Saturday, April 11, 2009

 

Herriman Saturday

Friday, July 26 1907 -- A new inter-racial boxing match is announced, this one between relative newcomer Tommy Burns and powerful black veteran Joe Gans. The two had agreed to meet before in 1906, but the match never came off. Gans later said the announcement was purely a setup to bring the young Burns some attention from the boxing establishment. Just as the 1906 match never came off, this one in 1907 would end up misfiring too. Don't tell Herriman, though -- he's going to waste some ink doing several more cartoons about the upcoming affair.

Saturday, July 27 1907 -- Some Brit going by the fancy name of Major the Honorable Fitzroy La Poer Beresford checks into an L.A. hotel and creates a bit of a stir. Seems he was mistaken for someone important (with a name like that, how could he not be?). Herriman and a reporter are dispatched to the scene, and the subject of the rumors humbly tells them that he is merely "a war correspondent and member of the British diplomatic corps".

So that the trip is not in vain the reporter asks for his views on sundry subjects. Among his pronouncements is that the Phillipines should be sold off to the Japanese and that the U.S. ought to invade and take over Baja California. The Major also tells the story of how his wife, child and best friend were killed in north Africa; he seems particularly sad over the loss of his buddy.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

 

Strip Teasers: A Pair of Comics about Comics

Today we cover a pair of reprint books about a very special category of comic strips.


Sam's Strip - The Comic About Comics (Fantagraphics Books, $22.99)
When you think of avant garde cartoonists, chances are that the name Mort Walker never enters your mind. Mort's best-known strips succeed by sticking to the basics -- they are simple, well-drawn and funny. But there is more lurking in Mort's head than an endless string of beatings for Beetle Bailey. He co-created, with Jerry Dumas, one of the most delightful and intellectually daring strips that ever appeared in newspapers, Sam's Strip. For those unfamiliar with it, the strip concerns a fellow named Sam and his unnamed sidekick (much later known as Silo). These guys have a very unusual job -- they run a comic strip. Sam's Strip positively wallows in self-referentiality. Sam wracks his brain thinking up gags, he has arguments with the cartoonist who draws him, he has a closet full of sound effects to keep organized, he hires old comics characters down on their luck. This feature is the ultimate fan-boy fantasy -- a strip whose subject is the very thing we love best.

There have been "best of" reprintings of Sam's Strip before, but this volume reprints the entire run from first to last. What can I say except that it's about damn time. And Fantagraphics has done it up in a perfect package. The reproduction quality is top-notch, and they've given us a superb bonus -- a section of annotations by Jerry Dumas and Brian Walker. Dumas supplies us with some interesting reminiscences about the creation of particular strips, while Brian Walker gives historical context for the many strips with topical references. I am a BIG fan of annotations, so my delight with the book was doubled. Unbounded enthusiasm times two.

You see a lot of book reviews that say "your library should not be without it". Often that's utter malarkey. But I say in all sincerity that if you are a comic strip fan and you don't have this book on your shelf then there is something really wrong with you. Seriously. Go buy the book. Now. No really. Go!


Ink Pen (Andrews McMeel, $12.99)
Based on description alone, Ink Pen sounds like a direct successor to Sam's Strip. In Phil Dunlap's strip an anthropomorphic dog and rat run an employment agency for out of work cartoon characters. However, these characters, unlike those in Sam's Strip, don't know that they're in a comic strip. The story is played out without the self-referential wall breaking that made Sam's Strip so unique. Ink Pen also eschews the use of comics characters from outside its own world. Rather than having well-known characters coming to the agency looking for work, this strip is populated with clients who are all the products of creator Chris Dunlap's own imagination. While there are occasional mentions of 'real' cartoon characters, Dunlap plays his plot straight with a cast of regulars headlined by a rabbit, a pig, and a reluctant superhero named Captain Victorious.

Since I rarely read comic strips online and my local paper doesn't carry Ink Pen, my imaginings about it being a successor to Sam's Strip were quickly disabused when I received this, the first reprint collection of the strip. Although I was disappointed that the strip fails to break the so-called 'fourth wall' as I expected from the description of the feature, that's a completely unfair standard by which to judge the strip. And judging it on its own merits, Ink Pen is good with potential for greatness. Dunlap has assembled an excellent cast of strong personalities, especially the lunkheaded Captain Victorious and embittered former child star Bixby the rat. The artwork is excellent, often enhancing the humor with deftly drawn facial expressions and body language. Where Ink Pen could use some improvement is that Dunlap doesn't trust the intelligence of his audience. His strips tend to be wordy, as if he's trying to explain his punchlines rather than just delivering them. Often the final panel has two characters delivering competing funny lines, a practice that dilutes the humor rather than enhancing it. Dunlap obviously doesn't trust his comedy instincts, which are spot on when he doesn't overthink things. If the strip is given enough time to mature I expect the creator will eventually get more comfortable in his own shoes. If Universal Press gives him that much time (and history tells us that UPS has a relatively short attention span compared to some other syndicates) I expect Ink Pen will blossom into a delightful and popular long-term success.

