« December 2015 | Main | February 2016 »

PERFECT NONSENSE: THE CHAOTIC COMICS AND GOOFY GAMES OF GEORGE CARLSON

Perfect Nonsense: The Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson
Edited and Introduced by Daniel F. Yezbick
Preface by R.C. Harvey
318 9x12-inch pages, color
2014 Fantagraphics
hardcover
$49.99

If, like me, you've always wondered just who was George Carlson, the manic mind behind the visually punning, whimsically inspired adventures of Dimwitri, the Pie-Face Prince of Pretzleburg, and “Jingle Jangle Tales,” who also, incongruously, provided the deadly serious cover illustration for the first edition of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, then this is the book for you. Yezbick, a friend of long-standing, has performed a stunning feat of research (including extensive interviews with Carlson’s daughter and grandson) in reconstructing the life and work of a man who dabbled in a wide range of children’s printed entertainments — from cartoons and comics to riddles, puzzles and games; magazine and book illustration (among which, Uncle Wiggly stories), even political cartoons.

Carlson’s longest gig was with John Martin’s Book (1913-1933), a “kiddie pulp,” for which he was lead designer, puzzlemaster, and, as Yezbick puts it, “spinner of graphic gimmickry” — a shamefully short sample of Yezbick’s rollicking prose style, for which slight perhaps this fragment will compensate (a little): Carlson was “JMB’s wunderkind, flooding every issue with a spiraling array of ornaments, geegaws, and finials of miscellaneous styles and traditions.”

Yezbick’s 43-page biography of Carlson is lavishly illustrated with rare photographs and drawings, after which, the book’s chapters (each introduced with a short essay by Yezbick) present his works thematically — poems and pixies, songs and games, art instruction, portraits, advertising and so on—followed by 70 gloriously colorful pages of Pie-Face Prince stories and “Jingle Jangle Tales,” six 5-6 page episodes in each category. The latter, for which Carlson has been celebrated for years among comics cognizantti, is as significant a part of the book as the biography: just as Carlson’s career outside of Jingle Jangle Comics (a comic book created to showcase his cartooning talents) has been unknown, so are the comics stories for which he is celebrated hard to come by: those old funnybooks are now nearly impossible to find and too expensive to purchase if somehow found. But here we have a generous sampling of the masterworks, caught between the highly decorative covers of a captivating cut-out design.

Below is a not quite generous but hopefully adequate sampling of the pictures parts of Yezbick’s book.

 

Carlson1

 

Carlson2

 

Carlson’s career included many more episodes and achievements than are detailed in this volume, and Yezbick plans another volume to complete the job.

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

SHERLOCK HOLMES in A Study In Scarlet

Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet
By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Illustrated by Gris Grimly
280 5.5x8-inch pages
text with b/w illustrations
2015 Balzer-Bray (Harper Collins)
hardcover
$17.99

This is the 1887 prose tale that introduced the brilliantly eccentric Sherlock Holmes, “consulting detective” and master of deduction, to the world, but I bought this edition not for Conan Doyle but for Grimly’s spikey illustrations, which transform the shadowy mystery into bizarre Victorian comedy. This book, in other words, is prose with occasional pictures — not comics.

The best part of Conan Doyle’s work is the first part, this very story, wherein Dr. John Watson meets Holmes and they agree to share rooms at 221B Baker Street. We get the most detailed examination of Holmes’ eccentricities (the mind is an attic but has only so much room for “information” so he deliberately avoids learning anything that cannot be of use to him in solving mysteries) in the Sherlockian oeuvre. But in presenting Holmes’ solution to a murder, Conan Doyle is obliged to provide a long flashback about Mormons in Salt Lake City (in which the Latterday Saints are depicted erroneously as a murdering, kidnaping culture), a digression made all the more annoying because during its course, Holmes disappears from the book’s pages.

Grimly, however, does not: his pictures enliven the digression. But it’s his pictures of Holmes and Watson that are a treat; here are a few.

