Sunday, July 5, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


Inquiring Minds Want to Know.


By Rick Marschall

We presume – or “they” presume, and I refer to hordes of Orson Welles devotees – that the great director and actor strained every nerve to make Citizen Kane as close, whilst staying apart, from the life and good times of William Randolph Hearst.

In my youth I was attracted to the real Hearst in all his glory, his good times, his bad times. Of course the “godfather of the comics” was appealing in that realm. But the larger-than-life persona and outrageous extravagances of WHR were irresistible to the young scholar and younger collector.

At the end of the story, I have managed to acquire letters and telegrams, King Features correspondence and internal memos, contracts and Marion Davies items – signed photographs, Christmas cards, and notes written after WRH died (from Millicent Hearst, the wife who wouldn’t divorce him, too) and notes from Randolph and Bill Hearst written during the Patty Hearst affair.

But that’s for another time. Citizen Kane was of only academic interest to me. I demurred from the universal praise about, say, the revolutionary camera angles (Howard Hughes/ Lewis Milestone’s Front Page, 1931, designed his film like Welles’s but a decade earlier.) Xanadu could never match San Simeon, which, of course, I have visited.

Besides, I was prejudiced. Hearst’s role in comics history – his incubator for Sunday supplements and unfettered cartoonists, his affinity for hiring geniuses, the formal innovations on his watch – whetted my appetite. I sought out cartoonists and newspapermen who had known him.

And, back to “academic” interest, for a time I searched for flaws in the movie script of Welles and Mankiewicz. It was a fool’s errand, because it consciously avoided close similarities. But one aspect the movie probably tried very hard to avoid (for fear of litigation as well as swarms of nit-pickers) was the name of Kane’s jewel in his crown – the New York daily that established his career path.

The New York Inquirer was that paper. Its headlines splashed in the faces of moviegoers. There never was a New York Daily Inquirer; Welles felt safe, and he probably searched deep and wide, because there have been scores of New York newspapers since before the Revolution.

There have been two New York Enquirers. In 1826 Mordecai Noah founded one as a pro-Jackson and eventually merged it as, ironically, a Whig paper, the New York Courier and Enquirer. Further irony is the fact that precisely a century later a New York Enquirer (note the different spelling) was launched. Hearst was peripherally involved as an investor, and to use the tabloid to test material that would, or would not, graduate to his major properties. Its editor, William Griffin, was indicted in 1942 for his anti-war editorials; and the paper eventually was sold to Generoso Pope, who re-packaged it as The National Enquirer.

About five years ago there was a short-lived web parody – more homage, really – built around Citizen Kane, with fake daily headlines of the New York Daily Inquirer.

That was it.

Except that it wasn’t.

In my digging years ago, I found a copy of the New York Inquirer, spelled as in Citizen Kane. The copy is from 1904, and is a weekly, Vol III, no. 9, so it had some life. Its modest catch-line is “A Smart Paper for Smart Persons,” and was “conducted” by Leander Richardson.

Richardson (1856-1918) was very busy as a journalistic entrepreneur, if not a journalist. He commenced his career on the Chicago Inter-Ocean. Subsequently – in masterfully euphemistic and diplomatic reporting by the Fourth Estate trade paper – Richardson “was known to be temperamental, and changed jobs often.” Those jobs included decent positions at the New York Tribune, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, and the Hartford Courant. He worked for the weekly Dramatic News, a racy trade journal, before “conducting” the Inquirer.

If the publication eluded Mr Bernstein in Citizen Kane and the real-life goniffs in Hollywood, it fooled better men than they. I find no references to the paper in Mott, Tebbel, or the other reliable sources of newspaper data.

The Inquirer was 48 pages, and had two-color wraps. Its advertising was almost exclusively from Broadway theaters, and its breezy contents consisted of “news” of the Great White Way; gossip; and puffery. It did not have the field to itself; respectable-looking periodicals like Town Topics (which dealt more heavily in society gossip) and the Smart Set, which mixed saucy fiction and serious literary finds, were rivals. The latter magazine had the advantage of being, for some years, the playthings of H L Mencken and George Jean Nathan.

So Richardson and his New York Inquirer was no Hearst. Nor was he a Mencken or a Nathan. He wasn’t even a George Foster Kane.

But he came first.

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Saturday, July 4, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –



When Strips Were Worth Promoting.


