Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A LOOK BACK: Books about Comics (Part 2)

In a past blog, I reminisced about several books from my youth that fed my interest in cartooning and comics history. I mentioned this would be an ongoing feature at my blog, and I'm pleased to continue with a new installment.

Great Comics Syndicated by the Daily News-Chicago Tribune
by Herb Galewitz (1972)
I received this book as a Christmas gift in 1975, requesting it after spotting it in a bookstore.

This oversized book is light on the text and heavy on the reprint material, featuring as the title suggests the great comics syndicated by the New York Daily News-Chicago Tribune newspapers. Since I was living in New York City at the time—with the Daily News my parents' Sunday newspaper of choice—the book had resonance for me and gave me special appreciation for the strips I followed in the Daily News' Sunday comics section.

The editors who guided and built these storied newspapers in the early 20th century—cousins Robert B. McCormick and Joseph Patterson—were legendary for their ability to spot and develop strips in a very hands-on manner that had "legs" and connected with readers. Just a sampling of these strips include The Gumps, Little Orphan Annie, Blondie, Dick Tracy, Winnie Winkle, Moon Mullins, Gasoline Alley, L'il Abner, Terry and the Pirates, and Flyin' Jack—all classic "hall of fame" strips in anybody's book.

In retrospect, I've come to realize that this book was in actuality very imperfect and wouldn't pass muster with today's comic-book purists and historians. While a few complete story sequences are included, in an effort to provide a representative sample of the longer-running strips, often only a week's worth of strips are reprinted, usually in the middle of a story or adventure, which was torture for someone like me interested in reading a full adventure and seeing how a story turned out.

A particularly egregious choice was the decision to distort many of the reprinted strips to make them fit the oversize dimensions of the book. As a result, likely unbeknownst to the unsuspecting reader, some of the strips are unconscionably altered and "squashed." See the sample below, for example, compared to a reproduction of the same strip reprinted from NBM's definitive '80s compilation of the series' entire run—most of the Terry dailies in the volume (like many other strips) are reprinted in this fashion and, being the Milton Caniff acolyte I was, I conscientiously aped the squat style of the figures, realizing later that this was not the quirky, conscious style of the artist but rather a bad reproduction choice by the book's author!
Nevertheless, being in my early adolescence at the time—and given that such classic reprints were hard to come by in those days—I was none the wiser and this book was a treasured possession that I pored over constantly studying and reading. So it remains a book for which I have fond memories, warts and all.

The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer (1965)
Feiffer's Great Comic Book Heroes is considered a classic, credited with helping to renew in the 1960s interest in the classic comics of the Depression era from Feiffer's youth, that were the foundation of the modern comic-book industry. It remains an important book to many people of my generation as well, introducing me and my peers to the classic origin tales of familiar heroes like Superman, Batman, the Human Torch, etc., at a time when these classic strips were not easily available.

The first part of the book is a multi-chapter personal essay by Feiffer (reportedly expanding a piece he wrote for Playboy)—it's not so much a history of the early days of the medium as much as a personal remembrance of the raw power of these comics and the effect they had on him as a boy. He writes a bit about the artists and the characters; talks about how they inspired him to create his own home-made comics as a child (he even reproduces the cover of one of his childhood self-made comics, which fascinated me since I myself was doing the same thing as well, as shown in this post); and vividly portrays life in the trenches working as a journeyman artist in one of the comic-book "sweatshops" that sprouted up all over New York City in the early days of the industry.

The majority of the book, however—approximately two thirds of it—is devoted to reprinted full-color comics from the era, including the origin tales of many of the characters. (While Fantagraphics issued a new edition of the book in 2003, the reissue does NOT include the reprint art, presumably for copyright and licensing reasons.)

