Monday, October 08, 2012

 

Hogan's Alley Interview with some Guy

When a new book about comics history is published, it's a cause for celebration in the Hogan's Alley offices. When such a book's author is also a Hogan's Alley writer, it’s especially exciting. The University of Michigan Press has just published "American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide, " which is just what the title would indicate: a guide to every U.S. strip ever published, with start dates, stop dates, ghost/assistant information and more. We talked to Holtz about his wonderful new book, which will be worn and dog-eared as we use it for fact-checking and trivia, and asked him to expand on his project.  

HA: This is a tremendous book. I think cartoonists should be sworn into their contracts with one hand on it.

AH: If it means each one has to buy a copy of the book, I think I could be persuaded to favor that motion. On the other hand, I can imagine a cartoonist with a shiny new syndication contract leafing through the book and coming to the uncomfortable realization that most everything has been done before, done well, and yet in most cases failed anyway. Talk about an undiluted dose of harsh reality!  

HA: What is the genesis of the project?

AH: As a young newspaper strip collector--I'm now firmly in the middle-aged, verging on old fart, category--I was buying any old strips I could get my hands on, and I wanted to know what the heck it was I was buying. Over and over, though, I found that the strips, if they weren't acknowledged classics, were ignored entirely or the information was sketchy in the available reference books. Worse, there was a surprising amount of information that was clearly wrong. Having come to comic strips via comic books, I was used to having an excellent reference like the Overstreet guide. I saw the need to develop a reference to newspaper comics that tried to be all-inclusive. Not a price guide per se, but a reference that would say how long each feature ran, who worked on it and when, and other basic information. Twenty-five years of research later, voila! 

HA: I can't even begin to imagine the challenges involved in researching all this information. But what sort of information proved especially elusive?

AH: Oddly, the early years of the newspaper comic strip are the easiest to document. The originating newspapers, the ones that syndicated features to other papers, generally ran all the material they offered, so if you index them, you have an excellent reference to that syndicate. Provided, that is, that the newspaper microfilm record is complete, which is seldom the case. After the mid-1910s, though, syndicating newspapers rarely ran all their own offerings, so from then on you have to review many, many newspapers looking for the ones that started the feature earliest and ran it latest. It's tremendously time-consuming, and a hit-or-miss proposition. Even popular features can become very elusive near the beginning and ending of their runs. Believe it or not, I searched for decades trying to verify the generally accepted starting date of "Blondie"--finally a few years ago another researcher found the strip starting on the right date, in the Wisconsin News, of all places, and passed the information on to me.  

HA: Talk about some of your "a-ha!" moments, when you uncovered a nugget that eluded you for a long time.

AH: I think most people would consider me a complete looney if I publicly admitted to some of the thrilling moments I've had reviewing microfilm. Don't make me admit that squinting at some blurry comic strip on microfilm and finally discerning the scribbled signature of a third-rate cartoonist on a strip that was forgotten a century ago can be a red-letter day at the library. I'm afraid researching comic strips isn't like being in "The Da Vinci Code." But finding previously unknown comic strips by George Herriman, Milton Caniff and other acknowledged masters does give me an extra big thrill, just because I know that in those cases I'm not the only one who will be interested in the discovery. I suppose that some of the most memorable moments have not been while looking at microfilm--shocking, I know. Writing about old newspaper comics on my website has put me in touch with the relatives of some of my favorite early newspaper cartoonists. It is a huge thrill to talk with someone who actually knew one of these pioneering cartoonists. And they too are thrilled that someone remembers and respects the long ago work of their relative. Hearing stories about these guys, making real people out of the bylines, is amazing.  

HA: In the course of your research, did any trends become evident to you that you hadn't picked up on before, in terms of genres, demographics, etc.?

AH: I think what has amazed me most is the number of cartoonists who have managed to place features with their local newspapers. Locally produced features have long been a vibrant part of good newspapers, and that continues today. It is tremendously time-consuming for me to find and document these features, so they are frankly a thorn in my side. However, I do love them. They demonstrate that any cartoonist who has a work ethic, some talent, and can sell themselves, is able to get a newspaper slot if they really want it. It also heartens me that newspaper editors, who otherwise often seem almost hostile to comics, appreciate the value of local content in their papers. The neat thing, and aspiring cartoonists should take note, is that though business is bad for newspapers these days, that only improves them as a market for local talent--as long as you work somewhere in the free to dirt cheap zone. Editors recognize that a strip with some local flavor, or a cartoon highlighting local history, can be a significant draw. And once you're in the paper, you're building a resume, gaining experience, and generally making yourself indispensable -- a good investment in your future!  
HA: You've also done a lot of prior research into the history of the newspaper syndicates, so you went into this project with a lot of foreknowledge. Even so, did you discover anything notable about the syndicates, either those few still around or the long-forgotten ones? 

