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!

“Get on Your Bike and Do What You Like”

« Bicycles are pieces of art. You get that combination of kinetic engineering, but then, besides the welds, the paint jobs, the kind of the sculpture of it all is quite beautiful. Bikes have such great lines, and all different styles. » — Robin Williams

I’ve been cycling a lot more of late. I’d been using my bike less frequently in recent years, unnerved by the increasingly frantic (and distracted, not a good combo) vehicular traffic of the city. But with my wife taking an interest in the activity, I found myself with a reason to get back in the saddle. This spring, we found a newly opened bike shop, earthy, grimy and unpretentious, where we got our bikes expertly tuned up.

I’ve always loathed those cliquish hipster joints that, in addition to selling overpriced junk, also seem responsible for the ubiquity of those middle-aged, over-equipped, spandex-clad Sunday cyclists, who feel it their sacred duty to pass you, whatever the pace, weather or road conditions, looking for all the world like overstuffed sausages in their lycra casings. The sporting analogue, if you will, of the rich kid who ‘needs’ the most expensive guitar in the shop… never mind that he can’t play a note.

You hopefully will indulge me in this little exercise in nostalgia. I miss the days when our bikes got us around, granted us greater autonomy and kept us in shape. This lifestyle took a backseat in the 1980s, when the BMX craze began to overstate the extreme and the competitive facets of the sport. Now, it’s all ultimate sport this and boot-camp fitness that. Ah, whatever happened to plain old utilitarian fun?

Judging from this ad (circa July, 1951), bicycle makers were trying to make their steeds mimic the clunky look of the era’s motorcycles. Aesthetics would soon improve.
Here’s a fairly typical ad, circa 1961. Free catalogue, not to mention a healthy dollop of American jingoism, like it or lump it. Speaking of Schwinn, check out their well-produced promo comics Bicycle Book, from 1949.
Ah, yes, the U.S. Royal twins, Roy and Al. In the tradition of the accidentally named Smith Brothers, “Trade” and “Mark”.
Unsurprisingly, scouting magazine Boys’ Life was an ideal market for bike-themed ads. This one appeared in the May, 1966 issue. Artist unknown… anyone?
You can tell how important the bicycle scene was: not only were manufacturers hawking bicycles, but there was also the ‘aftermarket’ trade of gizmos and doodads. I’ve long supposed ‘speedometer’ to be a dumbed-down term for a tachometer. Even after consulting this ‘helpful’ chart, I’m still not convinced it isn’t. To quote sometime Beach Boys lyricist, DJ and racing enthusiast Roger Christian: “Tach it up, tach it up / Buddy, gonna shut you down.

Through much of the 1960s, Bendix (the corporation, not Bill!) commissioned a long-running series of custom ads featuring the Riverdale Gang, illustrated by resident Archie artist Harry Lucey.

This one’s from April, 1965.
Archie, the voice of reason? Only in ads and public service announcements. This one’s from October, 1966.
This one’s from July, 1968.
Ah, that’s more like the Archie Andrews we’re accustomed to. This one’s from August, 1968. I daresay we’ve all encountered too many such ‘cyclists’.
An apt reminder that the rich kids always did boast the best, most up-to-date equipment, whatever the sport. Also, I can’t help but think that the cape and tiger tail are just kind of… reckless. Clearly, corporate shill Tigerboy is failing to heed the lessons of Isadora Duncan’s tragic death. Thanks to the ever-thrilling Jack Davis artwork, this is the unsurpassed classic among bicycle ads. It appeared in select DC and Archie titles cover-dated November, 1968.
While banana seats may be considered in most quarters as retro kitsch, I earnestly hold that they were bold and cool. Aesthetic and structural experimentation had arrived at the forefront of the cycling industry. This ad appeared in comics cover-dated February, 1969.
And here’s a look at a (flawlessly) surviving model. Man, the elegance of those lines!

As the 1960s drew to a close, another series of custom comics ads appeared — just under the wire. They spotlight the creations of the famous ‘King of the Kustomizers’, George “Barris” Salapatas (1925-2015), very much in demand thanks to his recent triumph with the Batman tv show’s Batmobile.

This one appeared in various DC titles cover-dated November, 1969. If I had to take a stab at artistic attribution, I would go with the versatile Creig Flessel (1912-2008). Something tells me that in real life, the human chain stunt the Mighty i Patrol pulls would have led to four drowned kids instead of just one — but I’m sure Woofie would have dog-paddled his way to safety.
This one appeared in DC titles cover-dated December, 1969. Read a gripping first-hand account of working on the assembly line at the Iverson bicycle factory, circa 1975!
I’m assuming that the kid with the sombrero nicked it from Bazooka Joe’s kid brother Pesty. This final adventure saw print in DC titles cover-dated January, 1970.

This, however, is the advert that really worked on me. When I got my first grown-up ten speed bike, a few years later, it was a Browning, which lasted me at least a quarter-century, until it snapped right at the load-bearing juncture of the rear fork… the one place where even welding wouldn’t help.

