Nothing Much Happens to Mr. Mamoulian

« Somebody said that drawing a page of comics ought to be as easy as writing a letter to a friend. So I did just that. I took a bit of paper and drew in ink whatever came into my head. I tried to surprise myself. If I made a mistake it would just have to stay there. » — Brian Bolland

Brian Bolland‘s habitual style is easy to recognize, and co-admin RG and I are both fond of it. But there was a time when the normally meticulous Bolland decided to do something different, something much more sketchy and spontaneous. The result was the vaguely Armenian-sounding Mr. Mamoulian, who doesn’t look much like one of Brian Bolland’s ankle-biters (unless one is the proud owner of a perceptive eye)… until he encounters some pretty women, which are a dead giveaway.

Mr. Mamoulian, a pervy sort of ‘older’ (40-ish?) guy prone to bouts of nihilism and crippled by self-doubt, engages in the sort of things listless people do, when they are not quite sure how to occupy their time*: sit on park benches while others are at work, shuffle stuff around their apartment from point A to point B (and back again), enjoy a cuppa, and stare at the ceiling after waking up in the middle of the night. He is obsessed with feminine beauty, but uneasy with the ramifications of being obsessed with it. Rattled by the passage of time, irked by life’s idiosyncrasies, trapped in and by his body, he’s nevertheless a silly and rather comforting presence as we follow him on one of his aimless traipses around the rainy countryside, witness one of his exchanges with his imaginary naked lady friend (Bubbles Bourbasch), or coo at his surprisingly congenial friendship with punkette Evelin Shit-Face.

* These days, of course, one just stares into a cellphone/binge-watches a show on whatever streaming service, which is prompted by the same impulse, but it somewhat less romantic.

The proverbial beautiful English weather.
The early days of the fragile friendship between Mamoulian and Evie (who, for all her punky pretensions, is a rather well-mannered, thoughtful young woman).
Mamoulian is silent – does he condone Mr. Carstairs’ patter? Disapprove of it? Probably a bit of both. In the end, it’s his behaviour that matters – Evie is a person to him. As for Mr. Carstairs, he’s a spot-on portrayal of a first-class hypocrite.
Here Mamoulian’s reflections are reminiscent of the philosophical musings of Marc Hempel’s Genital Ben.

Mr. Mamoulian is arguably a peephole right into Bolland’s id, but it’s not at all an uncomfortable experience (unlike, say, peeking into the mind of Chester Brown, who creeps me out in a big way), even when the strip goes creepily dreamlike, or addresses uncomfortable topics (for some, the couple of bondage-related pages – not included here to avoid ruffling feathers – would be it; apparently ‘Bolland is noted by some for his use of bondage imagery‘, though I honestly think that’s a bit of an overstatement). In the end, Mamoulian’s character is casually tapping into many sources of frustration and confusion that rattle around most human heads. He is relatable.

Bolland calls Mr. Mamoulian ‘not very good’, but I obviously disagree with this assessment, as you’ve probably noticed by now. I love the sketchiness of the art, its surreal energy. The strip is, by turns, hilarious, depressing and always very, very British (and not just because of the continuous tea-drinking). I believe we can all relate to Mamoulian’s struggles with being alive, and the notions of freedom and art. We also get tantalizing glimpses of punk and metal scene through Evie and Steve’s interludes.

Mr. Mamoulian’s first encounter with Bubbles (off screen), who is later to visit him at night as her imaginary nude self. Interestingly, it seems to be her name, not her looks, that stuns his imagination.
One of American Suzy’s many conceptual experiments.

In terms of style, both in terms of art and storytelling, I suppose this strip fits comfortably into a set of British semi-autobiographical strips from the mid to late 80s – Eddie Cambpell’s Alec and Glenn Dakin’s Abraham Rat, for example, both of them also gloriously funny and contemplative and excellent. As a matter of fact, Mr. Mamoulian was first published in Paul Gravett‘s Escape Magazine* (read a lovely article about it here**), home of Cambell and Dakin’s strips as well…

* Mr. Mamoulian first appeared in Escape no. 11 (1987).

