Tuesday, September 8, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

A Black and White Orphan’s World…

and Gray Too. 


by Rick Marschall.

When I was in my mid-teens I wrote a fan letter to Harold Gray. Already a long-time comics fan, I loved Peanuts and Pogo and other strips in the daily papers. And I was enough of a collector to savor Happy Hooligan and Krazy Kat and obscurities like Slim Jim. I devoured Prince Valiant, and appreciated learning words like “Synopsis” from its weekly episodes.

But it was something else with Little Orphan Annie. It was accessible, mirroring the news, yet somehow seemed remote. Harold Gray created a world like no one else did – it was commonplace, or meant to be, but still inhabited by characters who were real and symbolic at the same time.

I didn’t realize it yet, but Gray was in the rare creative company of John Bunyan (The Pilgrim’s Progress) and Petrarch and Dante, creating characters for the personification of literary and allegorical qualities. Yes, in a comic strip. It was one thing that set Harold Gray apart.

Doorways always opened to darkness; ceilings and skies were enclosures, not open avenues, as Donald Phelps has noted. Gray was the only strip artist of whom I am aware who made every day’s strip a different day of action – no conversations nor fights that would last over days of strips. Roy Crane extended some fist fights over a week of installments, which were wonderful, but Gray’s self-imposed strait jacket was a greater challenge.

I can go on and on – and have, in an entire issue of the old NEMO Magazine; and a chapter in my book America’s Great Comic Strip Artists – but prior to my ability to analyze, I was awestruck by Harold Gray’s mastery of the form in Little Orphan Annie.

So I wrote him a fan letter, and he confirmed what many now know from dozens of “fingerprints” – Gray was a great businessman too, a consummate promoter. That he and his wife traversed the continent every year is a testament, not to wanderlust or restlessness, but to his twin muses related to map-locations across small-town America. He was a restless genius, hungry for story inspiration; and he revered the spirit, the values, of the America he met on every mile of those automobile trips.

As a promoter, if I use the proper term, he immediately put this young fan on his Christmas card list. Every year until he died I received a Little Orphan Annie Christmas card – not commercial cards you could buy in stores – color, card stock, personal greetings from one of Harold and Winifred’s homes in Westport CT or La Jolla CA. Taking care of business.

More interesting than any notes to me is a letter I reproduce for you here. There is much that is revealing about Gray and Annie! And even more “between the lines.” This is a letter to his editor at the New York News- Chicago Tribune Syndicate, Mollie Slott.

The letter is a masterpiece of diplomacy, and provides great insights into Harold Gray. For instance there are politically incorrect comments on union members and strikes. At this time, the New York City papers were suffering through a prolonged and crippling work action; and not for the first or last time, universal predictions of newspapers having to go out of business were fulfilled. Shorter hours and longer vacations became moot on unemployment lines.

Gray is withering in assessment of the strikers. His love of “common people,” referenced above, is nuanced. Common agitators were a different species, to him.

But after establishing common ground with Slott in the note – and more of the same, recalling “good old days” and the shifting tastes of local editors – Gray shared details of syndicates’ histories, sales practices, and comparisons with Hearst’s King Features. Of vital pertinence to comics scholars.

Through it all are plaintive comments to his syndicate chief about his treatment, something bittersweet to behold. Minimal contact; missed opportunities; a recognition that a star of the syndicate has become, to an extent, a wheel that must squeak in an attempt to be oiled. For the benefit of all, like “in the good old days.”

Not much changed, not by this letter, anyway. When I joined that syndicate as Comic Editor a dozen years later, Harold Gray and Mollie Slott were both gone. But no less a star than Chester Gould was pleading for promotion and... attention. He felt that Dick Tracy was being ignored by the sales force. Bob Reed and Jack Minch were in charge then – but not in charge of being civil to their stars. Chet was so desperate that he designed his own promotional ads and brochures, about new villains and new stories. I have his campaign suggestions somewhere, but Reed and Minch not only declined to create basic promotional pieces… they ignored Chester Gould outright. If Chet had not called me directly when I joined the syndicate about this state of non-affairs, I never would have known. Disgraceful and sad.

A genius should not have to resort to the words by which Harold Gray closed a letter to Al Capp we recently shared here:

“Sometimes I get disgusted with the whole dam business. But it’s a living, eh?” 


