Monday, October 19, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


Bob Weber, 

Forever the Cartoon Fan.

Rick Marschall.

“A Crowded Life,” by definition, is a personal column. It shares personal memories about the most public of expressions, Cartoonists, Dik Browne once said to me, are curious creatures, choosing to live and work in solitude, yet presenting their conceptions of what what is funny, what is interesting, what is memorable, with the entire world. Cartoonists are, like many actors are, basically shy and private; yet they expose their work, their confidence in its acceptance, they expose themselves, to a world that might be waiting expectantly, or… ready to ignore or criticize.

Odd people, cartoonists: men and women who are pixie-dusted combinations of introversion and audacity.

I suspect these semi-philosophical thoughts, although somewhat pertinent this week, are a form of evasion. I have to address yesterday’s news, as I write: the death of Bob Weber. “All good things must come to an end”? I suppose that fits, but it doesn’t alleviate the grief. Bob embodied a lot of good things, and was good – a good cartoonist; a good friend; a good friend and teacher; a good father; he was even a good procrastinator, maybe the best in a profession rife with them.

He was always ready with a smile, a story, and a memory. He was always ready to go to lunch or dinner or midnight snack, not to much to eat as to fraternize. He never outgrew a child’s delight in discovering new cartoons (even if they were 120 years old), discussing styles, meeting and encouraging young artists. He was serious about being silly but – last but not at all least – he was a craftsman who cared about his work, the personality of his characters, the feelings of readers.

Bob taught cartooning at local libraries and schoolrooms in Baltimore and, later, Westport CT, and even the Smithsonian (despite always mangling the pronunciation of “Smithsonian”). He was generous in praise of other cartoonists; his favorite probably was John Gallagher. I have seen him recall Gallagher gag cartoons, possibly for the hundredth time, yet quake with laughter as if he first saw each one.

There were times – I think overlapping – when he would have his good friend (humanity’s good friend) Orlando Busino ghost some Moose dailies and Sundays… while Bob pitched in on his son’s own feature Comics For Kids: Slylock Fox and crew. Crazy merry-go-‘round? Sure! All cartooning, all fun.

Bob was a big, hulking guy well over six feet tall. A beetle brow and Elvis-like pompadour and duck-ass hair. He came from Baltimore, a modest family and a brother whose lifelong hobby was racing pigeons. He wanted me to ask Al Kaline, after I got to meet and sketch the Hall of Famer, if he remembered Bob from the high school they attended together, but Al died before I could.

When the cartooning bug overtook Bob he attended the School of Visual Art in New York City, I think while it was still Cartoonists and Illustrators, and I think with Orlando and with Jerry Marcus, lifelong friends. He submitted to The Saturday Evening Post and other outlets his heroes and friends did.

I began to describe Bob physically, which is a fun part of this task. He always kept the hair; and his outfits of huge buffalo-nickel belt buckles and good-old-boy string ties never were mothballed. In the toney artists community and celebrity-thick Westport CT, he… was one of a kind. What came with the package was a Southerner’s persona, unapologetic and joyful. I attended many country-music concerts with Bob and discussed endlessly our favorite songs and singers and critiques; he loved Merle Haggard but told me he regretted the line from “Big City,” Keep your retirement and your so-called So-cial Security. “Some people really need that,” he cried. Sometimes Bob and Jean, my wife Nancy and me, and Gill and Helen Fox, would spend evenings in country-western bars (yes, Westport had them).

One Saturday morning Bob called me, said he learned that bluegrass pioneer Mac Wiseman was playing at a country fair somewhere in mid-Connecticut that afternoon. That’s all it took – we drove up, spent a lot of time talking to Mac between his shows, and wound our way back home, drenched in Americana.

Part of the formula that made, or maintained, King Features Syndicate as a powerhouse in the 1950s and ‘60s, was Comic Editor’s Sylvan Byck’s idea to recruit gag cartoonists from the magazines’ golden age. Pick the pockets, so to speak, of the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, and let the panel cartoonists loose. Those “minor leagues,” and ad-agency cartoonists, swelled the pages of the funny papers.