By Rick Marschall

A Crowded Life in Comics inevitably has led to crowded bookshelves, cabinets, file drawers, attacks, basements, and eight storage units. Not all comics and cartoons; I have other interests and hobbies to keep me bankrupt.

Among my specialties-within-specialties is syndicate promotions – brochures for new strips; posters; industry press releases; surveys; special artwork. We can trace history through such artifacts – for instance, start-dates or information about strips that never launched. And myriad interesting facts. King Features originally announced Harold R Foster’s new page about the days of King Arthur – Derek, Son of Thane. A major sales pitch for Li’l Folks was that its simplicity and four template panels would enable newspapers to stack two rows of two panels, and make a square that would fit neatly among the classified advertising pages. I never did see the strip buried in that fashion. It launched with a scant 17 newspapers, and might have been lost forever. As a strip, and re-titled Peanuts, it did OK. But the early promotion is amusing in hindsight.


To launch a feature and attract clients, cartoonists and syndicates often put their best feet (or feet-ures) forward. Some elaborate brochures, die-cut, full color. Sometimes not. The disappointment of hopeful cartoonists is heart-wrenching when they see that a syndicate low-balled an introduction, in the old days, with Mimeographed press releases and a pocket-folder with newsprint clips.

As a comics editor at three comic-strip syndicates during my crowded little life, I was in a position to design promotion. And oversee promotion (or not – I remember how the News-Tribune Syndicate was so “over” Dick Tracy ca. 1975 that a desperate Chester Gould designed his own brochures; and Bob Reed and Jack Minch, Pres and Gen Mgr, respectively, ignored him). And appreciate archives of promotional materials when syndicates actually appreciate their “babies,” the comic strips.


Illustrations here are from a promotional book, ca 1917, from the International Feature Service, one of the many and changing arms of the Hearst syndication empire. During the ‘teens, Hearst had so many features, and artists and writers, that in some cities they saturated the market… so became rivals to themselves. Alternate syndicates and features services were set up, to service smaller papers, or to prevent other syndicates from getting toeholds. Some time we shall tell that story.

In the meantime, here are some pages from that book, A Half Million Dollar Feature Service. I will share others, too, like a 1920s book devoted solely to the New York American (but featuring the national stars of King Features and other Hearst services) and stats about all of its NYC rivals left in the dust, circulation-wise.


The only flaw in these pages – with special art drawn by the famous cartoonists – is the biographical and background text for each. Some idiot directed, or wrote, them as poems… and dopey ones at that. We could have learned all sorts of real data in those text-blocks.

Speaking of Blocks, the book has a photo and blurb about Rudolph Block, credited as “running the comic-strip department since 1897.” My research has shown that R F Outcault, Rudolph Dirks, F Opper, and even an early Frank Willard hated his guts. Some week, here, I will calmly eviscerate him.


Two other notes: Ed Mack is included in this book, but 1917 is the year that he left Hearst to become Bud Fisher’s full-time ghost artist on Mutt and Jeff… for Hearst’s dreaded rival Joseph Pulitzer. And by the cover, you can see that this was the personal copy of Tom McNamara, creator of Us Boys and a pioneer Hollywood idea man. I don’t know if that is his signature (it came from the McNamara estate) but the paper-label T McN is in his hand.

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Sunday, June 21, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

The Lifelong Magic of Cartoons.
By Rick Marschall


These are crazy times. Maybe all times are crazy, in their own way. And when they are not, some of us make our own craziness. This is not bad, just… crazy. And in the words of the Waylon Jennings song, I’ve always been crazy; it keeps me from going insane. And my friends have always lived under that sign.

But these times, maybe they have rushed to insane already, with more of the same on the near horizon. “Things” are busting up relationships, pulling families apart, transforming warm friends into deadly enemies. A year ago, sad people lamented that family gatherings have become dangerous places, but today a casual chat can be a trigger for raw hatred. Social conventions used to avoid the unpleasant; now some people itch for a fight at every opportunity.



These conversations are not gratuitous, nor requiring your agreement: just my observations. Why here? To address today’s memories, I want a context. Through mankind’s history, art has served many functions, among them being a cutting edge of change, or the desire for change. Just as often, a retreat from contemporary strife – to a better time; a cherished time of memory or myth; a spiritual alternative, or a fantasy; a wholesome and instructive diversion.

