Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: The Fred Files


The Fred Files

Orion Books, 2005
Hardcover, 6″ x 8.5″, 128 pages, $14.99
ISBN 0-75285-976-5

Now don’t you roll your eyes at me. No, it’s not Krazy Kat or Little Nemo, but it just so happens that Fred Basset was one of my favorite strips growing up. There was just something about the restrained humor and the deft cartooning, especially of Fred’s very expressive face, that just enchanted me.

Growing up a British subject once removed (a Canuck, that is), I found the sly and understated British humor of Fred Basset delicious. Reading it every day seemed almost like a mini-coming of age rite. If I could appreciate the gags in Fred Basset, decidely written for adult sensibilities, I was well on my way to being one. And by “adult” I most certainly do not mean that the humor was racy — it was sophisticated. Graham’s gags are never knee-slappers — he specialized in the knowing wink, the little observation and the perfect few words.

Take, for instance, a strip in which Fred and a larger dog are waiting for their masters outside of a shop. The day is windy and rainy and both dogs look miserable. In panel one, Fred bemoans his lot, “Inhuman I call it … leaving us out here in this perishing east wind.” In the second panel, Fred has moved over to the lee side of the larger dog, “Still, might be worse, I suppose.” Elegantly constructed, seemingly effortless. In the hands of a lesser talent that simple gag probably would have either used too many words or too few. Graham could have done the gag pantomime, but that would have left us without that ever-so-British dialogue that is the icing on the cake. Heady stuff — the whole British psyche rolled up into two panels. You can almost hear Eric Idle singing the unofficial British anthem “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” in the background.

Perhaps I go too far. It’s like that with the treasures of our childhood. We can glorify them for what they meant to us, but that doesn’t make them objectively great. If you didn’t have the opportunity to read Fred Basset in your impressionable years the art may well look crude, the gags basic and sterile. Tough luck for you. But give it a try with this little book and see if you can capture a little of the magic.

The Fred Files is a quick read, and the promise of the ‘inside story’ is a bit thin on the delivery. We get a four page reminiscence by daughter Arran Graham, a very short interview with Alex that ran in a 1976 issue of Cartoon Profiles, and a small gallery of photos, special art and ephemera. The bulk of the book is a reprint of the first Fred Basset annual, originally issued in 1963. The strip reproduction is awful. It looks almost like they photocopied a badly printed copy of the original book. Surely either the family or the syndicate could have provided proof sheets? If not, then a little basic restoration would have tidied things up considerably.

The sub-par reproduction aside, the early Fred Basset strips show Graham at his best and freshest. I was glad to see that we get the original British versions of the strips — I really hate the Americanized version shorn of references to kippers, cricket and cottage pie, and where wonderful Britishisms like “cor” and “blimey” are edited out in favor of bland American terms that are at odds with the atmosphere of the strip.

I lost interest in Fred Basset in 1991 when I learned that Alex Graham had died. Although the Graham name dutifully lived on in the credits, a tiny “MBM” began appearing on the strips, whispering the presence of new creator Michael Martin who produces the strip still. Nothing against Martin, who does a creditable job, but some bit of Graham magic has been lost. For me it’s just another dog strip now. This book provided a delightful trip down memory lane to the glory days of the strip.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: The Misadventures of a Roving Cartoonist



The Misadventures of a Roving Cartoonist — The Lone Ranger’s Secret Sidekick

by Tom Gill with Tim Lasiuta
Five Star Publications, 2008
244 pages, 9.5″ x 6.5″ hardcover
$29.95
ISBN 978-1-58985021-7

The back of this book contains a ‘comicography’ for Tom Gill, page after page of art credits. Looking through that long list you can’t help but wonder how this workhorse cartoonist had time for any adventures that didn’t occur within a few feet of his drawing table. Obviously he was chained to the darn thing.

But adventure he did. Before Gill’s recent passing he put together a memoir of sorts, an account that dwells mostly on his overseas tours to visit armed forces bases where he put on chalk talk shows for the troops. The stories of those trips are delightful, frank and wittily told. Gill had a knack for getting into interesting scrapes on these trips. He gets pinned in a car wreck, marooned in a blizzard, stuck in an air transport that runs out of gas and goes into a vertical dive. Some adventures aren’t of the life-threatening variety, like the hilarious story of his encounter with a masseuse in Japan who is intent on selling him a ‘happy ending’.

