H. M. Bateman’s Absurdist Pieces of Astonishing Design

Henry Mayo Bateman (1887-1970) was a British cartoonist now frequently described as ‘the most innovative cartoonist of his generation’. His main claim to fame is the ‘The Man Who…‘ cartoons; as it often happens with when the popularity of a creation goes far beyond what the artist originally had in mind, Bateman himself was ambivalent about it, and felt constrained by its acclaim. Be as it may, a lot of his cartoon collections (most of them hopelessly out of print) are named according to this template: Man Who Drew 20th Century (1969), The Man Who Was H. M. Bateman (1982), H. M. Bateman: The Man Who Went Mad on Paper (2012)… The one I have in my collection broke away from this mold –it’s a French collection titled Mimodrames, with all text inside, including the titles of cartoons, in both French and English. Strangely, the French cartoon captions seem more à propos than the English ones.

Case in point: this was called ‘Prisoner when arrested clung to the railings‘, which in French was translated to ‘Le protestataire qui se cramponna aux grilles à l’arrivée de la police‘, and yet protestataire is more like ‘protester’, not ‘prisoner’, which I think is more fitting.

Bateman seemed to be predestined for his career; having decided at the ripe old age of 13 to dedicate his life to becoming an artist, he spent all his free time drawing and sold his first cartoon at 14 (!) Though his father was adamant that his sole male offspring should follow his footsteps and become a respectable businessman, Bateman’s small yet steadily increasing income from his cartoons and the growing demand for them by halfpenny weekly comic papers finally forced his pa to grudgingly agree to his son pursuing a career in art. Bateman was 16 at the time.

‘The Man who filled his fountain pen with the hotel ink’

Bateman continued to sell cartoons throughout his studies; by 1906, his work was in demand by many publications much fancier than the inexpensive comic papers he started out in. Percy Venner Bradshaw, fellow artist and founder of the Press Art School, meeting him that year for the first time, found a ‘quiet, shy, delicate boy who was much more interested in colour than in line work, and who could only with difficulty be induced to talk about either‘. A fitting description of a man who appeared quiet and reserved, who felt things more keenly than his peers or his colleagues – a swift glance at his best work dispels an impression of similarity between him and the rowdier cartoonists. Not that Bateman couldn’t be funny – but something lurked behind the chuckle, some dark cloud lingering over his characters. As Anthony Anderson (not the American actor, nor the British murderer; all I was able to find out about him is that he’s listed as an editor of many books) notes in the introduction to Mimodrames:

 « The more one examines his drawings the more one feels that, despite his conservatism, Bateman’s sympathies lay not with the offended but with the offender, a sympathy for the underdog, the little man. Indeed, in many of his cartoons, especially during the war, the little man was often Bateman himself – a clear self-portrait. »

This sensitivity comes loud and clear through Bateman’s writing as well – to quote, for example, his description of a medical examination undergone in 1916, when conscription for WWI was in full swing:

 « In company with other doubtfuls, I was made to hop naked and submit to a bombardment of tests before a glaring army doctor sternly ordered me to ‘go away and get some clothes on’, as if I was responsible for appearing before him in that condition. And in return for my afternoon’s exhibition I was handed an unhealthy looking card bearing the magic symbol of C.3. I had done what I could to convert myself to cannon fodder. I just wasn’t fit for it. »

This description reminds me of Brel’s Au suivant (for those who don’t speak French, Scott Walker’s Next).

‘The Maid who was but human’, or ‘La bonne avait de l’humour’ (something like ‘the maid had a sense of humour).
‘The Man who broke the tube’

I would also be remiss in failing to mention his work for satirical magazines Punch and the Tatler (the famous ‘The man who…’ cartoons ran in the latter, often in glorious colour double-page spreads). According to Anderson, Bateman became the highest paid cartoonist in Britain around the 1920s and 1930s.

