«The kind of guy you’d love to have at your next cocktail party, he’s got a million hilarious anecdotes and he’s more than happy to tell them. »
In the early days of this blog, we talked about American cartoonist Arnold Roth (see « All cartoonists are geniuses, but Arnold Roth is especially so. »). But this was some 6 years ago, and back then I wasn’t too generous with images. Roth has now made it to the venerable age of 94, and hopefully with us for many years to come! Even without dipping into his contributions to Harvey Kurtzman‘s Humbugand (unfortunate name association aside) Trump magazines, there is plenty of material to showcase and giggle at.
Did you know Roth not only illustrated many jazz LP covers, but was also a sax man himself? Check out this awesome gallery of some of these covers on Drew Friedman‘s blog!
Here are a few pages from Arnold Roth’s Crazy Book of Science (1971), which offers a few suitably madcap pages:
Then there’s my beloved Comick Book Of Pets (1976) – ‘found, raised, washed, curried, combed, fed and cared for in every way‘.
Read his fascinating interview with Gary Groth here.
«Babies of course are not human — they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates. » — Richard Hughes
I am fairly neutral about children, and prefer to stay away from them for the most part (although there are some pleasant exceptions to this rule). However, I enthusiastically dig through children’s books when given half a chance, and greatly enjoy comics about ankle biters of the ‘wise far beyond their years’ variety. Some authors’ worlds are so compelling that one wishes to be teleported into them. Who wouldn’t love to hang out with Sugar and Spike, or Cul de Sac’s Alice, or Daniel Pinkwater’s Robert Nifkin?
Though I have no such desire to rub elbows with the faceless, introspective Leviathan, his perambulations are great fun to watch. As per his name, he’s more than a little bit of a megalomaniac – as one can argue that all children are. Bred from a long line of ‘more or less faceless neotenic grotesques‘, such as Crockett Johnson’s Barnaby or Walter Berndt’s Smitty, Levi is an infant trying to make sense of the world around him through philosophical musings, an occasional break through the fourth wall, and conversations with his feline companion, Cat.
His patriarch is American Peter Blegvad, son of Danish illustrator Erik Blegvad (which accounts for the hard-to-pronounce family name that I tend to misspell as ‘Blevgrad’, since ‘grad’ is a common suffix for a city in Russian*), more known for his musical career than remembered for his cartooning one. Leviathan was published in the Sunday section of British newspaper The Independent** from 1992 to 1999, and some of the strips were collected in The Book of Leviathan, issued in 2000 by The Overlook Press. The latter is how I came across this strip, in the apartment of a friend kind enough to give me his copy when he saw how absorbed I was.
Q: How did you get the idea of naming a tiny baby Leviathan?
A: From my own kids: they’re both, you bring them home and they’re bigger than anything else in your life.
Q: Why did you switch from Levi’s parents to the Cat?
A: The Cat was easier to draw.
Leviathan seems to invite a hate-or-love kind of response from readers; as Rafi Zabor notes in the introduction to the collection, ‘I have met a few intelligent, literate, artistically sophisticated people who just don’t get it, and their non-response to what is obviously just for starters a classic of its kind, assuming it has a kind, has always puzzled me. ‘ As somebody who belongs in neither camp, I would suggest that this strip sometimes has its head up it arse, and goes so far into self-indulgent metaphysics that it loses its anchor for the sake of willful obfuscation – and sometimes it’s brilliant and very funny. As if to demonstrate the former, Zabor finishes his introduction with ‘Words fail. Times change. Cats meow. Leviathan swims in its native deep, glistening through serial sea-green waters, sending off spectra of intelligible light as it steers with ribbed and radiant fins.’ Nevermind such dubious metaphors – I posit that it’s Leviathan’s playfulness, juggling as it does quotes from long-dead philosophers, questionable puns and surreal vignettes flavoured with Freudio-biblical mythology, is worth the occasional muddle through a high-concept strip that didn’t quite pan out.