I switched to my backup, a hybrid bike I bought in 1987. It’s still running beautifully. In terms of value for money, a well-maintained bicycle is pretty unbeatable.

My well-thumbed copy of Adventure Cycling in Europe (1981). « Say, Uncle John, did Browning replace you with a pretty-boy model for your comic book ad? » « They sure did, but you know what’s even worse? » « I don’t know, Uncle John, what is? » « I don’t even have a nephew either! » All kidding aside, though it’s over forty years old, it’s still an insightful, entertaining and helpful book. When you go low-tech, change occurs at a slower, more forgiving pace.

I leave you with a song, whence comes the title of this article. It’s from a lesser-known but excellent Donovan album, Open Road, from 1970.

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: Squeaks and Quacks From the House of Mouse

Eventually I accumulate enough material that posts bleed into other posts, sort of like a melting blueberry puddle gradually makes it way into the nooks and crannies of every object in its path on the counter (that happened recently, thus the very specific analogy). In this case, the blueberry juice is Uncle Scrooge et al., who have already appeared in Tentacle Tuesday: Duck Feathers!. Today our emphasis is more on Mickey Mouse, but I can’t promise other Disney characters won’t wander in for a cup of tea (or a quick tussle with an octopus).

As a matter of fact, my usual habit of arranging images in chronological order starts this post on a distinctly un-Mickey-like note…

The following sequence is from Ghost of the Grotto (written and illustrated by Carl Barks), published in Four Color no. 159 – Donald Duck in The Ghost of the Grotto (August 1947, Dell). You can read the full issue here.

Okay, I promised Mickey Mouse, so I’d better get back on topic!

Page from The Phantom Ship, scripted by Carl Fallberg and illustrated by Paul Murry; it was published in Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories vol. 25 no. 3 (December 1964, Gold Key).

Speaking of the aforementioned Paul Murry – I bet you have never seen an octopus adorned with quite so many bracelets.

Mickey Mouse no. 159 (October 1975, Gold Key). The cover is by Paul Murry.

Now we step into the dubious territory of European Disney comics – don’t forget to read about co-admin RG’s enjoyably scathing views on the subject here.

Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge Adventures no. 12 (April 1989, Gladstone). Does anybody recognize the cover artist?

The following story, credited as ‘story and art: the Egmont Group, script: John Cochran, colour: Scott Rockwell’, was published in Walt Disney’s Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse no. 4 (March 1996, Gladstone). You can read the full issue here.

I’ll wrap up by going back to the top, which is to say finishing on as high a note as this post started on. Carl Barks, ladies and gentlemen!

Wishing you happy undersea adventures… until next Tuesday rolls around!

~ ds

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 8

« So, you see the little snot on the right side, move it two inches to the left and add a little bit of green gleam to it. » — Mark Newgarden, doing some art direction

I can’t help it, Wacky Packages are such a Hallowe’en-friendly endeavour that I keep returning to their fertile soil. First, during our initial edition and again in the second. Just consider some of the who’s who talent embroiled in dreaming up these humble stickers: Art Spiegelman, Norm Saunders, Bill Griffith, Jay Lynch, Mark Newgarden, John Pound, Drew Friedman, Tomas Bunk, Tom Sutton

A Norman Saunders beauty from Series 12 (1975, Topps). And just what is wrong with spinach, pray tell? 😉
If this one looks sharper than you’d expect, it’s because it’s shot from a larger version of the Wacky card that Norman Saunders (re)painted for Topps’ Wacky Posters series, circa 1973.
Ladies and gentlemen, Drew Friedman! « In 1991, I was creating many concept sketches and pencil drawings for the TOPPS company, including for their latest set of the hugely popular sticker series “Wacky Packages”. Mark Newgarden was the editor and art director for the 1991 series, and the writers for the card fronts included Newgarden, Jay Lynch, Jordan Bochanis, John Mariano and myself. I drew about 22 tight pencil images which would (with one exception) be painted by the illustrator Patrick Pigott. » If you enjoy being privy to an artist’s creative process, by all means do yourself a favour and feast your peepers on this gallery of Friedman’s roughs, finishes, used and unused pieces. In this (mummy) case, it’s Friedman pencils, finished art by Tomas Bunk.
From the 6th Series (1974, Topps). Most likely painted by Norm Saunders.
From the 8th Series (1974, Topps)… though mine’s a 1980’s reprint. Painted by Norm Saunders.
From the lucky 13th Series (1975, Topps). Another fine Saunders vintage. Topps would find Mr. Saunders most difficult to replace.
From the 1985 Series. Artist unknown.
From the 1991 Series. Painted by Patrick Pigott.

-RG

Wacky Animal Antics on Parade!

I really enjoy the madcap world of Golden Age funny animal comics, and they’ve often made it into various Tentacle Tuesdays. Yet not everything fits into the somewhat narrow scope of tentacles (shocking, I know!), so I am pleased to take this fun gallop through some favourite covers that are quite devoid of cephalopods. Doing so involves going back some seventy, eighty years… a difficult to grasp concept for those of us who were not around back then.