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Sunday, August 30, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


Krazy Kittens.


 by Rick Marschall.

To the extent that this essay will be personal – accounts of a “Crowded Life in Comics” – it will be an account of lifelong journeys and inquiries and contacts, and questions solved and unsolved, accepted wisdom and disputed history. All about a man we wish we knew better, but know well enough through his work… which seemed to suit the famously reclusive George Herriman just fine.

When I was young I knew his work from a couple glimpses in the few comics-history books then published, The Comics by Coulton Waugh and Cartoon Cavalcade by Thomas Craven; precious few examples. The rare 1946 Holt anthology, found in a used-book shop. Then some reprints from Woody Gelman; then some reprints from the Netherlands (Real Free Press) and France and Italy.


In 1959 Stephen Becker wrote Comic Art in America and I received a copy as a Christmas present. Steve (we eventually became friends and I acquired his collection of illustrations for the book) devoted most of one chapter to Herriman and Krazy Kat. Steve was an award-winning fiction writer and translator and the passage was so eloquent that it floored me. Not needing to, I memorized it as a 10-year old.

Fast-forward to a few years ago. I helped with Michael Tisserand’s biography of Herriman, sharing archival material and hosting him far from his New Orleans so he could pick my brain and pick through old papers. I asked only two things in exchange: to address, even if he disagreed and dissented from, my thesis in several of my books that the key to Herriman’s creative expressions, his thematic preoccupations, could be understood as “comic obsessions.” Of the many, many strips he created, they were not merely funny characters in humorous situations and comic endings. They were variations on a theme – characters with bizarre, even surreal, motivations; played out against an unsuspecting world or putative (and “normal”) antagonists.


These comic obsessions were Herriman’s treasure map, from Major Ozone’s fresh-air crusade to Ignatz’s brick. Essential facets of Herriman’s creative genius, not crutches. Seemingly, every other scholar’s views on every other subject were debated in the book, including the obligatory genealogical speculations, but not this. Oh, well, such is my comic obsession, I suppose. And not my book.

The other favor I asked was to include that wonderful brief assessment by Stephen Becker. Surely it could find a place. For those who unfortunately lost the opportunity, too, to read it, I would like to quote it here:

Here, if ever, was a marriage of the man and the material. It was poetry – i.e., thought – that made Krazy Kat great; and no other human being could have been expected to think like George Herriman. In the truest sense of the word he was a genius. Between him and the universe of men there was a kind of love affair, and the allegory he gave the world was unique. With him the world took on a new dimension; without him it was reduced to reality. There will be no more Krazy Kat, and we are all of us the losers; but how much we have gained because he existed at all!

If I could understand a comic strip, and its creator, and explain them like that… I could die happy.


But in the meantime I will describe some of the routes I have taken on my pilgrimage. Of course I started collecting all the old material I could find. I asked old-timers like Harry Hershfield and Rube Goldberg what Herriman was like. Through Ron Goulart, who knew Herriman’s daughter, I acquired drawings and proof sheets of her father. I acquired photographs and letters that Herriman shared with Louise Swinnerton, Jimmy’s ex, whom George courted. In the course of building a library of Judge and the Sunday funnies of the New York World and the World Color Printing Company (no relation) and the McClure syndicates I unearthed hundreds of drawings still unreprinted
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One of the sources of the theory about Herriman’s black lineage was the fedora he always wore, allegedly ashamed of his “kinky hair.” And one of Herriman’s friends I asked was Karl Hubenthal, who knew Herriman when he began his own career in Los Angeles. As everyone else has, he expressed astonishment and made clear he was not bigoted. But he said it was common knowledge among friends that Herriman had a “wen” on the back of his head. I had to ask what that was – a random but prominent lump, perhaps a sebacious cyst, one Herriman never chose to have surgically removed. He wanted to cover the wen, Karl said, but not cover an African-American background.


And I guess some readers know that I have written about Herriman in books and articles (never yet as a big-game hunter, till here); a chapter in my book about America’s Great Comic-Strip Artists (I forget the title); and two full-color anthologies of Krazy Kat Sunday pages. (Regarding an artist whose genius was so associated with color, on the page that is, it is strange that a full biography has not one color panel.) But my Sunday kolor reprints were co-published in the UK, Germany, France, Portugal, even Finland. I was privileged to “spread the gospel”; and there was one contemporary cartoonist, virtually everyone’s favorite, who told me he discovered Krazy Kat through my projects. A life well lived, there…

From the superb to the meticulous: what illustrations to run with these recollections? I have pulled out some early and obscure Herriman work featuring cats. Not yet kats; I understand.  But beyond his comic obsessions in the various themes of his various strips, it can be noticed that Herriman made characters of cats with some frequency. Sometimes in corners, peeking from behind furniture; sometimes as a focus of a gag; sometimes as the star of its own strip.


Alexander the Cat was a long-running feature (bequeathed to Frink, of Slim Jim fame), and he was about as “normal” – non-speaking – as Herriman ever drew. But some of his cats spoke… occasionally in dialog apart from the main strip… and once, under The Family Upstairs and George Dingbat, a kat poached its own place in the funnies.

And history.




1. George Herriman and his best friend – on the steps of his studio on the Hal Roach movie lot

2. Major Ozone, the Fresh Air Fiend – frightened by a cat

3. Rosy Posy, Mamma’s Girl, 1906

4. The Dingbat Familys Joke Book, 1912

5. Rosy Posy, 1905

6. Alexander the Cat, 1910

7. The Dingbat Family, 1911 – Krazy and Ignatz banished by the Family Upstairs

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Friday, August 28, 2020

Notes on the American News Company 4 –


The Union News Company

Image: Pittsburgh Press, Oct 1888

by John Adcock

Founded in 1864 to distribute periodicals to retailers, the American News soon branched into wholesaling stationary, books, toys, and eventually hundreds of other items; and to selling periodicals and food on railroads. In 1872 its subsidiary, Railroad News Company, bought the Union News Company, also established in 1864 to sell reading matter and other merchandise to passengers on commodore Vanderbilt’s New York and Harlem Railroad. 

Meanwhile, American News expanded its network of branches across the United States and into Canada. The company practically monopolized the distribution of periodicals when the low-priced magazine appeared in the nineties, but at mid-century it had some competition from the few other distributing agencies, S-M News Company, and organizations controlled by Curtis, Fawcett and Hearst. – Theodore Peterson, Magazines in the twentieth century, 1956

John Felton, a native of Barre, Mass., moved to Buffalo in 1854 where he started a news and stationary business with his brother Benjamin. His obituary notes that

Like a true born Yankee, John Felton originated the familiar system now in vogue by the Union News Company. Beginning on the New York Central, the Lake Shore and Flint & Pere Marquette roads were soon included. Mr. Felton managed the whole business, which soon became the largest of the kind in existence and began to reach the notice of New York capitalists and railroad men. 

About this year of 1874, when Vanderbilt obtained possession of several roads used by Felton & Brother, it was decided to lease the News Company’s rights. A Mr. Shear, formerly a partner with Mr. Felton, was the lessee, and in a short time control of this Company passed into the hands of a consolidation called the Union News Company, which exists to-day.
In a 1902 obituary we learn more of the circumstances

William Henry Williams, the President and general manager of the Union News Company, died yesterday at his residence, 305 Essex avenue, Orange, N. J., of heart failure. He had been in poor health for some time but went to business as usual on Wednesday. He was born in Burlington, Vermont 61 years ago. He came to New York when he was 17 years of age and established a newspaper delivery business. 

Later he helped organize the firm of Shear & Williams and established a news business on the Harlem Railroad. This firm was the nucleus of the Union News Company, which Mr. Williams formed, and which now controls the news business on 125,000 miles of railroads. Mr. Williams was also President of the Union Restaurant Company, a director of the American News Company and the owner of the Saxton fibre cushion horseshoe. 

He was interested in several banks and corporations. He was a member of the press Club, Hardware Club, the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, and the Once a Month Club. His wife, five sons and three daughters survive him. Three of his sons are officers of the Union News Company.
William Henry Williams son, Harry Mortimer Williams, succeeded his father as President of the Union News Company in 1901, retired in 1931, and died on Sept 5, 1933. His brother Frank Tousey Williams was vice-President and general manager of UNC until his death in Feb 12, 1927.

The Union News Company, by stopping the sales of any periodical not approved by the parent American News Company, was able to pressure publishers to grant exclusive distribution rights to their periodicals and newspapers. In 1888 the Pittsburgh Press led a boycott  of the Union News Company.

Concerning the charge that certain railroad officials are financially interested in the Union News Company and inclined to encourage rather than rebuke its distortions, a charge which has been frequently made and which the PRESS will endeavor to investigate in the near future, the following statement will be found in an article on the Union News Company’s boycott in yesterdays Leader:
A gentleman who has been in the business says: “It is nonsense for any paper to try and fight the Union News Company. Even if a combination were made against it by all the papers they would be beaten. The company is virtually composed of Pennsylvanian railroad officials and the agents only work on commission, and while the paper is not sold there is no loss to the company.” – Pittsburgh Press, Oct 2, 1888
The newspaper seems unaware that the Union News Company was a wholly owned subsidiary of the American News Company. Henry Dexter took over as President of the ANC in 1887 on the death of Sinclair Tousey. 

An article in Current Literature that same month, October 1888, noted “The army of train boys, and the distribution of along the great lines of travel, is directed by General W. H. Williams, a veteran of the business.” William Henry Williams (see obituary above) was also on the Board of Directors of the American News Company in October 1888.

What the Pittsburgh Press called a “boycott” was probably a response to Union News efforts to replace Pittsburgh’s private agents with American News Company approved “news butchers.” 

News butchers were men and boys who wore blue uniforms and matching color caps with identifying badges. They contracted to walk the trains selling books, periodicals, fruit, candy, licorice, and cigars supplied by the American News Company. 

Current Literature (Oct 1888)  again: “there are also about one thousand boys and young men at work upon trains from Maine to California selling the publications handled by the Union News Company, a branch organization with a specialty of railway depot stands and train service.”

The Pittsburgh newspapers sold newspapers at depots through their own agencies in the railway towns within a radius of 150 miles of the city. “While the (UNC) agent kicks the newsboy from the platform of a moving train the principal drives him from the depot and railway station.” 

Penny newspapers like the Pittsburgh Press were marked up to 3 cents a copy for sale on UNC trains. Any profits went to the coffers of the UNC.

The Dispatch, Commercial Gazette and other morning newspapers show their distrust of the Union News Company by stamping the price of their paper upon every copy which the monopoly circulates. This precaution proves unavailing, however, the mark in many instances being rubbed out or torn from the paper… 

The company has demanded and is still conceded by some of the Pittsburgh papers, the right to return unsold copies. Before the PRESS decided to withdraw this privilege, which was accorded no other agent, the news company had been detected again and again in the return of papers that had been sold, read, and left in the cars, where they were gathered up by the train agents and returned as unsold. Pittsburgh Press, Oct 4, 1888
I was unable to find the denouement of the Pittsburgh Press’ so-called boycott against the Union News Company, but it is not hard to guess that they were eventually brought to heel. The American News Company and its subsidiaries lock on newspaper and periodical publishers would only strengthen with time. 

On the other hand, publishers stood to make great profits from ANC contracts. 

Nova Scotia dime novel publisher George Munro “had $30,000 laid away when he started the Fireside Companion, and as he was on good terms with the American News Company, his paper was successful from the start. It has run up as high as $250,000, and we do not think it has ever run below 150,00…”

For months Mr. Munro would draw from $32,000 to $35,000 from the American News Company every Monday, and of this at least $15,000 was clear profit. – ‘The Story Papers,’ Armenia Times, June 25, 1888

American News Company, Oct 1888

Previous Post HERE
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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


We HAVE Met the Enemy…


By Rick Marschall

I met Walt Kelly, but I never had a conversation with him. To be less precise, I talked to him a few times. If that isn’t clear – and it hardly is to me; stick with me – we chatted, or people walking about us probably thought we did.

This is a backwards way of admitting that one of the regrets of my life is never having talked to Walt Kelly while he was sober. At the tender age of 11, I was invited by cartoonists to meetings of the National Cartoonists Society in New York; not the annual Reuben awards, but monthly meetings at the legendary Lamb’s Club. It was an old actor’s clubhouse (I don’t mean for old actors… no, I guess I do. I once walked past Brian Aherne asleep in an overstuffed red-leather chair), full of character and memories and ancient cigar smoke and treasured mementos on the walls. Each month the NCS had the dining room and meeting rooms for meetings.

It was a different time. No cartoonist in the tri-state area ever wanted to miss a meeting: drinks; dinner; drinks; some musical or comedy entertainment; drinks; “Shop Talk” – an interview panel with, perhaps, an editor, or a cartoonist from out on town. And drinks.


I was too young to drink anything but ginger ale; but the whole set-up put me at a disadvantage with some of the cartoonists. Particularly Walt Kelly.

Many of my contemporary heroes, like Rube and Russ Patterson, were at those meetings (and some heroes-to-be, like Al Kilgore and Creig Flessel) but seeing a guy with “Walt Kelly” on his name tag sent me to the Moon.

Walt always had a head start on everyone at the bar, and thereafter (as Der Captain might have said) “Society Iss Nix.” I persisted through his fog, and, thinking back, it must have been a ridiculous sight that this kid grilled him about T S Sullivant and his early favorites, and other inanities.


There was one silver lining, perhaps. I must have given him my name and address, as I did to other cartoonists. These slips of paper led to some friendships; with Walt it evidently led to confusion when he found it in his pocket the next morning. God bless him, I’m sure he forgot what exactly the kid was asking for… but he compensated by sending a daily Pogo, some sketchbook material, and – strangely – some old drawings and clippings from his days on the New York Star, and proofs or freelance work for Newsweek.

Gratefully received!


You know, instead of the title I chose above, I could call this essay “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose,” because some of that old material was political. And… who IS the “enemy”? I will be mysterious. But we are in a political season (in case you haven’t noticed) and Kelly frequently dealt with politics, even of course in Pogo.

The French phrase is translated, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This aphorism is true in politics as in other areas of life – in fact, even my dinner is repeating on me at the moment. But here I will share some of Kelly’s lesser-known, or seldom seen, cartoon work.

See if they foreshadow any politics of our own time. If not… order another drink, and they’ll start to. Trust me.


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Sunday, August 23, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –



When I Was In the Funnies.


By Rick Marschall

The first time I was in the comics – my name, anyway, not my face or heroic self – I had a difficult time actually showing it to friends and relatives. Details at 11.

First. When I was hired by the Connecticut Herald in 1972 after a few months at a small north Jersey weekly, the Valley Star of Englewood, my duties were few and specific: reporter; political cartoonist; columnist; editor of the weekend magazine section, Leisure Plus. I lived an hour away but was alerted about the opening from Jerry Norton, a friend and official with Young Americans for Freedom, the campus conservative group founded by William F Buckley. YAF was headquartered in Washington DC; Jerry was publication director and taught me how to fake editing; and I worked in YAF’s mail room. A YAFer of all too familiar a type – barely 21, but wedded to tweed jackets, turtleneck sweaters, pipes, and a fake British accent – was leaving his job and wondered if Jerry knew a conservative who could apply.

The Herald was a conservative paper, an anomaly in Fairfield County, but the liberal journal had been purchased by William Loeb to add to his New England newspaper chain. Check that box. He was a rabid comics fan, which occasioned many conversations. Check that box. And he was the son of William Loeb, private secretary to President Theodore Roosevelt, an interest of mine since childhood (mine). Bingo.

I applied and got the job, even though it was an hour’s commute from my parent’s home in New Jersey (yes, a struggling recent grad). I was sat at Smith’s desk, right next to a man I shall tell more about some day here, Harry Neigher – one of the last of the Winchell-style three-dot gossip columnists, celebrity interviewer, and the Herald’s cartoonist, a chore he was happily to put aside. He became my serious mentor.

On the first afternoon I discovered that he (in fact, nobody there) could stand the pompous Gaines Smith. “Our Gaines is our loss,” he told me.

If it sounds like I was handed a lot of assignments… I thought it was not enough. In its glory days, the Herald had been the biggest paper in Connecticut, even publishing Springfield, Mass., editions. When I joined it was a ghost of its former self, but small enough that I was obliged to do all that writing and drawing, but also edit wire copy, help compose the weekend paper at the printing plant (when Watergate broke, it was a Saturday night and I had a ball). It was still the days of typewriters and carbon paper; a “morgue” of clippings and old photos; and yelling “Copy Boy!” when you pulled a finished story from the typewriter. We had no copy boys; no one came to the desk. But that didn’t stop us from calling out.
An ancient Harry Resnick shuffled around the ad department. He was Al Capp’s uncle, and had helped pitch Li’l Abner to syndicates back in 1934…

But I stray. I’ll return to the Herald (in a way, I wish I could: the best job of my life) some week.

One of my first assignments was to revamp the weekend color comics section. No one liked it – especially the readers, according to polls – so I added “Features Editor” to the hats on the rack.

Cutting to the chase. One thing I noticed was that the paper seemed have every clone of Blondie in existence. OK, Fairfield County was iconically suburban, but cartoon housewives, mostly blonde, glutted our funnies. Hi and Lois; Dotty Dripple; the Berries; Trudy; Family Circus; Dennis the Menace; even Prince Valiant, who had married Aleta, if you recall. I’m kidding about Hal Foster’s page but there were other carbon-copies.

I canceled many – of course not all – and brought in some contemporary stars, some old classics (United Features wanted to test my sanity for ordering Captain and the Kids) and even brand new strips. I laughed so hard at Frank and Ernest samples that I signed a contract before its debut.

One feature that went was Trudy by Jerry Marcus. This was before I knew Jerry, and loved Jerry, and became a weekly lunch buddy (with Orlando Busino, Bob Weber, Gill Fox, Ron Goulart and others), but what really persuaded me was more than a hundred cards and letters pleading for Trudy’s return.

“A” for effort. I quickly noticed that most postmarks were from Ridgefield (where Jerry lived); and the same phrases popped up, like “Trudy is our favorite neighbor” and “Trudy is part of our Sunday mornings.”

Well. All cartoonists like to have their features in the local paper, and have (real) neighbors see it. I reinstated Trudy and, except perhaps for the Post Office, no one regretted that.

Several years later, after getting married, working for three syndicates in New York and Chicago, working as Editor for Marvel Comics and a writer for Disney; I moved back with wife and family to Connecticut. And back to weekly lunches with the cartoonists.

One day Jerry gave me an original Trudy daily panel (The Herald had folded, so I was not seeing it). It is reproduced here – Trudy answers the phone; the call is for her husband; but she monopolizes the call first with gossip. Jerry slipped in my name as the caller. Cool! You’d be surprised, or maybe not, how often this “inside” stuff happens in comics.


But – completely unknown to Jerry, the other names he plucked from the air, made the who caption too complicated to explain to relatives and friends. (I’d have to wait almost 40 years to share it here.) OK, the “Ted” is Trudy’s husband… but also my son’s name. “Nancy” is a generic name in the conversation… but also my wife’s name. “Betty,” another suburban name… is my sister’s name.

It looked like Jerry was doing a biography, or an obituary, of me and family. It was a great gesture, but the drawing went straight on the wall, tough to explain except to Mensa members once a month (and they are too dumb to remember the details).

When we moved from Connecticut, to take a teaching job in Philadelphia (College of Art, now University of the Arts), Jerry did a private drawing that was easier to explain. So special, and funny, and I used it as a change-of-address notification and for much else. Special is special, and it was specially colored too.

And since those days, Trudy has always been, after all, my favorite imaginary neighbor.

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Saturday, August 15, 2020

Propaganda in the Pulps –


The cheap fiction magazines grind the reactionary political ax in a way the slick-paper periodicals would never dare attempt

There are war manoeuvres on the lawn of the White House. Many pages in the pulps are given over to black scream newspaper headlines; they are effective… the pulp magazines are related to newsprint, not to the novel, swinging with the weather-vanes of headlines.

HB Ucello was a teacher in the New York City school system when he wrote ‘Propaganda in the Pulps,’ for the March 2, 1937 issue of the Stalinist magazine New Masses. One curious article in the same issue caught my eye. It was called ‘Where My Sympathy Lies’, by Henry Roth, author of one of my favorite novels of childhood; Call It Sleep. Of the then recent Soviet show trials of Trotskyites he writes

None maintained his innocence there, none became the accuser; no matter how brilliant, none was backed by principle, all confessed their guilt… I do not believe together with the Hearst Press that these men were under the influence of mesmerism or mysterious narcotics; therefore, I believe them to be, as they themselves acknowledged, guilty.

Well. We know now that all these confessions were pried from the accused lips through torture during the Great Purge. The fellow-travelers were left with egg on their faces once again when Hitler and Stalin signed their non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939. The editors of the New Masses twisted themselves into pretzels (not for the last time) explaining the “confusion” to their American anti-fascist comrades.

