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SPECTACULAR BATMAN

I said some weeks ago that I was “off” superhero comic books. The narratives have become increasingly banal. But I can be sucked in—f’instance, for the New 52's Detective Comics No.35. The art. The drawing on the cover pulled me in: corpses weren’t enough by themselves — in fact, they look so much like zombies that I’d have been turned off were it not for the tiny figure of Batman at the end of the converging perspective lines. Then comes the interior. Spectacular.

From the first two panels on the first page, John Paul Leon has me hooked.

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The stunning use of a negative silhouette duplicating the near positive silhouette. Then the sheer pictorial detail in the third panel. Finally, the deeply shadowed face of Bruce Wayne. All promise so far, but Leon’s promise turns pictorially engaging as the story unfolds.             

An airliner lands and goes rolling on into airport buildings — which event Leon draws with painstaking attention to every detail. But that’s not all.

Throughout, his chiaroscuro plunges all the action into deep shadow—in the manner of famed Milton Caniff, but more so. Caniff never did black-soaked scenes like these.

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But, like Caniff, Leon often gives us a panel with no background at all for sheer contrast. Amid the shadows in the two-page spread nearby, detail still abounds: notice the oxygen masks dangling from the ceiling of the aircraft.

This issue, the first of a two-issue series entitled “Terminal,” is all set-up. The airplane’s crash goes on for pages, moving in slow motion across the “screen,” the disintegrating terminal building coming apart as we watch, almost step-by-step, while the giant aircraft noses its way through the debris as it creates it. Then when the authorities go inside the aircraft to see what happened, Batman joins them. All the passengers are dead. The pilot is dead. The co-pilot is dead. Batman thinks they all died at take-off, eight hours ago. That means, “We have eight hours,” he says cryptically. Eight hours “until we’re all dead.”

And the last page of this issue confirms his verdict: Magnus Magnuson, rogue NGO worker, shows up in a video delivered to the television news, and he pronounces that when Batman and the cops opened the door to the crashed airplane, they “opened a diseased coffin,” and “Gotham International Airport will soon become a cemetery.”

Spook stuff. Not usually my cup of tea. But I’ll be back for more Leon.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

NEW TEAM ON BATGIRL

Batfirl, starting with No.35, is more “hip,” saith David Betancourt at the Washington Post. New writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher focus equally on Barbara Gordon’s social life and her costumed crime-fighting life. And she’s moving to a new neighborhood — “a younger, hip part of the city where texting is the first option for communication; hook-ups are random and frequent; major crime includes tablet theft in coffee shops (and there’s lots of coffee in the issue). ...” And a new artist, Barb Tarr, with an “energetic art style, brings a new twist to classic designs” for wardrobe and the like.

The new Batgirl lives up to Betancourt’s hype persuasively. And it doesn’t take long to get us into the new ambiance: on page 3, Barbara (“Babs”), having awakened with a hangover from the previous night’s party in her new apartment, wanders into the livingroom in her sleeping costume — a t-shirt and panties — and, encountering a new, male, face among her female roommates, quickly tries to cover herself up (her lower self). Cute. And very natural. Then it develops that she and the bare-chested Adonis were “all over each other last night.” Did they hook up? Did they do the deed?

Aparently not, as it turns out. But this opening sequence certainly sets up a whole different atmosphere for Batgirl’s adventures.

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And from there, we get a short mystery with Batgirl defeating a taller, heavier male miscreant at hand-to-hand combat.

Then, just to get us to return for No.36, Babs learns that somehow the Internet has divulged her crime-fighting identity.

Tarr’s art is refreshingly crisp and clean, a nice bold flexing line. The girls’ (young women’s) faces are pert and cute (although lots of noses look alike), and together with Steward, who (it sez here) handles the breakdowns, Tarr constructs a two-page panorama of the party scene last night to show Babs wandering figuratively, imaginatively, through the crowd, as she tries to remember what happened and who was there, hoping thereby to figure out who might’ve swiped her computer. Excellent novelty. And a good storytelling device, too.

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Yes, I’ll be back.

But I’m not sure “hip” is the right word to use in describing Batgirl’s new life style. “Hip” derives from “hipster,” and the notion belongs to Norman Mailer who, a half-century ago,  conjured up the term while writing for the Village Voice (unless memory deceives me, which it sometimes does). All of which assigns “hip” to a generation much older than those depicted in this book.

