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!

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.

Several Shades of M. K. Brown

« Women: what do they want? They might want to float into the sky while hosting a brunch party. They might want a couple of handsome cops to come over and get rid of a snake problem. They might seek a doctor’s treatment for ‘wise-ass disease‘ or fantasize about revenge and forgiveness at the dentist’s office. And what about men? Mr. Science just wants to carry out his pointless experiments. Earl D. Porker, Social Worker, converses with household items and forgets the cat food. One fellow’s head is a basket of laundry. »

Not much is known about the personal life of the mysterious M. K. Brown*. From her official website, we know that she grew up in Connecticut and New Brunswick, but that’s pretty much it. On the other hand, details from her long and prolific career abound**: she was a mainstay at the National Lampoon Magazine between 1972 and 1981 (including the regular series Aunt Mary’s Kitchen); a frequent contributor to various magazines, most notably Playboy, The New Yorker, and Mother Jones; creator of the animated series Dr. N!Godatu, which ran in the Tracey Ullman Show in 1987 for a mere 6 episodes (two more remain unaired) until it was supplanted by the Simpsons; illustrator of children’s books… and so it goes.

A button featuring Aunt Mary, who probably would get on like a house on fire with Sylvia (see Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia: Wit, Wisdom and Cats).

In more recent years, Brown has been hanging out at The American Bystander, which I discovered by accident when co-admin RG (whose intuition for quality is fairly unfailing) picked up an issue of this magazine. A delightful surprise.

Despite the scope of her oeuvre and her very recognizable style, she’s not nearly as well known as she deserves to be. Fantagraphics, coming, as usual, to the rescue, published a sort of best-of in 2014, titled Stranger Than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970-2013. Interestingly, this collection did little to dispel the clearly purposefully cultivated mystique. Whereas usually one expects an introduction with the author’s birth date and a quick summary of their childhood and proclivities, in this case M.K. Brown remained firmly ensconced within her initials*** and shrouded in pleasant mystery.

* I will mention straight away that she was married to equally eccentric cartoonist B. Kliban (another WOT favourite), not because a woman’s worth is in being a wife to her husband, but because ‘M.K. Brown married to B. Kliban’ has a harmonious ring to it.

** From the category of things not entirely related to her career, she is also an enthusiastic horse owner and rider [source].

*** Her name is Mary Kathleen, which I first found on the Wiki page for B. Kliban, later confirmed through a podcast she was featured on (more about this later).

The first episode of Dr. N!Godatu. Janice’s voice (for those on a first-name basis!) is provided by Julie Payne.

Brown is clearly a female cartoonist, in the sense of never eschewing topics that a doltish reader would expect a woman to talk about just because it’s a ‘female’ leitmotif. She can start with something mundane like a hostess organizing a party, put a surreal spin on it, pepper it with playful language, and end up with a concoction that’s devilishly acerbic, quite strange, and very funny. Bill Griffith put it well – she ‘makes the personal universal, makes the universal personal‘. The result seems quite polarising; it’s the sort of thing you instantly click with, or something so foreign that it’s unappealing. Is any of it dated, as I’ve seen some people suggest? Not in the slightest. Human relationships haven’t changed much over the years, though we like to pat ourselves on the back for being so much more evolved. Focusing on the fact that someone is wearing a suit with shoulder pads (which are, by the way, coming back into fashion) to decide it’s no longer relevant to modern life is daft.

Here are some examples scanned from Stranger than Life of different vintages, lightly colourized by co-admin RG.

This one features Brown’s alter-ego, ‘White Girl’. « She can’t dance or sing the blues, but cluelessly does both anyway. It’s fun to speak through this character. I’m very fond of her. »

Here are three pages from more recent years, which also showcase Brown’s watercolours:

Published in The American Bystander no. 1 (Fall, 2015).
Published in The American Bystander no. 2 (Spring, 2016).
Published in The American Bystander no. 5 (Summer, 2017).

