Hallowe’en Countdown VI, Day 1

« There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people… Religion, Politics, and The Great Pumpkin. » — Charles M. Schulz

And… we’re back, as promised, in time for our sacrosanct (or should that be ‘impious’?) annual Hallowe’en Countdown.

I’ll keep it brief, as we’re still in the middle of an arduous longish-distance move. Oof!

To kick off this edition, I thought I’d reach for a true classic of the season. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to claim that few (if any!) have done more to disperse the pumpkin seeds of Hallowe’en than Mr. Schulz has — but in his ubiquity, he’s easy to take for granted.

Here’s a handful of choice strips from my favourite Peanuts period, the mid-to-late 1960s, just before Snoopy more-or-less pulled the lead rôle from under good ol’ Charlie Brown’s feet, to the strip’s detriment… though its decline was an elegant and leisurely one.

October 30, 1966, virtually a Snoopy solo.
October 25, 1967.
October 26, 1967.
October 25, 1967.
A year later: October 29, 1968.
October 31, 1967.
November 1st, 1967.
The October 29, 1967 strip.

-RG

Paul Reubens at 70: ‘Fun’ Is Still the Secret Word

« I know you are, but what am I? » — Pee Wee Herman

And they said it couldn’t happen!

Today, Paul Reubens (born Paul Rubenfeld on Aug. 27, 1952) celebrates (in the coolest style, to be sure) his seventieth birthday. What’s he got to do with comics? Well, he obviously reads them, and his alter-ego, Pee-wee Herman, once met legendary small-scale comics hero Bazooka Joe.

This momentous occasion took place on the back of card no. 18 (of 33) from Topps’ delirious Pee-wee’s Playhouse set (1988). Introductions were arranged by that dapper bon vivant, Mark Newgarden.

This is happily one of those rare occasions when the word ‘Fun’ is accurately evoked. While Mr. Reubens wasn’t directly involved with the conception and concoction of this splendid ‘Pak’, he signed off on every aspect of it — no generic licenced product, this.
While the front of the cards bore the standard, time-tested ‘photographs with captions’ images, the backs is where the anarchic action was. Here are a few samples. Note the unbleached cardboard, which adds a certain primitive je ne sais quoi.
“Remember — you are an ARTIST!”
The Puppetland Band, those adorable beatniks, were always favourites.
Cartoonists Mark Newgarden and Kazimieras ‘Kaz‘ Prapuolenis write in!
Sexual innuendo and hidden messages on a kids’ show? You don’t say!
Funny, I would have expected Françoise Mouly‘s french to be better than this. Perhaps that’s why she moved to NYC.
A sheet of stickers… featuring, front and centre, Roger from Monsterland (‘Look’ was the secret word that week).
Temporary (sorry) tattoos. It was just to difficult to pick just one sheet, so here are two.
The “Pee-wee Copter”, front and back.
If you think you recognized the distinctive stylings of messrs. Charles Burns on the front and those of J.D. King* on the back… kudos on your discerning eye, keen one.

At one time, during Pee-wee’s heyday, I dated for a few months this girl from a, to put it mildly, conservative family. Her little brother was expressly forbidden from watching Pee-wee’s Playhouse, for fear that ‘it might turn him gay’. Live and learn… do check out this smart list of The Best 25 Pee-wee’s Playhouse Moments.

Happy birthday Paul, and a great weekend to you, Pee-wee!

Bonus time: in a case of ‘biting the hand that feeds’, Topps issued this snarky entry as part of its 1991 Wacky Packages series. Concept, writing and layout by Mark Newgarden, painted art by John Pound.

– RG

*a grateful tip of the hat to Mark Newgarden for the inside dope!

Adieu to Summer and to Childhood: Ray Bradbury’s “The Lake”

« And by the time they reached the shore of the quiet lake the sun was clouding over and fog moved in across the water so swiftly and completely that it frightened Doug to see it move, as if a great storm cloud from the autumn sky had been cut loose and sank to engulf the shore, the town, the thumping, happy brass band. » — Ray Bradbury, Farewell Summer (1980)

With summer on the wane — never mind the heat and humidity! — it seems fitting to feature, on the one hundred and second anniversary of Ray Bradbury’s birth, what’s possibly my very favourite EC comics adaptation of his work, Al Feldstein and Joe Orlando‘s ‘The Lake’. The other contenders jockeying for the top spot would be Johnny Craig‘s ‘Touch and Go!‘ (from the story ‘The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl‘) and Bernie Krigstein‘s ‘The Flying Machine‘. This mournful coming-of-age story was a speck of maturity in a boundless hinterland of juvenilia. I was agreeably surprised to find that there are some who concur with me on that point:

« It is hard for me to imagine how the 1953 comic book reader must have reacted when they picked up Vault of Horror #31 and read “The Lake” (adapted by Feldstein and Joe Orlando). The same month, Batman was fighting a crime predicting robot and Superman was helping to peel potatoes for Lois Lane during her stint in the Women’s Army Corps. So to go from that to this, a hauntingly sophisticated tale of a young boy obsessed with the death of his childhood sweetheart, must have been mind-blowing. »

(Do check out Brian Cronin’s solid picks for the 8 Greatest Ray Bradbury Adaptations by EC Comics)

Now, I trust I don’t have to school you about the life and times of Mr. Bradbury (1920-2012). Were it the case, I’d still skip the lesson, thanks to this 1953 summary, which will suit our current purposes just fine:

The good folks at EC comics, namely those in charge — proprietor William Maxwell Gaines and his loyal acolyte and second-worst artist, Al Feldstein — decided to adapt the works of young Ray… without bothering to first secure his blessing. After a few (splendid) adaptations, Bradbury shrewdly wrote: « Just a note to remind you of an oversight. You have not as yet sent on the check for $50.00 to cover the use of secondary rights on my two stories ‘The Rocket Man’ and ‘Kaleidoscope.’ . . . I feel this was probably overlooked in the general confusion of office work, and look forward to your payment in the near future. ». By 1953, the collaboration was well established, and so…

Bless her soul and all that, but I found Marie Severin‘s latter-day recolouring for Fantagraphics’ ‘definitive’ edition to be on the garish side, so I’ve toned it down somewhat. Computers aren’t for everyone.
Russ Cochran‘s stunningly ambitious and still-definitive The Complete EC Library featured John Benson, Bill Mason and Bhob Stewart‘s insightful and in-depth interviews and notes. Here’s what Benson wrote about The Lake:

« One of the few serious errors in the EC Bradbury adaptations is Joe Orlando’s imagery in ‘The Lake‘. Ignoring the many clues in the text (the long beach, the sand, the incoming waves) and taking his cue only from the title, Orlando drew a mountain lake, with pines and rushes, and a lodge in the background. But Bradbury’s lake was Lake Michigan, and this is a story that draws on the special poignance of the first autumn days at a large tidal beach. Had Orlando drawn on his undoubted experiences of the Atlantic seashore, he would have come much closer to the spirit of the original.

Readers who compare the dialogue in the EC version with the full version of the story in The October Country will find some seemingly inexplicable differences. The explanation is not that Feldstein cavalierly tampered with Bradbury’s text but quite the opposite. Feldstein was faithful to the story as it appeared in the May 1944 Weird Tales and in Bradbury’s first book anthology Dark Carnival (now long out of print). It was Bradbury himself who rewrote passages for this and other stories in The October Country, published after the EC adaptations. »

Orlando’s a funny guy. Like Harry Harrison, he started out as a friend, collaborator and friendly competitor of Wally Wood‘s. Unlike Harrison, who left the comics field to become a successful SF writer, Orlando was briefly able to more-or-less keep pace with Wood. It must have been nerve-wracking and of course quite unsustainable. While I hold that Orlando’s most aesthetically accomplished art job is ‘A Rottin’ Trick!‘ from Tales from the Crypt no. 29 (Apr.-May 1952, EC) and his most significant has to be anti-racist parable ‘Judgment Day!‘, from Weird Fantasy no. 18 (Mar.-Apr. 1953, EC), ‘The Lake‘ triumphs, thanks to its writing. After his peak of ’52-’53, Orlando’s art deteriorated fast. He made a bit of comeback in the mid-60s (the ‘Adam Link‘ stories at Warren were highlights) but… that’s when he was more often than not signing his name to Jerry Grandenetti‘s work. He found his niche as an editor at DC, and whatever artwork he produced thereafter seemed, to me, rushed and half-hearted. But he was a pretty good editor!

It’s a bit incongruous that what must be EC Comics’ quietest, most ruminative horror story should appear under one of its most violent (‘hard hitting’ comes to mind… literally) covers. Johnny Craig’s work could be — and generally was — quite understated, but on days when he wasn’t in that particular restrained frame of mind… look out! This is the original cover art from Vault of Horror no. 31 (June-July 1953, EC).

In closing, a word of warning: you’ll be seeing precious little of us in the coming month of September, as we’re preparing ourselves for a major change of domicile. We’ll be living in boxes for a spell, but I’m hoping to be back in time for the annual Hallowe’en Countdown. The show must go on!