This book is also noteworthy because it re-introduced Will Eisner's Spirit to a new generation of readers, myself included. Feiffer devotes a whole chapter to the Spirit, and includes a Spirit story in the book. This is understandable since Feiffer entered the field as an assistant to Eisner. Nevertheless, given the prominence Feiffer gives to a relatively unknown and obscure character that had not been in published for nearly a generation, the series was a tantalizing revelation to younger readers. In addition, because Feiffer preferred the early pre-war version of the Spirit (tellingly, the version from his childhood before he worked on the strip), an early story from the series is presented in the book, though most historians agree that the series' post-war period was the apex of the series. As a result, it wasn't until the mid-'70s when the Spirit began being reprinted by Warren Publications that I realized the Spirit that I had faithfully co-opted for my own adolescent self-made comics was actually "off design" and not the commonly-accepted version of the character.

(Years later, I attended a slideshow presentation given by Feiffer as part of a series on the comics presented by the Los Angeles Public Library. This was around the time the cartoonist also was promoting the release of a new book, the Man in the Ceiling (1995). I had brought along a copy of the book for him to autograph, and when it was my turn to get his signature, I reminded him of an anecdote in his book that when he first began working for Eisner, one of his first jobs was to sign Eisner's name to the finished Spirit strips because he said he was better at it than Eisner was. So I asked him if he could inscribe an Eisner signature to the book. He laughed and signed the book, "Jules Feiffer AKA Will Eisner.")

A History of the Comic Strip by Pierre Couperie and Maurice C. Horn (1967)
This book was in the collection of my high school library in New York (as well as my college campus library in Los Angeles), and another one I was quite taken with for a time. (I don't own this volume personally.)

Originally published in France where popular art and "genre" literature are not quite as much frowned upon upon as they are in the U.S., and where classic comic strips can be admired as high art, this book offers a subtle but different approach to looking at comics.

Until relatively recently, in the U.S., most books about comics usually study the medium in a cultural or pop culture context.

In contrast, A History of the Comic Strip generally starts from the supposition of comics as "art." Reminiscent of Lichtenstein's comics-inspired fine art work from the period, panels from strips are often "blown up" in the book pop-art style, often giving readers a whole new way to look at the works.

My memory of the book has dimmed a bit over the years, but I have great memories of this book presenting the work of people like Milton Caniff and Burne Hogarth in an exciting, fresh new way that was fun while also taking the value of the work seriously.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Beatles Japanese Style

When my lovely wife and I honeymooned in Tokyo back in 2000, one of our most memorable evenings was spent at a Beatles' cover band club called The Cavern. (Skiing indoors in the middle of July and going to a baseball game were other highlights!) Thinking about it the other day led me to the website for the venue after a quick Google search.

The Cavern is a tiny intimate club that exclusively features Beatles tribute bands doing perfect covers of the Fab Four's catalog. Beatles tribute bands, of course, are a dime a dozen (we've frequently seen the Fab Four and Rain, two of the best known, and I saw Beatlemania in its original Broadway run back in the 1970s). But, of course, watching a Beatles cover band in Tokyo offers its own exotic twist.

The Cavern is located in the Roppongi district of Tokyo and though I'm sure it gets its share of tourists, it's primarily frequented by locals. (On the night we visited, I don't recall seeing any other "gaijin" other than ourselves). It was amazing and quite funny to hear the bands do their intros and "banter" in Japanese, then launch into a phonetic- and note-perfect version of a Beatles song.

A variety of these bands seem to make the rounds of these clubs, including those who dress the part à la Beatlemania. But on the night we visited it was a fairly straightforward band, though the guest performer who joined the band that night looked exactly like John Lennon from the Let it Be album—except he was Japanese! The band was taking requests (picked up by the hostesses), and our request was "And Your Bird Can Sing," one of my favorite Lennon-McCartney songs.

Our initial plan was to go club-hopping that night, but we were having so much fun, we stayed the whole night!

When Googling the Club, I ran across a blog link that mentioned that there actually are TWO such clubs in Tokyo, within a few hundred feet of each other, though I'm not sure whether that second club, Abbey Road, was there in 2000. Since there were some cool sample photos of Beatles cover bands at the blog link, I've provided a link to that here as well.

