« 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.
« Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track, and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey, and you go to jail. » — Junior Johnson
Lee Marrs (b. 1945) is not your typical « underground » cartoonist, though to be fair — what would a typical undergrounder be? The movement’s whole raison d’être was ‘vive la différence‘, wouldn’t you say?
Hers is not a prolific career, perhaps, but look at the gloriously idiosyncratic path she followed: newspaper comic strip assistant (Hi & Lois, Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie…), underground (Wimmen’s Comix, Pudge, Girl Blimp, The Compleat Fart and Other Body Emissions), and mainstream cartoonist — well, even better: she was a regular contributor to DC’s justly-fabled (but yet to be reprinted, ahem) Plop!; she appeared in Marvel’s Mad knock-off Crazy; she even scripted, in the early 90s, a Viking Prince (yes, Kanigher and Kubert’s 1955 creation) epic, illustrated by Bo Hampton, and even a bit of Batman (‘Stalking‘, with Eddy Newell, in 1998). But that’s merely scratching the surface: here’s a more comprehensive rundown of her captivating journey.
And I’m delighted to report that the scintillating Ms. Marrs is still active today, her verve and talent undimmed and undiluted. By all means, check out her website for the undeniable evidence!
One might call the illustrator and comics artist Kellie Strøm a bit of a cosmopolitan – born in Denmark, he grew up in Ireland and, in adulthood, made London his place of residence. He has accomplished much, but seemingly obtained little recognition for it – his graphic novel (The Acid Bath Case, 1992, published by Kitchen Sink), a collaboration with Stephen Walsh, seems to have been lost in the rivers of time, despite being a striking showcase of Strøm’s black-and-white, precise-yet-graceful style. He also has a great eye for colour, as becomes evident from a quick glance at Star Wars comics he’s illustrated (but does anybody read Star Wars comics?), or, in a much more pleasant and hopefully longer-lasting and farther-reaching vein, his paintings for children’s books.
Personally, I have a soft spot for his illustrations in glorious full colour – I believe that it’s a rare skill to be able to use a full rainbow palette and not end up with gaudy or downright ugly results. Let’s have a look!
The following are pages from Fortune, Fate, and the Natural History of the Sarlacc, written by Mark Schultz and published in Star Wars Tales no. 6 (2000, Dark Horse). Watch an unfortunate victim plunge into the gullet of a merciless tentacled beast!
For comparison purposes: this is the original art…
And the following are pages from the printed comic:
I also mentioned Strøm’s career as an illustrator in children books. The results are beautiful, and, I sincerely hope, well-remunerated.
Panels from Het Zeemans – ABC (2008, Rubinstein Publishing) – or, in other words, Sailors’ ABC:
2014 saw the release of the tentacle-wealthy Worse Things Happen at Sea(Nobrow Press), in which « historical ships are attacked, enveloped and engorged by monstrous sea creatures surfacing from the deepest depths of the darkest oceans. » Must be Strøm’s Nordic roots re-surfacing, though apparently he cannot swim!
« … And so Hooten Landing remained unchanged through the years… a landmark and a memorial… a colonial world that had made only one or two concessions to the march of progress. » — From Ye Olde Spirit of ’76 (July 3, 1949)
Having reached the last half of Kitchen Sink’s chronological reprinting of the Post-WWII Spirit, we come at last to the end of our own chronicle. As stated earlier, facing an inexorable dwindling of Eisner’s involvement and investment in his creation due to other commitments and an understandable sagging of his stamina, the strip slowly entered its decline. Then as now, good help was hard to find, to the point where Eisner opted to wrap up the strip rather than let it peter out completely. This sober and courageous decision most certainly contributed in preserving the feature’s solid reputation to this day.
As we embark on the inarguably lesser half of the run, we encounter fewer standout covers, which is to be expected, given the creator’s diminished affection for the contents. Nevertheless, forty-four Will Eisner covers are bound to yield some genuine sparklers. Here, then, are my picks.