-RG

Lou Brooks’ Banana Bob, “Boy Inventor of Harding High”

« Pretty soon, they had me working at the stat machine and the PhotoTypositor, or touching up stripper photos for the Trocadero Burlesk ads. Mostly putting some underwear on them. I may as well have been Vincent Van Gogh, for all I knew. I was in heaven. » — Brooks recalls his formative years

At first blush, I’ve immensely admired cartoonist-illustrator-historian (and so on) Lou Brooks (1944-2021) and his assured line. An ever-eager autodidact, Brooks handily achieved a feat that sets the mind a-reeling: soaking up ‘low’ illustration styles and the essence of faceless pictorial ephemera (think comic book ads, matchbooks, bar coaster and napkin art…), Brooks miraculously derived, from this primeval soup, his unique style, paradoxically bland (by design!) yet instantly recognizable.

One of Brooks’ earliest jobs in the badlands of professional cartooning was a strip he produced for Scholastic‘s Bananas (1975-84), a skewing-slightly-older companion to the publisher’s big hit Dynamite (1974-92). Banana Bob, “Boy Inventor of Harding High” exploited the time-honoured gizmo formula hatched in 1912 by Rube Goldberg with the twist that here, the doodads were contrived by readers and given visual interpretation by Brooks. Banana Bob ran for the mag’s first twenty-nine issues.

With the early strips, Brooks was still fine-tuning the works. With a dozen or so under his belt, he hit his stride. This one’s from Bananas no. 12.
From Bananas no. 13. Foo! There’s our pal, Bill Holman’s Spooky the cat (though he’s lost his bandage)!
From Bananas no. 16.
From Bananas no. 18.
From Bananas no. 19. And add a dash or two of Bill Holman… Brooks knew his stuff, all right.
From Bananas no. 20.
From Bananas no. 21. I see shades of a Jay Lynch influence!
From Bananas no. 24.
From Bananas no. 25.

From Bananas no. 26.
From Bananas no. 27.
From Bananas no. 28.
… and the series’ full-page finale, from Bananas no. 29, aka the 1979 Bananas Yearbook.

Though Brooks had already developed his trademark style — as evidenced for other illustrations he did for Bananas — he didn’t fully employ it on the Banana Bob strip. If memory serves, here’s where I first encountered a full-fledged Lou Brooks wallop, and I suspect I’m not alone in this (our younger readers are likelier to have first come across his exemplary revamp of the old Monopoly game):

For the feature’s duration — a decade or so — Brooks logos ushered readers into Playboy’s comic strip section (created in 1976 by hip new hire Skip Williamson) that featured over the years such heavyweights as Harvey Kurtzman, Art Spiegelman, Jay Lynch, Bobby London, Frank Thorne, Chris Browne

Here’s another, er, pair:

… and speaking of Mr. Spiegelman, here’s a collaboration between titans. It appeared in the January, 1980 issue of Playboy.

Of course, there’s so much more to Lou Brooks than one could conceivably cover within a mere blog post. To that end, we have a handy little biopic entitled A Guy Named Lou — filmed entirely in Illustr-O-Vision!

Brooks was an assiduous chronicler of the history of reprographics — don’t miss his jaw-dropping Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies. While he did a bit of everything to keep himself amused and occupied, he never lost sight of his vocation, of his one true love — I mean, he was in a band (with Bill Plympton!), but it was called Ben Day and the Zipatones!

-RG

Treasured Stories: “What’s Yores?” (1982)

« The people who are always hankering loudest for some golden yesteryear usually drive new cars. » — Russell Baker

We’re having a bit of a scorcher over here, so I’m doing my bit to compensate with a piece set in wintertime.

As we surely all know, Archie stories (in the comics at least) are formulaic to a fault. This static state of affairs plays a considerable part in their comforting nature. Sure, all fashions and trends are embraced and discarded, but the characters don’t evolve in any significant, permanent way. No lesson ever sticks.

So on the rare occasion when a writer deviates from the formula, it really shows. This tale, I daresay, is such a specimen. Virtually plotless, it’s a precursor, by more than half a decade, of that rule-breaking « show about nothing »: Seinfeld (1989-1998).

While nothing much happens here in terms of plot, this is a difficult trick to pull, in any medium: as it mainly consists of yadda yadda yadda (but witty yadda yadda yadda… another daunting level of difficulty), it’s talking heads all the way, so you need some great performers who know how to keep an audience engrossed through the minimal means at their disposal.

In comics, this calls for a great illustrator, a master of body language and the art of the mise en scène, namely Samm Schwartz (1920-1997). I shudder — and not with delight — to envision this particular script landing in the hands of a lesser light, which is to say practically anyone in the Archie stable save Bob Montana (but he’d died in 1975) or Harry Lucey (retired and in poor health by then). While he was never credited for anything but his artwork, Schwartz enjoyed a free hand with his regular collaborators’ scenarios (George Gladir and especially Frank Doyle), with their blessing. And he was always enriching his backgrounds with delightful pantomime mayhem.