* I keep misspelling his name as ‘Blevgad’, which would be very unmelodic to Russian ears, as ‘blev‘ means ‘puke’ and ‘gad‘ is sort of like ‘bastard’. I did in fact misspell it several times in this very blog post, until co-admin RG set me straight. Very embarrassing.
** Was this because Leviathan was too erudite and weird for American audiences? Blegvad was born in NYC in 1951, but was raised in England, spent some years in Germany, then returned to NYC in 1977. Given his proclivity for quoting British authors, I think his sensibilities lie more with Albion.
« This is the very center of everything there is. A huge black hole eating up the galaxy. The end of everything. » — Clifford D. Simak
Early in the Fall of 1979, I was pleasantly surprised to discover some new work by Jack Kirby in our weekend paper’s comics section. Things had been awfully quiet on the Kirby front since late 1978, the ‘King’ having unhappily — and quite understandably — left Marvel for the second time that decade.
This new work was part of the long-running anthology strip Walt Disney’s Treasury of Classic Tales (1952-1987). I dutifully collected the shabbily-printed comics sections and patiently hoped for an improved presentation.
Western Publishing, usual licensee of Disney product since its acrimonious split from Dell in 1962, then issued a Black Hole adaptation, in both a slick magazine and comic book format. But — holy bait-and-switch! — it wasn’t the Kirby version!
I’ve been musing over these riddles ever since (in my spare time). Recently, I decided to act by putting the question to one who was there… namely Mr. Michael Royer, who’s been most gracious to us with his time and recollections (check out our three-part interview with MR!). And continues to be!
RG: Mr. Royer, I’ve long been baffled as to why Disney (or Western Publishing, at any rate), thought it necessary to commission two separate comics adaptations of The Black Hole. I’ve always surmised that Kirby was considered too wild for them, but that’s just speculation on my part.
Since you were working for Disney at the time, and you inked the Kirby adaptation, I presume that you played some kind of role behind the scenes as well. Could you share some of the facts with me (and my readers)?
MR: Jack Kirby was selected to draw THE BLACK HOLE Sunday comic strip on MY recommendation. Gold Key editors always selected their OWN artist for similar licensed material… plus they were in no position to pay their artist the fee I got Jack. I inked and lettered HOLE and made necessary changes to the robots to protect the image for toy, etc. sales trademarks. Jack was an impressionist and I made the robots “on model.”
Jack became so bored with the scripts, that were done “storyboard” like by someone who had NO understanding of how to make comic art interesting and exciting, that he asked me to layout the FINAL Sunday page, which I did. I had told the powers that be at Disney that Jack must get his originals back but, of course, being Disney, they did not return them as they had promised. Jack only got the remaining pages not yet sold by the Circle Galleries after threatening Disney with a lawsuit. Disney gave me one of the Sunday originals because someone had spilled a cup of coffee on it.
The head of our Creative Services dept. at Disney was not a big fan of Kirby* and after I had inked the first Sunday he had another staff artist “fix” the faces, which stood out like what they became: inept changes. I yelled “DON’T CHANGE THE FACES!” They gave in to my warning.
It was an interesting time back then. Bob Foster and I were the ONLY artists in Creative Services who had worked in comic books and strips. They would never take our word about things until our department head, Bob and I, were on a conference call with Sylvan Beck (King Features Strip Editor in New York) and then they believed what we had to say about the ways a Sunday strip could be drawn to fit many formats. It was very frustrating at times knowing more than your “bosses.”. But… it is the same old story. Middle management was loaded with MBAs who didn’t know shit from shinola! We used to joke that if one had an MBA anyone could get hired at Disney… You didn’t have to know a damn thing about anything else except how to get the MBA.
RG:I’ve read somewhere that the Black Hole scripts were the work of Carl Fallberg. I mean, if that’s true, surely he wasn’t the one who storyboarded the script, as it’s a bit hard to reconcile ‘NO understanding of how to make comic art interesting and exciting’ with a visual artist of Fallberg’s calibre… might he have delegated the task to some flunky?
