Saturday, December 04, 2010

It's a good thing that the latest package from Ken Pierce Books arrived to save me from comic strip withdrawal after my finishing the latest (and last, for a good while) COMPLETE DICK TRACY volume. Otherwise I'd have to focus my energies on other kultural trivialities to occupy my free time such as old television shows, nth-read fanzines and Dinky Toys. But man have those old TRACY books brought back the memories of when I was still in the single digits sprawled across the living room floor reading the comic section after grabbing the paper as soon as it hit the porch, blocking household traffic so-to-speak while glomming the latest installment of a LI'L ABNER adventure or chuckling to the wordless antics of FERD'NAND! It just goes to remind me as to how many little and long gone pleasures that I had while I was a child such as reading comic strips and naturally waiting for my favorite television programs to appear, seeming innocent enough regularities in my life that ended once the entire social pattern changed and suddenly I was too old for such things. Or so everybody told me...

Needless to say them days are gone forever...I mean could you imagine some modern-day 4th grader anxiously awaiting the arrival of the ever-shrinking daily paper so he could sprawl out and eyeball DOONESBURY let alone such unfunny (and witless) reflections of 2010 "tastefulness" as FOR BETTER OR WORSE? Then hop on over to the television to watch some OPRAH or DR. OZ which are running on the same stations that used to air GILLIGAN'S ISLAND and THE MUNSTERS during the same time slot? YOU may call it progress, I call it the revenge of DOCTOR WERTHAM!!!

One of the surprises in my latest parcel were the reprints of classic strips that, while not obscure, are not what you'd call profitable enough to warrant a legitimate publishing and thus have been reproduced in collections that could be more or less considered "bootleg" fanzines. I mentioned this quandary with regards to releasing comic collections earlier in my review of some recent OUR BOARDING HOUSE and OUT OUR WAY books which were published in Canada in order to circumvent having to pay exorbitant fees to newspaper this case the publishers in question (Comic Preserves) just decided to work under the radar and hope that the syndicate which ran strips now long gone just don't notice, and frankly I hope that they continue to do just that for quite a long while, or at least until they finally issue a FRECKLES volume of late-fifties/early-sixties ARCHIE-styled strips!

Mixed results ain't exactly the exception...true, seeing legendary titles that may have been top ten in their day but have fallen off the turnip truck is fine, but the reproduction is usually washed out, looking as if the material used for these comics was taken from third-generation xeroxes or even scratchy microfilms with loads of white out and retouching in store for some hapless compiler. Still if you wanna read 'em, and don't have the time to head on down to the local library to peruse those ancient microfilms these books do come in handy.

Some of the choices may be a little suspect to me. I still wondered why I picked up Comic Preserves' FREDDY collection since from what I've seen so far it seemed like the first of many PEANUTS knockoffs that appeared throughout the fifties and sixties. Of course that's nothing uncommon in the world of comic strips as any reader of DAN DUNN could tell you, but the fact that I dished out the seven or so bucks for a fanzine-styled book of reprints of a strip that seemed like a BAD imitation is something that continues to stymie me. Well, I will say that FREDDIE is not as blatant a swipe of Charles Schulz's strip as SHRIMPY (later examples being even more obvious down to mimicking PEANUTS' small oblong panels), but it's still too coyingly cute and lacking in true wit to compete with the real fanabla. Much better'n such other obvious PEANUTS popoffs as TIGER and WINTHROP, but as far as fifties/sixties-era adult-less maladjusted neurotic kid strips went FREDDY was just another low-fi pretender. It's amazing that it lasted as long as it did, which I could also say about many of today's comics which don't even attempt to arouse and inspire ya the way the best comics always did.

The ROOM AND BOARD reprints were way more satisfying despite the horrid reproduction which actually made my Ten PM eyeballs do a few counterclockwise spirals. Dunno what source they used for these classic Gene Ahern post-OUR BOARDING HOUSE panels but if these came from old yellowed newsprint that was used to wrap grandpappy's old suit I wouldn't be surprised. Still it's wonderful giving the various volumes of these panels, which do rank with Ahern's original Major Hoople creation, a go at it despite having to undergo macular degeneration in the process. The World War II-vintage travails of Judge Agustus Puffle and the denizens of his boarding house who for the most part resemble the same roomers who occupied the home of Hoople and his battle-axe wife Martha are worth the time and effort even if I have trouble seeing things for the next five or so hours!

