Sunday, March 31, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Lyonel: Cartoons and Fein Art 

by Rick Marschall

[1] “The White Man”

Bad pun. This is a story about Lyonel Feininger, the German artist born (and died) in America. The son of a prominent musician, Lyonel was born in 1871 and initially studied music himself. In 1887 he moved to Germany, land of his parents’ birth, and only returned to America about 50 years later. He died in New York City in 1956.

An early Cubist, and a founder of the Bauhaus, Feininger is a major name in 20th-century art. But he began his career – and had an extensive career – as a cartoonist and caricaturist. The two pursuits occupied almost exactly equal periods of his life, with a decade overlap in the ‘teens.

As a cartoonist, he drew book and magazine illustrations; humorous, social, and political cartoons; and comic strips. As a close relative of the genres, wooden comic figures he carved and painted were placed in front of his unique, distorted urban scenes and photographed – “The City At the End of the World.” Music and photography were also lifelong pursuits.

[2] Character sketches for Kin-Der-Kids

There have been books and museum exhibitions of Feininger’s works, but he remains generally more respected than familiar beyond a few famous works.

In my collection in the late 1980s I had much of his printed works, including cartoons in German and American magazines, and an original page, and color guide, of Wee Willie Winkie’s World, the fantasy strip he drew for the Chicago Tribune in 1907. (He also drew the amazing Kin-Der-Kids at the same time.) I also own – all this for a book I have yet to produce – the complete run of his Chicago Tribune pages, including the paper’s ads and promotion.

In service of that book I hoped to write, I discovered the location of his grandson. And made it a point to visit him – a nervous pilgrimage for me.

[3] “The Miller and His Wife.” 1907

Danilo Curti lived in a little corner of Italy I had never visited – Trento, capital of the autonomous province of Trentino-Alto Adige, on the Adige River in Südtirol, in the shadow of the Dolomites. The city is a prosperous small town, by feeling, its status of semi-independence the result of proximity to Austria. In fact, similar to Alsace on the German-French border, it has been a part of both Italy and the old Austro-Hungarian Empire through the years. And its streets, native dress, and cuisine display the best of both traditions. 

I secured an invitation from Danilo, and took several trains north, north, north to that mountainous old village. In the town itself I followed narrow, cobblestone streets, aware of old lampposts and wrought-iron signs and decorations on charming old buildings.

Danilo was a shy but gracious host. Lyonel Feininger had three sons, Andreas, a famous photographer; Theodor Lukas (T. Lux), a painter and musician; and the reclusive genius Laurence, father of Danilo. 

It was Laurence who developed a passion for musicology and music history, and became his generation’s foremost authority on music of the 13-17th centuries; especially church music and liturgies, an admirer of Johann Sebastian Bach and an expert on Josquin des Prez and contemporaries. He was the son who secreted himself to Trento, privately researching (and privately financing) his groundbreaking work.

[4] The Church in Gelmerode – a town, and a building, 
to which Lyonel Feininger returned through the years for inspiration.

It was while in Trentino, except for his forays to the Vatican Library, that Laurence became a priest. I am not sure whether before or after his ordination that Danilo arrived on the scene – things happen – but in any event Laurence’s priestly life was devoted to ancient music of the church.

Danilo had, as I had hoped, much of the family archive. Many drawings, clippings, tearsheets, magazines, books, artwork. We spent all afternoon poring over these amazing materials. As it grew late, a friend he invited to join us for dinner, I think a handy translator, called from a couple streets away – I still remember, “Dan-i-LO! Dan-i-LO!” We spent a wonderful meal and evening, the three of us, Danilo recalling family stories about his grandparents and uncles.

He knew little about cartoons… but was learning, and that was part of the reason he responded to my inquiries. Otherwise he was a musicologist like his father (I cannot recall if he went into the priesthood also) and has become a prominent historian.

[5] Political cartoon by Feininger, 1915 – British King Edward in Hell

There was so much much material, including things I would never find elsewhere, that Danilo agreed to arrange for a local photographer to shoot many things we tagged. He presented me with scholarly works of his own, and a couple music-history books by his father; and he loaned me a couple of items, including a rare, early book of fairy tales that Lyonel illustrated. When I returned to the States, I sent him some rare material I had.

