Sunday, October 14, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Gene Carr

by Rick Marschall

Carr became famous for his kids. They vaguely resembled those of Jimmy Swinnerton, but so did the characters of Dink Shannon and other cartoonists. Eventually they became constant cast members of Lady Bountiful’s adventure, and by the ‘teens virtually took over her strip.

A Used Carr Salesman

(Gene Carr, Pioneer Strip Cartoonist)

An early memory has reminded me, or begrudgingly persuaded me, that one of the wellsprings of my interest in cartoons was my first-grade teacher, when I was growing up in Closter NJ. 

(baseball drawing) Carr’s kids, ca 1908. He became so associated with gamins that a reprint book of his social-commentary cartoons in the 1920s was nevertheless titled “Kid Kartoons.”
Mrs Kuenlin was without a doubt one of the most unpleasant harpies I ever knew beyond the immediate circle of my wife’s family. In appearance, she looked like she had been weaned on a pickle, to borrow Alice Roosevelt Longworth’s description of Calvin Coolidge (in a dozen years I would get to know “Princess Alice” herself; Theodore Roosevelt’s colorful daughter). Anyway, Mrs Kuenlin was a blue-ribbon witch, probably planting the seeds of my subsequent detestation of classrooms and state education. 

I never saw her smile but once… and therein my tale.

Carr illustrated several books in the first decade of the century. These two, 1903 and 1904, were slightly naughty for the day.
One of my classmates’ mothers brought in a scrapbook of her father’s published cartoons. I remember: it was the work of Gene Carr, who at the turn of the century had drawn Lady Bountiful and other pioneering strips. He later drew the social-realist Metropolitan Movies for the New York World. And at this time, a few years before his death, he was still cartooning, selling gags to the Saturday Evening Post.

The scrapbook was never shared with us students, naturally. Even if my friend’s mom would have allowed it, Mrs Kuenlin would have withheld it just to disappoint the little inmates of Hillside School. But the effect of those cartoons on Cruella deTeach astonished me: Mrs Kuenlin’s face lit up; she smiled; she actually laughed occasionally.

“Down By the Sea,” early 1920s newspaper panel. Carr inherited the social-commentary panel “Metropolitan Movies,” originated in the New York World by George Rehse, and later drawn by Denys Wortman. They usually dealt in irony or pathos rather than laughs.

Gee. Cartoons could have that power.

After a Crowded Life as an avid collector – amassing piles of Gene Carr’s Sunday pages for Pulitzer and Hearst; scores of comic post cards; political cartoons and social-commentary cartoons for the dailies; Broadway shows based on his creations; and magazine cartoons into his nonage and my youngage – I cannot see his signature without the ancient but not faded magic associated with his name.

Gene Carr inscribed his “Chorus Girl” book to his fiancee – predictably with a sketch of one his famous Kids, not the Chorus Girl.

And the power of cartoons to make even gargoyles smile. 
Carr advertisement for the Photographer of Celebrities Pirie McDonald featuring his iconic Lady Bountiful, the comics’ version of the Gibson Girl. 1904. She starred in Sunday comics variously in the Hearst and Pulitzer papers before settling in the New York World.



Saturday, October 13, 2018

Segar Dead for 80 Years

by Chris Beneke

Eighty years after his premature death on October 13, 1938, at the age of 43, Elzie Crisler Segar’s corpus cries out for exhumation and re-examination.

Segar reclaimed his immortal comic creations, wasted for decades babysitting the kids, before the startled eyes of contemporary readers, thanks to not one but two Fantagraphics series reprinting Segars complete Thimble Theatre with Popeye, beginning in 1984 with a suitably shabby black-and-white-only eleven-volume series. The six-volume set with original newspaper colors produced earlier this millennium is definitive. In Segars deft hands, Popeye, Wimpy, and the rest were revelatory, imbued with surprisingly adult passions and moved to often hilarious results.

There's more Thimble Theatre without Popeye, however, than there is Thimble Theatre with Popeye by Segar, and the continued neglect of this earlier material tarnishes today’s claim to being a golden age of comic reprints.