What’s Yores? originally appeared in Jughead no. 321 (Feb. 1982, Archie). Script by Frank Doyle, pencils, inks and letters by Mr. Schwartz.

Craving more Schwartz? Go on, help yourself to the full spread right here.

-RG

Brad Teare: Scratching Away at Truth

« Contained in these works were not only all the important philosophical developments of modern society… there were even answers to as yet unposed questions. » — Cypher has an epiphany

This week’s topic reminded me of the crucial role an enlightened comic shop owner, especially pre-internet, could play in one’s edification in the medium. Case in point: while I can’t consider him a mentor, my old comic shop guy, being adventurous and open-minded, made a lot of obscure titles available, without necessarily pushing them on his customers. And in a world of ‘super-heroes or bust’, such availability is crucial.

Which brings us to Mr. Brad Teare (b. 1956, Moscow, Idaho). I’ve always had special fondness for comics that bloomed outside the usual channels, like hardy plant life rising up in cracks and miraculously subsisting on nearly nothing.

You know, like this.

From what I can tell, Teare’s first professional comics work appeared in a non-consecutive pair of issues of Heavy Metal magazine, during that blessed but oh-so-brief ‘Tundra‘ period when surprisingly enlightened Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman published, at considerable loss (between 9 and 14 million simoleons), some of the finest comics of the 1990s.

Eastman had purchased Heavy Metal in January, 1992. In the March issue, Brad Teare’s Cypher made its first of two appearances in HM, in marked contrast to the magazine’s prevalent ‘dystopias with titties for arrested adolescents’ aesthetic.

The following year, Teare self-published (under the Crypto Graphica banner, out of Providence, Utah, pop. 7,000 or so) Cypher no. 1, with a cover clamouring that it contained the ‘Complete Cypher Trilogy!’. Teare intended to produce further issues, but the market evidently wasn’t built for it. The book is so obscure that even the Grand Comics Database (GDC) has never heard of it. But my comic shop guy did place an order, and found at least one receptive reader eager to snap up a copy. I waited and waited for a second issue, but in vain.

This is Cypher no. 1 (1993, Crypto Graphica). Have I mentioned how much I enjoy the artistic technique of ‘scratchboard’? I have indeed!
This back cover one-pager from Cypher no. 1 has never been reprinted, I believe.

Then, four years down the road, Gibbs-Smith, “a proud independent publisher and distributor“, founded in 1969, also Utah-based… and still around, assembled and issued a compact (22,5 x 16 cm) hardcover Cypher collection, gathering material that Teare must have intended for at least a couple more issues of his series. Aside from an oddly ‘meh’ cover, overworked and underwhelming, it’s a gorgeous package. It also has managed to fly below the GCD’s radar all these years.

Cypher finds himself new employment. This is the version from Cypher no. 1; perhaps because of the smaller format, the collected edition replaced Teare’s lovely, expressive hand-lettering with a computer font.
A spooky sample from ‘Minotaur‘, from the 1997 Gibbs-Smith collected edition.

In the meantime, Teare kept his hand in, providing a pair of highlights to DC/Paradox Press’ well-written but frustratingly visually scattershot The Big Book Of series (1994-2000), also finding success as a freelance illustrator (Random House, The New York Times, Sony, Turner Interactive, Flying Buffalo) in all manners of media.

From The Big Book of Urban Legends (Dec. 1994, Paradox Press/DC).
From 1997, a typical spread from the charming Dance, Pioneer, Dance! Written by Rick Walton, it offers a slightly fictionalised account of the westward migration of Brigham Young and a band of his fellow Mormons.
From The Big Book of Vice (March 1999, Paradox Press/DC). A fascinating bit of history!

Though he’s nowadays a celebrated and prolific painter of the Utah landscape, he hasn’t altogether turned his back on comics, bless his soul. The final chapter of Cypher (to date?), ‘Sub-Wayward’, introduced, in the story-within-a-story tradition, scientist turned reluctant underground hero The Subterranean. And so, long story short, we find ourselves with a Teare book that’s readily available (for the time being)!

« This comic details the thrilling origin of The Subterranean from his humble beginnings at HyperLabs in New York City to his role as sole defense against a terrible evil perpetrated by the Thanatos twins, former colleagues at HyperLabs. This character of The Subterranean is a spin-off from the critically acclaimed graphic novel Cypher. »

In parting, here’s a video of Mr. Teare demonstrating the impasto technique in acrylics.

-RG

Hot Streak: Carmine Infantino’s Detective Comics

« I was always concerned more with the visuals than with the copy — and the visuals had to be provocative! » — Infantino*, in a nutshell.