Danilo’s scholarly growth has included a recent cartoon-history project, Pencil Strokes: The Great War in Caricature. The exhibition has toured Europe and the world.

With a monumental amount of work, by a monumental talent, having passed in front of me that day, it was difficult to fall asleep. Very conscious of being in (as I have called it) an obscure virtual corner at the top of the world, a fairy-tale vestige of earlier times, where the archives of an influential artist of our age emerged from boxes and trunks… the whole experience was, for me, not exactly rare, but I was grateful for another sweet moment in a Crowded Life in Comics.


Monday, March 25, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

The Power of Cartoons

 by Rick Marschall

Short and sweet this week.

I came across this drawing when I was a young kid. I was hooked on cartoons and comics from an early age… and I mean cartoons and comics from THEIR early ages too.

I relished being able to meet, or correspond with, Rube Goldberg, Harry Hershfield, Rudolph Dirks, Jimmy Swinnerton, Russell Patterson, Otto Mesmer, C M Payne, and other old-timers. And when I met cartoonists who merely were old, I pumped them for information about older cartoonists they had known. I met Walt Kelly when I was 12, I think; and what did I do but pump him with questions about T S Sullivant. (That evening, he was not in state to chat about much, especially a punk asking about someone who died in 1926…)

I don’t know why I had these tendencies. Perhaps my mother was scared by an antique when she carried me.

However, what sealed my fate going forward was when I discovered this drawing in an old magazine. It was an ad for a cartooning correspondence school (I recently promised readers of my promise to Fantagraphics Books to finish my book about mail-order cartoon courses…)

It was all I needed. Documentary evidence. Proof! One look at this (anonymous) drawing and my path was charted – cartooning, strips, political cartoons, comic books, collecting, research, history, scripting, writing, editing, publishing. What an amazing array of ways to go bankrupt.

I drew my version of the ringleader in this cartoon and begged my mother to buy me a suit just like his. It took an awful lot of persuasion, but I was outfitted. Unfortunately, the most use I ever got from it was on Halloween when, with the addition of a cardboard  monocle, I roamed the neighborhood as Mr Peanut.

Seriously, I did hear of one cartoonist with a similar experience – and I assume equally  as apocryphal. Al Capp told me that when he was young he saw a newspaper photo of Bud Fisher (Mutt and Jeff) leaving on a cruise ship, showgirls hanging on his arm… and he decided right there on a career.

Following a thread, Fisher was a playboy who enjoyed hot and cold running showgirls. The story goes that he met a “countess” of fuzzy nobility, returning to America on one of those cruise ships. He married her. This one, however, he neglected to divorce; and also neglected to see her again for decades; but somehow appeared when his death was announced in the papers.

True or almost true, that is the Power of Cartoons.


Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sunday with George Wunder

Terry and the Pirates
=Star Weekly=
April 30, 1955


Friday, March 15, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Ketcham If You Can

by Rick Marschall

This week is the birthday of Hank Ketcham (March 14, 1920, in Seattle), and we will light a few candles here for the creator of Dennis the Menace.

He was attracted to cartooning early, as goes the story of many greats. He was an animator, first for Walter Lantz, then on famous features with Walt Disney. In the Navy during World War II he created a pint-sized sailor in cartoons and they made their way from service publications to the Saturday Evening Post. Half Hitch was a hit, and Hank’s entry to post-war success as a magazine cartoonist.

In 1951, as the legend goes, his exasperated wife staggered into his studio and said “Our son, Dennis, is a menace.” Serendipity. A character was born… and did not grow up to be a monstrous success for a generation in the funnies, comic books, merchandising, licensing, a TV series. He didn’t grow up, but he did become all those things.

I had a lot of contact with Hank through the years, from fan letters to serving as his editor at Publishers Newspaper Syndicate. He was blessed with a large number of incredibly talented assistants on and off on his projects, panels, and pages. It was one of my tasks as syndicate editor to scout for new talent on his behalf. He was a tough taskmaster, even through his genial writer / assistant Fred Toole, back in Carmel CA.