‘The editor of a yellow newspaper receiving news of a horrible murder committed in circumstances of the most revolting atrocity’

Bateman’s dearest ambition throughout his life seemed to have been to become a serious, dedicated painter. When he was 46, he set his lucrative career aside, and went to Spain and France to paint. Anderson ends the introduction with the nicest epitaph I’ve read in a while:

« He spent the next three decades gradually shedding more and more of his old life, retiring to a small house on the edge of Dartmoor, travelling extensively and on his own […], always with his sketch books, his paints and his fishing rod. He became peaceful, solitary, content. He died on the island of Gozo in 1970, still painting every day, living in a small hotel with very few possessions but in the room with the finest view. »

Another source mentions that Bateman fought long and hard with Inland Revenue, so perhaps his self-exile to Gozo, an island in Malta, was not as poetic as it sounds. I wasn’t able to find much information about that, other than his obvious dislike of taxmen (exemplified by cartoons such as The Income Tax Official in Hades) – but taking periodic stabs at the taxman is a traditional cartoonist sport, so it doesn’t really prove anything.

‘The Income-Tax Worm at Work’

These were some of my favourite Bateman pages, I hope you enjoyed them!

~ ds

Oh, the Places He’s Been: Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss!

« Theodor Geisel spent his workdays ensconced in his private studio, the walls lined with sketches and drawings, in a bell-tower outside his La Jolla, California, house. Geisel was a much more quiet man than his jocular rhymes suggest. He rarely ventured out in public to meet his young readership, fretting that kids would expect a merry, outspoken, Cat in the Hat-like figure, and would be disappointed with his reserved personality. » — Susan Cain

Today, we honour Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), born one hundred and eighteen years ago and better known under his nom de plume of Dr. Seuss (one of several, such as Dr. Theophrastus Seuss, Dr. Theodophilus Seuss, Theo LeSieg, L. Pasteur, D.G. Rossetti, and Rosetta Stone. The man loved a good pseudonym.) And no, he wasn’t actually a doctor, though he contributed to more people’s well-being than most physicians could dream of. His alma mater, Dartmouth College, did bestow upon him an honorary doctorate, in 1956. Furthermore, it renamed, in 2012, its medical school (fourth oldest in the United States, founded in 1797) Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth in recognition of the good man’s financial contributions over the years. Cool, uh?

Moreover, « Geisel’s birthday, March 2, has been adopted as the annual date for National Read Across America day, an initiative on reading created by the National Education Association. »

It certainly did in my case — when I wanted to learn English as a kid, his books were the ones I reached for. Results!
Geisel’s cover for Judge‘s March, 1933 issue.
A sample of his 1930’s magazine work. Dang — now I can’t get that song out of my head.
And another. Teetotallers may not know (or they may know too well, hence the abstinence) that DT stands for the latin delirium tremens, or alcohol withdrawal-induced delirium. As for these beasts, you’ll have cause to worry if you should See Them Everywhere, and not merely aboard Goah’s Ark.
« Long before his success as Dr. Seuss, Theodore Geisel (Dartmouth Class of 1925), designed advertisements for Flit, Standard Oil Company’s wildly popular spray-pump insecticide which later contained DDT. Over the course of 17 years, Geisel’s humorous advertisements helped make Flit a household name throughout the 1930s and 1940s. At the time, liberal spraying of pesticides around people, animals, and crops was highly encouraged with little regard to potential environmental impacts. » [ source ]. This particular ad hails from 1930.
Given the scope of Geisel’s genius and the length of the ad campaign, there are many, many highlights.
More like ‘Bug Game Hunter’!
Over the years, these ads came in every format.
A 1941 poster for Flit. The casual, harum-scarum use of dangerous chemicals may seem quaint to our jaded modern eye, but it goes on, all right. Personally, I cringe when I encounter ads for Procter and Gamble’s Febreze, for instance. Seems a tad irresponsible to me, given the risks.
This is the opening installment of Hejji, Geisel’s very short-lived (April 7 to June 23, 1935, twelve episodes in all — read them all here) Sunday comic strip, the man’s sole entry into the syndicated comic strip arena, preceding by a couple of years the publication of his first book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937). Hejji was oh-so-briefly published by William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate. Fickle, fickle!