Cartoon art represents that, as well. Of course. To see it that way requires different glasses, so to speak, but future generations will regard our cartoon culture to see what we laughed at, what we dreamed of, what we loved and hated, what we feared…

… and what we miss, at times.

I hate these times, at times. I hate the losses we suffer, listed above, because society has changed rules, and the scenery, while we looked away. When my living was drawing political cartoons, I loved ranting on paper, and if readers disliked the rants they could write letters that I would read only in subsequent days. Insulated bomb-tossing. But I was frustrated that my cartoons didn’t change millions of minds. And sometimes I got sick of the whole game. As Harold Gray wrote to Al Capp (in a letter reproduced in this space last week), “But it’s a living, eh?”

For all of our enthusiasms and passion, how often do you grow weary of them? Does that part of life sometime beat you down? I didn’t grow sick enough of drawing political cartoons at times, to contemplate a switch to selling aluminum siding, no. Do I sometimes get a little tired of cartoons and comics, of old paper and vintage journals?

Yeah, sometimes.



But a few things, the work of a few cartoonists, brings me back. I have often fallen in love, anew, with the art form of the comic strip; its great examples, and its great potential. In love, all over again, with the geniuses who start with blank paper and share their brains, creating worlds and challenging ours. Enthusiastic, as a kid would be (as I was) (and am, when I need to be) at the magic of cartoons and comics.

So this week I will share a little bit of the work of the magician whose work never fails to snap me back to sanity (insanity, whatever) and back into that Crowded Life of mine. Clare Briggs.

Briggs did not imagine great futuristic vistas, like Alex Raymond; but could create gentle fantasies like Winsor McCay (in his Danny Dreamer). He was a great sports cartoonist but left to draw humor panels. Of thousands of cartoons, he created no continuing characters except a generic kid, Skin-nay. And “Mr and Mrs,” whose invariable bickering was somehow gentle – accessible to everyday readers. No, Briggs’s continuing character was the Human Race.



He was called the Father of the Human-Interest Cartoon, and of many in that genre – TAD Dorgan, H T Webster, Gluyas Williams, Gaar Williams, J R Williams, Frank Beck – he was the best. Briggs seldom reached for a belly laugh; and sometimes not for a laugh at all. His kid cartoons were nostalgic for a time that often still existed: his intention was for readers to remember, or share memories, of their cherished roots.

With such a rare and, yes, magical formula he touched nerves with readers. To like Briggs – and America did; his move from the Chicago Tribune to the New York Tribune was a national event – was to like everyday America. Oftentimes rural America. To trust your values and feel secure. To trust Briggs and the magic of his substantial concepts and his casual penwork.

I love all his work (can you tell?) but perhaps my favorite series is the occasional six- or eight-panel strips under the running head Real Folks At Home. Never a joke or a punchline or a laugh at the end, just plumbers and waitresses and salesmen and teachers going home at the end of the day… sharing the days (usually unremarkable) events… reflecting – not about Life, but about their lives. You don’t have to be a plumber or a waitress to like these people; or to love Briggs, who could translate the warp and woof of everyday life for us so well. The magic of cartoons.

Voila. Some moments, or hours, or a quiet afternoon, with Clare Briggs, and I am back to loving cartoons and comics again, more than ever.


Do we all have an artist, or a body of work, where we can find the same magic?

The illustrations this week will be less my favorites Briggs cartoons (the books of the book might not hold them) but attestation of the warm regard of his fellow cartoonists. I mentioned that he was lured from one Tribune to another (no relation) and it was a major news event. The year was 1914, and will share some of the tributes:

There was a fancy Farewell Dinner in Chicago, and celebrities including writers and, significantly, rival cartoonists staged the dinner, and drew many fond good-bye drawings. I will also share some of the “Welcome to New York” drawings from cartoonists who realized they would have their superior in their midst.


You might not share my gushing enthusiasm for Clare Briggs – in which case I challenge you to a friendly duel, water pistols filled with ink at 20 paces – but, boy, do I hope that you all have at least one artist who can re-kindle your love of cartoons and comics when needed.

… and, in that larger landscape I mentioned at the top, one factor, one lifelong hope, one cherished life value, that pulls you back from despair and retreat in these rotten times. When you want them to be, these can be the Days of Real Sport.
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Monday, June 15, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –



Mark Gruenwald.

