City of Crocodiles


By Knut Larsson (Borderline Press)
ISBN: 978-0-99269-725-9

Born in 1972, Swedish cartoonist, artist, filmmaker and teacher – at the prestigious Comics Art School of Malmö – Knut Larsson is blessed with a unique vision and talent to spare (just check out his graphic albums Canimus, Lokmannen (Locomotive Man), Biografmaskinisten (The Projectionist), Kolonialsjukhuset – En kolonialläkares anteckningar (Colonial Hospital – A Colonial Doctor’s Notebook) or Triton.

If you’re a keen devotee of Euro-comics you’ll have seen his stories in C’est Bon Anthology, Electrocomics, Galago, Glömp, Rayon Frais, Strapazin, Stripburger, Turkey Comix and others, and may well have visited his international exhibitions as far afield as Angoulême, Tokyo, Erlangen or St. Petersburg. Typically, he is not a household name in Britain or America.

Yet…

Back in 2008 Larsson crafted Krokodilstaden: an eerie, post-apocalyptic, horror-tinged love story devoid of all dialogue or sound effects: a neosymbolist paean to the end times combining brutish, callous survivalism, ghostly mysticism, unchanging human passions, stubborn self-inflicted loneliness and the tenacious capacity of life to adapt to changing situations. Now Borderline Press have released it in an English Edition as their latest deliciously eerie offering: City of Crocodiles

Rendered in muted greys and brown monotones, one panel per page, the tale focuses on a drowned Earth where the waters have risen, relegating humanity to the top floors of buildings whilst toothy amphibians have proliferated all around and below them. Adamant Mankind is still hanging on, turning crocodiles into the primary natural resource: food, clothing, tooled utensils and even objects of cultish worship.

The saurians are everywhere and everybody and everything – humans, birds, surviving mammalian pets – are missing limbs or appendages…

In this world one particular croc-hunter ekes out his solitary existence, trading reptiles for booze and gasoline, haunted by his memories until the day he captures a strangely enticing woman in his nets. She is young, beautiful, exotic… and has a vestigial reptilian tail.

Avoiding the spooky, crazy crocodile cultists he takes her back to his place and endeavours to dress her in the garb and form of his dead lover before she seduces him…

Sadly that’s when his dearly departed darling returns, bristling with malice and ready for some spirited revenge…

Wry, moving, nightmarish yet ethereally lovely, City of Crocodiles is a masterpiece of visual storytelling that will astound and delight all lovers of the weird and macabre.
© 2008, 2014 Knut Larsson.

Buz Sawyer volume 2: Sultry’s Tiger


By Roy Crane & various (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-499-3

Modern comics evolved from newspaper comic strips, and these pictorial features were, until relatively recently, utterly ubiquitous. Hugely popular with the public and highly valued by publishers who used them as an irresistible weapon to guarantee sales and increase circulation, the strips seemed to find their only opposition in the short-sighted local paper editors who often resented the low brow art form, which cut into advertising and frequently drew complaint letters from cranks…

It’s virtually impossible for us today to understand the overwhelming allure and power of the comic strip in America (and the wider world) from the Great Depression to the end of World War II. With no television, broadcast radio far from universal and movie shows at best a weekly treat for most folk, household entertainment was mostly derived from the comics sections of daily and especially Sunday Newspapers. “The Funnies” were the most universally enjoyed recreation for millions who were well served by a fantastic variety and incredible quality of graphic sagas and humorous episodes over the years.

From the very start comedy was paramount; hence the terms “Funnies” and “Comics”, and from these gag and stunt beginnings – a blend of silent movie slapstick, outrageous fantasy and the vaudeville shows – came a thoroughly entertaining mutant hybrid: Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs.

Debuting on April 21st 1924, Washington Tubbs II was a comedic, gag-a-day strip which evolved into a globe-girdling adventure serial. Crane produced pages of stunning, addictive high-quality yarn-spinning for years, until his eventual introduction of moody swashbuckler Captain Easy ushered in the age of adventure strips with the landmark episode for 6th May, 1929.

This in turn led to a Sunday colour page that was possibly the most compelling and visually imaginative of the entire Golden Age of Newspaper strips (see Roy Crane’s Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips volumes 1-4).

Practically improving minute by minute, the strip benefited from Crane’s relentless quest for perfection: his imaginative, fabulous compositional masterpieces achieved a timeless immediacy that made each page a unified piece of sequential art. The influence of those pages can be seen in the works of near-contemporaries such as Hergé, giants-in-waiting like Charles Schulz and comicbook masters such as Alex Toth and John Severin ever since.

The material was obviously as much fun to create as to read. In fact, the cited reason for Crane surrendering the Sunday strip to his assistant Les Turner in 1937 was NEA/United Features Syndicate’s abrupt and arbitrary demand that all its strips must henceforward be produced in a rigid panel-structure to facilitate their being cut up and re-pasted as local editors dictated.

They just didn’t lift the artist any more so Crane stopped making them.

At the height of his powers Crane just walked away from the astounding Captain Easy Sunday page to concentrate on the daily feature, and when his contract expired in 1943 he left United Features, lured away by that grandee of strip poachers William Randolph Hearst.