« In these pages Dr. Seuss was already introducing us to his wonderful talent for creating unusual and delightful creatures. Hejji and his master “The Mighty One” would meet many an odd creature like Bearded Bees, Wombats, and the great Pitzu bird. All of these would be encountered in the attempt to impress the object of “Mighty One’s love, “The Fair One”. Unfortunately, as the legend goes, Seuss was let go during great depression job cuts by William Randolph Hearst. Of course Seuss would later go on to create his extraordinary children’s books including Cat in the Hat, and The Grinch that stole Christmas. Hejji pages are some of the rarest and most sought-after on the comic-strip market. Printed exclusively as Tabs and only carried in a few newspapers, their rarity is as great as the popularity of their creator. As a result, each and every page carries the highest premium. » [ source ]

In 1982, Darmouth College commissioned none other than Everett Raymond Kinstler to paint this portrait (oil on canvas) of his esteemed colleague.

-RG

Here Comes Sally the Sleuth… and There Goes Her Dress!

She’s audacious, savvy, and she’s always cheerful. Here she is, the infamous Sally the Sleuth by Adolphe Barreaux*. First things first, to give us a timeframe: this strip was published in “pulp” magazine Spicy Detective Stories between 1934 and 1943, then moved to Speed Detective Stories in a new format** until 1950 then, finally, to Crime Smashers until the comic’s demise in 1953.

Sally the Sleuth features a tightrope act that’s not that easily achieved: fearless, self-sufficient Sally is so adept at spotting (and landing into the middle of) trouble that she frequently requires outside help to be rescued in the nick of time, with the role of the rescuer oft being played by her boss, the Chief, who usually bursts in through the door. What’s interesting is the way this rather typical damsel-in-distress set-up does not take anything away from our sense of Sally as a take-charge, go-getting kind of gal. She does not hesitate to bat her eyelashes or flash a gam when needed, but she’s neither the usual femme fatale archetype that appeared so often in contemporary comics, nor the innocent-yet-gorgeous victim. When captured, she spits (sometimes literally) in the face of her would-be killers; when she gets rescued, it was because she left instructions with Peanuts, her kid assistant, or schemed to leave the Chief enough clues to locate her if she hit a bad patch.

Strategic panty drop! Page two from “Tourist Trade” (June 1938, Spicy Detective Stories).

It may surprise a modern reader that an American comic from the mid-thirties (1935! consider this number again if it hasn’t sunk in yet!) should be so casual about a topless female when present-day consumers of culture freak out at the very sight of a nipple (and that goes for male nipples as well). Of course pulp magazines and comics weren’t read by staunch defenders of High Morals and Propriety, but it was nevertheless a hugely popular medium, and Spicy Detective Stories, where Sally got her débutante ball, certainly abounded in unclad women in tales of booze, butchery and concupiscence.

The cover of Spicy Detective Stories no. 4 (June 1935), in which The Tiger’s Lair (see below) appeared.

Which brings me to my next point: tension created by the play between the predictable and the unforeseen. Sally always, always ends up in a state of advanced déshabillé. That is an enjoyable given. Much like panties drop to the floor if a woman should be carrying celery, Sally’s dress and underwear fly off at the gentlest of tugs. However, just how it is accomplished varies wildly from week to week. One wouldn’t think that were so many interesting ways of getting accidentally undressed. And these stories are harsh, no doubt about it: scenes of torture and murder vary from the comparatively sedate (getting whipped, slapped, shot) to sensationalist (death by venomous snake or spider) to viscerally uncomfortable (cannibalism with more than a dash of necrophilia, being boiled alive, impalement).

The complete “The Tiger’s Lair” (June 1935, Spicy Detective Stories).
Sally’s stoicism as she’s about to be carved up is nothing short of miraculous. Page two from “The Sewer Horror” (December 1937, Spicy Detective Stories).
Page two from “Murder Mania” (April 1935, Spicy Detective Stories).
Page two from “The Missing-Models Mystery” (April 1937, Saucy Detective Stories).

Though of course it’s the nudity is sexualised, I love the ease with which Sally does it, completely unperturbed by having a bare chest whether she’s surrounded by hoodlums, talking to her boss, or racing through a crowded hotel. There’s a certain innocence in it, as if we were watching a frolicking Dedini nymph. Despite being so frequently assaulted, she does not at all come off as a victim.

Some top-rate lassoing from Peanuts! They’re trying to make it look like a suicide, but I’m not sure why a woman would want to jump off a roof naked. Page two from “Love Nest Loot” (September 1935, Spicy Detective Stories).