Although Tom Gill was primarily a comic book artist and therefore seemingly beyond the purview of the Stripper’s Guide blog, he did have a syndicated strip for a few years (“Flower Potts” for the New York Herald-Tribune) and he discusses this experience along with a chapter about his days on the art staff at the New York Daily News. Also of interest to the newspaper comic strip fan are the capsule bios in the back of the book that provide background on the cartoonists Gill encounters in the rest of the book. Some of these are surprisingly informative with some insider information that I’d not encountered before.

Gill apparently wrote the chapters of this book over a long period and for different audiences, and certain episodes are repeated. Tim Lasiuta, who put the material together for publication, really should have done some editing to tighten it up. Instead he seems to have taken the tack that Gill’s essays are sacrosanct; unfortunate but not that big a deal. Also in the minus column is the section of photos and Gill drawings — the photos are badly reproduced and the original art is a miscellany of material that does not represent so much Gill’s best work as what happened to be conveniently at hand when the book was being readied for publication.

These few problems aside, this is a delightful book that will make for a pleasant evening of reading by the fire on one of these cold winter nights. Being in Florida, I read it on a chaise longue basking in the sun, but we can’t all be that lucky.

You can order this book at Amazon.com and give Stripper’s Guide a little kickback on the purchase by clicking through on the Amazon ‘recommended books’ widget in the left siidebar of this blog page (you may have to scroll down a-ways).

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf – Alex Raymond: His Life and Art


Alex Raymond – His Life and Art

by Tom Roberts
Adventure House, 2007
ISBN 978-1-886937-78-9
312 pages, hardcover, 12.75″ x 9.5″, $49.95

The warning bells started going off not long after I opened this eagerly anticipated book. On page four the author tells us that the Buck Rogers strip was syndicated by NEA. Then a few pages later he tells us that When Mother Was a Girl was the topper to Blondie and that Dumb Dora was Chic Young’s first syndicated strip. These errors aren’t exactly earthshaking I suppose, but such details, all of which could have easily been fact-checked, don’t speak well for the quality of the research that went into this book.

I soldiered on, though, and found that Tom Roberts is certainly an expert on all things Raymond. Only when his story has to touch on other creators and comics does his expertise take a serious fall. In fact Roberts is such a Raymond fanatic that his devotion to the subject ends up being the real source of the project’s undoing. The book is chock full of rare Raymond artwork, but that material is presented in lieu of long loving looks at Flash Gordon, Secret Agent X-9 and Rip Kirby art, the sort of material that this reader presumed would be given more play in a Raymond bio. We do get some material from all those strips, of course, but the book is chock full of all manner of oddball Raymond work — movie poster designs, pulp illustrations, ad campaigns, etc. It comes across as if the author is trying to impress us with the breadth of his Raymond collection which, don’t get me wrong, is indeed astounding. The sense that the book was put together by a Raymond collecting wonk is highlighted when the author occasionally switches to first-person commentary explaining just how rare such-and-such an item is and how many eyeteeth collectors would gladly trade for it. Nowhere is that wonkish attitude more vividly apparent than with an utterly pointless two page sidebar detailing how an auction house approached the author to authenticate an unsigned painting as being the work of Raymond.

Some of Raymond’s rare artwork could just as well have stayed under wraps, too. For instance, we get fourteen pages of art from the juvenile book Scuttle Watch, and another ten from an insurance ad campaign. In neither case did Raymond produce particularly distinguished work (at least by his lofty standard), so I would have much rather seen a few representative images from those venues and allotted some of that space for more of Raymond’s best works. Roberts has the collector’s myopia — his devotion to Raymond leads him to focus more on minutiae than on what made Raymond famous.

And speaking of minutiae, a fifty page chapter detailing Raymond’s service in World War II is enough to test the patience of even the most devoted reader. Raymond served on the U.S.S. Gilbert Islands, an aircraft carrier that I now know in such intimate detail that if I materialized on its deck I think I could find the mess hall blindfolded. I dutifully read the whole chapter, a feat few will or should attempt, and got treated to a detailing of that ship’s activities that might be fine military history but goes ridiculously far afield from telling the story of Raymond’s life. Here’s a taste: “The Gilbert Islands was an escort carrier of the CVE 105 Commencement Bay class. With a displacement of 23,200 tons, she carried a 28-foot draft. Not as big as her sister carriers of the Essex class, the Commencement Bay class had a flight deck spanning 500 feet…” etc., etc., ad infinitum. Look, If I wanted an exhaustive history of the Gilbert Islands I’d buy one. Any competent editor would have slashed this chapter by 30 pages without losing anything of Raymond’s story.

