Friday, January 15, 2010


Strip Teasers: Capsule Book Reviews

An Anthology of Captain and the Kids Comics
Published by CreateSpace
10 x 8 softcover, 50 pages, $14.99
ISBN 978-1449571504

If you troll about on Amazon looking for new strip reprint books you will have noticed in the last few months a burgeoning crop of titles from something called CreateSpace, a print on demand service.

Books published so far include collections of The Captain and the Kids, Bringing Up Father, Krazy Kat, Barney Google and several others. I was a bit leery of these publications just based on the Amazon listings -- the covers are black and white and amateurish in design. The descriptions, usually only a single sentence, also don't bode well. For instance, the description for the reviewed volume begins "An anthology of Captain and the Kids, later named the Katzenjammer Kids ..." So our anonymous editors aren't exactly comics scholars by any stretch.

However, incurable optimist that I am, my curiosity was piqued enough to go ahead and order one volume. I chose this one for no particular reason. Now I can report that the contents are very well-matched to the slapdash cover. What lurks inside are fifty Captain and the Kids Sundays, all either reproduced from microfilm photocopies, or, more likely, from the ProQuest online service.

Reproduction is exactly what you expect from microfilm photocopies. Acres and acres of muddy grey replaces all the color, film scratches mar many pages, and that curious dot-haze that characterizes laser-printed greyscale is spread like an algae bloom over everything. In the spirit of trying to say something nice, I do have to admit that the lettering is surprisingly legible. It's small enough that I need my reading glasses, but you can't expect anything more given the size of the book. There seems to have been absolutely no effort whatsoever made to clean up or restore the images.

Needless to say, I won't be purchasing any additional volumes in this series, and unless you are willing to shell out $15 for a stack of third-rate photocopies I recommend you take a pass, too.

A side note -- there's no editorial matter in this book, no credits and no copyright. Since some of the books in this series would appear to flout, at the very least, trademark laws, and possibly in some cases copyright laws, that's to be expected. However, is the presence of these books on Amazon for months now an indication that the syndicates have completely given up trying to uphold their rights to these characters? Are we now all free to publish old strips at will with no legal consequences? You would think with the state of the newspaper industry that syndicates would be enforcing their rights more jealously than ever, given that their current profit center is eroding away beneath them. In the very near future, character licensing may be the only thing that keeps these companies going. Are they waving the white flag?

Comics Revue #281/282 (October 2009)
Published by Manuscript Press
8" x 10.5" softcover, 128 pages $16.00

Whether you like Comics Revue or not, you've got to admire Rick Norwood for plowing forward with the magazine all these years. I can't imagine all the travails he's gone through with this publication, and despite further recent setbacks he just keeps on marching.

Recently, if I've got the story right, Norwood was threatened with losing his comic book store distribution due to low sales. The easy response probably would have been to thank the distributor for giving him an excuse to put the thing to rest. But not Norwood -- this glutton for punishment figured out that he could perhaps squeak by on the requirements if he reduced the magazine to bimonthly and doubled its size (hence the paired issue numbering).

I don't subscribe to Comics Revue because a great deal of the material reprinted in the magazine is just not my cup of tea. However, I received a review copy recently and so I'll put in my two cents.

The line-up in these new double-sized issues is vast -- featured in this one are Flash Gordon, Rick O'Shay, Buz Sawyer, Tarzan, The Phantom, Mandrake, Secret Agent Corrigan, Little Orphan Annie, Gasoline Alley, Steve Canyon, Alley Oop, Krazy Kat and Modesty Blaise. If your taste is for adventure strips then you've got quite a menu to choose from.

Now I make it no secret that when it comes to adventure strips my bar is sky high. Let's put it this way -- I think Caniff's Terry and the Pirates was over-written, and that the introduction of Captain Easy ruined the great Wash Tubbs strip. Given that, you can feel free to ignore my comments on this material, which in my estimation falls miles short of either of those strips.

The first problem I see with Comics Revue is that much of the material is from the 1950s to 1970s. If there was ever any doubt that the heyday of the adventure strip was over by the end of the 1930s, this magazine provides such definitive proof that I half-expected the final page to end with quod erat demonstrandum. The marquee item in this issue, a Flash Gordon story from 1960 written by the great SF novelist Harry Harrison, is just pathetic. The plot is nonsensical, the pacing is awful, the dialogue trite and characters are flat. If Harrison spent more than a few hours cooking up the whole story I'd be surprised.

Things don't improve thereafter. One bright spot is a cute little Buz Sawyer story, but it isn't complete in the issue. The delightful Alley Oop entry from 1938 goes by too quickly with just three weeks of dailies. Caniff's Steve Canyon was embroiled in an anti-feminist storyline that was embarrassing in its patronizing attitudes. Modesty Blaise had art so bad I couldn't bring myself to read it. Rick O'Shay, never a favorite of mine but usually a pleasant enough read, shows up with a surprisingly weak story that can't even seem to keep its facts consistent from day to day, a sign that the cartoonist disdains his readers and just plain doesn't care what he produces.

