Thursday, July 14, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: STRIP FOR MURDER by Max Allan Collins (The Berkeley Publishing Group, 2008)

Yeah, I know that it's more than peculiar that I, a novel-hating and a downright anti-innerlektual one at that (especially when there are no pictures in da book), actually spent a good portion of my evening hours pouring through guess what but a dog-gone MURDER MYSTERY! OK, this 'un is illustrated albeit sparsely at that, but yes indeed I did devote a good amt. of my ever-dwindling free time reading a blasted whodunit which is a surprise considering how I could have been using the same time reading old DENNIS THE MENACE comics! Kinda makes me feel like one of those balding paunchy guys with horn-rimmed glasses that I used to see throughout my childhood who were meek accountants or draftsmen by day but lived for Murder Mysteries and PERRY MASON during their evening hours...y'know, the kinda guys who still wore bowties well into the eighties and seemed to spend their two weeks of vacation hanging around the stock exchange!

But I "personally" never went in for fiction of this sort since most of it reminds me of something I would have had to absorb for a school project and not for pleasure. You know, "For Christmas Vacation, I want you to read TWO YEARS BEFORE THE MESS and have a ten-page book report ready for it when you come back January 2nd". Stuff that was supposed to inspire and motivate but only turned me off just as bad as having classical as well as Big Band music pumped into my brain as a perhaps not-so-impressionable age which only made me eventually loathe it all with a passion!

The actual reason I plunked down what could be considered a pittance (using today's standards) for this novel was because of the subject matter, considering that STRIP FOR MURDER was "based" (and perhaps/perhaps not as loosely as former DICK TRACY scribe Max Allan Collins would like us to believe) on the infamous and at-times extremely caustic feud that transpired between comic strip artists and celebrities in their own right Ham Fisher and Al Capp. And, in case you weren't exactly aware of the feud, let me tell you that it was an extremely intense and mutual loathing that lasted all the way from the thirties well into the mid-fifties and in the process caused quite a lot of gum flapping in and out of the comics world. As a child, I used to read about this "rivalry" in a variety of strip histories without paying too much attention, but the various spoofs of these strips in the pages of MAD's sister publication PANIC made such good use of said hatred for mildly amusing comic effect. Let's just say that as time rolled on I sure wanted to know about the details behind this hate-filled joust than was being presented anywhere! And true, STRIP FOR MURDER undoubtedly has about as much to do with the actual doings as HENRY, PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER had with the real Henry Lee Lucas, but at least I thought I'd latch onto a little more info than the pittance that's floating around even in this internet-saturated world of ours where everybody's dark secret and hidden being can be posted for all to see!

From what I can gather, the feud twixt these two greats began after Alfred Caplin, soon to be Al Capp and assistant/ghost artist for Ham Fisher's then-popular JOE PALOOKA (and up until then fairly successful cartoonist in his own right with his MAJOR HOOPLE swipe COLONEL GILFEATHER), left the popular boxing strip and started up LI'L ABNER which became an overnight sensation and one of if not "thee" top strip in the United States. Perhaps (or perhaps not so) surprisingly enough, this particular action resulted in some rather strident cries of plagiarism from ex-boss Fisher based solely on the fact that his own strip once featured a hillbilly boxer going by the name Big Leviticus, and even though hillbillies were pretty hotcha items in thirties entertainment and there was hardly any real resemblance between Abner and Leviticus other than they were both hillbillies (and don't forget the fact that Capp himself had allegedly created the Leviticus character for the strip while Fisher was taking one of his extended vacations or perhaps even on one of his extended benders), PALOOKA's pop was more'n adamant that ABNER was an out 'n out swipe of the rather brutish Leviticus. Oddly enough, Leviticus wasn't even that BIG a player in the PALOOKA universe the way that say, the sickening cute mute kid Li'l Max or the pudgy Humphrey were, but when he did pop back up into the storyline you could bet that Fisher would point out that his hillbillies were the ORIGINAL comic strip hillbillies and whatever you do, don't accept IMITATIONS!!!      

