Saturday, March 21, 2009

 

Herriman Saturday

Wednesday, July 17 1907 -- As we saw last week on Herriman Saturday, tax assessor Ben Ward was having a bit of a time getting the Supervisors to go along with having L.A. corporations pay taxes based on the worth of their enterprises. Well, Ward scored a victory of sorts in the end when the board allowed the franchise tax to stand but cut assessments 25% across the board.

Wednesday, July 17 1907 -- The Angels sit atop the PCL standings, but lost in a heartbreaker on Tuesday. Some wild pitches spoiled a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth, then Oakland came on strong in the 10th to edge the Angels 3-2. Herriman looks on the bright side in his cartoon.

Thursday, July 18 1907 -- A 45-year old Bob Fitzsimmons takes on Jack Johnson, looking to revive his glorious but now flagging ring career. Johnson, who was once Fitz's sparring partner, wastes no time sending the old man back into retirement. The fight lasted only two rounds and ended with a knockout.

This fight, a rare interracial match, was instrumental in paving the way for Johnson to get his rightful shot at the title.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

 

Obscurity of the Day: Ambitious Teddy


Most obscurities you haven't seen for good reason. But here's proof that there is some gold mixed in with all that chaff. Ambitious Teddy is an absolutely gorgeous strip, penned by Bert Cobb in what is obviously an homage to the work of Winsor McCay.

Cobb first pops up on my radar in the late 1890s working in Philadelphia, then for awhile at McClure, then disappears for awhile before emerging in Boston in 1907. Ambitious Teddy was certainly his newspaper strip magnum opus, combining fabulous imagery with dynamic page layouts in a feast for the eyes. Heck, even the gags weren't too shabby.

Ambitious Teddy had the well-deserved front page spot on the 1907-08 iteration of the Boston Herald's on-again-off-again Sunday section, which they syndicated under the copyright of W.E. Haskell with very modest success. The strip ran in the section from April 21 1907 to January 12 1908. At the end of the run Cobb rejiggered the strip a bit, putting Teddy in the middle of fairy tales. The strip was renamed Ambitious Teddy in Mother Gooseland starting on December 1 1907.

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I would really love to see a full run of these ... somehow, somewhere. While it's not exactly McCay or Feininger, the art is still pretty darn good.
 
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Thursday, March 19, 2009

 

Obscurity of the Day: Stella and Gertie





Bert Green is better known as an animator (see this post for Green on the animation biz) but he dabbled in comic strips on and off over the years. Stella and Gertie was an odd strip, especially when you consider that it was done for the NEA syndicate, which specialized in rural papers. The strip featured a pair of supposedly pretty girls, though Green wasn't really a good enough cartoonist to provide them with any real sex appeal. The pair were brassy, brazen and loose, what the typical NEA reader would have classified as floozies. This strip might have found a receptive audience at some big-city tabloid, but in Hog Jowl, Arkansas I imagine the strip was considered in bad taste. So it's not too surprising that few NEA clients ran the strip, despite it being part of the package deal.

Stella and Gertie ran from June 21 to September 18 1915.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

 

Strip Teasers: Capsule Book Reviews

Writing long-form book reviews is a time-consuming process and I don't have nearly enough hours in the day to write about every book I read that might be of interest to you blog readers. I do want to let you know what's out there, though, so Strip Teasers is a new occasional feature that will provide capsule reviews.

Stay Tooned #3 (Gorilla Graphics, $9): Let's start right out by breaking the rules -- reviewing something other than a book. Stay Tooned #3 is the latest issue of the magazine that picks up where Jud Hurd's late lamented Cartoonist Profiles left off. Editor John Read has the bugs out of the system now -- no more duplicate pages or weird fonts in evidence. Hallelujah! The material, as usual is delightful -- Jim Scancarelli and Richard Thompson interviews are the highhlights in another jam-packed 88-page issue. One picayune little carp -- Read needs to hone his interviewing skills -- he tends to ask the same questions in the same way to all his subjects.

Chas. Addams - A Cartoonist's Life by Linda H. Davis (Random House 2006, $29.95): My gawd, what a life! Addams had the most gratifying existence that a red-blooded American boy could fantasize about. No, no, not that he was such a great cartoonist. That's small potatoes. The man bedded gorgeous women like surfers eat fish tacos. We're talking Jackie Kennedy here, we're talking Joane Fontaine, we're talking Greta freaking Garbo. And best of all, he was able to keep them all as good friends before and after their dalliances. A charming man living a charmed life. Author Davis doesn't give his cartooning work a lot of serious attention in the book, and there's entirely too few Addams cartoons reproduced. But who cares.