One thing, some of these ROOM AND BOARD (at times entitled BOARD AND ROOM probably due to some dyslexic newspaper editor) collections also have a sampling of strips entitled THE OLD HOME TOWN, a panel which stole ideas (but not inspiration) from not only the various Ahern creations but J. R. Williams' OUT OUR WAY complete with the snide comment at the bottom of the panel and the depictions of a homespun existence that seems to have vanished quite a long time ago. Unfortunately THE OLD HOME TOWN had none of the good art, warmth, affection or whatever it was that made those other comics so enticing. If you are interested in reading a good Ahern swipe you should try COLONEL GILFEATHER which has the distinction of having been worked on by both Al Capp and Milton Caniff. Capp's artwork was fine-etched excellent in those early panels, and don't you think that Gilfeather looked a whole lot like the mid-aged Orson Welles about ten years before Welles looked like that in the first place?

In contrast the reprint of Ahern's SQUIRREL CAGE Sunday toppers is much to be desired, praised, coveted and a whole lot of playful hyperbole I can't think up right at this moment. I take that back...after all, hyperbole is exaggeration that is meant so by the deliverer of the message but this particular comic is one that continues to live up to the legend surrounding it. Most recall "the little hitchhiker" guy with the long white beard whom R. Crumb admits was the inspiration for Mr. Natural and that's all fine and good, but the great badgag jokes and classy artwork is what makes THE SQUIRREL CAGE so appealing a good ninety-five years after Ahern began his cartooning career. Certainly a refresher after being inundated with the usual half-baked slapdash seen more often than not these days, with strange twists and comedic surrealism permeating every panel and a storyline which gets even wilder as time goes on to the point where the unnamed guy with the blond hair who lives across from where the hitchhiker's standing is trying to MURDER him! And like I said, I really like the old screwball-styled comedy of them old days and one who holds the Three Stooges or Joe Cook to heart really can't deny that Ahern was gulping from the same font of nutcase funnybone jibing as those acts and many more! Great repro job on these strips as well, printed in full color straight from the clippings of some comic strip oldtimer who knows what's worthy of your orbs and what isn't!

Here's one that I wasn't planning on getting, but got anyway and boy am I glad about it! You wouldn't think that a guy such as myself would be a fan of ELLA CINDERS which for the most part has the reputation of being a slightly romantic girly comic strip which lasted a good thirtysome years before finally getting the guillotine, but standing-against-the-bulwark-of-time me actually enjoys these 1925 strips, and for what should be obvious to you reasons as well! ELLA CINDERS, for being a twenties flapper kulture re-telling of the ol' Cinderella tale, makes for fine late-night reading with its entertaining and even engrossing turns and twists which remind me of the better silent film melodrama/comedies of the day. (It would figure that the strip was made into a silent feature with the vivacious Colleen Moore in the starring role!) Ella's this cute young-ish woman/child type (seemingly pubescent yet old enough for figure it out!) who along with her kid brother Blackie roam from adventure to adventure and often from riches to rags and back again. She's cute enough with her straight black hair and sports freckles which mysteriously disappear when life is treating her better or if all dolled up (however she could sure use the Mark Eden Course!). Maybe they're just blackheads, but anyway in these episodes we find her back from her failed moom pitcher career and being stood up at the altar (prospective hubby being a notorious crime figure!) forced to once again live with her wicked stepmother and vomitous stepsisters who make the ones in the fairy tale look like Sisters of Mercy! Naturally poor Ella's having a pretty rough time of it between the housework and cruel treatment being bestowed upon her, and if you tend to get really absorbed in these storylines like I do prepare for loads of pent-up anger to surge when you see just how outright EVIL mom and the sisses can be! The strip where the stepsisters taunt Ella by buying up her old fashionable garb to flaunt in front of her as well as the times Ma Cinders swindled Ella out of $500 and confiscated her piggy bank savings she was going to use to run away with are bound to get your blood boiling! Sheesh, and you thought LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE had it bad, but like Annie Ella seems to take it all in stride though just once I'd like to see her belt all three of those grotesque harridans right inna labonza!

The later stories with a solid pen line akin to the strips of the forties as well as Ella sporting a Fritzi Ritz 'do don't exactly light my buttocks, but these early ones really do please the way the great comics of the pre-hippie era will continue to do for the rest of my life. If you're looking for a taste of the early strip just go here to be taken to a site where they can easily be espied, and for the cost of a click!