For his part  Capp, who by the forties had become the newly crowned king of social and political satire, played it cool perhaps because ABNER was the new hip comic strip to read and was running rings around PALOOKA popularity-wise so like...why bother, but after enough became enough the man did do a li'l retaliatin' of his own with an article for THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY sporting the beautifully pithy title "I Remember Monster".  This particular piece pretty much summed up Capp's opinions regarding his former boss even if Fisher wasn't exactly mentioned by name, but everybody who read the thing sure got it hint hint nudge nudge along with an ABNER storyline involving the star character getting a job working for a famed cartoonist where he toiled in a cramped closet and was rewarded for his efforts with a new light bulb!  (And how could we forget the racehorse that Capp snuck into one storyline going by the name "Ham's Nose Bob",  a li'l dig at Fisher's recent proboscis reconstruction!)

Soon public meetings between the two at popular watering holes became the stuff that comic strip gossip was made of, with more than enough venom to use as anti-coagulant medication being spewed from both sides. Then things began getting even weirder...Fisher began accusing Capp of sneaking suggestive drawings into ABNER in the same fashion that Fredric Wertham saw pudenda in a comic book character's shoulder, with phallic symbols appearing in mushroom patches, hidden pornography in the backgrounds and of course the snickering use of the number "69" whenever possible being pointed out as signs of Capp's terminal deviancy.*  When Capp merely showed the original and clearly non-pornographic comic stats (and when people realized that maybe too much was being read into those mushrooms and "69")  it became obvious that Fisher was actually fudging with the art adding a line here and shading there, but he wasn't done yet. Right around the time Capp was applying for a television broadcasting license to the FCC in 1955, the airwave watchdog group received a package of drawings showing various ABNER characters gettin' it on in the most explicit ways possible. Turns out these drawings were created and mailed in by Fisher, but the ensuing scandal over 'em was enough to make Capp withdraw his license request thus forgoing any future in the lucrative field of broadcasting.

Fisher might have "won" that round, but he lost big when, because of his conduct unbecoming of a respected syndicated cartoonist, he became the first man to be expelled from the National Cartoonists Society of which Fisher was a founding member. Shortly thereafter, a few days after Christmas in fact, Fisher went up to assistant Moe Leff's studio, had a chat on the phone with his mother, then downed a bottle of prescription medicine. He had been complaining about ill health, but the real reason behind his suicide was undoubtedly his all-consuming bitterness over everything that had transpired between him and his former assistant, a man whom Fisher thought he had treated fairly even if Capp seemed to not quite agree on that particular point. Not surprisingly, when Capp heard about Fisher's deep-sixing he cheerfully remarked that the man did the noblest thing that he could.

As for STRIP FOR MURDER, the names have been changed, the situations twisto-changeo'd and I still couldn't get any real hard data that I thought "might" have been uncovered after years of painful suppression. Despite all that it was a nice read. In fact, after the first seventy or so pages kinda limped about  I actually was immersed. Max Allan Collins might not exactly be one of my favorites in the field of comics  (still get these "bad vibes" from those late-seventies DICK TRACY strips he wrote which weren't that titillating even if those latterday Chester Gould ones weren't that potent to begin with) but his writing is fluid and grabbing enough as he tells the tale about a certain Jack Starr (!), comic syndicate troubleshooter who has to solve the mystery of the supposed suicide of  MUG O'MALLEY creator Sam Fizer. Fizer had it in bad for his former assistant and now arch-rival Hal Rapp whose hillbilly comic TALL PAUL is about to become the subject of a major Broadway musical. Starr's syndicate has a lot at stake, especially since they're anglin' to handle Rapp's new strip and with all of the evidence pointing to Rapp as being the actual trigger-puller on what looks like a suspicious self-croak well... Let's just say that Starr'd better do a li'l detective work of his own to get to the bottom 'n find out exactly what's going on before everything goes to comic strip hell.

Along the way we get to meet up with a number of thinly-disguised facsimiles of various fifties faces, from Ernie Kovacs and Edie Adams to FLASH GORDON creator Alex Raymond as well as the refurbished Ham Fisher and Al Capp themselves, whom Collins makes sympathetic and loathsome in their own peculiar if not unique ways. And it reads like a good cheap detective novel too which is why I kinda go for this even when it seems to go slightly astray with strange sidesteps into irrelevant terrain. But hey, considering that I'm not exactly a murder mystery aficionado the fact that this didn't get chucked out the window is saying something, and I even nixed the real stuff because I thought it was duller'n a butter knife! So my liking this book is like...really saying somethin'!

