Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round


By Richard Thompson (Andrews McMeel)
ISBN: 978-1-4494-7387-7 (HB)                    978-1-4494-3721-3 (PB)

Cul-de-Sac translates as “bottom of the bag” so don’t say you never learned anything from comics.

Richard Thompson took the term in its urban planning derivation – a street/passage closed at one end or a route/course leading nowhere – to describe a convoluted, barricaded oasis of suburban life on the outskirts of Washington DC where a mercurial cross-section of modern humanity lives.

As such it became the setting for one of the best cartoon strips about kids ever created, and one I very much miss.

Richard Church Thompson was born on October 8th 1957 and grew up to become an award-winning illustrator and editorial cartoonist who worked for The Washington Post. He was best known for his acerbic weekly feature Poor Richard’s Almanac (from which came the crushing political prognostication “Build the Pie Higher” – so go google that while you’re at it).

His other mostly light-hearted illustrative efforts appeared in locales ranging from U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, Air & Space/Smithsonian, National Geographic and The Atlantic Monthly as well as in numerous book commissions.

In February 2004 Cul de Sac began as a beautifully painted Sunday strip in The Post and quickly evolved into a firm family favourite. In September 2007, the strip was rebooted as a standard black-&-white daily feature with a process-colour Sunday strip and began global syndication with the Universal Press Syndicate and digitally distribution by Uclick GoComics.

It rightly gathered a host of fans, especially other cartoonists such as Bill Watterson and authors like Mo Willems.

The series was collected in four volumes between 2008 and 2012, with other iterations and recombinations (such as this colour & monochrome tome; 152 x 229 mm; released in 2013 and again in 2016) keeping the series popular even after it ended. This particular volume comes in hard, soft and digital formats.

There is precious little of Cul de Sac but what there is all pure gold. In July 2009 the artist publicly announced that he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but carried on anyway.

In 2012 a number of fellow artists and devoted admirers – Michael Jantze, Corey Pandolph, Lincoln Peirce, Stephen Pastis, Ruben Bolling and Mo Willems – pitched in to produce the strip while Thompson underwent treatment. When he came back at the end of March, illustrator had Stacy Curtis signed on as inker, but by August Thompson announced he was retiring Cul de Sac.

The last strip appeared on September 23rd 2012.

Richard Thompson died on July 27 2016. He was 58 years old.

Happily, the brilliance of his wit, the warmth of his observation and the sheer uniqueness of his charmingly askew mentality will continue to mesmerise generations of kids and their parents.

So, What’s Going On Here…?

Mighty Alice Goes Round and Round offers an unforgettable introduction to the indivisible exterior and interior world of hyperactive four-year old Alice Otterloop as experienced by her family and a definitely quirky circle of friends.

Alice likes to dance, deploy glitter, get excited and be in charge of everything. Her forceful, declaratively propounded opinions make her respected – and most often feared – by the other kids in Miss Bliss’ class at Blisshaven Academy Pre-School.

Not that the other tykes, such as just-plain-weird peeping tom Dill Wedekind or hammer-wielding Beni, are traditional tots either. All these littluns are smart but untutored, and much of the humour derives from their responses to new facts and situations as interpreted through the haze of the meagre experience they’ve previously accumulated – whether taught or overheard…

The result is a winning blend of surreal whimsy and keenly observational gags, punctuated with input from Alice’s dolorous, graphic-novel-obsessed, sports-fearing older brother Petey and their permanently bewildered and embattled parents.

Other regulars include classmate Marcus who thinks he’s being stalked by his own mother; school guinea pig Mr. Danders (a boorish, self-important and pretentious literary snob in love with the sound of his own voice); Peter Otterpoop Senior’s impossibly small car; the family’s bellicose and feral Grandma and her appalling dog Big Shirley; the enigmatic, doom-portending Uh-Oh Baby and Alice’s deranged collection of terrifying spring-loaded toys…

Taking family humour to abstract extremes, Cul de Sac blends inspirational imagination with wry consideration to produce moments side-splitting, baffling and heart-warming in rapid succession.

It’s never too late to appreciate quality material and make lifelong friends, so track down Mighty Alice and Co as soon as you can…
© 2013 Richard Thompson. All rights reserved.

Milton Caniff’s America: Reflections of a Drawingboard Patriot


By Milton Caniff, edited by Shel Dorf (Eclipse Books)
ISBN: 978-0-913035-25-2

This little rarity (happily still available through assorted online vendors) is a delightful introduction to the old-fashioned world and magical artistry of possibly the greatest strip cartoonist of all time.

Milton Caniff wasn’t an overnight sensation. He worked long and hard before he achieved his stellar status in the comic strip firmament. Before Terry and the Pirates brought him fame, and Steve Canyon secured his fortune and reputation, the strip which brought him to the attention of legendary Press Baron “Captain” Joseph Patterson (in many ways the co-creator of Terry) was an unassuming daily feature about a little boy hungry for adventure.

Caniff was working for The Associated Press as a minor jobbing cartoonist when a gap opened in their strips department. AP was an organisation that devised and syndicated features for the thousands of local and small newspapers which could not afford to produce the cartoons, puzzles, recipes and other fillers that ran between the local headlines and the regional sports.

Over a weekend Caniff came up with Dickie Dare, a studious lad who would read a book and then fantasize himself into the story, taking his faithful little white dog Wags with him. The editors went for it and the strip launched on July 31st 1933. Caniff would write and draw the adventures for less than eighteen months before moving on, although his replacement Coulton Waugh steered the series until its conclusion two decades later.

As well as being one of the greatest comic-strip artists of all time, Caniff was an old-fashioned honest American Patriot, from the time when it wasn’t a dirty word or synonym for fanatic.

The greatest disappointment of his life was that he was never physically fit enough to fight. Instead, during World War II he not only continued the morale-boosting China Seas adventure epic Terry and the Pirates newspaper strip seven days a week, he also designed art, brochures and posters (all unpaid) for the War Department and made live appearances for soldiers and hospital residents. Even that wasn’t enough.

Again unpaid, he devised Male Cale: a strip to be printed in the thousands of local military magazines and papers around the world. Originally using established characters from Terry, Caniff swiftly switched (for reasons best explained in Robert C Harvey’s wonderful Meanwhile… a Biography of Milton Caniff) to a purpose built (and was she built!) svelte and sexy ingénue who would titillate, amuse but mostly belong to the lonely and homesick American fighting men away from home and under arms.

Funny, saucy, even racy but never lewd or salacious, breakout star Miss Lace spoke directly to the enlisted man – the “ordinary Joe” – as entertainer, confidante and trophy date. She built morale and gave brief surcease from terror, loneliness or boredom. Although comparisons abound with our own Jane, the rationales behind each combat glamour girl were poles apart.

Created by Norman Pett in 1932, Jane ran in The Daily Mirror until 1959. She was infamously reputed to lose her clothes whenever the war effort needed a boost – always resulting in huge Allied successes.

Miss Lace was different. She spoke to and with the soldiers, and she wasn’t in normal papers. She was simply and totally theirs and theirs alone.

After leaving the incredibly successful, world-renowned Terry, Caniff created another iconic comic hero in demobbed WWII pilot Steve Canyon. The reasons for the move were basically rights and creative control, but it’s also easy to see another reason. Terry, set in a fabled Orient, even with the contemporary realism the author so captivatingly imparted, is a young man’s strip and limited by locale.