By Rick Marschall

On a Spring week of 1978 I started work at Marvel Comics as Editor of the magazine line. Frankly I don’t remember exactly if it was Spring or not. And I think the year was 1978. And my title might have been something like Magazines and Special Projects, because I started immediately working on new full-color Super Specials, movie adaptations, and the Hulk color magazine.

When I forgot details like that, I used to call Mark Gruenwald, who knew more of the Marvel canon than Stan Lee. And than me, about my own career.

One of the joys of my public service at Marvel was the opportunity to, indeed, work on special as well as Special Projects. The three-issue Weirdworld series, with three-page foldout pages of beautiful art by John Buscema. And bringing in friends from my years in the syndicated newspaper-strip field; and European comic artists, from years of travel to comic conventions and book fairs. And starting Epic Illustrated magazine, with the first cover painted by Frank Frazetta.

In a lot of these endeavors I was given latitude in many ways, even to engineer the first major comic-book company’s formal presence at San Diego Comicon; and being sent on a talent hunt to Europe for Epic. On everything, however, I brainstormed with Mark Gruenwald first. It was fun to do so… and he knew Marvel in all aspects better than anybody.


Work – excuse me, “work” – at Marvel was also frequently like a frat party. We did our jobs, we met deadlines, we sometimes made history. But funny phone calls, practical jokes, bogus memos, absurd nicknames (not Stan’s baptismal monikers), vocal impressions and caricatures… all were no less, and sometimes more, important than our job descriptions.

When I found slices of baloney in my desk drawer (I am afraid weeks after their placement), I knew it was by the grace of Mark Gruenwald. When someone let loose with a pun better than any of mine, it was always… Mark Gruenwald.

Mark and I and Blinky Bob Hall (not his Marvel nickname, but… well, Bob blinked a lot) all started at Marvel on the same day, introduced to the suits as well as to the bullpen, and going through turns with the HR person Dorothy Mucous (actually chain-smoking Dorothy Marcus; not her official Marvel nickname, but… you get the idea).


I recall Mark Gruenwald today because this week upcoming marks (ha) the 24th year since he died. “Anniversary” has inappropriate connotations. It still shocks his friends, who are many. There is a sense – stick with me, true-believer wordsmiths – that Mark didn’t die; he lived. A fount of ideas, concepts, what-ifs, trivia, and a quiet but vibrant joy of life, of creativity. Then he, well, stopped living. It was a plot twist he, as editor or writer, probably would have rejected.

Marvel fans know better than I knew, or know, what a keeper of the keys he was about the Universe’s history. But more important, he had a perfect sense of where its future would be, or should be. I used to kid Mark that not only could he answer my challenge about the color of some villain’s costume in issue Number 9 or Number 17 of this-or-that; but he probably could tell me what color shirts Steve or Jack wore when they drew those pages.

Try me,” he challenged.

I never dared to.

If he won the challenge, I probably would have had to give him a Get-Out-Of-Baloney-Slice-Jail-Free card. That was too high a price in those Happy and Crowded Days.



One year, around 1990 I think, Mark Gruenwald attended the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, on behalf (or even befull) of Marvel. I had a booth, promoting my vintage comic-strip reprints, and brought my ace assistant at the time, mutual friend of Gruenny and me – Eliot Brown. We met by chance at the luggage carousel, or as the Germans call it, der Baggagischeferdamtautomatikerwagen.


All Photos ©Eliot R. Brown

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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Plague of the American Cartoon



‘The Plague of the American Cartoon’, The Onlooker: A Literary Journal of Independent Critical Opinion on Public Affairs, Vol I, No. 8, Toronto, Dec 1920

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Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


Associations.


By Rick Marschall

It is the hardest thing in the world these days, especially for a writer and former political cartoonist like me, not to spot an association or make a reference to the turbulent events in the news these days. Even when I thank the mailman I want to voice my opinions on current headlines; if I sign a receipt I want to add a comment and a caricature or two.

So. I will randomly address, here, random cartoon-related items of random moments of my Crowded Life in the comics world. “Associations”… because everyday lately logic is losing its association with… Whoops. Keep your hands on the wheel.

In the rare-book and collectibles games, “associations” are when an item has two interesting, often unexpected, and usually significant aspects. An “association copy” of a biography, for instance, might have the author’s inscription to the subject. I will share a few serendipitous “finds” I happened upon as a collector or as a friend of cartoonists. Fun surprises.