Dunlap would do well to study the Sam's Strip collection. Not only will he learn how to deliver a gag economically, but there are some great ideas for his strip lurking there.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

 

News of Yore 1977: Andiola Vents on the State of Comics

Diamonds In The Dreck!
by Alfred Andriola (reprinted from The Press, April 1977)

"The Washington Post . . . still carries much of the standard dreck — lovelorn columns, horoscopes, beauty hints — as well as 25 comics."

That is the way comics were swilled into the sludge by a leading weekly news magazine in a recent story on the press.

Granted there are some bad comic strips. There are also bad reporters, politicians, governments, wars and mothers. But no conscionable writer would hurl all mothers on the "compost heap", which was the designation used for comic strips and other "standard dreck" in the next sentence of the same reporter's story.

If ever the annals of magazines and newspapers are written, not much will remain to stand beside the true genius that has been brought to light in many comic strips — as in the beautiful pages of "Little Nemo", the tom-foolery of "Krazy Kat", the superb satire of "Pogo", the justly-deserved popularity of "Peanuts", the artistry of "Prince Valiant", the memorable inventiveness of "Li'l Abner", the halcyon days of "Terry and the Pirates" and others which have created undeniable folklore and undisputed magic.

What's more, many comics have amused or enthralled millions of people daily for 10, 20, 30, 5O or 70 years! Readers are the ultimate arbiters of success, and if they accept a strip for so many decades there must be something there to make it appeal to young and old, generation after generation.

But all of us have read disparagements by critics who, in censuring a specific piece of writing, will contend that it is "written on a comic strip level" — or words to that effect.

Why are we rated so low in the eyes of other journalists? I have a feeling comics are held in disrepute because we, the purveyors of comics, debase them when we should be extolling them. Shakespeare said it: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Comic strips came into being as circulation builders. They were used to lure readers and sell newspapers, and sell they did. They became the single biggest attraction one newspaper offered over another.

Those were the days before television — before movies, radio, world series, assorted super bowls, automobiles, a second house, boats and psychiatrists. Then the leisure revolution set in and we came into the 1950's inundated with so many things demanding our time.

Comics became expensive accoutrements. Newspaper publishers decided comics had to start paying for the costly space they usurped. If there wasn't enough advertising to meet the cost, then cut the cost — ergo, cut the space. Comic strips were gradually reduced from 8 to 5 to 3 columns — and I have seen them printed even smaller than that. Sunday pages, in their glorious era, were full page standards or tabloids. Now they appear in halves, thirds and fourths. An original page is jigsawed so that a third of it can be lopped off and the rest must still hold by itself. Or panels can be juggled to meet a different space requirement. Or they are hacked and trimmed to fit other specifications.

I am not going to go into all the intricacies of the shrinking strip and Sunday page. Those of us in the business know them all too well and they have been fingered ad nauseum.

Meanwhile other forms of entertainment have gone the opposite route. Movies are now much longer than they used to be. One hour television series frequently need two hours, either back to back, or continuing the second half the following week. Soap operas have found that the standard half hour was not enough; a number of the most successful run an hour each day.

Novels, which used to be dramatized for TV in a 2 hour program, now run to 3 and 4. Some become mini series, as with "Rich Man, Poor Man". "Roots" took over for more than a week, running about 10 hours. Five years ago it would probably have been done in 2. They could not have covered the subject as well and would not have made the impact they did. Shorter in length, in size, concise in presentation is not always best.

Aad who is doing the most ballyhooing of this success of television? The daily newspapers. They devote unlimited space to tell their readers how successful "Roots" was, how sexy Richard Jordan is, how Farrah Fawcett-Majors blossomed into stardom, how readers should spend their leisure time by tuning in the many glorious attractions on TV, and how much money the networks are spending to vie with each other for the all-important share of the listening audience.

But the newspapers are reducing the space they devote to their comic features — which they buy at great expense and offer to their paying customers as competition to the television programs which they are acclaiming.

This is indicated not only in the way comics are displayed, but also in the lack of promotion that newspapers allot to them. Unlimited space for TV programming and its practitioners, to movie stars, sports figures, anyone who entertains the newspapers' customers in any other media, but hardly an inch for comics. Television, on the other hand, barrages listeners all week long with promotion pieces for almost every program on the air.

Even worse than no promotion, however, is anti-promotion! Recently I came on an issue of one of the nation's leading daily newspapers which devoted a full page to the promotion of comics. Now that's something which doesn't happen very often, because a full page in one of the most expensive metropolitan dailies is worth a hell of a lot of cash. But what was the promotion?

The reporter, an assistant family living editor on the paper, had conducted a comics reader "survey", and I quote her words: "I completed a mini-research project in which I attempted to find out exactly which comic strips children ages 10-14 read and consider humorous. I selected 15 (suburban) children because I considered these children representative of the population I wanted to sample ... I had 8 boys and 7 girls in my study." From this sampling, the reporter made these judgments about "serious or narrative strips":

"They're all on the bottom ... they're the pits in comic strips ... (Children) prefer to read strips which are about children, animals, sports and things they know and understand. The concepts of government, politics, social ills presented in the serious narrative non-humorous comic strip are too abstract for them to deal with. They can't be bothered with a comic strip which continues from day to day. They want the whole message right away.