One of the call-ups was Bob Weber, surely with some of the funniest drawings and funniest gags of the lot. Sylvan once told me that he thought King should have an “answer” to Hall Syndicate’s Andy Capp, and he thought Bob Weber was the perfect cartoonist to create a lovable American counterpart – not exactly industrious; a character who had friction with neighbors; a good heart. A perfect marriage, of cartoonist and creation, at least. Moose was a classic, as it morphed to Moose Miller its became less cliched and more human; finally, as Moose and Molly, it became warm and fuzzy – but also more surreal, as Moose’s unkempt yard sprouted chicken bones, fish heads, fried eggs, and stray cats.

Only in recent months, because of dwindling newspapers and Bob’s dwindling youth (he was 87) Moose and Bob retired, a sad good-bye we noted in these columns.

I had planned to write a few words and then pick my own pocket – cut-and-paste some of the stories and memories, many from these columns. But Bob Weber stories are many, even without repeating much. I will reprint some of the drawings from through the years. (Sometimes, even when he was tight on deadlines [always] and he knew we’d see each for lunch in a few days, he would send a clipping or news item – and invariably festoon the envelopes with bold and colorful real images and faux-promos for Moose.)

So I will share some of the artwork, which says more about Bob than any of my stories. I think the first time we met was at an early Comic Convention in New York City – Seuling’s I think; maybe at the Taft – and he was with Gill Fox. I was with a portfolio full of old artwork. Fast-forward from the ‘60s to recently, a lunch (of course) in Westport (of course) with Orlando Busino (of course) and some new friends like Sean Kelly.

I have referred to Bob’s son Bob Jr, whose ambition and success have, if anything, built upon his father’s, but whose sense of humor – and drawing style – are the old man’s. When Bob Jr and Lisa lived in Westport we would see each other not always in cartooning contexts; and Bob Jr accompanied me to men’s Bible studies and such. In the golden threads of life, the timeline from SatEvePost to Moose to Comics For Kids, and other creations of Bob Jr, is a solid one. Bob Weber’s legacy is not only countless magazine gags and decades of the Moose comic strip, but Bob Weber, Jr., his proudest legacy.

And a final observation about Bob Weber: this is the first time he ever has made any of us sad.


Friday, October 9, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Chi è quell'uomo?

Rick Marschall.

I have been blessed to participate in cartoon festivals, book fairs, and comic conventions around the world. The first for me was Lucca 13 in Tuscany, in1978. I was sent by Stan Lee to scout for artists and properties for the a-borning Epic Illustrated. The trip yielded results – for instance, a strip by Mirko Ilić, the Bosnian artist who subsequently became Art Director of The New York Times Op-Ed page; Art Director of TIME International; and is in MOMA’s permanent collection. And I negotiated Marvel properties with other publishers in Germany and Denmark.

But I returned to Lucca many times, sometimes as the American co-representative with David Pascal; then, often, solo on juries and as speaker; and later at Rinaldo Traini’s ExpoCartoon in Rome. I also attended, for visits, speeches, or awards, at Angouleme, Erlangen, Prague, Frankfurt, Bologna, and elsewhere. Comics + Travel (oh, + food + wine too) makes a Crowded Life easy to take.

A privilege was meeting the world’s greatest cartoonists through the years. I will chronicle Lucca here, especially, and Rinaldo Traini, when I gather my chicks: many stories to tell about this remarkable festival and its great Director. To come.

A lingering mystery is whether I was being watched at those festivals. Not spied upon – I am not paranoiac – but observed, sketched? My friends think so, unanimously about one instance, among the friends I ask.  But I don’t know…

One of the world’s great comic artists, the modest and urbane Italian Vittorio Giardino, is a master of artwork, and of storytelling, pacing, and dialog. His characters are genuine types and accessible. Vittorio’s scenarios are as mature as great novels of the ‘30s, and his graphic narration is on a par with the best movie-makers. As a designer, to use the European parlance, his artwork is realistic though slightly linear – to keep it as comic art – and his coloring employs stunning techniques; for instance, in night scenes, and the interplay of sunlight and shadows upon figures. In short, a master.

