Wednesday, September 10, 2008

BOOK REVIEW! BETSY AND ME by Jack Cole (Fantagraphics, 2007)

In the once wacky and wooly world of comic strips, the wide variety of obscurities (read: commercial failures) may be long gone and forgotten, but boy do they get a load of attention, at least from nitpicking comic strip fans like myself! Well, at least they get a load more attention than they did while they were still being published, but a day won't go by without some comic strip-oriented blog reprinting examples of strips that were so short-lived and under-the-radar that they may have lasted only for a few weeks at some local paper during the turn of the century, and we're talking nineteenth into twentieth at that! And why not? I mean, we all know about the reams of NANCYs, DICK TRACYs and FERD'NANDs that have wormed their way into our hearts for the past seventysome years, but what about alla them SALESMAN SAMs, FINEHEIMER TWINS and DAVE THE LOG ROLLERs that came and went without anyone barely noticing their brief existence? Were they worth the five seconds or so of time it takes to read a comic, or did they deserve the unkind fate of being tossed onto the slagheap of instant obscurities along with Shake-A-Puddin' and Boil-A-Haggis? I think history would prove that such strips as SALESMAN SAM were excellent on both the gag and artistic levels and perhaps coulda made the upper reaches of comic har-har sensibilities had things only evolved a bit differently and who knows, perhaps if fate had been kinder we'd be sprawled out on the living room floor reading MISS FURY 'stead of trying to find out what the entire appeal of DOONESBURY is anyways.

Anthologies of such long-gone strips are usually rarer'n hair follicles on my scalp, and considering the sad fact that syndicates are now asking a hunkerin' amt. of change for any sorta reprint rights it's not hard to see why many old and/or legendary strips haven't been slapped into neat softcover editions like they should've been long ago. BETSY AND ME is a surprising exception. A short-running (May to November 1958) comic that nobody seems to remember, BETSY AND ME was the creation of cartoonist Jack Cole who, along with Will Eisner, put a lotta that quality into the legendary Quality Comics line with his PLASTIC MAN. Thus the inherent appeal of this strip at least for me, since PLASTIC MAN is a character who double-whammied me not only with his appearance in THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES (hugeoid pre-teen comic influence) but a DC SPECIAL collection of a few of his best within the confines of 64 pages that I sure wish I had kept just for the plain ol' happy memories of an unhappy time its presence would undoubtedly enlighten me with.

Tons of ten-dollar words couldn't describe the art of Jack Cole and PLASTIC MAN adequately enough even though some of the more astute/snobbish comic critics have attempted to over the years, but to that all I have to say is eh, since I figger that "understanding" things such as comic "art" is a "get it or you don't sorta affair. Besides, being a strict student/appraiser of the form takes a lotta fun outta the subject at hand sorta like learning a musical instrument takes the fun out of listening to it. But great PLASTIC MAN was, and rather'n return to my roots of gushy artistic appraisal which certainly clogged up a number of my trying-to-be-earnest writeups of everything from LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND to KRAZY KAT lemme just say that I continue to find these stories totally zoned into that same sorta mid-Amerigan Saturday-Afternoon-Barbershop-Kid UHF low-budget tee-vee station suburban lifestyle that many intellectuals continue to scoff at, but the entire idea of it continues to mesmerize me even if those days are by now distant memories.

But as far as BETSY AND ME goes, well Cole always said that he wanted to do a comic strip of his own (he had ghosted some SPIRIT dailies while Eisner was in the service) so it definitely was the culmination of a pretty long and fruitful career. And considering how at this time the funny pages had yet to slide into the abysmal pit of postmodernism I was kinda hoping for this collection to be yet a pretty good chortle-inducing read custom-made for those late-night easy-chair hours that slowly ease me into beddy-bye time. So what do you get with the complete run of this rather tasty strip, which I had gandered would be yet another great attempt at fifties innovation in the Schulz/Walker vein? Well, hate to say it, but BETSY AND ME hardly rises to the levels of a classic PEANUTS or BEETLE BAILEY let alone such stellars as NANCY or POLLY AND HER PALS. Heck, it doesn't even have the sick auto-accident-in-slow-motion appeal of DONDI let alone the scribbling sarcasm of Blechman. If I hadda describe BETSY AND ME in one word (allow me an adjective), it would be "inspired misfire" and who could argue with that after giving this book a read or two?

OK, nuclear family comic strips had become pretty much commonplace by BETSY AND ME's debut a good five decades back, but neither Cole's "modernized" style (simple fine line drawing really not that different from Schulz's style at the same time) and unique storytelling style could save this strip. Oh, it is "fun" to look at and perhaps even to read (the fact that every strip seems to be narrated by patented fuddy duddy daddy Chet Tibbit [inept department store floorwalker] who talks about his wife Betsy and genius son Farley is different from the standard HI AND LOIS fare), but otherwise BETSY AND ME seems to be trying too hard to rise above the rest of the comic flotsam of the day maybe just because it does try harder. Considering the characters who seem to lack a proper "development" and the cluttered humor which seems to be trying for a sophisticado audience, BETSY AND ME ultimately tumbles into a chasm of boring respectibility with only a scant few guffaws to make anything redeeming, which is pretty sad if you ask me because I really was hoping this book would've been a prized winner in my lifelong collection of comic strip anthologies.

Subject matter would seem custom made for the young adult fan of the day, dealing with everything from the courtship and marriage of Chet and Betsy to the birth and growth of Farley, their used 1945 "Huppmobile" as well as a move to the 'burbs. Unfortunately this all takes place within the first four months of BETSY AND ME which only adds to the claustrophobic feeling this strip exudes. And yeah, in some ways it is sad to see a guy like Cole end up turing his life's ambition into this mess which in some ways does remind me of those failed comic strip spoofs that appeared in THE NATIONAL LAMPOON BOOK OF COMICAL FUNNIES , only those were high-larious in their overt ineptitude and general bad taste while this 'un couldn't hold my attention even if Cole decided to dollop a whole load of NATLAMP-approved humor all over the thing in order to give it some non-redeeming value! Thankfully he didn't stoop that low, not that the syndicate would let him, but still trying to find a straightforward laugh in this strip is about as hard as finding one in just about any comic strip today. Maybe I've become hardened, but I don't think all these years of jadedness has dampered my funnybone this much!

The weirdest thing about the entire BETSY AND ME saga is that only a few months into its run Cole, in the tradition of E. F. Small (SALESMAN SAM), Stan MacGovern (SILLY MILLIE) and Wallace Wood committed suicide. You can see a whole load of strange and just plain bizarre irony in this, as both Small and MacGovern were screwball comic creators of the highest magnitude (although Small was, according to CAPTAIN EASY/BUZZ SAWYER creator Roy Crane, one of the dourest men alive!) and Wood perhaps thee post-Golden Age genius/mover and shaker. But Cole, sheesh, he was far from his form on these comics in order for me to even consider lumping him in with the rest and his death seems more like too little too late rather than a greatly sad loss. I dunno, but if he had blown his brains out during the height of PLASTIC MAN's popularity I probably would understand a whole lot more, but then again that's probably just the sarcastic side of me bellowing forth again.

1 comment:

Bill said...

Hey, Chris.
BETSY AND ME sounds (and looks) fascinating.
Could you perhaps list for us the best dealers in vintage obscure comic reprints? This kind of thing helps keep me sane---like an episode of JOHNNY STACCATO or an Ozzie Nelson marathon.

BILL S.