This neglect will be partially corrected by the forthcoming Sunday Press compilation of nearly half of the pre-Popeye Thimble Theatre Sunday pages, at their original published size and in their original colors, including the complete two-year-long adventure of Castor Oyl and Ham Gravy cowboying out west. This sequence was a favorite of Bill Blackbeard (he counted 1,700 panels on its 104 pages; was he right?) and its ending, with Castor and Ham returning home to discover Olive on Popeye in flagrante delappo, marked Popeye's takeover of both Olives fickle affections and the Sunday page. Popeye had taken over the distinct continuity of the dailies on August 5, 1929, more than six months after his debut, minus a month when Segar had abandoned his immortal sailor as just another bizarre supporting player.

Segar, unlike any other classic American comic strip artist, still provokes audible, belly-shaking laughter. Even Herriman, who is certainly appreciated more now than when he was living, pales besides Segars wicked, occasionally deadly funnybone. Segar and his characters engaged with harsh realities, where oversized fisks smacked faces that stayed smacked. They made no retreat to magical mesas, where mice chase cats and poetical bricks, hurled with hate, land on heads with strange, platonic love. In Segars deserts, unlike Herrimans, vultures always lurk, waiting to eat or be eaten. Herrimans currency, printed on preciousness with whimsy, could never buy Wimpy a hamburger not today, not Tuesday.

Segar trucked in tougher stuff: Nature, of the aminal or hoomin kind, indifferent to the suffering of others, either satisfied or thwarted his protagonists raw drives and baser instincts. Amorality and criminality could be the answer, and often was, if survival was the question.

Segars bent for black humor enlivens his comics for modern audiences uniquely. No other pre-underground cartoonist is within shouting distance of his darkness, though Carl Barks, a Segar fan who, like Segar, concocted both long adventures and hilarious vignettes, passed through the neighborhood in his best duck stories, especially those produced during and after his second marriage dissolved.  

If that underground comparison seems specious, look again at Crumb’s early underground characters: They emerge from the same dank, bigfoot gene-pool from which Segar supped; Mr. Natural, much more a wiseass than Ahern’s lookalike nameless hitchhiker, and O. G. Wotasnozzle might not have been separated at birth, but they shared a mother.

Black humor was the descriptor used repeatedly by Bill Blackbeard in his multiple appreciations of Segar’s work. But this term was coined by Surrealist Andre Breton around 1940, in the airs of Segar’s last breath, for an anthology of the progenitors and proponents of this previously unnamed essential component of surrealist thought and art. Black humor, which fearlessly goes to extremes in pursuit of the liberating effects of laughter, survives as an idea, while surrealism (and its iterations) has been corrupted by misuse (e.g., since everything became surreal, whenever that was). That mysterious box shall be left unopened, unlike the other boxes from Uncle Ben Zene Oyl.

Three pre-Popeye Thimble Theatre runs of dailies, totaling a scant sixteen weeks, perhaps 96 strips (You count the panels!), have snuck into contemporary reprints since the early 1980s. Two of those sequences are from 1928, the year that Bernice the Whiffle Hen arrived, to be quickly followed by that whiffle-rubbing sailor man.

Blackbeard’s summary of the pre-Popeye Thimble Theatre storylines in Nemo #3 (1983) remains provocative and probably the most complete overview of that era of the strip, thanks to select reproductions of choice samples, including a few Popeye precursors who share his asymmetrical facial features but lack his personality. This issue also includes 15 episodes of Castor’s exasperating stint as a newspaper editor trying to hire a cartoonist. Blackbeard included a longer (24 total!) but jumbled selection of this sequence in Kitchen Sink’s Comic Strip Century (1995).

Fantagraphics’ first reprinting of the daily strips, The Complete E.C. Segar Popeye, Volume Five (1987), begins two months before Bernice’s arrival, the starting point for the dailies in the second complete reprinting. Ham Gravy is in conniving proto-Wimpy mode, wooing a rich old crone, and driving jealous Olive from delusional stalking into fits of lunaphobic madness.

The U.K.-published Popeye The 60th Anniversary Collection includes five 1924 weeks (January 22 through February 27) of the Blizzard the fighting bird story that had begun in 1923 and would end in early July.

