Just Visiting: Daniel Pinkwater & Tony Auth’s ‘Norb’

« You know, I once took a ride in a Volkswagen convertible driven by Harvey Kurtzman, with fellow passengers Terry Gilliam and Robert Crumb. Had we been smacked by a garbage truck the history of humor and popular culture would have been slightly changed. Interestingly not one of us had the slightest interest in any of the other three. Except, I am pretty sure we all hated Kurtzman, but who didn’t? » — Daniel Pinkwater

This post was originally going to be an interview. Having belatedly discovered Norb (1989-1990), I got in touch with Daniel Pinkwater (who better to ask?), intending to pepper him with questions, but he was so very helpful, providing me with all the background material I could have desired, that his prediction that « … since I have nothing to add, you may not need to formulate any questions for me » … came to pass. And so I gladly yield the floor to the sterling Mr. Pinkwater.

Tony Auth was a brilliant artist. He had an important day job as editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. I think it was his first job, which he held for decades, and he was a Pulitzer Prize winner. We talked about doing ‘something’ together for a couple of years. Tony wanted to do a daily/Sunday newspaper strip, so we did that. Every day we’d remind one another, ‘keep it stupid.’ The fact was, we had no idea how stupid a commercial strip needed to be.

Stroke of luck, Denny Allen, who was temporarily in a position of influence at King Features had approached me years before about doing a strip. We met the power elite at King Features. I won’t characterize them except to say that the concept of stupid did not elude them, nor would it have been likely to. We negotiated for, and received a substantial advance from King, covering two years. I understand this was unheard of in the highly competitive rat race with a great many submissions coming in every day from marginally talented cartoonists.

So we went to work. My part was utterly easy. I would write the dailies and the separately plotted Sunday strip every Saturday while watching Dr. Who. Tony was putting in long hours in addition to his job at the newspaper. The strip launched in something like 70 papers, and I was told this was a big launch and unusual for the times.

We started in the vacancy created when Bloom County ceased production. The response from readers consisted entirely of actual hate-mail, letters saying it was hoped we would die, crude drawings of tombstones and daggers dripping blood. The only piece of positive fan mail I remember came from Jules Feiffer. A few papers dropped the strip, some in response to outrage from readers for whom the comics page was their literature. The typical letter read, ‘I hate NORB, it makes me feel stupid.’ Fair enough, I thought.

I understood that as few as 10 negative letters were enough to spook a paper into dropping a feature. My wife did a bit of research and discovered that all new strips have it rough initially, but if one survives two years it becomes un-droppable, and it is the editorial staff who get the threatening letters. Interestingly, Tony, who was a fair-minded political cartoonist, and got abuse all the time, (he’d had his office trashed by the right and the left at different times over the same issue, for example), and didn’t mind it, regarded the comic strip as the product of his heart, and was hurt by the unfair criticism.

So, at the end of the first year, Tony, exhausted by working two full-time jobs, depressed by the evidence that nobody seemed to like the strip, unwilling, as I was, to follow the advice from the comics/humor expert at King Features, let me know that he was not having any fun. ‘So, shall we quit?’ I asked. Since he was carrying 90% of the weight, I didn’t feel it should be my call. King was delighted to kill the strip because that meant they wouldn’t have to pay us the second year’s advance, and apparently they thought that saving money was the same as making money.

Exactly a year after the strip stopped appearing the fan mail started to come in, ‘Where’s NORB?’ ‘NORB was my favorite comic.’

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A pair of dailies from the first week, whereupon we meet our protagonists and our protagonists meet.
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From week two. It’s lovely that Mr. Pinkwater opted to bring along a character from his Snarkout Boys novels (The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death and The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror), Bentley Saunders Harrison Matthews, aka Rat Face aka Rat. She fits right in. That kind of freedom is among the foremost perks of owning your work.

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A four-day sequence, to give you a better sense of the strip’s flow. I love how the alien armada is basically pixelated. Spoiler: They won’t get very far with their plan of conquest.
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Front cover of Mu Press‘ collection of the Nord dailies, published in 1992. To quote the late SF luminary Vonda McIntyre in her INTROdadaDUCTION: « When [Mu Press] decided to reprint NORB, I jumped at the chance to write this essay. Only then did I discover that writing it didn’t mean I got to reacquaint myself with the Sunday strips… it meant I got to see the daily strips, which I didn’t even know about, for the first time. »
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Now and then, Pinkwater would drop out of the narrative, go into meta-textual mode and engage the critics in an entertainingly passive-aggressive fashion. I do prefer the plot-driven strips, however… as does Rat. « Problem, Norb-Baby. Humorous adventure with a touch of satire is out this year. I don’t know where to put you. » (07/13/1990)
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« You’ll pay for treating my employer like a baked ham, you evil person! ». Don’t worry, Norb’ll be okay: « Explain. Were you sliced like a radish or not? » « Oh, I was! But it was in the future. »
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Anything goes, in the most winning sense. The noble Norse warriors were soon to realize that at Trump’s, you simply can’t out-chump the boss.
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Norb is an exemplar of the narrative strip that doesn’t take itself seriously: while the story proper is intriguing, any individual fragment is quite entertaining on its own.
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Never having been reprinted, the Sunday strips are rare as hen’s teeth, and those who possess them presumably clipped them out of their local paper back in the day. Foresight! As is often the case with King Features continuity strips, Sundays and dailies feature separate storylines.
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Several years ago, Norb was featured as the Obscurity of the Day on the excellent Stripper’s Guide blog. There you’ll find a handful more of these gorgeously-coloured (aside from all their other evident virtues) Sundays, and more dirt about Norb.
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Et pour conclure, Auth’s back cover illustration from the Norb collection.

« It’s pretty clear that you take the whole subject of comics and cartooning a lot more seriously than I do. » Guilty as charged. Thanks for your most kind coöperation, Mr. Pinkwater!

This post is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Tony Auth (1942 – 2014).

-RG