Sunday, October 25, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 Pogo For President.

The 1956 campaign produced buttons almost as large as some of the candidates themselves.

Rick Marschall.

Politics has always been its own “character,” so to speak, in comic strips; an ever-present topic in times of trouble. Or “ever-president,” even. William McKinley visited Hogan’s Alley; Theodore Roosevelt wrestled Foxy Grandpa (and inspired the newspaper cartoon “The Roosevelt Bears”); Calvin Coolidge appeared in Mutt and Jeff; and so forth.

Ever since R F Outcault, many cartoonists have fallen back on presidents and politics and current events for daily gags or entire sequences. Garry Trudeau might be in the aluminum-siding business today if not for Nixon, Trump, and every president in between providing material.

The original strip that Walt Kelly sent me when I was a kid was from the immediate aftermath of Fremount the Bug’s losing campaign. The dialog deals with campaign “promises” (rather than pledges and commitments and other euphemisms), that have reentered the political discourse this year…

Presidents and politics were logical denizens of the funnies from jump street, not only Hogan’s Alley. Cartoon weeklies and newspaper comic sections ran political cartoons before sequential strips were codified, so the evolution was natural.

Even considering Al Capp, who eventually spanned the entire political horizon left to right in Li’l Abner, there was no strip cartoonist before our time who addressed politics more than Walt Kelly. Pogo trafficked in politics heavily (not quite a traffic jam, but occasionally supplanting regular settings and characters); Kelly made slight and sometimes subtle references; he caricatured politicians; he ignited controversy and publicity…

… and Pogo even ran for president. At least twice. In fact as many times as Harold Stassen or Joe Biden. In 1952 and 1956 the possum was a candidate, at least in syndicate PR campaigns beyond the strip. Citizens sported Pogo pinbacks. College campuses held Pogo for President rallies. TIME, Newsweek, and Life ran stories. In the next cycle, Pogo stepped aside as an Okefenokee bug named Fremount ran for the White House.

Walt Kelly made TV appearances with Eleanor Roosevelt in get-out-the-vote drives. 

In 1968 and 1972 actual candidates (not as actual humans, though) romped through the strip, superb caricatures of LBJ, George Wallace, and Spiro Agnew stealing the spotlight. Kelly had been a political cartoonist in the past – between animation and comics books and strip periods – and in his case, it was not evolution, but facilely switching hats. (I recently noted here that he was virtually the only cartoonist who worked in, and mastered, every cartooning genre of his day.)

So politics can provide humor. Even when dealing with grave matters. In that regard, it was from beyond the “grave” that Pogo delved into politics after the death of Walt Kelly. 

In 1980 Walt’s widow Selby worked with filmmakers who wanted a re-“run” of a presidential campaign. Rather than animation (Walt and Selby had met when they both worked at Disney) the production was stop-action in figures made of “Flexiform.” Walt had worked on TV animated cartoon with Chuck Jones shortly before he died, but this production, I Go Pogo – the Movie was all three-dimensional characters, props, and backgrounds.

A rare 8-sheet of the 1980 stop-cation movie I Go Pogo.

The actors who supplied voices in the productions formed a Who’s Who of great comedic talent and range: Jonathan Winters; Stan Freberg; Vincent Price; Arnold Stang; Ruth Buzzi;  Skip Hinnant (who played Schroeder in off-Broadway’s You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown; and the voice of Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat); and even Kelly’s old New York drinking buddy, columnist Jimmy Breslin.

That was 40 years ago. Various publications and aspiring resurrections of the possum’s quadrennial pastime continued, and still might, for who-knows-how-many ever-lovin’ blue-eyed years.

Win or lose, right or wrong, left or right, it was appropriate that politics was an important component of Pogo’s world. After all, we always hear what a swamp the political game is.



Monday, October 19, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –


Bob Weber, 

Forever the Cartoon Fan.

Rick Marschall.

“A Crowded Life,” by definition, is a personal column. It shares personal memories about the most public of expressions, Cartoonists, Dik Browne once said to me, are curious creatures, choosing to live and work in solitude, yet presenting their conceptions of what what is funny, what is interesting, what is memorable, with the entire world. Cartoonists are, like many actors are, basically shy and private; yet they expose their work, their confidence in its acceptance, they expose themselves, to a world that might be waiting expectantly, or… ready to ignore or criticize.