AH: Syndicate history is the black hole of comic strip research. There is so little information about the syndicates available. The trade papers for newspapers considered them little more than a necessary evil, so there's not much information there, and few syndicate people wrote memoirs. Since I consider understanding the syndication business essential to understanding newspaper comics history, it is more than a little disheartening how little I've learned in all these years. To give you an idea, there was a syndicate that existed for about 40 years called World Color Printing. They specialized mostly in pre-printed Sunday comic sections. They were a pretty major player in their day, but information is so scarce I'm still not sure of the answers to many basic questions about them. The syndicate was based in St. Louis, and I made a special research trip there in search of information. I came away with few new insights, but I did manage to find the building in which they operated. It was a two-story brick structure, probably once part of a whole row of smart brick buildings, but now standing all alone, everything once surrounding having been demolished years ago. It was now situated in the middle of a storage lot used by a chemical company, and since it held toxic chemicals it was surrounded by a tall chain link fence, topped with razor wire. I couldn't get near the building, but I could make out from a distance that above the front window, which was now boarded up, there was a concrete header engraved with the name World Color Printing in fancy newspaper script. It was a quasi-religious experience for me, or maybe like Ahab seeing Moby Dick breaching. For so long I had followed the trail of that syndicate, that to be confronted with a physical manifestation of its existence was tremendously moving. Perhaps it is best that it was behind barbed wire, because had I been able to touch the building I might well have been completely overwhelmed.  

HA: What would you cite as a strip you were previously unaware of that you consider a lost gem? 

AH: Comic strip research is a good fit for me. Because of my highly inquisitive nature, it's important to find something new and exciting on a regular basis to keep my interest fresh. So when you ask a question like that, you'll probably get a new answer every few months. I suppose the one that really blew me away recently was an incredibly obscure strip called "The Theatrical Alphabet." Don't bother looking for it in the book, it was discovered after that was put to bed. This strip ran as a five-part series in the Baltimore Herald in 1901. The series illustrates a poem about theatre-folk in the alliterative form of A is for Actor, B is for Box Seats, and so on. The poetry is pretty awful in my opinion, and the art is by a very minor cartoonist named A.Y. Hambleton. So what in the world makes it a gem? Well, it turns out that this piece of doggerel was written by none other than one of the greatest and most influential writers of the first half of 20th century, H.L. Mencken! For any reader not familiar with Mencken, whose fame I suppose has simmered down somewhat these days, a discovery like this is about on a par with finding out that Robert Frost wrote dirty limericks or Stephen King scripted Care Bears cartoons. The other nice thing about this discovery is that it was a real community effort. Cole Johnson discovered the strip and sent me scans, I identified the cartoonist, and then when I ran it on the website, a reader identified the poem as having been written by Mencken--our readers are a freakily brilliant bunch. Isn't that awesome?  

HA: As you continue your research, will owners of your book have a way to get updates or errata? 

AH: Good question, and I'm currently in a dialogue with my publisher on this exact point. We need to come up with some solution since the research still goes on. For now, I do continue to constantly post the fruits of new research on the website, but I do not post book updatesspecifically.  

HA: I know the personal sacrifices that a project like this requires. The long nights and weekends only represent the tip of the iceberg. Can you talk a bit about what you consider the toll something of this scope takes on you? Would you honestly do it again if you knew what you were getting into?

AH: Hmm...could we go back to questions about comic strips? It would by simple and convenient to blame my research work for any ills in my personal life and career, because it's certainly true that it is ridiculously time-consuming, and it sometimes causes me to stint on the attention I give to my 'real' work and relationships. However, when I start thinking that way I invariably remember that old saw, "Well, at least it keeps me out of bars." Not saying that I would become a barfly if I didn't have my newspaper research, but rather that there would surely be some other consuming passion to take up that space in my life. If I wasn't doing this, I would surely be trying to do something -- whether it was solving issues in genetic engineering or amassing the world's biggest ball of dryer lint, there would be something monumental in the works. On the other hand, when I embarked on this project twenty-five years ago I assumed that it would be completed in ten years--maybe less if I caught a few breaks. I mean, really--newspaper comics? How much research could that take? Hoo-boy. 

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"American Newspaper Comics: An Encyclopedic Reference Guide" is not the cheapest book, but if you're serious about comics history and getting your facts straight (and settling arguments among your fellow fans), it's indispensable. You can order it from Amazon (with a deep discount) via this link: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0472117564/tag=hogansalleyma-20. HOGAN IS TWITTERING: If you'd like to receive cartooning news and the occasional cartooning-related observation from Hogan's Alley, we're HOGANMAG on Twitter. We recently began sending Twitter followers a "Today in Comics History" fact a day that has been fascinating. For example, did you know that on this date—September 28—in 1909, "Li'l Abner" creator Al Capp was born? You would know all this and more by following @Hoganmag on Twitter! Just click http://twitter.com/hoganmag. A SITE FOR SORE EYES: Our completely revamped website is proving a big hit with readers as we continue to make archival material available. Check it out at http://www.hoganmag.com. We just posted our long oral history of SpongeBob SquarePants at http://cartoonician.com/2012/09/the-oral-history-of-spongebob-squarepants/. THE BEST DOLLAR YOU'LL EVER SPEND: If you're a Kindle owner, you can now own our story of the rise and fall of the Johnstone and Cushing comics studio for just 99 cents! Check out a sample at http://www.amazon.com/Rise-Fall-Johnstone-Cushing-ebook/dp/B009AYWQ3G/. Thank you for reading. Please visit our website at http://www.hoganmag.com and our shop featuring classic comics characters at http://www.hoganshops.com.

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