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.

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


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





Sunday, June 7, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


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.