Into The Belly Of The Beast

There likely will be no posts for the next week as I am leaving today for Washington to do research at the Library of Congress. I have two missions — one is to tie up about a gazillion loose ends in the Stripper’s Guide listings. With any luck I’ll come back with hundreds of question marks removed from my listings. That will leave just a zillion unanswered questions — a marked improvement!

The second mission is a real crapshoot. As a few of you know I have a pretty good start already made on a book about the comic strips of the black newspapers. My problem is, though, that the microfilm of these papers is in horrid condition and I own only a small stack of black papers (they’re VERY scarce). I can’t put the book to bed without lots and lots of good quality scanned samples that I don’t have. Cole Johnson verified that the LoC has a pretty good run of the Amsterdam News in bound volumes, which would yield lots of good samples (though nowhere near enough to complete the book). I verified with the LoC that I can have access to the volumes, but was told definitely not to the idea of bringing in a flatbed scanner. So I invested $300 in a PlanOn wand scanner, which the LoC doesn’t seem to object to. Problem is that in my preliminary testing of the PlanOn scanner it — how do I say this politely — has some major deficiencies. It is a real pain to use, slow, undependable and can’t be trusted to make a decent scan. So although I have high hopes for getting lots of scans from the Amsterdam News and thus making a great stride forward in completing my book I am also fully prepared to be stymied once again.

If there’s any posts in the coming week they’ll probably be reports on my progress at the LoC or profanity laden harangues about the PlanOn scanner. Stay tooned folks.

Obscurity of the Day: Van Boring

Van Boring was a very Tinseltown kind of strip. It was distributed by the LA Times Syndicate as one of their very few cartoon offerings in the 1930s, it featured a main character who was a simulacrum for Oliver Hardy, and the feature was penned by Frank Tashlin, an animator and later screenwriter.

Van Boring, a pantomine panel, ran from January 6 1934 until sometime in 1938 (sorry, I haven’t figured out a definite end date yet). Tashlin used the pseudonym ‘Tish Tash’ to sign the strip, apparently because he was moonlighting to produce the strip while he was working at the Warner Borthers animation studio. According to Wiki the main character of the feature, though having a pronounced resemblance to Oliver Hardy, was actually modelled after Tashlin’s former animation boss, Amadee Van Beuren.

Like most pantomime features, Van Boring‘s gags were hit and miss; any cartoonist will tell you that sustaining the gags in a daily pantomime feature is a very tough row to hoe. The art, on the other hand, was a consistent delight.

The strip did not sell at all well, especially after the phenomenal debut of Henry as a newspaper strip at the end of 1934. Few papers wanted two pantomime features, and Henry had a built-in audience from his appearances in the Saturday Evening Post. The strip was also hobbled by being distributed by the then minor LA Times Syndicate, an outfit that had only this one cartoon feature available at the time.

Herriman Saturday

This Saturday we bid adieu to the Mayor Harper On Tour series. Unfortunately the final strip (4/26/07) doesn’t measure up to the rest of this delightful series, this coda obviously dashed off in a hurry.

After a short rest Herriman was put to work in earnest on the next big event in Los Angeles, a Shriner fiesta bringing fez-topped conventioneers from the four corners of the country. The Shriner’s convention would be anticipated and commemorated by a flurry of Herrriman cartoons that will probably take us several Saturdays to work through. Today we have the cartoons of April 29 and May 1. The latter begins yet another previously undocumented Herriman series — Preparations For Fiesta will run a scant three episodes.

Obscurity of the Day: Crazy Charlie

H.E. Godwin’s cartoons were a staple in Philadelphia in the oughts, but the vast majority of his work was in the form of one-shots, gag cartoons and spot illustrations. It was only in the period 1902-04 that he contributed Sunday series to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Of the half-dozen series he created, most lasted only a few months, and Crazy Charlie was no exception — it ran from August 9 to December 13 1903.

I cannot hope to describe this series better than Cole Johnson did when he sent me the scans of this rarity — he termed it “a sensitive, gentle treatment of the mentally challenged.” He also pointed out that the plot is practically a dead ringer for Milt Gross’ much later Count Screwloose.