In these earlier episodes, the nuanced characterization and more assured graphic stylization that would arrive with Popeye and Wimpy is missing, but the strange situations and idiosyncratic gags, all flaunting social niceties, abound, as do the laughs. Scour mounds of moldering newsprint for a similar achievement: You will find nothing.

The flowering of genius that birthed Popeye surprised even Segar; he seemed content to abandon the sailor man and wend his merry way, as he’d been doing for nearly ten years, in relative obscurity. Had Segar died before he birthed his sailor man, these earlier Thimble Theatre dailies would have already enlightened our world with their dark laughter, probably among Bill Blackbeard’s overly ambitious 1977 Hyperion Press re-printings.

Popeye and Wimpy reign as cartoon icons, transcending their original medium, and recognized worldwide like few other comic characters. But the talent, if not genius, that created them was evident years before: In similarly sharp scripts acted by understudies, dress rehearsals without superstars. A complete Thimble Theatre before Popeye is too-long overdue.

Thimble Theatre and the pre-Popeye comics of E.C. Segar

Introduction by Paul C. Tumey with essays by Jeet Heer and Michael Tisserand.

Available now for pre-order – books ship around November 1st

144 pages, 13 x 17 inches, $85

Order HERE

Friday, October 12, 2018

Sunday with Frank King

Gasoline Alley
Frank King
Chicago Tribune
July 2, 1933

July 24, 1938 advertisement

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Sunday with R.F. Outcault

Clarence Rigby
R.F. Outcault

New York Herald
August 11, 1901

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Last Word in Twentieth-Century Fun

–July 31, 1920

–September 22, 1917

–April 17, 1920

–August 27, 1921

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Leading Figures in American Journalism – 1917

–Billy DeBeck and Rudolph Block sail for Europe, Editor and Publisher, April 15, 1922–

Leading Figures in American Journalism
The Editor & Publisher
 for October 27, 1917

[1] Col. James Elveson, JR, Robert R. McCormick, V.S. McClatchy

[2] Frank A. Munsey, James Gordon Bennett, WM. Randolph Hearst, James Keeley

[3] Ralph Pulitzer, Lieut. Joseph Medill Patterson, Don C. Seitz

[4] Arthur Brisbane, Franklin P. Adams, Rudolph Block

[5] F.B. Opper, Grace Drayton, Maurice Ketten, Tom McNamara, Gene Carr, Thomas A. Dorgan, Winsor McCay

[6] Miss Hallmark, Rose O'Neill, Frank A. Eaton, Sara Moore

[7] Charles M. Graves, Sam T. Hughes, Moses Koenigsberg

[8] Rudolph Dirks, George McManus, Gus Mager, Clare Briggs, Grantland Rice

[9] R.F. Outcault, Walter Hoban, Harry Hershfield, J.N. Wheeler, J. Campbell Cory

[10] Bud Fisher, Walter R. Allman, Dan Smith, Cliff Sterrett, C.H. Wellington

[11] Nixola Greeley Smith, Ada Patterson, Mary Pickford, Fontaine Fox

[12] Rube Goldberg, James Swinnerton, Tom Powers, Helen Rowland, Jay N. Darling. Jean Knott


Sunday, September 30, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Roy Crane

Captain Easy by Roy Crane
Roy Crane, Father of the Adventure Strip

by Rick Marschall

When I was growing up – yes, I have grown up; grown older, anyway – my father nurtured my interest in comics, a vicarious interest, I eventually realized. He indulged and encouraged my drawing, collecting, and… reaching out to living, breathing cartoonists. When I was young, some of the ink-stained idols of his youth were still alive.

Annual vacations to Florida invariably included visits, usually one or two days, to cartoonists. I would arrange them beforehand, and my mother and sisters resented them, of course. The visits invariably were on the last one or two days before we headed the station wagon back toward New Jersey.

Every year, Frank King would be one of the stops, supplemented by other artists like Roy Crane, Les Turner and Mel Graff around Orlando; Lank Leonard and Zack Mosley on the east coast; Fred Lasswell in Tampa. In Florida I met Jim Ivey, cartoonist and collector, whose historical publications and local museums influenced me greatly – second in inspiration to his vast knowledge, big heart, and generous spirit.

