Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Obscurity of the Day: Johnny Reb and Billy Yank
Johnny Reb and Billy Yank has the distinction of being the very last new feature to be produced in the full page format. The Sunday only strip debuted in the New York Herald-Tribune on November 18 1956, beautifully drawn to take advantage of its vast acreage by Frank Giacoia.
The strip initially told the tale of a pair of soldiers, one each in the Civil War's Union and Confederate armies. The story was well-researched and according to Ron Goulart, was a joint effort between Giacoia and Herald-Tribune editor Ben Martin.
The concept of following the two separate stories might have seemed like a good idea, and would have been in a novel, but the weekly comic strip doesn't lend itself well to such literary devices. The schizophrenic strip eventually settled down to primarily tell Johnny Reb's story, and was better for it.
The glorious full page version of the strip was last printed by the Herald-Tribune on September 22 1957, after which the strip was available only in the conventional half- and third-page formats. The strip wasn't selling well, a common problem at the H-T -- many excellent strips have foundered in obscurity for no other reason than having the misfortune of being picked up by that syndicate.
Giacoia was evidently having trouble keeping up with deadlines on the strip, probably because he couldn't afford to devote much time to it considering how little revenue it was bringing in. The embattled Giacoia enlisted help on the strip from various quarters -- we know that Jack Kirby's hand is evident on many a strip, and it looks to me considering the ever-changing quality of the art that many others were called on to help. I think that someone skilled in art-spotting of 1950s comic book artists would have a field day with this strip.
It finally became obvious that Johnny Reb and Billy Yank was simply not going to catch on, even with Southern papers that should have been clamoring to add it to their Sunday sections. The story was brought to a close on the Sunday of May 24 1959. It was only one of a long string of victims of the H-T's preternatural inability to sell its fine wares.
It is my understanding that Giacoia was a fine penciller but a blank page somewhat confounded him and set in his natural tendency for procrastination; so his many comic artist friends assisted him by laying out the pages.
By the way, the kirbymuseum.org follows your three strips by reproducing the July 28, 1957 through February 2, 1958; including the September 22, 1957 strip in both half- and full-page formats.