The worldly, if not war-weary, Canyon was a mature adventurer who could be sent literally anywhere and would appeal to the older, wiser readers of Atom-Age America, now a fully active, if perhaps reluctant, player on the world stage.

Canyon also reflects an older creator who has seen so much more of human nature and frailty than even the mysterious East could provide. Put another way, William Shakespeare could write Romeo and Juliet as a young man, but needed experience more than passion and genius to produce King Lear or The Tempest.

Milton Caniff’s America: Reflections of a Drawingboard Patriot was released in the mid-1980s when Caniff’s brand of patriotism was slowly giving way to a far more intolerant and infinitely crueller brand of paranoid nationalism. In many ways, it’s more valid now than ever before since these sublime excerpts from his vast body of graphic work forcefully remind the reader of a purer, more idealistic, welcoming and aspirational land of Freedom and Opportunity.

Here fans can delight in the chance to see some of the creator’s early reportage and portraiture, plus editorial cartooning and landmark strips such as the episode of Terry and the Pirates that was read into the Congressional Record. Also collected are Caniff’s public service drawings; a Steve Canyon sequence (from 1982) entitled ‘What is Patriotism?’ and many strips dedicated to departed comrades.

Of most moving consequence are the collected Armed Forces Day strips and every Steve Canyon Christmas Day episode (an unbroken string of graphic ruminations on the lot and role of the military everyman) spanning 1947 to 1987.

Stirring, gripping, heartfelt, these evocations from a master of his craft are the best tribute from, to and by an honest plain-dealer from an America we all long to see again. Simply Wonderful.
Artwork © 1987 Milton Caniff. © 2007 Ester Parsons Caniff Estate. Text features © their respective authors. All Rights Reserved

The Mirror Classic Cartoon Collection


By Peter O’Donnell, Jim Edgar, Barrie Tomlinson, Steve Dowling, John Allard, Frank Bellamy, Martin Asbury, Reg Smythe, Jim Holdaway, Jack Greenall, Jack Clayton, John Gillatt & various, compiled by Mike Higgs (Hawk Books)
ISBN: 978-1-89944-175-4

The Daily Mirror has been home to a number of great strips over its long history – beginning with one of the Empire’s greatest successes Tiger Tim, (who debuted there in 1904) and culminating with the likes of the war-winning morale-boosting naive nymph Jane, not to mention The Perishers, Garth, Andy Capp and many others.

Two of the above cited feature in this beautiful compilation from Mike Higgs’ Hawk Books which did so much over the years to keep British cartoon history alive. This particular triumph gathers sample selections from the newspaper’s back catalogue in a spiffy, luxuriously oversized (280 x 180 mm) hardback that is stuffed with fun, thrills and quality nostalgia.

The illustrious Garth is the first star, featured in an adventure from 1957 by series originator and longest serving creator Steve Dowling (1943-1969) – and then succeeded by his assistant John Allard, then Frank Bellamy and finally Martin Asbury.

Garth is a hulking physical specimen, a virtual human superman with the involuntary ability to travel through time and experience past and future lives. This simple concept lent the strip an unfailing potential for exotic storylines and fantastic exploits.

‘The Captive’ – written by Peter O’Donnell and illustrated by Dowling and Allard – is a contemporary tale with our hero abducted from Earth as a prize in a galactic scavenger hunt instigated by bored hedonistic aliens who don’t realise quite what they’ve gotten themselves involved with…

A second adventure, ‘The Man-hunt’, is the last that Frank Bellamy worked on. The astounding Bellamy died in 1976 whilst drawing this story of beautiful alien predators in search of prime genetic stock with which to reinvigorate their tired bloodlines. Written by Jim Edgar, the strip was completed by Asbury who took over with the 17th instalment. This tongue-in-cheek thriller is full of thrills and fantastic action, yet never loses its light humorous touch.

Andy Capp is a drunken, skiving, misogynistic, work-shy, wife-beating scoundrel who has somehow become one of the most popular and well-loved strip characters of all time. Created by jobbing cartoonist Reg Smythe to appeal to northern readers during a circulation drive, he first saw the light of day – with long-suffering, perpetually abused-but-forgiving wife Florrie in tow – on August 5th 1957.

This volume reprints 37 strips from the feature’s 41-year run, which only ended with Smythe’s death in 1998, but the sheer magic of this lovable rogue is as inexplicably intoxicating as it always was, defeating political correctness and common decency alike: A true Guilty Pleasure.

Romeo Brown began in 1954, drawn by Dutch artist Alfred “Maz” Mazure, and starred a private detective with an eye for the ladies and a nose for trouble. The feature was a light, comedic adventure series that added some glamour to the dour mid-1950s, but really kicked into high gear when Maz left in 1957 to be replaced by Peter O’Donnell and the brilliant Jim Holdaway, who would go on to create the fabulous Modesty Blaise together. Romeo shut up shop in 1962 and is represented here by a pair of romps from the penultimate year. ‘The Arabian Knight’ and ‘The Admiral’s Grand-daughter’ combine sly, knowing humour, bungling criminality and dazzlingly visuals in a manner any Carry-On fan would die for.

Useless Eustace was a gag-panel (a single-picture joke) that ran from January 1935 to 1985. Created by Jack Greenall, its star was a bald nondescript everyman who met the travails of life with unflinching enthusiasm but very little sense. Greenall produced the strip until 1974, and other artists continued it until 1985. The selections here are from the war years and the 1960s. Another comedy panel was Calamity Gulch, a particularly British view of the ubiquitous “Western” which invaded our sensibilities with the rise of television ownership in the 1950s. Created by Jack Clayton, it began its spoofing and sharp-shooting on 6th June 1960, and you can see 21 of the best right here, Pardner.

A staple of children’s comics that never really prospered in newspapers was the sports adventure. At least not until 1989 when those grown up tykes opened the Daily Mirror to find a football strip entitled Scorer, written by Barrie Tomlinson and drawn by Barry Mitchell, and eventually John Gillatt. Very much an updated, R-rated Roy of the Rovers, the strip stars Dave ‘Scorer’ Storry and his team Tolcaster F.C. in fast, hot, sexy tales of the Beautiful Game that owed as much to the sports pages it began on as to the grand cartoon tradition.

‘Cup Cracker’, included here is by Tomlinson & Gillatt from 1994, and shows that WAGS (Wives And GirlfriendS, non-sports fans) were never a new phenomenon.

Not many people know this – or indeed, care – but before I review an old book (which I arbitrarily define as something more than three years old) I try to locate copies on the internet. It’s a blessing then to still see this wonderful and utterly British tome is readily available in France, Germany – most of Europe in fact and even in Britain. Surely that’s a testament to the book’s quality and desirability, and if that’s the case maybe The Mirror Group or some print philanthropist should expedite a new edition – or even a few sequels…
© 1998 Mirror Group Newspapers, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Clean Cartoonists’ Dirty Drawings


By Craig Yoe and many and various (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-653-5

Despite the somewhat prurient and sensationalistic – not to say salacious – title, this compilation of cartoons and illustrations – culled from the private files and bins of a number of our industry’s greatest stars (and also many from the drawing boards of those infamous scallywags of the animation industry) – is a rather charming insight into the capabilities, accomplishments and professional ethics of a talented crowd of individualists.