The only thing about STRIP FOR MURDER that really made me feel uncomfortable was the obligatory for a modern novel set in the fifties limelight anti-anti-communist stance. Y'know the typical and unnecessary to the plot trouncing of "McCarthyism"  (frankly, I'm way more concerned with "Murrowism" myself!) and how hey, the communists might have been "bad", but those people who go after 'em are somehow way worse! Ideas which I guess only makes sense if you use postmodern, judgmental in ways that suit forward-thinking peoples' logic but hey, that all seems to come in the package these days! Reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a fellow whom I thought knew better who believed that I was way off kilter saying that the communists as a whole were way worse than the Nazis, who according to my own personal p.o.v. were merely evil. (Thus the communists were trying for an even darker place in world-wide historical regurgitation...beyond evil if your public school-bred mind can fathom that!) The guy just couldn't comprehend that the Soviet Union, China and all points east were a beyond vile aggregate even though the combined communist death toll makes the Nazis look like rank amateurs! Nor could he digest the fact that the communists had a world-wide bastion of political cronies who were willing to support some rather barbaric actions in their march towards creating the "New Man". Well, I guess that these li'l anti-anti-communist lectures on the part of the enlightened minds of our generation in order to remind us lumpen proles to the dangers of ruining the lives of intellectual demi-Marxists are par for the course, though when are we going to get told about the dangers of calling every person of an opposing political or social credo Nazis while attempting to ruin their lives for daring to stand up for everything from Christendom to individualism? As Jim Goad, a guy who I seem to agree with more and more as time rolls on once said, if you wanna count the bodies that are piled up and the lives that are ruined, at least count 'em equally.

Back to Fisher. It was too bad that he decided to "take the easy way out" like he did. Sure he would have been even more fed up seeing Capp's notoriety grow even more once he began taking on the hippie generation (student demonstrators, Joan Baez and of course John and Yoko) and the soft-on-crime crowd thus earning the ire of many of the wine and cheese intelligentsia who had made up a nice bulk of Capp's more fervent supporters (although they seemingly ignored his sarcastic slams at Big Business via General Bullmoose as well as his various satires of Spiro Agnew which certainly did fit in with the "old Capp" they knew and loved), but a couple of sex scandals on college campuses during Capp's frequent speaking engagements helped knock his standing in the comic strip community down a few notches. Yeah, I think they were frame ups too, but it seemed that everybody out there knew that Capp was a pretty horny guy just ripe for the picking which is exactly what happened to this prime target of the Youth Revolt. The quality of the strip, which had remained pretty high throughout the sixties, eventually began to falter resulting in papers dropping it en masse. Amongst these papers was the local SHARON HERALD where I had known of strip ever since I could remember. I would occasionally sneak a peek of it in the YOUNGSTOWN VINDICATOR especially after I heard that the strip's days were numbered back '77 way, shuddering at the obvious loss of quality and how it was being milked with single panel strips drawn with little of the Capp spark taking up weeks of continuity running nowhere in one of the saddest displays of a once-talent going out the hard way. Soon ABNER was no more, and eventually the same went for Capp who outlived his strip by about two years, presumably quite a broken guy who probably wished he kept his pants up a lot more than he evidently did.

On the other hand JOE PALOOKA,  or at least what had become of the strip in the wake of Fisher's death...well, it didn't have that much of a meaning (if any) to the average comic strip peruser what with the old time sports/adventure continuity comics slowly dying out in the seventies. However, it outlived ABNER a good seven years until November of 1984 when its long-time star finally quit the racket undefeated and retired to Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania, not surprisingly the birthplace of its creator. So hey, maybe Ham Fisher did get the last laugh after all, even if it was in the most bizarre after-the-fact way possible!
*Strangely enough Capp, in order to do a li'l flirting with the women who worked in the mail room at United Features Syndicate, would ink some particularly explicit drawing on the back of his artwork to the point where the gals would refuse to open any of his parcels fearing what vulgar display would be found this time. This was surely one fact that I guess was kept from Fisher lest he at least have some particularly potent ammo to help ruin his ultimate rival!

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