Monday, February 24, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Capitalist Ducks.

by Rick Marschall.

The first time I visited Carl Barks it was at his California home; Temecula I think.

He and his wife Garé lived in a modest home and were gracious hosts. Retired, he was, technically, but he had been painting his Duck scenes, or cover re-creations, and a bit in the center of a maelstrom. Fan passions led to price rises – Carl painted one a month, I think – and “what the traffic would bear” increased the fees, and resulted a waiting list years long. To him it was rather bewildering.

Dedicated (or even casual) fans know that Carl Barks, invariably anonymous, was the “good duck artist.” It was his stories from our childhoods that were better than any other; his characters (including those he invented for Disney) had more life; his drawing was special.

When sharks got involved as Carl’s “protectors,” managing sales, or pirating prints on Masonite of his canvases, Disney’s corporate folks interceded. They had to, one thinks. Carl appeared to take it all – the ups and downs – in stride, but I could never tell. That first afternoon I didn’t talk much about those things, but about similar matters – we talked politics, and specifically I had always wanted to ask him about Uncle Scrooge’s identification with riches. Homage or criticism?

I thought of those conversations this week, seeing a socialist and a billionaire side-by-side on a debate stage. My vivid opinion is that carl would not have been for… either, frankly. Then his heart was with the other party; California’s governor was beginning a quiet revolution.

Confirmation, or not, Carl drew this sketch of his Uncle Scrooge for me that day. (Later, when I met Mickey Mouse’s master, Floyd Gottfredson, for a sketch, arthritis prevented more than a signature. On the same page, though: a nice pairing).

On that same day we stood together for a photo. Carl’s leisure suit is dated, but of a time and place. There is no defense of my outfit or hair or shades, but history is history.

That is Carl’s wonderful wife Garé with us. She had one arm, but that did not prevent her from painting – a passion she pursued with attractive landscapes to local success. I reproduce one here.

Also: since this is History, I reproduce here a note from Carl, 1975, about old Western Publishing art that occasionally turned up. $215 in 1944 for full art and story, sigh. Well, Carl was phlegmatic. “Go slowly, sands of time”…

… which was the title of a story laid out by Carl. After I met him, and after I was editor at Marvel, I wrote scripts of Disney characters for European comic-book publishers, chiefly Gutenberghus in Denmark. My instructions were to “write like Carl!” Full circle. (It eventually was published in the US.) This story outline was almost viewed as average fare for the Danes… but its existence created a sensation among American fans.

While I was at Marvel, Ed Summer of Supersnipe Gallery was involved in producing a giant volume of Carl’s stories, to be colored anew. I cannot remember what strings I was able to pull, or with whom, or whether a mere recommendation of a colorist did the trick, but I nominated Peter Ledger, the Australian artist then camped in our offices and working on John Buscema’s WEIRDWORLD trilogy. I ultimately regretted my largess, though, because the stories’ panels were garish, I thought, and maddeningly airbrushed.

At the end of the day – Carl’s days – it was a blessing that he was able to get recognition, and some remuneration, and the adulation of thousands of fans. He was not only a good duck artist, but a good man and a good friend.

– 30

Sunday, February 16, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Frank Bellew – Research, 1859 

Memories Speak Volumes, and Vice Versa.

By Rick Marschall.

I think it is plausible that sensors, or synapses, or microscopic engineers in the brain do work that we will never understand. How and why we dream, often in complicated scenarios, I will never understand. There are a lot of things I do not understand, but I think science will never solve this one.

The brain is a muscle, I have heard, and that became apparent to me about a decade ago when I wrote three books, two of them with elaborate research and footnotes; three very long magazine articles; my weekly blog; and much else I eventually computed at about 400,000 words for the year, all while being caregiver for my wife. The “brain is a muscle” theory was brought home when I was fairly insensate for a couple months afterward. (You can save your electrons if you are tempted to write in with questions like “How could you tell?” because I was the first to address that…!)

But like dreams, there is another question whose answer seems obvious, yet still ultimately elusive. It is confirmed uncountable times in our lives – how do smells trigger memories, even visual images, in our minds? I know that olfactory nerves from our sneezers connect to the brain, sure; that’s how we know something caught fire in the kitchen. But how is it that… well, here is one example:

As a young cartoon fan, I first discovered Puck Magazine, individual issues, when I was in second grade. My father visited Book Store Row in Manhattan on many weekends, and I invariably accompanied him. That neighborhood, now more a memory than anything else, was several blocks south of Union Square Park, its epicenter roughly 14th Street and Fourth Avenue. There were even maps of the approximately 125 used-bookstores clustered in the area.

A store called “Memory Shop,” whose owner was the perpetually knowledgeable but slightly dazed Marc Nadel (I think the spellings are correct), was a sort of heaven-on-earth to this young fan. Its specialty was what we would call today “popular culture” – movies, comics, cartoon books, Broadway memorabilia. It was at the top of rickety stairs in a nondescript building – now probably a parking garage – opening to a large room messily overflowing with cases and boxes and piles of… everything from sheet music to bound volumes. Marc had a gargantuan movie poster of Rudolph Valentino in Son of the Sheik, too large for any wall. So it was tacked to the ceiling, covering almost all of it, kind of a pop-culture worshiper’s Sistine Chapel.