To European eyes there is very little amiss here, but one needs to remember just how prudish and censorious (I personally prefer the terms “daft” and “ridiculous”) the American “family values” lobby is and always has been.

Two brilliantly telling examples would be the covering of Flossie the Cow’s udders; first by a skirt (1932) and eventually (1939) by a full dress. She also had to stop walking on all-fours because it was unladylike.

Or perhaps you’d like to consider Mort Walker’s navel collection. Apparently, a syndicate editor had a problem with belly buttons and always returned Beetle Bailey strips that featured one. Walker would scalpel them off the artwork and collect them in a pot on his desk.

Collected and compiled by fan, historian, Renaissance man and cool bloke Craig Yoe (among his many accomplishments he counts being Creative Director of the Muppets – bet you want to Google him now, don’t you?) and with an introduction by a proper “Dirty” cartoonist Robert Crumb, this is a frothy book of rather chaste naked lady pictures (and often not even that) in colour and monochrome, crafted by some of the best artists and cartoonists in modern history – although you might want to check the oddly incongruous contributions of Gustave Doré and Thomas Rowlandson before giving a copy to your 8-year old.

So if you’re unflappable, incorruptible or just not from a red state, you might want to sneak a peek at this stellar cast of incorrigibles which includes Jack Kirby, James Montgomery Flagg, George Herriman, Joe Shuster, Steve Ditko, Charles Schulz, Milton Caniff, Alex Raymond or Chuck Jones.

Just as potentially corrupting are delightful and delicious contributions by Dr, Seuss, Carl Barks, Bob Kane, Rube Goldberg, Bruce Timm, Alex Toth, Fred Moore, Dan DeCarlo, Dave Berg, Ernie Bushmiller, Sergio Aragonés, Jack Davis, Billy De Beck, Hal Foster, Harry G. Peter, Paul Murray, Neal Adams, Al Jaffee, Wally Wood, Nick Cardy, Hank Ketcham, Johnny Hart, Walt Kelly , Adam Hughes, Alex Schomburg, Al Williamson, Henry Boltinoff, Stan Drake, Dik Browne, Matt Baker, Otto Soglow, Al Capp, John Severin, Jim Steranko, Jack Cole, Bill Everett, Grim Natwick, Will Eisner and many others.

Art is all about establishing a relationship with the beautiful, shocking or thought-provoking. Why not turn your attention to these lesser-known efforts from some of the most familiar names in our business and see what occurs to you?
© 2007 Gussani-Yoe Studio, Inc. All illustrations are © 2007 their respective artist and/or © holders.

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse: The Race to Death Valley (Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse Classic Collection volume 1)


By Floyd Gottfredson & various; Edited by David Gerstein (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-441-2

Created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, Mickey Mouse was first seen – if not heard – in the silent cartoon Plane Crazy. The animated short fared poorly in a May 1928 test screening and was promptly shelved.

That’s why most people who care cite Steamboat Willie – the fourth Mickey feature to be completed – as the debut of the mascot mouse and his co-star and paramour Minnie Mouse since it was the first to be nationally distributed, as well as the first animated feature with synchronised sound.

The film’s astounding success led to the subsequent rapid release of its fully completed predecessors Plane Crazy, The Gallopin’ Gaucho and The Barn Dance once they too had been given new-fangled soundtracks.

From those timid beginnings grew an immense fantasy empire, but film was not the only way Disney conquered hearts and minds. With Mickey a certified solid gold sensation, the mighty mouse was considered a hot property and soon invaded America’s most powerful and pervasive entertainment medium: comic strips…

Floyd Gottfredson was a cartooning pathfinder who started out as just another warm body in the Disney Studio animation factory who slipped sideways into graphic narrative and evolved into a pictorial narrative ground-breaker as influential as George Herriman, Winsor McCay or Elzie Segar. Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse entertained millions of eagerly enthralled readers and shaped the very way comics worked.

He took a wild and anarchic animated rodent from slap-stick beginnings, via some of the earliest adventure continuities in comics history: transforming a feisty everyman underdog – or rather mouse – into a crimebuster, detective, explorer, lover, aviator or cowboy, the quintessential two-fisted hero whenever necessity demanded.

In later years, as tastes – and syndicate policy – changed, Gottfredson steered that self-same wandering warrior into a more sedate, gently suburbanised lifestyle via crafty sitcom gags suited to a newly middle-class America: a fifty-year career generating some of the most engrossing continuities the comics industry has ever enjoyed.

Arthur Floyd Gottfredson was born in 1905 in Kaysville, Utah, one of eight siblings born to a Mormon family of Danish extraction. Injured in a youthful hunting accident, Floyd whiled away a long recuperation drawing and studying cartoon correspondence courses, and by the 1920s had turned professional, selling cartoons and commercial art to local trade magazines and Big City newspaper the Salt Lake City Telegram.

In 1928 he and his wife moved to California and, after a shaky start, found work in April 1929 as an in-betweener at the burgeoning Walt Disney Studios.

Just as the Great Depression hit, he was personally asked by Disney to take over the newborn but ailing Mickey Mouse newspaper strip. Gottfredson would plot, draw and frequently script the strip for the next five decades: an incredible accomplishment by of one of comics’ most gifted exponents.

Veteran animator Ub Iwerks had initiated the print feature with Disney himself contributing, before artist Win Smith was brought in. The nascent strip was plagued with problems and young Gottfredson was only supposed to pitch in until a regular creator could be found.

His first effort saw print on May 5th 1930 (his 25th birthday) and Floyd just kept going; an uninterrupted run over the next half century.

On January 17th 1932, Gottfredson created the first colour Sunday page, which he also handled until his retirement. In the beginning he did everything, but in 1934 Gottfredson relinquished the scripting role, preferring plotting and illustrating the adventures to playing about with dialogue. His eventual collaborating wordsmiths included Ted Osborne, Merrill De Maris, Dick Shaw, Bill Walsh, Roy Williams and Del Connell. At the start and in the manner of a filmic studio system Floyd briefly used inkers such as Ted Thwaites, Earl Duvall and Al Taliaferro, but by 1943 had taken on full art chores.

This superb archival hardback compendium – part of a magnificently ambitious series collecting the creator’s entire canon – collects those initial daily romps, packed with thrills, spills and chills, whacky races, fantastic fights and a glorious superabundance of rapid-fire sight-gags and verbal by-play. The manner in which Mickey became a syndicated star is covered in various articles at the front and back of this sturdy tome devised and edited by truly dedicated, clearly devoted fan David Gerstein.

Under the guise of ‘Setting the Stage’ the unbridled fun and revelations begin with gaming guru Warren Spector’s appreciative Introduction ‘The Master of Mickey Epics’ and a fulsome biographical account and appraisal of Floyd Gottfredson and the Mickey Mouse continuities in ‘Of Mouse and Man – 1930-1931: The Early Years’ by historian and educator Thomas Andrae.

