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Review: CHUCK JONES: THE DREAM THAT NEVER WAS
Written by Scott Katz   
Monday, 26 December 2011 00:00
ChuckJones-DreamNeverWas-resizeThroughout his life, Chuck Jones was a dreamer.  He was always able to tap into the child within himself as part of his creative process, and children and dreams are both ever-present themes and inspirations to Jones during his long career.  That much is evident to anyone who had ever met the man or even those of us who were only fortunate enough to be entertained by his deep catalog of animated cartoon classics.  In addition to creating the Roadrunner and Pepe Le Pew series, Jones is responsible for some of the most famous Warner Bros. cartoons in their canon: "What's Opera, Doc?," "One Froggy Evening," the Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck/Elmer Fudd Hunting Trilogy, and literally scores more.  Of course, children and dreams are perfectly encapsulated in Jones' two Ralph Phillips cartoons.  But from a mind as active and creative as Jones' was, not all dreams could be realized.  In Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was, we are taken on a remarkable journey through a twenty-year period in Jones' life that was a mere footnote in most texts about the man – if it got a mention at all. 

Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was weighs in at about 280 pages, and there's not a wasted paragraph among them.  The book is neatly divided into six sections that chronicle the full story of Crawford in all its various iterations over two decades – but this project's ambitions don't stop there.

The book opens with a massive 43 page essay by Kurtis Findlay that not only outlines Chuck Jones' various attempts to get Crawford before the public – both successful and not – but also covers his entire career with a particular emphasis on his post-Warner Bros. accomplishments.  That makes this book especially valuable as this period is less well-documented than his salad days as one of the guiding forces behind Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.  Findlay's prose is at once thorough, enlightening, and entertaining, and he guides us expertly through the highlights of Jones' tenure at MGM and beyond.  Chuck Jones is justifiably one of the premier figures of the Golden Age of Animation, and his career at Warners has been discussed in great depth in any number of tomes, but his post-Warner career remains scarcely-mined territory so there are many stories just waiting to be told of this period.  Truthfully, Jones had such a long and prolific creative life that every day was likely a new adventure and each phase of Jones' career could without a doubt support a book of its own.  Even Jones' supposed misfires and failures are more interesting than the highlights of many other animators and warrant an in-depth study. 

Chuck Jones passed away in 2002, and while his immense body of work does speak for itself, it is always interesting and instructive to hear the stories behind the story – the story of the gestation process of a project and how it finally saw completion – or not.  That's what makes well-written text pieces like Findlay's such crucial reading.  Findlay doesn't give us a dry recitation of the facts; he successfully captures the essence of who Jones was as a person and as a creator.  Through the anecdotes chronicling his time as head of MGM animation and his later stint at ABC children's programming (where's that book?), we are shown a Chuck Jones who wants more than anything to push the boundaries of what is possible in the television animation format.  Jones never gives up this goal even in the face of continued ambivalence our outright apathy from the studio and network executives.

Upon being dismissed from Warner Bros. due to his moonlighting as writer of the screenplay for UPA's Gay Purr-ee, Jones was quickly snatched up by MGM where he created a series of Tom and Jerry shorts that played throughout the 60s. 

To his credit, Findlay doesn't try to whitewash the past; he gives full details about how much of Jones' post-Warner work was not unanimously well-received – both his Tom and Jerry series and the other projects he created for MGM.  For instance, although Jones won an Oscar for his classic short, "The Dot and The Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics," the author of the book it was

 

Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was

 

    

MSRP: $49.99

ISBN: 978-1613770306

reprints full Sundays and dailies run

of Crawford 1978 newspaper strip

280 pp, Available now

www.libraryofamericancomics.com

based upon, Norton Juster, reportedly hated the result.  Juster had a similar reaction to Jones' feature-length treatment of one of his other books, The Phantom Tollbooth.  To one degree or another, Jones met with dissatisfaction from the authors of other works he interpreted while at MGM including Dr. Seuss on the adaptations of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Horton Hears a Who, Frank Tashlin (the director whose animation unit Jones took over upon Tashlin's exit from Warner) on "The Bear That Wasn't,"  and the great Walt Kelly whose signature creation was brought to television by Jones in 1969's Pogo's Special Birthday Special.  Perhaps the heart of the problem was that Jones was adapting other people's material and in fleshing them out for the very different media of television and film, imprinted too much of his own voice and sensibilities on stories that were very personal to their authors.  This is in marked contrast to the Looney Tunes stars who were really committee characters and thus malleable enough to withstand the differing interpretations of multiple directors.

Findlay weaves a fascinating tapestry delineating how Jones began developing the character and world of Crawford in 1967 for a proposed television animated series, and how he worked on it with his wife through various refinements until it was ready to pitch to MGM in 1969.  However, nothing came of it as Jones' busy schedule coupled with the closing of MGM's animation unit after the completion of The Phantom Tollbooth scuttled any plans to bring Crawford to television.