** To quote from the aforementioned article, Glenn Dakin in The Comics Journal no. 238, October 2001, explained that Escape “provided a focal point for people. People would meet up and discuss their dreams and ideas and get together as friends or have arguments and fall out and sometimes even if somebody annoys you or if somebody didn’t seem to have respect for your work, that would be enough to fill you with enough anger to go out there and try to prove them wrong.” Recently, John Bagnall told me, “To some readers at the time, Escape Artists were sometimes generalized as the school of strips “where nothing happened”, but their approaches were actually much more disparate. As for the social scene, there was a loose sense of unity when we would meet up in London, though naturally not everyone got on well or were even huge fans of certain people’s work.

~ ds

Still Henpecked After All These Years: Harry Hanan’s Louie

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.

Daily from August 2, 1952, seventy years ago and change!
Three daily strips from 1954.
Sunday strip from December 15, 1957.

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 —

Strip from January 1, 1970. This is the one that made me think of its contemporary (and infinitely superior, sorry) strip Mr. Mum.
Strip from May 3, 1972. Attempts to discipline others as payback for the moments when you are the one being ordered around always backfire…
Strip from January 10, 1972. Once Louie abandoned his omnium gatherum of jobs, he settled down as a typical office worker with an equally typical tyrannical boss.
Strip from 1972 (exact date unknown). The wife looks downright vindictive, which is interesting since quilters I know tend to have the facial expressions of any person engaged in a beloved craft – enthusiastic, peaceful, or concentrated…
Strip from November 14, 1972. An office worker, and one of British origin at that, surely would have an umbrella in his possession?
 Sunday strip from July 20, 1975, in which Louie gets (meekly) combative.

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!

~ ds

Trust the Man From Cancer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

« Sez who? »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-RG

Brian Bolland’s Indomitable Animal Animus

« Even as a youngster reading 2000 AD from its first issue in 1977, it was clear that Brian’s artwork was special. It was the perfect mixture of American-inspired dynamism, a British sense of the absurd, and avant-garde European SF imagery, rendered in meticulous, almost inhumanly perfect linework. It was a deeply seductive style… » — David Roach

As far as I can tell, everyone loves Brian Bolland‘s (b. 1951) work. It’s sophisticated in design yet direct, highly detailed yet clean as a whistle *and* neat as a pin, technically adept, varied but unfailingly his. As a sequential cartoonist, he can be a bit stiff, but as a cover artist, he’s pretty untouchable. For about a second and a half, I was tempted to spotlight his work in our Hot Streak! category, but that would have been absurd, such is Bolland’s high level of consistency and volume of work. So I’ll “merely” feature an even dozen of his Animal Man covers (out of a total of 64, 1988-1993).

After Alan Moore made an unexpected splash with his work on Swamp Thing, the folks at DC scrambled, in ‘have you got a sister?‘ fashion, to strip-mine the UK’s writerly talent pool. In came Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Pete Milligan, Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, and so on…

For the cockiest of these writers, the typical bravura move was to prove their commercial acumen by revamping the most obscure existing character they could think of* (typically, characters DC’s then-editors had never heard of); in Gaiman’s case, it was Sheldon Mayer’s Black Orchid**, and in Morrison’s, Animal Man. As minor characters (a lesson learned from Alan Moore’s Watchmen), these heroes could be subjected to numberless and unceasing torments and humiliations at the writer’s whim.

Created by writer Dave Wood and illustrator Carmine Infantino, Animal Man was introduced, sans costume at first, presumably as he was intended as a one-off, in DC’s long-running SF anthology Strange Adventures no. 180 (Sept. 1965). First known as A-Man, he gained his superhero togs in his third appearance, Strange Adventures no. 190 (July 1966). After a mere five appearances in SA, he virtually vanished… until the second ‘British Invasion‘.