It’s hard to imagine that a book so lovingly produced, about one of the greatest cartoonist/illustrators of the twentieth century, could fall so far short of what it could and should have been. And yet, even though the book is flawed in a whole variety of ways, I still have to give it a pass. Even a cocktail napkin doodle by Raymond is worth a look, and so a whole book chock full of his art, despite the questionable choices made in the selection, is a joy to behold. And since this is the most complete biography we’re ever likely to have of the great penman it’s a book that, flaws and all, deserves a place on any fan’s bookshelf.

PS — for those keeping score, Buck Rogers was syndicated by John Dille, When Mother Was a Girl was the topper of Dumb Dora, and Chic Young’s first syndicated comic strip was The Affairs of Jane.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf – Prince Valiant Far From Camelot


Prince Valiant Far From Camelot

Gary Gianni and Mark Schultz
Andrews McMeel 2008
192 pages, softcover, 10.5 x 8.5, $19.99

This reprinting of the first four years of Prince Valiant under the new helm of Gianni and Schultz is an eye-opening experience. Unlike many of you, I do get the Val Sunday page in my local paper, and I’ve been enjoying Gianni’s art despite the criminally small quarter page presentation. What I failed to recognize reading the strip in weekly installments was the superb craftsmanship of Mark Schultz’s script.

Under the ridiculous strictures of a strip that tries to advance the storyline in a quarter page (even while sacrificing some of that space for a weekly synopsis) one doesn’t expect all that much from a writer, and I confess that on Sunday mornings I failed to recognize the artfulness of the plot that Schultz was weaving. The reprint book gives me the chance to read the entire story at one sitting, though, and under these conditions it’s plain that Schultz is a master at working under these severe restrictions.

The story is a long one, a four year adventure in which Val and son Nathan set out from Camelot to find some respite from the boredom of court life. What starts as a simple desire to slay a dragon (!) turns into an epic adventure that eventually takes the pair as far afield as Africa. Against all odds, Schultz manages to keep this epic under control even when following up to three separate plotlines when the adventurers occasionally become separated.

Schultz not only writes a corking good adventure, a real page turner that begs to be read in one marathon bout, but his work is meticulous. His story is peppered with foreshadowing devices that sometimes don’t play out for months in newspaper time. Adventure comic strips have always worked under the convention that characters are introduced and last only until they’ve fulfilled their role in the plot — plot threads likewise can conveniently disappear without a trace. Schultz, though, surprised me over and over by having long-forgotten characters and hanging plot threads reappear and weave themselves back into the story, a plotting device that we might expect in a novel but is a marvelous and unexpected surprise in a comic strip.

After the sumptuous production of The Prince Valiant Page I was all set to hate this reprinting. The large format reproduction in that book is not used here. But given that Gianni is creating artwork that can withstand tiny reproduction, the mini-tabloid format in this Andrews McMeel production is perfectly suitable to the project. Of course I found myself wishing that Gianni had the elbow-room to produce a more detailed vision of Prince Valiant, but for that we must fault the syndicate and the newspapers that insist on offering the strip in microscopic formats, not the book publisher.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Little Orphan Annie Volume One


Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie Volume 1: Will Tomorrow Ever Come?

IDW Publishing, 2008
ISBN 978-1-60010-140-3
385 pages, hardcover, 9″ x 11 1/4″, $39.99

It may come as a surprise to those who aren’t devoted fans of Little Orphan Annie, but this is an extraordinary collection for the simple fact that the book begins with the very first sequence of the strip. So what? Well, when Little Orphan Annie began it appeared in only one paper in the world, the New York Daily News. That alone would make the early strips rare, but compounding that rarity is that the Daily News was considered a trashy tabloid and so it was never collected and bound by libraries. If there are no libraries collecting the papers, and then later disposing them, there are no opportunities for collectors to amass runs of the original tearsheets. The only known run of the first months of the strip is in the Daily News’ own microfilm copies, and that microfilm, which I’ve had the opportunity to review, is an almost unbelievable mess.

I had the idea of publishing the early Annie strips several years ago and I hit this brick wall myself. Faced with the impossibility of finding these strips in anything vaguely approaching reproducible form I waved the white flag and gave up. Luckily Dean Mullaney and company were not so easily dismayed. They had the bright idea of checking the Harold Gray papers at Boston University and it turned out that the archive included an unexpected treasure — an almost complete run of the strip right from the beginning. So, putting aside a wee bit of jealousy, I’m thrilled that finally we have the opportunity to read the saga of that little orphan gal right from the start, including the pivotal early days in the orphanage that have been unseen since they were published over 80 years ago.