At the time Hank lived in Geneva. When I was a kid I would hear cartoonists wonder if Hank was high-hatting everyone by living in Switzerland. But I could tell there was a lot of jealousy there. He tightly controlled and directed Dennis the Menace and, believe me, was exacting before, during, and after taking on assistants. He bought gags, too, for as little as $10 per; but he inspired the best writing and artwork, and he self-edited superbly.

My friend Dick Hodgins Jr ghosted the revival of Half Hitch as a strip for King Features, and he attested to Hank as a taskmaster. So did Bob Bugg, whom I knew in Connecticut, when he did the Dennis Sundays – ironically “closing the circle,” because in the 1940s it was Bugg’s style that inspired Hank’s own. The stateside right-hand man Fred Toole was a Christian, and so was Hank, and simply a great guy at every level of contact.

Hank died in Carmel in 2001. His last two assistants are friends who have carried on Dennis the Menace – friends with each other, friends of mine, Christians too… and (after close scrutiny and coaching by the master) terrific legatees of the Ketcham look: Marcus Hamilton on the daily panels; Ron Ferdinand on the Sunday pages.

In my mid-teens I used to hang around John Severin’s studio, and the reserved but earnest cartoonist enjoyed delivering virtual courses, one-on-one, impromptu. He would take down Heinrich Kley books from his shelves, and discuss the drawings; he would give me pointers on anatomy, faces, hands. More than once he pulled out a thick folder of clips of Hank Ketcham’s work. He repeatedly enthused about Ketcham’s lines, yes; but mostly about his eye. What I mean is this – “Ketcham knows what to leave out! He can suggest elements, like kitchen faucets, or things hanging in a garage, and draw the bare minimum… but when you see the drawings you are there!” And he shared clip after clip, some with his own copies in the margins.

Hank, Marcus, and Ron have done sketches for me, too; and I share them here. The Ketcham drawing was an inscription that John Province secured for me; Marcus’s was done during a visit to his studio in Charlotte; and Ron’s is one those terrific annual specialty drawings he produces.

Then… one last keepsake: a photo of two great cartoonists before their names were boldly on our maps of Crowded Lives. Visiting my home in Weston CT around 1982 or so, and in my office, I photographed Jim Scancarelli (before he joined Gasoline Alley, which he has shepherded lovingly and superbly), and Marcus Hamilton before Dennis. How Marcus got the gig is a story in itself: during his illustrator days around 1993 he was watching The 700 Club and Hank Ketcham was a guest. Ketcham mentioned that he was (still!) looking for assistants… and the interview continued.

Marcus knew that his friend Scancarelli had Ketcham’s phone number; he called to Carmel; and soon was flown out for a unique audition. Days in the studio with Hank, sketching, copying, drawing, inking… receiving pointers and “how-to” lessons… and  sketching, copying, drawing, inking, until Hank was happy. Marcus has been drawing the daily Dennis panel ever since.

Captured by the camera down at my desk, we can also see originals on the wall, including the first Pogo; the first and third Blondies; a Harold Gray specialty piece; a Raymond X-9, and such things. (Jim in the first photo; smiling Marcus on the phone.)

Hank, Bugg, Toole, Hodgins, Hamilton, Ferdinand… not a menace among ‘em.

NOTE: In the premier issue of the revived, expanded, full-color NEMO Magazine there will be a feature by Ron Ferdinand and Marcus Hamilton about Hank Ketcham’s style, his instructions and tips to them, and side-by-side examples of Hank’s roughs and finishes.

Also: A Short Conversation with Cartoonist Ron Ferdinand (Dennis the Menace) HERE


Monday, March 11, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

More About Google (Barney, That Is)

by Rick Marschall

We got good response from last week’s essay on Barney Google, from our Yesterday’s Papers Editor John Adcock who remembered his mother’s fondness for the eponymous song; from John Rose who directs the course of Snuffy Smith’s adventures today; and from… Google, or Facebook, or whichever member of the Big Brother League put a hold on Sharing of the article.

Race? Religion? Politics? No boxes were checked, but that means little to Big Brother or Blinky.

Nevertheless time marches on, at least in the Papers of Yesterday, and the little gray cells of memory in this crowded life.