This is Animal Man no. 5 (Winter 1988, DC); logo by Todd Klein. In this celebrated issue, Grant Morrison mashes up the Bernie Krigstein segments of Harvey Kurtzman‘s Bringing Back Father! (Mad no. 17, Nov. 1954, EC) and Alan Moore and Don Simpson‘s In Pictopia! (Anything Goes! no. 6, Dec. 1986, Fantagraphics) then anoints the ointment onto a Wile E. Coyote/Jesus avatar.
This is Animal Man no. 7 (Jan. 1989, DC). Bolland’s tonal versatility is a tremendous boon, his superpower, if you will. He brings to this cover a deft comic touch intended, but sadly lacking from the inside story.
This is Animal Man no. 18 (Dec. 1989, DC), a clever reverse-emphasis homage to one of the great covers of the 1960s, Carmine Infantino (designer) and Neal Adams (penciller-inker)’s Strange Adventures no. 207 (Dec. 1967, DC), winner of the 1967 Alley Award for best cover of the year.
This is Animal Man no. 24 (June 1990, DC). Bolland has a ball redrawing classic Silver Age covers… including issues of Brother Power the Geek, The Inferior Five and Swing With Scooter! The central figure is an old Justice Society foe, the Psycho-Pirate (Mark II in this case), created in 1965 by Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson. The GCD notes: « Cover prominently features several of the key comics that established the concept of the multiverse (The Flash no. 123, Green Lantern no. 40, Justice League of America no. 21). » Oh, you thought *Marvel* had come up with the ‘Multiverse‘? It’s high time you met Hugh Everett. And while we’re on the subject, here’s a touching song his son wrote about him.
This is Animal Man no. 25 (July 1990, DC), a sharp illustration of that old favourite, the Infinite monkey theorem.
First writer switch! Morrison out, Milligan in. This is Animal Man no. 28 (Oct. 1990, DC). Back to front: the Notional Man (with the forceps), the Front Page, Animal Man, and Nowhere Man (as in…)
A bold change of pace, this is Animal Man no. 36 (June 1991, DC). Milligan out, Veitch in.
This is Animal Man no. 41 (Nov. 1991, DC).
This is Animal Man no. 48 (June 1992, DC). At the centre of the gloopy pink monster hovers snappy dresser and fellow animal-powered justicer B’wana Beast.
This is Animal Man no. 49 (July 1992, DC).
Veitch out, Delano in, and a layout change to boot. This is Animal Man no. 51 (Sept. 1992, DC). By now, it’s pretty much a straight horror title.
This is Animal Man no. 54 (Dec. 1992, DC), a striking homage to Henry Fuseli‘s immortal painting, The Nightmare.

-RG

*To be fair, their first eighty-five choices likely had proved unavailable.

**Mayer had asked that his 1970s creation, The Black Orchid, never be given an origin or have her mystery dispelled. Gaiman just aped what Mr. Moore had done (but brilliantly) with Swamp Thing… and made her a literal plant. Bah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The Income-Tax Worm at Work’

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

~ ds

Anton’s Spivs and Scoundrels, Baronesses and Beezers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 14

« Upon its head, with red extended mouth and solitary eye of fire, sat the hideous beast whose craft had seduced me into murder, and whose informing voice had consigned me to the hangman. » — The Black Cat (1845)

What can I tell you about the legendary English cartoonist and bon vivant Hunt Emerson — born in 1952 in Newcastle and still devilishly active these days — that he can’t tell you in his own words?

Mr. Emerson has recently (and I do mean recently!) contributed a series of hi-concept short strips to Ahoy Comics’ gamut-running Poe-themed humorous horror anthology. Taking his place in a thematic thread that includes Tom and Jerry, Antonio ProhíasSpy vs Spy, Brian McConnachie and Warren Sattler‘s Kit ‘n’ Kaboodle, Massimo Mattioli‘s Squeak the Mouse* and Simpsons cartoon-within-a-cartoon Itchy and Scratchy, Emerson merrily escalates the hostilities launched in Poe’s The Black Cat, with Poe himself in the rôle of the narrator. Assume the position!

Originally published in Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror no. 2 (Nov. 2018, Ahoy).
Originally published in Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror no. 4 (Jan. 2019, Ahoy).
Originally published in Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror no. 5 (Feb. 2019, Ahoy).
You’ll get all these, and plenty more besides, in Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror Volume 1 (Oct. 2019, Ahoy), collecting the title’s first six issues. Cover art by Richard Williams, with a title logo by Todd Klein.

-RG

* not, by a long shot, Mattioli’s best work. *That* would be, without question, his nonpareil M le magicien (1968-73).

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 3

« Changing from the ghosts of faith to the spectres of reason is just changing cells. » — Fernando Pessoa

Today, let’s transport ourselves to the foggy, boggy British Isles, where every crumbling castle holds its lot of revenants and spectres within its mouldering walls.