His characters have included the memorable and parodic Little Ego; the pre-War risk-taker Max Fridman; the detective Sam Pezzo; and Jonas Fink, a 1950s counterpart of Fridman, a Jew in Communist Prague.

Vittorio has also created uncountable shorter tales for magazines, some purely episodic and with characters exclusive to those stories alone. And that returns us to this column’s “mystery” mentioned above.

One year at Lucca, Vittorio presented me with an album of his work, the lavish paperback (with double-wraparound cover of a beautiful women in a gondola in Venice), entitled Vacances Fatales (this was the French reprint).

I was not familiar with any of the stories, all of which had appeared in European monthly comic magazines, so I eagerly feasted back in my hotel room that night. The rest of this tale is completely subjective, told only from my point of view. I report; you decide.

Two of the stories featured characters that looked very much like the guy I knew from many mornings, in the mirror as I shaved. The same lurking double chin; the same beard; the same Western boots that I favored at the time (and Italians infrequently did); even, in one story, a professorial tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows (I was, ahem, a teacher at the School of Visual Arts at the time). A pretentious scarf. Even my dopey little nose. One story had a spot-on setting, without identification, of beautiful Lucca in Autumn, atop the ancient walls.

Mostly flattered, I found Vittorio the next day, thanked him, and quickly asked – too quickly – why he had “me” killed in each story. More than that, “I” was a skunk and enjoyed sex and some gun-play and fist-fights in each story before justice was served.

If I hadn’t asked so quickly, I might have received a different response, which seemed to me a somewhat nervous denial that I inspired either character. So I accept Vittorio’s eye-blinking protestations of innocence... and have been disappointed at the Official Version ever since. Friends “see” me, and I was ready to be flattered… up to the point of being unable to share the stories with my grandchildren!

Well, I’ll share some panels, and let the jury decide. I also dug out a couple photos of me from the approximate era. One with Bosnian publisher Ervin Rustemagic at the Frankfurt Book Fair, pranking about some forgotten money matter; and one with Virginia Davis, the “Alice” of Disney’s pre-Mickey cartoons (I brought her to Lucca one year), and friend Jassanne Wallace, then of the Circle Galleries.

Compare. Maybe, of course, I am fooling – or flattering – myself. If you don’t see any resemblances, then you at least have some glorious comic artwork by Vittorio Giardino to enjoy. And that’s never a bad thing, in any language, even when the protagonist gets killed... 


Thursday, October 8, 2020

Behind the Scenes –

Tour of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Thanks to Huib van Opstal

Sunday, October 4, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 The Best Of the West.

Rick Marschall.

My good friend Ferd Johnson, about whom I will write copiously here was a talented and funny cartoonist, who began assisting on Moon Mullins while his bullpen pal at the Chicago Tribune was still assisting Sidney Smith on The Gumps. Ferd was a working cartoonist before Little Orphan Annie was even created. Walking history when I knew him in the 1970s and ‘80s.

And his own strip, signed and full-page color Sunday, commenced about the same time as Annie. And that leads to this “Crowded Life” account. Ferd told me that Captain Patterson, owner of the Daily News, had an abiding belief among his myriad instincts about comics, that a Western strip would be a big hit. 

Potential “hit” or not, he had faith in the theme, and its inclusion among the News comics. So Ferd Johnson created Texas Slim. It was quite a funny strip, well drawn, full of broad visual humor and colorful characters and… resembling Moon Mullins out West. Logically.

When Ferd’s duties assisting Frank Willard on Moon grew too time-consuming – traveling around the country, inking while the boss golfed and drank – he gave up Texas Slim. (By the way, Willard often partied and golfed with Billy DeBeck and George McManus, so Ferd bonded with their assistants Fred Lasswell and Zeke Zekely, respectively.)

This Western obsession also explains the introduction of the classic White Boy / Skull Valley by Garrett Price, who returned to the Trib, where he was a member of the art staff in the late ‘teens.

