Wednesday, April 15, 2009

 

Strip Teasers: Capsule Book Reviews


Hogan's Alley #16
(Bull Moose Publishing, $6.95)

I can't imagine anyone who reads this blog isn't already a subscriber to HA, so I won't flap my gums at length. This magazine is required reading for anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of comic strips and other cartooning genres. The latest issue of this more-or-less annual publication, which continues to offer 144 jam-packed pages at a ridiculously low price, is once again stuffed to the gills with interesting articles.

The star of the show this time is Jim Korkis' tremendous 19 page history of the Disney movie Song of the South. Although animation is not particularly my fascination, Korkis managed to hold my attention with all sorts of fascinating insider info on the production of the film and the controversy that has made it one of the few Disney movies not available on video (at least in the U.S). Bill Blackbeard contributes a perceptive essay on newspaper comic strip toppers, Stephen "Pearls Before Swine" Pastis is interviewed, plus articles on Jay Irving, the rare My Friend Irma comic strip, a behind the scenes look at Marge's Little Lulu and much, much more. Even an article by yours truly on the terminology of comic strip collecting.

Appeeling - The Best of Bo Nanas by John Kovaleski (self-published, 120 pages, available at bonanas.com)

Bo Nanas, which ran in newspapers from 2003-2007, had a pretty devoted fan-base, but I gather the strip failed to displace enough Peanuts reruns and computer-generated Shoes to keep Kovaleski stocked up with beer and India ink.

Bo Nanas is a monkey living a surprisingly average life in a city. Though Bo is a well-grounded fellow (for a monkey) he seems to attract weirdos and oddballs, and they always want to tell him just what exactly makes them weird. Bo listens politely and then makes a comment. This is the typical plot of the strip. When read one per day, Bo Nanas is a joy. The deadpan Bo is unfailingly amusing, not to mention sly, intelligent and erudite. What works well in a daily dose, however, works less well in a reprint book where we can get caught in the rhythm of this dance. After reading a half-dozen or so pages the gags become like those divisions in a concrete paved highway, the monotonous clunks barely noticed after driving for awhile. If you're the type of reader who can read a page or two and then put the book down for awhile, I highly recommend it. If, on the other hand, you usually read a reprint book from front to back at a sitting or two, you'll come away with little appreciation for Kovaleski's creation, and that would be a shame. Read the book but savor it slowly for the full impact.


Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: The Complete Newspaper Dailies Volume One 1929-30 (Hermes Press, 320 pages, $39.99)

I've read very little of the Buck Rogers strip prior to buying this book, so I was coming in with few preconceptions. I knew the basic plot, of course, but I was completely unprepared for the horrendously bad writing. Since the strip has legions of fans I have to assume that the strip got much better later on, but if the first two years are any indication, the improvement will have to be beyond my ability to imagine. I realize, of course, that much of the affection for the strip is pure nostalgia, but is that all there is to Buck Rogers?

But I can see a kid in 1929 getting excited by Buck Rogers. Since Buck was the first science fiction strip to appear in newspapers, all the conventions of the form that are old hat today were fresh and new. The action is beyond frenetic (an epic battle might be chronicled in a single strip, or even a panel or two), the technology of the future is pretty darn awesome, and the art, while relentlessly amateurish, is lovingly done. But the writing! It's indescribably bad. The characters talk and act like 8-year olds. The plots make no internal sense. The continuity is looser than a Mad Lib. And if all that weren't enough the stories are misogynistic. At least half the stories in the book take as their jumping-off point Wilma starting trouble by behaving like a unreasoning spoiled brat. The writer's obvious animosity toward women is perpetually on display and makes for tough reading. There is nothing purely old-fashioned or juvenile about the way the women of Buck Rogers are written. We're talking full-on psychosis.

I fear that Hermes Press has fallen into a publishing trap. No matter how much better Buck Rogers will get in ensuing years, I can't imagine many readers wanting more after completing the first book in the series. For the sake of fairness I'll probably get volume 2 if it is published, but if it's more of the same then I'll have to wave the white flag and leave Buck Rogers to the hardcore fans. This book is certainly not destined to create any new devotees for the strip.

On a technical level the book is very well done. The strips are presented at a nice large size on good paper and the restorations (from proofs, I think) are crisp. Frankly it can be hard to tell with art this bad just exactly how good a job the restorer has done. Ron Goulart, who we've heard from very little in recent years, provides the introduction. Welcome back Ron!

Spooner: The Complete Collection of Daily Strips Volumes 1 and 2 ($7.95 each, about 116 pages each)
Spooner: The Sunday Comics ($19.99, 132 pages)
Wild Blue ($9.95, 68 pages)

These four books are self-published by Ted Dawson and available at his website. Dawson's Spooner, a daily and Sunday comic strip published from 2000-2002 is reprinted in its entirety in three volumes. The strip concerns a young couple, Spooner and Roxanne, getting used to each others foibles as they embark on married life. Dawson is a good cartoonist, so good that I tried hard to like the strip. I failed, though, because the gags are flat (or non-existent -- many strips are designed to elicit more of an "Aw, aren't they cute!" reaction), and the characters are steadfastly devoid of any personality. Think Family Circus but set when Bill and Thelma first got married. It's all very sweet, but with such uninteresting characters I couldn't work up any interest in the strip. I did enjoy looking at the Sundays, which are delightfully drawn.

Dawson's Wild Blue, on the other hand, is a bit better. This strip was published in the Air Force Times from 2002-2004. The gags are still a bit flat, but at least Dawson gives himself some meat to chew on with a cast of Armed Forces characters who have some personality. I enjoy strips like this because of the insider's view. Same reason that I have a soft spot for strips in trade journals. Wild Blue is certainly no competition for Russ Johnson's masterpiece trade journal strip Mister Oswald, but we get to meet a group of interesting people and learn a little of what it's really like to live in their world. Co-created by Ted's brother, Steve, an Air Force officer, so the situations and characters ring true.