“Millennial” might be better, lately defined as embracing anyone born between 1980 and 2000. Or maybe Net Generation, the mobile-dependent people.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

FIRST ISSUE: THE OCTOBER FACTION

An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being so mysterious as to be cryptic or incomprehensible. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.

The October Faction NoThe debut issue of Steve Niles’ The October Faction is another I won’t pick up again. And that’s too bad because I like a lot his Criminal Macabre series (much credit to the highly individual but engaging artwork styled by Christopher Mitten).  Although tantalizingly illustrated with a quirky but appealing line and colored by Damien Worm, The October Faction is almost an object lesson in how not to do a first issue. There are too many characters, for one thing — which is all right but not, as Niles does here, if their relationship to each other and to some overarching dilemma is not clearly indicated. We meet bickering Phil and Geoff in the first few pages; they may be brothers, but I can’t tell for sure. But the end of the book, I realize that Geoff has a sister named Vivian; and their father, Frederick, is a college professor, teaching a course in monsters.

In the longest segment (of three) in the book, Fred’s brother Lucas visits him, and the two reminisce about their past “business.” Neither is still active in it, and we don’t know what it is/was. Perhaps it has to do with monsters? Killing them? Hunting them down? And who are the Harlows? Victims of a “double homicide”?

At the end, Vivian visits Geoff, who has captured a ghoul by tracing one of those demon circles on the floor. Then we see Deloris, Fred’s wife (about whom Lucas came to warn him) as she drives up to what appears to be a storage shed and tries to awaken a corpse she finds there in a coffin. That’s the cliffhanger.

But as a device for creating suspense, this issue is merely a page-turner: it has no more imperative than a page waiting to be turned: we turn pages because books have pages that are to be turned. It’s structural. No inherent story content propels an interest in discovering what might be on the next page. Ditto here.

The only thing that might pass for a complete episode is the conversation between Fred and Lucas, but that’s so saturated with mystery and ambiguous allusions that we cannot make much sense of it. Consequently, it is of no use in acquainting us with the personalities of either of the characters.

Apparently — to piece together something from the spooky segments herein — the book is about monsters and monster hunting. This issue introduces us to the principal actors. But there is, as yet, no evidence of a plot. Apart from a sort of general curiosity about what might happen next, there’s no compulsion without a plot: a plot usually implies some sort of threat to the status quo. None appears here.

And we don’t like any of the characters — they’re simply mysteries. All mysteries demand solutions, but mystery alone is not enough to persuade me to read on. I must also have an interest in one of the characters shrouded in or engulfed by the mystery. And we don’t get to know any of this gaggle well enough to be interested in them.

Finally, the coloring by Worm is much too dark. Although his drawings are attractive, we can see almost nothing of them because he has shrouded the tale in shadow so deep it’s dark as a moonless night. What might spark our interest, the pleasure of seeing his art, is thereby spoiled, its purpose frustrated.

           

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

FIRST ISSUE: MEN OF WRATH

An admirable first issue must, above all else, contain such matter as will compel a reader to buy the second issue. At the same time, while provoking curiosity through mysteriousness, a good first issue must avoid being so mysterious as to be cryptic or incomprehensible. And, thirdly, it should introduce the title’s principals, preferably in a way that makes us care about them. Fourth, a first issue should include a complete “episode”—that is, something should happen, a crisis of some kind, which is resolved by the end of the issue, without, at the same time, detracting from the cliffhanger aspect of the effort that will compel us to buy the next issue.

Men of Wrath NoIn the first issue of Men of Wrath, we become acquainted with the brutal history of the Rath family, chiefly, that of Ira Rath, who is a professional killer who learns he has cancer. His next assignment is apparently to kill his own son, Reuben, who is a blunderer of a thief. Will he or won’t he? That’s the question that this issue poses, creating the suspense that presumably will nudge us into buying the second issue.

Me? Probably not. The opening incident in the book gives us a complete episode. My criteria include a complete episode because such maneuvers show us the personality of the title’s protagonist, and we like and/or care for him/her as a consequence. But our appreciation of Ira Rath is scarcely fostered by this episode, which depicts him killing several members of a family, including an infant child. I don’t think I want to know any more about this guy — or his fate or that of his son. It’ll all be about as gloomy as this book, meticulously drawn by Ron Garney with a fine and unerring line and colored into dim recesses by Matt Milla.

Writer Jason Aaron says the book is inspired by his own family history in a long bloody cycle of Southern violence, “one that’s been passed down from father to son over the course of a century ... [and] will only end when everyone dies.”