"The age of the children and their sex did not create any special significance. By and large, children of both sexes and all groups want a comic strip which is not serious, which is not the 'soap opera' type."

One of the things the researcher did was to ask the children "why they read the (sample) strips, why not; why they thought they were funny, why not; how the artist drew."

I thought there was something extremely wrong with the approach to her survey. Since all comics aren't meant to be funny, why prejudice (or at least influence) the child's mind by having each child decide which are "funny" and which are not and then so categorize them? A sampling of 15 suburban children seemed hardly representative of comic readers.

I wrote to five cartoonists and five editors, enclosing copies of the survey. Here are some of their comments:

"... the narrative strips were ill-served by (her) survey that was limited to 15 children between the ages of 10 and 14. I don't recall ever before having seen a poll based on such a small sampling."

"I can't imagine ... an editor who considers a survey of 15 children, ages between 10-14, justification for a ... story on comics."

"I am only surprised that such an amateur piece of journalism could appear in a newspaper."

"It is hard to understand why the lady entirely disregarded adults, since newspaper readership surveys always have shown that comic strips, especially narrative strips, are widely read by adults."

"(It) isn't worthy of serious thought. She could have arrived at another block-buster conclusion had she surveyed them on their favorite foods, as between ice cream and champagne and lobster!"

It is true that children ages 10-14 are not the prime readers of narrative strips. Why would a ten year old girl prefer "Mary Worth" or "Juliet Jones" to "Nancy" or "Bugs Bunny"? "Kerry Drake" to "Hagar" or "Beetle Bailey"? By the time they're 14, if they still are reading only "Scamp" and "Bugs Bunny" (because, as the reporter wrote, "they like animals and find it funny to have a rabbit talk"), I think they're not stepping along fast enough and we'd better start asking some hard questions.

But comics are not only for children. They're for people of all ages, people who buy newspapers — and the researcher ignored all these truths, no matter how self-evident.

One of my correspondents called my attention to a syndicated feature entitled "Tune In Tomorrow", which subscribing newspapers publish each Monday. It consists of brief synopses of the daily TV soap operas, to bring readers up to date in case they have forgotten from Friday to Monday. Here is a sample:

"The Young and Restless: Peggy and Jack were secretly married. Laurie and Lance honeymooned in Tahiti. Leslie told Brad about her pregnancy. Karen's custody trial was postponed. Ron called Chris' house and secretly told Karen he'll return soon."

And on and on, through 14 of them, taking up a lot of space which newspapers pay for to plug TV programs. A similar feature appears in newspapers daily to tell readers what happened to "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman" last night, last night.

But, my respondent informed me, a newspaper dropped his story strip without explanation and reinstated it a week later because of tremendous reader complaints, and the newspaper did not see fit to print one line to bring the reader up to date on the week that had been missed — or why the strip had been dropped and why it had been reinstated!

Now you know that if a network dropped "Love of Life" or "One Life to Live" or "Days of Our Lives" — or any other program — there would be considerable space devoted to such an earth-shattering news story. And if the audience responded with protestation and the network were compelled to reinstate the program a week later, we would get still another rash of daily bulletins, replete with fill-in on what the aggrieved listener had missed.

Aside from all that, I wonder why a newspaper would do a promotion piece which put down some of its own features, as well as those in the competing newspapers? Would a TV station run a gratuitous prime-time program (comparable, I would say, to a full page in a newspaper) revealing that 15 youngsters in a biased survey preferred "Good Times" and "Laverne and Shirley" to "Kojak", "The Guiding Light" or "Baa Baa Black Sheep"? Not any TV executive who hoped to keep his $150,000 job for the season!

I was still not satisfied. So I went to the experts. I sent the "survey" to Paul K. Perry, President of the Gallup Organization, a world-renowned marketing and attitude research company whose expertise over many decades has put it in the forefront for conducting public opinion polls. After Mr. Perry had an opportunity to read the article, I spoke with him about it, and this is his summary of his opinion:

"One obvious flaw in the study reported is the small sample. Fifteen cases in one community is an inadequate base upon which to draw conclusions about the population of children 10-14 living in suburban communities. It would be a disservice to all concerned to make judgments and decisions on the basis of this study."

"The writer says that 'by using the computer, the choices of these 15 children can be predicted for a larger universe of children.' Her sentence may be garbled by typographical errors; I assume she means to say that 'the choices of a universe of children can be projected from the choices of these 15 children.' In any case such a prediction or projection would be subject to so large an error that it would have no usefulness.

"I am not questioning the methodology otherwise. It may be that it was designed and carried out in a theoretically sound manner. Whether it was or was not, is immaterial, however, in view of the inadequate sample."