Earlier-day Sally (1934-1943) is supposedly ‘ditzy and naive’ (source), but I think one should not mistake cheerfulness or pragmatism for naïveté. She navigates the seedy parts of town with aplomb and talent, efficiently following clues, taking on many roles to infiltrate criminal organisations or simply glean information. Sally may have to rely on the Chief to extricate her from yet another predicament, but he is a sort of handsome stock figure with little personality, mostly sitting around his office and agreeing when Sally says ‘I should investigate this!’

Page two from “Coke for Co-eds” (January 1938, Spicy Detective Stories).
Sally also doesn’t judge other women; her moral compass is firmly pointed to bringing all manner of crooks to justice, but she’s a no-nonsense kind of girl when it comes to standards of female behaviour. Page two from “Sin Ship” (October 1936, Spicy Detective Stories).
Page one from “Toy of Fate” (January 1937, Spicy Detective Stories).

Sally the Sleuth has historical importance, if only for the panel borrowed by Frederic Wertham for his Seduction of the Innocent report from a Sally the Sleuth: Death Bait (1950) story. In the wonderfully written introduction to the Sally the Sleuth Collection, comics historian Tim Hanley goes a step further, saying “without Sally the Sleuth, there would be no Superman. Without the pulp heroine with a penchant for solving crimes in a state of undress, there would be no Batman either.” It can be (and has been) argued that he is giving this strip too much credit***, but there will be no argument that Sally is an important figure. Because I’m a philistine, what’s most important to me… is that it’s a great read.

~ ds

* As far as Barreaux, born Adolphus Barreaux Gripon, is concerned, there are much better places to read about his biography than on this blog, mostly due to the fact that biographies kind of bore me. I specifically direct you here for a detailed biography, and here for more information about Barreaux’ mixed heritage and the variety of genres he illustrated.

** This post only includes strips from the earlier, 1934-1943 version, because I by far prefer it to what came later, although I may be in the minority. The art got arguably better once Sally moved to Speed Detective stories, and stories also got longer, allowing for more elaborate plots. However, Sally was now some sort of international spy, travelling to ‘exotic’ countries and having to contend with native Hula dancers, superstitious savages in Indian jungles, Nazis, Japanese master-minds, and so on. She got disrobed less frequently, but the charming innocence of the strip, despite its violence and simple but effective art, is what makes Sally so appealing to me.

*** Hanley has been clearly reproached for this by some readers, and so elaborated on his blog:

My introduction begins with the grandiose claim that there would be no Superman without Sally the Sleuth, but it’s true. Long before Harry Donenfeld launched DC Comics, he was a publisher of pulp magazines that featured lurid crime stories. Sex was a major focus, and the dirty stories were a popular product. In 1934, Adolphe Barreaux convinced Donenfeld to expand outside of prose and add some comics to his books, and the “Sally the Sleuth” strip in Spicy Detective was their first attempt. It proved popular and more followed. Eventually, Donenfeld got into the comics game full time in the late 1930s, first with Detective Comics and later with Action Comics. Once Superman and Batman took off with young readers, more series followed and the comic book business became Donenfeld’s priority. But it all started with Sally.

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.

Anton’s Spivs and Scoundrels, Baronesses and Beezers

« I was told a couple of bishops had given up Punch when I started drawing for them. » — Beryl Antonia Botterill Yeoman

Ever since I featured my very favourite of her cartoons, way back in October of 2019 — how different the world was then! — I’d intended to return to the topic of Australian-English cartoonist Beryl Antonia Botterill Yeoman (1907-1970) for a more sustained and substantial look… and now I have.

The Anton nom de plume has a rather storied history: at first — their professional collaboration began in 1937 — Beryl and her brother Harold were a two-headed cartoonist who signed ‘Anton’. In 1949, Harold dropped out of the partnership, owing to the rigorous demands of running an advertising agency, and thereafter Antonia and Anton were one and the same, a left-handed (not by birth or choice, having lost two fingers on her right in her teens), female cartoonist in a decidedly male-dominated field.