The result was a contemporary aviation strip set in the then still-ongoing World War II: Buz Sawyer.

Where Wash Tubbs was a brave but largely comedic Lothario and his pal Easy a surly, tight-lipped he-man, John Singer “Buz” Sawyer was a joyous amalgam of the two: a good-looking, popular country-boy who went to war because his country needed him…

Buz was a fun-loving, skirt-chasing, musically-inclined pilot daily risking his life with his devoted gunner Rosco Sweeney: a bluff, brave and simply ordinary Joe – and one of the most effective comedy foils ever created.

The wartime strip was – and still is – a marvel of authenticity: picturing not just the action and drama of the locale and situation but more importantly capturing the quiet, dull hours of training, routine and desperate larks between the serious business of killing and staying alive. However when the war ended the action-loving duo – plus fellow pilot and girl-chasing rival ChiliHarrison – all went looking for work that satisfied their penchant for adventure and romance wherever they could find it…

Crane was a master of popular entertainment, blending action and adventure with smart drama and compellingly sophisticated soap opera, all leavened with raucous comedy in a seamless procession of unmissable daily episodes.

He and his team of creative assistants – which over the decades comprised co-writer Ed “Doc” Granberry and artists Hank Schlensker, Clark Haas, Al Wenzel, Joel King, Ralph Lane, Dan Heilman, Hi Mankin and Bill Wright) – soldiered on under relentless deadline pressure, producing an authentic and exotic funny romantic thriller rendered in the signature monochrome textures of line-art and craftint (a mechanical monochrome patterning effect used to add greys and halftones to the superb drawing for miraculous depths and moods) as well as the prerequisite  full-colour Sunday page.

This primarily black-&-white tome contains an impressive selection of those colour strips – although Crane came to regard them only as a necessary evil which plagued him for most of his career…

The eternal dichotomy and difficulty of producing Sunday Pages (many client papers would only buy either Dailies or Sunday strips, but not both) meant that most creators had to produce different story-lines for each feature – Milt Caniff’s Steve Canyon being one of the few notable exceptions.

Whereas Dailies needed about three weeks lead-in time, hand-separated colour plates for the Sabbath sections meant the finished artwork and colour guides had be at the engravers and printers a minimum of six weeks before publication.

Crane handled the problem with typical aplomb; using Sundays to tell completely unrelated stories. For Wash Tubbs he created the prequel series starring Captain Easy in adventures set before the mismatched pair had met, whilst in Buz Sawyer he turned the slot over to Roscoe Sweeney for lavish gag-a-day exploits, big on slapstick laughs and situation comedy.

During the war years it was set among the common “swabbies” aboard ship: a far more family-oriented feature and probably much more welcome among the weekend crowd of parents and children than the often chilling or disturbing realistically sexy sagas that unfolded Mondays to Saturdays.

A year before Steve Canyon began, Crane tried telling a seven-days-a-week yarn in Buz Sawyer – with resounding success, to my mind, and you can judge for yourself here – but found the process a logistical nightmare. At the conclusion he retuned to weekday continuity whilst Sundays were restored to Roscoe with only occasional guest-shots by the named star.

This second lush and sturdy archival hardback re-presents the tense and turbulent period from October 6th 1945 to July 23rd 1947 wherein de-mobilised adrenaline addict Buz tries to adjust to peacetime life whilst looking for a job and career – just like millions of his fellow ex-servicemen…

Before getting out, he had returned home on leave and ended up accidentally engaged. Buz was the son of the town’s doctor; plain, simple and good-hearted. In that ostensibly egalitarian environment the school sporting star became the sweetheart of ice-cool and stand-offish Tot Winter, the richest girl in town,

Now when her upstart nouveau riche parents heard of the decorated hero’s return they hijacked the homecoming and turned it into a publicity carnival. Moreover the ghastly, snobbish Mrs. Winter conspired with her daughter to trap the lad into a quick and newsworthy marriage.

Class, prejudice, financial greed and social climbing were enemies Buz and Sweeney were ill-equipped to fight, but luckily annoying tomboy-brat girl-next-door Christy Jameson had blossomed into a sensible, down-to-earth, practical and clever young woman.

She’d scrubbed up real pretty too and showed Buz that his future was rife with possibility. Mercifully soon, the leave ended and he and Sweeney returned to the war. The Sawyer/Winter engagement fizzled and died…

When their discharge papers finally arrived (in the episode for September 9th 1945) an era of desperate struggle was over. However that only meant that the era of globe-girdling adventure was about to begin…

Before the comics wonderment resumes, Jeet Heer and Rick Norwood take some time here discussing ‘The Perfectionist and his Team’. Concentrating initially on ‘After the War’ the fascinating explorations then delve deep into the detail of the artist’s troubled and tempestuous relationship with ‘Crane’s Team’ before offering ‘A Word on Comic Strip Formats’ and the censorious iniquities local newspaper editors would regularly inflict upon Crane’s work…

With all the insightful stuff over, the cartoon adventure begins anew as the newly civilian Mr. Sawyer goes home to a life of indolence before his own restless nature starts him fretting again.  The old town isn’t the same. Tot has inherited her father’s millions and moved to New York and even Christy is gone: away attending his old alma mater…

After a brief interlude wherein he visits the cheery Co-Ed and debates the merits of returning to college on the G.I. Bill, Buz instead opts for fulltime employment and heads to the Big Apple where Chili Harrison has a new job offer and an old flame waiting.