The defense rests. Comics have enough detractors. We should not create more. But let's take note of the serious damage that is being done to comic strips. We are not only killing the goose that laid the golden eggs — we are destroying the breed and making it an endangered species.
Newspapers should display comics proudly and promote them properly on their pages — and give them a chance to do the job which, for over 75 years, they have proven they can do. There are diamonds in that "dreck"! Just let them sparkle!

[Allan's Note: Andriola's argument may seem a trifle antiquated because of the examples he uses, but the basic point is as sound today as it was then: newspapers pay dearly for their comics, yet they never market them and print them chopped up and ridiculously small. It's simple economics -- if you pay for something, make it work for you in stimulating revenue. Newspapers still in these hard times treat comics as a necessary evil rather than the powerful tool they can be.

Andriola also makes an excellent point, one I've been harping on for years, that newspapers should print daily or weekly "The Story Thus Far" summaries for their story strips. It can be very hard for a reader to get interested in a story strip when they will almost invariably try to start reading in the middle of a story. Syndicates should provide these summaries for all their story strips. As far as I know the idea has never been tested.]

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Both you and Andriola make good points. Still there remains the fact that few people still read a newspaper every day. It was this situation that created the story-strip formula of "recap on Monday, sum it up on Friday, blow off Saturday, do nothing on Sunday," leaving a strip only three or four days to advance its story.

That rule of thumb was often brought up back when I was doing strips in the early 1980s; I imagine it's Holy Writ by now. Remember Stan Lee's first "Spider-Man" dailies? he took that formula to the extreme, with the first panel of almost every strip a description of the previous day's events. It was stultifying.

Seems to me the hope for a return of daily story strips lies here on the Internet...no three columns and no dropped Sunday panels!
 
Hi Smurfswacker --
Exactly why a text piece outside the strip would be such a boon. The strip wouldn't have to remind readers constantly of what has gone before, and could tell longer and more detailed stories. Regular readers don't get bored reading recap strips, new and occasional readers can pick up the story at any time.

It seems like such an obvious solution that I am constantly amazed that no one's ever tried it.

--Allan
 
I agree your suggestion has merit. However it reminds me of the other Syndicate Rule, which I'd forgotten when writing my previous comment.

When Sharman DiVono and I started our term on the Star Trek strip, we told readers "Next week: New story!" and gave the new story a title panel like the English do. We figured this would encourage new readers to begin following the strip. The syndicate told us not to do that again, because advertising the beginning of a story makes it easier for readers to decide to stop reading the strip! They preferred the end of one story to blend into the next, so the readers were never sure where they were. This notion sounded counter-intuitive to me, but what did I know?
 
Smurfswacker -
Well, who in their right mind would want to emulate the Brits, whose story strips are still popular. I mean really!

You'd think the LA Times, a comparatively minor syndicate, would have been willing to think outside the box (or at least with some intelligence at all).

You realize, of course, that the syndicate was trying to guard against cancellation with that policy -- they didn't give a hoot how readers might like it. It's a long-standing tradition for newspaper feature editors to drop story strips at the conclusion of a story. If the story never ends, apparently these microcephalics can't figure out when to cancel the strip. Sigh.

--Allan
 
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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

 

News of Yore 1978: Syndicates Combine Forces

UFS And NEA Consolidate
(reprinted from The Press, July 1978)

New York — United Feature Syndicate Inc. and Newspaper Enterprise Association, Inc., two of the nation's leading newspaper feature companies, have consolidated their operations under one management.

The announcement was made by Edward W. Estlow, president of The E.W. Scripps Co., the parent company of both UFS and NEA since their foundings. For the past two years NEA has been a subsidiary of UFS.

A new company, named United Media Enterprises Inc., will consolidate the management of the two enterprises.

Robert Roy Metz, who has been president and editor of NEA since 1972 and a vice president of UFS since 1976, is now president and chief executive officer of United Media. William C. Payette, president of UFS since 1969, and chief executive officer, is chairman of the board of United Media.

United Feature, founded in 1923 as a feature arm of United Press to distribute the memoirs of Lloyd George, syndicates such widely used comic strips as "Peanuts" by Charles Schulz, "Ferd'nand" by Mik, "Marmaduke" by Brad Anderson, "Tumbleweeds" by Tom Ryan, and "Nancy" by Ernie Bushmiller, columnists such as Jack Anderson, and editorial cartoonists Mike Peters, Dave Simpson, and Gene Bassett. Since 1972, UFS has led the syndicate field in application of modern technology in the production and delivery of features and TV listings.

NEA was established in 1902 by E. W. Scripps as a feature news service for his growing string of papers. It now sells to more than 700 daily newspapers in North America a daily service, including such widely published features as Jim Berry's "Berry's World," Art Sansom's "The Born Loser" and the medical advice column of Lawrence E. Lamb, M.D.

Metz said that the NEA service will continue to be marketed to newspapers as a unit. UFS features are sold individually.

NEA also is the publisher of The World Almanac, the largest selling single-volume reference work.