The great cartoonist, tinkerer and beloved eccentric Frederick Rowland Emett (1906 – 1990) was evidently quite at ease within this spooky world, as you shall see. He first came to prominence as a prolific Punch cartoonist, beginning in the late 30s. In the 1950s, though at the height of his powers, he found himself struggling with waning eyesight (an exacting style was his!), so he brilliantly shifted his creative focus to building what he had hitherto been drawing. You may have encountered some of these creations in the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Emett and Roald Dahl… fancy that!).

Scores of his cherished kinetic sculptures — trains (“Far Tottering and Oyster Creek Branch Railway“), flying machines (“Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine“), mechanical computers (“The Forget-Me-Not Computer“), musical hydraulic clocks (“Aqua Horological Tintinnabulator“), musical instruments and nonpareil assemblages… are scattered far and wide across the world’s museums, many of these works restored and in fine functioning order. For instance, Toronto’s Ontario Science Centre owns ten or so (see them in action here!), and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum possesses a choice few.

Obviously, there is much to discuss about this astonishing creative soul (watch him at work!). In the spirit of manageable narrow focus, I’ve kept it to three of his spookiest Punch cartoons from the late 40s-early 50s. Just consider it an amuse-gueule, an opening salvo. We shall return with a more panoramic view, you just wait.

« But Sir Bedivere always walks the battlements at this hour. Can’t think what’s keeping him. »
« Some say it’s haunted by the First Earl AND the Ninth Earl… I wonder how they’d get on together… ? »
In a similar mood, here’s an excerpt or, as the Brits would say, an extract, from Far Twittering or The Annals of a Branch Line, being Some Interesting and Unusual Aspects of the Far Twittering and Oysterperch Railway Presented by Emett (1949, Faber and Faber, London). The caption tells us: « Locomotive No. 3 (Hector) at Mrs. Bristow’s Folly, now used as a water-tower. »
« I TOLD you never to take the 11:50 round by the Witch Hollow loop… ! »
A portrait of the artist, circa the mid-1950’s. Oh, he’s a wily one, all right.

« It is a well known fact that all inventors get their first ideas on the back of an envelope. I take slight exception to this, I use the front so that I can include the stamp and then the design is already half done. » — Rowland Emett

-RG

Battleaxe Headmistress, Hooligan Girls: Ronald Searle’s St. Trinian

« Quite suddenly I began to draw. No one paid much attention to this, nor to the fact that the drawings were immediately grotesque. This was assumed to be one of the penalties for being ‘cackhanded’, local dialect for mocking a left-hander, which is what I am. In addition, nobody suggested that there was anything ludicrous in the fact that, for the first time since the Searles had plodded their way through the bogs to escape the Vikings, a left-handed Searle was proclaiming that the had to be An Artist, instead of a gravedigger, or whatever. »  from Ronald Searle in Perspective (1984, Atlantic Monthly Press)

Who’s Out There? is a peaceful little family – we don’t often have disagreements about cartoonists or their art, and if occasionally one of us loves something while the other one is neutral about it, it doesn’t often happen that we are in total dissent. However, exceptions proving the rule, British illustrator Ronald William Fordham Searle (1920-2011) is one such point of contention: I like his style, co-admin RG doesn’t much care for it.  

I was a little late to the party, and came to Searle’s in a rather circuitous fashion. In a used bookstore (isn’t how these things always start?), I noticed a book called The Grapes of Ralph: Wine According to Ralph Steadman (1996, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), and was intrigued enough to purchase it. Steadman’s splotchy, wild style was perfect for a book about fermented grape juice – he frequently coloured his art in a manner reminiscent of wine stains, and the unhinged art hinted at the artist being more than slightly soused. Well… where, you may ask, does Searle come in? Steadman was heavily influenced by his style, so much so that for a while I embarrassingly thought that Grapes of Ralph was actually illustrated by the former.

One of the more focused splashes (haha, wine splashes, right) in The Grapes of Ralph.

However, Searle has proven to be a lot more appealing to me from an aesthetic viewpoint – I have kept The Grapes of Ralph, but I don’t glance in its direction often. As for co-admin RG, he explains that he mainly dislikes Searle for being responsible for bad copy-cats like Steadman.