The preliminary scene-setting concludes with ‘Floyd Gottfredson, The Mickey Mouse Strip and Me – an Appreciation by Floyd Norman’. Incorporating some preliminary insights from Gerstein in ‘An Indebted Valley’ the strip sequences then begin in ‘The Adventures: Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse Stories with Editor’s Notes’

At the start the strip was treated like an animated feature, with diverse hands working under a “director” and each day seen as a full gag with set-up, delivery and a punchline, usually all in service to an umbrella story or theme. Such was the format Gottfredson inherited from Walt Disney for his first full yarn ‘Mickey Mouse in Death Valley’ which ran from April 1st – September 20th, 1930. The saga was further complicated by an urgent “request” from controlling syndicate King Features that the strip be immediately made more adventure-oriented to compete with the latest trend in comics: action-packed continuities…

Also roped in to provide additional art and inking to the raucous, rambunctious rambling saga were Win Smith, Jack King, Roy Nelson & Hardie Gramatky. The story involved a picaresque and frequently deadly journey way out west to save Minnie’s inheritance – a lost mine – from conniving lawyer Sylvester Shyster and his vile and violent crony Peg-Leg Pete, whom Mickey and his aggrieved companion chased across America by every conveyance imaginable, aided by masked mystery man The Fox facing every possible peril immortalised by silent movie westerns, melodramas and comedies…

Next up – after brief preamble ‘Sheiks and Lovers’ – is another lengthy epic, featuring most of the early big screen repertory cast. ‘Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers’ (inked by Gottfredson, Gramatky & Earl Duvall and running from September 22nd – December 29th) starts with Mickey building his own decidedly downbeat backyard golf course before being repeatedly and disconcertingly distracted when sleazy sporty type Mr. Slicker starts paying unwelcome attention to Minnie. Well, it’s unwelcome as far as Mickey is concerned…

With cameos from Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, goat-horned Mr. Butt and a prototype Goofy who used to answer – if he felt like it – to the moniker Dippy Dog, the rambunctious shenanigans continue for weeks until the gag-abundant tale resolves into a classic powerplay and landgrab as the nefarious ne’er-do-well is exposed as the fiend attempting to bankrupt Minnie’s family by swiping all the eggs produced on their farm. The swine even tries to frame Mickey for his misdeed before our hero turns the tables on him…

A flurry of shorter escapades follow: rapid-fire doses of wonder and whimsy including ‘Mickey Mouse Music’ (December 30th 1930 – January 3rd 1931 with art by Duvall), ‘The Picnic’ (January 12th – 17th, Gottfredson inked by Duvall) and ‘Traffic Troubles’ (January 5th – 10th with pencils by Duvall & Gottfredson inks) before Gerstein introduces the next extended storyline with some fondly eloquent ‘Katnippery’

With story & art by Gottfredson & Duvall ‘Mickey Mouse Vs. Kat Nipp’ proceeded from January 19th to February 25th 1931, detailing how a brutal feline thug began bullying our hero a sad state of affairs that involved tail-abusing in various inspired forms, after which ‘Gallery Feature – “He’s Funny That Way”’ reveals a later appearance Sunday strip of Kat Nipp in a story by Merrill De Maris with Gottfredson pencils and Ted Thwaites inks. The excerpt comes from June 1938.

Gerstein’s introductory thoughts on the next epic – ‘High Society: Reality Show Edition’ – precede the serialised saga of ‘Mickey Mouse, Boxing Champion’. Running from February 26th – April 29th by Gottfredson, Duvall & Al Taliaferro the hilariously episodic tale relates how ever-jealous Mickey floors a big thug leering at Minnie and becomes infamous as the guy who knocked out the current heavy lightweight boxing champ.

Ruffhouse Rat’s subsequent attempts at revenge all go hideously awry and before long Mickey is acting as the big lug’s trainer. It’s a disaster and before long he champion is in an inexorable physical and mental decline. Sadly, that’s when hulking brute Creamo Catnera hits town for a challenge bout. With Ruffhouse refusing to fight it falls to Mickey to take on the savage contender…

Having accomplished one impossible task, Mickey then sets his sights on reintroducing repentant convict Butch into ‘High Society’ (April 30th – May 30th with story & pencils by Gottfredson and inks from Taliaferro). The story was designed to tie-in to a Disney promotional stunt – a giveaway “photograph” of Mickey – and the history and details of the project are covered in ‘Gallery Feature – “Gobs of Good Wishes”’

‘Mick of All Trades’ introduces the next two extended serial tales, discussing Mickey’s everymouse nature and willingness to tackle any job such as the Taliaferro-inked ‘Circus Roustabout’ which originally ran from June 1st – July 17th.

Here a string of animal-based gags is held together by the Mouse’s hunt for a cunning thief after which ‘Pluto the Pup’ takes centre-stage for a ten-day parade of slapstick antics before Gerstein’s ‘Middle-Euro Mouse’ supplies context to the less-savoury and non-PC historical aspects of a long tale featuring wandering gypsies.

‘Mickey Mouse and the Ransom Plot’ ran from July 20th through November 7th and follows the star and his pals Minnie, Horace and Clarabelle on a travelling vacation to the mountains. Here they fall under the influence of a suspicious band of Romani who exhibit all the worst aspects of thieving and spooky fortune-telling. When Minnie is abducted and payment demanded, Mickey knows just how to deal with the villains…

Essay ‘A Mouse (and a Horse and a Cow) Against the World’ leads into fresh employment horizons for our hero as Gottfredson & Taliaferro test the humorous action potential of ‘Fireman Mickey’ (November 9th – December 5th) in another scintillating cascade of japes, jests and merry melodrama whilst the glimmerings of real continuity sub-plotting and supporting character development shades a budding romance under the eaves of ‘Clarabelle’s Boarding House’ taking us from December 7th, 1931 to January 9th 1932 in fine style… Although the chronological cartooning officially concludes here there’s still a wealth of glorious treats and fascinating revelations in store in The Gottfredson Archives: Essays and Archival Features section which follows.

In the Beginning: Ub Iwerks and the Birth of Mickey Mouse’ by Thomas Andrae offers beguiling background and priceless early drawings from the star’s earliest moments, as does David Gerstein’s ‘Starting the Strip’ which comes packed with priceless ephemera.

As already stated, Gottfredson took over a strip already in progress and next – accompanied by covers from European editions of the period – come the strips preceding his accession. Frantic gag-panels (just like scenes from an animation storyboard) comprise ‘Lost on a Desert Island’ (January 13th to March 31st 1930, as crafted by storyteller Walt Disney and artists Ub Iwerks & Win Smith) and are augmented by Gerstein’s ‘The Cartoon Connection’ and additional Italian strips by Giorgio Scudellari in ‘Gallery Feature – “Lost on a Desert Island”’

Even more text and recovered-art features explore ‘The Cast: Mickey and Minnie’ and Sharing the Spotlight: Walt Disney and Win Smith’ (both by Gerstein) before more international examples illuminate ‘Gottfredson’s World: Mickey Mouse in Death Valley’ whereafter ‘Unlocking the Fox’ traces the filmic antecedents of the hooded stranger. With priceless original art samples in ‘Behind the Scenes: Pencil Mania’.

More contemporary European examples taken from early collections tantalise in ‘Gallery Feature – Gottfredson’s World: Mr. Slicker and the Egg Robbers’ before Alberto Beccatini and Gerstein’s ‘Sharing the Spotlight: Roy Nelson, Jack King and Hardie Gramatky’ supplies information on these lost craftsmen.