Estlow's announcement said the decision to consolidate operations of the two companies over a period of time was made two years ago. As part of the plan, UFS moved its office last year from the Daily News building in New York City to larger premises at 200 Park Avenue.

NEA, which has had its executive office in New York for many years and its business office in Cleveland since its founding, moved into the 200 Park Avenue quarters on May 1. Personnel and operations of the Cleveland NEA office moved to New York in April.

UFS and NEA, wholly owned subsidiaries of United Media Enterprises, retain separate corporate identities to avoid cumbersome changes in copyrights and trademarks. In practice, however, editorial marketing and business operations are combined. Production and transmission of both companies' features is being handled by UFS.

Estlow said the name United Media Enterprises was chosen "to reflect the fact that UFS and NEA in recent years have become engaged in a number of enterprises beyond the syndication or servicing of features to newspapers."

"We expect," he said, "that this diversification will continue."

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Allan,

It looks like Scripps is putting an end to the Newspaper Enterprise Association.

The United Media daily strip this week are all sporting UFS slugs,
including all the, what used to be, NEA strips.
Alley Oop, Arlo and Janis, Born Loser, et.al.

It appears the last NEA dailies were January 2, 2010
and the last Sundays will be January 10, 2010.

NEA 1902 -2010 RIP

The United Media comics page is at
http://comics.com/
 
And that's it for NEA.
As stated above the last dailies were January 2, 2010.
The Sundays went piecemeal.
The last 'Arlo and Janis' and 'The Born Loser' NEA bylined Sundays were December 27, 2009.
'Alley Oop' and 'Frank & Ernest' last NEAs were on the Sunday of January 10, 2010.
On January 17 what was left of the NEA Sunday strips ('Big Nate', 'Monty', 'Soup to Nutz', and Jeff Harris' 'Shortcuts') carried the NEA byline for the last time.
For whatever reason Drew Litton's sports cartoon still carried the NEA line on January 21, 2010. I asked him about it and he replied
"I found out Wednesday that [NEA has] been put back in the bullpen
(probably something to do with the Newspaper Enterprise Association
moniker sounding too “newspapery”). So from now on I’ll be using UFS
on everything, which is great by me."

So it looks like NEA has come to an end.
 
Thanks very much for keeping me updated on this story, DD. What a shame that a syndicate around for over a hundred years goes down without so much as a eulogy.

I wonder if this means that there will no longer be an NEA package deal available to papers? Will papers have to buy each former NEA feature separately from now on, or is the change merely a branding decision?

--Allan
 
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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

 

News of Yore 1980: Hagar Creator Interviewed



An Interview With Dik Browne
by Charlie Huisking (Sarasota Herald Tribune, May 11 1980)

Relaxing in the cool breeze on his porch, Browne speculated about the popularity of the not-so-noble viking he created: "Well, first of all, people are in a hurry today, so you need a strong character, someone who's easily identifiable. Now what catches the eye more quickly than a guy with horns? That's a quick-frozen viking. Drop him in hot water and there he is.

"Also, I'm a great believer in simplicity. I feel the most important part of our business is to communicate, so the simpler you can keep the strip the better. I have no complex messages to give in my strip. I don't want to change the world or launch the fourth crusade. I just want to amuse people now and then."

Those are the nuts-and-bolts reasons behind "Hagar's" success, but another that Browne didn't list is his own philosophy of humor, his keen understanding of what makes people laugh.

"My idol in comedy is Charlie Chaplin," Browne said. "What he did was universal. There was nothing 'in' about it. Don't you hate it when you're at a party and you have to know six of the people and three languages to understand the joke? Well, Chaplin never had that problem. He knew how to appeal to basic emotions, and that's why his films will last forever."

Another of Browne's favorites is Mark Twain, and he likes to quote Twain's line, "Everything human is pathetic; the secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow."

"Humor has always been a release for the hopeless and the oppressed," Browne said. "I don't think it's a coincidence that the comic strip, a uniquely American invention, started at the turn of the century during the great wave of immigration. Many of those immigrants had to endure great hardship, and in a nation of many languages the comic pages became a source of comfort as well as a means of communication. Many immigrants learned to read English through the comics. I think the strips simply grew out of what made people laugh and what made them cry."

Browne feels the American sense of humor is a "superior product." "We've always had a feel for the popular in America; we're not an elitist country. And I think that is wonderful because I believe in people and the tastes of people," he said.

He is careful to draw a distinction between humor and wit. "Humor is eternal," he says. "It's full of warmth and compasssion. Wit, by contrast, is more pointed, more aggressive. Oscar Wilde, for example, is a witty man, and I like him, but he's hard to warm up to on a cold night. Twain, on the other hand, is comfortable. He's like an old coat or a pair of good shoes. I guess you could say I'm in that mold. I try to bring a benign humor to my work."

The 63-year-old Browne, a kind and gentle bear of a man, certainly falls in the "good shoes" category. Soft-spoken, relaxed and always casually dressed, he wears his greying hair long and, like Hagar, he sports a beard that looks like a Brillo pad gone haywire.