This one-shot comic from Famous Funnies featuring a sweet cover by Dave Tendlar may not be-laugh-out-loud funny, but makes up with charming innocence what it lacks in the hilarity department. This is Dover the Bird no. 1 (Spring 1955, Eastern Color Printing).

My thirty-something colleagues consider movies from the late 90s to be ‘ancient’, so I can just imagine what their reaction would be to a comic from, say, 1942! Yet I feel emotionally close to these covers (whether artistically accomplished, entertainingly weird or just plain drugged-out) – humanity has not changed nearly as much as we tend to assume, and albeit some sources of humour require an historian’s explanation, others are every bit as funny and entertaining now as they were back then. As for talking animals, that goes back to the dawn of human history (Aesop’s fables readily come to mind, and Aesop was surely not the inventor of this concept!)

One could dedicate a whole lifetime to digging through this particular slice of history – I’ve tried to go for some variety in this post, but of course I am (happily) constrained by my own tastes in the matter. Here, then, are some Golden Age covers featuring funny animals that have amused, entertained or puzzled me.

Animal Comics no. 1 (December 1942, Dell), with a cover by H.R. McBride, is an amalgam of details both adorable and creepy – the harrowing expression of the fish contrasts wildly with Madame Crocodile’s peanuts-pilfering offspring and her flirty cocktail parasol, while her crocodile-skin purse makes me think of Disney’s Three Little Pigs cartoon (1933, Silly Symphonies). In case you’ve never noticed it, the third pig, the one with the brick house, has family pictures on his wall… for example, a string of sausages labelled “Father”. Black humour, indeed. Animal funnies are often dusted with a good sprinkling of the gruesome, as when a talking duck eats chicken legs for dinner.

The insides have two Walt Kelly stories, including the first appearance of Pogo Possum and his friends!

Fast forwarding four years, we fall into pleasantly loopy territory of Fox Features’ Nuttylife no. 2 (Summer 1946, Fox Comics). Despite it being number two, this is technically the only issue, issue number 1 having appeared as Krazy Life, and issue number 3 and onward becoming Wotalife Comics. I can’t find credits for the cover, but the insides contain Pat Adams with Ellis Chambers (“One day a little goil went to her Grandma’s joint…”), Tim Howe and Cy King. Ellis Chambers by himself definitely deserves a separate post – take a glimpse at Eddie Elephant – 1946 Hallucinogenic Funny Animal Comix by Ellis Holly Chambers, for example.

I couldn’t very well leave Felix the Cat out of this post! I won’t go into the complex history of this character, but suffice it to say that this is one gorgeous cover. Clearly I’m not the only one to admire this image, as it was used for the cover of Craig Yoe‘s wonderful anthology Felix the Cat – Greatest Comic Book Tails (2011, IDW), which I highly recommend. This is Four Color no. 135 (February 1947, Dell Comics), with a cover by Otto Messmer.

The American Comics Group is responsible for many a goofy plot, source of my long-lasting affection for some of their titles (see Tentacle Tuesday: ACG’s Adventures Into the Tentacles). ACG’s Ha Ha Comics are a riot, all right, but I have two favourites among the 88 issues released. The first is Ha Ha Comics no. 11 (August 1944), with a cover by Ken Hultgren. A joke doesn’t have to be elaborate to be funny – something about the expression of the indignant man-eating lion and his wild mop of hair cracks me up!

The second is Ha Ha Comics no. 78 (Dec-Jan 1951), cover artist unknown. I like porcupines in general, but here we are presented with a truly bizarre situation – a porcupine who tears out his sweetheart’s quills one by one to figure out whether she loves him… (unless she’s just a friend helping out, and he’s in love with some other porcupine). Kinky, whichever way you look at it.

Going a few years back, we take a little inter-planetary voyage with Coo Coo Comics no. 38 (March 1948, Pines/Standard Comics), with a cover by (possibly) Vince Fago. I am very fond of this purple-green monster who looks like he’s suffering from a bad hangover (or terminal cretinism). Coo Coo Comics is credited with having introduced the first funny animal superhero (in its very first issue, published in October 1942). That little guy was Supermouse…

The insides contain some Frank Frazetta stories, in case anybody is interested.

… but the other contender for this title was Terrytoons’ Mighty Mouse, also introduced in October 1942 (under the name of ‘Super Mouse’) in the theatrical short The Mouse of Tomorrow. That’s enough to get anybody confused in all these mice! This is Terry-Toons Comics no. 1 (October 1942), with an Ernie Hart cover that hints at the influence that funny animal comics had on the underground comix artists:

~ ds

Odious Rumours: Arachnid-Enhanced Bubble Yum

« A kid one time fell asleep chewing Bubble Yum, and he woke up with his mouth full of spider eggs. » — Some nameless rumour-monger

The other day, a neighbour was asking me whether it was a safe for his Golden Retriever puppy to eat the worms it was digging up (I was impressed), the guy presuming that said worms were quite filthy and rife with germs. I replied that no, it’s probably all the rooting through the trash and gobbling up whatever it finds that’s giving the pup gastric distress. Worms, in fact, are considered a delicacy in many a culture, including some European ones. Not that I’ve indulged: just like The Kinks’ Apeman, I’m a strict vegetarian.