The first “association” is obvious – one famous cartoonist’s letter to another famous cartoonist. What increases its interest is the content, complaining about the comics business of the day, and the increasing headaches of producing a strip. By the contents we can see that Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie) and Al Capp (Li’l Abner) already have exchanged notes of mutual admiration – a surprise to cartoon historians, because at the time Gray was probably the most right-wing of strip cartoonists; and Al Capp – then – was an iconic left-winger. But, Leapin’ Lizards, in 1952 they were brothers under the skin.


Then we’ll have a couple lessons in browsing second-hand book shops and used-book sales: what not to do, mostly. As a bibliomaniac, when I have the time – and even when I really don’t – I try to take extra time to look at books that barely interest me or would be a duplicate; or presents itself as a downgrade from a book back home. For instance, years ago at a neighborhood book sale I saw a copy of Howard Pyle’s Robin Hood. I had a copy, another first edition (it was a best-seller so is relatively easy to find), and in better condition, in my library. But… worth a look. Yes, it was. There was a bookplate, hand-drawn, by a previous owner: Norman Rockwell. The 30-second browse was a good investment. Especially at a neighborhood sale, where the bookplate went inexplicably unnoticed.


At a top-drawer New York City bookstore, in its rare-book room, I found a terrific copy of Chats et Autres Betes (Cats and Other Beasts), a deluxe, thick, heavy volume of drawings, paintings, studies, and lithographs of cats by the incomparable Theodise-Alexandre Steinlen. Steinlen during La Belle Epoque was known for cartoons, posters, social protest, calendar art… and cat drawings, maybe his favorite preoccupation and ultimately perhaps his great legacy. The volume is printed on heavy laid paper; its prints tipped in and covered with tissue guards – number 174 of a limitation of 500. It was heavy in more ways than one. When I arrived home I felt like I found a bargain. Not on the free endpaper but on a front interior page was the name and two addresses in her script of the previous owner… Edwina.

Edwina Dumm was the wonderful creator of the classic boy-and-his-dog strip, Cap Stubbs and Tippie. Edwina was a good friend, delightful hostess to my children whenever we visited her; and in fact years earlier she had shown me that very book, and said how special it was to her. As Tippie advanced through the years, the strip eventually co-starred Jaspurr, a… cat! And Edwina researched when she could, where she could.



Finally, I can remember this next little event like it was yesterday. I was in high school (so, it was not yesterday!) and went to a book sale on the lawn of a Methodist church in Englewood NJ. Already I had a homing instinct for these things. By the way, this is not a mystery, but places I have lived, or lived near, if they are “toney” towns – Greenwich, Westport, Bryn Mawr, Evanston, La Jolla, Abington – you are more apt to find better books, first editions, autographs, notable former owners’ tags, and association copies.

Anyway, on that afternoon in Englewood an attractive, decorative spine caught my eye. Very Art Nouveau. Nice binding. Hey, the author – and illustrator! – was Rose O’Neill. I then knew of her only as creator of the cute Kewpie dolls. Of course, and as shown by this book, she also was a writer and illustrator (often steamy romances), a poet, a sculptor (often erotic subjects), and an active and successful entrepreneur. The revival of Nemo Magazine will have a major profile and portfolio of her work, followed, I hope, by a major book.

It is obvious that I was happy enough with this “find,” but on the free front endpaper was a (beautiful, typically elegant) inscription by Rose… to the “dear” McManuses. A note inside confirmed that it was to Mr and Mrs George McManus, despite her misspelling of the Bringing Up Father cartoonist’s name. Maybe that’s why it was priced at only a quarter.

It sounds like I might be as happy with bargains as the “associations.” Not so, but they don’t hurt. I associate with bargains too.



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Sunday, May 31, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


Second Banana.



By Rick Marschall

There I was, minding my own business. Actually I was minding Sam Morse’s business, a part-time job in high school at a drug store. Delivering prescriptions, stocking shelves, working the register. I used to say that when I sold a box of tissues, I was sticking my business in other people’s noses. It wasn’t funny even before the days of flu epidemics, but sometimes the afternoons dragged by.

But I kept at it: I had a habit to support. No, not drugs from the stockroom. My hourly work and meager tips went almost 100 per cent into my old paper addiction – Sunday funnies from the turn of the century; volumes of Puck, Judge, and Life; old reprint comics. The aroma of rotting cellulose fibers was ambrosia to me.



