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.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

In Time for Valentine's Day....

With Valentine's Day fast approaching, I thought it fitting to place front and center at the rhadventures* website a Rob Hanes Adventures romance story I did back in 1999 entitled "The Real Julianne Love." Click here or on the image at right to read the 8-page story in its entirety.

The story appeared in Love in Tights #2, a quarterly superhero–romance anthology series published by Slave Labor Graphics that appeared in February 1999. When I was invited to submit a story by the editor, J. Torres, I leapt at the chance. Around that time, I had become enthralled by the romance comics work of one of my favorite cartoonists, Alex Toth—Toth had done extensive work in the romance field and the work was finally being more widely seen thanks to a series of compilations devoted to this respected artist's artist. Toth was well suited to the naturalistic, illustrative tone of romance comics (versus the more operatic superhero comics), and said he enjoyed working on such stories when they were well written. Toth was very much on my mind when I produced "Julianne Love." I enjoyed the opportunity to do a romance story as well as work in a superhero adventure of sorts—and all within just 8 pages!

So I am pleased to re-present the story in time for Valentine's Day. Enjoy!

* Updated 10/2019: The webcomic link is no longer active, but new links have been inserted that takes you to preview pages of the story.

Below: Toth romance story page.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Ski Time!

Above: From our first ski trip of the season.
After a relatively mild winter, some "real weather" arrived in Southern California in the form of storms this past January. And rain in SoCal means snow in the mountains.

There must have been a lot of pent up demand, because on the first weekend of the storm, (January 23–24) traffic was so bad in the local mountains that it made the news. Some people spent six hours or more driving only to find roads closed or the ski resorts sold out. Though I'm an avid skier, this puzzled me because the snow was still going to be there later in the season, and the ski resorts keep their runs groomed and can add man-made snow to the base when the weather conditions are right. But I guess people wanted to be the first to experience the fresh powder. (Many years ago, I got to ski in a blizzard at Mammoth—a longtime dream come true! Talk about fresh snow—I remember visibility being no more than 10 feet at times due to the snow and fog!)

This past week, my 8-year-old's elementary school was closed Friday for an administrative day, so my wife and I used it as an opportunity to take a one-day family ski trip to Snow Valley. As I have mentioned in a past blog, we have started going to Snow Valley because it's less than halfway up the mountain that leads to Big Bear Lake where some of the larger ski resorts are located. And while the runs at Snow Valley are a bit less challenging for me, because the focus right now is to acclimate our kids to the sport, it's been a great alternative that's less of a production to get to and ski at.

We actually had visited Snow Valley just two weeks prior for a two-night trip. Though there was no snow in the mountains at the time, there had been enough of a base earlier in the season for adding man-made snow, which made skiing fine—coverage was actually very good on the trails that were open. Over the years, I've skied late in the season when coverage and conditions were iffy due to melting snow, so I was impressed by the coverage.

We left West L.A. at 6 a.m. and, accounting for the time we got momentarily turned around and then got caught behind a very slow-moving snow plow going up the mountain, we made it to our ski-rental place about 5 miles out of Snow Valley at 8:30 a.m. Because of the minor delays, the wait to purchase our lift tickets turned out to be surprisingly long, so we didn't actually start skiing until around 10:15 a.m. (It helped that we had a coupon to purchase our tickets at half price!)

Above: An overcast day at Snow Valley—great ski weather!
But it turned out to be great skiing! As I mentioned, there was fresh snow from the week before, and it was nicely packed and groomed. It also was overcast much of the day and reached a high of only about 49 degrees—the first time in years I got to wear my ski jacket and goggles! (My daughter wore one of my old pair of goggles as well.) Though we learned later in the day that the ski resort had sold out partly due to promotions—which resulted in people reportedly taking as long as three hours to purchase their tickets and rent equipment, I was surprised at how relatively short the lines were for the chair lifts and how uncrowded the slopes were!

Obviously, one reason we wanted to take the trip was to get the children more ski time. As mentioned here last year, my daughter learned to ski last season and she has improved every trip. Last year, she easily made the leap from the bunny slope to the beginner's-to-intermediate trail. On this trip, seeing her growing capabilities, I took her down a short, steeper run that she quickly mastered—which was helped by the fact that she had somehow instinctively figured out how to turn and change direction on the slope. After seeing this, I told her she was good enough to ski down from the top of the mountain which I had done earlier in the day on my own, finding a way down using fairly intermediate trails and avoiding harder black diamond runs. At first she said she wasn't interested, but near the end of the day as twilight approached, she suddenly said she wanted to give it a try. (Of course, I suddenly got cold feet and, after making sure she felt truly ready, as we rode the long lift up to the top, I kept going over some pointers and reminding her to take it in easy stages.)

Below: A ski bunny in the making.

Well, it was clear my assessment was on the money—my daughter ended up taking the run from the top so easily that when we got down to the bottom and I noticed there was no line for the lift, we did it again before calling it a day! I can now truly say my daughter is a "real" skier!

What's funny is that my daughter takes the runs pretty fast. When we ski with her, my wife and I constantly shout after her to slow down—not merely for safety reasons, but also so that she can enjoy the run and the view. But she just likes to tear down the slope!

We signed up our 4-year-old for his first ski lesson—just a half day—during our trip a couple weeks earlier. This was partly to give my wife a chance to hit the slopes herself for the first time since the kids were born (I started up again about three years ago.) He always has been more cautious than his older sister and, to be fair, she did not start until she was 6. But though we had given him a feel for what it was like to have skis on before he went to the class, he sat out the lessons and refused to participate for more than an hour-and-a-half until his mom finally persuaded him to give it a whirl. So he really only got the basics.

Once he got on the bunny slope after the class, however, he refused to get on a lift—we suspect he was too scared to ride the chair. So my wife and I took turns hiking partway up the bunny slope with him (while the other skied with our daughter) and then, while holding hands, skiing down with him. Although it was pretty tiring to have to constantly hike up the slope in the snow carrying our skis, what's important at this stage is that he enjoys and finds it fun. Next year we plan to put him in a class again to reinforce his basic skills so that he can begin skiing on his own.

We left the ski resort at about 5:30 p.m. Although we were driving home 90 miles across the length of L.A. in the middle of rush hour on a Friday night, it took us only two hours to get home! Anyone who knows L.A. will know that this is very impressive—it helped that we were going against rush hour traffic and took the carpool express lanes almost the entire way! By that time, the kids were pretty tired and slept much of the way home—I actually had a lot of ski in me left and could easily have gone another day.

Anyway, it was an enjoyable trip and it's nice to know now that a one-day trip with the whole family is doable! My wife and I are very happy to be passing along our enjoyment of this activity to the kids at such a young age.