Call of the Wild - A Mutts Treasury by Patrick McDonnell (Andrews McMeel 2008, $16.99): McDonnell continues to turn out a modern masterpiece. Comparing this strip to most any other is like comparing Shakespeare to Harlequin Romances. And I don't mean just strips of today. McDonnell gives Krazy Kat a run for the money. What continues to amaze me is that the strip is actually popular among the unwashed masses. In this land of "Git 'er Done" and Rush Limbaugh, how can something as beautiful and delicate as this thrive in so many papers? Damned if I know.

Nitty Gritty - A White Editor in Black Journalism by Ben Burns (University Press of Mississippi, 1996): When I'm not reading books about comics I'm busy trying to round out my education in general newspaper history. The autobiography of Ben Burns, who worked at The Daily Worker and the Chicago Defender, is fascinating stuff. So little has been written about those papers by the people who were actually involved that I'm thrilled by every little scrap I can find. Particularly interesting were the underhanded tactics the Communists used against Burns to keep him on a short leash. The second half of the book deals with his work in black magazines (Ebony and Jet); normally I would have given this material a pass but Burns is such an engaging writer I was happy to follow him on his journey outside of journalism.

The Penny Gang Down Memory Lane 1989-2008 by Julie Larson (self-published, order at the Dinette Set website): Julie Larson's world of pinheaded suburban couch potatoes never fails to make me laugh. Her Dinette Set cartoons are snarky and deliciously nasty, definitely the most outrageous feature being syndicated to mainstream papers. Larson's cartooning abilities are essentially non-existent; I dream of the day she finds an artist for the feature and concentrates on the writing. But never mind -- ignore the art and have a belly laugh at the expense of Joy, Burl and their brain-dead friends. This is the sixth volume in the Dinette Set reprint series, all of which have been self-published. This volume is a much cheaper production than previous ones, the printing is far too dark and muddy. So while I can't recommend this particular volume, a hearty thumbs-up on the feature itself and the other books in the series which didn't suffer the same production problems.

The Rose Man of Sing-Sing by James McGrath Morris (Fordham University Press, 2003): A definitive and exhaustively researched biography of Charles E. Chapin, celebrated editor of the New York Evening World. I hemmed and hawwed for several years about buying this book because I'd already read Chapin's own published memoir, but I'm glad I finally caved in and bought this book. Morris does a superb job of detective work to uncover the details of Chapin's life, and his coverage of the history of the Evening World during his tenure is first-rate work giving far more detail than Chapin himself did. Oh, if you're wondering about the title, Chapin's career hit a little stumbling block when he murdered his wife. That's the lurid reason for the publication of this bio, but fear not. Morris gives us over 200 pages of sharp, incisive journalism history before the story takes that unfortunate turn.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

 

Stripper's Guide Bookshelf: The Fred Files


The Fred Files

Orion Books, 2005
Hardcover, 6" x 8.5", 128 pages, $14.99
ISBN 0-75285-976-5

Now don't you roll your eyes at me. No, it's not Krazy Kat or Little Nemo, but it just so happens that Fred Basset was one of my favorite strips growing up. There was just something about the restrained humor and the deft cartooning, especially of Fred's very expressive face, that just enchanted me.

Growing up a British subject once removed (a Canuck, that is), I found the sly and understated British humor of Fred Basset delicious. Reading it every day seemed almost like a mini-coming of age rite. If I could appreciate the gags in Fred Basset, decidely written for adult sensibilities, I was well on my way to being one. And by "adult" I most certainly do not mean that the humor was racy -- it was sophisticated. Graham's gags are never knee-slappers -- he specialized in the knowing wink, the little observation and the perfect few words.

Take, for instance, a strip in which Fred and a larger dog are waiting for their masters outside of a shop. The day is windy and rainy and both dogs look miserable. In panel one, Fred bemoans his lot, "Inhuman I call it ... leaving us out here in this perishing east wind." In the second panel, Fred has moved over to the lee side of the larger dog, "Still, might be worse, I suppose." Elegantly constructed, seemingly effortless. In the hands of a lesser talent that simple gag probably would have either used too many words or too few. Graham could have done the gag pantomime, but that would have left us without that ever-so-British dialogue that is the icing on the cake. Heady stuff -- the whole British psyche rolled up into two panels. You can almost hear Eric Idle singing the unofficial British anthem "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" in the background.