And what a story it is! Gray was famed for his despicable villains, and his earliest are truly vile. Miss Asthma, who runs the orphanage in which we first meet Annie, is as rotten and nasty as I’d always imagined. Mrs. Bottle, a hag who works in cahoots with Asthma to ‘adopt’ Annie as slave labor, is similarly chilling. The two, and many who come after in quick succession, as far more repugnant because they represent the sort of characters who were actually known to prey on defenseless children, then and now. A good part of Gray’s genius was in blending fantasy and reality so masterfully that the reader finds himself taken in by the narrative hook, line and sinker, the suspension of disbelief so complete that Annie and her travails are viscerally affecting (yes, I admit it, I got misty-eyed a few times). Only rarely in this early work does Gray lose us momentarily with an awkward bit of storytelling or a fudged plotline, a deficiency he would overcome soon. Even a sophisticated reader, determined to scoff at Gray’s morality plays as mere histrionic melodrama can’t help but get sucked in by the taut storytelling and heart-melting little heroine.

Harold Gray’s artwork, almost woodcut-like in its frozen flatness, would seem to be a terrible handicap for an adventure strip. But somehow Gray makes it work. He freely admitted that he had an almost total inability to portray action scenes, and so these static daily tableaus often devolve into soliloquies in which Annie describes the day’s activities rather than having the action depicted (by the way, one of Gray’s many conceits, yet another that should have hobbled his strip but didn’t, was that each day’s strip represented one day in Annie’s life — no week-long fight scenes in this strip!). In these early strips Gray is already very close to his mature style, and the only stylistic misses are in some rather generic character designs — again, shortcomings that he was already well on his way to overcoming.

The book offers an almost ridiculous quantity of strips — 38 months worth to be specific. While I applaud the publisher for their generosity, I would have gladly traded some of that quantity to rectify two shortcomings. First, although the strips are only reduced by about 15% or so from their original published sizes, Gray’s lettering is a bit hard to read due to the compression. Little Orphan Annie was a very text-heavy strip, and Gray’s lettering was on the small side to begin with — the reduction had me squinting on occasion, especially in the early sequences when the lettering wasn’t quite as bold as it would become later on. My second objection is to the lack of strip titles. For many strips those daily subtitles are perfunctory, but Gray’s were often witty little comments on the day’s doings, or editorial commentaries that could change the way the reader interpreted the day’s strip. I see no reason that they couldn’t have been printed alongside each strip where the book leaves quite a lot of empty space.

My other objection regards the Sundays. The publishers has included a small — very small — gallery of selected Sundays from the period. According to the editorial notes most of the Sundays were omitted because they seldom related to the daily plotlines during this period. That much is true. However, some Sundays did advance the plot, sometimes as a pivotal episode in the daily storyline. The publisher claims that these important Sundays are included. That, unfortunately, is only partly true. Some storyline Sundays are indeed included but a number of important ones are not. And in Little Orphan Annie at this time there was no Monday recap to save us if we missed the Sunday. This is an error that’s pretty hard to forgive when you’re reading along and all of a sudden you’re completely mystified at a major gap in the story.

Even the Sundays that are reproduced are a bit of a joke. Each one is 7″ tall by 4.5″ wide, two to a page. I may not be the eagle-eyed kid I once was, but I don’t think many readers could read these strips without a magnifying glass, a crutch that I had to fall back on. Did it not occur to the publisher that they could have printed one Sunday per page, sideways? There’s only eleven Sundays included, so would it really have broken the bank to allot them twice that paltry page count? I certainly hope this grievous error in judgment is rectified in subsequent volumes. And if the color is just too expensive I for one would be just as happy seeing the Sundays in black and white. Color was definitely not Gray’s strong suit — in fact I think his later Sundays, from the 30s on, are much more attractive in black and white or with the single spot color that was sometimes used on the Annie Sundays at less affluent papers.

In addition to the strips we also get a fabulous biographical essay on Gray by Jeet Heer. Gray was an infamously private man and Heer has uncovered many interesting and intriguing new facts (new to me, anyway) about the man behind the strip. Very highly recommended reading. And I can’t close (or leave well enough alone) without also noting Dean Mullaney’s introduction in which he sets the stage for the strip with an impressionistic piece about the 1920s. Oddly, Mullaney sees fit to let loose with an expletive, granted a very mild one, in the first paragraph. I guess I’m one hell of a prude that way, but this seemed very weird to me. Give stuffy librarians an excuse to keep the book off of school shelves, Dean. Goodness knows we don’t want to have classic strips fall into the hands of the next generation!