Odd people, cartoonists: men and women who are pixie-dusted combinations of introversion and audacity.

I suspect these semi-philosophical thoughts, although somewhat pertinent this week, are a form of evasion. I have to address yesterday’s news, as I write: the death of Bob Weber. “All good things must come to an end”? I suppose that fits, but it doesn’t alleviate the grief. Bob embodied a lot of good things, and was good – a good cartoonist; a good friend; a good friend and teacher; a good father; he was even a good procrastinator, maybe the best in a profession rife with them.

He was always ready with a smile, a story, and a memory. He was always ready to go to lunch or dinner or midnight snack, not to much to eat as to fraternize. He never outgrew a child’s delight in discovering new cartoons (even if they were 120 years old), discussing styles, meeting and encouraging young artists. He was serious about being silly but – last but not at all least – he was a craftsman who cared about his work, the personality of his characters, the feelings of readers.

Bob taught cartooning at local libraries and schoolrooms in Baltimore and, later, Westport CT, and even the Smithsonian (despite always mangling the pronunciation of “Smithsonian”). He was generous in praise of other cartoonists; his favorite probably was John Gallagher. I have seen him recall Gallagher gag cartoons, possibly for the hundredth time, yet quake with laughter as if he first saw each one.

There were times – I think overlapping – when he would have his good friend (humanity’s good friend) Orlando Busino ghost some Moose dailies and Sundays… while Bob pitched in on his son’s own feature Comics For Kids: Slylock Fox and crew. Crazy merry-go-‘round? Sure! All cartooning, all fun.

Bob was a big, hulking guy well over six feet tall. A beetle brow and Elvis-like pompadour and duck-ass hair. He came from Baltimore, a modest family and a brother whose lifelong hobby was racing pigeons. He wanted me to ask Al Kaline, after I got to meet and sketch the Hall of Famer, if he remembered Bob from the high school they attended together, but Al died before I could.

When the cartooning bug overtook Bob he attended the School of Visual Art in New York City, I think while it was still Cartoonists and Illustrators, and I think with Orlando and with Jerry Marcus, lifelong friends. He submitted to The Saturday Evening Post and other outlets his heroes and friends did.

I began to describe Bob physically, which is a fun part of this task. He always kept the hair; and his outfits of huge buffalo-nickel belt buckles and good-old-boy string ties never were mothballed. In the toney artists community and celebrity-thick Westport CT, he… was one of a kind. What came with the package was a Southerner’s persona, unapologetic and joyful. I attended many country-music concerts with Bob and discussed endlessly our favorite songs and singers and critiques; he loved Merle Haggard but told me he regretted the line from “Big City,” Keep your retirement and your so-called So-cial Security. “Some people really need that,” he cried. Sometimes Bob and Jean, my wife Nancy and me, and Gill and Helen Fox, would spend evenings in country-western bars (yes, Westport had them).

One Saturday morning Bob called me, said he learned that bluegrass pioneer Mac Wiseman was playing at a country fair somewhere in mid-Connecticut that afternoon. That’s all it took – we drove up, spent a lot of time talking to Mac between his shows, and wound our way back home, drenched in Americana.

Part of the formula that made, or maintained, King Features Syndicate as a powerhouse in the 1950s and ‘60s, was Comic Editor’s Sylvan Byck’s idea to recruit gag cartoonists from the magazines’ golden age. Pick the pockets, so to speak, of the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, and let the panel cartoonists loose. Those “minor leagues,” and ad-agency cartoonists, swelled the pages of the funny papers.

One of the call-ups was Bob Weber, surely with some of the funniest drawings and funniest gags of the lot. Sylvan once told me that he thought King should have an “answer” to Hall Syndicate’s Andy Capp, and he thought Bob Weber was the perfect cartoonist to create a lovable American counterpart – not exactly industrious; a character who had friction with neighbors; a good heart. A perfect marriage, of cartoonist and creation, at least. Moose was a classic, as it morphed to Moose Miller its became less cliched and more human; finally, as Moose and Molly, it became warm and fuzzy – but also more surreal, as Moose’s unkempt yard sprouted chicken bones, fish heads, fried eggs, and stray cats.