Some background about the classic Sand Saref two-parter, from Tom Heintjes‘ Stage Settings column:
« The final two stories form one longer tale, and they’ve earned a place in comics history. Eisner’s work and film noir have been mentioned in the same breath for decades, and you hold in your hands one of the best reasons why. »
« The story’s history is unorthodox. Sand Saref and Bring in Sand Saref had their origins in Eisner’s shop, which had been producing various comic books and pieces of commercial art with growing frequency. The two stories were originally done as a single 11-page feature, but it didn’t star The Spirit. The lead character was John Law, a character Eisner intended to launch independently of The Spirit feature.
When the John Law project was shelved due to the often poor newsstand distribution of many comic books, Eisner later saw an opportunity, and seized it by breaking the 11-page John Law feature into a two-part Spirit story. Astute readers are now saying: ‘But Spirit stories are seven pages long, requiring fourteen pages of art.‘ Well, there are no flies on Will Eisner. He created the first three pages of ‘Sand Saref’ to bring up the page count.
Eisner said breaking the John Law story into two halves, eliminating all traces of the intended hero, and inking in the faces of The Spirit’s cast of characters wasn’t simple. “The characters were different people, so considerable dialogue had to be rewritten,” he said. “John Law was a policeman and The Spirit wasn’t. Merely because they both fought on the side of law and order didn’t make them the same character.” In fact, Eisner has Sand Saref tell The Spirit ‘you’re a cop’ in the climax of the 14-page story. »
A word or two about The Outer Space Spirit, as it’s come to be called: Eisner, looking for a worthy successor to bequeath the strip to, found young Wally Wood. Talented as he was, Wood’s tragic character flaws were already well established: unlike Eisner, he couldn’t pace himself and he couldn’t stay the course, two qualities essential to the steady production of a comic strip. But for the couple of weeks before Wood started missing deadlines, such lush, interstellar beauty! Feast your peepers here.
Well, that’s it! Thanks for tagging along on Will Eisner and his most famous creation’s tireless peregrinations.
If you’ve missed the earlier entries in the series (punctuality is not one of your strong suits, is it?), all is not lost. In fact, it’s all handily archived within easy reach :
« Some men are like flies… without a plan – without direction… they flit restlessly about the world… escaping one danger… and another… only to fall into the spider’s web… » — Bleak’s prospects are grim (Jan. 4, 1948)
Here we are, making our way through Kitchen Sink’s valiant chronological reprinting of Eisner’s post-WWII The Spirit, namely strips from December 1947 to December 1948; still at the peak, with a bit of fatigue on the horizon. At any rate, this particular vintage inspired a score of the master cartoonist’s most sublime new covers… as you’ll witness.
Speaking of the slammer, Eisner muses sardonically on the cartooning life: « Working in this field is a very, not lonely, but solitary life. All of us come to realize how many hours we’ve been chained to the drawing board. We used to talk in the studio about how if we were sent to jail, it wouldn’t make any difference. We could still turn out comics and our lives would not be a hell of a lot different. »
From Dave Shreiner’s ongoing talk with Eisner, published in The Spirit no. 26‘s Stage Settings column: “Eisner has always been a functionalist, rarely a decorative artist producing something for its beauty alone. He is a powerful artist in that nearly every device he uses serves more than one purpose. With a bit of prodding, he took issue with the seemingly prevalent attitude among comic book artists that splash pages serve as a second cover to a story: there for decoration and enticement, but redundant to the story.”
Eisner: « A lot of the artwork done in this field is for a kind of personal satisfaction. It’s used to display artistic muscle, rather than confining itself to an artistic purpose. I believe a lot of artists fear addressing themselves to a purpose because they’re afraid that the showiness, or dazzle dazzle of their artwork, will probably be diminished.