The American Bystander conducted a fun, hour-long podcast with Brown in 2016. I am a visually oriented person, and have immense trouble sitting through a podcast, so I had to tell myself I had to listen for the sake of this blog post – I hope you appreciate this sacrifice. It was a pleasure to listen to Brown, who sounds exactly like I pictured it, though I was somewhat underwhelmed by some of the softball questions she was asked – questions interviewer (in this case, Gil Roth) usually asks of a cartoonist, ‘what were your art influences?’, ‘what explains your sense of humour?’ I believe this has more to do with me than with the actual interview – I by far prefer to glean some understanding of a person through their work, as opposed to discussions about their work (which is a slightly strange stance for a blog writer). There is, however, a fun anecdote about how she used to put up her paintings on the walls to work on them, and had to cover her sleeping nocturnal husband and the bed he was on with plastic not to splatter him with paint. Brown also mentions that she has a stash of drawings which she could never get published because they’re too risqué – oh, how we would all love to see those! Click here if you’d care to listen to it!

~ ds

Trust the Man From Cancer!

« I’ve always wanted to be a giant space crab. » — Gabe Newell

We have quite a treat for you this week. One of our very favourite creators, Mr. Glenn Dakin, has genially agreed to shed light on the inception of one of his lesser-known (but nonetheless striking) creations, Mr. Crusht Acean, aka ‘The Man From Cancer’. Take it away, Mr. Dakin!

Glenn Dakin: The phrase The Man From Cancer came to me when I was writing a song, referring to myself as a typical Cancerian.

It gave me the idea for a detective organisation where all its members were Cancerian. Of course it had that Man From U.N.C.L.E. association. As I was discussing this idea with my brother down the pub, I said – as a joke – that in order to get a magazine interested in the idea the character would have to actually BE a crab. As soon as I said this, I knew it could work…

Phil was the obvious choice to draw it, as the superb consistency of his style and great visual imagination would make readers accept the bizarre idea as a reality. Also we worked a lot together.

When I told Phil about it, he said ‘how did you know I was Cancer?‘ (much to my surprise). So it was clearly in the stars!

Marvel UK were just launching STRIP, in which creators could keep the rights to their work, so it was a natural place to send. Dan Abnett was the editor and he really got what we were trying to do with the absurd humour. After the first two-parter, he offered us a regular one-page slot.

This is Strip no. 11 (July 7, 1990, Marvel UK). Cover by Phil Elliott.

Who’s Out There?: Judging from the supplementary materials (Strip no. 11), you seem to have quite fully worked out Mr. Crush Tacean’s universe. Did you have lofty plans for the series?

GD: Not so much lofty plans, but whenever Dan Abnett gave us a chance to expand it, we enjoyed enlarging the madness of the world. These supplementary materials were created for STRIP to remind readers of the story half way through, and get new readers on board, after we had been dropped for a couple of issues.

I remember that as my confidence on it grew, and we had the story where we took the force of gravity to court, I started to think of it as a kind of visual Goon Show, following its own absurd logic.

WOT?: Could you shed some light on the series’ publication history? Were the instalments that didn’t appear in ‘Strip’ published elsewhere before they were collected in ‘The Rockpool Files’? (by Slave Labor in Sept. 2009)

GD: You will have to ask Phil that, they might have appeared somewhere, but I don’t think so. We did have a two-pager in a Channel Tunnel magazine!

WOT?: What brought about the change of title? I was quite fond of ‘The Man From Cancer’, I must say.

GD: We were asked to change the name as ‘Cancer’ – we were told – was not exactly a fun buzzword.

« Sez who? »

I think that was the suggestion of Slave Labor, the publisher. The Rockpool Files was the first thing that came into my head, and Phil liked it. The Rockford Files had just been on TV, of course!

This is the book you have to get. While it’s rather… compact (14 x 21,5 cm), in glorious black and white, and out of print, it’s very nearly comprehensive… and most of all, it exists!

WOT?: What’s the story behind these huge gaps between appearances (issues 2 to 9, then 11 to 16)?