Photo credit: The photo above of the Silver Beats is reproduced from Stippy Friends.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Caniff Blog

As anyone familiar with me and my work knows, one of my biggest inspirations is cartoonist Milton Caniff (1907-1988), the writer-artist-creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon.

Given that interest, I was delighted to come across Matt Tauber's self-titled blog, whose mission is to "yammer on about cartoonist Milton Caniff and lesser topics for the edification of millions."

The main reason I really dig the blog is because Matt walks the walk as much as he talks the talk: not content with simply sitting at a keyboard writing about his passion, he has taken field trips to museums and landmarks to better understand the focus of his blog. These efforts to some degree have even contributed to the research and legacy of the masters! These have included trips to Hillsboro, Ohio where Caniff was born (Matt thoughtfully posts a photo of a historical marker honoring Caniff in his blog, see photo above) and a visit to the Cartoon Research Library and Museum at Ohio State University, where he interviewed Lucy Caswell, the curator of the Library/Museum, which was founded on the donated papers of Milton Caniff, a proud Ohio State alum.

One excellent example of his going above and beyond is a report about his effort to find the whereabouts of a painting by Caniff's close friend and long-time studio mate, Noel Sickles, that Sickles had donated to his high school alma mater, Chillicothe High School, around 1959. This search was based on a single paragraph in a recent Sickles biography (that I reviewed here). Given the passage of time and the fact that the high school had been gutted and rebuilt in the last decade, Tauber wondered whether the painting was still at the high school and whether Sickles' legacy was remembered.

I won't give anything away, but you can read about Tauber's effort to uncover the disposition of the painting here—it's well told. While everyone Tauber contacted in his quest (including the school's principal and various retired staff) were helpful and gracious, Tauber deserves full credit for his persistence, research and detective work.

Anyway, while I'm obviously predisposed to the subject matter, Tauber is insightful and entertaining, and I'll continue to keep tabs on his blog.

Photo credit: The above photo is reproduced from Matt Tauber's blog.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

RHA News Roundup

(Note: These news items will appear shortly in the next edition of my e-newsletter, Rob Hanes Adventures Update!)

Though it's been awhile since I last posted (sorry 'bout that!), there is a lot of new developments to report that I thought I'd capture in this single blog entry. So without further ado...

Rob Hanes Adventures #12 Completed!
The art to the next issue of Rob Hanes Adventures #12—pencils and inks—is now complete! I can't yet claim that the issue is fully ready to be "put to bed," but as I write this, with the exception of the very last page of the 20-page story, the issue is also already fully halftoned and lettered!

All that remains is some art and lettering/scripting changes and corrections. While it's a godsend that so much of my work on the series is now done in a digital environment which makes these kinds of corrections fairly straightforward and less labor-intensive, on the flip side it's a curse because the convenience of working digitally makes me more prone to going back to tinker and "fix" things. Oh, well, all that counts I guess is a better final product!!

Confirmed for the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con

It's official: I just received confirmation that WCG Comics will be making its TWELFTH appearance at the San Diego Comic-Con this July! Of course I'll make the usual promotional announcements about the location of my table in the small press pavilion as the date gets closer.

Release Date for RHA #12
When the completion of RHA #12 was immenent, I announced July 2009 as the release date for the issue. That date was chosen, of course, to coincide with the San Diego Comic-Con where I usually officially debut new issues of the title.

These announcements have also mentioned that the book will be made available to retailers through Haven Distributors, as part of a renewed push to get the series into retail stores.

Please note that as part of this effort, other than at San Diego, the availability of the issue by direct-mail order at the WCG Comics website may be delayed for a brief time. The purpose of this delay is to encourage readers to order the book from their retailer, and to ensure retailers are the first to have the book available for sale.

Expect more details about this shortly. In the meantime, if anyone has any concerns or questions about this policy, let me know!

That should hold you RHA fans for now! There are a few additional exciting new announcements I have waiting in the hopper regarding future projects, but rather than risk information overload, I'll save them for now for future posts!

As always, thanks for everyone's continued support.