New Jim Ivey Book Published

I’m happy to announce that a new retrospective of Jim Ivey’s cartooning career is now available. “Cartoons I Liked” is a compilation of some of his personal favorite cartoons from a long and distinguished career at the Washington Star, St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Examiner and Orlando Sentinel. In addition the book offers some rare unpublished material, including rejected editorial cartoons and comic strip submissions.

If you are a longtime Jim Ivey fan or have just recently discovered him through his weekly comic strips on the Stripper’s Guide blog you’re sure to enjoy this book.

The book is available from for $9.95 (8.5″ x 11″ softcover) or $3 (PDF download). If you’d like an autographed copy with an original sketch send $20 check or money order to:

Jim Ivey
5840 Dahlia Drive #7
Orlando FL 32807

Domestic US orders only please.

From the back cover:

Jim Ivey’s editorial cartooning career spanned 1949-89. He was a political cartoonist at the Washington Star, St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Examiner and Orlando Sentinel. His work was also syndicated through the Chicago Tribune and Ben Roth Agency. His uncluttered style rejected the grease-crayon and label-littered conventions of editorial cartooning and ushered in a new era of experimentation and graphic inventiveness in the field. This is a collection of Ivey’s favorites spanning his entire career. In addition to editorial cartoons there are several bonuses including rare unpublished drawings and syndicate submissions.

In addition to his celebrated cartooning career Ivey also operated the Cartoon Museum, the first gallery of cartoon art in the U.S., was regional chairman of the National Cartoonists Society, and published cARToon, a legendary magazine covering the history of cartooning.

Ivey is now semi-retired but still accepts occasional commissions from marketing agencies and publishers. He also draws a comic strip that is a weekly treat for readers of the Stripper’s Guide blog, a website about cartooning history.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Betsy and Me

Betsy and Me by Jack Cole
Introduction by R.C. Harvey
Fantagraphics Books, 2007
$14.95 softcover, 120 pages
ISBN 978-1-56097-878-7

Every biographer seems to be in agreement that Jack Cole’s fondest professional desire was to author a syndicated newspaper comic strip. For Cole his classic Plastic Man comic books and Playboy magazine cartoons were never more than waypoints on a road that he hoped would end not at Oz but with a syndicate contract.

Other than a short stint ghosting Will Eisner’s Spirit daily comic strip, Betsy and Me was Jack Cole’s first, and as it turned out, only syndicated offering. The strip was offered by Field Enterprises, the syndication arm of the Chicago Sun-Times. Field had a rather pathetic track record for selling strips — the syndicate (not to mention the newspaper) were said to be kept afloat mainly on the back of Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon, a bestselling strip in these years. This gives us the first inkling that Betsy and Me was not cut out to join the pantheon of Cole’s greatest creations. Since Cole’s reputation was well-known his syndicate submissions would not have had to wallow in slush piles, so we can safely assume that Betsy and Me was given a serious look at any syndicate to which he submitted. Signing up with Field probably indicates that there were no takers among the strongest syndicates.

Betsy and Me is a departure, and not a good one, for Cole. His reputation was made with the looney antics and superbly executed art of Plastic Man, and his stature grew in the 50s with his magnificent painterly Playboy cartoons. But Betsy and Me is in no way emblematic of either of his previous successes. Unlike the Playboy cartoons it is not risque or titillating, neither does it exhibit the loopy sensibilities of his Plastic Man. With this strip Cole is not adding a new chapter to his biography and inventiveness; Betsy and Me is formulaic, conventional and drawn in a fad style of the day unworthy of Cole’s talents.

Betsy and Me rehashes the most overdone subject matter in comic strips — the family sitcom. That’s okay — many great strips have worked within that hoary formula. But Cole’s actors are pure stereotypes – Chet is the dimwitted dad and Betsy the cipher of a wife, both with bland personalities that have no originality, in fact no definition, at all. The kid, Farley, does have a hook but it’s one that’s been done a dozen times before — he’s a boy genius.

With a cast of characters straight off the assembly line, Cole takes his one stab at originality in the way the strip is built. Chet narrates most of the strips in the past tense, often framing the action by introducing the strip’s subject in the first panel, then narrating the ensuing gag. Sometimes the commentary is cute, other times it consists of a lot of “he said”s and “she said”s surrounding the panels. Cole was so enamored of this motif that sometimes he doesn’t bother with a gag at all — the presence of the narration itself is, at least to Cole’s thinking, funny enough. And it is a cute idea, just not that cute. The narration also has the problem of making the strip far too type-dense. In these tiny 4-column strips the addition of narration leaves darn little room for art. The result is unattractive and uninviting.

In a generously long and informative introduction punctuated with sample art from Cole’s better efforts, R.C. Harvey rehearses Cole’s life story. Cole’s mysterious suicide, which took place bare months after the introduction of this strip, is discussed at length. The consensus opinion of Cole’s biographers is that the suicide was a result of long-standing troubles in Cole’s marriage. No one seems to have considered the possibility that Betsy and Me could have played some role. After all, this was supposedly Cole’s fondest desire. Why would he kill himself after finally getting that syndicate contract he’d dreamed about for years? Well, if you’ll forgive the conceit I’m going to indulge in some amateur psychoanalysis.