All of today’s selections first saw print prior to 1952 in the august pages of Punch (1841-2002); it’s entirely possible that Harold had a hand in some of them.

Ah, that reminds me of a certain song: « And tomorrow’s show will say / what they left out yesterday / And that gives me one good reason I should live. »
In case you’re puzzled, this one requires knowledge of a certain English nursery rhyme, which went:
Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean;
And so betwixt them both,
They lick’d the platter clean.

Should you find yourself down Somerset way, drop by The Crown at Wells, a 15th century inn (featured in 2007 in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz!) that houses Anton’s Bistrot, whose venerable walls are adorned with some choice Anton original art.

This must be the place — order us a couple of pints, won’t you?

-RG

Crude, Rough, and Ready: Norman Pettingill

« You’ve got to go pretty far back in the woods for good backwoods humor. » 

Contemplating Norman Pettingill‘s life brings to mind Henry David Thoreau in his secluded cabin – « I long for wildness, a nature which I cannot put my foot through, woods where the wood thrush forever sings, where the hours are early morning ones, and there is dew on the grass, and the day is forever unproved, where I might have a fertile unknown for a soil about me. »  Most of us living in high density urban centers have bittersweet moments of pining for the ‘natural’ lifestyle of the woods, perhaps fishing and hunting for modest yet satisfying sustenance, quietly sitting on the porch in the evenings and thinking philosophical thoughts with the backdrop of nocturnal animal sounds.

Judging from Pettingill’s cheeky illustrations of just such a natural life, quietude doesn’t actually come into much – instead, he presents us with a sort of vaudeville cast of bears bent on mayhem, drunk old-timers and pipe-smokin’ grannies, women emphatically pursued by wild fauna harbouring thoughts a holy man would blush at, crazy surgeons and gung-ho sturgeons (oh, there was no specific indication of the many fish nibbling on tender parts being sturgeons, but Wisconsin boasts two species).

Norman Pettingill (1896-1991) was born and raised in Wisconsin to be a hunter, fisher and trapper, just like all men around him, and although he took well to these activities (it seems he was a very good hunter/fisher/gatherer), his favoured interests lay elsewhere. I’m not sure how inviting this, err, virile environment would be to a boy who delights in drawing caricatures instead of chopping wood or shooting rabbits, but at any rate nobody seems to have dissuaded young Pettingill from his artistic pursuits.

His drawings with pen and ink can easily be divided into categories. The first consists of his quiet and beautifully detailed forest scenes, with varied animals poised as if about to dash away.

Then there are his bawdy, sometimes grotesque, and frequently unhinged caricatures of his fellow men (and women) and the stuff they get up to. To be fair, there is something sweet in his mockery – only an insider could observe the vernacular of language and behaviour with such bite and yet affection. I especially favour group scenes with more riotous action and ribald skirmishes than one could shake a hunter’s gun at.

Other times, group shots give way to a more focused approach, whether it’s a woman approached by a bear who seems to be bent on inter-species action, or an inept hunter running at full speed from what was supposed to be his prey.

These pictures have been taken from Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist (Fantagraphics, 2010). The images themselves were drawn between 1947 and 1959.

~ ds

Some of Life’s Darkest Moments

« This kind of accuracy, continued long enough, can ruin a man who is constructed as I am. I want to be pretty. I want to eliminate facts and fill up the gap with charm. » — Samuel Clemens, writing to a friend of a pen sketch sent to him by young admirer H.T. Webster

I had originally set out to write (and I may yet) of pioneering newspaper cartoonist (and honorary Southpaw*) Harold Tucker “Webby” Webster‘s most famous feature, The Timid Soul (starring Caspar Milquetoast, his contribution to the English language), but I noticed that Atlas Obscura had beaten me to the punch, and quite honourably at that.