The Trib experimented with a comic-book sized insert in the 1940s, and Patterson wanted Texas Slim revived; and Ferd did a great job with it. The Western theme still echoed in the corridors of Tribune Tower and another Western strip was launched – Vesta West

The only cause of Slim’s ultimate demise was the demise of Frank Willard… and Ferd was obliged to devote 100 per cent of his time on Moon Mullins.

I hope this has not seemed like a meandering calf needing to be lassoed and roped. The point of the Sagebrush Saga was told to me by Ferd Johnson. When Slim ended, the syndicate still wanted a Western strip in its “stable,” so to speak. 

By serendipity, a young cartoonist from Montana had just submitted samples – well-drawn, funny, and redolent of authenticity – of a cowboy strip. Ferd was not sure whether Stan Lynde ever knew about the coincidences… but that is how Rick O’Shay was born in the late 1950s (a time when TV Westerns were the rage, one season seeing more than 30 cowboys shows on the networks… a fact that did not hurt Stan’s chances, either).

Stan Lynde (whose name rhymed with “lined,” unlike the comedian Paul Lynde) built the strip around the young and somewhat naive sheriff Rick O’Shay; a diamond-in-the-rough gunslinger Hipshot, and side characters like the pretty saloon hostess Gaye Abandon.

My interactions with Stan were relatively often; however – like chapters in a Saturday morning serial – spread apart by intervening years.

When I was about 10 I wrote a fan letter, and Stan generously responded with a nice note and sketch; cherished, always tacked to my wall during high school years.

In 1961, Only around 12 years old, I attended my first National Cartoonists Society meeting, the guest of Al (Mutt and Jeff) Smith. In those days the monthly meeting in Manhattan were elaborate affairs, well attended, with entertainment and featuring a “Shop Talk,” where cartoonists from out of town, or perhaps celebrities who had something interesting to share, would speak and be interviewed. 

At that “inaugural” meeting of mine, Stan Lynde, “creator of that terrific new cowboy strip Rick O’Shay, and a living, breathing cowboy himself,” was the guest at the Shop Talk. He was gracious enough to spend one-on-one with me that evening, and we began a friendship that continued via the Pony Express, or its modern equivalent.

About a dozen years later I became Stan’s editor at the New York News – Chicago Tribune Syndicate. By then – bucking the trend in newspaper strips – the daily Rick O’Shay had evolved from being a humor strip, to a continuity and adventure strip. This reflected Stan’s literary development, intrigued by deeper narratives, serious conflicts, and characters with faceted personalities. He employed violence and emotional dilemmas; rough then, too rough for sissy editors and readers today. Good! but edgy. 

Stan’s art grew more sophisticated too; more realistic. Occasionally, in his efforts at exactitude, he would draw hands with six fingers or figures with two right hands. Such times gave me extra excuses to call his studio.

But attrition – lost papers – was ambushing Rick O’Shay. After I left the syndicate, so did he. After a dispute with his syndicate chiefs, he left, and Rick O’Shay was given to Alfredo Alcala to draw, 

I had moved on to be Comics Editor at Field Newspaper Syndicate in Chicago. Stan had new projects in mind, and many fans will recall his Latigo strip. I could not convince the dunce of a syndicate president, Dick Sherry, to consider Stan’s work while I was there. The sales staff loved it, and around 1970 it bought Latigo. And never promoted it much.

Subsequently I tried my hand at being an agent – taking strips to syndicates, sometimes helping to develop properties, and in the course of that work, and my contacts with European publishers – and Stan asked if I would show his work around. I did, through the offices of Edward J Keating, the legendary sport agent of Cleveland. I forget how he knew Stan (I think he owned a ranch in Montana), but we “schemed” the best we could to get a major publisher, a major syndicate, a major magazine to pick up Stan’s work, old or new. It was exceedingly frustrating.

It was during these years, I believe, that Stan found Jesus in a personal and powerful way, and forever after as a born-again believer, his faith animated his work as much as sagebrush and Western skies and cottonwood (he launched his own publishing imprint for books and graphics named Cottonwood).