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: The Prince Valiant Page


The Prince Valiant Page

by Gary Gianni
Flesk Publications, 2008
ISBN 978-1-933865-04-1
Hardcover, 12.5″ x 9.25″, 112 pages, $29.95

I order most of my books online. When I saw a Gary Gianni Prince Valiant book pop up in a search I confess I didn’t even bother to read the description, I made a beeline straight for the Order Now button.

My quick trigger finger on the book ordering button often makes books show up in my mailbox that don’t live up to expectations. Especially when doing research I tend to just order everything that could conceivably be of interest and sort the wheat from the chaff as it arrives. It can be a rather expensive indulgence, but on the other hand occasionally I end up with some really great books that vastly exceed expectations.

So it is with The Prince Valiant Page. I ordered it assuming that I was going to get a reprint volume of Gianni’s work on the Sunday strip. Though that’s not what I received, and that’s a book I still would be delighted to have, The Prince Valiant Page is one of those unexpected delights that will keep me hitting those Buy Now buttons.

What we actually have here is a combination art book, instructional book and history of Gianni’s involvement with the strip. The book is full of reproductions of Gianni’s pencil sketches, working drawings and finished pages (in glorious black and white), all of which are lovely to behold — far more beautiful than the postage stamp size color versions I see in my local Sunday paper.

Gianni does a great job of explaining his working methods and those of his predecessor on the strip, John Cullen Murphy. Many model photos are reproduced along with the drawings that were produced based on them, an invaluable peek at methodology for aspiring artists and fascinating too for those of us with no such ambitions.

There are a few color Prince Valiant pages reproduced, mostly on foldout pages so we can see them in glorious full tabloid format, a size that isn’t used by one newspaper out of a thousand. These are just glorious, and confirm for me the reason that while I really love Gianni’s version of Prince Valiant I just can’t bring myself to read it in my local paper reproduced in that abominable quarter-page format.

The history of the strip, which focuses mostly on Gianni and the elder and younger Murphys, reveals a lot I didn’t know about the working relationships. For instance, I had no idea that Gianni was ghosting selected pages before he began taking credit, or that John Cullen Murphy finally handed the strip over to him in such an abrupt fashion, very much unlike Murphy’s extended tutelage under Foster.

Gianni shows several of his early PV pages along with Murphy’s comments and corrections. Murphy’s corrections are heart-rending in their constant admonitions to Gianni to drop details and shading that would turn to mud in the printed form. If only these damn newspapers would give strips like Prince Valiant some space! What a glorious page Gianni could produce for us if only they’d give him some elbow room. As it is Gianni’s work on Prince Valiant is terrific, but oh, what it could be!

While we continue to ponder newspapers’ wanton disregard of producing a Sunday comics section that could actually sell papers I suppose we’ll have to get our fix of great art from books such as these. So thanks Gary Gianni for this wonderful peek into what is and what could be. Now get busy and find a publisher to produce reprint volumes of those superb tabloid Prince Valiant pages of yours. We can’t get them in the newspaper so we’re all chomping at the bit to read your Prince Valiant any way we can.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Willie and Joe – The World War II Years


Willie and Joe – The World War II Years
Edited by Todd DePastino
Fantagraphics Books, 2008
ISBN1-978-1-56097-838-1
2 hardcover volumes in slipcase, 692 pages, $65

When we talk about editorial cartooning we often indulge in the discussion of the ‘importance’ of a given cartoonist. We all know that Thomas Nast was instrumental in bringing down Boss Tweed, for instance. We say, then, that Nast was important, most likely the most important cartoonist of the 19th century, because his cartoons had a direct measurable effect on the world.

In the 20th century we had a number of editorial cartoonists that typically get the ‘important’ tag — Rollin Kirby, Robert Minor, Herblock, Garry Trudeau, Arthur Szyk, and so on come to mind. But if we’re really honest and admit that all these cartoonists did much less to shape popular sentiment but rather are celebrated for their skillful reflection of it then we are left with just one name.

Bill Mauldin changed our world. There’s just no getting around it. Mauldin showed America the reality of war, and we’ve never thought about it in the same way since. Until Mauldin war was a star-spangled adventure, brave young men donning dashing costumes to go off and make the world safe for democracy. Yes, some of those young men died, but we knew they sacrificed themselves willingly, joyfully, for the greater cause. War was about great battles, derring-do, flag waving and chest beating.

Mauldin showed us that the reality of war is dirty, cold and wet, and there’s damn little romance in being shot at. War is about incompetent officers, getting drunk, and the inglorious and very messy deaths of your buddies. The legends embodied by Sergeant York and John Wayne were liars.