Thankfully, it’s fair to say that Webster (1885-1952) had plenty more arrows in his quiver. According to a 1945 Time Magazine profile of the artist (who was even featured on the cover!):

« H. T. Webster has learned to slice and serve his generous chunks of U.S. life methodically. Caspar (The Timid Soul) appears Sundays and Mondays. The pitilessly fanatic and bad-mannered bridge players run Fridays. Boyhood’s lovingly elaborated triumphs (The Thrill That Comes Once in a Lifetime) and defeats (Life’s Darkest Moment) appear on Saturdays and Tuesdays. Thursdays bring How to Torture Your Husband (or Wife). On Wednesdays, in The Unseen Audience**, he pokes a sharp-pointed stick at radio—which of all mixed blessings most needs satirizing, and gets it least. Webster, in fact, is possibly radio’s most effective critic. »

Honestly, they’d each be rewarding choices, but I’ve opted, on this occasion, to draw from the cool, sombre well of Life’s Darkest Moment.

A glimpse at the infancy of spam.
Up here in Canada, we recently had a bit of a furore over a sanctimonious (yet deceitful) fusspot spearheading the destruction of a bunch of graphic novels. Oh, and speaking of Robert Louis Stevenson, tomorrow’s his birthday, number one hundred and seventy one!
Then as now, one can generally rely on the news to be dire.
Another entry in our collection of Legendary Cartoonists With a Great Tousled Head o’ Hair.
And just so you don’t conclude that Webster’s work was all about, and just about ‘poking gentle fun at life’s little foibles‘, here’s what has to be the darkest, most brutally scathing political cartoon*** I’ve ever seen come out of the mainstream US press (circa 1946!). Incidentally, Webster was a Republican. The original art of this masterpiece resides in the permanent collection of The Library of Congress, right where it belongs.

-RG

*For many years no one but his close friends knew of an acute arthritis which in 1927 cost him the use of his right hand. In three months he trained himself not only to write, but to draw, left-handed.” — Philo Calhoun in Biographical Sketch, The Best of H.T. Webster (1953, Simon and Schuster).

**In 1948, The Unseen Audience won him a Peabody Award for distinguished service to radio!

***He “… returned to Chicago, where he spent three years drawing front-page political cartoons for the Chicago Inter-Ocean, prompting one politician to introduce a bill in the state legislature forbidding unflattering cartoons.” (it didn’t pass.)

Henri Gerbault, Leading Light of la Belle époque

« It took me some years to clear my head of what Paris wanted me to admire about it, and to notice what I preferred instead. Not power-ridden monuments, but individual buildings which tell a quieter story: the artist’s studio, or the Belle Époque house built by a forgotten financier for a just-remembered courtesan. » — Julian Barnes

Depending on where and when you are, this post will take you far away and to long ago.

Having failed to launch a career as a painter after his studies at the Beaux-Arts de Paris, Henri Gerbault (1863 – 1930) tried his hand at satirical cartooning, and succeeded brilliantly, appearing in all the important magazines of the day, among them La Vie Parisienne, Le Rire, Le Bon Vivant, Le Frou-Frou, L’Art et la Mode, Fantasio, La Vie Moderne, Lectures pour tous… for France, it truly was a golden era for satirical, literary and cultural periodicals.

For instance, during the storied humour magazine Le Rire’s prime years (roughly the first quarter of the 20th century), Gerbault was featured in most issues, often on the front or back cover, and generally in sumptuous colour. Well, you’ll see what I mean. Clearly not one to rest on his laurels, he somehow found time to lend his sundry gifts to the theatrical, advertising, etching, and fine art fields.

