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.
« Silence at the proper season is wisdom, and better than any speech. » — Plutarch
When I think of cover layouts, I always recall the sage advice of my art school book design teacher, who posited that « a poster should be One Angry Fist », as you only have a second or two to make your point to the undecided consumer. That knuckle sandwich is what gets your message across, not a bunch of clichés and slogans; these only detract from the power of your image.
While we’re obviously dealing, in comics, with a commercial medium, it’s hard to not view it as creative interference, a lack of confidence**. While all publishers indulged in cover overhyping to some degree, Marvel and DC were the main offenders, and DC at least had superior title and logo designers***.
In the 60s, Jack Kirby created a massive amount of stunning cover art for Marvel… which editor Stan “Ne’er ’nuff Said” Lee buried, as often as not, under his trademark wiseass hyperbole. One might argue that this hardsell approach worked, commercially speaking. Artistically, on the other hand… well, the debate lingers on.
One could counter that cover hype only increased in the subsequent decades (imitated, amplified and distorted), and that stands to reason. That trend is pretty universal, since everything is getting louder, literally and figuratively: commercials, recordings, everyday life. Indeed: louder, sweeter, saltier, faster, meatier and of course cheesier.
Ah, but for what seems like a mere blip in its history, which is to say around ’68-’69*, Marvel somewhat dialled down the verbiage and let some prime Kirby compositions enjoy a bit of breathing room (at least on Fantastic Four, the company’s second-best seller — and number 16 overall for 1968).
This particular streak is circumscribed by two ho-hum (by lofty Kirby standards) covers: flat FF 81 and messy FF 88 (featured here)… which leaves us with plenty of goodies in the middle. Let’s take the tour, shall we?
In the face of all this, is it any wonder I found so refreshing the design quietude and purity of some recent comic books covers, such as the Chris Samnee creations we recently spotlighted? There’s hope, thanks to some enlightened folks out there.