‘The One-Off Gottfredson Spin-Off’ by Gerstein highlights a forgotten transatlantic comic strip collaboration with German artist Frank Behmak whilst ‘Gallery Feature – The Comics Department at Work: Mickey Mouse in Color (…And Black and White)’ presents lost merchandise and production art before ‘Gottfredson’s World: Mickey Mouse Vs. Kat Nipp’ and ‘Gottfredson’s World: Mickey Mouse, Boxing Champion’ offer yet more overseas Mouse memorabilia.

‘Sharing the Spotlight: Earl Duvall’ is another fine Gerstein tribute to a forgotten artisan supplemented by ‘The Cast: Butch’ and ‘Al Taliaferro’ after which ‘The Gottfredson Gang: In “Their Own” Words’ by David Gerstein with texts by Mortimer Franklin and R. M. Finch reprints contemporary interviews with the 2D stars, garnished with publicity tear-sheets and clippings rounded off with more foreign covers in ‘Gallery Feature – Gottfredson’s World: Strange Tales of Late 1931’, ‘The Cast: Pluto’ and a stunning Christmas message from the Mouse as per “I have it on good authority” giving Gottfredson himself the last word.

Superb work of scholarship and a damn fine read too…

Gottfredson’s influence on not just the Disney canon but sequential graphic narrative itself is inestimable: he was among the first to produce long continuities and “straight” adventures; he pioneered team-ups and invented some of the first “super-villains” in the business.

When Disney killed the continuities in 1955, dictating that henceforth strips would only contain one-off gag strips, he adapted seamlessly, working on until retirement in 1975. His last daily appeared on November 15th and the final Sunday strip on September 19th 1976.

Like all Disney creators Gottfredson worked in utter anonymity, but in the 1960s his identity was revealed and the voluble appreciation of his previously unsuspected horde of devotees led to interviews, overviews and public appearances, with effect that subsequent reprinting in books, comics and albums carried a credit for the quiet, reserved master. Floyd Gottfredson died in July 1986.

Thankfully we now have these Gottfredson Mickey Mouse Archives collection to enjoy and inspire us and hopefully a whole new generation of inveterate tale-tellers…
© 2011 Disney Enterprises, Inc Text of “In the Beginning: Ub Iwerks and the Birth of Mickey Mouse” by Thomas Andrae is © 2011 Thomas Andrae. All contents © 2011 Disney Enterprises unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.

The Essential Calvin and Hobbes


By Bill Watterson (Time Warner/Sphere/Andrew McMeel)
ISBN: 978-0-75151-274-8 (PB)                     : 978-0-8362-1809-4 (HB)

Almost any event big or small is best experienced through the eyes of a child – and better yet if he’s a fictional child controlled by the whimsical sensibilities of a comic strip genius like Bill Watterson.

Calvin is the child in us all; Hobbes is the Tiger of our Aspirations; no, wait… Calvin is this little boy, an only child with a big imagination and a stuffed Tiger that is his common sense and moral sounding board…

No; Calvin is just a little Boy and Hobbes talks only to him. That’s all you need or want.

A best-selling strip and critical hit for ten years (running from November 18, 1985 to December 31, 1995), Calvin and Hobbes came and went like a comet and we’re all the poorer for its passing. It redefined depictions of the “Eyes of Wonder” which children all possess, and made us adults laugh, and so often cry too.

We all wanted a childhood like that kid’s, bullies, weird teachers, obnoxious little girls and all. At least we could visit…

The strip appeared in more than 2,400 newspapers all over the planet and from 2010 reruns have featured in over 50 countries. There have been 18 unmissable collections including a fabulous complete boxed set edition in both soft and hard cover formats. I gloat over my hardback set almost every day.

Reprints of the strip are also available online through the Andrews McMeel Uclick platform.

 

Unlike most of his fellows, Watterson shunned the spotlight and the merchandising Babylon that follows a comic strip mega-hit and dedicated all his spirit and energies into producing one of the greatest treatments on childhood and the twin and inevitably converging worlds of fantasy and reality anywhere in fiction.

Calvin is a hyper-active little boy growing up in suburban middle-American Everytown. There’s a city nearby, with Museums and such, and a little bit of wooded wilderness at the bottom of the garden. The kid’s smart, academically uninspired and happy in his own world. He’s you and me. His best friend and companion is a stuffed tiger named Hobbes, who – as I might have already mentioned – may or may not be alive. He’s certainly far smarter and more ethically evolved than his owner…

And that’s all the help you’re getting. If you know the strip you already love it, and if you don’t you won’t appreciate my destroying the joys of discovery for you. This is beautiful, charming, clever, intoxicating and addictive tale-telling, blending wonder and laughter, socially responsible and wildly funny.

After a miraculous decade, at the top of his game Watterson retired the strip and himself, and though I bitterly resent it, and miss it still, I suppose it’s best to go out on a peak rather than fade away by degrees. I certainly respect and admire his dedication and principles.

This sumptuous volume is a compendium of the first two collections, Calvin and Hobbes and Something Under the Bed Is Drooling, displaying the beguiling magic of the strip in tales that will make you laugh and isn’t afraid to make you cry. Truly this is a masterpiece and landmark of American cartooning.
© 1988 Universal Press Syndicate. All Rights Reserved.

The March to Death – Drawings by John Olday


By John Olday, edited by Donald Rooum (Freedom Press)
ISBN: 978-0900384806

We tend to remember World War II as a battle of opposites, of united fronts and ubiquitous evil; of Us and Them. In these increasingly polarised days where any disagreement or demurring opinion on any issue is treated as heresy punishable by death or flogging, it’s valuable and comforting to be reminded that even under the most calamitous conditions and clearest of threats, dissent is part of the human psyche and our most valuable birthright.

The March to Death was an unashamed political tract, a collection of anti-war cartoons and tellingly appropriate quotations first published in 1943 by Freedom Press, the Anarchist publishing organisation.

Comics strips and especially cartoons are an astonishingly powerful tool for education as well as entertainment and the images rendered by German emigré John Olday (neé Arthur William Oldag) were, are and remain blistering attacks on the World Order of all nations that had led humanity so inexorably to a second global conflagration in less than a generation.

He drew most of the images whilst serving in the British Royal Pioneer Corps before deserting in 1943. For that he was imprisoned until 1946.

The accompanying text for this edition was selected by his colleague and artistic collaborator Marie Louise Berneri, a French Anarchist thinker who moved to Britain in 1937.

Still readily available, the 1995 edition has a wonderfully informative foreword by cartoonist, letterer, and deceptively affable deep thinker Donald Rooum which paints the time and the tone for the young and less politically informed. This is a work that all serious advocates of the graphic image as more than a vehicle for bubble gum should know of and champion.

Makes you Think, right. Hopefully it will make you act, too.
© 1943, 1995 Freedom Press.

Blackmark – 30th Anniversary Edition


By Gil Kane, with Archie Goodwin, Harvey Kurtzman & Neal Adams (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 1-56097-456-7

Gil Kane was one of the pivotal players in the development of the American comics industry, and indeed of the art form itself. Working as an artist, and an increasingly more effective and influential one, he drew for many companies since the 1940s, on superheroes, action, war, mystery, romance, movie adaptations and most importantly perhaps, Westerns and Science Fiction tales. In the late 1950s he became one of editor Julius Schwartz’s key artists in regenerating the super-hero. Yet by 1968, at the top of his profession, this relentlessly revolutionary and creative man felt so confined by the juvenile strictures of the industry, that he struck out on bold new ventures that jettisoned the editorial and format bondage of comic books for new visions and media.