MR:It was Fallberg… storyboard layouts for each panel/page. I liked Carl and he was a nice man, but he had no idea how to “jazz” up the film visually and Jack wasn’t about to rock the boat, by being his usual inventive self. The script layouts were just like the film… boring. Just a blow by blow of what was going on in the film. The comic strip could have been exciting if Carl hadn’t just “stuck” to the movie. But, perhaps I am being too critical. Carl was probably “following orders” from our department head. When I tried out to do strip art for Disney in the late 60s or early 70s that same department head told me NOT to worry about “likenesses” of the actors. So when I told in my samples they were turned down because “no one looked like the actors.” Gawrsh…as Goofy would say. As I said… Bob Foster and I were the only guys in Creative Services who had ever been intimately involved in comic book or strip art production in our department. Things did change a bit eventually.**
I leave the final words to Mr. Royer, along with my earnest appreciation of his gregarious generosity!
MR:As a point of interest (or none at all), I designed and drew the Sunday page BLACK HOLE title panel as well as lettering, correcting robots and inking. I have a full set of B&W proofs if any one is interested in putting them into print. Offered to loan them to IDW but I guess they weren’t interested. My price must have been too high. Two comp copies of whatever they printed. LOL sigh.
*this was decades before Disney became perfectly fine with reaping billions upon billions from Kirby’s creations.
« Bonnie and Pepsi are obsessed with sex, but they’re not there for the male gaze. Their desire is frank and straightforward and more than a little demented, and it’s depicted with a bracing honesty that feels less like a political statement and more like Flenniken is reporting from the front lines with no filter, no safety net, and no intention of telling anything but the truth.»*
I first came across a Shary Flenniken‘s Trots and Bonnie strip in some random issue of National Lampoon. I can’t even really narrow down the decade**, as it ran within its pages from 1972 all the way to 1990. I was intrigued, but not enough to pursue it.
When New York Review Comics published a Trots and Bonnie collection in 2021, gathering 160 strips in a handsome hardcover volume, I was happy to finally be able to partake of T&B in a more organized fashion. One perplexing thing about this collection is that some strips were omitted due to concerns of misinterpretation***. It was apparently feared that some topics would be too controversial, or that the modern reader has lost the ability to interpret things in context. I would have liked the possibility of deciding what has or hasn’t aged well for myself. As it stands, this collection features strips offering a most varied list of topics to horrify the easily triggered (rape, racial epithets, kids getting shot, electrocuted and castrated – albeit by other kids – and pedophilia), so I am truly curious what the censored strips were about. I guess I am now doomed to collect National Lampoon issues (to be fair, the latter was home to many a great cartoonist – Rick Geary, M.K. Brown, Stan Mack, etc.)
Trots and Bonnie is a hilarious strip, and it’s also quite unsettling in the best of ways. While both cartoonists would surely be offended by this comparison, it makes me think of some of Charles Rodrigues’ work (see Charles Rodrigues’ Pantheon of Scabrous Humour) – the same electrifying unwillingness to shy away from difficult topics, although Flenniken was doing it to make a point, and Rodrigues would do it for sheer perversity. More than once while reading T&B I would start wondering how far a certain storyline would go – and it went all the way to its logical (call it immoral, call it stomach-churning…) conclusion. Just take the Dr. Pepsi’s Vasectomy Clinic from 1974, a panel from which made it as the cover of the collection –
«Two youngish girls, dressed as medical professionals, appear to be playing doctor with a young boy, who lies under a sheet, grinning blankly at the viewer while one of the girls, brandishing a pair of scissors, cheerfully communicates something to the other one. A sweet-looking dog with fancy eyelashes lies at their feet. It’s only once you know the particular strip it comes from, in which Pepsi (the shorter firecracker) and Bonnie (the taller girl) attempt to give neighbor kid Elrod a vasectomy and wind up referring to themselves as a sex-change clinic, that you blanch a bit at the art choice. There you go. That’s “Trots and Bonnie” in a nutshell. » [source]
It’s also a charming strip, with a heroïne who is refreshingly in no hurry to grow up (despite being prodded into it by her early bloomer friend Pepsi, ‘dressed in incongruously childlike pinafore paired with fishnets, a perfect metaphor for the terrifying underage sex fiend she is’). Bonnie dresses like a tomboy, hates going out with her parents, and collects sex magazines and prophylactics like other kids collect marbles. In a world of sleazy men with a creepy predilection for pre-adolescent flesh, she somehow manages to remain an innocent, and shrug off any unpleasantness in favour of a wide-eyed curiosity about everything, be it boys’ cock sizes or sci-fi movies.