The fond memories of John’s mother made me dig into the archives of another collecting specialty, vintage comics-related songsheets. I have about 200 of these, I guess; and a few can be pinned on Billy DeBeck, the comic genius who created Barney Google, Spark Plug, Snuffy Smith, Sunshine, Bunky, and a cast of thousands.

Google with the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes” arguably is the most famous comic-character related song. In 1923 Billy Rose and Con Conrad composed it, and it was a popular tune performed and recorded in new versions until at least the 1950s. In those days, cartoonists and syndicates did not profit from such productions – it was regarded as promotion, rather, until the early 1930s – but DeBeck profited in other ways. America sang and whistled this song, and still does, even if Spark Plug the horse is virtually forgotten.

The lyrics are:
Barney Google, with his Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes.
Barney Google had a wife three times his size.
She sued Barney for divorce,
Now he's living with his horse.
Barney Google, with his Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes.

– and about three dozen other verses added through the years. A partial list of those who performed and recorded the song:

Georgie Price, 1923; Great White Way Orchestra (vocal: Billy Murray), 1923; Ernest Hare & Billy Jones, 1923; Frank Williams,1923; Missouri Jazz Hounds (vocal: Arthur Hall), 1923; Haring's Velvetone Dance Orchestra (instrumental), 1923; Selvin's Orchestra (instrumental), 1923; The Badgers (instrumental), 1923; Harry Blake and Robert Judson, 1923; Ed Smith, 1923; Master Melody Makers,1923; Thomas & West,  1923; The Georgians (instrumental), 1923; Les Steven's Clover Gardens Orchestra  (instrumental), 1923; The Two Gilberts, 1924; Charlie Ventura & His Bop For The People, 1949; Joe “Fingers” Carr and Pee Wee Hunt, 1956; The Andrews Sisters, 1958; The Sauter-Finegan Doodletown Fifers, 1958; Frances Faye, 1959; Mitch Miller and The Gang, 1962. There are also recordings by Mel Blanc (on the piano!), Spike Jones, Eddie Cantor, The Firehouse Five, The Buffalo Bills, and Dorothy Provine. Gyp Rosetti sang it before getting murdered in the last episode of Boardwalk Empire. I will suppose that Dave van Ronk, Leon Redbone, and R Crumb have performed it too.

Billy DeBeck was prolific. Several strips and many characters. When he discovered the dialects and traditions of Appalachia, he became a virtual expert and scholar on the ways and words of those mountain folk; Snuffy Smith speaks in authentic, not stage-words. DeBeck did invent phrases that entered the English, or rather the American, language: “Sweet mama,” “horsefeathers,” “heebie-jeebies,” “hotsy-totsy,” “doodlebug,” “time’s a-wastin’,” and possibly “Great balls o’ fire.”

I never met DeBeck, but through the years have stories about the colorful cartoonist. From Fred Lasswell, of course, who succeeded him during World War II. From Zeke Zekely, assistant on Bringing Up Father. And from Ferd Johnson, who drew Moon Mullins for years. These three artists were the assistants of, respectively, DeBeck, George McManus, and Frank Willard. When the “big boys” would golf or carouse, the assistants did the work… and then golfed and caroused themselves.

Ferd remembered DeBeck as a “dapper little guy.” To complete the circle from the previous column, I share a self-caricature of DeBeck from when Barney was just about “hitting” in Chicago… when he transferred his own mail-order cartooning lessons to the aegis of the Chicago Academy of Fine Art. Many “name” cartoonists were to study there, and, later, teach there. One of the last was a cartoonist I knew in the ‘70s, Art Huhta.

OK, let’s share a gallery of the dapper little guy’s great creations, via songsheet art. The first, however, is not by him, despite the signature. Pirate cover art for a stage show.

The rest of the songsheet covers are roughly if not precisely chronological:

As part of a continuity – featuring a secret society whose password was “OKMNX” (which turned out to mean nothing more than “OK; ham and eggs”) – Debeck and King Features offered membership cards. The response was so great that applicants received letters apologizing for delays.

A great legacy. But songs and songsheets were just a part. In my Crowded Life, I also have skimmed the surface, as a collector, of toys, figurines, board games, reprint books, and more delightful effluvia. Sometime to be shared here. Time’s a-wastin’!