Here’s a bit of context if you don’t know who Saint Denis was. Love his interaction with the initially skeptical doggo! Originally published in La Vie Parisienne, and collected in Parisiennettes (1897), with colours by J. Chauvet.
There’s the lad, Paris’s first Bishop, at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Hope he wasn’t damaged in the blaze.
Gage d’amour (“Token of Love”), originally published in La Vie Parisienne, and collected in Parisiennettes (1897), with colours by J. Chauvet.
Les Coulisses de l’Amour is a collection of cartoons published between 1893 and 1895 in La Vie Parisienne. Racist caricatures abound but, to be fair, everybody gets it in the neck.
“Entre la croupe et les lièvres” is a play on “Il y a loin de la coupe aux lèvres” (English equivalent: “there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip”), with ‘coupe’ replaced by ‘croupe’ (rump) and ‘lèvres’ by ‘lièvres’ (hares) — It was featured on the cover of Le Rire no. 261, (Nov. 4, 1899), eloquently demonstrating the vast cultural gulf between Edwardian England and Belle Époque France… not to mention the United States!
From Le Rire no. 7, (March 21, 1903). In French, the Roman God of war and the year’s third month are both “Mars”. Why is it even “March” in English?
Taking the piss out of that old English discretion (some might call it hypocrisy); from Le Rire no. 18 (June 6, 1903).
From Le Rire no. 59, (March 19, 1904).
From Le Rire no. 160 (Feb. 21, 1906).
From Le Rire no. 380 (May 14, 1910). Missals are also known as ‘prayer books’.
Despite being quite amusing, this one loses it all in translation. Still, “contremaître” is a foreman; its feminine form is “contremaîtresse”, which combines foreman and “mistress”; you’ll hopefully get the idea. This piece appeared in Le Rire rouge (as Le Rire was called during The Great War) no. 179 (Apr. 20, 1918). Note the beautifully understated colour work.
From Le Rire no. 189 (Sept. 10, 1922). « Je m’fiche à poil, rien que pour l’embêter! » in the original; sometimes it’s mighty hard to do proper justice to the source text.
The master’s self-portrait, circa 1904.

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: Lurkers in the Newsprint

Greetings, tentacle aficionados! Phew, this post started out as just a couple of images and spun somewhat out of control. My thanks to co-admin RG for cleaning up, re-arranging and even colourizing the following scans and photographs. Today we gaze at cephalopod apparitions in newspapers strips from the 40s and 50s. There are actually few things I like better: there is something comforting about the smell of an old newspaper (even if we have to imagine it!), the aesthetic appeal of yellowed paper, the concerns of imaginary characters who lived so long ago and yet who seem so close to us. Irrelevant to the modern age? Not at all. Look past the technological trimmings and you’ll find people who have lived and loved and struggled much like we do today. On a lighter note, the techniques of fighting off tentacles haven’t changed much, either!

Flash Gordon, created in 1934 by Alex Raymond for King Features Syndicate to compete with the Buck Rogers newspaper strip, was immensely popular, witnessed by both its longevity – the strip continued all the way into 2003 – and multiple licensed products on offer for starry-eyed kids who wanted a spaceship or ray gun to call their own. Raymond left in 1944 to join the US Marines, and Austin Briggs, who up to that point was drawing the Flash Gordon dailies (introduced in 1941 to capitalize on the popularity of Raymond’s Sunday strips), switched to drawing Sundays, the dailies now cancelled. The following is from August 18th, 1946, art by Austin Briggs.

In 1951, King Features reinstated the Flash Gordon dailies and put Dan Barry in charge, famously assisted by Harvey Kurtzman and Harry Harrison on scripts, and a bevy of ghost-drawing writers.

The following are two Flash Gordon dailies from 1954. These reprints hail from Flash Gordon: Dan Barry Vol. 2: The Lost Continent, which collects dailies from October 26th 1953 to October 29th 1955.

Frank Robbins created Johnny Hazard for King Features Syndicate in 1944. What I find impressive is that the strip continued, with no other writers or artists involved, all the way until 1977 – contrast that with other newspaper adventure strips from around that time. Robbins must have been a powerhouse. To quote from the no-longer-updated (its creator, Donald Markstein, died in 2012), but still kindly maintained by relatives Toonopedia, « … Unlike many fictional two-fisted adventurers, [Johnny Hazard] matured — not as quickly as real people, but after a third of a century or so, he was quite gray at the temples. And a third of a century was as long as the strip ran. It was popular enough at first, and ran far longer than most post-war adventure strips, but the times were against it. Newspaper editors were more interested in daily gags than continuous stories, and Johnny Hazard succumbed to the trend in 1977. Robbins went to work for DC Comics, where he drew Batman, and Marvel, where he drew The Invaders, and never again created his own feature. » Eventually, Robbins is said to have retired, moved to Mexico, and devoted himself to painting – where he remained his death in 1994. This daily is from July 1951.