To be sure Mauldin wasn’t a lone voice in the wilderness. There was All Quiet on the Western Front, there was Ernie Pyle, there was newsreel footage. But Mauldin somehow made it all seem so much more real. He was literally drawing cartoons in a foxhole. His cartoons were the product of a dogface, not a reporter at the sidelines, not an artful statement on war made from an armchair. There was no wiggle room, no dissenting opinion — it was reality and it wasn’t pretty.

What’s perhaps most amazing is that Mauldin’s cartoons made it into our daily papers at all. Other G.I. cartoons appeared in the papers back home, but they were all heavily sanitized, like Sad Sack and Private Breger. Mauldin’s cartoons, hated and actively suppressed by military brass, frequently off-color, often featuring the blackest of black humor, should by rights have never made it to the American public. But they were just that good — like manifest destiny there was just no stopping them.

This impressive two volume set reprints all of Mauldin’s wartime cartoons, or at least all that the editor has been able to find. Some of Mauldin’s work, especially the early stuff, is extremely rare, in some cases perhaps no longer in existence. Much excellent material, often in the form of original art, was gathered from the Library of Congress.

A short and lively introduction begins volume one, but the vast majority of the whopping 692 pages are Mauldin’s cartoons. And what cartoons! I was certainly familiar with the later material, the cartoons that saw print in the States, but had no idea that Mauldin had this quantity of cartoons published earlier on. Mauldin’s early work uses a somewhat slicker style that his later, grittier, cartoons. It was a surprise to me that Mauldin was an absolute wizard with zipatone, a technique he later abandoned (perhaps out of necessity — how do you get a supply of zipatone in an obscure Italian village?).

His earlier stateside work, focusing on barracks life and going on maneuvers, is of course not as interesting as the later material. It has a charm that bespeaks his own innocence, soon to be dashed in Europe. The later work is powerful far beyond my skills of description, and it is fascinating to see Mauldin’s gradual growth.

The reproduction of the cartoons is, by necessity, very uneven. Cartoons reproduced from cheaply printed base newspapers are, of course, sometimes a bit of a mess. Luckily editor DePastino had phenomenal luck in finding many originals from which to reproduce, so while some cartoons are a muddy mess we can see originals of many others from the same period for comparison. Even many of the cartoons printed from published sources are presented in amazingly great shape. I don’t know if we have an accomplished restorer to thank or if DePastino just got incredibly lucky with his sources.

I was surprised, though, to see a few of the later cartoons also printed from bad source material. Better sources are definitely available, a fact I can vouch for based just on my own collection. I was also a little disappointed that the cartoons end on July 30 1945 when there was three months left to go in the saga of Willie and Joe. Mauldin officially retitled his cartoon at the end of October — why not finish off the run?

One nice feature that could have been presented far better are the editor’s notes on the cartoons. Providing valuable background information, they are almost all quite short so there’s no obvious reason why they weren’t printed on the same page as the cartoon on which they comment. Instead they are printed near the back of each volume. Not at the back of the volume mind you, which would have been at least reasonably convenient, but preceding a final section of miscellaneous Mauldin art that closes out each volume. Every time you go searching for a note there’s a whole lot of unnecessary page flipping involved. Most readers probably won’t bother which is a shame because the notes supply some very interesting context.

The presentation is delightful. The slipcase and two volumes are clad in that famous olive drab colored cloth, and the overall design is meant to evoke an old military manual. A great deal of thought and care obviously went into this presentation and it succeeds completely. The hefty price on the two-volume set, which made me think twice before placing my order, seemed downright cheap once I actually got to see the product.

If you want to see the work of a man who truly did change the world, a man who finally made Americans think twice before supporting war (though apparently that lesson has faded considerably of late), this is the best and only reprint volume of his wartime works you need.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Dondi

Following is our very first guest reviewer on the Stripper’s Guide blog. Since I would rather have bamboo shoots shoved under my fingernails than read Dondi I’m not a good candidate to review this new book. The saccharine sweetness, Dondi’s third-person references to himself, his constant “goshes” all make my skin crawl. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad strip, though. Just not my cup of tea. I do, however, have handy a Dondi fan in the person of my lovely, talented and otherwise discriminating wife. So take it away Judy …


Dondi
by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen, edited by Charles Pelto
Classic Comics Press 2007
ISBN 978-1-60461-686-6
262 pages, $21.95

The Dondi comic strip, created by Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen, was about the adventures of a war orphan from Europe. He is befriended by two American G.I.’s and comes to live with them here in the States. The Dondi reprint book by Classic Comics Press reprints the first 19 months of the strip, from it’s inception on September 25, 1955 until March 17, 1957. The book’s format (11″ x 8.5″) allows for 3 dailies or one Sunday per page, which is a perfectly acceptable presentation — the strips are readable while the book is manageable. There is a delightful introduction by Jules Feiffer about Irwin Hasen and an extensive interview of Hasen by Bill Baker. The reproduction is superb — only one or two strips have a few minor dropouts — noticeable more by contrast with the excellent reproduction of all the other strips than by any glaring fault of the few affected strips.The Sundays are reproduced in crisp black and white.