However, in 1977, another opportunity arose to bring Crawford to life albeit not on television, but in the pages of the daily newspaper comic strips.  In 1977, Robert Reed (no, not the Brady Bunch dad) of the Tribune Company approached Jones with the idea of creating his own comic strip for his group of newspapers that would feature a set of kids to compete with Peanuts, the hugely successful strip that was part of the United Features Syndicate stable.  To that end, Jones dusted off his Crawford proposal and reworked it and the characters for the daily newspaper strip format.  The strip premiered in January 1978 in the New York  Daily News and a handful of smaller papers.  It is unknown why the Chuck Jones name did not have enough star power to get his strip picked up by more papers, but our own analysis of the results show a lack of cohesion and continuity in the seven months the strip was in existence.  Jones had a lot of ideas, but failed to take the time to create distinctive and convincing characters to execute those ideas.  Jones' trademark witticisms and wordplay are in full effect, make no mistake.  But with few exceptions, the dialogue could be exchanged between characters with little to no effect on the outcome.  The biggest obstacle to the public's being able to embrace the strip is that the titular character is actually the least interesting in the bunch.  In the first few weeks of the strip, Crawford serves merely as straight man to his buddy Morgan, who initiates much of the action.  On the whole, the Crawford cast is less interesting than their Peanuts counterparts: Crawford, Morgan, and Libby never engage, provoke, or touch us the way Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy do.

Also, during the course of the strip's life, its stars Crawford and Morgan undergo radical shifts in character traits and even physical appearance.  The gang seems to age several years overnight again proving that the concept needed more thought and development time before seeing print.

Still, as a collected work, this book is a marvelous achievement by all involved.  The Library of American Comics – spearheaded by Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell – already have such a deep catalog of hit books to be proud of that, from an editorial perspective, it must be a daunting task to keep coming up with projects to top themselves.  We're glad to report that with Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was, they really have upped the ante on what has come before. 

 

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Image from Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was

[Image credit: The Library of American Comics]

 

This book is a must-have for any fan of comic strips, animation, or Chuck Jones himself.  Chuck's strips, storyboards, and sketches – and there are heaping gobs of it published here to drool over – occupy the lion's share of the book.  That signature angular style Jones developed in the 1950s is here on display in all its charm.  Chuck Jones, the artist, ranks up there with the best cartoonists that the newspaper or animation media ever produced.  He had a mastery of body language – including the iconic sideways glance to the audience – which few artists could match and it was always effectively employed to convey character, mood, and subtext.  With the precision of a surgeon, Jones always knew how big or small he needed the action to go in order to get the reaction from the audience that he wanted.

The Library of American Comics is no stranger to accolades for their works, which have won Eisner Awards in the Best Archival Collection category three times already.  While the recent Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim volume 1 (reviewed elsewhere on this site) is the more obvious Eisner-bait for this year's awards, we think Chuck Jones: The Dream That Never Was is the more deserving and hope it at least gets a nomination.  Chuck Jones is the kind of book that needs to see print because it gives full detail and context to a period in the artist's life that had heretofore been a footnote at best.  Just when you thought you knew all you could about Jones, this book comes along and provides an exciting opportunity for discovery that adds a thrilling undercurrent to each turn of the page and makes the reading experience that much more rewarding.  Yes, the stories on the page are fun, whimsical, and charming, but the story behind the story is the bigger prize and one that will make The Dream That Never Was a go-to reference for both animation and Chuck Jones aficionados now and for decades into the future.

 

 
Review: FLASH GORDON & JUNGLE JIM vol. 1 BY ALEX RAYMOND
Written by Scott Katz   
Monday, 26 December 2011 19:59

Flash-Gordon-01-thumb2With his meticulous sense of design, sweeping alien vistas, bold heroes, vile villains, and scantily-clad females, it is quite possible that artist Alex Raymond invented the concept of eye-candy for his seminal newspaper comic strip Flash Gordon

The 1930s were a golden period for the newspaper adventure comic strips, and 1934 in particular was a signifcant year as it saw the debuts of two of the most celebrated comics strips of all: Terry and the Pirates, which bowed in October, and Flash Gordon, which premiered several months earlier on January 7.

Flash Gordon was created for King Features Syndicate as a direct response to the success of Buck Rogers, which began publication exactly five years earlier on January 7, 1929 by a rival outfit.  However, the talent of Flash's creator Alex Raymond quickly brought the character to heights of popularity far surpassing its charming albiet relatively primative progenitor.  No mere knockoff, Flash Gordon upped the ante for what a science fiction comic strip could achieve in both story and art.  It helped solidify the template to which all ensuing space fantasy sagas owe a debt.  Flash's arrival and battle with Emperor Ming on the planet Mongo, while ostensibly broken up into discrete story arcs, actually comprise a continuous seven-and-a-half year grand narrative the likes of which were not seen before and rarely since.