To recap, under the parameters I’ve set for this category a hot streak is a series of outstanding consecutive covers by a single artist (inkers may vary) on the same comic book title. Since it’s my party, I occasionally make allowances (e.g. allowing entry to a scruffier, but still presentable, specimen), but it’s more challenging and more fun to play it straight.

By my reckoning, there are very few truly great cover artists to begin with, and their output is often stifled by indifferent, incoherent or hostile art direction, poor lettering and colouring choices beyond the unfortunate artist’s control, lack of interest in the imposed subject matter… you get the picture. And there’s also the difficulty of getting a decent streak going when the editor keeps shuffling cover artists.

The artist in his suit and tie (and cigar!) days at DC.

I’ve gone on at length (I refer you in particular to Hot Streak: Nick Cardy’s Aquaman, Previously) about the gargantuan amount of work Carmine Infantino (1925-2013) knocked out conceiving comic book covers during his executive years at DC (1966-75), but most of his best designs were executed by others. I mean the man was already doing the work of five people, what more could he do?

As he told Gary Groth in a definitive interview (The Comics Journal no. 191, Nov. 1996, Fantagraphics):

« At DC Comics, I worked round the clock, including weekends, and never taking a vacation in the 10 years I served there. I not only was creating new titles, designing most of the covers, plotting stories and going on the road for the distribution of the magazines, plus doing radio shows and then running out to California to be totally included with Puzo and the producers creating the Superman movies I &II. Time got so tight that I would design covers on the way to the airport and have the driver deliver them to Sol Harrison, who in turn gave them to the waiting artists. I would be at my desk from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. It began to be a destructive grind. »

While Carmine is most closely associated with Silver Age characters The Flash and Adam Strange, I couldn’t discern, in these titles, a run of sufficiently stellar *and* consecutive covers (Flash nos. 139-142 and Mystery in Space nos. 69 to 71 come closest… do bear in mind that I have no consideration for ‘key’ issues or ‘famous’ or ‘event’ covers). It’s no real surprise that Infantino’s design work rose to a crescendo of accomplishment and consistency when he was made the company’s de facto art director, late in 1966. And what was he working on at the time? Batman. So, since Detective no. 261 bears a ho-hum cover and no. 269 is pretty spiffy, but the work of Gil Kane, here’s Mr. Infantino’s hot streak:

This is Detective Comics no. 362 (Apr. 1967, DC), pencilled by Infantino and inked by Murphy Anderson. Carmine wasn’t a fan of the so-called ‘Go-Go Checks’, that checkerboard pattern that once famously adorned those distinctive yellow NYC cabs. He didn’t mince words, either: « What a ridiculous thing: it was the stupidest idea we ever heard because the books were bad in those days and that just showed people right off what not to buy. ». Certainly, in the case of Detective Comics, they left the top of the page far too cluttered.
This is Detective Comics no. 363 (May 1967, DC), featuring (this) Batgirl‘s second appearance. She’d been created by editor Julius Schwartz and Infantino at the request of the hit Batman TV show‘s producers, figuring that the series needed a heroine for a little extra spice. Art by Infantino and Anderson.
This is Detective Comics no. 364 (June 1967, DC). Roy Reynolds, alias The Getaway Genius, was a fun civilian villain whose finest hour, in my view, came at the tail end of 1973 with Batman no. 254‘s King of the Gotham Jungle! (written by Frank Robbins, pencilled by Irv Novick and inked by Dick Giordano), when he was unexpectedly caught between the Batman and the Man-Bat.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a Batmaniac or three had reconstructed this Joker edifice in their backyard or basement, out of Lego blocks or papier mâché… or actual bricks.

Carmine really went to town on this one, and it’s rightly earned its place in the hall of classics. This is Detective Comics no. 365 (July, 1967, DC). The cover story, The House the Joker Built! is scripted by John Broome, pencilled by Bob Kane ghost Sheldon “Shelly” Moldoff and inked by Joe Giella.
Speaking of design, here’s the masterful Ira Schnapp‘s house ad for Detective 365, as it appeared in Green Lantern no. 54 (July, 1967, DC), among other titles.
This is Detective Comics no. 366 (Aug. 1967, DC); I love those moody colours and light effects, that tell-tale Infantino candle and the mysteriously parsimonious inheritance bequeathed to Robin.
This is Detective Comics no. 367 (Sept. 1967, DC), an intriguing preview of Where There’s a Will — There’s a Slay!, written by Gardner Fox, pencilled by Infantino, inked by Sid Greene. I wonder how many young readers enthusiastically destroyed the cover to assemble the puzzle…

Note also the improved logo placement (a return to issue no. 327 original ‘new look’ logo, actually), giving the layout a chance to… breathe a bit better. The Batman cameo at top left is still de trop.