Grim stuff. Serious artistic vision. But too brutal for my taste, thanks.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

R&R ON CHARLIE HEBDO ATTACK

Newspapers have been full of Je Suis Charlie for the past week or so. For a detailed and amply illustrated account of the tragic killing of cartoonists in Paris and its ramifications, we refer you to the Usual Place (RCHarvey.com), where Rants & Raves Opus 335 reviews this rage-fueled attack on freedom by barbaric Islamist Hooligans, who, in their bloodthirsty assault on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, unwittingly attest to the power of cartoons, their universal value affirmed and validated by the world-wide outrage that the attempted murder of freedom provoked. Accompanied by a selection of cartoons that illustrate the provocative high-spirited iconoclastic perversity of the paper’s satiric comedy, the report also includes an international collection of cartoonist reactions to the murders — both in visual and verbal forms, cartoons of anger and sorrow, and discussions of the role of cartoons in free societies. Another, shorter, version of this account appears at the online Comics Journal, tcj.com, under my column, Hare Tonic.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

ARCHIE DIES A HEROIC DEATH

Life With Archie NoThe death of Archie was accomplished last summer in the three concluding issues of the mini-series Life with Archie, Nos.35-37. As repeatedly predicted and strenuously advertised, Archie dies a hero’s death in No.36: he throws himself in front of Senator Kevin Keller, the target of a gun nut who objects to Keller’s gun control stance. Taking the bullet meant for Kevin, Archie dies in minutes, lying on the ground in front of all his Riverdale friends, including Veronica and Betty, his erstwhile wives in the alternative universe created in the Life with Archie series.

The death lives up to the hype that heralded it, no question; but the manner of its accomplishment is a minor miracle of comic book writing by Paul Kupperberg ably assisted by cartoonists Pat and Tim Kennedy and Fernando Ruiz with bold inks by Jim Amash, Bob Smith and Gary Martin.

The three crucial issues of the series must accomplish three things: 1) the crises in Archie’s separate marriages to Veronica and Betty must be resolved in order to clear the narrative deck for his sacrificial death; 2) the two marital storylines must be melded into the one in which Archie is killed; and 3) Archie’s life and death must be given some meaning. All three are achieved in Kupperberg’s artful manipulation of narrative and medium.

Both marital storylines are combined into one narrative through the blindingly simple device of ignoring that they ever existed as separate stories. A steady strand of purposeful ambiguity threads its way through the issue. It begins with Archie jogging and reflecting on his life, thinking, “There I was, exactly where I needed to be with exactly who I always knew I wanted at my side.” The faces of Veronica and Betty hover over him as he thinks this, but he never tells us who, exactly, it is that he always knew he wanted at his side.

Jogging down Memory Lane, Archie reflects on his family: he has a son and daughter, and when he gets home, we meet them both, but when his wife shows up, we see her from the neck down — her face, her identity, out of our ken. And we don’t see her that evening at a fund-raiser Kevin Keller is sponsoring to get money to help support the survivors of a recent shooting at Southport Mall.

Archie's final momentThe shooter is still on the loose, so Senator Keller is accompanied by a couple FBI types, but as the issue’s tragic moment approaches, the agent closest to the shooter is distracted by a guy in a hoodie and overlooks the real threat. (An indicting aside to those days in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death when it was believed in some quarters that everyone in a hoodie was suspect.) The confusion of the moment is well-staged by Kupperberg and pencillers Pat and Tim Kennedy, who offer a jumble of panels, pictures mostly without words shifting focus rapidly from one aspect of the developing scene to another.

Apart from the personal tragedies represented in the story of Archie’s death, the episode is a ringing condemnation of gun violence, a surprisingly emphatic point of view for Archie Comics, which has historically avoided political issues and resolutely trod the middle road.

The next and final issue of the series, No.37, takes place, we are told, a year after Archie’s death. The publisher’s political agenda is on full view — gun control, gay and women’s rights, education, and minimum wage. But most of the issue is devoted to vignettes of Archie’s childhood and youth in which it is demonstrated that the eponymous hero — a classic all-American good guy — is “a product of a caring community.”

And then Riverdale High School is renamed Archie Andrews High School.

Archie has become an icon.