Grimly

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

CATS, DOGS, WOMEN, NINNIES, CLOWNS: THE LOST ART OF WILLIAM STEIG

Cats, Dogs, Men, Women, Ninnies, Clowns: The Lost Art of William Steig
Annotated by Jeanne Steig
Introduction by Roz Chast
Afterword by Jules Feiffer
352 8x10-inch pages, color
2011 Abrams
hardcover
$40 but as little as $10 through AddALL

Steig, who started as a cartoonist, became one of the most inventive visual comedians of our times, and this volume, which has rapidly and unaccountably slipped off the regularly priced shelves into the bowels of bargain basements, is a vivid testimony to his antic imagination. Full of doodles and scrawls, many enhanced with color, the volume is arranged thematically — Ladies & Gents, Art, Dogs, Cats, Odd Ducks, Ninnies &K Clowns, Bodily Harm.

And each chapter is introduced by Steig’s widow, who supplies insights into her husband’s so-called mind. In launching the chapter on Art, she says: “In Bill’s drawings, artists are often depicted as animals, just as animals are often the subjects of artists. Art was not a profession Bill regarded with reverence. Art was part of nature, shared by dogs, cats, clowns, and roosters. ... Art expressed whatever was important about life, and in Bill’s case, he expressed it comically.”

In her Preface, Jeanne Steig explains that Steig’s humor wasn’t in captioned pictures: “It was there in the art itself. ... Bill held in his heart that one great question: ‘What’s going on here?’; with every drawing he made a leap toward revealing at least the question. And sometimes, he even provided an answer.”

Here are some samples of his answers.

Steig

 

 

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

HEROES OF THE COMICS

Heroes of the Comics: Portraits of the Legends of Comic Books
By Drew Friedman
Foreword by Al Jaffee
184 9x12-inch pages, color
2014 Fantagraphics
hardcover
$34.99

Each of 83 giant, beautifully executed full-page painstakingly pointilist-like portraits appears opposite a page of biographical text that supplies birth and death dates and a helping of the most commonly held notions about the subject and his/her work, the sort of thing Wikipedia thrives on. This method results in a couple of errors: John Goldwater is credited with creating Archie, but Bob Montana pretty clearly did it; Humorama is the name of the publishing company, not the name of a magazine; neither the Pie-face Prince nor Reg’lar Fellas is mentioned in George Carlson’s write-up; Peter Parker’s saga began when he was in high school not college; George Evans is not credited with ghosting Terry and the Pirates; and the term “headlight” refers to the whole boob when given undue prominence, not “large erect nipples.”

But these are piddling criticisms. Friedman’s texts also offer tidbits of previously obscure information — Lev Gleason’s early career, for instance: Al Hollingsworth’s later career. Besides, this is a book of portraits, not biography.

And the portraits are delicious — some, like Jerry Robinson’s, depict the subject at the time of the first blush of fame; others, like those of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (the only joint portrait in the book), at maturity. All show the subjects in what are presumably characteristic poses or settings. The roster includes most of the usual suspects — Jack Kirby (whose face, strangely, is obscured: Friedman choosing to picture his hands clasped in front of his mouth), Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Joe Kurbert, Joe Simon, Stan Lee, C.C. Beck, Lou Fine, Carmine Infantino (whose grin is, unhappily, more grimace than grin), Walt Kelly, John Stanley. But others are usually on the second tier of comics creators — Dick Sprang, Wayne Boring, Basil Wolverton, Otto Messmer, Lily Renee, Marie Severin, Jack Kamen, Ramona Fradon, Howard Nostrand, Russ Heath.

Publishers are included as well as artists and a couple writers (Wonder Woman’s William Moulton Marston, Gardner Fox, Fredric Wertham) Max Gaines (ironically portrayed sitting on a dock, presumably at the lake where he drowned), Alfred Harvey, Malcolm Wheeler Nicholson, Martin Goodman, Woody Gelman, William Gaines, and Harry “A” Chesler, whose face I hadn’t seen before. (Others in this latter category include Carl Burgos, L.B. Cole, Boody Rogers — surprisingly — and Graham Ingels, Jack Oleck, and Jesse Marsh.)

In each portrait, Friedman resorts to a device of caricature, drawing the head and face proportionately much larger than the body.