As he heads East, Buz chooses to ignore his instincts and the huge mysterious guy who seems to turn up everywhere he goes…

In NYC the aloof, alluring Tot is the cream of polite “arty” society but her wealth and clingy new fiancé – opera singer Count Franco Confetti – are all but forgotten when “the one who got away” hits town and she finds her interest in her High School beau rekindled.

Buz has moved in with Chili, blithely unaware that the strange and ubiquitous giant has inveigled himself into the apartment next door and is now actively spying on him…

Sawyer wants a job flying but is only one of hundreds of war-hero pilots looking for a position at International Airways. Moreover his reputation as a hot-shot risk-taker makes him the last person a commercial carrier might consider. However after well-connected Chili intercedes with a major player in the company – something does come up…

The truth about Buz’s hulking stalker comes out when the Maharani of Batu’s yacht docks in New York. The exotic Asian princess is one of the wealthiest women on Earth and cuts a stunning figure with her tiger on a leash. However when Buz first met her she was simply “Sultry”: a ferocious, remorseless resistance fighter helping him kill the occupying Japanese on her Pacific island.

She never forgot him and will ensure no other woman can have him…

Sultry moves into the penthouse adjoining Tot’s and is witness to the ploys of the Winter woman as she sidelines Confetti and makes a play for Buz. She is also a key figure in the tragic heiress’ sudden death…

Just prior to Tot’s gruesome demise Buz had finally met the unconventional Mr. Wright of International Airways. The doughty executive had no need for pilots but wanted a quick-thinking, capable fighter who could solve problems in the world’s most troubled conflict zones. He even has a spot open for good old Roscoe Sweeney…

Buz is all set for his first overseas assignment when the cops decide he’s the other prime suspect in Tot’s murder and, with Sawyer and Count Confetti in jail, Sultry tries to flee America before the truth comes out.

However Sweeney and the freshly exonerated Buz soon track her down, but Sultry turns the tables on them and shanghais her erstwhile lover, imprisoning him on her yacht, determined to make him her permanent boytoy, far, far away from American justice…

Never short of an idea and blessed with the luck of the damned, Buz’s escape results in a terrifying conflagration and the seeming death of his obsessed inamorata – but Sultry’s body isn’t recovered…

It takes a lot of pleading to get Mr. Wright to give him another chance but, soon after, Buz and Sweeney are winging north to Greenland to stop a crazed sniper taking pot-shots at aircraft passing over the “Roof of the World”.

This savage, visceral extended saga soon reveals the shooter to be a deranged leftover Nazi and his hapless attendants, but the heroes’ astonishing hunt for and capture of the Teutonic trio is as nothing compared to the harrowing trek to get them back to civilisation: especially since poor Roscoe is putty in the hands of Frieda, beautiful devil-daughter of the utterly mad Baron von Schlingle.

Before Buz get the survivors home safely, he loses his plane, has to forcibly trek across melting floes, gets them all stranded on a iceberg and even has his pretty-boy face marred forever…

Worst of all by the time he gets back to civilisation his job no longer exists. Mr. Wright has quit and moved on to another company…

It’s not all bad news: Wright has euphemistically become “Personnel Director” for Frontier Oil, a truly colossal conglomerate active all over Earth and wants Buz to carry on his unique problem-solving career for his new employers.

Despite a large bump in salary, the weary war hero is undecided – until he hears Christy is helping her father in the Central American nation of Salvaduras in his role as a geologist for Frontier Oil. This happily ties in with an outstanding missing persons case; said vanished victim being Bill Daniels, playboy son of a prominent company executive.

It takes very little to convince Wright to despatch Buz and Roscoe south of the border to investigate, opening the floodgates to a spectacular epic of light-hearted romantic adventure a world apart from the previous harrowing tale…

The story also saw Crane and Co. merging the Daily and Sunday strips into a single storyline (with the Sundays primarily illustrated by Schlensker) as the boys tried to trace the missing American in a country that seems locked in fear and poverty…

After initially hitting a wattle-and-daub wall, Buz takes time off for a picnic with Christy and, after a close call with a faux Mexican bandit (in actuality a Yankee fugitive from justice with an atrocious fake accent), declares his undying lover for her.

He is not rebuffed and there’s the hint of wedding bells in the air…

First however he and Sweeney need to finish their mission, and help comes from a brave peon who breaks the regional code of silence to put them on the trail of the mysterious Ranch of the Caves and its American émigré who runs the isolated canton with blood and terror.

After romancing the daughter of vicious “Don Jaime” Buz and Roscoe infiltrate the desolate fiefdom and the gang boss’ international band of thugs, discovering not only the very much alive missing playboy but an incredible lost Mayan treasure trove…

Mission accomplished, Buz returns to New York to marry Christy, only to find he’s already needed elsewhere. Christy too is having doubts, worried that she will always play second fiddle to her man’s lust for action, whereas in truth the real problem is that trouble usually comes looking for Buz…

Boarding a Frontier plane for the Yukon, Sawyer is merely a collateral casualty when the ship’s other passenger is kidnapped. The mysterious men abducting plastic surgeon Dr. Wing take their helpless hostages all the way to deepest Africa where they expected the medic to change the face of an infamous madman everybody in the world believes died in a Berlin Bunker…

Tragically the fanatics are not prepared for the physician’s dauntless sense of duty and sacrifice nor Buz’s sheer determination to survive…

The latter part of this tale describes Buz’s epic river trek with mercenary turncoat honey-trap Kitty as they flee from the vengeful Nazis, but even after reaching the coast and relative safety the insidious reach of the war-criminals is not exhausted and one final attack looms…

Eventually Buz returns to New York alone and wins time from the slave-driving Mr. Wright to settle things with Christy. He follows her to Nantucket Sound but even their romantic sailboat ride turns into a life-changing adventure…

This splendid collection is the perfect means of discovering – or reconnecting with – Crane’s second magnum opus: spectacular, enthralling, exotically immediate romps that influenced generations of modern cartoonists, illustrators, comics creators and storytellers.

Buz Sawyer ranks amongst the very greatest strip cartoon features ever created: stirring, thrilling, outrageously funny and deeply moving tale-telling that is irresistible and utterly unforgettable.
Buz Sawyer: Sultry’s Tiger © 2012 Fantagraphics Books, all other material © 2012 the respective copyright holders. All Strips © 2010 King Features Syndicate, Inc All rights reserved.

Buddy Buys a Dump: the Complete Buddy Bradley Stories from “Hate” volume III


By Peter Bagge with Joanne Bagge (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-745-1

Peter Bagge is best regarded these days as a fiery, cauldron-mouthed, superbly acerbic and well-established award-winning cartoonist, animator and musician, responsible for incredibly addictive, sharply satirical strips examining contemporary American life, through a small but memorable cast of sharply defined characters compellingly reflecting his views.

Born in Peekskill, Westchester County, New York in December 1957, he was one of four kids in a ferociously Catholic military family. Like esteemed colleague Robert Crumb a generation earlier, Bagge escaped that emotionally toxic, fight-filled environment as soon as possible, moving to New York City in the mid-1970s to study at the celebrated School of Visual Arts.

He soon dropped out and began working in the vibrant alternative publishing field, producing strips and panels for Punk Magazine, Screw, High Times, East Village Eye, World War Three and others.

Meeting like-minded artists he began self- and co-publishing comics, and when Crumb saw copies of Comical Funnies (produced with new chum John Holstrom in 1981 and the birthplace of the unsavoury star of this collection), Bagge was offered space in and eventually the Editorship of the seminal commix magazine Weirdo in 1983.

He augmented his 3-year tenure there with various paying gigs at Screw, Swank, Video X, Video Games Magazine, The Rocket, Bad News and elsewhere.

In 1984 Bagge relocated to Seattle, Washington State and began his association with alternative/Independent publisher Fantagraphics. The following year his spectacularly idiosyncratic cartoon magazine Neat Stuff launched as a thrice-yearly vehicle of outrageous personal expression and societal observation.

His stark, manic, topically surreal strips, starring old creations like Studs Kirby, Junior, Girly Girl and quintessential ineffectual rebel Buddy Bradley swiftly turned the cartoonist into a darling of the emerging West Coast Grunge scene, and before too long Neat Stuff and its successor Hate made Bagge a household name… at least in more progressive households…

As the 90’s became the next century, Bagge’s quasi-autobiographical Buddy starred in a succession of titles and strips (collected in Buddy Does Seattle and Buddy Does New Jersey); the cartoon character’s excitable existence mirroring typical life in that chaotic lost decade. In 2001 the author began releasing Hate Annuals wherein, amongst other strident graphic treats, middle-aging Buddy was seen having fully transitioned from angry teen slacker to working dad with a family to support…

This deliciously hilarious and painfully uncompromising full-colour collection gathers those traumatic middle years of Harold “Buddy” William Bradley Jr.- originally seen in Hate Annual #1-9, 2001-2011 – and opens with ‘Are You Nuts?’ as the irascible everyman is almost beguiled by crazy friend and occasional co-worker Jay Spano into buying a dilapidated aquabus and going into the guided-tour business in scenic New Jersey.

Naturally, his certifiably crazy wife Lisa has a few opinions on the matter…

A year later ‘A-Rod Goes to the Moon’ featured the catastrophic day when the Bradley women go for a “Ladies weekend” and leave Buddy in charge of not only his own baby boy, but sister Bab’s maladjusted brood. Soon however with half the kids in the neighbourhood tagging along, Buddy realises the depths of his folly and opts for a tried and true solution to his unwanted responsibilities…

‘The Domestication of Lisa Leavenworth-Bradley’ focuses on the little woman’s obsession with homemaking and search for a way to occupy her dull, dire days which translates to Buddy having to look for a better place for them to dwell, whilst in ‘Buddy Bradley gets a “Real” Job’ the old collectibles shop gets so stale that our hero takes gainful employment as a UPS delivery man.

However the shocking scams and appalling attitudes of his fellow honest workers soon drive him back to the relatively honourable profession of trading in junk, nostalgia and dreams…

‘Fuddy Duddy Buddy’ saw a drastic change in the visual aspect of the family man as, after a medical scare, he shaved his head, began sporting an eye-patch and took to wearing a naval captain’s cap. He also made a move to the nastier part of Jersey to fulfil his lifelong dream of running a rubbish dump…

With Lisa and toddler Harold safely if reluctantly ensconced in the big house attached to the tip, ‘Skeletons in the Closet’ then focuses on Buddy and Jay’s shift into the surprisingly lucrative scrap metal business, and the resurfacing of the most unsavoury of Buddy’s siblings and their childhood hoodlum friends. It seems folks are asking unwelcome questions about old Stinky Brown (a pal of Buddy’s who disappeared years ago), prompting gun-nut brother Butch Bradley and his cronies to move the body… but only finding that someone had already taken it…

‘The Future’s in Scrap!’ surprisingly finds Buddy and Jay prosperous if shabby partners in an exponentially expanding business, whilst ‘Lisa Leavenworth-Bradley Discovers her Creative Outlet’ details how the bored mother seeks out a fresh hobby and new friends only to finds herself embarrassingly embroiled in an all-girl band with strip club ambitions…

With things looking pretty sweet and stable in ‘Heaven’, the abrasive, raucous comedy takes a darkly observational turn in ‘Hell’ when Lisa drags the family back to Seattle to meet her ferociously religious mom and obnoxious dad.

It transpires that the parents she despises are both in dire health and legal straits and, after meeting her creepy fundamentalist foster brother and sex offender cousin, Buddy realises why his wife became the neurotic mess she is.

When Buddy and Harold return to the East Coast Lisa isn’t with them…

Everything wraps up without really ending in ‘Fuck it’ as, whilst Lisa struggles to cope with her folks’ decline in Seattle, back in the Garden State the man and his boy make big dramatic and definitely felonious changes to their lives…

Just like the eponymous star character, the hopefully still unfolding story of Buddy Bradley has slowly matured from razor-edged, broadly baroque, comedically clamorous observations and youthful rants into sublimely evocatively enticing treatises on getting by and getting older, although the deliciously fluid drawings and captivating cartoon storytelling remains as fresh and innovative as ever.

Bagge has always been about skewering stupidity, spotlighting pomposity and generally exposing the day-to-day aggravations and institutionalized insanities of modern life, but the strips in Buddy Buys a Dump also offer a beguiling view of passion becoming, if not wisdom, certainly shrewd appreciation of the unchanging verities of life: a treat no cartoon-coveting, laughter-loving rebel should miss…
© 2013 Peter Bagge. This edition © 2013 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Henry Speaks for Himself


By John Liney, edited by David Tosh (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-733-8

Henry was one of the most venerated and long-lived of American newspaper comics strips. Created by veteran cartoonist Carl Anderson as a silent, pantomimic gag-panel first seen on March 19th 1932 for The Saturday Evening Post, it was picked up by the legendary strip advocate and propounder William Randolph Hearst who brought it and the then-69 year old Anderson to his King Features Syndicate in 1934. The first comic strip appeared on December 17th with a full colour Sunday half-page following on March 10th 1935.

The Saturday Evening Post had to content itself with a new feature entitled Little Lulu by Marjorie Henderson Buell. I wonder how that worked out…?

Being a man of advanced years, Anderson employed Don Trachte to assist with the Sundays whilst John J. Liney performed the same role for the Monday to Saturday black and white iteration. This continued until 1942 when arthritis forced Anderson to retire. Trachte and Liney became the de facto creators of the feature – although the originator’s name remained on the masthead for the next two decades.

Liney (1912-1982) had started as a staff cartoonist on the Philadelphia Evening Ledger and began selling gag ideas to Anderson in 1936 before landing the full-time assistant’s job. After assuming the illustrator’s role in 1942 he took over sole writing responsibilities for the daily in 1945, continuing Henry until 1979 when he finally retired.

His own name had been adorning the strip since 1970.

Liney was also a passionate teacher and educator on comics and cartooning, with a position at Temple University. Nevertheless he still found time to write and draw a comicbook iteration of the mute and merry masterpiece from 1946 to 1961.

Major licensing monolith Western Publishing/Dell Comics had been successfully producing comicbooks starring animation characters, film icons and strip heroes since the mid 1930s, and when they launched Henry – first in Four Color Comics #122 and #155 (October 1946 and July 1947) and then in his own 65 issue title from January 1948 – they successfully argued for a radical change in the boy’s make-up.

The newspaper strip had always been a timeless, nostalgia-fuelled, happily humour-heavy panoply of gags and slapstick situations wherein the frankly weird-looking little bald kid romped and pranked in complete silence, with superb cartooning delivering all the communication nuance the vast international audience needed.

Now however, with children seen as the sole consumers, the powers-that-be felt that the little mutant should be able to speak and make himself understood. Liney easily rose to the challenge and produced a sublime run of jolly, wild, weird and often utterly surreal endlessly inventive adventures – some approaching “Stream-of-Consciousness” progressions that perfectly captured the ephemeral nature of kids’ concentration. He also introduced a captivating supporting cast to augment the boy, and his appealingly unattractive, forthright and two-fisted inamorata Henrietta.

This splendid softcover collection gathers some of the very best longer tales from the comicbook run in the resplendent flat primary colours that are so evocative of simpler – if not better – days and begins after a heartfelt reminiscence in the Foreword by Kim Deitch, after which Editor, compiler and devotee David Tosh outlines the history of the character and his creators in ‘Henry – the Funniest Living American’.

He thengoes on to explain ‘The Dell Years’ before offering some informative ‘Notes on the Stories’.

The magical story portion of this collection is liberally interspersed with stunning cover reproductions; all impressively returning to the quiet lad’s pantomimic gag roots, a brace of which precede a beautiful double-page spread detailing the vast and varied cast Liney added to mix.

Then from issue #7 (June, 1949) we find ‘Henry is Thinking Out Loud!’ as the boy keeps his non-existent mouth shut and explores the medium of first person narrative, inner monologues and thought-balloons whilst getting into mischief looking for odd jobs to do…

October’s edition, Henry #9, introduced the good-natured, cool but increasingly put-upon Officer Yako in ‘You Can’t Beat the Man on the Beat!’ in an escalating succession of brushes with the law, bullies, prospective clients and darling Henrietta.

That bald boy still hadn’t actually uttered a sound, but by #14 (August 1950) he had found his voice, much to the amusement of his layabout Uncle (he never had a name) who eavesdropped on the assorted kids comparing their ‘Funny Dreams’.

After a quartet of covers Henry #16 (December 1950) found Liney playing with words as ‘Rhyme Without Reason’ found all the characters afflicted with doggerel, meter, couplets and all forms poetic with Liney even drawing himself into the madcap procession of japes and jests, whilst ‘A Slice of Ham’ from issue #22 (December 1951) cleverly riffed on Henry’s ambitions to impress Henrietta by becoming an actor. This yarn includes a wealth of Liney caricatures of screen immortals such as Chaplin, Gable, Sinatra and more, whilst introducing a potential rival for Henry’s affections in cousin Gilda

In #24 (April 1952) Henry ‘Peeks into the Future’ by outrageously pondering on his possible careers as an adult, before plunging into Flintstone or Alley Oop territory – complete with cave city and dinosaurs – as a result of studying too hard for a history test in ‘The Stone Age Story’ from issues #29, February 1953.

After four more clever funny covers, growing up again featured heavily with ‘Choosing Your Career’ (#45, March 1956) as the little fool road-tested a job as a home-made cab driver and accidentally slipped into law enforcement by capturing a bandit.

In #48 (December 1956) Henry attended a fancy dress party and became ‘The Boy in the Iron Mask’, and this completely charming compilation closes by reprising that sojourn in the Stone Age with #49 (March 1957)’s ‘Rock and Roll’

Concluding the comedy capers is fond personal reminiscence ‘Henry and Me’ by David Tosh; a man justifiably delighted to be able to share his passion with us and hopefully proud that this book gloriously recaptures some of the simple straightforward sheer joy that could be found in comicbooks of yore.

Henry Speaks for Himself is fun, frolicsome and fabulously captivating all-ages cartooning that will enthral anyone with kids or who has the soul of one.

Henry Speaks for Himself © 2014 Fantagraphics Books Inc. All comics and drawings © 2014 King Features, Inc. All other material © its respective creators. This book was produced in cooperation with Heritage Auctions.

Stranger Than Life – Cartoons and Comics 1970 – 2013


By M.K. Brown (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-708-6

Sometimes there’s no need to babble on for ages. Sometimes a book just sells itself. However I’m far too vain a reviewer to let things lie without interjecting a few facts and opinions. You guess which is which…

Mary K. Brown was usually my favourite cartoonist in National Lampoon where her uniquely personal, bizarrely surreal, evocatively awry cartoon observations and visions graced the wildly eclectic Funny Pages section for decades.

Her other regular gigs included stints in Playboy, Wimmin’s Commix, Mother Jones, Twisted Sisters, Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker and elsewhere. She was one of a rarefied group of creators tapped by Art Spiegelman for his prestigious The Narrative Corpse project and one of her most intense cartoons was transformed into the other animation segment of the Tracy Ullman Show. (the one you know became The Simpsons).

She keeps her private life to herself but her astounding facility as a painter – particularly watercolours – has won her a second career as a gallery artist.

Now after far too long a time, she’s back as Fantagraphics adds her to its growing list of all-star cartoonist retrospectives; celebrated here with an astonishingly wide-ranging collection and treasury of her gags, drawings and strips.

It’s tempting to say that Brown’s work is no-nonsense, but in fact it’s all Nonsense: of the highest, weirdest, wildest, wackiest and most elevated pedigree. It’s human, humane, off-beat and off-kilter: beautifully designed and rendered – whether in line or colour – and ranges from the most audaciously cringeworthy visual puns (‘Overwrought Iron’) to manically absurdist almost stream-of-consciousness narratives, satirising suburban banality and angst or almost genteelly walloping Post Modern self absorption, consumerism and decadent ennui…

Moreover, this vast and comprehensive compendium (250 pages at 280 x 216mm) understands the value of pictures over words, so Bill Griffith’s Foreword ‘Here’s My Checklist for Everything I want in a Cartoonist’ is brief and punchy as is Brown’s own Introduction, leaving all the more room for her stunning pictorial confections – although she does interject with valuable commentary and background information whenever she feels like it.

And why not? It’s her book…

The works are divided into themed sections beginning with ‘Housepeople’, starring faddy folks from the nouveau riche punk to the domestic goddess in poems, gags and strips like the eponymous ‘Stranger Than Life’, ‘How to Make a Pair of Pants in 20 Minutes’ ‘Snakes in the Bathroom’, ‘Free Glue Sample’, ‘White Girl Dreams’ and much more…

Her astonishing gift for observation was never better seen than in pieces set ‘In the Workplace’: with outré panels augmenting manic features such as ‘Revenge and Forgiveness (A Dental Fantasy)’, ‘Russ de la Rocca – Worm Trainer of the Americas’, ‘Transference’, ‘The Fly Brothers in Hollywood’ or ‘Coping with Chain Saw Massacres’, whilst ‘Science and Technology’ encompasses ‘Fear of the Known’, grasshoppers and their ‘Inroads into Science’ and the ever-thorny conundrum ‘Women: What do They Want?’

‘A Seedy Part of Town’ concentrates on domestic investigation and features more searching questions from the appallingly plebeian White Girl and ‘Earl D. Porker – Social Worker’ after which ‘Romance and Social Studies’ reveals how ‘Love Makes the World Go ‘Round’, offers a unique ‘Love Story’ and exposes secrets of the ‘Singles Bar’. Also featured is Brown’s faux bodice ripper ‘A Promise to Remember’, and the packed-to-bursting chapter climaxes with ‘Party Time Paper Dolls’ and the many small adventures of ‘Mercury, Messenger of God’.

The wonders of the world are examined in ‘Travel and Nature’ with particular attention paid to ‘Highlights of Guatemala’, ‘Loud Ties in Nature’, ‘Camel Racing in the Desert’, and sundry bestial broadsides. This chapter also reprints ‘Another True-Life Pretty Face in the Field of Medicine’ (which was adapted as the aforementioned animated adventures of Dr. N!Godatu on the Ullman show), as well as the mad Mountie serial ‘Saga of the Frozen North’, and is as ever surrounded by many more panel gags and mini strips.

The cartoon carnival concludes with ‘Way Out West’: a selection of equestrian and cowboy pieces accompanied by the really true secret reason Brown produced so many of the crazy things.

Included are ‘Custer’s Last Night Stand’, ‘Hillbilly Song Jubilee Roundup Time’, a triptych of ‘Beans Morocco’ sagebrush yarns, a series of strangely sensational gun illustrations and all five chapters of that dern peculiar soap opera ‘Western Romance’

After a steadfastly odd comicstrip ‘Self Portrait’ by the ever-entertaining Brown, cartoonist Roz Chast adds her own observations to an appreciative Afterword to end this beguiling parade of literary legerdemain and graphic incomprehension…

Clever, challenging and utterly addictive humour that is once seen, never forgotten. And that is a fact.

Stranger Than Life: Cartoons and Comics 1970 -2013 © 2014 Fantagraphics Books. All comics and text by M.K. Brown are © 2014 M.K. Brown. All other material © 2014 the respective creators. All rights reserved.

Sock Monkey Treasury – A Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey Collection


By Tony Millionaire (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-696-6

It’s a fact sad but true that we can’t always be in the right place at the right time. No matter how scrupulous or diligent one might in the pursuit of a passion or hobby, things get missed. I, for example, missed the first comicbook releases of Dark Horse’s Sock Monkey by Tony Millionaire in 1998.

Sure, thanks to the miracles of back issue comic-shops I wasn’t deprived for long, but still, it was a close thing…

You, happily, don’t have any such worries, especially as Fantagraphics have just released a huge (286 x 203mm) and sumptuous 336 page hardback – 80 in full colour – collecting and commemorating all twelve uniquely dark and fanciful monochrome, multiple award-winning, all-ages adventures originally published as occasional miniseries between 1998 and 2007. Also included are the two colour hardcover storybooks Millionaire created in 2002 and 2004.

Tony Millionaire clearly loves to draw and does it very, very well; referencing classical art, timeless children’s book illustration and an eclectic mix of pioneering comic strip draughtsmen like George McManus, Rudolph Dirks, Cliff Sterrett, Frank Willard, Harold Gray, Elzie Segar and George Herriman: seamlessly blending their styles and sensibilities with European engravings masters from the “legitimate” side of the pictorial storytelling racket.

Born Scott Richardson, he especially cites Johnny (Raggedy Ann and Andy) Gruelle and English illustrator Ernest H. Shepard (The Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh) as definitive formative influences.

With a variety of graphical strings to his bow such as his own coterie of books for children (particularly the superbly stirring Billy Hazelnuts series), animation and the brilliant if disturbing weekly strip Maakies – which describes the riotously vulgar and absurdly surreal adventures of an Irish monkey called Uncle Gabby and his fellow über-alcoholic and nautical adventurer Drinky Crow. They are abetted but never aided by a peculiarly twisted, off-kilter cast of reprobates, antagonists and confrontational well-wishers.

Those guys are the mirror universe equivalents of the stars of these sublime confections…

In a Victorian House – of variable shape and size – by the sea, an old Sock Monkey named Uncle Gabby has great adventures and ponders the working of a wonderful yet often scary world. His constant companion is a small cuddly-toy bird with button eyes called Mr. Crow, who doesn’t understand why he cannot fly and sometimes eases his sorrow with strong spirits.

Their guardian is a small girl named Ann-Louise, and many other creatures living and artificial share the imposing edifice…

The gloriously imaginative forays into the fantastic begin as the material monkey is chased through the house by marauding toy pirates in their brigantine. In his flight he espies a gleaming, glittering glass concoction hanging from the ceiling. Convinced something so beautiful must be the Promised Land he enlists his artificial avian pal to help him enter ‘Heaven’. However the pirates have not given up and the chaos soon escalates…

‘Borneo’ describes the pair’s discovery of a shrunken human head and subsequent heroic oceanic odyssey to return the decapitated talisman home. Of course, if they had thought to unseal the sewn-shut lips he could have told them they were going in the wrong direction…

The next tale is a macabre all-action thriller which begins when a lost bat gets stuck in the attic ‘Dollhouse’. Mr. Crow meanwhile is attempting to console the freshly widowed Mrs. Smalls in the cellar. Things go even more savagely awry when the faux crow and well-meaning matchmaker Uncle Gabby try to introduce the grieving mouse to the strapping, winged stranger, utterly unaware of his pedigree as a South American Rodent-Eating Bat…

Knick-knacks, trinkets and ornaments have been going missing in the next tale and Ann-Louise attributes the thefts to ‘The Trumbernick’ who lives in the Grandfather clock. Having mislaid his hipflask, Mr. Crow investigates and finds the horde of goodies, in truth purloined by a capricious Blue Jay.

Disillusioned by the death of a beloved myth and disheartened by the antics of a venal – and extremely violent – bird, they are subsequently stunned to see an actual Trumbernick return, righteously enraged at the blow to his spotless reputation…

In ‘The Hunters’, stuffed bird and Sock Monkey, inspired by a room full of trophies and stuffed beasts, decide to take up the sport of slaughter, only to find that their size, relative ineffectuality and squeamishness – not to mention the loquacity and affability of their intended prey – prove a great impediment to their ambitions…

Millionaire proves the immense power of his storytelling in ‘A Baby Bird’, as Uncle Gabby’s foolish meddling with a nest – after being specifically told not to – results in tragedy, and brutal self-immolating repercussions that would make King Lear quail…

The author abandoned his masterful pen-&-ink etching style for soft mutable charcoal rendering in ‘The Oceanic Society’, wherein excitable doll Inches unknowingly performs an act of accidental cruelty at the shore and invites the vengeance of many outraged sea creatures against the tot inhabitants of Ann-Louise’s house…

An innocent attempt by the little girl and Mr. Crow to find Uncle Gabby a romantic companion goes hideous wrong and results in monstrous ‘Heartbreak’ when they throw away his actual true love and replace her with a ghastly mechanical monkey horror. The bereft puppet can then only find surcease in escalating acts of hideous destruction…

In 2002 Millionaire took his characters into a whimsical watercolour wonderland with “a Populare Pictonovelette” hardback entitled ‘The Glass Doorknob’. The beguiling tale is included here a series of full-colour plates supplanted by blocks of text, describing how the house dwellers once saw an indoor rainbow beneath a doorknob and spent all summer trying to recreate the glorious spectacle by acquiring and aligning every other item of glass, crystal or pellucid material they could find or steal…

The return to stark, inky monochrome augurs the onset of the terrifying 4-part epic ‘The Inches Incident’ which begins off the coast of Cape Ann when grizzled mariner Oyster Joe discovers thieving stowaways plundering his sailing ship.

Amidst spectacular hunts for sea monsters the villains Uncle Gabby and Mr. Crow explain how their former friend Inches mysteriously shanghaied and dumped them at sea…

Their new ally returns them home, but upon arrival they discover that the doll has become Evil! Boldly braving the house they discover the poor creature has been possessed by an inconceivable horror which drives them off and provokes a fantastic sea voyage to find the devil’s only nemesis…

This staggering, bleakly charming compendium closes with an existential treat from 2004. ‘Uncle Gabby’, coloured by Jim Campbell, was another one-shot hardback – albeit in standard comics format – which offered a few revelatory indulgences on the puppet heroes’ poignant origins, all wrapped up in a baroque bestiary and imaginative travelogue as the Sock Monkey discloses his shocking ability to un-name things and thereby end their existences…

Visually intoxicating, astoundingly innovative and stunningly surreal, Sock Monkey yarns judiciously leaven wonder with heartbreak and gleeful innocence with sheer terror. Millionaire describes them as for “adults who love children’s stories” and these tall tales all offer enchanting pictorial vistas and skewed views of the art of storytelling that no fan of comics or fantasy could ever resist.
Sock Monkey Treasury © 2014 Tony Millionaire. This edition © 2014 Fantagraphics Books.

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.