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

YESTERYEAR: PART TWO

DedmanThe cartoon to the right appeared on page 54 of the February 1953 Yale Record, the campus humus mag of that place in that era. The date on the cartoon, however, seems to be 1948. Which may be neither here nor there. The scrap of history represented here is that sometime between 1948 and February 1953, Julien Dedman drew this cartoon. My guess is that he drew it closer to 1948 than to 1953 because a year later than the latter, his cartoons were appearing in the newly launched (December 1953) Playboy magazine. His Arno-esque renderings appeared in only a few issues — and nowhere else that I know of — and then Dedman disappeared forever. (As far as I know.)

Hugh Hefner said his favorite cartoonists were Peter Arno and Charles Addams of The New Yorker. As he put together the first issues of Playboy, he wanted to assemble his own stable of cartoonists, exclusive to Playboy; he couldn’t get either Arno or Adams (both of whom were contracted to The New Yorker), but with Wilson he got the next best thing to Addams. With Dedman, he had a first class Arno imitator. Wilson lasted; Dedman didn’t.

By the way, you can find the whole early history of cartoons in Playboy in the Usual Place.

 

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

YESTERYEAR: PART ONE

As you might expect, I dote on old cartoons. And to find them, I periodically browse issues of old magazines. During one of those rituals, I found in a 1956 Collier’s the cartoon at hand, undoubtedly one of the earliest Gahan Wilson cartoons, published (as it sez there) in August 31, 1956, well over a year before Wilson became a regular at Playboy. (His first cartoon for Playboy was published in December 1957.) The cartoon on display below may not be the first Wilson cartoon in a mainstream magazine, but it’s in the neighborhood. And Collier’s has a particular significance for Wilson. WilsonColliers

Wilson moved from his hometown Chicago to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1954 or 1955, and he began pounding the pavement, visiting magazine cartoon editors every week on “look day.” (It was Wednesday in those days that cartoonists in the vicinity brought their work in to submit and sell in person.) It was the heyday of magazine cartooning, and scores of magazines had offices in New York, so visiting all of them in one day was a genuine marathon. Wilson was able to sell enough cartoons to the “teeny, tacky crummy magazines” at the bottom of the pay scale to support himself. But he couldn’t seem to crack into any of the big glossy periodicals that paid well — Saturday Evening Post, Look, True, Collier’s.

The editors of those magazines, he told Fantagraphics’ Gary Groth in an interview published in Fantagraphics’ retrospective of Wilson’s Playboy cartoons, all laughed at his cartoons but wouldn’t buy any, saying, “They’re funny, but our readers wouldn’t understand them.”

Wilson’s big break came when the cartoon editor at Collier’s left, and another editor, not a cartoon specialist, took his place temporarily. This untutored temp, Wilson said, “didn’t realize that my stuff wouldn’t be understood by the readers out there. He laughed, thought this is great stuff and he bought bunches.” He was relying on his own taste and comedic sensibilities — not on some mythical concept of readership foisted off on every editor.

Once his cartoons started appearing in Collier’s, Wilson started selling elsewhere, too: when cartoonists got their work published in Collier’s, editors at other magazines realized that they were “acceptable” and so they start buying from those cartoonists. “And that’s how I got into the big time,” Wilson finished.

Meanwhile, in Chicago one of the editors of those other magazines was watching Wilson’s work in Collier’s. Hugh Hefner. And when Wilson during a Christmas visit to his parents in Chicago dropped in at Playboy, thinking he could sell something to Harvey Kurtzman for Trump — and finding out that Trump’s office was actually in New York — Hefner told him he’d been waiting for him. Soon, a Wilson cartoon was in every issue of Playboy.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

BEST EDITORIAL CARTOONS: 2014

Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year: 2014 Edition
Edited by Dean P. Turnbloom
208 8.5x11-inch pages
b/w
Pelican paperback
$14.95

This collection has been an annual fixture since 1972, and all but the last two of the 43 volumes were edited by Charles Brooks, a conservative editorial cartoonist at the conservative  Birmingham News and a stalwart of political cartooning in the South. Editorial cartoonists, most of whom skew liberal, often criticized Brooks’ selection for its rightward lurch. But neither of the last two books are guilty of that sin.

Editoonist Steve Kelley, late of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, edited last year’s collection of 2012 cartoons, determined to make the book live up to its title without political bias; and he succeeded (see Rants & Raves, Opus 305 at the Usual Place). And this year’s effort — as usual, a compilation of the cartoons of the year prior to the year named in the title — likewise avoids the bias of the Brooks years: 25 cartoonists are represented with the allowed maximum of 5 cartoons each, and only 6 of those are conservative; 3 of the rest are neither liberal nor conservative, leaving 16 liberal voices. A liberal bias in an annual compendium is more acceptable than a right-leaning one because, as I just said, most of the profession veers off leftward.