The similarities between Browne and Hagar aren't just physical, either. "I suppose every comic strip is in some way autobiographical," Browne said. "Certainly you can only put in a strip what you yourself have. You're influenced by your own experiences, by your own assets and liabilities. For example, I try to stay away from violence in the strip, because that's not my nature. If it's there it is implied. And I can't make Hagar too mean or too much of a rascal, because I can't see myself acting that way."

A product of New York City, Browne attended Cooper Union Art School and had ambitions of becoming a sculptor. But his first job was as a copy boy on the old New York Journal, a Hearst paper. "What an exciting, colorful place that newsroom was," Browne said. "I still get nostalgic about it. It was right out of the movies, you know. The noise was incredible, and there was always a commotion. I remember that right in the center of the room there was a man of Mediterranean descent in his undershirt selling hot dogs. Many of the rewrite men had served in World War I and then lived in Paris for a while. There was a patina of glamour surrounding them. Now who wouldn't fall in love with a scene like that?"

Browne hoped for a career in journalism, but unfortunately, he says, "I had no talent. I'd get lost on the streets of New York, I couldn't spell, I had a short attention span, and I was too shy to ask people questions."

He served in the Army for four years, then became a highly regarded Madison Avenue advertising artist, creating, among other symbols, the Chiquita banana. In 1954 he teamed with Mort Walker and began drawing the "Hi and Lois" strip.

The motivation for starting "Hagar" in 1973 was a detached retina and other eye problems which, today, have left Browne almost legally blind. "I had made good money, but I wasn't prepared for any medical disaster, and I was concerned about my family's security," he said. "Hagar was the first idea I tried, and I got lucky."

Family has always been uppermost in Dik Browne's mind. He and Joan, married for 38 years, have two sons and an adopted Chinese daughter named Sally, who was recently married and is now living in Germany. "I'll show you the wedding picture," said Browne, returning with a framed photo of his daughter and his tuxedoed self. "We all have great times together. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have a family that was good company. I'd go nuts, I think."

The cartoon business keeps the family close. Browne's sons, Chris and Bob, help with the drawing of "Hi and Lois," and both supply gags for "Hagar the Horrible." In addition, Chris is a frequent contributor to Playboy, National Lampoon and other magazines. Bob is also pursuing a career as a blues musician.

Both sons still live in Connecticut and mail their suggestions and "Hagar" gags to Florida regularly. They were in Sarasota for a visit at the time of our interview, and joined Browne on the porch for a chat.
Their relationship is a warm and kidding one. As the newspaper
photographer focused her camera on the trio, Browne urged his sons to "adopt a somewhat fawning pose. Kneeling at my feet would be nice."

"I've always wanted to have a 'cottage industry,' and I'm thrilled that it has worked out that way," Browne said. "We make a good team, and I think we learn from each other. Early on I had Hagar running off with maidens over his shoulder, and Chris made me realize that was a dumb cliche. It was old-fashioned and it wasn't funny."

Browne does rough sketches of his cartoons on tracing paper and turns them over to his wife and sons for rating. "They rate them from 1 to infinity. The closer to 1 the better. I caught my wife in a bad mood once and she gave me a 47, but when she really likes them she draws hearts and flowers on the corner of the paper," Browne said. "Their advice is invaluable to me. I think that's another big reason for the strip's success, that I'm blessed with good critics. You have to have a large ego to be a cartoonist, but you also need to have the common sense to put the ego aside when you have to."

Chris Browne says the success of "Hagar" changed his father in a positive way. "I think his whole personality opened up. After collaborating with Mort Walker for so long, he was finally free to cut loose. He let more of himself come to the surface.

"When he did that, dad became a hippy. He let his hair grow, and as Hagar's popularity grew, so did dad's beard. It kept pace neck and neck, or rather chin and chin."

Bob Browne said he has a great deal of admiration for his father's devotion to his work. "For him, work and life are all together, and without that devotion the permanancy and security that we have as a family wouldn't be there."

And yet, Browne says he's never been an ambitious man. "I'm not motivated by money. This will sound like St. Francis of Assisi, but I'm really not," he said. "I always wanted to be secure, and to leave something for my family. I guess that's been such a strong motivation because I came from a split family and I grew up in the Depression. That has colored my life. But I never wanted to play any power games. I like things simple."

Joan Browne is camera-shy and was busy in another part of the apartment during most of the interview, but just when Browne was asked about his views of the women's movement, she walked past carrying a load of laundry. "Oh my God, what timing," Browne laughed. "There's the vice-president and treasurer of our corporation, carrying the wash." "I also do windows," Mrs. Browne quipped.

Browne said he, like most men, has had his consciousness raised in the past decade. "You can't bring up a daughter and not become aware of women's problems," he said. "I don't think 'Hagar' is a chauvinistic strip. It deals with the battle of the sexes, but Helga (Hagar's long-suffering wife) more than holds her own.