Friedman

 

Friedman2

Friedman’s 8-page introduction concludes with a wholly accurate description of the book: “These were the pioneers who helped to shape a new medium, the American comic book. Some are still celebrated, some are more obscure, some died forgotten, and some are vilified. Several became rich and famous, several were exploited, and some were bamboozled, but all of them are legends—the heroes of the comics.”

Delicious, throughout.

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

BERLIN, CITY OF STONES: BOOK ONE

Berlin, City of Stones: Book One
By Jason Lutes
212 7.5x10-inch pages, b/w
2001/2011 Drawn & Quarterly
paperback
$22.95

Berlin, City of Smoke: Book Two
By Jason Lutes
212 7.5x10[ilnch pages, b/w
2008/2011 Drawn & Quarterly
paperback
$22.95

These two graphic novels were originally published in comic book format, then re-issued in book form. The action takes place in post-WWI Germany between September 1928 and August 1930, when the liberal democracy of the Weimar Republic lapsed. At the end of the “golden years” of the 1920s, Germany was beset by political unrest, extremists on both the left and the right, the emergence of the communists and the Nazis; economically, the country was suffering from massive inflation. In this setting, Lutes tells the stories of several individuals from different parts of the Weimar social order, chiefly that of a young woman, Marthe Muller, who comes to Berlin for the first time, and Kurt Severing, a political writer. Marthe becomes Kurt’s mistress for a time, then leaves him for a Lesbian relationship. As the institutions of democracy slip away, Kurt becomes disillusioned about the efficacy of political writing to affect the course of events. Book Two ends with his burning his papers and watching them go up in smoke.

The other characters Lutes deploys are victimized by the social and political turmoil of the period. In the first volume, one of them, a mother, dies during a riot in which the chief weapons are stones hurled by the opposing sides.

Throughout the books, the tone is bleak and unforgiving. The characters all seem helplessly caught by the circumstances of their lives. As a reflection of the history of the times, Lutes’ narrative is probably as authentic as possible. At the time of this work’s first publication, it was the most ambitious comics narrative of the day, among the earliest to use the visual-verbal medium in a serious literary manner.

Lutes’ drawing is meticulous simple linework without feathering or shading, rendering people and their surroundings in impressive detail. His page layouts are traditional rather than experimental, telling his stories with slowly paced grids of panels, varying their size and number occasionally to suit the needs of the narrative. And those needs, part from depicting events in his characters’ lives, are fundamentally tonal.

Berlin

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

THE ART OF RAMONA FRADON

Art of Ramona Fradon coverThe Art of Ramona Fradon
By Ramona Fradon
Introduction by Walt Simonson
Interview with Howard Chaykin
152 9x12-inch pages, color
2013 Dynamite
hardcover, $29.99

Fradon entered the comic book industry in the early 1950s, left to raise her daughter in the 1960s, and returned in the 1970s and left again in the 1980s to draw the syndicated newspaper comic strip, Dale Messick’s Brenda Starr, which she continued until 1995. Fradon, who was married for 35 years to New Yorker cartoonist Dana Fradon (until divorcing him in 1982), was one of the few women working significantly in comics. This volume presents samples of all her work from Aquaman and Metamorpho to House of Secrets and Freedom Fighters to Super Friends and Plastic Man (I always told her she did the best Plastic Man since Jack Cole, and she always agreed) for DC and Fantastic Four (one issue) for Marvel to Brenda.

Threading throughout the artwork on display is Chaykin’s knowledgeable and perceptive interview with Fradon, covering every aspect of her career from an artist’s perspective. The book concludes with a bibliography of her work (helpful, but, I suspect, not complete: I don’t see listed the Shining Knight story, which she says is her first for DC).

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

WALLY WOOD's CANNON

Cannon book coverCannon
By Wallace Wood
Introduction by Howard Chaykin
288 7x11-inch landscape pages
b/w plus a few color pages
2014 Fantagraphics
hardcover, $35

The Overseas Weekly was a tabloid published 1970-73 for distribution to U.S. military stationed abroad, and for it, Wood produced Cannon, a full-page comic strip about an operative, John Cannon, who had been brainwashed and re-programmed to be a perfect, emotionless assassin. Most of Cannon’s assignments, however, involve rescuing barenekidwimmin, who appear in profusion with every installment of the continuing story — most regularly, the sinister and voluptuous Asian, Madame Toy.