After working at Playboy, with its leisurely monthly deadlines, Cole was once again under the gun as he’d not been in a long time. The stress of producing a comic strip seven days a week is well-known, and not something that Cole was used to. He was probably working harder and longer hours than ever before, and all that toil spent on a strip that was not selling well at all. Betsy and Me had a tiny client list and no rosy prospects for improving. Worse still, Cole couldn’t have helped but realize by then that his strip idea wasn’t very strong. And this was not like comic books or magazine gags — he couldn’t just dump the concept and come up with something better. He had a syndicate contract that obligated him to continue beating this dead horse until the syndicate told him to stop — they could keep the strip limping along for years. Granted he could break the contract but that would do a lot of damage to his professional standing.

I’m not saying that Cole killed himself only because of Betsy and Me, of course, but I think it could have been an important influence. Cole might have seen this as his only way out from a terrible situation, a shattered dream, of his own making. Just my two cents.

Fans of Jack Cole, and aren’t we all, will want the book if only for its curiosity value. But be forewarned that there is little of the Cole we know and love to be found herein. The book is also far from a complete reprinting of the strip, despite the claim on the back cover. R.C. Harvey cites Jeffrey Lindenblatt and myself for the running dates of the strip, but the information he gives is long out of date. My research has since determined that Betsy and Me ran until December 27 1958 on the daily, December 21 on the Sunday, not December 10 and November 23 as listed in the intro. It will matter little for Cole fans because Dwight Parks had taken over the strip back in September, so these final months, of which the last is missing from the book, are a pastiche of Cole. On the other hand, the Cole material is also incomplete, and that’s less forgiveable. By my count 8 Cole Sunday strips are missing, including the whole first month, and 13 Parks Sundays. Two of the Cole Sundays are printed in color (the rest are in black and white), but these two are the third-page incomplete versions of the strip.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: A Winsor McCay Threesome

Dream of the Rarebit Fiend – The Saturdays
Checker Books 2006
Hardcover $29.95
Softcover $19.95
192 pages, 12.25″ x 9.25″
ISBN not listed

Little Sammy Sneeze – The Complete Color Sunday Comics 1904-1905
Sunday Press Books 2007
Hardcover $55.00
96 pages, 16″ x 11″
ISBN not listed

The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend 1904-1913
Ulrich Merkl 2007
Hardcover $114.00
464 pages with CD-ROM, 17″ x 12″
ISBN 978-3-00-020751-8

Once again Christmas Day has come and gone, and we comic strip fans are left with a little touch of melancholy. Whether your Christmas swag consisted of tube socks or a nice new yacht to replace last year’s model, you didn’t get what you really wanted, which is, of course, comic strips. Oh sure, maybe some well-meaning relation who thinks they ‘get’ you wrapped up a couple of Archie comic digests and you had to thank them for their thoughtfulness. Do they really think you’re twelve years old?

But Christmas is all about giving, not receiving. So feel free to twist that sentiment to your advantage and give yourself the sort of Christmas gift you’re really pining for (better late than never, right?). And what better Christmas gift could there be for the comic strip aficionado than a heapin’ helpin’ of that master of the form, Winsor McCay. The past year has seen a trio of McCay books hit the market. With prices ranging from Ramen noodle level all the way up to champagne and caviar, there’s one to fit every wallet.

At the low end we have the latest entry in the Checker Books McCay reprint series, this one reprinting a large batch of McCay’s Saturday Rarebit Fiend strips. McCay produced two to three episodes of this strip per week for much of its run. On weekdays the strip was typically a ten panel affair while Saturday episodes were expanded to 15-20 panels. This book prints a large batch of these larger Saturday strips. According to the minimal front matter the strips are from March-October 1906, but a strip about President Taft (page 128) shows that claim to be off base. The strips are undated in the book, and that’s a shame since McCay’s subjects were often oblique commentaries on current events and it would have been fun to see if I was correct in my guesses about the veiled subjects of certain strips.

The reproduction quality in this book varies widely, right along with the source material which was the microfilm of the New York Evening Telegram. I’ve seen (and indexed) the Telegram microfilm and I have to hand it to these guys for putting a lot of work into restoration – the film I’ve seen isn’t very good. The quality of that restoration work varies quite a bit, though, and some strips are pretty hard on the eyes. The worst quality strips tend to be hidden in the latter third of the book — I guess they figured we’d tire of reading by then. Because of McCay’s sloppy lettering these strips are hard to read even when the restoration is better than normal. It never ceases to amaze me how McCay, truly a wizard with the pen, and a fantastic letterer when he put in the effort, could stand to see these masterpiece strips go out with such sloppy lettering. The strips are reproduced at a perfectly reasonable size, but the lettering issue makes me wish it were a bit bigger, or that the restoration folks had, in some of the worst cases of sloppy lettering, relettered it so that it could be read more easily.

After reading nearly 200 Rarebit Fiend episodes I am left gasping over McCay’s graphic virtuosity, but that’s no surprise at all. What really did surprise me were two aspects of his work. First, that these strips are an incredible snapshot of the human condition in that long-gone time. Through a distorted comedic lens, of course, but still remarkably telling. Despite all my reading about this era, through comic strips and otherwise, I’m left feeling that I don’t have a true gut feel for the way these people thought and lived. McCay affords us a deep and meaningful look rarely found in other sources. Odd, isn’t it, that a book about bizarre dreams would give such insight into the reality of those days?

That was the positive surprise. The other isn’t nearly so complimentary. The more I read of McCay’s strip the more I found his dialogue intensely grating. McCay seemed obsessed with having speech balloons in every panel of his strip. There are many strips in this book that would have been perfectly understandable (and far funnier) with much curtailed dialogue. Instead McCay has his characters chattering along for no discernible reason. Was the guy being paid by the word? Worse yet, his characters often spend their time describing a scene that is perfectly obvious from the drawing. How could such a master graphic artist as McCay have had such a mental blindspot that he couldn’t see he was shooting himself in the foot?