GD: As far as I remember, the second half of the Diukalakadu story appeared the next issue in STRIP [no.2 — RG]. Then Dan asked Phil and I to keep it going as a regular feature. We agreed, but as they were working many issues ahead, it took us a little while to launch the new stories.

The only problem was, as it was an anthology comic with multiple contributors, the page count was hard to level out every issue. As the only one-pager, Man From Cancer was the easiest to drop. I think getting asked to create the supplementary materials mentioned above, was a bit of an apology for us being so bumped around. Also the text story ‘Wallow’ in the Rockpool Files book, was originally created in 24 hours by special request of Dan, to solve a pagination crisis when a strip didn’t turn up in time. But then STRIP was canned before it could appear.

WOT?: You’ve collaborated quite a bit with other cartoonists. I presume that the division of labour varies from project to project. In this case, was there a clear line between the job titles? Did you serve strictly as the writer, or did you provide storyboards, layouts or conceptual sketches? And vice versa on Phil’s part?

GD: I never typed up a script for Phil, I just drew a rough of the strip. In this I visualised a lot of the characters, but it was up to Phil if he followed my suggestions. Sometimes he would create an amazing surprise like a giant octopus answering the phones at Cancer HQ. Phil didn’t write anything but he did loads of visual world-creation as we went along.

This tale, the second Man From Cancer investigation, appeared in Strip nos. 9-11, 16-19 (1990, Marvel UK). The lovely colours are by Steve White.

And since I hinted at the existence of ‘supplementary materials’, it would be callous of me to leave them unseen.

A bit of context from Mr. Dakin: « How nice to see this after all these years!
I read it with great trepidation, wondering what on earth I had said… The upbeat piece on the left ‘
I’m an optimum overview kind of guy…‘ was supposed to be by Mr C Urchin (Crusht’s cheerfully inept assistant), which is why it reads a bit odd, with Crusht at the top. I think the original plan got lost when it was given to the designer at Marvel UK. »

I hope you enjoyed our chat with Mr. Dakin, whom I cannot thank enough for his generosity and charming manner. In the event that your interest has been piqued, take a gander at our earlier post entitled Glenn Dakin’s Alter Ego, Abraham Rat.

-RG

Dreams of the Rarebit Little Ego

« RAREBIT n. A Welsh rabbit, in the speech of the humorless, who point out that it is not a rabbit. To whom it may be solemnly explained that the comestible known as toad-in-a-hole is really not a toad, and that ris-de-veau à la financière is not the smile of a calf prepared after the recipe of a she banker. » — Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

It’s dicey to make a broad generalization about what people have heard of and what they haven’t, so I’ll just say that, for a comic strip more than a century old, likely Canadian Winsor McCay‘s Little Nemo in Slumberland is rather well remembered (and represented) in the greater culture.

The strip has inspired numberless adaptations and the cultural landscape is quite peppered with Nemo references, both overt and veiled.

In the early 1980s, Italian cartoonist Vittorio Giardino (1946–) created a series of short pieces (first published in issues of Comic Art and Glamour International), intended as an erotic pastiche of McCay’s brainchild.

Here are the Little Ego pieces I value most.

I must admit I only enjoy the earlier, less grandiose ones, in no small part because they’re scarcely Nemo-like. Instead, they’re patterned after an earlier McCay creations, and my personal favourite, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend (1904-25), which I’ve long treasured in its beloved and exemplary Dover collection.

« I wonder what’s come over me to have such dreams… I’ll never be able to speak of them… even to my shrink!! »
Here’s the cover art of the original French collected edition (1989, Glénat).

To quote the late cartoonist and local favourite Richard Thompson:

« There are strips that are classics that I respond to on many levels without loving them (Little Nemo is one). I can enjoy such strips without really learning too much from them. »

I share Mr. Thompson’s ambivalent sentiment about Nemo. It’s an indisputable masterwork, mind-bogglingly accomplished, and best enjoyed in its original size.

See what I mean? An original-size Little Nemo showcase cleverly included in Graphis Magazine‘s Comics: The Art of the Comic Strip (1972, The Graphis Press, Zurich).