Only in recent months, because of dwindling newspapers and Bob’s dwindling youth (he was 87) Moose and Bob retired, a sad good-bye we noted in these columns.

I had planned to write a few words and then pick my own pocket – cut-and-paste some of the stories and memories, many from these columns. But Bob Weber stories are many, even without repeating much. I will reprint some of the drawings from through the years. (Sometimes, even when he was tight on deadlines [always] and he knew we’d see each for lunch in a few days, he would send a clipping or news item – and invariably festoon the envelopes with bold and colorful real images and faux-promos for Moose.)

So I will share some of the artwork, which says more about Bob than any of my stories. I think the first time we met was at an early Comic Convention in New York City – Seuling’s I think; maybe at the Taft – and he was with Gill Fox. I was with a portfolio full of old artwork. Fast-forward from the ‘60s to recently, a lunch (of course) in Westport (of course) with Orlando Busino (of course) and some new friends like Sean Kelly.

I have referred to Bob’s son Bob Jr, whose ambition and success have, if anything, built upon his father’s, but whose sense of humor – and drawing style – are the old man’s. When Bob Jr and Lisa lived in Westport we would see each other not always in cartooning contexts; and Bob Jr accompanied me to men’s Bible studies and such. In the golden threads of life, the timeline from SatEvePost to Moose to Comics For Kids, and other creations of Bob Jr, is a solid one. Bob Weber’s legacy is not only countless magazine gags and decades of the Moose comic strip, but Bob Weber, Jr., his proudest legacy.

And a final observation about Bob Weber: this is the first time he ever has made any of us sad.


Friday, October 9, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Chi è quell'uomo?

Rick Marschall.

I have been blessed to participate in cartoon festivals, book fairs, and comic conventions around the world. The first for me was Lucca 13 in Tuscany, in1978. I was sent by Stan Lee to scout for artists and properties for the a-borning Epic Illustrated. The trip yielded results – for instance, a strip by Mirko Ilić, the Bosnian artist who subsequently became Art Director of The New York Times Op-Ed page; Art Director of TIME International; and is in MOMA’s permanent collection. And I negotiated Marvel properties with other publishers in Germany and Denmark.

But I returned to Lucca many times, sometimes as the American co-representative with David Pascal; then, often, solo on juries and as speaker; and later at Rinaldo Traini’s ExpoCartoon in Rome. I also attended, for visits, speeches, or awards, at Angouleme, Erlangen, Prague, Frankfurt, Bologna, and elsewhere. Comics + Travel (oh, + food + wine too) makes a Crowded Life easy to take.

A privilege was meeting the world’s greatest cartoonists through the years. I will chronicle Lucca here, especially, and Rinaldo Traini, when I gather my chicks: many stories to tell about this remarkable festival and its great Director. To come.

A lingering mystery is whether I was being watched at those festivals. Not spied upon – I am not paranoiac – but observed, sketched? My friends think so, unanimously about one instance, among the friends I ask.  But I don’t know…

One of the world’s great comic artists, the modest and urbane Italian Vittorio Giardino, is a master of artwork, and of storytelling, pacing, and dialog. His characters are genuine types and accessible. Vittorio’s scenarios are as mature as great novels of the ‘30s, and his graphic narration is on a par with the best movie-makers. As a designer, to use the European parlance, his artwork is realistic though slightly linear – to keep it as comic art – and his coloring employs stunning techniques; for instance, in night scenes, and the interplay of sunlight and shadows upon figures. In short, a master.

His characters have included the memorable and parodic Little Ego; the pre-War risk-taker Max Fridman; the detective Sam Pezzo; and Jonas Fink, a 1950s counterpart of Fridman, a Jew in Communist Prague.

Vittorio has also created uncountable shorter tales for magazines, some purely episodic and with characters exclusive to those stories alone. And that returns us to this column’s “mystery” mentioned above.

One year at Lucca, Vittorio presented me with an album of his work, the lavish paperback (with double-wraparound cover of a beautiful women in a gondola in Venice), entitled Vacances Fatales (this was the French reprint).