This is Detective Comics no. 368 (Oct. 1967, DC). Infantino reportedly created the covers first, and editor Schwartz assigned his writers to work up a scenario to fit. This one could not have been a cakewalk. Gardner Fox was the unlucky recipient of that gargantuan task.
Since it’s not an issue of Detective, this cover’s not *technically* part of the streak… but as it features Batman, and it appeared between issues 365 and 366 of Detective, I’m throwing it in. Infantino and Anderson’s literal and figurative blockbuster of a cover for Batman no. 194 (Aug. 1967, DC). Its cover aside, a pretty ho-hum issue. The book and the character were in urgent need of another overhaul, and it was just around the corner. « When Donenfeld saw this cover, he had a fit! He said, ‘I don’t see the logo on top!’ I said ‘You don’t have to — you’ve got Batman up there!’ »
Aw, heck — here’s Ira Shnapp’s accompanying house ad, a work of art in itself, wouldn’t you agree?
Speaking of immortal Infantino Batman images: « Aurora wanted action shots of their models, so I did this rough layout, sent it to them, and they liked it! I had a moon behind him, but they dropped it. The tree created the design. I was very high into design at this point (1964) — the design was pouring out of me! ». Here’s a look at the finished model.
I couldn’t very well leave out what’s possibly the most famous of Carmine’s Bat-scenes: this is Batman From the 30s to the 70s (1971, Crown Publishers) a splendid hardcover anthology. Its cover adapts an Infantino-Anderson mini-poster that originally saw print in Detective Comics no. 352 (June 1966, DC) and bore instead the inscription « Best Bat-Wishes Batman and Robin ». Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, er… ‘Shazam’ also got their own historical anthology in this format.

-RG

*unless otherwise specified, most Infantino quotes are drawn from his excellent, profusely visual 2001 autobiography (with J. David Spurlock), The Amazing World of Carmine Infantino (Vanguard Publishing).

Wally Wood’s Incompleat Plopular Poetry

« Poetry: the best words in the best order. » — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Here’s a seldom-seen 1970’s Wally Wood treat: he concocted this irreverent alphabet for Plop! (1973-76), DC Comics’ surprisingly solid yet nearly forgotten gallows humour anthology — forgotten? oh, it’s the same old recipe: just let the material remain out of print for nearly half a century (and counting)*, fold in gradually the dust and grime of neglect, and let wither, uncovered, until utter oblivion is achieved.

While Plopular Poetry is minor ‘woodwork’, it represents some of the best produced by poor Woody at this late stage in his life.

Published in Plop! no. 18 (Nov.-Dec. 1975, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 19 (Jan.-Feb. 1976, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 20 (Mar.-Apr. 1976, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 21 (May-June 1976, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 22 (July-Aug. 1976, DC).
Published in Plop! no. 23 (Sept-Oct. 1976, DC). According to his protégé Ralph Reese, this is Woody doing his own lettering on the poems.
… and that was it. Plop! had run its course, cancelled with its 24th issue, five letters short of an alphabet. Published in Plop! no. 24 (Nov.-Dec. 1976, DC). Were the five final letters ever produced? I’ve been keeping my eyes open all these years… but I’m still waiting.

As a bonus…

Wood’s cover preliminary for Plop! no. 19’s cover boy, Smokin’ Sanford. Rendered in blue pencil on paper.
A more refined version of Sanford, rendered in graphite over blue pencil.
This is Plop! no. 19 (Jan.-Feb. 1976, DC), Wood’s fourth and final cover for the title, with sidebars and logo design by Sergio Aragonés; edited by his buddy from the EC days (and even earlier), Joe Orlando. Do I detect another, highly meticulous hand in the inking (Ralph Reese comes to mind, but he says he never worked on Plop!, and if one of us is wrong, odds are it’s me), or is Sanford’s wacky tobaccy messing with my mind?
And here’s a glimpse into the creative process! Note the disappearance, in the end, of Sanford’s threads and spectacles.

-RG

*aside from a pair of obscure digest reprints in the mid-eighties.

Patrice Leconte: All Was Normal and Calm…

« An editorial team that gathers within a magazine such as Pilote constitutes a true family, as it’s a small group and everybody knows everybody. There’s friendship, admiration, competition, hijinks and the pleasure of being together, even if we didn’t take the bus to Quiberon together in the summer. » — Patrice Leconte

It would be terribly reasonable to presume that Patrice Leconte‘s elegant passage through the world of Franco-Belgian was, on the part of the future cinematic auteur (the Les Bronzés series, Monsieur Hire, Le mari de la coiffeuse, Ridicule, L’homme du train — my favourite, and even an animated film, Le magasin des suicides… quite a range!) some sort of dilettantish detour, but it wasn’t… is it ever? — quite so simple. As he recalls it:

« As a child, I dreamed of nothing but cinema. Well, I also dreamed of drawing. As they say, I went up to Paris and went to film school. But I kept on drawing. And I was a Pilote reader. I wrote to [ Marcel ] Gotlib, who responded, looked at my drawings, showed them to René Goscinny, who liked them, invited me to the office and found me likeable, published my drawings and encouraged me to carry on, which I did. For five years. 1970 to 1975. I was happy. Then I shot my first film [the frankly unpromising Les vécés étaient fermés de l’intérieur, co-scripted with Gotlib] and everything began to unravel, because I haven’t made anything but films since, and I gave up comics. »

La vie telle qu’elle est — a title that a cinephile of Leconte’s ilk could simply *not* have failed to nick from pioneering cinéaste Louis Feuillade (1873-1925, whose immortal Fantomas, Judex and Les vampires serials still thrill) and his 1911-1913 series of films bearing that name… seventeen in all!
The tale appeared in Pilote no. 603 (May, 1971, Dargaud), and here’s the cover. René Goscinny, publication director; Jean-Michel Charlier and Gérard Pradal, editors in chief; Albert Uderzo, art director.

Humble to a fault, Leconte is well aware of his limitations as a “classical” draughtsman (largely beside the point in his case, imho, as he’s a superb designer and stylist):

« I think that my personal touch was tied to my drawing handicap, that self-taught aspect which meant than I absolutely had to find a workaround. I’ve always held to the rule that constraints constitute a first-rate engine of creation, coupled with the magical notion of “let us make qualities of our flaws“. Well, it works! »

By all means, read the full conversation with Leconte about his bédé days, conducted by Jean-Luc Brunet and Vivian Lecuivre en 2007. It is, however, in French, but we currently have the technological means to let you grasp the gist of it.

By the way, Leconte’s got a new feature out, an adaptation of Georges Simenon‘s 45th Jules Maigret novel, Maigret et la jeune morte (“Maigret and the Dead Girl“, first published in 1954), starring deplorable human being but splendid actor Gérard Depardieu. Among Simenon’s eighty Maigret books, this must surely be the most adaptable, as this marks the fifth time this novel is brought to the screen! The trailer looks great.

-RG

A Sweet, Refreshing Slice of Watermelon

« To prevent enabling oppression, we demand that black people be twice as good. To prevent verifying stereotypes, we pledge to never eat a slice a watermelon in front of white people.* » — Ta-Nehisi Coates

On a scorching day last week, we were at home digging into a particularly tasty watermelon.

As neither of us grew up in the U.S. of A., the simple act of eating juicy pastèque has not been tainted, as it has for many, by racism and stereotypes. We’ve been allowed to appreciate the watermelon for itself, as a healthy, refreshing, tasty treat. A lightbulb came on as I recalled a relevant sequence in one of Spain Rodriguez‘s ‘Fred Toote’ stories, set in the 1950’s Buffalo of his youth — and so here it is:

Bargain Dave tells it like it is! The Son of Hercules first appeared in Blab! no. 12 (Autumn 2001, Fantagraphics), but the ideal place to find it is in Cruisin’ With the Hound: the Life and Times of Fred Tooté (2012, Fantagraphics), which collects the whole (motor)cycle. I’ve previously featured another tale of Spain’s youthful exploits, Treasured Stories: «Tex’s Bad Dream or ‘The Egg Lady’s Revenge’» (1988).

And that’s not all: a few days later, a friend’s news feed presented me with a most insightful, eye-opening *and* heartbreaking tweet:

« It seems almost silly to say that watermelons have been racialized, but that is exactly what happened in this culture. » Here’s the full article, a fascinating summary of the issue from Dr. David Pilgrim of Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, written in response to the rather hostile comment of “Judging from the pictures on your website, you seem to be saying to me that black people don’t like watermelons? Sometimes you liberals make me shake my head.
« Boys Stealing Watermelons Bank. Made by Kyser & Rex of Philadelphia, PA. circa 1894. When a lever is pressed and the coin deposited, a dog runs out to keep the boys from their prize. »
A piece in graphite on manila by James Ellsworth “Worth” Brehm (b. 1883 – d. 1928) illustrating one of Booth Tarkington‘s ‘Penrod’ novels, circa the 1910s. Seems like any and all scamps — of all races — would raid the watermelon patch, given half a chance.
An ice cream advertising sign, circa 1922. If you’ll bear with me, here’s a longish, must-read quote from the indispensable Wicked Words by Hugh Rawson (1989, Crown Publishers, New York):

Pickaninny. A black child. Thus, from a book that was being sold in 1987 in order to raise money for the state of California’s observance of the bicentennial of the United States Constitution. ” If the pickaninnies ran naked it was generally from choice, and when the white boys had to put on shoes and go away to school they were likely to envy the freedom of their colored playmates” (Fred Albert Shannon, essay on slavery, 1934, in The Making of America, W. Clean Skousen, ed., 1985).

