Thursday, February 25, 2010

A LOOK BACK: Books about Comics (Part 3)

This is the third installment in an ongoing reminiscence of books from my adolescence that fed my interest in cartooning and comics history. Parts one and two are still available.

The Adventurous Decade (1975) by Ron Goulart
Though Goulart is primarily a successful author and fiction writer, he also has developed a reputation as a comics and pop culture historian. I discovered The Adventurous Decade: Comic Strips in the 1930s at a local library in the late '70s and it became a book I frequently borrowed. At some point, I had photocopied my favorite chapters from the book for personal use, but I finally purchased a used, early printing of the book.)

Though it includes some comics exerpts, the book is primarily a collection of essays focusing on specific comic strips or genres. As anyone familiar with my work knows, the initial inspiration for my own comic-book series, Rob Hanes Adventures, grew out of my love of classic adventure strips, which came into their own and experienced their golden age in the 1930s, so this book was a natural for me. Chapters are devoted to Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, and Terry. The chapter on Terry is especially engaging, vividly recalling the immediacy and popularity of Milton Caniff's series, and the tremendous impact it had on the newspaper strip field.

This book also introduced me to Roy Crane and his seminal adventure strip, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy (which I have previously covered here and here). While I was already somewhat aware of Crane's work, this was the first time I began to have an inkling of how innovative and respected the artist was, who had been largely forgotten by the mainstream and even many comics fans, though his work was one of the most important precursors to the classic adventure strip. Indeed, it wasn't until years later that his work became somewhat more widely available (his run on Wash Tubbs has since been collected in its entirety, as has some of his work on Buz Sawyer). But at that time, that was my widest exposure to Crane's work.

Backstage at the Strips (1977) by Mort Walker
Mort Walker, creator and cartoonist of Beetle Bailey, as well as a co-creator and writer or artist of comic strips Hi and Lois, Boner's Ark, and Sam's Strip has long been one of the senior deans of the syndicated cartooning profession.

While Backstage is a memoir of sorts, it's also a behind-the-scenes look at the cartooning profession. With the book, Walker tried to demystify the field a bit, primarily because, remembering when he was a young aspiring cartoonist himself, he felt there was little information about the nuts and bolts of the profession.

Backstage is written in a very easy-going and entertaining manner, and Walker doesn't shy from telling funny anecdotes about his peers—back in the day, syndicated cartooning was a real "boys club" and a lot of their extracurricular activities seemed to be centered around golfing and drinking. As a young aspiring cartoonist myself, I recall spending hours reading this book in bookstores. (Like the Adventurous Decade above, I finally purchased a used copy a few years ago.) Though cartooning is clearly hard work, Walker acknowledges he is fortunate to be making a living at what he loves. He also shows himself to be an enterprising businessman.

Walker reveals himself to be a true student of the field, as well as a fan—he talks about sending a fan letter to Milton Caniff. (Walker has also been the driving force behind the National Cartoon Museum, which had a tumultuous history until Walker merged his collection with the respected Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University.)

At the time it was published, Backstage provided a little seen window into the day-to-day life of a cartoonist. The book was perfectly complimented years later by a comprehensive interview that Walker gave for the Comics Journal, which I reviewed here.

Origins of Marvel Comics (1974) by Stan Lee
This is another book I read as an adolescent primarily in bookstores.

Capitalizing on the success of Marvel Comics as a mini-pop-culture phenomenon, as well as a mini-resurgence of interest in the form at the time, this book was one of the earliest attempts to document the history of Marvel Comics' early days—written by someone who was there, Stan "The Man" Lee himself!

The story is engagingly told in Lee's distinctive personal voice, which played such an important role in Marvel's astounding success in attracting readers—in both this book and his "Stan's Soapbox" editorials in the comics, Lee had a way of making you feel like he was talking directly to you and that Marvel and its fanbase were one big happy family.

Origins helped cement the mythos of Marvel for decades—in retrospect, it was as much a promotional tool for the company as it was a first-person account of the company's early days.

In recent years, it's been popular to disparage Origins—Lee's persona and the aura of Marvel Comics in those early years were closely intertwined, and some feel Lee's charisma and natural talent for self-promotion made the book a bit self-serving and downplayed the contributions of the cartoonists he worked with; some have even considered the book an attempt by Lee to rewrite history by grabbing the lion's share of the credit for Marvel's success for himself.

Frankly, when Lee wrote the book, I doubt he was thinking that far ahead. Always the quintessential company man, Lee likely saw the book as a way to promote the company and, at the time, he probably didn't consider the book as something that would stand as the final world on the subject—again, he was merely advancing the mythos of Marvel, to which he was inarguably central.

Nevertheless, with these caveats in mind, Origins is a jaunty, entertaining read. It remains one of the first primary source materials written by someone who was there and provides some insight into Lee and the early days of the company. Given the rise of the company into an entertainment powerhouse—culminating this past decade with the success of its own movie production company and Marvel's eventual sale to the Walt Disney Company—it should be looked at as a rough draft of the company's first act, and a precursor of what was to come.

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