"And I've tried to move away from the traditional husband-and-wife yelling scenes. I felt the characters weren't smiling enough. I try to show them having more fun, even when they're disagreeing."

Before concluding the interview, we walked into the small studio where Browne works on "Hagar" every morning. "I used to be an early riser, but now I'm enjoying staying in bed longer," he said. "Today I didn't get up until 9:30. But the work is going much better here than up north. I think it's because I've never lived in a place that's as comfortable as this.

"Notice how neat the studio is. Why, up north I work in a cellar that looks like the Black Hole of Calcutta. I apologize for the lack of clutter here. I know it doesn't make for good photographs.
Taped to the wall of the studio are crayon drawings done by neighborhood children. "There's quite a group that comes over to visit," Browne said. "We have great fun together."

Lying on his drawing table was a papier-mache viking helmet complete with horns that Bob Browne made for his father several years ago. "Bob is always impoverished, you know, so he's always making these fantastic presents. Now, this helmet doesn't fit as well as it used to. Either it has become warped, or my head has."

There are other presents in the room, too, including two small stained-glass Hagar figures hanging by the window. "Those are from a reader. He does wonderful work. Another fan sent me a Hagar strip she'd done in needlepoint, and someone else made a bas-relief belt. That people would take the time to do things like this, well that just overwhelms me. We get about 40 letters a week, and answer them all. The communication with readers is a wonderful sidelight to all of this."

Still, Browne couldn't resist a joke about his generous admirers. "I wonder where all these people were 40 years ago when I was starving," he grinned.

"When I was slaving away nobody would give me a nickel. Now I'm old and obese and everybody wants to take me out to dinner!"

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I loved this article. Browne comes off as a bit less mischievous than he does in some of Mort Walker's stories, but there's a true warmth and an old-school love of what he was doing that is just all over this piece. These days there seems to be a disconnect with some of the younger breed of cartoonists - that sense of history, of love for the medium, etc. Thanks for finding this!
 
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Monday, April 06, 2009

 

News of Yore 1982: Comics Historian Bill Blackbeard Profiled

The Academy of Comic Art
By Jerry D. Lewis
(reprinted from The Press, Vol.7 #2, 1982)

The stars and producers of the play "Grease" gathered backstage at New York's Royale Theatre on December 8th, 1979 and celebrated wildly to mark the production's 3243rd performance. That established it as the longest running show in Broadway history.

True fans of comic strips, like San Francisco's Bill Blackbeard, jeer at that statistic.

"Hell," he says, "Blondie has been appearing in daily and Sunday papers since 193O. That's almost 20,000 performances, and it's still going strong. With a hundred million readers a day in more than 1,800 papers, Blondie makes author-artist Dean Young one of the best read writers in the world, a writer who produces a best-seller every day."

If the name Bill Blackbeard should be unfamiliar to you, he's a broad-shouldered, bespectacled Hoosier out of Lawrence, Indiana, who's spent the later part of his 55 years in California. As a free-lance writer back in 1967, he came up with an idea and sold it to Oxford University Press. The idea — to write a book on comic strips as an American contribution to art.

"I signed a contract with Oxford, but the first week I started to do research, I knew it was a lost cause," he says. "Not only had no previous research of any value ever been done, but almost every old book on early comic book history — and there were only five of them -was full of misinformation. You couldn't find any two sources that agreed with each other.

"I still haven't delivered that book to Oxford, but this is to give them proper warning. One of these years, I will get around to it."

Setting out to do original research on some of the first comic strips in 19th century newspapers - the first was Richard Felton Outcault's The Yellow Kid, which appeared in the N.Y. Sunday Journal in 1896 — Bill made a discovery which horrified him. Many files of back copies of big city newspapers were being copied onto microfilm, then destroyed.

"That saved space," Bill notes, "but it also meant those papers were gone so far as being reproduced for graphic purposes was concerned. You just can't do that kind of reproduction from microfilm."

Blackbeard then asked the libraries in various cities to give him the files of back newspapers. They found they were prohibited by ancient laws from giving the papers to an individual, or even from selling them to him. Bill got around that hurdle by establishing the Academy of Comic Art as a non-profit organization in his San Francisco home. The three story yellow Spanish stucco building sits at the corner of Ulloa Street and 3Oth Avenue in the Sunset District of the city. As you walk up the front steps, your eye is delighted by the nearby blue Pacific in one direction and the equally pleasant waters of the San Francisco Bay in another.

Once inside the door with its one-way mirror peephole, you are escorted by Blackbeard through a living room filled with loaded book shelves on every wall. You follow him down a crooked stairway leading to a dimly-lit, climate controlled basement. Here, you find a space a few feet square where Bill has his desk and a visitor's chair. The remaining space is occupied by bound volumes of old newspapers, piled so they divide the area into some 20 "rooms," with narrow aisles between them. The contents of each volume are cross-indexed in filing cabinets bursting with several hundred thousand three by five cards.