This brought to mind those 1970s rumours of earthworms serving as filler in McDonald’s burgers (never mind that worms are a far costlier ingredient than is beef). Which led in turn to the equally-outlandish notion that the secret of Bubble Yum’s softness (introduced in 1975 by Life Savers, it was the first soft bubble gum ever concocted) lay in its containing spider eggs. Again, steady procurement would have proved quite a daunting challenge.

Art by Tomm Coker, from The Big Book of Urban Legends (1994, Paradox Press/DC); edited by Bronwyn Carlton Taggart and featuring the most inconstant levels of skill and talent you’re ever likely to encounter in a professional comics publication: a couple dozen or so versatile cartoonists, and over a hundred superhero hacks and/or photo tracers utterly out of their depth, a reminder of just how shallow the talent pool is. This isn’t one of the good pieces, but it’s nowhere near the bottom.
A trade ad from 1977, the year of Bubble Yum’s national (and international, as this Canadian can attest) rollout.

But the bubble was about to burst (or at least deflate somewhat), as reported by The New York Times (March 29, 1977):

The Great Spider Egg Mystery remains unsolved but it may yet have several happy endings. The mystery concerns Bubble Yum, a popular new bubble gum that has, in a year, overtaken such symbols of earlier childhoods as Dubble Bubble and Bazooka. A few weeks ago came toil and trouble: the unexplained spread of lurid rumors among children in the New York area that, gasp!, Bubble Yum contained spider eggs (or, according to haughtier youthful accounts, caused cancer). Stores which had up to then been unable to stock enough to meet demand suddenly saw sales plummet. Last week, the manufacturer, Life Savers, Inc., took out full‐page ads in 30 area newspapers to combat the rumors.

This is not the first time the bubble gum business has been beset by evil rumor. When Jimmy Carter was a boy, youngsters in Sumter County, Georgia, were scared off by reports that bubble gum was made with snake oil —until they were reassured by an ad in the Americus Times‐Recorder. Nor is bubble gum normally regarded as the stuff of moral lessons. Its history, since it was invented by Walter Diemer in 1928, is marked by such milestones as packaging it with baseball cards (1933) or making it squeakless (1953).

But there is something more significant, and appealing, in the open way in which Life Savers has chosen to deal with its problem. We hope the spider egg rumors are expunged as successfully now as the snake oil rumors were then. And there will be a happier ending still if the subject is properly understood to be not bubble gum but canard. No consumer is too young to learn the malign effects of rumor or to understand that there will always be someone, not always in youthful innocence, eager to raise the cry—whether about Communists in government, environment, energy or bubble gum—of “spider eggs.”

From Morris County, NJ’s Daily Record, March 27, 1977 edition.

Susan M. Smith wrote, in her 1989 thesis, Consumer Rumors and
Corporate Communications
:

Whether the rumor is isolated or widespread, the company must select media that reach the rumor’s community of interest, and particularly, its influential leaders. The importance of this is shown by what happened after a rumor episode in New York City for the Life Saver’s Company. The company conducted an all-out attack to combat a rumor in 1977 that the company’s innovative, new soft chewing gum. Bubble Yum, contained spider eggs. It sought publicity, inserted full-page newspaper ads, and sent letters with a copy of the ad to the city’s PTA groups, school principals, and retail outlets.

The campaign successfully stopped the rumor, but Bubble Yum’s New York sales did not recover for many years. It turns out that even though the company had blanketed the city with its rumor denial, it never spoke directly to product users, the school-age children, to bolster confidence in the product. The selection of inappropriate media makes the refutation message miss the rumour’s public allowing the rumor to continue to spread or delaying recovery from the rumor.

Speaking of advertising: Marvel’s knockoff of Scholastic’s Dynamite, Pizzazz (1977-79), which included lots of ads, featured this piece in its 6th issue (March 1978, Marvel). This gives you a sense of Bubble Yum’s success, as the product was, in its field, what’s termed a disruptive innovation. Chewing gum no longer had to be hard.
Inevitably, the imitators came! Smooooth N’ Juicy, Hubba Bubba, Bubblicious, the oddball Freshen Up, and so on. Marvel switched its advertising allegiance to Topps. This is from Pizzazz no. 11 (Aug. 1978, Marvel). The art looks to me to be the work of Mad magazine veteran Jack Rickard (1922-1983).
A few issues later, (Pizzazz no. 14, Nov. 1978, Marvel), in a brazen display of corrupt insincerity, came this so-called Consumer Guide (note that only Topps products are pictured). Really, is Bubble Yum “the hardest, toughest gum our testers had to chew“? Surely anyone who’s ever tried to chew something from the Bazooka family knows better. My jaw aches just from the memory.
The company continued efforts to restore its reputation in the New York market, where the rumours had caused the most harm. A piece from The New York Times‘ Tuesday, July 22, 1980 edition.
This ad ran in Adventure Comics no. 487 (Nov. 1981, DC) and several other titles in the following months.
Now that’s better: in 1982, they turned to the incomparable Jack Davis to illustrate one of their print ads. Given his prodigious speed, he couldn’t have spent more than an hour on this specific piece, but it works far better than its predecessors. Incidentally, the ‘Super Yum’ thing (replacing Soft ‘n Juicy) appears to have been a move to block a competitor from using the appellation.