Prince Valiant is one of those newspaper strips institutions that most readers will have heard of, though some, kind of like me, may be uncertain about about the who, the when, and the hows of it. It was created by Canadian Hal Foster (1892-1982) – who, while illustrating the Tarzan newspaper strip (more about this a little further down!), developed a craving to work on his own oeuvre. He pitched his medieval adventure idea to William Randolph Hearst, who was so impressed that he even gave Foster ownership of the strip. It’s still ongoing (after a little more than 4000 Sundays!) This magnum opus has been credited with plenty, as the « greatest contribution to English literature in the past hundred years », « the pinnacle of comic strip adventure storytelling »,  and so on. I feel a little bad for being bored to tears by it, but as the Russians say, ‘и на старуху бывает проруха‘, more-or-less directly translated ‘even a crone can blunder’, or in other words, even Homer nods. The following Sundays are from April-May 1941 – spending two nights in a well, instead of trying to fight off the octopus, is an interesting approach, and I’m sure both man and animal were immensely frustrated.

I promised to say more about Tarzan – ah, the very, very long-running Tarzan strip. Started in 1929 with an adaptation of Edgar Rice BurroughsTarzan of the Apes illustrated by the aforementioned Hal Foster, syndicated by the United Feature Syndicate, it went on (and on…) all the way until 1995, with quite the cast of different artists over the years. The following Sunday is from the Burne Hogarth years, and is part of a story cycle called Tarzan and N’ani, which was published between December 14th 1947 and May 9, 1948. As for Hogarth, he seemed to hold the distinction of being the only artist with two runs on Tarzan: he drew the strip from 1937 to 1945, and again from 1947 to 1950.

The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack, distributed by the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, ran from 1933 to 1973. I know that doesn’t sound as impressive because all strips discussed so far had crazily long runs, and yet: Smilin’ Jack, as it came to be called a little later on, lasted a good fifty years, which is partially explained by this strip’s motley cast of endearing supporting characters, but also by the realism with which Jack’s flying adventures were depicted – Zack Mosley, the creator, was an aviation enthusiast and licensed pilot with a true love of everything aeroplane. The following three dailies are from November 1956. You’ll be happy to learn that Mosley, upon retiring at 67, spent the rest of his days flying his own plane.

Created by George Shedd, a former Al Capp assistant, for the Post-Hall Syndicate, Marlin Keel ran between 1953 and 1954. Very little information about it survives – from what I understood, Shedd first wrote and drew this newspaper strip by himself, and later relinquished the illustration to assistants. Most notable (and what seems to be motivating rare collectors) is the involvement of Alvin Carl Hollingsworth (1928-2000), one of the few African-Americans working in the field at the time, who started by helping out (not sure to what degree) and became the official illustrator of Markin Keel towards the end of its run. Hollingsworth, who’s often mentioned as Joe Kubert‘s classmate at NYC’s High School of Music & Art – a fact that, albeit cool, underplays Hollingsworth’s talent and career – seems to have always maintained an interest in painting. Later in life, in the 1970s, he abandoned the comics field in favour of becoming a (fine) painter – you can see some of his paintings here. This is the original art for a 1954 Sunday strip.

The octopus may be off-camera, but my appreciation of Bob Montana made me include this strip in today’s roster. That’s right, it’s not my fault! This is an Archie daily from July 24th, 1953.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down history’s lanes and byways!

~ ds

Hallowe’en Countdown IV, Day 28

« The world dies over and over again, but the skeleton always gets up and walks. » — Henry Miller

A few months back, while assembling a post about polymorphic French surrealist Maurice Henry (1907-1984), I marvelled and chuckled at his multitude of skeleton-themed cartoons. I made a mental note to devote a Hallowe’en post to them… and that memo only floated to the top of my consciousness a couple of days ago. Just in time!

(1935)
(1936)
(1938)
(1940)
(1941)
(1947)
(1950)
(1950)
(1958)
This one doesn’t feature skeletons, but I had to include it, given how stunningly *dark* it is for its (or any) era… can you imagine something like this published in the USA in… 1935? For more context, here’s the Bluebeard ditty.
In closing, and just for kicks: sixteen faces of the playfully photogenic Monsieur Henry. This one-man assembly featured on the back cover of Maurice Henry 1930-1960 (1961, Jean-Jacques Pauvert), a remarkable collection.

Trust me, I’m only scratching the surface of this man’s genius. If you’ll bear with me, we’re not done with him.

-RG