Monday, November 26, 2018

A Crowded Life in Comics – Werner Wejp-Olsen

The Cartoonist Known As WOW

by Rick Marschall

This week we lost a favorite international cartoonist, Werner Wejp-Olsen. His years were 1938-2018, and his residences were Denmark-United States-Denmark. I want to pay tribute to a friend and a good cartoonist, and share how friendships can grow into mutual friendships, and connections, and networking, and new career paths.

That’s how life is supposed to work. And in cartooning, which I think has a greater percentage of good people than most professions, it happens a lot.

Werner (the “Wejp” part of his name is pronounced “Wipe” but with a soft “v,” unless the Dane is eating herring when making the explanation, and then all bets are off) started drawing professionally when he was still in high school, for Ekstra Bladet, around 1955. He signed his humor strips and cartoons WOW. A dozen years later he drew the continuing series Peter and Perle; and in 1972 inherited the popular Felix from Swedish cartoonist Jan Lööf.

Ever creative and entrepreneurial, Werner created the flagship of his several quiz and puzzle type features, Dick Danger; and in 1974 the strip Fridolin. It was at this stage of his career that Werner intentionally adopted into his style what he called “the Connecticut School” – a term that entered the language of Scandinavian cartoon – the “bigfoot,” rounded, somewhat minimalist humor style of Mort Walker, Dik Browne, and their fellows.
[1] Sketch
I met Werner when I was Comics Editor of Publishers Newspaper Syndicate (Field Enterprises) in 1975. The syndicate president Dick Sherry had a penchant for foreign cartoonists, which he presented as a cosmopolitan reach, but which we all knew, sub rosa, was his excuse to make one or two overseas trips a year “on syndicate business.” England, Australia, Italy, Scandinavia…

As an editor who was not consulted on these “finds,” I usually was less than enthusiastic, and so were American editors, as it turned out. But the promotion department was kept active, and so were international airlines.

Nevertheless, Werner was flown over to Chicago for strategy sessions, promo art, and such. We hit it off immediately – especially when he learned that I moved to Chicago from Fairfield County, Connecticut; and that several of his cartooning gods were close friends, some even having attended my wedding only months previous.

I will mention a couple of strips that have not been cited in any of the obituary articles around the world. One was a suburban family strip – not an automatic challenge for a Danish cartoonist; on my several trips to Denmark I have noticed that the Danish sense of humor, and its lifestyle, especially in suburban neighborhoods, is closer to the Americans than in other lands I have visited. The name of the strip was Zip Cody, a pun on ZIP Code.

It proved a wet match, attracting only 25 newspapers as I recall. Although this was Dick Sherry’s “baby” I suggested that the aggressive, no-nonsense grandmother – she invariably chomped on a cigar butt, and was not the strongest, but the only, standout personality in the cast. Otherwise it was basically another follower of Blondie, Dotty Dripple, The Berrys, Priscilla’s Pop, etc. So the strip was rechristened as Granny and Slowpoke, her sarcastic-thinking dog sharing the billing.

Unfortunately the client-list dropped further. Despite Jud Hurd’s nice boost in Cartoonist PROfiles magazine, it was not to be.
[2] Maestro And Amalita
Another attempt from Werner’s pen, almost concurrent and at Publishers too, was a strip whose cast lived in the wings of an operatic theater. Within the bounds of Werner’s firm pen lines, there was a daffy quality to the strip. The Maestro and Amalita. It was close to screwball, with frustrated conductor, the Brunhilde-proportioned diva, and group of assorted crazy singers, stagehands, and supernumeraries.

This, sadly, was unsuccessful also. At the time – and after I left the syndicate – I told Werner (diplomatically but sincerely) that the gags were slightly awkward, and the dialog more so. He assumed I mean that his “ESL” English was the stumbling-block, and wouldn’t I be surprised to learn that an English-speaker actually ghost-wrote both strips. No, I wasn’t surprised; I figured from the start that Dick Sherry, who had no sense of humor and was an opera-lover, hoped to feather his nest as a silent partner in the strips.

Werner was in his clutches. I happily note that Granny lived on – funnier and certainly more successful, back in Denmark’s Ekstrabladet as Momsemore (I think “Mother-in-Law”). He continued with other strips in his native Denmark; and moved to California in 1989, to start and self-start (publishing and distribution) other features. Between the two nations he produced Viggo Vampire, TRENDZ, Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Inspector Danger’s Crime Quiz, Professor Yuk-Yuk’s Cartooning Class, and other books and features including editorial cartoons and a how-to-draw book. I don’t think there was a time in his career that he was not busy, and producing several creations simultaneously.
[3] Momsemore 
My friendship with Werner continued, including a great visit to his studio and home in (yes, suburban Copenhagen) Nivå. It is a charming small town on Denmarks’s largest island, Sjælland; and is a station on the CopenhagenHelsingør rail line. The tug of 127 varieties of herring, or one of myriad other ancestral attachments, saw Werneer and his wife Inge move back to Denmark a few years ago.

A happy coincidence was the friendship I made through Werner, that of Jørgen Sonnergaard, a brilliant (and also constantly active) editor, translator, author of novels, especially crimes stories, and of comics. He translated many of the Tintin books into Danish. After working as editor of PIB Service, he was Chief Editor at Gutenberg Publishing Service in charge of new Disney releases in Europe, beginning in 1975.

It was there that the coincidence set in, because Dik Browne asked me to write the script for one of the Hagar the Horrible graphic novels. I did so – Hagar, King of England was the title – and it was done for Gutenberghus/Egmont in Denmark, and their subsidiaries throughout Scandinavia, Germany, and England. And my editor was Werner’s friend, and my earlier acquaintance Jørgen.

[4] Werner Wejp-Olsen
There was nothing rotten in Denmark. I wrote the Hagar graphic novel just before starting as Editor with Marvel; and when I left Marvel, Jørgen offered me the opportunity to write scripts for Disney comic stories – Gutenberghus had the license for the same lands where they published Hagar books. This I did, happily, for several years, writing approximately 30 pages a week.

Every month their editors flew to New York City, stay at the Plaza Hotel, review my finished stories and go through my concepts for the next ones. Eventually they almost grew bored of monthly flights to New York. I suggested that they periodically fly me to Copenhagen, which they commenced. For several years, life with people named Jørgen, Jens, Lars, Mickey, Scrooge, Donald, Chip and Dale was my “work.”

Not to mention that dinners at Danish restaurants in New York and of course Copenhagen were easy to take. For my old friend Werner Wejp-Olsen had introduced me to the joys of wine herring, creamed herring, kippered herring, herring and onions, herring in tomato sauce, and (believe me) even more preparations of herring.

Farewell and skål (the toast pronounced “skol”) to the WOW of cartooning.


No comments:

Post a Comment