Topper the World, Ma: Bill Holman’s Spooky the Cat

« A black cat crossing in front of a person signifies that the animal is going somewhere. » — Jack Oakie

Oftentimes, tackling such a milestone as Bill Holman‘s Smokey Stover (1935-1972) comic strip is simply too daunting a task. Judging from the evidence (and evidence of absence), I’m not alone in being so cowed: despite the feature’s undeniable and pivotal importance, there hasn’t been a reprint collection solely devoted to it* since 1985, when San Diego Comic-Con founder Shel Dorf and Blackthorne Publishing issued a humble volume in their Comic-Strip Preserves series. Humble it was, but packed to the rafters with Holman’s delightfully surreal wit and screwball genius. A mere 72 pages in the comic book format, but hours of reading, thanks to the astounding density of their contents.

If one were to take Wikipedia at its word, one might loudly rejoice at Hermes Press’ 2012 release of Smokey Stover and Spooky the Cat: The Collected Sundays. But, as an Amazon reviewer archly quipped, circa 2017, « It’s difficult to write a review when the book has not been published. » The ensuing five years have not improved the panorama one bit.

Well, I’m not going to explore Smokey Stover on this occasion… but will instead sneak a squint at its equally delightful ‘topper‘, Spooky the Cat. Since you rightly might ask:

« A topper in comic strip parlance is a small secondary strip seen along with a larger Sunday strip. In the 1920s and 1930s, leading cartoonists were given full pages in the Sunday comics sections, allowing them to add smaller strips and single-panel cartoons to their page. »

An ad from the syndicate promoting Smokey Stover (and its topper); it saw print in trade magazine Editor & Publisher’s August 21, 1937 issue.
From Sunday, June 27, 1937.
From Sunday, January 24, 1943.
From Sunday, Fooly, er, July 20, 1941.
From Sunday, July 4th (of course!), 1948.
From Sunday, September 12, 1948.
From Sunday, February 19, 1950. Ah, one of the classic cartooning archetypes: the hobo, complete with trusty polka-dot bindle and stick (which technically makes him a ‘bindlestiff’).
From Sunday, July 6, 1952. I could swear Holman meant to call the man Prof. Larynx, but then he wasn’t what you’d call a spelling whiz.
From Sunday, July 20, 1952. Incidentally, Spooky’s fez-sporting owner is Fenwick Flooky. There — now you’ve been introduced.
From Sunday, July 27, 1969. Gotta love a guy who’s kind to his animal companion, not to mention resourceful in doing so.
Sorry, date unknown! However, its original art was thus dedicated to a peer by the artist: “To my genius friend Alpo Q. Jaffee, fire-ever – Bill Holman ’76“.

The credibly devoted student of the comics would be ill-advised to underestimate the size of Holman’s footprint in the field: were they still around, it’s a cinch that Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, Boody Rogers and Harvey Kurtzman would be quick to confirm Holman’s influence on their work. And that’s just some of his more-or-less contemporary peers.

Well, Kurtzman did in fact explicitly go on the record on that point, in the course of his introduction to the Blackthorne collection:

« Those outrageously outrageous and the nonsense words that appeared in no particular place for no particular reason. ‘Foo!’Notary Sojac.‘ Could it be that that’s what inspired me to ‘Potzrebie‘ and ‘furshlugginer‘? Was it Holman’s technique, those ‘tchochkas‘ in all corners of the panels? Picture portraits, with the portraits come to life, jumping out of their frames? Could that have been what inspired us to fill our MAD Magazine panels with those nonsensical details? Could that have been it?

I think so, Bill Holman. I think that you stamped my young, impressionable, brain with your indelible ink. So ‘Foo’ to you and many more ‘Notary Sojacs’, Bill Holman. You made me what I am today, I hope you’re satisfied. »

A clear Spooky prototype, down to the tail bandage, from Judge‘s January, 1935 issue.

-RG

*I may be too old-fashioned to quite take into account print-on-demand reprint collections, but let’s face it, sometimes that’s all you get.

3 thoughts on “Topper the World, Ma: Bill Holman’s Spooky the Cat

    • gasp65 February 13, 2022 / 15:07

      Sounds like a fine plan, Ben! Given our common affection for felines, in print and in life, I was certainly hoping that this little sampler would tickle your fancy. Spooky’s just brimming with charm, isn’t he?

      Liked by 1 person

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