Turnbloom has returned to Brooks’ policy of limiting submissions to five from each cartoonist (Kelley imposed no limit) with the result that more cartoonists can be represented in the book’s allotment of pages. Admirable though Turnbloom’s impulse may be, the more cartoonists, the greater the chances of including some who are scarcely ready for prime time: of the 132 cartoonists represented herein (Kelly’s book had only 110; Brooks’, typically around 140), roughly a quarter probably should not be here either because the art is feeble or the commentary lacks the kind of vigor we expect in anything denominated “the best.” Still, some of these virtual unknowns hit pretty hard in the cartoons Turnbloom picked.

Turnbloom was probably urged by Pelican to include a goodly number of less well-known cartoonists in order to convey a (faux) impression of all-inclusiveness; Kelley avoided that pitfall. As a condition of accepting the editorship last year, Kelley imposed no limit on submissions because, in effect, “the best” knows no limit—so why should a book of “the best”?

Of the prime-time cartoons, Turnbloom’s selection includes some happily hard-hitting cartoons, many with inventive visual metaphors. Nearby, we’ve posted four representatives — all of which deploy powerful images to make their points— Paul Fell’s handgun shooting the owner not in the foot but in the face (with presumably the same effect as a foot shot), Robert  Arial’s adapting Benjamin Franklin’s famous dissected snake and slogan for the present-day pachyderm party’s problem, Milt Priggee at the lower right with a stunning metaphor that combines two problems with a vivid albeit suitably bizarre solution, and, finally, at the lower left, Adam Zyglis’s deft depiction of the reason for Congress’s failure to act (they are all too eager to assign blame instead of seek solutions).

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The book also includes the work of several noted cartoonists who were regularly excluded from Brooks’ books—Ted Rall, f’instance, and Tom Tomorrow (whom Turnbloom identifies as Dan Jenkins, not Dan Perkins, Tom’s real name); and Matt Bors. Nothing, though, from a recent winner of several awards, Jen Sorensen; maybe next year.

That so many of the cartoons are unabashed assaults is doubtless due to the year being crammed with so many political events (or, more aptly, non-events) deserving of roaring ridicule, editorial cartoons being better suited to attacking than to defending or championing. In 2013, political malfeasance was so rampant that mounting cartoon attacks was as easy as rolling a pencil off a tilted drawingboard. As usual, the book’s contents are organized into chapters (Obama Administration, Congress, Foreign Affairs, etc.), each of which brims with several wickedly pointed cartoons that tend to overpower the lame ones. .

The annual award winners (Pulitzer, Herblock, etc.) are showcased in the book’s opening pages, and at the end, all Pulitzer and SDX winners are listed in chronological order.

Alas, the rumor is, lately, that this is the last in Pelican’s 42-year run of this title. So unless some enterprising publisher picks up the series, we won’t henceforth have any more history on the hoof in ironic visual terms.

           

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD

Gahan Wilson: Born Dead, Still Weird
a documentary film by Steven-Charles Jaffe

 

Gahan Wilson revengeGahan Wilson is a cartoonist of extraordinary talent and a joyfully perverse albeit pervasive humor, so a film about him (with him in it) is worth a look. I watched it on Amazon Instant Video, and I’m sorry to report I was disappointed. Not terribly disappointed; just a little but enough to feel it. The film is an entertaining 45 minutes, but it isn’t as informative as I’d hoped (although what I’d hoped, I can’t say exactly).

The best part of the film is a segment at the office of The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, where he receives cartoonists peddling their wares every Tuesday morning. As Lloyd Sederer said in his review in Psychology Today: “One by one, each cartoonist unveils a batch of drawings and waits to be impaled upon the sharp words of the editor, whose whimsy will determine their fate. It is just like the terrifying world of grownups in a Gahan Wilson cartoon.”

Mankoff being something of a show-off, I suspect that the presence of a recording camera in his office stimulated him to displays of cruel wit that he might not otherwise have perpetrated.