There are plenty of articles written about Searle – his extensive body of work has gained its share of acclaim and awards, and many appear illustrators appear to have been heavily influenced by his style. For example, The War Drawings of Ronald Searle from Illustration Chronicles tells the story of how Searle survived, and chronicled with daily sketches, the experience of being a Japanese prisoner of war. There is no need for me to go over that chunk of history. That being said, a lot of his books are quite out of print, and those are generally the ones I find most interesting. Before Searle’s art went progressively more speckled and unfocused (which is what Steadman, with whom this post started, is mostly channelling), his drawings had a crispness of exaggeration I find really appealing, a certain floweriness under the cover of which very acerbic (and very British) observations are delivered to the delighted viewer.

An example of looser lines of later years (this is from 1980); still enjoyable because the palette is restrained.

My favourite is his St. Trinian series (from 1941 and onwards), chronicling shenanigans at a boarding school for girls. What started as a series of doodles to amuse a friend’s schoolgirl daughters became an institution of its own – this topic was so popular that Searle’s cartoons were even adapted (awkwardly, in my opinion) into seven (!) movies. I recommend this helpful article from Tweedland The Gentlemen’s Club for historical details. For all the popularity of these schoolgirls from hell (in any obituary, you’ll find some sentence to the effect of ‘for many people, the St Trinian’s cartoons define Ronald Searle’s career‘), St. Trinian collections have been long out of print, for the most part, and one has to make do with mostly inferior, dubiously printed paperbacks claiming to be Best Ofs.

Knell Knudel from Lambiek Encyclopedia explains: « The topic [of boarding schools] had inspired many British novels before. But ‘St. Trinian’s’ was far less realistic and darkly disturbing, motivated by Searle’s war-time traumas. The little girls torture each other on a rack, collect mushrooms to poison people, drown each other at the beach or study books on how to shrink human heads. Amazingly enough, ‘St. Trinian’s’ became massively popular, despite the fact that the world was still recovering from a world war. In 1948 the first book compilation was published. Many more would follow. Gags appeared in countless magazines all over the world. Yet Searle quickly grew tired of his hit series. He felt its formulaic comedy severely limited him. In 1952 he brutally discontinued his hit feature by dropping an atomic bomb on the dreaded school! While it presumably killed its characters, it didn’t terminate its popularity. » 

The first St. Trinian cartoon ever published in print appeared in Lilliput (a monthly British magazine which deserves a post of its own) in 1941. This is Lilliput no. 25, December 1949.

Though quite a few collections of cartoons were published at the time, the following three are of main interest: Hurrah For St Trinian’s (1948), The Female Approach (1950), and Back to The Slaughterhouse (1952). Thanks to my bookseller friend Barney (visit his store!), I am the proud possessor of The Curse of St. Trinian’s: The Best of the Drawings (1993, Pavilion Books), a hardcover edition, which scratched the itch but did not quench my desire to own the original editions, with their gloriously yellowed paper and characteristic fragrance.

For example, admire the characterization of Angela Menace, as depicted in these three glorious cartoons (one could make a triptych):

«  Searle was born, in 1920, in Cambridge, into a socially anonymous background, where male children were expected to be clerks or minor civil servants. Placed almost squarely in the middle of society, he had the ideal vantage point from which to observe his country, without having to suffer the distortion of an undue affection for his origins. It is an easy background to shrug off if you know what you want to do with yourself, and Searle did know, from an early age. We felt obscurely that Searle’s drawings begged authoritarian disapproval simply by existing in such profusion. That they also flayed their subjects with a merciless and unforgiving line – both grotesque and precise – made it all the better. That it was done with such sympathetic relish made it even better than that. Parents were embarrassing, hypocritical cretins, either callous in the victory of worldly success, or living pitiable lives of continual defeat; schoolmasters incompetent frauds, either grasping, sottish, brutal, ignorant or half-dead. Searle got them just right. » — Nicholas Lezard, in an introduction to The Terror of St Trinian’s and Other Drawings (another best-of collection issued in 2006).

I love the new science teacher being so warmly welcomed by both headmistress and schoolgirls – they all seem genuinely delighted.