But its epic scale and themes fail to move me. I far prefer the quotidian-turning-absurd magic of the Rarebit Fiend.

At length, feeling perhaps constrained by the two-page format, Giardino moved on to a longer, sustained narrative full of aerial derring-do, treacherous desert vistas, opulent palaces, and lots and lots of rapes (a fumetti standard). Not my thing, thanks all the same.

I drew from the French edition of the strip since it’s the one I own, but also for its superior reproduction and as the English translation is rather flat and witless in comparison. [ see for yourself! ]

Here’s a tasty pair of sample Rarebit Fiend strips.

… and we return to Richard Thompson, who introduced his own ‘strip within a strip’ parody with Little Neuro within his Cul de sac (2004-2012).

Cul de sac’s March 26, 2008 daily, wherein Little Neuro is first touched upon. « Little Neuro is a parody/homage to the great fantasy strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. I thought up Little Neuro in the early ’80s, but I had to invent Petey before I knew what to do with it. »
Cul de sac’s Sunday, September 6, 2009 strip. Thompson: « Obviously an excuse to draw a dragon. I don’t get many. »

-RG

Why the Long face? The Lighter Side of Batman

« The best thing for rich people to do is become Batman. » — Karl Heinrich Marx*

So we’ve got another dour, dark, mumbly, violent, grim ‘n’ gritty Batman movie making the rounds. I’ll pass — I’m afraid that’s not my Batman of choice. But I’m certainly game to provide an alternative view.

This is World’s Finest no. 32 (Jan.-Feb. 1948, DC); cover art by Hamilton, Ontario’s Win Mortimer (1919-1998), just one in a long, memorable series of frequently goofy scenes featuring this heroic trio.
A cute one from John Gallagher (1926 – 2005), twice (1957, 1971) the winner of the National Cartoonists SocietyBest Gag Cartoonist‘ Award and elder brother of Heathcliff creator George Gately Gallagher. It was published in scouting monthly Boys’ Life‘s July, 1966 issue, smack dab in the heart of Batmania. We ran another bit of bat-drollery from John in an earlier post.
This is Mad Magazine no. 105 (Sept. 1966, EC); cover by Norman Mingo (1896-1980).
A pivotal page from ‘Alias the Bat-Hulk’ written by Bob Haney, pencilled by Mike Sekowsky and inked by Mike Esposito, from The Brave and the Bold no. 68 (Oct.-Nov. 1966, DC), edited by George Kashdan. We’re featured the issue’s fabulously batty cover in our earlier tribute to Mike Sekowsky. Bless you, gentlemen — you truly understood what fun meant and what comics should be.
Prolific Argentine cartoonist Vic Martin (in his homeland, he drew the strip “Salvador” for Medio Litro magazine) moved to the US in the early 1950s, crafting a respectable body of work in the comic book field, chiefly for Ziff-Davis, before migrating to men’s magazines and girlie digests. By the 1970, he’d found a home with Cracked Magazine (He handled the Hudd & Dini feature), while also freelancing for Sick and Crazy. Everything but Mad, really. This particular cartoon comes from the March, 1967 issue of Avant Publishing’s “Escapade”. As Pat Masulli is listed under “production” in the masthead, a Charlton connection is more than likely. And speaking of “Leapin’ lizards!“, Martin would later (1973-74) work on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip.
From Plop no. 9 (Jan.-Feb. 1975, DC); Writer unknown, art by Kurt Schaffenberger.
This one’s from Plop! no. 20 (Mar.-Apr. 1976), DC); idea by Don ‘Duck’ Edwing, art by Dave Manak.
Dan Piraro‘s May 21, 1995 Bizarro Sunday strip. Between Piraro and his canny accomplice, Wayno, there have been scores of excellent bat-japes over the years. I must confess that the term ‘bat-bat’ triggers other associations. « To the Man-Mobile! »
This is Pictures Within Pictures, a 1998 watercolour by Mitch O’Connell (not to be confused, of course, with this beloved, near-homonymous fella — yes, I can just hear Beavis and Butthead chortling). The piece is full of references to various Golden Age comics made infamous by Fredric Wertham‘s Seduction of the Innocent. For instance, er… Batman‘s speech balloon quotes from this particular comic book‘s opening splash. On a sobering note, let’s not forget that the 1950’s furore over comic books, as absurd as it may have seemed, still has relevance today.
In a more deadpan vein, here’s the opening splash of Chip Kidd and Tony Millionaire‘s madcap homage to the very earliest of Batman’s exploits, with nods a-plenty to the 1943 film serial. “The Bat-Man” originally appeared in Bizarro Comics (Aug. 2001, DC).
Another most decidedly dynamic duo, Eddie Campbell and Hunt Emerson, assembles to concoct an affectionate, thoughtful and yes, funny look at one of Batman’s most bizarre-yet-neglected members of the Bat’s rogues’ gallery, Lenny Fiasco, aka The Eraser, introduced in Batman no. 188 (Dec. 1966, DC) with The Eraser Who Tried to Rub Out Batman! This sequel, Who Erased the Eraser? also made its original appearance in Bizarro Comics (Aug. 2001, DC), edited by Joey Cavalieri.
Here’s one (June 12, 2014) from Pulitzer Prize-winning (1981) editorial cartoonist Mike Peters (b. 1943). It’s from his unevenly written but always gorgeous comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm (created in 1984 and still going strong in over 800 newspapers worldwide). Like his colleagues Piraro and Wayno, Mr. Peters can scarcely resist a good bat-gag, so this is just one in a crowd of many.
Everyone’s familiar with the famous playground song and staple of crooner Robert Goulet’s répertoire, right? The web is rife with visual adaptations, but this was my favourite, the work of Matthew S. Armstrong and available as a handsome t-shirt.