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Comments:
It's me. I'm the one who is (1) a reader of this blog and (2) not a subscriber to Hogan's Alley. Nor do I buy it from a book store any longer. I did pick up the first few copies, but the editors lost me after delving far more into topics other than the pure enjoyment and collecting of newspaper comic strips. If I wanted stuff other than that, I would have been reading the Comics Journal or Arf! But what do I know. I can enjoy early Buck Rogers without reading in an animosity toward women.
 
Your take on Buck Rogers is interesting. The first few years of the strip are the only ones I find interesting enough to go back to. Of course, it was the ideas within it rather than the literary value of the writing that distinguished it. In that way (great ideas, poor writing) it simply reflected the science fiction pulp magazines of the period. That said ... I have no proof, but I think that either Phil Nowlan's Buck Rogers scripts were tampered with and/or he was talked into dumbing them down for his audience. While he would never have been mistaken for John Steinbeck, the original magazine stories Nowlan wrote are light years ahead of anything that appeared in the comic-strip.
 
Hi David -
I'll grant you that not all 144 pages are about comic strips, but at $6.95 I think it's still a heck of a deal even if you like only a portion of the contents. What's a thin little copy of Newsweek go for these days -- $5 or so? HA showcases some of the best writing about cartooning history you're going to find. Where else can you get that at any price?
--Allan
 
Hi Hugo -
As a matter of fact I WAS wondering while I read the BR strips if there was any possible way that Phil Nowlan wrote at this level for the pulps as well. I haven't read any of Nowlan's Amazing Stories work (the Buck prototype story would have been a great bonus in the book) but it boggled my mind that someone who wrote this badly could get published elsewhere, even in the pulps. If Nowlan was intentionally dumbing it down for the kids, the pendulum was swinging WAY too far.

--Allan
 
Allan, there are a few scenes in Nowlan's stories that are quite haunting, one of them being a bloodthirsty description of Wilma in battle. As she battles the Mongol/alien hybrids, she becomes this absolute fury, taking down everyone with her, until her body hovers limp in the air, hanging between life and death by her anti-grav jumping belt. Again, I can't prove anything, but I think Nowlan planned her death in this scene, but editorial dictate demanded that she survive (whether for possible sequels or the comics I wouldn't pretend to know). If you're interested, you can access the stories online, since they're slipping out of copyright:

Armageddon 2419 A.D.
http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0601821h.html

The Airlords of Han
http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/25438
 
I'd like to thank you for your kind and generous comments about my "Song of the South" article in Hogan's Alley and it was my hope that such an article on the subject would attract others to discovering this somewhat unknown publication. I am very grateful that Tom allows a wide variety of subject matter in the magazine besides its primary focus on comic strips. I am a huge comic strip fan and have been for over forty years with a complete collection of CARTOONIST PROFILES adorning my bookshelves along with boxes of the earlier zines by Biljo White (The Stripper) and Bob Bindig and others. I am very grateful that you have created this website and share so many hidden treasures. I constantly refer friends here, especially when you ran examples of Buck O'Rue and Van Boring! Thanks again!
 
> And if all that weren't enough the stories are misogynistic. At least half the stories in the book take as their jumping-off point Wilma starting trouble by behaving like a unreasoning spoiled brat.

I think you fail to grasp the difference between "misogyny" and older role-based perceptions of women.

And how, praytell, are you so sure that Wilma didn't act like a typical woman of that time period (the 1920s) in the presence of men? Again, you expect them to behave now like they did then.

You have to be careful to adjust your expectations of other eras to match the prevalent ideas of the time. You have no reason to be surprised or revolted when you see a doctor in a 1950s film smoking a cigarette. It was accepted and completely normal then. The 1920s were a time of transition for gender roles. Women were getting first getting free of the strictures of protection which were a widespread part of society up to that point. It's hard to be sure what kind of behavior was truly typical then, and it's even harder to argue how that behavior *appeared* to the typical male reader of the 1920s, which is highly relevant to how it was reflected in the behavior of cultural icons of the time. Even if women didn't have the underlying motivations of Wilma, it may well have appeared to the young male of the time that that WAS how they acted and thought.

P.S., I haven't read that specific collection, but I've read other collections of both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Both are like ERB's John Carter and Pellucidar stuff -- sort of cheezy and unsophisto by modern standards but fun and simple in their own way.

If you can't get past those weaknesses to appreciate them, well, that's unfortunate. But when some "young punk" tells you that your favorite 40s movies are boring and slow (just an example for illustration, possibly not accurate), don't be surprised, that's the same sort of response -- an inability to transcend modern expectations.
 
> We're talking full-on psychosis.

LOL, you want full-on psychosis, go look at WM Marston's early Wonder Woman strips. The things would appeal to any bondage aficionado or masochist. "Submission to feminine superiority" and all that.

And this was written for true adolescents!
 
Hugo, thanks, I hadn't known those were available now. I've got a paperback copy of the first, obtained some decades back.

I'm rather amused, thinking back thanks to the title of the second one you listed, that Allan mentions misogyny, but failed to notice the exceedingly blatant anti-Oriental nature of the villains in Buck Rogers, also common in Flash Gordon, too.

(sorry, I refuse to use the term "Asian" to refer to Those-Who-Used-To-Be-Oriental, since I've noticed that there appear to be, oh, a few BILLION Asians who **aren't** from the region formerly known as "The Orient", and I find the usurpation of the term for Orientals to be offensive... I just note this preemptively in case anyone wanted to comment on that term.)
 
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