But I suppose all this controversy merely seems quaint now, what with all today’s heavy weaponizing of misinformation. Besides, the bubblegum market has been rather moribund in the past few decades, since apparently Nobody Likes to Chew Gum Anymore.

For a bit of sugar high nostalgia, I’ll leave you with a pair of vintage Bubble Yum ads: 1976’s brand introduction, featuring The Flavor Fiend;

And 1988’s spot co-starring a young Leonardo DeCaprio, which shows us he was clearly born with that insufferable smugness, or at least had honed it to perfection by his teens.

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: SpongeBob Goes Squish!

That SpongeBob would encounter a lot of tentacles in his day-to-day life is not at all surprising – he’s a sea sponge. What still surprises me, however, by is how much fun SpongeBob comics can be. Between 2011 and 2018, a respectable 85 issues were published by Stephen Hillenburg‘s production company, United Plankton Pictures (what a great title) and distributed by Bongo Comics.

No tentacles yet, but I couldn’t resist sharing this colourful, spook-tastic spread from SpongeBob Comics No. 25 (October 2013). Art by Andy Rementer.

The formula was similar to Simpsons Comics spin-off Treehouse of Horror: plenty of famous (and talented!) cartoonists having fun with the characters. Between the roster for the regular comics and the special-themed supersized issues, quite a few artists who participated are WOT favourites, and some are Tentacle Tuesday masters, to boot: Hilary Barta, Tony Millionaire, Al Jaffee, Ramona Fradon, Michael T. Gilbert… in 2017, Stephen R. Bissette even broke up out of retirement to work on a special Hallowe’en issue. I think this post is a decent sampler of the different styles and storytelling techniques involved – I’ve concentrated on prominent tentacles, and ignored all the trimmings (the recurring jellyfish tentacles, pumpkins sprouting grabby vines, etc.)

The tentacle fun starts right off with the first issue! Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy vs. the Octopus King, written by James Kochalka and illustrated by Hilary Barta, was published in SpongeBob Comics No. 1 (February 2011):

A page from Serpents & Sealords, written and illustrated by Corey Barba and published in SpongeBob Comics no. 51 (December 2015).

The following glorious illustration at the tail end of SpongeBob Comics no. 50 (November 2015) is by Jim Woodring:

Given that Stephen Hillenburg (the creator of SpongeBob) was a marine scientist and teacher, it does not come as a surprise that the recurring feature Flotsam and Jetsam was used to talk about all manner of nautical critters and their habits. Here are a few:

Flotsam and Jetsam: Ocean Facts – The Mimic Octopus, written and illustrated by Maris Wicks and published in SpongeBob Comics no. 52 (January 2016).
Flotsam Fables: Legends of the Deep – The Kraken, written by Karen Sneider and illustrated by Vanessa Davis), was published in SpongeBob Comics  no. 62 (November 2016).
Flotsam & Jetsam – Ocean Facts: Sea Stars, written by Julie Winterbottom and illustrated by Nate Neal, published in SpongeBob Comics no. 71 (August 2017).

~ ds

Tentacle Tuesday: Treehouse of Tentacular Horror

Treehouse of Horror episodes are easily my favourite Simpsons material, and not just because Hallowe’en is the most interesting ‘holiday’ of the year (in my hardly humble opinion). Of course, abandoning the pretence of any continuity makes for entertaining, anything-goes storytelling, but what I find especially appealing is that these little gems take the Simpsons’ brand of humour, admittedly already somewhat dark, and kick it up a notch all the way into full-blown black humour and gore.

The comic books series of the same name continued this tradition, offering readers a fun grab bag of horror and science fiction film parodies, literary references and just plain madcap-yet-macabre nonsense. Not all stories are good; plots vary widely in quality, and even a good plot falls flat in the hands of an artist lacking the expertise to pull it off. However, through the years (there are 23 issues of total, published between 1995 and 2017) a number of illustrious comic artists and writers have contributed their talents to this misshapen, haphazardly hammered treehouse.

You will not be too surprised to hear that a number of stories included tentacles, be it in a secondary capacity or featured front and centre. The quotidian presence of aliens Kang and Kodos ensures that, but there are also a number of plant and chest hair tendrils, Homer-as-octopus, Cthulhu guest appearances and god knows what else. The following is by no means an exhaustive list; I have striven to include a bit of everything. Two stories have made it into previous Tentacle Tuesdays (see Tentacle Tuesday Masters: Hilary Barta and Tentacle Tuesday: tentacles, some fresh, some older than time).