So many of our conversations, and some hours spent I think in 1982 at San Diego Comicon, we talked about faith as much as about comics. I was writing books then, in a variety of fields, and Stan was to write, and not only draw, too – a series of respected fiction that is often compared favorably to Louis Lamour. 

Eventually, in a pattern that mirrors the success of Spaghetti Westerns, Stan Lynde’s work found a more receptive home in Europe. Especially in Scandinavia did his work appear in great variety… and longevity: his reprinted work still appears in journals.

In person, Stan was a plausible cowboy, a Gary Cooper type, the strong and silent stereotype. He died in 2013, aged 81. By then a respected painter and novelist – and, always, a strip cartoonist – I don’t know if he died “with his boots on,” or even at the drawing board. But if you can’t picture those scenarios… well, smile when you say that.


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

American Daredevil

 Comics, Communism, and the Battles of Lev Gleason

By John Adcock

“The (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) Constitution also guarantees by law freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of street processions and demonstrations, as well, of course, as freedom of religious worship.” – Lev Gleason, FBI File, July 21, 1943

“We shall never now be able to arrive at any judgment of the full scale of what took place, of the number who perished, or of the standard they might have attained. No one will ever tell us about the notebooks hurriedly burned before departures on prisoner transports, or of the completed fragments and big schemes carried in heads and cast together with those heads into frozen mass graves. Verses can be read, lips close to ear; they can be remembered, and they or the memory of them can be communicated. But prose cannot be passed on before its time. It is harder for it to survive. It is too bulky, too rigid, too bound up with paper, to pass through the vicissitudes of the Archipelago.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Books III-IV

American Daredevil is a book that left me more confused than enlightened. I can never take serious as history any biography that makes ample use of “creative license” to fill six pages with an imagined visit to Lev Gleason’s office by an FBI agent “in a plain gray suit and matching fedora… something of a caricature, he knew, but this was what he had always worn, and it felt comfortable.” Or putting imaginary words in Lev Gleason’s mouth as he barges unwittingly into his reception room, head buried in a newspaper: “Can you believe this news about McCarthy? He’s getting married in Washington next week, for God’s sake! That no good Roy Cohn is going to be an usher…” I’m also suspicious when I see that one of the author’s main sources is Marxist Howard Zinn’s thoroughly discredited anti-American screed A People’s History of the United States.

The author cannot quite face up to the fact that his “heroic” relative was a Communist at a time when all American communists were Stalinists, despite all the red flags that pop up in his sloppy narrative. In his view Gleason is a “New-Dealer,” a “progressive,” and an “anti-fascist.” Gleason claims outright at one point “I am not a communist.” Later he admits to the wily imaginary FBI agent that he was a communist from about 1936 to 1939, when he dropped out over the Stalin/Hitler pact. Yet in 1943 he was praising Soviet “freedoms” in his newspaper, a view that most Americans at the time knew was a lie (see opening quote above).

Anti-fascist is a neat obfuscation after all who wasn’t an anti-fascist in the west during World War II? I quit counting the author’s tiresome abuse of the term after 50 mentions. Gleason and the party would have defined an anti-fascist as someone who had fought in Spain against Franco under communist leadership. Where the term originated. To the American, British, and Canadian governments it was a war between two totalitarian governments which was why they stayed out of it. CPUSA on the other hand counted American Democrats and Republicans alike as fascists. That list of fascists included Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at least until his inexplicable formal recognition of the Soviet dictatorship on Nov 16, 1933.

On August 23, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union sign a non-aggression pact followed by a joint invasion of  Poland (starting WWII) and Stalin’s invasion of Finland and occupation of the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and parts of Romania. The American anti-fascists of the CPUSA and The Daily Worker either quit the party or did an embarrassing about face, supporting Hitler until the Stalin/Hitler pact was dust. They betrayed their comrades who shed their blood on Spanish soil which revealed their progressive anti-fascism as a lie. In 1945 Gleason, faced with jail-time for contempt, betrayed his own comrades on the Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. He tossed them all under the bus for his own well-being.