This episode aside, the film is a rather routine exposition. Wilson talks about his life, his birth and his trying parents. He was  born dead in the American mid-west in 1930, Sederer reports: “He was blue and not breathing at birth from the anesthesia administered to his mother. A pediatrician happened on him before he was placed in a casket and held him under cold water until he revived. It seems as if he has spent a lifetime embodying this moment as metaphor in his dark, shocking, and ultimately life affirming art.”

Wilson also talks about his cartoons and we watch him coloring a couple. Otherwise, the film is a compilation of testimony to Wilson weirdness from the likes of David Remnick, Roz Chast, Stephen Colbert, Guillermo del Toro, Hugh Hefner, Bill Maher, Stan Lee, Randy Newman, Gahan’s wife, and a few others.

You can find out more about Wilson by reading Gary Groth’s interview with him in Fantagraphics’ Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons published in 2011. The film can be viewed on iTunes. Xbox Video, Playstation, Google Play and Vudu.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

QUOTES AND MOTS

Medium Is The Massage

Art Spiegelman said he liked comics being lowbrow and disreputable but he has become one of the people who made comics respectable. Asked about this by Molly Crabapple, Spiegelman responded:

“It’s a Faustian deal. I was attracted to comics because they were outside the culture in a weird way. There wasn’t a canon, and that meant that it was all open for me to explore my own continent, which was useful for somebody who was only partially socialized.

“If you were in college and you were my age, you’d read Marshall McLuhan. He was saying when a medium stops being a mass medium, it either dies or becomes art. Comics were on that path.

“It wasn’t the comics in 1900. It wasn’t like the comic book in 1940. All those idioms, including the newspaper strip, were withering away. It seemed like we needed to have a new deal in the world because if we wanted to get grants like poets got, we had to be considered as valuable to the culture as poets were. So this meant the Faustian Deal. You consciously try to make a liaison. Not just with the head shops, but also with the bookstores, libraries, museums and universities. That way, one can build a support system. If you have a support system, the medium stays alive.”

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

THE LITTLE KING

 

Cartoon Monarch: Otto Soglow & The Little King
Edited by Dean Mullaney
Introduction by Jared Gardner
Foreword by Ivan Brunetti
428 7.5x9-inch landscape pages
b/w plus 95 in color
2012 IDW hardcover
$49.99

Little King lift art
Soglow's famously silent pint-sized red-robed monarch is given an ample display case with this volume, another exemplary IDW production (including the now-familiar sewed-in ribbon bookmark), generously reproducing one strip per page and scrupulously dating them all. The color reprint section begins with The Little King’s predecessor, The Ambassador, and continues with a selection of strips from the first Little King syndicated (September 9, 1934) through the 41-year reign, samples from every year — all in black-and-white except for the first 95 pages. Also represented are examples of Sentinel Louie, topper to The Little King, and samples of Soglow’s early “ashcan school” cartoons, about as far from his characteristic minimalism as possible.

In his brief Foreword, Brunetti appreciates Soglow’s artistry, analyzing one strip featuring a long phallic automobile that emphasizes the King’s interest in a female jogger. Gardner’s Introduction is a much more ambitious undertaking: a copiously researched essay, it offers without question the most complete biography of Soglow available. Very little has been written about Soglow and his Little King, so the detail Gardner has been able to uncover is impressive.

Gardner has also assembled an authoritative gallery of non-monarchical Soglow art—book covers and illustrations (Soglow drew pictures for over 30 books), advertising illos, spot drawings, photographs, and several of the early Little King cartoons (alas, undated) from The New Yorker, where the character debuted. By way of doing due diligence, I looked up the earliest of the Little King appearances in the magazine.

In the opening panel of the first, published June 7, 1930, a footman tells the King: “Your bath is ready, your majesty.” Followed by one footman, the King follows another one to the palace swimming pool. At the edge, one footman helps the King off with his robe while the other footman jumps (fully uniformed) into the pool, creating a splash that sprays the naked King. That’s his bath. Shower, rather. The footmen towel the King dry; then they hold his robe for him, he slips it on, and all three leave in the reverse of the procession that brought them to the pool.

The Little King did not appear again until the next year. On March 14, his minions tell him that the cornerstone laying is imminent, so he goes there — in his carriage with an accompanying parade of footmen, bands, and marching soldiers. At the site, King takes off his robe to reveal workman’s garb underneath, and he approaches the cornerstone with a trowel in hand. He will lay the cornerstone.

The King then appears just about every other week for the rest of the year. Here is the third and the eighth Little King.

