Friday, November 27, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

Find the Winning Candidate.

– Joseph Keppler Self-Portrait 

Rick Marschall.

When I was in second grade, my father took me into lower Manhattan on many Saturdays. We had a usual agenda: coffee and nut and spice importers working out of warehouses on Chambers Street, where the World Trade Center later stood, and didn’t. The Record Hunter, uptown, where he would search for then-exotic European LPs of Baroque music. The main destination was Book Store Row, streets south of Union Square where approximately 125 used-book stores lived – cavernous, with balconies and bare light bulbs; or virtual closets off the sidewalks, so small and narrow that they only sold short-story collections, not novels. (No, but they were difficult to navigate if other bibliophiles  were there.)

I was barely able to read, but my love affair with books, even the aroma of old paper, began on those Saturdays. Most of those shops are gone now, and I have read where even the seven-miles-of-books Strand has been squeezed by the pandemic and Mayor di Blasio’s choleric view of the economy.

A counterpart of Schulte’s, and Biblo and Tannen, and Dauber and Pine, and other used-book stores of New York’s yesteryear, I discovered in Paris. No surprise – the legendary Shakespeare and Company. It was not the actual physical location of Sylvia Beach’s 1920s hangout of James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, but I think some of the dust was from that era.

My pied-a-terre in Paris, when not staying with friends, is the centuries-old, tilted, somewhat aromatic, Hotel Esmeralda. It is on the Seine but requires guests in certain rooms (like no. 16, remember) to, appropriately, lean out the window and twist left in order to see the magnificent Notre Dame. (Why “appropriately”? The Hunchback’s love interest was Esmeralda, as you all know). But other rooms, if they have windows, look out upon the back of the hotel, enclosed on four sides and dreary. But one of the other sides is the back of Shakespeare and Company! Of course I knew I would have to call the Esmeralda, even with creaky, winding stairs and one lone breakfast table, my home – a great neighborhood.

(I would have put down roots at the Esmeralda anyway, as two great cartooning friends – Hugo Pratt and Nicole Lambert – recommended the place. A call from Hugo to Nestor would always somehow open up a room when otherwise booked.)

What a tangent. Forgive me. A Crowded Life in Tangents, I’m afraid.

I was talking about Book Store Row and my kidhood. Early discoveries of my own, encouraged but not initiated by my father, were old copies and volumes of Puck magazine. I have previously written here of “meeting” Keppler, Opper, Zim, Gillam, Glackens, and so many great talents. I also became acquainted with the great text humorists of the day, like Bill Nye.

Because Puck was also a political magazine, I perforce became familiar with the issues and politicos of the day; the arcane debates; as well as social manners and mores through panel cartoons and the great ads.

Here, pertinence: on my first discovery of a stack of 1880s Pucks, dad let me buy one – an 1882 issue with an Opper center spread, for a dollar. But another double-page cartoon in an 1880 issue caught my eye, and has remained a relic of fascination.

It was by Joseph Keppler, the talented founder of Puck, and appeared after the 1880 presidential election. The journal was a weekly, but deadline exigencies prevented the creation of cartoon that could address the campaign’s winner when the campaign was won (usually, of course).

What Keppler did – and I discovered when I assembled a complete run of Puck – was indulge a peculiar talent he had. He had an affinity for hiding faces in drawings. As much a puzzle-maker as a political cartoonist at times, Keppler was to construct such cartoons several times through the years. A realistic drawing, two realistic women representing the parties, a realistic landscape. It was arboreal dell, with a grandmother’s paisley shawl running through it.

The realism made it all the more challenging to embed portraits and caricatures of a dozen politicians. But there they are… if you can find them! Tree branches, rock formations, tangled bushes, all reveal the shapes of the candidates Garfield and Hancock; running-mates, senators, mayors, and crooks.

Why? To reveal the winning candidate, without revealing the winning candidate. Readers of Puck that week engaged themselves in checking lists and holding the magazine at all angles.

I became, through that cartoon, an even greater admirer of Joseph Keppler than I ever would have been, if that were possible.

I was reminded of that summer afternoon on Book Store Row, as an eight-year-old enthusiast; falling in love with Puck and Keppler and vintage cartoons and American history and politics all at once. And awestruck by the technical proficiency of a forgotten master.

... and of presidential campaigns too close to call.

It is bizarre that today, and in the hanging chads in Florida of recent memory, our elections are more difficult to resolve; that computers present challenges rather than facile solutions; that technology has become our enemy (or the friend of cheaters).