Cannon, Madame Toy coverAlthough penciled by someone else, Wood’s inks, as Chaykin says, made the artwork “his property, his line and impact being so strong,” and as a result, we have here the mature Wood at the top of his game. The Cannon strips are printed two to a page in stunning clarity.

Cannon also appeared twice (1969 and 1976, before and after his Overseas incarnation) from the same publisher in comic book form, Heroes, Inc.; and this volume concludes with both adventures, the first, in color, but the pages are severely reduced and appear here two to a page, the women, although luscious, always clothed.

Also in this volume, reproduction of a letter from Wood to the publisher, outlining plans for a future project, a comic book of “sex, violence and horror — none of it would pass the Comics Code” — for a wide audience, “science fiction fans, comic book fans, servicemen, grownups and just horny kids.” I’m hopeful that Fantagraphics has plans for publishing a companion volume of Sally Forth, Wood’s comedic naked lady strip for Overseas Weekly.

This is the second “complete” reprinting of Wood’s Cannon: Fantagraphics did it (almost) in 2001 at a larger, tabloid size (10.5x13 inches). The earlier version is missing the first strip, but it includes an appreciative 4-page introduction by Jeff Gelb, who places Cannon in the just-concluding super-spy context of the times —James Bond, the Avengers, et al — but neglects to cite many dates; so as history, it falls somewhat shy. The volume is missing the Heroes, Inc. material, and the reproduction, while excellent, is just a tiny shade less pristine than the new production.

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

NEW YORK COMIC CON GROWS

The Thing at NYCC 2015The 2015 New York Comic Con, October 8-11 at the Javits Center, was the biggest yet, with 169,000 tickets sold — “up from 151,000 in 2014,” reported Heidi MacDonald and Calvin Reid at publishersweekly.com. That surpasses the San Diego Comic Con by at least 30,000. The increase in ticket sales, however, “was due to event organizer ReedPop making Thursday a full day — more tickets were sold — and selling more one-day passes instead of multiple day passes, according to ReedPop global senior v-p Lance Fensterman.”

 

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

OLD SCHOOL TRIUMPH FOR WIMPS

Wimpy Kid Chinese CoverJeff Kinney recently concluded a global tour to promote the 10th book in his Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School was released November 3 in the U.S. by Abrams’s Amulet Books imprint, triggering a tour with stops in 15 cities on five continents, including New York, N.Y.; Boston, Mass.; Tokyo, Japan; Beijing, China; Sydney, Australia; Madrid, Spain; London, U.K.; Lisbon, Portugal; Frankfurt, Germany; Athens, Greece; Istanbul, Turkey; Bucharest, Romania; Amsterdam, the Netherlands; Riga, Latvia; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Said Kinney: “One of the biggest surprises of my life is that kids from all over the world seem to relate to Greg Heffley and his comic struggles. What I’ve learned is that childhood itself is a universal condition that transcends culture and language.”

Following its simultaneous 90-country-wide release in November, Old School has sold more than 1,000,000 copies in its first week, publishersweekly.com reported. There are currently 6.8 million copies of the volume in print worldwide. Each book in the series has topped sales charts, with a series total of 164 million copies in print worldwide.

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

MALAYSIAN CARTOONIST ON THE ROAD

Zunar with two booksThe Malaysia political cartoonist Zunar (Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque) was recently on a lecture tour of England while awaiting his case to come to trial in his native country. Charged with nine violations of antiquated colonial sedition laws, he could face 43 years in prison if convicted. Said Zunar: “To have my cartoons exhibited in a [British] cartoon museum at a time where I am facing pressures from the government for my works is genuine encouragement, a tribute I humbly acknowledge and am tremendously grateful for.”

At Amnesty International UK’s Human rights Action Center in London, he participated in a forum entitled “Fight Through Cartoons, Even My Pen Has a Stand.” Zunar hoped the exhibition and tour “will create awareness on the real state of affairs and the serious limitations that exist in Malaysia where freedom of expression, freedom of the media and human rights are concerned.”