In case that isn’t clear, I heartily recommend purchasing the Trots & Bonnie collection.
* This strip is hard to write about and do justice to, and I could not do any better than Emily Flake’s truly excellent introduction to the T&B collection.
** I found it – it was Women’s Erotic Art Gallery, published in 1975.
*** Flenniken explains, ‘the things that I did that we omitted here in this book, I think we looked at those and went, “oh, that might hurt somebody’s feelings or something.” That was me being naïve when I wrote those. A lot of times I was just exploring a subject rather than having a definitive stance. People are pretty darn outrageous today, more so than me. What has changed is what people think is offensive.‘
« Quake in the presence of the stack of bedside books as it grows taller! Gnash your teeth at the ever-moving deadline that the writer never meets! Quail before the critic’s incisive dissection of the manuscript! And most important, seethe with envy at the paragon of creative productivity! »
I hesitated a bit about writing this post, as it seems to me that everybody already knows (and likes) Scottish cartoonist Tom Gauld and therefore it’s a bit like launching into a review of a Beatles album (vaguely embarrassing, and completely unnecessary). I have also previously talked about him in Tentacle Tuesday Masters: Tom Gauld (and you can head over that way, if you want some biographical details of his life). That being said, his art is not nearly as ubiquitous as it deserves to be.
I happily received his latest book, Revenge of the Librarians* (2022, Drawn & Quarterly**), as a Christmas present, and I remain impressed by the scope of Gauld’s wit and his instantly recognisable style. He also has an impeccable sense of composition; each drawing is perfectly framed, often sneakily implying something happening almost out of sight, hinted at by a chunk of wall just at the edge of the panel, a partially seen open door, an alluring bit of tentacle. He’s funny but poignant. I can only imagine how many of his cartoons are pasted over the doors of professors in all fields and walks of research (it’s something people still do, right?) I can consume Gauld’s perfect little microcosms like semechki, but try to read only a few every day to prolong the enjoyment.
It was really difficult narrowing down today’s selection to ‘just’ 12 strips (I didn’t want to annoy my master-scanner co-admin RG too much). The following have been scanned from the aforementioned Revenge of the Librarians, as well as You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack (2013) and Department of Mind-Blowing Theories (2020). Enjoy this sampling, whether you are already a Gauld convert or have never heard of him!
See the janny? See ma granny? Ma granny hit um wi a sanny then she timmed the bucket owerum an he tummelt doon the sterr an he landed in the dunny wi the baikie in his herr.*
The home of Scottish strip Oor Wullie is The Sunday Post, distributed by D.C Thomson (publishers of, notably, The Beano and The Dandy). You may note that I used the present tense – this strip was brought into the world in 1936, but astonishingly it’s still going strong (it celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2016, to give a quick idea to those who prefer not to launch into mathematical cogitations). It has, through the years, gone through a number of different hands, but it was originally created by comics writer and editor Robert Duncan Low and drawn by cartoonist Dudley Dexter Watkins, who died very much in the cartooning saddle in 1969. His work was reprinted for a bit, until new blood could be found to take over, first in the shape of Tom Lavery (who was told to imitate Watkins’ style), then followed by a bevy of other cartoonists since then.
The Low & Watkins duo also came up with The Broons, which started the same year and ran in The Sunday Post as well, to the point where the strips were often collectively referred to as Broons & Oor Wullie. There’s a lovely documentary about The Broonshere.
Reading Oor Wullie is loads of fun, and a big part of that is its use of Scottish slang – not so much of it that action is obscured, but enough for plenty of colour and also the opportunity to pick up some new vocabulary. Did you know that ‘oxter‘ means ‘armpit‘, for example?
« […] the use of the dialect reflected the publisher D. C. Thomson’s ‘realist’ editorial policy and focus on authenticity. It was intended to attract a large Scottish urban audience and in this was really successful. Both strips were massive hits and at their peak had an estimated readership of three million (79% of the adult population of Scotland!)
One of the most interesting aspects of Oor Wullie and The Broons is that for most Scots they were/are the only mainstream, regularly available written representation of their spoken language. In being this they have an increased relevance within the current Scottish language revival. The National Library of Scotland is even using Oor Wullie as a means to introduce and engage children in the richness of the lexicon. It has a website that’s ‘a guid fun wey tae lairn oor language‘. »
Wullie (or William) is a pretty standard boy prototype: prone to mischief and frequently embroiled in neighbourhood fights, embarrassed when his mam dresses him in nice clothing, but basically an honest lad with his heart in the right place. In that sense, he reminds me of Sluggo. You may note that every page starts and ends with Wullie sitting on his favourite bucket – every boy needs a good friend!
The following strips have been scanned from a 1976 collection, ‘selected from the Sunday Post and earlier Oor Wullie books‘. The artist is the aforementioned Dudley Watkins (which I can confidently claim, as each page is signed – I also compared the art to some original Dudley art being sold online, and this conclusion seems legit).
To celebrate Our Wullie‘s 80th birthday in 2016, 86 statues of Wullie in different costumes were placed around Dundee for the Bucket Trail event (including Oor Bowie, a David Jones tribute). This was a great hit, and Wullie’s BIG Bucket Trail was launched in 2019, with around 200 statues installed all around Scotland. View them here, they’re really fun.
When one thinks that a Moscow-born Russian (that would be me) would be greatly enjoying a classic Scottish comic some decades later… the world works out in funny ways.
« Her surname, a familiar catchphrase of the time, was inspired by the inter-lyric expostulations of a nationally famous Paramount Pictures songbird, Helen Kane. ‘Boop Boo a Doop!’ was the chant she sang in her sweet, high-pitched voice, a flippant raspberry to the jazz age. Somehow these nonsense syllables seemed to embody the spirit of the waning days of the twenties… »
I think everybody knows Betty Boop, though probably not that many have seen the original cartoons from the 1930s. She was ‘created’ by Max Fleischer orchestrating a team of animators – as with any gestalt creation, one can argue about who was responsible for what until one is blue in the face, but it has been convincingly argued (by Bill Blackbeard, for example) that Grim Natwick was the actual creator, probably with a stable of other animators.
In 1930, Betty, then still nameless, made her first appearance in (the pleasantly weird) Dizzy Dishes as a supporting character, as a seductive canine anthropomorph with dog ears and human curves. She acquired more personality once she was matched up with Bimbo, another doggo, in Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) – which is an even stranger cartoon, a tale of hazing by a bunch of creatures with pulsating buttocks and candles on their heads pursuing Bimbo with chants of ‘wanna be a member? wanna be a member?’, to which Bimbo always responds ‘no!’ to get sent to yet another chamber of tortures. I would suggest not psychoanalysing that too closely. Watch for the grand WTF finale:
By 1932, Betty, who now had a stable position as Bimbo’s regular girlfriend and a name to call her own, had jettisoned her dog attributes, floppy dog ears quite seamlessly transformed into big hoop earrings. Though she was a’booping from the very beginning, she acquired her hallmark Boop surname with Betty Boop Limited (1932). The aforementioned Helen Kane* was not pleased, and there were, as Blackbeard explains in his introduction to Betty Boop’s Sunday Best: The Complete Color Comics, 1934-1936 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1995), ‘threats of lawsuits, various legal manœuvres, and demands for creator royalties, all without result‘.
In 1933, Hearst’ King Features Syndicate started negotiating terms for a Betty Boop comic strip, and in 1934 the strip, drawn by Bud Counihan, appeared. However, this was not exactly the same unhinged, hip-jiggling Betty of earlier years. King Features wanted to appeal to more conservative audiences, and Betty’s sexuality was toned down a notch. The animated Betty didn’t fare much better – as usual, guardians of Moral Purity™stuck their fingers in the pie, and from June 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code kicked into effect, forcing Betty to leave behind her carefree flapper days to become either a career girl, or some generic housewife.
Oh, but there was still plenty fun to be had. Besides, the comic strip Betty was not quite as smothered – while the latter was nursing babies and whatnot in a long dress, the former was still running around in her risqué red number, occasionally even kissing men and living the life of a spoiled movie star. Here are a few Sunday strips – thanks for co-admin RG for scanning these unscannables.
Blackthorne Publishing, known for their reprints of classic titles, issued three 72-page collections of Betty Boop reprints, comprising a mix of dailies and Sundays.
There are a lot of modern conversations about the meaning of Betty Boop**. Was she but a sex symbol, bent to the lascivious male gaze that created her? Or perhaps an early example of a feminist icon, in control of her own sexuality? Her combination of innocence and feminine wiles actually reminds me of Sally the Sleuth (see Here Comes Sally the Sleuth… and There Goes Her Dress!), as Betty effortlessly runs around half naked, thwarting rape attempts without losing an ounce of her cheerfulness. These questions mostly address a pre-1934 Betty, as her identity in the public eye seems to have been formed in those few years of unhinged actions and symbolism… as well as BB merchandise in the 1980s, as she was rediscovered by makers of all manner of goods (note that it was still her sexier form that was used on cups, lamps, t-shirts, keychains, and whatever else you can think of).
From recent attempts to revive the character, Gisele Lagacé and Roger Langridge‘s comic series comes to mind – more as a traumatic experience rather than a pleasure, despite being hyped as ‘insanely entertaining‘. Langridge is a WOT favourite, but in this case even his script cannot save Lagacé’s insipid art (‘Lagace’s art is amazing. Her characters emote in ways I didn’t think two-dimensional cartoons could.’ says The Court of Nerds) or the flat colours by Maria Victoria Robado (who normally opts for colourful images, so I’m thinking that the drabness was imposed upon her by the artist). At least some of the covers of this 4-issue series were nice…
« It is a privilege to be the master of destinies, and director of every urge and event in the lives of such a group of folks. They may be dream folks, but the responsibilities are real because I know these characters are real to many thousands of readers. » — Frank King
Pray note that, as these were originally published at a rather gigantic size — especially if you compare it to the lilliputian space allotted in newspapers for today’s comic strips — I consequently posted these images in a larger format than is my custom. And so, open in a separate tab to get the larger (and fuller) picture!
In the spirit of celebrating the spirit of Hallowe’en even from places it’s not traditionally celebrated, it’s now my turn — and my pleasure — to draw from the wondrous inkwell of Massimo Mattioli (1943-2019) and his finest creation, M Le Magicien, which ran, largely unappreciated, in the pages of France’s Pif Gadget from 1968 to 1973. My co-admin ds devoted, back in January, a post to the artist and his creation: Massimo Mattioli Mania: M le magicien, but I’d been reserving the rare but excellent ‘spookier’ M strips for this occasion. Mattioli would delve much, much further into the macabre, in the early 1980s, with his frankly excessive Squeak the Mouse. Ahem.
« There are three things I have learned never to discuss with people… Religion, Politics, and The Great Pumpkin. » — Charles M. Schulz
And… we’re back, as promised, in time for our sacrosanct (or should that be ‘impious’?) annual Hallowe’en Countdown.
I’ll keep it brief, as we’re still in the middle of an arduous longish-distance move. Oof!
To kick off this edition, I thought I’d reach for a true classic of the season. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to claim that few (if any!) have done more to disperse the pumpkin seeds of Hallowe’en than Mr. Schulz has — but in his ubiquity, he’s easy to take for granted.
Here’s a handful of choice strips from my favourite Peanuts period, the mid-to-late 1960s, just before Snoopy more-or-less pulled the lead rôle from under good ol’ Charlie Brown’s feet, to the strip’s detriment… though its decline was an elegant and leisurely one.