One bookcase had several volumes of Puck Magazine from the 1880s. Magic to me. Gigantic they seemed to a fifth grader. I was already hooked on vintage comics and cartoons from books my dad had, like Coulton Waugh’s The Comics. And I was already devoted to F. Opper, still my favorite cartoonist. Years before Happy Hooligan, he drew political and gag cartoons for Puck. The 1889 volume was my first purchase at The Memory Shop.

Marc held the rest until income from my paper route enabled me to buy the next and next volumes at the heady price of $25 each. I have never maintained much of a savings account since then, proving the adage that “the child is father to the man.”

Those summer nights, when I acquired that bound volume, are as fresh to me as yesterday. I had already purchased loose issues of Puck, Judge, and Life along Book Store Row, but there was something impressive about an oversized volume, hundreds of pages of vintage cartoons, many colored in lithographed glory, terrific artwork by unknown names who eventually became closer friends of mine than schoolmates.

But those olfactory nerves! The paper in that volume was quality, not pulp. They were not fragile nor yellowing nor slowly degrading. Yet they gave off an aroma – a fragrance I would call it – that was distinctive. And today, about 60 years later, when I pull that 1889 volume off the shelf, and I smell that certain aroma anew… it is not new. Not only do I recognize it, but I have a mental image of myself at 10, sitting on the sofa in the enclosed porch my father had built that year. A portable TV was on, but I ignore it as I discover and rediscover those pages of Puck and my new friends Opper and Keppler and C J Taylor and Ehrhart and Dalrymple and Syd B Griffin.

Since then I have appreciated bound volumes more than individual issues of newspapers and magazines, and I am like the old fellow in an old cartoon. I believe it was drawn in 1859 or 1860 by Frank Bellew, one of the real pioneers of his craft. He was probably the most prolific cartoonist of his day. “Probably” is not in play – his signature, often enclosed in a little triangle, shows up in countless journals, from the famed Harper’s Weekly to obscure almanacs.

This is one, likely by him but oddly unsigned. I discovered this about the time when I scored that volume of Puck. Except for the bald head and wizened features, that devotee was me. Joined at the hip to an old bound volume; reading it at every moment; executing a bibliomaniac’s calisthenics to read it. Discovering things on every page. And savoring the sort of perfume that only collectors of Yesterday’s Paper can perceive and love.

– 30 –

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Orson Bean 1928-2020

Remembering Actor Orson Bean and the Hole 
in the Middle of Us All

by Yesterday's Papers contributor Rick Marschall 


Saturday, February 8, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

What If? Who Knows?

Casey Ruggles, Sparkler Comics No. 101, 1951

By Rick Marschall.

In editorial positions I have held during my crowded life in comics, I have tried to offer work to friends, not out of favoritism or nepotism. I have known so many cartoonists that I have been in a position to do so; and have been able to match cartoonists and open positions.

One also becomes aware of cartoonists’ styles and capabilities, their deadline reliability, openings on strips (when I was a syndicate editor) or books (when editor at Marvel). I also was able to offer assignments to cartoonists I knew in Europe; and European assignments I could arrange for American cartoonists.

I have been comics editor at United Feature Syndicate; New York News-Chicago Tribune Syndicate; and Field Enterprises (Publishers Newspaper Syndicate). Also at Marvel, as I said; and when I wrote for Disney Comics in Europe, I was able to tell American friends like Dwight Decker and Don Rosa about work there. I heard rumors that they checked out those opportunities.

I recommended Max Allan Collins for the Dick Tracy gig as Chet Gould was retiring. Otherwise my best luck – that is, enabling luck for the cartoonists – was at Field, where I was able to connect Fred daSilva, Frank Bolle, and Fran Matera to several strips; and at Marvel, where I brought syndicated cartoonists in as writers, artists, and inkers; and invited European cartoonists to contribute to Epic Illustrated, which I founded.

And that brings me to cartoonists to whom I tried like heck to assign work. Odd names they might seem, but worth the effort! Jack Kent, who had done the quiet classic King Aroo – “Who Knows?” Jack Finney, the great speculative fiction writer – “Who Knows?” Eric Gurney, the legendary animal cartoonist – “Who Knows?” Ray Gotto, the  sports cartoonist – “Who Knows?” Jean Shepherd – the great humorist, author of A Christmas Story – “Who Knows?”

A couple creators I tried to entice in more than one of my jobs. Alex Toth was one – hoping he world say Yes first, and then we would find work. Another cartoonist I admired to the same extent was, by coincidence, once Toth’s boss: Warren Tufts.

Warren had drawn the great cowboy strip Casey Ruggles, 1949-54; the parody strip Lone Spaceman; and the innovative full-page “painted-look” Sunday Western Lance. Warren also worked in comic books for Gold Key and in animation.

When I was at Field I tried to pull Warren back into strips, particularly a 1930s detective strip that Max Allan Collins and I brainstormed, but Warren was wary of the syndicate grind… and lack of control, despite my assurances. Some years later, when Epic Magazine was being planned, I offered another open invitation. Suggest a dream concept; design and write as wished; own the rights. He was tempted, but resisted.