We can't say with full conviction that Flash Gordon was the most lavishly illustrated strip of all time – that honor would likely go to Hal Foster's breathtaking Prince Valiant – but both Alex Raymond and Flash Gordon are at the pinnacle of comic strip achievement and this masterwork is finally being collected in a format that showcases its full impact.

What makes these collections so mandatory for any serious fan of comic books or comic strips is that these books afford one an opportunity to watch a master storyteller take a strip from its embryonic

 

Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim vol. 1

 

    

MSRP: $75.00

ISBN: 978-1613770153

reprints Sundays 1/7/34 to 5/31/36

176 pp, Available now

www.libraryofamericancomics.com

stages to its full potential.  As the series begins, Alex Raymond keeps things neat and orderly sticking to a four-tiered, twelve-panel grid.  As the weeks go by, the strip begins to find itself, and its underlying themes and concepts begin to coalesce.  It takes a bit longer for the growth in art style to emerge, but by July 22, 1934, Raymond eschewed the old twelve-panel layout for good and began to open up his art by using fewer and larger panels of varying shapes and sizes.  At this point, there was no stopping Raymond, and fans will be in for a treat as they can now bear witness with each turn of the page to the blossoming talent of a legend growing into his full creative powers.  Soon, he was experimenting with camera angles and perspectives, and by mid-1935, Raymond's pencils develop the more intensely detailed feathered texture for which he became justly renowned. 

In this first volume of six, the Sunday strips from January 1934 to May 1936 are reprinted – more than enough to be introduced to Flash and his friends and enemies whose names have seeped into the national pop culture consciousness: Dale Arden, Dr. Zarkov, and Ming the Merciless.  In these initial strips, we also meet other key figures of the alien planet Mongo as Flash careens from one gloriously preposterous escapade to another: from fighting the Red Monkey Men for Ming's amusement to befriending Prince Thun of the Lion Men to battling for his life underwater against King Kala of the Shark Men to escaping from the City Above the Clouds led by King Vultan of the Hawkmen.  All this while dodging the unwanted attractions and amorous attentions of every nubile femme fatale on Mongo: Ming's daughter Princess Aura, Azura the Witch Queen of the Blue Mountain Men, and Queen Undina of the underwater Coral City. 

Flash Gordon, the character, is the typical heroic male that existed in fantasy before the 1960s: strong, confident, square-jawed, and uncomplicated.  He sees a wrong that needs to be righted and just dives in and goes for it.  His mission always takes precedence over his own personal wants or needs.  His relationship and ever-impending, but never realized, marriage to Dale Arden always takes a back seat to whatever crisis is at hand.  Flash is largely a cipher, personality-wise – his adventures are more interesting than he, himself is – but that's what gives characters like these their aspirational allure and allows their readers to project themselves into their places more easily than it would be with a character who is full of specific quirks and idiosyncracies.  Our hero fights tirelessly against Ming and the evil hordes of Mongo for almost a decade without reservation, without asking for reward – without even so much as a bathroom break – just because that's who he is.  No nihilistic pessimism here.  The tone of the strip is empowering because it proudly embodies the American ideal that one good man can make a difference and that you could be that man.

Being one of the most popular comic strips of all time, Flash Gordon has been released numerous times before in a variety of formats.  However, it's never been released like this.  The folks at The Library of American Comics are releasing this series in their celebrated Champagne format.  The book measures a large 16"x12.5" and presents the Sunday strips at pretty much their original full size.  Better still, the book contains the Jungle Jim topper strips that debuted with Flash Gordon and were also drawn by Raymond.  When each strip was given a full page to itself for several months, they are each presented in this book in their full page formats.  Some of these pages are iconic classics of the series such as the full page splash of the horde of Hawkmen warriors bearing down on Queen Azura's forces, and it's a treat to see them presented in all their pulpy glory.

 

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Alex Raymond's classic Flash Gordon Sunday page

(from June 16, 1935)

 

As for the presentation of the art, although it appears syndicate proofs are not available for use and so the results cannot be as sharp as if they were, we were still generally pleased with what we saw considering these were scans of old newspapers and fine lines – a tip of nose here, a partial jawline there – disappeared in both the original printing process and the aging of the materials over the last 75 years.  We would make special note of the coloring job, which we found to be more subtle and readable than the highly-saturated colors in, say, the Checker Books editions of a few years ago.  Everything is printed on heavy, crisp white matte paper making for a sumptuous end product.

