« A black cat crossing in front of a person signifies that the animal is going somewhere. » — Jack Oakie
Oftentimes, tackling such a milestone as Bill Holman‘s Smokey Stover (1935-1972) comic strip is simply too daunting a task. Judging from the evidence (and evidence of absence), I’m not alone in being so cowed: despite the feature’s undeniable and pivotal importance, there hasn’t been a reprint collection solely devoted to it* since 1985, when San Diego Comic-Con founder Shel Dorf and Blackthorne Publishing issued a humble volume in their Comic-Strip Preserves series. Humble it was, but packed to the rafters with Holman’s delightfully surreal wit and screwball genius. A mere 72 pages in the comic book format, but hours of reading, thanks to the astounding density of their contents.
If one were to take Wikipedia at its word, one might loudly rejoice at Hermes Press’ 2012 release of Smokey Stover and Spooky the Cat: The Collected Sundays. But, as an Amazon reviewer archly quipped, circa 2017, « It’s difficult to write a review when the book has not been published. » The ensuing five years have not improved the panorama one bit.
Well, I’m not going to explore Smokey Stover on this occasion… but will instead sneak a squint at its equally delightful ‘topper‘, Spooky the Cat. Since you rightly might ask:
« A topper in comic strip parlance is a small secondary strip seen along with a larger Sunday strip. In the 1920s and 1930s, leading cartoonists were given full pages in the Sunday comics sections, allowing them to add smaller strips and single-panel cartoons to their page. »
The credibly devoted student of the comics would be ill-advised to underestimate the size of Holman’s footprint in the field: were they still around, it’s a cinch that Basil Wolverton, Jack Cole, Boody Rogers and Harvey Kurtzman would be quick to confirm Holman’s influence on their work. And that’s just some of his more-or-less contemporary peers.
Well, Kurtzman did in fact explicitly go on the record on that point, in the course of his introduction to the Blackthorne collection:
« Those outrageously outrageous and the nonsense words that appeared in no particular place for no particular reason. ‘Foo!’ ‘Notary Sojac.‘ Could it be that that’s what inspired me to ‘Potzrebie‘ and ‘furshlugginer‘? Was it Holman’s technique, those ‘tchochkas‘ in all corners of the panels? Picture portraits, with the portraits come to life, jumping out of their frames? Could that have been what inspired us to fill our MAD Magazine panels with those nonsensical details? Could that have been it?
I think so, Bill Holman. I think that you stamped my young, impressionable, brain with your indelible ink. So ‘Foo’ to you and many more ‘Notary Sojacs’, Bill Holman. You made me what I am today, I hope you’re satisfied. »
« Hey, Look! is essential reading for any cartoonist. » — the late and much-missed Patrick Dean, who truly knew what he was talking about.
Sometimes I think of a post topic and dismiss it with a ‘nah, too obvious’… but on some of my brighter days, I run the idea past my wife, who provides a welcome reality check: ‘Obvious to whom?‘, she asks. Well, there’s been a collected edition… which has been out of print for most of the nearly thirty years since it hit the stands. Fair enough.
As I’ve been lately foraging through the crumbling back pages of Golden Age humour comics (see my previous post), it would be negligently immoral for me to pass over one of the crown jewels of the genre, the era and the medium.
One* of the redeeming features of Marvel’s overwhelmingly crass Dynamite (magazine) rip-off, Pizzazz, was its reprinting of a handful of Harvey Kurtzman‘s majestic Hey Look! strips. Of course, it made perfect economic sense: grab some already (and barely)-paid-for, all-but-forgotten ‘filler’ from the 1940s, slap some new colour on ‘em, and wham! One less egg to fry.
« Be silent in that solitude which is not loneliness — for then the spirits of the dead who stood in life before thee are again in death around thee — and their will shall then overshadow thee: be still. »
— Edgar Allan Poe (1829)
It was on this day, two hundred and ten years ago, that the great writer, poet and posthumous master of all media Edgar Poe (Jan. 19, 1809 – Oct. 7, 1849) was born in Boston, Massachusetts. I’ll spare you the usual biographical details, widely available elsewhere, and we’ll concentrate on his unflagging ubiquity in the medium of comics.
Classics Illustrated publisher Gilberton was first out of the gate with Poe adaptations, at first tentatively with a pair of poems (Annabel Lee, then The Bells)**, then more substantially with The Murders in the Rue Morgue, in Classic Comicsno. 21 – 3 Famous Mysteries (July, 1944), sharing the stage with Arthur Conan Doyle and Guy de Maupassant. Read it here. Pictured below is Classics Illustratedno. 84 (June 1951, Gilberton), cover by Alex A. Blum. Read the issue here.