These visits, and their resultant friendships, will be fodder for occasional future Crowded Life installments. One I will share here is about Roy Crane.

It was a privilege to know Roy, whom I realized before I met him was a special talent. His strips were cinematic; his scripts were taut, or funny, as the most compelling of novels; his early Sunday pages were marvels of layout, composition, and colors; his famous use of Craftint and Duo-Tone shading tools were astonishing, creating photographic effects otherwise unseen in the funnies; he pioneered the continuity strip, and its sub-categories of action and adventure. Did I mention that he drew the most alluring women in the comics, before or since?

–Buz Sawyer by Roy Crane
The serendipitous “right place at the right time” nature of my youth enabled me to acquire early tearsheets of Roy’s work – Wash Tubbs; Captain Easy; Buz Sawyer; and Rosco Sweeney Sundays. The latter two ran in the New York Journal American, attracting my attention… but it was his early work that floated my boat.

Roy almost felt the same way, by the time I met him in the 1960s. He had retired, for the most part, although his name still appeared on the strips. In his waning days on Captain Easy he grew similarly overwhelmed and, frankly, discouraged. When newsprint shortages and syndicate strictures dictated that he compose the Sunday page according to a template, he said, all the fun went out of it.

Already the Sunday page duty was “the straw that breaks camels’ backs,” he said – seven deadlines a week, not six. But the fun of constructing pages with enormous splash panels, random arrangements, and circular panels, had been an exhilarating counter-balance.

On my first visit, our vacation-loaded car had gotten lost in the winding roads that wove around steamy Orlando’s many lakes. Pre-GPS, of course; and my father was growing steamy himself. When we finally arrived at Roy’s house, I was so unnerved that I asked at the door, “M-Mr Ray Croyne? I am Mick Marschall.”

Roy Crane sketch
Despite the tropical heat I soon cooled, and Roy’s wife Ebba brought us sweet tea. Roy’s studio was stacked high with books, artwork, and boxes. Not a dream: he was one of the first cartoonists contacted by Syracuse University to donate his work. He was happy, he said, to make room around the studio and house. In such a mood, he offered me some mementos – daily and Sunday originals; a Big Little Book (despite having been inscribed to his daughter, “To Marcia from Pop” back in the 1940s); and sketches he drew.

He casually vouchsafed some gossip. He listed other cartoonists who lived in the area – Leslie Turner, who inherited Captain Easy, was probably his closest friend – and offered to make introductions in my subsequent vacations (I was glad my mother and sisters were in the car and didn’t hear that). He said that many of the local cartoonists would meet for lunch at least once a week… but I remember he mentioned that Mel Graff, the Secret Agent X-9 artist whose style attempted an amalgam of Crane and Caniff, generally was excluded. “Drinking problem.” (I subsequently had enjoyable visits with a very sober Graff, however.)

The mention of Caniff recalls another casual comment that I was interested to hear. Two of our story-strip idols, Roy Crane and Milton Caniff, really did not get along. Or something more serious than that. A part of Roy’s antipathy stemmed from his being lured from the NEA Service and Captain Easy to join King Features where he created Buz Sawyer. The principal bait was “You will be OUR Caniff” (who was still drawing Terry and the Pirates for the Chicago Tribune). However, KFS simultaneously was courting Caniff… their strips (Milt created Steve Canyon) had debuts almost at the same time… and Buz Sawyer never DID receive the push that Canyon did.

(Frank Robbins, one of the best of the Caniff clones, was lured away from Scorchy Smith at the same time, with the same promise, to create Johnny Hazard; and similarly was resentful. Neither Crane nor Robbins was completely angry, as King was a great home, even despite the false premises and promises.)

I kept in touch through the years, and would see Roy at events like Reuben dinners and Jim Ivey’s OrlandoCon. Once, at dinner with Roy and Jud Hurd, at a posh New York restaurant, I asked Roy about the Landon Correspondence School. It was one of the great mail-order cartooning courses, and Roy took lessons but also became an “instructor,” taking the drawings of students and mailing back suggestions and corrections. (By the way, I am writing a book for Fantagraphics on the history of these great schools.)