The author covers this period, which is critical to understanding Gleason’s political worldview, in two short, confused sections between pages 8 to 40. The rest of the book is a scattershot affair, some worthwhile, most already told in detail in several better books.

The Epilogue is an awkward segue into the future which has no bearing on the life of Leverett Gleason and occasionally reads like Charles Biro’s forties comic book dialogue. indeed, much of the book wanders from concise writing into a breathless melodramatic comic book style, all that is missing is all-caps and the exclamation points. By 2018 “the forces Lev Gleason fought against… had reawakened with a vengeance… Once again it was becoming Un-American to be anti-fascist.” Really? I anticipated at this point super publisher Lev Gleason would rise from his grave, don red tights and a flowing cape and fly to Washington to clean out the White House.

Unfortunately, the comic book publisher was not – as the back-cover blurb proclaims) - A REAL LIFE COMICS SUPERHERO! The FBI would confirm that he was not even a significant figure in the Communist movement and remove his name from their security risk files in 1954. He kept a low profile for the rest of his life.

Brett Dakin has assembled some great material and with stronger editorial control I think he could have produced a quality biography, but the resulting book bounces recklessly from real history, to personal memory, to speculative fiction. The finished work lacks focus, the chronology is confusing, and historical objectivity is nowhere to be found. American Daredevil is a flawed work, made up of unrelated and cobbled together sections, but it is still stimulating and informative enough, in several parts, to be worth reading.

Leverett Gleason played an important part in comic book history and he deserves to be remembered not for his insignificant political life but for his accomplishments in that field... Daredevil, Crime Does Not Pay, Crime & Punishment, Captain Battle, and the wonderful kid gang feature Little Wise Guys.

American Daredevil is available on Amazon

Friday, September 25, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

When Frank Was King.

by Rick Marschall. 

Two reasons had my “mind” returning to Gasoline Alley and its creator Frank King this week. From my friend Germund Von Wowern, the Maharajah of Malmö, I received some memorabilia of Tomah, the small Wisconsin town where King was born.

Also, I participated in the Theodore Roosevelt Center Symposium at Dickinson State University in North Dakota. I am Cartoon Archivist for the Center – all digital and internet work, as was this conference. All three days by Zoom. Complicated for the organizers, but actually efficient and accessible, and almost more intimate than the in-person event.

I mention the Roosevelt Symposium because this very week last year, while driving to North Dakota, I passed by a highway exit for Tomah, and was tempted to visit. Some day.

It surely is a place more interesting than most cartoonists’ heimat… home place, wellspring, inspiration. That is because Frank King invented his neighborhoods, whether Chicago houses’ garages, or the suburbs of later years of Walt and Skeezix, Phyllis and Nina. King had a superb sense of place; his environments were not stage-backdrops but, virtually, characters as vivid as the people with names.

So Tomah went with Frank wherever he moved, and whatever setting he chose for his characters.

After he retired from the northern Chicago suburbs, Frank King moved to the Winter Park suburb outside Orlando, Florida. I had written him fan letters when I was young and – well, I was still young – but every year our family vacationed in Florida. The Orlando area was a cartoonists’ colony, and my father encouraged me to write to my hero / pen-pals and see if we could visit.

So for many years, before returning to New Jersey and by gracious pre-arrangement, the last one or two days of “our” vacation would be a detour to Orlando (I use quotation-marks because I bless my father’s memory for this, but my mother and sisters were not thrilled) and see cartoonists. I have mentioned this here before, but almost every year Roy Crane and Frank King would be on the list, and then there were visits to Leslie Turner, Mel Graff, Dick Hodgins Sr., Lank Leonard, Zack Mosely, Jim Ivey, Fred Lasswell (some on the east and west coasts of the state).

By the time I started visiting Frank King, almost all the work on the strip was being done by Dick Moores, later a good friend; and in fact I became his syndicate editor. I have, and will, tell more here about the visits to Frank King – his studio and the interesting originals on the walls (for instance, work by onetime assistants Garrett Price and Sals Bostwick); examples of the “shadow boxes” he constructed – three-dimensional scenes with Gasoline Alley characters and elements painted on glass panes.

