Friday, October 27, 2006

Leonard Starr on Stage

I grew up in New York City during the 1960s and '70s, where my family's newspaper of choice was the New York Daily News. That turned out to be a stroke of luck because as I became interested in classic comic strips and their history, I realized that some of the famous strips I read about were actually still being published and syndicated by the Daily News. These included Terry and the Pirates, Little Orphan Annie, Moon Mullins, Winnie Winkle, Smoky Stover, Dondi, Brenda Starr, and others.

One of the strips carried in the News was Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins On Stage. However, I never read it. As a kid who drew his own crude comics, I could see it was well drawn. But as far as I was concerned, it was a soap opera "chick" strip, so I always skipped over it to look at the other features.

Well, the first volume of a projected collection of the series has just been released and now that I'm older, wiser, and a bit more mature, I'm glad I've been given this new opportunity to re-discover this strip--and from its very start too.

In short, I was blown away.

Starr hit the ground running with the strip. Though the art continued to show improvement over the years, the artist was already at top form. Starr's art is photorealistic slick, and his advertising art background is apparent (samples of this can be found in the collection's extras). His figure work is beautiful, his use of blacks terrific, and his sense of place and staging would rival any movie production designer. And fitting for a strip set in New York's theater world, the characters are emotive yet naturalistic. (and, of course, the women are beautiful yet feminine.) And though the art was lush, Starr's work was also very expressive, warm and full of life.

After reading just this first volume I realize now that Starr is perhaps one of the finest draftsmen/illustrators to ever work in the medium, certainly technically. He's that good.

The writing matches the art fine. Yes, I guess it is a "chick" strip, but I nevertheless found the stories in this first volume to be a compelling page turner. Yes, Mary is a "goody two shoes"--a classic small town girl in the big city who is the trusting ingénue--but with the help of some good folks who sincerely wish to help out the young naïve actress, her pluck and good nature allows her to overcome the many shady characters she comes across.

Telling a story in the daily strip format is a unique skill and Starr was adept at it. As little I read of the strip, I'm still somewhat familiar with how it turned out in later years, so I can see that the series already was fairly well realized from the start. As someone who partly loved classic strips because they offered a more sophisticated alternative to the heroic operatic fantasy stories that characterized comic books (at least at the time), it's nice to know there room for a quality strip like this in today..s market.

But make no mistake--as the text pieces point out (which includes an introduction by comic-book super-fantasy artist Walt Simonson, who mentions Howard Chaykin is a fan as well), On Stage was an adventure strip--the lead character just happened to be an actress in New York.

While On Stage probably would not be the first choice on many people's list--even comics fans--worthy of reprint, this collection clearly makes the case of why it's deserving to be seen by a new generation of comics readers. In later years, Perkins' character became professionally successful, more mature, and less naïve. I am looking forward to watching the continuing adventures and growth of the strip and the characters, and I hope sales on this first volume are strong enough to continue the series.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Trudeau Interview

The Washington Post Magazine has posted a lengthy and fascinating article about Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau at its website here (Or click on the image above).

The jumping off point for the article is the resurgence and attention the strip has experienced with the grave battle injury that one of the central characters, B.D., received while serving with the National Guard in Iraq. In the process, Trudeau--well known for his liberal/anti-Vietnam War/anti-establishment bent--has found an appreciative audience among the military and veteran groups.

I was not aware of this, but Trudeau is generally media and publicity averse, and this is the first major personal piece about him in decades. The article is quite "up close and personal," and illuminating. Read the article and find out about his "bad movie nights" with buddies; his illustrious family history; his appreciation for great cartoonists like Walt Kelly; his love of the Yankees; and his family. It's a great, comprehensive read. Not sure how long the story will be posted, so enjoy it now!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Lazy Muncie

The Saturday Night Live video skit Lazy Sunday has resulted in a whole bunch of parodies/takeoffs, but I thought this was one of the funnier ones.

There is a comics connection--cartoonist Jim Davis, creator of Garfield (and apparently a Muncie native) cameos in the video.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

All in 24 Hours!

The art at right is from a "24-hour comic" by fellow cartoonist Benton Jew (i.e., a complete comic-book story done in a 24 hour period). The quality of the work he produced here in 24 hours is more than what many cartoonists can achieve working months on!

Benton--a professional storyboard artist and outstanding cartoonist and draftsman--is a longtime acquaintance who is one of the finest artists I've ever met. He also has a great respect and love for the history of cartooning and illustration.

To see more of the story and other samples of his amazing work, visit his blog (or click on the image). Be sure to scroll down to see his Superman and Batman pieces!

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Grand Prix

In conjunction with its release on DVD, the film Grand Prix (1966) has been on rotation on Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which I finally caught in its uncut, widescreen glory.

Grand Prix is one of those sweeping epic, widescreen films with an international scope and cast. The story follows the intertwined lives of several rival Formula One race drivers over the course of a racing season. The international cast includes James Garner, Yves Montand, Jessica Walter, Eva Marie Saint, and even Toshiro Mifune.

Prior to its recent release, I frankly had never heard of the film, and caught it simply by accident on TCM. But I was instantly mesmerized by the extended high-testerone race sequences which employ a wide variety of film techniques and angles -- split screen, extreme perspective wide angle shots, etc. -- to convey the sense of speed and danger for audiences. Though I don't have a particularly interest in car racing or stunt driving, the driving sequences nevertheless are quite thrilling--I can see why some people call this the greatest car race movie ever filmed. And as a comic-book storyteller, I am always interested by innovative ways to convey movement and speed.

James Garner plays Peter Aron, the sole American Formula One driver in the circuit (which of course makes him the de facto lead in this Warner Bros. film). Aron finds himself briefly blackballed after he is blamed for causing a crash during a race that seriously injures a fellow driver. Aron also becomes involved in a love triangle involving the injured driver and the injured driver's estranged wife. The movie also follows the growing relationship between a French race car driver played by Yves Montand and an American journalist played by Eva Marie Saint, as well as the recovery of the injured player who is anxious to return to the racing circuit. The movie also explores the danger and fears faced by the drivers, as well as the complicity of spectators and the media in morbidly awaiting for a crash to happen.

Frankly, the storyline itself is pedestrian, melodramatic, and not very well scripted (or even acted): the real star of the film are the racing sequences. These are well choreographed and, surprisingly (and fortunately), take up a lot of screen time. I also was particular impressed by the fact that each race is presented in a distinct manner, as different as the courses featured in each race.

(The actors did all their own driving, and Frankenheimer filmed them going actual speed, refusing to speed up the film for the movie; while Formula One race drivers apparently drive at about 180 miles per hour, the actors were apparently driving at speeds of 120-130 mph in the film. Tragically, 9 of the 32 actual professional Formula One drivers used in the movie were dead from racing accidents within a year of the movie's release; 21 were dead by 1980. Interestingly, when looking up the film on IMDB, I noticed that George Lucas--who was very much into fast cars and drag racing--is listed as an "additional camera operator"!)

The innovative cinematographic style used to convey the speed of the cars in the movies can still seen today in videogames and other films (like Disney's recent Cars).

Even more remarkable is the fact that Frankenheimer near the end of his career showed he still had the touch: more than 30 years later, he directed the film Ronin with Robert DeNiro (1998) which features a similar European setting and sensibility, and thrilling, cutting-edge high-speed stunt driving that has made the movie a minor cult film (and a personal favorite of mine).