Whenever you read this, the United States might have a 46th president. Or maybe not. Another reason that I hold “progress’ to be a faithless, teasing chimera.

Plus which, in those early days, the aroma of Yesterday’s Papers was akin to perfume. Take that to the Electoral College.



Friday, November 20, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 Who’s Zoo and Who’s What in Sullivant-World.

by Rick Marschall

We all (all of us, right?) love (not merely like) old comics (and cartoons and illustration), right? Elsewise you would not be reading this column. I assume.

I often assume more than I should, but one thing I know our types share is the occasional feeling of discovery and instant affection for the work of one artist or other. There are many greats of the past, but sometimes we find someone’s work that attracts us like few others. We want to know all we can… see all we can… and, yes, even copy all we can.

It is a universal impulse, usually prompted by the same small list of cartoonists. It is their “fault,” not our weaknesses – the essence of genius. It is dangerous to start a list, but George Herriman can be described this way. Cliff Sterrett. Gluyas Williams. Walt Kelly (try drawing like him…)

The list is objective and subjective. But one cartoonist who always inspires universal admiration is T S Sullivant. What makes him even more compelling to cartoon fans is that his work is relatively obscure.

(That will soon be solved. Fantagraphics Books will publish, any week now, an anthology of Sullivant’s work – black and white, and color; his animal drawings and ethnic lampoons – to which I have contributed artwork and a couple essays.) (I will pause until the Huzzahs die down over this news!)

When I was 10 I discovered three of his drawings in Sephen Becker’s book Comic Art in America, and properly was astonished. When I was older I got to know Steve and acquired his collection. Then I saw framed Sullivant originals on the wall of Rube Goldberg’s studio. I acquired two color originals (one reproduced here, an Easter parade of animals) from Rudolph Dirks’ sister Mae St Clair. And so on.

But my real connection – a motivation for my crazy life’s obsessive collecting forays – was through the pages of Judge and the old Life magazines; and the Hearst newspapers around 1903-1910. I have been blessed to have these complete runs in my collection, so my love affair with T S Sullivant was celebrated a thousand times over.

You will see, by these examples, his hallmarks – and his influences: large, exaggerated heads (an inherited approach, directly, from A B Frost; but McNair in Life and Wilder in Puck consciously copied Sullivant); humorous animals (countless imitators in the magazines – J S Pughe, Bob Addams, A Z Baker, et al.) His crosshatching was distinctive; his anatomy, even when comic, was flawless; his compositions were arresting. A hallmark of his mastery was his willingness to draw figures from behind – lending an air of realism to the comic – and always depict full figures. (So did Frost and other greats; E W Kemble was one cartoonist of the age who was content, or insecure, frequently to draw vignettes and avoid feet or solidity.)

Sullivant had two predominant thematic preoccupations: funny animals and funny humans. I am not being sarcastic; his animals with human poses and personalities, sometimes wardrobes, remind me of a description of Christ, “fully God and fully man.” Sullivant drew creatures that were fully animal yet fully human. His actual people were overwhelmingly of ethnic sorts. Today these cultural cliches and stereotyped imagery and traits make some people wince. But they are interesting reflections of the age; they are masterful cartoon creations; and, very simply, fun.

There are people, even cartoon scholars, who would censor these today. Believe me.

Thomas Starling Sullivant (1854-1926) and his pixilated pen sent me on many hunting trips through the decades, as a researcher and as a collector. I always had happy results. In the old NEMO Magazine I featured his work in the first issue; and a cover story in a subsequent issue. The revival of NEMO will highlight his work, too. Then there is the new Fantagraphics book, as per above. In his own lifetime there was a very early anthology published (Aesop up to date, Fables For Our Times) and a posthumous collection, Sullivant’s ABC Zoo.

Other explanations to other drawings here: the Easter parade was drawn as a decorative-piece for the front pages of Hearst Sunday comics for about a year. The political cartoons are a yet-unreprinted trove of his work; daily Hearst papers seldom survived, but Sullivant was hired to draw political cartoons… and they were great. The couple avoiding paparazzi are Alice Roosevelt Longworth leaving her wedding ceremony with her new husband Nicholas, the Congressman. And a “before and after” Sunday proof sheet, from a collection I purchased of vintage proofs from New York papers of the turn of the century. A Sullivant page was brittle, and cracked into several pieces. My cartoon-archive partner Jon Barli is a wizard at restoration and scanning… as seen here.

The best restoration, better than old proof sheets, would be of the reputation, more than the drawings, of T S Sullivant. A dream inherent in those early searches of mine is being fulfilled.