-RG

*the second-funniest Bat-related thing I encountered online this week is this attribution of a Batman (created in 1939) quote to Marx (1818-1883).

The funniest was the following deeply ironic quote from pathological liar and glory hog Bob Kane: « How can an article about me or the Batman be the true story when I am not consulted or interviewed? »

Odd Pairings: Bill Ward & Bill Everett

« Ward’s beautiful buxotics operate in a strange separate universe, in which all women are gorgeous voluptoids, all men oafish, saucer-eyed drooling dupes. » — Chris ‘Coop‘ Cooper

Well, I certainly wasn’t planning to hog all the blogging this week, but there were birthdays and other hopefully mitigating factors. While today is the great Will Eisner‘s birthday, it’s likely to overshadow that of a fellow Golden Age toiler, one with an equally intriguing career, but with a trajectory quite divergent from Eisner’s own.

Bill Ward (1919 – 1998) was also born on this day, one hundred and three years ago. Ward started out in comics with the Jack Binder shop, turning out material for Fawcett’s line of characters (Captain Marvel and his family, Bulletman…); he soon found himself working for Quality Comics, most notably on Blackhawk (an Eisner co-creation, it should be noted). He inched closer to his true passion when assigned to Quality’s romance line.

Ward’s cover for Love Diary no. 1 (Sept. 1949, Quality). Artistically speaking, this is what a fully committed Ward can produce.

In the mid-50’s, when came the brutal, censorship-induced compression of the comic book industry, Ward smoothly shifted to producing girlie cartoons for Abe Goodman’s Humorama line, becoming its star and most prolific performer, thanks to his popularity and prodigious speed. He was aided in this by his choice of tool and technique: the conté crayon on newsprint. While everyone else was working on 8″ x 12″ illustration board, Ward was using a soft, beige paper of a size (18″ x 24′) and texture familiar to any art student who’s taken a life drawing class. With this type of stock, he could produce texture rubbings and achieve smooth, sensual sheens ideal for rendering highlights of hair and stockings. Said Ward: « It didn’t take me long to figure out that the quicker you could do the work… the more money you could make. » Over the course of a quarter-century, he wound up producing around 9,000 drawings for the Humorama line.