I was not familiar with any of the stories, all of which had appeared in European monthly comic magazines, so I eagerly feasted back in my hotel room that night. The rest of this tale is completely subjective, told only from my point of view. I report; you decide.

Two of the stories featured characters that looked very much like the guy I knew from many mornings, in the mirror as I shaved. The same lurking double chin; the same beard; the same Western boots that I favored at the time (and Italians infrequently did); even, in one story, a professorial tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows (I was, ahem, a teacher at the School of Visual Arts at the time). A pretentious scarf. Even my dopey little nose. One story had a spot-on setting, without identification, of beautiful Lucca in Autumn, atop the ancient walls.

Mostly flattered, I found Vittorio the next day, thanked him, and quickly asked – too quickly – why he had “me” killed in each story. More than that, “I” was a skunk and enjoyed sex and some gun-play and fist-fights in each story before justice was served.

If I hadn’t asked so quickly, I might have received a different response, which seemed to me a somewhat nervous denial that I inspired either character. So I accept Vittorio’s eye-blinking protestations of innocence... and have been disappointed at the Official Version ever since. Friends “see” me, and I was ready to be flattered… up to the point of being unable to share the stories with my grandchildren!

Well, I’ll share some panels, and let the jury decide. I also dug out a couple photos of me from the approximate era. One with Bosnian publisher Ervin Rustemagic at the Frankfurt Book Fair, pranking about some forgotten money matter; and one with Virginia Davis, the “Alice” of Disney’s pre-Mickey cartoons (I brought her to Lucca one year), and friend Jassanne Wallace, then of the Circle Galleries.

Compare. Maybe, of course, I am fooling – or flattering – myself. If you don’t see any resemblances, then you at least have some glorious comic artwork by Vittorio Giardino to enjoy. And that’s never a bad thing, in any language, even when the protagonist gets killed... 


Thursday, October 8, 2020

Behind the Scenes –

Tour of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum

Thanks to Huib van Opstal

Sunday, October 4, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 The Best Of the West.

Rick Marschall.

My good friend Ferd Johnson, about whom I will write copiously here was a talented and funny cartoonist, who began assisting on Moon Mullins while his bullpen pal at the Chicago Tribune was still assisting Sidney Smith on The Gumps. Ferd was a working cartoonist before Little Orphan Annie was even created. Walking history when I knew him in the 1970s and ‘80s.

And his own strip, signed and full-page color Sunday, commenced about the same time as Annie. And that leads to this “Crowded Life” account. Ferd told me that Captain Patterson, owner of the Daily News, had an abiding belief among his myriad instincts about comics, that a Western strip would be a big hit. 

Potential “hit” or not, he had faith in the theme, and its inclusion among the News comics. So Ferd Johnson created Texas Slim. It was quite a funny strip, well drawn, full of broad visual humor and colorful characters and… resembling Moon Mullins out West. Logically.

When Ferd’s duties assisting Frank Willard on Moon grew too time-consuming – traveling around the country, inking while the boss golfed and drank – he gave up Texas Slim. (By the way, Willard often partied and golfed with Billy DeBeck and George McManus, so Ferd bonded with their assistants Fred Lasswell and Zeke Zekely, respectively.)

This Western obsession also explains the introduction of the classic White Boy / Skull Valley by Garrett Price, who returned to the Trib, where he was a member of the art staff in the late ‘teens.

The Trib experimented with a comic-book sized insert in the 1940s, and Patterson wanted Texas Slim revived; and Ferd did a great job with it. The Western theme still echoed in the corridors of Tribune Tower and another Western strip was launched – Vesta West

The only cause of Slim’s ultimate demise was the demise of Frank Willard… and Ferd was obliged to devote 100 per cent of his time on Moon Mullins.

I hope this has not seemed like a meandering calf needing to be lassoed and roped. The point of the Sagebrush Saga was told to me by Ferd Johnson. When Slim ended, the syndicate still wanted a Western strip in its “stable,” so to speak. 