His Name Is Savage was an adult-oriented black & white magazine about a cold and ruthless super-spy in the James Bond/Matt Helm/Man Called Flint mould, co-written by friend and collaborator Archie Goodwin. It was very much a precursor in tone, treatment and subject matter of many of today’s adventure titles.

The other venture, Blackmark (also with Goodwin), not only ushered in the comic book age of Sword and Sorcery, but also became one of the first Graphic Novels. Technically, as the series was commissioned by fantasy publisher Ballantine as eight volumes, it was also envisioned as America’s first comic Limited Series.

Volume 1 was released in 1971, and volume 2 just completed when the publisher cancelled the project. Long term collaborator Roy Thomas reprinted the tales in Marvel’s black & white magazines Savage Sword of Conan and Marvel Preview, with the artwork rejigged to accommodate the different page format.

Enough background. Blackmark tells the tale of a boy born into a war-ravaged and primitive future where atomic holocaust has resulted in a superstitious society that has shunned technology and science. Feudal lords rule by might and terror, whilst rebel technophiles are hunted like dogs. Whilst fleeing persecution a married couple encounter a dying scientist king who pays the woman to impregnate her with a son pre-programmed to be a messiah of science.

Blackmark is born into a life of poverty and toil. When his parents are killed by a wandering warlord he devotes his life to vengeance, and learns the physical skills necessary when he is taken for a gladiator slave. It is sadly very familiar to us today, simply because it was so influential at the time – albeit with those few original purchasers who seem to have been the next generation of comic and literary creators.

Although the tale may seem old hat, the beauty and power of the illustration has never been matched. Kane designed the pages with blocks of text as part of the whole, rather than with willy-nilly blurb and balloons to distract the eye, and his evocative figure drawing has never been as taut, tense and passionate.  Always suffering from deadline pressures, the artist called in colleagues Harvey Kurtzman and Neal Adams to help lay out and finish the project on time. The script, over Kane’s story, is provided by the incomparable Goodwin, as much a master as Kane himself: Nevertheless, Blackmark is very much quintessential Gil Kane.

This compilation (incomprehensibly out of print and hard to find) collects the original volumes 1 and 2 and presents them in a size much larger than the original standard paperback. As well as a fantasy masterpiece, and a spectacular comic romp, it preserves and presents a literal breakthrough in comic story-telling that should be on every fan’s must-read list.
© 2002 Fantagraphics Books & the estate of Gil Kane. All Rights Reserved.

Mac Raboy’s Flash Gordon: Volume 1 Sunday Strips from 1948-1953


By Don Moore & Mac Raboy (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-56971-882-7

By most lights Flash Gordon is the most influential comic strip in the world. When the hero debuted on Sunday January 7th 1934 (with the superb Jungle Jim running as a supplementary “topper” strip) as an answer to the revolutionary, inspirational, but quirkily clunky Buck Rogers by Philip Nolan and Dick Calkins (which also began on January 7th, but in 1929) two new elements were added to the wonderment; Classical Lyricism and poetic dynamism. It became a weekly invitation to stunning exotic glamour and astonishing beauty.

Where Rogers blended traditional adventure and high science concepts, Flash Gordon reinterpreted fairy tales, heroic epics and mythology, spectacularly draping them in the trappings of the contemporary future, with varying ‘Rays’, ‘Engines’ and ‘Motors’ substituting for trusty swords and lances – although there were also plenty of those – and exotic craft and contraptions standing in for galleons, chariots and magic carpets. It was a narrative trick that kept the far-fetched satisfactorily familiar – and was continued by Raboy and Moore in their run. Look closely and you’ll see cowboys, gangsters and of course, flying saucer fetishes adding contemporary flourish to the fanciful fables in this volume…

Most important of all, the sheer artistic talent of Raymond, his compositional skills, fine line-work, eye for unmuddled detail and just plain genius for drawing beautiful people and things, swiftly made this the strip that all young artists swiped from.

When all-original comic books began a few years later, literally dozens of talented kids used the clean-lined Romanticism of Gordon as their model and ticket to future success in the field of adventure strips. Almost all the others went with Milton Caniff’s expressionistic masterpiece Terry and the Pirates (and to see one of his better disciples check out Beyond Mars, illustrated by the wonderful Lee Elias).

Flash Gordon began on present-day Earth (which was 1934, remember?) with a rogue planet about to smash the World. As global panic ensued, polo player Flash and fellow passenger Dale Arden narrowly escaped disaster when a meteor fragment downed their airliner. They landed on the estate of tormented genius Dr. Hans Zarkov, who imprisoned them in the rocket-ship he had built.

His plan? To fly the ship directly at the astral invader and deflect it from Earth by crashing into it…!

Thus began a decade of sheer escapist magic in a Ruritanian Neverland: a blend of Camelot, Oz and every fabled paradise that promised paradise yet concealed hidden vipers, ogres and demons, all cloaked in a glimmering sheen of sleek futurism. Worthy adversaries such as utterly evil but magnetic Ming, emperor of the fantastic wandering planet; myriad exotic races and shattering conflicts offered a fantastic alternative to drab and dangerous reality for millions of avid readers around the world.

Alex Raymond’s ‘On the Planet Mongo’ with Don Moore doing the bulk of the scripting, ran every Sunday until 1944, when the artist joined the Marines. On his return he eschewed wild imaginings for sober reality and created the gentleman detective serial Rip Kirby. The continuous, unmissable weekly appointment with sheer wonderment, continued under the artistic auspices of Austin Briggs – who had drawn the daily black and white instalments since 1940.

In 1948, eight years after beginning his career drawing for the Harry A. Chesler production “shop” comicbook artist Emanual “Mac” Raboy took over the illustration of the Sunday page. Moore remained as scripter and began co-writing with the artist.

Raboy’s sleek, fine-line brush style, heavily influenced by his idol Raymond, had made his work on Captain Marvel Jr., Kid Eternity and the especially Green Lama a benchmark of artistic quality in the proliferating superhero genre. His seemingly inevitable assumption of the extraordinary exploits led to a renaissance of the strip and in the rapidly evolving post-war world Flash Gordon became once more a benchmark of timeless, escapist quality that only Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant could touch.

This first 260 page volume, produced in landscape format and printed in bold stark monochrome (although one or two strips appear to have been scanned from printed colour copies) covers the period January 8th 1948 to May 10th 1953 and opens with Flash as President of Mongo when Slyk, a refugee from the believed-uninhabited moon of Lunita, arrives. Beseeching assistance to liberate his world from the tyrannical depredations of the wicked siblings Rudo and Lura, the Lunite accompanies Flash, Dale Arden and Dr. Zarkov to his hidden moon where the heroes are soon captured before Slyk saves the day.

This short transitional tale set up an unfailingly popular formula of nightmarish beasts, distressed damsels and outrageous adventure that would last until Raboy’s death in 1967.

Returning to Mongo Flash and Co. discovered a red comet hurtling towards that fabulous world. Whilst trying to deflect it they become trapped by the civilisation who inhabit its interior, creatures to whom gravity is but a toy… Once more romance, intrigue and beautifully depicted action were the order of many days until the trio toppled the masters and placed far more agreeable rulers in charge, saving their adopted world and the greater universe.