Every year the cartoonists gave me “parting gifts” of originals; Roy Crane once dug back for a Wash Tubbs from when it was only a Sunday top-strip. Frank pulled work from the 1940s, 1930s, and once a Rectangle panel, before Gasoline Alley was a titled feature. It is here, maybe the first time Skeezix’s name is mentioned – days after he was left on Walt’s doorstep.

Each year Frank’s age showed more and more; his recollections grew foggier. One year he smiled and said, “Let’s look for some real old-timers. The old drawings are in the tool shed.” It might have been years since had gone there, because the central-Florida humidity had done its work. Piles of originals were matted together, covered in mold. Tears came to his eyes.

Mine too.

The Tomah drawing was for a special publication marking the town’s centennial in 1955. To my eyes, although Frank might have done a thumbnail sketch, this is by Dick Moores at the very beginning of their collaboration. The panorama drawing, on the other hand, seems to be 100 per cent Frank King, and from the details and lines, how he drew at the time.

In the text he identifies the location of the alley! Vast areas of Chicago have homes whose back doors face rows of garages, and middle-class owners of new automobiles tinkered and compared notes in those alleys.

“The row of garages near 63rd Street in Chicago,” he wrote; and ID’d Bill, Avery, Walt, and Doc.

I used to urge Dick Moores to construct a story about Walt’s death. I certainly had nothing against the old boy… but the Gasoline Alley WAS noted for its characters growing in real time. I thought, and think, it would be true to the strip’s essence to “draw” that curtain. Jim Scancarelli, the current and excellent artist, has Walt and Skeezix still around, challenging the actuarial tables at Social Security; it was almost 100 years ago when Walt, an adult, found Skeezix on his doorstep.

But if they do ever “retire,” I know this great small-town American village in rural Wisconsin where they would fit right in...




Saturday, September 19, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

A Major About-Face.

Rick Marschall

Marlene Dietrich

The great caricaturist Henry Major, who was born in Hungary in 1889, but most active in the United States by way of Vienna and London, once said about political cartooning:

At one time, cartoonists were put in jail for what they drew. Today, political cartoonists should be arrested for what they DON’T draw.

It is great as an aphorism, one I often recalled when I was a working political cartoonist. The problem with Major – and he had few problems! – was that he primarily was not a political cartoonist, but a caricaturist.

… and one of the best. In a sense, all caricaturists are political cartoonists, or satirists. Caricature, as a branch of the arts, is cartooning’s closest affinity to Expressionism in “fine” art. The caricature is a statement, an observation – meant not to evoke a response, nor to entertain. Observers, even the “victims,” must meet it more than halfway; whereas traditional strips and humorous cartoons reach out to readers.

I will write more about the art of caricature in the relaunch of NEMO Magazine, if you can stand it, and with a focus each issue on a master of the form.

Bing Crosby

“Are cartoonists commentators?” I once asked Al Capp, sensing the answer but seeking something quotable, which I got. “It’s inevitable,” he said. “When you draw a cat, you are commenting on cats.”

To my way of “thinking,” there are at least two schools of caricature, and a middle-ground melding that saves innumerable sub-categories. And there is no “correct” approach: they are merely different.

There are those artists who exaggerate. Big noses grow bigger; hydrocephalus infects every sitter; warts and freckles explode; large heads on little bodies populate their world.

Charles Laughton

The other school, stylistically, usually is less mannered. Sketchier. Faces, usually; not full figures. This type of drawing is called caricature by default. The mission is to capture a personality, not a likeness… but, done well, succeeds at both. In a real sense, though there be subtexts of humor or sarcasm, these caricatures are more like quick portraits. The informality, sense of irony, unconventional attitudes of the subjects all combine to make “caricature” an appropriate appelation.

David Levine is an avatar of the first school; Honore Daumier exemplified the second; Al Hirschfeld’s work clearly fell in the middle. All of them great caricaturists, surely.

Back to Henry Major. I have always loved his work, but did not know him. He became famous, especially as a roving assignment artist for Hearst enterprises, for lightning-quick sketches, celebrity caricatures, and personality drawings. He invariably drew with grease crayon, and people I have meet who knew him said that he drew, indeed, lightning-fast.