As Ward recalled of his early training in Binder’s studio, « [Binder] trained me to do layout, which is the most difficult part of art. » To wit, layout never counted among Ward’s strengths. A lot of his pinup work is undermined by poor staging, often grotesque proportions, and absolutely minimal attention to non-erotic detail.

A typical example of a Ward girlie cartoon produced using the conté crayon. This one first turned up in Comedy no. 51 (Jan. 1960, Marvel); in a typical work-for-hire arrangement, for a flat fee (in Ward’s case, 7 dollars a cartoon, topping out at the princely sum of $30 near the end of his 25-year run), Goodman retained all reprint rights (and reprint he did, liberally) and kept the original art, which he sold to collectors for several times its original cost, naturally. Nowadays, these pieces exchange hands for several thousand dollars.

Now, had I ever wondered what Ward’s pencils would look like, if inked by Bill Everett? I readily confess I hadn’t. But upon learning that such a momentous collision once occurred, my mind was set slightly reeling.

Another weathered fellow combatant in the trenches of the Golden Age, Everett (1917-73), unlike Ward, always gave his best, whatever the conditions. Right to the end, despite his rapidly declining health, Everett was, incredibly, producing top-flight work.

This is The Adventures of Pussycat no. 1 (Oct. 1968, Marvel). Cover by Bill Everett. Highly sought after today, this scarce, magazine-size one-shot is merely a reprint collection of some of Pussycat’s ‘adventures’ from various Goodman Playboy knockoffs, and one of a gazillion contrived acroynym-based attempts to cash in on the ubiquitous 007 craze of the 60’s. It does contain the first Pussycat tale, illustrated by Wally Wood, who would soon go on to his own entry in the super-spy stakes, Tower’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.
Concentrate on the artwork. The less said about the writing (was it Stan the Man or Larry the Lieber? We’ll likely never know), the better. As usual, any American attempt at French is mangled, even at a mere two words and two syllables (for the record, it should read either “C’est fini!” or “C’est la fin!“). Pensively squinting while adjusting his pince-nez, a ‘curator’ at Heritage Auctions made this uproarious whopper of a claim: « The figures of Pussycat look to be by Bill Everett and everything else is Bill Ward. » So you think Bill Ward drew everything… except the one thing he was interested in drawing? These folks don’t seem to know how comics are produced.
The Bombshell and the Bank!“, never reprinted, saw print in Male Annual no. 6 (1968).
This is The Mighty Thor no. 171 (Dec. 1969, Marvel). Jack Kirby pencils, Bill Everett inks. Coming late in Kirby’s run, what a vigorous breath of fresh air after years of lazy erasures!

In the 60’s, Ward also provided covers for various soft-core novels, such as this one from Satellite Publications’ ‘After Hours’ imprint. He even wrote some of them, notably under the alias of ‘Bill Marshall’. His fellow Quality Comics alumnus Gil Fox also penned many of these potboilers under a staggering array of aliases.

This is Side Street (1966, After Hours). I’ve noticed over the years that certain artists of a more single-minded frame of mind can’t be bothered to devote much attention to anything but the object of their obsession. Such was the case with Bill Ward, and with the passing years, ever increasingly so. Exhibit A: has Ward ever seen an actual dog?
Which reminded me of this classic, by another ‘can’t be bothered’ master of ‘Good Girl’ art, Alberto Joaquin Vargas Chavez (1896-1982). Another howler from the comedians at Heritage: « This early masterpiece, one of the greatest pin-ups the artist ever painted, was reproduced as a full-color double-page spread in Vargas, Taschen, 1990. Alberto Vargas thought so highly of this lot and the following two stunning paintings that he retained them in his personal collection. » I wouldn’t presume to criticise Vargas’ depiction of the female form, but on the other hand, this is Exhibit B: has Vargas ever seen an actual cat? Don’t worry, Alberto, you’re not alone in this affliction: neither has Neal Adams.

This, er… pussycat brings to mind botched attempts at taxidermy and/or artwork restoration.