Once again, LoAC goes out of its way to present wonderfully detailed supplemental essays to place Flash Gordon, and his creator Alex Raymond into historical context.  Beyond the de rigueur Raymond biography, it was also much appreciated that they attempted to give Flash Gordon's writer, Donald W. Moore, his just and due credit in spite of the fact that no clear records exist on what the extent of his contribution was during the twenty-odd years he worked on the strip.  Different expert suppositions are presented and all appear to have validity, but for us, it seems clear that Alex Raymond was always in the driver's seat and created the characters and the broad strokes of the story for Moore to script.  We say this because the layout of the strip changed over time as Raymond began using fewer and fewer panels to showcase his growing artistic ambitions, and it would seem to be a case of the tail wagging the dog to suggest that Raymond began drawing larger panels simply to accommodate shorter scripts from Moore.  In our estimation, the relationship between Raymond and Moore likely followed a template similar to the way daytime television serials are written using a tiered approach that starts with a head writer who comes up with all of the plot machinations and story beats followed by breakdown writers and script writers who structure the specific episode scenes and lay in the dialogue.  Whatever the case, the Raymond-Moore combo made for some memorable and thrilling all-ages fun.

Today, we are truly fortunate to be in a time where printing techniques and publisher resolve have combined to present the classics of the American comic strip to a new audience in the formats that they deserve.  Through the efforts of the Library of American Comics and other publishers, new readers can be exposed to classic writers and  illustrators such as Hal Foster, Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff, Roy Crane, Frank Robbins, Harold Gray, Lee Falk, Chester Gould, and so many others.

Creators like these are to be admired for their devotion to their craft and for their perfectionistic work habits because they could not possibly have known at the time that their efforts would be seen, discussed, collected, and admired 70 to 80 years after they wrote and drew it – that dedicated book editors would scour the countryside looking for the best possible samples of the strips and doing painstaking digital restoration and remastering of them in order to keep their work alive for a new generation of readers.  All Alex Raymond, for example, could count on is that each Sunday strip would be seen for a single day and then it was highly likely that it would disappear forever after that.

Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim volume 1 by Alex Raymond is an important record of the artist's versatility as an illustrator as he moves deftly from the jungles of Southeast Asia to the outermost reaches of space without missing a step.  And the stories are just plain fun reading to boot.

 

 
Review: SECRET AGENT CORRIGAN vol. 2
Written by Scott Katz   
Thursday, 16 June 2011 00:00

X9_V2_CoverNow this is what adventure looks like!

Like a well-deserved left cross to the kisser, the stories presented in X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan, volume 2 (of a projected five volumes) satisfy on a visceral, straight-to-the-point level.  In each arc of the classic newspaper comic, which in this volume first saw print between September 1969 and April 1972, a week's worth of strips is used for set up, and then it's full steam ahead as the action plays out in brisk fashion over the next two-and-a-half to three months.  Secret Agent Corrigan is unadorned meat-and-potatoes adventure so in terms of plotting, there isn't really any new ground covered here.  We have the usual hallmarks of the genre: women kidnapped, guy gets mixed up with the mob/syndicate, people staging their own kidnapping or attempts on their lives for personal gain only to have it backfire, hero gets mixed up in political hotspots around the world, and the like.  However, a master storyteller like Archie Goodwin, the writer on the series from 1967 to 1980, knows why these plots work and exploits them to their fullest potential in the limited space available to him.  If you're a fan of those great half-hour television dramas of the 1950s – such as Dangerous Assignment or Patrick McGoohan's Danger Man – you will love Corrigan.

In the best tradition of the iconic newspaper adventure strips, Goodwin's laconic FBI agent Phil Corrigan muscles his way balls-first into one deadly situation after another propelled by pure testosterone and the desire to get the job done.  He's a guy's guy in a way that seems quaintly retro when contrasted to the way men are depicted in the media today, but Corrigan's uncomplicated sense of himself is very refreshing because of it.  Goodwin's stories are elevated to a new level by his collaborator Al Williamson, an illustrator squarely in the Alex Raymond tradition of more realistic figure drawing. 

It must have been quite a daunting task to follow in the footsteps of two legendary creators of genre fiction, but that is exactly what Archie Goodwin and Al Williamson set out to do when they took over this classic comic strip which began life under the name Secret Agent X-9.

 

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Above: strip from September 4, 1969, "Prince Kasim" storyline [Image provided by The Library of American Comics]

 

Secret Agent X-9 began publication as a daily newsapaper comic strip on January 22, 1934 and lasted until February 10, 1996.  What makes X-9 stand out from among the many other action-adventure comic strips that populated the newspapers back in the 1930s was its pedigree.  The creators of X-9 were no less than Dashiell Hammett and Alex Raymond.  Hammett is widely recognized as one of the progenitors of the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction.  Athough he wrote only five novels, Hammett's influence is far-reaching as his works – which include the creation of Sam Spade for The Maltese Falcon and Nick and Nora Charles for The Thin Man – have been adapted to film and television numerous times over the decades and are known worldwide.  The artist on the strip Alex Raymond is no less a luminary in his own right being the creator of the seminal space fantasy comic strip

X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan vol. 2

MSRP: $49.99

ISBN: 978-1600108716

reprints dailies 9/1/69 - 4/8/72

304 pp, Available now

www.libraryofamericancomics.com

Flash Gordon.  Interestingly, Raymond's Flash Gordon and Hammett's Thin Man novel saw print on January 7 and January 8, 1934 respectively – a scant two weeks earlier than their collaboration on Secret Agent X-9 – quite an historic month for the two!  However, in spite of the talent of the creators involved, the strip was not a big hit for them and both left after about a year.