And finally comes a collection of strips that I must admit I wasn't that hot on gettin' in the first place (in fact I got it as part of a "grab bag" deal) but I'm sure glad I got it even if I really didn't care 'bout gettin' it in the first place! 's not that I hated ABBIE AN' fact I'm the proud owner of a vintage Sunday page delineated by artist Raeburn Van Buren (whose previous career as a magazine illustrator was cut short when Al Capp told him there was more gold in them thar comic pages) but it wasn't like I was especially surprised by what little I had read of the strip. However that all changed with Ken Pierce Books' second ABBIE AN' SLATS volume, these collecting Sunday strips featuring not the main characters at all ('cept for a quick cameo by Abbie) but Bathless Groggins, a retired sailor whose gruff but lovable charm'll worm its way into your heart, if not your nostrils. The fact that Capp himself scriped ABBIE AN' SLATS (eventually handing it over to brother Elliot Caplin) adds to the overall pleasure unless you're still harboring ill will towards Capp for his anti-student rantings of the late-sixties, and if you're one who loved the Capp satirical touch in LI'L ABNER these strips'll satiate your desire for the genius' talents. Believe you me, it's not only wonderful letting your eyes cascade over Van Buren's fine artwork but reading the well-crafted sagas where you'll find everything from Groggins pulling scams on friends and foes alike at times getting ripped off himself as well as continually running up against arch enemy Jasper Hagstone, the richest man in Crabtree Corners who has his own lovable charm about himself, that is if you think cold-hearted cunning can be something to cuddle up against.

There are a lot of Capp-styled characters and sittche-ATIONS in these strips from Groggins as a stench-riddled sea skunk everyman a la Abner himself, as well as with the O. Henryesque whacko endings that still surprise me even at this stage in my life when I should know better. Of course the frequent use of "good girl art" as they now call it, with some vivacious femme added into a panel whether needed or not, is evident to the point where even some rare shots of topless gals can be espied in one particularly humorous saga. (Not at vivid as that Captain Easy story that took place in South America where nubile and youthful topless Indian gals could be seen frontal-wise complete with nipples, but hubba hubba enough for you!) And the morality tales are something to behold especially these days when "morality" has a whole different meaning'n what it did when I was a kid. The saga about Groggins being tapped by the state department to get an old middle-eastern maharajah friend of his to join up with the Allies (with the maharajah deciding he wants to go Axis after being told the difference between a free world and a slave world!) is classic Capp and almost as good as that very heart-tugging tale about bigotry he did in the fifties when the denizens of Dogpatch were frothing mad at the new neighbors with square eyes with Mammy Yokum ultimately having to straighten 'em all out! Nowadays I could care less about the media-approved preachy and pious (while being pompous and prejudiced) messages seen to the point of pukedom since anti-bigotry has translated into being nice to one protected class no matter how disgusting they may be (I'm talking behavior, not DNA) while shrugging off the plight of others who just don't pass the VILLAGE VOICE/NEW YORK TIMES taste barrier! But hey, when you hear it from Capp you can't help but comply because despite his faults he wasn't a pithy panderer. At least back then people knew what was right and wrong, not fashionable and unfashionable, and though Capp might have had his own immoral streak which ultimately caught up with him he sure wasn't amoral which as you should know by now is a way huger chasm to try to climb out of. I mean, I can forgive Capp easily enough for his sexual misconduct (most of which was a set up created by his cultural enemies), but I could never think of forgiving the hippoid generation of cartoonists who eventually took his place!

Well, as I know you can tell I sure had a whole lotta fun tellin' you 'bout these books, and there'll be more reviews on the way once I get some some time to kick my feet up and settle down with somethin' tasty on the player. And as Predrag Whazizname one said yeah, this stuff might only appeal to the "gringos", but then again was there ever a law passed against being one? Awww, drop your preconceived notions of kulturally approved hipniz and read some old comic strips for once, WILLYA???


Serena WmS. Burroughs said...

Chris, I'll have to check some of those strips out. I especially like that drawing of Ella Cinders; it reminded me of the actress Kat Dennings. A commenter on a Kat Dennings video clip: "Kat Dennings is special. Closer to a Colleen Moore or Louise Brooks in quality." Maybe I should check out a Colleen Moore movie, too.

Christopher said...

While looking through ebay, I found some examples of later-on Cinders strips. One from 1942 showed her still having the straight hair which I find so enticing, though by now she's sporting a rather decent-sized chest and doesn't look anorexic like she originally did! I guess puberty finally set in by this time, eh?

PD Fadensonnen said...

Hey chris - Kind of off topic for this post, but i was going through the archived rave review you did of the magik markers disc on gulcher and was wonderin' if you bought any other discs worthy of money from them before they collapsed into nu-indie rockisms? saw them live last year and yikes-a-doodles, nothing like the free-splatter behemoth they once were on the gulcher disc . . .

Christopher said...

PB-Gotta admit that I didn't get around to it. Are these newer recordings really that amerindie-oriented? A recent interview with the group would seem to bear you out.