We start with Treehouse of Horror number one and its parody of a Little Shop of Horrors.

Little Shop of Homers, scripted by Mike Allred and pencilled by Luis Escobar and Bill Morrison, was published in Treehouse of Horror no. 1 (October 1995).

The cover of number two features… err, is that Kang or Kodos? with tentacles in full display. You may insert a ‘all aliens look alike’ joke here, to be fair, these two can mostly be told apart by their voice, Kang’s being deeper.

Treehouse of Horror no. 2 (September 1996). Cover by Bill Morrison, who, incidentally, is the co-founder of Bongo Comics and creator of Roswell: Little Green Man.

The insides offer us the tentacles of Sideshow Bob, whose transformation into a blob is distinctly cephalopodian in nature.

Sideshow Blob! was scripted by Paul Dini and illustrated by Bill Morrison and Tim Bavington.

Skipping over a few tentacle-less issues (for shame!), we arrive at number five, in which Mr Burns and Smithers, having been turned into Rigellians, demonstrate a proficient use of tentacles for their god-intended purpose, namely grabbing and choking.

Apu on Rigel 7, written and illustrated by Doug TenNapel, was published in Treehouse of Horror no. 5 (September 1999). I’d like to say a few words about TenNapel, here: my first encounter with his sense of humour was through the video game Earthworm Jim, which has retained a special place in my heart though I last played it some twenty years ago. I’ve read some of his graphic novels, and though I was mostly underwhelmed, TenNapel’s wild imagination was a pleasure. Having said that, his politics and beliefs have led him to gradually transforming into a judgmental asshole, which is completely at odds with the empathy he displays in his comics.

Leaving Kang and Kodos behind for now, we can play the game ‘option A or option B’: if somebody was forcing you to choose between having a third eye or tentacles instead of hands, which would you go for?

Treehouse of Horror no. 9 (September 2003); cover by Bill Morrison. Here we see how Homer has opted for the more destructive, tentacle-hands choice.

The following, incredibly boring parody of LOTR at least offers one genuine octopus, perhaps supposed to be the Watcher in the Water.

Ring Around the Simpsons, scripted by Ian Boothby and illustrated by Dan Brereton.

The following cover is Kodos (or Kang? sorry, guys) again, which I’m including because I like it…

Treehouse of Horror no. 12 (September 2006). Cover by Bill Morrison.

… and because one of its stories featured a somewhat original interpretation of tentacles: chest hair!

Willie: Portrait of a Groundskeeper was written and illustrated by Eric Powell.
Aliens’ penchant for busty human females is one of those mysteries of life…

One of my favourite tropes, octopus-in-the-library (wait… it’s not actually a trope, but it should be!), is aptly used in number thirteen:

Prop, Prop, Whiz, Whiz!, scripted by Ian Boothby and Pia Guerra, pencilled by Pia Guerra and inked by Terry Austin, was published in Treehouse of Horror no. 13 (September 2007).

Mutants with tentacles traipse on in number sixteen…

I Screwed Up Big-Time and Unleashed the Glavin on an Unsuspecting World!, scripted and illustrated by Evan Dorkin, was published in Treehouse of Horror no. 16 (September 2010).

… and plant tentacles rear their acquisitive little tendrils again in number eighteen.

Treehouse of Horror no. 18 (September 2012). Cover by Tentacle Tuesday Master Hillary Barta!

Finally, the last (alas!) cover of this series feature tentacles a’plenty! What a great note to end this on.

Treehouse of Horror no. 23 (September 2017). Cover pencilled by Jason Ho and inked by Mike Rote.

~ ds

Tentacle Tuesday Masters: Kellie Strøm

One might call the illustrator and comics artist Kellie Strøm a bit of a cosmopolitan –  born in Denmark, he grew up in Ireland and, in adulthood, made London his place of residence. He has accomplished much, but seemingly obtained little recognition for it – his graphic novel (The Acid Bath Case, 1992, published by Kitchen Sink), a collaboration with Stephen Walsh, seems to have been lost in the rivers of time, despite being a striking showcase of Strøm’s black-and-white, precise-yet-graceful style. He also has a great eye for colour, as becomes evident from a quick glance at Star Wars comics he’s illustrated (but does anybody read Star Wars comics?), or, in a much more pleasant and hopefully longer-lasting and farther-reaching vein, his paintings for children’s books. 

A panel from The Acid Bath Case (1992, Kitchen Sink). These may not be tentacles per se, but as far as I’m concerned, they qualify!

Personally, I have a soft spot for his illustrations in glorious full colour – I believe that it’s a rare skill to be able to use a full rainbow palette and not end up with gaudy or downright ugly results. Let’s have a look!

That thing is soon growing up to be a tentacled monstrosity, but right now it’s all pretty colours!