X-9 continued through the decades in the hands of several creators, most notably artist Mel Graff who drew the strip for about 20 years and gave X-9 his real name of Phil Corrigan.

When Goodwin and Williamson took over in 1967, they brought a pedigree of their own.  Al Williamson made his mark as artist on some of the most notable comic magazines of all time including EC's Weird Science and Weird Fantasy as well as Creepy and Eerie, the flagship magazines of EC's spiritual successor Warren Publishing.  Archie Goodwin is recognized in the comics industry as being one of the finest writers and editors that the medium has ever produced.  Like Williamson, Goodwin made his reputation at Warren's Creepy and Eerie, but as head writer and editor.  For Marvel Comics, Goodwin served a short stint as Editor-in-Chief during the 1970s and later inaugurated the Epic Comics line which was Marvel's creator-owned imprint.  For DC Comics, Goodwin wrote or edited a number of Batman-related projects and created the 1970s Manhunter character who appeared in a classic serialized story in Detective Comics with art by Walt Simonson.

 

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Above: Williamson's expert use of black & white on display in sequence from March 7, 1972 during the "Doctor Seven Returns" storyline. [Image provided by The Library of American Comics]

 

So do the talents of Goodwin and Williamson compare favorably with X-9's creators Hammett and Raymond?  It's almost blasphemous to say this, but in some regards, they actually exceed them.  Hammett's dialogue has more wit of course, but Goodwin's pacing is superb, and he manages to maintain an ever-present sense of tense urgency throughout the stories.  In reading the 280 pages of stories that comprise this volume, one continually feels swept up in a tornado of gunplay, fists, leaps, and one death-defying scenario after another.  Goodwin's terse dialogue and quick cuts are at times too good – you have to force yourself to slow down to admire the crisp, drool-worthy black-and-white art of Al Williamson – but don't fail to do so.  Williamson is a master craftsman who lays out the breathless action to perfection and excels at balancing light and dark in each panel in order to create convincing depth and texture.  He is an illustrator in the classic sense in that he brings all his considerable skills to the forefront in service of the story rather than resorting to over-obvious flash that only serves to call attention to the artist at the story's expense.  Aspiring artists, and quite frankly, many of today's top comic book artists, will find a lot to learn here from basic figure rendering to advanced composition and layout.  As a team, Goodwin and Williamson mesh flawlessly.  They are clearly of one mind working toward a common goal: delivering a narrative gut punch – a giddy thrill ride of action, excitement, narrow escapes, exotic locales, and femme fatales.

 

The eleven capers presented in X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan volume 2 are as follows (unofficial story titles provided by us for convenience):

  • "Prince Kasim" - Corrigan's wife Wilda is kidnapped by Prince Kasim of the Middle Eastern nation of Turistan to be his wife as he ascends to the throne.
  • "Byron Jagger" - Spy novelist Jagger tries to goose sales of his book by faking attempts on his life and saying they're the work of Cain, a notorious spy thought dead who Jagger claims is still alive.  Turns out Jagger is correct, and Cain decides to silence the writer for real.
  • "Clete Bowman" - Bowman decides to give up his failed acting career for a shot at real money by becoming a courier for an espionage ring trafficking in stolen defense plans.
  • "Gorstrom" - Big game hunter and syndicate bigwig Gorstrom hunts the biggest game of all on his private Caribbean island – Phil Corrigan, who is playing bodyguard to government witness Karen Holt.
  • "Charlene Amberson" - Rich girl Amberson arranges her own kidnapping to score some cash to run away with the guy her father disapproves of.  The ruse turns deadly when the couple's cohort decides to make the kidnapping real.
  • "Jonas Branveldt" - Corrigan heads to the South American jungle of Arumba to find the notes of presumed-dead Dr. Branveldt who made a discovery that could make atomic weapons obsolete.  What he finds is a very much alive Branveldt along with a lost valley unchanged since the Mesozoic era filled with danger – and dinosaurs!  Exceedingly entertaining story with page after page of bravura Williamson art.
  • "Doctor Seven" - Corrigan meets recurring enemy Dr. Seven and his henchwoman Lushan for the first time as our FBI guy gets loaned out to the CIA to track down US space satellites knocked out of orbit and brought to the nation of Kalipur.
  • "R. Barcroft Baxter" - Movie producer Baxter seeks to undermine Galaxy Studios head Kay Stirling in order to take over the company and run it as a syndicate-controlled enterprise.
  • "General Drax" - Corrigan is assigned to bodyguard Drax, the dictator of Balkania under threat of assassination, as he prepares to address the United Nations.
  • "Jonas Garth" - Corrigan heads to the African nation of Ukhari on the trail of Jonas Garth, a treasure hunter who is wanted for murder back in the States.
  • "Doctor Seven Returns" - Blamed for Corrigan's defeat of Dr. Seven, Lushan trades information about Seven's next scheme for Corrigan's protection.