One of those coincidences in a Crowded Life happened one afternoon. A fellow came in while I was manning the register and the gift-wrapping honors for the Russell Stover candies. He dropped of a prescription, and I dutifully asked name and address for the pharmacist.

“Enoch Bolles.”

“Enoch Bolles?” I asked. I recently had acquired a stack of Judge magazines from the late ‘teens, and Film Funs from the ‘20; and many of the covers were signed “Enoch Bolles.” Naw… But…



When I had a paper route, I used to ask every subscriber with the last name of an old cartoonist if they were related. I batted .000 – but this seemed to be too coincidental.

And after all, not every Tom, Dick, and Harry is named Enoch.

Without blinking, the guy said that, yes, Enoch Bolles the artist was his father. Living in  my town; still living, he added.



We talked a bit, and then afterwards some more. His father was living, and living at home, but weak, and apparently mentally weak. When I got to know Enoch, Jr., better (actually he was the third Enoch in the line, if I remember) he said that after his father was active through the 1940s he had to be placed in a home, although eventually he was released back to the family. He mentioned, maybe safe to share now, that his father in odd moments would take his old canvasses and add some prurient aspects. Part of his dementia, or whatever it was.

A sad end, if somehow a logical arc.

Enoch Bolles (1883-1976) painted some covers and a couple interiors commencing in 1914 for Puck and, mostly, Judge and its related publications like Film Fun. Eventually he branched downward and painted covers for Snappy Stories and Saucy Tales and such literature. The contents were virtual trash, despite the latter two titles being started by a magazine legend, Col. William d’Alton Mann, and edited by, get ready, H L Mencken and George Jean Nathan before they launched their blue-ribbon American Mercury.



If my references to “downward” and “trash” sound like disparagements, that is because they are meant to be. Bolles – who also worked a lot in print advertising, almost always anonymous – happily found his niche in soft-core porn, and stayed there. The illustrations here attest. The worst puns in the world… suggestive double-meanings… and winsome flappers, usually in bathing suits no matter the season, in erotic poses; sometimes anatomically impossible. But the customer was always right.

Other great illustrators started their careers with the same formulae, but graduated to better assignments, book illustrations, even their work on postage stamps. But “Bolles Girl,” and there was one even if only whispered, had gossamer skin, bow lips and bobbed hair of the era, and either wide-eyed innocence or suggestive come-on leer: nothing in between.



I acquired some memorabilia from my Landsman: canvasses, comps, and many cover proofs. Bolles was a creditable technician: a good painter with good technique. I always saw his equivalent as perhaps a very talented composer who never wrote that sonata or symphony because he preferred the commercial world of writing jingles to sell detergent. Or the potential Great American Novelist who instead writes blogs every week… whoops.

Well, we all chase our muses. Enoch Bolles’ were cheap flappers, not arboreal nymphs. If he were around still today he might be gratified by the little cult that has grown around his work – even though his son seemed embarrassed at the life-turns of his father. We can suspect that the adulation is more for the genre than the artist himself. If there were brass rings to catch, Enoch filled enough Bolles (so to speak) with them over a long career.



A “comp,” not a finish, for a Film Fun cover by Bolles. It was on my wall for years, not only an attractive presentation, but a wholesome girl looking wholesome.


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Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –



The End of World War II – V-C Day.
All the Mauldin Details…


1. Bill’s early (1943) Sicily Sketch Book, some yet earlier cartoons from the 45th Division News. A slim paperback and slimmer design, yet printed on slick paper and grain cover.


By Rick Marschall

V-C Day. What’s that? Blame it on Kilroy, who was just here. It’s a stretched point on the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II – “Victory of Cartoons.” OK, to coin the  term might be a historical crime, but it’s not a war crime. Just an excuse to share some special and obscure cartoon memorabilia, with some connection to my Crowded Life.

I am a baby-boomer, born several years after my father returned from the service (our side). He was in an Air Force weather squadron that overflew Normandy on D-Day; and was an officer charged with re-establishing the German civilian weather bureau after the surrender. Until the end of his life he seldom talked about the war, so a lot of what I knew I learned – predictably – from cartoons.