The saga lasted until June of 1949 and was promptly followed by a stunning undersea odyssey as a brief trip to Mongo’s beaches led Flash and Dale into murky waters when they rescued captivating Merma from monstrous sub-sea marauder Sharki and became enmeshed in a watery range-war and tricky romantic quadrangle involving hidden kingdoms, scaly savages and outrageous leviathans and sea-beasts.

It was off to the frozen principality of Polaria next where ambitious Prince Polon was covering up a plague of giant monsters preying on the people. Of course the scurvy villain was behind the plot, using size-shifting rays and his ultimate aim was to become dictator of all Mongo…

The scheme obviously gave other regional rulers ideas. No sooner did President Flash return than he was off again to the Tropix Islands where “Queen” Rubia had fomented rebellion and seceded from the democratic federation of Mongo States. Hands-on Flash went undercover with Dale in an Arabian adventure to rival Sinbad’s greatest: before the people were liberated and the despots destroyed there was a panoply of spectacular action and fantastic creatures to survive…

Rubia, defeated, was dispatched to the prison moon Exilia, but all was not right on that grim penal colony. Once more surreptitiously investigating our hero discovered that villains had taken over the penal-planet and were preparing to attack civilized Mongo. Luckily Rubia and criminal mastermind Zin believed Flash to be his own double, dispatched to Exilia for impersonating the President – but they’re were not fooled for long…

This awesome extended epic ran from 6th March to November 5th 1950 and was followed by a proposed change-of-pace as Flash and Dale took off for a much-needed vacation on Earth. Unfortunately ever-malicious Rubia sabotaged their ship and they crash-landed on the unexplored Planet Zeta. It surely came as no surprise to fans when they discovered another beautifully barbarous lost civilisation there…

Zeta was a world of colossal plants and feudal warriors, but hid a dangerous secret. Something in the environment consumed metal. Within minutes Flash and Dale saw their ship and weapons melt away… Befriended instead of attacked the castaways found the inhabitants lived on a world seemingly immune to technological advancement, controlled by “wizards” who soon decided that Flash was a threat…

Flash discovers the metal-eating plague was artificial and helped the Zetans rebel and they helped him construct a new ship. Once more en route for Earth Flash and Dale encountered a stranger meteor, but without further mishap arrived safely. On March 25th 1951 (17 years and some months after they departed) two of earth’s first star-travellers finally returned to their birthworld and were feted like royalty. Sadly they should have paid closer attention to that vagrant space-rock as soon, Earth was under attack by strategically aimed meteors.

With Einsteinish Professor Brite in tow, Flash and Dale tracked the attacks to the Moon where they met beetle-men and human dictator Rak who planned to conquer Earth with his lunar meteor gun. He had never encountered a man like Flash Gordon before…

With Rak’s threat ended Flash helped Earth build a sentinel Space Platform, but when he, Dale, engineer Dr. Ruff and his annoying niece Ginger began work 1000 miles up they clashed with a strange race of flying saucer-riding space gnomes from Mars…

At this time Mars clearly preferred, if not actually needed, Earth women and with Dale and Ginger abducted, another sterling romp ensued. Flash outfoxed the malign gnome-king Toxo before subsequently leading a full expedition to the Red planet where he discovered another advanced feudal civilisation and that Martian women – or at least their Queen, Menta – had no worries, looks-wise…

Menta was however, a spoiled and murderous psychopath determined to conquer Earth…

This epic ran until February 24th 1952, whereupon Flash returned to Earth to discover his homeworld gripped in a new Ice Age. Jetting to the Arctic the good guys found Frost Giants from Saturn (the fifth moon Rhea to be exact) and that the big Freeze was artificially induced. Although he destroyed their forward base the Giants dragged Flash back to Rhea and inadvertently introduced human smallpox into their population…

Earth commander “Icy” Stark abandoned Dale after a space battle but Flash, with new Rhean allies rescued her and once more led a hostage society to overthrow its unfit rulers. On the return to Earth the fleet encountered a guided comet and met a new foe in Pyron the Comet Master.

Reunited with Dr. Zarkov the heroes battled the demented scientist’s horrendous creatures, saving Earth from flaming doom but were catapulted helplessly to the surface of enigmatic Venus for the last complete adventure in this stellar collection.

Not only is our solar system teeming with unsuspected life, but it appeared most of it was ruled by complete sods, as Flash, Dale and Zarkov battled winged tree-men, swamp horrors and the nefarious overlord Stang, enduring staggering hardship and hazard before crushing the tyrant and freeing two separate races from terror.

With a new ship, the far-flung travellers set off for Earth but were forced to land on the Moon where a secret human base had been established. For unknown reasons Dr. Stella and her thuggish aide Marc detained and delayed them, but when an increasing number of close shaves and mysterious accidents occurred, a little digging revealed that they were the unwitting guests of ruthless space pirates…

As is probably fitting for one of the world’s greatest continuity strips this first volume ends on a gripping cliffhanger, but with so much incredible action, drawn with such magnificent style there’s no way any fan of classic adventure can possibly feel short-changed

Mac Raboy was the last of the Golden Age of romanticist illustrators, but his lush and lavish flowing adoration of the perfected human form was already fading from popular taste. The Daily feature at this time had already switched to the solid, chunky, He-manly, burly realism of Dan Barry and even Frank Frazetta. Here, however, at least the last outpost of beautiful elegant heroism and gracefully pretty perils prevail, thanks to these Dark Horse volumes which you can visit just as often as Flash and Dale popped between planets…
© 2003 King Features Syndicate Inc. ™ Hearst Holdings, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Footrot Flats book 7


By Murray Ball (Orin Books)
ISSN: 0156-6172

Once upon a time, Britain ran an Empire, and now we’ve found a more equitable station as just one of 53(ish) independent nations in a Commonwealth. This last fortnight we’ve celebrated that with our own sporting Games, then capped that by having Britain (notional head of the Commonwealth) insult every other member of the vast panoply of nations and cultures that we’ve befriended/exploited.

Some of those nations have always been handy with comebacks, rejoinders and cartoon salvos of their own, and whilst this particular item may not have the political venom of the creator’s earlier works, it more than makes up for it by being the absolute best comedy strip the Commonwealth has ever produced (and yes, I’m even including our very own The Perishers).

New Zealand’s greatest natural wonder and National Treasure is in fact a comic strip. Footrot Flats is one of the funniest ever created, designed as a practical antidote to idealistic pastoral fantasy and bucolic self-deception and concocted in 1975 by cartoonist and comics artist Murray Ball after returning to his New Zealand homeland from an extended work tour of the UK and other, lesser, climes.

The fantastical farm feature ran for a quarter of a century, appearing in newspapers on four continents until 1994 when Ball retired it, citing reasons as varied as the death of his own dog and the state of New Zealand politics. Such a success naturally spawned a multitude of merchandising material such as strip compendia, calendars and special editions released regularly from 1978 onwards.

Once Ball officially ceased the daily feature he began periodically releasing books of all-new material until 2000, with a net yield of 27 collections of the daily strip, 8 volumes of Sunday pages dubbed “Weekenders”, 5 pocket books and ancillary publications such as “school kits” aimed at younger fans and their harried parents.