There was speculation that Sullivant often drew to other people’s gags; or that he submitted drawings and let editors supply captions or dialog – unusual, but freedom-embracing in its way. The great Simplicissimus cartoonist Thony did the same thing. Cartoonist Art Young told a story from Sullivant’s time in the Hearst bullpen. Of course it was kidding, not critical: F. Opper noted how frequently Sullivant scratched away at his drawing to make corrections. In those days, drawing papers were of such quality that one could do this and still apply ink lines that would not bleed. Opper kidded: “If Tom Sullivant scratched his head more and his paper less, he’d be a better cartoonist.”

Well, he was a better cartoonist, than almost any one on the block, before or since.



Sunday, November 8, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 The Anniversary of Great Investments.

 Rick Marschall.

If there can be recurring nightmares, why does it seem that there are fewer repeating good dreams? When I die and go to Slumberland, I perhaps will learn the answer to that riddle of life; but in the meantime I will sleep on it.

This has been a diversionary tactic to camouflage the fact that I will Revisit significant moments in this Crowded Life in Comics, recently having their anniversaries. But I will sprinkle some new insights on the cakes.

October 25 was my parents’ anniversary. And it was the date when I was 12 years old when I lost my virginity. No, not THAT virginity – I mean it was my comics coming-of-age, kind of an early Bar Mitzvah if I were of the Jewish persuasion. I attended my first meeting of the National Cartoonists Society.

It nominally was a mere casual invitation, and Al Smith (Mutt and Jeff), who attended our church, had no crystal ball about what that meeting set in motion. Neither did I; the prospect of a 12-year-old nerd getting to fraternize with legends and heroes was enough: I hoped I would make to the next day. 

I have told here that I attended the business meeting (Al was NCS Treasurer); the “gods” I met, many of whom – Rube Goldberg, Harry Hershfield, Walt Kelly, Dik Browne, Al Kilgore, Mell Lazarus, Russell Patterson, Creig Flessell; Bob Dunn; Mort Walker – sent me inscribed originals afterward; many cartoonists who subsequently became friends whom I served as syndicate editor, or who attended my wedding a dozen years later; the giant scroll Al Smith unfurled for cartoonists to draw their sketches, characters, and greetings.

NCS “poster” 

And I have told of my parents waiting up for Al to drop me back home after midnight, from the old-line Lambs Club in midtown Manhattan, all this on a school night… and how this was a cool anniversary present for them. My father, a lifelong cartoon fan, vicariously enjoyed the evening and the stories no less than I did.

But what I can add is the “after-story” – what flowed from that first evening; what might not have happened without that amazing event; it would have been special if I had been 21 instead of 12, really.

With my “feet wet” (forgetting the virginity wheeze), I made associations and, yes, friendships with cartoonists. Growing up inn the New York- New Jersey- Connecticut area, it was relatively easy to be introduced and recommended, and to visit, other cartoonists. I spent time in studios, and I had my drawings critiqued. Other cartoonists invited me to monthly NCS meetings in New York – Harry Hershfield, Vern Greene, Al Kilgore.

A photo of my family and me (since I mention my parents) ca 1988

Harry Hershfield took a liking to me – he said I was one of the few people (!) who were interested in the business and the artists of the ‘teens and ‘20s, and he did love to reminisce. His crowded old office in the Chanin Building on 42nd Street was always open to me.

The meetings and friendships also enabled me to visit syndicate offices on Christmas, Easter, and Summer breaks from school; and I got to know editors and bullpen artists, also at Dell. 

Eventually, as I said, some cartoonists at that first NCS meeting of mine were artists I eventually edited a decade later as Comics Editor at three newspaper syndicates: Mell Lazarus; Allen Saunders; Stan Lynde; Irwin Hasen; Al Kilgore. Some of the cartoonists became very close friends: Vern Greene; Bill Crawford; Bob Dunn; Frank Fogarty; Jay Irving; Bill Holman. Some of the cartoonists became close enough friends that they attended my wedding: Jack Tippit and several who did not sign the board that evening, including Dik Browne and Mort Walker.

I am not saying that I might not have become a political cartoonist or comics editor or a collector or cartooning historian without the kick-start of that serendipitous invitation. I cannot know. I might have dreamt different dreams, and longer, and more earnest, yet recurring, dreams about a life in comics without Al Smith’s invitation on my parents’ anniversary.