And there were many cartoons that taught me; more cartoons, probably, than accompanied other wars in the world’s bloody history. There were many book collections and anthologies of many cartoonists’ work. There were cartoons in the service publications Yank and Stars and Stripes and Leatherneck. Many of the cartooning greats of the next generation got their starts, drawing for camp newspapers. Virtually every character in syndicated strips donned a uniform during the war (ironically, or maybe not, to the detriment of creative quality) – Joe Palooka, Winnie Winkle, Skeezix, Donald Duck. Established comic-book superheroes, and virtual cavalries of new heroes, took on Huns and Japs. Animation studios, with federal subsidies padding their patriotism, churned our war cartoons. And all sorts of licensing and merchandising, from post cards to songsheets, drafted cartoon characters too.


2. 1944’s Mud, Mules, and Mountains was printed on crummier paper in occupied Italy – “Sorry, folks; there’s a war going on” – but featured some wonderful wash drawings by Bill; and an Introduction by his print counterpart, the legendary Ernie Pyle.

Except for obvious details, American service 1941-45 was a Cartoon War.

Cartoons and comics produced during the war were obvious targets of research and collecting for me. It was a bonus, when I could meet – which was frequently – cartoonists who won the war. So to speak. I did a story in the old NEMO Magazine about “The Cartoonists Who Won the War,” a panel from Milton Caniff’s Male Call – a strip created exclusively for soldiers – on the cover.

Not excepting Caniff, the cartoonist most identified with cartooning during the war was Bill Mauldin. He “came from nowhere” in the sense that he was a young recruit with no cartooning chops when he enlisted in the New Mexico National Guard while still a teenager…. and two days before it was federalized. All cartoonists “come from nowhere” – everybody does – but Bill was an artist who seemingly never had a “green” period. His drawings, from the start, were mature, well composed, funny, and with sharp points of view. His work featured aspects some artists never master, like the obvious importance of grasping anatomy; and the deceptively simple depiction of shadows and folds.


3. This Damn Tree Leaks (titled Mauldin’s Cartoons on the front endpaper) was a meaty 118 pages; 1945. The title served as a confirmation that Mauldin was to World War II what the British soldier Bruce Bairnsfather was to World War I. His most famous of many cartoons was Ole Bill in a rainy foxhole to a complaining comrade: “If you know a better ‘ole, go to it!”

He was put to work on Stars and Stripes, the “soldier’s paper.” So General Eisenhower called it when he countermanded George S Patton’s removal of Mauldin for portraying dirty, tired, and wrinkled soldiers as dirty, tired, and wrinkled. That military stand-off was a blessing. On the other hand, staff work on the paper dragged young Mauldin through a succession of famous and bloody battles.

He was wounded, yet there was yet another silver lining. Publishers in the United States notices this, and reprinted it. United Feature Syndicate noticed his work, and his cartoons were distributed to many stateside newspapers. The Pulitzer Prize committee noticed his work, and Bill, at the age of 23, won the coveted award – his first of two.

Back in the States post-war, his first hardback book was published (softcover anthologies were released in war zones) and it was a best-seller; his face, and the soldiers who starred in his cartoons, Willie and Joe, joined him on the cover of TIME.


4. Up Front was the title of Bill’s syndicated cartoons for United Features; and the hardcover book published by Henry Holt stateside.

I will interrupt his biography at this point, because I have much more to tell of his later years – retiring from cartooning; writing and illustrating; a run for Congress; appearing in movies; “re-upping” as a political cartoonist; another Pulitzer Prize, as I said.

In the 1970s, when he drew for the Chicago Sun-Times and I was Comics Editor of Field   Newspaper Syndicate (totally superfluous as his nominal syndicate editor), our offices were on the same floor and I got to know him well. Anecdotes, stories, insights in a future installment. I will also, in this anniversary year, call up some other special war-cartooning material.

In my office at Field I furnished it not with furniture or lamps or comfy guest chairs as assiduously I decorated it as a comics museum and library of cartoons. I had my stable of artists do artwork for the walls; a couple of the looser nuts waited until they visited Chicago and forswore frames, drawing their characters right on the walls. One day Bill noticed that I had all his books on a shelf – of course; they were favorites! – and asked if I wanted him to do inscriptions in them.


I share them here (was there a doubt that I said No Thanks?), quick sketches of Willie and/or Joe the ways they might have looked when the cartoons in each book were drawn.


Quick sketches, as I say, and related to the “Good” War. Before long we’ll trace Bill through the Korean War and Vietnam; his political odyssey; and anecdotes about interplay with John Fischetti, Herblock, and other cartoonists.

At ease.

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