There was a stage musical, a theme park and in 1986 a truly superb feature-length animated film. The Dog’s Tail Tale became New Zealand’s top-grossing film (and remained so until Peter Jackson started associating with Hobbits) – track it down on video or petition the BBC to show it again – it’s been decades, for Pete’s sake…

The well-travelled, extremely gifted and deeply dedicated Mr. Ball had originally moved to England in the early 1960s, becoming a cartoonist for Punch (producing Stanley the Palaeolithic Hero and All the King’s Comrades) as well as drawing numerous strips for DC Thompson and Fleetway and even concocting a regular political satire strip in Labour Weekly.

After marrying he returned to the Old Country and resettled in 1974 – but not to retire…

Ball was busier than ever once he’d bought a small-holding on the North Island to farm in his “spare time”, which inevitably led to the strip under review.

Taking the adage “write what you know” to startling, heartbreaking and occasionally stomach-turning heights, the peripatetic pencil-pusher broke most of the laws of relativity to make time for these captivatingly insane episodes concerning the highs and lows – and most frequently “absurds” – of the rural entrepreneur as experienced by the earthily metaphoric Wallace Footrot Cadwallader: a bloke never too-far removed from mud, mayhem, ferocity and frustration…

Wal is a big, bluff farmer. He likes his grub; loves his sport – Rugby, Football (the Anzac sort, not the kiddie version Yanks call Soccer) Cricket, Golf(ish) and even hang-gliding; each in its proper season and at no other, since he just wants the easiest time a farmer’s life can offer…

Wal owns a small sheep farm (the eponymous Footrot Flats) honestly described as “400 acres of swamp between Ureweras and the Sea”.

With his chief – and only – hand Cooch Windgrass (a latter-day Francis of Assisi), and a verbose and avuncular sheepdog, Wal enjoys being his own boss – as much as the farm cat, goats, chickens, livestock and his auntie will let him…

Other persons of perennial interest include Wal’s fierce and prickly little niece Janice – known to all as Pongo – the aforementioned Aunt Dolly (AKA the sternly staunch and starched Dolores Monrovia Godwit Footrot), smart-ass local lad Rangi Wiremu Waka Jones, Dolly’s pompous and pampered Corgi Prince Charles and Pew, a sadistic, inventive, obsessed and vengeful magpie who bears an unremitting grudge against Wal…

When not living in terror of the monumental moggy dubbed “Horse”, teasing the corpulent Corgi or panic-attacking himself in imagined competition with noble hunting hound Major, the Dog narrates and hosts the strip.

A cool, imaginative and overly sentimental know-all and blowhard, Dog is utterly devoted to his, for want of a better term, Master – unless there’s food about, or Jess the sheepdog bitch is in heat again. However, the biggest and most terrifying scene-stealer was that fulsome feline Horse; a monstrous and imperturbable tomcat who lords it over every living thing in the district …

One of the powerful and persistent clichés of life is that to make people laugh one truly needs to experience tragedy and, having only recently lost my own four-footed studio-mate and constant companion of 15 years, I can certainly empathise with the artist’s obvious manly distress as this otherwise magnificently hilarious collection is movingly dedicated to the uniquely charming real-world inspiration for the battered and bewhiskered juggernaut… which only makes the comedy capers contained within even more bittersweet and effective, beginning with the poem to his departed companion and the bluff, brisk photo tribute which opens proceedings…

Once again the funny businesses comes courtesy of the loquacious canine softie, taking time out from eking out his daily crusts (and oysters and biscuits and cake and lamb’s tails and scraps and chips and…) and alternately getting on with or annoying the sheep, cows, bull, goat, hogs, ducks, bugs, cats, horses and geese, as well as sucking up to the resolutely hostile wildlife and the decidedly odd humans his owner knows or is related to.

Dog – his given name is an embarrassing, closely and violently guarded secret – loves Wal but always tries to thwart him if the big bloke is trying to do unnecessarily necessary farm chores such as chopping down trees, burning out patches of scrub, culling livestock, or trying to mate with the pooch’s main rival Darlene “Cheeky” Hobson, hairdresser-in-residence of the nearest town. As is also the case with the adoring comradeship of proper blokes, Dog is never happier than when embarrassing his mate in front of others, which explains the pages extracted from Wal’s old albums, showing the man to be in various humiliating baby shots and schoolboy scrapes…

Following on is the epic adventure ‘The Invasion of the Murphy Dogs’ – barbaric hounds from a neighbouring farm only afraid of one thing…

This extra-large (262x166mm) landscape monochrome seventh volume again comes from Australian Publisher Orin Books and continues the policy of dividing the strips into approximately seasonal sequences, and after a few more all-original cartoons again opens with ‘Spring’ – the busiest season of the farmer’s year (apart from the other three) – concentrating on Pew’s first attempts at avian home-making, Dog’s libido, horny farmers and hussy-hairdressers, loopy lambs, wild pigs, killer eels and cricket, as well as an extended sequence in which Wal and the Dog become involved in the local school’s curriculum and cuisine…

Once the long hot ‘Summer’ settles in, bringing fun with chicken-shearing, busy bees, a plague of carnivorous Wekas, thistles, Horse’s softer side(!) and his war with Pongo and Aunt Dolly, Hare infestations, river-rafting, Irish Murphy’s Pigs (far worse than his dogs), Cheeky’s picnic charm-offensive and the growing closeness of Rangi and Pongo…

‘Autumn’ brings piglets, scrub-burning, the revenge of dispossessed magpies, amorous bovines, fun with artificial insemination, fence-lining and back country cattle, honey-harvesting, darts and rugby, a confused ram who’d rather pursue Dolly than associate with eager ewes and Horse’s crucial role in the war against the magpies…

As ‘Winter’ again closes in, offering floods, the mixed messy joy of lambing season, mud, mad goats, whitebait fishing and footy, Wal unwisely agrees to take a class of schoolkids and their puritanical, prudish and priggish teacher on an eye-opening nature-lesson around Footrot Flats. Touched by the painful experience, the bluff cove then volunteers to coach the school’s sports and, after much humiliation, spends the rest of the book discovering how hard – and, for observers, funny – farming in a plaster cast can be…

As you’d expect, the comedy content is utterly, absolutely top-rate and the extended role played throughout by the surly star Horse all the more poignant…

Ball – who died in 2017 – was one of those truly gifted individuals who can actually imbue a few lines on paper with the power of Shakespeare’s tragedy and the manic hilarity of jester geniuses such as Tommy Cooper or the Marx Brothers. When combined with his sharp, incisive yet warmly human writing the result was, is, and remains sheer, irresistible magic.

In the early 1990s Titan Books published British editions of the first three volumes and German, Japanese, Chinese and American translations also exist, as well as the marvellous Australian compendia reviewed here – as ever the internet is your friend (although prices for individual volumes can range from £4 to $3,000, so if ever there was an argument for a comprehensive archival re-release, sheer profit would seem to be it)…

Dry, surreal and wonderfully self-deprecating, Footrot Flats always successfully wedded together sarcasm, satire, slapstick and strikingly apt surrealism in a perfect union of pathos and down to earth (and up to your eyebrows) fun that was and still is utterly addicting, exciting and just plain wonderful.

Plant the seeds for a lifetime of laughs by harvesting this or indeed any volume and you’ll soon see a bumper crop of fun irrespective of the weather or market forces…
© 1981-1982 Murray Ball. All Rights Reserved.