-RG

Salami Western: Benito Jacovitti’s Cocco Bill

« I’m a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but salami is salami. You can’t sell it as caviar. » — Stephen King

Farcical ‘Wild West’ comic strips may be a dime a dozen, but despite the undeniable hoariness of the premise, a number of them are inevitably outstanding. To name but a few, there’s been Maurice ‘Morris’ De Bevere‘s Lucky Luke (1946); Basil Wolverton‘s Bingbang Buster (1949); Harvey Kurtzman‘s Pot-Shot Pete (Sheriff of Yucca-Pucca Gulch) (1950); Jean-Claude Poirier‘s Horace, cheval de l’Ouest (1970); Jean ‘Cézard’ César‘s Billy Bonbon (1973); and today’s cowboy in the spotlight, Benito Jacovitti‘s Cocco Bill (1957).

Cocco Bill was introduced in the pages of Il Giorno dei Ragazzi (1957-68), “originally intended as the Italian version of the British children’s periodical Eagle“. After Il Giorno’s demise, Cocco Bill shifted his sagebrush shenanigans to the venerable Corriere dei Piccoli (1908-95).

This is 7 fois mouche (1975, JC Lattès, France), originally serialised in Corriere dei Piccoli as “Cocco Bill fa sette più”, 1968-69. In Italy, it was actually number twenty in the series.

With Wolverton, Jacovitti (1923 – 1997) shares an animist sort of predilection for cramming every square centimetre of the panel with absurdist details, facetious sound effects, recurring motifs and symbols and, naturally, gags. It’s a most noble cartooning tradition that runs the course of the medium’s history, from Bill Holman through Kurtzman and Will Elder (chicken fat!) and merrily endures to this day in Dan Piraro and Wayno‘s oft-sublime Bizarro.

Here’s a two-page ambush sequence that gives you a sense of how handy — and deadly — our protagonist is with a pair of irons.

The sign says: “Do not trample the cacti“.
The surviving bushwacker is put out of his misery by the gang’s second-in-command, the Chaplinesque Kruel; you know he’s a villain of substance because he rides a double horse. Pray note the lovely SALOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOON sign with its behatted snake carvings.
Meet hired guns the Kuknass Brothers: Brown, White, Green, Black, Yellow, Blue and Red, of course. Like the idea, Quentin? Note the extra digits (the better to count with, panel five). It’s easy to imagine Jacovitti having some influence on Mad’s Don Martin
In the manner of many a pure-hearted cowboy, Cocco Bill’s brew of choice is alcohol-free; his poison is chamomile tea, a drink with numerous health benefits! With sugar and lemon, but hold the paprika, thank you! Note: Don’t Shoot the Piano Player!
This is Sur les rails (1975, JC Lattès, France), originally serialised in Corriere dei Piccoli as “Cocco Bill sulle rotaie”, 1969. In Italy, it was number twenty-one in the series.
The train meets the stagecoach, and how! A page from Sur les rails.

Last month, my co-admin ds reported, in the course of her spotlight on Massimo Mattioli, that Jacovitti is said to be the Italian cartoonist best known internationally. I have no idea how such popularity is measured, but I do enjoy the idea of a palmarès headed by cartoonists I love, for once. I do, however, suspect that the global reach of animation frequently contributes more to a cartoonist’s name recognition than does his printed work (think Guillermo Mordillo). Case in point: while Cocco Bill strips have been translated and reprinted in several countries, these efforts have been, more often than not, patchy and sporadic. On the other hand, the Cocco Bill TV series (2000-04) ran a healthy 104 episodes. And it looks great, which didn’t hurt. Check out the pilot episode, ‘Cocco Augh‘. For a creator, it’s assuredly a classier calling card than a bunch of sordid sex ‘comedies’.

I’d like to dedicate this post to the fond memory of a departed cartooning colleague, Patrick ‘Henriette Valium’ Henley (1959-2021), since Cocco Bill was, I’ve heard tell, his favourite bédé.

-RG

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.

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