think small!

« It did not occur to me that I might be a writer until I flunked out of my first year as a chemistry major, and found work as an apprentice writer of Volkswagen ads. » — Peter Carey

Ah, the delicate art of the soft sell.

You’ve surely heard of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency’s revolutionary think small campaign for Volkswagen, launched in 1959. You haven’t? Well, it’s only considered, by its industry, to be the greatest advertising campaign of the 20th century.

Until the Beetle hit the market, automotive marketing copy was full of bluster, and the images (often illustrated) were flights of fancy, emphasizing low, long lines and a fantasy lifestyle.

The clean, simple photography on a white background that emphasized the Beetle’s compact, practical form may seem commonplace these days, but it was a revolution in a world where Americans grew up obsessed with muscle cars, horsepower, and tire smoke. Making the car small, when the convention was to make it fill the page, was also novel. The simplistic approach to design and layout was totally contrary to the advertising conventions of the time. [ source ]

While I object to the misuse of the rather pejorative “simplistic” to denote what is instead commendably stripped down, uncluttered, or if one must, ‘simple‘… that’s the gist of it. After all, these folks are gearheads, not graphic designers.

One of the lesser-known components of the long-running campaign was a nifty 1967 promotional book that was graciously given away by one’s friendly Volkswagen dealer.

They gathered all the big guns and asked them to think small. Illustration by Charles Addams.

Let’s take a look inside.

One by perennial bon vivant Eldon Dedini, working one of his pet motifs, but with his customary panache. Under Eldon’s pen, the car’s lines acquire a lusty fluidity.
A beauty by local favourite Virgil Partch (1916-1984). Such a graceful line the man had. Simple… not simplistic!
Don’t be confused: like the Porsche and the Corvair, the VW Beetle’s trunk is located in the front of the vehicle. Cute details: the booted husband’s still-smoking pipe and his glasses remain in the garage. VIP delivers, as usual. Read how he met his demise.
An adorable entry from long-time The New Yorker cartoonist Henry Martin, who passed away last June at the age of 94. I can just hear the German accent.
Another Playboy regular, Phil Interlandi (1924-2002) stretches out a bit, and very successfully at that.
Yet another WOT favourite, Gahan Wilson (1930-2019). Here’s a birthday homage I wrote a little while back.
One from the book’s royal guest, Charles Addams (1912-1988). It’s a fine joke, but I find that many people don’t get it; it would have benefitted from a more vertical composition. Still, trust Uncle Fester to know what’s going down.
A second dose of Mr. Addams. I wasn’t going to say no to a giant mutated toad and toadstool. Here’s our earlier sampler of his macabre wit, from (un)naturally, our first Hallowe’en Countdown.
The couple of decades he spent drawing his successful syndicated strip about unceasing marital strife, The Lockhorns (whose début came the following year!) have perhaps dimmed the critical reputation of William ‘Bill’ Hoest (1926-1988). But he was quite good, when given a chance to stretch out a bit. It’s been since proven that women are the better drivers, incidentally.
And finally, a bat-entry from John Gallagher (1926-2005), a then-ubiquitous panel gag cartoonist in many of the biggest names in magazines: Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post, Look, True… I love the absurd size ratio between the members of The Dynamic Duo. That’s one sidekick you could accidentally kick aside!

-RG

Treasured Stories: “The Monster Maker of Madison Avenue!” (1967)

« I’ve learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one. » — Leo Burnett

Given that they’re often referred to as comics, or funnybooks, mainstream American comic books haven’t been nearly as funny as one might reasonably expect… particularly the ones that set out to be humorous.

In the scope of the Ages of Gold and Silver, the selfsame Pantheon of Exceptional Providers of Hilarity pops up as if on cue: Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge), John Stanley (Little Lulu, Melvin Monster, Dunc and Loo), Basil Wolverton (Powerhouse Pepper), Jack Cole (Plastic Man), Harvey Kurtzman (Mad). Pray note that these are all writer-artists*, hardly a negligible factor.

Humour being subjective, of course everyone will have their own favourite to contribute. The gist of my argument, however, is that comics books fail to raise guffaws to a level that, say, newspapers strips, animated cartoons and Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées routinely** do.

Meanwhile, DC Comics arguably boasted their singular genius humorist in Sheldon Mayer (Sugar and Spike). DC’s editors loved to divide and conquer, rarely allowing solo creators to take root, let alone flourish, in their tidy corporate garden patch. Given Mayer’s crucial early importance to the publisher’s rise, he was granted free(er) rein. Which leads one to ponder whether the assembly-line method, then, might not be utterly detrimental to quality humour.

So it was to my elated surprise that I came upon an authentically amusing (imho) tale betwixt the misaligned staples of a 1967 issue of Strange Adventures… what is more, uncredited. A mystery.

Which brings us ’round to another exceptional talent, a writer this time: long-time American Comics Group (ACG) editor Richard E. Hughes, who scripted most of the company’s mid-to-late output under an impressive array of aliases*** with a dry, deadpan, absurdist wit, most memorably deployed through the adventures of Herbie Popnecker, ably illustrated by Ogden Whitney.

In 1967, Hughes found himself at leisure with ACG’s demise (the final issues of its remaining titles, Adventures Into the Unknown and Unknown Worlds, were cover-dated August ’67). He passed through DC, scripting a smattering of stories for Superman czar Mort Weisinger (one might surmise that Kurt Schaffenberger, who worked for both editors, acted as the go-between), for Hawkman editor George Kashdan and Ghosts editor Murray Boltinoff before exiting the field. According to Wikipedia, « His final job appears to have been for Gimbel’s department store, composing response letters to customer complaints. » At least he’s received some posthumous recognition, as he was a 2015 recipient of the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.

I do believe I can detect the Hughes cadence in The Monster Maker of Madison Avenue! According to GCD, the uncredited story is scripted by one Dennis Marks, an animation writer working for Filmation’s The Batman/Superman Hour at the time… but I just don’t know. It would be Marks’ sole comic book credit, and a speculative one at that. Besides, GCD attributes the artwork to Joe Orlando, which is flat-out, laughably wrong. A frequent problem of self-styled art experts is that they wear genre blinders. Most would never be caught dead reading, say, a romance comic, so they wouldn’t recognize (though they should!) the distinctive stylings of Jay Scott Pike (1924-2015).

On with our tale, which originally saw print in Strange Adventures no. 202 (July 1967, DC).

As for the ads parodied therein, I’m no expert, but I can hazard a few guesses: The Fiend in Your Fuel Tank refers to Esso’s famous Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign; the housewive bluntly bestowing cleaning tips to her neighbour brings to mind Bold Detergent; The Green Knight surely lampoons Ajax’s White Knight; as for Popso Kooler’s Mister Power, it’s anybody’s guess. Pepsi commercials of the period looked great, but nary featured an animated lightning man. Anyone?

-RG

*Yes, Kurtzman (and Stanley) often worked with others to increase their output (and for the love of collaboration), but they fully controlled the mise-en-scène.

** They make it look easy… but it’s quite a feat.

***His imaginary roster comprised Pierre Alonzo, Ace Aquila, Brad Everson, Lafcadio Lee, Kermit Lundgren, Shane O’Shea, Greg Olivetti, Kurato Osaki, Pierce Rand, Bob Standish, Zev Zimmer… Fittingly, even Richard E. Hughes was a pseudonym: he was born Leo Rosenbaum.