As a child I was a fan of the Dondi strip but only had access to the Sundays, reading them in the Pittsburgh Press in the late 60’s and early 70’s. So it was with great anticipation that I began reading these early strips; my memory of details had faded and the Sundays simply could not tell the whole story. I mostly remembered the sweet innocence of Dondi and the obnoxious Mother McGowan. The strip’s storyline begins with two American G.I.’s—Corporal Ted Wills and PFC Whitey McGowan—returning from Europe and reminiscing about the war orphan — Dondi — they had befriended and taken in. But when the Army says it’s time to move you move, so, missing the lad, they are headed back to the states in a far darker mood than you should be after two years away. But Dondi, showing the ingenuity that will serve him well throughout the strip, has stowed away on the troop transport and is reunited with his ‘buddies’.

The strip continues to tell the tale as the state must decide Dondi’s immigration status and whether or not Whitey will be allowed to adopt him. We learn that Whitey is a bit of a millionaire playboy, but has a good heart in contrast to his over-bearing mother who is far more concerned about her position in society than the well-being of her only child. Because of Whitey’s money, Ted reluctantly agrees that Dondi will be better off living with the McGowans in New York than going with Ted to small town America where he lives with his mother and drives a delivery truck. But not to worry — Ted’s not written out of the strip — not by a long shot!

Gus Edson does a masterful job of keeping the strip moving while managing to fill in the back-story so new readers won’t be lost. In these first 19 months we have marriage and death, poverty and privilege, prejudice and tolerance, all handled intelligently but not belabored. While the strip would seem to be an innocent diversion about an orphan, Edson and Hasen used it from the start as a commentary on whatever struck them as important. In the Baker interview we learn that later, after Edson had died and Hasen took over the writing, the strip would tackle such topics as toxic waste and child abuse. Even in the early strips the reader is confronted with some unpleasant aspects of society, such as entrenched attitudes about immigrants and the state of public education.

Anyone who was even a passing fan of this 31-year strip should enjoy reading (or re-reading) these early strips — I certainly have!

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Stay Tooned Magazine

I think it’s safe to say that most regular readers of this blog were fans of Jud Hurd’s Cartoonist Profiles magazine. The venerable CP was laid to rest along with its founder, and both he and his magazine are sorely missed. But now we may have a worthy successor in Stay Tooned. Editor John Read is unabashed in voicing his desire to take up Hurd’s mantle, and if this first issue is an indicator of what’s to come Jud Hurd would definitely approve.

Read is following the Cartoonist Profiles model very closely, and where he strays he usually improves. The layouts in CP often resembled a pasted up scrapbook, whereas Stay Tooned has a slicker, more professional look. The samples of cartoonists’ work, which in CP were sometimes limited to clippings from a cartoonist’s standard portfolio or syndicate sales book, are more thoughtfully chosen here. Stay Tooned is what I believe Jud Hurd would be publishing today if he were technologically adept and full of youthful exuberance .

Just like a typical issue of CP, the selection of subjects for this first issue make for a nice grab-bag — something for every interest. Some familiar names are interviewees, like Marcus Hamilton (Dennis the Menace), Scott Stantis (Prickly City) and Steve Kelley (New Orleans Times-Picayune editorial cartoonist). But then we also get John Deaton, a cartoonist and graphic designer who runs a sign shop in a small town, and Rob Corley, an animator who started his own business when Disney shut down the animation unit where he worked. Both these gents have some very interesting insights to share. Jud Hurd ‘s magazine was squarely aimed at aspiring cartoonists, and he recognized that not everyone is going to be the next Charles Schulz — articles about the less glitzy cartooning disciplines were an important part of his magazine and Read evidently shares his philosophy. Aspiring cartoonists take note that there is more to cartooning than sending off submissions to King, United and Universal.