 

Once again, The Library of American Comics has outdone itself on this compilation using thick matte paper for the best combination of readability and durability.  An essay by Goodwin's wife Anne T. Murphy opens the book with insights into Archie and Al both individually and as creative partners.  The strips themselves were reprinted from Al Williamson's personal proofs provided by his wife Cori, and are of uniformly excellent quality resulting in the definitive showcase for what is considered to be the last great action-adventure newspaper strip.  A must-buy for any lover of American newspaper comic strips.

 

 
SUPERMAN "RENOUNCES" AMERICAN CITIZENSHIP
Written by Scott Katz   
Tuesday, 26 April 2011 23:37

Action900-resizeWhen one thinks of Superman, one of the most famous fictional characters ever created, many iconic catchphrases come to mind: "Faster than a speeding bullet...," "It's a bird -- it's a plane...," "Look! Up in the Sky...," and "Truth, justice, and the American way," right?

 

Well, no more.  

In a troubling, distressing new story, DC Comics, the company that has published the Man of Steel's comic book adventures since 1938, has changed all that.

 

In its special "celebratory" issue out today, Action Comics #900, there is a story in which Superman prevents a riot between protestors and the military in Iran.  When Superman is later confronted by the President's National Security Advisor about how Superman's being in Iran has dragged the United States into an "international incident," Superman – with not even a hint of a second thought as to what he's giving up – says that he will take care of it by addressing the United Nations and declaring to them that he has decided to renounce his American citizenship because the world is "too small" for "truth, justice, and the American way" anymore. 

 

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in ACTION COMICS #900, Superman "renounces" his American citizenship [Image © 2011 DC Comics]

 

As a sidebar, the story, by Hollywood scribe David Goyer (also writer of the upcoming Superman film – fair warning), is so touchy-feely cloying in its depiction of Superman stopping a potential riot just by standing there and having everyone halt dead in their tracks because they are overcome by his mere godlike presence that it should have been rejected based on cheesy storytelling alone.

 

dsc01209_cr-resize

In this eyeroll-inducing moment in some funhouse-mirror version

 of Iran, a soldier is presented with a rose from a protestor.  Of course,

once Superman was out of range, the soldier blew the guy's head off.

[Image © 2011 DC Comics]

 

The current regime in charge of DC Comics has had an unfortunate history of not knowing what to do with some of their marquee characters – Superman and Wonder Woman (who, in a recent controversial costume switch, has also lost a lot of her obvious American inspired appearance) chief among them.  We feel this is a misguided attempt on the part of DC's management to make the character more "relevant" to the modern audience.  However, it completely misses the fact that while Superman is an alien from another world, his story is so quintessentially American.

Superman was conceived in the 1930s as a depression-era "champion of the oppressed."  He is the epitome of the American dream – the immigrant who came to this country with nothing and created success for himself.  Removing the American underpinnings from the Superman concept is as wrongheaded and preposterous as removing Christmas from Santa Claus.

This isn't the first time that DC Comics and its parent Time Warner has been in the midst of a controversy regarding Superman's status as an American icon.  In 2006, Bryan Singer's poorly-received film Superman Returns famously truncated Superman's signature line by saying "Truth, justice...all that stuff."

No one is saying that DC Comics should go the other way and portray Superman as a rah-rah, flag-waving hardcore patriot.  Superman stories have by-and-large been apolitical over the decades, and it's probably best that they stay that way.  However, it is undeniable that American iconography has been incorporated into depictions of the character almost from the beginning.  Yes, Superman is a hero to the world and protects all mankind, but it's important never to forget that he's an American hero to the world.  The fact that Superman was raised in America's heartland is a central part of his character, and not just some tacked on trait that is disposable.

If this were any other comic book character outside of Captain America, perhaps we wouldn't feel as strongly about this as we do, but Superman is essentially part of modern American folklore and is one of the most famous and recognizable fictional characters in history.  Most Americans probably don't know the names of their Senators, but everyone on the face of the planet knows who "Lois Lane" is.  We'll leave it up to you to decide whether that's a good thing, but be that as it may, Superman's status as an American icon is clear and undeniable.

 

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George Reeves as Superman, 1953

[Image © 2011 Warner Bros.]

Christopher Reeve as Superman, 1978 [Image © 2011 Warner Bros.]

 

Perhaps we shouldn't be all that surprised.  The entertainment industry has often downplayed any overt Americanisms in its productions in order not to "offend" the international audience and to ensure that they are more saleable to overseas markets.  It's global capitalism and appeasement at its most efficient – never mind the cumulative effect such decisions have on the United States.  We are all "citizens of the world" now – at least according to Hollywood and to the multitude of American corporations outsourcing jobs by the millions.  In fact, Superman has been among the most recent victims of the outsource epidemic: in the aforementioned new Superman movie Man of Steel, due Christmas 2012, Superman himself will be played by British actor, Henry Cavill (The Tudors).  What are the odds that when the film based upon DC Comics' Justice League of America is finally made that the "of America" part will be nowhere to be found?