Stalin was an enlightened Man of Peace; how could such things be? When Germany broke the pact and invaded Russia, and the Americans and Russians became allies, there must have been a huge sigh of relief in the American camp. Communists buried their doubts and joined the Allied forces in droves.

We await with bated breath a detailed study of leftist propaganda in the cartoon saturated New Masses. It would be extremely educational.

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Sunday, August 9, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


Newspaperman.


By Rick Marschall

Pete Hamill died this week. 

There are people you can say about their passing – not many; and damn few about whom we can say this with genuine sincerity – that Pete didn’t die: he lived.

What I mean, of course, is that he savored life. In a way that few people have. He had gone through hell but wrote like an angel. He was self-aware but not self-important. It seemed like he had done everything, but always wanted to do more; and was not chary of admitting to unfulfilled dreams. He had the voice of a documentary narrator and the face of a war correspondent; a frankness only a street-wise Brooklynite could have; and the regrets of a heavy drinker. He had been all those things, and many more – columnist, fiction writer, editor, screenwriter, artist, interviewer, sportswriter. Work informed his life, just as life informed his work. Even when he gave up drinking, he wrote a book about it.



I have loved “old New York” since my youngest days, fed lore by my mother’s father, whose German parents had owned a grocery store off Times Square, “where Stern’s built their department store,” I was told a thousand times in melancholy; and now even Stern’s is forgotten. Pete was born in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and eventually worked around the world, but never left New York City even when he was away from New York City. He worked for the Daily News and the New York Post and sipped coffee at other metropolitan dailies and weeklies.

What Jacob Riis and Stephen Crane and O Henry and Bruno Lessing and O O McIntyre and Damon Runyon once were to New York City, Pete Hamill was, two generations later… but, like an ink-stained Phoenix, he was not the reincarnation of any of them, but all of them. He touched on politics; he wrote fiction; he knew the underbelly; he knew the glamour and grunge, the soaring hopes and crushing defeats; he was a cynic and a dreamer and a poet – a rare hat-trick.


We became friends and discussed the lore and trivia of “little old New York,” whose glamour to me as a scholar and collector ended in the Roaring Twenties. For Pete, his fascination was always as fresh and intense as last night’s deadline.

He had attended the School of Visual Arts, where I taught years later; and he occasionally spoke to my classes. About what?

Oh, I have neglected to share a major passion of his life: comics. Pete Hamill loved comics. He wanted to a be cartoonist. He especially loved the work of Milton Caniff, and loved Milt. We traded original artwork, and every Noel Sickles Scorchy Smith original I ever owned wound up on Pete’s wall. 


His life was hectic in the 1980s – I think it never was not hectic – the News, the Village Voice, editing a paper in Mexico City (!)… and we almost pulled off some collaborations. Projects, anyway; he wanted to write the Foreword to my book collection of Caniff’s complete Dickie Dare, but he blew the deadline. Same with a Foreword to one of my Terry and the Pirates reprints. Regrets on both sides. He urged me to reprint his stories, semi-autobiographical of course, on growing up as an aspiring cartoonist, loving Sickles and Caniff. 

There were other points of contact (for instance, Al Capp’s family had reached out to me about working on a movie, and I connected with Pete… At another time, I arranged to have him invited to the Lucca Comics salon in Italy...) but I will let some of his letters tell those stories. I hope they reproduce well. I am so proud of his “fan” letter when Nemo Magazine had its debut. He never got to write something new for us… but urged me to reprint his comics-and-nostalgia pieces, which we will do in the imminent, new, NEMO. Reciprocity; he wanted to find a way to reprint some of my work somewhere.



For years I was an addict of Imus In the Morning. Pete was an “I-Fave,” a frequent guest. Don Imus needled and made nervous almost every guest, from my new BFF Bernadette Castro, then the New York State Parks Commissioner, to President Clinton. But I never remember Imus being anything but almost reverent when Pete Hamill was a guest. OK, they shared some of the same battle scars, but so did many. So do many.

But Pete Hamill was nobility. His thrones were sidewalks and benches and his domains were forgotten parks and old storefronts, all with stories to tell. 



Pete inscribed his book of short pieces Invisible City to me: “I wish I could write as well as Noel Sickles could draw.” Oh, he did.


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