Bill also has stored 2.000 dime novels and 5,000 pulp magazines (Black Mask, Spicy Adventure, Crime Busters, etc.) from the 20's and 30's, along with more than 10.000 comic books.

From those sources unduplicated anywhere else, Bill reproduces material for ad agencies, editors and TV producers. Those fees help support the Academy. The remaining funds come from Bill's royalties on the 22 books he's edited for Hyperion Press. Those volumes include reproductions of such early day comic strips as Skippy, Barney Google, Thimble Theatre (Popeye) and Bringing Up Father.

Blackbeard also authored two recent books on comics. One, Sherlock Holmes In America, from Harry N. Abrams, the prestigious art book publisher, reproduces all comic strips depicting the famed Arthur Conan Doyle detective. The other book, The Great Comic Cats, published by Troubador Press of San Francisco, is likewise available this month at your local bookstore.

Get either or both of those tomes, plus a scattering of the earlier Hyperion editions if you want to savor the period comic strip experts like Blackbeard refer to as the Golden Age of Comics — the 20's and 30's.

"People too young to have been around in those years," Blackbeard tells you, "can't have any idea of how a top comic captured the attention of the country.

"The work of a top artist, like Segar's Thimble Theatre, for example, introduced characters and phrases which became part of the American language, Popeye's 'I yam what I yam, and tha's all I yam,' the offer of the All American moocher Wimpy 'I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today' were heard everywhere, and the names of two characters — Jeep and Goon — have entered the dictionary.

"It was easier in those days," Bill notes, "because everybody read the comics as regularly as they brushed their teeth. Even someone as aloof as Henry Ford. When Sandy vanished as part of the Little Orphan Annie narrative in 1933, he sent a wire to the Chicago Tribune Syndicate, pleading 'Please do all you can to help Annie find Sandy. We are all interested.'

"President Wilson, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso were devotees of George Herriman's Krazy Kat. Author William Faulkner relished Bringing Up Father and Mark Twain followed the exploits of Buster Brown.

"However, radio, then TV entered the competition for the public's entertainment hours. Then, too, the greatly increased cost of newsprint forced papers to cut the size of the strips. In the past, 16 and 24 page color-comic sections devoted complete pages to the work of a top cartoonist. Today, the strips are three and four to a page on Sundays. And the daily comics page, which once offered a stage for six to eight large-paneled strips, now flaunts two stacks of 15 to 2O comics.

"It's almost impossible to maintain any intelligent complexity of narrative or humor - and today's cartoonists rarely try — in daily strips of three tiny panels or in Sunday comics of six panels."

Blackbeard doesn't see the end of comic strips approaching, though.

"The pendulum swings both ways. Maybe we were paying too much attention to the comics in the old days. I guess it wasn't in the cards for a character like Popeye to continue forever to so captivate the American public that people in the 30's flocked to movie theatres to see Popeye cartoon shorts and walked out when they ended, without waiting for the feature film.

"Through the last couple decades, the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction, and except for a very few strips, like Peanuts, Blondie, and a couple others, people paid very little attention to the comics. Now the pendulum is moving again, and cartoon art is being more widely accepted. Some of Burne Hogarth's drawings of Tarzan, for example, were displayed in the Louvre."

We can and should all be thankful for one thing. Bill Blackbeard has earned our gratitude for recognizing the cultural value of this American contribution to art in time to save the best examples for future generations.

If you think that's too strong a statement, drop in some day at the Academy of Comic Art in San Francisco. Bill will be delighted to let you browse as long as you wish among the mountains of evidence — the lovingly collected files which include every comic strip published since 1896.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

 

Jim Ivey's Sunday Comics

Allan's Note: I did relate this story (without the colorful barroom angle) in my introduction to NBM's The Early Years of Mutt & Jeff.

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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Earlier I linked to a court case about this, I don't think I linked to this 1921 Appeals case of Fisher v. Star Co.
From the Michigan Law Review via Google Books:
http://books.google.com/books?id=q10qAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA240&dq=%22comic+strip%22+fisher+v+star&as_brr=1&ei=bV_ZSfPJDorClQSN2fTtAg
or http://tinyurl.com/co85dj
and the same case, in more detail, from The Northeastern Reporter via Google Books:
http://books.google.com/books?id=oPYKAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA134&dq=%22comic+strip%22&as_brr=1&ei=gl3ZSa31OI-gkQTrwtygAg#PPA133,M1
or http://tinyurl.com/d6jmd8
 
Great stuff DD! Have your peerless Googling superpowers had any luck in tracking down the Katzies case? Or even better, the Mr. Peewee case of 1903?

The Northeastern Reporter article is a pretty dry slog, but did you catch that bit at the end where a judge called comics "the nonsense produced by the brain for the diversion of the idle"? I love it!

-Allan
 
Haven't been able to dig up anything worthwhile about The Katzies, Buster and Tige, or any others.
I'm wondering why the courts specifically ordered Hearst not to do any copy of Mutt and Jeff, but there were multiple copies of The Katz Kids that seemed safe from lawyers.
 
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