Each article is adorned with lots of examples of the artists’ work — especially welcome are the many roughs and pencil sketches, something we didn’t see nearly enough of in CP. The interview questions, while by necessity somewhat formulaic (how did you get your start, what are your materials and methods), are knowledgeable — I enjoyed the variety of answers Read gets to one of his standard questions, “who was the first pro cartoonist you met?” Of course there’s a column by the great R.C. Harvey, who must be juicing to keep those typing fingers clattering away at such a pace. There’s also some fun quickie items including a rant about beginner cartoonists from Daryl Cagle and a hilarious e-mail exchange submitted by Brad Fitzpatrick.

The magazine does have a few minor bugs that need to be worked out. The margins are so tight that many pages seems like a balloon ready to burst, and an occasional lettering SNAFU has a habitofturningwholesentencesintoonebiglongword. My copy of the first issue had about a half-dozen pages duplicated and out of order. And I blanched to see one of my biggest pet peeves, totally unexpected in a cartooning magazine — it’s Winsor McCay, not McKay!

A pretty big mistake, in my opinion, is the very name of the magazine. When I heard that there was a new magazine coming out called Stay Tooned I paid no attention assuming it was a fanzine about anime or Saturday morning animation. I had no inkling that a magazine with that title might be of interest until I was actually handed a copy and paged through it. I think a more descriptive title could only help sales. And speaking of sales, there’s no subscription form in the magazine and no indication of the intended publishing frequency.

If I had my druthers I’d like to see an article in each issue focusing on the history of cartooning. Jud Hurd was pretty good about throwing us a bone in that regard, and it certainly doesn’t hurt the aspiring cartoonist for whom the magazine is intended to see some work by great cartoonists of the past. Articles and interviews with syndicate personnel, newspaper editors and such (let’s call it the loyal opposition) would also be instructive.

Congratulations John Read on what I hope will be a long-lived and prosperous magazine. You’ve got one in the can, so only 145 more issues to catch up with ol’ Jud — get cracking!

Subscriptions are available at the Stay Tooned website.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Schulz and Peanuts


Schulz and Peanuts
by David Michaelis
HarperCollins 2007
ISBN 978-0-06-6213934
655 pages, $34.95

I’m going to make this short because you’ll find no dearth of reviews for this bestselling biography of Charles Schulz (including an astounding 70-some reader reviews on Amazon). I only wish Michaelis had done the same — keep it short, that is. I have no objection to long-form biography — you’ve read my appreciative review of R.C. Harvey’s Milton Caniff bio – but the way these two books approach their subjects are polar opposites.

Unlike the typical Peanuts fan, whose interest is probably more in learning what made Schulz tick, I’m looking for historical context. Harvey provided that for Caniff in great heaping gobs, while Michaelis’ obsession is his psychoanalysis of Charles Schulz. Yes, we do get a reasonably detailed biography of Schulz and his strip herein, but that plays second fiddle to the constant drumbeat of skeletons from the closet of Schulz’s private life, his obsessions, neuroses and Michaelis’ analysis of same. And if you doubt that Schulz was a profoundly unhappy man, a cartoonist whose incredible success was a product of his own inner turmoil, Michaelis proves his case beyond a doubt. The public face of Schulz is not the man you’ll meet here. If you loved Peanuts without seeing past the thin veneer of humor you will certainly have a much deeper appreciation of the dark side of the strip and its creator after reading this book.

But enough. As I said, I’m going to limit my remarks to a blog audience interested in cartooning history. If you come to the book looking for that you will be disappointed. Michaelis is no cartooning scholar by a long shot. You’ll find that out pretty quick when the author mentions some of Schulz’s cartoonist heroes, including Winsor McKay. There aren’t many egregious errors like this, but its only because the author rarely speaks of other cartoonists or the craft and business of cartooning. Another instance that jarred me was his comment that “not since Beatrix Potter” had an artist chosen to exert serious quality control over the spin-off souvenirs associated with their characters. Walt Disney ring any bells? How about Johnny Gruelle? Grace Drayton? Another instance — Michaelis pronounces that Snoopy was the first case of an animal taking over a “human cartoon”. First of all, Snoopy did not take over the cartoon except as a marketing image, and second its not the only instance. One that comes to mind is the Mutt & Jeff companion strip “Cicero” which became “Cicero’s Cat”. Another candidate might be “Hem and Amy”, which Frank Beck discontinued and then reworked as a long-running dog strip, “Bo”. No doubt I’m forgetting others.

My point isn’t to needle Michaelis for his lack of research in anything other than Schulz — again, that’s not his interest. It’s merely to give fair warning that if your appetite runs more toward the R.C. Harvey style of biography then you’ll be sorely disappointed with “Schulz and Peanuts”.