The following are pages from Fortune, Fate, and the Natural History of the Sarlacc, written by Mark Schultz and published in Star Wars Tales no. 6 (2000, Dark Horse). Watch an unfortunate victim plunge into the gullet of a merciless tentacled beast!

For comparison purposes: this is the original art…

And the following are pages from the printed comic:

I also mentioned Strøm’s career as an illustrator in children books. The results are beautiful, and, I sincerely hope, well-remunerated.

Panels from Het Zeemans – ABC (2008, Rubinstein Publishing) – or, in other words, Sailors’ ABC:

I didn’t have the heart to remove the copyright from this image! Visit Strøm’s website here. Look how many delightful tentacles one can squish into one panel!

2014 saw the release of the tentacle-wealthy Worse Things Happen at Sea (Nobrow Press), in which « historical ships are attacked, enveloped and engorged by monstrous sea creatures surfacing from the deepest depths of the darkest oceans. » Must be Strøm’s Nordic roots re-surfacing, though apparently he cannot swim!

~ ds

Treasured Stories: “Don’t Play That Ukelele!” (1975) and “Tender Feelings” (1974)

« There’s something about guitars, they’re just so big, you know what I mean? You’re just like, ‘Ugh!’ It just seems so overwhelming. And the ukulele is, like, the opposite of overwhelming. » — Zooey Deschanel

It’s no big secret: the chief asset of Gold Key’s line of mystery comics (The Twilight Zone, Thriller / Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Dark Shadows, Grimm’s Ghost Stories and The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor) was its (generally) painted covers, the bulk of the work handled by the prolific George Wilson, with occasional contributions by Luis Dominguez and Jesse Santos.

While the inside artwork also had its charms, the weak link in the chain was the writing. Pedestrian and formulaic, most of its anonymous load was borne by Paul S. Newman, one of the comics industry’s great cranker-outers. And so things ran their humdrum course, even with the arrival of talented DC expatriate Arnold Drake in the early 1970s. I strongly suspect rampant conservatism on the part of the editors, as even normally-compelling authors produced the same generic plots, ground out like under-seasoned sausage.

Then occurred a curious bump in the road: the unheralded, near-anonymous arrival of future Clown College alumnus*Connor Freff Cochran (1954-), who scripted (as Freff, when credited — a rarity at GK) a number of short tales for Gold Key’s anthology titles for a few years (1974-1977). Of those I’ve read, most docilely follow the publisher’s tame editorial formula. But there are exceptions, and they really do stand out. Here’s such a pair, which I’m boldly attributing to Mr. Cochran.

Interesting that writer Freff opted here for the obscure, alternate spelling of ukulele. Speaking of which, how do you think ‘ukelele‘ is pronounced? You might be surprised. Check here for the answer. And, er… 1907? “One of the earliest appearances of the word ukulele in print (in the sense of a stringed instrument) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Catalogue of the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments of All Nations published in 1907.” [ source ]
Man, that lake monster looks familiar. I smell a swipe.
And for the full multimedia experience, you can sing and strum along with George!

Ahem — sloppy research on Freff’s part:

The ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience during the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, held from spring to autumn of 1915 in San Francisco.

[ source ]

It is therefore highly unlikely that anyone on the American continent would have been plucking a uke, let alone that two random Missouri farmboys would spot a specimen from a distance. Not to mention the fact that the uncredited and unknown artist (no, it’s not Bill Molno, dear ignoramuses at the GCD) drew… a plain old guitar. Let’s face it, a banjo or even a mandolin would have made more sense.

In his defense, Freff recalled:

« I absolutely did write “Don’t Play That Ukulele!” But I don’t deserve the ding for the misspelling — that was the letterer’s error, which no one fixed. I will cop to not knowing (in 1975) that the ukulele wasn’t introduced stateside until 1915…but even there the story is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface. When I pitched the idea it was a guitar that brought doom down on our unfortunate swain, same as it wound up being drawn. But editor Paul Kuhn thought a ukulele was intrinsically funnier than a guitar, and he’s absolutely right about that. I remember us both giggling over the title when we came up with it. »

Oh, I fully agree. A pox on that sloppy letterer.

So, who is this Freff guy? Here’s a bit of self-provided biography:

At fourteen, he and his family moved to Placentia, California, east of Los Angeles, where he graduated from El Dorado High School a year ahead of the normal schedule. One of his fellow students had combined the words “friend” and “Jeff ” to coin the name “Freff ”— and while at first this remained only a nickname, by 1970 he had started signing his artwork that way, as well. Like many artists, Cochran entered the science fiction field doing “freebie” drawings for fanzines. His first paid job were pen and ink drawings for Andrew Porter’s semi-prozine Algol, done in 1972. In the same year he dropped out of Fullerton Junior College after two months of art classes to live on his own. He worked in various fields to make a living and “The rest was all just self-directed study and experimentation,” he says, adding “as a young pro, just starting out, I was lucky enough to be mentored ever-so-slightly by two of my early faves in the field: Kelly Freas and Jack Gaughan. At Kelly Freas’s suggestion Cochran moved to New York in September 1973 and started looking for work as an illustrator.