What If? Who Knows?

I thought of those questions and of Warren Tufts this week when I heard of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash in California. Besides the fact that Warren’s unique talent and fierce integrity kept him as a maverick in strips and comics, the hobby of aircraft design and test-piloting increasingly occupied his time away from the drawing board.

Warren died while testing a plane of his own design, in Placerville CA in 1982.

– 30


Sunday, February 2, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Your humble correspondent, just as they were putting out the office cat and turning out the lights. Dec 31, 2019.

Stop the Presses:

The Newseum Is Now Old News.

By Rick Marschall.

I went to Washington DC over the recent Christmas-New Year holiday. I make the trip a couple times a year, if for no other reason than to visit my money. Every taxpayer should do this.

All seriousness aside, I went to college in DC (American University), and my son is a TV news producer with a network affiliate station. In between, I have many old and new friends there, at institutions like the Library of Congress and the National Portrait Gallery; one of my publishers, Regnery, is there; and some friends in politics. For several years I was connected with the National Foundation of Caricature and Cartoons, first as a board member, then President, including of its Gallery on E Street near the White House.

The exterior of the Newseum, looking down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol.

But recently one of my targets was to “close a circle.” On Dec. 31, 2019, the Newseum closed its doors. It was an event itself, sad and notable; but I had worked with them – Gannett, the Freedom Foundation, and some optimistic souls – when it began. That was in 1997, I think, and my help was solicited partly because of the Foundation connection, but mostly as a consultant, as they planned exhibitions; and as a potential lender, as they filled the cases and displays.

I did consult, and I did lend. I sat in on planning sessions, always the advocate for cartoons and comic strips. Political cartoons. Pictorial journalism. Editorial cartoons. Sunday funnies…

The Newseum opened across the Potomac in Crystal City, Arlington, at first, and eventually moved to a huge new building on Pennsylvania Ave in the District. There were always many exhibitions – interactive, rotating, and permanent. There was a theater, as C-SPAN junkies will know, and broadcast facilities used briefly by ABC, Al-Jazeera, and others.

On the Wall of Comics, one of the pages I loaned to the Newseum, and the acknowledgment that surprised me. In fact, on a number of ID cards (not only in the comics and cartoon sections) I noticed errors of facts, dates, and names. I suppose they were incorrect for the entire 22 years…

There were many reasons why the Newseum failed. The news business is a hard sell these days, thanks or no thanks to electronic technologies (and, for all the putative adaptations, the Newseum was a monument to print journalism) and, no doubt, the widespread perception of bias that has broken America’s love affair with News. When exhibitions were good they were very good; many were utterly mundane; and some were theme-park type obligatory placeholders.

Another nail in its coffin might have been its overreach as a virtual palace: seven levels; 250,000 square feet; 15 theaters; 15 galleries. Finally – really finally – I realized when my son’s press pass spared us the entry fee, $25 for adults.

A nice perspective shot of a history wall display, hoping to provide perspective indeed to visitors.

In a city hosting some of the finest museums in the world, any museum charging any fee was headed for “30,” as reporters used to say at the end of stories. It had been a similar challenge with the Foundation and Gallery with which I was connected. We had a small building, the original, historic Washington Star Building, but a rental tab of eight-thousand dollars a month. Some day, here, I will tell more of its story.

Back to the Newseum. We roamed the floors and galleries, and visited the empty gift shop. There were the clever pull-out drawers of notable front pages and headlines, the wall display celebrating the First Amendment, theaters with grainy old television news reports. We landed on the moon again; Nixon resigned again; the Berlin Wall (portions of which are at the Newseum) was breached one last time. They became melancholy echoes as closing time was announced.

A portion of the Berlin Wall on display in a special gallery. It brought back memories. I was in Germany when the “wall fell,” but at the Frankfurt Book Fair, not in Berlin, I had dinner with a dozen or so editors and publishers, most in the 20s or 30s, and I was surprised that most of them were supremely indifferent, or slightly hostile, to Communism’s demise. It remains a matter of surprise to me.

Among the many ghosts I was surprised to find myself. Many of the newspaper pages and magazine covers acknowledged lenders, if not the Newseum’s own collection – foundations or syndicates or other museums. I was startled to see a Little Nemo page with “Courtesy Rick Marschall Collection” on the card. I didn’t know they still were acknowledging me. Just  my luck; now they’re closing.

Seriously, it was a good dream. Its demise is now being blamed on America’s growing indifference to Freedom of the Press, but that is face-saving press-agentry. It attempted to be too many things to too few people, an extravagant over-reach in a city thick with museums and even the Senate and House, where citizens may roam free, constrained only against feeding the animals.

The Newseum maintained a focus on contemporary political cartoonists on a rotating basis. Their last is shown here: left-wing cartoonist Darrin Bell.

In a Crowded Life, it was cool and perhaps ironic that I was there on Opening Day and Closing Day too. When all is said and done, if it had been done right, someone like me would have been a frequent visitor through the years.

– 30