Zunar Cartoon-O-Phobia coverIn Malaysia, the apex court recently upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision to overturn the Home Ministry ban on Zunar’s cartoon books, and told the government to return 33 copies of the books seized, reported the Malaysian Islander. Said Zunar: “This is a victory for all cartoonists, it tells the Home Ministry and the government that drawing cartoons is not a crime.”

He told the police to stop raiding his office and said the court ruling should extend to all 16 of his titles. In view of the ruling, Zunar, who is awaiting trial for sedition, also said the authorities should not take action against him under the Sedition Act, nor arrest or detain him for his work.

 

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

LESS NUDITY, FEWER CARTOONS

The big news a couple months ago was the announcement that, starting with the March 2016 issue, Playboy will no longer publish photos of completely naked women. They’ll be somewhat undressed but not entirely. In plainer language, they’ll still be nearly naked. For the magazine that got famous by picturing naked women and then catapulted that fame into notoriety by neglecting to airbrush pubic hair out of the pictures, the announcement was a jolt just this side of volcanic.

Playboy LogoThe Internet is the reason for this seeming descent into uncommon modesty according to Playboy CEO Scott Flanders, quoted by the Associated Press and others: “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free,” he said, “and so it’s just passe at this juncture.” Flanders says Playboy’s new approach will be with more serious articles aims at more affluent young men.

But other observers suspect that money is the issue. Larry Flynt, founder/publisher of a Playboy rival, Hustler, thinks dropping the nudes is a sign of desperation. Playboy hopes to attract advertisers it could never get while publishing nudes.

“Take the nudity out, you lose the demographic and you can’t get advertisers [without that demographic],” Flynt says. “So it’s a bad business decision.”

Playboy has been in financial trouble for some time. It’s circulation, 5.6 million at its height in 1976, has dropped to about 800,000, reported Reuters. Page count has steadily eroded over the last dozen years, standing, today, at about 126 pages per issue. According to Megan McArdle at Bloomberg View, “Playboy’s American print magazine now loses millions of dollars a year, and is essentially a loss-leader for the Playboy brand, which is licensed hither and thither across the globe.”

Our concern in this corner, however, is with the magazine’s cartoons. Playboy is one of the two remaining regular venues for single-panel gag cartooning in the U.S. (the other being The New Yorker). And Playboy is going for more articles — more text — in an effort to be a more serious, adult publication, then it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that cartoons will be discarded in the rush to adultery — er, adulthood and other grown-up notions and nostrums.

And the November and December issues of the magazine seemed to bear out my fears. Full-page color cartoons were present in their usual abundance, but in the back of the magazine, there were no smaller cartoons, typically numbering 9-12 per issue. In November, none. Nada. Zero. Ditto in December. Then came January. Better. Full-pagers number a paltry 6, but that’s within the usual range. And the small cartoons are back. Not many of them — just 5 — but they’re here. The ratios: 1 full page cartoon for every 25 pages in the magazine; 1 small cartoon for every 30. Disgraceful. The usual ratio of small cartoons to page count is in the range of 1/15 - 1/20.

And so the count-down to March begins. Will cartoons evaporate altogether? A glimmer of hope: Playboy’s founder and editor, Hugh Hefner, is a frustrated cartoonist, and he’s always valued highly the cartoon content of the magazine. More than nudes, we hope. But the signs aren’t good.

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

CARICATURING TRUMP IN WORDS

Steve Brodner, an award-winning satirical illustrator and commentator, is currently at work on a book about U.S. presidents, which inspired him, perhaps, to say (at washingonpost.com) this about this year’s once-Leading GOP Contender: “He may or may not seize the Republican presidential nomination next year, but Donald Trump is already making metaphors great again. Commentators can’t seem to help describing the billionaire with imagery almost as colorful as he is. While one candidate might be called divisive, Trump is a rattlesnake. And where another contender is aggressive, The Donald is Godzilla. Will Trump’s campaign keep soaring, like a personalized Boeing? Or will it eventually fall flat, like a pompadour on a humid day?”

Steve Brodner Trump Hot Air Balloon

 

Official Trump Balloon, by Steve Brodner.

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