Perhaps I go too far. It's like that with the treasures of our childhood. We can glorify them for what they meant to us, but that doesn't make them objectively great. If you didn't have the opportunity to read Fred Basset in your impressionable years the art may well look crude, the gags basic and sterile. Tough luck for you. But give it a try with this little book and see if you can capture a little of the magic.

The Fred Files is a quick read, and the promise of the 'inside story' is a bit thin on the delivery. We get a four page reminiscence by daughter Arran Graham, a very short interview with Alex that ran in a 1976 issue of Cartoon Profiles, and a small gallery of photos, special art and ephemera. The bulk of the book is a reprint of the first Fred Basset annual, originally issued in 1963. The strip reproduction is awful. It looks almost like they photocopied a badly printed copy of the original book. Surely either the family or the syndicate could have provided proof sheets? If not, then a little basic restoration would have tidied things up considerably.

The sub-par reproduction aside, the early Fred Basset strips show Graham at his best and freshest. I was glad to see that we get the original British versions of the strips -- I really hate the Americanized version shorn of references to kippers, cricket and cottage pie, and where wonderful Britishisms like "cor" and "blimey" are edited out in favor of bland American terms that are at odds with the atmosphere of the strip.

I lost interest in Fred Basset in 1991 when I learned that Alex Graham had died. Although the Graham name dutifully lived on in the credits, a tiny "MBM" began appearing on the strips, whispering the presence of new creator Michael Martin who produces the strip still. Nothing against Martin, who does a creditable job, but some bit of Graham magic has been lost. For me it's just another dog strip now. This book provided a delightful trip down memory lane to the glory days of the strip.

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Monday, March 16, 2009

 

Obscurity of the Day: Voddyvills

Well, there's obscure and then there's Obscure. Here's a prime example of that purest of breeds, Voddyvills by John 'Dok' Hager. Hager was a cartooning fixture at the Seattle Times from the 1890s until the mid-20s when he retired because of eye trouble.

Hager was the artist on the Umbrella Man weather cartoons, a front page feature of the Times that traded off the fame of a local eccentric. He's also the author of a series I've so far not had a chance to index, Dok's Dippy Duck, which, I'm given to understand, ran in the Times circa 1917. It seems awfully likely that his kids appropriated the character and renamed him Waddles for the long-running series that ran in the Christian Science Monitor. You'll find more on that great strip at this post and subsequent ones.

Though Hager is bio'ed in several places, no one mentions Voddyvills, perhaps Hager's only Sunday feature. It's known to have run in 1911, but perhaps longer, and amazingly enough, was actually syndicated. My only examples come from that font of obscurities, the Bellingham (WA) American Reveille. Oh, how I wish there was better microfilm of that newspaper (it's an incomplete mess). It seems like every two-bit syndicate salesman who rolled into town could convince these guys to run his features, at least for a little while. Perhaps until the bill came due.

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Since most comics of that period WERE basically vaudeville acts on paper, it's interesting to see the "fourth wall" broken down in this one and have the characters address us (and their "plants" in the audience). It's just a little jarring to hear what they're doing not referred to as jazz or ragtime, but a "coon song." Ick. Sadly, they were what they were. Good, clear, solid drawing though, for the period.
 
Mr. Holtz probably knows this, but for others, some Dok's Dippy Duck strips were reprinted in The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Set in the trenchs of World War I, these strips remind me of Spy vs. Spy, in that each strip includes only Dippy and his German opponent Pretzel (also a duck). They do engage in dialogue though.
 
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Sunday, March 15, 2009

 

Jim Ivey's Sunday Comics



Jim Ivey's new book, Graphic Shorthand, is available from Lulu.com for $19.95 plus shipping, or you can order direct from Ivey for $25 postpaid. Jim Ivey teaches the fundamentals of cartooning in his own inimitable style. The book is 128 pages, coil-bound. Send your order to:

Jim Ivey
5840 Dahlia Dr. #7
Orlando FL 32807

Also still available, Jim Ivey's career retrospective Cartoons I Liked, available on Lulu.com or direct from Jim Ivey for $20 postpaid. When ordered from Ivey direct, either book will include an original Ivey sketch.

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Ah, Jim and his cigars. Got to love 'em!

Jim preferred cigars rolled on the thighs of Cuban women -- at least he hoped it was the women rolling them!
 
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