–Rick Marschall, Jud Hurd, Claude Moliterni and Roy Crane
Old man Landon was to some degree a charlatan, because Roy said a major function of the mail-order course was to discover talent, and seamlessly recruit cartoonists for Cleveland newspapers and the nascent syndicate NEA Service.

This dinner was sometimes in the 1970s, and I think I was Comics Editor of Publishers Newspaper Syndicate then. I wish I had had a camera or even a mere tape recorder at the table, because Roy was inspired to go theatrical. He said that Old Man Landon always wore detachable celluloid cuffs on his shirt sleeves… and Roy pulled his suit jacket sleeves way up. He said that Landon had a ridiculously high-pitched voice… that he proceeded to imitate, loudly. He emphasized the circus-barker routines of Landon… recreating every aspect of  his pitches. And so forth. Hilarious.

Roy Crane was a man without shadow of guile; casual, friendly, generous, and funny. Oh – and talented. Like nobody else, hardly, in all the comics. Charles Schulz’s primary affection, by the way. And mine; and many future cartoonists.



Saturday, September 29, 2018

Sunday with Little Orphan Annie

Harold Gray
Star Weekly
May 25, 1963


Sunday With Rudy Dirks

The Katzenjammer Kids

Rudy Dirks
Chicago Examiner
Nov 29, 1908


Sunday, September 23, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson


by Rick Marschall

International Batman Day was observed recently. Holy contrivance! (There. I have gotten that cliché or meme out of the way.) My “mind” swung back to some Gotham memories.

I met Bob Kane in the late 1960s or early 1970s. As young as I was, I was known a little bit as a collector of comics and original art in the New York City area, at Phil Seuling conventions and such. I think it was at one of those cons, or maybe through a friend-of-a-friend, that we met. It seemed strange to me, but not unwelcome, and neither a rare occurrence with professional cartoonists back then, that an older, established cartoonist would want to discuss old comic strips, and pick my brain.

Especially a cartoonist who was a legend. Which Bob Kane told me he was. Several times.

He had a small collection of newspaper-strip art; or I should say one time I visited him in his Manhattan apartment, he had several magnificent originals. He must have scored in a great trade. He wanted to sell them, but I had not the money they were worth. We DID trade – he was a tough bargainer – and I forget most of the pieces I gave up or received. There was a Calkins Buck Rogers I received; and pre-Popeye Segars. Sappo or The Five-Fifteen; and a magnificent but primitive (as per most early Segar) Looping the Loop. (A few years later the Segars were stolen from my portfolio as I made convention rounds behind dealers’ tables. I was always fairly certain which dealer lifted them… but we all have stories full of “sighs” through the years…)

Back to Bob Kane, and two strange aspects of visits.

One: after our trade, he owed me value-money or more artwork, and nothing he offered was of interest to me. I believe we had a $600 difference. No worries, he assured me; he would send me a check. A “spoiler”: short of hiring the We Never Sleep collection agency, I could not squeeze a nickel out of him.

Fast-forward three years or so, and I was Comics Editor at United Feature Syndicate. Later syndication jobs were more demanding and responsible – but some day I will tell the story, here, of how I made a MAJOR goof, editing a Peanuts Sunday page at UFS. But one of the chores at UFS was reviewing submissions when they arrived for consideration. Most were by aspiring cartoonists, and a few by veterans looking for new fields to conquer. One envelope surprised me: the return address was “Bob Kane” in the city,  lettered with predictable flourish.

In the envelope were samples of – not a crime, suspense, or superhero feature – but a panel; a humor panel; and the “star” was an Archie Bunker type character. Beer in hand, in front of the TV, the guy spouted off complaints in every panel. One detail I have omitted: these were about the worst-drawn cartoons imaginable. It hardly seemed possible, because (as the blind cover letter stated) Bob Kane was a legend of cartooning.