I assume Norwood is catering to completists here, those folks who are so in love with a character that they just have to read every strip in their favorite series no matter how bad it got in later years. Surely this can be the only explanation for printing some of this tripe. Where he's missing the boat, I humbly suggest, is that interspersed among these "for completist only" features he should print better material that might appeal to a general audience.

Reproduction is far from ideal on some of the features. While many are crisp and fresh-looking, others are washed out (Little Orphan Annie to a particularly bad degree) and some look like they were reproduced from pretty bad source material (Rick O'Shay and Mandrake).

The worst reproduction problem is on the color pages. The magazine's format is really too small to do justice to Sunday strips (which are often printed two to a page to add insult to injury), and the muddy, blotchy color full of moire patterns certainly doesn't help any. And frankly, there are so few color pages that I really don't see the point anyway. We get four Flash Gordon Sundays, four Tarzans, and a like amount of a few others. I can't imagine anyone buying the magazine specifically because of the color strips, yet I assume they cost an arm and a leg to print, explaining the magazine's lofty price. My advice would be to dump the color and slash the price of the magazine.

I'm sorry to say that this issue of Comics Revue did nothing to inspire me to subscribe. And I truly am disappointed because I take supporting efforts like this seriously as a part of being a good comic strip fan. I love the idea of a magazine that reproduces old comic strips, but there's just so darn little here that I want to read. If you are a big adventure strip fan, though, it could be worth your while to try it out. Me, I'll gladly take another look if the type of material changes -- and here's a few suggestions for adventure strips that would perk up my interest -- Barney Baxter, Oaky Doaks, Adventures of Patsy, The Red Knight, Dickie Dare, The Shadow, Roy Powers, Connie, Miss Fury, Bronc Peeler.


Wow, Allan, must be extremely hard to please. Your review of the new Comics Revue makes it sound worse than the CreateSpace stuff, and I want to assure your readers that it's not. I think your surprising (at least to me) comments about Terry and the Pirates says a lot about where you are in terms of comic strips, and said view is one I'm sure most of your readers don't share. And unlike you suggest, the adventure strip was just getting off to a good start in the 1930s, not ending.

I'm also sure the Comics Revue line-up is far more of interest to both the serious and mainstream comic strip fan than the strips you mention as those that would perk up your interest (did you mean "pique" your interest?). With the exception of Oaky Doaks and Connie in their heyday, you're talking about unremarkable, throwaway stuff at best! As for source material, I would think you especially would understand, with all of the research you've done, that the availability of good source material to complete a story can sometimes be lacking. And how come when you refer to us Comics Revue readers as completists, it seems to be said with a sneer? As exhaustive as your Stripper's Guide research has been, it would seem as though you are the epitome of a completist, and wouldn't look down on the rest of us for being so.

One bar that I have that's sky-high is one that you have created for me, and that's the high quality of content I've come to expect from your Stripper's Guide blog. This review of Comics Review Presents (as it's now titled) goes so far in the other direction that it's hard for me to believe it comes from the same fair-minded, comic strip supporting author. Your description of the magazine, its content, its editors, its publisher, and its readers is so uncomplimentary, I can't help but wonder if Rick Norwood pushed you down on the playground when you were in elementary school and you never forgave him.

I'd like to add that with its second issue released in December, Comics Revue Presents uses a better cover stock as well as a gloss-finished paper that improves the quality of the Flash Gordon, Phantom, Mandrake, and Tarzan Sunday reprints. Production of the other strips is better overall in the second issue as well.
I AM a big adventure strip fan, so this pub is much more to my taste. I too would love to see Barney Baxter and Roy Powers, but getting the rights to reprint is often a pain, and getting good souirce material is also tough. Still, I'd take even poor repros, rather than none.

I have high respect for both you and Rick, but I think you owe him a email of thanks and a follow-up review.
Boy, do I ever agree with you about Captain Easy. Wash Tubbs made an excellent adventure character in his own right.
I couldn't agree with you more about that magazine. I want to love it, but it just focuses on too much mundane stuff. GreAt blog!
Every time I look at a copy of Comic Revue I put it back on the shelf again. Why?
The reproduction is simply awful. Even when they seem to have good source material they print it in what looks like grayscale.
(And I can tell you that reprinted properly Neville Colvin's version of Modesty Blaise looks just gorgeous. In CR it looks like crap.)

For me it seems rather pointless producing a magazine for hardcore comic strip reprint fans, when done without a single thought about reproduction.
Rather than Quod Erat Demonstratum, how about De Gustibus Non Disputandum.

But when you attempt to read my mind, you go too far. Not only do you try to read my mind, you profess to read Stan Lynde's mind, too. You're wrong in both cases.

I pick the very best strips I can get, and I get the best reproduction I can from the material I have, most of it from my own collection. Of course I wish syndicate proofs were available, but the syndicates threw away most of their proofs, and the proofs they do have (the Buz Sawyer you liked for example) require a lot of touch-up work. Anyway, I'm glad you enjoyed the Alley Oop.

Rick Norwood
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