Fred Astaire 

When I earned my living (some might say under false pretenses) as a political cartoonist and caricaturist, my favored tool was the same lithograph crayon. I tend to like an artist’s studies and sketches more than finished canvases; and as an artist I have often been happy with preliminary sketches and disliked my “finishes,” because I tend to tighten up and lose the spontaneity I seek.

The grease crayon allows an artist to look informal even when exactitude is needed. The heavy or light lines, and shading, can cover a multitude of “sins,” and pleasingly. With pens, artists like Heinrich Kley and John Groth achieved the same magic; but they were magicians. The crayon allows the artist to create depth by suggesting shadows; can (yes) cover the mistakes of the quick-sketch with manic shading – see Fred Astaire’s hat here.

And there is a “permanence” to penlines that, despite exaggerations, suggest that some caricatures aspire to be a distorted but formal portrait. The crayon-sketch, on the other hand, is like a snapshot, free of pretense and self-consciousness.

I promised you to get back to Henry Major. I never met him, but I have collected his work, and knew people who knew him. I recall in this “Crowded Life” essay Mary Joe Connolly, of whom I shall write more some week. Mary Joe, the daughter of Joe Connolly, knew every star of King Features Syndicate and the Hearst empire, because her father was president of King Features, International News Service, Good Housekeeping, American Weekly, Pictorial Review, and the many other domains of that empire. After Arthur Brisbane – and maybe including him – Connolly was the best right-hand man Hearst ever had… by Hearst’s many testimonials.

Lewis Milestone

Mary Joe worked at King, too, after her father’s early death in 1945. She was an award-winning photographer, and her editorial work included ghosting the Hints from Heloise column; a Jill of all trades.

Many celebrities came and went from the Connolly home in Westchester County (and I am thinking of another remarkable friend who had a remarkable father – Russelle Patterson, daughter of the great illustrator Russell Patterson – about whom I shall write here too) and Henry Major was a frequent guest. An amiable friend, he was also available to sketch the “cabbages and kings,” anyone you could name from the 1920s to the 1940s.

I acquired some of Mary Joe’s collection, including personal and corporate archives of her father. Historical treasures galore, including many back-stories and “inside baseball” details of the time, including promotional material, contracts, and such.

But. The Major point this week is Henry, the caricaturist. The Connolly family scrapbook is filled with sketches he did of Joe and Marguerite, Mary Joe and Buddy. Many, through the years. Hearst cartoonists; celebrities in the news (like Lindbergh and Floyd Gibbons); sports stars like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey; movie stars like… well, of course, Marion Davies.

Many homes of the time, especially “power” couples, had guestbooks. The Connollys had a running register of Henry Major’s caricatures.

I share some of his work here. One afternoon the cartoonists George McManus and Jimmy Murphy visited the Connollys; Henry sketched them all, including himself. The other celebrity drawings will illustrate my point about the forgiving nature of the grease crayon – its creative malleability. And its almost magical properties. A mistaken stroke “works out,” creating a shadow or upturned eyebrow or hinted smile.

Henry Major (right) with George McManus (Bringing Up Father; left), Jimmy Murphy (Toots and Casper), and King Features President Joseph V Connolly, standing.

A little bump in the paper made a white spot in Charles Laughton’s right eye and lent reality. The crayon, applied with otherwise illogical heaviness, allowed Major to accentuate the contours of Dietrich’s cheekbone and jawline, ultimately as distinctive as her famous eyes.

Close up of Major’s caricature of the four friends

I have always maintained that the best caricature is that, when you might not know the subject (from the past, or a stranger)… you look at it, and you do know the subject! Of the group of sketches I share here, the film director Lewis Milestone might be the least familiar today. And his profile the most “cartooney,” in that first category of “exaggeration.”

But is it? You have the feeling it is closest to reality, an unusual face perhaps, but captured faithfully. It’s almost like we know him.

And that was a common, but Major, accomplishment.


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?” 





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
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