By serendipity, a young cartoonist from Montana had just submitted samples – well-drawn, funny, and redolent of authenticity – of a cowboy strip. Ferd was not sure whether Stan Lynde ever knew about the coincidences… but that is how Rick O’Shay was born in the late 1950s (a time when TV Westerns were the rage, one season seeing more than 30 cowboys shows on the networks… a fact that did not hurt Stan’s chances, either).

Stan Lynde (whose name rhymed with “lined,” unlike the comedian Paul Lynde) built the strip around the young and somewhat naive sheriff Rick O’Shay; a diamond-in-the-rough gunslinger Hipshot, and side characters like the pretty saloon hostess Gaye Abandon.

My interactions with Stan were relatively often; however – like chapters in a Saturday morning serial – spread apart by intervening years.

When I was about 10 I wrote a fan letter, and Stan generously responded with a nice note and sketch; cherished, always tacked to my wall during high school years.

In 1961, Only around 12 years old, I attended my first National Cartoonists Society meeting, the guest of Al (Mutt and Jeff) Smith. In those days the monthly meeting in Manhattan were elaborate affairs, well attended, with entertainment and featuring a “Shop Talk,” where cartoonists from out of town, or perhaps celebrities who had something interesting to share, would speak and be interviewed. 

At that “inaugural” meeting of mine, Stan Lynde, “creator of that terrific new cowboy strip Rick O’Shay, and a living, breathing cowboy himself,” was the guest at the Shop Talk. He was gracious enough to spend one-on-one with me that evening, and we began a friendship that continued via the Pony Express, or its modern equivalent.

About a dozen years later I became Stan’s editor at the New York News – Chicago Tribune Syndicate. By then – bucking the trend in newspaper strips – the daily Rick O’Shay had evolved from being a humor strip, to a continuity and adventure strip. This reflected Stan’s literary development, intrigued by deeper narratives, serious conflicts, and characters with faceted personalities. He employed violence and emotional dilemmas; rough then, too rough for sissy editors and readers today. Good! but edgy. 

Stan’s art grew more sophisticated too; more realistic. Occasionally, in his efforts at exactitude, he would draw hands with six fingers or figures with two right hands. Such times gave me extra excuses to call his studio.

But attrition – lost papers – was ambushing Rick O’Shay. After I left the syndicate, so did he. After a dispute with his syndicate chiefs, he left, and Rick O’Shay was given to Alfredo Alcala to draw, 

I had moved on to be Comics Editor at Field Newspaper Syndicate in Chicago. Stan had new projects in mind, and many fans will recall his Latigo strip. I could not convince the dunce of a syndicate president, Dick Sherry, to consider Stan’s work while I was there. The sales staff loved it, and around 1970 it bought Latigo. And never promoted it much.

Subsequently I tried my hand at being an agent – taking strips to syndicates, sometimes helping to develop properties, and in the course of that work, and my contacts with European publishers – and Stan asked if I would show his work around. I did, through the offices of Edward J Keating, the legendary sport agent of Cleveland. I forget how he knew Stan (I think he owned a ranch in Montana), but we “schemed” the best we could to get a major publisher, a major syndicate, a major magazine to pick up Stan’s work, old or new. It was exceedingly frustrating.

It was during these years, I believe, that Stan found Jesus in a personal and powerful way, and forever after as a born-again believer, his faith animated his work as much as sagebrush and Western skies and cottonwood (he launched his own publishing imprint for books and graphics named Cottonwood).

So many of our conversations, and some hours spent I think in 1982 at San Diego Comicon, we talked about faith as much as about comics. I was writing books then, in a variety of fields, and Stan was to write, and not only draw, too – a series of respected fiction that is often compared favorably to Louis Lamour. 

Eventually, in a pattern that mirrors the success of Spaghetti Westerns, Stan Lynde’s work found a more receptive home in Europe. Especially in Scandinavia did his work appear in great variety… and longevity: his reprinted work still appears in journals.

In person, Stan was a plausible cowboy, a Gary Cooper type, the strong and silent stereotype. He died in 2013, aged 81. By then a respected painter and novelist – and, always, a strip cartoonist – I don’t know if he died “with his boots on,” or even at the drawing board. But if you can’t picture those scenarios… well, smile when you say that.