Here’s a sample. A man’s bed turns into a racing car and goes roaring across the landscape in an auto race. Our dreamer gives this soliloquy in the course of his adventure:

“Oh! Eh! Ah! Where am I? Oh? Huh!”
“Ah! Now I know! Gosh!! I thought…”
“…I was in bed. Wow! But that was…”
“…a narrow escape! I must have…”
“…fallen asleep! How lucky I was…”
“…not to have ran into some thing. This…”
“…machine going 98 miles an hour and me…”
“…asleep. I must not…”
“…fall asleep again if I expect to win this…”
“…race! I wonder if I lost…”
“…any laps! I wonder how long I was…”
“asleep! I might have not been, eh.”
“I might not have been asleep long and…”
“…then again I might have been…”
“…asleep a long while. At any rate I am…”
“not going to go to sleep again…”
“…If I can help it!”

Clam up already! Such verbose prattling might seem quaint in small doses, but I was ready to throttle McCay long before I finished the book. Granted the strips weren’t meant to be read one after another, but the dialogue so often serves no purpose other than to fill up the panels that it’s hard to believe — could McCay not sense that he was hampering his strip’s effectiveness with all the senseless blathering?

The second McCay book is from Peter Maresca’s Sunday Press imprint. It may seem a little on the expensive side for its page count, but the book is in full color throughout (which can’t even be said of the twice as expensive Merkl book). Little Sammy Sneeze reprints the McCay Sunday strips of that title from 1904-05. This doesn’t constitute the entire series (according to Ken Barker’s New York Herald index the final episodes appeared in 1907) but its more than enough episodes of this one-joke strip to sate most any fan’s appetite. The strip is very much an exemplar of its time, a one-note offering that was milked from every conceivable angle and then unceremoniously dropped in favor of the next gag mine. McCay starts the strip off with a bang when Sammy, a kid entirely devoid of personality, accompanies mama to the grocery store and proceeds to blow the whole place to smithereens with one of his superhuman schnoz siroccos. This turns out to be one of the best episodes in the series — McCay lovingly draws every little detail of the store’s well-stocked shelves, and then interprets the apres-sneeze flotsam and jetsam as if he were drawing the scene directly from life. Not only do we get an intimate almost photographic look at the interior of a 1904 grocery store, interesting in itself, but Sammy gives his most entertainingly destructive sneeze ever. It’s odd – after that bravura episode Sammy’s sneezes for the most part become quite a bit weaker — he blows some water in the maid’s face, he knocks over some circus tumblers, etc. Rarely does the boy’s dynamic beak ever fire off another real tornado-class shot.

Maresca must have sensed that he was dealing with somewhat weak material here in Sammy (weak by McCay standards, anyway), and he came up with an absolutely brilliant solution to the problem. Rather than filling the book with page after page of Sammy, he breaks it up on each page reverse by including another comic strip from the same funnies section of the New York Herald. How cool is that! Not only do we get Sammy, we also get several episodes of The Upside-Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffarroo, that infamous Gustave Verbeek reversible strip. Then there’s some episodes of The Woozlebeasts, a static but fantastical strip about mythical creatures. The star of the reverses, though, is a complete reprinting of McCay’s The Story of Hungry Henrietta.

The Henrietta strip is not among McCay’s more graphically interesting works, and the few episodes I’d seen before didn’t seem particularly memorable. But reading the series all together is an entirely different experience. McCay has produced a remarkably melancholy and moving story about a little girl with an eating disorder. Poor little Henrietta is a quiet, introspective child and simply can’t handle the constant fussing and fawning from her parents and relatives. Each strip finds Henrietta, whose age advances three months between each epsiode, being beset by her overzealous elders. At first, as an infant, the attentions result in her crying, which prompts the adults to shut her up with offers of food. The child, looking utterly pathetic, ends up alone in the final panel, drowning her sorrows in the proffered treats, a large tear always rolling down her face. As she gets older her parents no longer need to offer her the treats — she knows how to assuage her insecurities, and when beset by the adults sneaks off to steal food from the kitchen. Unlike Sammy, who is an overblown caricature, Henrietta is an all too real little girl. Her food addiction doesn’t play out as a slapstick gag — there’s no punchline where she eats a side of beef or polishes off a barrel of cider. No, little Henrietta just slinks off to a dark corner to indulge in her perfectly realistic addiction. There’s no ridicule, no gag, just an empathetic McCay telling parents a cautionary tale, but one without a saccharine moral delivered on a scroll after the last panel. The reader is left to their own devices, free to understand or miss the point.

It is amazing that the Herald printed such a strip. In amongst the sneezing kids, the prank-pullers, the yokel farmers, the wacky animals and all the rest it’s hard to imagine that McCay could convince an editor to give space to this profoundly heartbreaking story. I can’t even say the strip is ahead of its time because it wouldn’t be welcome in today’s Sunday funnies. Who would have guessed that Winsor McCay, that graphic genius, immortalized for his carefree flights of fancy, would also be responsible for a story, coming so completely out of the blue, that stands utterly and truly alone in the vast field of newspaper comic art. There is nothing with which to compare it. Sheer genius. What more can I say.