 

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"Truth, justice...and all that sort of rot."

British actor Henry Cavill lands the role of Superman in 2012's Man of Steel

[Photo by David Shankbone]

 

Having Superman renounce his American citizenship seems like a typical liberal Hollywood reaction to its perception that being an American who actually loves America is akin to being a far right wing war-mongering religious zealot.  To them, being a proud American is something corny to be mocked at the very least and something to be feared at worst.  If it's true that the right wing has co-opted the American flag and American imagery for its exclusive use, it's because the left wing allowed them to do so.

In America, we have one of the greatest freedoms imaginable – the freedom to disagree not only with each other, but also with our government.  No one is saying that Hollywood in general or the story's writer in particular should not be able to have whatever worldview they wish, and we don't want to suggest that we're classifying all of Hollywood as America-hating liberals, but what we are saying is that writers should not project their own personal political beliefs on these fictional characters that are not theirs.  The above reprinted panels showing how blithely Superman gives up his American heritage is just bad writing pure and simple, and it does seem as though the writer is using Superman as his own personal mouthpiece.  The subtext, as we saw it, was that the writer understood that Superman is an American icon, and felt the need to "fix" that because it didn't jibe with his own personal politics.

Superman represents the full realization of the American ideal, which we concede can be quite different from the American reality.  He is a timeless character that should not be caught up in the politics of the moment or advance any particular politcal agenda.  The sooner that the entertainment industry realizes that displaying the flag and believing in the American dream are not synonymous with far right wing politics, the better.  Superman is a classic American icon and does not need to be changed from that. 

 

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Review: POLLY AND HER PALS
Written by Scott Katz   
Thursday, 27 January 2011 08:58

Polly_Pals_cvr-resizeWhen we interviewed Bruce Canwell, the Associate Editor of the hardcover book series The Library of American Comics back in October, we described the work of the organization as a "rescue mission" because they toiled diligently to recover lost and forgotten comic strips, digitally restore the artwork where necessary, and present them to today's audience – many of whom had never seen the classic strips except perhaps as an array of random samples.

Never has the term "rescue mission" been more appropriately applied than to the latest volume to come from the Library of American Comics: Polly and Her Pals volume 1 by cartoonist Cliff Sterrett (180 pp, $75, available now). Polly is a strip that was popular in its day, but is all but unheard of to today's audience. Polly and Her Pals was created by cartoonist Cliff Sterrett for the William Randolph Hearst chain of newspapers and first appeared as a daily on December 4, 1912 under the title Positive Polly, and a Sunday version followed a year later on December 28, 1913.

The strip originally focused on the comedic adventures of Polly Perkins, who, as we see in the very first Sunday strip, is never at a loss for a gentleman caller. As a character, Polly could be considered a proto-flapper whose slangy speech, dress, and attitude anticipated the approaching Jazz Age and the new social freedoms for society, and particularly women, that it ushered in. However, as the strip matured and fully came into its own, Polly's father, Sam "Paw" Perkins, emerged as the true star of the strip. Paw's domestic misadventures, and the strips eventual incorporation of expressionistic and cubist elements into the artwork delighted audiences for decades. Of course, Polly was still on hand, as were her "Pals" – simply an alliterative way to refer to her parents and her growing cast of extended family that were added to the strip.

...a not-to-be-wasted opportunity to see one of the early comedic masters develop into one of the true giants of popular art.

With but a brief sabbatical in 1925, Sterrett drew all of the Polly Sunday strips from their inception in 1913 until its demise on June 15,1958, representing an almost unbroken 46-year body of work. However, although Polly had a devoted fan following, it never became the merchandising bonanza that other comic strips of the era did, and so it never seeped into the larger American pop culture landscape that other strips, such as Chic Young's Blondie – also originally a strip chronicling the adventures of a flirty flapper-type protagonist – did.

However, among cartoonists and illustrators, Cliff Sterrett's work has become justly admired and even revered. Sterrett was one of the comic strip pioneers who thought outside the box – in this case, the restrictive oblong format of the Sunday newspaper – and brought new potential and expanded the graphic vocabulary of what a newspaper comic strip could convey visually. Sterrett's influence and bold experimentation stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Winsor McKay (Little Nemo in Slumberland) and George Herriman (Krazy Kat), but contribute something new.

