By Walt Kelly (Fantagraphics Books)
The Our Gang (later to be known as the Li’l Rascals) movie shorts were one of the most popular series in American Film history. Beginning in 1922 they featured the fun and folksy humour of a bunch of “typical kids” (atypically though, there was full racial equality and mingling – but the little girls were still always smarter than the boys) having idealised adventures in a time both safer and more simple. The rotating cast of characters and slapstick shenanigans were the brainchild of film genius Hal Roach (he directed and worked with Harold Lloyd, Charley Chase and Laurel and Hardy amongst many others) and these brief cinematic paeans to a mythic childhood entered the “household name” category of popular Americana in amazingly swift order.
As times and tastes changed Roach was forced to sell up to the celluloid butcher’s shop of MGM in 1938, and the features suffered the same interference and loss of control that marred the later careers of Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton.
In 1942 Dell released an Our Gang comic book that was written and drawn by Walt Kelly, who, consummate craftsman that he was, restored the wit, verve and charm of the glory days with a progression of short-comic stories that elevated the lower-class American childhood to the mythic peaks of Dorothy in Oz, or Huckleberry Finn.
Over the course of the first eight issues so lovingly reproduced in this glorious collection Kelly moved beyond the films – good and otherwise – to craft an idyllic story-scape of games and dares, excursions, adventures, get-rich-quick-schemes, battles with rival gangs and especially plucky victories over adults, mean, condescending, criminal or psychotic. Given much leeway, Kelly eventually settled on his own cast but aficionados and purists can still thrill here with the classic cast of Mickey, Buckwheat, Happy/Spanky, Janet and Froggy.
Today’s comics have nothing like this to offer to a contemporary audience. Many readers might not even be able to appreciate the skill, narrative charm and lost innocence of this style of children’s tale. If so I genuinely pity them, because this is work with heart and soul, drawn by one of the greatest exponents of graphic narrative America has ever produced. I hope their loss is not yours.
© 2006 Fantagraphics Books. All Rights Reserved.