Saturday, March 9, 2019

Friday, March 8, 2019

Sunday with Hal Foster –

Star Weekly
May 29, 1965

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Crowded Life in Comics –

With the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes

(Barney and Snuffy; DeBeck and Lasswell)
Christmas Sketch - DeBeck Barney and Bunky, 1930s
by Rick Marschall
One of my collecting specialties is the Sketch. There is as much charm, and insouciant skill, in a lightning sketch as there is, or can be, in a finished work of art. As an artist I am often happier with my preliminary work than my finishes; I say that I tighten up, but a lack of ability is the likely culprit, daring me to show work to the world.

So I have several albums of sketches, quick-draws, caricatures and self-caricatures, “roughs” and “comps.” Some are ancient; some were done for me.

I will share some sketches by Billy De Beck here; and work of his successor Fred Lasswell too.

1930 Drawing of Barney Google on DeBeck stationery
Billy De Beck was a cartoonist’s cartoonist. His earliest work, in Pittsburgh, seemed professional from the start, unlike his contemporaries whose work we see in retrospect followed natural evolutions from amateurish to polished. His early political cartoons owed something to J H Donahey of the nearby Cleveland Plain Dealer. Especially his background shading and the types of pretty girls both drew.

While he yet was scarcely known, DeBeck launched a correspondence school for aspiring cartoonists, replete with lesson books of “action sketches.” Little advice, except to copy his drawings. An odd practice – in the ‘teens and ‘20s many cartoonists started similar mail-order “schools,” but, curiously, many of the cartoonists were rank, and clearly needed lessons themselves. (I will be doing a book for Fantagraphics on these correspondence courses.) But… among the many, DeBeck’s books were useful – polished, mature, worthy of study.

He graduated from political cartoons to strip work in the late ‘teens in Chicago. After several false starts, he created So This Is Married Life, then Take Barney Google, F’ r Instance. Soon the tall featured character lost half his size, lost his shrewish wife, acquired a race horse named Spark Plug… and literally was off to the races. Barney Google became, and remained, one of America’s most popular strips until DeBeck’s early death in 1942, aged 52.

Those early “DeBeck School” lesson drawings presaged his lifetime style. While still drawing political cartoons that were a little stiff and formal, in these published sketches he drew with a loose pen, fluid lines, and lively exaggeration. This “look” became the visual trademark of his art. Barney (and the later Snuffy Smith when the hillbilly walk-on dominated the strip) was forever a melange of action, reaction, motion, crosshatching and detailed shading.

Envelope of DeBeck, 1930
I recently acquired a sketch Billy did for a fan in 1930. Its charm – particularly its curiosity – is the cartoonist’s stationery. The letter page embossed with his solitary signature is typical enough.  But the envelope reminds me of the business cards of Newman and the Postmaster General in a Seinfeld episode – the return address is “DeBeck, New York.” Maybe the postmen knew all about him; he was a celebrity.

DeBeck Christmas Sketch, 1930s
I share, then, two Christmas greetings DeBeck drew. Sketches, as loose and charming as one could wish.

We can fast-forward to a photo of me and Fred Lasswell, who succeeded DeBeck on the strip (after a wartime fill-in by Joe Musial); just as the terrific John Rose carries on today.

Photo of Fred Lasswell and Rick Marschall, 1995, making fashion statements
 during the US Postal Service’s 100 Years of the Comics celebration. 
Fred and I were at an event celebrating the US Postal Service’s issuance of 20 stamps commemorating the centennial of the comic strip. The year was 1995, almost (gulp!) 25 years ago. Barney Google was one of the stamps’ stars, and Fred attended events with the Yellow Kid on his tie. As I was the USPS’s consultant for the project (providing many images; an 11-city speaking tour; writing the 100-page book they produced, etc) I invariably wore a tie with the Yellow Kid, hand-painted by Robin Doig of San Diego Comicon fame).

We are showing off the ties in the photo – not really a competition between the Yellow Kids, since they each were in a tie – under which, on a subsequent visit, Fred drew a portrait of ol’ Snuffy. A good ol’ sketch, dadburn it; good enuff fer me!


Friday, March 1, 2019

Comic Advertising –


Boston Globe
June 18, 1950

Fred Meagher (1912-1976) HERE