Consequently, they feel the approval level, the applause meter, will fall off somewhat. We’ve talked before about one of the problems facing artists in the comic book field being that their work is judged essentially on the physical appearance of it. It’s the artwork, rather than the content. That fact contributes to comic books being looked down upon. »
On the subject of the inspiration behind cover-featured Life Below, Eisner explains: « I was trying to find a unique, or exciting and startling setting within a normal situation. It always intrigued me that cities, particularly New York City, had miles and miles of catacombs under the streets. People doing city stories frequently overlook the potential of them. Underneath the city are layer after layer of story material. »
Past this juncture, the strip’s slow, inexorable decline commences, and the covers reflect that fact. But not to worry: Eisner was a consummate pro, and the rest of the run is not without its gems. Besides, I’ll be cherry-picking ’em for you.
If you’ve just arrived at the intermission, fret not: take your seat and relax, here’s what you missed so far :
Today, we’ll shine a light upon his epochal comic strip Phoebe and the Pigeon People. Here’s how it was hatched:
« In April 1978, Lynch teamed up with cartoonist Gary Whitney to produce weekly Phoebe and the Pigeon People strips. Lynch wrote them and Whitney drew them. “It was very easy and it got us invited to cocktail parties”, said Lynch. “We wanted to do a strip that would appeal to secretaries, rather than a strip that would appeal to the comic fan type person.”
« Lynch and Whitney launched a stage show based on the characters, called When Cultures Collide, with an improvisational theater troupe, The Practical Theater. The performance included a battle of the bands between rock and new wave musicians. » (quoted from Ink & Anguish, a Jay Lynch Anthology, 2018, Fantagraphics)
P&TPP was another one of those captivatingly freewheeling features that popped up during the heady heyday of alternative weeklies. A while back, we devoted a post to Tom Hachtman‘s Gertrude’s Follies, which bloomed in a similarly unlikely fertile milieu. In Phoebe’s case, The Chicago Reader was the publication it called home during its impressive 1978-1996 run.
For a few years now, they’ve (in this case, a shadowy outfit vaguely named “Alternative Comics“) been promising us a Phoebe collected edition. We’re still waiting. Hey, if the publisher needs more time to do the job right, so be it… but expectations are accordingly high.
Amazon’s blurb is an ominous portent: « The under-achieving Phoebe and friends hang out with beatnik people-headed jazz-loving beat-philosophy cooing pigeons in a park in Chicago. »
Uh, not even close. Here are a few highlight from the strip’s first four years, pulled from the pages of Kitchen Sink’s valiant three-issue run (1979-81); read these selections and you’ll know more about the strip than whoever wrote that blurb. You’re welcome!
I particularly love the strip’s anything-for-a-joke ethos: as was Lynch’s wont, he ran the gamut from lowbrow to highbrow, from squeaky-clean to salacious, from sunny side up to scrambled. Let’s face it, that bizarre premise would have challenged and defeated most would-be humourists within a few weeks, let alone a decade-and-a-half.
« See? Brute force triumphs after all!!! » — Mr. Fly (Jan. 11, 1942)
While Kitchen Sink’s ambitious chronological gathering of Eisner’s post-WWII The Spirit was intended to clean up and organize the series after decades of random, piecemeal reprinting, it was still a bit of a mess, at least early on. The methods of reproduction varied from issue to issue, and even within issues: three of four of issue one’s stories carry the original newspaper shadings, while one (« Hildie ») is newly-coloured and grey-toned. However, the folks at KSP can’t be faulted for this chaos: it all hinged upon which stories’ original line art remained in existence. Through it all, the publisher remained commendably hopeful but realistic and honest about the prevailing realities and conditions.
The colour question elicited ever-churning controversy and budgetary woes in the face of steadily diminishing sales. By issue 9, the custom colouring was abandoned to make way for the rather more economical, but muddy laser-scanning of original Spirit sections, and an extra story was added to issues 10 and 11; then inside colour was jettisoned for good, with gray toning retained. But issue size was reduced to 6 1/4” x 9 3/4″ (as opposed to the traditional comic book format, which is, as we all know, 6 5/8″ x 10 1/4″) for issues 12-16.