Maresca decided not to attempt digital restoration of the material in the book, probably a good idea, so the pages are simply photographed/scanned in their existing state. That means we see the funnies just like readers did in 1904-05, complete with occasional bleed-through and off-register colors (both of which are minimal – Maresca worked from beautiful source material). Some specific pages do show their age but most are remarkably clean and bright. The strips are all presented at their original printed size. The book is nicely bound using a method I’ve not seen before. The guts of the book appear to be perfect-bound (meaning a glued spine) yet the pages will lay perfectly flat, which is unusual in that binding method. The hard covers are attached to the book in an odd way, sort of like a photo album. As odd a binding as it is, the result is a book that looks and feels substantial, strong and attractive. How Maresca can sell this labor of love, presumably made in a very short print run, for $55 is beyond me, but it’s a bargain. Oh, and if you’re on the fence throw into the plus column a Sammy Sneeze tissue box cover that comes with each copy.

The final book in our McCay threesome is the most ambitious and expensive, Ulrich Merkl’s The Complete Dream of the Rarebit Fiend 1904-1913. At $114 it’s definitely fits in the major purchase category, but Merkl certainly serves up your money’s worth. The book weighs in at an ungainly 10 pounds, and the opened size is so large that it’s near impossible, at least in my household, to find a place to read it. I’ve had the book on hand for awhile now and it’s been banned from the dining room, the office, and the king-size bed for taking up too much room. I’m now working through it on the only flat surface from which I haven’t been evicted; the picnic table in the yard.

Although billed as complete, the rabid completist should be aware that only about a third of the Rarebit Fiend episodes are actually printed in the book. Merkl provides the complete comic strip series as high-resolution TIF files on a DVD attached to the inside back cover of the book. You should be glad that he doesn’t put them all in the book — I shudder to think how heavy it would have been. On the other hand, I really didn’t appreciate having to rip holes in the endpaper to remove the DVD, which resisted all attempts to extract it through daintier methods.

All the strips that are reproduced in the book (which Merkl presumably chose as the best of the run) are displayed at full size as originally printed. This alone would make them far easier to read than in the Checker book, but in addition the strips have undergone much more thorough restoration. Many strips still bear the obvious ills of having come from microfilm, but at least they are crisp and clean despite the occasional loss of fine details. Where possible Merkl did work from original tearsheets and even occasionally from original art and these examples are particularly lovely. Each strip is annotated with background information and often supporting exhibits. For instance, along with a McCay strip about a Teddy bear Merkl not only explains the origin of the term but even reproduces classic Clifford Berryman cartoons from whence the craze got started. The annotations go on to cross-reference by subject matter, pointing the reader to other episodes that till the same soil. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate such supporting documentation, and my fondest wish is that other reprint books would jump on this bandwagon. Although I fancy myself pretty well-informed about such subjects as Teddy bears, suffrage movements and shirtwaists, most readers are not immersed in such antique esoterica and it’s important that they be given the opportunity to extract full enjoyment of these strips, which is sometimes only possible with a brief history lesson.

One aspect of the annotations that I did eventually find objectionable are Merkl’s constant claims that various strips “may have inspired” all manner of later works. A guy whose ears grow “may have inspired” the film “Dumbo”. A man whose body parts separate “may have inspired” Salvador Dali’s “Madonna Corpusculaire”. An elevator that ascends out the top of a building “may have inspired” a scene in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”. A man arguing with his image in a mirror “may have inspired” a scene in the film “Mary Poppins”. A man walking on the walls and ceiling “may have inspired” a Fred Astaire dance number. I find most of these claims highly improbable, but I can see how Merkl, who must have practically lost himself in this ambitious project, might begin to see parallels and inspirations everywhere. Over a span of more than 800 episodes plumbing all the nooks and crannies of McCay’s fertile imagination he was bound to cover some of the same ground as other artists who work in the realms of fantasy.

The book doesn’t by any means limit itself to page after page of Rarebit Fiend episodes. There are all sorts of goodies tucked away in these 464 pages. Lots of rare McCay works and ephemera are exhibited and discussed, and Alfredo Castelli contributes a wonderful section titled “Dream Travelers 1900-1947” in which we are treated to samples of both classic and obscure dream themed comic strips from other creators. The overall design of the book is definitely Chip Kidd-inspired (lots of blown-up art vignettes and giant swatches of color), not a plus in my opinion. I’ll be glad when this particular fad plays itself out. Fortunately most of the overblown design work is confined to the front section of the book, leaving the reprint section blessedly plain and readable.

A few minor objections aside, Merkl’s magnum opus (and I do mean magnum!) is a joy to behold, and will provide you with many hours of delight as soon as you find a large enough horizontal surface on which to peruse its treasures.

It’s important to reward and encourage small-press publishers like Sunday Press, Ulrich Merkl, and Checker. If you have a decent interest in McCay (and what self-respecting comic strip lover doesn’t?) purchase these books. Your reward, in addition to three fine volumes for your bookshelves, will be stimulating a wider variety to be published. So find the receipt for those unwanted Chia pets and neon-colored ties, send ’em back to Wal-Mart where they belong, and invest some Christmas booty in something of lasting value.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: The Bumstead Family History

Blondie – The Bumstead Family History
by Dean Young and Melena Ryzik
Thomas Nelson 2007
ISBN 1-4016-0322-X
$29.99, hardcover, 192 pages

“Blondie” has a 75-year and counting history, so you might expect that a book bearing this title would afford us a great retrospective of all those years. Well, think again o gullible one.

What we actually have here is almost exclusively a selection of Blondie strips from the 1990s and 2000s. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but it’s really not what the book cover or the publisher’s description would lead us to expect.

What we do get, in addition to a copious mix of recent strips, are a series of short essays describing the personality of each of the strip’s characters (written as if we don’t know the Bumsteads as well or better than our own family after all these years), and two very short sections of vintage material. The first section, a miscellany of strips and isolated panels from the sequence where Dagwood and Blondie wed, is an almost exact reprinting of the same section in a previous book, Blondie and Dagwood’s America, published in 1981. The only differences I could find is in the pithy captions, which have been reworded, and the loss of a few of the examples from the previous book.

The second historical section, in which we get a short history of the Young family, talks about Chic Young’s earlier strips (The Affairs of Jane, Beautiful Bab and Dumb Dora) and gives us exactly one example of each, all of which, again, are culled from the 1981 book (even duplicating the prior book’s horrifically bad reproduction of same). Even most of the photos of the Young family, except the later ones, are also reused.

Taking the book for what it is, rather than what it claims to be, it is a perfectly decent reprint volume. The selection of recent strips is good, albeit a bit repetitive, as is the strip itself. Reproduction is generally good, although the strips from the 90s sometimes seem to be scanned from tearsheets rather than proofs (why?!) and are therefore not really crisp. Blondie’s catering business, which made news in the early 90s as America’s favorite housewife entered the workforce, is well represented.

If you are looking for vintage Blondie, give the book a pass and seek out a copy of Blondie and Dagwood’s America. If, on the other hand, you want a reprint volume of current strips this is right up your alley.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Meanwhile…

Meanwhile … A Biography of Milton Caniff
by Robert C. Harvey
Fantagraphics Books, 2007
ISBN 978-1-56097-782-7
952 pages, indexed, $34.95

As cartoonist biographies go I daresay that there has never been, and will likely never be, another of the length and depth of R.C. Harvey’s Meanwhile. Coming in just shy of a four digit page count it could scarcely be otherwise. Even more so when you consider that the impressive heft of the tome is not substantially padded with photos and art. To be sure the book is indeed well illustrated, but only with visual aids directly related to the narrative — there are no long reprints of Caniff’s strips here or lengthy portfolios of miscellaneous art.

It is the nature of any successful cartoonist that they spend the bulk of their life hunched over a drawing board, endlessly skrith-skratching away. This is not the sort of lifestyle that would seem to lend itself to a lengthy biography. When we consider that there are plenty of well-rounded biographies of political figures, film stars, activists, people whose lives are filled day by day with the fodder of the biographer, that manage to tell their stories in a shorter page count, we have to wonder just what in the world Harvey is on about in a page count that rivals the King James Bible.

I for one certainly approached the book with trepidation. I’ve been a fan of Harvey’s work for years, but my enjoyment of his work is tempered with the caveat that he is on occasion guilty of going over the top. When he goes into critical analysis mode he is always perceptive and thoughtful, but he can also beat a horse within an inch of its life. I was concerned that here Harvey would be shooting the works, analyzing Terry, Steve and their creator ad nauseam.

That fear, I’m happy to say, was completely groundless. Despite the enormous page count this book is, wonder of wonders, a tightly written narrative. In the tradition of classic biography, what critical analysis there is is grounded in the opinions that Caniff himself discussed with Harvey and others in interviews. Given that Harvey says the book in its original form was some 700 pages longer (!) than the final revision, I’m guessing that any extended author’s analysis fell victim to the editor’s red pen. If so, the book is better for it.

So what exactly does lurk between the distantly separated covers of this volume? Well, Harvey was lucky enough to be tapped by Caniff himself as his offical biographer in the early 80s. This afforded the author with ample opportunity to question his subject at great length. While Caniff was, as Harvey relates, not a particularly forthcoming interview subject, by dint of persistence the author eventually ended up with a treasure trove of Caniffiana. The book is, as we might expect given the size, an impressively complete chronicle of Caniff’s life and the times in which he lived. However, completeness doesn’t necessarilty translate to interest-sustaining or entertaining, and that’s where Harvey’s book truly amazes. I’ve read plenty of long form biographies where it got to the point that I was rooting for the subject to kick the bucket to cut the narrative short. That’s not the case here. While I couldn’t say that every single page is riveting, edge-of-the-seat reading, Harvey does an expert job of keeping the reader involved and interested all the way through. Any reader who is at least moderately interested in comic strips, even those not particularly fans of Caniff, will undoubtedly find the book fascinating.

Speaking of being a fan of Caniff, I should admit that I am not numbered in that legion. Of course I recognize Caniff’s importance in the history of comic strips and the artistry of the two strips for which he is most famous. However, I think Caniff’s writing is far too precious, heavily laden with hokey slang and tortured vernacular that I find grating and distracting. His subject matter, primarily military adventure, is just not my cup of tea. His cartooning, after a relatively short but glorious period in the early 40s when he was first influenced by Sickles’ innovation of chiaroscuro comic strip illustration, later takes things too far for my taste, turning the strip into a series of ink-blots (not entirely Caniff’s fault, of course – the comic strip was shrinking more rapidly than he could adjust his art style to suit, finally ending up so small that no one, not even Caniff, could possibly do a realistically rendered adventure strip).

The point is that you don’t need to be a Caniff fanatic to thoroughly enjoy the book. I recommend it not only to the ardent Terry or Canyon fan, but anyone with more than a passing interest in the art and business of the comic strip in America. Caniff’s story is, after all, the history of the adventure comic strip in particular, and the newspaper comic strip in general. Harvey does a superb job of weaving all the various aspects of the story of American comic strips into the narrative. We see Caniff marketing his comic strips (and find out just how tireless a promoter he was), we see him coping with the miniaturization of his daily and Sunday spaces, we gain a deep understanding of the relationship between the creator and syndicate. We learn one cartoonist’s reaction to the unforgiving daily deadline pressure, and how assistants and ghosts can become indispensible in the process of producing a strip that doesn’t have the luxury of relying on simplistic art and daily gags. We learn the intricacies of producing an integrated daily and Sunday storyline, a balancing act that is one of greatest tests of skill that any writer could ever face. We see one cartoonist’s bold reaction to the demonization of his art form when accused of being, bizarrely, a cause of juvenile delinquency. We see how a cartoonist deals with the use, and misuse, of his creations in other media like movies and television.

I have only a few minor criticisms of the book, most worth mentioning if only so that this review doesn’t seem utterly slavish in its support. First, the book is divided into just nine epic length chapters. It would have been more reader-friendly had it been broken up into more manageable chunks that could be read at one sitting. And although there are illustrations throughout the book, usually well-placed to coincide with the related narrative, each chapter ends with a gallery of additional illustrations. These sections would have been better broken up and dispersed throughout the text, if only to relieve the long stretches of type-dense pages.

The narrative flow drags a bit for a hundred pages or so near the end of the book. By this time Caniff was constantly being lured away from his drawing board by an endless procession of accolades and honors from every organization under the sun. Harvey unwisely devotes a considerable amount of space to the details. This section, while it does have occasional interesting points, could have been shortened. If the purpose was to show that Caniff was revered by his peers and his fans, well, that wasn’t much of a secret anyway.

Finally I have to question Harvey’s use of invented conversations. In the first half of the book the author occasionally uses a device where he stages a conversation, usually set in Caniff’s favorite watering-hole, in which we eavesdrop on a group of cartoonists shooting the bull. Harvey uses the device to impart some information in a presumably more entertaining method than dry prose. The device falls flat, though, because the conversations are stilted and too obviously staged for our benefit. And although Harvey makes no secret that the conversations are his own inventions, in a scrupulously researched work otherwise factual throughout I found these passages somehow discomforting from the standpoint of journalistic ethics. Call me a stick in the mud.

These are all picayune little quibbles, though. Harvey’s work is, quite simply, a masterpiece of biography. He has set the platinum standard by which all future cartoonist biographies will be judged. Most, likely all, will be found wanting in comparison. It is one thing to produce a thick book, and not necessarily a good thing at that. It is an entirely different thing that Harvey has achieved here. He has produced a work of lasting merit, eminently readable, brimming with meticulous research, a work that must be atop the required reading list of every cartooning fan and cartoonist.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Connie – The Strange Death of Dolan

Connie – The Strange Death of Dolan & Other Stories
No publisher listed
No price listed
48 pages, wraps

If you spend time on eBay you’ve seen this book for sale, being touted as a special very limited edition. If you order it you’ll find out that the seller, and presumably publisher, is Tony Raiola of Pacific Comics Club.

The book sounds pretty good in the somewhat vague eBay description. You get 5 supposedly complete daily stories of the Frank Godwin classic Connie. That might lead you to believe that you’re getting a pretty substantial book, but that’s not really the case. The stories are as follows:

The Strange Death of Dolan (1938) – a 23 strip vignette from 1938. The story is indeed complete in 23 strips, but because it’s so short there’s no meat to the story, a badly plotted bank robbery whodunit. Reproduction on this one is pretty bad — all the zipatone backgrounds have been turned to mud and the strips are very dark.

Perfect Alibi (1929) – an even shorter tale told in just 12 strips. Another bank robbery mystery, the solution to which is obvious by the third strip. The reproduction on this one is outstanding.

The last three stories in the volume were previously printed in the Hyperion Connie book, and the strips here are obviously scanned from that source, with the attendant third generation quality having been lowered a bit:

The Assistant Gardener (1929) – six strips that provide only the start of a story. A footnote on the contents page says that “this story ends in a strange way but it seems there are no dailies between this episode and the following one”. A look at the dates on the strips, which granted are tiny and hard to read, would have dispelled that notion. This story is incomplete, exactly as it was in the Hyperion book.

Mystery and Adventure (1929) -30 strips that tell a pretty good story until the end, which is abrupt. Not the publisher’s fault on this story though, blame Godwin.

The Bid To Ten Million (1929-30) – 24 strip story, Connie comes up smelling like roses by pure luck when a rival secretary schemes to get her fired.

If you already have the Hyperion book, all you’re actually getting here for a starting bid of $19.95 on eBay is just 35 strips, 23 of which are quite badly reproduced. I guess if you’re desperate for a Connie fix you might consider it, otherwise it’s a pretty raw deal. Even if you don’t have the Hyperion book you’re still not exactly getting a bargain since the Hyperion book can still be had on the rare book market for $50-60 and it reprints a heck of a lot more of the strip.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: By George!

By George! The Komplete Daily Komic Strips of George Herriman
Spec Productions, 2005-07
Edited by Bill Blackbeard
No ISBN (available only from publisher)
$20 per book, 54-70 pages each, softcover

Herriman fans have been waiting years for a series like this to be published, and we always knew that pioneering comics scholar and katophile Bill Blackbeard would have to be at the helm.

Blackbeard is most likely the only person in the world with a complete run of these rare strips at his disposal. His bound volume runs of many of the Hearst papers puts him in the unique position of not only having unparalleled access to Herriman’s productions from the late 1900s and 1910s, he can even cross-reference between various Hearst papers to find strips that might not have seen print in all papers, and luxury of luxuries, even pick and choose the paper that has each strip printed in the best and most complete format.

So far there are five volumes in the By George! series. The first volume includes runs of Mr. Proones the Plunger, a 1907 strip that ran only in the Los Angeles Examiner, followed by Baron Mooch and Gooseberry Sprig from 1909-10. Volumes two through five are devoted to Herriman’s first popular success as a strip cartoonist, The Family Upstairs (aka The Dingbat Family). It was here that a certain kat and mouse first began their love affair while gamboling in the lower portion of the strip.

If you have a copy of the 1970s Hyperion reprint of the Family Upstairs you may think it unnecessary to purchase these new volumes. Nothing could be further from the truth. The tiny and unrestored reproductions in the Hyperion book are horrifyingly bad in comparison with the huge reproductions here, and here the strips have been lovingly and painstakingly restored. Some individual strips are still in less than perfect shape, due no doubt to source material that was beyond the restorer’s art, but the vast majority are excellent.

The books are huge, 17″ x 11″, and I assume the strips here are reproduced at approximately the original printed sizes. Unfortunately the books are bound along the top edge. Being rather flimsy softcovers, the books insist on snapping shut if the reader doesn’t hold the top page back
while reading, an annoyance that can only be overcome if you are willing to put a permanent crease in each page as you read.

Blackbeard is an entertaining writer and his forewords to the first volumes are a delight to read. Volume 4, however, includes explanatory notes from volume 2, and volume 5 has no editorial matter whatsoever (I’m guessing that this has something to do with Blackbeard’s failing health in the last few years). Book three is a special treat, with a fascinating article in which Blackbeard explains how he came to possess these wondrous bound volume runs. The article was originally printed in the International Journal of Comic Art, an extremely highbrow scholarly publication where I’m sure few of us saw it the first time around.

Blackbeard has forgotten more about comic strip history than most of us will ever know, but in these forewords he makes a few pronouncements that are simply incorrect. The most egregious is his contention that Mr. Proones is Herriman’s first daily strip — not by a long shot Bill, especially if you’re going to count Mr. Proones which was not a true daily.

Minor quibbles aside, these books are like manna for the Herriman fan. Go order yours now at the publisher’s website. These volumes are not available through other outlets as far as I know.

Contest — Get a Free Book!
When I ordered my set of these books a series of SNAFUs resolved in the end with me having two copies of volume 5 of the series, one of which was gratis. So I think it only right that I pass it along to someone here on the blog, sort of as a promotion for the series.

The book will go to the blog reader who can name the most Herriman daily series that precede the appearance of Mr. Proones. Features qualify if they ran in black and white in daily newspapers for more than one installment with a consistent title. One-shots don’t qualify, Sunday strips do not qualify. Daily strips do not have to have run as ‘true’ dailies, that is six days a week.

You can post your answers on the blog or email them to me at (the latter may be preferable if you don’t want to share info with other entrants). If you name a strip of which I’m unaware it doesn’t qualify unless you can supply some proof of its existence. In the event of a tie the judge’s ruling is final, yada yada yada. Contest ends next Friday.

Winner will get the book free, shipping included, unless outside the U.S., in which case you’ll have to pay the postage.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: All Over Coffee

All Over Coffee
by Paul Madonna
City Lights Books, 2007
ISBN 0-87286-456-1
175 pages, hardcover, $24.95

If your taste in comic strips runs to the more literate, introspective and subdued side, the pickings are pretty slim. There’s Krazy Kat, of course, and Mutts, and perhaps Pogo. Beyond that you’re pretty much out of luck.

One feature that takes that genre to a whole different level, in fact that pretty much defines its own genre by going so far beyond those other strips, is Paul Madonna’s All Over Coffee. Madonna’s strip (well, he calls it a strip but it’s almost always a single panel) runs only in the San Francisco Chronicle. The feature combines beautiful freehand watercolor drawings of San Francisco cityscapes with little snippets of conversation, short narratives and haiku-like declarations.

Madonna’s texts are often quietly funny, sometimes bittersweet, occasionally forlorn. Some of the most successful are those that read like conversations overheard in a coffee shop (and thus lending some logic to the name of the feature). And while the texts celebrate humanity, our foibles, passions and prejudices, the drawings, at least on the surface, reject humanity completely. Madonna’s dramatic portraits of the city are drawn without human figures — his San Francisco is populated only with the works of man, not the builders themselves.

Madonna in the afterword to this collection explains that a great deal of thought goes into marrying the text and the images. Occasionally the connection is reasonably obvious, many times it is a match of moods that is only manifest to the author. Whatever the connection, the images are hauntingly beautiful. Madonna draws architecture without a straightedge, and the seemingly monochromatic drawings are often warmed with a subdued, almost hidden, use of color, lending the cityscapes a warmth that amply makes up for the lack of humanity.

All Over Coffee is, unfortunately, not a candidate for syndication, nor is it a likely model for other features that widen the bounds of the newspaper comic strip. Which is too bad, because it would be interesting to see what sort of public reaction there would be if a few such strips showed up on the nation’s funny pages. Is there room next to Cathy and Garfield for such things?

Following are a few representative samples from the book.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Nick Cardy – Comic Strips

Nick Cardy: Comics Strips
by Sean Menard and Nick Cardy
Frecklebean Press, 2007
No ISBN listed

I know Nick Cardy mostly from his comic book work of the 1970s (those dark days before I discovered newspaper comic strips), and though I recognized at the time that he was an excellent artist, there was something indefinable about his style that I found offputting. It just didn’t hold any appeal for me.

So I ordered this book with some reservations, but I was very curious to know about Cardy’s earlier comic strip work. I knew he had few credits – a six month run on Tarzan and a short while ghosting Casey Ruggles, and I wanted to know if there was more that had escaped my research. I also understood from the description that the book included an extended interview with the artist, and I’m always up for getting some behind the veil information on syndicates and comic strip production.

First the good news. Cardy’s work on the comic strips presented here is wonderful stuff, far superior, I think, to his comic book work. At his best (unfortunately on strips that were never published!) he seems to be influenced by Hogarth and later Raymond and it is slick stuff indeed.

The bad news is that you better really like the art, because nothing else about the book has much merit.

Let’s start with the Tarzan reprint section which it says is Cardy’s complete run. First of all the quality of the source material is wildly uneven. Some of it looks to have come from beautiful proofs, other strips are muddy enough that they must have come from microfilm. Tarzan is not a particularly rare strip so I really think the people responsible could have looked a little harder for good source material. Second is that we get the end of one story and the beginning of a second. This makes for a pretty uninvolving, if not downright confusing, read. I understand that the idea was just to print Cardy’s Tarzan strips, but the author should have either reproduced the stories from beginning to end or at least provided synopses of the portions not reprinted.

The book also reprints two Cardy strips that were never successfully syndicated, Major North and Adam Pierce (three weeks of the former, four of the latter). Cardy’s art is fantastic on both, but, hoo boy, were the syndicates right to turn down these stinkers. The writer of Major North had no feel at all for comic strip pacing and plotting so the story is an absolute unreadable mess. Adam Pierce, on the other hand, flows just fine, but the strip is about scientists and the writer had no grasp at all of anything scientific – a sixth grader with a D average could correct the embarrassing basic scientific gaffes made in this strip.

A third tryout strip, this one a pantomime titled Mr. Figg, is presented here from bad photocopies (the original art was long ago lost). Cardy says elsewhere in the book that he is no writer, and these strips assure us that he’s correct in his estimation.

Six weeks of Cardy ghosting on Casey Ruggles follows, containing two separate story fragments with a six month gap between the fragments. Again, nice art but were we not meant to read this material?

The book is filled out with 16 pages of a “Lady Luck Gallery”, a batch of miscellaneous Cardy pages thrown together. Why not a complete story? Didn’t want to buck the trend I guess.

Okay, so the strips aren’t really worth reading. How about that interview, though? Well, the interviewer obviously has very little interest in newspaper comic strips, so the discussion constantly veers off into Cardy’s comic book work (which, I assume, was probably well-covered in a previous book, The Art of Nick Cardy). About the only really interesting tidbit we learn about Cardy’s strip work is that he apparently pencilled the ultra-rare Batman strip in 1971-72, the one that was produced by Ledger Syndicate after their contract dispute with DC Comics. Could you tell us about that, Nick? Well, probably, but the interviewer couldn’t care less. He’d much rather discuss Black Canary’s fishnet stockings.

So if you’re a big fan of Cardy’s art this is a book you’ll want. Everyone else might be better off to take a pass.

Stripper’s Guide Bookshelf: Chester Gould – A Daughter’s Biography

Chester Gould – A Daughter’s Biography of the Creator of Dick Tracy

by Jean Gould O’Connell
McFarland & Company, 2007
ISBN 978-0-7864-2825-0
$45.00, 225 pages with index

I come to a biography like this with trepidation. Biographies by the progeny of the famous are often not worth the paper they’re printed on. There’s no guarantee that the author can write worth a darn, and often these books are badly researched or tell stories that are of interest only within the family.

Jean Gould O’Connell’s book is very well-written, so no worries there. The research tends to be a little shaky in the early chapters (she has the U.S. entering World War I in 1915, and has young Chet reading Mutt & Jeff in the local paper in 1906) but improves once she gets further along. And there are plenty of interesting stories told in the book, though there is also a dose of material that could have been trimmed, like the blow by blow account of the renovations done to the Gould’s home.

The author uses as her source material not only her own memories but some extensive taped interviews she did with her dad in 1983, two years before his death. The elder Gould had a lot to say about his early trials of the 1920s trying to get syndicated, which, for me at least, was the most interesting section of the book, a fascinating read.

I’m no Chester Gould scholar, so I’m not a good judge of how much new information is being brought to the table here. Certainly I learned a lot. One particular bit that I found particularly interesting was about Gould’s infamous villain’s graveyard — turns out that the man wasn’t nearly the creepy weirdo I took him for based on those often reprinted publicity photos.

I soured on Dick Tracy a bit recently when I read the reprints of the first years of the strip. I found the early Tracy stories to be sloppily plotted in the extreme, so much so that I’m amazed Gould’s strip survived long enough for him to hone his storytelling skills. This bio, while not admitting that the early Tracy was pretty awful, does explain how Gould plotted stories, and it explains his strip’s early awkwardness.

There’s a lot of meaty stuff in here and I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just mention that there was also unexpected material on how Gould felt about his successors on the strip, and about the way the Chicago Tribune treated Gould and his legacy.

The big disappointment considering the high price of the book is the lack of any color material. There are plenty of family photos and some rare pieces of Gould pre-Tracy art, so I can’t fault the quantity of illustrations, but at $45 I expected an extensive use of color.

Seems to me that the price tag puts this book out of range of casual fans, the ones who would most enjoy it. Serious Gould fans, I’m guessing, have probably already heard a lot of these stories. I hadn’t, and I really enjoyed the book. But I doubt that many casual readers will shell out $45 on a thin book without any color material to justify the price.