A tip of my Napoleon bicorn to Cole for these samples.

Obscurity of the Day: Mrs. Bumps Boarding House

We’ve already discussed the McClure Syndicate’s acquisition of the talented and popular Dwig when we covered Uncle Jim, Tad and Tim; here’s the other strip Dwig did for their Sunday section.

Mrs. Bumps Boarding House was vintage Dwig, echoing the classic School Days half-page panels he’d previously done for the New York World. The new feature substituted a bunch of oddball boarding house residents for the classroom kids, but the philosophy was precisely the same. Dwig’s busy panels were the sort of feature you couldn’t appreciate in a quick glance. They took a good bit of study to decode all the activity and the Rube Golberg devices, and in those days newspaper readers were willing to spend some time on a Sunday morning drinking in all the subplots and machinations that intertwined on these precisely constructed panels.

Mrs. Bumps Boarding House began on January 12 1913, changed titles to Mrs. Bumps Cabaret on November 9 and ended on December 28.

Obscurity of the Day: Batman

The Batman character certainly holds the record for the number of newspaper series that featured him — the Caped Crusader was syndicated in four separate series over the years, five if you count his supporting role in The World’s Greatest Super-heroes.

Without a doubt the most obscure of these series was in 1953, but we’ll cover that one some other day. Today we’ll take a look at the last series to date. This one attempted to cash in on the 1989 Batman movie that starring that chinless wonder, Michael Keaton — more suited to playing Andy Gump than Bruce Wayne imho. This series looked very promising when it debuted on November 6 1989 featuring the art of fan-favorite Batman artist Marshall Rogers. His moody, post-modern deco sensibilities were a perfect match for the Gothic Gotham featured in the movie. Writing was handled by Max Allan Collins, the popular Dick Tracy writer and novelist.

The combination of these two major talents was promising but short-lived. I don’t know if the short-term pairing was by design or if these guys were disappointed in the lack of success of the strip, but both dropped out after less than three months, ending January 21 1990. The strip was then taken over by the much less exciting team of writer William Messner-Loebs, penciller Carmine Infantino (credited as ‘Cinfa’) and inker John Nyberg. The new team presented a much more standard-issue approach to the strip, now resembling some of the less inspired comic books featuring the character.

Creators Syndicate was doubtlessly hoping the strip would duplicate the success of The Amazing Spider-Man, one of the only adventure strips of any type that was still going strong by the 1990s. Alas it was not to be and this latest Batman series lost papers in droves after the creative change. The strip was put to rest on August 3 1991.

Our sampling above ends with that final strip of the series.

Obscurity of the Day: Phil

In the realm of syndicated features they just don’t get much more obscure than this. Phil was distributed by the CV Newspaper Service. Not familiar with that outfit? Not surprising. The CV stands for Cornelius Vanderbilt IV. Corny was the Bohemian descendant of the shipping and railroad tycoon, one of the richest men in America. He rejected his family’s staunchly conservative values and struck out on his own as a newspaperman. He started a small chain of papers in the early 1920s, a group of liberal muckraking tabloids in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami.

The attractive tabloids were frozen out from newsstand and street corner distribution by the big players in those cities, and they barely managed to limp along for a few years. Vanderbilt had trouble securing the use of syndicated comics (he probably couldn’t have afforded them anyway) so he created his own syndicate. The syndicate’s features were offered generally, but I’ve never seen any of them appear outside the pages of Vanderbilt’s own papers. Unfortunately the disdain for Vanderbilt’s newspapers was even exhibited by libraries, and only his San Francisco paper even got microfilmed — the papers are incredibly rare today and for all intents and purposes lost to history.

The lighthearted, goofball adventures of Phil were penned by Charles Gordon Saxton. All I could find out about Saxton beyond this credit is that he wrote the scripts for a few minor Hollywood films in the late 1920s and early ’30s, and that he did one of our mystery strips in the 1950s, a phantom feature called Mr. Skootch.

In the San Francisco Daily Herald, Phil ran from December 10 1923 to February 9 1924. It may have lasted a bit longer in Vanderbilt’s other papers.