Denis Kitchen sums up the situation very aptly, circa issue 4, late in ’83:
« … the current color comic market demands a more sophisticated reprinting of these stories. There is nothing sacred about the original color. Though Eisner experimented boldly with color, he generally left coloring to assistants, and much of it was handled in a pedestrian manner.
We shoot these stories, where possible, from original art in Will Eisner’s archives. Where stats, negatives silverprints or other proofs are the only source, we use the best existing copies. Our colorists, where possible, use the original sections as color guides and are concerned with authenticity and precedent. Color changes, gray tones and other ‘augmentations’ are made with the approval of Will Eisner. »
If you’ve just caught us mid-swing, nothing to worry about: earlier entries are at your beck and call as follows :
« Here’s to the thugs and maniacs who fill each book with concepts so damnable, so putrescent, that they make the EC horror magazines of yore seem like mere cocktail napkin doggerel. I salute you. Now I’m going to take a bath in quicklime. » — Harlan Ellison toasts Death Rattle (1986)
In the 1980s, with the Comics Code Authority in its death throes, you’d think horror comics would have made a massive comeback. Well, they did… and they didn’t. Since there had been plenty of black and white magazines to operate outside of the Code’s restrictions, bringing bloodshed and mayhem to colour comics made the much-anticipated liberation a bit of a non-event. For my money, the truly interesting horror material opted for different approaches, now more experimental, then rather whimsical, at times clinical, sometimes abstract. Underground comix publisher Kitchen Sink, surviving thanks to its eclectic spirit, revived its early 70s horror anthology in 1985, an adventure that this go-round lasted eighteen issues and unleashed cutting-edge, nostalgic, shiver-inducing, thought-provoking and gut-busting efforts by such talents as Richard Corben, Rand Holmes, P.S. Mueller, Jack Jackson, Stephen Bissette, Mark Schultz (his Xenozoic Tales were introduced in Death Rattle 8, in 1986), and, on this unsettling cover, Charles Burns.
Before this cover, and speaking of clinical horror, Burns had earlier provided one of Death Rattle’s most harrowing gut-punches in issue one’s Ill Bred: a Horror Romance. I wouldn’t want to give away too much, but here are a few samples from this queasy masterpiece of gender fluidity, body horror and (justified) insect fear, seemingly inspired in equal parts by David Cronenberg films, Japanese art prints and Burns’ personal demons. Not for the queasy, but peruse it here if that ticks any of your happy boxes.
« You know, the dog food that Billy Jack loves! » — The Firesign Theatre
Ah, September the 18th. Today’s the birthday of the staggeringly accomplished William Stout (born in 1949), master of ancient reptiles, bootleg record covers, friend of The Firesign Theatre, former Russ Manning assistant (none but the best would do!), and I’ll spare you the illustrious details of his career in cinema. Still, let’s look around a bit, shall we?
Speaking of ’74, isn’t that rhino a dead ringer for Swan’s oleaginous right-hand man, Philbin, from Phantom of the Paradise?
And that’s Bill Stout for you: stunningly versatile, but always himself. Could any artist strive for more?
« Three A.M. The radiators in Commissioner Dolan’s office had long ago conked out… and those of us who could not go home waited… tried in various ways to ignore the damp cold made even more unbearable by the January rain. » — The Spirit, Jan. 8, 1950
Welcome back! Today, we wrap up Kitchen Sink Press’ experimental continuation of Warren Magazines’ run of The Spirit. By now, Denis Kitchen was probably coming to terms with the fact that building upon Warren’s non-system of random Spirit reprints was not only a dead end, but one with mercilessly diminishing returns, even with so deep and rewarding an archive as Will Eisner’s.
Still, don’t worry, we’re hardly running out of dazzling visuals to tickle your eyeballs with.
After 25 issues of The Spirit magazine (on top of Warren’s run), Denis Kitchen and Will Eisner would press the reset button and begin again in the comic book format. In part three, we’ll see how that endeavour fared.
If you’ve just joined us mid-programme, fret not: simply rewind to our earlier instalments, if you will: