Perfect Nonsense: the Chaotic Comics and Goofy Games of George Carlson

By George Carlson, edited by Daniel F. Yezbick & Rick Marschall (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-508-2

The art and calling of mesmerising children is a rare one, but the masters of such an imaginative discipline – whether through words or pictures – have generally become household names.

Lewis Carroll (although that’s really two people, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson & Sir John Tenniel), Edward Lear, J.M. Barrie, L. Frank Baum, Enid Blyton, Maurice Sendak, Kenneth Graham, Arthur Rackham and their ilk, or cartoon-oriented craftsmen such as Winsor McCay, Sheldon Mayer, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, George Herriman, Elzie Segar, S.J. Perelman, Alfred Bestall, Crockett Tubbs, Milt Gross, Carl Barks, Bill Holman and others have all garnered some measure of undying fame for their sublime cannons of entertainment, but apparently these days, nobody knows George Carlson.

Carlson was both a unique and prolific, surreally absurdist, sublimely stylised magician of children’s entertainments and a diligent commercial artist, tireless, dedicated educator and print illustrator and designer.

He absolutely loved games and puzzles and was besotted with all aspects of print media.

A son of Swedish immigrants, he plied his trade(s) from New York and Connecticut between 1903 to 1962, producing everything from editorial cartoons, book jackets (including famously the iconic first edition of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind), magazine illustration, typographical design, games, sheet-music, utterly unique advertising materials, books, pamphlets and so much more.

And comics: some of the most original, eccentric and captivating comics for youngsters America or the world has ever seen…

This superb and colossal compendium, the brainchild and magnum opus of extreme fan Daniel Yezbick, is the result of 15 years toil and superbly details every aspect of the lost master’s life, stuffed to overflowing with intimate photos, wonderful anecdotes and page after page of glorious, enchanting stories, poems, puzzles and pictures that still have the power to take your breath away, no matter how old you are.

This calculated resurrection of a lost giant begins with ‘Preface: Great Gran’pa Gookel’ by Carlson’s descendent Allison Currie, and an effulgent Introduction’ by author, critic, historian and cartoonist R.C. Harvey who kindles the lost days in ‘A Very Admiring and Well-Plumbed Apostrophe to George Carlson, Cartooning Genius’, whilst Yezbick’s fulsome Foreword declares ‘At Long Last, the Carnival’s Come Back’

Firstly Yezbick takes us through the great man’s multi-faceted career, beginning with ‘The Jolly Books of the Puzzling Private’ describing early works and the artist’s two decades writing, illustrating, designing and creating engaging and educational games and puzzles for iconic and influential children’s pulp magazine John Martin’s Book. Also heavily featured is Carlson’s first great creation Peter Puzzlemaker, whose visual and verbal conundrums fascinated and expanded the minds of generations of kids.

The tireless scribbler also ghosted Gene Ahern’s classic newspaper strip Reg’lar Fellers for years and was engaged during WWI as an army cartographer.

‘The Whimsical Wizard of Fairfield, Connecticut: Family Life and Commercial Art in the 1920s and 1930s’ details his most productive period, not just as a consummate long-distance entertainer of kids, but in local and publishing national arenas.

Whilst addressing Carlson’s lifelong fascination with transport – especially his astounding illustrations of ships and trains – ‘Gone With the Wiggily: Flirting with Fame in the 1930s and 1940s’ covers the Mitchell cover creation and other book jackets as well as Carlson’s far more lasting and influential contributions to children’s literature.

Most important of these are his superb illustrations for Howard R. Garis’ ubiquitous and bucolic tales of venerable rabbit grandfather figure Uncle Wiggily and the artist’s wholly originated series of Puzzles, Fun Things to Do, Play and Colouring books, as well as a succession of “How to” books  revealing the secrets of drawing and creating your own cartoons.

The origin of his short but incredible funnybook career is covered in ‘The Road to Pretzleburg: George Carlson and Self-Destructing Comic Book Narrative’ and the latter disappointing years of changing public tastes in ‘Slouching Towards Fumbleland: The Restoration of the Whifflesnort’ which prompted his just-too-soon abortive creation of graphic novels (in 1962) with the never published Alec in Fumbleland and the artist’s immortalisation as the creator of a series of images locked in a time capsule that won’t be opened until 8113AD…

The major portion of this sturdy compendium is taken up with hundreds of astounding reproductions of Carlson’s vast and varied output, beginning with ‘Early Works and Illustrations’ including scenes from many classical stories such as Icarus, Neptune and Amphitrite, Aesop’s Fables, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Tom Sawyer and full colour cover and plates for such books as The Magic Stone, Uncle Wiggily, The Prince Without a Country and more…

Also included are examples of ‘Adult and Genre Works’ such as Broncho Apache, Death on the Prairie and Scouting on the Mystery Trail

‘Pulps, Poems and Pixies: John Martin’s Books’ offers a wealth of images and designs from Carlson’s 20 year tenure as contributing editor on America’s premiere pulp publication for children.

A master of what we now call paper and print technologies with the budget and freedom to go wild, he concocted covers, frontispieces, book plates, Holiday editions, graphically integrated poem pages, astounding layouts, games pages, riddles, nonsense word glossaries, animal alphabets and so many other ways to educationally enthral, engage and stretch growing minds…

The artist was also a brilliant composer of clever, witty limericks, odes, riddles, gags and brainteasers: a advocate and devotee of whacky word play in the manner of Lear and Carroll, and ‘Carlson’s School of Nonsense’ catalogues many of his most impressive cartoon-garnished confections whilst ‘Jolly Books’ displays his creations and tales for premium pamphlets (a forerunner of comicbooks) commissioned as give-aways by department stores, cxall dutifully crafted and packaged by the John Martin team.

As the magazine refused to carry straight advertising – feeling it was an abuse and betrayal of their young readers’ trust – Carlson and brilliant co-editor Helen Waldo devised a sponsorship method which name-checked at one remove selected backers and commercial interests through ingenious story puzzle pages, rebuses, acronyms and acrostics…

Once upon a time paper and printing were the internet: a nigh-inexhaustible, readily available resource which could provide stories, games and puzzles, information and diversions which only required a creator’s imagination and ingenuity.

There was nobody more skilled, adept or inspired than Carlson, whose life-long fascination with language, crosswords, puns, riddles, rebuses, maths, wordplay and graphic invention seemingly occupied every non-working, waking moment.

He also knew music (his wife Gertrude was a professional pianist and gave lessons from their home) and here ‘Songs, Games and Other Pastimes’ displays his charming amalgamations of graphics and terpsichorean instruction as well as his science-based features, articles and books, whilst ‘Tutorial Cartooning and Art Instruction’ offers concrete examples of the artist’s many years of publishing tracts and tomes intended to teach young and old alike the fundamentals of narrative art.

‘Trains and Transportation’ reveals in spectacular detail Carlson’s fascination with engineering, locomotives and all aspects of shipping – including the revolutionary and mindboggling book Queen Mary Comparisons – after which ‘Portraits, Presidents and Personalities’ displays a selection of his superb commemorative images, whilst ‘Adventures in Advertising’ reveals his unbelievable versatility in putting across ideas and selling, including many examples of the aforementioned John Martin stealth ads plus a plethora of delightful make-them-yourself Premiums he designed for youngsters.

‘Original Art, Lost Works, and Forgotten Frolics’ explore tantalising might-have-beens and unearthed treasures before the groundbreaking kids comics are highlighted in ‘Laughter, Puns, and Speed’.

Subtitled ‘The Whifflesnorting Thrills of George Carlson’s Eastern Color Comics’, a brief essay reveals the history of the illustrator’s short foray into comicbooks and the creation of anthology Jingle-Jangle Comics, which launched in February 1942 (running until 1949) and which headlined two features exclusively written and drawn by Carlson.

‘The Pie-Faced Prince of Old Pretzleburg’ was a manic, pun-filled procession of insane and wholesome nonsense which related the fast and frantic screwball adventures of royal mooncalf Prince Dimwitri and his inamorata Princess Panetella Murphy, and the too short collection of complete capers commences here with the fast, frenetic debut from #1, in which he saved the King’s breakfast pretzel from the insidious Green Witch.

Also included are escapades from issues #11, #15, #16, #20, #35, #36 and #41, absurdist adventures in rumbling tumbling happily tumultuous word and picture tales involving jet-powered kites, assorted bandits, scurrilous scarecrows, stolen violins, fabulous beasts, living jet-mobiles, talking animals, baking, belligerent unicorns and more.

Carlson brought a deliciously skewed viewpoint to the still-evolving syllabary of comics: there are hilariously punny labels and signs everywhere and in some shots weary birds rest on free-floating word balloons…

Without doubt, however, Carlson reserved his greatest flights of fancy for the inventive fractured fairy stories that comprised the eponymous ‘Jingle Jangle Tales’ – one-off fables starring peculiarly reinvented standbys like princesses and knights, interacting with astonishing animals and far-from-inanimate objects all imbued with a bravura lust for life and laughs.

Included here are ‘The Moon-Struck Unicorn and the Worn-Out Shadow’ from #13, ‘The Straight-Shooting Princess and the Filigree Pond-Lily’ (#22), ‘The Musical Whifflesnort and the Red-Hot Music Roll’ (#23), ‘The Rocketeering Doodlebug and the Self-Winding Horsefly’ (#25), extraordinarily mirthful mystical melanges augmented by a brace of outrageously wry spoofs of American classics ‘Skip van Wrinkle, the High-Hatted Hunter’ from #28 and the impossibly raucous and breathtaking lunacy of ‘Sleepy Yollow, the Bedless Norseman’ (#31).

Harlan Ellison correctly dubbed Carlson’s sublimely inviting whimsy for the very young as “Comics of the Absurd” and these cartoon capers are urgently in need of their own complete and comprehensive collection – preferably in a lush and lavish full colour hardback archive edition…’

If you have an abiding love of creative fantasy and access to beginning reading-age children (boy, that came out creepier than I imagined!), you simply must get this terrific tome and open their eyes to wonderment, enlightenment, entertainment and education in this timelessly addictively accessible chronicle.

Buy it now, and it will be this year’s best Christmas present ever…
Perfect Nonsense © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All images and articles © their respective creators or owners. All rights reserved.

E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 6: “Me Li’l Swee’Pea”

By Elzie Crisler Segar, with Doc Winner (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-483-2

Elzie Crisler Segar was born in Chester, Illinois on 8th December 1894. His father was a handyman, and the boy’s early life was filled with the kinds of solid, dependable blue-collar jobs that typified his generation of cartoonists. He worked as a decorator and house-painter and also played drums; accompanying vaudeville acts at the local theatre.

When the town got a movie-house he played for the silent films, absorbing all the staging, timing and narrative tricks from keen observation of the screen. Those lessons would become his greatest assets as a cartoonist. It was while working as the film projectionist, aged 18, that he decided to become a cartoonist and tell his own stories.

Like so many others he studied art via mail, in this case W.L. Evans’ cartooning correspondence course out of Cleveland, Ohio, before gravitating to Chicago where he was “discovered” by Richard F. Outcault – regarded by most as the inventor of newspaper comic strips with The Yellow Kid and, later, Buster Brown.

The celebrated cartoonist introduced him around at the prestigious Chicago Herald. Still wet behind the ears, Segar’s first strip, Charley Chaplin’s Comedy Capers, debuted on 12th March 1916. In 1918 he married Myrtle Johnson and moved to William Randolph Hearst’s Chicago Evening American to create Looping the Loop, but Managing Editor William Curley saw a big future for Segar and packed the newlyweds off to New York, HQ of the mighty King Features Syndicate.

Within a year Segar was producing Thimble Theatre, which launched December 19th 1919 in the New York Journal. It was a pastiche of movie-inspired features like Hairbreadth Harry and Midget Movies, with a repertory cast to act out comedies, melodramas, comedies, crime-stories, chases and especially comedies for vast daily audiences. The core cast included parental pillars Nana and Cole Oyl, their lanky highly-strung daughter Olive, diminutive-but-pushy son Castor and Olive’s plain and simple occasional boyfriend Horace Hamgravy (later known as just Ham Gravy).

In 1924 Segar created a second daily strip The 5:15: a surreal domestic comedy featuring weedy commuter and would-be inventor John Sappo and his formidable wife Myrtle (surely, no relation?) which endured – in one form or another – as a topper/footer-feature accompanying the main Sunday page throughout the author’s career, even surviving his untimely death, eventually becoming the trainee-playground of Popeye’s second great stylist Bud Sagendorf.

A born storyteller, Segar had from the start an advantage even his beloved cinema couldn’t match: a brilliant ear for dialogue and accent which boomed out from his admittedly average adventure plots, adding lustre and sheer sparkle to stories and gags he always felt he hadn’t drawn well enough. After a decade or so – and just as cinema caught up with the invention of “talkies” – he finally discovered a character whose unique sound and individual vocalisations blended with a fantastic, enthralling nature to create a literal superstar.

Popeye the sailor, brusque, incoherent, plug-ugly and stingingly sarcastic, lurched on stage midway through the protracted continuity ‘Dice Island’, (on January 17th 1929: see E.C. Segar’s Popeye volume 1: “I Yam What I Yam!”) and, once his part was played out, simply refused to leave.

Within a year he was a regular and, as the strip’s circulation skyrocketed, he gradually took his place as the star. The strip title was changed to reflect the fact and most of the tired old gang – except Olive – consigned to oblivion …

The Old Salt clearly inspired his creator. The near decade of thrilling mystery-comedies he crafted and the madcap and/or macabre new characters with which he furiously littered the strips revolutionised the industry, laid the groundwork for the entire superhero genre (sadly, usually without the leavening underpinnings of his wryly self-aware humour) and utterly captivated the whole wide world.

These superb oversized (375 x 268 mm) hardback collections are the ideal way of discovering or rediscovering Segar’s magical tales, and this sixth and final mammoth compendium augments the fun with another an insightful introductory essay from Richard Marschall exploring ‘The Continuity Style of E. C. Segar: Between “Meanwhile” & “To Be Continued” and closes with an absorbing end-piece essay describing the globalisation of the character in ‘Licensing and Merchandising Move to Center Stage of the Thimble Theatre: Popeye Fisks his way into American Culture plus a 1930 magazine feature graphically revealing the Sailor Man’s natal origins and boyhood in ‘Blow Me Down! Popeye Born at Age of 2, But Orphink from Start’ scripted by unknown King Features writers but gloriously and copiously illustrated by Segar himself.

As always the black-&-white Daily continuities are presented separately to the full-colour Sunday’s, and the monochrome mirth and mayhem – covering December 14th 1936 to August 29th 1938 12th – begins with an all new adventure ‘Mystery Melody’ wherein Popeye’s disreputable dad Poopdeck Pappy is haunted and hunted by the sinister Sea Hag whose ghastly Magic Flute is employed to lure the old goat back into the clutches of the woman he loved and abandoned years ago…

The tension and drama grows in the second chapter ‘Tea and Hamburgers’ when the Hag approaches another old flame – J. Wellington Wimpy – and uses the reprobate’s insatiable lust (for food) to help capture Poopdeck. The plan works, but not quite as the sinister sorceress intended…

In ‘Bolo vs Everyone!’ events escalate completely beyond control as the Hag’s primordial man-monster attacks and the grizzled mariner ends the fight in his own inimitable manner, whilst mystic marvel Eugene the Jeep (a fantastic 4th dimensional beast with incredible powers) uses his gifts to temporarily settle the Sea Hag’s hash…

A decided change of pace began with the next storyline. ‘A Sock for Susan’s Sake’ showcases Popeye’s big heart and sentimental nature as he takes a destitute and starving waif under his wing: buying her clothes, breaking her out of jail and going on the run with her.

His kind-hearted deeds arouse deep suspicions about his motives from friends and strangers alike…

It’s a tribute to Segar’s skills that the storyline perfectly balances social commentary and pathos with plenty of action (that sock in question is not footwear) and non-stop slapstick comedy. Their peregrinations again land Susan and the Old Salt in jail – for vagrancy – but the wonderfully sympathetic and easily amused Judge Penny really makes the prosecution work hilariously hard for a conviction in ‘Order in the Court!’

Naturally, jealous Olive gets completely the wrong idea and uses the Jeep to track down her straying beau in ‘Who is That Girl?’ leading to the discovery of the ingénue’s origins and the restoration of her stolen fortune – a case calling for the return of ace detective and former strip star Castor Oyl…

The grateful child and her father burden Popeye with a huge reward but as he has his own adequate savings at home he gives it all – with some unexpected difficulty – away to “Widdies and Orphinks”…

In the next sequence the Sailor Man has reason to regret that generosity as, on returning to his house, he finds his hard-earned “Ten Thousing dollars” savings have been stolen…

Most annoyingly he knows Poopdeck has taken it but the old goat won’t admit it, even though he has a new diamond engagement ring which he uses to bribe various loose young (and not so young) women into going out gallivanting with him and sowing ‘Wild Oats’

When Popeye first appeared he was a rough, rude, crude and shocking anti-hero. The first Superman of comics was not a comfortable paragon to idolise but a barely human brute who thought with his fists and didn’t respect authority. Uneducated, opinionated, short-tempered, fickle (whenever hot tomatoes batted their eyelashes – or thereabouts – at him), a gambler and troublemaker, he wasn’t welcome in polite society…and he wouldn’t want to be.

He was soon exposed as the ultimate working class hero: raw and rough-hewn, practical, but with an innate and unshakable sense of what’s fair and what’s not, a joker who wanted kids to be themselves – but not necessarily “good” – and somebody who took no guff from anyone.

As his popularity grew he somewhat mellowed. He was always ready to defend the weak and had absolutely no pretensions or aspirations to rise above his fellows. He was and will always be “the best of us”… but the shocking sense of unpredictability, danger and comedic anarchy he initially provided was sorely missed. So in 1936 Segar brought it all back again in the form of Popeye’s 99-year old unrepentantly reprobate dad…

The elder mariner was a rough, hard-bitten, grumpy brute quite prepared and even happy to cheat, steal or smack a woman around if she stepped out of line, and once the old Billy goat (whose shady past possibly concealed an occasional bit of piracy) was firmly established, Segar set Popeye and Olive the Herculean and unfailingly funny task of civilising the old sod…

They returned to their odious chore here as Pappy’s wild carousing, fighting and womanising grow ever more embarrassing and lead to the cops trying – and repeatedly failing – to jail the senior seaman.

Poopdeck finally goes too far and pushes one of his fancy woman fiancées into the river. At last brought to trial, he pleads ‘Extenuvatin’ Circumsnances’

The final full saga began on 15th November 1937 as ‘The Valley of the Goons (An Adventure)’ saw Popeye and Wimpy drugged and shanghaied. Even though he could fight his way back home, Popeye agrees to stay on for the voyage since he needs money to pay lawyers appealing Pappy’s prison sentence. He quickly changes tack, however, when he discovers the valuable cargo they’re hunting is Goon skins! The Cap’n and his scurvy crew are planning to slaughter the hapless hulking exotic primitives for a few measly dollars…

After brutally driving off the murderous thugs, Popeye – and the shirking Wimpy – are marooned on the Goons’ isolated island…

The barbaric land holds a few surprises: most notably the fact that the natives are ruled over by Popeye’s dour old pal King Blozo (formerly of Nazilia) who, with his idiot retainer Oscar, is calling all the shots. It’s a happy coincidence as Wimpy’s eternal hunger and relentless mooching have won him a death sentence and he’s in imminent danger of being hanged…

All this time Olive, guided by the mystical tracking gifts of the Jeep, has been sailing the seven seas in search of her man and she beaches her boat just as Popeye begins to get the situation under control. In doing so he unfairly earns the chagrin of the island’s unseen but highly voluble sea monster George

Shock follows shock as the eerie voiced unseen creature is revealed as the horrendous Sea Hag who re-exerts her uncanny hold (some illusions but mostly the promise of unlimited hamburgers) upon Wimpy and tries to make him the ‘Bride of George’

In the middle of this tale Segar fell seriously ill with Leukaemia and his assistant Doc Winner assumed responsibility for completing the story: probably from Segar’s notes if not at his actual direction.

Although Winner’s illustrations carry ‘Valley of the Goons’ to conclusion, this tome excludes the all-Winner adventure ‘Hamburger Sharks and Sea Spinach’ before resuming with the May 23rd instalment by the apparently recovered Segar.

‘King Swee’Pea’ saw the feisty baby – who had been left with Popeye – become the focus of political drama and family tension when he was revealed to be heir to the Kingdom of Demonia

After a protracted tussle with that nation’s secret service and bombastic kingmaker F.G. Frogfuzz Esquire, the Sailor Man has himself appointed regent and chief advisor and, taking most of the cast with him, relocates to the harsh land where only Ka-babages grow.

Popeye soon finds that his mischievous little charge has started to speak: increasingly crossing and contradicting his gruff guardian and others, much to the annoyance of blustering bully King Cabooso of neighbouring (rival) nation Cuspidonia

Before long another unique crisis manifests in ‘Rise of the De-Mings’ as smug and sassy subterranean critters begin devastating the Ka-babage crop even as Swee’Pea and Caboosa escalate their war of insults…

Sadly, although coming back strongly, within three months Segar had relapsed. The adventures end here with his last strip and a précis of Winner’s eventual conclusion…

Segar passed away six weeks after his final Daily strip was published.

The full-colour Sunday pages in this volume run from 20th September 1936 to October 2nd 1938, a combination of Star turn and intriguing footers.

After an interlude with a new wry and charming feature – Pete and Patsy: For Kids Only – the artist settled once again upon an old favourite to back up Popeye.

The bizarrely entertaining Sappo (and the scene-and show-stealing Professor O.G. Wotasnozzle) supplemental strip returned in a blaze of imaginative wonder, as Segar also benched the cartooning tricks section which allowed him to play graphic games with his readership and again pushed the boundaries of Weird Science as the Odd Couple – and long-suffering spouse Myrtle - spent months exploring other worlds.

The assorted Saps also dabbled with robot dogs, brain-switching machines and fell embarrassingly foul of such inventions as long-distance spy-rays, anti-gravity devices, limb extending “Stretcholene”, “Speak-no-Evil” pills, Atom-Counters and the deeply disturbing trouble magnet dubbed “Dream Solidifier” whilst Sappo’s less scientific but far more profitable gimmicks kept the cash rolling in and the arrogant Professor steaming with outrage…

Above these arcane antics Sunday’s star attraction remained fixedly exploring the comedy gold of Popeye’s interactions with Wimpy, Olive Oyl and the rest of Segar’s cast of thousands (of idiots).

The humorous antics – in sequences of one-off gag strips alternating with the occasional extended saga – saw the Sailor-Man fighting for every iota of attention whilst his mournful mooching co-star became increasingly more ingenious – not to say surreal – in his quest for free meals…

An engaging Micawber-like coward, cad and conman, the insatiable J. Wellington Wimpy debuted on May 3rd 1931 as an unnamed and decidedly partisan referee in one of Popeye’s frequent boxing matches. The scurrilous but polite oaf obviously struck a chord and Segar gradually made him a fixture. Always hungry, keen to take bribes and a cunning coiner of many immortal catchphrases – such as “I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today” and ‘Let’s you and him fight’ - he was the perfect foil for a simple action hero and increasingly stole the entire show just like anything else unless it was nailed down…

There was also a long-suffering returning rival for Olive’s dubious and flighty affections: local charmer Curly

When not beating the stuffing out of his opponents or kissing pretty girls, Popeye pursued his flighty, vacillating and irresolute Olive with exceptional verve, if little success, but his life was always made more complicated whenever the unflappable, so-corruptible and adorably contemptible Wimpy made an appearance.

Infinitely varying riffs on Olive’s peculiar romantic notions or Wimpy’s attempts to cadge food or money (for food) were irresistible to the adoring readership, but Segar wisely peppered the Sundays with longer episodic tales, such as the saga of ‘The Terrible Kid Mustard’ (which ran from December 27th 1936 to February 28th 1937) and pitted the prize-fighting Sea Salt against another boxer who was as ferociously fuelled by the incredible nourishing power of Spinach…

Another extended endeavour starred the smallest addition to the cast (and eponymous star of this volume). The rambunctious tyke Swee’Pea was never an angel and when he began stealing jam and framing Eugene the Jeep (March 7th through 28th) the search for a culprit proved he was also precociously smart too.

The impossible task of civilising Poopdeck Pappy also covered many months – with no appreciable or lasting effect – and incorporated an outrageous sequence wherein the dastardly dotard become scandalously, catastrophically entangled in Popeye’s mechanical diaper-changing machine…

On June 27th Wimpy found the closest thing to true love when he met Olive’s friend Waneeta: a meek, retiring soul whose father owned 50,000 cows. His devoted pursuit filled many pages over the following months, as did the latest scheme of his arch-nemesis George W. Geezil, who bought a café/diner with the sole intention of poisoning the constantly cadging conman…

Although starring the same characters the Sunday and Daily strips ran separate storylines, offering Segar opportunities to utilise the same good idea in different ways.

On September 19th 1937 he began a sequence wherein Swee’Pea’s mother returned, seeking to regain custody of the boy she gave away. The resultant tug-of-love tale ran until December 5th and displayed genuine warmth and angst amidst the wealth of hilarious antics by both parties to convince the feisty “infink” to pick his favourite parent…

On January 16th 1938 Popeye was approached by scientists who had stumbled upon an incipient Martian invasion. The invaders planned to pit their monster against a typical Earthman before committing to the assault and the Boffins believed that the grizzly old pug was the planet’s best bet…

Readers didn’t realise that the feature’s glory days were ending. Segar’s advancing illness was affecting his output – there are no pages reproduced here between February 6th and June 26th – and although when he resumed the gags were funnier than ever (especially a short sequence where Pappy shaves his beard and dyes his hair so he could impersonate Popeye and woo Olive) the long lead-in time necessary to create Sundays only left him time to finish more 15 pages.

The last Segar signed strip was published on October 2nd 1938. He died eleven days later.

There is more than one Popeye. If your first thought on hearing the name is an unintelligible, indomitable white-clad sailor always fighting a great big beardy-bloke and mainlining tinned spinach, that’s okay: the animated features have a brilliance and energy of their own (even the later, watered-down anodyne TV versions have some merit) and they are indeed based on the grizzled, crusty, foul-mouthed, bulletproof, golden-hearted old swab who shambled his way into Thimble Theatre and wouldn’t leave. But they are really only the tip of an incredible iceberg of satire, slapstick, virtue, vice and mind-boggling adventure…

Popeye and the bizarre, surreally quotidian cast that welcomed and grew up around him are true icons of international popular culture who have grown far beyond their newspaper strip origins. Nevertheless, in one very true sense, with this marvellous yet painfully tragic final volume, the most creative period in the saga of the true and only Sailor Man closes.

His last strips were often augmented or even fully ghosted by Doc Winner, but the intent is generally untrammelled, leaving an unparalleled testament to Segar’s incontestable timeless, manic brilliance for us all to enjoy over and over again.

There is more than one Popeye. Most of them are pretty good and some are truly excellent. However there was only ever one by Elzie Segar – and don’t you think it’s time you sampled the original and very best?
© 2012 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2011 King Features Inc. All rights reserved.

Madison Square Tragedy

By Rick Geary (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-762-1

Master cartoonist Rick Geary is a one-of-kind cartoon presence: proficient in and dedicated to both comics and true crime literature.

His compelling dissections in the form of graphic novel reconstructions have revitalised many of the world’s most infamous “cold cases” and groundbreaking murder mysteries since policing began and these pictorial dossiers never fail to darkly beguile or entertain.

This particular review copy plunked onto my mat on Christmas Eve (always a time of drawn knives and frayed tempers) and really made my Holiday Season complete, so I felt I had to share the dark tidings with you as soon as possible…

Combining a superlative talent for laconic prose, incisive observation and detailed visual extrapolation with his fascination for the nastier aspects of human nature, Geary’s past works include biographies of J. Edgar Hoover and Trotsky and the 8-volume Treasury of Victorian Murder series.

In 2008 he then turned his forensic eye on the last hundred years or so for his ongoing Treasury of XXth Century Murder series and this sixth volume focuses on a little-remembered sordid scandal which seared the headlines during the “Gilded Age”.

Madison Square Tragedy – The Murder of Stanford White relates a tale with no unsolved mystery but still laden with all the appalling ingredients of a tabloid reporter’s dreams, and opens after a bibliography and the author’s handily informative map of Central Manhattan with ‘The City of the New Century’ describing the great and the good of the breathtaking modern metropolis New York in 1901 and setting the scene for a grim tragedy and lust, depravity and madness…

‘Stanny’ covers the history, career and character of prominent architect and personage Stanford White: bon vivant, theatre patron, dashing roué and secret deflowerer of young ladies, whose fascination with one particular damsel led to his untimely – if not entirely undeserved – demise.

The arch cad – a notable bastion of the city’s Cultured elite – had a secret hideaway: luxurious, opulent and infamously fitted with a red velvet swing where he indulged his urges…

The lady who brought about his demise was ‘Evelyn’: Florence Evelyn Nesbit – a sensation of turn-of-the-century New York. Only 16 years old, she was already a famous artist’s model (Charles Dana Gibson immortalised her as “The Eternal Question”), much photographed and cover-featured in the period’s periodicals and journals. She soon turned her talents to the stage as both actress and dancer, catching White’s eye – as she also had many millionaires young and old.

White was patient. Befriending Evelyn’s mother, he was soon known as the girl’s de facto guardian. Eventually he brought her to his lair and date-raped her, subsequently carrying on the dalliance until he was bored, after which he moved on to fresher fields…

Hushing up her disgrace, Evelyn began a chaste relationship with cartoonist Jack Barrymore (of the legendary acting dynasty) but her mother and White enrolled her in private boarding school to end the affair.

There she languished until one of her former admirers entered the picture…

‘Harry’ describes the third face in the tragedy as wealthy scion (drug addict, closet sadist and psychopath) Harry K. Thaw relentlessly pursues and eventually weds Evelyn. This was only after a protracted courtship which culminated in her revealing what Stanford White had done.

Harry married her anyway, but was a much an abuser as the architect was. Moreover he became increasingly obsessed with destroying the ravisher of innocence…

The actual murder occurred on ‘The Fatal Night’ of June 25th 1906 in a crowded restaurant in front of hundreds of well-to-do patrons, after which the most fascinating component of the crime began: the astonishing permutations and multiple ‘Trials and Tribulations’ which saw Harry retried numerous times as his powerful, dominating mother scrambled to preserve some shred of the family prestige and dignity whilst her son proclaimed his justified guilt and poor Evelyn was skewered in the harsh spotlight of tawdry publicity…

This is a shocking tale with no winners and Geary’s meticulous and logical presentation as he dissects the crime, illuminates the major and minor players and dutifully pursues all to their recorded ends is utterly compelling.

The author is a unique talent in the comic industry not simply because of his manner of drawing but because of the subject matter and methodology in the telling of his tales. Geary always presents facts, theories and even contemporary minutiae with absorbing pictorial precision, captivating clarity and devastating dry wit, re-examining the case with a force and power Oliver Stone would envy.

Seductive storytelling, erudite argument and audacious drawing give these tales an irresistible dash and verve which makes for unforgettable reading and such superb storytelling is an ideal exemplar of how graphic narrative can be so much more than simple fantasy entertainment. These merrily morbid murder masterpieces should be mandatory reading for every mystery addict and crime collector.
© 2013 Rick Geary. All rights reserved.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 4 1941-1942

By Roy Crane with Leslie Turner (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-677-5

Last Minute Christmas Treat: For anyone who loves the magic of comics…10/10

Just in time to be this year’s ultimate Christmas extravaganza, the fourth and final collection of Roy Crane’s groundbreaking, trailblazing Sunday strip completes a quartet of comics compilations no lover of high adventure, action comedy and visual narrative excellence should be without.

Our industry evolved from the monolithic popular newspaper strips of the first four decades of the 20th century: incredibly powerful circulation-boosting features which could, until relatively recently, dictate success or failure in America’s cutthroat newspaper business.

The daily cartoon stories were immensely addictive for readers and thus regarded as invaluable by publishers who used them as a powerful sales weapon to ensure consumer loyalty, increase sales and maximise profits. Many a pen-pushing scribbler became a millionaire thanks to their ability to draw pictures and spin a yarn…

With hundreds of 24 hour channels of TV, games, apps and streamed entertainment available now, it’s impossible for us to grasp the overwhelming allure of the comic strip in America and the wider world.

From the Great Depression to the end of World War II, with no domestic television, radio coverage far from comprehensive and movie-shows a weekly treat at best for most people, domestic entertainment was generally garnered from the ubiquitous comic sections of newspapers whose Funny Pages became a universally shared, communal recreation for millions of people. Entire families were well-served by an astounding variety of features of spectacular graphic and narrative quality.

From the outset humour was paramount – that’s why they’re called “Comics” – but eventually the anarchic baggy-pants clowning, cruelly raucous, racially stereotyped accent humour and gag-&-stunt cartoons palled, evolving into a thoroughly unique entertainment hybrid that was all about the dynamics of panels and pages.

At the forefront of the transformation was Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs which utilised a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous movie serial antics, fabulous fantasy and old fashioned vaudeville shtick, but also added compellingly witty and authentically true dialogue and a breathtaking sense of day-to-day progression – in short, serial continuity.

What separated him from his contemporaries and competitors – who were making similar advancements in the new art form – was that Crane was blending the fun with stirring, contemporary rollercoaster, implausible heroic action …

Washington Tubbs II began as a typical gag-a-day strip on April 21st 1924, bearing marked similarities to confirmed family favourite Harold Teen (by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed). Young Wash was a short, feisty and ambitious shop clerk permanently on the lookout for fortune and fame, but cursed with an eye to the ladies.

Gradually his peripatetic wanderings moved from embarrassing gaffes towards mock-heroics, into full-blown – but light-hearted – action and even rip-roaring, decidedly dangerous hazardous trials, ordeals and exploits.

This graphic evolution eventually demanded the introduction of a he-man sidekick to handle the fights the kid was getting into but seldom won. Thus enter moody, swashbuckling heroic prototype Captain Easy in the landmark episode for May 6th 1929…

Slap-bang in the middle of a European war, fast-talking, garrulous Tubbs saved a taciturn, down-on-his-luck, enigmatic fellow American from a cell and a perfect partnership was formed. They became inseparable: comrades-in-arms, roving the globe in search of treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a stunning procession of lovely ladies in assorted modes of distress…

The edgily capable, utterly dependable “Southern Gen’leman” was something previously unseen in the Funnies: a raw, square-jawed hunk played dead straight rather than as the mock-heroic buffoon and music hall foil who cluttered strips like Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond.

Moreover Crane’s seductively simple blend of cartoon exuberance combining faux-straight illustration with “bigfoot” cartooning (here carefully mimicked and even surpassed by his assistant and creative successor Leslie Turner) was a far more accessible and powerful medium for fast-paced adventure story-telling than the beautiful but stagy style favoured by artists like Hal Foster on Tarzan or Prince Valiant and Alex Raymond with Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim.

Tubbs & Easy were much closer to the surreal, absurdly action-packed Popeye or V. T. Hamlin’s comedy Caveman Alley Oop: full of vim, vigour and vinegar and never sombre or serious for long…

The overall effect was electrifying – and a host of young cartoonists used the strip as their bellwether: Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially an impressionably admiring Joe Shuster

After several abortive attempts at a Sunday feature starring his little warrior, Crane eventually settled on the burly sidekick as the potential star and Captain Easy launched on July 30th 1933. The content was unflinching exotic action: blistering two-fisted yarns set before the two buddies’ first meeting.

This fourth and final fabulous volume covers December 22nd 1940 to July 11th 1943, bringing to a close Crane’s association with the strip.

He had abandoned the feature to NEA, joining William Randolph Hearst’s King Features to produce Buz Sawyer – a strip he would own and have creative control over. Turner would now continue both the daily Wash Tubbs and Sunday Captain Easy (with his own assistants) until his retirement in 1969.

This blockbuster collection opens with an Introduction from Michael H. Price tracing potential candidates for the surly Southerner in ‘Roy Crane and the Man Who was Easy’ before the increasingly eccentric and comedic final pages, a goodly proportion of which were produced during the critical period just before America finally entered WWII.

The material is significant for one salient point – Tubbs and especially Easy are scarcely seen after hostilities commenced. The reason was obvious: all true patriots wanted to defend their country and the heroes enlisted…

The hilarious action begins with the reintroduction of comedy foil Lulu Belle: a homely, cigar-chomping hillbilly lady who had been a circus strongwoman and undisputed Female boxing champion for fifteen years.

She had married serial bigamist and all-round bounder C. Hollis Wallis before going home heartbroken to her family, but as they just saw her as meal ticket too she was overjoyed when Tubbs and Easy wandered by the old homestead.

Soon she was accompanying them to Guatemala following an out-of-date advert for workers at a wildcat oil field. Arriving eight years too late the trio are tricked into joining a bandit gang run by the savage and sultry Teresa Grande; a Latin spitfire who’s the most dangerous killer in the country.

She, however, is smitten with Easy’s manly charms, and redeems herself at terrible cost when her gang try to steal sacred relics from a remote village and its ancient temple. Homeless and broke as usual, the plucky Americans then walk to the coast and find passage on a ship run an eccentric who keeps pet tigers. The voyage goes as you’d expect and the trio end up shipwrecked somewhere off Cuba only to be stalked by a wild Wolf Girl: a lost child marooned and grown wild as she matured in the jungle…

After numerous close shaves and hilarious escapades, Easy captures and partially tames the bestial lass, entrusting her to the care of a vacationing American psychologist, whilst Lulu Belle secures a job as cook in a dingy waterfront dive. It’s there that she meets and is romanced by Easy’s brutal arch-enemy Bull Dawson, and inadvertently lures Wash and the Captain aboard the rogue’s ship.

Brokering a tenuous peace, she convinces her friend to work on the “reformed” Dawson’s new job: a jungle reclamation project near the Panama Canal. It’s all a big con, though. The traitorous pirate is actually building a secret landing-field for agents of a certain foreign power and when Wash and Easy uncover the truth the fists and fireworks fly…

Returned to the USA, the heartbroken and lovelorn Lulu is taken in by the ambitious schemes of a millionaire who somehow finds the unprepossessing lady irresistible. Of course Akron O. Spratly also has plans to extract much-needed rubber for the war-effort from frogs…

After much outrageous flummery and hilarious misadventure Lulu is left even sadder, if no wiser, just as the now partially civilised Wolf Girl returns. She has escaped her collegiate captors and is running wild in the big city: her immense physical strength and speed causing much unladylike chaos in Gentlemen’s clubs, the circus, sports fields and the Zoo. She also displays an amazing talent for acquiring pretty sparkly items like watches and jewellery…

A very different type of girl appears next as obnoxious ten-time married billionaire Horatio Boardman swears off women again and hires Easy to make sure the pledge sticks. Unfortunately, local mobsters are determined to introduce the World’s Eighth Richest Man to Baby Doll, a sexily appealing ingénue with the rapacious heart of a viper…

That screwball set-up was good for three months worth of laughs before Lulu again takes centre stage as a boastful beautician is suckered into a bet that he can make any woman so lovely that she will be photographed in the newspapers…

Reduced to simple straight man by Lulu, Easy soon took third place as the boxing lady accidentally acquired a manic and capacious ostrich named Lucille. The big bird’s astounding appetite led to Lulu becoming the indentured slave of a shady farmer who first had her work off the giant’s gannet’s destructive binges and then sold his guilt-wracked toiler on to other men in need of fields ploughed, clothes washed and chores done… until the outraged Easy came back…

Stony broke but free again, Lulu then roped Easy in to a culinary affair as she opened a diner in the worst place possible, just as her ne’er-do-well family palmed off a young cousin onto her. Augustus Mervin Gasby was a locust in human form, and his astonishing appetite seemed fit to bust the desperate pair until the former-soldier-of-fortune found something that the shambling oaf could do really well…

A panoply of ludicrous sporting endeavours eventually lead Gus into the Navy whilst on the Home Front Easy and Lulu went fishing and subsequently exposed a huge dope-smuggling ring in one of the last rousing adventure episodes, after which the tone switched back to screwball comedy with the re-emergence of C. Hollis Wallis who weaselled into town in search of another woman to marry and fleece.

He wasn’t particularly picky and despite Lulu keeping a weather eye – and occasionally a couple of clenched fists – on him he breezed through a few options before settling upon one eminent prospect who lived in a mansion with many oil-wells attached…

He had no idea she was only the cook…

A secondary lot began mid-stream as a Zoot-suit gangster William Trigger BoyScramooch got out of the State Pen and moved into Lulu’s boarding house. Ever prey to poor judgement she took a shine to him whereas for Easy it was disgust at first sight…

Horning in on Wallis’ potential windfall, Trigger Boy planned a kidnap and tricked Lulu into doing his dirty work. Big mistake…

More single page gags followed including a clever patriotic sequence where Lulu buys a big gas-guzzling automobile and leads the nation by her sacrificial example after which Easy makes his last appearance (28th February 1943) serving to reintroduce another old pal.

Magician, ventriloquist and escapologist Lonnythe Great Plunkett pops up again, pranking the cops and again becoming the target of some crooks in dire need of illicit safecracking expertise. Lulu is a natural partner for the sharp guy and together they scotch the hoods’ plan, after which romance blooms again when 600-pound gorilla Roy Boy decides only she can be his ideal mate. When he’s frustrated in his amorous endeavours he smashes out of his cage and rampages like a hairy tornado through town…

The comic capers conclude on a high humour note with a return to C. Hollis Wallis’ ongoing marital scam, which escalates into brilliant farce before the loathsome little Lothario gets what’s coming to him…

Ending this final titanic (with pages 380mm high  x 270mm wide) luxury hardback tome is a full-colour correction from volume 3, another hand-painted colour-guide strip by Crane and ‘Transition’ by Rick Norwood: an illustrated article explaining just where Tubbs and Easy went when the faded from the pages of Turner’s Sunday pages…

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips is a magnificent undertaking: collecting in a wonderfully accessible form one of the most impressive, funny, exciting and influential comic strips of all time in books that cannot help but inspire awe and affection.

Captain Easy is perhaps the most unsung of all great pulp heroes and his spectacular, rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventures should be just as familiar to lovers of classic adventure as Tintin, Doc Savage, H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain, Carl Bark’s Scrooge McDuck (Tales) or (yes kids) even Indiana Jones.

These astounding masterpieces are quite unforgettable: fanciful, entertaining and utterly irresistible. How can you possibly resist a chance to experience the stories that inspired the giants of action adventure?
Captain Easy strips © 2013 United Feature Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 3 1938-1940

By Roy Crane with Leslie Turner (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-529-7

The comics industry evolved from newspaper strips and those impossibly successful, circulation-boosting pictorial features were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous, hugely popular with the readers and thus regarded as invaluable by publishers who used them as a powerful sales weapon to guarantee consumer loyalty, increase sales and  ensure profits. Many a pen-pushing scribbler became a millionaire thanks to their ability to draw pictures and spin a yarn…

It’s virtually inconceivable for us today to grasp the overwhelming power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. Before domestic television, with broadcast radio far from universal and movie-shows at best a weekly treat for most folks, entertainment was mostly derived from comic sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. The Funny Pages were a universally shared recreation for millions; who were well-served by an astounding variety of features of spectacular graphic and narrative quality.

From the outset humour was paramount – that’s why they’re called “Funnies” and “Comics”. Soon the gag-&-stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous movie serial antics, fabulous fantasy and old fashioned vaudeville shtick – evolved into a thoroughly unique entertainment hybrid.

Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs combined all of the above with sharp witty dialogue and a breathtaking sense of day-to-day progression, in short serial continuity. What lifted him above all his contemporaries – who were making similar advancements in the new art form – was that Crane was blending the comedy with rousing, rollercoaster action and riotous adventure…

Debuting on April 21st 1924, Washington Tubbs II began as a typical gag-a-day strip not entirely dissimilar from confirmed family favourite Harold Teen (produced by Crane’s friend and contemporary Carl Ed). Wash was a diminutive but eagerly ambitious young shop clerk, in search of a fortune and with an eye to the ladies.

Gradually, however, he moved into mock-heroics, then through harm-free action into full-blown – but still light-hearted – rip-roaring and decidedly dangerous hazardous trials, ordeals and exploits. This evolution culminated in the savvy introduction of pioneering he-man, moody swashbuckling prototype Captain Easy in the landmark episode for May 6th 1929.

With his daily continuities increasingly more exotic and thrill-drenched every week, the globe-trotting tiny titan clearly needed a companion who could believably handle the rough stuff, and thus in the middle of a ferocious and crazy European war Tubbs liberated a taciturn and enigmatic fellow American from a jail cell and history was made. Before long the odd couple were inseparable comrades travelling the world: hunting treasure, fighting thugs and rescuing a procession of startlingly attractive damsels in distress…

The bluff, two-fisted, edgily capable and utterly dependable down-on-his-luck “Southern Gen’leman” was something previously unseen in the Funnies: a raw, square-jawed hunk played dead straight rather than the mere buffoon or music hall foil of such classic comics as Hairsbreadth Harry or Desperate Desmond.

Moreover Crane’s seductively simple blend of comic exuberance and compelling semi-serious “bigfoot” cartooning was a far more accessible and powerful medium for action story-telling than the gorgeous yet static illustrative tableaux style favoured by artists like Hal Foster (who was just starting to draw attention on the new Tarzan Sunday page).

Tubbs & Easy were every bit as exotic and thrilling as the Ape Man but calamitously rattled along like the tumultuous, tempestuous fantastical Popeye: full of vim, vigour and vinegar.

The overall effect was electrifying – as attested to by a close look at the early works of the young cartoonists who followed the strip with avid intensity: Floyd Gottfredson, Milton Caniff, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and especially an impressionably admiring Joe Shuster

After a couple of abortive attempts starring his little hero, Crane eventually bowed to the inevitable and created a long-awaited full colour Sunday page dedicated to his increasingly popular vagabond paladin. Captain Easy debuted on July 30th 1933, in madcap, two-fisted exploits (originally) set prior to his fateful meeting with Tubbs but eventually coalescing with the Monday to Saturday feature.

The third terrific tome in this stupendous 4-volume set covers May 22nd 1938 to December 15th 1940 and opens with a Foreword by Rick Norwood which contrasts the storylines in Daily and Sunday iterations whilst re-presenting a number of artist Crane’s illustrated articles on life in Mexico, after which R.C. Harvey’s Introduction provides some historical context and speculates on a potential real-life inspiration for the enigmatic Captain.

There’s also a long-overdue appreciation of the artist’s friend, silent partner and eventual successor in ‘Easy Does it…And So does Leslie Turner’. Turner, at first hired to provide Crane some time and breathing room from the punishing seven day a week deadlines, increasingly took responsibility for the Sunday strip from 1937 when the Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicate ordered Crane to drop his beloved experimental full-page designs.

When he first began the Sunday page in 1933 Crane’s creativity went into overdrive: an entire page and sharp vibrant colours to play with had clearly stirred his imagination. The results were wild visual concoctions which achieved a timeless immediacy and made each instalment a unified piece of sequential art. The effect of the pages can be seen in so many comic and strips since – even in the works of such near-contemporaries as Hergé and giants-in-waiting like Charles Schulz.

The pages were a clearly as much of joy to create as to read but the commercial argument ran that the company couldn’t sell a feature which client periodicals were unable to cut-up and reformat to suit their own needs…

In 1943 the former assistant subsequently inherited the black-&-white Dailies after Crane quit NEA to produce his creator-owned Buz Sawyer strip for William Randolph Hearst’s King Features syndicate.

Once Crane was gone, Turner took Wash and Easy into ever more comedic regions, crafting the strip until his retirement in 1969 after which other writers and artists carried the Captain until the feature was ended in 1988.

But that’s largely immaterial as here the superb high-adventuring is seen in its absolute prime…

As seen in Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volume 2, after a spectacular string of solo adventures the solitary soldier of fortune at last met Tubbs whilst stuck in a jail cell in a Ruritanian European kingdom. He had been framed in an espionage plot…

Risking life and diminutive limb to save his pal, Wash also rescued sultry spitfire Ruby Dallas who promptly entangled them in her own unfortunate tale of woe. Witness to a murder in America, she had been on the run ever since because the killer was a prominent millionaire with too much to lose…

Once the trio had escaped murderous cutthroats, slavers and assassins they soon settled his hash and the story picks up here with the boys again looking for a job and passage home. Opportunity knocks in the form of an animal collector in need of a crew, but when his tiger gets loose on the boat everybody jumps overboard.

The lads wash up on the isolated island of Koolyhow where an American entomologist and his female assistant are hunting the legendary doodle-bug. Signing on as helpers they become embroiled in the burgeoning madness gripping local governor Sergeant Major Gaspe Shalayli, and further complicating matters is a lost temple full of ancient treasures and a cute furry creature called a Swink.

The gluttonous little ant-eater has taken a shine to Wash and has a capacity for finding trouble or creating chaos exponentially greater than his new owner’s…

With bugs and Swink – christened “Bennie” – the triumphant Americans reach Singapore only to be targeted by grifters Sadie and Dipper who believe their latest marks have kept the temple jewels (actually confiscated by the local government). Tricking their way onto the flying boat carrying Wash and Easy home, they cause a crash which leaves Sadie and our heroes stranded on a desolate island inhabited by the extremely civilised descendents of piratical bandits.

The place is a utopian paradise with only one rule: nobody ever leaves…

Of course Easy, Wash and Bennie do: in a stolen sail boat which promptly starts sinking, leaving the voyagers in dire straits. They’re almost saved by a passing vessel but the pirates aboard the Typhoon gleefully ignore their plight and sail on…

Frantically bailing, they reach land just as Cap’n Robbins sinks and plunders a trading ship. Again in hot water, Wash and Easy rescue Mona Milson – stranded survivor of a previous shipwrecking – and return her to her grateful father on yet another Pacific paradise, only to find the furious Robbins waiting for them.

He’s just agreed to transport the old gent, his family and, most importantly, his life savings to Honolulu…

Unable to dissuade old man Milson, the boys book passage with him and Mona and, after days of outrageous hijinks as the voracious and disaster-prone Bennie makes life hell for the pirates, expose and capture the villains.

With reward money in their pockets Wash and Easy (and the Swink) finally get back to America and begin a search for gainful employment which highlights a return to gag-filled short stories.

The ever-hungry Swink is a popular sensation, prompting his owners to buy a travelling medicine show truck, and whilst touring the country they discover that the elixir they’re peddling has genuine restorative powers as they encounter a succession of conmen, women, thieves, scheming women, bandits and determinedly marriage-minded women – some of whom even steal the fabulous, potentially valuable Bennie. A Martyr to crazy, hungry critters Wash improbably inherits a hippo named Kittie.

It’s just one disaster after another…

Feeling they’ve outlived their welcome Wash and Easy decide to go adventuring again, accidentally ending up in Peru, where dauntless Mary Lancaster is searching for her lost father. She enlists their help to enter the forbidden Lost Canyon region where they discover not only the missing archaeologist but a lost race of Indians who still practise human sacrifice…

The humans only escape by trading their lives for Bennie, but as they make their forlorn way back to civilisation the indomitable Swink catches up to them, having proved too smart for the Andean natives…

Packing the Lancasters off home, but too short of funds to accompany them, our heroes are soon clapped in jail for vagrancy where they meet magician, ventriloquist and escapologist “the Great Plunkett”: an inveterate prankster who joins them as stowaways on a steamer back to the USA.

Once there, Plunkett’s gift for opening safes makes him a target for opportunistic mobsters – until his new friends step in…

Big changes were underway at this time and Turner was increasingly yielding the focus on his titular stars to explore an array of new and returning supporting characters – presumably to allow Crane more leeway, if not exclusivity – on Tubbs and Easy. However with the instalment for 21st January 1940, the boys were back, as Easy became a freelance spy-hunter and crimebuster in a nation progressively, inevitably marching towards war. The tone was still light and humorous, but the writing was on the wall…

After stopping spies he tracked down escaped convict Killer Beck, exposed the murder of a Chinese servant and captured America’s Most Wanted female-impersonating conman.

That led to his being hired to safeguard a new aviation weapon from a veritable army of foreign agents and the diabolical Mata Hari Z-1.

Defeating her led to Easy and Wash being marooned in a vast jungle of cactus in the Western American desert where they stumbled onto a gang of ruthless counterfeiters before tackling train-stealing gunrunners in Mexico.

More short yarns bracket a concerted re-lightening of mood as the lads are hired by arrogant, flighty heiress Honey Darling – who wants to be a movie star – and uses them to stage dangerous, headline-grabbing stunts, before the boys are hired to recover a yacht and rescue the passengers after he Captain loses control of it in a rigged card game…

The mission goes slightly awry and leaves the boys, heiress Ginger Nelson, her chaperone aunt and some of the more nefarious crew members shipwrecked. Amongst the saved luggage is the 12th biggest diamond in the world.

…And then the murders start happening…

Nevertheless Easy and Tubbs save the day again, but when they return stateside the surly Soldier of Fortune is made the basis of a bet between two wealthy men. One is wagering that any man can be made afraid and the other believes Easy disproves the notion.

Of course neither has asked him to participate, and after the hero is tricked into a haunted house the trouble really begins as the mountaintop dwelling is invaded by bandits wanting their perfect hideout back…

After discovering the only thing that frightens Easy, this compelling cartoon carnival ends with the heartwarming tale of newsboy Buddie Burns who turns his passion for detecting into a successful anti-crime campaign… with a little help from a certain Southern Gen’leman…

Also included are many examples of original artwork and this colossal luxury hardback compilation (pages 380 x 270mm) even includes an extra colour tear-sheet plus a full hand-coloured page by Crane, used as a guide by the print processors to produce the final flat-hued instalments

This volume heralds the irrepressible humour which Turner would increasing bring into the feature and the stories – although still action adventures – abound with breezy, light-hearted banter, outrageous situations, hilarious slapstick and outright farce – a sure-fire formula modern cinema directors still plunder to this day.

Captain Easy was the grandfather of Indiana Jones, Flynn (the Librarian) Carsen and Jack (Romancing the Stone) Cotton and clearly set the benchmark for all of them. Happily Crane’s rip-snorting, pulse-pounding, exotically racy adventure trailblazer fell into hands every bit as talented and the huge pages in this stupendous chronicle, crackling with fun and excitement, provide the perfect stage from which to absorb and enjoy the classic tale-telling of another sublime master raconteur.

This is storytelling of impeccable quality: unforgettable, spectacular and utterly irresistible. These tales rank alongside the best of Hergé, Tezuka, Toth and Kirby and unarguably fed the imaginations of them all as they still should for today’s comics creators. Now that you have the chance to experience the strips that inspired the giants of our art form, how can you possibly resist?
Captain Easy strips © 2012 United Feature Syndicate, Inc. This edition © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © the respective copyright holders. All rights reserved.

VIP – the Mad World of Virgil Partch

Edited by Jonathan Barli (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-664-5

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: impossibly inventive – an all-year-round treat… 9/10

Virgil Parch is another of those almost forgotten key men of comedy cartooning: a pervasive creative force working away for years, making people laugh and slowly, steadily changing the very look and nature of the industry.

Although largely unremarked upon and unremembered these days, Virgil Franklin Partch II (1926-2004) is probably one of the most influential – and most successful – American cartoonists in history.

His arch, absurd, rude, sly, subtle, skewed, whacky and astoundingly unique gags, strips, stories and animated shorts were generated with machine gun rapidity from a seemingly inexhaustible well of comedy excess, which could be rendered in a variety of styles which completely revolutionised the American publishing from the moment in 1941 that the artist switched from Walt Disney Studio ideas man to freelance gag-maker.

He is most well regarded for his cavalier abandonment of traditional form and anatomy. Partch is the guy who liberated gag-cartooning from the bonds of slavish attention to body detail: replacing broadly human shape and proportion with a wildly free and frenetic corporeal expressionism – perhaps even symbolism – which captivated legions of fellow artists and generations of fun-starved readers. He’s the guy who made 19 fingers on one hand work…

This superbly comprehensive and lavishly huge (260x315mm) landscape hardback art book/biography (in monochrome & full-colour) covers his life and career in scrupulous detail through a wealth of his best cartoons – many shot from original art – and includes oodles of roughs, sketches, layouts and doodles, all accompanying the bright and breezy life-history by James Barli, and all augmented with loads of intimate photos.

The joyous journey begins after a heartfelt Introduction by stylistic and thematic heir Peter Bagge with ‘Partch ad absurdam’: broken down into easily digested chapters beginning with ‘Prologue: Under the Volcano’ which introduces the man’s remarkable forebears whilst ‘The Call of the Wild’ and ‘Of Mice and Men’ details his early life and the eclectic education which led to his joining the fabled Walt Disney Studio in its golden, pre-strike prime.

‘Brave New World’ and ‘The Divine Comedy’ reveal how the assembled animators’ habit of pranking each other with gag cartoons led friend Dick Shaw to dispatch many of Partch’s drawings to magazines such as Collier’s and The New Yorker in 1941, whilst ‘A Farewell to Arms’ covers the new family man’s stint in the Army where his gift was exploited by Forrest J. Ackerman, beginning his own stellar career as editor of Army newspaper Bulletin

On demobilisation Partch’s path was assured and he became the most prolific gag-seller in America: it was almost impossible to find a magazine or periodical that didn’t carry one of his cartoons, and when Playboy debuted in 1953 there was one of his women sharing cover-space with Marilyn Monroe…

As seen in ‘Point of No Return’ and ‘The Genius’, whilst working as an animator (for Walter Lantz on Woody Woodpecker) and as a cartoonist for leftwing New York newspaper PM, Partch started a constant stream of book collections in the fifties which captured and reflected the risqué, hard-drinking sophistication of the era as well as simultaneous lives as an ad man and writer for other draughtsmen, and worked with futurist economist William J. Baxter on a series of prognosticative books which warned of such nebulous dangers as out-of-control capitalism, the Military-Industrial Complex, “1 Per-Centers” and even Global Warming…

His passion for sports – especially sailing – is covered in ‘Three Men in a Boat’ whilst in

‘As a Man Grows Older’ changing times and the urgings of old pal Hank (Dennis the Menace) Ketchum provoked the restless creator to launch his comicstrip Big George! whilst increasingly becoming a cultural ambassador for his craft and art form. He also upped his range of commercial and design projects and invented the grittier strip The Captain’s Gig.

The rise and rise of Virgil Partch is covered in ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ whilst ‘Epilogue: the Death of Virgil’, like a bad punch line, recounts the truly stupid and meaningless end of a legend when both the artist and his wife perished in a car crash on August 10th 1984…

The Unknown Quantity then focuses on his astounding output through ‘A Partch Picture Gallery’ subdivided into ‘Cartoons from PM, ‘War in Pieces’ (military madness), surreal and absurd ‘Reality Bites’ and the boozy world of ‘Cork High and Bottle Deep’.

His laid back view of sex is recapitulated in ‘The Eternal Chase’ and ‘Battle of the Sexes’ whilst ‘The Sporting Life’ and ‘Partched’ focus on his other overweening interests…

His graphic expertise and design triumphs are celebrated in ‘Covered’ and ‘(m)Ad Man’, his skewed view of the world’s leaders in ‘Political Partch’, after which a selection of his articles and stories kicks off with ‘The Private War of Corporal Partch’, before ‘The Vipper Comes to Town’, ‘Bourbon and Watercolors’, ‘Vacation for Vipper’ and ‘Inland Cruise of the “Lazy B”’ bring this glorious tribute to times past and an incredible artist to a close.

Virgil Partch was blessed with a perpetually percolating imagination and a unique visual point of reference which made him a true catalyst of cartoon change, and Fantagraphics Books have once again struck pure gold by commemorating and celebrating this lost legend of graphic narrative arts.

Most importantly this is an astoundingly funny collection: the vast accumulation of funny drawings and clever stories still as powerfully hilarious as they ever were, and all brilliantly rendered by a master craftsman no connoisseur of comedy can afford to miss.
© 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All text © 2013 Jonathan Barli. All images © their respective copyright holders. Introduction © 2013 Peter Bagge. All rights reserved.

Giles: the Collection 2014

By Giles (Hamlyn)
ISBN: 978-0-600-62456-1

Your Last-Minute Christmas Dilemmas Solved!

For the latter part of the 20th century, cartoonist Carl Giles owned Christmas. His annual end of year collections of wry social commentary through engaging graphic brilliance epitomised everything English for us and a truly global population of fans and admirers.

Ronald Giles – AKA Karloff/Karlo AKA “Carl” (aren’t school friends simply the best?) – was born in Islington in 1916 and left school at 14 to work as an office-boy for Superads: a company which supplied cartoonists for companies needing animation commercials.

The work appealed to the boy Giles and he eventually graduated to cartoonist and animator himself, working with film mogul Alexander Korda and latterly newspaper star Roland Davies, who was then adapting his own beloved strip Come On, Steve into a string of animation short features.

In 1937 Giles joined socialist Sunday periodical Reynolds News; producing topical cartoons and the strip Young Ernie and, exempted from military service because he was deaf in one ear and blind in one eye, mastered his craft there through the darkest days of WWII.

In 1943 his work caught the eye of the editor of the Sunday Express, who invited Giles to work on the Evening Standard before changing his mind and offering him a more prestigious and lucrative position with the Daily Express as well as the Sunday edition.

Reluctantly quitting Reynolds News (he was never at ease with his new employers’ Right Wing political stance), “Karlo” began his meteoric rise to wealth and household namehood with his first panel cartoon appearing on Sunday, October 3rd 1943.

Although unable to serve as a soldier, Giles contributed to the War Effort through animated films for the Ministry of Information and cartoons for the Railway Executive Committee and in 1945 became the Daily Express’ “War Correspondent Cartoonist”, embedded with the 2nd Army and Coldstream Guards – a job which took him to the concentration camps Bergen/Belsen when they were liberated by the Allies…

Throughout that traumatic time his drawings kept the Allies amused and, once hostilities ceased, Giles began carving out a comfortable, unassailable position in the consciousness of the nation, with his gently scathing, joyously seditious, outrageously busy and brilliantly rendered panels poking fun at the reader and the changing world through the collective lens of a hilarious hoi-polloi family dominated by a terrifying matriarch known as “Grandma”…

Although he also worked on commercial ads (Fisons, Guinness and others), freelanced for magazines such as Men Only and produced Christmas cards and other material for charitable institutions such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (of which he was made Life President), the Royal National Institute for the Deaf and the Game Conservancy Research Fund, the Daily and Sunday Express became his home for the next half century and he produced rare gems and marvels there.

From August 5th 1945 to his retirement in 1991 the “Giles Family” reigned supreme in the nation’s comedy consciousness, with the artist practically dictating how a vast swathe of the population reacted to the news, and from 1946 the best of each year’s output was collected into an annual, with all material selected – and sometimes remastered – by the artist himself.

The series was phenomenally popular and every year celebrity fans (Politicians, Heads of State, the Royal Family and the Great and Good of Sport and Entertainment) would vie for the honour of writing a Foreword, before another tumultuous rib-tickling year was reprised and recapped with genuine warmth, sly sarcasm and biting wit…

When the artist retired in 1991, later editions – no longer released by Express Newspapers – began to include some of his other works and, following Giles’ death in 1995, the volumes switched to thematic compilations rather than strictly chronological reportage.

This year’s model was compiled by John Field – who also contributed the Introduction: Giles and Society - whilst political commentator John Sergeant follows in the footsteps of such notables as Frank Sinatra, Margot Fonteyn, Spike Milligan, Sean Connery and Sir Malcolm Sargeant (no relation) in supplying a pithy appreciative Foreword before the latest selection of best bits begins with a selection of cartoons starring ‘Police’

Reprinting selected gags from Christmas Eve 1945 to March 28th 1989, Giles reveals how much and how little the common man’s relationship to the “Boys in Blue” has changed, after which ‘Sport’ features in a string of palpable hits – and no misses – spanning August 1950 to July 1988.

The cartoonist frequently turned his eagle eye upon his own profession and ‘Journalism’ offers some of the most trenchantly effective jabs and barbs from November 15th 1945 through to February 23rd 1989, after which a special section entitled ‘Giles and Journalism’ features cartoons from the war years and some later events when the artist was the news and not merely its interpreter…

‘The Economy’ always provided great material for classic cartoons and the panels culled from June 2nd 1946 to March 29th 1987 recall some of the grimmest and most hilarious moments in modern memory, whilst the related topic of ‘Shopping’ (December 13th 1951 – December 9th 1990) offers full reign to the lovable anarchists of the Giles Family to be on their best and worst behaviour to end this latest outing on a raucous, riotous high…

With a biographical essay on the author’s ‘Cartoons at the British Cartoon Archive’ this book is another superb example of genius at work and proves once more why Giles was voted “Britain’s Favourite Cartoonist of the 20th Century”. If you’ve never been exposed to the artistic brilliance of the man and our collective history, this tome might well be your year…
Text and images © 2013 Express Newspapers. Giles® is a registered trademark of Express Newspapers. All rights reserved.

Spain: Rock, Roll, Rumbles, Rebels & Revolution

By Manuel “Spain” Rodriguez (Burchfield Penney Art Center/Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-782-2

Manuel Rodriguez was one of the pioneering lights of America’s transformative Underground Commix movement: a mainstay of the counterculture which subversively reshaped the nation’s psyche in the 1960s and 1970s. However, although always a left-leaning radical, infamous for his raucously hyper-violent, audaciously sexual urban vigilante Trashman, Spain was also a quietly dedicated craftsman, historian, educationalist and graphic biographer.

Born in Buffalo, New York state in 1940, the Hispanic kid spent a lot of time with notorious biker gang the Road Vultures and these experiences, as much as his political upbringing and formal education at the SilvermineGuildArtSchool in New Canaan, Connecticut (1957-1960), moulded and informed his entire creative career.

In the 1960s he became a regular contributor to landmark alternative magazine the East Village Other, which not only utilised his burgeoning talents as illustrator and designer but also commissioned, in 1968, his groundbreaking tabloid comicbook Zodiac Mindwarp. That insert proved so successful that EVO subsequently sponsored a regular anthology publication. Gothic Blimp Works was a turning point and clarion call in the evolution of underground publishing.

However, the excessive exploits of Trashman – “Agent of the 6th International” – against a repressive dystopian American super-state were only the tip of the creative iceberg. Ardent left-winger Spain founded the trade organisation the United Cartoon Workers of America whilst contributing to many of the independent comics and magazines which exploded out of the burgeoning counterculture movement across the world.

Manuel Rodriguez was also an erudite and questioning writer/artist with a lifelong interest in history – especially political struggle and major battlefield clashes, and much of his other work revealed a stunning ability to bring these subjects to vibrant life.

The breadth, depth and sheer variety of Spain’s work – from gritty urban autobiography (American Splendor, Cruisin’ with the Hound: the Life and Times of Fred Tooté) to psycho-sexual sci fi (Zap Comix, Skull, Mean Bitch Thrills) is a testament to his incredible talent but the restless artist also found time to produce a wealth of other cartooning classics.

Amongst his dauntingly broad canon of comics material are literary adaptations (Edgar Allen Poe, Sherlock Holmes’ Strangest Cases), historical treatises (War: The Human Cost) and biographies (Ché {Guevara}: a Graphic Biography, Devil Dog: the Amazing True Story of the Man who Saved America {Marine Major General Smedley Darlington Butler}) as well as educational and design works such as You Are a Spiritual Being Having a Human Experience and Nothing in This Book Is True, But It’s Exactly How Things Are (both with Bob Frissell).

He also produced the ongoing comics serial The Dark Hotel for American current affairs, politics and media news aggregation website Salon.

In 2012 Spain finally lost a six-year battle against cancer and this superb book – actually the Exhibition catalogue for a career retrospective at the prestigious Burchfield Penney Art Center at Buffalo State College – celebrates his tumultuous life and spectacular contribution to the art form of graphic narrative with a compelling series of essays as well as a superb selection of the great man’s best pieces including some little known lost treasures.

The appreciation begins with ‘Stand Up’ by Anthony Bannon (Executive Director, BPAC), before the biographical ‘Grease, Grit and Graphic Truth’ by Edmund Cardoni (Executive Director, Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center) explores Spain’s past, whilst

‘Keep the Flames of Buffalo Burning’ by Don Metz examines his lasting effect on comics and society.

However the true value of this chronicle is in the 60+ covers, designs, story-pages, roughs, panel excerpts and strips both vintage and recent, monochrome and full-colour which demonstrate the sheer talent and drive to communicate that fuelled Spain for his entire life.

The Partial Spain Bibliography 1969-2012 and Selected Spain Exhibitions only hint at the incredible depth and lasting legacy of his career and I’m praying that some enlightened publisher like Fantagraphics or Last Gasp is already toiling on a comprehensive series of “Complete Works of…” volumes…

Stark, shocking and always relevant, the communicative power of Spain is something no true lover of comics can afford to miss.
© 2012 Burchfield Penney Art Center. All rights reserved.

The Complete Crumb Comics volume 8: The Death of Fritz the Cat – New Edition

By R. Crumb & guests (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-0-56097-076-7

This book contains really clever and outrageously dirty pictures, rude words, non-condemnatory drug references and allusions, apparent racism, definite sexism, godless questioning of authority and brilliantly illustrated, highly moving personal accounts and opinions. It also painfully displays a genius grappling with his inner demons in a most excruciatingly honest and uncomfortable manner.

If you – or those legally responsible for you – have a problem with that, please skip this review and don’t buy the book.


I mean it…

Robert Crumb is a truly unique creative force in comics and cartooning, with as many detractors as devotees. From the first moments of the rise of America’s counterculture, his uncompromising, forensically neurotic introspections, pictorial rants and invectives unceasingly picked away at societal scabs, measuring his own feelings and motives whilst ferociously ripping way civilisation’s concealing curtains for his own benefit. However, he always happily shared his unwholesome discoveries with anybody who would take the time to look…

In 1987 Fantagraphics Books began the Herculean task of collating, collecting and publishing the chronological totality of the artist’s vast output, and those critically important volumes are being currently reissued for another, more liberated generation.

The son of a career soldier, Robert Dennis Crumb was born in Philadelphia in 1943 into a dysfunctional, broken family. He was one of five kids who all found different ways to escape their parents’ highly volatile problems, and comic strips were paramount among them.

Like his older brother Charles, Robert immersed himself in the comics and cartoons of the day; not just reading but creating his own. Harvey Kurtzman, Carl Barks and John Stanley were particularly influential, but also comic strip legends such as E.C. Segar, Gene Ahern, Rube Goldberg, Bud (Mutt and Jeff) Fisher, Billy (Barney Google) De Beck, George (Sad Sack) Baker and Sidney (The Gumps) Smith, as well as classical illustrators like C.E. Brock and the wildly imaginative and surreal 1930’s Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies animated shorts.

Defensive, introspective, frustrated, increasingly horny and always compulsively driven, young Robert pursued art and self-control through religion with equal desperation. His early spiritual repression and flagrant, hubristic celibacy warred with his body’s growing needs. …

To escape his stormy early life, he married young and began working in-house at the American Greeting Cards Company. He discovered like minds in the growing counterculture movement and discovered LSD. By 1967 Crumb had moved to California and became an early star of Underground Commix. As such he found plenty of willing hippie chicks to assuage his fevered mind and hormonal body whilst reinventing the very nature of cartooning with such creations as Mr. Natural, Fritz the Cat, Devil Girl and a host of others. He worked on in what was essentially a creative utopia throughout the early 1970’s but the alternative lifestyle of the Underground was already dying. Soon it would disappear: dissipated, disillusioned, dropped back “in” or demised.

A few dedicated publishers and artists stayed the course, evolving on a far more businesslike footing as Crumb carried on creating, splitting his time between personal material and commercial art projects whilst incessantly probing deeper into his turbulent inner world.

This eighth volume mostly covers – in chronological order – material created and published in 1971 (with the merest tantalising smidgen of stuff from 1972), when the perpetually self-tormented artist first began to experience creative dissatisfaction with his newfound status as alternative cultural icon: a period when the no-longer insular or isolated artist was at his most flamboyantly creative, generating a constant stream of new characters, gags, commercial art jobs, short strips and with longer material popping up seemingly everywhere.

It was also the moment when he began to realise the parasitic, exploitative nature of many of the hangers-on exploiting his work for profits which he never saw himself – particularly filmmaker Ralph Bakshi, whose phenomenally successful movie of Fritz the Cat prompted Crumb to kill the cunning kitty character off…

That and more are all faithfully reproduced in this compilation – which makes for another rather dry listing here, I’m afraid – but (as always) the pictorial material itself is both engrossing and astoundingly rewarding. But please don’t take my word for it: buy the book and see for yourselves…

After a passionate if meandering photo-packed Introduction from wife and collaborator Aline Kominsky-Crumb – whom he first met in 1971 – the stream of cartoon consciousness and literary freewheeling begins with the salutary tale of ‘Stinko the Clown in Stinko’s New Car’ from Hytone, rapidly followed by the strange romance of ‘Maryjane’ originally seen in Home Grown Funnies, which also provided the (now) racially controversial and unpalatable ‘Angelfood McDevilsfood in Backwater Blues’ – with that horrific homunculus The Snoid – and twisted “love” story of ‘Whiteman Meets Big Foot’

The underground Commix scene was awash with artistic collaborations and a selection of jam sessions kicks off here with ‘Let’s Be Realistic’ from Hungry Chuck Biscuits wherein Crumb, Jay Lynch, Jay Kinney & Bruce Walthers surreally free-associated, whilst in Mom’s Homemade Comics Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Dale Kuipers, Jim Mitchell, Pete Poplaski, Wendel Pugh, Jay Lynch, Dave Dozier, Bruce Walthers & Dennis Brul joined forces with the bespectacled outsider to make some ‘Kumquat Jam’

From ProJunior, ‘Perdido Part One’ and ‘ProJunior in Perdido Part Two’ saw the Dagwood-esque everyman experience the growth in social violence courtesy of Crumb and fellow legend S. Clay Wilson.

All on his own again Crumb captured the appalling nature of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash!’ (from Thrilling Murder) and crafted a lovely ‘Nostalgic Books catalog cover’ for their Summer/Fall 1971 issue, after which a tranche of material from Big Ass #2 (August 1971) starts with a paranoiac perusal of ‘The Truth!’, before another obnoxious jerk resurfaces to dominate sexy bird creatures in ‘Eggs Ackley in Eggs Escapes’ even as the intimately contemplative domestic explorations of  ‘A Gurl’ dissolve into the raucous, earthy humour of ‘Anal Antics’ to end the first black and white section of this challenging chronicle.

A vividly vivacious Color Section celebrates a wealth of covers, opening with ‘The Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog’(March 1971), followed by ‘Home Grown Funnies’ and its angsty back cover strip ‘The Desperate Character Writhes Again!’. Moving on, ‘Big Ass #2’, ‘Mr. Natural #2’ – front and back covers – leads to ‘Bijou Funnies #6’ and the rainbows end on the sublimely subversive front for ‘The People’s Comics’.

A return to monochrome provides two more strips from Big Ass #2 beginning with the savagely ironic ‘A Word to you Feminist Women’ and the cruelly hilarious ‘Sally Blubberbutt’ after which the contents of Mr. Natural #2 (October 1971) unfold with ‘Mr. Natural “Does the Dishes”’, before ruminating and sharing more timeless wisdom with resident curious “Straight” Flakey Foont in ‘A Gurl in Hotpants’.

This leads to ‘Sittin’ Around the Kitchen Table’ and meeting ‘The Girlfriend’, after which two untitled Mr. Natural graphic perambulations result in a cult war with the adherents of the aforementioned Snoid and everything ends with the sage and his buddy The Big Baby being released from jail to go ‘On the Bum Again’

From Bijou Funnies #6 comes another taste of ‘ProJunior’ as the poor shmuck seeks employment to keep his girlfriend quiet, whilst the jam feature ‘Hef’s Pad’ (by Crumb, Lynch & Skip Williamson) exposes the darker side of selling out for cash and fame…

A strip from Surfer Magazine vol. 12, #6 trenchantly heralds the advent of work from 1972 when ‘Salty Dog Sam “Goes Surfin’!”’, whilst the cover of Zap 7 (Spring issue) and the Nostalgia Press Book Service Catalog cover neatly segues into three superb landmark strips from The People’s Comics beginning with a deeply disturbing glimpse inside the befuddled head of the “Great Man” in ‘The Confessions of R. Crumb’.

That poignantly outrageous graphic outburst leads to a cruelly sardonic polemic in ‘The R. Crumb $uck$e$$ Story’ which merely serves as a sound narrative investment for the shockingly self-satisfied, liberating cartoon catharsis achieved by killing off his now-unwelcome signature character in ‘Fritz the Cat “Superstar”’

If Crumb had been able to suppress his creative questing, he could easily have settled for a lucrative career in any one of a number of graphic disciplines from illustrator to animator to jobbing comic book hack, but as this pivotal collection readily proves, the artist was haunted by the dream of something else – he just didn’t yet know what that was…

Crumb’s subtle mastery of his art-form and obsessive need to reveal his every hidden depth and perceived defect – in himself and the world around him – has always resulted in an unquenchable fire of challenging comedy and untamed self-analysis, and this terrific tome shows him at last mastering – or at least usefully channelling – that creative energy for the benefit of us all.

This superb series charting the perplexing pen-and-ink pilgrim’s progress is the perfect vehicle to introduce any (over 18) newcomers to the world of grown up comics. And if you need a way in yourself, seek out this book and the other sixteen as soon as conceivably possible…

Let’s Be Realistic © 1971, 1992, 1997, 2013 Crumb, Jay Lynch, Jay Kinney, Bruce Walthers & R. Crumb. Kumquat Jam © 1971, 1992, 1997, 2013 Denis Kitchen, Don Glassford, Dale Kuipers, Jim Mitchell, Pete Poplaski, Wendel Pugh, Jay Lynch, Dave Dozier, Bruce Walthers, Dennis Brul & R. Crumb. All other material © 1971, 1972, 1992, 1997, 2013 Robert Crumb. All contributory art material and content © the respective creators/copyright holders. All rights reserved.

The James Bond Omnibus volume 005

By Jim Lawrence & Yaroslav Horak (Titan Books)
ISBN: 987-0-85768-590-2

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: A Traditional Licence To Thrill… 8/10

There are sadly very few British newspaper strips to challenge the influence and impact of classic daily and Sunday “funnies” from America, especially in the field of adventure fiction. The 1930’s and 1940’s were particularly rich in popular, not to say iconic, creations. You would be hard-pressed to come up with home-grown household names to rival Popeye, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon or Steve Canyon, let alone Terry and the Pirates or the likes of Little Lulu, Blondie, Li’l Abner, Little Orphan Annie or Popeye and yes, I know I said him twice, but Elzie Segars’s Thimble Theatre was funny as well as thrilling, constantly innovative, and really, really good.

What can you recall for simple popularity let alone longevity or quality in Britain? Rupert Bear? Absolutely. Giles? Technically, yes. Nipper? Jane? The Perishers? Garth?

I hope so, but I doubt it.

The Empire didn’t quite get it until it wasn’t an empire any more. There were certainly very many wonderful strips being produced: well-written and beautifully drawn, but that stubborn British reserve just didn’t seem to be in the business of creating household names… until the 1950’s.

Something happened in ‘fifties Britain – but I’m not going to waste any space here discussing it. It just did.

In a new spirit that seemed to crave excitement and accept the previously disregarded, comics (as well as all entertainment media from radio to novels) got carried along on the wave. Eagle, the regenerated Dandy and Beano, girls’ comics in general: all shifted into creative high gear, and so did newspapers. And that means that I can go on about a graphic collection with proven crossover appeal for a change.

The first 007 novel Casino Royale was published in 1953 and subsequently serialised in the Daily Express from 1958, beginning a run of paperback book adaptations scripted by Anthony Hern, Henry Gammidge, Peter O’Donnell and Kingsley Amis before Jim Lawrence, a jobbing writer for American features (who had previously scripted the aforementioned Buck Rogers) came aboard with The Man With The Golden Gun to complete the transfer of the Fleming canon to strip format, thereafter being invited to create new adventures, which he did until the strip’s ultimate demise in 1983.

The art on the feature was always of the highest standard. Initially John McLusky provided the illustration until 1966’s conclusion of You Only Live Twice and, although perhaps lacking in verve, the workmanlike clarity of his drawing easily coped with the astonishing variety of locales, technical set-ups and sheer immensity of cast members, whilst accomplishing the then-novel conceit of advancing a plot and ending each episode on a cliff-hanging “hook” every day.

He was succeeded by Yaroslav Horak, who also debuted on Golden Gun with a looser, edgier style, at once more cinematic and with a closer attention to camera angle and frenzied action that seemed to typify the high-octane 1960’s.

Titan books have re-assembled the heady brew of adventure, sex, intrigue and death into a series of addictively accessible monochrome Omnibus editions and this fifth compilation finds the creators on top form as they reveal how the world’s greatest agent never rests in his mission to keep us all free, safe and highly entertained…

The frantic derring-do and dark, deadly diplomacy commences with ‘Till Death Do Us Part’ which first ran in the Daily Express from July 7th to October 14th 1975. Solidly traditional 007 fodder, it found Bond assigned to kidnap/rescue Arda Petrich, the comely daughter of a foreign asset, and keep vital intelligence out of the hands of the KGB.

This pacy thriller is most notable more for the inevitable introduction of the eccentric gadgets which had become an increasingly crucial component of the filmic iteration than for the actual adventure, but there are still thrills and flesh aplenty on view.

Hard on the heels of that yarn is brief but enthralling encounter ‘The Torch-Time Affair’ (October 15th 1975 – January 15th 1976), wherein the hunt for a record of all Soviet subversion in Latin America leads to bodies on the beach, a mountain of lies and deceit, breathtaking chases on roads and through jungles, and an astonishingly intriguing detective mystery as Bond and female “Double-O” operative Susie Kew must save the girl, get the goods and end the villain.

But which one…?

‘Hot-Shot’ (January 16th – June 1st) finds the unflappable agent assisting Palestinian freedom fighter Fatima Khalid as she tries to clear the name of her people of airline atrocities committed by enigmatic Eblis terrorists. Their cooperative efforts uncover a sinister Indian billionaire behind the attacks before Bond recognises an old enemy at the heart of it all… Dr. No!

In ‘Nightbird’ (2nd June – 4th November) sporadic attacks by what appear to be alien invaders draw 007 into a diabolical scheme by a cinematic genius and criminal master of disguise apparently in search of military and political secrets and weapons of mass destruction. However a far more venal motive is the root cause of the sinister schemes and reign of terror…

Despite surreal trappings, ‘Ape of Diamonds’ (November 5th 1976 – January 22nd 1977) is another lethally cunning spy exploit as a deadly maniac uses a colossal and murderous gorilla to terrorise London and kidnap an Arab banker, leading Bond to a financial wild man determined to simultaneously destroy Britain’s economic prosperity and steal the Crown Jewels. Happily for the kingdom, Machiavellian Rameses had completely underestimated the ruthless determination of James Bond…

‘When the Wizard Awakes’ finds bad guys employing supernatural chicanery, when the body of a Hungarian spy – dead for two decades – walks out of his tomb to instigate a reign of terror that eventually involves S.P.E.C.T.R.E., the Mafia and the KGB until the British Agent unravels the underlying plot…

In 1977 the Daily Express ceased publication of the Bond feature and the tale was published only in the Sunday Express (from January 30th -May 22nd 1977). Later adventures had no UK distribution at all, only appearing in overseas editions. This state of affairs continued until 1981 when another British newspaper – the Daily Star – revived his career. Presumably, we’ll deal with those cases in another volume.

The first of those “lost” stories are included here, however, beginning with ‘Sea Dragon’, produced for European syndication: a maritime adventure with geo-political overtones wherein crazed billionairess and scurrilous proponent of “women’s liberation” Big Mama Magda Mather tried to corner the World Oil market using sex, murder and a deadly artificial sea serpent.

In ‘Death Wing’ Bond is needed to solve the mystery of a new and deadly super-weapon employed by the Mafia for both smuggling contraband and assassination. Despite a somewhat laborious story set-up, once the tale hits its stride, the explosive end sequence is superb as the undercover agent finds himself used as a flying human bomb aimed at the heart of New York City. His escape and subsequent retaliation against eccentric hit-man Mr. Wing is an indisputable series highpoint.

This astounding dossier of espionage exploits ends in ‘The Xanadu Connection’ (1978) as the daring high-tech rescue of undercover agent Heidi Franz from East Germany inexorably leads the super spy down a perilous path of danger and double-cross.

When Bond is tasked with safeguarding the wife of a British asset leading resistance forces in Russian Turkestan, the mission inevitably leads 007 to the Sino-Soviet hotspot where he is embroiled in a three-sided war between KGB occupation forces, indigenous Tartar rebels and their ancestral enemies of the Mongol militias led by insidious, ambitious spymaster Kubla Khan.

Deep in enemy territory with adversaries all around him, Bond is hardly surprised to discover that the real threat might be from his friends and not his foes…

Fast, furious action, masses of moody menace, sharply clever dialogue and a wealth of exotic locales and ladies make this an unmissable adjunct to the Bond mythos and a collection no fan can do without. After all, nobody does it better…
© 1975, 1977, 1977, 1978, 2013 Ian Fleming Publications Ltd/ Express Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.