 

(click on images to enlarge)
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POLLY AND HER PALS, November 24, 1918

[Photo Credit: Library of American Comics]

POLLY AND HER PALS, June 12, 1927

[Photo Credit: Library of American Comics]

 

The team at the Library of American Comics has done its usual outstanding job in assembling this book. Luckily, they were able to gather together crystal clear syndicate proofs to use as their starting point. Strips that are 85 to 100 years old look brand new. The thick, matte paper stock allows each strip to be read without overhead lighting creating a glare on the pages. Best of all, the Sunday pages are presented pretty much at their original size as the book measures an enormous 16 inches high with the strips taking up more than 13 inches of the page size. What with the bright white paper and today's advanced coloring techniques, this is undoubtedly the best the strips have ever looked. For any collector of classic comic strip material, this represents a great opportunity to own the early years of the strip in a pristine archival format. Supplementing the strips themselves is an invaluable front section of in-depth background material in the form of an essay of no less than 8,000 words by comic strip historian, Jeet Heer. Included in this section, beyond a wealth of biographical material, are vintage newspaper ads promoting Cliff Sterrett and Polly, and samples of early strips by Sterrett including For This Have We Daughters, which is to Polly and Her Pals what Li'l Folks is to Charles Schulz's Peanuts.

The strips included in the book span the years from 1913 to 1927. However, the book doesn't really start its chronological reprinting until the strip dated Sunday, November 30, 1924. The book includes all the Sterrett strips from then until the close of the year 1927, but skipping his sabbatical period of April 19 to November 15, 1925 when his strip was done by ghost artists. However, a few representative samples of this 7-month period are included. And for those who are familiar with Polly and are wondering – yes, each page does contain the topper strips that ran above Polly starting with Dot and Dash (originally called Damon and Pythias) beginning on February 21, 1926. A preview of the next planned volume in the series shows that it will contain the Sundays from the period 1928 to 1930 along with the topper, Sweethearts and Wives (later renamed Belles and Wedding Bells).

Why does this book truly begin in earnest from the post-sabbatical period of late-1925 rather than as a complete chronological reprinting from day one as many of the other series in the Library have done? The answer is simply that, while the early strips are not without merit and are quite enjoyable forays into domestic situation comedy that Sterrett all but pioneered alongside fellow cartoonist, George McManus (Bringing Up Father, also available from the Library of American Comics), Polly and Her Pals did not truly become the strip that audiences loved and critics lauded until he returned from sabbatical with a new outlook and a bold new art style, the beginnings of which can be seen in this first volume. It has yet to be uncovered exactly why this sabbatical led to such a dramatic change in Sterrett's approach to his cartooning, but with his return, slowly but surely, came the abstract art style for which he became justly famous. Gone were the faithful representations of reality and in its place stood a world of slightly-out-of-whack architecture and matter-of-fact surrealism. Doorways looked like arches; windows seemingly hung in midair on a wall of black (as shown on the cover shot above); Entrances to rooms could easily be a large hole in the floor; floor tiles were a shape unknown to geometry, and the ground itself always seemed to slope upward as if it were a knoll. Then, too, light and shadow are played with to create additional mood and effect. Sterrett's self-imposed vacation seemed to begin the process whereby he would come into his full powers as a cartoonist. It's as if Steve Ditko's Dark Dimension or Bob Clampett's Wackyland were the source material for the architectural blueprints of this cracked mirror take on small town Americana – but remember, Sterrett did it first.

Reading Polly and Her Pals gives one the same thrill that an archeologist must feel as he or she dusts off an antiquity: the thrill of discovery – the sense of origin – the knowledge that one is witnessing the birth of new artistic techniques rather than the tenth generation knockoffs of those techniques. Seeing the strips presented sequentially gives the reader further understanding as we can chart the progression of Sterrett's emerging new sensibilities and watch him experiment, discard, and refine the elements of the style that would become so identified with the artist and with Polly and Her Pals. By following the progression of each week's strip, one can experience a vicarious charge out of imagining that one is witnessing Sterrett's own mind open up bit by bit as he began to understand the full depths of his own talent and the possibilities that existed on that blank sheet of paper. Perhaps most thrilling is the knowledge that, in 1925, Sterrett was injecting elements of cubism and surrealism alongside and concurrent with those movements in the larger art world, championed by such artists as Picasso and, later, Salvador Dalí, when the movement was still so fresh and full of unexplored possibilities rather than as an ain't-I-clever throwback to another era's art form studied in art history class.

Oh, and as an added bonus? The characters are engaging; the situations are relatable, and these strips are just damned funny. Sterrett was a master humorist whether it be through situations, dialogue, or most famously, through pantomime – as many of the best and most famous strips contain no dialogue.  There's no tradeoff between style and substance here.

Polly and Her Pals volume 1 is the first book in the new "Champagne Format" of the Library of American Comics, and is a not-to-be-wasted opportunity to see one of the early comedic masters develop into one of the true giants of popular art.

 

For further information about the Library of American Comics, visit their website at www.libraryofamericancomics.com and listen to our interview with Bruce Canwell, Associate Editor for the Library right here.

Click here to ask a question or leave a comment!
 
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