Pickaninny arose among slaves in the West Indies, where it was recorded as early as 1653. The original users based the term either on the Portuguese pequenino, little child, or its Spanish equivalent. They employed the term affectionately, of course, and, on the evidence of Captain Frederick Marryat, who was a sensitive recorder of language, applied it to little children generally, regardless of color, e.g. “And den, Mass Easy, you marry wife – hab pickaninny — lib like gentleman” (Mr. Midshipman Easy, 1836).

But no white person can get away with this today. The essential informality of the word makes it seem too condescending, too offensive, to most modern sensibilities. The California Bicentennial Commission, in fact, halted the sale of The Making of America, and issued a formal apology for having authorized it in the first place, after this use of pickaninny was called to their attention (along with other matters, the text also concluding that “slave owners were the worst victims of the system [of slavery].”

One Sheet poster from Donald’s Garden (RKO, 1942), written by Ralph Wright and directed by Dick Lundy. « During WWII, Americans were expected to help their country in the war effort by participating in “Victory Gardens.” This was a measure to conserve produce domestically so food could be shipped to the troops overseas. » Watch it here!
This is Krazy Krow no. 2 (Fall 1945, Timely). Racist stereotype or not? It’s not always the case, as R.C. Harvey soberly argues in an excellent article on Walt Kelly‘s Pogo, Sometimes a Watermelon Is Just a Watermelon. Here’s a sample: Harvey — « This is ultimately a failure to understand what the watermelon stereotype actually entails. Surely you realize that there’s nothing intrinsically degrading in liking to eat watermelon. Watermelon was one of the props in a general stereotype of the African American as filled with infantile enthusiasm, easily distracted and reduced to paroxysms of delight at the rattling of dice, the smell of fried chicken, or the sight of a watermelon. This is not what’s happening in Kelly’s story at all. But then, Andrae hardly seems to have an idea of his own on this subject at all. Rather, he has a grab bag of received notions, incompletely understood and haphazardly applied. Watermelon equals racism, that is all you know and all you need to know. »
A slice of Mal Eaton’s delightful Rocky Stoneaxe ( Peter Piltdown); undated, but since it bears the Stoneaxe name, it’s post-1953 and saw print in the pages of Boy’s Life Magazine. Eaton’s a local favourite, and my co-admin ds has twice written about his signature creation. First came Mal Eaton’s Peter Piltdown, then Tentacle Tuesday Masters: Mal Eaton — Peter Piltdown Goes Fishing!
And now for something more progressive: called ‘the most successful Jewish ad campaign of all time’ (*explicitly* Jewish would be my caveat), the truly classic Levy’s rye bread campaign was launched in 1961 and lasted into the 1970s, spawning along the way countless imitations, parodies and ripostes, including, circa 1967, the You Don’t Have to be Negro to Love Watermelon seen here front and centre. Keen readers surely will have spotted the unmistakable deadpan mug of the rightly legendary Buster Keaton, bottom left.
According to a New York Times article, « Malcolm X liked the poster featuring the black child so much that he had himself photographed alongside it. »
Given the right writer, I’ve always enjoyed the Dilton-Moose pairing more than the Moose-Midge combo. The boy genius and the dunce are genuine friends, while Midge only serves as a vehicle for Moose’s jealousy and as a way to land Reggie in traction. This one appeared in Archie’s Joke Book Magazine no. 46 (May 1960, Archie). Writer unknown, art by Joe Edwards (1921-2207).
A page from Little Audrey and Melvin no. 4 (November 1962, Harvey); kudos to Melvin — I can’t even get a proper boomerang to return to me, let alone a piece of rind used in its stead.
I suppose your stomach acids would have done the trick just as well, Lotta. A page from Little Lotta no. 65 (May 1966, Harvey).
A special watermelon sequence by the Lieber Bros, Stan & Larry, with inks by Mike Esposito (moonlighting as Mikey DeMeo); this is from The Parents of Peter Parker!, published in The Amazing Spider-Man Special no. 5 (Nov. 1968, Marvel).
And finally, a collaboration between prankster and cultural scholar Sam Henderson and late-in-life eccentric poet Ernest Noyes Brookings; it appeared in Duplex Planet Illustrated no. 7 (March 1994, Fantagraphics), edited by David Greenberger. And if you’ve enjoyed the visual version, try the 1991 musical adaptation by Maestro Subgum & The Whole!

-RG

*He’s not even slightly exaggerating: the heinous stereotype just won’t die.