I don’t mean to claim the duplicity of a Gotham villain… but saw an opportunity to exercise Justice. The package was not addressed to me, but “Comics Editor”; Bob had no idea what paths I took during the years he was evading his obligation. I will plead guilty to the following string of events:

I called Bob Kane, and identified myself as the Comics Editor at United Features. God help me, I told a white lie, and said I reviewed his samples and was interested – well, actually, I WAS interested, in a certain way. “Yes? Yes?” Bob responded, seemingly ready to throw Batman under the bus forever. Then I introduced myself… and invited him to remember our exchanges (or incomplete exchanges).

He vaguely remembered – he said – me and the original art he traded away and received. But he was “happy” to complete the deal and would send a check. He actually did so, within the week. Eventually I will get back to him about his submission.

The second interesting occurrence was related to a sketch of Batman and Robin. I think it was during my first visit. He asked if I would like a drawing of Batman. Sure; thank you! He brought out a huge sheet of Ross Board (a drawing paper with a patterned grain), and with a Flair pen, in one corner started drawing the famous outline of Batman’s head, bat-ears (or whatever they are) and all… until the right “ear” was drawn shorter than the one on the left.

A curse under his breath, and Bob spun the paper and started drawing in another corner. A similar discrepancy. To myself, I thought, “Why not do a pencil preliminary?” and “Hasn’t he drawn Batman a million times?”

– Adam West, Bob Kane, Frank Gorshin– 

The fourth time was a charm. There was Batman. There was Robin. There was the inscription, the date, the signature. He handed the whole sheet to me… almost. Before I could accept it, he held it back and asked, “You know I usually get $250 for these sketches. I get requests from museums.” I looked at the famous creator of Batman, and politely declined – maybe the first such person to do so that week – and reminded him that I did not ask for, or commission, that artwork. Of course I am not sorry that my disinclination was unsuccessful. The piece is now on my wall. My response was not a bluff, but mirrored my offense at his revelation as an old-fashioned schnorrer, not a world-beloved creator. He yielded, however, out of generosity and, probably, regretting that he had already committed my name to the piece, in effect ruining it for the next potential customer.

Not too long afterward, and not related at all, I became friends with Jerry Robinson. He had worked with Kane on Batman when he was a teenager. Jerry, first as background artist and letterer, rose quickly to do major art duties and even is credited with the conceptions for Robin and the Joker. When he laterally switched from Kane’s employ to DC Comics, he worked with other eventual friends of mine: George Roussos; Siegel and Shuster; Jack Kirby. He eventually worked everywhere, seemingly – political cartoons, newspaper humor panels, syndicated strips, book illustrations. In fact when I first met Jerry, my initial enthusiasm was to shake the hand of the guy who illustrated a schoolboy favorite of mine, the Scholastic paperback Moon Trip.

Jerry, who clearly wore several hats, as well as toupees, was president of both the National Cartoonists Society and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. I assisted him with research on his history book The Comics. I probably saw him, in later years, more often at overseas comics festivals than in the US. (He operated an international syndicate of editorial cartoonists, enabling him to make frequent foreign trips.)

He drew a sketch of Batman for me, too, and did not hint anything about the going rate.

A final Batman memory. A few years after leaving Marvel Comics, and never having been associated with DC – despite having several good friends whom I respected there – I was asked to write the Foreword for the first volume of their DC Archives series. The first Batman volume. I was known, certainly, more as a historian than as a Batman fan, so that evidently was their motivation.

… and I dove in, with appropriate response, feeling honored and responsible. As I remember, my assistant at Remco Worldservice Books would camera-sep and clean up the old pages too; part of the deal. I talked to many cartoonists, including Jerry; I researched antecedents of fiction and the stage whose personas foreshadowed the Bat Man; I considered the feature’s unique (if possibly unintentional) focus on revenge, at least equal to justice; and – I think gave Bill Finger a portion of credit before justice was eventually accorded him. I was proud of the piece.

The DC Archives now number in the skillions of titles, it seems. My casual relationship with Batman enabled me to be part of another origin story (so to speak). Eventually I saw Bob Kane at a Comicon, and had him sign a copy. He did indifferently, making no claims; charging me no signing fee.