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In subsequent 1931 appearances: the Little King is importuned by two heavily uniformed and extravagantly gesturing factotums after which, he buys life insurance; finds mice in his carriage; sets up a scarecrow, dressing it with his own royal robe; is visited at the end of a lengthy tour of the palace by a gaggle of sight-seers; returns the champagne toast of some noblemen by raising a stein of beer; visits a zoo where a pelican eats his crown; takes the crown prince for an airing in an elaborate four-poster bed on wheels rather than a stroller or baby carriage; reviews the troops whereupon his arm gets stuck in a saluting position; slides down a bannister; goes dancing and gives his partner all the medals off his chest; dresses as an admiral for a cruise on one of his battleships and goes water skiing; visits a toy fair and plays with the toys; and meets another monarch with whom, upon arguing, he dons boxing gloves.

Otto Soglow photoBy the end of the year’s run — the bannister episode, water skiing, playing with toys — the fundamental personality of the Little King has emerged. But before sliding down the bannister, The Little King shows his diminutive majesty in adventures with simply incongruous conclusions that do not, in most instances, reveal the most appealing aspect of his personality that enabled him to reign for decades—the little boy in the King.

Soglow’s mastery of pantomime and minimalist visuals in cartooning is the most significant aspect of his long career, and while I don’t see Soglow as defining the “post-war style and sensibility” of the form in quite the pace-setting way that Gardner does, this book — the reprinted Little King strips and Gardner’s essay — is a worthy monument to the cartoonist’s distinctive style and unmatched achievement.

You can find more of Soglow’s life and work in the Usual Place (RCHarvey.com), under the heading Harv’s Hindsights.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

BATMAN: A CELEBRATION

Batman: A Celebration of 75 Years
Various Writers and Artists
432 7x10-inch pages
color
DC Comics hardcover
$39.99

Batman A Celebration of 75 Years coverNow this is the way to do it. The festivities for this 75th anniversary celebrate the notable writers and artists who produced Batman for three-quarters of a century. Bill Finger, Charles Paris, Edward Hamilton, Carmine Infantino, and then the “moderns” — the flamboyant Neal Adams who reset the visual style, Alex Toth who violated the new manner spectacularly (herein, probably the only Batman story he did, a classic of restrained storytelling), Archie Goodwin, Denny O’Neil, Marshall Rogers, Michael Golden, Alan Davis, Tom Mandrake, Jim Aparo, Dick Giordano, Graham Nolan, Rick Burchett, J.H. Williams III, Greg Capullo.

I grew up on the fifties’ Dick Sprang, so it’s nice to see him here — Batman flashing that trademark single-tooth grin. But Jack Burnley inked by George Roussos is the best of the forties — lots of shadowy inking, the sort of art no one else produced until the seventies. The book’s jacket claims the volume “collects the Caped Crusader’s most memorable moments,” but that ain’t what’s here, kimo sabe.

Frank Miller is here, but not his Dark Knight story that changed the Batman mythos. Equally absent are the Joker and the Penguin and other classic Batman villains: this is a celebration of artistry not villainy. And the artistry is mostly of the pictorial kind not the verbal.

The volume reprints the first story from Detective Comics No.27 and the Wayne murder origin from Batman No.1; after that, it pulls up about three stories from every succeeding decade. It concludes with a silly “reimagining” of the first Batman story: using the original story’s pictures, grotesquely enlarged, Brad Meltzer supplies a “voice over” with captions that reflect Bruce Wayne’s thinking about his role as Batman as the events unfold. A nicely poetic intention, but blow-ups of Bob Kane’s lousy inaugural art pretty quickly convert Meltzer’s intention into tedium.

But the book as a whole is a better celebration than anything I’ve seen from Marvel commemorating its 75 years.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

THROWING US ANOTHER BONE

Bone Out From Boneville cover

 

From a press release: To kick off the celebration of the 10th anniversary of its Graphix imprint, Scholastic will release a special edition of Jeff Smith’s Bone Vol.1: Out From Boneville. Established in 2005, Graphix, Scholastic’s graphic novel imprint, launched with the colorized version of Smith’s Bone, effectively establishing the work as the cornerstone of the imprint. Out February 2015, the new special edition will be in full color and will include an illustrated poem by Smith plus original Bone tribute art (mini-comics and splash pages) from 16 other artists, including Kate Beaton, Jeffrey Brown, Kazu Kibuishi, Dav Pilkey, Raina Telgemeier, and Craig Thompson.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com