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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.
« Pretty soon, they had me working at the stat machine and the PhotoTypositor, or touching up stripper photos for the Trocadero Burlesk ads. Mostly putting some underwear on them. I may as well have been Vincent Van Gogh, for all I knew. I was in heaven. » — Brooks recalls his formative years
At first blush, I’ve immensely admired cartoonist-illustrator-historian (and so on) Lou Brooks (1944-2021) and his assured line. An ever-eager autodidact, Brooks handily achieved a feat that sets the mind a-reeling: soaking up ‘low’ illustration styles and the essence of faceless pictorial ephemera (think comic book ads, matchbooks, bar coaster and napkin art…), Brooks miraculously derived, from this primeval soup, his unique style, paradoxically bland (by design!) yet instantly recognizable.
One of Brooks’ earliest jobs in the badlands of professional cartooning was a strip he produced for Scholastic‘s Bananas (1975-84), a skewing-slightly-older companion to the publisher’s big hit Dynamite (1974-92). Banana Bob, “Boy Inventor of Harding High” exploited the time-honoured gizmo formula hatched in 1912 by Rube Goldberg with the twist that here, the doodads were contrived by readers and given visual interpretation by Brooks. Banana Bob ran for the mag’s first twenty-nine issues.
Though Brooks had already developed his trademark style — as evidenced for other illustrations he did for Bananas — he didn’t fully employ it on the Banana Bob strip. If memory serves, here’s where I first encountered a full-fledged Lou Brooks wallop, and I suspect I’m not alone in this (our younger readers are likelier to have first come across his exemplary revamp of the old Monopoly game):
Here’s another, er, pair:
Of course, there’s so much more to Lou Brooks than one could conceivably cover within a mere blog post. To that end, we have a handy little biopic entitled A Guy Named Lou — filmed entirely in Illustr-O-Vision!
Brooks was an assiduous chronicler of the history of reprographics — don’t miss his jaw-dropping Museum of Forgotten Art Supplies. While he did a bit of everything to keep himself amused and occupied, he never lost sight of his vocation, of his one true love — I mean, he was in a band (with Bill Plympton!), but it was called Ben Day and the Zipatones!
I’ve talked about Harry Hanan‘s Louie before (see Louie Reads Some Ghastly Comics), but as this post dates from the early-ish days of WOT, it included only one image. My opinion of it has also changed. I called it an ‘endearing’ strip, but I’ve come to feel that the overall effect of watching this schlemiel fail at absolutely everything, day after day, is rather bleak. On the other hand, this daily drudgery makes his rare moments of joy stand out in stark contrast.
‘Hen-pecked’ husbands are a favourite topic of all manner of comedians, so in that regard Louie is not an interesting character; as a matter of fact, his insignificance and inability to stand up for himself reek of desperation, and he evokes a mixture of condescension and pity from the attentive reader. I like him best when he’s out alone, observing something weird happening à la Mr. Mum, getting the short end of the stick from inanimate objects – anything is better than being scolded and shoved around by his wife, really.
The series ran from 1947 until 1976. At the very beginning, Louie was an unlucky criminal; when the strip garnered some popularity and English-born Hanan moved to the United States, his character became an honest man, though he seemed to hold a number of different jobs, from the classic door-to-door salesman to soda jerk. He was considerably sprightlier and full of mischief, and instead of his ever-present wife towering over him, he had a shifting cast of females staring with incomprehension at his antics.
By the 70s, Louie is more of a tired shambling shell, constantly getting yelled at by his wife, his boss, or just about anybody, really. Still, some fun moments occur —
The line between domestic comedy and domestic tragedy is a thin one – one of my grandfathers, though not a loser, distinctly marched in the direction indicated by his wife (my grandmother), so I have developed an allergy to that kind of relationship early on. Your mileage with Louie may vary!
Willie Lumpkin was created by Dan DeCarlo and Stan Lee when Harold Anderson, the head of Publishers Syndicate (which merged into Hall Syndicate, which was eventually purchased by Hearst and is now part of King Features…) wanted a ‘bucolic’ newspaper strip set in some small town. The ‘friendly mailman’ idea is supposed to be Anderson’s, the family name Lee’s.
I cannot say that it’s a very funny strip (well, it was written by Lee, need we say more?), but it has a certain charm, and DeCarlo’s art is highly enjoyable, even though one occasionally feels like one has stumbled into an Archie story. DeCarlo liked drawing cheesecake, and we enjoy looking at it (for the heavy guns, visit RG’s Dan DeCarlo at Humorama (1956-63)), but in this case it is the other characters I am interested in, the kids with dirty behind their ears, spinster aunties in funny glasses, and of course the adorably bookish Lumpkin, the glue that holds the denizens of this small town together.
The strip ran from December 1959 to May 1961. Here are a few pickings —
I stayed mostly away from the aforementioned cheesecake, but here is an example of it:
If the name Lumpkin rings some sort of different bell for you, it might be because he got incorporated into the Marvel universe in 1963 – a much older Lumpkin became the Fantastic Four‘s mail carrier with issue no. 11 (February 1963):
Over his Marvel years, his back story expanded and expanded, reminding me of the Russian expression ‘a stopper for every barrel’. He seemed to have been shoved into every plot that needed some secondary character to do something, delivering letters left and right, getting wounded multiple times during various epic battles, and accidentally ending up immortal (as of 2019). Same old, same old. I bet he preferred his quieter days among courting teenagers and middle-class families.
« 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.
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).
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.
Here are three pages from more recent years, which also showcase Brown’s watercolours:
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!