But my life would not have been so crowded. To cartoonists and aspiring cartoonists: Encourage those right behind you in the marvelous line. Whether they will become superstars or only (“only”?) lifelong fans, every kind gesture of yours is a precious investment.


Friday, November 6, 2020

American Cartoonist –

Produced largely by Jack O'Brien, editor 
with able assist from Lars Benson
 Lawndale, California

VOL. IV, NO. 1, FEB-MAR 1950 










See Also: Operation Blonde, a comic strip no one ever heard of HERE

Scans courtesy Larry Straus


Sunday, November 1, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 Winsor McCay on Election Day.

Rick Marschall.

Short and sweet this week, and I ask the indulgence of readers around the world, who might have heard that the United States is enduring another pandemic this week – a presidential election.

… followed by a quick apology for a cheap joke. Elections are not plagues; or are not supposed to be. There are plague-like aspects, as flies surround a corpse: corruption, lies,  dirty money, uncountable brochures and robo-calls. Democracy is the worst form of government, except, as Churchill said, when you consider all the others.

Elections have also kept alive the profession of political cartooning, the illegitimate father of the comic strip. I was always interested in comic strips, and the very earliest of comic strips, but I began my career as a working political cartoonist. (“Working” always seems a strange word when we enjoy it so much…)

Winsor McCay was a working political cartoonist long before he created Little Nemo. He was a working political cartoonist after he drew his last Little Nemo page; in fact when he died, he left a partially inked political cartoon on his drawing board, and his editors ran it as “finished” with touches by a cartoonist friend. His first work for national magazines was political cartoons.

A legend has arisen (“legend” being a professionally courteous word for “lie”) about Winsor McCay and his political and editorial cartoons. Scholars and fans have been led to believe that McCay was a kind of indentured servant in the employ of William Randolph Hearst; that when McCay joined Hearst after drawing for the New York Herald, he was not an unfettered star but consigned to churn out political cartoons in addition to the revival called In the Land of Wonderful Dreams. Here, the story goes, he was under the whip of the editorially eccentric Arthur Brisbane, Hearst lieutenant; and he eventually abandoned his Sunday page to dutifully produce turgid pictorial political polemics.

This version of history, itself, belongs in a land of wonderful dreams, for those who wish that Winsor McCay, fantasist, was a 21st-century flower child, mistreated by corporate overlords. Fueling such distortions, I have wondered, might be the contemporary disdain for Hearst – borne, perhaps of peoples’ affection for the Citizen Kane version of events, as well as prejudice against Hearst, whose career ended as a notable conservative (having commenced as a radical Socialist).

But Winsor McCay was his own man. He was a celebrity who was lured to Hearst, not kidnapped. It was clear he “wrote his own ticket” – when Hearst discouraged other of his cartoonists from producing animated cartoons independently, he either constrained them, or roped them into his own International Studio. But McCay fathered animation on his own, independent of Hearst, while working for him.

Brisbane was known as a brilliant and persuasive essayist, and his editorials often ran full pages on the back of newspapers in the Hearst chain and beyond. He was Hearst’s right-hand man, and books reprinted his editorials. Yet when McCay’s cartoons accompanied Brisbane’s essays (which was more than any other cartoonist) McCay was the horse and Brisbane the cart. That is, it frequently was made clear that the day’s editorial agenda was set by McCay’s cartoon, to which Brisbane added comments.

… hardly the position of a poor cartoonist chained to his drawing board., the chattel of Massa Brisbane.

And when McCay returned to the Herald (then the Herald-Tribune), 1924-27 for yet another revival of Little Nemo color Sundays… he drew political cartoons again. For syndication. Daily. No record of a gun to his head.

No, Winsor McCay was a man of pronounced political and social views. He clearly relished the opportunity to expound his views, and he poured as much work into his political cartoons – detail, anatomy and perspective, sweeping concepts – as any other work he did in his remarkable career.

And this aspect of his career would be better known, and more honored, today, if not filtered through retroactive and politically correct lenses. His views consistently were anti-war, isolationist, nationalist, anti-immigration, and Christian. When he waxed philosophical, which was frequent, he was a cynical but moralistic old-fashioned preacher.

In 1914 when war broke out in Europe, Winsor McCay drew a black and white cross-hatched masterpiece for the anti-intervention New York American. Recently I discovered a painted version that appeared on the cover of CARTOONS Magazine that I restored and copyrighted, and will be issued as a poster.

Like all of McCay’s work – but no less than his strip, animation, or illustrations – it is part of his enduring legacy. And it speaks to us especially as we plan to vote.