When that was not forthcoming, Cochran attended the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College — class of 1974.

In that year he got his first big break from Jim Baen, the new editor of Galaxy and If. Baen needed people who would work fast and cheap and put up with being paid late — in other words, the perfect opportunity for beginning artists like Cochran. By this time he was aware that other professional artists and cartoonists were named “Cochran”— and feeling that using his initials “JC” would be presumptuous — the artist in 1976 went to court and legally adopted “Freff ” as his professional nom de brush, and kept it during his years of magazine illustrating. Baen was so taken with the name that he put it on the cover of Cochran’s first cover for IF, as if Cochran was an author with a story in the magazine. After that “Freff ” did a lot of work for Baen, primarily interiors in black-and-white. He also did drawings for Cosmos, Isaac Asimov’s SF, and did cover work for publishers such as Dell, Berkley, and Doubleday. Cochran was selected to be one the artists in the special 1975 NASA/Smithsonian Artists Tour. After early success illustrating Zelazny’s “Amber” novels for Galaxy, followed by cover art and interior illustrations for a set of hardcover novels by Zelazny for Gregg Press in the early 1980s, Cochran became disgruntled over nonpayment for the use of his art in foreign editions of John Varley’s novel Titan, for which he had done a frontispiece and 16 illustrations—and the argument led to the end of Cochran’s illustrating in the field.

He turned to other endeavors, but briefly “dipped a toe back into the waters by collaborating on the first (and only) issue of an SF comic book called D’Arc Tangent” in 1982–1983. He did inking and penciling for DC and Marvel comics: Star Trek** and Tomb of Dracula***.

This is Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery no. 64 (Oct. 1975, Gold Key), featuring a painted cover by Argentine master Luis Dominguez. Don’t Play That Ukelele! isn’t even the cover story… there’s just a lot of aquatic peril in this particular issue.

And here’s the uncredited, utterly batty Tender Feelings, recognizably illustrated by another hardworking Argentine, José Delbo. It saw print in Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery no. 53 (Apr. 1974, Gold Key).

Part of my reasoning for attributing authorship of Tender Feelings to Freff is his penchant for light, deftly humorous tales that conclude with several characters meeting dismal ends. Churrr...

But… nope. The mystery of this mordant little tale remains whole. Freff helpfully eliminated himself as a suspect, and proposed some intriguing leads:

« I can’t take credit for “Tender Feelings.” I certainly wish I could, since it’s a delightful mashup/piss-take on DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man-Thing. But nope — not me.

The publication date I find online for that story is April 1974. But Gold Key titles usually hit the stands a month ahead of the printed date, and editors Wally Green and Paul Kuhn liked to have a solid backlog of finished stories on hand. That puts the likely writing window for “Tender Feelings” somewhere around August 1973, which means there’s a chance that “Tender Feelings” was written by Len Wein himself. Len did a lot of uncredited Gold Key stories, starting around 1969, but he stopped in late summer 1973. It would have been absolutely in keeping with his sense of humor to write something like “Tender Feelings” as a happy sendoff for himself.

My best second guess after that would be John David Warner…though if I really had to bet, I’d bet on Len. In any case, whoever did it was lightyears better than the usual Gold Key writer. Glad to see them get this recognition. »

-RG

*Class of ’74. As Freff himself stated: « The Really Famous Guy from our session was Bill Irwin, who went on to a great stage, TV, and film career, and was the first performer to win a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation.) I did originally intend to apply for the ’73 class, but I learned about it too late to make that year’s deadline. So I went to NYC instead to pursue art, while waiting for my next chance to roll around.. »

**he inked two drawings (one of them a double-paged splash) in Who’s Who’s in Star Trek (1987). That seems to be all.

***a pair of frontispiece illustrations in Tomb of Dracula (the magazine, that is: six issues, published Oct. 1979 – Aug. 1980); he also conducted a fine interview with Stephen King, published in issues 4 and 5 of TOD. Freff provides some illumination: « plus the framing graphics for the magazine’s title/table of contents page, plus I got to ink a bunch of ads for the magazine. The one I know they used involved inking Gene Colan’s pencils, which was hella fun and a childhood dream come true. I grew up on Gene’s work in DAREDEVIL, DOCTOR STRANGE, IRON MAN, CAPTAIN MARVEL, etc, and he was easily as big an influence on my visual thinking as people like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, or Jim Steranko. (I got to achieve another childhood comics dream when I got to re-pencil, ink, and color a Curt Swan drawing for the October 1988 cover of KEYBOARD magazine.)

I did a lot more writing than artwork at Marvel, but most of it was nonfiction material in their b&w magazines — 100+ articles for PLANET OF THE APES, DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG-FU, CELEBRITY, NOSTALGIA ILLUSTRATED, THE TOMB OF DRACULA, etc. »