« Tous les merdeux ricanaient en se disant qu’une revue sans merdeux à la tête, ça ne marcherait jamais.* »
In issue 63 (April, 1974) of the recently rechristened « Charlie Mensuel » (to avoid confusion with its sister publication, Charlie Hebdo, yes, *that* Charlie Hebdo), insightful bandes dessinées critic and French national treasure Yves Frémion-Danet (b. 1947, Lyon), writing under his « Théophraste Épistolier » nom de plume, provided a classic essay accompanying a reprint of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder‘s « Goodman Gets a Gun », originally published in Help no. 16 (Nov. 1962, Warren). In his piece, Frémion posits that, with his 28 issues of Mad / Mad Magazine, Kurtzman’s brand of satire completely changed the rules of the game, and that despite an utter lack of commercial success and name recognition for himself and his work (reportedly, a French edition of Mad was published in 1965-66, for six or seven issues) on the continent, his influence on a significant swathe of the subsequent generation of French and Belgian cartoonists easily validates his vital importance.
Frémion spares no praise for Kurtzman’s acolytes Elder, Jack Davis, Basil Wolverton, Wally Wood and John Severin, and publisher Bill Gaines, but has nothing but contempt for editorial successor Al Feldstein (“vile copier”, “lumbering”, “regular”…). Frémion charts Kurtzman’s subsequent projects and associations, and his rôle in the rise of Underground Comix. Recommended reading… if you can read french.
Ah, but that brings us to an apt illustration of that creaky adage, « A picture is worth a thousand words »: as it happens, the legendary Marcel Gotlib (b. 1934, d. 2016), speaking of influential, provided a quartet of original illustrations to put across what comics were like Before and After Kurtzman, commenting at once on American comics and on Franco-Belgian bande dessinée, with a snappy Gallic twist. Like Goofus and Gallant, but with far more tongue.
It took me a long time to come to terms with Gotlib. In my formative years, in Québec, his was such an outsize, smothering influence that one got quite sick of him. To be fair, not of him so much as his multitudinous, third-and-fourth-rate would-be clones. His style was easy to imitate, yet difficult to master. You see how that could easily careen off the rails?
*« All the shitheads giggled, telling themselves that a magazine without an shithead in charge never would stand a chance. » – Théophraste Épistolier
« Thought I’d inject a little excitement into this initiation… do I look any worse for wear? »
When EC überfanRuss Cochran launched his incredibly ambitious series of hardcover sets of the complete EC Comics in the late 1970s, there was simply no way I could afford the lot… so I gathered my shekels and mail-ordered a single volume of Tales From the Crypt (no. 3, midway through the run) and further managed to sweet-talk a nice lady at the local public library into ordering the first volume of Weird Science (years later, I would meet a couple of kids who’d become obsessed with the book, signing it out dozens of times and wondering how it had ever come to be acquired by our small, mostly francophone library).
Since the EC formula (meaning Bill Gaines & Al Feldstein) does wear thin with prolonged exposure, I gravitated to the outliers: Harvey Kurtzman, Johnny Craig, Bernie Krigstein, the Bradbury adaptations… but the true revelation in these volumes turned out to be John Benson and Bhob Stewart’s superb documentary notes, comprising astute analyses and eloquent interviews with the surviving participants… which are nowadays down to, well, colourist Marie Severin.
Anyhow, I was particularly intrigued by Gaines and Feldstein’s early system of “springboards”, which is to say that they based stories upon anecdotes encountered in newspapers and magazines. One title evoked time and again is Try and Stop Me (1944)*.
From John Benson’s documentary notes in Haunt of Fear, Volume 1 (1985):
« ‘House of Horror’ [Tales from the Crypt no. 21, Dec. 1950 – Jan. 1951] is even more directly derivative; the story is merely an elaborated version of an anecdote from the Trail of the Tingling Spine chapter of Bennett Cerf’s Try and Stop Me, which was the source of a number of EC stories. Kurtzman remembers the story as ‘an ass-breaker.‘ It was the first story he did for the EC line and he wanted to make a good impression. ‘It was the effort that got me the EC account.‘ ».
House of Horror was scripted by Ivan Klapper, who contributed a few stories, early in the EC horror titles’ run. He went on to work on John Newland‘s 1959-61 anthology show, One Step Beyond.
If you’re used to the usual rubbery, sketchy (but deceptively spontanous-looking) Kurtzman, brace yourself.
*I lucked out and found a nice copy in the 1980s… for $4.50, according to the usual lightly-pencilled note on the flyleaf.