Seeing the wonderfully blasé headmistresses gingerly stepping over corpses, one can’t help but reminisce about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or Miss Pym Disposes.

The Female Approach, interestingly enough, featured plenty of men, too…

… alongside the usual ingénues (who have no idea what they’re doing, but they do it anyway) and temptresses (who know exactly what they’re doing).

“Do you want the time?”

Searle died in 2011 in his beloved France, where he had been living since 1975. He was 91 years old, and spent his last years as a bit of a recluse (though still drawing), far away from the public’s eye – when he passed away, one got the impression that some thought he had done it already years ago. As for St Trinian’s, its popularity seems to sort-of, kind-of linger on: there was yet another movie in 2007, though I would posit that we need fewer movies, and more proper, hardcover reprints of the material that left an enduring trace in people’s memories.

Have a gander at Perpetua, a wonderful website dedicated to everything Searle.

~ ds

Tentacle Tuesday: Tentacles Aren’t So Bad, My Old Fruit*

« The land of embarrassment and breakfast. » Julian Barnes

Ah, yes, it’s time to paddle once again to British shores, after fortifying myself with a few dainty tea sandwiches. In rough chronological order…

Here is a Dr What and His Time Clock strip I found on the excellent Blimey! The Blog of British Comics. I’ll quote Lew Stringer, its author, who is a lot more knowledgeable about British comics than I’ll ever be: «... a weekly humour-adventure serial that ran in Boys’ World in 1964, published by Odhams. The hairstyle and clothing of the character is obviously based on that of the first Doctor as portrayed by William Hartnell. Here’s the episode from Boys’ World Vol. 2 No. 33, dated 15th August 1964. The art is by Artie Jackson, who later drew Danger Mouse (preceding the TV cartoon of the same name/concept) for Smash! in 1966. Jackson also drew many of the Danny Dare strips for Wham! »

Dr What and His Time Clock strip from August 1964, drawn by Artie Jackson.

In case you didn’t know, a beano is British slang for a noisy festive celebration, or, in other words, some sort of a party. Biffo the Bear is not my favourite character from this very long-running publication (started in 1938, still ongoing), but I really like the way this octopus is drawn.

Beano no. 1435 (January 17th, 1970, D.C. Thomson). Cover by David Sutherland.
Chips from March 10th, 1973. The cover is drawn by Mike Lacey, son of adventure strip artist Bill Lacey.

Scream Inn, written and illustrated by Brian Walker, was a beautifully-drawn strip published in Shiver and Shake (and, later, Whoopee!). The location: a hotel run by ghosts. The premise: these ghosts delighted in playing pranks on humans, and offered a million pounds to anybody who would manage to stay at their hotel for an entire night. Readers were invited to suggest what type of person could make it through the night (and were granted a one quid reward if their suggestion made it into a story).

In this one, a friendly octopus is borrowed to terrify a clown:

Scream Inn page published in Whoopee! from June 4th, 1977.

Cookie’s many-tentacled friend Olly makes another appearance a month later, this time used to spook “Jake the Peg with an extra leg”.

Scream Inn detail published in Whoopee! from July 16th, 1977.

Incidentally, isn’t this a nice header?

Elephant on the Run ran in Cheekly Weekly and was drawn mostly by Robert Nixon, with some other artists occasionally filling in. This strip boasted a pleasantly surreal premise: the elephant, Walter, is being relentlessly pursued by a mysterious man in a plastic mac… and suffering from a bad case of amnesia after an unfortunate circus act mishap, he has no idea why he’s being hunted, or what the man wants from him. Still, he runs! Both of them donning a range of improbable costumes to fake each other out – as in the following strip, in which Walter dresses, among other things, as a one legged pirate to elude detection. This sort of wackiness is why I love British comics.

This instalment of Elephant on the Run was published in Cheeky Weekly of November 25th, 1978 and is drawn by Robert Nixon. Look inside this issue here.

I hope you enjoyed this foray into British tentacles! There are plenty more of that stuff in our archives – or go rummaging through the whole British category in THE SUN NEVER SETS ON THE BRITISH EMPIRE!

~ ds

*paraphrasing from ‘Pimlico’ by David Devant & His Spirit Wife. Here are these joyous goofballs: