’s Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror no. 2 (Nov. 2018, Ahoy), featuring a collaboration between Rachel Pollack and the fabulous Rick Geary. Don’t miss it! Oh, and if the pose looks familiar, you’re thinking of this.

Whew — that’s it for now. In closing, I must bow and salute before the gargantuan endeavour accomplished by Mr. Henry R. Kujawa on his truly indispensable blog, Professor H’s Wayback Machine. Thanks for all the heavy lifting, Henry. I get exhausted just thinking about it.

Tintinabulate on, Mr. Poe — wherever you are!

-RG

*my thanks to Herman Melville for those words of wisdom.
**and thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Kujawa for that precious scrap of arcane lore.

Harvey Kurtzman, selon Marcel Gotlib

« Tous les merdeux ricanaient en se disant qu’une revue sans merdeux à la tête, ça ne marcherait jamais.* »

In issue 63 (April, 1974) of the recently rechristened « Charlie Mensuel » (to avoid confusion with its sister publication, Charlie Hebdo, yes, *that* Charlie Hebdo), insightful bandes dessinées critic and French national treasure Yves Frémion-Danet (b. 1947, Lyon), writing under his « Théophraste Épistolier » nom de plume, provided a classic essay accompanying a reprint of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder‘s « Goodman Gets a Gun », originally published in Help no. 16 (Nov. 1962, Warren). In his piece, Frémion posits that, with his 28 issues of Mad / Mad Magazine, Kurtzman’s brand of satire completely changed the rules of the game, and that despite an utter lack of commercial success and name recognition for himself and his work (reportedly, a French edition of Mad was published in 1965-66, for six or seven issues) on the continent, his influence on a significant swathe of the subsequent generation of French and Belgian cartoonists easily validates his vital importance.

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Théophraste Épistolier’s column’s logo, which translates as “Little Mickeys give you big ears”. A “Petit Miquet” is, in french, a generic name for cartoon characters from a dismissive and/or ignorant perspective. Someone to whom Mickey Mouse is the sole precursor of all Little Mickeys. Artwork by Gotlib.

Frémion spares no praise for Kurtzman’s acolytes Elder, Jack Davis, Basil Wolverton, Wally Wood and John Severin, and publisher Bill Gaines, but has nothing but contempt for editorial successor Al Feldstein (“vile copier”, “lumbering”, “regular”…). Frémion charts Kurtzman’s subsequent projects and associations, and his rôle in the rise of Underground Comix. Recommended reading… if you can read french.

Ah, but that brings us to an apt illustration of that creaky adage, « A picture is worth a thousand words »: as it happens, the legendary Marcel Gotlib (b. 1934, d. 2016), speaking of influential, provided a quartet of original illustrations to put across what comics were like Before and After Kurtzman, commenting at once on American comics and on Franco-Belgian bande dessinée, with a snappy Gallic twist. Like Goofus and Gallant, but with far more tongue.

It took me a long time to come to terms with Gotlib. In my formative years, in Québec, his was such an outsize, smothering influence that one got quite sick of him. To be fair, not of him so much as his multitudinous, third-and-fourth-rate would-be clones. His style was easy to imitate, yet difficult to master. You see how that could easily careen off the rails?

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In the left panel, the pistol is missing, having been whited-out « in accordance with the law on publications intended for young people », a quite repressive set of regulations adopted in 1949.

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More of the same: « Certain body parts have been whited-out. » Gotlib’s point is well made: when something relatively innocuous gets erased, the mind often fills the blanks with more perverse possibilities. Serves you right, censors.

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The issue in question. Charlie / Charlie Hebdo was published from Feb. 1969 to Feb. 1986, lasting, in fits and starts, 198 issues. It then merged with Pilote… and disappeared. Cover, of course, by Charles Schulz.

-RG

All the shitheads giggled, telling themselves that a magazine without an shithead in charge never would stand a chance. » – Théophraste Épistolier

 

Hallowe’en Countdown, Day 30

« Thought I’d inject a little excitement into this initiation… do I look any worse for wear? »

When EC überfan Russ Cochran launched his incredibly ambitious series of hardcover sets of the complete EC Comics in the late 1970s, there was simply no way I could afford the lot… so I gathered my shekels and mail-ordered a single volume of Tales From the Crypt (no. 3, midway through the run) and further managed to sweet-talk a nice lady at the local public library into ordering the first volume of Weird Science (years later, I would meet a couple of kids who’d become obsessed with the book, signing it out dozens of times and wondering how it had ever come to be acquired by our small, mostly francophone library).

Since the EC formula (meaning Bill Gaines & Al Feldstein) does wear thin with prolonged exposure, I gravitated to the outliers: Harvey Kurtzman, Johnny Craig, Bernie Krigstein, the Bradbury adaptations… but the true revelation in these volumes turned out to be John Benson and Bhob Stewart’s superb documentary notes, comprising astute analyses and eloquent interviews with the surviving participants… which are nowadays down to, well, colourist Marie Severin.

Anyhow, I was particularly intrigued by Gaines and Feldstein’s early system of “springboards”, which is to say that they based stories upon anecdotes encountered in newspapers and magazines. One title evoked time and again is Try and Stop Me (1944)*.

From John Benson’s documentary notes in Haunt of Fear, Volume 1 (1985):

« ‘House of Horror’ [Tales from the Crypt no. 21, Dec. 1950 – Jan. 1951] is even more directly derivative; the story is merely an elaborated version of an anecdote from the Trail of the Tingling Spine chapter of Bennett Cerf’s Try and Stop Me, which was the source of a number of EC stories. Kurtzman remembers the story as ‘an ass-breaker.‘ It was the first story he did for the EC line and he wanted to make a good impression. ‘It was the effort that got me the EC account. ». 

House of Horror was scripted by Ivan Klapper, who contributed a few stories, early in the EC horror titles’ run. He went on to work on John Newland‘s 1959-61 anthology show, One Step Beyond.

If you’re used to the usual rubbery, sketchy (but deceptively spontanous-looking) Kurtzman, brace yourself.

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« At initiation time it was my idea to take the three neophytes we had selected and brundle them out to a deserted house about fifteen miles from the campus. It had been unoccupied for years, was windowless, sagging and ugly, and was said by the villagers to be haunted. We picked a black, starless night for the initiation, and all the way out to the place poured tales of horror and the supernatural into the ears of our three apprehensive freshmen. »

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« I watched him enter the deserted house. It was about two hundred yards from where we were gathered. His instructions were to stay inside for a half-hour, and then come back to us. When forty-five long minutes went by without any sign of him, I experienced my first uneasiness, and dispatched the second freshman to fetch him. Ten more minutes went by. Nothing happened. There wasn’t a sound anywhere. The fire was burning low – we just sat there, quietly watching. »

HOH3
« ‘These kids are a little too smart for their own good’, I said at last. ‘Davis, get in there and bring them back fast,’ Davis was our prize conquest – a handsome, two-hundred-pound boy whose scholastic records foreshadowed an almost certain place on the next year’s All-American squad. He had already been elected president of the freshman class. »

HOH4
« The first thing that struck me when I entered was a musty smell like the smell of an attic full of old books and newspapers. I yelled for the boys, and poked my flashlight into every corner but there wasn’t a sign of them. Only a faint, steady tap that seemed to come from the roof. »

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The relevant illustration, by Carl Rose, from Try and Stop Me’s original version. « I stuck my head through the open skylight. There was Davis, stretched out on his stomach! His hair had turned snow-white. His eyes rolled in his head. He was mad as a hatter. In his hand he held a hammer covered with blood. » « He died in the college hospital the next morning without uttering a single syllable. We never found any trace of the other two boys… »

*I lucked out and found a nice copy in the 1980s… for $4.50, according to the usual lightly-pencilled note on the flyleaf.

– RG